Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Cookbook Review: Tassajara Cooking

     A couple months back I picked up a new cookbook at Powell’s in downtown Portland I randomly came across while browsing. The book is from the early 1970s, but doesn’t have the kitschy 1970s cookbook feel to it. More of a guide book, this is quite the un-recipe book, to be honest. There are no pictures, but it does offer a good variety of hand-drawn illustrations that show you how to chop a particular vegetable or just a simple image of a kitchen inspired still life.

     Tassajara Cooking is named for the world famous Zen training center founded in California in 1967. The book was a combined effort of the residents, family members, and friends of the Zen Center.

     The back of the book just might be my favorite cover of all time:

This is a book to help you actually cook – a cooking book. The recipes are not for you to follow, they are for you to create, invent, test.
It explains things you need to know, and things to watch out for. There are plenty of things left for you to discover, learn, stumble upon.
You’re on your own.
Together with everything.

     Created by the folks at the San Francisco Zen Center and published by Shambhala, the book is fully vegetarian and divided into five main sections: Beginning, Cooking Vegetables, Other Basic Ingredients, Pumpkin Isn’t Always Pie, and Good Friends.

     The first section offers tips on caring for your kitchen knives, how to tackle some basic cooking techniques, and also offers a brief rundown of common vegetables, grains, and herbs used around the typical vegetarian kitchen.

     Next up is a good section on vegetables – potatoes, leeks, garlic, carrots, cabbage, mushrooms, corn, and on and on. This section is broken down into warmer and cooler weather with an oddball section for other stuff. Overall, there are tons of ideas and very basic outlines for a variety of recipes.

     The third section of the book, Other Basic Ingredients, covers fruits, nuts, beans, seeds, dairy, eggs, grains, and pasta. There are some unique ideas on fruit here, so it’s not to be overlooked. The bean and legume area is just as important as well, how to not split your beans while they’re cooking, and cooking times for pressure cookers as well as just an open boil on the stove.

     Pumpkin Isn’t Always Pie takes a slight detour from the rest of the book which focuses more on simple flavors and showcasing the ingredients in their own right. Here, we are given more complex and strong flavors for salads, dressings, soups, stocks, and sauces.

     Lastly, we are given a briefing of some of the true work-horses of the kitchen: our cutting boards, bowls, pans, and the like. Talk about care and storage is brief but loaded with good information like don’t use your kitchen sponge on the floors or your dish towel on your face and hands. Cleaning and care are mostly discussed here with a reminder that ‘cooking makes cleaning possible and cleaning makes cooking possible’.

     What I enjoy most about the book is the emphasis to create simple meals using just what you have on hand before acquiring any additional goods or produce. I’ve leant some cookbooks and recipes out to friends in the past and I heard back they weren’t able to make anything because they were missing one or two of the ingredients. I try to offer advice to substitute things out or just make the dish without, and this is a radical concept to some folks. I feel that the guide book style of cookbooks, like Tassajara Cooking and The Flavor Bible, are best suited for these individuals. Everyone’s comfort level is different in the kitchen and this is a great way to learn to cook rather than learning to follow a recipe.

- Patricia
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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Sushi - Easier Than You Think

     Sushi can be ridiculously expensive when you eat out, even at the cheap little sushi-go-round places that are becoming more popular these days. To combat this dilemma but still get our sushi fix, I’ve been making it at home for probably 5 or 6 years now. When talking to friends or family about dinner options and I mention sushi, they often wonder if I’m being serious about making it at home or if just referring to ordering take out.

     It seems when you mention making sushi, people often conjure up images of a serious-faced man behind the counter in a white ensemble with a ridiculously sharp knife and decades of experience. While I do not dispute this is probably a badass sushi spot to imagine, the reality of making it at home is super easy and much less intimidating than this imagery.

     Just to be clear, we still go out for sushi every great once in a while. We usually go out so I can enjoy the salmon or tuna rolls and Thomas can enjoy some tempura vegetables. Saki is usually a given, as well. Being pregnant, however, the raw fish and Saki is off limits to me for a while, so we pick another fare to grub on.

