Thursday, April 28, 2011

Sweet-and-sour Mock Chicken with Cucumber and Cantaloupe

I was looking through my small collection of old-school cookbooks looking for ideas when I opened my 1976 edition of Creative Wok Cooking and found this astonishing recipe.

Our dinner plans were hampered only slightly by a damaged water main somewhere in Virginia that kept our water off from noon-ish to about ten in the evening, but as I am a resourceful and level-headed cook, I opened up a gallon of "emergency water" and got to work.

I chopped up some gluten and set it aside to marinate in soy sauce, corn starch and michiu. The original recipe says to use sherry, but rice wine works just as well.

I got some rice going in the cooker and then, because I am a gourmet powerhouse (and not, as some people in the household contend, because I am too cheap), blanched and peeled my own almonds. This turns out to be much easier than I thought, but feel free to remain impressed.

Thirty seconds in boiling water -- just until the skins wrinkle, and then straight into some ice water. They just sort of jump out of their skins when you squeeze them, kind of like edamame.

Then I set about chopping up half a red bell pepper, half a cantaloupe, and half a peeled, seeded cucumber. The original recipe just says to score the cucumber skin with a fork, but sometimes when I am cooking I forget that I am trying to follow a recipe and just go nuts with a vegetable peeler.

With the fruits and vegetables all chopped up (whatever haters I know those are all technically fruits I went to college you can't trip me up), I mixed up a little sweet-and-sour sauce from pineapple juice, sugar, cider vinegar, soy sauce and corn starch.

Then, after having bravely struggled with the genuinely first-world problem of a temporary interruption in my supply of unlimited clean safe drinking water, I got my stir-fry going.

First the gluten -- next time I make this, I may not marinate it, the corn starch made it sticky and weird, and I don't think chicken per se would have reacted the same way. There was just a little too much moisture to get a good crunchy sear going.

When the gluten is done, toss in the fruits and stir for a half a minute, then stir up your sauce and toss that in. When the sauce is glossy and delicious, stir in the almonds and serve it up.

I plated this with some black japonica rice (mixed with some short-grain brown rice because I didn't have enough of either to make a full cup) because I thought it would set off the vibrant colors of the stir-fry. I was right.

Ingredients list:

Stir fry:
14 oz. seitan
1 1/2 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 Tbsp. michiu (can also use dry sherry)
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 cucumber
1/2 cantaloupe
1/2 red pepper
2 oz. blanched almonds

Sweet and Sour Sauce
3 Tbsp. brown sugar
3 Tbsp. vinegar
1/2 cup pineapple juice
1 tsp. soy sauce
1 Tbsp. cornstarch

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

It's not a diet, it's a lifestyle

People that have done Weight Watchers have heard this before.  A diet is something you do until you lose the weight you want to lose.  A lifestyle is a permanent change that you make in your life.  The idea is that you will be active and eat healthy for the rest of your life.  This mindset is what helps people keep the weight off once they lose it - after all, it was an unhealthy lifestyle that made them overweight in the first place.  If that's what they go back to once they get to goal, the logical result would be that they would gain the weight back.

It was Einstein that defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."  If it was your lifestyle that caused you to be overweight, it would be insane to expect to return to that lifestyle and not regain the weight.

I guess that would make me insane, because I've started and stopped Weight Watchers at least 4 times.  I don't know the actual number - I went to my first meeting with my mom when I was 16.  It always starts really well, I lose 10 to 20 pounds, and then things just kind of fall apart.  There usually isn't a specific thing, I just get lazy.  I come up with excuses to skip the gym, or to "cheat" and not track.  I inevitably end up gaining when I start cheating, and then I throw in the towel and give up altogether.  I usually gain the weight back, and then some.

So what's different this time?

I think I finally understand what it means to change my lifestyle.  When I did Weight Watchers before, I tried to make it fit my life.  I am a stress eater - when life gets stressful, I stuff my face with sugar and carbs.  I used to stop by the gas station on the way home from my bar prep class, and load up on 4 or 5 king size candy bars.  I might have one left by the time I got home - and it was a 4 block walk.

When I've gone on Weight Watchers in the past, I didn't deal with this.  I wouldn't eat 4 candy bars, but I would devour sugar free jello or light cool whip.  I made myself sick eating candy with sugar alcohol.  I barely tasted it, I just needed to eat it.  And eventually I would need to eat something, I wouldn't have access to my "diet" food, I would eat junk food, and start down the slippery slope that lead to me giving up completely.

