Articles in Vegan
The variety of dried legumes used in Indian cooking can become quite mind-boggling. When you are in an Indian market, you may find yourself walking back and forth in the aisle trying to figure out what’s what.
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When I was writing my book “Some Like It Hot: Spicy Favorites from the World’s Hot Zones,” I came up with some explanations I hope are helpful.
The best known Indian dish using dried legumes is called dal and although that word simply means legume, the prepared form is a kind of mushy side dish made with the legumes, spices and chilies. Many Indian dishes also use dried legumes as a kind of seasoning, sometimes calling for as little as half a teaspoon in other, more complex, concoctions.
Some dal favorites include red gram, black gram and green gram. Sometimes the word dal specifically refers to split dried legumes. Adding to the confusion, Indian authors writing in English sometimes use the same word for two different legumes. Here’s a little guide to help (or confuse) you more. Arhal dal or tur dal (toor dal) are either split red gram or pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan L.). But tur dal, and also thuvar dal, is used by some authors to mean yellow split peas (Pisum sativum L. var. hortense). The English word gram derives from the Portuguese word for grain, which is what the early Portuguese voyagers to India called these little dried legumes in India.
More on sorting out Indian dal
Gram generally means chickpea (Cicer arietinum L .), specifically Bengal gram (also channa dal), but can also mean any dried legume.
Channa dal is the whole or split chickpea although some writers use it to refer to yellow split pea.
Black gram (Vigna mungo L. syn. Phaseolus mungo) is urad dal known also as urd, and sometimes called horse bean, horse gram, Madras gram, sword bean and jackbean (bada-sem). This is complicated by the fact that those last five identified as urad dal are a different species, Canavalia ensiformis L. and also called kulthi dal. Urad dhuli dal is the white version or split white gram.
Sometimes chowli or chowla dal or lobia is the cowpea, also known as black-eyed pea (Vigna unguiculata L. subsp. unguiculata syn. V. sinensis), although chowla dal also refers to the related Vigna catjang.
Green gram (Vigna radiata L. syn. Phaseolus aureus and P. radiatus) is more familiarly known as mung bean and in India is known as moong dal. Kesari dal (Lathyrus sativus L.), or grass pea. If you eat too much of it, grass pea causes a crippling disease called lathyrism.
Masoor dal is split red or yellow lentils (Lens culinaris Medikus syn. L. esculenta; Ervum lens; or Vicia lens).
To round out the dals, matki is moth or mat bean (Vigna acontifolia), sem (also valpapdi, avarai) is hyacinth bean (Lablab purpurus [purpureus] (L.) Sweet. syn. L. niger Medik. and Dolichos lablab L.) and sutari is rice bean (Vigna umbellate).
OK, got that? Personally, no matter what a recipe you’re following says, I find that the cooking of all this is quite easy. It’s only if you were to write a recipe for someone else that it gets confusing.
Beginner’s Dal Sauté
3 tablespoons black gram (urad dal)
3 tablespoons green gram (moong dal)
3 tablespoons dried chickpeas
3 tablespoons red lentils (masoor dal)
3 tablespoons pigeon pea (red gram or toor dal)
2 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil
1. Place all the legumes in a saucepan and cover with cold water by several inches. Turn the heat to high and once it comes to a boil, cook, salting lightly, until tender, 45 to 60 minutes.
2. Drain and place in a sauté pan with the olive oil and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Salt to taste. Serve hot.
Top photo: Legumes, clockwise from top: chickpeas, brown lentils, red lentils (masoor dal), green gram (moong dal), black gram (urd dal), pigeon pea (red gram or toor dal). Credit: Clifford A. Wright
These app reviews will teach you to become a vegan in 21 days or to mix perfect cocktails from sight alone. There’s also a complete guide to garden herbs (perfect for a farmers market) and finally, a tool to identify the hottest peppers. Enjoy!
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Eyeball those cocktails
Clinq takes a strikingly different approach to the cocktail recipe. Instead of listing shot measures, Clinq shows you the ratio of ingredients, each represented by a different color. The idea being, whether you’re making one drink or 20, you’ll get the measures right without counting shots. The stunning yet simple visuals add to the app’s appeal. The home page gives you a choice of five different spirits (gin, vodka, whiskey, bourbon and rum) spelled out in stylish black typeface on a white background. Once you touch the screen to make your choice the screen slides to the left, revealing the outlines of four different glass shapes (highball, martini, hurricane and lowball). Choose your glass and you are given a choice of cocktails — there are over 140 listed. Once the color-coded ratio is shown, you can press the screen for a few seconds and the ingredient names are revealed, then hold it again for a few more and the cocktail making procedure is shown. It may take a few times to get used to the controls, but this has to be one the more creative apps around. Happy mixing!
