From vegetarian butchers to show-stopping meat-free mains, 2016 has been the year of the vegetable. Felicity Cloake explores how, this festive season, they’re truly centre stage (cue turkeys breathing a sigh of relief)
Somewhere in a field in Sussex (or Devon or Yorkshire or anywhere in between), there’s a turkey looking a little bit lost. His time has come – the date that’s been hanging over his head for the last 12 months – and, like his parents before him, he knows exactly what to expect. In the distance, he spots the farmer approach, knife in hand. But as Mr Turkey takes a deep breath and prepares himself for the inevitable, his presumed executioner strides past – straight towards the vegetable patch.
This year, for the first time in the stomach- expanding history of Christmas dinners, it’s thought that more than seven million Brits will be trading turkey for turnips and pigs in blankets for pastry-encased porcini mushrooms. Meat- free gammon is a thing now, and ‘no-egg nog’ is available on Ocado. Hotel Chocolat has launched a vegan advent calendar, London’s Oldroyd restarurant is offering up four-course vegetarian and vegan festive feasts, and even brandy butter has had a do-over with recipes for liquor-infused margarine popping up online. In the US, Youssef Fahouri, the founder of Vromage (thought to be the world’s first vegan cheese shop), reports online orders of over £700 as customers rush to buy ‘veganzola’ or dairy-free truffled brie.
In case you haven’t been out to dinner (or, er, outside your house) in the last six months, it’s suddenly traffic-island-straddlingly middle of the road to be meat-free. Veganism may have seen an increase of over 350% in the last decade with at least 542,000 Brits now following a plant-based diet, but 2016 was the year when forsaking the flesh became the norm – a country-wide gauge of social consciousness and overall health. The festive holidays are no longer ‘the zenith of a carnivore’s year’ (as one herbivorous food critic put it 12 months ago). Instead, with almost a third of us making a conscious effort to reduce the amount of meat we consume, supermarket shelves are suddenly overwhelmed with exotic vegetables and turkey-less dinners. And we should have seen it coming. After all, when Ikea goes to the trouble of developing Swedish ‘gronsaksbullar’ (that’s vegetable balls) and the popularity of a vegetarian-only Pret A Manger pop-up prompts the brand to make it permanent, you know a trend has legs. Or in this case, roots.
The benefits of a plant-based diet have been gaining traction over the past decade. In 2009, Meat-Free Monday, the McCartneys’ campaign to encourage people to go vegetarian one day a week, launched with support from the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Jamie Oliver, while Beyoncé and Jay-Z made headlines in 2013 when they undertook a three-week vegan “cleanse”. But fast forward three years, and 21 days without dairy barely warrants a raised eyebrow. Increasing numbers of us are now completely giving up animal products.
It’s partly ethical. Acclaimed food writer Anna Jones surmises that “making vegetables the focus of our diet is widely considered to be the single most important thing we can do for our own health and for the health of the planet”, whereas Dr Marco Springmann of the Oxford Martin School maintains the food industry is “a major driver of climate change”. Widespread adoption of a plant-based diet could actually cut global emissions by nearly two thirds, he says – methane emissions from livestock alone account for 14.5% of all human-caused greenhouse gases. When the team behind Cowspiracy (the Leonardo DiCaprio-produced documentary on the environmental impact of animal agriculture) made a bid for crowdfunding, they raised 217% of the goal in under 30 days.
Health is also a factor. More than half of people surveyed by social research institute NatCen earlier this year cited health as their reason for cutting down. It seems the recent World Health Organisation warning linking the consumption of red meat to cancer has hit home.
The professionals are catching on too – according to Catherine Hanly of restaurant blog Hot Dinners, these days “even the most meaty restaurants are considering their veggie option. People want to eat more vegetables, but they’re also much more demanding now – the food’s got to be delicious as well as good for you.”
So popular are vegetables among the capital’s top chefs right now, she says, that “my Instagram feed is just as likely to feature pictures of the latest aubergine dish – Carl Clarke’s Szechuan aubergine [at Chick ’n’ Sours] is still the one to beat in my humble opinion – as it is of XXL burgers.” Other veg-based dishes of the moment include the pot-roasted broccoli with cabbage and yoghurt at north London’s new opening Perilla, the potatoes cacio e pepe (cooked with parmesan and black pepper) at Clove Club-offshoot Luca, and the seriously tasty Brussels sprouts, almonds, black garlic and burnt bread at Portland’s sister restaurant, Clipstone (yes, sprouts are finally cool).
