How to Cook Everything Vegetarian
John Wiley & SonsCopyright © 2007 Mark Bittman
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-0-7645-2483-7
Chapter One Ingredients
In all cooking, it makes sense to start with ingredients. You need equipment, you need technique, and you need time and-for most people-recipes. But you can't eat anything without food, so it makes sense to start here.
When you plan a vegetarian meal, you narrow your options, but not much. When you think about all the food that's already in your kitchen, you'll readily realize that meat, poultry, and fish don't make up much of it. The food you need to cook vegetarian meals-indeed, to become a vegetarian if you choose to do so-is already there.
One could argue that eliminating animals from your diet means you must make sure that those foods you do eat are of higher quality; I won't argue that. In fact, I'd argue that no matter what ingredients comprise your diet, they should be of the highest quality that makes sense to you (and, of course, that falls within your budget).
For example, I can usually tell the difference, blindfolded, between estate-bottled, super-high-quality extra virgin olive oil from Liguria, Italy (where my favorites are from), and the commodity stuff that comes from somewhere or other. The first, however, usually costs $30 a liter or more; the second costs about $8 a liter. To me, the difference usually isn't worth it. There are times I might use the better stuff, and when I have it I save it for those occasions, but I'm never distraught when I'm forced to use less-fabulous olive oil. (In fact, the cheap extra virgin olive oil that's available today is better than 99 percent of the olive oil you could buy at any price just fifteen or twenty years ago.)
Artisanal pasta? Yogurt made from biodynamically produced milk? Organically grown heirloom beans? Locally picked ripe white peaches? English farmhouse cheddar? Sure, when I feel like it. And when I don't, good pasta, local yogurt, supermarket beans, Georgia peaches, decent Vermont cheddar-they're fine with me. It's all a judgment call and part of the compromise of everyday cooking.
I draw the line at junk (usually; like everyone else, I make exceptions), at food that really makes a difference, or at ingredients that are really badly made. You can, for example, buy soy sauce that takes a day to produce and is basically salty brown liquid; you can just as easily, and without spending much more, buy real fermented soy sauce, a complex and delicious product that will add life to almost anything. That's an easy choice.
When does it matter? It matters when it matters to you. But here's what matters to me.
8 Ingredients That Must Be Genuine
1. Extra virgin olive oil. As long as it's extra virgin, it's good. 2. Parmigiano-Reggiano. The real thing is the king of cheese. 3. Real soy sauce. The label should say "brewed" or "fermented." Ingredients should be soy, wheat, salt, water, and bacteria. Nothing else, and certainly not TVP (textured vegetable protein) or caramel coloring. 4. Yogurt. I want whole milk, I want active cultures, and I want no thickeners. But use low-fat or even nonfat if you must. 5. Dry pasta. Americans still can't make it; it's gotta come from Italy. Most of the Italian brands are good. None of the American brands are. 6. Basmati rice. A lot of good rices are produced outside of their original regions, but basmati from India is still the best. 7. Salt. It doesn't have to be sea salt; kosher is fine. Just so long as it's not iodized or mixed with other additives. 8. Black peppercorns. You really should grind your own right before every use or nearly every use.
What About Organic?
You can't start talking about vegetarianism, or even about a healthy diet, without being assaulted with questions about whether you buy "organic." Unfortunately, this is a political rather than a cooking question, an extremely complicated one, and one that cannot be answered fully here (or anywhere, for that matter, though the book The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan carefully addresses the current state of food production in the United States).
But, since this is my book, and people ask me this question all the time (and because writing a book about vegetarian cooking makes you think hard about this issue), it seems fitting to say what I think about this question. I don't routinely buy organic food, and I rarely go out of my way to buy organic food. It's not that I'm against it; when I had a large garden, which I did for about ten years, it was nearly organic: we composted, didn't rely much on chemical fertilizers, and avoided pesticides religiously.
