Monday, September 30, 2013

Roasted Red Bell Pepper Dip - "Muhammara"

The other day while I was out shopping, a pepper fairy (I'm quite sure it was my friend Susie) came to my house and left a bag of beautiful bell peppers that had just been picked from the garden.  Just look at how fresh and gorgeous they are!  Needless to say, I was very happy!

I decided to make a Middle Eastern roasted red pepper dip called Muhammara -- a lovely vegan dip featuring red peppers and walnuts -- the perfect accompaniment for crudités and something that I had been wanting to make since embarking on the VB6 plan.

I started by roasting 5 red bell peppers and a quarter of a head of garlic.  First I rinsed and placed the whole peppers on a sheet pan and wrapped the garlic head, rubbed with olive oil, in some aluminum foil and dropped that on the sheet pan as well.  I roasted everything in a 500 degree oven for 30 minutes, turning the peppers every 10 minutes.

When the peppers and garlic were done roasting, I took the pan out of the oven, covered it with a large sheet of foil, and let everything cool down and sweat.  Once cool enough to handle, I removed the skin from the peppers (it practically fell off), and squeezed the softened garlic right out of its protective covering.

Next, I placed the peppers and garlic into the food processor, along with 3/4 cup of lightly toasted walnuts (just a quick toast in a hot, dry frying pan for a few minutes), 1/4 cup of good olive oil, 1/4 cup of unseasoned breadcrumbs, 1/2 teaspoon of cumin, 1/4 teaspoon of salt, 1/4 teaspoon of good red pepper, and some coarse black pepper to taste.  Finally, I added about 2 teaspoons of fresh lemon juice to the mixture, and I pulsed all the ingredients together until the texture was smooth.

A wonderful dip for crudités, Muhammara is of course also perfect for dipping in pita triangles, and it is just delicious spread onto slices of fresh, crunchy bread.  In this version, the roasted garlic infuses the dip with a warm, subtle garlic flavor; however, if you prefer the strong presence of garlic, you can add 2-3 cloves of fresh crushed garlic in lieu of the roasted garlic.  Also, feel free to use jarred red peppers -- particularly in warm weather when you don't want to crank your oven up to 500 degrees, as they work quite well in this preparation.

As you can see, Muhammara is super easy to prepare.  Plus, it keeps well in the refrigerator, and like hummus, it is a healthy and delicious alternative to cheese and dairy-based dips and spreads.  Enjoy!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Comforting "Chicken-less" Noodle Soup

Where I work in the entertainment business district of Los Angeles known as "Century City," it is very hard to come by a decent lunch for under $10.00.  And more often the cost is substantially higher than that.  So bringing my lunch to work not only allows me to control the kind of the food I am eating, but my wallet is happier as well.  Often I will prepare several servings of favorite vegan meals in the evening or on the weekend and store them in the refrigerator so they are ready to grab-and-go in the morning when I am super-pressed for time.  What with bathroom jockeying, last minute homework, missing uniform pieces (and other wardrobe malfunctions), preparing various meals (breakfasts, school lunches, and work lunches), and carpool duty all colliding at 7:00 am, I need all the shortcuts I can get!

Delicious and comforting, Chicken-less Noodle Soup, loaded with fresh chunky vegetables, is one of my favorite make-ahead, grab-and-go lunches.  And the substitution of fresh turnips for potatoes in this pretty basic soup recipe not only intensifies the flavor, but it raises the already high nutrition value while lowering the calorie count, making it an excellent VB6 lunch choice.

The ingredients for this simple recipe include 2 leeks, 2 carrots,1 turnip, a few mushrooms, 1 cup of whole wheat noodles (eggless), and about 4 cups of good vegetable broth.  (I really like Manischewitz, which is clear, delicious, Kosher, and MSG free.)  In addition, I season and garnish the soup with fresh lemon, a bit of Italian flat-leaf parsley, and some salt and pepper.

First, I bring about 2 cups of water to a boil and cook the noodles al dente, according to package directions.  I rinse them in cool water and set them aside.  Since the noodles will soften more when added to the soup, it is best not to cook them too much at the outset.

While the noodles are cooking, I wash, trim and slice the leek, including some of the tender greens.  Leek often has bits of mud hidden between the membranes, so it is important to wash it thoroughly, both before and after slicing it.  I also peel and slice the carrots into nice bite-sized chunks.  

Next I peel and slice the turnip into thin wedges (just as you might a potato), and I cut the mushrooms into bite-size chunks.  Because I love vegetables so much, I cut them into rather large chunks that I can bite into and really taste.  Tiny vegetables just get lost.

I start by sautéing the leek and carrots in just a bit of olive oil (about a tablespoon) over medium heat for about 4 to 5 minutes, stirring frequently to make sure the leek does not brown.  

Then I add in the turnip and mushroom slices and saute for a few more minutes.

Next I add the vegetable broth and the cooked noodles to the pot, and stir everything together.  I bring the soup to a boil, and then let it simmer for 10-15 minutes.  It is done cooking when the carrot and turnip slices are "just" tender.

Next, I season the soup with salt, pepper, and a few squeezes of fresh lemon juice, and I let it cool way down.

