Monday, 27 January 2014

Vegetarian January - An Update / Is Vegetarianism For Us?

So, here we are. Nearly a month into eating vegetarian, and we feel it's time to start summing up our thoughts on the month that's been, and on how we're going to continue with the vegetarian lifestyle (or not!) in the months to come.

At the start of the month, we had four expectations: weightloss, health benefits, cheaper meals and the development of a new meat-free mindset, whereby we'd become accustomed to not just turning to a chicken breast or two when we were feeling uninspired.

Did we see these benefits? Here's a little round up of the good and the bad of eating veggie from our experiences so far...


The Good

  • Health and weightloss. While the weightloss has been minimal (a few lbs each), it's actually the health benefits we've both noticed most. It's not that we didn't used to eat a lot of vegetables, but we've certainly been eating a lot more of them since we've been living vegetarian, and pulses and beans - which we never used to eat, in all honesty - have become a major, and healthy, source of protein and iron for us.
  • Energy. Our energy levels have been up: we don't feel so sluggish generally, nor so dehydrated. While we can't say for sure whether this is the vegetarian diet or just the fact that we've been eating more healthily in general (not so much saturated fats and processed foods), it's certainly a happy outcome of our vegetarian diet so far
  • Gone is our reliance on meat. Whatever our decision after the end of the month, we've discovered that we don't need to rely on meat, or automatically throw it into every evening meal we're making: we find it just unnecessary and costly. 
  • Cleaner consciences. We both feel better, morally, for not eating so much meat: it's better for us, it's better for the environment and it's better for animals. All of this gives us a bit of a cleaner conscience on a day-to-day basis.
  • Cheaper food shopping. Suddenly £5 for a packet of chicken breasts seems pretty expensive when you've realised that your usual, vegetable-laden dinner works out to under £1 a head.
  • New recipes and meals. Before this month, we never would have imagined that a bean burger would actually be as satisfying a dinner as something which contained meat, or that tofu would actually be enjoyable to eat - but here's the thing: it is. We've learnt that vegetarian doesn't have to mean boring, and doesn't have to mean a plain salad with an occasional potato. We've also enjoyed making vegetarian versions of meals we'd usually automatically throw meat into: we've had vegetarian fajitas, burritos, pasta dishes, stir frys, parmigianas, soups, risottos, curries, dhals and so on. All delicious!
  • Bathroom changes. Excuse us while we lower the tone of this post, but what goes in must come out, and let's be honest: while there's a lot more need to go to the toilet regularly on a vegetarian diet, it's a lot less odorous. Meat protein is rich in sulfides, which apparently produce a more pungent (read: awful) smell. 
  • C doesn't feel so bad about eating cheese... Perhaps her greatest weakness, C doesn't feel quite so guilty when she tucks into a little bit of cheese now: hey, she needs some protein...

The Bad

  • The frustration of eating out. Eating in on a vegetarian diet? Fine, easy, great. Eating out? Generally nigh on impossible. We're not ones to want to drag our friends to vegetarian-only restaurants, as we respect that they want to eat meat, but it's tough when the choices on a menu mean you can only choose between two equally uninspiring options while the meat-eaters have fifteen glorious-sounding dishes on offer. Same applies at work, where the choices seem to be salads, jacket potatoes or pasta with pesto. With so many vegetarians, vegans and part-timers, we honestly would have expected more choices on the average menu. Another issue is eating out for friends' birthdays and so on: for example, what were we meant to do when flatmate N arranged his birthday dinner at a churrascaria? Go along, of course, but it's really flippin' hard to resist meat in an all-you-can-eat meat restaurant, that's for sure. 
  • Meat cravings. It's not been so bad - and actually not as bad as either of us had thought it would be - but there have been a couple of times where we've really fancied some meat. Generally this has been when flatmates have been cooking burgers or something delicious, and for C the difficulty has been sausages. She might have to try veggie sausages instead...
  • C doesn't feel so bad about eating cheese... Both a pro and a con of the vegetarian diet, C has eaten two whole Camemberts this month. Not exactly healthy, but not a direct consequence of a vegetarian diet: she just felt like she could get away with it.

So, all in all? As is pretty evident from our points above, it's generally a big healthy, energised, green thumbs-up to vegetarianism. The benefits are manifold and pretty convincing, and it's only really eating out and the odd meat craving that's been an issue.

What's going to be our approach going forward? It's hard to say, as neither of us are completely sure. C is off to South America pretty soon, where it's going to be nigh on impossible to avoid meat, and there are occasions even in London (served up meat at a dinner party, for example) where it becomes very awkward to say no. 

