Meal Four: Ann

My cooking adventure last week took me to the home of Ann, my idol and longtime friend. Ann was one of my heroes back when I was a junior in high school. She and a friend had previously fought our high school’s administration in order to start a Diversity Club and proceeded to coach me in effective tactics that proved vital to my own formation of a Gay/Straight Alliance at our high school. It was wonderful to be able to cook for Ann who really helped me back when I was just a baby activist fighting for change in our homogenous town. Thanks, Ann!

The Menu:

– Curried Yellow Split Pea Soup (from Vegan on the Cheap, p.202 )

– Samosa Pie (from Vegan on the Cheap, p.174)

– Strawberry Truffle Brownies (from the Post Punk Kitchen, adapted from Raspberry Truffle Brownies)

Soup Notes and An Ode to the Slow-cooker:

The Curried Yellow Split Pea soup is one of my favorite recipes from Vegan on the Cheap. The curry spices are absorbed beautifully by the peas and carrots, and depending on the amount of broth you use, you can achieve a more soup or dal-like consistency. I like to make a thicker “soup”, serve it over brown rice, and garnish with cilantro. Vegan on the Cheap has great notes and suggestions for generating variation to recipes!

If only pictures could talk; in this moment, Ann is receiving instructions from her twelve-year-old sister via speakerphone on how to use her own rice cooker. I could have helped, but was enjoying the chain of communication too much.

The "soup" over rice could be a meal all on its own!

Let me just say this: I love slow-cookers. I find that many don’t give the slowccooker adequate credit as a kitchen appliance. Sure, slow cookers aren’t as flashy as food processors, as coveted as stand mixers, or as fun and power-tool-esque as immersion blenders, but they serve an undeniably easy means of creating delicious meals. Many slow cooker recipes like the Split Pea Soup one I followed require under ten minutes of prep-work with the rest of the cooking time remains entirely idle on the human side of things. I merely diced an onion and a couple of carrots, measured spices, gathered water and dried yellow split peas, and tossed the items in the cooker. I let the soup simmer softly for eight hours overnight, while I dreamt of the meal to come.

The best part: the slow-cooker itself is an affordable appliance. My current slow-cooker companion was a $10 purchase from the local Salvation didn’t dent my bank account (no offense, VitaMix–I love you), all while promoting reuse!

I made the soup in advance (obviously--see slow-cooker rant above), transported it via tupperware to Ann's, and then rewarmed it in a large pot. What a journey!

Here’s the ingredient list for the soup:

-1 tbsp canola oil

-1 medium carrot (I used 2+)

-1 lb yellow split peas

-1 tbsp curry powder

-1 tsp ground coriander

-1/2 tsp cumin

-1/4 cayenne

– 6 cups vegetable stock

– salt and pepper

-cilantro for garnish

Vegan on the Cheap, p.202

Kitchen/Life Lessons via Samosa Pie:

I was really excited for this Samosa Pie to be in my life in a big way. It was one of those recipes I had bookmarked back when I first bought Vegan on the Cheap to try, but never got around to actually trying it. So here I thought: today is the day your dreams will come true–not all of your dreams, of course, but specifically the ones surrounding this single recipe. Follow your dreams, MelRob. 

Unfortunately, sometimes dreams don’t always work out the way the voice in my head tells me they will. I made a couple of amateur mistakes regarding Samosa Pie. I did not read through the instructions carefully before attempting to make the dish in a foreign kitchen. It turned out that ,in addition to the bake time associated with the pie, I had to cook many of the items in the pie before I could add them and start the actual baking process. The recipe took much longer than anticipated, leaving me flustered.

The most tragic part of the Samosa Pie was that the end product was not very impressive, despite the labor intensity of the recipe. The crust was flavorful and the curry powder well-received by the potatoes and veggies, but the pie as a whole was very dry. This is the risk of trying a recipe for the first time with guest. Feel free to transpose this lesson to other facets of life. As far as the kitchen is concerned, it is difficult to anticipate what you would do differently and what needs to be tweaked without the previous trial of a recipe. Food blogs are great in this sense, though; often you can read comments and learn from the mistakes and discoveries of others. Next time I think I would make a chutney or sauce to moisten the pie and create a sweet dichotomy to contrast the spice the curry powder brings to the table (I would also use a hotter curry powder). In a pinch, Ann hilariously dug a can of surprisingly vegan Cambell’s mushroom gravy out of her cupboard to remedy the desert-like pie, creating a dish reminiscent of pot pie.

