Friday, July 30, 2010

The Perfect Fruit Smoothie

I know that everyone probably thinks that they make the best smoothie in the world. They are all wrong. This is the best smoothie in the world. No, probably not. But it is amazing. And you should try it. I do eat a lot of smoothies, as aforementioned it is one of the only two breakfasts which have rotated back and forth in my life for at least the last two years with almost no exceptions. I toyed around with finding the perfect smoothie recipe for quite a while because I wanted to find one that was very healthy and well rounded, yet still delicious. Some people can eat smoothies that are unbelievably healthy with green vitamin powder and spinach and carrots and all kinds of salad fixings mixed in. (I know this because I live with one. He can pretty much put any rabbit food in a blender and call it a yummy smoothie.) I am not one of these people. My smoothies need to be tasty and delicious and fruity. But in order for it to count as a solid breakfast that will get me through my commute and at least 3-4 hours of work, it needs to have a good deal of protein and fiber in it. Behold the perfect smoothie recipe:

Breakfast Smoothie:
2 frozen bananas
1 cup frozen blueberries
1/2 cup frozen strawberries
1/2 cup frozen mangoes or peaches
1/2 cup frozen blackberries or raspberries
1/2 cup pomegranate juice
1 1/2 cups unsweetened soy milk
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
2 Tbsp. ground flaxseed meal
2 Tbsp. oat bran

Half of this recipe includes about 350 calories, 12 grams of fiber and 11 grams of protein. Plus it tastes amazing.

The key to this recipe is making it the night before. Now, I would tend to do this anyway because mornings are a time of great trial for me. I don't speak. I don't smile. And I certainly don't prepare food. I put all of these ingredients in the blender the night before and stash the blender in the refrigerator overnight. In the morning, the fruit is partially defrosted and ready to blend easily. The result is a delicious smoothie that is the perfect consistency every time. Score.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Tofu Benedict with Asparagus

I love breakfast food. Pancakes, eggs, the whole deal. On the other hand, I hate mornings. It's only logical that I should eat breakfast foods in the evening in order to not waste them on my inevitably bad morning mood. 99% of days I eat something very simple for breakfast like a smoothie or steel cut oats (both largely prepared the night before) so that I can sleep for every possible second before getting up and getting ready for work. When I want to make a delicious breakfast dish, I serve it for dinner. This dish, Tofu Benedict, is like a dream come true for me. I found it in a semi-recent issue of Vegetarian Times. Apparently the recipe came from a restaurant in Paris called The Gentle Gourmet, which by the way looks A-mazing. Someday when I have money and can go places like Paris, I'm there.

The "Hollandaise" sauce is savory and rich with a hint of lemon. The tofu is tasty and chewy and fresh tarragon gives the whole plate a kind of zip that is very attractive. All that without all the fat and cholesterol that make regular eggs benedict a nightmare for someone like me who has naturally high cholesterol. I made this for first time a few months ago on a night J was out working. I was a little skeptical about the whole tofu-instead-of-eggs thing and I wanted to try it out myself before serving it to someone else. I loved it so much that I ate half of it for dinner and took all the rest of it to work with me the next day for lunch. Then I went and raved about it so much at home that J got a little mad that he didn't get any. I finally got around to making it again last night for both of us and it didn't disappoint.
The first step is to marinate the tofu overnight. Okay, let's get this out of the way: I'm vegan. I obviously like tofu. I've actually always liked it, even back when the only kind I knew about was the jiggly cubed variety served at The Great Wall. But I understand that it has a stigma among non-vegetarians. I don't really believe that most people hate tofu. I just think most people cook it wrong. After over 10 years of trying to figure out how to cook tofu well (people who knew me in high school and college can attest to some oily disasters), I've narrowed it down to two methods. One is to broil it, which we will do here. The other is to cook it low and slow in a nearly dry non-stick saute pan, but we'll address that another time. I pretty much ignore how most recipes suggest to cook tofu. No matter what they say, I use one of my two proven methods. They haven't failed me yet.

In addition to cooking it correctly, the other key to good tofu is to impart some flavor to it yourself. Start this recipe by whisking together this marinade.

