Monday, November 30, 2009

Mushrooms and potatoes in wine sauce

Vegans, this is a dish for the ages. My intention tonight was to do a whole post on cashew cheese, but that will have to wait. This is so good you too will want to run, not walk, to the nearest Asian market to buy various interesting mushrooms that you can cook into this dish. It is perfection! The secret is a very light hand with the onions and garlic, which compliment the flavours of the mushrooms without overpowering them, so don't be tempted to add more than the recipe calls for.

Here's the recipe:

Mushrooms and potatoes in wine sauce
adapted from The Vegetarian Epicure: Book Two
Serves 2 as a main dish, 3-4 as a side dish

8 dried shiitake or other dried mushrooms, soaked in warm water just to cover for approximately a 1/2 hour (save the soaking water) and sliced
3 tbsp Earth Balance
1/3 cup chopped onion
1 small clove garlic, minced
1/2 tsp sea salt
1 1/4 lbs russet potatoes
3/4 cup dry white wine
1/4 lb mixed fresh mushrooms
dash dried dill weed
dash dried thyme
2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
fresh-ground black pepper
1/2 cup cooked lima, garbanzo, navy, or other white beans

Melt 2 tbsp Earth Balance in a large pot and sauté the chopped onions until softened. Add the garlic and the potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes. Pour in the white wine, add the salt, stir, and cover the pot.

Simmer on medium low heat for 10 minutes, then add the soaked mushrooms and the mushroom liquid, stir, and cover again. continue simmering, stirring occasionally, for another 20 minutes. The potatoes should be completely tender.

Meanwhile, wash and slice the fresh mushrooms (I used brown mushrooms, shimeji, and enoki). Melt the remaining 1 tbsp Earth Balance in a skillet, add the dill weed, thyme, chopped parsley, and sliced mushrooms, and sauté them, stirring constantly, until the mushrooms are tender. Set aside.

When the potatoes are cooked, add the sautéed, herbed mushrooms and the beans to the pot, and simmer, uncovered, for a few more minutes, stirring often. Add fresh-ground pepper to taste, and more salt if needed. The liquid should be reduced to a thick, gravylike sauce.

This is so much more fantastically, amazingly delicious than the ingredient list would lead you to suppose. I served it with some baby bok choy stir fried with garlic and sea salt, for a colour contrast. Oh, yum!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Beet and pineapple salad + focaccia

Diane's birthday party is tonight! My brother Douglas is hosting (so we can decorate his place while we're there) and making chili, Mom is bringing cabbage rolls (vegan and non-veg), and I'm on for focaccia and salad.

I have been, as you know, taking a stroll down memory lane with The Vegetarian Epicure: Book Two, and wandered across this recipe. Actually, what I'm going to post is not that recipe exactly, but only because I had just one big beet, which came to about half a cup after it had been cooked instead of the 3 1/2 cups the recipe calls for. My family aren't huge salad eaters, but bringing a cup of salad for five people is…well, it just isn't the thing, so I made some additions of my own and actually judging from taste tests along the way in my opinion I improved on it. The major improvements consisted of slow-frying the beets instead of boiling them, and using balsamic vinegar instead of red wine vinegar (which I generally dislike).

The salad itself is kind of trippy though. I picked it mainly because I had this beet but also because it looked so strange. Beet and pineapple? Hard to imagine. Why pineapple? Well, as it happens, pineapple pieces are rather translucent, and take on the loveliest colour when mixed with the beets, becoming like adorable little magenta jewels. The sweetness of the pineapple (and the balsamic vinegar, if I may say so) compliments the earthy taste of the beets beautifully. This is a sweet-ish salad, in fact truly more of a condiment, but I think it will go well with the other items on the menu, particularly the cabbage rolls.

On edit: It did, and several people had second helpings!

Beet and pineapple salad
loosely adapted from The Vegetarian Epicure: Book Two
makes approximately 2 cups

1 very large or 2 regular beets (about 1/2 cup when cooked and diced)
1/3 cup chopped, drained pineapple (I used canned)
1/3 cup celery, finely diced
1 green onion or 1 shallot, finely chopped
1/2 cup kidney beans, or black beans, cooked
1 tbsp + 1 tsp olive oil
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
sea salt, to taste

Peel the beets and cut them into 1/4 inch dice. Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a non-stick pan and sauté the beets on medium heat until barely tender, approximately 20 minutes.

Combine the cooked beets with the pineapple chunks, celery, and green onion or shallot. Add the beans, the remaining olive oil, and the red wine vinegar, and add salt to taste.

Chill the salad for several hours, then stir it up again and take it out of the refrigerator at least half an hour before serving, so that it is cool but not ice-cold. Serve in small bowls or on lettuce leaves.

This salad, though kewl and quite delicious, will not make me the culinary star of the party, I can tell already. Vegans, if you haven't learned this already, very few salads ever will. But here is a recipe that will guarantee you a place at the giddy heights of popularity. Hosts will request it, or if you tentatively suggest to someone who's eaten it before, "Well, perhaps I could bring focaccia…" the reaction is sure to be an enthusiastic "Oh, yes! That would be wonderful!"

This is because the recipe I am about to disclose contains almost no nutrients—in fact, it is candy cleverly disguised as bread. I never make this for myself, but I tend to make it for all kinds of social events. "What's your secret?" the guests all ask, as they inhale big wedges of the stuff. The secret is sugar. Sugar and fat. Sugar and fat and refined starch. The magic fails if you use an atom of whole wheat flour, or something other than white sugar. The recipe comes from the booklet that accompanied my first bread machine, a West Bend Automatic, now retired. I've veganized it, but that's basically it.


1 cup + tbsp water
3 cups all purpose flour
3 1/2 tbsp white sugar
1 tsp salt
3 tbsp Earth Balance
2 tsp active dry yeast or 1 1/2 tsp fast rise yeast

Toppings (optional except where indicated):

olive oil (not optional)
sea salt, preferably rough-ground (also not optional)
dried oregano
cracked black pepper
chopped olives
caramelized onions
thinly-sliced tomatoes

I generally make this in the bread machine, and if you are doing the same, you'll be adding all the focaccia ingredients in the order your machine's handbook advises. Put it on Dough cycle, and when it's done turn the dough out onto a floured surface, pat into a rough circle, and, if you love yourself, let it rest 10 minutes so it will be easier to handle. If you're making it by hand, presumably you know what to do; this is like a soft pizza dough.

Once the dough has rested, either pat it out into a larger circle or roll it with a rolling pin (I'm a rolling pin girl) to the thickness you want. The thickness will approximately double during rising and cooking. Place the round on a pizza stone or cookie sheet (I'm lucky enough to have a gorgeous ceramic pizza stone that Diane and our mother made for me) sprinkled with cornmeal.

