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: http://www.bonappetit.com/recipes/2010/03/primavera_risotto_nests_with_fried_eggs. (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.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Meat and the economy

A recent trip to New York and the fashionable restaurants we sampled there had me ruminating on our current food culture, the economy and what is behind what seems to be an increase in overall meatiness in America.

On our first day in the city, we ate lunch at the
The Breslin Bar and Dining Room after checking out event space in the Ace Hotel, where the Breslin is located. I will preface my review by saying I'm a pretty flexible vegetarian. I can usually find something to eat just about anywhere, and it helps that I'm not super picky other than on the meat issue. That said, I don't think I've ever seen a meatier menu than at the Breslin: Onion and Bone Marrow Soup, Pork Scratchings, Chargrilled Beef Tongue Sandwich, Head Cheese and even Boiled Peanuts Cooked in Pork Fat. This isn't just meat, this is MEAT. I ate a salad, which was fine, but it was the only option for me. Does bone marrow sound good to anyone? I guess it must.

Later that week we tried the Standard Grill, which is a hipster dining spot with an appealing location under the Highline in the Meatpacking District (maybe that should have tipped me off ...). This was slightly veg-friendlier than the Breslin, but it did feature a meat counter for fancy-pants cold cuts, a pate menu and mashed potatoes laced with duck fat.

These days it can be challenging to find even a salad sans bacon or a grilled chicken breast (and if you ask for those elements to be left off, I might add, you don't pay any less). Vegetarians may be a favorite cultural punching bag -- we're too weak to punch back, after all -- but to judge by the menus I've seen recently, we're not much of a threat to the thriving meaty lifestyle, so ya'll can find someone else to make fun of.

So what does that have to do with the economy?

Earlier this week, I was listening to one of my favorite NPR/American Public Media Shows, Marketplace. The story was about Fashion Week in New York and designers' efforts to create styles more accessible to the average consumer. Kai Ryssdal, the show's host, was interviewing a reporter named Ray Smith from the Wall Street Journal about how designers (in this case Michael Kors) are toning things down to appeal to cost-consicous consumers. Here's what Smith had to say:

"I mean today in (Kors') runway show, which is one of the biggest shows of New York Fashion Week, he did show a lot of fur. But what was different this time was a lot more distressed looks. I think it's just a sign of the times that the distressing is sort of like toning down that sort of luxe factor if you will."

Okay, fur isn't meat. But obviously they are both animal products. And Smith's comments crystallized for me that we're in the midst of a trend I'd call "faux poverty." All the rich organ meats and "distressed" fur is just a way for people to feel decadent in a crummy economy. We're not having bologna sandwiches, we're eating beef tongue. Plain old soup isn't good enough, let's add some bone marrow. These types of meat, as I learned from Beverly Cleary's Ramona books as a kid, are poverty foods. (Ramona and her sister Beezus are horrified when their mom tries to pass off tongue as regular meat by drowning it in gravy.) We're tipping our hat to the times with a self-conscious posture of poverty.

I probably don't need to connect A to B for you, but I will. If we're trying to give the impression of moderation, it would be better to leave the poor animals alone and eat some beans. That's REAL poverty food. I guess I'm just disturbed by the seeming fashionability of meats most people wouldn't usually dream of eating. Despite the fact that we have fewer coins clinking around in our pockets, we're eating more meat than ever.

I guess it's a symptom of the other thing I've noticed about the crappy economy and the general American malaise. We're really having a hard time not feeling sorry for ourselves. News reports on the economy are constantly comparing our situation to the Great Depression - "the worst recession since the Great Depression" is a favorite qualifier. I'm not saying that the recession is a myth or that people aren't suffering. But what better time to choose to forgo meat a few times a week than when you could really save some money in the process? I'm sorry, but until someone shows me a bread line forming somewhere, I find it all a little much. At least bread is vegetarian.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

#MeatlessMonday for Feb. 15, 2010

I'm trying to keep these Meatless Monday recipes really easy and something you could conceivably bust out after work on a Monday, but I will let you know when I find really great, more elaborate recipes mid-week.

This recipe comes from the first vegetarian cookbook I owned, and one of my favorites: "Quick Vegetarian Pleasures" by Jeanne Lemlin.

Zucchini Tostadas
Serves 4 generously

3 T vegetable oil
8 8" flour tortillas*
1/4 c olive oil
8 c thinly sliced zucchini (from about 4 medium-sized, quartered lengthwise)
1/2 t dried oregano
1 15-oz can kidney beans, rinsed and drained
1 1/4 c salsa
Salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 c grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese

1. Preheat the broiler. With a pastry brush, lightly coat both sides of each tortilla with the oil and place on a baking sheet (this will have to be done in batches). Broil on both sides until lightly golden and crisp. Cool completely.

2. Reduce the oven heat to 450 degrees. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the zucchini and oregano and saute, tossing frequently, about 7 minutes. Stir in the kidney beans and salsa and toss to blend. Season with salt and pepper, and remove from heat.

3. Using 2 baking sheets, place 2 tortillas on each sheet. Spread one-eighth of the zucchini mixture on each tortilla. Sprinkle about 1/2 c cheese over each tostada.

4. Bake 5 minutes, or until the cheese melts and begins to bubble. Serve immediately. Repeat with remaining ingredients.

* If you're in Alaska, check out Taco Loco's whole wheat tortillas (available in most Anchorage grocery stores, maybe beyond?). We don't have many opportunities to eat local in Alaska, but here's one for you. Also, Mexico in Alaska makes killer hot salsa, but it's actually hot so keep that in mind if your tastes run milder.

To start, a manifesto

It's possible some will be scared by the title of this blog. Food is very, very personal. I've been a vegetarian for just over 12 years, and have, for the most part, abstained from lecturing others or going off on big rants about the evils of meat. I've always believed that people make their food choices for a number of reasons, some financial, some cultural and some - let's face it - just based on pure laziness. It is a highly sensitive and personal cocktail of factors. I was always of the opinion that being vegetarian worked for me (I have never struggled to contain meat cravings, and feel incredibly healthy) but it really wasn't my business what anyone else ate.

Recently, I changed my mind.

The reason is actually environmental. Over the last few years, I have watched as NBC trotted out its green peacock and every hotel and motel on earth started touting its earth-friendliness in self-congratulatory in-room literature. As nearly everyone I knew began replacing traditional bulbs with CFLs, diligently recycling, buying hybrid vehicles and otherwise changing their lives out of respect for our dear and beautiful planet a completely different trend was raging. Meat is EVERYWHERE. It is in everything. And it is cheap.

Here's the problem. Meat is soooo bad for the planet, and it's bad for us too. There are a number of excellent articles that document the environmental impact of eating meat and of the United States' industrial meat-production system ("Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler," from the NY Times is a great example). But for some reason, people are highly threatened by any suggestion they should eat less meat or that their food choices could make a much, much bigger impact on their personal carbon footprint than all the CFLs their home will ever need.

So I've changed my mind. It is my place to set the record straight. We certainly don't seem to be moving in the right direction - meat consumption goes up every year, in our country and in others. So I'm here to tell you you CAN cut back and feel great, that exploring vegetarian cooking is exciting and fun, and that if you decide to embrace a lower level of meat consumption (or even to give it up entirely, but I'm not a completely cock-eyed optimist) you will be doing something incredible for the planet, for animals and for your own health.

This blog will be a combination of recipes, article links, my opinions on food and food issues, book recommendations and advice. Please, let me know what you think.