The forward-thinking way to cook is this: You dip into a world of cuisines, adapting them as befits your own kitchen, your willingness to experiment and the availability of ingredients. That's what Marie Simmons does, and that's what she advocates in her new book, "Whole World Vegetarian" , a celebration of global plant-based cooking.
Simmons first became enamored of international cuisines as a college student in Brooklyn in the 1960s, when she would walk to Sahadi's Market for fresh pita right out of the oven, for its barrels of fermenting olives and for its "fabulous falafel and creamy feta," she says. Over the following decades of food writing and editing (for her own cookbooks and such publications as Cuisine magazine, Bon AppĂ©tit, Eating Well and more), she traveled widely, eventually realizing that the most interesting recipes she would run across were the vegetarian ones.
I spoke with Simmons, who now lives in Eugene, Oregon, about her book and cooking philosophy. Edited excerpts follow:
Q: When you research recipes, do you concentrate more on dishes that are naturally vegetarian, or do you also take things that have a little bit of meat in them and adapt them?
A: I never adapt that way. I like to start with a dish that's already vegetarian. I'm not a big tofu fan, so I would never take a vegetable dish and add tofu to it. It doesn't feel comfortable. But I will take a dish, a stir-fry made with tofu, and embellish it in some way.
Q: For someone who's not a fan of tofu, your tofu stir-fry that I made is fantastic.
A: Thank you.
Q: When it comes to adapting, do you worry about the authenticity bugaboo? That some readers - okay, commenters - might stick on the idea of, "That's not how they make borscht in Russia"?
A: I'm beyond worry. I just cook. As long as it tastes good, that's the most important thing. I used to be editor of Cuisine magazine, and authenticity was so important. I've gone that route - I've traveled it, I've done all the research. At this point, I just cook.
Q: Do you think American vegetarian cooks - or at least ones who want to cook vegetarian at least some of the time - are as attuned to global cooking as we should be?
A: I'm seeing this way of cooking more and more. I think it's inching its way in. I don't know that we're there yet.
There's so much more to discover. I keep discovering new dishes all the time.
Q: Like what?
A: In my book, I've got a kuku. That's a great recipe. It's basically a Persian frittata. It just has a lot of herbs - dill, mint, parsley - all chopped up with eggs. I did a lot of research, a lot of armchair research in cookbooks, because every cook has their own. I'm not sure some people would want the cheese on top, but I like it there.
Q: For vegetarian cooks who are stuck in a rut, who maybe aren't as globally minded as you, where do you suggest they start?
A: At an international store, to look for ingredients. Here in Eugene, which is a small community, I live two blocks from Plaza Latina, which has every cheese, every vegetable, every spice and chili from Mexico and South America. You can get aji amarillo chilies from Peru there. And here's what's great: They also have an aisle of Middle Eastern ingredients, because there's evidently a Lebanese and Mexican marriage - it's amazing. I would concentrate on one geographic area, go to an international market that specializes in that food, get inspired, and start cooking.
STIR-FRIED TOFU WITH MUSHROOMS, RED PEPPER AND BOK CHOY
Marinating, coating and frying the tofu separately adds flavor and texture. If you buy tofu that is not packed in water, you can skip the pressing step.
MAKE AHEAD: If using tofu packed in water, you'll need to press it for about 20 minutes. The tofu then marinates for about 30 minutes or up to overnight.
• 12 ounces firm tofu
• 2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
• 2 tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar
• 1 tablespoon honey
• 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
• 1 teaspoon hot chili sauce, such as Sriracha, gochujang or Chinese chili paste with garlic
• 2 tablespoons cornstarch
• 3 tablespoons canola, peanut or avocado oil
• 1 large red bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 1 cup)
• 8 ounces oyster mushrooms, including stems, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
• 1 clove garlic, grated
• 1/2 teaspoon peeled, grated fresh ginger root
• 2 heads baby bok choy, trimmed and cut crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces
• 2 tablespoons thinly sliced scallions, cut on the diagonal
Stand the block of tofu on one end and cut it into two equal slabs. Wrap the tofu in paper towels, set it on a plate and place another plate on top. Place a large can of tomatoes or other heavy object on the top plate (to press the tofu). Let it stand for about 20 minutes. Unwrap the pressed tofu and cut it into 3/4-inch squares.
Whisk together the soy sauce, rice vinegar, honey, toasted sesame oil and chili sauce in a large bowl. Add the tofu and gently turn to coat. Marinate at room temperature for about 30 minutes or up to overnight. (If longer than 2 hours, transfer the marinade and tofu to an airtight container and refrigerate.)
Place a strainer over a bowl and drain the tofu, reserving the marinade. Transfer the tofu to a clean bowl. Sift the cornstarch over the tofu, tossing to coat.
Line a plate with paper towels. Heat a large, heavy skillet or wok over high heat until it's hot enough to sizzle a drop of water. Add the canola, peanut or avocado oil and heat until shimmering. Working in batches to avoid overcrowding, add the tofu and cook, turning until evenly browned on all sides, for 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to the paper-towel-lined plate as the tofu browns.
Once all the tofu has been fried, add the bell pepper to the skillet or wok; stir-fry just until the bell pepper starts to lose its crunch, about 1 minute. Add the mushrooms, garlic and ginger; stir-fry, adjusting the heat to maintain a steady sizzle, until the mushrooms start to collapse, about 1 minute. Add the bok choy; stir-fry just until crisp-tender, about 2 minutes.
Return the browned tofu to the skillet or wok, along with the reserved marinade. Stir once to incorporate, then remove from the heat.
Spoon into a serving bowl and top with the scallions.
Nutrition | Per serving: 290 calories, 14 g protein, 16 g carbohydrates, 20 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 230 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 7 g sugar