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May 24, 2009

Rali’s favorite vegetarian dishes

Filed under: — rich @ 9:27 am

I love to cook and to share my cooking. But because most of our friends and family are far away most of the time, here I’ll share the recipes for my favorite vegetarian dishes.

I always improvise a lot, so I am including the variations that have worked well. None of these dishes has ever come out a disaster. I hope you enjoy them too.

I find them all healthy, tasty, and balanced (which many see as a major challenge with vegetarian dishes.) I also want to say that they are filling, but somehow I rarely go without having seconds.

Spicy Peanut Butter Tofu

Start cooking the rice first. Steam 1-1/2 cups of brown, red, or black rice. Salt the water lightly, don’t add oil. Throw in whole spices like: star anise, nutmeg, cinnamon stick, cardamom, bay leaves and discard them when the rice is ready and they have come to the top. Black rice, also called forbidden rice, tastes a bit nutty, but is more notable for the deep back color. Think black beans. Initially it gives your spouse, or guests, a funny little shock.

Use any tofu. Soft tofu makes a tastier dish, but naturally looks sloppier. If you want nice little cubes, use extra firm tofu, but you’ll need to add more water. In a non-stick frying pan mix the tofu, about a pound, with 2-4 spoons soy sauce, 2-4 spoons peanut butter (cashew butter worked great too), and a generous pour of hot sauce or a pinch of hot red pepper flakes. Let is bubble, so that the peanut butter melts and the tofu is heated through. Add 1/2 cup water and stir. When the sauce looks smooth, it is ready to dish over the rice and serve. I recommend extra dark beer to go with it, mostly because heavy dark beer goes well with almost everything. If any tofu is leftover, it is surprisingly good cold, just out of the fridge, without rice. Seriously.

Spinach and Cheese Curry

In any Indian restaurant I read the varied vegetarian menu, but when the waiter comes for my order, I inevitably get that. And I don’t even like spinach that much.

Steam and flavor the rice. My favorite is basmati rice with a big bunch of fresh lemon grass thrown in the pot. But now that we don’t live in Abuja anymore and don’t have a big lemon grass bush in the front yard, I put whole cardamom, bay leaves, and even tea bags. Lemon grass tea and lemon herbal tea work wonderfully.

Feel free to substitute canned or frozen spinach, and I have, but if you want the fresh green color and grassy taste: get fresh. Steam in the bag in the microwave or stir fry briefly, just so it brightens in color. Put the spinach in a blender, 1 can coconut milk, 2 spoons flour and quick puree. Fry a bunch of chopped green onions in the pot, add the spinach puree, a can of drained chick peas, add curry powder (or even better: green curry paste), salt, pepper, cumin, ginger, red hot flakes and cook a couple of minutes after it starts bubbling. Once it has thickened, add the cubed cheese. Indian cheese cubes of course is the real deal, but hard Mexican cheese is also very good. Mexican cheese is saltier and chewier. A bit of cottage cheese is a nice addition too. I have made it with cubed hard tofu as well. The dish is now vegan, way less fatty, and still very tasty. Last, take the pot off the burner and stir chopped basil, mint, and cilantro, a whole bunch, the juice of one lime or half a lemon, a cup of plain yogurt, and some more black pepper. If you’ve done it right it will be very green, with a delicious lemon basil/cilantro aroma, and a satisfying touch of cheese.

Mushroom Risotto

I have made mushroom risotto almost out of anything. (And I mean it. Leftover Chinese steamed rice, a can of mushroom soup, half a cup of wine, Parmesan and green herbs, and you’ve got a 5 min risotto.) With this dish I can really say:

Any rice will do, mushrooms of any kind will work, any cheese will do, and any green herb will be fine.

Use 1-1/2 cup rice. Fry the dry rice in olive oil with crushed garlic, minced onion until the rice is transparent. Pour a glass of white wine (or red if that’s what you have open) and enjoy the sizzling and intoxicating fumes of boiling wine. When the wine is absorbed, add a cup of vegetable broth or water and stir. I usually use water. Keep on stirring occasionally and pouring a bit extra water until the rice is tender. Add the mushrooms. My recommendation is about two cups of fresh mixed mushrooms cooked in a pan until they have released and reabsorbed their water, and have started to caramelize on the outside. Dry, presoaked mushrooms, stir fried in olive oil work great too. Or even canned drained mushrooms. Mix the rice and mushrooms, pour some extra wine in, and take it off the heat. Now add black pepper, butter, parmesan (or any other shredded cheese, cheddar alone has worked great for me) and your green herb of choice. In an ideal world that would be a bit of fresh rosemary and a lot of sweet basil. But in reality, any dry Italian-sounding seasoning does the job: oregano, parsley, basil, rosemary. A handful of pine nuts added with the herbs is perfect. Sunflower and even pumpkin seeds give a similar oily, salty, tiny crunch. If you are not afraid of too many flavors, mix in a handful of sun dried tomatoes cut in strips and chopped black olives.

Risotto is a heavy dish and should be served in small portions along fresh green salad. The best one I’ve had it with was made of chopped celery stalks, chopped roasted hazelnuts, all mixed with salt, pepper, and lots of fresh lemon juice.

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