As a vegetarian approaching my 12th Vege-versary, I’m ecstatic about the options available to me in the restaurant and grocery world. While Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have taken the more recent popular lead on meat-adjacent protein substitutes, companies like Morningstar Farms, Lightlife, Quorn, and Amy’s Kitchen have reinvented their staple products and added to their competitive offerings.
It’s not just tofu anymore, folks.
Not that there’s anything wrong with tofu.
(Urban Tastebud put together a list of the biggest 16 names in the fake meat industry. The former are only a few of my personal faves.)
The health and environmental benefits of a vegetarian lifestyle are actively being researched, but the preliminary results are promising, according to a 2015 meta-analysis by Appleby and Key. And this news has been getting around, as a 2019 Gallup poll showed that 5% of Americans identified as vegetarian. Given the explosion of product availability and accessibility, it is presumed that number has increased in the interim.
When I became a vegetarian in 2009, as a dorming undergrad, I knew few cooking techniques, despite what I might have boasted at the time. My father’s cooking style was Polish-German-Italian (heavily Italian). I knew from hours of observation that there was a major difference between the Long Sauce and the Quick Sauce, and that pierogis and kielbasa were acceptable anytime fare. I’d also absorbed my grandmother’s eastern European insistence on the necessity of root vegetables in a balanced diet, that every good recipe calls for onions, and that every part of a chicken can be used, including and especially the bone marrow.
My dietary switch was motivated by a few factors — personal health, environmental impact, biological curiosity — and I jumped into veganism after reading a couple of books, put myself on a 10-day trial, and read through online public forums. The change wasn’t especially welcomed by my family, who insisted it was a passing fad. Perhaps their resistance gave me the stubborn grit to continue. Not being handy in the kitchen or well-educated on a balanced vegan diet, I ate at on-the-go burrito places, like Moes and Chipotle, and I polished off jars of peanut butter and pounds of pasta weekly. I ate a lot of unseasoned, tasteless, and arrogantly prepared black beans and I tried to force myself to enjoy — ugh — salads. (A few years later, while living in America’s heartland, I’d relent on veganism, reclaim scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese, and swallow my pride toward vegetarianism.)
With twelve years on the journey with a full kitchen, a more active online tutorial community accessible from the palm of my hand, and practice, practice, practice, I’m a lot more savvy. I have a full spice cabinet and I’m not afraid to dip into worldly taste combinations. The cooking adage ‘If it grows together, it goes together’ has been a mental preparation refrain. I’m also more of an intuitive “what’s in the fridge? okay, incorporate it” type of cook than a “follow the strictest recipe measure” type of cook. I’ve fed many omnivores (read: meat eaters) and I have a sense that their objections to vegetarianism is more often about texture than taste or meat need.
For those novice home cooks looking to adapt to the vegetarian lifestyle, either in perpetuity or as an option to the standard fare, I have some information that I’ve accrued over these many years. (I am NOT a nutritionist, dietician, or physician, so please consult an actual expert with dietary or nutrition concerns.)
With this in mind, I offer the first of many recipes I feel confident to share. It takes about 45 minutes to prepare, especially if you already have some facility with kitchen tools. It has been accepted by my meat-eating critics, but stands the vegetarian test of fleshless cuisine.
Recipe: Black Bean Enchiladas
Equipment: an oven and a stovetop burner, a cutting board and knife, preparation bowls/tubs, measuring cups and measuring spoons, a large nonstick sauté pan, a large stirring utensil, a serving spoon, a square or rectangular oven-safe baking dish, aluminum foil, a spatula for serving, plates and forks.
Note: I prefer a Santoku knife for all of my chopping and slicing needs. Use what you feel safely comfortable and confident with.
Optional Equipment: Can strainer (a collander for bean cans), kitchen timer
Ingredients (in usage order): 2 Tbs vegetable oil, 1 medium (~1/2 c) onion (chopped), 6 mushrooms (chopped), 1/2 bunch of cilantro (~1/4 c), can of black beans (rinsed, drained), 8 oz can of tomato sauce, 1/2 c water, 1/2 tsp salt (and salt to taste), 1 Tbs oregano, 1 tsp garlic powder, 1/4 tsp cumin, 1/4 tsp paprika, pinch of nutmeg, 16oz can of mild enchilada sauce, 6 8-in flour tortillas, 2 c shredded cheese (cheddar preferred).
