Plant life can be very enticing. It is visual, tactile, aromatic, and mysterious. Plant foods range from jewel-like beans with their stripes and patterns, to subtle grains, strangely beautiful seaweeds, the aromas of herbs and spices, and of course fruits and vegetables, with their many forms and colors. No less amazing is the ingenuity of man-made foods: coils of pasta, cheeses of all manner, the lustrous hues and fragrances of oils. It was this edible circus that started me cooking, and it’s still there to suggest a recipe, a meal, a menu, or an excuse for a gathering.
But the idea for Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone came to me after teaching a weeklong cooking class at Esalen Institute in California many years ago. When it ended, I realized that it would be so helpful to have a big book, like the Joy of Cooking, that included all kinds of plant foods between its covers, a real soup-to-nuts kind of book. At that time, vegetarian cooking was something from the fringe, and some foods, like soy milk, for example, were downright obscure and could be purchased only at tiny health food stores. I wondered why some foods had to be hidden—couldn’t they be brought forward and included as ingredients, along with other foods, in one place? As it turned out, they could. For some time now, once-obscure foods have filled our supermarkets’ shelves—they’re even found at gas stations and convenience stores. Today, in terms of food, the world looks very different than it did when I began writing Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.
More than 17 years have passed since Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone first came out, and those foods that were once scarcely known are now everyday items, and new ones have appeared. In addition, our knowledge about what makes up the foods we eat has deepened, and some foods that were once viewed in such a positive way are now regarded more dubiously. Soy, for example, is not quite the star we once thought it was, and today the emphasis has shifted to fermented soy, not the more common forms, as important.
More people today feel that organically grown foods are better for one’s health, and indeed, many foods we never thought would be grown and produced without pesticides, like sugar, are available as organics. Butter isn’t always bad. Olive oil is mostly good but still not really regulated; canola oil not so much. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a bigger problem for us today, as they have proliferated and are still unlabeled. We were not eating kale salads at all during the seven years when I was writing Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone; now they’re everywhere. Coconut oil was still considered a harmful saturated fat. Now it’s considered a good fat, and a very delicious one, too. Plus we are now cooking with coconut water, curry leaves, and kefir lime leaves. Multiple types of seasoning salts were not on our radar; now they’re part of our pantries. The pressure cooker was more feared then than appreciated; today pressure cookers are safe, popular, and used with ease. Changes in the culture of food have indeed taken place and many new ingredients are ours for the using. In this edition of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, you will find nearly all of the recipes you have come to love. But you will also find over 200 new ones and information on new ingredients we have come to know.
Another inspiration for writing Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone came from the questions my students asked, questions that revealed when they were at a loss in the kitchen. They helped me understand that acquiring food sense and knowledge of how food works is what allows a person to move about the kitchen free of anxiety and full of happy anticipation. The recipes are there to articulate that know-how, give confidence, and provide a structure for intuitive cooking. Today hundreds of emails from readers tell me that this has proven to be a friendly, useable guide for those learning to cook as well as those who already know their way around the kitchen, whether or not the user is vegetarian. (Many readers have begun letters and emails to me by saying, “I’m not vegetarian, but . . .”) Copies of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone have been given as wedding and graduation gifts and hauled off to foreign lands by people on extended trips. I have seen utterly destroyed copies in restaurants and monasteries, books with stained, swollen, and warped pages. Young people have learned to cook from it, and so have their parents who have found themselves at a loss as to how to cook for a child who suddenly will not eat meat. To thousands, it has introduced new flavors, techniques, and the pleasure of being able to cook one’s own food with good results. I still use it myself.
As its title suggests, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone was not intended only for vegetarians, although they would be happy to know that all of these recipes require no adjustments. I’ve always seen this as a book for anyone who wants to include more vegetables and other plant-based foods in their meals (isn’t that everyone?), as a resource for those who wish to have meatless meals as a change from their usual diet—“meatless Mondays” have since become popular—and I wanted it to serve as a guide for those cooking for another who, for whatever reason, has needed to assume a more plant-based diet. In this edition of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, I have also flagged the many vegan recipes so that they would stand out clearly for vegan cooks.
