Thursday, October 30, 2008

Broccoli-Millet Croquettes, modified

Iv and I are members of an Amish CSA, which has been great this summer, as we've gotten some incredible produce. But to be honest, we've had a problem from time to time because we get vegetables in unpredictable quantities, and sadly, some food has gone bad before we've had time to get to it. In an effort to stem the problem, I looked in the bag Iv brought home this week, and spied a nice head of broccoli, which naturally led to the question of what to do with it.

Since I just made the butternut squash spring rolls a couple weeks ago, the Broccoli-Millet Croquettes, which appear on the same page (51), came to mind.

So Wednesday I resolved to make these. The only ingredient for this dish I didn't already have in the house was millet, plus canned navy beans for the accompanying sauce. At the store, I discovered, however, that my Kroger, despite having a fairly sizable natural foods section, does not carry millet. I was left to improvise -- abandon ship, or come up with a millet substitute? (The possibility of driving 16 miles round-trip to the nearest Whole Foods for millet crossed my mind, but the incremental expansion of my carbon footprint seemed antithetical to the project.)

I recalled a mention in the recipe suggesting that the millet should cook to a risotto-like consistency, so I picked up some arborio rice. Upon coming home, I re-read the recipe and saw the consistency should in fact be polenta-like, but I'd come this far, so there was no stopping me now.

So you start by chopping your broccoli into pea-sized pieces.

Then you fry some garlic and herbs, drop in the dry arborio rice, and fry it for a few minutes until it achieves a measure of translucency, then dump in some vegetable stock and cook the rice for a 10 minutes.

Add in the broccoli, stir it up, and cook it for a while more. During this process, I found that the amount of water the Veganomicon suggests for millet is too little for arborio, so I added water periodically throughout the cooking process.

In any case, the end product of the rice and broccoli cooking together, ended up as a nice mix, with the rice fully cooked and sticky, and the broccoli retaining just a slight bit of crunch.

From here, you let the mixture cool for a while, and then put it in the fridge for 45 minutes or so.

While this cooled off, I started on one of the sauces Terri and Isa suggest for it, the white bean aioli. It's just canned navy beans, lemon juice, salt, and pepper, and a few cloves of garlic sauteed in a hefty amount of olive oil. Put it all in a blender, and puree until smooth. I doubled the amount of lemon juice called for, because I like a bit of extra acidity.

Once the rice and broccoli mixture had cooled, I formed them into little patties, ready to be fried. The mixture was still a bit warm, but the end result was ok, so don't freak out if this happens to you. The method the Veganomicon suggests -- forming into a golf ball shape and mashing down a bit, works nicely.

So then, I just poured a thin layer of olive oil into my favorite cast iron pan, and fried these babies away. Probably 4-5 minutes on each side over medium heat.

Terry and Isa said to serve these things immediately, so I took them at their word. Here they are, piping hot, in the company of the finished aioli.

This, it turns out, is the first recipe where Terry and Isa really sell themselves short. They say, "They are delicately flavored, so definitely include a sauce when you serve." Which I took to mean...they're pretty but about as interesting as a Miss America contestant. But this turns out not to be true. The combination of garlic, tarragon, and red pepper gives these a really nice flavor on their own, and the texture is decidedly akin to a crab cake. The thing I can't tell you is whether this is dumb luck due to using arborio rice instead of millet, but I really liked these a lot. The crust turned out nice, slightly chewy, with a pleasantly caramelized flavor in the darkest spots. The white bean aioli also turned out to be a nice complement, with the flavor of the garlic intensified after spending 30 minutes in the fridge.

The other nice thing was that while Terry and Isa say you have to serve these immediately, they actually work really nicely the next day for lunch. They were little worse the wear for coming out of the microwave at the office the next day.

No question, these are great, at least using my variation. I'll let you know when I actually try them again using millet. But my variation using supermarket ingredients worked very nicely.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Revenge of the Frozen Chicken (aka Quesadilla, hold the Queso)

Iv was going to cook dinner tonight--he picked up a chicken and was going to roast it, but when I got home the chicken was sitting in the bathtub and was still largely frozen. But he'd already peeled sweet potatoes to accompany it. What to do?

