Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Seitanic Verses

Yes, I went there. A cheap pun combining meat substitutes and Salman Rushdie (since we're having a curryl). Don't judge me, I've had this in my head for days.

My wife baffles the hell out of me sometimes. I make lots of curry at home. Lots. Aside from Italian and good ol' Southern cooking, it's probably the most common staple we eat. The woman eats rasam, she eats dal, she eats stuff I have no idea what I'm making, other than "it's some stuff and I'll make a curry out of it."

Despite this high sense of adventure she has when I'm the one cooking, she's hell-bent on eating only one dish at our local indian restaurant whenever we go out. It's always "Chicken Afghani, mild please!" No saag paneer for her, no. Gosht Vindaloo? Why never! Yes, she'll pick at starters and appetizers. She likes their mulligatawny soup. She likes stuff like samosas, bhajjis, and other things. But the main dish she gets is always the same, which drives me nuts.

Because I'm a great husband, I've tried to recreate this dish at home, just going by taste. It's been pretty trial and error. I finally got it right this time (or really close at least) and with a vegan dish to boot!

Now vegan chicken, hmmm how do I go about this abomination? Well, I was gifted a few cans of "meat" from a friend who dabbles in seitan, which I've made before. It's vital wheat gluten, fast-kneaded with spices and then boiled to set. Marinade it in salt, fat, and whatever you want it to taste like, and voila, it's a meat-like thing! See:

"Quack Quack"

"Bock Bock!"

I had a can of "chicken" and a can of "duck". After tasting each, I'm pretty sure there's no real difference. By themselves they really don't fool a soul, but they're decent enough that you get the right effect in a curry. Also, since this is very much a northern curry, the real McCoy traditionally uses cream or yogurt. Instead, I'm using coconut milk, because it tastes great.

Now, let me preface this by repeating my beliefs: this sort of thing is a bit of a mockery. I think vegan foods that aren't trying to be something they're not are preferable to the alternative every single time. However, sometimes you have to stuff your principles a little, especially if you are cooking for a wife who wants to eat the same sort of stuff she was eating before you went to the V-side. In that case, go for it.

Here's my mise en place, sort of.

  • About a pound of seitan, hand-shredded
  • 1 cup tomato puree
  • 12 ounces coconut milk
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tbsp canola oil
  • 1 tbsp cumin seeds
  • 1 tbsp coriander seeds, crushed
  • 1 tbsp amchoor powder (dried mango, can be found in indian/ethnic grocers. Sub with a tablespoon of lemon juice if you don't have any, it'll be close enough)
  • 2 tsp turmeric
  • 2 tsp garam masala
  • 2 tsp chili flakes
  • 1 tsp salt + more to taste
  • 1/2 tsp cardamom powder
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
Heat your oil in the pan to near-smoking. Add cumin, let pop for a few seconds, then add coriander and keep on heat for two or three more seconds before removing from the heat. Add your onions, turmeric, salt, and garam masala, and turn the burner to medium-low. Stir and cook, cover, and come back every five minutes or so to stir more, for 15 minutes. If it starts to stick, add a little water to deglaze and keep stirring.

Add your tomato puree, chili flakes, and amchoor, uncover, and let cook on medium heat, stirring frequently for five minutes. To that, add your seitan, cinnamon, and cardamom, and cook another 5 minutes. Afterwards, add your coconut milk carefully, stirring to combine as you drop the heat to low. Let it go another five minutes or so and turn the heat off. Stir your minced garlic in. Taste and adjust your seasoning.

It's a very thick and rich sop, and you can either have it with rice or a flatbread like naan or roti. Since I like my options open, I usually have a little of each. In this case, roti's vegan so there you go.

Mission was accomplished apparently since she raved about the curry and asked me to make it again. I may very well later down the road, but I'm ready to move onto more fun things.

Rasam for days and days

It may be a byproduct of me feeling under the weather, but I've been fiending for Rasam. I did a prior blog post about the stuff before, but this time, with Dino's permission, I'm putting up the recipe for you. This is from his book Alternative Vegan, which is coming up for a second edition. Even if you don't give a damn about veganism, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It's great for approaching food from a South Indian perspective, which is often crowded out of our understanding of Indian food by the better-known stuff coming out of the north. It's also perfect for being creative and learning to love all of your veggies, which we all need to eat more of.


Rasam Powder:
  • 1 tablespoon dry toor daal or yellow split peas
  • 5-6 dry red chilis
  • 1/2 tablespoon cumin seeds
  • 1 tablespoon corriander seeds
  • 1 teaspoon peppercorns
  • 1 teaspoon dry curry leaves

Roast all the spices in a small pan, and grind in a coffee grinder.

