Sunday, January 29, 2012

Mini-meal in the oven

Over the last year or so I've been half-intentionally assembling a collection of miniature casserole dishes, frying pans, and miscellaneous mini-cookware.  I live by myself, and dislike the thought of eating leftover casserole for a week (unless it's something really stupendous like lasagne, in which case I like the thought very much but will probably eat the whole thing all in one day...).  They're fun to buy, and my family has caught on now, so my Christmas stocking this year was bulging with adorable little ceramic pieces...

It's like a 7-year-old's dream!  But since unfortunately I don't have any 7-year-old girlfriends to ask over for supper, I use them myself.

Another sometimes problematic aspect of cooking for one is the use of the oven.  Putting a single 1-cup casserole dish into the middle of a great big oven all by itself not only looks utterly pathetic but is a colossal waste of energy, so when I use the oven, I tend to multi-task.

For instance, my lunches these days consist of a grain salad with beans, the dressing of the day, usually a few cooked beets and a bit of spaghetti squash, cucumber, tomato, lettuce, and whatever other vegetables I can cram into a container.  I love this salad, but have to say that the beets and spaghetti squash just make it.  For some reason, they're magic.  So every week I bake a spaghetti squash and roast beets (just peel and chop the beets, put them into a ceramic container with a lid, and bake them at 350F for 40 minutes or so to get full flavour, no added calories from oil, and just generally maximize your beet-y goodness).  The point is, all this takes up about half my oven space.  So half of it remains in a state of empty, echoing potentiality. 

This is where all those little dishes really shine!

Remember the super-easy, super-fast filo pie?  You can make this really big, medium-sized, or really little.  Here it is in a 1-cup container:


I'm using fairly old scraps of filo that I've been keeping in the fridge and that have begun to stick together a bit.  One of the joys of this recipe is that you just need to line the bottom, the sides, and the top, with 4-6 layers of filo, and it doesn't matter if it's messy.  The filling is chopped onions, garlic, mushrooms, and eggplant, sauteed with salt, pepper, and nutmeg, adding lots of minced parsley at the end, and all mixed with some of the Vegan Brunch omelet mix from the fridge.  That would be 1/4 of an onion, one garlic clove, 4 mushrooms, 1/4 medium-sized eggplant, and 1/2 cup minced parsley.  Fold over the top and brush with olive oil:


And cook it at anywhere from 350-375F for about 25 minutes.  Generally I start with a piece of tinfoil laid lightly on top to prevent the filo from burning, then take it off about 5 minutes before the dish is done:


...and, if there's time, let it cool to room temperature before eating.

Also in the oven I made a dish inspired by one of Robin Robertson's recipes in Vegan Planet.  Cut up some winter squash (this is butternut) in large pieces to cover the bottom of a casserole dish in a single layer. Splash with brandy, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with chopped onions, a dash of brown sugar, and salt and pepper:


Cover tightly, and cook until the squash is tender and beginning to brown.  Meanwhile, assemble a mixture of chopped green apple, more brown sugar, a little olive oil, and some finely-chopped peanuts:


Spoon this mixture over the top of the half-baked casserole:


...and continue to bake, uncovered or mostly uncovered, until the apples are soft and the whole is nicely browned:


With roasted tomatoes, and some collards and carrots drizzled with balsamic reduction, a lovely feast for one:


 ...and a lot of little dishes to wash, true, but I don't do this every day and once in a while it's so worth it!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Happy Chinese New Year (I hope!)

It doesn't look it, perhaps, but I've just discovered I may have started the Chinese New Year off all wrong. 

My private New Year feast looks pretty good, and it tasted good too.  It's mapo doufu, with braised kabocha squash, noodles tossed with a little thinned out Chinese sesame paste and miso, and a mixture of Chinese cabbage and bok choy quick-fried with garlic and fermented tofu.

I don't know much at all about Chinese festivals or customs generally, but any excuse for a little celebration is nice, I think...unless it perhaps results in a curse.

Well, let's see how it goes.  The University of Victoria, my alma mater by the way, has a nice little page on the New Year.  On it is the remark that "The first day of the Lunar New Year is 'the welcoming of the gods of the heavens and earth.'  Many people abstain from meat on the first day of the new year because it is believed that this will ensure long and happy lives for them."  Excellent!  So far so good.  Let's make the mapo doufu.  Another dish you don't really need a recipe for...

