“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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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.

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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.

Risotto. Therefore, Mock Chicken Stock.

Today I made risotto.  It’s been a while.

Risotto is a staple (yawn) vegetarian option at company dinners, holiday meals, etc.  Don’t get me wrong – I love a good risotto – but it’s not a great vegetarian main dish.

First off, you can’t be sure it hasn’t been made with chicken stock.  Ask.  Even if it hasn’t, it isn’t technically vegetarian, if you want to be picky about it, because it has parmesan in it, and unless your restaurant has a line on certified rennet-free vegetarian parmesan – well, it isn’t.  Also, nutritionally speaking, risotto is the fancy-pants labour-intensive Italian equivalent of mashed potatoes – a bowl full of refined starch, with some mushrooms or pumpkin thrown in if you’re lucky, and usually without a protein in sight besides the aforementioned cheese.  (Yes, I know some risottos include beans, but it isn’t a texture that appeals to me.  You can sprinkle in some nuts – delicious! – but the calorie-to-protein ratio is…you see where I’m going.)

Nonetheless.  The weather outside is frightful.  Therefore: risotto.

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I had no vegetable stock on hand, and, in any case, I tend to make stocks that are rich and meaty in taste, full of soy sauce and coriander and even lentils.  Risotto calls for something lighter, so I found this Mock Chicken Stock recipe.  I had no carrots, celery, fresh garlic or parsley in the house.  However, I had all the right spices, a squeeze-tube of roasted garlic paste, and a bag full of leek and herb trimmings that I keep in the freezer for just such an occasion.  Also, a red onion, and I threw in a handful of nutritional yeast because it gives stocks a nice savoury taste and chickeny colour.

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(Note to self: be more conscientious about filling the veggie trimmings bag every time you peel anything.  Better yet, keep two, one for “light stock” and one for “rich stock.”)

I bought a slow cooker a few years ago, and have found that the only things it really helps me with are large batches of dried beans, and vegetable stock.  Anything else – stews, puddings, etc. – is better cooked over direct heat in a pot on the stove, but for stock, the slow cooker is ideal: throw everything in, cover it with lots of water, and walk away for 8 hours or so.

My go-to risotto recipe is the Risotto Milanese from Moosewood Restaurant’s New Classics.  In fact, this is my go-to cookbook for a lot of things, including the Lemony Baked Tofu that I happen to have left over in the fridge and that I will reheat in some stock to provide our missing protein.  Both the risotto and the tofu recipes can be fiddled with, making them excellent bases for improvisation.  When I made the tofu yesterday, for example, I threw in some shallot oil and sweet garlic chili sauce, products of an experiment with Burmese soup and condiments on the weekend.  I don’t know if this will make it weird with the risotto.  Who cares?  Not me.

Despite the gory weather, I made it to the fruiterie while the stock was stocking.  They had no saffron; I hoped the turmeric in the stock would make up for that, at least where the colour was concerned.  I also bought mushrooms and a red pepper so that my risotto would be something more than cheesy rice porridge, and some arugula and romaine for a salad.

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The stock turned out very chickeny!  A bit cloudier than I’d like, but golden and tasty.

strainedstockWhat’s the best thing about making risotto?  It’s a very good reason to pour yourself a glass of white wine at 4 p.m., because hey, you have to open the bottle anyhow.

wine First step: fry up the mushrooms and peppers and set them aside, to stir in at the end.

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Then: saute the onions in olive oil and butter.  I probably should have used a different pot, but why waste all that good mushroom flavour, even if the risotto ends up looking a bit muddy?  This isn’t Top Chef Masters here.

onionsauteThen, the rice.  If I were really good at this, I’d use carnaroli, but arborio is all I’ve ever had.  Toss it in the buttery oily onions until it’s all coated.  Then throw in a cup or two of white wine.  (Think carefully about how much you need to save for drinking with dinner.)  Stir and cook until the wine is all absorbed.

riceStart adding the stock, which should be warm, a ladleful at a time.  Stir a lot, and wait until one ladleful is absorbed before you add the next.  Keep doing this until the rice is tender but still a tiny bit firm.

I used to make my risotto so thick and gluey that you could stand a lazy cat up in it, because it felt more like a real meal that way.  However, I’ve been informed over and over that this is wrong.  (In one agonizing moment on The Next Food Network Star, Wolfgang Puck took a bite of someone’s risotto, stood up from the table, took the contestant by the hand, led her back to the kitchen, and taught her to do it properly.  I do not want Wolfgang Puck to ever do this to me, so I will endeavour to do as he says.)  The risotto should be a little bit soupy and loose, and it makes sense to have enough stock ready so that, even once you think it’s all done, you can add a bit more to correct it.  This is especially important if it has to wait for a little while because your husband isn’t home from work.