99 cents on iTunes
Help for the Virgin Vegan
Just how does one become a vegan? The first step is probably the most difficult, but if you want to take it, 21-Day Vegan Kickstart might just be the app you need. Designed by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, the app provides you with daily food lists and recipes to help you along your vegan route. You are able to see what ingredients you’ll need a week in advance, then each day you are given a plan for breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus a snack (one I imagine you will look forward to each day). Click on the meal and the page flips, providing you with the recipe and nutritional information. All in all, a very resourceful app that is simple to use and follow. It might just change the way you eat, forever …
Free on on iTunes
How hot is that pepper?
Say you’re cooking up a vindaloo curry or making a salsa, and you want to calibrate the heat that you’ll be bringing. When you’re talking peppers, you need to know one word: Scoville. That’s the name of the scale that measures a pepper’s spiciness. Every pepper has a Scoville rating, from the slightly sweet bell (0 units) to the burn-your-head-off habanero (100,000 to 350,000 units). The scale was invented by Wilbur Scoville a century ago — and no, he didn’t assign the heat levels by chomping his way through the world’s chilis. He got other people to do it for him. Scoville the app lists pretty much every pepper in existence, its Scoville rating, and tasting notes or other background information. The “Jamaican hot,” for example, has flavors of apples, apricots and citrus (under a furnace-like heat on your palate, one presumes) and is mainly used for hot sauces in the Caribbean. In fact, after a quick browse, it seems that everything higher on the scale than the habanero has some sort of health warning and can only be eaten in the tiniest of quantities, with a pint of milk at the ready. One of the hottest peppers, the terrifyingly named Naga Viper, has a Scoville rating of up to 1,382,118 units. It is usually dabbed on food with a toothpick, so as to only use a tiny drop – that is hot to the point of pain!
$1.99 on iTunes
Apps field guide to kitchen herbs
Most of us can tell the difference between rosemary and basil … but to the untrained eye (especially my own), telling lavender from sage can sometimes prove difficult. That’s where Herbs+ fragrantly wafts in. This app would be particularly good for finding fresh herbs in the wild. The entry for each herb offers gardening tips, culinary ideas, medicinal uses and an image to help you identify the herb.
There’s also a handy link to Wikipedia, which you can access without leaving the app. In the “Herb Garden,” you’ll find basic guidelines for how to launch your garden successfully as well as sections on harvesting, preserving, propagating and winterizing your herbs. There are also useful tips — did you know dill doesn’t grow well if planted near fennel? No, neither did I. All in all, a very good app to spice up your phone and quite possibly your next dinner too!
$2.99 on iTunes
Top image, clockwise from top left: logos for Clinq, Scoville, Herbs+ and 21-Day Vegan Kickstart.
It never fails to astound me just how heated conversations can become when a carnivore and a vegetarian or vegan talk about their respective diets. Fights have been started, punches have been thrown and families ripped asunder! Can’t we all just get along as conscientious eaters and learn to respect the ingredients?
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Eating a plant-based diet or one that includes animal flesh and the foods animals produce can be a cultural or religious decision, a moral decision, a decision based on dietary allergies, or just a lifestyle choice. With that many options, there are bound to be clashes, even within the groups themselves.
A vegan may have issues with a lacto-ovo vegetarian, because they include eggs and dairy in their diets. A pescatarian includes fish in their vegetarian lifestyle. A flexatarian eats mainly a vegetarian diet, but will occasionally eat meat. And then there are the raw foodists, who don’t eat food that has been heated above 115 F, because they think the cooked food loses most of its nutritional values and is harmful to the human body. I’m not even going to try to explain all the vagaries of the macrobiotic diet, but just know there are a lot of rules.
Losing touch with our food’s origins
A plant-based diet is great for your health, your heart (plants don’t have artery-clogging cholesterol) and even the environment. The United States Department of Agriculture’s new food guidelines, going from a pyramid to a plate model, propose having one half of the plate consisting of fruits and vegetables, with the remaining quarters divided between proteins and whole grains. Without argument, it’s a very sensible and healthy way of eating.
