Getting Cozy

I have no guests coming over this weekend and I have no social engagements to attend. The holiday hubbub has subsided and I am grateful for it. It’s time to be home and get my hygge on! Thanksgiving to Christmas is a running start into what I think of as the cozy season and it’s one of my favorite things in life. My sock are fuzzy, the kids are snugly and the kitchen is warm – but not as warm as it by the woodstove.

It’s Thursday, which is weekend menu day. If there is anything particular I want to make, today is the day to reference recipes, make sure the staples are well-stocked, and make my shopping list. Currently, I have several ingredients hangout in the kitchen that need to be put into play: a butternut squash, fresh sage and some mushrooms. I think there is some spinach and chard ready in the garden.

I’m not interested in the butternut square and the mushrooms competing for flavor. I want to use the squash and sage to stuff shells with cashew cream or tofu, but that’s a lot of pasta for the weekend menu, so instead I’m going to make my favorite butternut squash soup. It’s going to be ready here, so this will be a nice warm up.

The sage and mushrooms are going to make friends with creamy risotto, which reminds me to add white wine to the grocery list. I may add some ribbons of greens, but more than likely I’ll cook them just enough to be tender with a little olive oil and salt and eat them with both the soup and the risotto.

Am I going to bake too? Yes, because the soup will be lonely without a wedge of..foccacia? french bread? I haven’t decided yet! I’ll follow up with how-I-made-it details this weekend.

Holiday Wrap Up Part II

The week of Christmas promised one potluck, two big family parties, and at least six hour in the car.  I’m always ready to show others how “not different” plant based cooking can be, so I tend to not hold back when given the opportunity to show off a little bit.  To take to the pot luck and parties I made a small mountain of of pinwheels. Some were made with puff pastry others with a flat bread dough — both purchased shamelessly from the grocery store. I stopped  by Trader Joe’s (the Friday before Christmas…. not the best idea I’ve ever had) and threw a variety of sun-dried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, artichoke hearts, capers and… other stuff in the basket. To this combination I added pesto made earlier this year when the garden was over flowing. I also made party dip comprised of some dairy free cream cheese and sour cream, spinach, garlic, and roasted red peppers. To this I added two loaves of rustic bread, one a cherry walnut and the other sage and rosemary. Both included our neighbor’s amazing sourwood honey.

Pinwheels were shared at the potluck first, then everything else was packed alongside Christmas presents in the back of the Prius and we set out to see my family.  After begging my sister to pick up ALL THE PRODUCE which I forgot to buy for the party, I set out to build a charcuterie board. Slices of gorgeous bread, piles of pinwheels, bowls of tiny little pickles and olives, slices of roasted red peppers and sun-dried tomatoes, my party dip, water crackers, bell peppers, cucumber, sugar snaps, blackberries, and cashews packed the platter to the edge of silliness, but it was beautiful. It didn’t surprise me at all to see my handiwork appear on everyone’s plate as the evening went on.

This bread made me (and many other people) very happy.

Before we left, I made peanut butter cookies. They are so easy and don’t mind sitting in the cabinet for two days before being by Santa, who from what I can tell must have approved. The plate had only crumbs the next morning!

Holiday Wrap Up Part I

Friends, consider this the post-early Thanksgiving holiday wrap up. I haven’t stopped cooking for months and it’s been a blur of of whisks and a haze of flour for weeks on end.  As I come out come down from the sugary buzz of all the delicious treats and warm happy feeling a slice of homemade bread can give a person, I have decided to hit the highlights for you.We traveled to Folly Beach, SC for Thanksgiving proper, where I went all in on another round of Thanksgiving cooking. With no other plant-based families sharing in the cooking this year, I felt responsible for providing a vegan spread that only can be afforded by a labor of love and a huge grocery haul. I made my traditional holiday loaf, roasted sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes with gravy, a killer cranberry sauce full of orange zest and ginger, a laughably large puff pastry filled with a wholly improvised spinach filling, massaged kale salad with walnut and pomegranate, garlic and butter* green beans, and…  a three layer cranberry cake for the ages. There aren’t enough hours in the day to try to write how I made any of this but generally I am asked the following:

  • What you’re favorite vegan butter? I often use organic Earth Balance, but I have some issues with the palm oil and have started buying Miyoko’s. It has a far more subtle buttery taste, and I’m a fan.
  • What do you put in your mashed potatoes? Some vegan butter, a shot or two of unsweetened organic soy milk and some veggie broth in whatever combination to taste. Salt and pepper.
  • What is massaged kale? Some apple cider vinegar and olive oil poured over and smooshed around with the kale will make it tender without heating it. Several hours in the fridge covered in the fridge will do the trick.
  • I didn’t know puff pastry is vegan? Not all of it is. Read carefully.
  • Where did you get the cranberry cake recipe? Like most things I enjoy, it came from the New York Times. Original recipe is not vegan.

