Saturday, December 31, 2011

Green bean salsa

Actually, this is a vegan take on the Thai salad called som tam--or rather, the dressing for that salad, which is supposed to be served with shredded green papaya.  I didn't have any papaya, but I wanted to try the dressing anyway because of its peculiar (to me) use of raw green beans as an ingredient.  Here you see all the ingredients for the dressing, which are:

4-6 green chilis (depending on the heat of your chilis and how hot you like your dressing)
2 cloves garlic
1 cup (100g) green beans
3 tbsp tamarind paste or lemon or lime juice
3 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp roasted peanuts
2 medium tomatoes.

All you do is coarsely chop the chilis and garlic and blend them up in a food processor:

Add all the other ingredients except the tomatoes:

And, finally, add the tomatoes and process.  My recipe didn't specify what the texture of the final result should be, so I left it a little chunky.  It made about two cups:

Now, this stuff is really good--the green beans add a very unexpectedly nice freshness that is complimented by the acid from the tamarind and the tomatoes--but it didn't scream salad dressing to me.  What it really tastes like is salsa.  Nevertheless, I had it for lunch in a salad of shredded vegetables and shirataki noodles.  This whole giant bowl of salad, including the dressing, has about 100 calories:

When you stir it all together, the shiritaki noodles take on a lovely colour from the beets:
...and it was quite good, and very filling if you eat enough of it.  I did eat enough of it and was ready for a little less raw roughage for supper, so I made a thick soup out of some of the vegetables I had around.

Here you see Step 1, onions, garlic, mushrooms, parsnip, thyme, marjoram, and fennel seed sauteed in a little peanut oil:

Stir fry these until they begin to be tender.  Step 2 is the addition of savoy cabbage:

...then bean stock and water, some vegetable broth powder, kabocha squash, lima beans, and 2 tbsp brown bulgur wheat.  Season with salt and pepper.  Cook until the bulgur and vegetables are tender (the lima beans fell apart and gave this stew its substance):

And I added some of the som tam dressing as a topping.  This is where it belongs, at least in my kitchen!  This soup was stupendous, a little over 400 calories for the whole thing (two really big bowls).  In fact, it was so good I think I'll make another variation on it tomorrow...

Thursday, December 29, 2011

After the fall...

Happy holidays, everyone.  While it's delightful to get together with family and friends, there's something about waking up on Boxing Day after an extra long weekend of festive fun, games, and overindulgence in food and drink that makes one feel...well, seedy and heavy and just wanting to curl up in the dark under blankets for another hour or ten.

Live alone & can do whatever I want, did that, rejuvenated myself with the help of the gym and the steam room, long walks, couch, quilts, cats, William Dalrymple's The Last Mughal and Anita Amirrezvani's The Blood of Flowers in audio form beautifully narrated by Shohreh Aghdashloo (the actress who played the wife in the movie House of Sand and Fog) now I don't feel seedy anymore, but I sure do feel heavy.  In fact, this whole last month or two have been a slippery slide into bad old habits.  So before I slide any further, I'm taking the opportunity of The End of Holidays to recoup a weight gain of several pounds, but I know a lot more than I did last year and instead of just disappearing for a few weeks thought I'd share what works for me in the way of strategies and actual dishes, in case any of my readers is interested...and of course you all are

Early last year I lost about 30 pounds and have, mostly, kept it off since then, which is my sole credential for giving dieting advice.  Over time, I've learned a few more tricks for losing weight and keeping it off, and this is what I do:

Apart from the obvious (count calories, exercise, ahem, eat less):

1.  Don't go too fast.  I did, because I wanted to "get the weight off and worry about maintaining later," which is all very well, except that it all seemed to come off my arms and bust which were not huge to begin with and not the hips and thighs I was targeting, so I ended up losing all the weight I wanted to and still looking embarrassingly freakish, because I lost muscle too, to the point where even though I was "thin" I didn't look or feel all that great for another few months until it all balanced out.  I would have been better off just going more slowly and steadily, which is how I do it now.

2.  Have fun!  Can dieting be fun?  Sure.  Cooking diet food is like learning to cook vegan, disconcerting at first until you get into it.  Try new vegetables, go out and buy different teas and finally learn the difference between gunpowder and oolong, slim down your favorite recipes or experiment with dishes and techniques from other cultures.  Exercise?  Is it ever fun when you're not a jock?  Not really into music/can't work out to Stravinski and Wagner isn't your thing/heard your favorite tunes so many times they make your head ache?  I listen to audiobooks at the gym and that sweetens it for me.

