29 May 2010

Beating the Summer Heat

Mother Nature must know it's Memorial Day weekend, because the weather has suddenly transitioned from pleasant and breezy to sunny and hot, quite literally overnight.  I hate the heat--it's the primary reason why summer is my least favorite season--and am not too fond of its early presence this year.  It certainly makes standing over a hot stove less enjoyable, and employing the oven nearly out of the question, lest I needlessly heat the house even more.  Maybe summer will get me to incorporate more raw foods into my diet.

Being that summer weather makes cooking slightly hellish, during the last few days, I have been needing to restrict oven use to before noon (if I even bother to use it at all), although firing up the stove has not been that horrible and can still be tolerated in small doses.  Simplicity in food prep also seems to help when those long, hot summer days make people feel sluggish.  My current cold cereal habit is somewhat of an example of adapting dietary habits in accordance to the change in weather.

But eating cereal all day long won't cut it, at least not for this gal.  Despite my sweet tooth, I hardly feel like I've had anything substantial unless my food intake for the day includes something savory.  At a recent outing to a Japanese restaurant with my family, one of the items included with my mom's meal was a tiny arrangement of what looked to be thin shavings of cucumber and wakame, a type of seaweed.  Indulging my curiosity, my mom had me try a bit of the simple little salad, which ended up having an enjoyable, well-balanced sweet-savory-tangy flavor.  She explained that when she worked with a catering company years ago in Hawaii, that same salad--called namasu--was a staple item on the menu and was a result of Japanese influence on local cuisine.  Made from only a handful of ingredients and served cold or at room temperature, it was easy to prepare in varying quantities and perfect for enjoying on those typical hot, humid days on the island.
Recreating namasu at home was incredibly easy, as the ingredients are few and easy to both find and prepare.  After asking my mother about the basic components of the salad, I did a quick online search to help me to work out some idea of the proportions of ingredients and discovered that this particular dish is often referred to as kiyuri namasu, translated as "cucumber salad" or "pickled cucumbers."  I did not end up using a particular recipe (although many were very similar to one another), opting rather to just keep the ratios of ingredients in mind and playing it by ear.  Most of the recipes did not actually call for wakame--some included it as an element of more elaborate variations of cucumber salads--so I added what I deemed an appropriate amount to the basic kiyuri namasu formula.  It's easily omitted if seaweed is unavailable or unwanted, but I think it contributes a nice flavor and more texture and visual interest to such a simple dish.

Kiyuri Namasu (Cucumber Salad/Pickled Cucumbers) (printable recipe)
Yields 6-8 servings

2 English/"seedless" cucumbers
1/3 c brown rice vinegar
1 1/2 T sugar
1/2 tsp grated ginger
3 T dried wakame
1/4 c warm water
Salt to taste

In a small bowl, reconstitute the wakame by covering it with warm water and allowing it sit for a few minutes.  Peel the cucumbers (you can leave some strips of green, as I did, for visual appeal), scoop out any remaining seeds, and thinly slice.  Place slices in a colander, sprinkle them lightly with salt, and allow to drain while you prepare the dressing.

In a small saucepan, combine the vinegar and sugar.  Heat over low flame until the sugar is just dissolved, then remove from heat and stir in the grated ginger.  Drain the cucumber and gently squeeze out excess liquid, then place the slices in a medium bowl.  Drain the wakame and roughly chop it into small pieces, then add it to the cucumber.  Add the vinegar dressing and toss everything together to combine.  Salt to taste.  Refrigerate until the salad is well-chilled.  It is best served cold, but it is also fine at room temperature.

This is a tasty snack or small side dish to a summertime meal.  It not only has different taste elements to please the palate, but the cooling aspect is most welcome when it simply is just too hot to cook.  And the easy of preparation is certainly a plus; the quantities are easily scaled up for feeding bigger crowds, as well.  It tastes better as it sits, too, after the flavors meld.  I definitely recommend giving this humble salad a shot for the next barbecue, picnic, or luau, or maybe for part of a Japanese-inspired meal.

27 May 2010

Quick and Easy Potatoes, Two Ways

I love a good potato.  As a kid, I was all about greasy, starchy potato snacks like French fries, hash browns, skillet potatoes, twice-baked stuffed potatoes, and potato skins.  Oddly enough, I never really enjoyed potato chips.  On a weekend visit a few years ago, my older sister brought me a massive jar of honey balls, tiny, crunchy, sweet, melt-in-your mouth cookies basically made from potato starch and non-vegan ingredients like eggs, milk, and honey; she found them at an Asian grocery and was reminded of our shared childhood obsession for the odd, chalky little munchies.  If that doesn't sound particularly appetizing, it's because honey balls probably aren't appetizing to adults unless they happened to acquire a taste for them practically from birth (as my sister and I did); these cookies may truly be something only a child could enjoy.  Taste and nostalgia aside, the goofy cartoons covering the jar certainly gaves us a good laugh, as they depicted sturdy youngsters in various outfits--our favorite was the kid in his karate outfit, breaking a board, quiver lines and all--with product claims like, "the most nutritious snack for children."  Hmm, I don't know about that.  I just happened to find another blogger's review of the cookies, and we seem to share our doubts about the nutritional value of honey balls.

