Heirloom Rice: Red and Black

20140906_193605On two separate occasions lately I’ve come across Lotus Foods heirloom rice and picked some up to try out. The first I tried was the Bhutan Red Rice and then the Forbidden Rice, which is a black rice.  The red rice, in addition to being an heirloom variety is also organic, while the black rice is grown with a water saving method. I tested them both together and separately. If you’re looking for a recipe for black rice, check out my fellow blogger Nancy’s Black Rice Salad. I resisted the temptation to do much with the rice the first time I made it because I wanted to evaluate the flavor and texture before fancying it up.

I found both the Bhutan Red and black Forbidden rice at a specialty store last fall and had to give them a try. In general I like heirloom varieties of vegetables, but I’m not sure I’ve had an heirloom grain before! The rice kernals of the Bhutan Red rice are plump and retain their color moderately well in cooking. I cooked it on the stove, more or less according to package instructions. (I had to cook a bit longer because I’ve got a new set of cookware I’m getting used to and had to adjust the temp during cooking.)

I like the way both the red and black rices look. For that alone you might snag a bag if you see it in a store. The unusual look dresses up the meal more than plain ol’ white rice, or even brown rice. The Forbidden Black rice was looked even more spectacular than the red!

I did not rinse the Bhutan Red rice before cooking and the grains were remarkably less sticky than white rice. In fact I had a bit more trouble with the chopsticks because the rice did not clump the way I’m used to. 😉


The flavor, however, was unremarkable. I had expected a different heartier flavor, but it didn’t have a distinctive flavor, though it did not taste like white rice. I added no seasonings, but I think this rice would be a good one for additions of seasoning and vegetables, providing something of a blank canvas for flavors.

Forbidden (black) Rice

The Forbidden Black rice was much more satisfying in some ways. I did give it a quick rinse before cooking, though that didn’t appear necessary from the appearance of the water I poured off. I cooked this in my microwave rice cooker, rather than on the stovetop, using the cooking time suggested for brown rice. It cooked up well and had a wonderful aroma when I opened the pot! Lightly fragrant, almost floral. An elusive scent that dissipated quickly. The rice had a nice clean flavor, and the grains glistened almost purple with the ambient moisture clinging to them. In fact, the small amount of liquid I found at the bottom of the pot was purple. It was a flavorful, dramatic rice. I can see why Nancy chose to use black rice to make her salad. You could mix this with almost anything and have an eye-catching as well as tasty dish. Bright vegetables, such as carrots, peas, or an assortment of brightly colored bell peppers (red, green, yellow, orange) would make a show-stopping rice and veg medley. Like the Bhutan Red, the grains of the Forbidden rice were not sticky and did not clump like white or brown rice does.

Lovely! Forbidden Rice

Lovely! Forbidden Rice

Be aware, however, that both the Bhutan Red and Forbidden Black rice from Lotus Foods comes in a small package: I cooked up one cup from each package and it looks like I have less than a cup left in each bag. It’s probably not economical (I don’t recall what it costs since I bought it last fall) nor eco-friendly (imported from Bhutan and China) to regularly use Red Heirloom Rice from Bhutan, or Forbidden Black rice, but rather buy it only as a novelty for a special meal and dress it up with seasonings and veggies. Be on the lookout for other Lotus brand rices (they have several varieties) as well as more local sources of heirloom rice varieties, especially the black rice. Heirloom rices do not have to be grown on the other side of the world; some heirloom varieties are grown in the U.S.

If you’re a gardener and want to experiment with growing your own heirloom rice, I noticed that Baker Creek Seeds offers two heirloom rice varieties: A Mayan variety called “Blue Bonnet” and a golden variety called “Carolina Gold”. 🙂

Food Is Social

Food is culture. You eat to live, but it’s more than just taking in nutrition. It’s about connecting with people, and with our childhood memories. Food is social. It’s the original social network. We share food.

When I traveled through Ireland and stayed at hostels people shared food with each other. They made more than they alone could eat. Sometimes they planned pot luck meals for a group of people who didn’t otherwise know each other, other times it was just “come eat with me” or “You want some of this?” I remember one rainy chilly night an Australian guy came into the hostel. He had a long conversation with the resident who ran it, and it appeared that they were talking about money, price from gestures, wallet on a string, etc. Then the guy left, head hanging, to get some money changed. He looked like he was just all in. I knew he’d be back. I fixed spaghetti. I ate, but still he hadn’t returned. I put the leftovers in the refrigerator. He was gone longer than I’d expected, but then, he didn’t know the town, didn’t know where to get money changed, and it was getting late. It was dark. Maybe some places were closed. Finally he dragged in the door, still lugging his backpack. He got a room and when he’d come back into the common area, I walked straight up to him and told him that I’d made spaghetti and that there was some left in the fridge. He looked stunned. Like he almost couldn’t comprehend, then it sank in and he thanked me and hurried to the kitchen. He ate ravenously and we both felt good about that. 🙂 Other people shared food with me and I shared food with other people. It’s important that we give food to each other; it’s a matter of nourishing each other in a way that goes beyond the food itself.

