Tired of heavy potatoes?

I’ve mentioned several times here that I’m getting overwhelmed by potatoes. They arrive every week in my box and I simply haven’t been able to keep up with them. When it comes to veggies, I am much more drawn to leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, and other produce that has a higher moisture content. Does that make sense, do you know what I mean? Potatoes feel heavy to me, not hydrating or refreshing. And the recipes you can make with them are always dense and rich.

I thought some acid might help to brighten things up, so I searched for recipes involving potatoes and tomatoes. In a Chowhound thread someone mentioned a Marcella Hazan recipe that I thought might be just what I was looking for. I veganized it, cooked it up, and it was fantastic. It tasted best after about two days, so it’s definitely a “let the flavors mingle” kind of thing.

I want to give you guys the recipe, but I was too tired to be doing any photoshoots so I have nothing to illustrate it. I dislike putting up posts with no photo at all, so you get this silly one of me from the hotel we stayed at last weekend on Long Island when my cousin was getting married. We arrived after a long day of traveling and all I wanted was a giant pile of broccoli. (See above re: hydrating vegetables.) So the first thing I did was put on my PJs and call room service and ask them if they could send up a giant pile of broccoli. I was thrilled when they agreed, although I didn’t have high expectations, I never do when I’m eating vegetables on the East Coast. Yet what arrived was indeed a giant pile of broccoli goodness, cooked perfectly crisp-tender and dressed with lemon and olive oil with such a light hand I could barely tell the dressing was there, just that the broccoli was some of the most delicious I’d ever eaten. So now you know, if you’re ever at the Hilton on Long Island, order broccoli!

Without further ado, your potato recipe:

Roasted Potatoes with Tomatoes
Veganized and otherwise adapted from a Marcella Hazan recipe found on a Chowhound forum thread

2 pounds potatoes, sliced 1/4 inch thick
2 C onions, thinly sliced
1 28 oz. can of whole tomatoes, torn into small pieces (just the tomatoes, not the juice)
3/4 t. dried oregano
1/2 C water
1/3 C olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Mix potatoes, onion, tomatoes, oregano, 1/2 cup water, and salt and pepper.

Put 1 T. olive oil in a large casserole dish and spread it around to coat the bottom and sides of the dish. Put potato mixture into dish and pour in the remaining olive oil.

Roast 1 hour or more on the top shelf of the oven until the potatoes are tender and yummy, turning potatoes every 20 minutes while they roast. Let sit to cool a little, serve warm, not hot. Or better yet, let them sit for at least a day. The flavors just get better and better.

Potato and leek gratin

So. Many. Potatoes. Normally this would be a good thing, but because I can’t seem to find a place in my house to store the darn things without them going bad asap, I need to keep them (along with my onions and garlic) in my fridge. And those babies take up a lot of room. So I’ve been struggling to keep up with the constant summer influx of potatoes. As much as I like potatoes, they differ from other overabundant CSA veggies in one critical way. I can eat an entire bunch of kale or two pounds of zucchini or head of lettuce on my own in a single sitting and feel quite smug about how many servings of my daily vegetable requirement I’ve just downed.

But eating a couple of pounds of potatoes on my own feels over the top. I’m not a huge subscriber to the empty-carbs-evil-carbs perspective, but that many potatoes feels like a giant wallop of glycemic-spiking starchy calories. Much as I learned during my cauliflower revelations, potatoes are probably actually incredibly healthy, especially with the skins still on, but I still prefer to eat them in moderation.

Another thing taking up an absurd amount of room in my fridge was a leek from a few weeks back. This single leek was so long it fit across almost the entire width of my refrigerator! I’m doing a slow-cooker cookbook exploration this week and came across a recipe for a vegan gratin of potatoes. That sounded interesting because it’s a way to use up a ton of potatoes at once but then dole them out slowly as a small side dish, but doing it in a slow cooker seemed unnecessary when I could just make them in the oven. (Making them in the slow cooker does eliminate the need to precook the potatoes, but this recipe is so delicious I think it’s worth the extra step, though I can’t say for sure having never tried the crock pot version.)

So, using the “cheese” sauce from The Vegan Slow Cooker and a Gruyere-filled potato and leek gratin recipe from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone for inspiration, I whipped up something pretty delicious. It’s a bit bland and quite rich, but I think that’s just what a gratin is intended to be. There are some lovely garlicky notes and thyme is the standout seasoning, which is something I really enjoy.

