My husband's family is from the Midwest and he grew up eating dinners that centered on a large piece of meat, a side of starch, and perhaps a garnish of vegetables. It has been an entertaining challenge for me to convince him that vegetarian dishes can, in fact, be delicious, satisfying, and filling. I am not a vegetarian myself (give me a good rare steak or burger any day), but I find that I feel much better when I have a few vegetarian meals each week, whether it be at lunch or dinner.
The summertime is the perfect season to test your skills at a fully vegetarian meal. The stores and markets are overflowing with colorful, fragrant fruits and vegetables. The trick to cooking vegetarian is to create a balanced meal that blends texture and umami ingredients. Balance means combining protein-packed ingredients such as beans, quinoa, nuts or tofu with lighter vegetables. The protein will help you to feel full for longer. Umami has been coined the "fifth flavor" and is considered a savory taste along with sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and saltiness. We all have receptors in our mouths that respond to glutamate; the sensation can be described as a delicious "meaty" taste with a long-lasting, mouthwatering sensation on the tongue. Ingredients such as mushrooms, certain smoked fish, and fermented Asian products like miso and soy sauce have this umami flavor that can add tremendous depth and excitement to a dish. I love using miso and tahini in sauces and dressings.
The two dishes featured in this blog post reflect this focus on balance and umami (the recipes can be found on the "Recipes" page of the site). The warm salt-and-pepper chickpeas with sauteed broccolini and lemon-tahini dressing acted as our "main course"; chickpeas are protein-heavy and easy to cook, and they married well with the creamy, bright tahini dressing. Heirloom tomatoes with fleshy yellow nectarine, chopped marcona almonds and whipped, salty feta served as our "salad" - a colorful and surprising combination of ingredients. I could not get enough of the whipped feta.
Although Eric did eat a large bowl of ice cream after this dinner, I would call it a successful weeknight vegetarian experiment. Challenge yourself to experiment with different vegetables and non-meat proteins and see what you come up with!