Monday, December 21, 2009

Squash and Potato Gratin

In honor of the first day of winter - the official season of podge - I hereby present the gentle reader with this delightfully starchy, homey casserole, invented to answer the burning question of what to do with some beautiful delicata squash, picked up on impulse at the local health food store a few weeks ago. At the time, I wasn't sure what their fate would be, but they looked so pretty that into the cart they went.

I then became really busy with end-of-semester stuff, and didn't lift a hand in the kitchen to make anything more time-consuming than tea for about a week. At that point, having turned in the last thing I'll have to write for another month or so - YESSSS! - I announced, "I want to do something weird with squash." My partner responded with an expression best described as simultaneously uncomprehending and mildly anxious, but was instantly reassured upon hearing that potatoes would form part of the picture (that man sure does love his spuds).

What I had in mind was something along the line of the old-school scalloped/au gratin potatoes that used to appear on my childhood dinner table, only with squash. It took a little while - mostly because I kept tinkering with the sauce, so you don't have to! - but it was worth the wait, and the finished product turned out really well. This recipe would easily lend itself to the inclusion of other vegetables; I'm thinking of subbing mushrooms and leeks for the squash next time. This would make a nice side dish for a big "Sunday lunch" sort of meal, or you could do what we did and just eat it all by itself; add a salad to provide some greenness and you've got a very filling dinner for a chilly winter night.

Squash and Potato Gratin
~ 4-5 good-sized potatoes, sliced into 1/8" rounds
~ 2 medium sized or 1 large squash, cubed (I had delicata, but acorn or butternut would be fine)
~ 1 large onion, chopped (about 2 cups)
~ 2 tbsp. canola oil or vegan margarine
~ 2 tbsp. flour
~ 4 cups plain, unsweetened soy or other non-dairy milk
~ 1 tsp. each: salt, thyme, tarragon, parsley
~ Black pepper to taste
~ 1/4 cup vegan parmesan substitute
~ 1/4 cup nutritional yeast (use a 1/2 cup if you don't have vegan parm)
~ 1 cup panko crumbs
~ Paprika for garnish

~ Preheat the oven to 425 degrees fahrenheit
~ Slice and chop the potatoes, squash, and onions and set aside while you make...

The Sauce
~ In a heavy-bottomed saucepan on medium heat, saute 1 cup of the chopped onions in the oil or margarine until softened, about 5 minutes.
~ Slowly add the flour, stirring to make a roux; add a splash of water to prevent sticking if necessary.
~ Gradually pour in the soy milk, stirring constantly with a whisk to prevent clumps.
~ Add the seasonings, vegan parmesan and nutritional yeast, making sure to combine thoroughly.
~ Lower the heat to simmer and cook another 5 minutes or so, until it reaches the consistency of an Alfredo sauce (you can add a bit of water or some more milk if it thickens up too much).
~ Remove from heat and set aside while you turn to...

The Assembly
~ Coat a 9 x 13" casserole with cooking spray and scatter 1/4 cup of the panko crumbs across the bottom.
~ Make an overlapping layer of half the potato slices; be sure not to leave any spaces!
~ Sprinkle 1/2 cup of the remaining chopped onions and some kosher salt and black pepper over the potatoes.
~ Ladle on about a cup of the cream sauce, topped with another 1/4 cup of panko.
~ Arrange the cubed squash in a single layer and pour on another cup of sauce (try to distribute it somewhat evenly, but it's not an exact science).
~ Add the rest of the potato slices in an overlapping layer, then scatter the remaining chopped onion over the top.
~ Pour on the rest of the cream sauce, then press the top of the casserole firmly with a spatula, to make sure it oozes down between the layers.
~ Top with the last 1/2 cup of panko and some extra paprika and parsley for garnish.
~ Cover with foil and bake at 425 degrees for about 40 minutes, until the squash is tender.
~ Remove the foil and press with the spatula again to further compress the layers.
~ Bake uncovered for another 20 minutes or so, until browned and bubbly.
~ Allow to sit for 10-15 minutes before slicing.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Nog is my Co-Pilot

"Old Fezziwig laid down his pen, and looked up at the clock, which pointed to the hour of seven. He rubbed his hands; adjusted his capacious waistcoat; laughed all over himself, from his shoes to his organ of benevolence [snicker!-ed.]; and called out in a comfortable, oily, rich, fat, jovial voice: Oi! You there! Ebenezer! Dick! Bring me some soy nog with rum in it! Then put away those dusty ledgers and have the band strike up 'Sir Roger de Coverley' cuz Ima cut me a rug with Mrs. Fezziwig!"

