Shield of the Shepherd

It is that time of year again. Wednesdays in the Spring mean adventures in vegan cooking.

Stoke the forge to 425 degrees. Spread a bag of frozen veggie medley on a baking sheet and insert while still pre-heating along with three russet potatoes.

Meanwhile, saute half a sweet onion and half a carton of button mushrooms, both diced, with salt and non-olive, neutral flavored oil in your largest skillet. Once they begin to brown, add pepper flake and two cartons of course chopped seitan (wheat gluten) and combine. Slide into the forge as well.

Meanwhile yet again, in a sauce pan, make a roux. [1] Add enough veggie broth to begin to make a gravy. Keep it on low heat and whisk until it begins thickening, but don’t let it get too thick.

Take your skillet out and your veggie medley and add the veggies to the seitan and savories. Pour over the gravy. Keep on low heat to simmer while the potatoes continue to cook through.

When the potatoes are soft enough, remove from the forge and cut open. Chop the skins up small and add to the simmering skillet. In a large bowl use a hand mixer to render the russet innards fluffy and fine. Sprinkle sumac on top for color and a bit of salt for seasoning.

Spoon the skillet contents into two pie shells and cover over with the potatoes.

Return to the 425 degree forge for 10 minutes. Cover with ultra thin plate mail armor sheeting and give it another 10-20 minutes to ensure the pie crusts are cooked through.

Set aside to cool but serve warm.

Ain't it purdy?

Ain’t it purdy?

[1] I used left over french fries, cold, ground fine, mixed with oil.

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Tenser’s Vegan Disks

Yes, I know that I have made this joke before. I don’t care, it’s funny anyway. Novelty as a benchmark is the primary rhetorical fallacy of the 20th Century.

Besides, we’re going to use pita, not tortilla, this time.

At a loss for what to do with left over, stale pita bread? Tired of making pita chips to choke down with hummus? Me too.

Here’s a quick, easy solution to the problem.

The quickest, easiest way is to cheat and do the following things:

  • Go to Trader Joe’s and get a container of these:
    • Bruschetta (in the chill case in a white plastic tub)
    • Artichoke antipasto (glass jar)
    • Olive tapenade (either glass jar or clear plastic tub in chill case)
  • Acquire jar of simple vinaigrette salad dressing
  • Combine the three items from Trader Joe’s with just enough dressing to make the result easily spreadable

If you’re a bit more committed than this, get tomato, onion, garlic, fresh herbs like cilantro, parsley and basil, artichoke hearts [1], olives (mostly black and/or kalamata), olive oil, dressing vinegar (not white), and basic seasonings, and chop everything up finely (either by hand or in a food processor) and combine to recreate something similar to what is described above.

Variations on this topping can be made by including roasted red pepper spread (either including or removing the artichokes) and/or capers.

Spread the result of either approach onto old pita bread which are arranged on a baking sheet and slide into a 250 degree oven. Yes, that’s very low heat. The goal here is to drive moisture out of the bread and the topping without scorching the bread.

When the bread is nearly, but not quite, completely stiff, slide them back out of the oven, and top each disc with either a spring mix salad or simply baby spinach, change the oven into a broiler, and return the tray for just a couple of moments to wilt the greens.

I find it easier to slice the discs prior to cooking, rather than after, either in half or fourths. but you could just as easily serve the discs intact and let your adventurers sort it out for themselves.

What you end up with is something very much like a “fully loaded” veggie pizza, without any cheese. However, the oily texture and umami of the preserved vegetables ensure you won’t miss it.

 

If you’re interested in a dish which is not vegan, but is Lenten, you can add chopped, pre-cooked, crab or shrimp between the vegetable spread and the salad greens just before going under the broiler. 

 

[1] I don’t recommend buying fresh artichokes, steaming them and breaking them down yourself, it is an enormous amount of work and the results are rarely as good as what you can get in a jar (or can).

