Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Veg. Times: fast and sloppy

So, sometimes I become overly confident in my multitasking abilities.  Sometimes it's harmless, like talking on the phone while playing a game on the computer and looking through recipes for dinner.  Sometimes it's dangerous, like driving while holding my travel mug of coffee and changing the CD in my car stereo.  Other times (probably most times) it's just stupid, like trying to do all of the steps to a fast-cooking recipe at once.

Somewhere along the line, I came to realize that one of the main reasons it takes me so long to cook is because I insist on doing all of my prep work before turning on the stove (unless part of the fun is boiling pasta or steaming brown rice for five hours).  Silly me, I figure it's easier to have all your bits chopped and ready to go before you start heating the oil and forget it's hot until you add the garlic and it promptly lets out a plume of sulfur-smelling smoke while turning black and instantly attaching itself to the nonstick pot.  Not that I've ever done that.  I'm just saying it could happen.

ANYWAY, The 30 Minute Vegan marked the beginning of a change for me.  I had hoped it would be a change for the better and it may still be, but right now I feel like I'm learning to cook all over again.  The revolutionary technique the authors of 30MV came up with to save time was to chop one ingredient while another is cooking.  It works well in their recipes.  As I learned last night, though, it doesn't apply to recipes they did not construct, necessarily.

I made Two Broccoli Stirfry on Soba Noodles but I was overly ambitious regarding my ability to quickly chop the broccolini while the noodles cooked and the broccoli steamed.  Once I got that mess under control and had drained the noodles, therefore vacating the large pot, I decided it was time to stirfry the tofu, but didn't let it cook long enough not to fall apart when I hastily stirred in the two parts of broccoli.  Then the tofu started sticking to the pan so I wanted to add the sauce, so I just stirred together the orange juice and tamari and decided the cornstarch slurry probably wasn't that important.  Why would it be?  It's only what makes the difference between broth and sauce...  Then I added the noodles and tried to stir everything together, but the noodles sat too long in the colander and I didn't let them steam long enough to release their hold on one another, so I more or less obliterated any shape the tofu might have been clinging to [desperately].

In the course of making a complete mess of what could have been (and was in the past) a very attractive and tasty meal, I also managed to completely ignore the recipe after the part about stirfrying the tofu.  I might have saved the tofu if I had removed it from the pot like I was supposed to, and I might have had time to add the cornstarch if I was stirfrying the steamed broccolis alone, rather than with tofu that was growing unnaturally attached to the bottom of the nonstick pot.  I also would have kept everything intact better if I had laid the tofu and broccolis with sauce over top of the noodles, instead of trying to stir them into the mess.  Finally, I think I might have sped up the timeline for replacing my saute pan, since I neglected the steaming broccolis long enough to burn the pan after the water had evaporated.

I wouldn't call it a dinner Fail, but it could have gone better (and did, last time).  No pictures, because it was very unattractive, but you can click on the link to see how it could have been.

Tonight, I made Warm Chickpea Ragout with Chard, Tomatoes, and Harissa.  I don't have a thing to say about it after that display.  You can check out my ramblings from the first time I made it, though, if you're really that interested.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

you can't always get what you want

subtitle: How Bed, Bath, and Beyond failed me today.

There used to be a Linens 'n' Things very near my home.  It was a convenient alternative to BBB, since Mister officially declared his hatred for that store the night we became engaged.  It's a long story, but let's just say we ended up registering for our wedding at LnT (and Macy's) instead.  Anyway, since October 2008 led to the death of many of my favorite (but possibly second-rate) stores, my only option for convenience and price is the Triple B.  There happens to be one right around the corner from my Saturday job.

I went on their website this afternoon and was absolutely ecstatic to see they have the knife I've been looking for and which I am too lazy busy to walk up to Williams Sonoma to purchase:
Unfortunately, in the ten minutes I had to run into the store, grab coffeemaker water filters and find the knife, I was informed by a helpful and apologetic employee that they do not stock those knives, but they are available on the website.  I smiled, thanked her, and waited in line behind a woman with two very badly behaved children to pay for my coffee machine filters.  Nevermind that those knives were the only reason I set foot in that store.

Anyway, I was miraculously able to prepare dinner tonight without the help of the very sharp, nonstick, carbon fiber blade.  I can't remark about last night's dinner, since the only sharp utensil necessary was a pair of scissors to open the bag of frozen broccoli...
Okay, you got me, I did have to chop some olives and one-third of a yellow bell pepper for the salads.  I made Penne with Broccoli and Creamy Tomato Sauce last night.  Since we didn't have occasion to drop the cat again, I decided to make it fun by using gemelli pasta instead of plain ol' penne.  I also tried a different prepared pasta sauce: Ragu Robusto 7-Herb Tomato Sauce.  It was really good and vegan.  Omnivores everywhere are wondering right now (well, at least the ones who read my humble blog), "What wouldn't be vegan about pasta sauce?"  In a word: cheese. They sneak it into simple marinaras and think you won't notice.  I was completely surprised by how many prepared pasta sauces have cheese in them.

Tonight was a little more cutting intensive, but since I could cube tofu with a dinner knife, the intensity of the Kuhn Rikon knife I didn't buy today wasn't really missing.
I love Black Bottom Pineapple Tofu with Coconut Cashew Rice.  It tastes so good and it gets easier to make every time I make it.  A couple of changes: the recipe calls for 2 Tbsp of unsweetened coconut, but I use 3 Tbsp of sweetened coconut.  I think it's better that way.  Also, tonight I subbed chopped hazelnuts for the cashews because I want to use them before they go bad.  The cashews definitely complement the flavors of the dish better - they are more mild, while the hazelnuts have a more pronounced flavor.  I did enjoy the extra crunch provided by these sturdy little nuts, though.

