29 March 2010

The Colors of Spring

It has officially been spring for over a week now, and the daytime temperatures have responded in kind by warming up ever so sneakily here in southern California.  Not only has the weather generally become pleasant with steadily clear skies, sunshine, and t-shirt-appropriate temperatures, the vegetation looks so colorful and the earth itself just, well, vibrant.  A short, coastal drive revealed green hillsides tinted with yellow wildflowers, and the ocean was a surprisingly bright and not-as-murky blue.  To top it all off, it smells like fresh jasmine everywhere, although I'm sure that is due largely to this town's apparent preference for that particular flower.  In any case, spring is definitely here and is making itself known for all to see.

Now, I'm not the most sentimental person when it comes to transitioning between seasons.  It could very well be that I am just very accustomed to a seeming lack of seasonality around here; from what I can recall from being a lifelong resident of this geographical region, shifts in temperature trends as the year progresses have for the most part remained quite subtle (until late summer, with insufferable heat bearing down upon us) and no one seems to notice when the trees have gone bare until long after it's happened (we don't get those magnificent color changes that are present in northern California).  That said, when I do notice that spring has rolled around, I typically do not suffer allergy problems and I enjoy not necessarily having to bundle up to go for a run in the morning and that my feet won't freeze in my favorite flip flops.  I acknowledge that spring is, in fact, a good thing.

But what I tend to appreciate most about any change in season--including the arrival of spring--is the seasonal produce.  Farmers' markets, produce sections of groceries, and even backyard gardens are awash with nature's colorful, edible delights.  For example, I just harvested this lovely rainbow chard from the backyard:

In particular, I enjoy the abundance of all things green: asparagus, leafy greens, scallions, avocados, etc., all at their peak and readily available practically everywhere.  Here is some of what I have been able to savor so far about spring's tasty bounty:

Roasted asparagus.  I cut it up the stalks and tossed them in the tiniest bit of oil, then sprinkled them with salt and black pepper before baking.  I squeezed fresh lemon juice over after it all cooked.  The asparagus was perfect in a bowl with smoky black beans and brown rice.

Spicy, garlicky braised kale.  Kale is always plentiful, not just in spring.  But it's one of my absolute favorite leafy greens and it goes along with the green theme, so here it is.  I roughly chopped the kale and braised it in a small amount of vegetable broth, along with sliced garlic and red pepper flakes, until the greens were tender.  I ate it alongside some leftover asparagus and steamed brown rice.

Veganlicious, Blogalicious' Avocado Chocolate Mousse.  I know, this is most definitely not green, but hey, there's avocado in it (which is green without the cocoa) and it was so decadent and easy to make that I just had to mention it.  I didn't add the dates called for in the recipe (my food processor and dates haven't been getting along lately) and added a bit of almond extract.  Rich and delicious.  Thanks for sharing the fabulous recipe, Laura Jill!

I am eager to take advantage of all of the great fruits and vegetables this season has to offer.  Happy spring, all!

25 March 2010

Oats, Oats, Oats...

I've recently rediscovered the versatility of oats.  Although I always enjoyed oatmeal cookies, granola, oat bread, and the occasional bowl of breakfast oatmeal, it wasn't really until cooking through some of the recipes in the February 2010 issue of Vegetarian Times (in which there was a piece devoted to oats) that I came to really appreciate and enjoy its various applications.  I actually eat oatmeal for my post-run breakfast each morning, and haven't yet burned out.

This is what a typical bowl of oatmeal looks like for me.  It is composed of cracked oats (the texture is like that of steel cut oats but with the cooking time of rolled oats); half of a banana that has been microwaved for around 30 seconds, in order to soften it and add more sweetness, then mashed; two chopped Deglet Noor dates (firmer, smaller than, and not as sweet as Medjool); a sprinkling of any assortment of chopped, toasted nuts (usually pecans, but sometimes involving walnuts or almonds or all three); a few dashes of cinnamon; and just enough unsweetened, nondairy milk to thin it out a little bit.  Sometimes I chop up the other half of the banana.  I no longer add brown sugar, maple syrup, or any other sweetener, because I like the mild sweetness from having just the cooked, mashed banana and dates.  Also, the date flavor combined with the toasted nuts tastes praline-like, but without the added sugar!

