Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Maple-Nut Granola

I really love brownies. Rich, dense, chocolatey brownies. I've been craving homemade brownies for several days now, but I've been so swamped with work that I haven't had a chance to bake. In lieu of brownies, I came up with a new variation on my beloved Addictive Peanut Butter Granola, Maple-Nut Granola. This granola, which prominently features maple syrup and walnuts, is just as delicious as its peanut butter predecessor, but it's a little more mature. There is no chocolate in this version, just the subtle goodness of oats, maple syrup, and walnuts. And it smells amazing while it's baking in the oven!

I recommend eating this granola as a cereal with milk poured on top. I feel it's not quite sweet enough to stand up to a tart plain yogurt, but it might be good mixed with banana slices and lightly sweetened plain yogurt.

Maple-Nut Granola

4-6 servings

2 1/4 cups oats

1/2 cup flour

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. pure vanilla extract

1/6 cup vegetable oil (half of a 1/3 cup measurement)

1/3 cup pure maple syrup, Grade A or B (Grade A is a lighter maple syrup, while Grade B is a darker, more robust maple syrup. I like both kinds.)

1/2 walnuts, chopped

1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2) Mix together the oats, flour, and baking soda in a large mixing bowl. Stir in the vanilla extract.

3) Add the vegetable oil, maple syrup, walnuts, and mix until moistened. The mixture will be a bit chunky and fairly dry.

4) Spoon the granola into a square 8-inch cake pan.

5) Bake the granola at 350 degrees for 18-20 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool for 10 minutes in the pan, and then dig in! Before storing, allow granola to cool completely in the pan and then store it at room temperature in a tightly sealed container. This granola will keep for at least a week.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Greek Sammiches with Roasted Potatoes and Carrots

Inspiration is a funny thing. It arrives, unannounced, and proceeds to surprise and delight you. It leaves you feeling energized and ecstatic about life. Let other people rhapsodize about love; I will write sonnets about inspiration. And love itself can be an inspiration: who isn’t inspired to be her best by a new love interest?

My inspiration for these Greek Sammiches (much more fun to say than “sandwiches,” don’t you think?) came from two sources. The September 2007 issue of Vegetarian Times has a 5-ingredient recipe for Greek Paninis; I thought it sounded delicious. French bread or rolls are topped with store-bought hummus, frozen spinach that has been thawed, feta cheese, and roasted red peppers. The sandwiches are then toasted, panini-style, in a countertop grill or on the stovetop. I was going to follow the recipe to try these sandwiches, but then I remembered two things: 1) store-bought hummus is expensive and 2) I’m not wild about jarred roasted red peppers. So I used the recipe as inspiration to come up with my own version of a quick Greek sammich.

Rather than purchase hummus, I decided to borrow part of a recipe from Express Lane Meals by Rachael Ray. In the recipe for Tuscan Calzones with “The Works” (pp. 118-119), she gives instructions for a delicious spinach filling in which chopped frozen spinach is thawed, drained, and then mashed with white beans and garlic. The spinach-bean filling is then seasoned to taste with salt, pepper, and olive oil. It sounds humble, but it is really good and nutritious.

I have eaten these Greek Sammiches accompanied by cold Lunar Gazpacho or hot Roasted Potatoes and Carrots (recipe below). Both are delicious. Lunar Gazpacho is perfect for hot weather, while the Roasted Potatoes and Carrots are ideal for making on a cool, rainy night.

Greek Sammiches
Estimated Servings: 5-6

10-oz. box of frozen chopped spinach (thawing instructions follow)
14.5-oz. can of white beans, such as Great Northern beans
1 clove of garlic, chopped
Extra-virgin olive oil to taste (a drizzle or so—a tablespoon or less)
Salt and pepper to taste
Nutmeg to taste
A loaf or two of French bread, depending on how many sammiches you want to make
4-oz. container of feta cheese
1 fresh green pepper, sliced into long vertical slices

To prepare the spinach-bean filling:
1) Thaw the spinach by placing it in a fine-meshed sieve and letting it drain into a bowl or the sink for several hours. Alternatively, place the spinach in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave on high for six minutes until it is thawed. Place microwaved spinach in a sieve. Squeeze the extra liquid out of the spinach by pressing it firmly with a wooden spoon while the spinach is still in the sieve. Drain the spinach completely.
2) Place the spinach in a large bowl. Drain the can of white beans and add the beans to the bowl. Mash the beans into the spinach thoroughly. Use your wooden spoon to clean spinach off the masher if it starts to clump too much. Add the garlic, salt, pepper, olive oil, and nutmeg to the spinach-bean filling and stir. Taste the filling and adjust the seasonings by adding more garlic, salt, pepper, olive oil, and/or nutmeg.