3.  While you're losing, cut out all simple sugars and starches.  This means white bread, white pasta, white rice, alcoholic beverages, any kind of actual sugar.  Not only are these foods fattening without a whole lot of nutrition, they magically make you ravenously hungry no matter how much of them you eat.  How many pierogies can you eat?  Have you ever had enough?  Lasagne, anyone?  To more or less quote Louis J. Aronne in The Skinny on How to Lose Weight Without Being Hungry (who gives the science for all this) why do you think restaurants offer  free bread before you order?  So you'll fill up right away and order less?  Somehow it doesn't work that way.  And a drink before dinner is guaranteed to turn me into an unstoppable Eating Thing.  The hardest thing about dieting for me, by far, is to refrain from drinking wine while I cook.  If you must consume these items, consume them with or after other foods.

4.  Weigh or measure high calorie foods like grains, potatoes, beans, tofu, seitan, and oil, but don't skimp on vegetables, herbs, spices, or flavorings.  Some dieters consider vegetables "free"--I don't, I count them, but on the whole you can eat an awful lot of food if most of it is veggies.  The whole big pot of deliciousness shown at the beginning of this post contains about 400 calories, and it includes 85 grams/160 calories of surprisingly high-calorie commercial "flavoured" tofu that I happened to have in the fridge and needed to use up.

5.  Unsweetened almond milk has only 35 calories per cup and it's actually pretty tasty.

6.  Shirataki noodles.  They take a bit of getting used to, but give them a chance.  I love them.  I eat them often even when I'm not reducing.

7.  Apples have a low glycemic index rating.  This means that even though they're sweet they don't have the evil enravening magic of white bread.

8.  You can eat peanuts and not gain weight!  I've actually found this to be true by eating a lot of peanuts.  Really a lot of peanuts, okay, you'll gain, but even then, not as much as you might think.  It's a scientific fact (go on, google it) but no one really knows why this is.  Plus, they do fill you up.  Even a tablespoon of peanut butter in your morning (whole grain, not instant) oatmeal will keep you going for hours.

9.  Go ahead and fry in a small amount of sesame oil.  It's not against the law or anything.  Sesame oil isn't just for drizzling.

10.  Give yourself twenty minutes after eating before you do the dishes or put away the leftovers.  Just walk away and do something else for a little while.

This is one of the simplest lo-cal dishes to make, and one of my favorites.  It's so versatile it doesn't require a recipe, it's quick, it's tasty, and best of all, you can pretty much eat as much as you can stuff into yourself, guilt-free.  For the oriental version, just fry some onion in a teaspoon of sesame oil, add garlic and ginger and hot pepper, and when the garlic is fragrant, add vegetable broth (or just water and a bit of soy sauce) and, one at a time, longest-cooking first so they're all done together, whatever vegetables you like, as well as a protein item such as tofu, beans, seitan, Soy Curls.  Here you see turnip, celery, oyster and shimeji mushrooms, kabocha squash, Brussels sprouts, tofu, green onions, and cilantro.  Served over shirataki noodles (cooked separately), of course.  Fresh and pretty now, it will be gross tomorrow, so either eat it all today, or, if there are leftovers, you can do what my Grandma Dee always did and give them new life by pureeing them with a little [soy or other vegan] milk and reheating them as a cream soup.

What do you do to recover from the effects of your holiday festivities?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Two great stews

As readers of this blog may know, I've been in a Middle Eastern food phase.  Beans are frequent players in peasant and street dishes throughout the Middle East, and I've been eating a lot of them lately.

I've also learned something recently that was sort of shrouded in confusion for me in the past, and that is that you don't have to soak your beans before you cook them.  Half the people on earth probably don't soak their beans, but I always did, thinking in a vague way that the soaking water ("Never, never cook your beans in the soaking water," how many times have you read that?) was mildly poisonous or something, that beans would remain tough in the centre if you just tossed them into boiling water, that precious enzymes would not develop if the beans weren't allowed to soak overnight.  Bryanna Clark Grogan has an enlightening discussion on this topic in her World Vegan Feast, and comes to the conclusion that there are a lot of different ways to cook beans, but soaking is totally optional.  I've been playing with this novel concept of not soaking, and as usual she's right.  So far I have not been poisoned or blown up with gas: my beans take a little longer to cook, but that's it.  Not even that much longer, to be perfectly honest.

How liberating to know that you can cook with bean mixes like the one shown above with impunity.  Because you can't soak these bean mixes overnight as they contain red lentils and barley and split peas, which will decompose in the soaking water.  (Then why do they sell them like that?  The whole issue, as I say, has been a snarl of contradictions for me, which I am happy to have finally unraveled.)

