Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What I ate: Veggie Lasanga

Grilled eggplant; grilled portobello slices; organic spinach mixed with ricotta, garlic, and egg; Trader Joe's marinara; cheese. I needed to satisfy my Cincinnati portion of cheese craving. Yum.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Cooking the setian

Served in the style of meat and potatoes: mesquite marinated seitan; cremini mushrooms cooked in olive oil, garlic, and parsley; smashed skin-on yukon gold potatoes; and grilled spinach (tossed on the grill pan after I took off the seitan).

Experimentation Sunday: Homemade Seitan

I usually have to explain to people what seitan is. I've had it in restaurants, particularly at Horizons, Melt, and even at Ted's Montana Grill, where they serve a seitan veggie "burger" for those who don't want their famous bison. I've bought it from the grocery store (my both my local chains carry it, even though it's a bit cheaper at Whole Foods). I knew it was wheat protein -- it says so on the package-- and I knew it was good, but that's about it.

So to answer the question, I turned to the web. One of the first results, from About.com, is about how to make seitan. Wait -- make seitan? I had to give it a try. I followed these instructions point-by-point. I'm so excited that I haven't eaten any yet; I couldn't wait to share. Alex, however, ate a piece with no flavoring and said it's great.

  • 1 cup vital wheat gluten
  • 3/4 cup water or broth
  • 2 Tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon ginger powder
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 6 cups broth for cooking
  • 3-4 slices onion (optional)
  • 2-3 slices ginger (optional)

I was pretty impressed that I found two kinds of wheat gluten in my grocery store. Later, I found out from my mom, that it's a common ingredient (a small amount at a time) in bread dough.

Uncooked seitan. Really, I never would have guessed.

Combine gluten flour and dry spices. Separately mix soy sauce and 3/4 cup broth.

Combine dry and liquid ingredients. You’ll want to use your hands, as the flour will start absorbing the liquid right away.

In my batches, though, the mix was plenty wet. You can see on my cutting board. The recipe on About warns not to use an electric mixer. The gluten has a rubbery, elastic consistency. You can knead it out and it will pull back in. It was really, really easy to mix by hand.

Knead the mix 10-15 times, then let it sit 5 minutes. Knead a few more times and cut into smaller chunks and stretch each piece out.

The recipe says the seitan will expand during cooking, so it’s best to start with thin cutlets. Mine didn’t expand a lot, so I’ll have to experiment with that. Also, don't worry about holes if you thin the seitan too much; indeed, none of the holes were present after cooking!

Add the seitan to broth in a large pot and bring to a slow simmer. They'll sink at first, then they'll float when they're done. Cover pot and cook for an hour or more.

It's done when the pieces firm up and float.

Mine were almost boiling over, even though I used a large stockpot and lots of broth. Next time, if I double the recipe, I might consider turning the burner off earlier (like the no-boil spaghetti) or dividing the seitan in half. There are tips in the the recipe I used about adding spices, onions, soy sauce, or fish and chicken flavoring, but I prefer to flavor my seitan with sauce. Yes, we love our sauce!

Probably should have kept a closer eye on this...

I cooled both my batches on the counter and put one in the fridge and one in the freezer. We'll be marinating and grilling seitan tonight -- I'll be sure to show you how it turns out!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Restaurant: Gajah Wong

I've started reading more and more cooking and food blogs, and I've come to realize that I have no interest in reviewing a restaurant. At all. Alex tells me I'd be a good critic because I always find something good and something bad with everything. Instead, I'm just out to show what kinds of things I find to eat to prove that it's rarely limiting to be vegetarian.

I've been to Gajah Wong once before and knew I wanted to go back and bring Alex. Actually, that last time I went was with the group of friends I mentioned in the story about vegetarians not having enough choices. Anyway, that was a really nice night in early September, and we sat in the garden out back. I was hoping to hold out for some good weather and make a return trip to the outdoor seating, but it's been raining for about a week. Last night, we went to the restaurant and eat indoors -- and rather enjoyed ourselves.

