Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Old Fashioned Falafel

One week into a two week working vacation out in the Bay Area, here's what I've learned: 1) Mother Nature can be cruel. (Yes, we're talking about arriving in CA along with the rains, when suddenly, out of nowhere New England turns 68 degrees and sunny); 2) Two much red wine with dinner will almost certainly impact your Scrabble score; and 3) Just because there is a food processor sitting in a prominent position atop the refrigerator doesn't mean that all its parts are intact.

Yes, well, I was determined to make falafel last night, equipment be damned! I have to admit, I'd been feeling a little wimpy keeping up my vegan-once-a-day habit with Peace cereal and coconut milk. Everyone in this house (we're staying with my in-laws) is an amazing cook -- including, of course, my fabulous Reluctant Carnivore husband -- and I decided it was time to step up to the plate and serve a vegan dinner. I chose falafel because it was the first vegan recipe that I got RC really excited about, and also because my in-laws happened to have a copy of the Moosewood Cookbook in the house.

I immediately noticed a few discrepancies with the Skinny Bitch recipe I've been using at home. The main one being that the S.B. recipe calls for baking the falafel, while Moosewood goes the old-fashioned frying route. S.B. calls for breadcrumbs, Moosewood only uses flour. Both, however, call for mixing the batter in a food processor. This is how I did it instead. (I think that might be a potato masher. Not sure. There were many strange and interesting devices hidden in my mother-in-law's cabinets.)

I made sure to mince the garlic, scallions and parsley as small as possible (something I normally rely on the processor to do), and once I was 2-3 minutes in, the batter came together easily. I used a blender to make the tahini-lemon sauce (also from Moosewood, but I jazzed it up with extra garlic and plain soy yogurt.) For sides, I sliced iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, avocado and baby carrots. I also roasted some garlic because I found a cute little garlic roaster while searching for the missing food processor part, so that ended up on the table as well. Not really authentic middle eastern, I suppose, but it did prove my point that roasted garlic can improve just about any recipe.

Here they are, happily sauteeing in some coconut oil:

Not a very good shot of our table, but I'd forgotten to take pictures until only 3 falafel were left:

The Reluctant Carnivore proclaimed them the best falafel I'd made yet -- garnering 5 stars, "meatilicious" on his vegan rating scale -- which makes me think that I'll probably go the hand-mashing route from now on. The flavors seemed bigger and bolder, I'm guessing because the ingredients weren't so uniformly pureed. Also the texture was a lot nicer. These babies also made for a nice salad atop a bed of mixed greens, along with the leftover tahini sauce -- a no-brainer for today's vegan meal.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Java, Bye-Bye

I never drank a full cup of coffee, or smoked a whole cigarette for that matter, until I worked. I was fifteen, at the bottom of the totem pole at our local CVS, and for the first time in my life felt tired. I manned the cashiers evenings and weekends, and when I wasn't working, I was in high school, and when I wasn't in high school I was busy mooning about the boys I liked and avoiding homework. Sometimes I practiced my electric guitar and daydreamed about becoming a rock star like Lita Ford, but mostly I was avoiding something. Avoiding required reading, avoiding the disapproving glances of my elders, avoiding thinking about what I was going to do if the whole rock star thing didn't work out.

Breaks were rationed pretty strictly at CVS. You got 15 minutes if you worked three hours, over five and you got a half hour. But when the store was quiet and the smokers wanted to go take a puff, no one thought twice. They would congregate in the back room sometimes for 10, 20 minutes, while the newbies like myself stood at the register and tried to act casual when someone bought condoms. There was no way I could have gone up to my manager and told her I wanted to stand in back and daydream for twenty minutes, but now I sorta wish I had.

There was also a morning coffee run to Dunkin' Donuts on the weekends. I started out drinking it black, because that seemed badass. (That was also why I smoked Marlboro Reds.) It wasn't until my twenties that I started brewing my own java at home, and by then of course I was hooked. The cigarettes fell by the wayside in my early twenties, but coffee seemed so innocuous. Every once in awhile an article in a women's magazine would tout the power of its antioxidants.

