Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Vegetarianism 101: Seminal Texts

Shelf One

I feel like I don’t talk about cookbooks often enough around here.  I talk a lot about recipes and the cookbooks from which they came, but for someone who reads cookbooks for pleasure, I should be saying more about my literary-culinary adventures.  I read cookbooks the way other people read poetry.  It’s a way to let myself sink into the pleasure of someone else’s imagination.  A cookbook is, in a way, kitchen fiction, in the sense that it lets you dream about a culinary world that you don’t yet inhabit.  I might read, for example, about a chocolate cake doused with whiskey, and I think to myself, Ooh, that sounds kind of naughty.  I’ve never made a cake like that before, but I think I’d like to try!  Or I might read about a technique for cooking eggs in tomato sauce and think, Oh, wow, I bet I could adapt that to use up leftover tomato soup in the fridge!  These discoveries are very exciting, of course, and they’re among the best reasons to be a food-lover.  It’s delicious work to explore new culinary horizons.

Today I thought I’d offer a short list of the seminal texts that have taught me about food, especially vegetarianism.  For anyone who is thinking about eating less meat and wants a starter library to guide them in their new cooking life, I’d recommend two things.  One is to get a subscription to Vegetarian Times.  This magazine publishes consistently great recipes that never contain meat, so you don’t have to do the work of trying to adapt a meat-containing recipe to a meatless version (though I, admittedly, love doing just that).  Vegetarian Times can get a little preachy and political, which might be good for new vegetarians because I think it’s good to formulate your own food philosophy.  Being aware of the issues will make you a more informed consumer and therefore better able to make conscientious decisions about food.

My second recommendation is to buy an amazing vegetarian cookbook.  I don’t necessarily mean a book that’s filled with gorgeous pictures of vegetables and looks good on your coffee table, though if that book inspires you to cook healthy meals, then go for it!  What I really mean is that you should buy a vegetarian cookbook that can teach you how to cook vegetarian meals every day.  Buy a cookbook from which you can learn, one that won’t mind if you splatter soup stock on it or smudge it with buttery fingers.  I love all my cookbooks, but there are a few that stand out to me because of how much they taught me.  I’m going to force myself to limit this list to three books, my top recommendations for the newbie vegetarian.  (But don’t forget that subscription to Vegetarian Times!)

* Passionate Vegetarian by Crescent Dragonwagon.  This is, hands down, the book from which I’ve cooked the most recipes.  It’s a humongous book with over a thousand recipes, and I know I’ve just barely scratched the surface of what this book and I can do together.  This book taught me how to make the best cornbread ever, how to simmer leftover vegetable scraps into a flavorful soup stock, how to choose an eggplant, and how to make Better.  More important to me is that this book is my go-to reference book.  Whenever I have a question about a vegetable, this is the book I pick up.  I also use it as a reference book in more subtle ways, such as how to adapt a particular technique to the recipe I have in my imagination.  This book provides solid, practical advice on vegetarian foodstuffs, and it is packed with interesting and delicious recipes.  This book feeds my imagination.

* Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home by the Moosewood Collective.  My friend Ammie recently acquired almost every single book that Moosewood has published, and to say that I’m jealous would be an understatement.  She’s a lucky duck, that Ammie, because Moosewood’s cookbooks are awesome.  I have two of them, Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home and Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts, both of which are great.  Cooks at Home is a book that inspires me to cook delicious, everyday foods to keep dinner interesting and satisfying.  It has a healthy focus, as I think most of the Moosewood books do, but it’s not so healthy that you will feel deprived.  It’s not entirely vegetarian, as there is a chapter on seafood, but it’s vegetarian enough that it’s easy to skip past that section.  In this book, there is a nice variety of foods inspired by cultures around the world.  (Some might call this “ethnic food,” but I hate that term because it’s ridiculous.  But I’ll save that rant for another day.)  The recipes are solid and easy to make, with flavorful twists that suggest a lot of thought went into these recipes, even the ones that look very easy and basic.

* Mollie Katzen’s Sunlight Cafe by Mollie Katzen.  This book is focused on breakfast, but it has taught me about how to eat well any time of day.  I learned how to boost the protein in my meals, especially in my breakfasts and sweet snacks, so that even when I’m indulging my sweet tooth, I can eat something that will satisfy my hunger in a healthier, more substantial way.  I’ve adapted a number of recipes from this book, including my Mocha Ricotta Muffins and Crunchy Breakfast Granola.  Of the three books I’m recommending, this one is the most beautiful, with its lovely paintings and thick, smooth pages.

This book is also useful because I’ve never been one to think that breakfast can only be eaten before noon.  This book contains plenty of ideas for savory breakfasts, which make for delightful dinners.  I love eggs for supper, but this book also gives ideas for different vegetable preparations as well as tofu and tempeh options.  I still need to try Mollie’s Tempeh Hash, as I am eager to find a tempeh preparation that I really, truly love.  Tempeh Bacon was good, but I’m still looking for my one true tempeh love.

Dear readers, what are your seminal kitchen texts?  Which cookbooks have made you fall in love with cooking all over again?

Monday, May 30, 2011

I Can’t Help Myself

Flags Out Today

Happy Memorial Day to my American readers!  Some say that here in the States, this holiday is the unofficial start of summer, but I say that those people clearly do not live in Texas, where we are now celebrating two months of summer.  And by “celebrating,” I mean that we are hiding in our caves with the air-conditioning humming a soothing tune.  Actually, I’m a little concerned right now that my AC is not working, as the temperature seems to be holding steady at about 85 degrees F here inside my cave.  Either the box that makes things cold is not working, or it just can’t keep up with the heat today.  It’s 95 degrees outside right now, so your guess is as good as mine.  (I should have left the AC running when I left for work this morning.  Oh, regret!)

Update on the AC situation(!): in a rare moment of lucidity, I decided to be proactive and call the People in Charge to complain about the AC.  Ten minutes later, the maintenance guy showed up.  Ten minutes after that, cool air was flowing into my apartment.  The problem, he told me, was ants.  Ants had blocked the connector that transmits the electrical signal from me, inside the apartment, to the air-conditioning unit outside.  I fear and loathe the ants already, and I had been warned about their destructive powers.  Now I feel validated in my ant hatred.  It’s funny: for someone with a professional interest in insects and other arthropods, I seem to dislike a lot of them.  But I will say that the ants and the crickets (which I despise) are making the roaches seem almost friendly by comparison.

For better or worse, I spent most of the day at work, but the whole time, I was looking forward to coming home to a chocolate-banana malt and a few “biscuits,” as the British say.  I tweaked a Nigella Lawson recipe to turn her recipe for digestive biscuits into a slightly sweeter and strangely addictive cookie.  Nigella’s recipe is barely sweet at all, but I really liked the texture of her recipe the first time I made it.  I followed it obediently except that I used all butter instead of the shortening/butter combination that she specifies.  Shortening grosses me out, and I really don’t want to know if I’m eating it, so that means I cannot cook with it.  But butter—I like butter!  And the more I cook and bake with butter, the more I like it.  Anyway, to make a more cookie-like biscuit, I increased the sugar twofold and added a teaspoon of vanilla.  That’s it!  And it did the trick: these cookies are subtly sweet with a lovely crunchy texture and a pleasantly whole-grain, wheaty taste.  They’re such understated cookies that I should not love them as much as I do, but I can’t help myself.  I think they’d be great vehicles for a frosting, such as a malted chocolate frosting, but I haven’t tried it yet.  I can’t bring myself to adulterate them with any frills, frosting or otherwise.  They’re just so tasty.  I think it’s the butter that makes them so good. 

They Call Them Biscuits

Digestive Biscuits, Americanized

Adapted from How to Eat by Nigella Lawson

Makes about 2 dozen cookies

The dough for these “biscuits” comes together using a method similar to how one makes pie crust by hand.  I am no pastry chef, but I thought the texture of these cookies was great, so I must be doing something right.  So fear not, would-be pastry chefs!  These cookies are not too hard to make and they are a good excuse to bust out your cookie cutters.  For my birthday one year, my awesome friend Ammie gave me some leaf-shaped cookie cutters, and I like to use them when I make these cookies.  I always think of sugar cookies when I think of cookie cutters, and these cookies are like sugar cookies for grown-up hippies.  And the leaf shapes are a sweet reference to nature, which is just perfect for tree-huggers!

