Category Archives: Vegetarian Entree

Seared Bok Choy and Rice Noodles in a Light Coconut Broth

seared bok choy and rice noodles in coconut broth

Ah, one-pot meals.  Few things are more satisfying to make or eat than a complete balanced meal in a single dish.  Seared Bok Choy and Rice Noodles in a Light Coconut Broth is one of those meals, except, well, I actually used three different pots to make this “one-pot meal”: I soaked the rice noodles in one bowl, seared the bok choy in a pan and then added them both to a big simmering pot with the rest of the ingredients.  You might think that’s cheating, and it is, but it also reveals a secret about good restaurant or gourmet cooking: when ingredients are cooked separately and then combined, they retain unique textures that make the final product more interesting and satisfying than if they were all cooked together using the same method.

Following this recipe will give you some insight as to how restaurants get Asian soups to have firm noodles, crispy vegetables, and clear broths.  The rice noodles are soaked separately in hot, but not boiling, water.  This keeps the noodles from falling apart and prevents the broth from getting cloudy from the starch in the noodles.  The gingery, coconut broth is then cooked separately, with the tofu, snow peas, and separately seared bok choy added at the end, so nothing will overcook.  The dish is then finished with fresh lime juice and raw scallion slivers to provide contrast to the cooked broth and vegetables.

The coconut milk in the broth makes this dish luxurious and special.  While coconut milk is certainly not a low-calorie food, it provides the richness and fat necessary to round out this light meal.  While saturated fat from coconuts was maligned in past decades, science and the press–including The New York Times–has been kinder to this fat in recent years, touting the fact that it is one of the few significant sources of lauric acid, a medium-chain fatty acid that perhaps has anti-fungal and antimicrobial properties and is converted into energy rather than fat in the human body.  However, if you are concerned with reducing the amount of coconut milk in any recipe, you can buy a light version of canned coconut milk or simply dilute the regular version with water.  Even with the full fat coconut milk though, this meal is only about 500 calories per serving.

Thanks to Tom Blakely for taking another great photo!  He so generously came over with all his camera gear and in return, I made him tofu.  Which he hates.

Seared Bok Choy and Rice Noodles in a Light Coconut Broth
Serves 4

1 package of rice noodles (also called pad thai noodles)
2 tablespoons of olive oil, divided
1/2 onion, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons minced ginger
1 small red chili, minced (vary according to your chili tolerance)
3 cups of vegetable broth
1 can coconut milk (regular or light)
3 cloves of garlic, minced
6 baby bok choy, each sliced through the root into 4 – 6 vertical spears
1 cup of snow pea pods, ends trimmed
1 block of tofu (usually 14 oz), cut into 3/4 inch dice
2 teaspoons of salt
juice from one lime, or more to taste
2 scallions, white and green parts thinly sliced on the diagonal

1. Prepare rice noodles according to package directions or use this steeping method: Place the rice noodles in a large bowl. Bring a kettle or pot of water up to a boil. Let the water cool for a couple of minutes, and then pour it over the noodles, completely submerging them. Let the noodles steep in the water until they are soft but still have some bite. Then drain the water and hold the noodles in the dry bowl, tossed with a little oil, until you are ready for them.

2. In a large pot, make the coconut broth. Over medium heat, add the sliced onion and saute, letting the onion soften but not brown, about 5 minutes. Then add the minced ginger and red chili and saute for 1 minute more. Add the vegetable broth, coconut milk and 1 cup of water and whisk to combine. Bring this up to a simmer.

3. In a large skillet, heat up one tablespoon of olive oil and add the garlic and saute for 30 seconds. Then over high heat, add enough baby bok choy spears to fill the pan and let them get a light brown color one side and then flip over and repeat. They will still be firm but with a nice seared appearance. Remove the cooked boy choy from the skillet and repeat with the rest of the baby bok choy.

