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The following three recipes were absolutely terrifying to me when I first bought The Conscious Cook. So terrifying, in fact, that when I finished all the entrees and saw them on the next page, I skipped to desserts. They come from another one of the guest chef’s in Chef Tal’s book, Dave Anderson. I decided that I wanted to finish this challenge in style, and so that’s how I ended up spending Memorial Day weekend making not one, not two, but all three of these dishes.
Recipe #58 “Asian Tacos with Kinpira and Spinach-Sesame Salad” is a tantalizing spin on tacos with yummy Asian flavor combinations. To start, you make something called kinpira, for which you need to buy burdock root. Lily actually bought almost ALL of the ingredients for all three of these recipes by herself, burdock root included. (I’m sorry, did I mention how much I love my fiancée? And how I am the luckiest woman on earth? Well, it bears repeating.) To find the illusive root she had to look no further than Hana, which is where I started shopping for the unfamiliar ingredients in The Conscious Cook a year and a half ago. (The symmetry is very pleasing to me.)
This is what burdock root looks like:
You peel the long, skinny root and then julienne it, along with half as much carrot.
Then you stir fry the burdock in a little canola oil for two minutes. Add the carrot and continue stir frying for two more minutes. Then you add mirin, soy sauce, a little water and evaporated cane juice.
(Side note: I don’t really know what evaporated cane juice is. I mean, I know it’s a sweetener, and it’s in a lot of the stuff I eat, but I don’t know how to buy it. Lily found sucanat, which is dehydrated cane juice. I don’t know if that’s the same, but it totally worked so I’m not complaining.)
Continue cooking until the liquid is almost totally evaporated. Then take it off the heat and stir in tamari and sesame seeds. Let it cool and then chill it in the fridge for at least an hour.
Next you make a tasty dressing out of brown rice vinegar, more evaporated cane juice, Dijon mustard and oil. Stir together the first three ingredients before slowly pouring in five parts canola oil and one part sesame oil, whisking constantly to emulsify the dressing (a trick I first learned a year ago when I began the salad chapter). Stir in sesame seeds and salt and pepper to taste, and keep it in the fridge until it’s time to eat.
Then you make taco shells out of wonton skins, which is by far the coolest thing in the world. (In December 2010, when I made this recipe, we had no thermometer and it was a nightmare. Now I’m older and wiser.) You heat a ton of canola oil to 350 degrees, and fold the wonton skins over the edge of your tongs to make them taco shell-shaped. Fry each one for a minute.
This recipe makes way more taco filling than you need, which is fine by me because it tastes like crack. You stir fry a little minced garlic and fresh ginger for just a minute before adding four cups of diced seitan. After four minutes you add four cups Napa cabbage, plus equal parts soy sauce, mirin and agave nectar. Keep cooking until the cabbage wilts (three minutes or so).
Meanwhile (it helps to have two people so one of you can do this) blanch spinach for just 20 seconds in boiling water. Toss it with sesame dressing.
To serve the dish, pile some more Napa cabbage in the center of the plate and dress with a little sesame dressing. Fill the taco shells with filling and a little cabbage, and place them on the bed of cabbage (so they don’t fall over). Then pile some kinpira on one side, and some spinach salad on the other.
Lily started laughing hysterically when she bit into the taco. Maybe it was because we’d been cooking for three hours (not the forty-five minutes advertised in the book — another lesson I learned long ago). But then I got the giggles as well, and we decided that the tacos are so delicious that they induce giddyness. I mean, deep-fried wontons. Filled with seitan! It makes no sense. This is a damn good dish, maybe even good enough to make it into my top ten from the book (a list I will create and share in the days to come). Everything is nicely balanced and complements the other components. The seitan filling is very meaty, the cabbage is fresh and bright, the sesame dressing is salty and delicious and the kinpira is sweet and earthy. (Burdock, by the way, is fibrous in texture and from what I can tell kind of bland — it soaks up whatever flavor you add to it.)
What’s great about this dish too is that each component is pretty simple — it’s just the layering of all of them that takes a lot of time. But well worth it.
Recipe #59 “Beet Mosaic with Gold Beet Vinaigrette, Balsamic Glaze, and Cucumber Salad,” is your revenge if you didn’t like it when you were told not to play with your food. The mosaic relies on our new friend agar agar (see panna cotta) to act as a glue that sticks beautiful slices of beets together.
To begin, you boil red beets and golden beets separately (otherwise the red beets would dye the golden beets red).
While the beets are boiling, you’ll also need to boil the agar agar in water for 5 or 10 minutes. When the beets are tender, peel them and square them off with your knife. Then cut them into strips.
You’re supposed to have a 5 3/4 by 3 1/4 inch loaf pan, but really, who owns that? No one. So Lily, like a genius, rigged this contraption:
Badass, right? Totally worked.
