Sunday, October 17, 2010

Tomato & Roasted Eggplant Stew with Chickpeas

On the northeast side of Indianapolis, there's a restaurant called Kabob Korner, an Afghan restaurant that has some pretty good kabobs, but also a magical soup called Aush. It is neither vegan nor vegetarian, but I mention it because trying to figure out its ingredients has become a bit of a parlor game for my foodie friends and me. It has a complex but singular flavor that is very difficult to separate into its component parts. It is also addictively good, a wonderful winter dish that nevertheless hits the spot in summer.

Can vegan food deliver something with the same mysteriously delicious impact? Let's just give away the end right now. Yes.

I approached Tomato & Roasted Eggplant Stew with Chickpeas (p. 179) with a measure of suspicion. I loathed eggplant as a kid, and even though I like it now, I mostly prefer it in formats where it ends up pureed or melted away. But this one keeps the eggplant in relatively large pieces, so I had to cook this with some faith.

You start out roasting some vegetables. You cut some eggplant quite thickly (possibly I didn't do it quite thickly enough, as we'll see), but you also need to roast some red bell peppers (orange or yellow will do as substitutes, but not green), and some garlic. Here it is as it first goes in the oven:

Regarding the parchment paper in the picture above, when I put it on the baking sheet, I didn't realize it's not really necessary for the cooking process at all. I didn't notice in the recipe that Terry & Isa go on to say that you don't really need the parchment if you don't care about how your baking sheets look. To which I say, if you care about how your baking sheets look, perhaps you have misplaced priorities in the kitchen. Don't bother.

This is how everything looks when you bring the roasting vegetables out of the oven the first time (the red bell peppers get off at this stop--everything else goes back in).

While the vegetables are roasting, start cooking the base for the soup. You're looking at onions, tomatoes, white wine, garlic, and a magical, if improbable, spice mixture of tarragon, thyme, coriander, paprika, salt, and bay leaves.

My only complaint about this recipe is this: while you're getting the base going, the eggplant and garlic come out of the oven. What T&I don't warn you about is that their instructions are going to bring your eggplant to the brink of burning, and I ended up having to toss maybe 1/5 of my eggplant slices because they were charred husks. Which means either the oven was too high (the recipe calls for 450), or I needed to slice my eggplant more thickly, or I just needed to watch the whole thing closer. In any case, I had enough eggplant to keep going.

Keeping going basically means dropping the eggplant into the stew. Also, the recipe will have instructed you to put the roasted red peppers into a plastic bag to allow the skins to steam off. This process works. Once the stew is good and simmering, it looks like this:

It needs to cook 20 minutes. After that, you'll take the garlic you've roasted and squeeze each clove into the soup, and let it stand for a while. I also squeezed in half a lemon. Let it sit for another 15 minutes or so.

Finally, serve it! On the side, I just made some kale according to almost exactly the same method as the stir-fried greens from the last post, just switching the ingredients up a bit to make things a bit more Mediterranean (added olive oil, subtracted soy sauce, added tomatoes, extra garlic). Good stuff.

And here's the final presentation. This was really excellent. The flavor was unplaceable, but really compelling, and the greens were a great side. Iv and I each took it again for lunch the next day, and it was even better. I'm going to chalk the success up to tarragon -- it's an herb I've never felt totally comfortable using because it's so very closely associated with French cooking (which I don't know very well). But this flavor combo plus the nearly-burned eggplant? Awesome. This one may be the best recipe in the book so far, and probably the first one where I really learned something new. Make this one, kids, even if you don't like eggplant.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Still not vegan with a vengeance

I took a year and a half off from the blog for no reason other than the same reason there are so many other ghost blogs out there. I always roll my eyes when there's some media report or other that talks about how everyone is blogging. Sure, whatever. Everyone is blogging the same way that everyone is keeping a journal, going to the gym, or sticking to their diet.

