Saturday, March 1, 2014

Re-Inventing the Wheel to Taste Like Chicken

This is for my one reader, Eliza, because she always asks.
See what politeness can get you?

So when I first started writing this blog, though my patience for slogging through cooking blogs was thin, I'm pretty sure there weren't that many devoted to cooking vegan food.

Don't get me wrong, there were several out there, and they tended to be pretty high quality, but the recent explosion in vegan-related internet fodder is quite staggering, relative to only a few years ago. Way back when I started caring about vegetarian/vegan food, nearly 20 years ago (gasp!), there were even fewer vegan resources and only a handful of useful vegan cookbooks. And when I say 'useful', what I really mean is 'having any edible food in them whatsoever'.

I remember getting Eva Batt's cookbook because she had such a huge influence on the vegan world. Then I read the whole thing in one sitting. Luckily it was short. I put it down with a resounding 'meh' in my heart. I know I risk sounding insensitive and cuisine-ist, but vegan-izing British food from the 50s wasn't much of an improvement.

Alongside the British vegan movement was the American cult-hippie version that came a decade or so later which, honestly, wasn't much more thrilling. From from this angle, we had The Farm. A large cult-like enclave of vegetarian-mind-expanders who met in San Francisco to eventually re-locate to Tennessee to live... on a farm. With all the weirdness involved in that whole scene, at least a decent cookbook came out of it. When I say 'decent', what I mean is that it was something that I could work with. It taught you how to make your own soymilk, tofu, tempeh (though nothing in this universe, save an elephant rifle to my head will convince me to make tempeh), reasonable pie crust, cookies and the like.

But most important to this post was that The Farm also taught you how to make what they called 'Gluten'. Of course, it's much more hip to refer to it as 'seitan' nowadays, but back in the early 70s, the folks on the farm were making their own FROM SCRATCH.

Now FROM SCRATCH is a big thing in foodie circles, which is why I was so shocked to read all these newer vegan blogs that made no reference to making gluten/seitan the old-school way. Now that everyone and their youngest step-cousin has a vegan food blog, I would have thought that they'd all researched how to really make raw gluten/seitan from the ground up, and that they'd be slaving away for two hours kneading the starch out of a ball of wheat dough under running water just like us oldies had done before them. 

Don't get me wrong. I've made gluten from scratch and it's a pain in the ass. It is NOT worth the effort, if you can find vital wheat gluten at the market down the street, but I would have assumed that a group of people so obsessed with what they eat would at least know how to do it from scratch, even if they didn't do it that way themselves. I mean cooks who don't make their own bread every week still generally know HOW it's made, don't they? (Yes, now you're all in my delusional world where people even remotely think the way I do. Welcome. Watch for potholes.)

So a year or so ago, I was looking up gluten/seitan recipes a while back because I thought I'd give it a try again. It had been MANY years since my last attempt because that last attempt was just unpleasant. I don't typically like the chewy/rubbery nature of a lot of simmered seitan, which is how it comes out when you make it from scratch. I was amazed to find all manner of vegan blogs that were giving only minorly-tweaked versions of the same 2 or 3 recipes that they'd all found in a small handful of cookbooks published long after my last serious vegan cookbook purchase.

That's fine, but what really shocked and somewhat appalled me was the fact that in one of these blogs, which is very popular, mind you, and multiply referenced by other seitan-makers in the blogosphere, the author responded to a reader comment about using 'raw gluten' with "What's raw gluten?" And it was clear from the rest of his response that he had no idea that gluten was originally and is still often made from plain flour and water and a lot of human processing.

I actually stopped reading and said "What the hell?" aloud. No, really, I did. (See, there's a pothole.)

So it was then that I felt really old. It's as if there's an entire generation of vegan cooks out there who have lost an important piece of knowledge. It was as if I were witness to an information leak in our collective history and it made me sad.

Perhaps it was an over-emotional reaction, but it stands. My obsession with having to know how things work is not new. No matter how old I get, I am still amazed that most people don't care how things are made or where they come from or what goes into a process. It's almost as if I don't understand how their brains work so it freaks me out. See that? That's like art or something.

But what this whole internet-vegan-memory-loss episode did was drive me to try seitan again with a renewed fervor.  I've never been a big fake-meat fan. The vegan stuff you get in the frozen case at the grocery store is almost as processed as a Dorito in Velveeta, and to be completely honest, it's UNSPEAKABLY FOUL. There have only been a few veggie burgers that I like and there has never been a fake chicken that I've been able to choke down, though I've never gotten the imported stuff, which I hear is pretty good. So the idea of making it from scratch appealed to both my sense of control-freakishness and my desire to not spend $6 on a frozen package of stuff that isn't all that good.

So after messing with a bunch of recipes online that just didn't work, I've cobbled together what has become my go-to recipe. It is basic. It has only a few ingredients, but one ingredient is vital, and it is a bit processed and I DON'T CARE because it makes the seitan GOOD.

Better-than-Bouillon No-Chicken Base.

Seriously, I think I'm addicted to this stuff. I actually get a little anxious when I don't have any in the house. Once, when the one store in our city that normally didn't carry it had trouble keeping it in stock, I bought a case of it online.

It is my soup stock of choice. I add it to the cooking water for pilaf. I even mash it into firm tofu for tofu scrambles. It's a heavenly salt-lick of umami goodness.

