On Jan. 1 of last year, I began cooking as a vegetarian. Not because I became vegetarian, but because my younger child did, thus upending most of my hard-won weeknight cooking strategies.
I hadn’t thought of myself as an animal- centric cook, just your basic modern omnivore. Steaks and lamb chops were an occasional treat, not a routine dinner. But I soon realized I’d been relying on shortcuts like bacon, anchovy paste, pancetta and fish sauce.
At the same time, I began researching how to cook and eat with less impact on the environment. What I learned made me want to eat not only less meat but also less dairy, which can be just as harmful. It didn’t seem right to simply replace recipes that call for a pound of meat with recipes that call for a pound of cheese, so vegan cooking was also newly intriguing.
It didn’t seem impossible. I collected a fresh batch of recipes, laid in a supply of legumes and embarked on my new kitchen life.
The first few weeks, I did what felt normal: I cooked a couple of different things on the nights we all sat down to eat together. But dinner was never on the table before 9 p.m., the food was strangely unsatisfying and the kitchen was wrecked.
I tacked toward one-dish and one-pot meals. This worked for a while. We had penne with tomatoes and eggplant, followed by pad thai, followed by macaroni and cheese, at which point there was a mutiny. Noodles nightly were not the solution.
So I reached out to my trusted plant-based sources to find out why my omnivore’s skills produced vegetarian fails, and to reteach me how to cook. Here are their critiques:
I was stuffing everyone with starch. “A plant-based diet is not going to work exactly like a meat-based one,” said Rich Landau, chef and co-owner of vegetarian restaurants in Philadelphia and Washington. “It’s just not going to fill you up the same way.” In other words, it’s likely that a plant-based dinner at 7 p.m. may not carry everyone over until breakfast the next day. “Herbivores are grazers,” he added.
The fact that my kids were peckish at 9:30 p.m. didn’t mean that I had failed at dinner. It simply meant that I needed to lay in more substantial snacks and let go.
I was avoiding meat and dairy substitutes for no good reason. Growing up among hippies made me perpetually suspicious of anything offered as a healthier substitute for something good. The fact is that there are many products on the market that are delicious on their own terms, and more and more foods that are doing a good job of pretending to be meat and dairy. Go out and try them. Thanks to the recipes in “I Can Cook Vegan” (Harry N. Abrams, 2019), from chef Isa Chandra Moskowitz, coconut oil is my new best friend.
I needed to push more flavor into everything. For meat eaters, the natural umami in meat and fish is satiating. Even if the roasted potatoes alongside are plain and the salad dressing is basic, the savoriness brings satisfaction. Without that to lean on, everything on the plate wants to be thoroughly and thoughtfully seasoned, including basics like grains and beans.
“Just using enough salt will get you halfway there,” said Raquel Pelzel, author of “Umami Bomb” (Workman, 2019), a book of vegetarian recipes built around umami-rich ingredients: cooked tomatoes, mushrooms and Parmesan cheese. Then, she said, build elements like sweetness, heat, acid and smoke. (Smoked paprika is vegan sorcery, used in everything that I once flavored with bacon. I picked up a new trick for the spice from “Sababa” (Avery, 2019) a cookbook of Israel-inspired food: The author, Adeena Sussman, recommends stirring it in the end of cooking, to preserve its bright taste.)
Marinate everything that can be marinated, garnish everything that can be garnished (preferably with crunchy things like nuts and croutons) and season your cooking liquids (when you’re pressed for time, throw in a vegetable bouillon cube).
I was trying to cook too many things. A fiendishly good home cook of my acquaintance spoke some hard truths. “The thing about a vegetable is that you can’t just unwrap it, salt it, sear it and put it in the middle of the plate,” she said. Washing, peeling, cutting and sometimes even blanching must be done before you get to the cooking. “Vegetables just take more work,” she said.
So remember that one or two vegetables to work with on a weeknight is plenty. A bunch of roasted carrots with yogurt and the nutty spice mix dukkah is dinner; a pile of lemony broccoli on grilled bread is dinner; spicy tomato soup with bread and cheese is most definitely dinner.
I was being snobbish about frozen vegetables. Pulling off a weeknight vegetarian dinner with variety means having some parcooked vegetables on hand. New vegetarians are often advised to shop once a week and prep everything at once. I did, but was discouraged that at the end of all that labor, I still had to cook everything.
