UPDATE: My mom has some important things to say about vegetarian cookbooks that may or may not have been on the Rossi family cookbook shelf. Here’s what she says (emphasis added):
“I want it known that the Moosewood Cookbooks [a series of popular vegetarian cookbooks were merely references, and not the way I cooked…I don’t want your readers to think that you grew up in a “veggier than thou” household. I think I bought the Moosewood books at yard sales for $1 each, or were given them as gifts. While I agree there were some great ideas in them, I in no way cooked from those or any other food trend books.
I provided the requisite share of ramen, hot dogs, bacon, mac and cheese and other standard American fare. I suffered some angst in doing so, but strove for balance.”
So, there you go. Don’t worry, Mom — you were an excellent influence (food- and otherwise), and I love you very much!
When I say “bad vegetarian cuisine”, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? I think of things like: too much cumin and/or overuse of curry powder in non-Indian dishes, lots of underdone brown rice, roasted eggplant that has poor texture AND poor flavor, flavorless (and often cheeseless) pestos, and of course the dreaded meat analog — whether it’s a tofu dog or tempeh chili, there’s something really disheartening about “vegifying” a meat dish.
But! I think that most of these notions come from a bygone era of vegetarianism. This is an era that I didn’t really live through, obviously, but I can get a sense of by looking through my mom’s old Moosewood Cafe cookbooks (the newer ones are great, though) and talking to older vegetarian folks who shop at local natural food stores. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of food, really, but I think that it usually falls flat when you’re trying to sell omnivores on the idea of meatlessness.
So when I cook vegetarian food, I tend to look to naturally vegetarian (or low-meat) foods of the world: Mexican tortilla soups with only a few shreds of chicken, Southwestern black bean tacos, Mediterranean falafels, and of course the incredible Israeli dish, shakshuka. There are plenty of other ways to go, of course, but these are my go-to vegetarian dishes.
I was excited when I picked up my copy of Plenty a few months ago. Written by the London-based Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi, Plenty features vegetarian dishes that celebrate their ingredients: fresh produce and interesting beans and grains. There are a few duds in the book, and several weird measurements (7 tablespoons of butter? Call it 8 and let me use a whole stick, Yotam) that always seem to result from cookbooks that have been converted from the metric system. But these are relatively small issues with what I think is an otherwise excellent book for vegetarians and carnivores alike.
Anyway, I decided to try the green couscous out of Mr. Ottolenghi’s book, with a few simplifications and adjustments. I don’t cook regular couscous very much, although I do make Israeli couscous (which is actually a small pasta, I think) quite a bit. Couscous is an excellent grain because it’s delicious and it cooks really quickly – you just soak it in boiling water for 8-10 minutes and it hydrates up and is ready to go. You could use either Israeli couscous or “regular” couscous in this recipe – if you use the Israeli variety, follow the cooking instructions on the package. Both kinds of couscous are readily available at Trader Joes, as well as most well-stocked grocery stores (Fred Meyer usually has it in their bulk section).
This dish also features an herb paste, which is basically a cheeseless pesto. This is one of my other complaints with vegetarian recipes, (and it is particularly prevalent in Plenty): they tend to be pretty oily. I get over this by reminding myself that I’m not eating any additional fat from meat or fish. But if you shy away from the 1/3 cup of olive oil that the dish calls for, I won’t tell anyone if you want to substitute 2 or 3 tablespoons of oil and an equal amount of water. It won’t be as flavorful, but it will still be quite good.
I added chunks of feta to make this a little more substantial. You could also add some cooked chickpeas to turn it into a main-dish salad, or you could leave it as it is to have as a simpler side salad (Sarah pointed out that this would be particularly good with a steak).
serves 4 as a main dish, more as a side
adapted from Plenty, by Yotam Ottolenghi
- 1 cup flat leaf parsley leaves, roughly chopped
- 1 cup cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
- 1/2 cup basil or mint leaves, roughly chopped (optional – I left these out and it was still great)
- 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus another tablespoon or so
- 1 teaspoon white wine vinegar or lemon juice
- 1 cup shelled pistachios
- 1 cup whole wheat or white couscous, or Israeli couscous
- 1 small red onion, sliced
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 2 cups arugula or spinach, coarsely chopped
- 1/2 cup feta cheese, loosely crumbled (optional)
- 1 cup cooked drained chickpeas (optional)
Make the herb paste: using a food processor, blender, or stick blender, pulverize the herbs, oil, a big pinch of salt, and the vinegar. Add about 1/4 cup of the pistachios and pulse until you have a rough, pesto-like paste. Taste for seasoning: it might need more salt or vinegar. Set this aside.
Prepare the couscous: if using regular couscous, place it in a large bowl that you can later use for serving and cover with 3/4 cup boiling water. Cover with a plate or plastic wrap and let sit 10 minutes, then toss with a fork to separate the grains. If using Israeli couscous, prepare per package directions. Set this aside.
Cook the onion: while the couscous is hydrating, heat a medium skillet over medium-high heat and add a tablespoon of olive oil, the sliced onion, the cumin, and a pinch of salt. Cook until the onion is browned and wilted, about 5 minutes.
Make the salad: add the herb paste to the couscous and toss to combine. Add the cooked onion, arugula, optional feta and/or chickpeas, and toss well. Taste for seasoning: it may need additional salt, vinegar, and/or olive oil. Serve immediately, or chill in the fridge for a bit to let the flavors mingle. This keeps well for several days.