A couple years back, I was sitting at a table at Thirst & Vine, a wine bar/restaurant since closed, just outside of Milwaukee. I was surrounded by a family that took me in like I was one of their own. We drank more than our share of wine and Spotted Cow, sampled cheeses and olives, and reveled in good company. It is nights like that which make me want to open a restaurant. Our service was friendly and knowledgeable, the atmosphere was intimate without being stuffy, and our food somehow managed to make the table silent, if only briefly, because it’s rude to talk when stuffing food into your month. I savored and shared a classic South African comfort food, bobotie, which consists of curried meats and fruits with a creamy, golden custard-like topping.
I’ve never encountered bobotie on a menu since, though I would order it in a second if I stumbled upon a listing. The savoriness the lamb and nuts, combined with the fruit, and brought together as one with curry, it truly is a spectacular flavor profile. Sweet and savory is probably my very favorite combination, so on a recent day off I perused a bunch of bobotie recipes online and picked out my favorite parts. Dinner was to be shared with the love of my life, so I adjusted the recipe to be vegan; minced meats would be replaced with brown lentils, and a custard topping would achieve the same color and texture with pureed tofu. A lot of prep and a fairly long cooking time build the anticipation for me, but it was well worth the wait. Every bite released another explosion of perfect complementary flavors and had us savoring the last mouthful. Bobotie might not be a common comfort food in America, but it should be.
Vegan Bobotie: 4-6 servings
- 1 large Spanish onion, diced
- 1 large Granny Smith apple, peeled, deseeded, and diced
- 1 Fresno pepper, deseeded and diced
- 2 tbsp ginger, minced
- 1.5 tbsp garlic, minced
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp garam marsala
- 1/2 tbsp hot curry powder
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 2 cups brown lentils
- 4 cups vegetable stock, warmed up
- 4 cups bread, diced
- 2 cups almond milk
- 1/2 cup almonds, sliced or chopped
- 1/4 cup raisins
- 1 package soft tofu
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp ground mustard
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
- 6 bay leaves
- olive oil
- salt and pepper throughout and to taste
Stir the almond milk and the bread together and let marinade while cooking the lentil mixture. Strain the bread through a chinois and set aside.
In a medium saucepan on medium low heat, add 2 tbsp olive oil, onion, apple, pepper, ginger, garlic, salt and pepper. Sweat until fully softened, then add turmeric, garam marsala, curry powder, and coriander and cook for a minute. Add lentils and stir to coat/toast for additional minute. Add 1 cup vegetable stock and stir and cook lentils risotto style, adding 1 cup stock when the liquid is reduced by half. Cook the lentils until al dente, they should have a little bite to them and should not be falling apart. When the lentils are cooked and the mixture has soaked up all the liquid, add the marinated bread, almonds, and raisins, stir until well mixed. Season to taste with salt and pepper. In a 9×13 pan, spread the mixture out evenly.
Preheat oven to 375. In a large mixing cup, combine tofu, turmeric, mustard, nutmeg, and soy sauce. Blend with an immersion blender until well combined. Spread mixture on top of lentil mixture in an even layer and place bay leaves on top. Bake for 20-30 minutes, until golden on top. Remove from oven and let sit for 5 minutes, then serve.