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

Ingredients

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)

Filling:
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
recipe:
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

Directions:

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.

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Omigod, you guys!

My friend Mike loves musicals. I’m fairly anti on the subject myself, however I do love my friend Mike. So when he and some other friends were over the other day for a five-hour session of Arkham Horror and I asked him to DJ, I didn’t say a single word as we sat through the greatest musical hits of the last 30 years. One of the catchy, annoying songs we listened to (made more annoying by its catchiness) was the song “Omigod You Guys” from the musical Legally Blonde. (Didn’t know that was a musical? Me neither. Thanks for making me a more cultured person, Mike!) The chorus of the song goes “Ohmigod, ohmigod, you guys!” over and over again. At some point I wrested back control of the speakers and we went back to the depressing, complicated, indie rock no one but me wants to listen to.

A few days later I made some pasta, inspired by two gorgeous heads of radicchio I’d picked up at the farmer’s market. The heads were huge, so I’d ended up searing one and roasting the other. They both came out amazing, but that was a lot of radicchio to eat straight. Plus that day I’d had a sweet potato for lunch so by dinnertime I was starving and wanted something super hearty. I ended up with Tinkyada rice spiral pasta with butternut squash, walnuts, tempeh bacon, a tiny bit of vegan cream cheese, and some of both the roasted and seared radicchio. It looked like it might be kind of plain, not really saucy enough. But when I took my first bite, all I could think was, “Ohmigod, ohmigod, you guys!”

Because ohmigod, you guys! It was like, the best thing ever. Like, my mouth was in serious ecstasy. This was a pasta that shall go down in the annals of history as some of the best pasta ever devoured in my home.

Then about a week later I was making one final summer menu from Fresh Food Fast before returning it to the library. The meal I was making was Fresh Corn Polenta with Sauteed Cherry Tomatoes accompanied by a Green Bean, Wax Bean, and Chick Pea salad with Harissa. One of the things I like about FFF is that I can be kind of a robot chef with it – the author details the exact order in which to do the steps for making the two dishes together. So I was just mindlessly following along, prepping veggies, taking corn kernels off the cob, blanching green beans, not really thinking much at all about what I was making or how it would taste when I was through. Just following directions. When everything was finished, I sat down with a bowl of polenta that I’d cooked in the rice cooker with butter and salt and two ears of fresh corn, topped with sauteed cherry tomatoes. I took my first bite of the polenta.

Boom. Ohmigod. Ohmigod, you guys.

Where has fresh corn polenta been all my life? It’s like… it’s like pudding, like corn pudding. It’s dessert and breakfast rolled into one, plus you can put cherry tomatoes on top and then it’s dinner, too! The smell alone had me dancing around like a cat in catnip. Why have I never done this before? I do tend to make fun of dishes that are like “carbs with carb sauce and a side of carbs” so “corn with corn added” is just the kind of combo I would have been dismissive of. At least, I would have dismissed it before. Before the Great Fresh Corn Polenta Conversion. The day upon which all members of this household (that would be me) swore that never again shall a summer of fresh corn go by without making many, many batches of our new overlord and master, Fresh Corn Polenta.

It’s been a while since food has made me sit up and take notice like these guys did. I know I’m always raving that this vegetable is the best thing ever, and that recipe is the yummiest concoction, etc., but these were dialed way up. All the way up to Ohmigod levels.

Ohmigod Pasta with Radicchio, Butternut Squash, Walnuts, and Tempeh Bacon
This pasta requires several steps to assemble, so it’s not a quick meal. It is totally worth it, however. I started out this recipe with already cooked radicchio and I also used frozen butternut squash (which is the awesomest thing ever – no peeling or thwacking or roasting required!). But I’m going to assume you are starting from square one.