The Samosa Pie was stuffed with chickpeas, potatoes, green beans, peas, and carrots.

Gravy, anyone? The point in a meal when you start adding things desperately to fix what you have broken. This also does not work in the context of relationships, whether you are using gravy or not.

The Real Hero: Strawberry Truffle Brownies

I highly recommend the recipe for these brownies (and any other recipes) from the Post Punk Kitchen. I used strawberries in place of raspberries because I had local strawberries on hand as part of my winter farm share. Normally, I don’t like the combination of fruit and chocolate, but I was glad to have tried this recipe. The strawberries only brought a subtle aftertaste that coupled well with the rich taste of the fudge-like brownies.

The brownies saved the day after the lackluster pie.

Ann and Ann: two peas in a pod and a pleasure to dine.

Mowgli, Ann's precious feline, was the cutest creature and a consistent source of entertainment. He investigated the leftovers and clearly wanted to come home with me.

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Meal Three: Mita and Shelby

Last week I packed up my suitcase with kitchen supplies and ingredients for purpose of cooking for my friends, Mita and Shelby, at their apartment in Ann Arbor. I consider both of them some of my more kitchen-savvy friends who regularly work cooking for themselves and others into their routine. Despite this, Mita and I have a history of kitchen catastrophes. Our culinary relationship has been defined in particular by a series of baking failures, two of the most recent include pumpkin muffins (all mush, no fluff) and roasted chestnuts (a mess involving minor explosions in the oven and resulting in nothing edible). Needless to say, I was determined that this eating experience would be nothing but blissful. So, what was my game plan?

The Menu:

Bulgur, Arugula, and Cannellini Salad via (and viva la) Veganomicon, p. 85

Autumn Latkes with Horseradish-Dill Sour Cream and applesauce, curtesy of Veganomicon, p. 53, 208

Leftover Pumpkin “Tiramisu” (frozen from last week’s Meal with MelRob)

Getting serious. This was before my scarf had an unfortunate run-in with the sour cream.

Do-it-yourself Dressing, Salad Sass:

First we got down to business on the salad dressing and salad so it could chill a bit and marinate (or ‘fumigate’ according to my grandma) before we ate. Making salad dressing is one of the easiest (and most cost-effective) things to create in the kitchen. Most are a basic combination of oil, vinegar, and herbs. They aren’t laden with preservatives and taste all the better for it. Take a look at the ingredient list on commercial salad dressing next time you get a chance. My guess is the you will find a long list of ingredients that you can’t pronounce let alone discern.

This dressing called for 1/4 cup olive oil, 1/4 red wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, 2 cloves minced garlic (I whipped out my Microplane grater), 1 teaspoon paprika, 1/2 teaspoon oregano (dried), 3/4 teaspoon salt, and a few pinches of black pepper. Pour into a bowl and whisk together in minutes. Easy, fast, fun, and all with a fresh and complex flavor. Pour into a bowl and whisk together in minutes. Dijon mustard is another lovely add-on in salad dressings.

We couldn't resist playing with the oil and vinegar before adding the other ingredients. I *heart* Shelby and Mita!

The salad itself was simply sliced red onions, sliced mushrooms, cannellini beans, arugula, and bulgur. We barely took note of the proportions and adjusted at our personal discretion. Bulgur (i.e. cracked wheat) makes for a particularly filling salad — this could have been a meal of its own. The key was letting the dressing permeate the salad. Bulgur is one of the best flavor sponges and I guarantee that the salad would have proved even better if it had the chance to soak up the dressing overnight.

Some say the salad stole the show.

Lovely Latkes:

I made these latkes for the first time last year; they contain beets, carrots, and sweet potatoes in contrast to the traditional plain potato latkes. Chock full of vitamins evident in their vibrant color!

Vegetables are beautiful without a filter. We simply threw beets, carrots, and sweet potatoes through the grater on my food processor to create this warm-toned rainbow reminiscent of autumn (I suspect this color is row origin of the recipe name--Autumn Latkes).

Having a food processor is life-changing. Or, it was for me. It facilitates the fast creation of complex dishes that may be otherwise inaccessible. The latkes were a little time-consuming and messy, but definitely worth it. Beware: beets stain! Vegan latkes are held together by a little flour, cornstarch, and water. Then they are formed into balls and pan-fried in olive oil.

I kept trying to pretend my hand was bleeding, though it was only the beet juice. It was never funny.

