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Mujadarah, Slap Chop, and a question for you

PlatingCloseUp

Still not back in the groove of trying new recipes yet, but I am cooking. Tonight was mujadarah, with collard greens on the side.

AddingRedLentils

I used red lentils this time, which makes for a slightly creamier and smoother dish. Green lentils keep their shape and texture more distinctly; red lentils melt in a bit.

AddingToRice

I’ve started using whole allspice, cloves and cumin seeds as well as a cinnamon stick. I got curious about how well it would work, and I have all these allspice berries. It can be a bit tricky to dig out the whole spices before serving, but the cloves are the only ones reliably hard to find, and they’re not going to hurt your teeth if you bite down on one.

OnionsInOven

I’ve also taken to using a lot less olive oil for the onions than the original recipe calls for. They still roast quite well. I start out with this amount of onion:

SlicedOnions

And end up with this much at the end.

RoastedOnions

For a green vegetable accompaniment I made collard greens. I start by sauteeing chopped garlic in olive oil, then adding a bit of kosher salt and red pepper flakes. Then I toss in the chopped collard leaves and toss to coat with the oil and mix in the flavorings; after a few minutes of that I add a little bit of water, put on the lid, turn down the heat, and let it steam for about 15 minutes, more or less.

CollardsToSteam

I thought this might be a good opportunity to try out the Slap Chop, which I received at the office holiday white elephant gift party. (I was only a little bitter about losing out on the bottle of Brooklyn bourbon.) I was pretty skeptical about the merits of this device. I’m kind of in Alton Brown‘s camp here: if it isn’t a multitasker, I’m not sure there’s room for it in my kitchen. And he has a WAY bigger kitchen than I do.

SlapChop

The Slap Chop promises to be “your all purpose chopper for all your chopping needs.” This is only true if all the items you need to chop can fit beneath the blades — about a two-inch clearance. So if you have something larger to chop, like an onion, you have to cut it down to size, which means for a lot of food you’re already going to have to get out a regular knife.

SlapChop

I decided to try it on some garlic, four cloves of which fit easily within the chopper lid. (You don’t need to use the lid; you could place it right on the cutting board, so you could chop things that are broader than the base of the device but not taller.) I pushed the plunger several times and ended up with well-chopped garlic, not perfectly uniform — but no worse than I usually get it with a knife.

GarlicAfterSlapChop

I think the garlic chopping went more quickly than if I’d used a knife. Of course, then I had to disassemble it to wash. It’s not especially difficult to wash, and I wouldn’t say it’s any less safe to handle than a sharp chef’s knife, but it does take up a lot more space. And a chef’s knife can also be used for chopping larger items, slicing, peeling (well, you do have to be careful with that, other knives are better but it can be done), smashing a clove of garlic, and doing more precise cuts. The Slap Chop can’t do any of that. So if you really like to have lots of gadgets around, you may like this one, but if your space or funds are limited I’d recommend investing in a good kitchen knife and the time it takes to learn to use it skillfully.

SlapChopInDrainer

Anyway, this is a nice hearty meal for a cold night, and it’s totally vegan. Which means you can either enjoy it as part of a vegan lifestyle, or feel virtuous enough to eat half a pint of Ben & Jerry’s for dessert later. Not that I am talking about anybody in particular.

PlatedMujadarah2

So now I have a question for you. Just because I think the Slap Chop is a little silly, that doesn’t mean all kitchen gadgets and tools are silly. In a few months I’ll receive my “Jeopardy!” winnings, and should have a little bit left over from taxes and paying debts to have a little fun. What are your favorite kitchen tools and gadgets? If you had an extra few dollars in your budget — maybe even $100 or $200 — what’s the next kitchen item you’d buy, and why? Please share your ideas in the comments section.

Real Vegetarian Thai: Spicy Goodness

mussaman curry paste, mussaman curry with seitan, rice noodles with broccoli, cucumber salad, coconut ice cream

MussamanCurryI love Thai food, but I’ve always assumed that it’s difficult to make: so many unusual ingredients, plus the effort of making your own curry paste. I’ve had Real Vegetarian Thai sitting on my shelves for years, and it looks like in that time the only dish we’ve tried is the Pad Thai, which Scott prepared (with the marginal note “double everything”). So with the holiday weekend ArbolChiles2approaching, I decided it was time to throw a dinner party, invite a few people who haven’t been here for the last few blog efforts, and put together some Thai food.