To prepare the sammiches:
1) Slice the French bread into sandwich-sized hunks about 6” or so in length. Slice the hunks horizontally to make a wide slit that almost slices the bread in half.
2) Spread one side of the bread with spinach-bean filling. Depending on how much filling you want, you can be more or less generous in your spreading.
3) Spoon some feta cheese on top of the spinach-bean filling. Again, depending on how much feta you like in a sandwich, you can add more or less cheese.
4) Top sammiches with slices of fresh green pepper. Close the sammiches by pressing the tops back into place and serve.

Roasted Potatoes and Carrots
Serves 1 but can be scaled up to serve more

1 red-skinned potato
1 large carrot
Drizzle of olive oil (~1 tbsp.)
Salt and pepper to taste
Cooking spray

1) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
2) Wash and dry the potato and carrot. Use a vegetable peeler to remove any bad-looking skin or eyes from the potato. If you prefer a skinless potato, you can peel the whole thing. Otherwise just peel off the ugly stuff. Cut the potato in half and then cut it lengthwise into wedges about half an inch thick.
3) Slice the ends off the carrot. Peel off any bad-looking skin with a vegetable peeler. Chop the carrot into pieces of 2-3” in length. If the top of the carrot is much thicker than the bottom, slice it in half lengthwise.
4) In a small bowl, toss the potato and carrot with olive oil to coat the vegetables. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
5) Spray a baking sheet lightly with cooking spray. Spread the potatoes and carrots on the baking sheet in a single layer. Bake at 375 degrees F for 25-30 minutes, turning the vegetables over halfway through their baking. When the vegetables are done, the potatoes will be golden brown and crispy on the outside. The carrots will be a little shriveled and browned on the sides where they touched the pan.

From the Summer Cooking Wish List: Lunar Gazpacho

Although it has taken me a while to give this soup proper attention, the results were worth the wait! The version I present here is inspired by and takes its name from Crescent Dragonwagon’s Lunar Gazpacho, which she published in Passionate Vegetarian. I liked her version, but I found myself craving something a little smoother, lighter, and sweeter. I have kept what I think is the essence of her soup: plain yogurt, cucumbers, mint, and fruit. I swapped out green grapes for honeydew melon. I replaced the raw almonds with a tablespoon of tahini. I added a dab of honey for sweetness. The final result, as you will find hopefully, is smooth, light, and refreshing. I’m really pleased with it.

Ironically enough, today is a cool, cloudy day, a day on which you wouldn’t mind using your oven. Lunar Gazpacho can be served on a day like today, no problem, but I bet it will be even better on a hot summer’s day.

Lunar Gazpacho
Adapted from Lunar Gazpacho, pp. 175-176,
in Passionate Vegetarian by Crescent Dragonwagon
Makes ~3-4 generous servings

1 long (12 inches or so) seedless cucumber
½ honeydew melon
1 cup water
1 cup lowfat plain yogurt (I like Brown Cow brand)
A handful of fresh mint leaves, rinsed clean
1 tbsp. tahini
1 tbsp. honey

1) Prepare the cucumber by slicing off the ends and then peeling it. Cut it into 2-3” chunks and place in a blender* or food processor.
2) Prepare the honeydew melon by cutting out the inner seeds and white membrane and then slicing the fruit off the peel. Cut into 2-3” chunks and add it to the cucumbers in the blender.
3) Add the water, yogurt, mint leaves, tahini, and honey to the blender. Puree this mixture until it is smooth.
4) Serve immediately or chill in the refrigerator to serve later. If you like your food to look pretty, you can garnish it with a whole mint leaf or two. Serve in large cups or small bowls.

*Depending on the volume capacity of your blender or food processor, you may need to do this in batches. You can puree ingredients separately, such as the water with the cucumber and then the yogurt with the remaining ingredients, and stir everything together well in a large mixing bowl.

The Grocery Dilemma

I’m a dedicated home cook. I always bring a lunch to work. I only eat out about once a week. All of this home cooking requires a steady stream of groceries, and sometimes that gets difficult for a carless pedestrian like myself. Oh, sure, I could get a bike or one of those dorky grocery carts, but thus far I have not acquired a set of wheels in any form. I am blessed with a wonderful natural foods store, Wild Oats, and a good basic grocery store, Jewel Osco, located six blocks from my apartment. These stores are within easy walking distance, but I still have to pay attention to how much food I am buying at one time in order to get it all home by foot. I usually pick up groceries two or three times a week, depending on how much cooking I am doing. One benefit to this system is that I can pick up fresh produce in small quantities and enjoy it at peak flavor and freshness. The downside is that I feel like I am constantly running out of staple ingredients and it’s very hard for me to stock up on good pantry items like canned tomatoes and beans.

