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Lexie's Journal
How beans and quinoa got a life 
18-May-2006 22:06
pleased, grad
I was eating lunch in the company luchroom today and one of my coworkers came in and said "You always have the best-smelling lunches!" The person who was with him said "And veggie too" and so he asked me was I a vegetarian, and I said yes. He asked if I was vegan, and I said no, just veggie. (We then had a moment of clarification on the definition of vegetarian, but I don't want to get into that side rant.) He said "I could never do that," in a good-for-you-but-I-can't-understand-it kind of way, and unfortunately left before I could say that I used to feel that way too.

"I couldn't do it" is something that veggies hear a lot, and if I get a chance to say that I used to think so too, the person saying it never seems very pleased to hear that! I think people use it as an excuse. They believe that being vegetarian is "good", but they think it's okay that they don't do it, because they just like meat too much. And I was once one of these people, so this is by no means a judgmental take on it. I only just realized what the psychology is, and it's based on a misconception the depth of whose falsehood has only recently become clear to me.

Omnivores, in most cases, are suffering from a failure of imagination. They're imagining their current diet with the meat removed, or replaced by tofu (which many people have never had cooked in a good way). They're thinking of a lot of plain, boring vegetables and salad, white starches, and boring cheese. Or they're thinking of hippie food stereotypes -- endless granola and sprouts. Or endless beans and rice. Heads up: this is not how vegetarians have to eat (although maybe some of them do). Even if you've seen a lot of vegetarian stuff and you think you're pretty familiar, there'll be gaps in your understanding.

I will freely admit that when I started my experiment with eliminating my meat consumption, I was probably thinking about one of these things. I was totally skeptical. Although I've never liked lamb, plain steak, or plain pork very much, I loved ground beef and beef in pieces (stir-fry, beef stew), chicken in all forms off the bone, turkey, ham, bacon (if lean), pastrami, pepperoni, etc. I didn't have any idea how I was going to go without those things. Luckily for me, I conceived what turned out to be a great idea: do it in stages, and learn as I went along. I didn't want to become one of those vegetarians who only eats cheese and junk food -- even in the infancy of the impulse, I actually did want to eat more vegetables, more variety.

Honestly, I think this is probably the best way to change a diet in any direction, unless you're under time pressure (eg you had a heart attack). I stopped eating red meat and pork first, followed later by poultry, and even later by fish, so I've only been a pure vegetarian for six months or so (though I never ate much fish anyway) even though I've not eaten beef in about four years. Even within that, I stopped some things faster than others. I ate lunch meat for longer than any other kind of meat, and tuna longer than any other type of fish. I stopped eating things in my own cooking long before giving them up when going out to eat -- for example, I've not cooked a fish or chicken of my own accord since 2002 or so, but I ate both in restaurants until 2004 or later. I've basically been learning vegetarian cooking since 2003, when I started cooking for myself in Scotland. And that's the key.

Not necessarily cooking, although I think that's hugely helpful and makes an enormous difference, but eating new things. I cooked or made one or more new recipes a week for all of the 2003-2004 school year. After that I recycled a few, but kept exploring. I continued my hunt for good cookbooks. I gradually experimented with veggie equivalents for things like lunch sandwiches. In the course of this, I also tried a lot of ingredients I wasn't terribly familiar with because I had disliked them as a child or one of my parents did, or my parents thought I did, or just didn't use them. Chickpeas, eggplant, lentils, split peas, leeks, fennel, barley, oats (which I never had other than in cookies or instant oatmeal until recently), rutabaga, turnip, parsnip...I don't remember them all, but I discovered lots of new foods. I learned to substitute things I like for things I don't, like zucchini for mushrooms. I learned the importance of herbs and spices. This has continued recently with my introduction to quinoa (a Peruvian grain, via Michael), udon noodles (Japanese, ditto), black lentils (via vegetarian haggis), and wheat berries (popular in Italy, via tha Barefoot Contessa (transitively via metacub, who introduced me to Ina's show)). I discovered that I love tofu, which is certainly an advantage for a vegetarian, though not required. I discovered that I don't like butter beans, pinto beans, or white beans, so my bean dislike still exists, it's just less wide and less extreme. :-) I've generally tried not to depend on things that are like meat but vegetarian, eg veggie burgers. I find them limiting to the kind of creativity that I've found to be essential in the transition away from meat. But I do like Quorn and sometimes use it in stir-fry. And veggie burgers (or plain beans and rice!) are fine for a quick standby.

