29 October 2010

Clearing Space

Life beyond the blogging realm continues to demand much more of my attention these days, especially during the last few weeks.  Recognizing the reality of my existence is both enlightening and stressful, making routine activities such as cooking, mindful reflection, writing, and socializing all the more treasured and vital to maintaining a much-need sense of stability.  Fortunately, my referral to these elements for peace of mind and support have not waned much, although I had hoped that I could continue to just roll out kitchen-centric material worth sharing in order to transition seamlessly into Vegan MoFo.  As a way to prepare for the food frenzy that will accompany both Vegan MoFo and the approaching the holiday season, I've begun to make some room in the freezer by revisiting the remnants of some past food projects.


Beni imo baked manju
This is my version of a Japanese-inspired treat that originated in Hawaii.  Manju are typically steamed and house fillings such as anko.  This baked variation is filled with lusciously sweet, vibrantly purple beni imo (Okinawan sweet potato), with pastry dough encasing it.  The original island snack is unfortunately neither vegan-friendly nor readily available in groceries or bakeries outside of Hawaii, but sometime back I managed to put together a vegan version that served as an acceptable substitute.  Unfortunately, I cannot recall the exact ingredients used, so I'm unable to produce a formula here for the time being.  I do know, however, that the filling involved few ingredients, and the pastry dough was a relatively low-fat, whole wheat version of more traditional pie crusts.  I'm glad that at the very least, I had a few stored away in the freezer to enjoy and perhaps remind me of how I went about produce them.  A brief spell in the oven reheated the manju nicely, resulting in a fresh-tasting product with sweet, creamy interior and crisp shell.  I may consider experimenting with creating a new batch of baked manju once beni imo are again in season here.


Kare Man
The reheated buns, made a month or so ago using this recipe, didn't seem very picturesque, nor did I really even feel like photographing them for a second time.  Nonetheless, they still tasted rather good and the spicy curry filling somewhat effectively countered the cold and gloom earlier this week.


Green Onion-Garlic Flat Bread with Creamy Spinach-Chickpea Filling
These grilled bread pockets of goodness took care of my need for a doughy fix.  These were also made then frozen some time ago using another spontaneously successful recipe, providing extras for extending their instant-meal convenience over the last few months.  After pulling them from the freezer to refrigerator to thaw overnight, I simply reheated them in the toaster; they fit in the slots perfectly and crisped up beautifully.  It seems the creaminess of the tofu-based filling diminished slightly over time, perhaps from the starchiness of the dough and chickpeas, but the overall taste was still quite pleasant.  This bread made for some filling quick lunches this week.


With the marathon blogging extravaganza that is Vegan MoFo right around the corner, we'll see an exponential increase in activity all over the vegan blogosphere, including some new eats from my tiny space in it, assuming I can keep up this year.  Hopefully I will be able to squeeze in at least one more post by the end of the weekend, but if not, I'll be here all next month.  In the meantime, I wish you all a happy Friday!

21 October 2010

Cookies!

Although my favorite way to cook is by toiling before a hot stove in anticipation of savory concoctions to delight my belly, sometimes I just want to bake.  That was how I first delved into any sort of food preparation--memories of which are mostly associated with classic childhood treats, such as cupcakes and cookies.  I've always had soft spots for both, but particularly for the latter, perhaps because of the ubiquitousness, portability, and versatility of cookies; they come in myriad shapes and flavors, can contain a huge array of add-ins, sandwich various types of fillings, even adorn other sweets (i.e., doll up ice cream, act as a pie crust).  Sure, the current cupcake craze has proven that cupcakes are just as unique and customizable as cookies--and I do occasionally enjoy them, with help in large part from the adorable and deliciousness-filled Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World--but they won't ever replace cookies as my baked good of choice.