Now take your fingers and poke shallow depressions all over the dough to make little places that all the olive oil you're going to pour on can settle. Pour on olive oil to taste—either regular or extra-virgin, whatever you like—but use at least 3 tbsp, and spread it all around over the surface of the dough. Now add your other toppings. Keep it simple, if you take my advice. Usually I just use sea salt and a little oregano, though today I used caramelized onions and sea salt.

Now turn on your oven to 350F. Once it heats up, put the focaccia in; my oven takes about 10 minutes to heat up, and that much rising time is enough. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the bottom is done and the top is golden.

If you can get it warm and fragrant to the party, so much the better, but it should be eaten within a few hours of coming out of the oven. Enjoy!

Happy birthday, Diane!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Tortilla a la paisana

This is a recipe adapted from Anna Thomas's The Vegetarian Epicure: Book Two. I bought this and The Vegetarian Epicure: Book One not too long after they were published, in the 1970s, and must say that in many ways they shaped my culinary tastes. Reading through them now, I can see they're dated and written by a young person. For instance, back then even vegetarians were absolutely paranoid about where they were going to get their protein, so these recipes are very, very high in cheese, eggs, cream, sour cream, butter, and every other kind of dairy product you can imagine, which seems extreme today, but honestly were just par for the course in the 1970s whether you were omni, vegetarian, or whatever—the word vegan was coined in 1944 but take my word for it, in 1972 and 1978 when these books were published, not a lot of people knew what it meant. These were the books I learned to cook from. Soufflés, rye bread, pumpkin corn bread, cream of carrot soup, béchamel sauce, spinach and cheese gnocchi, fried mozzarella, oh my god the memories! I would weigh 400 pounds and have a heart condition if I were still cooking like that today, but this, my friends, was good food.

The books contain sentences like "This two-hours-later course is especially recommended if grass is smoked socially at your house. If you have passed a joint around before dinner to sharpen gustatory perceptions, you most likely will pass another one after dinner, and everyone knows what that will do…" Well, it was another world.

My copies of both volumes are lovingly bound together with duct tape.

Imagine the thrill, so many years later, of hearing that Anna Thomas was coming out with a third volume, The New Vegetarian Epicure. I was so standing in line to buy it! But I guess the new part referred to the inclusion of recipes for roast turkey and chicken stock as a regular ingredient, WTF? I couldn't get over it. No matter how often I tried to give that book a chance, my fingers would automatically riffle with horrified fascination through to her husband's (?) extremely graphic roast turkey recipe ("Even the vegetarians want to try a slice of my roast turkey.") Uh, no. They don't. Or they're not, you know, vegetarians. Anna, if you are no longer a vegetarian, that's your choice, but calling your book The New Vegetarian Epicure was an epic error. If you'd just called it something neutral, like Lorna Sass did after she reverted, I'd have been able to deal. I own many omni cookbooks, but for heaven's sake, roast turkey? On a spit? In a recipe fully three pages long and set on specially coloured pages so you can't possibly miss it? You must really, really love your husband. Probably you have suffered enough already over this unwise decision, if even I, a normally pacificistic and gentle person, am thrown into such a violent excess of rage by it that wouldn't even publish my review, but I had to give the book to charity and you have lost my love and my money for all time in the future.

But your two first cookbooks remain classics in my world. I can't help it. Even though I'm vegan now and have to veganize nearly every recipe, I don't care. I still love them. I'm imprinted.

So, in the spirit of cooking for one, I give you the following:

Tortilla a la paisana
adapted from The Vegetarian Epicure: Book Two and Vegan Brunch
serves 1

Omelet ingredients (this is basically 1/3 of the divine and ever-versatile tofu omelet from Vegan Brunch)
1 small garlic clove
1/3 lb fresh or silken tofu
2 tsp nutritional yeast
2 tsp olive oil
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp salt
2 tbsp chickpea (besan) flour
1 1/2 tsp cornstarch or arrowroot

Throw all this into a blender and puree until smooth, adding a little water if you need to to make it blend. Set aside.

Tortilla ingredients
1/2 small potato, peeled and finely diced
1/4 medium-sized onion, finely diced
1/2 medium sized carrot, peeled and finely diced
1 tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup green peas, fresh or frozen (I used edamame because that's all I had and it worked out very well)
1/4 cup sweet red pepper, finely diced
salt and pepper

In a non-stick pan, heat the olive oil, and, when hot, add the potato, onion, and carrot and stir fry for about 3 minutes. Add the peas and red pepper, and continue to cook until the potato is just tender, about 5 minutes more. Season with salt and pepper.

Now stir up the omelet mixture one more time and pour it over the vegetables, shaking the pan gently to distribute the mixture evenly. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pan, and cook the tortilla for about 10 minutes, or until the omelet is set.

Loosen the edges of the tortilla with a knife or spatula. Turn a large plate upside down and place it over the pan like a lid. Holding the plate in place, overturn the pan quickly, dropping the tortilla onto the plate. Slide the tortilla carefully back into the pan and brown the other side for a few minutes (I was careful, but my tortilla still stuck to the plate. Don't fret, it will still be great!).

The tortilla may be served at any temperature, from hot to very cool.

This was served with some shredded cabbage--purple, green, and Chinese--stir fried in Earth Balance with a little nutmeg, salt, and pepper; some mango salsa from Rebar; and Champinones a la plancha also from The Vegetarian Epicure: Book Two, which are essentially mushrooms sautéed in Earth Balance, garlic, and white wine and seasoned with parsley and salt and pepper (enokis were on special at the Asian market this week so I used those but any mushroom would have been just as good). I also topped it with some plain cashew cheese, which I am liking more and more the more I eat it. As you can see, it even melted a little!

What a great meal! Challenging, yet rewarding. Delicious, and I also got to vent about Anna Thomas in public, which I have been dying to do for years. A great day!

Cooking for one

With winter, season of breads, stews, casseroles, and other heavy fare, upon us, I've been feeling the need to eat a little less. Cooking something new each day is all very well, but cooking dishes intended to serve four and eating them over one or two meals isn't ideal! I've been trying to work out some tips and tricks for shopping, cooking, and eating for the single cook. Here are a few that I've already fully mastered:

1. Buy pantry items such as pasta, flour, beans, and canned goods in bulk.

2. Have a deep freezer if you can afford it (I bought mine when I was 26 and had almost no money but it was worth the sacrifice and has served me well for…uh, let's just say many years) in which to keep frozen ingredients and partially completed dishes, such as pierogi, "meatballs," dumplings, and soup stock.

