00:00 Saturday 22 March 2008  Written by Nora Strong

Vegetarian food improves and now a popular option

HOW many vegetarians are there in Ireland? Thousands, and the number is growing. It is not just because people gave up meat for Lent and are now released, free to devour their roast beef.

Vegetarian food has become a popular option, having improved beyond measure over the years. It used to be really boring, tasting like stewed doormat with a garnish of frog spawn, but now any devoted carnivore can enjoy the most scrumptious and exotic delicacies you could hope for, served in top restaurants throughout the country that are 100% vegetarian.

Mind you, I still prefer to have my vegetarian food served with a nice pork chop. Nevertheless for Easter our first batch of visitors arrives, all six of them, and everyone a vegetarian so I must start my search for recipes that we can all enjoy.

There are good reasons why we could all benefit from becoming vegetarian in a world where half the world is starving and the other half is obese (Billy Connolly, the comedian and, incidentally a vegetarian, suggested that if the hungry people ate the obese ones you could solve the problem at a stroke, but that is probably going a bit too far).

Many say that meat production is a wasteful use of fertile land: by feeding crops to animals instead of directly to humans, we lose a high percentage of the protein. A change to vegetarianism would therefore vastly increase the amount of food available in a hungry world. Since the lives of millions of vegetarians have shown that we do not need to eat meat to live healthily, there is less justification for rearing and killing animals, or for causing them to suffer in any way, to satisfy human peccadilloes.

There is a view expressed by an increasing number of doctors that meat, far from being essential to health, is sometimes responsible for poor health, especially if eaten in large quantities. While animal health may be boosted with antibiotics and artificially fattened with the use of synthetic hormones there is an opinion that human health can be a casualty.

I first tasted Indonesian food, much of it vegetarian, when I worked in a restaurant which served Indonesian feasts. The food we served was completely authentic and superb and introduced me to the best vegetarianism can provide. Although we had fruit juices to accompany the meals we also served the guests with Sake, Japan's own native rice wine. It is presented in small ceramic flasks, from which it is constantly poured into small drinking vessels the size of egg cups.

After a while no one has a clue how much they are drinking. Sake can be deceptively potent and is often served warm. I must confess that we would heat it up in the microwave - a terrible crime.

INDONESIAN RECIPES

Here are a few recipes:

Simple Peanut Sauce

2 heaped tblsp. peanut butter

140 ml hot water

1 tblsp. soya sauce

1 tblsp. white wine vinegar

2 tsp sugar

2 garlic cloves, minced

1?4 tsp ginger

pinch of cayenne pepper

Whisk all the ingredients together in a small saucepan, then heat gently until the sauce is smooth and slightly thickened. Add more water if the sauce becomes too thick.

Spicy Indonesian Stir-fry

Serves 2

170g noodles

1 tsp toasted sesame oil

1 tsp turmeric

1?2 tsp cumin

pinch of cayenne pepper

1 onion, sliced

140g sliced mushrooms

140g firm tofu, cut into cubes

1 celery stalk, sliced

140g shredded green cabbage

1?2 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into strips

140g bean sprouts

1 tblsp. soya sauce

Cook the noodles as described on the packet. Add the oil to the frying pan, then add the spices and onion and cook until the onion is soft, about three minutes. Add the mushrooms, tofu and celery and cook another three minutes. Add the cabbage and bell pepper, then cover and cook for four minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the cooked noodles, bean sprouts and soya sauce, then gently mix. Serve immediately, with Simple Peanut Sauce.

Gado Gado goes well with Peanut Sauce too, another Indonesian recipe which was very popular at the restaurant in which I worked:

112 g cabbage, shredded

225 g French beans, sliced

4 medium carrots, sliced

112 g cauliflower florets

112 g bean-sprouts, washed

Some lettuce leaves and watercress

2 hard-boiled eggs, quartered

1 medium-size potato, boiled and sliced

1?2 cucumber, sliced

1 tbsp crisp-fried onions

Boil the vegetables separately in slightly salted water for three to four minutes, except the bean-sprouts which only need two minutes. Drain each vegetable separately in a colander. To serve, arrange the lettuce and watercress around the edge of a serving dish. Then pile the vegetables in the middle. Arrange the eggs, sliced potatoes and sliced cucumber on top.

Heat the peanut sauce; adding more water if it is too thick. Adjust the seasoning, and pour the hot sauce over the vegetables. Sprinkle the fried onions on top. Add these garnishes immediately before serving.

(Recipe adapted from Indonesian Regional Cooking by Sri Owen).

TO GIVE AT LUNCHTIME

This next dish is a great meal to give at lunchtime before we go off to watch the road trotting racing at Ballydehob on Easter Sunday. It is nourishing and warming, so it will line the stomach before braving the weather.

Spinach and Mushroom Fritatta

Serves 3

150 ml water

1 small onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

170g sliced mushrooms

225g of fresh spinach

250g firm tofu

1 tblsp. tahini (sesame seed butter)

11?2 tsp. dried basil

1?4 tsp. nutmeg

1?4 tsp. celery seed

11?2 tblsp. couscous

55ml soya milk, rice milk or water

1 ripe tomato, thinly sliced

Pepper and salt

Cook the onion and garlic in the water for about three minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook another five minutes. Stir in the spinach and cook gently until the mixture is dry. Preheat the oven to 180°C. Blend the tofu and tahini until smooth. Rub the basil between the palms of your hands to crush it, then mix it into the tofu along with the salt, pepper, nutmeg, celery seed, couscous and soya milk. Add to the spinach mixture and stir to mix.

Tip into a flan dish lightly buttered. Bake for 15 minutes. Arrange the sliced tomato around the edge, then bake another ten minutes. Let it stand ten minutes before serving. Serve with new potatoes and a green salad for a complete meal.

Then, of course, we will tuck into the chocolate Easter eggs.

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