And then there are people like me who will basically eat anything. I try not to eat anything while it is still moving, but if a girl gets hungry I make no promises! I am not a big fan of organ meats, but that is strictly a matter of taste and I don’t like the taste. As humans we need to respect the animal enough to consume it entirely if we have killed it for food. I will respectfully transform those organ meats into a sensational pâté or mousse, and serve it to someone else.
I saw a picture of a sign on Facebook that read “Native Americans had a name for vegetarians. They called them bad hunters.” If most of us had to hunt, kill, clean and preserve our meat, the number of vegetarians would surely rise. We live in a society now where children think meat is a shrink-wrapped package from the supermarket. The origin of that meat is not a thought. Some are not even aware a hamburger comes from a cow or a chicken nugget comes from, well, I don’t really know where the nugget is on the chicken. (Joking, of course.)
While in culinary school I had to take a meat fabrication class, taught by Butcher Bob, an old-school butcher from San Francisco. I remember Butcher Bob took a chainsaw and broke down a half cow carcass as a demonstration. We also had to fillet whole fish, which sometimes contained their last meal in their stomachs, including smaller fish, sand dollars, starfish and more. It was like a treasure hunt. I also learned to cut a whole chicken up in less than minute. But mainly, I learned to respect those animals we killed in order to feed others and ourselves.
In stark contrast, when I taught at a culinary school, meat fabrication classes no longer existed. The primal cuts came in Cryovac packages, so we could not truly show the students the reality of where their meat came from. The only demonstration we did was break down a half lamb carcass, which both fascinated and repulsed students. I had one student who was raised a vegan, and that poor girl turned the whitest shade of pale I have ever seen. Needless to say, I excused her from the demo.
Everyone can make conscientious food choices
The American system of raising animals for food is broken and in need of repair. But that is a subject worthy of another essay, or a book. Actually, just watch the film “Food, Inc.,” or read Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” for excellent coverage of that subject. But you can work around the industrial food system: Buy from small local farmers in your area, or even order online from farms that sell naturally raised and/or organic products.
This strategy works for vegans and vegetarians. Go to local farmers markets to buy organic, local produce. The large amount of pesticides used on our plants is appalling, so it is important to avoid them if you can. Certain pesticides that have been banned in the United States are still being sold by our mega-corporations to other countries, who then turn around and import cancer-causing, pesticide-covered produce to the United States.
There is no right or wrong way to eat, but some ways are gentler on the Earth and our bodies. As an avowed omnivore, a vegan diet would not work for me. But I do eat vegetarian meals often, and even grow organic vegetables in my back yard. Unfortunately, the gophers seem to be enjoying my organic vegetables more than I am this season.
This simple recipe for spicy carrot and yam soup makes a belly-warming and satisfying meal. This version is vegetarian, but can easily be converted to a vegan recipe by substituting the dairy products with coconut, soy or almond milk. The flavor profile would be altered, but the resulting taste would be just as delicious.
Spicy Carrot and Yam Soup
5 ounces carrots, about 4 small, peeled and sliced into large chunks
1½ pound yam, peeled and cubed
4 cups vegetable broth
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon dried thyme
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
⅛ teaspoon ground chipotle pepper
1 to 1 ½ cups milk, half and half or cream
1. In a medium saucepan over medium low heat, simmer the carrots, yam, broth and spices about 30 minutes, until tender.
2. Purée the soup with an inversion blender or in a food processor.
3. Stir in the milk to thin the soup, until at the desired consistency.
4. Adjust the seasoning, if needed.
Top photo: Spicy carrot and yam soup. Credit: Cheryl D. Lee
In the ’90s, prewashed and bagged baby salad greens changed salad eating in America forever. I was as excited about bagged baby spinach as the next person. No more endless washing of bunch spinach, only to end up with a handful after I cooked it. I averted my eyes from the price tags on the 6-ounce bags and found great bargains at my local Iranian market for big bags packed tight with 2½ pounds of the small flat leaves.
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I’ve had my spinach epiphany, and now I enjoy the time that I spend at the sink stemming and washing my farmers market spinach, in the same way that I enjoy shelling English peas; the prize is worth the task. I admire the feel and look of it as I break off the stems and rub the gritty but lush sandy leaf bottoms where they meet the stems between my fingers. The inner leaves are often light at the stem end, pink or purple in some varieties (I ask the farmer what the variety is, but I never remember the names). The sand departs easily from the leaves when you swish them around in a bowl of water, lift them out, drain the water, and swish them around again in a second bowl. The leaves, no longer gritty, feel plush in my hands.