3. Of course, you can make big batches of things like chili and soup and freeze those in meal-sized portions, which I do sometimes, though pulling a completed dish out of the freezer and reheating it is, for me, usually just depressing. Still, as with chili, it's certainly convenient and often really useful to have some of this stuff around, as long as the volume of it doesn't get out of hand.

Here are a few that I'll be working on in the next while, I hope:

4. Cook in small saucepans, casserole dishes, etc. so you're not tempted to fill larger ones all the way to the top.

5. Pack up the leftovers immediately, even before you start to eat, if that's feasible. If you're planning on taking some of them for lunch, put them in your lunchbox. I at least have never yet violated a packed lunchbox!

6. And the number one piece of advice I personally need to practice: When buying fresh produce, just buy what you'll realistically use before it has a chance to go off. No matter how good the price is, or how beautiful and delicious the items look, unless you can preserve them some way it's no use buying something that will spoil before you can eat it all, or that you'll have to eat more than you want of just because it's there.

7. Oh, and bring a list to the grocery store and try to stick to it, and never, ever, shop when you're hungry!

Many of the recipes I made in October during my VeganMoFo Japanese challenge were dishes easily adapted to one serving that were also satisfyingly engrossing to prepare. This is similar to one of those, only it was inspired by one of the Rebar recipes, Udon & ginger squash with miso-shiitake broth. Indeed, it created one bowl. Here's what I did:

Udon & ginger squash with mushrooms and greens
adapted from the Rebar ModernFoodCookbook
serves 1

2 cups mushroom dashi
1 tbsp minced ginger
1 tbsp tamari
1 tbsp mirin
1 tbsp sake

1/2 small kabocha squash or other yellow-fleshed winter squash
1 tsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp grated ginger
dash sea salt

fresh mushrooms (I used enoki and shimeji but any tasty mushroom would do)
fresh or dried udon noodles for one serving
2 heads baby bok choy, leaves separated
2 scallions, cut on the diagonal

sesame oil, for drizzling

Peel the squash and cut into approximately 3/4 inch wedges, and toss these with the oil and grated ginger; sprinkle with sea salt and bake at 375 for approximately 20 minutes, until the squash is tender and beginning to brown. This tasted wonderful in the soup and is also a very nice way to dress squash just on its own, by the way.

Meanwhile, add the broth seasonings to the dashi and keep warm.

Lightly fry the mushrooms, then set aside. If you're being economical with pots, you may want to do this in the same saucepan you'll cook the noodles in.

Boil water for the noodles in a saucepan, and, when it is boiling, toss in the baby bok choy leaves and cook just until bright and slightly wilted. Remove and set aside. Now cook your noodles according to the package directions.

Drain the cooked noodles and place them in a bowl. Arrange the mushrooms, bok choy leaves, and a few wedges of roasted squash over them (I also added a bit of cubed firm tofu). Carefully pour in some of the hot broth, top with the chopped scallions, drizzle with sesame oil, and serve immediately.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Reviving gyozas

A word to the wise: gyozas don't last forever in the freezer. They look fine, but the pleated part at the top dries out, and this weekend I couldn't get them properly rehydrated in the frying pan (they were all right and my guests enjoyed them anyway, but still, we strive for constant perfection here at the Airy Way so I was disappointed; luckily they were the same guests who had tried them the first time;-).

So today, since there are still significant numbers of gyozas in the freezer, I tried just steaming them on top of a little cabbage in a bamboo steamer. Joy! They were wonderful.

In fact, as delicious as they are fried and then steamed, I like them better this way, just steamed. They were frozen when I put them in and the steaming took about 20 minutes.

These are also a fantastic way to use seitan. Catching up another old thread, I made another batch of my favorite "chicken" type seitan from The Real Food Daily Cookbook over the weekend, and this time tried baking two of the rounds. The steamed ones were as good as the first batch, but the baked ones were decidedly bread-y (they even "rose"), which I very much dislike in seitan, so I cooled those two rolls and ground them into crumbles in the food processor. And put the crumbles in the freezer, of course. But look for them in starring roles in future posts....

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Braised cabbage with vegetable confetti and bulgar

Tonight I started cooking not quite knowing what I was going to make, just going through the fridge and picking out ingredients, one of which was a small beet. Beets tend to bleed all over stir fries, turning everything pink or purple, so I diced it into little cubes and stir fried it separately. Encouraged by the results, I did the same with a mixture of sweet potato and carrot, and set all that aside while I steamed whole wheat bulgar and cooked shredded cabbage with a little shredded sweet red pepper, one not-very-hot jalapeno pepper, and some shallots and garlic and azuki beans.

I was sort of following a recipe for this part, and the recipe called for adding a little stock or water and covering for a few minutes. This made the cabbage tender, but would have worked better as a technique on green or savoy cabbage alone--the purple cabbage was bleached in the wash and would have been prettier in a straight stir fry.

At any rate, the cabbage mixture was seasoned with the juice of half a lemon and half a lime and the zest from both, sea salt, and a little hot pepper syrup, mixed with the bulgar, and topped with the diced vegetables and some chopped avocado. I liked the beet-as-condiment thing especially, and the slow stir frying really brings out its flavour. Well, it's an idea in process, and I'll be experimenting with it some more in the near future…

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Potatoes and greens

This is a dish from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. I came home tonight craving something simple and comforting, only to be greeted by one of those large plastic containers of "spring greens" which was only one day past its best before date, but was frankly looking a little more than that, not off, but just enough over its peak of freshness that I didn't want to eat it as a salad (and anyway, I keep buying this stuff because it's so pretty and healthy but I don't really like green salad that much, especially after work).

So, this is the basic thing, which I am typing from memory in my own words, with a few changes I made to the method as well:

Potatoes and greens
adapted from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
Serves 2 hungry people as a main dish or 4 as a side dish

4 medium potatoes (any kind)
1 lb greens, roughly chopped (I used this package of spring greens plus some kale)
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp red pepper flakes
2 medium cloves of garlic, slivered
more extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling

Peel, chop, and steam the potatoes until tender. Meanwhile, put a little salted water in a skillet and cook the greens (in batches if necessary) until tender, lift out of the water, and set aside. Pour off the pot liquor to use in stock.

In the same skillet, heat the olive oil and add the pepper flakes and garlic. When the garlic is fragrant, add the greens, then pour the steamed potatoes on over top. Add sea salt to taste, and cook until everything is heated, smashing the potatoes up a bit with a fork to make a rough hash. Serve with a little more extra-virgin olive oil drizzled on (do use extra-virgin, if you have it; you can really taste it in a simple dish like this).