Veganomicon to the rescue! Tonight we're doing the first recipe for blog purposes that I've made before, and it's a good one. Bring on the Sweet Potato and Black Bean Quesadillas.

This is a variation on the Grilled Yuca tortillas on page 49. The recipe as written is for a quesadilla-style tortilla filled with mashed yuca, lime, and bell pepper. This mixture is supposed to be the base for the variations, but instead of adding sweet potato and black beans to the yuca mix, I've always just omitted the yuca and increased the sweet potatoes, which works well.

The way this works, then, under my modifications. You saute some garlic, bell pepper and jalapeno, then add it to some boiled sweet potatoes and mash it all together with some lime juice, salt and pepper. The recipe calls for 2 teaspoons of lime juice, but I suspect it's supposed to be 2 tablespoons. Just keep adding lime juice till you've got the acidity you'll do fine.

Add the black beans, then spread the mixture on half a tortilla.

Grill it in a cast-iron skillet over medium-low heat until both sides are nice and crisp, cut in half, and eat.

While this lacks the structural integrity of a real quesadilla, where the meltiness of the cheese holds things together, these are really, really good. Iv says if these were served at a restaurant -- any restaurant -- he would go just for this. But he doesn't have to go to a restaurant, because he has me and my crazy project! I can just make these and then we'll plop down on the sofa and watch Dexter!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Butternut Squash & Pumpkin Seed Rice Paper Rolls

Nothing says Fall like butternut squash, pumpkin...and cilantro, right? Iv, who apparently has been won over to the granola-crunchy side of things, rode his bike to the farmer's market Saturday morning while I slept and tried to improve our net worth on, and came back with greens, eggplant, regular radish, watermelon radish, and butternut squash.

Tonight I decided to tackle the butternut squash, which is an ingredient I've eaten before, but never actually used. Terry & Isa have a recipe on page 50 for what is basically a traditional Vietnamese spring roll except with roasted squash subbing for the shrimp.

The squash goes in the oven for about 25 minutes, getting tossed a couple of times. Meanwhile, you cook rice vermicelli, then run it under cold water for a minute or two two bring it down to spring roll wrapping temperature. Chop up some pumpkin seeds and cilantro and you're all set.

Spring roll wrappers actually come in brittle dry sheets. This is Golden Boy brand. You have to soak them for a minute in hot tap water to get them pliable.

Place some rice noodles in the lower third of the wrapper once it's laid out, add butternut squash, cilantro, and some pumpkin seeds, and roll it up. The recipe says you're supposed to get 12 of these, but I got eight.

The rice paper is kind of tough to control. If it starts sticking to itself, just put it back in warm water; it will start to loosen up.

Once the filling is in, just roll it up.

The finished product, together with a super-easy dipping sauce of rice vinegar, soy sauce, chili oil, sesame oil, and sugar.

Iv was still under the weather tonight, so I served this alongside a chickpea stew with carrots, tahini, and lemon juice (basically hummus in soup form). It's vegan, too, but it's a recipe more or less of my own making, so it doesn't qualify for the blog. When I called him from work, he said what he really wanted for dinner was a bacon bleu cheese burger (which he'd really rather you righteous vegans didn't know about), but he sacrificed for the sake of the blogosphere.

The spring rolls were a triumph of deliciousness. There's nothing wrong with them. We should all eat them constantly. If there's a criticism, maybe they could use a little more texture, but they're just generally wonderful, so you should serve them to all your friends. Make them today!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Black Beans with Chipotle Adobo Sauce

The weather in Indiana has been getting cool, meaning that today was looking like a good day for soup. This afternoon, Iv and I stopped at Saraga International Grocery, where they were offering a mountain of dry black beans for $0.59/lb, so we filled up a bag, and I settled on the Black Beans with Chipotle Adobo Sauce (page 122) for a late lunch.

I started out pressure-cooking the beans, then set them on the stove over a simmer with onion and bay leaf for a while. Turns out, this is a pretty aromatic dish while it's cooking, so the smell was wafting out of the kitchen before long.

As the beans cooked, I started the sauce, which involves a pretty simple combination of ingredients -- just onion, garlic, and canned chipotles. Saute, puree, and done. The recipe says to mince the chipotles, but since the sauce gets whirled through the blender anyway, I just cut them into a few pieces. The San Marcos brand of chipotles leaves a bit to be desired on the spelling front.

