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Is vegetarianism being pushed to the fringes again?

Posted Oct 16 2011 11:58am

And other veggie thoughts suitable for newbies and returnees… Links, where appropriate, are  given at the end.


Well, I reckon my newly-regained vegetarianism is going to stick – were I going to lapse, on past performance I would have done so by now.

True, I did, this morning, buy 4 packs of fishcakes, simply because there are times when I’m too ill to do anything more complicated that toss something in a frying pan for a few minutes. Few veggie products that are amenable to this treatment are worth eating, and often high in fat too. Anyway, given how little fish there is in them, the buggers are damn near veggie anyway!

Tonight, though, I’ll be having rice and peas with a marinated Quorn fillet (recipe posted a couple of days ago), fried til the outside is crisp, then thinly sliced on the diagonal.

There’s a bit of a problem, though. Of late Sainsbury’s seem to be cutting back on their veggie foods – are we about to see a return to the 80s, and earlier in supermarkets, when veggies were considered a fringe market hardly worth bothering with? It’s feeling a bit like that – Sainsbury’s have even cut back on their dried pulses – no borlotti or cannellini beans now, for example.

While, in the freezer, there’s normally a load of Quorn, or Old Mother McCartney’s over-rated gubbins, plus a leavening of own-brand and small-producer stuff, in the last few weeks stock levels have been greatly reduced (ditto Quorn in the chiller).

And why have things like  tempeh, or seitan, or even decent-sized packs of firm or extra-firm tofu never even reached supermarkets? (By which I mean Sainsbury’s and Tesco – the two most people have.) Oriental products like these are a boon to veggies, vegans too, with careful sourcing, so why, in Britain, have they never reached the mainstream as they have in the US? After all, many towns have substantial Oriental/Asian  populations.

Yes, I know tofu has the texture and charm of snot, but it can be improved, and German firm Taifun (from Goodness Direct, among others), does some very good flavoured, extra firm, versions, as well as a 400g block of the plain stuff – perfect for slicing thinly and marinating to make a veggie bacon substitute. Not an analogue, as it tastes nothing like bacon, but fried until crisp it makes a deeply savoury and hot sandwich filling which is immensely satisfying. Deep-fried cubes of the plain stuff make a good casserole ingredient too. Natural tofu, though, is just disgusting.

However, the only place I can get any of these things is online, and postage charges mount up.

It’s the same with large bottles of soy sauce – larger, that is, than the piddling 150-250ml bottles supermarkets fondly believe is appropriate. I want litre bottles, or half-litre, at least, of both light and dark soy sauce. Mushroom soy sauce would be good too.

I use Kikkoman soy sauce almost exclusively, though only small bottles are usually available (on line a gallon seems to be the limit). If buying large bottles for making marinades, I’d go for the Pearl River Bridge brand for light, dark and mushrooms soy sauce. Quality is good and they keep well. Cheap, too.

And good luck with buying Nam Pla at all (fish sauce),** yet it’s a staple in many south-east Asian and oriental cuisines (OK, the Japanese call it Shottsuru, but it’s still Nam Pla), and yes, I know it’s not veggie, just as Worcestershire sauce isn’t but, dear god, have you tasted veggie versions of the latter? Given the teeming millions who consume Nam Pla and its variants, I don’t think my buying the odd bottle will bring the planet crashing down around our ears. Ditto Worcestershire sauce of which, truth to tell, I use very little – a small bottle lasts years.

**Sainsbury’s website lists a small bottle (150ml, almost inevitably!) of Blue Dragon brand fish sauce, though I’ve never actually seen it on sale – it’s hard enough getting quality soy sauce, as they seem to be obsessed with the Amoy and Sanchi brands – pretty low-end stuff in my view.

By the way, Kikkoman Low-salt soy sauce, some what eccentrically, tastes of bugger all but salt!

Oyster sauce is good, but not for veggies, though if you have an Asian/Oriental store within reach you can probably get mushroom soy sauce, which has a greater depth than ordinary soy. If not, adding mushroom ketchup (widely available, even at Sainsbury’s), to soy sauce gives a passable substitute, and you can tailor it to suit your taste.

Mirin (sweet rice wine – sake – for cooking), is available in supermarkets – for which read Sainsbury’s, it’s where I shop – and you’ll never guess what size bottle! But if you’re seriously into Oriental cooking, you’ll need something bigger, and that means sourcing online for most of us (though I found that a little Russian Standard vodka, which is quite highly flavoured, made a passable substitute, with a little honey too).

Note: Since the earthquake/tsunami disaster, and Fukushima fuckup, many Japanese products of use to veggies are hard to find, though alternative brands are sometimes available.

Here in the UK, Clearspring seems to dominate the mainstream Oriental ingredients market and, sadly, their pricing is rather ambitious (almost £9 for 500ml soy sauce? Er, no thanks).

Tempeh and Seitan are available from Goodness Direct online. Tempeh is available in natural blocks, my choice, or as rashers flavoured with fermented red rice, which is something of an acquired taste. OK, any form of fermented soya bean product is probably an acquitted taste! But do try basic tempeh at least once – it’s very good sliced and fried. Seitan, if you haven’t had it, is almost pure wheat gluten, most often found as mock duck or other mock meats.

Moving away from Oriental ingredients back to more general veggie stuff, and tomatoes – and for some years I’ve used Sainsbury’s Basics canned peeled plum tomatoes, which are excellent. The tomatoes might need a bit of a tidy-up with a sharp knife, but what the hell, most do. Tesco Value used to be good too, though I’ve not had them for years.

However, a few weeks ago I accidentally ordered  Basics cartons of chopped tomatoes. In use, though, I was pleasantly surprised – they weren’t just chopped, they were pulped, with very few seeds or bits of skin** – it took seconds to push them through a sieve for passata. They take up less space than cans too.

