I love eggplant, and this time of year the markets are overflowing with many varieties. Eggplant can be tricky to cook properly, because if it’s not cooked all the way through it’s got an unpleasant texture (well I find it unpleasant, anyway). I typically dice or slice it and then fry it in olive oil until its golden and soft, but I was looking for something new to do. I saw this article over at the NY Times, which casually mentioned charring eggplants over a burner for a Turkish-style eggplant salad. I remembered that the Turkish-run falafel place I used to frequent made eggplant spread this way; they would pile up eggplants onto their grill, and cook them until blistered and black. Well I don’t have a grill, but I do have a gas stove top, so I decided to go for it. I used three medium-small eggplants, and one at a time placed them over high heat burners. It didn’t take long for them to start charring, and I used tongs to move and turn the eggplants to make sure they cooked evenly. A few times the steam building up inside the eggplants broke through the skin and some liquid bubbled out, but for the most part it went very well.
Once the eggplants were thoroughly charred, I removed them from the burner and used a knife to cut off the stem end. I slit them up the side, and attempted to scrape the eggplant flesh away from the skin. (Can you tell I’ve been watching a lot of the “Hannibal” television program?) I used a fork to hold the skin and a knife to scrape the flesh away. I left a few bits of the blackened skin in with the flesh, for two reasons. One, the skin helps boost the smoky flavor. Two, it’s REALLY HARD to get all of those bits of eggplant skin out of there, and so I just gave up after a point. I mixed the eggplant with the juice of a lemon, a pinch of salt, and lots of black pepper. I mashed it all together with my potato masher, so that it was still a little coarse.
I used about half of the mix as a spread on top of some crusty olive bread, which was great. But that’s not all you can do with the charred eggplant spread. I had covered the remaining spread with plastic wrap in the fridge, so the next day I used it as a pasta sauce (mixed with some tomato). It was fantastic — the smoky flavor of the eggplant, the acidity of the lemon, and the spiciness of the pepper were all great additions to the sauce. So if you have a gas stove, go ahead and pop an eggplant right on there. Not sure if an electric burner would have the same effect.
When I was in Seoul I visited several restaurants called Loving Hut. They were all very different — for example, one was casual, semi-fast food; another was more formal, requiring patrons to remove their shoes. All of them had two things in common: they served vegan food, and they all had televisions broadcasting footage of a woman speaking. I did a little research, and it turns out that Loving Hut is an international chain of vegan restaurants owned by a cult called Quan Yin Method. The woman being shown on screen is known as Supreme Master Ching Hai. There’s even an oblique reference to these restaurants in Sara Gran’s fantastic Claire DeWitt books, which I re-read after returning home. When I found out that there was a Loving Hut here in Brooklyn, I obviously had to visit.
They had the requisite televisions, of course, and I was the only customer in the place. I have to say the food was fantastic. I started with some seared vegetable dumplings, which were full of shredded mixed vegetables and managed to be crispy but not greasy at all. Better still was my lunch special: sauteed noodles with Beijing-style soy protein. The noodles, tossed with some fresh veggies, were simply but beautifully seasoned with soy sauce and the sear from a really hot wok, while the soy cutlet was crispy with a sweet and savory sauce.
Loving Hut in Bushwick is only one of nearly 40 locations in the US alone, so even though I’m pretty far from Seoul I can feel comfortable knowing that this vegan restaurant cult will always be nearby.
Loving Hut (Brooklyn) — 76 Bushwick Ave
There’s an great stretch of Cortelyou Road in Ditmas Park where there are several interesting restaurants: Hartwell Vegetarian, Purple Yam, Lea, The Farm on Adderly. My friend Ian recently told me about one I wasn’t familiar with, hidden right next to a small grocery store — Cafe Tibet. I was on the prowl for great Tibetan food, having eaten some fantastic Tibetan food while I was in Nepal.
At Cafe Tibet they have a ton of vegetarian and even vegan options, all helpfully marked on the menu. I started with laphing, a dish I had once at Phayul in Jackson Heights. This was a very different rendition of the dish, though with similar ingredients. In this case there were large, wobbly chunks of mung bean jelly smothered in a chili vinegar sauce. It was more about texture than flavor, with the jelly basically melting in my mouth and slipping around in the bowl. I love this kind of thing, but your mileage may vary.
