Monday, January 26, 2009

A Freecavore's Breakfast

It's nearing the end of January, and the gears on the drawbridge I drew up about six weeks ago are starting to rust shut. I am a card-carrying hermit in the winter, no two ways about it. And for the many things that I dislike about the neighborhood I live in (you can smell the sense of entitlement wafting from every street corner), I have right at my fingertips what I need to get through the winter: a library and Trader Joe's. Ample opportunity to cook and read away the winter doldrums. Lately I've been reading about processed food; I just finished Can You Trust A Tomato In January?, a quirky but heavily dated exploration of the origin of the supermarkets and some of the food science experiments found within. And by dated, I'm talking about lines that read "[t]he earliest grocery system was a a communistic one - we can admit now that the Berlin Wall has fallen and the Soviet Union is no longer a union. Cavemen and cavewomen shared what they had." The book was published in 1993, so I can accept that the fall of the Soviet Union was still hot news. But when was the last time anyone mentioned "cavemen" and "-women?" And is the author really drawing some evolutionary parallel between the Reds and the monkeys? Regardless, I learned some fun (but scary) stuff about dough emulsifiers. I'm now reading Twinkie, Deconstructed, an exhaustively-researched but readable look at those unpronounceable ingredients in the aforementioned snack cake. For the record, I have always been grossed out by Twinkies, though my now gluten-free sister probably has a closet shelf reserved for her longing for them.

And speaking of GF (no, not "girlfriend," omg lol l33t h@x0r), my sister suggested that I try taking the stuff out of my diet for a couple days. See, this winter is kicking my ass in so many ways, and one of them is with a plague of dry skin. I'm talking swatches of reptile bumps that itch like hell and belie my skin's age (don't they??). Dry skin is indeed one of the many symptoms of celiac disease, and while I have little other reason to think I'm afflicted (count those blessings!), I figured it would be worth a shot to see if my skin improved at all after a couple wheat-free days. I've been taking oatmeal to work for breakfast every day for weeks now. It's quick and filling and just plain delicious with a drizzle of maple syrup and some nuts thrown in. Today I mixed it up by bringing some leftover quinoa to make a similar breakfast porridge. (I've promised to post a proper quinoa recipe soon!) I've been longing so deeply for fruit in these dark months, and I am all appled out. As committed as I am to eating locally and seasonally, I am what I have dubbed a freecavore. Freegans are willing to ignore a covert animal ingredient when the stuff is free; I'm willing to occasionally bypass seasonality when there's free produce before me. I guess the idea is that it's ok, so long as you're not putting your money into supporting unstable foodways (though that sounds about as justifiable as buying indulgences). So I went hog-wild today and decided to toy with a decidedly unseasonable- but available- fruit choice. I helped myself to a few blueberries from a coworkers morning fruit plate. I mixed 'em in with the quinoa that I had reheated with almond milk, pecans, and oh yes, maple syrup. I was thrilled with how the grain behaved at breakfast - its slightly nutty flavor and mysterious crunchy-on-the-outside-chewy-on-the-inside texture was a great wake-up call for my mouth. But the blueberries... so unnaturally large and unseasonably present... I kinda felt a connection with my caveman author friend: can you trust a blueberry in January? My vote's a no...

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Shepherd's Pie - Odyssey's End

Odysseus came home to Ithaca a tired and beaten man. I almost feel sorry for him, walking into his own house and seeing a gaggle of drunken Grecian frat boys and jocks all trying to get all up in his lady's cool. Good thing he walked into a raging party, though - homeboy was probably starving, if not addled by scurvy from years at sea.

This recipe is a work-in-progress. I really the idea of it - bits of seasoned tofu, sauteed with hearty vegetables with a garlicy mashed potato topping. Yum, right? And a great way to finish off these leftovers that have been tapping on the door of my fridge crying "Hey! Hey! Don't even think about that frozen burrito! You started this leftover crusade, now finish it!" I way, WAY over-seasoned the filling, though, and the it wound up tasting a lot Thanksgiving. Not what I'm after in January. And there was too much liquid in the casserole, making it more brothy than gravy-like. Did I mention that I'm not a chef?

I've made some tweak below, though, that should help remedy those problems. I changed the spice mix, decreased that amount of liquid, and used whole wheat flour for thickening instead of corn starch. But if anyone has ever had smashing success with a vegan shepherd's pie, please let me know! I'm just psyched that now my fridge is empty and I can make something brand-new again.