What we ate when we are growing up becomes a touchstone for us. That’s one of the things that makes changing one’s diet so difficult. We have favorite foods that go back as far as we can remember. Often they aren’t “good” foods, as in nutritious, but they nourish us as “comfort foods”.

Food is often social. We sit down to meals together. We meet friends and family at restaurants. All celebrations have food. Birthday cake, among other things. Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas cookies, picnics, cookouts. A friend of mine who is a vegetarian was invited to a cookout on a social network (as was a large number of other people). I sent him a recipe for my vegetarian BBQ Baked Beans to take to the cookout. Because I wanted him to feel included. I wanted him to bring food that other people would like and want. I wanted him to be socially accepted in a situation where vegetarians are typically awkwardly placed (or not invited at all). Food is the social glue that holds us together in many situations. It greases conversation as well as—perhaps better than—alcohol. People separate themselves out by being picky eaters or having special diets. Often this is something they have no control over, but if you’re throwing a party you have to be aware if any guests have life-threatening allergies. While I don’t bend over backwards to make allowances for every weird diet out there—because it seems like these days everyone has some extremely limited diet which is different from everyone else’s—I do try to have healthy choices available when I throw a party and make allowances for people who have health problems. I want people to feel included.

Being in a social situation when you have to politely decline all the food is no fun. It sets that person apart—and that is exactly the opposite of what social events are supposed to do. There really is something fundamental about breaking bread with someone and if that person can’t, or won’t, eat with you, it makes everyone uncomfortable.

One of the things that bugs me about the myriad diets that people are on now is that no one is eating the same thing. People can’t just eat normally (and yes, I consider vegetarian cuisine to fall within the bounds of “normal”) without breaking some rule (which is often self-prescribed and not the result of having been tested and having a doctor or dietician’s advice). I know more and more people who are eating or not eating different things so that it has become impossible for some people who are friends with each other to actually share food with each other at their homes or go out for a meal together at a restaurant because each is on some different restrictive diet. It becomes a barrier.

Food has always had the potential to be a barrier, but usually that’s a cultural thing. As something that sets people of different cultures apart, food can make people into “us and them”. There’s a fracturing of cuisine lately within a single culture (here in America); the result is that we are interacting with each other on social networks, but we can’t actually sit down to a meal together or relax and eat at a party. There are some people that have to have total control over their food, every single aspect of it. Therefore all social situations are gone for them or social situations that they can’t avoid become fraught miserable meals. It’s not mentally healthy to treat food this way. No matter what you eat, you need to have a healthy mental attitude about food, cooking and eating.

Vegetarian cuisine should not be a barrier to social interaction. It’s food at it’s freshest, healthiest, and most fundamental. It’s food you can share. You can make an argument that someone who presents a vegetarian with a rack-o-lamb is putting up a barrier to the vegetarian’s inclusion in the communal meal and enjoyment of the gathering (what to do when someone gives you a Dead Animal is another blog post which I haven’t written yet), but you can’t sustain an argument that a vegetarian is putting up any barrier to another’s enjoyment of food if the vegetarian serves spaghetti with a sauce made with a meat substitute. (At least not the way I make it!) 🙂 I see vegetarian cuisine as inclusive, which is what food should be.

Pie Awry

Pumpkin pie is a holiday favorite of mine. Although I often make it for Thanksgiving as well as Christmas, it’s very firmly rooted in our Christmas traditions, too. Pumpkin pie has been my traditional Christmas breakfast for as far back as I can remember. 🙂

When I was a kid I used to make pumpkin pie with my mom. I’d turn the mixing bowl (an old style mixer that had a turntable you turned by hand under the beaters) and pour in ingredients. Mom would make the pie crust and set aside a small amount of dough so I could roll out a little pie crust right next to hers. A little bit of the filling went for my mini pie which was baked in a left-over aluminum pot-pie pan. (Frozen dinners and frozen pot-pies were common fare.) It must have baked for less time than the big pie, but I don’t remember that. As it turned out there were a lot of things I’d forgotten by the time I left home. I didn’t do as much holiday baking with my mother when I was a teenager, but my mother didn’t do as much either because by then my grandmother was in a nursing home, so there was one less person to help in the kitchen and one less person to bake for and many more visits to the nursing home after work during the holiday season. Though Mom didn’t bake as much and I didn’t help as much, she still made pumpkin pie.

