Sunday, March 28, 2010

Mushroom, Spinach, and "Chicken" Lasagna Alfredo

Like many vegans of my acquaintance, I get a certain masochistic charge from watching the Food Network. Seriously: between the over-the-top personalities (Paula Deen deep-fryin' butter, y'all!), bizarre schticks (Sandra Lee's Semi-Homemade? WTF is that?), scary bared teeth and fake boobs (ciao, Giadda!), and gratuitous screaming at the mere mention of pork products (the Neelys really need to dial it down; they must terrify their children), it can be hard to look away. One of my main beefs, however - you should pardon the expression - is how few of these people seem to actually cook, as opposed to simply combining a bunch of packaged stuff and calling it a "recipe."

Not to sound like Grampa Simpson, but in my day, ripping open a box of cake mix, throwing in a can of cherry pie filling, and dumping a handful of mini-marshmallows on top didn't necessarily merit your own TV show, dammit. There are a few exceptions to this rule (Alton Brown and Ina Garten come to mind), and the fact that almost everything they produce is soaked in the various effluvia of dead animals doesn't necessarily prevent a creative herbivore from exploiting them as a source of interesting, often highly veganizable ideas.

That being the case, today's recipe comes to you courtesy of the last of the above-mentioned triumvirate, a man who actually annoys the living crap out of me, but he does know how to do more than operate a can opener, so that's something, right? One day, idly channel-surfing while home sick with a nasty cold, I came upon (the pretty damn annoying) Emeril Lagasse making this lasagna and thought, "Hey, that looks pretty good, and I haven't tried that Gardein stuff yet!"

A few weeks went by, my spring break arrived, and the time seemed right to give it a whirl. Since this was my first experience with Gardein products (which have been getting a lot of buzz in vegan circles), and I'm not generally a big fan of meat analogues, I was excited and trepidatious in equal measure. It was also the first time I'd used those "oven-ready" lasagna sheets that don't have to be boiled first, so there was, as the Neelys might put it, "all kinds of (non-pork related) craziness going on in my kitchen, baby!"

Additionally, since the original recipe called for all kinds of cheese, cream, and an entire stick of butter, I was faced with the task of creating that Alfredo-like "richness" without courting a major cardiac event; after a little thought, I hit on raw cashews, which are nothing short of miraculous for creating thick, creamy textures. This proved a stroke of genius - once I'd pureed the nuts, sauteed the veggies in some margarine, and added a few handfuls of fake mozzarella, the finished product bore little resemblance to the virtuous, groats and berries "health food" upon which vegans are often imagined to subsist, yet still boasted a whole bunch of vegetables, and a fraction of the fat, calories, and overall grossness of the original.

As for the Gardein, while it did add a certain "chickeny" something, this dish would be every bit as good without it, so go ahead and make it even if you don't have access to trendy fake meat. (In fact, my partner always makes it with just the veggies, and it's a huge hit around here.) Do be forewarned that this makes a lot, and is exceptionally filling, so unless you're feeding an army you will have leftovers; then again, what's wrong with that? If you make a pan on the weekend, you could easily feed off it for a few busy weekdays without ever turning on the stove, which is always a fine thing. (Or, as Emeril would say: BAM!)

Mushroom, Spinach, and "Chicken" Lasagna Alfredo
The Sauce
~ 1 cup raw cashews
~ 3 cups vegan "chicken" broth
~ 2 tbsp. Earth Balance, or other vegan margarine
~ 1 lb. mushrooms, sliced (I used a combination of crimini and shiitake)
~ 2 cups yellow onion, finely chopped
~ 3 tbsp. garlic, minced
~ 1 tsp. kosher salt
~ 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
~ 1 cup fresh basil, chopped
~ 2 tsp. paprika
~ 1/2 tsp. each: garlic powder, onion powder, oregano, thyme

~ 1/4 teaspoon each: nutmeg, cayenne
~ Freshly ground black pepper
~ 4 cups plain, unsweetened soy milk
~ 1 pound baby spinach, roughly chopped

