During Thanksgiving break of my sophomore year in college, I declared myself a vegetarian. My mother listened patiently to my synopsis of "Fast-Food Nation," handed me a $20 bill and set me loose at Whole Foods to purchase whatever specialty foods vegetarians require for survival. Ten months later, I realized that not all meats are raised in factory farms. With ethical outrage assuaged, I resumed my carnivorous ways.
My diet, however, had permanently changed. As it happens, vegetarian cooking encompasses more than soy-based meat substitutes. During my near-year of plant-based gastronomy, I absorbed a new attitude toward ingredients and cooking techniques. Vegetables taste better now that I pay attention to them. My sources of protein are more varied, and I cook with meat without letting it run every show. And most importantly, when I have a vegetarian or vegan friend over for dinner, I know how to do more than simply defrost a Gardenburger.
The Human Herbivore comes in two main varieties. Vegetarians eat neither fish, fowl nor beast. Vegans eschew all meats as well as dairy and eggs (the jury is out on honey). The reasons for these dietary restraints are many: religious edict, animal welfare, greenhouse-gas emissions from animal agriculture, health and personal preference.
Even if none of these issues applies to you, chances are you will dine with someone for whom they do, and when that time comes, you want to be prepared. No matter his or her culinary credo, everyone agrees that food should taste good. Whether you are a dyed-in-the-hemp vegetarian or a die-hard omnivore, there are a few tricks that can make any of your meals deliciously veggie-flexible.
Beyond sight of the San Francisco skyline, vegetarian food often finds itself with an unflattering reputation. I wish I could claim this is unjustified. However, I have eaten enough half-baked tofu (sans marinade) and flavorless lentil-loaf to know that there are legitimate qualms about cooks of the vegetarian persuasion. Many "young" vegetarians and lifelong omnivores struggle with creating satisfying veggie-friendly dishes. There is more to mastering vegetarian recipes than simply leaving out the meat.
Choosing a good recipe is all about attitude. There are two kinds of vegetarian recipes: those that have been poked, prodded, modified and manhandled to accommodate vegetarian diets and those that just so happen to be made without meat. As a general rule, choose the latter. Dishes designed around animal products taste hollow when the main attraction is absent. Effortlessly vegetarian dishes begin with different ingredients and end with different flavors than their carnivorous counterparts.
Fortunately, there are several vibrant culinary traditions developed around a more plant-based diet. For example, many South Asian and Thai dishes are rich with the flavors of fragrant spices or coconut milk, rather than meat or stock. Several appetizing Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes rely on nuts and legumes for protein. Even many Western dishes, such as savory crepes or quiche, make for satisfying meatless meals – all without creative tailoring.
Once you have a recipe selected, it is time to hit the market. In choosing ingredients for a stellar vegetarian dish, remember: the quality of your produce will drive the flavor. The best choices for any recipe are fresh, seasonal and whole.
One of the fringe benefits of cooking plant-based foods is that high-end organic produce often costs less than mediocre meat. Your – or, in my case, my mother's – $20 bill should stretch further on a vegetarian shopping list, even if the quality of the ingredients is higher.
A frequent question from those new to vegetarian cooking is what to do for protein. Americans consume more meat per capita than any other nation, so to many, the protein options in a meatless diet may seem a complete mystery (or else, a tired repletion of dairy and soy). However, culinary sources for protein abound. Tangy lentil soup, curried chickpeas and hearty vegetable chilis highlight the variety of protein-packed flavors available from legumes. Seitan, a traditional Buddhist food made from wheat gluten, holds up in a garlicky stir-fry or when breaded and fried like chicken. Protein-packed quinoa, a versatile South American grain, boasts risotto-like texture and nutty undertones.
When you are finally ready to work vegetarian culinary magic, there are a couple of principles to keep in mind.
Do: buy a set of sharp knives and a cast-iron pan. Your fresh tomatoes will thank you for the clean slicing, and the additional iron will do a meatless body good.
Don't: use the same spoon to stir meat and vegetarian dishes when serving mixed company, to prevent "cross-contamination."
Do: keep your meat and vegetable cutting boards separate, as much for hygiene as for ethics.
Don't: neglect to wash produce, because vegetables harbor bugs, chemicals and disease agents just as meat does.
Whether your foray into vegetarian cooking represents an exploration of new cooking methods, a lifelong choice or a single-meal concession, do keep an open palate. Even if you have no intention of relinquishing steak, you can still savor the sizzling seitan.
Quinoa with Sauteed Scallions and Pan-Fried Corn
Adapted from "Vegan Planet" (Harvard Common Press, 2003)
1 1/2 cups quinoa (red or white)
2 tablespoons scallions
3 cups veggie stock
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 cups corn (fresh or frozen)
5 scallions, whites only
1 tablespoon grated orange zest
salt and finely ground pepper, to taste
Rinse quinoa and drain. In saucepan, bring stock to simmer and add quinoa. Reduce to low and simmer until all liquid is absorbed (about 15 minutes). Heat olive oil in cast-iron pan, toss in corn and scallions and sautÃ© for 3 minutes. Stir in quinoa, orange zest, salt and pepper. Let set 5 minutes. Garnish with chives and serve.