Anyway, so given the long history of my starchy carbohydrate love and my continued weakness for them (including the occasionally odd manifestation), you can expect to see some sort of bread, pasta, or a potato or two around here.  It had been quite some time since I'd eaten a regular (non-sweet) potato, so awhile back, I bought a 1- to 2-pound bag of small red potatoes with no specific plans for them.  I decided to steam them whole whilst preparing another meal, storing the cooked potatoes in the fridge to later either crisp in the oven or skillet.  Eventually I went with the latter plan to pull together a quick, very easy side dish using only a handful of ingredients.
The process went like this: I put a nonstick skillet over a medium flame and added the slightest touch of extra virgin olive oil.  After halving the pre-steamed potatoes (quartering the larger ones), I tossed them with a few dashes of a no-salt seasoning blend (I like Trader Joe's 21 Seasoning Salute), red pepper flakes, and salt, then threw it all into the hot pan.  I stirred the potatoes only occasionally in order to get a golden crust to form on all sides.  They were hot and crisp, but still tender in the middle, in a matter of approximately 20 minutes, maybe fewer.  Just before serving, I a bit more salt to taste and tossed the potatoes with two tablespoons of chopped fresh parsley.  Despite its simplicity, the dish was quite tasty and comforting.  It would be a wonderful side dish alongside breakfast- or brunch-type entrees.

Speaking of starchy comfort food, I also recently had a craving for mac n' "cheese."  What was most strange about this phenomenon was that even in this age of impressively cheese-like vegan products, my craving was more specifically for a nutritional yeast-based (aka, "nooch") sauce.  Strange, right?  Some people loathe the stuff, but I really don't mind it in moderate quatatites.  Anyway, the leftover sweet potato puree in my fridge reminded me of this recipe for Nutritional Yeast Quick Mac N Cheese, which utilizes sweet potato puree to thicken and color the sauce.  I have a feeling the ideal sweet potato for the task is the orange-fleshed type (which I don't prefer), but nevertheless, I ran with the potato idea for my own spontaneous version of mac 'n "cheese."  I implemented grated carrot to achieve more of that familiar orange hue and also threw in some blanched chard just because I felt like the dish would do well with some green added to it.  The dish ended up being sweet-savory (very unlike mac n' cheese, even for nondairy versions), probably due to the type of sweet potato I used, which happens to be quite sweet.  If sweetness sounds too odd for you, perhaps try using orange-fleshed sweet potato, or else just regular potato; the goal is primarily for the body the starchy potato contributes to the dish.  I still want to tweak the recipe a bit, but I thought I'd share what I used for the first go-round anyway, in the event that anyone is curious and wants to try to improve upon it.

Easy Noochy Shells and Chard (printable recipe)
Yields 2 to 4 servings

6 oz (approximately half a standard box) dried whole wheat pasta shells
2 c swiss chard, chopped, then blanched and drained
1/2 c sweet potato, cooked and pureed; regular potato is a fine substitute
1/4 c finely grated carrot
1/4 c nutritional yeast flakes
1 tsp white (shiro) miso
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
1 tsp mustard powder
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper, or to taste
3/4 to 1 c unsweetened nondairy milk (I prefer almond milk)
Salt to taste

Cook pasta in salted, boiling water according to package directions, until al dente.  Drain and set aside.

In a large saucepan over medium heat, combine sweet potato, carrot, nutritional yeast, miso, garlic powder, onion powder, mustard powder, and cayenne pepper.  Slowly add 3/4 cup nondairy milk, stirring well and cooking until the mixture thickens slightly and is heated through; if the consistency seems too thin, add more nondairy milk.  Add salt to taste.

Add the drained pasta and chard to the sauce and stir to combine.  Serve warm.
The use of potato in the sauce made preparing the dish very easy and the consistency of the sauce much like a bechamel (roux-based cream sauce), albeit less rich.  I didn't mind this novel sweet-savory version of noochy pasta, but I tend to enjoy that taste combination in general, so this might not suit all palates.  The starch-on-starch pasta served its comfort food purpose for me and was rather enjoyable--I particularly liked the chard addition--but if you are seeking something that tastes more "traditional" and is less carb-laden, this may not be your dish.  )I'm actually likely to make more changes to the dish; for example, I probably go the more savory route next time by using a Russet potato, rather than sweet potato, as the sauce base.)  In any case, if you want a quick-fix batch of comfort food, you can't really go wrong with potatoes, whatever form they take.