1/2 cup oats

3/4 cup graham flour

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp. salt

1 tsp. baking powder

1/4 cup granulated sugar

6 tbsp. cold butter

1 tsp. vanilla extract

About 1/3 cup milk

1)  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.  Line a baking sheet with a Silpat or other silicone baking pad.

2)  In a food processor, buzz the oats to a finer texture.  I buzz them into a mixture of fine particles that resemble flour and larger flakes.  Dump the oats into a medium-sized mixing bowl.

3)  In the bowl with the oats, mix together the oats, flours, salt, baking powder, and sugar.  Cut the butter into dice approximately 1/2-inch in size, and then, using your hands, work the butter into the dry ingredients with your fingers.  This is the fun part!  Keep working the butter into the dough until you have what Nigella calls “a floury, bread-crumby texture.”  It won’t seem like enough butter for all those dry ingredients, but please trust me: it will be enough.

4)  Mix the vanilla and milk together in a small measuring cup with a spout for pouring.  Pour the liquid into the oat mixture, a tablespoon or two at a time, and mix the milk into the dough after each addition.  The dough will start to come together.  I always use the full 1/3 cup milk, but Nigella seems to imply that you may not need all the milk.  At any rate, add enough liquid to help the dough come together.

5)  Flour a nice big flat surface.  Gather the dough into a ball, dust it with a bit of flour, and roll the dough out to about 1/4-inch thickness.  Cut the dough into shapes as you like—I use my leaf cutter and I also make rectangles or circles—and place the unbaked shapes on the prepared baking sheet.  Gather the dough scraps into a ball, roll it out again, and cut more cookies.  Repeat the gathering, rolling, and cutting until you’ve used all the dough.  If you like, use a fork to prick the cookies stylishly.  Bake for 12-15 minutes, until the edges are lightly browned.  This change in color may be difficult to see because the graham flour makes the dough a beige color, but I find that 12-14 minutes yields crunchy but not overbaked cookies.

6)  Allow the cookies to cool on their sheet on a wire rack for a few minutes, then move the cookies onto a wire rack to cool completely.  Transfer to an airtight storage container when the cookies are completely cooled.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Wedding Food Question

First things first: let’s not jump to any conclusions.  No one is getting married around here, especially not me.  There have been no proposals, no rings, no bent knees, no “Will you marry me?”s.  The topic of this post is a hypothetical proposition, not a real one.

The situation is this: say that you are a dedicated vegetarian.  You like being vegetarian for lots of reasons, but you happen to be in love with a nonvegetarian, one who is very enthusiastic about eating meat.  Most of the time, the two of you figure out how to feed yourselves without too much hassle.  You cook mostly vegetarian meals together to please the nonmeating person, and when you go out to eat, the carnivore (I say that lovingly) is free to order hunks of meat.  The two of you have managed to establish an unspoken agreement that you don’t harass each other about your eating preferences: no tofu jokes from him, no snide remarks about eating cows from you.  In fact, he seems to enjoy the vegetarian meals the two of you eat together, so really, you don’t feel bad about abstaining from meaty, homecooked meals with him.

The two of you are really quite mature about the whole thing, and you are kind to each other, so there’s no tension over the food issue.  But let’s say that you decide to get married.  You decide to have a more-or-less traditional wedding celebration, with a big reception where you feed 200 of your closest family and friends.  Being sane, rational people, you decide to let someone else do the cooking for this reception, but you have to decide what to serve your guests.  Let’s say, for this hypothetical scenario, that your caterer can and will cook anything you like, and it will be delicious.  The quality of the food will be amazing, and the price is not an issue.  For the purposes of this question, you can serve your guests anything you want, and the only real issue is what to put on their plates.

What do you select for your wedding menu?  As a vegetarian, do you feed your guests meat, or do you insist on an all-vegetarian menu?

I find this question endlessly fascinating, because it speaks to the tangled issues of the personal versus the political.  Of course, the hypothetical people I’m thinking about are me, the vegetarian, and Matt, the happy carnivore.  Like I said, no one is getting married, so there is no real-life dilemma to solve.  But when I think about my own (hypothetical) wedding, I love the idea of an all-vegetarian menu.  Of course I do!  Why wouldn’t I?  It would be ridiculous for me to host a wedding reception that included food that I couldn’t eat.  Serving meat at my own wedding would force me to say to myself, Wow, even at my own wedding I feel excluded.  My own wedding makes me feel like an outsider because of my freakish food preferences.

And yet.  There’s the groom, who might feel a sense of disappointment if we didn’t include an entree that satisfied his craving for something meaty and celebratory.  There is my father, who is a traditional, German-Irish meat-and-potatoes man.  There are any number of older family members who might be confused by the lack of meat—confused and unhappy by the way I have forced them to eat what I like to eat.  They might even refuse to eat most of the menu options, because old people can be stubborn that way.

So what do you do?  Do you stake your claim to a vegetarian event, or do you compromise for the sake of marital harmony?

I know what my answer would be, but first I have to say this: I know that for many cultures around the world, slaughtering animals is a custom that precedes the celebration.  To kill a cow or a pig is a happy sign that there is something joyful to be observed, and part of the celebration is eating something rich and flavorful: meat.  For many of these cultures, eating meat was (and is?) a rare event, which is part of why it is so closely associated with celebration.  I don’t think I hold it against these people that meat is part of their event.  But for my happy event, ideally there is no animal slaughter.  There are no cows or pigs that lose their lives for my celebration.  I feel sad to think of my “special day” as the cause of their death.

Despite my sadness, I think I would let my groom and my meat-and-potatoes father have their meat.  I would compromise on that one element of the menu, letting my guests have a meat course if they chose to partake in it.  I would do it because I’d rather give and receive love, with a few sacrifices, than be alone and righteously abstaining from meat.  I would do it for a person who has made me happier than I could ever imagine, even if he’s making me laugh while carving a steak across the table from me.

I would insist that the meat came from animals that were raised humanely and treated with respect.  I would hope that we could source the meat from someone who loves and respects his animals, even if it seems contradictory that one could love animals and still raise them to become food.  I would also insist that everything on the wedding reception menu that isn’t a hunk of meat is something that fits my vegetarian standards: no lard, no animal-based stocks, no gelatin.  And I would make it known to my groom that this compromise is something that I am doing for him and for us, not because I want to establish myself as a martyr, but because I want him to recognize and respect the significance of such a decision.  I’m not a pushover, but I want both of us to be happy.

And then I’d announce that I plan to raise all our children as vegetarians.

Dear readers, what would you do, as either the vegetarian or the carnivore, in a “mixed-food” couple?  What issues would be or were most relevant to you when planning a meal for a large group of people?  And for my vegetarian readers, how important are your partner(s)’s food choices?  Do you try to influence what they eat?  Would you or are you dating a nonvegetarian or nonvegan?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

We Should Talk

Oh, dear.  I’m sorry I didn’t stop by to say hello yesterday.  It was an awful day, and I was in no shape to string together words in a coherent fashion.  Instead, I went for an after-dinner bike ride, watched a sweet and slightly sappy movie called Not Since You, and I made peanut sauce for dinner.

We should talk about the peanut sauce.

Making Peanut Sauce

On the issue of peanut sauce, my position is that every cook who claims to like peanut sauce ought to have her own signature version of it.  I feel the same way about salsa too, by the way, and chocolate cake.  I love the idea of signature recipes for the same reason that I love it when other people cook for me: I feel like it’s a window into what makes them happy and what pleases their palates.  I’m not a big fan of people labeling something the “best” this-or-that because I feel like it fosters an annoying sense of competition among cooks.  Can’t we just see life like the giant potluck it is, and everybody can just bring something they love to share?

