When I see them in person, I get asked about becoming vegetarian by my friends and family who have stumbled upon this blog. It’s a conversation that could last a couple pints if we’re in the right location. I love talking about food, it never gets old. I love just about everything to do with cooking except for doing the dishes; one of these days I’ll own a house with a dishwasher and that’ll become trivial. I get asked why I made a change to my diet, and I can brush it off quickly by saying health, S and just wanting a culinary challenge. Truth is, I’m not a “real” vegetarian, I just cook a lot of meals for one. I’ve also just never been a big fan of certain meats. Inevitably it comes down to how boring it must be, salads, fruits and rabbit food – yeah, I’ve heard it all. I then pull up my blog, and though it’s not overflowing with recipes as of yet, it normally helps change peoples idea of what vegetarian food can be. This is then typically followed by another barrage of questions. Depending on how the conversation rolls, I start telling them about what works for me. Here’s a few pointers I like to wax on about that I keep in mind not just about making vegetarian food, but any meal. Enjoy!
1. Know Your Audience
When I first started intentionally cooking vegetarian meals it was because of my wife, who was at the time just my girlfriend. I’ve known other vegetarians over the years and had prepared the occasional meal that was safe for them to eat, but when it came to S the meals became everyday and often it was more than just dinner, it was breakfast and lunches too. I had to impress. The one area of expertise I excel in is the kitchen, and fortunately for me, S only knew how to make Kraft Dinner – I had a lot of leniency when it came to getting things right! Quickly, I exhausted the 3 or 4 recipes in my repertoire and scrambled to find more! When it comes to food, I love variety! Unfortunately, I didn’t always find things that were interesting to my tastes, especially at the beginning when I was still an omnivore, but I knew my own skills behind the line and decided to start creating my own. I started researching vegetarian cuisine and the cultures associated with it, learning about everything from veganism to Buddhist-vegetarianism to the ovo-lacto groups and even macrobiotic diets. I lucked out, S falls into the ovo-lacto category, which allows me to use eggs and dairy, with an emphasis on the cheese! My diet has evolved during this time to become pseudo-vegetarian ala pescetarian – in other words, I still eat fish, she doesn’t though and never will. The point I’m trying to make is that knowing your audience is important. What may be considered vegetarian to one person is not to another. Some may eat eggs, others not. Some, such as su vegetarians won’t eat anything from the onion or garlic family. Honey is okay to an ovo-lacto or someone who follows a Sattvic diet, but not to a true vegan or Jain vegetarian. Many foods contain ingredients, such as casein which is derived from milk, and are off the menu in certain diets. Research. Guys, if you’re trying to impress a beautiful vegetarian girl by making her dinner the last thing you want to do is give her something she wouldn’t eat! Ask questions, communicate, then look for recipes that work. Whatever you do, don’t make her dinner on the first date! Take her out first, pay attention to what she orders, it will tell you a lot about her tastes, especially if she agrees to a second date. Oh, and be thankful when you find out she’s not a pescetarian by skipping over the lobster on the menu and heading straight for the pasta prima vera!
Keep It Simple, Stupid. Yeah, that means you! Ease into it. Don’t start with a spinach roulade with wild mushroom and Boursin filling, don’t go for the asparagus with balsamic reduction and white truffle oil – just don’t! Ease yourself into the scene, become familiar with the basic ingredients first. Learn the flavors, what holds up, what doesn’t, what compliments and what accentuates. Experiment with different cooking techniques. A boil is far different from a broil and a braise combines them both, but why do these techniques get used and when? There’s a thousand different ways to play with your food but when you’re trying to create your first vegetarian meals stick to what you know best. One of the first meals I made for S was baked mac and cheese with stewed tomatoes. Stupidly simple! Do you like green beans? Well then grab some fresh from the grocer, learn how to clean them and blanch them. Sauté some onions, a little garlic, add some fresh cracked pepper, sea salt, olive oil, maybe a squeeze of lemon, toss everything together, put into a ramekin and top it with a dusting of Parmesan. Put it in the oven for 15 minutes and see what you get. Everything is basic, the flavors are clean and stand apart from one another while complimenting at the same time. Once you understand the hows and whys you can start complicating things up a bit if you’d like but there’s really no reason to go overboard. No one is going to be impressed by a recipe with 25 steps and 19 ingredients if it doesn’t taste good.
