Thursday, September 20, 2007

Building a better vegetarian

Cooking as masonry.

Well, never thought about it that way but okay...

The setting is a September dinner party; the recipe is Zucchini Quiche. The source, Anna Thomas' seminal 1972 ode to the soaring possibilities of a meat-free diet, The Vegetarian Epicure. (Oh yeah, my former hippie/underground revolutionary parents had the book. For me, the yellowed pages and slightly goofy line drawings spell comfort and first tastes of couscous.)

Anna was a graduate student when she wrote the cookbook, studying film at UCLA, and I imagine an attractive blond in Birkenstocks, sleeveless tops, and cotton skirts that loosely grace her trim, tan figure. Very "German living abroad" (or in her case, a naturalized U.S. citizen still in touch with the muesli-and-homeopathy-obsessed wing of her mutterland.) In my mind, she lived in communal student housing, the kitchen spacious and never renovated, stocked with sturdy pots and pans found in garage sales, a big plank table nicked and smoothed by time filling one sun-drenched corner where her lucky housemates tasted her experiments.

Anna brought spirit (and probably sexy) to the back-to-the-earth-contingent, they of the "heavy, tasteless bulgur casseroles and soybean loaves," as Molly O'Neill writes in American Food Writing. A 1973 recipe for quiche published by the Rodale Fitness House Kitchen (an early self-help clearing house) is, on paper at least, a joyless affair: the shell is made of cooked brown rice, the custard filling blends 3 eggs with skim milk powder and water. And then there's 1 and a 1/4 cup of cheese -- it's not like the result is exactly low-fat.

But Anna's quiche is different. Sure, it has fat and carbs, but it's healthy fare -- certainly in comparison with the heavy custard and bacon of the classic quiche Lorraine or the processed, creamy filling of the average early-70s family casserole. Unlike many Rodale dishes that reach for tamari soy sauce instead of fresh herbs or powdered milk instead of the real thing, Anna's quiche doesn't strive for a false blandness.

The quiche is constructed in layers -- this is where the masonry comes in. But unlike in house-building, the base is not really the most important layer. You can cover any multitude of pastry sins with a lip-smacking filling (provided your audience is willing to be wowed). But the perfect crust is something that I'm going to have to master, so I took its preparation seriously.

And so at the stroke of midnight on a chilly early-autumn night (the oven cold, the kitchen perfectly serene and cool), I started to slice Crisco and butter into pastry flour, working quickly so as not to heat up the fat. I had read pages 858 through 861 of The New Joy of Cooking at least three times before I began, and my lips moved softly as I repeated the flaky pastry mantra: The goal is to cut the fat ... The goal is to cut the fat ... Firm, separate pieces ... Firm, separate pieces ... Some fine and crumblike ... Some fine and crumblike ... The rest the size of peas ... The rest the size of peas.

And I do believe I got it right -- but something went haywire in the next stage, "the binding of the dough with the water." I drizzled (I swear I drizzled) a bit of ice water over the flour mixture and cut with a spatula to blend, but I just wasn't achieving the proper sticky balls of dough. One-third of a cup plus 1 tbsp. of water became one-third plus 2, then 3 tbsps. (the maximum that Joy allows), and it still was quite dry and crumbly. I went over by another tbsp. or two, but I knew then that I had earned a mere passing grade: my crust was irrevocably glutenous. It would turn out dense and perhaps chewy rather than so light and flaky that it "shatters at the touch of a fork."

But as I said, a good filling is enormously forgiving. What's more, the quiche's crust calls for the addition of a half-cup of grated Parmesan and cheddar. As I set to rolling it out with "firm, decisive, sweeping strokes" I knew it would taste just fine. (However: I froze half the dough for a future recipe, Pineapple Pie, and I'm afraid the lack of flakiness will be considerably more pronounced.)

I folded the dough in quarters to transfer it to the pan, a maneuver helpfully illustrated in Joy, and forked the edges, before leaving it to "rest" in the fridge.

Now, to the heart and soul: the quiche skips the traditional heavy custard and replaces it with a sour cream, chive, flour, and two-egg souffle-like filling (the eggs are separated and then the fluffy whites folded back in). I was out of flour and substituted cornmeal -- as it was only 2 tbsp. this worked just fine.

Anna's quiche is at once continental and American: a nod, perhaps, to Julia Child, who taught Americans that quiche Lorraine contains no cheese. It dares to be different: it features cheese only in the base and the topping; the inside a heady six layers of vivid green zucchini planks and light and flavorful cream sustained with a dash of cream of tartar.

And it was fun to put together, just as Anna promised it would be, and fun for my guests to watch, their eyes growing wide with anticipation as they grazed on a selection of my favorite easy-breezy appetizers: crunch pita chips from Aliza Green's Starting with Ingredients, cold, spicy sesame-marinated celery adapted from Mark Bittman's The Best Recipes in the World, roasted peppers to dip in the world's best store-bought hummus, and a new addition to the table, Alice Waters' warm olives, recently published in the NY Times. (You didn't think I cook all historical, all the time, did you?)

Fifty minutes later, I presented it at the table and it did indeed look "like a fabulous, double-crust, deep-dish pie," as Anna wrote. Each wedge stood tall and proud, a feat of culinary engineering, "like a stone brick or wall." My guests, three out of four of them architects, appreciated the structural integrity, but mostly they appreciated the flavor, surprisingly light, "not at all like a wall."

Bricks and mortar never tasted so good.

PS: We topped our second helpings with two of my varieties of ketchup -- another triumph in their victory lap!

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