Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Chinese sesame paste

Chinese sesame paste is made from roasted sesame seeds; tahini from unroasted sesame seeds, and that is the fact difference between the two.  Taste-wise, as the Moon Goddess would say, were you to not have access to Chinese sesame paste, it is my opinion that if you were to mix equal quantities of tahini and peanut butter, you would pretty much square-on get the flavour of this.

That said, the picture heading this post is of my supper tonight minus the sauce, which is very brown and thus generally speaking non-photogenic (though many, many American MoFies have proved me wrong about this in their Thanksgiving posts).  Nevertheless, I got scared and did a beauty shot of the dish pre-sauce.  Chinese sesame paste comes in a jar like this:

And yeah, as you can see, no matter how you calculate dates, it's well past its best before; however, as we all know, tahini, like peanut butter, doesn't really go bad for a long long time, and besides, this jar was sealed until today.  Here's what the paste looks like:

Darker than tahini, about the same shade as natural peanut butter.  With it, I made a variation on this recipe, subbing out Soy Curls for chicken.  I think Butler Foods ought to make me the Canadian spokesperson for Soy Curls.  I would so write a Soy Curls cookbook for free in exchange for an unlimited supply of product (ahem, have I mentioned this before?).

Gratuitous beauty shot of lightly fried Soy Curls
The Canadian Living Chinese sesame noodles with chicken recipe is almost assuredly not really Chinese, but it is very good.  In celebration of the last day of VeganMoFo 2010, I made it super-fantastic, with the addition of chayote, carrots, sweet red pepper, edamame beans, tofu, and sriracha sauce to the original.  Here's what I ate:

Thirty days, and actually more than 30 new ingredients tried, especially counting the Chinese soups!  I'm hoping to do a recap later tonight, but in the event I don't, it's been a riot and MoFo once again a fun and very rewarding experience, both in my own life and in appreciating the blogs of others.  I love this event!  Thanks once again to the organizers and everyone who participated!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Scotch bonnet peppers

These are some of the little jewels I picked up at H & W Produce yesterday...from left to right: Scotch bonnet peppers, Thai chilis, and fresh habanero peppers.

Check it, friends.  These are some of the hottest peppers you can buy.  Aren't they cute?  But, yeah, hot.  The Thai chilis not so much, but the other two...hoo!  I've already featured dried habaneros, so today I tried a Scotch bonnet--the little red fella at the top, to be exact, which is about one inch square.  Here was what it looked like cut in half--somewhat evil, I admit:

I was so careful not to touch it with naked hands, and cut it up with a knife and fork.  I did give a little lick to the knife when I was done, and this stuff is powerful.  To showcase it, I made a variation on the Tomatican from the Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home cookbook [On edit, the recipe is here; I halved it], which I don't use often enough as the recipes seem so simple to look at, but actually are really good despite their simplicity.  It's a Peruvian-style stew, flavoured only (in this case) with a little cumin, this one Scotch bonnet pepper, and some salt (the original recipe called for 1/8 tsp cayenne, hey!).  Here you see the proportion of pepper to onions in the stew:

The pepper gave kind of a hot halo to everything it came in contact with: my lips, my hands (even though I didn't touch it), just from contact with the air.  Was it super-duper hot in the final stew?  Yes, and no.  It was a little scary in that such a little made such heat without adding any perceptible actual taste.  I feel bathed in capsaicin without actually being in pain, and also feel like I could have added two to the stew with few to no ill effects, though it's kind of frightening that my hands are burning without any actual contact with pepper/stew/dishwater in which pepper-infused things have been placed.  As I am one of those people who credit hot peppers with good health, next time I will be more daring!  Here's what I actually ate:

The stew, over Aztec blend (rice/split peas/other stuff from Bulk Barn), and topped with avocados and cilantro and grated cashew cheese.  And yes, that is some of the banana squash from yesterday you see in the stew!  Mmmm, so hot, so good!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Green mangoes, banana squash

I hit the vegetable motherlode today at H & W Produce.  Among the other treasures I picked up, here's something I've been looking for all November: green mangoes.

