recipes for a beginner vegetarian cook
July 10, 2022 11:27 AM   Subscribe

I’m a vegetarian and just graduated college and starting to learn how to cook for myself for the first time w/o parents or a dining hall to lean on. I’m doing fine for myself right now, but I’m primarily eating for convenience as opposed to nutrition or flavor. I’d like progressions on the recipes that I’m familiar with at the moment as well as new recipes!

Things that I tend to make:
- rice + eggs/vegetables (my go-to for lunch/brunch and sometimes dinner)
- noodles + stir-fry (my go to for dinner)
- pasta (usually frozen, another go to for dinner)
- eggs + toast (breakfast)
- egg sandwich (breakfast)
- various kinds of salad (usually with store brought dressing though)
- rice + curry
- ramen or Mac and cheese if I’m really desperate

In the past, I’ve also made:
- shakshuka
- rice & beans
- breakfast burritos
- scalloped potatoes

Other than that, I usually heat up frozen food, leftovers, or order out. I’d like to minimize that if possible.

Other details:
- I’m an ovo-lacto-vegetarian
- I’m Indian but still learning my cultural recipes. My family hasn’t done a great job passing down these recipes; I’m planning on asking my mom to teach me more about these recipes, though cooking with her can confuse me because she’s often imprecise about ingredient amounts
- I love all kinds of cuisine!
- I’d like to incorporate more protein outside of eggs: beans, tofu - what are other sources of vegetarian protein?
- I don’t like sandwiches very much. I also do not like oatmeal very much but also haven’t tried making oatmeal before
- I’m a small person so small portion sizes work well for me. I also work from home so ideally lunch needs to be fast
- I love a good salad
- I’m still working on my knife skills - I tend to be slow at cutting ingredients. I’m also still learning other cooking basics, like tasting as I go and adjusting as needed.

I would be interested in progressions on the recipes I’m familiar with (ie, small improvements like add ____ or prepare ____ in this way) as well as other new recipes to try out. Also any tips on how you started to building confidence when you were learning how to cook would be great! Thank you so much!
posted by cruel summer to Food & Drink (24 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Forgot to add: my kitchen’s pretty stocked! I have a rice cooker, instant pot, blender, oven, stove, toaster, and air fryer.
posted by cruel summer at 11:29 AM on July 10, 2022

You don't mention cheeses - there is an entire world of choices there, from mild and creamy to very funky. Protein and flavor galore.

While you don't like about oatmeal, what about other grains? Have you tried polenta/cornmeal, quinoa, wheatberries, fonio, wild rice?

I would suggest visiting a local farmers market or produce market to take advantage of seasonal produce.

Also so some browsing at the grocery store for condiments. Adding elements like harissa, Thai curry paste, sumac, vegetarian oyster sauce, pickled items etc can add a big boost of flavor to your current dishes.
posted by jenquat at 11:43 AM on July 10, 2022

To me it looks like the logical next step is to make your own salad dressings. The bonus with this is that you will automatically stock your kitchen with a bunch of condiments that can be used in tons of other ways. Making your own dressing is also a great way to get better at learning how to salt to taste, learning about the different types of condiments and their different flavors, and thinking about texture combinations more deeply.

The easiest salad dressing is just oil and vinegar plus some spices. But it’s deceptive because you have to decide which oil, which vinegar, which spices, and their ratios. Fancier dressings involve blending the ingredients with emulsifiers like mustards or eggs or buttermilk or mayo, and most commercially bought dressings are going to be utilizing commercial emulsifiers. So you might pick your favorite dressing and learn how to make it from scratch, but eventually decide it’s too much hassle to get the consistency you want and go back to store bought. But you can also find dressing recipes and ideas that aren’t supposed to be dupes of store bought that work much better made at home in small quantities. Those are things like fresh herb vinaigrettes, blended creamy avocado dressings, things with toasted nuts and seeds, citrus dressings with fresh zest. A lot of those flavors don’t last long or the ingredients oxidize so shelf stable versions are bland or gross in comparison.

