5 Common Mistakes When Cooking Vegetarian Food
I am consistently surprised by the number of well-trained, experienced chefs who blanche at the mere thought of cooking a vegetarian meal. With none of the cooking time complications and food safety and hygiene issues involved with cooking meat, you would expect it to be the easiest lifestyle choice to cater for, but the simple sight of a slice of tofu is enough to turn some cooks into a gibbering wreck.
So what are meat-eaters finding so incomprehensible about vegetarian and vegan food?
Over-reliance on meat and animal produce, and the assumption that meat should be the ‘main part’ of the dish has resulted in many chefs neglecting their vegetable-based cuisine.
As a result, when a vegetarian walks into a restaurant – PANIC!
But, fear not. The broccoli does not bite. Here, we list the five most common mistakes made when cooking vegetarian and vegan food, and how to remedy them.
Not Enough Spicing
Vegetarian and vegan food finds much of its flavour in the blend of spices used to mix up the taste of the dishes.
For inspiration on spice combinations, it is helpful to study different food traditions from around the world, particularly countries with a wide variety of spices and vegetables.
Take Thai cuisine, for example. What distinguishes a red curry, from a green curry, from a yellow curry?
A red curry is made with red chillies, galangal, turmeric, and garlic, while a green curry is made with green chillies, Thai basil, and kaffir lime leaves. A yellow curry, by contrast, has a heavier amount of turmeric than a red curry, and also includes lemongrass, cumin and galangal.
No Protein Source
You know the comforting, satisfied feeling you get after a meal?
That is caused, in most part, by protein.
Contrary to popular belief, it is easy to get enough protein from vegetarian sources – in fact, many meat eaters consume too much, leading to a variety of health difficulties. There is a multitude of vegetarian protein sources, most of which are pretty straightforward to prepare.
Some Ideas For Vegetarian and Vegan Protein Sources:
- Beans – there are hundreds of different kinds of beans used all over the world. South and Central American dishes often use kidney beans or pinto beans, while South-East Asian cuisine tends to use mung beans, and both continents use black beans. In European cooking, we usually use French beans, haricot beans, or runner beans.
- Pulses – pulses are one of the vegetarian protein sources that stump many chefs, but they are actually pretty simple. If you buy pre-canned pulses, such as chickpeas in water, canned lentils etc., you can add them straight into any dish! For a cheaper option, you can soak most dried pulses (such as chickpeas and lentils) overnight.
- Tofu – I once heard someone give very succinct and accurate advice about tofu; ‘Better overcooked than under, and for the love of God, don’t forget the marinade’. Firstly, the texture; undercooked or uncooked tofu is gelatinous in texture, which, if you are using it for a dessert like a mousse or a cheesecake, is ideal. As a rule, however, in savoury dishes where it is served in chunks or steaks, it is better to cook it for longer so that it develops a light brown, crispy crust. If you need help with this, deep frying or coating it in panko breadcrumbs provides some great texture!
In terms of flavour, tofu is seriously BLAND – a quality which makes it boring on its own, but great with herbs and spices for any type of cuisine. For those who don’t use herbs and spices or rely on the natural flavour of meat to pull their dish through, this creates some problems. To put it bluntly, you cannot afford to skimp on the spices where tofu is involved! It needs a good hour at least in a strongly flavoured marinade. You can use whatever flavours you like – I often marinade mine Thai-style in soy sauce, lime juice, coriander, ginger and tamarind, but you can use also use flavours like paprika, harissa, Cajun seasoning, curry powder… whichever floats your boat!
- Textured Vegetable Protein chunks (TVP) – TVP comes dry, and like tofu, is pretty bland and requires some seasoning. The beauty of TVP, however, is that because it is dried out, it soaks up water, making it perfect if you’ve made a sauce which is accidentally too thin. When cooked, TVP chunks are a little like chicken in texture, but you can also get TVP mince for use in cottage pie, lasagne etc
- Vegetables – contrary to the propaganda, you can get a lot of protein from vegetables. Mushrooms, broccoli, spinach, asparagus, artichokes and Brussels sprouts are all high in protein.
- Seitan – while a little harder to come by than tofu, seitan is richer in flavour and has more texture. It is made from wheat, so is not suitable for coeliacs, however, if you are put off by the blandness of tofu, it is worth a try! It has a subtle, nutty flavour and a soft texture which creates fibres when you pull it apart – a little like chicken. Like tofu, it is adaptable and can be fried, grilled, or sautéed.
- Grains – Some grains are high in protein, including whole wheat (the protein is found in the wheatgerm itself), oats, and wild rice. If you are relying on grains for protein, make sure it is unprocessed, as using white wheat flour or white rice, for example, removes much of the protein.
Adding too much cheese and neglecting spices is a signature of a ‘lazy vegetarian cook’. Firstly, it excludes potential customers who might be plant-based/vegan. Secondly, cheese usually takes the place of herbs and spices, which, as mentioned, contains most of the flavour of vegetarian dishes. Heavily cheesy vegetarian dishes can easily become greasy and bland.
There are some dishes which combine both spices and cheese, which make an interesting vegetarian option, such as paneer curry, but give your guests an option or two and they’ll be eating out of your hands!
Predictable Menu Choices
Yes, we’re talking to you, restaurant-whose-only-vegetarian-dish-is-a-salad! Vegetarians are tired of the same-old vegetable pasta, various stuffed vegetables, cheese tarts and quiche. Why not try a trick or two from around the world for something different?
Nobody likes a soggy carrot, and vegetarians are no different! If you have neglected your vegetable cooking knowledge, remember to cut your vegetables to the same size so that they cook through evenly. Cook them until they are softened, but still slightly firm – they should be ever so slightly resistant when you prick them with a fork, but it should not take a lot of effort to puncture them. When your vegetables are cooked al-dente, plunge them into ice-cold water to stop them from cooking in the pan after the heat is turned off.
With a little practice and a lot of inspiration, it is easy to get your vegetarian cooking up to scratch. You might even tap into a brand new, passionate and loyal customer base!
Article by Caterquip