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Vegetables: they’re what’s for dinner (Anna Pelzer/Unsplash)

Why I Sent Myself to Vegetarian Boot Camp

After years of making dinner for my wife and in-laws, I embarked on a DIY crusade to become a better gardener and plant-based cook. With help from expert chefs, technology, and a massive online collection of classic recipes, I just might get the hang of this.

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In October 2017, my mother-in-law was hospitalized for a week. When she was sent home, I started cooking dinner every night for her, my father-in-law, and my wife, a routine I’ve kept up ever since. After more than three and a half years of doing this, I recently ran into a familiar problem: I got bored with the food I was cranking out. I was in a rut and needed inspiration.

I hit a wall partly because these three can be a little picky, which restricts what I can make. My wife, Susan, is a vegetarian who’s trying to go vegan—a decision that, if it holds, will remove two staples that I’ve relied on for her, eggs and cheese. My father-in-law, who’s in his mid-nineties, is a healthy eater—almost every day he powers down a lumberjack-size breakfast of granola, yogurt, mango, and strawberries—but he has a sensitive stomach and can’t touch the following: garlic, onion, brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, beans, corn, beets, bell peppers, peas, red chile, apples, pears, pickles, and chocolate. Limiting! These restrictions also rule out many prepared foods, which often contain onion powder or garlic powder (or both). My mother-in-law, also in her mid-nineties, is a native of Louisiana who used to be a first-rate cook and hostess. But she’s gotten more finicky as she’s aged, and now mostly subsists on crackers, biscuits, cheese spread, and soup.

In response to such challenges, I decided to shake things up with a move I’ve tried in the past: pick a cuisine I want to learn about and dive in. I’ve done this with southern food, New Orleans–style seafood, southwestern food, Italian food, and baking and grilling in general, and I decided that my choice this time would be—ta-da—vegetarian food.

Fresh greens on a plate
A day’s harvest from the author’s hydroponic garden Photo: Alex Heard

This does not mean that, up until now, I didn’t know how to buy and cook vegetables. I started learning to cook right out of college, when I lived in a group house with other young people who were always semi-broke, so we ate a lot of beans, lentils, rice, potatoes, and noodles. The roundup of dishes I’ve been cooking for my family members was already pretty veg heavy, but when I looked at my recipe collection, I realized it was short on what I would call main events—entrées that take the place of the animal protein that most of us are accustomed to seeing on our plates.

To get started on the hunt for new recipes, I drew on a DIY instructional method that I developed when I was a teenager and decided to start playing golf. Basically, you line up the exact things you need to get going—like clubs, shoes, and a book that offers A-to-Z instruction—and then you obsess on learning, ignoring everything else in the world until you achieve some level of proficiency.

As it happens, the decision to step up my vegetarian game dovetailed nicely with the fact that, during the pandemic, my main form of relaxation has been vegetable gardening, so I was already following a natural path. The next step was to assemble a solid collection of resources, ones that combine people and tools that are familiar to me—like the work of Santa Fe–based vegetarian expert Deborah Madison—and some new ones, including the current revolution in home hydroponic gardening. I also spent hours reading the all-about-salad Substack created by my friend Emily Nunn, along with the wonderful recipe collection curated by the good people at Vegetarian Times, an online publication that’s owned by the same company that now owns Outside.

On the food-production front, the big headline for 2021 is that I now have year-round access to fresh greens, thanks to a hobby that entered my life last summer: hydroponics. One of my Outside buddies, Mary Turner, told me she was being sent an elaborate hydroponics rig made by a Los Angeles–based company called Lettuce Grow. Would I be interested in learning how to use it? Yes, I was, and I think it’s safe to say I became obsessed with the thing.

The device is called the Farmstand, and as you can see on the Lettuce Grow website, it looks like a UFO. Once you’ve assembled it, you fill the big bulb-shaped tank at the bottom with 20.5 gallons of water, then you mix in two types of fertilizer sold by the company.