  • 1 cup dry yellow split peas or toor daal
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 1 tablespoon black mustard seeds
  • tiny dash asafetida
  • 1/4 cup curry leaves
  • 1 pound tomatoes, chopped
  • salt to taste
  • 1 tablespoon ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons tamarind paste
  • 1 gallon water
  • 1 cup cilantro, minced for garnish

Boil the split peas or daal in a separate pot for 20 minutes. Heat oil in a pot, add mustard seeds, and allow to pop. Add a dash of asafetida. Wait 3 seconds, and add the curry leaves. Add the tomatoes, and sprinkle on salt. Cook for about five minutes. Add the black pepper, the rasam powder, and the tamarind paste. Add the water and cooked, drained split peas. Bring to a full boil, and keep it boiling for 15 minutes. When cooked, sprinkle on cilantro for garnish. Serve over mushy rice.

Now, straight up, this is going to create a lot of food. Easily twelve servings, if not more. Don't believe me, here's the haul I produced:

For clarity, the one in the top left corner is a double portion I didn't have enough rice to dole out for. See what I mean when I say massive quantities? It's perfect to fill a week or two with staple meals and give you some room to play around.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


Okay, I admit as I do this vegan thing, part of me is kind of curious about folks who do this sort of thing as their real culinary gig for life. Some folks make the switch pretty painlessly, but others don't quite give up the life of an omnivore. Fear not, because SCIENCE has come to the rescue, promising vegan analogues for all sorts of things to keep otherwise sane people from thirsting for blood and their pound of flesh. Vegan, but want to eat meat? Well they got "meat". More specific, how about "sausage"? Got that, in all sorts of varieties. I bet you weren't expecting vegan bacon? Think again! Vegan cheese? Kazaam! Vegan ice cream? Kamehameha! All of these quick fixes, no doubt funded by DARPA and NASA to keep us from descending into our collective savage, hard-coded Lord of the Flies behavior. It sounds like an episode of True Blood or something, haha.

As I went out grocery shopping today, I got a weird bit of curiosity to come over me about these abominations of nature, and while my cart was otherwise loaded with nice wholesome ingredients, I had to stare into the abyss.

Went for the brass ring at first, and had some sausage. Okay, it's equal parts tofu and seitan from the package with "herbs" and a lot of SCIENCE in it. Fired up my skillet, rolled em around for a bit till they were equally crispy-brown on the outside. Divvied em up with my wife, and had em with mustard.

The inside's got a pretty compelling texture, but the outside gives it away. It forms almost like a bready crust on it, instead of a thinner, crispier outer cover you'd have with real sausage. Flavor is pretty much seitan, a ton of salt, fat, and italian herbs. It's alright enough, but you'd never for an instant think you were eating meat. These things were LOADED with salt. It's unreal. I haven't been this thirsty in a long time.

After that, time for dessert. Who likes ice cream? Who likes SCIENCE flavored ice cream! That's what this is, because I guarantee I don't know what "Vanilla Almond Bark" is, but if it tastes like SCIENCE they did a good job at recreating it. The ice cream was thin, bland, and had too many ice crystals in it. It finished with almost a gritty texture, like toothpaste. The carton said vanilla but I didn't taste any. The rabbit poop looking specks in there are I guess the "almond bark"? I don't know, there were bits of nuts coated by a bitter cocoa science alloy or something. It tasted not great.


The sausage was alright, if you are under no illusions that you're not eating a meat sub. If you're jonesing for some pig, then man, don't do it. Whatever you do, bring like two gallons of water because you're going to need it.

The ice cream is an abomination throughout. It's pure crap.


It can be pretty hard to be a vegan it seems. As Americans, we're used to protein being the center of each of our three meals, and we're used to what we've grown up with. Folks wanting to make the moral switch to veganism, I can understand if you're not quite there culinarily. Myself, I'm kind of the opposite. I hold no allegiance to the moral ethos, but I think vegan food certainly has the capacity to be more honest about what it can offer than fake sausage or fake ice cream. There are fulfilling dishes out there that are honest, full of whole ingredients, and taste a lot better. To somebody who's ready to make their stand, but not quite ready to part without their tofu pork chop, I empathize. Maybe it's best to make the stand first, and develop an appetite for veganism's true bounty later. That said, I'd strongly suggest putting the bean pig aside for maybe some good hearty dhaal or ratatouille. You may just discover you like that way more.

