Although I’m not an extremist, I’ve been a vegetarian for some years now. My transition was slow and comfortable, where it didn’t feel like I was removing things from my diet, but rather opting for things I liked better.
Slowly but surely, chicken, industrial meet and most dairy disappeared from my fridge and my life, replaced by all sorts of vegetables, mushrooms and interesting new things I discovered along the way. And just to be clear, I will still eat meat every once in a while (say, 6 times a year), when either served while traveling or by hosts, or when I can find free-ranging, grass-fed and traditionally-butchered animal meat. I also eat cheese and eggs, and until recently fish, but the latter is also starting to fade from my daily meals.
One of the early challenges I had to face was figuring out meals that were as delicious and enticing as what I used to eat. It took a while, but I discovered that the possibilities with vegetarianism are endless and can draw from many international cuisines along the way, bringing a sense of variety and excitement.
Today, I just want to share a couple examples of these meals, which are healthy, simple… And probably far from the common conception of what a vegetarian diet is. “Bland”, “boring” and “repetitive” surely won’t be words you’ll use to describe them :)
You can use a vacuum-sealed pack of fresh noodles or even dried ramen if that’s all you have at hand. Get as many mushroom types as you can; oyster, shiitake, Portobello, enoki and crimini are among my favorites. Put them in a pan or wok with a little oil and chopped up garlic and spinach leaves. Pan the mushrooms and garlic first, then add the spinach toward the end so that it doesn’t become mushy. Meanwhile, heat up the noodles in boiling water (Wanna make it real fancy? Use broth instead) for about 2 minutes, drain and throw them in the wok/pan with your veggies. You can flavor with any sauce you like (sriracha, sweet soy, even just a drop of sesame oil is delicious). Boom! You just made an excellent meal in about 15 minutes.
This recipe I learned from La Mariposa Maria Walton. Buy a pouch of 18-bean soup (it’s available in bulk, too) or mix your own variety of dried beans, lentils and peas. Wash them, but don’t soak. Put them in a large pot and fill with about double the volume of vegetable broth plus a little water. (Wanna get fancy again? Add red wine, herbs and a little garlic-flavored oil) If you’re into that kind of thing, beer or even whisky would make an excellent addition to your broth as well. Slow-cook on low heat overnight or during your work day; you won’t believe the awesome smell when you get back home! Serve with your choice of hot sauce, or mash them, roll them up in tortillas and make awesome burritos!
White truffle risotto
This is one awesome meal. You will need pearly rice such as Arborio. In a saucepan, heat up some vegetable or mushroom broth and keep warm for later. In a thin layer of oil (or hey, why not coconut butter!) on the bottom of a high-sided pan, heat up a mix of garlic, shallots and thin-minced onions but don’t let them brown. Add the dry rice (yes yes, trust me) and stir it until it changes color (say, about 2 minutes) and everything starts to get a little sticky. Then add 2 to 3 ladles of hot broth, which will soak the mix and start bubbling up. Let it reduce to almost sticky, then add another ladle of broth. Keep doing this until your rice is soft and starchy, almost as if you’d added some cream to it. If you run out of broth, use white wine, a mix of water and cider vinegar or even leftover soup base; but always add it hot so it doesn’t cool off the cooking rice. Serve immediately when ready, but not before adding a slight dash of white truffle oil for maximum impact.
Chinese five-spice bean curd
This is a type of spiced, marinated tofu that tastes incredible. Any Asian grocery store should have this. Cut up the brick into little cubes. In a wok or pan, heat up a little peanut oil and throw some garlic, leek and sweet peppers (spicy ones too, if you like that) at high heat and stir until they change color (won’t be long). Add your cubes and keep moving everything around so nothing sticks, and you’re done! That’s probably the fastest delicious meal I can cook. Takes about 5 minutes. If you want to make it more memorable, top with fresh mint leaves. Cilantro works, too.
A variation of the traditional French casserole, christened by Caballo Blanco and first created from the organic garden at Entre Amigos, this is an awesome catch-all for any vegetables sitting around in your fridge. The best versions of this meal, however, will use fresh harvest from the farmer’s market.
Separate the veggies in 3 categories :
- A) Hard, thick, root veggies that require longer cooking time (Potatoes, turnips, beets, etc.)
- B) Medium, soft veggies that will cook and almost melt over the others (Onions, peppers, garlic, zucchinis, squash, etc.)
- C) Leafy greens that you will only add at the end (Bok choy, spinach, Swiss chard, etc”)
Use a large pot with a dash of oil and a couple spoonfuls of anything liquid (broth, soup, sauce, even a marinade will work). Slice your A veggies and stack them down in layers. Do the same with B veggies. Splash the result with a shot glass of a clear spirit (Soju, mezcal, lechuguilla, pisto, moonshine, etc.), cover with the lid and slow-cook on low heat for at least one hour. The liquid will stay in the pot and heat up, steaming and flavoring your ingredients. Top with C veggies and cook for another 10 to 15 minutes. If you’re into cheese, grate some on top of everything.
Pasta alla puttanesca
This one is a classic with my friend Dan, but my recipe differs slightly. Chop up an onion, some garlic, jalapeno, diced tomatoes and mix with black olive slices. Throw everything in a pan with olive oil and stir. It’ll get a little watery; that’s fine. Add several splotches of Italian tomato paste to thicken everything. If you’re a chilihead, now’s the time to get crazy. Spice the living hell out of your sauce! My favorites include ghost pepper, scorpion pepper sauce and / or scotch bonnet peppers. When your sauce is about to self-combust, you know it’s ready. Top with fresh capers and serve on your favorite pasta style, but I have to say it’s particularly good on tagliatelle. Don’t forget the cold beer.
These are only six examples of really flavorful vegetarian dishes you can make. They are easy to prepare, most take only a couple minutes to put together and they provide a healthy, nutritious meal that’s out of the ordinary, exciting and good for you :)
(I left the pizza recipes to the Pizza God himself, Patrick Sweeney.)
Do you cook healthy vegan / vegetarian meals? Do you have recipes to share? Use the comments below to share your best secrets!