1 lb hearty pasta, like spirals or a wide fettucini
1 large head raddichio
1 small butternut squash, about 1 lb (or one bag of frozen butternut squash cubes)
2/3 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
2-3 strips tempeh bacon
2 T. vegan cream cheese (optional)

If you are using fresh (not frozen) butternut squash: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Peel and cube the butternut squash into half-inch cubes. (If you need help with this often-confounding step, here is a great tutorial.) Cut out the base of the radicchio and pull apart the leaves. Toss the squash with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper, and arrange the cubes in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast for 15-20 minutes, or until quite tender. Meanwhile layer the radicchio leaves in an ovenproof casserole dish, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for 10 minutes or until tender and wilted.

If you are using frozen butternut squash: Thaw the squash. You can either roast the radicchio in a 400 degree oven as above, or pan-sear it. Either way will be delicious.

Coarsely chop the radicchio into large pieces. Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the pasta. Toast the walnuts, either in a pan on the stove or in the toaster oven (my preferred method!). Cook the pasta and drain it, reserving a cup of the pasta water. (I always forget to do this until it’s too late!)

Heat a large pan with a small amount of olive oil over medium-high heat. Fry the tempeh bacon until it is darker brown and a bit crisp. Use a spatula to break up the bacon into small pieces. Turn the heat down to medium and add in the squash and radicchio, sauteeing for a few minutes.

Combine the pasta, bacon, squash, radicchio, walnuts and vegan cream cheese if you are using it. If it seems too dry, add a little of the reserved pasta water. Eat and enjoy!

Fresh Corn Polenta
Inspired by Fresh Food Fast by Peter Berley, but improved upon due to the awesomeness of making polenta in a rice cooker. NO stirring and NO lumps! Just pop it in and let it cook itself!

2 ears fresh, sweet corn, husked
1 cup dry polenta
3 cups water
2 T. vegan butter
1 t. salt

Strip the corn kernels off the corn cobs. To do this, hold the corn vertically, braced on the bottom of a bowl large enough to catch any errant flyaway kernels. Or you could use this awesome technique involving a bundt pan!

In a rice cooker, combine the polenta, water, salt, butter, and corn kernels. Stir to combine. Set rice cooker on “white rice” setting (or the one setting you have if your rice cooker only has one setting). When the rice cooker indicates it is done, stir again to combine. There may be a semi-opaque film on top, but don’t be alarmed! Just stir that back into the polenta.

Eat and enjoy!!! I’ve made this twice in two weeks and all my test eaters (aka guests) have raved about it!

Eating with the season on a vegan, gluten-free Menu Plan Monday

I’ve just arrived home from a fascinating four days at the Hazon Food Conference in Pacific Grove. The conference explored all kinds of interesting intersections, between environmentalism and food systems, Judaism and food ethics, social justice and foodie culture, personal financial investment and sustainable agriculture, and many more. I learned so much, both from the sessions and panels I attended as well as all the informal conversations I had with fellow conference-goers. You can read more about my time there here and here. I feel deep gratitude to the Joyce and Irving Goldman Family Foundation for sponsoring around 40 young adults, including me, providing full scholarships for all of us to the conference.

The Local Foods Wheel

On Sunday, right before we left for home, the conference had a big marketplace where folks could give out info and sell books they’d written or published, foods they’d made, and so on. At one of the tables I came across one of my favorite things ever, the San Francisco Bay Area Local Foods Wheel, being sold by one of the wheel’s creators. I first encountered the wheel, which is a stunning combination of gorgeous artwork and design with intriguing, well-presented information, on a refrigerator in the Spirit Rock kitchen when I was working back there during a retreat. (You’re not supposed to read anything on retreat, but who could resist those tiny, perfect line drawings with their little cursive labels?) Now it’s the most popular item on our refrigerator; every guest and visitor is magnetically drawn to it and we usually have to pull them away – they just want to stand there spinning it and spinning it and looking at every picture! The wheel shows on its top layer all the foods that are in season year-round in the Bay Area (and we’re lucky – there are so many of them!). Then you spin the top layer around to match up with the current time of year, and the bottom layer reveals the foods in season at this time.

