Very Veggie Vegetarian

Sunday December 18, 2016

I grew up with the meatless Friday–mac and cheese, filet of flounder, pancakes. I now consider that the practice run for becoming a vegetarian in the 1970s. Those were the days when granola had just been invented for Woodstock, and The Vegetarian Epicure and Moosewood cookbooks had not burst onto the scene yet to help the home cook with some new options. Being a vegetarian meant plenty of meatless spaghetti sauce with mushrooms, lasagne, omelets, cheese sandwiches, and lentil soup, a staple in France (and often brought to French class for a collective meal in French conversation with food), in the struggle to adapt familiar dishes to a new lifestyle.

Vegetarian cooking is part of the culinary heritage of humankind and is today considered fine cuisine and gourmet eating. Vegetarians, those who practice a daily diet that excludes meat, fish, poultry, and game, come in all varieties.  There are not many families without at least one vegetarian among them these days and most group meals end up with at least a few vegetarian diners.

A preferred vegetarian diet can be motivated by health, a personal philosophy of environmental and ethical impacts, religion or spiritual views, a means to maintaining a healthy body weight, or economic reasons. With the new food pyramid guidelines recommending more plant-based foods as a low-fat protein source and a nod to a seasonally motivated diet, many people are choosing to include more wholesome vegetarian cooking as either part of their diet or as their full-time constant diet. This is called being a flexitarian. I guess that means flexible rather than one thing or the other exclusively. This gives the meat eater a chance to gradually shift and look at foods with a new perspective of more options.

Cooking for vegetarians requires no special equipment or fancy techniques, although many vegetarian dishes utilize exotic ethnic flavor combinations. There is also a bit of basic know-how in protein-combining, such as pairing cheese or beans with vegetables, to provide a well-balanced meal. Other basic protein-balanced food combinations are rice and beans or tofu, beans and vegetables with pasta, or vegetables with rice. Just eating piles of carbohydrates (beans, grains, bread, legumes) doesn’t work in the long run for most people.

If you are following a meat-based diet and are just learning to accommodate a vegetarian, or beginning to practice a vegetarian diet, please be reassured–it takes plenty of thought and creativity to create a non-meat menu with variety. All types of vegetarians appreciate dining according to the seasons, taking advantage of fresh produce and herbs, not only for flavor but in overall fresh quality combined with basic ingredients such as dairy, beans, or grains. Do note that vegetarianism is usually very dependent on high amounts of complex carbohydrates, which may not be overall compatible if you are serving a diner who is following a high-protein or no-carb diet. Some restricted diets, such as low-fat, low-sodium, sugar-free, yeast-free, gluten-free, raw (as in nothing cooked), and dairy-free, all benefit from vegetarian alternatives.


There are three main categories of vegetarianism and, as the cook, it is important to know the difference. I usually create recipes that skirt all three.

Ovo-lacto-vegetarians, is the most common diet most people associate with being a vegetarian. They eat eggs, dairy products, fruits, vegetables, grains, honey, nuts and seeds, beans, and legumes. Grains include not only whole grains such as rice, wheat berries, and oats, but also pasta, couscous, yeasted breads, and unleavened ethnic flatbreads, such as tortillas and chapatis.  Tofu, a preferred type of protein for vegetarians, is a fermented product made from soybeans and all types of vegetarians can eat it. Please note that all soy products will be eliminated in the diet of a person who is or has experienced a reproductive cancer since it stimulates estrogen production. Choose organic brands, as soybeans are a GMO crop.

Lacto-vegetarians do not eat eggs, but the rest of the diet is the same as for the ovo-lacto-vegetarians–dairy products, fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds, with an emphasis on beans and legumes for protein. Cheese, milk, cream, butter, yogurt, buttermilk, and sour cream are important food choices.

Also there are some lactos that do not eat certain types of vegetables, such as onions, garlic, and certain greens, so it is always best to ask. It is called a yogic diet for those seriously practicing yoga and a yoga lifestyle. There is an entire branch of Indian lacto-vegetarian vegetarian cooking, based on Ayurvedic principles. This diet emphasizes the subtle energy components of each food that also complements a yogic lifestyle and practices, which is becoming increasingly popular in the West.

A new type of vegetarianism that is very popular, especially with animal rights activists, is the vegan (pronounced vee-gan). I could never have predicted how widespread veganism would become and give new lifeblood to the vegetarian cooking scene. It started with some popularity in the college age genre and has just expanded since then. This is a strict form of vegetarianism that chooses only nuts, grains, legumes, nutritious cold-pressed cooking oils, fruits, and vegetables. That includes pasta and tofu, but since there are no dairy products, that even means no butter (enter Smart Balance). Vegans also eat no honey, refined sugar, vinegar, or soy cheese if it contains casein or whey. All recipes that call for dairy, cheese, sour cream, or mayonnaise can be made with easy to find soy alternatives, nondairy milks, and cashew cheese.

This recipe is a favorite one pot meal based on a traditional Spanish dish. It is updated for today’s vegetarian with an emphasis on quick cooking methods.

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