February 23, 2012

Hosting a dinner party calmly

leftover polenta casserole with extra spinach
Does hosting dinner parties make you happy or a nervous wreck? For me, it's a little of both. I want to cook for a crowd, but the actual process often seems overwhelming, even when the recipes I'm considering aren't overly complex. First there's deciding what to serve, then the list-making and shopping for ingredients, and of course, more-careful-than-usual housecleaning. I'm always looking for ways to streamline the preparations and make the experience less stressful, but less-stressful  doesn't necessarily translate into less time-consuming. I prefer to stretch out and slow down the preparations, if time permits.

Last weekend I hosted a dinner for nine that was relatively relaxing to prepare, and very satisfying to eat. I spread the cooking over two days — preparing some foods on Saturday to be reheated Sunday so I wouldn't feel rushed. My husband was out of town until Sunday, so I had the kitchen to myself, and no set meals to worry about. I accepted offers from guests to bring food, and I used some store-bought prepared foods to make the cooking a little easier. Chickpeas were soaked on Friday then cooked overnight in the slow cooker. Late Saturday afternoon I prepared chola tikki and soup. For the soup, I cooked and puréed the veggies but didn't add any seasonings, because seasonings can loose their spark in the fridge overnight. I spent about four hours, on and off, cutting and cooking.

Late Sunday morning, I made the cabbage slaw so it could marinate. Also, English cucumber quick pickles, and green onion salsa. After assorted chores and setting the table, my husband and I went for a one hour walk. When we got back about 4 p.m., I made guacamole, pine nut crema, and got the polenta baking. I cut carrot sticks, filled dishes with olives and tomatoes, and warmed up and seasoned the soup. One of the guests was bringing cookies, so my husband made a fruit salad  to accompany them, and washed the mushrooms before I sliced them  for the polenta casserole. 

Just before the company arrived we set out h'ors d'oeuvres, and were able to relax with our guests until my last minute cooking of the mushroom and spinach topping for the casserole. I was so involved with the event that I completely forgot to take photos until one of the guests mentioned it, and I just managed to snap a few bad photos of the food as an afterthought. Too bad, because it was pretty. I made way too much as usual. Here's the menu and information about the recipes:

Appetizers
calamata olives (from my giant Costco jar), grape tomatoes in a bowl, carrot sticks, guacamole, crackers (Trader Joe's savory rice crackers), edamame hummus (Trader Joe's)

Soup
potato soup inspired by this one from oh ladycakes. My soup had  yukon gold potatoes, sweet potatoes, celery, onion, carrots and cauliflower. I puréed it smooth and creamy and added lots of lemon juice. It was seasoned with hickory smoked salt and fresh-ground black pepper, and drizzled with sriracha. (I use Shark brand sriracha from Thailand. It's a little sweeter than Rooster brand, and doesn't contain preservatives.) The soup in the picture is actually from microwaved leftovers I ate the next day, and contained leftover crema as well as sriracha. (I added the crema before heating, the sriracha, after.) It was beyond amazing with the crema.

Main course 
chola tikki from this recipe, made the day before the dinner. (I previously wrote about chola tikki, here.) I added coriander and turmeric to my chola tikki, and sautéed them on a cast iron griddle before refrigerating them. I made them about 2-inches in diameter and about 1/2-inch thick. The next day I heated them on a sheet pan in the oven for 15 minutes at 350˚F and they came out perfectly crisp and delicious. The tikki were served with the amazing green onion salsa from "Viva Vegan" by Terry Hope Romero. The salsa is very versatile and goes with many styles of food.

cabbage salad. A simple salad of shredded red and green cabbage, carrots, a bit of kale, and red onion mixed together with a unique dressing from the Gentrified Coleslaw recipe in "Celebrate Vegan" by Dynise Balcavage. There are a couple of unique, unexpected ingredients in the dressing that indeed elevate the salad to new heights. So good.

baked polenta casserole. The basic polenta is based on a recipe from "Passionate Vegetarian" by Crescent Dragonwagon. In this case I used 1 cup of coarse cornmeal, 4-1/2 cups water and 1 teaspoon salt. I baked this in a 10x13 ceramic casserole (measured on the bottom=9x11) that holds 2-3/4 quarts. I baked it 40 minutes at 350˚F, then removed it from the oven and gave it a stir, put it back and baked about 20 more minutes until it was thick and set. I removed it from the oven, spread a layer of Trader Joe's salt-free organic marinara sauce over the top, added a layer of pine nut crema*, and returned it to the oven for 30 to 40 minutes. Meantime, I used the recipe for Spinach With Pine Nuts and Raisins from "The Urban Vegan," except dried cranberries instead of raisins and a LOT of thickly sliced baby bella mushrooms. I cooked the mushrooms first, then added the spinach at the last minute to wilt it before topping the polenta with the spinach and mushrooms and serving the casserole. Even as leftovers, which you see at the top of the page, this casserole was great. I made two of these but one would have been enough. Now we have lots of frozen casserole in the freezer.

quick pickles from cukes and roots. Brought by a guest, and delicious.

quick cucumber and red onion pickles. Made by me and very plain.