On the whole, we think our approach will be a mainly vegetarian diet: something which is becoming increasingly common in the UK, according to a recent BBC article. We'll most likely eat meat occasionally - on the odd occasion when dining out, for example - but apart from that, it'll be vegetables all the way.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Marrakech: La Maison Arabe - Moroccan Chicken with Preserved Lemons

As we're not complete veggie militants (yet?), we're departing from our Vegetarian Experiment to bring you a meat-related post from the other side of the world.

Always keen to get about, A & C took an impromptu trip to Morocco for a long weekend recently.

Unusually for us, this was not a running around kind of holiday. Instead, we settled down in one hotel, rested up, ate well and didn't do all that much. It made for rather a nice change to our usual backpacking. We wandered around the souqs, saw a few sites, bartered for leather bags, drunk a lot of mint tea, wandered around beautiful exotic gardens, stared at the snakecharmers in the Djemaa El Fna and spent a day at a high end Moroccan spa (C basically died and went to heaven).

However, we did keep to tradition and really go all out on the food, including a visit to the highly acclaimed La Maison Arabe on the edge of the Medina. We're not going to give too much away about the recipes - you should go and do this if you're in town - but the experience was well worth a post.

La Maison Arabe is a high-end restaurant and Riad (guesthouse). You can go all out and stay there, but for about £40 a hit you can spend half a day in their high end cookery school. The place has all the mod-cons: for example, the instructor's desk is filmed on CCTV, any everybody gets a screen so they can see what's going on at the front. 

They also go all out on the cookery school experience. In addition to making two courses, you also get a long explanation about Moroccan cooking techniques, and visits to a spice shop and a community bakery.

While we were there, we made two aubergine starters and a chicken tagine with preserved lemons. We were also given about a million other recipes to get on with. We were taught how to do this from the ground up: not content with taking us to the spice shop to show us what spices go into the dish, we were also told how to preserve the lemons: while this is a simple process, it requires some patience (it takes about a month) and A LOT of lemons. C, whose favourite flavour is lemon, was virtually eating the preserved ones in their raw form.

The tagine itself is a simple enough affair: it's a food of peasant origin and is essentially a spiced stew made in a conical pot. Traditionally nestled in a coal stove, the pot is designed to baste contents while cooking. The result is a fragrant, moist meal which really hits the spot. Our lemony version had a really wicked tang to it and eaten with the bread we had kneaded with our very own hands alongside our new friends from the cookery class, we had a fantastic meal at the end of the afternoon.

After enjoying our sumptuous food, we were sent on our way with a going-home present in the form of a little tagine pot.  If you're in Marrakech, do this. It's well worth it: it may well be the best meal you have in town, and you get to learn how to replicate it at home!

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Vegetarian January: Eating Out at Obika

Around two-thirds of the way through the month now, and the question we’ve found ourselves most commonly asked (aside from “why?”) tends to be: is being a vegetarian difficult?

The answer? Had you asked us on the 2nd, when we’d spent less than £30 on our weekly shop (goodbye, expensive meat!) and had cooked a few delicious meals indoors and together and enjoyed them immensely, the answer would have been a resounding no. We then found that while vegetarianism is certainly easy if you’re cocooned in your own little vegetable-filled bubble, it’s not quite so easy in the big wide meat-eating world. 

It’s not actually been that I’ve missed meat (I’ve only really craved it once – inevitably, for sausages) but rather that I’ve been totally uninspired by non-meat offerings away from home. My work canteen seems only to think vegetarians eat jacket potatoes, salads or the occasional pasta bake, which started to wear a bit thin past the first week back at work, and, after I’d arranged dinner with Kiwi friend L (aforementioned on the blog due to her fabulous cooking here), I found myself scouring the web for menus in search of somewhere she could actually eat something more exciting than a nutroast.

Have a pizza that!

Then I happened upon Obika. The words “mozzarella bar” made my eyes light up, and a table was booked pretty much immediately. That evening, after whetting our appetites with a few cocktails at the rather dapper Bourne & Hollingsworth, we popped along to the Charlotte St branch.

Obika’s interior design is pretty cool: let’s get that out of the way first. Contemporary and warm with dark wooden tables, atmospheric lighting and maps and paintings adorn the walls. All very nice. Seated downstairs, we ordered a cheap bottle of white (hey, don’t blame us: we were already pretty tipsy by this point) and settled down to browse what was on offer.

Obika is said to have drawn inspiration from traditional sushi bars, which sounds like an odd concept but is reflected on the menu: you're encouraged to order small plates of mozzarella and meats and share them as a table, or you have the option to go big with a pizza or pasta. We decided to go big on the food, of course, so it was pizzas for both L and I. L had been to an Obika in Italy fairly recently, and had enjoyed it then, so we were hopeful for a good meal. We ordered fairly standard options which we shared between us: essentially, a Margherita with all kinds of extra cheeses (goodbye, waistline) and another cooked tomato-based pizza onto which we asked fresh mozzarella and basil to be added.

