As a film student at UCLA in 1972, Anna Thomas began memorializing recipes from cooking on a student's budget that wouldn't stretch to cover expensive cuts of meat. After amassing hundreds of meat-free recipes, she submitted the contents to a publisher with hopes of the work making it to a bound volume. Not only was the book published, The Vegetarian Epicure is considered a seminal vegetarian cookbook, has sold millions of copies and is still in print.
"I was a student, and I had parents writing to thank me for giving them a book to cook from as their kids were coming home from college vegetarians." Thomas is mostly vegetarian and eats eggs and dairy, and is now "that parent," expanding her cooking skills to accommodate her youngest son, Teddy, 26, a vegan.
Now she's back in the kitchen at her home in Ojai, testing and developing recipes for a new book, Vegan, Vegetarian, Omnivore, a reflection of Thomas' realization that our diets are changing more today than in the past 20 years as we opt for meat- and dairy-free diets to live more healthful lifestyles, for cost-savings, or to practice ethical ideals. In order to accommodate everyone at the table, she is reframing the entire conversation around our tables by reworking how she prepares dinner itself.
"If you start from the dominant way of thinking about cooking in our culture, the meat-centric way, you're immediately substituting or taking things away." Instead, she starts with a fruit or vegetable in mind and creates a dish around it, adding dairy and meat as additional and optional ingredients. "My food is characterized by not copying meat, not trying to make a 'vegetarian version' of something. That doesn't mean I don't love the black bean burger, but they need to stand on their own."
Tomatoes, cucumbers and mint are at the heights of their seasons in the Ojai valley, and are the base for tabbouleh, a refreshing Middle Eastern salad recipe Anna is developing for the vegan, the vegetarian and the omnivore. Using cracked bulgur (whole wheat berries), tomatoes, herbs and cucumbers as the vegan base salad, vegetarians can crumble feta cheese into the tabbouleh, and Thomas recommends omnivores add grilled shrimp or squid on top. Creating such adaptable recipes takes the guilt out of different diet choices, says Thomas, and this way, everyone can be satisfied with the same great meal.
She says with a smile, "We can all sit at the same table. It can happen."
A sneak peek from Vegan, Vegetarian, Omnivore, due on shelves in 2013, Norton, W. W. & Company, publisher.
This is my version of the classic: lots of parsley and mint, and some good summer tomatoes and well-drained cucumbers. There is a bit of cumin to add a subtle depth to the flavors, and that touch of cinnamon on advice from my Armenian friend, Haigaz.
- 1½ cups whole grain bulgur
- 2 tsp. sea salt, more to taste
- 1½ lbs. cucumbers (about 2 cups diced)
- 1 lb. tomatoes (2 cups diced)
- 1½ cups chopped flat leaf parsley (a very big bunch!)
- ½ cup chopped fresh mint
- ½ cup thinly sliced green onion
- ½ tsp. cumin seeds, toasted and ground
- ½ tsp. cinnamon
- 5 Tbs. fresh squeezed lemon juice, more to taste
- 3-4 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil, more to taste
- fresh ground black pepper
Pour 3 cups boiling water over the bulgur in a large bowl, stir in ½ tsp. salt, cover the bowl with a cloth or a plate, and let it stand for an hour. Drain the tabbouleh through a sieve and press down on it firmly with the heel of your hand or with the back of a large spoon or small bowl to squeeze out any excess moisture. Allow the bulgur to cool.
While the bulgur is soaking, prepare the vegetables: peel and seed the cucumbers and cut them into ½ inch dice (remembering to taste the ends of the cucumbers for bitterness as you proceed). Toss the cucumbers in a bowl with a teaspoon of salt and leave for at least 45 minutes. Drain the cucumbers, give them a quick rinse, then press them down in a sieve with the heel of your hand until all the excess moisture is squeezed out. Dice the tomatoes to about the same size as the cucumbers, and allow them to drain a few minutes in a sieve - you don't need to salt them.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the well-drained bulgur with the cucumbers and tomatoes, the chopped herbs, cumin, cinnamon, another and lemon juice. Mix it together with your hands, squeezing lightly to work the herbs and onion into the grain. Now taste and add more salt, a little at a time, as needed - you might need another ½ teaspoon or more. Grind in some black pepper.
Put the tabbouleh away in the refrigerator for an hour to allow the flavors to develop and blend. Add 3 or 4 tablespoons olive oil, toss lightly, and taste again. This is the point at which the tabbouleh speaks to you, and you really will know what to do - perhaps add another pinch of salt, or more oil and lemon juice for a more pungent salad.
Makes about 7 cups, enough for 8 servings.