Sunday, February 6, 2011

What's a "flexitarian"?

I'm sort of opposed to all these cutesy new labels for occasionally eschewing meat. "Flexitarian" is the latest. I'm not sure why people feel the need to label the fact that they are occasionally willing to forgo meat in a meal. That's hardly a revolution.

But I'm also pragmatic.

I accept that very few people will actually become vegetarians, or vegans, for life. Some people are deeply convicted when it comes to animals, the environment and health. Others care, but not enough to live without a bacon-cheeseburger from time to time. I get that.

So if there's anything I like about the ovo-lacto, flexi-, pesci- add-ons to the root "tarian," it's that it might be giving people space to do what nutritionists have been imploring Americans to do with steadily increasing urgency: Put down the steak knife and eat a goddamn vegetable, would ya?!

I was sort of interested, then, to receive my February issue of Bon Appetit this week and see an even larger selection than normal of vegetarian dishes and a story on the Meatless Monday / flexitarian phenomenon. As I write, I'm enjoying a delicious bowl of Broccoli Soup with Leeks and Thyme from the magazine. I'm simultaneously slow cooking a giant pot of black beans, the base for Black Bean Chili with Butternut Squash, also in the February issue. Both are super high in fiber, low in calories, and loaded with colorful vegetables that boast all sorts of antioxidants and nutrients not found in pre-processed, packaged convenience foods.

It's great to see at least some foodies embrace the potential of vegetarian cooking (that's how I'm choosing to interpret the Bon Appetit thing). Going vegetarian greatly expanded my culinary universe and made me a much, much better cook. (I was a pretty boring eater of chicken breasts and Lipton rice packets prior to ditching meat 13 years ago.) The chili recipe I'm preparing has bulgur in it, which is not something you'd find in the average chili con carne, and may seem slightly sacrilegious, but it's smelling like heaven at the moment and seriously ups the nutritional ante.

My advice? Try one day meat-free. I absolutely, positively, 100 percent money-back guarantee you will survive. Be brave. Experiment. And if you've got an question, you know where to find me.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Easy vegetarian comfort food

I haven't made this recipe in years - literally. But while it's bubbling away in the oven I thought I'd share it with you. Why, if I haven't felt compelled to make it lately, would I pass it along? After reading a super annoying NPR blog post about how bacon is supposedly the "gateway food" for vegetarians who fall off the wagon, I decided to share it because it was a gateway TO vegetarianism for me.

This was one of the very first vegetarian recipes I cooked and shared. It is ridiculously easy, comforting, cheap and perfect for a weeknight when you don't have much energy. It doesn't have any weird or unfamiliar ingredients, and even if you consider scrambled eggs to be the extent of your cooking skills, you can do this. I promise.

Vegetarian Pot Pie (easily veganized, BTW)

1 med. onion, diced
1 T canola oil
1/4 c all-purpose flour
2 c. vegetable broth
1-2 t dried thyme
1 can beans (any kind)
5 cans vegetables in any combination (corn, green beans, spinach, peas, potatoes, tomatoes, etc.)
1 stick butter (or margarine, for vegans), melted
1 c. milk (or soy milk)
1 c. self-rising flour

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Heat oil over medium-high heat and saute the onion for 2-3 minutes, until translucent. Slowly stir in the 1/4 c. all-purpose flour and cook one more minute. Reduce heat to medium and add broth 1/2 c. at a time, stirring as you go, until thoroughly mixed. The mixture should thicken a bit. Stir in the thyme and turn off the heat.
3. Open all the cans and drain them off a bit. This is sort of an imprecise direction, but you want them to keep a little bit of their juice but no so much that the mixture you're about to create is swimming in juices. I'd estimate I drained off 1/2-3/4 of the juice in each can.
4. Add all canned vegetables and beans to a large, 9x13" baking dish. Mix them together and then mix in the onion/gravy mixture.
5. In a medium bowl, combine the melted butter or margarine, the milk or soy milk, and the 1 c. self-rising flour. Do not overmix.
6. Pour the batter evenly over the vegetables and bake at 400 degrees for 45 minutes, or until the batter on top is firm and lightly golden brown.