Rather a lot of rocket, but the mozzarella's good.

Ok, it wasn’t perfect: the service was so over-familiar that it came across a little false, and they were a bit perplexed when we tried to alter the pizza on the menu so that the mozzarella was added freshly after the pizza base was cooked and not before. The wine, too, was the kind you can only appreciate if you’re too drunk to care how it tastes: and we weren’t quite at that point. Aside from that, though, we were happy campers: decent portion sizes, a good amount of tomato and fresh mozzarella, and a quiet enough restaurant that we had room to ourselves without feeling overcrowded.

All in all, it was hardly the best mozzarella L and I have ever had, but it was pretty tasty and certainly presents a good bet against the likes of Prezzo, Zizzi’s and so on, and is based on a more interesting concept at least. I ended up going back a few weeks later with another friend C as we were in Charlotte St, in the mood for pizza and at a loss for places to eat, and sampled the Burrata, which was truly excellent: wonderful and gooey and fresh, and heartily recommended. Great for some things, good for others, Obika is definitely worth a try if you’re nearby, have a craving for mozzarella, and want something a little more exciting than a Strada.

Pre-dinner cocktail

Monday, 13 January 2014

A Gorilla of a Hangover Cure

A little while ago, A went to Manchester for a good friend's wedding (see our prior post on cream teas and weathergirls for more on that event). The following day there was a bit of a hangover that needed dealing with, so A went out with his friend R with whom he was staying, for a Sunday brunch to get over the hangover. As R's a local and a bit of a foodie herself, we went and tried out a snazzy new bar-cum-diner-cum-gig-venue. It's in a part of town that's well known for this kind of thing: the infamous Hacienda nightclub was only a few doors down and the Ritz is just next door. However, neither the time of day nor the headache was conducive to live music, so we hit the cafe for brunch.

The place was cut from the same cloth as places that are springing up all over London: think trendy falcon enamel plates, bare wooden tables, odd chairs, asymmetric haircuts and sailor tattoos and you've got the right idea. For all its pretension however, the food was really good and it's a place A would go back to next time he's in town.

A went for eggs benedict, one of his absolute favourites (though sadly not on the menu given is vegetarian regime!). This one absolutely hit the spot: the eggs were cooked to perfection, the bacon was crispy and salty and the muffins fluffy and well toasted. It's surprisingly easy to mess this dish up (this comes from experience - C has see A exasperated at his own efforts several times) but Gorilla did it with aplomb. A also ordered a coffee, which was perfectly adequate, if not mind-blowing: it certainly did the trick in terms of helping ease the morning after the night before.

R took a slightly different tack and went for the full English. This is a pretty mean fry-up and comes with the works: bacon, fancy sausage, beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, eggs and toast all make an appearance and it's perfectly possible to further enhance your choice with a wide range of extras. The portion size was ample and according to R, each and every element of the fry-up hit the spot: proper English food after to dispel a proper English hangover.

As this is the North after all, the price tag is not quite as hefty as one is used to in London. The eggs benedict were £6 and the full English £7.50. Given that you'd easily be paying double that in London, we think this represents pretty good value.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Cream Teas, Drag Queens and Weathergirls

This is how you do a wedding: A's good friend Barrister G finally tied the knot and entered into a civil partnership with his long-term partner J towards the end of last year. Having known Barrister G since his school days, A was not prepared to miss out on the nuptuals, and promptly booked a ticket to the Manchester, where the wedding took place. As A has friends in town, he took the opportunity to stay over with his friend R, who is also a lawyer in Manchester. (One of the occupational hazards of being in the legal profession is one tends to know lots of lawyers - they gather in herds!)

Barrister G and J love their food and they used their wedding to showcase some of their favourite stuff. As the ceremony fell quite early in the day, the couple decided that they would do an afternoon tea rather than a typical dinner. While unorthodox, the venue, a restored Church hall in the middle of Saddleworth Moor, was great: the hall was beautifully decorated for the occasion and the backdrop of the moor made for a wonderful setting.

The food was put together by a really funky catering company called And the Dish Ran Away with the Spoon. These guys cater cream teas for weddings, and serve them up on frightfully trendy mismatched plates. As well as catering for weddings and other events, the company also runs a couple of cafes in Manchester suburbs such as Didsbury. While A's not not been to them, the tea served at the wedding is an incentive to go next time he's in town. The grooms did a great job in picking their tea, serving up a pork pie, some quiche, sandwiches, a coffee and walnut cupcake, a voilet cream tart, scones and jam and plenty of other treats besides. The quality of the food was great - nobody at the table had a bad thing to say about any of the food available - , and the guests could barely haul themselves out of their chairs onto the dance floor.