~ Preheat the oven to 375 degrees fahrenheit.
~ In a beaker, combine the vegetable broth and the raw cashews and microwave for 3-4 minutes, until boiling. Set aside to soak for at least 30 minutes (the longer, the better).
~ In a deep pot, melt the margarine over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring often until the mushrooms are browned and most of the liquid has evaporated, about 5 to 7 minutes.
~ Add the onions, garlic, and seasonings to the pan; sauté for about 5 minutes, until the onions are soft and translucent.
~ Add the flour and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, to make a light roux, about 1-2 minutes.
~ In a food processor, combine the raw cashews and vegetable broth and puree until smooth.
~ Whisking constantly, slowly add the cashew/broth puree and soy milk and continue to cook, stirring occasionally until thickened, 5 minutes.
~ Stir in the spinach and fresh basil, and stir to combine. Cook another 5 minutes, until the greens wilt.
~ Remove from heat and set aside.

The "Chicken" (if using; otherwise skip to the next bit)
~ Cooking spray
~ 2 7 oz. packages Gardein chick'n breasts, cubed
~ Salt, pepper, tarragon

~ Sprinkle the Gardein cubes with some salt, pepper and a little tarragon.
~ Coat a skillet with the cooking spray and sauté the seasoned cubes over medium heat until browned, about 5-7 minutes.
~ Remove from heat and set aside.

~ 1 lb. oven-ready lasagna sheets
~ 2 cups grated vegan mozzarella (I use Daiya or TJ's)
~ 1 tbsp. EB, cut into small pieces
~ About 1/2 tsp. each: dried parsley, paprika (for garnish)

The Assembly
~ Coat a 9 x 13" casserole with cooking spray, and spread about 1/2 cup of the sauce on the bottom of the dish; reserve and set aside another cup or so of the sauce.
~ Add the "chicken" to the remaining sauce and combine thoroughly.
~ Lay overlapping sheets of the pasta across the bottom of the dish to cover, then spread 1/3 of the sauce over the pasta. make another layer of pasta, another layer of sauce, and repeat, ending with a pasta layer.
~ Pour the reserved sauce over the top layer of pasta, sprinkle with the mozzarella, and scatter the margarine pieces over the whole business.
~ Sprinkle with the parsley and paprika.
~ Place the casserole on a baking sheet and cook, uncovered, until bubbly and well browned, about 45 minutes (keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn't burn; if you prefer, you could cover the casserole with foil for the first 20 minutes, then remove it to crisp things up).
~ Remove from the oven and allow to cool for at least 15 minutes before serving.
Note: You may need slightly less than the entire package of lasagna noodles, depending on the pan used for the casserole. Also, you may be able to fit more than 3 pieces of pasta in each layer, depending. The pasta can be broken into smaller pieces to fill in the gaps.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Thai-Inspired Coconut Noodle Soup

This started out intending to be curry laksa, but I was missing a number of key ingredients, and had neither the time nor the inclination to go grocery shopping. I still wanted an Asian, coconut-flavored soup, however, and by the time I'd subbed onions for shallots, basil for curry leaves, red and green curry pastes for yellow, thrown in some scallions, etc., it had become Something Completely Different, and was definitely rocking more of a Thai vibe than the original version. Fortunately, it was also delicious, so while I will get to the Indian market and make that other recipe one day soon, I figured I'd type this up to ensure that it could be A. shared with you, gentle reader, and B. replicated the next time I want some Thai-style noodle soup. We had this on the sort of miserable, cold, rainy, windy March night that results in the month's frequent comparison to a lion, but the bright, just-spicy-enough flavors of basil, lemongrass, curry and lime made it seem entirely possible that the soft, wooly lamb of springtime might be waiting, just around the corner.

