Several decades ago, the recipe journals I had been keeping since my teens morphed into what eventually became the Moosewood Cookbook, reflecting my generation’s search for creative alternatives to the traditional meat-and-potatoes American dinner plate. The cuisine, if it can be called that, grew out of a fascination with plant-based dishes from various cultures and an enthusiastic appreciation for a sense of kitchen craft reminiscent of our beloved grandmothers.
What made Moosewood noteworthy at the time, I think, in addition to the food itself, was the idea that vegetarian dishes could comprise an entire dinner (or even a lifestyle), relegating meat to occasional status or possibly allowing us to abandon it altogether. In addition to presenting meatless possibilities, the Moosewood Cookbook, with its emphasis on cooking from scratch, was considered doubly novel in an era when quick and convenient were the rage, and vegetables were largely sourced from freezers and cans.
Since the 1970s, I’ve both expanded my repertoire and simplified my approach. My early recipes were packed with rich ingredients like butter, cheese, sour cream, eggs—in large part to appease those who might be worried that the lack of meat would leave everyone hungry. My confidence to lighten things up, acquired over a period of many years, was born out of a trust that people did not need bulk or richness to feel satisfied. Over time, my assurance also came from a better understanding of how to make food taste wonderful through seasoning, selective and various uses of heat, timing, attention to detail, and a stronger sense of aesthetic economy. A bonus of this approach is that, quite without conscious design, almost half of the dishes in this book are vegan.
Now when I cook, I want as much space on the plate as possible for my beloved garden vegetables. For the most part, that is my definition of my cuisine: a beautiful plate of food, simply cooked, maximally flavored, and embracing as many plant components as will harmoniously fit. My food is sharper, livelier, spicier, lighter, and more relaxed than it used to be.
These days, a favorite dinner feature at my house is a variety of vegetarian burgers: black bean burgers seasoned generously with cumin, for example, or patties made of sweet potatoes, chickpeas, quinoa, and spice, possibly topped with a dab of red pepper pesto or a spoonful of colorful slaw. Though you could never detect it, the burgers might well have come from the freezer, since most of them can be made in advance. Supper chez me might also be a pancake made from wild rice, mushrooms, and goat cheese, or it could just as easily be a celestial zucchini-ricotta cake.
A meal is equally likely to arrive at my table via the oven. In place of a heavy, cheesy casserole that my younger self might have prepared, I’m more likely to serve a puffy, crusty, and custardy popover full of mushrooms, or little quiche “muffins” filled with cauliflower, chopped tomatoes, and touches of feta cheese, or a hot, crisp, slightly gooey fast pizza covered with abundant (and adjustable) vegetables. Vegetables are also the main event in an asparagus tart that takes about 15 minutes, thanks to a “cheat” ingredient: store-bought puff pastry.
Reversing the ratio of vegetables (and sometimes fruit) to carbohydrates (aka “starch”) is one of my favorite techniques for delivering more garden items to the plate in delicious ways. This great food flip will have you gracing a modest serving of soba noodles with butternut squash; surrounding a simple risotto with a fig-, balsamic-, and lemon-laced stir-fry of leeks, escarole, and radicchio; and amping up a batch of black rice with beluga lentils and sautéed minced mushrooms that blend in visually while providing layers of contrasting taste. Finely chopped broccoli blends with millet in one recipe and dives headfirst into mashed potatoes in another; the millet dish becomes a little pilaf that can be stuffed into a grilled portobello, and the latter transforms into scrumptious main-course patties encrusted with walnuts and sautéed until golden. Basmati rice is cloaked in a savory blueberry sauce and lands in a boat of roasted acorn squash.
Lasagna, of course, is generally pillowed with cheese, and the usual ways to veg it up tend to marinara-ize the sauce with zucchini or mushrooms or tuck spinach between the layers. My new approach, seasonal lasagna stacks, omits the tomato sauce and allows generous combinations of vegetables to house minimal noodles, with very light touches of cheese as a subtle presence. Vegan versions of these same lasagnas present the same ingredients in broth, with crumbled tofu replacing the cheese. The results are gorgeous every time
The plant-food road to deliciousness allows you to be an artist as well as a cook, showcasing the beauty of the ingredients as you mix things up in creative yet taste-logical ways. Prepare for your kitchen spirit to be freed up as you embrace color contrasts in bean and rice combinations, pairing orange rice with black beans, yellow rice with red beans, and red rice with fresh green beans—all simple, all in this book. The bright gold of a sweet potato–pear soup begs to be punched up with a dab of a thick cranberry-orange vinaigrette, and a puddle of mango exults in deep magenta roasted beets and a crown of baby arugula. Bright green mashed peas can be topped with a tangle of fresh mint strips and served with Crayola-yellow crispy polenta triangles for dipping. The peas are part of an entire chapter devoted to the ultimate savory comfort food: mashed vegetables (why stop at mashed potatoes?), also featuring curried mashed carrots with cashews.
