Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Vegan Evening


We’ve been meaning for ages to have our good friends Trish and Adonis over for dinner.  This week, we finally did.  Trish, who was the very first person we met in Chicago, and who is still maybe the cutest, coolest person we’ve met here (or for that matter anywhere), is Vegan.  Adonis, her fiancé, is just as cute and cool, and nearly as vegan.  Perhaps this vegan-ness is what kept us from having these two over way earlier.  Perhaps I was a bit nervous to cook outside of the realm of the animal kingdom, to rely only on the natural deliciousness of fruits and grains and vegetables, and so I kept putting it off.  Or perhaps, as happens all too often and with way too many friends, we just never got around to actually making it happen.  But vegetables and all, we’re so glad we finally did.

What made us even more glad, our oldest Chicago friends brought along our two newest Chicago friends, Holley and Sarah.  Trish had been wanting all of us to meet because Holley is a chef too.  Since every friend we’ve ever met of Trish’s is totally neat, we were psyched to have Holley and Sarah over.  And we all had a complete blast.  The whole night was way too fun, and went way later than any respectable Sunday night dinner ought to.

Despite the late hours, this veggie-loaded dinner couldn’t help but be respectable, virtuous even.  And after last week’s meat lover’s extravaganza, being vegan for an evening ended up being a nice change of pace. 

Garlic Toasts with White Bean Puree, Fried Sage Leaves, Pickled Shallots & Capers

Braised Root Vegetables with French Lentils, Potato-Turnip Puree & Red Wine Sauce

Seven Citruses with Vanilla Syrup & Mint

To start the night off, I made two appetizers for the price of one, just by varying the garnishes.  On top of bite-sized garlicky toasts I spread an even garlicky-er white bean puree.  Fortified with lots of fresh sage, caramelized garlic and a good dose of salt and pepper, this silky smooth puree was really flavorful, and just plain tasty.  I toped half with fried sage leaves – crackly little green crisps, as robust in sage flavor as they were delicate in texture.  The other half I topped with salty-tangy green capers and piquant pink rings of pickled shallots, a bright contrast to the richness of the bean puree.  To tell you the truth, up until I tasted the final product, I wasn’t thrilled about these.  They looked cute, but I was honestly expecting them to be a bit of a dud.  But just one bite, and I was singing a different tune, completely shocked at how delicious they turned out to be. 


An all-time favorite meal of ours, this weekend’s main course is to Ben and me, one of the best parts about winter.  Like all the dishes this week, this lovely combination of root vegetables, mushrooms and lentils was inspired by a recipe of Deborah Madison, who used to be one of my favorite vegetarian chefs, but over time has become one of my favorite chefs, period.  I’ve fallen in love with dozens of her recipes, and this one, hands down, is my favorite.  


The braised root vegetables compose a delectably colorful conglomeration – shiny pink orbs of pearl onions, wide batons of carrot and parsnip in brilliant orange and creamy white, deep brown wedges of cremini mushrooms and bright green specs of fresh parsley.  This across a backdrop of pure white turnip puree (flavored with a good punch of extra-virgin olive oil) and an admittedly drab, but splendidly tasty scoop of French green lentils.  All together, absolutely delicious.  On taste alone, this vegan triumvirate could conquer the most meaty of suppers. 

But the real key to this incredible dish lies in the red wine sauce.  The first time I made this, I could hardly convince Ben it wasn’t based on reduced beef stock.  It’s dark and round and rich.  Intensely flavored with deeply caramelized vegetables, strong notes of rosemary and thyme, and a subtle yet gripping background of earthy mushroom.  Luxuriously smooth, it coats all the other elements of the dish, enveloping them in its delicious essence.



I considered dessert all week long, going back and forth between this idea and that.  I even camped out in Barnes and Nobel for an entire afternoon, sifting through the dessert pages of every vegan cookbook on their shelves.  But still, I was at a complete loss.  I mean, what’s a dessert without butter and cream?  It’s margarine and soy milk, that’s what it is.  And I just didn’t like the sound of that. 

After days of frustration, I came to an all too simple conclusion: I didn’t want to use any substitutes.  I wanted to celebrate what Trish chooses to eat, not substitute out for what she chooses not to.  And as soon as this thought solidified, I thought of the perfect dessert.  A citrus compote, as simple and pretty as can be.