There was also a fair bit of glitz and glamour at the event: J works for the BBC as a TV producer for the breakfast show and as a result there were plenty of famous faces at the event. Pretty much the entire cast of BBC breakfast were there, including the lovely Carol Kirkwood, who compered the evening. The event was also livened up by the arrival of one English and one Filipino drag queen, who performed an entire set for the audience: this was pretty risqué, despite the fact that they were under instructions to tone their show down for some of the audience members.

The combination of great food, a lovely venue and a dash of celebrity made for a wonderful day, and it was a pleasure to celebrate with Barrister G and his partner J. Congratulations to them both!

Friday, 3 January 2014

Vegetarian January: Day Three - Bean Burgers

We cracked: a mere three days into the Vegetarian Experiment, we have resorted to the bean burger. After succumbing so soon to what A considers to be the ultimate in hippie cuisine, A wanted to write a vitriolic piece slating the things. However, A discovered that making them himself was not only satisfying, but they actually tasted pretty good into the bargain. Every cloud has a silver lining.

As we often do, we took an existing recipe and tinkered with it. The basis of this dinner came from a TV food website. While Channel 4 calls the dish a "hash", we don't.  We're in the habit of calling a spade a spade and this is a burger - it's just a massive one, topped out with an egg.

How eggciting!

We essentially followed the recipe in terms of method, improvising in places. We swapped out the butter beans for kidney beans because A isn't a huge fan of the former. This may have worked from a taste perspective, but mashing was intense. The skins of kidney beans are pretty tough: a fork barely dented them. Only vigorous pounding with a masher finally broke them up. As the recipe doesn't specify what kind of lentils were required, we tossed in a whole can of green ones along with the spuds and cheese.  The patties themselves are pretty much a blank canvas, and you can do whatever you want to them. We considered using Baharat, Ras al Hanout, or Garam/Chat Masala, all of which are available from good supermarkets, but ultimately followed the recipe's recommendation for spices.

Burger, it's bean good knowing you...

As we've already said, these were pretty good. A liked the contrast of the red onion and cumin against the egg . The warmth and crunch from the onion and spices worked really well with the cooling richness of the runny yolk, resulting in a really pleasant flavour sensation. To boot, this meal was super-filling. We hadn't eaten all day and had done a long walk when we made these, but neither of us could finish a double portion. A normally finds he's still hungry after a vegetarian meal, but not this time. That's a big tick for us and we'll be making this again.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Vegetarian January: Day One - Introduction

We'll admit it: we're both big meat-eaters. C practically drools at the thought of a lamb shank, while A loves rare beef so much he'll only settle for oozing-with-blood. When faced with a challenge to cook a Christmas dinner for flatmates and girlfriends, A did a haunch of venison so large he practically had the whole corpse in the fridge, and naturally topped that off with sausages and bacon too for an extra meaty hit.

While we can't deny that we love the taste, C at least has long had qualms about eating meat (last year's trip to China did nothing to assuage her long-standing dilemma, borne from years of living in 'hippy' Brighton). Her thoughts can be fairly crudely summarised with the following: although she wishes she didn't like meat - because she suspects it would make her feel healthier, kinder to the environment and fairer to animals - she does. Simple as that, really. Or is it?

More meals like this ahead for us this month...

On New Year's Day, we watched film Vegucated on a whim. Although documenting American meat consumption, it was still a pretty stark reminder of a few home truths. We're not so naive not to be aware of where our meat comes from and how it ends up on our plates, or the fact that vegetarianism is better for the environment and for global poverty, but a film like Vegucated is enough to make even the most fervent meat eaters (case in point: A) think a bit harder about how much we really need to eat.

Dangling the "health benefits" carrot...

So, here's our mutually agreed plan for this month: Meat-free meals from 1st-31st January. Nervous A still wants to eat meat and fish once a week if he's craving it, so we're conceding on that, but aside from that it's a totally veggie month ahead for us.

Meat's now a has-bean...

What do we hope to accomplish?
  • Weightloss: losing a few lbs this month after a season of gluttony would be a welcome benefit
  • Health: vegetarians, according to various studies, are less at risk of heart disease, high cholesterol levels, arthritis and diabetes, and are more likely to live longer (!)
  • Cheaper meals: cost of meat > cost of vegetables, pulses and grains, and this is particularly useful when we're looking at a year of travelling around the world and buying a house (eek!)
  • Meat-free mindsets: we're creatures of habit, and so surely our current reliance on meat comes from over two and half decades of eating it several times a week. If we either avoid it or make it a real treat rather than a default, we'll hopefully be healthier, richer people - or something like that
At the end of the month, we'll see how we've got on, and whether we want to make mainly meat-free living a way of life... Or whether it'll be straight back to the salt beef...

Let's see how this goes!