Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sprouting - For Victory!

When I younger and more rebellious and had more piercings, I ran around doing an awful lot in life "for victory." Boycott meat - for victory! Protest the war - for victory! Skip class and get high - for victory! I'm grateful for those activist times (though the cluster of brain cells I killed would beg to differ), and the revolutionary spirit is still a part of me - it's just much more subdued. But I have a new pursuit that has renewed my sense of justice, given my life a new zeal - sprouts!

I'm still waiting to plant until the temperature maintains an above-freezing medium, but sprouting is an amazing way to subvert nature - just a little - without perverting it. The process is absurdly easy; no gardening skills required. Search for "how to grow sprouts" and the first ten hits will all give you essentially the same instructions. 
  • Take a couple tablespoons of seeds (right now I'm on alfalfa that I got from Mahoney's in Brighton awhile back), pour them in a clean glass jar, fill the jar halfway with water, cover it with cheesecloth or pantyhose, and leave the jar for eight hours (out of direct sunlight). 
  • The next morning, give your seeds a good rinse, drain the water through your impromptu strainer, and leave in a warm place otu of direct sunlight (I put mine next to my radiator and they really took off). 
  • Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat... 
  • On day five, give them a final rinse, remove from the jar, and place on a kitchen towel. Let them sit in direct sun for a bit (I've read between fifteen minutes and an hour); this allows the chlorophyll to get kickin'. Store in an airtight container in the fridge and enjoy your greens! And might I add, they are the sweetest and freshest little sprouts you'll ever eat. 

If you can grow it, you can sprout it: nuts, beans, legumes, grains... I don't even know where to start! Too bad I cooked up all those garbanzos, 'cause they'd be next. Pretty much everyone I've spoken to in the last couple weeks has endured me geeking out to this new endeavor. I feel like a proud mama when I first see those little tails poking out of the seeds. And what could be more endearing - more victorious - than a little victory-garden-in-a-jar?

Friday, February 20, 2009

From The Fields To The Frame: An Art Review

I've written before on the subject of food as art; the idea that what travels from your brain to your cutting board to your plate is a an artistic pursuit in its own right. So I'm thrilled to report on a genuine artist featuring my, well, medium, in a bold new light.

We all know what you see isn't always what you get, and seldom does this work in our favor. Pablo saw: "Meters free after 6pm! Pablo got a ticket. "Eugene saw a .99 cent value menu; Eugene got hypertension." But on the more beautiful, more mystic side of the coin, what you get isn't always what you see. That's how I sum up local photographer and good friend John Steck's new show unique prints. It opened last Monday In Boston's South End at Sister Sorel, a hip, cozy restaurant and an ideal venue for this innovative body of work. As you can tell by the images on my blog, I'm not the photographer here, so I'll leave the gory production details out of it. But by using an original process that produces neither a photograph nor a photogram, John captures images of the everyday fruits and vegetables we see in the market and renders them as alien and visceral as an organ viewed from outside the body. Ever taken biology and been both repulsed and awed by the sight, the feel of, say, the delicate veins in a mammal's heart? This work has that effect on the unassuming produce he captures. It's partly weird and a little warped - but maybe because you've never seen an broccoli floret that way. You may never look at an orange the same after seeing the way the light pores through each capsule of this succulent citrus. Some images aren't readily discernible as something your might put in a salad or a stir fry. Indeed, there's a subjectivity to it all. It's not so much what the image is, but what the viewer's perception and experience allows him or her to see. Subjectivity is a mighty thing, especially in the natural world. These are the beauties of nature that have mystified and inspired us from Fibonacci to Whitman and countless numbers before and after.

If your standard food photography is like Matt Damon - straight-forward, easy-on-the-camera-easy-on-the-eyes, then compare this show to, say, Johnny Depp - that edgy, je-ne-sais-quoi kind of appeal.

unique prints by John Steck Jr.
On view through March 8th at Sister Sorel, 645 Tremont St, Boston
Images from this series are on John's blog.
And check his website for more on his work.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Damn, These Beets Are So Fresh!

