The Only Way To Be a Vegetarian

Chick Pea and Spinach Pilau

I am a frustrated vegetarian, mostly because Martine wants me to cook more meat dishes. But every once in a while, such as when her irritable bowel syndrome acts up, I will prepare for myself a vegetarian curry dish redolent with chiles and other spices.

Why do most people become vegetarians? I suspect the answer is that they feel a certain Yuck Factor when it comes to meat. At that point, they usually turn to the boringly bland and unimaginative diet that seems to characterize many Americans. I’m talking about lots of salad (which Martine calls “rabbit food”) and plant-based meat imitations.

To me, it makes more sense to use an existing vegetarian cuisine which is flavorful and exciting. That describes Indian cooking to a tee. I like food that is rich with layers of flavor. Coming from a Hungarian background, I find most bland food more than slightly offensive, as if no one cared to make it good.

When I visit Latin America, I have no trouble settling into a comfortable routine of vegetarian food and my one meat craving, fresh seafood. I remember an octopus ceviche in Progreso, Yucatán, and a filete de pescado Veracruzana in Champotón that sent me into ecstasy.

In Ecuador, I fell in love with the soups, particularly an avocado-based soup in Quito and an egg soup in Cuenca. Insofar as salads are concerned, in Latin America I love the fruit salads.

The Quarantine Makes Us Boring

An Empty Restaurant

Things being as they are, I have a hard time thinking of interesting things to write. During the quarantine, I am involved primarily in four activities: food shopping, cooking, reading, and film viewing. There isn’t much I can write about food shopping and cooking, primarily because of Martine’s irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), most of what I cook is pretty bland. When I cook a dish for myself, I tend to go crazy with spices and chiles—because I can!

I would love to write more about places that I have visited recently. Except I have not visited many places recently. There are two reasons for this:

  1. Restaurants are usually closed, and the weather does not encourage picnicking.
  2. If you have to go to the bathroom, you pretty much have to buy gasoline.

I’d love to go driving in the local deserts, but I am uncertain as to filling these two basic needs which all travelers have. Let’s say I want to go to Boron, California, home of the Twenty-Mule-Team Museum. Not only is the museum closed, but I have no idea where I can get food locally, and whether the local restaurants are serving diners outdoors. There is just too much uncertainty.

Sometime this February, I will pay another visit to my brother in Palm Desert. My last visit there was at the end of October. There are some places we can go, and he knows which local restaurants are serving food. (Though the best food there is likely to be cooked by my brother.) To be sure, I will take my camera and try to find some places I can write about.

Until then, you will hear more about my reading and film viewing.

Meals To Go

It Looks So Good in the Photographs, But …

I know that people are being urged to have restaurant meals delivered during the quarantine, and I know that restaurants have to survive somehow, but it’s just not the same. When the food is delivered, it is by someone who is not associated with the restaurant and does not care in the slightest what you think of the meal. Even if you pick up yourself, you seem to be one remove farther away from the person who assembled the meal.

Yes, that’s it! The food is merely assembled, and it is not the same high quality it was when you ate at the restaurant. And the food is usually assembled in a slipshod manner emphasizing speed over taste or looks.

Today I had a Japanese meal of pork gyoza with chashu rice rolls. I couldn’t finish it, as it had an off taste. Oh, it was prepared quickly all right, but I have no intention of ever going back there.

A secondary problem is that every take-out or delivered meal comes with a ton of plastic waste. If Martine and I ate that way on a regular basis, we would not only be spending a fortune, but having to take out our garbage every other day rather than twice a week when I prepare food at home myself.

No doubt there are outstanding exceptions among L.A. restaurants. When doing take-out, however, I am confined to the restaurants in my West L.A. neighborhood.

Masque of the Red Death

Death Is Stalking the Land in Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death

I cannot help but feel that Covid-19 is inching ever closer. The son of one of my friends probably has it; and all the holiday socializing that has been going on is leading to a crisis in Los Angeles. Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times had a headline in which paramedics can refuse to pick up a patient if he or she appears to be near death in their judgment. Emergency rooms and intensive care units are packed to overflowing such that local hospitals are casting about for hallways, chapels, and other rooms in which to deposit patients. And hospital morgues are overflowing with the dead.

Tomorrow, I was planning to ride the train downtown to return some library books. With the coronavirus news becoming worse day by day, I will wait two or three weeks until the maskless fools who have been socializing during the Christmas and New Years holidays come down with the virus and isolate themselves.

Because of their behavior during this outbreak, I am becoming reluctant to associate with young people in any capacity. I have numerous preexisting conditions that make me a prime target for the Red Death. Thankfully, all the young people in my family live out of town.

Instead of going downtown, I’ll take a walk to Bay City Imports in Santa Monica to get ingredients for a Calabrian Chile Pasta dish that looks interesting. As long as this outbreak lasts, I will be intent on working on my cooking skills. I know I’ll never catch up to my brother in this regard, so I’ll just have to reconcile myself with accepting second place in a family of two.

