Thursday, July 12, 2012

Pea Soup

I’m way into summer soup. In fact, I may be more into soup as a summer thing—to be served cold and clean on a warm June evening—than as a winter comfort food. That I eat soup in the summer as opposed to the winter, when I tend to lean toward casseroles and cornbread, probably goes a long way toward explaining the bi-annual fluctuations of my pant-size. Maybe. If you don’t tend to think of soup as a warm weather food, let me persuade you of your folly. This is particularly the case since warm weather comes bearing with it bushels of fresh herbs. While I’m not usually a cheerleader for fresh herbs, finding them a bit chichi and labor intensive (especially since the implicit injunction in the foodiverse is obviously to grow your own in your dedicated mini-indoor hydroponic garden, who the hell has a yard anyway?), I’m not averse to snagging a bunch of fresh mint or thai basil at the local farmer’s market on a sunny summer morning.

With all this talk about fresh herbs, you are no doubt already peering down your nose at the recipe below, which calls not for fresh peas, washed and de-podded laboriously while listening to the Decembrists and sipping PBR, but frozen. While I am sympathetic to the romance of fresh peas, the sad fact is that life is short and the work week long. Frozen peas it is. When you throw everything together with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and a handful of fresh mint, you will forget all about the lack of freshness in your peas.

Summer Pea Soup

2 bags frozen peas—20oz total
6 c veggie broth—c’mon intrepid cook, make your own compost broth. You have all the time in the world.
Handful fresh mint leaves
1 lemon, juiced
1 medium onion—diced, not finely—no need to knock yourself out over something you’re just going to blend up anyway
a few T olive oil

garnishes, optional: a few mint leaves and a dollop of plain non-dairy yogurt or sour cream

In a medium-large soup pot, heat the olive oil and add the onion. Saute just until translucent, then add peas and mint. Cook and stir for 1-2 minutes, then add broth. Bring to a light simmer and let it coast for 10-15 minutes. If you are lucky enough to have an immersion blender, break that bad boy out and blend the soup in the pot to the desired consistency. Some people prefer a smooth blended soup. Personally, I like mine a little on the chunky side. Texture is a highly personal thing. If you are not so lucky, blend the soup in batches. Good luck with those logistics. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Shameless Addiction: Spring Rolls

I have had spring rolls on my brain recently. As I think I've noted before, for anyone who has been reading my blog consistently over its lifespan, I'm a hardcore food looper. I get really intense about a particular food for a while, and then my obsession passes. Not all loops are equal; some are much much longer than others. Por ejemplo, I have been hitting kumquats suuuuuper hard for the last three months. Every weekend, I make a trip to Rainbow Coop, the epi-center of San Francisco's natural foods community, and stock up. They are a little pricey, and I never get out of there with less than $10 worth of kumquats--about two pounds. Whole Foods can't be bothered to carry them, and it's really just as well. All things being equal, I'd rather give my money to Rainbow. With the steadily warming California weather, I've been thinking of foods that would complement my passion for those shocking little citrus fruits. I've been turning away from casseroles and baked things and toward cold things, crisp things, things that won't weigh me down--literally and figuratively. Spring rolls, which, in my opinion, are never fried--I know there are those who would disagree, maybe even entire countries (obviously, they are all wrong)--are just the thing. The supple, thin rice paper wrapper hugs a bundle of moist vermicelli, marinated tofu, and blanched snap peas. A few leaves of Thai basil add a mild, peppery depth beautifully polished off by a rich, savory peanut sauce. Heaven.

Spring Rolls

1 pkg round rice paper spring roll wrappers--I found brown rice ones!!! Hurray for technology!
1 pkg thin rice or mung bean vermicelli--these have slightly different textures, but both work just fine
1 pkg baked, marinated tofu--I like Hodosoy Beanery's Braised Tofu
1/2 lb snap peas
1 bunch thai basil

These come together really quickly. The only aspect of them that makes them a little annoying is all the prep work. Once you have that done, though, you line them up and throw them together very quickly.

First, wash the peas and peel off the tops. Take those pesky strings that run down the sides. Nothing like a snap pea string to ruin your experience of a perfectly good spring roll. Put them in a saucepan and add an inch of water. Cook on medium with a lid on just until the peas are bright green a tender-crisp. Drain and shock with cold water. Set aside.

Wash the basil and set aside.

Cut the tofu into matchsticks and set aside.

Cook the noodles. If you are super crafty, you can use the hot water that you already heated up for the peas to also cook the noodles, or vice versa. That's kind of a tall order, though.

Gather noodles, peas, tofu, and basil on the counter where you intend to assemble the rolls. Fill a large bowl with water and position it conveniently in your workspace.

