Countering Carnivorous Habits

2007.Jun.23 Saturday · 6 comments

in Casa SaltShaker, Drink, Food & Recipes

 CHIANG MAI, Thailand (AP) – Vegetarians from around the world pledged Sunday to convert millions of meat-eaters by the end of the century and launched an Asian Vegetarian Union. The Bangkok-based Asian group seeks to foster the still-fledgling vegetarian movements in many Asian countries and counter a trend among the continent’s youth to ape Western carnivorous habits. More than 400 participants from 30 countries at the 33rd World Vegetarian Congress concluding Sunday called on vegetarian groups all over the world to invite people to give up meat for the new millennium. A mass pledge-taking ceremony is planned at midnight, Dec. 31.”

– Infobeat, January 11, 1999

Buenos Aires – Well, the Asian Vegetarian Union apparently continues strongly, having held two international congresses to date – one in Goa, India and the second in Bangkok, Thailand. They have a third planned for this coming November, to be held in Taiwan. Now, I’m not a member, didn’t know they existed until I started writing this up and went searching for an interesting quote, and, probably won’t attend the conference – though it’d be an interesting excuse to visit Taiwan – wonder if I can get a magazine to cover the trip in exchange for a conference report…? However, the reason I bring it up is that last weekend Casa S held an Asian Vegetarian themed dinner – now… here’s the thing… I’m putting my vegetarian readers on notice. Not all of you, just some… and you know who you are. I regularly get e-mail from some of you asking “When is Casa SaltShaker going to have another vegetarian dinner, we missed the last one?” or similar missives. We’ve started having vegetarian dinners about every 8-10 weeks… and I dutifuly send all the folks who asked a note letting them know when the next one is coming up. To date, not one of the people who plaintively requested one of those dinners has come to one of them – some (a few) of you have come to other dinners, just asking for vegetarian substitutions for dishes – more work for me, and, not the chance to meet up with some other vegetarian folk here in town, which I’d think might be fun for y’all. And, assuming that this is like the last vegetarian dinner… starting tomorrow or so, after this post, I’ll start getting those e-mails again.

So here’s the thing – I love having vegetarian dinners – they’re actually in some ways a chance to be more creative than when I work with meat – especially to keep them interesting and not just the brown rice and steamed greens kind of plates. I’d have them more often here… if, if… the people who keep contacting me about them would come to them. As it turned out, we only had a dinner on Saturday, and we weren’t even full (10 out of 12), and cancelled Friday because we simply had no reservations. Plus, most of the folks who came to the dinner came to it more by chance – only a few of those who came were even vegetarian. So, I leave it in your hands… the next one will probably be early August (we’re taking the latter half of July off for vacation)… we’ll see who comes.

Tamarind Coconut SoupThe other theme that people seem to love here are our Asian themed dinners of various sorts – the lack of good Asian restaurants in this city is a big part of that – though it’s getting better… But, Asian Vegetarian it was… I spotted a recipe for a Tamarind Coconut Soup that sounded absolutely delicious in the book Silk Road Cooking by Najmieh Batmanglij – one of my favorite vegetarian cookbooks – and decided it was perfect for this time of year. I didn’t follow the recipe to the letter – for example the original has a good quantity of rice flour mixed into it to thicken it – that part sounded just a little too… gummy. The soup turned out delicious – a great variation on all the squash soups that have popped up around town at this time of year. In a little bit of oil, saute a mix of mustard, fenugreek, and black onion seeds until they start to pop and are nice and aromatic. Add chopped onions and a couple of jalapeños, along with some curry powder, cinnamon, coriander, and cumin, and cook until the vegetables are translucent. Add diced squash, red lentils, and a couple of spoonfuls of tamarind paste, and top off with vegetable stock. Cook until the vegetables are thoroughly cooked. Then puree, and finish with a good amount of coconut milk, salt and pepper, and garnish with cilantro. We served this up with a Mimosa Porteña as the folks at Tapaus liqueurs have named the cocktail – a mix of good sparkling wine with their fresh grapefruit liqueur – a fun way to start off the evening.

Kuku Beggar’s PurseOne of the more elegant presentations out there in the world of dishes, at least in my mind, is something called a beggar’s purse. You can see from the form how it got it’s name. They’ve been around forever, though they got famous on the dining scene in New York somewhere around twenty years ago at a place called the Quilted Giraffe (Hal Rubenstein of New York Magazine described the place as: “[One of] the most arrogantly oppressive and gastronomically cloying restaurants ever to put one over on the feeding-frenzied of the eighties.” and “Forgotten, too, are the $12 petri-dish portions of mashed potatoes with four black beans and the stainless-steel ambience radiating all the warmth of an emergency room, which, frankly, fit its owners like a surgical glove.”. The place got four stars from the New York Times, of course. Now, their beggar’s purses were made of, if I recall correctly, phyllo dough, filled with caviar and creme fraiche, and served up, one apiece on the branches of some elaborate silver candelabra. Probably cost a fortune. Ours were a little more down to earth and very loosely based on an Iranian kuku. The dough, a simple dough that you’d use for wrapping an empanada here – nice and flaky. The filling – a sauteed mixture of red onion, zucchini, garlic, piquin peppers (just a couple), breadcrumbs, salt, pepper, cumin, paprika, and turmeric. Let it cool, then fill the dough, bunching it up into the right shape, and, just for presentation, tying it off with a blanched chinese chive. The sauce – a simple puree of cooked cauliflower and basil with just enough cream to smooth it out, salt to taste. For the wine, something bright and fresh – the Alfredo Roca Tocai Friulano from Mendoza worked beautifully with this.

