Friday, August 23, 2013

Vegetarian shortcuts

I am a foodie. But the problem is that most of the food writing, cookbooks, LTH Forum posts, restaurants are all meat focused. I also get that the main thing people talk about is the savoriness that is just not there in most vegetarian dishes. I had of course read up about the MSG and other flavor enhancers but always assumed that this was some kind of 'manufactured chemical additive'. Then I finally came across a book that has changed the way I cook, the way I eat and the way I taste. That is Barb Stuckey's book.

She went through in the first part about eating with our five senses. Then she concentrated on the five flavors that we actually taste. When reading about Umami, I finally came to an understanding of what people are talking about. Then I find that MSG, rather than being a 'manufactured chemical', is actually produced by fermentation of corn protein by bacteria. Just like we produce Cheese, Beer, Wine, Pickles, Miso etc. I realized that MSG is nothing but purifies glutamates that are produced naturally. I looked further into it and found that MSG combined with Guanylate and Inosinate can completely mimic the savoriness obtained from meat. I also found that the other 'natural' add-ons like Parmesan Cheese (or any other aged Cheese), Soy Sauce, Miso, Mushroom, Tomatoes give the same mouth feel.

This has changed the way I cook. I immediately went and got myself Miso Paste, the Better than Bouillon brand Mushroom broth, a Mushroom flavored bouillon powder with MSG and Nucleotides from Chinatown, and started using the Soysacuse and vegetarian Oyster Sauce I had lying around that I was not using.

Combined this with my resolution starting April 1 to cook more non-Indian food; it has been a godsend. Also I have always found cooking for one a hassle, especially if you want to make everything from scratch. Especially cooking beans freshly every time. This is one place where canned goods are almost essential. The problem I have always had with canned foods in general is salt. Almost all of them are way WAY over-salted. Recently most groceries have started selling no-salt tomatoes. This combined with the fact that Tomato paste is also always salt-free, makes cooking with canned Tomatoes a breeze. The only time I use fresh Tomatoes is when I can get Vine ripened tomatoes from farmers markets. That usually means Summer and that's it. Moreover if you are going to use Fresh Tomatoes, you pretty much have to use them in dishes where they stand out. That means I use them only when I am making something where I will use fresh Tomatoes. Like Raita, salsa, Guacamole and such. The only cooked dish I use Fresh Vine ripened Tomatoes is Rasam. Lightly flavored Thakkali Rasam, without too much spicing and lentils is a fantastic thing to have on Summer evenings. But canned beans were always a problem. For two reasons. One is the over-salting made the dishes tricky to season. The second is that the bean liquid in Black Beans and Chickpeas are wonderful. I could not use them because of all the salt. Then I found that Whole Foods has started selling their House brand canned beans salt free. Hallelujah. Now I can use the liquid in the Black Beans and Chickpeas in cooking. This has really made a difference.

I made a Black Bean/ Kidney Bean/ Corn Cuban black bean soup recently. I looked up a couple of recipes from the books I have. Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian, Mark Bittman's door-stopper, a recipe from Penzey's. Then while cooking instead of rechecking the recipes I added Tomatoes to the mix. Big Problem. Now instead of soup I had Chili. I remember one of the people who tested my three bean chili said after tasting one of my early attempts that Tomatoes is what makes Chili Chili otherwise it is like a Bean Casserole. In my version of the first Cuban Black bean soup I added Cumin and Tomatoes. This just tasted wrong. Nothing like what I remembered from Cafecito's wonderful version. So as soon as the first batch was consumed, I made it again. this time I was careful. Along with the three beans I mentioned, I used Shallots,Garlic, Ginger, Allspice, Nutmeg, Thyme, Oregano, Cilantro, Paprika and Cayenne powder. That's it. No Cumin, Coriander, Cloves, Cinnamon etc. What I have learned is to not use Indian spices in everything. I have started using only things like Allspice, Nutmeg, Thyme, Oregano, paprika in middle eastern dishes. I try to not even use Cumin although Cumin originally came from Egypt. I just want my dishes to taste different than Indian food if I am making something that is not Indian.