How I cook

Some people know how to cook, others know how to follow a recipe. These are both important but very different skills one may possess. Curious family, friends and colleagues have often said they’d eat “better”  or with “less meat” if they knew how to cook. This is one of the reasons I wanted to start this blog — sharing ideas, conversation, and information along recipes or even ideas about meals to develop a new set of skills and confidence. I want to write my of my recipes with slightly less precious, so you, dear reader, can make a judgement call and hone your skills. 

We returned home late on Sunday afternoon after a few days away.

With no plan for dinner in place, I was able to turn to my small pantry and fridge to put together something basic for the kids, and use the same ingredients (mostly) to make something a little more satisfying for me and my husband.  Being able to make something delicious with limited and basic ingredients isn’t always easy, but it does show the practical value of keeping having a well-stocked pantry.

Knowing how to balance the salts and fats, considering texture of different ingredients, and being cognizant of the general nutritional value provided are three basic skills you need if you want to know how to cook.  Of these, balancing flavor is the one that seems to be the greatest challenge. Some people seem to be born with the skill, while others work to develop it. I didn’t realize this was a skill I possessed until I was trying to explain how to make something to my husband. When it works the flavors come together in a new way, without overpowering the other.

Before getting started review what’s in the kitchen, and make a note of priorities for the meal. I needed to use a head of broccoli and a package of baby portobello mushrooms before they spoiled.  I also needed to skip anything with wheat, for the sake of variety and nutritional value because the kids have been eating a lot of wheat lately.

I put the produce on the counter, and surveyed my pasta options, selecting one made of chickpeas. The mushrooms informed the flavor I was going for – rich and savory.  The result was an excellent, healthy dinner that I was proud to serve and happy to eat.

I’ve been trying to write “real” recipes down, but it’s not how I cook, and I’m not interested in teaching you how to do something than to follow a recipe.

  • I sliced the package of mushrooms (about ¼ of an inch thick, stems removed)  and sauteed with one shot of balsamic vinegar and three soy of soy sauce, and a sprinkle of garlic powder and  scoop of Earth Balance (tablespoon?).
  • I cooked them on medium heat, and turned it up at the end fora little extra browning. Maybe eight minutes? Once a glossy, rich brown I set them aside. 
  • Steamed broccoli on the stove with exactly nothing special, only careful not to overcook the chopped florets.
  • Cooked one box of chickpea pasta per directions on the box.
  • Poured the cooked pasta into a large mixing bowl, add the well-drained broccoli, and mushrooms. Mix carefully so not to smash the pasta or the broccoli.  Add pesto (mine is frozen from the summer garden, approximately two heaping tablespoons. I just added more until it was well covered). Salt and pepper to taste. A little garlic and onion powder to punch up the flavor. Earth balance for richness. Generous sprinkle of nutritional yeast (probably two tablespoons) and a splash or two of soy milk.
  • To be honest I probably added some more Earth Balance at some point, knowing the key to this would be bringing up the fats factor to work with the salty one-two punch of the balsamic/soy sauce mushrooms.

Meanwhile, my once adventures eaters ate pesto pasta, steamed broccoli, and black lentils on the side with strawberries and peanut butter topped graham crackers for dessert. 

Bon Appetite!

Summer Dinner Menu

The trees are turning yellow, but I know it is stress from this late summer heat wave and not from a shift in seasons. The gardens are still kicking tomatoes and a long day met with happily with a fresh and flavorful dinner, unless you are a cat, in which case you will find this to be a disappointing menu. Sorry Kaufman and Pip…

On the menu are crispy Romaine lettuce making up 1/3 of the plate, tomato basil salad, quinoa, and sweet honey and dill chickpeas topped with pickled red onions and cilantro. I roughly tear the lettuce and skip any dressing – there are enough flavors for one plate and I add some lettuce to every flavorful bite. Prep your quinoa following instructions on the package. You can assemble as food bowl, with the lettuce and quinoa as your base, or go for a colorful display on your favorite plate. Apparently I was hungry when I made this!

Tomato Basil Salad

  • 1 cups of cherry tomatoes were sliced into quarters
  • 1 handful of fresh basil leaves coarsely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
  • 2 shakes of salt and cracked pepper

Fried and Dressed Chickpeas

  • 1 15 oz can of chickpeas
  • 4-5 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 2-3 teaspoons honey
  • ¼ garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoons dill

Instructions

Lightly fry to the chickpeas on medium heat for 10-12 minutes. You will see a “shell” like texture change. If you cook them for much longer they be a little chewy or hard.

