A Meaty, Meat-Free Sandwich

It’s no great secret that I, for the most part, prefer the Vegetarian option over the meat option. It’s not because I dislike meat, more the fact that it’s not prepared particularly well over here. Steak is always tough and overcooked. Chicken is generally dry and lean. In short, meat is not prepared how I like it or how I would cook it myself. Whilst this may sound like I'm a prima donna, it’s more to do with the fact that I have never eaten at a decent restaurant. Sure, the foods have flashy descriptions, pan fried pork escalopes with a Madeira jus sounds delightful but it turns out to be pork chops in a winey marinade that hasn’t been reduced to the right, savoury, rich consistency.
I digress. I was a vegetarian for 8 years, from the age of 10 until leaving school. I was heavily into animal rights. I mean, when you’re a teenager, you are painfully earnest about putting the world to rights and I must have been quite convincing because my grandmother actually converted to vegetarianism too, after some heavy guilt tripping (not to mention leaving Vegetarian Society graphic leaflets lying around) on my part. I strongly believed (and still do) that there was an alternative to intensive farming but at that time (late 80s), there was no such thing as organic meat available in supermarkets and free range eggs were only just beginning to appear on the shelves at vastly elevated prices. So, a full scale, all-out no meat diet was the only option then. My poor mother. There must be nothing worse for a blood-thirsty carnivore than for her only child to turn vegetarian. Still, she rose to the challenge remarkably well, right down to making me soy-mix Sausages (imagine a sausage made from sawdust and seasoned with thirty year old nutmeg) and tofu stir frys.
Inevitably, as adulthood hit me, more important things took over in my priorities and on my eighteenth birthday, I fell off the meat wagon and hit hard by shamefully indulging in a Big Mac. My friends were goading me on: “How can you hate something that you’ve never tried?” and I’ve always tried to stick to that mantra food-wise ever since, trying before decrying.
McDonalds was the pinnacle of teenage sophistication back in the day (probably still is) and it is to my misfortune that I have never quite gotten over my infatuation with junk food (how do I love thee, let me count the ways…kebabs, southern fried chicken…). I find myself struggling with intense guilt as I slobber over a greasy burger, wondering on the traceability (the foodie’s keyword for the new millennium) of the meat, knowing full well that it could probably be traced as far as the local horse abattoir.
After my inelegant fall from food fascism, my mother was ecstatic and took no time at all in reminding me of what I hadn’t eaten in years: beef stews, roast chicken and turkey, pork chops. You name it, I was fed in within the first 78 hours of regained carnivorism. It was consumed with much gusto but that ever-present sense of guilt.
When I finally left home, I had made the mental decision to always buy free-range, organic produce, whether it was meat or eggs or vegetables. It is a promise that I have kept. The thought of caged hens nauseates me and if organic produce was ever removed from the shelves, I wouldn’t think twice about returning to vegetarianism.
Fortunately, this won’t be the case. More and more people are questioning the quality of the produce they buy in supermarkets, and farm shops and farmers markets are on the rise. It is not just a passing fashion, I feel. When you consider the quality of, for example, beef that you can get in America, our meat pales (literally) in comparison. Their cows roam around the land peacefully, chewing the cud. In France and Italy, many households raise their own cows, pigs, lambs and chickens, knowing the importance of happy meat.
Although organic meat is quite a lot more expensive than factory farmed meat, the flavour is much, much better. Organic chickens are plumper and they actually taste of chicken! Pigs that are allowed to wander around, as they would in the wild, produce fantastic meat. Decent beef should be marbled with yellow fat: a sign of age and being allowed to move around, and not just kept penned up and force-fed chemicals.
When I do a monthly grocery shop, I try to stock up on one organic chicken, some pork (maybe some rolled belly (or as my grandparents' generation so quaintly call it "titty pork"), sausages, bacon or loin chops), some decent minced beef and half a shoulder of lamb. Whilst this doesn’t sound like a lot, we find it more agreeable to have meat as a special, once or twice a week dish, knowing that the meat is cruelty-free – and it tastes better on so many different levels because of that.
The rest of the week, we mostly eat a vegetarian diet although it’s not inherently meat-free. I might tart up a pasta dish with some chopped salami or pancetta, or use sausage meat to enliven cabbage or use the bacon to make BLTs, a quick Sunday night snack.
You don’t have to be a meat and two veg family. I have many recipes on this site alone that are subtly meat-free and that is because of the quality and combinations of ingredients. Whilst you can’t trick the most fervent meat-eater into believing they’re eating meat, you can at least let them leave the table feeling satisfied.
A wonderfully meaty yet meat-free snack that I discovered recently in a Nigel Slater book is a Mushroom Sandwich. I’m sure you’re thinking that this sounds like the worst kind of vegetarian, hippy dish imaginable, but you’d be wrong. The mushroom is stuffed with garlic butter, roasted in the oven for 20 minutes and then slapped into a soft, doughy bread roll. As the juices drip down your chin, you’ll probably be thinking, this tastes like meat…but it’s just a mushroom! And that could be the first of many meat-free epiphanies.
Ingredients: (serves 2)
2 Large Fields Mushrooms, wiped free of any soil
2 Cloves Garlic, finely chopped with some sea salt
Small bunch of freshly chopped parsley
Some chopped Iceberg Lettuce
Dijon Mustard
About 30g Butter
Some Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper
Two White Baps, floury ones are good, split in half.
Preheat the oven to 200c. In a baking dish large enough to hold the two mushrooms (remember that they shrink quite substantially as they cook), drizzle some olive oil on the bottom.
Making the Garlic Butter. In a small bowl, soften the butter by mashing it lightly with a fork. Mash in the garlic and parsley, a little black pepper and stir well.
Slather each mushroom generously with the butter. Much of it will melt and run into the dish as it cooks. This will be your ‘dripping’.
Place in the oven and cook for 20 minutes. You will hear the butter spitting and popping in the oven as it gets really hot and the kitchen will smell headily of garlic.
Remove carefully from the oven and wait a minute or two until it has cooled down and stopped spitting.
In the meantime, spread a thin layer of Dijon Mustard on one half of each bap and top with some shredded lettuce. Carefully place the mushrooms on the Dijon/be-lettuced bun halves. Grind over a little more salt and black pepper.
Take the plain halves of the baps and place, cut side down, into the hot garlic butter left in the baking dish. This always reminds me of the bread and ‘iffit’ that my mother and grandfather are so fond of – in fact, a slice of bread dipped into the dripping or cooking juices from a roasted joint of beef, a rare treat that always evokes my pre-vegetarian childhood.
Put the mushroom and lettuce half and the garlic drenched half together and apply to mouth. And dare anyone to criticise this unusually delicious sandwich.

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