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Vegetarian Cooking

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.

The Whole Soy Cookbook: Speedy Sloppy Joes

soy sloppy joes

SloppyJoeOnBuns3We’re in the dog days of August, and I’ve been falling behind on the cooking. There are a few reasons for this. It’s too hot to cook, for one thing. We’ve been making salad and pasta, or eating leftovers. And we had a few leftovers from Lidia’s Italy to take care of too. So it’s been a challenge to get it together for the blog.

SloppyJoeIngreds2I thought that soy sloppy joes might be pretty easy, though. The Whole Soy Cookbook has a lot of quick recipes, but many of them are similar to things I’ve done before. I’m not sure I’ve made sloppy joes since high school, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

This is a very easy recipe to prepare. The only chopping required is one onion. I heated PouringTomatoJuicesome oil in a skillet and sauteed the chopped onion with some soy ground-beef-style crumbles (3 12-ounce packets), letting them cook for about 5 minutes until the onions were soft and translucent. Then I added a cup of ketchup, 2 cups of tomato juice, 2 tablespoons of mustard, and some salt and pepper. I stirred the mixture together and let it simmer for about 20 minutes, BrowningOnionsSoySausagestirring fairly often.

Then I scooped the mixture onto toasted hamburger buns. I began with my husband’s plate, spooning soy beef mixture onto the bottom half of each sandwich.

“That’s only half,” he said.

“What?” I asked.

AddingSauceIngreds“We always had it on the top of the bun, too,” he said.

“Really?” I looked at his plate. In my family we had sloppy joes as sandwiches. And they inevitably fell apart, hence the name. Why not serve them open-faced? I spread the filling across both halves of the bun and dished up some corn on the side.

MixtureCookedThe sloppy joes were good; the soy ground beef had a good texture, and the sauce was tomatoey and satisfying. It would have been better with a fresh tomato sauce instead of the combination of ketchup and tomato juice, but it was all right as it was.

Verdict: Success. Easy and simple.

Lidia’s Italy: What to Do With a Greenmarket Haul

smothered eggplant and summer vegetables, Anna’s spaghetti and pesto Trapanese

AddingBasil2Lidia’s Italy is another cookbook I bought through a club and hadn’t used until now. Lidia Bastianich is a cookbook author, TV personality and restaurant owner (most notably New York’s Felidia), and it is clear she knows her way around Italian cuisine. The book is organized by the regions of Italy, with a wonderful range of flavors and ingredients within each chapter and from region to SpaghettiWithPesto2region.

I chose two recipes from the chapter on Sicily. This seemed appropriate; the Sicilian climate is hot and intense, which meant the summer selection of Greenmarket produce would find good use here. I wanted something I could make ahead, because I was having friends over for a sewing party, so I wanted to spend most Eggplants2of my time out of the kitchen once they arrived. I opted for a caponata or eggplant dish, which I could offer as a snack while we worked, and a fresh tomato sauce for spaghetti, which I could add to noodles when we were ready for dinner.

The smothered eggplant dish took a bit of preparation. I began with the eggplants, three modestly EggplantChunkssized beauties from the Greenmarket, which I cut into chunks about an inch wide and two inches long. More or less. Quite a few chunks were closer to an inch and a half or an inch, but I didn’t think that would matter. I tossed the eggplant chunks with some kosher salt and put them in a colander for the excess moisture to be drawn out and drained away. Next, I cut about OrangePlumTomatoes3two pounds of plum tomatoes into wedges, scooped out the seeds, and put them in a sieve for their excess moisture to drain as well. The tomatoes were orange, a lovely but unexpected color. I also chopped up some onions, celery and green olives, drained a jar of capers, and plucked and rinsed 12 large basil leaves and set them aside.

CeleryOnionsOlivesI took a few minutes to set up the flavoring syrup: I combined half a cup of red wine vinegar, half a cup of water and two tablespoons of sugar in a saucepan and brought the mixture to a boil, then let it cook until it was reduced by about half. This was easy to do, but I quickly discovered that it’s a bad idea to be downwind of the gust of steam from a pan in which you are CaponataIngredsboiling vinegar. That is one intense smell. My sinuses sterilized, I moved to the other side of the stove and set about frying the eggplant, which I had rinsed and dried after its salting time was up.

I put about a cup of canola oil into a large pan — the cookbook says to use a skillet, but I thought my big Calphalon pot would be a FriedEggplant3better choice — and heated it to medium, then added the eggplant and fried the pieces, stirring often to ensure even cooking and coloration. I removed the fried pieces to a dish lined with paper towels and let the excess oil drain off; I then discarded the cooking oil, wiped out the pan, and added a smaller quantity of olive oil to heat. When it was warm, I added the onions and celery and a AddingOlivesCapersbit of salt, and cooked them until the onion had softened and just begun to brown, about 8 minutes. Then I added the olives and capers, and stirred the mixture until the new ingredients began to sizzle a bit. I added the tomato wedges and a little more salt, stirred everything up, and let it cook for about 5 minutes.