And it really does make things taste chicken-esque.

So let's talk about chicken. I don't know how much there is to say about it, but it is so prevalent in our cooking culture. Do any meat-eaters not like chicken? It's the generic animal food in much of the country and it's hard to substitute tofu for it in everything because...well...tofu doesn't taste like chicken. Tofu doesn't have the texture of chicken, and nobody wants to eat tofu in all the recipes you want to veganize. So having a chicken substitute can be freeing when you really want to make something with a non-vegan history.

Ingredients

Gluten Mix
2 cups vital wheat gluten
2 tbsp. nutritional yeast
4 tsp. garlic powder
1 3/4 c. water mixed with 1 3/4 tsp Better than Bouillon No-Chicken base

Simmering Broth
8 c. water mixed with 2 1/2 tbsp better than bouillon paste
1/4 c. nutritional yeast
1 tbsp. rubbed sage (not powdered)
1 tbsp. dried thyme leaves (not powdered)

1. Mix the simmering broth ingredients in pot or large high-walled skillet and begin to heat on low.

2. MIx the dry ingredients of the gluten mix in a large bowl.

3. Add the prepared broth and mix until the gluten forms a wet ball. Work out any dry spots with a little extra water, if necessary. The gluten should be firm and springy. If it is sloshy or very squishy (sorry for all the technical terms) add a little more vital wheat gluten, but only a little at a time.

4. Knead the gluten for a few minutes. The more you knead it, the firmer the texture will be. This is why raw gluten made directly from flour is particularly firm, because the process of making the gluten from flower necessarily requires a lot of kneading.

5. Let the gluten rest for a minute or two.

6. Calculate how much money you just saved by making your own freaking meat analog with your own two hands.

7. Cut the gluten. You can cut it into random little shapes, or cutlets, or strips or whatever the hell you like. You can even wrap the whole thing in cheese cloth and tie the ends like a roast so that it makes a big...well...roast. Be aware that it will have to simmer a good long time, if it's one big chunk.

8. Put the bits into the simmering broth and cover it. Bring it up to a simmer and no more. Boiling is apparently very bad, if you believe what you read on the internet. Boiling is supposed to make it spongy. I don't know.

9. Let it simmer for 45 minutes, flipping the bits half-way through.

10. The bits will be 'done' when they are firm throughout. The edges may be a little spongy, but the middle should be firm like...well...chicken. Take the bits out of the broth when they're done and set them aside, saving the broth to make a lovely gravy (see below).

11. The best way to eat this is like chicken. You don't generally eat boiled chicken. At least I hope you don't. So I pan-fry it in a nice, green olive oil until it is nicely browned on all sides. Make sure to pat it dry or at least squeeze any excess liquid out before you put it in the pan. You can even de-glaze the pan to get a nice pan sauce, if you want to be fancy.

Like chicken, this is very versatile. You can put in casseroles, salads, sandwiches and so on.  I've made scallopini and  piccata, which work very well with this, if you make it into thin cutlets. As a large roast, it slices well for sandwiches, or 'steaks', if you pan-fry it after slicing.  I'm hoping to perfect my fried fake-chicken recipe because it has been many, many years since I've had fried chicken. You know, the kind where there's half an inch of crunchy, browned batter? That's right.

12. You can make a nice gravy from the simmering broth in a few ways:
A) Make a roux of flour and margarine (about 1-2 tbsps each depending on how much gravy you'd like) and heat in a small pot until the butter begins to smell 'nutty' (man, I'm obnoxious). Add about a cup of broth and let it come to a boil, stirring the whole time. Cook one minute. Thin with more broth for the consistency you want.
B) Make a sludge of chickpea flour (besan) and broth: probably 1/3 c chickpea flour and 1 c. of broth. Cook it in a pot, over medium heat until it thickens. Thin to desired consistency with more broth.
The broth is very salty. You probably won't have to season the gravy except for maybe black pepper.

So call it seitan. Call it fake chicken. We just call it gluten, if only to scare away the locals who think that one bite of it would kill an entire village in Marin. Enjoy!


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Longing and Potato-Vegetable Chowder

I miss Fall. I mean actual Fall, as in Autumn, in which the weather changes and the leaves change color and there are good apples and that smell that comes right before the first night of frost mixes with the lingering smell of the diatomaceous earth drying in the vineyards…Okay. I know lots of people didn’t grow up with that smell, but the rest of it is common enough to Northeasterners.
I miss that. I long for it, even. I want to put on a sweater and sip hot cider and make a huge pot of soup and make my kid wear a winter jacket over her Halloween costume, but none of that really happens in Northern California.

Oh sure, people wear winter jackets when it’s 55 degrees and I hear that there’s one street in town that has trees that change color…for a day or so, but it’s just not the same.
It was 80 degrees in the sun today. For the love of…

I don’t want to insult where I live. I really like it, in fact, and that’s the problem. So many of the people, places and things that I love are spread across different time-zones and even continents. It’s just not possible to have everything that makes me happy just down the street, much to the annoyance of my family.

I don’t think that’s unusual in the modern world. We do what we think we need to do to carve out our little existence and give it meaning. Sometimes that takes us far from home or makes us work crazy jobs/hours, or spend a fortune of time and youth on education that gets us nowhere…

Sorry, I’m getting off track.

