I recently offered to cook a meal for a dear friend of mine who recently lost her mind and gave up ALL animal products. She has been vegetarian for years, and I have many other friends who are also vegetarians -- indeed, for a few self-righteous years in college I myself was a strict vegetarian. Now, however, she is vegan, and that posed a serious challenge to me as a cook. I understand the ethical and moral issues behind the decision to give up meat, fish and poultry. I see the hypocracy inherent in many people's "don't kill the cute animals, but gimme a steak" version of animal rights. I agree with the reasoning behind avoiding the consumption of creatures that have been depleted to near-extinction, and/or whose acquisition harms the planet. I am horrified by the beef industry's inhumane and unsanitary killing practices, and am pained at the idea of debeaked chickens. I am waiting breathlessly for someone to invent in vitro fur so I can finally wear a gorgeous coat without being responsible for the death of many furry beasts. I get it; I get it!
However, anyone who knows me is aware of my burning antipathy for vegans (no bacon I can understand, but no eggs? no butter? no CHEESE? what a pain in the ass! how inconvenient for everyone else! what disappointing baked goods!) and can understand the trepidation with which I approached my culinary hurdle. Initially I thought, "shit, I've got to make tofu and veggies over pasta or rice; how boring." I turned to The Artful Vegan, the cookbook from the famed Millennium restaurant in San Francisco, and discarded it based on the intricacy of the recipes and the amount of time each would take. I leafed through several Indian and Thai cookbooks and drew the same conclusion: buying all the necessary ingredients that I don't have on hand would put me in the poorhouse. I made a mental run-through of all the recipes I know by heart, pondering what proteins I could omit or substitute with tofu or beans, and rejected all possibilities as dull or yucky. Finally I checked in with an old friend: Molly Katzen. Her Moosewood Cookbook is one that I've had since college (and those bygone veggie days), and it has always served me well. The recipes are simple, rich, and delicious. She includes handy notes about prep and cooking times, and also cute little drawings of what the food should approximately look like.
She offered a colorful little salad composed of cucumber, mango, and red bell pepper seasoned with lemon and lime juices, a little brown sugar (unnecessary, in my opinion), and garnished with plenty of chopped cilantro. It was divine! A perfect cold summer salad. But there was still no protein for this meal. I figured I would make my old standby: lightly sauteed chopped veggies and tofu with a sauce of almond butter, coconut milk and soy sauce over soba noodles. It's tasty, easy, time-consuming (all the chopping), and I'm kind of tired of it. But it works.
Then my husband made me leave the house. It was a good idea, but I needed my coffee. He took me to Ozzie's, a coffee shop on our corner that serves iced hazelnut coffee and they don't charge extra for soy milk (see? I don't always drink cowmilk!). He walked me to the park to watch our pugs frolic with other leashless doggies. Finally, we all headed over to the greenmarket at Grand Army Plaza here in Park Slope in hopes of finding inspiration. The bok choy was wormy, the baked goods looked a bit soggy in the muggy weather, and the berries were totally overpriced (we bought some blueberries anyway). However, we did chance upon squash blossoms, which I have had only rarely, and view as a somewhat flavorless but visually appealing oddity. My husband, however, grew up in the Bay area with a father whose idol was Julia Child; he snapped up a large box of the blooms with alacrity and proclaimed, "here's our main course." I looked at him dubiously, but as I am used to indulging him, I said nothing.
He then dropped me and the baby off at home for naps (thank god for air conditioning) and headed back out to the local bodegas. He returned with some lovely, bell shaped pink flowers for me, and a creamy tofu-based spinach-herb spread that tasted a bit like those sour cream-based dips you use for crudite platters, but was thick like cream cheese. I was surprised -- most tofu based faux cheese products taste rather plastic-y or have a weird slimy texture, but this was pretty good. He said that he was planning to stuff the blossoms with the spread, batter them, and then fry them, based on a chevre stuffing and egg batter recipe that his dad had made years ago. I wouldn't have been fooled in a blind tasting, but I figured that as an ingredient in a bigger dish rather than the main flavor, it would be quite nice. After a brief cool-down in front of the a/c, we threw a bottle of chardonnay into the fridge and got to work.
My hubby made a light batter of rice flour, wheat flour, and club soda with which he coated the tofu spread-stuffed squash blossoms, and deep fried them in veggie oil. We laid several fritters on top of homemade bruschetta: lightly toasted sourdough bread rubbed with raw garlic, and heaped with diced tomato, onion, garlic, and basil tossed in a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with coarse sea salt. Served with the bright orange, red, and green salad and a deep glass of chilled chard, we feasted until we were stuffed. My vegan friend was impressed, I was relieved, and all three of us were thrilled by the gooey-inside, crispy-outside squash blossoms. If only all vegan fare were this exciting, fresh, and tasty, I might even consider ditching cheese myself....