Thursday, September 30, 2010

Chang's House, Brighton, Boston MA

All attempts to blog last week were derailed last week by a mixture of my own laziness, Netflix suddenly finally sending me Max Headroom after jerking me around for a month by promising there was no wait... until they were about to send it, at which point it became totally unavailable and no I'm not still bitter, and actual misfortune. (In the form of my car kicking the bucket in a truly stunning manner.  Expect even more subway-friendly restaurant reviews for at least the next couple of weeks.)

During this little intersession, it was my great delight to be able to eat at Chang's House, which is fast becoming my go-to local Chinese take out restaurant.  Chang's House is unique in that their vegetarian menu consists extensively of fake beef and fake chicken entrees.  This is good for people who are trying to "convert" to vegetarianism, or people who simply want to cut some fat from their diet.  However, they really didn't do anything for me.  (Disclosure:  one of the reasons I stopped eating meat was because I didn't like the taste, and I tend to find even meat analogues a bit too much like the real thing -- if they're good quality.) The meat-analogue entree we ordered was a disappointment. The General Gau's "chicken", little balls of gluten done up like dim sum chicken balls, had a wonderful sauce but the fake chicken itself was dry and there was barely enough sauce to moisten both the "chicken" and the wonderfully fluffy jasmine rice they served it with.  

My advice is to stick to the tofu dishes, as they offer a wonderful and selection of really tasty tofu entrees.  My particular favorites are the crispy sesame tofu (fried tofu served covered in sesame seeds and sweet and sour sauce, a delightful appetizer if you order it alone, but also good with rice), and the spicy curry tofu.  Unlike the crispy sesame tofu, the spicy curry tofu is a full meal.  The spicy curry tofu (triangles of fried tofu drenched in yellow curry sauce) is cooked with some nicely steamed vegetables, and the overall pepper fire is moderated somewhat by the aforementioned fluffy jasmine rice.

All in all, Chang's House offers up an excellent vegetarian meal at a good price.  They are also one of the few Boston-area restaurants that stays open until one in the morning.  When I moved to Brighton, one of my tiny niggling worries was that I wouldn't find a Chinese place to replace Rose's, but Chang's House is a great substitute. 

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Vegetarian Book Review: Jonathan Safran Foer -- Eating Animals

Thanks to the entry for Eating Animals on wikipedia. 

I was really not expecting to like this book, I hated Everything Is Illuminated, and I was expecting something similarly tragic-cutesy.  Well, I got the cutesy, but I was more moved by the book than I expected to be.  Vegetarianism is a loaded topic, and Safran Foer does nothing to make it less loaded. In fact, the critical reception from the New York Times to the Onion AV Club seemed to agree that Jonathan Safran Foer is way too upset about this whole cruelty-to-animals thing, and should aim his compassion at a more appropriate  -- read human -- recipient.

I can't help but think there's something terribly reductive about that line of thinking.  Why is it a waste of ethical energy to wonder if there might be something a wee bit queasy in having some animals as friends and eating some for dinner?  Did I just miss some sort of mainstream-America memo because I'm Catholic and therefore am culturally conditioned to question the ethics of my pleasures?* Why is it considered too "crunchy granola" and over privileged to be concerned that our taste for hamburgers and hot dogs might be inflicting great pain on creatures who have been proven to feel great pain?  When did it become okay to ignore an ethical quandary because a. there were more horrible things going on in the world and b. because it presented an inconvenient truth?

In fact, one of the more interesting aspects of the book is how Safran Foer illustrates how human suffering and animal suffering often flourish in the same environment: much of the book is spent discussing the damage done to employees of meat packing plants who work for low wages, are subject to hideous on the job injuries,** or the people living around the plant who have to deal with festering pools of shit, as well as how the atrocities present within the meat packing plants affect plant employee quality of life and family time. Aren't these people important? Shouldn't someone be concerned about them? Shouldn't we be ashamed that our craving for cheap chicken and hamburger leads these people to be worked like mules? (And isn't that an interesting way to put it?)

These meat packing plants knowingly hire sadists. Shouldn't we be worried about the correlation between animal abuse and pathological behavior?   For all we know, they could be incubating the next Robert Pickton.

Eating Animals is not a one-sided book.  Safran Foer alternates his writing with the writings of others involved in the factory farming issue. Not just the PETA people, but also the factory farmers, humane slaughter advocates, and vegan slaughterhouse designers who think meat is a necessary evil.  This is not a book that is hellbent on getting people not to eat meat, instead it is a study of all the ways we try to rationalize eating meat, the cultural taboos we put up to make eating meat acceptable, and why the modern factory farm is such a nightmare that all traditional meat eating versus vegetarianism arguments wilt before the agricultrual-industrial complex.  (In which ovo-lacto vegetarians like myself are totally complicit.)

Safran Foer's observations about the ethics of meat eating have been made before, and not just by animal rights activists: Anthony Bourdain (no friend of vegetarianism) discussed the ethical difficulties inherent in killing his dinner in A Cook's Tour, Julie Powell (a butcher) confronted the reality of killing a lobster in her kitchen, David Foster Wallace had very little fun at a Maine lobster fest in Consider the Lobster.  I was a meat-eater once upon a time.  Do I not have the same credibility as those who still eat meat?