First off, I should start offering prizes to anyone who picks up on the nerdish pop culture references I drop on this blog. Anyone get the title (Ben, I'm looking at you and Amber on this one)?

Ok, I'm really going to shut up about the damn cupcakes already, after I share this with you all: I found a beet cake! And the picture looks an awful lot like my own little dirt cakes! So I'm feeling somewhat vindicated right now, and ready to revisit the beets that were left in the fridge after they failed to become food coloring.

I really do adore beets. The friend who turned me on to them years back aptly surmised that "they taste like dirt." Oh, that they do, in sweetest, earthiest manifestation imaginable. The beets I roasted for this recipe kept winding up in my mouth while I was cooking, like so many Swedish fish. Eat a beet with its greens, my friend, and you have yourself a whole food in the truest and most nurturing sense. While the beet root is delicious, the greens pack in the nutrition. And since we're on the topic of nerdish pop culture references, I'd like dedicate this recipe to all the Dwight K. Schrutes out there. Farm on, beet farmers.

Roasted Beet and Wild Rice Salad with Orange Vinaigrette

For the salad:
4 beets, greens removed 3/4 of an inch to the root, greens well-washed and roots scrubbed and well-washed
11/4 cups water
1/2 cup wild rice, well-rinsed
1/4 cup walnuts
1 tablespoon shoyu
pinch of brown sugar

For the vinaigrette:
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons orange juice
1 tablespoon rice vinegar (or white vinegar)

Preheat oven to 350F. Coat each beet with olive oil and wrap the beets individually in foil. Bake for 40-50 minutes, depending on the size of the beets (they're done when a fork pierces them easily). Remove from oven and allow to cool for at least 2o minutes. Slide the skin of and cut into cubes or julienned slices. (You can roast the walnuts at the same time. Whisk together the shoyu and brown sugar and toss the walnuts with the mixture. Roast for about 10 minutes and remove from the oven.) To cook the beet greens, steam in a colander for five-six minutes. The greens will soften and take on a bright green hue. Remove from heat, rinse with cold water and drain.

While the beets are cooking,cook the rice: bring the water to a boil, add the rice, cover and simmer for about 50 minutes.

Whisk together the olive oil, orange juice and vinegar to make the vinaigrette. Add a pinch of brown sugar if you want more sweetness. Stir the vinaigrette into the rice. Spoon the rice, then the greens, then the beets onto a plate. Top with the roasted walnuts. Or if you're not out to impress anyone, simply mix the lot together and marvel at how the beets stain the rice. Powerful stuff, them beets.


I can't tell you how relieved I am to be away from the mixing bowl, and back to the stovetop. I think that, unless there's a bubbling casserole in there, my oven stays off until further notice. I will leave the vegan baking to the professionals. Before last week's cupcake debacle, I started rummaging through my pantry, taking stock of what lingered as I toward the end of my winter stores from my last big haul from the co-op. I have a borderline detrimental (or just plain mental) obsession with organizing things. Example: as a child, while my mom shopped at JCPenny, I would busy myself by arranging neglected stuffed animal displays, doggedly grouping together the adorable duckies, moo-moos and piggies in nearly militant rows. Child labor be damned - I would have a ball. I take the same scrutiny to my pantry, fridge and spice rack at least once a month, when I wipe clean all surfaces and rearrange all jars and can in sight. This was how I stumbled across a neglected stash of chickpeas, looking not unlike a stash of candy on the shelf, all round and pebbly and jingly in their glass home. So I decided to cook up the lot, rather than letting them languish any longer behind closed doors. Um, two cups of dried chickpeas yields... a whole mess of chickpeas. I right proper "where the hell did all these come from??" mother lode of chickpeas. I have a ton in the freezer now, and hummus is certainly in the works, but here's the first set on the bill for Chickpea Stock '09: a tasty little burger-guy.

Vegan burgers are tricky, because nothing binds a wet, mushy patty together like an egg. Here I just tried to get a good balance of wet and dry ingredients in hopes that the end result wouldn't crumble apart. A stint in the fridge helped, too. I originally wanted to do a Moroccan-inspired couscous plate, but I'd really need mint and lemon flavors to make it sing - not inclusive in the late winter New England palate. I'm still trying to find new uses for the parsnips and carrots that have dominated my recipes for the last few weeks, and they are naturally at home here. The nutty, creamy chickpeas paired well with the sweet and earthy carrots and parsnips.

