Masala Chai Spiced Tofu and Coconut Kale

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I used to work in an office with one of my best friends. We didn’t actually work together much, but we worked in the same office. We started a daily ritual of having tea every afternoon around 2:30, taking a quick five minute break to steep some tea and check in to see how things were going. I really enjoyed the ritual of taking a break to patiently wait four minutes for the tea to steep before bringing it back to my desk. It calmed and refocused me to have a productive afternoon. In the culture of instant gratification in which we live, there is something special about the daily ritual of forcing yourself to wait for the tea leaves to work their magic in your mug.

So lately I have been thinking a lot about patience and slowing down. And, naturally, as my thoughts often drift to food, I have been thinking about tea and crockpots and marinades and slow roasting. I had this idea to marinate tofu in very strong tea to infuse my cooking with the same flavors that I usually reserve for my mid-afternoon tea breaks. It took two attempts to get the method right, and the end result is a masala chai spiced tofu that is bursting with flavor.

Either I am more attuned to the tea popping up all around me, or there is a similar trend going on in the craft beer world, because the same weekend I made my first attempt at chai spiced tofu, I tasted this delicious brew:

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Local Richmond brewery Ardent Craft Ales released its Earl Grey Brown Ale to a packed tap room last month, and it instantly became one of my new favorite beers. I’m happy to see so many craft breweries playing with this style, because while I love a good IPA, how many IPA’s do you need on your menu? I’ve seen some great creative brown ales in the last couple of years, including this tea-inspired one.

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Ardent Craft Ales Tap Room

Then a couple of weeks ago, Kyle and I picked up Japanese Green Tea IPA, a collaboration beer from Baird, Ishii, and Stone Brewing Company. It tastes exactly as you would expect it to. An India Pale Ale infused with the taste of matcha green tea powder. Citrusy, bitter, floral, herbal. . . it’s a lot a flavor in a glass. If you like green tea, please try it.

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So, enough about what we’ve been drinking. Back to what we’ve been eating. I found some purple kale at the farmers’ market, and I made a coconut curry kale recipe to go along with my chai spiced tofu. It turned out beautiful and tasty, so I jotted down the recipe and included it below. So let’s get cooking!

Masala Chai Spiced Tofu

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Ingredients:

  • 6 masala chai tea bags
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 – 14 oz. block of firm tofu
  • 2 Tablespoons sesame oil
  • 1 Tablespoon soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons minced ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/8 teaspoon cardamom
  • 1 teaspoon honey

Preparation:

  1. Drain and press tofu. Cut block into six slices.
  2. Heat water almost to boiling in a teapot. Combine tea bags and 2 cups of hot water in a jar or bowl. Steep for 4 minutes, then remove tea bags.
  3. Arrange tofu slices in a glass dish. Pour concentrated tea over tofu. Marinate tofu for one hour at room temperature, turning tofu once halfway through marinating.
  4. Drain tea from tofu, and reserve 1/2 cup of tea marinade.
  5. In a small bowl, combine 1/2 cup of tea marinade, soy sauce, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and honey. Stir to mix the sauce thoroughly.
  6. Heat 2 Tablespoons of sesame oil in a large pan over medium-high heat.
  7. Add tofu slices to hot pan and cook until browned, about 5-6 minutes per side.
  8. Add sauce to pan and cook until reduced by at least one half. Suggestion: serve tofu while hot, over basmati rice and cooked greens like Coconut Curry Kale.

Coconut Curry Kale

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Ingredients:

  • 2 Tablespoons coconut oil
  • 1 bunch of curly kale
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 2 teaspoons minced ginger
  • 2 teaspoons madras curry powder
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened shredded coconut or unsweetened coconut flakes
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

  1. Remove stems from kale. Chop stems in bite-sized pieces and tear leaves into a separate bowl.
  2. Heat coconut oil in a large pot over medium heat.
  3. When coconut oil is melted, add chopped kale stems and garlic to pot. Saute for five minutes.
  4. Add kale leaves, ginger, and curry to the pot. Saute until kale is bright green and slightly wilted.
  5. While kale is cooking, in a small pan, heat shredded/flake coconut over low-medium heat until toasted. Remove pan from heat.
  6. Add lime juice, toasted coconut, and salt and pepper to the kale. Toss and serve immediately.

Veggie Redux: Vegetarian Chicken, Broccoli and Rice Casserole

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Does anyone else remember this dish from childhood? This cheesy casserole of broccoli, chicken, and rice was one of my favorite meals while growing up. I remember digging into a plateful of creamy, cheesy broccoli rice at the end of many a late soccer practice. When the weather started to get cooler and the days got shorter, I would spend the waning hours of daylight doing trapping drills, taking shots, and scrimmaging with my teammates. Sometimes it got so dark that our parents headed to the cars to run the heat and illuminate the field with their headlights. When I finally got home, cold, muddy and famished, a cheesy casserole was the ultimate comfort food.

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Quorn Naked Chik’n Cutlets make it easy to recreate this dish without meat*. If you’re not into meat substitutes but you want to replace the protein lost from removing the chicken, add a can of chickpeas or a block of silken tofu to the mixture before pouring into the casserole dish and baking.

My intention is that this hearty casserole will be a welcome treat for Kyle when he gets home from a late bicycle ride or a long day of work. Because it’s a one dish meal, I can make it ahead of time and then pop it in the oven to reheat, and cleanup is very easy. I hope that this crowd-pleasing dish finds a place on your table as the weather gets cooler and the annual nesting and hibernating begin!

