Posts Tagged ‘vegetarian’

Fermentation VIII: Kefir Broth

I love to make soups in the winter, and have often written about the wonders of homemade broth.  I’ve never cared much for any vegetable broth that I have tasted, and I like the deep savoriness and the economy and thrift of making meat and chicken broth. But recently, more or less by accident, I did discover an alternative.   I was experimenting with my abundant supply of water kefir, and was cooking it down to make a syrupy glaze of the type that I have enjoyed making out of kombucha.  About the original idea, all I can say is please don’t try this with kefir, because the result is rather dreadful. However, having tasted the product of one pot, I turn the heat off under the other one, which had been reduced to a little more than half its original volume. I tasted, thought, added some salt, and had something that tasted savory and surprisingly like chicken broth.  Cooked with some aromatics and herbs, the resemblance would be even more striking.

I tried the same experiment with some water kefir  made with coconut sugar, thinking that the deeper color and flavor would be attractive in this context.  But to my surprise, the faint bitterness that is detectable as an undertaste in brown sugar or coconut sugar was greatly exaggerated in the finished broth, to the point that I threw it out.  So save yourself some time and trouble and use plain sugar when making kefir that you intend to cook down.

Since I remain obsessed with fermentation months after first reading the Noma Guide to Fermentation, I decided to try combining various fungi both microscopic and macroscopic in a mushroom broth.  I had a quart of broth made from boiling down 2 quarts of water kefir.  I started with butter, which made my soup vegetarian, but if you wish to use olive oil or some other vegetable oil instead it will be vegan.  Heat about 3 tablespoons of your chosen fat in a small heavy sauce pan, and sauté one large or two small cloves of garlic finely chopped and one small onion sliced thin.  Cook them over medium low heat, stirring frequently, until they are thoroughly cooked, soft, and a bit caramelized.  Put in 3 tablespoons of mushroom powder. I used dried and powdered Sullius that I had gathered, but the most commonly available powdered mushroom is porcini.  Sautée the powder for a few minutes, and add a quart of broth to your pan. Bring to a boil, and then turn the heat down to simmer.  Now stir in 2 tablespoons of white miso paste.   Taste for saltiness. You might want more miso, but taste it first. I am working on making my own miso, but a good grade of white miso from your nearest Asian market is fine.  Simmer  the soup for 15 to 20 minutes over low heat.

The final step is to smooth it out.  You can do this with a stick blender, but in my opinion there is no alternative to a Vitamix blender to turn your soup into pure velvet.  Make sure you know how to handle hot liquids in your blender without creating a sort of fluid explosion.  When the soup is completely smooth, return it to the pan, heat gently, taste for seasoning, grind in a little fresh pepper, and serve.

There is nothing quite like the process of fermentation to produce a rich, meaty savor without the use of meat. In this basic recipe, I was experimenting with fermentation as a way to make a vegan or vegetarian product highly satisfying.  But if you are not a vegan or vegetarian, there is no reason to feel limited.  You can start with bacon fat if you want to, or add chunks of leftover cooked meat, or finish it with a dash of good sherry or a swirl of cream or both. Sautéed mushrooms would be a great addition.

It interested me that despite use of miso, this soup doesn’t taste identifiably Asian. It just tastes good. If you want something that leans more Asian, you could add a piece or two of kombu to the kefir for a few minutes  as it cooks down and finish the bowls with some diagonally slivered scallions.

