For decades, vegetarians have looked to global cuisines for inspiration.
The pioneer was Anna Thomas, author of "The Vegetarian Epicure," a 1972 best-seller. As Jonathan Kauffman writes in his captivating new book, "Hippie Food," at a time when much vegetarian food was brown-on-brown, Thomas "pored over Italian and Middle Eastern cookbooks, in which vegetables were integrated in ways meat-and-potato Americans never imagined." For the book's sequel, she traveled widely and wrote firsthand about dishes from throughout Europe, the Middle East, Mexico and more.
Thomas's influence extended not just to virtually every vegetarian restaurant of the time, but to the spate of vegetarian cookbooks that followed. "For a short period, vegetarians were the culinary avant-garde, evidence that Americans -- particularly white Americans -- were emerging from an era of dominant-culture assimilation into a multicultural one," Kauffman writes.
I thought about Kauffman's take, and Thomas's influence, when I paged through yet another book, Rebecca Seal's "Lisbon: Recipes From the Heart of Portugal," looking for ideas for something different to satisfy me this cold winter. I hit on a recipe for Watercress Soup, a Portuguese staple that adds the green to a simple base of pureed potato, carrot and sometimes turnip.
I've never been to Portugal, but Seal's prose and recipes took me there, and I was thrilled to read that in addition to the chorizo pâté and the salt cod croquettes, the pork with clams and the chicken pies, she found a Portuguese love for broad beans, pumpkin, chickpeas -- and this traditional soup. She writes that some families add small pasta or barley to make it even heartier, but I wanted to keep it as simple as possible. Simple it is: You cook the aromatics and roots in broth, puree, add a little butter for richness, and fold in the chopped watercress. The result is silky and mild, with little bursts of peppery flavor from the greens.
It's satisfying, and it's different, just like I wanted.