Adventures in Suburbia

Last week, Chris and I retreated to Bay Area Suburbia for a few days. A friend of mine recently moved from the city to the ‘burbs, and when she went out of town for a while, the four cats left behind were in need of a little (okay, a lot of) attention.

Needless to say, we were eager to cheat on our cats and hang out with hers, and the fact that our commute was cut in half for the final part of last week didn’t hurt either.

Of course, cat/housesitting meant that we had to actually get into the house, which proved to be another story; for whatever reason, my key decided to all of a sudden cease to work. Needless to say, had someone been watching us they would have been more than entertained. First, we’d both managed to go to Whole Foods without our wallets, at which point I’d left Chris there to head back and grab mine. At this point, my key wouldn’t work, and so I proceeded back to WF, sans wallet, to pick Chris up so he could make sure I wasn’t completely useless. Though I would have loved to have been wrong, we were most certainly locked out. Thirty minutes later, I’d already left a frantic voicemail, tried the door ten thousand times, and finally, we saw a screen that looked loose. Chris shimmied up the fence, I hoisted his ass into the air, and minutes later (it would have been seconds had a cat not been standing at the window threatening to jump out all the while), we were in.

Still starving, we made our third trip to WF to find our long lost basket of goodies. We grabbed a garage door opener that time. So, if you ever need to break in to your house, or someone else’s, let us know; we can do it in 30 minutes flat ;).

I’d also fooled myself into thinking that biking to work would be fun. You know, like old times when I did it back in Chicago. Mind you, Chicago is f-l-a-t. And while Redwood City isn’t San Francisco in the way of hilliness, it ain’t flat. Needless to say, I finally purchased a much-needed bike rack, some calories got burned, and by Friday I was thankful for the spare car in the garage. Luckily, driving stick is like riding a bike, at least in terms of remembering how to do it, certainly not in difficulty getting through rolling hills.

All things considered, it ended up feeling like a mini-vacation, simply because we were away from the city for a couple of days and instead in a quiet house with plenty of space, a better view, and twice the number of cats. Also, I had a whole new kitchen to cook in, and along with that, plenty of cookbooks to peruse. Of course, now I’ve added a few more things to my wishlist, but I’m ok with that.

One of said wishlist items is Ross Dobson’s Market Vegetarian. It’s no Yottam Ottolenghi cookbook, but it sure has loads of ideas and relatively straightforward recipes. I had my mind set on the cover recipe, and even though I don’t think I’ve eaten eggplant since the Iron Chef challenge (almost 1 year ago!), I was ready to give the ol’ aubergine another go.

So with that, the theme of last week was persistence: persistence gets you in the house (finally), it gets your groceries after three trips to Whole Foods, it gets you to and from work despite the 7 miles of ever-so-gradual hills each way, and it gets you to change your mind about eggplant.

Eggplant, Tomato, & Red Lentil Curry
Adapted from Market Vegetarian; serves 4

printable version

ingredients
3 T evoo
1 large eggplant, cut into 16 pieces
1 red onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 T finely chopped fresh ginger
8 oz heirloom cherry tomatoes
1 t ground cumin
1 t curry powder
1/2 t chili powder
1 T tomato paste
2/3 c red lentils
1 handful of fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
cooked basmati rice, to serve (optional)

instructions
heat 2 T oil in a skillet over high heat. when oil is hot, add the eggplant to the skillet and cook for 5 minutes. the eggplant will absorb the oil, but eventually start to seep out as the eggplant browns. once this happens, remove from skillet and set aside.

add 1 T oil, onions, garlic, and ginger to skillet and cook for 5 minutes. add the cherry tomatoes and cook for 1 minute, just until they soften. fish out tomatoes from the skillet and add to plate of eggplant.

add cumin and curry powder to pan and cook for a couple of minutes until fragrant. add chili powder and tomato paste, 2 cups of water, and lentils and simmer over med-lo heat for 15-20 minutes, until lentils are al dente. stir in eggplant and tomatoes and cook to warm through; add cilantro. spoon over basmati rice, if using.

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Otto-who? Otto-what?

Over a year ago, I had this crazy idea of going vegetarian. Okay, I’m not telling the truth here. I had the idea of going pescatarian, and only for a month – it was not to be a permanent change. It seemed doable, and this is coming from someone who tends to really like meat. I fought my way through it, even tossing away a lovely piece of pork that I mistakenly ordered, thinking it was a dish full of wheat berries and ramps (don’t ask how I screwed up there….). I didn’t order beef pho the first time I went to a place that served it, and at a tapas restaurant, I chewed on cheese and peppers, drank lots of wine, and tossed back mussels like it was my job.

