12/19/12

Rituals

So this morning, the AM cook asked me if I'd like a cup of coffee. He'd just made himself one, and was offering me one. He's a nice enough guy, but tends to be reserved, which is why I'm always encouraging when he reaches out to me. When he recognises something I'm cooking, he'll grin, and name it (he used to work at an Indian restaurant). I'll smile back in pleasant surprise, and confirm. When he enjoys something I've made, he's usually quick to tell me. But aside from those few interactions, he tends to keep (mostly) to himself.

That's fine, though, because he's always friendly, and professional at work. That's really all I can ask from someone.

Anyway. Anyone who's known me for a while knows that caffeine hits me hard. If I have any in the morning, I'll be up all night. This goes so far as to give me issues with soda, green tea, black tea, coffee, or anything else containing caffeine. I knew that the coffee would likely have me wired all day. However, here he was, reaching out to me. I didn't want to refuse. As I sit here, sipping this wonderful tasting latte he made me, I started thinking about how we all use food as a way to connect with each other. How rituals like the morning coffee ritual at work tends to bring people together, even if they're not necessarily having a long conversation over said coffee.

Think about it. What do most people remember about their favourite holidays, aside from the enjoyable times that they have with their family? The festive meal. This goes double for any religion (like Judaism or Hinduism) that has prescribed dishes for said festive meal. On Pesach, you eat those bitter herbs, that horseradish stuff, the fruit & date mixture, the matza. On Thai Pongal (a Tamil harvest festival), you eat bowls of sweet or savoury pongal (lentils and rice dish, also called kichadi in the North). These foods are woven into the fabric of those holidays, and are important parts of anyone's memories of those holidays. It's a Very Big Deal.

So what do you do when your morals and the specific holiday in question don't quite line up? Do you eat before you leave home, and skulk in a corner with your plate of dry salad? Do you bring something with you? Do you starve? Do you respectfully (and far in advance) ask for something special to be made for you?

I don't know. The answer will vary depending on your situation. Here, however, I'm going to cover a couple of dishes that anyone can sort out, anywhere they live, even if they don't have access to Weird Vegan Ingredients™. Whether you ask someone to make it for you, make it yourself, or make a quick trip to the supermarket on the way there (or once you arrive there), these are all dishes that can be sorted out fairly quickly, with a minimum of fuss.

I encourage you, however, to ask the host if they'd be willing to make you the thing, if you can. Why? Because my coworker this morning got a good feeling by doing something nice for me: making me a cup of coffee. People reach out to each other with gifts of food. Whether that dish is complicated like a tofu lasagna, or simple, like a cup of coffee with some soymilk in, it's the gesture that matters, not the specific food. Either way, I hope you get some ideas on how to figure out what to eat when you're in non-vegan territory.

Roasted Potatoes For as much as I adore green vegetables, roasted potatoes have a sweet spot in my heart. They're so delicious, and easy to sort out, no matter where you are. Depending on the neighbourhood you're in, you may or may not be able to find all different kinds of potatoes. My favourites are the fingerling potatoes, and the baby red potatoes, but it will work with whatever you have. Toss the potatoes in just enough oil to coat them, and lay them (in a single layer) onto a baking sheet. If you're using a typical baking sheet, you'll need 2 of them for a 5-lb bag. Roast at 350°F for 40 minutes, then remove from the oven. Toss lightly to re-coat in the oil, and crank up the heat to 450°F. Let them roast at the higher heat for another 20 minutes or so.

Pasta with Tomato Sauce: A quick, cheater version of tomato sauce involves getting an onion, a can of crushed tomatoes (use diced or whole if that's all you can find), some olive oil, and some fresh herbs of your choice. Cook the onions in olive oil until they're softened. Add the herbs, and stir around with the onions until you can smell them. I personally like dried oregano, and basil, but you can use whatever you have on hand. Add the can of crushed tomatoes, and cook over high heat until the sauce reaches the thickness you want. For me, it takes about five to seven minutes. You may need more or less time. Then, dump the cooked pasta into the sauce pot, and stir to combine. Let the whole thing come to a boil, and shut off the heat. Sprinkle on a bit more olive oil, some salt and black pepper, and you're set.

QUICK Beans & Rice: There are times when beans and rice just get the job done. If you or the person in question doesn't know how to cook rice, just get some from the local friendly Chinese restaurant. Listen, I know I'm supposed to encourage you to cook, but sometimes, you have to work with what you have. To make really fast beans, you'll need a can of beans, some curry powder, and an onion. Cook the onion in oil, along with 2 tsp of curry powder (for every 1 can of beans, you'll want one large onion, 2 TB of oil, and the 2 tsp of curry powder). When the onions soften, add the can of beans, water and all, and cook on high until the beans come to a boil. Add the rice, stir to combine, and keep cooking on high until it's thickened to your liking. Serve with salsa, guacamole, or any kind of raw vegetables you like (I like sliced cucumbers and carrots). The whole thing takes like ten minutes when you've got the rice cooked already.

Cheater Pilaf: Technically, pilaf should be the best quality spices, along with the best basmati rice you can find, and fresh cut vegetables. And then you realise that you're in a town where the good grocery store has three varieties of potato, five varieties of onion, and a few wilted leaves of something that looks like lettuce, but you don't actually eat it. It's for decoration, apparently. Even the dodgiest grocery store has a bag of mixed frozen vegetables. Every store I've been to has at least a box of rice in there somewhere.

Here's how you do it. Purists will be cringing, but it does taste delicious at the end of it all. Put two cups of rice to cook. In a separate pot, cook 1 large onion, 3 cloves of garlic, and 1/2 tsp of turmeric in 3 TB of whatever oil you have lying around. If you don't have turmeric, use about 2 tsp of curry powder. When the onions and garlic are softened, add 12 - 16 oz of frozen mixed vegetables of your liking. I'm fond of the "california mix" (it has cauliflower, broccoli, and peppers or something of that sort). Sautee the vegetables until they're not frozen anymore. Season with salt, red pepper flakes, and black pepper. Keep cooking until the vegetables are cooked. When the rice is cooked, toss it through the cooked vegetables, and serve.

If you can get access to couscous, millet, or quinoa, this works equally well with them.

Aside from the usual suspects of hummus and pita (or sliced carrots, if you're gluten free), salsa/guac and tortilla chips, white beans & rosemary dip with crostini, bruschetta, or any other number of easily vegan dishes, these are just some ideas to get you thinking about vegan food in terms that even the most basic cook can master. Mind you, if the person who's cooking is more creative, please go for the best you can find by all means.
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