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Dukes-at-Komedia

As a film-loving Brightonian, I’ve long been a fan of the Duke of York’s cinema, but it has always struggled with the size limitations of the admittedly lovely building. Late last year, they opened up a new space at the Komedia with two screens and a cafe-bar and I was thrilled to hear that they now have a kitchen serving snacks and more substantial meals. I’ve always thought that more cinemas should serve proper food: I often want to eat something before a film but don’t necessarily want an elaborate ‘dinner and a movie’ situation. Being able to meet friends for a drink, a light meal, and a film all in one place is a no-brainer and happily the Duke’s at Komedia has pitched it just right. There’s a varied menu but their central concept is the hotdog: not the questionable Coney Island variety but the modern, reinvented hipster dog with locally-sourced sausage and inventive punchy toppings. Its rare to see American food done well in the UK so clearly I had to investigate… Read the rest of this entry »

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veggie mapo

I’ve been feeling a bit sorry for my vegetarian and vegan readers–who impressively continue to read despite my love for all things porcine–so I wanted to post a little something meatless to start the week off. Lemur friend the Geek Goddess gave me Fuchsia Dunlop’s Every Grain of Rice as an un-birthday present (because she is the kind of awesome friend who knows you are stressed out and responds with cookbooks!) and it has a brilliant range of vegetable dishes from Sichuan province and beyond. I particularly loved her simple meatless version of ma po tofu: meat works more as a flavouring than as a main component of the dish in its traditional form, so it is actually relatively easy to replace the meat with other umami flavours. The real pleasure of ma po tofu for me is the contrast of soft, cooling tofu with the fiery, oily, tingling chili and Sichuan peppercorn sauce and this version focuses your attention on precisely that experience. I know there are people out there who are yet to be converted to tofu and I think this might be one of the dishes to do it. It’s making my mouth water just looking at the picture. Read the rest of this entry »

I was thrilled to be Freshly Pressed on my last post – that’s included in the WordPress editors’ daily picks. And welcome to new readers who liked the Vietnamese Chicken Curry post and have decided to stick around! I hope you enjoy the blog. Unfortunately Mr Lemur is away shooting a film so I am without both camera and photographer for a few weeks. Boo! For now, we will all have to put up with my iPhone photography. I know, it’s a hardship, but we soldier bravely on…

I came across black rice noodles in our local ethnic food store the other day and was intrigued. I love black rice but I don’t cook it very often as it is fairly time consuming and many of the uses I know for it are desserts. (I adore Malaysian pulut hitam, or black rice pudding with coconut milk, for instance, but I rarely make it myself.) I was immediately drawn to these deep black noodles. I knew they wouldn’t produce the exact satisfying chewyness of a black rice grain on the teeth but I figured they might combine the glutinous qualities of glass noodles with a deeper, wholegrain flavour.

Read the rest of this entry »

I’ve been proselytising my friends about my new tofu press. I get one of two responses when I tell them that my tofu press is the best thing ever. Either they ask why one needs to press tofu at all, or they ask why I don’t just use a pile of books to do it. (I admit that I might have more than usually nerdy friends –  not only do they spend their time pressing tofu but they have all lit upon the piles of books that surround them as the best means to do the job.) The thing is this: pressing tofu gives you a whole new insight into the delicious potential of this much-maligned food and pressing it evenly and thoroughly without the faff of trying not to soak your history of art books is worth a few bucks, people! Read the rest of this entry »

As I mentioned in my rambutans post, my cooking recently has been led by some unusual ingredients turning up in Asian supermarkets. On a recent trip to London, I stopped into one of the Gerrard St Asian stores in the hope of catching some winged beans. They did have winged beans but they looked nasty and brown at the edges so sadly I had to pass them by. However, what did look nice and fresh was banana flowers, an ingredient I don’t recall seeing before in the UK.