     Making sushi at home requires only one essential tool: a very sharp knife. We find that using a serrated bread knife, not a steak knife or serrated utility knife, is the magic trick for us. We use the Victorinox 10-1/4-Inch Fibrox Wavy Bread Knife . Thomas does the cutting and I do the rolling, but the handle on this knife is made of Fibrox, a great material to keep your hand from slipping around if it is wet or has some grease on it. Our go to kitchen set of knives all feature this handle and we love them.

     Beyond the sharp knife, you need to know how to cook some sushi rice. No brainer here, you can search around for some tips and tricks, or if you have a rice cooker, it is super easy for you. Otherwise, I’ll give you my sushi rice cooking rundown. Water to rice ratio should be 2:1, so 2 cups of water for 1 cup of dry rice. We just make one cup of rice for the two of us and usually get about 5 or 6 rolls. Bring your water to a boil, dump in your rice, stir it well and turn it way down to low-medium and put a lid on it. I have an electric stove with a 1-10 dial system and I put it around 2.5. Don’t peak at your rice. Don’t do it. You might have a little bubble over or some spitting from around the lid, but this is normal. If it’s pouring out, I’d turn it down even more. Low and slow is the key here. It takes about 10 minutes or so, give or take a couple to finish the rice. Turn the heat off when it has finished.

     If you want to season your rice, do it when the cooking has finished. For one cup of rice, I use 1 tablespoon each of rice vinegar, tamari (gluten free soy sauce), and sugar. Swirl this around in a bowl or cup to help dissolve the sugar then dump into the rice and fluff with a fork. Let the rice sit with a lid on it while you finish up the rest of the prep work.

     Rolling the sushi seems to be what intimidates folks the most. I use a cutting board or my counter. No fancy bamboo mats or paddles, just my hands and a clean, dry flat surface. Get out a sheet of your nori (the seaweed wrap for the sushi) and lay it down on the working surface. It usually comes as a rectangle, and you’ll want a short side toward you. I use a 1/3 cup measuring cup to scoop rice out for consistency. Spread your rice around to almost the edges with a fork, leaving about a 1” – 1.5” space at the side closest to you for placing your fillings.

     Once you have your filling in place, place your fingers near the top of your fillings and scoop up the edge of the nori with your thumbs. Now that you’ve got the roll started, just use your fingers and thumbs to walk the roll up the rice covered nori, tucking in any loose filling that shoot out the ends. Transfer seam side down to a plate or another cutting board for cutting.

     Filling options are fairly open-ended here and where your creativity (and random leftover veggies) comes into play! We’ve used cream cheese (vegan or regular), match-stick sliced carrots, cucumbers, pickles, green onions, red onions, avocado, sesame seeds sprinkled on the rice, lettuce, spinach, kale, hot mustard smeared on the nori under the fillings, and radishes just to name what I can think of right now. It really is open to whatever you want to put in there.

Generic Sushi
Serves 2

Toasted nori - look for this in the International food isle or in a specialty store if you have one nearby. Amazon also has good options.

For the rice:
1 cup dry sushi rice
2 cups water
1 tbs rice vinegar
1 tbs sugar
1 tbs tamari

For the filling:
(Filling options are endless, but here are some suggestions based on my favorite fillings)
Cream cheese
Green onions
Red onions
Sesame seeds

First... Boil water, add rice, stir, reduce heat down to low and cover. Cook for around 10 minutes. Mix the tamari, vinegar, and sugar in a bowl before adding to rice after cooking is done. Fluff with fork and let sit for a few more minutes while you finish prep work.

Then... Prep your filling choices, cutting them into match-stick shaped pieces. They don't have to be uniform or pretty, just a general shape so they roll easier.

Finally... Place a sheet of nori onto your working surface, place 1/3 cup of rice in the middle, and smooth out to near the edges, leaving around 1" - 1.5" at the bottom end to place your ingredients. Roll the sushi, using your fingers to stabilize the filling and your thumbs to flip the end up, and walk the roll to the top of the nori. Transfer seam side down to a plate for cutting.