IMG_0008 IMG_0012

In the name of alliteration, I collected seven sorts of my favorite citrus, all in different sizes and colors, and all subtly different in their delicate flavors.  Composed in a glittering kaleidoscope array, the sliced fruit was truly beautiful.  The finishing touches, thinly sliced ribbons of fresh mint and a drizzling of vanilla-flavored citrus syrup.  It seemed like a carnival of citrus, a winter’s end celebration of this cold weather fruit.


Along with my no substitutes rule, I followed another rule of thumb while preparing this vegan dinner, and it was this: If I wouldn’t want to make this for my non-vegan friends, I don’t want to make it for my vegan friends either.  I recited this mantra to myself, every step of the way. 

My aim all along was for the food not to seem too well, vegan.  And my rule of thumb definitely helped me make some truly tasty, un-obviously vegan food. We were so thrilled with the delicious foods we were eating, we didn’t even stop to consider what we weren’t, and I think that’s the ultimate goal, when one is preparing food for any special diet. 

I suppose the moral of the story is that you can rest assured, every last recipe in this post will satisfy even the most staunch of meat enthusiasts.  Bon appétit, my carnivore friends!

Garlic Toasts with White Bean Puree, Fried Sage Leaves & Pickled Shallots
Adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison
Serves 4

White Bean Puree:
1 1/2 cups great northern beans
10 large sage leaves
2 bay leaves
1 head garlic
about 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
juice of 1/2 lemon
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper

First, cook the beans: Sort through the beans and discard any wayward pebbles. Then, either cover with cool water and soak overnight at room temperature, or cover with boiling water and soak one hour. Pour off the soaking liquid.  Add the beans to a medium pot, along with the sage and bay leaves and about 1 tsp salt.  Cover with water and simmer gently until very tender, about 45 minutes to an hour, stirring occasionally. When tender, remove the bay leaves and drain, saving the cooking liquid.

While beans are cooking, prep the garlic: Pull apart the head of garlic into separate cloves.  Slice off the tough bottom ends of each clove, and remove the peels, leaving the garlic cloves whole.  Place peeled garlic cloves in a small sauce pot and cover just barely with extra-virgin olive oil.  Turn heat to medium and simmer until garlic is tender and lightly golden brown, 30-40 minutes.

Add the beans (along with the sage leaves), 1/4 cup of the garlic-cooking oil, 1 tsp salt and about half of the cooked garlic to the bowl of a food processor.  Puree to smooth, then taste it.  If you’d like more garlic, add a little more, or even all if it.  (The strength of garlic can vary widely, so make sure you go by taste.)  Puree for about two minutes, until the mixture is incredibly smooth.  Add bean cooking liquid as needed, to give a spreadable consistency.  To store, refrigerate in an air-tight container.  Will keep about five days.  Should be served at room temperature or slightly warm.

Pickled Shallots:
1/2 # shallots
3/4 cup white wine vinegar
1 bay leaf
4 thyme sprigs
1 Tbl sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pink peppercorns, lightly crushed

Slice the top and bottom ends off of each shallot, and remove the peels.  Using a mandolin or a sharp knife, thinly slice the shallots into rings.  Place shallot rings into a large bowl, then pour boiling water over the shallots to cover.  Soak 2 minutes, then drain and rinse and shallots.

Combine the shallots with the vinegar, bay leaf, thyme, sugar, salt, peppercorns and 3/4 cup cold water.  Place a plate on top, to help submerge the shallots.  If there isn’t enough liquid to cover the shallots, add equal amounts of water and vinegar.  Rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes, then refrigerate in an air-tight container until needed.  Will keep about 2 weeks.

Garlic Toasts:
1/2 French baguette
garlic-cooking oil, from above
flaky sea salt

Preheat the oven to 375°F.  Slice the bread into thick 1/2-inch rounds.  Liberally brush both sides with the garlic oil.  Arrange slices on a parchment-lined baking sheet, then sprinkle with salt.  Bake until golden brown and crispy on the outside, but still tender and chewy on the inside, about 15 minutes.  Time this so you can serve the hors d’oeuvres while the toasts are still warm.

