Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Reason I Approximate

This is off my Bright Light Swiss Chard plant. And this is the reason some of my recipes call for "approximate" amounts of dark leafy greens - three or four leaves are more than enough for most recipes. Just thought you should know. 

This is why you should eat more Swiss Chard - look at that nuritional profile!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Back to Basics: Cooking with Alcohol and a Super Easy Project

My mom has a magnet on her refrigerator that says "I love cooking with wine. Sometimes I even put it in the food." I think it is great, but I would actually reverse the order - and I really like drinking wine. 

Of course if you, or those you are serving, have problems with alcohol, by all means, don't use it. But if your only qualm is that you don't like drinking it, whatever "it" may be in the way of alcohol, I implore you, give it a chance in cooking. Especially wine. 

As with all fermented foods (because that is what alcohol in all it's forms is - a fermented plant of one variety or another) alcohol adds umami flavor to whatever you add it to. This is precisely the reason you can make a pan sauce out of nothing more than fond, a few splashes of wine, a touch of fat, and a fresh herb or two. Try to do the same thing using water and you will be sorely disappointed. 

I add wine to all of my homemade stocks (typically a dry white) and many of my homemade soups (red or white, depending). It doesn't take much, as little as a 1/4 of a cup will often do the trick but the difference in flavor is phenomenal. And it doesn't have to be expensive, in fact it should not be. You should use a wine that is drinkable (avoid "cooking wine" at all costs) but you can find respectable, drinkable wines for around $5 a bottle (shhh, don't tell the wine snob police). 

For very general guidelines, when cooking with wine you should stick to the drier (i.e. not sweet) wines for most applications. I like un-oaked Chardonnay for all-purpose white and Merlot is a safe middle of the road red, although not my favorite. If you don't drink a lot of wine you have a couple of options for buying and storing. You can buy a regular bottle and freeze what you don't use in a week or so in ice cube trays. This is convenient as most ice cubes are about 2 tablespoons so later measuring is easy and for cooking purposes freezing won't significantly diminish the quality of the wine. Or you can look for a good boxed wine (gasp!). No, I am not talking about those huge $5 boxes of pink wine that you get at the grocery store. Inside the boxes the wine is actually in what is referred to as a "bladder", essentially a thick bag. As bad a rap as boxed wine has, keeping wine in these bladders has some distinct advantages and are slowly gaining grudging respect. Basically the bladder has a one way valve that allows wine to exit but prevents air from entering. This means that you can keep an open box in your refrigerator for up to six weeks with no significant  loss in quality. And that is a big advantage if you don't drink much wine and so don't have half empty bottles around on a regular basis. To find a decent boxed wine (because there is *a lot* of bad boxed wine out there) I recommend you go to a store like BevMo and ask an associate for some guidance. If you have a Trader Joe's in your area they have an excellent selection of affordable wines and are happy to help you pick something out (although I don't think they have any boxed wines). 

But wine is not the only alcohol you can use in cooking. In my last post I mentioned in passing that I used homemade pepper vodka in my savory pie crust. It is really easy to make your own flavored alcohols, especially vodka, since it is basically a blank slate. Why pay all that extra for the flavored liquors if you can make them yourself for a lot less and they will likely taste a whole lot better? If you see yourself really getting into this you can pick up a handle of Smirnoff or Kirkland Signature at Costco for a song. I'll be trying more varieties in the upcoming months and sharing the results with you here. The pepper vodka is a super easy place to start. 

You need: 
- a smallish glass jar of some sort with a top/lid
- a decent but not top shelf vodka (maybe a cup? I didn't measure)
- about 30 whole peppercorns

Scald your jar by pouring boiling water into it, let it sit a moment, and then pour out and allow to cool until you can handle it. Add your vodka and peppercorns. Secure lid. Set aside in a dark place for a couple of weeks. Use. 

See how easy that is?! You can strain it if you like, but for this flavor it is not essential. As you can see from the photo at the beginning of this post it gently shades the vodka, which is colorless to begin with. 

So get cooking with alcohol. It is not scary and it will add a whole new dimension to your food. Just remember to remove it from the heat before adding the alcohol if you are concerned about the liquor igniting - flambe is fun, but not always desirable.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Vegetable Love: Individual Healthy Vegetable Pot Pie

I decided to take Susan's challenge and make a healthy, vegetable rich Valentine's dinner.

Valentine's day is frequently used as an excuse to overindulge in rich foods, which ironically leave us feeling weighed down and not the least bit sexy. Here's a rich meal that feels indulgent but won't weigh you down. Plus, if you serve it with Susan's Chocolate Covered Cherry Pudding Cake you'll have a whole delicious meal in individual serving dishes - fun!

This pie crust is much lower in fat than traditional pie crusts, plus it is 100% whole wheat. It works out to a tablespoon of fat per serving which is very little for crust. The key to this crust is the vodka. Water promotes the development of gluten which equals a tough crust. Alcohol does not promote gluten formation, so replacing part of the water with vodka results in a tender crust that is surprisingly easy to work with. It is also a great vehicle for adding flavor to the crust, but will work just as well with plain vodka; I used pepper vodka that I made.