Recently I've been applying this same method to attempting to become vegan. As before, I started out skeptical. I'm still checking out brands of soymilk; it's not my favorite. Rice milk is ok but not great for you. Tofutti "Better Than Cream Cheese" isn't, but it's definitely a fine substitute. But as before, the main key has been and is to explore new foods and new recipes, or adapt recipes that transfer easily. If all the things I eat and enjoy on a daily basis are rich and varied enough to satisfy me, and they're all vegan, then I become vegan "by default", though it can only happen through an application of effort in finding each individual new dish and ingredient. And only gradually. If I had to become vegan tomorrow, I'd succumb to the same failure of imagination that troubles most omnivores who think they "could never do that": I'd imagine my current diet with no eggs and milk, and fail at conceiving a true fully vegan diet (despite having eaten about 15% of my meals over the last few months with a vegan, and many of my own recipes being vegan anyway).

So, if you think it's a good idea to be vegetarian, or eat less meat, but you "could never do that" because [fill in your reason here], consider giving it a try. A small, gradual, experimental try. Buy a new cookbook, try a veggie sandwich at your lunch place, or buy a vegetable you've never cooked before and look up a recipe on the internet. (Use a food blog or good food site like the BBC, Food Network, or vegetarian magazines, if you can; general databases are of wildly varying quality.) Try adapting a favorite meat recipe -- I make a great veggie chili, and I just got a good recipe for lentil tacos down. In fact, why don't I list that one in case any of you are feeling adventurous today...

Lentil Tacos

1/2 c each black (beluga) lentils and brown lentils
1 bell pepper (or 1/2 ea red and green, for color), chopped small
1 medium onion, chopped small
Oil for sauteing
Mexican spice mix to taste (~ 2 tbsp I think)
Water for cooking (2 c)
Taco topping material: chopped tomatoes, shredded cheddar, minced scallions, shredded lettuce or chopped cilantro, sour cream, whatever you like
Taco shells (or chips or tortillas (lard-free) if you prefer)

Cook lentils in 1 c water each, until tender, approx 40 minutes (black may take longer, but mine didn't). The black will be firmer and hold their shape more. Don't try to cook them to be the same as the brown. Drain the brown, drain and reserve the cooking liquid from the black.
During last cooking phase, chop the veg. Heat the oil over med heat (a few tablespoons...I don't so much measure stuff usually :) ) and add the onions. Saute 30 sec, add some spice mix, continue sauteing until beginning to become translucent. Add the peppers, saute until looking lightly cooked. Add the lentils and more spice mix, and a little of the reserved cooking water. Cook for 5-10 min, adding more cooking water as needed, and spice as desired. When the brown lentils are a pasty base for the mixture, you're done. Serve garnished with toppings.

This recipe is mostly vegan; to keep it all on the up and up, use soy sour cream (no cheddar, or use soy cheese, but I hear it's not good, so I'd recommend avoiding it unless you're hardcore) and make sure the spice mix and the shells or tortillas are vegan. Yes, some spice mixes aren't vegan, nor are many tortillas -- they can contain milk protein.

Addendum: In the comments, enshanam points out this lovely post by Barbara of Tigers and Strawberries. Some food for thought for those of you chowing down on grocery-store meat...
19-May-2006 07:11 (UTC)
That was really fascinating. I'm one of those "could never do that" people, though for the dual reasons of (a) I tried it and hated it, (b) I'm a food-obsessed epicure who truly adores the flavor of EVERYTHING, especially including meat, and (c) I've clarified my own morals to the extent that I've reconciled eating meat with being a good person (though I admit for me to be truly moral I'd have to restrict my meat-eating much more than I do now).

