Last week I took advantage of some nicely-priced Japanese eggplant, serving my first autumn eggplant of the year, but I wasn’t quite prepared to admit that we’re firmly into the fall season. The bizarre nature of Washington’s growing season means we’re still seeing beautiful, flavorful local peaches and nectarines, and still some spectacular local tomatoes, but we had been quickly closing in on fall. The apple harvest started, as well, and I’ve indulged in the fruits of that. Sweet potatoes, too. But I wasn’t quite ready to give in and call a season a season.
Tonight’s spicy rice porridge, with onions, chestnuts, satsumaimo (Japanese sweet potatoes), kabocha (Japanese pumpkin), and some late-season locally-grown green beans, cannot fairly deny the beginning of the fall produce cycle. The chestnuts are apparently not local, and the squash isn’t quite at its prime, but the fact that I even considered making such a belly-warming dish indicates a clear change in the weather.
The rice was cooked with onions, ginger and some chopped Thai chillies, seasoned with salt, and simmered most of the time with the starchy vegetables, and only for a few minutes with the green beans. I also added a bit of coconut milk, which contributed a creamy texture and an indulgent richness. Upon serving, I place a few leaves of Thai basil in the bowl.
The idea for this dish I have borrowed in large part from a French cuisine-influenced Vietnamese chef, who runs a casual fusion-y place called Andre’s Eurasian Bistro I occasionally patronized when I worked for Microsoft. I liked that place, but had mixed experiences, as sometimes one dish would be fantastic on one visit and barely memorable on another; some dishes were clever ideas and some were not so much. It’s a tough place to have such a long, varied menu; their traffic was never quite predictable as they would sometimes be insanely busy on a weeknight and dead on a weekend, or vice versa. I did appreciate the kind of neighborhood aesthetic there, in otherwise bland strip mall surroundings.
I am not sure the chef would recognize the dish except for the commonality of rice, squash and sweet potatoes, but both versions are wonderfully comforting. No sugar was used, but the vegetables and the coconut milk contributed a kind of natural sweetness, and the Thai basil was a nice accent.
I entertained the idea of making this a simple one-pot meal, and adding some good fried tofu from Thanh Son directly to the porridge, but I decided it would work better in a dish of greens.
This is gai lan, also known as “Chinese Broccoli.” I usually don’t do much to this other than sautee it with garlic and maybe some fermented black beans, but in this case I used some onions, and a vegetarian version of oyster sauce, which is apparently made from fermented mushrooms rather than oysters. This was a simple dish, with a hint of sweetness and saltiness from the oyster sauce.
This weekend coincides with the the monthly “Is my blog burning” event, whose theme is in fact I Can't Believe I Ate Vegan. I’ve been hosting vegetarian (though not strictly vegan) dinner parties for years, and it never fails that a guest who doesn’t know me particularly well gets through the entire meal without realizing that they’ve been eating vegetarian food all night.
I’m not at all an ascetic vegetarian; I don’t really do much in the way of scary 1970s meat analogs, and I have a fairly well-traveled palate which isn’t very patient with mediocrity.
I use tofu, but I’m extremely particular about using extremely fresh tofu, and some people have never tasted anything better than the slightly soured stuff that pervades grocery stores, so they often assumed you were supposed to cover up the taste of tofu to make it palatable. In my opinion, simply prepared tofu that highlights the soy flavor itself is beautiful. Except for people who simply have mental opposition to tofu, most people respond quite positively to my tofu dishes.
Good food, whether vegetarian or not, encourages people to appreciate what they are eating, not wonder about what might be missing. When vegetarian food is prepared well, people aren’t really conscious that it’s vegetarian. My roommate wasn’t particularly aware that no animal products entered the equation for this meal, and I doubt most anyone else would have given it much thought.
My ideal cuisine emphasizes “sappari” flavors, or simple, clean, refreshing tastes. But tonight I was in the mood for a bit more aggressive seasoning, so I used chillies and a heavy hand with the aromatics.
Dinner is served.