Veggies with a Backbone: Spicy Vegetable Dishes

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Mon, Nov 22, 2010 at 1:00 PM

click to enlarge Okra curry at Tara's Himalayan Cuisine - D. GONZALEZ
  • D. Gonzalez
  • Okra curry at Tara's Himalayan Cuisine

One of the most wonderful things about vegetables is their versatility. They can be combined with a wide variety flavors and spices, like bacon with brussel sprouts and mint with peas. But this ability to play nice with others has left many with the impression that, to taste good, vegetables have to be drowned in processed cheese sauce or pureed and baked into brownies. Not so. The best spice pairings for vegetables are those that make the most of the vegetable's own flavors. And one of those ideal matches is chiles.

Strictly speaking, chile peppers are fruits -- which is why they not only impart heat but add flavor. Through drying and smoking, chiles are transformed into a spice. In Mexico, when a chile exhibits both high levels flavor and heat, people say, "That chile turned out really bravo," using the same word used to describe bravery. And at Tara's Himalayan Cuisine, Shu Feng Yuan and Bacaro, chiles are used in dishes that highlight the qualities of the vegetables rather than overshadow them.

In Ayurvedic medicine, a traditional medical system of South Asia, okra is valued for its unique high fiber content that binds to and flushes out toxins and cholesterol. Tara's Himalayan Cuisine specializes in dishes from this region, including a pungent okra curry. The okra is quickly cooked in a slightly oily dry curry mixture and chopped tomatoes. When ordering this dish, they always ask about heat level and when we request spicy, they don't hold back. Since the okra still retains its inherent crispness, there is only the slightest hint of the slipperiness that can turn many off the vegetable. In this dish, chile and vegetable duel -- and both end up winning.

click to enlarge Spicy sautéed tong choy  at Shu Feng Yuan - D. GONZALEZ
  • D. Gonzalez
  • Spicy sautéed tong choy at Shu Feng Yuan

Ong or tong choy is also known as water spinach because both greens share a similar creamy flavor. At the Sichuan restaurant Shu Feng Yuan, the spicy sautéed tong choy is prepared simply, with seemingly handfuls of dried chiles and broth infused with Sichuan peppercorns. The green is cooked until the leaf is wilted but not sodden, and the stems tender but still crunchy. The first thing that hits is the flavor of the green, then the salty numbness from the peppercorns. The heat hits mid chew, straightforward but controlled. It doesn't escalate or overwhelm. (For that, there is the rest of Shu Feng Yuan's chile laden menu.)

Cauliflower is a cruciferous vegetable, belonging to the same family vegetables as broccoli and kale. At Bacaro, their "Noa's" cauliflower is tossed in a chipotle and lemon-spiked aioli. Although the glaze of aioli appears to be light, the smoky heat of the chipotle lingers. Paired with the toasted edges of cauliflower, the flavors meld. The hearty butteriness of the cauliflower and the complexity of the chipotle makes this a more substantial dish than it initially appears. Halfway through the plate, the realization hits: the only way to do battle this dish is by ordering one more glass of wine.

click to enlarge "Noa's" cauliflower at Bacaro - D. GONZALEZ
  • D. Gonzalez
  • "Noa's" cauliflower at Bacaro

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