Everyone’s taste is different so I’m not going to give you a recipe with quantities, but try a typical “Greek” salad with crunchy lettuce, kalamata olives, feta, red onion, tomato, and cucumber. Make the dressing by combining extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, a pinch of sugar or a bit of honey, lots of freshly ground black pepper, a little minced garlic (jarred garlic is great for salad dressings) and some fresh herbs like parsley oregano or dill. Use more oil than vinegar, maybe a 3/2 ratio to start. Combine things in a bowl and use a fork to whisk. Go ahead and taste things by dipping salad pieces into the dressing as you add spices and adjust until it tastes great to you. I tend to like more vinegary dressings but usually folks prefer more oil. If it all tastes too aggressive, add a splash of water to mellow it out. Once you make the dressing you can keep it in the fridge for about a week or until the herbs have gone yucky, just shake it up thoroughly each time. Doing things like this once a week or so will help you learn how you like things to taste, and why.
posted by Mizu at 12:03 PM on July 10, 2022

Tofu can be found in bajillion different forms, as are gluten. Sometimes, they are simply referred to in Chinese markets as "vegetarian meat", and they can be made to imitate variety of stir-fry stuff. Not quite the same texture, but better than everything looking like a patty of fake beef or fake chicken :D (I've had beyond burger and "meat alternative chicken patty, I'm not too impressed) So maybe if you have time, explore your local Asian markets, and see if there's a vegetarian food section!
posted by kschang at 12:03 PM on July 10, 2022

One easy way to try something new might be to get a cheap trial of a meal kit service like Hello Fresh for one week. If you like any of the recipes, you can recreate them without getting the kit again. I also like to get veg cookbooks from the local library...something from Yotam Ottolenghi like this, or How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, etc. This old book from Heidi Swanson has variations for each recipe that might inspire you.

Also, consider recruiting a friend or neighbor who also wants to learn to do this together (via Nextdoor or whatever if you don't happen to know someone in the same situation). It's more fun to experiment together when you can.
posted by pinochiette at 12:13 PM on July 10, 2022 [2 favorites]

A good step would be to expand your repertoire of legume dishes! A big pot of well-flavored beans/chickpeas/lentils keeps well & gets better overnight, so they're good candidates for making a big batch and eating leftovers, freezing the extra, etc. These may be things you're already planning to try and learn from your mom, but a couple variations on masoor dal (one more north Indian in vibes, one more southern with coconut and mustard seed and curry leaf), channa masala (I like the Madhur Jaffrey recipe) and a tamarind-based imli chole kind of like this one are all go-tos of mine.

In other cuisines, Turkish red lentil soup, various Middle Eastern & North African variations on chickpea and vegetable stew, and bean-based vegetarian chilis are also good easy recipes to experiment with. You could expand your rice & beans approach to include mujadara and similar variations. Lentil and bean salads are also a good option—this simple chickpea salad is a favorite, and is great with a fried egg on top.
posted by karayel at 12:14 PM on July 10, 2022 [9 favorites]

I was going to suggest getting a quick-and-easy Indian vegetarian cookbook before you mentioned you were of Indian heritage. Get comfortable making "inauthentic" rajma, saag paneer, chana dal and whatnot and then eventually learn from your family how they do things differently in their regional traditions. I work from home, too, and love making big stewy Indian dishes for dinner and eating the leftovers for subsequent lunches.
posted by mumkin at 12:20 PM on July 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

You could dramatically expand your repertoire just by learning the most common preparations - roast (btw the air fryer is amazing for this) and saute mostly - for a vegetable that isn't a carb. Now is very much zucchini's time and it is SO versatile (stuffed, roasted, frittered, zoodles, stir-fried) and available anywhere.

