Rhoda writes: Do you have a simple vegan or vegetarian/macrobiotic recipe that I could work into my repertoire? I’m running out of ideas, especially now in the winter.
Tony’s take: What would I do if I were vegan? (WWIDIWV?) It’s the kind of question chefs rarely ask (ditto for vegetarian?… or celiac?… or whatever?). If they did, there would be more ideas out there for folks who do without. I’m no better; it’s hard for me to even contemplate cooking without dairy or eggs. But good questions make you think and this meatless query is timely as we flip the calendar and consider ways to eat leaner and more thoughtfully in the new year.
To answer your question, Rhoda, I went full-bore journalistic and spent the last couple of days undercover, cooking without meat or dairy and even trying some of the strange meatless products way past tofu on the vegetarian landscape. I found the latter – that whole lot of “I can’t believe it’s not meat” meatless products like seitan, tempeh, tofurky, etc… – to be less than wonderful. And perusing magazines and books left me feeling that too many vegan-type menus come across as more regimen than meal. A vegetarian or vegan diet should taste good. So I cooked my own thing, a handful of vegan meals. In addition to my weekly staple of tofu and stir-fried vegetables, my favorite vegan meal was a farotto – the Italian grain farro made in the style of a risotto. The dish is easy and while it might not look like much (as you can see from my attached photo), it’s the kind of thing that you can easily work into the weekly rotation: warming, lively, and, yes, healthy. More importantly, the meal demonstrates the three basic tenets that I deem necessary for successful vegan cooking:
– Mushrooms are the best natural stand-in for meat. It’s an umami thing; the closest you can get to beefy flavor without actually using meat (or MSG).
– Variety: A mix of a lot of stuff – legumes, vegetables, grains, textures, flavors – add interest. And without them, a meatless meal can feel lacking.
– Big flavors: Citrus, spice, heat, sweet, sour: go crazy layering in flavors. The more, the more interesting, provided there’s some focus.
1. Roast the vegetables: The vegetables could be anything, whatever you’ve got. I went with what I had kicking around: Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, and shallots and treated them the way I do most roast vegetables: a good drizzle of olive oil, plenty of salt, relatively high heat, roast until tender and browned. The shallots and thyme season the vegetables while the high heat caramelizes them so they become somewhat nuanced. Here’s how: Heat the oven to 425F. Cut the vegetables into like sized pieces (so they cook at the same rate). Toss 6 oz. Brussels sprouts (cut in half, outer leaves discarded), 1 sweet potato (cut in 1/2-inch disks), 1 or 2 shallots (peeled and cut in thin disks) with 3 Tbs. olive oil, 1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme, and a generous sprinkling of kosher salt and pepper. Spread in a single layer and then roast the vegetables, flipping with a spatula after 10 minutes, until they brown and become tender, about 15 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, make the farroto: Generally, risotto is prepared with a medium-grain Italian rice (like Carnaroli or Arborio). The same basic risotto technique (slowly stirring the rice with broth until tender) can be applied to other grains like barley or farro. The latter, a lightly chewy rounded grain which looks like barley, is an heirloom varietal and the precursor to modern-day wheat. As with most all things old, it’s good for you: fiber, vitamins, etc… For the farroto, instead of chicken broth (the traditional liquid for making risotto), keep things meatless by using the rich soaking liquid from dried mushrooms (I went with dried maitakes, though shiitakes or porcini would do). Here’s how: Soak 1 oz. dried mushrooms in 2 cups boiling water for 10 minutes so the mushrooms soften. Coarsely chop the mushrooms and then strain the soaking liquid through a coffee filter to remove any sediment. Pour the mushroom liquid (about 1 1/2 cups) and 3 cups water into a medium saucepan, stir in 1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt and 1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme, and keep warm over medium-low heat. Meanwhile, in a medium pot over medium-high heat, saute 1 carrot (peeled and cut in 1/4 inch dice), 1 red onion (1/4 inch dice), and 1 celery rib (1/2-inch dice) with 3 Tbs. olive oil, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables brown lightly and soften, about 6 minutes. Add 1 cup semi-pearled farro, 1/4 cup orzo and cook, stirring, for 1 minute so the grains are coated with the oil. Add 3/4 cup dry white wine and cook, stirring, until almost all of the liquid cooks off, 1 to 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium, begin adding the mushroom broth 3/4 cup at a time and steadily simmer and stir until each successive batch is completely absorbed. Continue adding the broth and stirring until the farro is completely tender, about 20 minutes; you may need to add a little more water depending on the farro. Taste for salt and serve with the vegetables and drizzled with a couple drops of good balsamic vinegar and heavy drizzle of good olive oil.