Thai-Inspired Coconut Noodle Soup
~ 1 cup onions, chopped
~ 1 cup fresh basil
~ 2 tbsp. garlic, minced
~ 2 tbsp. fresh ginger, grated
~ 1 tsp. dried lemongrass
~ 1 tsp ground coriander
~ 1 tbsp red curry paste
~ 1 tbsp green curry paste
~ 4 tbsp vegetable oil
~ 6 scallions, thinly sliced
~ 1 tbsp curry powder
~ 1 tsp salt
~ 1 tbsp sugar
~ 4 cups vegetable stock
~ 2 14 oz cans lite coconut milk
~ 8 oz. rice vermicelli noodles
~ Bean sprouts
~ 4 cups roughly chopped baby spinach
~ Juice of 1 lime
~ 1 tsp hot sauce
~ Fresh coriander, and some roasted peanuts or cashews, chopped (optional, for garnish)

~ Put the first 8 ingredients in a food processor. Add 2 tbsp. of the oil, and process to a semi-smooth paste.
~ Heat the remaining 2 tbsp. oil in a saucepan and fry the spice paste on low-medium heat for 20 minutes, stirring all the time – it should cook slowly, without burning.
~ Add the scallions, stock, curry powder, salt, sugar and coconut milk, stir to combine, and simmer gently for 30 minutes, then taste and adjust the seasonings, if necessary.
~ Add the spinach, stir, and cook another few minutes, until it is just wilted, and stir in the lime juice and hot sauce.
~ Once the broth is done, cook the rice noodles according to package directions and drain.
~ Immerse the bean sprouts in a pot of boiling water, drain at once and refresh with cool water.
~ Just before serving, add a handful of the bean sprouts to the hot soup and stir.
~ To serve, put the desired amount of noodles into bowls, and ladle the soup over them. Top with another handful of sprouts, and sprinkle with the coriander and nuts, if using. YUM.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Robert's Childhood Chili, All Grown Up

Here I am, guest posting once again. This - pretty damn classic, if I say so myself - recipe is basically an amalgam of childhood memories and Craig Claiborne’s “Chili Con Carne” from the venerable New York Times Cookbook (1961). I know that wars have raged, thousands have died, and states have been formed and dissolved over the various styles of chili (beans? no beans? if yes, how many beans? how big should the vegetables be? should there even be vegetables?), but to be frank, I don’t find such debates all that interesting. Personally, if I can achieve a reasonable, vegan approximation of what I ate as a child, I’m all happy.

As it happens, this recipe is one of those facsimiles so reasonable that you really have to wonder what the hell was up with all that animal-killing stuff in the first place. I am fortunate in this regard, because the chili my mother made used ground meat, rather than big chunks of cow, which makes it ever so much easier to imitate (and if you’re one of those haters who stalk vegan blogs to point out how freaky it is for herbivores to imitate the textures of pre-vegan dishes, I have three important words for you: poo poo bums. So there).

In any event, chili is one of those dishes that seems to span decades - yea, verily, even generations! - social classes, and political sensibilities, so here’s a good all-purpose recipe that will please at barbecues, church socials, Samhain celebrations, potlucks, brisses, and ritual feasts for any religion or anti-religion you care to name. I myself am not a fan of large, discernible chunks of vegetables in chili; I like it smooth enough that you could conceivably spoon it over rice, if that's what you're into. So I encourage you to chop those veggies fine, kids, and don't forget the cornbread!

Robert's Childhood Chili, All Grown Up
~ 2 tbsp olive oil
~ 1 large red onion, chopped
~ 2 stalks celery, small dice
~ 1 large carrot, small dice
~ 1 bell pepper, small dice
~ 2 tsp each: ground cumin, chili powder
~ 1.5 tsp kosher or regular salt
~ 1 tsp each: marjoram, coriander, celery seed
~ 1/2 tsp each: cinnamon, cayenne
~ Dash nutmeg
~ 3 tbsp minced garlic
~ 1 pkg. vegan ground "beef" like Gimme Lean, or  TJ's or Nate's meatballs, mashed
~ 1/4 cup red wine
~ 2 cups no chicken broth
~ 1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes
~ 1 28 oz. can kidney beans
~ 1 tbsp. each: vegan Worcestershire sauce, HP Sauce
~ 1 tsp. Marmite
~ 2 large bay leaves

~ Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat; add the onion, celery, and carrot; sauté 5 minutes.
~ Add the bell pepper, garlic, and dry seasonings and cook about 2-3 minutes.
~ Add the ground "beef,"cook for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, and then pour in the wine.
~ Allow the wine to cook off for a minute or two and then add all the remaining ingredients. Mix well, bring the whole business to a boil ever so briefly. Lower the heat to simmer and cook for about an hour, stirring occasionally, until you reach your Platonic ideal of chili consistency.
~ Remove the bay leaves, and serve with cornbread, and maybe a green salad to satisfy honor. (Or not).

