What omnivores get wrong about vegetarian cooking

Joined
30 Mar 2017
Local time
11:54 PM
Messages
4,009
Location
Detroit, USA
Website
absolute0cooking.com
Mind you, this isn't my observation. I am someone who sometimes accidentally makes a vegetarian dish (and even more accidentally, a vegan dish). But, this chef's observations really seem dead-on. I know that morning glory's son became a vegetarian (or was it a vegan?) and she's gotten quite adept at making excellent food without meat (you're who I thought of immediately when I read this). I'm also curious to hear what other experienced vegetarian/vegan cooks have to say.

Julia Moskin is a chef with the New York Times. Her recipes are always inspired, yet approachable, from what I've seen previously. The article can be found here:

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/20/dining/going-vegetarian.html

I've also reproduced it in its entirety below:


What Omnivores Get Wrong About Vegetarian Cooking
When you (or your kid, partner or roommate) goes vegetarian, you’ll need to change up your weeknight

By Julia Moskin
Published Sept. 20, 2019


On Jan. 1 of this year, I began cooking as a vegetarian. Not because I became vegetarian — that would be professionally untenable — but because my younger child did, thus upending most of my hard-won weeknight cooking strategies.

I didn’t think 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 that I’d been relying on shortcuts like bacon, anchovy paste, pancetta and fish sauce.

At the same time, I began research on a project about 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 knew about putting vegetables at the center of the plate, I had mastered “put an egg on it,” and we already ate salad most nights. So 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 absolutely 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 every night were not the solution.

To make sure dinner was filling, I was stuffing everyone with starch.

“A plant-based diet is not going to work exactly like a meat-based one,” said Rich Landau, the chef and co-owner of Vedge and other vegetarian restaurants in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. “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 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, the author of “Umami Bomb” (Workman, 2019), a new 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,” a new 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 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,” a new book from the chef Isa Chandra Moskowitz, coconut oil is my new best friend.

I was being snobbish about frozen vegetables.

Pulling off a weeknight vegetarian dinner with variety, like a sheet-pan dinner, a vegetable stew or a stir-fry, means having some parcooked vegetables on hand. New vegetarians are often advised to do a big vegetable shop once a week and prep everything at once. I did it, but was discouraged by the fact that at the end of all that labor, I still had to cook everything as the week went on.

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. Pav bhaji, her go-to meal for her sons, is a vegetable curry served on toasted buttered buns.


I was trying to cook too many things.

I phoned a fiendishly good home cook of my acquaintance, whose children have been through vegan, vegetarian and pescatarian stages. She 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.

We can’t let that dissuade us from cooking them, but we can remember that one or two vegetables to work with on a weeknight is plenty for most home cooks. A bunch of roasted carrots with yogurt and the nutty spice mix dukkah is dinner; a pile of lemony broccoli or broccoli rabe on grilled bread is dinner; spicy tomato soup with bread and cheese is most definitely dinner.

I also 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. That’s because many food publications, including NYT Cooking, measure the cook time starting at the point where the ingredients are already assembled and prepped. (There’s such a wide range of kitchen skills, it wouldn’t be possible to say how long it takes a given cook to do that work.) So a recipe that begins with a pound of washed, stemmed and sliced kale, two 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 a restaurant, and you are not a giant corporation 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.
 

epicuric

Legendary Member
Staff member
Joined
12 Mar 2016
Local time
4:54 AM
Messages
4,567
Location
Shropshire, UK
Interesting article. I think it is very true that too often vegetables are treated almost as an afterthought, simply to prop up a main protein. We have been increasingly conscious of this of late - simply dollupping a pile of carrots and peas on a plate and leaving the meat or fish to supply the interest is a missed opportunity. Each element can be a star in its own right, given a bit of forethought and planning.
 

CraigC

Veteran
Joined
1 Dec 2017
Local time
11:54 PM
Messages
4,016
Location
SE Florida
When you (or your kid, partner or roommate) goes vegetarian, you’ll need to change up your weeknight....

No, they'll need to learn how to cook! :wink:

CD :D

And clean up after themselves! I'm tempted to say"and purchase any ingredients they'll need for their new dietary choice", but of coarse I would not expect a young child to do so.
 