Fried Sage Leaves:
8-12 especially pretty sage leaves
1/2 cup vegetable oil
kosher salt, to taste

Add oil to a very small sauce pot and place over medium heat.  When oil is about 350°F, add a couple sage leaves.  (You don’t really need a thermometer for this.  When you think it should be about hot enough, add one sage leaf.  It should sizzle.  If it doesn’t, the oil is too cold.  If it burns right away, then it’s too hot.)  It will only take about 3-4 seconds for the leaves to get crispy.  Remove them from the oil with a fork and drain on a paper towel.  Season immediately with a small sprinkle of salt.  Repeat with remaining sage leaves.  You should serve these not too long after frying, so they stay crisp. 

Final Assembly:
everything prepared above
about 1 Tbl capers

Spread a couple tablespoons of bean puree on top of each warm garlic toast.  Garnish half with a single fried sage leaf, and half with a cluster of pickled shallots and about 5-6 capers.


Braised Root Vegetables with Lentils,  Potato-Turnip Puree & Red Wine Sauce
Adapted from Local Flavors by Deborah Madison
Serves 4  

A while back, Ben and I learned the hard way that this is not a dish that lasts overnight.  Left-overs remain relatively tasty, but they’re nowhere near as good as when served right out of the pot.  The sulfury flavors of the onions and parsnips become a little too strong. So, help yourself to seconds, because you should enjoy the fleeting goodness of this dish while it lasts. 


Red Wine Sauce:
1/2 cup dried porcini mushrooms
about 1 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1 large carrot, peeled and diced
2 ribs celery, diced
mushroom stems (from below), diced
parsnip tips and cores (from below), diced
4 garlic cloves, smashed
2 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
2-inch sprig of rosemary
1 Tbl tomato paste
2 Tbl flour
2 cups red wine
1 Tbl soy sauce
1 Tbl butter (if you not cooking vegan)

Cover the dried porcini mushrooms with 1 quart of hot water and set aside.  Add the oil to a large pot and place over medium-high heat.  Add the onion, carrot, celery, mushroom stems, parsnip, garlic, thyme, bay & rosemary.  Season with salt and pepper.  Cook, stirring occasionally at first, and more frequently later, until the vegetables are very thoroughly browned (but not burnt!), about 20-30 minutes. 

Add the tomato paste, stir to combine and cook about 1 minute.  Sprinkle the flour over the vegetables, stir to combine and cook about 1 minute longer.  Add the wine and simmer until the wine is reduced to nearly dry, scraping the bottom of the pan vigorously with a wooden spoon to bring up any browned bits.  Add the dried mushrooms and their soaking liquid.  Lower the heat, and simmer, covered, for about 45 minutes.  Strain.  You should have about 3 cups.  Return to a clean pan and simmer until reduced to about 2 1/2 cups, about 15-20 minutes.  Add the soy sauce.  Taste and season as needed with salt & pepper. 

The sauce can be made a day ahead and refrigerated overnight.  Before dinner, re-heat it in a small pot over low-medium heat.  Just before serving, whisk butter into hot sauce. 

Braised Root Vegetables:
about 24 red pearl onions
6 medium parsnips
6 medium carrots
about large cremini (baby portobello) mushrooms
2 Tbl butter plus 2 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil (if you’re not cooking vegan)
4 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil (if you are)
1 bay leaf
2 thyme sprigs
1 1/2 tsp minced rosemary
3 Tbl chopped parsley

Prep the pearl onions: Bring a medium pot a water to a boil and add the pearl onions.  Simmer about two minutes, then drain.  Slice just the barest amount off the tough root end, then using a paring knife, peel off the skin.  Set prepped onions aside.

Prep the parsnips: Peel the parsnips.  Trim off the top ends and discard.  Trim off the skinny tips and reserve for the sauce.  Cut the remaining parsnip into 3 segments of equal length.  Cut the thickest sections into quarters, and slice off the pithy core, reserving it for the sauce.  Quarter the mid section also. Cut the skinniest sections into halves.  Reserve.

Prep the carrots: Peel the carrots.  Trim off the top ends and discard.  Slice the carrots into lengths of 2-3 inches.  Cut the thicker sections into quarters and the thinner sections into halves.  Reserve.

Prep the mushrooms: Wipe each mushroom with a damp paper towel to remove any clinging dirt.  Slice off the stems just below the cap, and reserving them for the sauce.  Slice the caps into quarters.

Braise the vegetables: (I usually start this step about forty-five minutes before the guests arrive.) In a large pot, heat the oil and butter (if using) over medium heat.  Add the peeled pearl onions, season with salt and pepper, and cook for ten minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add the carrots and cook ten minutes more, until the vegetables begin to slightly brown.  Add the parsnips and mushrooms and cook for 10 more minutes. 