Turn Your Head and Kofta

One simple way I’ve worked into my food thinking to try to ensure that more and more of the meat that I consume is at least vaguely ethical is by going out of my way to have cuts from animals which are less popular with the general public, and thus through sheer economic principles are less likely to have been industrialized. Lamb instead of beef, quail or duck instead of chicken, boar instead of pork… that kind of thing.

The good news for me, is that attending a church full of people of Arabic descent means that discovering lamb dishes, how to prepare them, and places around the city to get good Middle Eastern food (which, when done authentically, is almost always lamb, not beef) has gotten much easier.

Always budget conscious, and recognizing that eating ethical meat means spending a lot more per pound, I always have my eye open for budget friendly options. The most obvious budget friendly lamb option I’ve found is kofta (or kafta, depending on regional transliteration). This is a ground meat preparation which sort of straddles the fence between a sausage and a meatball; traditionally oblong, not spherical, not stuffed into a casing, and yet not cooked loose like Western breakfast sausage or scrapple, either. This preparation is typically cooked as a kabob, which is to say on a skewer, on a grill.

Kofta is, for me, a shining example of how Mediterranean cuisine somehow manages to have strong flavors, and use a lot of spices, and yet somehow everything still tastes like “itself”. Kofta tastes like lamb. And yet, it is anything but “plain” or “bland”. These are the kinds of food traditions I enjoy the most, and so kofta has become a fast favorite of mine.

I have found a few places around the city which serve phenomenal kofta wrap sandwiches, but of course, cooking at home is always cheaper than dining out, so of course I needed to figure out how to make my own kofta at home. And of course, I knew better than to ask any of the jadda at church for their recipe because, well, I like my ears to remain their current size, and in their current location on my head. Clearly, some deep nerd R&D was going to be required.

The first thing you learn when you start looking into ground meat preparations from the Middle East (such as gyro and kofta) is that the meat is ground much, much finer than one finds for Western sausage or meatball/meatloaf/burger preparations. During my early experiments I was inclined to ignore this detail, and I paid dearly with crumbling meat during cooking, eventually resulting in not only bad texture, but poor flavor. Yes, it is a very tricky business to put meat into a food processor and not end up with “pink slime” or some kind of wallpaper paste, but if you don’t own a grinding attachment for your pasta maker or stand mixer (and I don’t even own this hardware, yet, let alone have grinding attachments) you’re going to need to bite a bullet, develop a very adept pulse button finger, and tighten up the grind manually.

Part of the reason for this is that some of the primary ingredients you’re going to add to the meat are pureed raw onion and fresh herbs — which have a lot of water in them. A loose grind combined with a high water content is going to cause the crumbling during cooking that I was seeing.

Note, that yesterday I was making a variation on Italian wedding soup, but using kofta instead of meatballs[1]. If you want kofta for sandwiches or an entree, use all lamb, rather than the combination I have below.

So, enough foreshadowing, here’s the rundown.

  • quarter pound ground lamb
  • quarter pound ground pork
  • quarter pound ground chuck (not highly lean ground beef!)
  • half white onion, pureed and left to drain
  • four cloves garlic, pureed and left to drain (or prepared minced garlic, well drained)
  • large handful of fresh cilantro
  • large handful of fresh basil
  • salt, pepper, hot and smoked paprika, and sumac (or at least a zatar blend which includes it)

Puree your onion and garlic and set aside to strain. Coarse chop your cilantro and basil. Put your meats, dry seasonings, fresh herbs and pureed aromatics into a bowl and combine as best you can with a big spoon. Then, in small batches, add to a food processor and carefully work everything together more thoroughly (while making the grind on the meat finer without pulverizing it).

Form golf ball sized meatballs with the results. Arrange in a cast iron skillet and place beneath a broiler on high heat, but at some distance from the flame. Once one side is browned, drain the fat into a large cooking pot, turn the meatballs over, and put back beneath the broiler until the second side is browned, then remove from heat, drain fat again, and set aside, covered. Carry over heat will ensure they are cooked through safely.

