The Accidental Vegetarian

January 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

As I savoured a perfect piece of medium rare hanger steak at Locavore restaurant the other week, I was struck by how unfamiliar the flavour seemed. I guess I eat steak four or five times a year at most, even when I’m my most carnivorous version of my self. This is not a lament: when I do order that New York strip I ensure it’s someplace I am really going to enjoy it. In other words, I can count on all those steaks being pretty amazing ones. But it’s not only rib-eye that I find myself eating less and less. 3 of the 5 cookbooks I currently have out on the side, a reliable indicator of my cooking trends, are vegetarian or focused on vegetables. Of the other two, one is about fruit and the other whole grains. Now, I can feel the collective eye-roll coming at me from over the interwebs (and, believe me, my 20 year old self is right there with you) so let me clarify. I love meat and am not about to become a vegetarian. And I am not dieting. The thing is, vegetables taste really good. You can do fun things with them. They typically cost a lot less than meat. They look pretty on the plate. Nika Hazelton said it better than I can: “The most depressing thing ever said about vegetables is that they are good for one”. They are, of course, but this is not a January resolution post. It’s about flavour, texture and even comfort.

As a result of this cooking spree, I have quite the backlog of slaws and soups to push in your direction. But let’s start with something as simple as a pasta and broccoli salad, from the queen of vegetarian cookery, Deborah Madison. Since her classic tome turned up in my Christmas stocking, I’ve been tearing through the recipes. I’ve stopped bookmarking things, since bookmarks only really work when you don’t have one on every page, which is where I was heading with that book. While browsing the salad chapter I was really struck by Madison’s comments on pasta salads, which she suggests only really work if the salad is on the warm side rather than cold and gummy from the fridge. It’s the kind of detail in the book that leaves me nodding vigorously in agreement and then at the store 10 minutes later picking up the ingredients for that night’s supper.

The humble broccoli epitomizes everything I love about vegetables right now. The tight buds, sitting atop the tree-trunk stems, greedily slurp up the boldest flavours you can throw at them. A mere minute or three in a steamer or pan of vigorously bubbling water is enough to turn the muddy colour a vibrant green and take off the shock of the raw without sacrificing crunch. Fast food indeed. Add in handfuls of herbs, sundried tomatoes for tartness, pasta for bulk and drench it all in a piquant, creamy mustard vinaigrette and you’ve got dinner on your hands, or a great side dish for a buffet or bbq come to that. Just don’t be boring enough to tell anyone that it’s good for you.

Broccoli Pasta Salad
Adapted from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

Yields 3-4 servings

Madison suggests cauliflower or broccoli for this recipe. I prefer the broccoli purely for the colour contrast alongside the pasta.

1 lb/500g broccoli or cauliflower florets
4 sun-dried tomatoes, thinly sliced
1/2 cup/5 chopped scallions or spring onions
1/4 cup (a large handful) chopped parsley
8 ounces/225 grams pasta shells or corkscrews
fresh lemon juice, to taste

1 portion Mustard Vinaigrette, as follows:

2 tbsp red wine or sherry vinegar
2 shallots, finely diced
1 garlic clove, minced
salt and fresh black pepper
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
2 tbsp creme fraiche or sour cream (plain yoghurt would be another possible substitution)
1/3 cup/70ml olive oil
2 tbsp snipped chives
1 tbsp chopped parsley
3 tbsp capers

Begin by making the mustard vinaigrette. Combine the vinegar, shallots, garlic and 1/4 tsp salt in a small bowl. Leave to combine for 10 or 15 minutes then whisk in the mustard, creme fraiche and oil until thick and smooth. Season with a little pepper then stir in the herbs and capers. Taste and adjust the seasonings to your preference and leave to one side.

Take the raw edge off the broccoli or cauliflower by cooking in a large pot of salted boiling water for a couple of minutes. Scoop it out with a strainer, reserving the water for the pasta, and put in a large bowl along with the vinaigrette, tomatoes, scallions and parsley.

Cook the pasta in the reserved water until al dente, or to your preference. Drain and add to the bowl. Toss with the broccoli and other ingredients. Add fresh lemon juice to taste and serve warm.


Peanuts and Peppercorns

January 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Sometimes you only realise how much you wanted something when you actually have it. This happened late last week when two suspiciously identical and officious envelopes emerged from between the piles of catalogues and junk mail in our mail box (new year’s note to self: sign up for one of those opt-out lists) and turned out to contain our green cards along with a very jolly congratulatory note welcoming us as newly-minted permanent residents of the United States of America. Now it wasn’t that I hadn’t wanted the green card to arrive but since we’d been in possession of all the advance work and travel permits I had sort of mentally filed away this final part of the process. And, well, it turns out that the concept of being able to live and work here for as long as we like is really rather lovely. Not to mention that the next time I enter the US from abroad I can go through the nice residents queue rather than the snakingly depressing visitors one. Cheers to that!