Tofu Marinade:
1 cup vegetable broth
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
2 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. liquid smoke
1 tsp. cornstarch
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh tarragon
The first steps of dealing with tofu are the same every time in my kitchen. Drain the water out of the package, wrap the tofu block in a clean tea towel, and put a heavy cast iron pan on top of it all. You want something heavy enough to encourage some of the water to release into the towel, but not so heavy as to crush the tofu. Let the tofu sit for about 10 minutes. For this recipe, slice the tofu across into four thin slabs, then cut each slab into circles with a drinking glass or some other cylindrical object. Don't worry about the scraps, just use them for a stir fry or something else within the next few days. Place the tofu circles in a shallow baking dish, pour the marinade on top and store in the refrigerator covered with saran wrap.

The next day, when you are ready to begin cooking, preheat the oven broiler and place the marinated tofu circles on a lining of aluminum foil. (If your broiler is very hot turn it down to 400 or so instead) Once you have the tofu going, clean and trim a bunch of asparagus and 10-15 shitake mushrooms. Toss the asparagus with a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Saute the mushrooms in a bit of olive oil with salt and season with black pepper. Check on the tofu circles. If the tops are getting brown and crispy, it's time to flip them over and add the asparagus to the broiler. Now make the sauce.
This Hollandaise sauce recipe sounded really strange to me when I first read it, but believe me it's delicious. I smother it all over the asparagus and everything else on the plate. Heck, it would probably taste good on a plain english muffin. Or a piece of cardboard. Don't expect it to taste like regular Hollandaise, because it doesn't really. Then I again I haven't had hollandaise in over 3 years so I don't really remember what it tasted like but this stuff is YUM. As an aside, I have to mention that J and I love to make fun of vegan-ized foods with stupid names a la "Chick'n." What, so taking out a vowel makes this nasty fake meat protein thing vegan? Another favorite is "cheeze." Who sent out the memo that using a Z instead of an S makes this food vegan as well? We just couldn't resist renaming this sauce as well, so please now refer to this as "Hollan-dayze." I'll send the memo.

Hollandayze Sauce:
2 tsp. olive oil
1 large shallot, minced
2 Tbsp. white wine or vegetable broth
2 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
1 cup unsweetened soy milk
1 1/2 tsp. cornstarch
1/4 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp vegetable Better than Bullion paste
1 1/2 tsp. lemon juice

Begin by whisking together the wine, vinegar, soy milk, cornstarch, turmeric and bullion in a small saucepan. Turn the burner on medium and heat until warm. Meanwhile, saute the shallot in olive oil for a couple of minutes. Add the soy milk mixture to the shallots with the heat on medium-high and stir constantly until thickened. Remove from heat and mix in lemon juice.

To assemble the benedict, begin by toasting 2 english muffins. Place a tofu circle on each muffin half. Top with mushrooms and asparagus. Smother everything in Hollandaise sauce and garnish with fresh tarragon. I guess a serving size is 1 half muffin, but when eaten for dinner, I needed 2. Actually, J headed right back to the kitchen to serve himself an additional 2 and was pretty upset when I told him that the recipe only made 4. So if you are serving a really hungry guy who likes to go on 4 hour bike rides while you are at work all day because he is a freelance musician with an extremely light schedule during the summer months, you should probably double the recipe.

Risotto with Radicchio and Portobello Mushrooms

I've liked risotto for as long as I can remember. It must have something to do with my innate desire to order the heaviest, densest thing on any restaurant menu (chimichanga anyone?) After becoming vegan, risotto continued to catch my eye on many the restaurant menu - there seems to be a universal agreement between restaurants of all genres that the token vegetarian dish on the menu should be mushroom risotto. I never thought that vegans could eat it because of course we all know that the key ingredients in a good risotto are butter, cream and loads and loads of cheese, right? Wrong. Imagine my delight when I found out that many risottos can be made simply with broth and seasonings. No cream and cheese required. Who knew?

It was probably about a year ago that I made my first vegan risotto. I started out with the old standard: wild mushroom of course. Then I got a little fancy and made one with chunks of butternut squash. Both were decent, but nothing special. Maybe my palate has matured a little bit and eating something heavy, warm and mushy isn't quite as appealing as it used to be. I got a hankering for risotto a few days ago (actually it was more of a realization that I had somehow purchased 3 different boxes of arborio rice that needed some attention if I wanted to free up some desperately needed cabinet space) and started leafing through some cookbooks for a new idea.

The Complete Vegan Cookbook is the first vegan cookbook I ever bought and while "complete" is definitely an overstatement, the book has a few gems in it. It's a well loved cookbook which has been thought a lot with me...including a small gas burner fire which devoured a portion of the cardboard cover. Whoops. The CVC has a few risotto recipes in it, but this one really stood out to me. The idea is to make a light risotto with broth and parsley, and to top it with bitter radicchio and tangy portobello mushrooms cooked in vinegar and lemon juice. I thought it sounded like just the right way to jazz up the traditional mushroom risotto.