An eternity ago, I shared “my” peanut sauce recipe on this site, and I shared it mostly in the hope that you would be inspired to try the salad in which I use the peanut sauce as a dressing.  Oh man, I love that salad so much—just thinking about it makes me want to hike to the grocery store for some salad greens, a handful of radishes, and a few potatoes.  The dressing is a deep savory number, a dance of salt and umami with the richness of peanut butter.  It has just a touch of sweetness, but it’s not a sweet dressing.  It’s quite different from the peanut sauce that I made yesterday, but because I have a cosmopolitan tongue, I like them both.  (Ooh, I like that idea.  Rather than having favorite recipes for everything, I can just declare myself a cosmopolitan foodie with a libertine tongue!)

Last night, I came home from my exhausting day knowing that I wanted to make something good for dinner, something that involved a green vegetable.  I had two heads of broccoli rolling around in the produce drawer, hanging out with a package of tofu that was waiting so patiently for its turn on the dinner table.  And for elusive reasons, I was craving Melissa Clark’s peanut sauce, and a plan for dinner was hatched: roasted broccoli and tofu on rice, topped with creamy spoonfuls of peanut sauce.  It had all the elements of a good vegetarian dinner.  Green vegetable?  Check!  Protein?  Check!  A tasty carbohydrate?  Check!  Something to tie everything together into a meal?  Check!

And so began a relaxing session of kitchen therapy.  I got the rice going first, using my favorite oven-baked version.  Then I prepped the broccoli and tofu, cutting them both into large, bite-sized chunks and seasoning them with salt, pepper, and a generous splash of olive oil.  I chose to roast the broccoli and tofu because I find it so much easier than pan-frying them on the stovetop.  Plus I was already using the oven for the rice, so I’d be able to get more bang for my buck in the oven. 

Roasted Broccoli and Tofu

Finally, while the rice et al. were cooking or cooling, I made the peanut sauce.  Whereas my old peanut sauce recipe is salty and savory, Melissa Clark’s peanut sauce is sweet and bright with ginger and coconut.  The peanut sauce accompanies a story about making crispy fried tofu, but honestly, the tofu part didn’t work out for me.  It’s probably because the pan I was using was too small to accommodate an entire block of tofu, but still, I find myself unmotivated to make it again.  Maybe crispy tofu isn’t my thing?  I rather like the soft, lightly browned tofu pillows that roasting can yield, and like I said, roasting is so easy, whereas pan-frying feels fiddly and fussy to me, at least when it comes to tofu.

Finally, all the separate parts were finished, and I assembled my bowl of rice topped with tofu, broccoli, and lots of peanut sauce.  After the requisite food-photography-in-anticipation-of-blogging, I realized I forgot the radishes.  Radishes are terrific with peanut sauce!  They should not be forgotten!  So I sliced up a radish, added it to my bowl, and dinner was served.


(See?  No radishes!  Shameful!)

I imagine you could take the peanut sauce in any number of directions: peanut noodles, a dipping sauce for crudités, a salad dressing if thinned with some water, soy sauce, and/or rice vinegar.  You could use it as part of a wrap, layering it with seasoned tofu or tempeh, lettuce, shredded carrot, and cucumber.  Really, a good peanut sauce is like a gorgeous scarf in your wardrobe—it can make lots of dishes sparkle, but it can’t carry the meal for you.  You need something underneath it to provide the bulk for a proper meal.

Whew!  I do go on and on.  Let’s cut to the recipe now, shall we?  Okay!

Sweet and Gingery Peanut Sauce

Adapted from In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite by Melissa Clark

I’ve made this peanut sauce twice now.  The first time, I followed the recipe exactly as written, but last night, I took some liberties to use what I had on hand.  I’ll make some notes in the recipe below to indicate what I’ve tinkered with (and had good results!), but I do want you to know that the original recipe, without my meddling, is awesome.

1/3 cup natural peanut butter (I use crunchy)

2 tbsp. coconut milk (I’ve used 2 tbsp. of thick, full-fat coconut milk, and I’ve also used 3 tbsp. of thin, “light” coconut milk)

1 clove garlic, chopped

1/2-inch-thick coin of fresh ginger, chopped (I’ve also used 1/2 tsp. ground ginger here.  The fresh ginger is much stronger and hotter, but dried ground ginger will work too.)

1 tbsp. light brown sugar

1 tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro (optional—I’ve left this out)

2 tsp. soy sauce

1/4 tsp. hot sauce (I use sriracha)

2 tbsp. water, or to taste

1)  Throw all the ingredients except the water into a food processor.  Buzz to smoothness, pausing occasionally to scrape down the sides.  Add the water to thin the sauce to your liking.  I find that it’s very thick without the water, and adding some water helps to make a sauce that’s more sauce-like and less pudding-like.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Bookworm Discovers Vegetarianism: Chrissy’s Story

Today I am tickled pink to share with you a guest post from one of my favorite bloggers, Chrissy of The New Me.  Chrissy and I “met” recently through our blogs, and we became friends quickly.  Chrissy has written a lot about her adventures in (mostly) vegan cooking, and she’s working her way through Veganomicon, a massive and much-loved book devoted to vegan cooking.  Chrissy cooks frequently and shares her kitchen adventures and recipe finds on her blog.  She’s got a bit of a sweet tooth, too, so you’ll find plenty of cakes, cookies, pies, and other treats in her recipe archive.  Chrissy’s food photography is beautiful and inspiring; all the photos below are hers.

What I admire most about Chrissy is her unique mix of ambition, compassion, and fun.  She’s a dedicated goal-setter, a talented writer, a passionate advocate for animal and human rights, and a devoted yogi and runner.  It’s such a thrill to have her as a guest blogger during Veg Bootcamp, and I hope you enjoy her story as much as I did.

* * *

Chrissy writes…

little plums

My path to vegetarianism started in the public library. In high school I worked as a page, shelving books and making sure everything was in proper Dewey Decimal order. I also liked to skim each book before placing in on the shelf. While this slowed down my efficiency, it made me great at recommending materials for patrons, as I knew the plots of 95% of the books on our shelves. One day, I came across a stack of books about vegetarianism and, as was my custom, started reading one of them. Then I read the next one. And the next one. I dragged the rest to the back corner of the library where no one ever went and finished the stack. By the time my shift ended, I had visions of crude slaughterhouses, cows mourning their stolen young, and beak-less chickens crammed into too-small cages dancing through my head. I decided that I would go vegetarian for one month, just to see if I could do it.

It was not an easy transition. My family is very meat-and-potatoes (it was only in college that I realized spinach is a leafy green and existed as something other than a creamed side dish) and my parents did not have the time or desire to cook me a separate meal from unfamiliar ingredients. I had to learn how to cook. The first time was a disaster—I stir-fried broccoli and and tofu, except the broccoli was undercooked, I bought silken tofu instead of firm and it congealed at the bottom of the pan, and I doused everything in a sodium-rich soy sauce. It was disgusting, but I ate every bite—I wanted to prove to my parents that I could do this vegetarian thing. After that, I survived on grilled cheese and veggie burgers until I left for college, where a cafeteria that offered a meat, a vegetarian AND a vegan option every night was my savior (art school = highly recommended!).

Ten years later I am still a vegetarian who leans mostly vegan. (My parents are still convinced that it's a phase.) And while I've steadily abstained from meat all these years, my attitude toward vegetarianism has evolved. For example, I've always been in this for the animals and not for health reasons. The fact that I feel healthy, rarely get sick and have enough energy to run marathons and practice yoga are nice perks, but I also know that any diet (even ones that include meat) can be healthy if done right. There was a time when I was more militant about vegetarianism—I felt it was the only humane way to eat and that anyone who didn't turn their nose up at carcass-based meals was directly engaging in a terrible cruelty.

These days I'm a lot more open-minded about my beliefs. I recognize that the ability to choose what I will and will not eat, based on a personal moral code, is a privilege. Such decisions require a certain amount of education, resources, and freedom, and not everyone has access to those things. I'm also much more sensitive to where my food comes from. What is better for the world—an organic kiwi shipped from New Zealand to Texas, or an egg from a chicken that lives in my neighbor's backyard?

biggest basket ever

This is why I consider myself "mostly vegan"—the world is not black and white and living the best life you can requires a certain amount of flexibility. The 18-year-old version of myself saw flexibility as weakness; the 28-year-old me now understands that it is necessary to live in harmony with the world.