Delicious spinach plain or buttered up
When I wilt spinach, I have to keep myself from eating it right away if it’s destined for a particular dish. For I love a pile of blanched or wilted spinach unadorned, or enhanced with little more than olive oil or butter, salt, pepper and sometimes garlic. This penchant began in earnest when I lived in France. My neighborhood brasserie was Le Muniche in the rue de Buci — alas, now gone — and my standard meal there was a simple piece of grilled salmon or a plate of marinated saumon crue aux baies roses (raw salmon with red peppercorns), always served with pommes de terre vapeur and a generous helping of spinach, blanched, buttered and salted. There must have been one poor young soul in the Le Muniche kitchen brigade whose only job was to stem, wash and blanch kilos of spinach all day, every day.
Spinach, more than any other green, changes when you cook it for too long, and not for the better. That’s why Popeye had the job of trying to make kids eat their spinach way back in the days when canned spinach was the norm. It loses its forest green color, fading to olive drab, and its flavor becomes drab too, even downright unappealing, a strong metallic aftertaste overcoming the freshness and promise that was once there. Twenty seconds of blanching is all it needs, or a minute in a steamer. You can wilt it in a pan or wok in the steam created by the water left on the leaves after washing, but with the exception of stir-fries I rarely use this method because it’s easier to cook the spinach evenly, in one quick go, if I blanch it.
Plain or Seasoned Spinach
Blanching is my preferred method of wilting spinach because it’s so efficient. People will tell me that I’m losing nutrients in the boiling water, but it’s such a quick blanch — 20 seconds. If you prefer to steam, see the directions below.
Serves 2 to 4
1 or 2 generous bunches spinach
Salt to taste
1 to 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Optional: 1 to 2 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary
1. Stem the spinach and wash well in two changes of water. Meanwhile, if blanching, bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt generously.
2. Fill a bowl with cold water before you add the spinach to the boiling water, as it wilts immediately. Add the spinach to the boiling water and blanch for about 15 to 20 seconds.
3. With a large skimmer transfer to the cold water, then drain and squeeze dry by the handful. Don’t be dismayed by how little spinach those lush bunches have yielded. Just enjoy what’s there. It’s so nutrient-dense, a small serving is quite satisfying.
4. Chop the wilted spinach medium fine or leave the leaves whole.
5. To steam the spinach, add to a steamer set above 1 inch of boiling water and cover. The spinach will wilt in 1 minute. Rinse with cold water and squeeze dry by the handful.
6. To season, heat 1 to 2 tablespoons (depending on the amount of spinach you have) olive oil over medium heat in a heavy, medium size or large skillet and add 1 to 2 minced garlic cloves.
7. Cook until the garlic begins to sizzle and smell fragrant, 30 seconds to a minute. Add the herbs if using, spinach and salt and pepper to taste, and stir and toss in the pan for about a minute, until nicely infused with the oil, garlic and herbs. Remove from the heat.
Top photo: Spinach at the farmers market. Credit: iStockphoto
“We are what we eat” should be amended to “We are what we ate growing up.” Somehow the food we ate as kids gets embedded in our DNA. For James Johnston, chef and co-owner of two vegan restaurants in Texas, that presented a problem. He craved Southern-style dishes, heavy on animal products. As exemplified by his vegan country collard greens, his solution was to adapt country-style cooking to veganism.
Growing up in a meat-centric world, Johnston ate what everyone else did. Fatty brisket, barbecue ribs, grilled sausage, pulled pork and fried chicken were the preferred proteins, served with sides familiar to anyone who has traveled in the South — coleslaw, black-eyed peas, mac n’ cheese, cornbread and collard greens.
No tofu and sprouts
For many vegetarians and vegans, a pursuit of a healthier life-style motivates their move away from animal products. That partly motivated Johnston, but that wasn’t the whole story.
And he’s frequently asked why he went vegan. His answer comes accented in his distinctive Texan twang. “I reached a point where if I wasn’t going to kill it myself, I shouldn’t eat it, and that was a direct response to factory farming. And, in terms of milk, I never really liked it and when you think about what it is, milk’s kind of weird.”
Unlike other vegetarians, “When I went vegan, I wasn’t eating tofu and sprouts.” Au contraire. Even though he had walked away from pork and beef, his taste buds clamored for the flavors of his childhood.