4. Add the seared baby bok choy, snow peas and tofu cubes into the coconut broth along with the 2 teaspoons of salt. Let simmer lightly for 3 minutes. Turn off heat and add the lime juice and scallions. Taste and add more salt or lime juice if necessary.

5. Using tongs, divide cooked rice noodles among 4 serving bowls and ladle the broth and veggies on top.

Lemon Cilantro Moong Dal

lemon cilantro mung dal

In the last few years, there’s been increased media coverage about the rising cost of food, the negative environmental and health effects of eating too much animal protein, and the importance of whole foods and fiber in our diets.  It’s actually surprising to me that more people aren’t looking to beans and lentils as an easy solution.  These members of the legume family are loaded with protein, fiber, trace nutrients and come in a variety of shapes, flavors and sizes.  Furthermore, they’re totally cheapsville.  A serving of beans or lentils will cost you around 10 – 50 cents.  Compare that with the even lowest quality meat that you are willing to eat.  Also since legumes usually come dried, canned or frozen, they last in your pantry for months to years, stretching your buck even further.

But you still aren’t cooking them at home.  Why, friends?  Because they take time?  You don’t know how?  You’re afraid to eat them?  They’re un-American?  Push those worries aside.  Today you’re learning how to make an easy, knockout lentil dish.

I’m taking inspiration from some of the fabulous lentil dishes in India called dal.  One of the most basic dals uses split and husked mung beans and is called moong dal (see the pic below).  This dal is considered very nutritious and easy to digest–so much so that it’s often given to people when they are recovering from an illness like the stomach flu.  Most dals are prepared the same way: you soak the lentils, then boil them in water, and then flavor the cooked lentils with a spiced oil.  The final texture can be anywhere from a thick puree to a thin soup.  It’s an easy process, but it does require planning.  I suggest soaking the lentils the night before you want to make this dish.  Then the lentils need to cook for about an hour, unattended, and then finishing them with the oil takes only 2 minutes.  Lentils also soak up a good amount of salt (just like soups), so don’t be afraid to be generous with your salting.  Lemon and cilantro are classic finishing flavors to many dals; here, I’ve amped up the quantity to make this dish really pop with bright flavors.

Each 1 cup serving of this Lemon Cilantro Moong Dal (from 1/4 cup of uncooked lentils) has about 170 calories, 14 grams of protein and 16 grams of fiber (about 61% of the recommended daily allowance) and each serving of the lentils cost 20 cents.  You can round out the meal with bread or rice and a side salad.  Leftover dal makes an easy, energizing breakfast as well.

mung dal

The dish on the left shows what dry moong dal looks like when you buy it.  The dish on the right shows what it looks like after soaking overnight.

Lemon Cilantro Moong Dal
Makes 4 1-cup servings

1 cup of moong dal (split and husked mung beans)
1 tablespoon of butter
2 teaspoons of olive oil
1/4 teaspoon of mustard seeds
1/4 teaspoon of cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon of turmeric
pinch of asofetida or garlic powder
1 1/2 teaspoons of salt
3 tablespoons of lemon juice, from about 1 1/2 lemons
1/2 cup of finely chopped cilantro leaves and stems (not roots)

1. In a fine mesh strainer, thoroughly rinse the moong dal in running water until the water runs clear.  Sift through the lentils to make sure there are no stones, husks, or dirt.  Put the rinsed lentils in a bowl, cover with several inches of water and let soak overnight on the counter or inside the refrigerator if your kitchen is hot.

2. The next day, drain the lentils and give them a quick rinse.  Put the lentils in a medium-sized pot and cover with 3 inches of water.  Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer, and let this cook for about 1 hour.  Skim off any foam that forms on the top and add more water if necessary, but mostly you can leave it alone.  You want the lentils to get fully softened (with no grittiness) and start to fall apart. Then give them a mash with the back of a ladle or an immersion blender to make a smoother puree.  You should end up with about 4 cups of a medium-bodied puree.  Add more liquid or cook longer to adjust the thickness to your liking.

