Help me become a vegetarian cooking goddess
August 13, 2012 6:14 AM   Subscribe

Elegant, healthy, protein-filled vegetarian recipes for the complete novice. I am cooking challenged!

I am a complete novice at cooking. I can barely boil water. I have an anxiety disorder with some triggers around cooking. Still, I want to make amazing, delicious things!

So... help me find simple, healthy, amazing recipes for vegetarian food. Breakfasts. Dinners. I'm looking for particularly classy, elegant, simple yet beautiful meals that I can put into a rotation and won't get tired of.

Must be:
- Vegetarian (including eggs and milk)

- Extra protein or paleo-ish
- Elegant, classy, stylish
- Easier than they look
- Every day meals like breakfasts and dinners, not desserts or party food
- Things I can make over and over again with minor variation and still enjoy

* What are your favorite recipes?
* Favorite sources for recipes?

Bonus: How did you learn to become an intuitive sort of cook that can throw things together in the kitchen without having a panic attack?
How do you decide what to make?

Thank you so much, Mefites!
posted by 3491again to Food & Drink (21 answers total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
A perfect omelet is elegant, protein-heavy, easy, and can be made over and over again with minor variations. See also, frittata.
posted by apparently at 6:34 AM on August 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Bonus: How did you learn to become an intuitive sort of cook that can throw things together in the kitchen without having a panic attack?

Cooking is actually a lot more forgiving than a lot of people realize; if you use fresh ingredients and don't burn or oversalt stuff, whatever comes out the end of it will probably taste pretty decent, even if it's not world-class five-star cooking.

Take some time to practice basic knife skills - there's lots of tutorial information out there - if only because it makes your kitchen experience a lot more pleasant, and because to cook things evenly they need to be cut evenly. But in general, if you salt your food moderately, cut it about evenly when you do your prep and don't dramatically over- or under-cook it, you're going to do fine.

I'm a fan of Epicurious for getting started, but the right thing to in this modern age, I think, is to find a couple of food blogs whose recipes seem to work for you and just experiment. Start with basic recipes, and try to learn from failures.
posted by mhoye at 6:47 AM on August 13, 2012

A breakfast-dinner we often make is a thing we call egg pie, which is like a frittata without the cooking-on-the-stovetop step.

We use a glass pyrex pie dish. Ingredients are eggs, some milk, a lot of cheese, and a bunch of sauteed veggies of your choice. Greens (spinach, chard, kale, etc.) also work well, but squeeze the water out once they're sauteed.

Here's how we make it:

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees (F).

Chop up an onion; heat some olive oil in a pan and sautee that onion. Toss in some bell pepper (we prefer red), and/or chopped up broccoli and/or whatever other chopped up veggies you like.

While those are sauteeing, grate your cheese - we usually use a good Cheddar for the bottom of the dish, and a kind of obscene amount of Parmesan for sprinkling on top.

Butter your pie dish, then lay down a layer of Cheddar. Put the sauteed veggies on top of that.

Whisk up your eggs - maybe 8 of them? - and add some milk until they're good and mixed up. Add salt and pepper (watch the salt - cheese is salty, too). Pour the mixture into the pie dish; coat the top really liberally with Parmesan.

Put it in the oven. It should take about 30 minutes to get gorgeous and golden brown on top and it shouldn't wiggle much when you shake the dish (unless your veggies were watery, in which case it might). When it's done, remove, let sit for 10 minutes, then eat. It's good cold for lunch at work, too.

And get yourself a good cookbook, the kind that really explains things the way you understand them; this might be Bittman's How to Cook Everything, or one of the Cook's Illustrated books, or similar. Spend some time browsing cookbooks in a bookstore (or online, I guess). Another good way to get a sense of how to cook something is to really pay attention when you're eating something someone else has cooked; how big are the onion pieces? How garlicky is the salad dressing? Etc. Ask questions! Those of us who like to cook also like to talk about it.
posted by rtha at 6:47 AM on August 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

On being able to throw things together: like rtha says, get yorusel f a good cookbook. Bittman's "How To Cook Everything Vegetarian", available in book form or iPad form, is really good for this. You learn a couple of basic recipes, and then, he has 35 different variations and take-offs.