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Vegetarian Chicken, Broccoli and Rice Casserole

Serves 8

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Ingredients:

  • 2 cups short grain brown rice
  • 4 cups low sodium vegetable broth
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 yellow onion, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 4 cups frozen broccoli, chopped
  • 4 ounces artichokes (frozen or marinated), chopped
  • 1 – 9.7 ounce package of Quorn Naked Chik’n Cutlets, thawed and diced
  • 2 cups lowfat milk
  • 2 Tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup plain Greek yogurt (or sour cream)
  • 2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
  • 1 teaspoon dried tarragon
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

  1. Heat vegetable broth over medium heat. Add brown rice and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 40-50 minutes or until all liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat and fluff with a fork.
  2. While rice is cooking, heat olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, broccoli and artichokes. Saute until tender. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add naked chik’n cutlets, diced, and continue to cook over low-medium heat for 5 minutes.
  3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  4. In a medium pot over medium heat, combine milk and flour with a whisk until fully incorporated. Cook for 8 minutes then remove from heat.
  5. To the milk sauce, add yogurt or sour cream, 1 cup of shredded cheese, tarragon, and salt and pepper to taste.
  6. Add the brown rice and cheese sauce to the large pot with the vegetables and vegetarian chicken. Transfer to a large casserole dish and top with 1 cup of shredded cheese. Bake, uncovered, at 350 degrees F for 20 minutes.

*Not a sponsored post, just a fan of Quorn!

What the Heck is a Chayote Squash, and What to Drink for Cinco de Mayo?

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These weird little squashes have been staring at me from a bin in the produce section of my grocery store for far too long. I have passed by the bright green chayote squash dozens of times, wondering how to cook them and what they taste like. I finally picked up three of these weird little gourds last week, and I stumped the cashier when I went to check out.

“Excuse me, what is this?”

“Chayote. C-H-A-Y-O-T-E.”

“I don’t see the code for that, are they pears?”

“No, they’re labeled ‘chayote squash’ on the bin. Maybe they’re under ‘squash’?”

asks coworker in next lane: “Do you know the code for these?”

coworker: “No, they look like pears. Charge her for pears.”

Pears were $3.99 per pound that week, and I have no idea how much the chayote were priced per pound. I guess chayote is not a fast-mover at the Carytown Kroger. In the cashiers’ defense, the chayote does look a bit like a pear that is trying to eat itself.

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The chayote originates from Mexico, where the fruit, leaves, blossoms, and roots of the plant are eaten. The squash has a very thin green skin attached to the green-to-white flesh. The skins and seeds are edible, although I found that many recipes call for the skins and seeds to be removed. The flesh is very crisp, and the raw squash has the texture of a potato and a very mild flavor like a broccoli stalk. The chayote can be eaten raw, but it is often cooked and seasoned, or eaten in a sauce with other more flavorful ingredients.

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I found a great vegetarian recipe for Chayotes Rellenos from world-renowned chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, of The Border Grill in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Santa Monica. I had never tried one of their recipes before, so it was an evening of firsts.

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The chayote was very easy to work with. I left the skins on, but boiling caused them to peel off. The texture and flavor of the cooked chayote was similar to summer squash. I loved that this recipe incorporated epazote, and the crunch from the almonds added an unexpected and pleasant texture to the filling, which probably would have been pretty mushy otherwise, due to the cooked squash and mushrooms.

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I topped the cooked stuffed squash with some fresh pea shoots, which were an impulse purchase from Relay Foods. I normally would have tossed some cilantro on there, but I was out (rare occurrence!). One thing that recipes for stuffed squash or eggplant NEVER tell you is what to do with the extra filling. Am I the only one who always has extra filling after stuffing my vegetables?

I put the extra filling in a glass baking dish, topped it with cheese, and baked it at the same time and temperature indicated in the recipe. It worked out great.

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If you’re feeling inspired by Cinco de Mayo and you want to try out a Mexican dish besides tacos or nachos, I suggest that you give chayotes a try. Although they do not pack a ton of flavor on their own, they are very versatile and do soak up the flavors around them. Next I would like to try them in a really spicy curry, topped with chopped fresh mango, and I do not intend to wait for another holiday to do it.

What to Eat on Cinco de Mayo

If you are feeling less ingredient-adventurous but you do still want something Mexican-inspired on your table this week, check out my recipe roundup from last week.

What to Drink with Mexican Cuisine

If you want to branch out from the standard Corona, Sol, or Tecate that are very popular this time of year, head to your local craft beer store. Kyle and I collaborated on this list of brews drink with Latin American food.

For an authentic Mexican beer that is a cut above the rest, seek out Negra Modelo or Bohemia.

For a local Virginia alternative to the Mexican light lager, try Blue Mountain Brewery Lager or Legend Brewing Co Pilsner.

If you like hoppy beers, try Cigar City Brewing Jai Alai or Smuttynose Finestkind IPA.

If you intend to sit on a porch and sip beer for a few hours, pick up Sierra Nevada Summerfest or Lagunitas Daytime.

And if you just want a beer that looks great in a Cinco de Mayo party spread and is refreshing on a warm evening out on the back deck, pick up Breckenridge Brewery Agave Wheat. When you choose a beer that is infused with an iconic Mexican ingredient and labeled with a skeleton wearing a sombrero, you get an A+ for sticking to a theme!

