Thursday Night Smackdown: Wherein I Fail to Learn a Lesson

moussaka-plated.jpg
Another mistake, or a deliberate refusal to learn?

I’ve been wanting to start cooking more vegetarian meals; we’re definitely a little meat heavy*, which is both pricey and not super great for us. I’ve got the Moosewood book and Patricia Wells’ Vegetable Harvest, the most butter-and-cream heavy veggie cookbook I’ve ever seen, and I recently picked up a copy of Veganomicon. It’s a vegan cookbook, and I freely admit that while I had read good things about it, I bought it mainly for the title. Because who doesn’t love Evil Dead II? “Give me some sugar, baby.”

I thought I’d use the book this week because I knew I’d be eating a giant hunk of filet mignon at a gala event Wednesday night. Also because I have not learned my lesson about tofu (although as with the mac and cheese, it was not the tofu that doomed this dish (not that the tofu helped)). So: vegan moussaka.

If you don’t want to read about vegan moussaka, I’ll sum it up for you using Brian’s description of the meal: “Tofu? Tofucked.” And I promise animal fats up the wazoo next week.

*Understatement.

moussaka-eggplant.jpg
See? It made the eggplant cry.

Before I launch into the meat seitan of things, I have to say that I am EXHAUSTED from last night’s event. It was my organization’s big yearly fundraiser, held at the UN, and I was on the run from 2 to 10pm. Madeleine Albright was our speaker, and she’s tiny and smart and told a very funny story about a stuffed pigeon. Ann Curry was there as well, and she has a penetrating warmth that borders on painful and causes anyone within a 15-foot radius to fall instantly in love with her. Not that you care about all that crap; the point is that I’m still really, really tired.

So it’s understandable that I would have fallen asleep on the couch tonight after salting my eggplant, meaning my eggplant sat for over an hour instead of 15 minutes. And I know, it’s up in the air whether salting eggplant is even necessary, which makes the final outcome even more irritating.

moussaka-raw-vet.jpg
I don’t own a mandoline. Yes, I am a bad ass.

Traditional moussaka is a baked dish of eggplant and meat sauce (either ground beef or lamb) topped with a thick layer of bechamel. Vegan moussaka omits the meat, instead layering roasted eggplant, zucchini, potatoes and a cinnamon-spiked tomato sauce and topping the whole with a pureed pine nut-tofu “cream”.

I painstakingly sliced the veg with a not-quite-sharp-enough knife. You could see daylight through some of the slices, and I would have patted myself on the back had I not been holding a large knife while covered in eggplant sweat.

Mmmm, eggplant sweat.

moussaka-wine.jpg
Not borscht.

Two enormous trays of paper-thin veg went into a 400 degree oven, so I turned to the sauces (side note: why should it take 25 minutes to cook a sliver of zucchini at 400 degrees? Is it some kind of vegan thing?). The tomato is pretty basic: garlic, shallots, some red wine reduced, tomato. Thanks to Smoke-a-Thon 2008, I have gift bottles of wine a-plenty, and I carefully selected a Spanish red that had a fun orange label.

moussaka-tomato-sauce.jpg
Ragu: It’s in there!

The Greek-ness comes with oregano, a shot of cinnamon, and a bay leaf. Then a quick simmer to reduce and meld the flavors.

You know, Ann Curry isn’t just smart and an excellent journalist, but she has adorable freckles. Ann Curry, if you’re reading this? Call me!

moussaka-nuts.jpg
I never get tired of taking pictures inside the food processor. NEVER.

While I dealt with the veg and tomato sauce, Brian put together the pine nut cream. They call it “pine nut cream” and not “tofu mush” to trick you into thinking it will be good.

moussaka-pine-nut-sauce.jpg
Fooled you!

The pine nut fake-out cream starts with the nuts pureed with lemon. Tofu, nutmeg and garlic go in next along with some arrowroot to help the baked cream set. It tasted…not bad. Lemony, creamy, not super pine-nutty, but a nice texture.

I had higher hopes for the moussaka than the mac and cheese at this point, although that may have been because I don’t like moussaka in the same way. In fact, I’ve never actually had real moussaka, so I figured it would be hard to be let down.

Wait, maybe I DID learn a lesson tonight: no matter what you think about a situation, it’s ALWAYS possible to be let down. But try to stay upbeat. Also stay in school.

moussaka-cooked-veg-1.jpg
It was hard not to just eat all the potatoes.

Did I mention that I don’t have a mandoline?

moussaka-cooked-veg-2.jpg
Okay, I ate a couple.