I absolutely agree that most people are suffering from a failure of imagination when it comes to vegetarian/veganism. There are some absolutely fantastic things out there when one really knows how to make use of the ingredients one has. And I think tofu is awesome when you have some knowledge of how to prepare it and imbue it with spiced deliciousness! The trouble often comes when people try to make vegetarian/vegan food do something it can't, like make an angelfood cake or whatever... the trick is to let the flavors that are already there truly shine. (Baking is particularly tricky; coming from somone who's won a vegan cake baking competition, vegan baking can almost never be anywhere near as good as non-vegan baking, and I only enjoy it inasmuch as it makes my vegan-leaning friends happy. The chemistry just isn't there, and the part of me that is dedicated to the best flavor sensations is always disappointed in the results.)
19-May-2006 07:14 (UTC)
Also I'm not sure why I said "dual" to describe a list of three. It's early.
19-May-2006 13:22 (UTC)
ALSO, I just came home and saw I used this icon for this post instead of the Alton one again (probably because I clicked on "Angry Badger" which is right below "Alton Love" in my user icons list, haha). Oh lord, I'm a mess today.
19-May-2006 14:20 (UTC)
The trouble often comes when people try to make vegetarian/vegan food do something it can't, like make an angelfood cake or whatever... the trick is to let the flavors that are already there truly shine.

Yes, exactly. This is what I was trying to say in a nutshell. Vegetarian cooking is just different, not lacking.

I actually think this is pretty much why vegan baking is frustrating, too. People want to bake, because mmm, baked goods. But maybe a better solution would be to not bake and instead explore what vegan food really does well. I haven't had enough vegan desserts to say what this might be, but I'm sure there's something.

You're not exactly a "could never do that" person by my standards -- more of a "I tried that but it turns out it doesn't work for me, and I've put some real thought into my eating choices, and I'm fine with them."

And I want the recipe for that Italian non-cream cake... :)
19-May-2006 19:39 (UTC)
By the way, I saw my very first episode of Good Eats last night. And your icon is highly appropriate. Dude is like the Bill Nye of food!
19-May-2006 23:07 (UTC)
He TOTALLY FUCKING IS. And both Bill Nye AND Alton are part of my imaginary harem.
19-May-2006 15:01 (UTC)
I think you clarified quite a lot about why I'm not happy with my current status as one of those vegetarians who only eats cheese and junk food (although that's an exaggeration - I'm really just one of those vegetarians who never cooks!). I love food, and I even have my Vegetarian suppers in my bed right now, but for whatever reason, food is tied up with my social life.

I usually only think about complete meals when I'm eating out, and if I come home from work, I want to be already fed. Changing this is going to mean changing my perceptions about nourishing myself, which is something I'm willing to work on.

Thanks for a wonderful entry! and recipe!
19-May-2006 16:33 (UTC)
Oooh, and I don't know how familiar you are with these:

vegancooking is, in my opinion, much better than vegrecipes (which is mostly WAAAHHHH WHAT IS TOFU). Although it's a little heavy on the meat substitutes, it has an extensive and well-maintained tag section, and a bunch of experts on vegan baking who are always happy to answer questions and troubleshoot.

organic_boxers is mostly UK-based, and while it focuses more on the produce, it's a great community, with loads of enthusiasm and very little drama.
19-May-2006 19:50 (UTC)
It's definitely a challenge not to come home from work starving and snack or eat ready-food. I'm glad to hear you're going to take on that challenge, though. :)

I've always been perplexed by the view that ties up cooking full meals with social eating. Social eating is great, but I love to cook just for myself as well, and feed myself exactly what I want: a yummy, interesting meal. Plus, no worries about what anyone else wants! The one thing I am lazy about when alone is presentation. Yes, it makes the food taste better...no, I don't find it worth it.

Glad you liked the entry!
19-May-2006 18:23 (UTC)
Linked here by enshanam. Great post. I've gone through various phases of vegetarianism; currently, I try to avoid meat and fish when I buy food, but I'll eat it occasionally as a celebration or a rare treat. (For me, the problem is the waste of natural resources, not the animal rights.) What makes me return occasionally to meat is that, frankly, I do have a great fondness for the taste of bloody muscle; you just can't use vegetables to recreate a good juicy steak or a crisp-edged velvety slice of liver.