We also whipped out the food processor to make [vegan] Horseradish-Dill Sour Cream, made using tofu, apple cider vinegar, agave, grapeseed oil, garlic, dill, and horseradish. This may sound gross to any omnivores, but it is actually delicious and made the latkes the amazing entree that they were. Don’t knock it until you try it. Plus, it’s a much healthier option with a richer taste than traditional dairy sour cream.

Apple sauce, sour cream, and latkes composed the perfect main course.

 Leftovers:

As mentioned, I froze a portion of the tiramisu from the week prior to be reserved at this meal. It proved untouched by the freezer and was just as delicious as it was the week before! I bring this up because sometimes leftovers get a bad reputation. Freezing food is a great way to save time, but some foods don’t freeze well; particularly food with high water-content should not be frozen– items like leafy greens. I’ve had great luck with many baked goods, tomato sauces, doughs, berries, and soups! Freezing also allows you to make large batches and preserve your creations without growing tired of the same dish after a week of eating it.

Additionally, some food is actually better tasting leftover because it has had time to marinate further. Soups, chills, and salads are often more delicious the next day.

Thanks for having me, Mita and Shelby!

Danielle joined Shelby, Mita, and me near the end of our meal.

Meal Two: Ionut, birthday edition

Last week, I was bestowed a particularly delightful honor — to cook for a longtime friend on his birthday. However, with great honor comes great responsibility. I spent a lot of time stressing about Ionut’s birthday menu, particularly because he just may be Meals with MelRob’s number one fan, not to mention a professional blogger of his own, guyzeyez. I wanted to tantalize him with an appetizer, impress him with the main course, and finally seduce him with dessert. Did I succeed? Read on and you can decide for yourself.

The Menu:

White bean and asparagus dip (adapted from this recipe) with tortilla chips, using parsley in place of basil

Homemade bread bowls (adapted from this “Health Nut” recipe) – I used a margarine and soy milk wash to substitute the traditional egg wash

– Pure de Calabacin, i.e. zucchini and squash soup (complements of Morgan & York via Locavorious)

Pumpkin “Tiramisu” (from Chef Chloe’s blog) 

Breakdown:

As I write about this meal, I realize one of the tragic shortcomings about a blog attempting to share experiences centered around food, eating, and cooking: nothing can substitute the experience of taste or how it feels to be warmed from the inside out after eating a bowl of warm soup in the winter. Or the way fresh bread smells, melts in the mouth. Luckily, pictures of food (i.e.,”food porn”) seem to stimulate some important senses for viewers that tend to lend in the vicarious appreciation of meals cooked, consumed. Enjoy!

I'm going through a dip phase; no, not like dipping tobacco. Can you blame me?

Some great things about making dips:

1) Dips are the easiest to make if you have a food processor. Often, you can create a sophisticated dip in under ten minutes by throwing raw or mostly raw ingredients in a food processor. 

2) Liberate yourself from recipes! I rarely measure my ingredients when making a dip and often substitute or add some of my own flare. My fall-back additions tend to be (more) garlic, dijon mustard, various vinegars (like balsamic and red wine), and nutritional yeast. I didn’t have any basil and substituted parsley in the White Bean and Asparagus dip, still comprising a delicious dip. The flexibility dips offer provides an easy way for new cooks to experiment and bend the “rules” outlined in recipes, potentially boosting one’s self esteem in the kitchen. What else matters, anyway?

3) Impress your friends. I try to all the time via dips and have had pretty successful results. I also use dips to trick people into eating more veggies and/or to try new veggies (or nutritional yeast). Don’t tell my friends, please. 

Stirring the soup, pre-blending.

Blending soups using an immersion blender or standard blender renders even cream-less soups creamy, with rich flavor in every spoonful that will leave dinner guests in awe of the simple complexity.

Soup is s[o]uper and blended soup is great, see the above caption, but please don’t burn yourself or otherwise cause bodily or emotional harm to yourself or others in the process. The zucchini and summer squash used were complements of my frozen CSA, as was the asparagus used in the dip. THX, LOCAVORIOUS!

Don't forget to garnish, unless you want guests to forget your meal. #harshtruths

Some notes on the bread bowls:

1) I am a very novice bread baker and making these made me very nervous, but no one could tell! I literally googled any questions and concerns I had regarding the dough consistency and the bread flourished. I used a pizza stone on which to bake the bread, but it’s not necessary. 