Really, NO MANDOLINE! I know!

moussaka-layers.jpg
If I were in the midwest, I would call this a “hot dish.”*

I layered all the veggies and tomato sauce in a casserole dish along with some bread crumbs, and spread the pine nut fake-out cream over the top. The moussaka baked for 40 minutes or so while I took a nap in a chair directly in front of the air conditioner. Yes, it was only in the mid-70s, but vegan moussaka really heats the house up.

I wonder what takes more energy: cooling your house while making vegan moussaka, or raising a chicken for food? Not that I’m suggesting anything about the vegan lifestyle.** Just a little thought exercise, like Schroedinger’s Cat but with eggplant.

*I love Minnesotans.

**Although it is the case that I implicitly mistrust anyone who voluntarily chooses not to eat cheese.

moussaka-trash.jpg
Looks almost like something that someone might want to eat.

The moussaka came out nicely browned with some cracks running across the top of the pine nut fake-out cream, which had set up fairly firmly.

Tragically, it was totally inedible; even Brian, who once ate the hollowed-out shell of a deep-fried mushroom filled with ranch dressing – just because, not even on a dare! -couldn’t eat it. Apparently, when you fall asleep on the couch and forget your salted eggplant for an hour you don’t so much draw the bitterness out of the eggplant as you brine the eggplant. And if you’re not familiar with brined items, they’re salty. Really, really fucking salty. Since the brined eggplant had gotten nice and cozy with all the other veggie layers in the moussaka, the whole thing tasted like a salt lick.

The pine nut fake-out cream would probably have been benign if the rest of the dish had been tasty, but the burden of carrying the dessicated eggplant was too much for its fragile, tofu-y shoulders. It was fairly flavorless, and the baking time was so long that it lost most of its creamy texture and turned overly firm and dry. Everything you see above exited the kitchen via the garbage can post-haste.

So we were forced to haul out some leftover turkey and mashed potatoes (from earlier in the week, not from Thanksgiving). We were tired of cooking and don’t own a microwave, so we dumped chopped turkey and potatoes in a pot with a little extra milk and stirred the whole thing together over low heat. Because we are CLASSY MOTHERFUCKERS.

And you know? It was good. Really good.

Final score: Us, 0; Food, 1; Leftovers, 8

43 thoughts on “Thursday Night Smackdown: Wherein I Fail to Learn a Lesson

  1. I really do hope you learned your lesson! And didn’t you watch My Great Big Fat Greek Wedding? Lamb is a vegetable!

  2. To be honest I don’t think I’ll ever understand the joys of veganism, but I’m all for trying new combinations of things…sorry bout your run of bad luck with the tofu, perhaps it’s a sign…I have a great book, “The Accidental Vegetarian” by Simon Rimmer, no tofu in sight and seriously mouthwatering stuff, if you are looking for something inspiring I recommend it. And I’m soooo in awe of your mandoline-like slicing skills :)

  3. I used to work in a hospital whose public cafeteria was vegetarian only (not hip California vegetarian – a “don’t eat mean or you’ll burn in hell” religious place). The more they tried to make meat-laden products acceptable by replacing dead animal parts with tofu, soy, or ground nuts, the closer to inedible the food got. Unsuspecting visitors routinely spat out the “Not Dogs”, the meatballs made nuts, and the “Picnic Bar” featuring all-phony cold cuts. My lesson learned: vegetarians who crave meat so much they have to fake it probably won’t stick to the plan (and maybe should listen to their body talking). Although I could definitely eat vegetarian Indian and not miss a beat – it’s the richest, most satisfying vegetarian food I’ve had because of technique and spices.

  4. First off, your slicing skills are beyond comment – nothing I could say would do justice.

    I understand the need to swear off meat for a minute after that unbelievable porkening, but WHY oh WHY must you turn to the evil tofu and why must you go completely vegan (vegan = bat-shit-crazy)? There are sooooo many wonderful dishes that don’t happen to include meat but have nothing to do with tofu. I can only hope you have learned your lesson and will return to the fold (the fold being a place where people don’t eat tofu (and also, when they come home exhausted after working til 10 PM they order out and say they didn’t). Not to go all Oprah on your ass, but if you don’t take care of yourself……….what will I read every Friday morning that’ll get me up laughing my ass off hungry?

  5. As a not-really vegetarian — you will pry garlic prawns out of my cold dead hands — I would second the points above. Indian veggie food is fabulous. Don’t bother with meat replacement products; I’m convinced it takes several years for your palate to “forget” the taste of meat. And tofu is best coated in panko breadcrumbs and deep-fried — as is so much in life.

