Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Best Tomato Sauce. Ever.

Before I became vegan, I was obsessed with Ina Garten. She has an adorable husband who worships her, and makes her giggle like a teenage girl. She has the most beautiful house in East Hampton just steps from the beach. Her world is always bustling with fascinating people, usually gay men, who bring her presents and flowers and gossip. It was my favorite cooking show to watch on Saturday mornings. And while she isn’t necessarily the picture of health, she sure seems to love her life. Once I adopted a plant-based diet though, it seemed like Ina had nothing to offer me. Everything was stuffed with cheese, or rolled in bacon, or topped with whipped cream. I couldn’t even find a way to adapt it to my new lifestyle, so Ina became less a part of my culinary life, replaced by people like Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, Chloe Coscarelli, and Nava Atlas.

One of the last episodes I watched featured Joe Realmuto, the chef at famed Hampton’s eatery Nick and Toni’s, preparing Penne alla Vecchia Bettola. Realmuto’s recipe is similar to a penne alla vodka, and finished with cream and parmesan cheese, but I had a hunch it didn’t need those things. What resulted was the best tomato sauce I’ve ever had, smooth, bursting with layered flavors, and guaranteed to make any recipe a little bit better. I love this sauce with dishes like my Stuffed Shells with Almond Ricotta, or even just tossed with penne and topped with toasted almond breadcrumbs.

Penne all Vecchia Bettola
adapted from Joseph Realmuto
1/4 cup olive oil
1 onion, diced
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons fresh oregano
1 cup vodka
2 28 oz. cans whole peeled tomatoes
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oven to 375°F. Heat the olive oil in a large ovenproof pan (choose one with a lid). Add the onion and garlic, and sauté until tender, about 7 minutes. Add the red pepper flakes and fresh oregano, and cook 1 minute more. Add the vodka, and simmer until the volume has decreased by half. Drain the two cans of tomatoes. Add each tomato to the pot, crushing it in your hands - take care not to squirt tomato juice all over your kitchen, as I did. Add 2 teaspoons salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Stir to incorporate all the ingredients. Cover with a lid, and place in the oven for 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Remove from the oven, and let cool for 15 minutes. Transfer the sauce to the bowl of a blender or food processor. Be sure to leave a hole for the steam, or your lid will pop off squirting tomato sauce all over your kitchen (I make these mistakes so you don’t have to, people!). Blend to a smooth consistency. If using immediately, transfer back to the pot, and reheat, tossing the pasta directly with the sauce. If not, store in a sealed container for up to 4 days.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Stuffed Shells with Almond Ricotta

In an effort to support my newly vegan friends, I recently hosted a dinner party. I had seven people in my tiny apartment, by far the most I’ve ever attempted. I only capped it at seven because that is literally the number of chairs I have. I absolutely love cooking for people. My favorite events have always been the ones where everyone comes over to my house. When I was little, I would spend an hour setting the table, folding the napkins into fun shapes, and selecting a color palette to coordinate with the food...or my outfit. In college, I would whip up one of the three dishes I could execute competently, and invite the girls across the hall who would contribute a bottle of cheap wine. Now that I am vegan, I relish the opportunity to make something delicious for people who don’t know a lot about vegan food, and maybe have negative associations with the word.

In putting together this menu, I wanted something warm and cozy; it is winter even if it’s 70 degrees outside. I also wanted something impressive, a big platter you can set on the table full of bright colors and tantalizing smells that make your mouth water. Stuffed shells with almond ricotta, spinach, basil, and a rich baked tomato sauce seemed like the perfect choice. I paired it with a big, fresh salad inspired by my Aunt Mary Beth: spring greens with radishes, carrots, cucumber, corn, edamame, and oranges dressed with lemon, garlic, and olive oil.

People started arriving just as I was setting out crusty sourdough bread with garlic infused olive oil. We opened a bottle of champagne, and everyone squeezed into my tiny kitchen. Someone remarked that it was like we were dancing, everyone shifting position slightly as I moved from counter to stove to sink to fridge. We demolished the better part of two loaves of bread before the oil ran out, and Christian helped me stuff the shells and get them in the oven. Thirty minutes later, I carried the pan of shells, bubbling and rich, straight to the table. It was even better than I had imagined.

Almond Ricotta
adapted from Artisan Vegan Cheeses by Miyoko Schinner

2 cups blanched almonds (you can use raw almonds, but you have to peel them first)
1 cup water

In a medium sized bowl, cover the almonds completely with cold water. Let soak for 8 to 12 hours. Combine the almonds and water in a blender or food processor, and blend until light and fluffy. You can decide how smooth you want your ricotta to be. I like mine just a little gritty, but mostly creamy. You can store the ricotta for up to a week, so feel free to prepare this step ahead of time.