Individual Healthy Vegetable Pot Pies
This makes enough for four pot pies. Even if you are only serving 2 make the full amount, they keep pretty well for leftovers. Or you can freeze the extra pie filling and dough separately to make later. A simple side salad would round this out nicely.

1 1/2 c ww pastry flour
1 tbsp cornstarch
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
2 tbsp veg shortening
2 tbsp earth balance
4 tbsp ice cold water
3-4 tbsp vodka

Place all the dry ingredients in a food processor and pulse to combine. Add shortening and e.b. and pulse about 10 times, or until it looks like this: 

The fats should be pretty broken up, with some pea sized blobs remaining. Drizzle in 2 tablespoons of the water in at a time, pulsing twice between each addition. Add vodka, one tablespoon at a time pulsing with each addition, until it looks like wet sand:

And holds together when you smush it:

Carefully pour contents of the food processor into a length of plastic wrap and gather it around until you have a disk:

Stash in fridge 30 minutes while you make the filling.

For Filling
1 tsp olive oil
1 carrot, diced small
1 rib celery, diced small
1 small onion, diced small
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp dried thyme or 1 tbsp minced fresh thyme
1 tsp poultry seasoning
1 bay leaf
up to1/2 tsp salt (dependent on your broth)
1/3 c ww pastry flour
1 tbsp chicken flavor broth mix or nutritional yeast
1/4 c dry white wine
1 1/2 cup non-dairy milk
1/2 c non-dairy milk plus a few tablespoons more for crust
3/4 lb poultry flavored seitan, chopped or 1 1/2 c soy curls, reconstituted*
1 generous cup chopped veggies of your choice (I used frozen mixed veggies)

Preheat oven to 425. Place 4, 6 or 8 ounce, ramekins on a baking sheet. 

Place olive oil in a medium sauce pan over medium heat until hot. Add onion, carrot, and celery. Saute 2 minutes, stirring a couple time. Add garlic, stir to combine and cook 1 minute more. Add thyme, poultry seasoning, bay leaf, salt and pepper. Stir to combine and cook 30 more seconds. 

Sprinkle in flour and chicken broth mix and stir to coat veggies. Cook one minute, stirring almost constantly. Continuing to stir constantly, slowly pour in wine and broth, taking care to avoid lumps. Stir in non-dairy milk. Add seitan and veggies. Stir to evenly incorporate and bring to a bubble. Once sauce is nicely thickened, about a minute, turn off heat and set aside to work on crust. 

Remove crust from 'fridge. Break 1/3 of disk off and set aside remaining crust. Roll out the 1/3 portion (perfection is not critical) and cut into four sections. Smush a section into the bottom and sides of each ramekin. Again perfection in this case is overrated: 

Roll out remaining crust to about a 9 inch circle or square. Divide into 4 equal section. Use a small cookie cutter or free-hand with a knife to cut a heart out of the middle of each section. Remove cutouts to the side. 

Divide filling between the ramekins. (If you are using 6 ounce ramekins it will not quite all fit, you'll have some left over.) Carefully cover each ramekin with a section of dough, doing your best to center the heart cut out. Use your hands to gently smush the crust into the edge of the ramekin to help seal it. Bush the tops of the crusts with soy milk (it is okay to use your fingers!) Place heart cutouts to slightly overlap the vent: 

Brush the hearts with soy milk too. Place in pre-heated oven and bake 30-35 minutes, until filling is bubbling (probably bubbling over - but that is one of the reasons you put them on a baking sheet!) and crust is golden brown. If it is not as brown as you like crank up the broiler for a minute but don't leave the oven as it will burn in a hurry if you walk away.

Remove from oven and set aside to cool slightly, 10-15 minutes. Serve hot. 

* If you use soy curls reconstitute them in 2 1/2 cups hot vegetable broth. Once you remove them you'll have just the right amount of broth for the sauce. Make sure to chop up the longer curls. Also, if you use soy curls you will need to add a little more of the seasonings. Add an extra: 1/2 tsp thyme, 1/2 tsp poultry seasoning, and 1 tsp chicken broth powder.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A Small Success

I am quite the proud aunt. My sister M is a great mom and cook. BooBoo is a good litter eater who is fairly adventerous for a 2 1/2 year old as well as a fruit fiend. While she gets lots of different foods at home and my parents house she has started to learn that there are special things she gets to do and eat at Aunt Lily and Uncle B's.

She likes to feed the fish and knows that they get "just a pinch". We check the garden when ever she comes over; she asks what's growing and likes to see the baby plants. She also will pluck at plants and taste them, although she still spits most of them out and offers them to me. Yummy. She almost always had some chocolate (soy) milk. She has a special bar stool that we move around the kitchen so she can help me do the dishes and cook. Jewel nearly always keeps her company when she is sitting on it - too precious. She likes to check the bread dough to see if it has bubbles. We always read the "poo poo" book (Everybody Poops) and A Turtle in the Toilet, in both of which she can now identify all the animals.

