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Saturday, 16 July 2011

Confessions of a Meat-Lover: Vegetable Stir Fry

I have to admit to loving meat. Especially seafood. I could never give it up. Hats off to erstwhile carnivorous friends who’ve renounced such pleasures of the flesh and quite happily embraced vegetarianism, without looking back once. I’m counting these friends in my head as I type, and as I tally up the numbers, I notice two remarkable coincidences among my bunch: they are all mostly women, and they’ve all given up meat mostly for  – ahem: LOVE.
As in:

1) Meat-Loving Woman meets Non-Meat-Eating Man.
2) Meat-Loving Woman loves Non-Meat-Eating Man. 
3) Meat-Loving Woman becomes Man-Loving Woman. 
4) And Meat becomes (quite literally) the sacrificial lamb at the altar of vegetarianism.
A true declaration of love. Very admirable, admittedly.
But, call me supremely selfish (go on, I insist) – a sacrifice of this magnitude might be just a tad bit more than I’m capable of.
Thankfully (for me) I’m married to someone who’s said outright on several occasions (very seriously) that if I were vegetarian, “he’s afraid he wouldn’t have been able to marry me.”
No Jokes. (I rarely joke when it comes to food. Or love. Or both as in this case).
But jokes aside, (even though I’m not joking), that is what he says. Which is fantastic really, because I feel positively saintly when I say I wouldn’t give up meat for love.  At least I wouldn’t give up love for meat.
But...I digress.
Now, for a little gobble-smacker such as myself who will probably eat anything and everything under the sun, such discrimination against vegetables, or for that matter food of any kind, is shocking. Absolutely shocking. How I could be married to a food-discriminator of such extreme magnitude is beyond me. But he has other good qualities that balance it out. (Somewhat.)
Anyway, on some level, I have to admit that I don’t entirely blame my blasphemous, food-discriminator of a husband in his vehement refutation of all things vegetarian. Because, truth be told, it’s unfortunate, what the definition of vegetarian food has regressed to these days. What with all the recent health trends pointing to vegetarianism as a healthier way of life, restaurants have been quick to start singing from this, now very fashionable, hymnbook.  And suddenly, you find menus proudly expounding on the health benefits of vegetables with a prominent “v” next to their vegetarian entrees. Except that on closer scrutiny from my keenly observant eye, these mostly refer to delicacies such as: lasagne, Jacket potatoes, penne with tomato sauce, French fries, and so on.  Granted, there’s no meat in any the above, but pray, where are the vegetables? And why is this healthy?
You see, IMHO, vegetarian food needs to be less about having no meat and more about having more vegetables! Lots and lots of vegetables – fresh and flavourful and nutritious! I mean, I have nothing against penne with tomato sauce...
But, penne with tomato sauce? Seriously?
Because, here's the thing: meat lover as I am, I love vegetables. Love them! When I think of vegetables, I think COLOUR. Green spinach, orange sweet potatoes, purple eggplant, yellow corn, red tomatoes, white onions...a medley of colours dancing on my plate, bringing vibrancy and zing and LIFE to my food! And honestly, it is difficult to find as perfect a combination of hearty, healthy and flavourful as a dish of properly cooked, properly seasoned vegetables. They are packed full of nutrients and fibre and vitamin goodness that do wonderful things to your body. And if that’s not convincing enough, get this – vegetables are simpler to deal with in the kitchen than meat:  easier to cut, faster to cook, quicker to clean. Come to think of it, I can eat vegetables without meat (makes me feel like Leona Lewis) but I struggle to eat meat without vegetables (makes me feel like a Flintstone).  No prizes for working out which one I’d rather be!
But here’s the issue I have with vegetables: they have to be cooked just right. Overcook them, and they lose both their nutrients and their flavour. You might as well have the penne with tomato sauce, really. And sadly, no matter how good a cook one is, it’s easy to overcook vegetables. I’ve messed up loads of times! Go Western, and you risk being left with boiled, flavourless pieces of once-upon-a-time-i-was-a-vegetable. Go Indian, and the danger is lots of soggy, overcooked stuff floating around in some funky red-coloured (what on earth is that stuff) rich, overpoweringly spiced gravy.
So, my veggie success stories are always when my vegetables turn out crunchy – in that just-cooked sort of state – crisp-tender, hot off the wok and into my mouth. And for that reason, when I want my veggie fix, I usually stir-fry. I’ve found that this retains, (if not enhances) the natural crunchiness, tenderness and flavour of the vegetables.
Go on, give it a try: It's so easy, it's almost embarrassing that I have a recipe – this is Vegetable Stir Fry.
Here’s what you need:
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons rice wine
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (I use more, but this much should be fine for normal people. More below.)
- 2 teaspoons dark sesame oil
- 1/2 cup sliced scallion
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
- 1 large red bell pepper, diced
- 2 cups shredded Chinese cabbage
- 6 ounces snow peas, sliced on the diagonal
- 1 cup sliced mushrooms
- 1 cup canned baby corn, rinsed and drained
- 1 (8 ounce) can sliced water chestnuts, drained
- 1 lb firm tofu, drained and cut into 2-inch squares
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch (blended in water for a smooth paste)

Here’s how:
In small bowl, add soy sauce, rice wine, red pepper flakes and honey, stir it around and set it aside. I have a manic love for spice, so I always tend to binge on the red pepper flakes. I once went through a phase where for weeks, I’d eat nothing but boiled white rice with red pepper flakes. I’m slightly crazy like that. But you’re not, so 1 teaspoon should be more than enough!
Meanwhile, heat a large non-stick skillet or wok. You know, this is really as simple a dish as they come, but what makes or breaks this dish is a pan or wok hot enough to add smokiness to the flavour. It doesn’t matter if you use an electric stove or gas burner – the secret is letting your pan get as hot as it can. Test it by letting a teaspoon of water drop on your pan – if it sizzles and evaporates on contact, your pan is ready.
Now, add the sesame oil. Seriously - sesame oil absolutely rocks my world! I love the nutty, smoky, pungent aroma it releases off a piping hot pan, and I use it in almost all my Chinese dishes. Try it – but I warn you – addiction is a very real possibility. Anyhoo, next, add the scallions, garlic and ginger, and cook until softened. Stir in cabbage, snow peas and bell pepper and saute until the vegetables are just the way I love them - crisp-tender. Next, while you’re stirring, add the stuff that takes the least time to cook – that’s the baby corn, mushrooms and water chestnuts. Then add in the soy sauce mixture and the tofu.  Cook until the tofu is crisp-browned. Finally, stir in the cornstarch mixture. And bring the whole thing to a boil until the sauce is lightly thickened.
Serve it over piping hot Jasmine rice and enjoy all it brings to the table:
Colour – a virtual rainbow on your plate – green snow peas, red bell peppers, white cabbage, yellow corn, brown mushrooms! Vary the vegetables as you like. Broccoli or carrots or bamboo shoots could be in a happy family with the ones I’ve used here. Or eggplant if you like. I’m hard pressed to think of something that won’t work.
Texture – crunchy snow peas, crispy bell peppers, nutty water chestnuts, succulent mushrooms, juicy tofu...
Flavour – heat from the chilli flakes, the sharpness of the scallions, the sweetness of the honey, the heady aroma of the sesame oil, the zinginess of ginger-garlic, the tartness of Chinese rice wine...
Yum, yum and yum.
This remains one of my favourite dishes of all time. Hot, tasty, nourishing. And easy.
(Confessions of a meat-lover)

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