Vegetarian-ish – food that’s mostly plants

Spelt risotto with mushrooms

Spelt risotto topped with mushrooms, chorizo and thyme

The idea of reducing meat consumption seems to be everywhere at the moment. Whether it’s called ‘flexitarian’ (ugh), semi-vegetarian, or something else, the idea is to make your meals largely vegetarian or vegan, keeping dishes with meat at the centre for a minority of meals. Mark Bittman practices ‘vegan until 6’, keeping his meat-eating to the evenings. Weekday vegetarians get their fix on the weekends instead.

These trends all roughly follow healthy eating recommendations that have probably best been summed up by Michael Pollan as:

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

[There is a NYT article which explains what this means in greater detail. But the short version is that  ‘eat food’ means things your grandmother would recognise as food – not highly processed confections. “Not too much” is more obviously about portion control, and everything in moderation. It’s the mostly plants bit where many of us fall down.]

There are many good reasons to do this, both for yourself and for sustainability reasons. Although figures are very disputed, it it generally less resource-intensive to produce vegetables and grains than meat, and agriculture is the greatest contributor to greenhouse gases – more than all forms of transportation together. By forcing you to put grains or vegetables at the centre of the meal, you will increase your consumption of these foods, which are universally agreed to be good things to eat. It is also a cheaper way to eat, and can be a good way to challenge yourself to try new things.

Despite all these good reasons, finding guidance to help you plan mostly-vegetarian food is relatively difficult. Perhaps it’s because restaurants are generally organised around a central piece of expensive, quick-cooking protein (steak, fish fillet, pork chop, chicken breast) and we all want to cook restaurant food. Or because it’s just a relatively foreign way of cooking to baby boomer Americans and Brits.

I have found planning vegetarian meals a challenge. It’s hard to break the English conditioning, which says that planning a meal should start with a big piece of protein, adding some starchy carbohydrates and one or two portions of vegetables (and I say this as someone who was brought up on a very varied diet, with plenty of veggie dishes). Too often, I would default to pasta or cheese-based foods as obvious vegetarian options: macaroni and cheese, quiche, cheese souffle, etc.

As modern as I think I am, getting past meat and two veg is hard. And when you’re out of the habit of planning a week of meals ahead (as most of us likely are), it becomes even harder to exercise those muscles at short notice on a daily basis – when pressed for time, we are much more likely to revert to a familiar pattern of meat and two veg.

But this is not a new idea: there are many dishes that historically would have used just a little meat, bulked out with other filling ingredients, that have become meat-heavy recipes only recently. Ragu sauce with pasta would traditionally have been short on meat and long on pasta. An Irish stew would have made the most of a little meat and stretched it with broth and vegetables. Even roast beef and Yorkshire pudding are paired so that diners can fill up on the cheap starch of the pudding, and have just a small amount of beef.

The most helpful advice I have had on this, is to put the grain first. On the blog Herbivoracious, Michael suggests following three questions to plan a vegetarian meal:

  • What grain or starch do I feel like eating?
  • What food culture am I in the mood for?
  • What’s fresh?

Armed with these three questions, I’ve found it much easier to compose vegetarian meals that are filling, not full of cheese, and easy to adapt. You don’t have to make these meat free – and many are improved by judicious application of pork in particular – a few slices of chorizo, a little sizzled pancetta can boost flavour without making these meat-heavy dishes. A wide range of grains, beans and lentils are now available, and each can form the foundation of a dish in a way that provides both protein and filling fibre and starch, the role traditionally ascribed to meat and potatoes. Seasonings and vegetables can then be added to this base.

Helpful cookbooks

Looking through my cookbook collection, I was pretty surprised how few of them take this approach. Even those that feature vegetarian dishes tend to feature wholly vegetarian dishes, or else lots of vegetable and salad recipes, but without much that resembles a main meal.

Great examples of cookbooks that do this well include:

  • Super Natural Cooking, and I’m assuming, its follow up, Super Natural Every Day. Heidi writes the enormously popular 101cookbooks blog, and has a great way of combining interesting whole grains and flours with vegetables and fresh flavour combinations to make everything seem mouthwatering. However, it has some hard-to-find ingredients, as she’s based in San Francisco.
  • Leon: Naturally Fast Food cookbook – which has a specific section on meat as a garnish.
  • Ottolenghi: The Cookbook – and, although I don’t have it, I’m assuming Plenty too. You might have thought this would be perfect, but a large number of the recipes in here are for the salads and vegetable dishes that make up their lunch counters. These make a great meal with a few served together, but that all feels a bit less achievable for a weekday dinner.
  • Although short, the ‘Meatless Feasts’ chapter in Nigella’s Feast is lovely, featuring not just vegetarian meals, but vegetarian menus that hang together sensibly. It also contains one of my favourite recipes for a mixed party of veggies and non-veggies – the Tunisian meatballs and couscous, featuring a root vegetable stew that does very well on its own, but is even better when sprinkled with some of the lamb meatballs.
  • The Cranks Bible is, as you might expect, very good on vegetarian dishes, and includes one of my favourites: a version of Aubergine Parmigiana made with garlic-spiked creme fraiche instead of bechamel.