We were "eating the rainbow" again tonight with a vividly colorful salad of mixed greens, grape tomatoes (I don't think they're quite ripe), yellow pepper, shredded carrots, and kalamata olives:
It was too pretty to not be showcased in its own beauty shot.

I got some other little presents for myself today, in between fulfilling a mean Starbucks craving (it happens to the best of us) and buying coffee maker water filters (are we sensing a pattern?), but I'll fill you in on that tomorrow.   In the meantime, feel free to check out two new blogs I've added to the side of my [revamped] page:
Chic Vegan - What I like about this blog is how it incorporates everything, just like living a vegan lifestyle encompasses not only what we eat, but how we dress, what we put on our feet and how we paint our faces (should we choose to, and you can probably guess my choice, based on the first link).  I love all the vegan and raw blogs out there, but I can't focus on food all the time or I'll never stop eating!  Enjoy!

Friday, March 26, 2010

to everything there is a season

Asparagus has the shortest season ever. I believe it was just a post or two ago I was explaining my reticence to purchase 4 lbs of asparagus at $2.49/lb. In the one week since I went shopping, the price per pound of asparagus has gone up a full dollar. Unless Whole Foods is just trying to exploit the demand half of "supply and demand," it looks like we're already staring into the face of the end of this veggie's very short growing season. At $3.49/lb I was very glad I had only 2 bunches to buy...until I realized that last week, my same $7 bought 3 bunches. Enough money talk, let's look at the fruits of my labor:

There are not too many things I like to do more with asparagus than roast it. Sure, it works well with a stirfry and it's a delightful addition to penne pasta with homemade marinara, and someday I'll probably saute it with olive oil, a generous amount of garlic and a conservative amount of lemon juice, but I do love it best when it has spent some quality time in a 425 degree oven, sprinkled fairly liberally with sea salt.

Tonight's dinner was Tuscan Vegetable Ragout. I wanted to make this first for two reasons: first, asparagus has a short growing season but an even shorter refrigerator life, so I want to use both bunches as soon as possible. Also, I opened the smoked tofu last night to add some protein to my after-dinner salad (more in a minute), and I don't want it sitting around all open for too long. I didn't add any pasta, like I said I would the last time I made it, but it did just fine for itself with the combination of beans, artichokes, tomatoes, zucchini, kalamatas, and smoked tofu.
I felt only slightly guilty that we didn't have salads with our dinner, but I had a nice salad at Cosi this afternoon with my dad. I needed to see my dad today, since yesterday I saw a dear friend say goodbye to her dad for the rest of her life.

Tragedy, in all its manifestations, amazes me. It has a power we can't even comprehend, much less harness. It is my belief, though, that when tragedy finds the right people, they respond by turning something painful into something positive. I believe I am the right person.

There aren't too many things more morbid (to me) than looking at the body of a soul who has left this world. I don't enjoy it. I think viewings, generally, are awkward. When I heard of my friend's father's death, I initially would have preferred to attend the funeral. Others might think me a little off kilter, since a funeral is a formal and involved affair - it reserves a great deal more of a person's time and possibly more emotional energy. But to me, because it is more formal, it is less awkward - you know what to do at a funeral. Viewings, on the other hand, you stand in a line, waiting your turn to offer condolences to the surviving members of the family, then stand before the casket (open, normally), to say goodbye to the deceased. However, my mother and another long-time friend and her mother were attending the viewing, so these were my choices: attend the viewing with loved ones or attend the funeral, alone but for my grieving friend.

After paying our respects and being sure our friend knows she is loved, we took our mothers and escaped to a local restaurant for dinner. To be honest, eating was the last thing I wanted to do, but I was a little hungry and I wanted the social time to shrug off the pain of the funeral parlor. Fortunately, I didn't have to eat much, since the restaurant (like most in the 'burbs) wasn't a big fan of herbivores - I was counting on classic American portion distortion to provide me with slightly larger side dishes of stirfried veggies and grilled asparagus, but when my butter dish arrived with 6 skinny spears I must admit, I didn't think it was going to be enough.

After "dinner," I made a quick pit stop to pick up another piece of the rainbow: Pinot Noir. This stuff is way too easy to drink. I needed that last night. Well, need is a strong and suspiciously dependent word, but the escape from the pain and tears that flowed more freely in the privacy of my own home was a welcome one. After a short breakdown, I made a very healthy (by that I mean American-sized) salad of baby spinach and a few last mixed greens, red bell pepper, cucumber slices, mandarin oranges, baby carrots, and sliced smoked tofu. I didn't take a picture because it wasn't very pretty and it took me about a half an hour after I made it to convince myself to eat it. It was very tasty when I did!

I certainly didn't mean to make this post such a downer. My plan is to come back tomorrow night with my usual cynical enthusiasm!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

forget the rainbow - I'm eating the jewelry box

I think I enjoy looking at food as much as I like eating it. A well constructed salad or a nicely plated entree are just beautiful to behold, especially when you make a habit of "eating the rainbow."

On Sunday night, I made Colleen's Mother-In-Law's Crowd-Pleasing Pasta with Tomatoes and Artichokes. I actually expected it to make more than it did, based on the volume of the Pasta Jambalaya, but I think Colleen and her MIL have a better grasp of appropriate portions than Nava and her teenage boys.
It's kind of like a milder Pasta Puttanesca. There's nothing really remarkable about this dish, but I can see how it would please a crowd - it has a nice flavor and the artichokes lend a sweetness that balances the saltiness of the kalamata olives.

Last night, I made Roasted Asparagus Soup with Thyme, accompanied by the outstanding and positively glorious Fruited Spinach Salad.
The soup looks absolutely revolting - I'll give you that. Fortunately, you can only see about a third of the bowl. Even though the recipe called for four pounds of asparagus, and even though asparagus is in season now, making it much more affordable, I ended up getting only 3 lbs because I couldn't really deal with the idea of spending $10 on asparagus alone. Maybe I'm just being neurotic or pinching my pennies dry, but when you're talking about 10% of my weekly food budget on just one vegetable...

