Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Ode to vegetables (and a veggie cookbook too)

We’re not vegetarians, but a quick glance on our shelf or in our fridge and you might think that we are. In the past year and a half, Michael and I have come to the conclusion that meat should be a “sometimes” food for our family, which means that vegetables, grains, and legumes take an honored place in our pantry! We usually only buy and prepare some type of poultry, fish, pork or beef/buffalo dish about once a week, and we decided to take this low-meat approach for a variety of reasons:

*Simplicity: An interesting fact: the monastic Rule of St. Benedict calls for a vegetarian diet unless otherwise dictated for health reasons. Ever heard of those cookbooks “From a Monastery Kitchen”? They’re all vegetarian.

*Solidarity: There are so many in the world who either aren’t able to afford to eat meat. There are also those who usually eat only simple vegetarian food and live quite healthy lives. We try to think of them as we plan our weekly meals.

*Ecological justice: The practice of raising grain-fed, factory-farmed animals for consumption in our country results in huge quantities of (apparently) cheap meat and poultry that meet the “average American” demand for everyday meals with generous portions of meat or poultry. Much has been written about this elsewhere, so I will simply note that the low cost of purchasing such meat doesn’t accurately represent the high environmental and social cost of producing it. We find it much more in keeping with our call to be stewards of the gifts of creation to spend our resources to support farms that raise grass-fed meats and poultry. Local farms like Cibola, Mt Vernon Farm, or Polyface Farms, make appearances at roadside stands and farmer’s markets. Even though this entails a sacrificial expenditure of more money than we would otherwise spend for meat, we decided that it is ap appropriate use of our resources, especially because we purchase meat so infrequently.

*Health: The challenge of creating vegetarian meals requires a bit of creativity and forethought, but it’s worth the effort because it encourages us to eat larger portions of vegetables and legumes thanks to their starring role as the “main dish”. We definitely aren’t vegans, though –we eat a good deal of eggs, cheese, yoghurt, and milk, both to boost our protein intake, and because they’re just so darn good! :)

Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone has been my companion in the kitchen in this adventure of mainly-vegetarian cooking. It is by far my favorite cookbook on the shelf, the one I turn to for everything from broccoli to baking. Her recipes are simple yet interesting enough to provide a good variety, healthy but not annoyingly “low-fat” (they don’t call for reduced-fat cheese or egg substitutes, for example), and well-proportioned (I don’t have to adjust the salt/seasoning/oil amounts as I do with many other recipes). Because we cook from scratch almost all of our meals, we do have a relatively well-stocked pantry, but even considering this I think it is a great compliment to her cookbook to say that rarely do I have to make special trips to the grocery store for ingredients that I will only use once. She also makes suggestions for seasonal eating, which we try to do as much as possible by preparing what we can buy at the market or grow in our garden, now that it is flourishing thanks to Michael’s hard work.

No, I am not on a secret mission from Deborah to get all of my blog readers to run out and purchase her cookbook, although I did email her to thank her for her great work on this cookbook. I just wanted to share because I think the key to great vegetarian cooking is often getting an inspiration and a jump-start from some excellent cookbooks, and I have used quite a few vegetarian cookbooks that have recipes that are much too complicated to use on an everyday basis, and made me think that cooking mainly vegetarian meals would be too difficult. I now know better, thanks to VCFE!

Here’s one of my favorite "main dish" recipes from the book, although I must admit it is hard to choose just one.

Green Lentils with Wine-Glazed Vegetables, Spinach,
and Garlic-Rubbed Croutons
Serves 4-6

1 ½ cups green lentils, sorted and rinsed
Salt and freshly milled pepper
1 bay leaf
2 tsp olive oil
1 onion, cut into ½ inch dice
1 large carrot, cut into 1/4 inch dice
1 celery rib, cut into 1/4 inch dice
1 garlic clove, mashed or put through a press
1 T. tomato paste
2/3 cup dry red wine
2 tsp Dijon mustard
2 T. butter or extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp chopped parsley or tarragon

Put the lentils in a saucepan with 3 cups water, 1 tsp salt, and the bay leaf. Bring to a boul, then lower the heat to a lively simmer and cook until the lentils are tender but still hold a little texture, about 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a medium skillet. Add the onion, carrot, and celery, season with ½ teaspoon salt, and cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until the vegetables are browned, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and tomato paste, cook for 1 minute more, and then add the wine. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat and simmer, covered, until the liquid is syrupy and the vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in the mustard and add the cooked lentils along with their broth. Simmer until the sauce is mostly reduced, then stir in the butter and season with pepper.

Just before serving, steam or saute a large bunch of spinach. Pile the lentils into a flat serving dish, surround them with the greens, or stir the greens into them, and serve with thin Garlic Rubbed Croutons (slice baguette/other bread 1/4 inch thick, brush with olive oil or butter, place on baking pan and bake at 375 until crisp and golden, and rub with halved clove of garlic when they emerge from oven)

Buen provecho!