Vegetarian cooking can open up a new world of food possibilities. Judith Klinger explores vegetarian recipes from around the world.
You have to wonder when you see a 95-pound woman carrying a 200-pound load on her back over the Himalayan trails from dawn to dusk...and be still more amazed to discover that her body is fueled by rice and dhal. And you may be further surprised to learn that these simple foods — in the proper combinations — produce complete proteins, provide plenty of energy and lend themselves to so much variety in preparation that even finicky tastes can be intrigued and convened.
Vegetarian recipes from around the world offer many techniques for achieving a healthful diet while slashing food costs. These include developing new avenues of taste, focusing on foods in season, relying on low-cost carbohydrates as staple foods, using nonmeat forms of protein (and for those folks in transition to a vegetarian lifestyle, serving meat as a condiment rather than as a main dish), seasoning basic foods with a wide range of herbs and spices and utilizing all leftovers.
My family and I used these methods of eating nutritious, low-cost meals during our backpacking trips to more than 100 countries around the world. Our son, Greg, who was 4 years old when we started our 10-month sabbatical, remembers meals of rice and dhal that he consumed in Nepal after hiking 14 miles or more in one day...and Laurie, 1 year of age at the time, developed an appetite for whatever came her way. Today, back in a suburban community, our family spends only $30 to $35 a week on food — $2,500 a year less than the U.S. average for a family of four — while actually enjoying a better diet than the typical American. Here's how it's done.
The primary step in cutting a family's food budget is to stretch tastes to include more types of food. In changing over to a vegetarian diet, you'll be introduced to new and delicious combinations of edibles. Study the cuisines of different cultures and look for low-cost staples that can be adapted to your new way of cooking. Select the unusual and inexpensive: A fruit cup tossed with unsweetened coconut (bought in bulk), for instance, offers a special touch associated with the South Pacific. Bananas — a staple in the tropics — are often inexpensive in this country. Try baking and sautéing them, whipping them into drinks or drying banana slices for snacks and brown-bag lunches.
Let your crew at home help select countries from which they'd like to try foods. Huevos rancheros (eggs with spicy sauce), burritos and tacos from Mexico are all made with healthy, inexpensive foods, as are meals of all-vegetable Indian curries served with rice and sliced cucumbers tossed with yogurt.
In season is the time to buy. (In most countries of the world, where refrigeration is still a luxury, it is the only time to buy.) In the United States, we have great diversity in seasonal shopping, and newspapers often list the best buys at farmers' markets or similar produce centers. And, of course, if you're not already raising your own vegetables, consider picking up a spade. Subsistence farming is the normal way of life around the globe.
For the colder months, don't forget minigardens for powerfully good eating. Your kitchen can produce impressive quantities of sprouts — alfalfa, mung and soybean...radish, cabbage, lentil and wheat berry.
Canned goods also have seasonal fluctuations. Shop ahead, filling your larder as distributors seek to get foods out of the warehouse and off the supermarket shelves to make way for new harvests. Watch for such items as green beans, peas, corn, tomato products, frozen fruits and vegetables and even nuts.
Throughout most of the world, people subsist on a few foods that can actually be counted on one hand: rice, wheat or similar whole grains; corn; and potatoes or other roots and tubers. Add dried beans and you have the world's least expensive foods. What's more, these basic edibles require little processing (they're most nutritious when least processed), store easily in limited spaces and lend themselves to a variety of cooking methods. Let's look at several of them more closely.
Legumes. Among the first plants ever cultivated, beans are still a great bargain. They're rich in protein, vitamins and minerals, and when paired with whole grains, nuts and seeds, or dairy products, they provide complete proteins capable of replenishing the body's needs (so that you or the women on the Himalayan trails can keep going strong). Today, even greater emphasis is being placed on legumes as pan of the solution for a hungry world that cannot hope to exist with meat as a primary protein source.