Back in my rhythm

Well after having the wind knocked out of my sails with weekend sickness, I'm slowly getting back on my feet and cooking again. Getting to clean things up a bit got me in the spirit, and after that, it took very little else.

Indian food is such a lay-up if you're wanting a good idea on how to eat honestly on a vegan diet. Most of the good dishes are already vegetarian, and without much fuss at all can become vegan. Like I mentioned before on the roti, the only thing that might prevent otherwise is ghee. Now, I love the flavor of ghee, but in the grand scheme of things, it's easy to use a neutral vegan oil to grease them up afterwards and its all good nonetheless. Usually, that's the case you'll find. It's the enrichments in vegetarian Indian dishes that are all you need to swap out. The creamy northern curries that use cream, yogurt, etc can do just as nicely with coconut milk. I usually prefer it that way, because coconut tastes flat-out amazing.

For curries further down the subcontinent, usually that ain't a problem. They're either thinner liquid curries, or they're dry stuff. Smoky-hot combinations of cumin, mustard seeds, curry leaf (tricky to find, I've got a funny story on it) and lots and lots of chili make a good southern style curry when I'm not angling for anything in particular. I'm weak in the knees on fenugreek too so I'll often sneak it in if I can get away with it.

This is one I put together in a vague south indian style. No recipe in mind, just a general idea of the flavors that work. If you'd like to recreate, here's what you'll need:

  • 2 pounds Kale, roughly torn (stems removed)
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons sambal oelek, or sriracha, or 1 tablespoon dried chili flakes
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • 1 tablespoon mustard seeds
  • 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
  • 2 teaspoons turmeric
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds (optional - find in any specialty or indian grocer)
  • small handful of curry leaves (optional, generally only available in warmer climates, check indian grocers, but its not required)
Heat your oil on high till it's nearly smoking. Add mustard seeds, wait five seconds (careful they'll be popping on you) add your cumin, curry leaves, and fenugreek seeds, wait another five, and pull off the heat. Drop heat to low. Add onions, salt, and turmeric to your pan, stir together, cover, and cook for 20 minutes, stirring about every five.

Crank the heat to high again, and add your kale and the water. Stir and press into the pan until the kale is uniformly wilted. Keep stirring to prevent anything from sticking and burning. Should take about five minutes at most. Remove from heat. Add your hot sauce or chilis and garlic, stir completely. Taste, and adjust your seasoning.

From here, put that on top of rice. I like basmati but any rice will do.

Also, folks may remember an old recipe I did back in 2008 called Gajjar ka Halwa. I reprised that one as well and used coconut milk rather than dairy milk to make it vegan. My camera skills, plating kung fu, and general awesomeness have all since improved, as has the product:

This is one of my favorite desserts ever, and a clear example of how less is sometimes very very much more. That's about three tablespoons of halwa. If you think that ain't enough, there's enough sugar in that to cause a meth-head to tweak. It's got a nice cardamom flavor too, so it leaves your breath nice and fresh. Y'all gotta try it sometime.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Feelin Coconutty

Well as my last blog post hinted, I got sick. Boo sickness >:(

Nothing bad, just a massive congestion, sore throat, fever thing that left me a zombie all day yesterday and most of today. The gripe of it is that most of my potluck curry I made was used instead to supplant meals where I was physically too out of it to even shamble into the kitchen and turn on a burner.

I did, however, drink tea. LOTS of tea. Rooibos, which is a lovely and mild red tea from South Africa, that tastes vaguely of honey and vanilla, and Assam, an Indian blend most often used for the ubiquitous masala chai that folks enjoy. Of course, no milk or cream in my tea because it ain't vegan. So what to do?

How about a half teaspoon of coconut cream?

Hell yes.

It rendered thoroughly and gave the tea a lovely color. The coconut went well with the Rooibos and VERY well with the Assam, giving an added layer of comfort to the whole thing.

Yes I'm sure that I could have also used soy milk, True. That said, soy milk's expensive and coconut milk is less so. Plus I have multiple cans of coconut milk, and soy milk is...a fifteen mile drive away at the nearest grocery store.

So it's no contest. Tastes better and it's convenient. Stir in a teaspoon of raw sugar and even more awesome.

Maybe tomorrow I'll have my skills back on and I can make some Rasam.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Vegan: Day One

Gotta admit, I started my first day of vegan eating pretty lame. I had a salad. It wasn't even really a great one either. It was a nice cheap $2.50 salad of spinach greens and everything in the veggie bins I could get (minus mushroom slices because raw mushrooms suuuuuuuuck) I did this for several reasons though.

