Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Vegetarians can eat well!

May 19, 2004
Meatless, Not Joyless

I MADE dinner the other night for five, two of them vegetarians, and while shopping I realized how often such a situation now arises. Vegetarianism, common to most of the world but still regarded skeptically by staunchly carnivorous Americans, has made significant inroads into the national culture, and it is increasingly making itself felt at American tables.

Vegetarians coming to dinner? I complained about this prospect for nearly 30 years. Now I was champing at the bit of opportunity.

What changed? Thirty years ago vegetarian food in America meant either brown rice and vegetables stir-fried until lifeless or something cooked in the style of the original Moosewood Cookbook — heavily laden with cheese and cream. Now vegetarian food draws from the traditions of the entire world, traditions that, in the form of ingredients, spices and cooking tools, are now available to everyone, at least those with access to good supermarkets or the Internet.

A generation ago, you had to travel all over town — yes, even in New York — to find real Parmesan and naturally brewed soy sauce, let alone jasmine rice or aceto balsamico tradizionale. All four are now available at most supermarkets, along with everything else necessary for the two meals that follow — two menus, one Italian and one Chinese.

It is amazing that people talk about the Mediterranean tradition of vegetable-dominated meals and the fact that Chinese cooking is largely composed of vegetables accented by bits of meat, while continually cooking Italian and Chinese meals centered around meat. The menus here take another approach, and retain their distinctive national characters and flavors while doing away with meat entirely. Together, I think, they prove that meatless menus built from traditional foods can be not only satisfying but also enticing. And easy.

When I hear the term "vegetarian lifestyle," I reach for my skirt steak. But the arguments for eating vegetarian food, if not daily then at least regularly, are quite compelling, even to lifelong omnivores like myself. I am no preacher, and I will be grilling meat tonight, but consider the following:

• The livestock population of the United States eats well enough to feed the world's human population several times over.

• Raising animals for food has caused extensive environmental damage not only to equatorial rain forests but to North American prairies.

• Using increasingly limited resources to produce meat sometimes sounds just dumb. (My favorite statistic: it takes dozens of gallons of water to grow a pound of wheat and thousands to raise a pound of meat.)

• And finally, a terrifying little fact: 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are used to treat healthy livestock. I won't even mention mad cow disease.

All of the above makes me ambivalent, but none of it has converted me. Nor too many other Americans: most surveys find that less than 3 percent are vegetarians. But there are additional reasons, not much discussed, to consider a vegetarian diet at least part-time, and to introduce a meatless take on the Minimalist that will run regularly.

No one, after all, says you have to be a committed, converted, proselytizing vegetarian to eat a diet less oriented to meat. Besides, many self-described vegetarians are not, strictly speaking, vegetarians. Today's rules seem pretty flexible, sometimes to the point where there is not much difference between vegetarians and people who eat moderate amounts of meat.

Furthermore, almost everyone eats vegetarian meals from time to time, whether by choice or because peers, friends or, increasingly, the children do. (It appears, though the statistics vary wildly, that somewhere between 10 and 25 percent of Americans under 30 eschew meat.)

And though elitist food enthusiasts rarely talk about it, from a epicurean perspective, vegetarian cuisine has become far more appealing, thanks largely to the growing influence of Asian vegetarian traditions. (We do not hear, either, that a vegetarian diet promotes weight loss, probably because studies have not been done. But I don't know any overweight vegetarians, though maybe they are walking around hungry.)

Still, it sometimes takes a bit more technique to produce vegetarian food that pleases the spoiled palate. For example, I generally make chickpea soup with chicken stock and sausage. But I found that I could create a soup with just as much flavor and body as my original version by slow-cooking the onions until they are brown; by exploiting the fact that, unlike other dried legumes, chickpeas produce a delicious broth as they cook; and by adding spinach, whose character is just as distinctive as that of sausage. Serve this with homemade croutons if you can, or at least with good bread.

Such contrivances, however legitimate or clever, are not often needed: most of the dishes here are pretty much unchanged from the traditional versions. Ris in cagnon, a Lombard dish I learned from John Thorne (who writes a superb food newsletter that has led to several wonderful books), is not much more than arborio rice with butter and cheese, but it is faster and easier than risotto, and it uses no stock. (It also may introduce you to a good alternative method of cooking rice, in the manner of pasta.)

The classic braised escarole dish, which uses a series of techniques that can be applied to almost any green vegetable, relies on a hefty amount of garlic and olive oil, which are added both at the beginning and at the end of cooking, the final additions to freshen and intensify flavors. This dish can be enhanced with toasted pine nuts, raisins or currants, pitted black or green olives, or chopped tomatoes. Wine can replace the water, for a slightly more complex dish.

The Chinese menu includes a few slightly unusual ingredients, but is more a combination of infrequently seen and quite common dishes.

Cold braised celery is the kind of thing that begins a meal in Taiwanese and some northern Chinese restaurants, a little tidbit that is the equivalent of an amuse-bouche.

Tofu salad starts with pressed tofu — well-drained, extra-firm tofu that you cut in half and press between layers of paper towels under a weight (a big cutting board, for example) for at least half an hour, changing the paper towels as they become saturated. If you visit a Chinese market, you should find prepressed tofu, often cut into strips. Also known as pressed bean curd or extra-firm tofu, it has a brown exterior and is usually packed in plastic, without water.

If you have time, make the salad in advance, so the tofu absorbs the flavors of the dressing. The salad goes nicely with homemade scallion pancakes, which are easier and more successful than you might imagine.

The meal is capped by the kind of soft, tender, highly seasoned eggplant dish you have probably ordered in restaurants but may never have made. It is best to begin with long, slender eggplants — I like the lavender ones, but the color doesn't matter — and large oyster or bai-ling mushrooms. If you go to a Chinese market for pressed tofu, you will probably find all of these, but if not, regular eggplant and button mushrooms will do.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company


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