Start by sauteeing a little garlic and ginger in a bit of sesame oil.  After a few seconds, add just a tablespoon or two of crumbled seitan, a little bit of chopped scallion, and a minced mushroom or two.  My seitan looks very colourful as it was part of a (failed) experiment some of you may remember in beet- and carrot-themed seitan.  Anyway, crumbled up, it's fine, if a little dry.  Stir fry until everything looks nice and toasty:


Add about half of a finely chopped eggplant and continue to stir fry for a few more minutes.  I like my eggplant quite tender, so I covered it and let it cook on medium heat for about 5 minutes:


Add some chili paste and chopped...tofu...oh, no!  According to the UVic website, "Fresh bean curd or tofu is not included [among festival foods] as it is white and unlucky for New Year as the color signifies death and misfortune."  I did not know!  So...am I finished, or what?  A long and happy life for the veganism v. death and misfortune for the tofu.  Sigh.  That probably leaves me about neutral, more or less where I was before.  I'll be smarter next year. 


Anyway, at least I got a decent meal out of it. To finish it off, you need a little sauce made with about 1 tsp each of miso, soy sauce, sherry, and cornstarch, mixed with about 1/4 cup water.  Pour it in:


...and continue to stir fry until everything is steamy and the sauce is thickened:


Serve immediately.  Every mapo doufu dish I've seen pictures of or made myself has looked different from every other, but they've all been very tasty indeed!

A very happy New Year to all of you.  A chance to start over once again if you've been slipping up on your resolutions already, but make sure to check out the taboos.  I'm completely doomed, I washed my hair and everything today, and my online Chinese horoscope for the coming year (I'm a Green Rat, born in the year of the Green Dragon, you'd think all that green would be auspicious, but no) indicates that I'm going to be sued, lose my job, make bad investment choices, and my house will be burgled.  Why, why did it have to be tofu today?

Going to scuttle into bed now.  But I'll check the locks first.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Braised cabbage with seitan

Mmmm...seitan...this is some homemade chicken-style okara popcorn seitan (see sidebar for recipes) and it is so good that I ate about half a huge batch when I first made it and that pretty much did me for a couple of months.  Now I'm back into it, and rather strangely, because it is so very simple, one of my go-to recipes for seitan these days is the Braised cabbage with seitan from Vegan Appetite.  Non-glamorous as it is, this is one of my favorite recipes from a cookbook I respect, and I've made it many times.

Today's post isn't about that recipe, however, but about one of my riffs on it, not necessarily better--the original recipe is very good, especially in the winter when people (me and it seems so many of my favorite bloggers) are craving cabbage, but just sort of expanded to include--guess what?--kabocha squash!!  Okay, what isn't better with kabocha squash? 

This is another one of those meals you don't really need a recipe for.  Start by frying up some tasty seitan in a little canola oil until golden.  Add garlic to taste, along with a dusting of thyme and some red pepper flakes, and continue to fry until the garlic is fragrant.  Add vegetable broth or (as I did) water + a tablespoon or two of Bryanna Clark Grogan's "chicken-style" broth powder and your squash:


Oh, yum, this is looking propitious already!  Now fill up the pot with chopped green cabbage:


...and continue to cook, covered, until the cabbage and squash are tender, 15 minutes or so, then taste for salt.  I had some broccoli flowers whose stems I had used for juice, so I added it right at the end:


A super-simple recipe with only about 10 minutes of action required, and so tasty!  Thanks again, Isa Chandra Moskowitz, for the inspiration ;-)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Kolokythopita (Greek winter squash pie)

The Vegan MoFo 2012 Iron Chef Challenge for January is squash.  I am so all over that that I gave myself a secondary challenge, which was to make my dish out of as many little bits and scraps and containers of leftover things as possible.  What I had:
  • 1/3 of a large, uncooked hubbard squash
  • 4 oz firm tofu
  • some Vegan Brunch omelet mix
  • some leftover filo dough that had been in the fridge for quite some time

Hubbard squash, pictured at the top of this post, looks kind of like the big brother of kabocha squash.  Apparently it comes in many sizes and colours, but mine was a rich dark green striped with lighter green, very shiny and pretty.  The outside is bumpy and gnarly but the skin is smooth-textured.  The inside is bright yellow-orange.  It comes to points at the top and bottom, and so won't "sit up" on its own.  Baked, the flesh turns even brighter and more orange:

Gratuitous educational photo, nothing to do with the recipe in this post
The rind, unlike that of kabocha squash, is very hard and not edible.  The flesh is fairly moist and soft, and has a mild sweet flavour, making it a very good squash for mashing and roasting.  I made a squash risotto out of part of the baked half above and it melted into the rice beautifully, and tried some raw in chunks in a stew, where it held its shape--barely, deliciously.

