Does any restaurant regularly offer Vegan options?

Bit of a rant this week. Regular readers of this blog will know that most of the recipes/meal ideas that appear here are vegan, because although I’m not vegan myself (I eat fish, occasionally dairy, and  very occasionally, free-range chicken) my dear other half, known here as Vegan Husband, is.
Now, for a foodie such as myself, this is a challenge. I don’t care what all those websites say, it is NOT ‘easy’ to prepare ‘healthy and delicious meals all year round’ without using any animal products. But it’s certainly easy to prepare somehealthy and delicious meals; maybe even quite a few. And I could possibly – probably, in fact – come up with a month’s worth of pretty tasty vegan meals, plus a few puds, cakes and biscuits into the bargain. It’s coming up with a good variety that’s difficult, not vegan cooking in itself.
As I’m cooking vegan meals most of the time, I have of course looked into specialist foods such as soya alternatives to meat and dairy products. To be honest, some of them are pretty awful, but there are some products that I regularly make use of, so that creamy sauces are not necessarily a thing of the past, and I can even knock up some pretty mean vegan ‘meatballs’.  But even if I couldn’t use these products, I would still be able to come up with a good few meals that are actually nice to eat and attractive to look at.
Why, then, is it nigh on impossible to get a vegan meal in a restaurant unless you’re eating Indian? Or (if you like Tofu) Chinese or Thai? Wouldn’t you think that there could be just one thing on the menu in European restaurants, dining pubs and cafe-bars? Even a plate of pasta with a veggie sauce would do the trick.  I often see dishes that look like they could be vegan, but then I see ‘finished with ricotta/goat’s cheese/double cream’. I’m sure if we called ahead most chefs would rise to the challenge, but just occasionally, I’d like to be able to go out with my husband on the spur of the moment for a meal that isn’t Indian, Chinese or Thai. Cafes aren’t too bad. We could probably get lunch fairly easily. But it’s dinner I want; with wine and candles and proper tablecloths and the option of three courses.
For a starter, they could do a vegan soup, served with crusty bread; or some mushrooms in white wine and garlic; or bruschetta.  Pasta would be an easy main-course choice.  They could serve it simply coated with olive oil, garlic, minced chilli, lemon juice and parsley; or with a tomato, olive and caper sauce; or a homemade pesto (without cheese); or a spicy tomato sauce. It’s not fine dining, but it would be nice.
Even puddings aren’t that difficult.  There’s always fruit. Baked peaches drizzled  with maple syrup are good.  Ready-made puff pastry is dairy-free (if you don’t buy the buttery version) so a caramelised apple tart wouldn’t be beyond the wit of man or woman. And it’s easy to get really good dark chocolate that doesn’t contain dairy, so there’s stuff you can do with that, too.
I’m sure the management of most restaurants would argue that ‘there’s no call’ for vegan dishes; I’d argue that vegans don’t bother trying because their dietary preferences are seen as weird and extreme. I  couldn’t find an up-to-date estimate of how many vegans there are in the UK, but the Vegan Society  reckons it’s at least 150,000. Not a huge number, it’s true. But there are plenty of people who are allergic to dairy and would happily go meat-free for a night. And plenty of vegetarians who’d welcome the chance to try really good and exciting vegan food.

Given that when a group of people goes out for dinner, they’ll look for a restaurant where the one vegan among them can get a meal, so by offering one vegan option, restaurants could attract other new customers. And who knows, if the vegan option was attractive enough,  a non-vegan might actually choose it.

Any vegans out there have the same problem? Are you vegetarian but would like to eat vegan occasionally? Are you a chef or restaurant manager who’d be keen to offer a vegan option? And does anyone know if there’s anywhere outside London where we could get a vegan meal that would be good enough for a special occasion?
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First post of 2012 – a writing plan!

