Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Braising a Fuss

Of all the cuisines I've learned to cook (in whatever small way yet explored), I think those of the ancient Silk Road lands fascinate me the most.

Indian cuisine, naturally, tops the list, as I'm sure you've guessed by now. But I've also become intrigued in the past couple of years with both Persian and Georgian cooking, both for their similarities to each other and for the refreshing mix of flavors often found in Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian cooking.

And as the weather warms back up, I find all three cuisines especially appealing because the emphasis on light cooking that brings out spices and vegetable flavors suits my stomach perfectly.

So, when I have a bottle of pomegranate molasses, baked tofu, and a crisper drawer full of fresh vegetables, what can I do but create a new dish that borrows from all three cuisines?

I started by peeling and cubing a small eggplant, then salting the cubes and allowing them to drain, drawing out the bitterness, while I enjoyed a breather in the backyard. After rinsing the eggplant thoroughly, I began chopping vegetables, setting out spices, and pulling out all the ingredients needed for what I had in mind.

First I sauteed a chopped sweet Vidalia onion until it browned and became wonderfully fragrant. After adding garlic and spices (cumin, cinnamon, ginger, fenugreek), I tossed in the eggplant and a handful of halved grape tomatoes and stirred.

I drizzled pomegranate molasses over the mixture, and as soon as it hit the pan and the spice-laden onions, the most divine fragrance wafted up to greet me and to induce a blissed-out trance (momentarily). How to describe that aroma? It was richly tangy and slightly fruity and filled with the exotic dreams of faraway lands... just amazing.

When I came back to my senses, I added fresh cilantro, baby spinach leaves, cubes of baked tofu, and some vegetable stock, then covered the pan and let the vegetables braise for about half an hour. At the end, I toasted some chopped walnuts and tossed those on top of the now-deeply-flavored and mouth-watering vegetables.

I could hardly wait for dinner!

And though I had considered cooking the last of my brown basmati rice to go with the vegetables, I chose instead to use the last of the lavash from Saturday's dinner to scoop up this savory, tart, well-spiced meal.

After cleaning my plate thoroughly, it seemed only appropriate to savor the last piece of pistachio cake for dessert.

All in all, it was a thoroughly satisfying meal, lacking only a glass of good red wine and the company of the fair Titania (who inspired this dish) to make it absolutely perfect.

It's a dish I'll be happy to make again sometime.

Silk Road Vegetable Braise

The starting points for this recipe are the baked tofu recipe (possibly from Moosewood) shared by the fair Titania and the Roasted Eggplant and Chickpea Stew from Local Flavors, but it also contains influences from Silk Road Cooking and previous happy combinations of spices and vegetables. Make the baked tofu the night before, or replace it with chickpeas (or meat if you're so inclined). Serve with rice or with flatbreads that are just right for dipping, play some exotic music, and maybe you'll even feel inclined to read mystical poetry with your guests afterward.

Baked Tofu
juice of 1 orange
juice of 1/2 lime
1/4 c soy sauce
1/4 c maple syrup
2 T toasted sesame oil
1 T pomegranate molasses
1 T chopped fresh cilantro
1 T minced fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb tofu, drained and pressed

Mix all marinade ingredients. Place pressed tofu in a baking dish and pour marinade over top. Allow to marinate for one hour, turning tofu over after 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 F. Bake tofu (in the baking dish or on a baking sheet) for 45 minutes, turning tofu over after 20 minutes. Brush with marinade as needed.

Allow to cool (can be refrigerated for 2-3 days). Cut into strips or cubes.

Vegetable Braise
1 c sweet onion, chopped
2 tsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp fenugreek leaves
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1 eggplant, peeled, cubed, salted, and rinsed
1 c cherry tomatoes, halved
2 T pomegranate molasses
1/4 c chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 c vegetable stock or water
3 c fresh baby spinach
baked tofu (prepared as above)
1/4 c toasted chopped walnuts

Saute onion in olive oil in large skillet over medium-low heat. Allow to brown and carmelize; be patient! Add garlic and spices and saute for 1 minutes more, to allow flavors to develop.

Add eggplant and tomatoes, stirring to mix everything. Drizzle pomegranate molasses over the mixture; inhale deeply and appreciate how wonderful this will taste! Add cilantro and stir. Add stock or water and allow to bubble before turning heat down to a simmer. Place spinach and tofu on top, and then cover the pan and allow vegetables to braise for 30 minutes. Stir occasionally, gently working the spinach and tofu into the mix.

Spoon onto serving plate or dinner plates and sprinkle with walnuts. Serve with rice or flatbreads.

Serves 4


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