“Mostly Plants”*: 5 Food Books for Starting the New Year Right

oh-she-glows-cookbookI am obsessed with cookbooks.  When I first started to learn to cook for real (in my early twenties, just after I turned vegetarian), I would entertain myself for whole afternoons by going to the cooking section of a bookstore, sitting down on the floor (this was in the days before bookstores provided comfy reading chairs), and pulling a cookbook off the shelf to read it cover to cover.  Now that I have a regular income, I periodically break my budget (or fill my Christmas wish list) with a stack of cookbooks that I can pile next to me on the coffee table and read one after the other like novels.

Although I’ve been more or less vegetarian for the past 25 years (with exceptions made for fish and seafood because they made my life easier and, I believed, made me healthier), my diet has taken a sharp turn to the left recently.  I stumbled upon a string of documentaries, the most notable of them being Forks Over Knives and Vegucated, that convinced me of something I already half believed: I should try to eliminate all animal products from my diet.

So I’m starting 2015 with this tentative goal.  I’m not yet ready to demand that restaurants make my sag aloo without any ghee, or to carry a vegan bento to dinner parties in case my friends put eggs in their handmade pasta.  However, I’m having fun going through old cookbooks and buying (or demanding) new ones, and learning how to make cashew cream and multigrain chia power bread.  And the smoothies!  So many smoothies.  It’s a good time.

On my path to a whole-foods, plant-based diet, the food books below have been both helpful and enjoyable.  If you love a good cookbook, whether or not you want more plants and fewer animals in your diet, these books will give you hours of reading entertainment, an excuse to spend leisurely afternoons in the health-food store buying buckwheat groats and sorghum, and freezers full of healthy, tasty meals.  Which, when taken all together, is pretty much my definition of bliss.

1. The Oh She Glows Cookbook (photo above): A friend introduced me to Angela Liddon’s blog at around the same time this vegan, allergy-friendly book was released.  It’s where I learned to make overnight oatmeal, and it inspired me to buy a vegetable spiralizer.  It’s also super pretty, especially the Canadian edition with the chia pudding fruit parfait on the cover!
thug-kitchen-cookbook2. Thug Kitchen: Caution: profanity.  Lots and lots of profanity.  My husband sent me the “trailer” for this book/blog because a) he couldn’t stop laughing, and b) he wanted to gauge, by my reaction, whether he should buy me the cookbook for Christmas.  And, because I said, “Holy &%$*,” he did.  It is great, and the blog is too.  Best recipe so far is the citrus tofu marinade, but I’m looking forward to trying the “Warm the F%*# Up Minestrone” next.
YU_Book_Main3. YumUniverse: This book is a wonderful compendium for someone embarking on what Heather Crosby calls a “plant-powerful, whole-food lifestyle.” As a bonus, all recipes are gluten free and most are made without soy.  The first chapter compiles research on why we should eat lots of plants and less of other things.  The second gives lots of good advice on filling your pantry and your kitchen tool cabinet.  The best part, though, is the pages dedicated to making staples like dairy-free milks (I have been avoiding buying these lately because they’re so full of preservatives), soaking and sprouting, storing vegetables, etc.
fok4. The Forks Over Knives Plan: The companion to the documentary mentioned above, this book details the research on the advantages of low-fat, whole-foods, plant-based diets entirely from a health perspective.  It then offers recipes and techniques (like how to saute without oil – it works!)  If you’re interested in the research behind plant-based eating, I would also recommend two books upon which this one is based: The China Study and Whole, both by T. Colin Campbell.  The China Study was a foundational text for the Forks Over Knives documentary, and gives excellent arguments for giving up all animal protein, as well as reducing added fat and salt, in order to ward off or even reverse chronic disease.
SS-b5. Salad Samurai: This was another Christmas gift, and I love it even though I haven’t yet made a thing out of it.  Just reading about Coconut Samosa Potato Salad and Tempeh Rubenesque Salad has made my life better.  Terry Hope Romero is one of the geniuses behind the classic vegan cookbook Veganomicon (with Isa Chandra Moscowitz, a vegan punk icon).  This book is not light on the fat – its subtitle includes the phrases “ultra-hearty” and “you don’t have to be a vegan to love” – but it is heavy on the veggies, legumes and grains, and is a gorgeous little handbook to making every salad a meal.

What food books have improved your year?  Do you have a favourite vegan or vegetarian collection?  Have you made any changes to your diet recently that you feel were for the better?  Let me know your thoughts.

*Note: post title from Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, another great food book not on this list.

 

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More Firsts for June

June is almost at an end.  It’s been cold and rainy – today it’s once again 15 degrees Celsius and pouring – but the garden is soldiering on.  Here are a few highlights.

