A tale of two saags

It has been a very eventful couple of weeks. A friend in the hospital, a big gathering held at my place, and to top it all off I got sick! So needless to say I haven’t been keeping up with my box too well. But when I looked in the fridge and saw I had spinach, beet greens, kohlrabi greens, and two separate tupperware containers of leftover tofu, I knew I had to take action before these delicate items spoiled and I was crying my way all the way to the compost bin.

I wracked my illness-addled brain to come up with something that would deliciously combine everything I wanted to use up and finally I hit upon the idea of palak tofu. Palak tofu is a riff on the traditional Indian dish palak paneer, which combines cubes of soft Indian cheese with a smooth spinach base. My dish would also contain greens other than spinach, technically making it saag tofu (palak just means “spinach,” saag means “greens).

I turned to my beloved Food Blog Search to find a recipe and ended up with about six that I finally narrowed down to two. Both recipes had me pan-fry the tofu separately, which was a nice touch that kept the tofu from just being cubes of blandness. I had some firm and some extra-firm tofu and I definitely preferred the firm as it had a softer, more paneer-like texture. I might even try medium tofu if I make this dish again.

I liked the more extensive ingredients list of this recipe from Monsoon Spice, which has a variety of spices as well as a few cashew nuts for richness and creaminess. But the steps were overwhelmingly complicated, so I instead followed the directions from this recipe from FatFree Vegan Kitchen. I also added in the soy yogurt called for by the FatFree Vegan Kitchen recipe because my curry came out really spicy! The yogurt cooled it off to just-bearable, which suited me perfectly. I like my curry with a kick.

I started cooking my saag tofu at midnight (why do I always do this?) and it took me a good couple of hours to finish. I think I was making apple crisp at the same time, though, so the time sort of blurs together. I enjoyed the results but I definitely want to tweak the recipe a good bit before I post it here. It was lacking something essential (perhaps due to my incongruous combination of two very different recipes?) but with my palate all wonky from being sick I’m going to have to make it again before I can identify the missing piece. Nonetheless, even though the dish succeeded only somewhat at being tasty saag tofu, it hit a home run for making good use of ingredients before they could be left to languish in the fridge.

Total winter comfort food

Last Sunday I woke up at a friend’s place after a big night out, having slept no more than a few hours, and drove home in the midst of a monsoon. The rain was coming down so hard my windshield wipers were inadequate, and I seriously considered pulling over to wait out the rain even though the trip between our houses is only 40 blocks or so. The sky was so dark, and the light so filtered, that it seemed perennially like the hour just before dawn. When I finally made it into my house I was cold and wet and exhausted and it should have been the perfect day to curl up with a book and my cat and listen to the rain come down.

It may look ugly, but it tastes amazing!

But instead, for some reason, I wanted to make lasagna. Butternut squash white lasagna with spinach and beet greens, to be exact. Vegan lasagna is quite an undertaking, since you have to make the ricotta substitute by hand, and white lasagna is even more work because it also requires the concoction of a vegan bechamel or other white sauce. And of course I didn’t have any tofu with which to make my ricotta, and I was worried I didn’t have enough gluten-free lasagna noodles on hand, either.

Sigh... it's so hard to make a pan of lasagna look pretty!

So I put on my slicker and my pink plaid rain boots and headed out into the storm to the market a few blocks from my house. I picked up tofu and noodles and the ingredients for vinegret and slogged back home. By the time I got home, my jeans were soaked through to the skin. But it was worth it. I really, really wanted that lasagna. People kept calling to invite me over but I couldn’t imagine getting back in the car in the rain. And as I may have mentioned, I really wanted that lasagna.

Super delicious, rich, creamy cashew ricotta

I tried some new things this time. I made Veganomicon’s cashew ricotta (which is still tofu-based but made much richer and creamier by the addition of cashews) and tried out a new vegan bechamel using Mimic Creme, a nut-based soy-free cream substitute. My recipe is basically cadged together from different sources, but the result is divine!