AddingTomatoes2At this point I added the eggplant back to the pan and mixed it in, then poured in the vinegar syrup. I let this mixture cook for a few minutes, then drizzled in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and let the mixture cook for about 10 minutes more. When the timer went off, I turned off the heat, tore up the basil leaves and added them to the pot, and pulled the whole pan aside to cool to room temperature. I also began AddingEggplant2to rethink my serving plan. I had expected the vegetables to fall apart into a softer, more indistinct mixture, based on comments in the introduction such as “use it as a sauce for pasta or as topping for bruschetta.” The chunks in the pan were certainly soft, but still far too large to make an effective topping for bread or crackers. I decided to postpone any further PestoIngreds2decision until the mixture was cool, and turned to my other dish.

Pesto Trapanese is a much faster dish to make. I rinsed and dried about three-quarters of a pound of globe tomatoes, and put them into a food processor with 12 large basil leaves (clearly a popular quantity), one clove of garlic that I’d peeled and crushed with the flat of a knife blade, 1/3 PestoPureedcup of toasted almonds, a pinch of red pepper flakes and about half a teaspoon of kosher salt. I processed the mixture until it was a smooth liquid, then drizzled in about half a cup of olive oil and kept processing until the puree was a bit thicker and even in texture. I think it may have been meant to be thicker, but my tomatoes were a little larger than the cherry tomatoes called for in SpaghettiWithPestothe recipe and probably had a bit more liquid in them. If I had been making the pesto closer to dinnertime I could have just set it aside, but since I was working ahead I put it in the refrigerator.

Not long afterward, my friends arrived and we sat down for a snack before turning on the sewing machine. The eggplant mixture was indeed too chunky to easily spread on bread or a cracker, though we tried. But it tasted phenomenal. The flavors of the individual vegetables came through, and the overall mixture had a great tangy undertone (from the vinegar syrup, no doubt) and a richness, with a thick base from the portion that had broken down a bit. I think that if I were to make this again and wanted to use it as a dip or bruschetta topping, I’d throw it in the food processor and give it three or four pulses to break it down just a bit more. But in its chunky form I’m itching to try another of the suggestions from the recipe header: “use it as a sauce for pasta.” That’ll be Wednesday night, I think.

When we were ready to have dinner I cooked a pound of dried spaghetti. I realized while the water was coming to a boil that I was supposed to have brought out the pesto earlier so it could come to room temperature. Luckily it was fairly warm in the kitchen, and the sauce wasn’t really cold by the time the spaghetti was done. I drained the noodles and put them into a large pasta bowl, then added the pesto sauce and tossed the mixture together until the spaghetti was evenly coated. I passed around a chunk of Parmigiano-Reggiano and a microplane zester, and invited people to add cheese if they wanted it. Everyone raved over this one, including me. I know it’s bad form to praise your own cooking, but I didn’t feel I’d really done that much, just followed excellent and simple instructions. I’m going to have to make this one again and again. In fact, I may have to do a serious Greenmarket run and make a large batch to freeze in portions. I don’t know how well the sauce freezes; we didn’t have enough left over to find out. But I think this deserves to be in weekly rotation for as long as tomatoes are in season.

Verdict: Success. Both the work-intensive dish and the easy one were well worth doing again.

The Food and Life of Oaxaca: Holy Mole!

amarillo (thick yellow mole), frijoles negros colados, arroz con tomatillos, basic corn tortillas

DinnerPlateI’ve had The Food and Life of Oaxaca for a number of years, but have never cooked from it until now. This is partly because when I lived in Portland, I wasn’t sure where to find the authentic Mexican ingredients. Then I was supposed to use it in November, but November sort of spun out of control. And in fact I made the dishes nine days ago, but by the time I was done that night I didn’t have time to format and load my photos and start writing before I had to get my suitcase packed and get to bed for an early morning flight. So here I am, better late than never.

Ingredients3If you are coming to Oaxacan food, it is better to do it late than never. This stuff is amazing. I have only last Sunday’s dinner to judge by, I admit; I have never been to Mexico (though I’ve been within shouting distance a couple of times, but was too well-mannered to do that), so I have never had Oaxacan food in Oaxaca cooked by Oaxacan cooks. I think I need to do something about that before long.

