Buenos Aires – There’s a myth floating around out there that this city is unfriendly towards vegetarians. Maybe even to just those who LIKE vegetables. (In fact, on a recent local forum during a discussion of vegetarian restaurants I was referred to as “somehow a veggy fan, though not fundamentalist on it.” Somehow? Makes it seem like it’s an effort to like them. Such is life, I’ve always liked vegetables – I admit to there being some I like less than others, and when I was growing up (not that I’ve stopped), there were a few I wouldn’t eat if avoidable – but that was more an issue of canned, frozen, etc., as it turns out. But back to this myth. While I’m sure there are far more than this, I can only think of maybe half a dozen real vegetarian restaurants in New York City. Here, perhaps because it’s a common topic of conversation for tourists headed this way who have come to the conclusion that there’s nothing to eat here but steak, I know of probably two dozen. I haven’t eaten at them all, but eventually I imagine I will.
I also like cooking vegetables, and decided that for one of our Casa dinners, it would be vegetarian. As noted, not fundamentalist – I included dairy and eggs – but that fits the desires of most of the vegetarians I’ve run into here (as opposed to most of the vegetarians I personally know in New York who eat fish and, often, poultry – the common refrain being “anything without a face”… my response always being, “a steak doesn’t have a face”). Without further rambling, last night’s vegetarian dinner…
As anyone who’s been following along knows, I love to start meals with soup. “Of soup and love, the first is best. – old Spanish proverb (though some attribute it to Dr. Thomas Fuller, a late 17th/early 18th century British physician) And what’s better than soup? Three soups! At the 6:00 position, a beet soup, based on the one from James Peterson’s Splendid Soups (very possibly the finest book on soups out there), with my own twists – beets, onion, juniper berries, marjoram, vegetable stock, and sour cream; at 10:00, a radish soup – radishes, butter, milk, parsley, red onion, and lots of nutmeg; and at 2:00, a potato soup based on one that I once heard Diane Kennedy (author of several top drawer Mexican cookbooks) talk about, I normally make with potato and cantaloupe, but the latter aren’t in season – potatoes, asian pears, milk and cream, and chipotle peppers (smoked, dried jalapeños). I paired this with the Champaña Jotados Extra Brut sparkling wine from Mendoza.
I made crumpets. English muffins. They’re really easy. I’ll probably make them again because they were quite good. The recipe I used, not mine, makes about 4-6 crumpets, depending on the size of the ring molds you use. Perfect for a couple of people over breakfast, topped by one of those marmalades I’m experimenting with, or just some good butter. Why, you might ask, did I make crumpets? Go ahead, ask. It was for my McMuffins. Yes, I know that’s a trademarked name, but McDonald’s will just have to get over it.
Obviously, this is a very loose interpretation of a McMuffin, egg, bacon, sausage, or otherwise. I made something similar to this once before, a few years back, with a stack made of a commercial English muffin, a grilled portobello cap, some Asiago cheese, and a fried egg on top. It was good, but not great, and I wanted to improve on it. So, first, freshly made crumpets, split, with one half on the bottom of each bowl. Top those with a couple of “mock abalone” – made from oyster mushrooms sauteed in herbs – most of you probably weren’t reading this blog when I made those – check them out! Some sprinkled chopped parsley and grated parmesan (no Asiago to be found, though I’d bet that would be even better than this was), and, instead of a fried egg, a classic Japanese egg yolk sauce, tamago-no-moto – essentially a white miso flavored mayonnaise, but beaten with a wooden spoon rather than a whisk, which gives it a creamier texture (no, or few, air bubbles). The Familia Gascon Chardonnay 2004 was a great match with the richness of this dish.
Continuing in my passion for cauliflower, a much ignored vegetable, I took a page from New York chef Matt Weingarten, who used to make, more or less, this dish at a small restaurant called Porcupine. It’s closed now, I have no idea where he’s moved on to, but his cauliflower lives on! Slow roast portions of cauliflower – wrap them in foil with a little olive oil and salt, and then they spend 1½-2 hours in the oven at 250°F, until they’re tender. The sauce is a simple pesto made with walnuts and marjoram, and a bit of dried fruit reconstituted in simmering red wine vinegar gives a nice contrast on the palate. I may have to write a book about cauliflower… add one more project to the stack. I thought a fresh rosado would work best with this, so a bottle of Weinert Montfleury 2005 made from Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Gamay fit the bill.
Vegetarian sausages are difficult. First, you have to decide if you’re trying to come up with a meat substitute, which I wasn’t. That comes with the need to imitate flavors and such, nutritional yeast is often a big component, which I don’t think tastes like meat at all, unless you’ve spent decades not eating meat and don’t really remember what it tastes like. I have a recipe I used to make for chicken and sweet potato sausages, and basically substituted tofu for the chicken and batatas (yams) for the sweet potatoes. The tofu needs to be firmed up a bit, and a trick for that is to freeze it, thaw it, and squeeze the water out of it – the process gives the tofu a sponge-like texture, which is much easier to work with when you want a bit of chew to it. It’s then pureed with the batatas (slow roasted with garlic), salt, a lot of black pepper, and a bit of cayenne pepper – more or less a merguez spice mixture. Then the mixture is wrapped up in plastic wrap to form it, chilled, poached, cooled, and then sauteed to order – click here for the process. The sauce is based on one from Jim Haller’s brilliant Blue Strawberry Cookbook, a rough puree of tomato, orange liqueur, melted butter, lemon juice, parsley, salt, and white pepper. Accompanied this with a medium weight red, the slightly spicy Sur de los Andes Bonarda 2005.
I love banana desserts (also lemon desserts), and this one is something I’ve been making for years. I think it works, and no one has ever objected, including people who don’t normally like banana desserts. It’s a whole wheat and maple syrup banana-walnut bread (I think the original inspiration came from The Deaf Smith Country Cookbook), but rather than in a loaf pan, I make it like it’s a cake. It’s served warm, with a simple banana sorbet (equal parts by volume of water, sugar, and mashed banana), and topped with a sauce made of melted bitter chocolate, butter, and a pinch of habanero chili powder to give it a subtle kick on the finish. With the sweetness of the cake and sorbet, and the temperature differences, most folk don’t pick it up as a spicy chili (in fact, the spiciest chili powder out there – you can also use a chopped fresh habanero and just let it infuse the melted butter for about 10 minutes and then strain it out), but they know there’s something different going on!
So that’s one take on a vegetarian dinner, with more to come in the future!