In re: Vegetarian Cooking

[This was an unpublished post from over a year ago – still trying to eat more veggie only meals. Haven’t posted in a while and figured I throw this up as is]

Vegetarian eating at good restaurants is pretty easy, especially if its at Indian restaurants where I don’t often see the need for meat (we still often get Butter Chicken/Makahani Masala – but the rest are veggies). Cooking good vegetarian meals night after night can be a little tougher though. (As I’ve mentioned I’m not a vegetarian and currently not planning to be one, but I am trying to eat less meat and more vegetables for the countless reasons Mark Bittman and others have pointed to).

Making vegetarian doesn’t need to be hard of course, lets look at the standard spaghetti with marianara, served with some vegetables you got yourself a meal that even vegetarians wouldn’t mind. The problem isnt’ that there aren’t many veggie pasta dishes, pizzas, or the like, its that if you want to branch out into broader menus you kind of find that veggie cooking requires a bit more thought – at least to someone who isn’t used to doing it.
I think of it this way, in the classic world of protein, starch and vegetable, you don’t need to do to much, you can sear a steak, a cut of chicken or pork and add potatoes and a vegetable and without much fuss most people see a meal. Take out the meat though and replace with another vegetable dish and you don’t have a meal, you have a trio of sides and suddenly it seems boring. Before with the meat you could have steamed broccoli and some mashed potatoes and that worked, I think without it your into boring territory.

So what do you need to do to make a good vegetarian meal? Well at least in my opinion it means adding more components, either ingredients and/or sauces and/or layers of flavors. This can take any number directions but generally it means adding more little elements, but doesn’t necessarily mean more work.

As an example vegetarian meal I like is patacon (I first became familiar with patacon at El Arepazo, here in Columbus a Venezuelan/Latin American restaurant). Patacon is basically a fried plaintain covered with meat, cheese, and some veggies and at El Arepazo you have to top it with cilantro sauce.
They do a great vegertarian version where rice, beans and some grilled veggies get added in place of the meat. Its a filling, delicious dish, that doesn’t make you think your missing anything.

I do a similar dish at home that uses brown rice, black beans, fried plaintains, sauteed zucchini and onions, a little cheese, lettuce, some corn salsa (from Trader Joes), cilantro sauce and anything else that strikes my fancy at that moment.

Its a lot of elements and it means having one frying pan to make the plantains, one to cook up the veggies, a pot for beans if your cooking them from dried, a rice cooker or another burner for the rice. So potentially your looking at a four burner recipe and a lot of different elements. It can be somewhat simplified however, putting the rice out of sight and mind in a rice cooker right when you start of course makes things easier and clears up some space (you still gotta wash it of course…) and cooking up the zucchini and onions first and putting them aside works fine and then using the same pan to fry up the plantains. I like to use dried beans if possible, but if I haven’t planned ahead using a can works and means I might just microwave them up.

The sauce takes a few minutes and messing up a blender or food processor – but trust me the dish is nothing without it. I’ve written up a version of the sauce before on here, but I have made it more recently as more an herb vinaigrette without mayo/sour cream. The sauce using vinegar and/or lime, garlic, jalepeno, and whole lots of cilantro makes a very tasty sauce. Yogurt makes a super tasty sauce and can replace the oil to switch it to a creamy sauce.

So once your done making all these elements you layer up the dish, with all the elements and drizzle on the cilantro sauce over the top. It’s an amazing dish, hearty from the beans, rice and plantain, each bite has little elements of the various components and flavors and is quite flexible, you could leave out the rice, or the beans, change the vegetables involved make it more like a salad with a lot of lettuce or less.

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