Anyway, ignore how it looks - it tastes so good! Fast forward to tonight - for the first time in recorded history, my husband chose to reheat the leftover soup rather than the leftover pasta for dinner. So, you know it had to be good. Personally, and I do believe I was somewhat alone in this, I was just as excited about the salad - it looks like jewels!
Although the "recipe" called for macadamia nuts, I found them to be even more cost-prohibitive than 4 lbs of asparagus, so I used hazelnuts and they were just fine. The gorgeous and surprisingly tasty dressing was a simple raspberry vinaigrette. It was just supposed to be 1 cup of raspberries blended with 1/2 cup seasoned rice wine vinegar, but since I didn't have seasoned rice vinegar, I used a mixture of 75% mirin and 25% rice vinegar. It was perfect.

I was planning to just heat up the leftover pasta and make salads for dinner tonight or convince Mister to go out somewhere with his brother and future sister-in-law, but Mister wasn't hungry or social, so I just made myself a mega-salad, spread some hummus on a slice of bread, and poured my last glass of Yellow Tail Riesling.
Ignore Mister's bike lock. Apparently, there wasn't a better place for him to put it than on the dining table. My mega-salad had mixed greens [hiding underneath] cucumbers, red bell pepper, sliced carrots, quartered kalamatas, and mandarin sections. I was going to sprinkle it with nuts and add a few cubes of smoked tofu, but I think I ran out of space, so I just wrote those ingredients into my new menu. Best segue ever?

1. Tuscan Vegetable Ragout accompanied by roasted asparagus. It's been ages since I've made this and it's always so good without being too innard-warming, so I figured it was a good Springtime dish. I added smoked tofu the last time I made it and plan to do so again.

2. Black-Bottom Pineapple Tofu with Cashew Coconut Rice - The innermost desire to eat this again actually fueled my choice of cookbooks to browse, so the only reason it isn't the first meal to appear on this list was because I got distracted and misdirected by the Tuscan Ragout. It will probably end up being Hazelnut Coconut Rice, though, because I'm really good at letting nuts go rancid (I just found a bag of sunflower seeds that "expired" in July 2009) and I'm trying to break myself of that habit.

3. Spicy Stirfry with Clementines, Asparagus, and Tofu - I'll probably just use the other jar of mandarin oranges I got when there was 2-for-1 sale at Superfresh, rather than peeling and sectioning the Clementines. Also, I am unaware of anywhere that you can buy only 3 and I don't want a whole bag this late in citrus season.

4. Warm Chickpea Ragout with Swiss Chard, Carrots, and Harissa - I don't know if harissa can go bad, but I want to use up as much as I can before I find out the hard way that I tracked this stuff all over the southeastern corner of Philadelphia just to waste my money. As an added bonus, it tastes good!

5. Two-Broccoli Stirfry on Soba Noodles - I was reading through a couple of older posts and seeing this made me say "that was pretty good - I hope this week we break the two-week pattern of all the 'fresh' broccoli at WF rotting in its bin." If it's still not broccoli season, though, I have no issue using frozen broccoli - the WF Organic store brand is really good!

6. Penne with Broccoli and Creamy Tomato Sauce - I know I'm pushing my luck here with the broccoli situation, I just remembered how tasty this is and how it's even easier than it is tasty! Win-win, if you ask me, so let's just hope the broccoli is done being gross.

All six of this week's meals are taken from my ol' faithful Vegetarian Times Fast & Easy. It's a little tofu-heavy, but I managed to get two pasta dishes in there (even if one is soba) so Mister will be okay. I think he is warming to tofu more as I find more ways to make it palatable, both in taste and texture.

On a final note, click here for a thoroughly insightful and inspirational post from Mama Pea. It'll take only a few of your precious minutes to read and you'll be a better person. Besides, you've already wasted many precious minutes reading my babbling - you may as well redeem yourself.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

eating (and drinking) the rainbow

I haven't forgotten you, National Nutrition Month!

Years ago, when I worked in social services, I worked with a small woman who could most kindly be described as eccentric. She was deeply involved with yoga and meditation, had converted from Christian Science to Reformed Judaism, followed a macrobiotic diet in her recovery from cancer, and exercised harder than her 70-year-old body wanted to most of the time. Although she and I frequently argued about whether or not you could call yourself a vegetarian when you consumed fish on an almost daily basis (she did), she admired that I was a vegetarian and that I had a similar interest in caring for my body. I think she thought she had found a kindred soul because our colleagues had anything but healthy eating behavior - three of them were dangerously obese.

I was still relatively new to vegetarianism at this point and was rather proud of the spinach-n-sprouts sandwich that I frequently brought for lunch. I was even more pleased when I had the opportunity to share food with my colleagues on a two-day work retreat. I made a pasta salad with all manner of tasty veggies - it was beautiful. I had never heard the expression "eat the rainbow" until that day, when my crazy, er, eccentric colleague complimented me on doing so.

We have been following that sage advice ever since, and it was more evident than ever in our dinners the past couple of nights.

Last night, I made Pasta Jambalaya from Vegan Express. Usually, I use cavatappi pasta, but the tri-colored rotini just looked so cute on the grocery store shelf (and so on sale, too!). It really changed the look! I accompanied our jambalayas with a healthy-sized salad of organic mixed greens, shredded carrots, quartered kalamata olives, and dried cranberries. As Mister approached the table, he couldn't disguise his happiness when he said "Ooh! Dinner's so pretty!" I'm going to add this dish to my list of Great Foods for Large Gatherings, because I had forgotten how much it makes - we have a ton of leftovers.

