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Cooking With Myra: Food adventures with friends

By By Myra Starkey
Sept. 4, 2012 at 4:04 a.m.

Soba Noodles with Eggplant and Mango

SOBA NOODLES WITH EGGPLANT AND MANGO

1/2 cup rice vinegar3 Tbsp. sugar1/2 tsp. salt2 garlic cloves, crushed1/2 fresh red chile, finely chopped1 tsp. toasted sesame oilGrated zest and juice of 1 lime1 cup sunflower oil2 eggplants, cut into 3/4-inch dice8-9 oz. of soba noodles1 large ripe mango, cut into 3/8 inch dice 1 2/3 cup basil leaves, chopped (Thai basil is more pungent) 21/2 cup cilantro leaves, chopped1/2 red onion, very thinly sliced

In a small saucepan, gently warm the vinegar, sugar and salt for up to 1 minute; just until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and add the garlic, chile and sesame oil. Allow to cool, then add the lime zest and juice.

Heat the sunflower oil in a large pan and shallow fry the eggplant in three or four batches. Once golden brown, remove to a colander, sprinkle liberally with salt and leave there to drain.

Cook the noodles, in plenty of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally. They should take 5-8 minutes to become tender, but still al dente. Drain and rinse well under running cold water. Shake off as much of the excess water as possible, then leave to dry on a dish towel.

In a mixing bowl, toss the noodles with the dressing, mango, eggplant, half of the herbs and the onion. You can now leave this aside for 1 to 2 hours. When ready to serve, add the rest of the herbs and mix well, then pile on a plate or in a bowl.

I recently got to spend an evening with some girlfriends. We are part of a cookbook club called the "Food Processors."

I am not exactly sure how we came up with the idea of cooking our way through an entire cookbook over a two-month period, but all of us really love food. So, the concept was born.

We take turns choosing a cookbook and then each of us will try various recipes in that book until our next meeting. When we get together we talk about what dishes we liked and why.

The cookbook I chose was "Plenty" by Yotam Ottolenghi. I have mentioned it a few times in past columns. I have fallen in love with the book. I think the reason is that each time I make a recipe, it turns out exactly like the picture and the pictures in the book are beautiful. The book is a vegetarian cookbook, but if one were insistent on including meat, then some of the recipes lend themselves to adding that ingredient.

When one hosts our group, an important thing is to make the evening as casual as possible, so the main event is the fellowship and the food. Each of us brings a dish from the featured cookbook to the event.

Our entire evening is spent around the table talking about what is going on in our lives, tasting the foods we have prepared and loving the relationships we have nurtured with each other over the years.

We discuss our kids, our jobs, our parents, recent travels and adventures and occasionally even our husbands, and we all laugh through the entire evening. I fretted about a table centerpiece for a few days and then had to throw something together at the last minute, mainly because my working life tends to get in the way of my fun.

It is enjoyable to do a little decorating when special friends are coming over.

I planned to place mounds of veggies down the center of my table with votive candles amongst the cabbage and tomatoes.

I also tossed around the idea of using actual vines with vegetables attached, thinking I had a few spaghetti squash lurking in the garden but the squash looked pitiful and the crowd might be turned off by the ants which were sure to show up for the party.

I then thought that it would be great to have large leaves hanging from the ceiling and pretend we were dining in a secret garden room, but this seemed too difficult to pull off before I left for work in the morning.

In the end I placed a heap of vegetables on a long wooden tray and filled miniature bottles with herb sprigs. Simple and completed in under an hour.

I prepared paella (the recipe from last week's column) and a soba noodle dish (this week's recipe). The other amazing food arrived in the hands of the friends in the group.

Kim brought fried leeks coated with a delicate panko crust. They were seasoned just right.

Mel prepared watermelon and feta cheese with purple onions. The sweetness of the melon paired perfectly with the salty feta and tangy crunch of the onion.

Jerra brought a garlic tart, which contained three heads of garlic. The garlic was baked with creamy goat cheese making the savory tart divine. As long as all of us were eating the garlic dish together, no one seemed to mind the one's breath.

Kathleen brought green pancakes filled with spinach, green chilies and lime butter.

Anabel and the other Myra were out of town and missed a feast to be sure.

The most fun of the evening was just catching up on our lives. I had requested that our group come casual and suggested pajamas, so I changed my work clothes for my caftan and was unencumbered by a waistband that would keep me from enjoying a second or third portion.

For those of you who do not know what a caftan is, it is a loose, silky robe/ moo-moo thing with long sleeves, sort of like something Phyllis Diller would wear.

We sat around going through the cookbook page-by-page and dish-by-dish making comments on recipes we would prepare again and those we deemed a little too healthy and unappetizing for our lives. The translation of the latter is: those recipes not fit for company.

I realized how blessed I am to have a group of friends who love food as much as I do. I do have friends who eat only to live, but this crowd lives to eat.

These ladies have proven their culinary skills in the kitchen and are always on the quest for deliciousness, no matter how many steps it takes to achieve it.

I have noticed that our cookbook choices tend to lean more toward healthy and low fat these days. I think most of us have realized that the battle to maintain our weight has become more difficult as the years pass, so we would rather use our calories wisely and no longer squander them awayon dishes like chicken-fried steak with cream gravy (well maybe sometimes).

The soba noodles are paired with mangoes, fried eggplant and onions. The spicy sauce compliments the ingredients and the result is incredible.

The dish is surprisingly simple to make and takes only a slightly adventuresome palate to try it.

I had some left over and it was even better the next day.

Since it is served at room temperature it can also work well as picnic fare.

Enjoy what is left of summer. Cool weather is surely on its way.

Myra Starkey lives in Victoria. Write her in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901, or email myra@vicad.com.

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