Source The dining room where we were seated and the outdoor garden.

Why the rush to return? Gajah Wong is closing. If you have a chance to go in the next week or two, go. See? This is why a restaurant review in the typical sense wouldn't be meaningful.

The menu has a few vegetarian options, and, sure, compared to the choices available for meat-eaters, it can seem limiting. However, I'm not going to eat the whole menu. I only need to find something I like. They offer three vegetarian entrees, and between my previous visit and last night, I've tried them all.

We started with Indo garden rolls, which were very good and reminded me of the tofu rolls in Vietnamese restaurants. The roll was filled with rice vermicelli noodles, veggies and cilantro, a slice of tofu, and topped with Hoisin sauce. These were really, really, really good.

Gudeg is the reddish-brown stew, served with tofu opor, rice, and crackers.

I was eager to try the gudeg, which is a stew made of green jackfruit, a large tree fruit that has a meaty texture when it's not quite ripe. This entree is served along with opor tofu, a mild sauce that claims to be "redolent with fragrance of lemongrass". I liked it, but not as much as I liked the sambal goreng I tried on my last visit. The opor was like gravy, or a cream of something soup. The tofu and gudeg are served with a cone of flavored rice and garlic crackers.

Tofu Kare with vegetables, rice, and garlic crackers. That's some spilled hoisin from the rolls on the table.

Alex got the kare, which is made with a mix of Java chiles. The owners brought chile seeds from Indonesia and grow their own chiles here. His spiced coconut milk sauce was good, but not spice-hot, and came with a side of vegetables cooked with egg.

This is one of those places that could make it into the rotation, but sadly we didn't find out about it until the last month they'll be open. The owners are headed back to Indonesia to be with family and possibly open an American restaurant serving hamburgers and BLTs made with turkey bacon. Sweet, funny, and sad.

Gajah Wong West on Urbanspoon

Friday, September 25, 2009

Apple Brown Betty

I'm not usually one to make homemade desserts beyond the birthday cake. As you can probably tell by my aversion to precise measurements, baking is not really a talent of mine, plus I don't want to keep cookies and brownies around the house.

I decided to try a slow-cooker Apple Brown Betty. True to form, I dind't follow the recipe I found on Allrecipes precisely. It seemed like it didn't have enough cinnamon and 10 slices of bread was just too much, at least for the bread I used. I don't think I've ever had a brown betty before, so maybe some of my modifications make it unauthentic, but here's what I did:

Slice 3 apples, thinly. I used two braeburns and one granny smith. Place in the bottom of the Crock Pot. Cube 6 slices of bread and toss with 3/4 cup brown sugar, 2 teaspoons cinnamon, a dash of salt, and 1 teaspoon nutmeg. Place the bread mixture over the apples. Melt 1/2 cup butter (one stick) and pour on top of the bread. Cook on low for 3 hours, or until apples are tender. Stir partway through, mixing the bread cubes with the apples and juice they give off.

One of the things I love about looking at recipes online, at Allrecipes and other sites too, is to review the comments for suggestions on how to make the recipes better. Many people complained about the amount of bread (and yes, next time I will use even less than the 60% of what the recipe calls for) -- one suggestion was made to stir the mixture together. What a difference that made! This allows the bread to soak up some of the apple juices and spread the sugar and seasonings around. I'd also consider adding nuts or raisins next time.

All in all, though, this was really easy and really good. It's so basic and just perfect for a day like today.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Brazilian Black Bean Soup

This is what we ate with the spinach and mushroom enchiladas. Again, this is a recipe I found in the Horizons cookbook. It's actually one of the first recipes I tried earlier this year because it seems pretty simple. Of course, I made it again because it is very good. I'll put the whole recipe here, but I cut it in half.

2 quarts vegetable stock
6 cups black beans
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 green chile, chopped (I used a jalapeno, you can use anaheim or habanero if you like)
2 tablespoons Latin spice blend (by now, I have a container ready to go!)
1 cup coconut milk
1 cup tomatoes, diced
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped

Simmer the stock, beans, onion, garlic, chile, and spices for 10 minutes.

