Friday, June 20, 2008

Yet more beet love...saag cheelas

My last post dealt with the noble beet and I haven't been able to get beets out of my mind since. Is it because my favorite color is red? Is it something about the swirly, hypnotic pattern you see in the flesh when you cut it into diagonal slices. I'm not sure, but I tend to just humor my food obsessions until they lose their own momentum, so let's just go with it for now.

Having juiced several beets, I was left with a healthy bunch of lovely dark green and deep magenta beet greens. Never again will I toss out these lovelies, nor will I bother buying beets that have been ashamedly decapitated by some unwitting tool of a produce clerk. I've been trying to eat more green leafy vegetables as of late (recall the green-shake obsession not too long ago) and I had a hankering for Indian food today.

Occasionally, on my 'day off', my red-haired vegan comes home for lunch. Today was such a day, so I needed a meal that could be multi-tasked, since I had a reasonably full to-do list. So this involves soaking lentils, mixing batter and letting it sit, soaking very sandy and gritty beet greens in vinegar water and chopping vegetables between trips down to the basement.

So this is a 'puttering around the house' recipe.

As noted in an early post, I'm also obsessed with pancakes. I adore Indian pancakes (dosa, or dosai), but I haven't much success with making them at home. I set out today to make some baked pakoras (vegetable fritters), but decided mid-way to morph my recipe into a pourable batter instead and make a pancake-ish thing.

Beware: This recipe uses fussy ingredients probably only found in an Indian grocery store or a fiendishly well-stocked supermarket.

The whole meal consisted of daal (lentils), the veg. pancakes, a bell-pepper and radish salad and some parathas (indian flatbreads) from my freezer.

Saag Cheela

I only found out that my new creation might already have a name. After lunch, I got a hold of my friend Aishwarya and described them to her. She thought the best match was 'cheela'. These are chickpea-flour based pancakes that are often mixed with minced vegetables. So there you have it. I made mini beet-green cheelas and I didn't even know it!

1 cup besan (chickpea flour)
3/4 c water
greens from 1 lb of beets (greens from about 5-6 beets)
small onion
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ajwain seeds (optional)
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper


1. Soak the greens in a large bowl or a clean sink for several minutes, agitating a bit. This will get rid of all the sand/grit that comes along with root greens. I usually pour in a splash of regular (white, distilled) vinegar when soaking vegetables. Rinse the greens a few times to make sure all the grit is gone.
2. While the greens are soaking, find another medium-sized bowl and add the besan, water and seasonings. Stir this well with a whisk to break up all clumps. Let this sit for 20 minutes or so.
3. Mince the greens and the onion in a food processor until very fine (or by hand).
4. Add the vegetables to the besan batter and mix thoroughly. The batter should have thickened a bit after sitting.
5. Heat a non-stick frying pan to medium-high and use a paper-towel to apply a thin coating of oil.
6. Drop large spoonfuls of batter onto the frying pan and cook like pancakes. I made mine roughly 2 1/2-3 inches in diameter.

I served these with some yellow daal (mushy lentil puree) and a little salad.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Beet Love

After my exploration of spinach in a shake, I was in a bit of a juice mood after dinner. What I really wanted was chocolate and lots of it. I was hoping that a reasonable glass of fresh juice would silence the addiction for the evening.

It's been quite a while since I've had any quality time with my Jack LaLanne juicer. It can rip through pretty much anything, and it's relatively easy to clean. I've tried to make muffins from the left-over pulp with very mediocre results. I didn't bother messing with the pulp today.

I had two small raw beets left over from my latest bout with pickling some turnips (which I blog about later). Now while I'm the kind of girl who likes to eat raw beets, I know that it might not be for everyone. However, mixed with other stuff, it's not that weird.

Beet Love Potion

2 mall raw beets
2 white grapefruits
4 small granny smith apples

1. Peel the beets and grapefruit and wash the apples.
2. Juice 'em.

Magenta yum

Green Shakes

No, I'm not talking about the sudden chill some of us feel each time a new strip mall is erected over a once-living patch of earth. I'm talking about the kind of shakes you drink. Most people call them smoothies. I don't like that word. I associate it with my time spent living in Berkeley and working in San Francisco when my co-workers would all go grab a 'juice' or 'smoothie' for lunch and talk about how healthy they were.

Newsflash: 32 oz of fruit juice once a day as your main calorie source might not be the best nutritional plan.

These co-workers would all complain half an hour later of being so exhausted and twitchy. Hmmm. Wonder why?