Take one wrapper and put it in the water. You want the bowl to be large enough that you don't need to push on or fold the wrapper to submerge it just under the surface of the water. (Doing so will make tiny stress fractures in the delicate wrapper. Once it yields its rigidity to the soothing embrace of the water, it will emerge with huge rents and tears. Such a wrapper is good for only one thing: wrapping up bits of tofu and peas to treat your beloved who is obviously standing by, ready to wash any dish the second you are finished with it. Such a beloved would never burden a laboring chef like you with something as menial as dishes. And, take it from me, your beloved will be more grateful for that little impromptu spring roll teaser than your effort to produce it really deserves. Small favors, you know?) Let the wrapper soak for about 30 seconds or until it is soft and pliable, then remove it and put another one in. This second one will soak while you assemble your first spring roll. Lay the wrapper flat on the counter. Take 2-3 basil leaves and line them up in the center of the wrapper. Top with about 1/4-1/3 cup of vermicelli. Arrange 2 peas and 2 matchsticks of tofu on top of that and roll.

The rolling is fairly intuitive, I think. These are rolled--at least by amateurs like me--just like almost anything else (tents, sleeping bags, burritos, whatever.). Fold the sides up. They needn't meet in the center. Then, pick a side and roll as tightly as you can without tearing the wrapper. Put that spring roll to the side, remove the second paper from the water and put the third in. Continue like this until you run out of ingredients, wrappers, or (if you are a truly excellent planner) both. Serve with Peanut Sauce (below).

Peanut Sauce

1/3 c smooth peanut butter
1/3 c water
2 T Braggs
1 T rice vinegar
1 t red pepper chili flakes

In a microwave safe bowl, microwave water and peanut butter just till warmed then mix vigorously with a fork until the two have made friends. They will, I promise. Add other ingredients and adjust seasonings as desired.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Coconut Whipped Cream, Again

By now the blogosphere has a pretty firm handle on the different methods of creating a vegan whipped cream. Isa, genius that she is, does something involving soaked cashews, wonderful source of vegetable fat that they are. And, honestly, for all I know, her Rad Whip could beat the lunchmoney out of my version. I would bet that it could. What I have on my side is sheer simplicity.

The usual advice about coconut whipped cream is to buy the full fat cans as far in advance as you can--a few days minimum, a few weeks best practice. While this is excellent advice, I can't always swing it. A few weeks ago, I decided to finally use up all the frozen cherries I had pitted the previous summer. I ended up baking them all into cherry crisp (NB, huge mistake. never make crisp when you should be making pie). When I asked C whether he was going to want ice cream on his dessert, he said, in his most high pitched and targeted-to-persuade-me voice, "Coconut whipped creeeeaaam?" Who can say no to that? But I hadn't planned ahead, so amidst a storm of admonishments and warnings, I added coconut milk to my grocery list. At the store, I carefully selected a can and took care not to shake it, which is all pretty silly really. I've worked at a grocery store and have seen first hand the abuse to which canned goods can be subjected. At home, I put the can in the freezer for a few hours, then opened it up and got to it. On a second occasion, just a few days ago, I did the same thing. I don't really know whether the freezing period is necessary, but once you try to make coconut whipped cream from insufficiently separated coconut milk, you will take whatever steps your complete lack of planning and foresight will allow. It's entirely possible that I just got ridiculously lucky. Twice.

I did use these two opportunities to hone my manipulation of agar to maximum effect. The effect is pretty awesome, I've gotta say. I think, in hindsight, that my previous efforts were simply cowardly. I was afraid of gelatinous coconut cream. Panna cotta is one thing. F'ed up whip is another. Perhaps I was emboldened by the total flop of my aforementioned cherry crisp. I used waaay too much cornstarch and the result was...well...gelatinous. In a bad way. I ate the cherries out of it anyway, because I'm fat like that.

Anyway, to make the perfect, creamy, pillowy coconut whipped cream, at least the way I do it, you need only a handful of ingredients and about five minutes, plus chilling time. And I'm not figuring in the amount of time you might have allowed to stick your last minute coconut milk purchase in the freezer as described above. But you also don't have to beat it three times, and it only has one setting period.

