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How chefs can better serve vegetarians and vegans

By Tony Naylor

- Last updated on GMT

It's not all about the meat. There are many ways chefs can rejuvenate and differentiate their menus with innovative vegetarian dishes.
It's not all about the meat. There are many ways chefs can rejuvenate and differentiate their menus with innovative vegetarian dishes.

Related tags: Veganism

For National Vegetarian Week (16-22 May) , Restaurant magazine columnist Tony Naylor suggests 10 ways chefs can improve their offering for vegetarians and vegans. 

According to Mintel figures from 2014, just 12 per cent of us are vegetarian or vegan which, you might argue, means that, commercially, it is not imperative for restaurants to serve stellar meat-free dishes.

Broadly, that is the status quo. The relationship between restaurants and vegetarians is one of grudging toleration. Restaurants kind of accept the inconvenience of having to provide vegan dishes, and
vegetarians just about stomach the boring food they are served. Most vegetarians eat best at home or in, say, south Indian or Gujarati restaurants. Many chefs would like them to stay there.

Chiswick’s Hedone stopped serving meat-free dishes on the basis it cannot produce them to its exacting standards. That is a clever attempt to rationalise what sounds like a cop-out. It is a curious move too
when, in the UK’s most serious restaurants, vegetables have never been more prominent. Mainstream venues may continue to serve mediocre vegetarian dishes, but from The Dairy via The Ethicurean to Lake Road Kitchen, Britain’s best kitchens are acutely aware of the latent creative potential in vegetable cookery.

That is why, in their dish development, ambitious kitchens are treating vegetables in a non-hierarchical way and allowing them to lead and define dishes. For a chef, this is surely a matter of self-respect. If you are dedicated in your pursuit of exceptional food in all its potential expressions, why would you treat vegetables as a secondary ingredient? 

So, this National Vegetarian Week leave the ethical debate to others and think about how to rejuvenate and differentiate your menu by adding new vegetarian dishes.

Here are 10 pointers to get you started:

1. Embrace small plates.

They are liberating in veggie cooking as they remove the need to work to a ‘meat and two veg’ template or mimic a centrepiece slab of protein. Think about balancing acidity, sweetness, saltiness, umami (tip: miso butter), but in freeform miniature.

2. Go off the boil.

 Forget steaming or boiling veg and think raw and wood-fired, charred and whole roasted vegetables – to maximise textural variation and create those missing meaty, smoky, savoury flavours.

3. Think fermentation.

 From lacto-fermentedpickles or simple sauerkraut to spiced squash that tastes of passionfruit and ‘cheesy’ seaweed, fermentation lets you create wow-factor flavours. 

4. Preservation.

Be it vinegar pickling, smoking or dehydrating, all can intensify the flavour of, or create explosive flavour compounds in, humdrum veg. 

5. Revitalise your rice.

Whether creating a vegetarian dish or modular one, to which you can add meat, think: bold cooking broths, pilafs laced with whole spices, Mexican savoury rice or how Egyptian koshari or a meat-free central Asian osh could become components in a dish. 

6. Dig for victory.

If you have the space, vegetables never taste better than when freshly harvested that morning. Potent wild ingredients, from water mint to citrusy pine, can transform vegetarian dishes. 

7. Waste not.

Play with the bits (deep-fried Jerusalem artichoke skin, baked celeriac bark crisps) you would normally bin. It’s revelatory. 

8. Go nuts.

Veggie dishes often lack crisp textures. Toasted nuts, seeds, heritage grains or fried sourdough breadcrumbs can provide that. 

9. Don’t mock clean eaters.

Their spiralized courgette pasta might seem comical, but think about how you might co-opt those techniques. 

10. Go straight to the sauce.

Using a global repertoire of vivid sauces – ponzu, romesco, tahini-based tarator, a classic lemon-thyme vinaigrette – is essential in making veggie dishes sing. Likewise, late-spicing (eg, aromatic tarka in a daal) or dressing dishes with herb condiments, such as za’atar or doqqa, elevates vegetarian dishes immeasurably.

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