For the batch I'm making right now, I used corn, green beans, potatoes, tomatoes and carrots. But you can pretty much go in any direction you want, including Mexican, for example, with black beans, corn, squash, tomatoes, etc. Italian would be pretty easy too.

The original recipe I copied actually called for 2 cans of Veg-All or other mixed vegetables and then 3 cans of other vegetables, so feel free to use them if you like them. And finally, I'd like to credit the source of this recipe, but as I mentioned, I've been making it for so long I don't remember where I got it.

I don't have kids but I have to think this would be a winner with little ones - there's nothing spicy, strange or overly grown-up about it. It's just hot, bubbly and topped with a delicious buttery crust. Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Let's have a party

I've been wrestling with something rather prickly lately. As you may recall, I recently resolved to be a bit more outspoken about why people should eat less meat. (A refresher: It makes the earth cry, and our modern agriculture system is an affront to the dignity of animals.) However, I've found that this topic has a very awkward tendency of coming up over dinner, typically when everyone around me is eating meat. Nothing brings a pleasant dinner conversation to a halt like talking about manure ponds or chickens allocated only one square foot to live out their pathetic lives. It's a downer. It makes people feel bad, and I'm guessing it makes them hate me a little bit for ruining their dinner.

I decided talking about it over food is impolite.

In response to tweets I've issued about #meatlessmonday and other vegetarian topics, people have responded, "I could never give up meat - I'd die!" This is ridiculous for a couple of reasons: One, because I'm not asking anyone to give up meat completely - JUST CUT BACK; two, you absolutely will not die. Don't make me measure and submit to you the circumference of my thighs to prove it. I've been doing this for more than a decade now and I am nowhere near starving to death or dying of malnutrition.

So, marrying these two seemingly unrelated trains of thought ... What better way to show people that they can eat decadently as a vegetarian AND eliminate awkward obstacles to discussing the issues than to prepare a killer meatless feast for friends?

I did this a couple of weekends ago with the following menu, and it ROCKED. For a starter, homemade guacamole and chips, followed by Vegetable Enchiladas with Creamy Poblano Sauce, Basic Skillet Black Beans and Spanish rice (this from a box, because let's face it, I'm awesome but I'm also human and that was enough cooking for one day). Dessert was Devil's Food Cake with Marshmallow Frosting. Of course we drank beer. I love that dessert and beer are always vegetarian.

Read on for recipes/instructions for everything.

Guacamole a la Amy
There's no real recipe for this, I just do my thing, which includes: about four avocados; the juice of one lime; finely diced roma tomatoes (maybe 3/4 of a medium-sized one, seeded); finely diced jalapeno (one or so, depending on your spice tolerance); two cloves of garlic, minced; 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro; and some sea salt. Add avocado, lime juice and garlic to a bowl and mash with a potato masher, then stir in the tomatoes, jalapenos, cilantro and sea salt. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let it sit in the fridge for a couple of hours for maximum flavor, although it will still taste awesome right away.

Vegetable Enchiladas with Creamy Poblano Sauce
Serves 6-8

For sauce:
3 poblano chiles, roasted
(Thing 1: poblanos are dark-green, 4-6" long and easily found at the grocery store with the rest of the peppers. Thing 2: Cut the ends/stems off the poblanos and then slice them lengthwise on one side so they can be spread out flat. Depending on your heat tolerance, remove the ribs and seeds, or don't. Then roast them under the broiler, turning frequently, until the skins are charred and blackened.)
1/2 c chopped white onion
1 large garlic clove
1 t salt, or to taste
1 1/4 c water
2 T vegetable oil, preferably corn oil
1 c Mexican cream or creme fraiche (I found it at Fred Meyer in the fancy-cheese roundabout near the deli)

