Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Dinner

Hosting Christmas for my large extended family has been my pleasure and joy for nearly two decades. Often the festivities begin early in the morning with family members arriving, one after the other, each weighed down with offerings of gifts and food.  Soon the coffee is brewed and poured, the Danish is cut and served, and a frenzy of gift opening commences. (This was especially true when the kids were very young.)  After the last present is opened, my husband Asaf and his team of reluctant young workers madly dash about cleaning up all the paper and ribbon, sorting and stacking the gifts, and gathering all the empty coffee cups, as my mom, my two sisters, my brother-in-law Tony (chef extraordinaire and expert with a knife), and I start covering the large table in the dining area with an ample spread of cold cuts, rolls, toppings, and condiments, as well as a variety of salads, pickled and raw vegetables, chips, dips, and drinks.  Notably, during this hectic period, my father likes to stand right in the middle of this kitchen chaos, silently letting us know that he is eager for his turkey sandwich and coleslaw.  (He's just going to have to wait a few minutes -- we are going as fast as we can!)

Lunch is then followed by gift inspection and assembly (last year a gigantic remote-controlled flying clown-fish dominated my living room all day long!), games, chatter, and free flowing champagne for some, and a bit of napping for others.  Capping off the afternoon with a white elephant exchange is a family tradition that always results in a lot of laughter and often some tears -- particularly when someone steals your awesome Ghirardelli assorted hot cocoa beverage kit, and in its place you are left with a poem about your mother's feet!

So, while our Christmas dinner is always festive family meal, it is marked by simplicity out of necessity.  A very good cut of meat that needs little attention while roasting in the oven, surrounded by a few simple sides, most of which can easily be prepared the night before, works well for us.  Here's what we have planned for this year.

Christmas Dinner Menu - 2013

Baby Romaine Lettuce Salad with Blue Cheese and Radish
Herb Roasted Leg of Lamb with Pan Gravy
Honey-Glazed Chicken Drumettes
Garlic Mashed Potatoes
Olive Oil Green Beans
Tomatoes with Fresh Mint
Burgundy Mushrooms  

Kir Royale
Sparkling Cider
Sparkling Water

Chocolate Truffles
Fresh Strawberries
Homemade Cookies Galore

Christmas Spiced Coffee
Eggnog with Fresh Whipped Cream

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Organic Baby Lettuce Salad with Blue, Beets, and Carmelized Pecans

My artistic sister Cheryl and I share a love of vegetables, especially salads, and particularly colorful salads featuring contrasting flavors and textures.  This year Cheryl made this beautiful salad that combines sweet and savory for our Thanksgiving feast, and it was so good that I made it again for a Christmas potluck, and then second time just because....  My sister's version includes bacon, which is of course very delicious, but as you will see the bacon is conspicuously absent from the vegetarian version depicted below.  The following recipe serves about 6 decent-sized portions.  I doubled it for the potluck, as did my sister for Thanksgiving.

Start with about 8 cups of mixed organic baby lettuce.  Use whatever blend of lettuce varieties you enjoy, but be sure to include radicchio, notable for its eye-catching red color and lovely bitter accent.  Chop the lettuce coarsely and place in a large serving bowl.

Roast or boil 2-3 yellow beets, and when cool, peel the beets, slice them into thin wedges, and give them a quick pickle by allowing them to rest in a bowl with a splash of vinegar and some salt and pepper for 15 minutes or so.

In the meantime, peel and mince 2 medium shallots, and dice up 1 yellow tomato and 1/2 an English cucumber.  Also, chop up a handful of fresh herbs, such as dill, parsley, and/or mint for an extra flavor punch! Sprinkle the ingredients over the lettuce and add the pickled beets.

Next, measure out 1/4 cup of crumbled blue cheese and 1/3 cup of candied pecans.  (You can candy the pecans yourself, but Trader Joe's sells candied pecans that are out of this world.)  Coarsely chop the pecans.

Finally, whisk together a simple Dijon vinaigrette by measuring out 1/4 cup of very good extra virgin olive oil, 2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar, 1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard, and a bit of Kosher salt.  Pour the dressing over the salad just before serving, scatter the blue cheese and pecans on top, and add a few grinds of fresh cracked black pepper.

Now if you are craving the full on carnivore version of this salad, this is the point at which you would also add plenty of salty crumbled bacon.  And if, like me, you follow a strictly vegan diet (at least during the day), adapt the recipe by swapping cubes of creamy avocado for the blue cheese. 