24 May 2010

A Hearty Indian Mini-Feast

I very recently cracked open my copy of The Indian Vegan Kichen again, with the intention of making a somewhat well-rounded meal that included veggies, protein, and grain.  (That last item can have the particular tendency to hold sway over my dietary intake--an unfortunate fact I am trying to change.)  And yet again, the book did not disappoint.  In fact, it not only fulfilled my meal goals, but also serendipitously helped me to put some idle ingredients to unique use, with flavorful results.

The ingredients in question were Filipino cooking bananas, called saba, and freshly grated coconut.  During the last two weeks, I have been exploring traditional Filipino cuisine with hopes of connecting to my ancestry through its food as well as for kitchen project inspiration.  But that's for later down the line.
In the meantime, I developed a specific craving for dal, which led me back to The Indian Vegan Kitchen.  I quickly located the dish I wanted to make, Pigeon Peas (Toor Dal), and flipped to the Vegetable chapter for something to accompany my protein dish.  Among the many dishes described, I found a particular recipe that I had never seen on a restaurant menu--granted, I am by no means a seasoned foodie and I currently live in a bit of a sleepy town--that could also take care of that surplus saba and coconut: Plantain Stew (Kele Ka Kootu).  How convenient!  Completely intrigued, I set about preparing my Indian meal.

The plantain stew was first.  I used saba instead of regular plantains, black mustard seeds instead of brown, less oil than called for, no asafetida, and dried curry leaves instead of fresh.  Although I was fairly certain that I was indeed using cooking bananas, their softness relative to that of regular plantains had me a bit worried that the pieces would fall apart with too much cooking.  Much to my relief, the saba was an adequate substitute for plantains, holding up just as well as the green beans and carrots.  The sweet flavors of the saba, coconut, carrot, and touch of sugar were interesting matches for the slightly sour tamarind and various savory spices.  Eating this dish was a novel experience that I enjoyed for the most part.  The only issue I had was with the grated coconut; I am not a huge fan of its texture, and this dish calls for a full cup of the stuff.  I would either reduce the amount of grated coconut in the future, or perhaps try the recipe using light coconut milk instead.
The pigeon peas were considerably more familiar--pleasantly savory and also flavorful.  Using less oil than called for and omitting the asafetida were the only changes I made to the recipe.  I have cooked other versions of this dish multiple times prior to trying this particular recipe, and like the others, this one did not disappoint.  The well-spiced concoction was simple to put together and oh-so-delicious.
Plain brown rice rounded out my meal and created a suitable vehicle for soaking up the liquid from both the stew and dal, although chapati would have also done the trick.  (Then again, when has bread ever failed me?)  It was a good, hearty meal--sweet and savory, a little spicy, and incredibly flavorful.  And I still have plenty of leftovers, which will continue to make my taste buds and stomach happy for a few more meals.

22 May 2010

Two Occasions, Two Cakes

Nothing marks celebration like cake.  It's been that type of attitude around these parts of late, what with the spring onslaught of birthdays and other festive occasions.  I'm not much of cake baker, but for some reason, I have recently taken it upon myself to apply whatever cake skills I may possess toward edible gifts of the cake variety.  Having kicked off the flurry with lemon cake for my sister-in-law's birthday barbeque last month, I was primed for Mothers' Day two weeks later.  The plan was to attempt to craft a vegan version of Princesst√•rta (Swedish Princess Cake), but instead ended up with something a little different and certainly less picturesque than I had hoped.
The Mothers' Day cake was composed of two layers of genoise that sanwiched a layer each of fresh strawberry mousse and homemade gainduia.  I then slathered the outside of the cake with a strawberry sauce--pureed strawberries simmered with sugar, lemon juice, and arrowroot powder--and draped the whole thing in green-tinted marzipan.  The genoise and marzipan components were all that remained of the cake's Princesst√•rta origins; attempts at creating satisfactory whipped and pastry creams were letdowns, and added issues with the marzipan nearly made me quit the project altogether.  But I resolved to not let the cake layers and all of that marzipan to go to waste, deciding to follow through with what I started with an altered game plan.  Thankfully, despite the less-than-stellar appearance, the cake didn't taste half bad.  The almond-strawberry-chocolate combination worked well with the vanilla-infused cake, so I suppose the effort paid off.  I took several lessons from this somewhat frustrating experience: don't be afraid to stray from the plan, and know one's limitations (i.e., don't get overambitious).  Also useful: accept that "perfect" vegan whipped cream is an elusive dream and don't drape anything bigger than a cupcake with marzipan.

