Archive | Cooking Tips RSS feed for this section

Clean-the-Fridge Stir Fry with Szechuan Sauce

18 Nov

This week has been crazy, as I worked on several projects that were much more time consuming than I had anticipated.  Meanwhile, grocery shopping did not happen, much less any house cleaning, including the refrigerator.  About every other week I make it a habit to go through the fridge, discard any old leftovers and use up produce or packaged goods that are about to expire.

Tonight’s dinner turned out to be largely inspired by the results of a refrigerator clean-out.  I came across some old spinach, broccoli, one zucchini, and a piece of ginger.  All looked like today would be their last chance at a dignified end as food, rather than trash.  I also found pineapple chunks and minced shallots that were about to expire, and jars of marinara and Szechuan sauces with only small quantities left.

The Szechuan sauce beckoned me in the direction of a stir-fry, so I searched for some more vegetables and a starch.  I thought about fried rice, but didn’t feel like waiting for brown rice to cook.  Instead, I looked in my pantry and found Chinese noodles (reminiscent of Ramen noodles).  In addition, I found some fresh carrots, Brussels sprouts, and an onion.

For today’s stir-fry, I cut the carrots into matchsticks, following a strategy taught to me by a friend.  I started by cutting diagonally along the carrot in order to make thin slices that were about 1.5 inches long and 1/4 inch thick.

Then I cut into each carrot slice lengthwise to make the matchstick.

I sauteed about 1/3 a medium onion, coarsely chopped, in about 1 tablespoon of olive oil, for about three minutes in my wok.

I then added the carrot matchsticks and mixed them, allowing them to sauté for almost ten minutes, stirring occasionally.

While the carrots and onions cooked, I worked on cutting the Brussels sprouts, zucchini, and broccoli.  My broccoli was already cut up from a previous meal prep, but I did have to slice my zucchini into 2 inch chunks, and my Brussels sprouts into quarters after first removing the bottoms.

Once the ten minutes passed, I checked that my carrots felt tender on the outside with just a bit of crunch on the inside, since they would continue cooking more thoroughly after mixing in more ingredients. I added all the green vegetables except for spinach.  I mixed everything with about 1/4  cup vegetable broth to prevent sticking, and covered the wok with a lid.

While the vegetables steamed with the carrot and onion mix, I put water in another pot for boiling my noodles, and also began mincing my ginger with a microplane.  This ginger was definitely getting old, because it wasn’t as juicy as fresh ginger, but nevertheless, I minced away.

I love microplanes, because they are very  handy for zesting citrus fruits and mincing nutmeg too.  Below you can see what the ginger looks like after mincing.

After accumulating about 1.5 tablespoons of ginger, I added the rest of the Szechuan sauce from the old jar (about 5 tablespoons), the rest of the marinara sauce (about 1/4 cup), and half the jar of shallots (2 ounces).

I blended these ingredients with a whisk, and mixed the sauce into the stir-fry.  At this point, my water was also boiling for my noodles, so I put them in the pot.

Once the noodles were back to a rapid boil, I knew they’d only take about 3-4 minutes to cook, so it was a perfect time to add my spinach to the stir-fry, since it only needed to wilt in the stir-fry.  I mixed in the spinach and also threw in about 1/3 of the pineapple jar as well.

After testing them for an “al dente” texture, I drained the noodles in a colander.

I immediately added about half the noodles to the stir fry and mixed it thoroughly.  The entire package of Chinese noodles was just too much, and I prefer to have a stir-fry that is more vegetable than starch.

The final entree was delicious!  We did add soy sauce once it was plated, because I didn’t even think of it while cooking, but otherwise the Szechaun/marinara blend was delicious but not overpowering.  Both the pineapple and the ginger were just the right amount to give it a distinct, but subtle flavor.  I was very pleased with how the carrots softened and had a natural sweetness, while the Brussels sprouts had absorbed a lot of the sauce’s flavor.  However, the noodles did break apart, which I wasn’t expecting — I’m thinking that maybe they had continued cooking with the heat of the stir-fry.  Perhaps next time I should bring them together on the plate instead of the wok, or boil them for less time.

