Thursday, January 20, 2011

Special Post - Middle Eastern Feast!

Hello, lovely ninjas :)  Today is a very special multi-recipe Vegan Fur Ninja post.  Last week, when the weather man was calling for an epic snowstorm, I decided to whip up a Middle Eastern feast, because my favorite thing to do when there's a blizzard outside is to cook up a far more pleasant and tasty storm inside.  Nothing like wind howling and blowing snow to make the warming oven and delicious smells filling the house even more amazing.  I'd never tried making Middle Eastern food before, with the exception of hummus, but it all turned out so delectable I just had to share it with you all.

Before we get on with the recipes, let me first preface this by saying that I can in no way vouch for the cultural authenticity of any of this food.  I found recipes for some Middle Eastern dishes on the internet, veganized them, and tweaked them to my own tastes as well, so if you're from a Middle Eastern country and are annoyed at me because I'm getting it all wrong, please forgive me!  I think you'll find these dishes to be wonderfully tasty in their own right, no matter how inauthentic they may be.  Now, on to the recipes!

First, the menu:

Muhammara (hot pepper dip)
Yogurt with Roasted Eggplant
Pita Bread
Middle Eastern Rice with Black Beans and Chickpeas
Mahshi Bassal (stuffed onion rolls)
Sweet Egyptian Couscous (dessert)

First, the dips:

From left to right: hummus, muhammara, yogurt with roasted eggplant.  The muhammara and yogurt were my own recipes, but the hummus was made with the recipe from Veganomicon by Isa Moskowitz.  I won't re-print the recipe here, since A. it's not mine and B. you should go out and buy this cookbook.  Seriously.  It's hands-down the best vegan cookbook I've ever used.  Until I started making my own recipes, it was the bible of my kitchen, and I still return to it often.  It's actually the book that inspired me to start experimenting with my own vegan recipes, and I can only hope that mine reach as wide an audience as Isa's delicious genius does someday.  But I digress....if you don't have a copy of Veganomicon and aren't going to go pick one up, there's a billion and one hummus recipes online.  Google is your friend.  I do encourage you to make your own hummus rather than buying it in the store though, because it's ridiculously easy, much cheaper, and the homemade stuff tastes worlds better.  Now, onto some delicious dips!

Muhammara (Hot Pepper Dip)

3 medium onions, chopped
1/2 cup olive oil
3/4 cup chopped walnuts
3/4 cup plain breadcrumbs
2 whole dried red chili peppers
1/2 cup boiling water
1/8 teaspoon cumin
1/2 - 1 teaspoon chili powder, depending on tastes (see below)  
1 teaspoon salt
1 Tablespoon pine nuts

Place the chili peppers in a shallow bowl and cover with the 1/2 cup boiling water.  Place a plate on top of the bowl and allow the peppers to soak for at least 10 minutes to soften.  Place peppers with the soaking water in a food processor and add the bread crumbs.  Process until the mixture resembles a smooth paste, adding more water if necessary, 1 teaspoon at a time.
Heat a medium skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the 1/2 cup olive oil and chopped onions.  Saute until onions are tender and slightly golden, about 8-10 minutes.  Add the walnuts, cumin, chili powder and salt, and saute 5 more minutes.  Add everything to the pepper/breadcrumb mixture in the food processor, and process until smooth.  Taste for salt and spices and adjust if necessary.  Garnish with pine nuts.

Depending on the size of your chili peppers and the amount of chili powder you use, your muhammara can get VERY spicy.  Start off with just 1/2 teaspoon of the chili powder, and add more into the final product in the food processor if necessary.

Serve the muhammara either warm or cold.  It is excellent as a dip for pita or other bread, as a condiment for vegetables, or as a wrap/sandwich spread.  Great anywhere that you'd use hummus.

Yogurt with Roasted Eggplant

1 medium-sized eggplant, about 3/4 lb
1 medium onion, chopped finely
1 16oz block of firm tofu  
3 cloves garlic
5 T minced fresh mint leaves with extra for garnish
1 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons olive oil
freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
3 teaspoons lemon juice
3/4 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon coriander

***Note: roasting the eggplant can also be done on a grill, and would probably yield even more delicious results.  However, there's a ridiculous amount of snow outside and it's positively frigid out, so there's no way I was venturing onto the deck to mess with the grill.  If any of you readers tries the grill method though, let me know how it turns out!

Preheat your oven on broil.  Prick the eggplant in several places with a fork and place on an oven-safe cooking tray sprayed with a little cooking spray or olive oil.  Place the whole eggplant on the top rack of the oven and roast under the broiler until the outer skin is charred and the eggplant is very limp.  You will need to check the eggplant every 5-10 minutes for charred skin - when one side gets charred, turn the eggplant using tongs so that all sides cook evenly.  The whole roasting process should take 30-45 minutes, depending on your oven and the size of the eggplant.  The eggplant is done when all sides of the skin are charred and the eggplant is very limp and squishy.  Once done, remove the eggplant from the oven and place in a colander in the sink.  Run cool water over the eggplant until it is cool enough to handle.  The skin should peel away from the flesh easily.  Discard the skin and allow the flesh to drain while you blend the tofu.
Drain tofu and crumble into a food processor.  Process until smooth and creamy.  Add the eggplant flesh and process again to combine.  Add garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, pepper, and spices.  Process until very smooth, scraping down the sides to make sure everything is incorporated.  Remove from processor bowl into a medium-sized bowl with lid.  Stir in chopped onion and mint.  Cover and refrigerate for several hours until ready to serve.  If moisture starts to separate during storage, just give the yogurt a stir before serving.