I also wanted to see what the "chicken" style seitan I've been so enamoured with lately would taste like fried in a little canola oil. Here you see it. I ate it, and can confirm that it was much better than it looks, although IMO it doesn't look that bad! The seitan is very moist, and the crunchiness of stir-frying added a little something nice. It was a simple meal, but I enjoyed it very much.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


I learned about this dish from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (but by some anomaly it doesn't appear in the index so you have to search through the "egg" section for it). Deborah Madison says she seeks this dish out every time she is in Texas, but I say: why wait? No doubt there is some authentic ingredient only Texas can supply, but I've been to Texas…oh…never, and am not likely ever to go, so I'll make do with what's available.

Basically, this is scrambled tofu with crumbled tortilla chips added. The tortilla chips incorporate themselves into the mix in a way that is quite amazing (and amazingly delicious!). They add substance, but in the final thing you wouldn't know they were even there. Just about everything else is variable. I usually start with a vegetable stirfry, then add fresh or firm tofu (or a mixture). Ingredients for the vegetable stir fry could be any or all of:

green, red, or yellow peppers
jalapeno peppers
savoy cabbage
diced cooked potatoes

You get the idea. Cook a mixture of these things over medium heat until they're starting to tenderize, then add crumbled tofu and some kind of tomato mixture (I used some diced canned tomatoes). You want the pan to have some liquid before you add the tortilla chips. I like this hot, so I also would add some red pepper flakes, a little sea salt, some black pepper.

When everything is heated through, add the crumbled tortilla chips and mix in well.

You don't need to mix for long before they've absorbed most of the available liquid. Then you can stir in or sprinkle on your toppings, which could be such things as:

chipotle chile powder
grated vegan cheese
sliced green onions
more jalapenos

How good this is! And how quick and easy!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Seitan reuben

For this, I used the recipe from Robin Robertson's Vegan Planet, but I must say that this sandwich could taste like anything depending on what you use for (1) seitan; (2) cheese; and (3) bread.

There's a little sauce, which is 2 tbsp Veganaise + 1 tbsp sweet relish. The recipe also called for mixing some ketchup in, but (1) I don't have any ketchup and anyway I don't like it; and (2) holy God, the thing tasted so fantastic with just the Veganaise and sweet relish I didn't want to wreck it by adding anything else.

For seitan I used some thin-cut slices of the "chicken" type seitan I raved about a while back, and for cheese some homemade cashew cheese which I believe is more or less the "gooda" cheese from the Uncheese Cookbook without the nutritional yeast. I really like nutritional yeast—it's my favourite topping for popcorn, for instance—but it does something uncomfortable to cashew cheese, in my opinion. That said, my cashew cheese had a pretty good texture but was very bland—in fact, it tasted a lot like what may still be called "farmer's" or "jack" cheese, so basically a little more like nothing than raw tofu.

The really big deal was that I got to use my new panini press, which was a birthday present from back in September, but since Japanese cooking doesn't involve paninis, I wasn't really in a position to play with it until now. I love the way the press cooks sandwiches, but there has to be a way to make great vegan paninis without nearly everything in them imitating some kind of animal product. I will be giving some thought to this in the next little while, but if anyone reading this has any ideas, please pass them along!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Poppyseed pappardelle

Oh, yum. The Rebar Modernfoodcookbook is wonderful. Please go out and buy it and then you can make this recipe, which isn't online except as it is mentioned in one griping review whose criticisms I just don't get. This is a really good recipe--onions, mushrooms, garlic, sweet red pepper, seitan, sautéed in a Merlot reduction, dill and parsley added, and served with wide noodles mixed with Earth Balance (okay, I veganized it) and poppyseeds, and dressed with a dollop of tofu sour cream from Robin Robertson's Vegan Planet. I used a mix of white, brown, crimini, portabella, oyster, and enoki mushrooms. Heaven!

Tragically, I could not find the recipe online to share with you, but Susan V at FatFree Vegan Kitchen has a similar tofu sour cream recipe, which I can (my version is slightly adapted):

Tofu sour cream:

6 ounces fresh or silken tofu
1 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tbsp cashew butter or tahini or canola oil
1/4 tsp salt (optional)
1/4 tsp sugar (optional)

Blend all the ingredients for the tofu sour cream until completely smooth, and set aside in the refrigerator until needed.

It isn't sour cream, and doesn't taste exactly like sour cream, but over time I've come to really relish it for exactly what it is…

Frankly, I'm not quite sure what pappardelle are, but I gather they are some kind of wide egg noodle. I used a mixture of white and whole wheat lasagne noodles, crumbled up, cooked, and mixed while hot with more Earth Balance and some poppy seeds.

Served with a little of the leftover Thai 3 cabbage slaw from yesterday: did it go well with the pasta? Why yes, it certainly did! But then, cabbage never goes amiss in the fall or winter, according to me.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Thai 3 cabbage slaw with spicy red curry vinaigrette

This is the Thai 3 cabbage slaw from the Rebar Modern Food Cookbook. It was easy to make and very spicy and tasty and, of course, always paramount here at the Airy Way, colorful. I veganized it very slightly, added roasted almonds and sesame seeds for substance, and brought it to a family dinner tonight. It went over pretty well, for salad.

Here's the whole meal (that I ate), which starred not only the coleslaw—recipe found here among other places, so I share it with you below—but a delicious mix of spiced roasted root vegetables made by my sister Diane:
But enough about the food. Tasty as they were, both Diane's efforts and mine were trumped by our brother Douglas, who saved our mother's life by the administration of a Heimlich maneuver at a critical instant. This was the most exciting family dinner ever! Quite apart from the quick-thinking, cool-headed, skillful, and indeed heroic actions of Douglas, which Diane and I will no doubt be living down for a long, long time, while I was shredding cabbage and roasting nuts this afternoon, it never crossed my mind that I would be so grateful at the end of the evening simply to still have both parents alive and well.

Thai 3 cabbage slaw with spicy red curry vinaigrette
from the Rebar Modern Food Cookbook
Serves 6-8

1/2 small head sui choy (or napa cabbage)
1/2 small head green cabbage
1/2 small head purple cabbage
2 carrots
2 peppers, red and yellow
1 small red onion
1/2 bunch cilantro or Thai basil (or cilantro)
2-3 scallions
Roasted peanuts and fresh lime wedges for garnish

Core and finely shred the cabbages. Peel carrots, thinly slice diagonal coins and then julienne each coin into thin, long matchsticks. Finely julienne the red onion and the sweet peppers. Mince scallions on the bias. Stem cilantro and roughly chop the leaves.

Toss together all of the vegetables with enough dressing to coat. Garnish with roasted peanuts and serve fresh lime wedges on the side.

Dressing (yields 2 1/3 cups):
1/4 cup chopped shallots
2 tbsp chopped ginger
1 serrano chile, seeded
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp brown sugar
3/4 tsp Thai red curry paste (Thai Kitchen brand)
1 tbsp sesame oil
1/2 cup peanut oil
1/4 tsp salt

Pulse shallots, ginger, garlic and chiles in the bowl of a food processor. Add the next seven ingredients and blend until smooth. Season to taste, but note that the chile heat will continue to develop as it sits.