The other day, I threw another oat-banana combination together by making Susan's recipe for Banana-Maple Oatmeal Cookies.  They turned out soft but with some texture from the oats and raisins, and not too sweet, which I liked.  The only thing I did differently was replace about half of the whole wheat flour called for with oat flour, and I may actually replace all of the wheat with oat flour next time around, to make it extra oat-y.  I liked the idea of using a cookie cutter to make different shapes, which I've never done for drop-style cookies like these, so maybe next time I'll try that, too.

For some time now, I've been considering giving homemade granola bars a shot, but I was always hesitant due to so many recipes seeming oil- or sugar-laden.  But Meeps recently posted a very easy and practically oil-free recipe for Nutty Oat Bars that looked so simple and tasty that I had to try it immediately.  The recipe didn't call for them, but I added a pinch of salt and maybe a half teaspoon of cinnamon.  I am pretty sure now that measuring out the nuts I used (chopped walnuts, pecans, and almonds) probably would have lead to my attempt resulting more successfully than it actually did.  After having toasted everything in a pot on the stove (no oven necessary, which is pretty fantastic) and then mixing it all with the melted brown rice syrup, I thought the mixture looked a bit crumbly, but figured that I just needed to let it solidify a bit in the pan.  It turns out that I was right, and my heavy hand with the nuts cost me what could have been handy granola bars; when I turned out the mixture onto a board and tried to cut it, the granola cracked in all the wrong places.  But all was not lost, because I proceeded to simply forgo the impossible dream of having neat little bars and instead be happy with granola chunks, which were, as you can imagine, very easy to create at that point.  And I love it!  I still have plenty of the stuff around, and it is such an addicting snack that it's sure to disappear soon.  Cheers for happy accidents!

I will eventually try to make proper granola bars, but I'm also looking for different ways of using rolled or cracked oats, as I've always got them around.  All of the aforementioned uses required no refined sugar, which is pretty awesome, because they all resulted in something with sufficient sweetness anyway.  Perhaps bean and oat burgers are in order--something savory would be a nice change.  If anyone has suggestions, or wants to share a favorite way of eating oats (sweet or savory...or both), please feel free to let me know; I always appreciate your input, and I love trying new applications for old favorites.  Thanks!

20 March 2010

Ode to The Bread Baker's Apprentice

Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice (2001) is an amazing book.  I had not even heard about it until several months ago, after serendipitously spotting it in the food and cookbook section of the local library.  I was immediately struck by the enthusiastic, vastly detailed information about all things bread, as well as the myriad recipes for assorted yeast-risen delights.  Unfortunately, I was unable to try any of the book's recipes prior to the return date, leading to a few more months Apprentice-less while jealously hearing of other bloggers' praise of what is apparently a widely-treasured tome.  But now I have a copy to reference at will, and I consider that more than just a little exciting.

Although the recipe portion of Reinhart's book is composed almost entirely of recipes for yeast-risen bread, the first I officially attempted (I say "officially" because my first attempt at an Apprentice recipe was for Ciabatta, but only part of the recipe was viewable online, so I had to wing it at the end) was the Cornbread, which is the only chemically-leavened bread listed.  That Reinhart found this particular version worthy enough to include in his book, as well as my own curiosity, love of cornbread, and approval of the quick and easy method involved in making the bread were enough to get me to give the recipe a go.  With a few substitutions to make it vegan (including the omission of bacon), the cornbread was done in even less time than the recipe called for--not that cornbread or quick breads in general ever take much time at all.  The bread was chock-full of corn, unlike any cornbread I've ever tried, but it made the bread very moist and slightly sweet.  I can only imagine that sans bacon, my vegan version of the bread is probably missing a salty or savory flavor, but nonetheless, it is still pretty tasty.

My substitutions/alterations: substituted part whole wheat pastry flour, used nondairy milk soured with apple cider vinegar rather than buttermilk, omitted bacon and bacon fat, used agave nectar rather than honey, replaced eggs with equal weight of nondairy soy yogurt.

Because I had been eyeing the recipe for Multigrain Bread Extraordinaire since first borrowing Apprentice from the library, I decided to attempt it before trying any of the other yeast breads.  It was easy to veganize the recipe, and given my affinity to bread baking, I was fairly confident that following the method as closely as possible would yield a nearly perfect loaf.  And it probably would have been nearly perfect, had I not suddenly needed to leave the house 30 minutes after forming the loaf.  The second rise should only have been an hour and a half long.  With hopes that refrigerating the dough would retard the rise enough to prevent over-rising, I left the pan in the fridge for longer than the recipe's specified 90 minutes.  Of course, because the dough had already risen adequately and crested over the lip of the loaf pan by the time I left the house, refrigerating the dough did not retard the rise, allowing the dough to continue to grow and mushroom over the sides.  Fortunately, the bread didn't cave in while baking, but it did make removing the pan a little difficult.  Nonetheless, the resulting loaf was soft and slightly sweet, with a thin, golden crust and lovely texture, namely from the corn meal.  Reinhart suggests eating toasted slices of the bread, which I'm sure is fabulous, though I have yet to taste it that way.  I very much enjoyed trimming the overhang from the top crust when the bread was still warm, only a half hour out of the oven.