Morning Glory

Obsessive cook
Staff member
Recipe Challenge Judge
Joined
19 Apr 2015
Local time
4:54 AM
Messages
38,954
Location
Maidstone, Kent, UK
I know that @morning glory's son became a vegetarian (or was it a vegan?) and she's gotten quite adept at making excellent food without meat (you're who I thought of immediately when I read this). I

For me, cooking vegetarian is easy peasy. I don't even consciuously think about it. I was vegetatarian myself for many years and my daughter was vegetarian. When my son went vegan that was a steep fast learning curve - the problem with vegan is that you have no dairy or eggs. So, cheese which adds umami, body and protein to dishes is absent. You can make your own nut cheese (time consuming and you won't get a really strong cheddar flavour very easily) or you can buy vegan cheese - which is IMHO pretty tasteless. You also have no eggs so have to seek out alternatives. Aquafaba is a good example as a sub for eggs and you can make mayo using that as well as meringues. Nowadays its much easier in the UK, as the vegan revolution has taken hold and all the supermarkets stock vegan products such as mayo, yoghurt, plant milks etc. plus vegan 'ready meals'.

So when I read this article I was surprised in a way - if it had been about vegan cooking I wouldn't have been so surprised. Vegetarian doesn't mean lots of time consuming prepping of loads of fresh vegetables. You can make loads of vegetarian meals with pasta, tinned beans and pulses, tinned tomatoes, cheese, eggs, spices and herbs and easy to find ingredients such as soy sauce, tomato paste etc. Also, of course numerous salads can be made quite easily with minimal preparation.

Buy some ready made pastry or a pizza base and you can make all kinds of things really quickly 'on a weeknight'. A vegetarian pizza is going to be liked by everyone - and those that want pepperoni or anchovies can add them. So I really don't think that some of the issues raised in this article are valid. Just my view...
 
Joined
30 Nov 2012
Local time
4:54 AM
Messages
1,019
Location
Hampshire, UK
So I really don't think that some of the issues raised in this article are valid. Just my view...
I would tend to agree. The article seems to have a very limited view of "vegetarian"....ie. just vegetables. What about beans and pulses? They are a good source of protein and will keep you full just as long as meat does. They also make a really good meat-substitute in many dishes (stews, casseroles, curries).

We quite often eat vegetarian....not particularly by design but more because we fancy something that doesn't happen to contain meat. In fact looking at out meals so far this week 3 out of 4 of them were vegetarian (mushroom risotto, lentil chilli taco cups & a mixed vegetable omlette. With a couple of substitutions two of them could have easily been made vegan.
 
Joined
30 Mar 2017
Local time
11:54 PM
Messages
4,009
Location
Detroit, USA
Website
absolute0cooking.com
morning glory, MrsDangermouse: I think I related to the author because I am rarely cooking in a way that limits what I can and can't use. I ran into this when I made corn chowder at my parent's house last week. My brother has a lot of things that he can't eat. It's not as simple as saying "no meat" or "no gluten". There are a baffling number of apparently unrelated things that he can't eat. In his case, it's something that's arisen from what was once a chronic condition of always feeling sick. Whenever there were plans with him, it was 50/50 that he'd cancel because he was coming down with something. After many adjustments from his nutritionist, he has a list of restricted items. It seems to have helped him, since I can't recall the last time he was sick.

While it has helped him, it seriously restricts my options when I cook something for him. I picked this recipe because it's just about 100% vegetables. There are no thickeners like milk, flour, or cornstarch like many chowders. I normally use bacon at the beginning to saute the vegetables, but I replaced that with vegetable oil...not as flavorful, but still good. I should have made a stock, but I decided to keep it simple, and instead used an organic, low sodium vegetable stock.

I figured I was in the clear, but then my brother started looking at the ingredient list for the stock. Ingredient number 6 on the list (I can't even remember what) was something that he couldn't have...there's probably only a trace amount in any given bowl when you get right down to it. He grudgingly agreed to have a small cup of the chowder. He loved it.

But, for me, it was infuriating: I had modified the recipe for him, and in my opinion made it less good than it could have been (due to the lack of bacon), but it still wasn't quite enough to suit his restrictions.