I have had the best of intentions to make more dishes off of my Summer Cooking Wish List. I’ve made so little progress with that list it’s pathetic: there are only nine things on the list! And one of them is fresh fruit! But I’ve been busy and a bit disorganized, so the Wish List has remained more of a fantasy than a reality. For the past several weeks, the reality has been that I have managed to eat mostly home-cooked meals by cobbling together a meal from whatever I happen to have in the kitchen, even if it meant dipping into ingredients that I had earmarked for specific cooking projects. Earlier this week I bought most of the ingredients to make Lunar Gazpacho, but I forgot one critical ingredient: plain yogurt. It was on my grocery list, but I had listed it under the Wild Oats section rather than the Jewel section, so when I stopped at Jewel on my way home from work, I didn’t see yogurt on my list. To further complicate matters, I needed some sort of a salad to accompany my pasta for lunch on Friday, and I was tired of lettuce-and-carrot salads, so I made a salad with honeydew melon, seedless cucumber, and green leaf lettuce. The salad was delicious, very light and refreshing. Unfortunately, the melon and cucumber were supposed to be used in Lunar Gazpacho, so now I have to backtrack and buy another cucumber in addition to plain yogurt before I can try out my Lunar Gazpacho. But fear not: I will complete the Summer Cooking Wish List before the end of summer and I will make Lunar Gazpacho before this weekend ends!

Friday, August 17, 2007

What’s In Your Spice Rack?

The September 2007 issue of Vegetarian Times is turning out to be quite the treasure trove of goodies for me! First I just had to try the Basic Vegan Sugar Cookies, and now I have to throw in my two cents’ worth about the article from whence that recipe came: “Spice Things Up.” It’s a minimalist’s guide on how to equip your spice rack for fully functional cooking. Although my spice collection could hardly be called minimalist, I loved this article for its back-to-basics approach. The author, Tony Hill, suggests the following five spices are the essentials: black pepper, cinnamon, cumin, “herb blend,” and paprika. Personally, I think the “herb blend” answer is cheating because you’re really including multiple herbs in one answer. The point is that you can buy an herb blend at the grocery store for less than it takes to buy the contents of the herb blend individually. And paprika? It’s an odd choice to me, but then again perhaps my paprika is underused. And the article does provide an intriguing recipe for Paprika Cauliflower Pita Pockets. I do enjoy cauliflower and pita, so I might have to try this one myself. Prove your worth, paprika!

But enough digressing! I asked myself what spices I would count among my top five. I declared the use of blends illegal just for the added challenge. I also did not count salt as an herb or a spice, although it is certainly an essential seasoning for good cooking.

What are my essential five herbs or spices? Check it out:

1) Black pepper: Salt’s best friend. Both freshly ground, of course.
2) Cinnamon: I love cinnamon. I use it every day on my cereal, I sprinkle it on ground coffee before brewing to infuse some cinnamon spiciness into my latte, and I use it often in baking. Cinnamon adds a rich spiciness to brownies and other chocolatey baked goods. Cinnamon is fantastic.
3) Basil: Since I have banned the use of herb blends, I have to pick just one green herb. Basil is a classic and it really perks up pasta, which I eat often (hey, I’m a grad student).
4) Cumin: I cook a lot of stews inspired by Mexican or American Southwest cooking. Cumin is an essential flavor to these cuisines, so I go through my cumin stash fairly quickly.
5) Red crushed chile peppers: Several years ago I bought my first jar of these guys for a red lentil dal that I wanted to make. Since then, I have come to realize what a wonderful ingredient this is. Red crushed chile peppers are spicy hot. Just a fraction of a teaspoon adds an undeniable kick to chilis and pastas. I especially like them on macaroni and cheese, which I now find too bland without something spicy to perk it up. I also really like the little rectangular glass jar in which my peppers came.

Notice that some of my essential spices can be used together with good results. For chili, combine the black pepper, cumin, and red crushed chile peppers. For a slightly spicy Italian dish, use the basil with black pepper and perhaps red crushed chile peppers. If only my fridge weren’t ready to burst right now, I would run into the kitchen and whip something up right now!

So what are YOUR essential five?

Bastardized Basic Vegan Sugar Cookies: Variations

I have a habit now of making a batch of cookie dough, cooking a sheet or two of cookies, and then stashing the rest of the dough in the fridge for later use. I do actually bake the dough later: while I enjoy the occasional spoonful of raw cookie dough, I like warm cookies straight from the oven even better. Baking is a mysterious alchemy.

