Friday, March 28, 2008

Bachelorette Pasta


A few weekends ago, I was a bachelorette while my little vegan red-haired man was out of town. When he's away, at least 3 things happen: I get sad (awwwww), I get an overwhelming urge to clean the house, and I cook things that only I like.

I bought a package of pre-prepared 'harvest vegetables' at the local Wegman's. It's a reasonable blend of lightly cooked green beans, peppers and yellow and green squash. I can't tell exactly how they're cooked. The beans seem only steamed but there's a little bit of olive oil, so maybe they're just sauteed quickly.

I don't generally like pasta sauce. When I say pasta sauce, I mean red sauce. When I say red sauce, I mean tomato-based pasta sauce that comes in a jar. My little red-haired vegan, however, loves jarred red sauce. So when we have pasta, we rarely eat the same version since he's completely happy to drown his noodles in red glop.

So, with the cat away, I made my kind of pasta lunch. I don't think this lunch even needs a recipe, but ok...

Bachelorette Pasta Non-Recipe

1 cup cooked spaghetti
1 1/2 cups slightly cooked veggies
2 tbsp olive oil
2 shallots
small handful of green olives
1/4 cup chickpeas (cooked/canned), drained and rinsed
vegan margarine
salt and pepper


1. Slice the shallots very thinly in rounds and saute in the oil over medium heat until caramelized.
2. Toss vegetables and chickpeas into the pan with the shallots and cook until they're just tender.
3. Toss in the cooked pasta and olives and heat through.
4. I added a reasonable dollop of vegan margarine along with some salt and pepper while it was in the pan, then dumped it in a bowl and inhaled it in front of the TV.

Then there was cleaning. Crazed, frenetic cleaning. Some might say that he should go out of town more often....

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Biscuit Love




Is there anyone who does not like biscuits? I suppose I can understand how someone might not have the nearly fiendish and certainly unholy weakness that I have for biscuits, but at the worst, I've only ever met those who don't have a strong opinion about them. I'm giving those individuals the benefit of the doubt by assuming that they've only interacted with biscuits at KFC or Red Lobster and only know them as greasy, smushable lumps.

Those of us who had the benefit of growing up with biscuits made at home know better.

I have to say that part of my fever for biscuits rests on the moment I first made a really good batch. I loved biscuits, but didn't like all the processed stuff in the boxed biscuit mixes (and I have that whole "I have to know how things work" problem with my brain). So I'd tried several batches over a period of a few months and finally, on one magical Saturday afternoon (when I should have been writing a syntax paper, no doubt) everything worked and I was filled with a kind of satisfaction that I'd never felt before.

All my other accomplishments (getting my driver's license, graduating from college, making my first quilt, writing a novel in 30 days, getting a PhD) seemed pale and frivolous compared to making a perfect batch of biscuits. The moment when I was able to transform a bowl of flour, fat, salt, liquid and baking powder into puffy circles of flaky heaven, I felt like I'd arrived. I could do anything.

If the grid went down, and the ragged war-torn remnants of humanity stood in front of a post-apocalyptic pantry gasping "There's nothing to eat! We're only left with flour, salt, baking powder, oil and water!", I could step forward and push their fears aside.

"Fear not, my friends. I can make biscuits."

Dramatic? Perhaps. But such is my love of making biscuits.

So here's the thing: it's not rocket science. It's just a little chemistry. A little chemistry never hurt any... Ok. Forget that. It's not that hard, though and I think everyone should try it.

I like to make 'rolled' biscuits as opposed to 'drop' biscuits. 'Rolled' just means that you flatten the dough and cut out shapes with a biscuit cutter. 'Drop' biscuits have a little more liquid and are dropped by big spoonfuls onto the baking sheet. Drop biscuits are faster and are lighter since you really don't handle the dough much at all. I like them for soupy things that you pour over biscuits (like my mom's creamed chicken etc.)