The directions here allow you some choice: leave the soup brothy, puree half, or puree it all. I used my immersion blender to puree all the soup. I think I'd be fine with some whole beans in the soup, but I like my onions creamed for this dish.

Add the coconut milk and tomatoes, then simmer an additional 2-3 minutes.

Serve with cilantro and lime wedges, if you wish.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Spinach & Mushroom Enchiladas

It's no secret that I love mushrooms. And spinach. And enchiladas. So, naturally, the time came for me to attempt to make my own. I viewed several recipes online. After cooking this, I came to the realization that I need to improve my ability to figure out whether I'll like a recipe by reading the ingredients. This was pretty good, but, as usual, I'll be making some modifications if I do it again.

I got the recipe from Food TV. It caught my eye because it didn't include canned enchilada sauce, and I wanted to make my own rather than use prepared sauce.

For the Sauce:

2 (10-ounce) cans tomatoes with chiles
1 small onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves
1 tablespoon chopped oregano leaves
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Simmer all the ingredients for 15-20 minutes or until the onion is tender. Because I used fresh cilantro, I added that at the end. After simmering the sauce, use an immersion blender to puree the ingredients and smooth it out into a sauce.

For the enchiladas:

1 onion, diced
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 pound portobello mushrooms, cleaned and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1(10-ounce) box frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed to remove excess water
1/2 cup milk
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon minced chipotle in adobo (optional)
1 lime, juiced
Shredded cheese
Tortillas - I wanted corn tortillas but my grocery store was out of them. I had a very bad shopping experience on this day, and I won't bore you with the details.

Saute the onion in a large skillet, then add the garlic and mushrooms and cook until tender. Add the thawed spinach. Combine the milk and cornstarch separately, then add that mixture along with the spices and lime juice to the skillet and cook another minute until everything is warmed through. Add some cheese if you like. I used a very little bit of a Kraft taco blend.

Pour some sauce in your dish to coat the bottom. Warm your tortillas and fill each with the spinach and mushroom mixture. I find it easy enough to palm the tortilla, spoon the filling onto it, the roll it side over side and place folded side down into the casserole dish. After each enchilada is rolled, pour the remaining sauce over them and more cheese if you like. Bake, uncovered, at 375F for 25 minutes.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Alex's soup

I asked Alex to write a guest post about his soup, but either he's shy or actually doesn't have time, so I will share this for him. First of all, he lauds the healing properties of clear soup and claims that the vegetable soup from Asiana even cured a headache he didn't even have. So we decided to try to make something similar at home. After Oktoberfest, we were both overstuffed and hungry for actual nourishment, and he suggested stopping by to get some soup. Instead, we went home and made broth from powder and added some broccoli and celery we had on hand.

Last night, he attempted this soup again and stepped it up a notch. I was not allowed in the kitchen. He also got take out sushi from Bangkok Bistro. Now, I'm not going to say it's the best sushi around, but at least they have several vegetarian rolls. We got an avocado roll, tamago (egg) roll, and their vegetable roll. Together with a large serving of soup, this was a great supper.

For the soup, he used Seitenbacher brand broth powder, which is all-natural, vegan, and quite tasty. He added white mushrooms, a couple of shiitakes, celery, napa cabbage, baby corn, carrots, and scallions. And a pat of butter. It was really, really good. And so easy.

So, what's next? Trying to make our own sushi. I've done it before, but not well. Maybe I'm ready for another go.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Ich bin ein Oktoberfester

In case you thought I was being too healthy, what with me making so many vegan dishes and denouncing cheese, I'll show you the plenitude of fried foods and beer I enjoyed this weekend at Zinzinnati Oktoberfest:

Sauerkraut balls. Two jalapeno, two regular.

Pretzel. We picked this up to be moderately healthy and get some "filler" -- but this was one of my favorites. No, make that my favorite of all.

Fried mushrooms with honey mustard and ranch. Also, Becks Oktoberfest in the background.