When I got married and moved away our first Thanksgiving was fraught with anxiety. I could hardly cook anything so even though I had my mother’s instructions there were still phone calls — including a panic-stricken call to Mom about the pumpkin pie as I stared in dismay at the soup in the mixing bowl. It had been so many years since I’d rolled out dough and turned the mixer next to my mother that I didn’t remember that pumpkin pie filling was soupy when it’s all mixed up. I looked at that liquid in the bowl and thought: That can’t be right. I didn’t see how that could possibly turn into a solid pie. I didn’t know then, as I do now, that pumpkin pie is essentially a custard. Mom reassured me and I went on to make the best pumpkin pie I’d ever had in my life. It was better than my mother’s pie! How often does that ever happen to new cooks? 😀

It wasn’t until talking to Mom about the pie making at Christmas that I found out why. When I mentioned casually something about one of the ingredients my mother’s mouth dropped open. She was flabbergasted. I’d used a wrong ingredient. I didn’t know much about cooking. I didn’t realize that there was a huge difference between “Eagle brand milk” and “evaporated milk”! The recipe called for a can of evaporated milk. Eagle brand milk is canned sweetened condensed milk. “No wonder the pie is so rich and creamy!” Mom exclaimed. She shook her head and pointed out that there aren’t too many recipes where you can substitute sweetened condensed milk for evaporated milk and not ruin the recipe! But in the case of pumpkin pie, it works great. I’ve used a can of Eagle brand milk in my pumpkin pie ever since and told everyone my secret. Maybe eventually my stupid mistake could become the standard for pumpkin pie as word spreads. (Eagle brand milk is very common in Texas and the South, but I’m not actually sure if it’s that common throughout the US —and I doubt you’d find it in other countries, though I wouldn’t be surprised if other countries didn’t have a version of it.)

After that first happy accident, I haven’t screwed with the pumpkin pie recipe, but Libby’s — who makes the canned pumpkin I use — has messed with cooks everywhere. The recipe my mother and I used is one off the Libby’s can, an old Libby’s can as it turns out. You can find the revised recipe on the official Nestle baking site. This is identical to the recipe my family has always used, except the original recipe calls for 1 16oz can of Libby’s solid pack pumpkin and a 14 1/2 oz can of Carnation evaporated milk. The cans of pumpkin are now only 15 ozs. The cans of evaporated milk are now only 12 oz. So, if you think your pumpkin pie doesn’t ever come out like your mother’s or grandmother’s pumpkin pie, even though you’re using the same off-the-can recipe, this may be why. It might explain why I encounter so many pumpkin pies whose consistency is slightly “off”. I bake the pie until a toothpick comes out clean and the cooking time is usually slightly longer than the 45 mins the original recipe called for. (The version on the website gives the cooking time as 40-50 mins.) Cans of evaporated milk and Eagle Brand milk, did not hold the same amount but both, like the pumpkin — have also changed over the years. Eagle Brand milk used to come in 15 oz cans: the cans are now 14 oz. Carnation Evaporated milk used to come in 14.5 oz cans. It now comes in 12 oz cans! (I think it has suffered two downsizings because I find references to 13 oz cans in old recipes.)

To be clear: I substitute  1 14 oz can of Eagle Brand milk for the 12 oz can of evaporated milk, and I use the 15 oz cans of Libby’s pumpkin (not even realizing until recently that the amount had changed). Right now the recipe still works, but if the amounts in cans of pumpkin and milk continue to change, the time may come when amount of eggs and spices may need to be slightly adjusted .

This change in the size of cans and jars is something cooks need to be aware of. Sometimes it won’t make enough difference to notice, but sometimes it will, particularly with a custard (like pumpkin pie) which needs the solids and liquids to balance just so in order to set properly. There was a news story a while back about how manufacturers were cutting the amount of everything in order to avoid raising prices in a bad economy. Everything from cans and jars to boxes of detergent. Everything. Caveat emptor.

The Chili Controversy

Since this post is about chili variations, the historical roots of chili, and using vegetarian meat substitutes, it does have two mentions of meat.

There’s a cold front that’s supposed to move in soon, like any time now…I’m waiting…any time now…So I’m making vegetarian chili in the Crockpot. There’s a lot of controversy about chili here in Texas. Everyone has very strong ideas about what chili is and isn’t and how it’s supposed to be made. Chili was a competitive sport long before food preparation competitions took over food network television shows. (Why I don’t like this trend in food TV is food for another blog post.) Setting aside the vegetarian or non-vegetarian issue for the moment (I’ll return to it in a minute) the big thing that causes the most arguments that I’ve witnessed (and participated in) is whether authentic chili should have beans in it or not. Purists say that it isn’t chili if it has beans, even though most people’s perception of chili usually includes beans. Purists say that beans should be served on the side. Typically these arguments —which literally don’t amount to a hill of beans — pit native Texans (keepers of the flame of authenticity) and non-Texans.