Having loads of vegan cookie recipes at my fingertips tends to make narrowing down my baking decisions somewhat difficult.  That recurrent task became even more difficult after I snagged a copy of Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar, which boasts so many amazing-sounding cookie recipes to add to the others I've come across elsewhere, I don't know when I'll ever get through trying all of them.  Fortunately, no one seems to protest when I decide to bake cookies, and certainly unsuspecting friends always appreciate care packages filled with tasty, homemade morsels.  The intended gifting of them always seems reason enough for devoting some time to a quick spell in the kitchen, which was exactly the case earlier this week.  I put Vegan Cookies to use, baking from two different recipes--one I had not yet attempted, the other a tried-and-true favorite.


My first batch came in the form of Pignoli Almond Cookies.  I love nutty foods, so these nut-packed gems sounded perfectly appealing.  And these Italian-inspired cookies brim with nuttiness; the triple hit of whole pignoli (pine nuts), almond paste, and almond extract make for sweet, buttery treats with both chewiness and crunch.  Although I followed the recipe exactly as written, the cookies still didn't turn out as expected, spreading and flattening into soft, somewhat delicate discs, unlike the firmer-looking, mounded cookies pictured in the book.  I worried the cookies wouldn't hold up through the shipping process.  Fragility aside, they were at least delectable--an opinion already echoed by one care package recipient.
For my second batch, I baked Minonos, those wonderfully homemade, vegan facsimiles of the well-known, non-vegan Milano cookies.  I also followed the recipe to the letter here, fortunately yielding a batch of well-formed, chocolate-kissed goodies.  Normally, semisweet chocolate chips provide that ever-important glue binding each pair of cookies, but I actually had enough bittersweet chocolate available to do them up right this time (the authors suggest bittersweet chocolate for achieving a more "authentic" taste).  While I fell in love with these cookies upon first baking them (with semisweet chocolate), I enjoyed them even more with the bittersweet chocolate.  The cookies also seemed sturdy enough for travel, following a coffee dunk test.  Yum.
So, my dear readers, I'd love to know: What are some of your favorite cookie recipes?  If you've baked from Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar, which of the recipes do you recommend?

19 October 2010

That Time of Year

With a week-and-a-half remaining until Halloween, I am still completely unprepared for any forthcoming ghoulishly-themed festivities.  Mind you, I have no problem with the excuse to partake in costumed fun while indulging in candy and other appropriately-themed edibles.  My current life situation simply is not conducive to the careless frolicking I could have (and often, did) get away with during college, with Halloween becoming one of those subsequently party-less affairs in the last couple years.  That's fine, because the spirit of the season can be celebrated in other ways, and not just on the last day of October.  One of the most accessible ways for me to get into the harvest time swing of things is to incorporate its hallmarks in everyday aspects of my existence--namely, through food.  Deep into October and even deeper into autumn, we find that pumpkins and other winter squash are everywhere, their unmistakable shapes and colors occupying the full range of visual periphery and flavors and textures permeating all forms of ingestible matter.
I myself happened to have a bit of that trademark icon of the Halloween season on hand not too long ago.  I pondered making scones, muffins, pancakes, waffles, or something else along those lines with leftover pumpkin puree, but wasn't too enamored of taking the traditional, sweet route, despite its reliably delicious nature.  Because I have been a bit fixated on 500 Vegan Recipes lately, I thumbed through the book for potential inspiration, recalling what seemed to be a unique and plentiful assortment of recipes to match my specific cooking intentions.  The maneuver not only confirmed that my memory isn't as terrible as I sometimes deem it--a good sign for both the fitness of my brain and future fulfillment of my pumpkin-related needs--but also allowed me to knock another recipe off my to-do list.  The recipe in question was that for Pumpkin Fauxsage, a meat analog of the seitan variety.


