Category Archives: eating less

V for Vegetarian

“But what do you eat…?”
“…er…. food…?”

In much the same way that there are deaf people with a small d and the Deaf community with a big D, I am beginning to think that there is vegetarian cooking with a small v – which is all about  meat and the lack of it – and Vegetarian cooking with a big V which is about actual Vegetarianism.

It seems to me there are five types of meat-free cooking.

Aphra’s guide to vegetarian food

1 – Something that’s “almost but not quite entirely unlike meat” (with thanks to Douglas Adams)

Expensive factory-made vegetable protein that passes itself off as cheap factory-farmed meat. These are Seitan, Quorn meat-style pieces, Soya mince, and so on. I loathe these on principle but am ok with them in practice. Mr Behn is a vegan and quite likes them

These represent a style of cooking I was never fond of in the first place; I never did use cheap factory-farmed meat for a start (I used cheaper cuts of meat for sure, but went for good meat usually from independent butchers).

But there’s more to my dislike than that.  There’s an element of selling-out here: there is so much more to vegetarian cooking than pretending to be chunks of meat. For me, this is the vegetarian equivalent of the choice I made to become “one of the lads” when faced with sexism in the workplace. It’s like changing your accent to fit in. It’s accepting normative pressure to be or do something you are not, instead of celebrating something real and much richer.

2 – Even better than the real thing, baby (with apologies to U2)

Well -ish.

There’s a category of vegetarian food which copies meat dishes rather than chunks of meat, and some of these are surprisingly good.  Meat eaters (including me) are surprised by how good Linda McCartney’s vegetarian sausages are. They’re no match for artisan-crafted Cumberland sausages made out of Gloucester Old-Spot pork by an independent butcher, but they are better than most cheap sausages.  (Q: Why do butchers put bread in the sausages? A: Because they can’t make both ends meat. Boom-tish.) Likewise McSween’s Vegetarian Haggis and Simon Howie’s Vegetarian Haggis are as good as meat haggis without the apparent ikk factor. (Haggis is one of the few things I miss: I was never frightened by offal).

Not everything is as successful as these; I’ve had vegetarian haggis that’s been little more than mashed beans. But aiming for meat dishes rather than aiming for meat gives the manufacturers more room for maneuver.

3 – Tribute dishes

These are ones prepared in the style of meat dishes, but unashamedly substitute non-meat ingredients. Don’t look for steak or seitan in a mushroom and chestnut suet pudding. My tendency to use lentils instead of mince puts my lasagne and moussaka into this category.

This isn’t always successful: for years mushroom strogonoff was the default vegetarian option on most pub menus, (mushrooms are apparently “meaty”… no I don’t get it either).

This approach still betrays the thinking that goes “start with meat and work out from there”.

4 – If the meat is in teeny tiny pieces, is it necessary at all?

A lot of dishes, especially mess-in-a-bowl ones, really don’t need meat: risotto, jambalaya, many kinds of curry, chowders, and so on. I can get four meals for six  people out of one chicken (roast, pie, risotto, soup) I know damn fine you don’t need chicken to make a good risotto.

I’ll grant you bacon and ham; there’s no real substitute for teeny tiny bits of bacon and ham as in pea and ham soup, though I do sometimes fry sunflower seeds in soy sauce for small crunchy salty bits to sprinkle on things.

5 – Ta dah! – Vegetarian Food!

Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you…. capital V- Vegetarian Food. Food that doesn’t give a toss about meat. Food where meat would be an intrusion. Food that didn’t start in someone’s mind with meat and work out from there. There is so much of it, and it’s so goddam delicious. And that’s what hurts.

There’s starter veggie food that everyone knows about but doesn’t think of as veggie because it’s comfort food: Mac and cheese, Fried egg sandwich, Beans on toast, Bubble and Squeak, Cheese on toast, Eggs Florentine, Baked Potatoes.

Then there’s a whole swathe of Indian, Greek, Moroccan and Lebanese cuisine: Chana Masala (chick-pea curry); Dolmades (rice or aubergine in vine leaves); Hummous (c’mon, you know what hummous is); Baba Ganoush (always sounds like the witch in a Russian fairy story, but it’s an outrageously delicious smoked aubergine dip); and a wide range of beans in every variety of savoury dressing both hot and cold.

The point about all these dishes is that they don’t need meat.  It’s not missing – it’s irrelevant.

I appreciate that meat substitutes have a place – some vegetarians miss meat and others like Mr Behn find they add variety to their diet. But I see no reason to imitate cheap meat badly when you can celebrate the amazing range of Vegetarian food really well.

