“It’s such a great adventure. Regardless of whether you eat meat or not, if you are interested in food, then getting to cook and understand and expand your vegetarian repertoire is really fun. It is such an exciting world of spices and flavors and textures, and it makes you look like a rockstar, because hardly anybody is doing it,” says Damaris Phillips, Louisville native, Food Network celebrity chef and author of her new cookbook, Southern Girl Meets Vegetarian Boy: Down Home Classics for Vegetarians (and the Meat Eaters Who Love Them). After falling in love with her future husband and ethical vegetarian Darrick, this Southern cook who grew up on classics like fried chicken and biscuits with sausage gravy realized a challenge lay before her.
“I had to figure out how to have all of those foods that I love so much and that I have so many memories around, but make them so that I could share those with Darrick too,” she says. She had to reframe her approach to food entirely, rethinking food and ingredients on an almost molecular level. “What you think about when you think about the flavor of meat is really just the characteristics of meat — sometimes it is smoky, salty or fatty or has interesting textures. So I had to try to find those ingredients that are going to mimic those sort of textures and flavor responses.”
She found that she could bring the soul-satisfying qualities of Southern soul food to a vegetarian diet through using spices, rich oils and nuts, and creative culinary techniques, among other things. She encourages new cooks of vegetarian cuisine to use store-bought, plant-based protein, saying they will make your life 1,000 times easier and more satisfying as you learn the ropes of vegetarian cooking.
Secondly, she says, you need to use more fat than you think. “I think one of the biggest problems with vegetarian cooking is that people equate vegetarian cooking with healthy cooking, and so they pull out the meat, but then they also pull out all of the fat. And so you end up with things that don’t feel soul-satisfying,” she says.
And lastly, vegetarian cooking is all about adding fun flavors and spices. Damaris extols the virtues of the smokiness you can get from bourbon, grilling and liquid smoke. Her favorite spices are a veritable trip around the world — Ethiopian berbere; Korean gochujang; Japanese miso paste; Indian garam masala and mango pickle; Mediterranean Za’atar; North African ras el hanout and Moroccan harissa — all notably cultures that incorporate less meat and more vegetables into their cuisine.
Besides meeting her husband and watching him light up and say cute things like, “So THIS is what pulled pork tastes like?!” — what was the best part about this life change and culinary journey for Damaris? “Becoming a better chef. Vegetarian cooking is not super-mainstream, so I kind of had to roll my sleeves up and get back into the kitchen,” says Damaris. “It was an incredible amount of learning, ingredient research, recipe testing and totally failing. So, it just made me better — it reignited my love story with food and cooking in a way that was really exciting for me.”
5 Vegetarian Recipes from Damaris Phillips’ Southern Girl Meets Vegetarian Boy
Beet & Feta Caramelized Onion Burgers
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 large sweet onion, thinly sliced
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons Bourbon
- 1 scallion, sliced
- 2 ounces (55 g) feta cheese, crumbled
- 2 cups (220 g) peeled and grated beets (about 1 bunch)
- 1½ cups (225 g) cooked pearl couscous, cooled
- 3 tablespoons vegetarian steak sauce
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 2 teaspoons garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1½ teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup (120 g) vital wheat gluten
- 2 to 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 6 burger buns
- Put the oil and onion in a cold cast-iron skillet and turn the heat to medium-low. Stir to coat each onion sliver with oil. Add the salt, cover, and cook for 5 minutes, until the onion is just tender but doesn’t have color. Uncover and continue to cook, stirring constantly, until a golden brown color develops, about 15 to 20 more minutes. Stir in the Bourbon to deglaze the pan. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly. When the onion is no longer hot to the touch, add the scallion and cheese. Stir and set aside.
- Put the beet, couscous, steak sauce, cumin, garlic powder, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. Stir to combine and distribute all the spices. Add the wheat gluten. Using your hands, incorporate the gluten into the mixture. As soon as the gluten gets wet it will start to firm up and become sticky. Mix with your hands for 1 to 2 minutes to coat the ingredients in the gluten. Form the mixture into a ball and then divide the ball into six even portions. Shape into patties about ¾-inch (2 cm) thick.
