Friday, November 25, 2011

One bite: Phoenix spicy tofu stir-fry

Posted By on 11.25.11 at 08:00 AM

Phoenix spicy tofu stir fry
People have been asking all week about my colleague Kevin Warwick's sweeping look at the city's verdant vegetarian scene, as if I stood by while the food section was commandeered by joyless, flatulent, plant-eating cultists. At least there was room for haggis.

Truth is, I'm onboard with way more of the content expressed therein than I'm not (well, I don't get down with vegan homophobes but that's a different story).

My job takes me to a lot of restaurants that serve rich foods that are hardly necessary or healthy if eaten in excess—that includes lots of meat. About a year ago I made a concerted effort to change my diet when I was off duty. I mastered portion control, and when not eating on the job, I eat mostly vegetarian. In that year's time I lost 35 pounds and I can once again touch my toes without losing my breath. I still love it, but I don't crave meat as much. I'm satisfied with less when I do, and I appreciate it more. I'm not even close to endorsing a vegan diet. But collectively, Americans, whose per capita meat consumption in 2008 was 215.8 pounds, could stand to eat a bit less.

I'm a little surprised that no one made mention of—if only to try and refute—the theory that meat eating is what gave homo sapiensour big giant brains, but I really only take issue with one small bit in Kevin's introduction to the package:

Just as vegetarianism was all the rage in my crowd a decade ago, whole-animal decadence is now very much in fashion, with bone marrow plates and blood sausages populating menus on the regular.

Yes, there's plenty of gratuitous flesh eating going around. But like the carnivore who dismisses vegetarianism as the flavorless diet of anemic, bark-eating hippies, this statement is laboring under a fundamental misunderstanding of the snout-to-tail ethos, which in its purest expression, isn't about decadence.

One of the best things I've eaten all year was crispy blood sausage with stewed tripe and garbanzos from Mark and Liz Mendez's new wine bar Vera (review coming soon). The dish is built from animal parts that once none but the poorest would touch. But the poor made deliciousness with what they had. They'd starve if they didn't. Today, it serves nobody to throw that stuff out or feed it back to the animals.

Chefs like Mendez have given new cache to cucina povera, but eating offal is really about thrift. It's about making the most out of the animals we kill for food and killing fewer of them. And ultimately it's about eating less meat from healthily raised and humanely treated animals, which can be a lot more nutritious than the fake meat churned out for vegans who can't completely say goodbye to burgers and fried chicken. That's why some of the most sensible words in the issue came from Friend of the Food Chain, and Food on the Dole blogger Hugh Amano, a thoughtful omnivore and a crackerjack chef:

Think back to grade school cafeterias and some of the ghastly food served there—a lot of the actual meat gets stretched with faux-meats, starches, etc., in order to cut costs—and think of how nasty that stuff was to us back then. Think of the uproar about Taco Bell only using 36 percent actual meat in their taco filling and how this is perceived as "disgusting"—yet somehow products meant to be consumed as meat that use zero percent meat are not. It doesn't add up. Rather than being anti-faux meat, I am pro-vegetables and grains and legumes—and pro-natural or real food in general.

In most Asian cuisines tofu is not considered a meat substitute. Check out the bean curd and pork blood Sichuan stews at Double Li and Lao Sze Chuan and you'll see what I mean. But tofu needs no meat to stand on its own. I'm a big fan of the superfirm bean curd blocks manufactured by Uptown's Phoenix Bean, so when this prepared version shows up in stores as diverse as City Provisions, Golden Pacific Market and Chicago's Downtown Farmstand, I grab it every time I see it. Comprised of extrafirm fried tofu marinating in corn oil, salt, garlic, chile sauce, soy sauce, black bean sauce, and cilantro, it exemplifies bean curd's miraculous powers of absorbency, which allow it to take on the flavors of whatever it's stewing in. It is what it's with.

Oh, one other thing Kevin forgot to mention: most of the omnivores around the office can bench-press him. Must not be eating enough tofu, I guess.

Read more from Vegetarian Week:

"The case of the media pioneer who didn't shut up and eat his veggies," by Michael Miner

"'But you can eat turkey!'", by Kate Schmidt

"Centered Chef: another veggie-friendly resource," by Kate Schmidt

"Seriously, hold the honey: Should vegans stick to their guns?" by Kevin Warwick

"On flexitarianism, a Thanksgiving first, and various levels of vegetable-based obsession," by Mara Shalhoup

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