December 29, 2013

Stocking up at Trader Joe's — what did we buy?

I've been taking a bit of a blog holiday, both from reading and writing. It started when we took a short East Coast trip and I didn't have my computer, and then just kept going, and going. My schedule has been disrupted by holiday hours, and my mind had been taken over by Doctor Who. The Doctor is still honing in on my time, but I'm trying to take back at least a small portion of my brain. So....

I read a post on Carrie on vegan about her top ten things to buy at Trader Joe's, and it got me thinking. Back before I moved to Seattle, and before TJ's was in Wisconsin, we used to come to Seattle to visit our oldest son, and TJ's was on the 'tourist list'. Back then it seemed so unique, and we loved going there to see what interesting items they had. I used to buy chocolate-covered coffee beans to bring back to my office mates, and just having a Trader Joe's label made them a novelty. (I know. Some of us are easily entertained.)

When Trader Joe's opened a store two blocks from our house in Madison, we couldn't get near the place for weeks. Our normally popular neighborhood became a destination, and we watched in wonder as people rolled stacked cases of wine down the sidewalk to their cars. Even TJ's was shocked at the response — they could barely keep the shelves stocked. The neighbors held off for a couple of months before shopping, until the 'outsiders' calmed down, then it became our neighborhood grocery store. We had our favorite items to buy there, but one thing that can make TJ's both frustrating and interesting, is that the stock keeps changing, and the new product that becomes a favorite can disappear at any time.

So jump to the present, and here we are living in Seattle about a mile from a Trader Joe's store, but we seldom go there, preferring our local co-op and Whole Foods. After reading Carrie's post, I decided we needed to check in with TJ, and see what we could find. We picked up a few of Carrie's faves, like organic Turkish apricots (excellent!), soy milk, fire-roasted no-salt salsa and fermented black garlic. (Fermented black garlic?  Have you used it? How?) We also bought some of our old TJ staples like frozen mango, roasted unsalted pistachios, kimchee, bourbon vanilla extract, organic limes, mushrooms, gluten-free pasta, avocados and paper towels along with some new TJ finds like cooked baby beets, organic clementines, ruby red grapefruit, organic d'anjou pears and organic broccoli florets. I think it was our largest single haul ever from Trader Joe's, and all I can think of is we must have been hungry when we went shopping. So far everything I've tried — grapefruit, avocado, pears, clementines, pistachios, noodles, broccoli and apricots — have been great.

After we got home, I came across two articles about Trader Joe's that provide food for thought. The first was an article about the origins of Trader Joe's and its parent company, Aldi, in Germany. It's an informative and entertaining account of brotherly competition, rivalry and success. We don't have Aldi yet in Washington, but I suspect it's coming in the next couple of years as it's in Southern California now.

The second article was not entertaining, and made me wish that we had at least made our own kimchee and cooked our own beets. It concerned the grim plight of a dead sperm whale that washed up on a beach in Spain, its belly full of plastic traced back to Aldi — a sad example of failure to protect the environment with the conscientious use of materials and proper recycling. It wasn't just Aldi that was at fault, but several European-based grocery chains that were involved in failing to monitor the materials used to grow and package greenhouse-grown winter vegetables. I try to do what I can to support ethical, cruelty-free, environmentally responsible businesses, but sometimes I just feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem. Where do you draw the line? Do you express your concerns to stores about their business practices? Do you buy only in bulk and only what's in season locally? We've become so used to excess packaging, that I think it's again time for me to take a closer look at how and where we shop, and how we respond to stories about environmental irresponsibility.

On a lighter note, I hope everyone had a pleasant holiday (as in time-off from work, and visits with family and friends if you don't celebrate Christmas), and a very Merry Christmas, if you celebrate. Wishing you a Happy New Year filled with love, peace and serenity!

December 17, 2013

Savory breakfast, baking repairs, spicy noodles and other miscellaneous bites

This might not look like breakfast to you, and most days it doesn't to me, either, but sometimes I crave a hearty, savory breakfast. This was a breakfast of opportunity, since the Brussels sprouts, chopped tomatoes and quinoa were leftovers just waiting in the fridge, and all I had to do was open a can of beans, scoop some olives from a jar and warm the whole thing up.

While preparing to make a pie for this past Thanksgiving, I dragged out all my pie plates to find the correct size for the pie in question. I must not have been paying attention to what I was doing because after making the crust and pre-baking it, I discovered I'd used the wrong plate, and the crust was too small. Undaunted (well, maybe a little daunted) I made another crust in the larger pie plate, and covered and popped the too-small one into the freezer to save for a future pie.

