Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Veganomicon Goes to Church: Mushroom and Walnut Pate

Iv has been dreading this day. In A Word of Introduction, I promised that I would be "exposing my social network" to the joy of vegan cooking, and one aspect of my social network I was eager to try was coffee hour at our church. "You're going to inflict this food on those poor people?!" Iv would exclaim every time I made the threat. But this time, there was no stopping me. It was going to be a vegan coffee hour.

(Or at least the stuff I made was going to be. Iv sought to undo the fallout by making cookies loaded down with cream cheese, butter, and eggs.)

Anyway, for my part, I made hummus (not the Veganomicon recipe, which is adequate but unimpressive) with carrots and celery, and the walnut and mushroom pate (page 64) with baguettes.

With this proposed menu began Iv's litany of objections:

Iv: Really? You're going to use that cookbook?

Me: You remember we really have had some good things from it, right?

Iv: Yeah, but pate?

Me: We're Episcopalians. Pate is normal.

Iv: For coffee hour? Without wine?

Me: Well we don't have to call it pate. We can call it a dip.

Iv: Well you can't call pate a dip. It's too thick for that.

Me: How about spread?

Iv: Fine. Whatever. At least my cookies will be there to rescue you when everyone spits your food out.

Having worn him down, I proceeded with the recipe. I started off toasting some walnuts on the stovetop. Keep a close eye on this, because I burned my first batch. Just do it over medium heat until the nuts are fragrant. Any longer than that and you'll have some scorched nuts on your hands.

You run the walnuts through your food processor till they're chopped finely. Just leave them there, we'll come back to them. Meanwhile, you saute some onion and garlic til the onions are translucent. Then add salt, pepper, thyme, and tarragon, and cook it for just a minute longer, till the herbs are fragrant. Dump in a pound of coursely chopped mushrooms and cook for a few minutes longer, until the mushrooms have released most of their liquid and they're really soft. They should go from light grey to a medium brown in this process.

Once that's done, let it cool slightly and add it to the food processor, along with about half a can of white beans (the recipe calls for cannellini, but I used great northern), and a little bit of balsamic vinegar. The recipe suggests using vegetable stock to thin the puree out a little bit, but it seemed like a waste of time to thaw a few tablespoons of stock for this purpose, so I just used water and the results were fine. The result is a nice thick puree, which you then chill till it sets a bit.

So how did the pate go over at church? Memo to Iv: I told you so.

While the pate comes out kind of a dull grey mush, it has a nice, layered flavor, with the mushrooms having the starring role, but with the walnuts providing some depth and the beans adding body. The balsamic vinegar adds sweetness and just a bare hint of acidity (incidentally, the recipe calls for one teaspoon. After tasting I used just a little more).

But who cares what I think? It was a hit at church, with more than a few coming back for seconds and one choir member coming back for thirds. When asked, I forthrightly explained what it was (though never advertising its vegan-ness), but it sure doesn't look like anyone felt deprived. The hummus sold well, too, and in all fairness, only one of Iv's 96 cookies was left over.

I totally forgot to take a camera to church with me, so photographically all I've got to show you is the little bit I managed to reserve and bring back home. I know it doesn't look that appetizing, but pate never really does. In any case, immediately after I took this picture, I hoovered it up with a stalk of celery. I didn't save any for Iv on account of his bad attitude. Serves him right.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Samosa Stuffed Baked Potatoes

Samosas may be the perfect food, what with the deep-fried crispness of the dough and the potato-and-pea filling. It's just a Bollywood dance number of starchy and fatty goodness. And if you're ever resourceful enough to get yourself to a place that will serve you samosa chaat (like my special boy Iv did for me during the early days of our relationship), you are in for some awesome saucy spicy crispy goodness. Making samosas always daunted me due to a lack of patience with pastry, but my patience has been improving in recent years, so I finally dove in on New Year's Eve, making cauliflower and pea samosas from Lord Krishna. They were not terribly hard, and the results were fantastic. Regrettably, the secret ingredient was yogurt in the dough, so let's check out what Terry and Isa have to offer us. A baked potato? Um...ok.

