Sunday, May 30, 2010

The week of eating meatlessly. day 8.

I should be truthful - on day 1, last Sunday, I had steak for lunch, left over from a fancy dinner a few nights before. Dinner was vegetarian, and every meal thereafter, until tonight, when I end my week with a cookbook club that meets once a month. I believe I heard that salmon and duck would be on the menu. Still, 21 vegetarian meals in a row (ok, some of those were breakfasts of fruit and tea and the occasional muffin) is nothing to sneeze at. It is the longest consecutive time I have ever gone without meat in some form or another. I feel good. I haven't lost any weight, or at least not more than a pound or two. But I have been thinking more about what goes on my plate, and it has been a good exercise in creativity, balance, and planning.

The hardest part of this whole exercise has been consciously avoiding meat. Craving fish, and remembering, "oh, not this week." Thinking about a roast chicken, and catching myself before I turn towards the butcher counter. The dried seasoned tofu I love so much isn't something I can pick up on the walk home from work, whereas I have a supermarket, a butcher, a cheese shop, and a flower shop that sells vegetables within walking distance. I have to plan a little bit ahead. But the meals during this week have been good, better than good, and I hope to incorporate more of them into my life in the future. A long trip followed by a week or two of continued gastrointestinal turbulence led to a recent laziness and apathy in the kitchen; this week has changed that.

Planning ahead, eating more vegetables, eating more fruit, eating less meat, are all things that I want to continue. Over the past few years, I have been buying more and more of my meat - and all food in general - from farmer's markets. It costs more - so I buy less of it - and tastes better - so I savor every bite of what I have. I won't go into how cheaply produced meat will cost us more in the long run; that is a conversation for another time. But I will think about eating vegetarian more often, perhaps a few days a week, if not more.
The week of living meatlessly. day 7.

I went out to breakfast with my friends this morning. We often do this on Saturdays, a practice that began early one jet-lagged morning several months ago at a diner not far from my apartment, where my Southern friend averted her eyes from my (come to think of it, vegetarian and possibly vegan) desecration of biscuits and gravy. Aside from the occasional vegetarian biscuits and gravy, nearly every breakfast since has involved pork in some form, sometimes corned beef, but usually ham or bacon or sausage. Even if I order, say, pancakes or waffles or French toast, I will still get a side of meat. This time, though, I ordered the bananas Foster French toast. It was stuffed with creamy ricotta and topped with caramelized bananas, and while I like my French toast a bit more custard-soaked - the bread was a little dry - I didn't even notice the lack of bacon.

Lunchtime, and I still wasn't hungry. I had one of the Nutella blondies that L. gave me, all chewy caramel-y goodness swirled with the chocolate-hazelnut Nutella. She had used Demerara sugar, which tends to sink to the bottom when you use it for baking. It reminded me of a Laurie Colwin essay, where she talks about kitchen disasters and how, once, she made a batch of brownies with Demerara sugar and they baked up into a solid brick that was completely impenetrable by any kind of implement. Here, instead of an impenetrable brick, there was a subtly layered square of deliciousness.

For dinner, I turned to the leftover potato curry from Thursday night, again not hungry enough to cook up some side vegetables. I was cheating. I was being lazy. My plan of eating balanced, thoughtful meals of many colors had fallen by the wayside. Breakfast and "lunch" was laden with sugars and fats, and dinner only marginally better. (Potatoes and rice? As my friend mocked when I once almost ordered a side of hash brown with pancakes, "Have some carbs with your carbs, why don't you?"). What the hell, it's the weekend. Tomorrow is another day.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The week of living meatlessly. day 6.

Today was a little less...structured. I had leftovers for lunch, the stir-fried tofu with mushrooms and carrots. As I chewed on the strips of tofu I felt almost like I was eating red-braised pork belly, and was concerned that the vegetarianism was causing me to hallucinate. Then I figured that the tofu had been flavored with 5-spice powder (and soy sauce), and the star anise was making me think of the red-braised pork belly seasonings. Phew.

Going into this week, I remembered how my mom was always hungry when she was a vegetarian. She ate triple chocolate Dove bars every day and gained five pounds. I was determined not to derail all the healthy food I had been eating by consuming cake and ice cream ("Cupcakes are vegetarian," joked a friend on Twitter). Instead, I'd snack on fruit or a few crackers or a small handful of nuts. I made sure I had a side vegetable - skillet-steamed broccoli or carrots - in addition to a main dish; I ate a little more rice than I usually do. Strangely, I rarely felt hungry during the past week.