My substitutions/alterations: replaced wheat bran with oat bran (because I realized late that I only had the latter), honey with agave, milk with nondairy milk; incorporated whole wheat flour while kneading to achieve a pliable, non-sticky dough. 

I think the next recipe I'll tackle will be for Anadama Bread.  I have never tried this type of bread, but based upon how much I've enjoyed the recipes attempted so far, I am sure to like this next one (and others) as well.

17 March 2010

More Cookies and Tempeh (But Not Together!)

My predetermined 14-day refined sugar cleanse goal is over, and I'm glad I gave it a shot.  As I've said before, I had been consuming far too many sugary treats during and after the holiday season, and my body and mind needed a break to get me started down a path toward greater sugar-consciousness.  Two weeks may not seem like a very impressive timeline, but steering clear of refined sugar during those 14 days has indeed increased my awareness of my own sugar consumption and continues to help me to not go overboard with trying to satisfy my seemingly endless cravings for sweets.  One thing that has helped in my commitment to veganism is to not view it in "diet" terms by seeing what I am not allowed to have, instead being open to what food I can incorporate into my lifestyle.  I am trying to take a similar approach with sugar, allowing myself to consume small amounts of refined sugar now and then in favor of occasional, naturally-sweetened goodies, or at least those using unrefined sugars.  And I'm trying to use this opportunity to incorporate more fresh, seasonal fruit into my lifestyle and to think of interesting, tasty ways to eat them.

But as I've also pointed out, I have not yet opted to completely eliminate sugar from my diet.  I am a sucker for a good cookie, and post-cleanse, wanted to find another recipe for a tasty, refined sugar-free treat to bake and share.  Blog-browsing and having several cookbooks at hand might sound convenient for this particular situation, and actually, it's not the lack of good resources that makes finding the right recipe difficult, but rather the inability to narrow down resources that gives me problems.  Having not yet devoted adequate time to cooking my way through 500 Vegan Recipes, I decided that should I come across a cookie recipe in it that fit my particular needs of the time, I would not consult anything else until I tried it.  And that's what happened.  I baked a lovely batch of Chewy Ginger Cookies, and they did not disappoint.  I used evaporated cane juice instead of Sucanat, and only slightly decreased the amount of ginger called for in the recipe (only because I always worry that the end results will be too gingery).  Yum!  They were chewy, sweet, warmly spiced, and everyone loved them.  And although the amount of ginger was fine this time around, I don't think I'll mind adding the full amount of ginger in future batches.

Despite having had few opportunities to cook this week, for some reason, I have also encountered some difficulty finishing last week's leftovers.  Yesterday, I still had a few pieces of lemon pepper tempeh in the fridge, and wondered what to do to rejuvenate them a bit.  I decided to chop the remaining tempeh in bite-sized pieces and toast them up in a dry, nonstick skillet with a few drizzles of shoyu.  After a few minutes and a few tosses in the pan, the tempeh was nice and crispy.  I ate it alongside blanched spinach with shoyu and sriracha and plain brown rice.  It no longer tasted very lemony, but it also didn't taste like leftovers anymore.  And actually, the meal was altogether quite tasty!

Hopefully, I'll be able to spend more time in the kitchen this week.  I feel like I haven't really cooked in quite awhile now, so I'm sure I'll be hitting the cookbooks and blogosphere very soon for inspiration.

11 March 2010

Satisfying a Sweet Tooth

I have always loved--and will always love--sweets.  To my family and friends, this is obvious, and there is no point denying it.  I have, however, become much more aware of my sugar intake during my journey to better understand and monitor my health.  As a result, I try to moderate both the amounts and types of sweeteners I consume (although I have let myself indulge a few times).  I actually even prefer cooking up savory dishes over baking desserts these days.  At the moment, I'm nearly two weeks into a sugar cleanse (a much-needed post-holiday/birthday/anniversary season manuever), during which I am avoiding refined sugars and trying to limit natural sweeteners.  While the cleanse has not been all that difficult a commitment, it isn't without its challenges.  As much as I love fruit, apples, strawberries, and oranges can only do so much to satisfy my epic sweet tooth.