Overall, it was delicious, and I am looking forward to having some for lunch tomorrow.  In the mean time, I have to think about what to do with the rest of the noodles, shallot, and pineapple I didn’t use today!


Persephone’s Folly — how the heck do you open a pomegranate?

17 Nov

Pomegranate.  Lately, it’s all the rage, with its flavor added to teas, juices, and even vodkas.  Tiny bottles of pure pomegranate juice can be purchased at a high cost, but are credited with providing high amounts of antioxidants and even fighting prostate problems in men.

There are plenty of products offering pomegranate juice or its flavoring, but what if you want the real thing?  A real pomegranate.  Its juicy little seeds tricked the Greek goddess Persephone into staying in the underworld, but I’m sure that if she had had to cut up the fruit herself, she would have told Hades to forget it.  So what do we mortals do when we want pomegranate seeds?

First, soak the pomegranate in a bowl of water for about an hour or so, to soften it up and make it easier to work with.  But if you don’t have time to soak it first, it’s still possible to continue.

Next, put the pomegranate on a cutting board and use a large knife to cut around the fruit into four pieces.  Cut first around its equator, then through it’s stem.  The juice is dark red, so don’t let it bleed all over the counters.

Put the pomegranate pieces back into the bowl of water, and use your fingers to peel back the white pith away from the seeds underwater.  If you don’t do this underwater (or at least right above the water), the seeds will pop out and fly all over the place, or break and stain you, your clothes, everything.  Underwater, they will simply float, intact.

Work your fingers into the fruit until all the seeds are out and in the bowl.

Discard the white pith.

Once you have all the outer skin parts of the pomegranate gone, your seeds should have all sunken to the bottom of the bowl.  If there are any more traces of the pith, they will float to the top of the water, where you can skim them off the top.

Gently rinse the seeds in a colander, and you are finished.

Now what do you do with pomegranate seeds?

You can eat them as they are, because they make a great tarty-sweet snack.  Otherwise, add them into fruit salad, a greens salad, a smoothie, on top of a dessert, the bottom of a martini glass, or make a relish or sauce.

For tonight, I just threw them into a salad of baby greens, tomato, balsamic vinaigrette, and Gardein Seven Grain Crispy Tenders, which I tried for the first time.  I was pleased to see them carried at BJ’s Wholesale Club, of all places, and was eager to try them.  Typically, BJ’s does not carry any vegan meat substitutes (they have veggie burgers, but all have egg in them).  But I do shop there for a good price on 5 lb. bags of organic carrots, organic baby greens and spinach, tofu, Sabra hummus, and Clif bars and two-packs of the Arnold’s Whole Wheat Soft bread my husband likes.

As the instructions indicated, I cooked ten pieces at 400 degrees in the toaster oven for 15 minutes.

Then, on my cutting board, I cut them each into three chunks to be divided among two salad bowls.

A warm and yummy addition to a fresh salad with pomegranate seeds.  These two ingredients certainly made my salad a lot more interesting tonight!  The Gardein Crispy Tenders were definitely delicious — to the point where my husband put four more in the toaster oven just for himself!

The Vegan Ilk of Milk

12 Nov

Vegans have the glorious choice of not one, but at least six milks most dairy-drinkers often don’t even know about.  Most people have heard of soy milk, and in fact many coffee shops including Starbucks now carry it as an alternative to dairy.  However, there are also additional delicious choices such as almond milk, rice milk, hemp milk, oat milk, and coconut milk.  Each has a distinct flavor and consistency.  Some are sweeter than others, and thus serve some purposes better than others.

