Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Travels and returns

You, who clearly is an avid reader of my blog, may have noticed my absence. I have been gone for a few weeks and things have been a bit hectic. But I am dedicated to this blog and I am determined not to let it be pushed aside by my often busy life.

I recently went to a conference in Miami, where English is a second language to Spanish, and there had the opportunity to eat in Peruvian, Cuban, Argentinian, and Mexican restaurants. However, I was naturally very restricted as to what I could eat. Most of these cuisines are very meat oriented, but I will not let that deter me! I am determined to recapture the heat and vibrancy of Miami in a delicious vegan dish.

When I join you next, I will present to you a dish that brings me back to Miami, a city full of life, the sun, the salt, and the sand.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Eggplant Saga: The House of Melanzana

In the last episode of the saga, the eggplant had found it's way to China. Not quite ready to leave Asia yet, I also made myself a recipe with a Japanese influence. In my quest for fabulous recipe ideas, I stumbled across Ashbury's Aubergines, a veritable treasure trove of eggplant recipes the likes of which ye have never seen. It was here that I discovered Soba Salad with Roasted Eggplant Dressing. I have used roasted eggplant as a sauce on pasta before, but usually giving it Italian spicing. This recipe was fresh and delightful. I added some green onions to this recipe as well because it seemed fitting. I only made half the recipe and it was still far too much for one person, and unlike the other recipes I've been making, would not freeze well.

Soba noodles are made from buckwheat flour, and despite buckwheat's misleading name, contain no gluten (be sure to read ingredients, not all soba noodles you buy in store are pure buckwheat!). Buckwheat is said to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, regulate blood sugar, and is high in dietary fiber. Buckwheat also contains large amounts of tryptophan, of which eggplant is also a good source.

Factoid: Not only is buckwheat not related to wheat, it is not even a grain at all, but a seed from a plant closely related to rhubarb!

Our journey is far from over, and now we explore the eggplant's westward trek in...

Part 3: The House of Melazana

The eggplant had made it's way to Arabic countries long ago, hence the ever popular baba ghanouj. It was by way of the Moors that the eggplant reached the Mediterranean countries around the 4th century A.D. The Italians believed the eggplant to be an aphrodisiac and it became known as the "Melanzana" or "Apple of Love", as did the Spanish, and so it quickly gained popularity there.

In honour of the Apple of Love I wanted to make a Mediterranean dish. I considered making vegan eggplant parmesan, but that's been done. So I thought to myself, "What's more Mediterranean than Paella?". Paella originated in Valencia, and it is considered the region's official dish. Traditional Paella Valencia contains rabbit and chicken, and no eggplant at all, but hey, this wouldn't be a vegan food blog without some radical re-working of recipes, now would it? And so I give you:

Vegan Eggplant Paella
1 small eggplant
1/2 onion, chopped
1 small green pepper, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 cup cooked beans (I used white kidney beans, but lima beans are more traditional)
1 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp saffron
3 cups veggie broth
2 cups brown rice

Slice the eggplant in half vertically. Slice first half into long strips, chop the second half into smaller pieces. Saute eggplant, onion, and green pepper for a few minutes on medium-high heat. Add garlic, tomatoes, & beans. A few minutes later add spices, saute for 30 seconds, remove long strips of eggplant, then add broth & rice. Bring to a boil, reduce and cover. Allow to simmer for 10 minutes. Give it a stir, and arrange eggplant strips on top of rice mixture. Cover and simmer longer (add more water if necessary). Simmer until rice is fully cooked.
Despite the fact that it is not a very attractive dish, I do have to say that it was very enjoyable, very much a comfort food, meal-in-a-bowl. Since I haven't had actual paella in so long, I can't really say how much it tastes like it, but I certainly liked it, and that's worth a post I say.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The Eggplant Saga: Age of Aubergine

Archaeologists and historians seem keenly interested in what we used to eat thousands of years ago. It is because of this curiosity that they have been able to unlock the secrets as to when and where plants were domesticated, when they first came to an area, and just what those people thought about it at the time. In part 1 of the Eggplant Saga we learned that the aubergine's origin story begins in India some 4000 years ago. Of course, this was only the beginning of the eggplant's long and arduous journey to my dinner plate. Where did it's journey take it? We'll find out in...

Part 2: Age of Aubergine

The eggplant soon found its way to ancient China. An article published in the Annals of Botany in 2008 states that the earliest documentation of eggplant in Chinese literature was in 59B.C., though it is thought to have arrived in China much earlier. As the article suggests, the ancient Chinese took great care in selectively breeding eggplants to develop new cultivars, preferring smaller and more slender varieties, giving rise to today's "Chinese eggplant". It is also said to have been a favourite food of the emperors, and it is no surprise why.

