Monthly Archives: July 2012

Comfortable Things on Rainy Days.

This has been a busy week, complete with long work hours, crazy amounts of errands and 4,000 things on my mind.  Consequently, I haven’t had much time to play in the kitchen.  I hope to remedy that over the next couple of days, but today I turned to something tried, true, delicious and simple for dinner.

It’s a funny thing about living on the coast of Maine; even in the middle of summer, one might stumble across a dreary day with a chill in the air.  Today is one of those days, so I put on my sweater and made this soup.

Dal-Inspired Lentil Soup

1/2 lb dry green lentils

4 cups vegetable stock

2 cups water

1 onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 inch cube fresh ginger, minced

1 Tbsp. vegetable oil

1 tsp. cumin

1/2 tsp. turmeric

1 tsp. curry powder

1 tsp. red chile flakes

Salt to taste

Directions:

Heat oil in a soup pot or large sauce pan.  Add onions, garlic and ginger and cook, stirring frequently, for 5-6 minutes, until onions start to become translucent.  Add spices and stir continuously for 1 minute, until spices become aromatic.  Add water, stock and lentils.  Bring to a boil, then turn heat to low and simmer 30-40 minutes, until lentils are tender.  Mash some of the lentils in the pot with the back of a spoon to make a thicker soup.  Serve over rice, with bread, or alone with a dollop of yogurt and a sprinkle of chopped fresh cilantro on top.


Soaring and Thud.

“I can’t help flying up on the wings of anticipation. It’s as glorious as soaring through a sunset… almost pays for the thud.” ― Anne Shirley

Have you ever made something on the fly, something new and creative that just popped into your head unbidden and then turned out to be phenomenally delicious?  It’s like soaring.  It feels like a moment of genius, like poetry, like artistic inspiration.  That first bite can seem like a religious experience, and it’s all the better if there’s someone else around to fawn over your brilliance in that glorious moment.

When I crave fulfillment, I often head for the kitchen to create.  This is nothing new for me; one of my favorite childhood activities was playing mad scientist in the kitchen.  I didn’t get to do this terribly often because my mother, who was both on a budget and trying to teach me a life skill, usually made me follow a recipe.  Occasionally, though, she would give me parameters regarding ingredients and quantities and let me have at it.

As an adult, I still test out hypothetically delicious situations in the kitchen. For example, this week I set out to make what I was certain would be a fabulous salad. I had already come up with a silly-in-an-ironic-sort-of-way name: Three Bean Fiesta Salad, which sounds like something you would order at Taco Bell but which is made entirely from scratch, which is why it is ironic. I planned to feature red, cannellini and green beans, marinated with lime juice, olive oil, and adobo sauce.  Some fresh organic corn was dropped in my lap the day before, which only promised to add to the experience.  I would post about it here, inspiring all sorts of strangers to try my recipe. “I can’t believe how simple, yet satisfying it is,” they would rave. “Is this really vegan?”

Three Bean Fiesta became Two Bean Fiesta when the entire pot of cannellini beans turned to a thick white paste before they were soft enough to eat.  Two Bean Fiesta became Bean and Corn Fiesta when I realized I’d only bought enough green beans for the stir fry later in the week.  Bean and Corn Fiesta Salad became Bean and Corn Fiesta Burritos when my husband came home and decided it didn’t seem like a cold dish (he was totally right).  And before you know it, I was 9 years old, playing in the kitchen again.

Usually Mom’s expendable ingredients were things like flour and sugar and fat.  This was before I discovered that baking is an exact science and that, for that reason, I am not very good at it.  I had not yet learned to fear baked goods, so that’s what I most often tried to make, but I occasionally attempted other things.  My bizarre concoctions were frequently complete flops.  I remember particularly well some banana-peanut butter cookies that tasted strangely rotten, and an ice cream maker-less attempt at blueberry ice cream that ended up as frozen purple milk.

I had expected that salad to be fantastic.  Why?  Because I’ve made lots of fantastic things in my life. I’ve got an excellent palate, and my husband, who is a classically trained chef, raves about my food on a regular basis. I fear neither global cuisine, nor home cheese-making, nor deseeding hot chiles. I am a real cook!

The truth is that when you cook on the fly, there’s a lot of trial and error between each perfect bite. I’ve spent the last few days attempting religious experience and accomplishing purple milk. But I’ve remembered something else about those childhood culinary failures. No matter how a concoction turned out, I still wanted to make more things.  I kept trying.  I was striving for that moment of genius.