Chickpea & Couscous Patties with Sweet Tahini Dressing

For the patties:
2 cups coked chickpeas (or 2 15-oz cans, drained)
1/2 cup whole wheat couscous, dry
1/2 cup veggie stock (or water)
1 medium carrot and 1 medium or large parsnip, scrubbed and grated (use a cheese grater or vegetable peeler)
splash of olive oil
1 small white onion, diced
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch of parsley, minced (including stems)
2 teaspoons cumin
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup sesame seeds

For the dressing:
3 tablespoons tahini
3 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon honey

Cook the couscous: in a small pot, add the veggie stock and bring to a boil. Add the couscous, reduce heat to a low simmer, and cover. Allow the couscous to reconstitute for about 15 minutes, then fluff with a fork. You want the couscous to be slightly moist (not super-fluffy), so add a bit more stock or water if needed.

In a large bowl, mash the chickpeas with a potato masher or broad spoon until mostly mushed (a few un- or partially-smashed chickpeas are fine).

Heat the olive oil in a saute pan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until just tender, about two minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another three minutes. Add the grated carrot and parsnip and stir until just cooked, a little less than two minutes. Remove from heat.

Add the veggie mixture and the couscous to the mashed chickpeas and stir together. Add the parsley, cumin, sea salt and pepper (be generous with the salt here, if you can). Again, add more water or stock if the mixture seems dry; you want it nice and moist. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour, or overnight if you can. I found that the flavors had more chance to travel when they sat overnight.

For the dressing, simply whisk the ingredients together in a small bowl. Drizzle over the patties when they're done.

To cook the patties, remove the mixture from the fridge and form a thick patty shape with your hands. With your sesame seeds in a shallow dish, dredge each side of the patty in sesame seeds, pressing gently to get them to stick. Spray a large saute pan with non-stick spray or lightly coat with olive oil. Cook the burgers over medium-high heat for about five minutes on each side. They're done when the sesame seeds are fragrant and slightly browned. Makes about 10 patties.

Friday, February 13, 2009

She Wore Brown Velvet

I'm going to start this post by skipping to the end: you can't bat a thousand.

I made a- sorry, but- decidedly delicious batch of red velvet cupcakes for my friend and roommate Lily's birthday last month. Totally unconscionable, but exquisitely good little tortitas, almost impossibly moist and dressed to the nines in a top hat of butter-laden cream cheese frosting. Since my uncharacteristic success on the baking front, I've had this idea to try a vegan version of it. It seemed straight-forward enough - simply do some substituting for the non-vegan ingredients, right?

Then the monster grew into something I couldn't control. I felt uneasy from the first batch about the, um, "secret" ingredient: copious amounts of red food coloring. FIrst off, the first batch lent to my batter some odd crunchy bits that refused to blend with the dry indgredients. Then I started reading articles and blogs online not only about the possibly toxic nature of Reds #2-#473, but about a general curiosity as to whether or not there are dye alternatives in this belle of a cake. So I got to thinking: why not veganize it AND de-chemicalize it?? Mwwwaaahahaha!

I emerged from my evil laboratory, crossed the moat, and rode my black horse into Allston. My destination was Berezka, the Russian grocery store on Comm Ave. I was searching for a *new* secret ingredient - beets. That was my gut instinct when I wondered if there was a "natural" way to put the red in the velvet; google "red velvet cake beets" and you'll see I'm not the only one with that question. Alas, Berezka turned out to be a bust. I walked around the store for awhile clutching my only option: a jar of Gold's borchst. I hate borscht. I finally left empty-handed, deciding that there was no WAY I was putting soup in my cupcakes.

Back to Brookline I hiked, to Stop-and-Shop. I should have gone there first, honestly. They have a decent international section, with a Russian aisle (not that I have much use for the gefilte fish or canned smelt), and a secret haven of Thai and Chinese staples. I ended up walking with a cluster of fresh beets (enthusiastically) and a can of sliced beets (grudgingly).

