January 2010

This past weekend found me on the eastern side of the state in Richmond visiting my uncle and his new wife (they just got married in November). We spent the weekend walking through the James River Park, watching kayakers brave the urban rapids, and I got to see the spot they got married at (right on the river–so beautiful!), and, of course, we ate a lot of good food. Most of it was home cooked, but with a chef uncle it’s hard not to eat well. The one dinner we had was at The Black Sheep on West Marshall Street near VCU.

The NY Times’ 36 Hours in Richmond billed the restaurant as one of the best places for brunch featuring ridiculously huge sandwiches named after Civil War era battleships, but I decided to go for a more refined dinner option–Bucatini alla Funghi (bucatini passed tossed with portobello mushrooms and kale) and a glass of wine. The pasta was perfectly cooked and with kale and mushrooms you can’t go wrong, but the mushroom and pepper filled tamale stole the show for me. Few places ever make a vegetarian, let alone vegan, tamale, so I may have been biased by the fact that they simply serve it, but the mole, although inauthentic, was bright and complemented the tamale well. On the wine front, I was disappointed to find that all the wines were from elsewhere, but my Washington shiraz was quite good. Being in Virginia with all our stellar wineries, they really ought to serve local wine, but I guess some restaurants just aren’t there yet (get with the picture folks!). My only complaints were that they won’t serve you until your entire party arrives, and given that parking is a pain in the ass near VCU, we had to stand awkwardly by the front door until my uncle made it. The place is cozy–which really meant that we were in the way–and while I love staring at and being stared at by people trying to enjoy a meal, it really put me in a sour mood. (I should mention that there were two open tables and we were the only ones waiting…) Actually, the service was pretty bad over all. They server, although cute and perky, gave us our appetizers and then abandoned us until she brought out the main course, not checking to see if we needed more water or another beer or glass of wine. Bad business practice, if you ask me. But, hey, I’ll focus on the food, and it was good. My uncle ordered the Rebel Pot Roast which featured beef roast with veggies in a peach bourbon sauce with cheese grits and Priscilla, his wife, ordered the Chicken and Dumplings. All of our entries were portioned generously and if I ate meat I think I’d be into the pot roast. Slices of peaches were actually in the sauce–heavenly! Both of them genuinely enjoyed their entrees and we were all a bit disappointed that we were way too stuffed to try dessert. Next time. So overall, great food, wonderful ambiance, but fairly slack service. I’ll give it a 3.5 out of 5.

The main reason I was in Richmond, though, other than visiting family, was to drop off my mom’s (and my) Christmas gifts. You know, Christmas in January. Given that I’ve been really tight on money, my gifts were uniform–everyone got a jar of apple butter, a jar of pumpkin butter, and a medium cutting board made from local trees by a local artisan. I loved giving everyone something I’d made, and the cutting boards are exquisite. When I can afford one for myself I’ll post a picture.

The pumpkin butter, compared to the apple butter, is much easier to make–especially if you start out with canned pumpkin. But even roasting the pumpkins myself, I found the process fairly simple: roast, process, cook, can. The cooking time is much shorter than apple and it’s easier to get the right consistency, and, the thing I love the most about pumpkin butter is that it makes everything taste like a piece of pumpkin pie. Who doesn’t love a little pie for breakfast?

Pumpkin Butter

adapted from Smitten Kitchen

3 medium sugar pumpkins
3/4 c water
1 1/3 c brown sugar
2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
juice of 1/2 a lemon

Preheat the oven to 400 F.

Carve top off of pumpkins and scoop out seeds and stringy insides. Slice in half and put them flesh side down in a baking dish with 1/4 inch of water in the bottom. Roast for 35-45 minutes until tender when poked with a fork.

Scoop the pumpkin flesh into a large pot (you want approx. 3 1/2 cups). Add the remaining ingredients (except the lemon juice) and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 30-45 minutes or until thickened. Adjust spices to taste and add the lemon juice.

Pour into hot, sterilized jars and seal. If you plan to store the apple butter un-refrigerated, make sure to follow proper canning procedures.

Makes 6 pints.

