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The carnivore conversion

How do you convert a carnivore? In this week’s food blog, Laura Venuto asks an expert how to attempt a carnivore conversion in her own home.

The carnivore conversion

Last week, while strolling home from the city, I casually suggested to my husband that we consider introducing a meat-free day into our diet. “Never gonna happen … Never gonna happen,” he said with a smile.

I should have known. Last time I suggested making spinach and ricotta cannelloni he looked at me dubiously and immediately asked, “Is there any meat in that?” When I broke it to him that, as the name suggested, it largely consisted of spinach and ricotta, he paused for a moment and then said, “Surely it would taste better with some bacon in there?”

In many respects, I can’t say I mind. I am the first to admit being a sucker for the salty deliciousness of pancetta or the smokey delight of chorizo. But I have been swayed in recent months by the health and environmental benefits of eating less meat and more veg, so when a copy of the lovely book, Less Meat, More Veg (New Holland, AU$40) landed on my desk, I decided to ask the author Rachel de Thample a few questions about how best to introduce more of the green, leafy stuff into my carnivorous household…

Less Meat, More Veg, by Rachel De Thample, with photography by Peter Cassidy. Published by Kyle Cathie and distributed in New Zealand by New Holland, AU$40.

My husband is a serious carnivore who finds it difficult to eat anything without meat in it. What would be your advice on how to reduce the amount of meat in our diet without him noticing?

My husband was exactly the same and he’s pretty much fully come on board to the less meat, more veg approach. Instances like this is where I think the less meat rather than no meat approach works best. My husband used to be a meat and potatoes man. Veg was not a regular feature of a meal for him. Now he’ll quite happily tuck into a meal that’s made mostly of veggies.

Over the years, as meat became cheaper and more readily available (thanks to factory farming), vegetables got pushed to the edge of the plate and meat became the focal point. Vegetables are actually the easiest and most exciting part of the meal now in my family. I added a good selection of ‘10-minute vegetable sides’ in my book to inspire people. I aim to have 3-4 of these on offer and they’re so lovely and exciting that meat becomes almost unnecessary. I’ve certainly skipped it on a number of occasions and my husband is quite happy with a much smaller piece of meat on his plate.

Why was it important for you to write this book?

There was this surge of medical reports, research papers, films and news articles all with a very clear message that we need to dramatically reduce the amount of meat we eat. At the same time, there were reports about the devastation caused by overfishing, proposals for more and more factory farms were on the cards and there was a similar cry for us to eat more vegetables. I then saw a documentary that linked these two problems. It noted that we eat twice the amount of meat we need and only half our recommended vegetables. I wanted to see if I could create some delicious plates of food that reversed these statistics.

Can you take us through the main diet changes your book is advising? 

A lot of us meat eaters know we need to cut down, but it’s hard to know where to start. Research suggests a healthy guideline is to eat no more than two small handfuls of meat or dairy each day. In terms of veg, we need to get at least five 80g portions.

All the recipes in my book are aimed to help people get this balance: just two small handfuls of food from an animal source and at least five good-sized helpings of fruits and veg. It sounds so easy and simple – and it is! But, it’s surprising how many of us are so far from this at the moment.

What has been your own relationship with meat over the years – was there a particular event that led you to want to reduce the amount of meat in your own diet?

I grew up in Texas where people literally eat steak or pork chops for breakfast and this often comes with eggs on the side. Texas has a huge meat-eating culture and I was raised on meals that were quite often centred on meat. Though, I’ve always loved vegetables and I remember getting my mother to take me to the greengrocer so we could have more veggies with our meals. Perhaps I subconsciously knew there was an imbalance.

I actually started cutting back on meat dramatically after having my son, who is currently four. He’s a brilliant eater. From the start, I was very conscious to ensure he ate plenty of vegetables – and a huge variety of them. This focus on veg started to push meat to the side a bit.

There was also this massive sea change in the world of food when I returned to my food magazine job after a year off for maternity leave. Between 2007 and 2008, there were huge crop failures globally; wheat was one them.