Red curry (gaeng daeng)

Coconut curry is one of those dishes that give the impression of being a lot harder to make than they really are. It's a really pretty meal, full of warm, fragrant, complex flavours, that comes together in about 15 minutes. This recipe is based on one in Chat Mingkwan's Buddha's Table. The author rather charmingly remarks in his introduction that "This dish is the most often cooked curry in the Thai household…[red curry paste] pairs well with nearly all ingredients, especially any vegetables that grow near the house or those that have been left in the refrigerator." In northern Canada in mid-November there aren't many vegetables growing anywhere nearby, but there had been some left in my refrigerator…. Buddha's Table gives instructions on how to make your own red curry paste; however, I used Thai Kitchen brand because I was in a rush and anyway didn't have the proper ingredients (lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, etc.) on hand.

The secret to this dish is, surprisingly, broth powder, which is also what makes this recipe different from some of the other vegetarian coconut curry recipes I've seen, which get a lot of their salty flavour from soy sauce. Soy sauce tastes great, but it spoils the lovely red-and-white colour of the curry and turns it a muddy and not very appetizing pink.

I followed Chat Mingkwan's recommendation and used yuba for the protein element, but tofu of any kind, either fresh or lightly fried, is also great in this dish. If you're going to fry tofu, do that first, remove the fried tofu cubes from the pot, and keep them aside until the sauce and vegetables are nearly ready. Fresh tofu gets added right at the end. Yuba, however, needs to be in there almost from the beginning, so if you're using it, before you do anything else you need to put the yuba sticks into warm water to soak; they'll need about 20-30 minutes.

Gaeng daeng (Thai red curry)
adapted from Buddha's Table
serves 2

1 tbsp peanut oil
2 tbsp Thai red curry paste
1 1/2 cups reconstituted yuba, chopped into bite-sized pieces, or fresh or lightly fried tofu cubes
1 cup chopped bamboo shoots
1/2 chopped sweet red pepper
1 cup cauliflower florets
1 can (approximately 1 1/2 cups) coconut milk
2 tbsp brown sugar
zest and juice of 1/2 lime
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp vegetable bouillon powder, or 1/2 cube (or to taste; I used a little more)
1 cup broccoli florets
a few small sweet pepper cubes and/or sliced green onions and/or chopped peanuts for garnish

Heat the peanut oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the curry paste and cook 3-5 minutes, until fragrant. Add the yuba, bamboo shoots, red pepper, and cauliflower, and stir to mix well with the curry paste.

Add the coconut milk and bring to a boil. Stir in the soy sauce, sugar, and vegetable bouillon powder. Reduce heat and simmer for 7-10 minutes, or until the vegetables are just tender. Add the broccoli florets, lime juice, and lime zest (and the tofu, if using) and cook until heated through. Taste for salt and adjust seasonings if necessary. Serve immediately over rice or noodles.

What else have I been doing while I wasn't blogging? Well, I have been cooking, but kind of non-blog-worthy meals, either because they weren't all that photogenic (when I get a good image of the chile-chocolate mole from Veganomicon, I'll let you know), or I'd made them before (vegetable stew), or I haven't had time to post the recipe (yet).

One thing I did make that deserves a mention, if not a picture, was the Iraqi beet stew with meatballs from Lazy Smurf's Guide to Life. Go check it out; the images are gorgeous, the recipe's great, and the dish is very spicy, which is not something I would normally associate with beets. I let my beet sauce reduce too much so I didn't get that amazing-pool-of-purple effect. I also was lazier than the Lazy Smurf and didn't wrap my meatballs individually in tinfoil; instead, I rolled the dough into sausages, steamed them, and sliced them thick. This recipe makes a lot, and unless you're serving a big crowd or really, really like beets, you might want to take that under advisement.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Botanical balls with chili chocolate mole and confetti coleslaw

I came home from work craving salad, and more specifically coleslaw. This substantial and delicious slaw was made with shredded white and red cabbage, julienned carrots and beets, a few chopped green onions, cilantro, and leftover sweet ginger lime dressing, sprinkled with sesame seeds. Some of this meal, like the Rebar botanical burgers (now balls) I've blogged before. These were from the freezer. Near the end of their baking period, I added a few pieces of broccoli tossed with olive oil and some of Mark's Chick'n almond bake from the other night. Even the flatbread was some whole wheat bread dough I had made over the weekend that didn't rise properly, I'm not sure why, so rather than risk loaf failure I just stored it as dough in a container, and tonight mixed some of it up with some chopped green onion, rolled it out and fried it. Oh, and the sauce for the botanical balls is the chili chocolate mole from Veganomicon, which I put together on Sunday and which you'll be hearing more about later.

So this was kind of a Frankenstein-type meal which came together in a few minutes out of stuff I had here and there, but it was still so so good, and felt very fancy indeed for a Monday night!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Wild mushroom soup with amaranth-sunflower-spelt bread

Sometimes meals taste better than they look…this is one of those. My ongoing mission, now that October is over, is to use up some of the stuff in my refrigerator and freezer. It is a testament to my culinary packrat-nature that I had all of the ingredients for the amaranth-sunflower-spelt bread on hand and ready to go…I was a little unsure about it; it seemed so health-foody, but in fact it was sweet and really delicious, more of a crumbly corn bread than a biscuit. Anyway, it was the first time I had ever tried amaranth, though I have had a little bit of it around in the freezer for some time. At the start of this post is an image I took through my super-macro lens; the amaranth grains are in the bowl of a teaspoon.

Here's the recipe of what I made with it, which I found on Google Books and typed out (with a few very small changes) for me, and now for you:

Amaranth-sunflower-spelt bread
from The Angelica Home Kitchen: Recipes and Rabble Rousings from an Organic Vegan Restaurant by Leslie McEachern

1 cup water
1/2 cup amaranth
3/4 tsp sea salt
3/4 cup sunflower seeds
1 1/2 cups whole spelt flour (or whole wheat flour)
1/2 cup cornmeal
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp baking soda
1 cup soy milk
6 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 tbsp maple syrup

Place 1 cup water and 1/4 tsp sea salt in a 1-quart saucepan and bring to a boil. Add amaranth, lower flame, and cover. Simmer for 45 minutes or until water is absorbed. Curious about what it looked like then? (As always, click for more detail):

What was it really like? Well, strange, frankly. The overall texture was slimy, but then if you bit into a spoonful, the little grains would pop. The taste is quite pleasant. In the bread, this worked well, it seemed to act as a binding agent like ground flaxseed, but as a side dish on its own don't get any fancy ideas about amaranth, just take my advice and say no.