Vegetable dinners: Starting the new year


Recently a reader contacted me about how to transition to a diet of “all real food.” Expense and time were real concerns for him, as they are for most of us.  Well, there’s no question that if you’ve been eating a lot of convenience and supermarket food, real food is likely to be more expensive. You will be making more things from scratch, so it will take more time, too. So my first piece of advice is: don’t make a New Year’s resolution to change your whole diet. I am very mistrustful of New Year’s resolutions; in fact I am mistrustful of any statement that anyone is going to make sudden sweeping changes in their way of being in the world and maintain those changes over time. Personally, my transition in food and lifestyle took place over years, with one step building on the previous ones, and no one change so huge that I couldn’t maintain it until it became a habit.
So here’s how I would approach this change: eat more vegetables. Fill your plate with them. Twice a week or so, make two or three simple vegetable dishes for dinner, and don’t have any meat available. On the other nights, offer a small amount of meat and lots of vegetables. A loaf of good bread is a great way to center the table for all-vegetable dinners, and at first you can buy the bread and transition to home-baked later on if you want to. Heat the bread up and have butter or olive oil available to make it festive. Let your vegetable meal be a celebration. Learn a few simple whole-grain dishes and use them as “grounding and centering” dishes to offer some variety from bread. Don’t forget vegetable pasta dishes, which are delicious and appeal to kids. Buy your vegetables wherever you usually shop, and learn to cook them in ways that taste really good. Notice that at this first stage you do not torment yourself by trying to grow all your own food, eat local only, or eat organic only. You just cook the veggies that are readily available to you in ways that work for you. Pay special attention to learning to cook leafy greens in ways that you really like. They are abundantly good for your health, and if you take up gardening later on, they are among the easiest things to grow, but they are also the most likely to sit in the garden unused if you don’t have your kitchen techniques down pat. When you and your family are used to eating lots of vegetables, you can add more whole-grain dishes, or go organic, or shop at the farmers’ market when possible.

If you make this your first step toward a whole-foods diet, you won’t save much money initially because CAFO meat at the supermarket is cheap, but you won’t spend more than usual. Invest a very little bit of money in a really good vegetable cookbook; a wonderful and inexpensive one is Fast, Fresh, and Green by Susie Middleton. Check out my “vegetable dinners” category, too.

When you and your family are really loving your veggies and you can turn out vegetable dishes smoothly and without kitchen trauma, and plates heavy with vegetables look just right to you, take the next step. Enlist your family in deciding what the next step will be. If you use a lot of dairy products, organic dairy might be a good step. Or consider a backyard garden, or a farmers’ market excursion once a week in season, or more whole grains, or whatever. Bear in mind that truly ethical meats are going to be expensive, and if you just substitute them for the supermarket kind in the amounts you are used to eating, you are in for a nasty surprise when you add up the bills. I don’t suggest changing to them until you have formed the habit of eating small amounts of meat and making veggies the biggest part of your meal.
Don’t forget breakfast. Cook a pot of wild rice or red quinoa ahead of time and heat up enough for breakfast, topping it with some butter and maple syrup or honey. This is a treat even for people who don’t like “health” foods.

I don’t believe that negative energy is ever very helpful. Don’t berate yourself for the things you aren’t doing, just be appreciative of the positive changes that you’re making. If you need to pick up a quart of milk at the convenience store some night, don’t go crazy over it. If unexpected events change your life for a while, respond to them as needed, and then go back to your new way. Somewhere along the way, read or reread The Omnivore’s Dilemma, still head and shoulders above other books about factory-farming systems and, in my view, much better than Pollan’s subsequent books at helping you remember why you are making these changes. Love your food, and enjoy your mealtimes, and step will follow naturally on step. Have fun, and happy New Year!

Vegetable Dinners: Black Bean Cakes, and notes on cornmeal


The famous nutritionist Marion Nestle once claimed that she could tell anyone in a sentence how to improve their health and nutritional status: “Eat less, move more, eat more fruits and vegetables.” Around my house we love to fill our plates with vegetables, so no problem there, but lately I’ve been experimenting with ways to add more dried beans to our diet. This coincides with my aquisition of a solar oven, but in this recipe the beans don’t even have to be cooked. You can soak them for 24 hours, or you can use drained cooked black beans if you have some handy. These patties make a substantial main course and are a good main dish for occasions when you have vegetarians and/or vegans over for dinner.

