No Vengeance, Please, Vegans

I love vegan cookbooks. 

This may come as a surprise to those of you who have seen my recipes for fish with bacon, chocolate truffles with bacon, and even bacon-from-the-ground-up, but I love vegetables just as much as meat, sometimes more. 

Vegan cookbooks are a wonderful place to look for vegetable recipes, because, obviously, vegetables are, for them, the whole point of eating.  I love cooked greens with ham hocks as much as the next (non-vegan) person, but sometimes I want the bright, clear flavor of a vegetable all by itself, or a crisp salad unsullied by salty crunchy bits.

I have, however, an unfortunate tendency.

Sometimes, when I make the recipes, I add animal products. 

The problem is protein–I can’t survive a meal without it.  If I don’t get a significant amount of protein at every meal, I will, in fact, faint.  It’s happened before, and it’s not fun.  And while I’m not a knee-jerk carnivore, and while I adore tofu and beans and lentils, I don’t want more than half of my meals to be leguminous.  Thus: meat or cheese. 

(I don’t know why I feel guilty about it–I change other recipes in ways that their authors never intended all the time–but I do).

The other week, I checked Veganomicon, a humongous and engrossing new vegan cookbook, out of the library.  I loved every recipe that I tried, but when the book went back to the library, there were plenty of wonderful ones that I hadn’t gotten to.  Instead of the recipes, I now had jotted notes, combinations of flavors: “Brussels sprouts, roasted, garam masala.”  “Chickpeas–do things!”  “Tofu, barbecue sauce, broccoli?”

The note that colonized the meal-planning section of my brain, though, was “kale enchiladas.”  I love kale, I love enchiladas, and, after the day-long blizzard last Friday, I needed simple comfort food.  (Explanatory note: my father is from New Mexico.  Thus, for me, even though I grew up in Iowa, Southwestern flavors are redolent of childhood, safety and comfort).

What I had: 1 bunch of kale, 4 tortillas, 1 can of tomatoes.  I made the tomatoes into a quick sauce by sauteing a minced shallot in oil, then adding garlic, the tomatoes, and a raft of southwestern spices.  (I know that real enchiladas are made with a chile sauce, not a tomato one, but I was making this up as I went along).  After everything cooked together for about 15 minutes, I turned off the heat, let the mixture cool a bit, then whirled it up in the food processor.

I tore the kale into bite-sized pieces, steamed it, and then added a big spoonful of the sauce.  I wrapped the lightly suaced kale in the tortillas, put them into a greased 8*8 pan, and poured the rest of the sauce over the top.  They looked great, but there was something missing–something that would take them from Extremely Good to Ultimate Comfort. 

Sorry guys: my platonic ideal of an enchilada includes cheese. 

The very last of the locally produced cheese–a chipotle cheddar–came out of the freezer, where I’ve been hording it.  It was, with difficulty, grated, and the rust-tinged crumbles scattered over the tortillas in sauce.  I baked the dish for 45 minutes at 350, until the cheese was browned and bubbling, then let it cool for about 10, until it was still hot, but not molten.

It. Was. Perfect.

The greens, sauce and tortilla had retained their integrity, but had so melded their flavors that they might have been one item: each flavor was distinct, but present in every bite, with no sharp edges between them.   The combination of a cooked green and a tomato sauce was almost reminiscent of spinach-stuffed pasta, even though the seasonings were completely different.  And, also similar to a stuffed pasta dish, the blanket of cheese held everything together and added a layer of chewy caramelization. 

The dish would have been delicious even without the cheese–I admit this.  I would have loved it, and not missed the dairy at all.  But I’m not sorry I added it; it made an extraordinary meal on a cold, cold night.

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Published in: on March 28, 2008 at 7:16 am  Leave a Comment  

Priznel 2.0

The first dish that my husband (then my brand-new boyfriend) cooked for me was a long-standing family recipe called Priznel. Priznel is a kind of a quiche, made with cottage cheese, grated hard cheese (usually jack, or something else white), eggs and lots and lots of cooked spinach.