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Tofu Benedict

This might be, quite honestly, the best brunch dish I've ever made, and I don't make such claims lightly. It may have had something to do with the first day of my spring break being a bright, sunny Saturday; combined with the absence (albeit temporary) of immediately pressing projects demanding my attention, an elaborate, multi-step brunch seemed like a great idea.

Initially, I thought this would keep me in the kitchen for ages - a proposition with which I was perfectly cool, since we had A. all the time in the world, and B. cheap "champagne" and OJ for mimosas - but in the event it all came together pretty fast. If you plan ahead, you can marinate the tofu the night before, and have both it and the tempeh baking while you make the sauce, steam the asparagus, etc. Even if you're like me, and are not especially organized, it was still done in under an hour, so no worries.

With spring on the way at last, beautiful asparagus will be appearing more frequently - and at less expense - so why not take advantage of it, and whip up some Tofu Benedict the next time you have a lazy morning at home? (For that matter, this dish would make a good dinner, too; the recipe below makes a generous quantity of sauce, so go ahead and ladle it over some extra asparagus, roasted potatoes, your dining companion, or whatever!)

Tofu Benedict
The Tofu
~ 1 lb. extra firm tofu, drained and pressed
~ 1 cup vegetable broth
~ 1 tbsp. soy sauce
~ 1 tbsp. olive oil
~ 1 tsp. hot sauce
~ 1 tsp. each: paprika, garlic powder, curry powder
~ 1/2 tsp. turmeric (optional, for color)

~ Preheat the oven to 400 degrees fahrenheit.
~ Cut the tofu into 4 rectangles, then carefully slice each rectangle in half horizontally, so you have 8.
~ In a shallow pan or bowl, mix all the remaining ingredients together, then place the tofu in the mixture. Flip the tofu over to coat, and marinate at least 1/2 an hour (the longer the better), flipping occasionally so as much marinade is absorbed as possible.
~ Coat a baking sheet with cooking spray, and arrange the marinated tofu on it. Bake for 20 minutes, turning over at the halfway point. If you like, you can spoon on a bit of the leftover marinade every so often as it's baking.
~ Remove from oven and set aside.

The Hollandaise
~ 3/4 cup raw cashews, soaked and drained
~ Juice of 1 lemon
~ 1 cup plain, unsweetened soy (or other non-dairy) milk
~ 1 cup vegetable broth
~ 1 tbsp. garlic, minced
~ 2 tbsp. nutritional yeast
~ 1 tsp. each: salt, dry mustard
~ Dash turmeric (for color)
~ A few grinds of black pepper
~ 2 tbsp. Earth Balance
~ 2 tbsp. flour
~ 1.5 tsp. tarragon

~ In a food processor, combine all but the last 3 ingredients (EB, flour, and tarragon). Blend thoroughly until smooth.
~ In a saucepan, melt the margarine over low heat Aed the tarragon, saute briefly, then add the flour to make a roux.
~ Raise the heat to medium, then begin gradually adding the blended cashew mixture, stirring continually.
~ Cook about 5-7 minutes, continuing to stir, until heated through and thickened; if it gets too thick, add a little plain soy (or other) milk to thin it out to the consistency you like.

