30 July 2010

Why We Write

Despite my obvious love for food and the frequency of my time spent cooking, I am even more passionate about writing.  There is something about language that has the ability to fully engage my interest, perhaps because it is an infinitely varied realm that caters so well to my overly analytical mind.  I can cook well enough even when I am holed in a creative rut.  In contrast, writing even a decent sentence usually requires a certain uninterrupted flow of creative energy; to be at what I consider my linguistic best, I have to be "in the zone."

The reason I now share this topic on a food-centric blog is because for me, this is a forum for me to combine my interests in cooking and writing in an enjoyable way.  (I apologize for the tangential nature of what follows, as well as its seeming self-centered perspective; this is what I know and to what I most firmly relate.)  I by no means consider myself a writer in any professional sense--I'm just a gal with a mind constantly swarming with words, who also has a pet peeve for poorly executed grammar--and frankly, I wonder sometimes about the limitations of language as a means to properly represent the unspoken or indescribable emotions, cognitions, and other neural phenomena that sometimes make psychology students such as myself a little giddy at their mention.  I haven't studied linguistics or English to any remarkable extent, and although I enjoy literature and reading via any medium, I suspect any truly avid bibliophile would never consider me a well-read individual.  But in a sense, even when I am not physically typing or writing out words for a this blog, short story, or letter, I feel that I am constantly writing.  My mind is consistently a-buzz with potential lyrics for a song being formed and rearranged, old-fashioned letters for faraway friends, journal entries, alliterative catch-phrases to be used at random, and other wordy bits and pieces created from memories and imaginative projections.

Yesterday, NPR posted a discussion of what motivates writers to write.  Because many readers of this blog are authors of their own blogs, if not at least individuals inclined to read symbols sprawled across a screen, this seemed a relevant topic to share here.  While my nit-picking instinct first dissects what the term "writer" actually encompasses--I've settled with the conclusion that it is yet another broad label open to interpretation--I have also been urged to think of what purpose writing actually serves.  For me, an individual who cannot verbally express herself without a fair share the type of awkwardness inevitable in ad-libbed situations, on a practical level, writing is a suitable, methodical supplement to speaking with regard to manifesting what occurs in my restless mind.  As a means of mental decluttering, writing is, in essence, a form of therapy, a way to rescue my sanity.  There is little or no pressure to abide by time constraints in leisurely, written discourse, which allows for the type of neurotic editing and re-editing that always accompanies my endless search for words to most closely capture whatever it is I mean to say.  (This is what I mean by constantly acknowledging the inadequacy of language to truly represent thought.  True, there is no way to resolve that quandary, and in any case, the point of labeling is to conveniently categorize items in a vague way...which leads to even more abstraction, so I'll let the stream-of-consciousness end there.)

Aside from the practical reasons for writing (versus relying solely on verbal exchange), I think the most prominent reason I have for continuing to write goes back to that love of words.  Language, even with its imperfections, is a richly nuanced representation of all manners of human experience; it is rife with social, psychological, cultural, and historical implications.  And it is a viable mode of illustrating and sharing one's innermost thoughts and imagination for others to read and interpret to their hearts' delight.  Even recounting a cooking experiment--the majority of anecdotal material found here--requires a certain degree of creativity, knowledge, and access to an individual's chosen vernacular for preserving personal experiences.  This blog is a way for this shy young woman to share her cooking successes and mishaps with virtual strangers and open a part of herself to the vast unknown of the blogosphere.  (I am prone to romanticizing, so blogging, composing fiction, and journaling are safe outlets for that tendency.)  When I begin to compose a short story, I can draw from my own experiences and memories, reinvent them as something more interesting, and gussy them up with elaborate phrases, hopefully in a coherent form.  Writing in any sense shows that we have imaginations, that we are willing to engage with those around us, that we have things we feel we need or should say.  And in a way, I write because I am those words.

On a related note, it seems fitting to thank my readers for following along.  So thank you.  I really do appreciate that others are willing to devote time and attention to absorbing my humble musings, however I might ramble. :)

29 July 2010

Versatility

Bread-lover that I am, I cannot easily pass up a recipe promising a loaf that is not only delicious, but relatively unique (to me, anyway), especially if it requires little more than assembling a few ingredients and exercising a bit of patience.  I do rather enjoying participating in the full bread baking process, from kneading dough by hand to first detecting the aroma of a yeasted loaf, but when I came across this recipe for No-Knead Chocolate Walnut Bread at the (never home)maker blog, I opted to forgo my usual bread baking methods for the sake of a new experience.


