Global Flavors

New Ethnic Vegetarian Recipes Rock Taste Buds

Grilled Tofu and Pepper Tacos

Celebrating Vegetarian Awareness Month, Natural Awakenings visits the continuing evolutions of vegetarian eating habits and leading cookbooks.

Ancient India and Egypt are known to have served up plant-based diets, but vegetarian cookbooks are a relatively recent American phenomenon.

The genre debuted nationally in 1977 with Mollie Katzen’s groundbreaking classic, the first Moosewood Cookbook, sharing recipes gleaned from her restaurant and a collective co-op in Ithaca, New York. Considered one of Five Women Who Changed the Way We Eat, by Health magazine, she has also hosted several PBS cooking shows.

When Katzen first took up the cause, vegetarian cooking was earnest, if earthy, relying heavily upon such staples as brown rice, mushrooms and tofu. The options were limited for those that didn’t capitalize on a home garden or live in a cosmopolitan city.

Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky in the 1970s, cookbook author and food blogger Michael Natkin remembers…“when vegetables were boiled until they begged for mercy.” Being a vegetarian then meant a commitment to a philosophy, not necessarily an expectation of flavor and pleasure.

In 1981, an Indian actress and cookbook author introduced Americans to exotic vegetarian dishes from India in Madhur Jaffrey’s World of the East: Vegetarian Cooking. Still, without an Asian market nearby, hard-to-find ingredients like dhal (a lentil) or fenugreek (a seed) might have derailed attempts to make such recipes.

By 1990, Chef Deborah Madison had contributed The Savory Way, which upped the quotient of colorful foods inspired by classic French cuisine. She revealed how plant-based dishes can be sophisticated and even glamorous.

Today’s latest cookbook evolution speaks to the newest generation of vegetarian cooks’ burgeoning interest in tasty ethnic cuisines, home gardening and farmers’ markets as well as meatless meals. Natkin has pulled it all together in Herbivoracious: A Flavor Revolution, with 150 Vibrant and Original Vegetarian Recipes. From the standpoint of a well-traveled home cook, he also chronicles his travels and forays into flavorful, globally influenced recipes at

Why Vegetarian, Why Now?

“Because vegetarian meals are good for you, tread more lightly on our planet’s resources and are kinder to animals,” Natkin responds.

“The planet isn’t designed to support billions of meat-eaters. Plus, many are concerned about the methods of animal agriculture—think of industrial hog farms, for instance, which can be environmental nightmares. If you want to eat meat from smaller producers with higher ethical standards, it’s more expensive,” he says. “Even if you eat meatless only now and again, it’s better for the family budget, your health and the planet.”

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that… the great majority of Americans would rather be considered healthy, rather than wealthy.”
~ Mike Weisman, president, The Values Institute at DGWB

Natkin is well aware of the “dark days for vegetables,” when commerce dictated that varieties be chosen and grown primarily for their ability to withstand long-distance transport. Now, due to rising demand, more are grown for flavor, advises Natkin, and that makes vegetarian meals taste better and become more popular.

Natkin further suggests, “If you want a sustainable diet, it must include foods that you like, not foods that you think you should like. They have to taste good, otherwise you won’t stick with it.”

Natkin’s cookbook encompasses dishes from locales as diverse as India, Iran, Japan, Mexico and Thailand. His special touch is conceiving ways to convert traditional recipes to vegetarian variations while maintaining unique flavors and combinations of textures. From a deconstructed sushi to tofu tacos, Natkin coaxes the most flavor out of his ingredients—from cooking pasta in red wine, making “meaty” soup stocks with dried mushrooms or Parmesan cheese rinds to teaching uses of condiments like Japanese sesame salt.

“The least successful cuisine for translation into vegetarian cooking is American comfort food,” he notes. He always encourages cooks to think creatively, not literally, when translating a meat-based dish to a plant-based equivalent. Instead of trying to do a faux turkey for Thanksgiving, for example, he recommends serving a main dish that looks celebratory and mouthwatering, saluting the traditional role of the centerpiece turkey in a fresh way.

Growing Trend

According to a national 2012 Harris Poll, 47 percent of Americans eat at least one vegetarian meal a week. The Values Institute of DGWB, an advertising and communications firm based in Santa Ana, California, confirms the rise of flexitarianism, or eating meat on occasion rather than routinely, as one of the top trends of 2012.

Finally, New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman remarks, “When I ask audiences I speak to, ‘How many of you are eating less meat than you were 10 years ago?’ at least two-thirds raise their hands. A self-selecting group to be sure, but nevertheless, one that exists. In fact, let’s ask this: Is anyone in this country eating more meat than they used to?”

Judith Fertig blogs at


Grilled Tofu and Pepper Tacos

Vegan and gluten-free dish in 30 minutes.

Makes 12 small or 8 medium-size tacos

“The secret to delicious Mexican vegetarian food is to amp up the flavors and use lots of contrasting textures,” says food blogger Michael Natkin. “These tacos—filled with grilled tofu and sautéed peppers, all basted with tangy achiote paste—have serious street-food flavor. They are meant to be eaten in just two or three bites.”

Achiote, made from annatto seeds, is available as a paste at markets that carry Hispanic products. Natkin likes the El Yucateco brand because it’s free of synthetic food coloring.

