As a professional cook, I lean heavily on dairy and gluten and animal parts (pig parts, in particular) as ingredients that make my food taste great. It’s not that it’s necessarily a trick, but it works. Want to make just about anything taste better? Add some bacon fat or a little cream.
But in recent years I’ve found myself behind a stove cooking for people who cannot ingest those staples of my cooking. Both of my sisters are intolerant to dairy and gluten. Many of my clients are health conscious and vegetarian. And so, I have learned to cook food that is both vegetarian and low fat but still tastes delicious and satisfying. Cooking this way, however, is not nearly as easy as finishing a dish with a knob of butter.
The first thing I think about, always, is season. The fresher a vegetable the less it takes to make it tasty. Tomatoes in tomato season are practically perfect just the way they are. The same can be said for winter squashes and wild mushrooms in the early fall. This time of year, a vegetable I turn to is the unctuous, almost meaty eggplant. If cooked the right way, its flesh becomes, well, downright fleshy. A low and slow steam with a last-minute broil is all it takes to transform an eggplant into a feast. But that’s not all it takes to make a delicious, well-balanced vegetarian meal. Of course, there’s the glaring reality that eggplants, as with most plant, do not contain nearly enough protein.
Rice contains some protein, but it is considered incomplete. It’s not that the protein itself is sub-par—it’s that rice does not contain the correct order or number of amino acids for you, the eater of the rice, to build your own muscle if you only eat rice. The same is true of legumes (lentils, beans). However, the amino acids in legumes are different than the amino acids in rice. When you combine them, they make each other complete. If you eat the combination of rice and legumes you ingest the correct combination of amino acids and your body does the rest.
And I want those eaters in my life who eat vegetarian, dairy-free, and so on to be satisfied both taste-wise and nutrition-wise. So this week, we’re eating a complete rice-and-lentil protein with a meaty, satisfying glazed eggplant.
Honey Soy Glazed Eggplant With Lentils and Rice
For the lentils:
1/2 pound whole black lentils (urad dal) or whole dried mung beans
1 knob of ginger, peeled
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 Jamaican seasoning pepper, pierced
Fine sea salt
For the eggplant:
6 Asian eggplant, halved
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons honey
1 1/2 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons finely chopped ginger
1 garlic clove, smashed to a paste with a pinch of salt
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup pomegranate seeds
2 tablespoons mint leaves
2 tablespoons cilantro leaves
Steamed white rice
Rinse the lentils and place in a pot with the ginger, garlic, and pepper. Cover with 2 inches of water then bring to a boil. Cook the lentils, partially covered, until tender, 30 to 40 minutes, then season with salt. Reserve.
Preheat the oven to 250°F.
Score the flesh of the eggplant. Stir together the soy, honey, lime juice, ginger, and garlic paste. Place the eggplant on a shallow baking pan then drizzle with the soy mixture, letting the sauce run into the scored cuts. Add the water to the pan and cover with foil. Roast in the oven until the eggplant is very tender, about 45 minutes. Uncover the pan and preheat the broiler. Broil eggplant until it is glazed and browned, about 5 minutes.
Serve the eggplant with steamed rice, the lentils, pomegranate seeds, mint, and cilantro drizzled with the eggplant pan juices.