I often feel that I give short shrift to all the vegetarian cooks out there - I've written just a few recipes that they can use. The problem is that we tend to cook what we like to eat - and, for me, that means meat, fish and dessert. So here are a couple of recipes that are suitable for vegetarians, but I hope carnivores will like them, too.
Vegetarian potstickers (pictured)
I had a hard time with this recipe. Because there's no minced meat in the filling, something else is needed to bind all the ingredients together. And without meat, the filling was bland. As it turns out, different types of beancurd solve both problems. Regular beancurd doesn't work as a binding ingredient - even firm beancurd is too watery. Pressed beancurd does work, however, although it needs to be the right type because there are several versions, including some that are pressed so firmly they have hardly any moisture. Buy regular pressed beancurd, which still has some moisture and is still pliable enough that you can bend it. To add flavour, mix in fermented beancurd (called fu yu) - just two or three cubes of it, because a little goes a long way.
Buy thin, round wrappers - the type labelled (depending on where you buy them) for sui gau, wor tip, jiaozi or gyoza.
50 grams dried Chinese mushrooms
20 grams dried cordycep flowers
4 large dried bamboo pith
About 60 grams Chinese chives (use the flat green type)
300 grams pressed beancurd
2-3 cubes fermented beancurd (about 40 grams)
10 grams fermented yellow bean sauce
1 tsp fine sea salt, or according to taste
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
A pinch of finely ground white pepper
1 tsp cornstarch
40-50 thin, round dumpling wrappers
Oil, for pan-frying
For the dipping sauce:
Chilli oil, chilli paste or chopped bird's-eye chillies
Put the Chinese mushrooms, cordycep flowers and bamboo pith in a colander, rinse them with water then drain. Put them in a bowl, cover with warm water and leave to soak for several hours, or until the mushrooms are completely hydrated (I do this overnight in the fridge). Drain the ingredients and squeeze out as much moisture as possible. (The soaking liquid can be strained and added to vegetarian soup stocks.) Finely chop the mushrooms, cordycep flowers, bamboo pith and Chinese chives and put them in a bowl. Break the pressed beancurd into large pieces and wrap them in a double layer of paper towels. Squeeze gently to blot up the excess liquid, but not enough so the beancurd is completely dry and crumbly - when you press it together, it should hold its shape. Put the beancurd in the bowl and add the fermented beancurd, fermented yellow bean sauce, salt, soy sauce, sesame oil, white pepper and cornstarch. Mix the ingredients thoroughly, then taste - add more salt, if needed. Squeeze a spoonful of the mixture together - it should hold its shape; if it's dry and crumbly, add just enough of the soaking liquid so the consistency is right; if it seems too wet, mix in a little more cornstarch.
Line a tray with cling-film. Pour water into a small bowl.
Take one of the dumpling wrappers and put it in the palm of your non-dominant hand. Place a heaped teaspoonful of the filling on the wrapper - you need enough so it's well-stuffed, but not so much that it oozes out. Use some of the water to lightly dampen half the wrapper, then fold it over and pleat the edges to make a dumpling that's in a crescent shape. Everyone has their own dumpling folding technique, so use yours (although if you don't know how to do it, type in "how to wrap dumplings" in Youtube, and pick your favourite method). Place the dumplings pleated-side up on the tray, pressing on them slightly to flatten the bottom (this is the part that will come in contact with the pan when you cook them).
After folding all the dumplings, heat a skillet (preferably cast-iron) over a medium-high flame. When the skillet is hot, pour in oil to the depth of 1mm. Add the dumplings (cook them in batches) and pan-fry them until the bottoms are well-browned. Pour in about 60ml of water (it will splatter furiously) then immediately cover the skillet with the lid and turn the heat to low. Cook the dumplings for about three minutes, adding more water if it dries up. Uncover the pan, increase the heat and let the excess water sizzle away, so the bottoms of the dumplings crisp up slightly. Place the dumplings brown side-up on a plate. Let each diner mix their own sauce.
When I first started making this, I loved it so much that I'd keep a jar of it in my fridge and, as soon as I finished it, I'd make another batch. This recipe, which I've changed over the years, is adapted from one by M.F.K. Fisher, in her book An Alphabet for Gourmets. She says the eggplant caviar should be slathered on black bread and served with shots of cold vodka.
I usually season this with Worcestershire sauce, but that contains anchovy so it's not suitable for vegetarians. For this version, I used soy sauce instead.
500-600 grams Japanese or Chinese eggplants
60ml olive oil
150 grams onion, chopped
2-4 large garlic cloves, minced
250 grams red cherry tomatoes (I use the oval-shaped local variety), diced
1 tsp soy sauce
A few drops Tabasco sauce
About 80ml fresh lemon juice
About 45ml extra-virgin olive oil
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Place the whole eggplants on the open flame of a gas burner, turning them as needed so the skins evenly blister and char (this is a messy process). Place the charred eggplants in a colander in the sink and leave until cool enough to handle. Strip off and discard the eggplant skins, then finely chop the flesh.
Heat the olive oil in a skillet and add the onion and garlic. Sprinkle lightly with salt and cook over a low flame until the onion is translucent, stirring often. Add the eggplant and tomatoes, then mix in the soy sauce, Tabasco sauce and some salt. Bring to a simmer then cover the pan with the lid. Cook at a low simmer for about 90 minutes, stirring often, until the mixture is rich, thick and dark. Add some black pepper then taste for seasonings, adding more soy sauce, Tabasco sauce and/or salt, if needed. Stir in the lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil. Transfer to a serving dish or jar. The eggplant caviar is delicious warm or cold.
Styling: Nellie Ming Lee
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