I love food—preparing it, presenting it, writing and reading about it, and, of course, eating it! And knowing that my food has caused as little harm to the planet as possible makes every dish extra delicious.

i ate them all

You can find Chrissy’s daily thoughts on her blog, The New Me, or check out her gorgeous Flickr page, especially her tempting food and drink photography.  Ooh la la!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Conflict of Interest

I may have passionate feelings about vegetarianism, but I admit that I don’t expect that humans will ever stop eating meat altogether.  Some say it’s part of our evolutionary history, that it’s part of what made us human—all that protein!—but honestly, I think it’s much simpler than that: meat is tasty.  You can do things with it that you can’t do with plant-based foods, which means that meat is unique.  So even though I advocate a vegetarian diet and follow one myself, I’m an environmentalist before I’m a vegetarian.  The way in which meat is obtained is important—it’s the key to sustainability and health for animals, including humans, and the land that supports all of our lives.

I may not eat meat, but I support people and farms that are trying to change the way agriculture is practiced.  Small numbers of animals, forage-based diets, well-managed animal waste protocols—Michael Pollan talks about all of these points in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which I think should be required reading for everybody.  And I’m happy to see restaurants trying to source their products from operations that prioritize sustainability.  However, I take issue with this: 

This is so Wrong

Oh, Chipotle.  I know this is supposed to be a joke, sort of, but I just don’t find it funny.  It’s gross.  Pigs advocating for the pork industry?  I don’t think so.  Such a juxtaposition seems to ignore our responsibility, as eaters, to acknowledge that our appetites have a price.  Our place in the food chain is not strictly determined by our animalistic desires any more, because we can choose to eat or not eat other sentient creatures.  A tiger may have no choice about eating a zebra, as tigers are obligate carnivores.  But humans?  The beauty and challenge of being human is that we aren’t obligate anythings.  Our dietary options are wonderfully diverse.  Yes, if we want to eat pigs, we can, but let’s not kid ourselves about what it means to eat a pig.  And pigs, if they could talk, would say something quite different from what Chipotle’s imaginary pig says on that brown paper bag.  That’s what I believe.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Out of the Ordinary

This morning, I looked at two houses, either of which, in theory, could be my next home.  In theory, but not in reality, because one of them is too expensive, the other one I didn’t like that much, and they both have way too much space for what I need.  Nevertheless, there is something about looking at homes that are in need of new owners that is kinda dreamy.  It’s an out-loud dreaming, an acknowledging of the fact, that yes, I’m really doing this thing where I go off in search of the last piece of the puzzle for my grown-up life.  I don’t need a husband or a baby to feel like a grown-up; I just need a front porch, a mortgage, and maybe some potted plants.

I suspect that this home-hunting process will be slow-going because as much as the market may be urging us all to buy, buy, BUY!, I’m just not in a hurry.  It’s too big of a decision, involving too much money that has taken me too many years to earn.  Because buying a home involves such large sums of money, it feels a lot like putting my life on the line.  Once I fork my down payment over to the bank, I can’t use that money for an emergency trip to Europe or to fund that scenario where I decide to leave behind my day job so that I can write my first book.  Once I sign on the dotted line, I sign away a certain sense of freedom that still waits for me, should I decide to change paths.  Honestly, it’s scary to commit to something that threatens to clip my wings.  It’s scary enough to make me want to rent, forever and ever, just to maintain the fantasy of living a different life.  But then I realize that I have to be brave enough to forge a truce between my nesting, homebuying instincts and my run-for-the-hills instincts.  It makes me wonder if that’s what being a grown-up is really about: finding a compromise between conflicting desires.

Looking at houses, like I did this morning, seems like it might be the easy part of this process.  I felt like I took a few steps out of my comfort zone, and that felt great.  It was liberating, like I was shaking off something that used to comfort me and now threatens to stifle me.  Another event that was outside of my comfort zone was Sunday night’s dinner.  I made an unusual salad, one that featured chickpeas, green onions, parsley, and radishes, and the whole thing was topped by a soft-boiled egg.  To make the salad, I had to boil an egg!  That may sound rather mundane, but I can’t remember the last time I boiled an egg, or if I’ve ever boiled an egg in my whole life.  It was exciting!  The water was hot!  The egg was brown!  I didn’t cook it properly!  But I didn’t die!

Exciting eggs aside, the most intriguing aspect of this salad was the amount of parsley.  Two whole cups of parsley leaves!  That’s a lot of parsley.  I was lazy and went a tiny bit lighter on the parsley, but still: it was like “Parsley Salad with Some Other Stuff in It.”  Parsley can be a little rigid, a little sharp-toothed, but it is incredibly refreshing and not something I always have hanging out in my fridge.  Eaten with a hunk of baguette, I was reminded all over again how parsley can make the difference between boring and brilliant.

Parsley and Radish Tails

So in less than three days, I’ve done two exciting, out-of-the-ordinary things, and I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself.  For someone who was chafing from her own security blanket, I seem to have shoved it aside in favor of something bigger, fresher, greener.  And one of these days, I’ll figure out how to boil eggs.  Promise.

Funky Salad for Dinner

Above is Gabrielle Hamilton’s Chickpea Salad with Four-Minute Eggs, posted by Luisa on The Wednesday Chef

So tell me dear readers, what have you done lately that is out of the ordinary for you?  Come on, be brave and share your story!  You can do it!

Monday, May 23, 2011

For Its Own Sake

It can be hard to keep up one’s spirits in the wake of disaster.  Between Japan’s earthquake earlier this year and Joplin, Missouri’s record-shattering and town-destroying tornado yesterday, I think we’re all natural disaster’ed out for the year.  I am sure that Japan and Missouri would agree with me.  Then, of course, there’s that niggling sense of ridiculousness as the rest of us carry on with our lives, including our blogging, and we wonder to ourselves, Should I be doing something more important?  I’m sure I should be embarrassed by the way I carry on as though life is fine and dandy, even though earthquakes and tornadoes have destroyed and dismembered the lives of anyone who was unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And yet.  What other choice do we have?  Sure, we can give money to relief efforts, and that’s a noble thing to do.  If you paid your taxes, you’re already part of the relief efforts because, among others, the National Guard is helping with the aftermath of Joplin’s tornado.  In addition, President Obama has dispatched FEMA to the scene.

As selfish as this may sound, I don’t think the rest of us should feel guilty for living our everyday lives in the wake of disaster.  Bad things happen, and we should try to be prepared for them, but life is lived in the right-here, right-now moment.  Life is happening right this minute—good, bad, happy, sad, in joy and in sorrow.  This is life.  We carry on because it’s all we can do, besides offering our money and our time to the causes that matter most to us.  “To hunger is to be alive, and to hope,” wrote Crescent Dragonwagon in the introduction to Passionate Vegetarian.  So it is our hunger and the daily cycles of cooking and eating that keep us alive and wanting more.  On that note, let’s return to our regularly scheduled programming.

* * *

I know it’s a scary food, but today we’re going to talk about tempeh.  I’ll spare you the photo of raw tempeh, because Ahhh!  It FRIGHTENS me!  For some reason, I’m fine with culturing my own dairy at home, but anything involving spores is anxiety-inducing.  Perhaps it’s my years of lab experience: bacteria are a-okay in my book, but fungi and the like are mysterious and unpredictable creatures.  Are they even creatures?  Whatever they are, I find them spooky.  But they do have some culinary merits, so I take a deep breath, unwrap the tempeh, and start making dinner.

Tempeh, for the uninitiated, is fermented soybeans that have been pressed into a bumpy, nubbly, grayish-brown block.  I first ate tempeh back in college, probably when my friend Shawn Marie cooked up some delicious stir-fry that contained tempeh.  Since then, I’ve tried cooking it myself in a number of ways, including pan-frying, simmering in thick chilies, and, most recently, as tempeh “bacon.”