Dessert
cookies from "Vegan Cookies Take Over the World," brought by a guest.
fruit salad.

*Pine Nut Crema is from Viva Vegan, and is amazing. I used a modified version that contained only pine nuts, almond milk, garlic, lime juice, oil, starch and salt, and is much thinner than the original, but I imagine the original version is fabulous. One of these days I'm going to make enchiladas with the real crema recipe.

Overall, I'd say the dinner turned out very well, and I wasn't stressed-out and exhausted. The cleanup was pretty easy since everything had been made in stages and dishes and pans cleaned as I went along. Managing the kitchen clutter goes a long way towards keeping things calm, and is especially helpful when kitchen space is limited. (It also helps a lot to have a kitchen slave who does your bidding.)

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Budding ballerina
photo by Kate
On Saturday afternoon, before I started cooking, I took my granddaughter to her first ballet class. She's a very outgoing child, but new situations can throw her, and it took all her courage to let go of me and join the class. But she did it, and had a great time. This weekend when her mom takes her to class, she'll have a leotard, tights and shoes just like everyone else. :)

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February flowers


It may be February, cold, rainy and gloomy, but flowers are blooming in my backyard!

February 18, 2012

Sprouted beans

About two years ago I wrote a humorous post about going to Costco for the first time and spending $100 on crazily big sizes of foods we may or may not have needed — or been able to consume. Well, it seems especially appropriate for a food blogger to eat her words when she has a big change of heart about something, and I solemnly do eat my words about Costco. We joined. And now we routinely run out of things we buy there and go back. On purpose.

This won't be a post about all the stuff we get there (even things like organic hemp seeds!) but specifically about a three-pound bag of something called truRoots sprouted beans that I bought on a whim, and really like. Note the words in the top right hand corner. Yes, my friends, these dried, sprouted beans are supposed to cook in 15 minutes. And they taste good, too. Notice I didn't say they were cheap. On their Web page it says:

"TruRoots Organic Sprouted Bean Trio is a unique colorful and delicious blend of nutritious sprouted lentils, mung, and adzuki beans. Sprouting is a technique of traditional cultures that boosts the nutritional profile–increasing vitamins and micronutrients. The process results in pre-digestion of complex proteins, starches and lipids, converting them into simple and essential components that make these beans much easier to digest. We sprout and dehydrate the highest-quality beans and lentils, awakening their flavor and preserving healthful benefits. truRoots low-temperature drying keeps them packed with power. Lower in sodium and higher in nutrition than canned beans, truRoots Organic Sprouted Bean Trio is a healthy choice. Versatile, convenient, and quick, truRoots Organic Sprouted Bean Trio is ready in 15 minutes. Or slowly simmer in a soup or stew. Try it in salads, grain dishes, burritos, casseroles, stuffings or your favorite bean dish."

Are the beans really more nutritious and easier to digest? I don't know, but I do know I can cook these beans quickly, they taste great, and they don't come in a can. Here's what I did with them.


First, of course, I followed the directions on the bag and cooked them in a pot, adding a cube of Rapunzel no-salt-added bouillon to the cooking water. Then, when they were done, inspired by this post by Zoa, I put them into a casserole dish, and layered some red salsa on top. Next came lots of fresh spinach. Then I added a layer a homemade corn chips (Mine were seasoned with the leftover crumbs from a bag of kale chips.) and a coating of pine nut crema (without the tofu) loosely based on the one in Viva Vegan. The whole thing was then baked in the oven for about 40 minutes.

Out of the oven, all hot and gooey (kind of gooey, anyway), it was deliciously satisfying. (And gluten-free.) If this sort of layered casserole interests you, I highly recommend checking out Zoa's much more exciting version. And I can't recommend the pine nut crema highly enough — it was great! (And now I have something to make with the giant bag of pine nuts I got at Costco. Hohoho.)

All joking and word-eating aside, we do find a lot of good deals on staples (kalamata olives are staples, right?) and veggies at Costco. Here's a tasty something made from baby bok choy, grape tomatoes, baby bella mushrooms, olives and soy curls. The soy curls are the only food in the dish not from Costco. Mostly we shop at the co-op or Whole Foods, but about once every month or two, Costco beckons.

Lest you wonder if either Costco or truRoots had any monetary influence on my commentary, they did not. No samples or free memberships were exchanged in the writing of this post. Darn.

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Top 31
Just in case you voted for me in the Circle of Mom's top 25, and are wondering how it all turned out, I didn't make it into the top 25, but I did manage the top 31! Thanks for your votes, and congratulations to the top 25 winners! They all deserved to have a top spot.