For the kolokythopita, you need to peel it and grate it.  I find that the easiest way to peel hard squashes like this is to scrape out the seeds, cut the squash into wedges, lay a wedge on its side on a cutting board, and hack off the rind with a large, sharp knife.  You get peeled slices like this:


By this time I was rather weary of manhandling this squash, so I used a food processor for grating:


Kolokythopita
makes 1 8-inch pie

1 1/4 lbs winter squash, peeled and grated
1 medium onion, peeled, sliced in half, and then into thin slices
1 tsp olive oil
4 oz or about 1/2 cup firm tofu, mixed with enough light miso and lemon juice to form a sharp-tasting "feta" (or any other vegan feta-type ingredient)
1/2 cup Vegan Brunch omelet mix (or other vegan omelet mix)
Spices of choice (optional)
Salt and pepper
Filo pastry (you'll need about half a package for this size of pie; scraps are fine)
Olive oil for brushing

Start by sweating the onions in a tsp of olive oil in a non-stick pan:


When they're translucent, add the grated squash and continue to stir and fry over medium-high heat, until the squash is tender, about 10 minutes.  My squash was rather dry at first, so I covered it for part of the time.  If yours is watery, you would want to boil it down.  There should be no liquid at the bottom of the pan when you're done.  Take it off the heat, and stir in the vegan "feta", the omelet mix, 1/2 tsp salt, black pepper, and any flavorings you like (or none).  Since this is my own recipe and not attempting to be authentic, I put in a tablespoon of rasam podi, for the flavour, and also for the additional protein and the thickening effect of the dals in the blend.  Just a dusting of nutmeg or cinnamon would also be nice:

Mix it all up and taste for salt and sweetness.  Some kolokythopita recipes call for sugar; I didn't feel my mix needed it because my squash was sweet enough on its own--though a really delicious sweetening option would be golden raisins...


Prepare the filo pie (instructions for the super-easy, super-fast method here, along with a link to a video of Jamie Oliver, from whom I took this method, putting something similar together).  Will I ever make filo pie any other way, ever again?

The finished pie:


Bake it at 400F until golden, about 20 minutes:


You can eat it hot, if you must, but if you have the time, this, like all filo pies, in my opinion tastes best just warm or at room temperature.  A closeup of the finished pie:


The whole meal:


The two salads were also lovely:


Chopped salad, with cucumber, red and orange sweet peppers, green onions, radish, and tomato, very simply dressed with lemon juice and sumac (sumac, the red spice in the salad, is soon to be featured on its own in a future post).


A surprisingly good eggplant raita-type thing, with soft baked eggplant mixed with soy yogurt, red onions, more red and orange peppers (mostly for colour), grated ginger, tomato, cayenne, fresh cilantro, and a dusting of garam masala. 

Altogether a wonderful meal, of which I ate way, way too much!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Spiced lentils with pumpkin

Can you stand another stew?  This one was just so good...I've made it several times now, usually with variations, but the basic recipe comes from The Food of Morocco published by Murdoch Books.  There it's called Tagine 'adess bil gar'a hamra, which, ahem, I believe just translates to "a stew of spiced lentils with pumpkin." Someone else reproduced the recipe first so I don't have to.

Start with onion, chopped and sweated in a little olive oil.  When the onion is soft, add garlic, harissa (or cayenne), cumin, turmeric, and paprika. 

Continue to stir and fry for a minute or two until the garlic and spices are golden and fragrant.  Add chopped tomatoes (or diced canned or grated fresh tomatoes), tomato paste, parsley (my parsley was frozen but that's fine), salt (or in my case, broth powder for extra flavour) and pepper:


Continue frying for a little longer until the new ingredients are fully incorporated:


...and scrape this spicy, heady mixture into a pot of lentils that you have providently been gently boiling all this time.  Add cubed squash (mine was kabocha, but of course any sweet winter squash, peeled or skin on, would be good):


Simmer until the squash and lentils are tender--in my pot this took about 20 minutes.  Just before serving, add coriander to taste.  It wasn't part of the recipe, but about five minutes before taking the pot off the stove, I sprinkled in a few tablespoons of whole wheat couscous and ended up with this:

  
Otherwise, you'd want to serve the stew with bread or rice.  This was a lovely, nutritious meal in a bowl, something that, with my seemingly bottomless love of winter squash, I expect to make many more times this winter...especially with the cold weather finally coming on.  Doesn't it just look all warm--and I can assure you that the flavour, even with that small amount of harissa, is pretty hot!  Stay tuned for further squash experiments--there's a big green hubbard and a little red kuri squash on my table looking very inviting...

