Ok, so I’m a little behind on my blogging. I hate to make excuses, but a lot has been happening here at Nerdsong central, and big life changes are in the works, so I haven’t had as much time to cook and/or write lately. I’m hoping to remedy this situation by posting shorter, less loquacious posts. Everyone who knows me is probably saying “yeah, good luck with that” right about now. We’ll just have to see how it goes.
I never did get around to posting about my Cookbook Challenge for Chloe’s Kitchen, but seeing as I ended up trying to cram three days of cooking into one, and didn’t end up getting any pictures, I may give that one a do-over.
Today, in keeping with the not-having-as-much-time-to-cook theme, I’m posting about a recent trip to Rotterdam and the amazing food I had there. Some of my PPK buds had been there recently to check out a few vegan-friendly places, Heavenly Cupcakes, and De Oude Plek, but sadly I had to work that day. The exhibit, The Road to Van Eyck, at the Boijmans van Beuningnen Museum gave me a good excuse to brave the snow and check them out myself.
Because of the snow, the trains were on an emergency schedule, so getting there took me a lot longer than I had anticipated. By the time I got to Heavenly Cupcakes, I was cold and hungry and the warm, cozy, well-lit interior called out to me like an oasis in a desert. The friendly owner greeted me as soon as I came in and we started chatting about the weather, the neighborhood, and the dearth (and growth) of vegan options in The Netherlands. Then came the difficult part; deciding which of the flavors of the beautiful cupcakes on display I wanted to try. I eventually went for Chai Spice and Red Velvet with a soy latte. Oh my lord, so good! Delicately flavored, just sweet enough, and with the perfect crumb. I had a hard time tearing myself away without trying the other flavors, so I decided to take four more to go – Chocolate Chocolate, Chocolate Chip, Strawberry, and Walnut Caramel – and split them with a colleague at an informal meeting the next day. They kept well, and each flavor lived up to the quality of the ones I’d eaten in the cafe itself. Add to that, the friendliness of the cafe owner, and the lovely atmosphere, and Heavenly Cupcakes is worth a visit.
Because of the weather-related delays, I only got to spend one hour at the exhibition before closing time, but I’m glad I went. If you ever get the chance to see Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation in person, do it! Stunning. I realize that not everyone is as enamored of Early Netherlandish Painting as I am, but still. It’s a true masterpiece.
Knowing it would take me a while to get home, I debated skipping the extra trip out to De Oude Plek, but I’m so glad I went! This is a vegetarian Chinese restaurant specialized in mock meats. They can pretty much make any dish vegan if you ask them to not use eggs. (Obviously this doesn’t apply to things like the omelette dishes.) I ordered the wonton soup and “chicken” in a spicy sauce. The soup was perfect. It’s been years since I’ve had wonton soup, and these wontons, filled with mock minced meat, really recalled the wontons I remember eating at the Chinese buffet down the street from where I grew up. The broth was nicely flavored and not too salty, with pieces of cabbage and green onions rounding it out.
The main dish was also fantastic. The seitan chicken was fried to perfection, and had a great bite to it. (I hate using that word, but I can’t think of a better way to describe it.) It was stir fried with onions, red and green pepper, bamboo shoots, and, unfortunately mushrooms. I’m not a fan of mushrooms, so I ended up leaving those (and feeling guilty towards the chef), but I can’t fault the restaurant for this. I should have asked. My only complaint about the dish is that the spicy sauce, while flavorful, was not really as spicy as I’d hoped (although they did bring me sambal which I liberally added to my plate). I attribute this to Dutch Chinese restaurants being mainly Cantonese influenced with some Dutch-Indonesian dishes thrown in for good measure. When I think spicy, I think Szechuan spicy, so there’s bound to be some disappointment. Despite this minor complaint, though, I have found myself hankering for my meal since that evening and looking for an excuse to go back there. Oh, how I wish a place like De Oude Plek existed closer to where I live.