Cauliflower is a great other candidate, as you can use frozen when you're busy or intimidated by breaking down a head yourself, and more so than zucchini because it's so delicate, cauliflower is a great staple for meal-prepping so you're not cooking from scratch every meal. You can teach yourself to make aloo gobi, just oil and roast in the air fryer, so many casserole options, and a nice substitute or half-sub for starches in your favorite recipes.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:37 PM on July 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

I am a meal prep gal and my future self is very grateful to my past self when I decide to prep lunches for the week (and sometimes dinner). That little leg up frees up so much mental space for focusing on other things.

I always recommend Sweet Peas and Saffron. I’ve linked her vegetarian recipes!
posted by Juniper Toast at 12:43 PM on July 10, 2022

I can't recommend J. Kenji Lopez-Alt's YouTube channel enough for learning to cook. His videos show his home cooking process from his point of view from start to finish with very few or no cuts--I've learned so much about knife skills, efficiency, mise en place, and how to cook more flexibly (e.g. substitutions, eyeballing quantities, etc) from watching him, even if it's a recipe for a dish I have no intention of ever making.
posted by telegraph at 12:43 PM on July 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

Roasting! Roasting vegetables is pretty easy, delicious, feels like Cooking, and makes good leftovers for adding to lettuce to make a hearty lunch salad. It’s a good next step.

A general master recipe: Start with one or two of these veggies that you like: sweet or white potatoes, winter squash, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, leeks, mushrooms, tomatoes, in a couple-of-serving quantity (for me that’d be a big sweet potato or a couple cups of mushrooms. YMMV.) Chop them into fairly chunky pieces: quarter a tomato or leave cherries whole, halve Brussels sprouts or mushrooms, chop potatoes in half lengthwise and slice into 1/4 inch half-moons. (I pour frozen broccoli straight out of the bag if you want low-prep.) Pour 1/4 cup or less of oil on them, a half-teaspoon of salt, and a teaspoon of a spice you like (this is almost certainly not enough spice and salt. Taste at the end, add salt/spice to taste, and adjust next time.) Toss them all together, lay on a cookie sheet, put in a 425 oven. Give them a stir after 5-10 minutes, and then check every 5-10 minutes until they are cooked and have tasty brown bits.

Tofu slices and chickpeas are pretty much the same as above, except the tofu will be better if you soak it in some kind of flavor for up to 24 hours beforehand (I usually do soy sauce and chili and some other spice.) If the oven is already on, it’s easy to put some more in there, or make some prepackaged rolls or something. Roasted veggies are also nice topped with a fried egg.
posted by tchemgrrl at 1:19 PM on July 10, 2022

Air fryer does fantastic roasted vegetables in just a few minutes. I usually take

Sliced Peppers
Cherry tomatoes
Snap Peas

Put them all in a large bowl, coat with a bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper. Shake the hell of it and put it on an air fryer basket and do it at 450 for about 5 mins (I've had two air fryers and one took 4 mins and one took 6). If you slice the cherry tomatoes in half it's a bit better for them.

This basket made all the difference for me. I don't use the tray. Much better than the basket that came with the fryer. Same with this basket for my Instant Pot, though I don't use it as much since getting the air fryer.

Also, a couple non-fryer recipes:


Known around my house as Sprouts 225, I have brought this dish to countless pot lucks and have always been told it's the best dish of the meal:


14 oz Brussels Sprouts
4 tomatoes
1 tbs olive oil
1 red onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
1 fresh chili, thinly sliced
1 tbs coriander seeds, crushed
1 tbs fresh ginger, sliced
1 tbs soy sauce


Chop the tomatoes in half, then into thickish slices

Peel the outer leaves from the sprouts and slice the larger ones in half.

Bring a pot of water to a boil and drop the sprouts in for just half a minute before removing them.

Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a wide pan and add the sprouts and the red onion.

Cook over a medium-high heat for two minutes, stirring, before adding the garlic, chili, coriander and ginger.

After another two minutes, add the tomatoes and soy sauce, and cook on a medium heat for five minutes more.

Add a splash of water if the dish seems to be drying out—it should be moist when finished.