Okay, so Dickens didn't transcribe all of this speech. The Fezziwig estate didn't want any overt mention of the patriarch's veganism in the published text (although, rather puzzlingly, they had no problems with the reference to his "organ of benevolence" - go figure!), since they felt it might alienate/scare away the "roast goose and joints of beef and gross suet puddings" hipsters - *yawn* - whose gullible pockets were even then so easily emptied by the latest artery-clogging foodie gimmick. But now it can be told. Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig were so blithe and jolly on that long ago Christmas Eve because "there was Raspberry Blackout Cake With Ganache-Y Frosting, almond-milk negus, and great pieces of Cold Roast Seitan, and vegan mince-pies, and plenty of beer."

Of course, in Victorian London, there was no commercially produced soy nog, so every housewife had to make her own from scratch according to a cherished family recipe. In fact, "Bob Cratchit always said, and calmly too, that he regarded his wife's nog as the greatest success achieved by Mrs Cratchit since their marriage." (Which, when you think about it, isn't entirely surprising in light of the whole Tiny Tim thing.) But I digress. Nowadays, there is a plethora of non-dairy nogs available, and in our house we have historically been devotees of VitaSoy's Holly Nog during the festive season, typically laced rather generously with dark rum. Alas and alack, however, in the past year it's stopped being available in the US - yet another area in which our neighbo(u)rs to the north have a clear advantage. I mean, national health care AND Holly Nog? Damn.

Anyway, we tried a few alternatives, but one recent freezing evening we returned from buying our Christmas tree to realize were fresh out, and nobody felt like going to the store. Thus it was that necessity once more became the mother of invention (Freak Out!), and it occurred to me that making our own was probably not rocket science; how hard could it be, right? So it was that while my partner and my middle son grunted and sweated under the weary load of a Fraser fir, I headed into the kitchen and produced a pitcher of delicious frothy seasonal goodness. It's yummy, it's creamy, it has way fewer things you can't pronounce, it's an excellent vehicle for rum, and - best of all - it's vegan! Somewhere, Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig are smiling.

~ 4 cups plain, unsweetened soy milk
~ 1/2 cup Mimicreme or soy creamer
~ 1 tsp. vanilla extract
~ 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
~ 1/4 tsp. each: nutmeg, cardamom, ground cloves, allspice

~ Combine all ingredients in a large pyrex beaker or pitcher and whisk thoroughly for about 2 minutes, until well-combined and frothy.
~ Pour into your favorite nog-drinking vessels and add about 2-3 ounces of dark rum to each (optional, but come on!).
~ Garnish with an extra sprinkle of cinnamon or nutmeg and serve.
~ "And God bless us, every one!"~

Monday, December 14, 2009

Vegan Murgh Makhan

We decorated our Christmas tree this weekend, and while hanging ornaments, I was struck by the variety of chickens represented - fat ones, attenuated, vaguely Seussian ones, folksy ones. Apparently, we have a bit of a thing for them, a realization which led me to musing about the strange position they occupy in the popular imagination. In our culture, chickens are among those animals made to straddle the weirdly fascinating space between the sunshiny farmyards of childhood picture books (the happy mama, followed by her fuzzy yellow chicks) and the center of the dinner plate (or as Colonel Sanders used to put it, "get a bucket of chicken, have a barrel of fun!"). I mean, check out this mother hen, all puffed up with pride as she surveys her brood of fluffy offspring as they peck around in the dirt; who doesn't find this charming? But few children who grow up in urban or suburban surroundings have much occasion to spend time with any actual, living birds, and it's precisely that distance that allows the disconnect between cute, clucking chickens and "chicken."

This is a particularly heartbreaking state of affairs, since nearly all children feel a natural affinity with animals - think of the affection lavished on our pet dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs, etc. - and might have a very different reaction to those ubiquitous "nuggets" if they'd ever held a baby chick. We have several friends who keep backyard chickens, and anyone who has ever seen them in action can attest that they have a lot of personality, and can be very funny and affectionate. One couple, who also have several ferrets, relate that their oldest hen's favorite pastime is climbing onto the windowsill so she can look in and watch them playing; it's like interspecies reality TV! So how can we bear to condemn billions of similarly alert, curious animals to the miserable fate suffered by chickens who produce the eggs, boneless breasts, and "drumsticks" tossed heedlessly into grocery carts every day? Well, maintaining that sense of distance is a good place to start - the minute we start making that chicken=chicken connection is the minute we can start realizing who those nuggets are actually made from. (Hint: they have feathers, enjoy eating corn, and say "cluck-cluck-cluck!")