What Teacherman didn’t know was that I despised cooked spinach. I’d tried to eat it innumerable times–I’ve mentioned my struggles here before–but no matter what I did, I still hated it. (Why, you ask, did I keep on trying to eat something I loathed? It annoyed me that I couldn’t conquer the dislike, so I tried with all my might to get past the raw-metal flavors and the the slimy texture. And yes, I made sure to have spinach cooked by capable cooks, even surpassingly brilliant ones, but nothing worked. I still hated it–cooked, at least).

In any case, Teacherman made me Priznel. After many hours of cooking (we ate ate 9 pm that night, I believe), he proudly presented me with a dish of the only food that I absolutely hated. And I had to eat it.

I did manage to, and I didn’t mention that I was revolted by every spoonful I consumed (it didn’t help that the Priznel never did get fully cooked through). I smiled my way through the meal, but firmly sent all the leftovers home with him. Unfortunately, this politeness meant that I had to eat Priznel at every family function I attended for the next year or two, as Teacherman and I became more and more involved as a couple.

It wasn’t until we were engaged that my mother off-handedly mentioned my wretched feelings about cooked spinach. A look of horror appeared on Teacherman’s face. “Why didn’t you TELL me!” he said, “I would have completely understood!” This is probably true. But my inner politeness switch had refused to budge, and, as I mentioned, I had been trying to learn to like the stuff.

In fact, I’m still trying to learn to like it. I’ve almost succeeded–at this point I can handle wilted spinach, especially if there are lots of spices involved, but not the fully-cooked type. (I should point out, here, that I enjoy fully cooked greens of every other variety, just not spinach. This, of course, is because no other cooked greens taste like rust).

This year, we spent Easter with Teacherman’s sister and her family–my in-laws had driven in from Detroit, and we all contributed to what turned out to be a brunch of epic proportions. My entries? A raspberry-ginger cheesecake for dessert, and, for the main meal, a recipe so similar to Priznel–but, in my opinion, so much better–that I actually may have converted the family.

Last month, while doing some research on ancient Roman cuisine, I read a lot of cookbooks about food from the modern Mediterranean, in order to become aware of the evolution of various dishes over the centuries. As might be expected, I ended up copying down a lot of recipes, as well as the information I was looking for. In an encyclopedic book on modern Greek cuisine, I found several recipes for egg-cheese-and-greens pies and casseroles. One in particular caught my eye–it seemed almost identical to Priznel, but with a very important exception. Instead of spinach, it used curly endive and romaine lettuce.

Otherwise, the ingredients were incredibly similar. A grateable cheese (kasseri), a soft, creamy cheese (feta), and eggs. The Greek casserole also included herbs–leeks, scallions and parsley, and one extra flavoring: chopped Kalamata olives. I knew immediately that I wanted to make the casserole, and I also knew that I wanted to make it for Teacherman’s family. Luckily, the Easter potluck presented itself, and I set to work.

Saturday night I washed two small heads of curly endive and two romaine hearts, then wilted them in a large pan until they were thoroughly cooked. I drained the greens in a colander, then squeezed them completely dry, and put them into a large bowl. Next, I chopped and washed two leeks and a whole bunch of scallions, then sauteed them in a little oil until lightly browned. I added the aliums to the greens, along with the chopped leaves from an entire bunch of parsley and half a cup of olives, also chopped.

Once the mixture was cool, I crumbled up 10 oz of feta and 7 oz of kasseri cheese (the recipe called for slightly different amounts, but those were the sizes of the cheeses I bought) and mixed the crumbles into the greens, along with a tiny pinch of salt, and several grinds of black pepper.

At that point, I covered the bowl and put it into the fridge. I left it there overnight, but this was for the sake of convenience, rather than any necessary ripening step. I wanted to make the casserole right before we left for brunch, the meal was due to take place at 10 am, an hour’s drive away, and the casserole needed an hour in the oven. I didn’t want to get up at 5 am to cook the greens, so I did everything ahead.

The next morning, I let the contents of the bowl come to room temperature while I preheated the oven to 350, then I mixed in four beaten eggs. I poured the mixture into an olive-oil slicked 9*13 inch pan, then let it bake while I readied myself for the family gathering.