2) I found out by the last bread bowl that capturing the bowl shape is dependent on letting the final rise occur inside a bowl. Go figure. 

Words cannot describe.

Layers: vanilla cake with an espresso and amaretto soak, pumpkin creme, and whipped chocolate tofu topping.

I want to eat this right now.

“Tiramisu” notes:

1) I’ve never had “real” tiramisu, but I don’t think this is an approximate. Still, it was a fantastically moist cake and the espresso-amaretto soak really shined through and I would dare to add more next time. The three hours it took to make this were ABSOLUTELY worth it. 

2) The whipped topping I made was too runny and I would not turn to tofu again for this base. Soy can have a weird aftertaste that is not covered or complementary in the sweet realm of desserts, though I love tofu sour “creams”.

Thoughts on Intimacy: 

Alan, Ionut, and Megan, about to enjoy their Meal with MelRob. Note bread bowls of varying bowl form, and, actual bowl.

As I stressed over cooking the perfect birthday meal for Ionut, I jotted down ideas that included soup, bread bowls, and asparagus, though I couldn’t initially pinpoint why these sounded like excellent ideas for Ionut’s dinner. It warmed my heart to remember later that Ionut loves asparagus and appreciates a good soup. Ionut reminded me that bread bowls are a big thing in Romania (from where his family originates). I couldn’t recall the moments in which I mapped out these dietary preferences or heard him list these items as favorites; yet, I made these connections on some level, knowing his taste in a intimate way that rendered this meal a product of years of friendship as well as a foundation on which to generate new intimacies among friends.

After the fourth spill at this meal, I felt momentarily disheartened.

Birthday Boy

Photo credit to Ionut’s iPhone and cool filter application that I don’t understand, but now want.

Update and A New Goal: Donations towards a Cooking Challenge

I was gifted a bag of black beans and a box of pasta by my first dinner guests and, soon, an idea was formulated: what if I asked for a non-perishable, vegan-food item (frozen, canned, jarred, dehydrated, etc.) from every person that I fed over the course of Meals with MelRob and, after it all, created a multi-course meal with the sum of these ingredients? The answer: something pretty cool and delicious composed of four months of stories.

Reflections on Cooking, Eating, and Storytelling

At the first Meal with MelRob, I asked my hosts to describe their relationship to eating and cooking, becoming saddened when I heard the consensus that often my companions felt that they had no time to cook regularly, that eating was often a necessity not an act of savoring in the life of a student. I wanted to articulate just why I enjoy the act of cooking and, in particular, social cooking ventures. I like to feed people because it’s a problem I can solve. What I mean is that life can be stressful, particularly for a student wrapped-up in schoolwork, job-work, extracurriculars, and college-related angst, all alongside other personal stressors. For me, cooking proves one of the small ways through which I feel accomplished on an everyday basis. Just think, students: No, you may not have started that eight-to-ten page paper due tomorrow, but you cooked a damn good meal that your roommates won’t forget.

Smiling, chatting over the main course - Southwestern Black Bean and Corn Chowder.

While I was cooking, I noticed how often I was telling stories about the ingredients, recipes, and food. Now, maybe this is because I am an English major and am generally convinced that everything has something to do with storytelling, narratives, etc., but maybe there is something more to this thought. Storytelling is one of the reasons using and eating local ingredients makes me swoon. I love knowing the story of the food I am relying on to produce delicious meals and sharing that story with those whom I am dining. I consider cooking to be a way of forging a relationship with my food and local food in particular allows me to establish a particularly intimate connection with food sustaining me. Thus, feeding others becomes a way of sharing stories and intimacy, all while giving the chef the satisfaction of creation.

People are also often daunted by cooking, feeling that the time and skills required are out of their reach. I only began really cooking on regular basis about a year and a half ago when I became a vegan. I purchased Vegan on the Cheap and started trying out recipes without any prior knowledge or experience. Cooking doesn’t have to be hard and that good cooking doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming (thanks for teaching me this, Vegan on the Cheap). Also, failures in the kitchen do not denote the end of the world and, oh heyyy, they provide often hilarious stories as well as valuable learning opportunities for the most green and the most-seasoned chef alike. Follow recipes for now and you’ll be surprised when you begin to naturally stray and add twists of your own to the mix.

The second batch of Cranberry Salsa for the first Meal with MelRob was made by the hosts; the short list of ingredients and basic prep rendered it an easy and fast, yet complex-tasting creation.

