On Saturday night, Carolina and I organized a small dinner in our home. We invited two couples we haven’t spent much time with: Osvaldo Ramirez-Castillo, an incredible artist and his girlfriend Sophie, as well as Camillo and Minka, a couple that Carolina had met at Osvaldo’s last vernissage at PUSH gallery, who are artists as well.
When I learned that Minka was vegan I decided to accommodate her by making the entire dinner vegan. I am always excited at challenging myself to make new things, and even if making a vegan dinner isn’t especially difficult, it allowed me to think outside my usual parameters of culinary creativity to come up with some new things. And so, for dinner, I prepared a green bean, walnut and caramelized cippolini onion warm salad, a chickpea, artichoke and rapini dish, and a vegetable tajine with couscous. I hit a homerun. Everything was delicious: one of those nights you just smile at what you’ve produced, humbly acknowledging that you are great, ahah.
Let’s look at some of what I used and I’ll then proceed to share with you the basic recipes for each dish. As always, this is an act of improvisation so it should become one for you too.
I did my shopping in the morning and when I returned I immediately started simmering the dried chickpeas I was going to use in water with some onion, garlic, fresh bay leaf, a carrot, pepper, star anise, a piece of dried guajillo chili and a cinnamon stick. I wanted to make sure that the chickpeas would be ready for dinner time and I usually let them soak over night before cooking them, but I was happy to find out that they took less than 3 hours to cook. I cooked them in a quick stock to imbibe them with flavor and because I wanted to use some of it later during the preparation of my tajine. It tasted quite nicely I might had. The guajillo added a bit of spice and an exotic sweetness that went well with that of the cinnamon and anise. The fresh bay leaf also worked wonders. I need to make sure to always have some at my disposal because I used it profusely and to great effect.
As my chickpeas cooked on the stove, I calmly went about prepping the rest of the food. I cut my vegetables(eggplant, zucchinis, tomatoes, red onion, potatoes, garlic, fennel, green beans, cippolini onions, rapini and bell peppers), took out my spices(mustard seeds, fennel seeds, coriander seeds,cumin and caraway seeds, turmeric, paprika, safran and dried oregano) and went about organizing everything for an efficient dinner.
I like to flavor my veggies before putting them in the Tajine. I do this in different ways. On Saturday, I cut my potatoes in half and boiled them in water with safran, I quickly sauteed my bell peppers and zucchini with my red onion and garlic, I seared my fennel slices in my iron skillet and softened them up a bit in the oven, and I sauteed my eggplant and mixed in my spices and some of the stock I used to cook the chickpeas. I avoid cooking the vegetables through; I’m simply looking to add additional layers of flavor, mostly by releasing the individual vegetables’ sugars. Often, when I make Tajines, I like to roasted pearl onions before adding them to the vegetable mix for example.
When all my ingredients for the Tajine were ready, I mixed them all together including some chickpeas(half of what I had cooked), some fresh bay leaves, and Moroccan black olives as well as Sicilian olives. I put them in the Tajine bowl and put it to the side. I would be needing about an hour in the oven to finish it and was only going to do that when our guests arrived.
My two starter dishes. For the green bean salad I sauteed my green beans and added a bit of stock to coat them and help with the cooking. I like mine crunchy so I didn’t cook them for very long. While I did that, I put my skinned cippolini onions in aluminum foil with some fresh bay leaves and olive oil. After taking them out of the toaster oven where they cooked at 400 °, I roasted some walnuts at about 300 °. To finish off the salad, I mixed the onions with the green beans and walnuts, added some olive oil and zested some lemon over it. It was ready for service.
Finally, my most successful dish of the evening, something I will be adapting and re-doing frequently: a chickpea, marinated artichoke heart, and rapini salad.
The secret of this dish lies in the subtle sauce I mixed the ingredients in. Before I get to that though, for the chickpeas I used the other half I had cooked, I steamed my rapini, making sure they remained fresh and crunchy, and I quartered my store bought marinated grilled artichoke.
When all of those things were ready I went about cooking my sauce. You might have noticed earlier that my picture of the zucchini features the core of it cut out and placed to the side. This core is softer and soggier when cooked with steam or braised and I like to take it out and use it for other purposes when I cook zucchini. In this case, it was to become the base of my thick dressing. I cut it into smaller pieces and slowly softened it on the stove with olive oil and seasoning.
While cooking the zucchini I toasted some sunflower seeds. When both were finished I blended them in my food processor with olive oil, lemon juice, flat leaf parsley, and fennel greens. The mix was beautifully nutty and savory, a subtle but flavorful addition to the dish. I mixed in my chickpeas and added the artichoke and rapini. The slight acidity of the lemon juice, the bitterness of the rapini and the earthiness of the chickpeas assumed different personalities and each bite was a fresh mix of the three, independent but complementary flavors. One of the best dishes I’ve made in a long time.
Before serving the Tajine, I made some couscous in which I mixed fresh parsley. The mix of the richness of the exotic vegetarian Tajine and the simple and light couscous works wonders.
Hope you like this. It’s a great meal for meat eaters and vegetarian alike, offering lots of energy and nutrients. I also contains that carb(the couscous) that meat eaters usually crave in foods that don’t contain the heavy proteins of animals.
Try it out, modify it and enjoy.