Vegetarian Pho

Anthony Bourdain (among others) would likely have a field day castigating the notion of a vegetarian pho. But with all due respect to Mr. Bourdain, whose No Reservations sits atop my list of all-time favorite shows, I would have to say that he has no clue what he’s talking about when it comes to the often polarizing subject of vegetarian food. I’ve been living in New York for about three years now, slowly accumulating a list of favorite meals I’ve enjoyed as a resident. I’ve noticed a burgeoning trend when it comes to this list: the majority of my favorite meals here have been meatless. From the delicious, almost euphorically good Mulata arepa at Caracas Arepa Bar to the dosas and dahl at Jackson Diner. And to me, a great falafel from any of the city’s many falafel trucks is more New York than a dirty-water hot dog. Even vegan ice cream (to many, an oxymoron) is well represented by Stogo, my favorite local ice cream shop.

Just recently, I discovered a wonderful neighborhood joint called Lan Cafe. It’s one of those places I’ve walked by several times, but never stopped long enough to pick up a menu or consider ordering from there. Then last week I found myself deep in the thrust of a bad cold. I didn’t want to cook, I barely even wanted to eat, but the one thing I wanted badly was a good, spicy soup. Turned out, my hundreds of trips walking past Lan Cafe paid off, because I remembered that it was a vegetarian Vietnamese restaurant, which meant vegetarian pho. Theirs was delicious — a sweet and spicy blend of deep flavors and bright notes of cilantro and mint. I told myself that when I recovered, I would try to recreate their pho and post it here.

One reason I wanted to make a homemade pho was that, while Lan’s was certainly delcious, I suspected there was some hidden sugar in theirs — both in the broth and in the hoisin sauce, which is a must for an optimal pho experience. I decided to experiment with making a homemade hoisin sauce. It turned out super good! The best part is, it can easily be used for a number of dishes, and you won’t have to worry about the processed sugar that is in just about all store bought hoisins I’ve seen. So below, I’ve included a recipe for the hoisin I made along with the pho recipe. It’s somewhat of a labor-intensive process to prepapre everything, but well worth the effort, and you’ll have a big pot to last you all week. For my recipe, I used Chinese Five Spice powder instead of steeping the broth with cinnnamon, clove and star anise. My Aunt Sue bought me a nice blend of Chinese Five Spice for Christmas and I’ve been dying to use it in something.

Vegetarian Pho:

1 quart vegetable stock

5 cups water

1 long ginger root, cut into quarters

2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

1 1/2 teaspoons Chinese Five Spice powder

3 tablespoons reduced-sodium wheat-free tamari

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

2 tablespoons agave nectar

1 bunch baby bok choy, chopped

1 cup bean sprouts

1 carrot, peeled and sliced

3 scallions, chopped

1 block extra-firm tofu, cubed

1 package rice noodles

salt to taste

homemade hoisin sauce (recipe below)

chile garlic sauce/paste (to taste)

fresh mint leaves (for serving)

fresh cilantro (for serving)

lime wedges

Directions:

1. In a large soup pot, bring vegetable stock, water, ginger root, garlic, five spice powder, soy sauce and pepper to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain broth into a new, clean pot. Discard solids. Add agave nectar and salt to taste. Bring stock back to a boil and add vegetables and tofu. Cook for about 10 minutes, or until vegetables have softened.

2. Meanwhile, prepare rice noodles separately, according to package directions. Drain and set aside.

3. To serve, individually add rice noodles to bowl. Pour in soup. Top with a generous dollop of homemade hoisin, chile garlic paste, and top with mint and cilantro leaves. Serve with lime wedges on the side.

Homemade hoisin:

1/4 cup black bean paste (found in Asian food aisle)

1/4 cup agave nectar

1 plum tomato, roughly chopped

5 tablespoons water

1 teaspoon arrowroot

2 teaspoons chile garlic paste/sauce

Directions:

1. Add all ingredients to a blender and blend until smooth.

2. Transfer to a small saucepan and heat over medium heat until bubbly and thickened, about 5 minutes.

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Raw, Grain-free, Vegan Sushi Rolls

Let me first apologize to those sushi purists out there who object to anything rice-free being called sushi (which literally means “vinegared rice,” not “ground nut and vegetable thing”). I am sincerely sorry. Second, let me apologize to those raw purists for calling this dish “raw” even though the recipe calls for a teaspoon of toasted sesame oil and nori, which is lightly toasted as well. I thought I could sneak it past everyone, but in the interest of full disclosure, I thought I would just come out with it (any true raw purists out there who know whether either of these ingredients is actually forbidden? I would actually love to know). I have to confess as well that this was not my genius idea, but a treat I have enjoyed several times at the Living Zen Organics Cafe at the Detroit Zen Center — a place I’ve praised here before, and one I’ve included in my “Delectably Free Faves.” Being a frequent visitor of the cafe whenever I am back in Michigan, I have had the privilege of being able to study their raw sushi enough to pay homage to it with a version that is somewhat distinct in flavor and texture, but still quite good. In fact, Gennaro, my harshest taste-tester (by default, really, because he is the only person who samples all the meals I make before posting them here), gave this dish a “very good,” which translates to two thumbs up from him (I’ve learned to decode his comments after years of experience, being that he is un-critical by nature, which has proven to be both a blessing and a curse).