Upon eating the pie on Thanksgiving, I discovered the crust was not too great. I'd followed a recipe I'd never used before, mainly involving oats, almonds and dates, and the resulting crust was too hard and too heavy. Seriously, it was almost impossible to pry it out of the pie plate. The too-small crust stayed in the freezer, unwanted and unloved. This past weekend we needed freezer space, and the pie crust got evicted. I hate wasting food, and I thought about the cake ball save from not long ago, wondering if pie crust balls were an option. Instead of balls, though, I made bars. First I pried the evil crust out of the pan, broke it up and ground it to a coarse flour in the food processor. I added a little sugar, a little Earth Balance, vanilla and enough non-dairy milk to achieve a cookie-dough-like texture. I pressed it into a square baking dish, added a layer of chocolate chips and baked it for 20 minutes. When I pulled it out of the oven, I used a spreader to smooth the chocolate topping. Cooled and cut into bars, the recycled pie crust tastes pretty good, with a texture kind of like blondies. I wouldn't make them on purpose, but I'm happy to eat them now that they're here — not too sweet, with a nice textural contrast between the fudgy-cakey bottom and the hard chocolate top.

I wanted mung threads with a spicy red sauce. I wanted tofu, broccoli and mushrooms, and I wanted it to taste like something from our favorite local Thai restaurant. It's much more fun for me to cook if I don't have a recipe — just a taste in mind. I started with a small amount of leftover tomato sauce and just kept adding stuff (rice vinegar, sweetener, tamari, water, spices — you know. I dry fried the tofu in a wok, then stir-fried the veggies with a little oil. It turned out exactly as I hoped it would.

It also was perfect heated up the next day for lunch, with a little extra sauce added.

Do you prefer to cook from recipes or from intuition? I do both.

 The reason we had leftover tomato sauce was because my husband made spaghetti squash and served it with a traditional red sauce. Spaghetti squash tastes so good to me — I like it better than regular winter squash, though for some reason we hardly ever think to make it. It was a very simple supper  — baked squash, baked tofu, steamed broccolette — but it really hit the spot. Have you tried spaghetti squash?

We've been watching the modern incarnation of Doctor Who, and I have to admit, we're hooked. I have Cadry to thank for this obsession. We have to watch at least one episode most nights, and I'd been thinking when we've finished all the episodes, we'd go back and watch the classic series. I was dismayed to discover there are 26 seasons of the original Doctor, and that seems too daunting. Twenty-six years is an awfully long time. Have any of you watched all of the the original episodes?

December 13, 2013

A quick trip to Philadelphia and a bean soup

Homemade white bean soup with fresh rosemary and lemon.

We recently returned from a quick trip to Philly to see relatives. Mainly we were there to see my husband's mother, but we both have siblings there, and my oldest, dearest friend is there as well. A combination of the trip being too short, and an unexpected snow storm, meant I couldn't see my friend, but we did manage to fit in most of the family. I was randomly selected as a non-terrorist by the TSA and allowed to flit through security without removing my scarf, jacket or boots, and without having to display my liquids, gels and powders — both there and home. It reminded me of the good old days when traveling was fun.

Chickpea masala, and potatoes and spinach from Zaika in Northeast Phila.

Our flight was delayed about two hours in Seattle because of clouds and rain at the Philadelphia airport. The long flight coupled with the fact that we'd gotten up about 4 a.m. to get to the airport in time for our original departure, meant that by the time we arrived at our hotel we were fried. My husband found a Indian/Pakastani restaurant, Zaika, about a block from the hotel that was just about to close (it was close to 9 p.m.) and only had a few food choices left, but there were two that were both dairy and gluten-free, and he brought back a chickpea masala and a potato and spinach dish. We couldn't have the rice because it had butter, but we were so exhausted we didn't care. The food, elegantly displayed on a plastic plate above, was actually pretty good.

We didn't get to explore the many downtown eateries that I've been reading about on Philly-based blogs, but we did enjoy the dining experiences that we had, including the Indian takeout on our first night. The day after we arrived we had a family gathering at my husband's brother and sister-in-law's lovely home, and my sister-in-law Shelley put together a beautiful lunch with an assortment of fresh, tasty, sandwich and salad ingredients, and a bean soup that came from a gourmet deli. Sadly, I neglected to take any photos. The soup was so tasty that I planned to try to reproduce it when we got home, and post a recipe, but by the time we arrived back home, I couldn't remember the flavors, so I improvised. And I wasn't organized enough to create a recipe.

Buddha's delight from Wild Ginger in Huntington Valley, PA.

On our second night in Philly we had a big family meetup at Wild Ginger, a vegan-friendly Chinese/Japanese/Thai restaurant located not far (by Philly standards) from my mother-in-law's apartment. A dark restaurant and an iphone made for iffy photos, so what you're seeing is a picture of my husband's dinner — Buddha's Delight. Mine was a gluten-free version of broccoli and tofu but the image was too blurry to use. We also shared a rice-noodle dish as an appetizer. I usually have leftovers but I was starving, and ate everything. Every tasty bite.