The latest cake attempt was much simpler than the Mothers' Day incident, resulting in a more polished creation with far less stress involved in the process.  Because my father enjoys Boston cream pie but very rarely has the opportunity to enjoy it (due to lack of commercial availability), I wanted to bake him a vegan version of it for his birthday earlier this week.  The formula was simple enough: sandwich vanilla pudding or cream filling between two layers of vanilla cake, and cover the top with chocolate glaze or ganache.  I made a basic vanilla pudding with nondairy milk, cornstarch, maple syrup, and vanilla and almond extracts, painlessly and easily tackling one component of the project in a matter of minutes.  The glaze was just as easy.  My intrigue involving recipes from the Nom! Nom! Nom! Blog and PastryWiz led to a trademark bout of indecision, which in turn led to me combining elements from the cake portions of each recipe when making my own cake.  I basically stuck to Nom! Nom! Nom!'s formula, altering it slightly by substituting half of the oil called for with already-on-hand pureed sweet potato (inspired by PastryWiz's formula), reducing the sugar by 1/4 cup, and incorporating some whole wheat pastry flour.  I could just as easily have followed the original recipe as written, but that's just not my style.
The cake ended up just sweet enough but probably denser than the original recipe intends, due to the half-and-half oil and potato substitution, no doubt.  But the final, fully-assembled cake ended up being pretty tasty, with flavors and textures not much different from those of the non-vegan Boston cream pies I've had in the past.  And it looked like a Boston cream pie--certainly prettier than the Mothers' Day cake.  (By the way, I opted for chocolate glaze rather than ganache, because I wanted my dad's cake to have a thin and not-too-rich topping.  I even loosened the glaze with a bit more water than the recipe called for to achieve a more appropriately drippy consistency.)  In any case, my butter- and cream-loving omni family enjoyed it, and I think my dad appreciated the gesture (finally, his type of cake!), so it's safe to say that everyone was pleased.

With Fathers' Day a month away, I don't know whether another homemade cake is in the works, especially since I may not be able to top that last attempt (basic as it was).  Maybe I'll just let someone else do the baking next time.

20 May 2010

Quick Greens

Salad--the cold, lettuce-ridden type--is certainly not my meal of choice.  I enjoy it on occasion, but I can't bring myself to fully embrace it.  I've been burned out on iceberg, romaine, and lettuce in general since my last chicken caesar salad sometime during my pre-vegan days.  I have to be in the mood for salad in order to enjoy consuming one, in which case I almost always opt for spinach as the green of choice.  Obviously, when prepared well, salads can be excellent, easy vessels for the consumption of raw, whole foods.  I'd love to incorporate more of that into my diet, but as a gal who loves cooked food, that sort of change will just have to come about gradually and preferably not in the form of your average salad.

Despite my lack of salad love, I enjoy leafy greens like spinach, kale, and swiss chard, eating them fairly regularly.  What is so nice about greens is that they can instantly add both bulk and nutrients to pretty much anything, raw or cooked, and can be quite tasty.  I'll often add them to pre-existing savory applications, if not already using them as the foundation of dishes, rounding out meals in a flash.  Being so versatile and quick to prepare--the most basic prep involves a quick rinse, maybe a rough chop--greens are a staple in my kitchen and will go in almost any dish.  Here are some examples of some quick, simple eats benefitting from the addition of various greens.  Oddly enough, the first two are leafy salads.

Arugula and three-bean salad.  The beans (black, cannellini, garbanzo) were combined with various aromatics, veggies, olives, and orange-tahini dressing.  The spicy arugula paired nicely with it.  I threw on some toasted sunflower seeds and sweet corn and deemed it all pretty tasty.
A lazy salad.  I picked up a bundle of mizuna (a Japanese lettuce) at the farmers' market one weekend and opted to dress it with a simple orange-shoyu dressing.  Needing a light-but-hearty meal led to this impromptu concoction of mizuna, crisped Boca burger chunks, and "potted" tofu feta (miso-marinated tofu), which contributed wonderfully creamy texture and saltiness.  If you haven't tried Bryanna Clark Grogan's miso-marinated tofu yet, get a batch going now, because you'll need to wait nearly two weeks before being able to savor its deliciousness.
Pizza with spinach and olives.  This was the result of another bout of lazy-cook syndrome paired with the need to create some space in the freezer.  I basically doctored a prepared vegan pizza--Amy's Roasted Vegetable No Cheese pizza--by adding blanched, chopped spinach and the remaining olives I didn't use in the aforementioned three-bean salad.  I hadn't tried an Amy's pizza until this point, but for a cheese-less pizza in the Daiya age, I rather enjoyed this one.  The roasted onion sweetness really makes it, although I think the spinach and salty olives added their own lovely touches.
Black bean tofu with longbeans and bok choy.  Fermented black bean and garlic sauce adds a certain depth of flavor I can't quite describe.  Basically, I "water-sauteed" some chopped longbeans, bok choy, garlic, onion, and dried Thai chilis; threw in a bit of the black bean sauce, sriracha, and shoyu; then gently added drained a cubed firm tofu.  It simmered, covered, for a few minutes, until the veggies were just cooked.  This dish was inspired by a tofu-bok choy-black bean stir-fry my sister-in-law makes, via her brother's recipe.  We normally enjoy it with steamed rice, but I chose to pair it this time around with quinoa.
Thank goodness for the tasty myriad greens that are now so readily available.  I won't be turning back to iceberg lettuce any time soon.