3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 butternut squashes or other sweet-fleshed squashes (approximately 4.5 Ib.)
8 garlic cloves
8 fresh sage leaves
9 oz. Swiss cheese, cut into 1/2 in. cubes
salt and freshly ground black pepper


Preheat the oven to 425°F

Chop the stem off the squash, then use a vegetable peeler or paring knife to peel off the skin.

Slice the squash in half lengthwise, then scoop the seeds out with a spoon and lay the squash on a cookie sheet, cavity-side up.

Place two whole cloves of garlic in each cavity, along with two sage leaves

Pour about 2 teaspoons of olive oil over the garlic and sage and, using a dough brush, paint the oil all over the surface of the flesh

Bake in the preheated oven for 30-40 minutes, until tender and lightly browned around the edges.

Let cool slightly. Place the flesh in a bowl along with the roasted garlic and sage

Mash it all together with a potato masher until crushed but not entirely smooth

Stir in the Swiss cheese cubes

Spoon into a presentable, greased gratin dish and bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes, until golden and bubbly

Serve right away.
posted by dobbs at 1:31 PM on July 10, 2022 [3 favorites]

You mention frozen pasta. The next step here would be to cook a pasta dish from scratch. I don’t mean make fresh pasta from scratch. I mean buy fresh or dry pasta in the shop, boil it and make a lovely sauce. To do that pick a pasta dish you enjoy and search for a recipe for that dish.

This could be as simple as boiling some pasta while sautéing some mushrooms with a bit of garlic. I‘d use butter but oil would work as well. Drain the pasta and add to the mushrooms, stir and season to taste. Reserve a bit of pasta water when you drain. If the combined pasta and mushrooms feel a bit too dry add a bit of the reserved water. You could finish by sprinkling with a bit of parsley for visual effect and/or parmesan.

Serve with salad.

In terms of measures- be guided by the portion size on the pasta package. If this turns out to be more or less than you want adjust the next time. If in doubt use a lot of mushrooms- they shrink a lot when cooking and they’ll keep in the fridge, add them to your lunch the following day.
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:12 PM on July 10, 2022

Ethiopian food is right up your alley, if you can get the ingredients (or order online). Misir wot is a fantastic dish and not at all difficult.

My daily go-to recipe when it gets a little cooler out is Cookie and Kate's lentil soup (I make a big pot and eat it all week).

While I don't recommend overusing Beyond/Impossible stuff, sometimes you just get a craving. My favorite guilty pleasure food is this béchamel lasagna with the fake meat subbed in.

Seitan is not that difficult to make at home, especially if you have a food processor (you can get a giant bag of wheat gluten on Amazon). Once you make it, it can be used for protein in all kinds of places—stir fries, stews, salads. Look for recipes based on the kinds of flavors you're looking for, there are a million online. It does not generally stand up well to being soaked in liquid so I'd suggest freezing it dry if you have leftovers and adding at the last minute.
posted by derrinyet at 2:28 PM on July 10, 2022

Fried tofu is a really useful staple for lots of different dishes. Its essence is 1) firm tofu 2) do something to remove the water (cut into pieces, press, microwave, or boil) 3) optional dust with flour or any kind of starch 4) fry in pan/deep fryer or air fry or even bake. After that, it will take on the flavor of whatever sauce is present. You can also just make a dipping sauce for it. It's great in curries. It's good to mash up with vegetables to make fried patties.

Firm tofu recipes examples (I've made all of these and cycle through versions of a lot of them regularly):
Teriyaki tofu (pan frying)
Tofu karaage (deep frying - a bit of trouble to make but incredibly good, I honestly kind of prefer it to fried chicken)
Tofu corn and chive fritters (deep frying -- can also be made into patties for pan frying)
Crispy tofu with garlic sauce - baked and not fried
Similar recipes that are like the basic form of tofu + broccoli: Pan fried sesame tofu with broccoli / quinoa bowl with sesame tofu, avocado, pistachios
Miso marinated tofu (she says grill, but I just pan fried it, also this requires prepping the night before, and also^2 I think 4 Tbsp of miso is too salty but that's me)
Soy sauce tofu with seaweed (pan frying, you can skip the seaweed but it's kinda fun)

Soft/silken tofu:
Steamed tofu
One pot tofu and egg
posted by automatic cabinet at 2:29 PM on July 10, 2022 [1 favorite]

We’re neither vegetarian nor vegan, but my husband swears by the Grit Cookbook, and I can happily attest that the dishes are awesome. There are vegetarian and vegan recipes at various levels of complexity.

