The vegetarian kitchen is not such a different place from the meat-preparing kitchen. In fact, the tools of the trade are not particularly specialized—a well-stocked kitchen should have most everything you’ll need, and if it doesn’t, well, it probably has something you can make do.  However, there are a few things worth mentioning, and some potentially unfamiliar ingredients that I should explain!

First, let me give you a little background on my vegetarianism. A few years before I (the oldest child) came along, my parents decided to become vegetarians. They had both been raised eating meat, but due to concerns about meat processing (commercial meat plants are DISGUSTING places, though I hear some are cleaning up their acts these days), some concerns for their own health, and a desire to try out this lifestyle, they went for it. So, as an adult now myself, I have never had meat. This means a few specific things for me. I cannot, and I do mean cannot, eat meat at this point. According to my research I could train myself to do so, but meat is very hard to digest and my body has never become acclimated to doing it. The very few times I have gotten something contaminated just with meat grease (normally I am very good at identifying such things and avoiding them), it has in fact made me very sick to my stomach.  It would take several years of tiny increases in “meat doses” to teach myself to eat it. That brings us to the second point: I have no desire whatsoever to eat meat. Now, for many converts to vegetarianism as adults, this is not the case. For me, however, I look at meat and say “hey look, there is meat” not “hey look, there is potential food.” It doesn’t even smell good (some things, like bacon and breakfast sausage, smell actively bad to me). Even my parents, who were adult converts, eventually lost any interest in meat as food. Now they think pretty much the same things I do when it’s around, as far as I can tell, and likewise have bad physical responses if they eat it.

So, that’s why and how I became a vegetarian cook. Unlike the sugar-free cooking, I didn’t have to research it—I learned to cook from a very accomplished vegetarian cook (my mother, who was a good cook before she went vegetarian and the skills translated well), and I’ve always known how to make tasty and balanced meals. It’s second nature. That being said, I know that a lot of people who try to become some type of vegetarian as an adult or young adult and run into two major problems: they didn’t cook much before now, so figuring out how to prepare vegetarian food is daunting (it’s rare to just be able to throw something in a pan and heat it until it becomes edible, as you can with a chicken breast or burger patty), and they have no idea how to navigate the somewhat confusing labels of the “vegetarian” section of a specialty foods case. Those two hurdles are why the vegetarian recipes are also going on this blog—we want to help everyone who has an interest learn to cook, and so we may as well explain the ins and outs of as many off-beat types of cooking as we know!

I mentioned just a moment ago that there are different “types” of vegetarian. Let me define some terms for you so that you know what category you or your loved ones likely fall into (and you can just ASK the vegetarian to define their diet for you—it’s easier, and they’ll appreciate it if you remember the answer):

Vegan: The most extreme of the meat-free options, these folks do not eat anything that comes from a living creature. They will not eat red meat, poultry, pork,  seafood, wild caught game, or anything else that is meatish. In addition, they do not eat animal products such as milk (of any animal-based kind, be that cow, goat or otherwise) and eggs, or things made from these (such as yogurt, cheese, or custard). They do eat nuts, fruits (dried and fresh), many soy products, veggies of all kinds (barring personal dislikes, of course), root vegetables, herbs, grains, legumes, and so on. Some vegans will not eat honey, as it must be taken from bees (living creatures) but some will. They also vary from person to person on what kinds of processed soy and rice products they will eat (though these products are entirely vegetable based, some vegans like to eat only natural and unprocessed foods). Likewise, some vegans make exceptions for certain dairy products, but do not quite go up to our next category, which is…

Ovo-Lacto Vegetarian: This is what most of us mean when we say “vegetarian” (and this is what I am). It’s easier to get your protein and you still aren’t eating dead animal (Disclaimer: I do not care if you kill the animals to eat it. Just do it responsibly and don’t keep them locked in the dark unmoving before you do it. You are, in fact, welcome to my share of the dead animal. May I have some of your potatoes in return :D?). These folks will eat everything a vegan will eat, and in addition they’ll eat eggs, milk of all varieties (though, really, I think goat’s milk is yucky. Some people like it though <shrug>), and the things that come from those. So, custards, ice cream, cheese (glorious cheese!), yogurt and so on are all fair game. Remember, these folks still do not eat red meat, poultry, pork, seafood, dead bugs, or any other kind of flesh of creature. No, seriously, they don’t and can’t just pick it out (contamination), and the confusion results from the next category…