Chocolate is the only defense against 33 degrees F and steady rain. It’s seriously the most disgusting weather ever. And to hear my mother talk about how it’s a steamy 75 degrees in Mobile? Well…instead of flying down there to murder her, I decided to temper my feelings of ill will by baking up a comforting, cakey batch of cranberry pecan brownies. While you can bake them in a 8×8 pan, the cast iron skillet really helps the brownies bake evenly and helps produce the cakey quality of the batch. Am I still cold, yes. But am I a bit more comforted? Of course!  And now I’m off to put on another layer of socks.  (shiver)

Cranberry Pecan Skillet Brownies

adapted from Martha Stewart

1 c sugar
3/4 c vegan yogurt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 c all-purpose flour
1/4 c Dutch-process cocoa powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
4 tbsp (1/2 stick) vegan margarine
1/4 c nondairy milk (I used soy)
8 oz semisweet baking chocolate, coarsely chopped
1/2 c pecans, chopped
1/2 c dried cranberries, soaked in hot water, then drained

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, whisk together sugar, soy yogurt, and vanilla. In another bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt.

In an 8 or 9 inch cast iron skillet, bring margarine and nondairy milk to a simmer over medium heat. Add chocolate; reduce to medium-low. Cook, stirring constantly, until chocolate has melted, about 1 minute. Remove from heat, and let cool 5 minutes.

Add chocolate mixture to sugar mixture, whisking until blended (reserve skillet). Fold in flour mixture. Mix in pecans and cranberries. Pour batter into skillet.

Bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Serve from skillet, warm or at room temperature.

Who doesn’t like vegan balls?

Jokes aside, I do have an affinity for foods in compact, cute shapes–and round, ballish ones definitely hit the cute mark. Plus, bite-sized bites are always a good thing at potlucks or for a quick snack. So, ages ago back during MoFo, when Jessy posted one of her many delicious looking vegan ball recipes, I bookmarked it and knew I’d be back eventually to give it a whirl. Then, the other week, our weekly potluck decided to have a themed “gluten-free phallic and vegan balls” potluck in honor of a few folk’s birthdays. Vegan balls, here we go!

It was fun to log into Google Reader and search for “butternut balls” under “starred items.” Who else can have this much fun cooking? Martha Stewart, Alton Brown (actually, he might–he is Alton Brown), Stefan from last year’s Top Chef? Trust me, bookmark a “balls” recipe and then search for it months later–it’ll make you feel badass about life. Anyways, so I found the recipe and then, per usual, set to changing it up a bit. For potluck I actually made acorn squash-scallion-maple-kale balls and served them with a side of the kimchi reduction. They were an instant hit! For these, however, I used roasted sweet potato and sauteed kale. Without the maple syrup but with caramelized onions, these balls maintained a natural sweetness with and earthy, roasted tone. On top of spaghetti and almost meaty mushroom sauce or served with a dipping sauce, these balls really shine. Plus you get to tell everyone that you’re serving vegan balls–snickering is good for you, embrace you’re inner middle school child!

Sweet Potato Kale Balls

2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
1 medium onion, chopped
5-6 leaves of kale, chopped into small pieces
3 cloves garlic, minced
olive oil
1/4 c cornmeal

Preheat the oven to 400.

On a baking tray, place the sweet potato chunks. Drizzle olive oil (approx. 1 tbsp) and sprinkle salt and pepper over them (approx. 1/2 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp pepper). Toss with your hands to completely cover the chunks with oil and bake for 20-30 minutes, until soft when poked with a fork. Remove from oven, set aside.

Meanwhile, heat 2 tsp olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and caramelize by lowering the heat and stirring every 3 minutes to brown evenly. Once the onions are caramelized,bring the heat back to medium and add the garlic and saute for 1 minute, until aromatic. Add the kale pieces and saute for 5 minutes, until the kale is tender. Remove from heat.

In a medium bowl, smash the sweet potatoes with a fork or a pastry cutter (I’ve found the latter works well). Mix in the kale and onions and combine completely.

Form the mixture into balls. Place the cornmeal in a bowl and then roll each ball in the cornmeal to cover completely.

Oil your baking sheet and place the balls on the sheet. Bake for 25-30 minutes, flipping the balls over after 15 minutes, until lightly brown on all sides. Let cool, then serve.

Makes 15-20 balls, depending on size.