I’m a native born Texan and my family has lived here in the Lone Star State since before it was a state (and before it won its independence from Mexico, too). We make our chili with beans. I can hear the gasp of horror now. There are two simple reasons for this that is probably not unique to our family. First of all, my family going all the way back was poor and had a lot of mouths to feed until my generation. (I’m an only child and middle class.) Beans were filler, a way of stretching out meager resources for a lot of families. “Authenticity” wasn’t an issue: it was about making enough to feed a big family as cheaply as possible. Beans were very cheap. The other reason is that until my mother got a crockpot: we often got our chili out of cans. She got a crockpot back in the ’60s and it was at this point that I really remember chili being something she made herself. I won’t say she didn’t make chili before then, but the crockpot made it easy for a working mother. Her recipe — which I’ve looked for in her few cookbooks to no avail — is a fairly mild version, but we all liked it. It had beans in it. I’ve now made so many modifications to that original recipe that the only thing recognizable about it is that it has beans and is made in a crockpot. So, no, my chili, even before I started experimenting with vegetarian versions, was not “authentic”. However…

If I wanted to be really snarky and quibble about it I could make an argument that most chili without beans that is made these days isn’t all that authentic either. Here’s the thing: recipes and food preparation changes. It’s sort of like language in that way. What’s considered good usage of words and grammar has changed quite a bit in the past couple hundred years and the same is true of many recipes. First of all, “recipes” as we know them is a fairly recent invention. You look at old cookbooks and you’ll find that they don’t tell you how hot the oven should be or what size pan you should put something in. I’ve got some from the early twentieth century which have the technique (add this to that, then). Really old recipes were just a list of ingredients. So, a lot of food culture is passed via people in the kitchen together and people change things to suit themselves. The original “chili” was too hot for the anglos who encountered it, so they added other ingredients to moderate the flavor and fit their own expectations of how food should be prepared. I read an old account from back when what is New Mexico was still a territory. It told of the natives making “chili colorado” which was a stew consisting of extremely hot red chili peppers cooked in a big pot over a fire all day with dried buffalo (or other) meat. So, if you’re talking authentic chili, it not only doesn’t have beans, it doesn’t have tomatos, it doesn’t have spices and it’s made with jerky. Back when I was taking Spanish in school I learned that what we call chili was properly “chili con carne”. That’s “chili with meat”. I suppose that chili with beans is “chili con frijoles”, but either way it’s clear —to me, at least—that the “chili” is a thing unto itself separate from both meat and beans. Chili refers to the chile peppers which are stewed in water. Add beans and it’s “con frijoles” add meat and it’s “con carne”. I’m not an Expert on food history, but that’s what I’ve picked up from books and school.

So, I really don’t care if you make your chili with beans or not. As far as I’m concerned the main reason to leave beans out of chili is to make chili dogs or Frito Pie. I suspect that the addition of beans to chili came about due to economic concessions. My grandmother lived through the great depression. Anyone who did learned to “pad” out food to make it more filling. Beans are cheap and nutritious. They’re half of what vegetarians call “a complete protein”. A legume and a grain makes a complete protein (look this up online; it’s more than I want to get into here). Besides crockpot chili we sometimes had “chili beans and rice”. That’s what my grandmother and mother called it. It consisted of pinto beans cooked with chili powder then spooned up and served over rice in a bowl. It’s really good, too, depending on the chili powder you use. My memories of this staple go back further than my memories of homemade (or canned) chili do.

I tend to make up my own variations on chili powder. It changes depending on the availablity of various types of ground chili powder, but has contained ancho, habanero, chipotle, paprika, hungarian hot paprika, and chili pequin (which is native here and my favorite chili powder ingredient). I don’t use all of these and often use a base of my favorite store-bought chili powder (the one my family used for chili beans and rice and the original chili we made) and then tweak it with something extra that’s a bit hotter. Chili pequin or “turkey peppers” grow wild and seed themselves in my garden via birds. They will winter over unless we have an unusually bad winter. When I’ve got enough of them I dry them and crush them in a small mortar and pestle that I got just to use to crush dried chilis. I don’t crush them until I’m ready to use them. I’ve made really good chili using chili petine as the only chili seasoning. (I also add cumin to my chili. Most chili powders contain some cumin and most chili recipes call for the addition of cumin. Cumin in many ways contributes the savory spicy flavor we most associate with chili while the chile’s themselves contribute both distinctive flavor and heat.)