15 May 2010

Banana-Rama

Need ideas for how to use up those pesky overripe bananas?  Yeah, me too.  I consider myself a creative person, but when it comes to finding original ways to salvage bananas that have gone from perfectly firm to soft and blotchy-brown in a hot second, I only ever seem to come up with the usual repertoire of uses for the fruit; they're inevitably destined for smoothies, pancakes, or banana quick bread or muffins.  While those are options yield tasty results, they also grow tiresome after so many repeated visits.  I've definitely reached a burnout point with cinnamon-spiced banana bread and muffins in particular, but alas, I default to them whenever the need arises, primarily for ease and the seemingly undying popularity of such baked goods for everyone else around me.  Recently faced yet again with that age-old overripe banana conundrum, I decided that while I have pretty much resigned myself to the same baked good solution--playing the quick bread/muffin game yet again--I could at least try to switch up the routine somehow.

Awhile back, I baked a loaf of sourdough banana bread that wasn't too bad, veganizing and further altering a recipe I found when searching The Fresh Loaf for sourdough inspiration.  Although still a quick bread, the absence of cinnamon in the loaf and the inclusion of sourdough starter were pleasant changes to the usual banana bread situation.  This time around, I wondered whether it was possible to create a yeasted banana bread.  A little online searching led me to this recipe, which formed the basis of the version I ended up attempting.  To try to maximize the banana flavor, I increased the number of bananas from two to three, and roasted them skin-on to intensify their natural sweetness, avoiding the need to add sugar.  Whole wheat flour added a touch of fiber, while pecans provided a bit of nutty crunch.  I also reduced the amount of fat by half.  Here is my heavily-altered version of the bread:

Yeasted Roasted Banana Bread (adapted from this Angry Asian Creations recipe) (printable recipe)
Yields 1 large loaf

2 c whole wheat flour
1 1/4 c unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 c water, warm to touch
Pinch of sugar
2 1/4 tsp active dry yeast (one .25-oz package)
3 very ripe bananas, roasted, peeled, and well-mashed*
1/2 c nondairy milk, warm to touch
2 T melted vegan butter, cooled
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 c pecan pieces, toasted (optional)

*To roast bananas, place unpeeled bananas on a baking sheet.  Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 min.  Remove from the oven and let cool before peeling and mashing the fruit.

In a large bowl, mix together the water, sugar, and yeast.  Let the mixture sit for five to 10 minutes to proof.  Add mashed bananas, nondiary milk, all-purpose flour, and 1/2 c whole wheat flour, stirring until well-combined.  Mix in salt and melted vegan butter.  Incorporate the remaining whole wheat flour, 1/2 c at a time, until dough is no longer sticky.  Knead the dough on a lightly floured surface until the dough is smooth.  Form the dough into a ball, place it in a large, lightly oiled bowl.  Cover and let rise at room temperature for one hour, or until the dough has doubled in sized.

De-gas the dough.  Knead in the pecans, if using.  Form the dough into a ball and let it rest for 15 minutes. 

Form the rested dough into a loaf and place it in a large, lightly oiled loaf pan.  Cover and let rise at room temperature for 30 minutes, or until the top crests fully over the rim of the pan.  Before the dough has completely risen, preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Uncover the loaf and bake in the preheated oven for 20 minutes.  Turn the pan 180 degrees and bake the loaf for another 20 minutes.  The top should be golden brown.  Remove to a wire rack to cool for one hour before slicing.
I enjoyed this bread the most on the same day it was baked, while it was still slightly warm.  Both the sweetness and banana flavor are subtle but distinct, so to best detect those features, eat the bread toasted plain, or with only a small amount of sweet, non-overpowering adornments.  It can also be used as a neutral accompaniment to more strongly flavored food, if you don't necessarily need that mild banana flavor to come through.
...
Unfortunately, even with three overripe bananas squared away, I knew that in a matter of only a day or two after baking the yeasted banana bread, I'd have another two bananas sporting browning peels.  For those, I opted for the plain ol' banana muffin route, with a few changes.  I decided to again forgo spices and revisited the roasted banana method for a batch of mini muffins, hoping that miniaturizing the quick bread would help to make it more appealing.  Behold, another recipe:

