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Vegetarian questions and answers

Health myths, survival tips, recipes, and vices from 17 vegetarian, vegan, and veg-friendly Chicagoans

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Restaurants & cooking

AS A MEAT-EATER, WHY OPEN A VEGETARIAN RESTAURANT?

The fact of the matter is I have cooked in ethnic restaurants for over 20 years and wanted to showcase how most of the world eats—less on meat/protein and more on vegetables and grains.

—Jill Barron, Mana Food Bar

We had two [meat] items when we opened, and we stuck with those. It was a farm chicken from close by, and we did a fish. The chicken became an issue with consistency, and we got rid of that and kept the fish. I was kinda stubborn about it, honestly. We sold a lot of it as a single item on a menu that's got 20 to 25 things. So we kept it on. We got a lot of grief from the vegetarian side saying, "What are you?" That's never really why I opened the restaurant. I just felt vegetarian cuisine was underserved in metropolitan Chicago. There are some good examples out there, but I think people were approaching vegetarian cuisine more strictly on a health outlook, more of the granola kind of, "Hey, this is great for you," and that's great. But that's not what I wanted to do. I just felt, "Hey, I want an experience where I can spend a great evening out with wine, with service, a fun, urban place—and it just happens to be vegetarian food." So that's where it started. It got to a point about a year ago that I just said, "You know what, I'm kind of holding onto something with the fish thing." I just thought it may be time to just close that chapter and concentrate [on vegetarian cuisine]. That's where we are now. Things are mostly organic, and they're all in season and from small farms and dairies.

—Shawn McClain, Green Zebra

SHOULD VEGETARIAN RESTAURANTS EVEN BOTHER TRYING TO APPROXIMATE MEAT?

It's been so long since I've eaten meat that I would not really consider myself as an authority on the subject. The two restaurants that do faux-style stuff that seem to perform well with meat-eating friends are Soul Vegetarian East and Chicago Diner. I have never met a meat eater that didn't love the Protein Tidbits and BBQ Twist at Soul Veg, and the Dagwood sandwich at Chicago Diner seems to be designed with the decadent meat eater in mind.

—Trevor Shelley-de Brauw, local musician in Pelican, Chord, and Let's Pet

I loved meat when I ate animals and still include mock version of those foods in my meals. There are fantastic products out there like Gardein, Field Roast Grain Meat, Match Meat, and seitan from hometown heroes Upton's Naturals, just to name a few.

—Dave Sutherland, organizer of Vegan Chicago

The last time we were at a vegetarian restaurant, the place didn't have a fucking stove. We had to sit on pillows on the floor passing nuts and sundried tomato chunks around like some sort of weird hippie ritual. I would have settled for a beef bouillon cube at that point.

—John Honkala, ChicagoGluttons.com

The Chicago Diner comes to mind in that category. So much of what they do is to try to trick one into thinking they need a meat substitute—seitan wings, seitan chorizo, seitan steak, country fried seitan, seitan chicken patty. I get that it is supposed to keep with the diner theme, but there is so much out there in the nonmeat world to be creative with. Places like this tend to perpetuate the myth that meat, or meatlike substitute, is required as the center-of-the-plate item.

I have the luxury of being an omnivore, so to me, the idea of approximating the taste of any food item using other, fundamentally different ingredients doesn't add up. I don't want to go so far as to say, "Stop lying to yourself; if you like the taste of meat, then eat meat," because that is a bit short-sighted and doesn't address all of the issues with the choice to be a vegetarian. I think that there is just so much available in the nonmeat world that is delicious as is. I mean, if you really like the taste of seitan, formed into strips, breaded and deep fried, then call it seitan, not "chicken" or faux-chicken. Does turkey really have to be replaced at Thanksgiving if you don't eat meat for whatever reason? There are a hundred other dishes on the table that can be created without putting a dozen pounds of pureed tofu and seitan and textured vegetable protein into a mold and calling it "turkey." Think back to grade school cafeterias and some of the ghastly food served there—a lot of the actual meat gets stretched with faux-meats, starches, etc., in order to cut costs—and think of how nasty that stuff was to us back then. Think of the uproar about Taco Bell only using 36 percent actual meat in their taco filling and how this is perceived as "disgusting"—yet somehow products meant to be consumed as meat that use zero percent meat are not. It doesn't add up. Rather than being anti-faux meat, I am pro-vegetables and grains and legumes—and pro-natural or real food in general.

—Hugh Amano, chef and founder of the blog Food on the Dole

GOT A FAVORITE QUICK VEGETARIAN RECIPE?

Chop up an onion. Saute in oil with a chopped green pepper or another vegetable. Throw in tofu that you've crumbled with a fork. Add turmeric, a little cumin, a dash, or tamari. Done.

Karen Yates, associate artistic director of the Chicago Opera Vanguard

Macaroni & Teese using the Teese Cheese Creamy Cheddar Sauce. I make macaroni noodles, pour off the water, then add in the sauce directly from the container to the hot noodles. Using medium-high heat, stir the noodles and Teese together for 1.5 minutes. Salt to taste. You can add a bit of soy milk to make it creamier. It's my favorite go-to dish on a cool, rainy fall day.

—Ryan Howard, president of Chicago Vegan Foods (formerly Chicago Soydairy)

One of my favorite Lenten recipes is pickled cabbage rolls (we kept barrels of pickled cabbage heads in the basement) stuffed with rice, carrots, onions, celery, peppers and garlic, and cooked in a tomato sauce. (The non-Lenten version is rice with ground meat—beef or pork—and Italian spices, sort of a Balkan version of sauerkraut and brats.)

No Serbian table is complete without peppers. We've grown acres of peppers for the Chicago Serbian community for decades. Starting around Labor Day we'll sell them by the bushel. Those thick, red, sweet ajvar peppers? I love them in a simple recipe: halve peppers and cut out the seeds then roast/broil them until charred. Put them in a lidded pot until they're cool enough to peel then add a generous drizzling of olive oil and several smashed garlic gloves. Salt to taste.

—Vera Videnovich, Videnovich Farms

WHAT'S YOUR MOST BOOKMARKED COOKBOOK?

The Vegan Table by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau. The tofu/spinach lasagna is one of our favorites.

—Paul McGee, co-owner/head bartender of The Whistler

Oddly enough, although I have a wealth of vegan and nonvegan cookbooks, I gravitate towards nonvegan cookbooks with really simple recipes, and I end up veganizing them and transferring them to a notebook that I keep in the kitchen.

—Laviyah Ayanna, co-owner of Ste Martaen Vegan Cheese and the Vegan Food Truck

The 30 Minute Vegan by Mark Reinfeld & Jennifer Murray, with a very close second going to The Cancer Survivor's Guide by Neil Barnard, MD and Jennifer Reilly, RD.

—Eric C. Sharer, registered dietitian at the Block Medical Center for Integrative Cancer Treatment; Chicago outreach coordinator for the Vegetarian Resource Group

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