I like rolled biscuits because I like to split them open and put a little smear of margarine in the middle. They're a little sturdier so you can pull them apart without them crumbling. This is good if you make scones (essentially biscuits with sugar in the dough) and want to open them to spread on some jam etc.

No offense to the biscuit droppers out there. We can peacefully co-exist and all still live in biscuit heaven.

An aside:
So let's talk about scones for a moment. I'm talking about English scones, not those things they sell at Starbuck's that are a half-pound of butter and sugar. I'm talking about calm, tame, non-gluttonous-sized, round, open them up and nicely spread on some butter and jam kind of scones. They're the same as what we Yanks call biscuits except that you can add 1/4 cup of sugar and some dried fruit (or fresh berries). My favorites to make are date scones with brown sugar...mmm. That will have to wait for another post.

The biscuits in the photo above (oh my gosh aren't they so freaking pretty?) are 75% white, unbleached flour, 25% whole wheat pastry flour, soy creamer, vegan margarine, salt and baking powder. That might be a bit fussy for most people, so I'm going to give two versions of the recipe. One is the fussy version I made for dinner last night (which isn't fussy by preparation, only by the specific versions of the ingredients) and the other is the generic template.

Generic Biscuit Template Recipe

2 cups flour
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking powder
4 tbsp. fat (shortening, oil, butter, margarine, etc.)
2/3 cup liquid (typically some kind of milk, be it cow or soy, though any liquid will work depending on how you want it to taste.

1. Preheat oven to 400F
2. In a large mixing bowl, mix flour, salt and baking powder.
3. 'Cut in' the fat. That means use a pastry cutter or two butter knives held together to chop the fat into little bits that are coated in the flour mix. You can do this with your fingers, but you don't want the fat to melt (if it's a solid fat). So I'd recommend using a utensil for solid fats, but you can just rub oil into the flour with your fingers, if you prefer oil. You want the fat bits to be about half the size of a pea.
4. Pour the liquid in all at once.
5. With a large spoon, slightly mix the mixture until it just comes together. That means once it starts to clump together in a big mass, stop mixing.
Note: unlike bread dough, biscuit dough should NEVER stretch. You want to handle it as little as possible. You never knead biscuit dough because you do not want to develop the gluten (the stretchy protein in the wheat that gives bread it's nice texture). If the dough gets stretchy, it will become hard and tough in the oven and be very unpleasant. If you find that your dough feels stretchy or springy and it bounces back when you poke it, you might as well huck it in the trash and start over.
So as in the photo on the right, once you can smush it into a big lump and it mostly holds together, stop mixing. Even if there are lots of crumbs in the bottom of the bowl, it's ok. You do not want the dough to be smooth or even uniform. It will have flaky, chunky bits and that's good.
6. Dump everything out onto a clean surface and gently mash it into one mass that's roughly rectangular.
7. Gently press this rectangle so that it's 1/2 inch thick.
8. Fold it in half, as shown on the right. Turn the folded dough 90 degrees.
9. Again, gently press it down to 1/2 inch, then turn it another 90 degrees.
10 Press it down again, the let it sit for a few minutes while you find a baking sheet.
11. Cut out shapes with a cutter (I use round, but I sometimes use a heart when the mood strikes). You can just cut into triangles or squares, but make sure your implement is sharp. Some people might want to use a glass (like you would cutting pierogi dough) if that's the only round thing you have, but you really need a sharp edge on the biscuits to make sure they get tall and flaky.
12. Put them on your baking sheet. I included the photo of them on the pan to show how they began rising from the minute it took me to get the pan and take them off the cutting board! (I'm sorry, I'm just so happy with them.)
13. Stick them in the oven for about 12 minutes. You should probably start peeking at them after 10 minutes. You want the tops and bottoms to be lightly browned. They should almost double in height and start to split apart at the sides.
14. If you want them extra-tasty, brush some melted margarine on the tops right after they come out of the oven.