It was the hardest thing to give up when I first found out I was pregnant, even harder than my beloved red wine. I went cold turkey and had a migraine for three days and vowed I would never drink the stuff again. But, dazed and confused, with a newborn in the house, I came back. Again and again. Now it's been almost two weeks. (Except for the pot I brewed when a friend came to visit - but doesn't casual consumption prove the addiction is gone?) My moods are more stable. I don't feel the same crash in the early afternoon. And, I'm not sure if this is a coincidence, but I was finally able to break through my weight loss plateau, and go from 8 pounds down to 11. (I promise that's the last I'll talk about weight loss. Sugar says that no one cares about your weight, and I believe everything Sugar says.)

Lest you think I'm a total caffeine-free saint, I am still drinking tea. Usually a cup of green in the morning -- which is a milder pick-me-up, and feels cleansing -- and then sometimes a cup of something in the afternoon, with coconut milk creamer. I discovered this chocolate mate at a Stop N' Shop in Somerville, and it seems to have that magical ability to assuage both a chocolate and a coffee craving.

These are intermediary steps. I'm hoping that, as I get healthier and cleaner, I won't need caffeine at all. We'll see. One day at a time, as they say.

Friday, February 11, 2011

'Tis the Season for Roasted Garlic

A long, long time ago (in my twenties) in a galaxy far, far away (Avon, CT) I worked at a swanky Italian restaurant. This is where I tasted my first portobella mushroom, my first rib-eye steak, and where I learned what risotto is. I also learned that serving take-out to ornery customers is much easier after employee wine tastings, and that when the dishwashers say "caliente" they mean the dishes, not you. Anyway, those are other stories.

The main thing this restaurant was famous for was its roasted garlic. You could smell it even before you entered. It was on my skin, and my lips, when I left every night. It lingered, warm and toasty, and completely inoffensive, as long as you shared it. Sometimes I would tell customers it was an aphrodisiac, especially if they seemed to be on a date.

Raw garlic, ready for roasting

The best part is, it's vegan and you can do it at home! Heat the oven to 320, chop a giant head (or several smaller ones) in half, douse liberally with olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt, pepper and thyme, put in a garlic roaster, or cover with tin foil and bake for around an hour and twenty minutes (or until a butter knife plunges easily into each clove.) I usually put the garlic roaster on a baking sheet, since I add a lot of olive oil and it sometimes bubbles over. Now you have the means of taking just about any savory recipe to the next level. Use the garlic-infused oil to make salad dressing, drizzle over roasted veggies, or add to any saute. The garlic itself is great spread on toast or crackers, or added to mashed potatoes. Yum, yum, bring on the garlic love!

Roasted Garlic, golden and buttery!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Tofu and Peas Korma

Way back in the 00's, when I first went vegetarian, my friend Beth gave me The Tofu Cookbook by Leah Leneman. The cover features a tempting looking cheesecake with succulent raspberries. In the ten years that I've had this cookbook, have I ever tried to make that tofu cheesecake? In a word, no.

In fact, I've realized that I treat my cookbooks much like I do my favorite restaurants. Once I find a recipe (or menu item) that I love I tend not to deviate. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, ya know? So for years I've been making this yummy szechwan tofu with peanut sauce from this book, and pretty much ignoring the other recipes. You could figure this out on your own if I handed you my book, because that's where the spine is broken and the pages stained!

In the spirit of new beginnings, I decided to branch out this week. My husband, who shall be referred to hereafter as R.C. (for Reluctant Carnivore), only grumbled a bit before I reminded him it was for my new project. He also agreed to come up with a rating system, to gauge each recipe's appeal for a confirmed meat-eater. It goes like this:

***** Meatalicious!
**** Vegan, shmegan -- I like it!
*** Meh. I'll eat it.
** That ain't no pork chop.
* Brother, can you spare a sirloin?

Without further ado, the (slightly modified) recipe:

Ingredients: 1 pkg. firm tofu, oil for frying (I used coconut, of course!), 2 large or 4 small tomatoes, 3 TBSP raw cashews, 1 inch fresh ginger, 2 large onions, 1/2 Earth Balance, 2 cinnamon sticks, 2 bay leaves, 4 tsp. ground cloves, 1 tsp. chilli powder, 1 1/3 cups water, 1 1/3 cups soy yogurt, 2 tsp. cumin, 1 tsp. coriander, 2 tsp. garam masala, 2/3 cup frozen peas, 1 tsp. sugar, sea salt to taste

First, a trick I learned from Isa Chandra Moskowitz, in her book Vegan with a Vengeance. Press your tofu! It really does make a difference to get all the water out. As you can see, it's also a great use of those non-vegan cookbooks you're using less of these days:

Then, cut the tofu in half. Cut one half into small cubes and deep-fry:

Drain the fried tofu and set aside. Chop the tomatoes. Put in a food processor with the cashews, ginger, and garlic. Blend thoroughly:

Chop the onions coarsely. Saute them in the Earth Balance until lightly browned. Lower the heat, stir in the cinnamon, bay leaves and cloves and cook for 3-4 minutes. Stir in the chilli powder, add the water, pureed tomato mixture and soy yogurt. Bring to a boil.