Creative cooking also means allowing yourself to step out of the corral of definitions. Try setting aside assumptions about what breakfast, lunch, and dinner should be, and feel free to serve eggs fried in olive oil with a thin coating of fine, fresh bread crumbs for an elegant little dinner—plain or as a topping for smoky braised Brussels sprouts, fully deserving of a respectable red wine. Similarly, a creamy Tuscan white bean soup can be dinner as well as lunch, especially when accompanied by a grilled bread and kale salad studded with red onions, walnuts, and sweet figs. A group of little dishes—your choice how many (piquillo peppers stuffed with goat cheese over salad; bulgur-walnut kibbeh balls on a circle of Greek yogurt; a slice of grilled Haloumi cheese piled on watermelon and doused with lime juice; small eggplant halves, slapped down in a hot pan and glazed with a sauce made from ginger, plum jam, and chilies) can also be dinner, and you have here more than 200 modular recipes to mix and match at your convenience.
Standard versions of mac and cheese can be heavy and uninteresting—even when they don’t come from a box. I have upgraded the dish, taking it in several contrasting directions, combining it with chili for a deeply satisfying American hybrid, or with lemon, caramelized onions, and blue cheese in a French-style rendition. And as for the signature quiche of my hippie days, I’m now more likely to make a fluffy, versatile, veg-centric frittata, which is essentially an easy quiche without the crust.
A selection of main-event stews—simmered vegetable-legume combinations of various ethnic influences—are customized with a small, easy accessory to add intrigue. Peruvian stew, with potatoes, beans, tomatoes, and chilies, is accompanied by freshly cooked, tiny quinoa-laced corn cakes; a simple lentil stew is taken to the next level with a topping of crunchy fried sage leaves and a “hat” of tender cottage cheese dumplings. A sunny root-vegetable stew surprises with the subtle presence of pears, entrancing even further with its sidekick of little buttermilk-rosemary-walnut biscuits. Curried yellow split pea soup can be busied up with green peas and a big spoonful of basmati rice pilaf with nuts and raisins. A crown of ethereally thin and crispy fried onion rings lifts a red lentil or eggplant mash into the realm of craveable, using only the most basic pantry ingredients you already have on hand.
Multiple levels of flavor can come from innumerable sources. Almonds are ground and blended with garlic, olive oil, and sherry vinegar into a glorious faux aioli that you can use as you would mayonnaise—or cover with a blanket of grapes and serve as a first-course dip for crunchy cucumbers. Tofu and a thin omelet can be made over into noodle-impersonating toppings, and soaked chickpeas can be fried in olive oil, adding protein in light and playful ways.
Small bits of fruit and vegetables (blueberries with fresh, sweet corn; apples with olive oil and parsley; pink grapefruit with jicama, cilantro, and pumpkin seeds) are combined in beautiful little “saladitas,” a cross between a salad and a salsa, to make cheerful toppings or freestanding appetizers, keeping things refreshing and compelling. “Optional Enhancements” at the end of each recipe allow you to take all of these in your own direction, varying the template each time you cook and keeping your cooking continuously new.
Once you try these recipes as written, fly away with them, if you wish, and make them your own. This is now your book, and soon these will become your recipes. I hope and trust the food you prepare will reward you and the people around you with all the inspiration, delight, and nourishment you deserve.
A few recipes from the book:
Creamy Tuscan-Style White Bean Soup
MAKES 4 TO 6 SERVINGS * VEGAN
Welcome to a classic Tuscan white bean treatment in a soothing soup format, delicious in its basic form and also a template with huge expansion potential. If you add cooked pasta (see the list of Enhancements) and pair this with a spinach salad and some rustic bread, it will instantly become a dinner that calls out for a big Italian red wine.