I bought a green mango last week--sold as such on its plastic packaging--and indeed on the outside it was green, but on the inside it was orange and sweet.  In other words, it was ripe.  Ripe mangoes are delicious, and I enjoyed that one, but it wasn't a green mango.  These are the real deal.  When you peel them, they're green, not orange, and very sour and dry:

There are many Asian recipes for green mango, and dried, powdered green mango is sold as a spice, amchoor powder, which I tried for the first time this month, and have used several times since but for one reason or another have not blogged.  Let me say right now in case I never get another chance, that amchoor powder is wonderful, tart and much like tamarind in taste but without all the fuss about reconstituting and straining--you just add it in near the end of a dal recipe, for instance.

Amchoor powder
And fresh green mango tastes just like that, but in fruit form.  You can add it in chunks to dals if you wish, or make sambar (Indian spicy salsa-type mix) with it, which will probably be my next trick--or you can feature it in a salad, as I did.  This salad is closely based on the Green mango salad from Hema Parekh's The Asian Vegan Kitchen.  It's a little like this one, but not exactly.  If you're interested in Asian cooking and want to explore some of the differences between the various cuisines, I'd urge you to seek out The Asian Vegan Kitchen.  I bought it at the end of October for this project and have cooked quite a number of dishes from it since, and have never been disappointed.  Hema Parekh is a Jain, which means, among many other things, vegan from birth.  She features several recipes from nine Asian cuisines and her choices manage to give a sample of some of each country's representative flavours.  Anyway, the dressing is hers, an eye-rollingly delicious mixture of a number of elements you wouldn't naturally think would go well together, but they're awesome--I ended up scraping out the dressing bowl to get every last molecule.  She doesn't use avocado; her recipe is more like a carrot salad with the grated green mango mixed up with everything else, but I liked mine the way I did it :-)

Along with this, I had banana squash:

In Latin, this is Cucurbita maxima, the biggest squash.  This is the yellow squash you see sold in pieces wrapped in cellophane because the whole squash would be too much.  That's my piece.  I baked it all in a casserole dish with a little water while I had the oven on for bread, so it essentially steamed, and then I continued baking some of it for a little longer in an orange glaze from here that was amazingly great.  I have some of the glaze left and can hardly wait to try it on tofu.  The banana squash itself tastes so much like butternut that in a taste test--blind or not, since all cut up it looks the same too--I don't think I'd be able to tell the difference.

Then I was doing some more experiments on Buddha's chicken.  Thought for a while that this was the one, but no, there's still some experimenting to do to make it perfect, but I'm not giving up, especially since the "failures" are so tasty.

A nice meal: everything complimented everything else beautifully.  Only two more days of MoFo!  But there are still so many more items to try!

Annatto seeds

Well, this was fun.  These are annatto seeds, the seeds of the achiote trees of the tropical Americas.  Historically used as body paint, lipstick, and food coloring, it is still widely used today to tint various foods, including butter and cheese.

There are some nice pictures of the plant it grows from over here, as well as links to recipes.

To the left is a super-macro photograph, but here's what the same thing, about half a teaspoon, looks like to the non-macro lens:

The seeds are about half the size of peppercorns, and have about the same hardness. Like dried peppercorns, you can bite them open with an effort, but you wouldn't want to add them whole to any dish. The taste is mild and slightly peppery, and sometimes they are ground whole and added to foods. Mostly, though, it's the red coating alone that is used.

To make annatto oil, all you need to do is add 1 teaspoon of annatto seeds to 1 tablespoon of oil (any kind; I used canola), heat to simmering, and let simmer for two minutes or so until the oil has turned a deep orange-red.

Strain the oil:

The taste of the oil does not change, but it is now infused with a powerful dye that you can use to give a cheerful warm colour to sauces, rice, or your rubber spatulas.  I didn't know what to expect, so I made a simple rice dish by briefly frying cooked rice in the annatto oil for a few minutes:

It was pretty and festive.  That shiny lacquered look is not a photographic illusion.  I'm eager to try it in more things, like a veganized version of the Mayan chicken with spicy orange paste from over here.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Israeli couscous

This post will be short 'n' sweet.  I came home from work weak with hunger and unable to wait for anything more complicated.  But believe it or not, Israeli couscous is something I've never tried.  However, yes, I'll be adding it to the extensive collection of jars of dried goods overflowing the tops of my cupboards from now on.

Here it is, pre-roasting in canola oil with a little chopped garlic.  Smell: out of this world.