When you're trying to prepare food for someone with dietary restrictions, it feels like you're walking through a minefield. Any innocent mistake can wreck the whole thing, in their view, which means all the time and love you've put into the dish can be for nothing. Or, maybe it's just that my brother is weird (a definite possibility).

I suppose when you're used to making vegetarian dishes, it becomes second nature for you. I don't think the prep work for vegetables is that big a deal: it's no different than it would be for a meat dish with a vegetable component. But, I can relate to cooking with restrictions. I don't like cooking like that. But, next time I make something for him, I'll make something simple.
 

Morning Glory

Obsessive cook
Staff member
Recipe Challenge Judge
Joined
19 Apr 2015
Local time
4:54 AM
Messages
38,954
Location
Maidstone, Kent, UK
When you're trying to prepare food for someone with dietary restrictions, it feels like you're walking through a minefield. Any innocent mistake can wreck the whole thing, in their view, which means all the time and love you've put into the dish can be for nothing.

I empathise - but you are talking about a quite extreme case of a diet for someone with food intolerances and/or allergic responses. That's a whole different ball game compared to vegetarian cooking. In fact, cooking for someone with allergies can be a minefield as you discovered, because of hidden ingredients in pre-bought sauces etc.

Being vegetarian isn't really a dietary restriction in the same sense and not complicated. The only rule to remember is that anything produced from killing an animal is off the menu. So that means fish and fish sauce for example as well as beef, pork etc. - produce such as hens eggs, milk & cheese are OK, because you don't kill the chicken to get its eggs or kill the cow to get its milk.

Being vegan is a step further and means nothing produced by animals, whether it directly involves killing them or not. So no milk, cheese, eggs, honey.
 

TastyReuben

Nosh 'n' Splosh
Joined
15 Jul 2019
Local time
11:54 PM
Messages
9,962
Location
Ohio, US
When you're trying to prepare food for someone with dietary restrictions, it feels like you're walking through a minefield.
This is exactly why I quit cooking for the load of vegan eaters in my family - the restriction of so many things, coupled with what I felt was a complete lack of appreciation of the time, effort, and money invested in doing so.
 
Joined
30 Mar 2017
Local time
11:54 PM
Messages
4,009
Location
Detroit, USA
Website
absolute0cooking.com
I empathise - but you are talking about a quite extreme case of a diet for someone with food intolerances and/or allergic responses. That's a whole different ball game compared to vegetarian cooking. In fact, cooking for someone with allergies can be a minefield as you discovered, because of hidden ingredients in pre-bought sauces etc.
I have to put my brother's issues in a slightly different category from someone who, say, has a peanut allergy. I do know that these allergies are serious, and can even be fatal.

I think part of my brothers' issues are psychological. If he accidentally has a potato, for example, we don't have to rush him to the hospital. He had literally no ill effects as a result of my chowder.

But, there was probably something among all the odd things that he excludes that has a physiological component. So, I can understand why he wants to keep on restricting everything on the list. Currently, that list has about 50 items on it; the list used to be well over 100, and the nutritionist gradually started adding those things back (like mushrooms).

This is exactly why I quit cooking for the load of vegan eaters in my family - the restriction of so many things, coupled with what I felt was a complete lack of appreciation of the time, effort, and money invested in doing so.
I almost forgot: what I usually do when my brother comes to visit is ask him to bring his own food. Problem solved! :)
 

TastyReuben

Nosh 'n' Splosh
Joined
15 Jul 2019
Local time
11:54 PM
Messages
9,962
Location
Ohio, US
I almost forgot: what I usually do when my brother comes to visit is ask him to bring his own food. Problem solved! :)
Maybe I'm too sensitive, but when my relatives have done that (without me asking), I really just made me feel like a short-order cook-for-hire.

I rarely cook for others (except my wife), so when I do, part of the act of love, so to speak, is me choosing something that I think they'll enjoy.

It's exactly like gift-giving; when someone gives me a list and says, "I want something off this list for my birthday," then there's no point in me thinking about their personality and their likes - I'm suddenly just a gopher with a wallet.

Show up with tofu, mushrooms, and cauliflower and say, "Here, cook this for me!" - you'll hear me say, "The kitchen's that way, help yourself!" 😒
 
Top Bottom