At the bottom of the tank there’s a small pump, the kind used in garden fountains. Cued by an external timer, the pump periodically sends the fertilizing juice up through a six-foot length of pipe. Once the liquid reaches the top, it hits a diffuser that causes the fluid to splash down, creating an internal shower.

The holes you see in the upper sections hold plant cups that cradle seedlings grown and sold by the company, and its catalog offers a ravishing array of selections. In the summer of 2020, I got started late—early August—so there wasn’t enough time to attempt vegetables like squash, zucchini, or tomatoes (all of which I grow in my backyard during summer months). But I did plant an amazing number of greens, including about a dozen different types of lettuce, kale, rainbow Swiss chard, bok choy, tatsoi, arugula, sorrel, basil, cilantro, parsley, and thyme.

Growth happens fast: the seedlings I started with, which were roughly three inches tall when I installed them, grew into harvestable plants just four weeks later. Everything kept going strong until frost arrived in October. Then I moved the tower indoors and started over with new plants and a set of grow lights. In January, I was taking home enough fresh greens every day for three people.

Greens growing on the Farmstand
Lettuce Grow’s Farmstand in the winter of 2021 Photo: Gloria Liu

I’ve also been testing a spiffy system made by a company based in Skokie, Illinois, called Rise Gardens. Its design looks like a bookshelf; it fits neatly against a wall, where it quietly does its thing. In this system, the plants are installed atop deep trays that contain fertilized liquid that’s kept moving by a pump. You can sync the whole thing to your mobile phone, setting a timer that, for example, tells the device when to turn its grow lights off and on.

One nice thing about both systems is the way you harvest. You don’t have to cut an entire head of lettuce all at once; instead, you can take a few leaves at a time, and the plant will continue to thrive and produce new leaves. So? Well, this means you can put together a big salad—every day—that contains a dozen or more different greens, and you can do this for months. To me it felt like a revolution, and it quickly redefined what I was serving at dinnertime. Salad became a main event rather than an afterthought.

As I knew from my earlier self-instruction sagas with food, the key to getting better at vegetarian cooking is to take it one recipe at a time, keeping careful track of what I’ve made and any variations I tried. I put every recipe I consider a keeper into a big, heavy-duty binder that’s sectioned off with labels like “Egg Dishes and Breads” and “Stuffing, Biscuits, and Sandwiches.” My “Vegetarian” section isn’t empty, of course, but it is a little thin. That’s about to change.

One go-to source is an old standby with 1,400 recipes in it, Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, first published in 1997. Earlier this year, I read Madison’s memoir An Onion in My Pocket, a beautifully written account of how she went from being a full-time Zen student in San Francisco to becoming one of the founding talents behind Greens, the groundbreaking vegetarian restaurant in the Marina District. Madison had been cooking meals for years at the San Francisco Zen Center—a huge job, more like running a dining hall than a restaurant—and she had worked at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’s famous farm-to-table restaurant in nearby Berkeley. After her first trip to France in the late 1970s, she came home and heard that the Zen Center was planning to open a restaurant called Greens, which it did in the summer of 1979, and that she would be tapped as head chef.

In the early days of this job, Madison grappled with something I mentioned earlier: when you’re used to eating traditional American dinners—featuring a main course that usually involves beef, pork, chicken, or fish—the absence of this element can stand out. “I tried to imagine some tired man dully anticipating a plate with a big hole in the middle where the meat would have been,” she wrote in her memoir. She knew that vegetarian entrées had to “proclaim without wavering, ‘Here I am! I’m what’s for dinner! No need to look elsewhere!’”

Madison offers a lot of main events in her cookbook. One I make regularly is the timbale, which she describes as “vegetable and herb-saturated custards paired with sauces.” I make one of hers called zucchini timbales with red pepper sauce, using this recipe for New Mexico red chile sauce as a substitute for the sauce she describes, which relies on red bell peppers.

