Vegetarian cooking unlocks diverse, delicious possibilities – The San Diego Union-Tribune

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By trade, I’m an omnivore. The only food rule I follow is that I eat everything, because anything can lead to deliciousness. Maybe it’s goat meat on the bone, cooked low and slow and served in a dark pool of its own cooking juices. Maybe it’s a bloomy wheel of cheese made from cashew milk, dense and creamy in the middle. If it’s good, I want it, and then I want seconds.
But when I cook at home, what I want more and more of is vegetables. Right now, this instant, I want long, skinny tongues of charred eggplant dressed in soy sauce and maple syrup, over rice. I want bright tomato pulp pureed with bread and olive oil, right from the lip of the bowl. I want a big pile of lettuce leaves filled with Hetty McKinnon’s sweet and spicy tofu larb.
When the weather cools down? I want a hot pot of winter greens and chewy noodles in miso broth. I want my favorite toor dal with whole boiled peanuts. I want sweet-edged, wrinkly roasted root vegetables over heaps of cheesy polenta, swimming in olive oil.
I don’t know exactly when my appetite became so intensely focused on vegetarian foods in my own kitchen. It happened slowly, then all at once, like a custard thickening on the stovetop. I revised my food shopping, and my home cooking followed, branching out and expanding. I went back to old, favorite cookbooks that included meat and fish only occasionally, or not at all, like “River Cafe Cook Book Green,” by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, and “Classic Indian Vegetarian Cookery,” by Julie Sahni.
Maybe you’re drawn to vegetarian food for ethical reasons, for health reasons, for ecological reasons, for reasons you can’t quite explain just yet. Maybe you’re trying to get out of a kitchen rut. Maybe, like me, you really love to eat well, and you want to cook with vegetables more.
I still smoke a lamb shoulder in the backyard or roast a salmon now and then, but when I plan a meal, it’s more often around vegetables than meat or fish. I shop once or twice a week, either at the supermarket or the farmers market, and later I study my pantry and my produce drawer, considering it all strategically — a glut of Persian cucumbers, a bunch of fading dill, some green onion.
I rummage through my ice-crusted freezer drawer, wondering what that unlabeled quart container is filled with (leftover cannellini beans and greens?), and reach for a half bag of frozen peas. And despite my own inconsistencies when it comes to shopping and planning (and labeling leftovers), vegetables always lead me to something delightful and satisfying.
Frozen peas, brought up in hot, salted water, then roughly pureed with some chile flakes, lemon juice and zest, are positively springy when spread onto a thick piece of sourdough that’s been crisped under the broiler and rubbed with a clove of garlic. Or, simmered with a little cream, they can dress a big bowl of pasta, with black pepper and grated cheese on top.
Persian cucumbers, roughly peeled, chopped and plopped into a blend of buttermilk and yogurt, quickly form the base of Naz Deravian’s abdoogh khiar, an Iranian chilled soup, crunchy with walnuts, which is quick to make.
I’m energized by cooks who coax the best out of vegetables, and not only professionals — restaurant cooks, recipe developers, cookbook authors who’ve been working with vegetarian food for far longer than I have — but also friends, family and other home cooks who have patiently walked me through a technique, or documented their work online.
Just when I thought I might be getting a little bit sick of salads, for example, Ali Slagle went and put one on a pizza. And not just any pizza, but a super thin-crust pizza covered entirely with a crisp, lacy layer of Parmesan cheese. With all due respect to California Pizza Kitchen, and the chain’s tricolore salad pizza, it is infinitely better than its inspiration.
Piling salad on a cheesy, thin-crust pizza is the kind of smart, simple technique I know I’ll practice again, not only exactly as written, with baby arugula and white beans on top, but maybe with crunchy lettuce in a tahini ranch dressing, or lots of sauteed summer squash. Or maybe with some cherry tomatoes, roasted until they burst, tossed with olive oil and big pieces of torn basil. It’s official; salad pizza is now a part of my repertoire.
And that’s the thing about a good vegetarian recipe: It leads you to a delicious meal, then makes hundreds more possible.

