Saturday, November 27, 2010

Redefining Dinner

One of the challenges of going vegan is learning to change our concept of dinner.  What does dinner look like?  What does an appetizing plate contain if we aren’t going to put any meat or cheese on it?  Tonight, while I was cooking the family evening meal, Mr. Nix came into the kitchen with me to “help.”  This is special code language for “playfully harass me while I cook.”  At some point during the shenanigans, he stopped and suddenly shouted, “You know what you need to do?”  I smiled.  “No, Bubby, what do I need to do?”  “You need to make a book called, ‘Side Dish No More,’ and make it all about how you make vegan entrees – you know, the main dish for a meal.”

Tonight’s dinner was an excellent example of how I’ve begun to naturally replace animal fats and proteins on our dinner plate with things most Americans consider only as a side dish.  Our plates tonight held roasted root vegetables, steamed fresh green beans, and jasmine rice covered with a tomato porridge sauce I made up because I didn’t have any flour to make tomato gravy.  It was completely scrumptious, healthy, and satisfying.
It has taken me a year for this sort of dinner to come naturally.  I have spent most of my first year as a vegan having to hunt specific ingredients and meticulously plan menus using online aids.  Today, I am able to stand in my kitchen and look around at the items I have on hand to make a meal for my family, but it took months of laborious work and a lot of trial and error to get here.  That’s because the American dinner plate is all about a meat, a starch, and a vegetable.  If it doesn’t contain these three items, it ain’t a “healthy” or “complete” meal.  I spent the first 34 years of my life cooking that way.  All of my culinary habits involved butter, eggs, bacon grease, meat, and cheese.  Every meal I knew how to throw together, and all of the components I was comfortable using were formed around the 3-part traditional American dinner plate.

Getting out of that mindset takes time because it is cultural and habitual.  I have been grateful more than a few times over the past year that I was already a kitchen person when I went vegan.  I love food, and I love to cook.  I’ve always been a quick study in the kitchen, so that comfort level and experience has served me very well in this year of transition.  For those who are not already familiar and comfortable with home cooking, who don’t know by feel how to mix together or substitute fats and proteins and grains and spices with one another…well, I can imagine that the process of redefining dinner can present a serious obstacle.

If you find yourself asking, “What can we eat?” or saying, “I just don’t know what to make,” on a regular basis, the best advice I know to give is the following:

1.) Learn how to make soups.  Soup is forgiving.  By that, I mean that once you get the basic recipe, soup is really hard to mess up.  For inexperienced or uncomfortable cooks, soup can help you feel confident about trying new things.

2.) Make meals that include three dishes like the one in my picture here.  They bring comfort and familiarity.  Mr. Nix LOVES when I make meals that look like this for him because they resemble and “feel” like the old meat-starch-veggie plate.  Get three different colors on the plate or put three different textures.  Think of it as a crisp-chewy-smooth plate.  Ha ha!  Whatever criteria you use to choose your dishes, always work with three.  It’s amazing how attached Americans are to that three-item plate. 

3.) Get online and find recipes to try.  If you’re anything like me, you’ll end up eating several along the way that turn out with less than desirable results.  My recipe failures this past year have included two cornbread recipes (I finally made my own), a veggie meatloaf (went into the garbage…it was THAT bad), too many pasta recipes to count, an eggplant dish (I still shudder when I think about that one), some tofu attempts…it goes on and on.  These failures are okay because in between the bad recipes, you’ll be learning what does work for you.

4.) Finally, remember that you can’t erase a lifetime of habit in a week or two.  Give yourself time to figure out what you like seeing in that empty spot on the plate where your chicken leg used to be.   I’m still a work in progress after a year.  I mean, I still can’t shake off the egg mayonnaise…but I’m learning.  You will, too.

God bless you and keep you.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Irish Bruschetta's bruschetta made in Ireland.  Same thing, right?  Actually, the tomatoes are from France and the basil is from Israel, but the baguettes were made right here in Dublin...this morning.  I made 5 baguettes and 3 pounds in tomatoes worth of this recipe this morning, and it was ALL eaten up by the guests before anyone ate any of the omni food.  I was pretty danged proud of it.  People were just hovering around the platter, and I had to keep refilling it.  /flex

Shortly after getting off the plane last week, we got acquainted with Roly's Cafe here in Ballsbridge.  It's conveniently located less than a block from our hotel, so we ate there more than people would generally do in our first week.  The bread there is just really, really good, and they make it all onsite.

Here at home, now, we are located about a mile away from Roly's.  We have no car, yet, but because it is Thanksgiving, and because I didn't want to show up at our sponsor's house empty-handed, and because we don't have much in the kitchen to cook with, and because I really wanted to use these incredible mix-n-match tomatoes I bought on Tuesday...well, Mr. Nix was sent for a walk in the cold this morning to retrieve some Irish French bread from Roly's.  And here we are.

Make this.  Trust me.

(my very first post from the new kitchen!  Squeal!)

There are no measurements here.  Go with your gut and use what you have.

Good Crusty Bread
Fresh Basil
Olive Oil
Black Pepper
Garlic Clove, peeled


Chop your tomatoes into nice, bite-sized pieces.  Chiffonade your basil.  If you don't know how to cut in a chiffonade, you can either look at our page here, or you can chop it up any ol' way you like.  Mix together the tomatoes, basil, salt and pepper to taste, and then drizzle with olive oil to get a nice coating.  Stir this all together.  Taste for salt content, adjust, and then put it in the fridge to marinate while you prepare your bread.