I guess I should now be writing some post about short ribs and apple pie, or something similarly patriotic, but I have wanted for a really long time to tell you a little about my adventures with Sichuanese food and, on reflection, what could be more appropriate than talking about a cuisine that I have only had the chance to experience because of immigration itself. Where you find immigrants, you find adaptations and reworkings of home cuisines. It’s a way for the newly arrived to make a dime of course, but also food can provide one of the purest expressions of community and just feeling a bit more at home. There’s nothing more grounding and reassuring than tastes that have become so familiar over time as to be a part of oneself. And whether we are immigrants ourselves or not, we all benefit from this process and are able to savour exotic dishes without having to get on a plane or boat or train. It’s really quite magnificent.

Now you’ll recall that I am a girl who likes a good project and bringing the flavours and methods of Sichuanese cookery to my kitchen is one of my current culinary obsessions. And there can be no better companion to this spicy terrain than Fuschia Dunlop’s veritable bible on this cuisine, which I discovered last year when it rocked in at number 9 on the top 10 cookbooks list from the Observer. Dunlop was fortunate enough to be the first Westerner allowed to study at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu and she very kindly went on to make the vast body of knowledge she accrued on this remarkable cuisine available in a way that is completely accessible at home. Admittedly you might have to put in a bit more effort than a jaunt to the local supermarket to get hold of some of these ingredients, but I promise that the extra work is well worth it. And once you’ve stocked up your store cupboard with the luscious black soy sauces, lip-tingling peppercorns and fragrant vinegars that underpin this recipe, you’ll be able to have some of the best home-cooked Asian food you’ve ever had on your table, and all in about a half hour at that.

If you are going to cook Sichuanese at all, it isn’t going to be long before you turn your hand to Kung Pao chicken. Probably the most famous Sichuan dish in the Western world, it’s also one against which the skills of a Sichuanese chef are often measured. As with much of the cookery emanating from this part of the world, it relies on a subtle balance of the sweet and the sour, underpinned by a round heat and the distinctive numbness that comes from the Sichuan peppercorns. Don’t even try to recreate this recipe without getting hold of some Sichuan pepper: it’s such a crucial part of the dish’s character. As with all the other ingredients this recipe calls for, if you like the flavours of Sichuanese food they are also the basis of so many amazing recipes that it’s worth your time to get hold of them. In the US if you can’t get them locally (in SF they are stocked at Rainbow and Boulette’s Larder by the way) you can order from Penzeys, and in the UK Dunlop herself recommends the Sichuan pepper in the Bart’s spices range, also saying that they are fairly readily available in good supermarkets. Dunlop spends a lot of time in the book discussing Sichuanese knife skills and the importance of different kinds of cuts and slicing techniques to the Sichuanese aesthetic and while this clumsy, plaster-wearing cook is unlikely to get anywhere near that kind of finesse, Kung Pao chicken does derive a certain beauty from at least attempting to get a parity in the size of all the ingredients, chiefly to match the peanuts. But whatever you do to this dish, if you have the right components in hand at the start you are going to end up with something pretty much unbelievably tasty and that I guarantee will have moved from a new year project dish to being a staple of your weeknight supper rotation before you know it.

Kung Pao (aka Gong Bao) Chicken
Adapted from Fuchsia Dunlop’s Sichuan Cookery (published in the US as Land of Plenty)

Around 10oz/350g boneless chicken breast
3 cloves garlic and an equivalent amount of fresh ginger
5 scallions/spring onions
2 tbsp peanut/groundnut oil
a generous handful of dried red chiles (at least 10), preferably Sichuanese
1 tsp whole Sichuan peppercorns
2/3 cup/75g raw unsalted peanuts

For the marinade:

1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp light soy sauce
1 tsp Shaoxing wine or medium dry sherry
1 1/2 tsp potato flour (or 2 1/4 tsp cornstarch)
1 tbsp water

For the sauce:

3 tsp sugar
3/4 tsp potato flour (or 1 1/8 tsp cornstarch)
1 tsp dark soy sauce
1 tsp light soy sauce
3 tsp Chinkiang or black Chinese vinegar
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tbsp chicken stock or water

Begin by marinading the chicken. Dice the chicken breast into 2cm/ 1/2 inch cubes as evenly as possible (this helps them to cook evenly and is also part of the overall aesthetic of the dish, where all the components are roughly similarly sized). Place in a small bowl and mix with the marinade ingredients. Set aside while you prepare the other ingredients.

