Art and the Zen of Japanese Cooking

Veganism is burgeoning across the globe, gaining traction at an exponential pace. Still in its infancy, the movement was seen as a niche trend a mere decade ago, and the word itself was coined relatively recently in 1944. That’s not to say that the concept of plant-based cooking is a new idea; Japanese Buddhist monks were well ahead of the curve, abstaining from the act of killing animals for human consumption for many centuries. Shojin Ryori is the art of zen cooking, a plant-based approach to simple preparations, with expert attention to quality, wholesomeness, and flavor.

Shojin” originally connoted a type of zeal in pursuing an enlightened state of mind. Breaking down the word further, “sho” means “to focus,” and “jin” means “advance forward along the way.” It’s the relentless pursuit bettering one’s self that drives the cuisine forward. Over time, shojin ryori’s health benefits and meticulous, artistic presentation contributed to Japan’s approach to fine dining, kaiseki.

Believed to cloud the spirit and interfere with meditation, the avoidance of flesh demonstrates respect for all life, which extends to an appreciation for plant life as well. In appreciation for their sacrifice, all parts of the plant are used. Things that we might throw away like cucumber peels or carrot tops are vital parts of the equation. Emphasizing the importance of every scrap, nothing goes to waste.

Additionally, unlike modern vegetarian food in Japan, shojin ryori dishes don’t contain garlic or onion, which are considered too pungent. Instead, natural flavor is drawn out through careful seasoning and gentle cooking processes. This is why shiitake mushrooms, concentrated sources of umami and tanmi, have been the critical backbone of countless zen dishes.

Beyond their Japanese origins, these same principles can be applied to western cuisine with great success, too. Take Italian minestrone, for example. Devised as a way to make the most of any scraps that might be on hand, this brothy soup is light and refreshing, yet wholly satisfying thanks to a rich palate of deep flavors, varied textures, vibrant colors, and ample umami. Since the exact components are flexible, it’s easy to bend the formula further to accommodate these zen principles.

Call it fusion if you must, but my shojin minestrone is in a different category from the typically overwrought, inelegant attempt at dumbing down Asian dishes to make them more palatable to hapless diners across the globe. Rather, by starting with potent Sugimoto dried shiitake, it takes the true essence of zen cooking to amplify ingredients found farther afield. Starting with a stock bolstered by the water used to rehydrate the mushrooms, you get all the tanmi properties infused into the liquid, along with the meaty texture of the caps.

Unique to Donko shiitake, this particular variety has a much thicker cap and tender stem, which means that every part of the mushroom can be chopped and added to the stew for a completely waste-less preparation. Forest-grown in Kyushu, a Southern island of Japan, they contains the largest amounts of Guanylate, which creates a much more intense savory flavor.

Buddhist monks were hip to the meatless movement long before it ever had a name. The wisest way to honor their innovation is to keep it alive, and keep innovating with their discoveries in mind.

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Finger Licking Good

Growing up, my family was never much for fast food. My parents weren’t food snobs or health nuts, they just saw the value in a sit-down meal at a casual restaurant if we were going to eat out. There were certainly sporadic trips to golden arches on occasion, especially during road trips where alternative options were few and far between. There were no forbidden foods, no deprivation, no unmet cravings; I just never really developed a taste for it.

Only later as an adult did I really come to appreciate the art of fried chicken. Of course, I was already vegan by then, having never sampled the original animal. Though it wasn’t a rule, the only thing that my mom could not abide was a trip to KFC. Emotionally scarred by a hot, greasy summer flipping the bird back as one of her first part-time jobs in her youth, we never paid Colonel Sanders a visit. The details she shared were few and far between, but it’s not hard to imagine how that kind of gig could turn someone against such deep fried delicacies.

I’m still leery of it, not so much for the health aspect, but for the heat, mess, and waste. It’s already sweltering here in central Texas, and it will only get worse. The last thing I need is to steam up the kitchen while redecorating the walls with oily splatter. No thanks! This sounds like a job for the air fryer.

Taking everyone’s favorite, most versatile vegetable, cauliflower stars in this classic comfort food. Coated in a light, crisp batter infused with eleven herbs and spices, the secret formula is one I’m quite happy to divulge. Instead of buttermilk, I use yogurt to add tangy flavor and tenderness, amplified by a splash of lemon juice and balanced by the sweet kiss of maple syrup. It’s a delicate harmony in every bite.

If you’re craving something a bit more meaty, never fear. You can use the same batter to blanket tempeh, tofu, rehydrated soy curls, or any of your favorite chicken alternatives. I can’t lie, I really love using cauliflower because that way, I can still call it “KFC” – Kentucky Fried Cauliflower.

This fresher, lighter, easier rendition won’t leave grease on your hands, but it’s still finger licking good!

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Fresh is Best

Salsa, literally meaning “sauce” in Spanish, is every bit as versatile as that all-encompassing name suggests. Traditional renditions are as simple as chopped tomatoes and peppers with a pinch of salt, but there are no rules for this savory dance. Spicy or mild, acidic or alkaline, crisp or creamy, smooth or chunky; there’s a taste and texture to complement every meal.

In fact, modern salsas can just as easily be sweet and fruity to pair with dessert, not a vegetable in sight. The one universal rule to salsa is that no matter the ingredients, they must always be fresh. Forget about the shelf-stable stuff collecting dust on supermarket shelves; it may call itself salsa, but it sure doesn’t live up to this piquant condiment’s proud legacy.

You know you have a truly great salsa when you want to eat it with a spoon. No chips are needed to start the party with Sam’s Fresh Salsa, which is every bit as bold and flavorful as the fresh-cut produce that goes into each chilled package.

