Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Veg Count Too: Rant and Recipe

Have you noticed how, for some meat eaters, the meal doesn't count unless it contains meat?

Fear not, gentle reader. I'm not about to launch into another one of those vegetarian-carnivore debates. I have no beef (ha!) with meat eaters; becoming vegetarian is a highly personal choice, and I've heard, countless times, all the arguments and counterarguments. What I do want to rant about, is the way some carnivores make meat into the focus of their culinary experience, completely ignoring the rest of the food.

Now, with homemade food, for many folks here, the idea is that there's an "entree" - namely, some sort of a dead animal - and then there are the "additions", the things that meat is "served with", which, in classy restaurants, are not even mentioned in the outset. You read that you'll be served a steak or a leg of lamb, and then, in small print, it'll say "with potatoes and asparagus". Sometimes they don't bother at all. This practice bothers me to no end, because it completely ignores the quality of ingredients, creativity and nutritional planning that goes into making a truly wonderful vegetarian dish. This tendency to ignore anything on your plate that isn't meat, by the way, is a common accompaniment to the unwillingness to understand that one's meat has come from animals - an absurdity on which my dear friend Barbara Fisher has written an award-winning post.

Why, you ask, have I launched into this rant? Well, Wednesday was Independence Day in Israel. While Americans tend to celebrate all their national dates of importance by, well, shopping, Israelis do so by eating. A lot. Of Meat.

All national parks, forests, patches of green, and often traffic circles, I kid you not, are invaded, since morning, by folks carrying dozens of kilograms of meat and a barbecue, or as it's called here, a mangal. Gender roles are very specific, and very reminscent of Jean Auel books: only the men are allowed to directly deal with the fire, while the women hunt-gather for pita bread and condiments, and the children mainly eat and make noise. This in itself is quite fine, though the lust for such huge amounts of meat certainly does not agree with everyone's arteries. In fact, Chad and I attended an event like this.

So, whaddwe do when we go to a barbecue? Do we sit and stare longingly at the meat, or stuff our face with meatless bread? Hell no. We bring Vegetable Skewers. We put them in a delicious, aromatic marinade. We include all sorts of exotic veg. And we eat with great pleasure. So this time, we brought in skewers with celery roots, beets, fennel, and other amazing organic veg. Oh, and we stuck on them the occasional cube of tofu. While our veg were top quality, the tofu, this time, was a tad mediocre, so we didn't put much of it on.

And when we took them out, folks looked at them and said "heh, tofu skewers".

Now that was really ridiculous. All these fabulous vegetables were there, but the folks around us zoomed in on the sole tofu cube, not even registering the rest of the skewer as "food". But of course, we're vegetarians, so given the fact that anything beyond meet is not considered "food", then we must eat tofu all day.

Wrong, folks. We love our veg. And we never go hungry. And while protein is very important, so are vitamins, and minerals, and carbs, and other nutrients. Vegetables are food.

And then, one person asked to try one. And another. And another. And eventually they all ate, and were happy, and said it was very good.

So here's the recipe, for your barbecuing pleasure:

Vegetable Skewers

3 carrots
3 beets
1 large fennel bulb
1 celery root, cleaned
4 tomatoes
10 forest mushrooms of any kind
1 large onion

4 cups vegetable stock
2-3 cups soy sauce
1 one-inch diameter ginger chunk, chopped or grated
6-7 garlic cloves
3 handfuls of fresh herbs: we like parsley and cilantro
1/2 tablespoon of cornstarch (optional but helps consistency).

This can be done with any vegetables. Really. It's just that the aboce combo worked so well. The trick is to skewer a variety of ingredients that work well together and take about the same time to cook. Alas, this is tricky; because the tomato cooks almost instantly, while, say, the carrots take a long time.

Which is why you steam the "hard" vegetables first.

"Peel" the celery root, that is, cut of its external rougher surface. Then, dice all the vegetables, so the pieces are about 1/2 inch wide and no more than 1 inch in other directions. It's best if they are about the same size. Now, take the carrot cubes, the beets, the celeries, and the fennels, and steam them for about 30 minutes or until they are firm but easily pierced with a skewer. We use a bamboo steamer (easily purchased for very, very cheap in your local Asian houseware store), but a collander over a large pot of water would work just as fine. Just let the water work its magic.

Then, mix all ingredients for the marinade in a very large bowl, and put all vegetable cubes, including tomatoes and mushrooms and onions, into the marinade, and let them sit there for at least three hours.

Then, grap a bunch of skewers and get creative. One of the best ways to do this, is to place a large bowl in your sink, hang a collander over it, and pour the contents of your marinade bowl into the collander. Thus, you get all the veg ready for skewering, and you save the marinade for future use. Yay! Another recommendation is to split the different kinds of veg between several bowls, so you see how many of each you've got, and you don't end up with a bunch of skewers that only have, say, carrots on them. In this, I beg to differ from Alton Brown: I understand the rationale behind skewering the same vegetables on the same skewer (uniform cooking time), but since folks will usually have no more than two of these, why not give them something that offers more fun and variety?

You can do whatever you want in terms of the order of skewering, but I really recommend having one of the firmer, tougher vegetables on each end. Also, a good idea is to stick bits of the onion and fennel between vegetable cubes, as they infuse their "neighbors" on the skewer with their magnificent aroma.

The best way we've found to carry the skewers to the barbecue is taking a very big plastic bag and putting a bowl inside it, with the skewers "standing" in the bowl. Also, be sure to carry a little container with marinade with you, so you can sprinkle it on the vegetables should they become dry.

Then, at the event itself, once you've fought off the meat eaters for some space on the barbecue, you simply place them out there,on the barbecue, and give them a little turn every couple of minutes. They'll be done in five or seven minutes, depending on the size of veg you've picked. They're very good with fresh tchina, or in a hummus sandwich. Enjoy!

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