Go vegetarian one dish at a time

Author offers tasty ways to add recipes to your diet without the shock

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Michael Natkin is a vegetarian, not a lecturer. So he's not going to go on endlessly about why you should eschew meat. His new book touches on all the reasons — ethical, ecological, physiological and so on — but he seems far more interested in having you taste the goodness a meatless dish can deliver.

"I like to think that being mindful of the implications of what one cooks and eats is not an ascetic practice but an aesthetic pleasure," Natkin writes in the introduction to his new book: "Herbivoracious: A Flavor Revolution, With 150 Vibrant and Original Vegetarian Recipes" (Harvard Common Press, $24.95). "Good vegetarian food is now just good food, period. … Never again need anyone say, 'That wasn't bad, for a vegetarian meal.'"

Natkin, 45, believes vegetarian food has shed the stereotypes that have dogged it for decades. The recipes in his book and on his popular blog (herbivoracious.com) frame what he sees as a new generation of vegetarianism: flavorful, fresh, locally sourced, internationally seasoned. The book offers dishes for daily dining and for entertaining, from tea-smoked lychees (served as a starter) to a stew of eggplant and okra to zabaglione with roasted plums. Gluten-free recipes and vegan options are noted.

"Herbivoracious" has been well-received by critics since its debut in May, and has been included on the list of Amazon.com's Best Books of the Year So Far in the cookbook category. Natkin has been enjoying the response from readers, especially since everyone seems interested in cutting back on meat consumption these days. He's willing to help them do it, one dish at a time.

"People shouldn't go vegetarian overnight if they are not confident cooks: They'll get bored and won't stick to it,'' says Natkin, a former software developer and self-described "frustrated chef."

Here are some of the ways Natkin suggests to incorporate vegetarian dishes into your meals.

Moving toward meatless meals

Try vegetarian dishes at a variety of ethnic restaurants. Good cuisines to start with: Indian, Italian, Korean, Thai, Ethiopian. Southeast Asian dishes can be ordered without the usual fish sauce.

Use tofu correctly, as an ingredient in and of itself and not a mere meat substitute. Extra-firm tofu is the easiest for beginners to cook with. Natkin gets you started on his "Herbivoracious" blog. Look for the heading "How to Make Tofu Really Freaking Delicious — Tofu 101."

Eat seasonally. Visit farmers markets; learn about unfamiliar produce or new varieties of old favorites and ask how to cook them.

Plan one meatless meal a week. Work to maintain that schedule, with an emphasis on tasty, exciting food one can cook easily and well.

Offer a dish with built-in choices for diners, such as Natkin's chirashi or "scattered" sushi, so called because the rice is presented unmolded in a bowl with an assortment of toppings to choose from.

The vegetarian larder

These are must-haves from Michael Natkin and his book, "Herbivoracious."

Extra-virgin olive oil: Natkin keeps two varieties on hand. "An inexpensive one for cooking and a very delicious and rather expensive one for drizzling and other raw uses where the flavor will come through," he writes. "Try to taste a few brands and settle on one that you like in each category."

Smoked paprika: Adds an often hard-to-get smoky quality to vegetarian dishes, Natkin says.

Ssamjang: A thick Korean condiment made with fermented bean paste, chili paste and aromatics; used traditionally for wrapped lettuce dishes. It's spicy, Natkin says, and imparts a rich umami savoriness to dishes.

Vegetable broth: "It is handy to have a multipurpose, clear, somewhat neutral vegetable broth to use as a background in soups and sauces," Natkin writes.

Sicilian spaghetti with pan-roasted cauliflower

Prep: 15 minutes Cook: 25 minutes Servings: 4

Note: This vegan-optional dish (simply omit the cheese) from "Herbivoracious" epitomizes author Michael Natkin's flavorful attitude toward vegetarian cooking: "Done properly, each bite is a little surprise that might be sweet, spicy, salty, toasty, herbaceous, or all the above."

Ingredients:
1 head cauliflower, broken into large florets
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus additional for drizzling
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Zest and juice of 1 orange
Juice of half a lemon
3 tablespoons capers
1/4 cup raisins, plumped with hot water, drained
1 pound spaghetti
1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted
Freshly ground pepper
Fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
Freshly grated Parmesan

1. Heat a very large pot of well-salted water to a roiling boil; add the cauliflower. Boil 5 minutes; transfer to a colander with a slotted spoon. Drain for a few minutes. (Leave water boiling in pot for use with the spaghetti.) The cauliflower will not be fully tender.

2. Heat a large skillet over high heat. When hot, add the olive oil, garlic, fennel seeds and red pepper flakes; cook 20 seconds. Add drained cauliflower and 3/4 teaspoon salt; toss to coat with oil. Cook, tossing occasionally, until the cauliflower is tender and developing deep-brown caramelized spots. Keep the heat high; don't toss the cauliflower too often, so that the surfaces on the bottom of the pan brown. When it is nearly done, mix in the orange juice, half of the orange zest, the lemon juice, capers and raisins. Turn off the heat.

3. Cook the pasta according to manufacturer's instructions until al dente; drain immediately, reserving 1 cup pasta water.

4. Add the pasta to the cauliflower mixture; set over medium heat. Toss everything together. If the dish seems a little dry, add a ladle or two of the pasta water. Raise the heat to high; cook about 1 minute . Taste; adjust seasonings.

5. Serve with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, the remaining orange zest, the pine nuts, pepper, parsley and Parmesan.

Nutrition information:
Per serving: 709 calories, 21 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 113 g carbohydrates, 21 g protein, 634 mg sodium, 14 g fiber.

wdaley@tribune.com
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