The Chocolate Vegan Death Cake is the only chocolate cake my husband makes anymore. It’s fantastic. Tofu chocolate ganache! Dear god. And Golden Bowl is a staple dish for us.
posted by malthusan at 6:35 PM on July 10, 2022

I'm going to put in a plug for frozen vegetables (including diced onions).

I think steel cut oats (vs. instant ones) are worth a try. In addition, it's possible that you may prefer savory oatmeal over sweet.

Greek yogurt has a lot of protein. A tasty breakfast can be made with yogurt + fruit + mint.
posted by oceano at 7:18 PM on July 10, 2022

Here are some of our go-to recipes. We favour simple, tasty, and usually a single pot, with re-heatable leftovers. Chillis and curries may or may not be "authentic" but I don't care if they taste good!
posted by fabius at 5:32 AM on July 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

This morning, I saw this article on the Guardian:
Six ways with frozen peas: from pasta to pesto. Frozen peas are such a good pantry/freezer staple for vegetarians, because they are delicious and also a very complete protein. (The article has some recipes with meat in them, but then also a vegetarian option).
posted by mumimor at 7:03 AM on July 11, 2022

Here's a tofu recipe we discovered last week (from a cookbook I've owned for 20 years!). Weren't expecting much, but HOLY WOW it was GOOD. This is exported from our recipe app--we gave it 5 (out of 5) stars, and the categories are our own. Does not need to be eaten on sandwiches: it could be eaten as a scoop by itself, used as a dip, on a salad. I'd have to pull the book out to see what she means by "Chinese-style" tofu, but it was published on the order of 25 years ago, so probably something more relevant then than now. We just used the normal firm tofu we always get.

Actual prep time is 10-15 min depending on how fast you chop stuff, but it does get better if you let it sit for at least an hour to develop flavor.

Tofu Salad Spread
Categories: 30 min-2 hours, Burgers and Sandwiches, Entrees, Lunch, No-Cook. Tofu, Vegan
Total Time: 1 hr
Servings: 6
Source: Vegetarian cooking for everyone, Deborah Madison, p. 129

1 pound Chinese-style firm tofu
⅓ cup finely diced celery
⅓ cup finely diced green bell pepper
⅓ cup finely diced carrot
2 tablespoons minced onion or scallion
1 large garlic clove, put through a press
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
2 tablespoons chopped marjoram or 1½ teaspoons dried
2 teaspoons chopped thyme or ½ teaspoon dried
⅛ teaspoon turmeric
2 pinches cayenne
¾ cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon capers, rinsed, or chopped sour pickles
2 to 3 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Salt and freshly milled pepper
2 tsp Wine or apple cider vinegar

Break the tofu into large chunks and twist it in a towel to get rid of the liquid. When it's as dry as possible, put it in a bowl with the rest of the ingredients and mash them together with a fork. At first it will taste bland, but the flavors will get stronger as the salad sits.

Refrigerate for 1 hour before using if time allows.

Notes from the source:
Tofu salad spread is surprisingly good on its own, but it's most appreciated as a replacement for egg salad. Use it in sandwiches just as you would egg salad, or as a spread for crackers. MAKES ENOUGH FOR 3 TO 4 SANDWICHES

Notes from us:
3 to 4 sandwiches? It made us six, with generous amounts. Original called for 1/2 cup mayo, but 3/4 made a better consistency, we thought. Gave no amounts for the vinegar, so I used 2 tsp. Try lemon juice next time?
posted by telophase at 9:32 AM on July 11, 2022

For Indian recipes, I would recommend going the instant pot way: it's a lot simpler. I recommend this book. I just use the vegetarian recipes.
posted by dhruva at 9:39 AM on July 11, 2022

I would be interested in progressions on the recipes I’m familiar with (ie, small improvements like add ____ or prepare ____ in this way) as well as other new recipes to try out. Also any tips on how you started to building confidence when you were learning how to cook would be great!