Vegan Gluten-Free Butternut Squash White Lasagna with Spinach and Beet Greens
Based on recipes from Coconut & Lime, Book of Yum, and Veganomicon


1 box gluten-free lasagna noodles (I prefer Tinkyada brand)
1 1/2 cups toasted walnuts (these are for topping the lasagna after it comes out of the oven)

1 medium to large butternut squash, sliced lengthwise and seeds removed or 2 packages frozen butternut squash
1 large bunch Swiss chard or beet greens, chopped
1 large bunch spinach, chopped
1 medium onion, diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon chopped fresh sage (or dried sage)
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

Cashew Ricotta, a double recipe of a Veganomicon
1 cup raw cashew pieces (approximately 4 ounces)
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
4 cloves fresh or roasted garlic
2 pounds firm tofu, drained and crumbled
3 teaspoons dried basil
3  teaspoons salt

Vegan Bechamel, adapted from Book of Yum:
scant 1/2 cup flavorful GF flour (brown rice, chickpea, etc.)
2 cups Mimic Creme
1 cup rice (almond or soy, if not intolerant) milk
bay leaf
salt, freshly ground pepper
fresh nutmeg, grated


If using fresh squash: Preheat oven to 400. Cut squash in half lengthwise and remove seeds. Brush the butternut squash with olive oil. Place cut side down on a parchment lined baking sheet. Bake for 30-40 minutes or until fork tender. Allow to cool slightly. Scoop out the insides.
If using frozen squash: Steam according to package directions.
For either baked or steamed frozen squash: Mash. It should yield about 3 1/2 to 4 cups of squash (more is fine). Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Meanwhile, cook the noodles according to package instructions. Drain and arrange in a single layer on baking sheets until ready for use.

For the filling: Heat the oil in a large skillet. Saute the onion and garlic until fragrant, then add the chard, spinach, and sage. Saute until the greens are soft. Allow to cool slightly then combine with the cashew ricotta, nutmeg, salt, pepper and paprika.

To make cashew ricotta:
In a food processor, blend together the cashews, lemon juice, olive oil, and garlic until a thick creamy paste forms. Add the crumbled tofu to the food processor, working in two or more batches if necessary, until the mixture is thick and well blended. Blend in the basil and salt.

To make vegan bechamel:
Make your bechamel sauce by combining ingredients and let the mixture come to a low boil, whisking constantly until sauce is thickened. Simmer for a few minutes with bay leaf and seasonings and then reserve.

To assemble: Preheat oven to 375. Spread some sauce on the bottom of a 9×13 inch pan. Top with noodles then layer with a layer of squash then the chard-ricotta mixture and drizzle with sauce. Repeat until the pan is full, then top with a final layer of noodle and the remaining sauce.

Bake covered for 30-40 minutes, then remove cover and bake for another 10 or so minutes. Allow to sit about 5 minutes before slicing and serving. Serve topped with toasted walnuts.

Collard Greens and Butternut Squash ~ Week of December 16th

Braised Collard Greens and Beet Greens with Tomato, Red Onion, and Tempeh Bacon

This week in our Small Mixed box from Farm Fresh to You:

Satsuma mandarins (1.5 lb)
Pink Lady apples (1.5 lb)
Savoy cabbage (3 lb)
Collard greens (1 bunch)
Butternut squash (2 lb)
Salad mix (0.5 lb)
Leeks (1 lb)

I was a huge fan of collard greens in college. I used to boil them for a long, long time until they were super tender and then eat them with lemon juice and hot pepper flakes. I never ate collards growing up or had any other exposure to them, rather I knew about the idea of collard greens, as this slow-cooked Southern food that you cooked forever with a ham hock or something. So I just cooked my (vegetarian) version of this idea. After a trip to New Orleans I brought back a ton of Zatarain’s boxed mixes for Red Beans & Rice, Dirty Rice, and Jamabalaya. I would throw in cut-up veggie sausage and cook my collards and make these feasts that recreated a cuisine I had basically never eaten. (It’s impossible to actually eat this food in New Orleans if you’re vegetarian.)