Of course, that was many years ago, when smoothies were just emerging and Jamba Juice was in its infancy. Things seem to have gotten a little more well-rounded lately.

My typical breakfast is a shake. I like the word 'shake' because I like to imagine that it's really a milkshake. I have a vivid imagination and the idea of eating ice-cream for breakfast helps me keep the rage at bay. I've found a combination of ingredients that, while fussy, works for me.

This morning was a little different. To my standard mix, I decided to add some raw baby spinach.

Now don't make a face. I was shocked to find that I couldn't taste the spinach at all. Not that I'd mind. I've been known to drink cabbage/beet/celery juice. However, the red-haired vegan has a less encompassing palate. He hates cooked greens, but will eat them raw. You can only eat so many salads, so adding some to breakfast seemed like a good idea. Even he could sense no spinach.

We could all stand to eat more leafy greens. Try incorporating them in odd ways and it may surprise you.

Green Shake

I'm warning you that these ingredients may not be easy to find, so experiment with what you can easily find around you. This recipe makes 2 tall glasses for 2 people or more of less.

4 tbsp Nutiva Hemp Shake (berry something or other)
4 tbsp Brown rice protein powder (made by MLO)
4 tbsp soy milk powder (Better than Milk brand)
1 banana
2 c blue berries
1 tbsp flax oil
2 c water
1 bag of washed baby spinach (6 oz)
2 strawberries for garnish

Note: I use a Cuisinart hand-blender that can chop through almost anything. If you have just a regular blender, try processing the spinach first in a food processor (which I did anyway).

1. Blend it all until it's smooth and green. I blend it with my hand-blender in a big pitcher then pour.
2. It's best to drink these right away. They don't really keep all that well.

So there it is. I might even be able to convince myself that it's a mint-ice-cream shake if I weren't too lazy to go get some spearmint from my garden. Maybe the spinach will give me the energy to do that tomorrow.

"Beans don't burn on the grill..."

Ah beans and rice: the musical fruit of the vegan/vegetarian life.
Black beans are likely my favorite bean. They have their own distinct flavor that goes well with many types of seasoning. They're also easy to find canned, which makes supper-time prep a breeze. I'm all about dried beans and pulses, but we don't hall have hours to spend dealing with bean issues. Even my beloved pressure-cooker just doesn't speed things up quite enough for most week day meals.

Of course, it's still grill season, so most of this meal is done on the grill. I have a lovely little cast-iron pot with a tight-fitting lid that works very well for beans. For the rice, we employed the trusty rice-cooker, which doesn't really heat up the kitchen at all.

Black Beans on the Grill

2 cans black beans, drained and rinsed (or 3 cups cooked from dry)
1 tbsp minced garlic
2 tsp ground cumin
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp salt
juice from 1 lime
1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 to 1 c water

1. Heat the grill to 4ooF with a cast-iron pot inside.
2. Make a paste from the garlic, cumin, pepper, salt and lime juice
3. In the pot, saute the paste in the olive oil for just a few minutes until you can really smell the garlic.
4. Add the black beans and water (only 1/2 c at first, more later if the beans are too dry) and cover. Let cook until the grill reaches 400F again, then stir.
5. Cook, stirring every 5-7 minutes, until they reach a nice, thick consistency (about 15-20 minutes on a hot grill).

We had this we our standard grilled veggies: peppers and onions.

Standard Grilled Peppers and Onions

1 green bell pepper
1 red bell pepper
1 medium onion


1 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp lime juice
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp dried oregano
black pepper and salt to taste

As is our standard method: grill the peppers and onions in an oiled perforated grill pan. When they are cooked to your preference, toss in a bowl with the dressing.

As mentioned above, we had this all with some rice from the good ole rice cooker. The red-haired vegan and I compromised and had a mix of brown short-grain and white sushi rice (I'm not a big fan of white rice, but I was feeling collaborative).

There's something intrinsically homey and earthy about cooking beans in a cast-iron pot over flames. I think it was the cook in "City Slickers" that succinctly stated the cowboy/rancher view of beans: "hot, brown and plenty of it". Beans are cheap, easy to cook, very nutritious and very filling.

As for the musical properties...never be ashamed of your fiber intake. While the steak and burger eaters battle with their high cholesterol and slow digestive tracts, we bean eaters will raise our bean pots high and celebrate our polyp-free colons. And, with the right equipment, we can celebrate all summer by the grill.

And let us not overlook the benefits of eating outside in the fresh air by an open flame...