To build the mosaic you dip a red beet strip in agar agar and lay it in the bottom of the pan, starting your first column. You’ll probably need another red beet strip to make the column long enough to reach the edge of the pan (you can cut it to make it fit, like a puzzle). Then, next to the red column, lay a strip of gold beet. Keep going until you have a whole layer of alternating beet stripes covering the bottom of your pan. Then brush agar agar on top of them to seal in all the cracks.
On your next layer, start with gold instead of red. Keep going until your pan is full. Then wrap the whole thing up in plastic wrap, set a weight on top of it, and throw that sucker in the fridge for at least eight hours.
While that’s happening, there’s time for making sauces (and probably sleeping too). To make the balsamic glaze, all you have to do it bring balsamic vinegar to a boil and then reduce it to a simmer, allowing it to simmer for about 10 minutes (it should reduce from 1/2 cup to 1 tablespoon).
For the vinaigrette, you’ll need the scraps from your gold beet (remember when you squared it off with your knife?). Put those scraps in a food processor along with some Champagne vinegar, minced shallot and agave nectar.
Blend until smooth, then slowly pour in extra virgin olive oil with the motor still running (emulsifying the dressing).
After that, all that’s left is to make a little cucumber salad with tomato, chives, olive oil, salt and pepper.
To serve it, toss some lettuce in the vinaigrette and plate it up with the cucumber salad and some balsamic glaze. The hard part is slicing the mosaic. That’s when we discovered that our agar agar wasn’t as glue-y as we might have hoped. The parts that stuck together were where the beet strips had a little space in between, so if you’re going to attempt this dish that’s my best suggestion. (We packed our beets in tight thinking that was part of the strategy.)
But anyway, level of stickiness is not typically a factor in determining how good something tastes. And it actually looked beautiful, too.
The beets taste like candy. But really healthy candy, full of vitamins. The cucumbers are cool and refreshing, and the beet dressing is tangy and delicious. It’s a really substantial salad, because of the beets, but still bright and crisp. Serious yum.
Recipe #60 “Grilled Shiitake Mushrooms with Polenta, Roasted Japanese Eggplant, and Smoked-Paprika Creme,” is an entree with a lot going on. First you bake shiitake mushrooms in a TON of olive oil for two hours (at 225 degrees). Bonus: when you’re done you can save the oil — it’s infused with mushroom flavor.
Then you make polenta. If you’ve never made polenta before (like I hadn’t), just make it according to the instructions on the box. We bought some crazy kind that was cut really thick (I thought it was awesome — you could tell it was once corn), but we were cooking it FOREVER and it still didn’t thicken enough. I actually left the house (I hadn’t expected to be cooking so long) and Lily cooked it for a total of 90 minutes before deciding that enough was enough. Still delicious, but the soft texture caused problems later when it was time to brown it in a pan…
Next you make smoked paprika creme. The base is raw cashews soaked in water overnight, something I’ve made approximately a bazillion times since cashews are Chef Tal’s Favorite Thing. You puree the soaked cashews with water before adding them to a pan with sautéed garlic and shallot. It reduces a little bit, and then you blend it up with, you guessed it, smoked paprika. (I love this stuff — some magazine said it was a great thing for vegetarians, and that magazine was correct. Excellent smoky flavor, sans meat.)
Then you saute more shiitake mushrooms with onion and garlic before pureeing them…
…and you roast Japanese eggplant, which is super easy. Chef Dave Anderson has you peel and dice the eggplants, toss them with olive oil, season them with salt and pepper, and then roast them for 15 minutes at 350 degrees. They come out perfectly, so so tasty.
Next you grab those shiitakes that were baked in oil and grill them. (Careful — they spit.) Then you brown the polenta in a skillet (I did my best) and add to the eggplant some blanched haricots verts and spinach.
It probably would be more tasty if I hadn’t screwed up the polenta, but it was pretty freakin good. The grilled mushrooms are to die for — bursting with oily flavor and crispy on the edges. The pureed mushrooms are delicious as well, and the earthy flavors pair well with the fresh veggies. The smoked paprika elevates everything. My family kept slathering it on every bite, so that’s a good sign. It’s really good, substantive food, which is kind of what this whole book is about. It’s about not eating rabbit food just because you’re a vegan. It’s about feeling full, and therefore happy. Which, I am.
So there you have it. For the past year and a half, The Conscious Cook has been a big part of my life. I cooked all SIXTY recipes in that sucker. Let’s just say I have mixed emotions about it.
But honestly, I know that this book taught me to be a good cook. Food is important, and being able to prepare delicious meals makes me feel powerful. I’m happy I did this, and proud that I actually finished. A year and a half ago, I never would have even attempted some of these recipes. And now I can say I made them all.