Baby spinach is sautéed with sweet onion and chilies then tossed over high heat with balsamic vinegar and honey. It’s a deliciously flavored dish but, by itself, it doesn’t elicit a lot of excitement. Neither does it invoke a sense of anticipation. In vegetarian cooking, that can spell disaster. The key to a delicious vegetarian meal is to layer the textures, flavors and colors. No one told me that. That’s the conclusion I have drawn after almost three years of observing my vegetarian daughter, Sam, and how her appetite responds to the meatless dishes that I cook for her.
What does that mean — layer the textures, flavors and colors? The “colors” part is obvious and probably the easiest of all. The eyes “eat” before the mouth does, as they say, and an attractive dish does affect the appetite. Vegetables are more colorful than meat and one only has to make sure that a vegetarian dish does not exhibit a monotonous monochrome.
“Flavors” is the next easiest component. Instead of a dish that is exclusively or dominantly salty, for example, the taste buds are tickled more effectively by a myriad of flavors. Vietnamese food comes to mind with its refreshing blend of salty, sweet, sour and spicy.
“Texture” is the most challenging part. While it is easy enough to create multiple textures with a piece of meat (fried chicken, for instance, that is crisp outside but moist inside), cooking techniques that work for meat do not always work with vegetables which cannot withstand prolonged exposure to the heat. What I do is add extra ingredients to add texture. In this recipe, the extra ingredients are the egg and the toasted nuts.
Chili spinach with balsamic vinegar and honey
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1/4 cup chopped onion (you want a regular chop here; see illustrated guide on chopping)
- 2 to 3 bird's eye chilies thinly sliced into rings
- salt and pepper to taste
- large handful baby spinach rinsed and drained well
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 1 egg fried or poached, seasoned with salt and pepper
- toasted nuts (I used cashew but feel free to substitute some other nut)
- Melt the butter in a pan. Sweat the chopped onion and chilies with a bit of salt and pepper until softened.
- Turn up the heat. Add the spinach to the pan. Sprinkle with more salt and pepper. Cook, uncovered, over high heat, turning the spinach over often, until the mixture is almost dry.
- Pour in the balsamic vinegar and honey. Continue cooking for another minute.
- Taste and add more salt and pepper, as needed.
To assemble the dish in the photo: Spread rice on a plate. Top with the spinach; drizzle in a tablespoonful or so of the sauce. Arrange the egg on top of the spinach. Sprinkle with toasted nuts.
For a vegan version, substitute cooking oil for the butter and omit the egg.