What he needed was good old Southern cooking. Drawing inspiration from battered copies of ”Joy of Cooking” and the “Betty Crocker Cookbook,” at first he tinkered in his home kitchen with familiar recipes, trading out animal products with faux substitutes. After meeting Amy McNutt, a fellow vegan and an accomplished baker and now his wife and business partner, Johnston took his veganism professional.
He and McNutt run the Spiral Diner and Bakery at two locations in Texas, in Fort Worth and Dallas, where the menu offers American classics and an eclectic mix of dishes with a global touch.
Their customers can choose dishes from a large menu, including Jamaican jerk made with tempeh, coconut curry, humus, a veggie taco and nachos with lots of gooey non-milk cheese, a hamburger patty made with soy, a meatball sub, a club sandwich with tofu and ice cream sundaes called i-Scream because the ice cream is made without milk.
Veganizing a classic
Adding movie producer to his credentials, Johnston makes it part of his on-set work to cook vegan meals for the actors and crew as he did on “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and “Pit Stop,” which screened at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
The heart and soul of Johnston’s cooking is the food of his childhood. “I mostly make the food I grew up eating, just veganized.”
Recently at our home in Los Angeles, Johnston cooked up a vegan country dinner that included cornbread, black-eyed peas, cole slaw, mac n’ cheese and collard greens. He was going to make a vegan brisket but ran out of time.
My favorite was his collard greens. He was kind enough to give me his recipe.
Vegan Country Collard Greens
Some ingredients in vegan recipes are designed to mimic the flavors of animal based products. Johnston brought a shopping bag of those ingredients, purchased locally at health food markets and grocery stores. To replace mayonnaise, he brought Vegenaise, the cheese in the mac n cheese was Daiya vegan cheese and replacing the deep flavor of sausage was liquid smoke.
Some writers, including Zester Daily’s Martha Rose Shulman, point out that most faux ingredients are heavily processed, which may not be the healthiest way to go. Johnston accepts the trade-off in his pursuit of those country flavors that are in his DNA.
Serves 4 to 8
2 bunches collard greens, washed, pat dried
½ yellow onion, washed, ends and skin removed
2 tablespoons garlic cloves, peeled
1 quart hot water
3 faux chicken or veggie broth bouillon cubes (Johnston recommends the Rapunzel brand)
⅓ cup sunflower oil
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons black pepper
2 teaspoons liquid smoke
1. Using a knife, get rid of the big chunks of stem in the middle of each collard green leaf and discard. Cut leaves into 1-inch strips and rinse in a tub with cool water. Lift the collards out of water and rinse it again until you are sure there is no dirt.
2. Finely chop the onions and garlic.
3. Mix the hot water with the bouillon. Whisk until the bouillon cubes are dissolved into a broth. Set aside.
4. Using a stockpot, over a medium-high flame heat the oil. Add the onions and garlic and cook until they turn translucent, tender and fragrant.
Stir in the red pepper flakes, salt, pepper and liquid smoke and let simmer for a few minutes.
5. Add half the chopped greens. Let them start to wilt and cook down. You’ll need long tongs to really mix them around so the hot oil covers them. When you have room add the rest of the collards.
6. Add the broth to the stockpot.
7. As the liquid gets hotter the greens will wilt and shrink, make sure you mix them well so the oil and broth are combined evenly with the greens.
8. Bring to a boil and turn the flame to low for simmering.
9. Cover with a lid and simmer on low for 30 minutes. Taste to make sure they are nice and tender, no bitterness. Cook longer if needed.
James Johnston cooking a vegan country meal. Credit: David Latt
There are not very many new vegetables coming to market, but there are still plenty of new ingredients for the kitchen coming from the Kingdom of Fungi. Chefs and adventurous home cooks are learning to appreciate the whole range of flavors and textures from cultivated specialty mushrooms. Up until recently, mushroom choice was limited to white button mushrooms and seasonably available wild-foraged mushrooms. Even shiitake mushrooms, now becoming ubiquitous, were unknown as a fresh mushroom up until the 1980s. If shiitake now seem ho-hum, then it’s time to expand your specialty mushroom repertoire. Nothing encourages creativity like new ingredients, and mushrooms’ natural flexibility provides plenty of inspiration.