On our last night, we had homemade chili cooked by my mother-in-law, and shared with my brother and sister-in-law. It was really great to see everyone, but we had to cut the evening short because there was six inches of fresh snow waiting for us outside, and we all wanted to get back to home and hotel before the freezing rain set in.

After lunch the next day — pasta for my husband, and Whole Foods sushi and soup for me — it was back to the airport for the long flight home. We had the middle and window seats, and don't you know that when a stranger is in the aisle seat with an open computer and tons of crap on the floor, it makes the person in the window seat obsess about having to pee. It was a long flight.

Toasted granulated onion, aleppo pepper, minced garlic.

Remember when I mentioned the bean soup I wanted to make? I was planning to use a few new items I found at Penzey's not too long ago, to flavor it. We had actually gone to Penzey's to pick up a couple of things we were out of, but our daughter-in-law had also requested a couple of items that she needed. Two of the items were dehydrated garlic bits and toasted granulated onion. I'd never had either of them before but Penzey's has sample jars of everything they sell available to sniff, and one sniff was all it took to convince me I needed these two items, too. Then I came upon a jar of aleppo pepper that I couldn't resist. Penzey's knows what they're doing with those jars!

The soup I made was a very warming dish loaded with cannelini beans, carrots, spinach and corn, flavored with garlic, toasted onion, mushroom powder, aleppo pepper, nutritional yeast flakes, fresh lemon and fresh rosemary. It was a soup of opportunity. Any herb would work, fresh or dried. I happened to have rosemary still alive in my garden so that's what I used. I could have used any form of  garlic, and plain granulated onion would have worked, too. (I really recommend the toasted onion — it adds a wonderful flavor when added near the end of cooking.) I always have cans of beans as well as dried beans in the pantry, and cannelini happen to be a favorite. There was half a bag of frozen spinach needing to be used up and also a bag of frozen corn. The inspiration came from our lunch in Philadelphia, but my pantry dictated what went into the soup, more or less, and I loved the result. I'm hoping to write out a recipe soon as this is a soup I'd like to make again. Have you tried any of the three Penzey's herbs I used in my soup?

December 06, 2013

What's new in the kitchen? (and how to get it cheaply)

I thought my kitchen was perfectly adequate until recently, when it seemed to be suddenly lacking in counter space. I just wanted more — another spot to set a hot casserole down, or to chop veggies while my husband was using the main counter for another task. So, I started scouting on craigslist, until I turned up a wooden kitchen island from IKEA. It's the perfect size for the center of our kitchen, and I use it constantly. The two drawers have taken some of the stress off of our overloaded kitchen drawers, and the shelves are now storing things that crowded our cabinets. Now I don't know how I got along without it.

Some of the things I loved about shopping on craigslist were: the furniture was already assembled; the price was low; we didn't have to drive all the way to IKEA or deal with the crowds since we found it in the neighborhood. Our cart measures 17 inches by 39-1/2 inches — just enough to give us extra space but not take up too much room in the kitchen.

Doesn't one improvement always seem to lead to another? Although the counter-height top of the kitchen cart is a butcher block, it had never been used as one, and I didn't want to deface it or make it smelly by cutting directly on it, so I ordered a beautiful new cutting board. We really needed another board, and this one will making cutting veggies even more fun.

I think some scones are in order to celebrate. Have you added anything to your kitchen lately that makes cooking easier or more enjoyable?

December 01, 2013

Thanksgiving treats with recipes and recipe links

I usually get around to posting about Thanksgiving about two or three weeks after it occurs, but much to my relief, I'm close to right on time this year. We had a small group of only four adults and two kids at our celebration, though there didn't seem to be less cooking than usual. I can't help making a large spread no matter how many guests are expected. A holiday is a holiday is a holiday, and I'm so grateful to have nearby close family members to share it with.

Carrots taste better when they have crinkles, don't you think? :)

I like to cook as much as possible the day before so I don't feel stressed out on the day of the event, and I chose foods that could be prepared in advance — or whose components could be made ahead and combined and cooked right before serving. One of the things I actually made on Thursday was the first dish you see pictured above. You must try this, it's easy and fantastic. It's spinach artichoke dip with garlic cashew cream that I found on Glue and Glitter. It was so quick to make, and the taste and texture were excellent. Our omnivore guest said she would never guess that it was vegan. The only changes I made to Becky's recipe were to defrost the spinach by cooking it briefly in a sauce pan, baking the dip 15 minutes covered and 15 minutes uncovered, and sprinkling some coconut bacon over the top for decoration. I served it as an hors d'oeuvre with carrot and celery sticks (cut the day before) and corn chips, and, I'm not gonna lie — it was so good I ate the leftovers for breakfast on Friday. With carrots, of course, not chips.