Fried pickle spears. These pickles are spicy! Although that's a Becks cup, Alex drank Shock Top.

Of course you need dessert, right? This is a giant creampuff.

Experimentation Sunday: Hawaiian Pesto and Tofu

I've gained a little confidence in my ability to cook tofu, now, after I've learned the secret of freezing it. For this recipe, I froze and thawed a block of firm tofu, sliced it into thirds, and marinated it all afternoon. I got the recipe from a cookbook Alex gave me for Christmas from one of our favorite restaurants, Horizons, an all-vegan foodie restaurant in Philadelphia. They have two cookbooks with recipes from their restaurant and other tasty, flavorful vegan dishes.

Honestly, when I was first presented with the cookbook I was a little disappointed. First of all, I didn't like the implication of being asked to cook. On top of that, the recipes are really difficult and include ingredients I don't normally have on hand and are sometimes difficult to find. To cook from this book, I've purchased agave syrup, tamari soy sauce, coconut milk, and all kinds of spices. At first this seemed like a major hurdle, but now it's just part of my pantry. I've even made a jar of the Latin spice blend that's in several recipes.

In the cookbook, this recipe is Oven-Roasted Tofu with Hawaiian Pesto. I used a grill pan to grill the tofu. Alex wanted to be sure that I wrote that there were no leftovers to this meal! We ate the tofu and pesto with skillet fried potatoes and steamed broccoli. The only thing I'll do differently in the future is to use less salt in the spice blend; the marinade was almost like a rub and it was very, very salty.

Marinade Ingredients:
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons tamari soy sauce
3 tablespoons Latin spice blend (3 parts paprika; 2 parts: cumin, onion, garlic, salt, black pepper, and chili powder or dried chile; 1 part: thyme and oregano)
1/4 cup canola oil

I mixed this in the same zipper bag that I used to freeze and thaw the tofu. The book recommends at least and hour, if not overnight, for the marinade. I think mine was in this for about 4-5 hours.

Grill the tofu for 4 minutes per side.

Pesto Ingredients:
1/4 cup canola oil
2 cups fresh basil leaves, loosely packed
1/3 cup macadamia nuts
1 cup fresh cilantro leaves
2 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons fresh ginger
1/4 cup water

Puree all ingredients in a food processor. Use additional nuts for garnish. I really found the chopped nut texture pleasant with the pesto and tofu.

This recipe would certainly have been difficult nine months ago when I didn't know how to cook tofu and didn't have many of these ingredients on hand. However, I am growing my own basil and have many of these ingredients from previous recipes. I still had ginger in the fridge from my Thai soup -- just in time for its three-month holdover. I still had cilantro from my Mango Couscous. In a way, it's nice to re-use these ingredients in new a flavor combination, even if I only spent $.43 on the ginger.

Friday, September 18, 2009

On being vegetarian

Okay, I feel like I need to revisit my reason for starting to blog. I have several personal objectives: I want to be healthier, eat less processed food, hone my cooking skills, find recipes I can make and share with (non-vegetarian) family and friends. Honestly, and perhaps this is something I should not admit, I can't think of another part of my life that is as consistently pleasurable as food. I love getting excited about a really good meal, I love cooking and trying new things, I really love going to restaurants and sandwich shops.

Beyond those personal goals, I'm a little concerned with the image vegetarians have among non-vegetarians. I have a few examples, starting with this "Food Threshold" grid I found on recipe writer Dana MaCauley's blog. This chart basically oversimplifies the reasons that people may have for eating -- or not eating -- various foods and the entire hierarchy starts with frutarian (lowest) to monkey brains (highest). She's basically saying you can't be adventurous if you don't eat animals. So, I'm a five. I like that the veggie options are all in green.

In planning a large catered dinner party, I inquired about vegetarian food. The caterer replied, "don't worry, there will be plenty of food." As in, vegetarians are welcome to fill up on side dishes which may or may not have meat seasoning -- don't ask.