In honesty, not every moment is creative.  If I’m going to write about my culinary triumphs, I think maybe it’s important to write about my culinary failures, too. To admit that I don’t always feel brilliant. To appreciate the mundane for the way it allows me to experience elation at my own creativity. To acknowledge mistakes as a necessary part of the process that leads to moments of genius.


Answers to “Why are you vegetarian?” and Other Common Questions.

I am frequently asked why I am vegetarian. Often, the question has a follow-up, such as, “Do you just not like meat?” or “Do you think there’s something wrong with eating meat (almost always in a defensive tone)?” or, a personal favorite of mine, “Oh, I could never be vegetarian. I like meat too much.” I thought it would be good to answer some common questions and address a few of my own concerns. Just to clarify, I have encountered every single one of these questions and comments multiple times. They are in no way intended to stereotype the meat-eating population, but they are based in extensive personal experience. That said, let’s start at the very beginning.

Here is why I am vegetarian:

1. Because I just don’t like meat.

When I was a teenager, I began to feel like there was something off about eating meat. I gradually and almost unconsciously stopped eating red meat, nearly altogether, mostly because it was bloody when it wasn’t fully cooked and gray when it was – what is pleasant about that? Then it became harder to eat chicken. I still enjoyed the flavor of chicken, but it had become increasingly difficult for me to consume it without thinking about its deadness, and hence, its former state of being a living creature. This was upsetting to me. I would cut out veins, connective tissue, and any other evidence of my meat’s previous form, and leave them on the plate. Eventually I decided to stop eating meat altogether.

2. Because I think there’s something wrong with eating meat.

Have no fear, I’m not judging you. Here’s how I see it: my conscience prevents me from eating meat. It does not prevent me from having a cocktail. So I don’t eat meat, but I sometimes have a cocktail. Now. Say your conscience doesn’t prevent you from eating meat, but it does prevent you from having a cocktail. No matter how much we might like to, you cannot make my conscience keep me from having a dirty martini, and I cannot make yours stop you from having a cheeseburger. This philosophy could actually be applied to any number of issues, but I will stick with the current one. To summarize: I feel like it’s wrong to eat meat. I can’t make you feel like it’s wrong to eat meat, so I can’t make you stop, so I won’t try. This doesn’t mean I have to think it’s OK, it just means I have to accept that you get to decide what’s right for you, and you must do the same for me.  Live and let live.

People love to ask me, “What if you were on a desert island and there were no vegetables, only wild animals? Would you starve?”  I also frequently hear the statement, “Well, I just think it’s a natural human instinct to hunt and eat animals.”

 Here is what I think about these things:

 1. Would you rather starve than eat meat?

Of course I would eat meat to survive. By the same token, I take no issue with the consumption of meat in societies or situations where meat is a necessity for survival. I do not, however, believe, nor can you convince me, that meat is a survival necessity in American society. The quantity of flesh we consume in this country is shameful.

 2. It’s human instinct to hunt and consume flesh.

Show me a person who personally hunts and cleans every piece of meat he or she consumes, and I’ll show you a person who has my respect. Unfortunately, most of the people making this argument are buying a large percentage of their flesh at the supermarket, already packaged in Styrofoam and cellophane, which makes them sort of hypocritical. Not cool.

In addition, I don’t have this instinct, this drive to hunt, this need to tear apart the flesh of another creature with my sharp, omnivore teeth. I have met a lot of other people who also lack this instinct. Many like to joke that this places vegetarians lower on the food chain, but humans don’t need to hunt other animals in order to maintain the position of dominant species. Therefore, if meat is unnecessary for sustenance, those who continue to hunt or consume meat are, in the broad scheme of things, wasting their time. I like to think that maybe vegetarianism is evidence of being more highly evolved, or that there’s a “vegetarian gene.” But that’s probably just me experiencing common human arrogance.

A couple of additional thoughts in closing:

1. Factory farming is bad.

I firmly believe that even people who eat meat, love to eat meat and will always eat meat should avoid meat produced by factory farming. No one can argue for the moral uprightness of mass production of animals. If nothing else, we should be demanding that we are provided with safer, cleaner, better-quality meat. Even if that means we have to hunt it ourselves.  No, especially if we have to hunt it ourselves.

2.  Vegetarianism is often much more than a dietary choice.

People love to poke fun at vegetarians. We are the butt of joke after joke. Perhaps you think it’s funny that I eat rabbit food. Alright, but I think it’s rude to make disparaging comments about my moral beliefs. I’m not saying that vegetarians can’t handle a little ribbing. Just understand that it’s likely that the vegetarian you’re mocking has heard your joke at least two dozen times already and it’s feeling a little old. Generally speaking, a moral vegetarian is much more serious about his diet than a meat eater is about hers. Don’t start that conversation unless you want it to be serious. And be prepared, because we read up on this stuff.