I’ll wind this down by saying that those friends who laughed at the idea that I could reign in my loquaciousness now deserve a cupcake for being right. Luckily, I know a great place to get some.
It’s been a busy period here at Nerdsong central, so I’ve had less time than normal for both cooking and updating my blog, but I figured it was way past time I posted about the rest of the Vegan Diner cookbook challenge. For those just joining us, the cookbook challenge involves taking one underutilized cookbook in your collection per week and making at least three new recipes from it. As I mentioned in my last post, I was really inspired by Julie Hasson’s Vegan Diner, and went a little crazy, making a lot more than the three recipe minimum, so I thought I’d spread the Vegan Diner love over several posts.
I already posted about the “breakfast” diner food I enjoyed. Today, it’s time for lunch and dinner.
Vegan cheese (or cheeze, as it’s often spelled to differentiate it from its dairy counterpart) can be a contentious issue. Cheese is one of the hardest things to give up when going vegan, and is also one of the hardest things to replicate. Commercial plant-based cheezes like Daiya, Cheezly, and Sheese have their fans and their detractors, but I think most vegans agree that if you expect them to taste like dairy cheese, you’ll be disappointed. A lot of them are good when used in recipes, or melted on pizza, but not the kind of thing you’d happily eat on a cracker*. So I was really curious to try the Great Smokey Mountain Cheeze in Vegan Diner. It would be my first attempt at making my own cheeze, and it looked simple enough. But how would it taste?
The answer is, it tasted amazing! It’s a creamy, spreadable cheeze that’s got a bit of a smokey, spicy bite to it (thanks to the addition of smoked paprika). It’s spreadable, but also holds up to slicing, not like a hard cheese would but like one of those spreadable cheeses that come individually wrapped in foil. And most importantly, it passed the cracker test!
I found myself taking little nibbles of it every time I went to the fridge for something else, and the fairly large batch I made on Monday barely made it to the end of the week. I ate it on crackers, on bread, on a bagel. So, this is definitely a cheeze that stands on its own. The next test is, how would it melt? Enter the grilled cheeze!
As I mentioned in my last post, diner food is comfort food, food that reminds you of your childhood. Grilled cheese and Tomato Soup are a classic combo that fits that bill. I was happy to discover that the Smokey Mountain Cheeze lends itself perfectly to this all-time favorite sandwich, and The Old-Fashioned Tomato Soup – fresh, creamy, and just garlicky enough – makes the perfect foil for it!
So far, I’ve focused on breakfast and lunch foods, but of course, diners are known for their down-homey dinner foods too. The one I decided to try from Vegan Diner was the Veggies and Dumplings. This was somewhat more labor-intensive than the other dishes I’ve made from this cookbook, but so worth it!
As Northern Europe slides inexorably into winter, I find myself craving hearty, stick-to-your-ribs meals, and this was just what the doctor ordered: saucy, veggie-rich stew, with fluffy, steamed dumplings. This recipe makes a buttload, so it’s something that you could serve to the whole family, or in my case, have lots of leftovers for generous late-shift work dinners.
If anyone had asked me before what my favorite cookbook was, I would have unhesitatingly responded that it was Appetite for Reduction. Now, I can say without a doubt that Vegan Diner has shot into the number one spot in my cookbook case!
Coming up: Chloe’s Kitchen, and some thoughts on why I made the choice to go vegan.
*Recently, there has been more focus on making actual cultured vegan (generally nut-based) cheezes that seem to take things to the next level, but these are not a feasible option for everyone. The store-bought ones are both expensive and only available in limited areas, and the homemade ones take a certain level and skill and patience that I certainly don’t have at this time.