Typically, coconut and rice are the sweetest choices, which are excellent for desserts, but not uncommon in entrees such as curries.  Neither one, in my opinion,  is particularly good to drink straight from a glass, if not mixed with coffee or in a smoothie.  Soy milk and almond milk are more flexible, and are good for use in baking recipes, or to simply drink plainly.  My only experience with oat milk so far is in baking and using for cereal.  As for hemp milk, it is more expensive than the others, so usually I just enjoy it by drinking it with cocoa powder.  Either way, they are all enjoyable and worth trying.

The question for today, however, is which one would be most delicious and effective in making  creamy mashed potatoes?  I decided to try all of them (except coconut — that one I know would be way too sweet).

To prepare the potatoes, start with scrubbing the skins with a vegetable brush. I never peel my potatoes — it’s a waste of time!  But if you want your mashed potatoes to be completely white, then go for it.  I prefer mine “dirty” and less time consuming.  While you’re at it, be sure to put water in a large pot to boil.

Cut the potatoes by first steadying it on its side and cutting it lengthwise in half.  Then take the two halves and set them flat side down. Depending on the size of the potato, cut it lengthwise into two, three, or four slices. Then cut perpendicular into 1.5″ chunks.

Once the water is at a rolling boil (not just sputtering bubbles), put the potatoes in.  The rolling boil will stop, but the potatoes will be cooking.   When they return to a rolling boil, check them after 15 minutes.  The timing may vary depending on the amount of water and potatoes, so keep checking.  If you can poke right through them easily with a toothpick and they break apart, then they are pretty much done. If you taste one, it should fall apart in your mouth.

Once the potatoes are finished, let them drain in a colander for a few minutes so that all the water is out. Then put them back in the pot and mash them.

Once they are broken up, you can use an immersion blender.  Mine is a Proctor Silex. I love using it for pureeing soups, without the bneed to transfer messy hot liquids to my blender.

Add Earth Balance (about 4 tablespoons) to the potatoes, as well as salt and pepper, to the taste.

Now it is time for the milk taste tests.  I put five dollops of potatoes each in its own bowl and added 1 tablespoon each of the test milks.  I used a small whisk to incorporate the milk into the potatoes.

After trying all the samples twice, I resorted to using process of elimination to narrow down my choices.  I quickly took out both hemp milk and soy milk out of the running, as their flavors were too strong and interfered with that of the mashed potatoes.  Next I eliminated the oat milk because it also had a noticeable taste.  Finally, I really couldn’t make up my mind between the almond milk and rice milk.  Rice milk seemed like the most neutral taste, but also appeared thin and runny.  Therefore, I decided to mix equal parts rice and almond milks in this particular batch of mashed potatoes.  Thus, I added 1/2 cup of each and used the immersion blender once again to mix everything.  The result was smooth and creamy!

Three Minute Vegan Ice Cream

10 Nov

At a Veg Meetup a few weeks ago, I described my vegan ice cream recipe that I’ve been making for a few years.  To some, it seemed to involve a lot of work, but to me it only takes about five minutes, or three minutes if I rush.  The trick is to always have the ingredients on hand, of course, and multi-task the preparation and clean up.  Today, I actually set my stopwatch and finished the whole job (with pictures) in 2 minutes, 58.2 seconds!

Very often, I have an insatiable desire for chocolate, and sometimes it’s in the form of ice cream.  In the summer, it’s every day!

Vegan Ice Cream does exist and is available for sale in both health food stores and regular grocery stores like Shoprite — however, it still has fat and sugar comparable to cow’s ice cream.  As much as I love Coconut Bliss, So Delicious, and Purely Decadent chocolate ice creams, I can’t afford to eat the calories (or pay the price) every day.