The recipe describes a straightforward method for creating a baked version of seitan "sausage," with the perk of incorporating pumpkin puree for a bit of autumnal flair.  I followed the instructions to the letter, but only until the actual baking; there, I divided the dough into four logs, rather than leaving it as a single, gigantic cylinder, then baked them for just over an hour.  My deviation proved nearly flawless, the only aberrations occurring when two of the "sausages" burst through their lazily wrapped foil casings, resulting in a couple aorta-shaped lumps of orange-tinged seitan.  Physical oddities and extra chewiness of the rogue "sausages" aside, the Pumpkin Fauxsages tasted fantastic.  They aren't really pumpkin-flavored--I suspect the mild squash primarily provides moisture and color--but the faint orange hue and seasonal spicing hint at the squash's contribution to the finished product.
While delicious eaten alone, the "sausages" seemed equally suited for incorporating into a proper dish.  Because I still had some pumpkin puree left, I decided to also include it in the dish, both to emphasize the pumpkin presence and to avoid wastefulness.  The puree's smooth texture lends itself well to saucy applications, so it immediately became apparent that I should create something to incorporate that idea, very quickly evolving into a creamy pumpkin pasta dish--Creamy Pumpkin Israeli Couscous, in fact.  Pureed pumpkin and nondairy milk form the basis for the sauce, bolstered by aromatics that echo some of those used for the Pumpkin Fauxsage, and given a cheesy dimension with a touch of nutritional yeast.  The result is something like a cross between a traditional cream-based pasta, cheesy risotto, and nutty couscous--a satisfying, comfort food-type dish.  I'm sure another type of protein would work well in place of the Pumpkin Fauxsage, although it pairs beautifully for obvious reasons; feel free to substitute your choice of meat analog, tofu, or leave it out all together.
Creamy Pumpkin Israeli Couscous (printable recipe)
Yields 4 to 6 servings
1/4 batch Pumpkin Fauxsage from 500 Vegan Recipes (or any vegan sausage or seitan), chopped

1 c whole wheat Israeli couscous
1 tsp olive oil
1 1/2 c vegetable broth (or 1 1/2 c water + 1 1/2 tsp vegetable bouillon), boiling

Sauce:
1/2 c pumpkin puree
3 cloves roasted garlic, mashed
1 tsp vegetable bouillon
1/2 c plain, unsweetened almond milk, or other nondairy milk
1/4 tsp dried sage
1/4 tsp onion powder
Pinch each cayenne, ground nutmeg
2 T nutritional yeast

Cook Israeli couscous according to package directions. (I toasted the dry pasta in the oil over medium flame, added the hot broth, reduced the heat to low, covered the pot, and simmered the couscous for eight minutes, until tender.)  Drain any excess liquid, gently fluff the couscous, and set aside.

In a separate pot, combine all sauce ingredients and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat.  Reduce heat to low and simmer until heated through and the sauce thickens slightly.  Remove from heat and add the couscous and vegan sausage, stirring to combine.  Serve hot and enjoy!

17 October 2010

A Valid Excuse

Happy belated World Bread Day, everyone!  Here I am, a lifelong, dedicated lover of that beacon of carbohydrate-laden comfort, and I nearly missed this annual dedication to my favorite comestible.  Again.  I really don't require an excuse for baking or consuming bread, but it's difficult for me to pass one up if it can potentially make my obsession look a little less...obsessive.  My thanks go out to various individuals from around the blogosphere for once bringing my attention to this dubious but brilliant celebration of starchy goodness.


Having spent half of yesterday unknowingly indulging in neither bread making nor eating, I was unprepared for either activity.  I chose to make something fairly plain that wouldn't require lengthy fermentation once I realized my folly.  Opting for simplicity, I cooked up a batch of basic flat bread, adapting a recipe from Arabic Bites.  I substituted almond milk for water to yield softer bread, used equal parts all-purpose and whole wheat flours, and rather than baking the dough, I grilled the discs on a nonstick pan over a medium-low flame.  I only made a few miniature rounds, leaving more larger-sized discs for utilizing in wraps or as foundations for quick-and-easy pizzas.  The bread turned out beautifully soft, delicious plain or smothered with hummus.
The celebration of all things bread continued this morning, albeit not intentionally.  I actually just needed to use up the remaining overripe bananas, so another round of banana bread baking ensued.  I essentially baked it just as I had the last loaf, but slightly reduced the sugar and folded a generous handful of chopped walnuts into the batter.  Fortunately, the bread is tasty enough that I won't mind a second consecutive week of snacking on the banana- and caramel-laced treat.