Traditional veggie venues are seeing an upturn in trade too: The Gate, the chic meat-free restaurant patronised by Madonna, Stella McCartney and the like, has just opened a third location in Marylebone, while Birmingham stalwart the Warehouse Café, Edinburgh old-timer Henderson’s and Brighton’s venerable Terre à Terre were all runners up at the recent Observer Food Monthly restaurant awards. Dan Doherty, executive chef at carnivorously- titled Duck & Waffle, agrees chefs are indeed getting more interested in cooking with vegetables, and not just because customers are asking for it. “Vegetables are exciting and finally being given the attention they deserve,” he admits. “They reflect the seasons with their wonderful colours, much more so than meat or fish.” And there’s no doubt that they’re ripe with untapped potential: René Redzepi, head chef at Copenhagen’s Noma, named the world’s best restaurant several times, has spoken of the culinary epiphany that came when his kitchen began to value “the carrot as much as the steak”.
As plant-based eating becomes mainstream for both professional and home cooks, it’s adopting some very familiar language – butchers, for example, no longer just deal in meat. Sgaia, which claims to be the UK’s first “authentic travelling vegan butcher shop”, sells an adapted form of the Asian food seitan, and you can find products from Holland’s famous Vegetarian Butcher at the Hyde Park Book Club in Leeds. And, proving once and for all that veganism can be fun, London got its first dairy-free ice cream parlour this spring in the form of Yorica – complete with gelatin-free gummy bear toppings.
In short, giving up meat has never been easier. But how does that translate to the one extravagant time of year that’s more traditional than trend? Stylist asked our favourite chefs for some meat-free Christmas inspiration...
Baked squash stuffed with nutty cranberry-spiked rice
“This method takes advantage of stuffing and slow-roasting the sweet, versatile squash. You get wonderful flavours exchanging in the centre and the slices look amazing.” Jamie Oliver
Total time: 2 hours 30 minutes
1 butternut squash (1.2kg)
1 red onion
1 clove of garlic
1 bunch of fresh sage (30g)
10 sun-dried tomatoes
75g vac-packed chestnuts
75g basmati rice
75g dried cranberries
1 pinch of ground allspice
Step 1: Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4. Wash the squash, carefully cut it in half lengthways, then remove and reserve the seeds. Use a spoon to score and scoop some flesh out, making a gully for the stuffing all along the length of the squash. Finely chop the scooped-out flesh with the seeds and put into a frying pan on a medium heat with 2 tbsps of oil. Peel, finely chop and add the onion and garlic, stirring regularly while you pick the sage leaves and finely chop them with the sun-dried tomatoes and chestnuts. Stir into the pan with the rice, cranberries and allspice, add a good pinch of sea salt and black pepper and a swig of red wine, and mix well. Fry for 10 minutes, or until softened, stirring occasionally.
Step 2: Pack the mixture tightly into the gully in the squash halves, then press the halves firmly back together. Rub the skin of the squash with a little oil, salt and pepper, and if you’ve got them, pat on any extra herb leaves you have to hand. Place the squash in the centre of a double layer of tin foil, then tightly wrap it up. Bake for around 2 hours, or until soft and cooked through.
Step 3: Once ready, take the squash to the table and open up the foil in front of everyone, then carve into nice thick slices and serve with all the usual trimmings.
From Jamie Oliver’s Christmas Cookbook by Jamie Oliver (£26, Penguin Random House)
Aubergine wedges with yogurt dressing
“Aubergines are considered the meat of the Middle East. This recipe can be served as a starter, side dish or even as a main course. Plenty of flavour and no disappointments!” Sabrina Ghaynour
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour
3-4 large aubergines, cut into wedges (ensure the skin sides are 5cm wide)
100-150ml olive oil
5 tsps cumin seeds
6 tbsps Greek-style yogurt
4-5 tbsps pomegranate molasses
75g toasted pine nuts
50g pumpkin seeds
15g of fresh coriander, leaves and stems finely chopped
100g pomegranate seeds
Sea salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper
Step 1: Preheat the oven to 220°C/425°F/Gas Mark 7. Line a baking tray with baking paper.