But a banana, ice cubes, almond milk, and hemp powder can be a surprisingly rich stand-in for these higher-calorie ice creams, and very easy to make.  As I mentioned in my smoothie post, I always keep frozen overripe bananas on hand.  I usually buy them at Acme, where they sell them for $0.25 / lb. in paper bags.  Before they get mushy, but after they are very yellow and have quite a few black spots on them, I peel them and freeze them in a plastic ziplock bag.  Provided I have these bananas, some cocoa powder, and almond milk on hand, I’m set!  You don’t need the hemp powder, but I have been adding it ever since I discovered that I’d much rather have chocolate ice cream after a workout than a protein shake.  Thus, I put my hemp powder in the ice cream, with the added bonus that it does add a subtle nutty flavor and some body to the ice cream.  Now I add it all the time, even when I haven’t worked out.  All in all, the result is a delicious ice cream eating experience that really amounts to no more calories or regret than having eaten a banana!

Following a recipe based loosely on Alissa Cohen’s Living on Live Food and in observing banana whips in progress at Bashful Banana (Great veg-friendly food!) in Ocean City, New Jersey, I devised a strategy using the tools and resources I have.  Bear in mind, as pictured, my food processor has a hole on the top of the lid with a removable cup.  Once the machine is running, I safely add most of my ingredients through there to avoid wasting time, but you might want to stop yours in between ingredients (today I had to stop it in order to take pictures).  I also suggest washing some of the tools while the food processor works, but for the first time, you may want to keep your eyes on it instead.

1. Set up and plug in food processor.

2. Put 3-4 ice cubes in the processor and start running it.

3. While the ice is chopped up, grab a knife, cutting board, and a banana from the freezer.  Cut it into round slices about 3/4-inch thick.

4. Add these slices to the food processor (I actually throw them in through the hole on top and keep the machine running).

5. While these get chopped up, wash off your knife and cutting board, and grab the almond milk, hemp protein (if using), and cocoa powder from the fridge.

6. Pour in about 3 tablespoons of the almond milk (eyeball it) through the hole on the top.

7. Add about 2 tablespoons each of cocoa powder and hemp protein.

8. Put the hemp protein, cocoa powder, and almond milk in the fridge while the food processor is running.

9. When the mixture is thick and smooth but not liquified, stop the food processor.  Immediately wash the food processor lid.

10. Remove the food processor bowl and careful take out the blade.  You can use a small rubber spatula to push off the ice cream.  Immediately wash this blade too.

11. Don’t waste time or dirty any more dishes!  Take that same small spatula and eat your ice cream right out of the food processor bowl!

12.  When finished, wash the bowl immediately to avoid sticking.

Mmmmmm!!!  Tastes great, and if you multi-tasked, you really don’t have dishes to wash or stuff to put away.  Five minutes later, it looks like nothing happened in your kitchen — nope, no sneaky snacks at all!

However, the only catch is that you really do need to eat it on the spot before it melts, and it won’t keep the same texture if you freeze it.  Thus, for real vegan banana ice cream, you’d have to use an ice cream maker and more ingredients.

Here are some suggested add-ins I’ve used in the past (add to the finished ice cream and pulse the blade a few times to incorporate it):

1.  Almond or peanut butter (be sure it is room temperature).

2. Ghiradelli semi-sweet chocolate chips.

3. Vegan Graham Crackers, Sweet and Sara Marshmallows, and chocolate chips (My response to the Phillies Graham Slam flavor put out by Turkey Hill).

4. Coarsely chopped Oreos (I usually get Newman-O’s).

5. Peanuts or almonds.

6. A teaspoon of agave nectar and a drop of vanilla extract (especially if your bananas weren’t that ripe and sweet).

7. Chunks of brownie or cookie dough if I happen to be making some.

8. Carob powder instead of cocoa powder.

Substituions, if needed:

1. Frozen chunks of mango also work as well as bananas, but I wouldn’t put cocoa powder in it.

2. Almond milk is my favorite for this recipe, but really any non-dairy milk will do.

3.  You could always skip the cocoa if you don’t like chocolate.

****If I get a Flip video camera for Christmas, I promise I’ll repost in the future with a video to prove how fast this recipe can be made!  In the  mean time, enjoy!