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Making your own spice blends + Rasam Zoa

Making your own spice blends is easy, allows you to customize the flavours in your dishes according to your own taste, adding more of the things you like, and less (or none) of those you don't; you can enjoy so many different blends that are unavailable pre-mixed; and they save time--if you've ever been daunted by the simple physical effort required to find and assemble all the different spices for an Indian recipe, you know what I mean.  Often those lists of spices can simply be bracketed out of a recipe if you have a spice mix on hand that you know you'll like in a given dish, or you can add just a few more spices along with the mix if the dish you're making has a special flavour that you want to accent.

This blend is the Rasam podi from Neelam Batra's large and wonderful 1,000 Indian Recipes which is in stores now so I won't reproduce her recipe, but there are plenty of similar ones online, for instance here.  The typical rasam podi ingredients in the image above, for the curious are, starting with the easily identifiable curry leaves in the upper left, curry leaves, hot pepper, black pepper (an essential ingredient in rasams), coriander seed, chana dal (dried, split, hulled chickpeas), cumin seed, fenugreek, black mustard, [and spiraling into the middle beside the curry leaves] toor dal (dried split pigeon peas), asafoetida, and turmeric. 

To make the blend, simply collect them all in a heavy (cast iron preferred) frying pan, and roast them over medium heat until they're fragrant and beginning to change colour, about 3 minutes.  You'll hear various snaps, crackles, and pops which tell you that some of the seeds are exploding into added flavour.  I guarantee that the smell alone makes creating your own spice mixes worthwhile. 

The roasted spices will look like this:


Let them cool, then blend them up into powder:


Beautiful, yes? 

Rasams are generally thin, very spicy soups, and this powder is hot.  Good for what ails you in general, and a perfect food if you're cooking with a cold...though if you're making this spice mixture with a cold you're going to want a supply of tissues handy, for you will sneeze.

A very plain rasam is thin enough to be drunk, and might be composed simply of a small amount of dried split dal, tomato or tamarind, the rasam podi powder, and a few additional spices, but of course there are infinite variations.  I didn't follow a specific recipe for mine, but plumped it out with lots of vegetables and thickened it with red lentils and the very non-Indian quinoa.  There are no rules outside the composition of the spice blend itself.  Here's what I did:

Start with frying half an onion, two cloves of garlic, and about two teaspoons of minced ginger in a little vegetable oil.  When they're softened and beginning to brown, add a quarter cup of red lentils.  You can also add about a tablespoon of the rasam podi at this stage, along with any other dry spices you're using, and roast them for a few minutes.


...before adding say three cups of water or vegetable broth (I used water with vegetable broth powder, which worked well).  Let those simmer together for 20 minutes or so, while you chop your vegetables:


As you can see, I used some of those adorable little eggplants whose adorableness I retained by leaving them whole, but quartering them right up to the stem.  Add the vegetables to the soup along with a cup of canned diced tomatoes with their juice, about a quarter cup of chopped cilantro, including stems, some more finely chopped curry leaves if you have them, a tablespoon or two of tamarind paste (or to your taste, obviously; the bottled stuff is much stronger than the reconstituted-from-squished-tamarind-blocks-and-pushed-through-a-sieve that I use).  I also very untraditionally added three tablespoons of quinoa at this time, as I was not going to serve this, as would be traditional, with rice or flatbread and other foods but was making a single-pot meal:

 Let this simmer until the vegetables and quinoa are just tender, then, right before serving, stir in some fresh spinach and a little more cilantro if you like:



So good!  So fresh-tasting, colourful, and healthy as well as fun to make and, if you have the spice powder already, comes together in about half an hour in a single pot.

Monday, January 2, 2012

New Year's determinations + Soup for one

Well, happy new year, everyone!  I see with pleasure that several of my favorite blogs are going light and super-healthy in January, which makes me happy because I'm doing the same thing and we can all play together!