Step 2: Brush the exposed flesh sides of each aubergine wedge with olive oil. Arrange the wedges, skin-side down then sprinkle with the cumin seeds, ensuring some seeds land on the exposed flesh of the wedges. Roast for 60 minutes or until golden brown. Arrange the wedges on a large, flat platter and season well with salt and pepper.
Step 3: Season the yogurt and dilute it with a little water. Drizzle over the aubergines, followed by the pomegranate molasses. Sprinkle liberally with the toasted pine nuts and pumpkin seeds, followed by the chopped coriander. Lastly, sprinkle over the pomegranate seeds and serve immediately. If you have leftovers, they are great eaten the next day, served at room temperature.
From Sirocco by Sabrina Ghayour (£25, Mitchell Beazley)
Cheese and winter leaves
“The pears and pecans add a satisfying crunch to this salad, and the blue cheese dressing complements their flavours nicely. The squash base makes it a filler as well as a thriller.” Jane Baxter and John Vincent
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 50 minutes
400g squash, cut into chunks or slices
3 tbsps olive oil, plus a little for the squash
a dash of Tabasco
a dash of Worcestershire sauce u a pinch of cayenne pepper
200g mixed winter leaves (purslane, radicchio or frisée)
2 ripe pears, peeled and sliced
1 tbsp cider vinegar
salt and freshly ground
For the blue cheese dressing:
100g blue cheese, crumbled
50ml soured cream
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1⁄2 a clove of garlic, crushed u 1 tsp maple syrup
Step 1: Heat the oven to 200°C/400°F/Gas Mark 6.
Step 2: Toss the prepped squash in olive oil and season well, then roast in the oven for about 40 minutes, or until tender. Remove and set aside to cool.
Step 3: Mix the pecans with the Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, cayenne and some salt. Put on a baking tray and place in the oven for 8 minutes, or until lightly toasted.
Step 4: Beat the blue cheese with the soured cream and buttermilk. Add the rest of the ingredients and season to taste. Add water to thin down the dressing to the desired consistency. Use as a dressing or a dip.
Step 5: To serve, toss the leaves and pears with the olive oil and vinegar and season. Layer with the squash and pecans and drizzle with the blue cheese dressing.
From Leon Happy Salads by Jane Baxter & John Vincent (£15.99, Conran Octopus)
Duck egg with wild mushrooms and gruyère
“Baking a duck egg with wild mushrooms loaded with cheese and truffles is the best way to begin a day of feasting. It’s rich and creamy, as everything at this time of year should be.” Dan Doherty
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Butter, for greasing
1 tbsp olive oil
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 sprig of fresh thyme
1⁄2 a garlic clove
1 bay leaf
1 handful of wild mushrooms, roughly chopped into 2cm pieces
1⁄2 a glass of white wine
150ml double cream
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 duck eggs
2 slices of sourdough bread
20g Gruyère cheese, grated
3–5 truffle slices per person
Step 1: Butter the insides of two 100ml ramekins or individual cocottes.
Step 2: Heat the olive oil in a saucepan and cook the shallots with the thyme, garlic and bay leaf until softened. Add the mushrooms and cook for 5 minutes more, then add the wine and simmer until reduced by three-quarters. Add the cream and continue to cook until reduced by half, then season with salt and pepper.
Step 3: When ready to serve, preheat your oven to 180°C/ 350°F/Gas Mark 4. Place half the sauce in the bottom of the ramekins, removing the thyme and bay leaf, then crack a duck egg into each. Top with the remaining half of the sauce, and place in the oven for 3 minutes.
Step 4: Toast the bread and cut into soldiers. When the 3 minutes is up, or the whites have started to form, add the cheese to the ramekins and cook for a further 4-8 minutes, depending on how you like your eggs cooked.
Step 5: Garnish with the truffle slices and eat straight away with the toasted soldiers.
From Duck & Waffle: Recipes And Stories by Daniel Doherty (£25, Mitchell Beazley)
Photography: David Loftus, Haarala Hamilton Photography, Anders Schønnemann, Tamin Jones