Bhavna Patel, a home cook in Lake City, Fla., with a popular YouTube channel, grew up in Gujarat, India, where a majority of people are vegetarian or vegan. She has streamlined her family’s recipes, she said, and often relies on homemade frozen vegetables. If you are peeling and cutting them anyway, it’s just as easy to boil them in salted water and freeze them in resealable bags. Or, find a brand you like and buy them. The route to dinner is much faster.
I needed to read recipes differently. Even if a vegetarian recipe has a manageable number of ingredients and a short cooking time (like a stir-fry), it may take a while to get it on the table. Many food publications measure the cook time starting at the point where the ingredients are already assembled and prepped. So a recipe that begins with a pound of washed, stemmed and sliced kale, 2 cups of chopped onions and six minced garlic cloves is always going to take longer than the estimated time.
I had to stop living in fear. I felt guilty when my eyes strayed toward the stash of chicken stock in the freezer, and worried about adding fish sauce to a vegan recipe. But your kitchen is not subject to labeling laws. If everyone decides that the Caesar salad dressing needs anchovies this week, no one will break down your door or take away your membership card. You still get to decide how to cook in your own home.
SPICED SEARED EGGPLANT WITH PEARL COUSCOUS
By Julia Moskin
- 1-1/2 cups pearl couscous
- 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 cups cubed eggplant with skin
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 medium tomato, diced, or 1 cup canned diced tomatoes
- 1-1/2 cups water
- 1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1/4 cup freshly chopped parsley
- Yogurt, for serving (optional)
- >> Spice mix:
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
In a small bowl, combine spice mix ingredients; set aside.
Heat a heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid over medium until hot but not smoking. Add couscous and toast, stirring often, until golden and fragrant, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a bowl.
Add oil to pot and raise heat to medium-high. When it shimmers, add eggplant, onion, salt and pepper; cook, stirring often, until onions are softened and golden and the eggplant is browned and slightly shrunken, 8 to 10 minutes. Add garlic and stir just until fragrant.
Add tomato paste and spice mixture; cook, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in toasted couscous, tomato and water. Cover and simmer on low until couscous has absorbed all the liquid, 8 to 12 minutes. Turn off heat; let rest, covered, 2 minutes.
Stir in paprika and parsley. Taste; add more salt if needed. Serve immediately with yogurt, if desired. Serves 4.
SAVORY THAI NOODLES WITH SEARED BRUSSELS SPROUTS
By Julia Moskin
- 8 ounces rice noodles
- 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon coconut oil, divided
- Kosher salt, to taste
- 8 ounces trimmed Brussels sprouts, shredded or quartered
- 1 bunch (6 to 8) green onions, sliced in 1-inch lengths
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 cups loosely packed cilantro leaves and thin stems
- 4 ounces bean sprouts (optional)
- 1/2 cup salted roasted peanuts, lightly cracked or coarsely chopped
- 1 red chili, thinly sliced (optional)
- 4 lime wedges, for serving
- >> Sauce:
- 1/3 cup tamari sauce
- 1/3 cup packed brown sugar
- 3 tablespoons white miso
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 tablespoons tamarind concentrate (see note)
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
>> To make sauce: Blend ingredients until pourable but still thick.
Cook noodles until slightly underdone. Drain, rinse in cold water to stop cooking. Toss in 1 teaspoon coconut oil to prevent sticking.
Heat wok or large nonstick skillet over high. Add 2 tablespoons coconut oil and sprinkle with salt. Add Brussels sprouts and sear, tossing occasionally, until browned and cooked through, about 5 minutes. Remove from pan; set aside.
In same pan over high, heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Add green onions and cook, stirring often, just until wilted, about 2 minutes. Add garlic, stir, then add about half the sauce; stir until bubbling.
Add noodles and cook, tossing until cooked through, about 2 minutes. Add remaining sauce, cooked Brussels sprouts, cilantro and bean sprouts, if using; toss to coat and heat through.
Garnish with peanuts, chili (if using) and lime wedges; serve immediately. Serves 3 to 4.
>> NOTE: Tamarind powder is easiest to find locally;reconstitute to use in place of concentrate.
Nutritional information unavailable.