Oh, and if you haven't tried this trick yet, you're soon to become addicted. When buying packages of tofu that are bound for a stir-fry, pan-sear or casserole, try freezing it first, then defrosting. The resulting texture is spongier and well, meatier, meaning it really soaks up a marinade and hold its shape while cooking. Unless I'm pureeing tofu to use in a sauce or soup, I always freeze mine first, and I much prefer the texture.

(The syntax is funny here. Is this what one might have served the strapping tofu shepherds of yore, after then came home from a long day of wrangling the soybeans back to pasture?)

Tofu Shepherd's Pie

16 oz extra-firm tofu, frozen, thawed and drained
1/4 c soy sauce
2 cloves garlic, smashed
olive oil for saute
1 white or yellow onion, diced
2 carrots, scrubbed and diced
2 celery stalks, diced
1 c broccoli florets, steamed (or frozen peas for a more old-school approach)
1 c vegetable stock
1 T whole wheat flour
1/4 t dried sage
salt and pepper
Roasted Garlic & Kale Mashed Potatoes leftovers (you'll need at least 3 cups)

Preheat oven to 350F. Crumble up the tofu and place in a pan with steep sides. Mix together the soy sauce and garlic and pour over the tofu, tossing to coat. Marinate for about twenty minutes.

Steam the broccoli in a colander over a bit of boiling water for five minutes, or until slightly tender but still al dente. Rinse in cold water and set aside.

Heat the olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Add the onion and saute until translucent, about five to six minutes. Add the carrot and celery and saute until softened, another five minutes. Stir in the broccoli or peas. Add the tofu and stir until it sizzles. Stir in the sage and add the salt and several grindings of black pepper. Add 3/4 c of the stock, reserving the last 1/4 c. Add the flour to the remaining stock add stir until dissolved. Allow most of the stock to evaporate from the pan, then add the stock and flour mixture, stirring constantly. You should see the mixture thicken slightly and coat the veggies with a slight sheen.

Add to a 8''x8'' casserole pan and top with a good layer of mashed potatoes. Bake for 30-35 minutes. Makes about 8 servings.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

1/21/09 - and Recipe Odyssey El Segundo

Wait - did you feel that?

Is that it?

I can't quite perceive it, I can't smell it or taste it or eat it, but somewhere around 1208EST on January 20, 2009 -

- the change happened.

Maybe my head is foggy by the massive collision of cynicism with optimism (on a personal and national scale), but it's been hard to perceive the momentous shift in ethos since November 4th, since yesterday. There will be no heaven-sent dove clutching an olive branch, this we know. But if we take this opportunity to really, actually initiate a new deal, both to push for it and roll with it - the signs will appear. The change will manifest. For example...

I finished my VERY FIRST Tuesday NY Times crossword! All by myself! Maybe (ok, certainly) it was all the Obamacentric clues in yesterday's puzzle, but hell YEAH! See, things are truly happening. I'm just sayin'...

I know the FDR comparisons are flying left and right, but I can't help but identify with having a national leader we can look up to; one who, when he calls on the nation to do something, then by god, you do it. (No one wanted to eff with a Roosevelt, right?). So when the 44th started business by freezing salaries in DC because so many are cutting costs, such as by opting for cheaper cuts of critter. I haven't read anything yet about a rise in vegan- or vegetarianism on account of the economy, but hey, the depression hasn't...quite...hit yet...(ack, no! optimism, not cynicism!) Anyway, this action inspired me to really challenge myself by cooking with what I have on hand. That's always sort of been part of the spirit of this blog: living minimally, healthfully, and well. But I guess you could say I'm redoubling those efforts. This ties in well with the mini-series of set up, too! So here it is, El Segundo in my dinner-party recipe odyssey. We are officially now on leftovers. Since a serving of mashed potatoes as a meal is kind of a downer (remember, optimism, people!), I decided to fool around with...

Crispy Potato Patties

Roasted Garlic and Kale Mashed Potatoes
1 c breadcrumbs*
1/4 c olive oil

Allow leftover potatoes to come to room temperature; or, if using a fresh batch, allow to cool. Heat olive oil over medium heat in a large saute pan. Form potatoes into a patty with your hands, and press each side gently into the bread crumbs to thoroughly coat. You made need to cheat a little - reform the patties if they start to break apart, or press in extra breadcrumbs in any uncovered spots.

