Quick and Easy (Vegan) Thai Red Curry Sweet Potato Soup

My birthday is this weekend, and my husband gave me a perfect present: an immersion blender!  (I know I’m an ~adult~ now because the only thing I wanted for my birthday was a kitchen appliance… oh god.)  As I told him when I opened it, “I hope you don’t like chewing!”–because this season is going be full of soups and dips and sauces!

I just wanted to quickly share the first soup I made: a super tasty, super easy Thai red curry sweet potato soup.  

We literally have three tubs (not jars, tubs) of Thai red curry paste in the kitchen right now, and I’m all about the orange vegetables this season, so my soup choice was only natural.  But when I googled around a little bit for a vegan red curry sweet potato soup, I couldn’t find one I liked (or many at all)! So I endeavored to make my own.

thai-red-curry-sweet-potato-soup

It really couldn’t be easier.  Here’s my totally unprofessional but totally delicious recipe (it makes a big ol’ pot… really, a big one):

4 sweet potatoes, skinned and chopped up
3 medium-large carrots, chopped
1 large onion (I used red, but I think yellow would also be fine)
1 small head cauliflower, cut into florets
4 cloves garlic (okay, I used like 6, but garlic is basically my favorite food)
1.5″ piece of ginger, grated
4 tbsp Thai red curry paste (use half that amount if you don’t like spicy food!!! I’m a heat fiend!)
250ml coconut milk (or a can, whatever)
water (you could use stock and it’d be even better, but I didn’t have any)
salt and pepper
oil for sauteing the onions
green onions for topping (OPTIONAL)
bread for dipping (OPTIONAL)

1. Wash and chop your veggies.  I peeled both the sweet potatoes and the carrots, but really only because of contamination concerns.
2. Saute your onions in a bit of oil till soft, and throw in the cauliflower about halfway through.  (You can just do this in the bottom of your soup pot.)
3. Add the garlic, ginger, and curry paste and saute for a minute more before you toss in the sweet potatoes and carrots.  Add enough water to cover the vegetables, as well as your coconut milk and a pinch of salt and a dash of pepper, and bring to a low boil.
4. Boil till everything is soft, probably 10 or 15 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces.
5. Blend it up!  If you don’t have an immersion blender, you can also pour it into a standing blender for this stage.  Just be careful!  You don’t want to burn yourself, so pour carefully and don’t fill your blender too full.
6. Add more salt and pepper to your liking, and serve!  You can top it with any number of things: nutritional yeast, pepper, green onions, cilantro… whatever floats your boat!  It’s great on its own or with bread for dipping.

See?  SO EASY!  I’m going to be making this all fall!  If you try it out, let me know what you think in the comments!

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Vegan Cook-Off #2: Daikon Radish!

Yesterday we spent another day getting creative in the kitchen for our second Vegan Chef Cook-Off.  This time, our secret ingredient was a bit trickier.  Everyone loves butternut squash (except for my husband, apparently), but how many people love daikon radish?  I haven’t personally met any.  It’s not that daikon radish is bad, by any means (done right, it’s even good!), but it’s a bit… well… niche.  Let’s say niche.

I was intimidated when Nathan announced the secret ingredient, for sure.  I’ve eaten it a handful of times living in China, but I’ve only cooked with it once—Nathan and I made some daikon radish noodle lo mien sometime last year.  It was fine, but it can’t have been that good, because we never cooked with daikon radish again.  I collect vegan recipes and read them in my spare time in my ongoing effort to suck up knowledge about cooking and go from What-Is-Food to The-Best-Home-Cook-Of-All-Time, and I only have one daikon radish recipe saved.  It’s for raw daikon radish fries, and it warns that “you may want to use jicama […] if you’re new to raw food and the flavors that go with it.”

So I knew this was going to be tough.

daikon-radish-cook-off-ingredients
This is not all of the ingredients we used, but it is everything we bought at the market for the competition.

Without further ado, let’s get into the dishes!  Just like last time, Nathan served his for a late lunch and I served mine for dinner.  This time, he served sometime between 1pm and 2pm.  One thing he did really well in this round of the competition is he served a cohesive meal with each dish featuring daikon radish, rather than a random collection of mismatched daikon radish dishes.

spicy-pickled-daikon-radish

Dish #1: Spicy pickled daikon radish

When I considered what I would do with daikon radish, my first thought was a take on the spicy pickled radishes that every casual restaurant here serves as an appetizer by the tub.  Unfortunately, Nathan beat me to it, declaring almost immediately that he needed to let one of his dishes sit overnight (we had originally planned to hold the competition on Monday).  Even more unfortunately, he rather bungled it.

