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Vegetarian Solution : These Are a Few of Our Favorite Vegetables

August 15, 1991

There are some vegetarians who love nothing better than biting into a big, juicy nutburger, topped with sprouts and surrounded by a multi-grain bun. Some swear by "mock" meat--gluten dressed up to resemble duck or beef or chicken. But there are other vegetarians who are insulted by such attempts to create "meat," or as some call it, faux food. These are vegetarians who say they love food-- real food. They search out the freshest vegetables and fruits, which they cook as simply as possible; the idea that good cooking starts with good ingredients is especially important to them. The recipes they use come not only from vegetarian cookbooks, but from books by great cooks. And often they don't stick to recipes, but rather, they think like cooks . . . and especially, like good eaters. They use their imaginations--not to concoct meat substitutes, but to create meals that bring out the best, intrinsic flavors of food.

In this spirit, we've gone through what we consider some of the best cookbooks on the market--Diana Kennedy's "The Art of Mexican Cooking," Marcella Hazan's "The Classic Italian Cookbook," Paula Wolfert's "The Cooking of Southwest France," and others--to find recipes that are meatless, and, most important, delicious.

Too often when Mexican food is "lightened" or adapted for special diets it loses its soul. It becomes, well, Americanized. But in her book, "The Art of Mexican Cooking" (Bantam Books, 1989: $24.95), Diana Kennedy is interested only in food that is authentic . . . and delicious. Many of the recipes she explores happen to be meatless. And so, among the recipes for barbacoa and chorizo and pollo en mole, there are papas guisadas, red potatoes fried in safflower oil, sauteed with tomato salsa and topped with white cheese; there are hongos al vapor, wild mushrooms steamed with onion and garlic, serrano chiles and the herb, epazote. This, Kennedy suggests, can fill an omelet or top a quesadilla. Wrapped in a fresh tortilla, the mushrooms make a great taco.

One of Kennedy's best meatless recipes is for uchepos, the fresh corn tamales from Michoacan. Served with green or red chile sauce, creme fraiche and slightly melted queso fresco, the tamales make a terrific main course. With the leftovers, Kennedy crumbles a couple of reheated tamales in a bowl with some soft butter and salsa verde. In Michoacan, this is called sopas. And, as Kennedy says, it's best eaten alone--and with a spoon.

UCHEPOS (Michoacan Fresh Corn Tamales)

Fresh corn husks

5 cups fresh corn kernels

1/4 cup milk

3 tablespoons sugar

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

3 tablespoons natas, creme fraiche or thick cream

1 rounded teaspoon sea salt

1 1/2 cups cooked Salsa de Jitomate, kept warm

1/2 pound queso fresco, cut into slices about 1/4 inch thick

1/2 cup creme fraiche

Place prepared steamer over low heat and line steamer rack with 20 fresh corn husks. Steam to soften husks, about 3 to 5 minutes.

Combine half corn kernels and milk in food processor. Process until corn has been reduced to textured pulp, about 1 1/2 minutes. Add remaining corn and continue processing until reduced to loose, finely textured puree, about 2 1/2 minutes. Add sugar, butter and cream and process briefly. Stir in salt.

Remove husks from steamer and shake to get rid of any surplus water. Place 1 heaped tablespoon corn mixture along center of each husk, starting just below cupped end, extending about 2 inches. Do not flatten. Fold sides of leaf over mixture, leaving room for expansion. Turn pointed end up on side opposite seam.

Place 1 layer filled husks on steamer rack. Cover and steam about 10 minutes or until mixture is just beginning to set.

Stir remaining corn mixture. Fill rest of corn husk, (always stir mixture before filling husks to prevent corn from separating from juice). Layer in steamer. Cover with extra corn leaves, terry-cloth towel and plastic sheet so that steam cannot escape. Weight down lid and steam about 1 to 1 1/2 hours, depending on how efficient steamer is.

Serve hot, about 2 to 3 uchepos per person, on warmed plate. Place 1/4 cup warmed sauce on side of each plate, 1 slice cheese in middle and top with 1 heaped tablespoon creme fraiche. Makes 20 tamales.

Salsa de Jitomate

2 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped

4 serrano chiles, broiled

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1 pound (about 2 large) tomatoes, broiled

1/3 cup finely chopped white onion

1/3 cup loosely packed, roughly chopped

Blend garlic, serrano chiles and sea salt to rough paste. Gradually add unpeeled tomatoes, grinding well after each addition. (Sauce will have somewhat rough texture and skin pieces will be evident.) Stir in onion and cilantro. Makes 2 cups.

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