A Cleanse

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…I have sad news for you.  The ship.  Has sailed.

Roll your eyes and whatever?  Go ahead.  Do it.  Savour the disbelief that comes at the sound of these words because even the luxury of that will be robbed away from you in a few years.   Believe me because I USED to be you.  I used to be those who says, “Pfff.. whatever! 30 is the new… 15!”  I used to be the ones who says, “Yo Chefs!  You think you’re the only ones who knew about buttaaahhh?!”  I used to take comfort at the sight of my fellow carnivorous friends picking on a T-bone steak or sinking into a piece of pork belly by my side and thought, “See!!”

Then of course the rude awakening came on my last trip to Hong Kong when a couple of friends took us in for the weekend…I realized then what goes on behind the scene.  Our partners in crime who devoured a plate of Portuguese sausages with us only the night before, contently accepted a dinner of only seaweed salad, bak choy and vegetable dumplings!  I was totally shocked and awed.  ALL vegetarian.  ALL virtually grease-free!  ALL TOO HEALTHY that made me and Jason look like meat-whores drenched in lard and shame.  So… people don’t actually eat at home like dinning-out?!  Does this mean… that last LAST time when we had dinner at ANOTHER couple’s apartment and thought they ate exceedingly healthy, they weren’t the exception?

Gasp…..WE ARE the EXCEPTION!!??

This truth came harder than when I found out that I can’t run anymore.  No really.  I cannot run.  Exhausted at half a block isn’t running.  It’s pathetic.  The irony in this if there is any, is that I used to LIKE vegetables when I was a kid!  I had no beef with carrots and peppers, or leafy greens… literally, before we grew apart.  Then, I realized that the passing of the 20’s, along with many things it carried away, was also the right to be stubborn.  So reluctantly I started talking to vegetables again.  But after years of being estranged friends on non-speaking term, I’m not gonna lie and say it wasn’t awkward.  Both of us didn’t know where to start but making random chatters that didn’t inspire much.  But after a year of adjustment, we agreed to compromise.

Once in a week or so we’d do a date night for JUST us.  On the vegetable’s part, it has agreed to sexy up again by taking helps from lots of aromatics and spices, and MAYBE occasionally a few more tbsp of animal fat (we are still working on the specifics of that…).  For me, the secret to a smooth transition is… a bit of self-hypnosis.  Isn’t it nice to make an occasional, in-season vegetarian dinner such as eggplant salad with fried shallot dressing and baby cucumber stir-fried with dry chili and vinegar?  Paired with bowl of steamy rice, it’s all very minimal, simplistic and elegantly light.  All very Donna Hay, no?

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  I hope it convinces you, too.

Servings: 2

These are  two favorite dishes I like to make on a vegetarian night.  The eggplant was a childhood favorite from distant memory, and the stir-fry cucumber is a new discovery adapted from a noodle joint in Beijing.  Both are intense and flavorful, and makes a quick, guilt-free weeknight dinner.

Eggplant salad with fried shallot dressing:

  •  2 Long Asian eggplant
  • 5 tbsp of oil for pan-frying
  • Fried shallot dressing:
    • 3 cloves of garlic
    • 2 red chilis, diced
    • 2 tbsp of fried shallots (read this for more info on Taiwanese fried shallots)
    • 3 tbsp of soy sauce
    • 2 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil
    •  1 tsp of black vinegar
    • 2~3 tsp of water
    • 1/4 tsp of salt
    • 1/4 tsp of sugar

Cut off both ends of the eggplant then split in half, and cut half again length wise.  You will end up with 8 pieces.  Heat up 5 tbsp of oil in a large, flat skillet on high heat.  Place the eggplants, 4 pieces at a time, skin-side down into the skillet.  Use a tongs to adjust the eggplants so that all sides of the skin get a chance in contact with the hot oil.  Fry until the skin turns dark purple and slightly browned, then turn the eggplants over.  Fry until the flesh is evenly browned and soft as well, then move them onto a plate and do the next batch.  When pan-frying eggplants, the oil MUST be really HOT.  Otherwise the flesh will absorb a lot of oil like a sponge and it will be greasy.  You could rub the eggplants with olive oil and roast them in the broiler, too.  It’s probably easier for some but the skin will lose its purple color.

Leave the eggplants on a plate to completely cool.  To make the dressing, mash 3 garlic and 1 1/2 tbsp of fried shallots in a mortar (or chop with knife).  Add the soy sauce, diced red chili, olive oil, black vinegar, water, salt and sugar and mix well.  The amount of water and sugar depends on the saltiness of the soy sauce.  Taste and adjust accordingly.

Cut the eggplants in bite-size piece and stack on a plate.  Pour the dressing on top and sprinkle the rest of the fried shallots.  Dust with white pepper and drizzle more extra virgin olive oils if needed.

Baby Cucumbers with Dry Chili and Vinegar:

  • 300 g of baby cucumbers (or baby zucchinis)
  • 4 tbsp of olive oil
  • 20 dry red chili, kept whole (less spicy when kept whole)
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 1 1/2 tbsp of rice vinegar
  • 1 tbsp of rice wine
  • 1 tsp of sea salt
  • 1/4 tsp of white pepper
  • 1 tsp of dashi granules

Wash the cucumbers in water and DRAIN REALLY WELL.

Finely mince the garlic and set aside.  Heat up a wok or skillet on high with 4 tbsp of olive oil and fry the dry chili until they turn dark red and give out a smoky aroma (this may take a minute).  Add the minced garlic and fry for a few seconds, then add the baby cucumbers.  Fold the cucumbers in so they are evenly coated with the hot oil, then add rice wine vinegar and rice wine from the side of the wok.  The wok should be hot and the added liquid should sizzle.  Toss to combine then add the sea salt, white pepper and dashi granules (omit if not available).  Cook only for another minute and transfer to a plate when the cucumbers are still green and crispy.

One hot.  One cold.  Both delicious and healthy.

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