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Desperate Enough for Ramen

It's just so shocking to have hot weather all of a sudden. I just commented to my little red-haired vegan that it was only two weeks ago that it wasn't warm enough to clean out the car.

In light of the high 80s temps, we've had to turn on the AC since our apartment is a little sweat box that remains 88F well past 11pm. (88 at 11 = no sleep for me) So in light of our new spike in energy consumption, I will do almost anything to keep my kitchen cool. As noted in the last post, my lovely grill is the main solution to that. Today, however, I wanted noodles and, while it would be easy enough to boil water on the grill's side-burner, I wanted to use another low-energy solution. I apologize that I can't remember the name of this gimmick, but it's a tall, clear plastic tube that supposedly allows you to cook pasta by just pouring boiling water into it.

You may be skeptical, and for good reason: it doesn't really work. You stick your dried pasta in the tube, fill it with boiling water and close it with a cheap plastic lid. Then, some magic is supposed to happen to 'cook' the pasta. Essentially, you're just sticking pasta in hot water and waiting until it gets soft enough to chew. Sounds simple enough. However, the texture of the end product is less than ideal. This thing was on a shelf in the basement for a reason. Though perhaps achieving al dente in the middle, the noodles are generally mushy on the outside giving a weird chewy texture to the whole thing.

Today I was desperate. I had left-over grilled peppers and onions, two big cubes of dried/baked tofu and I had a hankering for noodles. I bought some Chinese-style curly noodles at the store the other day. These look like the cheaper, fattier ramen you buy for a few cents per case, but they're not fried and they're a little thinner. So I broke them up into pieces and stuck them in pasta tube with boiling water. 7 minutes later, I had al dente/mushy ramen. Insult was added to injury when I opened the fridge to discover that we were out of soy sauce.

WHAT? How the &#@! could we be out of soy sauce?

After several harsh words to myself and anyone within a 4 mile radius, I realized that improvising ramen without soy sauce was going to be painful. Luckily, I remembered that our old Singaporean flat-mate, Dot, used to add curry powder to her ramen for a cheap and tasty snack. So I cobbled together a mixture of generic curry powder, salt, sesame oil, garlic, ginger and a big dash of seasoned rice vinegar and tossed it with the noodles.

It was ok. Not great.

The lack of soy sauce, while annoying in light of the already impaired noodles, was a major obstacle for the tofu. To say that tofu is bland is like saying Scooter Libby is 'morally flexible' (for any right-wingers out there, it's an understatement). Baked tofu is like a concentrated form of bland, if you can wrap your mind around that. So I made another little batch of the same noodle seasoning for the tofu and tossed it in. This I took to the grill with my left-over peppers and onions.

Sad Curry Dressing
1 1/2 tsp. curry powder
2 tbsp sesame oil
2 tbsp seasoned rice vinegar
1 tsp garlic (minced)
1 tsp ginger (minced or 1/2 tsp powder)
black pepper to taste
salt to taste


1. Today I used a nice cast-iron wok. I stuck it on the grill and closed the lid while it was heating up to make sure it got hot (about 350F).
2. I added a tablespoon of vegetable oil to the hot wok and added the tofu. I let this cook, grill covered for 5 minutes or so, the stirred and let it cook another 5 minutes.
3. I then tossed in the peppers and onions and let this all cook for another 5 minutes.
4. I added all this to the cooked noodles and served it with roasted cashews.

This goes to show any people who've eaten my cooking, and who've like it, that sometimes things don't work. I just usually don't serve the failures to company.

Well I wouldn't serve it to company I like, anyway.

Scooter can have it.

On second thought, no. No he can't. It's still too good for him.

Friday, June 6, 2008

In the world and of the world

Summer is finally edging into our dank little burg and its arrival sparks the re-kindling of my annual love affair. Forever faithful to my beloved red-haired vegan, the object of my affection is not built of flesh and bone, casting longing glances and whispering whimsy and intrigue. The object of my summer lust is forged from gleaming steel and iron. From its dark places comes not the emotional baggage of a tender yet tortured soul, but the blue-orange fire of creation and destruction, and it is not a deep-seated love for me that fuels this fire: it's liquid propane.

I have a very serious relationship with my grill. I'm not ashamed to say it and I resent the American cultural assumption that grilling is for men. Cooking out in the world is human event, taking us back to where we belong: in the world. While I love cooking in a well-equipped kitchen, the convenience and luxury of a modern kitchen sometimes feels overly-fussy and divorced from our station as another animal (an often clever animal) on this earth. Then summer comes around and, not wanting to heat up the sweat-box that is my tiny, counter-space-less kitchen, I venture outside, to eat what is of the world, in the world.