It's just like regular couscous to cook with.  Once you've roasted it a bit, add water and flavourings, cover, turn the heat down, and let it barely cook for about 5 minutes.  My flavourings were loosely based on a dish from Veganomicon, so cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, salt, mint, and lime juice and zest.  But it could be anything that takes your fancy, or nothing.  The whole supper:

Some tiny sweet potatoes, steamed with seitan meatballs from the freezer, a minimalist salsa of avocado, canned tomatoes, chili-garlic paste, and green onions.  Not super-impressive, but it did hit the spot.  It's been way too long since I had avocado...

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Wood ear fungus; golden needles

This is a companion post to my one of earlier today (which I neglected to post yesterday because I drank rather a lot of homemade wine while re-watching The Two Towers (increasingly my favorite of the trilogy for its aching portrayal of the hopelessly noble moral choices made by Arwen and Theoden and others; I must have read the books at least 15 times since my teens but I never really appreciated Arwen or her tragic fate until I saw the movie) and having a good cry and generally enjoying myself thoroughly).  I may never be able to top yesterday's hot pot, but today was interesting nonetheless ("But we will meet them in battle nonetheless." Sigh.).

So this is the wood ear fungus, tree ear fungus, black fungus, that I've been reading about in Chinese recipes forever but never found because it cleverly hides behind the appearance of seaweed.  But no.  It's the dried, shredded form of a kind of fungus that looks very like a big black ear when fresh.

With it is featured "golden needles," which are nothing more or less than dried day lily buds.  Astonishing!  Once you know what they are, they're easily recognizable as such.  With them, I made a dish from Bryanna Clark Grogan's Authentic Chinese Cuisine called Buddha's delight or Eight Treasure Dish (so called because it is supposed to have four dried ingredients and four fresh: I cheated a bit and mine is more like a Twelve Treasure Dish).  Here are some of my treasures:

First you soak all the dried ingredients. Besides the black fungus and golden needles, I used yuba sticks and dried shiitake mushrooms which never actually made it into the soup because I was too impatient to let them soak long enough to soften. Bryanna has her method, but I constructed my soup like a hot pot:

Hot pots are dead easy.  You just arrange your ingredients, pour on some stock, and cook until tender.  The finished soup, topped with green onions and sesame oil:

Not as brilliant as yesterday's, but still very good!  So what are these ingredients like?  Well, the wood ear fungus had little taste of its own but a nice chewy texture and a colour that contrasts pleasingly with the other ingredients in the pot.  I will use this again.  The lily buds?  Eh, meh.  A little sweetish but no real taste, they're beige.  I'll probably use up my packet but I didn't love them.

Snow fungus

I continue to be fascinated by these Chinese soup ingredients.  Here's a new one: snow fungus, also called silver tree ear or cloud ear.  My friend Fi says this comes in two types: the slimy kind and the chewy kind.  She prefers the slimy kind.  This, however, is the chewy kind.

Dried, as in the picture to the left, it's kind of like a sponge, very crisp; you could easily crack it up into pieces.  But I didn't.  For my first experiment, I was following this recipe, sort of, and also verbal directions from Fi.

First, you soak the snow fungus for an hour or so.   It turns into this:

You can't tell sizes in this photograph, but it's about three times the size of the dried.  Could I eat all this in a "dessert soup"?  I guessed not, so I set half of it aside for later.  The soaked snow fungus is very chewy.  The WiseGeek article about it is hilariously ambivalent.  The author obviously finds it really gross but is trying to be open minded.  Yes, been there, done that!  Actually, though, I'm pretty sensitive, and I didn't mind the texture at all.  A single dish made of snow fungus?  Okay, no thanks, especially since it has little discernible taste, but as an ingredient in other dishes it's perfectly acceptable, in my opinion.  The saga continues.

For the dessert soup recipe--which, I read pretty much everywhere that snow fungus is discussed, is stupendously healthy, an anti-cancer agent that also keeps your skin looking very young--all you do is add the soaked snow fungus to water with some red dates and dried longan, and simmer for 50 minutes.  Fifty minutes!  It looked ready after about ten; however, I wasn't doing anything important so let it steep, and in fact, after about 40 minutes the soup began to smell quite delicious, though it never did develop much of a taste.  Then you add rock sugar, and serve warm or cold:

Well, it wasn't great, taste-wise, like sugar water with an attitude.  (Fi, next day: "Well, of course it has no taste!"  Will I ever understand Chinese cuisine?).  'Kay, it's a medicinal soup.  My skin is suffering in the dry cold so I'm hoping it will have an effect.  For now, though, I was in search of an actual tasty dish.