3. Once the lentils are cooked, take another medium-sized pot and melt the butter and oil over medium heat. Then add the mustard seeds and cumin seeds, stirring, and let these cook for about 30 seconds until they start to sizzle and pop. Quickly add the turmeric and asofetida or garlic powder. Then immediately add the cooked lentils and stir to flavor them with the spices. Add the 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt and let the mixture come up to a simmer.  Turn off the heat and add the lemon juice and cilantro.  Taste to see if it needs more salt or lemon juice and then serve.

Green Pea Soup with Cucumber Raita

green pea soup with cucumber raita

Chicago has two seasons: an arctic Winter survivable only via heinous marshmallow-shaped coats and convenience store robbery face masks and a skin-melting, eyeball-liquifying Summer.  But for a few short weeks in May, we enter what people in most cities would call “Spring” but what my friend Claire aptly describes as “Seasonal Limbo.”  It’s freezing, then it’s hot, the flowers start to bloom, then they all freeze and die, then it rains so much that you regret not buying that ark when you saw it on sale at Target.

The unpredictability of Seasonal Limbo calls for a flexible meal plan.  Not only is this soup made in about 15 minutes from ingredients like onions and frozen peas that are easily kept on hand, but it can also be served either hot or cold.  I like to have it hot when its fresh and then cold as leftovers.  The only difference is that you’ll want to salt the cold version more than you would the hot version: an extra pinch or two will do.  Like in the Mushroom Walnut Pate, your palate can’t perceive saltiness as much in cold food as in hot, so cold dishes require extra salt.

While the basis of this soup is almost painfully simple (cook onions, broth and peas and puree), I’ve deepened the flavors by adding a dash of cinnamon for a warming spicy hint and lemon juice and mint for brightness.  Pureed soups like this are often topped with a dollop of yogurt or sour cream, and I’ve taken that as an inspiration to swirl in raita, a traditional yogurt condiment in North Indian and Pakistani cuisine.  Raita can be made with a number of spices, seasonings and raw vegetables, but here I’ve kept it simple with minced cucumber and dried mint for a cool contrast to the sweet soup.  You can also make this raita on its own to use as a condiment to a fiery Indian dinner or as a dip for veggies or shrimp.  Thinned out with water, it also makes a great dressing.

The soup and raita call for two different kinds of mint, but feel free to substitute fresh for the dried if you don’t have it.  Dried herbs like mint and parsley are one of the hallmarks of Middle Eastern cuisine, so if you like cooking that type of food, they may be worth the investment to help you attain more authentic-tasting results.  Regardless, this hot-cold soup and its Seasonal Limbo Green color will help you get through the “season.”

Green Pea Soup with Cucumber Raita
Serves 2 as a main; 4 as a starter

For the Soup:
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, diced
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups vegetable broth
1 cup water
1 16-oz bag of frozen peas
2 tablespoons chopped mint, loosely packed
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, about 1 lemon

For the Raita:
1/4 cup minced or grated English cucumber, with the seeds and peel (extra for garnish, optional)
1/2 cup plain yogurt, non-fat OK
1/4 teaspoon dried mint
pinch of salt

1. First make the cucumber raita by mixing the minced cucumber, the yogurt, the dried mint, and the salt in a small bowl. This can be made ahead and kept in the fridge.

2. In a large pot over medium heat, add the oil. When it starts to shimmer, add the diced onions and the salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. You do not want any browning on the onions. Stir in the cinnamon and cook for 30 seconds. Then add the vegetable broth and the water and bring up to a boil. Stir in the frozen peas and cook until just defrosted and warm. If you cook them longer, the soup will lose its bright green color.

3. Pour half of the soup into the blender with the lemon juice and the fresh mint and blend until smooth. Then repeat with the other half of the soup. You should never fill a blender more than half-way full with a hot liquid, so work it more or fewer batches according to the size of your blender. Combine the pureed soup into one container and taste to see if it needs more salt.

