As a kid, my world of food revolved around my family’s Italian cooking: artichokes baked with crisp olive oil crumbs and prosciutto bits, my Nana’s soft pillowy ravioli made with passata di pomodoro from her backyard tomatoes, and piles of Mom’s crisp fried squash blossoms eaten like potato chips.
During college, Atlantic Avenue was walking distance from my campus in Brooklyn, seducing me with belly dancing, creamy feta cheese and wrinkly black olives. The travel bug propelled me to New Delhi, Kulala Lumpur, St. Petersurg, Casablanca, Cairo and points far beyond. Now, living in Eugene, Oregon, food carts expand my horizons as Juanita teaches me to make pupusas. A Mexican torta cart, manned by two adorable university students whom I pedal past on my morning bike ride, brings me back for lunch when hunger pangs hit, and adds a new recipe to my repertoire. At home, I hit my cookbooks for recipes from far-flung places, exotic ingredients and exciting new tastes.
A world of vegetarian
And I then I noticed: All this great food I’ve been tasting, craving and cooking — it’s vegetarian! My whole food world is vegetarian. Exciting!
The alchemy was in the ingenuity of the cooks and the agrarian-based cooking and eating of cooks around the world. Meat, even consumed in moderation, is often expensive, and so vegetarian dishes are often a more affordable daily staple — especially for those with a green thumb.
Take, for instance, leafy greens. Any leafy green. Magically, almost every patch of dirt on earth grows green leaves. Freshly harvested, they can be melted into curried coconut milk in India, wilted in oil, butter or ghee with dill and mint and topped with garlic walnuts in Armenia, or tossed with ras el hanout and preserved lemons in Casablanca.
Cooking vegetables from the backyard or garden plot adjacent to the kitchen is cheap, nutritious and lends a palate for the local flavors and seasonings readily available to home cooks worldwide. Consider a garam masala available to every cook in New Delhi, preserved lemons on the shelf from Casablanca to Marrakesh, and chile, cumin and Mexican oregano in every pantry in Mexico — all of these enhance vegetarian dishes. Yes, not all whole world kitchens are vegetarian, but creative vegetable dishes are spilling out of kitchens and onto family tables. From my traveling fork to my home kitchen, from the taste memories that poured from the souls of cooks I met on the road, was born my book “Whole World Vegetarian.” I cooked and tasted and fed my friends, who finally said, “Enough!”
Moroccan Greens with Preserved Lemons
- Prep time: 15 minutes
- Cook time: 15 minutes
- Total time: 30 minutes
- Yield: 4 servings
1 large bunch (about 1 pound) rainbow Swiss chard
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup thinly sliced red onion
1 teaspoon ras el hanout, or Moroccan spice blend
1 tablespoon finely diced rind from Moroccan Preserved Lemons (recipe follows)
1. Rinse the chard and, while still wet, pull the leafy greens from the stems. Reserve the stems for other use. Tear or coarsely chop up the greens. You should have about 8 cups loosely packed.
2. In a 10-inch skillet, heat the oil over medium heat until hot enough to gently sizzle a slice of onion. Add the onion and cook, stirring with tongs, until the onion begins to brown and caramelize, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with the ras el hanout.
3. Add the wet greens to the onion all at once and toss with tongs to blend. Cook, covered, until the greens are wilted, 3 to 5 minutes, stirring with tongs once or twice.
4. Sprinkle with the preserved lemon and toss to blend. Serve hot.
Moroccan Preserved Lemons
- Prep time: 10 minutes
- Standing time: 3 to 4 weeks
- Yield: 1/2 pint
2 to 3 small lemons, preferably organic, scrubbed clean
2 tablespoons coarse salt
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1. Trim the ends from the lemons and partially cut into 8 wedges, leaving the wedges attached at one end. Rub the cut surface of the wedges with the salt. Press the lemons back into their original shape. Pack into a clean half-pint canning jar. Add enough of the lemon juice to cover the lemons. Wipe off the rim of the jar. Top with the lid and fasten the screw band to secure. Store in the jar in a dark place for 3 to 4 weeks, turning the jar upside down every few days so the salt is distributed evenly.
2. Store the opened jar in the refrigerator. They will keep for at least 6 months.
3. To use the lemons, lift from the brine and separate the pulp from the rind. Finely chop the rind and sprinkle on vegetables, salad, soup or stew. Finely chop the pulp and add it to salad dressing, mayonnaise or other sauces.
New Delhi-Style Curried Spinach
Sturdy, large-leaf (or winter) bunch spinach is the better choice for this recipe than the bagged leaves of baby spinach. The large leaves are more flavorful and retain their texture as they gently cook.
- Prep time: 15 minutes
- Cook time: 26 minutes
- Total time: 41 minutes
- Yield: 4 servings
Coconut or vegetable oil, as needed
2 cups slivered (1/8 inch thick lengthwise pieces) onion
1 tablespoon Madras-style curry powder
1 can (13.5 ounces) coconut milk
1 pound large-leaf spinach, rinsed, thick stems coarsely chopped
1/2 cup seeded and diced fresh or canned tomatoes
1. Heat about 1/2 inch oil in a deep 9-inch skillet until hot enough to sizzle a piece of onion. Gradually stir in the onions, adjusting between low and medium low as the onion sizzles. Cook the onions until well browned, but not black, 15 to 20 minutes. Lift onions from the oil with a slotted spoon and place in a strainer set over a bowl. Do not use paper for draining the onions as the paper will make them soggy. Let stand until ready to serve. Reserve the onion-infused oil for future onion frying or to season other dishes.
2. In a large, wide saucepan or deep skillet, heat the curry powder over medium-low heat, stirring, until it becomes fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in the coconut milk and boil. Add the spinach all at once. Toss to coat. Cook, covered, until wilted, 3 to 5 minutes.
3. Spoon into a serving dish. Serve at once garnished with the diced tomatoes and fried onions.
By Marie Simmons – (Zester Daily)
Marie Simmons has written or co-written over 20 cookbooks including “Fig Heaven”; “The Good Egg,” which won a James Beard Award; Sur La Table’s “Things Cooks Love” and her latest, “Whole World Vegetarian.” She lives in Eugene, Oregon.
Copyright 2016 Marie Simmons via Zester Daily and Reuters Media Express