 

Pecan Crusted Tofu with Raspberry Mustard Sauce

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Lately I’ve been working hard, eating breakfast and lunch on the go, and craving comfort food for dinner. A plate full of vegetables with a side of crunchy pecan crusted tofu was exactly what I needed one night last week. I used a handful of fresh raspberries to make a sweet and tangy mustard sauce that complemented the pecan crusted tofu pretty well. The color of the fresh raspberry sauce was so bright that it definitely got me into the spring spirit!

Raspberry season is right around the corner, and I expect to start dipping everything in this bright red sauce very soon. I have breaded and pan-fried tofu before, but haven’t found a great breading that holds up in the oven. This pecan crust sticks to the tofu and hangs on through baking, and it stays crunchy in the oven without getting dry. Sure, it would probably be fantastic pan-fried in oil, but it works great for baking too.

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Pecan Crusted Tofu

Ingredients:

  • 1 block of tofu (12-16 oz.), drained and pressed
  • 1/2 cup almond milk (or sub pecan milk or soy milk)
  • 3/4 cup panko bread crumbs
  • 1/4 cup chopped toasted pecans
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 teaspoon dried parsley
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground mustard
  • salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Pour almond milk into a shallow bowl.
  3. In another bowl or deep plate, add all other ingredients and stir to combine.
  4. Cut pressed tofu into 1/2-inch thick slices. Dip tofu slices in milk, then cover in pecan/panko breading on all sides.
  5. Place breaded tofu in a single layer on a lightly oiled baking sheet.
  6. Bake at 400 degrees F for 20-30 minutes, turning once halfway through.

Raspberry Mustard Sauce

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup raspberries, chopped
  • 1/4 cup honey mustard
  • 1 teaspoon maple syrup

Preparation:

  1. Puree raspberries in a food processor.
  2. In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine raspberries, honey mustard, and maple syrup. Heat, while stirring, until sauce is bubbling, then remove from heat.
  3. Strain sauce through a fine mesh sieve to remove seeds and pulp from sauce.
  4. Serve sauce hot, drizzled over pecan crusted tofu.

Have a wonderful week!

Mung Bean Pasta

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I have been trying to use my cookbooks more often. My effort has paid off with a lot of new knowledge about ingredients and some great go-to recipes that I never knew I always had, sitting right there on the bookcase in my kitchen. One thing that I was surprised to learn was how healthy mung beans are for you. Featured in my new favorite recipe for Pad Thai from Terry Walters’ Clean Food cookbook, mung bean sprouts are surprisingly nutritious. So when I saw Mung Bean Fettuccine in the grocery store, I had to give it a try.

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The package boasts an extremely high protein and fiber content as well as a high iron content, and states that the pasta is a great gluten-free alternative to wheat pasta. I am not gluten-free. In fact I think gluten is one of my favorite foods, however I am always looking for tasty protein sources so I had to check it out. Mung beans, which are low in cholesterol and high in soluble dietary fibers, can also help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol.

Until recently, mung beans had only entered our household to fill Kyle’s iron palm training bag for Wing Chun (Kung Fu), so it was a pretty big deal to start tossing mung bean sprouts in salads and stir-fry dishes. Experimenting with the fresh, crunchy sprouts was fun, but those beady green beans were a little scary, so it took us awhile to take the next step. Opening this bag of wavy green noodles was intimidating, but we were willing to give it a go in the name of science.

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After cooking and rinsing the noodles, I tasted them plain, and they weren’t too bad. I have to be honest though, they do taste a little… grassy? Because they are naturally chewier than regular pasta, it was pretty easy to get them al dente. However, I thought they really needed some flavor (besides “health food” flavor), so I mixed them with sauteed asparagus and baby bok choy, a soy dressing, and toasted sesame seeds. A drizzle of chili sauce made the meal complete.

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I thought this salad would work well either hot or cold, but I definitely preferred it hot. The noodles were so chewy after being chilled that I had a hard time getting through half of a serving before feeling full. I guess that could be a good thing? It felt weird to me, so I reheated them with a few minutes in the microwave and a generous portion of sambal. Kyle enjoyed the dish both hot and cold, so I guess you will have to decide for yourself!

The flavor combination was very fresh and springy, and versatile enough to work with any type of grain, so I recommend that you try it out even if you substitute a different kind of pasta or rice for the mung bean fettuccine. We are now firmly in the spring season, so break out that bright green asparagus and your favorite set of chopsticks and chow down!

Sesame Mung Bean Fettuccine with Spring Vegetables

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Ingredients:

  • 7 oz. dry mung bean fettuccine
  • 3 Tbsp sesame oil, divided (2+1)
  • 1 bunch asparagus
  • 2 baby bok choy
  • 4 green onions
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup liquid aminos or low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 Tbsp rice wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp chili sauce (sriracha or similar)
  • 2 Tbsp toasted sesame seeds

Preparation:

  1. Cook pasta according to package directions, rinse and set aside.
  2. Chop asparagus into 1-inch pieces and roughly chop baby bok choy, discarding the ends. Thinly slice the green onions.
  3. Heat 2 Tbsp sesame oil over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook for 1 minute. Add bok choy and asparagus and saute until tender and bright green, about 3 minutes.
  4. To the vegetables, add garlic and saute for another minute.
  5. In a small bowl, combine the liquid aminos (or soy sauce), brown sugar, rice wine vinegar, 1 Tbsp sesame oil, and chili sauce.
  6. Add pasta and sauce to the pan with the vegetables and stir to combine. Cook until heated throughout. Add toasted sesame seeds and serve while hot.

