Vegetarianism: what comes to mind when you read that word? A diet without any meat, certainly, but what does that entail? Do you imagine a diet of salads instead of stews and tofu instead of steak? Do you think of your favorite meaty entree—lasagna or tacos—with the meat removed? Or maybe you are vegetarian and you think of all the varied and interesting dishes that make up your diet.
As an omnivore, it is easy for me to jump to the conclusion that a vegetarian diet is a diet with many of my favorite foods removed from it, but this would be a vast misrepresentation of what a vegetarian diet has the potential to be. People choose to be vegetarian for many different reasons, but whether it is for health or ethical reasons, it leads to the same thing: placing a specific limitation on what one can eat. But instead looking at this limitation as something that leads to a duller diet with less variety, I believe that it is important that we look at it as exactly the opposite.
Ever heard of the book Gadsby: Champion of Youth? It is a short novel by Ernest Vincent Wright in which the letter “e” is never used. Now, you might be wondering why someone would want to do such a thing, and make an already difficult task—writing a novel—even more difficult? Well, it’s pretty simple: for the challenge. By placing this limitation on his writing, Wright forced himself to expand his vocabulary, find new and more interesting ways of saying things, and make what might have been a very ordinary novel anything but. I think that vegetarianism does a similar thing in the context of food. Taking meat out of your diet forces you to do what I am always trying to do in my cooking, which is to step outside the box, to seek out new ingredients, and new ways of doing things.
Now, of course, I realize that vegetarians generally don’t choose to be so simply for the sake of challenging themselves—as I said, there are a lot of reasons to become vegetarian—but the resulting challenge accounts for some of the most interesting foods we eat. If no one had ever decided to remove meat from their diet, would we have all the delicious vegetarian dishes that we have today? It’s doubtful. And imagining a world without vegetarian cuisine is as dreadful as imagining a world without Chinese, Italian, or French cuisine—a bland culinary world indeed.
This little exploration of vegetarianism was inspired by the Vegetarian Gumbo I made for dinner recently. The recipe came from the lovely 101 Cookbooks blog, in a post about a month ago. (And on a quick side note, if you haven’t checked out this blog, you really should! Heidi’s recipes are perfect examples of how wonderful vegetarian cuisine can be.) This recipe really showcases the kind of creativity in cooking that a vegetarian diet inspires. It takes many of the traditional elements of gumbo—making the roux, slowly stewing the ingredients, finishing with the file—and then adds a twist to make this a meatless, but fully balanced meal.
The change, of course, comes in the addition of protein, traditionally chicken, shrimp, and/or sausage. It would have been easy to toss in some beans, or maybe even tofu (though the thought makes me cringe a little), but instead, Heidi has you poach eggs in the gently simmering gumbo. The result is a warm, earthy stew surrounding a rich poached egg, creating the ideal dinner for a cold winter night.
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