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

January 6, 2012 · 18 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.



{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jill January 6, 2012 at 7:13 pm

Love this post, even though I am (and have pretty much always been) a lover of vegetables. But the “go ahead and give it a try” thing? I’m totally guilty of that when it comes to 95% of whole grains. Even if they’re really good, I can’t lose the attitude.

2 Vanessa January 6, 2012 at 7:18 pm

I have to say, as a non-vegetarian, but not a big meat eater either, that the best food I had recently was the vegetarian choices at my cousin’s wedding. They served the usual steak and rubber chicken but also 3 different types of salad (none the horrible Caeser type) and some incredible all vegetarian choices. Needless to say, I skipped the meat and dug in. I even went back for seconds, it was just veggies right? It showed me that there was more to life than grilled vegetables and brown rice.

3 kitchenriffs January 6, 2012 at 8:35 pm

Nice recipe – thanks for that.

I’m not a vegetarian but I don’t often cook with meat. When I do, I use it more as an accent. Sorry to hear about your blood pressure & cholesterol – I have the same problem to a degree. If you like dried beans, legumes, and pulses, they’re your friend. You can cook these into a soup – with lots of veggies, if you wish – and make an extremely hearty meal that your meat-loving friends will like. Adding almost any kind of greens (collards, kale, even Swiss chard) to bean dishes is a great way to add those nutritional goodies into your diet in a way almost everyone likes. One thing meat adds that most vegetables don’t is umami. I find that well sauteed mushrooms add tons of umami flavor – I add them to lots of things (soy sauce is great, too). Anyway, you’re a really good cook and will figure this out – will be interested to see what recipes you develop

4 Marie Simmons January 6, 2012 at 8:54 pm

Love your post. I give my vegetarian recipes a flavor and texture boost by going to my ethnic pantry. Some of my favorites additions are smoked paprika, pomegranate syrup, Madras curry, fresh ginger, toasted cumin, mint, dill, cilantro, and many more too numerous to mention. It’s not about adding flavors willy nilly, but tasting and lifting the vegetable flavors to a higher note. And yes, you are so right, it’s the textures that make the difference: the crunch of toasted nuts, the sweet chew of quinoa (trying toasting it until it is tweedy in a hot oven before cooking it. So good), using black rice, rice rice and the entire spectrum of the world of grains. I am willing to bet that we could (maybe?) cook and cook and cook vegetarian meals–that is recipes based entirely on vegetables– for years and years and never ever repeat a recipe. I’ve been doing it for years, the kudos keep coming from my students and fans of my cookbooks, and I’m still at it. But the real reward is that my tummy is happy.

5 Juhie January 7, 2012 at 12:45 am

Love, love, love this post. One of the best, I feel, you’ve written.
I grew up raised by a vegetarian mother and a a non-vegetarian father. We used to think of my mom’s diet as a chore. “Oh,” we thought, “we can’t go to so-and-so’s restaurant because they don’t have vegetarian options.” So we’d sulk and eat at home.
But wasn’t until a year ago, when I began taking culinary classes, that I realized my mom did me a big favor. I adore vegetables because of her–and I understand them. Because of her, I understand the need for texture.
People frequently ask if I’m a vegetarian, and I once went on a large conversation about how people assume that because I eat a lot of vegetables happily that they are all I eat.
Nope. I just love veggies.

6 Victoria January 7, 2012 at 9:44 am

I’m not a vegetarian by any stretch of the imagination, but vegetables are the food that it would be most difficult for me to give up. I love the color, taste, and texture of vegetables, and even though I eat (rather small amounts of) meat and fish – and definitely eggs – vegetables have been at the center of my plate for a long time. My favorite book on vegetables is The Victory Garden Cookbook. Supposedly it was reprinted in 2010, but I have never seen a new copy in a bookstore, and I look for it every time I am snooping in the stacks. It is available used on Amazon; the price usually goes from $29 to $129, depending on the quality of the copy you want. I still highly recommend it.

I find the problem with choosing a healthy diet is dealing with the low fat AND low sugar issue at the same time, since if you really are pre-diabetic eliminating simple carbohydrates seems to be a good idea, which kind of puts the kabosh on eating pasta with tomato sauce every single night – something I would be happy to do. And I can’t tell you that my vegetarian (not vegan) friends are the healthiest – or thinnest – people I know. It was a vegetarian (not vegan) who first told me there was such a dish as cheese fries, which doesn’t even sound tempting to me.