For a long time when my mother made chili I picked out the green bell pepper that the recipe called for. I don’t know why. I just went through a phase where I didn’t like it. She took to cutting the bell peppers in slices so that it would be easier to remove. At some point I decided that the bell pepper was okay and have left it in the recipe ever since. I’ve tried using red bell peppers for the color in chili, but the flavor of the chili seems “off” when I do that. There’s a little extra “bite” that green bell peppers add that red bell peppers (which are “sweeter”) don’t have. But it won’t hurt anything to add a red bell pepper along with the green, if you wish.

I continue to experiment with my chili recipe. The first few times I tried to make vegetarian chili, I simply left out the meat. It wasn’t good. It was like a watered down version of chili beans and rice. After I discovered Smart Ground, I started using that as a ground beef substitute and it works well for a number of recipes, including chili. Spicy dishes which originally contained meat are often the best to adapt to a vegetarian meat substitute because the spices are the dominant flavor and the soy product (or other meat substitute) soaks up the flavors. If a dish is flavorful enough no one cares whether it has meat in it or not (unless they’re just looking for something to complain about or have a thinly veiled anti-vegetarian bias). I knew someone years ago back when ground turkey was the next big thing in healthy eating, who said loudly and often that he didn’t like turkey as a substitute for beef, that it didn’t taste good, Blah, blah, blah. I made both spaghetti and chili with ground turkey (On different occasions) without ever telling him and he ate it up, and asked for seconds. He never knew he was eating turkey. It may be easier to tell you’re not eating meat when you use a vegetarian meat substitute, but if the food is highly seasoned (and I don’t just mean hot) and well-seasoned, then most people will like the food just fine. If you’re unsure about substituting something for meat (eg: you’re just not sure about this vegetarian thing), then chili is a pretty good thing to try because whether you make it with beans or without, if you’ve got a good chili recipe, you really can’t go wrong even if there’s no “carne” in the chili con carne. 🙂

Upcoming recipes: My Vegetarian Chili With Beans and My Vegetarian Chili Without Beans (and Frito Pie!)

Summer squash, sharp knives and the making of a cook

In 1978 my mother gave me two new-fangled kitchen items. I was college-age and while I’d like to think that she was motivated by fear I’d starve, she told me at the time that it was the thought of all those dirty dishes that did it. Neither item was a dishwasher. But one was a microwave. My mother’s logic was that if I had a microwave I could heat cans of things in a single dish; therefore there would be fewer unwashed dishes piled in the sink when she came over. In her defense I’ll say the place wasn’t set up for a dishwasher and having grown up in an older house, I’d never had one and so didn’t know (yet) what I was missing. The microwave was a huge thing with a tiny compartment for cooking food, a timer dial and a button to start or stop it. That’s it. A wonder of technology in 1978.

The other new-fangled thing was more of a mystery. My mother was just beaming and my stepfather (who I later learned made it) so proud. Until they realized I had no idea what it was. Then they got a bit peeved. As I looked blankly at a rectangular industrial-looking sheet of clear lucite or some type of plastic, a guessing game ensued. It was part of something else, “goes with”. It looked like the window of a small car, but this was not considered an intelligent guess.  I kept trying to think of things that an industrial sheet of plastic could be a part of. Finally my mother told me (exasperated) that it went with the microwave. I looked at it. I examined the massive heavy dark cube of a microwave (you don’t want to know how big and heavy microwaves were in 1978; it barely fit on the counter). I looked at them. There didn’t seem to be any way to fit the panel onto the microwave.

“It’s a cutting board!” my mother exclaimed in a mixture of joy and exasperation. I furrowed my brow. “A cutting board?”  “Yes!” she beamed, as if this were the most marvelous thing in the world.  If not a marvel—it still looked like something salvaged from a junkyard—it was certainly a novelty. We’d never had a cutting board in our house. I’m not sure I’d ever seen one before in person, though I had heard of them and I had seen a cooking show some years back that surely used one. My mother, and my grandmother who had lived with us for most of my life until she had a severe stroke, had always cut all vegetables, meat—everything—in the air, over the pot or skillet it went into, slicing deftly through everything except fingers. They held the food and cut it pulling the knife from the back forward to the thumb. “You’ll never cut yourself with a sharp knife,” I was repeatedly told, “dull knives cut people.” That was the adage, but it didn’t appear to be true; I could cut myself with any kind of knife. I found holding food and cutting it through all the way to my finger without cutting my fingers extremely difficult to do.

