You may have already noticed the loveable TV chefs, the Hairy Bikers, showing their support for National Vegetarian Week this year. Not only are they adorning the official National Vegetarian Week posters and flyers, but they even have a veggie cook book out to celebrate the week. Ever keen to get stuck in, the duo took some time out of their busy schedules to answer a few of our questions…
The Vegetarian Society: Your new book, ‘The Hairy Dieters Go Veggie’, is focused around vegetarian recipes. Do you feel it is important for people to eat less meat?
Dave: Yeah I think so – for health. The past four years since we did The Dieters we have been trying to look after ourselves a bit better than we used to, and part of that is eating more vegetable-based food. I think it’s important ecologically as well – it seems to tick a lot of boxes. I grow a lot of my own veg, and there is nothing better than the delight of taking veg from the ground and cooking it. Last summer, we had been eating largely vegetarian food. We are feeling better for it. I just think it is the way modern society should go. I think if we all live on hamburgers, the planet is going to fall off its axis.
Si: Dave and I were talking the other day about how when we were little meat was an expensive commodity – it was always the smallest part of your weekly diet. I think the way we approach consuming meat these days is not sustainable – it just isn’t.
The Vegetarian Society: So tell us, what is the best thing about veggie food – what makes it so good?
Si: Creativity makes great veggie food. And a knowledge of food and the seasons is very important. Texture as well.
Dave: Yeah. What we have tried to do is not use meat substitutes in most of the recipes – or smother the food in cheese. We have used texture, colour and taste to provide vegetarian recipes for meat-eaters. Basically it’s just good food. We are filming in Italy at the moment where it is predominantly vegetarian-based food – one of the pasta dishes we have been having blew me away. It is down in Calabria and it was orecchiette, freshly made pasta with turnip tops and purple sprouting broccoli with some good olive oil, lemon juice, and a bit of chilli –it was just so fresh, so seasonal, so… it was just bl**dy lovely with a glass of wine.
Si: And also you have to think about the vegetable –and treat them with a little bit of respect. What you want to do is enhance the flavour as opposed to mask it or create something different. As cooks, Dave and I have a lovely light hand – the flavours are all there.
The Vegetarian Society: So what made you want to write the veggie cook book?
Dave: For me it has been growing my own veg, I started three years ago at my house in France. I come from a Northern town where I never had a garden, so I delight in growing my own veg. I am growing broad beans that are so good, I don’t want to do anything else with them. And I get the feeling my body runs better on it. I enjoy the food and I feel great on it.
Si: My grandad always had allotments. I come from a mining village so everybody did. Me mam always used to say carrots don’t taste like the carrots used to taste! I have to say though, Dave is very adept at creating great, great produce – it’s grown with care. My sister lives in Italy so I have been going there for a very long time. The knowledge of the food they have and its seasonality is very important to Italian cuisine. Meat is a very, very small part of the overall dinner in Italian food – that cuisine is vegetable-based mostly.
The Vegetarian Society: So is this why you wanted to get involved with National Vegetarian Week this year?
Dave: I think it was a natural fit, really. We want to encourage more people to eat more vegetables, to vary their diet, to avoid processed food. If people get involved they’ll realise it’s fresh, it’s funky, it’s tasty – and actually it can be cheaper to run your family on vegetarian food. It is also healthier and I suppose, particularly as you get older, it is kinder to your body and kinder to society really. Our ‘Diet’ series of books has been very, very honest – we’ve written books on meat and we’ve now written a veggie book too. I think maybe if we could encourage more meat-eaters to go more towards a vegetarian way of life. I describe myself at the moment as being a bit of a five-two: I will be five days veggie and two days… well, it depends what I can find in the markets or shops that we fancy. How it will go as the years go on I don’t know – but I know that now I am back from Italy and I have got a couple of days in London, I have already planned the meals I am going to cook for my wife – and they are all vegetarian.
The Vegetarian Society: Is there any chance you might consider making a TV show based around these amazing-sounding veggie dishes?
