Thursday, December 16, 2010

Experiments with The Artful Vegan

When you just can't go...
So I was home today with a sick kitty.  We went to the vet and got some meds, and no doubt all will be well, but we have had some woeful half hours in the last few days. 

Anyway, I ended up having some time, and since one of the things this kitty loves to do is lie on my lap while I read, I got out The Artful Vegan this morning, pre-vet, and began perusing.  With this book, I--and I know many others as well--have kind of a love/hate relationship.  I love to read the recipes, but hate to make them.  They're inspiring, but (often, apparently) untested, faulty, missing steps and ingredients.  Sometimes, for instance with the Non-macho cornbread on page 218, they're totally impossible.  No doubt the meals at the restaurant are to die for because the people who make them are excellent chefs, but too often the recipes in this book let the home cook down.  The upshot is that I don't quite trust them, but they still fascinate me.  I've never yet made an entire "page" from the book because I've never had all the ingredients for a page together in one place...and my kitchen is pathologically well-stocked.  So I've given up making the recipes as is, and I now take a more relaxed approach and use them as guidelines, and also mix and match pieces of pages, which is what I was doing today. 

I do want to feature a new ingredient, which is: fermented bean curd.  This is part of the "Gruyere-style tofu cheese" described in the recipe header on page 42 as "cashew 'Gruyere'"--confusingly, since there are no cashews in it.  This is, unfortunately, typical of The Artful Vegan.  Is there some version of this recipe somewhere in the Millennium Past that has cashews?  I don't know.  Maybe.  Cashews would probably be good in it, but the recipe doesn't actually call for them. 

Anyway, the header notes say that fermented bean curd is "an excellent source of what we call 'funk'--that bizarre, musty flavor associated with ripe cheese or anchovies..."  Well, okay, and I was also interested, since this is a Chinese product, in how it is used in Chinese cooking.  So I took a little field trip to the oriental market.  This is a popular item!  It comes in all kinds of flavors, but this is the plain kind:

There were two ingredient lists, and the difference to English-speakers has to do with translation of the word "liquor".  I think from the taste and texture of this that "cooking rice liquor"--i.e., the liquid in which rice has been boiled--would be about right.  I don't think there's any alcohol in this. Anyway, this is the colourful jar it comes in.  The fermented bean curd is in cubes that look deceptively like cubes of tofu, which is no doubt what they once were:

But, my friends, learn from me and please don't make the mistake of trying to eat one!  This stuff is disgusting!  Okay, disgusting in a good way, but all the same it is not meant for human consumption as is.  For one thing, it is slimy.  I mean sssssllllliiiimmmmyyyyy.  It's slime in cube form.  There's nothing tofu-like about the texture at all.  And it's bathed in an almost equally slimy sauce (or "liquor").  Just don't.  It's an ingredient, not a food.  But having taken that unwise step, what does it taste like?  Well, kind of like miso gone off (as I would imagine; in real life miso never does seem to go off).  Kind of like blue cheese, that kind of momentarily breath-stopping taste-smell.  Not exactly cheesy but punky, and very strong.  To call this "Chinese cheese" as some do is very misleading, like calling nutritional yeast "vegan cheese" because it has a taste vaguely reminiscent of some aspects of cheese.  It's stinky, but not as stinky as kimchi.  It belongs in that type of fermented family, though.  And it is fermented.  The lid gave a little pop when I took it off, and the whole jar was wrapped up tight in two layers of plastic when I bought it to keep the contents from escaping.  In Chinese cooking, it is used like garlic and ginger, to flavour stir fries and so on (I will be trying this soon and will let you know how it goes). 

So the tofu Gruyere.  Here are the ingredients:

Firm tofu, umeboshi plum vinegar, white miso, nutritional yeast, fermented bean curd.  Put them all in a food processor (not a blender, for God's sake) and process for 6-10 minutes.  The recipe isn't kidding.  That's how long it takes for this stuff to become "creamy."  But actually, after many minutes, it does:

This was a day of experimentin', and I wasn't sure what this would be like.  What it's like is a savory ricotta.  The original recipe calls for it to be layered with potatoes, which actually Liz has done over on Cooking the Vegan Books, so check out her story and pictures if you like.  I had other potato-related experiments to get on with, so I made it into stuffing for a little sweet red pepper.  Taste and texture-wise it was okay, but not stupendous, not better than the offerings of, say, Bryanna Clark Grogan or Joanne Stepaniuk.  It certainly had no resemblance to what I remember of Gruyere.  I was tempted to chuck in another cube of fermented tofu, but refrained this first time.