Vegan Potato and Leek Gratin
With inspiration from The Vegan Slow Cooker and Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

Cheese sauce:
1 C. cashews, soaked
1 C. nutritional yeast
5 cloves garlic
1 t. sea salt
1.5 C. almond milk

3 lb red potatoes, unpeeled, thinly sliced
1 giant leek or 2 regular leeks, white parts only, thinly sliced into half moons
1 quart almond milk (or more if needed)
2 t. dried thyme or 3 sprigs fresh thyme
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 t. salt
Fresh grated nutmeg
Fresh ground black pepper
Garlic and vegan butter for the dish

Heat oven to 375. Run a cut clove of garlic thoroughly over the inside of a large gratin dish (this usually refers to an oval casserole dish – you’ll need either a deep one like I used in the photos above or a very large one, 9×12-ish, or you can just use a regular casserole pan – but if you do, beware of spillage in the oven!). Butter generously.

In a large pot combine potatoes, leeks, milk, thyme, garlic, and salt. Make sure potatoes are at least barely covered by the milk. Bring slowly to a boil, then simmer gently until potatoes are barely tender but not falling apart.

While potatoes are simmering, blend sauce ingredients in a blender until smooth.

Drain potatoes RESERVING THE MILK or you can use a slotted spoon to lift out as many as you need at a time.

Put a single layer (roughly, doesn’t have to be perfect) of potatoes in the bottom of the dish. Sprinkle with nutmeg and pepper. Top with some of the cheese sauce. The way I did this was to pour a thick line of cheese sauce from the blender down the middle of the dish and then use a fork to gently push it across all the potatoes. It’s a very thick sauce and easy to spread. Continue layering potatoes, nutmeg & pepper, and cheese sauce until there are no more potatoes. Top with cheese sauce. Take the reserved milk and, carefully pushing the potato mixture away from the wall of the dish, pour in a little bit so it runs down through all the layers. Repeat this on all four sides of the dish. You want the milk to come up to the level of the potatoes, but they will probably be quite wet and saturated already so add in your milk carefully.

(Any leftover milk can be saved as a base for soup. Or you can do what I did – I poured my leftover milk, with potato and leek bits, into the blender that still had residue of my cheese sauce and blended it all together. It turned into a pretty amazing cream of potato soup.)

Bake the gratin in the oven, an hour or more, until a bubbly brown crust forms on top. Let sit for ten minutes and serve warm.

Let’s Turn Up the Heat

It’s summer! I love summer. Summer means gorgeous produce I only get a few months out of the year – corn and tomatoes and peaches and nectarines. Summer means it stays light until late and the days feel like they might go on forever. Summer means bundling up in my warmest scarf and wool socks, turning the oven up to 450, and huddling beside it in my unheated kitchen. Wait, what? Oh, I should have mentioned, this is summer in San Francisco. It is, in fact, colder here in the winter than it is in the summer. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get damn cold here ‘twixt May and September.

This has also been a very tired summer for me. Since finishing up my first year of grad school, there has been a distinct increase in bed days and rest days. No problem, that’s what that 450 degree oven is for.

Two ears of corn on a green plate, sprinkled with nutritional yeast, with a shaker of nutritional yeast next to the plate.

It started with the corn. I love corn. My favorite way to eat summer corn is in fresh corn polenta. But that requires me to shave the kernels off the cobs, which involves a bowl and a knife and stuff. Too tired. I could steam it, but I have a bad habit of putting things on to steam and then getting back into bed, having one of my famous memory blips, and coming back far too late to find a scorched, dry pot. Consulting my trusty copy of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (love that “what do I do with this vegetable?” section in the middle!), I learned that corn can be roasted. IN THE HUSK. Here are the steps: Turn oven to 450 degrees. Take corn ears out of CSA box. Lay corn ears onto oven rack. Come back in 15 minutes (give or take, if you space out it’s cool, they are far from burning). Give a little tug and all the husk and silk come gently off at once. WOW.

Two ears of corn sprinkled with nutritional yeast, with a grey cat sniffing at them while standing on a red and white checked tablecloth

As an experiment I tried sprinkling it with nutritional yeast. It was pretty great. And I wasn’t the only one thought so! Miss Violet went absolutely bananas. She’s usually pretty good about not being on the table. She might jump up to check something out, but if I say her name or give her tail a little whack she’ll jump down right away. She knows she’s not supposed to be up there. But this time I had to forcibly remove her, picking her up off the table, with her struggling the whole time to get back to the nutritional yeast-covered corn. A little internet research seems to indicate it’s okay for cats to have (or very good for them, depending on the source) so Miss Smushyface was ultimately distracted with a little saucer of her own so I could eat my corn in peace.

A white bowl with chunks of zucchini, roasted and thickly sprinkled with herbs.

I had such a good time with the corn that I tried some zucchini next. My favorite way to eat summer zucchini is Pan-Seared Summer Squash with Garlic and Mint but that requires slicing the zucchini thinly, searing it a few pieces at a time in a pan, flipping and searing more, then repeating until all the slices have been cooked. Mint must be chopped, lemons must be squeezed, garlic must be minced. My new method: Chop zucchini into chunks. Toss with a teaspoon of olive oil, salt, pepper, and herbes de Provence. Put in a parchment-lined baking dish (or rimmed baking sheet) for ~45 minutes or until your desired texture. WOW.