Stuffed Shells
adapted from Artisan Vegan Cheeses by Miyoko Schinner

1 pound large pasta shells (conchiglie giganti!)
5 cups of tomato sauce
1 recipe Almond Ricotta
4 cups spinach, lightly packed
1/2 cup basil leaves, lightly packed
2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 cloves garlic, crushed
Salt and pepper to taste

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the shells, and cook according to the package directions, about 9 minutes. Drain, and rinse under cold water, and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the ricotta, nutritional yeast, lemon juice, and garlic. Mix thoroughly.

Microwave the spinach for 1 to 2 minutes until completely wilted. Chop coarsely, and add to the ricotta mixture.

Slice the basil finely, and add to the ricotta mixture. Taste for salt and pepper.

Heat the oven to 375°. Spoon one cup of sauce into the bottom of an ovenproof pan, and spread evenly. Stuff each shell with about 2 tablespoons of the ricotta mixture, and place in the pan. Squeeze the shells tightly together as you fill the pan. Once full, spoon the remaining 4 cups of tomato sauce over the shells. Cover with foil, and bake in the oven for 25 to 30 minutes, until the shells are hot all the way in the middle. Serve hot and bubbling right from the oven.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Interview with a New Vegan

About a year ago, one of my colleagues took a new job, and we had an opening in our office. That position was filled by my, now, friend Christian. From the moment we met, I knew I wanted to be best friends. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of music, a laugh I can pick out in any crowd, and a razor sharp wit. One of the things I appreciate the most about Christian is his genuine openness to having his mind changed. In the time that we’ve known each other, we have had numerous conversations about my diet, and the overwhelmingly positive impact it has on my life. He always listens to my point of view, asks tons of questions, and continues to ponder our discussion days later. To my delight, Christian recently decided to shift his diet toward vegetarianism, and agreed to try being vegan for 3 weeks in January. We sat down over lunch, so I could find out how things were going so far.


Dinner Peace: Why were you interested in trying out veganism?

Christian: A multitude of reasons. I’ve become incapable of rationalizing the ethics involved with meat and dairy farming. I’m keenly interested in improving my health, specifically my muscle to fat tissue composition, so vanity. I’m intrigued by a diet that would stave off my genetic predisposition for high blood pressure. And, simply, your individual passion for it is contagious. I knew all this shit beforehand, but I just didn’t care. Beyond that, all the other vegans I’d met annoyed me.

DP: I’m flattered! Why now?

C: Just the confluence of various factors coming together at once. I had become more open-minded to lifestyles I did not already ascribe; I had hit a wall in terms of fitness goals; I’m getting older, and taking care of myself is only going to get more difficult; and I just can’t rationalize it anymore. Honestly, looking at [my tattoo of] Ferdinand [the bull] sniffing flowers, looking at this happy bull feels shitty to then go out and eat it.

DP: What were you nervous about beforehand?

C: Exactly what my friend Kyle went through - not knowing what to eat, so just eating a bunch of hash browns. I don’t embark upon adventures without investigating them first, and being successful on the first shot. I still don’t know how to execute this in a long-term way. But, I work really well with rules and guidelines, so the mental fortitude part of this has not been difficult.

DP: What are you enjoying so far?

C: Vegetables taste better. One week in, I had carrots, cucumbers, black olives, celery, and radish with hummus. I knew I liked hummus, but I was ambivalent or against all of the produce. And now I like all of them! Celery tastes like celery, not wet, crispy dirt. Carrots are sweet as opposed to a nondescript orange mass. Cucumbers aren't just for making water more fancy! Black olives were always really low-quality, squishy and gross. Now it all tastes good. I feel energized and positive. I miss cheese, but that’s a pretty silly reason to not push through.

DP: What are your expectations for the end of the 21 days?

C: Honestly nothing. I mean, I expect to be roughly the same weight. I expect to feel a little more energized. I’m trying not to think about this ending. I expect to continue beyond the end of 21 days because I know the results I want will take ages.

DP: What are the results you want?

C: There’s a saying: “A six pack is made in the kitchen, not in the gym.” Food is the one spot in my life where I had absolutely no discipline. The rules inherent to being a vegan impose a certain discipline.

DP: They can, but they don’t have to. My downfall is how amazing vegan desserts are. I have to be very mindful of how much sugar I’m eating, and really trying to tilt the majority of my food toward vegetables and whole grains.