4. If serving hot, ladle or pour the soup into bowls. Then take a spoonful of the chilled raita and swirl it in a spiral pattern into the bowl and garnish with some extra minced cucumber if you’d like. If serving cold, add an extra pinch of salt and then chill for several hours. Swirl in the raita and serve.

Mushroom Walnut Pate

When I told my friends that I was starting a blog to share my recipes, the most common response I received was “Can you put recipes on there for SANDWICHES?!?”  Not exactly what I was expecting.

At first, I was worried about those friends that needed explicit directions on how to make a sandwich.  But the more I thought about it, the Sandwich, particularly the Vegetarian Sandwich, is often sadly lacking in style and substance, filled with a few soggy pieces of lettuce and maybe a couple slices of sad, clammy, deli cheese.

But those sad, droopy sandwiches bow down in the presence of this vegan Mushroom Walnut Pate.  It has a meaty, umami taste that’s incredibly rich, considering it has no animal products in it and is mostly lentils and vegetables.  Lentils and walnuts are packed with protein and fiber, so this sandwich will keep you full and energized all afternoon.  It takes about an hour to make, but you’ll have plenty for sandwiches, snacks, and creative leftovers all week.  But it probably won’t last that long.

So friends, here are your sandwich instructions: Make the pate from the recipe below and slather it on toasted whole wheat country bread.  Add green apple slices and fresh arugula for a perfectly balanced, hearty vegetarian sandwich.

Another serving option for this pate is to unmold it and put it on a platter with crackers, crostini or crudite for an hors d’oeuvre.  It’s a real crowd-pleaser since it’s delicious, decadent and figure-friendly.  If you are serving it to a crowd, I would definitely spring for the dry sherry.  It gives the pate an elegant, winey acidity that’s really irreplaceable.  But I’ve also used balsamic vinegar for a similar sweet-tart kick and that’s also quite delicious.

Put any leftover pate to good use by taking a couple tablespoons and stirring them into freshly cooked pasta for a quick mushroom ragu (just add a little pasta water to thin) or add a spoonful to vegetable broth and vegetables to give a mushroomy undertone to a vegetable soup.

I can’t stress enough how phenomenal and addictive this pate is.  I gave my sister a spoonful of it last night, and her response? “OH YES.”

Mushroom Walnut Pate
makes about 3 cups

1 cup Lentils de Puy (French green lentils)
3 cups vegetable stock, preferably unsalted
1 teaspoon dried Herbes de Provence
1 bay leaf
1/2 cup walnuts
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 8-10 ounce package of cremini mushrooms (about 3 cups), thinly sliced
1/4 cup dry sherry (or 2 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar)
2 teaspoons of salt

1. Rinse the lentils until the water runs clear. Add them to a large pot with the vegetable stock and the Herbes de Provence and bay leaf. The stock should be about 2 inches above the lentils; add water if it’s not at that level. Bring up to a boil and then simmer until the lentils are fully cooked, about 45 minutes, adding water as necessary. The lentils will retain their shape, but will no longer be hard or gritty on the inside.

2. In the meantime, preheat the oven to 300 degrees. On a sheet tray, spread out the walnuts and toast them in the oven for about 10 minutes, tossing occasionally. They will be slightly golden and fragrant. Set aside to cool.

3. Heat up a large saute pan and add the oil. Saute the onion over medium-high heat with a pinch of salt until it is soft and golden brown. Then add the minced garlic and saute for 30 seconds. Add the sliced mushrooms with another pinch of salt and saute until they are brown and much of the liquid has evaporated. The whole mixture should be soft and look caramelized. Then add the dry sherry, using it to scrape off any brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Continue to cook until most of the sherry has evaporated. Then remove from heat.

