Monday, February 14, 2011

Global Vegetarian Cooking

When I first moved out on my own last August, I relied primarily on frozen meals. Granted, everything was organic (thanks, Amy's!) but after awhile it started to get old. Problem is, I can barely cook and generally don't like to. What was I to do?

I was browsing my local fair trade store a couple months ago when I found a small paperback cookbook by Troth Wells called Global Vegetarian Cooking: Quick & Easy Recipes from Around the World. Published by Interlink Books, Global Vegetarian Cooking is fourth in their New Internationalist food series, which has been translated and published in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and North America.

Turns out I'm hardly alone in my cooking issues. According the Wells's intro, a British National Opinion Poll revealed that most people in the 1980s spent about an hour a day on food preparation. Today, this figure has dropped to less than 30 minutes, and it is predicted that it will fall even further, to only 11 minutes, in the twenty-first century. (Global Vegetarian Cooking was published in 2001.) Since Americans have taken to eating out most of the time, your kitchen can be pretty much limited to a microwave and a refrigerator.

The problem with this is that over 60% of processed foods contain not only artificial ingredients and preservatives but genetically-modified (GM) fruits and vegetables as well. GM plants have had their genetic makeup altered to produce a desired trait, such as resistance to insects or pesticide. The result is called "recombinant DNA," which is achieved by lifting a desired gene sequence from one species and inserting it into the DNA of another. For example, you can take the anti-freeze genes from Arctic fish and introduce them to tomatoes to combat frost. The long-term health effects on human consumers are unknown, although biotech advocates claim their produce is perfectly safe. Still, unanswered questions remain. One concern is the practice of linking the transplanted genes to a "marker" gene for identification purposes. A favorite marker is the ampicillin-resistant gene, which may promote resistance in humans and animals to an important antibiotic.

Troth Wells also brings up several social justice issues involved. In the coming years, many peasants in the Majority ("Third") World will see their livelihoods ruined by their nations' importation of GM seeds and crops. Furthermore, there is a "new nasty on the horizon," nicknamed The Terminator by the Rural Advancement Foundation International. This seed is supposed to be genetically altered so that it cannot reproduce - a "suicide seed" - which threatens both biodiversity and the food security of 1.4 billion rural people. Thanks to the biotech industry's international influence, the ancient practice of saving seeds for reuse and exchanging them with neighbors could actually be outlawed. As of 2001, two top companies, Monsanto and AstraZeneca, have applied for patents for this technique in 89 to 77 countries.

Hello Oryx and Crake.

Fortunately, most GM produce is found in non-organic processed foods - precisely the foods that more and more consumers are relying upon for their speed and convenience. (Just a few minutes in the microwave!) The best solution to the GM issue is to simply eat less of the stuff. What is then needed are quick and easy recipes to make the transition easier for the cook-challenged like me. "The aim of this collection," says Wells's Introduction, "is to provide tasty recipes that are simple to prepare and cook, drawing on dishes found in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America." Global Vegetarian Cooking is a little under 200 pages and divided into "Starters, Snacks & Soups," "Main Dishes," "Salads & Side Dishes," and "Desserts & Drinks." There is also an Ingredients Gallery and a glossary.

My experience with this book has been limited to the first two sections. I usually make one meal a week, which lasts me two days. Although I had never heard of any of the dishes I've prepared, they were, as promised, generally quick and of beginner-level difficulty. ("Kid-friendly," according to one Amazon review.) Required appliances are nothing more than a knife, a stove, a pot, a frying pan, a hand-held garlic press, and a blender, although I found that my coffee bean grinder made an effective substitute when my secondhand blender broke and I had to blend chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice, cumin, and chili powder to make felafel. I'd also never had anything with cumin before, or tumeric or cardamom for that matter, but found that many of the recipes called for the same spices, which meant those were only a one-time expense. The remainder of the ingredients are primarily vegetables, particularly onions, celery, carrots, peas, beans, and potatoes. Some also require eggs and/or cheese, but several vegan recipes are clearly labeled.

My only complaint at this point is that Global Vegetarian Cooking doesn't include any pictures of what the finished product is supposed to look like. But everything I've made has been very tasty so I'm pretty sure I did it right. Overall, I have found this book to be a great introduction to healthy, unique, and budget-friendly home cooking. I just finished the Congolese "vegetables in coconut milk," but my favorite thing to make are the very simple spinach patties from East Africa. The recipe is as follows:

1/2 lb (225 g) frozen pastry, thawed
2 lbs (900 g) fresh spinach (dry), finely chopped
1 onion, grated*
1/2 lb (225 g) feta, crumbled, or cottage cheese **
1 tsp nutmeg ***
2 eggs, beaten
* A cheese grater works.
** I've used feta.
*** I would say this is optional. If you use it, go easy.

Heat oven to 400°F (200
°C or Gas 6) *

Roll the pastry to 1/2 (0.5 cm) thick and cut into circles.

Mix the spinach with the other ingredients to make a stiff consistency.

Spoon some of the mixture on one half of the patty circle, fold over the other half, and press down with a fork. Repeat until all the mix is used up. **

Place the patties on a baking sheet in the oven and cook for 10-15 or until golden brown. Serve with salad.
* May vary depending on the pastry. I used frozen bread dough, which called for a lower temperature and a longer cook time.
** I just scooped some of the mixture on top and left it.

Troth Wells's Introduction doesn't mention it, but there are organic options for those of us who still like a ready-made meal every now and then. From Amy's, I recommend the frozen pizzas (voted best by Consumer Reports) and the frozen teriyaki and "brown rice and vegetables" bowls. Also, Annie's macaroni and cheese totally rules. (Kraft's tastes like plastic in comparison.)

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Emily said...

In college I seriously went for weeks and months on nothing but Annie's mac & cheese for dinners. Since moving in with someone who actually enjoys cooking I have diversified somewhat, but still - my enthusiasm for cooking sounds about at your level!

The middle eastern place down the street from us offers something similar to the spinach pastries outlined here; they're tasty.

E. L. Fay said...

Oh that's nothing. I lived for one whole weekend on nothing but coffee, Chex snack mix, and wine coolers. I just didn't feel like walking all the way to the campus convenience store, which was my primary source of food: nachos and cheese dip, all kinds of Doritos, Kraft microwave macaroni and cheese (just add water!), and various non-organic frozen foods. I promised myself I'd make up for it after I graduated and I am!

I still do like nachos and cheese, though. Only this time, it's organic tortilla chips and organic, reduced-sodium cheese, melted in the microwave for twenty seconds. NOM.

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