Cook a batch of short grained rice, barley, orzo pasta or pearl couscous.

In the large pot where you put all that meat fat, add three chunked carrots, three chunked celery ribs, and the other half onion chunked, with liberal salt, on medium high heat. Once well wilted and soft, add two cartons of low sodium vegetable broth and a third carton of water. Let simmer until the vegetables all want to fall apart. Strain into a large bowl, put the vegetables aside (either to compost or to puree into a sauce base if you just can’t bring yourself to “waste” them), return the broth to the pot and add a bag of chopped spinach (I recommend working through it by hand to remove all the stems). Once the spinach is soft, you can serve your soup by filling the bottom of a steep bowl with your rice (or pasta or whatever you made), putting two meatballs on top of the rice, and then filling the bowl with broth.

Note: this makes far more broth than it does meatballs. But, broth keeps, meatballs don’t. Be prepared to make additional batches of meatballs (and cook more rice/pasta) to finish off the broth — or to store the broth for later use in sauces and gravy.

[1] Traditional Italian meatballs are one part pork, one part lamb and one part veal. I refuse to eat veal, and so I substitute ground chuck (rather than a highly lean ground beef) to ensure that I have enough fat content to keep the balls moist during their time under the broiler.

Squash Randomly Stuffed

Yesterday I had the task of baking some acorn squash.  Of course, my first thought was that it would be incredibly boring alone.  Arming myself with random accessories, I went to work.

First up, onion, always have to have onion (it was about 1 cup total).  Diced well, it was.  Eyes watered, they did.  Finger check reveals all are intact, so that went well.  +10 XP for not slicing any fingers!

Next, cashews and Craisins.  Those were set aside to top the squash.  The dosage:  “enough”.  They are accents, so keep that in mind.

Finally, barley.  It had to have some substance to it.  I decided to be bold and not cook it at all before hand.  This, right here, was the very thing that prompted me to muse I hope this doesn’t taste like crap.

From this point, there’s what I did and what I’ll do the next time.

What I did:  Halved two acorn squashes.  Scooped out seeds.  Placed in appropriately sized casserole dish.  Liberally drizzed with olive oil.  Filled with mix of barley and onion.  Topped with craisins and cashews.  Poured a little maple syrup over each (2T?).  Baked at 400F for 1 hour covered.  Covered is important here to keep the moisture in — or you’ll end up with barley pebbles and that does taste bad.

What I’d do the next time:  put the barley in first and make sure it is covered, covered, covered by everything.  Completely.  I might even put 1T of water into each squash cavity.  The barley cooked but, heh, barely.  The barley on top was crunchy — which was not all that great.  It was edible, but not all that great.

Otherwise, this was awesome.  Perhaps adding some apple would be good too.  That would add more moisture and help the barley cook.

But the best part is that this was relatively fast.  The largest effort, in order was: (1) prepping the squash, (2) dicing the onion, (3) washing my hands to get the onion juice off.

And there you have it:  Squash Randomly Stuffed which did not taste like crap.

Mountain Bread is Enormous!

There is a local, Lebanese bakery which provides a variety of pita breads to all the local Whole Foods locations in Houston. I made this connection a year ago when I went directly to the bakery to get falafel sandwiches (during Lent).

Today, we learned that their “mountain bread” is fit for the apetite of a Hobbit! Once we got them unfolded, the diameter was easily 18 inches, if not 24. We had opted for the mountain bread because we wanted to make some wraps for dinner, and had figured that the pita, pocket style bread would be too thick as is, and would fall apart if opened up.

So, apparently we were in for some serious wraps.