I don't enjoy fake food.  Fake food doesn't satisfy my cravings.  If I want chocolate, I can have chocolate.  It's just that I choose to have a small piece of good dark chocolate, instead of a King Size Snickers, or a weird, sugar free candy bar.  And I track it, and I move on.  Or I go for a walk, or have a cup of tea.  The truth is, since I stopped eating food like sugar free jello, and I haven't eaten a lot of refined sugar, I don't crave sugar.  I do still crave sweetness, but usually something like a piece of fruit or a small piece of dark sugar will satisfy that.

This time, I realized that I deserve healthy, filling, real food, I just deserve it in moderation.  Food won't solve my problems.  I can eat an entire bag of M&M's, I still have to get my work done.

I know that substitutions work really well for some people, and if they're working for you, I'm certainly not going to second guess that.  But I know that I needed to deal will my stress eating, I needed to deal not only with what I was eating, but with the fact that I was eating at all.

Sunday Picnic Panzanella

On Sunday, we decided to be savvy Beltway insiders and see the azaleas at the National Arboretum.

I wanted something quick and savory to picnic lazily under the Grove of State Trees. So I packed a couple of oranges, a thermos full of iced tea, a little chocolate, and a quick bread salad.

Bread salad, or panzanella, is a staple of every cuisine that has stale bread, and comes together quickly and beautifully. I like to add beans for a little earthy protein, but that's not a super-traditional way to do it.

Planning ahead, I had a half a loaf of ciabatta that was just stale, and I chopped that into cubes.

I tossed these with a can of canellini beans, a can of diced tomatoes, a half cup of chopped kalamata olives and a big handful of chopped parsley.

When the salad was mixed, I dressed it with a glug of olive oil and plenty of cracked pepper. A little salt, a little oregano (because I would put oregano on basically all foods), some chili flakes, and it went into the cooler bag to chill.

I think it turned out molto bene, but we may have just been in a good mood because of the azaleas.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Seitan Ribz and Plantains

A lot of vegetarian food doesn't photograph well, but every once in a while you get to take a picture of a really amazing center of the plate.

When we were talking about talking about what we wanted to have for dinner on Thursday, I was looking for something to put next to some plantains I was planning to roast.

I decided to make the seitan ribz from FatFree Vegan Kitchen, a recipe I originally discovered on

I like this recipe because I make a lot of simmered seitan cutlets, but the combination of baking and grilling makes an amazing, meaty entrée.

To the easily intimidated, it may seem like there are many steps, but one you get comfortable working with vital wheat gluten, it's a pretty straightforward application. Throw your gluten flour in a bowl with some seasonings, mix up your wet ingredients, knead for six seconds, stick it in the oven, when it's firmed up, slather (yes, slather) with barbecue sauce and sear it on a hot grill.

I didn't have any liquid smoke, but I added a couple teaspoons of smoked salt to the liquid ingredients. I used a pizza cutter to score the seitan, which seemed to work really well.

The plantains were peeled, cut into chunks and tossed with canola oil, salt and pepper. They went into the oven with the seitan and just continued to roast when the ribz came out to be grilled.

I brushed the ribz with Annie's Naturals Sweet & Spicy BBQ Sauce, and turned them about four times each on a hot grill pan.

I plated up a handful of plantains with some ribz and some steamed green beans. Yes! Crusty, chewy, caramelized goodness.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Sprouted Lentil Salad

I love sprouting! I love sprouted lentils, and Liz does too, which is good, because that means I can make sprouted lentil salads for her to take for lunch.

The hardest part about making sprouted lentils is waiting for them to sprout, which is like 99.5% doing nothing, so it's pretty easy.

I sprout in a wide-mouth mason jar. The first thing you do is pick out any broken lentils, pieces of lentil skin, rocks, or other detritus from your lentils. Then you wash off your lentils and let them soak for a couple of hours.

After they are done soaking, you can either get a fancy sprouting lid or just gin one up with a canning ring and some cheesecloth. Drain the lentils out, then rinse and drain them a couple of times until the rinse water comes off clear.