Inspired by the premier “Sam’s Fresh Salsa Blogger Recipe Challenge,” I decided to cut out the formalities and turn it into something I really could serve by the bowlful. Made from tart tomatillos, lime juice, garlic, peppers, and cilantro, the salsa verde immediately stood out to me as a versatile stand-alone snack and recipe starter. Bright, light, and refreshing with a subtle hint of jalapeño spice, it sings of summer’s bounty. The only other thing I can think of that might rival that fresh experience is gazpacho.

You see where I’m going here, right?

Gazpacho Verde is creamy and subtly sweet, closely aligned to classic Andalusian gazpacho, which is at least partially blended and surprisingly rich. Stale bread and a generous pour of extra virgin olive oil traditionally thicken this cool contender, but this Tex-Mex twist employs the luscious green flesh of ripe, buttery avocados instead.

As summer heats up, this is one instantly gratifying dish that will help you stay cool. Don’t touch that stove and put away your pans; this no-cook recipe only needs a brief blitz in the blender. For those really sweltering days, there’s no shame serving it in ice-filled glasses with a splash of vodka for a piquant Bloodless Mary.

You can get more fresh inspiration by checking out Sam’s Fresh Salsa on Facebook and Instagram, too. You can find them at ShopRite, Acme, and Safeway stores. Wish me luck in the contest!

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Breakfasts to Savor

A new day is dawning in the kitchen, jostling the soundest of sleepers awake. Far removed from the dusty boxes of cereal and granola bars, bold, bright aromas infused with spice and umami fill the air. Though the standard American diet leans heavily on sweets for the “most important meal of the day,” polls have shown that the majority of those chowing down before noon prefer a savory breakfast.

Skip the batter, forget the flour, and stick firm slabs of tofu straight into the waffle iron for a high-protein foundation to hold a deeply umami lashing of espresso-spiked gravy. Waffled Tofu with Red Eye Gravy provides a hearty, gluten-free vehicle for enjoying this thick, creamy sauce enriched with sautéed mushrooms without any regrets.

If dry cereal is more your speed, you’ll be bowled over by Curried Coconut Granola. Warmly spiced clusters of thick oats and coconut flakes are baked to golden-brown perfection with minimal added oil. They’re perfect for sprinkling over unsweetened yogurt, plain oatmeal, soups, salads, or simply eating out of hand.

Craving buttery pastries, flaky and crisp? Skip the sugary frosting and syrupy fruit filling with Cheesy Broccoli and Bac-un Toaster Tarts. White bean-based cheese sauce fills flaky pastry pockets along with smoky bites of tempeh bac-un and tender-crisp broccoli florets.

Some Americans consume eggs in the morning, but have you heard of the latest Indian street food sensation taking the world by storm? Bread Omelets wrap up a fusion of French toast, scrambled eggs, and an egg sandwich all in one neat package. My vegan version is made with chickpea flour seasoned with black salt for the same sensation, without the eggs or dairy.

South of the border, Chilaquiles have been an essential staple for using up stale tortilla chips but take on greater flavor when prepared fresh, from scratch. Homemade corn tortilla chips are baked and not fried in this take on breakfast nachos. Little prep or planning is needed to throw together fresh salsa, black beans, and diced avocado in a meal that can be scaled for one or one dozen.

Tall stacks of pancakes dripping with syrup may sound dreamy, but the sugar crash soon to follow isn’t quite as satisfying. For a substantial morning meal that will power you through the day, skip the sugary stuff. The breakfast revolution will not be sweetened.

Get all these recipes in the 2021 Issue 1 of Vegetarian Journal, and online at VRG.org!

Cooking on Acid

How on earth did I end up with so much vinegar?

Surveying the state of my pantry, you’d think I was in the pickling business. Rice vinegar, white vinegar, apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, coconut vinegar, champagne vinegar, all in attendance, front and center on the shelves, to say nothing of the reductions, infusions, and blends lurking in back.

Tart, tangy liquids made through the fermentation of ethanol alcohol are the secret ingredients in the earliest recorded attempts at home cooking. The evidence is there, literally written in stone, all cross this tiny blue marble known as planet earth.

Vinegar, or more broadly acid of any variety is the real secret ingredient to any successfully balanced dish. Instantly heightening flavors much the way that salt and sugar can, without spiking blood pressure or tempting hyperglycemia, just a splash goes a long way in everything from marinara sauce to ice cream. Weaving seamlessly into the grander flavor tapestry, you’d never know this humble player was the one knitting everything together behind the scenes. That is, unless you chose to fully embrace such a sour superstar.

Adobo is the acidic perfect example. Leaning heavily into a pungent brew of vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, bay leaves, and black peppercorns, it’s punchy and bold, tart and tangy, unapologetically, fiercely flavorful. Adobo is not the kind of dish you serve with delicate white wine on your finest plates; adobo is a brash party-starter, promising a raucous good time.

Every Filipino family has their own recipe, claiming theirs to be the best of the batch, and I certainly cannot compete with such fervent claims. I can, however, approximate something wholly delicious inspired by the art form, making it quicker, easier, and of course, much more vegan than traditional renditions.

Meaty mushrooms and chunks of seitan take the place of long-simmered beef, automatically adding a rich, deeply umami taste. Speaking to the versatility of vinegar itself, even while prominently highlighted in this Filipino staple, any range of options, or even a blend will kick things up just as brilliantly. This is a good opportunity to clear out the pantry of any odd drips and drabs leftover, should you obsessively hold on to those little bottles, too.

Adobo is possibly even better the day after cooking, so I’d implore you to double the recipe for a generous second helping later down the road. It will be tough to keep around in any great quantity no matter what.

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