For those who don’t already know, Oaxaca is a state in Southwest Mexico in the area Tomatillos2where the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico draw near each other. It features rugged mountain ranges and fertile valleys, and was home to the Zapotec people starting thousands of years ago; they dominated the area until the Aztecs and the Spanish made their conquests. I learned all this from the introduction to this cookbook, which is a rich resource for both history and cookery.

Because Oaxaca’s growing areas range from tropical lowlands to cool mountains, the variety of food available is immense, and the recipes offer a vast range of choices: meats, seafood, rice, corn, beans, fruits, vegetables. It was hard to choose what to make, though I was able to narrow the selection down right ToastingJalapenos3away by the constraints of our dinner party. One guest is lactose-intolerant, one is vegetarian, and Scott avoids shrimp because it exacerbates his gout. I ruled out meat-centered dishes, food that called for cream or cheese, and a surprisingly vast list of items made with ground dried shrimp. I bet they were good, but with me gone for three days, Scott would have nobody to tend him while his foot swelled, so I struck those off the list.

ToastingVegs3Fortunately, I did not have to rule out any mole sauces, the heart of Oaxacan cuisine. Most Americans are probably familiar with mole as a spicy sauce that contains chocolate, but in fact the key to a mole is ground dried chiles, and only a few of the sauces presented include chocolate. Author Zarela Martinez dances around the difficulty of defining mole — it can mean many things to many cooks — but suggests that a mole will be a sauce that has a large number of ingredients, most especially dried chiles, that can be used to give depth and flavor to a broad range of ingredients. The cookbook gives recipes for the sauces and meats or seafood to go with them, but notes that any sauce can be used with any suitable meat, vegetables or seafood.

ToastingAvocadoLeavesI decided to try five dishes: a mole, a pepian (similar to a mole but with pumpkin seeds), refried black beans, rice with tomatillos, and corn tortillas. I made a list and set out in the neighborhood, prepared to go to several stores to find all the things I would need. I didn’t have to do that. I started at Key Food, where I had seen a section of Mexican ingredients. Guajillo, ancho, and arbol chiles, dried? There they were. Dried avocado leaves? Check. Masa harina? Several sizes of bags. Fresh tomatillos and jalapenos, dried black beans, cilantro, all were ready to hand. The only things I still didn’t have when I left that store were a hard green tomato (but I decided a standard hard red supermarket tomato was essentially the same thing), epazote in either dried or fresh form, and a tortilla press. I found dried epazote at Penzey’s, and with garlic, onions and rice already in my pantry, I was ready for a busy day.

EpazoteAndBeansI read through the recipes and saw that the prep was far more elaborate than the actual cookery in most cases; the stovetop time for a complete dish was far shorter than the time spent getting all the ingredients ready to combine. So I just tied on my apron, emptied the sink and got started. I was cooking black beans from scratch, so I washed and picked through a bag of dried beans, then put them into a pot with a whole onion, a head of garlic, and some dried epazote, an herb similar to but not quite like cilantro, which apparently is standard for cooking dried beans. It’s going to be for me from now on; the green flakes had a delightfully grassy and savory flavor.

ToastingDriedChilesWhile those cooked, I started to on several rounds of skillet dry-roasting. First up were the dried chiles; for each dish that called for them, I rinsed the appropriate dried chiles, shook off the excess water, then pan-toasted them for a minute or so on each side, until the remaining water droplets had disappeared and the chiles began to release their scent. I then DriedChilesDrainedpulled off the tops and extracted the seeds and pith of each dried pepper, as best I could; this turned out to be easier than I expected. I put the peppers into bowls (grouping each recipe together), poured boiling water over them, and let them soak for about half an hour.

SeedingChoppingJalapenosThe next things to dry-roast were the fresh vegetables. Jalapeno peppers, an onion, tomatillos in the husk, that not-truly-green but truly hard tomato, and garlic cloves in their peels all spent some time in that dry skillet. I turned them periodically to give them even charring or discoloration. When each item was done I removed it to a bowl (again, grouped by recipe), and removed the husks or peels. The jalapeno peppers actually went into a paper bag to rest for a bit before peeling; this was supposed to make the skins easier to slip off but I probably needed to roast them longer.

DicingTomatillosThe other key item of vegetable prep was to soak and then dice some tomatillos for the rice. Tomatillos have a center pulp that can be sticky, which works well for some dishes but not for others, and the rice dish called for its removal. So I pulled off the husks and quartered four tomatillos, soaked them in cold water for about half an hour, then cut away the center pulp and diced the flesh.

