Going off recipe can be daunting at times, especially if you’re not familiar with the cuisine you’re attempting to replicate. These days, I find myself using recipes more as a guideline of suggestions than as an absolute instruction manual. It comes with practice and confidence and a desire to experiment. When I first moved away to college, I asked my mom for some recipes for my favorite childhood meals. When I saw that the ingredient list called for spices, but didn’t give their amounts, I was nervous. “How can I make it exactly like you do if I don’t know the exact amounts?” I wailed. She said I just had to learn the flavors, that I could start with a little, taste and adjust. It took me a long time to get the hang of this, but now I almost never adhere to written amounts (unless it’s baking; that can go awry in a hurry).
So now, as a follow-up to my previous post, I present you with some vegetarian and vegan recipes* that I came up with on my own. You are as free as you want to substitute whatever amounts or special spices you’d like. Make mine, then make it your own!
Japanese Risotto with Sesame-Seared Tofu and Shiitake Mushrooms in Miso Butter
I love risotto, but the only kind I’ve ever had, or even heard of, is the Italian-style. It’s creamy, cheesy, and can be garnished in infinite ways. I ran across some bamboo rice recently at a specialty store, and knew I wanted to try it, but had no idea what to do with it. The internet was oddly devoid of ideas; the most consistent recipes I found were for fried bamboo rice cakes. I had the idea to see if I could make a Japanese-style risotto-like dish from it, and the results were unbelievably fantastic! If you can’t find bamboo rice (which is just basic rice infused with the juice of young bamboo plants, giving it a flavor, aroma, and color similar to green tea) just use a regular white, short-grain, sushi-grade rice.
Yield: 2 servings
1 tsp. sesame oil and 1 tsp. vegetable oil, mixed
3 cloves garlic, diced
2 tsp. fresh ginger root, grated
1 shallot, diced
1 ½ cups bamboo rice, rinsed
2 Tbsp. mirin
3 cups vegetable broth, hot
¼ tsp. soy sauce
¼ cup coconut milk
2 tsp. sesame oil
4 oz. firm tofu, sliced
1 cup shiitake mushrooms, sliced
2 tsp. butter
1 tsp. white miso paste
- You make this like you make a normal risotto. Start by heating the vegetable and sesame oils together in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the garlic, ginger, and shallot and cook until the shallot is soft, about 5 minutes, stirring regularly. Add the rice and coat it with the hot oil, stirring continuously, for about 2 minutes, until just lightly toasted and slightly translucent. Add the mirin and let it soak into the rice completely.
- Next, start adding your broth in about 1/4-1/3 cup increments, letting the rice gently simmer (you may need to lower the heat a bit) and soak in all the broth before adding more. Repeat this process for about 20-30 minutes, stirring regularly, until you have about half a cup of broth left unused. Test the rice to make sure it is cooked; if so, you can stop there, and if not, continue adding broth until the rice is soft but not mushy. The texture of a grain of the rice should be similar to a piece of al dente spaghetti.
- While still on the burner, add the soy sauce and coconut milk, until the seasoning tastes good to you and the dish is creamy and cohesive. Remove from heat.
- Meanwhile, prepare the garnishes:
- In a separate skillet, heat the remaining sesame oil until shimmering. Press the slices of tofu between paper towels and squeeze out any excess moisture. Lay them in the hot oil and sear until golden, about 5 minutes per side. Drain on paper towels to remove extra oil.
- Wipe out the tofu skillet, return it to medium-high heat and add the butter and miso paste. When foamy/bubbling, spread the mushrooms slices so that they are flat and evenly distributed (you can do them in more than one batch if necessary). Sear until lightly caramelized, about 5-6 minutes per side. Do not stir; just leave them searing flat like you would with a steak.
- To serve, evenly distribute the risotto mixture between two bowls, make a slight indentation in the rice mound and pile the mushrooms in the center of it. Lay the tofu slices across the mushrooms. Enjoy!
Moroccan Vegetable Tagine
A tagine is basically a North African stew. It’s named for the clay pot in which it is traditionally cooked, but for us home chefs, it can really just be any classic African meat, vegetables, fruit, and spices cooked into a fairly broth-less stew and served over couscous. At least that’s what I’m claiming. For this vegetarian version I used root vegetables and legumes that can withstand long cooking. I suggest doing the same, but you can switch them up if you’d like: use butternut squash, regular white potatoes, turnips, pumpkin, peas, Jerusalem artichokes, olives, or rutabaga. The key to making it taste Moroccan, to me, is in the spices. You shouldn’t substitute those. If you can’t find preserved lemons (fancily termed “lemon confit”) just use the zest and juice of regular lemons, avoiding the pith.
Yield: 4 servings
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 red onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, diced
1+ tsp. ground turmeric
1+ tsp. ground cumin
½+ tsp. ground cinnamon
½+ tsp. ground ginger
Dash of cayenne pepper
2 parsnips, peeled and diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 ½ cups sweet potato, peeled, and diced
2 cups vegetable broth
2 small preserved lemons, diced
4 dates, pitted and sliced
⅓ cup dried apricot halves, sliced
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1+ Tbsp. fresh mint, chopped
2+ Tbsp. fresh cilantro, chopped
salt and pepper, to taste
couscous, to serve (I make mine with saffron, golden raisins, and pine nuts)
- Heat oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan. Add the onion and garlic and cook over medium-high heat until the onion is soft, about 5 minutes. Add all the spices (NOT THE FRESH HERBS) and stir into the onion and garlic, cooking until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the parsnips, carrots, and sweet potato and incorporate everything together, stirring for about 4 minutes.
