Vegan's Chronicles + Vegan Brunch

Vegan Style

I'd been hoping to tempt you all today with local green and leafies today from my first CSA drop-off of the season, but it was not to be. Drop-offs will, however, begin next week. In the meantime, I thought I'd play on the concept of eating local by drawing attention to the Eastern Mediterranean delights that are held in Ana Sortun's cookbook, Spice, as well as in Chef Sortun's Cambridge restaurant, Oleana. Oleana is a stone's throw from my apartment, but for as often as I can indulge there, it may as well be across the country. Never the less, I've been bringing Oleana to life in my own kitchen regularly since obtaining Spice.


Now, let's be clear, Oleana is not a vegan restaurant (though they do offer an endlessly varied, singularly perfect vegan plate), it's not even a vegetarian restaurant (though they do offer a highly praised prix fixe veggie menu, both rare features for a "fine dining" restaurant in this area). What Oleana and Spice do so well though is to honor the vegetables they work with in preparations that dress them like an absolute stars, resplendent in jewels of spices, herbs and flowers. And, like any well deployed accessory, the spices don't take over the show, rather they highlight the innate flavors of the veggies in these dishes and show them off in a display of simple beauty.

post tofu and pears
Tofu and Pears

This, I think, is something only restaurants highly confidant in the quality of their produce can do. Of course, it makes sense that Sortun would be confident in her produce since its source is primarily her husband, a local farmer. This partnership not only introduces high quality produce to the kitchen at Oleana, but it keeps the menu in a seasonal state of flux. In this, Sortun achieves what I aspire to as a home-cook, dishes that draw inspiration and soul from international experiences, history and ingredients, as well as the present moment, rooted, literally, in a specific place.


There's something deeply compelling to me in the Arabic Mediterranean food featured in Spice, the spices, the fruits, the floral elements, the richness, the sweetness, the contrasts and the perfect melding of complex flavors all together, every bite seems like something to be unwrapped, explored. Like in this dish, a veganized version the Fried Haloumi Cheese with Pear and Spiced Dates in Spice, caramelized dates infused with sharp lemon zest, grassy oil olive, smoky cumin and sweet-enhancing cardamom are just the beginning.

Pan fried pears
Pan fried pears

Lightly charred pears pick up all those same flavors, but contrast with the gooey-sweet dates in both a firmer texture and a different kind of sweet, a drier fruitiness that somehow seems made for the bite of black pepper and warm citrus spice of the freshly ground coriander. Then, the tofu, pressed of all its liquid so that it is denser, like the cheese it takes over in this recipe, and ready to absorb the additional lemon, olive oil, brown sugar and spices.

carrot purree
Carrot purree

This is one of many recipes in Spice that present little challenge to the veganizing process. Here, it's just a matter of substituting one element and understanding the ingredient you're working with. If, like me, you have a little pin that says "I tofu," you probably know that tofu is deserving of love in part because it is so adaptable, so ready to soak up flavors and blend with the dish at hand. The flip-side of this positive trait is a potentially negative one in that tofu in and of itself is generally bland. Bland like a microwaved sponge. In the original recipe, the haloumi is pan-fried on its own in a dry pan. The brined sheep's milk cheese prepared in this way has, I imagine, much more flavor than our humble, yet stalwart tofu would. The cheese also caramelizes when heated and turns a golden brown. To get a similar effect with tofu, I pressed it first to remove much of its excess liquid and then pan-fried it the same pan that I had cooked the dates in with the addition of lemon zest, olive oil and salt. The tofu absorbed these flavors and some of the residual sugar of the dates and browned up beautifully as well.

Other recipes in Spice are vegan as written, like this Carrot Puree and Egyptian Spice Mix with Nuts and Olive Oil (click through for recipe), a signature mezze at Oleana. I got to enjoy this at the restaurant in front of their welcoming fireplace on my birthday two years ago and have been in love with it ever since. Warm bread gets dredged in olive oil and dipped into the dukkah, a traditional Egyptian spice mix that Sortun and the veteran food writer, Claudia Roden, modified with the addition of toasted and ground almonds and shredded coconut. Then, the already delightful bread gets spread with the carrot puree that bursts with the softly sweet warmth of carrot and is highlighted with smoky harissa, a fiery Moroccan condiment that contains a touch of cinnamon that plays against the hot spice and the richness of the other ingredients.


When I make harissa for the carrot puree, I like to make a double batch and keep some around to use as a condiment on veggies, tofu or bread, or to mix into quick batches of homemade hummus. Two cups of chickpeas, some olive oil, two to four heaping spoonfuls of harissa, salt and pepper to taste and maybe a little bit of unsweetened soy yogurt or tahini for creaminess and you've transformed ordinary hummus into a gorgeous bright pumpkin-colored dip packed with an array of warm flavors. Sortun's recipe for harissa in Spice is probably amazing, but I've never had the opportunity to make it as written. In her recipe ground Urfa chilies are called for. Urfa or Isot peppers are a Turkish variety that seem to be primarily a special order item and I just haven't gotten around to special ordering. They are a purple-black pepper that is sundried for a day after its picked and then wrapped up to "sweat" for a week or more. This process is supposed to impart a smoky, earthy flavor to the pepper that makes it perfect for harissa. The Aleppo chili is a more direct substitute for Urfa, but for me the guajillo chili (also called the New Mexico chili) is most readily avaliable. It's dark and earthily-spiced, so I use that in my harissa, soaking a packed cup of them in hot water along with 1/2 a cup of sundried tomatoes for 1-2 hours or until very soft. Then, simply remove the stems and toss them in a food processor with 4 cloves of crushed garlic, 2 1/2 teaspoons of course sea salt, 1 cup of warm to hot water, 1/3 cup olive oil, and a tablespoon of Moroccan Ras el Hanout, a spice mixture that you can buy premixed or mix your own at home with a recipe like this.