Of all legume dishes, one of the simplest to prepare is dhal. This Indian standard may be seasoned to suit your tastes and served over a bed of rice as a nutritious main dish. The following recipe adds cabbage, a "hardware vegetable" that's easy to store for long periods of time.
In a saucepan, boil the lentils or peas and the first onion in the water for about 15 minutes. Next, add the cabbage and continue cooking until the lentils are soft, adding more water if needed. Now, in a skillet, heat the oil and saute the second onion and garlic until they're golden, then add the tomato and seasonings (except the salt) and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes. Add the lemon juice, stir the mixture into the lentils, add salt as desired, and serve the dhal over steaming-hot brown rice. Accompany the dish with such condiments as sliced bananas, cucumbers with yogurt, or chopped tomatoes, green peppers and raw onions. This recipe will provide four portions.
Here's another easy-to-prepare legume dish, one that's popular in the Caribbean.
Rinse the beans and cover them with water to soak overnight. The next day, drain the legumes, add about 3 cups of fresh water, and bring to a boil. While they're cooking, sauté the onion, garlic and green pepper in oil, and when tender, add them to the beans along with the seasonings, tamari and wine vinegar. Cover the pot and simmer the mixture until the beans are soft, adding more water if needed. Serve with hot brown rice and a garnish of chopped raw onion and sliced hard-boiled eggs. This recipe provides six generous portions.
Another way to use legumes is in sandwich fillings. Falafel, a Middle Eastern dish, is made by forming a bean mixture into small balls, deep-frying them, and tucking them into pita bread.
Drain and mash the cooked beans, then combine them with the potato, egg, onion, garlic, parsley, spices and lemon juice. Chill the batter well, then form it into walnut-size balls and dust each one with flour or bread crumbs. Fry the rounds in 1 ½ inches of hot oil in a heavy skillet until browned, then drain them on brown paper and serve them stuffed into pita bread, rolls or french bread and garnished with yogurt, chopped tomatoes and onions or shredded lettuce and tahini dressing. This recipe will feed about six.
Whole grains. In the Western world, we are just now rediscovering the importance of using whole grains. This group of foods requires only small additions of legumes or dairy products to create complete protein combinations. Serve barley as a side dish, millet as porridge and oats not only for cereals and breads but also — buttered and browned — for crumb toppings. Rice, perhaps the most universal food, can be served in main dishes, desserts and salads.
The Japanese call rice go-han, with han meaning "rice" and go meaning "highest reverence." This is the staple food for two-thirds of the world's people. For the most nutrition, rely on brown rice, which has the germ and most of the bran layer intact. One cup of brown rice provides 15 grams of protein and 154 grams of carbohydrate, while one cup of white rice has only about 4 grams of protein and 50 grams of carbohydrate. Brown rice also has double the iron and triple the calcium, niacin and B1 and B2 vitamins, and it's high in phosphorus and sodium. What's more, brown rice just plain tastes better!
To save time and energy, always make rice in double batches, then use it in casseroles, egg dishes, salads, puddings and stir-fried meals. Fried rice is quick to fix and unbeatable as a tasty money saver. Vary the dish by adding onions, shredded carrots, slivered green peppers and beans, minced cauliflower or broccoli, fresh sprouts and thinly sliced zucchini. To turn the rice into a complete meal, add eggs, tofu or cheese.
Pilaf is served in India and Pakistan for festive occasions, and can be made with just about any grain. Try substituting millet, cracked wheat, triticale or barley in the following recipe.
Sauté the vegetables in the oil. When they're tender, add the rice and stir over moderate heat until the grains are dry. Then add the spices (except the salt) and the vegetable stock, cover, and cook for 20 minutes over low heat. Sprinkle in nuts, dried fruit and salt and cook 10 minutes more. Check the seasonings, adding more salt if desired, and fluff just before serving. To make pilaf a main dish, melt cheese over the top or serve it with beans or a yogurt salad.