Monday, October 25, 2010

Don't Knock It 'Till You Try It! - In Defense of the Perfect Pea Soup

Split Pea Soup. Wah-wah. Not the most exciting meal, I know. But give it a try! Probably the only thing many people like about a traditional pea soup are the bits of ham or bacon, so that puts a vegan split pea soup even further behind. But stick with me please, because what follows is perhaps the easiest, healthiest, most delicious, most perfect meal ever. Pretty high praise, eh?

For some reason J has always loved split pea soup. The first time he mentioned this to me (probably about 5 years ago) I responded the way you are probably responding right now. "Pea soup? Um, I didn't know anyone not in a nursing home really ate that stuff. Is that made with actual peas? What is a so called 'split' pea? Don't you need a ham bone or something?" I was not impressed and decided to ignore his menu suggestion. Unfortunately for me, the pea soup idea did not end there.

New topic: When J and his brother get together, they have a tendency to remember parts of their childhood together by frequently quoting little bits of movies they used to enjoy in elementary school. They derive great pleasure from this activity. One such movie, The Rescuers Down Under, includes a brief segment about pea soup. Not only is this clip undeniably adorable, but J's impression of it is undeniably awesome. After a quick You Tube search, I was able to find a clip for you all to enjoy. Also enjoy the amazing quality of the videography.

Okay, so obviously I eventually (as in a few months ago) finally got around to making a split pea soup. I was bored and figured I should just give it a try. I, as usual, looked at as many recipes as I could find and put them all together to create a recipe that sounded good as well as vegan. The result is below:

2 cups dry split peas (As I quickly found out, a split pea is kind of like a lentil or bean)
7 cups low vegetable stock
1 yellow onion, diced
3 yukon gold potatoes, diced
2 carrots, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1/2 tsp oregano
1/2 tsp basil
1/2 tsp parsley
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp liquid smoke
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

Rinse the split peas and check for stones. (Apparently sometimes they like to include stones in with bags of split peas). Now comes the good part: place ALL ingredients in a soup pot and simmer loosely covered for about an hour and 15 minutes until peas are tender. I LOVE recipes that include the words "place all ingredients in a pot." Score. After simmering, blend the soup in a food processor. This may take two batches, or you can use an immersion blender. I like my soup thick and hearty...not too smooth, but not too chunky. You can decide how you like it.

To say I was blown away by this soup is an understatement. I could eat it all day and all night. It is the perfect lunch, the perfect dinner and even the perfect snack when you have the late night munchies. This soup is amazing. The morning after I made this soup for the first time, I emailed my entire immediate family and begged them to make it. I BEGGED them. I still don't think any of them have actually made it yet. Family members reading - please feel guilty now. You need to try this! I know you don't want to. You think pea soup is gross and looks like throw-up. The recipe does not sound exciting. I know! But try it anyway. Just try it. You will love it.

I loved it so much I forgot to take a picture of the finished product before we ate it. All of it.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Mushroom, Sun Dried Tomato and Spinach Calzones

When I asked J a few weeks ago to name a few dishes that he would like me to try to vegan-ize, I was surprised at the scope of different things he named. I wrote them all down and so far, I've managed to give most of them a try. This one was kind of random, but actually quite successful: Vegan Calzones. I haven't eaten a calzone in years and years. My family will remember a short time during my childhood when we were really into the calzones at a now defunct Lexington restaurant named Bel Canto and the mere mention of a calzone made me feel strangely sentimental. I've never made a calzone before, vegan or otherwise, but it seemed about the same as making a pizza. I actually found a recipe for a vegan calzone in the back of a book we own called No More Bull! to start with. The filling was extremely similar to the tofu filling I make for stuffed shells, lasagna and other Italian dishes. The main difference was that it also included a kind of "sauce" made from silken tofu and spinach. I thought this was a pretty clever idea as it creates an additional texture, similar to the combination of ricotta cheese and melted mozzarella cheese. I made a few adjustments to the suggested recipe and then jazzed it up a little with some items I think of as pizza toppings and voila! delicious calzone filling. Here are the ingredients for the filling:

1 cup cooked frozen chopped spinach, squeezed dry
4 ounces silken tofu
salt and pepper
3 cloves garlic, pressed
1/2-1 cup mushrooms, chopped
3 scallions or 1/3 of a red onion, chopped
1 16-oz package extra firm tofu, crumbled
2 tsp. dried basil
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1/4 cup sun dried tomatoes, chopped
3 Tbsp. nutritional yeast

First, blend the spinach, silken tofu and salt and pepper until smooth. Next heat and spray a skillet with oil. Add the garlic, mushrooms and scallions or onions. Cook for about 3 minutes until the mushrooms begin to soften, then add the crumbled firm tofu, basil, oregano, sun dried tomatoes and nutritional yeast. Cook while stirring until heated through and any liquid has evaporated. Remove from heat and stir in the spinach/silken tofu mixture. Set aside.

I have to admit that I just used store bought Trader Joe's pizza dough. You can certainly make your own, but this is just so easy and I like the way the TJ's kind tastes. Split the dough in half and roll each half into a large circle on a floured surface with a rolling pin. Fill the dough with half the filling, fold it over and seal the edges. Transfer the calzone to an oiled baking sheet and bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes. The crust should be golden brown by the time you are finished. Let the calzone cool for about 10 minutes before attempting to eat it (I know, it might be hard to wait...but in a family of brass players we are very protective not to burn our lips!)

I think I definitely rolled my dough out too much. This meant that some parts of the dough were too thin and other parts where I folded it over a second time, were too thick. This is an easy mistake to fix and I won't do it again.

