Thursday, July 29, 2010

Mushrooms, Asparagus, and "Chicken" En Croute with Creamy Dijon Mustard Sauce


About a year ago, amidst the buzz about the film Julie and Julia, there was a news item about Julia Child's former home, in Cambridge, having been sold to a vegetarian family. This provoked the predictable masturbatory mini-eruption in the foodie blogosphere viz. the "sacrilege" of herbivorous meals being cooked on the site of so many years of wanton carnage...er, "gourmet cuisine."

Personally, I found it rather delightful - especially when I read that the current residents have a painting of a cow in the kitchen, with the legend, “Nobody says when I grow up I want to be a hamburger" - and agreed with one vegetarian blogger that it seemed like a matter of some long overdue good karma for a place that had basically been an abattoir for 40+ years.

Fast forward to a recent afternoon when, hiding in our air-conditioned bedroom from yet more witheringly hot, humid weather, we came across an old rerun of Julia Child's original PBS program, The French Chef. This particular installment was called "Meatloaf Masquerade" (I know, you're getting a visual; just close your eyes for a minute and it will pass), and featured Julia babbling away about the wonders of pate en croute.

Now, let me just say that this episode was nothing short of a complete gorefest. I'm not even going to  try to remember how many kinds of dead animals and their various effluvia were involved in making this…this thing, but suffice to say that veal, pork, eggs, butter, cream, and a hitherto-unheard-of quantity of lard were all in evidence. And that was before she started making the puff pastry, which featured over a pound of fat, in the form of butter and lard. (LARD!) As ever, one is not merely amazed that the woman lived to be 92 years old, but that she didn't keel over with a massive coronary at the end of each episode, and that her signature send-off wasn't "Call 911!"

Be that as it may, like many vegans I know, my first reaction to seeing something like this is, "Eeeww, is she kidding?!" followed swiftly by, "I wonder how I could make that not disgusting?" Even if I wasn't too lazy/inept to make puff pastry from scratch, the weather we've been having renders anything that calls for cold margarine an unlikely prospect, but it had recently come to my attention that several frozen brands are vegan, including Pepperidge Farms. So it was that a few weeks later, I had some lovely asparagus that which I thought would be even lovelier en croute. I wanted something less "meaty" than a pate-style filling, so I marinated some soy curls, sautéed onions and mushrooms with the asparagus, thickened it up a bit, tucked the whole business inside a blanket of pastry, and baked it.

The result was so good - and looked so fancy, even though it was really very simple - that I can hardly wait to put all kinds of things in puff pastry, especially when autumn comes around. As Julia would say (albeit after suggesting I kill something and stuff it in there, tout de suite): Bon Appetit!

Mushrooms, Asparagus and "Chicken" En Croute
The Soy Curls
Ingredients
~ 1 cup soy curls
~ 1 cup "no chicken" broth
~ 1 tsp. tarragon
~ 1/2 tsp. each: salt, rosemary, parsley
~ A few generous grinds of black pepper

Directions
~ In a beaker, combine the broth and seasonings, then add the soy curls.
~ Cover and bring to a boil in the microwave, or in a pot on the stove top.
~ Allow to sit, covered, for at least 30 minutes (the longer the better).

The Other Stuff
Ingredients
~ 2 tbsp. vegan margarine (we use Earth Balance)
~ 1 cup chopped onion
~ 2 cups each: sliced mushrooms, chopped asparagus (1/2" pieces)
~ 1/4 cup dry white wine
~ 1 cup plain, unsweetened soy milk
~ 1 cup grated cheddar flavor Daiya (or other vegan cheese)

Also:
~ 1 package frozen puff pastry, thawed according to package directions (this will be two sheets, enough for two separate "loaves").

Directions
~ In a large skillet, melt the margarine, and saute the onion over medium heat 5 minutes.
~ Add the mushrooms and cook another 5 minutes, until they have released most of their moisture.
~ Add the asparagus, and cook another few minutes, until bright green.
~ Pour in the white wine and stir to deglaze, scraping up any bits that may be stuck to the pan.
~ Add the marinated soy curls (including any unabsorbed marinade), the soy milk, and cheese, then cook until thickened; about 5 minutes.
~ Taste for seasonings, then remove from heat and set aside to cool to room temperature.

