Jenny Rosenstrach Knows You Can Do More than Meatless Monday
This story is part of Eat More Plants, Kitchn’s June 2021 special issue devoted to putting the flavor and magic of plants at the heart of your plate.
When I think of people who have influenced family cooking over the past decade, there isn’t anyone quite like Jenny Rosenstrach. From her career as a magazine editor at the short-lived but much-loved Cookie, to her long-running blog Dinner: A Love Story, to her bestselling manuals for smart, approachable weeknight cooking, Dinner: The Playbook and Dinner: A Love Story, her empathetic and clever brand of cooking is rooted in the belief that a game plan is just as important as a recipe.
So when I flipped through her upcoming book, The Weekday Vegetarians: 100 Recipes and a Real-Life Plan for Eating Less Meat (August 31, Clarkson Potter), which is just what it sounds like — a new game plan for vegetarian cooking most of the week — I knew that she was one of the three voices who belonged in this special issue of Eat More Plants. If anyone could show me a practical, kid-friendly way to making vegetables the heart of my plate (versus my usual default, the extremely convenient chicken tender), it would be Jenny.
Your new book, The Weekday Vegetarians, comes from a real thing you started doing a few years ago, when your kids were in their early teens. What prompted it?
There were a couple of things at play. First of all, I don’t really say this in the intro, but politically speaking, I felt like we all had to step up and do a little bit more for climate change issues. At the time of this epiphany, the environment felt so back-burnered. It was the time when we were all trying to figure out how we could do more.
I looked at my blog, from when I started in 2010, and there were so many meat recipes. My default has always been, at dinner, animal protein first. For so long I’ve been like, “I need to change that.” It was a gradual thing. At first, it was just like, “Let’s make all the things even on the plate.” Then, as the culture evolved, it was like, “Oh, now I want to think about the plant first.”
I have seen this evolution happen too. Suddenly, it’s not just vegetarian or vegan eating; the plant-based conversation feels even bigger.
I just feel it’s like the meatless Monday 2.0. Once a week? We can go bigger than that now. We can come up with more than one meatless recipe a week.
There were so many amazing restaurant chefs and cookbook authors; it was so easy for me to be inspired by the community. That was a huge thing. That all the cookbooks suddenly were telling me to go in a certain direction, and I had been feeling it already. I was ripe for the change.
Who in particular?
Amy Chaplin, Ilene Rosen. Bryant Terry and Vegetable Kingdom — he wasn’t the first to do this, but just the idea of vegan cookbooks now saying, “We’re starting at the vegetable, and then we’re going out from there.” That appealed to me. He has this po’ boy that’s like asparagus and sweet potatoes. That’s the meal. It helped me reframe this idea of, “Oh, the vegetable is the star.”
So you just said, “Okay, vegetarian on the weeknights”?
That’s how we started because I just like boundaries and rules and it made it easy for me to start. It felt like a reasonable way to approach it — an easy on-ramp for the kids, to be like, “We’re mostly saying goodbye to the burgers. You can have it on the weekend if you want. It’s fine.” It didn’t feel as dramatic.
What about your kids? How did they feel about this project?
My kids were of the age where they were aware of what was happening around them. They were learning in earth science about the environment. They were learning about just how damaging the industrialized meat industry is. They were coming home and saying to me, “Do you know this? If we just cut meat out, we would have a huge impact.” Of course, I knew that, but for some reason, I was afraid that they wouldn’t be OK with it, because so many of our recipes, especially our sentimental family recipes, are meat-based. I was just afraid to take that step. Once they gave me that in, it was easy for me to just go to the next level. They were simultaneously motivating and motivated.
It still was really hard, because I think they liked the idea in theory, but in practice, they’re like, “Wait, no burgers!” That was a challenge, but we had conviction with the kickoff.
I resonate with the idea though of meat as easy default. We’re just going to throw boneless skinless chicken thighs on the grill — no cleanup. Make a salad, have some bread, call it a day. There’s that sense of the default simplicity of just a piece of meat, protein, compared to perhaps a more elaborate or multi-dish vegetarian cooking session. How did you overcome that?
Part of my strategy was coming up with: What are my defaults? I used to just walk into the house and chop up a chicken breast and add oregano and some chili powder. “All right, I don’t know what it is, but it’s chicken that I know my kids love.”
I was like, “Okay, what can I do in this new world?” My version of that is I would just squeeze-dry a block of tofu. Not do the whole pressing thing for half an hour — just squeeze it because I wanted it to be easy. Then, I used the same spices and I crumbled it up over a cast iron pan with some oil and then just let it crisp. That became the replacement for that chicken. I kept looking for those kinds of things.
So shifting your whole sense of the “default dinner.”
