"It's not easy being green." I bet Kermit didn't know he was speaking on behalf of vegetarians everywhere, but he was. People are much more aware today than they were even ten years ago about vegetarian and veganism--so it all seems a lot less weird to most people. But it's still a way of eating that takes time and energy, and the willingness to educate yourself about nutrition and, sometimes, to stick up for your choices. It can feel like a lot of work. So we developed the recipes in this book to help you keep your food low-stress, delicious, and fun. Our goal was to focus on leaving out the meat without leaving out the taste, and after several rounds of recipe testing, our guinea pigs--most of whom were not vegetarians--just kept coming back for more.
Come to think of it, it's not so easy just plain feeding yourself. Even if you cooked before you left home, like we did, cooking onyour own is going to be different than what you're probably used to. Believe us. As sisters,we started learning to cook in our family kitchen when we were kids. And then we went off to college. And graduate school. We learned quickly what it's like to cook on a hot plate with one busted pot, after having scrounged for grocery money under the couch cushions. Okay, slight exaggeration, but we definitely found that having less equipment, fewer dishes, and way less money to spend on food affects the way you cook and the kinds of things you cook. That's one of the reasons we wrote this book.
We also wrote it because we noticed how easy it is for students who don't have much money or confidence in the kitchen to get into really boring and not-so-healthy patterns of eating--even vegetarians (ramen, anyone?). The good news is that, since you're one of more than twelve million Americans who don't eat meat, you have a ton of cheap, tasty, healthy options, from good old cheese and pasta to soymilk to "superfoods" like broccoli and quinoa. (What's quinoa? Glad you asked! Check out pages 51 and 128.) Vegetarian cooking is no harder to learn or do than any other kind of cooking, and even beginners can whip out veggie comfort food (real mac and cheese), fast food (pizza, wraps), simple food (stir-fries), impressive food (fondue!), and decadent food (mmmm, dessert . . .) with just a little direction.
So this book aims to set you up with the basic skills and knowledge you'll need to get started, and to help you stay out of the baked potato rut (because seriously, who doesn't love a good spud, but not every day, okay?). If you know nothing about cooking, we'll teach you something. If you have some kitchen chops and some favorite dishes, we'll share more with you.
The first pages of the book have an overview of the ingredients and equipment we feel are essential to setting up a rudimentary vegetarian kitchen, and some of the basic skills and techniques you'll need there (cooking rice and pasta, for example). This is a good place to start if in the past you've mostly thought of the kitchen as the place where the frozen fudge pops are stored. Helpful shopping, prepping, cooking, and storing advice (and also some fun trivia) is scattered throughout the book in headnotes and sidebars. Because we know the likelihood of you sitting down to dinner at six o'clock every night is practically nonexistent, we categorized the recipes a little differently than in most cookbooks, which tend to group things by ingredient (beans, vegetables) or course (soup, salad). If you would have trouble making something suitable for yourself, let alone for other people, there's Survival Cooking: recipes that are very simple and won't strain your cooking abilities the first time out. When money is particularly tight, check out the Cheap Eats chapter, where you'll find great dishes that are very budget friendly (though really, nearly every recipe is written with economy in mind). For those weeks when you've overindulged, check out Avoiding the Freshman Fifteen. It's full of recipes that are so good you won't feel the least bit deprived. Knowing that students often fly solo for meals led us to the Dinner for One chapter. Not only are these single-portion recipes great for those cooking for themselves, but they also give you an option to make your own meatless dinner when everyone else in your apartment is eating pot roast. And some of them have the option of making enough for dinner tonight and lunch tomorrow. For those times when you need a little TLC, check out the comfort food inJust Like Mom Makes. It's like being home . . . without being told to get your elbows off the table. We've also included a couple of chapters that will help you feed your friends. Food for the Masses offers hearty dishes that will serve eight to twelve people, and Party Food is, well, food to take to a party (go figure). As easy as it is to be the one who always brings the loaf of French bread and cheese, this gives you an opportunity to try something a little more interesting. And once you have won over your friends by cooking for them (see how this can be really good for your social life?), you'll be more than ready to start thumbing through the Impressing Your Date chapter. Because nothing says I Really Like You like a plateful of Mushroom Ravioli in Browned Butter. As for the last chapter--well, you have to have Desserts, right? 'Nuff said.
Here are some basics about ingredients, equipment, and cooking techniques that you should know before starting in on the recipes. We don't explain this stuff throughout the book because it comes up a lot and so it makes more sense to keep it in one place. You'll probably want to refer back here often.
Bouillon: This is basically dehydrated vegetable stock, and it's a key component to making sure your soups and sauces have good, full flavor. In this book, we used bouillon cubes instead of stock or broth because they're cheaper and a lot lighter to carry home from the store. The only size of vegetable bouillon cubes we found are extra large and are dissolved in 2 cups of water. If you find regular-sized ones, just use two for every one we call for. If you are using broth or stock, just substitute that for the water called for in the recipe (and leave out the bouillon cube, of course). No-salt-added vegetable bouillon cubes are a great option if your store carries them. They contain about 10 percent of the sodium of regular cubes, but still deliver all the flavor.
Breadcrumbs: We use plain breadcrumbs, but it's not that big of a deal for any of the dishes in this book. If what you have on hand is seasoned, don't make a special trip to the store; they'll work fine. Or if you don't have any at all, place a few slices of bread in the oven at 250°F for 20 minutes, or until they are dried out. Cool completely and break the slices into half-inch pieces. Place in the blender and pulse until smooth.