In order to have your hands free to stir (and stir and stir) while the risotto is cooking, round up and prepare all of the ingredients in advance.

4 large portobello mushroom caps, cleaned and sliced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2 Tbsp. olive oil (divided)
2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 1/2 cups radicchio, grated
1 tsp. brown sugar
1 cup uncooked arborio rice
1 Tbsp. cooking sherry
4 1/4 cups vegetable broth
1/2 cup fresh parsley, minced
salt to taste

First, saute the garlic in 1 Tbsp. of the olive oil for about a minute. Add the mushrooms along with the balsamic vinegar, lemon juice and thyme and cook for about 20 minutes. When the mushrooms are good and tender, set them aside. Quickly saute the radicchio in a pan sprayed with nonstick spray (I often do this instead of using oil. It prevents the vegetable from sticking but doesn't add a bunch of calories). When the radicchio is tender - literally 1 or 2 minutes - stir in the brown sugar and set aside. *The original recipe called for the radicchio to be raw. I like bitter greens like radicchio or endive mixed into a salad now and again, but raw in this dish I wasn't feeling it. I let J taste it raw as well and he thought it was "weird...I wouldn't serve that to guests." I decided to saute it and to sweeten it a bit with a touch of brown sugar and loved the result. Don't overcook it though, you still want it to be crunchy, just with less of an edge.*

Now it's time to cook the risotto. This is boring. The only way to make a good risotto is to cook it very slowly, and to stir it nearly constantly. Ugh. There's really no way around it. So turn on some great music (Pandora Radio I heart you), grab a stool, and settle in for a good long while of stirring. First heat the vegetable broth on the stove until just boiling. The goal is to keep it right on the cusp of boiling for a long time, so I tend to turn it on and off a few times to keep it nice and hot. When the broth is ready, heat the remaining Tbsp. of olive oil along with the sherry in a medium stock pot. Add the arborio rice and stir to coat the rice for just about a minute. Now begin to incorporate the broth 1/2 cup at a time. Stir the rice frequently as it absorbs the broth, and add new broth every time the rice begins to get dry. Like I said, this takes a while but don't leave it. If you don't stir it, the starch will not be released from the grains and the risotto will not be thick and creamy. Add almost all of the parsley with the last 1/2 cup of broth and stir to mix thoroughly. When the risotto is done (just taste it to see), season with salt to taste, plate it and top with the radicchio mixture, remaining parsley, and mushrooms.

I give this recipe very high marks. The risotto is smooth and rich, while the parsley and radicchio are light and fresh. The mushrooms, instead of being mushy and bland, are firm and tangy - the perfect contrast to the rice. The only change I would make in the future is to possibly top the plate with a little lemon juice or zest. This was J's idea and a pretty good one. I make an asparagus and chickpea polenta (you'll just have to wait until I make that one to find out more) which is J's #1 favorite dish right now. It bears a lot of similarity to this one because the rich creamy polenta is topped with light, tangy vegetables. One of the keys to that one is a healthy dose of lemon juice and zest, which I think might work well on this as well. I'll make a note to try that next time.

Pumpkin Stuffed Shells with Mushrooms and Sage Butter

I have been meaning to make pumpkin ravioli for some time now. I am mildly obsessed with the delicious vegan butternut squash ravioli by Rising Moon Organics, but it's awfully expensive and only available at a store nowhere near where I live. Alas, I still have not made the phantom ravioli of my dreams, but I did make a pumpkin-pasta dish which has a lot of potential. I found this Pumpkin Stuffed Shells recipe after wandering around online for a while and thought it sounded worth trying. The numerous steps required to make this dish make it a little more time consuming than something I would normally prepare, but it was Sunday and I had the time so I figured I'd go for it. The first time I try a new recipe, I try not to make too many changes and to simply trust the person that wrote it. I did that here, but I do think I will make a number of adjustments in the future. I'll make note of them as we go along.

The first step was to make the homemade vegetable marinara sauce. I was tempted just to use the Muir Glen Portobello Mushroom marinara sauce that I normally use for pasta, but I'm glad I put in the time to make this bizarre little recipe. I will be making this many more times in the future. I did things a little bit differently than the recipe called for, so I will include my own version below.