At this point the (probably vegan) reader may be thinking, "Okay, fair enough - I don't eat chickens or eggs; are you going to share a recipe with me now or what?" Well, it just so happens that I am, and a really good one, at that. Based -AHA! - on a dish often known as "Indian butter chicken," it's the result of one of those quixotic impulses by which I am occasionally seized. One afternoon I was looking online for something interesting to do with some now-forgotten ingredient, when I stumbled on a reference to Murgh Makhan; once the idea got in my head, there was nothing to do but give it a shot, and in the end it was no big challenge. Marinating the soy curls all afternoon turned them into the perfect stand-in for our feathered friends, and it was easy to replace the butter and cream of the original recipe with non-dairy versions. My partner - drawn from his work by the intoxicating fragrances wafting from the kitchen - had every confidence in a happy outcome, but the experimental nature of the enterprise decreed that I issue an honorable disclaimer, just in case. Luckily, I needn't have bothered, because this turned out so well that it's destined to become a regular meal, and one I wouldn't hesitate to serve to company. So - why not leave the real poultry in motion and give this a try? You won't be sorry, and neither will the chickens!

Vegan Murgh Makhan

~ 2 cups soy curls
~ 2 cups plain, unsweetened soy milk
~ 1 tsp. each: salt, chili powder, garam masala, curry powder, fenugreek
~ 1/2 tsp. cardamom
~ 1/4 tsp. each: ground cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg
~ 1 tbsp. each: minced garlic, ginger

~ Mix the soy milk and and seasonings in a large beaker, bowl or pot, add the soy curls, then cover and bring to a boil (about 4 minutes in the microwave, probably a minute or so more on the stovetop).
~ Leave covered and set aside for at least an hour; I left mine 3-4 hours, and highly recommend you do the same if possible.

~ 1/2 cup soy yogurt
~ 1/2 cup raw cashews (soaked in hot water for 30 minutes, then drained)
~ 1/2 cup mimicreme or soy creamer

~ Place all three ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth.

And now...

~ 3 tbsp. vegan margarine (I used Earth Balance)
~ 1 ginormous onion (or 2 normal ones), chopped (about 3 cups)
~ 1 14 oz. can fire roasted tomatoes, drained

~ In a large skillet or wok, melt the margarine and saute the onions over medium high heat about 10 minutes, until clear and glassy.
~ Stir in the drained tomatoes and cook another few minutes.
~ Add the soy curls and their marinade and cook 5-10 minutes more, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking.
~ Pour in the processed yogurt/cashew/mimicreme, mix thoroughly and heat through.
~ Cook another 5 minutes before serving hot with biryani, naan, a vegetable curry and/or plain boiled rice.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Simple Sweet Potato Curry

First of all, I think we can all get pretty excited about wishing John Milton a very happy 401st birthday today - bless him, he barely looks a day over 397! After all, according to Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve were originally vegan (although apparently teetotallers, alas):

They sat them down, and after no more toil
Of thir sweet Gardning labour then suffic'd
To recommend coole Zephyr, and made ease
More easie, wholsom thirst and appetite
More grateful, to thir Supper Fruits they fell,
Nectarine Fruits which the compliant boughes
Yielded them, side-long as they sat recline
On the soft downie Bank damaskt with flours:
The savourie pulp they chew, and in the rinde
Still as they thirsted scoop the brimming stream.

It wasn't until that disaffected serpent got involved that they were sent East to find that...

The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way.

Which in some ways sounds like a great opportunity, except that in this particular case it meant that "our original parents" would no longer be immortal, have to work for their food, and bring forth children in pain and misery. Oops! (Presumably that was some juicy apple!) But I digress, and must now to my text, which is not the Fall of Man, but a nice, simple curry that's not too spicy, adapted from a fairly bare-bones recipe on the BBC's "good food" website, and renamed in honor of the "Lady of Christ's College" - a soubriquet apparently bestowed by Milton's classmates at Cambridge because of his long ringlets and "general delicacy of manner."