Moroccan Kamut Salad

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I was recently perusing the grains at the grocery store and came across one that I had never seen before: KAMUT®. It looked like wheat berries, which I love, and it came in pretty packaging, an attribute for which I will eternally be a sucker, so I tossed it in my basket to try at home after a little Internet research. The brand I bought was Bob’s Red Mill Grains of Discovery series.

Ancient grains are supposedly hot this year (who decides these things?), so I have completely bought into whatever marketing scheme placed the attractive bag of wheat on the shelf and subsequently into my cart. . . then into my kitchen, onto my dinner table, and. . . within this blog post. Should I have named this post “Meta Kamut® Salad?”

I can guarantee you I am not being paid by the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Grains to write this post, so let’s learn something, shall we? First, KAMUT® is the trademarked name for a certain type of Khorasan wheat (turanicum variety Q-77). The exact origin of Khorasan wheat is unknown, but it is believed to have been originally cultivated in the Fertile Crescent. According to one legend, Khorasan wheat was once near extinction until an American airman mailed some seeds found in Egypt back home to his family in Montana in the late 1940’s to cultivate, thus reintroducing the grain to modern cuisine. It’s a nice story that I don’t think I believe, but it does make for good dinner conversation. If you are blessed with a table full of dinner guests who believe in dining without smart phones, you could really embellish this tale into a great story, without fear of someone fact-checking you halfway through the main course.

Khorasan wheat grains are roughly twice the size of the common wheat kernel which makes them very attractive in salads. They have a nutty flavor with a pleasant chew when cooked properly. They can also be milled into flour for use in baked goods. One clear advantage of Khorasan wheat over common modern wheat is that it has a much higher protein content; at seven grams per serving, it has up to 40% more protein than common wheat. Khorasan wheat also contains a higher percentage of selenium, zinc, magnesium, and amino acids. Full nutritional information is available on the Bob’s Red Mill website.

Would all of these spices marry up with this ancient grain, feta cheese, kale, carrots, and pomegranate arils anywhere in the world besides my kitchen? Who knows, but the combo tastes pretty awesome. This salad is tasty served warm or cold. Plus the salad is a nutritional powerhouse that would make for great make-ahead lunches that would leave you satisfied all afternoon.

I enjoyed the flavor and texture of the Khorasan wheat so I think I will use it again. However, this ingredient does require a little planning, as the wheat berries have to soak in water overnight. Not a quick go-to pantry ingredient, but one that is worth the wait if you plan meals better than I do most nights.

Moroccan Khorasan Wheat Salad (serves 4)

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Ingredients:

  • 1 cup KAMUT® brand Khorasan wheat berries
  • 3 cups low sodium vegetable stock
  • 4 threads saffron
  • 3 Tablespoons olive oil, divided (2 + 1)
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 3 large carrots, sliced
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 bunch of kale, coarsely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 4 ounces crumbled feta
  • 1/2 cup pomegranate arils
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

  1. Cover wheat berries in water and soak overnight, or at least six hours.
  2. In a medium pot over medium heat, bring vegetable stock to a boil. Add saffron and wheat berries and simmer, covered, for 50-60 minutes or until tender.
  3. In a large pan, heat 2 Tbsp olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and carrots and saute until onion is translucent. Add spices (ginger through cayenne) and saute for 1-2 minutes, then remove from heat.
  4. Heat 1 Tbsp olive oil over medium heat in a large pot. Add garlic and kale and saute until wilted. Add lemon juice and turn heat to low.
  5. Add carrot-onion mixture and wheat berries to large pot with kale and cook until warmed throughout.
  6. To serve cold: remove from heat to refrigerator, chill this mixture for at least one hour, then add feta, pomegranate, and salt and pepper to taste.
  7. To serve warm: remove from heat, add feta, pomegranate, and salt and pepper to taste, then serve immediately.

Do your goal setting skills need a tune up?

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It’s a new year, and with new beginnings come resolutions and goals. The local gyms are packed with ambitious resolution-makers, home organization paraphernalia is on sale at Target, savings accounts start to grow again, and the grocery store is sold out of all my favorite health food. I think rebooting at the beginning of the year is a very positive thing, and I always take this time to set some goals for myself for the coming year.

However, we all know that resolutions and goals usually fade after a month or two. This is evident when I no longer have to wait in line for a cardio machine at the gym, or have to visit three grocery stores in order to find fresh kale. I don’t always follow through with my resolutions either, but I have learned a few things about setting and meeting goals, which I think may be helpful knowledge for you, especially at the beginning of a new year.

I recently learned a lot about goals while recovering from my bike accident last October. Almost immediately after being discharged from the hospital, I wanted to know when I could do my favorite things again. I actually tried to convince Kyle that I may be up for a hike later that week. Yes, both my arms were in casts, I likely had a few broken ribs, I was on a hefty dose of painkillers, and I had two surgeries on the horizon. When it all sunk in, I realized that I would not be able to live an active lifestyle that week, or for the next several weeks, until I had met some recovery goals.

I have always been a very goal-oriented and determined person, so I visualized the things I wanted to be able to do after recovering from my injuries, and I focused on those things to get me through the first few weeks. Cooking a meal unassisted was at the top of that list. I couldn’t even hold a fork for the first few days, and my family had to take turns making my food, feeding me, and doing self-care tasks like brushing my teeth. Because I am a very independent person, this was pretty tough for me to handle. I was pretty helpless, and a home cooked meal felt very far away.

