THINK 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.
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
I’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.
- Buy the book now on Amazon
- Martha Rose Shulman’s website
- Martha Rose Shulman’s column in “The New York Times”
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