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Until recently, it was weird to be vegetarian, at least in Europe and the New World.
October is World Vegetarian Month, according to the newsletter of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America. It's a good time to celebrate vegetables - their beauty, their variety of tastes and textures and their healthful properties - and to appreciate how lucky we are to have such a great selection. You certainly don't need to be vegetarian to enjoy them, but there's a lot to learn from the repertoire of creative recipes developed by vegetarians over the centuries.
Until fairly recently, it was weird to be vegetarian, at least in Europe and the New World. It's a much different story in the Far East and India, where vegetarianism is a time-honored tradition.
The cooks of India are masters of meatless cooking. My husband and I have introduced friends and relatives to the Indian cooking style, and they are amazed at how sustaining a vegetarian meal can be. "I didn't miss the meat," say our meat-loving friends with surprise.
I get many ideas for vegetarian meals from a casual eatery in Canoga Park, California, called India Sweets and Spices. You wouldn't exactly call it a restaurant. It's an Indian grocery store, with a small cafeteria and counter of house-made Indian sweets. When I want to know where the Diwali (Indian festival of lights) celebration will be held, here I'll get the answer.
This place is a veritable community center, with newspapers from India, music and even saris, the kind of clothes many of the patrons wear. Similar eateries can be found in other cities with Indian populations.
You eat your meal on styrofoam plates with plastic flatware, and you clean your table when you're done. Yet people come from far to enjoy the savory vegetables. I am continually impressed by the variety of dishes, and so I decided to try to analyze the formula behind the menus.
Indian cooks know that the key to satisfying, plant-based meals lies in their composition. They include three basic elements: vegetables, grains - usually Basmati rice or flatbread - and legumes - chickpeas, black-eyed peas, lentils and beans. It sounds like a humble repast, but the result can be a vegetable feast.
There's always a dish referred to simply as mixed vegetables, and the mix changes with the seasons. The last time I sampled it, there were zucchini wedges, cauliflower florets, carrot rounds, mushroom slices, green beans and potato chunks in a savory golden sauce made slightly creamy from the addition of yogurt.
Indian cooks are very open-minded about which vegetables go together. In other cuisines it's unusual to find cauliflower and okra in the same recipe, but I've savored this combination here. Another time there was okra cooked with potatoes, semi-hot green peppers and pale green squash resembling white squash (Hebrew: kishuim). Baby eggplants braised with peas, dried hot red peppers and chopped tomatoes made a spicy tangy version of mixed vegetables. In winter cubes of pumpkin and sweet potato appear, giving the dish an orange hue. Sometimes exotic vegetables are included, like long thin green drumsticks (imagine an artichoke in stick form) or bitter melon, definitely an acquired taste but here is a good place to acquire it.
Often the mixed vegetable dish includes a protein-rich legume, such as green lima beans or soy chunks. This ensures a balanced meal even if a diner did not choose a separate legume from the display case. Occasionally the vegetable stew is enriched with cubes of a cheese called panir, which does not melt or crumble during cooking. Its texture resembles that of firm tofu, which I use as a substitute.
Mixed vegetables might be saucy or "dry-braised," that is, resembling a saute. The saucy versions are great for spooning over rice, and the sautes are wonderful spread on flatbread, like eating eggplant salad in a pita.
A liberal quantity of sauteed onions contributes greatly to the delicious flavor of these dishes. Often there is garlic, ginger and fresh or dried hot peppers. Beyond that, Indian cooks make use of a broad spectrum of spices, including saffron, toasted cumin seeds, ground coriander seeds and their fresh leaves, black peppercorns, cloves and much more.
The vegetables cook directly in the sauce, or are cooked separately - either by boiling, frying or grilling until partly done, then are simmered with the seasonings so they absorb the flavors.
Not all Indians like their food pungent. Priti Chitnis Gress, author of Flavorful India, which focuses on the western state of Gujarat, "known as India's garden state and thus famed for its vegetarian cuisine," notes that many Indian vegetable dishes are delicately seasoned. For a dish called "sixth day mixed vegetables," which is served to a new mother six days after a baby is born, people use a light hand with the seasonings - sauteed onions, cumin seeds, fenugreek, turmeric and coriander - so they won't affect the breast milk. She recommends using as many vegetables as possible for maximum flavor and nutrients and suggests potatoes, eggplant, okra, cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, corn, peas, green beans, spinach and legumes.
I use these basic guidelines to come up with vegetarian entrees. When I'm in a rush, I might augment my fresh vegetables with frozen ones or canned beans. For quick spicing, I combine sauteed onions with Yemenite hawaj marak (soup spice), which is basically cumin and turmeric, and I already have a simple form of Indian seasoning.
Rice at India Sweets and Spices is never plain. The white Basmati rice is studded with green peas and toasted cumin seeds, and often there's an additional rice dish, like bright yellow rice with carrot slices, lima beans and green beans, or brownish-yellow rice accented with fried green chile strips, cashews, peanuts and tiny lentils. Obviously, cooks slip in vegetables and legumes at every opportunity.
Indian restaurants are becoming easier to find outside the subcontinent. This may account for the growing awareness among people outside Asia of the pleasures of vegetarian cooking.
MIXED VEGETABLES, INDIAN STYLE
Serve this stew as a vegetarian entree with rice, fresh pita or other flatbread. Vegetable oil is traditional in India but you can substitute olive oil.
2 or 3 small potatoes, cut in chunks
3 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 Tbsp. chopped peeled gingerroot (optional)
4 large garlic cloves, chopped
1 or 2 hot or semi-hot green peppers, chopped (optional)
2 tsp. ground coriander
2 tsp. ground cumin
1â„2 tsp. turmeric
1â„4 to 1â„2 tsp. hot red pepper flakes or 1â„8 teaspoon cayenne, or to taste
1 small eggplant, unpeeled (about 300 to 350 grams), cut in 2-cm. dice
Salt to taste
1 or 2 pale green squash or zucchini, halved lengthwise and sliced
1 sweet green or red pepper (optional), cut in strips
1 to 11â„2 cups frozen lima beans, green peas or green beans
2 or 3 small tomatoes, diced
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh coriander (optional)
Put potato chunks in a small saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil.
Cover and simmer over medium heat for 10 minutes.
Heat oil in a heavy, shallow stew pan, add onion and gingerroot and cook over low heat 7 minutes, or until onion is soft but not brown. Add garlic, hot peppers, ground coriander, cumin, turmeric and pepper flakes, and cook, stirring, 1 minute.
Add eggplant, dice and salt and mix well over low heat until eggplant is coated with spices. Cover and cook over low heat for 5 minutes. Add squash and sweet peppers; cover and cook for 2 minutes. With a slotted spoon, add potato dice to the pot, then add 1 cup of the potato cooking liquid or water. Bring to a boil, stirring. Cover and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes, stirring often and checking on liquid; if pan is dry, add 1â„4 cup water, or more if needed. Add lima beans and tomatoes; return to a simmer, cover and cook for 10 minutes. Check, and if vegetables are not tender, cook 5 to 10 more minutes and check again.
If you prefer a thicker sauce, uncover pan and cook stew uncovered over medium-high heat to evaporate the excess liquid. Add coriander; taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Makes 4 or 5 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning Faye Levy's International Vegetable Cookbook.
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