Saturday, August 22, 2009

Bouranee Baunjan with Yogurt Sauce

I have to credit my love for ethnic cuisine and thus the origin of my love for cooking to the infamous Kabul Afghan Restaurant in Madison, WI. It was there that I began my food service career (well maybe not so much a career than a way to save up for my 6 months of adventures in France), and where I began to realize that what happens in the best of kitchens is nothing short of magic. So much was new, mysterious and delicious - the endless discoveries of flavors and seemingly oddly-paired foods sparked my enthousiasm for all things edible: What's with Quabouli - raisins in tomato sauce?! And how does Ashak taste so good - it's "just" a dumpling filled with green onions? Yogurt with garlic and mint?! Cardamom in...everything? My vocabluary grew, that is certain. And my quest for unusual delicious tastes sparked a need to replicate them at home.

One dish that particularly suprised and delighted me was Burani, a less popular appetizer served at the restaurant. Fried eggplant is topped with either a ground meat or green bean sauce and finished off with a drizzle of yogurt. Eggplant in general is a grossly underestimated and often misunderstood vegetable. Many view it as tasteless, too finicky to cook with, a mere absorbant of surrounding flavors or a good stand-in for mush when you need a decent dip to nosh. I think it is subtly flavored and holds a distinct integrity when prepared with simplicity and paired with other foods that sport their own distinctly simple flavors.

As it is summer and eggplant is clearly plotting a takeover of vegetable stands at just about every farmers market until buyers give it a fair chance to be present and truly shine in that perfect dish, I sought out the recipe for "Burani" to replicate chez moi. What I wanted was to make a classic, traditional dish using a method seldom employed in my kitchen...following a recipe with no fills, no adaptations, no monkey-ing around. I was romanced by the idea of shelving all the risks and thrills of creativity for one night to have some Afghan comfort food.

As linguistically skilled as I am, arabic/farsi is not a strong point for me. I did not realize that there would be several spellings, versions, and regional differences in this dish - from burani, bouranee, or borrani to banjan, badinjan, and baunjan, all with some kind of tomato sauce going on over fried eggplant. After hours of reading, reviewing and postulating which would most resemble the restaurant's version, I abandoned my search for the exact same recipe and admitted to my true motivation behind wanting this particular dish. Nostalgia. I miss Madison, I miss eating for free, I miss under-reporting cash tips. But a healthy supply of eggplant remained as did my craving for Afghan food, so I decided on a very simple recipe.

I was skeptical of this dish at first because of it's lack of flare and fuss. From what I knew of Afghan food, secret spice combinations had to be toasted, ground together and simmered under for hours with other miscellaneous co-conspirators to produce something so delicious that it's near-intoxicating, throwing you into a hypnotic trance that makes you go something like, "Mmmm, ooooo, ohh, mmmmmy god, ohh..." as you sort of rock back and forth. Bill Murray in "What About Bob" style. This recipe did not appear to possess these voodoo properties, but after picking up that bouranee baunjan is a comfort food of sorts in Afghanistan and because I was a bit suspicious of its simplicity, I felt it necessary to follow the recipe at least once to see for myself if it rouses the same sentiment that mac and cheese might for an American.

After oscillating bite after bite in a deep internal debate over whether I should devour or savor this dish, I was even more suspicious because of the mildly euphoric hypnosis I experienced. There is really only one spice playing a somewhat secondary role and I couldn't grasp how this dish came to own a part of my soul after eating it. Did it evoke the same mac and cheese warmth and love of all things you can remember from childhood? Well, it may not inspire the exact same feelings but it may become a staple and over time come to remind the humble chef that sometimes all it takes is a little salt and pepper.

I've made this several times and it never ceases to please, and that is putting it very lightly. I usually pair it with a jazzed up protein like cumin-crusted tofu (once perfected the recipe will come shortly thereafter) and a tasty rice pilaf. While it simmers, it needs very littler supervision. The aubergine mystique develops all on its own.