This particular bean mix is a mixture of mixes, kind of a button box of beans where I put odds and ends and trouble beans like those innocent-looking white kidney beans that would not soften no matter how long I soaked them, cooked them, etc.  I had been reduced to picking them out of cooked dishes in the past but, frugal as I am, didn't actually throw them out, thinking that one day I would find a way to make them as tender and tasty as other beans...and I have.  The slow cooker will do it.

I had the day off work and a million things to do and no time to hang about the kitchen watching pots, so I washed two cups from the bean box and put them into the slow cooker on high while I shopped, cleaned house, went for a long walk, wrapped Christmas presents, and completed all the 999,996 other urgent missions on my list.

After a few hours, when the beans were tender--even the white ones, to my joy--I [took some out to freeze for another day and] fried up onions, garlic, eggplant, sweet pepper, cinnamon, turmeric, salt, and pepper:

and added that to the slow cooker, along with tomatoes, some kabocha squash, chopped parsnip, and a handful of dried apricots and prunes:

This soup is loosely based on the Iranian bean and vegetable soup in Claudia Roden's The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, in which she remarks that "It is the type of soup you will find in the bazaar at the earliest hours of the morning, dished out for breakfast from huge cauldrons in which a sheep's head and feet have given their special richness, and where all the vegetables in season find their place."  I skipped the sheep parts and added some additional broth powder, swapped TVP for the ground meat in the recipe, and, near the end, added a dusting of bulgur to thicken it, which it didn't really need, I just wanted to try it.  In fact, I just kept adding bits of this and that until the slow cooker was full, went off to do some more errands, and by suppertime it was a great big slow cooker full of fragrant flavour.  The eggplant, kabocha, tomatoes, and most of the beans melted into silky nothingness, the dried fruits were plump and sweet and wonderful...mmmm...

So what I did with it was take as much out as I wanted to eat that day and put it in a little pot and wilted in some spinach and cilantro, topped it with red onions and tofu yogurt, and it was one lovely meal, ready in only 12 hours from start to finish:

What to do with the other five quarts or so?  Well, I froze most of it in batches, but saved some in the fridge.  Ms. Roden further remarks that "In Iran it is served with bread and bunches of fresh herbs such as cress, mint, cilantro, and also scallions, radishes, and pickles."  Doesn't that sound good?  Language like that I find intoxicating and I was looking forward to mixing and matching all those lovely fresh ingredients with the stew (leftovers, yes, but you can do something different with them every time).

So last night I got home late, and had planned just to have the stew again, maybe with scallions, etc., this time, but looking for a salad recipe in another book, was struck with cyclonic force by a recipe that is going to change my culinary life, the Pumpkin and sweet potato stew from a book called The Food of Morocco, one of those big picture books they sell in Chapters/Indigo ("recipes by Tess Mallos" in tiny little white letters practically dissolved in the photograph of a silver serving dish behind them--not even on the cover but on the inside title page, and the name of Jane Lawson, the supposed author according to Amazon, doesn't appear anywhere at all--what's the deal with that, anyway?  Most of the books in this series don't actually even have authors, though the recipes and the writing in general are in my opinion both good, and the pictures are superb).

Anyway, my lord!  The recipe is here--this is pretty much the exact recipe, except that mine doesn't call for saffron or give the option of ground cinnamon (don't use ground cinnamon, it will muddy the look of the dish).  Using cooking pumpkin or butternut squash would likely give a more chunky stew, as kabocha tends to melt under any kind of heat, but kabocha is so...absolutely...wonderful...sweet and melt-in-your-mouth buttery may have noticed I've been putting it into everything lately.  It's my favorite food so I'm sure it's a superfood ;-)

Start with browning onions in a large pot.  If, like me, you pour the oil off the top of your jar of peanut butter rather than stirring it in, this is an ideal time to bring out that roasted peanut oil.  You don't need much, but it adds a perceptible layer of flavour to the stew.  When the onions begin to turn golden, add garlic, ground ginger, turmeric, a cinnamon stick, harissa or cayenne, the chopped sweet potatoes and squash, and a handful of raisins.  I did not add any sweetener--the dish was sweet enough without it.

Then you just cook it down, which takes about 15 minutes:

Words just don't do justice to how good this is.  You can't stop eating it, and what a colour!  It's like a bowl of sunshine.  Most definitely something to serve on the winter solstice if you celebrate it (and if you don't, you should start, just so you can serve this stew).  I cooked the kabocha with the skin on, but you don't have to, and of course if you're using another kind of squash that might not be practical.  I really wouldn't have thought of combining orange squash with sweet potatoes, but the mixture is peculiarly divine, and the raisins add sweetness and a tangy, tart edge, and it's hot from the harissa too...sigh...maybe I'll have it again tonight...

