Veg Out Chicago: restaurants, recipes and cooking

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April 22-28 is Veg Week, where people are invited to take a vegetarian challenge and eschew meat for seven days. We wanted to take this opportunity to talk about some great places to get vegetarian and vegan meals in the city, as well as share some recipes.

As a former vegetarian, I also wanted to talk a little bit about cooking in a way that doesn’t feel deprived, and doesn’t only rely on cheese for protein, because that can feel heavy, no matter how awesome cheese is. I have heard a lot of people comment on not wanting to eat/cook vegetarian or vegan meals because it feels like something is missing. The short answer to this is more lentils! The long answer is, well, keep reading for a few thoughts on satisfying meatless meals.

Dishes & Restaurants

As much as I love vegetarian-only restaurants, I think that its possible their mission might feel exclusive to vegetarians, and that shouldn’t be the case. As someone who knows vegetarian and vegan food can be just as incredible as the alternative (hello, Indian food), I think it’s great when dishes can simply stand on their own as craveble cuisine, which is why I love this Chicago Reader list: Five Favorite Vegetarian Meals at Nonvegetarian Restaurants.

The stand-out favorite from that list is the tofu Bahn Mi at Nhu Lan bakery. Not only is it dirt cheap, I have to agree with the author that what they do with tofu is “positively psycho.” Anyone who thinks of tofu as bland or a sad substitute for a burger will have a life-changing experience with this sandwich, where it is anything but: extremely flavorful, texturally substantial and as perfect a foil to jalapenos, cilantro and pickled vegetables as any of the other fillings on their menu.

An even longer list is this Eater map of Where to Feed Your Inner Herbivore, including lots of highly acclaimed, omnivorous restaurants with outstanding dishes that are vegetarian approved.

A random sampling of other great Veg Week spots:

L’Patron: Fresh and delicious tacos of many ilks, but especially impressive are the rotating veggie tacos options, which range from grilled beets with corn, poblano rajas and sautéed mushrooms with a garlicky spinach topping. Also: super cheap.

Katherine Anne Confections: For vegetarians, hot chocolate is usually no problem, but for vegans it’s another story. KAC makes an outrageously rich and amazing vegan hot chocolate with ganache and almond milk.

Mysore Woodlands: Completely vegetarian Indian restaurant on Devon Ave. My favorite here is the Malai Kofta.

Mana Food Bar: The sliders and the polenta here are great, but then so is all of their globally inspired cuisine that works with a full spectrum of produce and flavors.

Recipes: 

Notable food bloggers that cater to vegetarian and vegan palettes are not hard to come by, but it does take some investment to find someone you really trust to turn out delicious food each time.

A longtime favorite food blogger/cook book author, Isa Chandra-Moskowitz’s vegan food is consistently creative, flavorful and dynamic—always taking cues from global cuisine and techniques and publishing recipes that are as good the first bite as they are the last. I recently made these curry tofu tacos with pinto beans and kale slaw and was introduced to broiling tofu in a simple marinade. It made a huge positive difference and would be a good gateway tofu recipe for anyone who’s had a meh experience.

Everyone at moss is a huge Smitten Kitchen fanatic, and fittingly, Deb mentions on her blog that she used to be a vegetarian and a lot of her cooking reflects this. This lentil and chickpea salad (adapted from April Bloomfield) is awash with flavor from toasted and ground whole spices and preserved lemon.

Probably the best known vegetarian food blogger, Heidi of 101cookbooks is all about healthy, whole foods, and making vegetables and fruits center stage. This New Year Noodle soup is perfect for feeling under the weather, and is immensely satisfying.

Journey Kitchen is a mixture of Bohra and Indian cuisine with influences from Kuwait and all over. Not all of her site is vegetarian, but there are some great recipes on there, like this Masoor Dal with Avocado Ginger Mash. 

And should you want to cut out the grocery store altogether (well, almost), here is a very cool map of spots for urban foraging.

A few thoughts on vegetarian cooking

Making a few vegetarian meals a week is a great way to expand your repetoire, both as an eater and as a cook, plus if you are of the camp that supports non-factory farmed meat, it’s often a financial necessity since locally raised tends to be a little more expensive. Oftentimes, when meat isn’t a possiblity, vegan and vegetarian recipies end up featuring more creative applications of fresh produce from the lightness of herbs to the dense grounding of root vegetables.

Most non-meat sources of protein (where, arguably, the heft of the meal lies) are far lower in fat than their meat counterparts, so it’s often necessary to use the artful application of oils, butters, nuts, avocados and/or dairy products to bring out the applied flavors. This is where learning some amazing sauce recipes and preparation techniques come in, to make sure there is enough fat, and to build flavor. For instance, try broiling tofu to concentrate flavors, or marinating tempeh and then draping in a flavorful sauce, like this.

Beyond soy foods like tofu and tempeh, lentils, beans and legumes are great sources of protein that can be super simple or super fancy, and usually feel more nourishing than just pasta and cheese. Look to global cuisine to find inspiration, and look to universal cooking techniques to elevate your treatment of vegetables to new heights; try braising fennel or leeks, for instance. And since meat products like sausages often contain lots of flavor layering in the form of spices and herbs, smoked and then intensified with pan-frying, think about how interesting flavors and textures can be achieved with other sources. Caramelized onions, smoky olives, bitter greens, crisp fennel and pickled vegetables all add dimension to any recipe, and gives you an excuse to raid the perimeter of your grocery store this week and beyond.