I'm going out of town tomorrow to spend the weekend with one of my closest friends.  Long-standing tradition (and by now, force of habit) dictates that I bring some sort of confection whenever I visit friends, so having concurrently committed to a sugar cleanse, I welcomed the challenge to fashion some sweet treats without the convenience of refined sugar.  Why let it all die now?  I knew I could stick to the cleanse while still honoring tradition.   It's been awhile since I've had a cookie, anyway.

And oh how I love Isa and Terry's newest little book of wonders, Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar.  The "Wholesome Cookies" chapter includes a few recipes for refined sugar-free goodies, and that is exactly where I came across the fabulous Peanut Butter Agave Cookies.  As the name suggests, agave is the primary sweetener here, with a bit of brown rice syrup also contributing sweetness and complementary flavor.  For my batch, I increased the amount of whole wheat pastry flour called for in the recipe, and went with crunchy peanut butter instead of creamy.  Chewy yet crisp, housing old-school peanut butter cookie nostalgia with a new-school, caramel-y touch, the cookies turned out delicious and just sweet enough to end a cookie craving.

I'm sure my friend and our host (we're staying at her brother's house) will love these!  Well, I hope so at least.  If they don't, it just leaves more cookies for me!

08 March 2010

Lemons and Leftovers

When I cook brown rice, I tend to boil a large batch so that I can easily reach for leftovers in the following days without waiting through another long cook time.  This is particularly convenient when I am both hungry and cannot decide for the life of me what to eat.  I've grown up eating rice with practically every dinner entree and have always loved it, sometimes craving it in on its own with just its boiled simplicity.  But somehow, I managed not to go through that batch of rice I cooked up a few days ago, and I needed to do something with it.  My solution?  Brown rice salad.

Besides the rice, I spotted a few random vegetables that needed to be used.  I had, for example, about a cupful too much of finely chopped, raw broccoli that just missed going into Broccoli Polenta (from the fabulous Veganomicon).  Normally, I would have thrown that extra cup into the mix, but I had not yet made that particular recipe--the result of which is very tasty, by the way--and didn't want that extra cup of broccoli to throw it off.  So here I was, with tiny pieces of broccoli, a few stray carrots, a single stalk of celery, a small bunch of green onions, and half a yellow bell pepper, and nearly three cups of cooked brown rice in need of attention.  I probably would have thrown those veggies into a pasta or quinoa salad, but the brown rice made the process one step easier.  I haven't eaten a salad of any sort in quite some time, and I love rejuvenating leftovers, so salad it was.  With a few added non-leftovers--such as fresh citrus, black olives, edamame, and a handful of toasted nuts--this veggie ensemble turned out wonderfully.  It works well as a side dish or a light lunch.  I definitely see room for substitutions, so like many recipes, this is more of a basic guideline.  Use whatever veggies and other mix-ins you like.

Brown Rice Salad (printable recipe)
Serves 4 to 6

3 c cooked brown rice
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 c broccoli, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1/2 of 1 yellow bell pepper, chopped
1 c shelled edamame, cooked
1/2 c green onions, chopped
1 1/2 c black olives, halved lengthwise
1/4 c walnuts, chopped and toasted (substitute nut of choice)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 T herb-infused extra virgin olive oil (or use plain olive oil and add some chopped, fresh parsley and basil)
juice of 1 lemon
1 navel orange
pinch of red pepper flakes
salt and pepper to taste

Cook the broccoli until just tender.  Throw everything but the last seven ingredients into a large bowl, and toss to combine.  In a small bowl, combine the garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper, mixing well.  Add the mixture to the rice and vegetables, and combine.  Segment the orange and squeeze the juice from it over the salad.  Give the salad a final toss until well-combined.  Enjoy cold or at room temperature.
The lemon adds a nice bit of fresh, tangy citrus flavor to the salad, while the fresh orange adds contrasting sweetness.  The citrus in the salad paired well with Broiled Lemon Pepper Tempeh, which has its own bite.  Add more lemon if you want more of that citrus punch.