15 October 2010

Gone Bananas

If I had more freezer space, I wouldn't continue to have issues with a banana surplus.  I could store them away in that frozen abyss, then retrieve them at will for smoothies and raw frozen "yogurt."  But the reality is that my freezer is perpetually and unreasonably packed to the brim, and that doesn't coincide well with the occasionally mistimed purchase of quickly-ripening tropical fruit.  So I work with what I have in order to avoid waste.  Thankfully, that has proven rather successful, churning out various banana-flavored delectables and forcing me to continue to try to flex my creativity.


This time around, rather than trying to create dishes from my own imagination, I referenced two cookbooks I should really be using more often than I do, and in fact, am deciding right now to fit into my regular cooking regime: Celine Steen and Joni Marie Newman's 500 Vegan Recipes and Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero's Veganomicon.  Both epic tomes of vegan deliciousness really do deserve more of my attention, especially given the general success and satisfaction garnered by their consultation.


The first of the banana-themed treats came in the form of Banana Peanut Oat Breakfast Biscuits, courtesy of 500 Vegan Recipes.  Everything about them sounded wonderful.  How could I not love a yeast-risen bread that looked to be a combination of a classic peanut butter-banana sandwich and morning oatmeal all in one?  And I did really enjoy these subtly sweet, nutty, fluffy biscuits.  They were perfectly lovely warm from the oven, but a smear of homemade, vegan dulce de leche made them that much tastier.  It turns out that they toast up well, too.
I went for a more classic banana-infused treat during round two of baking: banana bread.  Specifically, I baked up two loaves of Lower-Fat Banana Bread from Veganomicon, saving one to send home with my visiting friend from the Bay, and the other to enjoy with her that morning.  I used only a pinch of nutmeg and included a teaspoon vanilla extract in each batch.  I also folded in approximately 1/4 cup of vegan dulce de leche globs into each batch before baking.  The results featured a moist, tender, tasty bread, dotted with gooey, melted pockets of sweetness.    My visitor and I both enjoyed the banana bread over the course of a few days, and I'm glad to say my friend seemed excited about bringing that second loaf back home.
So here's a question I have for you, dear readers: What do you do when in possession of overripe bananas?  Are there certain go-to recipes you use?  As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

14 October 2010

Simple Things

Life has been overwhelming lately.  It continues to be an epic swirl of good, bad, and the ambiguous in-between, varying in intensity that seems to arise in spurts.  Consequently, cooking and writing about it have dropped down my priority list, but I'm hoping to regain the interest, time, and momentum necessary to make it through the quickly approaching Vegan MoFo this year.  In the meantime, I'll share with you some photos taken from my backyard.  There is something bittersweet about these images, perhaps marked by the seasonal transition they represent.  The cheerful orange and red seem so inviting, but I can't help but feel a little sad that those bursts of color are few; they are indicative of the utter fruitlessness of plants that normally thrive in their respective harvest seasons.  The silver lining is that this is only the first year during which so little of the backyard produce has been so absent.

Persimmon tree, with literally one remaining fruit gracing its leafy branches.
Heirloom cherry tomatoes.
Despite the bleak lack of fruit, I appreciate the beauty in sparseness.  I just hope that next year, the plants will thrive once again.

09 October 2010

Bread Weather

When temperatures begin to cool, a several things inevitably happen: the few skeins of yarn remaining from last year's crochet projects instantaneously grow into a multicolored yarn mountain; scarves, cowls, and floppy hats frequent at least one corner of one's visual field; Halloween-themed decor and novelties line store shelves, often accompanied by Thanksgiving- and Christmas-themed wares; and 
pumpkin and other winter squash grace tabletops, porches, and every other latte and dish.  These predictable phenomena occur without fail, ushering in the spirit of the season, beckoning me to crank up the stove and oven to cook up some comforting edibles.