walnut spread
Walnut spread

Another vegetarian mezze that is easily veganized in Spice is the muhammara, pictured above. Muhammara in Arabic means "brick-colored." The dusky red-brown color that inspired this dish's name comes from the blending of roasted red pepper and toasted walnuts, as well as chilies and pomegranate molasses. The result so complex a flavor and so satisfying a spread, it could be a meal all on its own served with some bread. The pomegranate molasses especially adds some magic to this puree. Its misleading name may invoke thoughts of black strap and gingersnaps, but in reality, pomegranate molasses is like molasses only in its consistency, which is thick and syrupy. It's simply a reduction of pomegranate juice, but the process of boiling the juice down intensifies the unique fruity tart taste of pomegranate. I've seen it in many conventional grocery stores all over the US in international sections and it's also avaliable at Middle Eastern specialty stores. It's worth seeking out.


As is the za'atar used to garnish this manaaeesh, a Lebanese flat bread and the house bread at Oleana, for which there is a great recipe in Spice. Za'atar is a Middle Eastern blend of spices that is made, more or less, with ground dried thyme, oregano, marjoram, sumac, toasted sesame seeds and salt. Some recipes also call for savory, cumin, coriander or fennel seed and some draw on only three or four different herbs and spices. You can make it at home pretty simply with a recipe like this, or purchase it already mixed. I get mine from a local spice shop and it's really very good, so good it's not worth the time to make my own, but I've also purchased pre-packed za'atar from the grocery store and it's not been the best. It could just have been old batches, but that's the risk you run when buying pre-mixed. Like all herbs, shopping for them at a place that you know will provide fresh, high-quality goods will ultimately yield an infinitely better finished product.

Spice not only has prompted me to make more use of these wonderful spice mixtures, but has also introduced me to a technique that I know I'll be making much greater use of in the future. In this roasted beet salad with toasted pine nuts and fresh oregano, I modified a lemon aioli recipe in Spice, using soy mayonnaise in place of the beaten egg yolks and oil and whipping in 2 crushed cloves of garlic, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and two lemons worth of toasted zest. Toasting the zest produces an incredible malted caramel flavor to the zest that is as unexpected as it is welcome. Just peel the zest from any citrus and remove all of the white plinth from it then leave it out on a baking sheet for about two days to dehydrate naturally. Then, pop it in a 200 degree oven for a minute or two to finish. Grind the toasted zest to a rough powder to use. Sortun says that she adds this toasted zest to many dishes at Oleana and once you've tried it, it's easy to see how that would add a great dash of complexity to lots of different dishes.

And what's a meal of delicious mezze and soft bread without a refreshing cocktail to accompany it? I fell in love with white sangria a couple years ago when I saw a recipe somewhere for one that incorporated mango juice and white wine; now it is a staple of summer dinner parties and evenings hanging out in the backyard. This is a very Oleana twist on white sangria, incorporating one of my favorite wines, Muscadet, with orange blossom water, orange juice, cognac, and, the real twist, toasted coriander seeds. Sorton suggests that this is a great midwinter sangria, a good time to make use of the best seasonal oranges or blood oranges, but summer and sangria were also made for each other. Someone has thoughtfully posted the recipe for this drink here and I highly recommend trying it. It's definitely got me thinking of other spices that would make interesting contributions to drinks this summer.

But wait. Did you think I'd leave you without something sweet? Really?

Pear rose-water and cardamom sorbet, a slight variation on the recipe in Millennium's Artful Vegan is how I'll leave you today. Not that Oleana doesn't have many compelling and veganizable desserts, including, notably, a recipe for Sicilian Cremolata with Sugared Almonds that is essentially frozen fresh almond milk. Next time I have six cups of almonds it won't take much to figure out what I'm going to do. But for now, an appropriately spiced sweet ending to a small culinary tour of the Eastern Mediterranean. Just a quick note on the Millennium recipe, I like this preparation infinitely better than other recipes which tell you to use pear nectar and not fresh pears. In this recipe, 4 cups of fresh diced pear are cooked down until translucent and then pureed to yield an intensely fruity and more substantial sorbet that has a much more luxurious mouth feel. I make my sorbet with just half of the 6 tablespoons of agave called for in the original recipe, 1/2 a cup of water and almond milk, 1 1/2 tablespoons of lemon juice, 1 teaspoon of rosewater (an add-in that gives the pears a more floral quality but doesn't overwhelm the sorbet) and a full teaspoon of cardamom, instead of the 1/4 teaspoon called for. Refreshing and light, a perfect ending.

This sorbet has got me back on my ice cream maker with a passion and I've been working on all manner of ice creams including today's special: Thai Basil Ice Cream. Check back this coming week for that and piles of spinach from Parker Farms CSA.

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Vegan Style + Vegan Brunch