Even before going vegan, I missed diner food. When I think of diner food, I recall sliding into squeaky Naugahyde booths, with Formica tables and table juke-boxes of chrome and glass. I remember tasting mom’s omelet and eating perfectly grilled grilled-cheese sandwiches at the lunch counter at Van Slyke’s Pharmacy, spinning around on the rotating stools while waitresses who knew our names would pat our heads and call us “sweetheart”. It makes me think of hanging out late at night with my college friends at the Campus Restaurant in Oberlin after a movie or a concert. Or more late nights at the Doghouse in Seattle, eating fries while Dick Dickerson’s cheesy organ music drifted in from the adjacent lounge. Or eating burgers and rice pudding at any number of nameless (to me) Greek diners in NYC while visiting my sister. Diner food may incorporate flavors from all over the world, but it is nonetheless quintessentially American. It’s the food of fun, and comfort, and to an expat, tastes more like home than eating at home.
So I was really looking forward to this week’s cookbook challenge: Vegan Diner by Julie Hasson. It was one of the first vegan cookbooks I bought, and yet I had never made any of the recipes. It’s a beautiful book! Glossy and well-laid out, filled with fantastic photos, and a wonderful design evocative of a diner menu. When I started looking through the recipes I wanted to try, I found I couldn’t narrow it down to three. Instead, I planned a whole week’s worth of menus – too many to write about in one blog post – so I’ll have three posts about the cookbook: Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner.
Breakfast for dinner is one of my favorite things in the world (and harks back to eating greasy diner breakfasts in the middle of the night), so I was really excited to try some of the breakfast foods in the book. It’s been ages since I had sausage patties, so I decided to venture into the world of seitan-making (a first for me, since I’ve been too intimidated to try using vital wheat gluten) and make the Herbed Breakfast Sausage Patties. These are now my favorite thing ever. Not only were they a breeze to make (mix dry ingredients, add wet ingredients, form patties, steam, refrigerate overnight), but even when just mixing the ingredients, my mouth was watering from the amazing aroma wafting up and me from the bowl. Julie Hasson has figured out the perfect combination of herbs and spices for a breakfast patty.
The patties browned really nicely in the pan, and the texture was flawless. They made a great accompaniment for My Big Fat Greek Scramble. Every vegan cookbook worth its (black) salt includes a tofu scramble recipe (dessert cookbooks excluded, of course) and they’re all slightly different. This colorful scramble filled with spinach and red pepper and Kalamata olives did not disappoint. The first time I made it, I followed the recipe exactly, and it was almost perfect. The only thing I did differently the second time was to substitute some kala namak for the sea salt to enhance the egginess of the dish.
Separately, the scramble and the sausage patties are both things I would make again, but together they are an absolute winner. Perfect Breakfast for Dinner fare!
So much for the savory. Diner breakfasts also bring sweet things to mind. So I decided to have a go at a sweet breakfast treat, the Blueberry Nutmeg Muffins. This also allowed me to broaden my vegan cooking horizons by baking with flax meal (often used as an egg substitute) for the very first time. And again, it was so easy and went so much more smoothly than I expected. Julie Hasson has truly fool-proofed these recipes if a relatively inexperienced chef/baker like myself gets results like these right off the bat. These muffins rose perfectly, had a wonderful crumb, and again, the flavor combinations were impeccable. I brought some in to work on Sunday, and they were all gone by the afternoon. I even got compliments about them from the omni foodie in the group! Needless to say, I left a few for myself at home, but these are now long gone. The sweet spiciness of the nutmeg and the tartness of the blueberries complement each other really nicely in this recipe. I’m looking forward to trying more of the baked goods in here!
Next up: Lunch!
So, I was planning on posting a little something in between Cookbook Challenges about the advantages of having vegan pals to hang with, but after the iPad WordPress app ate my blog post just as I was finishing it and trying to add a photo, I lost my inspiration. I’ll probably be posting something about that again soon, but in the meantime, it’s time to tell you about the second cookbook I’m doing for the cookbook challenge: The Complete Guide to Vegan Food Substitutions by Celine Steen and Joni Marie Newman.
I love this book. First of all, it’s adorable. It’s smaller than the average cookbook, and easy to pop in your bag and browse through in the train, in the tram, or on your break at work. Plus, it’s illustrated with really cute drawings of happy farm animals.