Also, I think a lot of what makes homemade food look "elegant" and "classy" is a case of making something with a pretty color, then topping with something in a contrasting color, like sliced scallions or radishes or cilantro.

Two of my go-to vegetarian recipes:

- Sweet corn soup made with vegetable stock. It's the season, and it looks beautiful in a bowl.

- The chickpea patty recipe from the Necronomicon. Vital wheat gluten is available at your local hippie co-op or whole foods. I have a food processor and am deeply lazy, so I process all the wet ingredients + spices together (the chickpeas, the garlic, the lemon juice, the soy sauce, the olive oil, the spices, the water), then fold that into a giant-ass bowl into which I've mixed the bread crumbs and the wheat gluten. And then you stick your hands in and gather it up and make it into a ball and keep gently stretching and squishing it back together until you see the wheat gluten forming.

Beginning to end? Actually ten minutes, plus thirty to forty minutes in the oven, if I'm baking them. The patties fry/bake up a beautiful, golden color and convinced my husband that vegan food could be really, really good and appetizing-looking.
posted by joyceanmachine at 6:56 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! Any suggestions for blogs/podcasts/etc. that will have these types of recipes would be much appreciated.

Also, lasagna.
posted by 3491again at 6:58 AM on August 13, 2012

Marinating is a low-risk way to add elegance. You can marinate tofu, mushrooms and anything else that is porous.

Try pressing tofu and then marinating it. Slice blocks of tofu horizontally into thirds, place on a plate covered with a clean towel or paper towel, put another plate on top and weigh down with cans. After a couple of hours, place the tofu in a dish or plastic bag with a soy-sesame-ginger marinade for at least a few hours, overnight if possible. Then pan-fry it until the outside is crisp. Lately I've been doing this and then throwing some greens on top for a few minutes to wilt them. This works with large mushroom caps too.

Also, learn how to caramelize onions and do it with shallots too.
posted by BibiRose at 7:02 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am vegetarian as well, and also don't eat eggs. Have you tried seitan? You can buy it ready-made at Whole Foods, and it even comes cubed. As long as you're okay with gluten, you can use it for SO MANY THINGS. Unlike tofu, it's super easy to cook.

Here's a favorite enchilada receipe of mine:

Chop up the cubed seitan, and sautee it in a pan with taco seasoning and olive oil. Roll that into a (microwaved/soft) corn tortilla with some cheese and spinach, and then put some (readymade) enchilada sauce on top of the rolled tortilla. Put a few of these in a 9x9 pan (pour some more sauce over them if you want!), and cook in the oven at 350F for 10 mins or so (mostly just to heat up the tortilla and melt the cheese).

Probably my favorite fast protein-packed veggie meal!
posted by TessaGal at 7:03 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I really like Oh She Glows for classy, protein-aware vegetarian recipes.
posted by telegraph at 7:14 AM on August 13, 2012

Joyceanmachine, I kind of really love your necro/veganomicon typo up there. But poster, that's a good book and you should check it out.

Quinoa, btw, is your friend. Easy to cook, healthful, great protein. Here's my go to meal when I feel the need for extra health:

Start quinoa cooking. For one person, I use 1/2 cup dry. Scale accordingly.

Chop then sautee some onions in either butter or olive oil or sesame oil depending on your flavour profile. Add peppers, mushrooms, whatever you have on hand. Add greens of choice once other veggies are soft. Add garlic. Cook until greens are just wilted.

At this point the quinoa will be done. If I'm feeling hungry, I'll scoop the quinoa on to a plate and cover it and then start water boiled to poach eggs. You could also use fried eggs in this dish.

Now: do you want asian inspired? Mediterranean? Something entirely different? Season accordingly. My favourites: add chili paste and a splash of soy sauce to the greens just as they're close to done. If you've used sesame oil that will be great. Also good is adding lemon juice and oregano (top with goat cheese instead of eggs! yum). Or butter, tamari, and black pepper.

Whichever you choose: if you want pretty, put the quinoa on the plate and arrange the veggies artfully on one side. Top with eggs. If you want easy, jumble the quinoa with the veggies and add the eggs on top.