The Meat Avoider: This category is much less well-defined. Some members avoid all meat, but do occasionally indulge. It includes people who will eat seafood but not poultry or red meat (the rationale being that seafood is a more humanely farmed and an easy source of protein). It also includes the “red meat avoider” who will eat poultry-type meats too. The “avoider” category will also occasionally eat meats of any kind if they happen to like the dish, or will simply pick it out and eat the remaining “meat bits free” version of the soup, casserole etc. These folks are often avoiding meat for purely medical reasons, so it is more like staying away from candy because it is bad for you; sometimes you eat it anyway, but it’s a treat. Some of these folks avoid meat simply don’t like how most meat dishes taste, but will eat the one or two that they do like without any problem. Now, the pure existence of this category does cause some problems for the Ovo-Lacto and Vegan groups, because these folks very often also call themselves “vegetarians” because it makes a convenient shorthand. However, unlike the Ovo-Lacto or Vegan groups, contamination is a much lesser problem for them. Their bodies can and do handle meat, so the oils and tiny bits of meat left in a cooked dish after picking out the meat don’t bother them. Trust me, they bother the members of the other two groups. It is very important to know whether the vegetarian you’re serving is of the “avoider” variety or not. Please, never assume that a vegetarian you are feeding can simply remove the meat from a dish and be fine—when it isn’t possible, it really and truly isn’t possible!

Sorry, had to preach to the choir a bit there—don’t worry, I know you know better (especially if you are in one of the first two categories!). Fundamentally, make sure you check with someone, even if you yourself are a vegetarian. They may fall into a different category than you do, and it may well be even more specifically defined than the general categories here. Also, there are several categories of people who overlap with the vegetarian diet and will occasionally use the word to describe their eating habits. These tend to be people on the raw foods diet (who most often borrow the term “vegan” since it is closest—these folks don’t like to heat their food too much, and feel it destroys good enzymes. However, they do sometimes eat yogurt and the like, so ask!), people trying to live “organic only” (so, they do eat meat, often, if it is organic or free range), and so on. Yes, this can confuse things more, but as a general  rule, such people are quite used to explaining their eating habits and will do so willingly rather than starve at your dinner party.*

Okay, all that being said, what things are particular to a vegetarian or vegan kitchen? Well, mostly the multitude of soy products that are available nowadays. Of course, some people who eat meat also eat these, but they are generally marketed with vegetarians in mind. Here I’ll talk about a few of the most common ones and how I use them, as well as some of the terms you’ll trip on now and then.

Tofu: Perhaps the most unfairly vilified food in American culture, tofu is not that bad. No, what is bad is being served a hunk of raw tofu and told it is food. Do you eat a hunk of untreated meat and call it food? Howabout flour straight from the bag? Not unless you’re on a survival course (or just courting a stomach ache!) you don’t! Now, unlike raw meat or flour, you won’t get sick if you eat raw tofu.  Unless texture really bothers you. But most of us do not find tasty joy here. The secret…is SPICES. Cook your tofu with stuff. Dust it in flour and spices and fry. Cook in with onions and thyme and sauce.  Grill it with sesame. Trust me, the stuff can be good. Give it another shot. You’ll see :D.

Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP): This is available for your own purchase as bricks or bottles of TVP, but I sure as heck don’t buy it. Speaking of nasty…it needs a lot of processing before it acts like something to cook with. Where you will really run across this is in premade vegetarian substitutes. It turns up in vegetarian chili (most notably Worthington brand, and that stuff can be quite tasty if it is up your alley), in the Morningstar Farms Veggie Crumbles, and so on. It is made from plants, I promise, and safe. It’s a form of fiber that makes things work a little more like meat in dishes that you want to recreate (like stroganoff).

Morningstar Farms Products: Okay, speaking of Morningstar Farms, they’re by far the most common veggie substitute brand, and most of their stuff is pretty good. Most of their products are in the refrigerator or freezer cases. (The previously mentioned Worthington brand makes mostly canned vegetarian substitutes, some of which are also useful, especially if you won’t have access to a freezer, as when camping). I warn you off anything claiming to be a bacon-substitute—YUCK. Okay, you might like it, but I find it repulsive. Their crumbles are very useful, as are the chic strips, and if you like veggie burgers and hotdogs (made from soy, look like their meaty counterparts…sometimes ;-)) theirs are pretty good. In veggie burger land you also have products by Boca and Garden Burger.

Fake Lunch Meats: NO. And I mean NO. My mom bought “Tofurkey” once…it was utterly disgusting, and everyone in my family agreed on that! The same goes for all its other fake lunchmeat friends. If you want to try it then buy in small quantities, but really, just make a super sandwich with variety cheeses, lots of veggies, some hummus or guacamole, and call it much better.

Vegan Cheeses: I have tried these, they’re mostly made of soy milk, and I personally can’t stand them. I hear they’re better melted into casseroles etc. As an ovo-lacto vegetarian, I don’t mess with it. I like my milky cheese, thank you :D.

