If the western world is going to find its way to sustainability, learning to eat much less meat is going to be important. Intensive livestock farming uses huge amounts of resources in water, animal feed, land, and waste disposal. Ruminants (like cattle and sheep) also turn carbon in their food into the super-greenhouse-gas methane at an alarming rate. This is quite unsustainable.
I'm not arguing that all livestock are unsustainable (and I'm not a vegetarian). Permaculture farming is well suited to integrating livestock and fowl with plant crops. But we will have to stop the intensive feedlot and extensive pasturing monocultures that currently do so much damage. The end result will probably be that the amount of meat in our diet will decrease, even if we keep farming some sheep and cattle.
Fortunately with a few lessons, vegetarian cooking can come up with some very tasty dishes. Here's two of my own invention.
An introductory note on tofu
Both these dishes use tofu (although you could leave it out without changing the flavour noticeably). tofu is a good source of protein, but often detested by people who have never had it cooked properly. You need to fry it first for most recipes, or it is bland and gross! But after frying it absorbs much more flavour. While it is not particularly cheap at most supermarket chains (often costing as much per kilo as cheap cuts of meat) you should be able to get tofu much cheaper (and often better quality) at chinese and vietnamese grocers -- as little as $3 per kilo (or thereabouts) around where I live. If you buy it in a tub with water, tip out any water and cover it with fresh water as soon as you get home (and every day or so until you have used the tofu). This keeps it fresh much longer.
Spiced eggplant and tomato
1 large black eggplant (aubergine)
250g medium soft tofu (not silken soft)
shrimp paste (or for vegetarians: black beans or hot bean paste)
2cm cube (roughly) of ginger, sliced and chopped finely
Fresh chilli – amount and heat to taste (suggest 2-4 birdseye chillies, chopped)
Rice cooking wine
5 fresh tomatoes, chopped (or 1 can chopped tomatoes)
1 cinnamon quill
2cm cube of tamarind pulp softened in 1 cup hot water (or 2 tbsp tamarind concentrate)
Kecap Manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce)
Fresh coriander leaves, chopped roughly (optional)
Chop the eggplant into cubes (about 2cm), place in a bowl and mix with 3 teaspoons of salt. Leave for about half an hour before rinsing salt off and adding in recipe.
Tofu should be soft but still firm enough not to fall apart. Cut the tofu into 2cm squares about 1cm thick. Fry in generous quantity of vegetable oil until both sides are browned. Set aside on a plate.
Dice the onion. Heat 3 tbsp vegetable oil in a deep pan or large pot. Add 1tsp shrimp paste or hot bean paste if using, fry and stir into oil on high heat for 1 minute. Add onion, ginger and chilli (and 1 tbsp black beans if you're using them), and stir for another minute or two. Add eggplant as prepared above, splash in 1-2 tbsp cooking wine, stir for 1-2 minutes and then add tomatoes, cinnamon, and cloves. Stir and add tamarind with enough hot water to almost cover contents. Bring to boil then turn heat down and simmer with lid off for ten minutes. You can prepare tofu in this time if you like. Add tofu, salt (suggest 1-2 tsp) and 2tbsp kecap manis. Simmer until eggplant is soft and disintegrating and amount of liquid has reduced. If you want to add thickener (see tip below) stir it in just before you turn the heat off. Garnish with fresh coriander and serve with steamed rice.
Steamed rice thickener tip
There are many ways to cook steamed rice. I cook basmati rice with plenty of water (more than is needed). I don't rinse first. A general rule of thumb is 1 cup rice to 2 cups water (and 1 cup of rice is enough for about 2 people). So I add extra - say 2.5 or 3 cups water to 1 cup rice.
When the rice is done you can tell because holes start to appear in the surface where steam is bubbling up; try a little rice on a fork to see if it’s soft enough to eat, and keep cooking until you’re satisfied it's soft enough. When it’s done, there should still be some water left in the pot – if you put in way too much, the water level will still be over the rice, but ideally it will be lower than the rice. A bit of trial and error might be needed based on your pot and the type of rice you are using, you want to end up with about half a cup of water left over.
I tip the water off by holding the lid of the pot open just a crack so the water can pour out but not the rice. You have to be careful or you’ll lose the rice too! The water poured off has a lot of starch from the rice and is great to add straight to the main dish as a thickener at the end; you can also keep it as rice milk – or just drink it hot as a tea.
Sweet pumpkin curry
Half a pumpkin, peeled and diced
One onion, diced
2cm (approx) ginger, sliced and chopped finely
Finely chopped chilli if you want it hot (or chilli powder)
Spice mix: 1 tsp each of whole seeds of fenugreek, Kalonji (nigella), mustard, cumin and fennel (panch phoron mix)
Half cup of red lentils
1 tsp turmeric
250g medium-soft tofu
Pre-preparation: prepare tofu as for dish above
Heat 3 tbsp oil in a large pot on medium heat. Add the spice mix and leave on heat until you hear mustard seeds just starting to “pop”. Add diced onion, chilli and ginger and stir in for a minute. Add lentils and stir in, for about a minute. add pumpkin and hot water to cover.
Bring to boil then reduce heat and simmer. If you like a runny consistency, cook with lid on. If you prefer it to be thick, leave lid off to reduce (boil off) water. Add turmeric and stir when you reduce the heat (and chilli powder if you're using it).
When lentils have softened and pumpkin is soft, add tofu and salt to taste (1-3 teaspoons). Add thickener if you want at this stage (1-2 tsp flour mixed into a thin paste with cold water, if you don't want to use the rice method above). Stir and simmer for another 5 minutes or until pumpkin is starting to disintegrate. Serve with rice.