AllspiceClovesOreganoOften when I’m writing these blog entries I will say “at this point I did X,” but that’s a bit tricky to do here. I was working constantly, and I hadn’t made a cooking plan — and if I had, I would have been way off it within half an hour because I’d never done most of these things before and didn’t really know how long any given task would take. So I just kept working and paid attention to my timers to keep up with when I needed to drain off the soaking water for chiles, when I needed to add salt to the beans, when I needed to lower the heat. Now that I’ve made these dishes I could probably write an accurate cooking plan for the next time I do it. For the purposes of this blog entry, I’m going to shift now to describing how each dish is made in turn.

PepitaBlendFailI’ll start with my dish of failure, pepian con pollo, which was going to be pepian sin pollo anyway because I wasn’t going to use chicken. A pepian is a pumpkin-seed sauce, and you don’t have to gut a pumpkin to get its seeds; retailers in many areas, certainly in my neighborhood, offer both hulled and unhulled seeds. And this is where I went wrong, because I didn’t double-check the recipe when I made my list and I bought unhulled seeds. The recipe required hulled seeds. The difference is not unlike that between peanuts in the shell and peanuts out of the shell. So imagine making peanut butter with peanuts in the shell. I realized my mistake at a fairly advanced point; I had toasted jalapenos, and ground cloves and allspice berries and oregano, and was ready to throw it all into the blender with the seeds and some broth. Hmm, I thought, the balance seems pretty liquidy; perhaps I can go ahead and blend it and then sieve out the hulls. This was the wrong answer. Within about 10 seconds my blender began to make unhappy grinding noises and I could smell its motor overheating. I turned off the blender, dipped in a spoon and tasted the liquid. Absolutely inedible. I felt very Iron Chef (“I was going to have five dishes but one of them didn’t work out”) as I disposed of the chalky, salty slurry.

MoleIngredsInBlenderFortunately, the mole went much better. Amarillo mole takes its name from the deep orange-yellow color, and mine would have been a bit yellower if my tomato had been genuinely green. In a blender I combined three tomatillos, pan-roasted and husks and stems removed; one onion, pan-roasted and peeled; two garlic cloves, pan-roasted and peeled; one hard tomato, BlendingMole2pan-roasted and peeled; three dried guajillo chiles and one dried ancho chile, rinsed, dry-toasted, seeded, soaked and drained; and 10 peppercorns and 8 cloves, ground together in a spice grinder. I put on the lid and hit puree, and within a few minutes I had a gloriously deep orange, smooth, thick liquid. At this point I was supposed to force the sauce through a medium-mesh sieve, CookingMolebut I didn’t have a medium-mesh sieve, only a fine one, and I was running out of time and patience as well. I then heated some oil in a saucepan (the recipe recommends lard but when you are cooking for vegetarians that’s not happening), then added the sauce and covered and cooked it for about 10 minutes. While it cooked I mixed two teaspoons of masa harina with some water; MolePlusMasaHarinawhen the 10 minutes were up I added it to the sauce and whisked it in. At this point the recipe says to whisk constantly for another 15 minutes, but I was far too occupied with the other dishes coming together to do more than occasional whisking, and it turned out just fine. The sauce was done ahead of the other dishes, which was my goal; I set it aside and kept going.

BeansAvocadoLeavesChiles2The beans were the next focus of attention. I had started cooking my dry beans, and after they’d been cooking about 30 minutes I tested them fairly often for doneness, because this can vary depending on how old the dried beans are. These took probably an hour to cook, maybe a tad longer; it’s possible they’d have been ready a little sooner if I had waited longer to add the salt, which I think made them slightly tough, but they softened after a while. I drained the beans, reserving about 1 1/2 cups of the cooking liquid and discarding the onion and garlic. BeansPureedWhen they were cool — or, more accurately, when I had time to pay attention to them again — I put the beans into a food processor (I was giving the blender a rest after the pepian disaster) and added three dried arbol chiles (pan-toasted, soaked and drained) and 12 dried avocado leaves (pan-toasted and crumbled). I pureed these until they were an even consistency. I was supposed to push these through a sieve too, but I had decided by this point that if things were a bit coarse I would call it “rustic” and invoke Julia Child’s admonition to never apologize. I set aside the pureed beans and sliced three large onions into thin rings; I heated some oil and cooked the onions in it for about 8 minutes. Then I scooped out the onions and added the bean puree. I was supposed to discard the onions, but I had a qualm about wasting them, decided that rustic is as rustic does, and added back perhaps one-third of the onions. I mixed it all together, covered the beans and turned down the heat, and let them cook for about half an hour, stirring when I thought of it. Which was at least twice.

