Saturday, December 29, 2012

Martha, Martha, Martha!

Do you feel like Jan just developed a lithp?

Have you ever noticed the subtle (or maybe not so subtle) kind of rivalry that exists between neighboring states?  Our schools are better, their cities have more crime, and have you ever seen those people drive??  I suppose it could be some instinctual and subconscious home pride that causes us to look down on our neighbors.  It could be that we are so accustomed to the way we drive that someone who drives differently is seen as a bad driver.  It could be that in our deepest heart, we know there's nothing more special about the place we call home (especially if living there wasn't an active choice) and have to specifically focus on why we're so lucky to live here instead of there.

That said, there are two things I know:

  1. "Northern" magazines don't harp on living north of the Mason-Dixon line.  Don't get me wrong - I love my southern kin and indeed, the South itself, but something you cannot miss if you read Southern Living (and I do) is the insertion of that identifying adjective whenever remotely possible.
  2. People from New Jersey cannot drive.  There.  I said it.  Like a good little Philadelphian pedestrian.  Deny it all you want, point back to my opening paragraph, but none of that changes the fact that every time I nearly get hit by a car while crossing in a crosswalk with the right of way, it is a car with a front-facing NJ license plate that tries to be my undoing.
I wasn't actually exposed to the "rivalry" between Pennsylvania and New Jersey until I reached college and met a bunch of people who were inordinately proud of coming from New Jersey.  When people are that "yeah, I'm from Jersey, it's the best thing ever, what're you gonna do about it?" it's easy to see why the people who are on their home turf (I went to school in Pennsy) feel the need to defend how awesome our state is and how lucky they are we let them cross the bridge (after all, you need to pay $3 just to escape from that state.... but not a penny to enter it).

Imagine my surprise that one of my domestic goddesses, someone who guided almost every step of my wedding preparation, and someone I love to hate (because I really love) and taught me a great deal about color combinations as well as complementary flavors, hails from New Jersey.  Martha dear, say it ain't so!

Years ago, when I was still figuring out how to turn on my stove and hadn't quite perfected the art of dicing a zucchini, I came across a recipe destined to become a favorite.  The first time I made Martha's Mediterranean Pasta was also the first time it ever occurred to me to eat artichoke hearts a) on purpose and b) on pasta.  I remember being pleasantly shocked by the way the cherry tomatoes and basil brought out a sweetness I had never noticed before, while the briny kalamata olives were the contrasting color (literally and metaphorically).

So, thank you, Martha, for inspiring tonight's dinner.  I can forgive you for being born in New Jersey.  After all, you did not choose where to be born any more than Mister had a choice in where his family lived throughout his formative adolescence (and yes, I knew that before I married him and consoled myself by telling myself he'd lived in Pennsylvania longer than he'd lived in New Jersey, therefore, he was not from New Jersey).

Pasta with Artichokes and Zucchini
4 servings

2 Tbsp olive oil
2-4 Tbsp vegetable broth
4-5 cloves garlic, pressed
1 tsp salt
black pepper, to taste
1/2 tsp dried organic basil
12 oz penne rigati (or similar length and shape of pasta)
14 oz artichoke hearts, chopped
1 medium zucchini, quartered and sliced thinly
4 large Roma tomatoes, diced

Cook pasta according to package directions.  If you start heating the water to a boil while you are preparing the sauce, you should be adding the pasta right before you add the tomatoes.

Heat the oil in a large skillet on medium-low and saute the garlic for about a minute.  Add the chopped artichoke hearts and stir well to coat with oil and garlic.  Cook 4-5 minutes, stirring occasionally so the garlic doesn't burn.

Add the zucchini and tomatoes; stir to combine.  Sprinkle on salt, pepper, and basil, then add 2 Tbsp vegetable broth and stir well.  Turn up the heat slightly and cook 8-10 minutes, stirring occasionally.  If necessary, add more broth.

Drain pasta and then add to the vegetable mixture and mix well.  Cook for about 1 minute, then turn off heat and continue to toss pasta with vegetables until everything is well-combined.


