Re-learning How to Cook: The Vegetarian Marriage of Texture and Taste

January 6, 2012 · 17 comments

About twelve years ago, my father and stepmother took a trip with some friends to Tuscany. These friends, who happen to be vegetarian — not interesting vegetarian, but sprouts-and-a-plate-of-mashed-yeast vegetarian — insisted that my father and stepmother eat the same way. It wasn’t hard for Shirley, who is as near to a vegetarian as one might get without actually being one; put a plate of steamed vegetables and re-heated brown rice in front of her and she swoons with delight. But my father spent the entire trip sulking; they ate plain steamed fennel and peppers (to avoid any additional fat despite the glorious dark green Tuscan olive oil they had at their disposal) and broccoli and cauliflower (also steamed to death) while Dad dreamed of visiting Dario Cecchini, the Dante-spouting butcher of Panzano, and having a real bistecca.

“But you ate the vegetables anyway, Cy,” my stepmother said, when he related the story to me over dinner on their return.

“I did,” my father responded. “But I never said I liked them….”

And there’s the green elephant in the room, and possibly the biggest stumbling block to eating a plant-based diet that we have in this country, and the one that nobody ever talks about: We think of eating vegetables as a chore. We’ll eat them if we absolutely have to, but we won’t necessarily like them. We won’t automatically gravitate to them. And until we do — until vegetables enter our culinary lexicon without having to be manipulated into analogous foods like tofu dogs and veggie burgers imprinted with faux grill hatch marks — we are destined to remain, hopelessly, a nation of meat eaters living with a steak knife in one hand, and a bottle of Lipitor in the other.

It doesn’t matter that we know, intellectually, how good vegetables are for us; it doesn’t even matter how politically-motivated, or anti-CAFO we may be. So what if Mark Bittman whacks us over the head with more and more colorful vegan-till-six recipes, imploring us ever-so-apologetically to go on and give it a try because, after all, even PB&Js are vegan (which is a little bit like saying that Mussolini was a fascist, but boy, he certainly got the trains to run on time). It doesn’t matter if you’re a  local food lover with a die-hard belief in sustainability, or you have a $600 CSA share, or you can proudly claim that your seven-year-old gardens a small plot attached to his Montessori school, and knows, roughly speaking, the pH of the soil. That’s all nice stuff, but if someone offers you a slice of thin-crust pizza or a pile of fresh vegetables for lunch, you’ll probably have to think about it for a second. Ultimately, I know which one you’ll be more likely to choose, and so do you. Because, most Americans are lukewarm on vegetables. You don’t wake up one morning and suddenly become a vegetarian after a lifetime of burying your peas in your mashed potatoes, and anyone who claims that they’ve suddenly seen the light and gone totally plant-based after years of eating meat is probably sneaking takeout Hong Shao Rao in the closet at 3 a.m. Guilty as charged.

I’ll never call myself a vegetarian, but I do what I can. Moving to a mostly plant-based diet, for me, is plenty political: I believe that CAFOs are hell-on-earth, I think that GMOs exist to line the pockets of big Ag. But it’s also health-related. I come from a long line of cardiac patients. My skinny-minnie mother is a borderline diabetic. I sit on my ass for a living. I’ve lived in the suburbs since 2001, when I left Manhattan. I drive everywhere. Not a processed bit of food passes these lips, yet I’ve recently become glucose intolerant and for the last four years, I’ve taken a small handful — yes, a handful — of pills for my blood pressure and cholesterol. I’d like to not have the pharmaceutical industry own quite so much real estate in my medicine cabinet.  I’d like to not have to worry about being pre-diabetic, or, should the rules surrounding my health insurance change, wonder how I’ll afford the pills I might need. So eating a plant-based diet makes a lot of sense for me. Woo-hoo.

If only I liked it as much as, say, a braised pork shoulder-based diet.