When it is nice and tender and soupy and DONE, stir in everything else: sauted veggies, parmesan (did I say I was a good vegetarian? No, I did not), salt and pepper to taste, and a bit more stock if necessary.

withveggiesPlate up with accoutrements.  And hell, it couldn’t hurt to put some toasted nuts on it after all.  Totally yum!  In your face, winter.  Risotto in the HOUSE.

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Most Importantly, Grapefruit Pound Cake

Classes are over.  The final papers roll in at midnight tonight, but until then, I have one blissful day of no grading.  My first project this morning was to finish the grapefruit pound cake that I’ll be bringing to this afternoon’s departmental potluck.

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This recipe is from the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook. I’m in love with this book.  In addition to an earlier iteration of the pound cake (it didn’t rise properly because I had no eggs and so used banana, but it was fabulous nonetheless), I’ve also made the Sweet Peas and Shells Alfredo (with frozen peas – it’s December – and rotini) and the Plum Poppy Seed Muffins (I never buy plums, as raw ones make my mouth itch, but as soon as I read this recipe – browned butter in muffins! OMG! – I ran out and got some plums, and hooo boy, am I glad I did.  That was a three-muffins-for-dinner night.) I’ve been planning on making the Big Cluster Maple Granola for weeks now; maybe today will be the day.  If I get out to buy maple syrup.

(Last week I couldn’t figure out why my can of maple syrup was still so heavy but nothing was coming out of it.  I opened the can to discover that the remains had crystallized into big chunks of sugar in the bottom.  The worst of it?  Try as I would with hot water baths and butter knives, I COULDN’T GET THE SUGAR CHUNKS OUT and had to toss the delicious-looking mess in the trash.)

My other, much less appetizing, household concern today is fungal gnats – tiny black flies – in the houseplants, including the little Norfolk Pine we bought as a living Christmas tree.

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Last week, I put the purple flash pepper and the sickliest mandevilla outside to die, as they were clearly infested.  It was a sad day: I’d been giving them plenty of TLC and hoping to coddle them through the winter.  The remaining mandevillas are looking happy, but the continued presence of the gnats is worrying.  Next fall, I’ll know to treat the plants properly before bringing them inside, by immersing the pots in water and showering the leaves.

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I’ve found a list of useful tips for extermination here at Apartment Therapy, but if anyone has experience with these little monsters, I welcome suggestions.

Of course, there’s a lot of other stuff going on.  Cat A returns to the doctor tomorrow after a gruelling 48 hours – we had to place a drop of a serum made of his own blood into his eye every hour on the hour, to treat a deep corneal scratch he got from the neighbourhood bully.  (We dubbed this bully Asshole Cat the moment we met him, which was the day we moved in because he thought our house was his house.  He now has a collar, so we know he isn’t a stray.  Whoever owns him should be ashamed.)  We still haven’t found a contractor to fix the rotting wall of the mudroom, and it’s probably too late now and we’ll need to wait until spring.  I’m increasingly gobsmacked every month by the gas bill.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a dream I had a few years ago, when we were still safely ensconced in our lovely Outremont apartment.  I dreamt that we gave the apartment up and found ourselves in a dingy semi-basement off a highway.  We installed a futon on the floor (somehow our bed had disappeared) and prepared to go to sleep among the boxes.  As I looked around, a grey despair settled over me.  I couldn’t remember why we’d given up the Outremont apartment, and I couldn’t believe that this had been our only other option.  Oh my God, I thought.  For no good reason, I’ve ruined my life.

There are days, looking around our odd little brick house with the peeling window frames and the microscopic bathrooms and the rotting mudroom, that I find myself thinking, Oh my God, I’ve ruined… But then I listen to the silence of no neighbours above or below, and I look out at the little back yard where we will plant vegetables in the spring.  I step into the hideous kitchen covered in blue laminate and spread my pizza pans over the seemingly endless counter space.  I stand for a moment in the crumbly basement that hasn’t flooded since we had the exterior wall rebuilt.

The anxiety doesn’t fade, but it’s joined by something else: a piecemeal vision of a future where all of this is polished, caulked, planted, and ours.