I also tried this with some russet potatoes and cauliflower that came in my box. I don’t have a picture because we ate it too fast. Disher said it was one of the best things he’d ever put in his mouth. I have to concur. Roasted cauliflower is amazing.

So I have my new summer formula. And as an added bonus, it helps keep the house warm on those foggy damp summer nights.

Summer Roast Corn

Fresh corn, still in its husk

Preheat oven to 450. When oven is heated, lay corn on oven rack. Let roast for 15 minutes. Remove corn and, using some sort of heat protection on your hands, pull away the husk. All the silk and husk will just slide right off. Sprinkle with nutritional yeast if desired.

Summer Roast Zucchini

Fresh summer zucchini

Preheat oven to 450. Cut each zucchini lengthwise down the middle, then cut across into 1-inch chunks. Toss with a little olive oil (I use a 1 1/2 teaspoons for 4 zucchini), salt, pepper, and herbes de Provence. Line a baking sheet with parchment. Roast zucchini 45 minutes to an hour, or until meltingly tender and browned.

Summer Roast Potatoes and Cauliflower

Potatoes (I’ve tried Russets and Yellow Finn)
Cauliflower

Preheat oven to 450. Cut veggies into small pieces. Cauliflower florets around 1 inch, potatoes around 1/2 inch. Line a baking sheet with parchment. Roast veggies 45 minutes to an hour, or longer, or until tender and browned.

Variations on a theme

More socca pizzas!

One of the things I miss most from my gluten & dairy days is Indian pizza. It’s a regular pizza, covered with a sort of curry sauce, and then “Topped with Spinach, Egg Plant, Cauliflower, Ginger, Garlic, Green Onions & Cilantro.” It’s one of those foods that transcends its ingredients list, that forms an alchemy of flavor your mouth never forgets. They even make a vegan version of Indian pizza, so it’s really the wheat crust that is keeping me from experiencing that perfect taste again.

Once I became obsessed with making socca pizza, I decided to see if I could recreate or approximate the magical memory of Indian pizza. On a base of Trader Joe’s madras curry simmer sauce, I spread happyveganface’s potato-spinach-pea patty mixture (only I used red chard, which is why mine is purple), which I then topped with a thick swirl of cilantro-parsley sauce, loosely based on happyveganface’s green chutney. I didn’t even come close to the original Indian pizza flavors (possibly because the elements I was using didn’t really come close themselves), but I did make quite a tasty treat for myself nonetheless. I ate, oh… let’s see… about four Indian pizzas in a week? (There was a lot of potato patty mixture to use up!)

I did discover during my Indian pizza week that eating a full cup of chickpea flour every day (which is what happens when you eat half a socca pizza for breakfast and half of one for lunch) for many days in a row will lead (at least in me) to a tummy-ache. So consider yourself warned in the event that you turn out to be as much of a socca-glutton as I am.

But once I figured I had given my tummy sufficient rest and recovery time, it was back into the frying pan! My next creation involved a layer of vodka sauce (which is a tomato sauce with MimicCreme and vodka) topped with chard and kale steamed and tossed with balsamic vinegar, balsamic-roasted chard stems, and toasted walnuts. I toasted the walnuts separately and added them after the pizza came out of the broiler, so I didn’t risk burning them. There’s just something about the chard and nuts on pizza that makes me weak in the knees!

Chickpea picatta

Sometimes a recipe turns out to be greater than the sum of its parts. Such was the case with the Post Punk Kitchen’s Chickpea Picatta. Obviously something attracted me to the dish enough that I wanted to make it (possibly the part in the post where adorable Isa says, “Picatta is like an instant fancy dinner,” since “fancy” is one of my favorite and most frequently used words), but the list of ingredients looked very basic and the recipe sounded like it might even turn out a little dull. The centerpiece of the dish is canned chickpeas, which I tend to find stiff and gross and reminiscent of hellish vegetarian scavenging at omnivore salad bars, especially in recipes that only call for them to be warmed, not stewed for hours.

But I made it, and I tasted it, and then I had one happy, happy mouth. The flavor combination may seem simple but it adds up to pure deliciousness. I used vermouth instead of white wine, and then there were shallots, capers, lemon juice, and thyme. The chickpea mixture comes out so saucy and yummy, and then you put that on top of mashed potatoes, and put those on top of arugula… It’s like having your main, your side, and your salad all together in one giant bowl full of goodness. It was great hot, and it made great leftovers. I will definitely be making this again.

The most delicious Indian baby food ever!