Coconut Whipped Cream, version 2.0

1 can full fat coconut milk (this is not the time to buy "Lite")
1/4 c organic powdered sugar
1/2 lemon
1/4 c water
1 t (heaping) agar powder (not flakes)

Open the can of coconut milk and scoop the separated fat out into a large mixing bowl. Leave the more translucent milk in the bottom of the can and put it back in the fridge. With any luck, someone in your house will add it to smoothies or protein shakes. Otherwise, you will think wistfully of it from time to time and then eventually throw it out and feel bad. Life is full of shame. Coconut milk will not save you from it. Using an electric mixer with a whisk attachment (ok, you can do without the whisk attachment if you are unfortunate enough not to have one, but do not try to do this by hand unless you are the human equivalent of the Jetson's maid), whip the coconut until it is fluffyish (1-2 minutes). You will be beating air into the coconut so that it increases subtly in volume. Don't slouch. Add sugar and beat again. Now comes the science-y part. Squeeze the lemon into a small, microwave safe dish. Add the water, and microwave just until boiling. (Yes, microwave haters, you could undoubtedly do this on the stove. Maybe you have appropriately tiny pots and Barbie-sized saucepans that are admirably suited to the task.) Sprinkle the agar over the water and stir until dissolved. Add this mixture to the coconut and beat well. Adjust sweetness (sugar) and sourness (lemon) as desired.

Cover and chill for at least an hour. Perfect.

If you really like the people you live with, like I do, serve big dollops of it over fresh strawberries and chocolate-chip lemon scones, like I did. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Guest Post: The Friendly Omni

Huzzah and greetings to Marla’s loyal readers. I’m Matt, and I am a not-proud-of-myself omni. Seriously, my ethics are just a total mess, and yet my dearest friend Marla allows me at her table and mails me amazing vegan treats on my birthday and at Christmas. She and C are wonderful, patient best friends. I repay them the best I can by scouring New York City for new delights and making sure we hit the trusty standbys (Foodswings, Champs, Pine Box). [Note from the blog owner: It's true, folks, Matt is the best non-vegan tour guide a hungry vegan in NYC could possible ask for. He diligently seeks out the awesome vegan foodiness and shleps us around the city doing what we do best: eating.]

I’m writing this because I’m undeservedly proud of myself for hosting a vegan potluck. Another dear friend, Jenny, flew into Brooklyn from the blustery coastal town of Portland, ME, to catch (reported vegan) Jeff Mangum play at BAM (Stephen Colbert was front-row, center, but it was seriously NBFD). She had 36 hours to basically see all of her Brooklyn friends, so it made the most sense to bring everyone over to my house and have a nice potluck.

It was never a question to me that it would be a vegan potluck. Most of these friends are some level of vegetarian/vegan/Thetan Level VI Vegan (see profiles below) and everyone seems to really step their shit up when it’s time to make something vegan. Check out my awesome vegan kung-fu, as it were.

It was such a good spread, and the vibes were so happy and goofy (quoth one guest: “Let’s just watch one episode of Twin Peaks and see how everyone feels.”), that I felt I had to share. So here’s the feast, and few short words from each dish’s preparer. Sorry for the shit quality of the photos. I only have a Kodak flipcam-style video camera. Small wonder the company’s bankrupt.

This is Andy. He started things off with an appetizer of killer Buffalo wings. A western New York native, he made his own seitan and deep-fried that shit, and supplied the cooling dip of his own bleu cheese dressing. It was outstanding. He blogs at Vegan Village, and you can read more about his wings there. [Note from the blog owner: Matt has done his best to foster an outright enmity between us and this handsome, charming guy by referring to him as "Super Vegan." This, of course, piques C and I's competitive edge and makes us imagine ourselves pitted against Andy in a brutal, bloody vegan-off to end all vegan-offs. Watch out, Andy.]

“Vegan for 10 years. i made buffalo chicken wings with blu cheese dip”

Next up is Liz, who came with a wonderful and healthy rice pilaf dish.

“On & off vege/pescatarian for 10 years, though i just started working at a burger place and am def off that wagon for a bit! I made italian black rice pilaf with roasted shallots & fennel, golden raisins, & pinenuts.”

This is Chris, who delivered the main entrée.

Vegetarian for a couple years. Sometimes I ignore things that have whey in them, but I'm generally dairy free. I made Moqueca de Camarão that replaced shrimp with tofu.. The tofu marinated the way you would prepare shrimp for the carnie version of the stew, but with some wakame to make it fishy ( I don't know if that attempt was successful.)

I just finished off the leftovers, and the dish was sufficiently, tastily fishy. Well-done, Chris.

Chris and Lily brought the dessert:

“Graduated from weekday-vegetarian/freegan omnivore to a full time veggie last week. Anyway I brought vegan Granny Smith apple fritters with powdered sugar (which I think I left at your apartment).”
I first became a vegetarian when I was 13 or 14. I stopped for a couple years when I was 16 because I wanted to experiment and what not. I became a vegetarian again when I was 19, vegan when I was 20, back to regular ol' vegetarian when I was 26. I'm 29 now and still a vegetarian, so that's a lot of vegetables.”
“After discussing the term with a coworker, I think I need to clarify that by calling myself a former ‘freegan-omnivore’ I didn't mean to imply I used to dine on garbage. I merely meant that if meat was offered to me for free I didn't turn it down. Now I turn it down.”
“Garbage cans are one of the most popular sources of free meat, though. Also, i'm a Thetan-level V. i forgot to say that before. i usually don't tell people, but since you brought it up...

