Did you know that there are around 3 million vegetarians living in Britain today? That’s approximately five percent of the population. Last week was National Vegetarian Week which is aimed at encouraging more of us to become vegetarian, helping us to discover delicious new foods and realise that our favourite foods can be made meat-free and fuss-free. The Vegetarian Society issued a challenge to meat-eaters – try cutting out meat for a week and try some delicious and vibrant vegetarian dishes instead.
Why be a vegetarian?
The reasons for becoming vegetarian vary. The majority can’t bear the thought of eating another living creature, other people believe it gives them a healthier lifestyle, some just don’t like the taste or texture of meat or feel that eating meat carries greater health risks, and yet others shun meat for religious reasons. For some the price of meat is prohibitive, so they have become vegetarian through circumstance.
Whatever the reason, there’s far more to being vegetarian than the caricature of someone wearing a kaftan, beads and Jesus sandals and surviving on a diet of lettuce, mung beans and brown rice. These days interesting vegetarian dishes feature on most restaurant menus. Chefs give vegetarian meals far more thought, so rather than the vegetarian option being vegetable lasagne or pasta with tomato sauce, it can be something as exotic as Sweet Potato and Roast Veg Enchiladas, Beetroot and Chilli Burgers or Potato Nest with Artichoke, Oyster Mushrooms and Sun Dried Tomatoes. Several Indian dishes are also suitable for vegetarians.
It’s the same story when it comes to buying food. Twenty years ago you would have had to search high and low in a supermarket to find ready meals suitable for vegetarians and vegans. Nowadays such foods have dedicated sections in the chilled and frozen aisles. There are several meat substitutes available such as Quorn and soya-based products. So if you like the taste of meat, but just don’t like the idea of eating it, you can still tuck into sausages, burgers, ‘lamb’, ‘ham’, ‘turkey’, ‘bacon’, ‘chicken’ or ‘minced beef.’ Linda McCartney foods even sell a scampi-style product – which has never been near the sea. All of these products provide an alternative source of protein to meat, fish, poultry etc.
Is being vegetarian healthy?
Perhaps because of the abundance of meat substitutes, more and more people are choosing to become vegetarian. It is now seen as less of a hassle to prepare dishes with sufficient protein, or cater for a vegetarian within a family of omnivores. Vegetarian diets are even advocated by some physicians as a way of helping to lower blood pressure and help prevent cardiovascular disease and the incidence of some cancers such as prostate and colorectal cancers.
Although most vegetarians don’t eat low fat diets, their saturated fat intake is considerably lower than non-vegetarians and the amount of fibre could help to lower blood cholesterol levels (although there is a debate about whether cholesterol levels actually have a bearing on mortality rates – for more on this see the Verner’s Views blog.) The increased amount of fruit and vegetables consumed by the average vegetarian also means that they consume plenty of foods with antioxidant properties.
Essential sources of nutrients for vegetarians
According to the Vegetarian Society, ‘there is sometimes unnecessary concern that a vegetarian or vegan diet will be low in the nutrients found in meat and fish such as protein, iron, calcium, zinc, vitamin B12 and vitamin D or the essential fats sometimes referred to as ‘omegas’. In fact these nutrients are part of vegetarian and vegan diets, in some cases in abundance.’
Protein can be found in meat substitute products such as Quorn and soya-based products as well as beans, peas, lentils, peanuts. They also contain zinc and calcium. Eggs and dairy products are also excellent sources of protein, zinc, calcium and iron.
Iron and zinc are found in leafy green vegetables, nuts, seeds, pulses, fruits, dried fruit, eggs and dairy products. Breakfast cereals are fortified with nutrients by the manufacturer, as is white flour. So there is plenty of opportunity to make sure that you consume appropriate levels.
Vitamin B12 is present in eggs and dairy products and in fortified yeast extract and cereals.
The best source of Vitamin D is sunlight on the skin, but can also be obtained from fortified margarine, breakfast cereals and dairy products.
In a vegetarian diet, essential fats, also known as ‘omegas’ are present in nuts and seeds such as walnut, linseed, hemp, rapeseed and flaxseed as well as omega-enriched eggs.
Different levels of vegetarianism
There are different levels of being a vegetarian. These include:
Semi-vegetarians – who are mainly vegetarian but do consume meat products occasionally.
