Fragrant tajine with cinnamon & apricots.

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Being vegan or even vegetarian allows for a broadening of one’s culinary world and a more densely than average stocked spice rack. I remember being 23, entering my 4th year as a vegetarian, living abroad, and slowly expanding my cookbook collection. That year I bought several ones, including one on Indian cuisine which I still use every so often, and one on homemade schnaps, which I, contrary to friends who bought the very same book at the very same moment, but also had access to cheap alcohol in a university lab, never used (but never say never). I also remember compiling grocery lists with spices that at that particular time were totally exotic and new to me, but which I needed to finally start cooking up those dishes in my new cookbooks. It’s weird to realize how foreign cumin, coriander and curcuma once were to me, since I now use them on a nearly daily basis. In this tajine served over couscous, for instance. 

This is the kind of dish which is easily integrated into one’s rotating menu, because it’s easy to make, it doesn’t require any weird ingredients from specialty stores (I often make it when travelling, as I then usually only have access to limited vegan ingredients (aka veggies and pulses)), it’s sweet, spicy (as spicy as you like), and filling. And the kids eat it without much fuss.

Once I cooked a tajine assisted by a visiting friend who has an Algerian husband (yes, the same friend whom I mentioned in my post on Ratatouille and more). In Algeria, Friday equals couscous, so the recipe below should come quite close to the ‘real’ thing. At least that is what this friend contended, and if it doesn’t, it’s still worth making anyhow ;-). You’ll notice the many ‘handfuls’ below. That’s simply cooking tajine isn’t exact science. Use the amount of veggies you want, season as hot as you like it, use cilantro or don’t. It’s all up to you, regard the recipe below as a mere guiding framework.

Tajine

  • Servings: 6
  • Difficulty: easy
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Ingredients

  • 1 onion
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 2-3 carrots, diced
  • 1/2 sweet potato, diced (optional)
  • 2-3 small potatoes
  • 1 zucchini, diced
  • 1-2 bell peppers
  • A handful of string beans
  • 1 can chopped tomatoes + the same amount of vegetable stock
  • 2-3 TB tomato paste
  • 1 can chickpeas, drained (don’t throw out the chickpea liquid, use the aquafaba to make curd cheesecakemadeleines or crêpes or something)
  • A handful of dried apricots, finely chopped
  • A handful of raisins
  • 1 – 1,5 tsp curcuma
  • 1 – 1,5 TB ras-el-hanout (a North African spice blend)
  • 1-1,5 tsp cumin
  • 1-1,5 tsp coriander
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 TB paprika or 1 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp or more harissa (North African chili paste)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp cracked black pepper
  • A handful of almond slivers, roasted, for garnish
  • A handful of cilantro, for garnish

Directions

  • Fry the onion until translucent, then add the garlic and fry one more minute
  • Add the spices and then veggies one by one, starting with those that have the longest cooking time (i.e. the carrots and potatoes). Then the tomatoes and the renaining ingredients. Let simmer. Hold back the chickpeas, though: they shouldn’t end up in your casserole until the very end of the cooking process, when the vegetables have softened. 
  • In the meantime, prepare the couscous according to the directions on the package. Add in a TB of za’atar spice blend if you like that as much as I do.
  • When the dish is ready, taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Then serve over couscous and sprinkle with almond slivers and garnish with cilantro.

Ratatouille.

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So here we are again!

When I posted my recipe for strawberry-rhubarb crumble pie, I hadn’t got the faintest idea that as many as five months would elapse before I’d be picking up on my kitchen adventures in a next blogpost. But that is what ultimately happened, and an entire summer (and half an autumn) was as such left blank in terms of blogposts, yet proved itself all the richer in terms of living life to the fullest and creating cherishable memories.

This is not to say food did not play any part in this. Rather on the contrary. It’s often the pebble that, softly hitting the surface of memory, ripples out, touching upon a variety of recollections. Food is a social connector, and reliving what was on and who was gathered around the table goes hand in hand.

