ZOE WALKER extols the benefits of shunning meat...

NEXT week is the 11th annual National Vegetarian Week. And the seven per cent of the population who now shun meat are about as likely to celebrate by chomping down on a nut cutlet as meat eaters are to see in National Barbecue Week by eating a raw pork chop.

Vegetarians are no longer a marginalised minority and there is appetising, wholesome vegetarian food on the market these days. It can be quicker, tastier and cheaper to produce than anything a carnivore could conjure.

But I'm biased. I became a vegetarian at the age of 14, and for sixteen years completely cut meat out of my diet.

There was a brush with a lamb chop when I was abroad in the late Eighties. But besides that not a morsel of meat passed my lips until last year when on a whim I decided that the odd steak or bit of chicken would do me good. I started eating meat again, but the strange fad didn't last long and I reverted to vegetarianism again. But why?

Well, because once you have lost the taste for it - or unless you have the time to cook it properly - eating meat is just like dining on a wellington boot. It's tasteless old stuff that can make you feel sluggish, overweight, gets stuck in your teeth and gives you indigestion.

In addition, animals are often intensively reared these days, and have frequently been fed a cocktail of hormones and drugs that are in turn ingested by us humans when we eat the animal. Intensively reared animals often lead a rotten life, stressful and disease-ridden.

There are all sorts of meat substitutes on the market for those people nervous about making the transition from a carnivorous diet to vegetarianism - Quorn or Linda McCartney mince, for example - but it's unlikely you'll need them once you have discovered how to season your food, mix grains with vegetables so that you don't feel hungry after eating or have just plain lost the taste for meat.

It's rather like giving up smoking, but like kicking the nicotine habit if you do it properly and make sure that you eat a nutritionally balanced diet then you're liable to reap the benefits. And a nut cutlet need never even pass your lips.

Roasted Butternut Squash Risotto

Serves 4

1 butternut squash (about 1kg), peeled, deseeded and cut into small cubes

4 tablespoons olive oil

40g unsalted butter

2 garlic cloves, crushed

Handful of fresh oregano leaves, finely chopped

10 sage leaves

275g risotto rice, such as arborio

1.25 litres hot vegetable stock

200ml white wine

1 teaspoon lemon juice

Sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Mascarpone cheese, to serve

Preheat oven to 200C/400F/Gas Mark 6. Put the squash cubes on a baking tray, sprinkle with salt and two tablespoons olive oil. Roast in the preheated oven for 30 minutes until tender.

Put the butter, remaining olive oil and garlic in a medium saucepan. Cook gently for two minutes, then add the oregano, sage and rice.

Let the rice absorb the buttery juices, then stir in a ladle of the hot vegetable stock. Wait until the stock has been absorbed, then add the wine and the rest of the stock, a ladle at a time, making sure it has been completely absorbed between each addition.

Stir in the squash and lightly mash with the back of a fork, leaving some pieces whole. Stir in the lemon juice and add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve topped with a generous spoonful of mascarpone.

Taken from New Vegetarian Entertaining by Jane Noraika (Ryland, Peters & Small, £16.99)

Updated: 09:51 Saturday, May 17, 2003