Sweet Potato Satay

I mentioned in an earlier post that the biggest challenge since becoming a vegetarian has been cravings: having tasted the flavor-loaded bounty of bar snacks and take-out classics, like buffalo chicken and teriyaki beef, it’s easy to crave those bold flavors and comforting familiar flavors. Add to that the irresistible combo of sweet-spicy-salty…please excuse me while I wipe the drool off my chin!

This week’s craving: chicken satay.

Is there anything more crave-able than sweet and salty? When you’re in the mood for an afternoon treat, or a midnight snack (or you’re just watching daytime television and want to stuff your face)…it’s often hard to choose between chips or chocolate, popcorn or candy. Sweet and salty solves all these problems. Anyone who’s eaten an entire bag of chocolate-covered pretzels in one go knows this. But the ultimate example? Peanut Butter.

That’s why chicken satay (and all Thai food in general) is so addictive. Whether it’s drunken noodle or pineapple fried rice, every bite of this cuisine packs a peanut buttery, sweetness with just the right kick of cayenne pepper to keep us coming back for more. A CNN.com article from July 2011 also elected masaman curry as the most delicious food in the world, thanks to the juicy chunks of mango, crunchy peanuts and spicy sauce it offers.

(Make sure you have a snack while you read this. It’s torture to an empty stomach

http://travel.cnn.com/explorations/eat/worlds-50-most-delicious-foods-067535)

Returning to my agonizing craving…how can you enjoy the flavors of all your favorite meat dishes while maintaining your vegetarian diet?

I soon realized it was the sauce I wanted, not the chicken. Easy enough to make peanut sauce…but what to eat it with? It’s not exactly the type of thing you dip your potato chips in…but potatoes, especially sweet potatoes, are a delicious and very healthy vehicle for any form of sauce. Most Thai curry dishes (especially masaman curry) contain big filling pieces of both sweet and yellow potatoes. They’re perfect in that they’re filling, cheap, and absorb pretty much any flavor you throw at them.

I chose sweet potatoes for this because they’re not only healthier (they are very high in fiber, protein, and vitamin A), but they have a naturally earthy, sweet (obviously) flavor that complements the sweet-salty-spicy flavor of satay sauce. And I was not disappointed!

photo

Instructions:

Start by peeling 2 or 3 medium-large sweet potatoes, and cutting them into wedges (cut the whole potato into fourths, and then make slices).

Next spread them onto a greased cookie sheet and bake them until they’re soft in the middle but not limp, about 20 minutes.

While they’re baking, prepare the sauce (recipe below): First combine the garlic, ginger, oils, vinegar, teriyaki, and brown sugar, cayenne pepper. Once they’re evenly mixed, slowly stir in the peanut butter with a spoon. NOTE:I wouldn’t recommend whisking this! I tried to, but the thick heavy peanut butter sloshed a wave of oil and garlic all over the counter and my clothes. A spoon is much gentler. Once the peanut butter is combined and smooth, taste it and make sure you’re spices are how you want them. All peanut butter is different. Sometimes it will enhance the salt, while other times it will be way too sweet. Once you’ve gotten your spice level where you want it, gradually add the hot water.

The water serves several purposes. First, it allows the mixture to be smooth without using fat. Peanut butter already has so much oil in it, and you don’t want to keep adding more if you can avoid it. Second, when you saute/grill the potato wedges in the sauce, the water will allow the sauce to stick to the potato and not the pan. Third, it breaks down the thickness of the peanut butter and allows it to be a thin dip as opposed to a thick paste.

Once the sweet potatoes are out of the oven, heat a tablespoon of oil in a wok on high heat (or heat up your grill pan, those lucky people out there who have one!) and add the wedges. I like to let mine get a little burnt, as the smoky charred flavor really balances the sweetness of the peanut butter and brown sugar. When they have a nice crisp to them, lower the heat to medium and add about ⅓ – ½ the sauce (if you add the sauce to high heat it will burn and get all crumbly and weird!). Once the pieces are all evenly coated and the color changes to the sauce (about 3 minutes), take them out. You may have to work in batches depending on the size of your skillet and the amount you’re making. You really want to avoid crowding them.

Garnish with chopped scallions and serve with the remaining sauce!

