The vegetarian in the family: how to satisfy everyone
It's National Vegetarian Week. A recent survey of the vegetarian food market states that as many as 3.8 million people describe themselves as ‘mainly vegetarian’ – e.g., they eat fish – and 1.9m describe themselves as ‘strictly vegetarian’. It’s likely that someone in your family may announce one day that they are no longer eating meat.
In the modern household there will be many different tastes and diet choices. I'm a meat-eater but (oh, am I going to say it?) some of my best friends are vegetarian. I can imagine the day when my kids push away their plates of spaghetti bolognese, and I want to be able to continue the tradition of a family meal without double the cooking.
Wild rice salad - mastication enough for a meat-eater?
The majority of us should probably reduce our meat intake anyway, for cost, environmental and health reasons. A veggie in the house is a great reason to explore meat-free dishes. But how does a home cook cope with satisfying everyone?
Meet (not meat) in the middle
As a regular meat-eater, I know that I feel a little skittish and unsatisfied after a few days of veggie meals. This is probably less to do with the lack of abundant protein (we generally consume way more than we need), but I suspect it’s to do with texture.
Meat-eaters miss both the chewiness and the savouriness that comes from a bit of meat. Chewing meat slows down the consumption of dinner (unless you’re consuming some pappy fast food burger that is specifically designed to be consumed faster than the brain can register it being eaten).
Wild rice, pearl barley or bulgar wheat might seem a bit seventies, but I find they do make a dish significantly chewier. Nuts add texture to pasta dishes or salads with salty, creamy cheeses – you don’t have to go so far as a making it into a loaf. It may sound ridiculously simple, but some chargrilled ciabatta, crisp and toasty, drizzled with fruity olive oil can add bite to some grilled vegetables or a summery tomato salad.
Halloumi - is it the vegetarian answer to bacon?
The combination of savouriness and sweetness in a piece of nicely cooked meat is also harder to recreate in vegetables. Not impossible, by any means.
Nigella Lawson in her wonderful book Feast describes halloumi as ‘vegetarian bacon’ – the salty savouriness and chewiness of this squeaky cheese is a great stand-in. Smoked foods – mozzarella, tofu, garlic – are also good when missing meaty flavours.
Miso paste, mushrooms and tomatoes add umami – the savoury flavour found in soy sauce or Marmite - use liberally, balanced with plenty of fresh herbs so that dishes aren’t relentlessly brown.
There are recipes that are vegetarian and contain a range of textures, flavours and satisfying savouriness – as anyone who’s cooked from Yotam Ottolenghi’s books will know. But these recipes do need seeking out, and they are going to be more work than throwing a chop under the grill. Still, I find every recipe gets easier and quicker with practice and adding a few sure favourites to your repertoire is a good start. Here are some personal faves:
- Halloumi and roasted vegetable stack
- Chargrilled courgettes with mint and chilli
- Grilled miso aubergines
- Vegetable skewers with satay sauce
- Wild rice salad
Meat on the side
Some households will still require a meaty dinner regularly. Some vegetarian mothers I know accept the cooking of meat for the rest of the family (though they never feel completely confident about it). One friend keeps veggie portions in the freezer for these nights, or she hoovers up leftovers.
I think there’s a trick to finding one meal that can suit everyone. Instead of starting to plan your meal around the meat, plan it around the vegetarian dish and treat the meat as a side dish.
Make a bunch of beef meatballs and keep them in the freezer, so that a veggie tomato sauce for pasta can get a beefy boost when needed. Also, lamb meatballs are great to throw into a chickpea and vegetable tagine over some couscous, or can be part of a tapas or mezze dinner. Vegetarian curries feel very natural and are incredibly versatile. A little tandoori chicken on the side, and everyone wins.
We naturally base dinners around leftovers. Pea soup can be topped (or not) with shreds of ham, a peanutty Asian noodle salad has the option of shredded roast chicken. Put the effort into big Yorkshire pudding (with vegetable oil in place of dripping) and vegetarian onion gravy, and a bit of leftover roast beef is there for those that need it. (Maybe veggie sausages, too.)
- Kefte meatballs for tagine
- Chickpea tagine
- Black-eye bean curry
- Quick vegetable curry
- Tandoori chicken
- Yorkshire pudding with onion gravy
On roast or casserole days, the amenable vegetarian probably still needs something tucked away to enjoy separately. But hopefully, these times can be infrequent enough to ensure that the family meal is a shared one.
Do you cater for a mixed household? What are your tips for integrating different diets in the family dinner?