The samosa-stuffed potatoes (page 60) promise a quick and easy way to get at the flavor everyone loves about samosas without the effort or the deep-fried bad-for-youness, taking another form everyone loves, the twice-baked potato. With just 3 tablespoons of oil in the recipe, it's reasonably healthy, if a bit starchy.

You start out by baking four large potatoes, and letting them cool. What you'll do next is scoop out the flesh, and you cut them in half lengthwise for this purpose. I found that I had the easiest time scooping out the potatoes when I cut them on the narrower axis (so you end up with two relatively flat halves). T&I suggest holding the potato in your non-writing hand, and scooping with a teaspoon with your dominant hand. This worked pretty well, but it's still a little tricky. Ideally, you want to get out as much potato as possible while simultaneously keeping the skin intact. I mangled a couple skins before just deciding I'd leave about 1/4 inch of potato in each one, which worked pretty well. A little more practice might get me better results.

Once you've got all this done, you just mix a little water into the potatoes and mash them. Now the pretty easy work of the filling starts.

Here's the mise en place. You've got some black mustard seeds and crushed coriander plus three dried red chiles, onions and carrots, garlic and ginger, and a spice mixture of turmeric, cumin, salt, and pepper. The recipe doesn't call for the dried chiles or the pepper. I added the chiles in an effort to infuse a subtle spiciness into the mixture. It didn't work, so I wouldn't bother with them. As for the black pepper, it's a standard component of a lot of Indian spice mixtures, and I'm not sure why T&I didn't include it. I like pepper, so I'd keep it. You can do what you want.

The method's pretty simple, but the first step of pulling it together may throw some people who haven't worked with mustard seeds before. They pop like crazy, so take the suggestion to have a pot lid handy seriously. They fly all over the place, so be warned. You can just slam the pot lid down while they're frying till the popping subsides, about a minute. It's a lot like popcorn, but with really tiny corn where the seeds don't puff up so much as just turn kind of a dull grey color.

From this point, you just add the onions and carrots, cook till they're soft, then toss in the garlic and onion, and then the spice mixture. T&I say to add a little water with the spices, but I'd do it a little differently. Go ahead and add the spices and stir rapidly for about a minute. It'll look pretty dry, but that's ok, you really want to get the spices toasty. Once you're getting a pretty good fragrance off the spices, toss in the water, then add the potatoes.

For my part, the potatoes ended up a little underdone when I baked them, so I added a bit more water and went at them with the masher to get everything nice and mixed up. Then I dumped in some peas and lemon juice, and let the whole thing get heated through. I also tossed in about 1/2 teaspoon of garam masala. That's not in the recipe, but it adds a nice depth of flavor.

Then you just take the mixture and restuff the potatoes, and bake them for 20 minutes. They smell great while they're baking.

Once they were out of the oven, I squeezed a bit more lemon juice over them, and drizzled some mint and tamarind chutney over it, just to get a bit more samosa flavor in them.

The result was very good. A nice and easy Sunday lunch, and I wrapped up the leftovers to take for lunch during the week. Unfortunately, during the initial test, I just about killed Iv. I stopped by the Indian grocery to pick up those chutneys, and didn't really taste them before smearing them on the potato. So from Iv's perspective, the first bites were part samosa, part thermonuclear device. The potato itself was minimally spicy, so don't be deterred from the recipe for that reason. Just remember to taste your condiments.

So are these potatoes good enough to satisfy a serious samosa jones? Unfortunately, if measured on that score, this recipe continues the grand vegan culinary tradition of awkward substitutions and unsatisfying compromises. But judged on their own merits, they're pretty good and would play well as a side dish with just about anything. And I also think I know how to turn these into baked potato nirvana --I'm thinking a modification of Bittman's curried lentil and potato with coconut milk recipe from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian could make this into a twice-baked potato for the ages.