After one hour, the casserole was finished cooking, and I packed it–covered in foil and wrapped in many layers of dish towel–in a conveniently sized cardboard box. Away we went!

I was a little nervous about presenting Teacherman’s family with a bastardized version of their Priznel–understandably, comforting traditions often matter far more than taste–but I needn’t have. The group dove into the pan, taking generous portions, and, in many cases, going back for seconds.

“This is definitely the new Priznel,” Teacherman whispered to me.

“Man, I love anything with cooked spinach in it!” said one relative.

Teacherman and I looked at each other. We didn’t say a word.

Published in: on March 23, 2008 at 7:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

Annals of the Overly Involved

May I just point out that I am awesome?

I made corned beef! From scratch! Starting with a raw beef brisket and some salt!

Okay, YES. People have been making corned beef from scratch for centuries, even before they found out about saltpeter (which was quite a while ago, actually — almost a millenium). But still: how many people do you know that have any desire to do it now?

I don’t mean to suggest that I am the coolest person in the entire world. I could stand to be better at almost everything I can think of. And probably “awesome” is taking it a little far.  But I made corned beef from scratch! And it was GOOD! I don’t think it’s too surprising that I’m excited.

Last year we had a St. Patrick’s Day party, and I made corned beef and cabbage using an organic corned beef from a local market. It was really good, probably the best corned beef I’d ever eaten, but for some reason I got it into my head that I wanted to try to corn beef my very own self. I’d actually thought about making it from scratch for that very party, but given that I was going to be feeding 20 people, I didn’t want to make a mistake and possibly doom them all to an Uncomfortable Demise. This year, though, I would only be feeding Teacherman and myself, so I was braver.

About two weeks ago I bought a 3 lb beef brisket from the market, and brought it home to corn. I thought that I had a Tupperware container big enough to cure it in, but when I got the container out of the cupboard I realized that I had been vastly inflating its size in my mind, and it wouldn’t do at all — the Tupperware wouldn’t even hold the brisket by itself, let alone the quarts of saltwater brine that would be necessary for corning. Instead, after consultation with Teacherman about metals and salts and chemical reactions, I hauled out a biggish stockpot and used that instead.

I put six quarts of water, 2 cups of kosher salt and about 1/3 cup pickling spices into the stockpot and brought them to a boil. (Corned beef spices and pickling spices are so similar that, since I already had a big jar of pickling spices, I didn’t bother to buy the more specialized corned beef spices). I simmered the mixture for a few minutes, watching the salt dissolve and the spices dye the water an odd purplish color. After no more than five of those minutes, I turned off the heat and let the brine cool. When it had come down to room temperature (which took more than the 3 hours I had before I went to work–8 would probably be more like it), I put the whole pot into the fridge to chill.

The next morning I put the brisket into the cold brine. It seemed inclined to stay submerged by itself, but just in case, I filled a freezer bag with some more water and salt — in case the bag leaked, I didn’t want plain water diluting the brine — and put it on top of the brisket. I put the lid on the (VERY full) stockpot and put the whole thing into the fridge. (I was petrified that the weight of the water and pot and beef would collapse the top shelf of my refrigerator, the only place it would fit, but my fears were, thankfully, unfounded).

I left the stockpot there for 5 days, occasionally lifting the lid to make sure that brisket was still submerged and that everything still smelled good. On the morning of the sixth day I removed the brisket from the brine, rinsed it off under the tap to remove any lingering salt, and put it into a zip-top bag, then into another zip-top bag on the outside of that. This package went back into the fridge. It was still five days before St. Patrick’s Day at the time, so I wasn’t sure if I should put the corned beef into the freezer or just leave it in the fridge. After considering history, and throwing caution to the winds, I decided to leave it in the fridge.

At about 12:30 today, Teacherman (who, being a teacher, is on spring break and does not have to work All Week) put the corned beef into the inevitable stockpot, covered it with water and brought it to a boil. He turned it down to a simmer, then left it for 2 hours with the lid on. After this time he checked the broth–it was salty, but not unpleasantly so. When we talked about it ahead of time, I’d suggested that if the broth was horrifically salty at this point, he should toss the liquid and use new water for the last few hours of boiling. As it turned out, he didn’t have to.