*I've always wondered if my ability to give up meat in some way stemmed from the fact that I grew up in a culture where giving up something you desire to accomplish a greater moral good is highly esteemed.

** There's one story about death by pig shit that will probably give me sporadic nightmares for the rest of my life.  And no, I'm not over reacting.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Mashed Potato Time

In spite of my dislike of meat, I don't really think of myself as a food snob.  I like Wonder Bread and processed cheese, my favorite ice cream flavors are plain ol' vanilla and chocolate,  and my morning beverage of choice is black instant coffee.  (It's so hyper-caffeinated and awful you can't help but wake up and pull yourself together in a way you really can't if you're drinking something you might find pleasant.)

However, there is one area in which I am a purist: I do not like instant mashed potatoes.  Not at all.  It must be the Boston Irish in me*, but I never thought that real mashed potatoes were bland -- they have a subtle, but unique, taste and texture that makes for a nice substitute for rice in vegetable dishes.  One of my special joys in life is eating a plate cold, fresh salad on top of hot mashed potatoes.  Something about the marriage of salad dressing, tomato, hot creamy potatoes, and lettuce just makes for a very satisfying summer lunch.

Here is an admittedly slightly sexed-up recipe for mashed potatoes, based on my feelings that creamer potatoes require less butter and milk and therefore are slightly more "vegetarian" and also a bit healthier for you, and also that cutting russets after a hard day of work is a huge pain in the bum that can be circumvented by simply mashing whole creamer potatoes into a wonderful, golden pulp:

8 medium sized creamer potatoes
1/2 cup milk
2 tablespoons of butter
pepper to taste

Clean your potatoes.  Boil in pot until soft.  Drain the water.  Add the butter, milk and pepper.  Mash as hard as you can for about three minutes.  Stir to blend in remaining milk, butter, and bits of dried potato.

As an added bonus: here is a veggies-in-'gravy' dish inspired by my mom's recipe for Chicken Marengo, it goes great with mashed potatoes.

2 medium fresh tomatoes, chopped
4 cups of diced broccoli and cauliflower
2 cloves garlic
1 can of butter beans, drained
olive oil
sesame oil (to taste)

Coat the bottom of a large frying pan with olive oil.  Sauté the diced garlic until brown.  Add the cups of diced broccoli and cauliflower and let them cook down until they're wilted but not brown.  Add the butter beans, sesame oil, and tomatoes.  The beans and tomatoes will break down to form a reddish-brown gravy that goes great with red creamer potatoes.

Serves 2

*Technically, I'm originally from Lawrence, not Boston, but we're still talking Eastern Massachusetts so allow me some poetic license.  It's pretty much the same culture. Although in Southie I would be considered a yuppie. 

Monday, September 6, 2010

"Oeufs De Provence" With Spinach and Rice

I'm sorry I missed my Thursday deadline last week, I thought I'd be able to come up with something food related, but my brain was fried due to the heat, and my pots and pans were all over the place due to the move, so it took me until Sunday to cook something that could be a suitable subject for a post.
By Sunday, the weather had cooled down considerably, and the general Sunday vibe seemed to indicate omelets would be a welcome food for dinner.  I wanted to try something different from the burritos, veggie burgers, and pasta I've been eating lately, so I made "Oeufs De Provence", which sounds complicated but is simply an omelet flavored with Herbes de Provence and stuffed with a filling of spinach and rice.

As a spice mixture, Herbes de Provence has only been around it its present, Americanized, form since the 1970's.  I went through years of foodiedom without really hearing that much about it, but it seems to be enjoying a comeback lately.  This summer, I was lucky enough to be given a baking class at King Arthur Flour for my birthday.  The virtues of Herbes De Provence were praised during that class.  After that, I started hearing references to les herbes pop up on cooking shows and in magazines, so my curiosity was whetted.   When I made my weekly grocery trip and saw that Badia had a Herbes mixture, I decided to try it.

The flavors are pretty subtle, a nice alternative to the fiery hot pepper blends I've been favoring this summer, and they seem to work well with the two dishes I've used them in: fried peppers with beans, and the following omelet recipe.

The egg "shell": 

4 eggs
1 tablespoon of Herbes De Provence
4 teaspoons water

Greasing and flavoring the pan: 

Pour enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan.  Add garlic to taste.

Whisk the eggs, water, and herbes together in bowl until throughly blended. Sauté the garlic in the olive oil until brown, and then add the egg mixture. When the egg mixture solidifies, take a fork and gently loosen it from the sides of the pan.  Then take a fork and a spatula and gently try to turn it over until the "top" of the shell is on the bottom.  I find this method works much better for me than the more traditional "flip".

The filling:

1 cup leftover rice
1 package frozen spinach, or 2 bundles fresh spinach
2 slices swiss cheese (known as emmenthaller cheese to European cooks)

Defrost or wilt spinach in small sauce pan.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Mix one cup of leftover white rice into the spinach.  Bring to a boil for three minutes.

Put omlette shell onto a plate, placing the slices of swiss cheese on top of the omelet shell.  Cover half of  the shell with the rice and spinach mixture, and then fold the uncovered side of the omelet on top.