Most recently she tells M that she wants to go to Aunt Lily's and have a "smoovie". I let her pick the color (okay, I usually subletly encourage one). She knows to cover her ears when I run the blender. A trick to getting kids to like smoothies that are not just fruit is to let them pick the color because colors are fun! Also, use a lot more fruit in the begining and then gradually add more veggies. She really liked her green smoothie (spinach, banana, orange, pineapple, and water) but last time she picked pink and pink she got - hot pink! This one is strawberries, banana, orange, a raw beet, and water. So my small success is getting my neice to willingly consume "green smoovies". Plus I just like to brag, she is so fun; she now wrinkles her nose up whenever you point a camera at her :o)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Tempeh Taco Salad: A Photo Essay

Tempeh is a fantastic food that can take a little getting used to. This is a great way to introduce yourself to it. Here is what you will need (this is all flexible based on your preferences):

Tempeh Taco Salad
Lettuce, tomatoes, avocado, cilantro, salsa, beans, 1/4 large onion, 1/4 large red bell pepper, 8 oz tempeh, 2 tbsp chili powder (2 parts ancho, 1 part chipotle, 1 part mild California), 1 tsp oregano, 1 1/2 tsp cumin, 1 vegan bouillon cube or 1 tsp concentrated bouillon, 8 oz tomato sauce or soup (I used some leftover Tomato & Roasted Red Pepper Soup that needed using).

This is the tempeh available in my area. Larger health food stores will have a variety of flavors or varieties such as flax or multi-grain. If you are feeling adventurous you can make your own. I will be adventurous at some point. This package says it is 2 servings, but I have a hard time eating an entire half because it is so filling, and in recipes like this one you can easily serve 3 or 4 people with 8 oz.

A bit about tempeh. It is a fermented soy bean patty which is a whole food. When I say fermented, don't think pickles, think cheese. That is the best way I can think to explain it, even though the flavor is really not much like cheese at all. It has a unique, fairly strong flavor that can be a bit of an acquired taste. Because it is a fermented product the protein is easier for us to digest. The black and gray bits are a normal and safe part of the product. Unlike many fermented foods, tempeh really should be cooked.

Tempeh is made by culturing cooked soybeans with a specific kind of mold. Eventually the mold binds all the beans together into a dense patty. If you break a piece off the block you can see the delicate webbing of the mold.  

Texturally, tempeh crumbles easily but also holds its texture when cooked, making it a great stand-in for ground meat in highly seasoned dishes, such as chili and tacos. You can use a hand grater or, if you are grating several packages, use the grating disk in your food processor. If any large chunks remain simply break them up with your fingers. It is a fairly dry food, so if you are not using it in a stew type dish you'll want to add some moisture into it at some point.

Start the chopped onion in a hot skillet over medium heat with a teaspoon of neutral oil a minute before you add the tempeh. Once the onion has started to soften add the tempeh and stir to combine. Add 1-2 more teaspoons of oil to help the tempeh brown and prevent sticking. Continue to stir frequently. Once the tempeh has taken on some color add the spices, bouillon, tomato sauce, and a sprinkle of salt. Stir to coat evenly and cook another minute or two until it starts to look less wet. Remove from heat.

Finished tempeh taco filling.

Building on a base of chopped lettuce (romaine here) add a quarter of your tempeh and a half cup of cooked beans (here we have Cuban black beans mixed with a few pintos - great way to use leftovers).

Then add your chopped pepper and tomato. If tomatoes are not in season don't bother, just use extra salsa

Finally, top with chopped avocado, cilantro, and salsa. Consume.

There you have it - a yummy, simple, low-fat, high fiber meal for those days you have Mexican food cravings but don't need the deep fried heaviness. You can of course use the tempeh filling to make regular tacos as well. It is a much healthier, less processed alternative to "burger crumbles" or even re-hydrated TVP for well spiced dishes (the spices help mask the flavor of the tempeh, which might make it easier for those unfamiliar with the product to enjoy it). Look for more ways to use tempeh in future posts.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Menu Review: Surviving the First Week

I think this method is a keeper. Our meals this past week were far more varied than normal, which was a combination of the menu and my efforts to cook smaller quantities. I have a tendency to cook enough for a small army, which means we end up eating the same soup every day for a week. I love soup, but even I start to get bored. Even though I had a plan for each meal I found that I did not always eat what I planned. A couple times I either was not awake or was not hungry so a meal (breakfast or lunch) got skipped. And I forgot the salad I meant to make at least once. I also did not get around to a few of my "to-do's" so those got moved to this week.

Here's this week's menu: (click on it to enlarge)
Key to Abbreviations: HM = homemade, HG = homegrown, LO = leftovers

My cousin asked me for ideas for incorporating more fermented foods into her diet, so to start tonight's dinner is Tempeh Taco Salad. It is a really easy, really healthy meal that is a great way to ease people in to tempeh; check back tomorrow for the recipe.

Hope everyone had a nice weekend!