Sure, soups and stews are typical, welcome components of my autumn and winter kitchen repertoire, but when conditions are ideal--namely, chill in the air on a lazy day--the first thing I usually opt to make is bread.  For me, simple, starchy food is some of the best comfort food, and the carbohydrate paradise that is a freshly baked loaf of bread is certainly no exception.  It never disappoints, so I make it in one form or another whenever I can.

Despite being tempted to bake go-to breads like sourdough, naan, or English muffins, I deviated a little, opting to try two recipes I had been eying for awhile.  The first recipe was for Olive Mini Baguettes, from Joni and Celine's 500 Vegan Recipes.  As I slowly work my way through the varied, yet accessible recipes collected into the massive tome, I continue to find the results unique and satisfying.  This olive bread was another tasty creation that also used up some leftover black olives--a win-win situation.  Naturally, I could not resist the urge to change something, and went with a blend of fresh thyme and rosemary for the herbal component.  Rather than fashion the dough into a half-dozen miniature baguettes, I divided it into eight rolls, which I baked at a higher temperature (425 degrees Fahrenheit) than the recipe instructs.  The pillow-soft rolls had a thin but crisp crust and a pesto-like flavor, which the authors also noted.  I ate them either plain or with hummus; either way was delectable, and I'm sure other spreads would pair just as nicely.
The second bread item was Kittee's Soft Pumpkin Pretzels, yet another tasty homage to autumn.  I simply adore pretzels, but never thought to incorporate pumpkin puree into the dough.  I pretty much followed the recipe as written, only substituting spelt flour for the atta (due to lack of availability), dividing the dough into 12 rather than six pretzels, and baking them without the pumpkin and sesame garnishes.  Were they soft?  Absolutely, with a lovely orange hue to remind us all of their seasonal appropriateness.  The softness of the end result meant that the pretzels weren't as chewy as I those I am accustomed to devouring, but it was a delightful change.  In fact, I am still working my way through the batch, because dividing the dough into 12 pieces still yielded large pretzels, and I have to limit my bread consumption somehow.  Of course, I'll probably end up pulling another batch of bread from the oven soon enough, anyway.

06 October 2010

Oatmeal, Two Ways

Not too long ago, oatmeal was my go-to post-run breakfast.  Frequency and formula were both rather rigid: every single morning, my bowl contained of cracked oats, a microwaved half-banana, toasted nuts (usually almond or pecans), a chopped date or two, dash of cinnamon, and splash of nondairy milk (usually unsweetened almond).  One might expect burnout to set in quickly.  Amazingly, many months of this routine passed before I began to vary the day's first meal.  Needless to say, oatmeal has figured minimally in my morning routine for the last three or so months.
That has been the case until the last few days, during which that ever-reliable breakfast has reemerged.  The current gloom and doom of rainy weather--a refreshing contrast to the unexpected heatwave that preceded it--has been behind a recent rash of baking and indulging in warming, comforting foods.  I relish the energizing feeling from stepping out into chilly morning mist and returning to a big, warm bowl of comfort.