TomatillosCilantroThe arroz con tomatillos also required some food processing. I took the tomatillo flesh that I had diced and put it in the processor with a chopped onion, a chopped clove of garlic, and about half a cup of fresh cilantro leaves. A few whirs later and I had a lively green puree. In a saucepan, I heated some oil, then promptly forgot about it until I smelled it scorching. I pulled the pan away and put it on the windowsill to cool. In a different saucepan I heated some oil and paid attention this time; when it was hot but not scorching I added a cup of long-grain dry rice, stirring it for several minutes until it began to color and smell nutty. The recipe says it should “sound like sand as you stir it,” and this is surprisingly accurate; I can’t improve on the description. I added the tomatillo puree and stirred the mixture for about three minutes more; then I added 2 1/4 cups of vegetable stock, covered the pan, reduced the heat, and let it cook about 18 minutes.

MasaHarinaBalls2Now it was time for the final piece, the one with the least prep time and most cook time, for a change of pace: corn tortillas. (I took a few minutes to cut up some zucchini and green peppers to saute with mole, but I ended up delegating the cooking on that to a helpful guest.) Corn tortillas are easy to find in grocery stores; really good ones, not so much. The cookbook advises finding RusticTortilla2fresh masa, ground from lime-treated corn, which can be obtained from tortilla manufacturers. There is one in Queens, but not in my neighborhood, so I opted for the second-best step, combining masa harina (not cornmeal) with water and shaping it into balls. Once you have a tortilla dough ball, you are supposed to flatten it with a tortilla press, but I didn’t TurningTortilla2have one; the book says that you can use a flat-bottomed pan instead, which after my hardest pressing turned my corn dough spheres into inch-thick round slabs. I decided to roll them flatter from that point with a rolling pin, and was able to produce tortillas with a fairly consistent thickness but jagged edges. Pardon me, rustic. Once I’d flattened the tortillas (which I CookedTortillas2stacked in layers of wax paper to keep them from drying or sticking together), I heated some oil in a skillet and cooked each in turn, about 90 seconds on the first side and 60 seconds on the second. The first was not quite the best texture but the remaining 11 were pleasantly toasty. I toasted and turned while Scott and our friends set the table, cooked the zucchini and peppers, and plied me with lemonade. The tortillas were not flexible enough to roll as for soft tacos, but they made a very nice flat base for the other dishes.

VegsInMoleFinally the food was all cooked and we were ready to eat. I was worried that the dishes wouldn’t be good enough after all my labors, and maybe they wouldn’t have passed muster with a Oaxacan cook, but everything tasted fantastic to us. The beans were rich and savory, with a good smooth texture even in their rustic un-sieved condition. The rice was really delightful, fresh and bright and nutty. The tortillas had a deep corn flavor that put them far beyond store-bought. And the mole, oh, the mole! It was remarkable. Despite the dominance of chiles the sauce was not so much hot as complex and multi-layered; it had smoky and sweet overtones.

Verdict: Success. (Even despite the pepian failure.) I will be cooking from this cookbook again.

A Man, a Can, a Plan: A Laugh

chunky kernel spread

MixingDip4I picked up A Man, a Can, a Plan from the discount tables at the Strand Bookstore a couple of years ago. It has so much to make fun of: thick cardboard pages of the kind usually found in babies’ picture books; “recipes” that involve mixing together the contents of cans and passing the results off as cuisine; and a deeply silly self-justifying introduction that would be DipIngreds2offensively sexist if it could possibly have been meant as anything other than a joke:

“Men don’t cook.” People tell me this all the time. That’s a load of bull. … we have better things to do. Why slave over a hot stove when we could be cooking up plans for a golf outing ? Or warming up at the gym? Or making things CreamCheeseNRanchsizzle in the bedroom? … When your girl insists that you cook something for a change, you’ve got it in the can.

The book is published by Men’s Health, which clearly has very little faith in its readers’ ability to find their way around a kitchen without pictorial guidance. Or in their palates, for that matter; we DicingRedPepper2find canned ham and pop-tube crescent rolls, tuna and jarred spaghetti sauce, Spaghetti-Os and — well, anything, really — and a truly disheartening array of canned soups. It looks like sponsorship must be involved too, because some brand-name products are featured in vivid color photos, while no-name ingredients get a textual “also” but no pictures.

MixingDipIt didn’t take long to flip through the 50 recipes, but to actually settle on something I would make and ask other humans to eat took a while. I ruled out Spaghetti-Os, canned meat, and anything that would need to cook for more than 30 minutes on a 90-degree day. I also ruled out pineapple, canned fish, and beer as an ingredient. (I guessed that anything I was willing to drink would have too MixingDip3strong a flavor for the dish.) I was left with a few options, and settled on chunky kernel spread, which I keep wanting to call chunky kernel dip, because really it is a dip.