The yogurt is great as a dip for flatbread, as well as a cooling condiment for spicy dishes.  It's especially good with the Middle Eastern rice and beans recipe that follows.

Next, the main course dishes:

Counter-clockwise from top: Mahshi Bassal, extra filling from the Mahshi Bassal, Middle Eastern Rice with Black Beans and Chickpeas.

Mahshi Bassal (Stuffed Onion Rolls)

3 very large sweet onions
2 Tablespoons tamarind paste  
3 Tablespoons sugar, divided
3 Tablespoons canola oil

1 lb brown lentils
5 cups vegetable broth
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint
large bunch of parsley, chopped

Put a large pot of lightly salter water on to boil.  Cut the tops and bottoms of onions off so they sit flat on a cutting board.  Peel the onions, and then taking a sharp knife, make a vertical cut from the top of the onion to the bottom on one side to the center of the onion only, but no further.  Place the onions in the pot of boiling water and boil for 15-20 minutes, until the onions are very soft and the layers separate easily.  Drain the onions in a colander and run cool water over them to stop the cooking process.
While the onions are cooling, make the stuffing.  Bring 5 cups vegetable broth to a boil and add the 1 lb. lentils.  Cover and boil for 30 minutes until tender.  Put the lentils in a large bowl and add all the other stuffing ingredients and mix well.
Separate the layers of the cooled onions.  Put any small or torn pieces in the bottom of a large stock pot.  Take a walnut-sized lump of the stuffing mixture and place at one end of one of the separated onion layers and roll up tightly.  Repeat for the remaining onion layers (you will have extra stuffing).  Pack the onions tightly in the stockpot with the smaller onion pieces.
Dissolve the tamarind paste in a small bowl in 1 1/2 cups boiling water.  Add 1 Tablespoon of the sugar and canola oil and mix well.  Pour over the onions in the stockpot.  Add more water to cover the onions, if necessary.  Weigh them down with a plate and simmer gently over medium-low heat for 30 minutes until the onions are very tender and most of the water is absorbed.  If the onions start to look dry during the cooking process, add a little more water.
Pre-heat your oven to broil.  Place the cooked onions on a large, oven-proof dish that is lightly oiled.  Sprinkle with the remaining sugar, and broil for 5-10 minutes, or until the onions are golden brown and slightly carmelized.  Check them frequently to avoid burning!

Onions can be served either hot or cold, with any extra filling eaten on the side.

Middle Eastern Rice with Black Beans and Chickpeas

***This makes a very spicy rice; if you are sensitive to spicy dishes, you may want to halve the spices and add more to taste if necessary.

2 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup uncooked jasmine or basmati rice
2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons coriander
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cayenne
2 cups vegetable broth
1 15 ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 15 ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
2 cups halved cherry tomatoes
6 cups fresh spinach leaves
1 tightly-packed cup cilantro, chopped
1 tightly-packed cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1/4 cup pine nuts
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
several dashes freshly ground black pepper

Put one Tablespoon of the olive oil in a large pot and preheat over medium heat.  Sautee the garlic in the 1 Tablespoon olive oil for 1 minute.  Stir in the rice and spices.  Cook, stirring constantly for 5 minutes.  Pour in the vegetable broth and bring to a boil.  As soon as the mixture is boiling, reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes.
While the rice is cooking, add the remaining Tablespoon olive oil to a large skillet.  Cook cherry tomatoes in the oil over medium heat for 5 minutes.  Add the spinach by handfuls, waiting until the previous handful wilts slightly to allow room for the rest.  Once all of the spinach is added to the skillet, cook until bright green and wilted, moving the spinach around with tongs.  If you cook your spinach for a few minutes and it hasn't started to wilt yet, up your heat.
Once the rice is done, fluff the rice with a fork and then add black beans, chickpeas, spinach, tomatoes, parsley, cilantro, and pine nuts to the rice.  Season with salt and pepper and mix well.  Serve hot.

And finally, cool down the fire in your mouth from all those spicy dishes with something cooling and sweet for dessert.  This recipe requires you to steam your couscous rather than boiling it, which is the traditional method of cooking it in Middle Eastern countries.