In the past few years, mushroom growers in the U.S. have learned new cultivation techniques from Asia. Shiitake were traditionally grown on logs outdoors, but new methods, relying on sawdust, have made the process more efficient and have opened the potential for growing more varieties. The sawdust substrate provides a medium and food for the mushroom mycelium. Some species, like chanterelles and porcini, are symbiotic with living plants and cannot be farmed. Others, like shiitake, hen-of-the-woods, and nameko are easily adapted to sawdust culture. Wood is the natural food for these varieties. Some species that are now becoming available include enoki, honshimeji (beech or clamshell mushroom), Nebrodini, pioppini (black poplar mushroom) and lion’s mane (pom-pom).
Mushrooms behave like meat
So why do chefs love mushrooms? They are beautiful to the eye, and easily adapt to a wide range of cuisines, but, most important, mushrooms behave in the kitchen much the same way that meats do: They change their character in response to different cooking techniques and they express different qualities depending on the ingredients with which they are paired. There is sound science behind these effects.
Mushrooms are not vegetables. They are fungi and their biochemical structure has more in common with animals in some ways than with vegetables. Mushrooms have a broad range of amino acids, as animal proteins do, and this provides them with savory flavor. They are high in glutamic acid, an amino acid that is naturally occurring in glutamates and acts as a flavor enhancer. (The “unnatural” form is known as MSG, monosodium glutamate.)
Mushrooms are also rich in nucleotides, compounds that are synergistic with glutamates. Together, these characteristics make up umami, the savory flavor component that is now widely accepted as the fifth flavor along with the old standbys of salt, bitter, sweet, and acid. These attributes make mushrooms perfect pairing partners in a wide variety of culinary settings. Savory flavor plus a satisfying “meaty” texture make them excellent in vegetarian meals. Mushrooms give you something to chew on.
Fungi are influenced by their company
As an example of their culinary adaptability, a fairly mild mushroom like the king oyster has a mildly sweet flavor when lightly sautéed in butter with lemon and tarragon, and pairs well with chicken and fish. Prepared this way it is best complemented by white wines. The same mushroom tossed with olive oil, garlic and rosemary, then grilled over hot coals, has a deeply satisfying, hearty character that would stand up to grilled beef and bold red varietals from Cabernet to Zinfandel. One can image a similar contrast with varying preparations of chicken breast. A gently sautéed chicken breast has a different flavor than the same chicken breast grilled, but comparable shifts of flavor do not occur so readily with vegetables. And while some vegetable flavors are hard to pair with wines, mushrooms easily complement them.
With the possible exception of the onion family, mushrooms occur in more recipes around the world than any other single ingredient. Doubtless this is because they grow wild on every continent. In Asia, they are found in soups, noodle dishes and stir-fries. In Northern Europe, they are used in stews and pickled. In Southern Europe, they add depth to ragouts, garnish grilled meats and are tossed in pastas. The culinary names Chasseur, Cacciatore and Jaeger schnitzel all share a common root in the word “hunter” — and all feature mushrooms. When you hunt, you spend a lot of time waiting quietly in the woods, time well spent scanning the ground for mushrooms. The hunter who returned from the forest with game and mushrooms, of course cooked them together.
The cultivation of specialty mushrooms broadens our culinary palette. Take some time to learn about each variety. You’ll find inspiration in their fresh range of colors, flavors and textures. Mushrooms are exciting and elegant enough to stand on their own as center-of-the-plate items, and they will accent, complement and highlight a wide range of pairings. While a brown crimini mushroom is only slightly different from a white button mushroom, a pioppini mushroom is very different from honshimeji, as honshimeji is from maitake. When explorers find a new country they are always ask, “what’s to eat?” Potatoes, corn, cocoa and chilies moved quickly from the Western Hemisphere back to Europe. The Kingdom of Fungi remains in part unexplored territory and chefs can look forward to even more new varieties as expanding acceptance leads to increased demand and farmers investigate new mushrooms and how best to cultivate them.
Photo: Bob Engel. Credit: Gourmet Mushrooms, Inc.
Last night, it was cauliflower curry on a bed of leeks while my husband grilled his own slab of meat. The night before I ate solo — and downed an enormous bag of kale chips (please don’t tell him) flavored with cashew dust and too much fake cheese. And tonight? I’m sticking to my dietitian’s advice to shut down the digestive track by 7 p.m.-ish and calling my late lunch “lupper.”
But I’ve been known to cheat.