Happy New Year! My apologies for late posting this week – I have a number of pretty top-quality excuses: a funeral, Christmas & New Year and the houseful of family that go with them, a vicious head cold, plus a couple of days of paid work.  I still have the cold but the other things are thankfully behind me now. I didn’t even get round to putting a tree up this year, and anyway, it didn’t seem appropriate to decorate the house while we were still so close to my father-in-law’s death in mid-December.
Without all the decorations and cards to take down, it should have made the ‘getting back to normal’ a bit easier, but I still seem to be struggling to get on course for 2012. Does anyone else feel like they’re trying to run up the ‘down’ escalator?
I haven’t even had time to make my New Year’s resolutions. Well, I don’t make resolutions as such, but I do usually start the year with some sort of plan of action with regards to my writing, and I’m usually ready to hit the ground running on the first of January (or the second, should the first be somewhat shortened by a hangover and a lie-in). But this year, we’ve somehow got to the third day of 2012 and I still don’t really have a plan, so I’m going to make one now, ‘live’ on the blog! If you don’t have your own plan yet, feel free to adapt mine. I really can’t faff about this year, because I have a two-book deal (hoorah!) and that means I actually have a deadline and need to deliver the second book on time.
Ok, so in 2012 I will:
  • Write for at least  two hours every morning, in two or three sessions. I find it’s better to have a time commitment rather than a word commitment, because there are some days when the words just won’t come, and I don’t see the point of beating yourself up every time you don’t hit a thousand words (or whatever). If I spend the two hours at my keyboard, thinking about my novel, I’m convinced something will happen. Won’t it?
  • Resume ‘morning pages’ as recommended by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way  – three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing every morning, preferably on waking. This year, I might combine this with journal writing, so that the freewriting comes from what I’ve done, seen or thought about in the previous 24 hours.
  • Do all teaching admin, lesson preparation, reading students’ work, writing reports, student tutorials etc in the afternoons only, thus keeping the mornings clear for writing. I have a habit of thinking I’ll get teaching things ‘out of the way’ first, only to find they then stretch into the whole day.
  • Restrict daytime Twitter activity to two half-hour sessions a day – this will be difficult! There is so much on Twitter that is of interest to writers, not to mention the simple, pleasant chit-chat with other writers.  But Twitter can easily gobble up a morning.
  • Take one or two days off from writing each week. These days can be used mainly for boring but essential stuff such as shopping, housework, household admin etc, but should also contain something nice – coffee or lunch with a friend, a walk in the countryside, some time reading all the fabulous blogs that are around, or even a short train journey to somewhere new – anything to recharge the creative batteries and allow time for story and characters to develop. I’m particularly keen to take a few train journeys this year – going to new places always helps to sharpen my observational skills.
  • And finally, I’ve realised that by having three sections to this blog – the Writing Bit, the Reading Bit and the Food Bit, I’ve bitten off rather more than I can chew, so in 2012, there won’t be three sections every week, but there will always be  either something about writing, or a book review. And there will usually be something about food.
The Food Bit
This week, because of the excuses/reasons stated at the start of the writing bit, the food bit will be brief. It’ll be simply to tell you that as I type, Vegan Husband is downstairs knocking up Red Bean Dhal – does anyone know the definition of dhal? I always thought it meant ‘made with lentils’, but this is made with kidney beans. He’s made it before and it’s absolutely delicious, especially if you like your curries to have a bit of a kick – this should see off the last of my cold! He’s cooking some basmati rice to go with it, and we’re going to pop to the Indian restaurant down the road in a minute to get a sag bhuna and a garlic naan to have as side dishes.  I’ll get the recipe out of him later and will post it next week. The garlicky, spicy aroma is now wafting up the stairs, and there’s a glass of wine down there with my name on it!
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Tips on finding an agent

