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How To Be a Vegetarian, the Midwestern Way

August  1, 2017

What does Midwestern vegetarian food look like? That’s the question Indiana native Shelly Westerhausen asks herself in her new cookbook, Vegetarian Heartland. Westerhausen quit meat at the age of 12, and has been feeling out her own vegetarian cuisine through cookbooks, traveling, and exploring the farmers market ever since.

“Most Midwesterners don’t understand why anyone would give up eating meat,” she writes. I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, a city whose liberal reputation ensured there were plenty of vegetarians around. But sometimes vegetarianism seemed a little exotic even there: I have distinct memories of my grandmother setting a bowl of hardboiled eggs next to my vegetarian sister at the dinner table, anxious she wasn’t getting enough protein.

But Westerhausen finds plenty of meat-free inspiration in the Midwest, and largely stays within the existing structure of of heartland cooking to do so. “Although we’ve removed the meat from our plates,” she writes, “we have maintained that essential practice of eating off the land that has been the basis of Midwestern cuisine.” Informed by traditional comfort food, her recipes are seasonal, vibrant odes to a too-often overlooked part of the country.

With a Midwestern practicality that has an eye to budget and weeknight time constraints, Westerhausen starts off by setting up an equation for vegetarian meals. She starts with a base (grains, pasta, bread) and adds a seasonal vegetable, protein, and “flavor boosters” like herbs, citrus, spices, or dressing. It’s a recognizable formula these days, but Westerhausen makes it her own by filtering it through the traditions and flavors of the Midwest.

For summer, she dives into her Midwestern arsenal and comes up with dishes like polenta-coated zucchini fries with harissa aioli, spicy, honey-glazed peach panzanella, and these wild rice veggie sliders with herbed ricotta. These are flavors that are not unfamiliar to my Wisconsin-trained eye, and would be at home at plenty of potlucks or backyard barbecues.

Westerhausen provides tips for vegetarian camping, brunch, snow days, and even hosting the holidays (not for the faint of heart), all through a Midwestern lens. It’s a cookbook that rings true to the seasonal heartbeat of that part of the country, and it just happens to skip the meat. Don’t tell my grandmother, but I don’t think even she would miss it.

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