January started with a jolt. It was a bumpy return to work what with the two fresh burns to my forearm – I genuinely think I have a hazard perception issue, there’s something hot there so don’t knock it, oh look I’ve knocked it – and the sudden reappearance of those bothersome bags under my eyes. That energising optimism of our new year’s resolutions suddenly deflates halfway through January. Those resolutions are hard to keep. It’s not easy to alter habits just because numbers in the date change. The weather is dreary, the purse strings are pulled tight and there are no more twinkly lights glimmering from windows. Bah humbug and all that.
So, why is there suddenly one more thing to feel guilty about?
I suppose you could call this a follow-up to my blog post last year; #newyearnewme: The Sequel, as yes, I still have thoughts on the matter, so please sit tight for a moment. Last year I suggested we be kind to ourselves in January and maybe take the opportunity to learn about vegan cookery. However, it looks like the demand for self-improvement has intensified, and it increasingly appears that veganism is the way forward. This year a record number of people signed up to Veganuary, which the charity website refers to as ‘pledging’. Already the process is the gastronomic version of a contract.
Thing is, these days if you’re a vegan you’re cool. All the cool restaurants are catching onto the hype and presenting their new vegan menus or, in the case of Pret A Manger, opening an entirely vegetarian chain around the country (which seems odd as doesn’t the original Pret sell vegetarian food?) There are signs about Veganuary draped around the fridges at my local Sainsbury’s. My cafe is specialising in vegan delicacies this month. We all know the health benefits of eating a plant-based diet, but if I feel pressured to think a certain way I tend to dig my heels in.
Vegan food is delicious. Unfortunately it’s gained a bad reputation over the years with ‘vegan cheese alternatives’ in the 1970s, the gassy byproducts of legume-based meals, and the notorious ‘Facon’ which looks like pale pink Plasticine. Nowadays, chefs are tripping over themselves to release new vegan recipes or cookbooks, and YouTube has produced vloggers with how-to’s on vegan baking, so you couldn’t be in better hands to find a tasty plant-based dinner. As a chef vegan cooking is exciting as it’s a step away from traditional meat-and-two-veg to make a meal and an excuse to experiment with flavour. That said, I live with a carnivore who seems confused if I serve a meal without meat, so vegan dinners are currently out of reach, however, last year I had the pleasure to eat at my friend Sam’s on many occasion. Sam is vegan twice a week (that darned cheese and butter) and on those vegan days she served up a feast; once our friend Lauren and I arrived to a table spread with bowls of beetroot and avocado salad, bean and rosemary dip and homemade flatbreads. While staying with her and her housemates I attempted to return the favour by cooking burritos stuffing the wraps with paprika refried beans, spicy peppers, pickled radish and coriander salsa.
So, aside from all the delicious grub my frustration lies with Veganuary itself and the sheer force of the message. You get a whiff of smugness around the people who are preaching on social media about veganism, the bus advert of a cow nuzzling her calf with the blunt headline, ‘dairy takes babies from their mothers’ or Lucy Watson demanding that anyone who cares about animal cruelty must be vegan. It’s the must that I find hard to swallow. God bless Ruby Tandoh for wading in to explain to Ms Watson in simple terms why some people possess different ethics and eating habits to herself. What’s more, the only graffiti on a large stretch of wall by my flat states, ‘Be Vegan’. I remember when graffiti used to shock. For an act of vandalism, demanding we eat plants isn’t particularly daring.
These attacks and demands will not instantly trigger recruitment to the vegan cause. Instead it causes backlash as people are miffed to be told their lifestyles need ‘improving’. If ethics are the issue, let us for a moment consider the humble avocado. Where are the bus adverts concerned about the deforestation caused by illegal avocado farming?
We could all do a little better to support the environment but why don’t the creative minds behind Veganuary accept the small steps to changing our lifestyles instead of pledging a whole month (and a difficult one at that) to follow their principles? Those once-a-week vegans or those who occasionally want to experiment and make vegetables the centrepiece are doing their part too. Your diet is your decision. Why should we care so much about other people’s choices? Can’t we all eat what we enjoy without someone else’s judgement? For me, good food is my secret for happiness, be that a wedge of cake and a cup of tea, slurping up tendrils of spaghetti bolognese, or, at last, Jamie Oliver’s vegan shepherd’s pie.
I’ve rapturously babbled on about this recipe and, finally, I’ve made it myself. Personally, I don’t think it should be called ‘vegan shepherd’s pie’ – you do a disservice to both this divine dish and to shepherd’s pie. The only similarity is the mashed potato topping. The soft mixture of lentils, chickpeas and sun-dried tomatoes is tangy with wine and balsamic vinegar, and briny from the olives. Scooped up with a mouthful of mash the rich meaty mushrooms complement the sweet, creamy potato topping. I am in love. All it needs is a pile of wilted greens… and maybe a sausage or two for the innocent carnivore.
Lentil and Sweet Potato Bake aka Vegan Shepherd’s Pie
Adapted from Jamie Oliver’s recipe
1 baking potato
1 sweet potato
1 small onion
1 clove of garlic
2 sprigs of thyme, leaves picked
100g chestnut mushrooms
3 sun-dried tomatoes
4 black olives
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
A splash of vegan red wine
100g tinned lentils
100g tinned chickpeas
1 sprig of rosemary
A small handful of breadcrumbs (optional if you prefer it to be gluten-free)
- Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F. Peel and chop the potatoes. Drop the baking potato into a saucepan with enough salted water to cover and bring to the boil. Cook for five minutes then add the sweet potato and cook until a cutlery knife can cut through the flesh. Drain and leave to steam dry.
- Finely dice the onion and the carrot. Heat some oil in a deep-sided frying pan and gently sauté until soft and sweet. Add the crushed garlic cloves and thyme leaves and cook until fragrant.
- Meanwhile slice the mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes and the olives, toss into the pan along with some of the sun-dried tomato oil and the balsamic vinegar. Gently cook until the mushrooms are soft and splash in a good glug of wine, the lentils and chickpeas along with some of the tinned liquid.
- Leave the mixture to bubble and reduce, meanwhile mash the potatoes with a little salt and pepper.
- Season the lentil mixture, spoon into a baking dish and top with mash. Mix together the breadcrumbs, some lemon zest and finely chopped rosemary, and sprinkle over the mashed potatoes.
- Slide the baking dish into the oven and bake for 10 minutes until bubbling. Switch to the grill and blast for 3 minutes until the top is crispy and golden.