Preheat oven to 350F. Spread the sunflower seeds on a baking sheet and toast for 8-10 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

Whisk together the whole spelt flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, 1/2 cup sunflower seeds, and remaining sea salt in a medium-sized mixing bowl.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the soy milk, amaranth, olive oil, apple cider vinegar, and maple syrup.

Lightly oil a 9 x 9" round pie plate (I used the same cast iron skillet I had roasted the sunflower seeds in). Pour in the batter and sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 cup sunflower seeds. Bake for 45 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Some of the other things I needed to use up were mushrooms, so I found this very macho recipe, which I have rather significantly adapted, to include kale and cannellini beans:

Wild mushroom soup

2 tbsp Earth Balance
1/2 pound of any mushrooms, sliced, the wilder the better (okay, mine were just shiitake and oyster mushrooms, from the Asian market)
1/2 large chopped onion
1/4 cup dry sherry or Madeira
1 tbsp flour
1 tsp thyme
1 bay leaf
2 cups vegetable stock
1/2 cup soy milk

3 large stalks of kale, stemmed and chopped

1/2 cup cannellini beans
salt and pepper

Melt the Earth Balance in a soup pot and add the onions and mushrooms. Sauté for five minutes or so until the mushrooms are wilted and release their moisture.

Add the sherry, thyme, bay leaf and flour and reduce the heat to low. Continue cooking for another five minutes or so stirring constantly and scraping the bottom of the pot.

Add the stock, soy milk, chopped kale and cannellini beans and simmer for another 20 minutes or so. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

Serve as is or if you prefer puree all or part of the soup (I pureed part of it with a stick blender).

This all was served with a simple salad of baby greens and avocado, with the Honey-ginger dressing from Rebar which, and this is a first, didn't fully come up to my expectations, so I had to add to it the juice and zest of half a lime, after which it did:

Sweet ginger dressing
adapted from Rebar's Modern Food Cookbook:

4 tbsp ginger, minced
2 tbsp corn syrup, mirin, agave nectar, or maple syrup
5 tbsp rice vinegar
juice of 1/2 lime
zest of 1/2 lime
pinch of pepper
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup vegetable oil

Combine all of the ingredients except oil in a food processor or blender and process until smooth. Slowly add the oil in a thin steady stream. Taste and adjust seasoning. Heavenly!

This was altogether an excellent meal, it felt old-fashioned and sixty-ish so to me quite comforting (I was born in 1964 but maybe you know what I mean) and physically and spiritually nourishing. I'll be taking leftovers for lunch tomorrow, and am already looking forward to it.

What are these?

Seriously, I acquired these the other day but don't know their names or what they're used for. Can anybody help?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Chicken-style seitan almond bake and so much more…

Ooh, my friends, today I have so much to share! First, I have found the best, the absolutely most fantastic seitan recipe I have ever come across, and it is online. Second, I have taken this recipe and substituted okara for the cannellini beans, and it was a perfect success. This rivals my okara gnocchi for outstanding uses of okara and I am so thrilled about this I can hardly keep from screaming—well, perhaps I did scream a little, a quiet sort of scream that did not bring the neighbours running. The only downside is that 1 1/4 cups of okara is approximately the okara you get from one batch of soy milk, and added to the recipe I'm about to disclose, it makes over 4 pounds of seitan. This is a lot of seitan. But this seitan is worth making with cannellini, okara, navy beans, whatever. You know how in the past I've complained that, for me, eating seitan in a sandwich is like eating bread on bread—no more! This is like chicken without the body parts, Soy Curls with flavour, all my favourite foods rolled up together into a marvellous protein-rich package. What is the secret? Well, in my opinion, the secret is the large amount of chickpea flour.

Those who read this blog will already be aware that I am a huge fan of chickpea flour, or besan, but I've never seen this much of it in a seitan recipe. I tasted the batter and it was throat-stoppingly redolent of raw chickpeas. But you do end up cooking it, and I know it looks like shortbread, but oh, for the love of God, make this! You will be so happy!

The recipe can be found here and so the publisher at least has released it into the public domain, but since I had such a hard time printing it out, I reproduce it for you:

Chicken-style seitan
from The Real Food Daily Cookbook

1/2 cup plus 1 tbsp canola oil
1/3 cup chopped onion
1 tbsp minced garlic
3 1/2 cups gluten flour
1 cup chickpea flour
2/3 cup nutritional yeast
1 tsp salt
1 3/4 cups canned cannellini beans or okara
1/3 cup tamari
3 cups water

Heat the 1 tbsp oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and sauté for 5 minutes, or until tender. Set aside to cool.

Stir the gluten flour, chickpea flour, nutritional yeast, and salt together in a large bowl to blend (Zoa's note: make sure the chickpea flour doesn't clump; whisk it in well or, better yet, add it through a sieve: lumps will not incorporate during cooking). Puree the beans, the tamari, the remaining 1/2 cup oil, and the sautéed onion mixture in a blender until smooth, adding some of the water to create a smooth and creamy consistency.

Stir the bean mixture and the remaining water into the dry ingredients until a very wet dough forms.

Now at this point (and at the beginning) the Real Food Daily recipe gives rather complicated instructions about baking. I didn't bake my seitan; I steamed it, a la Julie Hasson, so you can check out the original for the baking instructions, but what I did was divide the dough into four pieces, roll up each piece in tinfoil, and steam the four rolls (stacked two on two log cabin style) for an hour and a quarter, shifting the bottom pieces to the top halfway through.

So once that was done, I actually finished up today's meal by putting together Mark's Chik'n almond bake from Irreverent Vegan, which I have been dying to try ever since I read his intriguing and very funny post about it. Yes, it's everything he claims it is! Plus, I didn't have to serve it with an old shoe since I had this superfantastic seitan to work with.

Served here with the Broccoli with capers and lumache from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, except I didn't have lumache so I used small shells instead. Lumache are medium shells, and in her book there is a pretty line drawing of pieces of broccoli nestled into the shells. My shells were too small for that, but if you'll notice, the capers fit in very nicely! (No, really, go back up and look, click on the image to enlarge it; it's too cute.) Here's the sauce the broccoli and pasta gets tossed with:

Plus, my own developing specialty, ribbons of carrot lightly fried with a little sea salt, plus some experimental ribbons of fried cucumber, which were surprisingly wonderful—why don't more people fry cucumber? I, at any rate, love it!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Black beans with chipotle adobo sauce and Mexican millet

Well, this was a weeknight fiesta! Little did I imagine, when I arrived home from work determined to make at least a little dent in the overstuffed contents of my fridge and freezer, that it would result in such a feast.

