Bridge the Meat/Non-Meat Gap with Peter Berley's Flexitarian Cookbook Now in Paperback
All photos: © Quentin Bacon, reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
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The Flexitarian Table (Paperback) By Peter Berley, 304 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $19.95
To Peter Berley, "flexitarianism" is really about being a good omnivore. He didn't coin the term, but since publishing his seminal veg-friendly cookbook, The Flexitarian Table, in 2007, he's been carrying the term around like a happy, if sometimes pesky, monkey. "Flexitarian isn't my word," the author says. "I read that word, and I was like, 'Yeah, that's kind of what I've been doing,' and people ask me all the time, 'Are you a flexitarian,' and I'm like, 'Well, yeah. I'm a flexible person.' I'm flexible. I'm really into the world; I'm into eating everything; that's what keeps me happy and alive. Does that make me a flexitarian? I guess."
Berley has made a career of cooking and writing about plant-based foods. He helmed the burners at vegan favorite Angelica Kitchen (300 East 12th Street, 212-228-2909) for years, before moving on to the (dearly departed) Culinary Loft. Now you can catch him at the North Fork Kitchen and Garden on Long Island, where he teaches gardening and cooking workshops and classes.
He's also working on an exciting new project on the Lower East Side, so look out for that in the coming months, and we'll post more details as soon as we have them... But first, a few words on Flexitarian, which comes out in paperback today and offers exciting, thoughtful menus that transcend the age-old animal question of carnivore versus herbivore.
Slow-cooked shanks of lamb... or beans... With escarole and white wine. With polenta.
What is one of the oldest recipes in this book, and where did you find it? I would have to say a tofu ceviche. I was messing around with a lot of these tofu [dishes] at Angelica in the early 1990s. So I wanted to do a recipe that you could use the same flavor profile and exactly the same ingredients, and apply it to tofu and apply it to a whitefish. And it's interesting, because [the one in the book] uses seaweed, which is sort of an obvious thing to do, but not that many people do it. And tofu and seaweed go together often.
What is one bit of advice you'd give to someone who wants to bridge the gap between meat-eaters and vegetarians in a single dish? One thing that's really important is to consider the weight of food, in terms of how you experience a dish. Is it light? Is it heavy? Is it rich? Is it lean, bright, dark? You need to think about what you are trying to achieve. And that's not about the ingredients so much as their effect in your menu. Some of the flexitarian things just seem very obvious: You just swap out tofu for chicken...There's nothing too extraordinary about that to me. And that's fine, that's valid, there's nothing wrong with doing that.
The other thing you can do is give a menu experience that's similar to people who do and don't eat meat. So it's not like you're serving a different dinner, but for instance, [in the book], there's a menu that has baby stuffed eggplant and lamb. There's a whole variety of dishes there, the sum of which gives you a similar experience, and if you're not eating meat, you're very satisfied.
So I think it's important to start with that as the first step: How can I make someone feel very satisfied with this meal. There has to be enough there to feel that. I do a goat cheese and red onion frittata, and that's in the same meal as lamb chops. And the goat cheese frittata, it's got heft, it's got some shape to it, it's got something that is satisfying in a way in which the lamb chop may be satisfying to the meat eater. It's fatty, rich, savory, all that. There's also this white bean dish with brown butter. I do this herbed garlic brown butter, that when you toss it with white beans, it's so satisfying. I have it with polenta, and you can do it with seafood instead. And it's like, it's so similar: the shrimp, and the white beans. It's not that you're swapping a vegetarian protein like tempeh or seitan; it's a bean. But it's a bean that's being treated in a really interesting way. That's one really successful example, and it's really easy to do.
Any New York restaurants you like to visit that are especially flexitarian-friendly? ABC Kitchen, really. They're doing a great job. It's approachable food, it's not weird, and they have a great respect for vegetables and plants.
What is your best winter ingredient and one recipe you like to use it in? Root vegetables; any root vegetable. I'm really into rutabagas, and there's a really easy way to make them. Just peel and boil them and make a spiced oil or a spiced butter. Rutabagas are spicy anyway, and they can take a lot of punch from seasoning. So I love to take carraway and cayenne and smoked paprika and garlic and sizzle that all together for like a minute in some butter or oil, and crush your rutabaga with that. They can take a lot of heat. And celery root. I love celery root.
One thing I love to do with root vegetables is to cut them into slabs, and parboil them in salted water for a few minutes, get them par-cooked, and cook them on a griddle, or la plancha style, put them over really high heat and sort of char the surface. You can't grill a root vegetable on its own. You can try, but it's usually pretty bad. You have to par-cook it first. That starts to breakdown the cell walls and season the food. Then when you cook it in a hot pan or griddle, you're going to suck out the moisture, and it'll get this very meaty, satisfying texture, and you're going to get a lot of flavor because the water's coming off of it. As opposed to roasting, which has a similar effect. But I kind of like this better. You can really make vegetables come alive like that.