I’ll Take My Flu Shot in a Bowl With a Spoon

9 Nov

Lately, I can’t seem to drive more than a few miles through town without seeing advertisements for flu shots at drug stores and supermarkets.  Walk-ins welcome!  $20, administered by a pharmacy technician — no prescription (in other words, no consultation with a doctor needed in order to make this medical decision).

I am no expert on vaccinations, but I must admit I am wary of them in the same way that I am wary of just about any health advice that carries a strong backing from a U.S. government body and/or pharmaceutical group.  Why?  Well, let’s not forget these are the same groups telling us it is OK, and even nutritious to consume meat and dairy — precisely the foods that cause cancer, diabetes, heart disease, several auto-immune and digestive disorders in addition to being foods contaminated with pathogens such as salmonella, campylobacter, E. coli, and other bacteria (coming from the feces of the animal that inevitably gets on the flesh, milk, and eggs).  What do these groups recommend?  Useless and equally troublesome “moderation” diets as well as prescription drugs for the chronic diseases, and cooking at high temperature to kill the fecal bacteria that cause infectious diseases.

Furthermore, with the global community we have now via the Internet, it surprises me to see news articles from other countries in which health organizations exercise a lot more caution in testing and administering vaccines, and have raised their food safety standards much higher than ours.  For example, in Australia, the Swine Flu vaccine was found to cause serious problems in children, and so it has been halted.  Yet here it was immediately administered in schools!

Again, I am not a doctor, so I am only describing my experience.  Also, I can attest to the fact that as a former teacher, I have been exposed to countless sniffles from children who sneeze all over the place, in schools that had no budget for supplying tissues.  Yet, since becoming a health-conscious vegan, I stopped catching all the bugs the students brought in the classroom.  Typically, when people near me start to get sick, I increase my intake of fresh fruits and vegetables, including fresh juices and smoothies, as well as soups loaded with vegetables and clear broths.  Last year, my school district had a quite a blow on its attendance due to the Swine Flu.  Hundreds of students were absent, and I spent about a week with less than a dozen students in my classes.  One of my co-teachers who spent three hours per day with me fell victim to it and was absent for nine days, but I was fine.  I began coming to school with a one-liter water bottle filled with fresh juice with every vegetable I had in the fridge — carrots, collard greens, dandelion leaves, lots of red peppers, parsnips, and kale, along with lemons and oranges.  The juice came out a very gross brown color, but I didn’t care.  My students saw it and thought it was disgusting, but I assured them it was my medicine — my way to avoid the Swine Flu — and it worked.  Food was my medicine, not some vaccine that isn’t even effective — again, from my teaching experience I witnessed a lot of students get sick despite (or perhaps because of??) a flu shot.  Bottom line:  not every cold or flu virus is destined to get a person ill as if it were some unstoppable Ebola virus.  We touch, breathe, and swallow germs all day long, but we’re not sick every day.  The fact is that the germs from these illness only affect people with compromised immune systems.  A poor diet, lack of exercise, and high stress can compromise an immune system.

Perhaps when U.S. health groups begin acknowledging that we are what we eat and our food can both cause our problems and reverse them, perhaps I’ll start listening.  So with that said, I will step off my soap box and describe my recent flu prevention strategy.

Soup!  I worked with just the vegetables I had today in my refrigerator, so there really is no right or wrong way to make this soup.  I was happy to see that I had a red pepper, which has 8 times the amount of vitamin C as an orange, as well as parsnips, which are known to be beneficial to the respiratory system.  I also had carrots, which have plenty of vitamins and minerals as well.

I began by sharpening my knife, because I knew I was going to depend on it!

I also began boiling a large stock pot full of water.  Since I did not have any homemade or store-bought liquid vegetable broth, I used two products I enjoy for their natural flavors and less-than-astronomical sodium levels. One is Rapunzel Vegan Vegetable Bouillon, which comes in a cube shape, and the second one is Gayelord Hauser’s Vegetable Broth.  The latter of the two comes in a loose powder form, which is also good for putting into Follow Your Heart Vegenaise for an excellent ranch-like vegetable dip.

