Years ago, I had the pleasure of teaching for three semesters at Toronto’s renowned Ontario College of Art and Design (affectionately known as OCAD–or, when I taught there back in the Paleolithic, pre-”Design” era, simply “OCA”). I loved teaching at a place so much the antithesis of the college I’m now at, with its focus on technology, science and computers (not, as Jerry might say, that there’s anything wrong with that).
But as someone who’s drawn to art in all its iterations–and cake decorating, as we’ve seen in recent years, is also a bona fide art–and considering I find creativity in any form pretty much irresistible (at times to my detriment–to wit, three months with Rocker Guy*), I had a blast at OCA.
The students I taught at OCA were often just as embellished as their canvases, some with tatoos adorning every exposed patch of flesh, others with rainbow-striped hair in asymetrical spikes; some with handcrafted jewelry dangling from neck, waist, or ankles, and others bedecked in outfits so bohemian they practically carried their own passports. The students were also eccentric in the way only artists can be eccentric, asking questions and writing essays that, precisely because they were “out there,” elicited my utmost affection.
During those years, I had the great fortune to meet Morris, a faculty member who took me under his wing and later became a dear friend. Sweet, erudite, and the very embodiment of integrity, Morris helped me navigate the otherworldy campus politics and academic wranglings that were about as intelligible to me as a Cubist landscape. And because he was also a vegetarian, Morris introduced me to one of my favorite vegetarian restaurants in the city–and one I haven’t been to since I left OCA.
In the heart of Toronto’s downtown shopping strip, Le Commensal peeks unassumingly from the ground floor entrance of a towering office building. Inside, this Montreal import offers a huge, buffet-style, culinary Disneyland for vegans. Glass cases overflow with platters of every conceivable delectation from colorful, glistening salads to grain pilafs to an ever-shifting assortment of seitan stews, skewers, casseroles, or steaks. And it attracts customers with all dietary preferences, not just the crunchy-granola set.
I can clearly remember one of the first lunches Morris and I shared there. While he attempted to explain the concept of “artist’s statement” to me, I chowed on a plate of roasted eggplant, marinated mushrooms, salad, and a sizeable slice of something I’d never had before, Sweet Potato and Buckwheat Shepherd’s pie. The combination of meaty, nutty toasted buckwheat set against the smooth, sweet and creamy potato was a heavenly match. And while I promptly forgot what an artist’s statement was (if I ever really knew it), that Shepherd’s pie, with its magical pattern of ochre potato and sepia buckwheat, was etched permanently in my memory.
Imagine my surprise when, a couple of weeks ago, I came across a recipe for Sweet Potato and Kasha Burgers while flipping through one of my favorite cookbooks, one of the first I bought when I started experimenting with vegetarian cuisine: Nettie’s Vegetarian Kitchen by Nettie Cronish. The book contains one of my all-time favorite recipes, Almond-Curry Tofu Stir-Fry . In fact, I was so taken with that recipe once I discovered it that I proceeded to cook variations of the dish at least twice a week for the following six months or so (at which point the HH tersely informed me that he would never eat a single MORSEL of tofu EVER AGAIN, as long as he LIVED. Odd, since I’m fairly certain he wouldn’t have had the same reaction to, say, steak a couple of times a week for six months. . . but I digress.)
“Steak? Did someone say ‘steak’? Ooooh, we haven’t had steak in ages. . . years, maybe. . . ”
“Elsie, what’s steak?”
I couldn’t believe my luck: the recipe featured that elusive duo of sweet potato and buckwheat! I knew I had to try it. And just what made this particular pattie so special, you ask? Well, it seems to me that in any duel between veggie burgers, you have your tofu-based on the North American side, and you have your nut-based on the UK/Antipodean side. But Nettie’s burger–while still a realistic, objective representation of “burger”–featured neither of these. The patties are based on the combination of grain and tuber, with a dash of almond butter as a binder. I have to admit, I was initially doubtful and wondered if they’d hold together, but they worked beautifully. Even the HH, with his skepticism for any non-meat proteins, enjoyed them immensely.
“Mum, I’m quite sure I heard you say ‘burger”! You know we’re always happy to help out with meat of any kind. . . Oh, Chaser, you’ll love burgers! They’re sort of like steak.”
I served this hearty dish (substantial enough to eat sans buns) alongside a favorite recipe for spring salad. The interplay of colors on the plate struck me as so artistic, in fact, it made me immediately nostalgic for those artsy days back at OCA.
* he of the black leather pants. . . of course.
Sweet Potato and Kasha Burgers
adapted from Nettie’s Vegetarian Kitchen
Surprisingly hearty and filling, these burgers are quite easy to throw together and offer a savory, almost smoky flavor. Leftovers stored in the fridge will firm up even more overnight. I halved the recipe with no problems.
1-1/2 cups (375 ml.) dry buckwheat (kasha)
3 cups (750 ml.) water or vegetable broth [I used veg broth]
1 tsp. (5 ml.) sea salt, or 1/4 tsp. (1.5 ml.) if using vegetable broth above
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 Tbsp. (60 ml.) toasted sesame oil or extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
1 large carrot, grated
2 large sweet potatoes, cubed, steamed or boiled until tender [I actually baked mine] and mashed
1/4 cup (60 ml.) almond butter or tahini (sesame paste)
1/4 cup (60 ml.) chopped fresh basil
2 green onions, finely chopped
2 Tbsp. (30 ml.) tamari or soy sauce (for ACD, use Braggs)
Dry-roast the kasha in a heavy skillet over medum heat for 5 minutes, stirring often with a wooden spoon. Add 3 cups (750 ml.) water and salt; bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat; cover and cook over low heat until water is absorbed and kasha is tender, about 15 minutes.
Cook onion in 1 Tbsp. (15 ml.) oil over medium heat until softened. Add celery and carrot; cook for another 5 minutes until softened.
Stir together kasha, vegetables (including sweet potato), almond butter, basil, greeen onions and soy sauce until combined. Keeping hands moist, form into 8 large or 16 small patties. Heat remaining 3 Tbsp. (45 ml.) oil in large frying pan over medium-high heat. Cook burgers 5 minutes, turning once, until golden brown and crisp on the outside. [Note: I baked half and fried half of these, just to see how they'd hold up in the oven. They worked just fine with both cooking methods, though the baked burgers never acquired that crispy blackened exterior that the fried ones had. Still yummy, though!]