PS. Rienzi pasta was on sale and it is really worth it even when it's not - the difference in al dente between store brand and Rienzi (or Barilla, for that matter) is notable.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

pepperpot weather

The weather forecast said there was a chance for snow on Christmas Eve.  The weather map showed a contradicting and disheartening green over Philadelphia, indicating that we would have to make due with rain for Christmas.  I still spend every December hoping for a white Christmas, even though I can count the number we've had on one hand, so imagine my delight when I looked outside around 5pm on Christmas Eve and saw fluffy white flakes of real snow falling steadily from the sky!

It snowed but didn't stick, which was fine.  I was happy to see some snow on the actual ground when we made our journey an hour outside of the city to spend Christmas Day at my parents' house.

Today it was dark and gloomy and freezing cold with a bit of happy white snow in the morning that lasted about 10 minutes before turning into big globs of miserable cold rain.  In my little isolated world that unemployment creates, this was the perfect way to spend the day after Christmas, but I'm sure everyone who had to travel to work disagreed with me.  Mister and I drank plenty of warm coffee and stayed cozy while trying to be at least somewhat productive, but eventually, the chill invaded our home and my bones.

I hid in the bed for about 15 minutes before Mister found me... and decided to hide with me.  We enjoyed our warm little cave a little longer than we intended because warm + cozy = accidental nap.  Once we forced each other out of that dangerous nest, I decided dinner was probably a good idea.  I was totally fixated on making a pepperpot.

I wanted something rich and hearty, something that needed time to cook, because it was just a slow-cooking kind of day.  I have a recipe for a pepperpot stew, but I wanted something with texture, something that we could really sink our teeth into, something that felt warm and nourishing.  Coincidentally, it turns out pepperpot is a Christmas food, entirely because it does require a good amount of time to cook correctly.

Post-Christmas PepperPot
about 5 servings

2 Tbsp olive oil
14 oz extra-firm tofu, cubed
1 tsp salt + a sprinkle
1 tsp smoked paprika + a sprinkle
black pepper, to taste
1 Tbsp vegan worcestershire sauce
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 stalks celery, thinly sliced
1 large carrot, thinly sliced
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
15 oz petite diced tomatoes, undrained
cooked rice to serve (I used Basmati)

First, drain the tofu and gently squeeze out as much water as you can with your hands.  Don't worry - you won't get it all, you just don't want it dripping all over your cutting board.  Once you've squeezed "enough" water from the tofu, cube it and lay it over 3-4 paper towels to drain a bit while you wash your veggies and peel your garlic.

Make no mistake, I very specifically had my mind set on making something with tofu tonight.  As a quick aside, for the past year that I've been enjoying my All-Clad cookware, one thing only has marred my delight; trying to cook tofu in stainless cookware is kind of like supergluing a little green army figurine to your bathtub and then trying to push him loose with your Daisy razor... not happening.  So I've been cooking my tofu in my old Cuisinart nonstick saute pan and transferring it to the other food once there's enough liquid in the pan to prevent an adhesive reaction.  Not the end of the world, but it's just another [unnecessary] pan to wash.  Enter my Christmas present: a nonstick 4-qt All-Clad saute pan.

Anyway, once all your veggies are ready to be chopped, heat the oil in whatever pan makes you happy (but it should hold at least 4 quarts) on medium-low heat.  It's ready when you plop a cube of tofu into the oil and it sizzles.  Add all the tofu and make sure it is in one layer, give the pan a little shake to make sure the oil is evenly distributed, then cover and cook undisturbed for about 5 minutes.

After 5 minutes, stir the tofu so the cooked side is showing (which means an uncooked side is now facing down in the pan), give it a minute, then sprinkle a little bit of salt and a little bit of paprika over the tofu and mix well, until evenly coated with seasoning.

Stir in the celery and garlic, cover and cook for another 5-7 minutes, stirring frequently to avoid burning.

Stir in carrots and both bell peppers, cover and cook for 3-5 minutes, then stir in the tomatoes, teaspoons of salt and paprika, as well as your preference of black pepper, and the worcestershire sauce. Stir very well to ensure the seasonings have coated everything in the pot.