How to plan a Vegetarian main course

The trick with Vegetarian food is mixing two or more kinds of protein; so rice and pulses (chick-pea curry with rice),  pulses and grain with dairy (lasagne). It’s a knack, it’s easy once you get the hang of it. And it stops you thinking “meat and then what…..?”

Some rants  – Blue Cheese, Goats’ Cheese and Tofu

While I have your attention, let me share the warm hatred I have in my heart for goats’ cheese. This is the mushroom strogonoff of our times and I’ve had enough to last my one and only lifetime.  Goats Cheese Tart,  Salad with Crumbled Goats Cheese, Grilled Goats Cheese on a Red Onion Marmalade are lazy lazy thinking by chefs who think “if it doesn’t have meat it must have cheese”. And I just plain don’t like the flavour of blue cheese in cooked food. Bored, bored, bored of these two.

What not to serve a vegetarian on Christmas Day

Goats cheese on roast veg, with roast veg – how to sadden the heart of a vegetarian on Christmas Day

Finally there’s tofu. Tofu is compressed soya beancurd and varies in texture from cheese-cake to cheese. It’s nothing like cheese in other ways, and saying “tofu is a substitute for meat” is like saying “ferries are a substitute for trains”. They do different things in different circumstances.

But saying you dislike tofu is meaningless. There’s almost nothing there for you to dislike. It’s an ingredient (like flour), by itself it tastes of nothing (like flour),  it gets its flavour from what it’s cooked with (like flour), it works well when it’s marinated (ok, this is where my analogy breaks down) or when it’s smoked. So don’t bung tofu into your recipe instead of meat and then complain about it. Treat it with respect and it’ll treat you.

I am sorry about those rants; I just had to get them off my chest.

About being a Vegetarian

I shouldn’t be irritated when people who eat meat ask what we eat in our largely vegan household. Mr Behn is vegan. Me, I don’t eat chunks of cheese, buy milk or cream, or eat eggs, but I’m a vegetarian not a vegan because I cannot face having to read every single label of every single product forever. Plus I don’t actually like Oreos.

I rather enjoy telling people “Mr Behn’s never eaten meat” because he was raised vegetarian by dippy hippies, but apparently his family weren’t completely vegetarian until he was a toddler. He did try to eat chicken as a training exercise for going to China. (Note the unpleasant use of the word “try”). So the truth is “he’s never consciously digested meat”, but it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

I don’t actually know when I became a vegetarian.

I was raised by women who were adults during the war (both wars, in the case of my grandmother) so I learned to treat meat with respect because you won’t get it at every meal. My grandmother’s macaroni cheese was a wonder to behold, involving soft-boiled eggs and a breadcrumb topping.

They raised me to be fussy carnivore, preferring good meat (free range, from independent butchers) though not necessarily expensive cuts (I can and did stew neck of lamb, casserole rabbits, stuff hearts and cook belly pork with butter beans and apples, as I said offal held no fears for me).

So easing back from meat three times a week, to once a week, to once a fortnight was easy.  I don’t know when I last ate meat.  I do know when I finally identified as ‘a vegetarian’ rather than ‘someone who eats vegetarian food’: it was when a cafe gave me bacon with my pancakes and maple syrup and I felt sick at the smell.

More Eating Less

Some more notes about Eating Less.

  • I’m less averse to exercise than I was, and will voluntarily walk a mile or so instead of taking a bus.  So far it’s always been the bus I’ve skipped in favour of walking and not the car, and it is summer.  Even so, this physical habit is based on a an attitudinal change; the first time I did this recently I was attending Gillian Riley’s Eating Less course when I walked two miles on the evening of the first day.  Riley doesn’t talk much about exercise, so I wasn’t doing it at her explicit behest.
  • I found myself planning a smaller portion of breakfast because a smaller portion would feel better than a larger one. That is a first.  Up until now limiting portion size has been a rational matter of self-awareness and self-control.  This was the first time I spontaneously associated a smaller portion with a better experience.
  • I weighed myself the other day.  This is not necessarily a good thing because the whole emphasis of Eating Less is on dealing with one’s addiction to food – which is a life-long challenge – not on losing weight which is by definition a temporary one.  Gillian Riley reports that she’s lost count of her clients who did well until they weighed themselves, but my trousers are baggier and I really wanted to know how I’m doing.  It’s difficult to tell, though, because I hadn’t weighed myself for a couple of months before I went on the course.  I’m nervous that I’ll lose my way, having succumbed to thinking in terms of weight lost rather than in terms of eating less.
  • It’s harder when you do something for the first time since the last time.  I’m wedging the tip of the chisel into the gap between the stimulus and the pavlovian or habitual response.  I had a habit of eating a packet of crisps at 4:00pm, so when it was 4:00pm I’d crave a packet of crisps.  The wonderful thing about pavlovian responses is that if you ignore them or sit them out, they fade.  The things you did daily fade away the fastest because you get a chance to build new neural pathways every day.  But if you don’t do a particular thing for a while – like eat out in a restaurant or visit your auntie – then the pavlovian responses associated with that particular activity are sitting there waiting to pounce.   I knew that intellectually, but I spent the weekend doing things I hadn’t done for a while, and suddenly it was harder all over again.
  • It’s possible to not order food at lunchtime in a pub if other people are eating but there’s nothing you fancy on the menu.  No-one else really cares.  Who’d have thought!