My mother didn’t get my step-father to make a cutting board out of god-knows-what because she feared me cutting myself. I didn’t know how to cook. Neither she nor my grandmother ever taught me, really. I picked up a few things, but since I never made meals, only watched and did simple things (preferably without sharp objects) as I was told, I did not actually know how to cook one single thing by the time I left home. Later an aunt told me how to roast a chicken and a friend’s brother’s girlfriend “taught” me how to make spaghetti out of a box (this, even though I had a whole passel of Italian relatives, who, to my dismay, had taken to cooking with canned and boxed stuff). I could make skillet “lasagna” from a box and  frozen 99 cent pizza, and my mother had already made sure I had a can opener so I could eat canned food, but there was no need for a cutting board in any of what I knew how to cook. My mother, having grown up in the days before convenience food, was so enamored of boxes, cans and bags that the amount of fresh food that needed to be cut in our household was exceedingly small. But my mother, always class conscious from her poor upbringing, had latched upon the idea that cutting boards were de rigour, that this—and the microwave—were the upscale things that every modern kitchen needed. Being frugal (again, from her upbringing) she had my stepfather make one from scrap, rather than “pay good money” for a real one.

The microwave (heat instant food in it) and the cutting board (prepare fresh food to cook) didn’t really “go together”. My mother’s estimation that I had no need to actually cook meals suffered a bit of a blow from that primitive cutting board. Yes, I did the heat-n-eat thing with the microwave, but I really wanted to cook, so the cutting board was used to add fresh ingredients initially to prepackaged mixes, but eventually I began leaving out more and more packaged ingredients and adding fresh. It was not without incident. In fact it was years before I could cut or chop anything with any reasonable assurance that fingers would not be cut and chopped as well. Nevertheless, within a few years of getting that newfangled cutting board I’d devoted myself to cooking—and baking—as much food from scratch as possible.

I don’t think my mother quite understood it. Why I would go to so much trouble? For a while I made all my breads from scratch (I don’t bake everything myself any more) while my mother got a bread machine. She hounded me for years to get a bread machine, threatened to buy me one more times than I can count. I had some narrow escapes, but my vehemence finally got through. I don’t have anything against bread machines in general, I just don’t have any need or desire for one myself. They make good, tasty bread, but since I really enjoy the process of making bread, dumping ingredients into a machine and turning it on, has absolutely no appeal to me. I’d get a good loaf of bread, but nothing more enjoyable out of it. If you don’t enjoy the process of making bread—or don’t have time for it—but want a good fresh loaf, a bread machine would be perfect. I do appreciate the convenience of appliances and “instant” food ingredients: I’m not a fanatic. I’m someone who couldn’t recognize a cutting board when she saw one, yet nevertheless became a good, enthusiastic, cook.

What kicked off this reverie was slicing and cooking yellow crookneck squash for supper tonight. I still have that ancient cutting board and still use it occasionally, though it’s battle-scarred and brown from decades of drippy teapots. I have, in fact, three cutting boards and could probably do with a fourth. I have a nice newer model microwave with all kinds of features and settings, too. I use the cutting boards all the time for everything. The microwave is mostly used for heating leftovers. Tonight, however, neither were used as I prepared the summer squash. Without really thinking about it, I began—for some unknown reason—cutting the squash up over the pot, the way my mother and grandmother had, the way I rarely ever do, though I finally developed the aptitude for it. (Or perhaps I just have sharp enough knives now.)  Though cheap frozen pizza, canned food, and popcorn did form the bulk of my college cuisine, I also bought yellow crookneck squash as long as it was in season, cooked it gently, sprinkled it with salt and pepper, dabbed it with margarine. It was sliced on that makeshift cutting board, cooked the ol’ fashioned way on top of the stove and eaten greedily by the bowlful. I was a college student, but I was becoming a cook.

Soy Dog Pondering

My husband doesn’t like soy hotdogs, but I do. No, they don’t taste like beef hotdogs, but I can’t say that I really notice the taste of the meat in hotdogs anyway. Yes, I can tell the difference in taste between beef and soy dogs, but meat isn’t an important part of the hotdog flavor or the hotdog experience for me. (BTW, my choice for soy dogs are LightLife’s Smart Dogs.) Hotdogs aren’t really about the dogs. Most hotdogs are “dressed” so that the “dog” (and the bun for that matter) are just a means of conveying strong flavors. Classic hotdogs traditionally have mustard and relish. Some may have onion as well or ketchup. These are pretty basic dogs, but they have something in common: strong flavors. Especially vinegar, which is a component of mustard, ketchup and relish, as well as those hot pickled peppers which adorn Chicago style dogs. If you dress your dog German style, that means saurkraut, which is pickled cabbage. Vinegar, again. If you go for a more spicy dog, like a chili dog for instance, the chili is going to be the dominant flavor, along with onions and cheese. The dog—whatever it’s made of—will be buried in there somewhere. Chili for vegetarian dogs would be vegetarian chili which is every bit as hot and flavorful as chili made with meat. Again, the impact and what makes it good is usually the seasonings. For the aforementioned Chicago style dogs, they have pickle spears, mustard, pickle relish, and pickled hot peppers. Vinegar, with vinegar and a little bit of vinegar to go with your vinegar. 😉 It’s a wonder that hotdogs taste as good as they do!