**Wrong – just found out, the hard way, that they vary wildly in quality. Back to the whole ones, which don’t.

For tomato paste I buy Sainsbury’s 312g jars, and freeze it on a lightly oiled tray in teaspoon-sized blobs. Once frozen in can be bagged and stashed – it keeps for ages. To use just drop as couple of lumps into whatever you’re cooking, and stir in when melted.

Some flavouring ingredients can be problematic. It’s my experience that if I want garlic, ginger , or chillies, I won’t have any (it’s difficult to plan ahead, as most days I’m not able to cook, just warm stuff up). So I pickle chillies and ginger in Aspall Organic Cyder Vinegar. Ginger is simply peeled and cut into chunks about the size of the end joint of my thumb. I buy medium red chillies – medium both in size and heat – split lengthways, deseed, and pickle those in cider vinegar too. To the vinegar I always add some vitamin C as an antioxidant, either as ascorbic acid powder or, more often, as a quarter of a soluble 1g tablet. This extends shelf life dramatically, as does keeping them in the fridge.

I’ve never succeeded in doing that with garlic cloves – they tend to ferment – so I either use garlic granules and, more recently, garlic purée, which works very well and is easier to control as there’s nothing in it but crushed garlic. In a jar, not the stuff that comes in a tube.

Celery salt I make myself, Maldon Sea Salt and celery seed, blitzed in the blender. I also quickly grind a pinch of seed in a mortar, for when I want the flavour without adding salt. Sadly, my source has been taken over by a bunch of useless buggers who couldn’t run a piss-up in a brewery.

In the past, I’ve used dehydrated vegetables – incredibly hard to find now. Oh, you can get single veg, like onions, peas, and tomatoes (a fruit anyway), but not mixed veg. I’ve found just one source online for mixed dried veg – the useless buggers, above! – and I have an order pending.

Soaked dried beans, which you might already know, can be frozen, which might seem pointless, but put some frozen, soaked beans, with mixed dried veg and dried onions, plus a stock cube, and a few herbs into a pot with some hot water, set to simmer and you have a veggie soup or stew for no work at all. Yes, I know you can buy frozen veg, but it comes in odd combinations, often with sweetcorn, which a I can’t stand, and frozen carrots never cook successfully. So there! Tesco, I believe, sell frozen diced onion. Not had it, so no idea how successful it is, but it’s probably fine for soups and stews

As for stock cubes, all the major players do veggie versions, so it’s a matter of personal choice. Be aware that Knorr  put MSG in some of  their products. Currently, I use Kallo organic veg cubes, and I’ve always used Marigold Vegetable Bouillon Powder (also comes in Low Salt and Vegan versions though, for me, those two seem to be low on flavour, too).

A lucky online find was Healthy Supplies, who have a wide range of veggie-friendly products, not least dried borlotti and cannellini beans which, as I said, Sainsbury’s don’t stock any longer – bummer, as they’re my favourites. I use cannellini anywhere that would normally call for red kidney beans (the only truly dangerous pulse and, as far as I’m concerned, fit only for animal feed, so indigestible are the skins), and borlotti just pretty much anywhere, though they’re often best cooked separately and added to dishes near the end, as the skins impart a muddy pink colour to whatever you put them in, as do pinto beans (similar, but smaller and slightly coarser) – I tend to use them in my own version of baked beans, adding the beans to the hot. cooked, sauce once tender, then letting them cool and sit in the fridge overnight for the flavours to snuggle up to each other – all soups, stews and casseroles benefit from this; curries too.

One thing that’s on the cards, for when I have a good day, is veggie sausages. I have a beanburger recipe I knocked up in the eighties which, with a little tweaking can be used. The basic bean mix is fine, but a little cooked brown rice will add texture, and rusk, made from my own bread, will act as a vehicle for added flavourings, along with onion powder, carrot powder, and tomato powder, all about to be ordered from Healthy Supplies, along with cannellini beans and more borlotti bean.

A little vital wheat gluten, which can be used for making seitan, will act as a binder for the sausages – stop them falling to pieces when fried.

Something most veggies should know and many don’t – many Bisto products are veggie-friendly, so no need to put up with boring veggie gravy or, god help us all, Marmite! The veggie symbol is quite small and easily missed, but it’s there by the recycling logo. Or just read the ingredients.

By the way, adzuki beans (since the eighties the z is sometimes dropped – wrongly), cooked with brown rice, carrots and onions, in a Bisto-flavoured gravy, make a very passable alternative to mince, especially in my Rustic Domicile Pie, or with tomatoes, garlic and herbs, and just a little Bisto, make a decent fake Bolognese sauce – both recipes deeply impressed a dietician in the nineties.

And for those of you with no real interest in cooking – or no talent for it – and who prefer to eat meat analogue foods, well, there’s a couple of links below for you, too.


For veggie ingredients:-

Healthy Supplies Carriage capped at a fiver for Royal Mail – couriers extra. Good range, esp. pulses – 11 types of bean.

Goodness Direct  Good range, including some Tivall Israeli veggie items – always worth tracking down Tivall products, which were everywhere in the 80s – even Tesco stocked them.

Just Ingredients  Be aware, orders are not processed for 6 days. Buggered if I know why. Good range of dried stuff though.

For oriental supplies:-

Japanese Kitchen Prompt service.

Wing Yip Good for large bottles of soy sauce, mushroom soy sauce, and much else.

If you’re in, or can get to, Liverpool, check out Matta’s, in Bold Street (parking very difficult, Central Station close by). They have a website, but it’s not much use and their postage rates are high.

Meat/fish analogues:-

The Redwood Co.

Veggiestuff   Source of Nuvale Vital Wheat Gluten Flour for making seitan.

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