By Herb Gardener –
Antony and Cleopatra. Simon and Garfunkel. Coyote and Road Runner. The exploits of certain pairs echo down the corridors of time. Others, like pancetta and rosemary, simply resonate on the palate long after a meal is history.
Indeed, recognizing and appreciating culinary couplings can turn an ambivalent eater into a passionate foodie. At 22 months, our daughter Fauna began picking at and resisting plain vegetables that were once high chair favorites. Elevating zucchini with its soulmate fresh thyme in a sautéed brown rice cake reignited her interest.
Ginger and lime, cumin and lentils, apples and almond butter, promiscuous garlic and almost anything else—well, you get the picture. One of my motives for reading cookbooks is discovering cleverly arranged marriages of two or more unexpected flavors that share the love with a supporting cast of ingredients. I found vegetarian food blogger Michael Natkin to be a talented matchmaker in his new recipe collection, Herbivoracious.
“We’ve come to understand that traditional flavor combinations and recipes are delicious because they have been honed over the centuries; we can and should always experiment, but they provide a foundation of reliable inspiration to which we can always return.” Natkin describes some of his 150 recipes as “deep tracks”— authentic versions of lesser known traditional vegetarian foods, or ones that can be so adapted.
What I found interesting about Herbivoracious was its “crowdsourcing credibility”. Natkin’s award-winning blog serves as a virtual test kitchen where readers vet dishes, share results, and suggest improvements. Thus, problems with proportions and directions that occasionally mar chef/ghost writer collaborations evaporate. For a taste of Natkin’s online presence point your browser to http://herbivoracious.com/.
Value-added features of the book include brief musings on fat, crunch, meal planning, regional cuisine flavor profiles, and other engaging topics. The author’s own photos of plated dishes are straightforward and enticing, and they demonstrate that a vegetarian diet can be an aesthetic rather than ascetic experience. My only complaint about the book’s design is the difficulty identifying page numbers due to poor contrast.
The international appeal of Herbivoracious (yes, Natkin even makes a convincing Vietnamese bun without fish sauce) transcends the vegetarian genre and should find an enthusiastic reception in many home kitchens. Seductive, hearty, approachable and fun, Herbivoracious is destined to be a sauce-splattered favorite on my bookshelf.
When I lived in the California high desert I became acquainted with the Paiute Native American version of fry bread. As a delivery system for tacoesque toppings it remains unsurpassed. Natkin’s riff on the classic adds squash and corn to familiar ingredients such as pinto beans and cheese to create a satisfying entrée. Be sure not to overwork the dough.
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 cup milk, plus additional as needed
Vegetable oil for frying
Squash and Corn Topping:
4 poblano chili peppers
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Half an onion, finely diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb. yellow summer squash or zucchini (3 medium), cut to bite-sized cubes
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
Kernels from 2 ears of corn, or two cups frozen corn, defrosted
2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano
3 cups tender cooked pinto beans
1 cup grated cheddar
½ cup minced white onion
1 cup halved cherry tomatoes
2 cups shredded iceberg lettuce
1 ½ cups guacamole
Thick salsa of your choice (smoky chipotle versions are good)
For the fry bread—whisk together flour, salt, and baking powder in a large bowl. Add the milk and mix with a fork until you have a shaggy mass, adding a little more milk if needed. You want a dough that is fairly sticky, just barely firm enough to roll out. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and, with floured hands, knead for just a few seconds to make a big ball. Rub the dough lightly with oil, cover, and set aside until you are ready to fry.
For the squash and corn topping—Roast the poblano peppers on a grill, under the broiler, or carefully with tongs over an open flame until blackened and blistered. Set aside in a covered bowl until cool. Wearing rubber gloves, remove the skin, stem, and seeds, then cut the pepper into ¼-inch strips. (Mexican cooks call these rajas.)
Heat the oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic and sauté for 1 minute, then add the summer squash and salt. Saute, tossing occasionally, until browned, about 4 minutes; add the corn and sauté 2 minutes; add the poblano strips and oregano and heat through. Taste and adjust seasoning.
When ready to fry breads (just before serving), pour ¾ inch of vegetable oil into a large, heavy skillet. Heat over medium-high heat to 365 degrees F.
Divide the dough into quarters, shape into balls, and roll each one out into a circle about 9 inches in diameter. Fry one at a time until medium golden brown, flipping to cook both sides, about 2 minutes total. Be careful when flipping—if you just flip it over with a spatula it can cause a dangerous splash. I use a spatula and spoon for control, but you could also use tongs. Transfer cooked breads to paper towel and drain.
To serve—Put a fry bread on each plate, and top with generous portions of the topping, the beans, cheese, onion, tomatoes, lettuce, guacamole, and salsa. Serve immediately.
(Herbivoracious: A Flavor Revolution, with 150 Vibrant and Original Vegetarian Recipes. Boston: Harvard Common Press, 2012. $24.95)