Garlic-Butter Biscuits

1 1/2 c. white flour
1/2 c. whole-wheat pastry flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp garlic powder
4 tbsp vegan margarine (Earth Balance Buttery Sticks)
2/3 c soy creamer (Silk Soy Creamer - original)
2 tbsps extra margarine
2 tsps garlic powder

1. Repeat as for the recipe above, adding the garlic powder to the flour mixture.
2. Melt the 2 tbsps extra margarine and add it with the other 2 tsps garlic powder. Brush this over the biscuits after you take them out of the oven.


Ah, there they are under the magical glow of the quartz element of my toaster oven.

I could really go on for hours talking about biscuits, but since the two other people that read this probably have better things to do, I'll save the rest of my insanity for another day.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Bean Brownies??



Yes. That's right. Bean brownies.
I was looking on 101cookbooks (which is a really great food blog) and Heidi had a black bean brownie recipe. It intrigued me except that it called for a whole stick of butter and 4 eggs. Then in the comments submitted by her readers, I found reference to an old Weight Watchers trick of adding a can of pureed black beans to a boxed brownie mix (instead of the eggs/oil/butter).

I was even more intrigued. I have a thing about beans.

So what the heck. I have a pantry filled with black beans and one sad brownie mix that's been in my cupboard a little too long. I had a minor need to create something tonight, but I wasn't all that energetic, so this half-boxed thing seemed to be a good compromise between creativity and convenience. An added bonus is that it's moron/sloth-proof.

No-Fuss Black Bean Brownies

1 Box Brownie Mix (vegan)
1 can of unseasoned black beans (I use Goya 'cause they're cheap and so am I)

1. Grease and flour a 8x8 brownie pan.
2. Drain the beans (save the can) and rinse them well. Most canned beans are canned in a very salty, gloppy goo that needs to be rinsed off.
3. Stick the beans back in the can and fill with just enough water to just cover the beans.
4. Puree the beans and water in a blender or food processor until smooth.
5. In a big bowl, empty the contents of the brownie mix and add the bean puree. Stir well to combine.
6. Dump into the pan and stick in the oven at 350F for 30 minutes.
7. Let cool completely.

I found that these tasted a bit beany when they were warm. So I'd say let them cool completely before you try them. And maybe eat them with some ice cream (soy or cow)...and maybe some whipped topping or perhaps raspberry puree.

Ok. I'll be honest. They taste a little beany, but it might just be because I was looking for it. They're certainly serviceable. Throw chocolate and sugar at pretty much anything and it will probably be ok.

Oh come on. You know you want to try it.

All the cool people are eating black bean brownies...

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Don't Just Make These Amazing Chocolate Chip Cookies


I have this odd way of dealing with stress.
I cook.
I guess it doesn't come as such an oddity since I'm writing this in a cooking blog, but it always seemed odd to me. I've had friends who have what I would consider the more typical ways of dealing with stress: meditation, yoga, running, martial arts, smoking, drinking etc. Don't get me wrong. I'm a big fan of yoga and other exercises as stress-management techniques, but there's something a little more cathartic about cooking. It's creative in the literal sense.

You start with piles of stuff, you put them together, sometimes chemistry happens and then it becomes this other stuff. I suppose it's a metaphor for wanting to change the crap of my life into something different, better, less crappy. Since I can't change most of the crap, I cook. I can do that.

My dear friend Kristin sometimes gets exasperated with me because I say I want something, but I don't just go and get it. For example, a few weeks ago, I mentioned to her that I really wanted to make brownies. She assumed that I meant that I was craving brownies and just wanted to eat some. So when I came to her with a failed attempt at whole-grain, flax and fiber-infused brownies that came out more like fudge frosting with a hard crust, her reply was "Why don't you just go get a mix and just have brownies?" A reasonable question that pinpoints the ambiguity in what is meant when I say "I want to make X."