The dish took longer than I expected, mainly due to having to wait for the pressure cooker to depressurize before I could get to the cooked beans, so by the time I was assembling this, we were getting out of late lunch territory and into early-bird special.

Terry and Isa suggest that you serve the beans over rice, with sauce drizzled over them. I tried this, but the sauce is more of a thick puree rather than anything particularly drizzleable, so I sort of mounded it on the beans and tried to fancify it with a lime slice.

The end result? This was really good. The sauce has an almost creamy texture, which binds the rice and beans together nicely. It's pretty spicy, though, so beware. Iv has a cold, and it cleared up his sinuses right away, but then he headed for the kitchen and came back with a box of crackers to try to ease the fire on his tongue. I was feeling a little scorched as well, but I think I've got a slightly higher heat tolerance. In any case, be warned, and if you're timid on spices, just go easy on mixing the sauce into the beans. Still, for both of us, it turned out to be compulsively eatable, despite the sweat forming on our brows.

The recipe says you can skip the sauce if you want to and just serve the beans as they are. This is incorrect, unless you are a flavor-hater -- despite smelling good, the beans on their own are pretty bland. If you're looking for a simple, non-spicy, black bean recipe, use Bittman's black beans with cumin instead.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Caramelized Onion Marinara with Almesan

So I was tired tonight and I wasn't even planning to cook for the purposes of this project, but Iv suggested spaghetti, which sounded like a good idea. Then I started thinking that it always seems that vegetarian and vegan cookbooks are so often focused on being all righteous and tofu-ey that they forget that a lot of regular foods are vegan. So before getting started, I checked to see if the Veganomicon had a regular-people pasta sauce recipe.

And indeed it does, with variations. So I went for the Caramelized Onion Marinara, which is cooked precisely how you think it is--caramelize the onions, add garlic, tomatoes, and herbs, cook down, and done. Classic, no soy products involved.

What was more interesting was what the Veganomicon calls Almesan, a concoction that is supposed to serve the same function as Parmesan cheese. It's essentially ground almonds, toasted sesame seeds, lemon zest, and salt. We were out of lemons, so I used dried lemon peel, which might not have been the right choice.

A tiny cast iron pan is essential for toasting sesame seeds. Also good for toasting cumin.

Whirl all this stuff around in a blender (being mindful not to do too much whirling, or you might end up with almond butter), and this is what you get.

I tried talking Iv into agreeing that it smelled like Parmesan. No dice. It smells like toasted sesame. Which was fine.

So here's dinner, on display on the coffee table before we watch the Project Runway we recorded while we were both out of town.

Here's the deal. The spaghetti and sauce were fine. And I should be clear, it was far better than spaghetti sauce from the store -- Iv and I haven't used store-bought spaghetti sauce since we moved in together. So I will say this: if you are buying sauce at the store, stop it right now and make your own. It's so much better, and it's super-easy. You can make it while your pasta is boiling.

And actually, the Almesan was pretty good, too. It imparts a distinct sesame flavor, though, and I think should try making it again sometime with fresh lemon peel. But this has me thinking about, of all things, Lynn Rosetto Kasper. She kind of drives me crazy, because everything's so "fabulous" and all, but every now and again, she talks about the concept of umami, or the quality of "savoriness". And the ingredients she consistently mentions as having this quality are red meat, red wine, parmesan cheese, soy sauce, and fish sauce. Exactly two of which are vegan. Anyway, the thing that's not satisfying about the Almesan is that it really lacks the depth of flavor that Parmesan has.

So I'm on a mission now, which is not really to develop the perfect fake Parmesan, but to work on ways to really get depth of flavor into vegan cooking without using soy sauce for everything. The difficulty that the vegan ethic imposes is that omnivorous cooking can always rely on beef or chicken stock as a shortcut to complexity and deliciousness, but vegan cooking doesn't provide that option (at least not in Western culinary traditions). The vegetable stocks I've made before are not a satisfactory solution.

Together we will find a way to deal with this problem. Veganism is a human ethic, not one that denies the Yum. Let's figure it out!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Hash! (Pie?)

