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.
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.
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!