Recipe: Vegan Cilantro Pizza w/ Shiitake Mushrooms and Savory Eggplant Sauce

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There’s something magical about cilantro — something that will inspire you to new creations in the kitchen.

Here in Beijing, like many parts of China, cilantro is one of the most ubiquitous herbs. In fact, if you patronize local vegetable vendors, they often give it to you free of charge with your purchases, resulting in a treasure trove of the stuff in your crisper in the refrigerator.

Even better, my husband and I both adore cilantro. Just a whiff of the stuff, with its slightly peppery aroma, gets my mouth watering and often thinking about what to make for dinner.

So I started experimenting by adding chopped cilantro to bread recipes I was making from scratch. Yes, cilantro!

I got inspired from those recipes that typically call for you to add basil or oregano — but instead of those, I turned to the surfeit of that fragrant cilantro in the fridge instead.

As it turns out, fresh cilantro, paired with generous amounts of minced garlic, will transform any humble bread into something so fragrant and delectable that it could grace the menu of an upscale restaurant.

In any event, after discovering the super powers of cilantro, naturally I had to see what it could do when applied to one of the most beloved foods around the world — pizza.

However, pizza — at least the typical variety — can be a tricky proposition in our home for a number of reasons. First off, my husband isn’t a huge fan of tomato sauce (except on those rare occasions when it doesn’t taste sour). Second, I’m vegan. And third, sometimes the ingredients we have on hand don’t always correspond to what you might find at your typical neighborhood pizzeria.

But who says you have to follow the beaten path of pizza purists?

I noticed I had a round eggplant, which of course reminded me of the baba ghanooj (Middle-Eastern eggplant dip) that I prepare almost weekly at home. It suddenly occurred to me that I could use a sort of baba-like eggplant sauce — with, of course, generous amounts of cilantro and garlic — to slather on the pizza.

And the meaty shiitake mushrooms in the pantry would round it all out as a savory topping.

The result — pizza perfection for this vegan in Beijing.

Jun and I each took one bite and declared it the finest pizza we had ever sank our teeth into, with fluffy, aromatic crusts bursting with garlic and cilantro flavor.

Even better, it recalls flavors from the East and West, and brings them all together, a beautiful representation of my own life and marriage, right on the plate.

If you happen to have a bread maker, you can whip this up easily for an amazing pizza night. But no worries if you don’t — see the notes for instructions on how to do your own dough from scratch.

Also, if you love the dough but not the sauce and toppings, see the notes for some inspiration on how to build your own heavenly cilantro pizza.

Let’s make some pizza and rediscover the joys of cilantro!

Vegan Cilantro Pizza w/ Shiitake Mushrooms and Savory Eggplant Sauce

Jocelyn Eikenburg
Fragrant cilantro in the dough, a savory eggplant sauce and shiitake mushrooms as a topping make for a uniquely delectable pizza that's vegan and also echoes flavors of the East and West. Make the dough in your bread machine for an easy pizza night at home!
Prep Time 1 hr 30 mins
Cook Time 25 mins
Resting Time 30 mins
Course Main Course
Servings 2 people

Equipment

  • Bread machine (optional - see notes)
  • Food processor
  • Pan

Ingredients
  

Pizza dough

  • 15 grams fresh cilantro
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 360 grams bread flour
  • 24 grams olive oil
  • 6 grams salt
  • 24 grams sugar (I prefer brown sugar, but white is also fine)
  • 220 milliliters water
  • 5 grams yeast

Pizza sauce

  • 15 grams fresh cilantro
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 1 medium-sized eggplant (I prefer round, but any kind of eggplant that's good for baking is fine)
  • 5 grams lemon juice (fresh or bottled is fine)
  • 10 grams olive oil
  • ¼ small onion
  • 7.5 grams tahini or other sesame butter of choice
  • 1.5 grams salt

Mushroom topping

  • 5 shiitake mushrooms finely sliced

Instructions
 

Prepare the dough

  • Finely chop all the cilantro -- for dough and sauce -- then set aside in a bowl.
  • Finely chop all the garlic, then set aside in a bowl.
  • Add half the chopped cilantro and half the chopped garlic into your bread machine pan. Then add the flour, 24 g of olive oil, sugar, 6 g of salt, water and yeast into your bread machine pan as per your breadmaker's instructions (see notes for alternatives, should you not have a bread machine). Select the dough setting and start the machine (for mine, the process takes 1 hour 30 minutes).
  • Once dough is finished, let it rest for up to 30 minutes for fluffier dough (though if you are in a hurry, you can use the dough right out of bread machine).

Prepare the sauce

  • While dough is in progress, cut the eggplant into four equal pieces. Rub olive oil on the exposed meat of the eggplant, then place on an oiled baking tray. Bake for about 45 minutes to 1 hour at 230 C (450 F), flipping the pieces at least once during the process, and ensuring both sides are seared. Let cool for about 5-10 minutes
  • Peel the meat of the eggplant off the skin, then place eggplant meat into a mesh bag. Twist the top of the bag to place pressure on the eggplant, squeezing the majority of the water out of it. (Be careful not to squeeze too much -- otherwise you'll reduce the amount of eggplant).
  • Add the remaining half the garlic and the cilantro to a food processor, along with the lemon juice. Then add in eggplant, onion, tahini, 10 g of olive oil and 1.5 g of salt. Pulse it until the eggplant mixture has the consistency of a paste; the onion may still be in small chunks or pieces, which is fine.

Prepare topping

  • Finely slice the shiitake mushrooms.

