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Cooking Techniques

How to Cook, Lesson 7: Cooking Without Meat (Think Vegetarian)

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Meatless dishes need not be boring. I can say that now in all honesty. I would have said things differently a decade ago. Back then, I didn’t even know that vegetarian was not necessarily vegan.

Caprese-style Salad With Goat Cheese, a Lacto-vegetarian Dish
Caprese-style Salad With Goat Cheese, a Lacto-vegetarian Dish

How vegetarian cooking became a thing in our family

There are four of us in the family: my husband, Speedy, our daughters, Sam and Alex, and myself. Speedy, Alex and I have always been omnivores. Sam turned vegetarian about seven years ago; today, she is an occasional pescetarian.

During the years when Sam did not even touch seafood, I learned to cook vegetarian — mostly, ovo-lacto vegetarian since Sam did not mind eating dairy products because they do not require killing animals.

I say all that to make it clear that this lesson is not about getting you to turn hardcore vegan. This is more about sharing my journey to learn meatless cooking to help readers who want to explore vegetarianism as an alternative diet, occasionally or otherwise.

Identify what kind of vegetarian cooking you want to explore

Vegetarianism covers a wide subject.

There’s ovo-vegetarian (includes eggs), lacto-vegetarian (includes dairy products like milk, cream, butter and cheese), ovo-lacto vegetarian (includes eggs and dairy products) and vegan (excludes eggs and dairy products).

There are plant-based diets that emphasize eating fruits and vegetables only in their raw state.

There are plant-based diets that focus on organically-grown fruits and vegetables.

You have to choose which kind you’re getting into because your cooking ingredients and cooking methods will depend on the choice you make.

Texture is important in vegetarian cooking

If you’re transitioning from being an omnivore to a herbivore, you will crave texture in your vegetarian food. How I learned to put texture in meatless dishes came in three stages.

1. Mock meat and seafood

Vegetarian meat and seafood substitutes are mostly soy-based. No, they don’t taste like meat and seafood at all. In fact, Alex says they have an aftertaste. But, if you’re looking for texture, including them in vegetarian cooking is a worthy option.

Mock salmon steaks for vegetarians
Mock salmon steaks for vegetarians

However, here’s food for thought: If you’re going vegetarian because you believe that natural is healthier, it won’t make sense to include processed products in your cooking at all. Processed is processed even if plant-based.

Some recipes that include meat and seafood substitutes:

If including vegetarian meat and seafood substitutes in your meatless cooking, regular and convenient access to these ingredients will be crucial.

In our case, access became a problem early on. Stores selling vegetarian meat and seafood substitutes required a two-to-three-hour drive to the city (that’s one way). And that was okay. Except that supplies were always limited. Imagine driving all the way to the city then finding that the “vegetarian shrimps” that Sam liked so much was out of stock and the only products available were ones that didn’t excite her at all.

I mean, really, even for parents who want to be supportive of their daughter’s chosen diet, it’s not realistic to drive to the city every week only to come home empty-handed. So, if there are no stores in your neighborhood that sell vegetarian meat and seafood substitutes, you will have a problem.

2. Mushrooms, nuts and seeds

When we gave up the long and tiring drives through traffic in the city to buy meat and seafood substitutes, I turned to mushrooms, nuts and seeds to add texture to vegetarian dishes.

Lime Butter Garlic Mushrooms
Lime Butter Garlic Mushrooms

Mushrooms, nuts and seeds are rich in texture and, more importantly, natural.

Unlike soy-based meat and seafood substitutes that are only sold in specialty stores, mushrooms, nuts and seeds are available in most markets, supermarkets and groceries.

Tips for buying mushrooms

Know that mushrooms may be bought fresh or dried and that each variety has its own flavor, texture and other characteristics. See Edible Mushrooms 101: Types, Flavors and Preparation.

A few vegetarian dishes with mushrooms as a main ingredient:

Tips for buying and storing nuts

We buy nuts in bulk. They are cheaper in baking supply stores. We keep three to five kinds at any given time.

To prolong their freshness, keep nuts in a tightly covered container in the freezer.

Always toast nuts before adding to dishes.

Seeds? What seeds?

There are a variety of edible seeds suited for vegetarian dishes. Pumpkin, sunflower, chia, hemp, flax… The last three are quite pricey after being hyped for their alleged health benefits.

Mostly, we use sesame seeds at home.

Vegetarian Teriyaki Noodles
Vegetarian Teriyaki Noodles

Sesame seeds come in several colors and each has its own characteristics. I find brown sesame seeds to be the most aromatic. But, whatever color you’re using, remember that, just like nuts, sesame seeds must be toasted to release their aroma and natural oils before use.

3. Making use of the natural texture of vegetables

Vegetables are all plants. Some are leafy, some are root crops, others come in pods, some need to be peeled, some contain a lot of water, and so on.

In short, vegetables have different textures and characteristics. The key is to find out how to use specific characteristics to get the best cooked texture.

Meaning?

Okay, take lettuce, for instance. The edible part is the leaves, right? There’s a reason why lettuce leaves make a popular salad vegetable. Eaten raw, they are lightly crisp, the delicate flavor is discernible and they’re delicious like that. But add lettuce leaves to a soup or stew and they’re not so appetizing.

But other leafy vegetables are too tough (and maybe too fibrous) to eat without cooking. In which case, they can be cooked for a short time. Stir frying and simply blanching are only two cooking methods you can use to cook them.

Non-leafy vegetables tend to me more versatile in terms of texture.

Green beans tempura
Green beans tempura

Take green beans, for instance. Instead of defaulting to sauteeing, cook them whole — dipped in batter and fried.

See the following recipes for not-so-usual approaches to bring out the texture of vegetables:

Never underestimate the power of fresh herbs

It really pains me when we eat out and the food is served with the token sprig of parsley on the side — like an ornament.

Caponata (Sicilian eggplant salad similar to the French ratatouille)
Caponata (Sicilian eggplant salad similar to the French ratatouille)

Whether you include herbs in the cooking or as garnish, and whether you’re cooking vegetarian or not, remember how much they add to the cooked food in terms of flavor and aroma.

So, stop treating herbs as an ornament. Add them to your food purposely. And this is especially true with vegetarian dishes which, I find, need all the help they can get in terms of texture, color, flavor and aroma.