I prepare my grab-and-go containers by filling them with delicious soup, and garnishing each with some chopped parsley and a thin wedge of lemon.

Comforting, healthy, and yummy, the soup will keep in the refrigerator for several days, ready for the taking!


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Güler's Stuffed Artichoke Hearts in Olive Oil - Zeytinyağlı Enginar

Among the most elegant and sophisticated of the Turkish olive oil dishes, Zeytinyağlı Enginar -- a gorgeous, completely vegan side dish made of whole artichokes hearts cooked in olive oil, filled with delicate bites of carrot, potato, onion, and peas, and garnished with plenty of fresh dill -- charms the eyes as well as the taste budsThis is one of my lovely mother-in-law Güler's signature dishes, and I can only try to do justice to it, as among her many other gifts and talents, she is an artistic and fearless cook!  Güler is the kind of woman who pours cognac over beef tenderloin and sets it on fire at the dinner table, slices mushrooms horizontally instead of vertically, makes yufka (phyllo dough) from scratch, and prepares delicious homemade fresh fruit cordials for her guests.  She sets beautiful tables, creates lovely flower arrangements, and she is an elegant, charming, and engaging hostess.  I was very lucky to have my amazing mother-in-law take me under her wing when I was just 21, newly married, and living in Turkey.  She taught me so much about food preparation and presentation, and for that, and many, many other things, I am very grateful to have her in my life.  Anneciğim, çok teşekkür ederım -- seni çok, çok, çok seviyorum!

* * * * *

During artichoke season in Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries, artichoke vendors, expert at trimming, cleaning and extracting the beautiful hearts, can be found in produce markets and even meandering through the neighborhoods with trucks or carts loaded up with fresh artichokes, making ready-to-use fresh artichoke hearts readily available during certain times of the year.  And while you can attempt to clean and extract the hearts at home, it is a laborious job.  Fortunately, although whole artichoke hearts are rather unconventional in the U.S., you can nevertheless find both frozen and jarred versions that are ready-to-use in most grocery stores that carry Middle Eastern products.  I use the frozen artichoke hearts, and they are just delicious.

Here is the recipe for Güler's Zeytinyağlı Enginar, substituting frozen artichoke hearts for the fresh ones she uses.

I start off by defrosting a 14 ounce bag of frozen artichokes and then blotting away any wetness with clean paper towels.

Next, I peel and dice two carrots and two waxy potatoes (measuring about 1 cup each).  I like an angular dice that is uniform in size and visually attractive.  I also peel and slice one medium white onion into thin, vertical slices, and I measure out 1/2 cup of peas.  I use fresh peas, but you can definitely substitute frozen defrosted peas or even canned peas as well.

I pour 1/2 cup of really good olive oil into a shallow pot and sauté the onion for a few minutes until the onion just gets soft.  Then I add the carrots and continue to sauté for a few minutes longer.  Next I add in the potatoes and peas, along with just a pinch of sugar, and salt to taste, and I very gently combine the ingredients.

Next, I carefully insert the artichoke hearts (bottom down) in between the other vegetables and add juice from 1/2 of a fresh lemon.  After that, I pour 1 cup of boiling hot water over the vegetables.  I let everything cook together on medium high heat for about 10 minutes, and then I cover the pot and reduce the heat to simmer.

I allow all the ingredients to simmer for 45 minutes, until most of the liquid has evaporated and everything is fork tender, and then I turn off the heat and let everything rest in the pot until it comes to room temperature.  Finally I adjust the seasonings, arrange the artichokes on a serving dish, and garnish with plenty of chopped fresh dill.

As with all Turkish olive oil dishes, Zeytinyagli Enginar can be served chilled or room temperature, and it will keep well in the refrigerator for several days.  As you can see, it's a lovely dish, and the taste is unique and delicious.

Afiyet olsun!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Particular Sadness of Vegan Lemon Cake

A vegan lemon cake, or any vegan cake for that matter, must be a rather sad cake in contrast with its non-vegan counterpart by virtue of its composition, or by virtue of what its composition lacks, right?  Not so!  In fact, much to my surprise, there is nothing particularly sad about this lemon cake at all -- except for the fact that it is the only unhealthy recipe I've posted to date. 

Honestly, I've never had much of a sweet tooth at all.  While others regularly crave chocolate, I crave salsa.  I seldom partake in the birthday cake, and I almost never gravitate toward the dessert table, instead choosing to have another helping of scalloped potatoes or one more piece of bruschetta.  And while I will opt for savory over sweet almost any day of the week, there are those rare times when the urge for something sugary hits me, and that's what happened today. Early this morning, I was just staring at the beautiful lemon tree that stands beside my front porch and reliably supplies me and my family with our daily allotment of lemons -- we use lemons for everything from salad dressings and soup enhancers to scrubbing chicken parts and cleaning barbecues.  Upon seeing dozens of ripe lemons high up in the tree, I became overwhelmed with the desire to attempt a VEGAN lemon cake.  So I went into action mode and started hunting down various recipes for inspiration.  Here is the end result, and it's really delicious!