The Writing Bit
Ok, so you’ve finished your novel, written ‘THE END’ in big letters and poured yourself a  large drink. Now you just need to find an agent…
First, don’t even think about trying to get an agent with a first draft.  I’ve heard writers say they know their novel isn’t really ready, but ‘the agent can tell me what else I need to do’. NO!! True, most agents will give you editorial advice , but you are the author, and it’s your job to make the novel as  near-perfect as you possibly can before approaching an agent.  If you’ve just completed a first draft, put it away for a few months and get on with something else, then  go back to it with fresh eyes (see earlier blog – What to do with a novel that’s ‘almost there’) and you’ll be amazed at how the flaws will leap out at you. You’ll almost certainly need to  do some significant editing and redrafting before it’s actually ready. When it’s as polished as can be, it’s the time to start looking for an agent.
First, identify agents who represent authors writing  for a similar market. Check out novels that would sit happily alongside yours and look at the acknowledgements page where authors usually thank their agents by name.  You can then look up those agents and send them a query letter (more about query letters in next week’s blog) saying, ‘I see that you represent Jane Bloggs, whose work I admire. I feel my novel will appeal to a similar readership.’ It’s better to send to a named agent if you can, otherwise, your   work may end up languishing for months in the ‘submissions department’.
When I was seeking representation, a successful writer friend advised me to send a query letter before sending the submission; the agent will hopefully write back saying, ‘yes, please do send me your three chapters’, and hey presto, your submission is no longer ‘unsolicited’!
So, here are a few more tips:
  • Make sure you’re sending to agents who are likely to be interested – no point in sending sci-fi to an agent who only represents romantic fiction, or a children’s novel to one who represents adult fiction.
  • Send to five at a time, and make clear that you’re approaching other agents. As each ‘no’ comes in – and there will be some ‘no’s – send out another query. Keep things moving.
  • Send only what they ask for, i.e. First three chapters, first 50 pages etc. (although if there’s a sensible break on p53, it’s probably ok to send 53 pages.)
  • Check whether it’s ok to send by email, or whether they want hard copy.
  • Make sure you include a synopsis, and again, send what they ask for. Check guidelines on the agency website. Some want one page; some want three.
  • Don’t pester! Give them at least a couple of weeks before you follow up a query letter, and at least four weeks before you follow up a submission.  Do so by email and be brief and polite. If you still get no response, it’s probably best to move on.
  • Be grateful for any feedback and consider carefully what they say.
  • Don’t be disheartened – lots of successful novelists were rejected many times before finding an agent!
See next week’s blog: how to write a query letter

The Reading Bit
I found The Devil’s Music by Jane Rusbridge immediately engaging for three main reasons: the subject matter (I’m a sucker for a tragedy that blows a family apart)  the coastal setting, which is strikingly evoked  in all its weather-beaten savagery, and the language, which is consistently assured and  precise. 
Andy’s story is narrated in the first person, both as a child and as an adult, and his mother’s story is told in the less common second person. I’ve only come across straight second person narration a few times before, and it hasn’t always worked, but here the  mother’s second person voice is haunting and incredibly affecting. I remember once hearing a woman being interviewed about her experience of domestic abuse. I was struck by the fact that she referred to herself constantly in the second person, and I wondered if it was because  she couldn’t bear to inhabit the ‘self’ that had experienced such trauma; I wondered the same about this character, who has also had her share of trauma. Whether it was the author’s intention to suggest this distancing from the traumatised self, I don’t know, but it worked for me! 
The story centres around Andy, who, following his father’s death, returns to the family’s seaside holiday home to prepare it for sale.  Andy has been living in Crete, working in a taverna and trying to erase the sad life he left behind in England. When he returns to the very beach where, as a young child, he’d been left in charge of his baby sister Elaine, he is forced to face the memories that he’s been trying to escape: memories of Elaine, labelled ‘Mentally Deficient’ soon after her birth, of his abusive father, Michael, and of his depressed and grief-stricken mother who abandoned him and his other sister Susie when they were children. There are happier memories of his rope-maker grandfather, who taught the young Andy how to make rope and tie knots, an activity in which Andy still finds comfort, as well as a means of artistic expression. As the story moves towards its climax, there’s a truly surprising revelation, followed by a postscript in which we learn more about Andy’s mother, this time from a third person viewpoint. I found the ending both satisfying and moving.
Jane Rusbridge’s writing is vivid and controlled, and her attention to detail is meticulous, particularly the period detail, which was so subtly done that it felt effortless.  I enjoyed this book immensely!
The Food Bit
This week, it’s a non-vegan suggestion (back to vegan/veggie next week). Recently, Woman’s Hour ran a feature on ‘the perfect fish pie’. Well, I’m sorry Woman’s Hour, no disrespect,  but this is the perfect fish pie!
Smoked haddock pie (serves two)
Place half a small onion, one clove, and a bay leaf into a pan with 150ml milk. Bring to the boil, then lower heat and add about 350g undyed smoked haddock. Poach for about 5 minutes or until the fish is just cooked. Remove the fish, strain the hot milk and use it to make a white sauce: melt about 15g of butter and stir in enough flour to make a roux. Cook for a minute or two, then gradually add the hot milk, stirring all time. Simmer for about 10 mins, stirring often. Add 50ml single cream and a splash or two of white wine, then taste and season. While the sauce is cooking, boil about 350g floury potatoes for the topping. Flake the fish into a pie dish, chop one hard-boiled egg and add to the fish along with a handful of peas. Pour the white sauce over the fish mixture. When the potatoes are cooked, mash with 50g strong cheddar cheese and a dollop of Dijon mustard. Season to taste. Spread topping over the fish base and make a nice pattern with a fork. Brush with melted butter and cook at gas mark 6 (440F/200C) for about 30-40 minutes. Serve with a green vegetable and some grilled or roasted tomatoes.

