Every now and then a vegetarian recipe comes along that really gets people excited.
A little while back Good Food published a whole-roasted cauliflower recipe by Neil Perry that sent our Facebook page into overdrive while further afield, a broccoli salad recipe by the New York Times cooking columnist Melissa Clark launched its own Twitter handle #broccolicrack, not to mention salivating follow-up articles and a legion of crazed, raw broccoli converts.
Australia's Meat-Free Week is a good excuse to take a look at some of the best vegetarian dishes going around, and an opportunity to ponder what it is that elevates a vegetarian dish from "sans meat" to amazing. The recipes below are popular with punters, whether they're vegetarian or not. So if you are planning to go meat-free, take these tips and you won't feel like you're missing out.
The vegetarian dishes chefs can't take off the menu
Cult cauliflower at Ester (the wow factor)
Goodbye meat and three veg: Ester's roasted half-cauliflower dish is a menu fixture. Photo: Supplied
Yes it's big and satisfying in the flavour stakes but referring to this as a cauliflower "steak" is really doing Ester's dish a disservice. Chef Mat Lindsay says roasting vegetables in Ester's wood-fired oven is the key to this dish's success. "I tried to take it off the menu at one stage but people walked straight back out the door."
"I think many of us grew up with water-logged vegetables that had been boiled or steamed and we still have those memories of mushy, flavourless food," says Lindsay. "At Ester we only ever boil vegetables to half-cook them, or we blanch them very briefly to heighten their colour and then we roast them.
"With the cauliflower dish it dries it out and it goes almost nutty."
Lindsay says presentation is also key (but often overlooked) when it comes to vegetarian dishes. "We serve this is a half cauliflower, so it looks impressive but it's still soft and cooked through but it has a bit of a crunch to it and the almond adds extra nuttiness."
Spice Temple's eggplant "chips" (vegetables can be fun)
Chef Ralph So prepares Spice Temple's popular fish-fragrant eggplant. Photo: Wayne Taylor
If you grew up in Australia's there a good chance you were brought up on the "meat-and-three-veg for dinner" diet. If so, it's time to give vegetables the attention they deserve, and a good place to start is by trying the veg-only dishes of Asia. Japan's miso-glazed nasu dengaku is always a winner but at Melbourne's Spice Temple eggplant gets a crispy, crunchy, flavour-packed makeover inspired by China's Sichuan province.
Sous chef Jason Margaritis says "fish fragrant eggplant" is one of the restaurant's most popular sharing dishes. The "fish" in the dish's title is a nod to a method of preparation that produces a hot, sour, salty and sweet flavour combination and often used in fish dishes.
"It's sweet. salty and deep-fried," says Margaritis, "so no, it's not exactly healthy but there is absolutely nothing bland about it ... The key is that it's substantial, flavoursome and interesting." At Spice Temple the eggplant is put in a deep-fryer but Margaritis says you could make the dish using a wok.
Grounds of Alexandria's pumpkin (make a meal of veg)
Make a meal of it! Pumpkin Fatteh served at The Grounds' Potting Shed. Photo: Supplied
"This is a real get-in-there dish" says Paul McGrath, Group Executive Chef, The Grounds of Alexandria. "Some people eat it with a knife and fork in a very delicate way but most are very hands-on; mashing the pumpkin and then spreading it onto the flat bread with some yoghurt or labneh." Hungry yet?
McGrath says the Potting Shed's popular pumpkin dish began life as a sharing dish but he noticed people were ordering it as their main. "So we decided to jazz it up ... it's now presented as a caramelised half of a small butternut pumpkin ... It's certainly filling enough with honey, labneh and minted yoghurt, nuts, sesame and flat bread. You don't need extra protein as well as all these flavours."
"There is a definite trend of people moving away from meaty, heavy protein dishes during the day," says McGrath who has introduced three new "salad bowl" recipes to the popular Sydney's cafe's menu. "We used to have a lot of salads but now people want more in them because salads are no longer seen as something that is (just a) side to a meat dish.
"When people move in a new direction you need to rise to the challenge."
McGrath says that when you're serving or eating a lot of vegetables it's important to get top quality and to eat a good variety. "We've recently started using kalettes – they're like a cross between kale and brussels sprouts. We roast them, microplane black fermented garlic over them and serve them with fresh parmesan. It's delicious."
Humble veg at Town Mouse (like a warm hug)
Slow-roast red cabbage, prune, parmesan and red apple at Town Mouse. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen
Chef Dave Verheul is know for his winning ways with vegetables at Melbourne's Town Mouse. One dish in particular sets diners to swoon mode, and it's based, somewhat surprisingly, around cabbage.
"We've had the red cabbage dish from day one," explains Verheul. "We really never thought that a slow roasted wedge of red cabbage, stuffed with caramelised apples and prunes, topped with parmesan and croutons would ever become the dish people raved about, but there you go.
"I love this dish because it celebrates a super humble vegetable that often gets overlooked, and I think our diners love it because it's surprising, comforting and delicious."
Sadly, Verheul was not prepared to share the recipe. "The red cabbage has become one of those dishes I would get lynched for if I took it off so I may have to keep the recipe for myself I'm sorry."
But he has shared another popular vegetarian recipe from The Town Mouse: Fried globe artichokes and pumpkin-seed cream.
Restaurant critics' favourite vegetarian dishes
Which meat-free dishes have managed to jolt our Good Food restaurant reviewers out of a degustation-weary stupor?
Terry Durack (Sydney Morning Herald chief restaurant critic)
"I'd recommend anything and everything from Yellow in Potts Point. In particular Brent's parsnip pappardelle, and golden beetroot ribbons with malt and capers."
Jill Dupleix (SMH Good Food Guide reviewer and recipe and feature writer)
"I love the moghrabieh couscous stuffed pumpkin at Barzaari in Marrickville. It's delicious! And Kylie Kwong's saltbush cakes at Billy Kwong."
Gemima Cody (The Age chief restaurant critic)
"I love Aaron Turner's 'society potatoes' at Igni. The potatoes are blanched really quickly – then cooked in their own starch water. The dish is has just a tiny amount of crunch and is served as the penultimate savoury dish on a tasting menu when usually they are hammering you with protein and meat. It's just so delicious. I've never had potato cooked like that before."
Is there a vegetarian recipe or healthy recipe you'd love to get your mitts on? Let us know at email@example.com and put 'Radical Veg' in the subject line.