Shake out the excess water and set the jar up at an angle so that water can drain out and air can circulate in. Repeat this rinsing and draining once a day until your lentils are sprouted.

These were grey pardina lentils -- they sprouted all the way in about two days, sometimes I've had lentils that took longer than that. You can do this exact same thing with mung beans, adzuki beans, or chickpeas.

After they are fully sprouted I like to throw together a sort of half-composed salad. Today I topped about a cup of lentils with a half of an avocado, a tablespoon of sweetened shredded coconut, some raisins, some salt and pepper, and some black sesame seeds to make people think I am a super-fancy gourmet. I made a little vinaigrette to put on the side.

I've also made this with curry powder and cashews. That's also pretty good, but a little "pointy," as Liz might say. You can add diced red onion if you like the taste of onions. (There is some contention in the household re: the deliciousness of onions.)

They are pretty earthy and hearty, so you can really stack some bold flavors against them. Sprouted lentils are way healthy for you and are always delicious.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Weekly Weigh In

So I didn't grow the food that led to my scale victory, but this picture still seemed fitting, since I feel like I won a major battle this week, and it was "Victory Garden" (aka my "Victory Produce Aisle") that helped me get there.

After struggling with the same 3 pounds for 3 months now, I've finally broken out of that rut with a 2 pound loss!  I made some major changes this week - I switched from Points Plus, the new Weight Watchers system, back to their "old" system, Momentum.

The new plan was sold as a way to get you to "eat cleanly" - healthy, whole foods had a lower points value than processed "junk" with the same number of calories.  The problem was, I was already eating almost all whole foods.  Matt and I just don't eat a lot of processed food.  So when the foods that I ate the most of went down in points, I ended up eating a lot more.  And eating a lot more meant some serious stalling at the scale.

I've had people ask me how I can eat a plants-based diet and still struggle with my weight.  There is so much literature out there that pounds just melt away when you cut meat out of your diet.  And for some people, that's true.  But what I've learned in the last 6 months of doing WW on a vegetarian diet is that calories are still calories.  If you eat more calories than you burn, those calories turn into fat.  Keeping this math as simple as possible is what helps me lose weight.  So, at least for the foreseeable future, it looks like I'm back on Momentum.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Grinding Spices

How do you get this:

From this?

There are a few reasons to grind your own spices:

1. It's cheaper to buy whole spices than to buy it ground.
2. Whole spices last longer than ground spices.  As soon as a spice is ground, it starts to go stale.  So not only do fresh ground spices taste better, you can buy whole spices in bulk, which, again, makes it cheaper.
3. Grinding your own spices lets you create your own spice mixes.  It gives you more control over the quantity of each spice, and it allows you to make decisions about the type of spice - for instance, if you want toasted cumin, you can toast the cumin before grinding it, instead of having to buy a whole jar of toasted cumin, and a whole jar of non-toasted cumin.
4.  Similar to #3, sometimes you need whole spices, sometimes you need ground spices, and it's easier to just have to buy one kind.
5. Some ground spices have anti-caking agents in them, like silicon dioxide.  Grinding your own spices means that the spices you're using are just spice.
6.  Perhaps most importantly, it's more fun.

When Matt and I made the Black Bean Pineapple Soup-Stew-Chili, the recipe called for Ancho Chile Powder.  The stores we shop at don't carry a lot of chile powder - they carry what Matt calls "Chili-with-an-i" powder - a mysterious combination of chile powder and other spices.  "Chili-with-an-i" powder is fine when you're making soup or chili and just want to add some flavor, but it doesn't let you pick out what kind of chile pepper you want to use.  And anyone who has tasted the difference between a Hatch Chile, an Ancho Chile, and a Chipotle Chile knows there is a big difference depending on what you want to use.

So what to do?  Luckily we were able to find some dried Ancho Chiles, and making chile powder is a pretty easy process.

The first thing you want to do is take the stem and the seeds out.  In chiles, the flesh has most of the flavor, and the seeds have most of the spice.  If you want to make a hotter chile powder, leave some of the seeds in.  Knowing how many to leave in is somewhat trial and error.  I would be lying if I said Matt and I never had to get rid of a dish because our chile powder was too spicy.  So if you don't have the luxury of ruining dinner, start with few or no seeds.  My theory is that you can always add tabasco sauce if it's not spicy enough.