This meal has a rustic elegance -- the bright greens, white egg or cheese and pale tan quinoa are very attractive together. It also tastes amazing and makes you feel really great. On top of everything, it's easy and endlessly adaptable.

Failing that: nthing Oh She Glows and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.
posted by AmandaA at 7:28 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I used to hate cooking, but now I love it. To overcome my anxiety I started reading cooking blogs and recipes (and the comments sections) obsessively. Before I tried any recipe I would try to read some variations to see how other people did it. Once you start doing that, you realize that each recipe can stand variations and you (probably) aren't going to ruin it. Even if you do ruin it, so what? Lesson learned. I mean, sure it sucks to throw a bunch of food away, but you aren't going to be perfect right from the start. Give yourself permission to make a few mistakes.

A really simple recipe that I think looks very elegant and classy is eggs in tomato sauce.

Easy version
Slightly more difficult variation

You can scale those recipes up or down fairly easily.

Just a warning about cooking quinoa for the first time. Make sure it is fully cooked before you eat it! I thought my quinoa was done, but it wasn't and that made for some interesting and unpleasant side effects.
posted by ephemerista at 7:45 AM on August 13, 2012

My favorite quinoa recipe basically only requires boiling water and chopping as far as cooking skills. It's bright and attractive (especially served in a nice bowl), high in protein, and so delicious that it has converted many a quinoa skeptic. It will also turn out just fine regardless of the exact proportions, so you've got lots of room to play around and practice developing your intuitions without much risk of rendering it inedible. To help you get started, I usually use a cup of dry quinoa, one large tomato (get a lovely ripe one at the farmer's market if you can, it'll make all the difference), most of a cucumber, one can of black beans, a fistful of cilantro, and at least one lime. Make sure you let the quinoa cool before you put it in with the chopped veggies (this takes a little while, so sometimes I make the quinoa several hours beforehand). Make sure you taste the dressing before you put it on! It should be pretty powerful (garlicky/salty/sour) in order to still be super tasty once it's spread through all the other ingredients.
posted by ootandaboot at 7:47 AM on August 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

You asked about lasagna so I will tell you my family's secret for vegetarian lasagna:

Using whatever recipe you like (my personal preference is for the cheese layers to contain plenty of well drained spinach and the tomato layers to contain a lot of mushrooms, but no other vegetables - it's gross to try to cram carrots into a lasagna) - but anyway, the SECRET: add a fair amount of grated smoked gouda to the cheese layers. I don't care for smoked gouda on its own, but added into the vegetarian lasagna milieu, it adds enormous meaty complexity that will more than make up for the lack of meat. Seriously, I prefer this one to a meaty one.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:55 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian comes up at least twice in these sort of questions, but it is with good reason. It is probably the only cookbook I have ever actually sat down and read, not just flipped through when looking for something to cook. It helped me have a basic understanding of how to put some dishes together so I don't feel like I need to follow a recipe every time.

I like making black bean burgers! It's super simple, I'm sure you can find a million recipes if you google, but here's mine:

1 can black beans, rinsed and drained
1/2 small onion
clove of garlic
one egg
1/4 cup breadcrumbs (i think the recipe calls for rolled oats or sunflower seeds, but I never have these in my house, so go with whatever is best for you)
hot sauce, ketchup, or veggie broth.

Throw the first five ingredients into the food processor, you could do this with a mortar and pestle too. Add a little of your hot sauce/ketchup or broth. If it is still looking dry, add some more. Form into four patties. Heat up a skillet with a tiny bit of oil and cook them until they are a little brown on both sides, just a few minutes.

You can freeze the leftovers (take that morningstar farms!), and use different combinations of beans and seasonings for different flavors, like chickpeas, parsley with a little tahini on top, or caramelize the onions first and add a little cheese! You get the idea
posted by inertia at 8:35 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

There is a magical recipe website out there somewhere with a whole category of delicious lentil soup recipes. I have a link at home, and will post it later. Lentil soup is the best. It doesn't look terribly elegant on its own, but with some creative plating you could change that.

