A Love of Non-Meat Cookery

Yes, of course it’s January. I should have realised it when the conversation came up in the first place, but I was too busy chewing the mouthful of incredibly disappointing Shepherd’s Pie I had just spent a couple of hours making. We had had a Christmas full of excess and of indulgence. In many families up and down this country that meant chocolates, cake and Baileys for breakfast. For us it was meat.

I understand that my partner’s decision to ratchet back the consumption of dead animals has far less to do with our seasonal over-indulgence – duck and ham on the day itself, prawn soup the day before, and roast lamb, sausages and bacon liberally strewn through the gaps in between – and that it is purely the fact that she is a vegan at heart, and her ethics on the matter have never changed.

However, my mind smells a rat occasionally, and the coincidence of this timing, allied to the fact that her daughter is utterly unimpressed by the consumption of dead animals in any form except chicken nuggets, just strikes me as odd. Then again, if she’d suggested that I start planning our menus in a vegan direction in summer I’d have blamed the salad-season for her change in tack. I’m a doubter.

I am also an omnivore. I like a wide variety of foods in my diet, and I do not care who or what has died to make its way on to my plate. I love meat, but I also love vegetables. I can very easily get excited by a bowl of grains, and I will never punch someone in the face for the absence of a steak. I am a lover more of variety than my divine right to feast upon the flesh of the slaughtered weaklings.

I have written on this very blog of the fact that I am trying to limit the amount of meat I am eating; this takes the form of two arguments: Quality vs Quantity; Nose-to-Tail Eating. That is, I want to eat less, but better, meat and I want to not waste any part of an animal which has been slaughtered for us to eat. I am sick of huge piles of cheap processed meat; I love a well-treated piece of quality flesh.

I have no opinion on the ethical and environmental impact of the fact that I am not vegan. I do seem to understand that there is one, and I do understand that animals are dying needlessly, beyond the ones we are killing to eat. I also understand that the production of almond milk is stripping away the water that plants and animals rely on to exist. Pobody’s Nerfect, or so the cool kids are saying.

There we go: what is happening and what I historically have felt about it. What of the reality? The reality of all of this is that I devise the menu for our little family week in, week out. I’m the one who cooks the meals, so I am the one who plans what that should be. I’m not saying that my partner has no say in that – it’s her food too – just that I take the lead. Our daughters have no say in it, however.

It was suggested on Sunday that it would be preferred if our family menu planning were to start heading in a more vegan direction. I was being asked if I could start planning menus which began by reducing the quantity of dead animal we consume, followed by the quantity of dairy and eggs. It was to be a gradual reduction over time, rather than a full stop; I appreciated that, it must be said.

Eggs of known providence – i.e. from the family farm – were not off limits: we could eat any quantity of those whenever we liked. The occasional fondue would also be very much allowed. I mean, it’s largely wine, right? Butter should start disappearing, and the goose fat of Christmas roasties would be replaced by olive oil. This was a lot for an omnivore to take in on a Sunday evening, but I did try.

I didn’t succeed, but I did try. Our conversation was curtailed by the wails of a child who feared the changes she couldn’t quite get her head around. As a consequence, what should have been a rather calm conversation became rather less so. Thankfully I got a decent night’s sleep after all of that.

Look, I do not hold to the idea of meat substitutes, so they are basically out. Unlike the vegetarians I grew up around, I actually like vegetables, so they are always a good place to start. Thankfully Indian food has imbued me with a love of pulses, so that was something I was looking to explore again.

The way I devise menus is to do it a week at a time: I want to balance a whole week as one thing, with the fixed points being more complex dishes on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, easy pasta dishes on a Monday night, and something out of the freezer on a Thursday. It seems to work well.

The first week I planned was like pulling teeth: I was happy enough with the idea of adapting our previously salmon gyoza to a vegetable form, but I used differentiated pies – veg for my partner, mince for my daughter and I – as a cop out on Thursday. Monday’s pasta dish cried out for meat balls.

And then I got back in my stride, and started to think originally again. Not only for non-death-based cookery, but also for the slaughtered stuff too: a salad of black pudding, crispy bacon, quinoa and endive has me salivating already; curried ribs came out of the clear blue sky. Also a big, fat steak.

Soon I was forgetting meat altogether and creating dishes around vegetables I was looking forward to cooking: A vegetable focussed take on ‘cassoulet’; spelt with carrot puree, chargrilled onions and a light broth; a pomme gratin (or perhaps boulangère), with cumin roasted carrots and beetroot, will bring the autumn back to a cold winter’s day; I may even make a Friday night chilli with Quorn.

An omnivore has to eat everything, and not just be hooked on dead flesh. I can avoid all of the meat substitutes I like – notwithstanding Quorn chilli; I am also planning a lentil base to replace the mince in my mince and dumplings, so I’m not all the way to the dark side – but I need to remember how much I love vegetables, pulses and grains. Meat, potatoes and pasta are the path of least resistance: it’s where winter gets us hooked. Sometimes we need to fight back; and that starts in January, yeah?