Roasted Banana Mini Muffins (adapted from this recipe) (printable recipe)
Yields a little over two dozen mini muffins

1 1/2 c whole wheat pastry flour
3/4 c rolled oats, coarsely ground, or instant oats
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 very ripe bananas, oven-roasted, cooled, peeled, and mashed well
1/4 c unsweetened applesauce
1/4 c pure maple syrup
1/2 c nondairy milk
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Lightly oil mini muffin tin(s) and preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.  In a large bowl, blend the dry ingredients to combine.  Mix together the wet ingredients in a separate bowl.  Add the wet ingredients to the dry, mixing only until everything is combined.  Using a small scoop (approximately 2 T amount), fill the mini muffin tin with batter.  Bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes.  Cool for five minutes before removing the mini muffins from the tin to a wire rack to cool further.  Serve warm.

These mini muffins are a simple, anytime treat.  If you must, you can always add some cinnamon or nuts to the batter before baking to add more dimension.  Because these mini muffins are not too sweet, they are a nice departure from your usual cloying, fattening breakfast muffin.  Just be mindful that their small size can leave one especially prone to popping a few too many...
If anyone has suggestions for more unique (or tried-and-true, other-than-your-usual-banana-bread) culinary uses for overripe bananas, I'd love to hear from you!

11 May 2010

More from The Indian Vegan Kitchen

I've so far only made two dishes from Madhu Gadia's The Indian Vegan Kitchen, and I'm already enjoying the book.  While altering vegetarian Indian dishes into vegan ones is not much of a task--it's typically a matter of simply substituting dairy products with their nondairy counterparts--it's nice to have already-vegan recipes available to make the cooking process even more streamlined.  Gadia claims that the recipes she provides in her cookbook are both authentic and vegan by tradition, with no need for tweaking them into being vegan-friendly.  So although the author has adjusted the amounts of fat used in the recipes to make them that much healthier (apparently a personal cooking habit), what the reader allegedly gets when attempting the dishes outlined in the book is not something meticulously formulated to fit vegan diets, but essentially real-deal Indian food with origins that happen to be vegan.  I'm all for fusion cuisine and foods inspired by various culinary traditions, but I also love being able to eat authentic dishes without compromising my lifestyle choices, so I appreciate the health-conscious and apparently vegan-by-default nature of the dishes in The Indian Vegan Kitchen.

While I enjoyed the flavors of the book's Baingan Bharta (Mashed Eggplant) I made last week, I wasn't completely fond of the dish's slick texture or appearance.  To be fair, I didn't eat it with dal and flatbread as suggested, which would have been more appropriate for the dip- or spread-like dish.  I did, however, love everything about dish number two from the book, Spinach Bengal Gram Dal (Palak Chana Dal).  It was again very flavorful, while also being wonderfully textured and colorful.  The inclusion of greens and protein-packed legumes all in one dish made this a well-rounded, satisfying dish.  I made only a few alterations: I omitted the asafetida, because I didn't have any; used only a spritz of oil for sauteeing; slightly increased the amount of garlic; and accidently switched the amounts of garam masala and ground coriander.  Thankfully, that last little goof didn't seem to negatively impact the resulting dish.  I'll certainly make this dish again, possibly with the addition of cayenne or hot chili peppers to make it spicier.
I don't know what dish I'll attempt next from Gadia's cookbook, but I'm sure that as long as I don't screw it up too badly, whatever I select will result in something delicious.  And I would love to have an epic Indian feast in my foreseeable future!

07 May 2010

Sunshine...in Round, Edible Form

There is something so perky and refreshing about citrus-infused food that makes it so ideal for celebrating clear, beautiful days.  Lemony desserts, in particular, just remind me of sunshine.  The tangy-but-sweet flavors of citrus also seem to invoke a certain sense of "lightness," contrasting with richer, seemingly "heavier" goodies like chocolate--a little mind trick I sometimes blissfully ignore as an excuse to indulge.  (On a somewhat related note, a friend once told me that she read somewhere that citrus-scented perfumes and body sprays makes others tend to perceive that the wearer weighs roughly 10 pounds lighter than her actual amount.  We were never sure about the extent or validity of that study, but at least it was good for a few stupid jokes now and then.)