Reading blogs or cookbooks to learn how to make recipes up is spot-on. Once you get going, though, a good way to develop that skill is to head into the grocery store and pick out 3 vegetables based on what looks good and what you think at that moment will go together well. Then use your cookbook skills to put together a dish using those ingredients (with your choice of seasonings). This kind of experiment will go badly sometimes, but as you practice, you'll get better at it. Risotto is a really good dish to try out combinations with--learn a basic risotto recipe (I like Jaime Oliver's) and experiment from there with which vegetables and seasonings you add.

My two favourite food blogs are Orangette and Desert Candy. Orangette isn't updated super often recently, but the recipe index is great--particularly for interesting and delicious salads. Neither blog is vegetarian, but both have plenty of veggie recipes... and also, learning to make substitutions is a great way to develop your cooking on the fly skills. Don't just ignore meat-containing recipes, learn to make vegetarian substitutions in them; whether that's tofu/tempeh/seitan, chickpeas/lentils/legumes, or something like eggplant or squash that won't provide protein, but would replace the substance of, say, chicken, in a stir fry or soup.

Also, good stock is an essential thing to have on hand and will make your made up soups and risottos way better. If you aren't up to making your own veggie stock, check your grocery store for vegetarian stocks; the brand varies regionally, but you should find a set of no-meat "chicken," "beef," and vegetable stock cubes. I'm not a vegetarian, but I usually use these vegan/vegetarian cubes anyway because they are way tastier than most of the non-veg options.
posted by snorkmaiden at 8:50 AM on August 13, 2012

I agree with many of the suggestions above for getting started, but to answer your bonus question I want to recommend this book (which I think I heard about from another Mefite): The Flavor Bible

I also tend to have a lot of anxiety around food and cooking, and I used to refuse to cook anything at all without following an exacting recipe. And even once I started to learn better techniques for cooking, seasoning was still a big problem. When people would talk about cooking food in a particular style I would be completely lost ("Which spices are Mediterranean?"), and I had no idea what spices worked well together. What's great about this book is that it is a reference guide -- you look up almost any spice or basic ingredient, and it tells you which other foods and spices complement it well. Using it has really helped me to be more comfortable in experimenting with my cooking, since I know that I won't end up with completely dissonant flavors. It has been a good crutch, an intermediate step between following a recipe and completely winging it.
posted by CtrlAltDelete at 9:01 AM on August 13, 2012

There's this recipe you can find versions of all over the place that is usually called "African Pineapple Peanut Stew" that's made with kale or other leafy green, crushed pineapple, and peanut butter or peanut powder.
posted by XMLicious at 9:37 AM on August 13, 2012

Smitten Kitchen is not going to be a great recipe blog for you (she makes a lot of baked goods), but her channa masala recipe is both relatively simple and super delicious, and you could easily sub a high protein grain like quinoa for the rice. You might browse her vegetable recipes as well, but this one was definitely standout for me.
posted by dizziest at 9:40 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I suffer from anxiety, and I didn't really learn how to cook until I went to grad school four years ago when I was in my late twenties. Before that, my few cooking attempts were disastrous, and the butt of many family jokes. I ruined even fried rice (it ended up looking more like risotto), which is pretty much the first dish all Chinese kids learn to cook. What changed things for me was one, I went to grad school in a city with amazing farmers' markets; and two, I was roommates with an old friend--a brilliant, impatient lawyer who loved to cook. When we prepared dinners together, she would take every short cut she could think of to cut down the prep time, and was hardly bothered if she didn't have a particular ingredient on hand. She omitted and substituted without a care in the world, and the end result was always edible and almost always tasty. (But ALWAYS taste as you go along.) Watching her, plus simply cooking more often, helped me feel more comfortable in the kitchen.

Knowing that it's okay to take short cuts that made things easy for myself helped me considerably. I have a mild knife phobia and poor knife skills, so I keep a garlic press that I use whenever a recipe calls for minced garlic. If I didn't already have the garlic press, I'd just buy a tub of pre-minced garlic from the Korean grocery store. If I'm attempting a long and complicated recipe, I sometimes buy pre-chopped onions because it will save me 20 minutes of chopping. I use canned beans instead of dried beans and pre-made soup stock in cartons.