    But if you want decent vegan food, try this: Halve red bell peppers and put in a couple of chopped tomatoes. Pour over some olive oil, chopped herbs, and balsamic vinegar. Season. Put in the oven and bake for about 30 minutes at 400. Serve with salad and roast new potatoes (with garlic, rosemary, and roast lemons). Easy and delicious.

  6. Now you can get back to cooking! I applaud your efforts to work with tofu, but as several others have said, you can do vegetarian without getting into the tofu side of things!
    And you’re right about Ann Curry.She’s almost like a drug or something. I haven’t heard any one say anything bad about her.
    Unlike tofu.

  7. You know your subconscious made you sabatoge this meal. You guys remind me of my CS,a true German meat lover if ever there was one. He wont let me tof*** him.:-)

  8. you don’t own a microwave???

    i applaud your attempt at tofu ( i will NEVER attempt) but now you can really say NO to that bean curd

  9. Veganomicon….brilliant. Those are excellent movies and you have just gained my respect. (Oh yes, you did not previously have it.)

  10. jess, i vow to bring you bacon next week. oh yes, i will.

    susan, i know, i know. i’m sorry.

    dp, i don’t know how i forgot that, considering that just this morning i sprayed some windex on a zit that just erupted near my chin.

    laura, thanks for the recommendation, i’ll definitely check it out. i’ve been burned by the tofu, but i’m not ready to give up.

    tim, yeah, some of the recipes in the book – like the “beanball” parm sandwich – make my left eye twitch.

    anna, i almost made vegan “snobby joes” (lentils instead of meat), but thought i would give tofu a second chance. NEVER AGAIN.

    forkful, i do it for all of YOU. so you will learn from my mistakes. my terrible, terrible mistakes.

    rachel, yeah, i know. the chickpeas and lentils at my local indian/pakistani joint rule the school. but i HAD TO TRY, CAN’T YOU PEOPLE SEE?

    mary, her voice is seriously hypnotic.

    courtney, that had not occurred to me, but i think you may be right.

    pam, no, we have limited kitchen real estate and didn’t want to give any of it up to the microwave. mostly i don’t even notice, since i only really ever used it to melt chocolate, which is easily done on the stove.

    andy, why would you assume i want it. touche!

  11. Why ruin something as beautiful as pine nuts with something like tofu? Tofu needs to stay in Asian cooking and never venture forth onto my plate as a substitute for meat, cheese, ice cream, or any other delicious animal-fat-laden food.

    I find most foods that are deliberately vegan taste like ass. I swear every time I make an effort to make a vegan recipe, it’s always seriously nasty and inedible. It’s one thing to make yourself a plate of rice and beans beacuse it’s cheap and easy. It’s another to make a lentil loaf because you think it’s better for you not to eat animal products.

    If people want to be vegan, more power to ‘em, but my thought is if you are going to go without animal products, suck it up and eat your nuts and berries. Eating some overly-processed, weirdly flavored, chemical laden meat subsitute product can’t be all that much better for you, and it shows the world you still want meat enough to eat some imitation of it. And yes, Indian food is such an excellent place to start eating vegetarian food that’s *gasp* NATURAL.

    I solved the small kitchen/microwave problem by putting one over the stove. It’s a microwave/convection oven, so it also gives me more oven space. You should consider it.

    I’ve always salted my eggplants before cooking with them. Eggplant gives me the same mouth burn as walnuts, and the salting seems to help with that. Somehow I don’t think it was the eggplant salting that ruined this dish.

  12. To Rachel: once I went to a dinner party that nobody had told me was going to be vegan. I was served a piece of vegan “cheesecake” that was essentially a weepy piece of tofu in a piecrust that managed to be both soggy and oily. I didn’t know whether to kill myself or the host.

    To Michelle: back when I was in culinary school and gaining about 4 pounds a week from the sudden upsurge in my cream intake (it was a French school) I decided that I was going to go vegan for a month to offset the bulge. In three days of veganism I gained another three pounds. I think it’s because you end up (a)eating a lot of stodgy carbs, for lack of variety, and (b)overeating, because nothing tastes good enough to satisfy. Eventually I lost all the weight in 6 weeks just by graduating and reverting to a normal, omnivore diet. Not that I am implying that you have weight to lose; it’s simply that, to my mind, if something both tastes bad AND makes you fatter, it’s got to go.

  13. I’m of the opinion that the only way vegetarianism can ever be tolerable is by incorporating large amounts of cheese…

  14. Hahahaha…you fell for the guilt-ridden siren song of vegetarian cooking? I do that every now and then too. Makes that next hunk of meat taste even sweeter, doesn’t it? Anthony Bourdain said it best : “The vegetarians are bad enough….then there is their Hezbollah-like offshoot, the vegans!” The good thing about vegans is you can give them a raft of shit and they’re too weak from a lack of animal protein to fight back……..