Tart and Moist Vegan Lemon Pound Cake with Macadamia Nuts and Sweet and Sour Icing

First, I pick a bunch of lemons from the tree.  This recipe requires about 5 juicy organic lemons in total.  It's especially important to use organic lemons in this dish because plenty of lemon rind will be consumed.

Next, I measure out and combine the dry ingredients:  1-1/2 cups of white flour (I know, bad!), 1 cup of white granulated sugar (worse than bad!), and 1 teaspoon of baking soda.

Then I zest lemons until I have about 2 tablespoons of lemon zest.  If you don't have a zester, a grater with small holes will do the trick.

Next I measure out the remaining ingredients, which include 1/2 cup of fresh lemon juice, 3/4 cup of water, 5 tablespoons of vegetable oil, a teaspoon of good vanilla, a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar, and 1/2 cup of macadamia nuts.  I combine all the wet ingredients into a separate measuring cup and add in the lemon zest.

Then I coarsely chop the macadamia nuts, and toss those in with the liquid as well.  Finally, I whisk the wet ingredients, pour the contents into the bowl of dry ingredients, and let the chemistry experiment begin.  As the baking soda reacts with the vinegar, everything bubbles up.  Although you may be tempted to stop and watch, it's important to stay on course and keep whisking everything until a smooth and creamy batter emerges.

Then I pour the batter into an ungreased loaf pan and bake it at 350 degrees for about an hour, checking for doneness in 5 minute intervals after about 50 minutes.

When the cake is fully cooked I remove it from the oven and allow it time to completely cool down.

Once the cake reaches room temperature, I carefully removed it from pan, set it on a serving plate, and  prepare the lemon glaze for the top by quickly whisking together 3/4 cup of powdered sugar and 3 tablespoons of lemon juice.  This makes a very tart and sweet glaze that really tickles your tongue.  I drizzle the glaze all over the top of the cake, and then I let it cool and harden in the refrigerator.  (It's really good chilled!)  The cake should chill for at least and hour before serving, but such cakes will last for days, if refrigerated.

Moist and flavorful, this cake was surprisingly delicious inasmuch as it was made without the benefit of eggs, butter, or cream.

Actually, on second thought, what is particularly sad about this vegan lemon cake is that I discovered it the day after my mother's birthday celebration.  While my mother is not a vegan, she does not eat eggs and she avoids like the plague all butter, butter substitutes, butter flavored products, and any products that look like they might have been near any other products with butter in them, so this would have been an absolutely perfect birthday cake for my mother!  Next year, Mama Bear.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

"Burnt" Smoky Eggplant Served over Arugula

Ubiquitous in Middle Eastern cuisine, the eggplant is a versatile and delicious vegetable, whether baked, broiled, grilled, roasted, or fried.   And my favorite method of cooking eggplant by far -- that is, burning it -- elevates the eggplant's flavor and rich texture decidedly.  I hope you will agree that this very basic interpretation of eggplant salad featuring the smoky aroma and taste of charred eggplant intermingled with the sharp, pungent flavors of garlic, mint, parsley and lemon, all served on a bed of spicy arugula, to be a truly memorable and flavorful eggplant salad presentation.  It represents the essence of what eggplant can be at its simplest and best!  

I start off with four Italian eggplants. Italian eggplants have a slender figure and sturdy skin, just perfect for burning.

I place all of the eggplants directly on the stove top burners with the gas set at medium low, and I allow the eggplants to roast slowly, turning often and in various directions.  Soon the kitchen is filled with the delicious aroma of charred eggplant.

The eggplants are done when their outer skin is completely burnt and flaky, and the entire eggplant is very soft to touch, from top to bottom.  This will take anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the size of the eggplants.  The finished eggplants should look like this.

Once the charred eggplant is cool, I carefully remove the skin and place the strips and chunks of eggplant pulp into a colander or strainer, and let it drain for at least an hour or more.  This step is often skipped, but ridding the eggplant pulp of extra water provides that rich velvety texture that makes eggplant salad so wonderful.

In the meantime, I assemble the remaining ingredients, including a lemon, a handful each of fresh mint and Italian flat leaf parsley, two scallions, 2 large cloves of garlic, a teaspoon of ground sumac, extra good olive oil, salt and pepper, and 3-4 cups of fresh arugula.  Sumac, with its tart, lemony flavor and deep reddish-purple color, really compliments the smoky eggplant, and can be found in any store that carries a Middle Eastern products and/or a wide-variety of spices.

Next, I place the strained eggplant on a cutting board and chop it all up like so.  Then I mince the garlic and fold that in, along with 2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice, 2 tablespoons of very good olive oil,1 teaspoon of dried sumac, and salt and pepper to taste.

I adjust the seasonings, and when the flavor tastes just right, I fold in the finely chopped scallion, mint, and parsley, along with about a tablespoon of fresh lemon zest and a drizzle of olive oil on top, and I serve it over fresh, spicy arugula.

This eggplant recipe is equally delicious served as an appetizer or meze, accompanied by thin slices of crusty bread or toasted pita triangles for dipping.  What I love most about it is the way the smoky eggplant contrasts so beautifully with the fresh mint in this dish.