This dish also seems like an appropriate continuation of the holiday detox theme. This is a carb-free sushi that provides several health benefits from walnuts, which are high in fiber (a must for any successful detox), vitamin E (good for the brain and the immune system) and omega-3 fatty acids (also good for brain health and immune function, as well as well as beneficial for cardiovascular health). Sunflower seeds, as well, are a great source of vitamin E. They are also high in magnesium (good for bone health and for regulating nerves) and selenium, which contains cancer-fighting and detoxifying properties. Add vegetables and nori, which is rich in potassium and iron, and you have one delicious, super-healthy meal, appetizer or snack. This sushi is also a great way to get a picky eater to eat nuts, I might add, as they are ground up and seasoned, making them virtually unidentifiable in the dish.

Raw Vegan Sushi:

Yield: 4 rolls

4 sheets sushi nori

1/2 cup raw sunflower seeds, soaked for 3 hours, drained and rinsed

1/2 cup raw walnuts, soaked for 3 hours, drained and rinsed

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

1 tablespoon reduced sodium wheat free tamari or coconut amino

3 scallions, chopped, white part only (use rest for garnish)

3 tablespoons – 1/4 cup water

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 large carrot, julienned

1/2 large cucumber, julienned

1 avocado, sliced

1 teaspoon wasabi paste, plus more for serving

Directions:

1. In a blender, combine sunflower seeds, walnuts, sesame oil, tamari, scallions, water and sea salt until fairly smooth, but with some texture remaining (but not large chunks). This process may take some coaxing with a spoon, and you may add more water as needed.

2. Spread about 1/4 of the nut mixture over 3/4 of the sheet of nori, leaving open space at the end of one side of the sheet. Using your fingers, spread about a 1/4 teaspoon of the wasabi paste about 1/4 inch away from the edge of the clean end, making a thin layer which will be used to seal the end of the nori after the sushi has been rolled. Place some julienned vegetables and sliced avocado on the end with the nut mixture, and, tucking the vegetables in with your fingers, tightly roll the sushi (special sushi tools, I’ve found, are handy for this but not necessary), pressing down on the nori as you go. When rolled, press the end of the nori down slightly with finger to seal.

3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 with remaining nori, nuts and vegetables.

4. Cut sushi into equal-sized pieces using a sharp knife (serrated is best). Serve with additional wasabi, pickled ginger and wheat-free tamari sauce. Sprinkle with sesame seeds if desired.

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Peanutty Stir-Fry Salad

food 031I think one of my favorite flavor combinations in the whole world is peanut butter with soy sauce, sesame oil and chile flakes. Peanut butter is rich and creamy, and seems to perfectly compliment the heat and saltiness of the rest of the ingredients. You sometimes see this combination over noodles, or in some sort of Szechuan stir fry. One of my biggest problems with preparing stir-frys, however, is the fact that my kitchen equipment — and just about everyone else’s in America — is not equipped to make them. The heat needed to make the perfect stir fry requires special burners — something I definitely don’t have on my way outdated oven. For something different, I decided to make a cold salad uses the same ingredients and flavors of a stir-fry.

I just got back to New York after a 10-day trip to visit my family in Michigan. For my last day there, my aunt (another food allergy vitctim) and I decided to prepare a vegan feast. A picture of our spread is below. My aunt’s quinoa stuffed peppers came from Susan O’brien’s Gluten-Free, Sugar-Free Cooking, a go-to cookbook for my family. The kale salad is raw and dressed in an almond butter dressing. I will post the recipe soon. While at home, my family and I ate at the Living Zen Cafe in the Detroit Zen Center: http://www.detroitzencenter.org/index.htm. The raw kale salad they serve singlehandedly had me transformed from a kale hater (something I’ve never before admitted) to a kale enthusiast. I have been working on a similar recipe ever since.

food 044This peanutty salad can be served with any number of vegetables or proteins. The sauce would also be great on rice noodles or for dipping. My favorite part is the way the broccoli absorbs all of the wonderful flavors of the sauce. One word of advice is to make sure that the blanched vegetables are very well drained. Maybe the only downfall of the dish when I made it was that some of the water from the vegetables diluted the sauce slightly. It was still tasty, but this sauce is too good to be at all watered down.

Ingredients:

1 package firm or medium firm tofu, pressed with a paper towel to absorb water, then cubed

florets from 1 head broccoli (use the stems for coleslaw)

1 carrot, peeled and sliced

1 green pepper, cut into 1″ pieces

Cooking spray or a little vegetable oil

Sauce:

3 tablespoons peanut butter (or almond butter)

2 tablespoons tahini

1 tablespoon wheat-free tamari (Bragg’s liquid amino would also work)

1 tablespoon agave nectar

2 tablespoons minced jalapeno

3 tablespoons yellow onion, minced

1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

2 tablespoons water

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350.

2. Lay tofu flat on baking sheet and spray with cooking spray or drizzle with oil. Bake for 45 minutes at 350, tossing once halfway through.

3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Prepare another bowl filled with ice water to cool vegetables. Salt the boiling water and ice water if desired. Add broccoli, pepper and carrot to boiling water. After 1 minute, remove to ice bath to stop cooking process. Leave in ice water for another minute, then drain vegetables well.

4. Prepare peanut sauce: add all ingredients to a blender and blend until smooth. Toss with vegetables and tofu to serve.

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