In fact, cheating is what I’m all about — cheating my body into a metabolic state that puts up its dukes to fight cancer, lest some imperfect genes win the battle. And I cheat on my plan every once in a while too, because perfection, as a rule, stinks. You see I’ve had cancer twice — a rare ovarian — and other than surgery, the doctors told me there was nothing they could do. The good news: It’s slow growing. The bad news: it’ll likely come back.
Devouring science, changing diet
So for seven years now, since the recurrence, I’ve been taking my health into my own hands, devouring the science and changing what I eat. And I’m still clean. Sure, I understand that association doesn’t prove cause. Maybe I’d still be cancer-free had I clung to my late-night rituals involving vanilla ice cream. But look at the upside: I feel great, am rarely sick and have a powerful sense of control over my body. And the best part of adopting an anti-cancer approach to eating? Maybe I’m actually keeping cancer cells at bay.
The evidence for diet’s impact on cancer keeps getting stronger: 3 to 4 million cases of the disease per year could be prevented by changes in food consumption and exercise, according to an international team of scientists who study the many studies on how nutrition impacts cancer and the many genes that affect it.
How many existing cancerous cells could be stopped from growing, spreading and taking another life by changing our diet? That’s a rhetorical question, I realize, one there’s not yet enough evidence for scientists to answer. Nor may there ever be — at least not in our lifetimes. But they do know that certain dietary factors can cause cancer cells to proliferate. This just out: A review of the scientific literature published this summer identifies 40-plus elements in plants that activate metastasis-suppressing genes.
Beating cancer: Foods to avoid
The bottom line is that we should all be eschewing red and processed meat and emphasizing a diet based on non-starchy plants, says that esteemed panel of scientists, who, through the World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research, have published more than a thousand pages of reports.
From what they and others tell us, however, it’s much more complex than picking foods from the earth. When it comes to eating to beat cancer, some vegetables are better than others, for example; raw is often good, but not always; and you can overdose on many acceptable choices, including my Indonesian tempeh wraps and cannellini humus. We’re all different in terms of our genes, how our bodies metabolize food and drugs and how our cells react.
But some general patterns about nutrition’s impact on cancer are emerging, and while the evidence may not be definitive on all counts, scientists are providing enough fodder for all of us to rethink what we put on our plates.
Eating to beat cancer: Vegetables that cheat the beast
If you were to ask me for three simple changes you could make this month to boost your chances of fighting the beast, here’s what I’d suggest:
1. Embrace alliums (onions, garlic, leeks), crucifers (broccoli, Brussels sprouts and other members of the cabbage family) and dark, leafy greens. Studies show they top the list of cancer-fighting veggies, assuming they’re not overcooked. Both groups contain smelly sulfur compounds that protect against carcinogens and lead cancer cells down the path to suicide. Crucifers also seem to protect against estrogen, one of many hormones that signal cancer cells to grow.
2. Get your blood sugar under control. That means watching your intake of simple sugars (including fruits) and the more complex ones called carbs — potatoes, breads, pastas and grains, even whole ones. All increase your blood sugar; in response, your pancreas pours out insulin — another hormone that can spur cancer growth. By focusing on non-starchy veggies, fiber, good proteins and a small portion of healthy fats, you’ll help regulate your blood sugar.
3. Cook with spices, herbs and verve. “It’s well known that herbs and spices have a variety of anti-cancer benefits,” says Dr. Gary G. Meadows, who did the study identifying the plant elements that affect metastasis-suppressing genes. Because they work in different ways, “it’s important to eat a variety of spices and herbs, both fresh and dried, to maximize the anti-cancer activities that they have,” Meadows says.
Turn your kitchen into a shrine to Earth’s diversity. Make Indian, Thai, Italian feasts. Liven up your meals with basil, rosemary, parsley, mint, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, turmeric (which you should mix with black pepper and heat in a dab of olive oil to ensure absorption.) While it’s not always the easiest option, cooking at home is the best way to control your destiny.
Broccoli puttanesca, anyone? Steam the greens lightly — and pass me the cooking water!
Photo: Harriet Sugar Miller. Credit: Holly Botner
It was that time of the week. The servant had swept and mopped the floors around the house and then headed for the bathroom where she soaked the soiled clothes in a red bucket filled with soapy water. Then she grabbed the baseball bat-like stick and thrashed the fabrics with a rhythmic beat. Soon they made their way into a white plastic bucket filled with clean water for rinsing. Each piece of clothing was twisted dry, except for the cotton saris that lay, beaten clean, in a twisted pile on the bathroom’s white-tiled floor.
