Summery Peach and Sweetcorn Salad with Basil, Welcome August

Summery, Sweet and Peachy

Summery, Sweet and Peachy

It’s officially sweetcorn season, a time of year when by vegetable drawer is packed with a dozen plump ears every time I visit the farmers market. 12 ears of corn, two people, you do the math. We go on a bit of a corn binge.

It’s an annual bacchanal of corn love. Maybe it’s because we both grew up in Illinois. We just love the seasonal bounty, simply boiled, tossed on the grill, or shaved off the cob for all sorts of dishes. I’ve posted some regular faves on the blog in the past, including my Fast and Tasty Corn Saute and a  Raw Corn and Mint Salad, even a Korean Style Corn Pizza.

This week, I was pondering my pile of fresh ears and I saw another seasonal star, languishing on the windowsill. Yes, I had stocked up on some fragrant, blushing peaches at the store, and they were ready to go. It was a thrill to cut into one, as they were just on the edge of over-ripe, heavy with sweet juices. Luckily, they were not too soft, and had not succumbed to any of the many sad disasters that can befall soft fruit. One minute, they are rock hard, the next, mealy and brown inside, you just never can tell how it will go. So this time, I hit the jackpot.

The truth about peaches, is that you can’t really tell whether they have been handled properly. To shop carefully, look for peaches that are not green, but that have yellow backgrounds with a pink blush. The blush is where the sun hit the peach. Fruit that is picked green and rock hard will never ripen. It should be more “tennis ball” firm, at the most. Those mealy peaches that look just fine but turn out to be lumpy and rotten inside? Those were over-chilled at some point in their journey to you. They emerged from that traumatic event looking like innocent little peaches, but they were already ruined when you bought them.

Grr. Big peach growers have a little tool called a “penetrometer” that they use to gauge the ripeness of the peaches at picking time. I guess that is more scientific than just squeezing them.

So, my lovely, smooth textured and ripe peaches were even more exciting, since I was steeling myself for the possibility that they would be duds, like the last batch.

That probably reveals something about my outlook on life. Prepare for the worst, celebrate when good things happen? At least with peaches.

With a ripe, juicy peach in hand, I had a sudden flash of inspiration. Why not put the lush, juicy peaches and crisp, sweet corn in the same dish? With a creamy dressing, the corn would seem fruitier next to the peaches. The peaches would be even more sensuous and tender with the bright corn kernels exploding alongside.

So simple and quick to make

So simple and quick to make

The herbal hit of fresh basil was a good foil for all the sweet, creaminess. A quick spike of red chiles kept it from getting too comforting altogether. It just needed a zing of citrus to balance the super-sweet peaches, and a generous grating of lemon zest did the trick.

You can go vegan with the coconut milk option, which is even better with Thai Basil, and a tablespoon or so of fresh lemon juice. For my yogurt loving friends, you can rely on the acidity of your fave fermented milk product.

So go ahead, take a gamble on some peaches. You’ll do best when you buy local and know your farmer. All that chill trauma happens when they are in trucks from far, far away. Hedge your bets and buy from the closest peach trees, and buy slightly soft, not rock hard.

Of all the gambles you might take in life, this one is worth taking. You win, great peaches, you lose, well, it can go in the compost.

 

Peach and Sweetcorn Salad with Basil and Chiles

Sweet, tangy peaches make a perfect foil for crunchy sweet corn. Vegans can use the coconut milk and lemon juice option, or even a prepared non-dairy yogurt. It’s just so easy.

Serves 4

 

4 ears sweetcorn, about 2 cups kernels

4 peaches, peeled and chopped

1/2 cup fresh basil, slivered

1 cup coconut milk or yogurt (if using coconut milk, stir in a tablespoon of lemon juice)

1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest

3 tablespoons honey or agave

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 large red chile, minced

 

Set up a steamer for the corn kernels. Cut them off the cob and steam for about 2 minutes. Just barely cook them, they will stay sweet and crunchy. Let cool. Chop the peaches and basil, put in a bowl, add the cooled corn.

In a medium bowl, stir the coconut milk or yogurt, lemon zest, honey or agave, salt and chile. Pour over the peach mixture and stir gently. Serve chilled.

 

Peach and Sweetcorn Salad #vegetarian #vegan #glutenfree (2)

 

 

Cool Off with Watermelon Gazpacho

Cool, Savory and Sweet Watermelon Gazpacho

Cool, Savory and Sweet Watermelon Gazpacho

There are few things better suited for each other than a hot, humid summer day and a watermelon. In a sign that the Universe loves us and wants us to be happy, the peak season of the watermelon is in perfect sync with our need for something just exactly like a watermelon.

