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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Say Cheese!

I have been in vegetarian mode since the Chinese New Year, which also coincided with the beginning of Lent this season. When I was on my retreat last fall to Wudang (Hubei Province, China) studying Taoist meditation and qigong, the menu was vegetarian, and I learned some new simple approaches to stir-frying vegetables. The diet, along with the mountains illustrated in the blog title, and the mental state, was energizing and cleansing.

I always feel better when I forgo anything that walks on the same ground as I do, and took the new year and Lent as an excuse to get back on track with the veggies. (Thanksgiving and Christmas had caused me to backslide.) Now, while I might be able to content myself with stir-fried lotus root and a bit of tofu, Dear Wizard (husband) requires more substance in his diet. He says "okay" to a vegetarian long as I do all the cooking. His ability as a vegetarian cook is limited to ersatz meat products like gardenburgers and soy-based chicken nuggets.

Asian food has wonderful vegetarian approaches, and in addition to the simple Chinese methods I observed in Wudang, I am particularly enchanted with Indian vegetarian cooking A few years ago I went with some friends to the local Hare Krishna restaurant where I had to convince them that the white cubes in the spinach were NOT tofu but cheese, panir. Delighted to find panir, I asked one of the HKs if they sold it or where could I buy it. HK laughed and said,"Make it yourself, it's easy!"

So I acquired a wonderful Indian vegetarian cookbook, "Lord Krishna's Cuisine: The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking" by Yamuna Devi. Nearly 800 pages of wonderful things to do with vegetables and non-meat products...including milk. So my new hobby has become panir. It IS easy and for me a meditative stress reducer, calmly stirring hot milk until it comes to a boil -- the smell is quite comforting. Then add lemon juice and it magically curdles. Pour into a colander lined with cheesecloth (!), let it drain, wrap the curds up tight in a lump, sit something heavy on it for a couple or three hours, and voila, you have panir. Easy, but you must be patient and gentle. Don't scorch the milk or it will taste like you boiled it with a cigarette butt. Use a heavy-bottomed pan (mine is a large porcelain-clad cast iron Dutch oven that can do a gallon of milk at a time). You need half a cup of lemon juice to curdle the milk--you can use the kind that comes in plastic lemons, as fresh lemons seem to be quite expensive and you'll need to squeeze several if you are doing a large quantity.

Here's the funny part: to use the panir, you can cut it into cubes and then fry them ---in butter! (Well, ghee, which is clarified butter, favored in Indian cooking, but still, the irony.) It makes a nice chewy, meaty addition to your vegetable dish. Sort of like tofu. Search the web. I'm sure you can find a simple recipe.

I like things like this, ancient processes and techniques like growing vegetables, keeping bees, knitting sweaters, that connect you to times before we became all technological and economic and virtual with blogs and cell phones and cars where we listen to audio books. When you understand these things with your own hands, even if you never do them again, you have a greater appreciation for what you buy. Fresh vegetables, local honey, a handknit sweater. Cheese.

1 comment:

holly said...

i'd love to be able to do this, but i just think i lack the genes. okay now my grandma is channelling in from the dead to chastise me. apparently she made absolutely everything in her house. okay, so maybe a switch at the hospital?

how about : i'm so pleased *you* are pursuing this. i will stick with the things that cluck on the same ground as i do. and from time to time, i do like a ground bit of moo-er.

you know, when i put it like that it sounds really really bad. okay, i'll cut back on the moo-ing intake. a bit.