Something else that's a real bummer is when I was out recently with a group of friends, and a few of us were vegetarians. One person mentioned that she used to be vegetarian but resumed eating meat because there were too few choices. As my first example illustrates, that can certainly be a problem depending on who you eat with, the places you go, and (sadly) the availability of vegetarian products in your grocery store. It's even worse when your restuarant advertises lobster bisque and pasta with chicken reduction as vegetarian-friendly. Daveed's, what were you thinking?

Sidenote: I mentioned the company of an eating partner. I am very lucky that the only meat in my house is the cat food. My husband and I enjoy trying new vegetarian foods together, and part of my personal challenge in this blog is to make new foods we both enjoy and keep our meals interesting.

You've probably seen the dearth of vegetarian meals when you view cooking shows on television, whether it's Top Chef, Hell's Kitchen or other Gordon Ramsay shows, or anything on the Food Network. Some of the most exciting cuisine, we're told, is far from the pigs, cows, and chickens most people eat. The idea of anything vegetarian winning or pleasing a crowd? Preposterous! Can a vegetarian even really be a foodie? Probably not.

Finally, on a comical note, I have a ludicrous comment from a friend of mine. She says that her husband eats vegetarian only during hunting season because he thinks the deer can smell him better if he eats meat.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

My Sweetie Sweet Supper - Mango Couscous

This is one of those whole meals that I make from time to time as a staple in our household. Blushing, I call it my sweet supper for my sweet fella.

Setian in Island Mango sauce by World Harbors
Grilled vegetables: usually at least yellow squash, sweet onions, and red bell pepper
Hawaiian sweet rolls

I introduced Alex to the sweet rolls and he loves them. I do too. Leave out the rolls and the menu is vegan. I chunk the veggies into large pieces, coat them lightly in oil, sugar, and salt, and put them all on a foil sheet and throw them on the grill. As you can see in my photo, some parts (the sugary parts) are browned pretty well, but this is a great way to eat veggies and this colorful, tasty variety is my favorite mix.

Now, the setian in sauce is super easy and the rolls are straight from the bag; I'd typically use a packaged mix of couscous as well but I've decided to make this more interesting by trying a new recipe. I turned to the Internet and found the same recipe twice for Mango Couscous -- once on Oprah's website and once on this fun food blog. No wonder it's the same recipe, they both attribute it to Marcus Samuelsson. So, I'll give it a try.


1 mango, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 jalapeno, finely chopped

1 tomato, cubed
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1/2 lime, juiced

1 cup couscous, cooked according to package directions. Set the couscous aside while you prepare the other ingredients.

Olive oil

Cook the mango and jalapeno in 1 teaspoon olive oil for one minute. Add the garlic and cook another half a minute.

Then add the remaining ingredients: couscous, tomato, cilantro, lime juice, a bit of salt, and another teaspoon of olive oil. Cook for another minute. Can be served warm or at room temperature. I made this first, then the rest of the supper, so it was room temperature and tasty for us.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Eggplant Timbale ... not really

I grilled an eggplant last week and didn't put anything on it except a little oil and salt, and it tasted so good. I hear they're in season now, so that probably had a lot to do with it, I'm sure. So I wanted to try another eggplant recipe and saw Giada De Laurentiis do this on television. It's kind of a drum made of eggplant and filled with pasta, cheese, and peas. Besides halving ingredients to serve just the two of us, my major adjustments were leaving out the meat, of course, and making this in a casserole dish. I don't have a springform pan. I think the springform could make for more attractive presentation but somebody will have to convince me it changes the taste.

1 eggplant, sliced lengthwise about 1/4-inch thick
Olive oil, salt, and pepper for grilling and seasoning the eggplant
1/3 pound pasta -- I used rotini
1/2 onion
1/2 cup frozen green peas, thawed
1/2 cup quartered mushrooms
1-1/2 cup jarred pasta sauce
3/4 cup diced mozzarella, she suggests smoke mozzarella
1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves

Grill the eggplant. I used a grill pan, which I love because I feel like it's so much easier to clean and control than my outside grill, especially for veggies. I grilled all my veggies, including the onion and mushrooms. I know I use a lot of mushrooms, but they're just so tasty and go really well with pasta. Salt and pepper the veggies.

