Life on the Hill doesn’t exactly allow ample opportunity for experimentation with cooking, leading to a routine diet at the dining halls. Over the course of the quarter, columnist Andrew Warner sets out to break the culinary monotony of dorm life, armed with a rice cooker and a few pantry staples.
We vegans and vegetarians often get a bad rap. And I get it, I really do. A lot of the things we eat just aren’t that good. I can’t count the number of times I’ve choked down a barely palatable, underseasoned vegetarian or vegan dish.
When it comes down to it, humans have done our vegetable friends dirty. For generations, parents and grandparents have served their children bland and overboiled vegetables, giving perfectly innocent veggies like Brussels sprouts and broccoli their unshakeable reputation as foul, repulsive little plants.
However, vegetarian dishes, when cooked and seasoned properly, can easily outdo their meaty counterparts in terms of consumer satisfaction.
One dish that can be particularly tasty in vegetarian or vegan form is curry. While curries come in countless and complex flavors and spices, certain recipes can easily be adapted to rice cooker cuisine.
I like Laura Miller’s recipe, which I adapted from her cookbook, “Raw. Vegan. Not Gross.” I’m a huge fan of Miller, and when I began writing this column, I knew I wanted to try adapting one of her recipes to a rice cooker. Unlike most of the recipes in her book, which, as the title says, are mostly raw, her sweet potato curry lends itself quite well to being cooked in a rice cooker.
The most difficult part of the recipe for me was actually getting all of the vegetables cut. As it turns out, butter knives aren’t the best utensils for dicing up rigid root vegetables like sweet potatoes and carrots. Having said that, dorm chefs shouldn’t rush down to Sur La Table to pick up a pricey chef’s knife. A butter knife from Target will work fine; it’s just a bit of a struggle to get a clean cut.
Or better yet, students can buy precut vegetables from grocery stores like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods Market that make knife work obsolete. I haven’t found precut sweet potatos yet, but I have found onions, carrots and aromatics like ginger and garlic sold chopped up and prepackaged.
Similar to last week’s cheesecake, it’s important to watch the settings on the rice cooker. In her recipe, Miller says to saute the onions and aromatics together, but unfortunately, it’s difficult to do that effectively in a rice cooker. Unless my rice cooker has a certain amount of weight inside the inner pot, it won’t stay on its cook setting, which ultimately means that sauteing is out of the picture, as the rice cooker doesn’t get hot enough to cook down the onions.
Instead of a proper saute, I cooked the onions and aromatics covered, removing the lid every two or three minutes to stir them around, to prevent them from burning, until the onions had cooked down.
Since Hill residents likely don’t have enough space or money to keep up a fully stocked spice cabinet, I recommend buying a couple of spice and seasoning blends. While it can be hard to find good ones, prepared seasoning mixes like curry powder and Italian seasoning can have up to 10 spices and herbs in them, making them a convenient choice for thrifty college students.
The recipe calls for one can of coconut milk, but be a bit conservative – depending on the size of the rice cooker and the size of the sweet potato, a can of coconut milk might be too much, which can, and in my case did, lead to a messy overflow.
I ended up scrubbing bright yellow drips off the sides of my rice cooker, so I recommend starting out with about a half a can and then adjusting from there.
Once the coconut milk is added, the cooking process is a breeze. Although Miller’s curry isn’t the kind of recipe with which chefs can sit back completely, the curry won’t burn like the cheesecake did.
The cooking process transforms the plain coconut milk into a creamy and flavorful sauce with strong notes of sweet fenugreek and bright turmeric. I served mine with a side of lemon rice from Whole Foods Market, whose tanginess evened out the richness of the curry. You can share the curry with a friend as the recipe makes about two servings.
I also enjoyed the combination of vegetables that Miller uses because the sweetness from the carrot and sweet potato works well with the creamy coconut milk, but cauliflower and tomatoes would work just as well. The next time I make it, I think I’ll add a hot pepper to increase the heat level, which, as the recipe is right now, is practically zero.
Miller’s sweet potato curry is a simple enough recipe, and while cooking it in a rice cooker simplifies the process even more, none of the flavor is lost – it’s still the same savory and delectable dish.
Read more Dorm Dining:
Whipping up a vanilla cheesecake using an unlikely oven