So I turn resolutely to a virgin cookbook on my shelf, Veganomicon by name. And in it, past the paeans to veganism and right-living and self-congratulation, I find a recipe for walnut-mushroom pate, which is introduced thus: "Our friend Paula brought this classy pate to a New Year's Eve party and we seriously couldn't stop freaking out due to its lush texture and complex, savory flavor. . . ."
For the new year, it dawns, why not give it a whirl, even though the patter reminds me (and not in a good way) of the snarky, pop-nutrish declamations of the runaway-best-selling Skinny Bitch books.
I am not, suddenly, alone. Not by a long shot. Vegan, vegetarian, vegetable love (in fact, that's the title of a 2005 Barbara Kafka tome), meatless, and less-meat cookbooks poured off the presses last year.
More encouragingly, vegetarian cuisine has been sprung from its health-food ghetto; slipped out of oily, mock-meat Chinese prison.
If plant-based cookery was about morality once (and there is a profoundly moral case to be made for it), its resurgent popularity adds pleasure to the brief.
It's not just to choke down anymore. It's to savor and celebrate. It's hip, not hair-shirt.
In a pub in South Philly (Royal Tavern, for example), gutsy vegan sloppy joes are listed confidently on menus beside meat-loaf sandwiches and Angus burgers.
At Horizons, the sleek vegan shrine on Seventh Street just south of South, the pan-roasted tofu with roasted winter vegetables (and sand-dollar-sized coins of creamy, truffled parsnip ravioli, $19) is more elegant, richly satisfying and memorably complex than anything you're likely to find at the local steakhouse.
No members-only card required. No consignment to lifeless brown rice, peanuts and broccoli. No suffocating, lemme-outta-here absolutism.
Say hello to the new veganism - culinary sophistication, patient craft, lovingly nuanced flavor.
Hasta la vista, Moosewood.
It has been a long time coming: Lisa Tracy, an old friend of mine, wrote a cookbook of her own nearly 25 years ago, somewhat ahead of its time, but with a great title: The Gradual Vegetarian.
It was a step-by-step guide toward a greener, plant-centered diet, a gradualist approach to weaning your typical carnivore, but not shocking him into petulant, foot-stamping rebellion.
But while it sold reasonably well, and while its health advice struck a chord, vegetarian diets were still distinctly countercultural, still unmerged into the mainstream, still awaiting the moment - now upon us - when they would be easygoing and non-sacrificial, flexible and coexistential.
Maybe the dust had to settle. The orthodoxy needed breaking; the tent expanding: There are self-identified vegetarians these days who go meatless - except for bacon.
Maybe the definition had to change. You see "flexitarian" now. Mark Bittman proposes "semivegetarian" in his fat, new How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.
Maybe, like climate change, a stark and inconvenient truth is harder to deny: There's a dead end down the road of the uncurbed Western diet.
Not to get all moral about it.
So I prop open Veganomicon, sauteeing my onions and cremini mushrooms, pulverizing the walnut pieces, blending in the white beans and balsamic vinegar and olive oil, and, well, I scour the pantry for the vegetable stock and - in the spirit of flexibility - use frozen chicken stock we've made from our last roasted chicken.
Yes, it's not exactly vegan at this point.
But it is definitely classy and creamily lush and complex, earthy with the mushrooms, sweet with the onion, rounded out with thyme and tarragon - and next time vegetable stock will be on hand.
I am launched. The next day I roast a big, foil-lined cookie sheet full of fragrant parsnips and quartered carrots and a hunk of celery root. They have no immediate destination. I stick them on a salad.
I find - for New Year's Day - fresh-shelled black-eyed peas at Whole Foods Market and stew them with Tuscan kale and a modest pinch of salty, left-over boar prosciutto from Ninth Street.
I heat up a container of week-old carrot and orange-juice soup for dinner, spooning up Bobbi's light-garlic hummus with pita chips.
I have another spicy Belgian beer.
Soon I find myself at the Royal Tavern in South Philly, colored lights strung across the bar, digging into a steaming cup of rich (though creamless) vegan potato soup. It isn't just OK. It is soulful stuff, the chunked russets making their own thickener, the roasted-vegetable stock dense and earthy, the flavors alive with garlic and rosemary, and gingery chiles.
On the menu - one item below the estimable Angus burger - is a Vegan Sloppy Joe, crumbled soy protein sauced with a perfect balance of tomato, garlic, cumin and vinegar, served on a well-toasted garlic kaiser with lettuce and tomato.
If the vegetarian pub food - cooked by non-vegan Maureen Stoebenau, a veteran of ¡Pasion! - is done right (even the grilled cheese sandwich, its rustic bread suffused with marinated goat cheese before the smoked gouda and aged provolone are applied), the gourmet vegan fare I encounter at upscale Horizons is otherworldly. In a good way.
Chef Rich Landau's deviled oyster mushroom fritters are light as white nougat, the mushrooms rendered oystery indeed, the "creamed" spinach vegetal and ungreasy. The five-onion and lentil soup is as perfect a black bean-style soup as you are likely to ever experience.
But the pan-roasted tofu festooned with meaty roasted trumpet mushrooms, tiny Brussels sprouts and turnips, and sliced baby carrots raised like pincers is my idea of a vegetable triumph.
The sage broth is creamy. The parsnip stuffing in the tender-skinned ravioli (more reminiscent of pierogi, actually) is gingery. There is lusciousness, color, shape, crunch, a rebuttal on the plate to those who argue that full-sized entrees are dead and boring.
I am behind the curve, I suppose. I didn't realize how sophisticated the vegetable had become; how little flavor is sacrificed in skillful vegan cuisine.
I am an unreconstructed admirer of the pig, which I blame for the lag in the evolution of my sensibility.
Have I vowed, nevertheless, to accept vegetarian-ness as my personal savior in this new year?
Not whole hog. Not by a long shot.
But it is speaking to me.
A good angel whispering in my ear.
Makes about 21/2 cups or 6-8 servings
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided use
1 cup finely diced onion
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried tarragon
3/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
1 pound cremini mushrooms, sliced
1 cup lightly toasted walnuts
3/4 cup cooked (or canned) white cannellini beans
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
Up to 1/4 cup cold vegetable broth
1. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Saute the onions until soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic, thyme, tarragon, salt and pepper to taste. Cook 1 minute more.
2. Add the mushrooms and cook until softened, about 8 minutes, reducing heat as needed to prevent scorching.
3. Meanwhile, in processor or blender, grind the walnuts very fine. Add the mushroom mixture to the walnuts along with the beans, vinegar, and remaining tablespoon of oil.
4. Process until smooth but slightly grainy, adding the vegetable stock a little at a time. Continue to puree to a smooth, thick, spreadable paste.
5. Scrape the mixture into an airtight container and chill for at least an hour to meld flavors before serving.
- From Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero (Marlowe, 2007).
Per serving (based on 8): 197 calories, 7 grams protein, 11 grams carbohydrates, trace sugar, 15 grams fat, no cholesterol, 263 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.
Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or email@example.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.