Boil the pasta; if you want to try my new-found green method, it's now tried and true.

Cube the mozzarella. If I were to do this again, I'd use shredded mozzarella, but I guess that's the trade-off for smokey flavor. When we were eating this, there were cheese patches. Now, I'm not saying that's unpleasant, and this way would be easier to defend if the cheese inspector stops by.

Mix the veggies (minus eggplant!), sauce, mozzarella, the Parmesan, and basil together. Line a pan with the eggplant, then top with the pasta mix. If you have some extra eggplant slices, place them on top to keep your pasta from drying out. If you don't have extra eggplant, consider topping with foil. I guess the other option would be to put the pasta on the bottom, then top with eggplant. Still not sure I'd do it that way, either.

Bake at 350F for 30-40 minutes, then let rest for at least 10 minutes.

This was really good. We both liked the peas in the mix, but I might also consider using spinach as well. I like my peas with potatoes and my pasta sauce with spinach.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Trying to make it easy by not frying it

No-Fry Fried Zucchini is just as good as it sounds. Yeah.

I'm always looking for new sides to go with pasta. Sometimes we'll just toss a whole bunch of veggies together, maybe some ricotta, and stop there. I've already written about the no-cream creamed spinach, but I was ready to try something different. We made actual fried zucchini once, I think it was when we were frying eggplant for eggplant parm. We also battered and fried some pickles, at Alex's request. This no-fry breading pretty much just fell off, but the zucchini was good. Maybe next time I'll try a recipe for oven-fried battered zucchini.

3 zucchini, sliced or made into "fries"
1 egg
Store bought breadcrumbs, seasoned
Grated Parmesan
Cooking spray

Preheat the oven to 400F. Yes, for this I did something I almost never do -- I preheated the oven. I used something else I almost never use -- Pam. Spray your baking sheet. I find the smell off-putting, but I used it anyway.

Beat the egg in a low dish. In a second low dish, mix breadcrumbs and Parmesan. I used about 3 parts breadcrumbs for 1 part Parmesan. Season it if you wish; I was worried that between the Parm and the seasoned crumbs the breading would be too salty. I thought it was fine; Alex added salt.

Coat the zucchini strips in egg, then breading, and lay across the baking sheet. Bake 10-13 minutes, or until the zucchini is tender. Now, the recipe I used instructed me to spray Pam on top of my breaded zucchini. First of all, I didn't want to do this, but on second thought I decided to give it a real try. When I spritzed my Pam at the zucchini, the breading flew off! So none of that. It also instructs you to turn them halfway through the cooking time, at about 7 minutes, and I think that is absolutely impossible so I didn't even try. Honestly, though, I'm not sure I would have liked this better if I had tried harder. As I said before, the goodness of the zucchini overpowered the silliness I put it through with my breading and baking.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Stuffing peppers

I can't remember if I've ever had stuffed peppers besides the couple of times I've made them, unless you count chiles rellenos. They always seemed deeply unappealing: dingy green overcooked bell peppers, greasy ground beef and tomato sauce. I guess I don't have any positive associations with this dish, but you don't have to venture too far outside the box to realize that you can put anything in peppers; they're pretty handy containers for all kinds of goodies.

I have three little peppers from my aunt and some leftover orzo I don't know what to do with. Ah, the perfect pair! I also picked up some mushrooms, a mix of a few shiitakes and criminis, and tossed in some onion and garlic borrowed from my tomato salad.

I cut the tops off the bell peppers and blanched them. I brought my water to a boil, salted it, then dropped in the peppers for about two minutes, then removed them and cooled them. I'm not a fan of overcooked green peppers, but because all my ingredients will be pre-cooked, I wanted to shorten the oven time.