Cover the pot and reduce the heat to low.  Set your kitchen timer (or whatever far more technologically advanced device you may have) for 25 minutes.  If you're using white Basmati or Jasmine rice, now is the perfect time to cook it.  This way your pepperpot and your rice will be ready simultaneously.

It was so good.  It was exactly what I wanted it to taste like.  Honestly, I could have happily just eaten the tofu and given Mister the veggies (though they were also very good) because the seasoned juices from the peppers and tomatoes perfectly braised the tofu to exactly the flavor and texture I was craving. This is a great wintertime meal and I hope you make it and enjoy it and remind yourself that you can always go back and have more later (no need to continue the holiday habit of stuffing oneself until bursting!).

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

allium allergy??

I have shallot breath.

Strangely enough, I think I'm developing an allergy to alliums.  Well... the two alliums I allow in my home: garlic and shallots.  Not the kind of allergy where vital parts of my anatomy stop working or my noggin swells up and I can't see or breathe.  Nothing quite so severe.  Still, I think I have at least some small reaction that appears to be consistent with the use of those two things (and believe me, it is a rare night indeed that finds me preparing dinner without garlic!).

Although I love garlic and find shallots an acceptable substitute for onions (picture me wrinkling my nose while I say that), every time I cut one of either open, I find myself sneezing in the kitchen.  We'll push aside any ideas of how sanitary that may or may not be to focus on the tragedy.  What if I actually develop a full-blown allergy to garlic??  OMG!  Life (or at least dinner) as we know it would cease and poor Mister... oh, poor Mister.  He already has to deal with my fear and loathing of cayenne pepper severely dampening any opportunity to eat "hot" food at home and I've long since banned onions for their stench and nasty texture.  If I stopped cooking with garlic, I think he might leave me.

Heck.  I think I might leave me.

Nevertheless, I have shallot breath.  Considering myself victorious for only sneezing once through the chopping of 3 shallots tonight, I heated a generous portion of olive oil in my trusty All-Clad sauteuse.  Upon adding the shallots, I stirred and waited.... as they sizzled and melted and stunk up the whole apartment (granted, it doesn't take much), Mister followed his snuffling nose out of his work-room and into the kitchen.  I think the Stinktastic Shallots Sizzling part is his favorite part of dinner - possibly more favorite than even eating it.

I regret I have no pictures, especially because our Aloo Mattar from La Dolce Vegan looked as great as it tasted, but the final product was very pleasing and even though I have shallot breath, I have to admit they really do add to the flavor.

A few notes if any of you folks reading are fortunate enough to own La Dolce Vegan or have asked Santa to drop it down the chimney for you (there's still time!  he hasn't left yet!):

  • I doubled the recipe so we'd have some leftovers to eat for lunch, but I found that I needed to add a full cup of vegetable broth (vs 1/4c) to keep the potatoes from sticking to the bottom of my pan.  This is usually the case for me and potato curry recipes.  I feel like it's likely that the authors intend the potatoes to sear on the bottom, rather than just get cooked to mushy perfection, but since I'm not working with nonstick cookware now, I'd rather have a brothier curry - besides, the starch in the potatoes squishes out (or something far more scientific) and causes the broth to become a thick sauce rather quickly.
  • When doubling the paprika, I decided to add a little some'in some'in so I did half regular paprika and half smoked paprika and I think that made a huge difference in the flavor.  I will definitely do that again.
  • I did not double the garam masala, but I was "generous" with the prescribed amount.  I should have doubled it.
I have to go take care of this shallot breath.
And blow my nose.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

imaginary chili

I never ate chili until I stopped eating animals.

To be honest, I'm not sure I've ever eaten chili I didn't make.  Fortunately, there is no shortage of vegan chili recipes - I'm pretty sure I have over 20 among my various cookbooks and I've made at least half of them.  Our reigning favorite continues to be a Sarah Kramer recipe, which isn't surprising considering her husband approaches recipe taste-testing with trepidation, telling her that he gets nervous because he thinks she got it right the first time and will never make a better recipe than her original.