I don’t mind that the soy weiners are a bit bland. With all that’s going on in various styles of hot dogs, you really don’t need a ton of flavor for the weiner. Really, in some ways, soy dogs make hot dogs really shine because the bun and the dog soak up flavors and provide an unobtrusive platform for whatever wild thing you may wish to dress your dog with. 🙂

For those of you who didn’t get it (which would be most of the population of the world), “Soy Dog Pondering” is a take on the name of the 80’s band, Poi Dog Pondering. (A quick look online indicates they’re still around). For those of you who got the pun in the title, “you’re welcome”. 🙂

Uh, what does vegetarian mean?

This post is sort of a follow-up post to my introductory post “Vegetarians Like Good Food“. So, what does vegetarian mean? For me “vegetarian” means a bit more than just meatless. Not too long ago I got a cup of French Onion Soup which was labeled vegetarian at a local restaurant. I was interested in how it’d be with something other than beef broth as the base. It looked & tasted like beef broth. If it wasn’t, then it had to have been something synthetic with artificial beef flavor. Is something made with beef—but the meat is strained out—vegetarian? For me, the answer is no. For other people the answer may be yes. I don’t really care whether your answer is yes or no to the French Onion Soup question, but this is something that people who wish to eat—and cook—vegetarian cuisine need to figure out because when we eat at a restaurant and order something labeled as vegetarian, we have no idea how that restaurant defines “vegetarian”. It sometimes seems like there are as many definitions of “vegetarian” as there are vegetarians.

For some people there’s no distinction between “meatless” and “vegetarian”. The French Onion Soup was meatless, but unless that broth was totally synthetic beef flavor (which is a possibility because it had the over-salted flavor of boullion cubes) I wouldn’t consider it vegetarian (and I’m not alone in this). Of course, you also get into a what-does-that-mean thing even with the term “meatless” because of the centuries-old religious tradition of “meatless” Fridays—which means eating fish. I consider fish to be meat. Basic biology: it’s in the animal kingdom, not the vegetable kingdom. It’s a vertebrate: it has a skeleton just as all other animals do. A lot of people who consider themselves vegetarian still eat fish, even vegetarians who would turn their nose up at the suspicious onion soup.

You can’t always get a firm idea what a vegetarian diet consists of by reading vegetarian cookbooks, either. Some define it so narrowly that the cuisine would almost qualify as vegan. But others…well, one day at a bookstore I was thumbing through a Chinese vegetarian cookbook. It looked pretty good, except for the fish sauce in most of the recipes. Fish sauce is a traditional Chinese ingredient, but I don’t consider it vegetarian. But I was more shocked by the “vegetarian” holiday cookbook which featured—I’m not kidding—a whole section on cooking turkey. Not tofurkey. Turkey. I’ve got no problem with vegetarians eating turkey for Thanksgiving: food is tightly bound to family, tradition and culture, so if you wish to honor that, it’s okay by me—but a cookbook purportedly devoted to holiday meals for vegetarians shouldn’t include turkey. Anybody can cook a turkey: the challenge for vegetarians is non-turkey! 😉 [But that’s another blog post.]

The first vegetarian I ever encountered was at a party many, many years ago. He was making a big deal about what he could and could not eat and generally being obnoxious to people eating the finger food. (A word to the wise: if you want people to embrace vegetarianism, don’t attack them or act like an asshole.) He had this way of talking like everything he said was from the Voice of Authority. From this I got the single most garbled interpretation of vegetarianism I’ve ever heard. For instance: he would eat fish, but not eggs. It was Wrong to eat this or that, though he didn’t explain why, probably because his examples were a list of non-sequiteurs that made no sense. He seemed to pick and choose at random, or probably according to his own preferences.