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I started physical therapy one week after my surgeries, and the therapist asked me what hobbies, aside from daily activities and work, I wanted to be able to do after recovery. Yoga and riding a bicycle were right below cooking on that list. The slightest touch to my wrist sent pain shooting up and down my arm, but I wanted to be able to hold a downward dog when this was all over.

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For a week or two, these goals gave me hope and inspired me to work hard on the simple therapy homework I was given. Then these ambitious goals made me frustrated. I spent a lot of time thinking about how long it would take for me to achieve them, and it made my situation feel hopeless. When I expressed this to one of my good friends, she told me that I should simply make smaller goals for progress, instead of getting hung up on the big goals that were so far away.

This immediately made a lot of sense to me. After all, I didn’t run a half marathon earlier that year by setting out to run 13.1 miles in the first week. For three weeks, the longest distance I ever ran was 3 or 4 miles. I knew I would get to 13.1 eventually, but I set a goal for each run in my training plan and I focused only on that accomplishment for the day.

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For me, the first few mini-goals were things that most people with two functioning arms would take for granted. Brush my own teeth. Take a shower without help. Pick up a cup of coffee and drink it. I dropped the toothbrush, spilled the coffee, and took a 90 minute shower the first time I met each of these goals, but I achieved them nonetheless, and celebrating my progress made me feel that I was one step closer to that downward facing dog.

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Six weeks after the accident, I was cleared for limited cardio, and only on the stationary bike. My doctor was worried I might fall doing anything else, including using the treadmill. It was a big moment when I jumped back in the saddle and started to pedal, and an even bigger one when I successfully completed 30 minutes on the bike. I re-entered society soon after, showing up to classes at Boho Cycle Studio here in Richmond and feeling inspired by the tough workouts and energetic, hyper-motivational instructors.

Another mini-goal was being able to chop vegetables, and although I did not have full range of motion or much strength at all yet, I chopped a head of cauliflower in week 7. You can see in the picture below that the form is horrible, as I couldn’t fully grip things yet, but being able to finally contribute to dinner preparation again meant a lot to me. In the same week, I was cleared to drive a little too, which gave me a great sense of independence and a boost to my self-esteem.

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I had an ambitious goal in mind around mid-November, and that was to help prepare some of Christmas dinner. I ended up helping out a lot in the kitchen on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I had not completely achieved my goal of cooking on my own yet, but this felt like a big step in the right direction.

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And now I am thrilled to announce that after nine weeks since my surgery, I have finally prepared a dinner by myself, start to finish, with no assistance from my husband or anyone else. This weekend, I made a Mediterranean-inspired spinach and artichoke pasta dish and it was really good! Simple, but good! Progress!

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Goals are achieved one day at a time. When you have really big goals and dreams, it is good to keep them in mind for motivation, but sometimes it can get overwhelming and frustrating to think about the long road ahead. If you struggle with this like I do, you should set smaller milestones for yourself, and celebrate progress along the way.

If your goal is to lose weight this year, make a promise to yourself that today you will spend 30 minutes at the gym, or today you will pack a healthy lunch for work tomorrow. After a week of good days, reward yourself with a fresh juice and celebrate your progress. If you are setting out to be more organized, don’t bury yourself under a pile of home organization systems and tackle the whole house at once. Instead, set a goal for today to organize just the bills, or just the kitchen utensil drawer, or to pick up and put away twenty things before you go to bed.

With a long-term plan in place, and a series of small goals accomplished day by day, you will eventually reach your big goals at the end of the road, and be much happier and motivated along the way. Good luck, and happy 2014!

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Spinach & Artichoke Pesto Pasta

4-6 servings

Ingredients:

  • 16 oz. fresh or dried pasta (I used Bombolini pasta shells)
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 14 oz. can of quartered artichoke hearts, drained
  • 1/2 cup pitted kalamata olives, halved
  • 1 large tomato, diced
  • 10 oz. package frozen spinach, thawed and drained
  • 1/4 cup basil pesto (my favorite recipe here)
  • 1/4 tsp lemon pepper seasoning
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • extra virgin olive oil to taste
  • 2 oz. feta cheese, crumbled

Preparation:

  1. Cook pasta according to package directions and drain.
  2. Heat olive oil in a large pan over medium heat.
  3. Add garlic to pan and saute 1-2 minutes.
  4. Add artichoke hearts and olives to pan. Saute for 3 minutes or until warm.
  5. Add tomato, spinach, and pesto to pan and cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes. If spinach and tomato are dry, add a half cup of water to pan.
  6. Add cooked pasta to the pan and season with lemon pepper, salt, and pepper. Cook, stirring often, until warmed.
  7. Top with a drizzle of olive oil if needed and serve with crumbled feta on top.

Due Stagioni and Beer Dinneroni

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This is a tale of two seasons and two pizza recipes.

Kyle and I hosted a potluck vegetarian beer dinner at our house Saturday night. The theme was Farewell Summer, Hello Fall and the guest list approached twenty, for the largest Vegology beer dinner yet. For a month, we tasted and tested beers. Two weeks before the event, we began to prepare the house, yard, and décor.  One week before the dinner party, I realized that merely a wish and a dream would not get twenty people to fit into our house and around the same table, so I placed my order with Party Perfect to rent banquet tables and folding chairs for the patio. By Friday afternoon, the only thing I had not prepared for yet was what dish to make. It was the element I was least worried about, since I’ve thrown together my dishes for the last two beer dinners at the last minute.