Our CSA keeps us local and seasonal at every meal, but we’re not getting a box this week, so I turned to the wheel to help me plan this week’s menu. (My other goal for the week: use up all the lettuces from our box we’ve been keeping on life support for the past couple of weeks!)

For an assemblage of great, gluten-free menu plans, check out this week’s Gluten-Free Menu Swap over at The GF CF Cookbook. (The theme for this week’s swap is leftover ham, which, as a vegetarian, I can’t contribute to at all. I do have smoky beans and tempeh bacon this week, though, which are kind of the same flavor profile.) And, as always, for a huge round-up of menu plans from all over the web – and the world – check out the giant MPM compendium over at orgjunkie.

What’s in season:

Monday: Winter greens
Wine braised lentils over toast with Tuscan kale and pearl onions (Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Suppers)
Red leaf salad

Wine braised lentils over gluten-free quinoa toast with Tuscan kale and pearl onions

Tuesday: Butternut squash
Vegan “mac and cheese” made with butternut squash “cheese” and Tinkyada brown rice spirals
Romaine lettuce salad with balsamic vinaigrette

Wednesday: Brussel sprouts and wild mushrooms
Brussels sprouts and mushroom ragout with herbed vegan, GF dumplings (Vegetarian Suppers)
Mixed lettuces salad

Brussels sprouts ragout with wild mushrooms and herbed gluten-free dumplings

Thursday: From Duck’s mom’s garden!
Simple oven-roasted butternut squash
Arugula salad with sauteed red onions and toasted walnuts
Tangy red lentils
Quinoa with coconut oil

Friday: Savoy cabbage
Savoy cabbage gratin with tempeh bacon
Baked sweet potato
Homemade smoky pinto beans

Savoy cabbage gratin with tempeh bacon

Saturday: Parsnips, winter radishes, rutabegas
Roasted root vegetables with home-grown rosemary
Chard and walnut yum
Impressionist cauliflower

Sunday: Meyer lemons
Roasted broccoli with meyer lemon zest and pine nuts
“Sloppy” sushi with balsamic-glazed portobello mushrooms

Seasonal extras: Turnips and pomelos
Middle Eastern-style turnip pickles

A fresh batch of turnip pickles (with beet for color)

Candied pomelo peel

Candied Pomelo Rinds Dipped in Bittersweet Chocolate

Bounty from the middle of the table, part II

The saga of the centerpiece continues… We lived for days just off the wealth of produce my mom brought over for our Thanksgiving centerpiece!

centerpiece2

Kale

Is there anything more beautiful than ruffled leaves of kale, veined through with deep purple, glowing with a color that somehow combines elements of purple, green, and silver? This gorgeous kale was the foundation of our centerpiece, and it made a very lovely soup, besides! There was a butternut squash sitting in my root storage, still left from the last day Duck worked on the farm, so I decided to make the Autumn Harvest Soup from Kalyn’s Kitchen. We had a ton of prepared wild rice left over from T-day, so that took the place of the farro in Kalyn’s recipe. This recipe made a HUGE amount of soup. She says”about 8 servings,” which I guess really is a lot of servings when I think about it, but with 4 quarts of broth (I used scrap stock rather than chicken broth, of course!) plus lots of squash and kale and rice, this soup dished up some shockingly hearty portions.

kalesoup

Artichokes

Artichokes featured prominently in the centerpiece selections – there were many lovely little frost-kissed baby artichokes, which actually made it onto the table, plus a range of larger purple-tinged artichokes and one enormous big-as-a-baby’s-head artichoke on a long stem. I used some of the artichokes to make my Taste & Create dish, Braised Baby Artichokes, inspired by a recipe from Little Ivy Cakes. Duck and I found the recipe so delicious (especially Duck!) that we ended up preparing our entire store of artichokes the same way. The braised artichokes made a wonderful quick snack as they are terrific cold and really hit the spot when you want something with heft to it that isn’t too fatty or heavy.