I quartered an eggplant (a longer, thinner variety than the typical Italian, but not as long and thin as the Japanese styles) and then sliced it into roughly half inch wide bits. I salted it and cooked it with jalapenos, onion (received in trade from a fellow gardener for some of my extra radishes), a pale green bell pepper (from my plot) and roasted garlic. Once well along, this skillet was put into a 400 degree oven next to a second one containing olive oil and some pre-made falafel (from a bulk warehouse store and which is distressingly good) for about 30 minutes, give or take.

The enormous bread was laid flat. Ruffled lettuce (from the garden) was arranged in the center along with some shredded cheese. The falafel was squashed to help the whole thing wrap up, and then it was topped with the roasted vegetables. The whole universe was then rolled up snug.

This was a much, much better success than the pickles.

Ambush of Spices Chick-Pea Stew

I learned a lesson recently that is very important:  no two powdered cinnamons are created equally.  Some are bland and cardboard-like and others can almost light my mouth on fire.  This (http://www.simpleveganrecipes.co.uk/index.html?recipe=recipes/vegan-chickpea-stew-recipe.html) recipe could vary wildly depending on what kind of cinnamon was used.  But that’s not the only ambush — for me, the ambush was the lack of spices listed in the ingredients list.  Once again there is much importance for a Kitchen Kleric to read an entire spell — you don’t want to invoke the Kooking Kthulhu because you trip up half-way through a recipe.

  • 2T ground cinnamon
  • 2T ground cumin
  • 2T ground corriander
  • 2 onions, coarsely chopped
  • 8 oz. (200g) carrots, halved and coarsely chopped (about 4 … ish)
  • 4 oz. (100g) sweetcorn (1 cup)
  • 8 oz. (200g) courgettes (zucchini)
  • 8 oz. (200g) chick-peas, cooked (or 2 tins of pre-cooked chick-peas)
  • 3 cups water
  • 4 tbsp. tomato purée

Mix dry spices.  Heat 2T olive oil and saute onion and carrots for 5-10 minutes.  Stir in dry spices.  Cook for 2-3 minutes.  Stir in sweetcorn, courgettes, chick-peas, water, tomato purée.  Simmer for 25-30 minutes.

Paella — but you can call me Goulash

When I was a kid, a family friend once entered the room with a bowl of some sort of food.  When I asked what it was he gave me a sinister look and declared “Goulash…”.  I’ve since looked up goulash, but whenever I see a mixture of stuff that is tomato-rich, I think of him.

I think this (http://www.simpleveganrecipes.co.uk/index.html?recipe=recipes/vegan-paella-recipe.html) was one of the first vegan recipes I made from this book.  It is good enough to repeat and I think the presence of the cashews makes a nice crunch and adds a good flavor.  This was the amusing recipe I was thinking of that lists spices in the directions that aren’t in the ingredients list and the ingredients were very out of order.  I have fixed that below.

  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1/2t chili powder
  • 12 oz. (300g) brown rice (1 cup)
  • 3 cups (800ml) of vegetable stock
  • 6 fl.oz. (150ml) dry white wine (or substitute with 1 tbsp vinegar)
  • 1 can (454g) chopped tomatoes
  • 1/2t tarragon
  • 1t basil
  • 1t oregano
  • 1T tomato puree
  • 1 red and 1 green pepper, roughly chopped
  • 3 sticks celery
  • 8 oz. (200g) mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 oz. (50g) mange tout [1] topped and tailed
  • 4 oz. (100g) frozen peas
  • 2 oz. (50g) broken cashew nuts (about 1/2 cup)

In a large, heavy saucepan saute the onion in 4T olive oil.  Add chili powder and the rice and cook for 4-5 minutes.  Add vegetable stock, wine, tomatoes, tarragon, basil, oregano, tomato puree, . Simmer for 10-15 minutes. Add peppers, celery, mushrooms, mange tout and cook for another 30 minutes until the rice is cooked. Add peas, cashew nuts, salt and pepper. Heat through until peas are ready and serve.

[1] The other fun I had was “mange tout”.  Being silly I wondered “what’s a mangy toot?”  It’s unripened pea pods for the not French among us.