February 14, 2012

Hearts

Happy Valentine's Day!

Over the weekend I visited a magical place in Seattle called Bedrock. They manufacture artful objects from 100% recycled glass. In addition to garden art, window treatments and various items like coasters, jewelry, etc., they sell materials for glass artists, landscapers, and also teach classes. I was looking for a few touchable objects to display in a large black bowl that sits on our coffee table, and the small, polished glass hearts and round things, plus a string of beads I found in the outlet room for 25 cents, did the trick. The small, wrapped heart in the middle is a chocolate heart that will be given to my granddaughter this evening. Valentine's Day is also her birthday, and she'll get a birthday gift and a chocolate heart. I wonder which one will grab her attention the most.

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Today is the last day to vote. I don't exactly fit the profile of a young mom raising kids, but hey, I AM a mom and I raised three vegan boys.

My rank is steadily slipping from a "high" of #23 to my current rank at #31. I'm OK with that, but it would be more fun to be in the top 25. I'd be honored to have your vote(s). You can vote once every 24 hours. :D

February 09, 2012

Black bean masquerade: glazed black soy beans

I really mean to switch back to cooking dried beans again, but it's so fast to open a can, that it's hard to return to an old, less-convenient habit. But with all the controversy about BPA leaching into canned goods, plus my dismay at seeing how much we recycle, using dried beans just makes more sense. The obstacle is that in the evening, when it's time to wash, sort and soak the beans, I'm done with food. I can't seem to motivate myself to go back to the kitchen and do one more thing. So, I worked out a deal with my husband — if he soaks the beans I will cook them. Read on to see how our first attempt at cooperation turned out. I wanted to make Zoa's Mexican-inspired casserole and needed black beans.

The next morning I glanced into the soaking bowl, and my brain said, "these aren't black beans." I let the thought slide as I rinsed and sorted the beans before putting them into the slow cooker with a piece of kombu. I remembered my husband asking if we needed dried black beans before a recent trip to the store. Wouldn't shouldn't he know if he'd bought them, and where he'd put them? You would think.

Several hours later I returned to the kitchen and my nose said, "these aren't black beans." I fished out a bean, but I already knew what my mouth would tell me. The beans were black soybeans, from way back when I was cooking macrobiotically. I still had those beans in the pantry.

What are black soybeans, you ask? They are a variety of soybean, but they don't look or taste like the more familiar yellow soybeans, and the texture of the cooked beans is firmer than dried beans like kidney and pinto. I want to say they have slight liver-overtones but I don't want to scare you off, so just ignore that. And no one has ever agreed with me about that, anyway. I've never had the canned variety, only the dried, and I think they are rich-tasting and delicious, but I couldn't see making them into a Mexican dish, so opted for a nontraditional version of a more traditional Japanese dish — kuromame. Kuromame is eaten in Japan during the New Year much the way black-eyed peas are enjoyed here, for good fortune.

The traditional recipes sounded much too sweet to me, so I dramatically reduced the sugar, adding a small amount of coconut palm sugar, tamari and sliced ginger to the cooking water after the beans were mostly cooked, letting the beans cook a couple more hours while the liquid thickened. The finished beans were slightly sweet and salty.

When the beans  were ready to eat, my husband stir-fried some veggies in our gorgeous new wok while I took enough beans for supper from the slow cooker and placed them in a small pot. I used tapioca starch to thicken some of the cooking liquid, and added tomatoes, green onions, and Korean red pepper.

 I have to tell ya, it was a very tasty meal.

The next night I took the leftover beans and liquid, and added them to a hotpot with stir-fried tofu, shredded cabbage, carrots and broccolini. I added some porcini powder to the stock for a little extra depth. (I wouldn't use broccolini again this way because the stems got unpleasantly mushy. I think cauliflower would have been a better choice.)

The hotpot with a garnish of green onions.
When the veggies were tender, I served the soup in bowls over 100% buckwheat noodles, for another delicious supper.


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blahblahblah. I've been nominated for the Top 25 vegan bloggers in the Mom's circle of friends. I don't exactly fit the profile of a young mom raising kids, but hey, I AM a mom and I raised three vegan boys.

My rank is steadily slipping from a "high" of #23 to my current rank at #30. I'm OK with that, but it would be more fun to be in the top 25. I'd be honored to have your vote(s). You can vote once every 24 hours. :D

February 03, 2012

Chinatown: Lucky Creation / The Wok Shop, and how to season a wok | San Francisco

While we were in San Francisco I was worried I wasn't taking enough photos — ha! Clearly that wasn't the case, as you can see from my collection of photos from our fourth and last day exploring the downtown and Chinatown.

