Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Lose the Entrée

I've had the discussion several times with certain friends who sincerely would like to promote a plant-based diet, on what might be needed in order to win more people over. Personally, I lack the gene for converting people. No one has ever converted me to anything (although some have certainly tried). I came to eat the way I do as a natural progression, by following my instincts, with information acquired along the way, and ultimately, based on "what works."  I'm perfectly comfortable recommending a plant-based diet--in the same way I might a good book I've read--but I'm fairly certain that no one will make a decision as important as this, based solely on my opinion. However, when asked what ideas I might have, there are two principal thoughts that come to mind every time, and both relate to what I regard as a sort of "phantom limb" craving for meat and dairy.

My view is that if you're giving up something (for whatever reason), the most effective way to both keep your conviction and impress others is to make a clean break. To me, this is just common sense. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I take the position that "if you're going to leave something behind, don't bring it with you." It cuts both ways, because on the one hand, you show the strength of your conviction by leaving past habits behind, and on the other, you set a clear example for others to follow (if that matters to you).

So, my first (and most controversial) suggestion is that if you're going to obtain your protein from a non-animal source, it will serve you best to eat that food in its own natural and cultural format. For example, tofu, a  mainstay for  many vegetarians, can be very enjoyable when prepared within the Asian cuisines, but becomes an unwelcome oddity when forced into American or European dishes. Furthermore, fake meats and imitation cheeses made artificially from soy (or wheat or rice) are a lose/lose proposition, in that they fall miserably short of fooling the palate, while they betray a longing for what one purports to have transcended. That's my opinion, and I realize there are many who do not share it. I do believe this is a subject that will need to be addressed at some point, however, because fooling oneself is both unsatisfying and self-defeating (again, in my opinion).

My second suggestion is much easier to swallow (no pun intended) and to implement: Lose the notion of an "entrée." In the great meat-eating culture, this is a loaded word that primarily signifies  a hunk of some sort of flesh on a plate, with or without accompanying vegetables, which may or may not be eaten along with it. Now there certainly is such a thing as a "vegetarian entrée," but this is typically imitative in some way, such as a serving of meatless lasagne. I propose discarding the word "entrée" altogether and either going with "first, second, and third courses," or taking a radical step into traditional vegetarian cuisines, and implementing their approach.

An obvious candidate would be Indian vegetarian food. Rather than focusing on a "main dish," Indian food considers each preparation as a special dish in its own right, of equal importance along with the others in the meal. Many times you'll see several different dishes presented in individual cups, called "katoris," that keep them separate, and prevent their unique flavors from mixing on the plate. It's a fun way to eat, but it's also instructive, because rather than relegating the role of vegetables to one of mere window dressing alongside "the entrée," (where they may be ignored), it elevates them to equal status with every other item on the plate. For a cook, this is also a challenge, because it requires that all vegetables be treated as star players, meaning they must all be eye-appealing, with alluring fragrances and palate-thrilling flavor-texture combinations.

As an example, here are some vegetables I picked up at my local Indian market, with the intention of creating a meal based on the "no entrée" approach. Clockwise from the upper left are: small eggplants, okra, curry leaves, green chilies, some long, ridged squashes called "turia," and some very small squashes that resemble tiny cucumbers, called "tindora." I had also selected some bitter melon, cauliflower, peas, and chick peas, along with a few spices and herbs. I wasn't sure what exactly would end up in the meal, but I wanted to have a good selection of options to work with.

Click on the image to enlarge.
Now, I wasn't setting out to make a traditional Indian meal, but rather, using the Indian model as an approach for serving the food. An obvious outsider would be the quinoa (in the center), which I inserted because it's my favorite grain, high in protein and fiber, and much more in line with my health preferences than white rice. I did cook it with a handful of curry leaves, which imbued it with a pleasant subcontinental back-note.

I cooked the turia (front right) with Thai red curry paste and coconut milk. The chick peas (front left) were finished with chaat masala (a spice blend with a slightly sweet-sour undertone), onion and tomato. The tindora (back left) I prepared in a straightforward Indian fashion, with ginger, garlic, onion, grated tomato, and spices.

I used ras el hanout (a traditional Moroccan spice mixture) to cook the cauliflower, which was a by-product of an oven-drying experiment. I had first cut thin cross-sections of individual flowerettes, using a "mandoline," which is a very sharp cutting device that produces uniform slices. Then I laid the slices out on an oiled parchment, dusted them with ras el hanout and salt, and baked them for an hour at a very low temperature, producing crisp, shriveled (and flavor-packed) "cauli-flowers." The remaining uncooked pieces of cauliflower were pretty mangled, so I chopped them and sautéed them with onion, garlic and ginger until very fragrant, and then added more ras el hanout and water. When the vegetables were very tender, I blasted them to a smooth puree in the Vitamix, reheated it in a clean pot, and stirred in some cooked peas. Then I served it with the oven-crisped "cauli-flowers" on top.

A meat-lover will still most likely wonder "Where's the beef?" but for someone who no longer relies on dead animals for protein and pleasure, this was one hell of a little feast!

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