The Assembly
~ Preheat the oven to 425 degrees fahrenheit.
~ On a large, greased baking sheet, lay the puff pastry flat, and spoon half the filling along the center of each sheet.
~ Fold the edges over, and crimp along the edges to form a seal. With a sharp knife, make three 2" slashes along the top of each loaf.
~ Bake at 425 for 5 minutes, then lower the heat to 350 and bake another 15-20 minutes, until puffed and golden brown.
~ Allow to cool about 5-10 minutes. This is great cut into squares as an appetizer, or in big slices as an entree, with a green salad and, if you're so inclined...

Creamy Dijon Mustard Sauce
Ingredients
~ 1 tbsp. olive oil
~ 1 tbsp. garlic, minced
~ 1/2 cup dry white wine
~ 1/2 tsp. salt
~ 2 tbsp. dijon mustard
~ 1 cup vegetable broth
~ Fresh black pepper to taste
~ 1 cup plain, unsweetened soy milk
~ 1 tsp. corn starch

Directions
~ In a saucepan, heat the olive oil, and saute the garlic over medium heat, about 2 minutes.
~ Pour in the wine, and cook a few minutes more.
~ Add the salt, mustard, vegetable broth, and pepper, and cook about 5 minutes.
~ In a separate bowl, combine the soy milk and corn starch, whisk thoroughly, and pour into the saucepan.
~ Raise the heat to high, and cook about 5 minutes more, stirring with a whisk, until thickened.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

"Gambas" en Gabardina w/Mojo de Cilantro, or "Homage to Dali"

In Somerville, MA. about a ten minute walk from Harvard Square, is Dali, a tapas restaurant with which I have extremely fond associations. I was first introduced to the place around ten years ago, by my very dear friends, Andrew and Heather Feland. At that time they were living in Arlington, I was going to school in Cambridge, and we all worked - she and I for meager non-profit salaries, he as a tireless volunteer - at the Higgins Armory Museum, which, if you don't know, is a fabulous repository of medieval and Renaissance arms and armor, located right here in Worcester, Massachusetts. My partner and I had several early dates there, and over the years it's been the location for a number of birthdays and special occasions, as well as the sort of random visits one pays when hit by a mighty craving for sangria after a class, a museum-related outing, one of those great medieval or Early Modern colloquia they have at the Barker Center, or just some long, hard shopping (between the Coop, Lush, and Cardullo's, Harvard Square can really wear a person out!).

Along with great sangria, Dali has, among other things, the nicest staff (if it's your birthday, they bring your dessert with a candle in a frog-shaped holder, and blow bubbles at you!), the craziest decor (I mean, look at it), and the most awesomely garlicky green mojo sauce in the history of the world. I'm serious: if you eat this stuff, you will come home smelling like a vampire's worst nightmare, an aroma that will continue to exude from your very pores for a minimum of 24 hours, which is why it's probably a good idea to go with someone that has A. a high tolerance for allium sativum, and/or B. already sleeps in the same bed with you, so no harm, no foul. Anyway, this sauce is traditionally served with shrimp that have been fried in a saffron batter, but as a non-shrimp-eater, one needs to find something else on which to pour it, and one recent night I decided to make that something some nice, crispy tofu. A cursory web search brought up a variety of recipes, several of which I conflated to produce the redolent offering with which I hereby present you. Go ahead, I dare you (you won't be sorry, unless your surname happens to be Dracula, and even then, it's absolutely worth the risk)!

The Tofu

Ingredients
~ 2 lb. extra firm tofu, drained and pressed
~ 1/3 cup vegetable broth, mixed with 1/2 tsp. saffron threads
~ Egg replacer for 1 egg (1 tbsp., mixed with 3 tbsp. cold water)
~ 1/2 tsp. each: salt, garlic powder, onion powder, chili powder
~ 1/4 tsp. baking soda
~ 1/2 cup flour
~ Oil for frying

Directions
~ In a microwave safe bowl or beaker, heat the broth and saffron mixture for about 30 seconds, until hot.
~ In a bowl, whisk together the egg replacer, baking soda, and remaining spices.
~ Add in flour, whisking until mixture resembles pancake batter. Set aside to rest for an hour.
~ Heat the oven to 350 degrees, and prepare a nonstick baking sheet.
~ Cut each pound of tofu into eight approximately equal pieces.
~ Heat up oil in large, deep skillet over medium-high heat.
~ Dredge the tofu pieces in the batter, then fry in batches until golden brown, being careful not to crowd the pan, a few minutes on each side.
~ As the tofu is cooked, transfer it to the baking sheet and keep warm in the oven until you've used all the pieces.