In addition, I frequently consult my favorite recipe Substack, Emily Nunn’s Department of Salad, a hilarious and highly informative roller-coaster ride in which Nunn, a veteran food writer who’s worked for The New Yorker and the Chicago Tribune, shares her obsessive quest to find the best recipes for any kind of salad you can imagine. Not everything on the site is vegetarian—one recent dispatch focused on tuna salads—but much of it is. Her style has a way of making you hungry for all of it. I’ve never particularly liked fruit salads, but after reading her recent essay on the subject, I want to try some. I asked her to send me a salad recipe that seems just right for summer, and she shared this excellent slaw that features fennel and mangoes.

Finally, I’ll rely on the invaluable collection maintained by Vegetarian Times, a trove of roughly 5,700 recipes that dates back to 2007. Brittany Martin, who edits it, says she’s assigning new recipes all the time, so the offerings will continue to grow. When you look at the history of Vegetarian Times—which started in 1974 as a print publication and only transitioned to a web-only magazine in 2017—it’s clear that we’re lucky to have as many of these creations as we do.

Founded in Oak Park, Illinois, by a nurse named Paul Obis, who’s now deceased, Vegetarian Times grew into a web magazine that, over the decades, changed hands many times, which can be a formula for everything getting lost. That didn’t happen, fortunately, and what remains on the site is exactly what I need: a searchable database that allows me to enter whatever vegetable I feel like cooking and then get a long list of ideas for using it. During one recent week, I made something new from the Vegetarian Times files four nights in a row, and the experience was really fun.

As I usually do, I introduced variations to the recipes that were based on the dietary restrictions of my family members and on the ingredients I happened to have. With the first dish I made, cheese enchiladas with easy mole sauce, that meant omitting onion and garlic and using New Mexico red chile powder instead of ancho chile powder, bar chocolate instead of cocoa, and corn tortillas instead of flour. I suspect that some purists will find this mole sauce too simple—recipes for mole usually contain several different types of chiles—but for a quick weeknight meal, it worked great. I served it with lettuce from the Farmstand, along with three different store-bought vegetables.

Pizza polenta
Polenta-crust pizza, just out of the oven Photo: Alex Heard

On other nights I tried recipes for roasted eggplant with bell peppers, tomatoes, and herbs, bruschetta with white beans, and polenta–goat cheese skillet pizza. The pizza was the hit of the week. I used a good brand of coarse polenta and spread the crust on an oiled pizza stone before putting it in the oven to cook and firm up. I skipped the red sauce—Susan and my father-in-law generally don’t like it—kept the goat cheese, and layered on thin-sliced tomatoes, shredded artichoke hearts, Parmesan cheese, fresh basil, and dried oregano. It was terrific, as was the eggplant dish.

On the fifth night, I made something that I developed myself, a quesadilla stuffed with a mix of butternut squash, toasted pumpkin seeds, Parmesan, shredded cheese, green chile, and cumin. Of the four dishes I made that week, the only one that won’t go into my binder is the white-bean mix. I liked it a lot, but Susan was more meh about it, and she reminded me that she and I once invented a smooth white-bean spread that’s at least equal to this. And yes, that recipe is in the binder.

Anyway, the batting average for this initial period of testing was high: .750! I know I’ll discover a lot of other winners as I work through more of the collection. This feels like the start of an endless plant-based feast.

Heard’s Cannellini Bean and Green Olive Tapenade

  • 30 ounces cooked and drained cannellini beans (or two 15-ounce cans)
  • 1 cup pitted green olives, coarsely chopped
  • 4 tablespoons chopped parsley
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons lemon zest
  • 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
  • Juice from 2 lemons
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 teaspoons cumin
  • 2 teaspoons coriander
  • 1 teaspoons curry powder

Put everything into a food processor and pulse until smooth. This spread is great on crackers, celery, and toast.


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Lead Photo: Anna Pelzer/Unsplash

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