VEGGIES by Sanae 07/29/2013

Why vegetables?
When we lived in Australia we drove to a spiritual retreat five hours away from Melbourne. The last stretch was on a narrow and sinuous road along a cliff that without fail made me nauseous. Some years we stopped on the side while I hung my head out the door and gulped for air. The retreat was a meditation and yoga center with a beautiful farm where young men and women farmed for a month or two before moving on. There were wooden bungalows with no private bathrooms or one-floor apartments lined side by side resembling a flat motel. My mother and I were early risers. She wandered off to meditate while I sat in the large kitchen where the cooks prepared breakfast. The kitchen was located in a gigantic roundish building with a domed ceiling. On one side there was a lounge area with tables and chairs and sofas for reading. On the other side was the communal eating space with long wooden tables. The kitchen bordered one side of dining room with a counter upon which pots and plates of food were displayed. I would sit on a table inside the kitchen and watch the cook quietly at work for the 8 a.m. meal. He was an amateur astronomer and owned a telescope. At night he showed me planets and stars. The owners, a married couple, founded the retreat after sharing the same dream one night. They liked to recount the story of this mysterious energy. The husband told us about his travels and of healers in the Philippines who removed cysts without touching bodies.

This was a place where leeches stuck to our legs and the flies were relentless, squatting directly on our faces. With a thin eucalyptus branch we shook off the flies during our bush walks. The man who took us bushwalking was named Didge because he played the didgeridoo. Before he sold tickets in the Melbourne train stations. He often spoke to my mother. He once told her that he wanted to show her a Japanese garden. My mother asked where it was. He said he didn’t know, but that he seen it in a dream, with its spider webs and bottle-green pond. Didge looked older than his thirty years. He crossed his legs on a small mat to play music and with his didgeridoo he made sounds of dingos, kookaburras, and boomerangs. We sat on the wet earth and heated water for tea. We threw in a few eucalyptus leaves, but not too many, otherwise the tea would be poisonous. On a stick we wrapped damper dough in the shape of a fat sausage. The damper was made with water, flour, salt and raisins. We cooked the dough over the fire and ate it hot with butter. In the winter we brought instant miso soup in small packages for the Australians.
We were all vegetarians at the retreat. There were vegetables from the farm. For breakfast we ate porridge or millet with stewed plums and apricots. In the evenings there were grain salads and bean stews and vegetable dishes. Because I didn’t have the patience for meditation my favorite moments, aside from swimming in the dam with the eels slipping between my feet, were in the dining area when we shared meals.
Vegetables were a natural part of our eating habits. They were often the centerpiece of a meal rather than an afterthought or the obligatory greenery. They were revered. Meat and fish were unusual appearances at our dinner table back home. We were content without the flesh. When you are raised thinking that vegetables are the crowning ingredients you become more conscious of when and how you cook meat and fish, and you are sharply aware of the absence of vegetables. Rather than planning around a large slab of meat I plan around a sweet potato or a head of cauliflower or the luscious eggplant. Not that I don’t love, love, a beautiful steak or a slow-cooked tender lamb leg. But I am more appreciative when a good piece of meat comes my way. To quote my father, in our family we like to eat animals that sing in the meadows.
The retreat burned down many years ago, and since then it has disappeared from maps. But when I think of vegetables, if I notice a leaf of parsley fighting its way beneath a chicken breast, I remember of the kitchen with its astronomer chef and the tea with its eucalyptus leaves.
How to cook and eat vegetables
When it comes to vegetarian cookbooks I have a few favorites. Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison is a must if you want to learn about each vegetable and families of the plant kingdom (did you know that Chia comes from a sage plant?). I love Vegetarian Everyday by David Frenkiel and Luise Vindhal (from greenkitchenstories) for their inventive and stunning recipes. My current number one book, though, is River Cottage Veg. First of all, I have yet to find someone who has the humor and charm of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, author of Veg and other River Cottage cookbooks. I saw Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall speak at a Strand event in May. He was chatting with David Chang who regularly pirates his shows and adores Meat. Hugh told us that he had the reputation of a rabid carnivore with blood dripping from his teeth. He described meat as the tyrannical ingredient and vegetables as sadly relegated to the supporting role. “We’ve just got to eat more vegetables!” he exclaimed. We all nodded with sudden enthusiasm. And so, he decided to put lovely meat aside and focus on vegetables and make Veg irresistible.
Hugh wanted to use vegetables and change their flavors, create new sensations, ones that we might not expect. After all, veggies are more diverse in taste, aroma and color than meat. Meat is one note, despite being a very appealing note. For the cookbook he became a vegetarian for four months. He recalibrated his cooking. The book was not about creating meat substitutes but finding the brilliant, strong flavors in the vegetables themselves. For instance, umami notes achieved through mushrooms, or roasting roots until their sweet and salty edges develop deep flavors. When describing how he likes to sear mushroom for a sandwich, Hugh said delightfully: “That is one meaty mushroom that has never been near a beast!”
The result is a heavy and gorgeous book. I don’t even know where to begin. Each recipe seems more succulent and attractive than the next. And since River Cottage Every Day is my only fully fail-proof cookbook, I hold Veg to similar standards of excellence. I tackled the simplest one I could find. It was beastly hot in New York, every step I took outside brought me closer to the pavement and to quote an astute friend, walking around Brooklyn was like entering a gigantic marshmallow. That being said, after I had trudged back from the co-op, sweaty and fuzzy-brained, I took a red, heirloom tomato and prepared a Veg refreshing salad.

Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall in the rain and with carrot hands, images from Veg.
Tomatoes with herbs
(fully inspired by River Cottage Veg)

1 impossibly juicy and ripe tomato, it has to be sweet and bursting with sun-warmth
Your best extra-virgin olive oil
Your best balsamic vinegar (or apple balsamic)
Chopped chives, torn basil leaves, or chopped parsley
Sea salt (fleur de sel, if possible), and freshly ground pepper
Slice the tomato in ragged chunks, or pristine slices, whatever strikes your fancy. Spread on a plate. Drizzle olive oil and balsamic. Sprinkle a small handful of herbs (your choice). Sprinkle salt and pepper. Eat with a fork, right away.

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