This meal is brought to you mainly courtesy of the Veganomicon, so thank you, Isa and Terry, for a wonderful—and for me, fridge- and freezer-wise, heaven sent—supper!

This is the black beans in chipotle adobo sauce with Mexican millet, plus I made up the leftover chapati dough from the other night and used the rest of the sweet corn salsa.

Mia dia!

The recipes from the Veganomicon can be found, verbatim, on Google Books. I did little to nothing to them to make them my own. They were very yummy!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Kasha varnishkes (with toasted walnuts and scallions)

These are from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. Of all the cookbooks I own, this one is the most consistently excellent and reliable. Others may be trendier or more fun, but if you want good solid recipes with lots of variations, especially outstanding in California-style vegetarian cooking, this is where you should go. This is her kasha with all the trimmings, Eastern Europe's version of mujadarrah, roasted buckwheat simmered to soft sweet perfection with Earth Balance, salt, and pepper, then added to (whole wheat, of course) bow ties and caramelized chopped onions, with a paradisial garnish of chopped walnuts, scallions, Earth Balance/olive oil, parsley, salt and pepper. Sigh…(after eating a whole lot) I can eat no more…luckily I've made this before and leftovers are superfantastic for lunch as well.

Served with some ingredients carried over from my all-Japanese VeganMoFo 2009 challenge, but cooked Western-style, namely oyster, king oyster, and enoki mushrooms browned in Earth Balance and canola oil, with garlic, lemon juice, parsley, salt, pepper, and chopped medium bok choy.

And finally, last but certainly not least, my favourite recipe from Vegan Brunch, the omelet…scrambled—oh, and I replaced some of the salt with the Japanese 7-spice mix shichimi togarashi, with wonderful success. I had started out with an omelet for my first helping, then had an odd amount left over, and encouraged by my success with Japanese-style "eggs" with bean curd, just scrambled it in big pieces. You know, the flavour is exactly the same, but something about the scrambled version really makes me all rosy and happy, so this is the picture I posted.

Such a good meal.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Chili sin carne with sweet corn salsa and chapati

This is the chili sin carne from Vegan with a Vengeance, my absolute favorite chili recipe, which I must have made, by now, literally dozens of times, and, what's more, it freezes beautifully (this was from the freezer). Served with the sweet corn salsa from Rebar (plus some chopped avocado) and simple chapati...perfect, perfect meal.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Vegetable soup (with dumplings)

Beautiful soup, so rich and green,
Waiting in a hot tureen!
Who for such dainties would not stoop?
Soup of the evening, beautiful soup!
Soup of the evening, beautiful soup!

Beau--ootiful soo-oop! Beau--ootiful soo-oop! Soo--oop of the e--e--evening,
Beautiful, beautiful soup!

Beautiful soup! Who cares for fish,
Game, or any other dish?
Who would not give all else for two
Pennyworth only of beautiful soup?
Pennyworth only of beautiful soup?

Beau--ootiful soo-oop! Beau--ootiful soo-oop! Soo--oop of the e--e--evening,
Beautiful, beauti--FUL SOUP!

-- Lewis Carroll

Ahem. Vegan vegetable soup is the easiest thing in the world to make, and probably the most rewarding. It's one of my weekday go to meals, it's different every time, and it makes me happy every time I have it. And you can serve it with bread or pasta, but dumplings just make this dish.

I love this meal with all my heart. You can have the crummiest day ever, come home so tired you can barely stand up, and compose a wonderful soup from leftovers and scraps in the time it takes you to drink a glass of wine and tell your cats all about it—well, okay, your cats are not likely to be interested, since they are, after all, cats, but have two glasses of wine and like Shirley Valentine you'll feel less inhibited about telling your troubles to the wall. All that said, I didn't have a particularly awful day, but I still came home craving vegetable soup.

You don't need a recipe for this. In my book, only one ingredient is absolutely necessary (and not even that if you use a good vegetable stock instead of the water): one small onion.

You don't need to have your brain on to make a great vegetable soup; you don't need to do advance planning, just stand at the counter and peel and chop and chuck things in. You don't do a mise en place, you don't have to make sure all the ingredients are standing by: it will be good no matter what you do.

I seldom use a stock for vegetable soup. What I do is this:

Basic vegetable soup
Serves 2

Heat 1 tbsp canola oil in a medium saucepan. Chop one small onion into a medium dice, and when the oil is hot, add it.

While the onion is heating, riffle through the fridge and pick out the things that might be good in soup. Maybe you have some little odds and ends that need to be used up, a single carrot, or a few leaves of cabbage, half a green pepper, the tender pale inside leaves of celery...Today I used:

1 carrot, finely diced
1 potato, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 jalapeno pepper, minced
1/4 sweet red pepper, chopped
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp coriander
3 medium leaves kale, de-stemmed and roughly chopped
several slices of dehydrated tomatoes, roughly sliced
2 medium bok choy, chopped
1/2 cup frozen corn kernels
1/2 cup cooked beans (I used azuki)
salt and pepper to taste

You can be chopping and adding so long as you do it in more or less the order of the above ingredient list, so the vegetables that need more cooking time get it. Sauté the onion, carrot, potato, and peppers for a few minutes just until softened. Add the cumin and coriander and stir for an additional 30 seconds or so. Cover with water to coat + 1 inch. Add the kale and dehydrated tomatoes and cook for the time it takes you to chop the bok choy and get the frozen corn and beans out of the freezer. Add those ingredients, and bring to a simmer. Add salt and pepper to taste.

The vegetables at this point are not fully cooked yet, and the broth is just beginning to simmer. Now for the piece de resistance. You can make these dumplings out of any kind of flour, but I've tried it all, and whole wheat is by far my favorite:

Whole wheat dumplings
Serves 2

1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 tsp baking powder
1 tbsp Earth Balance or canola oil (if you use canola oil, also add 1/4 tsp salt)
soy milk, rice milk, stock, or water

Place the whole wheat flour in a small bowl. Add the baking powder and mix well. Add the EB or oil and mix again until the whole is relatively well incorporated. Add liquid until the dough just holds together.

You can spoon teaspoonsful of this batter right into the simmering soup, or you can roll teaspoonsful into little balls, or you can even dump the dough onto a cutting board and cut it into squares. At any rate, little pieces of it get dropped into the simmering soup. Put a lid over it and let it continue to simmer for 20 minutes.