Meal One: Alex

Last Wednesday I cooked my first meal for Meals with MelRob or my friend, Alex and a few of his friends.

So, what was on the menu?

– Cheapamole (credit to Vegan on the Cheap, p. 35) 

– Cranberry Salsa (from the Vegan Stoner)

– Southwestern Black Bean and Corn Chowder (again, credit to Vegan on the Cheap, p. 68)

– Lemon Bars (via Veganomicon, p.244)

I pre-made the Lemon Bars and Cheapamole, also pre-cooking the black beans I had soaked for the Southwestern Chowder because it can be stressful to prepare several dishes at once, particularly in an unfamiliar kitchen. Plus, the suitcase I am using to transport the bulk of my ingredients and cooking accessories is only so big.

My cooking baggage, much lighter than my emotional baggage.

The Meal:

When I arrived at Alex’s, I whipped out the Cheapamole, a guacamole lookalike made with  unthawed frozen peas and white beans, to munch on with the tortilla chips, while throwing together a quick batch of Cranberry Salsa to accompany in my food processor. The Cheapamole proved a fantastic, cheap, and less-fatty alternative to guacamole that tasted pretty close to home, solidifying my steadfast faith in the wonders of peas, an under appreciated vegetable. Similarly, the Cranberry Salsa recipe was quite delicious and just as easy as the Cheapamole recipe to throw together; it can be found on The Vegan Stoner, a gem of a blog with lots of easy recipes that are detailed in a surmountable fashion including notably precious illustrations. The cranberries I used for this salsa were actually grown locally and frozen, distributed to me as part of my winter farm share through Locavorious, and deliciously tart and satisfying all on their own as well as an integral part of the salsa.

What do you get when you put cranberries, green onions, and agave into a food processor? Cranberry Salsa.

Cheapamole, Cranberry Salsa, 'n Chips

Soon, I had Alex pour me a glass of wine and I began cutting yellow onions for the Southwestern Black Bean and Corn Chowder from Robin Robertson’s Vegan on the Cheap. This recipe is another simple gem that uses own of my favorite powerhouse seasonings: smoked paprika, the smell of which alone gets me every time. I think the smoked paprika redeems the perceived shortcomings of vegan food held by omnivores due to its rich smoky flavor many associate with meat dishes alone. The sweet corn was also part of my winter farm share from Locavorious, and the bean, onions, and garlic were all Michigan-grown. We garnished the chowder with cilantro and what was left of the tortilla chips.

Southwestern Black Bean and Corn Chower, even better leftover after the flavors have had more time to stew.

The final product, as lovely as it was tasty.

The lemon bars were a rushed labor of love and also comprised my first dealings with the mysterious agar-agar sometimes called for in vegan cooking. Agar flakes are a plant-based gelatin and I can now attest to their ability to successfully create gelatinous substances. Get it, agar-agar. Get it.

The Lemon Bar recipe was from Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero’s infamous Veganomicon. I would have to say that these lemon bars are my favorite over others I have tried, some of which included ingredients like tofu. The crust was crumbly, yet melt-in-your mouth rich, while the filling distinctly lemony-fresh, tart, and sweet. However, I would say that the hours of cooling time and layers of preparation between the lemon zesting and juicing, crust construction, and filling manufacture, combined with the fact that this is a dessert best served the day it is made, render this a creation for special occasions only. The texture got a little too gelatinous for me after the first day and I think next time I would bake a half batch of this recipe, downsizing from the 13”X9” pan.

I would also recommend that everyone try cooking with agar-agar. It can be fun to try new ingredients and recipes and, hey, you can even read up on the science behind baking in many recipe books in the process if that’s your thing. Vegan baking has really pushed me to question and understand how and what exactly is going on in the oven after I close the door.

Sprinkle confectioner's (powdered) sugar on top immediately before serving, but do a better job than I did. Seriously.

Teaser: On my way to the first [of many] meals

As I positioned my low-quality, high-character Kodak mini into my car’s cup holder, strategically utilizing my gloves as a makeshift camera stand to angle the device vaguely in my direction, I suspected the first meal with MelRob would be a success, also suspecting that I was risking my life in the process of speaking and driving while occasionally making eye-contact with the lens (I have never been a strong multi-tasker). Rest assured; I did survive to cook the first edition of Meals with MelRob and am writing this now. Check out the video of this awkward moment as my cooking adventure takes off. Pictures and details of my first meal with my friend Alex to come!