All in all, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. Would I ever give up meat completely? I seriously doubt it. For one, I couldn’t imagine a visit to the South without barbeque (not the fake stuff). And two, I love the smell of cheeseburgers on the grill. Also, bacon is pretty awesome.

But sometimes, I do manage to go a few days without eating meat, and I can honestly say that I usually don’t even notice it. I’d even go further to say that, sometimes, eating vegetarian is a lot healthier, as long as you watch the cheese and carbs.

It seems that every time I talk about vegetarian food, I feel the need to insure you people that I do not intend to eat this way full-time. I’m not sure why? Maybe because I know many of you enjoy the meaty posts, and I assure you they are here to stay.

But the other day, I discovered lentils. Don’t ask me why I’ve never cooked them before; I have no intelligent answer. A friend of mine let me borrow a cookbook of hers that is all-vegetarian, and while I didn’t expect this to be the case, I have a lot of the pages marked and as a result, wonder if I should just buy the dang thing myself.

Yottam Ottolenghi’s Plenty is that book. And of course, I’ve cooked a slew of things (no, I haven’t written about them all) from Heidi Swanson’s new book too, which also happens to be vegetarian. What I’ve realized is this: as long as flavor is brought to the dish, I don’t miss the meat. But the second you make something bland and boring, I may as well be eating tofu from the container. Or tempeh, which is still gross to me.

Ottolenghi seems to know what’s up on that front. His secret? He’s not vegetarian. Of course, some people seem to have a problem with that, but for me, it’s a match made in heaven. He knows that meat tastes good, and he knows that many vegetarian dishes lack flavor. The result? He makes his recipes scream with flavor, belting out ingredients like mustard seeds and curry powder, fenugreek and pomegranate molasses – and it works.

Also! he made me fall madly in love with lentils, an ingredient I’ve never really taken an interest in before. So yeah, maybe I just realized that I’m probably never giving this cookbook back to my friend (shhhhh!), and maybe as long as I locate vegetarian recipes that are actually locked and loaded with flavor I’ll be able to eat somewhat like a ‘flexitarian’, or whatever it’s called. But at the end of the day, I’m sticking to my beliefs – and that’s that meat is meant for me to eat, and I was meant to eat meat.

Spiced Red Lentils with Cucumber Yogurt
adapted from Plenty; serves 4 as a light dinner 

time commitment: 1 hour, about half of which is active

printable version

notice the piece of naan tucked alongside this dish. I didn’t make it this time, but you can. Or you can just buy some :). also, one of these spices is possibly tricky to find: fenugreek. It’s nice, if you have it, but don’t sweat it if you don’t.

ingredients
1 c split red lentils
1 1/2 c water
half a regular bunch of cilantro
1 small onion, peeled and quartered
1 1-2″ piece of fresh ginger, peeled
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1 green chile
1 1/2 t black mustard seeds
4 T sunflower oil
1 1/2 t g coriander
1 t g cumin
1/2 t g turmeric
1/4 t sweet paprika
3 Roma tomatoes, diced
2 t sugar
1/4 t fenugreek (if you can find it)
1 small container of Greek yogurt
1/2 of a cucumber, finely diced
1 1/2 T olive oil
3 T butter
1 1/2 T fresh lime juice
salt and pepper

instructions
wash the lentils under cold water and pour into a bowl with the water. let soak for 30 minutes. get the rest of your ingredients ready and chopped.

meanwhile, cut the cilantro bunch halfway between the top and bottom. give the leaf top a rough chop and set aside. add the bottom stalky part to a food processor along with the onion, ginger, garlic and chili. pulse a few times until ingredients are broken up, but not pasty.

grab a heavy pot (Dutch oven time!) and turn on medium heat. add the mustard seeds and when they start to pop, add the chopped mixture and the sunflower oil. cook on low heat for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. add the coriander through the paprika, and continue cooking/stirring for five minutes. the mixture may appear very dark, which is just fine.

add the lentils and their soaking water, tomatoes, sugar, and fenugreek, as well as a little salt. cover and simmer for 30 minutes, or until lentils are cooked. you’ll probably want to check on them occasionally, as mine were about 5 minutes overdone since I abandoned the kitchen for too long…

meanwhile, make the  yogurt by whisking the yogurt, cucumber, and olive oil together. add salt and pepper to taste.

once the lentils are cooked, stir in the butter, lime juice, and most of the cilantro leaves. season with salt/pepper if needed. divide into 4 dishes, topping each with a large dollop of yogurt and cilantro leaves to garnish.