[A cow I won’t be eating, on the Bolinas Ridge trail, March 2010.]
The wind was whipping about a bit the other night as I crossed over Divis (summer in the city, you continue to pain me) and ran the last few blocks along Fell before turning up the hill toward home. As I slogged on, I caught the scent of meat roasting, and vegetables — something so similar to the pot roast my mom made when I was a kid, reminding me of those sun-speckled Sundays spent outside in the field next door before tumbling back in for dinner. My stomach grumbled; I hadn’t eaten since a late-afternoon snack, and for a moment that wafting aroma smelled so good. However: I’m a vegetarian! I was going home to eat a dinner of roasted cauliflower and roasted fingerlings, corn on the cob, and faux sausage — not meat! What the heck was wrong with me, thinking meat smelled good?
(I think I was just hungry. And sometimes it does smell good.)
Meat and I have been somewhat estranged for almost half my life. I grew up eating rather a lot of it — the requisite London broils, chop meat and potatoes, beef strews, chicken and mushrooms cropped up continuously during childhood, as well as the salads, the spaghettis, the grilled cheese — but gave it up when I was 17. I’ve had a post kicking around my blog drafts for over two years addressing my vegetarianism; it’s just kind of just What I Do. Truth is, I don’t really like the taste of meat. Granted, it’s been about 14+ years now since I’ve properly eaten meat (I know the odd chicken broth-based soup has slipped in over the years, but I try not to think about it) and perhaps if I gave it a try now I would change my tune but … I still don’t have much of an urge to do so. I’m perfectly content to chomp away on beans and tofu and all sorts of vegetables. I don’t feel my plate is lacking in the least.
Lately, though, what I do feel is lacking is the act of cooking meat in my life — I’m always looking for a new culinary challenge or simply a new recipe, vegetarianism aside. By not cooking meat (though yes: I do make a killer baked halibut), I wonder (worry?) that I’m missing out on a whole world of experimentation — and in fact, I do have a strange sort of fascination with the whole cooking-meat thing. It is a mysterious — though not necessarily intimidating — world in which I’d like to delve. I am dying to cook a steak, well!, for example. Or maybe roast a whole lamb in the Greek way, for Easter. Or really do the Thanksgiving turkey this year. Or a roasted chicken with potatoes and tomatoes in the pan, the way my brother did on Spetses! Things like that. I just don’t want to eat it myself.
My quandary is, however: if I am a committed vegetarian, is it OK for me to cook meat? Am I going against some sort of vegetarian code? My morals? Should I feel guilty even if I’m not consuming it myself? For me, cooking is a lot about nourishing others, and a lot of others in my life like to eat animals. I’m certainly fine with that. Maybe I shouldn’t over think this and should simply get to cooking …
It was perhaps this ongoing curiosity that recently prompted me to roast a chicken for the first time in a few years. I had planned a little dinner party for my folks and I wanted to delve outside my comfort zone a bit (forgoing fish for once; I do often cook them a nice piece of locally caught fish but, you know, you want to mix things up every so often). I went down to the Ferry Building the night before bought a small (local) bird which I planned to roast — in the way Zuni Cafe does it, along with the bread salad — for dinner (there would be lots of vegetarian things, too). I made sure it was free range, free roaming, organic loveliness despite my wee pangs of guilt for cooking it at all. (As I rubbed it all over with salt and pepper on Thursday night, I talked to it all the while (clucking to it, really) about its free little life and what a poor little thing it was and how well I would treat it. They would enjoy it, I promised; its life would not have been lost for nothing.) Then I stuck it in the fridge to rest overnight.
[Near Jenner, Calif., July 2010.]
My mother tells a story about when I was about five-years-old: We were down at the neighbor’s house and I happily petted their cow (or calf? Who can remember). Later, at the dinner table, I suddenly asked, “Where does this [roast beef/ pot roast/ meatloaf] come from?” My parents, deciding to take the full disclosure route, said something like, “Well, it’s from a cow.” To which I replied, Like Bambina [or whatever the thing’s name was] next door? And oh, my sad face when I put two and two together!
