Thursday, July 27, 2006

Fideos from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Suppers

Cookbook Review: Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison's Kitchen

Madison's Fideos. See the recipe below.

I am not a vegetarian. Therefore, I was pleased to discover that Deborah Madison, author of the tome Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, as well as Local Flavors, an ode to cooking from the farmers market, enjoys a little meat with her veggies every so often too. In the introduction she states:

“If you cook vegetarian all the time, it’s not so hard, of course, because it’s a habit. But if you’re a “vegophile,” like me—you love vegetables and cook vegetarian most of the time, but you also cook fish, an occasional rib eye, or a roast chicken—it’s harder because you have to shift gears and mentally start from scratch each time.”

I am steadily broadening my repertoire of vegetarian meals because that is often the kind of food I want to eat. I would estimate that one third of the dinners I cook are vegetarian, and I have even won my husband over to this way of eating simply because vegetarian cooking can be so utterly delicious. Make no mistake, I love meat and eat it without guilt. We like to cook flank steak, filet mignon, roast chicken, duck, lamb, and any wonderful fish we can get our hands on. Lately I have spent more and more time considering, as so many savvy food lovers today seem to be doing, the moral, ethical, nutritional and cultural implications of the food I eat. I wish I could afford the most pristine meat and produce from exclusively local sources, but that is not quite realistic. I don’t even live in an area with a regular farmers market that could support even half of my food shopping needs. As far as meat is concerned, I subscribe to the idea that we should pay for the best, most naturally and humanely produced meat that we can afford. And in order to make it affordable, we should eat it just a few days a week instead of every day, and eat a reasonable portion, not a super-size one. I try to put this belief into practice as much as possible.

Happily, eating meatless meals has never felt like a sacrifice, as I love vegetables, any whole grain under the sun, and other vegetarian staples like eggs, cheese and tofu (sorry, vegans, I could never go that far). To find inspiration for all those meatless main dishes, I have lately been turning to Deborah Madison’s smaller (compared to her previous titles), beautifully photographed book, Vegetarian Suppers From Deborah Madison’s Kitchen. The recipes offered here are fresh, seasonal, sometimes homey, like the Greens and Grits, and sometimes elegant enough to entertain with like the Dried Porcini and Fresh Mushroom Tart. Many of these meals can be put together quickly, but there are quite a few that involve multiple components, like the Beet and Tomato Ragout with Twice-Baked Goat Cheese Souffles and Baby Bok Choy, and require a bit more planning. I quite like this variety, as well as the fact that some of the recipes will challenge me in the kitchen and teach me new techniques. There are chapters on Savory Pies and Gratins; Vegetable Stews and Braises; Pasta with Vegetables; Crêpes and Fritters; Mostly Tofu (and some Tempeh); Eggs for Supper; Hearty Cool-Weather Suppers; Light Meals for Warm Weather; Supper Sandwiches; and Basics. I like that these creations come from a meat-eater like myself because I feel they have to be just as satisfying and nourishing as any steak, chop or fish that an omnivore could choose to cook up instead.

My favorite recipe so far is from the pasta chapter, but Fideos with Pasilla Chiles, Avocado and Crema is no ordinary noodles with red sauce. In fact, Mike and I have never had anything like it and loved the combination of flavors. Fideos are short, skinny egg noodles. In this dish, they are cooked as a pilaf, resulting in a Mexican sopa seca, or dry soup.

This dish is full of visual appeal from the skillet-cooked noodles mixed with roasted chiles, to the pickled red onions, soft green avocado, cool sour cream and bright cilantro used as toppers. It came together very quickly, especially considering that I have never cooked noodles quite this way before. The first ingredient called for is dried pasilla, New Mexican or guajillo chiles, which are then rehydrated. My Whole Foods Market no longer carries dried chiles, so we improvised by roasting a poblano pepper, removing the skin and seeds and cutting it into strips. It added a smoky-sweet roasted flavor, and I think Madison would approve as she regularly lists two or even three options for an ingredient. For example, we used her suggestion of Muir Glen Fire-Roasted Tomatoes as an alternative to fresh Romas, and we chose sour cream over Mexican crema or crème fraiche. She calls for either feta or queso fresco, and I must urge you to go with queso fresco. Feta is one of my favorite cheeses and I always have it in the fridge. For this dish, however, I did not want to evoke the Mediterranean dishes that I associate with feta, so I bought queso fresco which is not as salty and has a less crumbly texture. If you can find queso cotija, which is firmer than queso fresco, I've found that to be even better. Often it is the little touches like garnishes, toppings and extra components like the pickled red onions that make Madison’s dishes stand apart. These extras do not add any great strain to the preparation, but pay off exponentially when you take that first perfect bite. Try this for yourself and let me know what you think!

Don’t skip Madison’s tasty garnishes.

Adapted from Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen
Serves 3-4

½ large red onion, pickled, for garnish (see pickling method below)
olive oil
3-4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 15 oz. can fire-roasted tomatoes (I recommend Muir Glen)
½ c. yellow or white onion, chopped
Salt and fresh ground pepper
3/4 lb. short, skinny egg noodles (if you can’t find these in the regular pasta section, you can break up pasta nests or any other long egg noodle)
½ c. chopped parsley, divided
1 large poblano pepper, roasted, peeled, seeded and thinly sliced, divided use
1 avocado, sliced, for garnish
Sour cream, for garnish
Queso fresco, or other semi-soft Mexican cheese, or feta, for garnish

A lovely roasted poblano.

