I was flipping out on Saturday because I’d extended a dinner invitation to an awesome friend named Isaac (he directs stunning music videos, check them out here) and Isaac is a vegan. But not just a vegan: a vegan with a nut allergy. I was already cooking a “thank you” meal for Lizzie Leitzell, my cookbook photographer, and her boyfriend Kyle. They’re mostly vegetarian, so we were already dealing with a meatless meal, but now I had to cook one without eggs, without milk, and without that most wonderful of ingredients: BUTTER. What would I do?
My first strategy was, it turned out, the wrong strategy. I started reading vegan food blogs (there are many good ones out there), desperately seeking the right recipes, the right ingredients. I started thinking about tofu and soy milk; I considered a butter substitute.
But then I realized I would be breaking rule #5 in my “10 Things You’re Doing Wrong Hosting a Dinner Party” post: I would be cooking with ingredients I’d never cooked with before. That’s always a formula for disaster and I didn’t want to cook a disaster. I wanted to cook something triumphant!
Which is when I had my breakthrough: instead of seeing the limitations here as insurmountable constraints, I could use them as a creative prompt. I would make the food that I love to make and simply adapt it for vegans.
And that’s exactly what I did.
For example, I love watermelon salad. Normally I serve it with feta cheese, but here I would serve it on the side as a “feta cheese optional” watermelon salad. I simply cut the flesh off a quartered watermelon:
I sliced it into thick slices, laid it on a platter, dressed it with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper; then garnished with thinly sliced red onions and slightly chopped mint:
To me, that positively screams summer. And I didn’t feel like I’d made a dish I wouldn’t normally love; I simply made a dish that I loved and made sure it was vegan.
My proudest achievement was my entree. I once read an article by Dan Barber where he made cauliflower steaks. That stuck with me.
You know one of my favorite meals to make is my spicy spatchcocked chicken with cous cous and salsa verde. I decided I would make that exact same meal, only I’d sub out the chicken for cauliflower steaks.
You just slice the cauliflower straight through the stem into thick fillets. Aren’t they pretty?
For the cous cous, I simply followed the package directions; you bring 2 cups of water to a boil, season well with salt, and add a drizzle of olive oil. Then you add 2 cups cous cous, turn off the heat and cover. Before I cover I usually add some kind of dried fruit so it softens. Last time it was golden raisins; this time it was chopped up prunes:
A few minutes later, when the cous cous was cooked, I added chopped preserved lemon, red onion, and a few big grinds of pepper:
I tossed that all together with a fork, fluffing the cous cous as I went. Later on I’d add a bunch of chopped scallions too.
Finally, I made a salsa verde in my mortar and pestle, eliminating the anchovies. You can read all about that here.
To assemble the plate, all I had to do was sear my cauliflower steaks. I pre-heated the oven to 350 and also made the same spice rub I use for my spatchcocked chicken; I toasted coriander seeds, fennel seeds and cumin seeds in a small skillet (about 1 tablespoon of each) and then ground them up in a spice grinder.
I heated two skillets–both oven proof–with a big splash of olive oil. Then in went the steaks:
I seasoned the exposed side with lots of salt and some of the spice rub. (If I made one mistake, I’d say I didn’t season aggressively enough with salt.)
When the steaks were dark golden brown on one side, I flipped them over and let them sear for a few seconds before popping the skillets into the oven.
5 minutes later, a knife went through their stems easily and it was time to serve.
Behold my finished plate. (And observe how Lizzie, who took this picture for me, has way better command of my camera than I do.)
That would be the cous cous, the cauliflower steak and the salsa verde on top. A triumph indeed!
For dessert, I realized I didn’t have to make any sacrifices if I used coconut milk. No Tofutti for us.
I made an arborio rice pudding invented by Gale Gand and blogged about by Smitten Kitchen (who used whole milk as in the original recipe) and Sassy Radish (who used a combination of soy milk and coconut milk).
Me? I played with the formula a little. I decided to double the recipe and in doing so I realized I didn’t have enough coconut milk. Didn’t matter. In a pot I put 4 cups coconut milk (from two cans), 4 cups water, 1 cup arborio rice, and 1/2 cup sugar. Here’s where I added my own twist (based on my coconut milk oatmeal): I added about 1 tablespoon of grated ginger and the zest of one lime.
You bring that to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook for 40 minutes or so until it gets really thick. (You have to stir every so often so it doesn’t stick to the bottom.) At the very end, when you take it off the heat, add lime juice to taste.
Pour into ramekins, cover with plastic and refrigerate for a few hours:
To serve, garnish with a lime wedge.
It’s a really interesting, complex dessert. People dug it.
And I dug this meal too. I guess the lesson is: If you make food that you’re not crazy about (and I’ll confess: I’m not crazy about soy milk or vegan butter product) no one will be crazy about it either. So, when cooking for vegans, cook for yourself first and, in cooking for yourself, strip away what you need to strip away. You’ll still be left with something good.