Sticks and Sauces

Lately the list of food I want to cook is long outgrowing the list of food I'm actually cooking. Between a nasty flu and the start-up of a new semester (complete with heart palpitations over grades, summer jobs, ect.) my diet has been largely dependant on take-out thai and chinese. So when this 3 day weekend approached, I was more than happy to try out a couple of the recipes that have been on my mind.

First up was Coconut Tofu sticks from the blog What the Hell Does a Vegan Eat, Anyway?. I was so psyched to try this because I still secretly salivate over coconut shrimp, my fantasy non-vegan food. In fact, when I was reading their blog (which I often do) I actually shouted out "DUDE!" when I got to the post. It simply did not occur to me that you could veganize coconut shrimp! Its so crunchy, sweet, salty... exotic yet still greasy. Its the world's most perfect junk food. And guess what? The tofu version is pretty damn awesome as well.

The three-step battering technique did an excellent job of holding the coconut on to the tofu- I was fairly skeptical since I've had some disastrous battering attempts with tofu in the past. But the process really did the trick. No one at my table could keep their hands off the battered sticks. The recipe can be found here. I used some pre-made sweet chili sauce as a dip, but the dip they have created looks awesome as well. What a perfect appetizer or light supper. Fantasy fulfilled.

For my next project, I was in the mood for some pasta. I was reading this Times article recently, and the writer (Mark Bittman) was basically proclaiming that there is a new zeitgeist afoot for pasta sauces- that the new style is to have far more sauce than pasta. I definitely feel this way. To me, pasta sauce is usually just a vehicle for whatever veggies I'm hording (onions, zucchini, peppers) and the pasta is just incidental. After reading it though, it reminded me of a dish I've had a few times that is all about the sauce: Pasta alla Norma I'm sure one of my cookbooks has a recipe for this basil and eggplant laced dish, but I decided to wing it from the Epicurious recipe since it looked simple enough. (Its from Jamie Oliver, who is often fast and loose with the ingredients.) The recipe says it serves 4, but we definitely had way more than that.

The basic idea is that you fry quarters of eggplant in batches then set them aside. Then, you fry up some garlic and basil stems in the same oil, and after a minute put the eggplant back in, then add in some diced tomatoes and just let it get all saucy and delicious. The resulting super-chunky sauce is really vibrant and flavorful. I served it over whole wheat pasta, which holds up well against the strong sauce. (And obvs, I ommitted the cheese in favor of garlic bread to soak up the extras. Yum.)

Pasta Alla Norma
2 large, firm eggplants
1 T dried oregano
optional: 1 dried red chili, crumbled
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely sliced
1 large bunch of fresh basil, stems finely chopped, leaves reserved
1 T white wine vinegar
2 14-ounce cans diced tomatoes
1 lb spaghetti

"First of all, get your nice firm eggplants and cut them into quarters lengthwise. If they've got seedy, fluffy centers, remove them and chuck them away. Then cut the eggplants across the length, into finger-sized pieces. Get a large nonstick pan nice and hot and add a little oil. Fry the eggplants in two batches, adding a little extra oil if you need to. Give the eggplants a toss so the oil coats every single piece and then sprinkle with some of the dried oregano—this will make them taste fantastic. Using a pair of tongs, turn the pieces of eggplant until golden on all sides. Remove to a plate and do the same with the second batch.

When the eggplants are all cooked, add the first batch back to the pan—at this point I sometimes add a sneaky dried red chili. Turn the heat down to medium and add a little oil, the garlic, and the basil stems. Stir so everything gets evenly cooked, then add a swig of herb vinegar and the cans of tomatoes, which you can chop or whiz up. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, then taste and correct the seasoning. Tear up half the basil leaves, add to the sauce, and toss around.

Get your spaghetti into a pan of salted boiling water and cook according to the package instructions. When it's al dente, drain it in a colander, reserving a little of the cooking water, and put it back into the pan. Add the Norma sauce and a little of the reserved cooking water and toss together back on the heat. Taste, and adjust the seasoning, then divide between your plates by twizzling the pasta into a ladle for each portion. Any sauce left in the pan can be spooned over the top."
Adapted from Jamie Oliver.

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