Things I learned that improved my cooking. You might already know all these, but someone else looking at the comments might not:

1. If you've got a recipe with aromatics (onions, garlic and other alliums, carrots, celery, etc.), sautee them first in the oil to flavor the oil, soften the veg, and put some browning on the veg which sweetens them and deepens the flavor.

2. Garlic can burn easily, so it's usually best to sautee the other aromatics first, then throw the garlic in and sautee until it's fragrant, then go on with the recipe.

3. Spices do better if bloomed in oil instead of being just dumped in later--the flavors are deeper and you don't get powdery spices screwing up the texture. Add them when you add the garlic, or after you sautee any aromatics. If you have no aromatics to sautee, then just sautee the spices in hot oil for a little bit before adding the rest.

3. Recipes are suggestions, not hard-and-fast rules. Feel free to leave out anything you don't like or substitute it with something you do. My partner and I both dislike parsley, so leave it out, and haven't had a problem.

4. That being said, be judicious and keep the substitutions in the same general cooking-length family, and consider what the food you're leaving out is meant to do. If it's a root veg like turnips and you don't like or don't have turnips, any root veg will do. Something like sweet potatoes or carrots will change the flavor a bit more than white potatoes, starchy potatoes like russets will thicken the dish more than waxy ones like reds, but if you're OK with that, go for it. A book like the Food Substitutions Bible helps figure out what you can sub in easily, and something like The Flavor Bible is a bit more advanced, to help you with foods that go together on the plate, or zuzhing up a recipe, or going "I have fresh rosemary. What goes with that?" or "I have frozen peas and they are boring. What can I add to make them non-boring?"

5. Don't be scared of salt, unless you have a health reason to be watching it. If you watch Kenji Lopez-Alt, as someone else linked, you'll see he seasons liberally. My partner and I now term that a "Kenji pinch".

6. That being said, if you find yourself tasting and going "This needs salt," quite often what it needs is a touch of acid: wine, vinegar, lemon, lime, orange, yuzu, etc. Or it could use something like soy sauce or tamari, which have sodium but also a lot of fermented umami flavors.

I learned a lot just experimenting, throwing stuff in or subbing weird and wacky things, and my mom (who also cooks this way) and I often joke things like "In the spirit of substitution, I left out the chicken and used maple syrup instead." While I never went quite that far, sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn't. If you're making small portions, you're not stuck with a giant pot of weird-tasting stuff when you throw caution to the wind and dump in peeled apple chunks instead of potatoes. (Note: if you do that, the apples go in at the end or they'll turn into mush, and the dish will be significantly sweeter.)
posted by telophase at 10:15 AM on July 11, 2022

For lunches, I usually like to make something on Sunday or Monday and eat it all week. Here are three easy legume options:
smashed chickpea salad I always add sundried tomatoes packed in oil and 4x the recipe.
lentil and chickpea salad As written this is pretty involved, but I usually use dried/pre-ground spices and pre-cooked lentils from Trader Joe:s,b which makes it quite easy.
baked gets with tomatoes and chickpeas This is a ruff on the TikTok pasta getting a while back, but with chickpeas. I also use chili flakes sometimes rather than chop a chili if I feel lazy.

In general, as you may have guessed from those links, Smitten Kitchen is one of my favorite sources for unfussy vegetarian dishes that really feel like a full meal
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 8:17 AM on July 12, 2022

Krish Ashok's The Masala Lab is written just for you!
posted by athirstforsalt at 10:47 PM on July 15, 2022

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