I used the same blanching water to cook the orzo. Meanwhile, I sauteed the mushrooms, onion, and garlic in a little olive oil. I mixed the pasta and mushrooms together, tasted for seasoning (something I'm learning to do), then stuffed my three peppers. Bake in a 350F oven for 15 minutes. Really, that's all it took for me.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Bruschetta makeover

Over the weekend I obtained a large box of homegrown tomatoes, some my father brought me from his favorite farmer and some from my aunt and uncle's garden. I also brought home some jalapenos and bell peppers from their garden. One last thing I picked up is a new (to me) vegetarian cookbook from a used bookstore. I might have mentioned before that I don't have one cookbook that I'm completely happy with and I typically peruse the 'net for recipes. I picked up The New Vegetarian Epicure and read author Anna Thomas' section on tomatoes.

I made what she calls Minted Tomato Salad with Feta Cheese. Probably the biggest obstacle to this differentiating itself from my previous post on bruschetta is that I omitted the mint. My grocery store happened to be out of fresh mint; I didn't feel like making another stop. Well, that and I just mixed everything up without layering it as she instructs. Alex and I agreed that the red onions and feta, though, were nice additions. I might need to research what parboiling those tomatoes in the other recipe accomplishes, as well, because these were just fine freshly chunked.

Ingredients: (confession - I didn't measure! I eyeballed the amounts to my desired proportions and also tried to make just enough for two servings; the recipe as written claims 6-8 servings as a first course or 10-15 as part of a buffet.)

4 cups ripe tomatoes, cut in chunks
1 Tablespoon + 1 teaspoon olive oil
1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar -- I probably used more, even though I used less tomato
2 cloves garlic, minced
3-4 Tablespoons fresh mint, chopped
2 Tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 medium red onion -- I used less because I find it to have a bite that's pleasant only in small doses
4 oz. feta cheese, cubed or crumbled

Serve with crusty bread

Combine the tomato chunks with a tablespoon of olive oil, vinegar, garlic, mint, and basil. You can reserve some mint for garnish. Salt lightly, especially as the feta is salty. Mound the tomato mixture in your serving dish and arrange the feta around the tomatoes. Scatter thin slices of red onion over the cheese. Drizzle the remaining teaspoon of oil over the feta and onions, then sprinkle on the remaining mint.

Like I already mentioned, I mixed everything up and it was so good I only took one photo. I can see her arrangement being visually appealing, mine sure was easier to eat. Once everything is chopped, this is super-easy to put together.

The most Southern Southern food is vegetarian. At least sometimes.

What is that?

Sandwich on Arnold's yummy multigrain sandwich thins

Pimento Cheese!

If you're familiar with pimento cheese, you probably either love it or hate it, or maybe you've never had a really good batch. As a kid, I ate fluorescent orange pimento cheese from the grocery store's lunchmeat aisle as an alternative to slick ham slices. It was always sweet, chunky, and an a disturbingly unnatural color.

I can't remember exactly when I had my pimento cheese awakening. It might have been around the end of high school. Since then, each trip home has been highlighted by a trip to the deli that is famous for its pimento cheese sandwich. Yes, this is also one of those places where people also order fully cooked hams and turkeys. And I walk right by them to the coveted pimento cheese fridge.

I have tried making my own pimento cheese from a variety of recipes, but nobody does it like Papa at Holiday Deli & Ham in Memphis. My father was kind enough to export a tub for me to take home when I saw him over the weekend. This concoction is tasty in sandwiches, especially with a slice of fresh tomato and lettuce, or even smeared on a celery stick.

In its most basic form, pimento cheese is well, shredded cheese and pimentos with seasonings and some kind of binding agent, maybe mayonnaise. I've tried Paula Deen's recipe, others that call for grated onion, others that have two dozen ingredients ranging from Durkee Famous Sauce to Worcestershire and garlic and beer. For now, at least, pimento cheese is one more of those things worth getting ready made.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Clean out your fridge frittata

Dealing with leftovers is one of the biggest differences between cooking at home and eating out. Sure, eating in may be less expensive because you have so much food left over, both as the prepared dish as well as the individual ingredients. Maybe part of this is that I'm always cooking for two.