artichokes

Apples

Lady apples. The fruit which dwells in the liminal space ‘twixt food and decor. I had these lovely ladies on my fruit stand (I use a glass cake stand as my fruit “bowl” on the kitchen table) for a long, long time. Too pretty to throw away but not particularly inviting for eating, they were the last hold-out of the Thanksgiving centerpiece brigade.

apples

Then one day I was listening to my second-favorite food podcast, KCRW’s Good Food (the podcast is pretty wonderful, the music – which they play loudly and at frequent intervals during the show – is nearly unbearable) and they had a feature on lady apples. I don’t really remember what they talked about specificially but the gist was: Lady Apples – They’re For Eatin’! So I sliced those babies up with some full-sized wrinklies rescued from the back of the fridge and made one of my favorite simple treats – homemade applesauce. There wasn’t more than a small bowl each for me and for Duck but it was the kind of delicious that lingers on in your memory long after the spoon has been licked clean.

applesauce2

Homemade Applesauce
I actually don’t recommend lady apples for this recipe. For one thing, they are too small to really be worth the work of coring. For another, the darker red ones tasted so yuck I couldn’t include them, so it may only be certain varieties that cross over from decor to tasty treat. But if you have some lady apples lying around, it is definitely worth slicing off a little nibble of each one and including the edible ones in a lovely sweet bowl of applesauce.

Apples
Water
Cinnamon (optional)
Lemon juice (optional)
Ground ginger (optional)

I like to keep the peels on at least a third of the apples, for increased fiber and texture. Plus, if you are using certain colors of apples, leaving the peels on will do gorgeous things with the color of your sauce. So peel as many as you like, then core your apples and cut them into medium-sized chunks.

Put your apple chunks in a small pot with about 1/4 C. water. Heat the water to a gentle simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the apples get soft, fall apart, and reach your desired consistency. You may need to add water from time to time. Different varieties of apples will turn to sauce at different speeds, but if you just keep cooking and adding a bit of water when it cooks away you will eventually achieve sauce with any type of apple.

The applesauce will get very sweet as it cooks. There is no need to add sugar or honey or any sweeteners! However your apples may or may not have “pizazz” in sauce form, so if they taste a bit bland you can liven them up with a little cinnamon, lemon juice, or ground ginger, added to taste.

The elephant on the table

When you have a vegan Thanksgiving with people who aren’t all vegan or vegetarian, or even with current non-meat-eaters who weren’t raised in meat-free households, there’s going to be an elephant in the room. Or, should I say, on the table. Yes, our friend Tom. The big, shiny bird. The great source of all giblets. The turkey.

turkey

For some reason I found myself feeling a little righteous about not having a turkey this year as I prepared to host Thanksgiving for the first time. Not condemning of other people’s Thanksgiving turkeys, but definitely taking on the kind of non-apologetic attitude that can swerve easily into aggression without provocation. Although, bless our families’ hearts, certainly no one was being provoking. A vague idea was floated that someone might bring some turkey for the meat-eaters in order to carry on that tradition, but I could feel in my belly that this was something I wasn’t interested in being flexible about. This was a rare opportunity for Duck and me to respectfully ask others to join in our family’s food traditions, and also a chance to knock their socks off with such astounding food that by the end of the night Thanksgiving turkey would seem like one more “optional” item, like candied yams or pecan pie.

Read on for the rest of the story, and for two great vegan, gluten-free Thanksgiving main dishes, with recipes!… Continue reading

Box Bonanza: Butternut squash, carrots, leeks, green garlic, cilantro!

Butternut Squash and Carrot Stew with Quinoa Pilaf

Having dealt so successfully with the leeks, it was time to turn my attention to the carrots. Using them up one at a time in salad was barely making a dent in the carrot logpile in my crisper. I started googling for carrot dishes. Carrot cake. Carrot soup. And… more carrot cake and carrot soup. Did you know there’s an Indian dessert made from carrots? But I didn’t want sweet, and I didn’t want wheat, and I didn’t want more soup to rot in my fridge. At last, on Epicurious, I found a recipe for roasted carrots and meyer lemons that sounded great, but I thought I would search just a little bit further. And that’s when I found it – the magic recipe that would use up almost everything still left in my fridge.