Types of mostly-plant dishes

To help me think about planning more veggie-centric meals, I have broken down the dishes into a few types, based more on the end result than the starting ingredients. This list provides a range of different starting points and

Dry grains: separate grains with deeply flavoursome toppings e.g. pilaffs, fried rice dishes, lentil salads, rice and peas.

For good fried rice, you need chilled rice and a very hot, well-seasoned wok to stop it sticking. It took me ages and many stuck-to-the-pan, soggy examples before I got it together. Especially with brown rice, this lends itself really well to lunch the next day as well. Which is just as well, because by the time I’ve fried two portions of rice with an egg, a little pork and lots of veg, I have at least 3 portions of food.

Creamy grains: rice and other grains cooked with an absorption method to make a type of  risotto e.g. true risotto, spelt in tomato sauce. Yotam Ottolenghi’s Barley, tomato and garlic risotto is a great example of this. Amazingly savoury and satisfying.

Stewed beans: beans, chickpeas, lentils cooked into a thick sauce, e.g. chillies, baked beans, curries thickened with lentils, dal

For example, Green’s Black Bean Chilli – just onions, garlic, spices and cooked black beans. When finished with a little lime juice and creme fraiche this is one of the meatiest and most satisfying of chillies. Thinned with a little more water, it’s really a black bean soup, and a good one of those too.

Savoury broth: soups and brothy stews e.g. minestrone, ribollita, harira, noodle soups


Bread based: heaping vegetables onto tortillas, pittas, pizza bases, bruschetta

e.g. Vegetarian (0r nearly vegetarian) tacos, from Tommi Mier’s Mexican Food book. Fillings of roast butternut squash with a little chorizo, creamy greens with potatoes, courgette and sweetcorn, and mushrooms and shallots, combined with tortillas are both delicious and filling.

And that’s not counting pasta dishes…

3 comments on “Vegetarian-ish – food that’s mostly plants

  1. Hi Louise – Interesting to read your opinion on the books. Like your thought process. I’ve read & heard arguments about this idea of plants being more economical to grow not being so black & white but as you’ve already stated it’s a disputed subject. One example is the transportation of vegetation and the energy it costs to grow be it in this peat rich soil of this country (very bad for the environment) or in glasshouses in Spain or Holland, which would only increase if more of our diet was veg based. In an ideal world we would be eating animals like the ones I heard on the food programme this week the blackface sheep and galloway cattle near the Scottish borders slow to grow but eat more grass than grain. Complicated subject.

    My problem with eating grains & veg as a base for my diet is that it would make me incredibly fat. I love to eat lentils & rice or beans & rice for a meal or any other vegan combination but also notice 2 hrs later I’m hungry, it doesn’t keep me full as protein does. If I eat a carb rich meal especially at lunchtime all I feel like doing afterwards is to snooze, siesta time! 🙂

    My pet hate is vegetarian books or vegetarian places that are heavy on dairy, and obviously I notice this a lot since I try to keep dairy-free diet most of the time. Good post.

    • louise_m says:

      Hey Azelia,

      Thanks for your comment. You’re right that the discussion about sustainability of meat is a really complicated one. There was another great food programme about it a couple of weeks ago:

      There is definitely a place for meat, and it plays a really important part in agriculture, but I do find it easier to eat healthy food (dairy aside) when the meals are mostly veggie. I take your point on the carb-heavy problem – though I find that’s less of a problem with more protein-heavy things like chickpeas and quinoa than with grains. And I find the whole grains much more filling than pearled or white ones.

  2. Choclette says:

    An interesting post Lou. Despite being a vegetarian myself, I am very aware that in the UK, this is not really sustainable. I love lentils, but we don’t grow those. I try not to eat soya as that is destroying most of the world’s wild places. I do my best to buy local produce, grow my own veg etc, but what we grow best in the UK is grass and sheep and cows make a lot of sense. I think your approach to eating a little meat occasionally is probably the best one. But I believe it is the intensive rearing of animals that causes greenhouse gases and feeding them on grains which we could just eat ourselves. All in all, it’s a complicated issue, but there are a lot of good books out there now looking at this. As for vegetarian books, I have several really good ones.

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