- In a large cast-iron skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium heat. Working in batches if necessary, sear the burgers on one side until deep golden brown and holding together, about 7 minutes. If the pan looks dry, add the remaining oil. Flip and cook for another 5 to 7 minutes, until the burgers are cooked through.
- Place each burger on a bun and top with the feta caramelized onions.
Paneer & Pumpkin Grits
- 3 cups (720 ml) vegetable stock
- 1 cup (240 ml) half-and-half
- 1 cup (240 ml) pureed cooked pumpkin
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon ground white pepper
- 1 cup (170 g) grits, rinsed, bran discarded (To remove the bran, cover grits with 5 to 6 inches/12 to 15 cm of water. Jostle and then let the grits settle. The bran will float to the top and can be removed with a skimmer. Once the bran is removed the grits can be drained.)
- 3 tablespoons vegetable or refined coconut oil
- 1 cup (110 g) sun-dried tomatoes in oil, drained
- 1 pound (455 g) collard greens, stemmed and cut into chiffonade
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- ½ to 1 cup (120 to 240 ml) beer
- 1½ pounds (680 g) paneer cheese, cut into 1-inch (2.5-cm) cubes
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Put the stock and half-and-half in a 31/2-quart (3.4-L) heavy pot and bring to a boil over medium heat. Add the pumpkin, salt, white pepper, and grits. Stir and return to a boil. Cover the pot and turn the heat to low. Cook until the grits are creamy, 20 to 25 minutes.
- Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat and add 2 tablespoons of the oil, the sun-dried tomatoes, collards, garlic, and beer. Stir to combine, cover the pan, and lower the heat to medium. Cook until the greens wilt and are tender, 10 to 12 minutes.
- While the greens cook, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil in a nonstick skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the paneer to the pan. Sear until a crust forms and the color is golden, about 3 minutes. Flip and repeat on the opposite side. When the greens are tender and the paneer is seared, gently fold them together. Taste, add salt and pepper, if needed. Serve immediately over the pumpkin grits.
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Berbere Burnt Parsnips & Carrots
- 3 carrots, peeled
- 2 parsnips, peeled
- 2 tablespoons refined coconut oil
- 2 teaspoons honey
- ½ to 1 teaspoon berbere spice blend
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
- Cut the carrots and parsnips into thirds and then cut each third lengthwise into halves or quarters depending on the width. This should make spears that have at least one flat side. In a cast-iron skillet, heat the coconut oil over medium heat. When it is hot, place the carrots and parsnips in the oil flat side down and cook, without turning, until tender. The cut side will be very, very dark. Some may even call it burnt. Don’t worry, it will taste great! Add the honey, berbere, and ¼ cup (60 ml) water to the skillet and stir. Cook, stirring constantly, until most of the water has cooked off and the carrots are coated. Season with salt and pepper. Top with chopped parsley. Serve right away to your impressed and amazed friends!
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- 1 pound (455 g) kale
- 8 ounces (225 g) mustard greens
- 2 tablespoons white miso paste
- 2 teaspoons hot sauce (such as Frank’s), or more to taste
- 2 teaspoons refined coconut oil
- Stem and chop the kale and mustard greens, discarding half of the stems and chopping the rest. Combine the miso paste, hot sauce, and 2 tablespoons water in a small bowl. Set aside.
- Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. add the stems, cooking until tender, about 3 minutes. Add the chopped greens, pour the miso mixture over them, and cook until the greens are tender, about 5 minutes. Taste, and add a touch more hot sauce or miso if desired.
Oven-Roasted Acorn Squash With Dukka Spice
- 2 acorn squash
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- 2 tablespoons dukka spice (see Notes)
- Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Place a baking sheet in the oven to heat up.
- Cut the squash in half lengthwise and remove the seeds with a spoon. Cut the squash into half-moon shapes by cutting down each rib section. Place them in a bowl. drizzle with the butter and sprinkle with the dukka. Lay each piece flat on the hot baking sheet and bake until just tender, 12 to 16 minutes. The side touching the pan should be golden brown. The other side will be lighter but speckled with dukka. Serve immediately.
Now, head to the kitchen and whip up some meatless deliciousness!
Thank you, Damaris, for sharing these awesome recipes.
And thank you to Stephanie Mullins for the fabulous images of Damaris’ tasty dishes.
Southern Girl Meets Vegetarian Boy © 2017 Damaris Phillips from Abrams
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