Quiet, I Am Hunting Vegans (September Daring Cooks)
Actually this month I was hunting for delicious Vegan examples of a traditional Indian treat called dosas. Debyi from Healthy Vegan Kitchen threw down the guantlet for this month’s Daring Cooks challenge. This was going to be a challenge in several ways. Not just a cooking/recipe challenge, but also a challenge to my cooking and food philosophy. The following paragraph is what got my hackles up.
“Requirements: Must be free of animal products, this will be a challenge for you “regular” cooks out there, but its worth it. So that means, no cows milk, butter, meat, poultry, fish, chicken/beef broth, etc. This dish is also 99% oil free, using only what you need to keep the dosas from sticking (I used a quick spritz of cooking spray on the first dosa only), which isn’t too bad with a nonstick pan. You can use a different filling/sauce if you like, but it must be free of animal products.”
One of my pet peeves is picky eaters. Another is people saying they are allergic to something that they really aren’t. Yet another is militant vegans trying to force their opinions on me. So right off the bat I am having trouble with this challenge. I decided at some point though that I would just shut my mouth and do the challenge according to the rules laid out by our hostess. (For me that was like walking on water.)
Dosa are a thin crepe like traditional Indian food that can be filled with or topped with just about anything. To fulfill the vegan requirements I went with a quick first attempt using a batter of AP flour, whole wheat flour, coconut milk, water, baking powder, curry powder, and salt. It is a very simple batter that you just add enough flour to get a consistency exactly like a pancake batter.
Heat up a cast iron skillet and coat with just a tiny bit of oil. I used olive oil and wiped the pan with a paper towel. Originally I did this just to fulfill challenge requirements of using very little oil. In the end though it turned out to be the very best technique for starting the dosa. Add a full ladel of your batter into the skillet and spread around with the bottom of your ladel much like you would do when saucing a pizza.
Let it cook until the edges start to turn golden brown and release easily from the skillet. Then flip.
Not bad for the first ever dosa in my life.
For the vegan version I went with a filling of Aloo Gobi that I found on About.com. This is a wonderful resource when it comes to traditional and authentic foods from around the world. Basically the aloo gobi is a potato and cauliflower curry.
In my opinion, with vegan and vegetarian cooking you have to season everything. Without fat and flavorful proteins you must take every opportunity to add flavor.
While hunting around for ideas I came upon another food blogger that has some really well done recipes. Visually appealing as well as flavorful in the execution. Check out No Recipes to find the recipe for this coriander chutney. Look around on my blog for my take on a No Recipes version of Tacos al Pastor and an amazing Salsa Verde.
This is cumin seed, mustard seed, fresh cilantro leaves, onion, grated coconut, serrano chiles, lemon juice, and salt.
Now to put it all together.
On this first attempt I was very happy with the slight sweetness that the coconut milk added to the dosa. It paired well with the spiciness of the aloo gobi. The chutney though didn’t match this dish well. I loved it’s flavor by itself but just not matched with the dosa and filling I chose. Too strong of a citrus flavor and maybe not enough coconut.
Now that I have fulfilled the VEGAN portion of this experiment, on to the real cooking. Up until I read the vegan restrictions on this challenge, my mind was reeling with all the possibilities. Countless fillings and toppings were at my fingertips. Paneer was high on the list but excluded from vegan recipes. Well now I was going to cook it my way.
After much thought and research online I came up with a mix of North and South Indian cuisine. A traditional dosa batter made from rice, lentils, and fenugreek that is soaked overnight, blended and then fermented for one more night. That would be filled with a chilli paneer and topped with gunpowder chutney and a cucumber mint raita.
I got started on making paneer from scratch. Way easier than you would think. I took a 1/2 gallon of whole milk and put it on a medium low heat. Here was a chance to add more flavor. I spiced the milk with dried cilantro, red chile flakes, and cumin seed.
Stir often while the milk is coming to temp. When it starts to boil, add in the juice of about 1 lemon while stirring. If you have enough acid the milk will start to separate almost immediately.
Now pour this into a collander lined with a linen towel or lots of cheesecloth. Allow the whey to drain off leaving only your fresh cheese curds.
