I tend to go through phases of really not fancying meat. It’s not a conscious thing. I wish I could claim otherwise, but it has nothing to do with animal welfare, being thrifty with the family finances or doing my bit for the long-term wellbeing of our planet. It doesn’t (for once) even have anything to do with my waistline. It’s just that sometimes I don’t feel like chewing flesh. Particularly as we emerge from a long dark winter that has been warmed by rib-sticking stews and cheered by sticky-fingered ribs, I crave something lighter, fresher, markedly unbrown. Meat, when I am in this kind of mood, can do one.
I was a meat avoider for many years. I won’t say vegetarian because I ate fish (and calling yourself pescatarian makes you sound like a dick) and also – inexplicably – I continued to eat ham – but only if it had been highly processed. While I eschewed all other four-legged and two-legged beasts, pigs, as long as they were mechanically recovered, injected with all manner of preservatives and reformed as bright pink wafer-thin squares, were fair game. This was the late 80s and early 90s where being vegetarian was no fun at all – where choice was limited to a Cranks lentil bake or a stuffed pepper. It was beyond tedious. Plus I soon realised that a bolognese made from textured vegetable protein was no way to my meat-loving future husband’s heart. Meat would have to go back on the menu.
Things today have changed beyond recognition. Being vegetarian or at least following a diet that is mainly plant-based has become quite the thing. Furthermore, vegans, who were once the laughing stock are now paraded as the new food icons, with their glowing skin and sparkly eyes (and, I imagine, lettuce-limp handshakes). Exclusion has become cool. Vegan is the new black.
While I could never be vegan, because, you know, cheese, I do think the new wave of vegetarian cookery is quite exciting. With their emphasis on punchy flavours and interesting textures using unfamiliar ingredients from the global pantry, the recipes of food writers and chefs such as Anna Jones, Yotam Ottolenghi, Alice Hart and good ol’ Hugh F-W are worth a look even if you have no intention of turning herbivore. At the very least, their recipes provide ideas for delicious and innovative accompaniments if you cannot forego your pound of flesh altogether. After all, there are only so many ways to cook a pork chop – it’s what you put with it that can make all the difference.
My troops sadly do not share my enthusiasm for veggie suppers. When I recently suggested that I thought we ought to be eating less meat, it was as if I’d just let slip that I had a crush on Donald Trump, such was their level of disgust. This is partly my fault. During the years of fussy eating, it was meat that turned out to be the chink in their armour, so I exploited this by throwing different bits of different animal at them at every opportunity. I was never brave enough to push the chickpea in the same way for fear of outright rejection.
My intention now anyhow would not be to convert them, nor to turn 100% veggie myself, but to sneak in a few more meals where vegetable rather than meat is the hero and hope they don’t notice – or complain too much when they do. (I might’ve just snaffled the end of the 9yo’s teatime sausage thereby rendering myself a disingenuous hypocrite and negating the entire message of this post. Don’t judge me. At least it wasn’t a slice of reformed ham.)
Portobello and halloumi stack with watercress and almond pesto
When my lot were scoffing those steak sandwiches last week, I was enjoying one of these. I’d had similar in a pub, The Globe Inn Marsh on the outskirts of Rye, E.Sussex, the week before and it was yummy – it felt decadent in a way the juiciest, meatiest burger does, but without the subsequent feeling of
remorse heaviness, so I made my own version. My teen’s comment, when he saw this photo was: ‘Mmm that looks good, I’d eat that. Without the mushroom. Or the tomato. Or the pepper of course.’ Hmm, getting more veg into them could be an uphill struggle.
For the stack (per burger)
- 1 burger bun (I used an ‘ultimate’ brioche burger bun from M&S but a ciabatta roll would be good too)
- about 70g halloumi, sliced about a centimeter thick
- 1 large portobello mushroom, stalk trimmed and brushed clean of any dirt
- 1 slice of a large tomato
- 1 slice of roasted red pepper (I used one from a jar)
- a smearing of watercress and almond pesto (see below)
- a drizzle of sweet chilli sauce or chilli jam (I tried to make my own microwave chilli jam but it turned into a rock hard crystalline mess in the bottom of the bowl, so I used Lingham’s instead.)
- Preheat oven to 200°C (fan), drizzle the portobello with a little olive oil, sprinkle over some salt and pepper and bake in the oven for 10-15 minutes until cooked through.
- Lightly oil a non-stick frying pan and fry the halloumi for a couple of minutes on each side until golden. (You can dry fry but it might stick a bit.)
- Toast the cut sides of your bun, smear a layer of pesto on the bottom half, then layer on the halloumi, mushroom, pepper and tomato. Drizzle over a little chilli sauce (I would recommend you don’t leave this out because it adds a real zing to the burger, but if you are really heat-averse use ketchup or tomato chutney instead) and top with the other half of the bun. Serve with gherkins or cornichons if you so desire.
For the watercress and almond pesto
This pesto tastes of green and spring. It would be great alongside a piece of grilled salmon or mackerel as well as a substitute for the normal basil/pine nut combo on pasta.
- 75g watercress, stalks and all
- a small handful of blanched almonds (you know, the ones without skin)
- a large handful of grated parmesan
- squeeze of lemon juice
- pinch of salt and pepper
- scant scraping of crushed garlic (optional)
- extra virgin olive oil
- Toast the almonds for 10 minutes in an 170°c oven until golden (you can skip this step but your pesto won’t taste as nutty).
- Blitz almonds to a coarse rubble in a food processor.
- Add all the other ingredients to the bowl of the food processor, except the oil, and blitz while adding a steady stream of olive oil – you want just enough to bring everything together into a loose-ish green paste.