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Vegetarian 101

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couscous and chickpeas

- Jenny from Rancho Park

So there I was, sitting in the Enoteca San Marco in Las Vegas, minding my own business as I shoveled forkfuls of cavatappi with lamb ragu in my mouth, when my 11-year-old looked at me earnestly and said, “When you eat that don’t you picture the face of the animal it used to be?”

I think we all know what’s coming next. My oldest daughter has struggled mightily between her ethical desire to be a vegetarian, and her completely reasonable inability to part ways with hamburgers from The Counter, chicken drenched in orange sauce at the Chinese restaurant and delectable slivers of salmon sushi tucked into her lunch box.

She decided she would take it slow. First, no more bacon. Bye bye poultry, too. Soon she hopes she can part ways with meat all together, but she is making her way slowly. In turn, I proclaimed a willingness to support this venture, even to cook separately for it, under two conditions:

1. No talking smack about the meat on the plates of others, especially in my house.

2. There will be no carbo-vegetarians here. With every meat you remove a protein or vegetable must be added to the diet.

And so it began, midweek, with Tsorta Tfaya with Couscous. It is a medley of chickpeas and onions doing a darn good imitation of stew, with about half the ingredients. This was not a random choice. I wasn’t going to dive right in with tofu or sautéed broccolini, as a girl needs to warm up. Chick peas have just enough fiber and protein that it feels like a good wholesome substitute for meat. I lived for a brief period in Morocco, so this dish felt at once familiar and fresh.

Further, since we’re talking weeknight cooking here, there is nothing more friendly than the words “can of tomatoes.” Yes it is better to use fresh vegetables, and dried beans while you’re at it, but it’s early April, it’s Tuesday, and you’re going to have this dish the way Kayb intended.

We begin where all good kitchen stories do, with onions sautéing gently in butter and oil in a Dutch oven. Along come spices (so you don’t have any saffron or you’re missing something else, don’t sweat it -- just add a little more of everything else) and some harissa, which I have had on hand a lot longer than the Department of Agriculture would recommend.

While that’s cooking up nicely, you can wash a pan or two, pour yourself a glass of something and commence with the sort of dinner conversation that begins with, “So, who can tell me what the Stamp Act was?” Watch the room clear. Wasn’t that your intent?

Soon the chickpeas and tomatoes come along. Smelling good! Get that couscous going. It won’t be long. Rando m notes: Kayb is very excited to have us eat figs, but then never tells us when to add them. I substituted prunes, which I had on hand and prefer to figs in savory dishes, and threw them in when I remembered, which was in the last ten minutes of cooking. This was fine. I used vegetable stock for my couscous, to keep it real, but I used the Israeli type, so I had too much liquid. You’ve been warned – check the box. I found a heavy pinch of salt and a generous twist of black pepper finished this dish well.

It was so fast, it was so easy, and the reluctant vegetarian, after proclaiming a dislike for onions and prunes, dove in. Did she polish it off like a burger? No. But she’s off to a good start.

Tsorta Tfaya with Couscous

Serves 3 to 4

For the tfaya:

  • 2 small onions
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 cup diced dried dates or figs, or raisins
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/8 teaspoon ginger
  • 1/8 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/8 teaspoon saffron threads, crushed
  • 1 teaspoon harissa
  • 1 cup dried chickpeas, soaked overnight, cooked and drained, or 1 can, drained and rinsed
  • 1 15-oz can diced tomatos
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1/4 cup water

For the couscous:

  • 2 cups vegetable or chicken broth
  • 1 cup couscous
  • 1/2 teaspoon ras el hanout

1. Cut onions in half vertically, slice thinly, and saute in butter and olive oil over medium heat in a Dutch oven until soft. Add all the spices, the honey and the water, reduce heat to medium low, and simmer until the onion is well caramelized. Taste and adjust spices as needed.

2. When onion is golden brown, add chickpeas and tomatos. Simmer, covered, while making the couscous.

3. Bring stock to a boil in a small saucepan. Add couscous, ras el hanout, stir, and remove from heat. Cover and let steam for five minutes. Fluff with a fork.

4. To serve, put a serving of couscous in a wide bowl, shaping so it's higher at the edges. Put tfaya in the center. Garnish, if desired with slices or wedges of a boiled egg.

By day, Jennifer Steinhauer, aka Jenny, is the Los Angeles Bureau Chief for The New York Times. By night, she is an obsessive cook.

Jennifer Steinhauer

Tags: everyday cooking

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