Saturday, May 1, 2010

Lentils with Mediterranean "zow bing"

Next up in my recent series of high-fat favorites, lentils with onions, garlic, and spinach, and a sort of very inauthentic version of a Chinese flatbread called zow bing (by Madhur Jaffrey in World of the East Vegetarian Cooking).

According to that recipe, zow bing is a kind of green onion cake rolled in an unusually messy way, and it is not made with yeasted dough, as mine was, but with a plain white flour-and-water mix. Unlike most recipes for green onion cakes I've seen, however, there's no sesame oil.

Just as an semi-related aside, Andrea did a recent post about how one's tastes can change with a change in diet, which got me thinking. Probably everyone who has made the transition from omni or vegetarian to vegan has experienced this, after a while. A few months ago I was at my mother's and we made lattes, mine with soy milk, hers with cow's milk. The cups were the same; we were carrying them around with us and I inadvertently picked hers up and took a sip, and was astounded at how thin and acidic and generally unpleasant it tasted in comparison with the rich and flavourful soy milks I was drinking. And yet…she won't drink soy milk because she hates the taste. And I hated the taste too when I first tried it.

The same goes for cheese. I can honestly say that though it took a few years, because I really, really used to love cheese, it doesn't appeal to me anymore. I make cashew cheese, and I like it, and it can sometimes take the place of cheese in recipes, but it isn't much like milk cheese, it's its own thing. Tofu and the kind of seitan I make are nothing like meat, or I wouldn't want to eat them.

But new vegans can't just catapult themselves into this mode by an act of will; it has to happen naturally and gradually. Meanwhile, what to do? You have cheese cravings that make your head whirl, your favourite dishes are (you think miserably) barred from your diet forever, Earth Balance tastes like toxic waste and soy milk like sweet chalk, you're eating iceberg lettuce salad with unripe tomatoes at restaurants and your friends think you've lost your mind, your mom's worried that you'll die of malnutrition and frankly you yourself have your doubts.

I can help you with a simple one-word piece of advice that may seem controversial to some but that saved me once I cottoned onto it: oil.

What is cheese except a combination of fat, salt, and protein? What's whole milk? Fat and protein. What's butter? Fat. What's so delicious about chicken? Fat and protein. Hamburgers? Bacon? Get it? Now you're vegan and suddenly you're not ingesting any of that. No wonder you feel like you're going into withdrawal. I lost 20 pounds in my first months of veganism, and hadn't been overweight before that. But then I discovered oils. As a vegetarian I used to keep some canola oil around for stir frying, and a little olive oil for salad dressings. Now I started to experiment with other oils: different types and grades of olive oil, sesame oil roasted and unroasted, walnut oil, hazelnut oil, peanut oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, chili oil. They all have different tastes! Some of them taste so good you can pour them over whatever you're eating like a condiment. And believe it, I did. Uh, do.

At one point in my vegan career, inspired by Neal Barnard's writings, I tested all this by going completely fat free for six months. My aunt and I did the experiment together and we were very strict, to the point where I even stopped eating tofu because soy is a relatively high-fat bean. She was an omnivore who of course had to go vegan, and discovered that removing milk from her diet cured the endometriosis which she had to have Demerol shots every month for before that (we did this experiment some years ago; she still eats meat but as long as she stays away from milk her problems don't recur). Me, I felt unhappy and not very healthy, lost a very little weight, and developed weird bean cravings.

So, with a clear conscience, even now when a recipe calls for frying something in a teaspoon of oil, I just pour in a few glugs. Why not? Because you'll get fat? I didn't, and I'm not naturally skinny. You see the kind of food I eat on this blog. I'm no nutritionist, and different body types may metabolize differently, but it's the combination of refined sugar and starch that makes me gain weight and feel bloated and ill, which is why you don't see a lot of cookie and cake action on The Airy Way. Oil though, gets carte blanche.

Which is a segue into the recipe for zow bing. As readers of this blog know, from time to time I'll make a batch of yeasted bread dough and leave it in a large container in the refrigerator for a few days, just taking out and cooking what I need each time I want bread. What kind of dough? Any kind, so long as it's yeasted (unyeasted dough like chapatti or wheat tortilla dough tends to go off after a day or two). Use your favourite recipe. This is a half white, half whole wheat mix, but I've used all whole wheat and all white, and it's all good. The dough sours over time in a nice way.

If you were making zow bing the way Madhur Jaffrey's recipe advises, you would mix a cup of white flour with enough water to make a supple dough.

Then roll it out flat into a long rectangle, brush it with a mild-tasting vegetable oil, and sprinkle on finely chopped green onions and a little salt:
Roll the rectangle up like a jelly roll, cut it into three or four long pieces, and roll the pieces together into spirals. There are a hundred ways to shape flatbread, and this one gives a relatively coarse, messy shape:

Flatten the pieces, roll them out again into rough circles, and fry them in a skillet coated with canola or peanut oil to cover. Zow bing is a fried bread, not a relatively dry bread like a pita. Even the next day, this picture almost makes me want to cry:

The lentils were good too, a plain, simple, and delicious preparation I'll give the recipe for:

Lentils with onions, garlic, and spinach
Serves 2

1 medium onion, cut into long strips or rings
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 tbsp olive oil
1 cup green lentils, picked over and washed
2 cups chopped spinach, packed
1 tsp ground cumin
Salt and pepper

Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. When hot, add the onion and garlic and stir fry until softened and just beginning to brown. Add the lentils and 3 cups of water, bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer until the lentils are just tender, about 25 minutes. Now add the spinach, cumin, and about 1 tsp salt and continue to cook until the spinach is wilted. Test for salt, and add pepper to taste. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature. This will keep well for a few days in the refrigerator.


  1. It's so true, your sensitivities change dramatically. I too used to love cheese, now, couldn't stomach the stuff. And, I agree with you on the oil, definitely.

    I've heard many different stories of people being cured of chronic conditions simply be eliminating dairy. Many people have adverse reactions to it, although never link the really is a toxic soup.

    Those onion rolls look great!

  2. I think that is one reason this is a favorite blog of mine: the way you cook makes a lot of sense to me. Fat-free cooking is not for me! Nice post, great looking food.

  3. I was conflicted about the fatfree experiment, which I, like my aunt, was trying for hormone-related reasons. On the one hand, what Dr. Barnard was saying seemed to make a lot of sense (and even now I'm sure there's a lot of good to it for many people with certain problems), but on the other hand, oh, man, what if it worked? Such a cruel choice! But, for me, it didn't, and on the whole I was relieved, though very happy for my aunt.

  4. Very interesting post, and the lentils (especially) look great.

    To answer a question from another post comments: yes, we get lots of grapes on our vine! They are too tough skinned and sour to eat as is, but with just a little sugar make great jam and juice.

  5. Noa, wow, I should check into this. I bet the vine is beautiful, too. And if you can eat the leaves as well as using the fruit, what a bonus.

  6. I've never managed to go fat free — not sure I ever actually tried to — but have settled on a "fat in moderation" plan. If something doesn't need fat, I don't add it but if taste, texture or whatever require it, then I use it. A small addition of truffle oil, for example, can really elevate a dish. And I like to cook things in oil in my wok. I have noticed, though, that my taste for fat has decreased, and I can use a lot less than I once did. I think a reasonable goal is to keep fat to under 25 or 30% of total calories, and to use high quality fats. (No lard or suet. :) )