Once you've removed all the seeds, tear the chile up into small pieces - about the size of a dime.  Put the pieces in a spice grinder.  We use an old coffee grinder.  (Do NOT use the same grinder for your spices that you use for your coffee, unless you like ancho-flavored coffee, or coffee-flavored cumin).  Add a pinch of salt to help bring out the flavor and facilitate the grinding.

Last step - grind away!  Keep going until you have it at the consistency you want it.

This whole process took less than 5 minutes - I was able to get it done while the peppers and onions were cooking for my soup.

Black Bean Pineapple Soup-Stew-Chili

One of my favorite blogs is the Fat Free Vegan Kitchen.  Susan's recipes are full of flavor and very WW-friendly.  And her pictures are gorgeous, making the site a delight to read!

So when I saw the recipe for Black Bean Pineapple Soup-Stew-Chili, I decided I had to try it.

Not quite a pretty as the pictures on the site, but you get the idea.

This is definitely on my list of foods to make again.  It was spicy, filling, and easy - all at about 210 calories a serving!  There is only one thing I'd do differently - instead of using crushed pineapple, next time I make this, I'll probably use chunks of pineapple.  The crushed pineapple added sweetness to the stew, but it would have been really satisfying to be able to bite into a big piece of sweet pineapple while eating this.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Tofu Stir Fry with Buckwheat

On Monday night I was thinking stir fry because I had a head of bok choy in the refrigerator. I chopped up four ribs, scrounged up a bell pepper, some scallions, an onion, and some cloves of garlic, and set out in search of some ingredients for a sauce.

I mixed a half-cup of soy sauce with two ounces of michiu and and the last tablespoon from a container of chogochujang I bought on a whim. I whisked in a tablespoon of corn starch and a tablespoon of sesame oil.

I was this close to putting some white rice in the cooker when I remembered that I had found some totally boss organic buckwheat groats in the natural foods aisle of my conventional grocery store. They cooked up to be as hearty and delicious as I imagined.

While considering the addition of some firm tofu, I remembered something about a package of extra-firm being somewhere in the building. Success! I like the dense texture and snap of extra-firm tofu, and it seemed well suited to being triangled and stir-fried with everything else.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Kidney Bean and Potato Curry

Sometimes it seems like every dang kind of vegetarian food is just another delicious brown goop. Yummy and nutritious, but hardly photogenic.

I had this can of kidney beans, in the cabinet, for, like, a while, and every time I would open up the cabinet to get some stuff out the beans would be all like Matt, why did you buy us if you were just going to put us in the dark.

These conversations rarely happen at meal-planning time, but I wanted some curry potatoes, and I wanted some beans to go on them, and I thought, yes, kidney beans. High five. It is your time to shine.

I diced up a small onion, crushed 5-6 cloves of garlic, grated a couple inches of ginger, and measured out a heaping tablespoon of garam masala, a scant-ish two teaspoons of turmeric, a hefty spoonful of cumin seeds, a poetic spoonful of mustard seeds, and lots of black pepper. I diced four yukon golds and opened and drained the kidney beans.

Get a couple of tablespoons of canola oil in a medium-hot pan, and it's curry time.

In go the whole spices for six seconds. In go the powdered spices for ten seconds. In goes the garlic and ginger and the onion and a tyrrany of salt.

When the onions are soft, in go the potatoes and then start a little rice. You have to sort of chaperone the potatoes so they don't stick, but you can leave this about 70% unguarded on a low-ish flame while you conduct other business.

When the potatoes are soft, stir in a cup (maybe a cup and a half) of liquid and add your beans. Bring it up to a bubble, and then turn it down. You're done!

Serve with rice and hot sauce.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Vegetable Noodle Soup, or, Liz learns to make stock

Those of you that know us know that Matt is the cook in this family.  If left to my own devices, my diet would like consist of noodles and canned sauces, frozen dinners, and other meals that consisted of 3 or less ingredients and a microwave.

So with Matt and I both down and out with a bad head cold, my first thought was to open a can of soup.  But Matt convinced me that there is a better, tastier way to get the soup that I wanted: make it myself.  From scratch.

Roasted Vegetable Stock

Pre-heat oven to 350.

3 carrots
2 golden beets
1 small onion

Coat with olive oil, salt, and pepper.  Roast for about 30 minutes.