I got home, did some planning, some mise-ing, and decided that there was no way in hell I had the time or patience to attempt a from-scratch beet dye. Sorry, but I'm a working girl! So I opened the metal can of beets, held my nose, and poured out the water (in case you weren't aware, canned beets are a true crime against nature. Maybe even humanity. Someone should alert the U.N.)

I'll try to make an exceedingly long story less long - while not a complete, irrefutable, 100% failure, these cupcakes did NOT turn out how I planned (although the frosting was quite exemplary). They are palatable, yes, but not as tasty as their non-vegan cousins. And by no stretch of the imagination are they red velvets, or even remotely red. NOT RED AT ALL! I'd settle for a dirt-brown description. In fact, maybe I'll make these for Earth Day... But if you don't believe me, please consult the writer at theinnermostbox for her telling on how an improvised rendition of the same red velvet cupcake recipe went horribly awry (she's a great writer!) The embarrassing thing is that my sister is worked as a pastry chef; my mother as a cake decorator. And they were both really good at their jobs! I'm a cook, not a pastier. Sigh. Well, there goes my Valentine's-themed post. Red velvet on V-Day is hack, anyway, right? Although I'm not immune - I did bring some velvets home to a bf from some bakery in Manhattan last year for the ol' Feb. 14th. Seemed like a good idea at the time - as did a lot of things... Damn, I should stop writing before I start to sound bitter.

Oh, before I shut up, I should say that of COURSE I'm not supplying you with my recipe for this monstrosity. I can tell you that I followed Garret's able tutelage from Simply Recipes, and simply did vegan subs for the non-vegan items, as listed below:

Eggs = 1 T flax meal and 3 T water, blended in a food processor or comparable tool (x2 in this case)
Buttermilk = required amount as non-dairy milk (I used vanilla soy milk) + 1 T vinegar (it curdles and gets gross and weird and awesome)
Cream cheese = Tofutti cream cheese (I so took shortcuts in this recipe)
Butter = Earth Balance (see above parenthesis)
Red food coloring = 2 T beet juice + 2 t vinegar

If anyone out there has any input on how to make this recipe not suck, I will be forever in your debt. Actually, teach me how to bake, and I'll make you a fierce veggie lasagna in return!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

It Was A Good Day

Boston is thawin' and I walked all the way from Coolidge to the Village and I have to say - today was a good day.

I even had a great sammich.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

On the Mend, Friends

Just wanted to give my warmest, fuzziest thanks for all your well-wishes since I done banged up m'body. And extra-special thanks to those who have been in and out of my apartment the last couple days, be it to offer mobility or highly unofficial medical advice. I'm feeling much more ambulatory, though I think it may be awhile until I'm 100% again. Don't worry; in some cosmic aspect, I'm sure I deserve this.

I'd like to shout out to two special critters that have helped me out, too. One is Lavender Panda, shown above looking mighty tuckered out after being in and out of the microwave so much for my muscle soothing needs. And the other is of course London, who has been extra-snuggly these past couple days. I extended my reach enough to get out and feed the birds today, to keep the both of us amused. When the seeds are out, so are the squirrels, and London, as depicted above, loses her holy-god-given mind...

Monday, February 9, 2009

Love in the Time of Vegetables

This is a little premature, but can we talk about Valentine's Day for a minute? The cynic's route is way to easy to take here, so I want to try to recount some of the things about this non-holiday that have tickled my fancy. Let me count the ways:

1) Those red, heart-shaped lollipops connected in a string of plastic. They are the Platonic form of the taste of Red.

2) The time my apartment was full of Ninja Turtle valentines scattered in secret places.

3) The year we made the best of a dorm room kitchen and prepared an awesome, all-vegan, ladies only V-Day feast.

4) The Valentine's Day episode of The Simpsons. Beyond good. "I bent my Wookie!"

5) Vegan cooking contests!