• You can substitute white pea (navy) beans for the cannellini beans. Soak the beans for a minimum of 4 hours (ideally overnight) in plenty of water to generously cover. This soup should be made with dried, not canned, beans, since the bean-simmering liquid becomes the broth.
• Garlic shows up three times here and in various capacities. The overall effect is layered, subtle, and smooth. The roasted garlic flavor, in particular, intensifies nicely as the soup sits in the refrigerator, if you’re not serving the entire batch in one stroke. Roast a head (or make a batch of Roasted Garlic Paste) well ahead of time. In fact, while you’re at it, roast 2 or 3 heads (or make extra paste). It’s a great ingredient to have on hand.
• This soup presents the perfect opportunity to use that special bottle of high-quality extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling on top.
1½ cups (¾ pound) dried cannellini (white kidney) beans, soaked
8 cups water
3–4 large garlic cloves, peeled and halved
1 sprig fresh rosemary
½ head roasted garlic (or 1½ tablespoons Roasted Garlic Paste)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1½ cups minced onion (1 medium)
1 medium carrot, diced small
Big pinch of dried sage
1 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
1 tablespoon minced or crushed garlic
1. Drain and rinse the soaked beans, then transfer them to a soup pot, large saucepan, or Dutch oven along with the water, garlic halves, and rosemary. Bring to a boil, lower the heat to a simmer, partially cover, and cook until the beans become very soft, about 1 hour. (You want to err on the side of overdone.) Fish out and discard the rosemary (leave in the garlic). Let the soup cool to room temperature.
2. Squeeze the pulp from the roasted garlic cloves directly into the soup, discarding the skins, or add the Roasted Garlic Paste. Use an immersion blender to puree the mixture to the desired consistency, or puree in batches in a stand blender. Return the soup to the pot, if necessary, and reheat gently.
3. Meanwhile, heat a medium skillet over medium heat for about a minute, add the olive oil, and swirl to coat the pan. Add the onion, carrot, sage, and ½ teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring, for about 3 minutes, or until the onion begins to soften. Stir in the minced or crushed garlic plus another ½ teaspoon salt, turn the heat to medium-low, and cook for another 10 minutes or so, until the onion is translucent and the carrot is very soft.
4. Add the cooked vegetables to the bean mixture, stirring well. Cover and cook over very low heat (with a heat diffuser, if you have one, underneath) for another 10 to 15 minutes, allowing the flavors to meld.
5. Adjust the salt, if necessary, and add a generous amount of black pepper to taste. Serve hot with any (or many) of the Enhancements.
A drizzle of high-quality extra-virgin olive oil (or a citrus-spiked olive oil) * A drizzle of rich balsamic vinegar or Balsamic Reduction * A drop of truffle oil * Crispy Sage Leaves * Thin strips of fresh basil and/or a small spoonful of basil pesto * A touch of grated lemon zest * Finely diced ripe tomato * Olive Oil Toasts * Slow-Roasted Tomatoes , minced or mashed, on top * A handful or two of baby spinach leaves (stirred in with the cooked vegetables in step 4) * A dab of sour cream * Minced fresh flat-leaf parsley jCooked tiny pasta (small rings or tubes, alphabet, ditalini, stellini)—add a spoonful or two to each bowl
MAKES 6 SERVINGS
Rice dives headlong into the deep end of mushroom flavor, as though the pot has a magical false bottom. Porcini-infused stock contributes to a profoundly tasty backdrop, layering it to the nth (or should I say mth?) degree. Invite your diehard mushroom-infatuated friends for dinner.
• Soak the dried mushrooms at least 40 minutes ahead of time. They need to soften and then cool until comfortable to handle. Save the water as you drain them, since it will be added to the stock.
• You may end up with more stock than you need for the recipe. If so, you can add the extra to soup or a sauce or to the cooking water for another batch of grains.
1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
2 cups boiling water
1 quart vegetable stock or store bought
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, or more if needed
1 heaping cup minced onion
1 teaspoon minced or crushed garlic
¼ teaspoon dried thyme
½ pound fresh mushrooms (domestic and/or cremini), wiped clean and minced (can use a food processor)
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1½ cups risotto rice
½ cup dry white wine or dry sherry, at room temperature
¾ cup shredded Parmesan, or more if needed
1. Place the porcini in a medium bowl and pour in the boiling water. Cover with a plate and let sit until the mushrooms are soft, about 30 minutes.
