The Christmas Chef: 8 Pitfalls To Avoid In Your Seasonal Vegetarian Offering
As we prep our festive menus, it’s so easy to get wrapped up in the excitement of the roast and its trimmings and forget that winter actually gives us an abundance of vegetables, which pair wonderfully with traditional Christmas seasonings and spices.
And that’s just as well, given the huge surge in customers ordering vegetarian or vegan options.
But crafting a meat-free festive menu is often not as simple as swapping out the turkey: many products contain animal derivatives that are not vegetarian-friendly.
Here are eight of the most common pitfalls of cooking for non-meat-eaters at Christmas – and, crucially, how to avoid them.
Pitfall 1: Making the roasties with duck or goose fat
Roasties, as we all know, are just about as synonymous with the festive season as Santa Claus himself.
They’re also one of the few Christmas staples that are accessible to vegetarians and vegans – so it will be a disappointed customer who discovers that they have to settle for mash, because the roast spuds have been drenched in meat-based oils.
As well as using a vegetarian-friendly alternative, make sure to cover the differential in flavour by using generous amounts of seasoning – nothing says Christmas quite like the aroma and taste of rosemary and sage.
Pitfall 2: Roasting your vegetables too close to the meat
The taste of meat will be incredibly detectable to vegetarians – and any cross-contamination can leave you with some (rightfully) upset and angry customers.
Sharing a roasting tin is an obvious no-no, but beware also of letting your roast vegetables spend too much time in too close proximity to the meat you’re cooking.
This can, of course, be challenging to avoid – particularly in smaller kitchens. And while there’s no simple solution, given no two spaces are identical, it’s crucial that you’re conscious of the risk and plan accordingly.
Pitfall 3: Forgetting the vegetarian gravy
Who eats a Christmas roast without gravy?
Vegetarian gravy is super easy to make and just as delicious as the meaty version, whether you use fresh vegetable stock or cubes. Alternatively, fry vegetables with sage and rosemary in butter (or a non-dairy alternative) for 10-12 mins until the vegetables start to brown, Scatter over the sugar and continue to cook until caramelised.
Stir in a bit of flour, add a bit of Marmite to bring out the savoury flavour, a squeeze of tomato purée and just a dash of vinegar. Sieve, then add soy sauce to season and achieve a gorgeous brown colour.
Pitfall 4: Forgetting what ‘Christmassy’ food’ really means to customers
Meat-free roasts give the Christmas experience without the meat – and there are a lot more options than there used to be.
No longer do vegetarians have to endure non-descript ‘meaty’ lumps – options are now available which have all the flavour, texture and variety of the real thing.
Try a vegetarian ham, beef style roast, or even gammon. And, of course, a turkey variety is available, as well.
Pitfall 5: Defaulting to boring vegetarian ‘staples’
This is the one time of year where a risotto or beetroot and goat’s cheese tart simply isn’t going to cut it.
Don’t underestimate the popularity of veggie burgers. From bean-based to veggie-packed, meat-free burgers continue to earn valuable menu real estate.
Christmas is the one time of year you should plump for rich, indulgent options and novelties – if for no other reason than the fact that your customers will be prepared to do the same. So leave the bargain patties at home.
Truffle oil adds a richness that you may find lacking in these meatless wonders, so don’t be afraid to get liberal with the drizzle.
Pitfall 6: Relying too heavily on non-vegetarian cheese
For your customer, nothing will ruin a special Christmas feast quite like realising they have to forego the decadent cheeseboard for a fruit salad – so if cheese is on the menu, make sure you look for some made with vegetarian rennet.
Rennet is a protein derived from calf stomach that helps to set the cheese. Vegetarian rennet, meanwhile, is created from mould to achieve the necessary proteins to make the cheese firm (though you probably don’t need to mention the word ‘mould’ to your customers).
Many popular cheeses are readily available in vegetarian versions – including brie, cheddar, Edam and Camembert – and their increased popularity means that they shouldn’t harm your margins.
Pitfall 7: Not checking the mince pies are suet-free
Yes, not even this Christmas staple is safe. And no, that’s not because they have the word ‘mince’ in the name.
Though it does give an interesting insight into the history of the festive favourite.
In medieval times, mince pies were exactly that – more akin to a Cornish pasty than the mince pie we now traditionally enjoy, the pastry crust was filled with only the best cuts of meat, seasoned with expensive spices saved up all year long for Christmas.
Only the rich could really enjoy them, so it wasn’t long before the lower classes invented a budget solution: replacing the expensive meat ingredients with fruit and lard. These pies were sweeter, but still not vegetarian due to the inclusion of suet: the raw, hard fat of beef or mutton.
Thankfully vegetarian options are plentiful – and you can avoid this issue by making sure the jar of mincemeat you’re buying is vegetarian. (Or, if you’re making it from scratch, butter or vegetable shortening will give a slightly different but no less enjoyable flavour.)
Pitfall 8: Finding old-fashioned gelatine in jelly products
Like rennet, gelatine is derived from animal sources and used to set ingredients firm. But we no longer have to use protein from hooves to do it, and vegetarian-friendly gelatine-free products are becoming more and more common.
Whether you’re creating a panna cotta, keeping the kids (temporarily) quiet with jelly and ice cream, or crafting a no-bake cheesecake, look for agar agar – a seaweed-based alternative that is flavourless and just as good as setting your creations.
And remember… it doesn’t have to be difficult!
Follow these rules, and you’ll not only delight your hungry vegetarians this festive season, but also stretch your creativity when it comes to oft-neglected flavours and ingredients.
Always check the backs of products and labels carefully, and you’ll keep everyone happy this Christmas.