For filling:
2 T vegetable oil, preferably corn
1 c chopped white onion
2 large garlic cloves
1 t salt
2 c corn kernels (10 oz. frozen package)
1 lb zucchini (3 med), cut into 1/3-inch dice
1 (14-15 oz) can diced tomatoes with juice
1/4 c chopped fresh cilantro
2 t chopped jalapeno chile, including seeds, or to taste

For enchiladas:
3 T vegetable oil, preferably corn oil
12 (6-7 inch) corn tortillas
1/4 lb Monterey jack cheese, coarsely grated

Make the sauce:
Coarsely chop roasted chiles. Combine chiles, onion, garlic, salt and water in a blender and puree until smooth.

Heat oil in a 10-inch skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking. Carefully add sauce (it will spatter) and cook, stirring frequently, until slightly thickened, about eight minutes. Stir in crema and remove from heat.

Make the filling:
Heat oil in a 12-inch skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking. Add onion, garlic, and salt and cook, stirring, until onion is softened, about five minutes. Stir in corn and zucchini and cook, covered, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender, about eight minutes. Add tomatoes and juice, cilantro, and jalapeno and cook, uncovered, over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes. Transfer filling to a large bowl to cool.

Make the enchiladas:
Put a rack in the upper third of oven and preheat oven to 450 degrees. Lightly oil a 13-by-9-inch baking pan or flameproof baking dish. Line a baking sheet with paper towels.

Transfer sauce to a shallow bowl or pie plate. Add oil to cleaned 10-inch skillet and heat over moderate heat until hot but not smoking. Add one tortilla and cook, turning once with tongs, until softened, 4-6 seconds on each side. Transfer to paper-towel-lined baking sheet and blot each side. Repeat procedure with remaining tortillas, stacking them once blotted.

Dip one tortilla in sauce, turning it with your fingers (or tongs) to coat both sides, and transfer to baking dish. Spoon about 1/3 c filling down middle of tortilla and roll up to enclose filling. Push enchilada to one long side of baking dish; you will be forming two rows of six enchiladas each. Make more enchiladas in the same manner, arranging them tightly side by side in dish. Pour remaining sauce over the top and sprinkle with cheese.

Bake enchiladas, uncovered, until hot and bubbling, about 15 minutes. If desired, brown under the broiler for a second to make the top brown and bubbly. Transfer to a rack to cool for 10 minutes before serving.

Recipe from "Gourmet Today" cookbook, edited by Ruth Reichl.

Basic Skillet Black Beans
Serves 4ish

2 t olive oil or vegetable oil
1 1/2 c diced onions
1 t ground cumin
1/2 t ground coriander
1 c salsa or a 15-oz can of tomatoes with juice
2 15-oz cans black beans, rinsed and drained

ADD ONS: You can add all kinds of veggies to these beans during the onion-cooking phase. I enjoy diced carrots, celery, bell peppers of any color, zucchini and/or corn. It's sort of an opportunity to use up whatever is in your fridge. I also sometimes use a combination of pintos and black beans instead of just black beans. You may need to use more oil and salsa/tomatoes and adjust the spices if you add a lot of additional vegetables - just use your best guess and taste it a lot as you go.

1. In a covered skillet or saucepan, heat the oil on medium-high heat. Add the onions (and any other veggies) and saute for five minutes, stirring frequently. Add the cumin and coriander and stir for one minute to toast the spices.

2. Add the tomatoes or salsa, stir well, cover and simmer until the onions (and other veggies) are soft, about five minutes. Add the black beans and simmer until slightly thickened, about five minutes. If you like, mash a few times with a potato masher.

(If you have leftovers of this, which you will if you embrace the spirit of tossing in whatever vegetables you have on hand, I recommend serving it over brown rice with either sour cream or cheddar cheese for a very filling lunch.)

From "Moosewood Restaurant New Classics" by the Moosewood Collective.