At the precise moment when we are sweating away our precious bodily fluids, a magical green orb appears, filled with delicious, hydrating fruit. If you have ever grown watermelons, they really do seem magical. A few little seeds go into the dirt, and a spindly vine somehow produces giant, heavy fruit. Tomatoes look like a pale effort by comparison. Cucumbers? Move over, the big fat ball of sweet water is here.

Watermelon is such a tasty treat, you’d probably put it in the category with candy, not health food. Just keep thinking that way. But it’s actually in the latter group.

Dig into that juicy, sweet watermelon and you are loading up on Vitamin C, A and antioxidants like Lycopene. Combining all those with lots of fiber makes watermelon a good deterrent to cancer.  Lycopene is recommended for both heart health and to prevent prostate cancer. The evidence for watermelon as a boon to heart health has been mounting, and watermelon extracts have actually been shown to reduce blood pressure.

Eating plenty of vitamin C is one way to keep asthma under control, along with all the other good things C does.

Choline is an anti-inflammatory nutrient that is high in watermelon, and the Vitamin A and C combo is good for healthy, happy skin. So watermelon appeals to my vanity, as well as my tastebuds.

There’s even an amino acid called L-Citrulline that prevents muscle soreness, so the melon actually helps ease all the muscle aches that come from working in the garden. One theory says that the Citrulline is converted to arginine, which is really good for your arteries and heart health.

When fully ripe, the brilliant flesh of the melon delivers Beta Carotene, another powerful antioxidant.

Yet again, a food that is absolutely delicious and also really nourishing at the same time. One of my favorite things in the world, a win-win of fun and function. Yay watermelon!

Start with Fresh, Crisp Produce

Start with Fresh, Crisp Produce

So while I can bury my face in a stack of watermelon slices with the best of them, occasionally I like to make something out of it. Watermelon Gazpacho is a tasty way to play a little savory and sour with all that sweetness. Cucumbers are also supreme hydrators (and good for that skin!) and they slip effortlessly into this simple soup.

This is more of a Mexican-style Gazpacho than the Spanish and the Spanish-inspired ones I have posted in the past. This one could easily be served with corn chips, if you were in that kind of mood. You could even add a jalapeno, although it might start to tip into salsa territory. Some crusty bread will do, too.

It’s a wonderfully refreshing little soup. Easy, cooling, and fortified with just enough olive oil to keep it from being a beverage. If you want to make more of a meal of it, don’t hesitate to garnish with diced tofu, crumbled feta, or sliced, toasted almonds.

Get Chopping

Get Chopping

I used about half of a seedless red watermelon. You can certainly use an old-school big watermelon, which will have a bit more melon flavor but, you do have to deal with seeds. I chopped everything up in small pieces, then pureed just enough of it to make a frothy soup base to envelop all those tasty chunks. Drizzling in the olive oil as the blender whirred made the olive oil go into suspension, enriching every bite.

Before the Blender

Before the Blender

The whole process took minutes, and I still had half a melon to eat solo. It was perfect for a fast meal on a hot day, with a hefty chunk of whole wheat bread.

Now is the time to indulge in as much watermelon as you can make space for in your fridge. Eating seasonally never tasted so sweet!

 

Watermelon Gazpacho

As I mentioned above, you can always add some weight to this soup with cubed tofu, toasted sliced almonds, crumbled feta, even white or black beans. Serve with a hunk of crusty bread, or corn chips, whichever is easier. Because this is all about EASY.

Serves 4

4 cups watermelon, diced
1/2 large cucumber, diced
1/2 small red bell pepper, diced
2 tablespoons finely chopped red onion
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons cilantro leaves, or fresh mint leaves

Chop the watermelon in small pieces, and put it in a medium bowl. Save the juices as you go, adding them to the bowl. Peel, seed and finely chop the cucumber, red bell pepper and red onion and add to the bowl. Add the salt and lime juice. Stir to mix, then transfer about 1 1/2 cups to a blender and puree, pouring in the olive oil with the machine running. Stir the puree back into the bowl with the chopped watermelon. Serve garnished with cilantro or mint.

 

Refreshing, Delicious, What More Can You Want?

Refreshing, Delicious, What More Can You Want?

Smoked New Potato and Heirloom Tomato Salad

Smoky Baby Yukon Golds with a Sprinkle of Smoked Paprika

Smoky Baby Yukon Golds with a Sprinkle of Smoked Paprika

Last week, I posted a recipe for smoked oyster mushrooms and bruschetta, inspired by the mushrooms that I found at the farmer’s market. Well, my market bonanza was not limited to amazing mushrooms, not by a long shot. I also scored some tiny new potatoes. These babies are not the 2-3 inch long B-sized behemoth new potatoes, but the true marble sized beauties that really embody new-ness. Freshly dug, their papery skin and barely-there eyes called out to me.

And I wanted to smoke them.

You see, I’ve been seeing smoked potato dishes on the menus of cutting-edge restaurants when I travel. Some puree a smoked potato with cream, while some smoke a naked potato and use it as a component in a multi-element dish.