I didn't even feel like dinner tonight, still full from my generous plate at lunch. I stir-fried crisp sugar snap peas from the farmer's market in a little oil, sprinkled them with salt, and ate them straight up, like French fries. They were sweet and still a little crunchy, and satisfying. Then I went to Bingo & Karaoke Night at the Greenwood Senior Center (long story), and was lured in by the tater tots. They were vegetarian. Our table mate proffered a bag of caramel corn, and I took a few. Also vegetarian.

While I ate my greasy, cooling tater tots, I thought about friends in high school and college, going through vegetarian phases and living on grilled cheese sandwiches, French fries, popcorn, hummus wraps and falafel from the cafeteria. Waffles are vegetarian, if you eat eggs and dairy, and when you are living away from home for the first time in your life there is a certain thrill to eating waffles for dinner. It isn't hard to eat vegetarian. It's hard to eat a healthy, balanced diet that happens to be vegetarian. Or rather, it isn't hard at all - you just have to think about what you are eating and why. But then again, we should all think about what we are eating and why, whether we are vegetarians or not.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The week of living meatlessly day 5.

When I was in India last month, I ate potato curry every morning for breakfast, either in the form of puri bhaji, which was fried dough puffs served with potato curry, or pao bhaji, which was a brioche-like bread, fried in butter or ghee, and served with a similar potato curry (it contained peas whereas the other one did not, and I think the combination of spices was a little different). I was addicted. Still, some twenty straight meals of Indian food, with all its unfamiliar array of spices and flavors, took its toll on my gastrointestinal system and it was a while before I could entertain the thought of Indian food again.

Then I started thinking longingly of that potato curry, fragrant with cardamom and coriander and cumin, bright with turmeric and pepper. I bought the spices at PFI and a few potatoes and an onion, a bag of frozen peas, and set to work. Ground the spices by hand, with a mortar and pestle (actually, a stainless-steel espresso tamper and a small bowl), heated them in a pan until the air was scented with spices. Heated some oil, and added the onions. I cooked the onions slowly, until they were translucent and browning around the edges, then added the diced potatoes. Poured in some water, covered and let it all simmer.

It took longer than I thought; the potatoes had to cook through, then continue cooking until they started to melt a little around the edges. The wait was hard, but at last the curry was almost ready. I threw a handful - maybe two - of frozen peas, and stirred it all together until the peas were done. I scooped some rice into a bowl, added the curry. It smelled like India. It was cold and gray outside instead of sunny and burning hot, but I felt some of the warmth in my kitchen, standing at the stove over a pan of curry. Next time I'll grind the spices more finely, use more seasoning, but as an experiment it turned out very well.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The week of living meatlessly. day 4.

The week is going by more easily than I had anticipated, in terms of craving meat. What has been a little more difficult is planning and prepping my meals - everything needs to be picked over and trimmed and washed and chopped, unlike, say, a steak which you just sling into a pan. I finally understand that there is a difference between feeling 'full' and merely feeling 'satisfied.' And I finally understand what people mean about 'mindful eating.' I am thinking about food all the time. I have fruit for breakfast instead of a cookie, and in the afternoon instead of another cookie. I cook myself two dishes, plus rice (which involves little more than washing 2 cups of rice and pressing 'start' on the rice cooker), for dinner instead of just one. My dinner plate looks like a balanced meal instead of a piece of leftover steak and a heap of rice. I've resisted falling back on macaroni and cheese or a bowl of cereal or a handful of crackers and a piece of chocolate, and it feels wonderful.

Tonight I stir-fry the softer kind of dried seasoned tofu with carrots - the leftovers from yesterday, sliced into slim irregular batons - and shimeji mushrooms, with scallions and a splash of soy sauce. I skillet-steam some broccoli and eat it all over a plate of rice, hunched over as usual at the coffee table in the living room. I'm in the groove now, the place where tofu and vegetables over rice is a deeply satisfying meal. The tofu and shimeji mushrooms are just browned around the edges; to call them "meaty" is a dishonor to their complementary flavors, but they are meaty against the sweetness carrots. This is the best meal I've had so far this week.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The week of living meatlessly. day 3.