I took the remainder of my soaked snow fungus and created what was probably the best hot pot I've ever made.  Not because of the snow fungus, I don't think, but it was a genius, memorable hot pot.  Here's how it started.  Well, no, it started with a stock that I made from scraps, onion, celery, lettuce, and carrots, but here's the hot pot, stage one (and yes, that is kimchi you see over on the far right; this is a fusion hot pot):

You can see how the snow fungus--whose texture will not really alter through cooking, adds a kind of delicate prettiness.  If it really has even one of the awesome health benefits claimed for it, there's truly no reason not to cook with it frequently, since taste-wise it's innocuous-to-pleasant and in texture quite similar to reconstituted yuba sticks.

But there was a stage two to this hot pot, which is what elevated it to stratospheric hot pot heights:

These are the protein elements: seitan dumplings (from the freezer), Buddha's chicken, deep fried tofu, and silken tofu.  Looks good, and honestly tasted even better.  I wish I had it to eat all over again...

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Korean black bean paste

This was something unexpected.  Wow, but so good.  One black bean paste must be much like another, I'll bet you are thinking, stifling a yawn, as I was, when I opened this jar.  Chinese, Korean, it's all the same.

But no.  Like the Korean red pepper paste, like Korean red pepper flakes, there is no substitution.

I can prove it.

First, here are the ingredients:

And here's the thing itself, black as the mouth of hell.  And I have to ask, with the above ingredients, why is it black?  Was it made with black soybeans?  I guess that's a silly question, considering that soy sauce is also black, which is essentially what this is, only in paste form, and with a totally different taste.  Why is soy sauce black?

I don't eat very many black foods.  Chinese black bean paste is sort of brown when you get right down to cooking with it, but this stuff is totally uncompromising.  It's black.  A tablespoon will make your whole dish black.  Well, we're keeping an open mind.  What does it taste like?  A very little like miso, a very very little like Chinese black bean paste.  It's all itself...

The dish to make with this is, apparently, Black bean noodles (jjajangmyeon).  So I made it.  One recipe for it is over here.  This is what I did, based on (veganized from) a recipe from Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee's Quick and Easy Korean Cooking.  Start with frying a little onion, garlic, and ginger in quite a bit of oil.  Add some seitan (I was using some chopped char siu seitan from Bryanna Clark Grogan's Authentic Chinese Cuisine, and from my freezer, which was excellent in this dish).  Stir fry for a few minutes, then add zucchini or, ahem, in this case chopped opo squash (which I thought I had blogged about already but maybe not?):

Now the magic begins.  Add a little Korean black bean paste and stir:

It turns into this laquered, beautiful thing!  Stir fry for a few minutes, then add a mixture of water, sugar, and cornstarch:

By now I have lost all resistance and am tasting constantly.  You don't add salt, you don't add hot peppers, or any other spice, just the black bean sauce, and it's great.  Continue cooking until the squash is tender and the sauce has turned translucent (black).  Garnish with shredded cucumber:

So black!  So beautiful!  Served here with a daikon kimchi that is, with the possible exception of asafoetida, the stinkiest thing in my house right now, but I love it.  Yes, VeganMoFo 2010, I am so out of my cooking rut!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Jicama + semolina dumplings of genius

Perhaps you know how it is.  Experimenting with one thing, you get it confused with another.  That happened to me tonight.  I brought out my experimental item thinking it was something that it was not, assembled recipes, peeled the thing, tasted it, and realized...no, absolutely no...this is so way too wonderfully delicious for a soup. 

Does it look delicious?  No, my friends.  It looks like something out of Pan's Labyrinth.  But this month I am all about trying new things, so I nibbled on a little sliver...and some more...and more...I couldn't stop eating it raw.  Jicama.  This stuff is awesome.  If any vegetable ever deserved a psychedelic background, it's jicama.  Jicama is a root that tastes like a melon.  It's so good!  So, on the fly, I made this salad with it, from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone:

It's jicama, cucumber, and jalapeno pepper, with a dressing of lime juice, lime zest, and salt, but frankly, the raw jicama was far superior to the salad-ified version: sweet, crunchy, tasty, and needing no embellishment.

But I still had that soup on the go, the one I was intending to put this into while I thought it was something else.  I used another new ingredient for me, which was semolina flour, and made a variation on my dumplings of genius.  It was genius too, for sure. 