I leafed through the book and decided to make a cucumber salad, a noodle dish, a curry, and dessert. I made a list of ingredients I’d need, and was CorianderCumin2impressed to find that the only thing I hadn’t found locally before was lemongrass, which would be a base for the curry paste. I canvassed the stores in the neighborhood; no lemongrass. A few shopkeepers said “sometimes we have it, but not now.” I finally found some at an organic store in Park Slope, Brooklyn, that I was passing on my way to do something else, and my shopping Lemongrass2list was complete.

I began with the coconut ice cream. This is a dairy-free dessert, and very simple: You cook coconut milk with some sugar, then let it cool, then churn the mixture into ice cream. After I’d chilled the mixture I was startled to find that it had separated into thick solid and liquid, but with some effort I was CurryIngredientsable to break up the solid part enough that it would blend well in the ice cream maker. I set that going and proceeded with my next effort, mussaman curry paste.

Curry pastes are the bases for curry sauces in Thai food. The basic ones are green curry, yellow curry, red curry and mussaman; mussaman is basically red curry CurryIngredients2with some additional spices that import a little more of an Indian flavor, the name deriving from the Muslim traders who brought goods from elsewhere in Asia. I began by breaking the tops off about 15 red arbol chiles, shaking out as many of the seeds as I could, and then soaking them in hot water for about 20 minutes. While they soaked, I chopped my lemongrass stalks into small MussamanCurryPaste4pieces and put them into the bowl of the mini-food-processor attachment for my mixer. To this I added chopped shallot, cilantro, ginger and garlic. Now it was time to dry-toast some cumin and coriander seeds, then grind them in a spice grinder with some peppercorns. I zested a lime and added that to the mixture, then added some cinnamon, ground cloves, nutmeg, cardamom and Cucumbersalt; these are the spices that make the difference between red curry and mussaman curry. I drained the chiles and added them to the bowl, and pureed it all into a thick paste, adding a bit of water as necessary to keep the blades moving and grinding. I offered it to Scott to smell and he didn’t want to give it back.

I put the curry paste into the RedOnion2fridge and prepared the marinade for the cucumber salad: sugar, salt, vinegar and water, boiled together and then allowed to cool. Closer to dinnertime, I peeled and chopped a couple of cucumbers, minced a red onion, and chopped some cilantro, then mixed these together and added the vinegar mixture. The bowl went into the fridge, and I chopped some peanuts and pulled some cilantro CucumberSaladleaves to garnish them with just before serving.

For the curry I was going to need seitan balls. The cookbook gives a recipe for old-school seitan, mixing a flour paste and then rinsing away the non-gluten part. I don’t have the patience. I mixed some vital wheat gluten flour with some nutritional yeast flakes, garlic powder, soy sauce and Seitan2water, following a recipe I use for my Thanksgiving vegetarian feast; I kneaded the spongy mixture briefly, then shaped it into chunks, and browned them in olive oil. I set them aside.

Closer to mealtime I began the other dishes, starting with the mussaman curry. I did my vegetable prep: two diced sweet potatoes, two diced white RiceNoodlespotatoes, and some chopped onions and garlic. I heated 2/3 cup of coconut milk in my big Calphalon pot; when it was warm I stirred in two tablespoons of the curry paste and cooked it together for a few minutes, then added more coconut milk to total two cans, some vegetable broth, the vegetables and seitan, and some spices including cilantro and cardamom pods. I brought the CucumberSaladPlatedmixture to a boil and let it simmer for about 15 minutes. Then I stirred in some peanuts and let the mixture sit keeping warm. Technically I was supposed to let it sit 5 minutes, but I forgot to start the rice cooker until it was nearly dinnertime, so I let the curry mixture sit a little longer while the rice finished cooking. We served the curry with rice, and warned guests to be careful RiceNoodlesWithBroccoli2about the difference between cardamom pods and peanuts when chewing.

The last dish was the noodle dish, which was pretty simple. I soaked some dried rice noodles in hot water to reconstitute them; while they soaked I sauteed garlic, mushrooms and broccoli, then set those aside and added fresh oil to the pan. I drained the rice noodles and sauteed them. At this point I was supposed to add beaten eggs and cook them, but one of our guests was a vegan and I decided to just skip the eggs. Once the noodles were sauteed I returned the vegetables to the pan and added a mixture of soy sauce, brown sugar, and vegetable broth, and tossed it all together.