Last night marked the beginning of the Great Pressure Cooker experiment. I made Curried Potatoes with Cauliflower and Peas from this month’s Vegetarian Times, and I am pleased to report that I did not have my face scalded off by an explosion of steam, nor was I decapitated by a flying pot lid.

At the last minute – literally, I had a spoon in one hand and my laptop in the other – I finally found an article online that walked me through step by step how my old Mirro Matic pressure cooker works. All pressure cooker recipes assume you know what it means when they say “bring up to high pressure” and so on, but I needed a detailed, basic tutorial to get me started and I was lucky to find one in time to make my first pressure cooker meal!

When the cooker had cooled and I was able to open the lid, I stuck a fork into the potatoes and cauliflower and was shocked and dismayed to encounter no resistance at all. Ah yes, I learned that fateful night that the pressure cooker is a force to be reckoned with, a powerful tool whose might should not be underestimated. I had my friend Disher try some and he agreed with me that the flavor was terrific, and that we had just made the most delicious Indian curry baby-food ever. So, next time I’ll turn the heat waaay down. It was confusing trying to figure out when the weight was “only hissing and jiggling 2-3 times per minute.” But I clearly overdid it by a long shot.

My new BFF FoodsCo had bunches of Chinese mustard greens for $0.58 yesterday, so I made a batch of those to go with our tasty baby food. I wonder if something is changing in my brain, because for the first time in a long time I had no problem improvising a recipe. I prepared the greens with onions, tomato, and capers, and they were phenomenal. Both recipes are below.

The texture of this dish is supposed to be chunks of potato and cauliflower, not a smooth creamy mass as shown here!

Curried Potatoes with Cauliflower and Peas
Adapted from Vegetarian Times Jan/Feb 2011. I added more spices because I love whole cumin and mustard seed, and I added some lemon juice at the end because it really needed a bit of acid to balance the flavors. This is supposed to be a “30 minutes or fewer” recipe and it actually did take 30 minutes (not including prep time, of course, because they never do…).

2 tsp. canola oil
1 large onion, chopped (or a 10-oz pkg diced onions)
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp. minced fresh ginger (I use Ginger People’s in a jar)
1 tsp. curry powder*
1 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. mustard seeds
1.5 tsp. whole cumin
1/2 tsp. turmeric
6 Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (1.5 lb)
1 head cauliflower, cored and cut into 1-inch pieces (1.5 lb)
1 tsp. sugar
1 cup frozen peas, thawed
1/4 tsp. lemon juice, or to taste
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Set out peas to thaw
2. Heat canola oil in pressure cooker over medium heat. Add onions and cook 2-3 minutes or until softened.
3. Stir in garlic, ginger, curry powder, ground cumin, mustard seeds, whole cumin, and turmeric, and saute 2 minutes.
4. Add potatoes, cauliflower, sugar, and 1/2 cup water.
5. Close pressure cooker and bring up to high pressure. Cook 5 minutes. (To do this on an old-fashioned Presto or Mirro Matic, read this article.)
6. Release pressure with quick-release button or transfer pressure cooker to sink and run cool water over rim to release pressure. If dish is underdone, close the top, return the cooker to high pressure, and cook 3-5 minutes more.
7. Stir peas and lemon juice into cauliflower mixture and season with salt, pepper, and additional lemon juice to taste.
Serves 6.

*I HATE store-bought curry powder; it’s one of the few flavors I can’t stand. I prefer to always use a blend of individual spices when I am making curries. However, I know that some recipes (like this one) call for curry powder for speed and convenience, so I make up small batches of a homemade blend made from ground whole spices that I keep on hand. (I can’t find the recipe for you right now… I guess I’ll be in trouble when I run out!)

Chinese Mustard Greens with Tomatoes and Capers
This dish would work well with any kind of mustard green, turnip greens, or even collards, though the cooking time will be quite a bit longer for collards and you should use only the leaves, not the collard stalks.

1 tsp. olive oil
1/2 an onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 bunch Chinese mustard greens, washed and sliced into thin ribbons (you can include the stalks, just slice them thinly)
1.5 T capers
1 14-oz. can diced tomatoes
Salt and fresh ground black pepper

Heat olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add onion and garlic, season lightly with salt and pepper, and saute 2-3 minutes until onion has softened.
Add greens to pan and allow to deflate slightly. Then gently toss and stir greens and onions until greens deflate significantly.
Sprinkle capers over greens and stir to combine. Continue to cook greens until they are barely tender.
Pour diced tomatoes into pan. For fresh-tasting greens with crisp stalks, cook only until tomatoes are heated through and greens and stalks are tender and edible. For Southern-style longer-cooked greens, let the tomatoes come to a simmer and simmer greens until they are dark green and delicious!
Season with salt and pepper to taste (you may not need any more salt because of the onion-salting step, and depending on how salty your canned tomatoes are).