At this point, he added two carrots, peeled and cut into chunks, and a small cabbage, cut into eight wedges. He put the lid back on and simmered everything for 2 1/2 more hours. He turned the heat off, removed the corned beef to a plate to rest, and let the vegetables and broth cool down a little bit. After about 20 minutes, we sliced the meat across the grain, and served it up in big bowls with broth, carrots and the cabbage, cooked into silken shreds.

It was, in an overused-by-me word, fabulous.

The broth was saltier than I might have liked, but only a TINY bit, and I have to question whether or not I noticed the saltiness because I was expecting it to be overly so. The corned beef, on the other hand, was perfectly seasoned. It wasn’t too salty at all, but beefy and robust in flavor, with added dimension from all the spices used in the brine. Even knowing which spices were used, I was unable to identify what each specifically added to the flavor, but I was in no doubt that every single one contributed.

The texture was also stellar: the corned beef was tender and melting, but not so soft that it dissolved in the mouth It was meaty and muscular, but yielding to the tooth. We each ate far too much — I think I may have consumed more than half of the entire cabbage — but it was worth it. Even better, we have about a pound of meat leftover. If I can wrest some of it away from Teacherman, I may make hash, but I’m afraid that his spring break freedom speaks of unending, indulgent Reubens. I can probably forgive him. After all, now that we know how to corn beef, there’s nothing to stop us from doing it again.

Note: Some of you, those who have seen other corned beef recipes in the past, may have noticed a significant ingredient missing from the corned beef brine: ‘pink salt,’ or nitrates, the modern equivalent of saltpeter. It’s used to prevent botulism (very important) and provide an apparently appetizing pink color to cured meat (not so important). It’s also incredibly toxic in large quantities.

I’ve tried to use pink salt in cured meats before, and every time I’ve tried it the result has been inedibly salty and chemically tasting. After so many failures, I have no desire to use pink salt, and, luckily, I’ve seen a couple of reputable modern recipes for corned beef that leave it out. Given that we were planning to keep the corned beef in the fridge at all times, and use it in short order, I felt no qualms about not using the pink salt.

Published in: on March 18, 2008 at 7:35 am  Comments (1)  

Confectionary Genius in 16 Steps

Step 1: Stumble out of bed at 6:00 am, cursing the fact that you have to go to work for the seventh day in a row.

Step 2: Peel and section two clementines – making sure not to break the membranes – and put the sections on a paper towel-lined plate.

Step 3: Put the plate in the fridge, uncovered.

Step 4: Go to work. (Sadly).

Step 5: Come home from work, stare at the kitchen and wish that you had some kind of plan for dinner.

Step 6: Remember that you DID have an idea for dinner when you notice the (thankfully filled and turned on) slow cooker on the counter.

Step 7: Ignore the slow cooker and turn your mind to more interesting matters.

Step 8: Put a piece of parchment paper on a plate and stick the plate in the freezer.

Step 9: Melt 6 oz of bittersweet Callebaut chocolate (or 3 oz unsweetened and 3 Tbsp sweetener) and 3 Tbsp of butter in a nonstick pan.

Step 10: Remove the (now completely dry) clementine segments from the fridge.

Step 11: Dip each clementine segment into the melted chocolate and place onto the cold, parchment-lined plate, then place the plate in the freezer.

Step 12: Pour the remaining melted chocolate into a handily-shaped container and put in the fridge for future chocolate delectation. (Restrain yourself; you will be happy to have it on Wednesday).

Step 13: Remember, again, the existence of the slow cooker. Turn it off and eat your dinner.

Step 14: Do dishes, distractedly.

Step 15: Take the plate of chocolate-covered clementine segments out of the freezer and arrange on two plates.

Step 16: Eat the segments, allowing your teeth to shatter the perfectly crisp, darkly bitter chocolate coating, and shocking your tongue at the cold, intensely citrusy flavor of the clementine within.

Published in: on March 2, 2008 at 8:29 pm  Leave a Comment