Adapting Recipes that use Meat
A lot of cookbooks use meat as a main flavoring for soups, stews and sauces. I am thinking especially of bean dishes here, since it is very difficult to find bean or pea recipes in most cookbooks that donít rely on ham, bacon, salt pork or sausage for the primary broth seasoning. With a lot of recipes like that, just leaving out the meat leaves out most of the flavor, and that doesnít make a satisfying dish.
If you think in terms of types of tastes, the meat in soups and stews basically adds a strong salty taste, sometimes spiciness, and almost always a good amount of fat or oil. In other words, these soups rely on seasoning in oil for their primary taste. Foods like bacon and ham, which are cured, often add a sour taste also. Some meats also add a smoked flavor.
So, to replace the meat in such recipes, you need seasoned and flavorful oil, some kind of salty condiment, and sometimes a sour taste. This underlines the importance, when making meat free soups and stews, of getting your primary flavoring into the oil by sauteing your vegetables and spices before adding them to the stew. That should be sufficient to guarantee a flavorful dish.
Most of my recipes use sauteed vegetables and spices, salt or a salty condiment like soy sauce, and often a sour condiment like lemon juice or vinegar. This combination effectively replaces the need for meat-based flavoring.
So, when you want to try a soup or stew recipe you see that uses meat for flavoring, think about ways to add flavorful oil. You can do this by taking some of the vegetables the dish calls for and sauteing them before adding to the soup, or by adding spices to the oil. Garlic, ginger and fennel in oil can add a spicy sharpness that replaces the spiciness from the seasoned meat, and the three together smell like good sausage spices while you are cooking.
If you really enjoy the smoked flavor from meats, using whole dried chipotle chili is a way of adding good quality smoked flavor. Leave the chili whole and remove it before serving and you will get a good smoky taste with very little hotness (at least if you use the brown chipotle - I find the dried red chipotle to be quite hot).
Recipes that call for chicken or other broth - ignore it and use water. Broth is a way of getting a flavorful liquid. Once you know about getting spices and flavors into your cooking oil, look for ways to adjust where spices are added. Also, remember that vegetables like onions and celery that are just thrown into the cooking water add less appealing flavor than if they are first sauteed until soft, even in just a small amount of oil.
And finally, a hint to cooks who are new to vegetarian cooking - don't try to skimp on the oil! This is especially important if you are used to eating a lot of diary products like cheese, which are usually high fat. If you cut them out of your diet and go to a low-fat vegetable-based diet, you may find yourself craving dairy to make up for the lost fat. Using more oil in your cooking will be more satisfying and will reduce these cravings.