Some people have exciting lives–they go out, they read a book, they spend time with a significant other. Me? Well, Tuesday night found me alone in the kitchen with a giant vat of mushroom sauce. I suppose a Friday night pasta sauce date would have been a teeny bit more absurd, but as I was stirring and tasting and adding a bit more salt every thirty minutes or so, I realized how ridiculous I must look to any outsider. There’s only one of me and I’d filled my 8 quart pot to the gills with tomatoes, mushrooms, peppers, wine, and coffee.

Coffee, you ask? I wish I could tell you a bit more about the science behind it, but the coffee does add a nice mellow bitter taste to the sauce. It actually counteracts some of the acid in the tomatoes and wine. The other ingredients are fairly standard. The main component, of course, is love. And time. Lots of time. Be sure to set aside at least four hours to simmer this baby down to deliciousness–and then be prepared to bag or quart jar it for the freezer. I ended up with seven quarts of sauce, which, well, is more than enough for my single self for quite some time. But gosh darn is it delicious.

Almost Meaty Mushroom Sauce

1 tbsp olive oil
3 medium-large onions, chopped
1 large green bell pepper, chopped
1 large red bell pepper, chopped
6 cloves garlic chopped
3 28 oz can diced tomatoes
24 oz tomato sauce
18 oz tomato paste
1 1/2 c red wine
1/3 c brewed coffee
1 tbsp oregano
1 tbsp basil
1 tbsp Italian seasoning
1/2 tbsp red pepper flakes
1 tbsp salt + more to taste
1/2 tsp freshly grated pepper + more to taste
24 oz mixed mushrooms, chopped (I used 8 oz white button, 16 oz portobello)

In a large (and I mean large) pot, heat the olive oil. Add the onions and peppers and cook for 5 minutes, until the onions begin to turn translucent. Add the garlic and cook for 1 more minute until fragrant.

Add the diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato paste, red wine, brewed coffee, and herbs, salt, and pepper. Stir to combine.

Add the chopped mushrooms.

Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer. Simmer uncovered for 2-3 hours, until the sauce cooks down to a desired thickness. Let cool, then store in jars or freezer grade plastic bags in the freezer.

Makes 6-7 quarts.

Thanks for all the love regarding Sheba you guys. As empty as the house seems, everyone appears to be settling into more or less of a two cat routine. I’m not sure if it’s Sheba being gone or the ridiculous cold, but both Mistoffelees and Dorian have been uber clingy as of late–something I love at night because they keep me warm, but something that can be a bit of a pain when I’m trying to get work done. You know how cats have that way of always plopping down on the book you’re reading or sticking their butts in front of your computer screen? It’s getting out of control here. (smile)

In other news, I went on a long, ice and snow encrusted winter adventure yesterday! My friend E. (who recently thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail) is leaving town indefinitely for New Zealand, so we decided to do one last tromp through the woods up to Apple Orchard Falls. We had good intentions of hiking the long loop, but when the road to the trailhead was a bit too icy for my poor little Honda Civic to handle, we just hiked the up to the falls and back hike in addition to the long long long walk up the road and back. (I just looked up the mileage and it turns out the road was 3 miles long and the hike was 3 miles, so that’s 9 miles total–eep!)

The hike was fantastic–the day was warmer than it’s been in ages, which probably means it was a super high of 28 degrees or something–even thought the terrain was a bit difficult (very icy–I had a few spectacular falls), and the waterfall was gorgeous in its liminal half frozen-half liquid state. Right now I’m still a bit sore, messed up a muscle in one calf, but I’m glad we decided to brave the snow and ice to hit up a fantastic, quiet, challenging hike.

As far as food goes, nothing too spectacular has been in the works here. I made a variation of Jessy’s butternut maple scallion balls for potluck on Sunday and right now I have a vat of mushroom tomato sauce bubbling, but I’ve mostly been eating off of my lentil soup and these fantastic crepes.

I posted a recipe for gluten-free buckwheat crepes back in October, but this week I decided to go back to the recipe and make a few changes (and make them super savory!). When I originally adapted the recipe from Monica at SmarterFitter I simply changed the all purpose flour to all purpose gluten-free flour. I didn’t like the extra chickpea flour that added in though, so this time I substituted brown rice flour for the all purpose gluten-free mix. I like the prefer the less beany smell and flavor, and the rice flour gave the crepes a nice tooth. These particular crepes I filled with caramelized onions and sauted garlic, kale, and portobello mushrooms. Topped with Monica’s Cashew Gravy and served with a side of Green Bean Casserole Redux, the meal was quite light and satisfying.

