Cooking

Salad Days

For salad lovers this is a heady time of year, with early cucumbers, flawless carrots, and more varieties of lettuce and greens than a person can shake a salad fork at. Best of all, budding in the back of the mind, is the promise of tomatoes just around the corner.

Perhaps I should say this is an easy time of year

to make a salad, rather than a good time. Because with an expanded notion of what constitutes a salad, no time of year is a bad one.

For instance, not long ago a relative served a pungent, juicy grated beet and onion salad, my first inkling that beets could be eaten raw. Another shocker was a newspaper recipe for an Italian salad calling for bread as its base ingredient. (I haven’t tried it yet, but it’s a fascinating idea.)

My tired concept of a three-bean salad was revived last winter when I sampled a spicy black bean salad with corn, red pepper, parsley, and walnuts. It was so good, I began looking out for recipes using grains and legumes as salad material. "Lentil and Chickpea," "Apricot Walnut Wheatberry," and "Tomato Quinoa" are some of the gleanings.

BECAUSE FREQUENT exposure has dulled people’s enthusiasm for so-called "rabbit food," the cook’s job is to add an element of surprise to the salad bowl. Try daikon radish—a long, white root—instead of the red variety. Add a fresh herb, such as basil, to the greens. Sprinkle toasted nuts on top. Use spinach instead of lettuce. Make homemade croutons.

Experiment freely with different salad dressings. I usually serve one tried-and-true dressing such as a Ranch style, along with an experimental one so I won’t offend someone not enthused about an odder flavor (odder flavor being something such as orange-sesame, honey-mustard, sherry vinaigrette, or hot bacon).

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Sojourners Magazine June 1994
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Elegant and Eclectic Eggplant

Let’s say you’ve just walked into the grocery store and on the way to pick up some onions you notice a healthy sized mound of eggplant, with glossy, deep purple skin shining under the florescent lights. Say you were unable to resist picking one up, paying for it, and taking it home. How would you fix it? That is the question at hand.

If you are of Asian, Indian, or Middle Eastern background, probably 20 ways to fix eggplant come to mind at once. A farmer friend sells 200 eggplants a week to one restaurant alone that specializes in Israeli cuisine. But many of us are left to flounder around trying to find a way to cook and eat this most beautiful and exotic vegetable.

Now that several kinds are commonly available—the miniature varieties called Japanese or Italian eggplants that are a deep purple; or long, slender, paler Chinese eggplants; or the standard large purple-black ones—I am making it a point to collect different ways of fixing eggplant. So far these experiments have tasted so good that I’m eating eggplant about once a week.

THE BREAK-

through discovery for me (not a new trick at all, but I didn’t try it until recently) was the salt-and-let-it-sit technique that eliminates eggplant’s one discordant flavor, a hint of bitterness. I have tried cubing fresh eggplant and soaking it in salt water, as well as slicing it into rounds, salting it heavily, then patting off the resulting salty juice with a paper towel or cloth 10 minutes later. (Some sources say leave salt on 30 minutes, but I’ve never left myself that much time to spare.) Both ways work well.

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Sojourners Magazine May 1994
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One No-Fat Step at a Time

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Sojourners Magazine April 1994
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Balancing Feast and Fast

FEASTING IS JUST half the story. To have "Sunday dinner" implies plainer weekday meals. Holiday banquets include foods not seen the rest of the year. Feasting cannot truly be feasting if there is no contrast, no type of restraint on ordinary days to keep our bodies and our spirits in balance. The other side of feasting is fasting.

By fasting I mean both the year-round practice of eating simply, to remember and in some small way to mitigate others' hunger, and also the occasional (or regular) discipline of going without food entirely for a period of time - for one day a week or month, for Holy Week, or for clarification or purification before a significant event.

Our culture does not take self-denial, discomfort, or the discipline of fasting very seriously. Feeling hungry is for dieters, political or religious fanatics, or the poor. What were treasured gifts on special days for our forebears - meat, sweets, wine - have become daily fare for us. We want to eat what tastes good, what we like, what will keep the kids quiet. If we can afford it, why not? Subconsciously we have begun to think we are entitled to three meals a day, making it hard to feel gratitude for food or to consider giving up any portion of it.

I find fasting uncomfortable to think about because I love to cook, like to eat, and crave the camaraderie that happens around a full table. Fasting would seem to deny me all this. When fellow Sojourners Joyce Hollyday and Jim Wallis fasted 40 days during the Persian Gulf war in 1991, the sight of them walking in the door each morning with their water Thermoses and juice bottles was enough to send me straight to the office kitchen for toast. The very idea of fasting made me instantly hungry, causing me to question food's role in my life.

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Sojourners Magazine February-March 1994
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Cooking by the Book

MY 1994 NEW YEAR'S resolution - to break loose from serious menu ruts by planning further ahead - has already led to more time at a favorite activity: paging through cookbooks. I'm browsing through the tried and true, and also borrowing new ones from the library.

If you take nothing else away from this column, let it be a recommendation to visit the cookbook section of your public library. I was dumbstruck by the sheer numbers of books when I first saw the Austin library collection. Three entire rows, floor to ceiling, were devoted to the subject of food.

One shelf contained nothing but chocolate cookbooks (although I did see one on vanilla hiding in that section). Another half-shelf boasted garlic cookbooks. Chinese cooking textbooks, French cuisine guides, one-minute meals, Weight Watchers tips, a sausage cookbook, a cactus cookbook, Cooking for the Hyperactive Child, Cooking With a Grain of Salt, and Bland But Grand caught my eye, as did the clincher, Who Needs a Cookbook? Obviously, a lot of us do.

On a recent visit, I sat and reread two books that have long influenced how I think about food: Laurel's Kitchen, by Laurel Robertson, Carol Flinders, and Bronwen Godfrey (Bantam Books and Nilgiri Press, 1976) and Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappé (Ballantine Books, 1971).

The first is worth reading just for the introduction, which is the chronicle of a friendship between a gifted cook and a novice vegetarian. Spiritual values and goals, creating community, nutritional discussions, and practical cooking advice are all present in this book. The sentence that won me completely was this: "Laurel is the only vegetarian cook I know whose food can manage to taste just like your mother's or grandmother's."

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Sojourners Magazine January 1994
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