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No man (or woman) is an island

The Writing Bit
This week, I taught my first creative writing class of the new term.  Twelve lovely writers turned up, some I’ve taught before, some were new faces, but all were  fizzing with enthusiasm. They are writers at different levels of experience, from those just starting to experiment with their creative talents to those who’ve been writing for years and/or are working on novels.
What often strikes me with a newly-formed group is how, when reading back an exercise, the writer will often preface the reading with ‘it’s not very good’, or ‘I don’t think I’ve done it right’. They then usually go on to read something with a particularly vivid image, or a beautifully lyrical sentence, or a striking and memorable character, and they’re often genuinely surprised at the positive response they get from the  rest of the class.
Gradually, over the weeks and months, confidence starts to improve and the apologies stop. Ok, it may be partly to do with the fact that the writer starts to notice the improvements in his or her own work, but it may have more to do with the positive reinforcement provided by the other writers. This is why I believe that one of the most important aspects of the writer’s life is to have contact with people who are doing the same thing you’re doing, whether it’s face-to-face, or by telephone, email or social networking.
When my new group took a break for tea, there was an immediate buzz of conversation as existing members caught up with what they’d been writing (or not writing!) over the summer and new members joined in with their own experiences and quickly became part of the group. 
Of course, it’s always going to happen that lasting friendships develop when a group of like-minded people  get together, but I’d love to know whether creative writing classes have a higher friendship rate than, say, art classes, or French cookery. Because it seems to me that writers face a unique set of challenges that only other writers can truly understand, and for that reason, we have the inclination and ability to ‘bond’  quite easily. Once we’ve bonded, we support one another to aid survival in the world of non-writers, where  people tend not to have their heads full of fictional  characters constantly  demanding  attention.
As well as simply ‘understanding’, writing chums are invaluable for helping you to solve plot and character problems. I have one friend in particular who is great at this. When either of us hits a tricky phase in our work, we meet up or chat on the phone. Sometimes, one of us makes a helpful suggestion about the other’s work, but often, it’s the very act of discussion that stimulates ideas and raises possible solutions.  ‘Talking it out’ seems to be the answer.
What do you think? Do you find contact with writing friends essential to your writing life? Or do you prefer to solve problems alone?
By the way, I met my friend on a writing course ten years ago!