After 20 minutes, both the soup and the dumplings will have reached perfection. Spoon them out into bowls, add any toppings or condiments you fancy, and serve! And then leave a comment if you've ever tasted anything more paradisial in this life of sorrows.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

How to make vegan soap

Back in the day when I first became vegan, there were a few vegan soaps out there. Kiss My Face made a good vegan soap, there were specialty shops like Lush where you could buy it, and there were a few people selling handmade soap in local farmers' markets. The thing was, these soaps were so expensive, and in the commercial soap world ingredients don't have to be disclosed, so it was nearly impossible to find out exactly what was in them—for all I know many of them are/were vegan, though I suspect that animal fat is cheaper for the manufacturers to buy than vegetable oils, and since the quality of the soap is the same…anyway, I let myself feel uneasy about this issue for a while, then decided to do something.

What I did was take a half-day course on soapmaking. If you're considering making your own soap, there's no better way to start than this, or at least making it the first time with someone with experience who can show you the ropes. It's not hard, but soapmaking is all chemical reactions and therefore can be tricky for the uninstructed. The two ladies who taught our course gave us a handout with different recipes, very detailed step by step instructions, and some science. It's their copyrighted property, and while my sister and I have used it ever since, I can't actually give it out. This isn't something you can really wing, anyway; you should know what you're doing but once you do you can get quite relaxed. So take a little course of your own, but here are the illustrated basics.

Let me say first that the quality of the finished soap is equal or superior to anything you can buy anywhere. This is soap, and soap is just soap; the basic definition of soap is that it's made from oils/fats, lye, and water. If it's not made from these ingredients, by law manufacturers, at least in North America, aren't allowed to call it "soap"--they have to make up some euphemism like "cleansing bar." Our soap foams, it gets you clean, and furthermore contains the colors, additives, scents (or lack thereof) that you like. You can do all kinds of experiments with this part of it, and I have made Christmas-themed soaps with frankincense and myrrh, my sister had a pretty successful (in the opinion of the Aveda connoisseurs she knows) specialty for a while of replicating Aveda scents, and so on. She is in sales, and while she's not vegan, she makes soap because she likes the quality, and also likes to give prettily-wrapped packages of soap to her clients and co-workers each year.

The basic ingredients we use for our soap are in the above picture: coconut oil, canola oil, vegetable shortening, lye (and water), along with a token bottle of lavender essential oil to represent the additives.

To start, you need to measure out your oils and slowly melt them. I did an experiment this time—well, okay, I was forced to since we made a mistake and bought one box of "golden" vegetable shortening. Man, it was so golden it was almost fluorescent; it's hard to imagine actually cooking with the stuff, though it was rather pretty in the pot.

Now, wearing rubber gloves, measure out cold water and lye (lye is caustic and can burn you if you touch it with bare skin or breathe in the fumes), and—outside, always outside, for your own safety—slowly pour the lye into the water and stir until dissolved. The lye and water have a chemical reaction and the temperature of the mixture will shoot up to around 160F—that's hot, but not boiling hot. Now you need to wait for it to cool down to 100F; this takes a while, around an hour, depending on various factors including the ambient temperature, which is why we usually make soap in the fall or the spring, when it's cool outside.

So you have your oils very slowly melting, and your lye-and-water slowly cooling. Time to line your molds. My sister uses professionally-made wooden molds that will give uniform bars of soap. I prefer larger, more freestyle bars, so I just use cardboard boxes. Line the molds with plastic wrap or parchment paper for easy soap-removal. Molds shown here with the adorable Christmas Books Diane purchased for herself, our mom, and me, to write down and coordinate our Christmas Festivities plans in (and we did do some coordinatin' throughout the day; for our family, the secret to a successful and low-stress Christmas holiday season is advance planning).

When the oils and the lye-and-water mixture have both attained a temperature within a few degrees of 100F, they get mixed together. It's okay if there are still a few soft lumps of vegetable shortening in the oil. The commonest mistake novices make is to heat the oil too fast, so that it gets overheated and has to be cooled off to time right with the cooling lye. Pour the lye mixture carefully into the oils, stirring the while. The clear oils and clear lye mixture will turn cloudy together, then milky.

Now start blending with a stick blender. This will save you hours and hours of stirring, so it's worth buying a stick blender to use just for this purpose. Diane and I have old stick blenders, pots, spoons, and containers dedicated just to soapmaking—a lot of this stuff came right from Value Village or other cheap to free sources so it didn't cost much but it just makes things easier to have a kit, and sometimes, for instance, you can't be certain that you've got all the soap out of your stick blender, and for sure lye and/or soap isn't something you want to be blending into soups.

After a few minutes of blending, the soap will have the texture of a creamy, thick béchamel and will attain "trace." You know it's "at trace" when if you drag a spoon or the stick blender over the soap, the drippings lie on top of the soap and don't sink right back in.

Add your colours, scents, and other additives now, if using. My clever sibling mixed up some purple dye to make swirls. I like my soap very plain, so I added nothing this time.

Pour the soap into the prepared molds. Now wrap the molds up tight with blankets and towels because the chemical reaction has to continue for up to 24 hours. The soap will stay warm all that time, and can't be allowed to cool off too fast. Make sure you top the molds with something solid and stable, like a cookie sheet, because cats love to sleep up there. Cleanup is relatively easy if you have a dishwasher but if (like me) you don't, reconcile yourself to washing everything at least twice in water as hot as you can stand, remembering to wear your rubber gloves because the raw soap, even diluted by water, is still very sting-y.

After about 24 hours, the soap is ready to be unmolded and cut into bars. Even though you were careful to smooth the top of the soap completely, there will often be little squiggles and other textural markings on the top of the pan. I like them, but if you don't, you can trim them off the finished bars, or do what Diane does and cover the top of the wet soap with a sheet of plastic wrap.

If you do trim, provided the soap is still soft enough, you can squeeze the trimmings into little bars themselves (the soap is okay to touch with your naked hands at this point).

Set the cut bars on cardboard (not metal, which will stain the soap, and not marble, which the soap will dissolve, as we have learned to our grief), not touching, and put them away in a safe, airy place like a high shelf in the basement for a month. Yes, a month, so the chemical reaction can play itself out entirely, and the soap can cool and harden.

The soap only continues to improve with time. I have soap that's five or six years old, and it's better (harder, lasts longer, more foamy) than new soap. But soap that's a month old is still very usable.

Store the completed homemade soap in cardboard boxes or some other similar kind of container that's pervious to air. Commercial soaps are usually sold wrapped in cardboard or paper, and the reason is because the soap likes it that way.

So what about that "golden" vegetable shortening? Well, here you see, from left to right, a fresh bar made with only white shortening, a fresh bar made with two pounds of white shortening and one "golden," and a bar from last year made from only white shortening. The "golden" bar had no buttery smell. I think I like it! The bars do darken and turn slightly translucent as they age.

This is an afternoon well spent for what can amount to years of clean soapy fun, cool personalized gifts, a science experiment, a peep into housewifery techniques of the past, oh, so many things.