A lot of self-identified vegetarians make choices not based on some ideal vegetarian cuisine, but according to their own preferences. In principle I don’t have any objections to this: everyone has to find their own way. But sometimes in restaurants I look at food—like the French Onion Soup—and wonder if their definition is the same as mine…And I have to confess inwardly cringing when I talk to a self-identifying vegetarian and after I mention my own reasons for giving up seafood, she says she still eats seafood, and then five minutes later she’s talking about chicken and then finally after a half hour she says that really she just doesn’t eat beef any more! (Last I heard she was into exotic meats.) There are many shades and varieties to vegetarianism, but I really have a hard time thinking of someone as a vegetarian if they’ll eat anything, absolutely anything, except beef. 😆

I’m not a vegetarian, but I eat like one most of the time. I hope from this blog post you have some idea what kind of vegetarian food I eat. The blog posts I write here will not tell you how to cook fish or turkey; the posts will not extoll the virtues of beef broth or fish sauce. They will sometimes have dairy products, like milk, eggs, cheese, as well as honey occasionally. (I know some cheeses are made using rennet derived from animal sources. I buy vegetarian cheeses when possible, but do not limit myself to those so labeled: most cheeses do not specify the source of the enzymes they use.) I hope that most things I’ll write here will be acceptable to most vegetarians and that vegans will be able to adapt any recipes I post to a vegan diet. How you cook depends on what kind of vegetarian cuisine you choose. As I see it, a vegetarian diet is all about choice. (And really good food!) 😀

Vegetarians Like Good Food

I’m contributing to this blog because I want to write about good food and, increasingly, for me, that means vegetarian cuisine. I don’t consider myself a vegetarian although I eat like one most of the time. Changes in my diet have been gradual and are ongoing. I stopped eating seafood for a number of reasons about four years ago. Not eating any seafood doesn’t qualify me as a vegetarian (it’s sometimes hard to know what does), but in the past year and a half I’ve pared down the meat in my diet by probably 90%, often going on streaks of vegetarianism for some months. I’ve been dabbling in this type of diet change for a couple of years now. I eat whatever I want whenever I want it, but I don’t want meals with meat as often as I used to. It seemed to me that the difficult part of being vegetarian would be eating out. Afterall I can cook anything at home and a lot of friends are on weird diets, trying to eat healthier, and/or cutting back on meat, so communal meals can usually accommodate vegetarian cuisine fairly easily.

While it’s easier to get vegetarian food at restaurants than it used to be, not all restaurants offer something besides a salad or baked potato. Surprisingly I haven’t had to change the restaurants I usually eat at. I’ve added a couple of vegetarian restaurants, though none are located near me, so the restaurants I go to when I’m eating vegetarian are mostly the same. A few years back I started looking for and choosing vegetarian choices when we ate out, until it’s become second nature for me.  That’s not to say that I won’t crave and eat something else on occasion, but those are deliberate choices, and these days they’re infrequent occurrences.

My reasons for eating like a vegetarian most of the time are that I think it’s healthier and usually has less fat. Although here in Texas where everything is potentially deep-fried (I’ve read about, but haven’t tried, deep-fried butter) even vegetables are not necessarily healthy. 😉 I’ve also discovered that “vegetarian” ceases to be light when the word “buffet” is added to it. 😆

I’ve spent the past several years thinking about vegetarian food and talking about food with vegetarian friends. Vegetarians are often foodies. 🙂 It seems to me that a vegetarian diet isn’t about “dieting” because it isn’t about deprivation. (I’ve known vegetarians who were deeply into deprivation: it sort of seemed like they were vegetarians because it was more socially acceptable than being labelled anorexic. An unhealthy relationship with food is not, as far as I can tell, something that mainstream vegetarianism embraces.) Vegetarianism is about making and eating really good food with lots of fresh ingredients. It’s not about “getting by” without meat: it’s about abundance, flavor, and quality. Which is why, I think, vegetarian (and vegan) cuisine is becoming more popular. People are getting tired of pre-packaged assembly-line food, tasteless and barely tasted, mindlessly consumed. They want to eat good stuff. Because so many ingredients in vegetarian cuisine are very perishable, the food is fresh, flavorful and good. You can’t buy a boxed vegetarian casserole that can be reconstituted with water and nuked for five minutes in the microwave. (Though I’m sure someone in a food lab somewhere is working on that.) 😉

Everyone likes good food. 🙂 For me, that’s what making and eating vegetarian food is all about. I love experimenting in the kitchen and trying new recipes. Making vegetarian food has been an expansive cooking experience for me. I’m writing for people like me, who want to eat better, or people who are maybe cautiously dipping a toe into vegetarian cuisine and may be a bit concerned about it being a hassle finding something to eat with friends and family or are skeptical about how good the food can be. I’m writing here for the curious, the wannabes, and the “mostlys” like myself. The posts will be a mixture of personal essays and recipes. I hope my posts find an audience beyond people who identify themselves as vegetarians, because vegetarians and non-vegetarians all agree on one thing: we like good food. 😀