Place the patties in the hot oil and cook until brown (about 3-4 minutes), pressing slightly with a large spatula. Turn the patties over and cook until the other side brown. Remove from oil and set on a paper towel to drain and cool for a minute.

The yield will vary, obviously, depending on the amount of mashed 'taters you're dealing with! I found that two of these guys with some gravy and some leftover Sweet Potato and Butternut Squash Bisque made quite a filling meal.

*I don't really have a reason to keep breadcrumbs in my pantry, so... I don't! To make breadcrumbs, toast two or three slices of whole-wheat bread, rip into small pieces, and process in a food processor or chopper until fine - a little over a minute. Heat a pan over low heat and add the breadcrumbs. Toast in the pan for about ten minutes, shaking pan frequently. These breadcrumbs are drier and therefore more pan-friendly than your average store variety (many of which add preservatives, sugar, HFCS, and such baddies).

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Wicked Classy Dinnah Pahty! And Recipe Odyssey Part the First

I'm thrilled to report that my first attempted dinner party nothing short of...well, a really good time. I don't know if I'd call it a "smashing success;" in fact, I use the term "party" loosely, as there were all of four people present (including myself). But according to hospitality maven/epic hearoine Amy Sedaris, four people do a party make! It's been awhile since I've cooked for someone other than myself and maybe a boyfriend (which, like knitting for a boyfriend, I'm convinced is just plain bad luck), and I was cooking for a discriminating - but loving - crowd, so I was a bit on edge. By which I mean I was frantically dipping into mise-en-place, flinging around around towels, simultaneously operating four burners, and working through a sink full of dishes until mere minutes before the doorbell rang. But the #1 rule of hospitality: YOUR GUESTS SHOULD NEVER KNOW THAT! Spruce yirself up and squeeze a glass of wine into that final hour of cooking. As a hostess or host, it's your job to be effortlessly fabulous.

We did quite, quite well with the food. My dear friend Michael made an charming and delicious crudite featuring HOMEMADE Goddess Dressing! It was tantalizing and visually stunning. His secret (assuming I can share this, Muffin!): blanch the veggies first. Because, as we discussed over our munchies and Prosecco, who really wants to gnaw on raw veggies as an appetizer (ducking the brick that some raw foodist just hurled through my window)? For an entree, I offered up homey plates of one of my blog darlings, Lentil Loaf, alongside Kale and Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes (more on that in shake!), served with that vegan country classic, golden gravy. (Did I mentioned I managed to pick the coldest Boston night in years to have this get-together? Ribs needed to be pasted with the heartiest of home-cookin'). Culinary wizard, good friend, and all-around amazing human being Vini Souza made an one of the best desserts I've had in my life: a flourless chocolate and raspberry torte. He said he'll be blogging on it soon, so please, if you love life, check or his post on that. When I have it, I'm all about chocolate for dessert...not a lot of healthful shortcuts for me there.

I had this idea to turn this into a recipe chronicle. I knew I'd have plenty of leftovers, even though I was feeding three boys (and later, one hungry roommate). So I invite you to see where these leftovers take me over the next couple days. Let's start at the beginning:

Kale & Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes

3 lbs all-purpose potatoes, like Yukon Gold, peeled and quartered
1/2c-3/4c rice or soy milk
4T soy margarine
1 bunch kale, deribbed and coarsely chopped
6-8 large garlic cloves, peeled
1/4c olive oil
salt and freshly ground pepper

Place kale in a pot and fill with water (enough to cover the kale). Cover and bring water to a boil and steam the kale for about 8 minutes or until tender, stirring occasionally so all the pieces soften. Drain and set aside.

Preheat oven to 375. In a small baking dish, toss the garlic cloves with the olive oil and throw in a pinch of salt. Bake for about 25 minutes or until tender and browned, remembering to stir occasionally so as not to burn the edges.