Tonight, we had Sweet and Sour Tofu with Dark Leafy Greens with Sesame Miso Dressing from The Vegan Table. While not as colorful as last night's dinner, it was still bright and colorful. The recipe originally calls for tempeh, but since Mister's belly hates tempeh, I decided to freeze and thaw a block of tofu and then I roasted it. The roasting dried it out a little, but did accomplish the crispy outside I was hoping for. Next time I will marinate the tofu before roasting to see what that does. The dressing on the greens was a little much for my little bundle of chard. "Bunch" is such an arbitrary measurement - what if her market is more generous than mine? I think it is, because there was a little pool of very intense dressing at the bottom of our little bowls. It was very good, but we couldn't finish even the 1/2 cup we each got because of the intensity of the dressing.

The sweet-n-sour sauce (homemade, thank you very much) was far more mild than I expected - it was perfect, if you ask me. Although the recipe called for apricot preserves, Superfresh was having a sale on Polaner All-Fruit, and I find Smuckers and their store brand revolting, so all that was left (and acceptable, AKA not sweetened artificially) were Pineapple preserves - I think that made a big difference.

The final "rainbow" I tasted was another color in the Yellow Tail rainbow: Riesling. It is very easy to drink. It's nothing special, honestly. It would be a good wine to drink for the sake of getting drunk because it goes down very smoothly, but one of the things I cherish in Riesling is the crisp "bite" a good one delivers - this one, like Polka Dot, has no such bite. It's really nearly a Pinot Grigio, which kind of enhances my curiosity to try the Yellow Tail Pinot Grigio, one of the few "colors" left. I was up in the air as to whether I wanted a red or a Riesling, and I almost shelled out for an Eiswein (Ice Wine, from grapes harvested after the first frost). I ended up with a bottle of Black Tower Riesling when I saw the Yellow Tail display and thought, "Well, I already know YT is vegan, while I know nothing about Black Tower other than that it has a cool bottle." Click on the link for Polka Dot (above) if you want to know how effective that method of choosing wines is. In the end, I wanted to try the YT Riesling anyway, so I chose that one. It will do, but I won't buy it again. I think this is the first color to fail and that doesn't really surprise me since I'm ultra-finicky about whites.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

St. Patty's Potato Puddin'

I decided to celebrate St Patrick's day today, since yesterday was too crowded :)

Last night, I celebrated by doing about 45 minutes' worth of fruitless shoe shopping, since Spring is upon us and it's time to let my toes out of their pointy prison. After I battled with unskilled drivers and drunk pedestrians, I did actually get parking pretty easily, so I celebrated by having myself a proper Irish dinner: leftover Seitan Curry Bowl. I did let Smirnoff and Martini & Rossi keep me company, though, as I plotted out the new menu:

1. Sweet & Sour Tofu accompanied by Dark Leafy Greens with Sesame Miso Dressing from The Vegan Table. It's actually supposed to be tempeh, but we've had such a good run of Mister not having to use our health insurance, I figured I'd see how long we could ride that wave and I thought the tempeh might interfere with my plans.

2. Roasted Asparagus Soup with Thyme accompanied by Fruited Spinach Salad also from The Vegan Table. I'm really pushing it with soup on a menu for the most temperate and beautiful week yet in 2010, but it's supposed to get rainy and dismal in a few days, so I'm kind of counting on that. I had some reservations, because the soup is primarily a puree, dotted with roasted asparagus tips, but I think I can work something out. Perhaps Mister will be more forgiving since I'm using his favorite vegetable.

3. Crowd-Pleasing Pasta with Tomatoes and Artichokes also from The Vegan Table. I felt like I was neglecting this book, can you tell?

4. Pasta Jambalaya from Vegan Express, because we can't let that book collect dust!

5. Seitan & Polenta Skillet with Fresh Greens accompanied by these mashed potatoes.

I actually ended up making that tonight, because I thought it followed with the whole steak (seitan) and potatoes theme of Everyone-is-Irish-week. I've made the Seitan & Polenta Skillet before, though I am convinced it gets tastier every time. While I was simmering dinner, I was also following Mama Pea's recipe for strange mashed potatoes she ate on her recent Hawaiian vacation. I had only one variation - I used Yukon Gold potatoes, not sweet potatoes, because I would like to see my next wedding anniversary. I'm not sure if that's the difference, or if I'm just not adept at making mashed potatoes in a food processor, but I ended up making potato pudding. It was interesting...I think the subtle flavors of the nutritional yeast and magical secret ingredient hummus will intensify as it sits in the fridge a day or two, but the texture was bizarre. I will attempt this again because it sounds like it should work, but I will mash the potatoes by hand with my nifty masher and I will use twice as much hummus and nooch. I'll let you know how it turns out!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

fast food - have it your way

So, apparently I've been too busy to bother posting here, so the very first thing I want to do is plug for The 30 Minute Vegan again. Without that book, dinner this week would not have been possible. At the very least, it wouldn't have been healthy. I've mentioned before that Mister would be happy to eat pizza for dinner every night, and he almost got his wish, so maybe he's not as big a fan of this book as I am. In any case, my time continues to be limited, so on with the parade of fast food.

First up, Sunday's dinner - Easy as Pie Stirfry. It was absolutely easy, though there was a great deal of chopping involved. It probably would be easy-as-pie if I would just invest the $20 in a mandoline. I'm getting faster at my prep, especially thanks to my new "chop & scoop" cutting board that funnels my newly chopped bits into whatever vessel they need to occupy, but I'm starting to think I'll never be Food Network fast. I guess I'll never be a celebrity chef, unless America's lazy rise up and demand a narcoleptic hostess.

On Monday, I made the super-duper-fast Mediterranean Hummus Wraps.

