Friday, July 8, 2011

Space, The Final Frontier

            I didn’t think I could do it, but I managed to feed several vegetarians and vegans on a Fourth of July without any of them going hungry. Vegetarian food is not that particularly difficult for me to do – but vegan – that’s a whole other story.
            Over the course of our seemingly unpatriotic Fourth of July party with vegan hot dogs and beet salad (no potato salad – it has eggs), we had a long discussion over the serious lack of vegan food options. Restaurants, with the exception of some ethnic restaurants (Asian and Middle Eastern restaurants seem to do OK), are pretty lame at giving vegan eaters something decent to eat.[1] There are a bunch of cookbooks, but after a while, you really get tired of eating endless variations on legume “something” or stir-fried “anything.” And many rely upon really obscure ingredients (Cashew milk? Barley syrup? ) and have even worse names (personal favorites – Mom’s Neatloaf, The Pigs are Safe in the Barn, and Dragonfly’s Bulk Dry Uncheese Mix). As someone who cooks, I realize the challenge of vegan cooking. So much of the flavor of foods is related to the specific chemical composition found in animal products. For example, the savory je ne sais quois of meat is due to the presence of glutamates (related to monosodium glutamate, or MSG - aka the mother of all Chinese food). But glutamates are not just present in meat – lots of foods have it. Mushrooms, cheese, and miso are just some of the examples of foods with high glutamate content. Add miso, and voila! Tastes like meat.
            If it could only be that simple. It’s not just a challenge of finding ingredients to work with; it’s the challenge of changing cooking techniques to adjust to the lack of animal products. For example, most French sauces use prodigious amounts of butter (in fact, I can’t think of a single classical sauce that doesn’t use it). Butter’s emulsifying properties are absolutely critical as the base for these sauces. Vegetable oil won’t cut it. Eggs are critical for most types of “-aise”: mayonnaise, hollandaise, béarnaise. Other sauces need some type of meat stock, not only for flavor, but also for the gelatin formed in the cooking process (critical for all aspics). Baking without butter or eggs almost impossible (butter for fat and eggs as a leveaner). Many Southeast Asian food cultures depend upon fish sauce as an ingredient and a condiment (critical for umami). And East Asian cultures rely heavily upon fish or fish products to flavor soups, stocks and even kimchee (there’s either fish sauce or salted shrimp/krill in it). And for all you chocolate junkies, look carefully. Only dark chocolate contains no milk solids.
            In my attempt to cater to all my vegan friends, I tried swapping various vegan-friendly ingredients for traditional ingredients. Nut/seed butters for butter. Vegetable stock for meat stock. Vegetable oil for pastries. Agar agar for gelatin. Kombu, kombu, kombu. They were all miserable failures on all possible levels: taste, texture, appearance. And my intestines starting hurting from all the fiber.
            While trying to find a way to alleviate the ensuing panic attack I was having at the thought of starving a bunch of pale, under-nourished historians of science, I realized I had it all wrong. Trying to make vegan food taste like non-vegan food was an exercise in futility. Vegan food will never taste like meat because IT’S NOT MEAT and never was meant to be. I had to go back to first principles: vegetables qua vegetables. What is the nature of the vegetable? To be a vegetable – not tofurkey, not veganaise or any other non-vegan wanna-be. 
            I went back to the kitchen and I re-discovered a whole bunch of recipes that were vegan, but never had the label of being “vegan.” And they all taste fantastic and they have no crazy delusions of being an animal product. Many of them come from traditionally vegan traditions, such as Buddhism or Hinduism, but many are them are based upon traditional Western culinary cannons, such as ancient Rome and Greece.
            So as an occasional series, I am going to do some of those great recipes that are vegan in name only. They taste great. Elsie the cow and Charlie Tuna will thank you.