Peel and thinly slice the ginger and garlic. Slice the scallions into pieces about the same size as their diameter (ideally to match the chicken cubes). Cut the chiles in half and discard as many of the seeds as possible.

Combine the sauce ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.

Heat the 2 tbsp oil over a high flame in a seasoned wok until it is hot but not smoking. Add the chiles and Sichuan pepper and stir-fry briefly until they are crisp and the oil has taken on their flavour and fragrance. Be careful not to burn them: you can remove the wok from the heat if necessary.

Now quickly add the chicken and stir-fry over a high heat, stirring constantly. When the chicken pieces have separated and have turned white, add the ginger, garlic and scallions and continue to cook, stirring, until the chicken is fully cooked through (you can test a large piece to be sure of this).

Give the sauce a stir and add to the wok, tossing and stirring it with the other ingredients. Cook for a couple of minutes until the sauce turns shiny and thickens slightly, and then add the peanuts. Stir them in and serve immediately, with rice.

‘Tis the Season to be… Active

January 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

Happy new year! 2011 – so futuristic, right? The silence at Cakesnail for these past few weeks should not be taken as any indication that things have been quiet on the eating front. Quite the opposite, although I enjoyed being cooked for as much as cooking this year which, frankly, was really rather lovely. I hope your festivities were filled with equal amounts of friends, family and deliciousness. That said, it’s now January: the twinkly lights are down and street corners are filling with the sad sight of naked Christmas trees. But, no need to dwell on what has been: instead it’s time for some routine, some down-time and, above all, a month or so of concentrated nutrition and exercise. To be frank, I’m ready for it, and hopefully I have a recipe that will give you a little boost of enthusiasm for health too.

For me, the tipping point happened late last week. My body gave up the good fight and pleaded with me: maybe just a few earlier, champagne-free nights, and just perhaps a handful of green things in each meal? Is that really asking too much? I actually like hitting rock bottom when it comes to feeling unhealthy: I usually need that to break the late night-too much coffee-even later night cycle and to get something of a new regime underway. As I imagine many of you are in the same boat and kicking off the new year with new, good intentions, my 2011 gift to you is a recipe for a really nutritious and delicious snack bar to help you fuel up for those early morning runs, lunchtime gym fixes, or evening yoga practices. The bars, which are packed with oats, dried fruits, nuts and honey, are so tasty that you might even find yourself exercising just to have an excuse to eat one. Really.

The bars are incredibly easy to make, so long as you have a food processor, which you do need to blend the dates through the oats thoroughly enough to give the bars the sticky moisture that helps keep them together. I followed the recipe (which comes from the excellent Sunset magazine) pretty much to the letter, using the suggested combination of dried apples and cranberries on the fruit side and flaked almonds and pecans for the nuts, but you could definitely play around with substitutions on top of the oat and date base. I can imagine some candied ginger combining well with dried pears and I might try out a version with more of a seed fix to it – pumpkin, sesame and poppy seeds alongside some plump raisins, for example. I feel healthier already just thinking about them.

Chewy Fruit and Nut Bars
Adapted from the January 2011 issue of Sunset

Yields 12-16 Bars

1/3 cup/40g chopped almonds
1/3 cup/50g chopped pecans
1/2 cup/110ml honey
3/4 cup/150g Medjool dates*, pitted
1 tsp cinnamon
2 1/2 cups/300g rolled oats
1/2 cup/60g dried cranberries
1/2 cup/35g chopped dried apples

*Medjool dates are specifically recommended for their moisture content and chewiness which the bars need to hold them together.

Preheat the oven to 325F/170C. Spread the nuts on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 10-12 minutes – until light golden (alternatively you can toast them on the stove top in a skillet or dry frying pan).

Warm the honey in a microwave until the consistency of a thin syrup. In a food processor, pulse the honey, dates, cinnamon and oats until the oats are coarsely chopped and the dates well distributed through the mixture.

Scrape this oat mixture into a medium bowl and, if needed, chop any remaining large chunks of dates. Stir in the toasted nuts, cranberries, and apples, making sure they are as evenly distributed through the oat mix as possible – this will help when you come to roll out the bars shortly. Squeeze the mixture into a ball. Line a baking sheet with foil and lightly oil the foil to prevent the bars sticking. Dampen your hands and firmly pat the mixture onto the foil into a compact rectangle of about 6 by 12 inches. You might find it slightly crumbly in places but just press any loose parts into the rectangle and they will firm up at the next stage.

Place the sheet into the freezer for about 20 minutes, at which point it should be firm enough to cut into bars. Depending on the size you want, you will end up with about 12-16 bars. Wrap these individually and ideally leave overnight, during which time they will get moister and chewier. They will keep for at least a week in the fridge or about a month in the freezer.

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