Reminiscing this summer is reminiscing

  • the birthday pies I made as a treat for my colleagues at the onset of summer, and right before going on vacation.
  • the succulent dates and delicious oil-cured olives which we enjoyed during a stopover with German friends when we were on our way to the Alps. Last time we had seen these friends, a German-Algerian couple, we were traveling with a 9-month-old and they were expecting their first child. Now each of us had two boisterous kids ranging from 5 to 8, happily playing together despite the language barrier. We departed with a stash of Algerian dates and Moroccan olives (imported straight from Oran by our host – we learned that Moroccans are better at curing olives than their neighbours) and some bottles of Moroccan vinegar.
  • what must have been the first time in over a decade that I enjoyed the luxury of not having to touch any kitchen utensils for an entire week (no matter how much one loves cooking, being able to have break from it is something precious too), thanks to the hospitality, flexibility, open-mindedness and wondrous cooking skills of a high-school friend who now runs a family guesthouse on an idyllic Carinthian mountain top (with a panorama stretching as far as the Slovenian Julian Alps) together with her husband. If you’re ever considering a (family) stay in Austria, both during summer or in winter (there are alpine ski facilities practically around the corner), look no further than Gasthof Fernsicht! And oh yes, we continued our journey to the South with homemade elderberry syrup, books to kill time on the road, loads of Slovenian travel tips and refreshed spirits. And a cooler full of vegan stuff from Merkur (an Austrian supermarket chain with a gigantic range of vegan products).
  • the incredible Italian ice cream we had in Trieste at gelato Marco , where about half the (gigantic) counter consisted of vegan ice cream. This must have been one of the best, if not the best ice cream servings I’ve had, and if my husband hadn’t deemed it way too decadent, I think I really would have gone for seconds.
  • the joy of being able to order vegan pizza in Portoroz, Slovenia, before going for a swim in the Mediterranean. Pizza, sun, an inflatable dolphin, ample wind and a kite – what more do kids (and grown-ups) need to find happiness on a summer day?
  • the exchange of food when again staying over at our friends’ place in Bavaria again on our way back home. They had cooked a simple but lovely and hearty German potato soup for dinner (our son even had three large servings!), we had brought a decent portion of leftover Indian curry. Both the soup and the curry were gone by the end of the meal. We finished the soup, they finished the curry.
  • the counter full of Mediterranean-style dishes I had cooked for a family gathering, half of which cooked according to recipes from Yasou, the second cookbook by Miriam Sorell which I had finally purchased after it had been on my wishlist since its publication date. A book very much worth its money.
  • the scents and tastes – both familiar and new – that accompanied us on our trip down memory lane to vegan mecca Stockholm: vegan pizza (with aragula and figs – marvelous combo!) at Feca (where they even have an elaborate separate vegan menu) followed by an ice cream from 18 smakers glassmakeri, a Szechuan noodle lunch at Lao Wai, perfect nut cookies (cripsy on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside) at Rosendals trädgård, the copious and utterly delicious Sri Lankan dinner – including a savoury kiwi dish – at the home of fabulous friends and former colleagues who are always spoiling us (and the home made Sri Lankan spice blends which I got as a present; the lovely scent of which permeated my travel bag until we got home and I could store the precious gift in jars) , the mezze lunch at Babel Deli (the muhammara! the roasted sweet potato! the parsley salad!), a burger lunch at Kafé44 following a visit to Fotografiska, the fika with peanut cheesecake we had at Los Vegos  in Uppsala (the city’s vegan scene has obviously been expanding the past couple of years), the fingerlicking good Thai inspired sweet potato stew  (I think its secret to success is the wine! – and the good cook) we had with dear Swedish friends in Uppsala – our friendship dates back to Germany 16 years ago -, the fast fajita lunch at one of the Zócalo restaurants you will find in Stockholm (in between shopping… of course I also bought a new cookbook: Mattias Kristiansson’s Välkommen till Vegoriket), a cinnamon roll (more specifically a Leobulle) from Vete-katten, again pizza and ice cream (see above) – this time with a Stockholm friend (we go back to Vienna 2000) to whom these places were a pleasant discovery -, dinner at good old Chutney (with the very same good old friend) before heading off to cinema Victoria and Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe (that is what German philologists do), lunch at Herman’s, catching up with a Belgian expat friend, and then finally another lunch at Babel Deli (reaching the same conclusion that their muhammara is to die for).
  • The Sri Lankan cookbook The Lotus and The Artichoke, which I bought so that I could try and discover even more tasty food from this part of the world (now that I have some authentic spice blend in the house). My first attempts were a success; the curry I made, for instance, resembled my friend’s extremely well, which speaks for the book.
  • The huge pile of donuts, the Boston cream pie, fruit tart, chocolate Bundt cake and cinnamon rolls I made for both my daughter’s and my son’s birthdays. The donuts are a keeper for parties; they were immensely popular!
  • The stash of tomatoes and rhubarb which I got from friends, resulting in rhubarb chutney, rhubarb-strawberry jam, rhubarb sauce, and tomato chutney.
  • The goodbye pies for my colleagues, before embarking on a new professional adventure.
  • And much more.

What better recipe to write about after such a jumbled enumeration of separate memories that blend into one and all make up my great summer of 2017 than a chunky pot of ratatouille, which is basically a mishmash of ingredients. That – hodgepodge or mishmash –  is also what the Dutch word for ratatouille, namely ratjetoe, boils down to.

Ratatouille is one of my favourite comfort foods, and over the years I have developed my own version of it. It originally started with the traditional eggplant and zucchini kind of ratatouille, but then over time I first left out the eggplant (that just happened, probably because I at one particular moment didn’t have any in the fridge) and started adding olives, preferably well marinated ones (with herbs and/or spices), then suddenly the idea came to me to mix in some cauliflower florets (which was, frankly, a great idea!), and eventually I ended up with a version that usually also contains chickpeas. To me, that’s the perfect kind of ratatouille. And this is approximately how I make it (I never measure anything for this dish):

Ratatouille

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: easy
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Ingredients

  • 1 onion, chopped finely
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1/2 to 1 zucchini, chopped
  • 1 bell pepper (pick a colour of your preference – I usually take a yellow one, because of the colour contrast with the remaining ingredients)
  • 1 can cubed tomatoes OR 2 fresh tomatoes and about 4 TB of tomato paste
  • 2 handfuls of cauliflower florets
  • a handful of sliced olives
  • 1 can chickpeas
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1 TB herbes de Provence and some fresh basil, if you have some
  • some roasted pine kernels

Directions

  • fry the onion until translucent, then add the garlic
  • after a minute, add in the bell pepper, cauliflower and the zucchini; when they have softened a bit, add the tomatoes and the remaining ingredients, except for the chickpeas and basil
  • when the content of your pot has turned into a stew (with the consistency of your preference), add in the chickpeas and basil
  • garnish with some pine kernels
  • serve with roasted potatoes or (my favourite!) potato mash (preferably potato mash with roasted garlic and rosemary)
  • enjoy!

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