Vegetable

I Hated Vegetables—Until I Befriended Vegetarians

by:
September  7, 2018
Vegetables are not friends. Photo by Alpha Smoot

I used to go days without eating a single vegetable. This was in the early 2000s when avocados and cauliflower were just gaining speed as pantry staples. Plus, at the time I was poor. Staying full was all that mattered, and fancy market vegetables just weren’t a high priority in my meat-and-rice diet, especially as I moved into my own place and started cooking for myself.

When I got my first paycheck, I bought an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven, a gorgeous mustard yellow number that I still cook everything in today. Julie & Julia had just come out, so long, slow-cooked French braises were all the rage. I also lived right next to a butcher and developed a relationship with the guy across the counter, so I’d come home with huge cuts of meat three to four times a week, which I couldn’t wait to figure out how to cook in Alfred (my Dutch oven).

Have you ever milk-braised pork shoulder with sage and lemon? It makes the whole kitchen smell like Thanksgiving, and it tastes like nothing else. As a Korean-American, I obsessed over beef short ribs, how to cook them without a lick of soy sauce: What happens with, say, vermouth? Or whole cumin seeds? Or Calabrian chilis?

I guess you could say I threw myself into cooking because I didn’t have any friends. New York can be a lonely place. Apparently Americans are getting lonelier every year, or so science says. U.S. News just called it "The Loneliness Effect," a "public health hazard." As I found myself having dinner alone every night (maybe a bachelor’s burrito or a dried-out filet mignon for one), I was stuck in this rut of bland, heavy, monochromatic cooking. It’s possible that the saturation of meat in my diet was a key player in how I felt about the world and my place within it.

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Top Comment:
“My vegetarian cooking is an all-vegetables in all-ways kind - not just beans-rice-bread, so I'm fascinated with your search for a good replacement to BetterThanBouillon chicken that involves parsnips and a Parmesan rind. For a time, when I was married with step-children I learned to cook meat to feed picky little children that I loved like my own but could not feed like they were entirely mine. BetterThanBouillon chicken became a kitchen staple that solves all recipe ills! I don't use it anymore. Try to replace the parm with tempeh which, when stewed, gives that meaty, cheesy umami depth you'd get from Parm or even BetterThanBouillon. ”
— OAKCLIFFJANE
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Eventually, I started to make friends—and most of them happened to be vegetarians. And not the vegetarians who read Jonathan Safran Foer once in college, but vegetarian vegetarians. People who had been meatless their whole lives. It helped, too, that these people tended to be dog lovers like me, so of course we got along (despite the whole eating animals thing).

Our worlds collided at dinner. As I voraciously watched Nigella Lawson throw the most extravagant (but totally easy!) parties on TV, I began to as well in my own 250–square foot home. I bought fold-up chairs and a fold-up table, which looked kind of sad until I covered it with a tablecloth, big white plates, flowers, and bottles of wine. And I cooked a lot of food without meat.

It was hard. It pushed my creativity, wounded my ego here and there as I had to confront failure after failure. Bland dish after bland dish. I had to learn how to make risottos, soups, and stews taste just as good as Julia’s—without chicken stock, or even fake chicken stock. One of my favorite ingredients in the world, to this day, is Better Than Bouillon chicken soup base, which makes everything taste like cafeteria pot pie (in the best way). They sell a vegetarian bouillabaisse, but it doesn’t taste like hours and hours of cooked-down bones and skin and fat, so what’s the point really?

Turned out, a little Parmesan rind in a vegetable broth fortified with parsnips (a trick I had learned from a test kitchen chef at work) churned out a rich, meaty broth. I used this stock in one of my signature fall dinner party dishes, an oyster mushroom and butternut squash risotto. It could feed eight people in one fell swoop—without a lick of meat. I wanted to throw dinners where you’d never even notice the lack of meat because everything was as delicious and as filling as that risotto.

As I started to gain confidence cooking vegetables, driven by a need for meals to taste as good to my vegetarian friends as they did to my meat-loving self, I realized: Vegetables aren't so bad.

More importantly, my desire to come up with full-course vegetarian meals for my friends got me thinking, “Hm, I must really like these people to be cooking like this.” Because for me, cooking had always been a selfish act, something I only did for myself because it was fun and expressive, like painting or ceramics. Stewing lamb shanks in Alfred, alone in the kitchen, was my idea of Friday evening bliss.