Reason one is that after my blockbuster Mardi Gras dinner, I was freakin spent and didn't make any vegan chow for the next day (aside from broccoli and lemon rice which was my breakfast, nom). I have lots of non-vegan leftovers, but they're forfeit to my wife as of now.

Reason two is that I kind of wanted to see for myself how easy you could find something vegan to eat without really planning and looking. The result, it's pretty tough. Aside from junking on oreos (yes y'all, they are vegan too), the salad was pretty much the only game in town if I wanted to get vegan eats. That's fine, I'm not planning on making it a habit, but it's nice to know that if I'm stuck at work and just cannot make anything myself, I can at least do that.

I packed fresh local fruit (CSA's crankin out apples and tangerines like a monster lately) but ate none of it because I was tweaking off french press dunkin doughnuts medium roast coffee. Got home and immediately went to work slamming down food for our work potluck.

Cranked out dozens of roti and a big pot of chana masala, all done up vegan (I usually use ghee for roti but that's easily subbed) I will probably never make that many roti at once again, or at least not at night. Took forever, geeez. Dinner was pretty much me playing the part of a starving bachelor. I pawed a hot roti, spooned curry into that, and ate it sort of the way a ravenous zombie would eat brains. By that time I was pretty hungry but one roti pretty much took care of it, and what that can't cure, Abita beer can.

One minor note, I think I'm getting sick LOL VEGAN IMMUNE SYSTEM, but seriously, work has been more or less a general plague area for months so if I do end up getting felled by something it's more a work of inevitability than anything. Still, the timing is humorous.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Farewell to the flesh, hello to the vegetable

This is the end, my friends.

The end.

Fare thee well.

Au revoir. C'est la vie. Some other French cliché phrases to emphasize the gravity of the situation.

Mardi Gras, for most folks, rightfully should be about over-eating crawfish, gumbo, etouffee, king cake, jambalaya, and binging on Abita beer and hurricanes. It should be about beads, boobs, parades with names like Endymion and Bacchus, and, wondering what the hell did I just step in while drunkenly shambling in the vieux carre of New Orleans. Something dark and joyous and terrifying and mystic grips my soul around this time of year, and while I haven't been to the city I love since 2005 (cue sad violin), I get filled with a wonderful nostalgia every time January turns to February.

Most people aren't even aware when the other shoe drops, and Fat Tuesday becomes Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lentan fast. As I've mentioned on my blog earlier, I make it a point to observe Lent, and have done so for years. It's a challenge of will and spirit, and I find it renewing to embrace what wonderful things you discover when you willingly do without things you otherwise take for granted.

But before all that jazz, I had to have my send-off. I'm not a regular steak-eating guy, so I figured it was a special enough occasion for filet mignon au poivre, which is a steak finished with a sauce of peppercorns, cream, and either cognac or brandy. To pair with something that delightfully unhealthy, my wife helped me make truffled and creamed yukon gold potatoes that we browned under the broiler.

For all the ruminations on how it's done, I saved my lazy ass some keystrokes and made videos for you that will hopefully drop a little science on the subject.

After all that, the best nightcap to the evening and the carnival season would be a king cake slice, served with the traditional pairing of Abita beer. Beer and King Cake, you say? Traditional? Madness! No I'm holding firm on this. During Carnival, ANYTHING goes with Abita beer. I've even considered pouring it over cereal.

Anyways, wish me the best of luck for the next 40. If it's anything like last year, I've got this no problem, but since my wife remains as carnivorous as ever, who is to say if I might face temptation.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Borscht and deglazing lessons

Made borscht tonight and it turned out way, way better than the one I made around last year. My wife, who hated the one I did before, was very into this and she cleaned her bowl. The one I made previously was a kosher vegetarian one, whereas this one was Ukranian and neither kosher nor vegetarian (pork sausage and sour cream). I think the big difference is that I straight up pureed the beets though, which changes the whole experience completely.

If winter's got you in that weird russian mood I'm in, here's how you can make this. You'll need:

  • 1 pound bratwurst, kielbasa, or other pork sausage, casing removed and chopped
  • 2 quarts chicken stock
  • 4 beets, peeled and chopped
  • 4 red potatoes, peeled and chopped
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon of lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon hot paprika
  • 1 bay leaf
  • sour cream, for topping
  • dill, dried or fresh, for topping
Start by browning off your meat in a big pot or dutch oven. Once its browned, remove to a dish and put away. You should have some gunk on the bottom of your pan, which you can then deglaze to remove from the bottom. Since I'm a nice guy, I even put in a video segment on how-to deglazing. It's one of the nicer ways to up your skill and the flavor of whatever you make:

Add your butter and get the heat to near-high. Pop cumin seeds, then add your aromatics (onion, bell pepper, carrot) and salt. Drop the heat to low and cover for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Uncover, add your beets, maybe a cup of your stock, and thyme, and continue simmering for another 20 minutes. From here, dump all that jazz into your food processor and spin it up. Beets are jerks and they're very hard and need to be destroyed without mercy, so we'll let the heat do half the work and the blades to the rest. Make a puree out of that crap.

