Over the next few weeks, I will be writing a series of posts highlighting some of my favorite meals to cook. For this first installment, I decided to take a closer look at my top five favorite vegetarian dishes. Although vegetarian cuisine comes as an afterthought for most people, I always enjoy the chance to take a detour from meat-centric meals and enjoy the wide variety of nature’s bounty.
To me, vegetarian food doesn’t necessarily mean light. I enjoy meatless meals that are hearty, packed with flavor and full of myriad fresh ingredients. As you will see, all of these dishes include a strong starch element and most include cheese. The addition of rice, noodles, bread and beans means that these vegetarian dishes include more than just vegetables – which is often what the average person thinks of when they hear the word vegetarian.
Although I’m not a vegetarian and don’t plan on ever becoming one, I understand the necessity of cutting back on meat consumption in order to lessen the burden on our environment. Therefore, I hope you enjoy reading about my top five vegetarian dishes, and I hope you’re inspired to indulge in a few more meatless meals yourself.
1) Pesto Pasta
Always one for saving time and hassle in the kitchen, whenever I’m in the mood to cook pesto pasta, I opt for store bought pesto – usually Meditalia brand. Purchasing a high quality premade pesto also saves money since buying pine nuts and basil on their own costs quite a bit more, especially when you’re not cooking enormous portions. In order to beef up my pasta, I like to include an onion, artichoke hearts canned in oil and sun-dried tomatoes from the bulk bins. The preparation of the meal is simple and easy, and the results are filling and full of flavor.
While you wait on a pot of water to boil for your noodles, dice and caramelize an onion in some olive oil. When the onion is browned, add the chopped sundried tomatoes and artichoke hearts and season with thyme, sage and black pepper. As soon as the tomatoes begin to rehydrate, turn off the heat and let everything sit until your noodles are done. After you’ve strained the noodles, return them to the same pot – just make sure the heat is turned off otherwise they’ll stick to the bottom. Toss the noodles with the basil pesto, and then add in your vegetables and mix everything thoroughly. Finally, top your plated pasta with Parmesan cheese and enjoy!
2) Portobello Burgers
Whereas most Americans eat beef once or twice a week, my wife and I go vegetarian. Since beef is the most unsustainable protein and cattle farming is one of the leading causes of global warming, we try to avoid eating beef as much as possible. Nevertheless, we still crave traditional beef dishes like hamburgers. With a simple substitution of portobellos for standard meat patties, we can enjoy this American classic with clear consciences, full stomachs and happy taste buds.
To prep the mushrooms, pull off the stems and wipe the caps down with a damp rag or paper towel. If you rinse them under the faucet they’ll lose much of their earthy flavor, so make sure that you simply wipe off the outer layer of dirt. Next, place them gill-side-up on an oiled baking sheet. In order to add a rich smoky flavor to the mushrooms, I season them with smoked paprika, salt, pepper, thyme, sage and turmeric. By adding seasonings that either hint at meaty flavors – like paprika and turmeric – or complement beef – like thyme and sage – the portobellos take on a hearty and savory taste fit for a burger.
Bake the caps at 375 until the gills start to crisp. Then, take them out of the oven and place a slice of cheese – I prefer an extra sharp cheddar – on each of the mushrooms and broil them for a minute or two to get the cheese golden brown. While the portobellos cool down, toast some hamburger buns and then layer on your condiments and toppings. I usually add mayo, mustard and ketchup and top my burger with tomato, arugula and pickles. When your burgers are ready, add your caps, put everything together and serve with your favorite side. The succulent and meaty mushrooms – coupled with the bold seasonings and classic toppings – will make you forget that you’re enjoying fungi and not beef.
3) General Tso’s Tofu
Frying chicken is incredibly stressful and time consuming without the right equipment, so I avoid preparing any meals that feature crispy fried birds. In some cases though, I cook chicken dishes with alterative preparations or ingredients, allowing me to enjoy some of my favorite foods without the hassle. Such is the case with General Tso’s Tofu. Tofu is perhaps the easiest food to fry, so it makes an excellent alternative to chicken in this Hunan-inspired, Chinese-American classic.