They were far tastier than I expected them to be and I had pretty high hopes for these babies to begin with, so let me make a recommendation - get this book and make these wraps. Next on my list of food-blog-feats-to-accomplish is to learn how to take a better picture of wraps, burritos, fajitas, and quesadillas. In other words, I want to figure out how to take attractive photos of enclosed dinner - I'm sure the answer lies in cutting said dinner item in half and propping one end up on the other, but I was afraid they would fall apart if I did anything other than wrap them as well as I could and then push them, seam-side down, onto the plates and hope they made it through our dinner prayers. By the way - if you want to see some amazing pictures of food, check out Another One Bites the Crust - you can also link to it on the right side of the page.

Tonight's dinner, then, was the last dinner on my humble (and fast) menu this week: Seitan Curry Bowl. By the way - this one and the wrap were part of the Lunch section of the book - I figured those meals would probably be even faster to make and I was more or less correct. This one comes together so quickly you almost run out of time to gather the spices. It's perfectly flavorful and not as overwhelming as I thought it would be considering how much curry powder, cumin, and soy sauce is in there. Also, it allowed Mister and I to take advantage of the amazing depth of flavor present in in-season asparagus. I anticipate a decent amount of asparagus recipes for the next couple of weeks, since the season is so tender and short and as tonight's experience proved, there is a remarkable difference in taste when [Mister's favorite] veggies are in season.

I'm off for now - one more day of work before my one-day weekend, so you can count on a new menu either tomorrow night or Thursday, if I get to it in the midst of re-planning my mini-vacation to Arizona and baking Irish Soda Bread :)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

call the wind Mariah

Mariah Carey has a magnificent vocal range - 5 octaves, to be exact, which is about twice the range some of the most talented and trained voices out there have. I used to drive my mother (probably my whole family, actually) crazy when I was a young teen and Mariah had just hit the scene. I have every album through Butterfly, when she started getting a little too "hip hop" for my tastes at that time (a world-weary 19-year-old...). Having been trained as a coloratura soprano, I was completely enthralled by her ability to hit higher notes than Sarah Brightman in Phantom of the Opera. I later learned that these notes, seemingly only contained in Mariah's range and no other's, are referred to as the "whistle register." When sung frequently enough, they are enough to stretch my mother's patience and pierce even a dog's ears, but I find them amazing even to this day.

Why all this talk of music on a [primarily] food blog? Because the wind outside my home was doing its best Mariah Carey impression today and now I can more fully appreciate my mother's distress when I would pop in Ms. Carey's tapes[!] and CDs back-to-back on multi-hour road trips.

Of course, all the howling wind and driving rain made for the perfect day to finally make Homey Vegetable Stew with Dumplings. A little heavy on the spelt flour, though it has a very amenable flavor which I could get used to - I'm not sure it needed to serve as both a soup thickening agent and dense dumplings dotting the stew.
I have to say, due to the wetness of the batter that was to become these substantial little dumplings, I did not actually think they would "bake" or whatever cooked them. Imagine my surprise when I took the lid off the pot and saw these fluffy little buggers! I served up two dumplings each with thick, savory stew to Mister and to me, accompanied by a simple but tasty salad of mixed greens, kalamatas, carrots, and dried cranberries.
Exhausted by the effort of not being eaten by the banshees outside the wet windows, there was a little chair dumpling as well:

Thursday, March 11, 2010

a fresh coat of paint

I spent three and a half hours at Salon Sugar today (this seems to be a trend). It always passes quickly, though, because Candi is fun to talk to and she plays great music. It will never cease to amaze me how rejuvenating it is to look in the mirror when all is said and done. This time we really did it up - my own husband did not recognize me from a slight distance!

not the best picture, perhaps, but you can really see my hair!

So, although I scarfed down a Banana Nut Odwalla bar on my short walk across the street to the Salon, after 3.5 hours, I was not only euphoric about my new look (and trying to get used to the hair in my face - AKA bangs), I was also pretty hungry. It probably didn't help that Candi and I spent at least an hour of the time I was there talking about various tasty food in the immediate vicinity. I was almost practical and thought about going home to heat up some leftover soup and roast my garnet yam, but then I remembered that it was my one true day off and I decided to enjoy some of the "local cuisine." So, coming out of Salon Sugar, I swooped around the northeast corner and walked the block to Essene Market. In addition to being an obscure and generally overpriced produce/oddities market, there is a small cafe in the back with a self-service hot food bar. I had been craving weird food, so I selected one of the larger containers and filled it up with a millet cake, stirfried bok choy, roasted potatoes and cauliflower, fried parsnips, and some savory, chewy baked tofu. The parsnips were a little off and the bok choy got stuck in my teeth, but I was very happy with my paper bowl of lunch.

After my satisfying lunch, I grabbed a small squirt bottle of agave nectar for my teas at work and a miniature Green & Black 70% chocolate bar, then headed over the Whole Foods to do my grocery shopping for the following menu (once again, all from The 30 Minute Vegan):

1. Tofu Saag which we had tonight - more in a minute
2. Homey Vegetable Stew with Dumplings which we'll have tomorrow, since it's supposed to drop 15 degrees and be all rainy and miserable.
3. Mediterranean Hummus Wraps
4. Seitan Curry Bowl which I skipped over last time in favor of the Monk Bowl.
5. Easy as Pie Stirfry

This book really hasn't let me down yet! The meals really do come together quickly, even though at first glance they look like a lot of effort. Honestly, the only thing I can find "wrong" with the recipes in this book are that they come together so quickly and are so action-packed that I don't have a minute to make salads. I didn't feel like salads were really necessary tonight, though, since our main course involved a pound of spinach...call me crazy, but I think we satisfied our greens quotient.

I'm really enjoying their method of roasting the tofu - it works better than I would have imagined for only 15 minutes of roasting in a medium-heat oven. The spice mix was a little intense for the amount of spinach - in the future, I will probably cut it down a little because we were walking the fine line between intense umami and need-bread-to-choke-it-down. I definitely needed the rice.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

cruel to be kind

Not too long ago, I wrote about how every month seems to be designated to bringing awareness to some very important cause. Even within these months are specific weeks or even days set aside to recognize a cause that may not be important enough to warrant a whole month but has just enough advocates to lobby for a special day. You know, like Mother's Day or something. Just kidding. Anyway, I think this is an ongoing process and the calendar-makers can't keep up with it, so it falls to the proponents of said causes to bring awareness to their special month, week, or day.