The ingredients he used for this dish were daikon radish, rice vinegar, cooking wine, sugar, salt, and red Thai chili peppers.  The idea was solid, but when he took the dish out of the refrigerator in the morning after leaving it to ferment (or whatever) overnight, he discovered the taste of the cooking wine was overwhelming, and he couldn’t regain a balance after that.

After tasting this botched dish, we turned to the main course…

daikon-radish-sushi

Dish #2: Daikon radish sushi

My husband is the sushi man in the house.  I’ve made sushi only once, but it’s a real part of his repertoire.  He’s quite good at it, too, I think!  He tried a new method of turning the Thai rice we keep in the house into sushi rice, by chopping it up after cooking.  I thought it worked out pretty well, but he says he does not recommend it.  It does turn the rice into a bit more of a homogenous paste, while his usual method of cooking the rice with far too much water allows the rice to maintain its natural grainy qualities better.

While this dish was quite tasty, the daikon radish didn’t seem like an integral part of any of the sushi rolls.  It added a bit of that radish-y dimension to the taste, but I don’t think the sushi would have been noticeably different without the radish.

Finally, and much to my surprise, Nathan presented a daikon radish beverage

apple-and-radish-smoothieDish #3: Apple and daikon radish smoothie

Wow!  This drink was… an enigma.  When you took a sip, you were initially punched in the face by the radish.  Raw radish has a sensation that reminds me of wasabi, in that you feel it in your face as much as you taste it (or possibly more).  So you would take a sip, taste the radish, then feel the radish bloom through your face, and then it would mellow out into a pretty regular, sweet smoothie.

That sounds terrible when I type it out, and for the first sip I was so not on board.  But, inexplicably, I wanted a second sip.  And then I wanted a third.  The series of events that happened when I consumed a little bit of the smoothie (which could only be consumed in little bits) was so confounding and unusual that I couldn’t stop.  What’s more, the more I drank it, the better I liked it.

This was a truly creative offering.  I have never personally pulled off such culinary creativity.  I was, oddly enough, quite impressed.

For this one, Nathan blended equal parts sweet apples and daikon radish.  He also added a little bit of melon (the cause of the slight orange color), but he maintains that this was a mistake, as it didn’t add much to the flavor but mellowed out the combination of apples and radish.  Actually, he’s making me a plain apple-and-radish smoothie as I type this, to show me his original intent.  I’m excited, but I’m also pretty nervous!

After tasting his dishes, I felt pretty confident about my chances with my dinner, if I’m being honest.  I won the last round, and I was still high off that victory.  Besides, he had a dish that totally flopped!  I could at least be confident that that wouldn’t happen!

So, when dinner time rolled around, I made two offerings:

bahn-mi-bowl

Dish #4: Bahn Mi Bowl

I’ve run into a lot of panzanella recipes lately, and the idea really intrigues me.  So when I saw a recipe for a “Vietnamese panzanella,” I was instantly intrigued.  I read through the recipe, but, since it’s against our rules to follow recipes, I winged it from there.  Unfortunately, I forgot to make note of my process this time, so I can’t provide you with an exact recipe for the bowl I made.  It’s very similar in ingredients to the above recipe, though—I replaced the regular radishes with daikon radish, made up my own tofu marinade, used peanut oil instead of olive oil, and otherwise tried to replicate the concept without following a recipe.

It didn’t entirely work.

The panzanella idea is great, and I’ll definitely be doing that again.  The bahn mi idea is great, and I’ll definitely be making a bahn mi in the future.  But the bowl I made was pretty imbalanced in terms of flavor, too heavy on the vinegar and sharpness, and by the time I served it (I let it sit while I made the second dish), it was cold—I thought it would have been better warm.

To be honest, I was pretty disappointed in the results I had here.

My other dish, though… my OTHER dish was fantastic!

daikon-radish-bites

Dish #5: Daikon Radish Bites

When I started researching, I saw a lot of Chinese or Taiwanese daikon radish cakes.  I considered cooking these, but if I’m being totally honest, they sounded pretty bad to me.  I love Chinese food… but that doesn’t mean I love all Chinese food.  Some of the more chewy-textured dishes leave me pretty turned off, and daikon radish cakes sounded like they would fall into this category.

But it did give me an idea.  I remembered the zucchini fritters I made over the summer (which didn’t turn out great texturally, but were a great concept with great flavors), and I thought… why not westernize daikon radish cakes?

