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Have vegetarians been short-changed by the vegan movement?

Louise Palmer-Masterton, founder of Stem & Glory, the Cambridge plant-based restaurant business, considers a topical debate about meat-free diets.

Alfredo pasta dinner with creamy white sauce and herbs
Alfredo pasta dinner with creamy white sauce and herbs

Did anyone else find the recent furore between vegetarians and vegans a bit eyebrow raising? The Daily Telegraph even went as far as to hint that vegetarians are “in danger of being cancelled” by vegans.

The debate kicked off after the chief executive of the Vegetarian Society went public with the revelation that a lot of their members who have been vegetarian since the 1950s and 1960s felt that vegan options were being promoted to the detriment of their beloved vegetarian options.

He went on to say that their members were mourning the loss of ‘simply vegetarian dishes such as a ploughman’s, omelette, Greek salad and Welsh rarebit.”

That was the bit that tickled me - that exciting list of traditional vegetarian fayre from my youth is exactly why vegetarian food didn’t really ever evolve. Its dependence on cheese and eggs held back a deeper exploration into cooking with the beautiful amazing array of natural wholefood produce that grows all around us, and is 100 per cent cruelty free.

The vegetarian options of my youth are not something I yearn for, they are something I am still trying to forget!

I became vegetarian in 1984, when I gave up eating meat on the spot after being introduced to the idea of compassionate eating for the first time. It was a light bulb moment that changed the course of my life forever.

People became vegetarian at that time because of animal welfare, and wanting to eat compassionately without harm to animals. We drew the line at life or death. No-one back then spoke of dairy farms or battery hens, we all thought the animals were giving their milk and eggs willingly, in lovely and harmonious circumstances.

The reality is sadly very far from this idyllic image, and whilst we didn’t think about this in the old days, surely we all know this now?

Pasta Parmesan
Pasta Parmesan

Cows only produce milk when pregnant, so they are artificially inseminated and then produce enormous and extremely unnatural quantities of milk under duress, often in extremely cramped and uncomfortable circumstances. Their calves are taken from them a few hours after birth, and it’s unquestionable that this causes them extreme distress.

As Erica Meier, the president of the activist organisation Animal Outlook, put very succinctly: “Some farms might be less cruel than others, but there is no such thing as cruelty-free milk.”

That’s the ethical argument. Add to that the ever-increasing environmental argument around emissions - and the data is surely hard to ignore?

Even back in 2018 Joseph Poore from the University of Oxford warned of the huge carbon footprint of livestock farming. His research showed that livestock provides just 18 per cent of global calories, but takes up 83 per cent of farmland. His research also showed that without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75 per cent and we could still feed the world (The global impacts of food production, Joseph Poore from the University of Oxford 2018).

Simply stated, whatever you think about animals, if we are to feed an ever-growing population on this planet, this has to be done with the majority of the population eschewing meat and dairy. It is unequivocably unsustainable for humans to continue consuming meat and dairy in the way that they do now.

Fortunately for me, a short while after I became vegetarian, I was told I had a dairy and egg allergy, so I became a vegetarian that didn’t eat milk or eggs. I began a lifelong journey into plant-based cuisine, and an awful lot of terrible restaurant meals - mostly vegetarian options with the cheese removed. Yum.

So circling back to the start of this piece, if vegetarian food is being ‘cancelled’ by vegan food, then in my view there are no ethical or environmental reasons not to support this. And if more meat eaters are eating vegan burgers, then this is, for me, an added bonus.

The good news for vegetarians is that plant-based cuisine has arrived, and compassionate cooking has rapidly evolved in the last 10 years. No more menus offering stuffed peppers topped with cheese (with a cheese removed ‘vegan option’) is a big yes from me!

Fake meat products replacing veggie dishes in some places may not be to everyone’s liking, but we are starting to see far more widespread adoption of exciting ingredients and dishes which are void of dairy, eggs and processed foods.

[Read more: Let’s not waste lunch... Stem & Glory founder suggests low-cost, low carbon, low-hassle options]

Here is my favourite creamy pasta recipe, with cashew ‘parmesan’. We serve this at Stem & Glory with our pumpkin ravioli, but it also works beautifully with any pasta.

Gorgonzola Sauce

Pasta Gorgonzola
Pasta Gorgonzola

Serves 4-6

  • 350g silken tofu (one pack)
  • 1½ tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 2 tsp minced garlic
  • 1 - 1½ tsp salt
  • ½ tsp cracked black pepper
  • 1 tbsp nutritional yeast - Engevita flakes (there is no sub for this really, but they do sell in all the main supermarkets now)
  • 1 cup (250ml) water
  • 1 tbsp fava bean paste (we buy this British-grown product from Hodmedods, but you can sub with miso paste which is widely available)

Place all the ingredients in a blender for one minute. Add to a shallow pan and heat gently. Add the pasta and mix well. Serve garnished with basil or chopped parsley, and a generous sprinkling of cashew ‘parmesan’ (below)

The engevita flakes and fava bean (or miso) paste in this recipe are two ‘chef’s secret’ staples that really help create ‘umami’ flavour in plant-based dishes. Highly recommend having both as store cupboard staples.

Cashew ‘Parmesan’

Raw cashews
Raw cashews

This is worth making in a bigger batch as it’s yummy sprinkled on many things. Halving this recipe still gives a decent quantity for a few meals.

  • 500g cashews
  • 5 tbsp nutritional yeast
  • 1-2 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp white wine vinegar or cider vinegar
  • 1 tbsp garlic powder (you can omit this but try and find some as it’s another of those ‘chefs secret’ ingredients)

Add the cashew, nutritional yeast, salt and garlic powder to a blender. Either blitz or blend for 20 seconds until you get a coarse powder. The texture is a little bit down to personal preference. Transfer to a bowl. Add the vinegar and mix, preferably by hand, until the cashew mixture absorbs the vinegar. Depending on the coarseness of your mix, you may need a little more vinegar.

You can actually create a ‘round’ of ‘parmesan' with this mix by adding ½ - 1 tsp water to bring the mixture together. Mould with your hands into a wheel. Allow to rest for a few minutes, then cover and leave to set for four hours at room temperature. This ‘cheese’ does keep well at room temperature for a few days, but you can also wrap well and ‘age’ in the fridge for three weeks before using.

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