No matter your dietary predilection, there is a version of this salad for you to enjoy!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Arugula-Pasta Salad


This is one of my favorite pasta salads -- it's heavy on the salad but still satisfies those pasta cravings!  First, I measure out about 2 cups of good pasta-salad pasta.  I used strozzapreti, but other good choices include orecchiette, fusilli or cavatelli.  I cook the pasta in plenty of boiling water until it is just a little past al dente.

While the pasta is cooking, I peel and cut up one turnip into thin matchstick slices.

And I rinse and dry a bunch of wild arugula -- about 4 cups, and a few leaves of fresh basil, chopped.

Finally, I measure out about 1 cup of diced marinated artichoke hearts -- with or without pimentos -- either is fine.

When the pasta is ready, I drain it and rinse it in cold water to arrest the cooking.  Then I combine all the ingredients.

I dress the salad with a simple vinaigrette -- 1/4-cup extra virgin olive oil, 1/8-cup fresh lemon juice, 1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard, and 1/4 teaspoon of Kosher salt.  I whisk that together, pour it over the salad, and toss.  Then I season with plenty of fresh ground black pepper and some additional salt, if needed.

This is the vegan version, and it's ready to serve, but if you are so-inclined, you may want to add some shaved Parmesan cheese for an extra bite.  I love this salad served alongside a crusty sourdough baguette.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Meat-Filled Vegetables (Delicious Dolma) - The Quintisential VB6 Dinner

Dolma means "stuffed" in Turkish, and I think this meal of stuffed vegetables is a quintisential VB6 dinner.  It is a vegetable-dominated dish that features a small amount of meat, some rice, and plenty of herbs.  Topped with garlic infused yogurt, dolma is a healthy, well-balanced, easy-to-prepare and very delicious non-vegan meal that represents the perfect compromise for the part-time vegan who is carefully watching his or her meat consumption.

I start with 1 lb. of high quality organic ground beef.  You can also use lamb, or a combination of beef and lamb.  To that, I add 1grated white onion, 1 grated juicy red tomato, a cup each of well-chopped fresh dill, mint, and Italian flat leaf parsley, 1/3 cup of uncooked long-grain rice, 1 clove of garlic (finely minced), and some salt and black pepper.  Combine.

For the vegetables, you will want about 15 of of your favorite in-season stuffable vegetables.  The most common choices are small, thinner skinned bell peppers, slender eggplants, such as Japanese eggplants, zucchinis, tomatoes, and stuffable leaves, such as cabbage and grape leaves.  Today I chose Japanese eggplants, round zucchinis (one of my favorite dolma vegetables), red and green bell peppers, poblano chiles (definitely not a traditional choice, but really delicious in dolma), and tomatoes.

I prepare the vegetables for stuffing by cleaning them and carefully removing (and reserving) all the tops.  I remove and toss the pepper seeds and membranes.  Next, I hollow out the eggplants, zucchinis, and tomatoes with my nifty vegetable corer, reserving all of the removed pulp to line the bottom of my cooking pot.  I also partially peel the eggplant, leaving long zebra stripes (pictured below).

Then I stuff all my vegetables.  And if I find I have any leftover stuffing, I just dig out another vegetable or two from the refrigerator.

Once all the vegetables are stuffed, I pull out a really big pot and line the bottom of it with all the pulp that I removed from the eggplants, zucchinis, and tomatoes.  Then I start layering the pot with the stuffed vegetables -- the firmest and heaviest vegetables go on the bottom, and the lightest and most delicate vegetables go on top.  I then add several pats of butter and about 2-3 cups of hot water mixed with 2 tablespoons of tomato paste.  Next, I sprinkle in about 1/2 teaspoon salt and place an ovenproof plate on top to weigh down the vegetables.  Finally, I bring the liquid to a boil, and cover and cook on a low heat until the meat is cooked through and the vegetables are tender, but not mushy.  It should take about a hour, but start checking for doneness after 45 minutes.

We love our dolma served with cooked bulgur on the side, and topped with a generous portion of creamy plain yogurt mixed with fresh minced garlic.  And a sprinkling of Turkish red pepper (pul biber) sets it off perfectly!

Quick and Yummy VB6 Breakfast Favorites

Though never really a fan of bacon and eggs or sausage and pancakes, I nevertheless tended to favor a very non-vegan selection of food for breakfast.  My go-to breakfast foods for most of my life have been bread and cheese, yogurt and fruit, and protein smoothies.  So I was initially afraid that I would have a hard time switching to an all-vegan breakfast.

As it turns out, vegan breakfasts are fabulous and right up my alley.  On Saturdays I often go to the farmer's market bright and early, and there I like to hit up the vegan tamale guy.  His vegan tamales are filled with corn, peas, artichoke hearts, and tomato and they are delicious.