First cucumber flower (June 23):

cukeflower

First poblano pepper flower (June 23) (I know, it’s blurry.  Even this imperfect shot took FOREVER to get):

pepperflower

First chocolate mint harvest (June 24)…

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…which went into the iced coffee you see here, part of a satisfyingly gardeny lunch.  The salad contains all sorts of garden clippings, as well as a saute of fresh-picked zucchini and zuke blossoms.  The coffee was THE BEST ICED COFFEE EVER.

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First strawberry (June 25) (I ate it a couple of days later, when it was much redder but still not quite ripe enough):

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First green beans (June 25):

beans

First carrot (June 27) (!!!!).  Don’t be fooled; this carrot is TINY, but it is a harbinger of big things to come, I’m sure:

carrot

Skillet Beans for Stephen Thompson: Best Recipe Ever

1mQUTnMy favourite podcast is NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, wherein four smarty-pantses sit around and talk about movies, TV, books, music, theatre, and so on. They always end the podcast with a segment called “What’s Making Us Happy This Week,” and in the most recent show, one of the smarty-pantses, Stephen Thompson, said he is being made happy by his current project: he wants to learn to cook. He therefore wants listeners to send him recipes.

And so here, for Stephen Thompson, is the simplest version of my go-to, all-purpose, never-fail, child- and adult-pleasing recipe: skillet beans. It’s kind of like a chili. It’s better, though.

The original recipe for these skillet beans can be found in the Moosewood Restaurant New Classics cookbook, which is an excellent cookbook, but not necessarily suitable for absolute beginners. I’ve adapted the recipe over the years to make it my own, and now I gussy it up with all sorts of different vegetables and spices, but this simple version is the base for all of them.

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced fine (only onion or only garlic is also ok)
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • 1 red pepper, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • a tiny smidge of adobo sauce from a can of chipotles (this really makes the recipe. Adjust amount according to your and your children’s heat tolerance, but START SMALL)
  • 1 1/2 to 2 bottles of good-quality mild salsa (organic if possible. Green, red or both. Use the amount you need to get a consistency you like)
  • 2 cans of black, pinto or kidney beans (or a combination), drained
  • 1 cup frozen corn
  • salt to taste

Instructions:

1. Heat the oil on medium heat in a large pot.
2. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Saute the onion in the oil until translucent. Add a pinch of salt.
3. Add the garlic and stir for about 30 seconds.
4. Throw in the carrot and peppers, and another pinch of salt. Saute until the peppers are just losing their crispness.
5. Add the cumin and the bit of adobo and fry for just a minute, stirring, to toast the cumin.
6. Add the salsa, stir, and bring up to a simmer; then add the beans, return to a simmer, and let continue to simmer for at least 30 minutes, adding a bit of water or more salsa if it gets too thick.
7. At least five minutes before serving, add the corn and return to a simmer until the corn is warmed through. Add more salt if necessary.
8. Serve with rice if you want. Put sour cream, cheese, guacamole, cilantro or whatever else you like on top.

Note: the absolute best blend of spices for this recipe is as follows: 1 tablespoon cumin seed, 1 tsp coriander seed, 1 tsp fennel seed, and 1 tsp thyme, ground up in a mortar or a spice grinder. However, novice cooks should not be prevented from trying a recipe because they have to fiddle with whole spice seeds and grinders, so try this version first.

Image by Miguel Saavedra

Lemon and Orange Punitions

IMG_0703Dinner party last night. New Year’s Eve party tonight. And yesterday, I didn’t yet feel saturated with holiday baking.  Ergo: cookies.

This time of year, I feel an urge to roll things out and cut them into shapes.  However, I’m not a patient baker.  A few years ago, I spent two days making a gingersnap recipe from Cook’s Illustrated; I’m sure they would have been delightful if I hadn’t overbaked them.  They were still pretty good, but seriously: two days.  This time, I wanted something quickish and simple, a straight-up sugar cookie that I could then embellish because I have a surplus of oranges and Meyer lemons just wilting to be zested and juiced.

So I went to Smitten Kitchen and found these: punitions.  First off, I love the name (“punishments” in French).  Second, they’re sort of shortbreads (my favourite) but not (because there’s egg in them).  And they’re straightforward enough that I could play with them.  My plan was to add zest to the dough and then make a glaze for the tops – or rather, two glazes, one Meyer lemon and one orange, to see which was better.

I made the dough in two batches, one with lemon zest and one with orange.

IMG_0684 IMG_0690IMG_0696IMG_0692I used cane sugar instead of white granulated, because I wanted the cookies to have a nice sandy texture.

IMG_0697 IMG_0700 IMG_0705 IMG_0716The flowers are lemon-scented and the hearts are orange.