Epicurious is an interesting place to look for recipes. It has a very lively and active community of commenters – to find out more about Quinoa with Moroccan Winter Squash and Carrot Stew I was able to read through 13 pages of comments from people who’d tried the recipe. The commentary ranged from people who loved the stew so much they were determined to make it once a week and people who’d brought dinner parties to standing ovations with this single dish, to folks who found it incomparably revolting and people who made so many changes and substitutions that it no longer resembled the original recipe.

But the recipe used a lot of carrots, and I love quinoa, and one of the Epicurious commenters considerately linked to a page detailing how to peel and cube butternut squash with ease, which ultimately helped me to throw off a lifetime of butternut squash intimidation. I was able to substitute leeks for the onions in the recipe and green garlic for the garlic cloves, and I even had cilantro still green in the back of my fridge.

And so I made it. The butternut squash was no problem – I timed myself and it took 8 minutes from start to peeled and cubed finish, and that’s me with my semi-functional hands. Somehow the whole thing ended up taking 2 hours (I will admit to listening to NPR and talking on the phone and washing dishes at the same time) so I’m not sure if this recipe goes into the “worth the effort” category, but it did make a lot of very delicious, wonderfully healthy-feeling food that used up a lot of my box, so I guess the jury is still out on whether I’d make it again. It has a really great flavor to it, sweet from the carrots and savory from the quinoa pilaf. It is particularly tasty with the mint yogurt I made to go along with it, at the suggestion of one of the Epicurious reviewers.

The original recipe can be found at Epicurious, here, and my adapted and annotated version can be found beyond the Continue reading

Butternut Squash

I often credit the Thanksgiving holiday as the inspiration for my vegetarianism. The year I was 15 I realized that if I became a vegetarian I would never have to eat turkey again. Sounded good to me, so I signed on and basically never looked back. So that means I’m not one of those sad Thanksgiving vegetarians eying the smoked or deep fried or “drunken” turkey or turducken or whatever and feeling left out because the holiday centers around a big dead bird. (If those sad T-day vegetarians even exist – I am secretly of the opinion that no one actually likes turkey.)

But I can only eat so much stuffing, mashed potato, and dinner roll, so I figured it behooved me to figure out something both tasty and festive to bring to my family feast as a vegetarian main dish. I googled “vegetarian Thanksgiving” and came up with a lot of very wheat-heavy recipes, which (as phenomenal as Mushroom and Fennel Bread Pudding sounds) weren’t going to work since the point for me was to have an option besides stuffing and rolls. So I googled “vegetarian gluten-free Thanksgiving,” and, thank goodness for the interweb, came across several mentions of a Martha Stewart Living recipe for Quinoa and Butternut Squash Pie. It sounded perfect, although when I looked over the recipe I was worried that it might end up bland and lacking in depth. I was in a real rush when I finally put it together, so I didn’t have time to play with or doctor it, other than doubling the amount of parmesan.

So what, then, can I say about Quinoa and Butternut Squash Pie? I made it, we ate it. It was pretty – my squash had such wonderfully thick flesh that it didn’t really make any ring-shaped pieces for the decorative rings on top so I cut out stars instead. Other than that, my instincts were correct. It was bland, it lacked depth. It didn’t suck. People said they liked it, but I think people were too stuffed with drunken turkey to really notice or care.

Quinoa and Butternut Squash Pie

(Kind of a crappy photo because by the time we arrived I didn’t think the 20 or so guests wanted to wait to start eating until I garnished my dish and got the lighting juuuust right…)

(I also find it distracting to have to keep calling this thing a pie. It’s not a pie. It’s more of a… something like a large timbale, I guess.)