I’d like to think that my decision to become a vegetarian was made in that instant, at such a tender age (a cousin of mine decided at six she was quitting meat, and has held firm well into her twenties), but I think that particular conversation more like sowed the seeds that would lead ultimately to my forgoing all meat and fish. Until I reached my mid-teens, I (un)happily plowed through roast chickens, steak (oh, my long-ago fondness for Cattleman’s!), ham, and whatever else was put in front of me, though it was always in the back of my mind to give it all up. Once I finally did, I didn’t miss it.
The thing is that I never really enjoyed the meat I was eating. I’ve met vegetarians who visibly salivate as they smell barbecued flank steak roasting to juicy perfection, and I know it is much, much harder for them to abstain than it is for me. I know all sorts — the ones who eat fish on occasion, or chicken only!, or only when traveling, or or or. My deep and abiding love for Gardenburger Riblets aside, I would never say I actually miss consuming meat (even though, yes, it does often smell so yummy while it’s cooking. Cheese is another story; I may cook a lot of vegan dishes but I would be hard pressed to give it up altogether. What I’m really hankering after is probably a taste of that barbecue sauce, or the herbs the chicken’s been roasted in, rather than the animal itself.). In that sense, I’m lucky.
So while my decision to go vegetarian was not an entirely political act , for as long as I can remember I have loved animals truly and wish only to treat them with respect and kindness. I think for me going vegetarian just felt right. and as with so many things in my life that turn out to be for the best, I went with my gut feeling, and haven’t really looked back. This is not to say I mind if others do; on the contrary. I do wish and hope that if possible people would seek out organic and sustainably raised beef and poultry (etc.), but I will never tell someone what to do. My choice to be vegetarian, your choice to eat meat (or tofu), or whatever. I am a huge believer in personal choice.
I have my moments when I wonder if I am ‘missing’ something by not eating meat. There are so many wonderful restaurants in my city, not to mention the world, and if I stay staunchly veg I have to skip most of the menu (small price to pay, I reckon). I wonder if ever I am pregnant I’ll crave meat (I have two friends who remained vegetarian throughout their pregnancies; I have others who went back to meat then and are still eating it). Then there’s the ‘full’ issue: I’m currently training for a marathon and am remembering anew the importance of protein consumed after a long run — though I’m pretty adept at the good old pb-and-banana recovery snack — and am always hungry. (Always.) Would meat fill me up more than quinoa + tofu? Still, I’m never truly tempted to find out for sure.
I’m not going back to meat anytime soon — probably I never will. The plant-based world fully satisfies, small occasional questions aside. But I do want to cook it a bit more just to test myself, to see if I can, even if that seems a bit weird. Then, too, I’ve been spending a lot of time with someone who does enjoy a good steak now and again (though, bless him, he also loves my Tofurkey sundried tomato ‘sausages’ and quinoa salad), not to mention that my mom truly appreciates a good roast chicken (as well as one of my girlfriends), and my brother loves his lamb …
[The Carpenter’s Boatshop, Pemaquid, Me., June 2010.]
Anyway, back to ‘my’ chicken of a few weeks ago. It slept comfortably its chilly sleep for nearly 24 hours until the next evening when I took it out of the fridge to bake. To my horror, I discovered that my damned janky refrigerator had half-frozen its legs. Woe and anguish and general gnashing of teeth ensued. Doom, in fact. Even a phone call to my sister-in-law lamenting my fate. But after clutching my head for a few minutes — and one stiff g&t later — all I could do was to laugh and shake my fist at cheap apartment fridges and ineffectual vegetarians. I ran the poor chicken under warm water and ended up cooking it anyhow; it seemed to turn out fine (all I heard was how good it tasted). So. Maybe blindly going forth is the way? Or I need a new fridge.
My friend Tara wrote a wonderful book last year about growing up as a vegetarian who later had to delve into the world of cooking meat for health reasons. She addresses the implications of eating different kinds of meat — and, in fact, if we should — and asks the questions that must be asked. But what I identified with most was her trepidation about cooking it, and her slight nervousness. I certainly questioned my sanity that night: It was a sign! Reason #1928 why vegetarians should not cook meat, I told myself. We don’t know what the heck we’re doing; we’re vegetarians! And yet … and yet.
So yeah: me and meat. We’re kind of wary with each other, and with an uncertain future as of this writing — though I have a feeling my curiosity won’t be waning anytime soon.