Butter: We've always used salted butter. It used to be because that's what Mom bought, but now it's because we prefer salted butter to use on bread and it's too much hassle to buy both kinds. If you prefer unsalted, you may need to add a little extra salt to the recipes. Margarine can be substituted for butter in all of the recipes in this book. Substituting can often be a problem with desserts, but we made all of these vegan so you wouldn't have to worry about it. We use stick margarine rather than soft; choose a brand that is free of trans fats.
Cooking spray and oil: Fat's got a bad rep, but some fat is part of a healthy diet (your brain especially needs healthy fats to function well). Also, you often need it to cook with. We usually say butter or spray the pan in recipes. We always spray. It's faster, you don't have to get your hands all greasy, and it's much lower in fat, and therefore calories. We use plain, unflavored cooking spray--which is just cooking oil and an emulsifier in an aerosol can or pump bottle--and since we're paying for it now, we buy the store brand. It's cheaper and it works just as well as name-brand products. Canola, corn, or vegetable oils are good to cook with: its flavor is neutral. If you want to cook with olive oil, the plain, nonfancy stuff will do--save the extra virgin olive oil for salad dressing. And for future reference, olive oil is not a substitute for canola oil, especially in dessert recipes. Brownies with olive oil are really gross. Ask my roommate.
Cornstarch: If you make a lot of stir-fries, you'll want cornstarch on your shelf. It is a fast and easy way to thicken sauces, but it can cause a real mess if it's not used properly. It must be mixed with a little bit of cold liquid before being added to the sauce or whatever; otherwise, it will immediately form large lumps that will never smooth out. You don't need a lot of liquid, just enough to form a smooth, pourable mixture. One other tip about cornstarch: It doesn't have much staying power when it's used in a sauce. It's meant to be used right before serving. If it cooks for more than 10 minutes, your sauce will begin to thin out again. Cornstarch is also used a lot to thicken the filling for fruit pies--you'll use it if you make the peach pie in chapter 9, for instance.
Fruits and vegetables: Organic or not organic--that is the question. Whether 'tis betterto suffer the slings and arrows of nasty pesticides or to blow six bucks on two peaches. . . . Oh, sorry. They made us take a Shakespeare class freshman year. But really, what is a broke vegetarian supposed to do? We know the benefits of organics (better for the environment, better for your health, taste better), but they can be totally beyond reach, price-wise. The truth is, some conventionally grown (that is, nonorganic) fruits and vegetables are grown with lots of chemicals, some with hardly any. If this is really important to you, and you can afford some organics, go for organic apples, cherries, spinach, celery, and berries. Fruits or vegetables you peel (like carrots or bananas or peas) and broccoli and cauliflower don't expose you to as many chemicals, so buy those organic if cost is no object (yeah, right). Likewise, farmer's markets, which happen in most towns at least once a week (closing for the winter in cold climates), can be really inspiring but really expensive places to shop for produce. It's great to be able to give your food money right to the people who grew it, and you should definitely check out your local farmer's market if you haven't already. The vendors will entice you with samples, and in the height of the growing season, prices can be really competitive. For bargains, try going near the end of the market day and asking for a discount--growers would often rather sell their stuff for cheap than pack it back up and take it home.
For those times when fresh fruits and vegetables aren't available or you just don't have the time to deal with them, the canned or frozen versions are generally good alternatives. Whether you use frozen or canned is up to you. In these recipes we used the one we felt worked best in each situation, but feel free to use whichever one you prefer.
Herbs and spices: We use dried herbs more often than fresh herbs in our recipes simply because they're cheaper and easier to have on hand. When we use fresh herbs, it's because the dish needs the slightly different flavor that the fresh herb provides. Dried herbs are usually more potent than their fresh counterparts. That said, now we'll tell you why it isn't always true. In general, dried herbs are more potent than fresh for the first three months. Once that time has passed they begin to lose their potency, and after six months their flavoring power drops dramatically. The same holds true with spices. Manufacturers recommend replacing dried herbs and spices every six months. Since that isn't feasible on our budget, we just taste each dish and add more if it seems like the herb or spice has lost its punch.
Lemon juice: Freshly squeezed lemon juice has a fresher flavor than the bottled version, but we still always keep a bottle of lemon juice in the refrigerator. If we plan ahead, we buy fresh lemons. But if we don't have fresh ones on hand, we aren't likely to go to the store just to get them.
Margarine: see Butter.
Mayonnaise, yogurt, and sour cream: Generally, we use light or low-fat versions, because we are all for saving a few calories when we can't taste the difference. Just keep in mind that low-fat versions tend to get watery when they are mixed with other ingredients. So, if you are making something to eat right away, the low-fat mayo is fine, but if you want to serve it later, mix in the mayo right before serving. (And by the way, we say mayonnaise, but we actually use Miracle Whip. That's what Mom always bought and that's what we're used to. Use whichever one you prefer.) Low-fat or even nonfat plain yogurt is a fine substitute for whole-fat--especially if you can find Greek or European-style plain nonfat yogurt--it's been drained of extra water, so it's really creamy.
Mushrooms: Fresh mushrooms should be brushed off, rinsed briefly under running water, and patted dry with a paper towel. Never soak them in water; they are like little sponges and will absorb water and become soggy. Also, be sure to trim off the ends (the part that would stick in the ground) before you use them.
Piecrust: Premade piecrusts are wonderful and way easier than making your own. The kind we buy are in the refrigerator section and usually come in boxes with two crusts. It is best to let them sit until they're room temperature because otherwise they crack when you try to unroll them. If you're impatient like me you can throw them in the microwave for a few seconds, but don't put them in for too long or they'll stick together.
Potatoes: There are many different types of potatoes available in the store, but we usually use red or russets (also called Idaho). Red potatoes are more expensive than russets, but they are also less starchy. Since they hold their shape better when sliced, we always use them for potato salads. For almost everything else we use russet potatoes. They are cheap and work well for baking, mashing, or frying.