I don’t boil greens for hours anymore. I try to give them a little more love and let their flavors stay bright and their nutrients stay in their leaves and not leach out into the cooking water. But collards can be tough, and they do need some attention to make them shine. I usually improvise a recipe based on a collard green technique from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison that has delicious Southern flavor (or what I imagine to be Southern flavor in my head) while still keeping the greens bright and lively. She recommends a brown butter sauce to replace the bacon flavor, but since we don’t eat butter I use tempeh bacon, and then I’ll throw in whatever other veggies seem like they’ll be happy in there, too.

Braised Collards, Veggie-Southern-style

2 bunches collards, long stems and tough ribs removed
1 onion (red or yellow), diced
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
5 strips tempeh bacon*, cut into small pieces
1 T. olive oil

Plunge the greens into a large pot of boiling salted water, cook them for 10 minutes and then remove to a bowl. Reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking water.

Heat the olive oil in a wide skillet (I use a wok) over medium heat. Add onion and pepper flakes, stirring occasionally until the onion is beginning to soften. Add the garlic and tempeh bacon and cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic is lightly colored and the tempeh lightly browned. Add the greens, their reserved cooking water, and 1 tsp. salt. Cook for 30 minutes and taste again for salt. They can use a lot, but the tempeh bacon should bring a lot of flavor.

Variations: You could add tomatoes, peanuts, bell peppers, cubes of cooked yam… the sky is the limit! In the photo above, I used one of bunch collards, one of beet greens, and added tomatoes.

*The brand of tempeh bacon I use – Lightlife – is flavored with a soy sauce that contains wheat, so it is NOT gluten-free. You can make your own tempeh bacon from Veganomicon. I recommend making a big batch of thin slices and then freezing it to thaw as needed.

Reinventing an old favorite, better than ever

I woke up today and felt like making lasagna. Lasagna used to make an appearance a few times a year on my cooking rotation, combining long-simmered homemade red sauce with thick layers of creamy ricotta and chewy mozarella. Oh, and some garlicky spinach for color, of course. Then came cancer year, and the long list of “no” foods, and I created a “no”-food-friendly lasagna recipe for my mom and the other people in her treatement group that had lots of veggies and none of the forbidden stuff like refined flour or cheese or soy or meat or anything else that actually belongs in lasagna. It was pretty tasty, but not terribly filling. You had to eat about half a pan to feel satisfied, which is totally antithetical to the whole function of lasagna, which, as far as I’m concerned, is to spend more time than usual preparing a fairly elaborate dish, but then get a payoff which is that one small square of that jam-packed, densely layered dish can feed a family of four for a week.


So today I woke up and felt like making lasagna for the first time in a long while, but this time it would need to be my first vegan, gluten-free, CFS-friendly lasagna. By CFS-friendly I mean that this would need to be a lasagna with the proper energy input-output equation; in other words, a few hours in the kitchen today that would translate to many “no problem, we’re having lasagna!” meals in the coming week.

As I gear up to recount the great lasagna adventure, now would be a perfect time to mention the big news of the summer. Not only has Farmer B returned at last from the East, she has brought her joyful sense of fun, gracious disposition, and farming/cooking/preserving/sauerkraut-and-kombucha-fermenting savvy and know-how into our home for the summer, and Duck and I could not be happier with our new housemate. Part of my inspiration to make lasagna was the amazing lentil, potato, carrot, mushroom dal Farmer B had made for us all the night before, spurring me to want to make an elaborate meal she could just relax and enjoy.