This will please both your vegetarian and meat-eating friends! It pairs especially well with a good amber beer, like Sam Adams (my favorite).

Got extra sauce? Dilute with water and use it for stir-frying tofu and veggies, or as a marinade for Thai BBQ chicken (or you could always make more sweet potatoes!).

Lots of love! Enjoy!

Recipe:

2-3 medium or large sweet potatoes

½ cup peanut butter (creamy or chunky)

1 teaspoon fresh minced garlic

1 teaspoon fresh grated ginger

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1 tablespoon teriyaki sauce

1 tablespoon dark sesame oil (optional. it adds a wonderful smoky flavor)

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons vinegar

½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

Warm water (not boiling)

2-3 chopped scallions (optional)

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Blessings in Disguise

People have always told me that everything happens for a reason…and I never believed them. I prefer to view my life as resulting directly from my own actions rather than the hand of fate or chance or whatever else may be at play. Recently this has been an ever-present issue in my life: for the past year I’ve been bouncing around various temp jobs, pondering my future and worrying about stable finances. Whenever I would get upset or disheartened and proclaim, existentially, to my family “I have no future!”, my mother would sit me down with a hot cup of tea and say: “Don’t worry dear, everything happens for a reason.”

I would vehemently oppose this, the cynic that I am, and insist that people just say that to feel better. Of course everything happens for a reason, but the reason was that the person was skilled and smart enough (or stupid enough) to do that to themselves. It had nothing to do with God, or the planets, or “destiny”, whatever that is. My mother would scowl and take her tea in the other room. It’s not that I piss off my mom on purpose. Or enjoy being a cynic (only sometimes). I just didn’t believe it….Until now.

I don’t think that everything happens because of fate, or destiny, or the stars aligning, and no I’m not joining any organized religion (whatever that means). It means simply this: Everything happens for a reason, because we make reasons out of everything that happens. We make lemonade.

What I’ve learned from the last year, with my perpetual struggles with work, my health, and my confidence, is that every experience is worth something. Maybe I didn’t get paid to sit on my couch in my pajamas for 4 months, but I did get to spend a lot of time with my dad and nieces. Those memories are now priceless. I got to hear stories from my dad about his journey to America, discover an amazing used book store tucked away in New Hampshire, and even see my youngest niece’s first steps!

It’s not about why things happen. Most of the time we can’t control this anyway, so why should we trouble ourselves. It’s about what happens, and what you do to respond. It’s just like the quote after which this blog is named: “Behave so the general aroma of your actions enhances the general sweetness of the atmosphere.”

Now, after months of looking, I am working as a temp in an office near my house. Most days I do nothing (and get paid for it), which most people don’t see as a problem at all. But what people don’t realize is that when you are idle, uninspired, and starting at a cubicle wall for 7 hours a day, you lose the ability to see things happening for the right reasons. It’s the reason I haven’t posted in weeks, and the reason I usually feel even worse about myself than having no job at all. While it’s nice to have money, and some structure, I will always wonder what realizations and ideas I missed because I was in this little corporate box.

Don’t just suck on your lemons and keep your face in a pout: squeeze them until every drop of juice comes out, and sweeten!

Vegetarian BBQ

Last weekend was Memorial Day, a day that many Americans view at the official start of summer grilling season. A great time to shine up your grilling tools, showcase your garden, and bust open those summer brews alongside beloved friends.

This was my first barbecue as a vegetarian. We have always had plenty of veg-friendly options on account of my mom and grandparents who haven’t eaten meat for several decades. But for me, the smell of charcoal brought only memories of meat.

By far the hardest part of being a new vegetarian is cravings. Having tasted all kinds of meat before, not too long ago, it is easy for our minds to remember those foods and the way they make us feel. I used to think nothing could replace the joy of a cheeseburger under the summer sun. Until now.

I thought about my mom and how she would always make delicious marinades, and then run away while my dad washed and cleaned the chicken legs that were about to be slathered in her delicious blend. My mom knew what the marinade tasted like by itself…it’s just the meat itself she had objection to. Then I realized that, in addition to our traditional meatless barbecue selections, there were some new things I could do to calm my cravings without eating the meat that I knew I didn’t actually want. I could enjoy all those classic barbecue flavors while sticking to this new diet.