I, addition to Victory Garden if you can find it, I also highly recommend Transition to Vegetarianism by Rudolph Ballentine, M.D., which is easily and inexpensively available. It was first published in 1987, and that’s when I read it, but it was reprinted in 1999 with a new Introduction. Dr. Ballentine does not really recommend a totally vegan diet, as he endorses using either some milk-based products or a little fish, mostly (as I recall) because of the difficulty of getting and, more important, absorbing Vitamin B12 from just plant sources, but the science is good ; except for biology class, it was the first mention I ever heard of trans-fat, and, if I’m not mistaken, he might even show the trans-molecule v the cis-molecule so you understand the nomenclature. He also, I think, discusses his belief that a little butter may have anti-cancer properties since it has butyric acid. Really small amounts of fat – for me butter and olive oil – add immensely to the enjoyment and pleasure of eating vegetables, including salads. Anyway, I do think this would be worth your money, time, and effort.

I am lucky enough to have access to a flourishing asparagus bed in upstate New York. My favorite summer lunch is a soft boiled egg and blanched asparagus to dip in the runny yolk!

Happy New Year. I know you are going to do great on this part of your journey.

7 Lorraine Lewandrowski January 7, 2012 at 10:31 am

Mark Bittman lives in the Northeast, an area of beautiful stretches of dairy farms, about 13,000 farms actually and averaging 100 cows apiece. The predominant model of farming in the northeast is not CAFO as painted. Scattered everywhere: The Mohawk Valley, the Lake Champlain area, the Finger Lakes, the Southern Tier, the great flatlands of Western NY, to a certain extent the Hudson River Valley….all beautiful and traditional dairy farms, many of which are based on our rich grasslands. Perhaps I have missed it, but I don’t see much in the way of a celebration of these farms and the people and animals of this land. Were we in Europe, as I discovered, talking to Parisian chefs, there would be a pride in the beauty and the regions that surround the Northeast Corridor. Instead, the farm families are rendered virtually invisible by the notion that all animal products comes from faraway CAFO’s. Yes, a growing percentage does, and as the “political” statement is made that animal products are to be boycotted, the problem of invisibility and destruction of the average farm families is accelerated. I urge you to learn more about the farmers of your region, including the farms who sell milk and meat into the mainstream market.

8 Elissa January 7, 2012 at 11:09 am

Actually, and I say this with the utmost respect, I have nothing but the highest regard for local farms and local farm families, and the things they produce be it meat or dairy (hence my longtime relationship with the wonderful Edible Communities; I urge you to familiarize yourself with this remarkable organization, which, by way of nearly 70 regional publications, is in fact a celebration of local farms and farming). That said, it is my opinion that CAFOs are indeed hell-on-earth, wherever they exist; moreover, I never implied that I was talking about CAFOs in NY State, or any other specific location. My question, though, is what does Bittman’s location have to do with his decision to go vegan-till-six, or mine, to loathe CAFOs (which we all also know have a not insubstantial negative financial impact on local farmers; most local farmers I know also loathe CAFOs because the animals are treated disgracefully)?

9 AnikkiV January 7, 2012 at 2:00 pm

As promised – I’m here to take that adventure with you! I’ll make this tomorrow and see how it goes. But first – on my way to the library to pick up Rancho Gordo’s book “Heirloom Beans.” Hopefully there will be some complexly flavored, highly nuanced, sexy legumes in my future.