But that's small time, and in a way that's my point: I would rather buy local vegetables from a conscientious gardener or farmer than so-called organic vegetables from a multinational corporation. I think buying local is more important and has more impact than supporting organic.
The reason this is such a difficult question to answer is that my preference here is an impractical one. I don't have the time or energy to seek out local produce on a regular basis; I do most of my shopping in a supermarket, just like almost everyone else in this country. And in supermarkets, organic food doesn't have much of an advantage over conventional food. For the most part, they're both industrially produced in far-away places. I'd rather buy sort of local conventional milk than ultrapasteurized organic milk from hundreds if not thousands of miles away. But would I rather buy organic broccoli from California (I live on the east coast) than conventional broccoli from New Mexico? Sure. Am I convinced it matters much? No. I'm not even convinced that industrially produced "organic" food is any healthier or more sustainable than industrially produced "conventional" food.
It's obviously a complicated question that's constantly evolving. My quick advice, for what it's worth, is: Buy local when you can. Buy the best food you can find when you can't find local. In general, I'd say, be flexible; there may be times when the best vegetable you can find is not only not local and not organic but not even fresh. There are times it might be frozen.
It's worth mentioning here, as I did in "How to Use this Book" (page xiv), that if you run into an ingredient you're not familiar with-or you just want comprehensive info on a category of ingredients, like legumes-please consult the index, which is as comprehensive as I could make it.
The Bottom Line: What You Really Need
The list of ingredients you need to cook can be short or as long as you want. (While writing this book, I was fine in a cabin in the woods for a few days with just some grains, beans, canned goods, soy sauce, and olive oil, along with milk and a few veggies picked up at a farmstand.) I like to strike a balance between having a wide variety of things on hand, so I can expand my choices at will, and having so much food that it starts to go bad. (I also have a policy of trying to run my pantry dry once a year, usually in summer, to make sure everything, even dried goods and spices, maintains at least a semblance of freshness.) But if you were going to stock a vegetarian pantry from the start and throw a few things into the fridge as well, without going overboard, here's what I would recommend:
21 Ingredients You Really Need
1. Olive oil. Extra virgin, as noted earlier. And some decent neutral oil, like grapeseed or corn. 2. Vinegar. See page 759. 3. Soy sauce. As noted earlier. 4. Rice. See page 501. Start with a long-grain and a short-grain, white and brown. 5. Pasta. Italian, as noted earlier. Rice noodles are good to have around also (see page 464). 6. Beans. Dried and canned, and frozen if you can find them. You won't always have time to soak and cook, and canned beans are better than nothing. 7. Spices. From chiles to curry powder to peppercorns. Buy only as much as you will use in a year, if possible. 8. Flours. All-purpose at a minimum. Whole wheat is a good second choice. You'll want cornmeal too. Store them all in the fridge or freezer if you have room. 9. Canned tomatoes. I like to get whole and chop, process, or purée them myself. 10. Aromatic vegetables. Onions, garlic, shallots, celery, and carrots. 11. Baking soda, baking powder, cornstarch, and the like. Yeast if you're going to bake bread. 12. Dried mushrooms. Especially cèpes (porcini) and shiitakes. See page 313. 13. Eggs. 14. Milk and yogurt, and buttermilk for baking. 15. Parmesan. As noted earlier, and on page 209. 16. Nuts and seeds. Sesame seeds for a start, but you can go nuts here (sorry). Many of these have a short shelf life, though, so store in the freezer or buy in small quantities. 17. Lemons and limes. Add freshness to almost anything; in many cases much nicer than vinegar. 18. Butter. Unless you have a problem with it, it's one of the greatest of all ingredients. 19. Sugar and other sweeteners. 20. Long-lasting vegetables and fruits, like potatoes, apples, and oranges. What a boon that you can keep these for weeks or months. 21. Standard condiments like ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise.