Undoubtedly developed with ease in mind, the recipe is straightforward and easy to follow.  As is typically the case, I made some alterations, substituting one cup of bread flour with whole wheat flour (for a tad bit of added fiber) and limiting the initial rise to only 12 hours (by then, the dough had certainly more than doubled in size and was long ready to overtake the large bowl that cradled it).  I had some difficulty handling the sticky dough and worried that attempting to transfer it into a hot Dutch oven would end in disaster, but somehow managed to avoid any mishaps.  The bread baked up beautifully, with the finished product exhibiting a thin, crusty exterior, airy interior, and mildly cocoa-flavored, nutty taste.  My loaf turned out darker than the one shown with the original recipe, probably because I used dark, Dutch-processed cocoa.  This loaf made for a tasty, visually-striking change of pace.
Because the bread is not sweet--rather, it has a neutral but deep, almost earthy flavor--it is wonderfully versatile as a vehicle for an array of toppings or other bread-requiring applications.  I tasted a plain slice of the warm bread the evening I baked it, which, in my opinion, is the best way to enjoy freshly baked bread.  But in the days following, I preferred toasting slices of the loaf and topping them with an assortment of sweet and savory spreads: shiro koshi an, spicy chickpea cashew spread, and dulce de leche (all vegan).  I love a good, savory spread, but I think the sweet spreads better complemented the chocolate notes in the bread.  The addictively sweet, caramel flavor of the dulce de leche (an almond milk version of Mihl's recipe) was my favorite pairing for the bread--one that would figure into a later, slightly more elaborate application.
Toppings, clockwise from top: shiro koshi an, spicy chickpea cashew spread, dulce de leche.
I later topped another slice of toasted chocolate walnut bread with a corn and pinto bean salsa.  The salsa was a spontaneously-thrown-together mix of fresh white corn, simmered pinto beans, tomato, onion, garlic, jalapeno, lime juice, cumin, cilantro, salt, and pepper.  While perfectly suited for corn tortilla chips, the sweet, savory, and spicy blend of flavors present in the salsa worked well with another toasty slab of cocoa-infused bread.
After a few rounds of toast, it was time to get a little decadent.  As the bread began to get a little stale, I naturally sought the French toast treatment to revive it.  I consulted the "Fronch" Toast recipe from Vegan with a Vengeance, doctoring it with cinnamon, vanilla and almond extracts, and maple syrup.  To put the simple breakfast staple over the top, I further sweetened the bread with a drizzling of dulce de leche.  Homemade granola--made from puffed kamut, rolled oats, almond butter, maple syrup, molasses, chopped almonds, milled flax seed, and vanilla and almond extracts--added a not-too-sweet crunch and nuttiness I happen to love with everything, and completed the dish nicely.  The combination of flavors and textures was definitely an indulgence not to be missed.  I envision a chocolate bread pudding adaptation working fabulously, and may have to try it later with the portion of the loaf I froze.
Vegan dulce de leche.  Sweet and delicious.
Nutty kamut and oat granola.
Decadent chocolate walnut French toast with granola and dulce de leche.
If you have the time and patience, give the No-Knead Chocolate Walnut Bread a try.  It has the versatility of any yeasted loaf, with some cocoa depth to jazz up one's typical bread routine.  After reaping the benefits of a successful no-knead bread baking attempt, I am eager to revisit the recipe when I have another urge to reconcile laziness and bread addiction.

25 July 2010

From Plot to Plate

Despite the unseasonably cool temperatures that have graced this sleepy coastal town nearly the entire summer--save for a few brief heat waves--the backyard garden is thriving.  The marine layer blanketing the sky most mornings usually burns off by midday, allowing the outdoor plants to absorb the sun's generous rays.  The chard and kale have grown like mad; the meyer lemon, peach, and plum trees are bearing considerable amounts of fruit; jalapeno peppers are just beginning to mature.  Even the honeydew plant, a seedling once of questionable fortitude that is now a sprawling mass of stems, leaves, and flowers, is bearing at least a half-dozen would-be melons.


With such an abundance of summer produce growing quite literally right in my own backyard, I have been trying to make the most of the garden's bounty.  As both an avid cook and novice gardener, I appreciate the fact that nature is kindly rewarding my humble efforts to nurture these plants by providing such a beautiful array of homegrown edibles.  The bonus is that such natural abundance encourages even more creativity in the kitchen while satisfying one's appetite for fresh, as-local-as-it-gets fare, which is certainly a win-win situation.  What follows is a glimpse of ways I have so far utilized some of the backyard bounty.


Pan-fried Shishito Peppers
Freshly-picked shishito peppers.
These Japanese peppers are quite mild, with only the slightest bit of heat.  Having never eaten them prior to planting the seedling (admittedly, on a bit of a whim), I was not quite sure how to go about cooking shishito peppers.  According to discussions I have located during an Internet search, these peppers are often cooked very simply, either grilled, pan-fried, or sometimes deep-fried in a tempura batter, and enjoyed as an appetizer at many Japanese restaurants.  Because pan-frying was the most accessible method for me to prepare the peppers, I opted for that route.  I simply coated the peppers in a small amount of oil, blistered them in a hot skillet, then sprinkled them with coarse sea salt and pepper to taste.  The mild seasoning didn't overpower the peppers, but rather complemented their fresh, mild flavor.  Should there be more shishito peppers around for the next grill-out, I'd like to try the grilling method.  Tempura peppers also sound delicious, but I will have to overcome my aversion to deep-frying before giving that method another look.
Charred, lightly seasoned peppers, ready for snacking.
Sukhi Lauki (Seasoned Zucchini)
Fresh zucchini.
The zucchini plant is slowly taking over the garden plot at the back wall of the yard.  Considering issues in past growing seasons with critters eating up many of the fruits and veggies before they can be harvested, I am frankly quite amazed that the zucchini are not only popping up faster than I can find ways to use them, but also getting to be huge.  Some of the squash have weighed in at over a pound each.  Eventually, there is bound to be zucchini bread or muffins in the works to use up this apparent bumper crop.  So far, however, I have only prepared a single zucchini dish all summer, courtesy of a recipe from The Indian Vegan Kitchen.  Sukhi Lauki (Seasoned Zucchini) is yet another healthy, tasty dish that is very quick and easy to make.  The spices are well-balanced, making for a delightfully simple vegetable dish that pairs well with brown rice.
Sukhi Lauki with brown rice.
Green Onion-Garlic Flatbread with Creamy Spinach-Chickpea Filling
Pouches of flavor.
The green onions are also surviving the presence of gophers and squirrels, who seem to prefer the tomatoes and stone fruit over vegetables, and are reaching almost monstrous proportions.  The long stalks reminded me of the green garlic with which I experimented during spring, prompting me to revisit my recipe for Green Garlic Flatbread to make a variation with green onion and regular garlic that also took it one step further by involving a hearty greens-and-beans filling.  For the dough, I used the original formula and simply substituted the green garlic with green onion and added a clove of minced garlic to the dough.