When I want to make cookies, I don't just want to eat a cookie. If I get a craving, I can just go out and buy any generic store-bought cookie and satisfy my craving. However, if I want to make cookies, the product is really only 1/2 of the result, and is, in some ways, secondary to the process. I suppose you could say that the process of making cookies is my small, desperate way of trying to force my will on the world: taking the stuff of the universe and forging it into something by my own impetus.

I digress.

I've had too many chocolate chips. It sometimes makes me philosophical and self-reflective.

So tonight, a stress ball formed in the pit of my psyche, and the creative juices were specific. Tonight the juices said "Make chocolate chip cookies, NOW!" So I complied and adapted a great recipe I found on Dreena's Vegan Recipes. The key here is 'adapted'. It's hard for me to just follow a recipe. I can't just let it be. I have to put my 2 cents into it to satisfy the creative compulsion. So most of the credit for the recipe should go to Dreena. Any crazy talk can be attributed to me.

Grainy Chocolate Chip Cookies

This recipe generally follows Dreena's except for the use of whole wheat pastry flour, leaving out the 1/4 cup of sugar and the addition of wheat germ and flax seed meal.

1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour (I like Bob's Red Mill)
1/4 cup wheat germ
3 tbsp. flax meal (ground flax seeds)
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/3 cup pure maple syrup
1/2 tsp. blackstrap molasses
1 1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup canola oil
1/3 cup of vegan chocolate chips (many store brands are actually vegan!)

1. Preheat oven to 350F
2. Line cookie sheet with parchment or silpat
3. Mix dry ingredients together in a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer.
4. Combine wet ingredients in a separate bowl.
5. Add wet to dry and mix until incorporated.
6. Add in chips (I do this with a spoon so as to not kill my mixer)
7. Drop by spoonfuls onto prepared cookie sheet 2 inches apart.
8. Bake for 11 minutes (9 minutes in my convection toaster oven)
9. Cool in pan for 1 minute then transfer to wire racks to cool.
10. Try to convince red-headed vegan husbands not to eat them all tonight.

You might question the title of today's blog. The point is: recipes are for cravings. If you really need to make cookies, make your own damn cookies.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Not-So-Dull Tomato Soup



I've never been a big tomato soup fan. I generally can't handle such acidic food, so I've never spent much time experimenting with it. However, tonight was one of those blah nights where I didn't have a good idea for dinner and I didn't want to spend too much time cooking because I had lots more computer work to finish.

I bought some really nice onion-potato bread at Wegman's the other day and needed to use it up, so the thought hit me: tomato soup. My little red-haired man is a big tomato fan, and he very patiently tries my more experimental dishes, so I thought I'd throw him a bone.

This was a quick dinner that incorporated pantry items like canned tomatoes and chickpeas as well as some frozen vegetables (always a quick fix for soup).

Not-So-Dull Tomato Soup

1 20-oz can of diced tomatoes (pureed in a food processor)
1/2 can of chickpeas (pureed in a food processor)
1/2 bag frozen onion/mixed peppers blend
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
vegetable bouillon ( I use 2 cubes of Rapunzel Vegan Vegetable Bouillon with herbs and sea salt)
1 tbsp cumin
2 tbsps garlic powder
1 cup fresh cilantro, washed, stems removed and chopped.

1. Heat a heavy-bottomed soup pot to medium heat and add olive oil.
2. Saute peppers/onions in the olive oil until cooked through.
3. Crumble bouillon cubes and add to peppers with 2 cups of water and pureed chickpeas. Cook for 3 minutes.
4. Add tomatoes, cumin and garlic.
5. Add enough water to reach desired consistency.
6. Let simmer for 10-15 minutes.
7. Turn off the heat and add fresh cilantro.

For those of you who don't like cilantro, I imagine fresh parsley or basil would be good as well.

Pita Pizza and Salad



One of my secret pleasures is figuring out what to do with the odds and ends left in my fridge from various, more focused meals. Today, I'm writing a final exam (my poor students) and didn't want to spend much time cooking lunch, so I opted for one of the best creations of the modern world: the pita pizza.