I recently tried my first bowl of oats-in-a-jar, the popular way of enjoying oatmeal while scooping up the last bits of nut or seed butter clinging to the container.  Having emptied the jar of tahini for Chocolate Tahini Quick Bread, I decided to finally give oats-in-a-jar a try.  I hadn't thought to incorporate the sesame flavor into oatmeal, but if it works with chocolate, I didn't see why it wouldn't work with dates and banana.  And in fact, it worked rather well; I omitted the usual sprinkle of pecans to make room for the sesame to shine, but still stuck with the date, cinnamon, banana, and almond milk combination, and all of the flavors combined harmoniously.  It was an interesting and tasty twist on my usual bowl of oats.
I also tried my first bowl of pumpkin oatmeal, something that seems to pop up all over the blogosphere once autumn arrives, along with all of the other pumpkin-infused delights of the season.  This time, I used that base formula outlined above, with the addition of a large dollop of fresh pumpkin puree.  The puree had been made from a small sugar pumpkin I cut, seeded, and roasted a few days prior.  I enjoyed the pumpkin addition, which lent a subtle autumnal essence that enhanced the already comforting quality of toasty pecans and warm cinnamon.  Delicious!
Speaking of delicious, get ready for Vegan MoFo IV, which spans the entire month of November.  I participated in last year's Vegan MoFo (held in October rather than November) and found it to be an exciting and enjoyable experience, especially as a newbie to the blog realm.  It encouraged me to cook and write daily while introducing me to many fabulous vegan blogs.  I'm already set to participate this year, hopefully with an actual theme to challenge myself further.  To learn more about this annual blogging extravaganza, check out MoFo headquarters, and sign up to participate here.

03 October 2010

Gratuitous Sweetness

Despite the redundant nature of the following statement, I am nonetheless compelled to occasionally mention this little fact: when my sweet tooth aches, one can guarantee that within days, sugared treats will suddenly appear in my kitchen, and subsequently, this blog.  Usually unable to limit myself to a single option, I tend toward variety; one must cover all bases when it comes to sweet cravings, right?  Last week's sugar-laden feasting did not deviate from that pattern.  Consider this a general warning for future sweet tooth posts, as well as a foreshadowing of what will likely characterize much of the kitchen activity detailed here during the forthcoming holiday season.


Today, I'll share a few of the week's goodies:


Tsubuan-stuffed steamed sweet potato dumplings
The reemergence of sweet potatoes at the farmers' market is always a good sign.  I typically just roast and eat them plain, but have found that they are delicious in all manners of cooking, sweet or savory.  Inspired by this Angku Kueh recipe, but too lazy to actually consult it, I decided to wing my own version of the mochi-like dumplings with leftover mashed sweet potato and tsubuan (chunky, sweet red bean paste).  I blended the sweet potato-rice flour dough using what remained of the sweet potato and by feel for the dough's texture, and opted to forgo any food coloring.  Tsubuan replaced the mung bean filling, simply because I had premade tsubuan already on hand.  The dumplings were tender, sticky, and delightfully sweet--a nice departure from the more typical fruity or chocolaty treats found around here--and I'm sure it would have been just as tasty with the sweet mung bean paste.


Chocolate Tahini Quick Bread
Unable to resist the urge for chocolate and intrigued by the chocolate-sesame flavor combination, I emptied the remains of the tahini jar to make this ultra-rich loaf from 500 Vegan Recipes.  The only adjustment I made was to reduce the amount of cinnamon to just a half-teaspoon; don't like it to be too overpowering when paired with chocolate.  I'm glad I tried the recipe, because I now realize that combining chocolate and sesame flavors not only makes sense--it's akin to combining chocolate with something nutty--it is, in fact, rather tasty.  The bread tastes more chocolaty than anything else, with the nuttiness of the tahini giving the loaf a certain depth flavor.  The only complaint I have is that the bread was a bit dry, save for the center, likely from having baked it for the full time specified rather than checking it when the time had nearly expired.  When I next attempt the recipe, I may try it in muffin form, or at the very least, will reduce the baking time.


Cowboy Cookies
I baked a batch of these scrumptious morsels from Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar once before, yielding disappointing and puzzling results.  My cookies had spread a great deal while baking, resulting in lacy, oily little discs--still tasty, thanks to the fabulous coconut-chocolate-chip-pecan combination; they were difficult to handle and looked absolutely nothing like those pictured in the book.  Determined to achieve a more appropriate texture, yesterday, I made my second attempt at the recipe, reducing the oil to about a half-cup.  That seemed to do the trick, producing cookies that were again delicious, but actually held their shape as well.  I'm noting the alteration for future batches, the next of which likely comprising an attempt at the Cowgirl variation.