Peppers in a Pot

Capsaicin.

That’s the stuff that makes hot peppers hot. I’ve got something to say about Capsaicin, but we’ll get to it in a bit.

I love to cook. Being a vegetarian, it’s actually a nearly essential skill. If I couldn’t cook, I wouldn’t have a lot of options at mealtime. Don’t get me wrong – these days it’s easy to be a vegetarian. There are lots of ready-made meat substitutes available that are pretty convincing. Gone are the days of just grain patties and tofu (though tofu is a glorious thing). Welcome to the world of simulated spicy Italian sausages, flame-grilled fake chicken patties, even bacon-like strips that you’d have a hard time distinguishing as unreal in you BLT.

You doubt my word? Check out the local supermarket. If you’re anywhere near a major civic center you can probably get burgers, ribs, chicken wings, even un-meatloaf. For vegans, there are plenty of soy products that substitute for milk, cheese, ice cream, and anything else you care to desire.

Some people complain about the cost of these products, but given the cost of a piece of good beef, there isn’t a whole lot of difference. Sure, soy products should be cheaper, but right now they’re still a niche item, and folks like me are generally willing to accept the profiteering, since it’s probably going back into R&D for even better products.

Keep in mind, though, that being meat-free doesn’t necessarily make a product healthy. A lot of simulated products contain large amounts of vegetable oil. Some don’t contain a whole lot of anything nutritionally valuable. And even with the stuff that does, you can only eat packaged meat substitutes so many nights in a row.

Restaurants are always an option, of course. Most places have at least a few items on the menu that cater to vegetarian pallets, and even if they don’t you’ll find that the Chef is probably willing to whip up something special. But you can clock up a small fortune by eating out on a regular basis. I have some friends who did a bit of accounting and discovered they were laying out six to seven thousand dollars a year on meals, many of which they realized would be easy to make at home. And that penne with rich vodka crème sauce isn’t doing any nice things to your arteries.

A lot of people assume that I took up a meat-free lifestyle for political reasons. As much as I think that food animals get a raw deal, I still own leather goods, so that wasn’t my motivation. Some people ask if it’s because I have allergies. This is partly true – fish always made me ill, though not in any sort of life-threatening way. But a good steak was a happy thing right up to the time I quit carving.

It happened like this… I was working as a creative director at this place that was located in Toronto’s “fashion district”. In Toronto, the fashion district isn’t where clothes are sold; it’s where clothes are made. At the time, while I had reached that point in self-sufficiency where I could make a decent dinner, it was often a time-consuming task.

Thanks to long hours, I frequently ate at one of the small number of local diners, feasting on whatever deep-fried-refried-mystery-meat that happened to be lying around in the highly appetizing grease-soaked steel hotel pan, with the obligatory side of limp, chilled fries. I shit you not – even the staff didn’t know whether it was chicken or pork half the time.

Yumm…

I’d been at the company for about four months when one of my coworkers showed me the ultra hidden location of a nifty little vegan deli. It was literally in the basement of the building across the street, and if you didn’t know it was there you’d never be able to find it. There were seats for at most fifteen people, and it was always busy.

At first, the idea of eating a meatless meal was foreign to me. Meat was part of -every- meal, but I gave one of the vegetable grain patties a try (on a dairy-free bun with soy sprinkles on it), and discovered that the food tasted a hundred times better than the chalky chicken salad sandwiches I had been reduced to in previous weeks. I ate there regularly after that, and realized at some point that I simply hadn’t had any meat for almost three weeks.

The thing is, I felt better than I had in ages. My improved energy was simply the result of not pounding down a heavy meal at lunch, and I found I slept better when my body wasn’t trying to digest the fourteen-ounce T-bone I’d had for dinner. Soon it was a month. Then it was two. I kept telling myself that I’d go back to eating meat if I really felt like it. Over five years later, it’s just never happened.

I’m not a complete vegan. I still eat eggs occasionally (though these days I’m more inclined to use Egg Beaters or one of the similar cholesterol free substitutes), and I love cheese (though again I usually stick with the synthetic stuff). I also don’t object to baked goods that contain dairy. Since I don’t eat sweets, ice cream and chocolate are non-issues.

It’s never been hard for me to be a vegetarian. I’m pretty attuned to what my body wants, and with the aid of a multivitamin once in a while I’ve never been subjected to the health issues experienced by some of the people who chose to dispense with animal protein. It’s not for everyone, though. I’ve known a number of women who tried to adopt this lifestyle, only to encounter a myriad of physical problems as a result. Almost universally, their doctors recommended that they return to eating meat, which can be problematic if they’ve excluded it from their diet for too long.

Here’s the thing, you body adapts to deal with what you feed it. The enzymes required for digestion are different for each of the principle foodstuffs. It’s a common problem for adults to become lactose intolerant, which is itself a result of a normal decrease in milk consumption. You don’t really need milk as an adult, and if you stop drinking it for a period of time, your body simply stops producing the enzymes needed to digest it. The same is true of meat.

A few years ago, someone unwittingly fed me Chinese “pot-stickers”, which are little bundles of ingredients wrapped in thin pasta-like dough that are boiled and fried. The contents always look remarkably similar – sort of a brownish paste – whether they contain vegetables, meat, or a combination of the two. Unfortunately, the person who purchased these “onion” pot-stickers didn’t read the actual ingredient list, which included both beef and chicken. I got ferociously ill a couple of hours later.

So, it looks like I’m pretty much committed to being a vegetarian.