That’s the tempeh bacon up there, between the lettuce and the tomatoes.  Now, let me be the first to say: this tempeh “bacon” tastes nothing like real bacon, except for the fact that both foods are salty.  Bacon is unique—its crunch, its salty-savory intensity.  I really like bacon, but I’m committed enough to vegetarianism that I only eat it if I’m with my family and they’re eating it.  Call my a hypocrite if you want, but for me, it’s a special occasion food that comes from humanely and responsibly raised pigs, so I feel fine about eating it.  I say all of this to illustrate that yes, I do know what real bacon tastes like, and while this tempeh bacon is not even close to the real thing, I still liked it for its own sake.

I especially liked tempeh bacon as part of a BLT: (tempeh) bacon, lettuce, and tomato on a spicy wrap.  The tempeh bacon is made by marinating thinly sliced tempeh in a spicy-salty mixture that includes soy sauce and chili powder, so it picks up a hefty dose of saline and a zippy heat.  The marinated tempeh strips are baked, and supposedly they crisp up while baking, but mine never got crispy, so consider yourself warned.  Because the tempeh bacon is so intensely seasoned, it goes well inside a BLT—the lettuce and tomatoes help to cool and balance the tempeh.  With a generous slathering of mayonnaise to add cool and creamy flavor, a pair of BLTs make a lovely lunch entree, especially if there are no carnivores around to harass you about making tempeh “bacon.”  Meat-eaters can be so annoying.

Tempeh “Bacon”

Adapted slightly from Vegetarian Times

Makes enough for 4 servings

1 8-ounce package of tempeh, sliced into 24 thin pieces

1/4 cup soy sauce (VT calls for low-sodium soy sauce, but I just used regular soy sauce, which is what I had on hand)

1/2 cup water

2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar

1 tsp. sugar

1/2 tsp. ground cumin

1/2 tsp. chili powder

1/2 tsp. smoked paprika

1 tbsp. canola oil

1)  In a large rectangular dish for which you have a lid, lay the tempeh pieces.

2)  In a small saucepan, whisk together the remaining ingredients except for the canola oil.  Bring the mixture to a boil, let it boil for 1 minute, then pour this marinade over the tempeh slices, and let it cool.

3)  Cover the marinating tempeh slices and refrigerate for 2 hours or up to overnight.

4)  Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.  Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.  (I used a 10x15-inch rimmed baking sheet, and it was roomy enough for a single layer of the tempeh slices.)  Lay the tempeh slices in a single row on the baking sheet.  Place the canola oil in a small bowl or ramekin, and use a pastry brush to brush the slices with oil.  Bake for 10-15 minutes, then remove the baking sheet from the oven.  Flip the tempeh slices over, brush with the remaining oil, and bake for 5-7 minutes longer until they are nice and brown (and maybe crispy?).  Serve immediately, or allow the baked tempeh to cool, then cover tightly and refrigerate.  They taste great the next day.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Slow and Grateful Sunday

Thanks to hormones and a possible infection, I’m feeling slow as molasses today, but it feels good.  It seems strange to me, but there is something pleasurable in feeling the languid heaviness of one’s limbs on a day when one really should slow down, regardless of religious preferences.  We need Sundays to recalibrate ourselves.  We need a day light on responsibilities and heavy on rest and play.  We need a day to putter, to linger over the small things, to feel free to do what feels good.

We need Sundays to feel grateful for life, for love, for the good food that graces our tables and the happy faces that will sit at those tables.  Today I am feeling grateful for the blessings in my life, such as my sister, who offered up wisdom and guidance as I start the process of finding a new place to call home.  It really is a big decision, going from renter to homeowner, but the more we talked today about the nitty-gritties of homehunting, mortgages, and decorating, the more sure I felt about this decision.  It’s what I’ve always wanted; I just didn’t know when the “right” time would be.  And maybe there isn’t a right time, but the time to begin is now.  On Tuesday morning, I’m going to look at a home that I’m pretty sure is waaay out of my price range, but whatever—it’ll be fun!  It’s a cute house, and even if I can’t afford it, I’d still like to see what it looks like.  And who knows—maybe one day it will be in my price range.

I’m feeling grateful for other, smaller things too.  Like…

Saturday Lunch

* Weekend lunches eaten at home, with real dishes and a tablecloth and fresh green beans bought that morning at the grocery store

* A refrigerator full of fresh vegetables for a week’s worth of good eating

* The smell of freshly cut lemons

* The way of pan of brownies in the oven makes me feel like everything is going to be okay

Provisions for a Couch Cruise

* Saturday afternoon couch cruises, with tea and a giant cookie and a new book to sink into

* Ending my sentences with prepositional phrases.  It makes me feel so naughty!

* A good friend who sends me an e-mail to make sure I’m okay and to tell me about the new brownie recipe she tried

* Written declarations of love and lust from the sweetest man I’ve ever met

* The oceans of inspiration that I find on-line.  The recipes, the stories, the words of wisdom and encouragement—there’s nothing else quite like the world of blogs and the people who write them.  It’s incredible.

View from the Top Floor of the Library

* Libraries.  Above, you can see the view from the sixth floor of the main campus library.  I’ll admit that this photo doesn’t quite capture the effect of looking out this window in person, but still, the photo reminds me of a carpe diem kind of afternoon, and I like it for that reason.

Happy Sunday, my sweets.  I hope today was restful and lovely for you, and that you find yourself ready to start the new week in good spirits.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

An Exciting Departure

I went grocery shopping today, and it was awesome.  Fresh green beans, green leaf lettuce, green onions, green green green!  I just love a good produce section.

As I was drawing up my shopping list for today, I realized what an ingredient shopper I have become.  This is in contrast to a recipe shopper, whose list is composed of items that will allow her to make a neat selection of recipes that she’s pre-selected and now plans to make in the immediate future.  Oh, Recipe Shopper, I do envy you.  Your life must be so organized and calm, with your well-stocked refrigerator and pantry and your pile of recipes, waiting like so many soldiers for you to call them into action.

I, on the other hand, have embraced a certain organized chaos in my cooking life.  The organization is within my kitchen: I know how to curate a cooking space that works for me.  (As an aside, can I just mention how much I love using the word “curate” to describe stocking one’s kitchen?  I stole it from Molly Wizenberg’s last Bon Appetit article.  Remember: good writers borrow, but great writers steal.  Also, I have no modesty.)  I know what I like to cook and what I like to eat when I’m not branching out and trying new recipes.  My goal is to have enough of my food essentials on hand that a good meal is just a few minutes away—a little chopping, the judicious application of heat, maybe a sprinkle or two of seasonings, and hello, it’s dinner!

An example of a foodstuff that I’d always like to have on hand is tomato sauce.  It’s such versatile, delicious stuff!  Spaghetti with red sauce, baked eggs on toast with tomato sauce, pizza, even red sauce blended with some cooked onions and stock to make a soup—tomato sauce is endlessly useful, and I think it behooves every cook to have a recipe she likes.

Tomater Sauce

This particular specimen is Spanish, at least in flavorings.  The base is canned crushed tomatoes, and it’s seasoned with a boatload of garlic, sultry smoked paprika, fiery crushed red pepper, and a sprinkle of salt.  The garlic is cooked briefly in olive oil, and then everything else is added to the pot, and you simmer for about 15 minutes to thicken the sauce and deepen the flavors.  That’s it!  It’s so easy and quick.  And it’s delicious too—the Spanish profile of the seasonings makes this sauce an exciting departure from the usual Italian red sauce (not that there’s anything wrong with basil and company).  It’s a little spicy, a little smoky, punchy with garlic, all of which contrast with the brightness of the tomatoes.  It’s a study in contrasts, and it works like a charm.

They say that time allows herbal flavors to deepen, so I made this sauce tonight without any real plans to use it.  But now that I’ve got a batch on hand, I’m pretty confident that I’ll find a home for it.  Any suggestions, hungry reader?

Spicy Tomato Sauce with Spanish Flavors

From EatingWell magazine

Makes about 1 1/2 cups

1 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil

6 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped

1/2 tsp. smoked paprika

1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper

1 15-oz. can crushed tomatoes, preferably fire-roasted (I used Muir Glen)

1/4 tsp. salt

1)  In a medium-sized saucepan, heat the olive oil.  Add the garlic and cook for a minute.