I've been meaning to post about National Nutrition Month for a few days now, but it keeps getting away from me. It's ironic - there is finally a month devoted to something I actually care about, but I can't find the energy to promote it!

There is a ton of helpful information for the observance and promotion of March as National Nutrition Month at eatright.org, the American Dietetic Association's (ADA) website. To give a quick synopsis, NNM has been going on longer than I've been alive, starting as a week of observance and finally being raised to a cause worthy of a full 31-day month. I think it's great that NNM coincides with the mayor of Philadelphia proposing a tax on sugar-sweetened soda - I can't think of a better time to introduce such ingenious legislation. I hear people moaning and complaining about this, and I'll grant you that I'm not a big soda fan, so it wouldn't strike me as tragic even if I didn't think it was one of the best ideas our mayor has ever had. This delightful double-edged sword would not only raise money for our apparently impoverished city government, but it might actually reduce the demand for these SatanSugarDrinks. Newsflash, people of Philadelphia: Soda is BAD for you! If we can get the city out of a budget crisis AND reduce the number of sodas purchased and consumed in this city, I don't see how this can be a bad thing.

In open antithesis to NNM, the month of March also contains National Banana Cream Pie Day (3/2), National Potato Chip Day (3/14), and National Lemon Chiffon Cake Day (3/29). Of course, you could point out that the origin of each of those foods is a fruit or vegetable...
kind of makes you hungry, doesn't it?

Speaking of kind, I just finished reading an illuminating and surprisingly inspiring article in VegNews - an interview with Alicia Silverstone. I have to be honest, if someone told me ten years ago that I would use the words "illuminating" and "inspiring" to describe this actress-turned-PETA-spokesmodel...
...I would have laughed without shame. However, separating the woman from the character, it turns out Alicia herself has a great deal of depth and a heart of gold.

I was a little suspicious of The Kind Diet when it was initially released, because all I knew of Alicia's change of heart was her willingness to let PETA use her image in their campaigns. I think PETA's heart is in the right place, but as I've mentioned before, I can't get on board with them completely, due to the overly severe nature of their propaganda. Pictures of slaughtered pigs and beakless chickens appeal only to the hearts and tears of adolescent girls...they make the rest of us mad. Although, in its own way, I guess that works, too.

Anyway, the interview has piqued my curiosity and willingness to support her in this. She certainly doesn't need my money, but it's my way of using my consumer-power to build up the things that matter to me. Once I find a minute to buy and actually read the book, you can count on another book review. Yes, I will keep finding reasons for you to come back and read my blog - is it working?

Finally, last night's dinner: White Bean-Tarragon Soup with a couple mega-salads.

Normally, we're not big on brothy soups, but this one is not only attractive but extremely flavorful. There is a load of herbs in there, primarily floating on top in a very enticing manner. The white beans (I used Great Northern beans in the absence of canned Navy beans) are hiding under the carrots and celery. For the very few ingredients in this soup, I have to say that I was completely impressed with how good it was - if it didn't smell so good while it was simmering (thanks to the tablespoon of ginger and 4 large cloves of garlic in there) I would have been even more worried about it. The salad complemented it nicely, as well as bulking up our dinner a little - enough that Mister didn't even ask about bread (a fact that escaped me until this very moment)!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

zen: my kitchen's feng shui is broken

Let me start by saying that what prevents me from becoming a full-on hippie (besides the awful fashion statements I associate with them) is that I can not stand all the fruitiness. Thank heavens, the feng shui craze seems to have passed, but I have two things I would like to say about it now:

One: I think it's a big load of bullcrap.
Two: There might be a little sliver of truth hiding in all the froo-froo "good vibes, man" BS disguised as a bona fide Asian art form/philosophy.

Tonight's dinner was the Monk Bowl from The 30 Minute Vegan, with a little special sauce I'll go into later. First, I want to talk about the not-quite-zen experience that was my dinner preparation. In their happy-flowers-everywhere introduction to the recipe, Jennifer constructs this meal prep into a "symphony of multitasking." It was not a 30 minute meal (though it could be with practice) and it most certainly couldn't be called a symphony, unless you were possibly referring to the noisy banging-on-piano-strings crap that late-20th century "composers" wrote.

The cubing, marinating, chopping, roasting, and steaming part of the prep could almost have fit together like a perfectly disjointed Chopin Mazurka. The "symphony" fell apart, ironically, with the assembly of the Monk Bowls. The zen of the moment collapsed and my kitchen feng shui promptly imploded. I think zen requires a larger kitchen, or at the very least, more counter space. It's a sad day when I don't have room to do an assembly line kind of thing with a roasting pan, a pot of rice, and a bowl of steamed veggies.

Fortunately, fruity feng shui and the zen of meal preparation have nothing to do with taste - Mister and I were both thrilled with (both of) our Monk Bowls. You see in the picture tasty blocks of roasted tofu, marinated in tamari and peanut oil, 8 cups of steamed broccoli, carrots, and red bell pepper, on top of my renewed flame: Basmati rice. To top it all off? An even tastier (and much easier to assemble) surprise: a slightly altered version of Dreena Burton's Sesame Mustard Tahini Sauce.

I found the sauce when I was poking around on my new favorite blog: Peas and Thank You. There were some fun links under the recipe section (Peas and Carrots) and when I saw the Sesame Tahini dressing, I thought it would be interesting - it was amazing! And it still is, since the recipe made quite enough sauce for Mister and I to have two Monk Bowls each, generously "drizzled" with this intense dressing, and still have plenty left over for the, well, leftovers, and for at least a pair of salads. The only real difference between what is posted and what I did involved subbing peanut butter for the tahini, since I didn't have any on hand.