Most vegetarians include eggs and dairy among the foods they eat. Vegans do not. There are Jewish vegetarians who apply Talmudic questioning to eating meat in regard to the inhumane treatment of most livestock animals, a question raised by many others as well, and more so today than ever. There are also those who call themselves vegetarians but eat fish and chicken, which is something I’ve never quite understood. There are full-time and part-time vegetarians, occasional vegetarians (sometimes called “flexitarians”), and lapsed vegetarians. And there are honest omnivores who happen to like a lot of vegetables and other plant foods in their lives, including plenty of vegetarian meals. And there are “locavores.” I place myself in the last two groups. Most of the time, I happily make a meal from what others place on the side of their plate without even thinking of it as vegetarian. The reason I place myself among the omnivore/locavores is because my food concerns are based on such issues as the variety of the plant or animal I’m eating, how it is raised, where it comes from, if it’s a GMO product, did it live in a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO), or was it free to range. I live in the American West. My neighbors are ranchers; I grow vegetables. We trade with one another, thereby mostly eating foods that come from within a few miles of our homes.
Local and organic-driven cooking and eating speak to a world where food and politics collide on a daily basis and where political action, such as voicing protest when the standards for organics are threatened, or fighting for the labeling of GMOs, is as necessary as breathing if we want to make sound, informed choices about the foods we eat. Regardless of what we cook, nothing is more important than starting with ingredients that are of the best quality we can manage, both for the way they nourish us and our environment, and because our results in the kitchen will never be better than the ingredients we start with. The advantage of using good ingredients is that they allow us to cook simply and eat well. And because our efforts in the kitchen today are so hard won, we want to be sure that the meals we make will add enjoyment to our lives and nourish us well.
Vegetarians have often used the phrase “I don’t eat anything with a face” to describe their food choices as plant based. But there is another interpretation of that phrase “food with a face.” The Japanese have a word for it, teikkai, which refers to the provenance of a food—where it comes from, how it was raised, who grew it. It is the opposite of “general foods,” those faceless foods that come to us anonymously from a vague somewhere: foods without soul. During the past 17 years, we have continued to reconnect with our foods through shopping at farmers’ markets, participating in CSAs, and cultivating our own gardens. Connecting to our foods directly enriches our lives by linking us to the place where we live and to those with whom we share a landscape, a culture, and a history, often over dinner, regardless of what’s in the center of the plate. All good foodstuffs have their own stories and histories, which are the stories of our human history. They continue to grow and change as the patterns of culture shift. Even in the mere 17 years that Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone has been in print, big changes have occurred. Today it’s not so necessary for one to defend his or her choice to be a vegetarian or a vegan; it doesn’t raise eyebrows among friends if a carnivore decides to have the vegetarian dish in a restaurant—it’s just another choice on the menu—nor is it strange if someone announces that their family eats vegetarian one (or more) days a week. There’s much more openness and enthusiasm about plant-based foods than there was a decade ago. Originally, I thought that maybe this book should be called “Plant Foods for Everyone” since vegetables are only one of several kinds of plant foods, but it really didn’t have the right ring. It still doesn’t, but if the book were called that, it wouldn’t seem so strange today. We know that plant foods are the ideal ones to eat.
Regardless of your own proclivities when it comes to what you eat—choices that may well change during the course of your life—it is my hope that Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone inspires you, nourishes you, and fills your table with pleasure.
Warm Feta Cheese with Sesame Seeds
Covered with toasted sesame seeds, this cheese makes a crunchy, succulent first course or addition to a salad. Serve with fresh bread to mop up the juices. Serves 4 to 6
8 ounces feta, in two chunks
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 bay leaves
Freshly milled pepper
Juice of 1 large lemon
2 teaspoons chopped marjoram
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
If the feta tastes too salty, soak it in water for 20 minutes, then drain. Slice into slabs 3/8 inch thick. Thicker, it won’t warm through; thinner, it’ll fall apart. Warm the butter and olive oil with the bay leaves in a wide skillet over medium heat until the bay releases its aroma. Add the cheese in a single layer, season with pepper, and heat until it softens and begins to bubble. Turn it over and cook the second side for 1 minute. Add the lemon juice and let it sizzle for a few seconds, then transfer the cheese to a plate. Scrape up any golden, crisp bits of cheese that have stuck to the bottom of the pan and include them, too. Sprinkle with the marjoram and sesame seeds and serve.