Q & A: Martha Rose Shulman Shares the Simple Art of Vegetarian Cooking

Martha Rose Shulman shines in her latest book, The Simple Art of Vegetarian Cooking. Her hope is that her recipes are accessible to a wide range of cooks and we can assure you they are!  From soups and salads to stir-fries and savory pies, Martha offers readers a simple and easy method for creating delicious plant-based meals to satisfy any palate. With 100 dishes to choose from, readers can whip up wonderful vegetarian meals every day. Martha was kind enough to take some time and talk with us and today we share her insights with all of you.


OLDWAYS:  What came first, your love of food or love of writing?
MARTHA:  I have always loved both, but I probably knew I would write before I knew I would make a career out of my passion for cooking. I was in a sense a writer in search of a subject. But I began my career in food not as a writer but as a teacher of vegetarian cooking, an operator of a Supper Club (in the ‘70s! way ahead of its time) and a caterer – so in that sense, cooking came first. But as soon as I had a good collection of recipes, I sat down and wrote my first cookbook, The Vegetarian Feast.

OLDWAYS:  Your latest book, The Simple Art of Vegetarian Cooking, is one of 28 books that you have written.  How has your way of cooking and eating evolved since you began writing?
MARTHA:  My cooking has become more streamlined, simpler, since I wrote my first books. There are many more ingredients in my earlier recipes. Also, I’ve become more knowledgeable about food – living in Paris for 12 years and traveling extensively in the Mediterranean didn’t hurt – and that is much more evident in my later books.

OLDWAYS:  Can you talk with us about what you call “templates,” the bases for many of your dishes and how they have helped streamline your cooking?

MARTHA:  I realized, writing 5 recipes a week for my Recipes for Health column on the New York Times website, that I used the same method and basic ingredients for several categories of dishes – risottos, gratins, frittatas etc. – and that this could be codified. And I have also thought about the fact that there is no language for the vegetarian main dish. So I broke down main dish recipes into the chapters you see in The Simple Art of Vegetarian Cooking, and created templates for the types of recipes. I also provided building block recipes – vegetable preparations like seasoned greens, peperonata, mushroom ragout, that can be used interchangeably in many of the different types of main dishes. This means that a cook can have an idea about the type of dish she wants to make for dinner, and know how to make it; then it’s just a question of what vegetables the dish will be a vehicle for. Or, taken from the other direction, a cook can impulse-buy a beautiful bunch of greens at the farmers market, with the confidence that she will be able to use the greens in a main dish, be it a stir-fry, pasta, risotto or frittata.

OLDWAYS:  What do you see as the biggest challenges people face when they try to transition to a more plant-based eating style?  And what might you recommend to help someone ease this transition?

MARTHA:  I think the biggest challenge is exactly what I’m addressing in The Simple Art of Vegetarian Cooking, and that is the main dish. People are very used to a hunk of protein being the main dish. I think people like one-word answers for “what’s for dinner;” carnivores are happy with “chicken,” no matter how it’s going to be prepared. But “kale” doesn’t cut it. However “risotto” does; or “kale risotto.”

OLDWAYS:  We realize there are so many to choose from but can you let us share one of your recipes with out readers?
MARTHA:  I would love to!

Stir-Fried Noodles with Tofu, Okra, and Cherry Tomatoes
VEGAN WITHOUT THE EGGS / MAKES 4 SERVINGS
A stir-fry is a good home for okra because you cook it so quickly that there's no time for slime to emerge. It's nice and crunchy and complements the cherry tomatoes beautifully. But seek out the smallest okra you can find, as large okra need more time than they'll get in the wok.

Make the Stir-Fried Rice Noodles template (below this recipe) with the following additional ingredients and specifications:

Ingredients:
1 pound small okra
Salt
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1/2 pound firm tofu, drained, and cut into 2 x 3/4 x 1/4-inch dominoes
Additional 2 teaspoons peanut, sunflower, or grapeseed oil
Additional 11/2 teaspoons soy sauce
3/4 pound cherry tomatoes (about 1 pint)

Directions:
1. Trim the stems off the okra, making sure not to expose the seeds, and place in a large bowl. Salt generously, douse with the vinegar, and let sit for 15 to 30 minutes. Drain the okra and rinse thoroughly. Dry on paper towels. Place the tofu on paper towels and place paper towels on top to blot.

2. Meanwhile, proceed with Steps 1 through 3 of the template recipe.

3. After cooking the eggs, swirl in the 2 teaspoons oil by adding it to the sides of the wok and swirling the wok. Add the tofu, let sear in the wok for 30 seconds, then stir-fry until lightly browned, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the 11/2 teaspoons soy sauce, toss for another few seconds, and remove to a plate.

