For last year’s Xmas meal, I asked Mom what she was hankerin’ for. “Ol’ down-home Southern food,” she said. Wow, OK, that’s a challenge for a vegan (but everybody ought to look at Bryant Terry’s excellent cooking—the guy is sooo good).
So it was my task to veganize chicken-fried steak, crawdaddy chowder, and the like. Right: game on!
My people are from Oklahoma, so I know a thing or two about Southern eats. My first thought was black-eyed peas and greens and grits. I could build a whole menu around this! We had black-eyed pea hummus w/ cornbread, Cesar Chavez salad (ha!), mushroom corn okra chowder, seitan fried steaks in mushroom gravy w/taters and biscuits, a mess o’ green beans, and watermelon sorbet. Bro-in-law said it was the best one I’ve done so far (my family have been eager to have me cook the holiday meal for the past several years now). Mission accomplished.
This year, I need a break. It’s been a really tough year for hubby and me, and I need to do something easy. Indian food. Yep, that’s the first cuisine I learned to make when I became veg some three+ decades ago. I can make Indian-style food in my sleep. So that’s what we’re having this year.
Now it’s an issue of deciding on dishes that will please everyone: there’s my mom, who eats garbage. There are my sister and BIL, who appreciate good food but call animals food. There’s hubby, who loves my cooking. And there’s Mom’s friend who is the only other vegan Mom knows, who always loves coming to our table for some scrumptious vegan food. I know the makeup of the guests at the table, so now I need to think about…
What’s expected. Americans often think of Indian food as Northern Indian with a lot of creamy curries and such. OK, I can do that — I’m acquainted with cashews and other nuts. I know my brother-in-law will expect something particularly meaty. Enter seitan “chicken” tikka masala. Big, fat hunks of meaty stuff in a creamy-spicy-tomato curry sauce, and we’re good to go. Other expected things: naan, mint-cilantro chutney, samosas. No prob.
I’m particularly looking forward to creating a new gobi methi-type thing that is a dry cauliflower and fenugreek dish that I will, of course, be tasting and adjusting throughout the cooking process. Grinding various dals and toasting them and using them as spices rather than as main ingredients is fun too.
The other very important thing for me is the colors on the table. How many brown dishes do I have, and what red or green or yellow dishes will we eat as well? I’m not exactly going for a rainbow here, but vibrant colors on the table makes for a particularly enjoyable gustatory experience.
With those general ideas, I realize I need to have an appetizer to have out on the table before we sit down more formally; of course a nice dal soup; several curries that complement each other in taste, texture, color, and nutritional completeness; supporting dishes such as rice and salad and bread; and of course a dessert to have along with our after-dinner tea/coffee/drinks. As of this writing, the final menu will be:
• Samosas, served with at least 3 chutneys: one mint-cilantro, one apricot-ginger, and one super spicy something
• Dal (a requirement for me at any Indian meal)
• My gobi-methi cauliflower experiment—this will be a dry dish with pungent flavors and a bright yellow turmeric color, with cauliflower a bit al dente for texture
• Seitan “chicken” tikka masala for BIL—very wet dish with big chewy hunks of seitan swimming in a brilliantly red but creamy sauce
• Chole palak (chickpeas and spinach)—ahhh, greens, with ginger and garam masala as dominant flavors (recipe below)
• Mushroom matar—simple, straightforward, slightly spicy with a garlic and ginger kick
• Basmati with cashews & peas—cashews and basmati rice complement each other so well, and the brilliantly green peas flecking the dish are beautiful
• Naan—flat bread, another requisite item on an Indian menu
• Raita (soy yogurt and shredded cukes in cumin spiced stuff)—cooling salad to offset the curries
• and…the dessert.
Indian desserts are usually some milk-based thing. I’m going with Vegan Richa and her cashew-and-chickpea-based Gulab Jamun—a dish of fried cheese balls soaking in a sugar syrup. I know, sounds dodgy; it is a family holiday after all! They accept that I will make a vegan feast, and I am grateful that they accept me.
Now, what better gift is there than that?
Chole Palak (chickpeas and spinach in a spicy tomato sauce)
• 16 oz dried chickpeas
• enough fresh spinach to make 6 cups when shredded
• 3 medium-sized ripe roma or similar tomatoes, quartered
• 1 1/2 inch chunk fresh ginger, smashed w/ the side of your knife
• 2-3 cloves garlic, also smashed w/ the side of your knife
• 2 serrano chiles, broken into 2-3 pieces per chile
• 1/4 cup canola oil
• 1 1/2 tsp whole cumin seed
• 1/2 tsp asafoetida powder
• 3 tsp coriander powder
• 1 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
• 2 cups filtered water
• 1 tsp garam masala powder
• salt to taste
Soak the chickpeas overnight. Pour the chickpeas and their soaking liquid into a large soup pot and add enough more water to cover the peas in about 1.5 inches water. Cover and bring to a boil. Turn heat down to medium-low and simmer until chickpeas are soft, about 25-30 minutes. Cool completely and drain, reserving the soaking/cooking liquid for other recipes calling for egg (look up “aquafaba” for inspiration). You can cheat and just use a can or two of chickpeas if you don’t want to do this part of the recipe; I do these steps to give me greater control over both the consistency of the chickpeas and the salt content of my food. I will often do just this part of the recipe and put the cooked chickpeas into containers in my freezer to be used later as desired.
Put the tomatoes, ginger (no need to peel the ginger, just wash before smashing), garlic, and chiles into a blender and puree.
Heat the oil in a large pot to very hot; you know the oil is very hot if you toss in one cumin seed and it immediately begins to pop. Put the asafoetida and the cumin seeds into the oil, give the pan a swirl to mix the spices in with the oil, and listen for the crackling of the cumin seeds. Immediately add the tomato puree (Keep your face averted to avoid getting splattered w/ hot oil as the tomato puree hits it), coriander, and turmeric, and stir well. Cook several minutes on medium heat, stirring, until the tomato sauce has reduced a bit and the mixture has turned a deep shiny red.
Add the spinach and stir to coat the spinach well with the tomato liquid. Add about 2 cups water, stir, cover, and cook about 5 minutes on medium-low heat until the spinach is very wilted.
Add the chickpeas, and smash the contents of the pot somewhat with a potato masher to create a thicker sauce but still retain mostly whole chickpeas. Cover and cook about 5 minutes more.
Uncover and check the consistency of the chole palak. It should be wet and gravy-like with mostly whole chickpeas and sloppy spinach. Add the garam masala and salt to taste. Stir well and serve.
Dr. Stacey J. Anderson (aka Chef Stacey) is a professor of public health by day, ferocious vegan foodie by night. She is a certified Master Vegan Life Coach and Educator (MVLCE) from the Main Street Vegan Academy. She owns the educational venue Vegan Buen Vivir, a scrumptious way for the vegan-curious and new vegans to learn how to dive head-first into the vegan good life, with lots of great cooking and eating along the way. Chef Stacey lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and her two incorrigible cats.