If you’re preparing this dish for dinner, I recommend slicing your tofu and sitting it on a towel in your refrigerator so it can drain while you’re at work. When you’re ready to fry, heat about a tablespoon of canola oil to medium in a pot or pan on the stove – I prefer to use a Dutch oven. Then, simply fry your tofu pieces until they’re lightly golden and sit them aside to dry. As your tofu fries, begin cooking the rice. When you’re done frying the tofu, turn the heat down to medium-low and sauté a diced onion in the remaining oil.
At this point, I like to add a few drops of sesame oil to add a punch of earthy flavor as well as some Chinese Five Spice seasoning. While the onion cooks, I prepare some broccoli florets, which I add to the pot when the onion has browned. Then, I cover the pot and let the broccoli steam for a few minutes until tender. Finally, I add a generous amount of premade General Tso’s sauce to the pot – enough to coat the vegetables well – and toss in the tofu. When everything is coated evenly with sauce, I spoon the tofu and vegetables over a bowl of rice, and it’s ready to eat!
4) Pizza Margherita
Vegetarian cooking doesn’t always mean reinventing the wheel or finding ways to make a traditional meal meatless and delicious. There are many classic vegetarian dishes out there, and quite a few are staples on my and my wife’s table. We are both huge lovers of pizza, and almost nothing can top the bright and bold taste of a classic pizza Margherita.
As I discussed in “The Ultimate Guide to Weeknight Pizza,” I always use dough that has been freshly made at my local Whole Foods. This saves time, but more importantly it saves money and makes for an exceptionally tasty pizza. Before I begin prepping my ingredients, I take the dough out of the fridge and let it rest and warm up a bit. This will ensure that it rises well in the oven. While the dough rests, I wash a couple of handfuls of basil, butter a pizza pan, slice an heirloom tomato and pull a ball of mozzarella into small pieces.
When all of my toppings are prepared, I pull the dough and lay it on the cooking pan, making sure it’s stretched out evenly. Then, I add a layer of marinara – usually a light sauce with plenty of herbs – over which I place layers of basil, tomato and cheese. On top of this, I add a light sprinkling of oregano and thyme as well as some additional Parmesan cheese. I cook my pie in the oven at 425 degrees until the crust bubbles and the cheese turns a nice golden brown. When it’s done, just slice it, serve it up and chow down!
5) Black Bean Enchiladas
The last of my five favorite vegetarian meals is another dish that cuts back on beef consumption. Just like replacing beef burgers with portobello caps, using black beans instead of ground beef is an excellent way to avoid unsustainable protein without sacrificing heartiness and taste. With ample seasoning and a wide array of additional delicious ingredients, you won’t even miss the meat.
To save time and ensure that my beans will have maximum flavor, I opt for canned black beans at the grocery store. However, I always make sure that I avoid getting cans with added salt, as I want to be able to season them myself and pre-salted items almost always end up being too briny for my wife and I. After draining the beans, I add them to a large mixing bowl along with a little bit of lemon juice and loads of seasoning: paprika, cumin, salt, pepper, cayenne, cinnamon, turmeric, oregano and cilantro. Then, I dice all my other ingredients – frozen corn, red bell pepper, green bell pepper, onion and canned green chilies – and add them to the bowl as well, mixing everything thoroughly.
When your filling is ready, add a proportionate amount to one tortilla at a time, rolling your enchiladas as tightly as possible and placing them side-by-side in a baking dish. When all of your tortillas are filled, top everything with your favorite red or green enchilada sauce and some Oaxaca cheese. Bake in the oven at 350 degrees until the cheese browns. If you cook them too long – which can often happen if you bake your enchiladas covered with foil – the peppers and corn will become soft, making for a less textured dish. As soon as the cheese browns, take the enchiladas out of the oven, serve them with a side of fresh tomatoes and avocados and enjoy!