After the vegetarian revolution, the following dishes will be terminated with extreme prejudice:
- Pumpkin risotto
- Mushroom risotto
- Any vegetable risotto
- The vegetable stack
- The vegetable wrap
- Vegetable surprise (as in, "Surprise! Your dinner is a side dish of steamed broccoli.")
- The "vegie" burger that's just a giant grilled mushroom in a bun
- Lentil burgers
- Barley stew
- Beetroot and goat's cheese in any combination, anywhere, anytime
- Spinach and ricotta cannelloni
- The marinated vegetable focaccia
- Quinoa salad
- Pumpkin soup
While we're lining vego dishes up against the wall, my neighbour – let's call him Tony – would like to add pasta to the list. Plain pasta, which he has been served at dinner parties on more than one occasion. As in, pasta with no sauce, "As in, we forgot you were vegetarian," says Tony, adding that Woody Allen's film Everyone Says I Love You features a German maid, who may have once worked for Hitler, referring to it as Bavarian pasta: "It doesn't need sauce. The Italians need sauce. The Italians were weak."
On the other hand, Tony would like to defend the pumpkin risotto – but then, he's married to an Italian who's also a great cook. In the eyes of other current or lapsed vegetarians (guilty, your honour), that mushy, smooshy sacrifice to the gods of baby food is public enemy No. 1. It's the Joe Pesci of vegetables: a serial sidekick implicated in countless crimes against the meat-free diet.
Yet why should vegetarians still be relegated to the category of annoying afterthought? We live in an age of superfoods and Meat-Free Mondays. Of ethical eating and paddock-to-plating. We ought to have attained some kind of vegetarian nirvana where waving the V flag is not even a reason for someone to look up from activating their almonds. Surely the carnivorous paradigm is as outdated as those ads where Paul Hogan throws a woolly mammoth T-bone on the campfire?
"It really winds me up," says chef Brent Savage of Sydney's Bentley, Monopole, Yellow and newly opened Cirrus, of the lack of choice vegetarians face in a typical restaurant. "You can judge a chef's ability to be creative by their vegetarian courses."
Savage and his business partner Nick Hildebrandt turned dinner service at Yellow all-veg earlier this year. Savage got the jitters when online reports of Yellow's impending diet change attracted reams of negative comments. "All these right-wing guys smashed us, saying there are so many restaurants in Sydney, here's one more we don't have to go to." They might be dismayed to know business is doing better than good: "It's fantastic, actually."
Yet there's a simple reason any restaurant owner might want to think more carefully about their vegetarian dishes: 20 per cent. That's the number of Australians who identify as vegetarian or vegan. From anyone's point of view, alienating one-fifth of potential diners does not make sense.
Alejandro Cancino from Brisbane's Urbane is a big believer in catering to both camps. He's a vegan ("in my free time … I have to taste meat for my job") who longs to see more chefs develop a relationship with legumes, beans and chickpeas. "If you offered me a dish of lentils in a restaurant I would be amazed, because it takes care and love."
One of his favourite Urbane dishes is buckwheat risotto. "It's not really risotto because it has no butter and cheese, and buckwheat doesn't have starch so it doesn't thicken as you cook it. I add watercress puree which makes the dish look like risotto."
And the dishes he and his vegan wife never need to see again in their civilian life? "Creamy pasta. Or pasta with tomato sauce or pesto. There are so many things you can do for your guests apart from salad and pasta."
What else not to feed vegetarians? While the record ought to note that her mistake was honest, Melbourne-based food writer and cookbook author Alice Zaslavsky found out the hard way that it's best not to sneak something meaty (chicken stock is a common offender) into a dish in the belief it will go unnoticed: "Right after I did MasterChef, I was asked to the Vegecareian festival and did a curry – I went to put in fish sauce and there was an audible gasp from the audience."
Zaslavsky's hypothetical vegetarian dinner party would steer clear of French or stodgy British recipes. "I'd be thinking Italian or Indian, cultures with heaps of vegetable-based cooking. We have a dhal recipe from Simon Bryant on high rotation in our house. And if you want to hashtag some hero ingredients, try mushrooms and cheese. There's nothing a good cheese won't make better."
Food writer and Good Food columnist Richard Cornish, author of My Year Without Meat, reserves his hatred for mock meat. "Despite how much the manufacturers try to make mock meats look like the fleshy platonic ideal the more they are destined to fail because of the high expectation they set up for the food to taste like the real thing," he writes. "Vegan sausages. Tofurkey. Quorn chicken-style nuggets. These are simply meat free analogues of flesh fast food."
At home, embrace Yottam Ottolenghi as your new best friend. With pan-Middle Eastern recipes as unifying as Ban Ki-Moon, Ottolenghi is any vego cook's secret weapon. He doesn't judge ("You can be vegetarian and eat fish… there are no hard core divisions any more") but he certainly knows his way around a cauliflower. Plus, he's solved an age-old etiquette question for any aspiring dinner party host: Do you have to make a separate meal for your vegetarian guest when you're up to your elbows in Julia Child's stuffed duck? He's a leading player in the whole "sharing, family style" revolution, which has knocked the entree-main thing on the head.
But try telling that to my neighbour Tony and his sauce-less pasta. "The etiquette is, if you know a vegetarian is coming to your house for dinner, you cater for them," says Savage.
A caveat on the mushroom risotto: If you can cook mushroom risotto like Shannon Bennett at Vue de Monde – you know, the one that's creamy and umami-rich, with enough black truffle on top to make even a hardened food critic make an involuntary whimper of joy? Then, yes. Otherwise, no.
Really what it comes down to is this: is vegetarianism still an "ism" or is it just another normal way to eat? As John Lennon said, "Isms, in my opinion, are not good. A person should not believe in an ism; he should believe in himself." Sadly, his views on pumpkin risotto remain unknown.
Where to veg out, fine-dining style
Vegetarian fine dining – this is the place Melbourne has been waiting for, with a smart look and smart food, from the owner of Brunswick Street institution Vegie Bar.
99 Rose Street, Fitzroy, 03 9419 2022, transformerrestaurant.com.au
You want to know how good whole-veg cooking can be, try the wood-roasted broccoli with nutty, creamy sunflower seed miso.
122 Russell Street, Melbourne, 03 9654 5923, embla.com.au
The Bertoncello brothers have cultivated a close working relationship with some pretty impressive gardens in their Beaconsfield 'hood. Their sugared torched orange on a rosemary twig is revelatory.
23 Woods Street, Beaconsfield, 03 9769 9000, omyrestaurant.com.au
Even carnivores shouldn't be averse to going haute veg with Ben Shewry's degustation, just once – even if it does involve a dish called "all parts of the pumpkin".
74 Glen Eira Road, Ripponlea, 03 9530 0111, attica.com.au