I grated up maybe 1/3 or 1/2 of a large daikon radish, and mixed that with about half a large grated carrot (if you replicate this dish, grate the carrot smaller than the daikon radish).  I sprinkled it with salt, let it sit for a while, and then squeezed out as much moisture as I could.  I added some sweet potato starch and a very small potato, boiled and blended so that it was more of a potato paste.  This and the sweet potato starch were my binders, so once I added them I mixed it all up and squeezed it together until it was all kind of sticking to itself.  Then I seasoned it with a generous sprinkle of chives, garlic, and ginger powder (I have a jar of that all combined), some additional ginger powder, and a large pinch of “Chinese Spice for BBQ.”  (I don’t know what’s in that, or if that’s a common spicy blend you’ll find anywhere else.  Those are the only English words on the bag, haha.  I imagine some chili powder or something like that would be a fine replacement.  It just smells spicy and smoky.)  Then I formed little bites, about the size of the hollow if I cup the palm of my hand, but flat and squared.  I mixed together some bread crumbs with a generous amount of crushed red pepper flakes and coated the bites in the mixture.  Finally, I filled a frying pan with a thin layer of peanut oil and fried all of the bites for a couple minutes on each side, until browned.  I think this made about 10, but I ate a couple before they made it to the table!

These were REALLY good, especially dipped in mushroom soy sauce.  The crispy outside with the sort of creamy inside made Nathan call them the plant-based, Chinese answer to mozzarella sticks.  Not that they actually taste anything like mozzarella sticks, but they fulfill a similar desire.  These were definitely the best dish of the day—and I have enough radish left over to make another batch today!

daikon-radish

So, here are the dish rankings for yesterday’s competition, from best to worst:

  1. Daikon Radish Bites – this was a truly fantastic dish which will definitely be repeated regularly in our home (but not too regularly, because, while nutritious, they are certainly not healthy) – 5/5 all around!
  2. Apple and Radish Smoothie – a very strange and surprisingly successful offering… I recommend you try it, but make sure you keep an open mind!! And don’t expect to drink a lot of it at once.  By the way, we turned the leftovers into popsicles! – 3/5 for taste but 5/5 for creativity and intrigue
  3. Daikon Radish Sushi – a good dish, but a dish that didn’t necessarily require or feature the daikon radish – 4/5 in taste, but 3/5 for its use of the radish
  4. Bahn Mi Bowl – conceptually interesting, but the radish was more of a side note than a feature, and the end product was far too vinegary. A regular bahn mi would be better, and this wasn’t really worth all the time it took – 3/5 all around
  5. Spicy Pickled Daikon Radish – a dish that we know is delicious if done properly, but our rendition was not done properly – 1/5, we threw the rest away

The overall winner?  NATHAN!  Congratulations, babe.  This time you whupped my butt.  My confidence after lunch was unfounded!  This just goes to show that creativity really counts.

Follow my blog to see what our next secret ingredient will be!

Vegan Cook-Off #1: Butternut Squash!

My husband and I have been watching a lot of Iron Chef lately—the original Japanese one.  Sometime in between laughing at the Chairman’s anime-inspired outfits, cheering on Chen Kenichi, our favorite Iron Chef, and predicting the outcome of every episode, we decided that our own, in-house Iron Chef competition would be a good way to work on our burgeoning cooking skills and get creative in the kitchen.  We’ve been sitting on this idea for a couple of weeks, but today, on the first day of an eleven-day staycation, we finally decided to take the plunge.

I had the honor of choosing today’s secret ingredient, and I knew almost immediately what I wanted to use.  It’s one of my favorite vegetables, but one I don’t eat very often.  It’s orange, perfect for fall—and, even though it’s still in the 80s most days here in Chengdu, it’s almost October, and to me that means it’s fall!  Have you guessed the ingredient yet?  No, not pumpkin.  Butternut squash!

butternut-squash
The theme ingredient, ready for its close-up!

Once I announced the secret ingredient, Nathan and I started the research phase (we’re beginners, okay?) and hammered out some rules.

THE RULES

  1. No more than three dishes per person.
  2. No cooking something you’ve made before, and no following a recipe (though recipes may be used for inspiration).
  3. The secret ingredient needs to be a major player in each of the dishes—none of this garnish bullshit.

We determined that Nathan would serve his dishes first, in the afternoon, and I would serve mine as a late dinner.  I knew that I was at a bit of an advantage here: butternut squash fits my style of cooking better than Nathan’s, and I would have more time to perfect my dishes.  (On the other hand, I’m a notoriously slow cook, so I might need every second of that time!)