Continuing the sunny theme, I served it with some sauteed peppers and red onions with fennel seed that I saw Michael Smith do on the Food Network (monkey see, monkey do, especially when the monkey sees it at the gym in a state of semi-starvation):

The whole meal?  Why, it looks a lot like most of my other meals, a big colorful mess...

In this case, the parts are greater than the whole, at least visually, but where is it written that you can't serve two stews in the same meal?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Meatballs with eggplant sauce + rice pilaf with bok choy + tomato-chili salsa

Eggplant sauce as a concept used to seem odd to me, not quite right somehow, until I reflected how delicious creamy, falling-apart-tender eggplant is in stews and don't need a recipe to make an eggplant sauce that can be served with pasta, as a bed for steamed or roasted vegetables, or, as in this case, as a warm bath for spicy vegan meatballs.

The whole key to a great eggplant sauce is grilling or roasting the eggplant properly, if in the oven on the highest shelf under the broiler, turning at least twice, until the skin is blackened pretty much all over and the inside is squishy-soft.  This would be even better grilled over an open flame, but we don't have one of those here at The Airy Way.

Take it out, let it cool (you can store it in the fridge for later use if you want), and when you're ready, slice it open and scrape out the soft insides.  Here's where the flavour is, in that lovely caramelized white flesh:

You can chop the flesh if you like your eggplant sauce chunky, but I wanted mine to be relatively smooth, so I put in in a bowl and processed it for a few seconds with an immersion blender.  While I was at it, I did the same with my peeled tomatoes:

Yes, you can leave the sticker on, so long as you peel them in the end!

Canned tomatoes would work fine in this recipe, and be easier, but my free fridge space is limited for the leftovers and I did have these nice ripe fresh ones.  For a sauce like this, you really do want to peel them.  This is easiest if you just cut a shallow cross into their bottoms, drop them (carefully!) into a pot of boiling water, and boil them for a minute or so until the skin starts to peel back.  Drain, cool a little, and then the skin comes right off. 

To make the sauce, start with sweating half an onion, finely chopped, in a frying pan with a little oil.  Once the onion is translucent, add some minced garlic to taste.  I like garlic, so I added two big cloves:

When the garlic is fragrant, pour in the tomato puree:

Season with salt and pepper, and let it reduce a bit, then add the pureed eggplant:

Everything's already cooked at this point, so all you're doing is heating it to let the flavours meld and to reduce to the texture you want.  Once that's been achieved, you can add your meatballs:

Hmm, there really are meatballs in there...
Gluten-based meatballs, the kind you steam, are pretty robust and can stand some simmering, but the TVP based meatballs I've been experimenting with lately are delicate and should only be warmed up very briefly in the sauce, unless you want them to fall apart, in which case you'll end up with an eggplant-TVP sauce, also good ;-)  I used this latter type, from the freezer, which were very spicy, one reason why I didn't add much seasoning to the eggplant sauce.

Mmm, served here with a rice pilaf, a sort of spanikorizo made with Shanghai bok choy rather than spinach and cooked in vegetable broth on the advice of my aunt Katee, who is an expert at this dish.  The bok choy adds a buttery flavour and retains a little crunch.  Also seen here is an easy and very fiery salsa made with chopped tomatoes, red onions, turmeric, one powerful fresh red chili, salt, pepper, and a little lemon juice.

Some meals are best savoured in little bites of one item at a time.  And some, like this one, are best in a state of entropy:

Monday, December 5, 2011

20-minute Monday - (Vegan) eggs in purgatory, deconstructed

Delicious, single-serving comfort-type food that really did come together in 20 minutes, from scratch.  This is the vegan poached egg, but instead of trying to make it into any kind of egg shape, I tore the microwaved tofu into pieces and poached it for just a few minutes in a very fresh tomato sauce (just raw canned tomatoes whizzed together with an immersion blender with some garlic, salt, and pepper--add olive oil if you're not serving it with a rich additional sauce like my egg yolk-- heated for a few minutes in a little pot).  The yolk part I made separately and drizzled onto the finished dish.  Served on jasmine rice with a side of fried mushrooms and garlic, the whole thing sprinkled with black salt. 

Friday, December 2, 2011

30-minute Thursday: Quinoa bowl with root vegetables

I was wanting something light and plain as well as fast, and this was perfect.  A bowl of quinoa with steamed baby potatoes, rutabagas, parsnip, cauliflower, green beans, black-eyed peas, topped with red onions, capers, and the Green goddess dressing from Appetite for Reduction.  Sometimes simple really is best.