Make the pickled onion: Thinly slice half a large red onion and place in a bowl. Pour in equal amounts of water and white vinegar, just to cover the onions. Stir in 1 tblsp. of sugar and one tblsp. of salt. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside for 15 minutes, or while you prepare the fideos. Lift the pickled onions out of the liquid with a fork or slotted spoon and use as garnish.

Heat a little oil in a large cast iron skillet (you can use nonstick, but I like the crusty effect of cast iron) over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and cook for two minutes, stirring often. Put the garlic in a blender along with the tomatoes and their juice, 1 tsp. salt, the onion, and ½ c. water. Blend until mostly smooth. Taste for seasoning and consistency, adding an extra ¼ to 1/2 c. water if the sauce is very thick. The consistency should be a little thinner than canned tomato sauce.

Heat 1 to 2 tblsp. of oil in the skillet over medium heat. Add the noodles, breaking up longer noodles if using, and stir to coat lightly with the oil. Add the tomato sauce, all but a few tablespoons of the parsley, about half of the roasted pepper strips, and fresh ground pepper. Lower the heat so the sauce is at a gentle simmer, cover and cook for 6 to 8 minutes, or until the noodles are done. You should check the noodles every 2 minutes so that the ones on the bottom do not burn. Add small amounts of water if the skillet is too dry and use a spatula to flip and move the noodles around the pan as the bottom ones get crisp. You will end up with a lot of “clumps” and little “noodle cakes” but that is the texture you want.

This is what the fideo looks like when it is done…mmm, crusty.

Top each serving with sliced avocado, the reserved fresh parsley, a dollop of sour cream, a few pickled onions and a sprinkling of queso fresco. This could serve 4, but 2 hungry people could easily eat it all.

Another successful recipe from the pasta section was the Pasta and Chickpeas with Plenty of Parsley and Garlic (pictured above). It is such a simple recipe with minimal ingredients, I can’t believe that it was so delicious. It is an illustration of Madison’s immense experience and ease when it comes to creating new dishes by combining the flavors and textures she likes best. She recommends whole wheat shells made by Bionaturae, imported from Italy. We were pleased to find this exact item at our Whole Foods, and enjoyed the subtle nutty flavor and toothsome firmness. The chickpeas end up getting stuck inside the shells, making them the perfect shape for this dish. You would probably want to round out this meal with a salad and maybe some crusty bread, but I doubt you will miss the meat if you are a non-vegetarian.

Just last night, I made Madison’s Yellow (I used red) Peppers Stuffed with Quinoa, Corn and Feta Cheese, cooked on a bed of caramelized red onions. They come from the “Light Meals for Warm Weather” chapter despite the fact that these tasty peppers must spend about 30 minutes in a 400 degree oven. One bonus about living in Florida is that everything is aggressively air-conditioned, including my condo, so I didn’t mind using the oven. This meal was a bit more elaborate than the two pasta dishes, and took just over an hour to cook by myself. I even planned ahead and steamed a cup of quinoa the night before so I could get a jump on preparation. I simplified the recipe a bit by using chili powder instead of chopped jalepenos (my grocery store only sells jalepenos in huge packs of like, 20—I will never need that many!). Also, I have a confession to make. It is twofold, and both parts are rather embarrassing. First, I was out of garlic. How could I let this happen? What was I thinking? I’ll tell you: I wasn’t thinking. The second part is even more shameful than the first. I used garlic powder in place of the real garlic I was out of. Please don’t exile me from the food blogosphere. It will never happen again.

I also used frozen corn, but you won’t make me feel guilty about that one because Madison says either fresh or frozen is fine. The dish came together easily, but I wish D.M. had reminded me to grease my baking dish so my delicious wine-glazed red onions did not stick to the bottom. That’s wrong. I shouldn’t blame Madison. It is time to take responsibility for prepping my own bakeware. My own personal shortcomings aside, the stuffed peppers are a pretty dish made special by the unique texture of the quinoa, the sweetness of the corn and the oven-blistered, salty feta. Save this one for a weekend or a more leisurely weeknight. They also make a great leftover lunch.

Madison’s low-key personality and relaxed encouragement permeate the book’s text, especially in the introductions to all the recipes and the sidebars with tips on how to streamline the prep or create variations. She suggests simple side dishes and desserts, many of which can be found in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. There is a wine suggestion for each recipe as well. Some ingredients may be harder to come by, like the dried chiles, and not all of us may have access to as much wonderful fresh produce as Madison. With all the suggestions for ingredient substitutions and Madison’s general feeling that we should work with what is fresh and available, these recipes are a great vehicle for your own experimentation. Next I want to tackle the chapters on tarts and gratins and crepes. I already made the Eggplant Gratin with Saffron Custard, and it could not have been simpler. I think vegetarians out there will appreciate Madison’s skillful take supper, and omnivores will find themselves cooking vegetarian not because they have to, but because Madison knows how to create delicious, interesting combinations of wonderful foods.


christine said...

Hi Julie,
What a great post. I've also been struggling with the ethical meat issue, being an unapologetic carnivore myself. I find myself drifing towards more vegetarian fare as I get older.
And, listen, don't apologize for garlic powder. Retro as it seems, there's still a place for it in the cook's pantry!

sher said...

Hi Julie,

I love fideos, and I also use Deborah Madison's recipe! I found your post right after I made a different version this week. Anyway, I posted it and linked your post, so that people can see the various ways this wonderful dish can be made. Great blog, by the way!