4. In the food processor, pulse the walnuts until finely ground. Then add the cooked lentils (drained from their water and with the bay leaf removed), the mushroom mixture and the 2 teaspoons of salt. Puree until smooth. Taste the mixture and add salt until it tastes perfect. Then add two extra pinches of salt. It will taste too salty warm, but once it cools, it will taste perfect again. The palate perceives salt differently in hot and cold food.

5. Spoon mixture into a loaf pan, mold or tupperware and cover with plastic wrap. Then place a similarly-sized container on top and weigh it down to press the pate.  Chill in the refrigerator for several hours.  Invert on a plate to serve as an hors d’oeuvre or spread on bread for your sandwich.

Celery Leaf Salad with Honey Vinaigrette

People give three major reasons for not eating lots of vegetables: 1) they are expensive with lots of waste; 2) they go bad in the fridge before they can be used up and 3) they don’t taste that great, particularly without a lot of cooking and work.  I can’t think of a vegetable that more embodies those complaints than celery.  Recipes rarely call for more than a stalk or two, and by the time you cut off the tops and the bottoms, you’ve wasted half the plant.  Then it sits in your fridge for weeks until it’s all pale and flaccid because, let’s be honest, you don’t like celery that much.  It’s just too celery-y.

But celery, particularly the leaves, have a fresh, verdant taste that can be lovely and unique.  The first day or two after you buy your celery, pick off the leaves for this salad; you’ll likely get between 2-3 cups.  The leaves are slightly bitter with a distinct celery taste, so the trick is to balance out that flavor with others, particularly sweet, salty and smoky.  I sweetened up the vinaigrette with a bit of honey, added baby spinach, fresh berries and salty, smoky almonds to offset that slight bitterness.  Sweet flavors are especially good at balancing bitterness, which is why chocolate needs sugar and why honey is fabulous in this vinaigrette.

The result is both thrifty and gourmet: you stretch that $1 bunch of celery by using the greens, and the salad elegant enough to serve to guests, with the celery leaf lending an unusual, almost exotic flair.  Celery is also one of the foods highest in Vitamin K, a fat-soluble vitamin that is believed to help regulate blood pressure and clotting.

The only new ingredient on this list might be brown rice vinegar.  It’s a sweet, mild vinegar that can be used in almost equal proportions to oil in a vinaigrette (as opposed to a more typical 1: 3 vinegar to oil ratio).  It’s less processed than many other commercial vinegars, but if you don’t have it, substitute rice wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar for a similar, delicate vinaigrette.

Celery Leaf Salad with Honey Vinaigrette
Serves 1 as a main; 2 as a side

For the Salad:
2 cups of celery leaves
1 cup of baby spinach
1/2 cup of quartered strawberries, about 6-8 berries
1/8 cup smoked almonds

For the Honey Vinaigrette:
2 teaspoons brown rice vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon honey
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

1. In a medium-sized bowl, toss together the celery leaves, baby spinach, strawberries and smoked almonds.

2. In a separate small bowl, combine the brown rice vinegar, salt and honey and whisk with a fork.  Then drizzle in the olive oil while whisking with the fork.  The honey will act as an emulsifier to keep the vinaigrette together.

3. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss to combine.

Warm Spring Green Salad Over Polenta

If trying to eat seasonal food throughout the winter has left you with a mad case of Seasonal Affective Disorder and your eye twitches every time you hear the word “apple,” this Springtime salad might be just the antidote that you and your facial tic have been looking for.  This vibrant entree combines three harbingers of Spring–fresh fava beans, asparagus and baby artichokes–into a balanced and satisfying meal.  Each of the three green ingredients is cooked in a different way, so the warm salad has a variety of textures and flavors; it’s garlicky, minty, crunchy, bright, sweet, and creamy, all at the same time.  It might seem like a lot of work to prep each of the ingredients, but it goes quite quickly.  When you are done, you have an entire meal put together and you’ve mastered some seemingly daunting vegetables.  Good for you.