Return the puree to the pot, add the rest of your stock, paprika, pepper, sugar, lemon juice, and bay leaf. Add your potatoes. Bring up the temp to a near-boil, and back off to a simmer. Cover, and cook down for another 20 minutes. (yes it takes forever but its worth it in the end) When that's done, taste and adjust your seasoning. Add your sausage back to the pot and give it all a good stir.

You're ready to serve. Now, if you're just famished go ahead and eat it, but borscht is tricky. It's supposedly best the day after, and you can either eat it hot, or some swear it's better cold. I really like it either way. No matter, dollop some sour cream into it and add dill at the end. If you're fully embracing the russian spirit, blare some Red Army Choir and throw back shots of vodka. That's optional.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Sodas going retro

I like an occasional soda now and then. It's a treat, as it should be. It's not a water substitute or anything you should be enjoying on a daily basis at all. That said, unless you're on the look-out for good small-batch sodas or maybe like to shop at latino grocery stores or ethnic markets like I do, you're usually going with something over-saturated with high fructose corn syrup instead of real sugar. While the health issues are pretty much the same with each, the corn syrup just doesn't taste right to me and never has.

So it's been sort of a nice change of pace to see a lot of companies starting to bottle throwbacks of American brands and put them on the market. Pepsi, Mountain Dew, and Dr. Pepper have done it, and I'm happy with each of them more or less. The taste is less sticky-sweet and you actually catch the flavor of the drink behind it without feeling all disgusted after having some.

It's a great start, as I said. What I'd like to see now are the return of 12 ounce glass bottles in general markets. Yes, you can go to the aforementioned latino grocers and ethnic markets and get an imported real sugar Coca Cola, and I do that every now and then. It's a shame that it's sort of tucked away as a little secret, because glass retains the cold so much nicer than plastic. Further, I'm sorry, but you can taste a difference with plastic. It's just a little off.

So, keep putting out real sugar soda. Let's get em in glass now. Maybe after that, reduce the portion size. Y'all remember eight ounce bottles? I sure do.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Eatin' Po'

The biggest kvetch I get from folks (aside that I eat like a globe-trotting pinko) is that people think I spend a lot on certain things that they can't afford. Yes and no. I fully admit that sometimes it's awesome to grab that brass ring and spring for stuff like truffle oil, jamon iberico, roquefort, and other stuff that most folks don't fit into their grocery lists. But I also (increasingly so) try to go the other way, and eat cheaply. Finances have a way of doing that to you sometimes. Having a mortgage and a car payment sometimes means that when the weather is in the single digits for a month and your power bill rolls yahtzee on your ass, maybe you can't spread it on quite so thick.

Also my unique situation grants me access to seasonal vegetables that are delivered to my doorstep, but for certain things, I still have to schlep on down to the grocery store. Since I'm waaay out in the country, our closest store is still a good 20 minutes from me. Sometimes I just can't make the time, and it's good to save money and make do with what I've got on hand.

In the spirit of both frugality and laziness I put together a dish tonight consisting of four potatoes, a head of broccoli, a cup of yellow split lentils, two tablespoons of canola oil, a quart of water, salt, pepper, and some assorted south indian spices. Spices are becoming easier to buy in bulk, and so you can easily save a lot of money by doing so. Say you spend ten bucks on a bulk load of spices. You dole that out in increments of maybe a few cents per dish. The veggies I put in that dish probably set me back two dollars and the lentils maybe a quarter. The only other input I used is tamarind, which is getting easy to find in the ethnic aisle of most grocers, and a 12 ounce jar of it sets me back three bucks and lasts me nearly half a year. Two tablespoons or so go in the pot.

The result is a stew that feeds six people to the gills and costs maybe three dollars per iteration if that? Divide by six, and you're grubbing at 50 cents, and I guarantee this will fill you up and leave you happier about life than whatever's on a value menu. Thirty minutes is a round trip for me to the nearest fast food joint, or it's the time it takes for me to make this.

The biggest leap you've got to take is overhead at the beginning. If you're willing to put down a few bucks for the spices and stuff that will keep and last, you divvy up that cost big time as you keep making little meals.