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It can be thrilling, frustrating or depressing when you open the refrigerator door to figure out what’s for dinner.
I don’t always follow a recipe. I love to improvise, but simply tossing some ingredients together doesn’t ensure the outcome will be favorable.
While I am not a vegetarian, I’ve reduced the amount and type of animal protein I consume. I’m on a personal quest to find ways to incorporate more vegetables and fruits in my diet.
A helpful resource has been Karen Page’s “The Vegetarian Flavor Bible” (554 pages, $40; published by Little, Brown and Company, 2014). Like a religious text, the book can be opened to almost any page for inspiration. The first chapter is “For the Love of Plants; Vegetarianism through the Ages.” Chapter 2 is all about “Maximizing Flavor: Creating a New, Compassionate Cuisine.” Chapter 3, “Vegetarian Flavor Matchmaking: The List,” comprises most of the book and this is where the magic in your kitchen begins.
Ingredients in Chapter 3 are arranged alphabetically. I randomly opened the book to Page 239 and found the entry on eggplant. There’s a brief overview, including that it’s a summer and autumn vegetable, a flavor description (“bitter/sweet, with earthy notes, and a spongy texture”), plus a list of appropriate cooking techniques as well as its nutritional profile. The section that is the most useful for creating a dish is “Flavor Affinities.” For the eggplant entry, you get a list of more than 30 possibilities, such as
• Eggplant + Asian noodles + peanut sauce
• Eggplant + balsamic vinegar + basil + oregano
• Eggplant + cumin + yogurt
• Eggplant + feta cheese + mint.
The listings remind me of IBM Chef Watson, the artificially intelligent supercomputer that in a former version competed as a contestant on Jeopardy! and won the first place prize of $1 million in 2011. Now, you can go to ibmchefwatson.com and type in some ingredients, and Watson will give you a suggested list of ingredient combinations and possible dishes (Eggplant Taco, Eggplant Fricassee, Eggplant Seared, etc.).
While Watson’s suggestions are intriguing, and home cooks and professional chefs alike are raving about the results, I find that “The Vegetarian Bible” suggests more combinations I can practically use in my kitchen than Watson does, at least for now.
As for Page’s flavor affinity suggestions, I decided to try to create a dish out of eggplant, Asian noodles and peanut sauce since I knew I had a jar of peanut butter and some rice noodles in the pantry. The next step was opening the door to the fridge to see what else I had on hand. Here is the result:
EGGPLANT STIR-FRY WITH SLIPPERY, PEANUTY NOODLES
(recipe by Connie Post)
1 eggplant, diced into ½ - to ¾-inch cubes
8 ounces straight cut rice noodles
2 tablespoons grape seed oil (I’d also recommend coconut oil)
2/3 cup creamy peanut butter
1 tablespoon miso
1 tablespoon tamari
1 tablespoon sriracha sauce
1 tablespoon white rice vinegar
½ teaspoon sesame oil
¼ cup water
1 tablespoon garlic, diced
¼ cup red bell pepper, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon sesame seeds
2 tablespoons cilantro, diced
1 green onion, diced
Place the eggplant cubes in a rimmed pan and lightly salt. Spread out evenly in a single layer. Allow the salt to draw out liquid from the eggplant for 20 - 30 minutes. Rinse well and pat dry.
To make noodles:
Place noodles in a bowl and cover with extremely hot water for at least 5 minutes.
To make peanut sauce:
In another bowl, mix peanut butter, miso, tamari, sriracha, vinegar and sesame oil. Mix well with a food scraper.
To put it all together:
Heat a wok or skillet on medium high. Add the oil and let it come up to temperature. Add garlic and stir about 30 seconds. Add eggplant and cook for 2 minutes, stirring to keep from burning. Add bell pepper and sesame seeds. Continue cooking until the eggplant cubes are tender. Add peanut sauce and stir well. Add water, if necessary, to make peanut sauce thin enough for an even coat. Drain noodles and add them to the veggies and peanut sauce in the wok. Add water, if necessary, for a desired consistency. Remove from heat. Stir in cilantro. Serve with green onion sprinkled on top.
Our assessment: Creating this dish was a fun exercise. The flavors and textures complement one another. Eggplant, it turns out, is a good stir-fry substitute for chicken or beef, which I will remember in the future. If you don’t have miso, tamari, sriracha and sesame oil, I would recommend starting with soy sauce and adding other spices one at a time. Start with a small amount and have a bunch of tasting spoons on hand as you make adjustments. Also, next time I try this stir-fry, I’ll probably toss in a half teaspoon of fresh, diced ginger along with the diced garlic.