Devil's Food Cake with Marshmallow Frosting

For cake:
2 c all-purpose flour
3/4 unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch-process)
1 1/4 t baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (1/2 pound) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 c packed dark brown sugar
2 large eggs, left at room temperature for 30 min.
1 t vanilla extract
1 1/3 c water

For frosting:
2 large eggs, left at room temperature for 30 min.
1/2 c granulated sugar
Pinch of salt
1/4 c light corn syrup
2 T water
1 t vanilla extract

Make the cake:
Put the rack in the middle of the oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 8-inch baking pan and dust with flour.

Whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking soad, and salt in a bowl.

Beat together butter and brown sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer (fitted with paddle attachment if using a stand mixer) until pale and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, then beat in vanilla. Add flour mixture and water alternately in three batches, beginning and ending with flour and mixing until just combined.

Pour batter into cake pan and smooth top. Bake until a wooden toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 45-55 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack for one hour.

Make the frosting:
Combine all ingredients in a metal bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water and beat with a handheld electric mixer at high speed until frosting is thick and fluffy, six to seven minutes. Remove bowl from heat and continue to beat until slightly cooled.

Mound frosting on top of cake. Dust with a little extra cocoa powder.

Recipe from "Gourmet Today" cookbook, edited by Ruth Reichl.

Photo courtesy of Sara Boario.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

#MeatlessMonday on Tuesday

Okay, the past week-plus has been really heinous and I have neglected my blog. For instance, last night, rather than cooking, I went out to eat at the Bear Tooth. However, it occurred to me it might be helpful to provide a list of the best vegetarian eats to be had at Anchorage restaurants and some specific items I really enjoy. One thing that is wonderful about being vegetarian is it makes you more adventurous when it comes to food. You'll notice that many of the restaurants on my list are ethnic places, and I LOVE having the multiple menu options these restaurants provide -- no obligatory pasta primavera here!

Lahn Pad Thai -- This lovely Thai restaurant does not have a Web site for me to send you to, which means they are keeping it REAL and it is good. :) I love their curries (red, green) as well as the incredible Drunken Noodles with Tofu. You can request tofu soft or fried, and if you're interested in nutrition, that's a nice choice.

Bombay Deluxe -- Bombay Deluxe offers a large variety of vegetarian dishes, and all of them are pretty good. My favorites are the Palaak Paneer, Dal Makhni and Chana Masala. All of them can be done very spicy, which I love, or mild, if you don't enjoy self-torture. The garlic and plain naan are also both awesome.

The Bear Tooth Theatre Pub & Grill -- Both the casual menu on the theater side and the more sophisticated menu on the grill side offer lots of options for vegetarians. This is one of the few non-ethnic restaurants in Anchorage that is not afraid of tofu and actually knows what to do with it. My personal favorites include (from the theater side) the Spicy Bear Burrito, the Tostada Salad, the MuShu Veggie Wrap and any of the vegetarian pizza options; at the grill, I love the Avocado-Tomato Salad with Smoked Corn Vinaigrette, the Chili Rellenos; Zuchini, Cheese and Toasted Corn Tacos; the Potato Burrito; and the PEANUT NOODLES. The specials at the Grill are not infrequently vegetarian as well. Also, my mention of the Bear Tooth is not to overlook the Moose's Tooth. It too is great for vegetarians, it's just, well, order any of their veggie pies and enjoy. That's pretty much all there is to say.

I'll give an honorable mention to Falafel King on Gambell. Eat the falafel.