I purchased my beloved grill as a gift to myself when I obtained my PhD. It was a big step. A grill isn't like my yogurt-maker: something that you can ignore for a few months until you feel guilty for buying it in the first place and start using it again. A grill is major appliance and it means business. It's expensive, big, heavy, requires regular maintenance and could potentially explode. It needs to be taken seriously and if it is, it will bring joy and tastiness for years to come.

Many meat-eaters we know ask "Why do you have a grill?" The assumption is that the only thing a grill is good for is charring huge chunks of meat. I hope to eliminate that silly notion from all 5 of my readers over the next few months. I estimate that I can cook 90% of what I cook in my kitchen on my grill. Now, it helps that I have a 3-burner grill with 500 square inches of cooking surface and a side-burner that actually works. It is also noteworthy that my mom and my friend Blanche outfitted me with a handy collection of cast-iron cookware that allows for all sorts of pot and pan meals, using the grill as I would a gas range.

For this first grill post, I'm starting with our standard summer meal. Anyone who's had it loves it and it has endless room for variety: the vegetable sandwich. It incorporates two of my favorite foods: bread and peppers.

The selection of bread is important because this is essentially a garlic-bread vegetable sandwich. So, any bread that serves to make tasty, crusty garlic bread is what you want to choose for the sandwich. Our local grocery store just started making white-whole-wheat focaccia that is perfect. Another good choice is ciabatta, though it can get a little too crunchy on the grill.
The vegetable selection is up to you. We always go for peppers (red and green) and onions. I also love mushrooms, zucchini, eggplant and so on. We've even used asparagus that I've steamed in foil on the grill and it was great.
If you want a little more protein (keep in mind there's quite a bit in whole-wheat), there are several choices: grilled slabs of tofu, seitan (cooked wheat gluten), hummus, or even the barely palatable vegan cheeses out there. Lots of people like grilled tempeh, but I can't stomach tempeh in any form, so you're on your own there. There also lots of processed meat alternatives alongside the ever-dull veggie burgers. Last night I picked up some pre-cooked slabs of tofu and heated them on the grill, but for lunch today, we had Yves Turkey deli slices (the red-haired man likes them but I find them foul in every way).

So there isn't really a 'recipe' per se. I guess it's all technique, but here goes:

Grilled Vegetable Sandwiches

grill basket, perforated grill pan or cast-iron skillet
long tongs
vegetable oil (or other oil with a high smoke point)

2 bell peppers of any color
1 medium onion
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tsp minced garlic (powder is ok)
1 tsp minced ginger (1/2 tsp powder is ok)
1/2 tsp black pepper

bread for garlic bread
vegan margarine or olive oil
garlic powder
1 ripe avocado mashed with 1 tbsp lemon or lime juice

1. Heat the grill to at least 350.
2. Oil the grill pan and space on the grill itself big enough to fit the garlic bread. To oil a grill, first fold a paper towel into a 3-inch square, dip it in vegetable oil then with tongs, oil the surface you'll use for cooking.

I usually grill peppers and onions in an oiled perforated grill pan. It takes about 10-15 minutes at 400F with tossing every few minutes. I'm weird in that I prefer to toss the veggies with a little dressing once they're cooked instead of marinating them. Most of the marinade is lost to the depths of the grill and causes a lot of flare-ups that lead to scorching and uneven cooking. I'm sure someone will disagree with me about this.

Throw together the soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, ginger and pepper and set aside. When the veggies are done, I toss them in a bowl with the sauce and coat everything.

Butter the bread with either margarine or olive oil and douse with garlic powder (more is better). When the veggies are about 2/3 done (isn't it terrible to have something like that in a recipe, I mean what is 2/3 done?), place the bread, fat-side down on the grill and lower the heat.

Watch the bread. Charred bread is not fun.

When the bread is done and the veggies are tossed with the dressing, assemble sandwiches at will. Oh yes, I did heat up the pre-cooked tofu on the grill right before I started the bread.

We like to smear the bread with avocado and I often like to use pureed artichoke hearts as well.

Pickles, slaw and a regular salad are good sides.

Upon opening the garden-shed last week, I found myself in a very Sex in the City moment. However, instead of being mesmerized by a pair of ridiculous shoes in a department store window, I found myself staring at my grill for the first time all season and saying "Hello, lover".
Let the affair begin!