Chiles rellenos

When I graduated from college I moved back to the Bay Area with my boyfriend, who was from Minnesota. He’d only ever lived in the Midwest and on the East Coast, and I would be totally mortified when he mispronounced the double-l in Mexican food. Unfortunately for my tender 22-year-old sensibilities, chiles rellenos (as in “chilis re-LEN-os”) was one of his favorite foods. Eventually through my gentle (?) corrections he learned to speak Cali-Mex with the best of us, and could cringe right along with me when his parents came to visit and totally mispronounced all those Js and LLs.

The lovely pasillas are in the back left corner of this photo from the farmer's market

I’ve never been that into chiles rellenos myself. They’re just so heavy on the cheese and the fried.  But the other day at the farmer’s market I saw these incredibly gorgeous, shiny, firm Pasilla peppers and they just cried out to be stuffed. This notion was a pretty radical departure for me since a) I hate peppers, especially cooked peppers and b) I hate stuffed vegetables of all kinds (squashes, tomatoes, etc.). But I found myself putting three of those pretty peppers into my shopping bag nonetheless. I decided I wanted to make chiles rellenos, although the fact that in their traditional form they are basically peppers stuffed with huge hunks of cheese and dredged in an egg-and-flour batter did give me pause on the whole vegan, gluten-free front.

Luckily after I got home and did some internet searching I found a fantastic-sounding vegan and gluten-free (basically) recipe from Terry Hope-Romero, author of the Latin cookbook Viva Vegan that has been getting great reviews from my fellow vegan bloggers. I ended up making my chiles late one night when I came home jazzed from an evening out. I riffed on Terry’s filling (and was also inspired by this yummy but very vegan-cheese-heavy recipe) until I came up with what I can honestly say ended up being one of the best things I’ve ever cooked. The combination of mashed potatoes, vegan cheese, and nuts was the most delicious, savory, mouth-feel-full concoctions ever made in my kitchen. The batter doesn’t replicate the fluffy egg batter of the non-vegan version, but it provides a great, savory shell to hold in all that goodness.

Super Delicious Vegan Chiles Rellenos Filling (for instructions on how to prepare the chiles and stuff and batter them, see the recipe on Terry Hope-Romero’s blog)

For stuffing 3 pasilla peppers:

1 T. olive oil
2 small red bliss potatoes, chopped into 1-in pieces and steamed
5 cloves garlic, minced
2/3 cup mixed chopped walnuts, cashews, almonds
1/3 cup corn kernels (fresh or thawed frozen)
3 T. vegan cream cheese
3 T. grated vegan mozarella
juice of one small lime
grind fresh black pepper
salt to taste (it may not need any)

Heat olive oil in a medium-sized pan over medium heat. Saute garlic until it becomes fragrant, then add nuts and saute, stirring constantly, until they brown, about 3-5 minutes. Add in corn and saute another 2 minutes. Add in potato, mashing it up and combining it with the other ingredients in the pan.

Remove pan from heat and add cheese, cream cheese, lime juice, and a grind of fresh black pepper and salt to taste (it may not need any salt). Follow instructions on Terry’s blog for stuffing and battering the peppers.

Riding the vegan express train ~ Review of Vegan Express by Nava Atlas

If you’ve been reading along lately you’ll know that I have been attempting to streamline my cooking process. Left to my own devices I am given to elaborate preparations, multiple courses, long baking times, and sauces, dressings, and marinades of all sorts. This produces generally excellent meals, of course, but the trouble is that if I’m tired or pressed for time my only option is to put an Amy’s into the toaster oven. (And, because I don’t have a microwave and Amy’s takes 45-55 minutes in the toaster oven, if I am really pressed for time my only option is my friend the Bumble Bar.) So I’ve been wanting to retrain myself, to open up an avenue into the type of cooking that doesn’t take all night.

I have a fun thing called brain fog that means it’s hard for me to process complex information quickly. This in turn means that improvising under pressure is not my forte. So to help guide me to quick-meal paradise, I turned to my local library for support. The first book I checked out was Vegan Express, by longtime vegetarian cookbook author Nava Atlas.

Vegan Express offers recipes that can be prepared in 30 to 45 minutes. Each recipe comes with a comprehensive list of menu suggestions that include both ideas of other recipes from the book to pair with the dish as well as accompaniments that don’t require a recipe. An example of this would be the suggestion, “If you want to add one more item, steamed broccoli would be just the thing. Or, if time is not an issue, may I suggest upgrading that to Spicy Sesame Broccoli (page 197)?”

