I’m not a vegetarian.
I mean it. I love meat. I celebrate spaghetti bolognese. I adore lamb shanks. I’m devoted to roast chicken. I have been known to weep with joy over a good unsmoked rasher of back bacon, damn it. Basically, if it swims or flies or roams this earth in a non-human not-too-exotic fashion, odds are I’ll have considered eating it at one point or another.
But despite my keen interest, I don’t really eat very much of it.
I know many people who belong to the ‘if it doesn’t have meat in it, it’s not a meal’ school of thought. Often, they are rightly concerned about the nutritional balance of a vegetarian lifestyle, which can lack protein, iron and magnesium if practiced incorrectly. Sometimes they approach it from a culinary perspective, because truthfully meat will add a taste and texture no other food can quite emulate. Mostly, though, the reasons have to do with a mental state; it doesn’t feel like a real meal if it doesn’t have meat in it.
The thing is, there are plenty of compelling reasons to eat less meat: environmental sustainability, health, cost and convenience being just a few. These are all solid incentives, but surely one of the greatest motivations is vegetarian food itself; it can be so darn good. The problem is overcoming years and years of bad restaurant PR – decades of limp pasta arrabbiata and dry veggie burgers – which is not at all representative of vegetarian cuisine.
Me, I’m a part-time meat eater at best, and this is what I’ve learned from my casual carnivorism: if you want to eat less meat, you can’t just cook traditionally meat-based dishes and leave the meat out. You’ll always feel like something is missing, and it will be, because you crafted it with meat in mind. Instead, you have to truly celebrate vegetables. After all, what is a chicken salad without the chicken? A pile of sad-looking lettuce and a mangled tomato, that’s what. But what if you created a salad with the earthy crunch of spinach, and added sweet kernels of corn, nutty quinoa, roasted pumpkin, avocado and a scattering of pine nuts? Would you truly feel deprived?
A meal doesn’t need meat to be satisfying; to me, what matters is how you use the ingredients you choose to include. So as an enthusiastic advocate of vegetables I want to share this recipe with you; it’s delicious and filling – I think the word ‘nourishing’ would be appropriate. It warms you from the inside out, like the pasta version of a big, warm hug, and it is: a pile of vegetables, loving you back.
Spinach and ricotta lasagne
250g lasagne sheets
500g frozen spinach, thawed and drained
Pinch of nutmeg
1 x 125g ball of mozzarella
2 x 400g tins of canned tomatoes
1 x 400g jar of passata
1 vegetable stock cube
Salt and pepper
Make the tomato sauce first. Chop the onion and sauté gently until translucent, then add the tomatoes, passata, stock cube and herbs. Simmer for 15 minutes and taste, adjusting the seasoning. Depending on the sharpness of the tomatoes, you might need to add ketchup or sugar.
Mix the spinach with the ricotta, egg and nutmeg. Add salt and white pepper.
Starting with a drizzle of the sauce so the lasagne sheets don’t stick to the bottom, layer the sheets, sauce and spinach mixture in an ovenproof dish.
Bake at 200C for 20 minutes, then top with the torn mozzarella ball and return to the oven for another 30 minutes.