But of course, Farmer B being Farmer B, she had the day free and suggested that what could be more fun than making lasagna together, with her as my sous-chef, of course? So the great lasagna project got that much easier and a million times more fun. The only challenge that remained was figuring out what, exactly, would go in this thing. The gluten-free conversion for lasagna is easy since I’ve discovered Tinkyada brown rice pasta, the pasta that I actually prefer in texture and flavor to wheat pasta. But the vegan part is a bit trickier. There are many options – you can go the fake ground-meat route, or the soy-cheese route, or the just-veggies-and-red-sauce route, or, my personal favorite, the tofu-ricotta route.

I hate soy cheese in all its forms, and I don’t even like meat, so I am not going to go out of my way to find substitutes for it (most of which contain gluten, anyway). The just-veggies route seems to lead to rumbling, empty bellies five minutes after you finish a slice, plus I like my lasagna veggies simple. Just greens and maybe mushrooms, but none of this carrots and broccoli and zucchini randomness. But tofu-ricotta is tricky. You can crumble up tofu to the texture of ricotta, but it’s still crumbled-up tofu – bland, bland, bland. And sometimes it gets dry, because it doesn’t have all that nice dairy fat in it, and then you have a mouthful of dry bland tofu sandwiched between noodles.

To address the flavor issue I turned to vegan-cooking genius Isa Chandra Moscowitz of the Post-Punk Kitchen. Her recipe for Tofu Basil Ricotta sounded like exactly what I was looking for in the flavor department. And to deal with the lingering question of potential dryness, I called on my own vegan-cooking genius, and decided to incorporate some of my Savory Vegan Cream. I really think the addition of the cream was what ultimately pulled the whole dish together, flavor and texture-wise, plus I had not even anticipated the mouthwatering appeal of seeing a lasagna with a creamy red-and-white topping, as opposed to the usual plain vegan red sauce topping.

From my CSA box I had a huge bunch of chard, another of beet greens, and a few leaves of curly kale, as well as a bunch of fresh basil. Yum. Perfect filling. I made a simplified version of my old elaborate homemade red sauce, Farmer B whipped up some vegan cream sauce (and a little gluten-free peach and blueberry crisp for dessert), I massaged my tofu into ricotta-like perfection, we steamed the greens, and then finally I layered everything together. That’s the nervous part, for me, especially because I am never following one single recipe. Will there be enough sauce for all the layers? Did I use too many greens in the first layer and they won’t stretch all the way across on the next one? How much cream should I put – I don’t want it to get greasy! But everything came together beautifully (the lasagna gods were smiling on us today) and when it came out of the oven… well, you can see for yourself. I don’t think the picture does justice to the rich promise of herbs and tomatoes and creamy goodness that emerged from the oven. Perhaps you’ll just have to try it for yourself. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it!

Incredibly detailed recipe below… Continue reading

Chard and Beet Greens

Chard, Beet Green, Caramelized Onion, Ricotta, Goat Cheese, & Pine Nut Pizza

For as long as I’ve been filling my own pizzas, I’ve been topping them with chard. I’m not sure how I came up with chard as a no-brainer pizza topping – I’ve certainly never seen it on the list at any pizza joint – and every time I buy chard to put on a pizza I find myself preparing to put the pizza together going, What was I thinking? Chard on pizza? But every time I take the chard-pizza plunge, I’m reminded again why I do it. I don’t like tomato sauce, and the chard has all the moisture and sweetness you could ask for, as well as its own uniquely great texture in contrast to the crust.

I decided to try a new kind of crust by my beloved pizza-shell makers, Vicolo Pizza. This was a spelt crust, using a form of wheat that is often easier to digest than regular wheat. I’m sad to report that the spelt crust may be easier to digest, but I found it much, much harder to consume! It’s back to the cornmeal (and wheat flour) crusts, eaten sparingly as a special treat, of course.

The pizza was fortunately completely redeemed by the lusciousness of its toppings.  Into that spelt crust I piled fresh sheep’s milk ricotta cheese, caramelized onions, sauteed chard and beet greens, fresh goat cheese, and toasted pine nuts. Phenomenal!