Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thanksgiving post mortem

Thanksgiving is not an even remotely vegan affair for my family.  Which is fine, since I'm not even vegetarian.  Amazingly, though, besides the turkey, the star of our Thanksgiving dinner is the consolation prize I always made back when I was vegetarian, and have continued making ever since.  Matar paneer (homemade cheese cooked with tomatoes and peas) has become a family tradition, to the point that my cousins who weren't able to come this year asked for my recipe (for the record, I use Julie Sahni's, with a few alterations borrowed from Lord Krishna).  Searching the vegan blogosphere, by the way, I find that most people seem to have success subbing tofu for the cheese, or you can try this vegan paneer recipe, whose quality I can't vouch for.

This is all an aside before getting to Friday night, when Iv and I were over at my aunt's house with a number of other relatives, and I noticed that my aunt owns both the Veganomicon and Vegan with a Vengeance.  So my aunt and I spent much of the evening discussing vegan cooking over a plate of my uncle's unbelievably melt-in-your-mouth ribs.

Vegan readers may see my description of this as smirking irony at best and outright offensive at worst, but I'd call this progress.  The fact of the matter is that I do not agree with the idea that eating animals, much less drinking milk or eating honey, is immoral (though this article should give us all pause).  But what my aunt and I do agree on is that eating less of these things -- whether for health, solving world hunger, environmental or humane reasons, or just for fun and variety -- is a good and necessary thing.

So, I think vegans and vegetarians alike should be encouraged that even though not many of us omnivores are considering giving up animal products, some of us are taking your arguments and your cooking seriously.  And whether those conversations are taking place over a conversation of ribs or ribz, I think that's a good thing.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Spaghetti & Beanball Update

I returned to the spaghetti and beanballs this evening, this time using pinto beans instead of chickpeas. I ran into some problems, though. The recipe said you want to start with about 3 cups of beans, which prompted me to use two 15-oz cans because the can said each can yields 3.5 1/2 cup servings. So I stuck with the rest of the recipe, with two minor exceptions. I added a little bit of minced onion (a follow-up on my idea from last time), and again, we still don't have any steak sauce, so I used ketchup in place of that.

But here's the problem. I think 3 cups is the wrong starting number, because the beanballs completely fell apart on me. The problem? 1/4 cup of wheat gluten is too little to seitanize three cups of beans.

The good news is that the beanballs taste much better with pinto beans than chickpeas. And I also chopped up some of the roasted bell peppers we had in the freezer and threw them in the sauce, which gave a nice, smoky flavor.

Mixed results, all in all. But I think I should have either halved the beans or doubled the wheat gluten.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Pumpkin Baked Ziti with Caramelized Onions and Sage Crumb Topping

Straight up now tell me
Will you cashew me forever?
Oh oh oh
Or is this tofu gonna run?
Straight up now tell me
Can garlic and basil together
Oh oh oh
Make a ricotta approximation?

I regret to inform you that the Amish CSA is taking a few months off as a theme for the blog, as we recently received our last shipment of vegetables. In it were a couple of acorn squash.

I am generally unfamiliar with the squash genre of vegetables. I grew up detesting zuchinni and yellow squash -- texture violation issues, generally -- I still prefer them a bit firm. But finally I came around, and have been cooking with summer squashes regularly. I'm still generally a bit unsteady with winter squash.

But here we had these acorn squash, sitting nice and pretty on the counter, and we had to do something with them. Enter the Pumpkin Baked Ziti with Caramelized Onions and Sage Crumb Topping (p. 194). I decided to substitute the acorn squash for the pumpkin.

But before we get to that, let's talk about one of the components of this dish: the Cashew Ricotta (p. 206). First, if you try this dish, you will be making it a lot. Which means you may need a supply of cashews. And for all y'all budget-conscious vegans who shop at Ye Olde Natural Foods Warehouse, the prospect of buying cashews may fill you with dread. But fear not! Your local Indian grocer is your friend! I bought 3 pounds of cashews at International Bazaar on Lafayette Road for $12! Remember, you're not looking for whole cashews because you're just buying them to grind up to make awesome fake ricotta anyway, so don't pay more than you have to...bits and pieces are fine.

This facsimile of ricotta cheese is made of cashews, tofu, garlic, basil, olive oil, lemon juice, and salt. You just throw it all in a blender, and voila! ricotta-like goo. And I have to tell you, this is the first recipe that Iv and I have licked off the spatula. This is some mighty fine stuff.

So onto the rest. I made Iv peel the acorn squash for me because it was a major pain and he's good at that kind of stuff. Though not without swearing. The skin on this sucker is tough. Anyway, he ultimately triumphed, and I finally cut them in half.

