When I was a child, I couldn’t understand how a vegetarian life could be feasible. Not because I loved meat, but because of the typical Panamanian diet. Most days, my family would eat some kind of protein with a side of rice and salad. Beans and plantains often made an appearance on the plate, and sometimes we’d have fried plantains or yucca instead of rice, but the piece of chicken, beef, or fish was the constant. Maybe once a week we’d have pasta or tacos instead, but that’s where variety ended. So what was a vegetarian supposed to eat, I wondered. Taking the protein away from the tried and true formula didn’t leave much of a meal, in my view.
I didn’t learn to cook until I moved away to college, and at first I just stuck to what was familiar. It was not until one day I happened to look at the recipe on the back of a soup can that it hit me: there was a world of culinary possibilities outside of the protein-and-a-side formula. So I began to occasionally venture out of my culinary safe zone.
My decision to stop cooking meat – I do still eat it when my husband cooks since that is a battle I have not won (yet) – came in late 2011 when I won the Blissful Chef’s vegan cookbook in a giveaway. Over time I have given up other animal products as well, replacing eggs for flaxseed meal and dairy milk for almond milk, though cheese still remains as one of my last big hurdles. I decided to change my diet partly for my health (I know you can be healthy and eat meat, but eating meat made it easy for me to skimp on vegetables) and partly because it does ease my conscience to stay away from animal products, but I also did it because it felt like a challenge. I remembered the feeling that a vegetarian diet would be impossible back when most of my meals involved rice and a protein, and I wanted to prove that vegetarian cooking could be not only feasible but also delicious. Throughout the journey, foods that I took for granted and found boring before have become some of my kitchen staples. I’ve developed a new-found appreciation for these three ingredients:
I grew up eating beans, but I never thought of them as anything more than a side. Turns out that as part of the main dish, beans are tasty and satisfying. Also, my childhood staple tended to be red beans, so trying different kinds of beans like garbanzo and white beans opened up the possibilities further. Tossing beans and veggies makes for a filling salad, and mashing them can give you everything from patties to meatballs to a nice spread that resembles tuna salad. Beans are my number one answer to the question: how do you get your protein?
Before I stopped cooking meat, the only time I ever ate avocado was in guacamole. Now, I think most meals would taste better with a garnish of avocado. I mainly use avocado as a topping, but it’s also delicious as a spread or as a simple pasta sauce – I just toss it in the food processor with a garlic clove and some olive oil. It’s also the mayo in my vegan tuna salad. It’s also a food I can feel good about eating since it is high in “good fats” and carotenoids (think vitamin C).
Somehow, I went through the first 18 years or so of my life hating mushrooms. There was just something about their texture that I did not like. Maybe that’s because I had mainly been exposed to the rubbery canned mushrooms found on pizza. But nowadays I love mushrooms. They’re a good source of nutrients, and if you’re missing the taste of meat mushrooms can come close. I pretty much like mushrooms in anything – pasta, casserole, enchiladas, you name it. Just tossing them in the oven with olive oil and seasonings is tasty, and as a bonus they come out bathed in a sauce that’s nice for dipping bread.
When I first cracked open my vegan cookbook, some of the ingredients it mentioned were daunting. I had no idea where I could even buy some of them. But it slowly came together, and I began to find recipes with readily available ingredients that I felt comfortable cooking. I would say that nine out of every ten recipes I try include one of my go-to ingredients. But they can all be put together in so many ways that my vegetarian cooking journey has never grown boring.
Do you have any favorite ingredients for your vegetarian or vegan recipes? Let us know in the comments!
Written by Sully Moreno