Next up in my experimental day, potato gnocchi with urad flour.  This is not in The Artful Vegan as such, though there is a recipe in there for potato gnocchi.  This is what I did:

1 1/2 lbs russet potatoes
1/2 cup unbleached flour
3 tbsp urad flour
1/2 tsp salt

Peel the potatoes and chop them into large pieces.  Steam them until just tender, then mash with the other ingredients:

Mix well, and knead a few times.  My mixture was still very soft and sticky, but I was relying on the urad flour to keep it together.  Roll a piece out into a snake about 1 inch in diameter, then cut half-inch slices off the snake.  Pinch the slices in the middle to make a gnocchi shape:

Put the gnocchi on a floured board or cookie sheet and freeze for at least an hour:

This recipe makes two sheets' worth
When you're ready to go, bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and add half the gnocchi.  When they float to the top, they are done--and I do mean, that very instant.  This should take, using this recipe, about 2 minutes.  Leave them in longer and you'll be sorry.  When they're floating, remove them with a slotted spoon and put them in a bowl with a little olive oil.

Now to finish them off, heat another tablespoon of olive oil in a large non-stick pan, and, when hot, add a clove of minced garlic.  Fry for 30 seconds, then add half the gnocchi and cook on medium-high heat until they begin to brown.  My recipe wasn't a total success, but hey, this wasn't a total failure either:

Even the first batch, which was an admitted failure because I left the gnocchi boiling a few seconds too long, wasn't total.  I can hardly wait to finish this off for lunch tomorrow.  In fact, yeah, I can see myself doing this again just to get:

What I finally ate:

The gnocchi, the "Gruyere"-stuffed pepper, a little zucchini stir fry that was more or less okay, some cilantro pesto that was decent but not fantastic (both also from TAV)...I'm still about 50-50 conflicted over The Artful Vegan.  And when a book is that pretentious, that's not good.

But on the other hand, my lunch is never this cute...all my plates should have these little dividers...


  1. Holy cow. You DO have fun in the kitchen! I'm grateful you tasted the fermented bean curd for us, and I'm confident you will figure out how to make the perfect gnocchi.

  2. I hope your kitty is feeling better! You have so much snow - my world came to a screeching halt due to 2" yesterday.

    I've bought fermented bean curd a few times, wanting to do something with it, but I've never gotten past the texture/smell/taste/experience of merely opening the jar. Alas, I don't have a food processor, so I can't try this.

  3. Hi, Andrea. Yes, I do have fun, and sometimes I just get up to mischief for something to do. Gnocchi is probably one of those things that work well enough without extra additives and I should probably leave it alone...

    Renae, thanks, she is. In fact, after another day of sleep and antibiotics, she's like supercat, and even appears to have gained weight (a good thing for this kitty, who is very thin). We had something like 30 cm of snow on Wednesday--here our world doesn't come to a halt for snow, it just slows down.

    Re the recipe, not to worry, you aren't missing much, it really wasn't that good. But I'm looking forward to trying some of the Chinese ones! Yes, it did take some courage to open the jar. And then I was kind of expecting a nice pickled tofu sort of like some of the recipes for tofu feta. But no. And what's that plastic paddle thing in there for? To keep all the cubes from sliming together at the bottom, I guessed?

  4. Fermented bean curd is basically a comfort food for me, of course I grew up eating the stuff. It's like a flavoring, to be cooked with or mixed with rice (one cube would be good for a whole bowl of rice). I think you might like the chinese recipes better, you'll get the flavor but not really the "stink". Your experiments in the kitchen are always so cool, I love it! :-)

  5. Millennium Restaurant is my favorite in the world... by a long way and I live in London. Their cookbooks scare me and I'm a very good cook... very well done, sir. Especially the handmade gnocchi. Its worth investing in a good potato ricer and high quality 00 flour, if you make in regularly. its basically a 3:1 ratio of potatoes to flour, seasoned with a high quality salt.