I've only started making frittata this summer, but it's super easy and a good way to eat some eggs. Personally, I don't care much for eggs, but Alex likes them, so we eat them. I can stomach them best when they're cooked thoroughly -- not soft at all -- and mixed in with other stuff. I'm still experimenting with what can go in it. So, we have some eggs in the fridge and an assortment of veggies and cheese, and I threw it together into a frittata. The result? An impressed husband and a good meal.

I used a shallot left over from the no-cream creamed spinach; a whole tomato I'd bought because it looked so good; the leftover Parmesan from the second run of Portobello Parmesan; and half a green bell pepper I just had in the fridge. I love, love, love cooked tomatoes. I mixed it all up with 6 eggs and a little salt & pepper, poured everything into a buttered (okay, margarined) casserole dish, and baked at 400F for 25 minutes. Voila -- leftover magic!

Sidenote: now, whenever I eat eggs, I think of the chickens wearing homemade sweaters I heard about on Wait Wait Don't Tell Me. The story about the sweaters took a turn away from the chickens when Mo Rocca insisted that homemade sweaters were itchy; however, what struck me was the poor less-than-cooped up chickens stressing and losing feathers. And the solution -- make them sweaters? Huh?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Jefferson Hall and the disappearance of Cafe Istanbul

Last night we went out to dinner and a movie. Ever since I've made the effort to cook more at home, we typically go out for things that we can't make or that are just too much trouble. I guess in a way, that's what happened. We ended up with a really good meal, but it was nothing like what we expected. I should probably mention that fried foods is something I'll go out for -- seems silly to waste so much oil frying at home. Look for a trial of no-fry fried zucchini coming soon.

We headed down to Newport on the Levee, ready for a meal at Cafe Istanbul. We traditionally go there before concerts at Southgate House, most recently to see Mindy Smith and Tift Merritt. We also had a really memorable night there on the patio earlier this summer, but it was strange because it seemed that their air conditioner wasn't working. We enjoyed the weather on the patio, but our wine was hot from the bar. Maybe they were on the way out at that point. Anyway, when we got there, we were alone -- no restaurant. I can't believe they closed -- they had a great veggie kabob grill and, of course, falafel.

There are several other restaurants in the center, and of course we could leave as well, but we'd just paid for parking and had plans to see a movie there. We stumbled into Jefferson Hall, and I really didn't have high expectations. We had a great view, medicre service, and our meals were served in baskets.

The Purple People Bridge over the Ohio River from our table at Jefferson Hall

One of our bad habits when eating out is to try an appetizer, even when we know we'll have enough food with just our meals. I'm learning to use the appetizer as something just to try so that I'll be hungry enough to enjoy my meal. Last night, we got the soft pretzels with beer cheese, which is available all over the place in this area as a nod to the German heritage. Of course, to us, soft pretzels are very Philly -- plus I used to work in a pretzel shop. These were really tasty, and the beer cheese was better at Jefferson Hall than at Keystone.

Of course, the reason we chose this restaurant above the others in the same area was that we saw on the menu that you could substitute a black bean burger for the animal burger with any of their toppings. We each got a burger and fries and split each in half. Our suddenly attentive waitress wanted to get us a box for our other halves, not understanding that we placed them in the paper trays to swap. She seemed relieved that we would be eating our meals, not reducing their size prior to digging in.

On the left, the "better" burger -- we both preferred the JHall burger. This featured a generous spread of boursin cheese, a thick slice of grilled onion, and then the regular burger toppings (I took off the raw onions). The other one we tried is the California burger, which features pepper jack cheese, roasted red peppers, and guacamole on the side. I wasn't in the mood for spicy cheese, and the red peppers were a little bitter. Don't let my criticism taint this review, though, because this was a tasty burger. The black bean patty was nearly perfect; it wasn't a Gardenburger like I can get in the frozen foods aisle; it wasn't a hit-or-miss attempt at a homemade veggie patty; it was consistent, tasty, and much appreciated. I think we will be back, but maybe next time we should aim to be there for happy hour.

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