Thursday, April 28, 2016

Creamy Lentils, Leeks, and Mushrooms with Cheesy Polenta

Even with spring officially sprung here in New England, we still get some chilly days and properly cold nights, and on such occasions today's recipe is exactly what's called for. Packed with lentils and veggies, this hearty stew is among my notions of a perfect meal: nourishing, healthy, and comforting, especially when ladled over a pile of warm, cheesy polenta. (Mashed potatoes, rice, or some other grain would also work, but trust me: you want the polenta.) Since this dish is also quite filling, you're almost sure to have leftovers, which is excellent news because it's the sort of thing that only gets better as it sits.

Creamy Lentils, Leeks, and Mushrooms 
~ 3.5 cups vegetable broth
~ 1 cup brown lentils
~ 2 bay leaves
~ 1 lb. mushrooms, sliced
~ 2 tbsp. olive oil
~ 1 large leek, sliced
~ 1 large carrot, diced
~ 4 cloves garlic, minced
~ ½ tsp. each: salt, thyme, marjoram
~ A few good grinds black pepper
~ 1 tbsp. vegan Worcestershire sauce
~ ½ cup plain, unsweetened soy milk
~ 1 tsp. cornstarch
~ ½ lb. frozen spinach

~ Bring the broth and bay leaves to a boil in a saucepan and stir in the lentils. Cover the pot, reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook for 20-25 minutes, until the lentils are softened but not falling apart. Remove from heat and set aside.
~ Coat a large skillet with cooking spray and cook the mushrooms over medium-high heat until browned and fragrant. Sprinkle with salt and transfer to a plate.
~ Add the olive oil to the skillet and cook the leeks and carrot over medium heat for 5-7 minutes. Add the garlic, dry seasonings, and Worcestershire and cook another 30 seconds or so. Pour in the lentils (along with their cooking liquid) and stir well.
~ Whisk the soy milk and cornstarch together and add to the pot. Continue cooking another 10 minutes, or until the mixture has thickened a bit.
~ Remove the bay leaves, add the frozen spinach, and cook another few minutes until the greens have just wilted.

Cheesy Polenta
~ 6 cups "no chicken" broth
~ 1.5 cups polenta (I used Bob's Red Mill)
~ 1 cup grated vegan cheese (I used TJ's mozzarella)
~ ½ cup nutritional yeast
~ 1 tsp. garlic powder
~ ½ tsp. white pepper

~ In a large saucepan, bring the broth to a rapid boil.
~ Pour in the polenta and, whisking constantly, add the remaining ingredients.
~ Continue cooking - don't stop whisking! - for 10-15 minutes, until you have a smooth, creamy, cheesy porridge.
~ Ladle generously into wide, shallow bowls and top with lentils.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Avocado Pesto with Penne and Broccoli

This creamy green sauce is so delicious that its ridiculous healthiness comes as a complete bonus. In fact, it's so good that I fully intend to make it a regular alternative to my (also delectably nutritious) standard pesto. Or I may throw caution to the wind entirely and conflate the two to have the best and greenest of all possible worlds! But for now I recommend you head to the store, pick up some avocados and some pasta, and get busy in the kitchen. Your mouth, your stomach, and anyone lucky enough to eat dinner at your house will thank you.

Avocado Pesto with Penne and Broccoli
~ 1 tbsp. olive oil
~ 1 small red onion, diced
~ 1 small red bell pepper, diced
~ Salt and pepper
~ 2 ripe Haas avocados, chopped
~ 2-3 packed cups chopped, fresh basil
~ ½ cup nutritional yeast
~ 2 tbsp. minced garlic
~ ¼ cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice
~ 1 tsp. each: salt, oregano
~ ¾ cup plain, unsweetened vegan milk (I used cashew)
~ 1 lb. penne
~ 1 head broccoli, cut into bite-sized florets, with the stalks chopped

~ Heat the olive oil in a skillet and sauté the onion, bell pepper, and chopped broccoli stalks (not the florets!) over medium-high heat for 8-10 minutes, until they are softened and beginning to brown. Sprinkle with salt, a few generous grinds of black pepper, and remove from heat.
~ In a blender or food processor, combine the avocados, basil, nutritional yeast, garlic, lemon juice, salt, oregano, and milk. Puree until smooth.
~ Boil the pasta in salted water according to package directions; about two minutes before the end of its cooking time, add the broccoli florets. Reserve about a cup of the cooking water and drain.
~ Return the cooked penne and broccoli to the pasta pot and stir in the sautéed vegetables and the avocado pesto. Combine thoroughly to make sure all the pasta is coated, adding a little of the reserved cooking water if it seems too thick.
~ Taste for salt, add a few more grinds of black pepper, and serve immediately.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Fish Pie with Cheesy Mash

“I'm hungry, not tired; I want to eat heaps."
"That's good.  What'll you have?"

"Fish pie," said she, with a glance at the menu.

"Fish pie! Fancy coming for fish pie to Simpson's. It's not a bit the thing to go for here…Saddle of mutton," said he after profound reflection: "and cider to drink. That's the type of thing. I like this place, for a joke, once in a way.  It is so thoroughly Old English. Don't you agree?"

"Yes," said Margaret, who didn't. 

This is just one of many points in the narrative when Margaret Schlegel should tell Henry Wilcox to stuff his saddle of mutton, his cider, his mercantile values, his hypocrisy, and his whole colonialist enterprise up his smug, condescending backside. I'm afraid you'll have to wait for my Forster fanfic - Howards End II: The Revenge - to read that exchange, but in the meantime I present a fish pie I feel certain my socially conscious, forward-thinking girlfriend Meg would have enjoyed. (Although it takes a very different interpretive approach, Sesame Street's appropriation is also worth a look.)

