For those who have read my column for a while, you’ll already know that vegan recipes are few and far between. And that while not always the focus, meat, dairy and eggs play a foundational role in the recipes I create and write about.

It’s my preference to give thanks to the animal that provided the egg, the butter or the steak on my plate, and I can respect that there are those who think and eat otherwise.

I recently had the opportunity to stretch (or maybe it’s contract) my horizons by doing a vegan catering job. Vegetarian meals are actually fairly common in our house, but it’s rare for us to arrive at a meal that is vegan. A meal without meat is not a three-alarm fire in our household, but a meal without eggs and dairy in addition to no meat? Now there’s an issue.

The quandary for any chef is how to actually introduce flavor into vegan food that has no animal fat, eggs, dairy or meat, as the molecules in fat are a major component of how we experience full, rich, round tastes.

There are two thoughts about this. One is that for those who are not vegan, our tastebuds are used to those fuller, richer, rounder taste experiences. Vegan food can be more subtle in its approach. Appreciate the softer, more understated milieu for what it is. It’s a good idea in theory, but the less sanguine among us may find this a challenge.

The second is that there are ways to introduce those richer, more intense flavors. Spice is one. Just the heat of spice is one element, but bloom the spices (by heating until the oils release) or employ another technique that bumps up the flavor, and you can introduce a broader taste set.

Then there’s how you cook the food. Roasting, searing, caramelizing – any technique that encourages the starches to convert to sugar is another effective way to achieve a bigger taste. This is the road on which I prefer to travel.

Pan-searing the cauliflower is a perfect example of bumping up flavor by converting starches to sugars. Cauliflower can have an insipid taste if not worked with well, but in this recipe, it is a star.

No one could argue that spinach is anything but a vegan ingredient, and as it is one of the few local vegetables coming from our CSA right now, I’ve found myriad ways to incorporate it into our meals. Served over almond rice, it’s a vegan meal that could satisfy all but the meatatarians in the family.

Save the leftover rice for one of those cooler spring nights – when you are still wrapping yourself in a sweater as the sun goes down – on which soup would be the perfect meal.

PAN-SEARED CAULIFLOWER WITH SPINACH

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 head cauliflower, lower stem and outer leaves removed, cut into 1-inch chunks

1/2 pound spinach, de-stemmed, well cleaned and drained

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

Several grinds of fresh black pepper

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Heat a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil and then the cauliflower. Cover with a lid or pan. (It’s easiest with a clear lid, but anything will do.)

Shake the pan occasionally and check the cauliflower every other minute or so. When it’s golden brown on most surfaces, about 4 to 5 minutes, remove the lid and add the spinach. Remove from heat, and turn the spinach into the cauliflower with tongs until it has just wilted. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and lemon juice. Serve immediately over almond rice.

Serves four.

ALMOND RICE

If you are not vegan and would rather use butter, an equal substitution works fine.

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup sliced almonds

2 cups jasmine rice

4 cups vegetable broth

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

Several grinds of white pepper

Heat a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Heat the olive oil and add the almonds. Stir frequently until the almonds begin to brown slightly and smell fragrantly toasted. Add the rest of the ingredients, stir well, and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let rest covered while you finish the rest of the meal, or serve immediately.

Serves four to six, plus extra for the mushroom soup.

CREAMY NON-DAIRY MUSHROOM AND TOASTED ALMOND SOUP

The almonds in this soup lend a rich, toasted flavor, but do not dominate. The creaminess comes from the rice, and is a wonderfully healthy way to still have the yumminess and sensual mouth feel of a creamy soup. If you make this ahead, you may need to add a little more stock when you reheat it. Again, if you are not a vegan, it’s perfectly fine to substitute butter for the oil.

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup diced onion

10 ounces sliced button mushrooms, about 5 cups

2 cups leftover cooked almond rice

3 cups vegetable broth

1 teaspoon kosher salt

Sliced, toasted almonds for garnish

Heat a large sauce pan over medium-high heat. Heat the olive oil and add the onions. Saute the onions until they are translucent, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add the mushrooms and saute for another 4 to 5 minutes, until the mushrooms release some of their juice and it begins to evaporate.

Remove half of the mushrooms and onions and set aside. Add the rest of the ingredients to the saucepan. Bring to a boil and then carefully transfer to a blender.

To blend the soup, cover and leave the access part of the lid open. Cover the top of the blender canister with a kitchen towel and pulse, gently at first, before leaving the motor on low. Increase the speed to high and let blend for one minute.

Add the rest of the mushrooms and onions back into the soup, garnish with almonds, and serve or refrigerate for up to one week.

Serves four to six.

 

Anne Mahle is a Rockland chef and freelance writer. She can be reached at: [email protected]