The filling was inspired by spotting leftover blanched spinach, cooked chickpeas, and a jar of another batch of Bryanna Clark Grogan's "potted" tofu in my refrigerator.  I simply sauteed more green onion and garlic, then added the chopped spinach, chickpeas, tofu, red pepper flakes, dried oregano, and salt and pepper to taste.  The tofu, which had been jarred in oil, had become very soft and flavorful, resulting a thick, creamy filling.
Raw dough topped with creamy spinach-chickpea filling.
To prepare the flatbread, I used the same method for the dough with the aforementioned alteration.  After rolling the dough balls into discs, I put one or two generous tablespoons of the cooled spinach mixture onto the center of each disc, gathered the edges around the filling, pinched the dough together to seal in the filling, and gently rolled out the dough into a thick disc.  I cooked the stuffed dough on a hot skillet as I would for regular flatbread, until golden brown and puffy.  After I ran out of filling, I cooked the remaining dough as regular green onion-garlic flatbread, which made for a tasty, starchy snack.  The stuffed version was crisp on the outside, tender and fluffy inside, and laced with hearty filling.  The flavorful spinach-chickpea mixture further accentuated the green onion and garlic flavors in the bread itself, and turned the flatbread into a rather substantial, convenient mini-meal.  It turns out that they reheat well in the toaster, too.
Creamy filling encased by tender bread.
With so much edible abundance at my fingertips, I look forward to more creating more delectable dishes using whatever grows in the yard.  The Japanese eggplants and heirloom tomatoes are finally nearing their respective peaks, so there will certainly be a great deal of garden inspiration to work with in the kitchen as summer rolls onward.

20 July 2010

Chickpea Magic

Legumes hardly figured into my diet prior to my transition to plant-based eating.  Their appearances on my plate were only in the form of something like the latter half of "...with rice and beans" or as bean dip for my tortilla chips, save for its complementary role in fueling my shameless chili addiction.  (Although the meat component obviously overshadowed the legume contribution there.)  I did occasionally enjoy various Japanese snacks like anpan, manju, dorayaki, and other similar treats filled with anko (sweet azuki bean paste), but the legume presence was more of an afterthought than an issue summoning any sort of conscious awareness.  Adopting a vegan diet encouraged if not forced me to recognize my ignorance of what types of food I consumed; I didn't even realize that legumes were substantial sources of protein until I first became interested in vegetarianism.  It may sound silly, perhaps, but acknowledging my ignorance has since made me grateful that I now know better.

Deep into my pre-veg days, I could not have distinguished a chickpea from a navy bean, or would even have known that the former is the same as a garbanzo bean.  I recall first coming across the word "chickpea" in a book of riddles I enjoyed reading from time to time as a child, but never thought much of what it actually represented, only imagining something resembling a yellow pea.  Up through high school, had someone asked me whether I had ever eaten falafel or hummus, I would likely have looked fairly confused while answering with a hesitant "no."  Fast-forwarding to the present--something like two years into sustaining a vegan diet--I not only know what a chickpea is, but also cook and consume them on a regular basis.  Even as I write this post, there are dried beans simmering away in a soup pot.


Among the various legume varieties stocked in my kitchen, chickpeas are one of the most plentiful; they are so versatile and delicious for making fritters, bean patties, dips, and probably myriad other delectables I have yet to try.  Noticing a popular use for chickpeas as the basis for mock tuna salad, I became intrigued by how a bean might mimic the taste and texture of a fish-based salad.  I heard that the Chickpea-Hijiki Salad from Isa's Vegan with a Vengeance was a particularly delicious fish-free version of the classic dish, so I decided to give it a whirl.  I substituted the hijiki with reconstituted, minced wakame, because it was what I had on hand at the time.  I also mixed in chopped parsley for a fresh, herbal touch, as well as a good squeeze of sriracha for heat.  This chickpea- and sea vegetable-based salad tasted good and in pleasantly surprising fashion, close enough to the fishy version that inspired its creation to satisfy a craving for old school tuna salad.  You did it again, Isa.  Well done.
Along that vein of spreadable, chickpea-based deliciousness, I also happen to enjoy hummus quite a bit these days.  Having cooked a batch of dried chickpeas recently without any specific use in mind, I eventually decided upon using some of them for a hummus-inspired dip comprised of various kitchen finds that sounded dip-worthy.  The amounts of the ingredients used are approximate and, as always, open to whatever adjustments might suit your tastes, should anyone be inspired to whip up his or her own dip or spread.