At home, I rarely make a multi-component dish, with painted sauces and little piles of laboriously crafted food. Or should I say, never.

Sorry to burst your bubble, if you thought that food writers and chefs spend their time tweezing and drizzling on a weeknight.

At home, with just me and the sweetheart who gamely eats all my experiments, I don’t have to work that hard. So when I decided to infuse these perfect little potatoes with smoke, I knew that  I was going to hold back any impulse to get fancy. I had to let the smoke lead the way.

So I boiled the precious potatoes whole, in salted water. Standing over the pot with a paring knife, I started poking at the littlest ones within five minutes, just to make sure I didn’t overcook. It’s kind of a sorting game. Stare into the pot, pick the smallest potato, spear it with the knife. It’s done, put it in a bowl. Look for the smallest potato in the pot, spear it, repeat.

Forget your troubles, stare into the pot and poke potatoes. This process is good for you.

Just boiled, halved, and smoked

Just boiled, halved, and smoked

Once the potatoes were tender and cooled off slightly, I halved them all. Put them in an old pan with olive oil and salt, and tossed them to coat.

I got the smoker chips going (see description in last weeks post) and put the pan on the grill, off the heat. These don’t need to cook, just soak in smoke. Once the smoke was really rolling, I just turned off the grill and left them there with the lid closed.

In the interest of simplicity, I wanted a light vinaigrette. I just whisked up a bit of fresh lemon and olive oil, and chopped a beautiful golden heirloom tomato. A few scallions, and a sprinkle of coarse salt and smoked paprika.

Like I said, holding back the impulse to overwhelm the little potatoes. No aioli, no handfuls of herbs. No spice. Just smoke, with a bright note of lemon on top, and some juicy tomato.

Yup. Smoking potatoes is a summertime pastime. Once you have them all infused, you can use them in all sorts of things, from a carb-lovers pizza to a veggie medley with some sauteed sweet corn and peppers. A light coat of mayo would be delicious, too, with some crunchy celery. Bash them with a little creaminess from butter or oil, and you can simply salt and pepper and dig in.

So soak some chips and get smoking. It’s a neat trick that delivers plenty of flavor, with minimal work.

Exactly what we need for summer!

Keeping it simple to show off that smoke

Keeping it simple to show off that smoke

Smoked New Potato and Heirloom Tomato Salad

Serves 4

Soaked wood chips for the grill

1 pound teeny new potatoes

extra virgin olive oil and salt  for the pan

1 large heirloom tomato, chopped

2 large scallions, chopped

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

A sprinkle of smoked paprika

 

Set the grill up to smoke. Take the grate off and get your smoker chip box ready to go, then preheat the grill on high until it is hot. Dump the soaked and drained chips in the box and close the lid, turn off the side that is not directly heating the chips. All you want is for those chips to smolder. Check every 10, to see how the smoke is, sprinkle a little water on if it starts putting out wisps of smoke. Once it is putting out visible smoke, put the pan of potatoes on the cold side of the grill and shut the lid. Turn the heat down under the chips once the smoke is seeping out the sides of the grill. Open occasionally jut to drip some water on the chips.

When the chips are fully smoky, turn off the heat and let the potatoes soak in the smoke for at least 30 minutes, lid closed.

Let the potatoes cool, then put them in a bowl with the tomato and scallions. Whisk the lemon and olive oil with a generous pinch of salt. Pour the dressing over it all and toss gently, then serve sprinkled with smoked paprika and more salt.

 

Smoked Oyster Mushroom Bruschetta, Fun with The Grill

Smoked Oyster Mushroom Bruschetta

Smoked Oyster Mushroom Bruschetta

Summertime is a time for simple food. I know my summer will be brief and intense, so it’s more important to bury my fingers deep in the soil of my garden, or walk along one of the lushly overgrown creek banks than to spend time fussing over elaborate meals.

That’s where the grill comes in. For me, the whole point of using a gas grill is to smoke my food. So I soak my chips, get a glass of something cold, and mind the grill while it infuses deep, smoky umami into my food.

I get why people love the grill. Don’t be fooled by attempts to make it look difficult, it’s really just standing around outside while the fire does the work. Summertime!

So, I love to pop by the farmer’s market and pick up perfectly ripe, fresh vegetables and smoke them. I’m lucky that the St Paul Farmer’s Market has a mushroom vendor, Tom Peterson of Birch Creek Farms. Every Saturday, you can select from his pick of the week, ranging from the familiar baby portabellas and shiitakes, to more exotic pink oyster mushrooms and morels. He even sells chaga tea.

This week, he had a delicate variety of an oyster mushroom-like mushroom he called a Paho, I think. To a myco-phile there is a very important distinction there, but to you, me and most people, this is an oyster mushroom, so don’t worry about finding this specific variety to make the recipe.