Susan Voisin in particular has articulated her KISSS plan clearly (or technically it's KISSAS, the perfect acronym for a diet, in my opinion, though Susan has chosen not to use it) and although I haven't read Eat to Live and 6-week-type plans don't work for me, free spirit that I am, eating like that is how I lost my weight last year and also pretty much what I'm doing now.

Do I make New Year's resolutions?  You bet!  I love them.  There is nothing like the feeling of a shiny new year, a fresh start, however symbolic, new beginnings, something to enliven the doldrums of January and, if you make it that far, the desperate dreariness of February and March that is weather in Edmonton.  But this year I don't have any plans for self-improvement important enough to be called resolutions, so I've made what are more like New Year's determinations.  This year, I am determined to:

1.  Use up a significant amount of the contents of my deep freezer, pantry shelves (kitchen and basement, I could stock a dry goods store with the stuff I have down there), refrigerator, and auxiliary mini-fridge.  I absolutely love buying food but it's getting to the point where there is simply no place to put it all.  Grains, pasta, sauces, spices, nuts, condiments, pickles, and I don't know what all (actually I do have pretty good tabs on it, but still, there's so much).  How many bags of fereek does one person need?

2.  As a sub-determination of (1), to buy fresh food in small quantities.  I live alone with several good grocery stores within easy reach, which I visit often.  Why then do I feel I have to stock up on everything every time I go, just because it looks so good and buying fresh stuff is such a pleasure, to the point where when I start actually cooking I have to ask myself, hmm, what needs using up today? so though I shop for groceries probably twice a week I'm always ending up cooking with stale vegetables?  Why?  Why?

3.  Really, truly practice cooking for one.  One of the items taking up space in the freezer is containers of stews and soups of various kinds that are delicious, but left over.  Man, I hate leftovers.  To the point where I'll replicate an entire dish two days later rather than simply thawing the leftovers from the first one out.  Once in a while I'll start a project, such as painting my house, where I have no time, space, or inclination to cook, and then I'm glad of them.  Or have company on very short notice.  Or I'm too depressed to cook.  But I only paint once every several years and my friends are generally quite considerate about giving notice, and knock on wood I'm a pretty happy gal these days, plus cooking cheers me up so I'd have to be really depressed to dig down in the freezer for leftovers and that would for me usually mean I'm too depressed to eat anyway.

All these three determinations interlock.  If I have carrots going wilty in the bin, I'm not going to want to just use half of one in a soup, I'll use all five, which is the first step in the Recipe for Disaster.

Phew, I'm feeling better already!

So to begin this overarching personal culinary economic revolution, I've been scouring out the fresh contents of the refrigerator(s; yes, I've had to resort to a creating a sub-depot in the mini-fridge downstairs).  Soup is a very good way to do this, plus I love creating soups and stews, and having to use up odd bits of things is a good way to force oneself to be creative. 

Start with a medium-small saucepan.  You are cooking for one, so you are determined that this time you will not be pouring the contents into a larger saucepan later on.  Measure out your high-calorie, starchy things.  In the picture at the top of this post, you see 1/4 cup of dry black-eyed peas (just washed, which is why the skins are a little wrinkly), plus 2 tablespoons of pot barley, plus a single millet grain that got in somehow.  It doesn't look like much, maybe, but it will expand.  Cover generously with water or vegetable broth (you can add more later, or let it boil down if there's too much, so don't sweat the amount), bring to a boil, then turn down and simmer for about 40 minutes while you go do something else.
 
Now fry some onions in a little oil, and when they're soft, add garlic, mushrooms, and celery.  You can of course just add all this to the soup pot, but frying is just one more pan, and the added flavour is worth it.


Add diced parsnip and herbs, tarragon and fennel in this case, and fry a little longer, not to cook them through, just to toast everything a bit and mingle the flavours:


Deglaze the frying pan with white wine, and scrape the contents into the soup pot.  Mmmm....


Simmer until the vegetables are tender, and just before you're ready to eat, add some finely chopped broccoli:


Okay, I snuck some kabocha squash in there as well because I'm addicted to it.  But yes!  I kept within the confines of my pot, ate it all (and was very full and satisfied afterwards even though the entire pot contained only about 400 calories), plus I finally made something with black eyed peas for New Year's, which I have been meaning to do for years but for one reason or another never managed.  I'm ready for my abundance and wealth now.  Is it ready for me?