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As I drove home from work on Friday evening, I started to think about what dishes I could prepare. The loose guidelines I imposed on myself and the guests – “summer or fall, any kind of small plate” – were not focused enough, so I had way too many ideas floating around in my head. I started to think about transitional seasonal dishes, ones that could bring you from summer into fall, and foods that I could make ahead and reheat at party time, and then it hit me. Four seasons pizza.

Quattro stagioni is a pizza with four different ingredient sections, representing the four seasons: artichokes for spring, olives for summer, mushrooms for fall, and prosciutto for winter. I decided to make miniature pizzas, or pizzettes, and do them in two seasons, due stagioni. Because I couldn’t think of a beer that would pair well with both olives and mushrooms, I did seasoned zucchini for summer on one half, and mushrooms for fall on the other, with a basil pesto base and fresh asiago melted on top (thank you,  Dany Schutte of Ellwood Thompson’s for the cheese suggestion!). The zucchini seasoning I used was the Village Garden piquant spice blend, which can be purchased locally at the South of the James farmers’ market or the Carytown farmers’ market.

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I knew the pizzette idea was a winner. I woke up Saturday morning and floated to Project Yoga at the VMFA feeling confident. After a relaxing practice in the cool autumn-like morning sun, I purchased my ingredients, some fresh flowers for the table, and a few more pieces of décor, and headed home to prepare for the party. Kyle was at work so I had to tidy up the patio, set up the tables and chairs, decorate, clean the house, and prepare the food all by myself. Everything was going really smoothly and I even had time to practice my introduction speech for the Due Stagioni Pizzettes, and decide whether to curtsy or bow when our guests gave us a standing ovation and declared the dish the most clever and delicious thing they had ever had the pleasure of tasting.

Then, suddenly, it was forty-five minutes before party time and I hadn’t made my dish yet, three people had cancelled, and Kyle was stuck at work. I frantically sliced zucchini, rolled out and cut dough, and preheated the oven. I was still assembling my dish as guests started to arrive and I distractedly pulled it out of the oven as the first course was being served. By the time my turn came around to serve, my award-winning pizzette idea had made a spiral descent down the drain and turned out to be an oily, crispy mess. A mess that left me wishing that I had chosen a stronger beer to wash down my soggy burnt crust, instead of that light, crisp pilsner, served with a side of hubris.

I made some mistakes, and I am going to outline them here so you don’t have to make them yourself. Because the next day, I repurchased all my ingredients and made the whole dish over again to prove to myself that it would work. And it was good!

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So here are the don’ts of making miniature pizzas, besides the obvious ones (don’t wait until the last minute to test your recipe, don’t cook during your dinner party, don’t shut off your brain while entertaining in your kitchen).

  1. Don’t roll out your crust too thin. I used a thinner crust the first time, thinking that a thicker crust would swallow up or spit out the delicate toppings as it rose. On the remake, I cut out the pizza rounds from a thicker sheet of dough and it worked much better.
  2. Don’t forget that your pesto has oil in it. Don’t use too much oil when sauteing your zucchini. I used way too much oil overall in the first batch, and when I pulled the pan from the oven, the oil from the pesto and the zucchini had seeped out and formed a slick on the baking sheet.
  3. Don’t second guess browned edges. I checked on the pizzettes at one point and saw browned edges but the top of the dough still looked soft and wet, so I left them in the oven for a few more minutes. Big mistake. The pesto pizzettes turned into hockey puckettes very quickly.

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Lucky for me, we had a beautiful evening with great food and beers and excellent company. Hopefully the nightmare of the failed pizzettes haunted only me that night, as everyone else seemed to have a wonderful time. Here is a rundown of the courses we enjoyed at our fourth ever potluck vegetarian beer dinner:

Avocado and Grapefruit Salad with Crispin Cider – Liz and Alex from I Heart Vegetables – deliciously fresh and tart, with sweet dressing and two kinds of nuts for crunch, a great start to the meal.

Eggplant, Chickpea, and Potato Curry with Three Brothers The Great Outdoors – Sydney and Andrew from chic stripes – perfect as the sun started to set and the temperature began to drop, a dish with summer vegetables and fall spices to keep us warm, and a beer that reminds you of camping.

Cracklin’ Cauliflower with home brewed rye pale ale – Brittany and Isaac from Eating Bird Food – Brittany is right that this cauliflower is great at any temperature, and the flavor went really well with Isaac’s impressive home brew. I’ve made her recipe before, and it’s a keeper.

Due Stagioni Pizzettes (improved recipe below) with Victory Prima Pils – me and Kyle – thank goodness Kyle’s sense of humor and optimism pairs well with my high-strung perfectionism, so when the first attempt fell flat we could laugh it off and have another beer. . . then try again the next day!

Cauliflower “Cous Cous” Salad with Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Wild – Paul and Leah – I need to get this recipe and I’ll link to it here. We loved this pairing of a dish and a beer that both came with a twist – the “cous cous” is actually cauliflower and the beer is actually Lagunitas Little Sumpin’, with an additional wild yeast strain.

Skillet Apple Pie with Left Hand Nitro Milk Stout – Shannon and Evan from Thirsty Richmond and Boho Cycle Studio – so decadent, this apple pie was perfect, not an exaggeration, and it elevated my appreciation of this milk stout, as well as cast iron skillets. Oh, and blogger husbands, who are (in my humble opinion) the very best.

Deconstructed Apple Pie with Cider – Brock (Isaac’s brother) and Alex from Quarter Life Cupcake – I did not know that a vegan, gluten-free homemade dessert could be so good! I am officially a believer now.