So this disparate life is tough sometimes and it leads to a certain kind of longing in me: A longing for a completeness that is always just out of reach. 

I’m generally a practitioner of the ‘your world is what you make of it’ kind of attitude, within reason. But, sometimes I think I want a little too much to construct my world to suit my various longings. Sometimes that works. For example, the soup I’m going to describe below was a win in the ‘can I at least pretend it’s fall for a day between bouts of sunny, 80-degrees’? 

Sometimes it does not work, however, as in a failed Taco Pie (that shall nevermore be mentioned) that I constructed a few weeks ago out of a longing for some kind of homey casserole food.
And obviously, I use food as a pacifier in these moments of longing and sentimental vulnerability, and  yes, there are several industries that will vilify that practice, but that’s just how it is. So they can take their less-than-5%-body-fat-asses and…

Whatever.

So I couldn’t handle the idea of putting up Fall decorations in warm, slightly humid, upper-70s temps, but I could rally a chowder. We all have our strengths and weaknesses.
This recipe is weird. I don’t think I’ve ever liked chowder, but I suddenly had this very clear thought that I absolutely HAD to make one for dinner.

Potato-Vegetable Chowder

Ingredients

4 medium potatoes, peeled and 1/2 inch diced
1 c. Yellow split peas, rinsed
4 cups vegetable broth
1/4 c. Dried leeks (or actual onions, preferably sauteed, if you have them lying around)
2 bay leaves
3/4 bag of frozen mixed vegetables (carrots, peas, corn, gr. Beans)
Thickener:
1/2 c. Unsweetened soymilk
1/4 cup pea protein
1 tbsp. Cornstarch
Salt and pepper

Nota bene: Ok, yes, that says ‘pea protein’. I know that’s a very fussy ingredient and you can leave it out entirely. We needed a little more protein in our dinner, so that’s why I added it. And, in case anyone was wondering, putting it in your oatmeal requires a LOT of brown sugar (or maple syrup, if that’s the team you play for) to de-split-pea the flavor.

Method

1. Cook potatoes, peas, leeks, broth and bay leaves until the peas and potatoes are very tender or falling apart. I use a pressure cooker, so this takes 10 minutes. I used to be a soup-on-the-stove-all-day kind of person until I got my first pressure cooker and I got over that shit.
2. Blenderize about 1/3 of the soup and return to the pot. Add the frozen vegetables and simmer until they are done to your preferred doneness.
3. Mix the protein, cornstarch and soymilk in a small dish until smooth.
4. Add the thickener mixture to the soup and simmer for a few more minutes.

This chowder was unexpectedly good. Even the Redheaded Vegan liked it, and he’s not one for creamy soup. And I think that, as far as cooking therapy goes, making something that your loved ones enjoy is a very satisfying thing. For that moment, that sense of feeding, nourishing and pleasing those you care about the most just might fill one of those little holes that  tears open when you or your life has stretched you too thin. 
Yes, I know, that’s bad, right? Filling emotional voids with food is the #1 WORST THING YOU CAN DO in a society where most of us are fat and never worry about when/where we will eat our next meal, isn’t it? 
Well, maybe, but I do it and I bet most people do. I can’t be everywhere I want to be all at the same time. I can’t bring back lost loved ones or un-make bad decisions. But hell, if I can make a meal that makes someone I care about say “mmmmm”, things just don’t suck that badly for a little while.
So, it will be Fall for a moment in my mind, a mystical season where it makes sense to make soup on a hot day and put up fake foliage that doesn’t exist for a thousand miles. And I’ll do it and listen to my Redheads say ‘mmmm’ and not worry for a little while.


Serious Product Plug
For about 2 years, I’ve been using this really good vegetable bouillon/broth concentrate from “Better than Bouillon”. It’s their No-Chicken Base. This really has made the difference between Okay and GREAT cooking. So many vegetable broths or bouillon cubes are just blech. They’re too salty or just too onion-heavy or acidic (for the tomato-based carton-type). This brand really does have an edge over everything else I’ve tried and I highly recommend it.
http://www.superiortouch.com/retail/products/better-than-bouillon/vegetarian-bases/43/no-chicken-base
There. I’m done.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Vegan Cupcakes, Mistakes and Failure


I feel a bit overwhelmed. My friend Eliza requested that I update my blog because she felt like hearing my thoughts about vegan food.

What? Somebody read my blog? Someone wants to read it again?? Holy hell.

So I thought I should take a moment to talk about cupcakes. Yes, I know.

Cupcakes, really?
They were a big thing a few years ago, weren't they?

Since having the kid, I haven't paid as much attention to the outside world, but it seemed to me that for awhile, cupcake craft had reached the heady, over-hyped reaches of the DIY world that were once only occupied by home-brewing, kawaii bento and scrap-booking. It's my experience that so many interesting, satisfying crafts and home-projects are easily ruined by the mere hype around them and the number of pre-packaged accessories one can buy at an associated retail establishment.  I think that's mainly due to:  1. My brain's ability to completely shut down from over-stimulation when looking at a wall of die-cut anything 2. My innate distaste for hype and 3. The pioneer homesteader in me who thinks that you should be able to build a working model of the International Space Station with some old photocopied articles from grad-school and a box of toothpicks.