Si: Well, at the minute, we are involved in making a series on the Mediterranean. By the very nature of Mediterranean cuisine, a portion of it is vegetarian. It is not entirely vegetarian because you want to appeal to as many people as you can.
Dave: I think that could be because we wrote this book primarily for us to fill a hole that we felt was there. From what we are finding out in the Mediterranean, I think to do a Europe-based vegetarian programme would be very interesting. I don’t know [if it will happen] but I think it is intriguing.
The Vegetarian Society: So what veggie dish would you recommend to a die-hard meat-eater to open their eyes to the cuisine?
Dave: There are two that come to mind from the book. One is our meatless meatballs. It doesn’t attempt to taste like meat, we are not trying to fake it, but they are so rich with the sauce, the flavours – it is so full of the good stuff I think we could turn them and it wouldn’t mess with the carnivore’s head! The other is our veggie burgers. Some veggie burgers are more like what we describe as a bubble-and-squeak affair. But our veggie burgers have got beetroot in them which make them look red like a burger. It’s got black beans, so when it’s crushed it gives it a bite. It has got the texture, it has got the colour, and I would say it has got more flavour than an awful lot of burgers. Give them some good cheese on that and all the bits and bobs, and we could turn a meat-eater – and it is a lot better than something that’s processed.
Si: That’s the thing with all the ‘Diet’ series: first of all, it has to be great tasting food and then it is our job to make it less calorific. Now the reality is that vegetarian cuisine, as it stands, is less calorific anyway so it has been a lovely fit for us.
The Vegetarian Society: Do you have a favourite veggie ingredient?
Dave: For me chilli, well chilli and garlic together. It is the building blocks of so many dishes, really.
Si: And pulses. Pulses are a great, great addition to anybody’s kitchen cupboards.
Dave: And the humble mushroom.
Si: You can’t whack mushrooms.
Dave: There is such a big palette actually. Once you start making the vegetable the star, there is such a big variety. I think that is something we have re-educated ourselves to enjoy and to use.
The Vegetarian Society: Here at the Vegetarian Society we are going to have a bring-and-share lunch for National Vegetarian Week. If you were going to bring something and share it with everyone else, what would you bring?
Dave: I’d bring our noodle salad. It’s tofu based, but obviously with noodles– it is very fresh. The dressing is good: soy sauce, garlic, root ginger, chilli, rice vinegar, honey, sesame oil, sea salt. It has got crunch, it has got texture, the noodles to fill you up… I’d bring a bucket full of that.
Si: I would bring a tomato, feta and watermelon salad because it’s epic – and I’d bring some big slabs of sourdough bread.
The Vegetarian Society: Sounds brilliant. We have never heard of watermelon in a tomato-based salad but sounds really good.
Si: You have now! It’s absolutely brilliant. It’s just so lovely.
The Vegetarian Society: Are there any veggie dishes from your home towns that you have maybe fond memories of?
Dave: No, not in mine. I have to admit being brought up in Northern England the closest thing to vegetarian you got would be egg and chips! The first thing I ever cooked, actually, was a cheese and potato bake. When my mum was sick I cooked it for my dad when I was about nine – it wasn’t half bad.
The Vegetarian Society: And finally, what would you recommend we make for our dinner tonight?
Dave: I’d make our socca and salsa. It is a Mediterranean street food classic. It is basically a chickpea pancake, like a pakora. It is easy to cook in a frying pan. The salsa on top brings it to life and it is really low in calories – I would have that. The salsa has tomatoes, red chilli, lemon, red wine vinegar and fresh basil and then you have got the crispy pancake… I’d have that and two bottles of ice cold lager.
Si: And followed by a pumpkin, rum and raisin ice cream. It is so ridiculously simple to make, you’d love it.
The Vegetarian Society: That sounds amazing. Si and Dave, thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us.
Dave: And thank you to the Vegetarian Society for supporting us, too.
Si: Yes, thank you.