Chances are if you know a vegetarian, are one yourself, or have ever worked in a professional kitchen – you’re well aware that when it comes to dining out: vegetarian plates are a throw away. Sure there’s the odd vegetarian restaurant that’s actually good (I mean, it’s a more ‘acceptable’ thing to be vegetarian these days) but I haven’t come across many great veg-rooted menus, and to me this is a tragedy. The majority of offerings today are deeply inspired by animal proteins, and who can really blame chefs? Have you had pork belly? I mean, hello?! The issue I want to talk about in regards to our meat-centric foodie culture isn’t the moral kind or even the environmental… but our lack of creativity when it comes to building plant based plates. Don’t get me wrong – I have plenty to say about environmental damage, potential health consequences and an array of other “meat issues” but this is no place to rant about it.
The average restaurant, hotel, or any other food service place will throw something together on the fly for you, and they may even have a built in veg option on their menu, but rest assured it won’t be blowing your socks off any time soon. You’re most likely to be offered items already on the menu with the animal protein simply removed from the plate. But what about your protein intake? Vegetarians certainly aren’t planning their major meals around carrot sticks and lettuce – so what gives? Why are chefs so reluctant to give a shit about plant based meal planning? Is it really true that animal fat is the only great way to impart deep, soulful layers of flavor – or are we just disinterested in alternatives, and lazy?
Sustainability! We preach so much about local, organic, sustainable… but recent research does in fact show that most restaurants lie on their menus about where their proteins and other ingredients are really sourced from (at least for most of the year). So my question is this – if we’re going to preach (and attempt to live by) our new standard of sustainability, then why on earth aren’t there more plant based options for diners? Good ones. Thoughtful ones. Dishes with protein that isn’t a soggy flap of poorly prepared tofu.
One thing you learn fast when you begin eating less meat and start vegging out, is how deep the flavors of grains and vegetables can really be. A well thought out plate with a combination of cooked and raw items can end up being far more interesting and satisfying than a slab of steak with shitty butter-logged mashed potatoes. Go ahead and call them what you want, pomme puree, garlic smash, it’s all the same… it’s all a cop out. Anything tastes rich and delicious when you add three pounds of butter, a kilo of salt, and a litre of cream. Give it a rest.
Think eating vegetarian is boring? Think again. Basic cooking techniques will help you balance a meal and create satisfying dishes, you honestly won’t miss meat.
Things you should consider when attempting vegetarian meals:
Combine textures: combine cooked and uncooked items to keep the flavors bright but the textures contrasting and interesting, like some of my buddha bowls. Incorporate something dense and chewier, something lighter, crunchy, and a condiment to tie it all together. A common mistake is ending up with a plate that’s one-dimensional and singularly textured, a sure fail.
Develop flavors: slow roast certain vegetables, like root veg, for a deeply satisfying flavor. Practice with different items, learn what takes a long time to roast and what is quick. Learn to add things to the roasting pan as time passes so everything ends up cooked perfectly in the end.
Balance flavors: Always be sure you’re balancing sweet, salty, acidic, bitter, and umami. Have a winning combination of these five and you can hardly screw up flavorwise. Umami is defined as the quality of savory earthiness. Think soy, mushrooms, and things that are fermented and/or aged.
Pick your proteins and grains: Don’t think salad alone will sustain you for long. Do some research online, try new grains, learn how to cook them properly (so they actually taste good), and write yourself a go-to list of proteins so you don’t find yourself making chickpea-everything. Not that I don’t love chickpeas, I do, but not chickpeas alone. Try 20 different kinds of beans and legumes, prepare them in different ways, see what you like best. Try spelt berries, mung beans, things that sound weird. I promise you they aren’t.
Some of the best meals I’ve had most recently packed a massive flavor punch and contained no meat. We seem to have a sad, sad tendency to cook the living shit out of vegetables and then complain that they suck. Stop overcooking your vegetables. Do some googling, you have no excuses at home and chefs have none in the workplace. Chefs need to stop thinking that a kale caesar or pile of underseasoned quinoa are items vegetarians seek out – but that’s not far from claiming carnivores want to stuff their faces with foie gras for three meals a day (maybe some of you do, but mostly not). There’s a whole world of opportunity in the garden for chefs, but few are embracing this. Study any moderately rated dine-out spot and you’re likely to see that most menu items don’t even state what vegetables come on the plate. They’re usually just showcasing the meat and starch. Go ahead, give it a gander. Vegetables are still an afterthought, and it’s a damn shame.
I’m not claiming that meat is inherently bad or that I am a full-fledged vegetarian myself, but I challenge you to test your creativity with food and see where it takes you. You might just surprise yourself.
As Lisa Hymas put it (and well I might add) on Grist:
“You say you care about sustainability? Prove it. Add to your menu a vegetarian entrée so appealing that even omnivores won’t be able to resist. I dare you. And I can’t wait to come taste the results.”
My dinners this week, below:
Quinoa bowl with steamed broccoli, shaved carrot, red cabbage, boiled egg, hummus, and garlic pea puree. Basmati bowl with chili, soy, and black vinegar marinated tofu, shaved brussel sprouts, raw brown mushrooms, more broccoli, guacamole, and lime. And sauteed white kidney beans and tomato on avocado sourdough toast, with soft poached eggs and harissa. You can check out my last post for my first in a series of these so called ‘buddha bowls’, aka: my new favorite thing. Ever.
And a couple of vegetarian dishes to die for, from Lola’s in Toronto. You should check it out.