     One of the things I didn’t mention here is how great of a couple’s activity making sushi is. There is a good bit of prep work involved with all the cutting and various little things to do. It is something that I look forward to making a couple times each month with my spouse, even though we almost always make dinner together. We both really enjoy the meal, thinking of new filling ideas, or just noshing on sushi and Saki while we watch a movie together.

- Patricia
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Friday, December 12, 2014

Artichoke & Lemon Pasta

     There isn’t too much more that I love than a simple bowl of pasta dressed up just slightly with a little something special. It is the ultimate in comfort foods for me and I could eat pasta almost every day for lunch at work with no regrets. I would make it more often at home, but the spouse isn’t the biggest pasta fan and tires on it rather quickly, so I try for maybe twice a month or so.

     This pasta dish is a quick throw together lunch for one, or you could easily double or triple it for dinner for the family or for several lunches during the week. It comes together so quickly, that I’ll sometimes make it in the morning while I’m scurrying around the house getting ready for work. I try to heat up my lunch and store it in a thermos so I can avoid the lines at the microwave in the break room and the awkward conversations that brings. It is also super convenient to just grab my thermos and walk over to a local park and eat lunch outside – it makes for a great change of scenery.

Artichoke & Lemon Pasta
Serves 1 hungry person

1/3 – 1/2 Jar of marinated artichoke hearts
1/4 bag Trader Joes Brown Rice Pasta
1/2 Fresh lemon

Optional Toppings
If you’re feeling ambitious, you can zest a bit of the lemon into the pasta
For a creamier pasta dish, add a bit of non-dairy salad dressing. I like Drew's All-Natural Salad Dressing and 10 Minute Marinade, Roasted Garlic & Peppercorn, 12-Ounce Bottle

First... Boil your pasta according to bag instructions, drain, and return to pan. If you want this to be a cold dish, which is equally delicious, rinse your pasta in cold water for a minute or two.

Then... Remove the artichoke hearts from the jar and cut into quarters. Separate the layers and add to pasta. Squeeze the lemon, being careful to avoid seeds, into the pasta.

Finally... Stir well, adding any optional toppings you want, before serving immediately or packing away for lunch.

- Patricia
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Friday, December 5, 2014

Major Updates

     Since my last post at the end of August I've had a whirlwind of activity in my life. Sadly, not all of it has been positive; all of it, however, has generated an even deeper appreciation and thankfulness for those around me.

     September started out beautifully with a visit from Thomas’ mother. She’s a travelling wonder and will hop in the car at the drop of a hat and drive across the country on a whim. All the way up from Texas to Oregon she trekked with a great friend of hers and they stayed with us for just over a week. Always the traveler, we couldn't stay indoors for hardly any stretch of time and were able to explore Symons State Park on the Oregon coast, the Tillamook cheese factory, the Oregon Zoo, and Munson Creek Falls near Tillamook. Both Thomas and I love being outdoors and thankfully his mom is also keen for hiking and the outdoors.

     After we said our good-byes and got back to some sort of normal after all that activity, I became violently ill about three weeks or so later. I thought it was a horrendous stomach bug that caused me to vomit at the drop of a hat, but then the fatigue hit me. I had pneumonia about ten years ago and still remember how staggeringly tiring it was to get out of bed and use the bathroom and go back to bed. This fatigue was like that – possibly worse, but no respiratory issues. After about a week, Thomas noted that I was also late for my monthly cycle. I think I had known this, but was so horribly ill, I probably pushed this to my last of my list of shit to care about. Thomas was scheduled to leave town for several weeks on 21st October, so I quickly scheduled a doctor appointment for a prenatal checkup. They don’t actually see you for several weeks, but this allowed me to queasily make my way to the clinic for a blood draw. This was the morning of the 21st and the doctor called me the following day saying I was very pregnant. Whoa nelly.

     With Thomas out of town for the next several weeks, I was able to become a hermit in the house and take care of myself the best I could manage to. He didn’t return until 7th November and I was still pretty ill at this point. I lost 20+ pounds during this one month period and was thinking why the hell do people do this willingly? Thankfully, we have grocery delivery available to us here from Safeway and I did a couple nights of takeout when I had the stomach to face solid food.