Bouranee Baunjan with Yogurt

1 c. Plain soy yogurt
2-3 tsp. Garlic, minced
1/4 c. mint or cilantro (optional)
1 T. Fresh lemon juice

1 Large eggplant, cut into 1/4 - 1/2 inch slices
2 T. Oil, divided
2 Medium tomatoes, sliced
1 Onion, sliced
2 Green bell peppers, sliced
Pinch of cayenne pepper (to taste)
1/2-1 c. Water

1. For the yogurt, combine ingredients first 4 ingredients in food processor. Season with salt to taste
2. Salt eggplant slices and let sweat 15-30 minutes.
3. Heat oil in pan and fry eggplant slices, 2-3 minutes per side. Remove and set aside
4. In same pan, cook onions until browned and tender ~7 minutes. Remove and set aside.
5. Add eggplant to pan in one layer and top with a layer of onions, layer of green peppers and finally the tomato slices. Add a generous pinch of cayenne and 1/2 cup of water. Let simmer~10 minutes. Check after 5 minutes and add more water if necessary.
6. Serve taking care to get each layer arranged on plate and top with dollop of yogurt.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Sun-Dried Tomato Eggplant Sauce

As I am a bona fide jet setter, I frequently find myself low on produce at very odd times. However, I tend to resist grocery shopping for fear of spoilage while I'm gone. Being low on fresh vegetables isn't something I am ever comfortable with, but unused vegetables... wilting in my absence, sogging in neglect, longing for a once youthful, sexy crunch ... My dear omni's and carni's may not cry over spilt milk from that poor mammal's udder, but spoiled veggies to this chef is devastating. Until I have a compost bin and one of those trendy urban gardens set up on my balcony to redeem vegetable waste, this concept of abandoned produce is a travesty. Dramatic? Maybe. But the sense of loss is equivalent to dropping a perfectly good cupcake moments after purchase on a sidewalk in Brooklyn after seeing Fido relieve himself on the side of a nearby fire hydrant.

My point? Having slim pickin's for fresh produce calls for a thorough cupboard sweep and a splash of creativity. How very recessionista, n'est-ce pas! This doesn't necessarily mean culinary craziness or genius, but it does require an avoidance of the frozen entree default (or worse - ramen).

With only a pound or so of eggplant to play with, I was trying to think seasonally, perusing through shelves of dried fruit, nuts, seeds and alas... I came across a forgotten jar of sundried tomatoes. When I first started cooking, I was familiar only with sundried tomatoes packed in oil, but I recently grew fond of sundried tomatoes - "neat" - unadultered save for a good dose of sunshine. When you rehydrate the dry variety, you can reuse the liquid and I am a firm proponent of recycling in every form. The tomato broth resulting from rehydrating tomatoes is a great flavor boost to pasta sauces; Thank you Giada for educating viewers on the concept of thickening sauces with pasta water. I have one-upped this starchy inginuity with using tomato-flavored pasta cooking liquid, thus twice reusing what is often left to the dregs of the drain.

This recipe can be easily modified to accompany any herbs, fresh or dried, you may have on hand. I like it best with plenty of fresh parsley. I recommend adding some kind of herb as the pasta alone risks seeming a bit dull without it. Do not skimp on the garlic, as it fuses well with the rich, semi-sweet flavor of sundried tomatoes. Never skimp on the garlic.

Sun Dried Tomato Eggplant Sauce
Serves 4-6

1 lb Eggplant, diced
8 oz Pasta (brown rice, whole wheat)
1 ½+ c. Reserved pasta cooking liquid
1-2 T. Olive oil
1 c. Onions
2-3 T. Garlic, minced (6 cloves)
¾ c. Sun dried tomatoes
Salt and Pepper – to taste
¼ c. Fresh parsley, chopped

