I Am Not a Vegan (Unless it’s a Tuesday)

June 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

Ah, the V word. While vegetarianism has become more than acceptable – almost trendy – veganism persists in carrying baggage of the hairy hippy, knit your own cashew cheese, variety. It is, to be fair, a lifestyle for the most committed, as I discovered while standing by a market stall last week, only able to think up dinners that involved cheese, or eggs, or fish. Imagine doing that every single day, for every single meal. And it’s not a lifestyle I would dream of taking on personally: while I have a lot of respect for vegan philosophy, I believe in the benefits of biodiversity and omnivorism a la Pollan. But from a culinary point of view, veganism fascinates me. In the wrong hands, vegan food is bland and unrelentingly wholesome: squeeky almost. But with care and a pinch of inventiveness it showcases produce as well if not better than any other cuisine, playing around with texture combinations and teasing out clever layerings of flavours. This is why some of my favourite places to eat in the Bay Area are either vegan or vegan-friendly: the sassy and spicy vegan Mexican at Gracias Madre, the mind-blowingly inventive Millennium and now, as of last weekend, the omnivorous Gather in Berkeley, where around half the menu is vegan, the other half including contrarily a burger and a bacon and egg pizza. It was like I had found my soulmate. A kale “caesar” salad with almond “parmesan” (you have to put up with a lot of quotation marks when it comes to vegan menus) rocked my world and completely outshone the said brunch pizza. On the dinner and lunch menus there’s a vegan “charcuterie” board which has been highly lauded: I can’t wait to try it.

It was over the Gather brunch that I was inspired to commit to cooking a vegan dinner once a week. I want to play around with the ways to get those savoury, satisfying, mid-palate flavours into food without having to rely on cheese or meat, where they abound. I’ll post the resultant dinner/recipe each week and we’ll see how it goes, and for how long. One of the best ways to coax that savoury roundedness into vegetables is through the use of Japanese or Chinese flavourings, especially tamari, shoyu or other soy sauces. At the farmer’s market, once I was past the almost irresistible draw of doing something with peas, favas and ricotta, my eye was caught by a pile of beautiful, flowering baby bok choy leaves. I grabbed several handfuls, as well as a bunch of pungent onion flowers and some bulbous garlic and knobbly ginger. The resultant stir-fry, peppered with sesame seeds and served over rice, could not have been improved by meat, fish, cheese, eggs or yoghurt. Vegan Tuesdays are on, until further notice.

Sesame Bok Choy Stir-Fry

Serves 2

1 cup rice
1 tbsp sesame seeds
2 tbsp sunflower or vegetable oil
1 tsp sesame oil (optional)
2 cloves garlic and an equivalent amount of ginger – about 1 inch, both finely diced
around 3 cups/3 large handfuls bok choy or another Asian green like tatsoi; broccoli rabe would also work.
2 tbsp soy sauce – preferably tamari or shoyu
onion flowers (optional) or spring onions

Start by preparing rice as per your preferred method. We use a rice cooker, which since we eat an awful lot of rice is worth its place in our kitchen, but prior to that we used the absorption method: take 1 cup of rice, toast briefly in a small slug of oil in a small pan, add 1.5 cups water (for white rice; 2 cups for brown), bring to a boil, cover and reduce to a simmer for around 20 minutes, or until the water is absorbed. Resist the temptation to check it until the full 20 mins are up. If the water is absorbed, then fluff the rice very gently with a fork, cover the pan with a clean tea-towel and replace the lid. Set to one side, off the heat, so that the rice steams and fluffs for around 5 minutes.

When your rice is about 5 minutes away from being ready, start the stir fry. Heat a wok over medium high heat and add the sesame seeds to the dry pan. Toast for about 1 minute, shaking the pan from time to time and keeping a close eye on the seeds. If they start to pop or brown, remove the pan from the heat momentarily and add the oil.
Add the sunflower oil and sesame oil if using and swirl to coat the seeds. Turn the heat up slightly and add the garlic and ginger, moving them both quickly around the pan to prevent browning. Cook for about 1 minute to allow them to flavour the oil, then add the bok choy. Stir frequently for about a minute, coating with the oil and other ingredients, then add 1 tbsp of the soy sauce and stir to coat. Place a lid on top of the wok to allow the greens to steam for a minute or two (I use either the lid from a large casserole pan or the lid from a bamboo steamer for this purpose). Remove the lid and continue moving quickly around the pan for another minute or two, until the greens are tender and a bit wilted. Add the remaining soy sauce and onion flowers or spring onions if using and cook together for a final minute.

Serve, piping hot, over rice.

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