Lessons from Vegetarian January
Crispy tofu nuggets, fancy mushrooms, sooo many beans - and some great sci-fi!
January is coming to a close, and with it our month of vegetarianism. People keep asking me if I feel different or healthier in some way; the answer to that is currently no, though I guess we’ll see if anything changes once we start eating meat again.
What a month without meat or fish has done is force me to be really thoughtful about where my protein is coming from, and that has led to some fun discoveries; for example, when I make salads I now top them with crispy chickpeas or white beans, which has the additional benefit of adding crunch. I usually pan fry them in some olive oil like this Smitten Kitchen recipe - getting the beans very dry beforehand is key. My general method is to drain and rinse, then spread them onto a baking sheet lined with paper towels or clean kitchen towel, and let them air dry until I’m ready to get started.
I’ve also finally gotten into the whole “make a big pot of beans on a Sunday and use them in a bunch of different dishes” routine, which is good news for both my fiber consumption and the big box of Rancho Gordo beans which has been staring me down from the edge of the pantry for months. This week’s bean was a batch of black lentils, which we used to make a double batch of Alexandra Stafford’s lentils with spinach, onions and balsamic vinegar. Frozen spinach (thawed then squeezed of its liquid) made this a super easy dinner that was great reheated the next day and dolloped with ricotta. I didn’t have white balsamic, so used regular; it worked great.
That still left us with the other half of the lentil batch, so I was excited to see that Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen had posted a new recipe for lentil salad. This is essentially lentils mixed with salsa, inspired by her friend’s Trader Joe’s hack of mixing steamed lentils with bruschetta topping. Deb has you make the salsa yourself but it’s trivial (don’t bother chopping the onions and garlic, just pulse them in the food processor.) We ate it with an epi baguette from Bernal Bakery because that’s what we had, but I imagine it’d be even better with chips.
Our legume adventures have not stopped there! Last weekend I noticed that Joe Yonan’s Cool Beans was on Kindle sale for $1.99 so naturally bought a copy, and immediately made the rigatoni e ceci the same night. It’s not the same as pasta e ceci, the Roman tomato-ey chickpea and pasta dish you are probably familiar with; instead, you puree half your chickpeas with broth or their cooking liquid and a little olive oil, then add that mixture plus some whole chickpeas to a pan in which you’ve been sautéeing garlic and rosemary. You end up with a super-creamy, savory vegan sauce that had me wondering what else I could fancy up via the addition of blitzed chickpeas.
If you include Cool Beans, I’ve knocked 3 more cookbooks off my list, the others being Simply Julia by Julia Turshen (I finally made the white pizza style kale and unsurpringly, anything is great when you put 3 kinds of cheese on it) and Musa Dağdeviren’s The Turkish Cookbook. I picked up the latter when I had a hankering to make bulgur pilaf and needed something proteinaceous to go with it; the recipe I picked was an Anatolian cheese and herb fritter listed in the book as Söcce, though I’ve only been able to find it listed online as Öcce or Ökçe. (Fellow Turks who have actually been to Gaziantep, please weigh in. Is this a typo? Niche regional variation? Enlighten me!)
Perhaps the reason I don’t really feel any different is probably that eating plant-based did not turn us into ascetics. I saw Bettina Makalintal post about her method for making crispy glazed deep-fried tofu on Twitter a few weeks ago and could not stop thinking about it. I finally got around to making space in my freezer for a box of firm tofu (apparently sticking the whole thing is just fine) and we were off to the races.
Unlike pressing regular firm tofu, which is an exercise in quickly diminishing returns, pressing frozen and then thawed tofu is a dream - the water just flies out. I squished it between clean hands until it started to fracture (super satisfying) then pressed it under a plate for a little while for good measure. Bettina then has you tear it up into jagged pieces, marinade it in a garlicky soy-sesame-vinegar mixture, and then toss with a mix of potato and corn starch. Once that’s done, you’re ready to deep fry!
Folks, the nuggets that emerged from my hot oil were uncannily similar to a boneless chicken wing. The interior had a meaty texture and when tossed in the same gochujang-based glaze I used for the fried cauliflower of a few weeks back, they were a pretty great swap for the real deal. I will definitely be making this again, possibly with some adjustments inspired by Lion Dance Café’s tofu nuggets (which I finally got to try last night and absolutely loved.)
For our final few days of the month, we had to get a little fancy. Sam loves mushrooms and prefers to be gifted experiences over things, so my gift to him this Christmas was an IOU for a pound of morels. They arrived this week from Mikuni Wild Harvest and we ate them simply sautéed with shallots and butter and herbs over a surprisingly easy oven polenta. They were a delicious treat, and we’ll be doing this again (with cheaper mushrooms, alas) in the near future.
I’m hopeful that these new favorites will convince us to reflexively defrost a pound of ground beef less often in future; honestly, the thing I’ve missed most was fish, so salmon was a shoe-in for this week’s menu. But some lessons stick: as soon as I hit “publish” on this post, I’m off to go soak a pound of chickpeas.
My major reading update this week is that Helen Rosner’s recent science fiction & fantasy book recommendation thread is truly the gift that keeps on giving. In the past few weeks I’ve flown through Shades of Grey (absurdist dystopian where the social hierarchy centers around one’s ability to see color), The Library at Mount Char (masterfully crafted and unique, but content warning for lots of gratuitous violence), and most of Ancillary Justice (space opera with an interesting AI twist.) It’s safe to say this is my best-quality reading streak in years.
I’ve already talked about how much I love Martha Wells’ Murderbot series, and I recently picked up of her older books, City of Bones (no, not that one). The setting is entirely different - post-apocalyptic with a dash of magic, vs hyper-corporatized space - but the story still gripping, which is a testament to her range.
That’s all for now, folks! See you in a few weeks - in the meantime, you can catch me on Twitter or Instagram.