10 Lorraine Lewandrowski January 7, 2012 at 2:08 pm

Here’s the problem. The NYTimes is the “opinion maker” for many NY and northeast legislators. The impression given to the public is that the dairy farmers are either giant CAFO’s or virtuous little “local” dairies bottling milk themselves and selling to the public. The rest of us (thousands of us) in between, the workaday farmers you see from the NY Thruway, are never mentioned. For us in NY, some 42% of our milk produced goes directly to fluid milk sales, a big share in NY. We are HIGHLY, more so than other states, dependent, on NYC for milk sales. The coverage by urban media, specifically the NYTimes is unbalanced….where is discussion of the impact of Bittman or other writer comments on the average dairy farmer of the northeast? Bittman has also written extensively saying that dairy and beef are “bad for the environment. OK, here in Upstate NY, we now have some 3,000,000 acres of dairy grasslands sitting abandoned, empty farms everywhere, empty barns, run down farm houses. It has come to the point that Audubon NY in their “Plan for Conserving Grassland Species” seeks to preserve the working dairy farms in order to somehow stop the crash in NY’s grassland bird species. We also have grassland experts working on NY grasslands for carbon sequestration. And, Hudsonia Institute has been looking at the relationship between grazing and enhanced biodiversity. Yet…again…if I talk to a Bittman reader, they first spit in my face shouting that dairy is bad for the environment…no clue and no info about what is really happening in NY and the Northeast. Yes, Bittman’s location is highly relevant for us in NY.
How come, we, the farmer of the middle, are invisible? If Bittman can destablize NY’s milk consumption, let’s say drop consumption of fluid milk by 1 days worth, he can single handedly help to destroy NY’s dairy farms. Believe me, it will be the smallest ones that will pay the highest price.

11 Elissa January 7, 2012 at 2:14 pm

Whoa there, little lady.

So veganism is to blame for the demise of small dairy farms?

12 Lorraine Lewandrowski January 7, 2012 at 2:43 pm

No, it is not, but non-stop publicity saying that dairy farms are bad for environment (when I do not think that is the case in NY) lead urban food-thinkers to ignore the situation of the commodity dairy farmers. Example: In 2009, dairy farmers were committing suicide upstate with milk price crash. I called various food groups in NYC, who informed me that they would not want to help out (testify at dairy hearings, write in or anything) since dairy farms are either “bad for environment” or “cows emit methane” or the farms “are CAFO’s” Ultimately, not a single NYC food group submitted testimony to the state and federal legislators. In first week of December of 2009, NY’s dairy farmers rode several chartered buses all night to Washington DC to beg federal officials for help. And, the very same week, Manhattan Boro Pres., Scott Stringer, hosted his “Food and Climate Change” conference where speakers railed for milk/meat free diets. Of course, farmers were not invited to the conference. We function in different worlds. On my Upstate farm, we’ve got threatened Northern Harrier hawks and Upland sandpipers who can survive on the thousands of acres of unfragmented grasslands provided by me and my neighbors. We have wetlands that acted as huge holding basins during Hurricane Irene, protecting the village below us. All great things, but unseen to NYC eyes. Mostly what Bittman writes about the evils of dairy and meat are what NYC people know about. Hence, not much advocacy or interest coming out of NYC quarters for the farmers of their milkshed.

13 Ulla January 7, 2012 at 4:06 pm

I have to agree with Lorraine on this. Bittman’s vegan crusade is very frustrating to me as an advocate for farmers in Upstate NY. It also seems seasonally inappropriate to advise a vegan diet in New York(in the middle of the winter no less!) when we are blessed with vast grasslands. My ancestors ate high animal fat diets with little to no vegetables and there is no record of heart disease in my family. The research that I have read, and believe, support the thesis that sugar and refined carbohydrates have a greater impact on chronic disease. There is also little evidence linking high cholesterol intake with high cholesterol. Granted, you can eat a vegan diet without sugar and refined carbohydrates but to villanize animal products (like Bitman does) is not good for local farmers or the truth.

14 Elissa January 7, 2012 at 4:49 pm

If Bittman villanized animal products, he wouldn’t still be eating them, which he is, and writing about them, which he also is (as evidenced by today’s Times mag section).

15 Carol January 9, 2012 at 1:43 pm

Enjoyed this post. I’m always looking for new salads. Can you send me the rice paper and dipping sauce recipe too? Just getting my kitchen back after major paint job.

16 Nancy October 18, 2013 at 11:01 pm

I know this post is old but it caught my eye in your sidebar because I just learned about this restaurant, via a blog review of the cookbook. I also got confused and thought her Taim was the same Taim that I love in Hastings, NY but I don’t think it is… is it? In any case, I can’t wait to visit her restaurant and to get my hands on the cookbook (my fingers are crossed for Chankukah).

17 Elissa October 18, 2013 at 11:55 pm

Thanks so much Nancy-

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