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As a kid, my world of food revolved around my family’s Italian cooking: artichokes baked with crisp olive oil crumbs and prosciutto bits, my Nana’s soft pillowy ravioli made with passata di pomodoro from her backyard tomatoes, and piles of Mom’s crisp fried squash blossoms eaten like potato chips.
During college, Atlantic Avenue was walking distance from my campus in Brooklyn, seducing me with belly dancing, creamy feta cheese and wrinkly black olives. The travel bug propelled me to New Delhi, Kulala Lumpur, St. Petersurg, Casablanca, Cairo and points far beyond. Now, living in Eugene, Oregon, food carts expand my horizons as Juanita teaches me to make pupusas. A Mexican torta cart, manned by two adorable university students whom I pedal past on my morning bike ride, brings me back for lunch when hunger pangs hit, and adds a new recipe to my repertoire. At home, I hit my cookbooks for recipes from far-flung places, exotic ingredients and exciting new tastes.
A world of vegetarian
And I then I noticed: All this great food I’ve been tasting, craving and cooking — it’s vegetarian! My whole food world is vegetarian. Exciting!
"Whole World Vegetarian"
By Marie Simmons,
Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016 320 pages
The alchemy was in the ingenuity of the cooks and the agrarian-based cooking and eating of cooks around the world. Meat, even consumed in moderation, is often expensive, and so vegetarian dishes are often a more affordable daily staple — especially for those with a green thumb.
Take, for instance, leafy greens. Any leafy green. Magically, almost every patch of dirt on earth grows green leaves. Freshly harvested, they can be melted into curried coconut milk in India, wilted in oil, butter or ghee with dill and mint and topped with garlic walnuts in Armenia, or tossed with ras el hanout and preserved lemons in Casablanca.
Cooking vegetables from the backyard or garden plot adjacent to the kitchen is cheap, nutritious and lends a palate for the local flavors and seasonings readily available to home cooks worldwide. Consider a garam masala available to every cook in New Delhi, preserved lemons on the shelf from Casablanca to Marrakesh, and chile, cumin and Mexican oregano in every pantry in Mexico — all of these enhance vegetarian dishes. Yes, not all whole world kitchens are vegetarian, but creative vegetable dishes are spilling out of kitchens and onto family tables. From my traveling fork to my home kitchen, from the taste memories that poured from the souls of cooks I met on the road, was born my book “Whole World Vegetarian.” I cooked and tasted and fed my friends, who finally said, “Enough!”
Moroccan Greens with Preserved Lemons
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1 large bunch (about 1 pound) rainbow Swiss chard
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup thinly sliced red onion
1 teaspoon ras el hanout, or Moroccan spice blend
1 tablespoon finely diced rind from Moroccan Preserved Lemons (recipe follows)
1. Rinse the chard and, while still wet, pull the leafy greens from the stems. Reserve the stems for other use. Tear or coarsely chop up the greens. You should have about 8 cups loosely packed.
2. In a 10-inch skillet, heat the oil over medium heat until hot enough to gently sizzle a slice of onion. Add the onion and cook, stirring with tongs, until the onion begins to brown and caramelize, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with the ras el hanout.
3. Add the wet greens to the onion all at once and toss with tongs to blend. Cook, covered, until the greens are wilted, 3 to 5 minutes, stirring with tongs once or twice.
4. Sprinkle with the preserved lemon and toss to blend. Serve hot.
Moroccan Preserved Lemons
Prep time: 10 minutes
Standing time: 3 to 4 weeks
Yield: 1/2 pint
2 to 3 small lemons, preferably organic, scrubbed clean
2 tablespoons coarse salt
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1. Trim the ends from the lemons and partially cut into 8 wedges, leaving the wedges attached at one end. Rub the cut surface of the wedges with the salt. Press the lemons back into their original shape. Pack into a clean half-pint canning jar. Add enough of the lemon juice to cover the lemons. Wipe off the rim of the jar. Top with the lid and fasten the screw band to secure. Store in the jar in a dark place for 3 to 4 weeks, turning the jar upside down every few days so the salt is distributed evenly.
2. Store the opened jar in the refrigerator. They will keep for at least 6 months.
3. To use the lemons, lift from the brine and separate the pulp from the rind. Finely chop the rind and sprinkle on vegetables, salad, soup or stew. Finely chop the pulp and add it to salad dressing, mayonnaise or other sauces.
New Delhi-Style Curried Spinach
Sturdy, large-leaf (or winter) bunch spinach is the better choice for this recipe than the bagged leaves of baby spinach. The large leaves are more flavorful and retain their texture as they gently cook.
More from Zester Daily:
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 26 minutes
Total time: 41 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
Coconut or vegetable oil, as needed
2 cups slivered (1/8 inch thick lengthwise pieces) onion
1 tablespoon Madras-style curry powder
1 can (13.5 ounces) coconut milk
1 pound large-leaf spinach, rinsed, thick stems coarsely chopped
1/2 cup seeded and diced fresh or canned tomatoes
1. Heat about 1/2 inch oil in a deep 9-inch skillet until hot enough to sizzle a piece of onion. Gradually stir in the onions, adjusting between low and medium low as the onion sizzles. Cook the onions until well browned, but not black, 15 to 20 minutes. Lift onions from the oil with a slotted spoon and place in a strainer set over a bowl. Do not use paper for draining the onions as the paper will make them soggy. Let stand until ready to serve. Reserve the onion-infused oil for future onion frying or to season other dishes.