IMG_0742A good, simple recipe for glaze: 2 c icing sugar, 1/3 c citrus juice, and a pinch of salt.  I made orange glaze first, and then halved the recipe to make lemon glaze and added it to the orange glaze leftovers.  The lemon/orange glaze was FANTASTIC, and the lemon cookies were definitely the winners.  Next time, I will use salted butter and make lemon cookies only (or maybe try grapefruit?), but otherwise, I wouldn’t change a thing.

I won’t tell you how many of these cookies I ate before bringing half of what was left to dinner.  I quickly packed up the remaining half when we got home, because it’s somehow harder to sneak cookies when they’re already sealed in a box and ready for transport.  I expect these to be my go-to party cookies for a while.

Try these! And if you have suggestions about what to do with my remaining lemons and oranges, fire away.

Breakfast Bars and Okonomiyaki

Yesterday I had big plans to go out and do errands.  This included a large haul of groceries, to help me prepare freezer meals for an upcoming 2-week contract grading public exams.  However, the aftermath of Thursday’s record-breaking snowfall meant getting out my front gate was going to be a challenge, much less walking the 10 blocks to the grocery store.  A friend tipped me off that I could order from said grocery store online – what??  Hourrah for the 21st century! – and this freed me to spend the day indoors, drinking too much coffee and cooking with what I already had.

I needed to solve two problems.

1. I’m enjoying sleeping in and am not looking forward to returning to an early rise next week.  Also, as I’ve mentioned, I’m sick of my standard work-a-day breakfast and need something new.

2. I sprouted too many mung beans.

To tackle the first problem, I decided to take on a recipe I’ve been looking forward to: the almond date breakfast bars from my new favourite cookbook.  I reasoned that “breakfast bars” amount to “no need to eat breakfast BEFORE you leave the house; thus, an extra half-hour in bed.”

I didn't have dried dates, so I used fresh and tossed them with a bit of the flour to keep them from sticking together.

I didn’t have dried dates, so I used fresh and tossed them with a bit of the flour to keep them from sticking together.

IMG_0615 IMG_0631

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If you like to bake, you need to get your hands on this book. These are fantastic: crunchy, sweet but not too, with a nice touch of salt and richness.  I can’t WAIT to sleep in until 6:30 a.m. on my first day back at work, and then pull an almondy datey bar out of the freezer and tote it with me, to be enjoyed with a thermos full of hot milky coffee at my desk, as I gear myself up for stacks of essays on Raymond Carver and Ann Hui.

The answer to Problem #2 – the surplus of mung bean sprouts – is okonomiyaki.

I haven’t made okonomiyaki in many years – maybe only once or twice since I returned home from Japan in 1998.  “Okonomiyaki” literally means “everything you like all fried up together.”  It’s a traditional Japanese pancake, usually consisting of cabbage and other thinly sliced veggies, and maybe some ground pork, bound together with eggs and flour and topped with savoury sauces.  The Japanese I knew often referred to it as “Japanese pizza.”  This baffled me: it bears no resemblance to pizza except for its round shape, and Japan has plenty of real pizza, often rendered extremely “Japanese” by toppings of seaweed, bonito flakes and Kewpie mayonnaise.

I had no cabbage (nor scallions, which would have added something), but I figured the mung bean sprouts would be my main component.  I also had a handful of romaine and arugula that really needed to be used, and some carrots.

IMG_0623 IMG_0621When I left Japan, a friend and colleague gave me a beginners’ cookbook on traditional Japanese dishes that has proved an invaluable basis for improvisation.  So I made up my recipe with this cookbook as a guide, but adjusted things to suit my pantry and tastes.

I sifted 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour, 1 cup all-purpose flour, 1 tsp baking powder, and a good dash of salt into a big bowl.  I slowly whisked in about 1 1/2 cups of vegetable broth (you could easily use water) until the batter was the consistency of thickish crepe batter, but not completely smooth (you don’t want to overmix.)

IMG_0635Then I covered the bowl with a plate and let it stand for 30 minutes.

I tried the mung bean sprouts in a salad a few days ago.  Raw, they were too beany for me.  I preferred them cooked in a curry the next day, so for the pancakes, I decided that cooking them first would be better.  I sauteed them in peanut oil, and tossed the shredded carrot and salad leaves in at the last minute, just long enough to wilt the lettuce.

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I dumped the veggies into a bowl and cleaned out the pan.  I beat the egg.  When the batter had finished resting, I stirred the egg into it gently with the whisk.  The batter had thickened a lot, so I added a bit of water.

I reheated the pan, oiled it, and spread a thin layer of veggies in the bottom, then spooned a couple of ladlefuls of batter over them.

Mmmmmm.  Appetizing.

Mmmmmm. Appetizing.

After about 4 minutes, when the edges started to detach and the centre started to firm up, I carefully turned the pancake over.

IMG_0647The batter still seemed unnecessarily thick, so I added a bit more water before making the second pancake.  As is always the case with pancakes and crepes, the second one cooked up much better than the first.