  15. rachel, it was definitely the eggplant. i’ve salted them before too, but never let them sit that long. when we picked the dish apart to taste the individual components, it was painfully evident that the eggplant was the culprit.

    i’m with you on the whole fake-meat thing. you’re vegan, therefore you don’t get to eat any chicken parm. end of story.

    michele, you should have killed the host. tofu cheesecake? it’s like when a place near my apartment started selling low-carb bagels. it’s a fucking bagel! a big ring of carbs! makes we want to punch a wall, but i don’t because i’m a delicate flower.

    aimee, she’s like a black hole of wonderfulness.

    isabelle, that what i’m saying! it’s why the vegans can’t be trusted. soy cheese? a communist plot!

    bb, how long do you think it takes anthony bourdain to think of all his bons mots? i think he dedicates part of every day to brainstorming them, and keeps them in a little notebook until such time as he can deploy them appropriately.

  16. I know, he must. If he wasn’t such a great fucking writer I’d be much more resentful. After cratering his brain on booze and drugs somehow the “really clever writer” part remained intact. Go figure!

  17. Wow. I feel sort of like Woody Allen in the dinner scene at Annie’s house, but how could I not comment on such a dismal sounding result? That is definitely one unappetizing-looking moussaka.

    I have to agree about Veganomicon–an unfortunate introduction to the world of vegan food. Personally, I would much prefer something like this .(And tofu? Well, let’s just say it’s an acquired taste).

  18. Food without meat or dairy can be extremely delicious. The problem is that vegans have some kind of aversion to spices (and secretly really, really want their food to taste like meat and cheese), therefore creating disgusting, underseasoned veg dishes that you have to close your eyes and imagine a porkchop going down and even then it tastes like overcooked flavorless carrots. I tell you, it takes hard work to make food that bland.

    I would recommend finding a good side dish lacking meat, and jazzing it up a little. And tofu is a gelatinous cube of bean curds that will never taste good without frying, sake, soy sauce, etc.

  19. This just goes to show: never eat food invented by orthorexics who defiantly give a “Fuck You” to the laws of evolutionary biology. If you want tasty veg food, just stick to (non-extruded-fish-noodle) Asian stuff.

  20. you didn’t rinse off the eggplant before using it? uh oh! no wonder things tasted like you’d been sucking down the dead sea. i like vegetarian mousaka but we don’t use tofu. i dislike tofu mostly because it leaves wool sweaters on my teeth for some reason.

    anyway, ours does use cheese and also uses chick peas. it’s pretty good and since i dislike lamb with an intensity that some find frightening, the vegetarian option is a good one for me.

  21. bb, yeah, maybe that’s why i can tolerate his writing but not his speaking.

    ricki, can a tasteless thing be an acquired taste? a philosophical conundrum! discuss amongst yourselves.

    crimson, there are lots of meatless dishes that i love. just trying to expand the ol’ horizons, because can 17 angry vegans be wrong? (Yes.)

    WANF, failure often is.

    heather, one day i will learn. or, you know, not.

    naomi, oh i rinsed it. i rinsed it but good.

  22. Effing A. What an ordeal…being disappointed after so much work is SUCH a pita. Gawd I love your stories, Michelle! And–OH! You love us Minnesotans, hey? We love you, too. MUAC! :)

  23. so last year i was raw vegan for 4 months. not just like salads, etc but the gournet shit. tons o nuts, it was interesting no doubt. a lotta work. i am the proud owner of every damn raw food (un)cookbook in the land. but never tofu. it’s highly processed – almost unnatural, in a sense.

    today i leave for california for 3 weeks of raw vegan, sans nuts… as in juicing/simple salads… gotta get my system all clean so i can meat it up in nyc and chicago.

    there is no balance in my world…

  24. Vegan just doesn’t seem right to me…way too much time spent trying to imitate REAL, good tasting food! You should at least get a 1/2 a point for even trying this recipe!!!

  25. I actually made this recipe a few weeks ago and served it to a bunch of non-veggie friends who loved it. They weren’t even sparing my feelings–they had seconds! My very meat-eating boyfriend thought it was just ok. And I’m actually not a vegan, but I do love me some tofu…

  26. Don’t cry, little aubergines! I couldn’t be vegan, but I actually do eat a largely vegetarian diet since I’m not a fan of red meat. There’ll be a breakthrough one day!!