Breakfast

My Favorite Meal of the Day? Breakfast!

I have written in the past about my love of Indian black tea, hot and iced. Even in the heat of summer, I love to start the day with a pot of Darjeeling, Assam, or Ceylon—or my personal blend of same. In the picture above, you can see my cheap Japanese metal teapot, which has an insert for the loose tea leaves so they don’t end of floating in my cup.

Of late, I have drunk my breakfast tea with either mesquite or desert wildflower honey, and a squeeze of fresh lime.

Accompanying it is usually one of the following:

  • Quesadillas with pickled rajas de jalapeño chiles
  • Huevos à la Mexicana: Scrambled eggs with chopped onions, garlic, serrano chiles, and (when available) tomatillos
  • Toasted English muffin with melted cheddar cheese and Indian red chile powder
  • Slices of cheese with crackers, the type of cheese varying with the season
  • Jimmy Dean’s frozen biscuits with sausage
  • Steel-cut oatmeal with dried cranberries or cherries and a dash of maple syrup
  • Hominy grits cooked with a chicken bouillon cube with butter, sausage, and fresh ground pepper
  • Sourdough toast with butter and garlic (for when I have a sore throat)

I would love to have grapefruit, but, like many men of my age, I am on Lipitor (generic Atorvastatin) to reduce cholesterol. It doesn’t work when you eat grapefruit.

Accompanying breakfast is my home-delivered copy of the Los Angeles Times. I scan the national, international, and local news, but spend most of my time with the puzzles and comics page.

When I have a good breakfast—and I usually do—the rest of the day starts of on a good footing.

Ceviche

Ceviche de Pescado con Limon

My last meal in Mérida before returning to the U.S. was at a grungy little seafood dive on Calle 62 called the Blue Marlin (Marlin Azul). It was a raw fish dish called ceviche de pescado that is “cooked” with the addition of fresh lime juice. Also it contains cut-up tomatoes, chiles, and cilantro. It is served cold and is an ideal lunch dish.

In Progreso, a few days earlier, I had a ceviche de pulpo made with the same ingredients, except that octopus replaces the fish. I was in hog heaven.

Actually the seafood dish I ate the most in Yucatán this last trip was filete de pescado veracruzana. It was a grilled filet of fish in a tomato sauce with onions, olives, and capers. I never got tired of it, especially when I was near the sea and knew that the fish was super fresh.

During this awful coronavirus outbreak, I dream of traveling by bus between various seaport cities in Baja California and living on fish tacos and other local specialties.

Baja Style Fish Tacos

When I was growing up in Cleveland, I didn’t think much of fish. Lake Erie, the shallowest of the Great Lakes, was for all intents and purposes a body of water noted for dead fish floating on its surface. I have had some good seafood in Los Angeles, but avoid shrimp and lobster, as I seem to be allergic to them—possibly because of the pollution of the Pacific Ocean around the coast of Southern California.

Traveling to places like Iceland or Mexico where the seafood is so fresh and interesting makes me dream of travel again. Sigh.

Down the Hatch!

Chiles from Around Hatch, New Mexico

Today I had two meals that featured Hatch chiles. For breakfast, I scrambled three eggs with onion, garlic, and one green Hatch chile. At dinner time, I prepared a vegetarian chick pea curry with potatoes, spinach, sweet red pepper, and one Hatch chile turning from green to red. (You can get the recipe by clicking here.)

There was a time in the late 1980s when I had three consecutive vacations in New Mexico. Not only did I learn about Hatch chiles, but whenever I tent camped I would prepare a meal with rice, onions, and a Hatch chile. It was simple and always delicious.

What is so special about Hatch chiles? For one thing, they come from the area around Hatch, New Mexico, along the Rio Grande, roughly between Arrey to the north and Tonuco Mountain to the south. There’s something about the soil of this region which produces chile peppers that may or may not be spicy hot, but which always taste good.

In the late summer or early autumn, my local Ralphs Super Market carries the chiles either loose or bagged; and I always buy more than I end up using. (Martine does not tolerate spicy foods well.) The loose Hatch chiles are not always hot: I chopped one up with scrambled eggs last week that was no hotter than a regular green pepper, but even then was more flavorful.

I am always saddened when the fresh Hatch chiles are gone. If I were fanatical enough, I could order them frozen from a chile pepper supplier in New Mexico; but I will probably just go back to serranos, jalapeños, and California chiles. I actually like being surprised by the range of hotness in my fresh Hatch chiles. It is something worth looking forward to.

