Vegetarian Southern food is not an oxymoron; here's how to make it at home

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

I sound like an old-timer when I say it, but it's true: Back in my day, vegetarians didn't have it so easy. 

I was a vegetarian for a large part of the '90s. To say the options back then were limited is a bit of an understatement. Not into soy or rice? You were largely out of luck because all dairy and meat replacements seemed to be based on that pair.

You can make these Nashville style hot tofu nuggets at home.

We didn't have fancy vegan cheese. We lived on MorningStar Farms and Boca Burgers. We made chili out of TVP (that's textured vegetable protein) and sprinkled brewers' yeast on our pasta and popcorn. We shopped for vegetarian staples in "health food stores," though when I lived in California for a spell I discovered the wonderful world of co-ops. Still, the only surefire way to find a good veggie burrito was to either make one at home or hang out in the lot at a Grateful Dead show.

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Meanwhile, all of my relatives thought I would surely perish from the lack of protein. I remember my grandmother, who worried I might lapse into a starvation-induced coma at any moment, watching in fascination as I mashed up pinto beans and spread them on toast. Protein problem solved. 

Vegetarianism has since exploded, of course, and going meat-free is no longer a pursuit of fringe weirdos. Vegetarian cafes abound, vegan cheese can actually be good and it's relatively easy to find an abundance of meatless proteins that aren't tofu — not that there's anything wrong with tofu. Restaurants usually have at least a couple of vegetarian dishes on the menu. When I was younger, we relied mostly on the sides at Boston Market.

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More than ever, I field requests for vegetarian recipes over at Southern Kitchen (www.southernkitchen.com), and we do, indeed, have quite a few. Though it may seem counterintuitive to some, Southern food and vegetarianism can go hand in hand. Many Southern dishes are rooted in the garden; think collard greens, stewed beans and squash casserole. You can fry tofu like chicken and make "wings" out of seitan. And you don't even have to be a vegetarian to try it out.

Here are two meat-free recipes to try at home. Visit southernkitchen.com for more recipes and ideas. 

Vegan Nashville hot tofu nuggets

This crispy baked tofu gets tossed in a vegan, Nashville-style hot sauce. It makes a perfect appetizer or potluck dish; even your non-vegan friends will love it.

This recipe comes courtesy of Rabbit & Wolves, a blog specializing in vegan comfort food. It's been edited for length.

Prep time: 15 mins

Cook time: 30 mins

Total time: 45 mins

Ingredients

1 block extra firm tofu

1 cup almond milk or other nondairy milk

1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar

2 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon hot sauce, divided

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided

2 cups panko bread crumbs

1/4 cup vegan butter, such as Earth Balance

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons agave syrup

1 teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

Instructions

Press the tofu using a tofu press, or place the tofu on a plate and put something heavy on top. Press for at least 30 minutes, or as long as overnight. 

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. 

Cut the block of tofu into cubes. Set aside. 

In one of three medium-sized mixing bowls, whisk together the almond milk, apple cider vinegar and 1 teaspoon of hot sauce.

In the second bowl, whisk together the flour and the 1 teaspoon of salt. In the third bowl, add the panko. 

Toss a few cubes of tofu at a time in the flour and shake off excess. Next, put them into the almond milk mixture, making sure they are totally soaked. Then put them back into the flour, then back into the almond milk and then into the panko, coating completely. Pat the panko onto the tofu to make sure it is fully coated. Place the cubes on a baking sheet sprayed with nonstick spray. Repeat with all the tofu cubes.

Bake at 375 degrees for 25-30 minutes, flipping them halfway through baking, or until they are brown and crunchy. 

While the tofu is baking, make the sauce. In a small saucepan, melt the vegan butter and olive oil together on medium-low. Then whisk in the 2 tablespoons of hot sauce, agave, paprika, garlic powder and 1/2 a teaspoon of salt. Let simmer for a minute, then turn the heat off. Once the tofu is done, toss the nuggets in the sauce and serve immediately.

Smokey Vegan Collard Greens

Smoky vegan collard greens

Serves: 6

Hands on time: 20 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

These collard greens may be vegan, but the umami-laden tomato juice and spicy chipotle peppers ensure that they're packed with flavor.

Chef Virginia Willis provided this recipe to Southern Kitchen.

Ingredients

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 sweet onion, such as Vidalia, thinly sliced

4 cloves garlic, chopped

2 cups tomato or vegetable juice

1 chipotle in adobo, chopped, plus 1 tablespoon adobo sauce from the jar

12 cups chopped collard greens (about 12 ounces)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

In a Dutch oven or other large pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Stir in the tomato juice, chipotle and adobo sauce. Add the greens and cover.

Cook, stirring occasionally, until the greens are tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve immediately.

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Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com