Yes, instead of my default as a piece of fish or a piece of protein or something surrounded by vegetables, my defaults now are more vehicles like bowls, salads, pizzas, and farrotto for instance. There’s a recipe in the book for an all-year-long seasonal farrotto. Basically, it’s just risotto made with farro and then you stir in your seasonal vegetables. If you want, you can top it with an egg to give it protein. We used to have this roast chicken recipe with mustard and breadcrumbs which we would have once a week. You’d just set the clock by it. That’s become that for us now; just once a week, we’re doing farro.
And then those dinners turn into a framework, a system of default dinners.
I think it was through John Willoughby [Ed: food editor and cookbook author] that I learned that some chef that he worked with had said, “There’s only seven recipes in the entire world.” [Laughs] Pasta, pizza, bowls, tacos, salads … and it’s true. That’s all we make.
It was just a question of coming up with those six or seven things, the basic framework. Farrotto is one of them, a pizza, some sort of bowl, like brown rice, a grain bowl with really anything. Obviously, there are exceptions to that, but in my house, that’s what we eat every single night.
You have these great charts in the book, plotting those basic meal ideas against, well, whatever vegetable you have. The visual tool of that is so beyond helpful.
That is the way I think about food. That’s so much of what I try to teach people — if you pull back and think about cooking from that angle, then you don’t need to depend on recipes. I think once you’re not depending on recipes, then you’re freer, you’re more confident, and you’re liberated in a sense. You just have more fun and you learn more.
What other strategies do you think help with the vegetarian shift — especially with kids?
It was important to me for my family to still look forward to dinner. I didn’t want it to just be like, “Womp, womp, here’s a salad with chickpeas.” (The Caesar salad with chickpeas is the number-one requested meal in my house now, by the way.) It was important to me to always have something on the plate that wasn’t meat, but it was something equally indulgent- feeling. I call them hooks.
The other night, we had these spicy lentils — classic gingery red lentils with veggie broth and coconut milk and curry paste. Abby, my 17-year-old, she likes it, she doesn’t love it, but if I make a yogurt flatbread and cut it into wedges and then serve it with that, it just helps it go down so much easier. It was the first time that she was like, “Whoa, I really love this meal.” She would have never felt that way if I didn’t have a flatbread there.
It was important to me to always ask, in addition to veg-first, what is the hook? What is the thing that’s going to make my kid excited to come to the table today?
Do you have other particular favorites for summer?
This is another example of a dish that I used to make with bacon, then I was like, “Oh, I can just recreate that without.” We used to make a classic pasta with bacon, tomatoes, and basil. I started experimenting with just red onion — when you cook it down, it gets bacony. Chris Morocco is the first person to point that out, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. My favorite thing to eat in the summer is that. I start with the red onion and then I add tomatoes and corn, and it’s like you need a little olive oil and pepper, but you don’t need much more to make it saucy. Then, with really fresh pasta, it’s just so summery.
I love that it was something your family already knew and loved.
One of the strategies of cooking for kids is, build on your current repertoire. If you can tweak something that already exists, then go with that because there’s the comfort level. We found that it worked in my house.
We asked each of our stars for this special issue to share what they think is a pivotal plant-first recipe for people who want to go two, three, or more nights without meat, and yours is a veggie burger, which you call 100% the superstar of this cookbook.
Yeah, even though it takes a long time to make them, they’re indispensable. And breaking news: Last night my daughter was like, can you please break it up in a skillet, and we just have it like ground beef in a taco? I was like, yes let’s try that out. It was delicious.
Oh, it worked? That’s awesome!
Yes, that’s the other thing with cooking for kids is they’ll always come up with ideas.
These veggie burgers really express your game plan perspective. While, yes, they are a time investment, they freeze very well and can also be your homemade meat substitute. I’m planning on making a big stack and freezing them! Do you have any specific cooking tips?
I pound them very thin, like California-style. You don’t want a big, mushy, thick burger; they’re not going to hold together that well. You want a little bit of craggy crunchiness, and when you cook with the flour and it’s a thin patty, you get that edge. You want a little bit of texture.
Any other secret ingredient that puts them over the top?
I think the color of the pinto bean made it look more like a burger. It’s nice. It didn’t feel like a bean burger I made, but a burger. I think cooking the mushrooms to a crisp versus just having them be mushy. For so long I just cooked mushrooms until they released their liquid and that was that, but you can go even further than that, and then they become almost crispy and that helped a lot.
So, full circle: Are you guys still vegetarian on weeknights?
Glad you asked that. It just informs every decision. The goal now is just to be like, “Oh, the default restaurant order, the default dinner is vegetarian.” Eventually, it just morphed into this philosophy. It’s not a Monday to Friday thing. It’s just more like this little voice saying, “Just try to do vegetarian more often than not.” That’s I think really helpful, because it’s not draconian. It’s just approachable.
Thank you Jenny! Follow Jenny on Instagram and sign up for her always-welcome email newsletter here. Her book, The Weekday Vegetarians: 100 Recipes and a Real-Life Plan for Eating Less Meat, is available for pre-order. It publishes August 31.