Of all things, it was browsing through the 1971 edition of the Joy of Cooking that I rediscovered the concept of hash. That version, called Red Flannel Hash, is essentially a repurposing of New England Boiled Dinner, which is corned beef, various root vegetables, and cabbage. So you chop up the leftovers, maybe add an egg or some milk to bind it together, then put it in a hot pan, fry it till it's nice and crusty, and you've got hash.

Over the last couple months, I have been redeploying hash in lots of unlikely ways. Iv threw a surprise NC-style BBQ birthday party for me a couple months ago, and I used the leftover pork, potatoes, collards, and whatever else to make a most excellent hash. Another time, I used leftovers from some kind of crazy Indian dinner that somehow involved beets, stewed eggplant, and something else I can't remember, mashed them all together, and made some delicious crap that tasted like something the Bollywood Waffle House would serve up.

So tonight, it was vegan hash. Kind of. I had the leftover Greek potatoes from the other night, Iv's spaghetti with homemade sauce (mirepoix, represent!), some leftover vegan cutlets, and some tomato paste to use as a binder. I mashed up the potatoes, diced the cutlets, and loosely chopped the spaghetti. I heated some olive oil in my trusty twelve-inch cast iron skillet, and dropped the mixture in.

Whereupon it immediately became clear that this wasn't going to be a hash. See, for a hash to work, there has to be little enough that you can flip it with a spatula, and after getting this stuff in the pan, I found that the mass of stuff was so big, that just wasn't going to happen. So I just spread it out so it was more like a pie, kept it on low heat on the stove so it would develop a bit of a crust, then put it in the oven on 325 for 15 minutes.

Once I pulled it out, I sliced it up like a pie, but it didn't hold together well. So, not very photogenic, which means you get no pictures. But, seriously people, this was delicious. Turned out that it was better than the potatoes, the spaghetti, or the chickpea cutlets. Vegan comfort food, people. Learn to use your leftovers.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Public Service Announcement re Miso and Sesame Sauce

I want to keep expectations low here, so I won't be posting every day. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to make a public service announcement. See, I made a double-batch of those chickpea cutlets last night, thinking they'd be good in a pita sandwich with some lettuce and some of the tahini-miso sauce on page 93. This seemed like an intuitive combo to me, since I love tahini, and I always put a few drops of soy sauce in my hummus, and miso's just another salty soy product, so what could go wrong?

Nothing did, really, but I've never actually used miso before, just had it in soup with sushi. Anyway, the whole sauce comes together in an instant in a mass of ecru goodness. And cut with lemon juice, it tasted pretty good, just licking a little of it off the spoon.

But let me tell you, a little of this goes a long way. This is good stuff, no question, but this is like a double-concentrate dressing, and if you put a couple tablespoons of this in your pita like I did, you better really be into the whole miso-tahini subculture.
All things in moderation, my friends. After getting halfway through my sandwich at work today, I texted poor Iv--because I made him one of these miso overload sandwiches, too. He was kind enough just to text back and say one of our friends just had a baby. So the miracle of life made all this better.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Chickpea Cutlets with Mustard Sauce, Lemony Roasted Potatoes

Trying to get started with a spirit of discovery, I chose not to lead with a recipe I've made before and whose goodness I already knew. So, obscure meat substitute it was!

Terry and Isa sell the chickpea cutlets as vegan food you can eat with a steak knife. The base recipe calls for them to be pan-fried, but they can also be baked.

So you start with some cooked chickpeas. Canned would be fine, but I cooked dry ones in a pressure cooker. Then you mash them with olive oil, and add in bread crumbs, soy sauce, vegetable stock, thyme, and sage. Wheat gluten (found with all the gluten-free flours at your local supermarket) provides a meaty texture.

Knead it for a while.

Then you just divide it into pieces, flatten it out, and pan-fry. It has a not-unpleasant herbal smell to it before you start cooking, but my boyfriend -- let's call him Iv (which I don't, but a lot of other people do) -- said it smelled like dirt.

And that's it. This part was easy enough. Terry and Isa say this takes about 30 minutes. It took me a little longer, but not by much.