(And I start up again here, just about 30 minutes before I want to serve dinner.) Add the bay leaf, thyme and minced rosemary and season again with salt and pepper.  Add 1 cup of the red wine sauce and 1 cup water.  Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until all the vegetables are tender, about 20-25 minutes.  Sprinkle with parsley and stir to combine.  Serve hot. 


French Lentils:
1/2 cup French green lentils
1/2 tsp salt
1 Tbl butter (if you’re not cooking vegan)

Sort through the lentils and discard any wayward pebbles.  Rinse under cool water and drain.  Add lentils to a small sauce pot and cover with three cups of water.  Add the salt and simmer gently until tender, about 25 minutes.  Drain off the water, then stir in the butter (if using) and 1 cup of the red wine sauce.  Serve hot.  (I usually prepare these about an hour or two before guests arrive, and then reheat them over low-medium heat.)


Potato-Parsnip Puree:
1/2 # russet potatoes
1 1/2 # parsnips
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 Tbl sliced chives

Peel the potatoes and slice them into large chunks.  Place in a medium pot, cover with well-salted water and bring to a boil over high heat.  Boil until tender, then drain and reserve.  Follow the same steps with the parsnips.  It will probably take a little longer to cook the parsnips. 

Add the cooked potatoes, cooked parsnips and olive oil to a food processor and puree for about two minutes until very smooth.  Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed.  Serve hot, sprinkled with sliced chives.  (I also prepare this about an hour or two before guests arrive, and then reheat it over low-medium heat.)


Seven Citruses with Vanilla Syrup and Mint
Adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison
Serves 4

This gorgeous dish would feel equally at home as a first course for brunch, as it would as dessert.  No matter when or where you serve it, it will be a hit.

Also, don’t pay too much attention to the different types of citrus I list below.  Pick and choose from your own favorites, and from whatever looks good in the market.  Keep in mind your aim for a variety of colors and sizes, and you won’t go wrong. 


1-2 large red grapefruit
1-2 large white grapefruit
2 Cara Cara oranges
2 Mineola oranges
2 blood oranges
2 clementines
4 kumquats
3 Tbl sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 Tbl thinly sliced fresh mint

With a sharp knife, remove the peel from all the citrus except the kumquats.  Slice off the top and bottom ends.  Rest the fruit on the cutting board, and slice from top to bottom down the sides, removing the skin and the white pith that lies beneath.  Continue to slice away the skin, around the entire fruit.  Cut away any pith you may have missed.

Slice the red grapefruit, clementines & Mineola oranges into thin circles.  Reserve all citrus circles separately, refrigerated in small air-tight containers, until ready to serve. 

Slice the white grapefruit, Cara Cara oranges and blood oranges into segments:  Hold the peeled fruit over a bowl. Slice downward, as close as possible to the white membrane separating the segments. Make the same slice on the opposite side of the same segment.  When the two cuts meet at the bottom, the citrus segment with slide out, and fall into the bowl.  Repeat with the remaining segments.  When done with the entire fruit, squeeze the juice into the bowl.  Strain the juice into a separate container.  Reserve all citrus segments separately, refrigerated in small air-tight containers, until ready to serve.  Collect all the different juices together.

Slice the kumquats into thin circles, discarding the top and bottom end slices.  Remove any seeds.  Reserve, refrigerated in an air-tight container, until ready to serve.

To make the syrup, combine 3/4 cup of the citrus juice with the sugar and the vanilla in a small sauce pot.  Simmer for 15 minutes.  Reserve, refrigerated in an air-tight container, until ready to serve. 

To assemble, arrange the different citrus slices and segments in a pretty fashion on small dessert plates.  Spoon about 1-2 Tbl syrup over each plate and garnish with a sparse sprinkling of sliced mint.


  1. You are developing a nice writing voice Kate! A pleasure to read, and I am sure to eat :-)

  2. I love root vegetables with sherry vinegar - sherry is one of the unsung pantry items. Sweet and tangy vinegar with earthy vegetables ... MMM!

    Your compote looks amazing!!

  3. Thanks, Brooke! Glad you're enjoying it. Can't wait to hear what you make!

    Katie, thanks to you too! You are so right about sherry vinegar. It's one of my favorite ingredients too. It sounds amazing with root vegetables. Yum!