I had some leftover dough from the Basic Vegan Sugar Cookies, and I decided to see what these babies can do. I came up with the following three super-easy variations, one of which is still vegan as I made it. Vegans, if you have vegan chocolate chips and/or vegan chocolate kisses, feel free to make the appropriate substitutions.

Variation One: Strawberry Thumbprints
Additional ingredients: Strawberry jam, ½ tsp. per cookie

Prepare cookie dough as directed in the master recipe up to placing the dough balls on a greased cookie sheet. Use your index finger (my thumb was too big, but feel free to use your thumb to give more authenticity to the name!) to poke a small but deep hole into the middle of the dough balls. Don’t poke your finger all the way through; try to get it to the middle of the dough. Add ~1/2 tsp. of strawberry jam to the hole. Bake cookies as directed in the master recipe.

Variation Two: Chocolate Peanut Butter Thumbprints
Additional ingredients: Creamy peanut butter, ½ tsp per cookie, and mini chocolate chips, ¼ tsp. per cookie

Follow the instructions above for the Strawberry Thumbprints but don’t fill the hole. Instead, bake the cookies with the hole poked in the middle. When the cookies are done baking, leave them on their baking sheet and add the filling: ¼ tsp. min chocolate chips followed by ½ tsp. of peanut butter. Remove cookies from the baking sheet and cool on a wire rack.

Variation Three: Chocolate Kiss Cookies
Additional ingredients: Original Hershey’s Chocolate Kisses, 1 per cookie (or a vegan substitution if available)

I admit it: I stole this recipe idea from the classic peanut butter chocolate kiss cookie recipe, which I adore. But I had some leftover chocolate kisses in my pantry that I was trying to use, and I couldn’t resist pairing them with my sugar cookie dough. This plainer variation of the classic is really good.

Prepare and bake cookies as directed in the master recipe. Before you take the cookies out of the oven, unwrap the chocolate kisses and have them ready to use when the cookies come out. After removing the cookies from the oven, place the cookie sheet on a wire rack. Firmly place a chocolate kiss in the middle of each cookie, pressing down slightly until the cookie’s edges crack just a little. Remove cookies from the baking sheet and cool on a wire rack.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Basic Vegan Sugar Cookies

I did a flurry of cooking this weekend, and all of it was delicious! I only tried one new recipe, though: a stripped-down version of a cookie recipe in the new issue of Vegetarian Times. The fun part is that this is a vegan recipe, which simply means that it doesn’t contain any ingredients that are derived from animals. In terms of cookies, this means no eggs, butter, or milk. While I do not follow a vegan diet (technically, I am a lacto-ovo vegetarian, which is a fancy way of saying I eat dairy and eggs), I have a THING for vegan cookies. Vegan cookies tend to be soft and cakey, which I really like. The tricky part with vegan cookies is finding a good way to make sure the dough holds together when you combine the wet and the dry ingredients. In the Basic Vegan Sugar Cookies that follow, my guess is that the cornstarch functions as the binder.

These cookies are tasty and adorable. I found them to be soft, cakey, and sweet but not too sweet. They melt in your mouth and make the perfect light, after-dinner dessert. I imagine they would pair well with fresh fruit. And of course you should drink a big mug of your favorite tea while you eat them!

This recipe is very closely adapted from a recipe for Vegan Snickerdoodles in the September 2007 issue of Vegetarian Times.

Basic Vegan Sugar Cookies

1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup cornstarch
1 tsp. baking powder
1 stick (4 oz. or ½ cup) vegan margarine, softened (I like Earth Balance brand Natural Buttery Sticks)
¾ cup light brown sugar
¼ cup soymilk, vanilla or plain (I used plain)
1 tsp. real vanilla extract

1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly spray a baking sheet with cooking spray.
2) Stir together flour, cornstarch, and baking powder in a bowl.
3) In a separate bowl, use an electric mixer to beat the margarine to soften it (this step was a bit tricky for me, as most of the margarine got stuck in the beaters. Even if that happens to you, carry on; your cookie dough should be fine because when you add the sugar, the margarine will become unstuck and blend into the sugar). Add the sugar to the margarine and beat to combine well. Add the soymilk and vanilla to the margarine-sugar mixture and beat for another 30 seconds or so to combine until smooth.
4) Add the flour mixture to the margarine mixture and beat for about 30 seconds to make a smooth thick batter.
5) Use your hands to shape the batter into 1- to 1.5-inch balls. Place the balls on the prepared baking sheet and bake for 10-12 minutes until cookies look a bit dry on top. Try not to overbake them. Cool cookies on sheets for a minute or two and then transfer them to wire racks to cool completely. Cookies can be stored at room temperature in an airtight container for at least three days with no loss of flavor or texture.