While the garlic roasts, place potatoes on a large pot and fill with enough water to cover the potatoes. Bring to a boil, cover, and reduce to a simmer and cook until easily pierced with a fork, about 25 minutes. Drain the water from the potatoes and keep in the pot. Mash to potatoes with a potato masher until all the lumps are mashed away

Add the soy margarine and dump in the garlic with the oil and mash again until the garlic is smashed and incorporated evenly throughout the potatoes. Add the rice or soy milk and stir. Start with half a couple; if mixture still seems stiff, add another 1/4c. But remember not to add too much milk, as the potatoes will become soupy. Bear in mind that they will thicken upon standing, and any leftovers will moreso. Stir in the kale, season with salt and pepper, and serve hot. Makes about 8 servings.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Apple-Pecan Pancakes: An Homage to the Weekend Warrior

This weekend marked the third winter storm in Boston this season; second one of the year (the first of '09 being that cascade of ice that made sidewalk travel near impossible without a flame-thrower). I'm really not big on weekends, largely because they're not a part of my schedule - those of us in the food biz readily acknowledge that Friday through Sunday are when our monies come in. That being said, I miss out on a lot of those staples that the weekend warriors live for: the Sunday New York Times, immobile lines at any retailer or grocer, and that perennial favorite, brunch. Given that I pay my bills by working at one of Boston's slammin'-est breakfast joints, that last thing I want to do on a Sunday morning off is see how the gears turn at another brunch spot. So when it's in the cards, breakfast at home is kind of a big deal for me.

This was inspired by one of my New England-weathered friends. I whipped up these guys on Sunday as the snow kept falling and time kept creeping towards my clock-in. Those minute hands did seem to slow down as the aroma of cooked apples and warm cinnamon settled over the kitchen. The beauty about this breakfast treat is that the apples caramelize slightly when it's their turn against the pan. So deelish...almost enough for me to trade in the tips for a real-world, lazy Sunday. Ahem. Almost.

Apple-Pecan Pancakes

11/2 c flour
1/2 t baking soda
1 t baking powder
1 1/2 t cinammon
1/4 t nutmeg
1 T dry sweetener
2 T light vegetable oil (sunflower, canola)
1 1/2 c almond, rice, or soy milk
2 apples, peeled, cored and sliced into thin crescents
1/2 pecans

Whisk together dry ingredients. Add oil and milk, stir carefully until just mixed. Allow mix to sit 10-15 minutes (After years of making hockey puck hotcakes, I've concluded that these two elements - not over-mixing and settling time - are the key to light, fluffy pancakes).

Spray a pan with non-stick spray and heat over a gentle medium. When a spritz of water dances off the pan, it's hot enough. Add half a cup of batter and plop some apples slices and pecans on top. Watch for bubbles to form; when they've all popped, it's time to turn. Flip carefully and cook for about 4-minutes on the other side, or until the apples brown and you catch the fragrance of toasted nuts and baked apples. Serve with butter and maple syrup. Makes 5-6 plate-sized pancakes.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Stir Crazy

I think I was still in high school the last time I tried my hand at making risotto. Oh, what a fantastic disaster that was. The rice didn't cook, and I was left with a colony of teeth-shattering little bullets swimming haplessly in a pool of tepid water. I remember being so, so mad at myself for botching those misleadingly simple directions: add broth and stir, add broth and stir...

As it turns out, risotto, while not exactly fickle, is a a time-consuming affair that requires lots of special attention and constant stimulation (too much like my 18-year-old self for me to tackle at the time, perhaps?). I bought some arborio rice awhile back, thinking I might roll my sleeves up and try to settle this old vendetta. Tonight - this rainy, frigid night - was the night, and I am very pleased with the results. So, so yummy, perfect for winter, and one of those recipes you would never know is vegan. The creamy white beans are the perfect addition to this Italian classic, and the loads of garlic with lemon and basil... wow. My apartment smelled like the North End on an early summer night.

Oh, and this is my first go at this recipe, but I'm pretty sure you can achieve nearly the same result without the cashew creme; it just seemed like a good idea as I was hashing out this recipe in my head. But I think the starch from the rice alone should do the trick.

White Bean and Spinach Risotto with Cashew Creme

olive oil for saute
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced
1 large carrot, finely chopped
12 oz cannelini (white kidney) beans (drain and rinse first if using canned)
1 1/2 c arborio rice
1/4 dry white wine, like Pinot Grigio
4 c hot vegetable stock
1/2 c nutritional yeast
12-15oz spinach
1 tbs dried basil
juice from one lemon
salt and pepper to taste

1/2 c cashews (preferably unsalted and raw)
1 c water

For the cashew creme, add cashews to a food processor, chopper or blender and pulse until you get a fine, crumbly meal. Add water and process until smooth and frothy. Set aside.