3. Timing, Timing, Wait For It… Timing!
As with cooking meat, vegetables can be touchy. I know plenty of people who eat their steak well done or their eggs fried over hard and quite frankly I can’t understand it. If you hate food that much why not just stop eating all together? I’ve met quite a few people who thumb their noses at veggies or eat them grudgingly and it all keeps coming back to a common reason: their mothers or their grandmothers. Yeah, there’s a lot of folk who were brought up on canned beans, mushy Brussels sprouts or stringy asparagus and now they run away whenever they’re mentioned because the first thing that comes to mind is some pathetic excuse for food. Just because your grandmother cooked everything until it had the consistency of mashed potatoes and the flavor of watered down water doesn’t mean you have to, too. Sometimes we want a vegetable to have a little snap, sometimes we don’t. Each varies, according to what it is and how it’s being used. Just keep an eye on it! The same goes for pasta. Less than a minute can mean the difference between spectacular and atrocious. Turn off the tv, put away the iPad (unless of course you’re on my site following a recipe), clear yourself of distractions. Pay attention to the process. Try things as they’re cooking whenever possible, when it seems right to you, when you’re pleased, it’s done! Keep in mind, it’s okay to under cook something but it’s damn near impossible to fix something after it’s been overcooked.
When new to the vegetarian kitchen it can be a little tempting to unbalance our meals. Roasted new potatoes, rice and corn don’t belong on the same plate if that’s all you’re making! You need to think about what it is that you’re preparing, do you really need 3 starches in the same meal? Well, maybe, but what are you balancing it with? Are there any leaf veggies or maybe curried cream cherry tomatoes to go along with it? If the answer is yes, you’re fine. Keep the portions appropriate and you’re balanced. If not, dig a little more, find something that compliments them. The same could be true about string beans, broccoli and asparagus. My point here is, that certain ingredients fall into the same or similar categories and we want each meal to be entertaining, not just to our palates but also to our bodies. If you’re pureeing the hell out of some sweet potatoes, plate it up with something a little rougher, something with a different texture like pan roasted golden beets and a side of sugarsnap peas. Give your body something to process, something that occupies its time between meals. Balance is also about nutrition. Again, research what it is you’re working with, what does it contain? Find ingredients that add what you’re lacking. A well balanced main dish goes a long way to creating a well balanced complete meal.
5. Challenge Yourself
If you’re like me, and chances are good that you are because you’re still reading this, have fun in the kitchen! Experiment with that strange tuber you found in the market yesterday, chop it, blanch it, fry it! Don’t be afraid to try something new! If it turns out horrible, throw it in the trash bin and try again. If there’s something you’ve had a thousand times and always hated it, make it a different way! Step out from the normal accepted preparation methods, combine flavors that may seem odd, mess around with the textures, heat something you’d normally serve cold – the sky is the limit! Just keep your head on your shoulders and try it ahead of time before you plan a dinner party around it. If there was a dish that your grandmother made that contained 7 different types of meat and you’re missing some of those flavors, figure out what sticks out in your mind about the meal and build something around it! Just because a meal you loved as a child seemed like it was all about the meat, chances are there was something like fennel, garlic, a sauce, certain herbs or tomatoes that really created the dish. Found a great vegetarian meal at a restaurant? Recreate it at home! Challenge yourself in the kitchen, challenge your partner at the table. Whether you’re becoming vegetarian and are looking for recipe ideas, have been a vegetarian your entire life, there’s a girl you want to impress who is or have a husband who needs to add more veggies to his diet, you’re the one with the tools to make it happen and you’re only limited by your imagination!
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