Bok Choy, Edamame, and Celery Quinoa with Toasted Cashew and Mandarin Oranges from Vegan Express

I’ve read through the entire cookbook, and have made five different recipes from the book, one of them twice already! I have really enjoyed cooking from Vegan Express. Atlas introduces each section and each recipe with a bit of information, which is almost always a cookbook requirement for me. I just like this so much better than when a recipe is simply presented unannotated as a bare list of ingredients and directions. The recipes generally conformed to the time frame (as with every “quick” cookbook, it all depends on how fast you prep veggies, and how dirty your greens are), and most importantly the directions were extremely clear. I’m willing to spend a little more time cooking as long as it’s entirely stress-free. Vegan Express walked me carefully through each dish and, with one exception, everything I needed to know was there on the page.

I had a great time matching up the veggies that came in my CSA box to recipes from the book. It felt like the recipes were very flexible and accommodating in terms of substitutions. I did do a little flavor doctoring on each recipe, but I pretty much always end up doing that with cookbook recipes, and the base recipes made a wonderful starting point and made it easy and obvious to bring the flavors up a level.

Vegan Express is not gluten free, but most of the recipes will work with a gluten-free diet. There’s a yummy section on seitan that made me a little sad, but all the pizzas, pastas, quesadillas, and wraps would work if you had the appropriate GF bases on hand (let’s hear it for Tinkyada brown rice pasta! and La Tortilla Factory teff wraps!). I try not to be overly reliant on soy, especially processed soy like soy cheese and soy creamer, and there are a fair number of tofu recipes and recipes that use soy cheese, etc., but there are many more recipes that use beans, lentils, nuts, and so on, so I think the book would even have a lot to offer someone who was avoiding soy entirely.

Pasta "Carbonara" with Tempeh Bacon and Baby Broccoli, Salad with Avocado and Pumpkin and Sunflower Seeds with Basic Vinaigrette from Vegan Express

The five recipes I tried were Tofu Aloo Gobi (cauliflower and potato curry); Tempeh, Kale, and Sweet Potato Skillet; Pasta “Carbonara” with Broccoli; Bok Choy, Edamame, Cashew and Orange Rice; and the Basic Vinaigrette. The section on “big quesadillas” also inspired me to start making my breakfast burritos as quesadillas instead – more room for filling! – and the salad suggestions prompted me to incorporate more creative fixin’s into my salads which I then topped with the excellently balanced Basic Vinaigrette, made with apple cider vinegar.

All four main-dish recipes were terrific – filling, delicious, creative, packed with protein and veggies, and easy to prepare. My favorite was the tempeh, kale, and sweet potato skillet. It’s an unexpectedly simple recipe that contains the one flaw I found: the recipe tells you how to prepare the sweet potatoes and the tempeh and has you set them both aside, and then never mentions them again! But I just used them to top the kale mixture and the final result was phenomenal. I made the aloo gobi twice in two weeks since I had two heads of cauliflower. Once I used fresh tomatoes and once I used canned, and the dish came out perfectly both times.

It’s been a while since I bought a new cookbook, but I’m going to be ordering Vegan Express when the time comes to return this copy to the library. Here’s a little teaser of a recipe for you – if this recipe or anything I’ve written here intrigues you, I encourage you to check out Vegan Express yourself!

Tofu Aloo Gobi from Vegan Express

Tofu Aloo Gobi (Cauliflower and Potato Curry)
(recipe is straight from Vegan Express by Nava Atlas so you can get a sense of what the cookbook offers)

2 T. olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 large potatoes, peeled and diced
1 medium head cauliflower, cut into small florets
2 tsp grated fresh or jarred ginger
1 tsp garam masala or good-quality curry powder, or more to taste
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp dry mustard
8 oz firm or extra-firm tofu, sliced, blotted dry, and cut into small dice
2 med or 3 plum tomatoes, diced (I used part of a can of diced tomatoes one time and it was great)
1/2 cup frozen peas
1/4 cup minced cilantro, optional
Salt to taste
(I added a little sweetener and extra grated ginger at the end)

Heat oil in a wide skillet or stir-fry pan. Add the garlic and saute over medium-low heat until golden.

Add the potatoes and about 1 cup of water. Cover and bring to a simmer, then cook over medium heat for 5 minutes.

Add the cauliflower, sprinkle in the ginger, garam masala, cumin, turmeric, and mustard, and continue to simmer gently for 5 minutes.

Stir in the tofu, tomatoes, and peas, and cook over medium-low heat for 10 minutes longer, stirring occasionally. Stir in the optional cilantro (and extra ginger/sweetener, if using), season with salt, and serve.

The pleasures of amaranth

“Amaranth” is such a beautiful word. It just rolls off the tongue, don’t you agree? It sounds like the name of a princess from a fairy tale.

Well, whenever Princess Amaranth is feeling hungry and cranky and tossing her royal golden slippers at the heads of her royal palace servants, the royal palace cook whips up a pile of delicious Amaranth Leaves and Potato Fry and suddenly little miss Princess is too busy stuffing her royal face to throw footwear at anyone. Yep, it’s that good.