16 More Ingredients That Are Really Nice to Have on Hand
1. Capers. Packed in vinegar or salt. The anchovies of the vegetable world. 2. Seaweed, or sea greens. Really a valuable pantry item; see page 355. 3. Miso. See page 151. Truly one of the world's great ingredients. 4. Sesame oil. Dark. Refrigerate, please; see page 755. 5. Bread crumbs. Best made fresh, but, you know ... that's not always possible. The best premade are panko, the Japanese kind, which are quite crunchy. 6. Fresh scallions, chiles, and ginger. Strong ingredients that keep for days, if not longer. 7. Coconut milk. I'd put it in my top twenty-one, but not everyone cooks with it as much as I do. Still, the cans keep forever, so it's worth buying. 8. Hot sauce, hoisin sauce, tamarind paste, curry paste, horseradish, and other slightly exotic condiments and seasonings. 9. Mirin and sake. Great for Japanese foods. 10. Fermented black beans. These keep forever and will add something special to any stir-fry. 11. Dried fruit. For both snacking and cooking. 12. Frozen vegetables. Look, life isn't ideal. Better these than nothing. See page 235. 13. Tahini and/or peanut butter. The second, for many of us, is essential, but both are useful. 14. Cream and/or sour cream. If you have it, you'll use it, and you'll love it. 15. Parsley (especially) and other fresh herbs. Underrated and wonderful. 16. Red and white wine. You can cook without them, but if you drink you should cook with them.
What can I say? There isn't enough of it. If you garden, make your own pickles and jams, and freeze tomato sauce from fresh tomatoes for the winter, more power to you. But for most people, it's a terrific scramble just to set aside enough time to cook a couple or a few times a week. That's the sad truth.
We all must eat, yet in this country few people must cook to do so. I will argue, however, that you must cook to eat well. Take-out, prepared food, and restaurant food is fine-at least some of it is-but it's rarely fresh, and you have no control over what goes into it. None. When you cook your own food, you will not add ingredients you've never heard of or chemicals or tons of fat; you just won't do it.
That's not about time; that's just one of the arguments for cooking yourself. It's also far less expensive, and it can be fun (see "The Zen of Cooking?" below). Both of these have an obvious impact on your judgments about whether cooking is "worth the time" it takes. If it's less expensive, you might not need to work as much; if it's fun, well, that's what you're saving your time for, isn't it? (And if it's healthier, you'll have more time in the form of a longer life.)
But those arguments rarely carry much weight with the people who complain to me that they "never have the time" to cook from scratch. To those people I simply say: The thirty to sixty minutes it takes to get a decent meal on the table-if you get your mate and/or your kids and/or your guests to help, even that time can be shortened- is not that much more than the time it takes to reheat the stuff you bought at the supermarket or even to call a pizza delivery service. In fact, if your house is well stocked (and it will be after you undergo the shopping trip recommended in the ingredients section) and you know how to cook (and you will if you practice, even if you know nothing right now), cooking a decent meal is about twice as fast as organizing the family, driving to a restaurant, ordering, waiting, and eating.
I can't argue that cooking is faster than microwaving a frozen dinner. Only that even in the hands of a novice cook, it's infinitely better, cheaper, and healthier.
The Zen of Cooking?
One final point about time. There is a state that experienced cooks enter, and it's not necessarily one of inebriation (though that's possible too, given that the wine is always handy). Being close to real food, peeling, chopping, browning, stirring, tasting ... these elemental, routine tasks become second nature with practice. You don't have to think a tremendous amount to cook, but you do have to be in one place, calm and concentrated. And when you do that enough, you find yourself comfortable, you find yourself enjoying it, the way you might a drive on an untrafficked road or even the time spent mowing the lawn or watching mindless television. Some people even use cooking as a creative expression or at the very least a relaxing break in their day. As the Zen saying might go, "When you're washing the dishes, wash the dishes." Which means simply this: If you get into cooking, you'll love it and find it meaningful work. And then you won't question the time spent at all.