Given all this, I had never really given cupcakes a second thought other than: "Meh." Don't get me wrong. As a kid, they were great, especially if your mom/grandma/whomever went the extra step to bake them in ice-cream cones. (Of course, they did it the hard way back then, and now you can buy a special pan to keep the ice-cream cones from tipping over in the oven. Honestly.) But as an adult, I just didn't see the point. Any cake-baking I did in my 20s and 30s involved fairly elaborate 3-layered assemblages with fruity fillings and piped frosting and so on. After those creations, cupcakes seemed, well, a bit un-challenging.

Then along came this cupcake revolution that made the cake a mere bland vehicle for elaborate, accessory-laden frosting. That didn't really win me over. I'm not so much about the frosting. I'm a big fan of cake, but I really feel that frosting should be well, just a 'frosting', you know, like FROST that maybe accentuates or adds to the cake.  I'm from the Northeast. I know the difference between frost and 3 feet of snow. The cupcake revolution was all about a heavy, dense Buffalo-in-late-January amount of frosting and as creative and artistic as it may be, it wasn't something I wanted to actually eat.

I cast no butter-cream stones here. I know that there are a vast number of frosting fans out there and I wish you no ill-will. Personally, I find it too sweet and from a food-science standpoint, I find it...uninteresting. I mean honestly...sugar, fat, a little liquid, egg whites (if that's the team you play for). You smoosh them together and there it is. Yawn.

But cake? Now cake is chemistry and chemistry is just plain sexy. And because our traditional notion of cake involves eggs and butter, vegan cake has always been an enticing challenge for me. Cake involves a small list of key ingredients: flour, fat, liquid, leavening, sugar, salt. It's that middle one, the leavening, that is the tricky one.

As I've written before, there is a commercial brand of egg replacer that is very popular in vegan circles, but I have to say that I find it repugnant. It makes things chalky, dry and off-tasting, and when you add it to anything that already has baking powder in it, it just makes everything worse. I used to use it and spent a few years very depressed about the state of vegan baking. But things have changed a lot since then. There are now more than 3 vegan cookbooks on the market and there's this whole interwebs thing that seems to have caught on, giving me access to other vegan cooks who are interested in making things a little more interesting than steamed broccoli and brown rice.


So in making a cursory look for a cake recipe a month or so ago, I came upon the simplest, tastiest and, so far, the most fail-safe cake I've ever made. I wanted to take a cake to a neighborhood shin-dig, but I realized that taking an elaborate cake to a pot-luck that was being held on a folding table in the middle of the street just wasn't so convenient, so it came down to cupcakes.

So back to the sexy part: Chemistry. In non-vegan cakes, the leavening agents are usually baking powder and egg, depending on how you treat the eggs.  Eggs also provide 'structure' in that they help to bind together the other ingredients. This recipe, being vegan, eschews the egg, nay, blatantly ignores it. Instead, it uses the sassy, throw-care-to-the-wind pair of vinegar and baking soda. The stuff of science-fair glee, the simple pairing of white vinegar and baking soda is a beautiful testament to the ingenuity of the ancient human mind's search for a meal that doesn't just taste like burnt mammoth.

So kitchen science in hand, I set out to conquer cupcakes. Now, several of my 2 readers know that I can be a bit obsessive about mastering a thing. Any thing, really. So when I mentioned to the Redheaded Vegan (who is often one of the 2 readers) that I'd made 5 dozen cupcakes and that he was to take the mistakes to work, it didn't really phase him. He understands my process: I don't give up, I hold grudges and I will NEVER forgive Ron Moore for the BSG finale.

So this whole cupcake microverse is dangerous for the grudge-wielding, obsessive perfectionists like myself because despite my disdain for the accessory-laden hype, the whole thing is a big, money-sucking, confidence-questioning trap. The little bits of art, the sexy cake chemistry, the desire to make something good and smart and pretty. It's all just a perfect storm of expectations waiting to be unfulfilled. Mistakes will be made in such a place and it is important to approach with acceptance and willingness to screw up.

Let's take a moment to review mistakes. They are pretty much necessary. I envy people who have things turn out exactly how they want them on the first try, but I am not allowed in that club anymore, not since the whole butterfly-quilt incident of 2004. Anyway, in cooking, mistakes are fertile lessons and opportunities to deeply understand what the hell you're trying to do. This isn't scrapbooking. You can't just move that die-cut pumpkin down and to the left. You have to really understand how the glue works.

So this month's main cupcake mistakes include:
1. Using sucanat sugar. While all whole-earthy and nutritionally what-not, it resulted in hockey-puck blech. The answer to this was to use ultrafine sugar. This is just sugar that is ground smaller. You use it just as you would white sugar, but it blends/melts much faster and smoother. I thought this would be a good addition to a recipe that is missing the extra structure and leavening of eggs.
2. Using baking papers that were falsely advertised as not needing a pan. I'm just not sure how you can advertise paper baking cups as not needing a pan and then have them so very obviously NEED a pan. This resulted in parallelogram-shaped lava pools on my cookie sheet. These were tasty, but just wrong, so those were sent in as coder food. The answer to this was to suck it up and buy some extra cupcake tins.
3. Thinking that I knew anything about frosting. The answer to this is at the end.

So here it is. I take no credit for it. I found it on the internets somewhere and only tweaked it slightly.

