Dear Local Restaurant: It’s Just Not That Hard to Make A Vegetarian or Vegan Meal

Do you have a pet peeve?

Something that irritates you, gets under your skin, makes you complain, or rant (or, in my case, sigh heavily) in a way that surprises even yourself?

One thing that really drives me crazy is going out to eat with friends and finding that the menu includes virtually no vegetarian options. “Oh look, a salad!” A friend will say hopefully. “You can have them leave off the bacon-wrapped chicken bits…”

I grew up in Central Pennsylvania, and first was a vegetarian there in the 90’s. It wasn’t easy, but one manages. Any vegetarian knows how to cobble together a meal out of side dishes. Who doesn’t love a meal of French fries, green beans, and mashed potatoes? Perhaps alongside the salad, which still costs $14.99, minus the bacon-wrapped chicken… * Man, if a place has a veggie burger, I am pathetically grateful. You just wouldn’t believe.

Still, as a culture, we’ve come a long way, and it just doesn’t make sense to me when I go out to eat and the chef (or owner?) hasn’t even bothered to try to put together a meal that omits animal products. I just don’t get it. Even if they’re card-carrying members of the US Beef Council** who are going out of their way to annoy tree-hugging vegetarians, or something, they will still find a willing audience of people who want to eat lighter, or who have sensitivities to animal products, or choose not to eat meat for any reason at all.

Not to mention that a lot of plant-based food is SUPER CHEAP.

Maybe you know that prior to my career as a yoga teacher, I thought I wanted to be a personal chef, and went to cooking school. Although I will be paying that debt until the day I die, it was absolutely worth it. I learned the following secrets, which I will now share with you, thereby saving you $40,000 (you’re welcome):

  1. Use a bigger pan than you think you need.
  2. Clean up as you go.
  3. Learn a few basic flavor combinations and you can make dinner out of almost anything. Okay, sorry, I guess that one requires some practical experience.

Tonight for dinner I made myself a variation on beans and rice and some vegetables. It tastes amazing, cost me probably about $10 total, despite the fact the most of the ingredients were organic, and I will get SEVEN meals out of it (bigger guys might get less). The photo is kind of lame, and the recipe isn’t anything super fancy, but really, I’m just making a point: It’s not that hard.

A restaurant owner or chef could easily have a “Beans and Rice” of the week dish on his menu and use up leftovers creatively. Thin it out and it’s a soup. Wrap it up and it’s a taco, a burrito, an enchilada, a lettuce wrap. Cook some of the ingredients separately and call it a Buddha Bowl. It could  be Gallo pinto. Vegetarian dirty rice. Slap it on a flatbread and it’s a pizza. Nachos. Dude, the sky’s the limit. You’re going to make money, I swear. We will buy it if you make an effort. 

Anyway, here’s sort-of-recipe.

A Minimal Amount of Effort Beans and Rice Dish

Heat up three tablespoons-ish of oil in a big pan (I use peanut oil). Slice up two organic leeks that you bought weeks ago at Fresh Market, though you can’t remember why, discarding anything that you don’t want to eat. Once your oil is hot but not smoking, brown the leeks over pretty high heat until they caramelize and smell amazing, stirring often enough that nothing sticks and burns. Meanwhile, you can be slicing up that celery that’s about to go badthe last three mini bell peppers in the fridge, along with any leftover onion you have (I had 1/4 onion, so threw it in). I also sliced in two cloves of garlic. I like to slice them very thin- when they brown slightly they taste nuttily amazing. Once your leeks are almost totally caramelized, throw in about two teaspoons of whole cumin- you will smell it cooking, a smell that I like, but is also vaguely reminiscent of body odor.

At this point you might go, “Sh*t, kale!” and run outside to trim about 3 cups worth of kale off of your kale plants. Collect the dogs and run back inside to ascertain that the leeks have not completely burnt, and then throw all the celery, bell pepper, onion, and garlic in there to cook down a bit. If you have other vegetables, you could certainly use them. If you want to add jalapeño or some hot pepper flakes, add them here. 

Now your time will be limited, because although they taught me in cooking school to time things, I never quite remember to think of everything I’m adding until the last minute, so you had better chiffonade your kale SUPER FAST and throw it in the pan. You want it super thin so it doesn’t take all year to cook.

Meanwhile, start cooking your rice. No, I’m not going to give you instructions, read the bag.

Now, your vegetables will be getting nice and cooked, and they’ll be starting to think about burning, so it’s time to add some more moisture. Zip open a can of organic fire-roasted diced tomatoes and dump it in. Note that if you don’t want huge tomato chunks in your finished product, you could blend them up first. The last thing to do is open a can of organic black beans and add it to your mixture. Let it cook for a few minutes, giving it a chance to “marry” a bit, and then test for seasoning.  Add salt and pepper, maybe some oregano. Still bland? I always have (in this case, like 1.5 tablespoons) homemade taco seasoning ready- you’ll want to check out this recipe for it.

When your rice is done, you can eat. If you have cilantro or a lime, or oooh, an avocado!! garnish away, but it’s pretty much amazing without it. Reheats beautifully or freeze for future taco-type events.

One (small) serving of rice and beans has approximately 270 calories and 5 grams of protein.





*To be fair: a friend of mine taught me to ask for a discount when I do this now, and most managers are pretty accommodating.

**Also in the 90’s, I took part in a sort of random “protest” against the US Beef Council. I had no idea what we were trying to achieve, but I got a great “Meat is Murder” shirt out of it. My picture was in the paper, which was a little awkward for my father, whose job required that he be friendly with many of these “Beef: It’s What’s For Dinner” folks.

9 thoughts on “Dear Local Restaurant: It’s Just Not That Hard to Make A Vegetarian or Vegan Meal

  1. Ok, once again, you are too flippin’ funny. But, I loved the three points you gave saving me $40,000. And, in all seriousness, I cook like this all the time. I’ll be making this or a variation and wrapping it, thinning it out and rolling it up. 🙂

    1. 😀 I actually was thinking of you when I wrote this- it shouldn’t be so hard for us to go out to eat, if we want to. Not that I don’t love cooking, but…

  2. You’d think that with so many vegetarians, this would be close to a no brainer in restaurants. We made black bean hamburgers with corn and parmesan breadcrumbs plus some other stuff and they were quite good. We used a pan with holes on the grill to ease the flipping of the burgers.

  3. Too funny!! And oh so true. I make all sorts of vegan or veggie with cheese stuff and either just wing it or look at pictures and adjust to my tastes and ingredients. I like to make it colorful. And love when it can be versatile as you suggested to be a salad, wrap, soup, stew, sandwich, whatever!! It amazes in this 21st century with SO many vegans or variations on the theme that restaurants are not smarter. Hmm, maybe every yoga studio should open a café and put the non-participating, boring, uncreative food places – well, not out of business, but not with our business 😉 LOVE YOUR BLOGS, AND LOVE YOU MOST! <3 Namaste.

  4. We are in Seabrook and Kiawah Islands, SC. Tonight there was Vegan Pasta on the menu. Sounds so simple…Chris

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