So many vegetarians I talk to all say the same thing:
“I like rice and beans, but…”
“I eat too much cheese…”
“Breakfast/lunch/dinner looks like a steam table at some cheap buffet…”
“Another stir-fry/tofu/tempeh/seitan/fake meat thing?”
“I don’t live on salad alone…”
“Steamed vegetables? I don’t want ‘healthy’…I want ‘exciting’…”
This is a trap that everyone falls into, even professional chefs. Until fairly recently, the mere idea of a vegan or vegetarian gourmet restaurant was a flight of fancy not seriously entertained by New Yorkers. Vegetarian tasting menus were boring meatless meals that lacked spark and imagination. All of that began to change towards the end of the last decade. In fact, the dialogue seems to have shifted from seeing vegetarians as the enemy, towards “what’s delicious?” That, in my opinion, is a more interesting conversation to have.
Yet, I remain dissatisfied.
Jersey left a comment the other day, that “adding a veg to potatoes is great”. Well, potatoes are vegetables, but unfortunately we don’t really think of them as such. By “we”, I mean ‘Americans’, although perhaps that is true of other places in the world, such as Canada or the United Kingdom. The United States is an extremely meat-centric/non-vegetable-focused culture, to the point that the amount of attention paid to meatless meals is trivial. While that attitude seems to be changing, it’s not as swift a transformation as I would like.
I would like to see more people think of vegetables not as “menu filler” but the foundation of our diet. Maybe that’s too much to hope for, but I think it’s a worthy goal to strive towards. As I mentioned to a friend tonight, I don’t have a lot of experience cooking animal proteins. It’s not that I’m a vegetarian; far from it. It’s more an issue of personal aesthetics. I think meat cookery is boring. At the end of the day, a plate of beef, chicken, pork, lamb, fish, etc. just doesn’t “grab” me in the same way as say, a turnip galette, a plate of salt potatoes or a bowl of ratatouille. When I do cook with meat, I tend towards using it as a flavoring or as filler. Perhaps this speaks towards my cultural heritage rather than my adopted homeland. Regardless, I’ve always wanted to be different. “Different” is interesting; ‘routine’ is boring. Witness the bacon meme, which in my opinion, has outlasted its fifteen seconds of fame for far too long.
Once you begin to think outside of the box, that a meal HAS to have a protein to be considered complete, then things become a lot more interesting. We’re not there yet. And so, the journey continues.
Cavolo e Pancetta (“Stewed Cabbage, with Pancetta and Onion”)
This is ideal with pork, with sausage, with lentils or beans, or all by itself with a baguette and a glass of wine.
If you can’t obtain pancetta, unsmoked bacon is a good substitute.
4 tablespoons water
2 ounces pancetta, coarsely diced
1 yellow onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon tomato paste, dissolved in 3 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 small cabbage, trimmed of its outer leaves and core, and shredded
sea salt, to taste
freshly milled black pepper, to taste
extra-virgin olive oil (for garnish)
chopped Italian parsley (for garnish)
Add the water and pancetta to a skillet over medium heat. Eventually the water will evaporate and the pancetta will start to brown, while giving off its fat. Personally, I like this technique better than warming olive oil in a pan and sautéing the pancetta in the oil. Once the pancetta has begun to color, after about 2-3 minutes, add the onion, reduce the heat to low, and sauté until the onion has softened completely, about 8 to 10 minutes.
Stir in the tomato paste mixture and the vinegar. Add the cabbage to the pan, a pinch of sea salt and 1 cup water. Mix well. Turn the heat to medium-high and cook until the cabbage begins to sweat, about 5 minutes, tossing frequently. Reduce the heat to low and cover. Cook for 60 to 90 minutes, or until the cabbage has achieved a creamy consistency, stirring occasionally. If it seems dry, stir in a 2-3 tablespoons of water.
Once the cabbage is done, taste for salt and pepper. Drizzle a little extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkle some Italian parsley on top, if desired. Serve immediately.
Makes 4 side dish servings.
Time: About 2 hours, including prep.