But cooking for my vegetarian friends felt like something else entirely. It felt like growing up.

As I started to gain confidence cooking vegetables, driven by a need for meals to taste as good to my vegetarian friends as they did to my meat-loving self, I realized: Vegetables aren't so bad.

My dinner parties as an adult are much less about pomp and circumstance, and much more about feeding the people I love most in my life, giving them comfort and pleasure. Even when there’s just one vegetarian at my table, I won't dare cook a single meat dish. There's really no need. Again, I do my best so no one even realizes the entire meal is vegetarian, and in this magicking I’ve somehow learned to appreciate vegetables myself.

There’s something to be said for being able to choose who you surround yourself with, because the things you sacrifice—like vanity, Better Than Bouillon chicken soup base, and meat—quickly become so much less important than the company.

And the wine. Vegetarians bring good wine.


Vegetables Rule

What do YOU cook for your vegetarian friends? Let us know in the comments below.

32 Comments

Talicia S. October 17, 2018
I really enjoy your articles. Very expressive. Appreciate it.
 
Marsh September 23, 2018
I host a post-Christmas gathering each December for my brother's family (sons & wives and now 3 grandkids). His sons are both vegetarian, the rest of us eat meat to varying degrees. But I never want my nephews to feel like they're "afterthoughts" to my menu. So what I do is make one meat dish but every other dish is vegetarian, with one of those veggie dishes always serving in the role of a main dish. That way, the meat is not the centerpiece, more of a side offering, and meat eater or not, nobody is left feeling deprived or "less than". Last year I made a roast chicken and a wonderful vegetarian baked ravioli along with a few other veggie sides. Of course, I know my guests' tastes well; with a different group I would likely make my menu all vegetarian.<br /><br />I remember the first year I was intentional about offering a main-dish veggie offering, and my nephews were actually thanking me for that! That was when I realized the impact that little act of thoughtfulness had for them and I've been very mindful of that in my planning ever since.
 
OAKCLIFFJANE September 21, 2018
Wow. Your writing is a delight to read and it always makes me feel far more (nostalgia, warmth, recollections that lead to far more distraction) than I ordinarily do when looking for recipes. <br />My vegetarian cooking is an all-vegetables in all-ways kind - not just beans-rice-bread, so I'm fascinated with your search for a good replacement to BetterThanBouillon chicken that involves parsnips and a Parmesan rind. <br />For a time, when I was married with step-children I learned to cook meat to feed picky little children that I loved like my own but could not feed like they were entirely mine. BetterThanBouillon chicken became a kitchen staple that solves all recipe ills! I don't use it anymore. Try to replace the parm with tempeh which, when stewed, gives that meaty, cheesy umami depth you'd get from Parm or even BetterThanBouillon.
 
Ciara M. September 13, 2018
yes please post the mushroom and butternut squash risotto recipe! i spent a few minutes trying to locate it and stalking your instagram to realize it wasn't published! as a vegetarian, i appreciate hosts who plan meals with me/my lifestyle in mind. very often, i'm an afterthought--oh, here's this side dish that i don't think has any meat in it... also, i'm a vegetarian who is bad about continually incorporating vegetables into my diet! my friends and family have jokingly and lovingly called me a pastatarian, which for all intents and purposes, i basically am. i need to up my vegetable game. thank you for the inspiration and reminder.
 
CameronM5 September 10, 2018
I read somewhere that If there’s a vegetarian at the table that Ina Garten will make her feast all vegetarian. That’s not bad company to be in.
 
Jamie September 9, 2018
Parmesan is NOT vegetarian, unless you’ve specifically sourced a vegetarian brand ...
 
Shadi H. September 9, 2018
Love this story, it's interesting how people we care about change our world and add something good to it.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 9, 2018
It's when we let them change our world that we know how we feel about them.
 
Margaret September 9, 2018
Thank you Eric I would very much appreciate it if you would print it. I just love mushrooms and we eat them at least a few times a week so any recipe with them in it is welcome, but that one especially sounds marvellous!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 9, 2018
You got it. Stay tuned.
 