I’ve written about smoking tomatoes  on the grill in a past post, click here to read about infusing umami with smoke. Umami is that elusive hard-to-describe savory, meaty quality that comes from certain amino acids and chemicals in all food, not just meat. It’s a good thing to harness when you want to make vegetables more satisfying and exciting.

Mushrooms are a potent source of umami chemistry, too. It’s the glutamate, present in all mushrooms, and even more concentrated in dried mushrooms. In this way of cooking them, the mushrooms will become concentrated and shrunken, and infuse with smoke, making them into true umami-bombs.

So, I soaked some hickory chips for an hour, and pulled the mushroom clusters apart. A drizzle of olive oil, some salt and pepper, and I was good to go. I took the grate off the grill, positioned my rusty smoker box in the bottom, and got out a silicone mat I bought for cooking vegetables on the grill. It’s just a perforated mat, to keep things from falling into the fire. You could use a grill wok, basket, or construct a foil tray to hold the mushrooms.

Beautiful Delicate Mushrooms

Beautiful Delicate Mushrooms

Once the fire was hot, I dumped the wet chips in. This is the point where you need patience. Close the grill and wait for smoke. The wet chips take a while to get smoldering. You don’t want them to be dry and burn up right away, you want a slow smolder. This is when you do a little weeding, drink a little iced tea, and hover in the yard until you smell smoke.

Hickory Chips and Smoky Mushrooms

Hickory Chips and Smoky Mushrooms

Once there is smoke, you can sprinkle a little water on to make it smokier. Turn off the heat on one side of the grill and put the grate on, then the mat or wok on the cool side. Put the mushrooms on and close the lid. Keep the lid closed as much as you can bear. Every ten minutes or so, check on the smoke, turning it down if you have good smoke production, and sprinkling with a few drops of water just before closing the lid. After about 20 minutes, the mushrooms will look slightly shrunken and browned. Turn off the grill, close the lid, and move the mushrooms right over the chips. Let them infuse for another 20-30 minutes.

Now you have a super flavorful ingredient that you can use in all sorts of fun ways. I made a bruschetta, but a pasta, pizza or panini would be equally fantastic. A bowl of soba with sesame and greens, topped with smoked mushrooms? Yes please.

Smoked mushrooms are easy, and you can throw extra on and freeze them, too.

Smoked Oyster Mushroom Bruschetta

Serves 4

8 ounces oyster mushrooms

extra virgin olive oil

coarse salt, freshly cracked pepper

3 cups soaked woodchips, I used hickory, apple would be good too.

1 whole wheat baguette

1 medium tomato, diced

1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, slivered

Spreadable cheese- I used Miyoko’s Truffle Cheese and Triple Creme with Chives, but you can use your choice of soft cashew cheese or chevre

1. Preheat the grill and prepare for smoking (see above.) Separate the mushrooms, toss with olive oil and salt and pepper.

2. Smoke the mushrooms.

3. Slice the baguette and toast it- extra points if you brush it with olive oil and grill it. Spread with your cheese and top with tomatoes, basil and smoked mushrooms, sprinkle with a little more coarse salt. Serve immediately.

Miyoko Schinner, Queen of Vegan Cheese, and Now The Homemade Vegan Pantry

Can you believe it's Vegan Feta?

Can you believe it’s Vegan Feta?

 

Miyoko Schinner is both a grande dame and a hot new face on the vegan scene. She is the author of one of the first wave of vegan cookbooks, the Now and Zen Epicure, which she put out in 1990. That book is out of print, although a revised new version did come out in 2001, the New Now and Zen Epicure. Schinner ran a famous restaurant in San Francisco in the ’90’s, the Now and Zen, and has been a mover and a shaker in all things vegan for at least 30 years.

But her last book, Artisan Vegan Cheese, is responsible for bringing her hot and buzzy global fame, with a whole new set of vegan fans. Yes, Schinner cracked the cheese code. Not content to make the simple cashew cheese puree (that I have been plopping on pizzas and into sandwiches for years) Schinner wanted more.

She made vegan cheeses that made the leap to immortality, with careful fermentation and aging. Her cheeses changed the way we look at fermented nut pastes forever. The book was a huge seller, and Schinner now has a successful vegan cheese production facility, and sells some mock meats, too.

(I hope that you read last weeks post on Miyoko’s “Cheese.” If not, just scroll down later.)

Not content to solve the cheese dilemma, Schinner is now going to make your whole foods life even more complete. She has written a new book.

The Homemade Vegan Pantry: The Art of Making Your Own Staples (Ten Speed Press $22.99)

Yes, she has put out a pantry book, so that you can make whole, home made versions of all the processed vegan foods that line the grocers shelves. Mayo, butter, mock meats, canned soups, pasta, biscuit mix, bread, sauces, energy bars, even mac and cheese mix. Everything you buy pre-made, but made with better ingredients.