During the week I choose simple and portable breakfasts that I can take with me to work.  One of my favorites is sprouted organic bread, toasted and smeared with fresh ground peanut butter or almond butter (the kind you grind yourself at the market), and topped with a bit of all-natural fruit spread.  I love St. Dalfour "old French recipe" Black Raspberry, which contains nothing but fruit (no added cane sugar or artificial sweetener).  The natural sweetness of the fruit is the perfect counterpoint to the salty peanut butter or almond butter.

Another vegan breakfast favorite of mine is 7 Grain Hot Cereal.  I buy the Bob's Red Mill brand and make a batch over the weekend, following the package directions (1 cup of uncooked cereal makes about 4-5 servings of cooked cereal.)  I store the cooked cereal in the refrigerator and take single servings to work with some almond milk and various toppings -- such as any combination of nuts, dried fruit, fresh fruit, and cinnamon.  I heat the cereal and milk, add my toppings, and top with a tiny drizzle of maple syrup.  (Did you know that maple syrup is vegan whereas honey is not?).  Walnuts, pumpkin seeds, dried plums, and fresh cut up yellow peaches among my favorite toppings!

Salsa Verde

I really, really love making homemade salsa because it involves a lot of dicing (something I totally enjoy for some reason), and the end result is colorful, spicy, and delicious!  An essential condiment to delicious vegan dining, salsa adds flavor and pizazz to beans, rice, raw vegetables, sliced avocados, and even baked potatoes.  And while I love all types of salsa, I am particularly fond of green salsa, or salsa verde.

This recipe makes a pretty big batch, so you may want to cut it in half.  Warning -- there are a lot of steps, but it's still an easy dish to make, and the end result is so much better than any "fresh" salsa sold in the supermarket, so it's well worth the effort.

I start with a bunch of ripe green tomatillos of varying sizes (about 20 or so).  Since tomatillos grow in a thin, paper-like husk, it is important to inspect each, one by one, by carefully lifting the husk, to ensure each tomatillo has a bright green appearance and a smooth, shiny skin.

First, I remove the husks and wash the tomatillos in warm water to rid them of their slightly sticky residue.  Then I put them in all in a pot, along with 1 jalapeno pepper, 1 Serrano pepper, a teaspoon of salt, and just enough water to barely cover the tomatillos and peppers.  I bring the water to a boil, and as soon as the smaller tomatillos start to soften, I turn off the heat and let everything cool down.  I intentionally cook them unevenly -- some more done, some less done -- so that my finished salsa will have a rustic texture.

Next, I roast two poblano peppers right on the burner over a low flame, turning frequently until they are charred on all sides.  When those are ready, I plop them into a plastic or paper bag, close it up, and let them sweat.  When they are cool enough to handle, I remove the skin and the seeds and dice them up and set them aside.

In the meantime, I dice 1 medium white onion, 2 scallions (including the green parts) and a large bunch of cilantro (including some of the stems, which are packed with flavor).  I add to that mixture 1 very finely diced jalapeno pepper and set that aside. (Note you may choose to include or omit the seeds and membranes of the jalapeno, depending on how spicy you like your salsa.) 

Then I put the cooked tomatillos in a food processor or blender, along with the cooked jalapeno and Serrano peppers.  (I chop up the cooked peppers a bit first, and keep in all the seeds.)  To that I add about a cup of the diced onion-pepper-cilantro mixture, 1/2 teaspoon of cumin, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, 1/4 teaspoon of black pepper, 1/4 teaspoon of sugar, and the juice of one lime.  You made need to do this part in batches if you are working with a smaller food processor, like I am.

Next I blend everything altogether on pulse mode, adding small amounts of the reserved cooking liquid until the consistency is just right, and pour it all into a bowl.  It should look like this.

I then add the remaining chopped onion-cilantro-jalapeno mixture to the salsa as well as the roasted and diced poblano peppers, stir it all together, and adjust the seasonings.

If the salsa verde is not hot enough for your taste, chop up and add more fresh jalapeno and Serrano peppers.  If it's too hot, don't worry -- the heat will mellow as the salsa cools and the flavors marry.  Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour. 

Salsa verde is really a wonderful and versatile condiment that livens up many dishes and makes vegan eating all the more enjoyable, but of course nothing beats a bowl of it, all on its own, with some excellent tortilla chips.

Our Tasty Thanksgiving Menu - 2013

Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday.  And this year the crisp Autumn weather and the anticipation good company gathering over a delicious meal promises to bring family and close friends together at my home to celebrate the gratitude we all feel for the many blessings in our lives.