Spicy Chickpea-Cashew Spread (printable recipe)
Yields approximately 1 1/2 to 2 cups


1 1/2 c cooked chickpeas, drained (Canned are fine.)
1/2 c blanched spinach, squeezed of excess liquid
2 (1/2-inch) chunks jarred hot red peppers, drained (Reduce for milder results.)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
2 green onion stalks, roughly chopped
3 T cashew butter (Other nut or seed butters may be substituted.)
1/2 tsp ground cumin
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper, to taste
Water or reserved bean cooking liquid


In a food processor, pulse the garlic, green onions, and parsley until they are finely minced.  Add the peppers and
pulse until the mixture becomes paste-like.  Add the chickpeas, spinach, cashew butter, cumin, and lemon juice, and blend until the mixture is smooth, adding water or reserved bean cooking liquid to achieve the desired consistency.  Add salt and pepper to taste.
This dip is spicy and perfect for dipping, topping toast, slathering in a sandwich, or what have you.  I particularly enjoyed it spread over warm Egyptian Flat Bread, like the ones I made using an adaptation of this recipe from Arabic Bites.  I omitted the dry milk, substituted the water with almond milk, and used less white flour than the recipe suggested.  The results were slightly sour, fluffy discs of carbohydrate-laden deliciousness--perfect as vessels for eating the Spicy Chickpea-Cashew Spread, using to make wraps, or for just eating plain.

15 July 2010

Gelato: Frozen Treat of the Gods

When I happened upon veganjoy's recent post on vegan gelato, I bookmarked the page without hesitation.  The peanut butter variation of Joy's basic recipe really caught my eye, sucker that I am for all things nutty and sweet. This being the heart of summer, it was only a matter of time before I could clear adequate freezer space in which to chill my ice cream maker bowl and commence with gelato-churning bliss.

Burro di arachidi (peanut butter) sounds like a fine flavor for a creamy, frozen confection.  But during my pre-vegan days, I adored gelato di cioccolato e nocciole (chocolate hazelnut gelato), eating copious amounts of the stuff at the many gelato outposts in Vienna, which in turn only reaffirmed my love for both treat and city.  Since becoming vegan, I have passed woefully by many a gelateria, disappointed by being limited to fruity sorbets (which do suffice, on occasion) and hoping that one day, I might be able to once again enjoy my favorite frozen Italian confection without it being laden with animal derivatives.  Now, with a promising nut butter-laced vegan gelato recipe in my sights, I could not resist the opportunity to recreate that classic, aforementioned flavor combination.

I followed Joy's Burro di Arachidi Gelato guidelines, but swapped the peanut butter with homemade hazelnut butter (simply roasted hazelnuts ground into a paste) and used a scant two-thirds cup agave nectar instead of sugar.  I also added somewhere between one or two ounces of melted dark chocolate (not too much, so as not to overpower the hazelnut) and a half-teaspoon of almond extract (just enough to amplify the nuttiness) to the pre-churned mixture.  A few minutes before removing the mixture from the ice cream maker, I threw in a handful of toasted, roughly chopped hazelnuts and allowed them to just become incorporated into the newly-churned, semi-frozen gelato.
Oh, how sweet were the results.  After allowing the fresh, vegan, completely awesome gelato di cioccolato e nocciole to firm up briefly in the freezer, I impatiently scooped myself a serving, eager to savor it in its peak form (I had already snuck a few tastes at various stages of the gelato process).  Admittedly, the chocolate addition didn't contribute much more than perhaps the slightest hint of its presence, but I really didn't mind, because hazelnut was the real star here, anyway.  For something a bit more chocolately, I might add some chocolate shavings to individual servings and increase the amount of melted chocolate in subsequent visitations to this recipe.  The texture of this batch was not quite as creamy as I had hoped--I don't think the coconut milk I used had a high enough fat content--so perhaps a touch of amaretto liqueur would be a worthy future addition.  Otherwise, a short thaw before scooping works just fine.  That said, I am fairly pleased with this first foray into the beautiful world of gelato-making.  With a bit of tweaking, prospects of concocting perfectly chocolatey, nutty vegan gelato look bright.

13 July 2010

My Week Around the World

No, I did not actually do any globe trotting this week.  I don't really even have the luxury of domestic travel outside of my home state, and even day trips beyond county lines are few and far between.  One of the most tangible ways of exploring the world in some sense, without the physical travel, is through exploring a place's culinary profile.  I am endlessly fascinated by food culture, using what I learn about a particular region's culinary traditions to inspire much of what comes out of my own kitchen.  While I often stray from authenticity during my attempts to recreate the food of faraway places--an especially common occurrence when reinterpreting non-vegan classics to fit animal-free dietary preferences--I do try to stay true to the spirit of regional cuisine.  For now at least, this is my most immediate and sensory-engaging way to see the world.

Rather than fixate on any particular cuisine this past week, I ended up skipping about the culinary globe.  Somehow, the focus turned saccharine yet again.  No matter; each item took care of my sweet tooth in scrumptious fashion.  Let's relive the journey, shall we?