Vegan Cake

Dry Ingredients:
1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1 c. ultra-fine sugar (also known as 'baker's sugar')
2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
 (1/4 cocoa powder, if making chocolate cupcakes)

Wet Ingredients:
1 c. cold water
1 tbsp vinegar (plain white vinegar)
1/4 c. oil
1 tsp extract (vanilla for chocolate or vanilla cake or lemon for lemon and so on)


Method

1. Preheat to 350F
2. Prep your pan/tin/magical free-standing muffin cups that don't work or what have you.
3. Whisk the dry ingredients together in a large bowl.
4. Mix the wet together in a small bowl.
5. Add the wet to the dry and mix with a wooden spoon until everything is incorporated. I'm of the 'don't beat cake mix smooth' camp. Make your own decisions.
6. For cupcakes, I'm anal and add batter 2tbsp at a time to each cup to make sure they are all the same size. I can't be trusted pouring from a bowl, spout or even measuring cup. This makes one dozen standard-sized cupcakes that are about 3.5-4 tbsp each.
7. Bake for 15-22 minutes. I find the chocolate variety needs a few extra minutes, but that may just be part of my insanity.
8. Let these cool in the pan, then
9. Frost with wild, soccer-mom abandon!


OK, so frosting.

As I said, I'm not a huge 'frosting as diorama' fan, but sometimes you just need to impress people or show how much you love them with fat and sugar.  After the success of the neighborhood party cupcakes, I decided to completely lose what was left of my mind and make 6 dozen cupcakes for a wedding reception/picnic.

So I'm one of these people who works really well with a big, important deadline. I need the confines and structure of such things to really push open the gates of creativity and challenge my skills, innate, learned or yet-to-be learned. So while this was an informal reception/picnic, I still wanted the cupcakes to have a splash of fancy and therefore needed to decorate them appropriately.

And here I'd like to give thanks to Al Gore, LOLCats and all the other Internet pioneers who made it possible for me to simply look up instructional videos of how to make pretty flowers out of frosting.

So with my pastry bag, appropriate tips and and empty stomach, I used the following recipe, which is originally from the Veganomicon people, I think:

Vegan 'Buttercream' Frosting

1/2 c. Earth Balance Margarine
3 c. powdered sugar
1/3 c. soy milk
1 tsp extract
(2/3 c. cocoa powder for chocolate)

Method for Chocolate frosting:
1. Put the margarine in a food processor and pulse until whipped
2. Add soymilk, extract and cocoa powder and run until incorporated
3. Add sugar one cup at a time and thoroughly blend

So the chocolate frosting works really really well. For non-cocoa versions, it's a little trickier.

I made lemon frosting and only used a few tablespoons of the soymilk and added 2 c more sugar to get it the consistency I wanted. You may have to just mess with it to get it the way you like it, but I would add the milk cautiously.

Then frost like the PTA is breathing down your back and will withhold any SAT prep from your 5th grader until you make the most creative, innovative and beautiful sugar-bombs you can.

Now this all worked REALLY well for some practice cupcakes I made the week before the 'big event', which are in the picture at the top of the blog. I will note that for non-chocolate frosting, I really did have to mess with it to keep it from being too runny, but as you can see in the photo, the flowers came out really well and kept their shape for several hours with no problem.

THE BIG EVENT

Oh boy. I was in fine form. I made all the cupcakes the day before: 2 dozen each of chocolate, lemon and spice cupcakes waiting patiently in their boxes. I even mixed up the lemon and cinnamon frosting the night before, thinking that I could easily whip up the chocolate frosting the next morning. I was READY.

Then I took the frosting out of the fridge the next morning.
It was runny.
Really runny.
So I tried to do some emergency confectioner's sugar magic and managed to partially save the cinnamon frosting, as you can see below. The flowers weren't crisp, but they weren't melting, so that was good enough for the time constraints I was under.



These were spice cupcakes with cinnamon frosting. The flowers didn't melt too badly, but they weren't as crisp as the practice batch.

However, the lemon frosting was a bust. I couldn't even bring myself to take a photo, and neither could any of the guests, apparently. I thought I'd tweaked it as well as the cinnamon, but it just didn't work. The flowers looked great for about 2 minutes until they melted into a pool of Meyer-lemon-yellow goo.

I will not lie to you, gentle readers: I cried.
It's at this point that I would like to talk about failure. Yes, failure. It's an ugly word and if you talked to most modern American parents, you'd think that the word didn't exist anymore, but yes, failure is alive and well and it took up space in my kitchen last weekend.

I'm not ashamed to experience failure, but it's not pleasant. My husband noted that no one would care how the frosting looked, because they would be happy to see/eat cupcakes and it would be, as they say on this coast 'all good'. He also noted that the only person to notice anything amiss would be me.

Ah. There it is. The point that non-insane-perfectionists just don't 'get' about the insane perfectionists: We don't really care what other people think. It's the inner critic who is our nemesis.

So I cried because my frosting melted. There it is: my most recent moment of failure. And we all have them, or at least, we all SHOULD have them from time to time to give us perspective and help us to better ourselves. Of course, this all seems like a 'first-world problem', as is the popular saying nowadays, but it's really just a human problem. Perhaps the most intense learning comes out of the ruin of failure, and learning is what this is whole big life thing is about, isn't it?

I just don't know how to make chocolate frosting look fancy, so this is all I could manage after the heartbreak of the lemon and spice batches.They may look like poo swirls, but they tasted pretty amazing.