Substitute/Optional Ingredients: bell pepper, carrot, red beans, pinto beans etc. Any fresh vegetable or bean will taste fine. Substitute fake meat crumbles or chopped meat can be added. (For bricks of frozen faux meats, defrost ahead in the microwave with a splash of water in the bowl.) Instead of cilantro and tomato sauce, I occasionally use 4 heaping Tbs of Goya’s Recaito or Sofrito. Any preshredded cheese, cheese mix, or vegan cheese substitute works. For a spicier recipe, add 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper and a few dashes of your choice of hot sauce.
Preparation notes: Rinse all canned beans 2x. Clean all veggies, and chop ahead of time, for cooking ease. (It’s what the pros do!) Use fresh veggies over canned or frozen veggies, if possible- they take on seasoning more easily, in my opinion. Know in your heart that there are few ways to mess this up — sauce, cheese, veggies, and beans — take a deep breath, you’ll be fine.
Vegetarian Reminder: Because there are no animal products being used, there is a lower chance of cross-contaminating with bacteria or dangerously undercooking ingredients. Plus one for nervous chefs!
Recipe Reminder: This is written for the novice. Skip ahead if you’ve got it down.
- Pull out all of the tools you’ll need and measure and prepare all of the ingredients. As you get more facility in the kitchen, you’ll be able to multitask and prepare on-the-cook, but for true beginners, preparation is a friend. Chop onion, mushrooms, and optional veggies all to a similar bean-like size. Rinse and drain beans. Chop cilantro. Open the tomato sauce and enchilada sauce cans. Measure the seasonings into a small bowl.
- Preheat the oven to 400deg F.
- Heat oil on medium heat in large sauté pan for a minute until it easily moves around and gently coats the bottom of the pan.
- Add the onions and sauté until translucent or semi-sheer, for about 3 minutes. Move them around with a stirring spoon every 30 sec. and sprinkle a pinch of salt over them.
- Add the cilantro (or Goya product) and sauté about 1 minute.
- Add mushrooms (and other optional veggies), beans, tomato sauce, seasonings and stir. Add some of the water. There should be enough water in the pan to keep the mixture in a dense soupy consistency. Vegetables give off water as they cook down, so feel confidently adding a small amount at a time.
- Bring mixture to a gentle boil and lower the heat to simmer. Stir occasionally for about 20 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft and the water has mostly cooked off. Turn off the stove.
- Spoon 2 Tbs of enchilada sauce in the bottom of the bakeware dish.
- Holding a tortilla in your nondominant hand, use a large serving spoon in your dominant hand to spoon a palm-sized amount of mixture into the tortilla (usually two spoon fulls). Roll the tortilla into a cylinder, folding the short ‘top and bottom’ flaps over the mixture, followed by the longer ‘side’ flaps and place the folded side down. Repeat filling, and place the next enchilada as close to the first as possible, somewhat overlapping the first. Repeat until pan is full. (For most 8x8in or 9x13in baking pans, 6–8 enchiladas fill the pan.)
- Cover the enchiladas with enchilada sauce, to prevent the tortillas from burning in the oven. Sauce freely as the unsauced tortilla edges may burn.
- Sprinkle the enchiladas with shredded cheese- to taste. I easily use 2 cups of cheese, if not more.
- Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 20 minutes at 400deg F. Uncover and bake for an additional 5–7 minutes or until a crispy, cheesy coating is achieved.
- Remove from oven, turn the oven off, and let sit for 5 minutes. Cut, serve, and eat!
I’ve made these black bean enchiladas many times, though they never come out quite the same way twice. I think the great thing about one-pot sautéing is the freedom to use ingredients at will as long as the water-salt balance is tended. Experiment by swapping out vegetables or seasonings, based on what you have in the fridge. The mixture needs to cook down before it goes into the oven, so use water sparingly at first to accommodate vegetables that will release water.
If there’s filling left over, save it — makes for great chili over rice.
The omnivores in my life request this meal on a weekly basis. It’s truly a household favorite. Let me know if you try it or if you have questions. I look forward to hearing from you and to sharing more of my vegetarian cooking prowess.
What are your go-to vegetarian recipes?
What meat-based fare would you love a substitute for?
Tell us in the comments!