We were invited to spend Christmas with friends, and since we’d had loads of fun celebrating a very English style Christmas with them the year before, we accepted. There would be trivia games with questions we could not answer, and Christmas crackers, and silly paper crowns, and for dessert, traditional English mince pies. I would have two pies: The one I was served, and the one left behind by The Child after she ate the scoop of ice cream served alongside it, then discovered she was Too Full To Eat Another Bite.
I asked what I could contribute to the meal and was told: anything, as long as it’s either gluten-free or vegan, ideally both, but that’s not always possible, and really, anything is lovely.
I spent many hours searching my cookbooks and the internet, and arrived at a disheartening conclusion: There is very little food that is both vegan and gluten-free that I personally want to eat, much less make and serve to others. I consider bringing a platter of decoratively arranged vegetables – an actual recipe from a cookbook I bought on a layover in Iceland – but eventually settled on some simple baked apples, which turned out okay, which is about the most I can say for them.
I’ve made baked apples before, many times, with quite some success, so I pondered my failure at some length the next day. The problem, as I see it, is this: It is easy to find a good recipe when you are searching for something you want to enjoy. Oh! you think, This should be good, and you go off and make it and maybe make little adjustments to suit your taste or align with the contents of your pantry.
The process of choosing a recipe because it isn’t something is a different one. It begins with a firm statement: No. I looked at and rejected dozens of recipes because of some butter or some eggs or, god forbid, a pastry crust. I know that some baked goods can be modified to be gluten free, but I’ve learned from the hard experience of heart-rendingly bad banana bread that the process is not simply a one-to-one substitution of gluten-free flour for plain. Rather more frustratingly, at the end of the process, an imperfect effort to be inclusive of someone else’s dietary choices will be greeted not with thanks, but with a large serving of disappointment followed by a chaser of regret.
Such was the fate of my baked apples, eaten without the enthusiasm that greets my usual dessert offerings (Oatmeal Pie, Sugar Cream Pie). To be fair, it was also the fate of this year’s mince pies, or more specifically, the subgroup of mince pies made with store-bought gluten-free crusts.
The mince pie baker and I were on the same team on the annual trivia contest, and we didn’t fare very well there, either. When we said goodbye, we vowed: Next year, we’ll do better.
With twelve months to plan, I began, but decided that rather than researching recipes that are primarily defined by what they lack, I would simply try to notice recipes that happen to be vegan or gluten-free in the usual course of looking at cookbooks for recipes that I might want to try, if the mood takes me. I theorized that, as with a Google search, phrasing a query slightly differently might produce very different results.
This is a long-winded way of explaining why I was excited to learn that vegetarian food writer Deborah Madison had published a new cookbook, In My Kitchen. Even without an actual need for vegetarian recipes, I would have been excited, because I’ve appreciated Madison since the day I tried out her Smoky Brussels Sprouts on Toast, a dish that quickly found its way into the regular dinner rotation at my house, either with the cheese toasts when I wanted something substantial, or without them, when a diet banished carbohydrates from my menu. The cookbook from which I sourced that recipe – The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone – is, unfortunately, massive, in a way that doesn’t really lend itself to perusing before bed.
As luck would have it, I received a digital preview copy of In My Kitchen, which readily lends itself to reading whenever I have a few minutes and my iPad handy. The book offers a nice assortment of recipes that are all clearly marked vegan, or gluten free, or if they happen to be neither, suggest modifications that can be made to accommodate dietary restrictions. Perhaps as important – or perhaps more important – it includes quite a few recipes that sound delicious and don’t require any unusual ingredients. So one day, when I felt inspired to try something new, I chose her recipe for a vegetarian stew.
It was easy to make, and easy to modify, which I needed to do, since I didn’t have exactly the number of bell peppers called for, and apparently should have given my supply of saffron a decent burial several years ago. Although these are things that seem like they should be problems, they weren’t; it’s a forgiving recipe if you follow the broad outlines and taste as you go.
The real test of any recipe, of course, is whether it meets the approval of my toughest critic, The Child. She pronounced it a keeper, but rather more reassuringly, helped herself to seconds that evening, and took leftovers to school for her lunch the following day.
Not long after, I was delighted to discover Madison was giving an author talk and signing cookbooks at an event at the local cookbook store. I went with another vegan friend, and made a surprise discovery: Deborah Madison, foremost vegetarian cookbook writer, is not a vegetarian. She signed my cookbook and we chatted about the fact that it’s possible for steak-lovers to appreciate a good vegetable dish, too.
- 1 lb fingerling or other small potatoes
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 large onion, finely diced
- 1 large red pepper, diced
- 1 large yellow pepper, diced
- salt and pepper
- 1 tsp (2 cloves) minced garlic
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- 1 tsp hot paprika
- 3 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
- ½ cup dry sherry
- 1 (14.5 ounce) can diced tomates, juices included
- 1 (14.5 ounce) can chickpeas (garbanzos), drained and rinsed
- 1 to 2 cups water (or vegetable broth)
- 1 bunch spinach, rinsed, stems removed
- Scrub potatoes and cut into pieces (halves or quarters depending on how big they are).
- Heat a Dutch oven or other large, deep pot, over medium-high heat, and when the pan is warm, add the olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the onion, red and yellow peppers, and potatoes. Lower the heat to medium and cook for about 20 minutes with the lid on the pan, stirring the vegetables every so often.
- When the potatoes are tender but still firm, season with 1 tsp of salt and some pepper, and add the garlic. After a few minutes, remove the lid, and add both paprikas, the parsley, and the sherry. Simmer until the liquids in the pan have reduced and are somewhat syrupy.
- Add the tomatoes and chickpeas, and enough water to just cover. Put the lid back on the pan and simmer until the potatoes are completely cooked through, another 10-20 minutes.
- While the stew is simmering, heat a saute pan. When the pan is hot, add a dash of olive oil and then the spinach leaves. Cook until the leaves are completely wilted, then transfer them to a colander and use a fork to press out all the excess liquid.
- When the potatoes are completely cooked through, stir the cooked spinach into the pot, and serve.