Self-defeatist wallowing aside, amidst the rubble of the first two batches of frosting, I whipped up a batch of chocolate and decided to frost them as fast as I could, because we were already behind schedule, and honestly, do chocolate flowers ever really look good?

So of course, people loved the cupcakes because they were really freaking good and no one really cares how the frosting looks, blah blah blah, but I call it an over-all win because I learned something, not just about cake and the fallibility of frosting, but about myself: I can fail and then stumble over my own disbelief in my failure, but I can recover and prevail with the knowledge that every mistake is a opportunity for understanding and betterment.

This is why we should never fear the kitchen, the dissertation, the open-mic night, the order for 6 dozen cupcakes or other potential sources for complete, blundering failure. We will falter, stumble and maybe even completely fail, but we will eventually prevail, and in the meantime, we can always take something made out of chocolate, because you just really can't fuck chocolate up that badly.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Pot Pies and Lies: Is the the Corningware half empty or half full?




Today I was just feeling disappointed with the world. There is a fair amount of disappointing stuff going on and I just felt very grey for most of the day. People lie to each other, say mean things without thinking, think only of themselves, and often just let each other down. Haven't we all had those days where we feel that so many people and institutions around us are just...disappointing?

Well, on those days, I turn to starchy, gravy-laden casseroles because, well, how do we Americans deal with disappointment? 1. We buy stuff we don't need and can't afford (something I'd do except that I don't need anything and I can't afford anything), 2. We complain (which I'm doing, by the way) and 3. We eat food we shouldn't in quantities that are nearly always imprudent.

As this is a vegan cooking blog, even #3 isn't really as bad as it could be. I mean, there are vegan foods like Skittles and solid shortening that you probably shouldn't eat an entire tub of, but even so, they're a little healthier than other, non-vegan choices. So, ignoring the serious psychological problems related to using food to deal with disappointment, I decided to deal with my disappointment by making a pot pie, because pot pie is almost never disappointing.

Of course, the 'real' thing, the pot pie made with chicken and cream and white sauce and a rich shortening crust, that pie, while perhaps a perfect #3 way to deal with disappointment, is, in itself, a two-faced disappointment in that it can taste oh-so-good, but pack an artery-clogging 1200 calories into what a typical person would consider a meal. So, unless you're really looking to punish yourself for having such high expectations to begin with (which would eventually lead to disappointment), the vegan alternative is a slightly better choice, and would never call you fat behind your back.

Anyway...

So pot pie. Who doesn't like pot pie? This one is different from the one I typically make because this is simply a filling topped with biscuits. I'm a huge fan of hot-water pie crust for pot pies, but I just didn't have the time to devote to rolling a crust out, so I settled for biscuits, which are never disappointing when homemade.

I've gone on and on about my biscuit love before. It may be excessive and obsessive, but it is a love that is pure and true and will not be tarnished by minor disappointments or white lies. That is why the thought of these seemingly discrete biscuits, perfect in their round, puffy individualism crowding together to form a protective biscuit shield over the delicate, vulnerable filling is such a perfect antidote to my dissatisfaction with humanity.

Unfortunately, this is one of those recipes that isn't exact or even clear, so just do your best.

Filling:
Half a block of firm tofu, diced and marinated in vegetable broth for at least an hour
olive oil
Dried leek -maybe 3 tbs (not easy to find except at Lebanese or Persian markets. I didn't feel like chopping onion)
Most of a can of chickpeas (what was left in my fridge)
2 stalks of celery, diced
A large handful of baby carrots, diced
A cup of frozen peas
A cup of frozen green beans
1.5 cup of vegetable broth (Better than Bouillion "no chicken" base)
2 Tbs flour
2 Tbs nutritional yeast
2 Tbs soy sauce

Biscuit Dough:
1 cup of while wheat pastry flour
1 cup of white flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 cup non-hydrogenated shortening
3/4 cup soymilk

Method:
1. Saute the tofu and dried leek in some oil until the tofu is browned.
2. Add the celery and carrot and saute until slightly softer.
3. Add the frozen vegetables and chickpeas and a little broth.
4. Cover and cook until the frozen veggies are heated through.
5. Preheat the oven to 400F.
6. In a small pan, bring the rest of the broth to a boil with the 2 Tbs of flour and cook for a minute. Turn off the heat then add the nutritional yeast and soy sauce.
7. Add the sauce to the vegetables and pour into the casserole dish you plan to use. My sauce looked a bit runny, so I dusted everything with another Tbs of flour, stirred it in and let it sit, covered for a minute.
Biscuits:
8. Mix the 2 c. of flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl.
9. Cut in the shortening with a pastry knife or with your fingers.
10. Add soymilk all at once and stir quickly just to moisten the flour mix.
11. Dump the dough on a board and fold over several times, pushing, NOT stretching the dough.
12. Pat dough until it's roughly half an inch thick, then cut 2" rounds and place them on the casserole, cutting the last few bits of dough to seal any spaces.
13. Bake at 400 for 25 minutes.
14. Don't be stupid (like me). Remember to put a pan or foil under the casserole, so that when it bubbles over, it doesn't make a mess in the oven.