Susan at FatFree Vegan Kitchen is sponsoring another year of Vegetable Love, an annual cooking contest in which food bloggers can enter their sultriest, healthiest, veggiest recipes in honor of the Dia de Amantes. So, here's my offering...

Remember those misfit root veggies from a few posts back? Well, wanting to keep it seasonal for this February feast, I turned those guys into a creamy, savory scalloped dish. You could do this with just potatoes, or any combination of root vegetables and get the same result. The starch from the potatoes and rutabaga meld with the rice milk to bind the dish in a heavenly cream, and the onions provide color, crunch and plenty of sass. Aw, it's kinda like they were made for each other... *sniff* No, I'm not crying! I think I just got shallot juice in my eye...

Scalloped Root Vegetables

2 medium russet potatoes, 1 medium rutabaga, 1 medium sweet potato, a handful of sunchokes, all unpeeled, rinsed, thoroughly scrubbed and thinly sliced
1 medium yellow onion, 1 red onion, and one shallot, peeled and thinly sliced
2 c rice milk or oat milk (soy milk will likely break up under the heat)
2 T cornstarch
salt and lotsa pepper
1/2 c herbed breadcrumbs*
minced parsley for garnish

Preheat oven to 375F. Over high heat, add the rice milk to a large pot. Add the cornstarch and whisk until combined, about one minute. Add the root veggies and allow the mixture to come to a boil. Reduce heat and bring to mixture down to a simmer; simmer for about twenty minutes or until the rice milk is mostly evaporated and takes on a creamy texture. Add the salt and, really, lotsa ground pepper. Stir gently to mix in the salt and pepper and distribute the rice milk, but take care not to mush the veggies to a pulp. Pour the mixture into an 8"x8"-ish casserole dish. Add the breadcrumbs. Cover with foil and bake for 40 min. Top with parsley and serve. Serves 6 as a hearty side dish.

*To make the herbed bread crumbs, preheat the oven to a low heat (about 200F). Toast for 15-20 min, or until browned and crisp. Break into small pieces and place in the bowl of a food processor. Add a pinch each of basil, thyme, oregano, and a grinding of black pepper. Process into small crumbs, about 1 minute.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Ouchie Bunkers

Pretty adorable phrase, right? It's one that I've heard my friend utter many times as she's hoisting a thirty-pound bucket of ice up to chest-level. She suffered a shoulder injury that's been bothering her for several months, and while I've always had sympathy for her pain, now I'm living in straight-up empathy. I did.. something dumb to my body. Was it the six quarts of OJ I heaved up the stairs the other day, trying to prove to no one but myself that I was strong enough to do it? Was it an incident that involved about fifteen cocktails too many the other night and I just plain don't know what happened? Did my aging pillows finally get the best of me? All I know is that I woke up this morning, found I couldn't move, and it took me about twenty minutes to roll out of bed this morning - literally, twisting and rolling out of bed. I'd like to think I'm too young to fall infirm as such, but I may be wrong...

I've had plenty of time to think today. Usually my days off are committed to prepping, chopping, baking, sauteing, washing, and all the other physical maneuvers it takes to make this blog work and my life happy. But I can't crane my head to see my left shoulder right now, much less peel a squash or chop an onion. I realized today how bummed (by which I mean devastated) if someone one told me "I'm sorry, but you'll never play piano again. I mean, cook again." On the positive side, temperatures hit 50 today, or so I'm told. I took my gimpy arm and me out for a little walk today. From what I could see straight in front of me, the birds were going nuts and the snow was melting to reveal months' worth of trash buried in the drifts. Urban springtime can't be too far away! I realized I need to start thinking about launching my second attempt at a proper container garden. What to plant, and how to make it grow this year... the cilantro i threw into a pot did poke its head through the soil (I photographed its debut above), so I'm bouyed to think that I won't be left with little more than compost fodder this fall. Speaking of, my compost is in iffy territory. I've been adding to it tis winter, but nothing could prevent it from freezing into a solid brick organic garbage. I think adding some more browns will help, and hopefully I can soon start a hunt for worms to add to the mix.