I was banned from the kitchen while Nathan made his dishes, but I can tell you that they smelled wonderful from the living room!

His first dish was finished around 4.30pm.  When I asked him for a name, he called it “Street Squash,” and it was easy to see why.  It was a butternut squash dish taking strong inspiration from the spicy potatoes we regularly buy from the street food vendors in Chengdu.

vegan-cook-off-street-squash

I can’t give you recipes for Nathan’s dishes (trade secrets, he says), but I can tell you the ingredients he used:

Butternut squash (of course), a combination of several soy sauces, walnut milk, salt, a combination of Chinese spicy oils, Sichuan numbing powder, rice vinegar, anise, ginger, scallions, Thai red chili peppers, green chili peppers, dou ban jiang (a fermented bean-based chili sauce), paprika, cilantro, and an ingredient that looks like tiny white shoots of bamboo.  For the life of me, no matter how much I google that ingredient, I can’t figure out what it is!

Anyway, this one was exciting for me because I love spicy food, and I’ve never had spicy butternut squash before.  When I thought of butternut squash dishes, what came to mind was comfort food-savory and fruity-sweet.  This was totally different from what I would have thought to make!  Quite good, but I also thought that the spiciness overwhelmed the squash a little.  Its inspiration was quite clear to see, and it was a very creative approach!  But, even as a queen of spicy food, I think it would have been a little more enjoyable with a slightly more toned-down spice profile.  Nevertheless, a great offering from Nathan!

His second dish was finished about ten minutes later—a butternut squash burger!  Actually, it was sort of closer to a sloppy joe in texture, but more like a burger in presentation (by which I mean toppings).  For this one, Nathan gave the disclaimer that the buns he’d bought for this turned out to be sweet buns, which was not at all the effect he was going for.  I thought it was good, though!

vegan-cook-off-butternut-squash-burger

For this dish he made a loose patty out of butternut squash, garlic, green onions, and yellow onions sautéed with a bit of thyme, basil, and a tiny bit of paprika for a smoky taste.  He put these on the buns with sriracha, tomato, lettuce, and some leftover vegan cheese sauce that I made for mac and cheese a few days ago.  Another success from Nathan!

As for me, I decided to make three dishes: butternut squash bruschetta, butternut squash mac and cheese, and a curried butternut squash stew.  I read a few recipes for inspiration, but ultimately I made these dishes up as I went along.  I’ve tried to provide approximate recipes below, in case anyone is interested in replicating my dishes at home!  Keep in mind that I’m a pretty inexperienced cook, but these recipes are great starting points!

vegan-butternut-squash-bruschetta

Butternut Squash and Apple Bruschetta

This one is a super easy appetizer with an unexpected and sophisticated taste!  I had the idea because sometime last year I roasted butternut squash, onions, and apples together and it was (to this date) one of the best things I’ve ever cooked—but it’s against the cook-off rules to repeat a dish you’ve made before, so I had to change it up somehow.  So I figured hey—who doesn’t love bread?

Recipe

2 cups cubed butternut squash
½ red onion
a little brown sugar
a dash of balsamic vinegar
a little oil (I used peanut oil because it’s what I had on hand, but I suspect olive oil would taste better)
a baguette
an apple

butternut-squash-bruschetta-ingredients

This really couldn’t be easier.  Cube your butternut squash and toss it in a very light coating of oil—this is just to add a little flavor and help it soften up when you roast it.  Sprinkle a tiny bit of brown sugar over it for flavor.  Spread it on a baking sheet and stick it in the oven at about 200C until it’s very soft.  This took me about 40 minutes, but it should take you a lot less time—my tiny oven is extremely inefficient.

Meanwhile, caramelize the onions on your stove.  Cut them up into whatever size pieces you like (I did about 1-inch pieces, but you can do smaller if you’re not an onion fiend like me) and sautee them in some oil over low heat.  Once they’re softened up and well-cooked, add a pinch of sugar (I used brown sugar) and a dash of balsamic vinegar—this’ll allow it to caramelize.  Keep cooking it on low heat, stirring it often enough that it doesn’t burn or stick to the pan, until it’s caramelized to your liking.  This should take 15 or 20 minutes total.

Once your butternut squash and your onions are done, toss them in a blender together and blend until smooth.  The onions do not need to be blended—it’s just important that they’re well mixed in to the soft butternut squash puree.

Meanwhile, cut 1/2-inch slices from your baguette on a diagonal so they look all fancy.  Brush a light coating of oil onto these and spread them out on a baking sheet.  Toast them in your oven for just a couple of minutes—keep a close eye on these, because you don’t want them to burn.  You just want them to get a little crispy.  While these are in the oven, cut your apple into thin slices, maybe 1/4-inch thick.