It was good. If you actually follow my recipe, double the filling. What filling there was, was very tasty, so I it's a win for the day. What makes it a true win for the day was being able to serve it to the Redheads, who do not disappoint me. Well, the little one wouldn't eat any of the pot pie, but I will persevere. There will be more pot pies in days to come.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Tomato Tart and a new recipe for order


So I've been struggling with housewifedom.

Go ahead. Laugh.

I'm not used to struggling with tasks. One of my strengths is that I can pick things up quickly and do them well. (There. I said it. I'm not boasting, I'm just laying it out there.) So the fact that I'm very nearly a complete failure as a house-keeper has been a thorn in my side for many years. It's not that I can't handle the individual tasks of house-keeping: I'm perfectly capable of washing dishes, dusting, mopping and keeping things tidy. It's just that I can't seem to bring it all together into a consistent pattern.

One of my worst infractions is the fact that when I cook a meal, the damage to the kitchen is, as I used to say back in my professional life, non-trivial. To say that my effect on a kitchen is non-trivial is like saying the effect of radiation from the sun on the primordial muck of early life was insignificant. I have yet to witness any large-scale evolutionary changes resulting from my cooking chaos, but then again, I have trouble focusing on the chaos as it's happening, as I'll discuss in a minute.

So my love of cooking has always been coupled with very unpleasant after-effects that are now amplified by having to be in constant watch over a toddler. So there are at least 3 options for dealing with this situation: 1. Don't cook as much, 2. Cook very simple things that don't destroy the house, 3. Do some serious brain inventory and figure out why you're such a freaking slob.

Keep in mind that none of those 3 options are mutually exclusive. I can have a perfectly satisfactory life by sticking to options 1 and 2, but they both make me a little sad. It's not that I don't like take-out. I live in a town that has some of the best restaurants around and they're pretty reasonably priced, but even at reasonable prices, each trip to the Indian buffet isn't going to convince our academic loans to pay themselves off.

I have nothing against simple food. I know it's very fashionable right now, and there are scores of 'foodie' bloggers that are dying to tell you about their dinner of a single handful of $12 spinach splashed with $50 vinegar and a slice of a home-schooled pear, but sometimes I just need to COOK. As I've mentioned before in this blog, my cooking isn't always about the food.

So that leaves #3. Oy. I'm not new to self-reflection, trust me. If graduate school taught me anything, it taught me how to question everything I thought I knew and liked about myself because people can't really be such incredible assholes to me if... Sorry. I digress.

I've tried to figure out my penchant for physical clutter for a long time. The thing that is most poignant about the whole situation is that I HATE clutter in my environment. It paralyzes me. Visual clutter is anathema to my brain being able to do anything constructive, yet I create it with such ease and finesse that you'd think I'd pride myself on how I can sprinkle junk mail and grocery receipts throughout a living room within 5 seconds of entering the house. You'd think my ability to up-end a stack of books by simply looking in its direction would somehow launch me to super-stardom of my own, albeit pathetic, reality show. But no. It has, until now, been a mystery.

So I'd been thinking about #3 for quite some time with no revelations, and in a fit of exasperation with myself, I finally asked my patient, brilliant and often charmingly-clueless spouse "HOW IS IT THAT I DESTROY THE F#$%ING KITCHEN EVERY TIME I COOK??" (Note, I didn't say f#$%ing, I said 'fucking' because I was, at that time, looking at a completely destroyed kitchen.)

As is his way, he thought for a moment before speaking (something that I find completely foreign and strangely attractive), and then came up with something that was truly insightful.

"You seem to be overly focused on the actual cooking."

Pause for effect.

Hmmm. I thought about that for a moment and realized that he was on to something. I'm pretty good about prepping things before the cooking begins, but something happens once the burners turn on. My brain focuses on those pans and the counters become a fuzzy wasteland of detritus.

So with this in mind, I've tried to become more 'mindful' of my focus during cooking. I never before realized how I like to be 'in the moment' of a saute. There's no reason that I can't let my onions sweat by themselves for a moment or two to rinse out a dish and set it in the sink. The pasta sauce will be just fine if I take a second to rinse out the tomato can and put it in the recycling. And for the love of all that's savory and well-seasoned, I can put the cutting boards in the dishwasher while the pressure-cooker comes up to pressure.

This may seem ridiculous to those of you who can do all of these things innately, but just go ahead and try to re-route your brain during one of your favorite and most automatic of tasks. Try it!!

It's not easy, is it.

So this is the dawning of a new day around our house. It's going to be a process with several setbacks and some episodes with tear-filled apologies to the dishwasher and the compost bin, but I think real progress can be made. And as is the way with any kind of therapy and self-analysis, the path will be made easier with some concrete goals:

#1. No post-dinner cleanup should take more than 15 minutes.
#2. The number of meal-prep dishes used up during cooking should take up no more than one side of the double sink.
#3. 'It' cannot wait until after dinner, when 'it' needs to be thrown in the trash, put back in the fridge or in the pantry.

Seemingly simple are the tasks that often take our entire will.

So to kick off my new outlook, I made a very simple and only so-so tomato tart. The recipe is adapted and veganized from the Simply Food magazine. I find Martha Stewart to be a reprehensible troll, but some of her staff can come up with nice things.