The Reading Bit
This week, I am sad to report that I have given up on a book. I hate to do that, but let’s face it, life’s too short to stick with a novel that’s not gripping you when there are so many others to be read. I’ll always give a book fifty pages, and if I’m still unsure, I’ll go to a hundred. But by p50 of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, I’d had enough. The story is told in two voices, one of which I quite liked, but not enough to really hold my attention, and one of which I found annoyingly pretentious (I know she was supposed to pretentious, but even so).  After making the decision to leave it, I read some Amazon reviews; some readers loved it some hated it, and quite a few said they didn’t like it at first but it was worth persevering with and they warmed to it over time. Maybe I should have stuck with it, but to be honest, I felt quite relieved to be able to start a new book. What do you think? If a book  hasn’t drawn you in after 50 pages, do you persevere?
The Food Bit
This cassoulet is great in chilly weather, but I’m happy to report that it goes equally well when eaten outside on a balmy Indian-Summer evening. I’m a cassoulet convert – I used to think beans were boring (well, on their own, they are) but this seems to hit the spot. I make enough for six portions and freeze what I don’t use. Heat some olive oil in a large pan, then add a large onion, sliced; one each of red, green and yellow peppers, diced; one sliced courgette and a few quartered mushrooms. Fry for a few minutes, then add 3-4 fat cloves of chopped, crushed garlic. Then tip in: two tins chopped tomatoes and one tin each (drained) of cannelini, haricot, borlotti and black eye beans (you can use other types of beans if you prefer). Add about half a pint of strong vegetable stock, a good slosh of red wine, a rounded teaspoon of dried mixed herbs (or a good handful of fresh herbs) and a dollop of tomato puree. Let this simmer away for about 30-40 minutes, then add seasoning to taste. Serve with a green vegetable, crusty bread and a full-bodied red wine. Note: oddly, this tastes better if it’s just hot rather than piping hot. Suitable for vegans, though check the wine.

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It’s all about pace – and weather

The Writing Bit

We’ve had a good bit of weather in Sheffield this week.  The wind’s been so strong that it tore a huge branch from an old horse chestnut tree in the park where I walk  the dog, blocking the path and scattering a carpet of twigs and conkers  all around.  I like weather you can’t ignore, weather that reminds you that you’re alive and that nature is a force to be reckoned with.  I love the excitement and intensity, the exhilaration of being caught in wind so strong that you have to hang on to a lamppost to avoid being swept into oncoming traffic, or rain so heavy that there’s no point  in sheltering because you know you can’t get any wetter.

But it’s also good when it stops. The calm and relative quiet when you finally shut the door against the pandemonium of high winds; the comfort of warm, dry clothes and a rough towel for your hair after you’ve been caught in a downpour and are soaked to the skin.

I’ve found this quite helpful in thinking about the pace of a narrative, which is what I’ve been addressing in my editing sessions this week. Yes, intensity and excitement is great, but too much of it can be wearisome. By the same token, calm and quiet can be soothing, but if things are too quiet for too long, we fall asleep. 

So we need to be aware of pace so that we can actively enhance it.For scenes where you need to increase the pace or tension,  use  more short sentences than long ones, and choose words with ‘hard’ sounds, such as:  c, k, p, t, d, g, b. For example, ‘He picked up the pace.  He could hear the killer  behind him as he cut across the path. He stopped and turned.’ 

For slower, more thoughtful or romantic scenes, use longer sentences with softer sounds, such as: m,n, l, w, v, f, h, s.  For example,  ‘As she lay sleepily in his muscular arms, he stroked her hair softly and whispered the words she’d been longing to hear since the moment they’d first met.’ 

 Sick bag, anyone? Dreadful clichés, I know, but you see what I mean? 

The Reading Bit

I’m currently re-reading The Road Home by the wonderful Rose Tremain. This novel is a masterclass in creating sympathetic and interesting characters. The main character is so likeable that even when he does something bad later in the novel, we forgive him.  We even care about the minor characters, all of whom have their own complete stories.  A fine example of how sympathetic character + hardship + motivation and goals + obstacles along the way = good novel.

The Food Bit

Vegan highlight this week was sausage and mash with onion and red wine gravy.  After trying various vegan sausages, I discovered the Linda McCartney ones – very acceptable indeed. The trick is not to overcook them.  Make the gravy by slicing onions (one onion per two people) and frying them slowly in olive oil until they begin to caramelise. Stir in enough flour to make a paste, adding a touch more oil if necessary,  and cook  for a couple of minutes. Add vegetable stock, a good slosh of red wine (not all wine is suitable for vegans) and a dollop of dijon mustard. I usually stick in a couple of bay leaves and a some chopped or dried sage as well, plus a few grinds of black pepper. Salt to taste. Cook for a few minutes until thick and gorgeous, then serve with the sausages, sweet potato mash and whatever vegetables you have knocking around. 

  •  It’s my belief that ‘some’,  ‘a good slosh’,  and ‘a dollop’  are perfectly reasonable units of measurement. I hope you agree! If in doubt, taste.