There’s always more to say, of course, particularly about this subject, but I’ve gone on long enough. So anyway: I made this chicken. Despite electrical semi-disasters, it all came out well. And I heard it tasted great. I’ll probably even make it again, and I’ll know more of what I’m doing this time. (Though I’ll be the one eating the white beans with basil pistou, and happily lapping up every bite.)
I do like a challenge, after all.
Roast chicken a la Zuni Cafe, and bread salad,via smittenkitchen.com, with my adaptations
Serves 2 to 4
One small chicken, about 3 to 3 ¾ pounds
4 sprigs fresh thyme, rosemary, or sage, each about 3 inches long
Fine sea salt, about ¾ tsp per pound of chicken
About ¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 heirloom tomatoes, roughly quartered
1/2 lemon, sliced
One to two days before roasting, season the chicken. First, remove and discard any giblets or lumps of fat stashed inside the cavity. Rinse the chicken, and thoroughly pat it dry inside and out with paper towels. Place the chicken breast side up in an 8- or 9-inch square glass or ceramic dish. Approaching from the edge of the cavity, slip a finger under the skin of each breast, making two small pockets. Slide an herb sprig into each pocket, and place the other two sprigs inside the cavity. Season the chicken liberally all over with salt and pepper, using your hands to massage the spices into the skin, concentrating more on the meaty breasts and thighs than the bony wings and ankles. Sprinkle a bit of salt inside the cavity. Tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders, cover the chicken with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 24-48 hours.
To roast the chicken, preheat the oven to 475 degrees Fahrenheit. Choose a shallow, flameproof roasting pan or dish barely larger than the chicken. Preheat the pan on the stovetop over medium heat and drip in a light slick of olive oil. Wipe the chicken dry with paper towels, and set it breast side up in the pan. It should sizzle. Place the pan in the middle of the oven, and listen and watch for the chicken to sizzle and start browning within 20 minutes. The skin should blister a bit, but it shouldn’t blacken or smoke; if it does, reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees. Conversely, if the chicken isn’t browning, raise the temperature by 25 degrees.
After about 30 minutes, gently turn the bird over. Roast for another 15-20 minutes, depending on size, then flip it back breast side, add the tomatoes and lemon slices, and cook for another 10-15 minutes. Total roasting time will be 50 minutes to an hour-ish.
Remove the chicken from the oven, transfer it to a cutting board or plate, and allow it to rest for 10-20 minutes before cutting it into pieces.
Zuni Cafe Bread Salad
Generous 8 ounces slightly stale open-crumbed, chewy, peasant-style bread (not sourdough)
6 to 8 tablespoons mild-tasting olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons Champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon dried cranberries
2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
2 to 3 garlic cloves, slivered
1/4 cup slivered scallions (about 4 scallions), including a little of the green part
2 tablespoons lightly salted water
A few handfuls of arugula, frisée, or red mustard greens
Preheat the broiler. Carve off all of the bottom and most of the top and side crusts from your bread (you can reserve these to use as croutons for soup or another salad). Tear bread into irregular 2- to 3-inch chunks, wads, bite-sized bits and fat crumbs.
Toss them with just a tablespoon or two of olive oil, lightly coating them, and broil them very briefly, just to lightly color the edges.
Combine about 1/4 cup of the olive oil with the vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Toss about 1/4 cup of this tart vinaigrette with the torn bread in a wide salad bowl; the bread will be unevenly dressed. Taste one of the more saturated pieces. If it is bland, add a little salt and pepper and toss again.
Heat a spoonful of the olive oil in a small skillet, add the garlic and scallions, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until softened. Scrape into the bread and fold to combine. Add the cranberries and pine nuts. Dribble the lightly salted water over the salad and fold again.
Place the salad in the oven after you flip the chicken the final time, for about 5 to 10 minutes.
Tip the bread salad back into the salad bowl. It will be steamy-hot, a mixture of soft, moist wads, crispy-on-the-outside-but-moist-in-the-middle-wads, and a few downright crispy ones. Drizzle and toss with a spoonful of the pan juices. Add the greens, a drizzle of vinaigrette, and fold well.
Plate the salad on your serving dish and pile the chicken on top to serve.