Broiled Lemon Pepper Tempeh (printable recipe)
Serves 2

1 8-oz package tempeh
1 tsp salt
juice and zest of 1 lemon, divided
1 T shoyu
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 tsp ground black pepper

Fill a pot with just enough water to cover the tempeh.  Bring it to a boil, then add the salt and half of the lemon zest.

Cut the tempeh in half, into two wide, thin slabs.  Cut each slab in four equal pieces.  Place the tempeh in the boiling water and simmer for 10 minutes.  Set aside to cool slightly, just enough to handle without burning yourself.

Set the broiler to high.  Line a baking sheet with foil and spray it lightly with oil (alternatively, use nonstick foil to avoid the need to oil the sheet).  In a small bowl, combine the remaining lemon zest, lemon juice, shoyu, garlic, and ground pepper, mixing well.  Dip both sides of each piece of tempeh into the lemon-shoyu mixture, then place the tempeh on the prepared baking sheet.  Place the sheet a few inches under the broiler for 5 minutes, then flip the tempeh and broil for another 5 minutes, until the pieces are golden brown.  Enjoy warm.

05 March 2010

Cookie Giveaway!

I love me a good giveaway, especially when it involves sweet edibles.  This one over at ilaxSTUDIO happens to involve cookies from Alternative Baking Company, whose myriad vegan cookies I absolutely love and for which I have a definite weakness.  I've tried most of the varieties available, my favorite being Luscious Lemon Poppyseed.  I even tried at one point to devise a lemon poppyseed cookie recipe so that I can bake my own lemony morsels when I couldn't justify buying more of the aforementioned pre-packaged version.  Anyway, if you want in on the giveaway, you can find it here.  Have fun!

04 March 2010

A Sweet Welcome Back

It's strawberry season again!  Every February, baskets of the bright red berries begin to pop up everywhere--in grocery stores, farmers' markets, and roadside stands.  Strawberries are a big deal around here, and my family loves to get them from the farm a few miles down the road.  Many of the strawberries in the county are actually quite good--celebrated by an annual strawberry festival that brings floods of visitors with accompanying road traffic--but we love not only that this particulary strawberry farm is about as local as it gets (literally, just a couple miles down the road), but also that year after year, it seems to have among the sweetest berries in town. This farmstand is fairly popular among the locals; many of the customers appear to be regulars, judging by the knowing, friendly exchanges occuring between buyer and seller.  The farmstand's official open date was delayed for more than a week due to uncharacteristically rainy weather mid-February--long enough to remain closed on my birthday, which was a bit of a bummer--but now that the weather has cleared for the most part, my family is able to purchase the sweet, juicy gems at will.  Today, I picked up a half-flat of ripe, firm berries picked this morning.  While I prefer to eat them plain, they're also fabulous dipped in chocolate, macerated with sugar, or piled into a fresh strawberry pie, which is what my mother plans to do with the bulk of today's berry purchase.
Citrus is also ubiquitous in California, and apparently even in late winter, the fruit is still sweet and juicy.  A friend of my father recently gave him a gigantic box filled with a few dozen navel oranges.  I love navel oranges, but the acidity has been wreaking havoc on my digestive system, so lately I've been holding off from eating more than half an orange in any one sitting.  Again, oranges are another treat I like to eat as-is, but with so many at my fingertips, I am itching to make use of them in other ways as well.  I'm thinking something involving couscous or quinoa would be good, but I don't have anything specific in the works yet.
Last week, I haphazardly employed some orange in a tiramisu- and trifle-like dessert comprised of layers of homemade ladyfingers using the recipe from The Vegan Scoop (del Torro, 2009) and vanilla pudding folded with cream cheese (all vegan).  I dipped the ladyfingers in a mixture of amaretto and freshly squeezed orange juice, giving the dessert hints of almond and orange flavors that were echoed in the roasted and orange-glazed almond topping.  It definitely satisfied my sweet tooth.  Next time around, I may add orange zest to the pudding for more of a pronounced citrus flavor.
Because the recent flood of birthdays and anniversaries involved way more sweets than I probably should have consumed, I have decided to cut out refined sugars for awhile, inspired by Veg is Sexy's Super Sexy Sugar Cleanse, and am wholeheartedly welcoming the move.  Of course, this means that the aforementioned dessert is out of the picture for the time being.  (We'll see if it emerges gracefully from the freezer sometime down the road.)  In general, I try to limit my refined sugar consumption anyway, and with the return of a couple of my favorite fruits, I'm confident that I can handle a healthier change of pace while still getting the occasional sweet fix.