Mister has no problem favoring one of her later chili recipes... or her Shepherd's Pie recipe.... or one of the few recipes where he will actually isolate the spice-coated tofu and eat it without other things to distract him.  Let's just say Sarah's a favorite around here.

Nevertheless, in the spirit of my newfound poverty and desire to use all the extra time I just got in place of a paycheck, I have created my first (and possibly last) chili recipe.  It was fine, but I just couldn't be confident about it with so many great recipes jeering from the cookbook shelf, waiting for me to fail.  Mister supported my effort, encouraging me when I said I was just going to put a bunch of stuff in a pot and see what happened, saying "That's how chili works!"

Mister liked it at least enough for 2 bowls, so my made-up-as-I-went-along chili couldn't have been bad!

Imaginary Chili
6 servings

2 Tbsp olive oil
2 large cloves garlic, pressed/minced
2 Tbsp chili powder
1 generous tsp salt
1 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 tsp red wine vinegar
2 small green bell peppers, diced
3-4 small carrots, sliced
1 small zucchini, quartered lengthwise and sliced
1 1/2 cups corn
15 oz beans (I used pinto, you could use black beans if you wanted)
1 and 1/2 Tofurky Italian Sausages, quartered lengthwise and sliced.  Or dice them, whatever.
28 oz diced tomatoes
12 oz crushed tomatoes

Heat the olive oil over medium-low, then add green peppers and garlic.  Stir well and allow to saute for about 10 minutes - lower the heat to low if necessary to prevent burning and stir occasionally.  While the peppers and garlic saute, slice your carrots and zucchini and measure out your corn.  If you have some leftover time, you could even rinse your beans!

After 10 minutes, add carrots and zucchini, stir well and cover.  Saute 5-7 minutes until you can see the zucchini beginning to "wilt."  Sprinkle on the chili powder, salt, and paprika, then stir well so that all of the vegetables are coated.  Add the diced and crushed tomatoes, beans, corn, and tofurky sausage.  Stir very well to ensure everything is mixed up, including distributing the spices, then cover.

Allow chili to simmer covered for 10 minutes, stirring once or twice.  Sprinkle in the vinegar, stir again, then cover again, lower the heat to the lowest setting and allow to simmer another 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Serve with cornbread or tortilla chips.  Enjoy!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

there was a little girl

There was a little girl,
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good,
She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.

That poem, composed by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow while trying to quiet a daughter for sleep, is a perfect narrative for my relationship with Trader Joe's.  Well, the Trader Joe's in Philadelphia, anyway.

I love Trader Joe's for a few reasons.  First (and possibly most importantly), they have an amazing 10-grain bread that makes amazing toast (it gets all crispy and chewy in the best possible way) and even Mister likes it.  I bought the multigrain bread at Whole Foods for years before he told me he didn't like it.  Second, and also important, is that I usually save a ton of money buying produce there, rather than Whole Foods.  Let's compare: $0.69 for a red bell pepper (when they're in season) versus $4.99/lb (meaning the average pepper is over $2).  $0.39 for a potato versus the seeming bargain of $1.99/lb.  You get the idea.  Finally, they have the most palatably store-brand soymilk.

So what's horrid?  Ever trying to shop quickly.  Which can be important to me.  Also, ever trying to shop between 5 and 6 pm.  It doesn't matter if it's a weekday or a weekend - trying to shop at that hour is maddening.  The lines literally run halfway down every aisle and I'll be in line longer than it takes to shop.  Also, since their low prices do rely on seasonal produce, they don't always have stock of what I want, where I know Whole Foods almost always will (even if it's $8 asparagus).  This is not a bad thing, per se, but when it's already inconvenient to go there (on the other side of town completely), I want to get as much as I can to make it worth the effort.

One thing they're hit and miss on is arugula.  This week, it was a miss, so I ended up with fresh baby spinach, even though I have two bags of frozen spinach in my freezer.  Why the hunt for arugula?

Pasta Della California from Veganomicon had cried out to be made one last time before I do a snow dance and hunker down with a wintery menu of stews and chilis and other impossibly hearty things to be cooked slowly and to warm my innards from head to toe (or... at least my belly).

