Tuesday, September 27, 2011

7 things every vegetarian should know how to cook

i've come across several lists recently of "10 things everyone should know how to make". while i agree with the concept here, that everyone should have basic cooking skills, i think these lists only apply to meat eaters (i'm not ashamed that i can't make steak or roast a chicken). when i google "things every vegetarian should know how to make", i get nothing of any use. since i haven't eaten meat in 15 years and i cook, any new vegetarians i know ask me for recipes or where to start. obviously you need to make friends with your local green grocer and start adding veggies to everything. you also need staples and basic skills. here's my own list, with reasoning and recipes scattered throughout:
whole grains
from rice to quinoa to barley to amaranth, these are an important staple of any diet but most especially a vegetarian one. they're available in bulk for dirt cheep and are all made by combining with water in various ratios, bringing to a boil, and simmering until they soften. as silly as it sounds, considering all the other things i can make, i still struggle with basic rice when it's not added raw to a soup or filling. i still keep it in the house and try again every few times we need it. the rest of the time my roommate has to make it, while teasing me mercilessly. i have some amaranth i'm going to experiment with and i have a recent love of quinoa. barley isn't just for soup, guys! it can go anywhere rice can with more nutrition and better texture! one solid tip i've learned: if you want to add lemon juice or any other acid to grains, do so AFTER cooking unless you want the whole thing to turn into glue. that's how they make sushi rice stick together so be sure that's what you're going for.
beans and legumes
again, available in bulk for cheep, and they'll keep more or less forever. in general you want to soak them overnight and then rinse, boil for an hour or until tender, then rinse again. the rinsing and soaking help make them less, ahem, windy. they're so terribly healthy you really should be able to make them into at least one dish you really like. make a big batch and use them all week just like you would for canned. i think the home cooked ones taste much better then canned. i make garbanzos into mock-tuna salad and hummus. black beans do wonderfully in mexican and baja dishes and you can sprout them or grow micro-greens or whole plants and have fresh beans! you can apparently also take cooked soy beans, blend with water, strain to make soy milk, and turn that soy milk into tofu (kinda like making cheese) if you so desire. i may try this sometime just to prove that i can and see if it's really any better then store bought. you can thank me when the zombies come :P
which brings us to tofu
which is NOT to be used as a meat substitute unto itself other then in very rare cases because on it's own it tastes like a wet sponge. this is the controversial ingredient that gives vegetarians a bad name. it's honestly not as good a protein source as people think, but you also need less protein then people think. it does do well in stir fries and the desert stuff isn't bad as a snack (kinda like a pudding or custard) or in fruit smoothies. we don't eat a lot of it around here but if you don't eat meat you're kinda required to have an opinion on it and be able to make it edible.
meat substitutes
are way more versatile and tasty then tofu and they're much higher in protein! they are more expensive as well, but not more then meat. we've come a long way even in the last 5 years from the crappy veggie burgers and tofu dogs which used to be the only things in this section. go have a look in the produce section, by the bagged salad and expensive dressings. there's a whole world of interesting new things. some are fantastic and some are awful but it really is worth experimenting. in BC, Yves is the biggest and best brand but there's a few others that are rising stars. i'm fond of the fake chicken and steak pieces and the "ground round" is really versatile and freezes well. the deli slices usually resemble the texture of bologna or pepperoni so don't expect anything like your thin shaved black forest ham from the good deli. also don't expect anything in this category to taste exactly like meat. you will be disappointed. it is it's own thing and should be treated like an exotic food you've never tried rather then a copy of something you know well. that being said, a lot of these do well pressed into service in lasagna, casseroles, stir fries, stews, pizza, etc. you do need to take into account that they will not bind together like raw meat will, so treat them like pre-cooked meat and you're golden.
speaking of pizza, bread
seems like something either totally unnecessary and extravagant to make at home, or something everyone should know how to do, depending on your perspective. i fall firmly in the second camp of thinking but i think it applies to us veg-heads even more since it's the basis for so many other wonderful things! things like burgers, pizza, calzones, and filled buns! it's 7pm and you don't want to go to the store for bread? got flour and yeast? do it yourself, you silly person! you'll have hot wonderful fresh bread to go with that soup that's taking too long to simmer and fantastic toast for the morning! freeze half your dough and have it on hand whenever you need it. learn the tricks of warm ovens for rising and instant yeast to speed up the process. look into the no-kneed types that hang out in your fridge all the time. play in the wonderful ancient world of sourdough. knock out a loaf of irish soda bread before your super fast soup is done. make gluten-free, multi-grain, high-protein, or fat-free bread for a tiny fraction of the store price! this is food at it's most elemental and basic. this is creation and transformation and one of the first uses for fire. this is a food that kickstarted civilization as we know it. it matters. every human should know how to make it. you can't call yourself a cook without it.
soup to go with that bread!
another of those really basic foods you can throw together with whatever is left in the house. got a couple of potatoes and some cream cheese? you have soup. got some frozen broccoli and a block of cheddar? you have soup. nearly every culture has some variation on this theme because it works! it will fill you up, clean out the leftovers, tide you over till payday or be the star of the show. you should have at least 3 go-to recipes in your repertoire.
seems an odd choice but i think it's important for a few reasons: it's super healthy and versatile, it's much cheaper when you make your own, and it is a great introduction to the world of probiotic foods, bacterial cultures, and biochemistry in cooking. that makes it sound scary, stay with me. take milk. heat to almost boiling. let sit till only warm, not hot. add a spoonful of yogurt. pour into now-empty yogurt tub. wrap in towel. set somewhere warm overnight. the end. i know it's scary to leave milk out overnight but i promise it's safe. take your newborn yogurt and make smoothies. or drain it to make greek yogurt. make tatziki. stir it into curry. use in place of sour cream. eat with cereal. now you have an idea of how fermented and cultured food works! go learn how to make kefir. go make booze! go learn more about how yeast works. save the last spoonful of your last batch to make your new batch.