Anyway, readily associating lemons with eating outside in the sunshine was all it took to get me to make a luscious lemon cake for another family gathering/barbeque/potluck/birthday celebration recently held at my brother and sister-in-law's home.  The weather was perfect for a barbeque, but rather than bring another savory dish to share with the everyone, I opted to bake up the Light Lemon Bundt Cake from The Joy of Vegan Baking, which I had been eyeing periodically for who-knows-how-long.  The rarest of rare occurences happened (at least for me): I followed the recipe exactly as written!  I was already pleased with the prospect of a refined sugar-free cake (the recipe calls for maple syrup) and decided against my usual whole wheat flour substitution (in place of all purpose) for fear of muddying the final product.  And it was good--very good, in fact.  I did actually end up making a small amount of lemon icing that wasn't actually called for, because I ended up drizzling the outside of the cooled cake with some Lemon Sauce (also from the book) just to see how it would look, but didn't like the moist appearance.  The icing was flavored with Lemon Sauce, and a quick drizzle did a sufficient job of covering the sauce misstep while adding a bit more visual interest to a very plain-looking (but deliciously lemony) bundt.  The cake didn't even really need the sauce, but it does add even more lemon punch, so when I make this cake again--and I definitely will--I'll be smart about it and just serve the sauce on the side.
Another globe of citrus-infused goodness from the past week manifested itself in the form of bread, of course--specifically, Portuguese Sweet Bread from The Bread Baker's Apprentice.  This is essentially the original form of what many of us call Hawaiian sweet bread, as one of the major culinary influences in Hawaiian cuisine is of Portuguese origin.  As a child, I was practically raised on this bread.  Although it was available in roll form (my older sister's favorite version of the bread), I preferred the more traditional round loaf that came in aluminum pie tins.  I could go to town on the plain bread, often yanking massive hunks of it messily with my greedy little hands, or when I tried to be tidy and patient, I would cut a modest wedge and toast it in a dry pan.

When I first took to the vegan lifestyle, my heart sank at the discovery of the egg- and dairy-laden nature of my beloved Hawaiian sweet bread.  Even searching for recipes that could potentially result in suitable vegan facsimiles was a bit troubling, as so many recipes called for huge amounts of eggs, fat, and sugar.  But alas, Peter Reinhart put my mind at ease, providing a Portuguese Sweet Bread recipe that scales back a bit on the eggs, fat, and sugar and also alters well to fit a vegan's needs.  For my attempt at the recipe, I substituted the eggs with unsweetened soy yogurt, used vegan margarine for butter, omitted the dry milk powder, and replaced the water and egg wash with nondairy milk.  The resulting bread smelled heavenly and tasted close to the sweet bread to which I'm so accustomed, just not quite as sweet (but sweet enough).  Lovely citrus and floral notes derive from the use of lemon, orange, and vanilla extracts, which also contribute to the sweetness.  The recipe makes two round loaves, and with careful pacing, I've somehow managed to not finish both of them off in the course of the past week.  I found that it's best plain and untoasted when eaten shortly after baking, but slices or wedges certainly toast well and seem to enhance the bread's sweetness.  Next time I make this, I'll probably try to incorporate some whole wheat flour into the dough for at least some added nutrition.
It looks like the next few days will feature more blue skies and mild weather, so perhaps we'll see how the sunshine further inspires what comes out of my kitchen.  I hope you all have a lovely weekend!

05 May 2010

Bowl of Spicy Goodness

I like eating food out of a bowl and tend to make a habit of it.  There is just something delightfully casual and comforting--not to mention convenient--about throwing all components of a meal into a bowl.  It also helps with portion control; it's much more difficult to haphazardly pile edibles into a small cereal bowl than onto a dinner plate.  I tend to eat nearly everything with chopsticks, too, so the bowl configuration is also useful for that little habit.

Lunch at home often features some sort of bowl assembly, with my default being a good ol' bowl of beans and rice.  As simple and boring as that combination may sound, I hardly tire of it.  Sometimes I do feel like dressing the pair up a bit, so for a recent meal, I did just that.  How does one kick up plain rice and seasoned black beans?  Make lime cilantro brown rice and a spicy blend of soy and black beans, add a bit of blanched spinach, and top it all with a blob of fresh guacamole.  Sure, it's still very simple and only slightly less boring than just beans and rice, but the combination is actually completely delicious and quite satisfying.
For the Lime Cilantro Brown Rice (printable recipe here), I pulled out my tiny-but-reliable three-cup, single-button rice cooker to do the cooking.  Here's what you need, should you feel like trying this (yields about four servings):

1 1/2 c brown rice, rinsed and drained
3 c water (or the appropriate amount specified for your rice cooker)
1 tsp ground cumin
Juice of one lime, divided
Zest of half a lime
1/4 tsp salt
1 dried chili (optional)
1 bay leaf
2 T fresh cilantro, chopped

Put everything but the cilantro and half of the lime juice into a rice cooker, stirring to combine.  Cook according to your rice cooker's instructions.  Alternatively, you can put everything but the cilantro and half the lime juice into a medium-sized pot, stir and bring it to a boil, reduce to low heat and cover, cooking until the water is evaporated and the rice is completely cooked.  For either method, once the rice is done cooking, discard the bay leaf and chili.  Add the remaining lime juice and cilantro, fluffing the rice to combine.  Serve warm.