1½ oz (about 4 tsp) achiote paste (also called annatto)
½ cup vegetable oil
1 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp Tapatío or other bottled hot sauce
1 tsp kosher salt
10 oz extra-firm tofu, cut into 1/3-inch slabs and patted dry
1 medium zucchini, cut lengthwise into 1/3-inch slabs
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 red bell peppers, cut into ¼-inch strips
1 yellow bell pepper, cut into ¼-inch strips
Fresh lemon or lime juice (optional)

24 (4-inch) or 16 (6-inch) soft corn tortillas

Taco Toppers
Choice of salsa

1. Break up the achiote paste in a small bowl with a fork and mash in the oil, a little at a time, until it forms a lumpy paste. Mix in the cumin, hot sauce and salt.

2. Heat a grill or grill pan over medium heat. Brush the tofu with the achiote oil on one side and grill, oiled-side-down, until well-marked. Then do the same on the other side.

3. Repeat with the zucchini, brushing the slabs with achiote oil and grilling until well-marked and tender, about 3 minutes per side. Allow the tofu and zucchini to cool and then cut both into 1/3-inch diced pieces.

4. Heat a skillet over medium-high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of achiote oil. Add the onion, garlic and bell peppers and sauté until very soft.

5. Add the tofu and zucchini to the pepper mixture. Taste and adjust the seasoning. It may need more salt, a little lime or lemon juice, or more heat.

6. To serve, wrap the tortillas in a damp, clean dishtowel and microwave until soft and warm, about 2 minutes.

7. Make stacks of 2 tortillas each. Top with a moderate scoop of the filling and a spoonful of guacamole and salsa. Pass the hot sauce to the more adventurous.

Black Bean Soup with Orange-Jalapeño SalsaBlack Bean Soup with Orange-Jalapeño Salsa

Vegan and gluten-free soup in 30 minutes.

Serves 6

“I developed this black bean soup so that it would satisfy those that prefer mild dishes, including kids, as well as those that prefer a bolder spice. The soup is straightforward, with a bright and intense orange and jalapeño salsa on the side,” advises cookbook author Michael Natkin. “Pass grated cheddar cheese for those that prefer to think of it as vegetarian chili.”

6 cups cooked black beans, cooking liquid reserved, or 4 (15-oz) cans black beans, rinsed and drained
2 bay leaves
Vegetable broth powder (gluten-free is optional)
3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 white onion, diced
1 yellow bell pepper, seeded and diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
Kosher salt
1 Tbsp dried oregano
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp (or more) smoked paprika (optional)

6 fresh mandarin oranges (or fewer, larger oranges)
¼ cup finely diced red onion
1 jalapeño pepper (or more to taste), thinly sliced
¼ tsp kosher salt
1 handful fresh cilantro leaves

Serving Topper
Mexican crema or sour cream (vegan option is sour cream or avocado slices)

1. Place the beans and bay leaves in a 6-quart pot. Add enough reserved cooking liquid or water (option to include vegetable broth powder based on the manufacturer’s recommended amount for four cups of broth) to barely cover the beans. Simmer.

2. Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion, bell pepper, garlic and a big pinch of salt, and sauté until the vegetables start to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the oregano, cumin and smoked paprika, if using, and cook for 1 minute more. Remove from heat.

3. Pluck the bay leaves out of the beans. Stir the onion mixture into the simmering beans. Remove the soup from the heat and lightly purée, using a stick blender, blender or potato masher. (A 75 percent purée leaves significant texture.)

4. Return the soup pot to the heat. Add more water as needed to produce a soup that’s moderately thick, but thinner than a stew. Taste and adjust the seasoning. It will likely need salt unless the cook used pre-salted canned beans. Add more cumin or smoked paprika to taste. Simmer at least 10 to 15 minutes to allow flavors to develop.

5. For the salsa, cut the oranges into sections and then cubes. Mix with the red onion, jalapeño pepper and ¼ teaspoon kosher salt. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Stir in the cilantro immediately before serving.

6. To serve, ladle the soup into bowls and either top with 3 tablespoons of the salsa and some crema, or pass the salsa and crema at the table.

Jicama, Radish and Orange SaladJicama, Radish and Orange Salad

Vegan and gluten-free salad in 15 minutes.

Serves 4

“When I serve a filling entrée,” says cookbook author and food blogger Michael Natkin, “I like to have a brightly flavored, refreshing salad. It offers a nice contrast, makes the meal a little lighter and cuts the fattiness of the main dish.” This simple salad, dressed only with fresh orange juice, beautifully complements Mexican and other Latin American meals.

Half a jicama, peeled and cut into 2 x ¼ x ¼-inch batons
1 big handful radishes, trimmed and cut into quarters
4 Valencia oranges, cut into sections, juice reserved
¼ tsp kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 handful fresh cilantro leaves, torn, for garnish

1. Combine the jicama, radishes and orange sections in a salad bowl with the salt and several hearty grinds of black pepper.

2. Add ¼ cup reserved orange juice and toss lightly.

3. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Garnish with the cilantro leaves and serve.

Source: Adapted from Herbivoracious: A Flavor Revolution, with 150 Vibrant and Original Vegetarian Recipes, by Michael Natkin (

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