For those uninitiated into the realm of the pita pizza, you're missing out on some major time-saving nutrition. A whole wheat pita typically has at least 6 grams of fiber (1/4 of our daily goal) and it gets a nice chewy-crispy texture in the oven (with no half-baked goo underneath the sauce-a major downfall of many pizza deliveries). For what it is, delivery pizza is very over-priced: white bread dough (bleached, vitamin-less), gobs and gobs of low-quality cheese (though if you like cheese, that can be seen as a plus every once in awhile) and hardly any selection of vegetables. If you're vegan, getting a delivery pizza often results in some baked white bread with a thin smear of sauce topped with a loose smattering of veggies. That is not worth $12 (or even $10 or $5 in my book).

So the pita pizza satisfies two of my major personality traits: my need for control and my cheapness. I like what I like and I can usually make it at home better, for less money. So there.

Prep:
I keep at least one package of whole-wheat pitas in my freezer at all times. My cupboard is also always armed with Don Pepino's Pizza Sauce. Today, my fridge contained an interesting mix of vegetables, pickles, some left-over artichoke spread (recipe below), a 1/4 cup of chickpeas, and at least 3 varieties of olives. So from that I created some rather nice exam-writing fuel.

I've only recently come to truly appreciate artichoke hearts. I'm not yet certain if I appreciate the whole vegetable. Give it time. I've discovered that a puree of artichoke hearts (not marinated, just in brine) some garlic powder and a little olive oil can be a nice spread for various occasions.

Basic Artichoke Spread:

1 can of artichoke hearts in brine
1 tsp of garlic powder
1 tbsp of extra-virgin olive oil

1. Drain the artichoke hearts.
2. Pop them in a food processor with the oil and garlic powder and puree until spreadable.
3. Doesn't get much easier than that.

Mushroom-olive-artichoke-chickpea Pita Pizza

1 Whole-wheat pita
Pizza sauce (my favorite is Don Pepino's)
1/4 cup of artichoke spread
1/4 cup of chickpeas, drained, rinsed and mashed with a fork
1/2 cup of white mushrooms chopped
5 or 6 kalamata olives


1. Thaw the pita, if frozen (I often put it in the toaster oven for a few minutes at 350F).
2. Put as much sauce as you like. I generally only like a 1/4 inch slather or less.
3. Top first with mashed chickpeas.
4. Top next with artichoke spread.
5. Cram on as many mushroom/olive bits as possible
6. Stick in a toaster oven at 425F for 12 minutes. I have a convection toaster oven, so times may vary with different equipment.



Salad

Today I had some left over greens from a bag-o-salad that I mixed with some more chopped mushroom, a few chickpeas, the chopped butt-end of a red bell pepper and some of my homemade pickled purple cabbage. I threw this together while the pizza was baking.

So it only took 15 minutes for a very healthy and satisfying meal. If you calculate how much time it would take to find the take-out menu, figure out what you want, and explain at least 4 times that you really want NO cheese and possibly have to send the kid back with the pizza because his colleagues think "Hey, it's just got Romano", I've saved a lot of time and money for something I actually like.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Chickpeas and Fake Meat


I really wish I could come up with nicer names for some of the food I eat. 'Chick peas and fake meat' really doesn't sound appetizing at all. I guess I could try to sound fancy by using some Lebanese Arabic like Fattet Hummus, (warm chickpeas) but I don't know how to translate 'fake meat'. That's probably for the best.

This was a really fast lunch. I'm trying to prep some lectures for the next few weeks but I was starving, and my little red-haired man is out for the day. So I whipped up this Lebanese-inspired bowl of goodness.