Stir in cumin, coriander and garam masala and simmer for a few moments. Add the deep-fried tofu and peas and cook for 2-3 minutes. Finally, crumble the remaining tofu into the pan, along with the sugar and salt to taste:

Enjoy over brown rice -- or perhaps homemade naan!

Notes for next time: I would half the sauce recipe as this made a lot. (I had to make extra rice to finish it off.) I would keep the same amount of tofu, though. I would also add some whole cashews to the sauce at the end. And I'm definitely on the look-out for a good home-made naan recipe.

This one will really make your house smell good! It's so fragrant and flavorful, and a little spicier than the food I normally make. It's a pleasant burn, though, not one that overshadows the more subtle flavors of the tofu and peas. And how about R.C.'s rating? This one garnered four stars! **** Vegan-shmegan, I'll eat it! Not bad!

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Traveling Vegan

Since there weren't any blizzards predicted for this past weekend, it was the perfect time to take the kiddos to see my parents in Connecticut. (Also, the hubs was out of town at a conference in DC.) Now, a word on my parents' eating habits. I love them to death and they are rock star grandparents, but their idea of healthy eating is to make that Mountain Dew a diet. Okay, so that's not really fair -- since my dad was diagnosed with diabetes several years ago, my parents have had to really cut down on the sugar/starch intake. But, like many Americans (myself included) they want to have their cake and eat it too -- even if it has to be made with Splenda.

At any rate, I knew if I was going to stick to my vegan resolution, I'd have to take matters into my own hands. First stop, Whole Foods. There's a reason why it's nicknamed Whole Paycheck -- there's always a little sticker shock at the register, no matter how careful I am to buy bulk and on sale. Eating organic, never mind vegan, is expensive! (This could prompt a whole rant on how we're subsidizing the wrong kind of food, but more eloquent ranters than I have already done so.)

Here, then, are the staples I chose to get me through the weekend: unsweetened coconut milk, vegan bread, organic greens, vegan muffins, strawberries, coconut milk yogurt, smoked tofu, vegan cereal, lemon & avocado (to use as salad dressing), a giant head of garlic to roast, and some yummy peanut/chocolate granola bars to satisfy my chocolate cravings (those cupcakes couldn't last forever!) There was already fruit, more salad veggies and -- hurray! -- hummus back at the house. My one mistake was to forget the Earth Balance. My parents use margarine, but it contains milk, and even worse, trans fats. Another bad-for-you disguised as a good-for-you.

This was way more than I ended up needing, but good practice, since we're headed west next week to visit my husband's parents in California. This was the first time that I looked closely at labels on items I wouldn't normally think of as containing animal products. Several yummy-looking breads didn't qualify since they were made with honey. And there's hidden dairy all over most granola bars!

How about you? What are your vegan must-haves when traveling? Ideas for budget-conscious vegan eating?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Who Says It Has to Be Health Food?

Since yesterday's vegan meal was the aforementioned coconut yogurt, I decided to supplement with a little vegan baking. I love to bake when it's snowing, raining, or, let's face it, beautifully sunny outside, and I hadn't done any since embarking on the South Beach diet Jan. 1st. OK, so I lost 8 pounds (go me!) there was something a little sad about the way my toddler kept looking wistfully at the stand mixer.

I chose a chocolate cupcake recipe from Colleen Patrick-Goudreau's "The Joy of Vegan Baking." I've tried a few of her recipes, and have generally liked the results. I say generally, because I've found that there really is no substitute for butter in baked goods. Earth Balance is wonderful, but a chocolate chip cookie made with real butter will kick a vegan chocolate chip cookie's ass any day, in the realm of taste, if not compassion.