C: Fortunately, I’m not that interested in sweets. I do need to introduce the whole foods side to being vegan. My goal is to have 120/80 blood pressure, which no one in my family has. But I am at least winning that race.

DP: What sort of reactions have you gotten to becoming vegan?

C: A lot of interest, love, and support. The people I would have assumed to be on the opposite side of those have just stayed quiet. My uncle makes jokes, but not unkind either towards vegans or me, just jokes on the topic.

DP: For example?

C: My uncle is going to host me when I go to San Diego in February, and he said, “We’ll leave the light on for you, but we won’t leave the steak on the counter.” My cousin’s wife is trying it now that she can point to me and say that someone else in the family did it first. That was necessary to garner the support of her husband because he doesn’t see the point. He’s happy to support his wife, but the first domino has fallen, so it’s easier now. His little brother bought a vegan cookbook, and shared it with my sister, and they’re working together to start with a vegan day each week, and start eliminating red meat in their diet.

DP: How has this impacted you socially?

C: It’s culturally treated like a burden. You know your limitations, and your limitations are not someone else’s concerns, but once you say you’re vegan, people’s reactions are initially selfish. “Ugh, you’re vegan. That’s going to be so hard.” If they actually thought about it, they would realize there are vegan options everywhere, and move on. They tend to push the responsibility onto you. You’re going to be the complicated one, so I bequeath to you this complication. But, I don’t really care, because if I get to pick, I’m going to be selfish and pick something awesome for me. I would still prefer it to be collaborative though.

DP: Has anything come up that you would decline now that you’re vegan?

C: No, not really. If I were invited to a wine and cheese party, I would just drink wine. If I were invited to a rodeo, I would’ve said no to that anyway. If I were invited to a chili cook-off, I would bring some badass vegan chili. What’s available to me has not changed, just how I enjoy it.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Moo Shu Vegetables and Pancakes, Part Two

Moo Shu Vegetables
adapted from Chloe's Kitchen by Chloe Coscarelli

1 package extra firm tofu
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 onion, thinly sliced
8 ounces mushrooms, sliced
2 teaspoons fresh ginger, grated
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 head cabbage, sliced
2 carrots, julienned
Salt to taste
2 teaspoons hot sesame oil
2 green onions, sliced
1/4 cup hoisin sauce
2 tablespoons soy sauce

Drain the tofu, and squeeze the excess water out of it. Cut into thin rectangles. Place the rectangles on a nonstick skillet, and brown the top and bottom of each piece. Set aside.

Combine, onions, carrots, and mushrooms in a large sauté pan with 1/2 cup of water over medium to medium-high heat. Add more water as needed to keep the vegetables from drying out. Sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the ginger, garlic, and a good pinch of salt, and cook for a few minutes more. Add the 3 tablespoons soy sauce, cabbage, and tofu, and cook until the cabbage is tender and most of the liquid has evaporated. Remove from heat, and drizzle with the sesame oil. Finish with the green onions.

In a small bowl, combine the hoisin sauce with 2 tablespoons soy sauce.

My perfect moo shu is a pancake smeared with 1 teaspoon of hoisin, 1/3 cup of cabbage filling, and a flick of hoisin on top. Roll or fold into an eatable size, and keep plenty of napkins on hand!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Moo Shu Vegetables and Pancakes, Part One

Sometimes I forget how California I truly am. My extended family hails from Massachusetts and New York, I spent my college and grad school years in Chicago and Boston, and I have a traditional Irish Catholic name, so I somehow thought this made me less of a Left Coaster. But then, something will happen to remind me where I come from. On a date once, in the middle of a conversation on poetry and augury, I pulled out my tarot cards, and was told, “You’re so California right now.” Upon leaving happy hour early last Friday, my colleagues asked where I was going, and I told them I had to get home because I was attending an all day Women’s Bliss Circle in the morning. My utterance was greeted with some silence and some laughter. I got the same response when I told a friend that before we were able to drive, my best friend and I used to get Chinese food delivered to school, so we wouldn’t have to eat the cafeteria food.

My dish of choice was always moo shu. Chicken, pork, or vegetarian, it didn’t matter. What I loved were the paper-thin pancakes, slightly sweet hoisin sauce, and the still crisp cabbage. It was one of the first foods I remember being truly satisfied with when I became vegan. The meat is not the star of moo shu, and the egg is unremarkable, so this dish lends itself well to a plant-based diet. I could have easily made my own moo shu, but the pancakes seemed well out of my abilities as a cook. Happily, Chloe Coscarelli’s first book includes a recipe for moo shu AND pancakes. As with many things, there’s no substitute for the homemade, hand-rolled version, so do yourself a mitzvah, and make these for dinner this week!

