Monday, January 20, 2014

Thrift Week Day Four: The Clueless Vegetarian

One of the simplest ways to lead a more ecofrugal life is to eat less meat. Since raising animals for meat uses more natural resources (water, land, fuel, etc.) than raising an equivalent amount of plant-based protein, going vegetarian (or at least meat-light) is an ecofrugal twofer: it will reduce your grocery bill and your environmental footprint at the same time. For those who are used to a traditional meat-based American diet, however, figuring out how to eat without meat can be a bit daunting. If your dinner plate has always held a hunk of meat accompanied by side hunks of potato and vegetable, then imagining a meal without meat is likely to conjure up images of a half-empty plate.

For anyone trying to go meatless—especially those who are new to it—a good vegetarian cookbook is an absolute must. My shelf currently contains several, including Molly Katzen's classic The Enchanted Broccoli Forest and Mark Bittman's encyclopedic How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. The most battered and bookmarked of the lot, however, is The Clueless Vegetarian, by Evelyn Raab. This book specifically bills itself as "a cookbook for the aspiring vegetarian," and its focus is on recipes that are easy to make and contain no obscure ingredients. Each recipe is marked with handy icons to indicate its level of veggieness (ovo, lacto, ovo-lacto, or vegan), and an additional "quick fix" icon marks the recipes that can be made in 30 minutes or less. The quick-fix recipes are some of the handiest in the book, and our copy of the book is sprinkled throughout with paper tags marking our favorite quick treats, such as:
  • Pasta Fagioli (p. 52), probably my favorite soup in the world, loaded with pasta, carrots, celery, and two kinds of beans
  • Simple Sesame Noodle Salad (p. 67), our go-to dish for potluck dinners
  • Roasted Tomato Fettucine (p. 98), a simple and delicious pasta dish
  • Chick-Pea Curry (p. 133), a staple meal for those times when we're short on both time and inspiration
  • Full Meal Burritos (p. 166), a hearty and healthful take on the classic burrito, "fully loaded" with black beans, spinach, and all manner of other veggies
  • Potato Kugel (p. 182), a delicious comfort food that requires practically nothing but potatoes, onions, and eggs
However, on nights when we have more time, we also indulge in slower-to-prepare meals such as Bean and Barley Salad (p. 65) and Pasta a la Caprese (p. 104), my favorite pasta dish in the entire world (and that's out of a very long list of candidates). Even these longer recipes don't require a lot of babysitting; most of the time they require is for hands-off steps, like allowing the barley to cook or letting the fresh pasta sauce stand so the flavors blend before you serve it. Long or short, I've almost never been disappointed with a recipe from this book, and a surprising number have proved to be good enough to make over and over. The only less-than-fantastic recipes in the book are the desserts, which include "Amazing Eggless Dairy-Free Chocolate Cake" (which wasn't that amazing to me, since it's basically just a wacky cake, which I've known how to make since I was seven) and "Truly Astonishing Tofu Chocolate Mousse" (which would have been truly astonishing if had actually come out with the light texture of a mousse, rather than a very heavy and rich pudding).

In addition to recipes, the book is dotted with helpful features. The opening pages provide a list of "Essential Supplies for the Vegetarian Kitchen" (meaning ingredients to keep on hand, not cookware) and two pages of tips on how to "vegetarianize" existing recipes. Sidebars throughout the book guide you through such essential vegetarian topics as how to cook dried beans, what to do with tofu and tempeh, and a list of innocuous-looking foods that may contain hidden non-vegetarian ingredients, such as Worcesterchire sauce, gelatin, and chicken broth.

Although the target audience of this book is newbie vegetarians, I'd actually recommend it for anyone at all who has an interest in eating more meatless meals. Whether you're a hardcore vegetarian looking for some new recipes that are quick and easy to make or an unrepentant carnivore trying to lighten up the grocery bill with a few meatless dishes, this book can help make your vegetarian cooking easy, tasty, and fun.
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