Five Minute Vegetarian Gourmet
by Mollie Doyle
I am tired of the fetishization of food. I am tired of hearing about meat and its provenance. Enough about how particular organic vegetables were grown in sustainable, organic compost and irrigated by rainwater (seriously impressive, but…). I don’t want to go to restaurants where each plate looks like a mandala. Who wants to mess with—never mind eat—that kind of beauty?
Of course, I am as guilty as the next person. I care deeply about what I eat (just ask my family—I drive them crazy). And I totally, completely, utterly appreciate the amazing local food we have here. I’m the first to admit that I say a quiet prayer of thanks to Caitlin Jones and Allen Healy for their amazing Mermaid Farm yogurt every day. And I even wrote a column for this magazine espousing the important and healing qualities of food for three years. But I stopped because I realized that I was contributing to the overthinking of food as much as the purveyors of provenance and mandalas.
It’s not that I believe we should all go back to unconsciousness—factory farmed meat and processed food—I just think we need to loosen our grip a bit. Be a little less precious. Be a little less obsessed with making sure that each meal is gluten-free, completely organic, photo shoot ready or has exactly the right amount of protein or nutrients. I recently read an article about a celebrity couple who does not eat gluten, caffeine, dairy, any refined sugar, no chocolate, no night shades (no potatoes, tomatoes, etc.), chicken, shellfish, and the list goes on and on. They say they feel wonderful, but I have eaten this way–and other equally set ways like this—and ultimately, I have found that I end up feeling tired. The fatigue was not due to a lack of nourishment. I was exhausted by all the rules!
The funny thing about all these new rules and “consciousness” is that amid the whole food evolution of dicing our food to pieces—most of us are still completely old fashioned in one way: we still think we need a dinner plate that includes some kind of animal protein–meat, fish, chicken–a starch–potatoes, rice, etc. and a vegetable.
The fact is we don’t.
According to the Recommended Daily Allowance, about 10 percent of a relatively active adult’s daily intake should be protein. And that 10 percent does not need to be animal protein. According to the RDA, women should have about 46 grams of protein a day, and men 56 grams. One six-ounce steak alone has 56 grams of protein, exceeding a woman’s healthy daily intake by 10 grams. Sorry Paleo people. And sorry to you, Reader. Here I am chopping up another way of eating as I rail against those who do just that.
Who knows? Maybe I am just espousing another new distorted way of eating, but I can promise you this: if you make yummy vegetarian dishes, even your meat-loving family members will be satiated. And the planet will thank you. According to the USDA and the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, we raise about 9 billion livestock each year, and the amount of grain consumed by these animals is sufficient to feed about 840 million people who follow a plant-based diet.
This said, I totally understand the appeal of animal protein. I live with a husband who loves red meat, pork, and lamb and a daughter who adores chicken and is growing like a weed. Roast chicken or a steak is easy, nourishing and, when well-prepared, delicious. But our household eats a primarily vegetarian diet because I cook, and vegetables, grains, eggs, cheese and beans are what I crave. Once in a blue moon, I’ll make my husband a steak or hamburger and very occasionally, I’ll cook with chicken, but most nights I am charged with making vegetarian dishes that are satisfying and nourishing for all of us.
When I tell people that I cook every night, they often say, “Oh, you are so lucky you have the time to cook. Especially vegetarian meals. Gosh, that takes so much time.” And I tell them this: I begin cooking every night at about 5 p.m. or 5:15 p.m. We eat at 6:15 p.m. at the latest. I am not above using things like canned black beans or chickpeas if I’ve forgotten or have not had the time to soak and cook my own. My family calls me the five-minute gourmet.
The thing I love most about cooking with vegetables is that they are incredibly forgiving and flexible. Overcooked butternut squash becomes soup. If I don’t have a lot in the larder, lentil soup can be simple and delicious: a leek, onions, carrots, thyme, French lentils, a bunch of kale torn in, and salt and pepper. Maybe jazz it up with a splash of lemon or vinegar when it is served? But these same lentils could also serve as the melody in a symphony of a curry. And that is the other great thing about cooking with beans: they seem to be designed to carry and sustain flavor. They bring out the best in garlic, ginger, cumin, cinnamon, any kind of chili. Even better, legumes are great friends to vegetables. The earthiness of lentils transforms tomatoes’ acidity into a sweet vinegar. Black beans make red peppers, crunchy lettuces, cucumbers, red onions even brighter. At the same time, beans can tone down a too-hot chili and take the greasy feeling out of cheese. And chickpeas…well, they just make mint seem like magic.
So herewith are a few of my recipes, ones that I love and use weekly that might inspire you to cook and eat more vegetarian dishes. Do not chop your onions uniformly. If you are running late or forgot to soak your beans, use a can of organic ones. If it is the dead of winter, use a non-organic avocado to make a winter guacamole that will add some summer and color to your winter plate. If these don’t sound good, check out Laurie David’s The Family Dinner, which espouses Meatless Mondays. And while I don’t use the many meat recipes in Chris Fischer’s cookbook, The Beetlebung Farm Cookbook, I appreciate that he, along with other local chefs such as Cathy Walthers and Susie Middleton, have led the charge in helping home cooks like myself be less fussy and play, offering recipes to make simple, beautiful, and delicious meals.
Please note, in the spirit of this article, and loosening our grip, these recipes are general maps. Try them, play with them, adapt them, refine and define them so that they match your palate and what you want on your plate or have in your house. If you want to add anchovies back into the Caesar recipe, be my guest. You may not have a Cuisinart. Use a blender. You may not like tortillas; pair the black beans with rice! You may want to make chicken. Great! Have chicken with the spinach. An amazing combination.
Now, stop thinking so much and get cooking!