2)  Add the spices, stir, and cook briefly in the garlicky oil.  Add the tomatoes and salt, then adjust the heat to keep the sauce at a simmer or occasional bubble.  Cook for about 15-20 minutes, uncovered, letting the sauce thicken.  Use immediately, or allow it to cool and then refrigerate it.  EatingWell says the sauce should keep for about a week.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Life Lately

This is my life lately:

Bag Lady

Bag Lady Part Two

A bag lady I have become.  I feel like I’m constantly moving.  If I’m not walking out the door, I’m coming back from somewhere: work, running errands, working out.  This is part of the reason I have been feeling unsettled because I am literally unsettled.  There has been far too much go-go-going, and I hope to put that pattern on pause this weekend so I can just be.  For tonight, it’s me and my bed and a new book—the perfect threesome, in my mind.  Nobody gets between me and my reading!

I have lots of recipes to share with you in the coming weeks, but they deserve more attention and brainpower than I can provide tonight.  I hope this first week of Veg Bootcamp was fun for you.  I’m feeling inspired by the June 2011 issue of Vegetarian Times as well as the e-mail newsletters that started arriving in my inbox on Tuesday.  There are so many amazing ways to feed yourself without meat!  It’s awesome.  Tomorrow, we’ll talk about tomato sauce.  Don’t wear white.  Especially if you are like me, and end up wearing your tomato sauce every time you make a batch.  Messy is the new sexy.

Happy weekend, friends!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Tipple for a Tough Month

Mixing a Drink


Drink with Salad

I’ve had a lot on my mind lately.  I’m feeling unsettled these days, unsure of what to do next, anxious about the future.  I haven’t been telling you much about it in this space because I’m not really sure I can say much in a public space without getting myself in trouble.  The alternative, which may be what I’m doing tonight, is to be less than honest, which I hate.  Let’s just say I’ve been thinking about how deep my roots in this town are and whether I want to push them deeper or roll into the wind like so much tumbleweed.

Tonight I must have been feeling inspired by the tumbleweed.  I went for a run in an unusual location, one with no sidewalk, so it demanded more alertness from me.  It was refreshing to take myself out of my routine and to feel my blood pumping again.  It had been way too long since my last run, and I really needed the heavy breathing and the heart pounding.  Even more than physical exertion, I needed the mental clarity that sometimes follows a good run, and tonight I made a decision: I’m going to start looking into buying a home in this area.  Making a decision is the first step, and it was a hard one.

To help me unwind after a long week and a hard decision, I made myself a little cocktail to drink with dinner.  I’ve been trying different drinks at home, trying to find one that I like enough to make regularly.  Tonight’s blend of two fruit juices, coconut milk, and rum hit the spot.  It’s sweet without being cloying, and the coconut milk smoothes any rough edges on the fruit and booze.  The rum is detectable without being overwhelming or harsh.  Altogether, it’s a light, fruity drink that goes down easily.  For those of you who prefer a virgin drink, this one is definitely worth making without the alcohol too.

Tropical Fruit Colada

Adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts

A few ingredient notes here.  For the orange-mango juice, I bought a jug of Simple Orange with mango, which is 100% juice.  For the coconut milk, I like Silk’s PureCoconut coconut milk, which is a light coconut milk.  You can find it in the refrigerator case.  I’ve been using it a lot in my overnight oatmeal, so I tend to have it on hand these days.

1/3 cup pineapple juice

1/3 cup orange-mango juice

1/3 cup light coconut milk

1 ounce rum, or to taste

In a glass, stir together all the ingredients vigorously.  Add a few ice cubes if you like, and serve.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Activation Energy of Dinner

Soup Pot with Vegetables

Pasta Bag and Measuring Cup

Soup Closeup

As often as I cook, you wouldn’t expect that I usually feel a certain resistance to the idea of cooking, especially after a day at work.  I don’t always step into the kitchen filled with joy and delight.  Sometimes, I look at the kitchen, and I think about the minutes I’ll spend on my feet, the dirty dishes that will pile up on the stove and in the sink.  I think about how fast the meal will be eaten and how there’s no one at the table with me.  Sometimes, honestly, a bowl of cereal sounds far more appealing than cooking a respectable, grown-up dinner.

But then I step into the kitchen, pull out the chopping block, and get to work.  I measure the olive oil into my soup pot, crank up the heat, and I start chopping.  I was doing all of this last night when it occurred to me that my feelings toward the kitchen are analogous to the concept of activation energy.  I’ve always loved the idea of activation energy because it seemed to explain so well my experience of the world.  I’m not someone who is bouncing around with energy at all hours of the day.  I have to dig around inside to find the motivation to do things that yes, I really want to do.  Yet it’s still an effort to do them, with the exception of a few things, like pleasure reading. 

In chemistry, there’s this concept of activation energy, which is the idea that all matter exists at different levels of energy.  For some crazy reason known as entropy, chemical reactions that allow matter to exist in a lower energy state can occur spontaneously, with no input of energy.  However, most reactions need some energy to make the transition happen, and that energy is called activation energy.

The human equivalent is how a human being can transition from a more high-energy state—say, the frazzled post-work condition in which you might see me on any given workday—to a lower-energy state—say, me after dinner and a glass of wine.  That, my readers, is where cooking enters the equation.  Though it takes energy to make dinner happen, with me standing at the stove stirring, by the end of the meal, I’m a happier and more relaxed human.  So all that energy it takes to make dinner happen?  It’s totally worth it.

PS  The soup up there in the photos is a Greek Avgolemono Soup, a recipe I posted long, long ago.  It is one of the best soups I’ve ever made, like chicken noodle soup for the vegetarian set.  The version I made this week used fresh mint instead of fresh parsley, and it’s a really nice variation if you like mint.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Add a Dab of Ricotta


One of the best tricks in my vegetarian bag o’ magic is ricotta cheese.  To me, ricotta is a texture more than a flavor.  It’s smooth and creamy with a hint of curd-like texture.  I find that the curdiness makes ricotta cheese feel more substantial, like there’s a there there, as Gertrude Stein would say.  It’s pretty bland, as far as cheeses go, but it more than makes up for that quality in terms of its nutrition and flexibility.  I tend to choose part-skim ricotta, rather than full-fat, because I don’t feel the need for that extra richness when I’m cooking with ricotta.  I’m not much of a fat-gram counter, but here I feel it’s worth mentioning that Frigo part-skim ricotta has 6 grams of fat per quarter-cup serving, and that seems plenty rich to me. 

Ricotta is a good way to add protein to an otherwise carbohydrate-heavy meal.  With a vegetarian diet, it’s easy to get plenty of carbs, and if that’s your eating style, I think it’s important to balance out the meal with protein and fat.  I’ve heard people say that Americans eat too much protein anyway, but I’m not sure how an “average” vegetarian diet stacks up in that analysis.  Protein is, for me, a key ingredient in building a meal that satisfies, one that doesn’t leave me looking for a snack an hour or two later.  Ricotta is one of my favorite ways to add protein to my meal.  It works well in savory and sweet dishes, even as a pudding on its own (and a stunningly good one too!).  To give you an idea of what I like to do with ricotta, I dug into my archives to find some of my favorite ricotta-containing recipes.

Savories for your dinner table:

* Kale Lasagna Diavolo

* Penne Pasta with Ricotta-Pesto Sauce (and a version with chickpeas!)

* Spinach Enchiladas

And for your sweet tooth:

* Coffee Ricotta Mousse

* Mocha Ricotta Muffins

* Strawberry-Banana Ricotta Milkshake

Dear readers, if you have a favorite recipe or two that uses ricotta, feel free to leave links or recipes in the comments!  Also, when it comes to ricotta, do you go for a full-fat version or do you prefer “skinnier” ricotta?

Monday, May 16, 2011

B is for Butter

Butter Melting

If A was for Apricot yesterday, then B is for Butter today.  I love the alphabet in food form, don’t you?