Sweet Egyptian Couscous Dessert

1 cup uncooked couscous (NOT instant)
1/2 Tablespoon vegetable oil
2 cups mango nectar or other fruit juice, divided
2 Tablespoons rose water (available at gourmet markets and health food stores), divided
7 Tablespoons non-dairy butter, divided
5 teaspoons sugar, divided
1/4 cup ground pistachios
1/4 cup ground almonds
1/2 cup confectioners sugar
1 Tablespoon cinnamon

You have a few different options when it comes to steaming couscous.  The easiest is if you have a contraption made specifically for the task - it's called a couscoussier.  I'm going to assume that pretty much no one has one of these (if you do, I envy you your well-stocked kitchen and advise you to simply follow the instructions that came with the device), so let's discuss other methods.  You're going to be steaming the couscous using a method similar to steaming vegetables, so if you have a vegetable steamer, a steamer basket that fits over a pot on the stove, or a rice cooker with a vegetable steamer that fits on top (this is what I used), you shouldn't have any difficulty.  In a real pinch, you can use a colander rigged over a pot of boiling water on the stove, but this creates some difficulties because the colander will not fit snugly over the pot.  Basically, no matter what apparatus you are using as your steamer, you need the steam from the boiling water below to rise up through the couscous and not escape through any cracks or openings anywhere else.  So if you're trying to do this with a colander rigged over top of a pot of boiling water, make sure that the pot is small enough that the colander can rest on the rim pretty snugly.  No matter what setup you're using, be on the lookout for steam escaping out the sides.  You should ONLY see the steam rising from the top of the couscous, nowhere else.  If there is steam escaping in a space between the container of boiling water and the basket holding your couscous, long strips of material tied around where the two containers meet can help this problem.  I personally recommend using a steamer that is made for vegetables; the steamer attachment with my rice cooker worked brilliantly.
So once you have your setup figured out, onto the recipe.  This recipe is time-consuming and you have to watch the couscous, but it's ridiculously easy, so don't be scared.  First pour your dry couscous in a wide, shallow bowl.  Add 1/2 Tablespoon vegetable oil and toss with the dry couscous using your hands until it is well distributed.  Add 2/3 cup of your mango nectar or whatever juice you are using and 2 teaspoons of the rose water to the couscous.  Toss again until the moisture is evenly distributed.  Now, line your steamer basket with several layers of cheesecloth - enough so that the small grains of couscous won't fall through.  I used 4 layers.  Overlap the cheesecloth with the sides of the basket and have them spill out the top.  This will allow you to use the cheesecloth to lift the whole mound of couscous out of the steamer and transfer it all at once.  This isn't totally necessary, but it makes things faster, easier, and less messy.  Once you've got your cheesecloth liner ready to go, add the mixed couscous to the basket and start your steamer.  Watch the couscous carefully for steam.  Once you see steam rising from the top of the couscous, set a timer for 15 minutes, and then you can pretty much leave it unattended.  
After the couscous has been steaming for 15 minutes, remove from the steamer basket by picking up the four corners of the cheesecloth to form a kind of pouch and transferring the whole thing to a bowl.  Add to the couscous another 2/3 cup of the fruit juice, 2 teaspoons of rose water, 3 Tablespoons of melted non-dairy butter and 2 teaspoons of sugar and mix well with your hands.  Pick up the couscous using the cheesecloth again and transfer the whole thing back to the steamer.  Once you see steam rising from the couscous, steam for another 15 minutes.
Transfer the couscous to a bowl using the cheesecloth, as before.  Add the remaining fruit juice and rose water, 4 Tablespoons melted non-dairy butter, and 3 teaspoons sugar.  Transfer the couscous in the cheesecloth back to the steamer basket for the final steam.  Again, once you see steam rising from the top of the couscous, steam for 15 minutes without disturbing it.
After completing the third steam, transfer the couscous into a bowl (you can throw away the cheesecloth now) and mix in the ground almonds and pistachios.  Before serving, sprinkle with the confectioners sugar and cinnamon.
This is excellent both warm and cold, and tastes better the next day.  I was eating it for breakfast moistened with a touch of vanilla almond milk.  Delish!  This recipe sounds like a lot of work, especially if your only experience with couscous is throwing it in some boiling water and waiting 5 minutes, but the lightly sweet, creamy-textured couscous with the richess of the nuts is totally worth it.  Once you get the hang of it, it's really not terribly hard, so show your true ninja skills and try it out!

So I hope you enjoyed my Middle Eastern feast!  It makes a LOT of food, so if you're planning on having a few guests over there will be more than enough to go around.  If you're pressed for time, you may want to leave out the Mahshi Bassal (stuffed onions) and couscous, because those are the most labor-intensive, but the rest of it actually comes together rather quickly.  You can even make the dips the night before, as the flavors actually improve as they have time to meld.  For a quick dinner, make one or both of the dips, the rice and beans, and serve with store-bought flatbread.  You can have a great dinner on the table in about 40 minutes with enough leftovers to last for days.  The dips especially are great to keep around for dipping raw veggies into, or just packing into a wrap or pita with some greens and fresh, sliced tomato.

As always, feedback is welcomed!  More recipes to come soon - be on the lookout for crunchy coconut french toast, coconut rice pudding with poached oranges, Andy's "Curry of Doom," and a hearty and satisfying butternut squash and barley soup bursting with fresh vegetables.  Until then, much love and good eats!

<3, The Fur Ninja

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