Allow to cool. I didn’t. When cool enough to handle, wrap the towel around the cheese and twist the top so as to form a ball of cheese and to help force out more of the liquid. Some might recommend rinsing the curds to get rid of any overly strong lemon flavor. I tasted the cheese and liked the flavor as is. Use your own taste as your guide.
I twisted up the towel and then weighted it in the collander with a cast iron skillet.
Now while that was drying I got started on a unique dry chutney that seemed a perfect fit for my ultimate vegetarian dosa. Gunpowder Chutney has many variations, like almost every Indian recipe I have come across. I am also not experienced with all the different types of lentils so this is just my version and makes no claims of authenticity. Start by toasting red and green lentils in a dry pan. They start like this.
They end up like this.
I was really surprised at the nutty aroma they started giving up. Buzz these up in a spice grinder. Now dry roast in the same pan some red chiles.
When pan toasting spices, nuts, or anything else let your nose guide your hand. When you start to smell your ingredient, it is probably ready to either shake the pan to mix or pull off the heat. Do not allow any ingredient to char. These are also ground up in a spice grinder. This process was repeated with mustard seeds. Everything was ground up and set aside. It makes a spicy/nutty topping that I will be using often in the future.
Let’s take a look at the cheese.
I had read that paneer was easy to make. Let me just say that as a first time cheese maker, this really felt good looking at such a wonderfully flavored and technically correct fresh cheese from scratch.
Now for the chilli paneer. First you need some chiles. I went with some bananna, pasilla, serrano, and red bell. I thought this mix would give the dish a mix of sweet, peppery, and heat that would go well with the creaminess of the paneer.
Everything starts with some ghee, cumin seed, garlic, grated ginger, and the sliced serranos in a hot skillet.
After a couple of minutes toss in some coriander powder. That is coriander seeds that are ground fine. I also added some curry powder, a small chopped onion, and a bit of the gunpowder chutney. Then added in just a bit of water to help you cook the spices without burning them.
Now add in some chile garlic sauce ( my all time favorite condiment ). Stir and then let most of the liquid cook out. Then toss in the rest of your chiles. Cook until the peppers just start to soften. You should still have lots of bright colors. Now add in your paneer that has been roughly chopped into cubes and cook for just a few minutes.
I tasted and reseasoned at this point with kosher salt, pepper, and more of the gunpowder chutney.
While the chilli paneer was cooking I whipped up a simple cucumber mint raita. It is just brunoise of cucumber, finely chopped mint, plain yogurt, and a squeeze of lemon juice.
Now for the dosa. Your fermented batter should look alive. It reminded me of an active flour/water poolish. Lots of bubbles and the thing was trying to rise out of it’s container. Again just dump a ladel full of the batter into a hot, lightly oiled cast iron skillet. I used just a tiny bit of ghee this time. Spread the batter around to make the dosa as thin and large as your skills and skillet allow.
Flip when the dosa wants to release. It is much like fish on a grill this way. When it is ready to be flipped it will be easy to slip a spatula underneath. If you are rushing the process you will tear the dosa. Be patient and pay close attention.
These looked good but I wanted to make them better. I took a little ghee and brushed on the cooked dosa. Then flipped them back over and cooked them to a crispy and golden brown. I was going for more of a crispy barely foldable dosa as compared to a pancake type dosa/idlis. Texture is a big factor for me when enjoying food and a crunchiness would help me enjoy this vegetarian meal.
Assembly time. Easy enough. This time I filled the dosa and then carefully folded them back on themselves. Put the seam side down on the plate. Top with gunpowder chutney, your cucumber mint raita, and finally a little cilantro for freshness and color.
As much as I dragged my feet and pounded my fists about a Vegan challenge, this turned out really well. I think that Indians have figured out how to eat meatless much better than people in the rest of the world. Nothing in this meal is trying to be something else. No tofurkey, bean sausage, or anything else imitation. The second, vegetarian version was something I will probably make again.
I actually pride myself on being somewhat a caveman. Killing an animal and cooking it over an open fire is a spiritual thing for me. That being said, those that choose a vegetarian or vegan diet for religious reasons have my respect.
Thank you Debyi for a very interesting challenge. Not only did you challenge my kitchen skills but also my thinking in many ways. Every single month, Daring Cooks teaches me something new. Most of the time it has very little to do with the recipe.