Secondly, not only is it filled with great recipes, but the authors do a great job of explaining how the right substitutes work in vegan cooking and baking so that you have a good basic understanding of ingredients to try to veganize your favorite non-vegan recipes. This can be particularly daunting with baked goods, and while I’m not there yet (in terms of veganizing non-vegan recipes), I know I’ll come back to this cookbook as a reference when I’m ready to take that step. Oh, and they’ve got a lot of gluten-free and soy-free recipes in there for folks who are sensitive to those items.
I was kind of crunched for time this week, only really having two days when I had time to cook, and a whole slew of late shifts at work. So I decided to go for three recipes I thought would work well as leftovers to bring with me for my early evening “lunch” (i.e. dinner) break.
The first was the Green Tempeh Veggie Feast, an artful combination of sautéed tempeh, leeks, Brussels sprouts, and this amazing pepita (pumpkin seed) pesto. I always love tempeh, and I’ve become a real fan of Brussels sprouts in the last year, so I knew this would be a hit. What really puts this dish over the top from “yummy, healthy greens and protein” to “oh, wow” is the pesto! The Tempeh Veggie Feast is really easy to make, and makes a shit-ton (or .907 metric shit-tons for those of us in Europe), so it’s perfect for a weeknight meal when you just want something healthy, hearty, and delicious and are happy to have leftovers. And while I really enjoyed the flavor sensations, it’s not really the prettiest dish in the world, so I wouldn’t necessarily make it for an occasion that calls for something fancy shmancy.
The same cannot be said for the other two recipes I made for this challenge. The next night I doubled up my cooking efforts and made the Denver “Quiche” and the Creamy Polenta Chili Bake. These were both AMAZING, and deceptively easy to make. Because of the ease of making these, they could definitely (and likely will) make their way into my weeknight rotation, but they are both also impressive enough to share when having folks over for dinner. The quiche is even good cold, and travels really well, so it would make a great bring-along for a potluck.
The Chili Bake combines a really simple two bean chili (I made mine a bit spicier than what the recipe calls for but that’s just the way I roll), with a topping of creamy polenta (as you not doubt astutely surmised from the name of the dish) that bakes really nicely on the top and reminded me of the comfort food experience of eating chili with corn bread. This recipe could easily be made soy free if you choose a non-soy plant milk (like almond or rice) to make the polenta, and use a bit of olive oil instead of vegan margarine. I liked the chili recipe, which uses kidney and black beans, but I might experiment with using different chili for this as well (like the Quick and Hearty Chili from Vegan Diner that I might make for the next cookbook challenge).
The real star of the show, though, was the quiche. I had no idea how easy or delicious this would be. It’s amazing how the right combination of ingredients (in this case silken tofu, chickpea flour, and nutritional yeast) can come together to make something so perfect. Add the right vegetables, some kala namak, some liquid smoke, and a veggie protein (I subbed vegan bratwurst for the suggested seitan, which I didn’t have) and you’re on your way to quicheville! Ok, it doesn’t taste exactly like an egg-based quiche, it’s true. But what it does taste like is a creamy, smoky, savory pie of goodness. Seriously, I can’t recommend this recipe enough! (And oh, dear lord, please don’t let my poorly-lit cell phone pictures turn you off of this.)
So, week two of the cookbook challenge was a resounding success. Next week, I’ll be tucking into one of the books I’ve had the longest, but have yet to make anything from: Vegan Diner by Julie Hasson. I’ve been checking out the recipes and I truly can’t wait. The only problem is going to be narrowing down what I want to make!
So, after some thought and taking a look at my calendar for October, I’ve decided NOT to do MoFo. With the Vegan Blogging World watching, you’re expected to crank out five blog posts a week, and with a fairly hectic schedule looking back at me, I realized I was setting myself up for a MoFo fail. So I’m just going to blog at my own pace and enjoy it rather than go for the gusto and burn out, never to blog again.