The spicy soy and black beans resulted from having only a single can of black beans on hand and a surplus of cooked soybeans.  I like fitting leafy greens into my meals whenever I can, so blanched spinach--my go-to green--made its way into the bowl.  And of course, guacamole adds a cool and creamy touch.  All of that extra guac paired oh-so-fabulously with an abundance of baked corn tortilla chips (each in bowls of their very own, of course).
I hope I didn't bore you too much by extolling food bowls.  Now go arm yourself with chopsticks, have yourself a bowl of your liking, and enjoy!

03 May 2010

The Caponata That Wasn't

My approach to cooking a dish or meal usually begins with either inspiration from a pre-existing dish or simply finding myself in the mood for food of a particular cuisine.  I recently wanted to make my first attempt at cooking caponata, a sweet and tangy Italian eggplant dish, after seeing it featured on a few restaurant menus.  I had also seen it prepared several times on various cooking shows and both the ingredient list and method seemed simple enough.  At the end of last week, I spied several large eggplants at the grocery store as I made a quick dash in for a few items, and remembering that I had caponata on my to-cook list and that I had everything but the main ingredient already at home, I snatched an eggplant up before heading to the check-out stand.

With everything seemingly in place to make caponata, all should have gone as planned and I should be talking about what I did and how it turned out, with a photo or two showcasing the results.  But plans change, which is exactly what happened in this case.  In fact, I not only upgraded from making just one dish to an entire meal, but also switched my intended cuisine from Italian to Indian-inspired, all due to spotting an abundance of perfectly vibrant cilantro in the garden.  Wanting to use some of the herb before any critters could claim it first, I opted out of caponata and decided to consult my copy of Madhu Gadia's The Indian Vegan Kitchen (2009) for inspiration, although I pretty much already knew that Baingan Bharta would be a good way to stick with the eggplant theme.  Because Baingan Bharta didn't actually call for cilantro, I decided to implement the herb in a dish of chard and soybeans, as well as in spiced coconut rice, which would round out the meal.
Fresh chard and cilantro.
This being my first attempt at any of the recipes from The Indian Vegan Kitchen, I tried to follow Gadia's Baigan Bharta (or Mashed Eggplant) recipe as closely as possible, with only the following adjustments: I water sauteed the onions in a nonstick pan rather than using oil, substituted green chilis with ground red pepper, and used drained, diced tomatoes rather than fresh tomatoes.  The dish was flavorful with a nice bit of spice, and I don't think it suffered at all from the absence of added fat.  It would certainly be delicious served with daal and flatbread, as Gadia suggests, as the texture of the eggplant is ideal for being scooped up with pieces of bread.  But I had already begun making another type of bread before I even decided upon Indian food (more on that in a later post), so rice would have to do.
Baingan Bharta.
The chard and soybean dish was an attempt to create something like saag (spiced greens), using more ingredients I already had in my kitchen; chard has been growing like mad in the garden, and I had cooked a batch of dried soybeans a few days prior to my Indian-inspired meal but had not yet used them for anything.  A blend of finely chopped chard, sliced onion, ginger, garlic, soybeans, cumin, red pepper, and cilantro were cooked together to form a tasty greens-and-beans side to the eggplant dish.  Rather than cooking plain basmati, I thought I'd give coconut rice a try, stemming from curiosity about whether fresh coconut water would work successfully in imparting the same amount of flavor as coconut milk.  I used red rice, a mixture of coconut water and regular water, half a cinnamon stick, bay leaf, cloves, dried Thai chili (more of my garden bounty), raisins, more cilantro, and fresh lime juice.  What resulted was aromatic, slightly sticky rice with a touch of coconut flavor and sweetness that was a nice contrast to the savory greens and eggplant.  Coconut milk would probably be a better bet for future batches of coconut rice, but the coconut water wasn't a bad stand-in.
Spiced Chard and Soybeans.
My plate.
The meal in its entirety was tasty and comforting.  The sweet, savory, and spicy elements worked nicely together, as did the varying textures.  The best part of it was that much of the meal was comprised of items harvested from the garden or from those that simply needed to be used.  Another plus: I finally cooked something out of the newest addition to my growing cookbook collection and am eager to try more recipes from it.  Sure, the caponata will have to wait a little longer, but I'm certainly not complaining about the tasty diversion.