Fattet Hummus with Fake Meat (still sounds really unimpressive)

1 can of chickpeas rinsed
1/2 a medium onion, diced inaccurately
2/3 cup of fake meat burger crumbles (I use Morningstar Farms)
2 cloves of garlic, minced, crushed, or shot through one of those presses
juice from 1/2 lemon
3-4 tbsps olive oil
black pepper
salt
tarragon (or better: fresh oregano or fresh parsley)
1 medium-sized whole-wheat pita
two carrots
half a green pepper
3 precocious-looking kalamata olive

1. Add 2 tbsps of oil to a pan and fry the onion on medium heat until it's translucent (not brown).
2. Add the chickpeas, 1/2 of the garlic and the fake meat.
3. Cover and let this cook for a few minutes until the fake meat is thawed and warmed through and the chickpeas are hot.
4. Break open the pita and pop it in the toaster/toaster-oven
5. Mix the lemon juice and remaining garlic and oil in a small bowl and emulsify (I love that word. It means beat the crap out of it until the oil becomes little tiny globules that are suspended in the lemon juice).
6. Pour the lemon/garlic/oil dressing over the chickpea mixture, cover and let it simmer on low heat until your pita is toasted.
7. When you're ready, add salt and pepper to taste and a decent pinch of tarragon, if you have any. Even better would be fresh, chopped flat-leaf parsley, but again, it's winter and my garden is under 2 feet of snow.

I had this with two carrots and half a green pepper cut into sticks and a few olives. All in all, it took me about 20 minutes, tops, including bringing up the can of chickpeas from the basement pantry. So for anyone who knows me well enough to ask: "Why would you write a blog when you have so much else to do?" I say: "It takes me as long to write up my meals as it does someone else to decide what to get from a take-out menu."

So there.
And shut up, I AM TOO working.

Pancakes


I will freely admit that I am obsessed with pancakes. I have no shame in the amount of brain power I spend thinking about pancakes, their construction, their place in the culinary traditions of countless cultures, their versatility etc. I could probably write a blog devoted solely to the noble pancake and still feel like I wasn't giving the topic my true attention.

I don't think I've ever met a pancake I didn't like. I should clarify that: I've never met a homemade pancake I didn't like. I could go on for hours about the sad state of most restaurant pancakes.

Once the moment arises, I'm sure I'll write about the various international varieties that strike my fancy. I'm particularly obsessed with Indian dosas, though I've never been able to make them well at home due to the overall crappiness of my stove.

Though I love our apartment for many reasons, I can honestly say that if given the chance, I would drop the stove off the top of a tall building. It is a well-maintained ceramic-top range, circa 1985. The burners are nearly impossible to control. Once they're hot, they remain hot for an hour, but if they're even a little shy of the mark, they won't give so much as a simmer. The burners are also perfectly flat and smooth, while 99.9% of pots and pans ARE NOT. Do the math.

Regardless, I tough it out and do the best I can with what I have. I generally use some kind of whole-wheat flour. I like whole-wheat pastry flour or white whole-wheat flour (which is a milder tasting whole-wheat). I also like to add stuff like wheat germ, flax meal etc. My little red-headed ball and chain loves it when I make rye pancakes with caraway seeds. (Yes, I know, but don't pass judgment until you try them.)

So these are my typical, every-day pancakes.

Pancakes

Dry Ingredients
1 1/4 c. white whole wheat flour
2 tbsp wheat germ
2 tbsp flax meal
1 1/2 tbsp sugar
2 tsp baking powder

Significantly less-dry ingredients
2 tbsp melted margarine (or vegetable oil)
3/4 c soymilk
3/4 c unsweetened flavored seltzer (I like raspberry)

1. Mix the dry ingredients very well in a big bowl.
2. Heat your pan on the stove a pretty high heat (450 F) (med-high). If it's not non-stick, grease it with some margarine or a little oil.
3. Add the not-so-dry ingredients to the dry and mix, but DON'T beat it smooth. There should be little lumps. Just mix it until everything is incorporated. You might need more liquid, depending on how dry your flour is. Whole wheat flour generally needs more liquid than white flour.
4. Drop by 1/3 cupfuls onto the pan (depending on how large you want them).
5. When the edges begin to look dry and bubbles pop on the surface, flip it over and cook the other side.
6. I like pancakes with some kind of fruit. The photo shows some fairly ineffectual canned peaches and a bit of maple syrup.