But I've decided to give this another go, so we're back! Let's get going. We're doing a bunch of recipes together this time, trying to do a big delicious sushi bowl incorporating several elements. Kids, you'll want to open up your Veganomicons and mark these pages: 112 for Roasted Portabello mushrooms; page 113 for Easy Stir-Fried Leafy Greens; and page 128 for Baked BBQ Tofu. We're also going to use the sushi rice instructions from the Spicy Tempeh Nori Rolls on page 47.

Let's start with the Baked BBQ Tofu. I decided I wanted to do kind of a Korean take on this dinner. Not really sure why, given my previous experience with Korean Barbequed Tofu. Take a look at my impressions of another recipe I tried from the bizarre classic Tofu Cookery, which inexplicably has almost 5 stars on Amazon. I made and rejected this gem at the tender age of 12.

The first step of the recipe is to press the tofu. If you haven't done this before, let me tell you three things:
  1. Unlike other nuisance pre-steps like salting eggplant or preheating your oven, you really need to do this.
  2. It's worth it to do it, too. Squeezing the water out of tofu gives it a nice chewy texture. Nowhere near as meaty as seitan, but good.
  3. It's really easy.

To press the tofu, just cut your brick of firm or extra-firm tofu into four slices. Put it on a plate on top of a generous layer of paper towels.

Put another layer of paper towels on top of the tofu, and weight it down with something heavy. I used a casserole dish filled with marinating portabello mushrooms (more on that later), and topped that with a cast iron bacon pan for good measure. Let it all sit for 10-20 minutes or more. When you're done, you'll have some wet paper towels and some dry-ish, slightly flattened pieces of tofu. I cut them again through the middle to end up with eight flat tofu rectangles.

From this point on, I took huge liberties with the recipe. It ultimately turned out to be a hybrid of the Baked BBQ Tofu recipe, the Marinated Asian Tofu on the facing page, and a Korean marinade recipe I found on the web.
First I made the marinade, taking the random internet recipe, scaling it down to just one cup of marinade, and omitting the flour. I put the tofu in a small casserole dish and poured the marinade over it, and let it sit while I cooked the portabello mushrooms in the oven (we'll get to them in a sec). I think it was 30 minutes or so.

Then I went back to the Veganomicon recipe, putting the tofu on a greased casserole dish, cooking for 15 minutes on each side, and smothering it with the marinade at the end. It came out of the oven looking like this, nice and brown and fragrant.

As all this was going on, I was doing the roasted portabellos as well. I followed the recipe almost exactly on this one, except that since I was going for Asian flavors, I used mirin instead of the cooking wine, peanut oil instead of olive oil, and rice vinegar instead of balsamic.

They come out of the oven looking like this. What strikes me most about this picture is that even though veganism is supposed to be compassionate and all, it still looks like I killed something.

Whew! We're almost done. So finally, I did the Easy Stir-Fried Leafy Greens. You can use basically any kind of greens you want for this -- I used mustard.
I like to add a little extra fire to my food, so I added one step to this. Terry & Isa will have you fry the garlic and ginger first, but I put in two whole dried Thai chilis first, cooking them in the peanut oil till they were almost black. You can use this technique to add some subtle heat to just about anything. Remember to take the chilis out before serving or you risk being smacked by your boyfriend as he asks, "For the TWENTIETH time, are you trying to kill me?" It's happened a time or two friend.

The only other change I made was that at the end I couldn't find my sesame-chili oil, so I just toasted some sesame seeds and tossed them in instead. Mustard greens cook down a lot, by the way. The book indicates that this recipe serves 4-6, but especially as good as these are, they barely serve 2.
At last, we assemble the dish. Put the sushi rice in a bowl (the recipe Terry & Isa provide works nicely, by the way). Then top it artfully with a couple slices of tofu, some sliced portabello caps, and the greens. I also added some storebought kimchee.

This was delicious, and may become a dinner mainstay. I realize that with all the moving parts it sounds complicated, but it really only took just over an hour. These recipes are winners. I should also add that Iv said he'd just eat a bowl of the greens by themselves. They really were that good.