So then I got started on the mustard sauce. Once the cutlets were fried, I just figured I'd deglaze the pan to make the sauce (though I can confirm that there's not much advantage to be gained from that when making chickpea cutlets, other than just keeping one less dish to clean). I sauteed garlic with thyme, then added cooking sherry, soy sauce, vegetable stock, cornstarch, mustard, thyme, and capers.

Concurrently, I had the Lemony Roasted Potatoes going in the oven. This was a couple pounds of russet potato wedges, olive oil, lemon juice, tomato paste, salt, pepper, and vegetable stock.

Plated up and ready to go. I'm showing this to you on the table, but we actually ate this in front of the TV watching Survivor (they've probably got one of the best-looking casts in a few seasons, but the contestants seem a little more idiotic than usual).

The dinner review, then. The potatoes were good, though the suggested russet potatoes may not actually be the best for this dish; they seemed a bit dry, and Yukon gold may prove to the be the better bet. Iv said that the chickpea cutlets probably wouldn't fly with Joe Sixpack, though he liked them. I thought the sage gave them a faintly poultry-like flavor. As for the claim that it was vegan food that needed a steak knife? Well, if you're the kind of vegan who's really looking for an excuse to use a steak knife, then by all means, feel free. The mustard sauce was nice, but between the cooking sherry, soy sauce, and capers, was pretty damn salty, and would have been even saltier if I'd used commercial vegetable stock instead of homemade stuff from our freezer. So if you make this, which I recommend, you'll probably want to use regular sherry or white wine instead of cooking sherry, at the very least.

All in all, a successful meal, but maybe not the one you want to sneak onto your carnivorous friends. We ended with clean plates, though.

A word of introduction

About three years ago, I happened to buy a copy of Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the book changed my entire approach to food. While I've always been a reasonably competent and enthusiastic cook, there were certain things I never did. I had never made my own stock, always relied on storebought pasta sauces, never attempted to make bread at home, and so on. It's not that Bittman is all that amazing, really, it's just that his approach caught me at the right time.

In 2007, Bittman published a followup, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. This resonated with me because the reason I knew how to cook in the first place was that I was vegetarian from the age of 14-21 (the rest of my family was not), so I had to do a lot of cooking for myself. While I have been eating meat again for a bit more than a decade now, my old favorite vegetarian recipes still figure prominently in my cooking, there's frequently tofu in the fridge, and it still seems more natural to me to have bulgur, not beef, in my chili.

Unfortunately, most of my old vegetarian cookbooks, with the notable exception of Yamuna Devi's wonderful Lord Krishna's Cuisine: The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking (a complicated book Bittman gave me the confidence to return to seriously), sat gathering dust on the kitchen bookshelf. That's because the characteristic they share in common is a consistent penitential joylessness. There's a sense of self-denial running through them -- particularly a horrific book called Tofu Cookery whose worst excesses (including a quasi Jell-o salad based on tofu, agar flakes, and frozen peas) easily qualify for the Gallery of Regrettable Food. The focus was nearly always misplaced: cookbook authors seemed unable to conceive of a non-meat-centered plate, so the recipes aimed to replicate old meaty favorites, neglecting the array of non-meat ingredients.

It was also apparent that most vegetarian cookbook authors were idealogues first, cooks second.

This brings me to the Veganomicon, by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero. It came to my attention while perusing the reviews of How to Cook Everything Vegetarian on Amazon. I had never really given vegan cooking a second thought - even when vegetarian, it just seemed too stringent, but the reviews of the book seemed outstanding from vegans, vegetarians, and meat-eaters alike. As I've said above, I eat meat, and I'm not seriously considering becoming vegetarian or vegan. But I do agree with the premise that it is not sustainable for us to eat as much meat as we in the Western world do, and I think the idea of working within a certain set of limitations and seeing what happens is fun.

So here's what this blog's about. I've cooked a few recipes from the book, and really enjoyed them. Inspired by the outstanding Julie/Julia Project and French Laundry at Home, I'm going to work through the entire catalog of recipes. While I won't be attempting any of the amazing technical feats Julie and Carol have, I will be exposing my social network to seitan and nutritional yeast, which may be just as bold. I'm taking advantage of my indulgent boyfriend, friends, and neighbors as guinea pigs (or...whatever the not-tested-on-animals equivalent would be), and bringing you good people along for the ride. Let's see how it goes.