Savory Gluten-Free Buckwheat Crepes

adapted from SmarterFitter

1 1/2 c + 2 tbsp soy milk
1/4 c water
1/2 c buckwheat flour
1/4 c brown rice flour
1/4 c chickpea flour
1 tbsp cornstarch
1/2 tsp salt
vegetable oil

Whisk together all of the ingredients Let the batter rest for at least an hour.

Lightly oil an 8- or 10-inch nonstick/cast iron skillet and place over medium heat.

Pour a couple of tablespoons of batter into the skillet. Swirl it around so that it forms a thin layer on the bottom of the pan. (If the crepes aren’t thin enough, add a little more milk to the batter.)

When the top of the crepe is dry, after about a minute, flip and cook the other side for 15 to 30 seconds. (The crepes should brown only very slightly and not be at all crisp.)

Stack the crepes on a plate as you make them. You can keep them warm in a low oven while you make the remaining crepes. Or freeze the leftover crepes, separating each crepes with a piece of parchment paper.

Makes about 10 crepes

It’s been a bit of a crazy week since I flew home from Alabama, and while I’ve been settling back into somewhat of a routine, some major changes have taken place. Reading Jessy’s post about getting unstuck and looking for the good side of life was really inspiring as I started off the week because, honestly, I didn’t have much to be thankful or grateful for.

When I went to Alabama, I left a rather sick cat behind. Sheba, the oldest cat of the bunch (13 going on 14), has been in my life since I was 9. She was my cat, the one my mother let me pick out and name and carry from the breeder to the car, the cat who, when I start reading poetry aloud, curls up in my lap and purrs. While she never had the loudest personality, she was a cat who was always there, always loving, and always glaring at the camera. But her mouth had been deteriorating over the last few months, and with no money to spend on expensive surgeries, I just let it go as long as possible. When I got home, however, she’d lost at least two pounds (which is a lot for a small cat) and was in major pain. I hand fed her wet food, read her poetry, and spent as much time as I could with her before taking her to the vet. At the vet I learned she had a massive tumor under her tongue and there were no options. So, cradling her in my arms, I had to let her go. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve had to do, and, to be honest, I’ve never wanted someone to be with me more than then.

It’s been quiet here lately, and a bit empty. But Mistoffelees and Dorian definitely pick up the slack–even though M. still looks a little confused with Sheba gone. It’s one of those times I wish we could really communicate with each other. But, on the good side, Sheba lived a good, full life and I truly believe we made each others’ lives a bit more wonderful. I miss the old girl, but I’m not sad to know she is no longer in pain. As good of a face as she put on, I know it couldn’t have been easy with a mouth tumor and I only wish I’d known about it sooner.

On the other good sides of things, I am in the hiring process for the city of Roanoke public schools. Come February I’m going to be a substitute teacher! While it might not seem like the best job (I’m sure it’s going to be hell)–I mean, didn’t we all try to make our substitute teachers’ lives awful???–I’m excited to see how teaching is with middle school and high school students, especially as I try to decide what direction I’m going to take with further grad school or trying to find a job.

Given the hecticness, I haven’t been cooking too much, just eating a lot of salads and frozen soup and chili, but yesterday I did manage to cook up a big pot of clean-out-the-pantry soup. It didn’t exactly clean out my pantry (that’d be impossible), but it is composed of ingredients found only in my pantry/fridge/freezer. And the fun part is, I normally don’t like lentil soup–but I love this soup! It’s so simple, but so flavorful, and the green lentils give it a nice texture. Perfect for the wintry weather we’re all experiencing, I’d recommend a pantry soup like this–especially paired with cornbread or biscuits!

Simple Lentil Soup

1 onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 carrots, peeled and sliced into rounds
1 large sweet potato, peeled and diced
2 c green lentils, rinsed and picked over for stones/debris
2 c mild greens, chopped (I used Chinese cabbage, but kale, spinach, or chard would be great)
6 c vegetable broth (I used a mix of veg, “beef,” and “chicken”)
salt & pepper to taste
2 tbsp olive oil

In a large pot, saute the onions and carrots in the olive oil until tender. Add the garlic and sweet potato, and cook for 2 minutes more.

Add the lentils, vegetable broth, and a dash of salt and pepper, and bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer.

Cook for 1 hour, or until the lentils and vegetables are tender.