Once you have them out of the oven, spread a little of your butternut and onion puree on each piece of bread and top with an apple slice.  I meant to drizzle a little balsamic vinegar over the top of these, but I forgot (and besides, the vinegar I was working with wasn’t really balsamic vinegar, it was “aromatic vinegar”).  Another good way to serve would be to sprinkle cinnamon over the top (but I can only find cinnamon sticks here, not ground cinnamon).  Serve immediately and enjoy!

Nathan and I both loved these.  The fresh apple really brightens the bruschetta and offers textural complexity, and the flavors of butternut squash, apple, and onion will always be a hit.

Next, the Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese!

vegan-butternut-squash-mac-and-cheese

This one is heavily inspired by the butternut squash mac and cheese recipe over at Veggie Inspired Journey, so rather than tell you my version, I’ll direct you to theirs.  I upped the butternut squash content and threw in half a red onion as well as the sweet onion it called for, tweaked the proportions of the ingredients in the sauce, added a whole heap o’ nooch (I eyeballed it, so “a whole heap” is really the best word for it), and ditched the nutmeg because I didn’t have any.  Then I sprinkled breadcrumbs on the final product for a little textural interest.

butternut-squash-vegan-mac-and-cheese-ingredients
You may notice some bok choy in this photo that doesn’t appear in the final dish–that’s because I forgot!  I tore it up and steamed it to fold in at the end, but when plating time came, the bok choy got left behind!  But I think this dish would be great with some greens added–bok choy, spinach, kale, broccoli… dealer’s choice!

This was great!  Both Nathan and I went back for seconds after I presented my final dish, even though we were already stuffed from five butternut squash dishes in the course of five-or-so hours!

And finally… Butternut Squash Curried Lentil Stew

vegan-butternut-squash-coconut-curried-lentils
No veggies left to stage the photo with, the stew stands alone…

This was our least favorite of the dishes I served.  It was still pretty good, but it wasn’t as complex of a flavor as we wanted or expected, particularly given the fact that it had the most ingredients of any of the dishes.  I read several recipes for curried butternut squash soups before sort of combining them all for this dish.

Recipe

4-ish cups of cubed butternut squash (but I bet you could do more and it’d be tastier)
6 cups of water
250ml (or a can, the more the merrier) of coconut milk
1 large scallion, cut into strips
1 yellow onion, chopped
several heads of bok choy (or spinach), torn up
1 large carrot, grated (I had two available, but I only ended up using one)
2 cups red lentils
at least a tablespoon of curry powder (feel free to throw some more in there if you’re feelin’ it)
garam masala till it smells good
a hearty sprinkling of cumin
black pepper to taste
fresh ginger (I grated in about a 1-inch piece)
4 cloves garlic, minced
oil to sauté in (I used peanut oil, but only because it’s what I had on hand)

butternut-squash-curried-lentil-stew-ingredients

Once all of my veggies were prepped, I sautéed the onion and squash together for a couple minutes, then threw in the rest of the veggies (including the ginger and garlic, but not including the bok choy and spinach) and curry powder and sautéed them for several more minutes.  You don’t need to get everything cooked in this stage, just get the flavoring and softening started.  Then I threw in the coconut milk, the lentils, and the water and added the rest of the spices.  I added spices periodically as it cooked, too, just for fun, sprinkle by sprinkle.  Bring it all to a boil, stir it up, and then take it down to a simmer for 15-20 minutes, or until everything has softened up and the lentils have broken down to make it soupier.

AND FINALLY… THE VERDICT

After much tasting and deliberation, we doled out some scores.

Street Squash: 3.75/5 — the spice overtook this dish, leaving it tasty but not very nuanced and a bit overwhelming.
Butternut Squash Burger: 3.5/5 — the flavors were very good, but the texture left something to be desired.  A denser patty would have helped a lot.
Butternut Squash and Apple Bruschetta: 4.5/5 — the apple really took this flavor combo to a higher level
Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese: 4/5 — this was a solid 5/5 once we added a bit more nutritional yeast and salt, but as I cooked it, it wasn’t quite there
Curried Butternut Squash Lentil Stew: 3/5 — this was good, but it just wasn’t great.

Which means…. HANNAH WINS!  I did it!

This was a lot of fun, and I can’t wait to do it again next week with whatever ingredient Nathan tries to trick me with!  If any of you are feeling uninspired in the kitchen, I highly recommend holding a casual cook-off to get those juices flowing!