1. Grilled Corn: Every family barbecue at my house starts off with grilled corn. It’s so easy, and so delicious, and sure to please just about everyone. Simply remove the corn husk and those little strings attached to it, and throw them on the grill! Rotate every 2-3 minutes (depending on how burnt you like it), and serve. Now here comes the critical part: don’t just settle for slathering your corn with butter as traditional American cuisine dictates. The secret to my family’s grilled corn is spice! In a small bowl combine cayenne pepper, black pepper, and a little sea salt. Then slice a lemon, and dip it in the spice mixture. Rub the spice-coated lemon wedge all over your corn cob and prepare to smile! The bite of the lemon and the kick of pepper really enhance the natural sweetness of the corn and complement the burnt barbecue flavor.

2. Portabella Mushroom Burgers: It’s not for no reason that veggie burgers have a reputation for being foul and unnatural Frankenfoods. Most of the available varieties in the supermarket are flat, flavorless, and highly unsatisfying. What’s worse is that if you actually read the ingredient labels, many of these “veggie” patties are made primarily for grains, and contain very few actual veggies! This can cause a major carbohydrate overdose and leave you feeling sluggish and unhealthy. Nobody wants that.

You have two options: First, make your own patties using mashed beans, bread, and seasoning.  I’ve tried this, and it’s not easy. It’s one of my “works-in-progress” recipes, and I’ll be sure to tell you my tricks should I master it. But option 2 is much better: portabella mushroom caps. Back when I ate meat, mushrooms were my favorite burger topping, so the idea of replacing the meat with this delicious fungi was mouth-watering to me. It’s so easy and flavorful that even your non-veg guests will want them (just like mine did).

Start by making a marinade: ½ cup each of balsamic vinegar and olive oil (pure, not extra virgin), 1 tablespoon honey, 1 teaspoon finely chopped tarragon, 1 teaspoon finely chopped basil, and black pepper and sea salt to taste. Wash the portabella caps thoroughly, and let them marinate ideally overnight (or for at least 2 hours). Grill them for 3 minutes on each side (if you grill them too long they shrink). I like to melt a slice of Swiss cheese over them for the last minute of grilling.

If you don’t like mushrooms there are a lot of other things you can use. Try eggplant or zucchini cutlets, falafel, or a big slab of roasted red pepper.

3. Grilled Onions: Since becoming a vegetarian, most of my carnivorous cravings have been for buffalo wings. It was absolute torture…until I realized it was the spicy hot sauce and cool blue cheese I wanted, not the meat. I’ve found dozens of recipes for meatless buffalo chicken that use healthy ingredients like cauliflower instead of chicken as a vehicle for that irresistible spicy-creamy combination. So it is with barbecue: I was actually craving the charcoal flavor of the burger, not the actual meat. Grilled onions will give you that smoky flavor you desire, plus crunch and spice!

Simply peel an onion, and cut it into medium rounds. Place them straight on the hot grill until they start to blacken on the edges. Add to veggie burgers, salads, or other sauteed veggies and add to sandwiches.

4. Eggplant: Roasted eggplant is one of my favorite dishes from Indian cooking. My grandmother usually makes it by drizzling eggplants with olive oil, wrapping them in foil and baking them in the oven until the skin gets charred. She then sautes the soft middle with red onion, tomatoes, turmeric, cayenne pepper, curry powder, and coriander. It takes a long while this way, so when the grill is hot we always stack on the eggplants.

Another great thing to do with grilled eggplant is make baba ghanoush. Store-bought versions always taste more like mayonnaise than anything else, and it’s so much easier (and cheaper) to make it at home. Start by wrapping the eggplant (whole and with the skin on) in foil. Add a few cloves of peeled garlic and half an onion inside the foil packet as well. After about 10 minutes (yes, it’s that quick), remove from the grill and let cool. When it’s cool remove the skin from the eggplant, and mash the soft flesh with a fork. Chop the garlic and onions and add to the eggplant pulp. The garlic will be soft, so you could even just mash it with the spoon. Add 3 tablespoons each of tahini and olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Then eat it! I like it with Triscuit crackers, but it’s great on sandwiches, pita chips, toast…anything!

Enjoy and Happy Grilling!