Slice your bread into the desired size pieces.  I used baguettes today because these were meant to be little bite-sized appetizers.  If you use this for a meal, go big or go home.  Use a nice heavy Italian bread or get funky and use a dark pumpernickel.  Whatever you use, keep the pieces a good size for handling.  We don't eat this with a fork, People.


Now, if you want to be healthy about all this, you can just toast your bread in the oven.  This is Thanksgiving, though, so I brushed the bread slices on both sides with olive oil, and I was generous with it.  Next, I  fried them in a pan on the stove.  Either way, once your bread is crunchy and ready to go, it's time to add the garlic.

Take a raw, peeled garlic clove and just rub it against the crunchy bread.  Like a grater, the bread will sort of consume the garlic.  Rub the bread with the garlic on both sides and then set your slices out on a platter.


Get your tomatoes out of the fridge and spoon generously onto the bread.  Get as much of the tomato mixture on the slice as it will hold and then have fun watching your family or friends try to be all neat while they eat it.

This stuff is better than the bees' knees.  It's freaking delicious.  Enjoy it, and Happy Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I Think I've Turned Japanese

The Flag of the Okinawan Prefecture of Japan
 I love my country.  Although America will always be my homeland and my primary patriotic love, my home has been elsewhere for a long time, now.  Okinawa and her people have been very good to us for the past three years, and we are leaving her in a matter of days.  There is both sadness and joy in this.  This little island has been my first experience as an expatriate, and I have both hated and loved every day of it.

I felt a sort of vertigo when we moved here.  I was displaced and dizzy in a foreign country that was truly alien to me in every way.  The language, the food, the architecture, and even the toilets were strange and intimidating to me.  Since that shaky first impression, however, Okinawa has become my home.  The people are open and kind and generous - astonishingly so.  The food has grown on me, and now I can't imagine being without it.  My tiny concrete house has become my home.  I am in my element here.

There is a very third-world feel to Okinawa.  Everywhere you go, you see the rubble of abandoned buildings, unkempt and overgrown fields, empty lots piled with rusty rubbish, and narrow streets filled with simply-dressed people on foot or bicycle.  Large portions of the island are covered by the overwhelming stench of chicken, pig, and cow manure when the fields are spread and the wind blows just right.  The heat and humidity are just stifling about 8 months out of the year.  The appearance of relative poverty and overcrowding are all around you from clothing hung to dry off of every high rise balcony to the narrow, pothole-filled streets to the homeless beggars gathered under overpasses and on the sidewalk corners. 

Despite all of this, there is also a wild sort of beauty to Okinawa.  Miniature farms with tiered fields strung up in fairy lights to protect the tropical crops from chilly nights.  Huge, jutting hills covered with a dense tangle of jungle trees, vines, and underbrush.  Massive, sheer-faced cliffs descending hundreds of feet down into the waves of the Pacific Ocean.  Little fishing boats.  A man walking a bull down the street.  Ancient stone Shinto burial temples covered with moss.  Young children playing baseball in perfectly manicured parks.  Majestic ruins from the Ryukyu Empire dotted all over the island.  Incredible sprays of carefully-cultivated orchids, lilies, and other extraordinary flowers.  The sea is also, literally, all around.  In some places violent, with white waves crashing on jagged rocks, in other places clear and cerulean and calm.  And, then, there are the Okinawan people.

The Okinawan people seem almost childlike to an American at first glance.  Their culture is open, truthful, and incredibly polite.  Doors are routinely left unlocked because theft is practically unheard of.  Everyone from the manager of a bank to the man who landscapes the public medians takes pride in his job.  There are uniforms of a sort for every type of work here, and the Okinawan people always look clean, pressed, and professionally intent on their work.  This kind of personal pride in even the lowest wage work is almost totally absent from today's American society.  Watching it still takes me by surprise, sometimes...even after three years.  There is an obsession here with anything cute (kawaii) or decorative.  The Japanese gift-giving traditions are complex and puzzling.  The appearance of the gift is just as or even more important than the contents of the package.  The importance placed on gift wrapping and presentation crosses over into the service industries.  Even at the 100¥ store, any fragile item you purchase will be neatly wrapped in newsprint and tied or taped into a little gift shape.  Everything is wrapped in rice paper or tied with beautiful ribbon.  No opportunity for decoration or artistic presentation is overlooked.  Okinawans delight in children and family.  Complete strangers will take a young child from her mother and entertain her with games and play or treats out of the blue.  American mothers are often taken aback by this kind of behavior, but it is born of a cultural love for children.  There are no looks of angry annoyance at childish antics in public.  Everyone in every age group is patient and accommodating to both the children and the families moving about in society with them.

All of these things, the good and the bad, have become a part of my space - my new natural habitat.  I see them and am surrounded by them every day.  Now, all of that is about to be over.  America has chosen a new home for us, and because we serve The United States in this family, that is simply that.  Our new home will be Dublin, Ireland.  I don't know how we're going to adjust to the culture shock of being Okinawanized Americans living in Europe...but I know we will find a way to manage.

Today, my husband, our daughter, and I are packing suitcases and preparing for the last TMO shipments (military movers, basically) that will be taken from our home.  They will come for the next two days, handle everything I own, pack it up in wooden crates, and put it all on a ship for Dublin.  I'm ready to go, but I will be very sad to leave.