This is one of the easier recipes of an elementary lot. I allowed two packets of reduced-fat cream cheese to soften (the recipe called for fat-free, but you can’t really DipWithFritos2find fat-free anything in our local stores), then mixed in a packet of Hidden Valley Ranch dressing mix. The recipe directed me to then add an 11-ounce can of corn (drained), a 5-ounce can of sliced black olives (drained), a 4-ounce jar of chopped mild green chiles (also drained), and a small red bell pepper (diced). I could only find 12-ounce cans of corn, and chose not to worry about the PartySpreaddifference. I could also only find cans of whole black olives, so bought a can and sliced up enough to equal the canned amount. And I found only cans of chiles, not jars. I thought I had pulled a can of chopped chiles but discovered when I opened it that I had once again fallen prey to grocery shelf dyslexia and purchased whole chiles, so I chopped those up as well. I stirred everything together, covered the bowl with plastic wrap, and stuck it in the fridge for a little over an hour.

Closer to party time, I pulled out the dip and put it into a bowl, which I set in a serving dish and surrounded with Fritos (as per the recipe). I found the dip underwhelming when I sampled some off the spoon, but it turns out that Fritos were required for a reason: the high level of salt and the strong corn flavor tie together the flavors in the dip, and make it a pretty satisfying snack.

Verdict: Success. I can’t see myself making this again any time soon; it seems like it would go best with a sports-watching party, and I don’t really watch sports. Puppy Bowl, maybe? If I do make it again I’ll use hotter chiles and kalamata olives, and buy more Fritos.

Totally Garlic Cookbook: Savory Taste of the Stinking Rose

garlic goat cheese spread

GoatCheeseAtPicnicWhen I signed up to bring appetizers to the office picnic, I promised one vegetable-based dish and one “more indulgent” dish. The eggplant dip met the “vegetable-based” goal. For “more indulgent,” I decided that meant it had to have cheese. I also knew it had to be something that could be served at room temperature. I turned to the shelf where I’ve gathered all the GarlicCookbookremaining cookbooks for the project and found the Totally Garlic Cookbook, which is a slim little paperback shaped like a clove of garlic. (Get it? Because it’s garlic! Hi-larious, right?)

I have no idea where we got this, whether it was a gift or a discount bin purchase or a throw-in-with-an-online-order acquisition, but here it is. It’s loaded with GarlicHeadappealing appetizers, entrees, even desserts. I quickly found garlic goat cheese spread and was ready to go.

I began with the garlic: one head, top trimmed off, drizzled with a little bit of olive oil from a jar of sun-dried tomatoes. I wrapped the head in foil and put it into a 350-degree oven for an hour, then pulled it out, unwrapped the GarlicRoasted3foil, and let it sit until it was cool enough to handle.

While the garlic baked, I minced four of those sun-dried tomatoes and chopped about three tablespoons of fresh basil. When the garlic was cool, I squeezed the garlic into the bowl with the tomatoes and basil. The garlic was soft and almost gooey, and was easy to squeeze out of the SunDriedTomatoeslittle papery hulls. It smelled glorious: rich, mellowed, but still pungent and distinctly garlicky. (Note to self: Next time I’m using the oven, wrap up three or four heads to roast and set aside.) (Additional note to self: When using the oven for potatoes or chicken or something, not cookies.)

At this point I stirred in about 11 GarlicBasilTomatoesounces of goat cheese. I used the Chevre brand spread, the last two little containers that were on the shelf at the grocery store, but I think just about any basic goat cheese would serve. Once I’d thoroughly mixed it all together, I laid four whole basil leaves on a sheet of plastic wrap, spread the goat cheese mixture over them, laid on four more basil leaves, and rolled the plastic around to GoatCheeseMixture2shape the cheese into a little log. It went into the fridge, and the idea was that after an overnight chilling it would be stiff enough to slice into rounds. It was not. It was still soft and spreadable in the morning, and I knew that once I got it to Central Park there would be no chance of chilling and slicing. So I removed the plastic and laid the cheese in a container with some kalamata GoatCheeseMixture3olives.

At the picnic I offered it up with slices of baguette, and it was very well received. The picnickers went through a good proportion of it, though what was left at the end of the day was decidedly the worse for wear.

Verdict: Success. I’ll do it again, when it cools down enough to turn on the oven.