SCHI_Homeade Vegan Pantry

After last week’s “cultured nut product” review, I had to give one of the cheese recipes a try. For newbies, the “feta” is a good starter recipes. It’s a process, but it’s really all quite easy. It just takes a few days.

First, I made Rejuvelac. Rejuvelac is one of those old-school health-nut foods that you don’t hear about anymore, and I am happy to see that she has put it to good use. It’s a live, fermented food, full of good bacteria, just like your beloved kombucha and kimchi.  For rejuvelac, all you need is some wheat berries (or quinoa for GF diners) and some water. Sprout the berries, then let them sit at room temp to ferment.

Simple.

Easy to Make, Full of Lactobacteria

Easy to Make, Full of Lactobacteria

The resulting liquid is a culture, and when you add it to your cashew puree, you are seeding it with lactic bacteria to make it ferment. All  this adds umami and a tanginess that is reminiscent of the fermented flavors of cheese. You just let the almond-rejuvelac paste sit, then cook up a gel of water and agar powder to thicken it. Stir that in, spread in a pan, and you have cashew “cheese.”

First a fermentation, then the cheese is set with agar agar

First a fermentation, then the cheese is set with agar agar

After the mixture sets up, it gets a soak in brine, for the familiar briney flavor of Feta.

almond feta

I used the cheese to make a simple Greek Salad with Almond “Feta” The “cheese” was smooth and creamy, and had a mild, tangy note. I served it to a friend, who suspected nothing until I spilled the beans.

It’s not cheese, but it’s got good bacteria, the nutrition of nuts, and the taste is truly satisfying.

I’m looking forward to trying some of the other pantry recipes in the book. I’ve written many articles on the importance of the pantry: If you want to eat well, you have to have good food within arms reach. If your resolution is to eat plant-based, whole foods cuisine, invest the time into stocking up on Miyoko Schinner’s pantry staples.

It will make your life easier and tastier.

(From The Homemade Vegan Pantry: The Art of Making Your Own Staples (Ten Speed Press $22.99) by Miyoko Schinner)

almond “feta” 

I had almost forgotten the joy that feta cheese can add to dishes. For example, the wonderful Greek spinach pie, spanakopita—I had basically given up on this entirely. I’d made and had many vegan versions of it, but without the briny flavor of feta, the flavors just fell flat. After much knocking around in my noggin, I came up with the perfect vegan substitute. Salty and briny, this feta works beautifully crumbled over salads or slightly melted in all of the traditional dishes. Best of all, stored in brine, it keeps for weeks, getting stronger in flavor and more delicious as time goes by (in fact, it vastly improves after a month, so make this weeks ahead of time if you can).

 

2 cups blanched almonds, soaked in water for 12 to 24 hours

1 cup Easy Rejuvelac (see below) or juice from sauerkraut

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

2/3 cup water

2 tablespoons agar powder

BRINE

6 cups water

3/4 cup sea salt or kosher salt

 

Drain and rinse the almonds. Place them in a high-speed blender with the rejuvelac and salt, and process on the highest setting for 1 to 2 minutes until smooth and no longer grainy to the tongue. Pour the mixture into a clean container and cover with a nonpermeable lid or plastic wrap. Leave on your kitchen counter for 1 to 2 days to culture, making sure you taste it each day, until it begins to get tangy. Keep in mind there is no hard and fast rule about how long it needs to culture—your taste buds will have to guide you in determining the right length of time. In warmer weather, it could be just a day, while in cooler weather, it could take 2 days or even longer.

Once the cheese is slightly tangy, you can move onto solidifying it. First, prepare the mold for the cheese by lining an 8-inch square pan with cheesecloth. Combine the water and agar in a medium saucepan and whisk well. Cover the pan with a lid and bring to a simmer over low heat. Don’t peek for 3 to 4 minutes, then check to see if it is bubbling away. At first, if you peek too early, it may look as if it has solidified. However, if you let it simmer over low heat for a couple of minutes more, it will start to liquefy again and bubble away. When the agar is fully dissolved, pour in the cultured almond mixture and whisk immediately until fully combined. Pour the cheese mixture into the cheesecloth-lined pan. Refrigerate for several hours, until hard.

Prepare the brine by whisking together the water and the salt in a large bowl until most of the salt is dissolved. Cut the cheese into four pieces and place in the brine. Cover and let sit for 8 hours at room temperature. Transfer the cheese to a storage container and pour the brine over the cheese until it is halfway submerged. Add more plain water to completely cover the cheese and dilute the brine. Store in the refrigerator for up to 3 or 4 months. The flavor vastly improves after the first 3 to 4 weeks.

MAKES 1 POUND

 

easy rejuvelac

Fear not—making rejuvelac is really not that complicated or scary.

