I love crisp, smoky bacon, perfectly roasted chicken, plump briny shrimp and scallops, but a few years ago on vacation with my husband, daughters and son-in-law, I realized I needed to make a change. As we sat around the dinner table picking at the last of the sausage, chicken and seafood from our paella our conversation drifted to factory-farmed animals.
Like it or not, the way we eat — that is the way our meat, poultry and seafood is produced and transported in order to be sold at prices we'll tolerate — is not sustainable.
After that conversation I realized I needed to make the change I had avoided for years. Although I wasn't ready to become a vegetarian — doubt I ever will — I knew I needed to cut back on my meat, poultry and seafood consumption. That night my husband and I decided to eat meatless two days a week so we could afford better-raised meat. And that's the way it's been the last two years. Less meat, better meat.
Sounds good, right? I came home from vacation fired up to eat meatless two days a week, but after a few weeks of pizza, pasta and hummus I realized I didn't really know how to cook as agilely without a big hunk of meat anchoring the plate.
I found myself exactly where I was in the early 1990's when I'd come home from work, open the fridge and stare in despair as I struggled to get dinner on the table quickly for my husband and two young daughters.
It wasn't that I didn't know how to cook. I had learned from my mother and grandmother, who had a set of techniques and formulas they had internalized. On any given day they'd match the ingredients they had to the formulas they knew, and that's how dinner got on the table. But there were two big differences between them and me: I had less time to cook and more ingredients to choose from. Like them I needed a set of techniques, but ones that would work for my limited time and vast array of ingredients.
Published in 2000, How To Cook Without a Book was my solution to the weeknight dinner dilemma. Internalize a few techniques and formulas and you can, indeed, cook confidently without a recipe.
But here I was again, needing to find a new way to cook confidently and effortlessly. It was time to head back to the kitchen and figure out the formulas that would work for the meatless lifestyle. And that's exactly what I did. My latest book — Cook without a Book Meatless Meals, out just last week — offers techniques that'll help you eat simply and sumptuously year round.
Take oatmeal, for example. Many of us dutifully eat this heart-healthy hot cereal several times a week. By using soymilk, dried fruit (or banana or pumpkin puree) and a little spice, however, you can change the flavorings daily, plus get lightly sweet, highly flavored hot cereal that doesn't require extra sugar.
The same is true for my Roasted Vegetable Galettes. This incredibly simple supper can be made with whatever seasonal vegetables you have around. This week I offer a fall version with butternut squash and cabbage. Come spring I'll be making it with asparagus and carrots and potatoes. And this summer it'll be tomatoes and eggplant and zucchini.
But the book has more than formulas. There are also meatless versions of our favorite soups, salads and sandwiches. When developing these recipes I found that if all the familiar components were in place, no one missed the meat. Take my meatless Reubens, for example. With the familiar Russian dressing, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut, a crisp hash brown patty plays meat. No one yet has asked, "Where's the corned beef?"
When it comes time to make dinner every night isn't it nice to know that if you've got a few ingredients in your pantry and fridge and you've got few formulas in your head, that you can get dinner on the table effortlessly. With Cook Without a Book: Meatless Meals, that's how simple it can be.
"Fig Newton" Oatmeal
This recipe easily halves to serve 2.
3 1/2 cups vanilla soymilk
2 cups old-fashioned oatmeal
2/3 cup coarsely chopped dried figs
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 cup toasted pecans, chopped
Bring milk, oatmeal, salt, figs and cloves to simmer in a large saucepan or 5- to 6- quart Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, to desired thickness, about 5 minutes. Serve, sprinkling each portion with toasted pecans.
Potato Reuben Sandwiches
Makes 4 large sandwiches, serving 4 to 8
1/2 cup light or regular mayonnaise
2 tablespoons prepared cocktail sauce
1/4 medium red onion, grated
3 tablespoons olive oil
6 store bought hash brown patties
4 (6-inch) Portuguese or submarine sandwich rolls, split
6 thin slices (4 1/2 ounces) Swiss cheese
1 pound sauerkraut, drained
Mix mayonnaise, cocktail sauce and onion in a small bowl; set aside.
Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add hash brown patties; cook, partially covered and turning once, until hot, crisp and golden brown, about 10 minutes total. Turn skillet to low while assembling sandwiches.
Spread each side of each roll with sauce, arrange 1 1/2 cheese slices on roll bottoms, followed by a portion of sauerkraut and then 1 1/2 hash brown patties. Cap with roll tops.
Increase skillet heat to medium and cook, covering sandwiches with a plate with a 2-pound weight (a 1-quart carton of broth works well). Cook, turning once, until cheese melts and sandwiches are crisp, 8 to 10 minutes total. Halve and serve.
Roasted Squash and Vegetable Galette
3 cups cabbage quartered, cored and sliced 1/2-inch thick
3 cups butternut squash peeled, seeded and sliced 1/2-inch thick
1 large red or yellow onion, halved and sliced 1/2-inch thick
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
Salt and ground black pepper
1 9-inch piecrust from a 14.1-ounce refrigerated box
4 ounces crumbled fresh goat cheese or light cream cheese
1 heaping cup grated Gruyere cheese
Place cabbage, squash and onions on a large rimmed baking sheet. Toss with olive oil, thyme, and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Adjust oven racks to lowest and middle positions, set vegetables on bottom rack in cold oven; set to 425 degrees and roast, stirring once, until just cooked and starting to color, 15 to 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, roll pie dough to a 14-inch circle and set on a large cookie sheet. Mix goat or cream cheese and 3/4 of the gruyere in a large bowl. Add hot vegetables to cheese mixture; toss to thoroughly mix. Adjust seasonings. Spread mixture over pastry, leaving a 2-inch border. Fold pastry border over vegetables and sprinkle with remaining grated cheese. Bake on middle rack until bubbly and golden brown, about 20 minutes. Cool for 5 minutes, slice and serve.