According to Wikipedia, "Modern milling of wheat into flour is a process that employs grooved steel rollers. The rollers are adjusted so that the space between them is slightly narrower than the width of the wheat kernels. As the wheat is fed into the mill, the rollers flake off the bran and germ while the starch (or endosperm) is cracked into coarse pieces in the process. Through sifting, these particles are separated from the bran and this is semolina. The semolina is then ground into flour."  So it's basically coarse ground white durum wheat.  Here's what I did to make the dumplings:

Zoa's semolina-urad flour dumplings of genius
Serves 2

1/2 cup + 2 tbsp semolina
2 tbsp urad flour
1 tbsp almonzano (see sidebar for recipe)
pinch nutmeg
1/2 tsp salt (use 1/4 tsp if you're also using black salt)
1/4 tsp kala namak (black salt; optional)
1/4 cup non-dairy milk, plus a little more if needed
3/4 tbsp Earth Balance, softened, or canola oil

Mix the dry ingredients together, then stir in the non-dairy milk and Earth Balance or oil, and mix just until blended. Leave the batter for a minute or so for the semolina to suck up the liquid (and it will).  Drop by teaspoonfuls into simmering stew or soup, cover, and let simmer 15 minutes.  They're done!  The soup itself is much like this one, only without the tomato paste or any other red thing, and with a little white wine:

Apologies for the so few pictures to this post.  I didn't think any of it would turn out...but, Jicama, Semolina, you and I are so now BFF...even though you don't get along too well with each other I'm cool about segregating my friends...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Cassava, oiled-down

This item stymied me for a while, since I bought it under the name "arrowroot", but it looks nothing like any arrowroot I've been able to find online.  That's because it's, uh, cassava (also known as manioc, yuca, and many other names not including arrowroot).

So, happily having identified it, what the heck is this?  A very popular starch vegetable in tropical regions throughout the world.  Once I'd tasted it, I wasn't surprised.  Even raw, it has a pleasant sweet-starchy taste, which only intensifies as it cooks.  Cassava arrives in our supermarkets heavily waxed because, apparently, otherwise its staying powers are not great.  Mine stayed very well in the vegetable drawer of my refrigerator for a week, however, while I identified it.  It's used much like potatoes, so boiled, cast into stews, and the like.  But when I saw this recipe, I was hooked!  Oiled down...it sounds decadent and somehow wicked and delicious all at the same time.  The authentic version of this dish "oils down" various kinds of meat which, veganism aside, I can't get my head around although no doubt many consider it very tasty.  I didn't even consider adding a meat analogue to this dish, however.  Should you not have cassava, this would probably work fairly well with the boiling type of potato--the baking type would fall apart--and it gets made with breadfruit a lot, but breadfruit, as much as I've wanted to try it all my life since reading about it as a child (around the same time as those fascinating lunch boxes in Ozma of Oz with which I have confounded it ever since) has never found its way into my sphere, unfortunately.  Those who have tried both, however, lean toward cassava as being the most successful in this dish.

So what do you do?  First, peel the cassava.  It's not a big deal though you read that it is--a simple vegetable peeler will do the task nicely.  Cut it into large pieces, and make sure to cut these pieces exactly in half.  There's a thin woody vein that runs right down the middle of cassava that has to be removed, along with any other vein-like areas in the body of the root.  I've peeled a few back in this picture to show you:

If you miss one, it's no big deal, also no fun biting into it though, so do your best.  Now, fry a little onion, garlic, hot red pepper, green onion, and thyme for a few minutes, until softened:

Add coconut milk, salt, a little Earth Balance, and the cassava:

Here's where the "oiled down" part comes in.  Bring this mixture to a boil, then turn the heat way down, cover, and simmer about 35 minutes, until the cassava is tender and the coconut milk is basically gone--converted into a thick oily sauce.  Here's what the finished dish looks like:

Very oily, yes, but oh, so good!  This is melt-in-your-mouth vegetable essence, my friends.  The cassava retains a little bit of a bite, compared with potato, which would be all soft, but it tastes delectable.  And here's what I had it with:

An Indian besan flour savory steamed cake called Khaman dhokla that was quite interesting (I'd never steamed a cake before), as well as a chayote-cucumber salad, some tamarind-date chutney, and some more Buddha's chicken.  This is a new batch, and I tried dusting between the layers with a little seasoned flour as well as brushing on the marinade--I think I'm on to something there--it was so good, and had a better texture in my opinion than the original kind.  Click for a closeup.  Let me do a few more experiments and I'll blog it...