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templates for great vegetarian meals, with martha rose shulman (giveaway!)

073100_TomatoBreadpudding1THINK TEMPLATE–not as in cookie-cutter, but as in a key to culinary empowerment. A dozen or so smart, simple templates (like a frittata, gratin, or risotto), have made possible Martha Rose Shulman’s 1,500-plus “Recipes for Health“ columns in “The New York Times”—yes, a new one five days a week—and now her 25th book, “The Simple Art of Vegetarian Cooking.” Get tips for cooking smarter, and a chance to win a copy.

Los Angeles-based Shulman is not a vegetarian, she says, but finds herself eating that way a lot–which may sound familiar to others, especially with the farm market and garden harvest season just getting into high gear.

“I realized that people have problems with the concept of the vegetarian main dish. There’s really no lexicon for it. If you eat meat, you can ask, ‘What’s for dinner?’ and you can say, ‘Chicken,’ and that’s a good enough answer.

“In my house, I do have one-word answers. When my son says, ‘What’s for dinner?’ I can say, ‘Frittata,’ or ‘Gratin,’ or ‘Pasta,’ and his only question will be, ‘With what?’ And that would be the vegetable that will be in it. That got me thinking that I always make my main-dish dishes—and I have about 12 categories of them in the book—in the same way.”

We talked templates, fillings (that’s a tomato-goat cheese bread pudding up top), and culinary “aha’s” like how to make perfect grains–not gummy, too-soggy ones–on my latest public-radio show and podcast.

SimpleArtcover Shulmanmy q&a with martha rose shulman

Q. Besides the templates—as in, “We’re having a frittata for dinner”—what other recipes are the elements of  “The Simple Art of Vegetarian Cooking”?

A. The other component to really feel confident and fluent in the kitchen: You want to have some building-block recipes. These are things that you can do with vegetables every time you get them, things like wilted greens seasoned with oil and garlic, or a red-pepper stew, or a mushroom ragout.

These can be used interchangeably in the different templates.

Let’s take a frittata, for example. My template for a six-egg frittata would be 6 eggs, 2 tablespoons of milk, salt to taste (I usually use about half a teaspoon), a tablespoon of olive oil—and the filling, which you’d have already done, such as the wilted greens with garlic and oil. You’d mix up the eggs, and stir in the greens, and make the frittata–and the template recipe will tell you how it’s done, and it’s always done that way.

Q. You write, “Being a vegetarian is not a requirement for being a good vegetarian cook.” So what are the requirements? These templates sound like the start of that.

A. Rather than separate it out, to be a good vegetarian cook, you have to be a good cook. You can learn to cook great vegetarian meals just by learning to cook well. These recipes will allow you to be a good vegetarian cook whether you are a vegetarian or not.

Q. Even though I have been a vegetarian for 35+ years and cooked a lot of vegetables, beans, grains, I came upon tip after tip for doing it better. Can you share some? How to cook eggplant with less oil, for example, so it isn’t so heavy and greasy as it can get.

A. If you roast the eggplant first, and then let it sit, it’s going to lose a lot of its water and it will be partially cooked, so you don’t have to use so much olive oil to cook it.

Q. …or why salting is and isn’t called for with eggplants?

A. Salting comes from old traditions from before eggplants were bred to be less bitter. It’s kind of one of those wive’s tales kinds of things. If I’m grilling eggplant, I sometimes salt it for texture, but it’s not a necessary step with the less-bitter eggplants now.

Q. Or the trick to make rice more fluffy, not sticky or gummy.

A. I use this tip for all of my grains now—for making quinoa and others, so they’re not waterlogged. I learned it from a cookbook author named Clifford Wright.

When your rice is done, you’ve seen many recipes that say, “Let sit undisturbed for 10 minutes,” but what you should do is remove the lid, put a clean dishtowel over the top of the pot without it touching the grains, and put the lid back on. It continues to steam, but the towel will absorb all that steam so it won’t go back into the grain. It’s a great way to make any grain dry and fluffy.

Q. Or making a bechamel sauce without butter.

A. I lived in France for a long time, and wrote a book about Provencal cooking. In parts of France and Italy, you can use olive oil instead of butter in the béchamel, and it’s a great taste—especially if your dish is Mediterranean anyway. So for my lasagnas, for instance, I make my béchamel with olive oil instead.