1/2 cup quinoa or wheat berries

Put the quinoa or wheat berries into a 1-quart wide-mouth jar. (Make sure that the grains aren’t already presprouted!). Cover them with water and let sit for 8 to 12 hours, then drain. Secure the top with cheesecloth and rinse and drain the grains twice a day until you see sprouts—quinoa sprouts in less than 24 hours, whereas wheat berries generally take about 2 days. Now fill the jar with filtered water, cover with a lid, and leave at room temperature (out of direct sunlight) for 2 to 3 days, until the water is cloudy and bubbly. Strain out the seeds and refrigerate the liquid, which is now lactic acid–rich rejuvelac. You can turn the strained sprouts into another batch of rejuvelac by filling the jar with water and letting it sit for another couple of days. The rejuvelac keeps in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 weeks.

MAKES ABOUT 4 CUPS

 

Reprinted from THE HOMEMADE VEGAN PANTRY Copyright © 2015 by Miyoko Schinner. Photographs © 2015 by Eva Kolenko. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

 

 Simple Greek Salad with Vegan Feta

Serves 4

1/4 batch feta (about 4 oz)

4 ounces salad spinach, about 4 cups

1 large cucumber, peeled and sliced

2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved

1/2 cup kalamata olives, pitted

2 tablespoons capers, drained

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 clove garlic, crushed

1/2 teaspoon salt

coarsely cracked black pepper

 

Cut the feta into small cubes and reserve. In four large salad bowls, arrange the spinach, cucumber, tomato, olives and capers. In a small cup, whisk the lemon, olive oil, garlic, and salt. Drizzle the dressing over the salads and top with feta and cracked black pepper.

Serve immediately.

Tasting Vegan “Cheese” with a Professional Cheese Taster

What a beautiful cheeseboard!

What a beautiful cheeseboard!

When the vegan lifestyle comes up in conversation, a common refrain is often heard. “I can’t live without cheese.” Because of that, there have been many vegan cheese substitutes manufactured over the years, from the rubbery, unmelting soy cheeses to the melty but not very nutritious versions so popular these days.

I know I have always preferred to make my own nut cheeses, white sauces, and pestos to stand in for cheese. But it took a real visionary to take nut “cheese” to a whole new level.

Welcome, Miyoko Schinner’s new cultured and fermented nut cheeses. You can order them from her Miyoko’s Kitchen Website here. I’ve been hearing about Schinner’s cheese since she came out with the hit book, Artisan Vegan Cheese, and changed the way we think about non-dairy cheese forever. In fact, she calls it “cultured nut product,” and she is right to do so. It’s not a flawed attempt at real cheese, it is really its own thing.

I’ve made some of Schinner’s cheese, and will post a blog about it next week, so watch for that, it is absolutely worth the effort. But if you wanted to buy the cheese, well, you had to wait until she got her new Creamery up and going, then for your local store to carry it. Luckily for me, I scored a sample box, with all ten of the new cultured nut products.

For a fun experiment, I invited a good friend, who also happens to live and breathe cheese, over to taste with me. Elizabeth Nerud is a Certified Cheese Professional in the American Cheese Society, and manages a bustling cheese department in downtown Minneapolis. Liz is a trained, skilled taster, who can sense and name qualities in cheese that most people just call: “um, tasty.” She came along with an open mind and great enthusiasm for trying this new kind of ferment.

A Trained Cheese Taster, Elizabeth Nerud.

A Trained Cheese Taster, Elizabeth Nerud.

I was a little nervous. What if she hated it?

So we set about our tasting, and I took notes. It was a blast.

First up, Mount Vesuvius Black Ash

It looks like it was painted on, the ash is so black.

It is deeply coated with black ash.

Liz tasted. “It’s got balanced salt, and tanginess. A little smokiness in the ash. It’s really beautiful, with a nice range of flavors, it’s lively and has a good presence.” The ash was a big part of it. “The ash is prominent, clean, kind of vegetal, like the smell of ozone before the rain.”

Number 2, Fresh Loire Valley in a Fig Leaf.

Liz found the fig leaf wrap delightful, and took a little taste of the leaves themselves before trying the creamy interior. “It’s creamy textured, vegetal, and tangy. Lightly toasty and nutty. I can see this on something toasty, like crispy bruschetta, and this would be a great picnic cheese.”

Number 3, Rustic Alpine

“I have a quibble with the name Alpine, this is not associated with what Alpine means. That said, it is perfectly nice. It has a nice range, depth and height, character throughout. The salt is in balance, it’s not fruity, it would be lovely with pears, luscious with grapes.”

Number 4, Farmhouse Cheddar

“It has a nice, slice-able texture, it’s rough and doesn’t cling to the knife.” She admired the shape. “It has a nice crosshatch rind, and a deep taupe or toffee color. It’s very similar to the Alpine, it is a little firmer. Terrific on the whole grain baguette.”