Before we get to the butter, let’s talk about legumes.  I have always loved beans and lentils, but as a kid, I don’t remember eating them too often.  We had the occasional can of baked beans, but I’m straining to remember any other beans that crossed my path before college.  My dad is a real meat-and-potatoes guy, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that beans didn’t make it to the dinner table.  Which is sad, because they are so delicious.  Vegetarianism gave me a great excuse to eat beans and lentils every day, and that’s a happy habit that I’ve been able to keep for ten years.

I won’t lecture you on how great legumes are for your health.  I assume you already know they’re good for you if you are reading this blog.  Legumes are uncontroversially healthy, hearty food, delicious and satisfying and full of nutrients.  However, not everything I eat gets such a shining gold star for its nutritional qualities.  One of the more controversial topics in health these days is what kinds of fats are optimal for health, and I admit here that I have my doubts about the conventional advice telling us to stay away from saturated fat.  It’s becoming more apparent that if you choose to eat animal products, you should care what those animals have been eating because it can make the difference between health-promoting and health-harming.

I’ve never given up eating animal products, but for a long time, I shunned butter.  I was ambivalent about dairy for several years, choosing soy milk over cow’s milk and switching butter for canola or olive oil.  I worried that the idea that we can get our calcium requirements from dairy was a myth, and more recently, I’ve read controversial articles about a link between dairy and certain types of cancer, such as breast cancer.  Now, please don’t string me up by my toenails for not providing references here.  It’s been such a long time since I thought about these issues, and at this point, my main dietary strategy is a little of everything, as long as it’s vegetarian.  The science of nutrition is very complicated.  Unlike me, who can do her experiments with an entire population of genetically identical organisms, nutritionists have the misfortune of doing their studies on humans, who are annoyingly resistant to inbreeding.  (Oh, I kid!  That’s a genetics joke, people.  I am not in favor of human inbreeding for science’s sake.)  So I tend to view nutrition data and the subsequent conclusions with a skeptical eye, and I try to use a heaping spoonful of common sense to make my food choices.

Whew!  All of that to say this: I now eat butter again, regularly, and it’s delicious.  Also, I want to remind you that butter is not olive oil, no matter how popular olive oil cakes become.  Olive oil is not butter, and butter is not olive oil.

Repeat after me, people: butter is not olive oil!

I was reminded of this truth when making a red lentil soup from Melissa Clark’s wonderful cookbook, In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite.  You may have seen a red lentil soup from that cookbook on Orangette, and maybe you even cooked yourself a batch of that soup.  I know I did, and my only regret is that I didn’t add more lemon to my soup.  Carrots can be so sweet!  Their sweetness must be balanced against something acidic or earthy or meaty so they don’t turn your soup into dessert.

That lentil soup calls for olive oil.  Its sister recipe, or maybe I should call it the mother recipe, since it is the older and more well-established of the two, calls for butter.  In a red lentil soup, that struck me as unusual and therefore enticing.  Lentils and butter are an uncommon combination, but wow, the combination is really something special in this soup.  I liked it so much that I made it twice and sent Matt e-mails proclaiming the deliciousness of butter.

Butter!” I wrote.  “It’s a cook’s best friend.”

Matt wrote back, “Hell yes, butter!”

(I love that man.)

Here’s the thing about me and butter: there’s a productive tension between us.  I’ll never be able to cook with it with joyful abandon; I’ll always be using it cautiously, with restraint.  In my mind, I’ll always be thinking, Is this a healthy meal or a rich meal? And if it’s the latter, am I celebrating something or comforting myself?  In asking myself these questions, I find my balance between health and hedonism.  I like to live right in the middle.

In this lentil soup, the butter adds a delightful and unexpected richness to what is otherwise an incredibly virtuous soup.  Earthy with lentils, sweet with carrots and onions, brightened up with lemon and mint, it’s like nothing I’ve ever eaten before.  Then there’s the texture: nubbly with soft bulgur and filled with soothingly slow-cooked vegetables and lentils, this is comfort food made exotic and so good for you.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.  

Red Lentil Soup

Red Lentil Soup with Butter and Unusual Seasonings

Adapted from In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite by Melissa Clark

Serves 6-8

2 tbsp. butter

1 medium onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, chopped

3/4 tsp. kosher salt (I use Morton coarse kosher salt)

1/2-1 tsp. Aleppo pepper, plus more for serving

2 tbsp. tomato paste

1 tbsp. chopped fresh mint, plus more for serving

2 medium or large carrots, diced

1 cup red lentils

1/4 cup coarse bulgur wheat

4 cups vegetable stock

2 cups water

Fresh lemon, for serving

1)  In a large soup pot, melt the butter over medium heat.  Add the onions, garlic, salt, and Aleppo pepper.  Cook for 4-5 minutes, until the onion and garlic are fragrant and softened.

2)  Stir in the tomato paste, mint, and carrots.  Cook for about 2 minutes.  Stir the lentils and bulgur into the pot, then add the vegetable stock and water.  Bring the whole thing to a bubble over high heat, then turn the heat down and simmer the soup for 45-60 minutes, until the lentils and carrots are very soft.

3)  Serve the soup with a sprinkle of Aleppo pepper, a squeeze of lemon, and a sprinkle of chopped mint.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Let’s Begin

First, let’s begin with a confession.  Saying that I want to write about vegetarianism, and that I want to do it for an entire month, seems fine in the abstract.  But when I tried to imagine what it might look like day after day, things started to feel hazy and uncertain.  Writing about vegetarianism feels a little like deciding to swim an ocean—it’s too big of a task to wrap my mind around.  I think it may be too big to accomplish, period, because there are so many ways to think about meatless eating and so many ways to accomplish it.

One of the reasons I wanted to recruit some awesome guest bloggers was so that this Veg Bootcamp challenge could also be a celebration of diversity.  One of the things I love about vegetarianism, and eating in general, is that there is no one right way to do it.  Even on a restricted diet, there are choices to be made, adventures to be pursued, discoveries to be made.  Alicia Silverstone once made the comment that the word “diet” means “a day’s journey.”  Her words resonated with me: our diet is part of our daily journey toward health and happiness.  That’s why I can think of few things that matter more than what we choose to put in our bodies, day after day.

Today, I have decided not to swim an ocean.  Instead, I want to start with something small, something that fits into the palm of my hand.  Let’s start with apricots.

Apricots in the Corner

Before last week, I’d never tasted a fresh apricot.  I was reading Jess’s post about an Apricot Oatmeal Cookie Crumble (swoon!), and I realized it.  I scratched a mental note into my brain, and I must have used permanent ink, because when I saw pretty little cardboard baskets of them at the grocery store, I scooped one up with barely a second thought.  They looked perfect, and perfectly priced: $2.99 a basket.  I love spring.

After a brief spin around the rest of the store, I hit the register, where the clerk rang up my fresh apricots: $7.20 read the digital display as the apricots beeped their way into the bagging area.  $7.20?!? I thought.  That can’t be right.  They should be $2.99!  But chances were that it was right, that I was the one who was wrong because she couldn’t read.  I was too embarrassed to bring up this issue with the clerk—I hate arguing or haggling over prices; I’m the one who will walk away from a garage sale find if it’s too expensive instead of trying to haggle the price down.  I say price it right the first time, dammit!  This is one of those instances when I am so not my father’s daughter.

Instead of arguing with the clerk, I decided to check the price on my way out the door, and sure enough, those sweet little orange orbs were $2.99 a pound.  And I had bought two pounds.  I took a deep breath, marched myself home, and tried to make peace with the way that my increasingly expensive taste in food makes me feel like I am literally eating my wallet.  Mmm, chewy!

My First Fresh Apricots

But you know, two pounds of apricots is a generous amount of fruit to have hanging around the house.  It means there are plenty of apricots for pre-dinner snacking and slicing over oatmeal.  And fresh apricots are really quite lovely: they taste a lot like peaches, with a tangier flavor and a less cloying sweetness.  Don’t get me wrong: I love peaches, but sometimes they can be a little over the top.  Apricots are like a more well-balanced and less fuzzy version of peaches.  I have decided that I like them a lot.  They taste a whole lot better than my wallet.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Tell Me Your Stories, and I’ll Tell You Mine

Dinner Table

This year marks my ten-year vegetarian anniversary.  I was so young when I made that decision!  And I had so much more to learn—about food, about the ethics of eating, about being a grown-up.  I’m impressed that the decision has stuck with me for so long, and now it seems perfectly natural to eschew meat and food products that are derived from dead animals.