Trio of dumplingsMoving to the opposite end of Asia, I’d decided I wanted to make some dumplings. Originally I was thinking potstickers, and the mushroom ones I used to make at The Kitchen Club. Then I decided it was time to try out my new bamboo steamers, and, to make three different types of dumplings. For whatever reason, despite my carefully oiling the steamer baskets, about half of the dumplings ended up stuck to the bamboo – I should have steamed them on lettuce leaves… have to remember that little trick… the fillings: shiitake mushroom and chinese chive with sesame oil and white pepper; white mushroom, cucumber, thyme, garlic, and black pepper; and chinese cabbage, red bell pepper, and shallot. The sauce – soy sauce and chili oil. Despite the stuckness of the dumplings, and the fact that that meant I ripped holes in the bottoms of a good number of them, they tasted delicious. I still might think about doing them more potsticker style on a future go-round… I like that contrasting texture that one gets. A nice rosé from Bodega Catena – their Alamos Malbec Maceración Atenduada fit the bill perfectly.

Eggplant and Seitan Yu-XiangFor the main course I’d already had in mind one of my favorite eggplant dishes, Eggplant Yu-Xiang from the Szechuan repertoire of cooking. The long thin Asian eggplants work best for this dish – I’ve been told, and I’ve experimented and they’re right – cut them into half moon slices, salt them, and let them sit, then rinse them. In a little oil saute chopped garlic, ginger, and scallions. Add some hot chili bean paste, to taste – add a little upfront, then add more later if you want the dish hotter – the eggplant slices, and some finely diced seitan. Cover and cook until the eggplant is cooked through, stirring occasionally. Add soy sauce, sugar, a little vegetable stock with some cornstarch dissolved in it, and sesame oil – all to taste. Serve with simple white rice. We needed something that would stand up well to a spicy dish – so I turned to the Sur de Los Andes Bonarda, which held its own valiantly against the spiciness of this dish.

Banana SpringrollSome of you may remember our Thai-Cambodian New Year’s dinner not that long ago. I liked the dessert so much that I thought I’d work with it again. I really didn’t change much of anything from the original way I made it, other than that the only baby bananas I could find were very green and starchy, so I used regular sized bananas and simply cut them in half crosswise. The sauce was the same, though I used a little more restraint with the salt, since a few people had thought it was too much of a contrast in the original version. I still like it with a little more salt than this came out to – but everyone seemed to like it this way – no complaints from anyone anyway – so maybe (you think?) it’s just me. I also used a dark brown sugar rather than light brown sugar, purely because it’s what I had on hand – but it gives the sauce a slightly richer taste. Our house dessert wine, Finca El Retiro Tardío worked well with this – though a heavier dessert wine would probably work a little better.


{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

ksternberg June 23, 2007 at 11:54

Dan, when’s your next vegeterian dinner? Oh. Sorry.

The food here looks really terrific, esp. the beggar’s purse. It goes a long way to show how interesting and appealing meatless cuisine can be.

Saratica June 24, 2007 at 09:28

OK – this is my dinner. The Beggar’s Purse put me over the edge. Yummy!!!!

dan June 25, 2007 at 20:28

But Sally, there’s no cocoa in anything for Hal to eat… what will he do?

Ken, thanks!

ksternberg June 26, 2007 at 01:07

I’m also a little intrigued that vegetarian cuisine can flourish (if that’s the word) in such a meat-centric place as Argentina. Glad that people like the option.

dan June 26, 2007 at 11:03

I assume that there have been vegetarians here for a long time, however, I gather from talking to people here, that up until a very few years ago, the vegetarian restaurant world was either non-existent or nearly so. From comments made by various folk, it seems like most vegetarians, when going out with friends, settled for things like the fresh salads, pasta options, and pizzas. A good number of parrillas, interestingly, offer “milanesas de soja”, which are essentially a breaded slab of tofu that’s fried up – not particularly exciting – and I have no idea if that’s a relatively new introduction or not.

When I arrived in Argentina a couple of years ago, there were a few spots known for vegetarian food – mostly of the all you can eat steam line buffet style, and generally a mix of Argentine and Chinese dishes – also leaning heavily into the fried world. There were a couple of spots offering more interesting vegetarian cooking, but not many. Over the last two years more and more places seem to be opening, and some of them truly creative – places that could give the vegetarian spots in my old East Village neighborhood a run for their money. I’ve only checked out a limited number of them, but my impression is that they’re being frequented by locals more than tourists, so there’s clearly a culture here that appreciates the offering – whether vegetarians, or just folks who want something different for a change. Enough so, apparently, that the raw food vegan spot that I wrote up awhile back – verdellama – has opened up in a full restaurant setting – have to get there and check it out – and is apparently thriving, and a new puertas cerradas place, Diego Felix, opened up that is offering vegetarian tasting menus three or four nights a week and apparently pretty much selling out seating any time he opens. I’ve also noted that in more and more just “regular” restaurants, they’ve started to add some sort of vegetarian option – most of them are still at sort of the “veg plate” level as opposed to being something more creative, but it’s at least a recognition that there’s a demand.

Even the press – as you know I wrote a piece for Time Out Buenos Aires on vegetarian dining in the last issue, at their request, and it’s still getting positive response from folks using the guide. The Guardian UK wrote a piece in January on the topic. The Boston Globe just published something in March. So there’s starting to be some recognition internationally as well that there are alternatives to steak here.

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