Number 5, Aged English Smoked Farmhouse

The smoked rind of the Smoked Farmhouse

The smoky rind of the Smoked Farmhouse

“It smells very smoky, to me it is a nostalgic smell, because I grew up in a Farmhouse with a kitchen stove that burned wood. It’s very pleasant, it has a little enjoyable metallic quality, like the others, the smoke flavor is very bold, it is absolutely delicious. I’m thinking it would make a terrific sandwich, a BLT or with avocado, or mayo for some creaminess. You need crispy lettuce on there, too.”

Number 6, Double Cream Chive

Liz checked the packages for the fat content. “I’m glad that the double creams have higher fat content. They should. This is super yum city, it’s fantastic. I know I am just taking little tastes, but it makes me want to spread it all on one cracker and stuff it in my mouth. It took me out of the clinical tasting mode and into pure pleasure.”

Number 7, Double Cream Sun-Dried Tomato Garlic

“It has chewy bits of tomato, nice texture, not bold on garlic but tasty. No really strong feeling from me, maybe if you are a big sun-dried tomato fan you would love this one.”

Number 8, French Style Winter Truffle

We fell into a discussion on truffles before proceeding. We hoped that it would be made with real truffles, not the overbearing artificial truffle oil.  As she unwrapped the disk, she commented again on the packaging. “I really love the packaging, the little boxes are like opening a present, and they protect the delicate cheese. It’s a nice sticker, love the blue.”

The Truffle was really soft. “It’s so mousse-like, it looks like duck pate. The nose is different than the others, it’s forward with truffle at first, but kind of understated as it breathes. It’s really appealing, sexy, lush texture. It’s spreadable and pretty, would be good with a few sage leaves, for a Thanksgiving or Christmas celebration.”

Number 9, Double Cream Garlic Herb

“It’s floral, with rosemary, maybe summer savory? It’s tangy and nice, it’s nice that it isn’t full of onion, it’s not as bright green as the chive, it has browner herbs. It’s my favorite spread so far.”

Number 10, Country Style Herbes de Provence

“Very densely herbed, gorgeous texture, I want to sit in a vineyard and slather it on bread. It’s got a great range of flavors. The roundness of the sea salt makes a difference, it’s very present but very pleasant. Love this.”

I breathed a sigh of relief, as did she. “It like it that it’s called cultured nut product, I don’t want to have cheese expectations. There are no milk flavors in it, but it is good. It’s an interesting challenge to talk about it using cheese-specific words, I feel like I am translating new meaning to established terms.”

Liz summed it up beautifully:

“It’s like a tribute to cheese. Cheese is the inspiration, but the execution is a tribute to the product itself. It’s like cheese created the shapes and flavors but it inspired a whole new thing. You want for nothing, you don’t feel like you are sacrificing a thing.”

And that my friends, is how good this stuff is. Call it what you will, it made a cheese taster very happy.

She even took the leftovers.

 

A Trick for the Best Rhubarb Scones

Tender scones with soft, sweet rhubarb

Tender scones with soft, sweet rhubarb

Aah, the enigmatic rhubarb still has me in its thrall. Just walking by the plants gets my mind going, thinking of things to make with those fat, vigorous stalks. At this point, it’s taking up so much room in the garden that I need to use it, just to give the kale and lettuce some sun!

The unique qualities of rhubarb are always a fun challenge. It’s really like a sour, juicy kind of celery, in a way. The sourness needs to be balanced with sweet, and the juiciness needs to be taken into consideration. A sour, watery baked good does nobody any favors.

So I have taken to using an old school technique, called “maceration.” It sounds more complicated that it is. All it means it that I toss the chopped rhubarb with sugar, and let it stand until the juices are released. There a chemical process going on in the sugar-plus-fruit or veg that causes the plant cells to break down and leak out their precious bodily fluids. It’s called osmosis, and the sugar acts to cause the “solvent” of juice to cross over the barrier of the cell walls. On the savory side, salt does the same thing.

All you need to know is that a handful of sugar will do the work of extracting the juice, all while making the fruit or vegetable firmer, and it will hold its shape better in baking. You just have to wait for it to work.

So, for these scones, I just tossed the rhubarb with the sugar for the recipe, and put it away in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, I strained the result, and had enough rhubarb syrup to sweeten the whole batch.

 

An overnight maceration makes all the difference

An overnight maceration makes all the difference

The ease of this simple trick delighted me, since I had just used no effort at all to create a flavorful sweetener, and tenderize the rhubarb in one step. For a tender, whole grain treat, I used heritage Red fife Wheat flour, which has a nutty quality, as well as the slightly lower gluten that makes for a more pastry-friendly flour. Chilled coconut oil was the perfect fat, with the mouthfeel of butter.