Tabouli with Quinoa

            Quinoa is the new spelt that was the new wheat. Or in fashion terms – it’s the new black. It gained in popularity after a NASA (the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration) study touted it’s nutritional value: “This ‘new’ crop, rich in protein and with desirable proportions of important amino acids, may provide greater versatility in meeting the needs of humans on long-term space missions.”[2] So instead of having Tang and the Smithsonian’s pasta-and-meatballs in a bag, NASA scientists think that quinoa is the food of the future.
            But as we historians like to always joke, it’s older than that. The pre-Columbian Andean and Incan societies (modern day Bolivia and Peru) ate quinoa in vast quantities. And in Bolivian highlands, they still do.[3]
            Contrary to its grain like appearance, quinoa is not a true grain, like that of wheat, barley or rye, which are related to the grass family. They are chenopods and are related to beets and spinach (if you look at quinoa leaves, they resemble spinach leaves in shape and taste). But the real treasure lies in the seeds. Quinoa is almost nature’s perfect food: it is a complete protein source (has a balanced set of amino acids, unlike many other plants), is gluten-free, easy to digest and has lots of fiber. What NASA had reported was known by the Bolivians for eons – it really is one of the world’s most complete foods.
            And it’s really easy to work with. Its versaltlity is astounding. Quinoa can be ground into flour for gluten-free breads. It can be used like any grain – as a starch, in salad, in stews. Bolivians grind the grains and make it into a nutritious smoothie of sorts (with apple juice, sugar and cinnamon).  Here I use it instead of bulgur for tabouli. Yes, it isn’t “authentic” but it makes for a great cold meal on a hot day. And considering how cheaply one can buy fresh herbs and decent tomatoes during the summer, it really makes an easy summer meal, with the addition of some hummus and pita. And even the pickiest of your vegan friends will eat it – because it’s so damn good.

2 large bunches of fresh mint (doesn’t matter what kind), minced
2 large bunches of fresh flat leaf parsley (curly is OK, but flat leaf is better), minced
1 bunch of scallions, finely chopped
2 c. quinoa (white, red or black are all fine)
3 ripe tomatoes, diced
1/2 c. extra virgin olive oil
2 lemons, zested and juiced
large pinch of salt (to taste)
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/4 tsp. smoked paprika
pinch of ground chipotle pepper

1.     In a large pot, take 2 cups of quinoa and 3 1/2 cups of water. Place over high heat until boiling, and then turn the heat to low and cover until quinoa is cooked through, about 20 minutes (quinoa is done when the “tails” come out). Set aside and cool.
2.     In a small bowl, add olive oil, lemon zest, lemon juice, salt, cumin, paprika, chipotle pepper and whisk to blend. Toss with quinoa.
Add mint, parsley, scallions, and tomatoes to quinoa. Toss to blend. Set aside for at least 1/2 hour to let the flavors meld. Season with more salt if needed. If not serving immediately, store in refrigerator no more than 2 days. Serve room temperature or cold.

[1] High end dining – we’re talking Michelin starred restaurants – are fairly good at dealing with vegan requests. The only exceptions I can think of it the omkase menu at LA’s Urasawa and at any of the Momofuku restaurants (Ma Peche, Momofuku Noodle Bar, Momofuku Ssam Bar, etc.) I guess the logic is that if you are paying 200 dollars a person for dinner, you might as well get anything you damn please – including a vegan dinner.
[2] Greg Schlick and David L. Bubenheim. “Quinoa: An Emerging ‘New’ Crop with Potential for CELSS,” NASA Technical Paper 3422, November 1993: 1.
[3] The popularity of quinoa has been cause for some concern for those interested in food culture preservation and history. After the Spanish conquest of Incan territory, the Conquistadores discouraged the cultivation of quinoa, as it was a symbol of pagan, “Indian” rituals and practices. But now, quinoa’s popularity as a “superfood” has boosted the economies and living standards of rural farmers in the Andean highlands. However, this comes at a price. The increasing demand for quinoa, especially by health-conscious Westerners, has evaporated the local market for the grain: it is simply too expensive for Bolivians for everyday consumption. The Conquistadores have come back again – now in corporate form. See
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