I do not have a favourite food. In fact, I’m not sure how I would even go about classifying such a thing, as what I want to eat varies quite a bit depending on the situation I am in. But there is one food I have consistently eaten with enthusiasm from the moment I grew in teeth until now, and that food is steak.
Now, when you read the word “steak,” you immediately knew what I was talking about. You knew I meant a thick piece of red meat, cut into a plank-like shape. You also probably assumed that meat came from a cow. Maybe, if you are a hunting type, you wondered if I meant venison. You did not, at any point, think I meant cauliflower.
Words mean things, and no matter how hearty, filling, or umami-rich a vegetable is, it is simply not a steak. Think of it this way: have you ever seen a “chicken steak” on a menu? No, because even a juicy, expertly marinated and cooked chicken breast with a beautifully browned crust is not the same as a cut of red meat. (There are tuna steaks, however, which I am oddly fine with.)
But if I were to show you a piece of chicken and piece of a cauliflower and ask you “which is more like a piece of cow?” you would have to say “the chicken,” because this is true on a cellular level. And yet, in many recipes and on many menus, it is the thing that is most dissimilar to a steak that gets called a steak.
This is madness.
This isn’t to say vegetables don’t deserve to be mains. I love a plant-based meal, and am not someone who demands to know the location of the beef. The most boring type of dude is the dude who comments “maybe if you add some bacon” on an article about a lovely vegetarian dish. (And it is always a dude.) The things that make vegetables good are different than the things that make meat good, and having to frame a vegetable in a way that “a meat eater” could relate to is insulting to vegetables and the people who love them.
Veganised recipes can feel like a cop-out; this one works because it's anything but. Like traditional ragú, you spend a lot of time sweating vegetables and browning the base to build flavour; unlike traditional ragú, this one gets its body from several kilos of minced mushrooms and roasted eggplant.
A piece of grilled eggplant will never taste like the flesh of an animal. This is fine. In fact, if you do not like eating animal flesh, this is great. The key to making a great vegetable dish lies in understanding and honouring the vegetable and letting it be itself, not forcing it into a role it was never meant to play.
No amount of marinating, grilling, or rebranding is going to convince a meat-eater that a thick slice of cabbage can take the place of their rib eye. In fact, by using the word “steak,” you are inviting a comparison that sets the recipe up to lose. (A vegetarian, I assume, does not want their vegetable to remind them of meat, just as a meat eater will never accept a cauliflower plank as a substitute for an actual steak.)
I am, of course, guilty of this type of framing in an attempt to convince people a vegetable recipe was worth trying, but I’m trying to be better. I’m sure I’ve used the phrase “you won’t miss the meat.” (I’m sure no one was fooled, and it is possible that the meat was, in fact, missed).
If you truly want to eat more vegetables, and inspire people to eat more vegetables, you have to learn to appreciate them for what they are, not compare them to what they aren’t.