And then the after-dinner bonus beers came out, including Goose Island Harvest Ale from Al (and poor Adrienne who had to stay home with a cold), Dogfish Head Tweasonale, The Alchemist Heady Topper, Goose Island Bourbon County, and more. Thank you to everyone who made this dinner special!

Due Stagioni Pesto Pizzettes

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Ingredients:

  • 12 ounces pizza dough, homemade or store bought, rolled out to 1/4 inch thick
  • medium zucchini, thinly sliced
  • 4 ounces mushrooms, sliced – both shiitakes and maitakes are good (maitake mushrooms are our favorite)
  • 1/4 cup basil pesto, homemade or store bought
  • Italian seasoning or herb/spice blend of your choice for the zucchini
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 3 ounces fresh (soft) asiago cheese, or mozzarella, grated

Preparation:

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Heat 1 Tbsp of olive oil over medium heat in a medium pan. Add zucchini to pan and saute until tender, adding seasoning to taste halfway through cooking. Remove from heat. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  3. Heat 1 Tbsp of olive oil over medium-high heat in medium pan. Sprinkle the oil with 1/2 tsp black pepper. Add mushrooms to pan and saute until tender, then remove from heat.
  4. Using a 2-1/2 inch round cookie cutter, punch circles in the rolled out pizza dough and transfer to baking sheet. This should yield about 12-15 pizza round.
  5. Top each pizza round with pesto, dividing evenly among all rounds. Place two zucchini slices on one half of each round, and a spoonful of mushrooms on the other half. Top with grated cheese.
  6. Bake in preheated oven 10-12 minutes until edges begin to brown – then remove immediately!
  7. Can be reheated from refrigerated in 350 degree oven for 4-5 minutes if needed.

Savory Plantain Splits

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If you have been reading for awhile, or if you have taken some time to dig around here, you may know that one of my very first posts was a recipe for Tostones, fried plantains. I started Vegology to chronicle my adventures in the kitchen, particularly with ingredients and methods that were new to me. In the beginning, I was two years into vegetarianism and five years into my home cooking habit. I had started to be more adventurous in the kitchen and found new and exciting ingredients at the farmers’ market weekly. There were so many options that I had to consciously spread them out so that I wouldn’t bite off more new ingredients than I could chew each week. Now, three years later, I have to search a little harder to find ingredients that are brand new to me. There are still as many ingredients that I haven’t tried as there are stars in the sky, but I do have to look a little farther beyond my local farmers’ market to find them.

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Take, for example, jackfruit, which I discovered was an excellent stand-in for pulled pork last year. You can find a lot of things at a Virginia farmers’ market, but jackfruit is not one of them. Soba is another, and epazote yet another. So I have discovered a lot of my new-to-me ingredients over the last several months in specialty stores and grocers. However not every showstopper meal requires a trip to the end of the earth for exotic ingredients. When I am working with my same old kitchen staples, I try to reinvent the classics to get that jolt of adrenaline that I often do from novel food. Which leads me to the star of this show, the Cuban plantain split.

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Inspired by the elaborate and aesthetically appealing arrangement of the components of the classic ice cream shop creation, the banana split, I set out to make a savory version with starchy, green plantains instead of bananas. I often associate plantains with Cuban food, so I started brainstorming in that direction. I came up with my vegetarian paella to start. Then I recalled a Cuban dish that I made in my pre-vegetarian days, consisting of shredded meat, tomato sauce, spices, and green olives. Ropa vieja is like a Cuban sloppy joe, except that it’s so much better. Stuck at two scoops, I reached out to a foodie friend to come up with the third: slow simmered Cuban-inspired black beans.

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Topped with cilantro, avocado, a drizzle of hot sauce and a spritz of lime, this is a hearty vegan dish with complex flavors and a variety of textures. If you have an open mind, it is seriously fun to eat, and if you’re up to the challenge, it is easy to stuff yourself with this spicy comfort food. But let’s be real. This dish is a ridiculous time commitment.

Realistically, you’re going to get four separate recipes out of this post and you may never make them all at once like I did. To make them all together and assemble the plantain split masterpieces from scratch, it took me and another cook two hours in the kitchen, working together with no idle time. In the end, we agreed the result was worth it. But then again, I’m the kind of person who considers a night spent in the kitchen revamping the classics while chopping several pounds of produce and dancing to samba music to be a great time. If you are not that ambitious (or crazy?) each component takes less than an hour on its own and can be paired with a fresh salad for a quick, flavorful and filling meal.

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Cuban Plantain Splits

Prepare one batch of each: Split Plantains, Vegetarian Ropa Vieja, Cuban Black Beans, and Quick Vegetarian Paella. Arrange plantain halves along the long side of an oval shaped dish. Arrange one scoop of each of the other components, in a row between the plantain halves. Top with chopped fresh cilantro and fresh avocado. Serve with hot sauce if desired. Serves 4-6.

