It’s Easter, hurrah! Also known as midterm for adults. Time to chill out, read the books that have been stacking up on your shelves and finally enjoy lounging around like a teenager. Chances are there will be some group meals coming your way over the break, and if so, there may well be a vegetarian in your midst.
There are always lots of jokes about the options that vegetarians get over and over again – the nut roast, the stuffed pepper, the mushroom risotto at a wedding.
Often these dishes can feel a bit flat if care isn’t taken with them, but done right – that is to say, made with lots of thought about flavour and with no major shortcuts taken – these dishes can be fabulous.
I offer a simple method for making modern, non-dispiriting stuffed peppers here. It’s not really a recipe so much as a series of general tips for how to make food for vegetarians feel interesting, modern and appetising. Sorry if you feel this blog post title was false advertising, but here goes:
Step 1. Don’t let the veg sweat
Roast vegetables wherever possible before combining them with other bits. You know the stuffed pepper of the past? The reason that’s not a great dish is often the stuffed pepper is cooked from raw with the rice mix in it, so it ends up steaming rather than charring, hence its leathery texture with wet bits and tough skin as a result. To avoid that sweaty fate, roast the pepper half first till nicely coloured, then fill it with hot bulgur or rice. Serve immediately. If you want it really hot, a minute in a microwave or popping it back in the oven for a bit is not going to harm it!
Step 2. Bigger is mostly not always best (but sometimes it is)
Use smaller veg rather than bigger. Again, going back to the stuffed pepper example, you may be tempted to buy your guests a whopper sized pepper because it seems more generous. But packed with rice, that’s actually a huge and often overwhelming portion, and it’s harder to guarantee good, punchy flavour throughout. The larger the veg, the more likely it is to have a blander flavour too.
So buy small veg in a higher quantity and let people reach for a second portion if they fancy it, and just put any excess ‘bits’ like extra rice leftover from stuffing on the table, or pack them up and have them as leftovers later on.
The only exception to this is if you’re serving something in place of a steak, like a grilled Portobello mushroom. In this case, I’d say bigger and flatter is better.
Step 2B. Back just one veg
This may be unfair, and I’m sure there are edge case exceptions, but if you’re serving a veg as a main course, I think focusing on just one vegetable is chicer than having a multi-veg main. Again I realise this may be unfair and a bit snobbish, but I have been finding this point pertinent with stir fries too recently – just using all green beans or all onions or all pak choi feels more elegant than the melée we tend to use.
Step 2C. Cook a veg like it is a piece of meat
When roasting veg, leave the stems on peppers, aubergines, tomatoes etc to give them more presence on the plate. Having structure makes it a more interesting thing to eat.
Step 3. Every part of the dish needs maximised flavour, so bring out the big guns
If you’re making a stuffing for a veg, or making something like a nut roast, you can’t be too generous with fresh herbs. Veg stock and butter are also helpful for creating well layered flavour. Cheeses, nuts, dried fruit, garlic, carefully fried thinly sliced onion and spices all add flavour. And flavour is what you need, so keep adding.
Step 4. Operation make-it-glam-with-garnishes
With the interior sorted, now is the time to go mad with the garnishes. Everything is better with multiple garnishes. Depending on the dish, you might want to add more crispy fried onion, chopped toasted nuts, herbs (obviously), chilli flakes (obviously), flaky salt and freshly cracked black pepper, a drizzle of olive oil, onion seed etc etc etc.
If you only have one garnish going on you don’t have enough so take another rummage through your cupboards and fridge and see what else can be added. You’d be surprised what pantry staples can be useful as garnishes after being toasted, chopped or torn.
Step 5. If in doubt, add cheese
My last tip is just to think about what people like eating and make that a part of the meal too. Sure, stuffed red peppers are good, but having a pool of cold olive oil slicked mozzarella alongside your pepper is even better, and it makes it taste like something you’d get in a trendy spenny London restaurant.
Having a secondary aspect like this makes the veg centrepiece feel like more of a meal, particularly if you’re serving the dish to flexitarian guests also. Serving the dish and its secondary aspects sharing style on the table makes it feel more contemporary, as do differences in textures and temperatures – hot stuffed peppers, cold liquid mozz = perfection.
The same logic would work with adding hard boiled eggs, a dipping sauce or a random scaldingly hot delicious fried thing alongside. Who is going to say no?
Enough nonsense from me. Here are some actual vegetarian recipes from the archives:
This incredible risotto-stuffed tomato recipe from Rachel Roddy which I want someone to make every year for my birthday (I’m not even vegetarian, I just love this dish)
This pan potato cake (minus the ham)
This lush halloumi & green bean salad
This beautiful tomato tarte tatin – a prime candidate for serving with a fancy cheese of your choosing if ever I saw one
Whatever you choose to make, go forward and cook with confidence. You can’t go wrong with veggie cooking if you keep the thought of ‘what would make this taste best‘ in your head, and pivot accordingly.