Much Better than Cold Leftovers from the Indian Place.

I derive lots of pleasure from cooking on my days off. I feel that the lack of exhaustion from other factors really opens up my creativity. Plus, I’m usually home alone, so I can pretend to be an expert. While I cook, I give instructions to an imaginary audience, artfully chopping and stirring, pretending that the pot-watching is time-lapsed and all of the spills, hunting for things in the fridge, and other snafus are edited out.

Yeah, whatever. Like you’ve never done it.

Couple my love of experimentation with the fact that it’s July in Maine and I live in an attic, and you will find today’s experiment: Chilled Lentil Salad with Homemade Paneer (no oven necessary!).

The experimental part of this dish was the paneer. In case you’ve never had the extreme pleasure of eating paneer, it is a simple cheese common in Indian cuisine. It is often called “Indian cottage cheese” or some such, but if you hate cottage cheese, don’t be put off by that description as it is nothing like the cottage cheese you will find at the grocery store here in the U.S. I had never made paneer before today, and it turned out wonderfully. Please do not be intimidated by the prospect of making cheese in one afternoon.

I started off by making the paneer, using the fabulously detailed video and written instructions I found at Manjula’s Kitchen, a blog by (who else) Manjula (direct link to the paneer recipe at bottom of post). Manjula’s Kitchen is a fantastic blog that can teach you all sorts of things about cooking Indian food. One of my favorite things about Manjula is that her kitchen is very modest but always incredibly tidy. I find this truly inspiring and I have been working hard to be as neat and clean as Manjula while I cook. In addition, Manjula, like me, has to work with an electric range, and I feel for her.

When the active portion of paneer-making was through, I simmered some lentils in water with 3 smashed cloves of garlic and some salt, turmeric and dried ginger. I think I should have used Puy (French) lentils, because they are rumored to be better at holding their shape when cooked. But I made do with the green lentils I had on hand, and the resulting dish was nonetheless delicious.

While my cheese pressed and my lentils cooled, I whipped up a nice, zingy dressing. The recipe and measurements for this experiment in Indian-Tree hugger fusion cuisine follow below. If you read this recipe through, you will notice that it seems incredibly long. It’s not, so don’t be scared! Everything is super easy to do. I just thought I would lay it out in the same steps I used for completing it, so it takes up a little extra space.

Chilled Lentil Salad with Homemade Paneer

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Paneer:

Follow the recipe and instructions from Manjula’s Kitchen. I used a local, organic milk because I figured it would make a nice cheese. I was right, so consider it.

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I was very excited when my paneer began to look like Manjula’s:

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I strained it as directed and weighted it with a cast iron skillet.

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I used approximately 3/4 of the resulting paneer for the salad.  I gently crumbled it into large chunks.

Lentils:

3 Cups water

1 ½ Cups lentils

1 tsp. Kosher salt

½ tsp. Turmeric

½ tsp. Dried, powdered ginger

3 cloves garlic, smashed

Bring to a boil over high heat, then drop down to medium-low heat and simmer for 30-45 minutes, until the lentils are tender but still just a bit toothsome. Drain and chill. Remove garlic cloves.  I spread my lentils on a plate to help them cool faster.

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Dressing:

Juice of 1 ½ limes*

½ tsp. Freshly ground cumin

½ tsp turmeric

2 tsp. Fresh ginger**

2 tsp. Kosher salt

½ tsp. Red chile flakes (I used a teaspoon, but I love all things spicy. If you love all things spicy, follow my lead!)

2 small cloves garlic, minced

Additional fresh ingredients, chopped to approximate size of lentils:

1 tomato, seeded

1 cup red onion

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Directions:

Stir it all together and chill for 30 minutes minimum. Eat!  I ate mine with a bit of pita, which is not Indian but quite delicious.

* I know that the fancy chefs on the television squeeze citrus halves upturned, using their fingers to keep seeds out of the food. I always feel like I’m wasting all kinds of juice on my hands when I do that, so I usually juice citrus halves cut side down, over a small mesh strainer. If you want to use the finger-filter method, go right ahead, but you might have to adjust the lime juice.

** I recommend using a Microplane grater for the ginger, because that is the simplest way to mince it. However, as a frequent Rambo cook with a limited selection of kitchen tools, I fully understand that not everyone owns a Microplane. If you do not, you have two options. 1. Use any grater intended to finely shred things. 2. Peel the ginger, then slice thinly against the grain, using a large knife. Chop slices until ginger is minced.