Fresh amaranth and potato stir-fry, Indian-style

I’ve been curious about fresh amaranth for years. I try to incorporate amaranth seeds into my cooking (so far without too much success, but I’ll work up to it eventually), but the pictures I’ve seen of those gorgeous, unusually-shaped leaves, often shot through with veins of purple, have whet my appetite for cooking with the plant itself. When I spotted giant bunches of fresh amaranth at my local farmer’s market, I knew I had to grab my chance (even though my fridge was still stuffed with goodies from my box – I’m such a produce glutton!).

I came home and began scouring Food Blog Search for recipes. I had the most luck with some of the wonderful Indian food blogs – I guess amaranth leaves are a much more common ingredient in parts of India than they are here. I found recipes for various curries, and finally settled on a recipe for Amaranth Leaves and Potato Fry (aka Thotakura Bangaladumpa Vepudu). Of course I didn’t have a few of the ingredients, namely dalia/putnala pappu, split gram dal, and curry leaves, but at least I finally have asafoetida so I’m a little closer to being able to actually make authentic versions of all the tantalizing Indian recipes in the blogosphere. I didn’t have any coriander leaves, either, so I substituted coriander seeds, which is entirely different, I know, but I really love ’em.

I made a big batch of it, and served it with chili-glazed tofu and brown basmati coconut rice. It was all super delicious, but the amaranth and potato fry was the dish that just kept on giving. The next day, and the next, after the flavors had melded, I just couldn’t get enough of that bitter, tangy amaranth, those soft, flavorful seasoned potatoes, and the crunchy bursts of flavor from the crushed coriander seeds. An excellent foray into the world of fresh amaranth, I’d say! (Although as I mentioned in the comments of an earlier post, this dish is not something I’d serve to company – the bitter tang of amaranth is something I think people will either like or hate.)

A taste of Spring in the far North

I’m going to tell you now about my very favorite food in the world. I know, you’re shocked – I’ve been writing this blog for almost three years, and only now do I decide to tell you about my favorite food in the world?

I have nothing to say for myself, no excuse. I think I’ve put off posting it for the same reason I’ve put off making it: it has a lot of ingredients. I don’t like to type any more than I like to chop (repetitive stress injuries in my hands and wrists), but in both cases there are definitely times when it is worth the pain.

So then, why now? The wonderful blogs Diet, Dessert, and Dogs and Affairs of Living are hosting a new monthly event called the Sweet or Savory Kitchen Challenge. I’m very excited about this event because its guidelines are meant to lead to glorious round-ups full of things that people on special diets (like vegan, no refined sugar, no processed foods; or “healthy, sensible diets” as I like to call them) can eat and enjoy. I know I’ll look forward to the round-up each month and always take away new inspiration and ideas, but I also want to contribute to such an excellent project myself. When I saw that the theme this month is Beets, I knew it was time. Some chopping, some typing – it’s worth it to share with you my favorite food in the world.

It’s a bit of an odd choice for this event, since from some perspectives it might not be construed as glowingly healthy – it’s basically a giant bowl of carbs. But this is total comfort food, and it’s a heck of a lot healthier than most comfort food out there – I think it straddles the line between indulgence and nourishment quite nicely.

A little history: My mom started going to Russia way back when it was still the Soviet Union. She made a lot of friends, did a lot of work there, helped a bunch of families to immigrate to the US. A few times I went with her, both before and after the fall of the USSR, and I grew up surrounded by wonderful Russian and Ukrainian friends. All this led to my studying Russian in college and eventually moving to St. Petersburg my junior year to do study abroad.

Russian cuisine can be amazing, and I had the chance to eat in homes all over the Soviet Union, from Moscow and St. P to the Ukraine and Siberia. Even when there was barely anything to eat – Bozhe Moy! – the things these women could do with a potato! Everything is strange and wonderful and particular, like the Salat Olivier, which contains potatoes and pickles and eggs and boiled chicken, all dressed with mayonnaise, and is much, much better than it sounds.

I don’t remember the first time I had the Russian salad known as Vinegret. But I do know that it had already become one of my favorite foods by the time I went off to St. Petersburg for my study abroad year. My host family was a mother and fourteen year-old daughter, money was tight, and, unlike the celebratory feasts I had always been treated to when I was just visiting the country, the majority of our meals were the simple, everyday food eaten in lower-income Russian households. Hotdogs, boiled and then fried. Potatoes, boiled and then fried. Cabbage, boiled. A variety of meatpastes spread on dry white bread. Throughout the whole winter I never ate a raw vegetable or fruit. I had made the conscious decision to stop being vegetarian while I was there (I would have starved and made my host family miserable), but my body simply wasn’t used to the kind of diet I was eating. I was constantly sick and the fact that the temperature was around 10 degrees Fahrenheit wasn’t helping.