Today I headed to Uwajimaya, over at the edge of the International District. The couscous salad and spinach soufflé were both delicious, but I wanted to return to the kind of vegetarian cooking I was most familiar with, the foods of my childhood. I bought garlic and ginger and scallions, baby bok choy and green beans and eggplant, shiitake and shimeji mushrooms, spiced dried tofu - both kinds, one smaller and thinner and chewier, the other a little bigger and fatter and slightly softer - and plain soft tofu.

For dinner I sliced up the chewier of the dried tofus into batons, and stir-fried them with green beans and plenty of garlic, adding a splash of soy sauce with some water to steam the beans tender. There was rice, of course, and irregularly-shaped wedges of carrots that I had skillet-steamed and then stir-fried to caramelize the edges a little. I thought about Elizabeth Andoh's Japanese cookbook Washoku, where she talked about the philosophy of composing a meal by making sure you had different colors of food on your plate. I looked down at my plate, white and green and brown and orange. It was beautiful. Tasty, too.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The week of living meatlessly. day 2.

I remember clearly the last time I ate a steak. I was maybe 19, or 20. We were in Portland, having dinner in the hotel restaurant, the kind of place that is all dark wood and forest-green carpet and dim lighting, clubby, with a hint of a bygone era still lingering like the smoke over a grill. I can still taste the slight char of the beef, the rich fat streaked through it all. I don't mean that I haven't eaten steak since then; I have, again and again. I mean that I haven't eaten an entire steak, as served in a restaurant, all 16 or 20 ounces of marbled beef lounging insouciantly on a heavy oval china plate next to the sautéed green beans and baked potato. I haven't finished a steak since. Maybe I'll eat half, or even a third, and take the rest home. Last Friday, I went out to dinner and ordered a Porterhouse the size of my face. I remembered how full I was, that time in Portland, that uncomfortable sensation of having eaten more than I should have.

Tonight I came home and rummaged around in the fridge for something to cook. Earlier, the idea of a spinach soufflé had been tumbling around in my mind. There was spinach from the farmer's market, and half an onion left from last week's carrot salad. I had milk and a small wedge of cheese. I didn't have a recipe; sometimes you just have to wing it. I browned the diced onions in butter and olive oil, added flour, milk, seasoned with salt and pepper and a few scrapes of nutmeg. In went the spinach, stirred until wilted and tender. I beat some egg whites until stiff, buttered and bread-crumbed an oval baking dish, grated the cheese. Folded the egg whites into the creamy spinach, poured it into the pan, sprinkled it generously with cheese, and slid everything into the toaster oven, crossed my fingers.

The soufflé rose gloriously, golden brown and crusty, and collapsed almost as soon as I took it out of the oven. It was perhaps a little damp and under-seasoned inside, but never mind. It was good, better than good enough.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The week of living meatlessly. day 1.

Recently, L. mentioned on her blog that she would be going meat-free for a week at the end of May, and invited her readers to join her. All of us who know her laughed and laughed and laughed. Let me put it this way: the first time I heard about L., I was reading about a dish she had created for a party - "bacon-wrapped bacon" (bacon wrapped around red-braised pork belly and roasted until the bacon renders out its fat and becomes crispy). She writes recipes like a Taiwanese beef noodle soup that calls for 3 pounds of beef shank ("serves 2, with leftovers") and once cooked us a 10-course Chinese feast that involved some form of pork in nearly every dish. If L. could go meatless for a week, so could I. It was a challenge, a throwing down of a gauntlet. I like a challenge.

I thought I would start with cooking my way through the odds and ends cluttering up my fridge. I always buy vegetables, in a half-hearted attempt to eat a bit more healthily, and leave them until they wilt and shrivel into brittle shadows of their former selves. Now they were all I had. There was some asparagus and a few tomatoes; I would stir-fry the asparagus and use some of it in a couscous salad for lunch during the week, then eat the rest with rice and eggs scrambled with tomatoes. I would keep eggs and dairy in my diet, call on the dishes from my childhood, the ones I returned to again and again when my mom went vegetarian for a year. There would be tofu, but no tempeh or seitan. I would not be eating quinoa or lentils.

After I had my simple dinner of eggs scrambled with tomatoes - one of the first things I learned how to cook - and asparagus over rice, I turned to the couscous salad. Loosely based on a recipe from Falling Cloudberries, I skipped the roasted tomatoes and cucumber and kept the mint, scallions, and chèvre. It was light and Spring-like and would do for the next couple days for lunch. A promising start to the week.