Monday, 17 October 2011

Spicy Peanut Butter and Eggplant Soup

It's a soup! It's a stew! It's the winter-blues slayer!

Excuse my enthusiasm; I live in Montreal, where we spend 8 months of the year shivering. Warming, comforting food is a staple of the regional cuisine. The only way I can hold on to my sanity in the middle of winter is by having something warm, rich and comforting to eat, while I sit at my kitchen counter, wrapped up in layers of hoddies, scarves and thermal socks.

I noticed this recipe in my copy of "Veganomicon" (by the great Isa Chandra Moskowitz and the equally awesome Terry Hope Romero), when I was looking for fall and winter dishes that would make nice lunches to take to work the next day. I am quite the eggplant fan, because they are such a versatile veg: you can throw them in almost any dish and they are always yummy. The idea of combining them with spicy peanut butter was interesting, so I flagged it and waited for the weather to get colder… And now, the evenings are just crisp enough to make a warm bowl of soup seem like the height of sensual pleasure.

Now if you are an eggplant-phobic, like my little brother, you could always substitute them for zucchinis or another squash… But do yourself a favor and get to know eggplants. I understand if a visit to a bad Greek restaurant left you traumatized, but I assure you there is a world of difference between the mushy, greasy things some places try to sell as eggplants and the tender, melt-in-your-mouth pieces you'll simmer in a soup pot for this wintery treat. Don't be afraid, they won't bite. Also, keep in mind that you don't have to peel them; their skin is delicious, and full of lovely vitamins. A cool substitution I totally approve of is switching the regular eggplants for Chinese eggplants. Their amazing purple hue is a bit lost in the soup, but their flavor still shines!

The long list of ingredients and complicated instructions shouldn't intimidate you, as it actually comes together pretty quickly once all the veggies are cut. It's a meal-soup, a bit too thin to be a stew, but so full of lovely pieces of vegetables that it's no ordinary potage. It is also very rich, so please do not read "vegan" as "low-fat" in this case. I like it just by itself, in a cute Asian soup bowl (especially if I get to eat it curled on the couch watching "Dr. Who"… oh, guilty pleasures…), but feel very free to serve it along some jasmine rice, or a simple green salad, dressed with a light and fruity dressing. Also, if you hit a perticularly harsh cold snap, double the spices and/or don't seed your chile before throwing it in the soup; the result will warm you up from the inside out.

Oh, and do not skip the degorging part of cooking with eggplants! Even if modern eggplants are cultivated to be less bitter, the salting process will still reduce the amount of oils and fats absorbed by the veggie. It required a bit of patience, granted, but your waistline will thank you.

1 pound eggplant, chopped in 1/2 inch cubes
1 teaspoon salt
5 large scallions, peeled and sliced very thinly
1/4 cup peanut oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 fresh red chili, seeded and minced
1 inch cube fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1 1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon Cayenne (optional)
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon tumeric
1/3 cup tomato paste
1 (16 ounce) can diced tomatoes, with juice
5 cups water or vegetable broth
1/2 to 3/4 cup creamy peanut butter
1/2 pound green beans, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Chopped roast peanuts
Whole cilantro leaves

Toss the eggplant cubes with the teaspoon of salt in a colander. Allow to sit for 30 minutes to soften, then gently rinse the eggplant with cold running water and drain. While the eggplant is being brined, chop and mince the other ingredients. I also like to measure out the required quantities of peanut butter, tomato paste and broth, so that when I need to add them, I am not running around.  

Preheat a large stockpot over medium heat. Sauté the scallions in 2 tablespoons of the oil for about 20 minutes, until they are very brown and softened, and slightly caramelized. Scoop the scallions out of the pot and set aside in a medium bowl. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil to the pot and add the eggplant, stirring to coat with the oil. Stir and cook the eggplant for 12 to 15 minutes, until slightly tender. Transfer the eggplant to the bowl with the scallions. Add the remaining oil to the pot and allow it to heat, add the ginger and chili, and fry for 30 seconds. Add the spices, and fry for another 30 seconds, then add the onion. (Another way you can make your life easier is to pre-mix all your spices in a small bowl or plastic container; this way, you only have to pour the contents of your little bowl in the stockpot once your ginger and chile have fried. This is a good trick to keep in mind when you prepare dishes where several spices need to be added at the same time in a hot pan or pot, because going fast is the best way to make massive messes. I don't like those, especially not if I have to pick them up.) Stir and fry until the onion is slightly soft and translucent, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the tomato paste and stir-fry the mixture for another minute. Add the diced tomatoes, water (or stock), eggplant, beans and scallions to the pot. Stir well and  raise the heat to medium-high. Bring to a boil and boil for 5 minutes, then lower the heat and simmer. 

In a separate bowl, stir the peanut butter to incorporate any separated oils. Add a ladleful of hot soup. Stir the peanut butter with the soup until creamy; the peanut butter should be completely emulsified. Scrape the peanut butter mixture into the rest of the simmering soup, stirring to mix. Simmer the soup over medium-low heat, covered, for 35 to 45 minutes, or until the eggplant is very tender. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon juice. Salt to taste after the soup has cooled for an least half and hour. Serve topped with chopped roast peanuts and cilantro leaves.

This soup will fill the kitchen with a lovely, warm aroma. Prepare it when you need a comforting dose of warmth, or if you plan on ensnaring a lad (or lass) who doesn't like the cold too much! There is about 6 servings in there, and like any good soup, it's delicious reheated. Bring it to lunch and make all your co-workers green with envy!

1 comment:

  1. This is one of the best eggplant soups I've ever tasted - especially welcome on a cold day. Definitely a comfort food - good with buttery garlic croutons tossed on top. Yum.