How to make anything vegetarian

March 16, 2015

red beans


The first personal chef client I had in San Francisco was vegetarian.  Her ex chef had to call it quits because she couldn’t figure out new ideas on how to make anything vegetarian.

I’ve been cooking vegetarian food for this family for 6 years without a lapse in inspiration.

Why?  Because I learned that you can turn many recipes that call for meat into vegetarian recipes.

While there are plenty of vegetarian cookbooks, magazines and blog – this can also be limiting.

You’ll have a much broader repertoire by learning to convert meat recipes.  Both are useful but I would get nowhere in my planning if I just relied on vegetarian sources to create my meal plans.

It’s also important to learn to think outside the box of recipes. Savory recipes are guidelines. They are templates to build and learn from.

There’s also the debate on soy.  Whether it’s good or bad for you.  I believe everything is okay in small doses.

Let’s look at some examples of how you could start to think about making recipes vegetarian.

This Jambalaya recipe is delightful, but it doesn’t need all that meat.  The aromatics (onion, celery, peppers,) the green chilies, and the chili powder/paprika will make it delicious.

To mimic the taste of the meat, I would add a pound of spicy vegan Mexican sausage, and 8-14 oz of smoked tofu.  Use veggie stock instead of the beef and smoked paprika instead of paprika.  You’ve got yourself a great jambalaya.

This Chinese Style Hoisin Sticky Ribs looks marvelous.  As a vegetarian, you can skip the first braising part of the recipe, though braised tofu is delicious. You can also decide to braise the whole block for 1 hour in that exact soy sauce mixture. Then, drain and slice the tofu in steaks and bake in a 400 oven with the sticky sauce for 20-30 minutes.  You could also use seitan or tempeh – skip the braising process and bake with the glaze.

This Keema ground beef curry is one of my favorite dishes.  But you can use ground tofu or 3 cups of cooked black or pinto beans instead of the beef (lentils would work too!)  The result will be equally delicious.

The idea is to be able to adapt recipes.  To find a recipe that looks delicious that you would LOVE to eat – and adapt it so that you can.

A few of my favorite tips on substituting in vegetarian cooking:

  • Use veggie broth instead of beef or chicken broth – if you make your own veggie stock, know that a splash of white wine adds a depth of flavor
  • Mushrooms, especially shitakes, add a depth of flavor to soups and sauces
  • I’ve successfully re-created dishes like beef stroganoff with fake beef, but try to stay away from processed products – so this IS when googling a vegetarian version can come in handy.  This mushroom stroganoff looks delightful.
  • Season tofu and thai curries with low sodium tamari instead of salt
  • When a recipe calls for fish sauce, use tamari instead (like in Nuoc cham)
  • Grind tofu coarsely with your hands and use it in any stir-fry or curry recipe  – the texture is fabulous and it soaks up more flavor
  • Make fajitas with a colorful assortment of veggies – red peppers, mushrooms, zucchini, red onion, asparagus sprinkled with chili powder and cumin during the cooking.  Do the same thing with quesadillas.
  • Use beans in Indian curries instead of meat – I would go for 2 to 2.5 cups of beans for pound of meat

Do you have tips you can add to this?  I would love to hear them!

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