7.10.12 Please Pass the Vegetables
photos by gluttonforlife
This week really flew by! Remember when I used to post up to 5 times a week? Them days is over. A few too many irons in the fire now. I've been itching to talk to you about vegetables, though, and it's been too long since I shared a recipe. A couple of weeks ago, a friend told me he had been reading up on plant-based diets—books like The China Study
and others by Dean Ornish
, etc. But you're not interested in that
, he said. He couldn't be more wrong. After reading books like this
, I have come to understand that (non-factory-farmed) animal products are not the cause of high cholesterol and other health issues, but I do firmly believe that they should comprise a greatly reduced part of our diet. I think by now it's pretty clear to all of us that we should be eating mostly vegetables, fruits and some unprocessed grains, with small additions of high quality dairy, fish and meat products. Think of using them almost like seasoning, rather than as the centerpiece of your meal. With such a bounty of fresh produce now in season and available at farmers markets, there's no lack of inspiration if you want to start cooking more vegetable-based meals. Want a few cookbooks to help you along the path? Try this one
, this one
and this one
give your creativity the green light
One important tip: branch out. Try new vegetables, especially if they scare you a little—like daikon radish, or this Romanesco broccoli, also called Roman cauliflower. Its logarithmic spirals are so gorgeously ornate but it tastes quite familiar. I turned this small head into a lunch for myself one sweltering afternoon.
use your head
I steamed it whole (place collapsible steamer
in pot with water; place Romanesco on top; steam until tender); let it cool to room temp; dressed it with a sharp combination of Dijon mustard, anchovy paste, garlic and olive oil; and sprinkled some smoky pimentón on top. It was intensely flavorful and so satisfying. You can also try this with regular cauliflower or broccoli.
the raw and the cooked
On another hot night, I decided to recreate a salad I heard a woman ordering at Il Buco Alimentari. When it was set down before her, I took note. The list of ingredients stuck in my mind: ricotta, sugar snap peas, pine nut granola, mint.
inspired by il buco
I ad-libbed a bit, since I also had fresh pea shoots on hand and because I wasn't about to get busy making pine nut granola. I shelled some of the peas and sliced others, then added a chiffonade of mint, a dollop of local ricotta, some fresh lemon juice, good olive oil, sea salt and chopped, toasted pine nuts. Something very key I must convey to you while we're on the subject of vegetables: of course the freshness is very important, but even more so is the way you create different textures with them. Think of what happens to a big horsey cabbage leaf when you shred it fine. Or to a potato when you mash it. The raw ingredients are one thing; how you transform them is another entirely. This is cooking 101, of course, but I find that people who have grown bored with a whole raw carrot (or a sliced and steamed one), fall in love all over again when they meet it roasted with spices, pureed in a cold soup or in tiny dice as a garnish.
turn over some new leaves
Consider reducing the amount of processed grains you eat, including many flours, by replacing bread with greens. Crisp, crunchy leaves make wonderful wraps for all kinds of fillings. Think of those butter lettuce cups filled with minced chicken and pine nuts you can get at Chinese restaurants; or they way Koreans fold barbecued meats and herbs inside big leaves of ruffled lettuce.
don't think of tofu as a meat substitute
Since G doesn't eat bread, it's sometimes challenging to come up with portable food, not that we eat on the run much. But we decided to go for an impromptu picnic on the 4th and collard wraps seemed like just the thing. I pulled out my mortar and pestle and made a paste from garlic, shallot, coconut sugar, red chile, fish sauce and a little sunflower oil. Then I slathered this on slices of firm tofu and cooked it in a hot cast-iron skillet until it was caramelized and golden brown. (Speaking of tofu, I had the most amazing sandwich at No. 7 Sub
: Mongolian tofu with wax bean salad. The tofu had a crispy crust and a sweet-salty-spicy sauce loaded with sesame seeds.)
as portable as any sandwich
Once the tofu cooled, I cut it into matchsticks and rolled it up in big flat collards, fresh from our garden, along with a little smoky bacon, some cucumber strips and a few pickled garlic scapes. Hummus also makes a great filling for collard wraps, as do nut butters with lots of herbs, rice noodles, smoked fish and pretty much anything else. I tie mine closed with a little butcher's twine; a toothpick also works.
mince vegetables, not words
Thai, Vietnamese and Laotian cuisines feature lots of fresh herbs and greens, often accompanied by small amounts of highly seasoned meats. Among my favorite examples of this are the little bundles of herbs and pork wrapped in lettuce that women sell in the markets in Luang Prabang. They are so fresh and tasty, bursting with the bright flavors of lemongrass, ginger and cilantro that play so well against rich, salty pork and peanuts.
the work all happens up front
Despite the strong flavors, this is almost a delicate mouthful since everything is so finely minced. Aside from all the chopping, the recipe involves a simple stir-fry to create the incredibly savory ground pork with its sweet notes of palm sugar (you can substitute brown), spicy ginger and plenty of garlic. It's fun to set out the ingredients and let people build their own bundles, or you can make up a tray of them ahead of time and bring them out with cocktails—maybe grilled pineapple muddled with cilantro, lime juice and rum.
street food at home
There's meat in there, but it's just one member of an all-star team. If you give your vegetables the love they deserve, no one's going to be asking Where's the beef?
Green-Wrapped Flavor Bundles
lightly adapted from Hot Sour Salty Sweet; makes about 2 dozen
— 1/2 pound lean ground pork
— 1 tablespoon tamarind concentrate (or substitute a combination of honey and lime juice)
— 3 tablespoons peanut oil
— 1/2 cup chopped shallots
— 3 tablespoons minced garlic
— 2 tablespoons palm sugar (or brown sugar)
— 1-2 tablespoons fish sauce
— 1/2-1 teaspoon salt, to taste
— 1 tablespoon minced ginger
— 2 tablespoons dry-roasted peanuts, finely chopped
— 25 Bibb lettuce leaves, or other tender leafy greens
— 1 stalk lemongrass, minced
— 2 tablespoons minced ginger
— 2-3 scallions, trimmed and minced
— 1/2 cup chopped cilantro
Heat a heavy skillet over high heat. Add the oil and, when it is hot, add the shallots and garlic. Stir-fry until golden, then add the pork and stir-fry until it has all changed color, about 4 minutes. Add the sugar, the tamarind, the fish sauce and salt and cook until the liquids have almost evaporated, about 5 minutes. Add the ginger and peanuts and stir-fry for another minute. The mixture should be the consistency of paste and rather salty. Adjust seasonings if you wish. Remove from the wok and let cool. You will have about 1.5 cups filling. This can be made ahead and stored in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days, but bring to room temp before serving.
To make a flavor package, put a lettuce leaf on the palm of one hand, then scoop up a scant tablespoon of the pork filling and place it on the leaf. Sprinkle on a pinch of minced lemongrass, a little ginger, a pinch of scallions and another of cilantro. Fold the leaf over to make a bundle, or leave it open, like a filled cup, and place on a platter. Repeat with the remaining ingredients and greens, or offer roll-your-own style.