When you are a vegetarian, every day is Meatless Monday.  I’m only vaguely aware of this Meatless Monday phenomenon.  EatingWell has run two feature articles on vegetarianism in their most recent issues, and I am a bit amused by the attention to meatless eating.  I don’t mean to sound patronizing because I think it’s great that people are talking about the issues.  But when the habits you’ve been cultivating for ten years are suddenly hot news, it’s hard to know how to feel.  Gratified?  Smug?  Concerned that vegetarianism is being seen as trendy?  For me, it is not a trend.  It is a way of life.

Despite the importance of vegetarianism to my life, I’m not militant about it with other people.  To be honest, I’m not even militant about it with myself, since I do, on very rare occasions, eat meat.  I’ll note that Matt, a meat-lover and enthusiast, is often involved in some form, but it’s not his fault if I eat the meat.  I blame the leftover slice of pizza with sausage, or my curiosity about what duck breast tastes like.  There was one time when we were in California, eating dinner at this amazing restaurant, and they had a phenomenal chicken dish that I wanted to try.  This restaurant cooked with the very best ingredients: organic, locally produced, and their animals were free-range roamers.  It was California cooking at its finest, and for that one night, it was a pleasure to indulge in a little carnivorousness, one bite at a time.  It was a memorable meal, in a beautiful place with a kind man.

At home (with the exception of that slice of pizza), I always cook vegetarian meals.  Always.  And it’s easy for me because I do it all the time, and I have a good sense of how to cook for my appetite.  I try to capture my love for vegetarian cooking in the recipes and stories I share with you here, but rarely do I make a big deal out of the fact that my recipes are meatless.  You may have noticed that I spend a fair amount of time converting meaty recipes into meatless ones, and to me, that is an extension of cooking for my vegetarian palate.  It’s a fun challenge for me to let myself be inspired by meat-containing recipes and then find a way to make them work for me.

In five days, Vegetarian Times is kicking off what they are calling a Veg Bootcamp.  I think the intention of Veg Bootcamp is to help people transition into meatless eating by providing lots of recipes, tips and motivation.  Since I’m already a meatless eater, I don’t feel like I can really participate in Veg Bootcamp with the same intention as its target audience, but I want to get in on the fun too.  In light of my upcoming ten-year vegetarian anniversary, I thought that Veg Bootcamp is the perfect time to have a little vegetarian celebration around here.  Veg Bootcamp kicks off on May 15 and is scheduled to run for 28 days.  During that time, I’d like to share more about my vegetarian days with you.  I’ll be posting more or less every day from May 15 through June 11—recipes, meals, snapshots of my daily life, and hopefully, some of your stories too!  I’d like to hear your stories about choosing meatless eating.  Whether you are a vegetarian, a vegan, or have chosen the more moderate Meatless Monday approach, I’d love to feature your story in a guest blog post here on Life, Love, and Food.  If you are interested, send your story to me at lifeloveandfood [at] gmail [dot] com.  I reserve the right to do some editing—I hope you won’t mind.

I should add that if you are interested in writing a guest post, there are all sorts of fun topics you could choose.  It doesn’t have to be the story of your diet/lifestyle.  It could be a favorite meatless meal, a favorite ingredient, a cookbook that pointed you in a new meatless direction, or a restaurant recommendation.  I’d love to get a smorgasbord of topics and opinions, and I’m always looking for recommendations for good eating at home and when I’m traveling.

One more thing before I go: if you are interested in participating in Veg Bootcamp, you can sign up for daily e-mail newletters to help you in your journey toward a less-meaty diet.  I signed up, so I’ll be reading along too.

Happy cooking, and happy eating, friends!  Let’s be inspired together.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Short and Sweet

Berry Season Has Begun

This weekend I caved: I bought two pints of strawberries.  They were on sale, two pints for five bucks, which was good.  But they weren’t organic berries, which is not so good.  The organic berries I inspected were too far gone to consider taking them home—they were moldy and collapsing into mush.  I love strawberries too much not to eat them fresh when they are in season, so I’ll take my conventional, two-for-five berries.

Here is something that I decided I love about strawberries: they are fragile, so you have a good excuse to eat them quickly and greedily.  With treats, it can be too easy to save them for something special—a reward, a special meal with a special person, an unusual dessert.  To me, strawberries are pretty lovely on their own, and knowing that they are fragile and the mold will get them soon if I don’t has me reaching for those flimsy plastic containers more often than I might otherwise.  All this strawberry-munching makes me feel celebratory, like Hurrah, spring!  It feels more like summer down here, but still: hurrah, spring!

Saturday Lunch Salad

Yesterday I put those strawberries into an unusual salad, a recipe from Ellie Krieger in which she pairs fresh strawberries with chewy mozzarella, crunchy Romaine, and slivers of fresh basil.  The idea intrigued me: strawberries with the ingredients usually found in caprese salads?  But to be honest, I thought that the berries tasted weird and out of place with mozzarella and basil.  It wasn’t bad, and it was certainly pretty enough on the plate, but still, I’d rather have tomatoes here in a more traditional version of caprese set gently in a bed of Romaine.

However, because I am an optimist sometimes, it’s worth noting that the dressing was quite good and worth remembering.  A simple vinaigrette made with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, and pepper, this particular recipe gets the proportions just right for a lightly dressed, not-too-oily salad.  I know you don’t really need a recipe for salad dressing, but I feel better starting off with a recipe and then tasting and tweaking to my tongue’s delight.

I’m keeping things short and sweet tonight, so no further ado: a super-simple vinaigrette for your salad-making needs.

Simple Vinaigrette

From Ellie Krieger’s So Easy

Makes a small batch of dressing (less than 1/2 cup)

1/4 cup best-quality extra-virgin olive oil

2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar

1/4 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

1)  Place all the ingredients in a jar.  Seal it with a tight-fitting lid, shake like crazy, and voila: salad dressing.  Store unused dressing in the fridge in its little jar.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

At the Kitchen Table: Eight Things about Me

At the Table

Can you see me in the photo above?  I’m the one wearing the blue shorts!  My table is better dressed than I am here.  Just for fun, a few random but food-related tidbits about me.

* I love white rice.  In fact, I hardly ever make brown rice because I just don’t like it very much, even though it’s the healthier option.

* I like eating asparagus, but I think it smells terrible when it’s cooking.

* Same with peas.  Why do peas smell bad when they are cooking?

* I am almost physically incapable of throwing out Ziplock baggies.  I must, simply MUST, wash and reuse them.  I realize this behavior borders on the crazy side of the spectrum, but I feel like throwing them away is like throwing money away.  No way, dude.  No way.

* I am a habitual speed eater.  I know, I know: it’s a terrible habit, and I ought to slow down and enjoy my food.  But I am enjoying my food!  I just like eating fast.

* Wait, there’s more.  I am a speed eater when I’m by myself.  I eat much more slowly when I’m with people.  I find it hard to eat and listen at the same time.

* I am not a stress eater at all.  In fact, when I am upset, my hunger levels bottom out.  But I am a happy eater.  I wonder if I gain weight when Matt’s around because in addition to being happy that he’s around, our hobbies appear to be eating in restaurants, food shopping, cooking, and drinking wine.  Fortunately, our other hobby is going for walks together, and sometimes I let him drag me to the golf course with him.  Surely watching someone else swing a golf club burns calories, yes?  That’s what I thought.

*  Magnetic knife strips—the kind you mount on the wall—scare me.  The sight of all those knives suspended in mid-air is too much!  I am convinced that at any moment, they are going to fall down and stab me.  Though I must admit, this picture is gorgeous, and the knife strip is part of its charm.

I hope you are having a lovely weekend, wherever you are!  See you back here tomorrow.