2. In a large, wide saucepan or deep skillet, heat the curry powder over medium-low heat, stirring, until it becomes fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in the coconut milk and boil. Add the spinach all at once. Toss to coat. Cook, covered, until wilted, 3 to 5 minutes.
3. Spoon into a serving dish. Serve at once garnished with the diced tomatoes and fried onions.
Main photo: Cuisines from around the world can influence our vegetarian choices, such as in this Armenian-style salad. Credit: Copyright 2016 Marie Simmons
After spending almost two years researching and writing my new cookbook, “Fresh & Fast Vegetarian: Recipes That Make a Meal,” the pressure is off. The book is getting great reviews — life should be good. But it’s not. I’ve grown pudgy through my middle, my energy is at a lifetime low, and my once-normal blood pressure is rising. I am not a happy camper.
I eat well. I exercise. I buy organic and locally grown ingredients, olive oil is my fat of choice and I consume lots of fresh veggies. Each time a wad of bills disappears at the farmers market, I can hear my mother’s advice: “Spend money on good food and you won’t have to pay the doctor.”
The good news is that a visit to the doctor yielded no diagnosis. So what’s going on? The only change I’ve made in my life is my diet. Although I am an omnivore, for the past couple of years I’ve been eating mostly vegetarian. I thought that would be a good thing. But, maybe it’s not for me. I went from my medical doctor to several alternative medicine practitioners and then to a nutritionist hoping to find an answer. What I learned is fascinating. In my zealous quest for protein-rich meat substitutes I have been shoveling in too many beans, grains, legumes and other other high carbohydrate rich foods. Remember the adage, “Too much of a good thing, isn’t a good thing anymore?”
I adore and crave carbohydrates. Especially grains — quinoa, bulgur, farro, rice and polenta. When it comes to eating beans, I’m the queen. A day doesn’t go by that there isn’t some nutty bulgur soaking on the counter or a pot of vegetable-packed black bean chili bubbling on the back of the stove.
Even before I conferred with a nutritionist, I took a look at the numbers. My breakfast of coarse old-fashioned oatmeal with a short drizzle of maple syrup has almost 40 grams of carbohydrates. A lunch of half a baked butternut squash with half cup of white beans and some greens has about 65 grams of carbohydrates. Considering that I was using these foods as a substitute for meat and fish, which have no carbohydrate values, it struck me that my carbohydrate consumption might be on the high side. Was this a good or a bad thing?
To help put this into perspective I turned to Laura Brainin-Rodriguez, MPH, MS, RD, at the San Francisco Department of Public Health. “It is important to remember that all carbohydrates, complex or otherwise, are broken down to sugar when they enter the body,” she says. “Of course, the nutrients, protein, vitamins, minerals, etc., are used by the body in a good way. At one time the popular thinking was that it was OK for us to consume 50 percent to 60 percent of our daily caloric intake in complex carbohydrates. Today, as the understanding of the science of nutrition changes, that thinking is beginning to change, especially as we age.”
Surprisingly, Brainin-Rodriguez says, our bodies are designed to handle fats and proteins better than carbohydrates. According to Gary Taubes, author of “Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It,” as we age and as women go through the hormonal changes of midlife, our muscles become less able to burn the simple sugars. Insulin causes our fat cells to store these as fat. This leaves our muscles lacking fuel, which makes us feel less energetic. Our waistlines expand. Insulin also causes our kidneys to hang on to sodium, which in turn raises our blood pressure.
So what’s a mostly vegetarian girl to do?
I’ve been talking and writing about how important balance and moderation are in healthful eating for years. It was time I made the bold decision to walk the talk.
I’ve moderated my mostly vegetarian diet by adding small amounts of animal protein — mostly seafood and poultry — to the mix. I still eat the foods I love, I just eat smaller servings. And, bingo, it’s working. The pounds are coming off, my energy is coming back and best of all my blood pressure is returning to normal. At this time in my life, there will be no more overdosing on beans and bulgur just because they’re good sources of plant protein and fiber. Today my breakfast was two poached eggs on a mess of sautéed greens (about 10 grams of carbohydrates).
I’ll still eat oatmeal, but not every day. For lunch I’m now likely to dig into a half a spaghetti squash (about 10 grams of carbohydrates) with a mess of greens and a half cup of quick skillet veggie chili (about 20 grams of carbohydrates). For dinner I’ll have a piece of fish with two green vegetables and skip the carbohydrates like rice, potatoes, or a grain, since I enjoyed them for lunch. This is not deprivation, it’s moderation.
Sure, I know plenty of full-on vegans and vegetarians who are glowing and healthy, but my carbohydrate overloading caused my system to short out. Now, I’m making amends. My reward? I’m on my way to being a happy camper again.
Marie Simmons has written or co-written over 20 cookbooks including “Fig Heaven”; “The Good Egg,” which won a James Beard Award; Sur La Table’s “Things Cook Love” and her latest, “Fresh & Fast Vegetarian.” She lives in Northern California.
Photo: Marie Simmons. Credit: Luca Trovato