Makes 4 servings
3 tablespoons uncooked glutinous (sticky) or jasmine rice
2 (14-ounce) packages extra-firm tofu, drained and patted dry
1 tablespoon neutral oil, such as grapeseed or vegetable
1 lemongrass stem, outer layer removed, tender stem finely chopped
1 shallot, halved and thinly sliced
4 makrut lime leaves (optional), thinly sliced
1 cup mixed soft herbs, such as mint, Thai basil, basil, cilantro and chopped scallions
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
1 head butter lettuce, leaves separated
¼ cup store-bought crispy fried shallots or onions
4 tablespoons fresh lime juice (from about 2 limes)
3 tablespoons dark or light brown sugar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
½ teaspoon red-pepper flakes or ½ to 1 red chile, such as bird’s eye, finely chopped
Make the toasted rice powder: Heat a medium (10-inch) skillet over medium-high. Add the rice and stir constantly for 4 to 6 minutes until golden, with a nutty aroma. Transfer rice to a mortar and pestle or spice grinder and grind until it is a coarse powder. (You don’t want it too fine; some texture is nice.) You should have about 3 ½ tablespoons. Set rice powder aside.
Make the dressing: In a small bowl, combine the lime juice, brown sugar, soy sauce and red-pepper flakes; whisk until the sugar is dissolved.
Crumble the tofu into small chunks and place in a large bowl.
Heat the medium skillet over medium-high and add 1 tablespoon oil. Add the lemongrass and shallot and cook, stirring constantly, until softened and aromatic, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and add to the tofu, along with the lime dressing, rice powder, makrut lime leaves, herbs and salt. Taste and add more salt if needed.
To serve, spoon the tofu larb into the lettuce leaves and garnish with crispy fried shallots.
Recipe from Hetty McKinnon.
Makes 4 servings
1 (15-ounce) can white beans, such as cannellini or Great Northern, rinsed
¼ cup sliced pickled pepperoncini (about 6 to 8 peppers), plus 2 tablespoons brine
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing
Kosher salt and black pepper
1 pound store-bought or homemade pizza dough, at room temperature, divided into two 8-ounce portions
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan, plus more for serving
3 to 5 ounces baby arugula
Heat the oven to 500 degrees. Place a sheet pan in the oven to heat.
In a large bowl, stir together the white beans, pepperoncini, pickle brine and 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil. Season with salt and pepper; set aside.
Place a kitchen towel on a work surface, then place an upside-down sheet pan or cutting board on the towel. (This will serve as your pizza peel; the towel stabilizes the setup as you roll the dough). Lightly grease a piece of parchment with olive oil and place on top of the upside-down sheet pan. With a lightly greased rolling pin, roll one half of the dough on the parchment as thin as you can, about ⅛ to ¼ inch thick. (If the dough retracts, let it rest a few minutes before continuing.)
Sprinkle ½ cup Parmesan over the dough. Remove the preheated sheet pan from the oven, and carefully slide the parchment with the dough onto the hot baking sheet. Cook until golden brown on the top and bottom, 10 to 12 minutes. Meanwhile, roll out the remaining dough on a second piece of greased parchment and cover with the remaining ½ cup Parmesan. Transfer the first pizza to a cooling rack to crisp, then repeat with the second piece of dough.
Add the arugula to the bean mixture, season with salt and pepper, and stir gently to combine. Top each pizza with the salad, plus more grated or shaved Parmesan.
Recipe from Ali Slagle.

Makes 2 to 4 servings
1 teaspoon dried edible Damask rose petals (optional; see Tip)
2 cups buttermilk, plus more if desired
½ cup plain yogurt
Kosher salt (Diamond Crystal)
3 Persian cucumbers (7 ounces), cut into ¼-inch pieces, plus more for garnish
⅓ cup golden or black raisins, plus more for garnish
¼ cup walnut halves, coarsely chopped, plus more for garnish
¼ cup finely chopped fresh dill, plus sprigs for garnish
¼ cup finely chopped chives or green onion
1 teaspoon dried mint, plus more for garnish
½ lavash rectangle or 1 large slice bread of choice (such as sourdough)
4 ice cubes
Fresh mint leaves, for garnish
If using dried rose, crumble a few petals coarsely for garnish and set aside. Place the rest on a cutting board and chop as finely as possible.
Place the buttermilk, yogurt and 1 teaspoon salt in a blender and blend until frothy, about 30 seconds, or whisk together in a large bowl until smooth and frothy. If you used a blender, pour the mixture into a large bowl. Add the cucumbers, raisins, walnuts, dill, chives, dried mint and ¼ teaspoon of the finely chopped rose petals. Stir well to combine and season to taste with more salt. Cover and refrigerate to chill and allow the flavors to come to life, at least 1 hour and up to overnight.
Just before serving, toast the lavash or bread until crisp but not burned, and break into pieces. Stir the soup to mix. It should be the consistency of a thin, runny soup. If it’s too thick, thin it out with water or more buttermilk, 1 tablespoon at a time. Keep in mind that you will be adding ice cubes, which will also thin out the soup as they melt. Divide the soup among serving bowls and add the ice cubes. Garnish the top as creatively as you like with crumbled dried rose petals, cucumber, dried mint, dill sprigs, raisins, walnuts and fresh mint leaves. Add the bread pieces right before serving or serve on the side.
Tips: Dried edible Damask rose petals, available in Middle Eastern markets and online, are used in various Iranian dishes as a fragrant and savory spice. They’re worth seeking out, grinding to a powder (whole petals are pretty as a garnish but tough to chew) and adding to your spice cabinet. Feel free to swap out for more of the fresh herbs, as you like.
Recipe from Naz Deravian.
Rao writes for The New York Times.
Copyright: © 2021 The New York Times Company
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