So, there you go. A wealth of veggie-diversity, all united to make fantastic vegan dishes. I should also note that Jenny and I made a refreshing cold cucumber/carrot salad marinated in apple cider vinegar and olive oil, but we forgot to get it out of the fridge, like a couple of dummies. In any case, it served as a nice palate-cleanser as everyone was heading out the door.

Thanks, Matt! 

Thanks for reading, and thanks to Marla for indulging me. Never has being an ally been so tasty.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Bulgarianish Feast

I had been teasing C for months with promises of a feast inspired by, if not actually replicating, some of the yummiest food I had in Bulgaria. Being vegan in Eastern Europe turned out not to be that difficult after all, and all the language preparation I did in advance helped enormously. If I reach deep down into the core of my being, I may find that I can still ask for a non-smoking table at a restaurant in Bulgarian. I think. But, you know how it is, dear reader. If you don't use it, you lose it. At least, should I run into an errant Bulgarian, wandering through the malls and buildings of Silicon Valley, I am still armed with the words for "please" and "thank you." Aren't those the most important, anyway?

Getting back to the matter of food, though, one of the best dishes I had while traveling in Bulgaria was a stewed vegetable dish in the ski town of Bansko. It was rich and tomatoey and brilliantly simple. I ate it with a round flatbread that had been brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with paprika. Lovely. To this, I wanted to add the ubiquitous shopska salad, which made its appearance on every menu I saw. Sitting in a Bulgarian restaurant, I was a constant witness to servers making their way from the kitchen with plates that looked like nothing so much as snowy mounds of grated cheese. This, as it turns out, is shopska salad. Basically, it's a cucumber and tomato salad, sometimes with olives, topped with a white cheese of some variety. Because Daiya was in short supply (if you will grant me the understatement), I never actually got to try this dish. My curiosity, though, compelled me to take a crack at what I think it would be like.

I tossed together some diced tomatoes and cucumbers (quite a splurge in January!) and dressed the salad lightly with salt, pepper, and a bit of apple cider vinegar. Then I sprinkled the individual servings with mozzarella style Daiya. The result? It was the least impressive of the three items I made for our Bulgarian feast. It may be that I missed some key element, and I may need to appeal to people who have eaten shopska salad to advise me on this point. Or maybe the Daiya, which really is best when its warm and stretchy, just couldn't fill this particular bill.

Totally successful, however, were the vegetable stew and the armenian style flatbread. I'll include the recipe for the stew below. Stewing vegetables, as it turns out, is much more freestyle than exact. Even the recipes I found online were remarkably inexact. I decided to just gather my vegetables and go for it. For the flatbread, I specifically did not want the harder, layery pita bread. The flatbread I had and enjoyed in Bulgaria was round and soft, so I combed the internets looking for something like this. I took a gamble on a recipe for Lebanese-style flatbread and it was perfect. Also very forgiving. I threw this recipe together with hardly any kneading and let it rise twice while I ran around with C to get groceries and check out a reception site for our wedding (ieeeeeeeeee!). I also used a combination of white and whole spelt flour for health reasons and to accommodate our beloved roomie's allergy issues. Rather than grilling them, which might have been lovely had I the time or inclination, I baked them in a 450 oven for about 7 minutes per side. The resulting breads were toothsome and tender, just what I wanted. We at them with a bit of earth balance and a generous sprinkling of some of the paprika I brought back from Bulgaria.

Monastery Stew (Vegetable Hotch Potch. Whatever)

3 medium russet potatoes, diced
2 heads broccoli, chopped
3 carrots, sliced
1/2 pound white mushrooms, quartered
1/2 pound green beans, cut
1 large yellow onion, sliced
1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
2 cubes vegetable broth

Preheat oven to 450. In a large dutch oven, saute the onion in a bit of olive oil. When it starts to become translucent, add the carrots. I just kept cutting the vegetables and adding them to the pot as I finished them. Do the mushrooms last. Then pour the tomatoes over the whole thing. Add about an additional cup of water, and the two broth cubes. Cover the pot and slide it into the oven. Bake 30-34 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft. Check the stew every 10 minutes or so, stirring to let the flavors mingle.
C and D both said that this tasted very rich. And it's so so simple.