Recipe for paneer


In Answer to the Frequent Question, “Why a vegetarian restaurant?”

“”We would all be glad to eat more vegetables and less beef, birds and fish if vegetarian meals were sumptuous, seductive, artful, et cetera.  And if vegetarian chefs understood that cooking vegetables requires at least as much artistry as roasting a chicken.  Then there would be less need for factory farming, growth hormones, and all the other desperate measures that agribusiness uses to boost the production of animal flesh and lower its price…There are, after all, splendid vegetarian cuisines in Japan and China, and several in India alone.  Why can’t we do as well?”  – Jeffrey Steingarten in It Must’ve Been Something I Ate


The Very Beginning, plus Tostadas.

There are two reasons why I decided to start a blog.  First of all, I always feel like I have all sorts of clever things to say, but never the chance to say them.  Secondly, I love food, and I like to cook for others, but I’m a very busy woman with little time to entertain.

So this is where I plan to share my clever thoughts and love for cooking.  You can take my original recipes and prepare them at home.  You’ll be full and happy, with more expendable cash, and I’ll feel almost like I got to make them for you.  It’s a win-win.

Here are some parameters: I am vegetarian, I eat vegan frequently, I am on a budget, and I shop at specialty stores only occasionally.  So the food you will find here is generally made of simple, affordable and quick-to-prepare ingredients.  On top of that, I also try very hard to eat healthy, so you’ll find a lot of low-carb/fat/sugar recipes here (though I rarely skimp on all three at once – it’s important to live a little!).  Finally, I don’t measure very much.  I mostly eyeball things and taste them until it’s right.  I’m going to work to overcome this for your sake, but please forgive me if I’m off by a tablespoon or a pinch here and there in the meantime.

I don’t really have anything clever to say tonight, but stay tuned, because I am generally a font of pithy prose and quotable witticisms.  And humility.

Also, I wanted to start off with something eye-catching and high-gloss, but I was so hungry I forgot to take pictures.  So here is a photo-free recipe for what I made for dinner this evening.  You should try it, because it’s pretty damn delicious and it’s an original child of my creative brain.

Completely Inauthentic Spinach and Black Bean Tostadas

Serves 4-6, depending on how ravenous the eaters are.

Ingredients:

6 6-inch flour tortillas

2 Tbsp + 3/4 c. enchilada sauce

1.5 cups cooked black beans

3 cups fresh spinach, stems removed

2 large cloves of garlic, chopped

1 cup yellow onion, diced

4 oz Neufchatel cheese (generally advertised as 1/3 less fat than cream cheese)

3 Tbsp. sharp cheddar cheese, finely grated

1/2 c. pepper jack cheese, grated

3/4 c. water

1/4 cube Knorr vegetable bullion (or enough of any vegetable bullion for 1/2 cup of broth)

2 Tbsp. extra light tasting olive oil or vegetable oil

1 tsp. cumin

2 tsp. chili powder

Salt to taste

Directions:

In a small saucepan, combine black beans, water, bullion, 1/2 tsp. cumin and 1 tsp. chili powder.  Simmer on medium-low heat until thick and reduced, approximately 10-15 minutes.  Meanwhile, roughly chop spinach.  Add oil to a large saute pan and, when hot, stir in onions and garlic.  Cook for 5 minutes, stirring often.  Add remaining cumin and chili powder and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute before adding spinach.  Allow spinach to cook down for 3 minutes and then remove from heat, leaving spinach mixture in pan.

In a small bowl, mix 4 oz. neufchatel with the cheddar cheese and 2 Tbsp. of enchilada sauce until well combined.  Set aside.

When black beans are reduced and tender, mash slightly with a spoon to create a thick but chunky mixture, then combine with spinach.

To build tostadas:  Spread each tortilla with a mounded Tbsp. of cream cheese mixture.  Top each one with 1/3 cup black bean-spinach filling, then sprinkle pepper jack evenly on the tortillas and drizzle with enchilada sauce.

Broil for 8-10 minutes or until cheese is melted and tortilla edges are golden brown.

Note: I will frequently cut out the bread/starch parts of recipes, because I think it’s entirely too easy to eat entirely too many refined carbs.  You can do this, also.  If you decide to skip the tortillas and layer this in an oven-safe dish instead, it’s still wonderful.  Just put the beans on the bottom and the cream cheese on top, then sprinkle with cheese and drizzle with enchilada sauce.  Broil it for 15 minutes if you’re doing the whole batch in one big dish.