Eating Less

Like very many people in this 21st century world of ours, I have a complicated relationship with food.  This is just a convoluted way of saying that – give the chance – I will eat too much.

There are many ways to think of this, some involving moral judgements. Thinking of it as an addiction is useful because it gives you a starting point.  Gillian Riley’s book Eating Less explores the implications of this idea and gives you practical ways of dealing with it.   You can blame our 20th century lifestyles.  We did not evolve with unlimited access to an effectively infinite supply of fatty, sugary, salty foods.  Au contraire, we evolved in an environment where calories were hard to come by and quick to burn.  If you want to know more about how our need for food shrank while the choices available to us increased and sugar, fat and salt became staples rather than luxuries, then listen to the programmme Eating through American History from the History Channel.  It describes a typical day’s food for Americans in the 1750s, the 1850s the 1950s and today and it’s fascinating.

I recently spent a weekend on a course run by Gillian Riley which looks at ways of tackling over-eating.  I went on the course because I wasn’t actually applying what I had learned from her sensible and thought-provoking book.  Let me thoroughly recommend both her book and her course.  She is a remarkably sane woman with a practical and effective approach to over-eating. I won’t go into the details of her approach here – buy her book for that.

Now I am indeed now eating less, and I want to jot down some of the things that I’m noting about it.  (This is not intended to evangelise or persuade – it is an entirely personal set of notes about my experiences as I have them).

  • It is surprising how little food, by volume, one actually needs.
    The stomach is naturally about the size of one’s clenched right fist, or the size of a smallish bowl or a pile of food on a side-plate.   A substantial starter should in fact be enough.  I’m concentrating on eating physically smaller portions, eating them more slowly, and not having seconds.   The only word for how I feel is ‘lighter’: I feel less clagged up, less bloated perhaps. Maybe less drugged by the food I’ve eaten.  Certainly it’s been a while since I felt stuffed after a meal, and that’s good.
  • Hunger pangs go away if you ignore them.
    Who’d have thought?  They are just acute physical cravings.  I never knew that.  I thought they just got worse and Worse and WORSE and were ultimately quite painful and you were just a mad thing wrapped around an aching void.  I’ve discovered that if I explain quietly and nicely to my hunger pangs that I’ll eat something lovely in an hour’s time (or whenever it will be) then they disappear.  As a result I no longer feel slightly panicky when I feel hungry.  Riley believes that our so-called “natural hunger” is not to be trusted.  I suspect that this is true for many of us but don’t particularly want to debate it here.
  • I’m not sure if I’m complying or if I’m taking control.
    I’m a natural rebel, and I would often eat unnecessary or sweet or fatty food in a state of sulky rebellion: “I can have a bacon sarnie if I want to” I would say to myself just like a teenager, with the grease dripping down my chin.  But of course a polarised response doesn’t show freedom, it just shows rebellion.  The rebel is just as tied to the instructions as is the person who complies with them.  Right now I don’t know if I am complying with some internal instructions to eat less which I will inevitably rebel against, or if I’ve moved beyond compliance and rebellion into a space where I’m making truly free choices.
  • The moment when I choose what to eat is where the rubber hits the road.
    The key thing is to make those choices consciously, and without lying to myself about the effects of what I am doing and why I am choosing to do it.  So often one – er that should be I – so often I make food choices absent-mindedly, but it is in that moment of habit or absent-minded choice that my addiction and self-deception slip in, like a bad fairy from an European fairy-tale quietly stealing the baby or taking over the christening.  Consciousness is the key.
  • Knowing that I can eat anything I want at any time I can get hold of it takes a lot of the stress away.
    This isn’t my only chance to eat jaffa-cakes ever in the whole of my future life.  There are more than I could eat just down the road in Tescos.  So do I really want that jaffa cake, given that they are in fact abundant?  Well, actually, no.  I guess this is a very good example of how our minds have not evolved as rapidly as our Western economy, industry and agriculture have.

I may add more bullet points to this as I think of them.  As I said, this is more a set of musings than it is anything else.  It is certainly not intended to evangelise or persuade.