Tomato Tart

2 cups grape tomatoes, sliced in half and slightly de-gooed.
1/2 package of vegan 'feta' (this was a mistake and kind of nasty. Don't bother)
1 sheet of frozen puff pastry dough, thawed
basil, oregano etc.
salt and pepper

Pre-heat your oven to 400F.
1. Roll out the pastry to iron out the creases left by folding and place it on parchment on a baking sheet.
2. Fold over 1/2 an inch of the pastry on all sides, creating a border.
3. Crumble and evenly spread vegan feta on the pastry, if you must
4. Evenly distribute the tomatoes over the tart.
5. Add basil and oregano with flair
6. Season with salt and pepper
7. Bake for 25-30 minutes.

This was ok. It looked pretty, but like so many attractive people, there was little behind the looks. It was easy and fast and I didn't completely destroy the kitchen.

Mantra for the day: Get out of your mind and into the kitchen.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Box Brownie Bonanza


I'm not usually a box-mix kind of person, but I was at the supermarket the other day...Hold on. Let me explain. I was at a real supermarket: big, florescent lights, a long shelf with 40 kinds of potato chips, the real deal. I hold a strange place in my heart for a real supermarket. I fear that the supermarket is anathema to many of my neighbors (in the larger sense, not necessarily the nice people who live adjacent to me), but I'm not ashamed of it. I will forever hold a sweet and tender place in my heart for my beloved Wegmans. (sigh)

So I was at the supermarket with the Little Redhead and, as I am wont to do, I was pouring over flours in the baking section. Distracted from the various Bob's Red Mill bags, something caught my eye: something baaaaad: Ghirardelli Double Chocolate Brownie Mix.

Oh yes. Take a moment to go back and read that again. I'll wait.

Much to my sick and joyous delight, this box mix is VEGAN, so into the cart it went. It is my birthday this weekend, after all, and even the recovering chocolate addict needs to fall off the wagon every once in awhile.

I try not to bake sweets very often because that leads to eating them and eating them slows the already VERY SLOW loss of those 25lb love handles left by the gestation of the Little Readhead. But honestly: Ghirardelli Double Chocolate Brownie Mix!!

Anyway, I especially don't make brownies very often because vegan brownies can be intensely disappointing. It's almost like they're willfully disappointing. So I entered this brownie-making endeavor fully aware that they might end up a chalky, cocoa, stomach ache or mushy, sugary glop. Therefore, I was not prepared for tonight's outcome: nice, chewy edges, soft, very chocolatey middle.

Yes, gentle readers, they were good.

They weren't 'grandma' good, but still good. I have memories of my Grandmother's brownies that will be burned into my brain until I take my last breath. She made them the old-fashioned way, carefully melting the chocolate in a double boiler and so on and they had the perfect fudgy consistency. I have never been able to re-create them and probably never will so any comparison against their character is, perhaps, unfair, but without goals, what are we, really?

I attribute the success of this batch, not just to the high-quality chocolate in the mix, but to the use of soy-yogurt as an egg replacement. For years, I've suffered through baking with Ener-G egg replacer. It has its place, but I'm not sure that place is in food. It makes things chalky and tapioca-tasting and often ruins the texture of cakes and muffins. I think I've now officially decided that it is yucky. And yes, that is a technical term.

So here is the ultra-complicated recipe:

Vegan Box Brownies

1 Brownie Mix
1/3 c. vegetable oil (I used grape seed oil)
1/3 c. water
1/4 c. soy yogurt

Method
1. Preheat oven to 325 and lightly grease an 8 or 9in. square pan.
2. Mix the wet ingredients.
3. Add the mix and mix until it's all moistened. Don't beat it smooth.
4. Pour it in the pan and smooth the top.
5. Bake for 45-50 minutes. They should seem under-done. Brownies that are 'firm' when coming out of the oven will likely taste over-cooked when they cool and lose any gooey/chewiness.

Oh chocolate stupor, how you vex and delight me. Please, no calls or important emails for awhile.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Box #4: Complaining and Needing Ideas


I have to say that as skilled as I am as a complainer, I don't complain as much as you'd think. I'm not one of those people who's always on the warpath with customer service representatives. I'd like to be, but I have other things to do. This week was an exception. In my lovely produce box, I found a nice bag of sprouted potatoes and 6 heads of bolted bok choi.

Now, I'm not all that sad about the bok choi. I'm pretty sick of it at this point. However, I don't like paying for spoiled produce. The sprouted potatoes really get to me. This is the 2nd batch of softish, eyed potatoes. You can argue over whether to eat sprouted potatoes, but I won't. I certainly wouldn't buy them in a store, so why am I paying to have them delivered to my house?

So, I complained. I got a note back saying that they'd put some extra stuff in my box to make up for it. If it's extra bok choi, I'm going to lose it.

Until then, I will certainly be able to make due with what's left in the box:

1 head of red butter lettuce
1 acorn squash
1 bunch of celery
1 bunch of carrots
2 heads of broccoli
more frigging bok choi
3 avocados
5 apples
1 grapefruit
3 lemons
3 onions
1 bunch ruby chard
1 bunch dino kale
4 leeks
3 pears

I'm feeling a bit sparse. I've been especially sleep-deprived this last week and the culinary creativity has been noticeably absent. Notice that this is Box#4. Box#3, while lovely, was largely eaten plainly or left to feed the compost because of a stomach bug that ran though the house. So I'm not quite back in the game yet. If any of the 2 people who read this have any inspiring ideas, I'd love to hear them.