Vegetable Marinara Sauce:
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 cup baby carrots, roughly chopped
1/2 large red bell pepper, roughly chopped
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1-15 oz. can fire roasted diced tomatoes w/ green chiles
1/2 can water
2 Tbsp. grade B maple syrup
1 tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. dried oregano
Pinch garlic powder
Pinch onion powder
Pinch crushed red pepper
1/2 cup unsweetened soy milk
Pinch salt
Pinch black pepper

Heat olive oil in a large skillet and saute onion, garlic, carrots and red bell pepper about 10 minutes until tender. Add the remaining ingredients except the soy milk and simmer about 15 additional minutes. Let sauce cool to room temperature, then place in food processor. Process sauce until smooth, then stir in soy milk and season with salt and pepper.

This stuff is great. I'm sure I'm offending Italian purists by even calling it a marinara sauce, but I can tell you I'll be making it a lot. First of all, it's extremely easy, and second it's full of veggies which I guess makes it even healthier than regular pasta sauce. It has a unique tangy and slightly spicy flavor that I imagine would add a great kick to plain old spaghetti.

Next I made the pumpkin filling. This is where I think I will make the most adjustments in the future, but I'll post here what I did this time.

Pumpkin Filling:
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 small onion
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 15-oz. can pureed pumpkin
1 box firm silken tofu
2 Tbsp. of the vegetable marinara sauce
1 Tbsp. flour
Pinch salt
Pinch black pepper
1 tsp. onion powder
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1 Tbsp. nutritional yeast
Pinch nutmeg
1 Tbsp. white miso

Heat olive oil in a small skillet and saute onion and garlic until tender. Add onion mixture to all remaining ingredients in food processor and blend until smooth. *I found this filling to be a little too creamy. I think that in the future I might not blend it at all and rather just mix it with a spoon. I might also use firm tofu rather than silken. I've had great success making a lasagna with firm tofu, which when crumbled, has a texture very similar to ricotta cheese. I'd like to try that in this recipe to see how it works.*

Cook 16 large pasta shells in salted boiling water for 15 minutes, drain and rinse with cold water. Ladle marinara sauce into a large baking dish, fill each shell with pumpkin mixture and place each shell into the bed of sauce. Bake shells uncovered in a 350 degree oven for about 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, slice 10-15 cremini mushrooms and saute them in a bit of olive oil. Set aside. Melt about 1/4 cup Earth Balance butter substitute. Add 3-4 Tbsp. minced fresh sage and simmer until sage is crispy but not browned. * I think this step is unnecessary. The final product was a bit too oily, so I don't see why I couldn't incorporate the sage right into the filling rather than making the sage butter. I'm going to try that next time.* When the shells are cooked, remove from oven and spoon mushrooms and sage butter over the top. Turn the oven up to broil and cook the shells for about 5-10 more minutes under the broiler until the bits of pasta begin to get brown and crispy.

This dish was incredibly delicious and creamy (especially considering the lack of dairy). It was tangy and spicy in a way I didn't expect and it's definitely a nice variety from the usual tofu-spinach stuffed shells I normally make. I did think it tasted a little oily, and J and I both felt a little heavy after eating it. Regardless, I will definitely make it again with a few key adjustments.

On another note, I thought I'd go out on a limb and make a few pieces of fried sage as a garnish. I must have gotten the idea from a cooking show somewhere along the line and I wanted to give it a try. I fried 6 leaves in about 1/4 inch of canola oil for about 30 seconds, until the leaves were darker in color but not browned. I drained them on a paper towel and lightly salted each one. These were amazing!! Please do this at home. the crispy, mild sage leaves literally melt in your mouth and make such an elegant garnish. I can't wait to make another dish with sage just to I can make more fried leaves! Yum.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Mushroom, Lentil and Wild Rice Timbales

After a long night at the airport on Friday which ended at 6 am Saturday with the disappointing cancellation of a long-anticipated vacation to visit my family, I wanted to make a comforting meal for dinner. We deserved it. I pulled out a recipe I'd tried only once before: Mushroom, lentil and wild rice timbales from the lovely Susan Voisin at Fat Free Vegan. I wanted to work on it again to see if I could perfect it because I have it in my head that it might be the star of next Thanksgiving's menu. Judging by the results I'm thinking we have a winner.