     The funny thing about the timing on this was during the time Thomas’ mother was here, she was even prodding us about having children. Neither Thomas nor I are over the moon to have kids in a hurry, it was always something ‘we’ll do later’. Like ten years later, even after being together for nearly 9 years.

     Regardless, it happened now and we’re pretty okay with it. I’m not excited, per se, but I am looking forward to all it will bring our lives and I couldn’t imagine a better person I would want to have such a close relationship and impact on my children than Thomas. Our relationship is amazing and it’ll be interesting to see how it goes over the next handful of years.

     The middle and end of November was pretty horrible for both Thomas and me. I lost one of my sisters on the 16th to heart failure. She had just turned 59. Because of our age difference, we were not the closest of sisters, but my heart still mourns for her and the loss her children must be facing. To follow that up, our beloved 13 year old Manx cat, Genghis, became suddenly ill on 19th November and passed away peacefully in our bed, where he loved to sleep with us, on 22nd November. Our hearts are truly heavy, even now, with everything going on and changing in our household.

     December has been fairly positive for us thus far. I’m not nearly as ill, starting my second trimester, and Thomas has been called back to work for his seasonal job and I’ll follow in January. We’re holding each other up and doing a pretty alright job of it.

     Thanks for letting me catch up on non-food related news with you! I’ll be posting a Thanksgiving recap here in a couple days and hopefully get some more recipes and cookbook reviews up for you guys.

- Patricia
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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Cookbook Review: reFresh Contemporary Vegan Recipes From the Award Winning Fresh Restaurants

     I initially came across reFresh several years back at the local library where I brought it to the table along with an armload of other books to browse through. Along with this gem, I had also grabbed The Flavor Bible. You can read about my love affair with that book and how it changed my entire cooking world here. These two books really stood out to me and I ended up circling back around to them both in the following years for either purchase or at the local library once again.

     Published by John Wiley & Sons out of Canada, reFresh: Contemporary Vegan Recipes From the Award Winning Fresh Restaurants is written by Ruth Tal and Jennifer Houston, co-owners of Fresh. Jennifer is the main influence behind the recipes it seems, with Ruth providing more insight into the food and stories behind the recipes. At the heart of their book is an earnest wish for people to more often seek out healthy food choices and for this to be viewed as normal rather than fringe.

     To accomplish this, the authors present simple recipes that build on a few basic meal ideas. For example, they take a bowl of rice and dress it up in seven drastically different ways to show how such a basic item can be used to help stretch your budget without making you feel like you’re eating the same thing every night.

     The beginning of the book presents an essay on the approach to food and cooking, followed by a few kitchen pointers and tips, before easing right into herb blends and a few light recipes.

     One of my favorite dishes out of the book was Spicy Tomato with Chipotle and Spinach. I usually end up fudging recipes from not having everything on hand and even with omitting the roasting of the red pepper, it was still delicious. I also subbed out chipotle in adobo sauce for ½ a dried chipotle pepper plus some house-blend Mexican seasoning.

     While the book is not actually divided into sections, the last half of the book is dedicated to smoothies and juice blends you can do at home. You could probably get away with using a very nice blender, but having a juicer will keep the blender you own from burning out and will also provide you with a much finer consistency in the liquid, reducing chunks and clumps. I’m not a big juicer, but these recipes are presented in a way that is very consumer-friendly with easy to follow directions and recipes that taste delicious.

     You can find the book on Amazon for $6.00 as of this writing, and I’m sure it will stay under $10 for quite some time. This would make a great reference book for new cooks, those starting on a healthier lifestyle, or anyone looking to get out of a cooking rut.

     Let me know if you’ve read this and what you enjoyed about it. Any recipes or ideas that were winners for you?

- Patricia

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Baked Avocado

     One of my all-time summer favorites to make is my Southwest Salad. It requires zero cooking, very little prep time, and provides an excellent refreshment to hot summer afternoons. The star in that salad is a ripe avocado.

        You see, the plan was to make this salad for lunch last weekend. After our breakfast and coffee were finished Saturday morning, I ran out to grab a few things from the store including the avocado I needed to make lunch. While choosing my avocado, I sneakily used that trick where you remove the little brown stem-thing and see what color it is underneath. Green is perfect and brown is too ripe, supposedly. I got a green one, first grab. Super score.

