How to put plants at the centre of your plate 

Photo: Matt Russell

 There’s a growing trend for replacing meat with vegetables in more of your meals. And it’s Anna Jones mission to make those dishes so hearty you won’t miss meat 

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By Anna Jones on

All my friends, whether they are vegetarian or not, want to eat more simple, seasonal, vegetable-led food. This January I have been discovering more people making a shift in their diet to be more conscious and considered. A growing band of us aren’t just about a month-long sprint, but have a more committed desire to eat in a way that is better for our bodies and the world around us. Hallelujah.

I’ve noticed this shift everywhere, especially at the green grocers and when doing my online food shop. This month the things I usually buy, from coconut yoghurt to green veg and seasonal fruit are all so popular I can’t get my hands on them.

I am over the moon that the natural plant whole foods I consider my normal are becoming more and more normal to everyone. Yes, perhaps it is a bit of a January spike but if everyone is eating more veg, more plants, that's bound to mean that trickles into the day to day for many throughout the year and that is massive progress.

This January I’ve also noticed a lot more people taking part in Veganuary, a movement to encourage people to eat without any animal products for the month of January. Just the word “vegan” a few years ago used to be enough for people to look at me with head tilted sideways, like I’d lost it. I should be clear with you I’m not vegan but vegetarian. I do like to vary the dairy, I eat milk and cheese but I make sure it comes from good sources and is always organic, (as I don’t buy meat and fish I have an extra bit of cash to spend on organic dairy and veg). But I also make and drink almond milk and oat milk, make dips and mayo from cashew nuts. For me eating well is all about variety and the more plants I can get into my diet each week, the better.

The number of vegetarians in the UK may be slowly creeping up, but the number of people reducing the amount of meat in their diet is skyrocketing

The number of vegetarians in the UK may be slowly creeping up, but the number of people reducing the amount of meat in their diet is skyrocketing. We all know that eating lots of meat may 
not be the best for our bodies, or the planet. For me being vegetarian is easy and how I live; for you it might be different, a few nights a week without meat maybe.

When I became vegetarian my cooking changed – all of a sudden I had
 to look at cooking in a completely different way. The building blocks that 
I had grown up with and the rules I had learnt as a chef didn’t quite fit any more. So the challenge to find new ways to add texture, interest and flavour to my food have meant using a new palette of ingredients and some new techniques in the kitchen. These are my top five things to think about when putting plants at the centre of your plate, something that will become part of how you cook beyond January 31st.


These are often forgotten in cooking but to me they are just as key to
 a good plate of food as flavour, particularly in vegetarian food. I think about how children respond to food – we are tuned into texture just as much
 as flavour. Toasted seeds tossed into a salad; charred, oil-drizzled bread next to a bowl of soup; the crunch of some peppery radishes inside a soft taco. It’s texture, just as much as flavour, that hits the taste buds and tells your brain that this is delicious and helps you to feel satisfied.

eat with your eyes

For the last ten years in my day job as a food stylist I have been making food jump off the plate and getting you to want 
to eat what is on the page at that exact moment: the slick of chocolate drooling out of a chocolate fondant; the drops of water on a freshly washed leaf of the freshest, crispest salad; the melting cheese and crumble of perfect flaky pastry around the edge of a tart. I know that when I cook for friends the simplest salad put on a plate with a bit of thought, or an easy bowl of pasta topped with some bright herbs and a flash of red chilli, means we start eating before we’ve even got a fork in our hands, Take an extra minute to make the most of your plate of food as an offering to yourself and whoever you are feeding.

BalancE flavour

For me is about making the most of the ingredient I am cooking. Sometimes that means a little scatter of Anglesey sea salt and nothing else. Other times it means balancing herbs, spices, sweet and sour, backing up the natural character of a deep dense caramelly piece of roasted squash with warming spices or spiking a tomato sauce with a hit of vinegar. Think about, salt, sweet, sour, spicy and umami flavour, you want them to all balance out and make the most of your precious ingredients.