So there. Starch away.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Lemon Lentils and Mahogany Rice


I have never claimed that my cooking is fancy. Though, I have to say that I'm not sure what fancy means anymore. Does fancy mean complex preparation? Does it refer to expensive or rare ingredients? Some of my cooking is complex and some uses odd stuff, so maybe it's fancy. The important thing is that it is cooked without intended pretension. That counts for something, right?

Tonight's dinner is a mix of simple and fancy. The simple part is the preparation of the lentils and the fancy thing is the inclusion of black japonica rice, which is a blend of short grain black and medium grain mahogany rice. You can probably find it in health-food stores or large supermarkets with an organic/natural/overpriced section.

We eat lentils a few times each week, and we really never get sick of them. They're high in fiber, complex carbs, protein and other nutrients and are DIRT CHEAP. They're also very filling (what with all that fiber) and versatile, which makes them a good staple to have on hand. There are many varieties, though most regular supermarkets have only red (small and salmon-colored) green and brown.

Most lentils are well suited to some kind of acidic seasoning. My personal preference is to pair brown/green varieties with lemon and red with tomato, though I'm not a fascist about it. Tonight, I felt like I needed something lemony, so I paired what was left in my brown-lentil canister (yes, I have a brown-lentil canister) with the butt-end of a lemon that's been staring at me from the top shelf of the fridge along with some olive oil, garlic and salt.

Lemon+garlic+olive oil+salt = Lebanese Crack

That was a bit of brilliance passed down to me by a waitress at the best Lebanese restaurant in the universe. The combination of those simple ingredients is tantamount to the bliss we can only hope to achieve in our most glorious moments of self-fulfillment. Once you find the right proportions, it is a drug like no other. And this magical substance, even with the dragon-garlic-breath factor, will not leave you penniless and alone like so many other addictive substances.

I'm a big believer in the rice cooker. For those of you who don't have one: shame on you. You can get one for $9.99 at most drugstores or fancier ones at the Target/-marts. It is one of the greatest sloth/idiot-proof devices ever invented. You add rice and water and push a button and, like magic, you get cooked rice in 20 minutes and you don't have to watch it or even hope for the best.

*Note that the cup measurements below are for the rice cup that comes with a rice cooker. It's less than a standard cup. I think it's about 3/4 of a standard cup, but I haven't bothered to test that.

Mahogany Rice

1.5 cups rice
3 cups water
1 vegetable bouillon cube
2 tbsps dried minced onion

1. Rinse rice and add to the rice pot with the minced onion.
2. Dissolve the bouillon in the water and add to the rice pot.
3. Cover the pot and push the button.
4. Wait for magic (disguised as the completion of an idiot-proof cooking cycle devised by some brilliant engineer somewhere).

Lemon Lentils

1 cup of lentils
1.5 cups of water
1 large clove of garlic
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 lemon (about 2- 3 tbsps lemon juice)
salt

1. Rinse the lentils and pick them over for little stones and other bits of nature that usually end up in the package.
2. I don't know why I do this, but I like to pour boiling water over my lentils and let them sit for 10 minutes or so. I probably read that somewhere and just internalized it without remembering the reason why.
3. Drain the lentils and set aside for a minute.
4. Heat the oil in a pot over medium heat and saute the garlic just until it begins to smell fragrant.
5. Add the lentils and stir to coat with the oil/garlic.
6. Add the water and simmer, partially covered, for 20 minutes until most of the water is absorbed.
7. Before all the water is absorbed, give it as much juice from the lemon as you can squeeze and salt to taste and let it cook, uncovered, until all the water is absorbed and the lentils can just be smooshed with a fork.

My vegetable choice for this meal was a bit lame. I had half an English cucumber I wanted to use up, so I chopped it with a large carrot and added a splash of vinaigrette and a half a cup of homemade purple-cabbage sauerkraut, that now has a permanent place in my fridge. It was an oddly fresh and salty-sour salad that almost added a nice contrast to the hearty lentils and nutty rice.