        What ended up happening as I excitedly cut into the avocado was encountering something like a force field below the skin. I did manage to get it halved with all of my fingers intact, but the mother of all unripe avocados was now sitting before me. Ugh.

        I searched around trying to find some quick fixes, but none were feasible considering I wanted cubes, not mush. I asked my spouse for input and he suggested baking it. I resisted at first because I’m eating as little milk as possible these days and he doesn’t eat eggs, and most baked avocado recipes out there are all about sticking an egg in the middle of it and adding cheese. We decided to just slice up the avocado, bake it, and eat it alongside pintos and some leftover Mexican Rice.

        I was over the moon with this new dish after my first bite! The avocado was quite firm prior to cooking and it developed a delicious outside skin and a smooth, warm inside that was still just a little firm to the bite. I paired this lunch with 2Towns BrightCider and it was an outstanding accompaniment to the baked avocado. I have been raving it about it every few day since we ate this. I highly recommend you try it. We topped this with diced sweet onions and he added some shaved smoked cheddar.

Baked Avocado
Serves 2

For the rice & beans:
1 ¼ C water
1 C salsa
1 C white rice
1 can beans of choice (pintos, black, or red would work really well here)

For the avocados:
1 firm avocado
Drizzle olive oil
Black pepper
Chipotle powder

Optional toppings:
Sour cream
Shredded cheese
Diced green/white/red onions

First... Preheat your oven to 350* and line a heavy baking sheet with parchment or foil.

Then... Slice a halved avocado and remove the skin. Place avocado pieces into a bowl and top with a drizzle of olive oil and a few dashes of each of the seasonings. Toss around to coat evenly, transfer to the lined pan, and bake for around 20 to 30 minutes, depending on your oven. Test doneness with a fork periodically.

Finally... While the avocado is busy in the oven, get the rice and beans started. Bring water and salsa to a boil, then add rice and stir. Open can of beans and drain in colander, rinsing well. Cook rice until water is absorbed, add beans, and fluff with fork. By this time, the avocados should be about to come out of the oven. Take care of any toppings you want, such as shredded cheese or diced onions.

- Patricia
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Friday, June 20, 2014

Southwest Salad

     Today marks the first day of summer for the Northern Hemisphere and temperatures are starting to heat up here in Oregon. While the heat is not what I endured in Texas, it does seem to be compounded by the lack of indoor air conditioning. In addition to making the house uncomfortable during a good part of the afternoon and early evening, the heat often makes cooking a laughable notion.

     Genuine no-cook options for dinner are scant, so I mostly stick to low-cook or slow-cook foods that keep the heat output to a minimum. Soups made from canned beans or frozen vegetables are good, as are tacos or homemade pizza.

     One of the very few no-cook recipes I make on a regular basis is inspired by cowboy caviar, a salad of black-eyed peas, tomatoes, corn, onions, and the like, that I would often have at office parties or family events down south. I’ve been making this updated version for about two years now, about as long as I’ve lived away from Texas, and one of the reasons I go back to it time and time again is the versatility. Half-used bell pepper in the fridge? Toss it in! One jalapeno and some sad looking cilantro? Perfect additions. This is a great salad that can help you use up produce odds and ends.

Southwest Salad
Serves 2-4

1 Ripe avocado
½ Red onion
1 Can black beans
Frozen or fresh corn
1/3 Bunch cilantro
½ - 1 Jalepeno
Ranch dressing (I use Drew’s Roasted Garlic & Peppercorn Salad Dressing)
½ Lime

First... Peel and cube the avocado, dice fine the red onion, jalapeno, and cilantro, and rinse the black beans in a colander. If you are using fresh corn, now would be the time to cut that away from the cob. Don’t worry about defrosting the corn, just toss it in as is. Toss ingredients into a mixing bowl as you chop your way through.

Then... Pour 2 or 3 tablespoons worth of the ranch dressing into your bowl, then sprinkle around 1 teaspoon each of the paprika, cayenne, and cumin on top.

Finally... Stir well to combine all ingredients before adjusting the seasoning to taste and salt and lime juice.

- Patricia
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