Setting Up the Vegetarian Kitchen
Regardless of where your passions lie, eating daily is a must, and cooking— unless you are on a raw food or take-out diet—is all part of the plan. So your best bet is to look at the process with a positive eye and learn, if you don’t already know, how to make your kitchen become your best friend.
For new vegetarians, there’s plenty to learn—actually, a whole new vocabulary of shopping, cooking, and eating. Such words or terms as “tempeh” and “soy meat alternatives” and even “natural sweeteners” may be totally unfamiliar. If that’s the case, you should educate yourself—learn the lingo and get comfortable with this vast world of vegetarian staples you are embracing.
Regardless of how long you’ve been a vegetarian, the vegetarian kitchen may still seem hard to decode. If so, read through some vegetarian and vegan cookbooks. Then check what’s available on the many websites. For example, one of the classiest places to start learning about good vegetarian cooking is the Food Network. Its chefs and recipe collections are considered some of the best in the marketplace, and selecting recipes there assures you of some decidedly upscale eating.
Plenty of helpful vegetarian cookbooks, like Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Suppers and her classics The Greens Cookbook and Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, and all the cookbooks in the Moosewood Restaurant series, should give you ample ideas to set out on a full-fledged vegetarian-cooking bonanza.
Urban dwellers may be particularly fortunate, for chances are that organic food markets, ethnic grocers, international specialty stores, and well-stocked supermarkets are within easy reach. For them, the choices are infinite, and the shopping pleasures, many.
As you will discover, most supermarkets now carry enough vegetarian goods so that you don’t need to chase them down at health food stores or order hard-to-find items over the web. Just about anything you could possibly want for your pantry is right at hand.
Shopping veg means that you can buy not only vegetarian food ingredients but also assorted other veg products. Want to feed Fido a vegetarian diet? If so, go to a pet store or buy a product online. You can even cook up your own, but before you change Fido’s diet, check with your vet. Dogs (and cats) are naturally carnivores, though dogs can subsist on a diet for omnivores.
Where to Start
Make friends with your kitchen. As with any kitchen setting, the vegetarian kitchen—even if you are the only one in the household on a plant-based diet—needs some adjusting. For example, your pantry may need a makeover that’s more veg-friendly.
This doesn’t mean that you have to discard what other family members choose to eat. If your children, husband, or significant other still enjoy their chicken cutlets, for example, keep them in the freezer, but make room for what’s important to you.
Basic Pantry Items
This is really about going back to the basics. Think about those possible meals when you will be too tired or too rushed to slow-cook a grains-based meal. That’s when you’ll miss out on some good eating, especially if you don’t have your pantry stocked with such basics as canned beans, already made vegetable broth and soups, and plenty of dried herbs. Such staples are handy when you run out of time and energy but still want a tasty meal.
You can also stock up on aseptically packaged tofu and soymilk, sealed packets of seaweed to top your miso soup, handy prepacked soup mixes, energy bars, and even a good supply of ready-to-eat nuts and seeds. Some markets also sell precooked and vacuum-packed brown and wild rice and noodles. So look at your cupboards, rethink your eating plans, then make your pantry and fridge fit into your lifestyle.
Don’t forget about filling your freezer with ready-made vegetarian entrées and “burgers.” Most major brands produce some vegetarian products, so scout out the freezer cases.
Other Vegetarian Staples
Like to experiment with ethnic dishes, but don’t have time to race around town regularly? Take several hours of your free time some weekend, and stock up on loads of basics. At an Indian grocery, you’ll find lentils of every color, to say nothing of a slew of exotic spices. Hispanic markets are good sources for dried beans of many different varieties, and often these come in economy-size bags for budget-conscious shoppers.
Love Asian noodles? Asian markets will seem like a treasure chest, for you can pick up dried noodles from China, Vietnam, Japan, and Thailand in one stop. You may even find seasoning staples such as fresh lemongrass, assorted makes of canned coconut milk, and seasoning pastes and sauces to suit every palate. If you plan to cook within a few days after shopping, bring home some of the fresh noodle varieties and add to your basket some of the assorted fresh tofu products.
Many vegetarians spurn granulated sugars, as some manufacturers produce it by filtering raw cane sugars through charred animal bones. It’s impossible for consumers to know how the sugar is produced, so vegetarians should turn to other natural sweeteners. Vegans won’t sweeten foods with honey because it is the product of living creatures, and eating honey is considered exploiting bees.
Whether or not you omit these sweeteners from your pantry doesn’t mean you can’t add a dash of something sweet to your pan. Agave nectar, date sugar, maple syrup, and stevia are perfectly sweet and perfectly acceptable; however, except for pure maple syrup, the other products may be more difficult to find.
With all the fuss about trans fats, hydrogenated fats, and heart health, picking out what’s healthiest is important. Every diet should include some oils, and you should keep quality olive oils—preferably extra virgin oils for heightening flavors, though not really for cooking—on hand. But the trick is to keep fat intake down, even if your fat source is a so-called healthy oil.
You should also select a good-quality vegetable oil, such as peanut or canola oil, for your sautéing and stir-frying. If you are a vegan, you will exclude butter, but you should select a good nonhydrogenated margarine instead, one that does not contain the animal product whey. And if you really are looking to trim fats, keep a container on hand of nonstick cooking spray: this could become indispensable for any quick pan-frying you do.
Specialty oils useful for adding a flavor profile include toasted sesame oil, hazelnut oil, and walnut oil. Some vegetarian cooks replace fat in baking with such ingredients as applesauce and mashed bananas.
The next time you browse the baking aisle, check out the many types of flours on sale: the options may seem bewildering—from pastry flours, to self-rising flours, to cake flours, to the general all-purpose types. So here’s your chance to know ahead what is in the bag. For general all-purpose baking, the all-purpose white flours are fine, but look for a brand that at least is unbleached, and better yet, also contains flour from organic wheat or other grains.
Whole wheat flours are fine for sturdier baked goods, but they don’t produce as fine a crumb and are not really suitable for delicate pastries. Yet because these flours still contain the whole bran and wheat germ, they contain more nutrients. Relatively new to the marketplace are the white whole wheat flours, which contain all the nutrients and fiber of whole wheat flours but bake up like pastry flours. Several manufacturers retail this product made from organically grown wheats, a double benefit for the consumer.