When Mister and I were shopping at Superfresh last week, I saw a surprising thing for December - a sale on Haas Avocados!  So I gently poked a few, trying to find a ripe one.... then took one that looked a good size and let it ripen on my counter the last few days.  It is so rare to find avocados for less than a dollar here in Philadelphia (not exactly prime avocado-growing climate), I couldn't resist the urge for a flavor and texture that always brings me happy memories.

Failing to find arugula, I opted for a slightly easier-to-eat green and honestly, I may always make it this way now - it was really good with the baby spinach and its silkier texture.  It seemed a better match for the nice squishy, creamy avocado.  The arugula provides a bitter foil for that creaminess and it works, but this was so good even Mister commented on the flavor.

So, with this last delightful dish (before I continue pressuring my friend to go to El Vez for their unbelievable guacamole and delicious margaritas via facebook chat), I bid farewell to the last gasp of warm days in December and look forward to some snowy weather....

Thursday, December 6, 2012

christmastime is here

(Christmas Time Is Here by Sarah McLachlan)

For the first time in three years, my dad and I got to go to Macy's for their holiday light show.  This was a tradition from my childhood that we revived when my dad started working in the city and I was laid off from my job in 2006.  The light show features the world's largest and oldest pipe organ (in continual use), is narrated by Julie Andrews (obviously not in person), and has been a Philadelphia holiday tradition since my father was a child in 1956.  Honestly, it's nothing spectacular compared to the visual stimulus offered these days, but the nostalgia can't be beat.

After breaking our necks to watch the show (we were on the ground floor - the show takes up a vertical stage from the 2nd through 4th floors), dad and I ambled through the City Hall quad to the west side of Broad Street to wander through the Christmas Village.  After seeing our share of Bratwurst and Schnitzel shops and glancing over the various wares of the jewelry and pretty scarf persuasion, we dodged several groups of oblivious school children to head into the underground "streets" of Philadelphia.

Neil Gaiman's first attempt at a literary novel (with actual words!) was the stunning Neverwhere, a dark mix of sci-fi and fantasy.  In the novel, we follow the hero through an alternate City he never knew existed until a random act of compassion pulled him underground and into another world.  I don't want to spoil anything by summing it up, but if you like to look at things from a different point of view, I can't recommend this book (or ANY of his others) enough.

Our jaunt through Philadelphia's belly was not nearly as interesting as the hero of the novel, but we weren't looking for adventure, we were trying to walk without having to constantly interrupt our conversation to dodge an unruly crowd of Charter school kids.  Nevertheless, there was something creepy-cool about walking relatively silently beneath a city that was presently teeming with life and activity.  As we walked and talked, Dad shared about an event at his church tomorrow - an event where less-advantaged neighbors are provided with gifts to give their families and a basket of food to make a nice holiday dinner.  As long as they're in the nice cozy warm church, they'll also be treated to a somewhat lavish dinner.  Dad chuckled a bit, telling me one of the dinner options is Shepherd's Pie, which is not standard fare in those parts of town - I didn't even know what it was until I found Sarah Kramer's recipe in How It All Vegan and discovered it to be one of Mister's favorite things!

So of course, that got me somewhat fixated on making this hearty, warm Favorite Dinner tonight.  I can't even remember the last time I made it, since it's fairly time-consuming and not really a warm-weather food.  Well, the temperature dropped about 30 degrees over the last couple of days, so I figured tonight was as good a time as any.  I have made this enough times to have a mental inventory of its ingredients, so after Dad and I said farewell, I headed home by way of SuperFresh, where I picked up some mashing potatoes and a few other essentials.

After we put up our little Charlie Brown Tree and some scant decorations throughout the apartment, I'd worked up enough of a hunger to think it was time to make dinner.  Oh no!  I remembered that I'd given my copy of HIAV to a friend at work because her son was having some dietary issues and she wanted to try a vegan diet for him (there is an entire section in HIAV devoted to child vegans).  I have no doubt I'll get it back when I see her again, but I didn't have it tonight.  What to do??