With water working toward a boil and my knife sharpened, I washed and cut the ends off my vegetables.  I did not peel them because all of these pictured are organic, but I did scrub them to remove any dirt particles.  Finally, I was ready to begin the meditative process of chopping vegetables!  I enjoy the process because I find it relaxing to concentrate on the cuts and utilize geometry to work around the curvature of the vegetables.  With each one, I find ways to make lines, flat surfaces, narrow strips, and small squares using parallel and perpendicular slices.

As a I plan what to cut and when, I start with the thickest, hardest vegetables, as these will need to cook longer.  The parsnips were the hardest, and also have an awkward shape.  First I cut the wide thick tops away from the skinny bottoms.  Then I slice the skinny bottoms lengthwise to make two halves, each with a flat bottom.  I then cut these halves lengthwise into strips, then turn my knife perpendicular to cut the strips into tiny squares.  For the thick bottoms, I set them vertically on the cutting board and slice them to make several flat panels as shown in the picture.  Then I cut these panels into strips as well, and proceed to cutting the strips into squares.  I did not wait for the water to finish boiling, because it doesn’t matter — I just threw the parsnips in as soon as they were ready.

Next I cut the carrots, following a similar strategy as the parsnips:  cut the thicker parts away from the thinner parts, cut into strips, then cut into tiny squares, and throw them into the pot.

Now it was time for cutting the pepper, which can be a bit of a pain with all those seeds sticking to everything.  What I do is stand the pepper up on the cutting board and cut downward around the four sides of the stem.  Usually all the seeds stay attached to the stem core and the mess is minimized.  I then use a smaller knife to cut out the white parts, since these tend to make the pepper bitter, and I even rinse the pepper chunks again if there are any seeds clinging to them.  And once again, I cut the peppers into strips and then small squares.

Celery!  With celery I also cut it lengthwise into either two or three strips and then turn my knife perpendicular and chop away.  Notice I have included the celery leaves as well.  There’s no reason to throw them away — they have nutritious value too.  Chop them up!

Lastly, I chopped the zucchini, since it was the softest vegetable.  By now my broth, along with the parsnips, carrots, peppers, and celery was at a decent boil, and so I proceeded once again with the same strategy:  cut in half lengthwise, cut lengthwise into strips, turn the knife perpendicular, and cut into squares.

Every time I added vegetables to the pot, the boil would disappear, but it would come back fairly soon.

I probably should have added these sooner, but I forgot:  dried mushrooms and kombu.  I started buying these dried mushrooms and keeping them in my pantry because it seemed as though fresh mushrooms in my fridge would go bad pretty quickly unless I was using them in my salads every day.  The kombu is a great choice for adding flavor to the broth that is not necessarily that “fishy” taste that comes from some seaweed.  In addition, it contains valuable trace minerals that add even more flu-fighting power to the soup.

Just for fun — I added some animal-shaped pasta to the soup, hoping to put a smile on my husband’s face, since it has been cold outside and he’s feeling a bit under the weather.  This product, Orgran Gluten-free Farm Animal Vegetable Pasta, was in a gluten-free aisle at Haars, a local health food store in my area.  I’ve been using gluten-free pasta for about two years now, in an effort to reduce my exposure to gluten and vary my grains, especially since I learned that close to 40% of people of European descent have a wheat and/or gluten intolerance.  I’ll probably blog about this in the future — stay tuned.

As the soup was just about finished — all the vegetables were soft and the pasta was al dente — I added several handfuls of spinach, and let it wilt and heat up in the soup for about a minute.  That’s all it needed.

The final result:

A bowl of this soup every day for a week, and those nasty, invasive flu germs won’t stand a chance in my body!