I’m by no means a militant vegetarian. I spent about five years eating “pesco-vegetarian” (no meat except fish). I now eat about 80% vegetarian and label myself a “less-meat-atarian,” mostly for environmental reasons. My exit from strict vegetarianism began for two reasons: because I didn’t know how to cook tasty food, and because Toronto restaurants have appallingly limited vegetarian options. At the time I stopped eating vegetarian, I’d received Mark Bittman’s earlier non-vegetarian cookbook and marvelled at the tastiness of his simple recipes. A few years later, this vegetarian book knocked my socks off. All of his cookbooks are recommended, and I understand there’s a great iPhone app for the recipes too.
What makes this vegetarian book so good? First, Bittman clearly loves food and doesn’t beat anyone over the head with the politics. He understands the climate change imperative, and wants to help those aiming for a lower-carbon diet find appealing ways to do it. If vegetarian food doesn’t taste good, many people will stick with meat dishes.
Second, Bittman deconstructs food in an internationalist way: many recipes come with 3-4 different variations that show how to modify the same basic dish to give an Indian, Spanish or French way. “Use chickpeas instead of beans, rice wine vinegar and peeled fresh ginger instead of the red onion. Instead of olive oil, use two tablespoons peanut oil and two tablespoons cocount milk. Use cilantro instead of parsley.”
Third, he gives a serious lesson in making the most boring and untaught parts of vegetarianism manageable: cooking tofu, lentils and beans in ways that make them tasty. His chilis are unbelievably rich and meaty, he provides 5-6 different ways of preparing tofu that were largely new to me, he has many lentil dals and soups with a wide range of textures and flavours, he taught me the tastiness of roasted nuts as a protein source, and I’ve even learned to like eating bean-based dishes.
Finally, when I’m eating vegetarian, I often approach meal construction differently. Instead of starting with a meat and looking for ways to cook it and side dishes, I usually start with 2-3 vegetables in the fridge and try to build something around them. The book’s index is ideal for this, giving a huge range of options for any given vegetables. The book is generally really well organized, and well adapted to my way of working and level of skill. Recipes are usually quick and designed for “everyday” cooking rather than big productions. He keeps to a short list of ingredients and avoids exotic items, or else gives easy substitute ingredients. And he assumes the reader is a novice cook, with no assumptions about knowing the lingo.
Some of my favourite recipes from this book:
- Chili with black beans & tempeh – page 677. The tastiest veggie chili you will ever taste, courtesy of whole roasted garlic, beefy tempeh bits, and smoky chipotle peppers. A little more labour-intensive than some of the other versions, but worth it. (Or: try the version with espresso, page 608.)
- Mung bean dal with apples, coconut and mint – page 602. I would never have guessed it was possible to make such a refreshing, green and summery lentil/bean dal, but he pulls it off.
- Boulangerie beans with sweet potatoes – page 621. Baked beans that melt in your mouth, with stock reduced into a sweet glaze on the potatoes.
- Beet salad and avocado with grapefruit – page 66. Sweet, sour, creamy and acidic. You can’t go wrong.
- Braised lentils, spanish style – page 598. Lentils with red wine and saffron; delicious.
- Dry pan eggplant – page 294. A fantastic, oil-free way to prepare eggplant, turning the inside creamy and liquid and the skin into a complex, smoky crispy coating.
- Sea green and mushroom stirfry – page 357. Who knew seaweed was such a useful ingredient?
- Vegetable soup, Thai Style – page 127. Basically a “tom yum” soup, very easy to make.
- Chickpea soup with saffron and almonds – page 117. The crunchy roasted almonds add great texture.
- French-style lentil soup with spinach – page 116. Lemon juice, good lentils and spinach make this simple soup quite tasty.
- Simple Paella with mushroom caps – page 523.
- Tofu, Provençal Style – page 649. Tofu with black olives, tomato, capers and marjoram.
- Quick-Cooked Edamame with Kobu Dashi or Soy Sauce – page 583. A really easy, refreshing dish with nice japanese flavours. The seaweed variation is also nice.
- Poached tofu – page 641
- Soup stocks – from vegetables (scraps or whole, page 101), or from seaweed (page 103), or with additions like cheese rinds
- Using the correct oils to impart a regional flavour – peanut, olive and neutral
- “Shocking” steamed vegetables in ice water for texture and colour – page 236
- Creamy Pumpkin or Winter Squash Soup, Version II – HtCE, page 60. Half squash, half granny smith apples, plus white wine, tarragon and cream: rich and sour and delicious.
- Pasta with Saffron-Cauliflower Sauce – HtCE, page 135. Anchovies, raisins and pine nuts make this sumptuously rich (and a little pricy… but cheaper than beef).
- Tender Greens with Peanuts and Tomatoes – HtCE, page 98. I make this with dandelion greens, which are impossibly bitter alone – but add in sweet tomatoes, the umami of roasted peanuts, the sourness of lime juice and a bit of chile, and the bitterness is masked and delicious.
All told, a great book. Mr. Bittman feeds us very well. I also highly recommend his meat-oriented books; very good, but in a much more crowded field.