I met a lovely woman at this year’s Herb Society of America (HSA) Educational Conference. She told me her 20-something grandson had just become a vegetarian, and while some in the family were frowning with disapproval, she was frowning in confusion.
The problem is that she doesn’t know what to cook for him. She told me she whispers to him, “There’s something on the stove for you.” But she’s a bit at a loss as to exactly what vegetarian cooking is, besides salads.
She’s not alone. When I first became a vegetarian, 26 years ago, restaurants had pretty much nothing but salad and maybe a side order of string beans, from a can, on their menus. You might get lucky and find a grilled cheese sandwich, or resort to eating pancakes or an omelette, if they had a breakfast-anytime menu.
Chefs at restaurants might have been nice enough to cook you a special meal, and it was always steamed vegetables with potatoes or rice. Sadly, today, some still offer that very pathetic and uninspired food, or maybe a stir-fry.
But overall, things have changed tremendously, and you can buy fake meat, hot dogs, burgers, and tofu (real tofu, I mean, not fake tofu) in many mainstream grocery stores. Even fast food chains carry veggie burgers, although the fries may be fried in beef fat, so beware.
But back to my new friend. What to cook for a vegetarian? Here are some simple ideas to start with.
Replace the meat
Most people start off this way, by taking a meat dish and replacing the meat with fake meat, also called a meat analog. Thus the popularity of the veggie burgers, sausage, and “meat” balls in grocery stores.
But this is only as good as the faux meat product, or a very flavorful sauce, you put on it. And if you make your own, it can be a bit labor intensive to make. Commercial products vary widely. You may like a meaty taste and texture in a veggie burger; another vegetarian may be grossed out by that and would rather have beans and vegetables in a patty that looks and tastes like beans and vegetables in a patty.
But this is a good place to start, particularly if you can find a product or recipe for something that closely mimics the original omnivore dish. It’s a great way to open people’s minds to vegetarian food, IF you can make them (trick them?) eat something vegetarian that they may think is delicious.
I wrote a post about what to put into a veggie burger, if you decide to make your own. If you want to try some commercial products, use them with the same trimmings and side dishes you normally use, and see if they will suffice.
For example, serve your fake hot dogs with vegetarian baked beans, or on a bun, with mustard, onions, and sauerkraut, if that’s how you normally eat them. Or grill veggie burgers and serve them on a bun with ketchup, mustard, or a barbecue sauce.
Pair these dishes with coleslaw, green salad, fruit salad, potato salad, bean salad, or corn on the cob, and you have a meal that will please just about any gathering. Try this Greek-Inspired Potato Salad, with herbs from your garden.
Take the meat out
When I first became a vegetarian, I ordered Pork Tofu from the Chinese take-out place and picked out the pork. Or pulled the pepperoni off pepperoni pizza.
Nowadays that wouldn’t just cut it, not only because I have so many more interesting and tasty options. But also because many vegetarians are grossed out or won’t eat food that has had animals cooked in it.
But you can use that idea. Don’t think of typical meat and potatoes dishes, but of dishes with a little meat mixed in with other things. Stews and stir-fries are good examples. Do as you would normally, but leave the meat out.
Or have a grilled pizza party! You can feed vegetarians, vegans, and meat eaters alike, and it is still one of the most delicious ways to use a grill.
Kick up the flavor
Sometimes you can add flavor that the meat would normally add to a dish, just by incorporating more of the spices and herbs in the dish. Or try adding a small amount of toasted sesame oil or liquid smoke. Both of them add aromas that mimic dishes with meat in them.
Other meaty additions are chopped mushrooms, which provide meaty texture plus that fifth taste, umami. That’s the Japanese word for a sense that means something along the lines of savory, or something that makes you go, “mmm!”
We have taste receptors for salty, sweet, bitter, and sour. But umami is that fifth and somewhat elusive flavor. If you can incorporate umami in your dishes, they will be more delicious.
Start with the same vegetables. Then change the spices and herbs you add, and you get a whole new dish.
For example, if you use eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, green beans, plus onions and garlic, think of those as your blank slate. To add color to your palette/palate, change the herbs and spices.
Add dill, parsley, mint, and a touch of oregano, and you have a Greek stew. Add cumin, jalapeno or other chile peppers, oregano, cilantro, and you have Mexican. Add soy sauce, ginger, sweetener, and you’ve got teriyaki. Throw in some chopped parsley, marjoram, oregano, and a touch or rosemary, and you have Mediterranean.
Or consider dishes from other cultures. Many countries have populations of vegetarians, or rural or poorer people, who rely more on vegetables and grains, rather than animal products, for their food. Here is a recipe for Bissara, an African spicy split pea stew.
And curries, some of my favorite dishes, are such complex mixtures of spices, that no two are ever the same. Malaysian Tofu and Broccoli Curry is a favorite, and Papaya Curry is exotic and colorful. An added bonus is that the spices add disease-fighting phytochemicals, or plant compounds, that protect your health and prevent disease, such as turmeric, which has shown promise in reducing inflammation and preventing mental decline.
Made a variety of side dishes
When in doubt, you can always make a variety of side dishes or appetizers and serve them buffet style. Think of bean dips, cole slaw, potatoes, pasta salad, pesto, and the like.
These ideas will give you a decent starting point if you are wondering how to cook for a vegetarian or vegan. Of course, check the rest of this blog for other ideas, inspiration, and recipes.
If there’s anything in particular you want a recipe for, send me an email or leave a comment, and I’ll see what I can do.