Pescatarians – who avoid meat and poultry, but eat fish.
Lacto-ovo-vegetarians – these include milk and products made from milk, as well as eggs, but avoid meat, fish and poultry.
Lacto –vegetarians – milk and milk products are included in their diets.
Vegans – who do not consume anything derived from animals. This means no dairy products, eggs, fish, poultry, meat or gelatine. Some strict vegans don’t eat honey.
Did you try being meat-free for 7 days? Here are some recipes that could help to start you off (taken from the Vegetarian Society website):
Mango & Lime Quorn Satay
2 packs Quorn Satay Sticks
2 tbsp coconut cream
1-2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 medium mango
½ small red onion
10-12 large Little Gem lettuce leaves
- Combine 2 tbsp of the satay sauce with the juice of 1 lime (use 1 ½ if limes are small and dry) and the coconut cream to make a thick marinade.
- Very finely dice the mango flesh and red onion and combine in a bowl with the juice of ½ lime.
- Rinse and dry the lettuce leaves and drizzle each with 1 tsp of the marinade.
- Heat 1 tbsp of the oil in a large non stick frying pan, brush the Quorn Satay Sticks with the rest of the marinade and gently sauté for 2 minutes on each side until beginning to char slightly. You may need to do this in two batches.
- Ease the Quorn Satay pieces off their sticks into the centre of the leaves. Some will take three pieces and others may only take two. Finally place a heaped tsp of the mango salsa over the top.
- Serve hot or cold, garnished with lime wedges.
Chestnut, Leek & Mushroom Tartlets
225g ready made puff pastry (thawed if frozen)
50g wild rice
2 tbsp olive oil
15g vegan margarine
375g leeks, finely chopped
100g oyster mushrooms, sliced
200g packet cooked and peeled chestnuts, chopped
2 sprigs fresh rosemary, leaves only, chopped
1 tbsp fresh sage, finely chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1-2 tbsp shoyu or Henderson’s Relish
- Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/Gas Mark 6.
- Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured board. Use to line either four individual (10cm/4″) loose bottomed flan rings or one 20cm/8″ large one. Do not trim the excess pastry yet. Prick the base all over and leave to rest in the fridge for 30 minutes. Bake blind for 15-20 minutes until the pastry is cooked, then trim off the excess.
- Cook the rice in boiling water until the grains split (about 30-40 minutes). Drain and allow to cool.
- Heat the olive oil and margarine in a frying pan and gently fry the leeks for about 5 minutes until soft. Add the mushrooms and fry for a further 5 minutes, then stir in the chestnuts, rosemary, sage and cooked wild rice and season well. Add the shoyu or Henderson’s Relish and cook for a further 2 minutes.
- Spoon the filling into the pastry case(s) and return to the oven for 5-10 minutes just before serving to warm through.
Carrot, Red Lentil & Sesame Bites
125g red lentils
30g onion, very finely chopped
250g carrots, peeled and grated
100g mature half fat vegetarian cheddar cheese, grated
150g white breadcrumbs
35g sesame seeds
2 free range eggs, beaten
½ tsp caster sugar
Season to taste
Oil for frying
To serve: Sweet chilli sauce
- Wash the lentils and put in a medium pan with about 500ml water. Bring to the boil, then simmer slowly, stirring quite frequently, until the lentils have become a puree and the mixture is quite dry. Make sure that the lentils are cooked before the mixture dries out. Do not let them burn on the bottom of the pan! Spread out on a plate to cool.
- Mix the cooled lentils with the onion, grated carrots, grated cheese, and 40g of the white breadcrumbs. Season with the sugar, a pinch of salt and plenty of freshly ground pepper.
- Mix the remaining breadcrumbs with the sesame seeds. Beat the eggs with 2tbs water. Form the carrot and lentil mixture into balls, about 3 cm across, using about 1 slightly rounded tablespoon of the mixture each. Dip each one in the beaten egg and coat with the breadcrumb and sesame mix then flatten slightly. Put the coated bites on a plate or two in a single layer and chill for 30 minutes in the fridge.
- Heat some oil in a large non-stick frying pan and gently fry the bites for about 3 minutes on each side, until golden brown. Serve hot or cold with the sweet chilli sauce to dip into.