I've been tinkering with recipe ideas and conferring with family members for weeks, but I think the menu is solid now.  First, there will be no Tofurkey at our Thanksgiving table (sorry!), but the bird will be fresh (not frozen), humanely treated, and later brined, stuffed, and (hopefully) cooked to perfection.  And there will be an abundance of seasonal vegetables and fruits, either served simply or converted into casseroles, stews, compotes, soups, salads, pies and even beverages.

Our Tasty Thanksgiving Menu - 2013

Butternut Squash Soup
Winter Root Salad
Roast Turkey, Bread Stuffing with Giblets (my Dad's favorite), and Pan Gravy
Vegetarian Bread Dressing
Au Gratin Potatoes made with Gruyere and Creme Fraiche
Roasted Cauliflower with Hazelnuts
Parmesan Mushroom Caps
Flash Cooked Fresh Asparagus and Fresh Baby Carrots, with Cracked Pepper
Stuffed Artichoke Hearts
Grilled Eggplant with Fresh Ricotta and Feta Cheeses
Spicy Corn Casserole
Molded Cranberry Salad with Quince and Sour Cherries
Crunchy Baguettes

Winter Sangria (Spanish Red Wine & Seasonal Fruit served over Big Ice Cubes)
Beer from Around the World
Sparkling Cider
Sparkling Water

Lisa's Famous "Eat on the Road" Apple Pie
Tony's Awesome Banana Cream Pie
Wendy's Dazzling Pumpkin Torte


Wishing you all a Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Pan Charred Okra -- Yum!

While I have never met a vegetable I did not like, okra is definitely a vegetable that I do not know very well.  Anxious to forge a relationship with this mucilaginous or gooey plant, I was happy to encounter this recipe (which I modified ever so slightly), while browsing through my favorite cookbook, Jerusalem, for some Middle-Eastern-Vegan inspiration the other day.  This fresh okra recipe calls for "charring" the okra in a dry pan first, and then doing a quick sauté in olive oil.  Not only does this method impart a wonderful charred flavor into the okra, but it reduces the characteristic okra slime that some people find unappealing.

I started off with about 1 lb. of fresh okra.  With a sharp knife I carefully cut off the stems right where they meet the pod, making sure the seeds were not exposed, and then I touched up the edges, as needed. 

Next, I heated up a heavy bottomed pan until it was very hot (for about 2 minutes) and then tossed in 1/2 the okra and cooked it in the dry hot pan for 4 to 5 minutes, tossing frequently, until the okra was blistered.  I then repeated the process with the other half of the okra.

In the meantime, I thinly sliced 4-5 cloves of garlic and removed a nice chunk of rind from 1/2 a lemon.

Once the second batch of okra was ready, I reduced the heat on the stove to medium-high, returned the first half of the blistered okra to the pan, and stirred in 2 tablespoons of good olive oil, along with the lemon rind and sliced garlic.  I cooked the ingredients for about 5 minutes, stirring often with a wooden spoon.

Then I reduced the heat to medium low and added about 8 beautiful cherry tomatoes, sliced in half and seasoned with just a bit of salt, along with 2 tablespoons of water, and 1/4 cup each of chopped cilantro and Italian flat leaf parsley.  I let that all cook together gently for about 5 more minutes.

Finally I seasoned the dish with Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste, and served it to myself for lunch.  It was delicious!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Ridiculously Good Oven-Baked Ratatouille

What I like most about this Mark Bittman-inspired Ratatouille recipe, is that the fresh vegetables are baked, not fried, thus making it more of a Tian of Provencal Vegetables.  It's absolutely delicious, and the recipe could not be easier!

I start with 1 Bermuda onion, 1 Anaheim pepper, 1 poblano pepper, 2 Italian eggplants, 2 zucchini, 2 Roma tomatoes, and 5 heads of garlic.  First, I slice the onion and peppers into long, thin strips.  Next, I slice the eggplant, zucchini and tomato lengthwise into 1/4-inch  slices, and finally, I peel and slice the garlic into very thin slices.

I also chop about 1/2 cup of Italian flat leaf parsley.

In a casserole, I start layering the vegetables, starting with half of the onion slices,...

... followed by half of the sliced eggplant,...

... followed by half of the sliced the tomatoes, half of the pepper strips, and half of the zucchini slices.

Then I add half of the sliced garlic and half chopped parsley, as well as sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste...

...and repeat.

I drizzle 1/4-cup of very good extra virgin olive oil over the top, cover, add a bit more salt and pepper, and bake uncovered at 350 degrees for 1-1/2 to 2 hours, pressing down the vegetables with a spatula every 1/2 hour or so until the vegetables are soft and completely cooked through.

The finished dish is divine, served hot, cold, or room temperature.  We love it along side rice or bulgur, and it also makes a great starter.