I topped them with hoisin and homemade sweet chili garlic sauce.

IMG_0656The verdict: mine (the first out of the pan) was gluey, but Husband declared his delicious.  Tonight I will thin the leftovers a bit with water and maybe a second egg.  In the future, I will use less whole wheat flour.  And no mung bean sprouts.  Home sprouted mung beans are, I have decided, out.

Nevertheless, I’m happy to be doing something Japanese-like again – I miss Japanese food, but at home I don’t have to impress anyone with authenticity.

And now I need to go try one of those breakfast bars.  I will report back.

Christmas Cooking, Final Leg: Squash Ravioli With Sage Brown Butter

Update on the imperfect Christmas Eve quiche: it was a hit!  It drew comments like “This is the best quiche I’ve ever eaten” and “Did you go to cooking school?” So despite the pastry hiccup, I won’t be tossing out my standard quiche formula.

Christmas morning was lovely, and I now have a stack of new non-school related books to read.

IMG_0479I’m already halfway through Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? and it’s knocking my socks off.

I haven’t made stuffed pasta in a while.  Before we’d made a habit of going out for dinner on Christmas, or spending Christmas Day with my father’s family, we had a “stuffed pasta” Christmas tradition.  This began on our second Christmas together, when we took a trip to New York and stayed at the apartment of some friends who were away. I didn’t feel like seeking out specific ingredients in unfamiliar grocery stores, or spending a lot of time cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen.  We went to Whole Foods (or was it Zabar’s? Can’t remember…) and scrounged around for something easy and delicious, and came across some fresh-made pumpkin-stuffed ravioli.  I don’t think either of us had ever eaten pumpkin ravioli.  It sounded amazing, and, doused in a packet of fresh-made roasted-red-pepper sauce, it was.

Our next Christmas, I tried making squash-stuffed ravioli myself.  I invented the filling recipe on the fly, and it turned out much too sweet and didn’t work at all with the bottle of pesto we dumped on it.  I gave up. For a few years, we just bought stuffed pasta at the supermarket so I didn’t have to bother with cooking on Christmas.

This year, though, I was determined that we would have a real home-cooked Christmas dinner that I would make from start to finish in our new kitchen.

I should have photo-documented the process of making the squash ravioli, but I was too absorbed in what I was doing to bother with taking pictures.  I had made the filling a few days before with chopped pecans, chopped sage and puree of roasted butternut squash. (The recipe I was sort of following called for maple syrup, but I had learned my too-sweet lesson.)

Yesterday I made the pasta, by tweaking a recipe that came with my KitchenAid pasta rollers. Their “light wheat pasta” recipe calls for 2 1/2 cups of whole wheat flour, one cup of white flour, 4 eggs, a couple of tablespoons of water and 1/2 tsp of salt.  I reversed the proportions of white and whole wheat, as the ww flour I used was a coarse integral bread flour and I didn’t want the pasta to be too heavy.

I tried to shape the pasta by following these instructions from Apartment Therapy’s The Kitchn, but I couldn’t get the technique; the squash stuffing kept spilling out the sides of the ravioli.  I finally made it work by applying dabs of stuffing instead of a line, but I’m going to try this method again and see if I can master it, because the agnoletti in the pictures look so pretty.

Our lovely friend arrived at around 4, bearing TOO MANY COOKIES, (mmmmm, just had some for breakfast…), toys for the cats (Cat A was having an off day, so it was helpful to have something to entertain him), and wine.  We started with the mushroom soup that I made on Friday – it was declared a winner – and when that was done, I simmered the ravioli and made the sage brown butter.

I melted about 1/3 cup of unsalted butter with a dash of truffle oil in a pot, and then threw in a big pinch of fleur de sel and a handful of chopped sage leaves. The sage crisped up nicely, but the milk solids browned in the butter while the liquid didn’t brown sufficiently.  I’m not sure why that would be, but I threw it all together in the pasta pot anyway and slapped it on the plates.

It was, if I may say so, completely delectable.  The pasta was just firm enough, the filling was savoury and sweet but not too sweet, and the butter sauce had a lovely rich truffle-and-sage flavour.

Yes, it's a bit blurry - a lot of wine had already been consumed.

Yes, it’s a bit blurry – a lot of wine had already been consumed.

IMG_0475Christmas tradition reclaimed!  I see no reason not to make this dish every year, especially as I’m rarely up for the time-consuming process of making my own pasta at any other time.

We had a lovely evening full of wine and chat.  I’m happy to report that although Cat A continued to seem out of sorts, he appears much better this morning and has been chasing his new toys all around the house.  And, special bonus – it looks like the lipstick plant is starting to bloom!

IMG_0478Happy holidays to all of you.  I hope your December 25, however you chose to celebrate it or just live it quietly, was as pleasant and love-filled as ours.