With the new year comes a raft of resolutions – many of which will be diet related.
If you are making changes to your diet for a healthier and happier 2008, you may be considering the power of vegetables. Most dietary and medical experts agree that a well-planned vegetarian diet can be a more healthy way to eat than following a meat-based diet.
But can you follow a vegetarian diet and still get all the nutrients necessary to remain healthy? The answer is yes, although special care must be taken when feeding children and teens a vegetarian diet, especially if it doesn’t include dairy and egg products. As with any diet, you should understand that the nutritional needs of children change as they grow.
Vegetarianism was first recorded as a practice in ancient India, and in 6th century Greece and Italy. In both instances the diet was closely connected with the idea of nonviolence towards animals (called ahimsa in India) and was promoted by religious groups and philosophers.
However, it practically disappeared in Europe following the Christianisation of the Roman Empire. Medieval monks restricted or banned the consumption of meat for ascetic reasons, but none of them eschewed fish.
The practice re-emerged in Europe during the renaissance period and became widespread in the 19th century. The first vegetarian society was founded in England in the 1850s and other countries soon followed.
The movement grew in popularity in the 20th century as a result of nutritional, ethical and, more recently, environmental and economic concerns. Today, India accounts for 70 per cent of the world’s vegetarians.
Most chefs – especially French chefs – have a problem with vegetarians. For the life of me, I don’t know why, although I do take exception to people who call themselves vegetarians and then say they eat chicken and fish. There are four types of vegetarians, as follows:
Ova vegetarian: eats eggs but no meat
Lacto-ovo vegetarian: eats dairy and egg products but no meat
Lacto-vegetarian: eats dairy products but no eggs or meat
Vegan: eats food from plant sources only.
I first heard the word ‘vegetarian’ in the 1960s, the decade of peace, love and brown rice. A whole decade later I met my first vegetarians when I was picking grapes in Switzerland. I picked alongside two sisters from Germany who were vegans.
They insisted on buying brown bread, pasta and rice, but when it was my turn to do the shopping I bought white flour versions of these cupboard staples, just to annoy them. However, they taught me a lot about nutrition and the importance of variety within a vegetarian diet.
Vegetarians should keep a close eye on their consumption of the following vitamins and minerals:
Vitamin B12: dairy produce, eggs, cereals, bread soy drink.
Vitamin D: dairy produce, fresh orange juice.
Calcium: dairy produce, green leaf vegetables, chickpeas, fresh orange juice.
Protein: dairy produce, eggs, tofu, dried beans, nuts.
Iron: eggs, dried beans, dried fruit, wholegrains, green vegetables.
Zinc: wheatgerm, nuts, vegetables.
Some of my favourite vegetables include the following:
* Artichoke is a fantastic vegetable that can be prepared easily. Remove the leaves and place into water, milk and lemon juice (to prevent them from oxidising), then blanch for four to five minutes, strain and finish with olive oil and seasoning.
* Avocado has a smooth flesh when ripe and if you plant its large stone it will take root within a few months. Good in salads, where a few drops of lemon juice will stop it from browning. Also good pureed and mixed with garlic, mayonnaise and seasoning.
* Courgettes have a soft skin and flesh and are good thinly sliced and sauteed in a hot pan with olive oil, diced shallots, sea salt and fresh milled pepper. Finish off with fresh chives.
* Winter squash has a much harder skin and larger seeds than the summer squash. The seeds can be dried out and used for powder or roasted and eaten. Use winter squash in soups and sauces.
* Aubergines have a beautiful glossy skin and can be white, purple and black. The flesh is delicious roasted with garlic, thyme and olive oil, and seasoned with sea salt and fresh milled pepper. It is used in a lot of dishes, the most famous of which is ratatouille.
2 medium courgettes
2 red peppers
2 green peppers
2 medium onions
5 plum tomatoes
3 cloves of garlic
10ml olive oil
1 bouquet garni (flat leaf parsley, rosemary, thyme, tarragon)
1. Wash the vegetables and peel the onions, garlic and aubergine.
2. Slice the courgettes 1cm thick, cut the aubergine into 2cm squares, half the peppers, remove the seeds and cut into 2cm square.
3. Blanch the tomatoes in boiling water for 30seconds, remove and refresh in iced water to stop the cooking process. Then remove the skin and cut the tomatoes into quarters.
4. Cut the onions into 1cm square and chop the garlic finely.
5. Heat the olive oil in a heavy pan, saute the onions until lightly brown, add the aubergine and peppers and cook for two to three minutes. Then add the courgettes and tomatoes and, finally, the chopped garlic.
6. Mix all the ingredients thoroughly, seasoning with sea salt and fresh milled pepper.
7. Place the bouquet garni on top and cook with the gas at the lowest heat for 30minutes, Remove the bouquet garni and serve with a courgette flower.
Kevin Thornton is a Michelin-starred chef and owner of Thornton’s Restaurant on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin. www.thorntonsrestaurant.com