Q. Other things people ask you about a lot, that you want to share?

A. People are still not convinced that eggs are OK to eat, and it’s really important that people stop being afraid of eggs. Science is now showing us that dietary cholesterol is not what is related to high blood cholesterol–serum cholesterol. The yolks of eggs have wonderful things in them, and are really delicious. I am a proponent of eggs—such as in my frittatas and my tarts and gratins.

Q. As far as templates, I loved the idea of the gratin, and especially the Provencal style ones in the book.

A. We have these at least once a week in my house.

In Provence, when they do a gratin, it’s like a quiche without a crust, baked in a dish, and in Provence they’re called tian, which is just the name of the dish. What they do is they have the vegetables that are already cooked and seasoned, and the eggs and milk and cheese, but they also put in cooked rice, to bind it, so they might have like two eggs, instead of three or four, and then like a cup of cooked rice. They are really filling, have great texture, and transport really well. So when they’re cold you can cut them up and pack them in a lunchbox, or cut them into triangles as hors d’oeuvres.

Q. And the bread puddings–especially the one with tomatoes and goat cheese [top-of-page photo]. And how they use ingredients you probably already have on hand, to make a dinner.

A. Especially when your bread is going stale! These are just savory bread puddings, where you mix up either cubes of bread, or slices of bread, or if the bread had gone beyond being able to cut you could soak it [in milk] and break it up and mix it with a little cheese and milk and eggs and then your vegetables—you can layer tomatoes, for instance, or cheese, or mushrooms in these bread puddings.

Q. I love beans—and there is such a diversity of varieties, yet people are perplexed by them all too often.

A. I think the problem is that people don’t know how to cook them, and season them. Beans really need salt to bring out their flavor and make their broth really, really rich. They need to be cooked very slowly, so they get this velvety texture that makes them so satisfying to eat.

If you don’t want to take the time to do the long, simmering beans, you can make something like black-eyed peas, which have that great flavor and texture—but only take 45 minutes to cook, and don’t need soaking.

Q. With all the recipes you’ve created, I wonder if there are any ingredients –with the advent of farmers’ markets and so on—that are sort of “newer” if not new to you?

A. Greens are nothing new, but it’s always like, “Oh, I haven’t worked with turnip greens in awhile.” And the great little baby turnips coming into the market now are wonderful.

A vegetable I think will become better known: kohlrabi.

I was at a conference about healthy school lunches, and there are some growers who are starting to develop kohlrabi as something that they will cut into sticks to put in school lunches, and using it in salads. I bet people become aware of it in the next few years.

Q. And it makes a good slaw—perhaps easier to work with than an entire bowling-ball-size head of cabbage.

A. Yes, a really good slaw. Though I love cabbage and push it all the time, because you can do so much with it. I like to cook it, shredded, in a pan with onions and olive oil until it gets really sweet and caramelized. And I love cabbage minestrone—it’s great in soups.

prefer the podcast?

MARTHA ROSE SHULMAN and I talked about her new book on the latest radio podcast. You can listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The May 26, 2014 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marks the start of its fifth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX.

how to enter to win the book

SimpleArtcover ShulmanI’VE GOT AN EXTRA COPY of “The Simple Art of Vegetarian Cooking: Templates and Lessons for Making Delicious Meatless Meals Every Day” by Martha Rose Shulman, to share with a lucky reader.

All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of this page–beneath the last comment:

Do you have a “template” or “templates” that are your go-to foundations for meals? Mine would be frittatas, or tacos and other wraps–typically using an organic soft corn tortilla. (There’s a whole chapter on tacos and quesadillas in Shulman’s new book that I am exploring for flavor ideas.)

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say “Count me in” or the equivalent and I will, but better to share an answer if you don’t mind. I’ll pick a winner after entries close at midnight on Wednesday, June 4. Good luck to all. U.S. and Canada only.

(Disclosure: Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission.)

  1. Mary says:

    Soups in the winter months and stir fries in the summer. I like to stuff squashes with whatever is on hand too!