I think of this scene whenever I see fish pie on a menu, which happens quite often in the UK and Ireland, where this comfort food staple is found everywhere, as everything from a high-concept gastropub deconstruction to a podgy Sunday restaurant lunch, to say nothing of the countless variations made by home cooks. (That said, a glance at Simpson's current bill of fare shows that it no longer features in their cavalcade of culinary carnage, which just goes to show that even "Old English" things change, Henry, so STFU.) 

Anyway, I'd been thinking of taking this dish on for awhile, and a recent snowbound April Sunday (Mother Nature really needs to get herself some help) inspired me to dive in. I generally tackle these self-imposed challenges as follows: if it's something my parents, friends, or other family members made/make, I take that as a starting point. If not, I research a few "classic" recipes as models and construct a conflated good parts version to suit our ethics, tastes, and available supplies. 

Unsurprisingly, fish pie recipes vary wildly: some call for all fish - some smoked; some not - while others insist upon a combination of fish and shrimp. A number of versions include various vegetables (onions, leeks, celery, carrots, peas; a few especially worthy souls use spinach, which is taking things too far even for me), while others declare their presence anathema. White sauce? Cheese sauce? Thickened stock? Plain mashed spuds or cheesy? Or how about Nigel Slater's iconoclastic crumble topping? (Heresy!)

Verily, I say unto you that the possibilities seemed endless, but what I wanted was a pie version of my mother's poached fish in white sauce, which was always accompanied by (but not topped with) mashed potato. Ultimately I chose this recipe as a basic guide, and then proceeded to tinker. The result was universally declared to be a huge success, hitting all those reassuring notes that make one rise from the table feeling happily well-fed, well-loved, and that everything will be all right, but without the imperialist wankery that would have accompanied its Simpsonian prototype, had Margaret been permitted to order it.

…a little comfort had restored her geniality. Speech and silence pleased her equally, and while Mr. Wilcox made some preliminary inquiries about cheese, her eyes surveyed the restaurant and admired its well-calculated tributes to the solidity of our past. Though no more Old English than the works of Kipling, it had selected its reminiscences so adroitly that her criticism was lulled, and the guests whom it was nourishing for imperial purposes bore the outer semblance of Parson Adams or Tom Jones.

Quite. (Bite me.)

Fish Pie with Cheesy Mash
The Filling
~ Double recipe good white sauce
~ 2 packages Gardein mini crabless cakes
~ 1-2 tbsp. canola oil
~ 1 medium onion, small dice
~ 1 carrot, small dice
~ 2 tsp. dried parsley
~ 1 tsp. each: salt, marjoram, mustard powder
~ 1 sheet nori, lightly toasted and crumbled (optional, if you want more "fishiness")
~ ½ cup frozen peas

~ Prepare the crabless cakes according to packaging directions. While they are baking, prepare the white sauce, and then set the cooked cakes and finished sauce aside to cool.
~ In a large, deep saucepan, heat the oil and sauté the onion and carrot over medium heat for 10 minutes, until softened but not browned.
~ Add the parsley, salt, marjoram, mustard powder, and nori (if using). Stir to combine, and then pour in the prepared white sauce.
~ Raise the heat to high and bring almost to a boil, stirring constantly. When the mixture is nearly boiling, reduce the heat to low and allow to simmer for 5-7 minutes, until it thickens a bit.
~ Roughly chop the cooked crab cakes and add them to the saucepan along with the frozen peas. Continue cooking another 5 minutes and then remove from heat, setting aside to cool for about 15-20 minutes.

The Cheesy Mash
~ 10 large Yukon Gold potatoes, diced
~ 1.5 cups plain, unsweetened soy or other vegan milk
~ 1 tsp. no chicken bouillon
~ 1.5 cups shredded vegan cheddar (I used Daiya)
~ Dash mace
~ Salt and pepper to taste

~ Cook the potatoes in salted, boiling salted water for 20 minutes, until tender but not falling apart.
~ Drain the potatoes, reserving ½ cup of cooking liquid.
~ Return the drained potatoes to the pot and mash roughly.
~ In a separate microwaveable bowl or beaker (or stovetop saucepan), combine the milk, bouillon, cheddar, mace, salt, and pepper. Heat this mixture to nearly boiling and whisk until the cheese is melted and everything is well incorporated.
~ Add the milk and cheese mixture to the potatoes and mash it all together until relatively smooth. (We're not going for a whipped texture, but neither do we want big hunks of unmashed potato.)

The Assembly
~ Preheat the oven to 375 degrees fahrenheit and coat a 9 x 13" casserole with cooking spray. Place the casserole on a baking sheet to catch any errant drips.
~ Spread the filling in the casserole dish and top with enough mash to cover, smoothing with a spatula to ensure that it's distributed evenly. (I have no desire to make windows into mens' souls, so suit the depth of the topping to your personal taste. That said, you will almost certainly have some left over to serve on the side. Or not.)
~ Run the tines of a fork through the topping and sprinkle lightly with a little paprika and dried parsley. 
~ Bake the pie for 25-30 minutes, until the mixture is bubbling and the mash is a beauteous golden brown.
~ Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 10-15 minutes before serving. We ate our pie with cubed, roasted butternut squash, noochy kale, and the extra mashed potato for what I must say was a pretty perfect repast.