1. Sprinkle eggplant generously with salt and leave in a colander, 10-15 minutes.
2. Boil tomatoes in water 5 – 10 minutes to rehydrate. Using tongs, remove tomatoes, mince and set aside, keeping cooking liquid at a boil.
3. Add dry pasta to tomato water and cook al dente. Drain and reserve cooking liquid for sauce.
4. Heat olive oil in sauce pan over medium-high heat. Add onions and saut̩ until golden, 5-7 minutes. Turn heat to medium add garlic and sun-dried tomatoes, saut̩ing until fragrant, 30 seconds Р1 minute.
5. Add eggplant and mix well, turning to coat with garlic and tomatoes. Saute 8-10 minutes, adding water by the ¼ c to deglaze if necessary. Add 1 cup pasta water and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer ~10 minutes or until eggplant is completely tender. Season with salt & pepper. Add pasta and cook 1 additional minute to blend flavors.
6. Turn heat off and fold in parsley.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Creamy Mustard Tofu

Despite the obsession with butter and how essentially non-vegan French cooking is in every conceivable way, I do share this passion and sense of adventure in the kitchen that is suddenly revived by the reawakening of Julia Child's contributions to not only the culinary world but the serventless kitchen. Inspired by others' talents, encouraged by gastronomic successes and mistakes alike, determined to make sense of fresh ingredients brought together by the season at hand, I absolutely love to cook. And I love to cook, because I love to eat. I love to eat, because...who cares why, but isn't it wonderful?

Why vegan? My meatless, dairy-less, eggless life began by wanting to eat more healthily which eventually came to mean ditching these things because of their connections to common diseases running in my family. I guess my love for life and drive to live it well sparked the curiosity into what causes or contributes to: diabetes, heart disease, obesity, breast cancer, etc... This if course morphed into a myriad of motivations to: hmmm, save the earth, support local and sustainable communities, remove myself from the environmental and public health consequences brought about by commercial animal (and plant) agriculture and, oh well, by commercial anything. Of course the transformation was catalyzed by thoughts and experiences of people who give also give a damn. Thank you Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver.

At first, I enjoyed and thrived on the challenge and mystical science of making plant based edibles mimic their animal-based counterparts. Now, I love becoming not only more acquainted but also more intimate with real food. Food that grows and belongs to a particular season. Food that is grown in my neighborhood by my neighbors.

That's not to say I think it's entirely realistic to only cook up concoctions based on what my zip code can provide; I buy tofu, tempeh and frozen peas fully aware that they were shipped from somewhere and carry the associated environmental costs, though maybe someday I'll buy those enzymes to culture my own tempeh. But location and season have become vital sources of inspiration and culinary integrity in my life and I have a continuously growing sense of awareness and appreciation for all things local.

Local, vegan, sounds like hippy talk. My goal is not to shame this concept into others by regurgitating dreadful statistics and/or instilling fear with banter about some kind of apocalypse caused by big mac-eating, moon pie-munching maniacs. I will, however, win the hearts and stomachs of individuals that once upon a time refused to blink at beets or savor the soybean. If you test it, taste it, and trust it - you'll eat anything regardless of former convictions. So for all the veggie skeptics I say- Tofu to you too!

On to the food...

Here is one comforting tofu dish in a gravy-like sauce that I enjoyed with a side of steamed vegetables and a quinoa pilaf with tomatoes and green onions. You can whip it up in 20 minutes tops - including prep time.

Creamy Mustard Tofu

1 T. Dijon mustard
1 1/2 T. soy sauce
1 T. Red wine vinegar
1 T. Marjoram, dried
4-5 Cloves garlic, minced (2 T)
½ T. Agave nectar, sugar or your preferred sweetener
1/2 c. Soy yogurt, plain
3/4 c Water or broth

1 Pkg Extra firm tofu, pressed or patted dry
1-2 T. Cooking oil
1 tsp cornstarch
Salt & pepper to taste

1. Combine first 8 ingredients in medium bowl and mix well (making sure yogurt and water are well incorporated). Add pepper to taste.
2. Cut tofu into cubes and toss in marinade. Let sit at least 10 minutes.
3. Drain tofu, reserving marinade. Heat oil in wok or pan and add tofu. Cook for 5-7 minutes until golden brown. Remove from pan and set aside, keeping heat on.
4. Add marinade to hot pan and bring to a boil for 30 seconds-1 minute. Whisk in cornstarch and heat until sauce is thick – another 30 seconds to 1 minute.
5. Pour sauce over tofu. Season with salt and pepper.