- Add the vegetable broth, lemons, dates, and apricots, stir well, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for about 20 minutes, until the root vegetables are cooked through but not mushy. Stir in the chickpeas and mint and heat everything for another couple of minutes. Adjust the seasoning as needed. Remove from heat and stir in the cilantro. Serve over couscous.
Slightly Thai Vegan Corn Chowder
To my knowledge, this isn’t really Thai at all, except for being slightly spicy and having cilantro and coconut milk in it. But hey, I was bored, I needed a theme for lunch, and Thai food is one of the things I miss most about my life in the States. I’ve never made a corn chowder like this before; usually mine is packed with Paula Deen-levels of butter and cream, but I had some spare tofu and a single ear of corn, and I thought, “Let’s give it a shot.” The tofu and coconut milk really help thicken this chowder in place of cream, and by boiling the stock and vegetables with the corn cobs, you not only extract more corny flavor (heh) but also more of the corn’s natural starch, which acts as another thickening agent. I like to puree only half of the corn kernels, and then add in some whole kernels at the end, so you have a little something to chew on (which I guess isn’t really the point of making a soup, but whatever, it was good). You can use any other spicy pepper you’d like—I’m just a wuss and can’t handle much hotter than a jalapeño—or you can leave it out entirely.
Yield: 2 bowls
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 celery stalk, diced
1 small red onion, diced
2 ¼ oz. firm tofu, diced
½ Tbsp. jalapeño, chopped (jarred is fine)
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 ½ tsp. fresh ginger root, grated
1 Tbsp. white flour
2 cups vegetable broth
1 large ear of corn, kernels removed and cob cut in half and reserved
2 Tbsp. fresh cilantro, chopped
¼ cup coconut milk
1 Tbsp. lime juice
salt and pepper to taste
- Heat oil in a medium pot. Add carrot, celery, onion, tofu, jalapeño, garlic, and ginger and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables start to soften, about 7 minutes. Drop the flour into the pan and stir, making sure it coats the vegetables and soaks up any excess oil.
- Slowly begin adding the vegetable broth, whisking constantly, so that the initial pours make the soup look a bit like gravy. Continue with the rest of the broth more quickly, still whisking, so that the mixture loosens up but is still a bit thick. Add half the corn kernels and the pieces of corn cob. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for about 15 minutes, until all the vegetables are soft. Remove the corn cobs and discard. Remove the pot from the heat.
- Place soup mixture into a blender, add cilantro, and blend on high until a thick, creamy chowder forms, with as many of the vegetables pulverized as possible. Pour the soup back into the pot, reheating slightly if necessary, and add the remaining half of the corn kernels, coconut milk, and lime juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper and garnish with more cilantro, if desired.
“Whatever’s Handy” Pesto
As the title suggests, this pesto came about from a desire to use up some odds and ends of things that had either been sitting around unused for too long or were getting ready to spoil. I love pesto for this reason. It’s really a basic formula: greens + nuts + oil + cheese + garlic. For those integers you can use a virtual smörgåsbord of ingredients. I’ve made a “spanakopita” pesto before that used feta in place of the usual Parmesan cheese, and added spinach along with the basil. I’ve made a type of beet “pesto,” where dices of roasted beets are mixed with chopped nuts, cheese, herbs, garlic, and oil. You can use arugula, beet greens, kale, garlic scapes, cilantro, parsley, sage, oregano, pistachios, sunflower seeds, pine nuts, walnuts, almonds, cashews, jalapeños, serranos, pecorino, asiago, halloumi, etc. etc. etc. One thing I do consistently in any pesto I make is to use roasted garlic. I find that since pesto is basically a raw food dish, the use of raw garlic can sometimes be overpowering. Roasted garlic is smooth and mellow, integrates better when blended because it forms a paste instead of staying in chunks, and won’t upset a sensitive stomach or leave you with pungent bad breath. After I made this pesto, I used it to create the two dishes pictured above. The first is a simple linguine tossed with toasted pine nuts, fresh arugula, baby peas, and pesto. For the second, I mixed the pesto with a bit of crème fraiche and spread it over a pizza crust, then topped it with previously roasted butternut squash and red bell pepper, raw shallots, and goat cheese and baked until it was done.
Yield: approx. 10 Tablespoons
2 cups raw baby spinach (trim long stems if necessary)
4 Tbsp. fresh thyme
1 ¾ oz. almonds, chopped and toasted lightly
4 small cloves garlic, roasted
2 oz. Parmesan cheese, grated
4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
- Combine everything except oil in a food processor. Begin blending, and slowly drizzle the oil in through the lid, until the mixture starts clumping together and is smooth. Can be frozen by the tablespoon for easy future use.