So far, we are two recipes into my new cookbook and our experience so far has been spectacular (if not increasingly sarcastic in terms of my caustic comments - which is really just an attempt to shield all of you from the sugar-and-spice-and-everything-nice overload I'm encountering on every page). Stay tuned for more fun adventures!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

nooch noob

The past couple of days have inadvertently presented plenty of opportunities to try new things, or at the very least, [accidentally] develop alternative versions of tastes I associate elsewhere. For example, last night I made Pomegranate Saute on Cinnamon Bulghur. Unfortunately, in so doing, I found the bottom of my previously bottomless bottle of pomegranate molasses, and I found it after adding only half the amount I had written into the recipe. I also discovered that I had no more red wine vinegar and it didn't occur to me exactly how different white wine vinegar would taste, especially with the not-100% apple juice I used. While I wouldn't call the results disastrous, I don't want to repeat the version I made last night. I prefer the original.

I used Mott's for Tots, which is only 54% juice - the other 46% is water, in an attempt to cut calories. They come in perfectly portioned 6 oz servings, which was exactly how much I needed for the recipe, and since they're almost half water they have only 50 calories. I don't actually care about that, but I got to thinking about two things: how sick it is that we have calorie-reduced drinks for toddlers, but more importantly (since I work in the weight loss industry and have parents calling frequently about their obese offspring) how sick it is that we actually do need to worry about this.

So, the half-juice, the half-pomegranate molasses, and the not-red wine vinegar combined in a way that might actually be beneficial in a chili, but not in my saute. It tasted like beer. I don't like beer, but at least now I know how to emulate the flavor in case a recipe calls for it.

Thursday was kind of lost to me because I finally got my taxes done, but it was so windy and cold I didn't feel like going grocery shopping if I didn't have to. And I didn't have to, because I still had the ingredients for the Saute and could easily pick up a couple of things on my way home from work last night if I needed to. I finally made it to the store today and when I was studying the Wall of Bars at WF, in order to drop one off for Mister on my way home (he works around the corner from WF - lucky dog!), I found something new! I was hoping that if I stared hard enough I might be able to will the Luna cookies to transform into Nectar bars. No dice, but I found this instead:
The brand new Clif C bars, meant to replace my truly defunct Nectar treats. These babies pack about 130 calories each, making them a reasonable snack, and they also provide 1 serving of fruit per bar. That's a little disappointing, since Nectar bars provided 2, but I actually like eating fruit, so I guess it's not necessary. Clif C bars are available in four flavors: Apple, Blueberry, Cherry Pomegranate, and Raspberry. I picked Apple because it seemed the least likely to be a bad first experience. It was pretty good, but the nuts on top were not crunchy and I felt they should be. I will not be excited about these until they find a way to replace my loved-and-lost Lemon Cashew bar. Sniff.
I have one left, which I am hording in my drawer at work, waiting until the perfect moment to enjoy it for the last time. I should probably check the expiration date soon.

Tonight, with all the ingredients assembled for a week of dinners, I faced my usual conundrum of where to start. Today was actually a really nice day in Philadelphia and since I came home from teaching to find my husband had actually opened one of the windows (which he does on every first day of 50-degree weather after weeks of mid-30s highs), so I didn't think his hot Greek blood would tolerate a soup dinner. Fortunately, that eliminated two choices. Ultimately, even though there was almost nothing perishable in this dinner, I made Pasta Florentine from The 30 Minute Vegan.

This was my first time ever cooking with the magical ingredient known across vegetarian and vegan circles worldwide as "nooch." I have seen multiple recipes calling for nutritional yeast, but I have shied away for two main reasons. First, I couldn't find it for the longest time, until another Philadelphia food blogger told me she gets it at Whole Foods. I looked in the bulk aisle, where she said it would be, and to my great surprise - it was there! Second, it just sounded so bizarre, I couldn't believe I would actually want to eat it. Like many things, though, the power of persuasion lies mostly in presence: the more I read about it in cookbooks and blogs, the more I thought, "Surely, all these people couldn't be wrong."

My first encounter with the Clif C bar was slightly better than mediocre. My first encounter with nooch was sufficiently impressive to balance that out. I'm not sure I would say it tastes like cheese, but perhaps if I hadn't eaten cheese for years I could draw that correlation. It is certainly savory and has a good flavor. I only got a small bit from the bulk bin because I didn't know how things would go, but I think it's fair to say these funny little flakes will find a permanent home in my "pantry."

Thursday, March 4, 2010

something old, something new

I remember when I was a child, my parents used to brush their teeth with baking soda periodically. My mother once explained to me why, but that was well over 2o years ago and I'm not ashamed that I don't remember it now. I, on the other hand, have been a devoted fan of Aquafresh in all its incarnations for most of my life. My dedication and faithful use of this toothpaste is actually due to what I perceive to be a mild case of paranoia on my part. In the more than three decades I have had teeth, I have never had a cavity or a root canal and I have all of my wisdom teeth still in my mouth and doing just fine. I didn't know anyone else who used Aquafresh but I saw my friends getting cavities and having trouble with their teeth, so in my semi-logical teenage mind, I figured my toothpaste was magical and that the moment I switched to a different toothpaste, all my teeth would fall out of my head.

I'll have to let you know how that works out, because when the last bit of toothpaste was squeezed from the tube last week, I replaced it with Tom's of Maine Natural Whole Care.

Something that has been bothering me for at least the past several months was how downright weird toothpaste like Aquafresh, Colgate, and other "mainstream" brands are. I mean, they're sweet! How does that happen and how can it be good for my teeth? Bit by bit, I became somewhat appalled with the ingredients in my toothpaste (hint: not magical faeriedust) and at just the right time, stumbled across an ad for Tom's toothpaste.