In any case, this proved an excellent (and wholly pre-lapsarian) way to use up the sweet potatoes that didn't get cooked for Thanksgiving, on a night when we were feeling fed up with "traditional" holiday food. In addition to the sweet potatoes, almost any vegetables you have on hand would make a good addition to this - my refrigerator happened to have mushrooms, bell peppers and baby spinach, so that's what got thrown in. We had leftover dal to eat with our curry, but this could easily be a one-dish meal with the addition of some cooked lentils, baked tofu, or even just a can of chickpeas. The coconutty sauce is particularly good for soaking up with rice and naan.

I should also note that the image above is from a truly creepy vintage sign I picked up in New Orleans several years ago. It features King Yam - scion of the Tuber dynasty - resplendent in all the trappings of his sovereignty. Sorry in advance for any nightmares provoked by the weird, spindly little arm with which he wields his sceptre, but I like to think that before the Fall, there was room in Eden even for the most freakishly anthropomorphized root vegetable. Happy birthday, Uncle Milty!

Simple Sweet Potato Curry
~ 1-2 tbsp. canola oil
~ 1 large onion, chopped
~ 1 tsp. each: salt, cumin, garam masala
~ 1 tbsp. curry powder
~ 1 small red bell pepper, cut into large dice (about 1/2")
~ 3 tbsp. yellow curry paste
~ 10 oz. mushrooms (I used baby portobellos), thickly sliced
~ 2 large sweet potatoes, cut into 1" cubes
~ 1 14 oz. can coconut milk (regular or lite), with 1/4 cup reserved
~ 2 tsp. cornstarch
~ 3 cups baby spinach, roughly chopped
~ Shot of hot sauce to taste (optional)

~ In a large skillet or wok, heat the oil and saute the onion over medium heat about 10 minutes, until very soft.
~ Add the dry seasonings and the bell pepper and cook a few minutes more.
~ Stir in the curry paste, then add the mushrooms and sweet potatoes, making sure all the vegetables are coated. Cook about 5 minutes more, stirring frequently to prevent sticking.
~ Raise the heat to high, pour in the coconut milk, and bring briefly to a boil. Cover the pan, lower the heat to simmer, and cook about 15 minutes.
~ Remove the cover and cook another 10 minutes, until the sweet potatoes are tender but not falling apart.
~ In a separate container, whisk together the cornstarch and the reserved 1/4 cup coconut milk. Add to the curry and stir to blend.
~ Add the chopped spinach and cook another few minutes, until the sauce thickens and the spinach is wilted.
~ Stir in hot sauce (if using), and serve with rice and/or naan bread.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Easy Peasy Quasi-"Naan" Bread

We love Indian food, and so we make it a lot; one of the many rewards of learning another culture's cuisine is discovering delicious items you might not "ordinarily" have come across, which become Your Favorite Things. For instance, the first time I ate a samosa, way back in the dim and distant past (at the now sadly defunct local Annapurna restaurant, which was not only vegetarian but run by two biology professors from Holy Cross College), it was like that moment in The Ten Commandments when the clouds part and the sun breaks through (cue music). On that day, I fell in love with subcontinental cuisine, and have never once looked back.

Nowadays I'm pretty adept at cooking various curries, vegetable dishes, dals, etc., but there are still a few items that have remained restaurant and/or Indian grocery fodder. Naan bread has historically fallen into this category, and since many commercial brands include milk among the ingredients, we hardly ever get to eat it at home, and just make do with rice.

Until now! While searching online for an old-school scone recipe, I came across the BBC's "good food" website. Passing over their rather sad excuse for a vegetarian section (heavy on punitive delicacies like Parsnip Cranberry Nutloaf, with virtually nothing free of eggs and/or dairy), I clicked on "Indian," where I was rewarded with a few basic curries and a recipe for a fried flatbread that looked like a baby could do it. Being just that essential, able-to-use-the-stove bit smarter than a baby, I decided to give it a try, and was soon rewarded with the perfect accompaniment to a simple sweet potato curry and some excellent leftover khichari. While I make no claims to this being a traditional or "authentic" recipe/method, it was so easy, fast, and good that I'll definitely make it again, since there's really no comparison between fresh bread and even the best store-bought varieties. Try it - you won't be sorry!

