2010 Food Challenge - No meat

Huw Fearnly-Whittingstall is soooooooo last season!

The first food challenge my girlfriend and I did was to not eat meat for the entire period of lent.  This meant of course not 'relenting' on Sunday's as some people do which, lets be honest, is a massive cop-out.  If you're in it and you mean it, you're in it for the duration.  I should point out we didnt do it for any particular religious purpose, it was just about challenging ourselves to do something that we knew was going to be difficult.

We are both keen meat eaters.  I was brought up in the Forest of Dean where there is meat-a-plenty, and my girlfriend, Heather, who even though was brought up in Cornwall, had a pretty much meat-based diet.  Whilst fish was sometimes on the menu (in the form of fish fingers, or if we were extra lucky, breaded cod, both courtesy of the one and only Captain Birdseye) but NEVER would dinner consist of a vegetarian meal.  That was unheard of.

So, for around seven weeks, we ate a pescotarian diet - earing vegetables and fish only.  It was quite tricky to begin with, and it took us a while to get used to eating different types of foods and to think outside the box in terms of the ingredients we were using.  In all honestly, to begin with, we really missed meat.  It just felt like there was a massive gaping hole in our plate and never quite felt satisfied with our meals.

Over time though this changed and we began to really enjoy the change.  In fact, my relationship with meat kind of changed.  Rather than seeing a big juicy steak or a lamb shank on a plate, I saw a part of an animal.  Equally it felt like I was chweing a part of an animal.

Anyway, we successfully completed the challenge and I must say it's had a very positive impact upon on.  We now appreciate meat for what it is as opposed to a cheap commodity that must be provided with every meal.  We most definately appreciate vegetables a lot more, and try to eat vegetarian meals 2 to 3 times a week.  It's also instilled a sense of passion for seeking out new recipes and trying new things as opposed to sticking with the same old.  There are so many amazing things out there and I need to try them!

I've included a couple of recipes below that became staple meals during 'no meat lent' and still form a regular part of out diet now.  I would encourage you to try them, and indeed to try and enjoy vegetarian dishes from time to time.  It adds a whole new dimention to the world of culinary lovliness!

Butternut squash risotto

Recipe coming soon

Mushroom lasagne with basil and cream

This is a Nigel Slater special. I'm a big fan. Doesn't preach at you like many of the other celebrity chefs - he is just passionate about food and makes it accesible for everyone.  It looks really impressive coming out of the oven all bubbley and crisp...no one would notice there's no meat!  Ready made pesto works perfectly well with this, but there's something rather special about making it yourself - has that proper basil-based punch.

Serves 4 - 6 people

2 onions
3 cloves garlic
Thick slice of butter
10g packet dried prcini mushrooms
750g chestnut mushrooms
Handful chopped parsley
4 - 5 tbsp freshly grated parmesan, plus an extra 2 - 2 tbsp
150ml double cream
750ml bechamel sauce (ready made is fine if you can find it)
180g dried lasagne

For the basil sauce
60g pine kernels
50g basil leaves
2 cloves garlic
Olive oil - enough to make a good spoonable paste
4 tbsp grated parmesan

1. Peel and roughly chop the onions, peel and thinly slice the garlic, place in a large frying and fry gently in the butter until soft and translucent - around 20 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, cover the dried porcini with warm water, around 100ml, and leave to soak.  Cut the fresh mushrooms into thick sclices.
3. Blitz the pine kernals, basil, garlic, olive oil and parmesan in a food processor, or pound in a pestle and mortar, to form a rough and slightly sloppy paste.
4. Stir the sliced mushrooms into the onions and garlicand partially cover with a lid.  The mushrooms should colour and soften.  Add the reconstituted porcini and their soaking water, then the parsley, 4 - 5 tbsp grated parmesan and the cream.  Season with salt and black pepper and simmer and stir until the cream has thickened somewhat.
5. Now it's time to layer. Spread a few spoonfuls of the bechamel sauce over the bottom of a large dish, then cover with a single layer of the pasta sheets. Spoon over half the mushroom filling, cover with another layer of pasta sheets, then a second layer of the mushrooms. Top with a third layer of the pasta sheets.  Sprwad the basil sauce over the pasta, then smooth the rest of the bechamel sauce over and cover with the remaining parmesan.
6. Bake at 180 C for 50 minutes or until golden and bubbling.