The Endless Pleasures of Vegetarian Cooking
By trade, I’m an omnivore. The only food rule I follow is that I eat everything, because anything can lead to deliciousness. Maybe it’s goat meat …
By trade, I’m an omnivore. The only food rule I follow is that I eat everything, because anything can lead to deliciousness. Maybe it’s goat meat on the bone, cooked low and slow and served in a dark pool of its own cooking juices. Maybe it’s a bloomy wheel of cheese made from cashew milk, dense and creamy in the middle. If it’s good, I want it, and then I want seconds.
But when I cook at home, what I want more and more of is vegetables. Right now, this instant, I want long, skinny tongues of charred eggplant dressed in soy sauce and maple syrup, over rice. I want bright tomato pulp puréed with bread and olive oil, right from the lip of the bowl. I want a big pile of lettuce leaves filled with Hetty McKinnon’s sweet and spicy tofu larb.
When the weather cools down? I want a hot pot of winter greens and chewy noodles in miso broth. I want my favorite toor dal with whole boiled peanuts. I want sweet-edged, wrinkly roasted root vegetables over heaps of cheesy polenta, swimming in olive oil.
I don’t know exactly when my appetite became so intensely focused on vegetarian foods in my own kitchen. It happened slowly, then all at once, like a custard thickening on the stovetop. I revised my food shopping, and my home cooking followed, branching out and expanding. I went back to old, favorite cookbooks that included meat and fish only occasionally, or not at all, like “River Cafe Cook Book Green,” by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, and “Classic Indian Vegetarian Cookery,” by Julie Sahni.
I already knew that the world of vegetarian cooking was vast and diverse, its pleasures endless, but I wanted a place to concentrate on it, to celebrate it. So starting this week, I’ll be writing a new weekly newsletter: The Veggie. On Thursdays, I’ll share vegetarian recipes and notes from my own kitchen, and from my colleagues. You can expect traditional dishes from long-established vegetarian cuisines, as well as adaptations and fun experiments; quick everyday recipes and special occasion dishes that require a bit more planning.
Maybe you’re drawn to vegetarian food for ethical reasons, for health reasons, for ecological reasons, for reasons you can’t quite explain just yet. Maybe you’re trying to get out of a kitchen rut. Maybe, like me, you really love to eat well, and you want to cook with vegetables more.
I still smoke a lamb shoulder in the backyard or roast a salmon now and then, but when I plan a meal, it’s more often around vegetables than meat or fish. I shop once or twice a week, either at the supermarket or the farmers’ market, and later I study my pantry and my produce drawer, considering it all strategically — a glut of Persian cucumbers, a bunch of fading dill, some green onion.
I rummage through my ice-crusted freezer drawer, wondering what that unlabeled quart container is filled with (leftover cannellini beans and greens?), and reach for a half bag of frozen peas. And despite my own inconsistencies when it comes to shopping and planning (and labeling leftovers), vegetables always lead me to something delightful and satisfying.
Frozen peas, brought up in hot, salted water, then roughly puréed with some chile flakes, lemon juice and zest, are positively springy when spread onto a thick piece of sourdough that’s been crisped under the broiler and rubbed with a clove of garlic. Or, simmered with a little cream, they can dress a big bowl of pasta, with black pepper and grated cheese on top.
Persian cucumbers, roughly peeled, chopped and plopped into a blend of buttermilk and yogurt, quickly form the base of Naz Deravian’s abdoogh khiar, an Iranian chilled soup, crunchy with walnuts, which is quick to make, and life-affirming in this late summer heat.
I’m energized by cooks who coax the best out of vegetables, and not only professionals — restaurant cooks, recipe developers, cookbook authors who’ve been working with vegetarian food for far longer than me — but also friends, family and other home cooks who have patiently walked me through a technique, or documented their work online.
Just when I thought I might be getting a little bit sick of salads, for example, Ali Slagle went and put one on a pizza. And not just any pizza, but a super thin-crust pizza covered entirely with a crisp, lacy layer of Parmesan cheese. With all due respect to California Pizza Kitchen, and the chain’s tricolore salad pizza, it is infinitely better than its inspiration.
Piling salad on a cheesy, thin-crust pizza is the kind of smart, simple technique I know I’ll practice again, not only exactly as written, with baby arugula and white beans on top, but maybe with crunchy lettuce in a tahini ranch dressing, or lots of sautéed summer squash. Or maybe with some cherry tomatoes, roasted until they burst, tossed with olive oil and big pieces of torn basil. It’s official, salad pizza is now a part of my repertoire.
And that’s the thing about a good vegetarian recipe: It leads you to a delicious meal, then makes hundreds more possible.
Recipes: Tofu Larb | Salad Pizza With White Beans and Parmesan | Abdoogh Khiar (Chilled Buttermilk Cucumber Soup)
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