Whisk together all dressing ingredients and adjust lemon juice and honey to taste. Pour the freshly fried chickpeas and stir until covered.

Serve with pickled red onion and fresh cilantro. I make the pickled red onion a few hours ahead of time with a basic refrigerator pickle recipe.

No Bake Peanut Butter Balls

Without proper planning my kids begin to wilt around 3:00pm. Attitudes flare. Tantrums interrupt an otherwise peaceful day. Tears are triggered by the smallest offense. With enough water and a snacks this drama can generally be avoided or can help them perk up, like your favorite fancy houseplant after a long vacation.

The secret to preventing (or at least curbing) the mid-afternoon meltdown are energy balls. After years of buying “energy chunks” from the bulk section, I decided to start making my own. The amount of oats needed is going to vary based on your peanut butter. You will need to add more if it is thinner or has more oil.  You can adjust the ratio of peanut butter, oats and dates at the end. If you like chocolate, add them to the food processor. My son is not a chocolate fan, so my daughter delights in adding chips to her half once they have been rolled.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups peanut butter (the fresh ground type works best)
  • 1 ½  cup rolled oats
  • 8 large pitted Medjool dates (we like the type rolled in coconut flakes)
  • ¼ cup pumpkin seeds
  • Cinnamon
  • ½ cup honey
  • Chocolate chips – optional

Instructions

  • Add all dry ingredients to the food processor, and blitz until small/dusty.
  • Add peanut butter and honey
  • Run food processor until dry ingredients are well incorporated
  • The dough should be thick and be easily shaped, add additional oats/dates/peanut butter to achieve the right consistency. 
  • Using a tablespoon, scoop the dough and roll into a ball
  • Place on a cookie sheet and pop in the freezer for 1-2 hours
  • Store in fridge for up to a week

Taco Tofu (aka Deer Meat?)

My daughter is a history buff. If left to her own devices she often creates a world around her that is the 1880s, a fantasy which is charming (and socially acceptable) because she is only eight. When she or little brother sense I am busy in the kitchen they are inspired to ask me to do one thousand things, including play with them. 

On one such occasion this summer, while I was prepping burrito makings, I pretended to add a log to my new GE profile range. When this little prairie child asked what I was cooking, I said deer meat (showing my non-meat eating habits by not thinking to call it venison). My little plant eater looked at me like I was insane for a moment before giggling and falling back into her make-believe world. And that is how my taco tofu became known as deer meat. This is a flexible taco or burrito filling that will are texture and flavor to your meal and probably be acceptable to your meat-eating guests as well. 

I prefer it a million times over faux meats because I can better control the flavor, it is less processed and it is super cheap. One package of organic extra firm tofu rarely costs more than $1.79 at Whole Foods or any other grocery store I visit regularly.

When you cook the tofu, the water will be reduced and the spices and flavors will intensify. Remember this when you are seasoning to taste. If you need to multitask or working to reduce calories from fat, skip cooking on the stove and put it right into the oven, for approximately 40 minutes.

Ingredients 

  • One pound of extra firm tofu 
  • 2-3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast 
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin 
  • 1 ½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1  teaspoon smoked paprika 
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper (if you’d like to punch up the heat!)
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil/neutral high heat oil (and 2-3 more to cook)

Instructions

  • Preheat oven to 350°F
  • Remove tofu from the package and rinse. In a medium size mixing bowl, crumble/smoosh the tofu with your hands and drain any water pooling in the bottom. 
  • Add spices, nutritional yeast, oil and soy sauce and evenly coat the tofu. If you aren’t in a hurry, let it sit for 15-20 minutes.
  • I prefer to heat 2-3 tablespoons of canola oil on medium heat and cook the tofu on the stove top to add a little extra flavor and reduce the amount of water in the tofu. 
  • When the tofu begins to turn brown and crumble texture,  transfer it to a pan (spread evenly!) and put it in the oven for about 20 minutes, it depends on how much water first cooked out of the tofu. I will cook it a little longer to let tofu a rich golden brown and even burn the smallest piece a bit. 

Building a Food Bowl

Grain bowl, Buddha bowl, harvest bowl, burrito bowl, big ass salad — or the perfectly fine and broadly used — food bowl.

I was introduced to the term “food bowl” by my brother-in-law. He was chopping veggies in the kitchen while we were on vacation, resulting in a family favorite, gado-gado. I am not a big fan of the term “food bowl” – probably because it makes me think of a dog bowl. While the simple and descriptive name leaves something to be desired, a well built-food bowl does not.