As well as being delicious and pleasing to look at, at only 27 calories per cup, the aubergine boasts an array of vitamins and minerals. Moreover, eggplants pack a potent anti-oxidant punch. The World's Healthiest Foods reveals that one such antioxidant, nasunin, is found in the skin and has been shown to protect brain cell membranes from free radical damage, making eggplant the perfect food for an egghead like me!

One of my favourite Chinese dishes I've ever had was "eggplant in black bean sauce" from a little Chinese restaurant down the road from my
apartment that was not known for its imaginative titles. It was garlicky and sweet, and I had never had eggplant quite like it before. Since then I had always meant to try it. As luck would have it, I picked up some Chinese black bean sauce (aka "douchi") at the store last week shortly before becoming endowed with a bounty of eggplant. It was culinary destiny!

Factoid: Black bean sauce is made by fermenting soy beans, the process turns the originally pale beans black. It is not actually made with "black beans".

This dish boasts a few health perks. Black bean sauce has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat many things such as restlessness, poor sleep patterns, fever, and congestion. Tamari has more antioxidant power than red wine. Entire books have been written on the health benefits of garlic. And so I bring you...

Radically Good Eggplant

1 medium eggplant, sliced thin (~1/2 cm thick)
2 tbsp black bean sauce
1 tbsp low sodium tamari
1 tbsp brown sugar
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 tsp cornstarch
1/4 cup water

Saute the eggplant over medium heat until soft.
Combine all other ingredients together in a bowl and add to softened eggplant. Simmer until sauce reduces and thickens. Serve over rice.
This dish tasted almost exactly like how I remember it. It is, however, rather salty, as black bean sauce is quite salty on its own. If you're trying to avoid salt, I suggest using less black bean sauce. It's not the most attractive looking dish in the world, but damn is it good.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Eggplant Saga: Aubergine Origins

One of my labmates does her research in greenhouses and one of the plants she is using in her current experiment is the noble eggplant. It just so happens that last week all her plants produced copious amounts of fruit, and I ended up coming home with 9 eggplants. I wasn't exactly sure what I would do with all these eggplants, but if I didn't take them, they would have gone in the compost, and how could I allow free fruit to go to waste? I had to at least try.

I usually only buy eggplant for one of two purposes: ratatouille or baba ghanoush. I have already made these, both were delicious, and I still have 7 eggplants in my fridge. I soon knew this would be a challenge that would take me on an epic adventure through the cosmopolitan world of the aubergine, and that I would emerge with a full belly, and collection of new and (hopefully) delicious recipes.

Part 1: Aubergine Origins
I began my quest by exploring the origins of the eggplant. The plant Solanum melongena L. is native to India. It belongs to the family Solanaceae, aka the nightshade family, which includes other delicious and nutritious foods such as tomatoes, potatoes and peppers, as well as some more malevolent plants such as tobacco and deadly nightshade.

Factoid - eggplants have the highest nicotine content of all vegetables (owing to it's relation to tobacco), though you would need to consume 20 pounds of it to equal one cigarette.

The plant was domesticated thousands of years ago in what is now India and Pakistan. The Indian name for aubergine is "brinjal", and it is an important ingredient in Indian cooking.
Vegetarianism is common in India thanks to the influence of the dharmic religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism) that teach non-violence. In honour of the ancient origins of the eggplant, the first recipe I'll post is for East-Indian Brinjal.

What you'll need:
1 medium/large eggplant
1 medium onion
3 medium tomatoes
1 tsp coriander
1 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/8 tsp cinnamon
salt & cayenne to taste*
3/4 cup water
1/3 cup cilantro

*I like my food spicy, so I used about 1/2 tsp. of cayenne, which I found to be just the right amount for me. It had heat but was far from overpowering.

Chop the eggplant, onion and tomato, and saute in a bit of oil for a couple of minutes on high heat. Add the spices (except cilantro).
At the same time as the spices, add the water, you may need to add more as the liquid reduces. Cover and simmer about 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until everything is a delicious stewy mush. Sprinkle chopped cilantro and serve.

I served mine with the "jade rice" blend I picked up from Bulk Barn this afternoon, though it would be equally delicious with some ordinary basmati rice. This dish is lightly spiced allowing the flavour of the eggplant to shine.
To be continued....