A lot of vegetarian food gets a bad rap, undeservedly so. I’ve had bad dishes with meat in them; I’ve had bad dishes with no meat. Meat rarely makes a dish good or bad simply by being there. I think the “bad” vegetarian food that people have, and which colors their perception, is just bad food, period. And good food, with meat or without, is just so, so good. (Fair warning, a little bit of a soapbox ahead. I won’t mind if you just skip to the delicious recipe at the end.)
The vast majority of the food I try to eat falls into the vegetarian category, particularly the whole food vegetarian category (i.e. vegetables, beans, seeds, nuts, grains as close to their original form as possible). I’ll be honest that I’m not a fan of tofu unless it’s fried or in miso soup, I don’t like seitan, I’m on the border with tempeh (I don’t mind it, it but it doesn’t like me). I don’t think frozen fake meat that has as many not-whole ingredients as a chicken nugget are doing anyone any favors.
But set me down in front of a well-seasoned portabella mushroom just off the grill with lettuce, tomato, grilled onions, ketchup, mustard, and cheese on a perfectly toasted bun, and watch it disappear as quickly as any beef burger. (P.S. I miss you summer, please come back so I can grill again.)
I’m also not a fan of labeling “meatless” meals as such. It seems counter-intuitive to label them based on the thing that’s not there. You wouldn’t call a burger and fries a pasta-less meal, would you? Or a mid-summer salad of perfect tomatoes, peppers, and lettuce a grain-less meal. What sense does that make? As soon as you make the focus the thing that’s missing, you can’t focus on the delicious food that is actually in front of you.
A breakfast of fruit and yogurt is vegetarian, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is vegetarian, but it seems silly to label them that way, doesn’t it?
The thing I love about food, about cooking seasonally, about taking a pile of random things and turning them into a delicious dish, is that the final dish honors the flavors and textures of the ingredients. Meatless, meat-full, vegetarian, vegan, raw, gluten-free labels be damned–it’s not trying to be anything other than good food. That, to me, is cooking at its absolute best. (Ok, I’m off my soapbox now.)
I found this recipe forever ago, and only dug it up again recently. I don’t know why it fell out of my lunch and dinner rotation; it was one of my favorites for a long time. The cumin and coriander give it a sort-of middle eastern-y flavor similar to falafels. It’s easy to make a double batch, shape, and freeze for lunches at work or fast dinners on nights I really don’t feel like cooking.
Lentil Walnut Burgers
A heads-up that you’ll need to have a cup of cooked lentils to make this; I make a big batch and keep them in the fridge for up to 4 days. I invite you to play around with the spices. I’m planning to try some variations with fresh herbs and a little lemon juice, or dried Italian herbs and sun-dried tomatoes. You could probably even mix in some cheese if you’re so inclined. I like to shape these into four patties, but they’re also good shaped into smaller falafel-sized balls for snacking, as a side, or on top of a salad. Adapted from Everyday Food.
1 tablespoon ground flax (If you don’t have flax, you can use 1 egg in place of the egg and water)
3 tablespoons water
3 cloves garlic
1 cup toasted walnuts
1/3 cup bread crumbs
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1 1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup cooked, drained lentils (cook just until tender)
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus additional for cooking
Tzatziki (cucumber-yogurt sauce like this from Alton Brown)
In a small bowl, stir together flax and water; set aside.
In a food processor, finely chop garlic. Add walnuts, bread crumbs, spices, salt, and pepper; process until finely ground. Add lentils and oil; pulse until the mixture begins to come together (some lentils should remain whole).
In a bowl, mix together lentil-walnut mixture and flax until combined. Shape into 4 burger-sized patties or 12 to 16 smaller patties, about 3/4 inch thick. (Shaped patties can be refrigerated or frozen at this point.)
In a frying pan, heat 1 tablespoon of oil over medium heat. Gently place burgers into pan and cook 4-5 minutes per side, or until golden brown. Flip and cook another 4-5 minutes.
Serve tucked into a warm pita with lettuce, tomatoes, and tzatziki.