Look at the dish as a whole

 If I had a pound for every time someone asked me where I get my protein as a vegetarian I would be a very rich lady, and while it does feel a bit like I am listening to a broken record at times it is a consideration. I’m not a nutritionist but I do know that as long as I make sure eat day I eat pulses, quinoa, a little tofu, some nuts or seeds as part of the bigger picture of what I am eating I feel full and happy. Nuts and seeds make great dressing blitzed up with some herbs, try tossing tofu in a little soy and maple syrup and frying in a little oil. Tinned pulses are a cheap and easy fix to add to a soup, stew or salad.

Be brave with your veg

In these cold months I can feel like heartier flavours. Veg centred cooking is often associated with light flavours and steamed veg but it needn’t be. Lot of vegetables are much better when hit with some serious flavour or put on the grill as you might a steak. Try charring your broccoli on a griddle then dressing it in honey, lemon, soy and chilli or cutting through a head of cauliflower to make steaks, brush with mustard and griddle unitl soft through. Or try my celeraic steaks (below) for a super hearty meal on a cold January day.

ChilLi and thyme Celeriac steaks with parmesan sweet potato fries

Celeriac is a brute of a vegetable, but beneath its gnarly, knobbly exterior lies sweet creamy white flesh which I adore. Celeriac takes on flavour brilliantly and can stand up to some brave flavours and cooking. Here it’s marinated, charred on the griddle and basted with chilli and thyme to create a burnished crust.

Salsa verde always reminds me of my days in the kitchen – it was one
of the first things I learnt to make as a chef and it’s still one of my favourites. It cuts through the sweet smokiness of the celeriac perfectly.

These sweet potatoes are my favourite way to eat fries. Oven-baked and polenta-coated, they are crispy and perfect. If you can’t get hold of polenta, another way to ensure really crisp fries without a lot of oil is to place a cooling rack on top of a baking tray and cook the fries on the rack.

This is also a great thing to do on the barbecue – the chips won’t take the high heat, but the celeriac steaks will be all the better for some smoky flames.


  • 2 sweet potatoes
  • Rapeseed or olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon polenta
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • 1 celeriac
  • 25g Parmesan cheese (I use a vegetarian one)


  • 1 red chilli

  • Zest and juice of 1 unwaxed lemon
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup

  • A few sprigs of fresh thyme


  • 3 cornichons
  • 1 tablespoon capers
  • 1 small bunch each of fresh mint, basil and parsley
  • Zest and juice of
1⁄2 an unwaxed lemon
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan/gas 6. Fill and boil a kettle and get all your ingredients together.
  2. Carefully cut the sweet potatoes into thin sticks about 1cm thick. Place them on a baking tray, drizzle with the oil, season with salt and pepper and scatter over the polenta. Crush the garlic cloves with the side of a knife, add them to the tray, toss the whole lot together and put into the oven for 25 minutes.
  3. Fill a medium saucepan with hot water from the kettle and bring to the boil. Thickly peel the celeriac, then slice it into 2cm thick steaks and blanch in the boiling water for 5 minutes, until just tender.
  4. Finely chop the red chilli and mix it with the lemon juice, maple syrup, thyme leaves and a pinch of salt and pepper to make a marinade.
  5. Once the 5 minutes are up, drain the celeriac and put it into the marinade. Preheat a ridged griddle pan on a high heat. Remember to keep an eye
on your sweet potatoes and turn them from time to time so that they brown evenly.
  6. To make the salsa verde, roughly chop the cornichons and capers, then add the herbs and chop everything together. Scoop into a bowl, grate in the lemon zest, squeeze in the juice and add 2 tablespoons of oil and 2 tablespoons of the marinade from the celeriac. Taste and season with salt and pepper.
  7. Place the celeriac on a hot griddle for 2–3 minutes on each side, until charred and cooked through, basting with the remaining marinade every minute or so.
  8. Five minutes before the sweet potatoes are ready, turn the oven up to its maximum temperature. Take the fries out, grate over the Parmesan, then pop back into the oven to crisp up. Serve the steaks with the fries and a generous spoon of salsa verde, and, if you like, with a shock of green salad.


​Recipe taken from A Modern Way to Cook by Anna Jones, out now

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Photo: Matt Russell
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