Black Bean Cakes

Start with one cup dried black beans. Soak in a quart of soft or filtered water at room temperature for 24 hours. If you can’t give them the full soaking time, use 2 cups of cooked drained black beans instead.
About a cup of fine cornmeal (I like finely ground blue cornmeal, which helps keep the color dark)
1 small bunch each of epazote and cilantro, or 1 large bunch cilantro
1 teaspoon lightly roasted ground cumin
2 medium or three small shallots, very finely chopped
2 limes, one juiced, one cut in wedges or slices
salt to taste
1 teaspoon ground chipotle chiles
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
about half a cup of olive oil

Drain the soaked beans very thoroughly. They should now be about 2 cups in volume. If using cooked beans, drain very thoroughly. Whichever kind of beans you are using, let them sit in the strainer for at least half an hour, because you want them as dry as you can get them. Now grind them finely in a food processor. MIx in a small handful of chopped epazote or, if you couldn’t find epazote, a large handful of chopped cilantro. Mix in the chopped shallots, cumin, chipotle, the juice of one lime, and about half a teaspoon of salt, and taste for salt. Add more if needed to make the mixture taste properly seasoned. Make it a little tiny bit on the salty side, because you are still going to add more dry ingredients. Heat about a quarter cup of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. When almost ready to cook, process in half a cup of cornmeal mixed with the baking powder. Check the consistency; if it’s possible to mold it into cakes, you’re ready to go. Otherwise, add more cornmeal until it can be molded (with difficulty) but is still very soft. Sprinkle cornmeal on a piece of waxed paper and scoop out heaping tablespoonfuls of the mixture onto the paper. When the oil is good and hot, carefully lay the cakes in the hot oil, patting a little with fingers or a spatula to make them no more than 1/2 inch in diameter. Be careful, they’re fragile, but you don’t want to add more cornmeal unless strictly necessary because they can get dry and tough if you add too much. You can also skip the waxed-paper step and spoon the mixture directly into the hot skillet, spreading it out with the back of a damp spoon to make the cakes about 3/8″ thick. Let them sizzle at least 3-4 minutes, then when you’re sure that a good brown crust has formed on the bottom side to hold them together, carefully turn with a narrow spatula and cook on the other side until done. You can keep them warm in a 200 degree oven while you fry the second batch. The main “secrets” are to keep the dough on the moist and fragile side, get the oil hot enough, don’t omit the baking powder because it does improve the texture, and wield your spatula with caution to turn them without breaking the cakes around them. .

Once cooked, you can decide how to serve them. They are fine naked on a warmed platter, garnished with a large handful of cilantro leaves and wedges of lime as shown above. A squeeze of the fresh lime juice is important to the flavor, in my opinion, and I pick up a few cilantro leaves to add to each bite. My favorite garnish (vegetarian but not vegan) is some very good olive oil mayonnaise with a little extra lime juice and a lot of chopped cilantro stirred in. They can also be served with warmed small corn tortillas and guacamole, and a little heap of crumbled cotija cheese on top is a delicious tangy addition; the vegans at the table can just omit it.

The beans and blue cornmeal are both full of antioxidants, blue cornmeal is a whole-grain product, and beans have beneficial phytosterols as well as lots of fiber and other desirable nutritional factors. But I only eat things that taste good, and these cakes taste good.

Notes on cornmeal: a lot of cornmeal on the market is very uneven in grind, and any meal containing large particles will leave unpleasant hard fragments in your finished cakes. I buy a blue cornmeal made locally and ground to flour fineness. If you buy yours at the store, I suggest sifting it to get the largest chunks out, or whir it in the blender for a few minutes to grind it more finely. I would avoid the Bob’s Red Mill “medium grind” cornmeal: it seems to be a mix of the company’s fine grind and polenta grind, and can leave tooth-cracking particles in your bean cakes or cornbread. Seek out a better product.

More vegetable-centered meals

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This time of year, vegetables are abundant and make up the bulk of our diet. Recently I wanted to put together a meal cooked on the grill using only vegetables that can easily be found at the farmers’ market. The kitchen stays cool, and people who don’t have a garden aren’t left out. If you need to accomodate vegetarians and vegans at your table, this meal can have everyone at your table happily eating the same thing, with no need for special plates.

