I used to be surprised when people told me that they didn’t know how to cook vegetarian food. Since I don’t know any other way of cooking, it was hard for me to see what the problem was. “Just don’t use meat,” I would say, but apparently this isn’t very helpful.

dont_think_about_meatSo I changed that to, “Just don’t think about the meat.” At first glance, that seems just about as unhelpful. It also has the same problem as the famous, “Don’t think about a white bear!” command (try it!). This kind of thing is called ironic processing, where you think of what you’re trying not to think of more than you would otherwise – it is responsible for the widely cited fact that men think about sex all the time (they were given a clicker and told to try not to think about sex but to click every time they did). Thus, if I say, “don’t think about meat when cooking,” you’re actually more likely to think about it.

But thinking about meat is how cooking vegetarian goes wrong. From what I understand (feeling like an anthropologist studying a foreign tribe), meat eaters place the type of flesh in the meal central in menu planning, either starting with that and building around it (we’re having chicken, what goes with that) or deciding on the type of meal and then which kind of meat version (we’re having spaghetti, what kind of meat goes in the sauce). So, when they go vegetarian, or pescatarian, or flexitarian, the same thinking applies. They are still starting with the meat, but then making a substitute for it (we’re having spaghetti, and normally we’d put ground beef in the sauce, so now we’ll put the soy stuff in, or, we’ll start with this vegetarian cutlet and add potatoes and a veg).

The problem is, by doing it this way meat is still central in the diet even when it’s not being eaten. It’s still the focal point of planning. It’s still the norm. It’s still missing. The absence is felt. And this can’t help but lead to dissatisfaction because everything is being help up to prior meat eating and being found lacking. I’ve never heard a former meat eater think even the best substitutes were better. It can also lead to dietary imbalance and dissatisfaction if people just eat around the meat.

And that’s really too bad. Vegetarian food is really yummy, when it’s not trying to be meat food without the meat. And it’s complete. As far as I know, I’ve never sent a dinner guest away hungry or feeling that something was missing, and I get lots of repeat customers. My husband and kids are well nourished and satisfied and my kids eat a wide range of things (not always without protest it must be said, but they’d be strange kids otherwise). There are just so many different kinds of food to eat, from so many food cultures. I think giving meat a central place almost gets in the way of all this variety.

So how do you cook vegetarian? The way to get around ironic processing is distraction, focusing on something else rather than the thing you’re not supposed to be thinking about. And that’s also the way to cook vegetarian. Don’t think about the meat, focus on some other ingredient and let your imagination go. It doesn’t matter what category it fits in – it could even be a spice that your mouth wants. Tonight, for example, I started with rice. I took that one ingredient, thought, hmm a casserole would be handy with the kids’ after school schedules, and so I’m making a cheesy rice and broccoli casserole. Tuesday, I started with the beets we had from our organic vegetable delivery and made borscht and cooked the (store bought) blini that were in the freezer. Another day soon I might start with the paneer that’s in the fridge and needs to be used or the pumpkin that’s been staring at me from the fruit bowl for some time. Basically, I pick an ingredient that I need to use up or that I have a hankering for and start there.

What I don’t do is worry overmuch about making sure that every food group is represented at every meal. I do try to make sure that there is overall balance in our diet, but mostly I just try to adhere to Michael Pollan’s, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” The focus on balance is often just another way to assert the focus on protein and hold the central place of meat. But protein is in many unexpected places, including vegetables. There’s been a lot of research showing that we get enough protein from a healthy vegetarian diet without even trying. So I don’t try. I do use the meat substitutes occasionally, but only if I actually like them and think they add to the meal, the same way I’d use any other ingredient. I’ve also found that I’ll occasionally have cravings for something protein rich or a dark green vegetable, and I’ll listen to that (the trick is separating those out from the “cravings” for ice cream, which shouldn’t always be listened to). But mostly I just cook what strikes my fancy.

And don’t be afraid that cooking vegetarian is much more complicated than cooking with meat. Like most things, once you’re past the initial learning phase, it’s as easy or hard as you make it. My husband gets tired of me telling people that the meal I’ve made is actually quite easy, but it’s the truth. It’s very possible to have tasty and nutritious meals on the table in 20 minutes or less. It’s also possible to spend hours putting together elaborate meals and making everything from scratch, but that’s true of any sort of cooking.

You might respond that, “Hey, Harmony, you have the advantages of a lifetime of eating vegetarian and coming from a place like Vancouver that has a plethora of yummy multicultural vegetarian food available to give you an idea of the options.” Fair enough. You do need to know about the options and that takes exposure and learning. But that’s where focusing on one ingredient comes in handy. Take that one ingredient and look for it in the index of a good vegetarian cookbook and see what comes up. There are lots of good ones out there, but my favourites are by Jeanne Lemlin, especially Simple Vegetarian Pleasures and Quick Vegetarian Pleasures. Her recipes are easy to make and delicious and she shares my perspective on vegetarian cooking (focus on yummy things, keep it simple and don’t think about the meat).

Of course, you can also just google the ingredient plus recipe or vegetarian recipe. I do this all the time, especially with things from the veggie box that are outside of my normal repertoire (like kohlrabi), or to fill out half an idea, like rice casserole.

Another interesting concept I may yet sign up for is Eat Your Books, a website where you can register the cookbooks you own and can then search them all in one online place (for more than 5 there’s a fee) – you still have to look at the recipe in your own book, but it makes finding them much easier. You can also search a bunch of food blogs and sites at the same time and save online recipes.

I also like having the organic veggie box because it gives me some boundaries for my planning – I have to use up what I’ve got. When I’m really on top of it I make a meal plan to use them all up, taking into account everyone’s schedules and when a quick meal is needed and doing the shopping ahead of time. But although I’d like it to, this certainly doesn’t happen every week.

Finally, the “don’t think about the meat” advice works even if you just want to eat less meat or explore flexitarian options. In that case, treat meat how I treat the meat substitutes, as something extra that might be added if it really adds to a dish, but something that really isn’t needed. Take it out of the starring role and make it a supporting actor in a cast of multi-talented foods. Just think about some other ingredient first.