How to Create Satisfying Plant-Based Meals

Use chef-inspired advice to make satisfying, creative vegetable-based meals—no meat required!

| May/June 2015

  • Redefine the typical meal by serving vegetables as the main dish.
    Photo by iStock

When we think of the typical American meal, we likely think about one built around meat: A steak, potatoes and salad; chicken, rice and broccoli; or salmon, carrots and quinoa. No matter what foods we enjoy, a meat main dish is usually the star, vegetables and grains the supporting cast—even vegetarians can fall into this trap, searching for meat substitutes to be front and center. Yet vegetables offer a wider range of flavors and textures than meat, and with creative cooking techniques, they can replace meat as the backbone of meals. Along with the health benefits of consuming more—and a wider variety of—plants, eating plant-based meals is lighter on the environment and more affordable than eating protein-based meals.

Vegetable-Based Recipes

Mexican Corn & Quinoa Soup
Moroccan Squash Tagine
Grilled Vegetable Sformato

Everything in Balance

While we might think of meat and potatoes as conventional eating, Lenny Russo, owner and chef of Heartland Restaurant and Farm Direct Market in St. Paul, Minnesota, says eating mainly vegetables is actually a turn toward tradition in many cuisines. “I’m from an Italian immigrant family,” he says. “We ate mostly vegetables­—meat was an addition. At home, on any given night, I might be eating vegan—not because I don’t eat meat, but because that’s how Italians cook.”

Before the advent of industrial food, meat was harder to come by and more expensive than vegetables, noodles and bread, so meat was often used as a luxurious addition, not as the major source of calories in a meal. Plus, plant foods offer the most excitement, Russo says. “Meat doesn’t have a wide range of flavors—not the way vegetables range from sweet to bitter. We need vegetables to make meat taste good.”

To maximize vegetable flavors and textures, we can tray various cooking techniques. While steaming is perfect if you want a crunchy vegetable to accentuate fatty meats and sauces, when vegetables are the star we might want them to taste sweeter (try oven-roasting) or heartier (aim for a smoky flavor). “We like applying a technique [to vegetables] that you think of for meat,” says Kate Jacoby, co-owner with her husband, Richard Landau, and pastry chef of Vedge in Philadelphia. “We do a smoked carrot Reuben where we lightly roast carrots, coat them in pastrami spice, then grill them over wood smoke for a steaky, meaty flavor.” Didi Emmons, caterer and author of Vegetarian Planet, loves roasting vegetables. “I just toss them with garlic, olive oil and salt, and roast; then put them on anything from pasta to pizza to salad. Let them speak for themselves or you might ruin the flavor.”

The best dishes incorporate layers of texture and flavor. “In each dish, I try to wake up all your senses—with creamy, roasty and crunchy textures; hot, room temperature and cold temperatures; and salty, sour and sweet tastes—all in balance,” says Aaron Woo, owner and chef of Natural Selection in Portland, Oregon. Think about pickling vegetables to bring acidity to dishes, puréeing them to make a flavorful sauce, frying them to lend crunch or baking them to bring out a meaty texture. Because veggies are so lean, sauces can help give them rich qualities and make them feel more like a main dish, Emmons says. She tops hers with everything from romesco and harissa sauces to pestos and tapenades.

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