Soy Milk and Rice Milk: Again, I’ve tried it, and I can see the appeal for people with problems with lactose, but they do not behave the same way as cow’s milk (or even goat’s milk) when heated. Likewise, they are much sweeter and sometimes have a gritty texture or nutty taste, and are often noticeably thicker or thinner than cow’s milk. Some kids actually like them better for the greater sweetness, actually. They come in flavors (usually vanilla and chocolate) because the flavor of plain often just isn’t very good. Just so that you know, these are not low-calorie options—soy milk actually has more calories per cup than cow’s milk does. I hear Almond Milk and Oat Milk and the like are pretty good, but very nutty in taste. Never tried them myself (haven’t found any yet).

So there are a few guidelines on basic vegetarian substitutes. Mostly, you’ll just be buying a lot more produce and grains than most people do. Also, bread is a delicious thing and not nearly as hard to make yourself as people say. Good bread can make a meal.

On spices: Spices are any cook’s best friend, but they are woefully underappreciated in your average meat-lover’s repertoire. I’m told by my husband, who grew up eating meat, that this is because meat is a sort of flavoring in and of itself for a lot of people—that is, your casserole might have some salt and pepper and then the meat gives it the rest of the flavor that makes it not taste like paste.  This is just sad. Even meat does well with some spice-boost (yes, I can and do cook meat for carnivores upon occasion, and they have routinely complimented me on how very unusually tasty it was). Now, when I say spices I mean “prepare to need to dedicate a shelf of a good sized cupboard and a spice rack” numbers of spices. The vegetarian food repertoire draws from a lot of different ethnicities, which means having the spices appropriate to each one (also, it’s handy for spontaneous mixing and matching…just be careful and know your flavors well!). Here’s a sampling of what is routinely around in my spice cupboard:

  • Allspice
  • Arrowroot
  • Basil
  • Bay Leaves
  • Black Pepper
  • Caraway Seed
  • Cayenne Pepper (sometimes called simply “hot red pepper”)
  • Chili Powder
  • Cinnamon, sticks and ground
  • Cloves, whole and ground
  • Corriander
  • Cumin, seed and ground
  • Dill
  • Dried Onion (they act differently)
  • Fennel
  • Garam Masala (an Indian spice blend which I mix myself)
  • Garlic Powder
  • Ginger
  • Mustard Seed (usually ground, sometimes whole)
  • Nutmeg
  • Onion Powder
  • Oregano
  • Paprika
  • Parsley
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Salt, standard table and sea salt (or other coarse salt, like kosher)
  • Sesame seed
  • Several different blends of curry powder (which, again, I blend myself)
  • Thyme
  • Turmeric
  • Vanilla
  • Vanilla Beans

Mind you,  I don’t expect anyone to go out and buy all of these at once. Too expensive! You’ll build them up over time, since you only use a bit of each per recipe. This is just to give an idea of the variety of spice available to you, and this is by no means an exhaustive list. I have other things around that I just don’t stock—I only buy them if I’ve run out and need it for a particular recipe. Some I do stock, but only when I’m doing a lot of Indian cooking, or something like that. You can also stock dried zests (lemon peel, orange peel) and extracts for baking, though I often just get fresh. That’s the other thing about spices—fresh works very differently from dried in many cases. I do grow fresh of some, like basil, oregano, parsley (Italian), thyme, and occasionally others. Likewise, I usually use fresh onion and garlic. Most people do, as they have much more flavor that way. I also buy fresh from the store for other recipes when it’ll really make a difference. Don’t worry, I mark those sorts of recipes, and you’ll get a feel for it. You can substitute some spices for others, and you can substitute dried for fresh, but there are proportions for that and the internet is full of handy substitution charts when you need to do that.

So there you go! It’s a few notes to get started, and don’t let the lengths of these reference pages daunt you—just try some recipes and do your best and you’ll get tasty food sooner than later. And hey, if you’re already an accomplished cook you probably don’t need this page at all and stopped reading ages ago. If so, I hope you’re having fun in recipe land!

*Side note: If you travel in foreign countries, learn as many different words for “vegetarian” or “vegan” as you can. It’s “vegetaraina” or “vegetariano” (if you’re a boy) in Italian. Yes, it is very often a near cognate to English since “vegetarian” is a pretty new word. I can’t type the Greek word for you, since I don’t have their alphabet on my computer, but they have one and oh boy did I use it. The list goes on. It complicates things if you are traveling with one or more of the “avoider” variety, though, because you’ll have to learn to explain the difference…in a foreign language. Or bring along someone fluent—that worked better for me!