Vegetarians are People Too
I am not a vegetarian. I love meat. I love the smell of cochon de lait roasting on a spit. I love the way my kitchen smells when I make stock. I love a good steak, and tacos de lengua rate among my favorite meals. I will eat the hell out of sweetbreads, and if lamb weren't so expensive I'd eat it three times a week. I make no apologies for my love of meat, but I'm hardly a “meat and potatoes” guy. I went through a hippie phase in college, but it never extended to my diet.
I was a picky eater when I was a child. Vegetables were anathema to me for the most part, but there was a significant exception. My grandparents had a garden in the half-acre behind their house in Amite, and when we visited them, most of the vegetables my grandmother cooked for lunch or dinner had been harvested that morning. Many of the things she cooked had some form of pork in the mix, but some of my earliest taste memories are of corn on the cob served with nothing more than butter and a little salt, turnips cooked in cream or squash sauteed with onions.
When I first started to develop a real interest in food and cooking, it was Chinese cuisine that caught my interest. I remember a meal at a restaurant in New York City when I was 16; I'd bought a copy of the Village Voice in anticipation of the trip. Therein was a review of a restaurant that made my mouth water with the very idea of authentic Chinese cooking. I went to the restaurant and ordered exactly what the reviewer had, not thinking that he'd probably been dining with friends. All I can remember of the meal are the mussels with black bean sauce and the gai lan with garlic. It was the gai lan that really did me in.
It was a simple preparation; the greens were cooked with a little garlic and a little chile. There was no meat involved, but the flavor was incredible. The dish was bright, slightly bitter and irresistible. I ate so much that I made myself sick, and missed out on a meal that night at the famous steak house Palm.
That dish of gai lan was a pure expression of the ingredient, and it had me hooked. It reminded me a great deal of some of the food my grandmother cooked, and later when I had the chance to travel to Italy and France I had that experience again.
When I developed an interest in the cuisine of the Indian subcontinent, I had another revelation. It started with a very simple dish of red lentils with toasted cumin seed. I'd never considered toasting spices before making that dish, but the difference between toasted cumin and the powdered stuff I'd been using was remarkable. That first lentil stew had only a few ingredients, but it was richly satisfying in a way that I'd never experienced from a dish whose only non-vegan component was clarified butter. It's a dish I've cooked a hundred times since then, and one I find to be the most malleable in my repertoire. I've made it with the inclusion of just about any vegetable you can find in the market, and it's never let me down.
There are so many things I took from my study of Indian cuisine that I couldn't possibly list them all, but one I do want to mention is panir. I recall thinking, when I first read a recipe for the homemade cheese, that it couldn't be that simple. Simmered milk, lemon juice, a strainer lined with cheesecloth; where's the catch? It's another recipe that's entered my canon.
As I said, I'm not a vegetarian by nature, and I don't have moral qualms with the consumption of meat. I just like to eat well. Over the last 10 years or so, for me that's meant an emphasis on vegetables over meat in most meals I cook. It's a purely aesthetic decision that coincidentally is good for me. Win-win, I'd say.
Another memory that's apropos to this discussion involves some friends who, at the time, were vegetarians. This was in the early 1990s, and they were celebrating a special occasion at Emeril's. They didn't see anything on the menu that worked for them, so they asked if the kitchen could do something that met their dietary needs. They raved to me about the meal they had, but what strikes me now about their experience is how commonplace it would be today. I can't think of many fine-dining restaurants in New Orleans whose menu doesn't have significant vegetarian options, or which wouldn't happily accommodate vegetarians with a special menu if asked.
Another way things have changed is the proliferation of foodblogs. Most of the vegetarian or vegan blogs I've read have been the literary equivalent of eating sand while wearing a hair-shirt. So I was pleased when I stumbled across Bistro Katie, which is not only an excellent website but also written by a New Orleans resident. Katie Cain, the author, has an adventurous spirit in the kitchen, and most of her vegan recipes make me want to head to the kitchen. As I write, the current post is a recipe for dumplings made with masa harina that I'm itching to try, though I may end up adding carnitas to the mix.
I started a garden of my own a few months ago, and it's coming along. I've got collards, kale, mustard greens, beets and arugula in a raised bed, and tarragon, mint and cilantro in pots. It's nothing like the garden my grandparents grew, but it's neat to be able to cook something that I raised from seed.
All of which prompts me to ask a question: If you're a vegetarian, what has your experience been in New Orleans restaurants? What are your favorite places to dine? Have you ever had a negative experience in a local restaurant when asking for vegetarian options? I know that commenting requires you to register, but while I would sell your personal information to marketers without a moment's pause, my taskmasters here at MyNewOrleans.com won't give me access to that data, so please either take the time to fill out the form or send me an email with your comment. I'd love to hear from you.