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November 1, 2005

Eat Your Heart Out - November 1, 2005

“I’d love to come,” a friend said earlier in the year when I invited him over for dinner. Then he added, “There’s just one thing…I’m a vegan now.”

I paused, at a loss of words. An unsympathetic “oh” was all I could muster.

Not that I should not have been surprised. It seems that everyone has a food peculiarity these days, whether it is not eating red meat, avoiding shellfish, shunning dairy, and so on. A Time/CNN Harris Interactive poll from 2002 found that 4 percent of Americans consider themselves to be vegetarians and 0.2 percent of Americans consider themselves to be vegan. Even on this campus, veganism seems to be spreading, with almost 300 students on the Vegan Society’s listhost. “This year there were at least 10 incoming first-year vegan students in the College, which is the most that we’ve ever seen in a first-year class,” said Lola Thompson, an officer of the Vegan Society.

Yet, for a person who is rather food-oriented, veganism still poses several problems. I have been known to spend time thinking about the perfect type of fish to pair with a glass of Sancerre, or what mayonnaise-to-chicken ratio should be used when making chicken salad. Indeed, when I think about fois gras, I think more about how it tastes, nutty and buttery and silky smooth, rather than about the poor dead goose.

But I did not want to appear unsympathetic to my friend’s new quest into the barren culinary wasteland of tempeh and tofu. No, I am an understanding friend. So we planned on dinner for the following week.

While thinking of what I would make, I came across a lot of decent-sounding vegetarian recipes, but not many vegan recipes that I actually wanted to make. Clearly I was on my own with this one. Mushrooms were in season, so I purchased a selection of wild mushrooms that would be meaty enough to sustain the meal. I am also particular to the combination of corn and mushrooms, so I decided on a corn soup with sautéed wild mushrooms.

Dessert proved to be a little more challenging, since I was not allowed to use butter, eggs, honey, or milk. Not wanting to have to purchase “it’s almost butter but vegetable spread” or “almost like egg yolks but no yolks” I decided to do something simple and fruit based. Poaching fruit is extremely easy, and works quite nicely with fall fruits like apples or pears.

My friend came over to dinner and the meal turned out well—the soup was hearty and flavorful and the pears evoked the spicy accents of fall.

“See, it’s not that hard being a vegan,” my friend told me as he was leaving my house.

While the dinner I prepared was quite tasty and while I do understand the ideological and health-related benefits of veganism, I just wasn’t ready to submit myself to it. So once my friend had gone home, I went to the freezer and ate a bowl of vanilla ice-cream, smiling a dairy-infused smile.

The Ingredients

4 pears, cored and halved

2 1/2 cups red wine

2 1/4 cups sugar

1 cinnamon stick

4 cloves

2 1-inch strips of lemon peel

The Directions

Place all ingredients except pears into a large pot and bring to a hard boil. Lower the heat to a simmer, add pears and cook for 30 minutes or until the fruit is softened. Remove the fruit from the pot and serve. Top with some of the cooking liquid (the remaining liquid can be refrigerated and used later). This goes particularly well with vanilla ice cream—though I wouldn’t know if it goes with tofutti. Serves four.

Vegan Sustenance

The Ingredients

4 Tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

1 medium carrot, chopped

1 celery rib, chopped

1 garlic clove, chopped

2 10-oz. packages frozen corn, thawed

1 bay leaf

Large pinch of saffron threads

6 cups water

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 shallot lobe, minced

1 garlic clove, minced

1 pound assorted wild mushrooms (oyster, shitake, portobello), thickly sliced

1 teaspoon thyme, finely chopped

1. In a large pot, heat two tablespoons of olive oil over moderate heat. Add onion, carrot, celery and garlic and cook until just softened, about 5 minutes. Add the corn, bay leaf and saffron and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to moderate low and simmer for 15 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, heat the remaining olive oil in a sauté pan. When warm, add shallot and garlic and cook until golden brown. Then add the mushrooms and thyme and cook until the mushrooms are tender and there is no more water in the pan, about 10 minutes. Set aside.

3. Puree the soup using a blender or immersion blender until the soup is of a consistent thickness. Then strain the soup through a fine-meshed sieve and discard the pulpy corn (use the back of a spoon to help pass it through the sieve). Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve the strained soup in bowls and top with mushrooms. Serves four.