We'll begin with these Japanese-inspired treats meant to mimic obanyaki, a type of wagashi (Japanese confectionary) filled with anko (sweet bean paste).  It's quite similar to a stuffed pancake.  I have not eaten true obanyaki (or the very similar taiyaki and dorayaki) since going vegan, as they typically contain animal products.  My love of anko-filled snacks prompted me to attempt a vegan version of obanyaki, using this cast iron pan created specifically for the task:
I also had homemade shiro koshian (smooth, sweet white bean paste) on hand.  It is composed of navy beans, water, sugar, and salt.  Although the process takes a bit of time--from soaking and cooking the dried beans, mashing them through a sieve, and cooking them again with simple syrup--it is well worth the effort, because one can adjust the amount of sugar to taste.  Store-bought versions are fine, but they can tend to be cloying and fairly dry.
I simply used a vegan whole wheat pancake recipe (any will do) and was sure to adequately oil the obanyaki pan before using it, as it is not yet properly seasoned.  I then filled the decorative mold portions of the pan with just enough batter to cover the bottom, placed a disc of the koshian on top (red bean paste would also work well), then topped that with a thin layer of more pancake batter.  I used marzipan (a non-traditional ingredient) for some of the cakes, rather than koshian, just to mix it up.  When the bottoms were golden brown, I flipped each cake into the plain portions of the pan and allowed the obanyaki to continue to cook through.  Both versions of these snacks are delicious unadorned and served with hot green tea, but I prefer the more traditional bean-filled type.
Heading westward, we pass through Turkey.  Obviously, I purchased this box of Turkish delight rather than making the sweets myself, but I figured I would share them with you, what with the worldly theme.  For years, I've been curious about Turkish delight, especially after witnessing my college dorm roommate's terrible experience with some alleged form of it many years ago.  The ones I found contained hazelnut, which I love, and pretty much won me over by its direct mention of being vegan (ingredients: sugar, cornstarch, citric acid, hazelnuts).  I am no longer  the candy-loving child of yore, but I did not mind this particular confection in small doses.  I'll be sure to reassure my former roommate (with whom I maintain a close friendship) that not all Turkish delight is disgusting.  Maybe I should send her a box; she's also fond of hazelnuts and would get a good laugh out of the candy reference.  Ah, memories.
For this next dessert-like item, I was inspired by something I ate during an actual trip to Vienna, Austria a few years ago.  Having traveled there during August, I noticed the abundance of apricots and apricot-flavored edibles.  The Eismarillenknoedel (ice cream apricot dumpling) that some fellow students and I tried at an ice cream shop were particularly unique and delightful; it was frozen ball resembling traditional German and Austrian knoedeln, but with a core of apricot-flavored ice cream surrounded by vanilla-flavored ice cream, rolled in crushed hazelnuts.  Recently seeing that I had leftover boiled potatoes and several ripe apricots, I sought to revisit the more traditional, boiled version of knoedel by fixing up a vegan version of my own.


For the dough, I eyeballed amounts of mashed potato and whole wheat flour and used a flax "egg" (milled flax seed and water) to create the dough that would surround the fruit.  Rather than replacing the seeds of the apricots with a sugar cube, as is often done, I filled each fruit with marzipan.  I then rolled each into powdered sugar before covering it in the dough.  After boiling the dumplings for 10 minutes, I drained them briefly and coated them with whole wheat breadcrumbs toasted in a bit of melted vegan butter.
I also tried to get a little creative by using a few plums from my backyard (again, filled with marzipan), and pitted bing cherries with a chunk of sugar cube placed in the center of each.  All versions were delectable, although the sourness of the plum skins made for a few tart knoedeln.  A dusting of powdered sugar remedied the issue.
Perhaps my favorite results from this week's worth of exploring sweet treats from around the globe came courtesy of Belgium. As a child, I was a waffle-eating fiend, consuming various frozen toaster versions of them on a regular basis.  My waffle of choice was the Belgian variety, although they were probably not very authentic, being no more than a regular waffle cooked in an iron with deep pockets.  Like many of the foods I attempt to recreate or reinterpret whose origins are places I have never visited, an authentic Belgian waffle--the sugary, no-syrup-necessary Liege type, in particular--is something I have never actually tasted but have always wanted to try.  Everything about this snack--the yeasted dough, deep pockets, caramelized sugar exterior, interior sugar pockets--intrigued me.  A brief Google search did little to ease my curiosity, but after a bit more searching, I finally found a recipe that sounded appropriate for helping me attain the goal of replicating the Liege waffle.  With a few vegan alterations and a little patience, my waffle adventure ended in sweet, sweet success.


Having read the recipe author's proclamation of having devised the closest-to-the-real-thing formula for Liege waffles, I did not want to make any unnecessary changes to the dough or method, following the recipe fairly closely while making the appropriate vegan substitutions.  I replaced whole milk with almond milk, the egg with a flax "egg," butter with Earth Balance vegan butter, and honey with agave nectar.  I couldn't resist replacing some of the bread flour with whole wheat pastry flour.  Because I used Earth Balance, which is a little salty, I omitted the added salt called for in the recipe. I also used only one half-cup of pearl sugar, despite the recipe author's insistence that the waffles are meant to be sugary.
I could not quite master the method for achieving perfectly caramelized waffles--I was afraid of burning the sugar--but the waffles turned out well, in my opinion.  I rather enjoyed the chunks of sugar dotting the tender but crisp dough, with the slightest sticky-sugar outside coating.  The amount of pearl sugar I used worked out perfectly, as the waffles were certainly sugary, and any more so would have probably been too much.  They were oh-so-divine, and had I lacked self-control, I would probably have eaten the entire batch of waffles in one sitting.
There you have it.  It may not have been the most comprehensive or authentic of culinary journeys, but my taste buds certainly enjoyed the trip.