Even better was the thenthuk, a soup made with wide, unevenly cut noodles. It tasted like the best chicken noodle soup you’ve ever had; comforting, warming, the noodles soaking up the soup and becoming laden with flavor. About three-quarters of the way through the bowl I had an inspired idea — I poured some of the chili-vinegar sauce from the phayul into the soup. Holy moly, this was a revelation. It hit every pleasure center on my tongue, and I sluped it down with abandon. There are so many more things I want to try on the menu, but I don’t know if I can return without ordering the thenthuk.
Cafe Tibet — 1510 Cortelyou Rd
This is a great time of year to visit farmer’s markets here in NYC. Produce is at its most vibrant and diverse, not to mention at the peak of flavor (in some cases anyway). Right now you can get such disparate ingredients as these sugar snap peas and golden beets — both sweet, of course, but in different ways. I made a simple salad, best served cold to beat this summer heat. The hardest part is prepping the veg. Sugar snap peas are pretty fun to prepare. You snap the top off and a tough stringy bit will come off with it. Trim the tops and bottoms off the beets, and scrub them well (I like to leave the skins on). Then cut them into small pieces, so that they cook quicker. Boil some salted water and add the snap peas. When you add the peas, the temperature of the water will go down and the water will stop boiling. When the water comes back to a boil remove the peas with a slotted spoon and let them cool. That’s all the cooking they need, they’re best when they’re crisp. Add the beets to the boiling water, and let them cook until tender. Drain them and let them cool as well. While everything is cooling make a simple vinaigrette (here’s a good one if you need some inspiration, but in this case I made it with rice wine vinegar and some minced garlic scapes). Toss the cooled veggies with the vinaigrette and enjoy.
Disclaimer: The people at East Wind Snack Shop wouldn’t let me pay for my meal, so these dumplings were free for me.
A couple of Mondays ago I got a message on Twitter from the folks over at the East Wind Snack Shop, a tiny Chinese restaurant that opened up less than two blocks away from me. The message read, in part, “we have vegetarian soup dumplings every tues!” This was news to me — I had been to East Wind on the very first day they opened. Of course it’s a rookie mistake to try out a restaurant on their first day of operations, but it’s so close I just had to try it out. I didn’t have a great experience, and at the time they had a dish called Happy Buddha Vegetables (which sounds vegetarian) but topped it with Chinese sausage (they were willing to make it without the sausage if requested). I meant to go back after they found their groove, but I went out of town for a few months. Even when I was here the place was packed every time I walked by. They’d been getting some great press, and had revamped the menu. So when I got the message about soup dumplings I decided it was time to return.
Let me back up for a moment. I’ve been searching for vegetarian soup dumplings for years. I even wrote about it for my friend Molly a few years ago. If you don’t know, a soup dumpling is not a dumpling in soup. Rather, it’s a dumpling FILLED with soup (and usually some pork).
Back to present day. Chef Chris Cheung fills the vegetarian dumplings with sweet potato, though he’s looking for something more seasonal for summer. Biting off some of the dumpling skin from the top you can suck out the sweet, bright orange broth. Then dip the dumpling in a soy-vinegar sauce, which tempers the sweetness, and consume what remains. Remember, these vegetarian soup dumplings are only available on Tuesdays, so plan your trip accordingly.
East Wind Snack Shop — 471 16th St
The last time I was at Ganso, in Downtown Brooklyn, I said that their vegetarian ramen was held back from greatness by being too salty. Well I’m here to tell you that the vegetarian version of their summer ramen, served cold, is pretty great. There’s no broth here. The noodles (and if I were to nitpick I’d say that the noodles were a bit too soft, and could have been chewier, but that’s really a nitpick) are tossed in a soy vinaigrette (with a touch of wasabi?). They are topped with seasoned tofu, some raw veggies — tomato, bean sprouts, scallions — and, if you want, an egg. It was such a great balance of flavors and textures that I didn’t even consider adding any chili oil to it, which is my go-to move for improving mediocre ramen. This refreshing dish is a seasonal offering only, so grab a bowl
while you still can.
Ganso — 25 Bond St
My friend Damon (previously of the now-closed Elm) got a job at the new restaurant Myrtle & Gold, in Downtown Brooklyn, so we stopped by for dinner and cocktails. I got the mushroom bruschetta, and although it could have been warmer it was quite tasty — the roasted shiitake, maitake and oyster mushrooms were piled high on the crusty bread, and they were seasoned well. Even better the menu didn’t attempt to call them “wild mushrooms,” as many other restaurants do. There are a handful of other vegetarian options on the menu at Myrtle & Gold, but I haven’t had a chance to try them yet — I guess that’s a reason to go back.
Myrtle & Gold — 343 Gold St