Regular readers might remember my fascination with the ready-shredded banana flowers in the Mekong Delta. At first, I had no idea what the giant piles of curling vegetable were: they looked a lot like Roman puntarelle but clearly weren’t. Eventually, someone told me what they were and the next time I was in a restaurant, I ordered the banana blossom salad. Like most Vietnamese salads, it was light and fresh, but at the same time complexly flavoured with layers of herbs and aromatics. And like Southeast Asian salads in general, it’s not like a Western salad so much as a category of main dish that’s mostly uncooked. A good Asian salad contrasts nicely with a thick curry, a crispy fried dish, a hot stir-fry. You might not come across a banana flower too often, but if you live somewhere with a good Asian market, they make for a tasty crisp side dish that uses all the fresh herbs you can lay your hands on. And if you don’t have any banana flowers, this is still a nice dish with cabbage or endive (or I might even be tempted to try it with jicama).

Vietnamese banana flower salad (Goi Bap Chuoi)

  • 2 banana flowers
  • 1 little gem lettuce
  • 1/2 lime
  • 2 shallots
  • 5 small red chilies or to taste
  • bunch of Thai basil
  • bunch of mint
  • bunch of cilantro (or Vietnamese coriander if you have it)
  • 3 tbsp sesame seeds
  • 2 tbsp roasted peanuts
  • 3 tbsp Asian fried shallots

for the dressing:

  • 3 tbsp fish sauce*
  • 1 tbsp caster sugar
  • 2 limes

* For a vegetarian version, use 2 tbsp soy sauce and be prepared to add more salt if necessary. A bit less soy sauce is good here as it can be a pushier flavour if you’re not careful – you might also want more lime.

Your first order of business is shredding the banana flower. Take off the outer, purple leaves till you are down to the fresh green ones. Now, I am going to tell you to put the slices directly into a bowl of cold water with lime in it to prevent discolouration, but the thing is you’re going to assume that this is like a pear or an apple. Trust me, it is not. These suckers turn a gross, dirty grey brown within seconds of exposure. It’s a kind of awesome and yet horrible decay in fast-motion. Also, there are flower buds in between the leaves that you don’t want to eat, so you can’t just slice through the whole thing like a cabbage – you need to take off one leaf at a time. These issues are slightly in tension with one another. So to shred the flowers, I ended up taking off one leaf at a time,  slicing it and dumping it in the water. This may not be the best way but it worked decently for me. I’m open to better suggestions…

Once that’s done, you can shred the lettuce at a more relaxed tempo. In Vietnam, they cut the banana flower with the stems of morning glory but crispy small lettuce seemed like a good alternative. Slice the shallots thinly and put in a big serving bowl.

In a cast-iron skillet, toast the sesame seeds and then peanuts till golden, then cool. Wash and tear the herbs, and mince the chilies.

To make the dressing, mix fish sauce, sugar, lime juice and a glug of warm water till the sugar has dissolved. Taste for balance and add more of anything you think is needed.

Finally, drain the shredded banana flower and mix everything in the bowl. Top with fried shallots.

Serves 4, ideally as part of a meal with other components.

Sometimes, your cooking plans are derailed by ingredients not being available but in the last couple of weeks, mine have been inspired by unusual ingredients turning up in stores. I knew I wanted to make some kind of salsa when a bout of warm weather cut through our rainy Spring, but I hadn’t exactly imagined that it would centre around kumquats. But there they were in a basket at the Taj grocery – wintery fruits that I usually associate with Christmas but that offer an bittersweet citrus punch not dissimilar to Mexican naranja agria. As soon as I saw them I knew I had to include them in my Spring salsa, so I poked around for ingredients to balance their chewy acid pleasures, coming up with plump little radishes, long red chilies and soft avocado. This recipe barely qualifies for the name, but it makes a substantial salsa that could function as the major component of a plate, not just a condiment. We ate it with grilled chicken and tomato rice but it would make a simple supper with just a rice bowl, or a vegetarian meal with Mexican black beans and rice.

Spicy kumquat salsa

  • a large handful of kumquats
  • 1 avocado
  • 1 large spring onion or 3 regular sized ones
  • 6-8 radishes
  • a large handful of ripe cherry tomatoes
  • 5 long red chilies (or 2-3 serranos)
  • bunch of cilantro
  • 2 limes
  • some olive oil

You basically just have to wash and chop everything – avocado into chunks, spring onion, chilies and kumquats thinly sliced, tomatoes halved, radishes diced, leaves pulled off cilantro stems. Salt generously with nice flaky salt, then dress with lime and a little olive oil and mix well.

