I’ll admit it: I’ve been guilty of thinking vegetarianism is a form of culinary abstinence. There are very, very good reasons for quitting meat, but it comes at the cost of some of the greatest traditions in gastronomy. No more steak? No more charcuterie or fried chicken or soup dumplings or cheeseburgers? When I read vegetarian cookbooks, I always nod along, thinking, Okay, but I’m going to add chicken stock and bacon to all of this.
But what if I’m missing the point? What if vegetarian cooking isn’t about giving something up, but refocusing your attention? Consider it from a creative standpoint: when writers or artists hit a roadblock, they’re advised to put constraints on their work to get back in the groove: paint with only a couple colors; write the same thing in half the words. Why not do the same with your cooking?
So for a 2017 kitchen reboot, I turned to two vital cookbooks in the vegetarian canon: The Greens Cookbook by Deborah Madison with Edward Espe Brown (1987), and A Modern Way to Eat by Anna Jones (2015). Despite being published almost thirty years apart, these books have a lot in common. Both represent the absolute zenith of hip vegetarian eating of their eras. Both attempt to formulate a model of vegetarian cooking separate from carnivorous traditions. Both espouse a luxurious vegetarian ethos and contain indulgent recipes that are friendly with dairy and good olive oil. Very few sacrifices here.
Let’s start with Greens, a restaurant cookbook. Deborah Madison, like several other notable Bay Area chefs of her generation, is an alumna of Chez Panisse. And when the San Francisco Zen Center opened its restaurant Greens in 1979, she was its chef. Madison took the philosophy of Chez Panisse—fresh, local ingredients prepared with classic techniques and extreme attention to detail—and filtered it through the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. The result was a restaurant that David Kamp described in The United States of Arugula as “the culmination of a move away from joyless vegetarianism that had begun in the early seventies.”
In The Greens Cookbook, Madison defines the restaurant’s food as “a cuisine whose complexity and interest left the diner feeling that nothing was missing.” The recipes show a great variety: drawing on international cuisines—Indian, Mediterranean, and Mexican are all represented—and showing off the Bay Area’s agricultural advantages by putting unusual lettuces, herbs, and mushrooms to work. She leans heavily on classical restaurant technique to achieve depth of flavor, body, and texture, which means dishes are occasionally complicated (and occasionally contain quite a bit of butter).
There’s a meticulousness to The Greens Cookbook that reflects Madison’s restaurant background. Everything is done with purpose: the chapter on soups, for example, has a lengthy treatise on stocks and broths that describes the effect everything from onions to green beans to nutritional yeast will have on a stock. (She gives salads, pastas, pizzas, and sandwiches the same attention.) There are appendices on menus, wine pairings, ingredient information, and kitchen tools. It’s an incredibly thorough and educational cookbook, ideal for someone who’s already a good cook, but wants to become a better vegetarian one.
Greens can feel dated at times. Like many vintage cookbooks, there’s no photography. I suspect it would feel even more dated if there were photos—the eighties were not a great time for food styling—but it’s a notable absence. The level of cooking vocabulary is decidedly pre-Food Network; Madison often asks for vegetables to be cut into “small squares” or “narrow matchsticks” instead of using brunoise or julienne. There is an eighties affection for trends like balsamic vinegar, blanched almonds, and foods of the American Southwest. And it’s a product of a different age of vegetarianism—it’s not without its nut loaf moments.
Still, much of the food in Greens feels modern. The recipes have a dedication to bright colors and fresh ingredients that’s common in today’s cooking. Dishes like a fennel, blood orange, and salt-cured black olive salad, a luxurious wild mushroom ragout, or an artichoke and fresh herbs tart would feel on trend in a hip restaurant in 2017.
Or, actually, in Anna Jones’s A Modern Way to Eat. While its title supposes a contemporary novelty to the meat-free diet, Modern has more in common with Greens than not. But the world of vegetarian food has gotten much bigger over the past thirty years, and today’s readers are much more familiar with vegetarian options than they were in 1987. Jones has access to an incredible variety of trendy ingredients like quinoa, chia seeds, and exotic nut oils, and she uses these ingredients to incorporate as much variety into her recipes as possible. To that end, A Modern Way to Eat has over two hundred recipes. (Many cookbooks have closer to one hundred.) On top of that, there are choose-your-own-adventure flowchart guides to inventing soups, smoothies, pastas, and “Vegetable Underdogs: What to Do With All the Weird Stuff.” She offers ten variations on avocado toast. Ten! And none of them are just, you know, Put avocado on toast.
Jones is from London, and thus her cookbook is written in the quaint conversational tone common in UK cookbooks. She repeatedly encourages you to be “brave” with flavor, and longer cooking processes are punctuated with breaks for a cup of tea. She draws on Indian and Californian influences, but more often than not the recipes are clever riffs on basic vegetable preparations. I made her roasted beets over lentils, a bitter greens salad with a remarkably tasty tahini-maple dressing, and a puréed cardamom squash soup. All were delicious, if a bit more work than they appeared at a glance. Another thing Modern has in common with Greens: the most complex preparations make for the most delicious dishes.
That’s the key. Vegetarian cooking, at least how it is practiced by Madison and Jones, is about layering and nuance: in their successful dishes, like Jones’s roasted beets and lentils, or Madison’s mushroom ragout, I could taste every flavor and every step that went into the dish. There are no cheats, no shortcuts. Bacon can’t cover everything in smoke and pork fat; chicken stock can’t buoy the texture.
In that sense, this sort of vegetarian cooking is more refined than my typical, brutish carnivore diet. It’s purposeful and thoughtful; each flavor is present in the end result. And while I’ll probably never give up meat entirely, that’s the lesson I’m taking away from this exercise. Sometimes you have to remove a bully like meat from the conversation in order to hear what everything else is trying to say.