Our main dish this year was Dreena Burton's festive chickpea tart paired with a quinoa crust from Pies and Tarts With Heart (review). To be perfectly honest, I wasn't sure I liked the tart on Thursday, but when we had leftovers the next night for supper, covered with the leftover gravy, I loved it. It tasted so good I was wondering if, in spite of my efforts to pace myself, I'd had 'cooking fatigue' clouding my opinion on Thanksgiving,. I actually made the crust and filling on Wednesday, but combined and baked them on Thursday, as part of my do-ahead scheme, but I just wasn't so excited about the tart as I'd hoped I would be after reading all the great reviews. The leftovers, though, as I said, were pretty great. I'm going to try the tart again as it's very easy to throw together, before forming my final opinion.

Because one of our guests doesn't care for pumpkin pie, I didn't make anything with pumpkin for dessert, so I had to get pumpkin into the meal somewhere. I made pumpkin biscuits — heart shaped pumpkin biscuits because the only cutter I happened to have was heart-shaped. I adapted a recipe from Opera Singer in the Kitchen, turning them into gluten-free biscuits. I really liked these, which is why I'm including a recipe below. I think they taste best in a smaller size, so if you have smaller cutter, use it.

It just wouldn't be Thanksgiving for me without my beloved cranberry-apple sauce. I've been using the same recipe for at least 20 years, but this year I changed it a little just for fun, and I like the new version better. If one of our guests wasn't a raisin-hater, there would have been some raisins in there, but it was still pretty good in spite of that. I'm posting the recipe below, mostly so I remember it for next time.

We also had our family's standard potato stuffing made from an old family recipe that came with my great-great grandmother from Russia. Our son made it, and used buckwheat instead of bread so it would be gluten-free. (I actually used to make it with buckwheat long before I ever knew what it meant to be gluten-free.) I love this stuff and could happily eat it for my entire meal, though of course I don't do that. I failed to photograph it but it was delicious.

The pie, before garnishing with coconut whipped cream.

And, of course, there was pie and whipped cream from Chloe's Vegan Desserts. The last time I made the recipe I made it into tarts instead a pie, so I thought I might as well try the pie this time. I used a different crust (which didn't work so well so I'm not sharing the recipe) and actually had to make the crust twice. The first time I put it into the wrong sized pie plate and there wouldn't have been enough room for the filling. I also over-baked the crust. I made a second, larger crust, and over-baked that, too, so the crust was not the best. The filling, though, was perfect  — rich and bittersweet. The whipped coconut cream in Chloe's book has 3/4 cup of powdered sugar which I reduced to one tablespoon of coconut sugar plus a spoonful of vanilla.

Here is one of our esteemed guests, before he became covered in cranberries and other assorted colors. He moved as I snapped the photo which is why he looks a bit blurry. Or maybe it's because he wasn't feeling his best. In any case, it was his first Thanksgiving, and he really liked the biscuits!

Pumpkin biscuits (GF)
  • 2 tablespoons flax meal plus 5 tablespoons ice water
  • 2 cups gluten-free flour mix (I used Bob's Red Mill) plus extra sorghum flour for kneading
  • 1 Tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 Tablespoon evaporated cane juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 3 Tablespoon frozen Earth Balance margarine, cut into small pieces
  • 3/4 cup pumpkin puree
  • 1/2 cup So Delicious coconut milk
  1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. 
  2. Place the flax into a small bowl or glass measuring cup and add the water. Let sit while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. 
  3. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  4. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, and spices. Blend in the margarine using a pastry blender, or buzz the flour mix and margarine in a food processor a few times until the mixture is like coarse breadcrumbs. 
  5. Whisk the flax and water with a whisk or fork until it is viscous (like an egg).
  6. In a medium bowl, combine the pumpkin, coconut milk, and flax goo.
  7. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, and stir until the mixture holds together. Knead lightly in the bowl, using just enough sorghum flour to cut the stickiness. Pat out to 1″ thickness. Using a 2″ (or smaller) biscuit cutter, cut the dough into circles. Or use any shape cutter you prefer, such as a heart.
  8. Re-shape the scraps and cut out biscuits until all the dough is used. Place on the prepared baking sheet.
  9. Bake 12-14 minutes or until golden brown. Serve warm with gravy, jam or vegan butter.
A flax egg after sitting and whisking — thick and gooey.

Cranberry-apple sauce
  • 16 ounces fresh cranberries
  • four medium cooking apples
  • one heaping cup frozen pineapple chunks
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/4 cup pure maple syrup
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1/4 cup raisins (optional)
  1. If the apples aren't organic, peel them. Core the apples and cut into 1/2-inch cubes.
  2. Place the pineapple and water into a blender jar and purée. 
  3. Place all ingredients into a large pot and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down, and simmer until the cranberries and apples are soft. Cool. Place into a dish and refrigerate until cold. Leave the cinnamon stick in the bowl, or remove it. Your choice. (I leave it in.)