However, the fact that one can appreciate good wine doesn't mean that one can't live perfectly well on beer and spirits. :-) I grew up on ethnic cooking, as well as the More With Less cookbook (which I highly recommend), so to me, a bowl of red lentil soup or Swiss bircher muesli are at least as attractive as a dry chicken breast. Meat has been a luxury in almost every part of the world through most of history, so most of the world's everyday cooking - Indian vegetable curries, Cuban black beans, Ethiopian flatbreads, Mid-Eastern hummus - is primarily vegan. I sometimes think that the "cheese and junk food" vegetarianism is just a result of the American culture of food in the last century, in which bland, highly salted, factory-assembled food was the easiest to market and ship across the country.
19-May-2006 19:54 (UTC)
I've been meaning to have a look at that cookbook.
20-May-2006 19:43 (UTC)
Oh, you really should. If there's one cookbook I recommend to everyone I know, it's that one. Not all the recipes are vegetarian, but they're all built around the idea of minimizing our impact on the world's resources. (It's written by the Mennonite Central Committee, the folks who run Ten Thousand Villages, which is the most reliable place to buy it - though Half Price Books sometimes carries it. Look for the spiral binding and the brownish cover with dry beans and grains on it.) The recipes are simple, cheap, and very good, and if you're looking for ways to maximize rice and lentils and beans and the cheapest vegetables, they're it.
19-May-2006 20:02 (UTC)
Absolutely agree with all of your points. I am likewise not an animals-rights-to-life veggie, but an animals-rights-not-to-suffer-excessively and environmental one (ie no factory farm meat, limited consumption of any meat, as you describe). The easiest route for me has been to just go whole hog but it's definitely not the only one. (I'm not sure I could go back at this point.) It's possible I'll choose the other option for eggs/milk, where they become occasional things.

One of the great ways for me to explore veggie cooking has been to use ethnic food traditions. Even in some cases where the main food culture is not veggie, there's a side branch that is, eg Japanese and Chinese Buddhist cooking. I LOVE Ethiopian food, especially injera!

Certainly part of my goal has also been to repudiate over-processed food and move back toward fresh, good ingredients. This is another reason I avoid the meat substitutes. It hasn't really been a problem for me; my parents are good cooks so it's basically what I'm used to.
19-May-2006 18:42 (UTC)
I was a vegetarian for a year when I was at Interlochen, and when I make food for myself at home, I very rarely make meat-based dishes. So it's not that I'm so addicted to the taste that I could never go back to being vegetarian. One of the deciding issues for me is social. What I don't think I'm able to do is go over to someone's house for dinner and refuse whatever they offer me. Or at church, for instance, when we have meals there. When I am in control of the food on my plate, more often than not I choose veggie, but I feel guilty forcing my preferences/beliefs on others that I am eating with. Any suggestions? Have you dealt with this at all?
19-May-2006 19:53 (UTC)
I will jump in and say that more and more people are remembering to accommodate those who choose to not eat meat. However, sometimes it does mean that you just have a few side dishes on your plate - take Joe's party as an example, when I arrived late and basically ate couscous and the last of a few veggie casseroles (along with a zillion cream puffs).

All of my friends know my preferences, and when we cook together, we always make something for me. When it's a larger group situation, I always volunteer to bring something yummy and veggie, so I know I can eat.

You are only forcing your preferences on someone if you scold them for eating something that earns your disapproval, in my opinion.

Honestly, the most annoying part for me is having to come up with a short explanation for why I don't eat meat, because people *constantly* ask.
19-May-2006 20:24 (UTC)
Basically what Shari said is true. I did what you do for a long time, because it's a more delicate situation to deal with when eating out or at another's house. I guess I came to a point where I started to see it as a need for my choices to be respected. To ask someone to cook a vegetarian meal, or choose a restaurant with good veggie options, is not to force your choice on them, just to ask them to open up for one meal and be inclusive. With close friends, they should be willing to accommodate if they respect you. (To some extent if they just won't hear you, this can be a "maybe it's time to get new friends" issue. But you can't ask them to choose your favorite places all the time; you have to suck it up sometimes too.) If you don't know the person well, or it's friends of friends, that's harder and sometimes you just eat salad and potatoes if there are some, or you ask in advance if there will be a vegetarian side, at least. Or you eat at home and go for the society. (Michael does this sometimes, since vegan is tougher to negotiate.)

People are often very willing to accommodate if you approach them positively. When I was traveling in London with Mark, he mentioned to one of his friends that I was vegetarian, and they chose without an explicit request to make pasta and salad instead of steak and salad. As Shari mentioned, if it is appropriate you can offer to bring something, which is usually a great way to start a dialogue! If they are clueless but receptive, you can also suggest something they might cook. If you are needing to eat at church, you might have to use several of these techniques to introduce the issue gradually until it seems like a matter of course for people to accommodate you.

And as Shari says, you need a nutshell answer to why you are vegetarian, because people will ask!
19-May-2006 19:56 (UTC)
I *fangirl* you.

This is so true.
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