Sorry, that sounded a bit 'foodie', didn't it?

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Fattoush


I have a difficult relationship with salad. I'm a fairly healthy person and pride myself on my sometimes herculean consumption of vegetables, but sometimes the thought of eating a salad seems like punishment. I suppose the difficulty is really an issue of texture.

Salads that are too lettuce-heavy vex me. Fattoush is a perfect salad for someone who needs varied texture in their bowl of raw veggies. They key ingredient is broken pieces of toasted pita, which serves as the Lebanese version of croutons, fried rice noodles or the ever tempting fried tortilla bowl. Using whole-wheat pita adds not only a crunchy, starchy contrast to the fresh ingredients, but also a nice amount of fiber. If, like most of the country, you're struggling to get to that goal of 25 g of fiber per day, tossing some toasted pita on your salad is pretty simple even for the laziest or most unskilled cook.

This salad is great in the summer when the veggies are picked fresh, but is also nice in the colder months alongside a hearty soup such as split pea, lentil or potato.

Fattoush

1 small head of green or red-leaf lettuce, shredded
1/4 small green cabbage, shredded
1 small red pepper, cut into 2-inch strips
1 small green pepper, cut into 2-inch strips
2 Roma or plum tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 4-5"-long cucumber, halved then sliced into semi-circles
1 large carrot, sliced into thin rounds
3 radishes, halved, then sliced
3 green onions (scallions) chopped finely
1 can of chickpeas, drained (or 1.5 c. of cooked from dry)
1 whole-wheat pita 6-8" in diameter
home-made salad dressing (see below)


1. Split open the pita and separate into two halves. Toast it until it's completely dry and brittle. For the novel pita-toasters out there, it's better to err on the side of caution and toast it on a lower heat to avoid burning.
2. Let the pita cool, break into bite-sized pieces, then toss with all the other ingredients and salad dressing. I'm not giving amounts of dressing here, because I don't pay attention to how much I use. I just add and toss, then add some more etc.

A brief word about salad dressing. I don't buy it. Seriously. No offense to people who buy salad dressing, but it's just not something I'll pay money for. I usually don't like it pre-made and it's ridiculously over-priced for what it is. So I just make it from scratch. It's not fancy, and it doesn't vary much, but it's cheap and I know exactly what's in it. I find that the absolute best dressing bottles are old rice-vinegar bottles. They have that little plastic thingy in the top of the neck that allows you to splash/shake the liquid instead of pouring it, and I just love that. If anyone knows the name of that plastic thingy, I'm dying to know.

This is not a 'foodie' salad dressing. There is no mention of 'truffles' nor is the oil from grape seeds, walnuts nor is it infused with anything. It calls for something that might instigate eye-rolls in the wine-and-tapas crowd: Mrs. Dash.

Yes. That's what I said.

Mrs. Dash: A festive bottle of dried vegetable and herb bits that makes for pretty freaking good salad dressing. Go ahead, roll your eyes all you want, but you're probably paying 6 bucks for a bottle of fancy over-priced oil and fructose that will prevent you from tasting your vegetables anyway.

So there.

BTW, seasoned rice vinegar (available in 'Asian' markets and big supermarkets) has the addition of salt and a little sugar (the seasoning) and is what is used at home to flavor sushi rice, so I never add additional salt to my dressing. This is another sloth/idiot-proof recipe.

Generic Salad Dressing
Extra-virgin olive oil
Seasoned rice vinegar
Mrs. Dash
1 bottle that can be shaken without causing someone to loose an eye.

The proportions of ingredients in salad dressing are really to taste, so experiment. I usually fill my bottle with half oil, half vinegar, though I know some people like it a bit more vinegar-heavy. Then I just dump maybe 2-3 tablespoons of Mrs. Dash into the bottle, close it and shake. Pennies per serving. Roll your eyes at that.