Some time ago, a mate pointed out most of my blog posts are consistently carnivorous. I hadn’t really given it much thought - and I’m no hater of all things vegetarian – but a quick scan through recent posts suggested a certain preponderance towards pork, game and other meaty delights. So I’m hoping this might redress the balance a little … a simple but exotic meat-free and dairy-free meal.
We recently had some friends over for dinner – she’s vegan, he’s not – and I relished the challenge of cooking vegan-friendly food. I hoped to serve up something a bit different to my standard fare, celebrating interesting new ingredients, and which didn’t rely on meat substitutes. It’s always good to use a dinner as an excuse to try out some new dishes.
As for what to cook; after some deliberation the best choice… or at least the natural choice for me… was to go Japanese. Famed for their creative and delicious uses of veg and seaweed alike, and less dependency on dairy than many other cultures, looking eastwards gave me loads of options. And, having cooked Japanese at dinner parties before, I know it’s also a lot of fun to play with new ingredients and flavours!
For many years one of my favourite Asian cookbooks has been Kimiko Barber’s “The Japanese Kitchen”. I love her breezy descriptions of ingredients, and range of recipes, so I flicked through it for inspiration, marking out a few candidate dishes. Then, when in London visiting Miss South just before the dinner, I picked up a few ingredients which I couldn’t easily source in the Pennines: lotus root, a family-sized bag of shichimi, some kabocha pumpkin, and a mid-sized daikon. Menu decided, ingredients in place, ready to eat…
After a pre-prandial drink at Barearts, we walked back to the house on a fine spring’s evening, and nibbled wasabi-flavoured nori sheets, feeling our sinuses glow and splutter as the heat rose and the starter was prepared. This was a miso soup, with silken tofu and tempura vegetables. The tempura almost threw an unintentional spanner in the works, as I realised my regular recipe uses eggs. However thanks to the magic of the internet, I tracked down a good vegan alternative on the Flying Vegan site. This worked a treat – using baking powder and flour, with the ever-reliable tip of ice-cold sparkling spring water to give a little lift to the batter. The secret ingredient was a half and half mix of mustard powder, and a wasabi salt and pepper mix I’d found in an Asian supermarket. This gave a little more bite to the fluffy batter mix, which clung and coated the veg perfectly.
I made a simple vegan dashi stock from simmering konbu seaweed, stirred in some miso paste, before dropping in cubes of silken tofu, and garnishing with some wakame flakes. The tempura veg – a selection of aubergine, sweet red peppers, mushrooms, spring onion (scallions) and pumpkin - disappeared in no time, leaving only a few tiny crumbs of batter behind on the plate. A good start to the meal.
The second course – shirataki to kinoko no ni-mono (Shirataki with mushrooms) was the chance to play with devil’s tongue yam noodles. Having long been a noodle fan, I’m always interested to check out new types. Never having bought shirataki before, I was fascinated by the delicate, translucent, filament-like noodles in their pert, liquid-filled pillow pack.
I generally followed the recipe in Barker’s book, but used dried shiitake mushrooms, reconstituted in warm water, and used a mix of that soaking liquid and some reserved dashi broth from the starter to create the base. These, alongside a varied and random selection of enoki, oyster and shimeji-type mushrooms from Bill’s stall in the market, gave a complex and rich flavour to the broth. I added saké and mirin to base broth, along with a tablespoon or two of tamari soy.
Finally the dish was finished with some finely shredded dried konbu, and a little grated daikon. The noodles and mushrooms were slippery without being slimy, and the broth gave a rich savoury background note to the playful earthiness of the mushrooms and noodles. I loved this dish for its simplicity but umami-rich flavours and textures.
Despite plenty of mise en place beforehand, the first couple of courses were spread out over a couple of hours, punctuated by much wine and conversation. It’s always a pleasure to wander wound the kitchen, glass in hand, on a lazy evening’s cooking, but despite feeling satisfied after these initial light dishes, I needed to press on with the main.
The next course was a simple stir fry, using sweet red peppers, julienned sweet potato, and strips of quickly-wilted spring greens, served with boiled rice. Accompanying this was renkon no kimpira, or simmered lotus root. Although I’ve had the wonderful-looking lotus root in restaurants before, I’d never cooked with it, but this recipe was a simple and delicious introduction. I bought the lotus root fresh from a Japanese supermarket, in a pack of brined water, though you may be able to use tinned versions at a pinch.
- 400g lotus root
- 1 tablespoon of sesame oil and vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons each of mirin and soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds
- Healthy sprinkle of shichimi to garnish
Slice the lotus root finely, and soak for 10mins in cold water. Heat the oils in a hot pan, quickly sauté the lotus roots slices until soft, then lower the heat and add the mirin and soy, reducing until the viscous liquid coats the lotus root thickly. Add the sesame seeds, stir well, then place on a dish and sprinkle generously with my favourite condiment, shichimi. Delicious.
Finally, special mention needs to go to the nori, wasabi and shichimi popcorn which was born out of the same meal session: and has since become a regular favourite savoury snack to nibble at home. Quick, healthy and powerfully-flavoured… this is a great dinner party nibble. The flavours always work well together, and this can be knocked up in five minutes. Simply pop the corn in a large covered pan with a little oil, shake well with the spice mix to cover the kernels, and serve warm. It’ll go in no time…