This is the latest in a series in which we ask a chef in the Triangle to suggest the menu for an elegant dinner for two, spending just $20.
Comfort food is still a draw in these days and weeks of winter dark and cold. How to reconcile the need for savory, warming comfort food with our new year's resolutions to cut back on carbs and eat healthy?
As I write this we're having our first day of snow—with more expected late Sunday. "About time we get some winter weather," says chef Homa Jahannia, who runs (with her son, Ramin) vegetarian-vegan Sage Café in Chapel Hill. She greets me in the restaurant's after-lunch lull, and I'm drawn right away (as if by a culinary fairy godmother) into the conversation she has eagerly agreed to: one where we're discussing what she would fix—she who is known for cooking with passion at the café as if she were cooking for close friends—for a lovely dinner for two at home, in the bleak end-of-winter. We chat over steaming mugs of house-blend cardamom-jasmine tea and a dish of her homemade tiramisu (which she coyly would not give us the recipe for out of loyalty to her brother, a New York City restaurateur). She graciously gives us the following exotic, delicious and festive menu embellished with stories from the café's short but vibrant history (it opened in 2003). I include her chocolate cake recipe in the spirit of Valentine's Day being around the corner, but if you omit this, the meal is actually light and built on "good" carbs.
Motherly and beloved by employees and customers alike, Chef Homa believes that elegant dishes also can be comforting, and she extends this value to her warmly decorated restaurant, painted in the rich, earthy colors reminiscent of silk scarves and sun-on-soil. The small dining room of tables for two and four is packed most nights with tête-à-tête diners and convivial small groups.
A self-taught cook who grew up in Iran before coming with her husband to the United States 42 years ago ("a lifetime!" she laughs), Homa's cooking is based largely on Persian dishes influenced by Mediterranean flavors and adapted to vegetarian requirements. The popularity of Sage seems to lie in this: gorgeous, simple food in an ambience of understated, soothing elegance. Regular patrons, including non-vegetarians, drive from all over the Triangle (and some from as far away as Greensboro), and yet the café maintains a feeling of close-knit neighborhood folk greeting each other as they drop in for an after-work dinner, celebrate a birthday or promotion, or swing by for take-out. I've never eaten at Sage when I didn't coincidentally run into someone from my son's school or my daughter's workplace, or a colleague grabbing a glass of wine and appetizer plate before a film a few doors down at the Chelsea. (Note: The popular appetizer plate is a meal in itself, featuring hummus, tabouli, stuffed grape leaves, yogurt-spinach dip and heated pita wedges and is ordered almost as often by regulars as the vegetable lasagna and eggplant paradise.)
Homa says she believes in the healing power of really good food, an inviting and aesthetically nourishing atmosphere, and excellent service. "I have people who come here [to eat] to feel better—they tell me they come for the comfort food and beautiful atmosphere." One young woman being treated for cancer could only stomach Homa's Osh (which her boyfriend regularly procured as take out)—a satisfying herb-infused soup of many kinds of slow-cooked legumes, and a special on their current winter menu.
Homa uses fresh, locally grown and organic ingredients whenever possible. The menu here reflects both her gift for flavorful combinations and another popular, much-ordered choice on her menu. In addition to being good for you and easy to prepare, Homa's $20 dinner boasts the soul-satisfying virtue of tantalizing smells as it cooks. Centered around a vegan, main-dish Persian pomegranate stew (Faisanjan), the meal is served with a green side salad and a whole wheat baguette ($2.69 from Whole Foods Market Bakery) and is followed by the rich, chocolaty Vegan Wonder Cake with vegan chocolate sauce, which is divine warm from the oven. Even without cutting the recipes in half to serve just two, we stayed within the budget.
Homa noted that, like comfort food from so many cultures, Persian home cooking is known for its economical use of ingredients, many of them standards in our pantries (and as with previous $20 dinners, I did not calculate the cost of staples). One exception to that is the pomegranate syrup or concentrate, which, for eight ounces from Whole Foods, cost $6.99. Likewise, if you have to buy the maple syrup, grade B will do and even at the pricier grocery stores you can get store brands such as Whole Food's 365 for around $5. Walnuts and cocoa or carob powder can also be purchased in small, store brand quantities.
The recipes here are taken, with permission, from Homa's spiral bound cookbook, which she wrote and published in response to constant requests for her recipes.
The dinner needs a little over an hour to put together—itself a relaxing process—because while the stew simmers, you can mix up the cake and bake it, assemble your choice of green salad materials, set the table, and still have time for a cup of jasmine tea. To really approximate the understated elegance of Sage, dining by candlelight and playing some soft jazz standards are de rigueur for the at-home version.
Faisanjan (Persian pomegranate stew)
2 cups walnuts
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. pepper
1 tsp. turmeric
1 cup pomegranate syrup or concentrate
1 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup vegetable oil
8 cups water
8 oz. tempeh ($2.29 at Whole Foods)
Chop walnuts as small as possible, in food processor or by hand, and set aside. Chop onion finely and fry in the oil. Add salt, pepper, turmeric. Stir in walnuts. Cook for a minute and add the water. Add pomegranate and maple syrups. Bring to boil and reduce to simmer. Cut tempeh into small cubes and mix into pot. Cover pot and cook over very low heat for at least an hour. Check frequently to make sure the tempeh is not sticking to the bottom of the pot. When ready-to-taste, serve in warm bowls. At Sage, the stew is served with saffron-basmati rice, but this is optional; the baguette works well as the accompanying grain in a dinner for two. But if you do want the rice, put it onto steam while the stew simmers.
2 cups Basmati rice
10 cups water, plus separate 1/4 cup water
3 tbsp. salt
1/4 cup vegetable oil
Clean the rice and wash four times in warm water, straining the rice each time. Put 10 cups of water in a large, non-stick pot. Pour the washed rice into the pot. Add salt and let cook until half done (about 15-20 minutes) without the lid. Drain the rice, running some cold water over it. Put oil and 1/4 cup of water in the same pot, return the rice to it. Make a steam-hole in the center, using a chop stick. Cover the rice with a tea towel or paper towel, put on the lid, and steam until done (approximately 30 minutes).
Vegan Wonder Cake
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup walnuts
3 tbsp. cocoa or carob powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tbsp. vinegar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup cold water
Sift sugar, flour, salt, cocoa or carob, and baking soda into a bowl. Add remaining ingredients and stir until smooth. Pour batter into a 9" x 9" baking dish, bake for 35 minutes at 325 degrees. While warm, pour sauce over the cake.
Vegan Chocolate Sauce
2 tbsp. cocoa or carob powder
1/2 cup maple syrup
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 cup soy milk
Mix all ingredients in a small saucepan. Boil until mixture thickens, like fudge syrup. Pour over the cake. This dessert makes a rich, moist, fragrant Valentine's option if you happen to be dining a la maison.