    Pine-nut fake-out cream sounds kind of scary though o__O.

  27. Unlike the tofu mac and cheese, which looked deceptively delicious in the photo, the top of that moussaka looks pretty sawdusty. Between that and the brined eggplant, you both deserve points for even trying to eat it.

    Unrelated note: last night I made your recipe for pea/fava/mint puree-stuffed pasta in lamb whatsit-sauce, and it was fucking amazing. I’m betting it’ll be even better as leftovers tonight.

  28. I’ve made this recipe myself and I think it is really yummy! I didn’t bother salting my eggplant – I like it bitter. Your tastebuds obviously suck.

  29. canary, of course i love you! you have the corn palace, and the BEST STATE FAIR in all the land. all foods on sticks, all the time!

    claudia, i guess you have to do something to clear the pork belly out of your system.

    judy, i think it’s okay as long as you’re making good vegan food and not trying to imitate. of course, i only say that because none of my imitations seem to work out.

    megan, it would not shock me in any way to learn that i had fucked something up while making this. because it sounded really good in theory. i mean, i clearly DID fuck something up.

    indigo, i love the word aubergine. i would start using it instead of the mundane “eggplant” if it wouldn’t make me sound like a complete tool here in the US.

    carolyn, not too many points – we didn’t try very hard. at least, i didn’t.

    yay! i’m glad you made that dish and loved it. i totally pulled that one out of my ass, so i needed the corroboration.

    ricki, ha.

    amy, maybe they do. maybe i fucked up the recipe. maybe i fucked up the recipe AND my tastebuds suck. maybe the moon is made of hamburger meat. so many options to ponder.

  30. I don’t know why so many of you think that all vegans eat is meat replacements (which, incidently, how many of you have tried, or read the ingredients of? I think you’ll find some of them are far more natural than the meat that you eat (hello antibiotics and hormones)).

    Myself and most of the vegans I know might use them when first becoming vegan, as it’s easy just to swap the food we know for a vegan replacement of it, until we collect loads of awesome cookbooks and learn to make healthy meals with a really healthy variety of ingredients. But it’s not ALL we eat – they are just ‘convenience food’! Most vegans enjoy trying all sorts of new foods and recipes.

    Just like meat-eaters, there are good and bad vegan cooks! So a mousaka that you have never tried before, maybe you just aren’t a fan of it, maybe it’s your cooking rather than veganism as a whole? A bad experience of tofu cheezecake – perhaps it was their first time or the recipe went wrong? Have you ever tried one ‘professionally made’ from a cafe or restaurant? ‘Pine Nut Cream’ – doesn’t taste like dairy cream??! No?! What a let down for the vegan side!! I, as a vegan, would hate something that tasted like dairy cream. I doubt the author of the recipe was trying to make a dairy analogue – it’s just an interpretation of the original make-up of traditional mousaka. And as for flavour – it’s acting as a ‘white sauce’ – there ISN’T much flavour to white sauce!! It’s very narrow minded to discount something that you haven’t even tried, simply from one person’s attempt at making it, where they admit they didn’t even put much effort into it!

    It IS a shame to put so much time into making a new dish and not find it edible at the end – maybe you should pick a more simple dish next time, like a salad or baked item – you might find it easier and more enjoyable, rather than trying one of the more complex dishes, spending loads of time on it, messing it up, and then claiming tofu is always horrible.

    I don’t try and tell people what to think – I give suggestions, and keep an open mind. I think some of the other commenters here would benefit from opening their minds a little rather than just dismissing something as crap because it’s ‘different’.

  31. jamie, thanks for taking the time to visit and comment. it’s not really such a shame to put effort into a new dish and dislike it – that’s what the smackdown is all about! sometimes, you fuck shit up. or, if you’re me, often you fuck shit up.

    everyone, i think you’ve convinced me to take a long break from tofu. or at least, not to write about it. not because i dislike it (which i’m still not convinced i do, because i still blame the eggplant here), but because the vehemence from the lovers and haters is a little frightening. it’s SOYBEANS, people. SOYBEANS. control yourselves!

  32. Pingback: thursday night smackdown » Tight Ass Tuesday: Beans and Quin

  33. as someone who loves to eat and cook with meat and is dating a vegetarian…I often find myself struggling to reach a middle ground between delicious and veg. HOWEVER – as someone who lives in Hoboken, there is a delicious, inexpensive restaurant called Angelica Kitchen in the LES of the city. It definitely opens your eyes to what is possible with tofu (eek) and other items of the sort.

  34. Pingback: thursday night smackdown » Smackdown: Disappointment

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