Meanwhile my mother, Amma, was in the kitchen heating up a large, stainless steel pot of water on a kerosene-fueled stove. She threw in a bowl of long-grain rice from a newer crop sold by the rice vendor who came to our door once a week with a large gunnysack trailing heavily over her left shoulder. The fresher the crop, the starchier the rice, I later found out, and this was important for my mother’s impending chore.
The water came to a second boil and the rice kernels rose to the top with each rising bubble, puffing up with heated pride. The cooked grains clouded the water sticky-white. With a slotted spoon, Amma scooped out a few grains, squishing one between her thumb and forefinger to test its doneness. Pleased to see it give in with no residual hardness, she placed a tight-fitting lid on the pot, lifted it off the stove and turned it on its side. With the lid slightly held back, she poured the starchy liquid into a large bowl in the sink. She didn’t have a colander.
Rice, starch and saris
My mother grabbed the starch-filled bowl and shuffled to the bathroom. She dunked the saris, one at a time, in the rice water, coating each with the starch and letting it soak through. After 15 minutes, each was lightly rinsed and wrung dry by hand. Akka, my grandmother, awoke from her nap and grabbed the saris that now lay in a bucket, waiting to be dried. She hung them out under the hot sun on a clothesline pulled taut between two hooks nailed on each end of the balcony’s wooden ledge.
Once dry, the saris were picked up by the ironing vendor. They came back into our home the same day, all starched and neatly pressed, smelling like hot, steamed, nutty rice.
There are many ways to cook rice, especially one as refined as basmati. The absorption/steeping method and the open-pot pasta method are ideal. Some people use rice cookers and even pressure cookers to cook this delicate grain, and I find that they generate too intense a heat, resulting in a mushy, overcooked texture.
To salt or not to salt the rice is the Shakespearean query. In my recipes for curries, stir-fries and chutneys, I use just enough salt to bring out the flavors, so I do recommend salting the rice you’ll be serving with them. If you don’t salt the rice, you may want to add a bit more salt to the dish you are serving with the rice.
Cooking Rice With the Absorption/Steeping Method
Makes 3 cups
1 cup Indian or Pakistani white basmati rice
1½ teaspoons coarse kosher or sea salt
1. Place the rice in a medium-size saucepan. Fill the pan halfway with water, to cover the rice. Gently rub the slender grains through your fingers, without breaking them, to wash off any dust or light foreign objects, like loose husks, which will float to the surface. The water will become cloudy. Drain this water. Repeat three or four times, until the water remains relatively clear; drain. Now add 1½ cups cold water and let it sit at room temperature until the kernels soften, 20 to 30 minutes.
2. Stir in the salt, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook until the water has evaporated from the surface and craters are starting to appear in the rice, 5 to 8 minutes. Then, and only then, stir once to bring the partially cooked layer from the bottom of the pan to the surface. Cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid, reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting, and cook for 8 to 10 minutes (8 minutes for an electric burner, 10 minutes for a gas burner). Then turn off the heat and let the pan stand on that burner, undisturbed, for 10 minutes.
3. Remove the lid, fluff the rice with a fork, and serve.
Cooking Rice With the Open-Pot Pasta Method
Makes 3 cups
1 cup Indian or Pakistani white basmati rice
1½ teaspoons coarse kosher or sea salt
1. Fill a large saucepan halfway with water, and bring it to a rolling boil over medium-high heat.
2. While the water is heating, place the rice in a medium-size saucepan. Fill the pan halfway with water, to cover the rice. Gently rub the slender grains through your fingers, without breaking them, to wash off any dust or light foreign objects, like loose husks, which will float to the surface. The water will become cloudy. Drain this water. Repeat three or four times, until the water remains relatively clear; drain.
3. Add the rice to the boiling water, and stir once or twice. Bring the water to a boil again and continue to boil the rice vigorously, uncovered, stirring very rarely and only to test the kernels, until they are tender, 5 to 8 minutes. Immediately drain the rice into a colander and run cold water through it to stop the rice from continuing to cook. (The problem with his method is that the grain will go from just-right to overcooked in mere seconds if you are not attentive.)
4. Transfer the rice to a microwave-safe dish and stir in the salt. Just before you serve it, rewarm it at full power, covered, for 2 to 4 minutes.
Photo: Closeup of basmati rice. Courtesy of iStockphoto