Plate Food

June 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

I have a bit of a habit of gravitating towards food that can be served in a bowl. Curries, stews, grain salads, pasta dishes: there’s a weeknight comfort in diving in with naught but a fork and dragging it through the layers in search of a cross section of goodies. You can serve the fanciest fancy-pants food in a bowl – the kind that you might have slaved over for three days – and the bowl somehow peels away the pretension and gives everyone permission to dive in and just enjoy it. You can sit cross-legged in your favourite chair and softest yoga pants clutching your bowl-shaped substitute hot water bottle, barely needing to divert your attention from that night’s film to scoop up spicy mouthfuls. My name is Andrea and I’m a bowl food addict.

That said, when circumstances force you out of that culinary comfort zone it can lead to great things. I had been ruminating over the second vegan Tuesday menu all week and kept coming back to black bean cakes: we held cherished memories of a dish at Millennium composed around some chili-flecked patties that I was keen to recreate. I had a glimmer of an idea to serve them – in a bowl of course – on a summery bed of succotash. It would be the perfect harbinger of that night’s summer solstice. But the market had other ideas: not a corn kernel in sight and if there had been fresh lima beans I was at least three hours too late to participate in the fight over them. Instead I spied a basket of delicate pea shoots, tendrils climbing and curling over the side in a seeming bid for freedom, and I liberated a few handfuls, destined for a brief saute and a squeeze of lemon. More nervously I chose a heavy, mis-shapen Cherokee purple tomato, the size of my palm. While not yet quite yielding that rounded heirloom tomato flavour that demands nothing but a slick of olive oil and a piece of mozzarella in accompaniment, it was more than tasty enough to form the basis of a pico de gallo. I had ended up with three separate elements but which together were plenty more than the sum of their parts. The crispy, cornmeal-studded edges of the bean cakes yielded to a soft and warm interior, whose earthy tones were only emphasized by their contrast with the bright spring greens and the piquant salsa. I tasted each individually, in every permutation, then finally piled up together. I guess there’s something to be said for the plate after all.

Black Bean Cakes with Pea Tendrils and Pico de Gallo

Serves 2 but is very easily doubled

The bean cake recipe is adapted from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

For the bean cakes:
1 tbsp sunflower or vegetable oil
about 1/4 onion or a shallot, finely diced
1 14oz (400g) can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 tsp chipotle chile in adobo or ground chipotle chile (see note)
1/2 cup chopped tomatoes (about 1 small tomato)
1 tsp ground cumin
a good handful chopped cilantro (coriander)
juice of 1 lime
vegetable oil for frying
flour and fine cornmeal for dusting

For the pea tendrils:
2-3 handfuls pea tendrils (or an alternative salad green if not available; use whatever is in season and looks good)
lemon
salt

For the pico de gallo:
1 large ripe tomato
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
2 serrano chiles, finely diced (or jalapeno if you prefer less heat)
about 2 tbsp finely diced white onion or shallot
1 tbsp chopped cilantro (coriander)
salt
juice of 1 lime

* Note on chipotle chiles in adobo sauce. You can get these in cans in Latin groceries; Rainbow Groceries and Whole Foods in San Francisco also stock them. The chiles come whole and you need to puree them along with their sauce in a blender or food processor until smooth. You then end up with an incredibly potent and smoky spice which you should use only in small quantities. Keep the remainder in a jar in the fridge and use to season eggs, grits or in a chile con carne. If you can’t find chiles in adobo where you are, just use some ground chipotle chile instead (or, at a push, smoked paprika).

1. Begin by making the black bean patties. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a large skillet or saucepan over high heat. Add the onion and saute for 4-5 minutes, or until soft and translucent. Add the beans, chile, tomatoes, lower the heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes, stirring from time to time. You might need to add a little water from time to time if the pan looks to be drying out too much.

2. Once the beans are soft, drain any excess liquid and roughly mash them – you should be able to do this with the back of a wooden spoon. If you want a smoother texture you can puree them, but I like to leave chunks of beans in the cakes. Add the cumin and cilantro to the beans and then add salt and lime juice to taste. Refrigerate the mix for at least 15 minutes, then form into cakes that are about 1/2 inch thick and 3 inches in diameter. This quantity of beans should yield 6 cakes of this size. Dust the patties with flour and place on parchment or wax paper. Return them to the refrigerator until ready to use.

3. While the bean mix or the patties are sitting in the refrigerator, make the pico de gallo. Dice the tomato and combine with the chopped garlic, chopped onion or shallot, diced chiles, cilantro and a good pinch of salt. Add the lime juice and check for seasoning – you might want to add more lime or salt at this point, to taste. Let sit to one side at room temperature for at least 20 minutes for all the flavours to combine.

4. Remove the bean cakes from the fridge and heat enough oil in a heavy skillet to coat the bottom generously – you want about a 1/4 inch of oil in the pan to prevent the cakes from sticking. Dust the cakes with cornmeal then fry over medium heat until they form a crust – about 10 minutes on each side.

5. When the cakes are a couple of minutes from being ready, heat a tablespoon olive oil in a skillet and add the pea tendrils. Toss with the oil just until the tendrils turn vibrant green but before they really start to wilt – this will take a minute or two at the most. Remove from the heat, squeeze in a little lemon juice and add a pinch of salt.

6. Serve the bean cakes alongside the greens and a spoonful of pico de gallo. Put the rest of the pico on the table so people can help themselves to more.

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