Antonio Carluccio and food writer Anna Barnett are championing vegetarian and vegan dishes
The number of vegans in Britain has risen by more than 360 per cent in the past decade. But they're not the only ones hungry for meat-free dishes. Recent YouGov research found that more than half of us think meat is not a necessary component of every meal, and many in the restaurant trade are responding by offering a more veg-centric approach.
High street chains such as Asian fusion favourite Wagamama and pub behemoth JD Wetherspoon's are now offering vegan and vegetarian menus. Even McDonald's is after a slice of the vegan pie: this month, the franchise announced it is testing out a McVegan burger (available in Finland only, for now).
World Vegan Month,which takes place in November, has encouraged even more restaurants to take up the challenge. Italian restaurant Carluccio’s has just launched its first exclusively vegetarian pop-up: Cucina Verde will take place on #MeatFreeMondays throughout November. It's set to showcase over 20 Italian veggie and vegan dishes from Antonio Carluccio, created in collaboration with cook and food writer Anna Barnett.
Meanwhile, the autumn menu features newly launched vegetarian and vegan staples (all to be washed down, of course, with vegan wines). Antonio Carluccio's personal favourite is the orecchiette al cavoflore (caulifloweR purée with kale and chilli).
For Carluccio, the simplicity of vegetarian and vegan food reminds him of the "peasant cooking" of Italy, and ties in with his essential motto, "mof mof" (minimum of fuss, maximum of flavour). "You only need two or three ingredients to make a wonderful dish," he tells me.
This philosophy is exemplified in his latest cookbook, titled quite simply Vegetables (scroll down for an exclusive recipe for sweet and sour pumpkin from the book).
He suggests a considered way of using spices and herbs when it comes to vegan and vegetarian dishes, and laments the fact that Brits often consider a dish to be Mediterranean simply because it contains plenty of garlic and a mish-mash of herbs.
"Oregano disturbs almost every dish. You feel the taste everywhere. There are many other herbs like chevril and tarragon and so on that you can play with, and if you don't put them all together, that's ok. It's a question of balance," he advises. "A pepper or an aubergine can be treated in such a way that it becomes as tasty as meat."
He particularly recommends that fans of plant-based dishes experiment with the cardoon, which is similar to an artichoke, dipped in anchovy butter and garlic. "It's delightful," he sighs.
For Carluccio, the rise in the popularity of plant-based eating is a trend that's here to stay: "I don't like something because it's in fashion. That means it's going to go away. Vegetarian or vegan food is a question of nourishing the body with something pure and nice. It's not a question of the fashion, but of taste, variety and requirement."
Similarly, Anna Barnett sees it as a cultural shift away from the ingrained meat-and-two veg model, rather than merely a trend. "I think everyone is more educated, and more conscious of the environmental impact, as well as the impact on their own health," she says. "There are so many incredible recipes being shared now using seasonal produce, so you don't need to feel like you're missing out with a veg-centred dish."
Antonio Carluccio's zucca in agrodolche (sweet and sour pumpkin)
Carluccio says this pickle is great as an accompaniment, but can also be served by itself, as a little antipasto, or as part of an antipasti board.
750g yellow-orange pumpkin, with skin
Plain all-purpose flour, for dusting
Olive oil for shallow frying
6 large fresh sage leaves
1 tsp rosemary needles
50ml balsamic vinegar
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Peel the pumpkin and cut it first into 10cm sections, then into thin slices | Dust the slices with flour | Add enough olive oil to a medium frying pan so it is 1cm deep | Place over a medium heat then fry the pumpkin slices until golden on both sides. Drain on absorbent kitchen paper.
In a ceramic dish, make layers of the pumpkin slices, interspersed with the sage leaves and rosemary needles | Put the vinegar in a small pan along with the garlic and some salt and pepper. Briefly bring to the boil | Pour the hot vinegar over the layers of pumpkin in the dish. Leave for a few hours for the flavours to combine before serving.