The only remotely exotic seasonings that you’ll need are Spanish smoked paprika, readily available as Pimenton de Vera at The Spanish Table and other specialty grocers, and some capers, preferably the kind preserved in salt.
Click here for the recipe Continue reading

The Joys of Summer: pizza on the grill

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About this time of year, we have some days when it’s too hot to plan dinner. All afternoon we’re listless and have no appetite, then the sun goes down, the air cools off, and we’re hungry. Nothing was planned ahead, but we still want a delicious and healthy meal. Pizza on the grill is custom-made for those times. july 2009 040

Made with beautiful ripe tomatoes and basil from the garden, this is a celebration of summer. This version is vegetarian.

Click here for the recipe! Continue reading

The Joys of Summer: Simple Lunches

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There are few things I love more than leisurely weekend lunches eaten on our back patio, with good food and sweet surroundings. I don’t like to fuss in the kitchen for these meals, though, and in this season there’s no reason to. With tomatoes and basil in the yard or at the farmers market, a bottle of olive oil, and a good loaf of sourdough bread, you’re set.

First, catch your tomatoes. Meaty beefsteak types are delicious here, but you can use any really flavorful tomato, including ripe sweet Sungold or Green Grape cherry tomatoes. If you have bland and blah tomatoes, do something else with them; this demands great tomato flavor. If you don’t bake your own bread, get a good loaf of crusty sourdough or a crusty baguette; in our area the baguettes from Sage Bakehouse are hard to beat. Make your basil into pesto according to your favorite recipe or use my own favorite below. During the summer, I usually have some pesto handy, and it will keep a day or two without much loss of flavor, making this truly fast food. It’s also good for a mixed group of omnivores, vegetarians, and vegans.

You’ll need (at a minimum) half a big beefsteak tomato or one regular tomato or at least a dozen cherry tomatoes per person. When you’re ready to eat, slice the tomatoes and spread them out on a plate. A lot of juice will probably run out on the cutting board. Make sure to pour it onto the plate. Juice is half the point here. Drizzle with pesto and sprinkle with coarse sea salt. Drizzle on a little of your best olive oil. Slice the bread and toast or grill it. Bring the tomatoes and bread to the table on two separate plates, with a small plate for each person. The lucky eaters will need a spoon to scoop tomatoes and juice onto their crusty bread. They will also need to be sufficiently at ease to shamelessly rub their bread into the delicious juices on the tomato plate. Have plenty of napkins handy.
For more on pesto, click here! Continue reading

The Greens of Spring: Greens Enchiladas

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This recipe makes no claims to be authentic Mexican, but it’s healthy and delicious, so enjoy it for what it is. It’s certainly in the Mexican spirit of making use of what comes along. I should mention that the idea came from Rick Bayless’s famous “greens tacos,” so thanks, Rick. I used mild and velvety blanched nettles for the greens . See my earlier post on nettles if you aren’t familiar with them.

For two servings:
6 corn tortillas
A little oil for pan-frying the tortillas
1 cup blanched mild greens; Swiss chard, spinach, mallow, nettles, or a combination.
1 pint Roasted Tomato and Tomatillo Salsa; see my  website Recipes page under “tomatoes,” or substitute your own favorite cooked salsa. Raw salsas like Pico de Gallo won’t work here.
¼ pound grated Monterey Jack cheese
¼ pound Cotija cheese (or use extra Monterey Jack for a milder flavor)
½ cup chopped cilantro

Fry the tortillas briefly, or cook them on a comal if you prefer. Set them aside. Chop the greens well, mix with 1 cup of the salsa, and heat to a full simmer, stirring frequently. Spread ¼ of the greens mixture on each of two tortillas, and scatter a bit of cilantro over. Top each with another tortilla, and spread with the rest of the greens mixture and sprinkle on a little more cilantro. Top each stack with one of the remaining tortillas, spread the tops and any exposed edges of the stacks with the rest of the salsa, and top with a mixture of the two cheeses or just with shredded Monterey Jack. Bake at 400 degrees until hot and the cheese is melted. You can brown it briefly under the broiler, if you wish. Serve garnished with the remaining cilantro.
This makes a wonderful lunch or light supper. For a more filling dinner, top each stack with a fried egg. Good with beer.
In the picture above, some calendula petals are scattered around with the cilantro. They don’t have much flavor, but add a lovely sunny color.