Assemble pizza

  • Lightly oil your pizza pan. (I use a rectangular one that measures 22 cm x 30 cm (9 in x 12 in)).
  • Work the dough into the shape of your pizza pan, then transfer it to the pan and continue working it with your hands, pushing down from the center out to form a crust on all sides.
  • Spread the sauce generously on top of the pizza base.
  • Top with the sliced shiitake mushrooms.
  • For a crispier crust, brush the crust with olive oil.
  • Bake the pizza for 20-25 minutes at 200 - 215 C (400 - 425 F), until the crust is golden brown. Cut and serve immediately.

Notes

No bread machine? No problem -- you can still make this pizza by using the same dough recipe, but following instructions for making dough by hand. 
To make dough by hand:
  1. Dissolve the yeast in the water (making sure you use warm water) and let it sit for 10 minutes, until the water looks creamy. 
  2. Add the flour, olive oil, sugar, salt, garlic, cilantro and yeast/water to a large bowl. Mix everything well to combine all the ingredients, until you have a sturdy dough. 
  3. Cover the dough and let it rise until it has doubled in size -- for at least 30 minutes.
If you can't make the eggplant sauce, the cilantro pizza dough can pair well with other sauces. You could add a classic tomato sauce, or an olio e aglio (olive oil and garlic), or even a vegan pesto of your choice (I also love cilantro, olive oil, garlic and walnuts).
Shiitake mushrooms make for a savory topping, but they're not the only option. Any classic veggie pizza topping you happen to have on hand works great too.
Keyword cilantro, eggplant, pizza, shiitake, vegan

What do you think?

How “Italian Eggplant” Divided Us, and Then United Us in Love

(Photo by Alice Henneman via Flickr.com)
(Photo by Alice Henneman via Flickr.com)

The old saying goes that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. But what of a woman’s heart? I have to wonder if that’s even more true for us, especially after the culinary feat my husband accomplished in the past few months.

In case you didn’t know, my husband is now the chef in our family. He’s the one who toils every evening in the kitchen to put together some of the most scrumptious meals I’ve ever tasted.

That’s quite a feat from a fellow who once shied away from the wok. Whenever people asked him if he could cook, he’d always laugh and reply, “I only know how to add in oil and salt.” He always used to claim I was the one more skilled in this arena, preferring to leave the spatula to me.

But in the past few years, my husband started shouldering more of the cooking responsibilities. Until at some point (I still can’t remember exactly when) he took over preparing all the meals in our home. It was a godsend in many respects, especially when I was in the hospital last year and couldn’t have managed the recovery without his support in the kitchen.

The last thing I expected, however, was for my husband to prepare that infamous eggplant dish, just for me.

Jun and I have a fascinating history with eggplant – specifically, a Chinese-style dish I’ve nicknamed “Italian Eggplant”. It’s one of the first dishes I ever prepared for him when we started dating years ago. It’s also a dish that led to one of our first heated (no pun intended) arguments.

I remember that muggy summer evening in Hangzhou, proudly setting that blue and white porcelain bowl on the dinner table after toiling over the wok. The whole apartment was redolent with the savory aroma of eggplant stir-fried with tomatoes, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, a dash of vinegar, and a touch of sea salt. I inhaled with satisfaction as I thought of all the friends who had tasted the very same dish, heaping on the compliments as big as the second and third helpings they enjoyed at my place.

Surely, Jun was going to love this dish just as much. Or so I thought…until he started eating.

“Too sour. Too much soy sauce. Too much tomato,” he said. Jun grimaced with every bite – and I could feel my anger rising with every complaint. How dare he insult the food I so lovingly prepared for him! Where was his appreciation for my hard work?

I let him have it, as I slammed my chopsticks on the table and asked him what the hell was wrong with him?

Admittedly, I was a little hot-headed at the time. But it had to do with how I’d been raised – to always say thank you to the chef, even if you didn’t like the food. It was a lesson I’d learned well after years of dining at my paternal grandmother’s house. She was a notoriously horrible cook who would entertain us with things like soggy, tasteless macaroni and veggies from a can. Even though I could sometimes barely stomach the stuff on my plate, I would force myself to say how good the food was.

When I told Jun about this, his face turned as red as the tomatoes in the dish. Turns out, he had a completely different experience growing up at the table. Every dinner included a course of blunt feedback about how everything tasted – even if that meant saying the food was unequivocally bad.

I apologized for my outburst, and he apologized for criticizing my food, instead of saying thanks.

Meanwhile, I figured that was the last time we would ever dine on my Italian Eggplant.

Except, it wasn’t.

Over the years, Jun surprised me by actually giving the dish a second chance – and loving it. It gradually became a favorite for us. Yes, a favorite! Who would have thought?

Then, after Jun assumed the role of chef in our home, he surprised me again.

One evening, our house was once again redolent with the aroma of dinner, courtesy of Jun. And it smelled very familiar. Was that eggplant and tomato in the air? And soy sauce? I followed my nose to the table, only to discover that Jun had cooked Italian Eggplant just for me, from scratch.

With one bite, I found myself in ecstasy once again. “Mmmm, this is so delicious!” I exclaimed, unable to contain myself over the delectable flavor. How had he so perfectly replicated the dish I once lovingly crafted for him all those years before?

Jun likes to say he transcended himself in finally learning to make this dish. I like to say he did it for love. But honestly, whenever it’s on the table, we don’t say much at all. We just eat and eat and eat, thankful that the food that we once argued over brought us together in delicious harmony.