Here are some things I found that help me make my homemade ethnic taste quasi authentic. For Chinese foods I only use: Soy Sauce, Oyster Sauce, Fermented Black Beans, fermented hot Chili Bean sauce, Fermented Mushrooms, Fermented tofu. I have heard about fermented Mustard greens that I may need to use. For Thai I use the Store bought Curry paste (vegetarian, of course), coconut milk, Basil, shallots/garlic/ginger combo, lime rind. The lime rind really makes a difference. For Mexican food I basically use the Chipotle sauce that is so easy to obtain. It is even better than the Chipotles in Adobo Sauce because it is easier to just spoon. For making Moles I just use Tahini as my seed base. Another thing I have found is to use Tahini whenever any recipe calls for a seed paste. I recently got some nice Organic Peanut Butter (Chunky) on sale. I will start using this whenever a recipe calls for a nut paste. I am sure that Walnut paste and Almond paste and Cashew paste are all different tasting. But when you add all the spices and herbs and cook them the differences are subtle. For a home cook it should make no difference. So there. Tahini for seed pastes and Peanut Butter for nut pastes. For middle eastern foods the spicing has to be subtle. I try to use the spices and herbs as specifies in the recipe. The only things I substitute for are Sumac and Thyme. For Sumac I use anardana. For Thyme I use Ajwain. And pomegranate Molasses. Oh Boy. I cannot say how much this one thing has added to the depth of flavor of things I cook from Persia. Other than that, follow the recipe. I found that for cuisines that have subtle spicing I can sometimes overwhelm the dishes if left to my own devices. Just too many spices and I make the dish too busy. What I have realized after reading Arto der Haroutounian is that the sheer variety of vegetable dishes from the neglected areas of the caucuses is overwhelming. Persian, Turkish, Armenian and such are underrepresented cuisines for us vegetarians. We should look into them more for getting more flavor combinations.

So  far my restrictions on cooking 2 non-Indian dishes for every Indian dish is still holding. I made a Thai curry. It is ok, but just not the same as what I get from Thai restaurants. I need to go to Silver Spoon or one of the other Thai restaurants and get a couple of vegetarian dishes and figure out what exactly they are doing. I have Nancie McDermotts book. It gives me ideas, but I want to be able to just use the aforementioned ingredients and just be able to cook freestyle. I will only be able to do that if I can get the fundamentals right. I have it for middle eastern, Chinese, Mexican and Moroccan. I have not been able to do it for Thai.

Oh BTW. I also got a fantastic deal on a vegetable steamer. I picked up a steamer basket from Maxwell Street just hoping that it will fit. What I got instead was something that looks like it was made for my stockpot. I need to start using this more. I rarely steam my vegetables. I should try to do Asparagus, before summer ends. I remember reading about this woman who ate so much asparagus in summer in ann arbor in that book on essays about eating and cooking for one.

Which brings me to the most horrible thing for me. Cooking for one is really boring. Especially since I do like to cook. That means I make 3 dishes a week, mostly in bulk.The other thing about cooking is the pleasure you get from feeding someone else. I have not had that pleasure for going on 5 years now. Combined with the fact that I have no friends, this makes it really boring. I recently read the book about the woman who has the blog about not eating out in NY. She talks about all these cookouts and events where she took her cooking to. I should find something similar in Chicago. The only problem is that most of the meetups like this are for meat-eaters. Moreover the clientele for such things skews younger. I do not want to go to one of these things and be looked at as some perverted old guy trying to hit on the youngsters. The other thing I am worried is that most of these will be Vegan. Now I can easily make Vegan stuff. Heck most of what I eat is Vegan.

But most of the Vegan food is just terrible. Now that I have learned about flavor, I try to make all of my dishes essentially umami bombs. If the recipe calls from Tomatoes, I use some Tomato paste and kick it up a notch. I also found this powdered Tomato from the Spice Shop that is absolutely fantastic. If the recipe is amenable to Mushroom addition, Voila bouillon paste. If I can reasonably add the MSG+ that I got, I do that. Same with Miso paste. If it final product is a savory stew that can take it, Miso goes in. I try to use Soy Sauce and Oyster sauce pretty much only when I cook Chinese. These are strong condiments that can overwhelm dishes otherwise. Also I try to make sure I get enough Protein. This means that I have to add Nasoya Super firm Cubed Tofu, Uptons Seitan, Chickpeas to many dishes that otherwise would not call for it. I got to be careful to not change the flavor profile of the final dish by this additions. Tofu is bland enough, but Seitan and Chickpeas have their own flavor.

What it comes down to is to make sure that when I am cooking something other than Indian food, I need to pay attention. I got to use the flavors as demanded by the recipe. Some substitutions will work. But I should not replace spices/herbs/condiments willynilly. It is better to leave something out rather than add something that will completely change the dish. Like adding Tomatoes where it is not called for. Turned by Cuban Black Bean soup to Chili! This is a lesson that I am learning slowly. I really need to be more careful. I think that I should use the recipe book holder more often just to prevent myself from free-styling too much till I get more comfortable with that particular cuisine. What is the point of cooking a Middle eastern dish, with middle eastern ingredients and make it taste Indian. If I want Indian, I should cook Indian. Also I need to learn restraint and subtlety when making dishes from cuisines that are not as robustly spiced as Indian. I like spicy. That is okay. But when you are making a Tagine, make a Tagine. No point making a dumbuk khana out of it.

I will end with my best food joke:

Me, to a good looking Fox at the Bar: You are so fine; I want to make you my famous Soup!

Her: What Soup?

Me: Miso soup with sauteed Horned Melons: I call it MISO HORNY!