2. Place a strainer over a second bowl and drain the mushrooms into it, gently but completely hand-squeezing them to expel (and save) as much of the water as you can. Mince the drained mushrooms.
3. Transfer the mushroom-soaking water to a medium saucepan and add the stock. Cover the pot, bring to a boil over medium-low heat, then reduce the heat to low. Have a ladle ready, resting on a plate. Keep the simmering stock covered between applications.
4. Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan over medium-low heat, then swirl to coat the pan. Toss in the onion and cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes, then add the garlic and thyme. Cook, stirring, for another 2 to 3 minutes, or until the onion begins to soften.
5. Stir in the porcini and fresh mushrooms and ½ teaspoon of the salt, then cover and let everything cook undisturbed for 5 to 8 minutes, or until the mushrooms have cooked down and given off some liquid.
6. Add the rice and stir over medium heat for about a minute to coat it with everything else in the pan. Add ½ teaspoon salt and the wine or sherry and stir until the wine is absorbed, about 30 seconds.
7. Ladle in enough hot stock to cover, stirring until most of the liquid is absorbed. Repeat this process until the mixture is creamy and a bit loose; the rice should still have some chew to it, but should not taste at all raw. You may not need to add all the stock. Remove from the heat while the grains still show some resistance and the backdrop is relaxed. Don’t overcook.
8. Turn off the heat and stir in the Parmesan. Taste to see if the rice needs more salt and/or cheese and season to taste with black pepper. Serve right away.
A little lemon juice drizzled in, to taste, when you add the cheese * A garnish of lemon zest, grated or in long strands * Crispy Fried Lemons * Springs of fresh thyme or an Herb Tangle * Salad pairing: Wilted Spinach Salad with Crispy Smoked Tofu, Grilled Onion, Croutons, and Tomatoes
Eggplant Slap-Down with Ginger-Plum Sauce
Instead of the very easy homemade plum sauce in the recipe, you can use Chinese plum sauce, straight from the jar, or Misoyaki Sauce and skip to step 2. Make sure the sauce is at room temperature before you begin.
2 heaping tablespoons plum, peach, or apricot jam
1 tablespoon finely minced fresh ginger or minced pickled ginger with its juice
1 tablespoon cider vinegar or unseasoned rice vinegar
Up to ½ teaspoon minced or crushed garlic
1½ teaspoons grapeseed or peanut oil
2 4-ounce eggplants, trimmed and halved lengthwise
¼ cup dry white wine or sherry
Crushed red pepper
1. PLUM SAUCE: In a small bowl, combine the jam, ginger, vinegar, and garlic and mix with a fork or small whisk to thoroughly combine. Set aside.
2. Heat a medium skillet over medium heat for about a minute, then add the oil and swirl to coat the pan. Add the eggplant halves to the pan with their cut sides facing down. Turn the heat to medium-low, cover the pan, and cook undisturbed for about 8 minutes, until each eggplant half becomes tender. (Peek underneath a few times to be sure the cut surfaces are not becoming too dark. If they are, lower the heat and/or turn the eggplants over.) The eggplant is cooked when the stem end can easily be pierced with a fork.
3. Flip the eggplants onto their backs if you haven’t already done so, sprinkle them lightly with salt, and spoon a little Plum Sauce onto each cut surface, spreading it to cover. Reserve the remaining sauce. Flip the eggplants back onto their now-sauced cut sides and cook for a minute or less, just so the flavor can be cooked on. Loosen the eggplants with a thin-bladed spatula (including whatever might have stuck) and transfer them to a plate.
4. Reduce the heat to low and pour the wine or sherry into the pan. Scrape up any remaining specks and tidbits, mixing them in. Let the wine bubble and reduce for a minute or so, adding another touch of garlic, if you like, then spoon in a generous tablespoon of the Plum Sauce and stir to combine. Simmer for just a few seconds, then return the eggplants to the pan, skin side down, and let them bathe in the sauce for a minute or so. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature, with the remaining sauce and a light scattering of crushed red pepper over the top.
Serve topped with Tofu “Noodles”—Sesame * This is especially good served on freshly cooked rice