Easy Peasy Quasi-"Naan" Bread
~ 2.5 cups all-purpose or whole wheat pastry flour
~ 2 tsp. salt
~ 1/2 tsp. each: cumin, fenugreek powder
~ A few grinds of black pepper
~ 3 tbsp. olive oil
~ 10 oz. warm water
~ 1/4 ounce yeast (one little packet)

~ In a large bowl, combine the yeast and warm water.
~ Add the flour, salt, pepper and oil and mix to make a soft, but not sloppy, dough.
~ Knead well for a just minute or two, then place in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a clean cloth and allow to rise in a warm place for an hour, until doubled in size.
~ Place a baking sheet in the oven on "warm."
~ Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and divide into 6-8 pieces. Use a rolling pin to flatten each one into a rough circle, about 5" in diameter. Leave the pieces on a lightly floured baking tray to "prove" for 5 minutes.
~ Heat a large frying pan to a medium heat and coat lightly with oil or cooking spray. Fry each piece until browned on both sides, about 5 mins in total.
~ Transfer cooked pieces to the oven to keep warm while you cook the rest.
~ Allow to cool slightly before serving with your favorite Indian meal. (If there's any leftover, it also makes a great next day breakfast food!)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Make Tofu Scramble, Not War

Even in an otherwise exemplary movement such as veganism, rifts and schisms are bound to occur, and few topics provoke a more passionate response than The Great Tofu Scramble Controversy. This ideological battle - between the proponents of cubed tofu and those who swear that mashed is the only way to go - has been raging for so long, only the sort of pundits interviewed on The History Channel claim to know when it began, and even they are divided. Some believe the argument originated in 1517, when Martin Luther nailed a list of no fewer than 95 recipes for cubed scramble to a church door in Wittenberg, thereby angering Pope Leo X, a famous lover of mashed tofu. Others swear the issue dates all the way back to antiquity, when Julius Caesar (cubed) took offense at Caius Cassius' popularization of the mashed variety, which great Caesar insisted resulted in lean, hungry (and therefore dangerous) men. While we may never know the truth of the matter, the fact remains that the subject continues to raise tempers, voices, and hackles in a way few others issues can match.

So, what's an herbivorous pacifist to do, faced with the painful spectacle of her brothers and sisters rending one another's flesh and tearing each other to pieces (which is so not vegan)? In my desperation, it occurred to me that compromise might be a good place to begin; recalling a recipe for a baked tofu breakfast burrito, I thought that by combining seasoned, baked cubes (remain calm, please!) with the sauteed vegetables of an ordinary tofu scramble and then mashing them to a point where they were no longer geometric, yet not wholly lacking in structural integrity, a happy and delicious middle ground might be reached. And so it proved! After just one serving, the scales fell from my eyes and I saw the fundamental mistake of taking either extreme, divisive position: the simple truth is that tofu scramble is best when it is both cubed and mashed. You heard it here first, folks - let the healing begin!

Peace for Our Time Tofu Scramble
The Tofu
~ 1/3 cup nutritional yeast
~ 1/4 cup chickpea flour
~ 1 tsp. each: salt, cumin, chili powder, parsley, dill, garlic powder, onion powder
~ 1/4-1/2 tsp. chipotle chili powder (or cayenne), more to taste
~ A few grinds of black pepper
~ 1 lb. extra firm tofu, pressed and cut into small cubes (about 1/2")

~ Preheat the oven too 400º fahrenheit.
~ Combine the nutritional yeast, chickpea flour and spices in a large bowl with a tight-fitting lid.
~ Add the cubed tofu, put the lid on and shake well to coat completely (it's like Shake 'n' Bake, for tofu!).
~ Arrange the coated tofu cubes in a single layer on a greased baking sheet and bake at 400º for 30 minutes.
~ While it's baking, prepare...

The Veggies
~ 1-2 tbsp. olive oil
~ 1 large onion, chopped
~ 1 tbsp. garlic, minced
~ 1 large rib celery, diced
~ 2 carrots, diced
~ 1/2 large red bell pepper, diced
~ Salt and pepper to taste
~ Shot of hot sauce (optional)

~ In a large skillet or wok, heat the oil and saute the onion over medium heat about 3 minutes.
~ Add the garlic, celery, and carrots, and continue cooking another few minutes until softened.
~ Add the bell pepper and seasonings, then continue cooking - stirring frequently to prevent sticking - for about 10-15 minutes, until the vegetables are getting ever so slightly charred.

And now...
~ Remove the baked tofu from the oven and add to the vegetables.
~ With a potato masher or large fork, partially break up the tofu - remember, you do not want a totally mashed, soft texture, this is more a sort of half and half proposition.
~ Mix it all together, adjust the seasonings, and serve. (We had ours with pita crisps for one of those random weekday brunches, but roasted potatoes, baked beans, or even plain old toast would also be lovely - just make sure to eat it while sitting around a campfire, singing "We Shall Overcome!")