Eat More, Weigh Less: The Joy of Eggplant

pita chips with roasted eggplant dip

EggplantAtPicnic2Lately it seems to be taking an act of God to get me to cook much. I’m cooking dinner most evenings, but I’ve been doing easy lazy things. Pasta with sun-dried tomatoes, basil and chickpeas. Stir-fry. Hot dogs. Things that don’t require measuring or even really counting. I feel like I haven’t quite caught up with my domestic life yet, what with travel and Eggplantsome fairly mentally demanding projects at work.

But this past Friday was the office picnic, in Central Park no less, and I knew I had to get my act together. By the time I signed the contribution sheet the dessert and entree categories were pretty full, so I turned my attention to appetizers, and chose two: a spicy roasted eggplant dip, and a EggplantRoastedgoat cheese spread with roasted garlic (next post).

I’ve made roasted eggplant dip before, about a year ago. This one is a little bit different, with the inclusion of a minced jalapeno pepper and a slightly different blend of spices. Spices are a key element in Eat More, Weigh Less, the first of two healthy lifestyle cookbooks by Dr. Dean Ornish (I ShallotChileSpicescooked from the second, Everyday Cooking With Dr. Dean Ornish, in November). Dr. Ornish’s recipes are drastically low in fat, so strong flavor elements are featured to help counteract the popular notion that low-fat food isn’t flavorful.

This dip was definitely flavorful. I began by halving two eggplants lengthwise and putting them in a EggplantRoasted3350-degree oven to roast. While they cooked, I minced a jalapeno pepper and a shallot, juiced a lemon and a lime to get a teaspoon of juice from each, and mixed that in a bowl with some cumin, cinnamon and salt. Once the eggplants were out of the oven and cool enough to handle, I put them into a food processor with the shallot-pepper mixture and processed it all until it was EggplantInProcessorsmooth.

I did push the eggplant halves into the processor bowl without cutting them up (come on, you try neatly slicing a roasted eggplant! It kind of falls apart on you), and this meant that there were some oversized pieces of the skin that I had to pluck out for aesthetic reasons. I think if I did this again I’d scoop the EggplantDip3eggplant flesh out of the skins, even though I favor eating the skins of vegetables on principle.

I also cut up some pitas into single-layer slices and toasted them. Dr. Ornish’s recipe said to brush them with an egg white wash, which I didn’t bother to do. That might have made them stiffer and better able to scoop up dip, but I wasn’t convinced the MorePicnicSpread2extra effort would have been worth it. I cut up some additional pitas and left them uncooked, and they seemed robust enough.

The next day I hauled my dips, pitas and bread to the park, where our crew found a picnic spot that was very close to, but not exactly, the spot we had chosen ahead of time. We laid out blankets and massive quantities MorePicnicSpreadof food, and began to dish up a welcome late lunch. People seemed to enjoy the eggplant dip. There was a fair amount of it left at the end of the day, but that was because we had managed to bring enough to feed at least twice our number. And it was a little too warm out to overstuff ourselves.

Verdict: Success. Easy, tasty, and low in fat. I’ll want to make this one again.

Vegetarian Times Complete Cookbook: Pasta Salad for a Warm Evening

asparagus and carrots with pasta; chickpea saute with garlic and olives

PastaSaladDressedYou’ll have noticed that I haven’t posted in a while. You know how it feels when you’re busy all the time but if you stop and look back it’s hard to point to anything specific that quite accounts for all the time that passed? Yes, I did the AIDS Walk last Sunday, but that’s only one day. OK, we went to a movie the day before that and had dinner out. I worked quite a bit, but not exceptionally ChickpeaOliveSaute2late. No single thing that explains such neglect.

Cooking for yourself, even from scratch, doesn’t have to be time-consuming. Most of the recipes I’ve chosen (especially recent ones) are not in and of themselves time-consuming. Where this blog project takes time is in going through the cookbooks and choosing what to AsparagusSlivers2try. That’s what I have balked at doing when work runs late and the weekend starts to fill up.

For last night I knew I had to make time for a blog project, because we’re about to take a trip and I won’t be able to cook during it. (I suppose that theoretically I could find something that requires no cooking or chopping, or mixing in KalamataOliveHalves3bowls I won’t have available, and that won’t produce leftovers we can’t store…it doesn’t seem that likely now that I examine it in detail.) I promise to get back in the swing of things when we return. Heck, I’ll have to.

It’s been warm the past few days, so I chose a couple of light and easy dishes from the Vegetarian Times Complete Cookbook. I’ve RedOnionused this book before. My chief memory is that dishes that claim to be hot or spicy aren’t really; this is true of the magazine as well. But the dishes generally taste good. I made my way through the salad chapter and lit on a pasta salad with carrots and asparagus, and then added a chickpea saute for good measure.