When I was learning to cook, I pretty much only used the internet for recipes, especially websites like Tastespotting or Foodgawker, because they usually link to food or cooking blogs, and occasionally, they have step by step photos. Here are a few recipes I've collected online:

Leafy greens and beans! Like this white bean and kale recipe, this classic Spanish spinach and garbanzo beans dish, or this collard greens and black eyed pea soup. The spinach and garbanzo beans recipe asks you to make a picada with bread crumbs, but ehhh, just skip it if you don't feel like dealing with the food processor, or if you find a can of ready made picada at a fancy grocery store. The collard greens and black eyed pea soup can easily be vegetarianized by leaving out the ham and substituting chicken broth with vegetable broth.

I also love the Green Kitchen Stories blog, especially this green sushi salad. Served with white rice, but you can also leave it out or substitute with brown rice or other low GI carb.You're really just assembling things together, instead of cooking, but the variety means a very attractive end result. I frequently cook this stir-fried pine nuts, peas and corn dish to pad out a dinner because it's colourful and easy.

If you don't mind a bit of spice, vegetable curry. It's a lot easier than it appears, especially if you substitute all the ground spices with a couple of tablespoons of ready made curry powder. You don't need a Dutch oven if you have something like this, you can omit the cilantro and lime zest, and put any vegetables you like. I prefer potatoes to sweet potatoes for curries.

Two words: chopped salads. Very little cooking and super delicious. Add beans, avocados and/or boiled eggs to make them more filling. And speaking of eggs, soy sauce eggs are pretty easy to make--good for breakfast or as a snack.

All the best and good luck!
posted by peripathetic at 10:57 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you so much, everyone! Keep them coming -- I really appreciate it. :)
posted by 3491again at 11:22 AM on August 13, 2012

Simple and flexible:
-Roasted root vegetables. (Chop into 1" cubes, toss lightly in oil, put in baking dish, salt + pepper, into 425 degree oven for 25 min then check for doneness every 5 min or so - works great with sweet potatoes, beets, carrots/parsnips (375 for these), cauliflower, ...) The nice thing is you can set these cooking and make the other part of your dinner in the intervening time.

-Quiche-frittata-egg pie type dish (see rtha's instructions above)

-Lasagna - you can use the instructions from the box of lasagna noodles, and add thawed, drained, frozen spinach to the ricotta cheese mixture before assembling.

-Beans and rice. Can also do this as a veggie chili, and method will work with any beans once you are used to it. (Cook chopped onions in a little olive oil over medium or med-high heat, until they are translucent. Optionally, add a little cumin and a little cayenne; add chili powder if making chili. If making chili, add canned whole peeled tomatoes and cook for a little while. Drain and rinse canned black beans - or kidney beans if making chili. Add beans to onions/onion-tomato mix. Cook over med heat, or med-low, until soft, maybe 30 min or less - add a little water as you go, if they are starting to stick to the bottom of the pan - also can cook with lid on to keep more water in.)(Make rice following instructions on rice package)

-Quesadillas. Basic method is to cook a tortilla in a frying pan on med or med-high heat, add cheese and toppings to half, fold tortilla in half, cook and flip until crispy and brown but not burnt, eat. Toppings can include cooked beans, cooked onions and peppers and mushrooms and cabbage and whatever else sounds good. Easy to experiment, they cook up quickly and are edible even when they're imperfect.

-Caramelized onions are a great ingredient. You can use them to top pasta, other veggies, egg dishes, soups etc, for a little "elegant" touch. They are easy to make - cut up onions, set them with a little oil on medium heat, wait - stirring or adding a bit of water as needed - for 40-50 minutes.

-Chopped salads - yes. Look up "massaged kale salad", lots of variations on this. Salads are very forgiving if you like fresh veggies, you won't go wrong as long as you don't go crazy with the dressing. These can be very elegantly presented.

-Spring rolls - look up vegan spring rolls, there is a clever way of using chopped walnuts plus soy sauce and spices as a kind of "meat" for them, then add chopped veggies. Using spring roll wrappers is slightly delicate but quick to learn, looks elegant when done right, and again even when you mess up or break a wrapper it's still edible, just a little messier.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:41 PM on August 13, 2012

Red Lentil Soup with Lemon. 13 g of protein per serving, tasty, and pretty easy to make.
posted by tenaciousd at 7:34 PM on August 13, 2012

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