After roasting, combine:

Roasted vegetables
3 stalks of celery
6 stems of fresh flat leaf parsley
3 dried bay leaves
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp fennel seeds
1/2 tsp allspice berries

Put all ingredients in a pressure cooker, add water, bring to a boil, and then cook for 30 minutes at pressure.  Strain, and you have your stock!  I used a gold coffee filter to strain - it has a very fine mesh, and can handle hot liquids.  

A couple notes on the stock: you don't have to roast the vegetables.  We roasted them because we knew the stock was for a brothy soup, and roasted vegetable stock has a deeper, roasted flavor.  If you are in a hurry, though, you can put the vegetables in the pressure cooker unroasted.  If you are really in a hurry, you can make the soup below with store-bough vegetable stock.

Vegetable and Noodle Soup

Once you have the stock, it's time to turn that into a meal.  I was trying to get something close to the Chicken Noodle Soup of my childhood, but, obviously, without the chicken.  Or the heaping serving of sodium that comes from normal canned soups.

1/2 lb. white button mushrooms
1 small onion
3 stalks celery
2 small carrots
8 cups vegetable stock
3 Tbsp olive oil
2 oz. vermouth
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
1cup dried bowtie pasta
3 bay leaves
1 Tbsp oregano
2 tsp thyme
1/2 inch piece of fresh ginger
Salt and Pepper to taste

Cut up mushrooms, onion, celery, and carrots into bite sized pieces.  Saute mushrooms in oil.  Combine vegetables, herbs, and ginger in a stock pot with stock.  Bring to a boil, then simmer until vegetables are soft.  Add vermouth, bring back to a boil.  Add soy sauce and nutritional yeast.  Add noodles, and bring back to a boil until noodles are cooked.  Serve and enjoy!

For my first batch of stock, it turned out great!  The mushrooms add a texture that is missing from a lot of vegetable soups, and it hit the spot.  It's going to earn a place in my recipe book alongside camomile tea and cold medicine for the common cold.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Mushroom Gravy

We were looking for something hearty and wintery at the end of March because it was still raining and cold outside, and I also had a bunch of mushrooms that we needed to eat before leaving town, so I thought hey, mushroom gravy.

There's some contention in the household over whether or not mushroom gravy constitutes a center of the plate per se: the theory behind mushroom gravy is that the umami and deep flavors from caramelized mushrooms and onions will transform even the most pedestrian of starches and liquids into something magical.

I think of it as mushrooms in gravy, but I can understand how some would consider it merely a sauce.

To that extent we settled on some steamed broccoli florets and tofu cutlets. I made what I felt was a pretty convincing argument for mashed potatoes but I was persuaded to roast them instead.

I started sweating a medium yellow onion and about 12-17 criminis in olive oil. Properly done, this takes a while, so I scrubbed, wedged, oiled, and seasoned six russets and got them roasting.

Keeping an eye on the mushrooms, I got some water boiling for steaming, cut the florets from two heads of broccoli and sliced a block of tofu into eight slabs. These slabs got salt and pepper on both sides and went into shimmering margarine for eight-ish minutes a side, or until golden brown.

When the tofu is all cooked, and the oven fries are all roasted, and the broccoli is approaching crisp-tenderness, it is time to transform our mushrooms into mushroom gravy.

Since I didn't have any stock on hand, I whisked a pretty hefty tablespoon each of (organic white whole wheat etc) pastry flour and nutritional yeast into a quarter-cup of soy sauce and a half-cup of water. With this ready, I deglazed the pan with two ounces of dry vermouth. When all the sticky bits were moving again, in goes the flour-and-water mixture.

This gets brought to a boil and then down to a simmer. Maybe a taste. Does it maybe need a dash of Frank's Red Hot Sauce? Yes, yes it does.

Plate up two slices of tofu and a handful each of wedges and florets. Smother with delicious, delicious gravy.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Back in a Flash

We haven't posted in the last couple of days, mostly because we've been on a whirlwind trip to the West Coast for a wedding in Puget Sound, Washington.  We somehow managed to cram a ferry ride, hanging out with high school friends, the wedding, sightseeing, and seeing some college friends all into about 72 hours.

We'll be back up and running with recipes later this week, but in the mean time, enjoy some pictures from the beautiful Pacific Northwest.