The interwebs never let me down....  so with the help of this vegan-celiac website, I made Mister one of his favorites and we all munched happily ever after.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

winter garden

After a short trip to Georgia (the US state, not the country - you have no idea how many people think, nay swear, that I am of Eastern European descent.  If I am, it's news to me!) where I wandered about with my jacket open carelessly to the spring-like weather, I am back in Philadelphia and it is growing cold.  We had our few nice days, too, as I apparently brought some of the warm back with me (or, you know, the jet stream or some other meteorological explanation), and there may be a few nice days left, but don't deceive yourself - it's December.

Would it be easier to put up my Christmas tree and start decorating for the few weeks we have left this holiday season if it was cold and snowy?  Yes, of course.  I'm still holding out hope for a white Christmas and Mister and I have mint cocoa and some peppermint oreo-type cookies leapt off the shelf and landed safely in my basket at Whole Foods today.  Nevertheless, there was time for one more "spring cling" in our made-up menu.

Although a part of me aches for my neatly planned menu and my well-organized grocery lists, I am actually enjoying this different way of shopping; haphazardly selecting things to cover our basic nutritional needs and then hoping everything can play nice in the sauteuse.  I had grown quite weary of my cookbooks and needed to get myself out of a MadeThisAMillionTimes rut.  It's nice to have "safe" recipes you can come back to, where you can locate the right page in the cookbook by the proximity of splatters and spills, where you can nearly make the recipe from memory but just need a few crib notes and stolen glances at the book.  This little bird was ready to stumble out of that safe nest and the lifestyle/financial change was the nudge I needed.

Green Garden Paella
4-6 servings as a main course

2-3 Tbsp olive oil
3 large cloves of garlic, pressed or minced
3 stalks of celery, sliced thinly
1 large(ish) green bell pepper, 1-2" long thin slices
1 medium zucchini, diced
1 cup basmati (or jasmine) rice
3 cups vegetable broth (or 3 cups water + 1 Rapunzel bouillon cube)
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried and lightly crushed tarragon
4 oz smoked tofu, cubed (small)
10 kalamata olives, sliced lengthwise into quarters or sixths (depending on the size of the olives)

Heat the oil in a large saute pan (4-qt) over medium-low heat.  Add celery and garlic and stir well to combine and coat with oil.

Cover the pan and reduce heat to low.  Cook, stirring frequently to prevent burning, for about 10 minutes.  You can be slicing the pepper during this time.  Once the celery is tender, stir in the green pepper.

Replace lid and cook for about 5 more minutes, stirring once or twice.  Dice the zucchini.  When you're ready to add the zucchini, remove the lid from the pan and push the pepper and celery out to the sides of the pan, creating an empty space in the middle.  Within a moment, this space should be invaded by the oil and accumulated cooking liquid.  Once this occurs, add the zucchini in this space and sprinkle with the salt.  Do not stir.

Cover and turn heat up slightly.  You should hear evidence of slightly higher heat in the sizzling sound your food is making.  Allow the zucchini to steam-saute for about 1-2 minutes, then lift the lid, sprinkle on the thyme and tarragon and stir everything together.  Shake the rice over the vegetables, then pour in the broth and stir.  Raise heat to medium to encourage boiling and the minute it comes to a full boil, reduce heat to the lowest setting and cover.

Cook the paella, covered and without stirring, for 15-17 minutes.  You can check your facebook, read emails, peruse your new issue of Southern Living (it's the Christmas copy!), whatever.  What you should be doing, though, is dicing the tofu and slicing the olives.  Once they're all set, you can resume wasting your time however you please.  When the 15-17 minutes have passed, take the lid off your paella and put it somewhere out of the way - you won't be needing it anymore (until it's time to do the dishes).

Add your tofu and olives, then stir everything together.  There should still be a noticeable amount of broth to be absorbed.

Leave the pot uncovered and the heat on the lowest setting and let your paella simmer for 10-15 more minutes, stirring from time to time.  When nearly all of the broth has been absorbed, spoon into bowls and serve.