 

Cooking With Manjula

Manjula Jain, Master Chef and YouTube Luminary

During this hyperextended coronavirus quarantine period, I have picked up a few good habits. Perhaps the best of them is taking authenticity more seriously in my cooking. I have been making Indian vegetarian dishes for over thirty years, but now, thanks to YouTube, I am more serious about trying to cook them approximately the way a resident of India would.

For one thing, that involves a more serious attention to the spices used in Indian cooking. Fortunately, there are a number of Indian groceries in Culver City along Venice Boulevard, my favorite being India Sweets & Spices. Just to give you an example, here is a list of spices for Chickpea Pulav, which I will be preparing later this week:

  • Cumin seeds (jeera)
  • Asafetida (hing)
  • Bay leaves (tajpat)
  • Ginger (I use a bottled ginger/garlic paste from Laxmi)
  • Turmeric (haldi)
  • Mango powder (amchoor)
  • Garam Masala (which is mostly cardamom)

In addition, I will also be adding a few additional spices not called for in the recipe, including powdered red chile, cumin powder, cilantro, and coriander powder.

If you are interested in Indian vegetarian cooking, I highly recommend Manjula Jain’s Cooking with Manjula, 2nd Edition, which can be obtained for $5.00 in a downloadable format. (In my case, it turned out to be Microsoft Edge PDF, which took me a little while to learn how to print so that it doesn’t stretch off the page.) There are approximately 150 pages of recipes, which make it a good deal for the cost involved.

I highly recommend you try the Chickpea Pulav first, which Manjula calls a “Spicy Rice with Chickpeas.” I am going to be busy trying her other recipes, which you can also find on the web and YouTube. Here’s the YouTube recipe for the Chickpea Pulav: Click here.

 

A Visit to the Supermarket

You Can Learn a Lot About People by Visiting a Supermarket

Today being Monday, I had to restock my groceries. Every Monday I cook a dish which serves as our main meal for three, four, or five days. That’s usually true, but Martine is suffering from another round of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, so she’s reduced to eating foods that do not have vowels in their names. My dish for today was ratatouille, a vegan stew of onions, tomatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, and squash. Today I ate it straight; the rest of the week, I’ll eat it with pasta.

It’s always interesting to visit supermarkets in other places. I remember the ATAC market near the Place de Clichy in Paris, where Martine and I shopped for our breakfasts for the four or five days we stayed in the area. The market wasn’t huge like many American chains, but it had good food—especially the Petit Billy goat cheese.

Compared to ATAC, Ralphs Supermarket at Olympic and Cloverfield in Santa Monica is loaded down with frou-frou that I would never consider buying, like expensive boxes of sugary breakfast cereals. Is it so much trouble to add sugar that everything has to come pre-sugared, and “fortified” with corn sweeteners as well. There are many aisles in the supermarket that I never visit, because they have nothing that interests me.

And why are there so many varieties of certain foods? I looked for my Jif Extra Crunchy peanut butter and had to settle for a large size because there were about ten different varieties of Jif Creamy for adherents of various loony dietary regimens. Thanks, but I don’t want any peanut butter with kale and quinoa. There are easily a hundred different brands of potato chips, and almost as many of corn chips (though I always have a difficult time finding Santita’s Corn Chips, which are perfect even though they are now owned by FritoLay.

 

Plague Diary 29: Corona Cooking

The Mafia Cooking Hour

During my months-long quarantine, I have been sustained by five things:

  1. My relationship with Martine
  2. Playing chess with the computer
  3. Reading
  4. Watching movies on TV and my computer
  5. Cooking

That last item deserves some explanation. I have always enjoyed cooking, but I never was able to give it the attention it deserved. When I was working, I cooked good food, but I shied away from recipes that required some sophistication and a lot of time. Now that I am retired and quarantined, I am able to take the time to make some really good meals.

Mostly for Martine’s benefit, I got my hands on a cookbook by a convicted mafioso, Henry Hill, featuring the Italian cooking of the New York/New Jersey area: The Wiseguy Cookbook. Although Martine was born in France, she was mostly raised in Northern New Jersey (in Oceanport). As a child, it was New Jersey Italian food that she loved most. That was before she came out to Los Angeles and fell for Hungarian food.

For myself, I have become more interested in the vegetarian cuisine of India. Fortunately, Youtube has some excellent and very authentic recipes by Indians, Pakistanis, and others featuring Indian cuisine. This week, I made the following:

Manjula presents us here with a recipe for Chick Pea Pulav (aka Chole Biryani). The followed the recipe exactly, except that I added half a chopped onion and some extra hot Indian red chile powder. The only change I would suggest is to use one cup of water rather than a cup and a half. The dish is superb.

Fortunately, there is a nearby Indian foods store in Culver City called Indian Sweets and Spices. In better times, there is a little café on the premises with vegetarian-only curries; but there is also an excellent selection of teas and such hard-to-find items as mango powder, foenugreek leaves, garlic/ginger paste, and asafoetida.