How has flexitarian cooking/eating changed in the seven years since this book was first published? It's everywhere. At the time [in 2007], people didn't take a meatless meal seriously, they couldn't get behind that. There's been somewhat of a paradigm shift. It's not uncommon at all now for restaurants to have very cool vegetarian dishes. If you were a vegetarian before, and you walked into a restaurant, you'd just get the pasta or the vegetable, and that's that. There just wasn't anything out there; it was a pain in the ass before. Someone would say they were a vegetarian and people would be like, "Eeew. I have to deal with that now?" It was an irritating inconvenience for someone to say, "I don't eat meat." Like, then what? People made fun of it, and people looked down on it. Vegetarians were sort of considered not serious people in a way. I'm exaggerating a bit here, but it exists. It's out there. So things have definitely changed since 2007. It's like the doors have been blown off. The whole world has changed. And Flexitarian Table, and the other things I've done, are just one tiny reflection of that change.
What is one approachable, quick recipe you can make at home without a whole lot of prep or trouble? The sauerkraut with fried tempeh, that's a good one.
Sauerkraut with smoked whitefish...Or fried tempeh.
Sauerkraut with Fried Tempeh/Smoked Whitefish, Green Apples, and Onions Serves 4: 2 Servings with Tempeh, 2 Servings with Fish
I owe the inspiration for this dish to my dear friend Paul Vandewoude, a marvelous chef from Belgium and the proprietor of New York's charming Miette Culinary Studio.
A jar of sauerkraut from a natural food store will be tastier and have a better texture than the pouches of cabbage sold as sauerkraut in most supermarkets. Look for sauerkraut made only with cabbage, salt, and water -- no vinegar or preservatives. Avoid the canned stuff. Smoked paprika and smoked sea salt (see below) give the tempeh a great smokiness, but just one of these ingredients would do the trick.
Note: This recipe calls for two pans for the two proteins -- if you double the fish or tempeh and exclude the other, use just one large pan.
TEMPEH 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 8 ounces tempeh, sliced crosswise into 8 pieces ½ cup dry white wine 1 teaspoon sweet Spanish smoked paprika ¾ teaspoon smoked sea salt or regular sea salt or kosher salt
SAUERKRAUT 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter 3 cups thinly sliced onions ½ cup diced peeled carrot ½ cup diced celery 1 large Granny Smith apple, peeled cored, and diced 1 teaspoon caraway seeds 1 cup dry white wine 2 cups sauerkraut, rinsed and drained 1 whole smoked whitefish (or 1 pound kippers), sliced crosswise into 3-inch chunks 2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley or dill
FOR THE TEMPEH: In a medium skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the tempeh and cook for 2 minutes on each side. Add the wine, paprika, and salt, bring to a boil, and simmer until all the wine has been absorbed, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from the heat.
FOR THE SAUERKRAUT: Divide the butter between two medium saucepans and melt it over medium heat. Add half of the onions, carrot, celery, apple, and caraway seeds to each pan and cook, stirring, until the vegetables are tender, 8 to 10 minutes.
Divide the wine between the pans, bring to a boil, and cook until it has reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Stir half the sauerkraut and ¼ cup water into each pan and simmer for 3 to 4 minutes.
Lay the tempeh over the vegetables in one pan and the fish over the vegetables in the other. Cover the pans and simmer for 5 to 7 minutes. Add half of the parsley or dill to each pan and simmer for 1 more minute, then serve.
Where There's Smoke...
...there's flavor. When you harness smoke, its primal, meaty flavor deepens the whole dish. And you can smoke just about anything, from a chunk of bacon to a chicken breast to a cube of pressed tofu.
Smoked tofu is just what it sounds like, a convenient packaged food with a firm, smooth, chewy texture and a pleasantly smoky flavor. Look for it in natural food stores and in Chinese markets, but be sure to read the ingredients and avoid any that are seasoned with MSG. Other meatless ingredients with a smoky flavor include roasted peppers, smoked cheeses such as cheddar or Gouda, chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, Spanish smoked paprika, and even smoked salt. Smoked paprika and smoked sea salt are available in gourmet markets and online at www.zingermans.com.
Several varieties of smoked sea salt are available from www.maineseasalt.com.
Excerpted from THE FLEXITARIAN TABLE, © 2007 by Peter Berley. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
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