Add salt and pepper as needed (I used about 2 tsp of salt total).

Add the greens and cook for 3-5 minutes until tender. Serve with bread.

Early Monday morning I fly back to the mountains and I must admit that I’m ready to be back home.  It’s been good down here, warming up on the Gulf coast and being with my mom, but I miss my bed, my pantry, and swimming.  Two weeks of little to no exercise and eating way too much food makes a not-so-fit and not-so-happy me.  Getting back into my routine will be oh-so-wonderful!

But we’ve been having fun–including my first motorcycle ride last Sunday. That’s me and my mom hamming it up for the camera. Her fiance has been outfitting her in leather and Harley jackets and other paraphernalia, and it’s pretty funny to watch, given that she’s never been a motorcycle type person ever in her life. And surprisingly, I even had fun.

Oh, and we checked out the infamous double decker mobile home–it’s for sale, any takers?

And for a few days we went to Cheaha State Park up in the mountains in Alabama–yup, Alabama has mountains, I totally forgot about that–and I drove down to Birmingham to check out Jones Valley Urban Farm. Located in the northern section of Birmingham, the farm is pretty cool: 3 acres of mixed farm production and community garden plots, a large number of educational programs with over 70 kids visiting the farm daily during school, and a place with a huge impact–tons of community gardens have developed as a result of the farm. Oh, and a 10 month growing season (if not year-round)–holy cow, awesome! The farm is a really inspiring place and I highly recommend anyone checking it out who is in the area.

But in food-related news, how about some carbs? I know, I know, it’s January and we’re all feeling a little over-fed. Bread might not be on the to-make list, and these aren’t revolutionary, they’re just Celine’s Sauerkraut Rye Bread that I made last February. But a newish bread recipe is always a good thing, right? By substituting the buckwheat for rye, the rolls have a bit less of a bite, but are delightfully dense. Not dense in a bad way, but dense in a toothsome crumb kind of way. The sauerkraut lends a moistening element to the rolls without being overpowering–in fact, no one noticed that there was anything “different” in the rolls. And I certainly didn’t tell the kids what the mystery ingredient was. If formed into a loaf, I’d bet that the bread would make a perfect sandwich base–maybe for fakeloaf sandwiches? Rolls or bread loaves, the bread was a perfect accompaniment to a potluck meal, and while not gluten-free, they’d satisfy any vegan or omnivore.

Buckwheat Sauerkraut Rolls

1 1/2 tsp active dry yeast
3/4 c warm water
1 c well-drained sauerkraut
1 tbsp molasses
1 tbsp vegan margarine, melted
2 tbsp light brown sugar, packed
1 tsp sea salt
1 c buckwheat flour
1 c whole wheat flour
1 1/4 c bread flour

Proof the yeast in the water for 10 minutes or so, until the yeast becomes bubbly and foamy.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the sauerkraut, molasses, suger, and salt. Mix in the proofed yeast.

Add the buckwheat flour and whole wheat flour and mix with a spoon until a dough forms. Dump the dough onto a well-floured surface and knead in the remaining bread flour. You will need to knead for 5-10 minutes. (If using an electric mixer, knead for 5-7 with the dough hook until a smooth ball forms.)

Place the dough in an oiled bowl, cover with a towel, and place in a warm corner of the kitchen for 1-2 hours, or until the dough has doubled in size.

Punch down the dough and transfer it to an oiled loaf pan, if making a loaf. To make the rolls, divide into 12 even pieces and pinch into round balls. Place on an oiled baking sheet. Cover again with the towel and place in a warm corner for 1 hour, or until the dough has doubled in size again.

Once the dough has doubled, preheat the oven to 350 F.

Bake the loaf at 350 for 45 minutes-1 hour or the rolls 35-40 minutes. You will know when the loaf/rolls are baked when you tap/knock your knuckles on the top of the loaf and it sounds hollow. Allow to cool 15-20 minutes.

Makes 1 loaf or 12 rolls.

I hope you all are having a relaxing New Year’s Day. Can you believe it’s 2010 already? I’m having too good of a day to look back on what happened over the past year, but I do know it was utterly delicious. Looking forward to the coming year, I’m excited to see what you all cook up and share! Until then, I’m going to sit here and sip my mimosa and re-watch Grizzly Man.  Happy happy happy New Year!