Et voilà – a not exactly authentic salsa but a nice way to transition from wintery citrus fruits to the promise of summery flavours.

Serves 2.

People are often a bit skeptical of quinoa and I understand why: anyone who has eaten leaden, tasteless 1970s-era vegetarian food has probably had a scarring experience with it. Even Thrifty Gal, who enjoys her veggie grub, looked at me sideways when I suggested cooking it for her. But here’s the thing – quinoa is easy to make, its nutty flavour is a great base for a spring meal, and it is unbelievably good for you. Check this out: this ancient Andean foodstuff is full of essential amino acids, it can help protect against heart disease, diabetes, and breast cancer, and it can even reduce the frequency of migraines. As a sufferer of quite unpleasant headaches, this last point had me planning a quinoa-centric diet, but even if you want to emphasise flavour rather than health, quinoa is one of the tastiest of the so-called ancient grains. It’s actually not a grain at all but technically a grass, which is why I always cook it during Passover, but it functions like a grain in cooking. I think the trick is to combine it with lots of vegetables so that it provides a nutty counterpoint rather than a protein-heavy mouthful. This dish came from my obsession with those superfood salads you can buy in Chopped and other salad places. I absolutely love all of those supposedly super-good-for-you ingredients of beets, dark greens and seeds and as it turns out they mesh splendidly with quinoa. Read the rest of this entry »

You wouldn’t necessarily notice that the Kemp Cafe is Turkish at all. Most of the posters in the windows advertise baguettes, filled rolls and cooked breakfast, and, both times I’ve been there that’s what the customers have been eating too. But right after the place opened, I saw a woman sitting in the window rolling flatbreads. In one of those moments when you just have to investigate despite not actually being hungry, I went in and discovered that yes, those were Turkish bureks (filled with feta, spinach and chili) and yes, they were as homemade and delicious as you might imagine. I’ve been back twice for lunch and eaten the meze, which are tucked away on the right hand side of the menu, after all the British standards. There aren’t a lot of choices, but that’s because you’re eating what the owner has cooked that day. It’s small scale, homely, and no less pleasing for that.

The first time, I had a green bean and tomato salad, roasted aubergine and courgette, and couscous. All were really good but the couscous was transformative. I’ve never been a massive fan of couscous: I find it dry and the texture unpleasantly granular. But I’ve still eaten it a fair few times as I like North African food. This was by a factor of infinity the best couscous I’ve ever eaten. Moist, richly flavoured, obviously cooked in some ambrosial broth, I could have eaten it by the bowlful. Someone here is a really good cook.

But lovely as the meze were, what charmed us the most was the warm Turkish welcome. The owners are just lovely; obviously happy to share their cuisine with customers and rightly proud of what they serve. The first time I ate there, one of the owners stopped by our table with a plate of yoghurt topped with herbs and chili flakes. Eaten with bread and honey, it was a perfect complement to the rich tomato dishes.

The next time I visited, a plate of vine leaves appeared, unordered, and fresh out of the oven, at our table. Filled with nutty rice and rolled thin, they were irresistibly toothsome.

The owners have obviously decided that Turkish food is not enough to sustain their business and they want to be a local caff for people in the neighbourhood. Hence the emphasis on traditional British food. It’s probably a smart move: they’re far enough into Kemptown that they won’t catch too much foot traffic from the city centre and a new ethnic restaurant is a dicey proposition in a recession. The welcome is warm for everyone, and if you enjoy Turkish food, then so much the better. Moreover, both the meze and the bureks are vegetarian, another plus for the many Brighton veggies out there. Kemp Cafe is unassuming and the food simple, but if home-cooked Turkish meze sounds appealing, then it is absolutely worth a detour.

(This one was for Mr Lemur, obviously!)