And fortunately, I like to cook. It’s a lot easier to be a vegetarian if you can make meals that you find really satisfying, rather than trying to find a can of something that you sort of feel like, but not really. You also discover that there are many cultures where meat is never eaten (parts of India are a prime example of this), and plenty of amazing recipes that aren’t on the menu at any of the local eateries.

I think it’s good to make your own food, even if something ready-made that fits your appetite is available. I know a lot of people who can’t cook at all. There are plenty of folks who consider boiling a pot of water to be a major undertaking. In our fast-food focused culture, it’s a little too easy to simply grab a cheeseburger and fries, even if it takes more time than whipping up a healthy bowl of noodle soup.

North Americans, raised as we were on pot roasts and elaborate Sunday dinners, are seemingly terrified of actually learning how to concoct a meal quickly. It’s easy, and I’m not talking about hotdogs here. Of course, in order to be able to cook when you want, you need a pantry. Sadly, this is something else that seems to have fallen out of favor with the ever-spreading nationwide infestation by Taco Bells and Mickey Ds.

I suspect that a lot of people try their hand at cooking (a lot of cookbooks seem to get sold in a country where so few people actually make their own meals), but when their culinary attempts fail to match the appearance of those glossy, art directed color photos in the book, or they wind up gagging on the first bite because they used a tablespoon of salt instead of a dash, or they turn away from the stove only to discover that dinner somehow turned into charcoal in under a minute, they throw in the kitchen towel.

The thing is, the only way to learn how to cook is to cook. Watching Martha whip up soufflé looks easy, but you’re probably going to screw it up the first few times. I’ve created burned wreckages in many a pot, and my penchant for experimenting has led to more than a few meals that it would be generous to call inedible. On the other hand, some of the creations that have arrived on my dinner plate have been delicious, and when I cook for friends I keep the experimentation to a minimum and they always seem to enjoy the meals I prepare. There are few things as satisfying in life as preparing a meal for people you care about (and tricking them into a healthy one, at that).

While special occasions can keep me in the kitchen for the better part of a day, they aren’t something I do on a regular occasion. There are a lot of things I would like to spend my time doing, and while cooking is fun, it often takes a back burner to work, or writing, or just hanging out.

When I’m focusing on a non-food project, I usually get into a routine. Every weekend I’ll take whatever produce happens to be in my fridge and toss it in a big pot. I’ll add some spices, and maybe throw in a cup of pinto beans or some TVP chunks (the stuff they make bacon bits out of, but much larger – usually available through health food and specialty grocery stores). Let it simmer throughout the afternoon, and at the end of the day I have enough soup or stew to provide the bulk of my meals for the rest of the week.

Now lets get back to the Capsaicin …

Along with pretty much every other vegetable in the world (with the possible exception of beats, though I still eat ‘em occasionally) I’m a huge fan of hot peppers. Jalapeños, Anaheims, Porblanos, and many others are favorites, though I’ve avoided Habeneraos since an early cooking accident left me in anguish for nearly three days (factoid: a Habenerao pepper is approximately five thousand times hotter than a Jalapeño… ouch).

Usually I have a large handful of peppers that get tossed into my Sunday creations. I can’t resist buying them, so I always have a stock in the fridge waiting to be used.

When you cut a pepper, you need to clean out the seeds (and usually the bulk of the veins, since the seeds are connected). This has the dual effect of prepping the pepper for cooking, and reducing the chemical heat, since the seeds and veins are the areas of highest concentration. If you just want some heat and a bit of the flavor, it sometimes best to toss them in the pot whole, and toss them in the trash when everything has finished stewing. Cleaning peppers, however, means slicing them open and inevitably getting your hands covered in the essential oils they contain.

There’s one essential oil that haunts me constantly.

You guessed it…

Capsaicin.

When you cut the pepper, Capsaicin gets on your hands, and there’s no way to wash it off easily. The oils stick tenaciously, and only time (or a deliberate dousing in milk or yoghurt) will dispel them. Soap won’t help one bit unless you’re prepared to scrub your hands raw.

For the kitchen novice, this is an immediately uncomfortable experience, and you’re well aware that your fingers are burning, so you tend to be careful about what you do with them. The real potential for additional damage doesn’t become an issue until you’ve been cooking long enough to develop Chef hands.

With sufficient exposure to hot pots and pans, scalding water, and all the other occasional sources of damage, the skin on a cook’s hands gets toughened, and your brain raises the threshold at which your hands will actually feel pain. At this point you don’t really notice the Capsaicin any more, and your hands don’t feel like they’re burning with pepper essence.

So, unthinking and unknowing, you do something that’s totally unconscious… like rubbing your nose or scratching your testicles. The oil gets on skin that isn’t hardened against Capsaicin.

Oh-holly-goddamn-fucking-hell!

I’m sure somebody is selling this stuff as a sex-aid, but as I write this I am in serious pain… again. It happens virtually every time I use ‘em, but I still buy hot peppers, and I still make the damn soup, and every time I tell myself I will -NOT- touch any part of my anatomy that is sensitive.

And yet somehow I always manage to do exactly that.

Son-of-a-bitch-shit-damn-fuck!

OK, under the right circumstances this kind of over-stimulation would be fun… but I’m here by myself, dammit, and I have no intention of performing a laying-on-of-hands under the current circumstances…

You get the picture, and that’s enough for now. Go make yourself some dinner.

But steer clear of the Capsaicin unless you’re prepared to pay the price.

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