And on that note, I thought I’d share my first experience doing a Cookbook Challenge, put forth by some members of the Post Punk Kitchen forums. Going vegan is not difficult, but you do have to learn a new way of cooking, and the best way to do this is to avail yourself of some of the many amazing vegan cookbooks that are out there. I was never much of a cookbook reader before, but like many budding vegans, I’ve found that (the right) cookbooks/recipe blogs can really make the transition so much easier and less intimidating than I expected. But also like many budding (and long time) vegans, I have found myself amassing piles of cookbooks that I get some inspiration from and then forgetting about while I end up making the same 4-5 weeknight recipes over and over. The Cookbook Challenge gets you picking up those cookbooks again and trying new recipes, and hopefully pulls you out of your recipe rut.
The way it works is ten cookbooks are chosen, and each week, a different cookbook is assigned, and the goal is to make at least three recipes from it that you’ve never made before. As I don’t have all of the cookbooks, nor do I have time to do the challenge every week, I’ll just be doing some weeks. This last week was the start, and the first challenge was a free choice of any book by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and/or Terry Hope Romero. (They’ve done some great books together and both have also done some awesome solo books.)
I decided to go for Appetite for Reduction, the cookbook that not only convinced me that I could actually do this vegan thing, but also the one that changed my relationship to cookbooks. Don’t let the title fool you. While the recipes in AFR are unquestionable healthy and low-fat, this is not a “diet” book. It’s a gorgeous, lush celebration of vegetables, grains, and spices. The recipes are easy to follow, and while some of the ingredients are hard to source in this part of the world, most of them are incredibly supermarket-friendly, and easy to follow. They’re also accompanied by nutritional information, which I never paid a lot of attention to, but I know some people find incredibly handy.
I had varying success with the recipes I chose. The first was Red Wine and Kalamata Tempeh: Tempeh marinated in an aromatic blend of wine, olives, and perfectly balanced spices, then pan-fried with the marinade. I think my favorite part of doing this recipe was how my house smelled while the tempeh was marinating. It was really good over an al dente rotini, and I served it with a side of escarole sautéed in olive oil with just some sea salt and fresh ground pepper. (Excuse the bad lighting in this picture!)
The wine flavor was a bit too strong – I had expected it to mellow more with cooking – so I may try a milder wine next time, but I’ll definitely be making this again.
The next recipe(s) I tried were the Chili-Lime Rubbed Tofu with a side of the Orange-Scented Broccoli. This was my least successful outing from AFR, but I think this was due to a few ingredient problems on my part, rather than a problem with the recipes themselves. I discovered just before starting that my ginger had gone bad, so I ended up using powdered ginger (not the same), I had no chili powder, so I ended up subbing Spanish pepper powder and Adobo powder, and the juicing orange I had bought turned out to not be a juicing orange but rather a navel orange. It was all passable, but not much to write home about, and I’ll have to try it again with proper ingredients. That said, the leftover tofu made a fantastic sandwich the next day for lunch: open-faced with egg-free mayo on a bed of escarole with a generous drizzle of sriracha. Mmmmm….
The final recipe, while not exactly photoworthy, was the absolute winner of the bunch: Forty Clove Chickpea with Broccoli. It was also the easiest to make, and perfect for a lazy weeknight. Basically, it’s a question of assembling the simple ingredients, popping them in the oven, going off to watch Mad Men, stirring the ingredients a few times, watching more Mad Men, and fifty minutes after starting, you’re sitting down to eat and enjoy the next episode of Mad Men. I ate this over some pasta, with some freshly ground pepper and a healthy sprinkling of nooch (more about this wonder condiment in another post). And it was even good right out of the fridge the next day for a post-breakfast, pre-lunch snack. (Don’t judge me.)
Next week I’ll be doing my next Cookbook Challenge: The Complete Guide to Vegan Substitutions.