And then cut them into little cubes, tossed them with a bit of olive oil, and roasted them at 400 for 20 minutes until they caramelized a bit. They should look like this when they're done.
So once this is done, you mash the roasted squash with a potato masher, then mix it with the cashew ricotta and the onions you've been caramelizing over low-medium heat while all the rest of this excitement has been going on. Then you mix it all up with some cooked ziti, and lay it out in a greased casserole dish.

Then, you create the bread crumb topping. Now, I have to tell you, this recipe calls for margarine. But I am here to say that you don't have to use it. Here's what I did. For breadcrumbs, I bought 3 multi-grain rolls at Kroger, tore them into bits, and ran them through the food processor. I did the same thing with the walnuts.
Then I just mixed the bread crumbs and walnuts with the herbs and fried them in the equivalent amount of olive oil and let them cook until the breadcrumbs were nice and crispy.

Seriously, folks, you don't need margarine for this.
Finally, you just layer the breadcrumbs over the rest of the casserole, then stick it in the oven, and wait for the goodness to emerge.

And oh man, is this good. It's garlicky, salty, and sweet from the squash, with a nice sagey crunch from the breadcrumbs. If you didn't know this was vegan, you wouldn't know this was vegan -- though you might wonder a little bit about why it doesn't hold together as well as baked ziti usually does. But whatever. It's moist and delicious and so on. Make this. It's very good. And it's awesome the next day, too. Iv took some for lunch, where he was brown-bagging with one of his coworkers, and was moved to pity him for his wretched peanut butter sandwich. Yes, this recipe has the power to move you to condescend to your less fortunate friends. All bow to the Pumpkin Baked Ziti!

Technique Check - Roasting Bell Peppers

Between our garden and our CSA, Iv and I found ourselves overrun by more peppers than we could possibly use before they went bad. I opted to store them by roasting them, then wrapping them up in freezer bags and storing them like high-falutin' acorns.

This seemed like an apt opportunity to check the Veganomicon's method for roasting bell peppers (p. 33). It's easy enough. Preheat the oven. While you're doing that, cut the peppers in half, and seed them. Then put them on a baking sheet, coat lightly with oil, and pop them in the oven.

Terry and Isa suggest leaving them in the oven for 20-25 minutes, but at least in our electric oven, that wasn't quite long enough to get the nice charred skin. Still, they wound up soft and flavorful, and we now have a colorful collection of peppers in the freezer to see us through winter.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Spicy Peanut and Eggplant Soup

As fall sets in in newly blue Indiana, soup starts looking better and better. During one of his recent farmers market forays, Iv brought back a late-season eggplant for me, which I turned into the Spicy Peanut and Eggplant soup (p. 147).

You start out by sauteeing some sliced shallots in peanut oil, an idea I was immediately on board with since crispy shallots are a frequent addition to stews in southeast Asian cooking. Once the shallots are brown, but not yet crispy, you remove them and add some cubed eggplant.

I have to take issue with the way Terry and Isa suggest dealing with the eggplant:
  • Peeling eggplant is pointless. Don't bother.
  • Brining eggplant is not completely pointless, but I've never found it to be worth the effort. The idea is to reduce some of the eggplant's bitterness, but I've always found that if you're cooking the eggplant long enough and/or putting it in a highly flavored dish like this one, the bitterness cooks away. Don't bother.
  • The one advantage brining the eggplant brings is that much of the water will already be leached out, so the cooking time on the stove will be a bit shorter, which means you can actually get away with the 1 tablespoon of oil Terry & Isa suggest. You'll want at least two tablespoons when you're starting with raw eggplant cubes.
Anyway, you cook the eggplant. It will look like this when you're ready to pull it off the heat.

Finally, you add a bit more oil to the pot, and add your onions, ginger, hot pepper, and spices. But let's stop here for a minute, because you don't want to follow the book's directions, here, either - and this spot's a bigger deal than the eggplant brining issue. See, Terry & Isa suggest starting out frying the ginger and chile for 30 seconds, then adding, the dry spices and cooking for another 30 seconds, then adding the onion and cooking until soft. If you do it this way, you will curse them, because you're dealing with a relatively high quantity of spices (~1 1/2 tablespoons, all told), a relatively small amount of oil, and relatively low water content in the ginger, pepper, and onion. So what you'll end up with doing it this way is a dry mixture that sticks to your pot while you're trying to cook. Even if you end up not burning the spices, cooking them this way adds significantly to their intensity, and you run a pretty strong risk of an excessively bitter dish, which may not be the result you intend.

Do it this way instead (this is my preferred technique, learned from Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking):
  • Fry the onions till soft
  • Add the ginger and chile pepper, cook for an additional minute
  • Add the dry spices, cook for an additional 30-secs to one minute -- you just want them to get very fragrant
Then, and you need to be speedy here, add the diced tomatoes. Terry and Isa tell you not to drain them, but do it...just reserve the juice. You'll cook the onions, spices, etc. with the tomatoes till they get a bit saucy. Then, you can add the juice, the vegetable stock, tomato paste, green beans, eggplant, etc.