4. In Step 4, after stir-frying the garlic mixture, add the okra and stir-fry for 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and stir-fry for another minute, until the tomatoes begin to collapse. Continue with the stir-fry, adding the tofu with the egg strips and cilantro and stir-frying another 30 seconds to a minute, until well combined.

ADVANCE PREPARATION: You can prepare the okra through Step 1 several hours ahead. See the Stir-Fried Rice Noodles template below for advance preparation notes.

VARIATION:
You can omit either the tofu or the eggs. You will need less oil and soy sauce if you omit the tofu.

Stir-Fried Rice Noodles
VEGAN WITHOUT THE EGGS / MAKES 4 SERVINGS
Rice noodles are delicate and light, and especially welcome to those who are gluten intolerant. They are usually packed in bunches in 14-ounce packages, and removing the amount you need from the package can result in a mess of broken noodles on your floor and counter. Take advice from my stir-fry guru, Grace Young, and hold the noodles above a paper shopping bag when you do this.

The noodle stir-fry template isn't very different from the stir-fried rice template. The step that corresponds to cooking rice ahead is a 20-minute soak for the noodles. I use eggs, vegetables, and very often tofu in my noodle stir-fries, just as I do with stir-fried rice.

You really need a wok for this, and tongs are the tool to use to toss the noodles; either that or two spoons or spatulas

Ingredients:
7 ounces thin rice stick noodles (1/2 of a 14-ounce package)
1/2 cup vegetable stock
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon Shao-hsing rice wine or dry sherry
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes; 1 to 2 teaspoons minced fresh green chile; or 1 to 2 teaspoons hot chile paste, such as sambal oelek
2 eggs, beaten
Salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons plus 2 tablespoons peanut oil, sunflower oil, or grapeseed oil
Prepared vegetable(s) of your choice
1/2 to 1 cup coarsely chopped cilantro (can include stems); plus optional additional sprigs for garnish

Directions:
1. Place the noodles in a large bowl and cover with warm water. Soak for at least 20 minutes, until soft. Drain in a colander and, using kitchen scissors, cut into 6-inch lengths (it's easier to stir-fry the noodles if they're cut). Set aside within reach of your wok.

2. Combine the stock, soy sauce, and rice wine or sherry in a small bowl. Combine the garlic, ginger, and pepper flakes or minced chile in another bowl. (If using chile paste, add it to the stock mixture.) Beat the eggs in a bowl and season with a pinch of salt. Combine 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt and the sugar in another bowl. Prepare the other ingredients and place in separate bowls within arm's reach of your wok.

3. Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok over high heat until a drop of water evaporates within a second or two when added to the wok. Swirl in 2 teaspoons of the oil by adding it to the sides of the wok and swirling the wok. Make sure that the bottom of the wok is coated with oil and add the eggs, swirling the pan so that the eggs form a thin pancake. Cook until set, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Using a spatula, turn the pancake over and cook until thoroughly set, 5 to 10 more seconds. Transfer to a plate or cutting board and allow to cool. Roll up or fold in half and cut into 1/4-inch-wide by 2-inch-long strips. Set aside. (You can also beat each egg separately and cook two pancakes, which will yield more strips of beaten egg.)

4. Swirl the remaining 2 tablespoons oil into the wok and add the garlic mixture. Stir-fry no more than 10 seconds and add the vegetables. Stir-fry for 1 to 2 minutes (depending on the vegetables). Add the noodles and the stock mixture. Reduce the heat to medium and stir-fry until the noodles are just tender, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the egg strips, salt and sugar, and chopped cilantro and stir-fry until well combined, another 30 seconds to 1 minute. Serve, garnished with cilantro sprigs if desired.

NOTE: If you want to make vegan versions of any of the stir-fried rice noodle recipes, omit the eggs. You can sear tofu (about 6 ounces, cut into cubes) if you want to substitute another protein.

ADVANCE PREPARATION: The softened noodles will keep for 2 or 3 days in the refrigerator. After soaking, drain and toss with a couple of teaspoons of sesame oil or the oil you're using for the stir-fry and refrigerate in a covered bowl.

SUBSTITUTIONS AND ADDITIONS: This is neither Chinese nor Southeast Asian, but I love soba noodles and often use them in my stir-fries. Substitute 8 ounces soba noodles for the rice noodles. See the directions for cooking soba on page 48. Toss the cooked noodles with a couple of teaspoons of sesame oil and set aside. Proceed with the recipe.
 

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