Monday, January 5, 2009
SOME NEW YEAR'S THOUGHTS ABOUT COOKING
Vegan Vietnamese "Fisherman's Soup" (UPDATE: the recipe is in my new book World Vegan Feast)
My first blog post of 2009-- didn't think it would be this late! I'm afraid I've been in a bit of a funk, being snowed in etc.. I've been cogitating on the whole business of cooking and writing and the recession and agriculture and global warming......I was thinking about how I started out, as a young mother with four kids, living the "homesteading" life of the 70's, with very little money and alot of good intentions.
I had always cooked, ever since I can remember, and I was lucky to grow up in California, exposed to the foods of many cultures. I could make a good meal with whatever we had around. Although I could not afford to eat in expensive restaurants, I read copiously about food and cooking and experimented as much as possible.
Eventually I started writing newspaper columns and teaching classes, and that led to writing books and doing workshops, even opening a restaurant at one point. Along came the internet and, now a grandmother, I had to learn a whole new way of communicating!
It is easy to get sucked into the so-called "glamour" of the cooking business-- although most of it is hard work, often solitary, and messy at that! Cooks and cookbook writers almost have to be celebrities these days! And we seem to have to find more exotic and rarefied ingredients to keep people interested.
But is that really wise, I wonder, with the global economy slipping, with global warming? I'm not necessarily advocating the "100-mile diet" (which, in my neck of the woods, would leave a vegan with not a heck of alot of choices in the winter!)-- read what Earthsave Canada's David Steele writes on that subject here. (This is a pdf file-- if you want a Word doc version, I can send it to you.) What I am advocating is learning to cook, for one thing, and learning to cook well from a more limited pantry. Great cooks all over the world have done this from time immemorial.
I wrote this in my book "Nonna's Italian Kitchen":
"One of the first things I realized when I began doing research for this book was that you don't have to have a pantry full of exotic ingredients in order to cook Italian. I found that I was using a fairly modest list of ingredients over and over again to create an infinite number of dishes.
With dry pasta, good extra-virgin olive oil, good-quality canned tomatoes, dried chickpeas, lentils, cannellini (white kidney) and romano (or pinto or cranberry) beans, arborio and long-grain rice, cornmeal, red wine vinegar and balsamic vinegar, lemons, onions, garlic, celery, a few carrots, some good-quality vegetarian broth cubes, salt and peppercorns, and a few herbs, perhaps some wine, you can be ready for anything. What makes the cusine complex is the use of fine quality ingredients, and the way these ingredients are combined, adding fresh in-season produce and fresh crusty Italian bread.
Italian cooks plan their menus around what vegetables and fruits are in season or available that day, and always have the above-mentioned items on hand. This can be a very liberating concept to North American shoppers-- going to the market without a detailed list!"
About those "fine quality ingredients"-- you don't need to buy mail-ordered [from Italy] "artisan-made" pasta extruded through bronze dies, and "estate-bottled" olive oil and balsamic vinegar at upwards of $60 a bottle!. (It seems to me that as soon as what was once an impossible-to-find ingredient becomes readily available, the "food gurus" introduce a few more rare and expensive ingredients. This keeps so-called gourmet cooking in the realm of the elite.) Buy the best that you can afford, grow your own herbs, buy fresh produce from a good vendor (and grow some of your own, or buy locally). If you have time, make your own pasta, broth and bread, but, if you don't have time, experiment until you find some ready-made that fits both your budget and your taste buds-- it can be done!
And, if we don't always have the "right" ingredient, use what you do have-- in my book "Authentic Chinese Cuisine for the Contemporary Kitchen", I wrote:
"After all, Chinese cooks are nothing if not inventive, and have always worked wonders with whatever ingredients were available to them in the far-off countries to which they have emigrated over the years. The most important ingredients have always been fresh, good-quality vegetables."
I think it's inevitable that we WILL have to cook with a more limited pantry and many of us with a limited budget. For those who don't learn to cook, this will mean poorer health, because they will probably fall even deeper into the fast-food trap. Those of us who love to cook, and those willing to learn to cook, or to cook differently, will fare better. And we can eat wonderful food-- look at the peasant cuisines around the world!
Anyway, I'm rambling, but I'd love to hear your thoughts. Home cooking has always been my strong suit and vegan home cooking has been a real exploration for me. I've also been eager to make delicious home cooking accessible for those of us with little time, and those of us who want to eat more healthfully and without a dependence on fat for flavor. So, I'll keep exploring for the next generation of cooks. (Notice my new subtitle?)
Happy New Year!