  2. Deborah Banks says:

    I have a few “templates” starting with some things I learned eons ago from the Tassahara cookbook, like vegetable soup, rice with vegetables, quiche, bean (or leftovers) tacos, and (from moosewood low-fat cookbook) tamale pie. All of these can take whatever you find in the frig plus one or two staples like canned tomato, rice or eggs.

  3. Kathy says:

    In the winter we eat a lot of soup-and-bread meals. This time of year, there are lots of quiches with whatever is coming in from the garden. I like the idea of “templates”… never thought of it that way.

  4. JoAnn says:

    Stir fries! There is very little that can’t be cooked quickly or combined with any other food product in a delicious stir fry.

  5. Jodi M says:

    Corn tortilla tacos. With cilantro and greens from the garden and tomatillo salsa and plain Greek yogurt – nom nom!

  6. Marsha says:

    “Chicken coop poop”…. That is what my kids called a dish I made, with whatever was in the fridge, leftover; more of a neccesity of the times, rather than a template. The family is still talking about it 50 yrs. later because it was so good and could never be duplicated…. I’m remembering onions, garlic,rice,hamburg, peas carrots tomatoes etc etc.. Yummy.

  7. HI, I find that I do have some templates for lunches. I am a vegetarian and have a rather large garden at my house in CT. I love to eat what I grow and in the off season still eat fresh/health/well without paying NYC prices for healthy lunches when I’m at work. I find myself either making one or more batches of soup, and/or, roasting vegetables, grilling tofu, and making some sort of grain, making seitan. I mix and match these prepped items throughout the week and pack my lunches so I have the kind of food I want with some variety. It definitely takes a system!

  8. jeanne hewitt says:

    I have been trying to suss out the ingredients for a tian for years. My french friends wave their hands and offer vague mutterings. Now I get it. Difficult to describe leftovers. Thanks for the insight.

  9. Aline Shulman says:

    My template: Polenta rounds.
    I use 1 cup Bob’s Red Mill Polenta that I cook slowly with 1 cup water + 1 tsp oil & a dash of sea salt.
    When pasty like consistence is achieved, I braise a few spoonful that I shape into rounds.
    They become foundation to tomato medley or bean compote or even guacamole with a lime slice topped with a sour cream dot.
    Crisp small rounds work well as mini pie crusts for strawberry rhubarb when eaten at once.
    I use a much larger “rounds” braised longer for proper crispness, when making pizzas.
    Polenta can of course be shaped in multiple ways, seasoned with fresh herbs and used as a side dish.

  10. Diane L. says:

    This winter, my ‘templates’ were soups (onion, carrot, potato) and quiches. Lately, it’s been pizza, with the crust, sauce, cheese the template. Summer usually is cold salads that are rice based (think ‘loose sushi) or anything that I can put basil pesto and fresh tomatoes in/on.

  11. Cheryl Perdue says:

    Vegetarian lasagnas are my favorite template. I use only vegetables, no pasta, and vary according to what is on hand. Can use different veggies, cheeses and seasonings. Today i made one using pre-cooked thinly sliced eggplant, zucchini, sherried mushrooms, caramalized onions, sauteed kale and layered with riccotta/eggs/crushed redneppers/parmasean/mozzarrella mixture. Topped with my homemade marinara and more cheese. Dinner guests all wanted recipe. I never make it the same way twice. Always fabulous.

  12. Sarah says:

    Templates for me would be: tortilla meals (burritos, tacos, quesadillas); frittatas; tartines; big pots of brothy beans with rice; and steamed veggies, boiled potatoes and tofu with condiments – we call this our “potato bowl” yum!

  13. Nancy Housel says:

    I never realized I use basic templates all the time for soups, frittatas, pizza, casseroles, stir fries, etc. Please count me in.

  14. Diane Mosakowski says:

    I like to cook a big pot of brown rice and sometimes farro and store in the refrigerator. I then cook some veggies from the garden… maybe tomatoes ,scallions and green beans with basil… spinach or chard,garlic and onion with red pepper flakes, etc. I then reheat a portion of the the rice or farro, top with the veggies and spinkle on some freshly grated Parmesan or cubed fresh mozzarella.

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