Jennifer F. September 9, 2018
Wow. You definitely are selfish in your eating. Eating baby animals is truly selfish. And also all the meat is awful for your health. Hopefully you look into incorporating more plant based food into your diet if not for the trillions of innocent animals that are slaughtered every day but for your health and the planet. Animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of climate control
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 9, 2018
Hi Jennifer, have you read the entire piece?
 
Carolyn September 11, 2018
Jennifer, please read the whole article. The plant lovers in his life changed his eating... which we all know because we read the article.
 
carswell September 9, 2018
I was always a pretty good cook. I became a really good cook during the 15 years I spent with my former partner - a vegetarian. It pushed me out of my comfort zone - fast and far. <br /><br />I became well acquainted with ethnic foods and cultures that had vegetarian traditions or that didn't put meat front and centre at every meal. <br /><br />When we parted company I have since reacquainted myself with meat eating but it is still an occasional treat and far from my primary source of flavour and protein.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 9, 2018
carswell, thank you for sharing your story. I relate so much, especially the forays into other cultures' food traditions. Right now I'm in a Mediterranean cooking phase.
 
AM September 9, 2018
I hate vegetables and avoided them for countless years. Many times people have heard “ if you see me eat a vegetable, it’s because I’m dying”. Surprisingly I’m in good health. But can’t break the feeling that major harm is being done. Looking at your recepies may just be what is needed to sway me.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 9, 2018
Many cultures have survived for centuries off of rice and beans! But yes, me too. Even today I have to make a conscious effort to incorporate vegetables into my diet.
 
FraserPlant September 9, 2018
Your stories shine, and it’s always a pleasure to find a new one on the site!<br /><br />Seconding the motion to post the risotto recipe, or eve just the parm/parsnip stock?
 
FraserPlant September 9, 2018
Your stories shine, and it’s such a pleasure to find a new one on the site! <br /><br />Seconding the motion that you please post that risotto recipe. Or even just the parm rind/parsnip stock?
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 9, 2018
FraserPlant, aw thank you so much. And on it :) It’s my go-to risotto for fall dinner parties every year. Let me test/measure the stock recipe and get back to you.
 
Camille September 8, 2018
I love how caring and generous you are with your cooking, and great tip about the Parmesan rind in soup stock! PSA for all those out there, Parmesan is not vegetarian due to the use of calf rennet in cheese production. However, there are plenty of delicious vegetarian Parmesan options out there! Thank you so much for sharing your recipes & joy about cooking.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 8, 2018
Oof, good call. Thank you for pointing out.
 
Nancy September 9, 2018
FYI kosher cheese is also vegetarian bc made with non-near rennet. So that section in grocery store is another place to look.<br />Eric- another fine story 😙
 
Nancy September 9, 2018
Should read: non-meat
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 9, 2018
Oh Nancy, that’s such a great tip. Thank you both.
 
Ttrockwood September 8, 2018
Love this! Although i’m in the opposite situation where i’m the vegetarian and my friends and family are omni. In the fall and winter i like to make stuffed vegetables as an entree, bell peppers or squash with a wild rice, nuts and mushrooms stuffing and side of fluffy green salad with lots of fresh herbs. A while back i made a spread for everyone to build their own bibimbap bowls (i had made the various banchan in the days previous) and did a baked tofu as well as (not traditional) poached eggs. That was a huge hit
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 8, 2018
I love the idea of a "fluffy green salad with lots of fresh herbs." And a bibimbap dinner party? Genius.
 
Margaret September 7, 2018
I have just read Eric Kim's story about hating vegetables until he met vegetarians and although I am not a vegetarian I do love vegetables and love to try new recipes but I cannot find his recipe for Autumn Risotto with a butternut squash mantecatura anywhere. Can you help please?
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 8, 2018
Hi Margaret, I haven't published a recipe for that risotto yet, but will consider writing it up now that's you've asked!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 8, 2018
In the meantime, what about this: https://food52.com/recipes/31448-butternut-squash-and-saffron-risotto<br />https://food52.com/recipes/25811-oven-butternut-squash-risotto
 
Zozo September 7, 2018
Omg, I feel a guide to the different cultures within vegetarians coming on... <br /><br />Also I am naming my pots 😂
 
Author Comment
Eric K. September 8, 2018
Alfred's been the only constant in my life for 10 years.