I began with the prep for both BlanchedAsparCarrdishes. The trickiest thing is to quarter the asparagus spears lengthwise. The recipe says to do that before cutting them into shorter pieces (about an inch and a half), but I found it easier to cut the shorter pieces and quarter those lengthwise. I cut up a couple of carrots to similar proportions, and minced some parsley, and that was it for prep for the pasta salad. For the CookedPastachickpeas I minced some garlic and red onion.

The pasta salad is a breeze. I cooked some whole-wheat spirals according to the package directions, drained the pasta, tossed it with some olive oil to help prevent the noodles from sticking together, and let them cool. In the meantime I blanched the carrot and asparagus slivers. PastaSaladBeforeDressingWhen the pasta was cool I mixed the vegetables and parsley in (yes, I know parsley is a vegetable, I’m just trying to be specific). I could have added capers as well, but didn’t have any. They’re optional. I then whisked together a dressing of balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, Dijon mustard, salt and pepper, and poured it over the salad, mixing well so it would be evenly distributed.

ChickpeasPlusOlivesThe chickpea dish is easy too. I sauteed the red onion and garlic in olive oil for a couple of minutes, then added a can of chickpeas (rinsed and drained) and some dried thyme, and cooked for a few more minutes. Then I added salt, pepper, and a bit of water, plus some kalamata olives (pitted and halved), and cooked that all together for a few minutes more.

ChickpeaOliveSauteThe recipes say both dishes are best at room temperature. This was convenient, because it meant I could cook ahead and then get the kitchen cleaned up and get some other things done before dinner. It also meant that when our dinner guests were running late, we could assure them it didn’t make a difference.

The pasta salad was really tasty, and the vegetables were still crisp enough to have a good bite to them. The chickpea dish was also good, with a rich, savory flavor.

Verdict: Success. And that will have to hold until we’re back from our travels next week.

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.

Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites: Light Veggie Goodness

zucchini saffron pasta

PastaPlated2This is the pasta dish that I meant to make yesterday but saved for this evening. A good choice, as it turned out, since it was even hotter today and very stuffy. Last night’s hour-by-hour weather report forecast storms coming in by 4 pm, which would reduce the heat only a little but improve the air quality considerably. As of 9 pm there is no rain, but the pressure is SlicingZucchini2enough to make one’s head explode. The cats are sprawled in the hallway, sniffing at faint breezes. The kitchen is cooling down from the baking I did earlier (I never said I was a smart planner). So a light and easy pasta dish was just the ticket for tonight.

I’ve used Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favorites often in the past. ZucchPastaIngredsI had to dig a bit to find something I hadn’t already tried. Chili burgers? Been there. (Mash beans with grated carrot, oats, ketchup, and a few other odds and ends, and pan-fry — surprisingly good.) Seitan fajitas? I haven’t actually made that one but Scott has. Quinoa black bean salad? Already tried it, but thanks for the reminder — that will be good this summer. I turned more SaffronThreadscarefully to the pasta section and realized that I’ve flipped past zucchini saffron pasta before because it calls for saffron.

Ah, saffron, luxurious and expensive spice. The stigma of a crocus, saffron is known for its rarity and its intense color. I’ve often substituted turmeric, which doesn’t quite match the flavor or color but costs considerably less. OnionsZucchInPan2But as it happens, I have some saffron on hand, since I bought a jar for the Indian food I made in December, when I knew substitutions would not be right. A little saffron goes a long way, and while a jar with what looks like a modest number of thin red filaments seems expensive, you’re going to be able to do a lot with it. The per-use price may not be much worse than that of SaffronWatervanilla.

This dish is fairly simple. I did my vegetable prep first, juicing a couple of lemons, slicing some zucchini into rounds, mincing some garlic, and slicing a large onion. Then I put a pot of water to boil for the penne pasta. While that heated, I sauteed the garlic and onions in olive oil, then added the zucchini. When the onions VeggieMixture2were translucent and the zucchini had started to brown a little, I crushed some saffron threads — or tried to, anyway — and mixed them with some water, then poured that into the pan. I rinsed the saffron bowl with the lemon juice and poured that into the pan as well, added a bit of salt and pepper, then lowered the heat and covered the pan to continue cooking while the penne finished.

PastaInBowl2When the penne was cooked, I drained it and poured it into a large pasta bowl, then added the vegetable mixture and stirred it well so the chunks were evenly distributed and everything was a pleasant, warm, golden color from the saffron. I grated on some romano cheese and served it up.

This dish is delightful. The saffron PastaBowlCheese3gives it a rich and unusual flavor, which is accentuated by the brightness of the lemon juice. It was ideal for a hot, sultry evening.

Verdict: Success. This goes on the list for as long as I have saffron left — which ought to be a while.