Walking around a beautiful city for five hours with a camera around your neck is bound to result in a few pictures. So please bear with me. We checked out of our airbnb at 11 a.m. and hopped the light rail  with Jordan and Alison for a short ride to San Francisco's downtown.

It was Martin Luther King Day, and a large human rights march was in progress.

Jordan pointed out the building where he works — the tan one you can see left of his head. We were headed to the Ferry Building. According to the Ferry Building Web site, "built in 1898, the Ferry Building and its 240-foot tall clock tower is the iconic landmark of the San Francisco waterfront. The dramatic heart of the building is a three-story tall, sky lit hall, known as the Nave. It runs the entire 660-foot length of the building. The ground floor of the Ferry Building is devoted to a 65,000 square foot public food market showcasing the very best of the Bay Area's world-renowned food community. The second and third floors of the building house 175,000 square feet of office space and the ceremonial hearing room of the San Francisco Port Commission." 

 A model of historic preservation, the building is a celebration of food — shops, restaurants, farmers market, kitchen and garden stores — fill the great hall. We tried various samples, and bought kale chips and a small bar of Scharffen Berger chocolate, but we were saving our appetites for chinatown. I snapped the above photo for two reasons — 1., it was adorable to see the two girls perched on the take-out counter eating Asian noodles, and 2., after four days in San Francisco, seeing children was beginning to seem like a novelty. I mentioned in an earlier post that I was starting to think no one older than 30 (maybe 35) lived in San Francisco, and there also seemed to be a dearth of children. In fact, the population of children under 17 in San Francisco has been steadily declining since 1970. San Francisco has one of the smallest percentages of children in the country, so if you don't like kids (and you're under 35 :D) you might consider moving there.

We headed towards Chinatown and lunch. I had a list of "hole-in-the-wall" restaurants, and the first one to turn up on our walk was Lucky Creation Vegetarian Restaurant.


There were so many choices I got confused and ended up ordering a combo-lunch plate. I gave away the noodles but consumed everything else and ended up stuffed, like the tofu on my plate. Yum.


My husband ordered a hot pot of some sort, and he loved it.

I must have been getting tired of taking pictures of food because I don't seem to have any of our dining companion's lunches.


Didn't notice the couple when I took the photo.
After lunch we wandered around Chinatown, heading in the general direction of our next destination, The Wok Shop.

I cook in a wok all the time — not just when I cook Asian food. I use it as my all-purpose cooking pan. Ever since Jordan ordered a hand-hammered wok from the Wok Shop (when he still lived in Seattle), I've been coveting one, and here I was in San Francisco's Chinatown just steps from The Wok Shop. I had to go and "just look." OK, I couldn't just look. I bought a wok and a couple of inexpensive  bamboo things.


Here's my new flat-bottomed wok at home, after following the Wok Shop directions for seasoning it. Pretty, isn't it?  I wanted a wok with two wooden handles, but the hand-hammered ones ones I saw only had one handle that looked like it wouldn't hold up. The shop clerk convinced me to get a wok with two metal handles. I don't necessarily recommend this version because I still think wood handles are easier to use, but I love the look of the hammered metal, and I'm not sorry to own this beautiful wok.



I'm including a video from the Wok Shop on how to season a wok, either carbon steel or cast iron. I followed the directions and my wok came out great.


We started the long walk back to Alison and Jordan's apartment, and honestly, there were moments when I just wanted to lay down on the sidewalk and not move. I think it took about two hours to walk back.

We trudged up the vertical hills on which the cable cars teeter, and it was with relief as much as interest, that we took a break to enter the cable car museum to view the actual cables in operation. Seriously, how do people think of these things — and get others to finance their plans.


We saw exotic blooming plants, like bird of paradise, and bottle brush, as we walked. I haven't seen a bottle brush since we lived in Australia.


I just want to thank Jordan and Alison for being such congenial hosts and giving us the grand tour of their city.

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I've been nominated for the Top 25 vegan bloggers in the Mom's circle of friends. I know I've been adding this to every blog post, but I didn't truly realize I was in the running until two weeks had passed after I received an email saying I'd been nominated. I've been pretty obsessed with restoring the lost photos to the blog, and wasn't paying attention. I don't have a fb page for my blog, and am pretty bad at self-promotion, so I really need your votes!  I don't exactly fit the profile of a young mom raising kids, but hey, I AM a mom and I raised three vegan boys. Now all I need are votes, and I'd be honored to have yours. Please take a minute to vote for me. You can vote once every 24 hours. Thanks! :D

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Seattle vegetarians: It looks like Seattle is getting another veg restaurant in May or June. The Veggie Grill, a chain of plant-based eateries, will be opening several locations in Seattle.


Full disclosure: I purchased the wok on my own. I received no money for the mention of this product. I am not an affiliate of this company. Any restaurant reviews are totally independent and not at the request of the restaurant. All opinions are my own.

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