All this made me super-doubly appreciate the simple meal I threw together tonight - leftover tomato soup that my sister made and brought me when I may or may not have had the mumps a couple weeks back (yeah, it's been a rough winter), and a baked sweet potato. I can't cook, but I can still eat well. Mike D said it best: It's called GRATITUDE!-And that's RIGHT!

Baked Sweet Potatoes

sweet potatoes (one per person)
olive oil

Preheat oven to 400. Poke the potatoes in several places with a fork, lest they explode all over your oven. Place on a sheet of aluminum foil - they will leak their sweet, tasty juices and make a mess that you don't want to try to clean out of a pan. Bake for about 45min-1hr, depending on their size (they're done when the flesh is easily pierced with a fork). Remove from oven, cut in half and allow to cool for a couple minutes. Top with good sea salt, a grinding of black pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Black Radishes and Kings

Since my last post, my drive to seek out local produce has evolved into something of an obsession. I've eaten a whole lot of roots, bulbs and squash this winter, and really have no complaints...except that I'm bored. Oh, the rallying cry of the disaffected! We should be so lucky to declare ourselves tired from the tyranny of a diet of staples...betcha my grandmother didn't complain about a diet based on potatoes (though maybe she did... she was a pistol, I'll tell you that much). Ok, so maybe its not so much boredom as a challenge to myself. I knew there had to be something exciting out there that I hadn't yet steamed, baked or mashed. This is, after all, the first winter where I've consciously steered clear from the brightly-colored temptations at the grocery store: yellow summer squash, red tomatoes, green peppers - when there's snow on the ground - just seem wrong to me now. It ain't natural!

So, my terms took me to Whole Foods, your one-stop shop for a clear conscience...or maybe not... Ok, it's way, way to easy for me to get jaded here, so I will try to keep up a positive spin. But seriously, you know you've come a long way from the soil when your idea of winter foraging stops after a 20-minute stroll down paved (but slushy) sidewalk to Brighton. In all fairness, I was surprised by the assortment of local produce they had to offer. Much of it was new to me - I bought everything.

My bounty included rutabagas and sunchokes from Vermont, parsnips from Whately, MA, baby spinach from Allendale Farms right here in Brookline, and perhaps the most charming and exotic pick of the litter, black radishes, also from Vermont. Now, there's an awful lot of schmultzy food writing out there, and I try my damndest to keep it out of my blog. But something got the best of me here... when I sliced the top off one of those strangely lunar-looking bulbs, it revealed a flesh as white and fine as porcelain and an aroma so fragrant and spicy and earthy. True and as full of promise as the air around my mother's old garden when the chives first start to waggle their proud stalks... yeah, I got a little choked up. I have confidence that spring will come again (thank you, Julie Andrews)! Gross.

I have lots of plans for my plunder, but I wanted to start first with what my body has been truly craving - a salad. I decided to wing it and see which of these veggiese would work raw in a bed of tender baby spinach. I sliced the sunchokes supeer-fine, and they revealed a texture and flavor similar to a young potato, grassy and sweet. I grated the parsnips for that zing I love, the marriage of the mellowness in a carrot with the zest of celery. And those radishes possessed a bright, robust bite - peppery and strong as scallions. They needed a fine, matchstick cut to impart their punch without overtly punching me in the face when I got a bite. I whipped up a citrus-maple vinaigrette, with the idea of a local maple flavor and seasonal (but not at all local) orange playing up the bite of radish and the sweetness of the parsnip. I topped it off with raw sunflower seeds (sunchokes' alleged namesake), and voila: my very first wintertime seasonal salad. Haven't quite figured out what to do with the other mutant-looking veggies on hand, but I'm working on it.

Maple-Citrus Vinaigrette

1/4 c good, fruity olive oil (I used Trader Joe's Extra Virgin California Estate)
3 T maple syrup (I used Grade B, and liked how the rich taste and color came through)
2 T white vinegar
juice and zest from an orange
1 t grainy mustard
pinch of salt
grinding of black pepper

Combine the ingredients in a jar. Cap the lid; shake like a Polaroid picture. Use to dress assertive, tangy salads and vegetables like celery, parsnip, radish, onions, and anything else that strikes your fancy.