The vegetable world is incredibly rich in flavor and variety. From artichoke to zucchini, fava bean to porcini, banana to passionfruit, the range of flavors is enormous. And vegetable matter has much more nutrition per calorie than animal matter. So vegetarians and carnivores alike have much to gain from learning about vegetarian cooking.
Vegetarianism has been practiced for thousands of years by people of every nationality and from every country. Humans do best when a significant portion of their diet is derived from plants. And the amount of earth's resources - be it fresh water, energy, or land - used to derive a fixed amount of virtually any dietary nutrient from plants can range from one third down to one percent of the resource usage to get the same nutrient from animals.
Furthermore, with cows being fed antibiotics and recycled carcasses it's just a matter of time before a biological meltdown occurs. Are we talking massive antibiotic-resistant plagues? Massive outbreaks of mad cow disease in humans? Who knows? But the potential is for lots of people to be affected.
There are health, flavor, environmental, economic, political, and ethical reasons to eat no meat. I personally crave meat but more and more I try to use it as a condiment instead of a central dish. And the tricks and tactics of the world of vegetarianism informs my cooking.
Vegetarian eating and cooking encompasses a vast array of slightly disparate eating practices.
At the most extreme is Vegan. In this version no animal products are allowed - no milk, cheese, butter, eggs. The motivations for this are frequently ethical. There may also be dietary reasons. And finally there are evolutionary reasons. Because a vegetarian culture can support so many more people than a highly carnivorous one, places like India support far more people than they otherwise could.
Because milk is an animal product rather than an animal itself, many vegetarians, even ethical vegetarians, will consume milk. There are people who consider themselves vegetarians who eat eggs. Some draw a distinction between fertilized and unfertilized. And there are those who eat dairy, eggs, and occasionally fish. There are 'vegetarian' restaurants that also serve fish. And in Mexico, ask for 'no carne' (no meat) and you can end up with chicken.
Vegan diets have potential health hazards. Vitamins B12 and calcium become crucially necessary supplements for vegans. And if you live in a cold place and get little sunlight, add vitamin D. Long term lack of B12 can cause irreversible neurological damage. And long term calcium deficiency can cause osteoporosis and a number of other problems.
The central problem for all vegetarians is getting 'complete protiens.' There is a set of twenty amino acids critical to cell health; meats have all twenty. No single vegetable product has them all. The situation is easy to treat since the amino acids missing from grains are present in beans and dairy products. So the simple rule is to always eat grains with beans or dairy products.
In the seventies and eighties vegetarian cookbooks often focussed on dairy and cooking became a little heavy. The health-food movement has come of age, and now we have unprecedented access to crucial ingredients - dozens of kinds of beans, dozens of kinds and forms of grains and flours, hundreds of kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables. And so on. We have started to get access to recipes that harness this embarrasment of riches. And food can be as rich or lean as we choose it to be.
In India, vegetarianism has been a way of life for Brahmins for many centuries. Indian vegetarian cooking is a great place to begin learning. The flavors are big, and many of the techniques are straightforward. Throughout China and Japan, beans and rice have been central ingredients in cooking, so one is apt to find excellent vegetarian recipes in cookbooks from these countries.
Perhaps the most important raw material for vegetarians is tofu. It is rich in protien. It can be an excellent source of calcium. And as it is prepared in different ways, it takes on different characteristics. Any serious vegetarian should have at least one book filled with tofu recipes. I can tell you as a person who ate for two years in a vegetarian co-op that tofu quickly became a favorite food. And I was not alone. It was always the most difficult cooking material to keep amply stocked. The unofficial moniker, 'Tofu House' was well deserved.
People who wish to live in a world that depletes resources more slowly may choose to eat fish and poultry but not beef because a pound of chicken or turkey requires much less cereal grain to produce than a pound of beef. This is a good way to ease into being a vegetarian. If this appeals to you, a good book to consider is A New Way to Cook. It's a thick tome which provides a solid basis of tasty and nutritious recipes that are "Planet Light."
Indians have been eating vegetarian cuisine for perhaps a millenium, so it makes sense to learn as much as we can from tens of billions of man-years of practice. Julie Sahni and Madhur Jaffrey both have towering reputations as great Indian cookbook writers. The Ayurvedic tradition in India is a special one that ascribes special health-giving qualities to foods, herbs and spices. They eschew the use of certain foods such as those from the onion family. It is a practice which it holds in common with macrobiotic cooking.
Bryanna Clark Groggan has a list of vegetarian cookbooks as long as my arm, but her most popular and influential must be In Nonna's Kitchen. This is a great book on Mediterranean style vegetarianism.
Three books by restaurantiers are in these pages. Chez Panisse is written by Alice Waters, founder of a famous Bay area vegetarian restaurant of that name. The restaurant and the founder have a towering reputation for both good food and innovation. Passionate Vegetarian is written by Crescent Dragonwagon who owned and operated an inn with a towering reputation for exquisite vegetarian cuisine. This magnum opus is chock full of solid and inspiring recipes. And if you don't like it, use it instead of a telephone book to give small children a boost at the table; it is thicker. The Millenium Restaurant's executive chef, Eric Tucker, weighs in with his second cookbook, The Artful Vegan. Seitan, wheat gluten, tofu, and bean sprouts give way to much more interesting fare.
The world of vegetarian food and cooking is so much more than steak and potatoes without the steak. It is a world where food has a vast richness of variety in flavor, texture, and nutritional value. And it is a world that demands much less in terms of natural resources for each of us to live well. Even omnivores will benefit greatly by learning to enjoy the rich heritage of vegetarian cooking.
Eat well and prosper.
Copyright S.R. Brubaker 2002 - 2006.
Sundays at Moosewood
Carb Conscious Veg.