10 July 2010

Stovetop Summertime Fare

When I think "summer food," things like faux-meat grillers and roasted corn immediately come to mind.  Although my family grills outdoors practically year-round, the aforementioned items are typically restricted to those few very warm (if not downright hot) months in the middle of the year when grill-appropriate proteins of all kinds are constantly on sale and summer produce are at their peak.  At the moment, we seem to be a little obsessed with white corn, stocking up and grilling it outdoors over coals and indoors in a hot grill pan over the stove.  The smoky sweetness of the ever-so-slightly-charred cobs is particularly delicious.

But as much as we all love being outdoors and having an excuse to light a fire, we never do it more than once a week.  So on those mid-week days when I want to partake in some summery, barbecue-esque fare without heating up the coals, I take the task indoors.  One of my go-to lazy summer day lunches involves one frozen vegan Boca burger (which are just so convenient), an ear of corn, spinach or some other leafy greens, sriracha, and shoyu.  I cut or simply break apart the burger by hand and toss it into a hot, lightly oiled nonstick skillet with a good squeeze of sriracha and a few dashes of shoyu, then stir it around until the pieces are somewhat crisp.  There is usually leftover grilled corn in my fridge during the summer, so after cutting the kernels from the cob, I toss them into a hot skillet as well to let them heat up and caramelize further.  If I happen to have leftover blanched spinach, great; if not, I rinse a few handfuls of fresh spinach (or chard or kale), steam or blanch the greens, squeeze out the excess liquid, and dress them in more sriracha and shoyu.  In as little as 10 minutes, I have summertime in a bowl.
Another fast, grill-worthy food I've been munching on lately is tofu dengaku.  It is a traditional Japanese way of preparing tofu by skewering and broiling pieces of it over an open flame, spreading them with a sweet miso topping, then broiling it again.  The Book of Tofu (Shurtleff and Aoyagi, 1975) has a lovely description of the origin and method of dengaku that inspired me to give it a shot.  Again, rather than go through the hassle of setting up the grill outside, I made use of the gas range in my kitchen.  I cut up a couple chunks of super-firm tofu, patted them dry, slid them onto a skewer, and broiled them directly over an open flame on the stove.  It's not the most elegant of cooking methods, but it works.  Taking a cue from The Book of Tofu's various simmered miso recipes, I went the lazy route when making the miso topping by eyeballing the ingredients for a slightly altered version of White Nerimiso (Sweet Simmered Miso)--I omitted the egg yolk--and skipping the simmering process altogether.  The broiling and rebroiling processes take very little time, and the results are fantastic; the tofu is firm and toasty, with the lightly speckled miso topping adding a deliciously sweet and savory touch.
I won't deprive my summer of its outdoor grilling time, but when there is an issue of time constraints or just pure laziness, cooking "summer food" indoors can certainly fulfill a craving for seasonal fare.

07 July 2010

One Filling, Two Finger Foods

I love discovering the versatility of various foods.  Part of what makes cooking so enjoyable is that fact that recipes can so often be treated as guidelines that allow one's creativity to give food an individual, personalized spin.  That was the case during the last gyoza-making session I underwent; I thought back to various recipes I've used, deciding to borrow some of the basic flavors I remembered, and alter it to my liking.  Tempeh made its debut as a meaty backbone to the spontaneous gyoza filling that ended up doubling as lumpia filling (more on that below).  The following is the best approximation I have for what I ended up doing.


Tempeh Mushroom Gyoza or Lumpia Filling (printable recipe)
Yields approximately 3 cups


1 (8 oz) package tempeh, cut into large cubes
1 c mushrooms, minced (I used crimini, but white button mushrooms are fine.  Shiitake would be good, too.)
1 c cabbage, minced
1/2 c carrots, finely shredded
4 green onions, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp fresh ginger, grated or minced (Omit if using the filling for lumpia.)
2 tsp vegetable or canola oil
2 T shoyu/soy sauce
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
Salt, to taste
Sriracha, to taste (optional)


Fill a pot with just enough water to cover the tempeh.  Bring the water to a boil, add the cubed tempeh, and simmer over medium for 10 minutes.  Drain the tempeh and crumble it as much as possible.  Set aside.


In a large pan, heat the oil over a medium-low flame.  Add the mushrooms and saute until browned.  Add the cabbage, carrots, green onions, garlic, and ginger, continuing to cook the mixture until fragrant and the cabbage has cooked down.  Stir in shoyu, ground black pepper, and sriracha, if using.  Taste and adjust salt and seasoning, if necessary.  Allow to cool before filling gyoza skins or lumpia wrappers.
You can find a good method for making gyoza from scratch (including skins!) here.  I made my own gyoza skins this time around--normally I buy them pre-made--using half whole wheat pastry flour, half all-purpose flour.  If you have the time, patience, and the inclination, I recommend going the distance by making your own gyoza skins.  I thought it worked well, except that I should have used a larger biscuit cutter, because the discs were too small to fit in the gyoza crimper I still have not had a chance to use.  But I guess a bunch of mini gyoza is cute.  And they were completely homemade, which is always a plus.
I cooked the gyoza as Morgan did, except I browned three of the sides (rather than just the bottom) before steaming them.  My dipping sauce was comparably simple: a bit of shoyu, sriracha, brown rice vinegar, agave nectar, and a drop or so toasted sesame oil.  It complemented the savory and slightly addictive dumplings nicely.
I ended up having more filling than gyoza skins, which was no problem, because when I first tasted the filling on its own, it reminded me somewhat of Lumpiang Shanghai.  There are different types of lumpia (a type of Filipino snack roll), Lumpiang Shanghai refers to the fried type that is reminiscent of a Chinese-style eggroll, but smaller and thinner.  The Shanghai-style Lumpia are traditionally filled with ground meat--my family always used ground beef--some vegetables, and aromatics like onion and garlic.  Like much of Filipino cuisine, these snacks aren't exactly veg-friendly.  Unless, of course, there is someone willing to experiment in the kitchen.