Moo Shu Pancakes
adapted from Chloe’s Kitchen by Chloe Coscarelli

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup boiling water
1/2 teaspoon salt

Combine flour and salt in a large bowl. Add the boiling water, and mix with a wooden spoon. Once cooled, knead for a few minutes on a lightly floured surface. Form into a ball, and let sit covered for 20 minutes.

Roll dough into a 16 inch log, and slice into 1 inch pieces. One at a time, flatten each piece of dough with your hand, and then roll into a 6 inch circle. The dough will be quite sticky so have plenty of flour at hand.

Heat a nonstick skillet to medium-high heat. Cook each pancake individually; flip over once they have browned slightly, 30 seconds to 1 minute on each side. Stack pancakes and set aside.*

*Here is Chloe’s genius trick for keeping the pancakes warm: fill a small saucepan half-full with water, and bring to a simmer. Place a large heatproof plate on top of the saucepan. Stack the pancakes on the plate, and cover with a metal bowl.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Non-Fanatic Vegan

So, apparently half the United States has turned into the Land of Ice and Snow, yet here in California we are still waiting for winter to arrive. Our version of winter anyway. Because it hasn't started to rain, and my sister is trying to finish her fifty hours of driving before she can get her license, we decided to schlep down to Carmel. Carmel is one of my favorite places to visit; it combines the charm of a small town with easy access to the beach. We split our time among kitschy stores devoted to Jane Austen paraphernalia, the Pilgrim’s Way Bookstore and Secret Garden, and the beach.

Carmel was my mom’s birthday request two years ago, and it was our first visit since becoming vegan. I researched several restaurants before we left, but nothing had really jumped out at me. After perusing the vegan offerings at a few restaurants, I was feeling underwhelmed. That’s when we found La Bicyclette. Setting aside my sister’s and my ardent francophilia, this restaurant is one of my absolute favorites. Wood fired breads and pizzas, risotto, and tiny bottles of sparkling wine. Snug tables in front of huge windows, equally perfect for people watching and salt air breezes. We settled in for a delicious lunch of pizza with fava bean purée and spring onions, and a risotto I can’t remember in detail, only in rapture. Every time someone tells me that they’re going to Carmel, I insist that they eat at La Bicyclette. Yes, I can be a little bossy.

On our trip last week, it’s safe to say that we were more excited about this restaurant than anything else. I’ve been to more than a few beaches in the last two years, but there’s only one La Bicyclette. This time, we started with the assorted wood fired breads and olive oil, and shared two pizzas: the Local Champignon with portabella, cremini, and oyster mushrooms on a caramelized onion purée, and the Margherita with oven dried cherry tomatoes and basil. We requested no cheese on both pizzas, and they were totally accommodating.

No, I don’t know what was in the onion purée, and yes, there may have been milk or butter in the bread. But, this is what I mean when I call myself a “non-fanatic vegan.” I do my best. I don’t want to miss out on the experience that is La Bicyclette because they don’t explicitly say vegan on their menu. I also don’t want to have a 10 minute conversation with the waitstaff only to find out that they sauté their mushrooms in butter, and the only thing I can order is the salad with no meat and no cheese - so, basically a pile of lettuce. My home is vegan. The food I serve my family and friends is vegan. The recipes I share on my blog are vegan. But sometimes, when I go out, I’m an almost-vegan.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Rabbit, Rabbit

Happy New Year! I am giddysome at the tabula rasa of 2014, and the prospect of a new year of delicious food. My New Year’s resolution involves all of you, specifically posting to my blog regularly again, and exploring new flavors and foods.

In addition to kissing and Auld Lang Syne, there are a lot of food traditions to celebrate New Year’s Day. In Spain, they believe eating 12 grapes as the clock strikes midnight will bring you luck in the coming year. Turkish tradition centers on pomegranates: their bright red color is reminiscent of the heart, and the plethora of seeds denotes abundance. Southerners prepare a pot of black eyed peas, and Italians mangiano lentils; these legumes resemble coins, and the way they double in size indicates wealth in the new year. Long, unbroken noodles are symbolic of a long life in Chinese tradition, and the challenge is to eat the whole noodle in one slurp. Clementines and other round foods represent the end of one year and the beginning of the next.

Yes, there are New Year’s food traditions that involve meat, but it feels like the ultimate symbolism to start your year with fresh vegetables, whole grains, and hearty legumes. These are the foods of life. These are the foods that make you feel light, energetic, and strong. I’ll be starting this new year surrounded by the people I love most, cooking a delicious meal, and reveling in the pleasure of a plant-based life. Wishing a happy, healthy New Year to all of you!