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A la Carte: Cooking can be an expression of creativity, love

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Shakshouka is a dish popular in northern Africa and the Middle East that usually features eggs poached in a simmering sauce of spiced tomatoes and peppers. PHOTO BY AMIRALI MIRHASHEMIAN

By Rachel Hergett EBS COLUMNIST

I’m definitely not a vegan. If I sniff the air, I can still smell the steak I cooked up for lunch. It was seared in bacon grease on a cast iron skillet, then thrown on top of a Caesar salad. It had pork, beef and anchovies, in addition to eggs and milk and cheese. Many animals contributed. And they were appreciated for the delicious sustenance they provided.

When I’m finished writing, however, I will clean the pan and use it to make an appetizer for my cooking club’s vegan-themed dinner. This month’s theme was chosen because a member was recently urged by their doctor to adopt a vegan diet. While future meals may be a celebratory exception, there is love in making food people can eat. 

Imagine a holiday feast. I see nibbling on a baked brie or a cheese plate. Follow that with a couple of roast meats, celebratory nuts such as chestnut gracing stuffings or salads, maybe a pie with an eggy curd filling or some ice cream. Sounds delightful. But what if you can’t eat protein? 

Enter Molly, my Bellingham, Washington-based cousin Will’s high school sweetheart and long-term girlfriend. There was a big to-do the first year Molly was going to make an appearance at Thanksgiving dinner in Bozeman. One of the first tests administered to newborn babies is a foot prick screen for phenylketonuria, or PKU. Molly has it.

Someone with PKU can’t break down an enzyme present in protein, and thus eating what some would consider a healthy, protein-filled diet leads to irreversible brain damage, according to the Mayo Clinic

We still had a smoked turkey and a goose that year, but the sides looked a little different. My favorite hot dish — green bean casserole — was replaced with roasted green beans, mushrooms and onions. Everyone who contributed cooked so that Molly could eat her fill. It was beautiful, and a dinner my family still talks about for both its deliciousness and the lack of couch lock we felt in its aftermath. 

Food sensitivities may not be as severe as PKU, but for those that have them, someone else preparing a meal you feel good about eating can be an incredible luxury. I like to consider it a challenge of my creativity in the kitchen and will ask people I’m cooking for what they can’t (or won’t) eat to create a menu around. Are you gluten free? Dairy free? Vegan? I like a good steak, but I don’t need to make one for every meal.

I’ve been into shakshouka lately, or really since I first had it at a writing retreat led by Virginia City author and amazing cook Allyson Adams. Shakshouka is a dish popular in northern Africa and the Middle East that usually features eggs poached in a simmering sauce of spiced tomatoes and peppers. 

Tonight, I’ll make it vegan. And an appetizer. I’m adding toasted quinoa to the sauce, stuffing it in roasted mini sweet peppers and topping it with some vegan feta, parsley and cilantro. The sweet peppers are for me: Most people use bell peppers, which top my own list of food sensitivities. 

Some dishes will already fit into the needs of the people you cook for, but don’t be afraid to get a bit creative. Start with a dish you know and love, and use its flavor as a base to lift up any substitutions you make. Your effort will be appreciated.

Rachel Hergett is a foodie and cook from Montana. She is arts editor emeritus at the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and has written for publications such as Food Network Magazine and Montana Quarterly. Rachel is also the host of the Magic Monday Show on KGLT-FM and teaches at Montana State University. 

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