Split Plantains

Ingredients:

  • 4 large green (unripe) plantains
  • sea salt to taste
  • 2 cups vegetable oil for frying

Preparation:

  1. With a sharp small knife cut ends from each plantain and cut a lengthwise slit through skin. Cut plantains once lengthwise and once crosswise into quarters. Beginning at slit, pry skin from pieces.
  2. In a 12-inch nonstick skillet heat 1/2 inch oil over moderate heat until just hot enough to sizzle when a plantain piece is added. Fry plantains in batches, without crowding, until tender and just golden, 2 to 3 minutes on each side. With tongs transfer plantains as fried to paper towels to drain.
  3. Remove skillet from heat and reserve oil. With the bottom of a heavy saucepan or a wide solid metal spatula flatten plantains to 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick.
  4. Into a bowl of warm salted water dip flattened plantains, 1 at a time, and drain them well on paper towels.
  5. Heat reserved oil over moderate heat until hot but not smoking and fry flattened plantains in batches, without crowding, until golden, about 3 minutes. With tongs transfer tostones as fried to paper towels to drain and season with salt if desired.

Vegetarian Ropa Vieja

Ingredients:

  • 2- 10 oz. cans jackfruit in water, drained
  • 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 small onion, sliced
  • 1 small green pepper, sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1- 15 oz. can fire roasted tomatoes
  • 1- 8 oz. can tomato sauce
  • 2 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1 cup vegetable broth
  • 1/2 cup green olives with pimiento, sliced or halved
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons fresh chopped cilantro

Preparation:

  1. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add jackfruit and cook until browned, about six minutes. Remove from pan and shred jackfruit until the texture resembles that of pulled meat.
  2. Add onion, green pepper, and garlic to pan. Saute until translucent. Add ground cumin to pan and cook, while stirring, for 30 seconds.
  3. Add fire roasted tomatoes, tomato sauce, vinegar, and broth. Bring to simmer, then lower heat to medium-low. Cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  4. Add olives, salt and pepper just before serving. Top with fresh cilantro.

Cuban Black Beans

Ingredients:

  • 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 1 small green bell pepper, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
    • OR 1 teaspoon dried oregano plus 1 teaspoon dried epazote
  • 2- 15 oz. cans black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 cup vegetable broth
  • 1 Tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • Salt and pepper

Preparation:

  1. Heat oil in a large sauce sauce pan over medium heat. Add onion, pepper, garlic, and oregano, and epazote if using. Saute until translucent.
  2. Mash 1 cup of beans with fork, or blend in food processor, Add mashed beans, remaining whole beans, vegetable broth and vinegar to pan.
  3. Cook 15-20 minutes over medium-low heat, stirring often.
  4. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Quick Vegetarian Paella

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup medium grain white rice
  • 6 saffron threads
  • 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 large bell pepper, diced
  • 1 cup fresh vegetables, diced (I used zucchini, carrots, and peas)
  • 1- 6 oz. jar quartered, marinated artichoke hearts
  • 1 cup vegetable broth
  • 4 oz. tomato sauce
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • Salt and pepper

Preparation:

  1. Prepare rice according to package directions to produce 3 cups prepared rice.
  2. Boil 1/2 cup water in a small sauce pan. Turn off burner. Add saffron threads, cover, and let stand 10 minutes. Strain water into a bowl and discard threads.
  3. Heat vegetable oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add onion and pepper and saute until tender.
  4. Add vegetables, saffron water, artichoke hearts, vegetable broth, tomato sauce, and garlic to soup pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer 15 minutes. Add rice and stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

 

Chickpea Noodle Soup

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I can’t explain this midsummer soup that I made at the end of a July heat wave, except by saying, “sometimes you just need comfort food.”

It was the end of a long, stressful day and I needed a quick late night dinner. Although it had been 90 degrees that day, I really wanted soup. So I scoured the pantry and fridge and came up with almost all of the ingredients for chicken noodle soup, except for chicken. No problem, I thought. I had chickpeas.

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Don’t worry. I haven’t lost my mind (yet). I am aware that chickpeas are nothing like chicken, and I know that just because an ingredient sounds like another, that does not mean they taste the same. However, I needed some protein and chickpea noodle soup just sounded so right that it couldn’t be wrong.

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I used a vegetable soup base blend that I had picked up from the frozen vegetables section, and I think the okra in this blend really helped to thicken the soup. I also added some texture by tossing a third of the chickpeas into the food processor before adding them to the soup. The noodles and legumes were very filling, and the veggies made me feel like I had made a semi-healthy meal choice.

If you just can’t bear the thought of hot soup in July, or you think it’s a waste to use canned and frozen ingredients in the middle of the best season for fresh produce, I get it. Really I do. I’ve eaten a fresh tomato sandwich for dinner the last two nights in a row so you know I appreciate what’s coming out of the dirt over what’s coming out of the can right now. But at least toss some fresh green beans and okra in the freezer now and bookmark this recipe, because if you aren’t ready today, I think this is just what you’ll be looking for in January.

Chickpea Noodle Soup

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Ingredients:

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 yellow onion, diced
  • 1 lb frozen vegetables (I used a vegetable soup blend that included carrots, potatoes, corn, green beans, lima beans, okra, peas, celery and onions)
  • 1- 15 oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 1 quart low sodium vegetable broth
  • 4 oz. egg noodles
  • 2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1 dried bay leaf
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 teaspoon dried Italian herb blend (optional)
  • 1 pinch cayenne pepper
  • salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

  1. In a large soup pot, heat olive oil over medium heat.
  2. Add garlic and onion to pot and sauté until onion is translucent.
  3. Add vegetables to pot, and cook while stirring for 2-3 minutes.
  4. Divide chickpeas into three equal portions. Add one third of the chickpeas to a food processor, and pulse until finely chopped.
  5. Add whole and chopped chickpeas, broth, and 1 cup water to pot. Bring to a boil.
  6. Add noodles and the rest of the ingredients, return to a boil, then cover and cook over medium heat for 15-20 minutes.