While I love eating artichokes in restaurants, I’d actually never prepared them at home because I wasn’t entirely sure, even after culinary school, which parts were the edible parts.  But it turns out they are pretty easy to work with, and baby artichokes are actually less work than their parents  to trim because there is no ominous “choke” to remove.  You just peel off the outer leaves in a he-loves-me, he-loves-me-not fashion and cut off the top and the woody stem.  You can find photos showing each step of the process online here.

Cooking fresh fava beans is also ridiculously simple, but requires two steps.  First open the pods using any means necessary and pop out the beans, much like you would for edamame. Then after boiling the beans for a couple of minutes, the thin skin around them will be loosened, and you’ll be able to slip it off with your fingers.  Think chickpeas.  In addition to the protein and fiber that all legumes have, favas are rich in folate, copper, manganese, potassium and other trace minerals. Changing up your diet and incorporating new plants into it is the best way to make sure you are getting all the nutrients your body needs.

If you notice a significant upgrade in the quality of photos today, you can thank my friend and professional photographer Tom Blakely.  He stopped by for lunch the other day and we made a little trade: food for photos.  Not a bad deal, eh?

Warm Spring Green Salad over Polenta
Serves 2

For the Salad:
1 pound fresh fava beans, in their pods
8 baby artichokes
1 bunch of asparagus, woody ends trimmed off
2 garlic cloves, minced
pinch of red pepper flakes
3/4 teaspoon of salt
juice from 1/2 a lemon
2 scallions, thinly sliced with white parts separated from green parts
6 mint leaves, chopped or torn

For the Polenta:
2 cups of water
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/2 cup of coarse-grind cornmeal, sometimes labeled “polenta” or “grits”
1 pat of butter

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

2. Bring a medium sized pot of salted water up to a boil.  In the meantime, take the fava bean pods and remove the beans inside, using your fingers. Discard the pods.  Add the beans to the boiling water.  Remove after 3 minutes, leaving the water boiling on the stove.  Run the beans under cold water to cool down and then remove their skins by squeezing on one end of the bean. Set the beans aside.

3. Place the trimmed asparagus in an even layer on a sheet tray.  Drizzle it with olive oil and salt and place in the oven for 20 minutes.  The asparagus should still be green with some brown crust and it will be tender, not hard or mushy.  Let the asparagus cool for a minute, then slice it into roughly 2-inch pieces.

4. While the asparagus is roasting, you can trim and steam the artichokes.  Remove enough water from the boiling pot of water to set a steamer basket inside. (If you don’t have a steamer basket, you can use a strainer or pour out the water until only a half-inch remains and set the artichokes directly in that.)  Peel off the green leaves of the baby artichokes until a more tender yellow leaf emerges.  Then trim off the stem and cut off the top 1/3 of the artichokes. Cut these pieces in half, vertically.  Place the artichokes in the steamer basket, generously salt them and cover for 15 minutes. You’ll know the artichoke hearts are done when they are fork-tender.

5. Once the asparagus, favas and artichokes are all ready, start the polenta.  Bring 2 cups of water up to a boil in a medium pot and slowly whisk in the cornmeal and salt. Whisk constantly for about 30 seconds and then every minute or so for about 5 minutes.  The polenta will have a thick oatmeal consistency.  Add the pat of butter and stir it in.  The polenta can sit with the heat turned off while you finish the warm vegetables.

6. Finally, in a large skillet, heat up the olive oil and saute the garlic, white parts of the scallions and red pepper flake for 30 seconds.  Then add the cooked artichokes, favas and asparagus, salt and saute for about a minute to let the flavors combine.  Immediately before removing from the heat, add the lemon juice, sliced green parts of the scallion, and the mint.

7. To plate, ladle the polenta into a bowl or plate, then top with the green sauteed vegetables.  Garnish with more mint or scallions if desired.