And now we're back on track with the recipe. Whew!

After all this mix has boiled for a few minutes, you take out a bit of the broth and emulsify it with 1/2 cup of peanut better, then add it back to the pot and stir it in. This step may look a little unintentionally evocative.

You cover this and let it cook for 30-45 minutes, then serve in bowls with cilantro, lemon juice, and roasted peanuts.

This is good, rich stuff, ideal for a cool night. Nicely spicy, but not too much so. The eggplant retains its form, but virtually melts in your mouth. The peanut butter adds a nice, deep creamy texture, but the quantity is small enough relative to the other ingredients that the peanut flavor is actually pretty subtle. It was even better for lunch the next day.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Spaghetti and Beanballs - Bittman/Veganomicon Mashup

Looking for something quick I could make for lunch today in advance of an Obama volunteer training session, I settled on the Spaghetti and Beanballs recipe (p. 189).

Last night Iv asked me if I was going to ever cook a recipe from this cookbook as written -- do I really want to get attacked for not following the recipes exactly like that woman in Portland? Today I decided the answer was that I don't care about following recipes precisely, and I'm trusting my readers (whom I know to be few) not to flame me for trying to make good food. Because really, the Veganomicon is a great resource for fun and interesting ideas, and occasionally has some interesting techniques, but there are times that I just don't have an ingredient and can't be bothered, or that I just know that my way is better - and in those cases I'll tell you exactly what I did, and you can try it by the book, then try it my way, and tell me who's right.

In any case, both the lack of appropriate ingredients and ad hoc adjustment issues came into play with this recipe. The beanballs are supposed to be made with canned kidney beans. We have some dried ones, but I was under a tight enough deadline that I didn't have time to pressure-cook them, so instead I just thawed some chickpeas I had in the freezer.

You start by mashing the beans till they're mostly smooth, but still retain a bit of texture. Then dump in some garlic, soy sauce, olive oil, bread crumbs, wheat gluten, oregano, thyme, lemon zest. You're also supposed to add steak sauce or tomato paste. We didn't have either in the fridge, so I used ketchup.

After mixing all this up, you form them into balls. I ended up with 13.

This is where I started straying from the method. What the Veganomicon calls for is making a batch of their marinara sauce recipe, cooking the beanballs, then coating them with a half-cup of the sauce, and cooking for a while more, then just topping spaghetti with the marinara and beanballs.

While this method is adequate, I thought I'd try the method from How to Cook Everything (page 152), which works fantastically for real meatballs. The basics of this method are to brown the meatballs, remove them, then make a quick tomato and onion sauce, then drop the meatballs back in and cook for another 15 minutes. I thought there was little reason wouldn't work equally well for beanballs. One of the specific advantages I thought this would have is that braising the beanballs in the sauce would help the wheat gluten to seitanize a little bit, giving the beanballs a meatier texture.

So I browned the beanballs in the oil left over from the broccoli and millet croquettes for about 15 minutes. The texture while I was doing this was alarmingly mushy. I was a bit concerned that the beanballs wouldn't hold together, but I pressed on. The beanballs absorb the oil really well...this wasn't shaping up to be a low-fat dish.

Then I removed the beanballs and kept them on a plate in the warming drawer in the oven. Enter Bittman. I dropped in one medium chopped onion, and fried it for a few minutes until it was just turning brown. At the same time, I took a 28-oz can of whole tomatoes (undrained), and tore the tomatoes apart with my hands. Once the onions were slighty browned, I poured in the tomatoes with their juice, and simmered it for about five minutes, until the tomatoes were just starting to break down.

At that point, I added back the beanballs,and let them cook for 15 minutes, along with some salt and pepper, stirring just occasionally to make sure nothing was sticking. Meanwhile, I cooked the spaghetti. Once the spaghetti was drained, I removed the beanballs, and tossed the spaghetti and sauce together. I divided the spaghetti up among three plates, placing some beanballs atop each.

The verdict was positive. The sauce was great, and the beanballs were very flavorful. Fortunately my intuition about the effect of simmering the beanballs in the sauce was correct, and they did have better structural integrity than it appeared, though they were still smoother and mushier than I'd prefer...a bit like hummus balls, which would be an argument for definitely sticking with kidney beans next time. Some other traditional meatball ingredients, like parsley and finely chopped onions, might also help with this issue. I also suspect a temperature factor might have bean at play. Since I thawed the frozen chickpeas on the stovetop, the mixture was pretty warm when I started frying them, and starting with cool ingredients, or refrigerating the mixture before cooking, might also help.

All in all, the dish was a winner, though. Nice, hearty, and satisfying - not usually the sort of description associated with vegan cooking.