I served each calzone with a generous ladle of marinara sauce. Whenever I use marinara sauce from a jar (which is often) I always like to add a few of my own touches. You would be surprised how much a few sauteed onions, garlic and mushrooms and a few shakes of basil, oregano and crushed red pepper will amp up the flavor of a store bought sauce.

I think this dish was a sure success. It doesn't look too glamorous and may not be something I serve to guests anytime soon, but we liked it a lot. The flavors are spot on and if you've never tried this sort of tofu filling for an Italian dish, you absolutely should. The resemblance to cheese is uncanny. I also liked the addition of the silken tofu sauce. I usually just add the chopped spinach right to the crumbled tofu mixture, but I really liked the variety of textures accomplished by this sauce. This is a simple, delicious and healthy weeknight meal, especially if you use store bought dough and sauce. There is no excuse not to try it out!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

And We're Back: Vegan Paella

So I'm sure you've noticed the distinct lack of blog postings in the month of September. I tried, I really did. But working 25 out of the 30 days in the month, plus many of the nights, took its toll on my blogging career. I did my best to still cook as many nights as I could, and to take pictures of the food as much as possible. I'll try to catch up over time by mixing posts of things I'm making now with posts of things I made last month.

A few weeks ago, I made the mistake of asking J one night what dishes he would like me to make that week. Not so much dishes I've made before, but random ideas of things he thought I should try. He listed off an interesting collection of items, most of which I actually did try. One of the more daunting ones was this one: Vegan Paella. I have no idea why or how this idea came into his head. I don't actually know for sure if he or I have ever actually eaten paella in our lives. Everyone sort of knows what it is...a rice dish, usually with seafood like mussels in it and saffron or something among the spices. Tomatoes maybe? I'm showing my ignorance here, but I really didn't even know where to begin.

I started by googling Vegan Paella and reading as many recipes as I could find. As is usually the case, I decided to take my favorite parts from all the recipes to create one big super-recipe. This dish is not nearly as complicated as it first seemed to me. In fact, as I'm writing this, I'm also compiling my grocery list for this week and I think I'm going to make this again. Start by gathering all the ingredients:

2 cups paella rice (I'm not sure if this is necessary but I was sufficiently convinced by everything I read that you have to buy special rice. I bought this one online)
3 Tbsp. olive oil, divided
3 artichokes, trimmed, cleaned, and quartered
12 or so green beans, trimmed
1 onion, chopped
5 cloves garlic, pressed
1 red bell pepper, chopped
2 tomatoes, chopped
1 cup frozen green peas
pinch of saffron (the good stuff, not the powder)
4 cups vegetable broth
crushed hot pepper flakes

The first step is to clean the artichoke hearts. Now, call me crazy but I had never done this before. I followed these simple directions:
1. Remove all leaves
2. Trim the end of the stem
3. Use a paring knife to remove all of the course stuff around the base of the heart
4. Peel the stem and any last bits of thick skin on the heart
5. Remove all of the the hairy choke with a sharp spoon
7. Put heart in a bowl of water with a squeeze of lemon juice to prevent browning

Doing all of this is pretty easy, but time consuming and it felt wasteful. By the time I was done with this step, I was loudly complaining to J from the kitchen about how stupid artichokes are and how I'm not using them next time. I even went so far as to take a snarky photo of (left) the part of the artichoke you don't use and (right) the part of the artichoke you do actually use. Needless to say to you artichoke enthusiasts out there, when I ate this finished dish, I completely changed my tune. Who cares how long it takes to clean them? I LOVE artichokes! Don't make this dish without them, I promise you will agree after you taste them.

Next quarter the artichokes and trim the green beans. Saute the two of them together in a little olive oil with salt and pepper until somewhat tender but not completely done. Meanwhile, heat the vegetable broth with the pinch of saffron (about 10 threads) until it simmers.

In a large pan (a paella pan or something
sort of like it), saute onion, garlic and bell pepper in 2 Tbsp. of olive oil for about 4-5 minutes. Add the rice and saute 4-5 minutes longer. Add chopped tomatoes and peas with salt and pepper to taste. Stir and then add all of the hot vegetable broth to the pan. The concept of paella is pretty much the opposite of risotto. Instead of adding the broth gradually and stirring constantly, you add the broth all at once and never stir. Let the pan simmer for about 8-10 minutes until the broth no longer covers the rice mixture. Reduce the heat to medium low and cook another 8-10 minutes until the liquid looks mostly absorbed. Sneak a bit of the rice from just below the surface. If it doesn't taste done, continue cooking a few more minutes.

When the rice tastes mostly done, add the artichokes and green beans to the top of the dish. (You can see I made a silly design, but that's obviously not necessary!) Sprinkle a little crushed chili flakes and cover the dish with aluminum foil and cook for about 3 more minutes to assure that the top layer of rice is completely cooked. From what I've read, this last step is by far the most important. The goal of a perfect paella is to create a delicious crust on the bottom, while somehow not burning it. The last step is to turn up the heat to medium high and cook for another 2-3 minutes. You can actually hear a little bit of a crackling sound as the rice crisps up. The better your crust turns out will probably depend on how much of a dare devil you are. I left it on long enough to create a crust, but I'll probably wait a little longer next time.

This dish was incredibly delicious. Other than cleaning the artichokes, it was seriously not very difficult at all. And it looks amazingly elegant. J couldn't believe that this was something homemade when I showed it to him. This is something I will absolutely be making for company in the future. And with all the juicy and delicious vegetables, there is absolutely no need for the traditional seafood. If you try one unusual recipe this week, make it this one! And if anyone can tell me a supermarket in the Bay Area that carries paella rice, please tell me!