The Mojo Sauce

Ingredients
~ 6-8 tbsp. garlic, minced (trust me!)
~ 1 teaspoon cumin
~ 3/4 teaspoon salt
~ 2 cups fresh cilantro, chopped
~ 1 cup fresh parsley
~ 1/2 cup virgin olive oil
~ 1/4 cup nutritional yeast

Directions
~ In a food processor, blend the garlic, cilantro, parsley, salt and cumin.
~ With the food processor running, gradually add the olive oil and nutritional yeast, until the sauce is thick but not paste-like (you can add a bit of water, up to about 1/4 cup, if it looks too thick).
~ Transfer to a small pot and heat over a low flame for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently; it will probably thicken a bit more, but that's okay, thin with a little more water if necessary.
~ Remove from heat.
~ Serve the tofu over rice, salad, or all by itself, with the mojo sauce ladled on as generously as you dare.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Food for Thought



"Thou know'st 'tis common; all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity."
~ Hamlet (1.1.72-3)

What would we do without Shakespeare? It doesn't bear thinking about; he is always there when needed, and usually with just the right take on things. I'll never write anything that good, but here I am anyway. I haven't updated in awhile, partly because I haven't been cooking much, but primarily because my mind has been elsewhere. My mother, June (née Kirby) Tsiokas, died of complications from metastatic breast cancer on June 25th, and that has taken up the majority of my available mental space. Inevitably, such an event suspends normal activities, and causes a person to pause, reflect, and spend some time reassessing Life, the Universe, and Everything (to say nothing of staying up/sleeping in rather later than is necessarily good for them). The past few weeks have left me feeling exhausted, as if I'd been performing hard, physical labor - which I can assure you, I have not. Friends and loved ones have stepped forward with many words and deeds of kindness, including the advice to give things a break, and not to beat up on myself for not being quite...well, myself.

Part of my sense of dislocation has been a lack of interest in food, cooking, and eating, which is unfortunate, because the kitchen has always been a place I go to decompress. I trust this will prove temporary, but right now I'm just not feeling it. Of course, the irony is that both of my parents basically lived to cook, and especially to cook for others. After my father died, in early 2007, I found that chopping, stirring, and cooking things brought me a certain amount of comfort; at a time when I felt weak and vulnerable, it was one area in which I was still strong and competent.

This time is different. Maybe it has something to do with it being my mother, with whom I had an intense and often complicated relationship, or maybe it's the fact that I am now an "orphan." I realize that's a silly word to apply to a card-carrying, childbearing, mortgage-paying grown-up like myself, but that's how it feels. I may not be reduced to Dickensian waifishness - picking pockets or sleeping under the counter at the coffinmaker's shop - but I am nonetheless officially out of parents.

No matter how wonderful one's partner, friends, and other family members, there will never be another person on the other end of the phone so genuinely interested in the minutiae of your life (whether or not you have a headache, what you're having for dinner, your kid's report card) in the same way as your own mother. The person who carried you in her body, brought you into the world, and fed, clothed, and loved you from when you were the merest scrap of helpless humanity right through to - with any luck - responsible adulthood.

Then again, I have my own children: sons who are growing up fast, for whom I must be that voice on the phone, and as I negotiate this rite of passage, it's important to bear that circularity in mind. As Claudius tells the grieving Hamlet, "you must know, your father lost a father;/ That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound/ In filial obligation for some term/ To do obsequious sorrow..." Of course, the flaw in this example is that Claudius has actually killed Hamlet's father, but the point remains valid: the loss of our parents constitutes an enormous change, and it takes a little while to find our bearings again. One friend described the experience as akin to being "a small child lost in the world's hugest department store."

So what I need to realize is that a few weeks of reflective, not-especially-productive downtime is not "...to persevere/ In obstinate condolement [or]...a course/ Of impious stubbornness," nor is it such a big deal, in light of the enormity of what's happened to my family. And I guess what I'm taking rather a long time to say is thank you. Thanks to the people who have been, and continue to be there for me, and for their admonitions to be a bit gentle with myself at this very strange time. And watch this space, because I promise that some day soon my mirth and my custom of exercise will return, at which point I'll show you guys some vegan cooking of which even my meat-and-butter-obsessed British mother would be proud.