The Other Stuff
~ 4 English muffins, split and lightly toasted
~ 1 big bunch of asparagus, steamed until just bright green
~ 1 package tempeh bacon, cooked according to directions
~ 1 lb. mushrooms, sliced and sauteed in olive oil with a little salt and tarragon (optional, but awesome)

The Assembly
~ Lightly spread muffin halves with margarine, then top each one with the following, in this order: tofu slice, bacon, asparagus, hollandaise (be generous!), mushrooms.
~ Serve immediately, ideally with a Bloody Mary or mimosa, and some roasted potatoes on the side.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Classic Baked Macaroni & Cheese

Okay, this is so eerily like the baked mac & cheese of my childhood that just the smell of it bubbling away in the oven has the power to bring on some serious visceral flashbacks (not those kind of flashbacks). While it's axiomatic that everyone's mom, dad, and/or grandmother/grandfather made The Best Macaroni and Cheese in the World, in our house it was actually true, because both of my parents possessed the quasi-alchemical ability to elevate the basest, most homely "comfort" food to a level of golden, Platonic perfection only imagined by lesser mortals.

And while I'm not going to claim that anything we make as grown-ups can hit that psycho-emotional sweet spot that our parents' cooking did - except, if we're lucky, for our own kids - I will say that this came pretty damn close. (In fact, the first time I made it, my omnivorous oldest son ate a big bowl, assuming his grandmother had sent it, and didn't realize it was vegan until I told him, so HA!)

For The Absolutely Perfect Comfort Meal, I recommend serving this with BBQ tempeh "wings,garlicky greens, and sweet potatoes, but it's so substantial that it can easily be a meal all by itself. If you want to be all classy and post-modern, you could use panko for the topping, but I strongly suggest going for that home-cooked, 1970s casserole gusto with the "buttered" cracker crumbs. Next time you're feeling a little bashed about, or just in need of some carbohydrate-based comfort, whip up a pan of this stuff, and I can absolutely guarantee that you'll feel better about the world and your place in it.

Classic Baked Macaroni & Cheese
The Sauce
~ 2 tbsp. Earth Balance or a neutral oil such as canola (or a combination)
~ 1 medium onion, chopped very fine
~ 3 tbsp. flour
~ 1 tsp. each: salt, paprika
~ 2 tsp. dry mustard
~ 1/2 tsp. turmeric
~ 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
~ A few generous grinds of black pepper
~ 2 bay leaves
~ 5-6 cups plain, unsweetened soy milk
~ 1 tbsp. each: vegan Worcestershire sauce, prepared English mustard
~ 1 tsp. each: Marmite, hot sauce (I like Frank's)
~ 2 cups shredded vegan cheddar (I used Daiya, but Cheezly rocks hard if you can get it)
~ 1/2 cup nutritional yeast
~ 1 lb. pasta, cooked and drained according to package directions (medium shells are nice, but for this recipe I really like chicciole, which are sort of fat, semi-relaxed elbows)

~ Preheat the oven to 400 degrees fahrenheit.
~ In a large saucepan, saute the chopped onion in the margarine and/or oil for 5-7 minutes over medium heat, until softened.
~ Stir in the flour and dried seasonings, stir continually for a minute or so, then add the bay leaves.
~ Begin adding the milk, gradually, whisking all the while to prevent clumping.
~ Add the Worcestershire, mustard, Marmite, and hot sauce. Stir thoroughly, and then begin adding the shredded cheese, about 1/4 cup at a time; making sure it all melts before adding more.
~ Stir in the nutritional yeast, and combine thoroughly. Once you have a nice, smooth sauce, remove the bay leaves, take the sauce off the heat, and mix with the cooked pasta.

The Topping
~ 1-1.5 cup crushed Ritz crackers, or similar (I use a whole sleeve for this!)
~ 1 tbsp. margarine, melted
~ Paprika for garnish

~ Smash up the crackers until they're very fine.
~ In a small bowl, mix the crumbs with the melted margarine and paprika. (Complicated, innit?)

The Assembly
~ Coat a 9 x 13" casserole with cooking spray.
~ Pour the pasta mixture into the casserole, top with the cracker crumbs, and cover with foil.
~ Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes.
~ Uncover and bake another 15 minutes or so, until the topping is browned (watch it so it doesn't burn).
~ Remove from oven and allow to sit about 10 minutes before serving.