Cooking vegan, I naturally find myself making countless stir-fries and ethnic dishes. While I love a good pile of spicy vegetables and tofu over rice as much as the next girl (probably more), there are times when I just want something I can cut with a knife and serve with gravy. Call me old fashioned, but some of my best memories from childhood involve my grandmother's pot roast or my mom's turkey. The best thing about these timbales, in my opinion, is their earthy mushroom flavor and firm, chewy texture. I try to avoid fake meat products as much as possible (although I'm sometimes guilty of eating an unreasonable number of Smart Bacon, tomato, lettuce and avocado sandwiches in a week), and this mixture of mushrooms, lentils, wild rice along with onion, bread, silken tofu and a whole slew of the classic spices create a hearty, filling entree that reminds me of Sunday dinner with the family.

You can find the complete recipe on Susan Voisin's exceptional blog, so I won't post it here. For a dish that looks so elegant, it's surprisingly simple. Once they are in the oven, you have plenty of time to make side dishes and gravy. I will say that I prefer to go light on the blending. I like my timbales a little chunky, so beware of over-processing. After preparing the mixture, spoon it into lightly oiled ramekins and bake for about 50 minutes in a water bath. The one thing I still don't have down quite right is the cooking time. I'm scared to overcook these guys, but I think next time I'll leave them in just slightly longer. As you can see, when I took them out the tops look utterly dried out. Just trust in it, you want them to look that way.

While the timbales were cooking, I went ahead and made some roasted potatoes and sauteed spinach with garlic. I also made a significant batch of my mushroom gravy. The one I make is similar to the one posted on Susan's website with this recipe but with a few changes I've developed along the way. That recipe is for another post later on, but trust my when I say that once you taste a good mushroom gravy, you will never ever crave that nasty white stuff made with lard that they serve on biscuits. I promise. When I go through the trouble of making gravy (I have never liked making gravy - all that whisking and thickening gets very boring), I tend to make a lot of it. Pretty much everything tastes good with gravy on it, so you can never have too much. In fact, I asked J today if he thought I should freeze the leftover gravy now that all the timbales have been eaten up and we don't really have anything normally eaten with gravy in the house. He immediately said no way...he wanted to eat the rest on a piece of bread. Not sure what I think of that idea, but more power to him.

All in all, this dish was a great success and I would highly recommend it. Not exactly the typical July meal, but hey, in San Francisco, July is really winter so I think it's okay. This meal was warm and cozy and comforting to combat the cold, cloudy weather. J also gave it high marks, despite the fact that he keeps referring to the timbales as hockey pucks. I guess I'll take that at a compliment, so long as he's saying "are there any more of those little hockey pucks in the fridge? I want one for lunch."

First Post

I'm finally doing it. I decided to take the plunge and begin a food blog. Friends have been telling me for a while now that I should document my cooking escapades in a blog, but I've been hesitant. I'm not a chef—far from it I'm afraid—but I love to cook for my wonderful (and hungry) husband and I love to spread the word that vegan food is delicious, fun and easy. My friends are probably right, and now I'm thinking I would like to blog about my adventures.

The objective of this blog is to talk about cooking and eating delicious food and I won't be devoting a lot of time to vegan politics. However, in this very first post, I figure I've got to at least address quickly how I came to be a vegan. And the story is really pretty simple. The initial reason I started eating vegan was for health reasons. I had abnormally high cholesterol in my early 20's, despite eating a relatively healthy, low fat diet. My husband J and I learned about veganism from a friend in Charleston, SC (as unlikely a place as can be for one to become vegan), and decided to give it a try, figuring it would be a fun change of pace. After about a week of eating vegan, the question ceased being "why?" and became "why not?" We were so engrossed in trying new foods we'd never had before (kale, tempeh, and my absolute favorite food on the planet—quinoa, among them) that we didn't even miss the things we had eliminated from our diet. After reading some moving and informative books (Everyone should read The Food Revolution by John Robbins), the reasons to be vegan kept adding up. I'm not saying that my vegan diet will save the world, but I simply thought to myself that if being vegan was so easy and if it could make a difference to my health and future, to the environment and the world, and to the lives of people and animals around the globe, then I just couldn't see why I wouldn't want to do it for life. Eating vegan is easy. It's very easy. God created an unbelievable variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts and seeds to nourish us and bring us joy through unique tastes, colors, textures and flavors. I don't expect I'll be getting bored any time soon.

Some of my posts will be about new recipes I'm trying from my extensive cookbook collection, some will show recipes I've created or am in the process of creating, and some will dust off old favorites that have stood the test of time. Some weeks I cook every day while others I get too busy to spend the time I'd like in the kitchen. Overall I'll try to update this blog as often as I can. I hope you enjoy reading the recipes and adventures ahead as much as I do. And of course they will all be, invariably, vegan.