I decided to see if using coconut oil instead of the canola oil the recipe called for would make a difference. I'm enthralled with all things coconut (see yogurt above), and after considering it a luxury for so long, love that it's now becoming something of a health food. I wondered if using coconut oil would somehow compensate for the lack of richness inherent in not using eggs or butter.

Other than that, as you can see, the ingredients are all pretty standard baking-pantry fare:

I began by whisking together 3 cups flour (I used whole wheat for 1 of those), 1 1/2 cups sugar, 1 tsp. salt, 2 tsp. baking soda and 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder. The recipe then says to make a "well" in the middle of these dry ingredients and add 3 tsp. vanilla extract, 2/3 cup canola oil, 2 TBSP white distilled vinegar, and 2 cups cold water.

Thrilled that I didn't have to dirty a second bowl (if I ever write a vegan cookbook it will be titled Lazy Bitch), I proceeded to dump in the wet ingredients, substituting coconut oil for the canola. Did I mention this was my first time using coconut oil? This is key. I had no idea it would be solid at room temperature. If I had to do it over, I would have warmed it slightly AS IT ACTUALLY TELLS YOU TO ON THE LABEL so that it turned liquid, but instead I dumped it in as is, and ended up with coconut oil glaciers floating in a chocolate sea:

After much mashing, I realized that the coconut oil was not going to mix consistently with the dry ingredients. This was when the chocolate chips got involved:

Because I believe chocolate chips are to baking what (vegan) bacon is to savory cooking -- it can mask many errors! I baked these in muffin cups for about 18 minutes, and they came out glorious, if slightly uneven. Here's what they looked like after frosting with vegan strawberry buttercream frosting (1/2 cup frozen strawberries pureed in food processor, then whipped into 1 cup Earth balance. Add 3 cups confectioner's sugar, 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract and 1-2 TBSP nondairy milk):

These came out wonderfully chocolate-y, with a very subtle coconut flavor. The impact of not throughly mixing in the oil was minimal (there were little pockets on top of the cupcakes, which I masked with the frosting). I would still liquify it next time, though.

Finally, I leave you with the aforementioned toddler, making off with the beater used to mix the frosting. It doesn't get much better than this on a snowy New England day!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Journey Begins

Welcome to my new blog! Some of you may know me as Drunk Mama over at wineamongfriends.com. I'll still be writing about my adventures in wine over there, although there may be an occasional cross posting. I've decided to start a fresh page, because it's 2011, baby, and I'm ready for something fresh! After being a vegan voyeur for years I've decided it's time to take the plunge. Or, at least 1/3 of a plunge, LOL!

I've done the research. Beginning with Diet for a New America, which my friend Chris turned me onto way back in '99, to more recent books like Skinny Bitch and Detox 4 Women, I'm convinced that a vegan diet is the healthiest one out there. In fact, after reading Diet for a New America, I went vegetarian as my new year's resolution in 2000, with the idea that I would gradually transition to veganism.

Eleven years (gulp!) and two kids later, I'm a confirmed omnivore. I had such powerful cravings for meat -- steak, specifically -- during my first pregnancy that I ended 6 years of vegetarianism with the most delicious filet mignon I've ever had at Cafe Pasqual's in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I tried to quell my conscience with the notion that it was a Nieman Ranch steak, which meant that the animal had been humanely raised and slaughtered.

Now my husband and I belong to a meat CSA, and have vowed to limit our at-home meat consumption to the 10 pounds a month we get from Chestnut Farms. But my conscience is still nagging at me. I continue to read up on veganism, and find myself drawn to the new vegan cookbooks that are constantly coming out. (Stay tuned for reviews of my favorites!) When I really think about what an animal raised for meat goes through -- no matter how humanely cared for -- there's something in me that rebels against it. If it were up to me to raise and kill my own meat there's no question, I would be vegetarian. So, how can eating meat be right for me if it requires a certain amount of denial?

I want to live life with my eyes wide open, fully conscious of how all my decisions -- not just those that effect what's on my plate -- influence the experience of all living beings. And so... I've decided to dip my toes in the water. How hard can it be to eat vegan once a day? I welcome you to follow along as I find out. I plan to post my favorite meals 2-3 times a week, as well as reviews of the books that inspire me and help to keep me on the path. Let's be honest, with two small children, there will be days when my vegan dish is a bowl of coconut milk yogurt (yum!) and granola. But hopefully there'll be lots more elaborate and interesting meals too.

Stay tuned!