A bowl is cozy and informal.  As a simple vessel they make us happy. When your create a successful good bowl, you bring together complementary flavors in one space, mixing and matching each bite. The supported sides allowing a particular architecture a plate simply doesn’t provide.  Food bowls are great for those of you overachievers out there who manage to food prep during the weekend. Without making a major commitment to a menu, you can slice and dice your a variety of veggies which makes creating your food bowl easier during the week.

An aside…I haven’t been able to bring myself to make a smoothie bowl. Yes, the colors are beautiful and I’m sure they are also delicious, but for me it’s entirely impractical. I make a smoothie so I can feed myself with one hand while accomplishing some other task like driving or checking email at the office. I have no extra time for such luxury as breakfast food bowl.

A satisfying food bowel (for lunch or dinner)  takes simple ingredients and balances flavors, textures and livens them with small amounts of flavor-enhancing goodies, like a slice of lime or drizzle of a nice balsamic vinegar to tie it all together.

I have had only two food bowl fails, both were simply too much of a good thing — carbs.  Thanksgiving leftovers and a southern veggie bowl that was poorly planned. The textures and flavor profiles were too similar, resulting in a heaping bowl of…..mush.

My kids aren’t into spicy food or even strong flavors, but I am. One reason I so enjoy making food bowls is the ability for us to build exactly what we want, and I am spared from another boring dinner and from their complaints.

Some of my favorite combinations (this week) are: Rice and romaine base + “ground beef” style tofu + avocado slices + pickled jalapenos and mangoes + lime juice and salsa

My kids, who seem uninterested in flavor,  eat a version of it like this: Rice + refried black beans + guacamole + lettuce + tortilla on the side

Before you begin building a bowl choose a flavor profile.  Are you in the mood of Thai? Seasonal garden fare? Tex-mex? Japanese? Italian? Mediterranean?

Base: Soba noodles, bow-tie pasta, quinoa, rice, chopped kale, crispy romaine lettuce, pearled couscous, millet, barley…. Or mix and match.  Note: To effort to keep my calories in check and eat more greens, half of my base is almost always romaine lettuce, lightly sauteed kale, or broccoli. These work with basically any flavor I’m in the mood for.

Protein : Chickpeas, black beans, tofu, tempeh, veggie burner of your choice, favorite meat substitute (I’m not a super fan), portobello mushrooms

Toppings: Cucumbers, sliced cherry tomatoes, green peas, sugar peas, roasted broccoli, chickpeas, sprouts, steamed green beans, roasted okra, diced/roasted sweet potato, steamed broccoli, all the veggies. All of them.

Goodies: Matchstick carrots, sprouts, pumpkin seeds, sliced almonds, chopped walnuts, maderin oranges, pickled red onions, mangoes

Extra flavor: Squeeze of lime juice, balsamic reduction, pico de gallo, salsa, thai chilis, salad dressing, shot of soy sauce, homemade Chinese garlic sauce.

Vegan Pesto

Any meal with pesto makes me feel rich. In the heat of late summer when the basil is bolting, I feel like a billionaire as I freeze it by the pint for winter of meal that will level up thanks to the green goodness.

I have no set recipe for vegan pesto, only guidelines which means I can always pull this recipe off with little or no planning. This is great because sometimes your eight year old daughter comes in the kitchen with an entire basket full of basil (when firmly packed filled my nine-cup food processor to the brim).

My base recipe (meaning, kid friendly and flexible for a variety of recipes) involves the following:

Ingredients

  • Fresh basil
  • Olive oil
  • Salt
  • Cloves of garlic
  • Walnuts or pecans (pine nuts are expensive and I can’t tell the difference, peanuts or almonds have too distinctive of a flavor)
  • Nutritional yeast

General Guidance/Instructions

When I make a 16 ounce jar of pesto, it takes about 7-8 cups of firmly packed basil (be sure to remove stems), 7-10 cloves of garlic, 3-4 tablespoons of nutritional yeast,  enough olive oil to get my preferred consistency (on the thick side, and add more olive oil depending on how I use it later) and toss in a handful or two of nuts. I throw everything into the food processor with zero precision, run and knock the sides down a few times before pouring it into a glass container. I stir it with a knife to remove any air pockets and top with olive oil before putting on the lid and putting in the freezer. If you have more freezer space than I do, freeze in smaller glass containers.

Variation on a theme

I have been known to toss some kale into the pesto before adding it to pasta for my kids. No shame. Depending on what I’m making, I will portion out the pesto for a recipe and add other ingredients. This is likely to result in something I want to eat, and not something the kids are asking for.  Lemon juice and lemon zest on angel hair pasta with extra garlic and capers…. Lime zest and juice with tons of cilantro makes for an excellent addition to almost any sandwich or a taco salad.