The delights of a meat-free food fest

Valerie O’Connor delights in meat-free feasts at restaurants in Kerry and Limerick that show you don’t have to go without taste if you decide to go without flesh in your diet.

Paul Cotter, sous chef, Noel Keane, head chef, and Kevin O'Connor, manager at Croi — a great restaurant in Tralee.

IT’S been a good week in my meat-free world as I’ve had two fantastic meals out that contained not a leg or an eye of a beast in the feast.

As more and more people are choosing to try out a plant-based lifestyle, restaurants are now finding that
catering for a group may contain “one of those people” and it’s now possible to happily sit down together and chow down on a delicious feast, in a place that doesn’t just cater for vegetarians.

Of course what you do find in vegetarian eateries who are used to cooking for veggies, is they do dishes that cover all the food group angles, that famous one protein easily has its box ticked by a great nut roast, a mushroom terrine, or some nut rissoles or anything bean or lentil-based, there are so many things to choose from.

Then the veg, as with all your traditional meals, is the bulk of the dinner plate, as the protein box is ticked and the diner will be nicely satisfied. Easy.

Veggies also love chocolate, and great bread, as plant based does not mean clean-eating or that you are gluten free or coeliac, so sourdough and cacao-based deserts, as well as lovely crumbles and seasonal fresh fruit, yes please! We want to roll out the door clutching our sides, just like everyone else.

Hats off to Noel Keane, Kevin O’Connor and Paul Cotter who have opened Croi in Tralee recently. They team a lovely ethic of everything but the duck (great name for a band), growing as much veg as they can produce in two polytunnels and 16 raised beds. Do they ever sleep?

Delicious meat-free dishes at Croi.

It has a beautiful setting and I think, judging by the menu, heaven for a plant-eater — and we were not disappointed. The starters of tempura of wild broccoli with wild mushroom and a haw-berry sorbet with hawsin dip was a welcome change from the ubiquitous mushroom risotto, so thank you already. The salad starter has 28 ingredients, but I wolfed it down in two bites — delicious and fresh, invigorating. As everything on the menu is seasonal, what you get one day, you might not get the next visit.

Charred asparagus, wilted kale and char, wild mushroom, foraged woodland herbs, edible flowers, pickled beets and nasturtium pesto were delicous, with sauces and dressings made with love and packed with deep flavours.

As part of the Culinary Gangsters, a group of chefs working in Tralee, the trio got together at hyper speed and literally had the doors of this new and now bustling place, open in four days. It’s hard to believe it hasn’t been there long now, just a few months, but with a steady slew of diners coming in hungry off the streets, it looks like a table might be a hard thing to get in the near future.

Back on my own doorstep, the power of community continues to inspire at the Urban Co-op in Limerick, now based in the grounds of Tait House in Southhill since its move last year. The move has seen an increase in footfall as Tait House operates as a community centre for the surrounding area, running courses and more, and has it’s own café.

The Urban Co-op is bigger and better than before and will be hosting all manner of events for anyone who wants to come along. We are only too aware in Ireland of our rising “mental health epidemic” but it seems that with an increase in social isolation, not just for the elderly, that loneliness is often misinterpreted as depression or otherwise.

Young mothers alone with their babies, people working from home who might not interact with a soul for days on end, or teens who live lovely lives taking selfies or as they are sometimes called “aloneies” — this is a new way in which we are living and it’s not working out for everyone.

A co-op and community centre is an important place for all people, and every centre where people live needs to have one somewhere for people to mingle.

Oh yes, the shop is great too for locally-baked, sourdough breads, raw milk, great produce, all organic and excellently priced dry goods, herbal teas and the rest,and they will order anything in for you that you want that meets those criteria. Phew!

To arrive at Limerick’s Co-Op on Saturday was a dream come true as people of all ages mingled, enjoying delicious food cooked by Kate O’Shea who was the brains behind the event, along with Monica Spencer of the Gaff, a resource in Limerick city centre, available for events and for artists, at the cost of a small donation.

My hungry eyes were out on stalks to see a line of bain-maries filled with delicious sweet potato and chick pea coconut curry, lentil bolognese, courgetti, delicous beet and veg salad and yummy beetroot hummus, with green salads and amazing deserts.

Everything was made from the produce available to buy at the co-op and all for a donation of €5! To sit and listen to music from members of the Irish Chamber Orchestra Young Leaders’ ensemble from the Le Chéile primary school, led by Katherine Barnecutt, and surrounded by happy people loving the sunshine and eating amazing food in the outdoors, the place had a little bit of Berlin, right there in Southill.

Hats off to Dee MacMahon and Anne Maher who have done this from the roots up, and the garden is now being worked on, as well as an education room, it’s going to be just great.There are lots of events happening at the Urban Co-op and they are featured on Nationwide this September.


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