My husband and I have been married for over twenty years and for all of that time, he has been a vegetarian and I have not. It has worked out well enough; we cook and eat vegetarian at home, since it is easier for a meat eater to compromise than the other way around, but I generally take every chance I get outside the home to be a carnivore.
I've grown to enjoy vegetarian cooking. Far from being restricted to plates of broccoli and salad, there are actually endless varieties of satisfying, hearty dishes one can make. Fortunately, Walu is an ova-lacto vegetarian (meaning he eats eggs and dairy), so that makes it easier. And in a pre-marriage compromise, I got him to agree to let me cook fish and shellfish once in a while. (Before any of you rise up and start quibbling about this, let me say in his defense that he wouldn't do it if I hadn't asked. Compromise is what marriage is all about, baby, and I won't let anyone give him grief over this. Lord knows, vegetarians get enough hostility masked as "teasing" about their principles. And by the way, Walu is gracious and unassuming about his vegetarianism.)
Still, there has always been something missing in the savory vegetarian dishes I make, something like the so-called "umami" found in meat. Umami is an indescribable "fifth taste"--something beyond salty, bitter, sweet, or sour. It is savory and complex, and it is this that I miss, now matter how hearty the dish.
I've been making vegetarian pot pies for many years now, but there was always something lacking, and the first time I ever heard about umami, I knew that this is what it was. So how to get it? I couldn't believe that I couldn't create something that wouldn't offer the same pleasurable, savory complexity.
Then, over the weekend, I thought I might have stumbled onto a possible solution. I was making a dish of shrimp and pasta, and happened to throw in a splash of Pernod and some saffron threads. There's nothing too original about that--these are classic ingredients for some shellfish dishes--but the resulting flavors were...yes, complex. There was just enough Pernod to taste if I knew to look for it, but not enough to make me say, "Ah yes, licorice." The saffron? Well, I honestly couldn't really say whether I tasted it or not, so perhaps, thinking about its dear cost, I was too mean with it and did not use enough. A case of penny-wise and pound-foolish if ever there was one.
This got me thinking about a vegetable hot pot recipe I've always enjoyed, one that, given the choice between that and the pot roast, I'd eat the hot pot dish every time--it is that good, and that satisfying. And at the base of the many, many, many chopped veggies are leeks--yes, that's right, a licorice taste.
So, "Duh," I thought, "Why not add leeks to my vegetarian pot pie?"
It's such an obvious thing, I don't know why I'd never thought of it before. So off I ran to the grocery store, only to discover--quelle horror!--that they were out of leeks.
Now, the thing about leeks is that they are member of the same family, Amaryllidaceae, as the ubiquitous onion, with which I have an unhappy and distressing relationship. Uncooked onion, or even too much cooked onion produces gastric misery in me that is not insignificant. Consequently, I seldom cook with it. It is not inconceivable that it is the onion-y essence that I am missing from these vegetarian dishes, but too many hours spent doubled over from onion indulgence will keep me from ever experimenting enough to find out.
Other members of the Amaryllidaceae family, however, like garlic, green onions, and yes, leeks, do not seem to have the same effect. Though I wouldn't say that I use them with abandon, I do occasionally add them to a dish. I can also get away with using onion itself, if I don't use too much, and if it is cooked thoroughly. And while any of these do add complexity to the flavors, there is still that last thing missing, the fifth taste. The grace note.
And while leeks in their full body goodness would be ideal, maybe all I needed to turn my standard vegetarian pot pie into an umami pot pie was...Pernod.
And indeed, that is what happened.
I am a fly-by-the-seat-of my-pants cook, so I don't measure things. But except for the Pernod, there is nothing fancy, foodie, or difficult about this, and it can be adapted to fit whatever vegetables are in season or favored. I also used Pillsbury's refrigerator pie crust, simply because I was tired and didn't feel like making my own. The pot pie could no doubt benefit from a homemade crust, but it isn't necessary.
If you can find leeks, I'd definitely opt for those instead of the Pernod, which is pricey. A bottle will go a very long way, though, and can be a great addition to many other dishes (especially shrimp). I think the key is using it with a light touch, so that you are aware that there is something there, but you don't necessarily get a licorice hit unless you know to look for it. I used about 1 teaspoon for the pie filling.
Some time ago, when I had posted on the Bike Garden's Facebook page that I was making vegetarian pot pie for supper, my sister-in-law Susan asked for the recipe, since she too is married to a vegetarian. It seems to run in Walu's family. But at the time, I didn't feel like I'd figured it out completely. Now I think I have, so Susan, this is for you:
Preheat the oven to 400.
Boil two red potatoes until they are cooked about half-through.
In a large pan, saute 1/4 sweet yellow onion and two chopped carrots in about two tablespoons of olive oil.
Add one clove of minced garlic and salt to taste.
Add 1/2 teaspoon red chile powder and cook for one minute.
Add 1 tablespoon of flour and cook for one minute.
Add: 1 can of red kidney beans, rinsed and drained, 1 can of chopped red tomatoes, and 1 cup of vegetable broth.
Add the drained potatoes.
Add freshly ground black pepper to taste.
Add 1 teaspoon of Pernod (you can leave this out if you've added leeks and sauteed them with the carrots and onion).
Simmer until about half the liquid is gone. Spoon into a pie pan lined with unbaked crust. Top with pie crust and bake until golden brown. Let sit for ten minutes before serving. Makes four large servings.