That's where the gyoza filling comes in.  With the exception of the distinct ginger flavor, the filling tasted similar to the lumpia filling (due to the meatiness of the tempeh and mushrooms) I loved as a kid.  The texture was also similar enough to a ground meat filling that it seemed like an ideal foundation for creating a vegan version of Lumpiang Shanghai.  So I grabbed wrappers from the freezer (I always seem to have them around) to thaw for some next-day lumpia-wrapping, using the leftover gyoza filling.  (By the way, the lumpia wrappers my family has always preferred are basically flour, water, salt, and oil--totally veg-friendly.  They're essentially spring roll wrappers, so use those if you can't find something specifically labeled as "lumpia wrappers.")


To make lumpia, you roll them as you would an eggroll, but using less filling.  There is a useful, step-by-step tutorial here.  I think using an entire wrapper for one lumpia is excessive, so I always cut the round ones into two semicircular halves, or if I have square wrappers, I cut them in half diagonally.  I then lay a pencil-thin amount of filling--if you make it specifically for lumpia, omit the ginger--approximately four inches long, along the straight edge of the wrapper (the hypotenuse/longest edge, if using a triangular piece) to begin the rolling process.  And because egg wash is obviously not vegan, I use a very loose cornstarch-and-water slurry to seal the edges.  The cornstarch gums easily, so it helps to swipe a bit of excess water over the slurry to spread it over the edge more evenly and provide better sticking power.  Until I find something better, this sealant will have to do.
Once you have a batch of lumpia rolled, they're ready for shallow frying.  I really don't like to fry food, but baking these rolls does not work very well, because the inner layers of wrapper remain chewy, rather than crispy.  And that crispiness is what makes Lumpiang Shanghai so addictively delicious.  So if you plan on making them, I highly suggest the traditional frying method: heat up a half-inch of vegetable or canola oil in a pan, carefully place a few rolls in the hot oil, cook until the bottom is golden brown, flip, and continue cooking until the other side is also golden brown.  Remove the cooked rolls to a paper towel-lined plate to drain some of the excess oil.  Allow the lumpia to cool slightly before serving with sweet-and-sour dipping sauce, if desired.
Both the gyoza and lumpia were distinctly tasty, and made by merely using different wrappers and cooking methods.  It's nice to know that even the simplest changes can provide delicious variety.

05 July 2010

Tired of Veggie Dogs Yet?

If the answer to that question is "yes," well, I completely agree.  But as much as I wanted not to pay homage to Independence Day grilling by eating faux hot dogs this weekend...I did.  And I went so far as to go the Smart Dog route, gracing my refrigerator with those low-calorie-but-pretty-bland soy products in tube form.  Apparently, those things last for quite awhile, because I actually bought the package as part of a last-ditch scramble for something edible to bring to the Memorial Day grill fest (back in...May?), but never ended up opening it.  According to the "best by" date, I could have waited until September before giving it a second look, but by then I'm sure the very thought of such a long shelf life would have alarmed me enough to discard the package altogether.

To be fair, I never purchase anything I outright dislike, so while it may sound like I'm being a veggie dog hater right now, I'm not; it's just that were I more prepared for the inevitable Fourth of July barbecue, I would likely have opted for a faux dog-less protein source in favor of something more creative.  I did, however, manage to make something at least a little bit different by combining the Smart Dogs with my favorite snack.  Behold, the Whole Wheat Sourdough Pretzel Veggie Dog.
Clearly, I never tire of baking pretzels, nor do I tire of consuming them in large quantities.  Or telling everyone about it.  (The weather has been downright cool this week--the marine layer lasts for quite awhile in the mornings--so I have had no reason so far this summer to not use the oven...just in case you thought it odd to be baking in July.)  This latest pretzel extravaganza was meant to happen on Saturday, but because I didn't get around to baking that day, I just let the dough rise in the fridge overnight before pulling it out to sit at room temperature the next morning.  I again consulted the recipe I always use, substituting real-deal butter with vegan butter.  I also gave them the whole wheat treatment, using a sizable whole-wheat-to-bread-flour ratio, and substituted the sugar with barley malt syrup.  The pretzel dog idea was borne out of mid-pretzel-twisting contemplation.  I basically wrapped a bit of dough about the middle of each link, boiled them as I did the regular pretzels, and baked them in likewise fashion.  This time around, I baked my batch at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes to achieve a darker, crispier crust.


The pretzels themselves were delicious, as always.  And the pretzel dogs weren't bad, either.  Because mustard is not my condiment of choice for veggie dogs or pretzels (or anything, for that matter), I dunked my pretzel dog in ever-reliable sriracha.  I contemplated going one step further in employing my favorite edibles by heating up some frozen tempeh chili to top the dog, but by the time the batch was cooked through, my level of hunger dictated immediate devouring of said dog.  I do have a few leftover, so the chili may make an appearance in the very near future.  I hope my fellow Americans out there also enjoyed some tasty Fourth of July eats!