Recently, though, I made a small discovery about vegetarian food that I’d never really hit on before, and it’s been a game-changer: Americans are used to vegetarian food (think the ubiquitous steamed vegetables and rice) having no textural or taste contrast — no bright flavor highs, and no earthy flavor lows. We think of them as one-note, boring, and perhaps just a bit slippery. Conversely, we all know to put ketchup on our burgers: the brightness of the “tomato” flavor adds a spark to the earthy rich fattiness of the meat. It cuts through it, and so all your taste buds are happy. We all know that the gorgeous, caramelized crunchy bits on top of baked macaroni and cheese add another dimension to a dish that is otherwise dense, creamy, rich, and totally one-note. It’s the reason why we all fight over the corner brownie, and why we loved fried chicken, and oatmeal raisin cookies, and bacon with our eggs, and chewy, meaty, salty pork tucked into a tender, sweet, pillowy Chinese bun. It’s about flavor, sure, but it’s also about high notes and low, sweetness against richness, suppleness and density and crispiness and crunch. It’s about texture and contrast, and when it’s missing from vegetarian food, we know it immediately, because the result can be vile.

So, with this knowledge, I’m slowly re-learning how to cook: my cupboards are filled with jars of things — pepitas, pine nuts, slivered almonds — that, when toasted, lend earthy crunch to a dish. Instead of splashing vinegar into cooked-down rabe to give it a little sweetness (and a whole lot more sogginess), I’m adding a sprinkling of currants, and some lightly-toasted sunflower seeds. Actually taking the time to think about the vegetables I’m eating — what their flavor and texture profiles are, and what would contrast against those profiles — has made a very big difference. Admittedly, I wouldn’t have come to this by myself — I have people like Deborah Madison, Heidi Swanson, Yotam Ottolenghi, Kim O’Donnel, and Sara Forte to thank. In all the years I’ve cooked, I’ve never considered texture to be as important as flavor. Most of us don’t; but in plant-based cooking, it’s imperative.

I don’t know if my father ever would have learned to like vegetarian food; his memories of boiled Brussels sprouts, boiled carrots, and boiled green beans ran very deep, and not in a good way. Still, I wish I’d had the chance to share with him what I’ve learned. I’d like to think he’d have enjoyed it, even without the pork.

Crispy Cabbage Salad

(Adapted from Balaboosta, NYC)

Recently, Susan and I had lunch at the glorious Balaboosta with Grace Young, author of Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge and Breath of a Wok. It was Grace’s suggestion; she’d been wanting to try Einat Admony‘s refined Middle Eastern food, and to say that we were delighted with what we ate would be an understatement. But of everything on the table that day, I fell head-over-heels in love with a simple, shredded cabbage salad tossed with a minty cumin vinaigrette,  toasted almonds and — wonderfully — a handful of what appeared to be Chinese chow mein noodles. It was tender, creamy, pungent, sour, sweet, earthy, and crispy all at once, and everything that a good vegetable dish should be. Here’s my spin on it; the vinaigrette may seem very spice-forward. It is.

Serves 3 as a main dish

For the vinaigrette:

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons mild extra virgin olive oil

1-2 tablespoons fromage blanc (or plain yogurt)

1 heaping tablespoon chopped fresh mint leaves

Agave, to taste

1 tablespoon toasted, ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon sumac

For the salad:

1-1/2 cups romaine lettuce, torn into bite-sized pieces

2 cups shredded Savoy cabbage, loosely packed

1/3 cup unsalted sliced almonds, lightly toasted in a dry skillet until barely golden

1/2 cup crispy chow mein noodles

Make the vinaigrette:

Place the mustard in a medium bowl and whisk in the olive oil until emulsified. Whisk in the fromage blanc or yogurt until blended; thin out slightly with water if necessary (the consistency should be like a creamy, loose batter). Fold in the mint, and add the agave, a quarter teaspoon at a time, and combine well, tasting for sweetness. Fold in the toasted cumin and whisk vigorously. Set aside at room temperature while you assemble the salad.

Assemble the salad:

Using your hands, in a large wooden bowl toss together the romaine and the cabbage until evenly distributed. Add the almonds and toss again. Dress the salad with the vinaigrette — it should be a wet salad — and then add the crispy noodles. Toss well to combine, and serve immediately.