The minute spring tentatively began to arrive in the frigid Northern city, I trekked out to the farmer’s market, rubles in hand. There among the potatoes and the cabbages I found what I had dreamed of finding, a few feathery stalks of early dill and a bunch of bright scallions. I loaded up my plastic sack (a true Russian never leaves home without at least one) with potatoes and beets and carrots and onions, made the long commute back home to our Khrushchoba (a play on the name of 1960s Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev and the word for “slum”), and made a huge mountain of vinegret. I am a little ashamed to say that I sat in the kitchen on a stool in the otherwise empty flat and ate the entire mountain by myself. But the next day I did trek back to the market, buy all the same ingredients, and make another even more colossal mountain of vinegret, so that this time my host family, too, could have that tiny taste of spring.

This salad is a true Russian classic. It draws on the sustenance of those long winters in the beets and potatoes and carrots, root-cellar foods (my host-mother kept ours stored under the piano, with pumpkins and other squashes, too). It has the wild flavor of dill so beloved to Russian cuisine, and the peculiar surprise of the dill pickle, which the Russians really do love to put in many places I had never encountered it before (soup, salad, meat stews). And then there are the peas. I’ve seen recipes here in the states that call for frozen peas or even (gasp!) fresh peas, but for me the canned peas are essential. They’re mushy, true, but for me they are an important reminder of the time when mothers stood in line all day long, not even knowing if there would be anything to buy at the end of the line, just to get a can of Soviet peas to bring home to their children.

The salad does require a lot of prepwork, but it makes a large quantity and is truly delicious. The beets will turn everything a bright magenta, which makes it super fun to eat, and the flavors and textures mix and mingle in ways you simply can’t imagine from just looking at the recipe. Mmm… just writing about it makes me crave it. I think I could eat another mountain’s worth!

Vinegret (traditional Russian salad)
This recipe is modified slightly from the wonderful Russian cookbook Please to the Table by Anya Von Bremzen and John Welchman. Please see above for my justification for using canned peas, but if you hate mushy peas and are less of a romantic than I, feel free to substitute cooked frozen peas. For a really terrific picture of Vinegret, check out the glamour-shot over at Beyond Salmon.

2-3 large beets with skin, but stemmed, washed, and dried
3 med. boiling potatoes, peeled
2 med. carrots, peeled
3/4 cup chopped onion
3 med. dill pickles, in 1/2-inch dice
1 can of peas, drained
1/4 C. chopped scallions*
1/4 C. finely chopped fresh dill
Salt & pepper to taste

Dressing
1 tsp dry mustard (or use fresh mustard, it’s fine)
1/4 tsp agave nectar
3 Tbs red wine vinegar
1/3 cup unrefined sunflower oil or olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste

The harder but more delicious way to prep the beets: Preheat oven to 375, wrap beets in foil and bake until tender, about 1 1/4 hours. When cool enough to handle, slip off beets skins under running water and cut into 1/2-inch dice.
The easier and still tasty way to prep the beets: Bring a very large pot of water to a boil. Boil beets in boiling water until tender, about 45 minutes – 1 hour, depending on size of beets. About 30 minutes into the beet cooking, add the potatoes, then add the carrots ten minutes later. Keep poking everything with a fork and remove each piece as it gets tender.
If you baked the beets, follow these directions for the potatoes and carrots: Cook potatoes in a large pot of boiling water for 10 minutes. Add carrots and cook until tender, about ten more minutes.
Drain all veggies. When cool, slip skins off of beets under running water and cut beets, potatoes and carrots into 1/2-inch dice.
In a small bowl, mix together all the ingredients for the dressing.
In a large salad bowl, combine diced beets, potatoes, carrots, onions, pickles, peas, scallions, and dill. Toss with dressing, and adjust salt and pepper to taste.
This salad is fabulous warm and scrumptious at room temperature and even better the next day!

*My instinct on the scallions is to chop the white parts only, but my host-mother Marina was shocked at the waste. She gathered up the discarded green parts and made a terrible spread/dip thing with sour cream and the bitter green scallion tops that we all tried to eat. Thank goodness for scrap stock, is all I have to say!

Earlier this week I’d been pondering what I might make for the fabulous Family Recipes event hosted by The Life & Loves of Grumpy’s Honeybunch, The Spiced Life, and Lynda’s Recipe Box. I’ve never entered anything, but I love reading the stories and memories people share about the foods they make. Tonight I was musing again on what I might make to submit when I realized that Vinegret would be perfect for this event! It’s a true “family recipe” belonging to all my extended Russian family, and has especially strong ties to memories of my St. Petersburg host family.