01 July 2010

Sugar Shock

What kind of food-centric blog would this be if it never paid tribute to the sweeter side of the deliciousness spectrum every now and then?  Obviously, with my sweet tooth and limited willpower, the chances of never seeing another post on sugary goodness (or badness, depending on how you look at it) are essentially nil.  Mind you, I don't indulge as much as I used to way back when--I don't even like my sweet treats that sweet--as I really believe in the benefits of all things in moderation.  But even during summer, when farmers' markets are rife with naturally sweet, ripe stone fruit, sometimes they just won't cut it for me.  Thankfully, this summer's weather has so far been unusually pleasant--meaning temps in the upper 70s Fahrenheit at the hottest--which I still consider appropriate for oven usage and frequenting the kitchen for extended periods of time.

I have been making the most of my ability to do just that, diverting at times from the savory, more substantial mealtime fare to whip up some sweet treats.  Rather than experimenting with various ideas I have stored away, I instead opted to try a few recipes from fellow members of the big and beautiful blogosphere.

Pastéis sem Nata (Portuguese Custard Tarts)
Mihl over at seitan is my motor seriously knows how to bake up some tasty desserts.  These tarts reminded me so much of watching travel shows with my roommate that warm feelings of nostalgia compelled me to make them almost immediately after seeing the recipe.  I've never eaten the traditional version, pastéis de nata ("pastries with cream"), so I have no clue how they're supposed to taste and can only assume that the non-vegan version would be quite rich, due to a heavy presence of eggs and cream.  In any case, Mihl's vegan version (the name of which means "pastries without cream") was delightful, with the slightest tanginess from the soy yogurt and mild coconut flavor from the coconut milk.  I didn't have black salt, which explains the fleck-less custard.  My tarts also didn't end up with the characteristic blackening--probably because I didn't read the directions closely, so my oven wasn't as hot as instructed and the pan wasn't at its highest position--so I ended up broiling them for a few minutes.  Clearly, broiling still failed to produce the right look, but it did at least brown up the pastry shells nicely.

Toffee with toasted pecans
Quite honestly, I'm not a very big fan of toffee.  The amount of fat in such a creation sort of scares me, so that type of candy is a rare indulgence consumed in very tiny portions.  But when my mom mentioned dipping frozen bananas in chocolate, I was reminded of an ice cream stand I used to visit as a kid, accompanied by my mom and older sister.  The place used to hand-dip ice cream bars in chocolate, then coat them your toppings of choice.  I always picked almonds or sprinkles, but my mom would usually select nutty toffee bits.  I frowned upon her choice back then, but since then, I did develop a bit of taste for them, which is a bit odd, considering my longtime aversion to "buttery" things in general.  (It seems I've always been a bit of the oddball in my family.)  So toffee bits sounded like a tasty homage to lovely childhood memories...but finding an appropriate vegan substitute would be tricky.
Fortunately, I found this Vegan Toffee recipe at The New Vegan Table.  The process was so straightforward that it made me question why I don't give candy-making a shot more often.  Because nuts go into nearly everything I consume, I topped the toffee with toasted pecan pieces.  Some of them didn't stick too well, due to the candy setting up so quickly, but the candy still tasted good.  It certainly was buttery--toffee essentially being equal parts butter (here, Earth Balance) and sugar, with some water and vanilla extract thrown in--but I admit, I did like the classic, caramel flavor of these shards of sticky-sweetness.  If there is another toffee-making session in my future, I'll be sure to add the toasted nuts into the warm candy before spreading it onto the pan to cool.

Blueberry-Banana Bread
After submitting to the decadence of pastries and candy, I didn't exactly fancy more fattening sweets.  But what does one do when faced with the task of utilizing overripe bananas and a carton of blueberries on the brink of dilapidation?  Naturally, my first thought went to quickbread.  Again, it's not one of my favorite ways to bake (or things to eat, for that matter), but I figured I'd give the method a go, out of convenience and a strong desire to prevent wastefulness.  FatFree Vegan Kitchen's Blueberry-Banana Bread was looking mighty tasty anyway, and I particularly liked the fact that the recipe calls for no added fat.  I only made minor changes to the procedure by adding the zest of one lemon and using unsweetened almond milk with added vanilla extract instead of vanilla soymilk.  The bread was dense and not too sweet (which I enjoyed), with just a hint of citrus to complement the tangy-sweetness of the blueberries.  The banana flavor was actually quite subtle, so this is a good way to use up bananas when you don't want to eat something strongly banana-flavored.  Yum.


Now that I feel saturated in sugar, I think I'll hold off on the sweets for awhile and gladly return to cooking savory food.
*****
On an unrelated note, I was recently notified of Bread Without Butter's inclusion on Guide to Culinary School's List of Top 50 Vegan and Vegetarian Cooking Blogs.  This blog is actually my way of combining two longtime interests--cooking and writing--to share with whomever chooses to follow along, rather than to specifically gain readership.  So I truly appreciate the fact that people actually read my blog (thanks guys!) and you might imagine how flattered I am to have it mentioned in the company of some wonderful veg blogs.  The list links to some of my regular blog reads while also linking to others that are completely new to me, so check it out to discover more of the wide world of veg cooking.