It doesn't taste like much and it actually leaves you feeling like your breath is less than minty fresh, but I'll tell you - my teeth haven't felt this clean since the last time I escaped from the dentist's office. I have been using this toothpaste twice a day for the past week and I am still amazed each time I finish brushing. They feel absolutely clean and here's the real kicker: I've been using Aquafresh Whitening for years, trying to reverse the staining done by years of overusing coffee and red wine. After only one week of using this hippie toothpaste, presumably made from tree bark and raindrops, there is a noticeable difference in the color of my teeth.

So, thus ends my raving review of Tom's of Maine toothpaste. Before we go into my next product review (something new), let me share this week's menu.

1. Pomegranate Saute on Cinnamon Bulghur - I was actually going to make this tonight, but Mister didn't feel like eating, so I had what was left of the Seitan Cacciatore with a mega-salad (mixed greens, sprouts, carrots, a clementine, sliced green olives).

2. White Bean-Tarragon Soup - this is one of the simpler soup recipes I've seen that actually attracted me. My idea of a good soup, perhaps colored by Mister's distaste for drinking his dinner, involves a ton of varied ingredients - a bulky soup, with five different veggies, maybe some beans and/or pasta or rice. This looked too good to pass by, though, so we'll see how it goes.

3. Tofu Saag - this looks like a creamier and less spinach-pressing-intense version of Palak Paneer, which is one of my favorite Indian meals. I've seen recipes like this in other cookbooks, but always passed on them, probably because it looked too difficult or I thought the results would be too bland.

4. Pasta Florentine - because you can never eat enough frozen spinach. And because Mister might die if I don't start making more pasta. It must be the sliver of Sicilian in him.

5. Homey Vegetable Stew with Dumplings - There is a similar recipe in Veganomicon and it looks so tasty and hearty and comforting, but it also looks extremely time-consuming and I have not been willing to make the effort yet. This recipe has almost as much promise and seems slightly easier to make. Maybe it will enhance my zeal to make Isa's recipe next time.

6. Monk Bowl - because that's just an awesome name for food. Also, because roasting tofu sounds like fun.

On Tuesday night, I made the Cajun Beans & Rice from The Accidental Vegan. I am so glad I did because I think I have finally found a satisfying recipe for this staple! I used ambiguously named "Red Beans" from Whole Foods, along with diced green pepper, and leftover Basmati (even though the recipe called for brown rice). I really think the magical ingredient that made this recipe better than others I've tried was the vegan Worcestershire sauce.

Anyway, I served it up with a nice big salad of mixed greens, carrots, kalamatas, and green grapes. It was a very nice dinner and it came together with delightful speed.

All of this week's menu items (except for #1) come from the newest member of my Cookbook Army, The 30 Minute Vegan by husband-wife team Mark Reinfeld and Jennifer Murray. This book is walking the tightrope between adventurous and fruity. This couple is blessed to live in Hawaii, which probably plays some role in the hippie air conveyed at times by this cookbook. Overall, though, I am thrilled with it. I put it on my Wish List sight unseen, which is rare for me. Because so many cookbooks have similar recipes, when I'm recruiting a new one to join its brothers and sisters on my shelves, I'm looking for a spark of creativity or something truly exceptional to set it apart from the others.

This book has so many of the elements I favor in other cookbooks - each recipe is accompanied by suggested partner recipes, which is so valuable if I decide I'm actually interested in making a side dish or appetizer. There is also a decent introduction that reads more like a blog in that it is very self-centered. I mean that in the purest form of the word - the introduction involves things that the authors find important in their own lives - what ingredients are necessary in their pantry/fridge, what cooking tools they can't live without, what causes tug at their hearts. I like knowing those things because it helps me to evaluate where I stand on things like, say, spirulina (a newer "superfood" - algae...not interested, thank you).

The point of the book, in case you missed it, is fast-cooking meals. The authors obviously care a great deal about the way they fuel their bodies, though, so they have included little snippets that tell you how you can enhance the meal if you have some extra time, as well as ways to cut down on cooking time/effort even more, in case you just spent 45 minutes looking for parking and are now officially starting to turn inside out from hunger.

I haven't really bought into the whole raw/living foods thing, but I do think it's neat that the authors have provided alternative ways of preparing certain recipes in order to make them live, and have marked recipes that are already raw/live with a little heart. I'm not interested in making raw/live food a way of life but I have been interested to try a recipe here and there and see what it's about, so this could be a fun experiment. I'll let you know how it goes!

Monday, March 1, 2010

no one to blame but yourself

I can't even count how many times I've made my menu selections from Vegetarian Times Fast & Easy and completely skipped over the Spicy Stir-Fry with Clementines, Asparagus, and Tofu, quite on purpose, I'll add. It's not like I just didn't see it - no, no, I saw it, I looked at it, and I said, "That sounds like way too much effort - who wants to peel and segment three whole mini-oranges?"

Apparently, not the person who has no problem spending a half an hour cutting four bell peppers into paper-thin strips... Yet somehow, I managed to find the energy to peel those little clementines after a long, unwelcome Monday. It wasn't actually that difficult - a little aggravating and tedious, but not difficult.

So, now I'm kicking myself for waiting so long. Dinner was so good and we ate every last bite of orangey, tofuy, asparagusy goodness. The sauce was exceedingly tasty and easy to make - I would honestly be quite content to just eat tofu slathered in that. If I wasn't planning on constructing my next menu entirely from my new birthday cookbook, I would probably feel the need to add the Orange-Laquered Tofu from the same cookbook (VTF&E).

Also, feel free to notice the much better quality of this photograph than other recent food porn. It's amazing how the bathroom light burns out so Mister decides to replace every lightbulb in the apartment. That's okay - I like being able to see my food!