These are a few of my favorites, and I hope you'll order something meatless the next time you, like me this week, are feeling lazy on a Meatless Monday night.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

#MeatlessMonday for March 1, 2010

I am relying on a new recipe that I haven't yet made for this week's Meatless Monday. A great friend of mine has given me a gift subscription to Bon Appetit for the past couple of years and I must say the magazine is more veg-friendly than you might expect. I just got the March issue a couple of days ago and was perusing it this weekend to find Primavera Risotto Nests with Fried Eggs, which sounds worth a go. So you and I will be exploring this one together tomorrow. I bought all the ingredients today. We'll see how it turns out. I'm also going to make the Edamame Dip with Pita Chips and a salad to round it out, so rather than retype the whole thing I am providing the magazine link here: (Click on the Risotto for 4 Family link to get the edamame recipe.)

More this week, followers! I'm germinating on a PETA post, which is only taking me so long because I remain conflicted on how I feel about the organization and its tactics. I'm also thinking about laying out where I came from so you can understand where my food philosophy comes from.

Until then, keep eating and exploring. I'm planning a dinner party for next Saturday night and will be sure to share the entire menu and recipes here for those interested in hosting a vegetarian feast.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Peanut sauce

I had a moment of divine inspiration this week -- combine the tofu recipe (see below) with some peanut noodles and the veggies I scrounged in the fridge for a heavenly dinner. After raving about my own handiwork on my Facebook page, I have had several requests for the peanut sauce recipe, so here it is. This one is from Quick Vegetarian Pleasures by Jeanne Lemlin, although I modified it just slightly.

1/2 c natural-style peanut butter
1/3 c tamari soy sauce
3 T Chinese rice wine or sherry
1 T water
1 1/2 T rice vinegar or other vinegar
2 T toasted sesame oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 t minced fresh ginger
1/2 t crushed red pepper flakes

Prep on this is as easy as can be. Just put all that stuff in a bowl and whisk until it's smooth and thoroughly combined.

I served it with spaghetti noodles because that's what I had on hand, but it would be even better with Japanese buckwheat soba noodles, which are healthier to boot. I sauteed some broccoli and red bell peppers to toss with the noodles and peanut sauce and then dropped a few tofu squares on top of my serving on noodles. It was awesome!

Monday, February 22, 2010

#MeatlessMonday for Feb. 22, 2010

Many, many people are afraid of tofu. I'm not really sure why the same people who will gladly eat fois gras find this innocuous lump of soy beans such a weird and foreign threat, but they do. So this is the recipe I always use to "flip" nonbelievers. It is chewy, savory and works great in all kinds of recipes, from stir frys to salads. It will be a challenge to eat just one serving, I promise. The offshoot benefit is it makes your house smell like heaven. This recipe comes from the Moosewood Restaurant "New Classics" cookbook, although it's not a verbatim copy. I do things just slightly my own way on this recipe, and this is my way.

Simple Baked Tofu
Serves four

16 oz. firm tofu
2 T vegetable oil (peanut is my fave, but canola works too)
3 T tamari soy sauce
3 cloves garlic, minced

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

2. Press tofu to drain. If you've never done this, basically what you want to do is take the tofu out of its package and place it in a flat-bottomed bowl, like a pasta bowl, then place a smaller, flat-bottomed cereal bowl or salad plate on top of it. Find a can of something heavy (I have a big can of vegetarian baked beans that I will probably never eat but I use all the time as my tofu press) and place it on top of the tofu in the smaller bowl or plate and let it slowly press the water out for about 15 minutes, or however long it takes for you to do what follows.

3. In a square glass baking dish (9" x 9"), add the oil, tamari and garlic and swirl it around to blend a bit and make sure the entire glass dish is coated with oil.

4. When tofu is done pressing, cut it into small cubes, about 1/2" square. Add them to the baking dish and toss it thoroughly with a spatula to coat all sides of the tofu.

5. Bake tofu for 30 minutes total, pausing midway to toss the tofu again. When it's done, it will be nicely browned and chewy.

By the way, if you've never heard of tamari soy sauce, I urge you to try it. It's similar to conventional soy sauce, but better, less cloyingly salty and with a richer, more well rounded flavor. You can usually find it in the health food section at supermarkets, although I have found it with the "regular" soy sauce as well.