Kemp Cafe, Upper St James St (on the corner of Wyndham St), Brighton

I know, another dessert from me, what’s the world coming to? Baking-phobic that I am, I have had one signal success in the world of desserts and that’s my pandan cheesecake. I’ve always loved pandan, a flavour that does the work of a kind of Asian vanilla. It is sweet but with a background nuttiness that works in both sweet and savoury dishes. Pandan leaves are wrapped around chicken and grilled in Southeast Asia, but you most often come across pandan in the form of a concentrated essence, like vanilla, used to make bright green cakes or dessert noodles. I have a couple of problems with these uses though: first, the bottles of essence taste kind of chemically and second, I am really not a fan of those dry Asian cakes. I know, it’s probably a cultural bias but I do think cake is one area in which European and American cultures have Asia beaten. So, I came up with the idea of an East meets West dessert: New York style creamy cheesecake flavoured with pandan.

Over the weekend we had a visit from the Crocodiles, down from London and expecting to be impressed with some kind of Asian feast. It was nervous-making: they are very serious foodies with strong opinions on Chinese food in particular. I didn’t have the nerve to cook Chinese for them but I did put together a fun Vietnamese menu: thick rice noodles with fried pork skin and coconut milk, aromatic braised pork osso buco, sour soup with monkfish, and bitter melon salad. The pandan cheesecake seemed like an appropriate end to the meal, even though it’s not Vietnamese. I think I love it because it represents my cooking background – New York influenced by the Asian flavours of Chinatown.

Pandan Cheesecake

  • 3 digestive biscuits
  • 6 ginger biscuits
  • 85 g melted butter
  • 900 g cream cheese
  • 6 large eggs
  • 2 cups caster sugar
  • 400 g sour cream
  • 1/4 cup pandan juice (see below)

Your first order of business is to extract the pandan juice, and this you can use for all kinds of things. You need pandan leaves, fresh or frozen, to begin with, which are available from many Asian markets.

Chop 12 leaves into 2 inch chunks, put them in a food processor or blender and add about a 1/2 cup of water.

Now blend until they are as mushed up as possible – you might need to stop and stir them a few times as the leaves are a bit resistant.

Next, put the mix through a cheesecloth and sieve into a bowl. Squish and squeeze the leaves with a spatula or your fingers to get all the liquid out.

You’ll end up with a thin but deep jade coloured liquid that’s ready for cooking.

Heat the oven to 250 F / 130 C / gas mark 1/2. This cake is going to cook very very gently! Butter a springform pan. In a large bowl, mix the cream cheese and sugar with a hand mixer. In a separate bowl, beat six eggs, just to mix, then add these in to the cheese and sugar. This is the part where you have to just not think about how many calories you are planning to ingest. Add the pandan juice and the sour cream and mix well.

At this point, the cake mix will seem very liquidy. The pandan juice adds quite a bit of liquid but have faith. Pour into the springform pan and place on a baking tray on the bottom shelf in the oven. Cook for two hours – keep an eye on it as it may take a bit more or less. When the outside is firm but toward the centre is still pretty wibbly, turn off the oven and let it cool a bit in there. Then take it out and cover with a teatowel to cool before putting in the fridge to set for a few hours.

Serves 12.

Last weekend, I finally caught up with Thrifty Gal and got to try out my tua nao, or fermented soy bean pods. Thrifty Gal is a vegetarian who never eats Southeast Asian food in restaurants because she also has a nut allergy and it all just seems too Russian Roulette-ish. Of course, I delight in making Asian food that won’t kill her, and I was especially excited because I’d discovered in Chiang Mai a vegetarian alternative to shrimp paste. Southeast Asian food is tricky for vegetarian cooking because fish sauce and shrimp paste aren’t ingredients but foundational flavours, imparting salt and umami to dishes. You can salt with soy sauce or plain old sodium chloride, but rich umami sensations are a bit harder to achieve. Fermented fish and shrimp are basic to Thai cooking and I’ve read that poor families sometimes eat little but rice and fermented fish in the leaner months: you can’t just omit flavours this essential to a cuisine. But in the Shan market in Chiang Mai, Naomi showed me tua nao, flat dry disks of fermented soybeans which do the same job in Northern Thai and Burmese cuisines. Perhaps because these regions are further from the sea, they developed a soy-based means of creating deeply savoury notes. Read the rest of this entry »

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