Livestock farmers rely on wheat to feed their animals. In the UK, a shocking number of pig farmers went out of business as a result. All of this made me start looking at the bigger picture of food. Delving into the subject made me realise how complex the food on our plates is – especially meat.

I know a lot of really amazing farmers who keep their animals out on pasture for a good part of the year and when it comes to winter, the animals are fed grains that are grown organically on the farm. But the story is quite different for much of the meat we eat. The animals are fed proteins that are genetically modified (and this is not noted on the label). A lot of animal feed comes from soy and huge swathes of rainforest have been cleared to grow this feed. The pesticides used on the GM feed crops have had a devastating effect on people living near these farms.

I’ve read horror stories about children being exposed to these pesticides and dying. I just cannot support this sort of thing. So, as a result, I only eat meat if I know the full story. That has resulted in me eating far less meat.

Which three recipes in your book would you say are sure to convert the most serious carnivore (and why)?

1. Forerib of Roast Beef with Roast Potatoes, Lemon Broccoli, Earthy Cumin Carrots, Balsamic Braised Red Cabbage and Sticky Orange-Glazed Shallots

This meal is a complete feast and the vegetable sides are what really make it superb. If you have all this gorgeous veg and colour, along with some amazing, crispy-on-the-outside-fluffy-in-the-middle roast potatoes, then the meat becomes a garnish.

Following this dish, I’ve offered 4-5 different dishes that you can make using the remaining roast beef. This means you have a jump start on cooking for the rest of week.

2. Porcini Bolognese

I blind-tested this dish on a large group of friends (and their children) at a party and they couldn’t believe it contained 50% less meat than your average Bolognese. I’ve had a similar response from others you’ve bought the book and tried it.

3. Quick Catalan Chorizo Stew

Cured meats like chorizo or bacon are brilliant as they have a concentrated level of flavour, so you really don’t need much to pack a full-on punch of flavour. This recipe contains four portions of veg, so it’s absolutely loaded with veg, yet that little bit of chorizo running through the stew keeps serious carnivores interested.

Why did you decide to focus your book on reducing meat rather than creating a fully vegetarian cookbook?

The problem with most vegetarian cookbooks is that they appeal to vegetarians, or people who already eat lots of vegetables and little meat. I wanted to offer something for hardened carnivores who knew they should probably cut back on meat but didn’t really know how to approach it.

Since writing the book, I’ve pretty much weaned myself off meat. I rarely eat it now. I think writing the book and having recipes with small amounts of meat have made me realise that you can have some outstanding, satisfying dishes with absolutely no meat (or dairy) at all.

I mention dairy here and in my book as I think we – and a lot of vegetarians – eat far too much dairy, too. When it comes to animal welfare, the dairy industry probably concerns me most. I think it’s far better, if you’re going to eat animal-sourced foods, to have a balance – eat small amounts as it is such a precious and luxurious food source, and most importantly, source it well.

What was the most creatively challenging aspect of coming up with the recipes for your book?

If you’d asked me this a year ago, when I was just finishing the book, I probably would have had loads of answers. But cooking with less or no meat has now become second nature. I don’t find it challenging at all. In fact, I find it a little easier and by far, I feel more nourished and excited about cooking. I think the main difference to my cooking is that I use far more spices and I’ve started cooking veg like I used to cook meat, by roasting it or pan-frying it. There’s a brilliant recipe in the book for Fennel Steaks, which is as it sounds: slabs of fennel seasoned and cooked like a steak. It’s brilliant and I often feature something like this as the main course with a few other really colourful vegetable sides.

What’s your personal favourite recipe in the cookbook?

I cook from the book a lot. I don’t think I have a favourite as such but this week, from the book, I’ve had:

Baker’s Eggs, Maya Gold Chilli and the Mushroom Burgers, which are gorgeous – they have Asian flavours going through them: soy sauce, ginger, spring onions and toasted sesame seeds. I served them with pan-fried green beans with crispy garlic, sesame oil and lime. They were so good, and my son loved them, too.

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