In a large sauce pan, heat olive oil over low-medium heat. Add garlic, shallots and carrots and saute until tender and translucent, about four minutes. Add the beans and stir to coat. Add the rice and stir gently for a good minute to coat with the oil. Add wine (relish in the WOOSH sound), and stir until absorbed, about a minute.

Add 1/2 c of stock and stir stir stir until absorbed. Repeat the process: add stock, 1/2 c at a time, and stir until the rice absorbs the liquid. One cup into the process, the rice will start to get transluce and take on a gooier, stickier consistency with each half-cup addition. The rice should become creamy and cooked through until just al dente; not too crunchy, not too mushy. You may need to add or omit water by the half-cup to achieve this (and you'll need and extra half-cup if you omit the cashew creme), so test the rice to see when it's done. All told, this step should take about 25 minutes. After adding four cups of stock, pour in the cashew cream and stir until absorbed.

Stir in the spinach, then the nutritional yeast. Stir to combine. Add basil and lemon juice and stir; add salt and pepper, adjusting seasonings if need be (I like this with lots of fresh pepper). Let stand five minutes before serving. Serves 6.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Let's Play Dress-Up

This is a superbly versatile recipe that you can dress up to suit your mood or tastes. Remember Barbie in the '80's, and how she was al about having forty different careers and an outfit for each one? Yeah, that's what this soup is about. It can be anything if it just puts its mind to it. I considered taking it to Thailand with a bit of red curry paste and ginger. It could assume a desert role with cinnamon and nutmeg. It can travel south with an orange - its zest and juice (the bright, orange hue of the soup almost begs for it). I was feeling nostalgic for summer, so I jazzed it up with the in-your-face presence of smoked paprika, amplified by a few crystals of fleur de sel (two appropriate and very specifically heeded gifts from my sister). I'm not usually fond of smokey flavors, but here the smoked paprika is surprisingly at home with the mellow root vegetables. You're not sure how they get along, but they do - kinda like the stern dad and the ubiquitous wacky neighbor in an 80's sitcom (one I'd be watching while landing on the moon with my Astronaut Barbie).

If you happen to have any combination of baked squash or sweet potatoes ready to go, then move to the head of the class; you're way ahead of the game!

Smokey Sweet Potato and Squash Bisque

plop of butter/soy margarine for saute
1 large white onion, diced
1 shallot, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 carrots, coarsely chopped
2-3 medium sweet potatoes
1 small acorn squash
1 package silken tofu
5 cups vegetable stock
1/2 t smoked paprika
1/4 t cinnamon
freshly ground black pepper
pinch of fleur de sel or good-quality sea salt

Preheat oven to 400F. Poke the sweets and the squash several times with a fork. Line the middle oven rack with foil to house the sweets and squash. Bake for 45-min to an hour, depending on the size of the guys. You know it's done when a fork easily pierces the skin of each veggie. When they're done, remove from oven and cut in half lengthwise and allow to cool. Scoop out the seeds of the acorn squash, then remove the flesh and set aside. Scoop out the sweet potato goo as well, setting aside with the squash.

While those guys are roasting, heat the butter over medium heat until melted, taking care not to burn. Add the onion, shallot, and garlic, and saute until soft and transluscent, about five minutes. Add the carrot and saute for another five minutes, until the carrot is slightly softened.

Add the stock, squash, and sweet potato and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally to break apart the clumps. Add the tofu, stir and remove from heat. Puree with an immersion blender until smooth smooth smooth. Add the smoked paprika, cinnamon and pepper and stir. Add a pinch of fleur de sel at the very end and stir in. Garnish with a wee pinch of smoked paprika and a tiny hint of the salt. Serves 6.

Monday, January 5, 2009

...Stir In Onion Mix And Serve

A steady diet of champagne and chocolate sounds like a really good idea, but after a solid week of inundating my body with sucrose and booze, I'm only too happy to get back on track. I spent Christmas at my mom's house this year, which is, but rife with drama - a lot of it food-related. There's my brother's nascent vegetarianism, my sister's calorie consciousness (she measures shots by the ounce just to take out the caloric guesswork) , my niece's usually healthful diet offset by boundless sea of candy, and my mother's idea of entertainment fare that is firmly rooted in the 70's. I have long since given up any resistance to the annual buffet, and have simply resigned myself to a week of sour cream dips and cookies for breakfast.

Happy New Year, everyone. Pass the kale, please.