Cook like a Vegetarian

Cook like a Vegetarian

(Even if You Aren't One)

by Eoin Meldon, Little Bird Cafe

I am the head chef at a vegetarian restaurant, but I didn’t grow up a strict vegetarian. Our family was split down the middle. My mother, the youngest daughter of a butcher, decided to become a vegetarian as an adult. Both my sisters joined her. Which left just me and my brother, for the occasional spag bol or pepperoni pizza.

My mother was navigating vegetarianism in a very different Ireland. There was only a fraction of the meat alternatives that are available today. She got by adapting traditional recipes, making vegetables the star. Which is why when I am deciding what I want to cook today, my instinct still gravitates towards vegetables as a starting point.

These days a Dublin vegetarian is spoiled for choice. In fact, according to a study by Trip Advisor, Dublin is now the most vegan friendly city in the world. Not bad for the island of ‘meat and two veg.’ There’s a diverse offering of vegetarian cuisine through the city. And a huge range of global vegetables at our disposal like avocado and okra. Pak Choi is now even grown in Ireland.

At the same time, there has been a renewed appreciation among Irish people to get closer to the source of their food—supporting local food producers or learning to grow their own at home. It is an exciting time for Irish veg, and the perfect opportunity to heap more of it onto your plate. You don’t have to be a card-carrying vegetarian, but learning how to cook like one, will open up new ways of appreciating vegetables.

Here are my five starting points for cooking more vegetarian meals at home:

  1. Make it Yours:

Cooking vegetarian food doesn’t mean abandoning your favourite dishes, just brainstorm ways to swap out the meat. Beginning with the flavours you most enjoy, will keep you invested in exploring.

  1. Start Small:

Don’t expect yourself to have it all figured out straight away. Look for suggestions in recipes. Focus on a few new skills at a time, like breaking down and roasting a butternut squash. Then give yourself permission to take shortcuts in the other elements of a dish like using canned beans instead of dried until you build up your confidence.

  1. Layer Flavours and Textures:

The most successful vegetarian recipes have layers of interest to them. Maybe you’ll roast some of your vegetables to intensify their flavour and cook some of them slow to bring out their natural sweetness. Try pairing a crispy element like toasted seeds with something smooth and creamy or spicy element with something fresh and cool.

  1. Try an Umami Boost:

We call the savoury taste that meat has naturally umami. You can replicate that flavour by using punchy ingredients like marmite, soy sauce, tomato paste, mushrooms, liquid smoke, and miso. Remember a little goes a long way. Taste as you go.

  1. Shift Your Focus:

Try and think about vegetarian food, not as food without meat, but food that is packed full of the natural goodness of vegetables. Think of this as an opportunity to be creative and cook with a different set of ingredients as they come into season.