Natalie Portman annoyed us with her comparison of meat-eating to rape on the Huffington Post, but she was totally gracious on Top Chef last night. And her guest appearance revealed some of the common misconceptions about vegetarian cooking.
I can't tell you how many times I've said, like Portman, "I love food, I love eating, I'm pretty adventurous with different flavors and cuisines, and the one thing is, I'm a vegatarian" — and watched people's faces fall. Being "adventurous" and being vegetarian really aren't mutually exclusive — because cutting out meat forced me to vary my diet more, I now eat a much wider variety of foods than I did when I was omnivorous. And I'm a lot less "picky" than some of my meat-eating friends, many of whom turn up their noses at vegetables — I often say I'll eat anything as long as it isn't meat. As I've written here before, I do eat seafood now, so my family and friends are a little less freaked out, but some omnivores still seem to find my diet mysterious. Yesterday's Top Chef may explain why. Below are four common myths about vegetarian cooking, as illustrated on the show (and yeah, also some spoilers).
— Vegetarian food lacks protein.
Only if you do it wrong — like, say, the hapless Mike, who thought some undercooked leeks shaped like scallops could be a main dish. The point of vegetarian cooking isn't to make food look like meat or shellfish — as in all other cuisines, it's to make delicious and satisfying dishes. And while a vegetarian can get by with a breakfast of fruit or a salad lunch sometimes, everybody needs some protein to feel full and be healthy. Luckily there are a bazillion vegetarian sources of protein. Many vegetarians still eat cheese, eggs, and milk, but for those who don't, there are lots of protein-rich beans, nuts, seeds, and grains, and these can be combined into dishes that are a lot more tasty than some scallop-shaped leeks. For instance, I like to cook up a bunch of quinoa (quite proteiny, and pretty cheap if you can get it in bulk— if you can't, couscous or brown rice would work), add sauteed red peppers, spinach, olives, walnuts, and spices, and then wrap the thing in a tortilla and call it a burrito. I usually add a bunch of goat cheese to this, but for vegans, some truffle oil will do the job, or just plain old olive oil. An important note: mushrooms don't actually have all that much protein, though they often appear in lieu of meat on restaurant menus. Which brings me to my next myth.
— Vegetarians need a "meaty" substitute.
This one has a grain of truth — it is nice to eat something with a little savory, umami flavor, and mushrooms do provide that. I also like soy-based fake meats like MorningStar "bacon" and veggie crumbles for this purpose, even though a lot of vegetarians disdain them. Yes, they're a little pricey and not so great for the environment, but I tend to treat them the same way many cultures treat meat — as a seasoning, not a main dish. A little fakon in chili makes it taste like a whole different dish, which can be good if you're cooking for yourself and end up with a lot of leftovers. But all that said, I was kind of troubled to notice that so many of the chefs rushed for either eggplant or mushrooms to serve as the centerpiece for their dishes. I guess it's a texture thing, but these two foods appeared as the "vegetarian option" in my college dining halls more times than I can count, and while they can be tasty, they're not the be-all and end-all. Vegetarians don't need every meal to include a slab of something meat-like (and unfortunately, those college portobello mushroom sandwiches were often just that: a slab). One of my favorite dishes lately is a bunch of dandelion greens wilted with onions and garlic and olives and rosemary. I usually eat this with scrambled eggs and toast, but vegans could add white beans for an equally tasty protein kick — no meat "substitute" needed. And if you don't have dandelion greens, spinach works.
— Vegetarian food is just a "collection of sides."
Natalie Portman complained that vegetarian options at a restaurant often feel like side dishes, and I see where she's coming from. I don't really have a problem making a meal of sides, especially on Thanksgiving at my grandparents' house (I haven't officially told them I don't eat meat; I'm still letting them process the fact that I work for a "blog"). But sometimes I do want something main-dishy, not just a heap of kale and a bowl of beans and some bread (although this is pretty good). And just because you can't center a vegetarian meal around a hunk of meat doesn't mean you can't center it at all. A good solution to the problem, especially in fall and winter, is roasting, since nothing's more main-dishy than a roast. I like to chop up a bunch of red potatoes, sweet potatoes, green and red peppers, garlic, and onions, and stick them in the oven for an hour with rosemary and feta. Vegans could ditch the feta, add something else for extra flavor (like maybe hot chiles), and serve the whole thing with hummus on the side. This dish is real easy and cheap and great for potlucks.
— Vegetarian food can't be filling.
Kevin won the challenge with his dish of morels and turnips, which Portman and the other judges found both delicious and satisfying. Morels are, as you may know, fucking expensive, but the point is, it's possible to make a vegetarian meal just as filling as a meat-based one. It helps to remember the protein (though Kevin didn't actually seem to include much of that), but it's also important — at least in my view — not to be too afraid of fat. For some people, vegetarianism is synonymous with abstemiousness, and these are the same people who think a vegetarian meal always has to leave you hungry. I'm not saying you have to add a cup of sesame oil to everything (as a vegan housemate of mine used to do before we finally set him straight). I'm just saying that some olive oil, butter, cream, goat cheese, Earth Balance, or even avocado adds flavor and body to a vegetarian meal. For instance, brussels sprouts: they're okay if you boil them, but if you cut them in half and saute them in some butter or Earth Balance (plus garlic and rosemary and pepper), they're way more delicious. I like to eat this with Annie's mac and cheese from the box, which probably would not appear on Top Chef — but that doesn't mean it's not awesome.