I brought out the cucumber salads first, garnished with peanuts and cilantro, then the noodle dish. The rice was ready about 10 minutes after that, so we brought out the curry and dug in. Everyone loved the food; the noodle dish was especially delightful, and we were all tempted to fill up on it without leaving enough room for curry. But the curry was tremendous. It wasn’t overly spicy, though I think if I made more for just me and Scott I’d add a little more curry paste to the sauce mixture. We ate so eagerly that we were a little worried about having room for dessert, but the coconut ice cream was light and refreshing, a perfect end to the meal.

Verdict: Success. I’ll be using the mussaman curry paste again, and making other dishes from this as well.

Still Life With Menu: More Veggie Goodness

Southwest salad with black beans and corn

BlackBeanSaladI’m plugging along with the list; I’m not at all confident that I’ll finish by the end of June. I’m taking vacation time that last week, so I’m actually going to give myself through July 5, but even so, it’s not a sure thing. But I can at least check another book off the list, Still Life With Menu, a beautifully composed cookbook by Moosewood alumna Mollie Katzen.

The book is made up of menus, including a few for holidays and special occasions. Each menu is accompanied with pastel drawings by Katzen, making for a very beautiful presentation. The recipes are also individually indexed so it’s easy to find what you want.

DryBlackBeansI wanted to make soup for Sunday evening, the end of a rather chilly spring weekend here. I was hoping to do a full menu, but none of the menus as a whole quite appealed to me. I didn’t feel like making a cream soup, in part because we were expecting a lactose-intolerant guest and in part because I prefer lighter, more vegetable-centered soup. I didn’t want to bake bread, I thought; in fact, I realized I didn’t really want to try more than one new recipe for the day. So I decided to make my standard improvised vegetable soup, and went looking for a good accompanying salad.

PeppersCarrotsCornSouthwest salad with black beans and corn is fairly simple. It may look daunting because there are three elements that might challenge the less-experienced cook: Soaking and cooking dried black beans, toasting cumin seeds, and toasting corn tortilla strips. But individually these are not difficult, and the tortilla strips are optional. (Which I was relieved to find out after I opened the fridge and realized that I was wrong, we did not have any corn tortillas left.)

AddingGarlicHerbs3I started the night before, pouring two cups of dry black beans into a pot and picking them over to make sure there were no stones or other foreign matter. Most packaged dry beans today are pretty clean, but it doesn’t hurt to check, and if you’re buying in bulk you’ll certainly want to examine them carefully. Once I was satisfied, I added water to the pot, covered it, and let it sit until the next afternoon. They only need to soak for 4 hours, but a longer soak does not hurt, and I knew that if I left it until morning I ran a serious risk of forgetting until it was too late.

The next day I poured off the soaking water, rinsed the beans a bit with cold water to flush out the last of the discolored water, then added fresh water to the pot and brought it to a boil. I turned the heat down to the lowest setting and covered the pot, and let it simmer slowly for about an hour and 15 minutes, until the beans were tender.

AddingRedOnionWhile the beans cooked I set 2 cups of corn to cook as well, then turned to my chopping. One red bell pepper, one carrot, three cloves of garlic, and a heaping half-cup of red onion, plus herbs: half a cup each of finely minced cilantro, basil and parsley. I mixed this all together. I also juiced three limes to come up with about half a cup of juice, and added that and half a cup of olive oil to the bowl, along with a bit of salt, a few grinds of black pepper, and a pinch of red pepper flakes. I drained the black beans, rinsed them well with cold water, drained them again, and then added them to the bowl and mixed it all up.

StirringItUpAt this point I actually brought the salad out to the dining table to get it out of my way, but remembered I had one more thing to do. (Well, two things, I thought, but there were no tortillas. If I’d had them, I would have brushed three or four lightly with oil on both sides, sliced them into strips, and cooked them in a 350-degree oven for a few minutes until they were partly crispy and partly chewy, then scattered them on the salad. As I said, it’s optional.) I pulled out a heavy pan and heated it up, then scattered in about a tablespoon of whole cumin seeds and stirred them around for several minutes until they were toasty and fragrant. I sprinkled the toasted seeds on the salad, returned it to the dining table, and went back into the kitchen to finish my soup prep. This gave the salad time to sit for a while and let the flavors blend.

AddingBlackBeansThe salad was very tasty. The hearty black beans provide a good base for the sweet peppers and corn, bitter and fragrant herbs, and tangy onion and lime juice. The cumin seeds added an earthy flavor. And the salad turns out to be a great brown-bag lunch for a weekday.

Verdict: Success. I plan to make this often during the summer. In a pinch, canned beans would do well enough, well rinsed and drained, but cooking them isn’t difficult — I think I’d only do that if I really hadn’t left time and had no other options for dinner.