Rhubarb Scones #vegan #wholegrain #springtime

I did this on a hot day, so I did chill the scones for about five minutes to firm up the coconut oil before baking. I didn’t want a floppy, spread out scone. I like my scones with some weight to them. These were studded with a generous amount of rhubarb, too.

A quick shaping, a sprinkle of organic sugar, and 15 minutes in the oven, and I had scones. I love it when my backyard gives me such tasty gifts, at no cost to me. Fresh as they could be, my rhubarb stalks were a fantastic addition to my breakfast.

Hot out of the oven

Hot out of the oven

 

Rhubarb Scones 

This makes a batch of six full-sized scones. You can always double it for a dozen, or cut the scones in smaller sizes. If you double, don’t double the salt, just do 3/4 teaspoon. If you make smaller scones, bake them for about 3 minutes less time and test them to see how done they are.

Makes 6

1 1/2 cups chopped rhubarb, 2 stalks
1/2 cup organic sugar, plus more for sprinkling
1 1/2 cups red fife flour
1/4 cup coarse cornmeal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup coconut oil, chilled after measuring
1 medium banana, mashed

The day before, combine the chopped rhubarb and sugar in a measuring cup or bowl, cover and let sit in the refrigerator overnight.
The day of baking, preheat the oven to 400 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment. Drain the rhubarb in a strainer set over a measuring cup or bowl. You should have 1/4 cup of syrup drain off the rhubarb. Reserve both the rhubarb and syrup.
In a large bowl, combine the flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt and stir to mix. Grate in the chilled coconut oil. Toss to coat the coconut oil shreds with flour. In a medium bowl, combine the mashed banana and rhubarb syrup. Quickly stir the banana mixture into the flour mixture to make a stiff dough. Just as it comes together, stir in the rhubarb slices. Mix and turn out onto a floured counter. Form into a disk about an inch thick.
Cut the disk into 6 wedges. Place on the sheet pan and sprinkle with sugar. Chill the pan if the dough is soft- on a hot day the coconut oil will melt. I put the pan in the freezer for about 5 minutes.
Bake for about 15 minutes, until golden brown. Let cool for 5 minutes before serving.

Sandra Gutierrez and Empanada Heaven

So delicious!

So delicious!

Empanadas! Little turnovers, filled with tasty stuff, you had me at hello. Every culture has some kind of dough-wrapped goodie that is irresistible, from the calzones of Italy, the samosas of India, the pasty of Britain, to the steamed dumplings of China. But Empanadas are their own little parcel of heaven.

Thanks to Sandra Gutierrez, we can now delve deeply into the delectable ways that the empanada is perfected in its many home cuisines. Her new book, Empanadas The Hand-Held Pies of Latin America (Stewart Tabori and Chang, $19.95) is a compendium of the many varieties that have evolved from the earliest bread wrapped pies.

According to Gutierrez, the ancestor of today’s empanada was made by the Persians in 250 BCE. Originally the dough was not meant to be eaten, but just to help preserve the foods inside. Eventually the casings became as delectable as the fillings, and the meandering ways of the Ottoman Empire took the form across the Middle East and Europe. The Spanish gave it the name, derived from “empanar,” meaning “wrapped in bread.” Thanks to Columbus, Spain’s foods crossed the ocean to the Americas.

Fast forward a few hundred years, and the empanada has been embraced all across Latin America, where the greatest diversity and variety of empanada types have flourished. From the savory to the sweet, simple to elaborate, Gutierrez captures the mouth-watering array of hand-held treats.

Gluten-avoiders will be thrilled that there are five crust recipes that you can try. Masa, masarepa, tapioca and even yucca and plantains are used to make GF doughs, and the crusts that result are so good that you will want to use them for all sorts of pies. For vegetarians and vegans, there are veg recipes, and plenty that you can veganize by subbing your favorite mock meat for beef.

For today’s blog, I made the Spicy Potato and Peanut Empanadas, a recipe that hails from Columbia. I opted to use the masa dough, although it is usually made with the equally gluten-free cornmeal and cassava dough. The results were spectacular.

Honestly, The filling was so delicious I had to hold back from just eating it with a spoon. It would be a fine stuffing for a burrito, if you find the idea of making the masa crust too daunting. But don’t miss this crust- it fries up like a corn chip, almost as it your tasty filling were encased in Fritos.

The filling takes a little chopping, and it is fine to make it a day ahead, so it can chill and set up overnight.

Potatoes, Serranos, and Peanuts with Achiote

Potatoes, Serranos, and Peanuts with Achiote

Gutierrez offers two options for rolling out the dough: you can use a rolling pin, or a tortilla press. I just happen to have a tortilla press, and this is a really wonderful way to do it. The soft, delicate dough is easy to flatten to an even, thin disk in the press, something that is harder to accomplish by hand.

The recipe says the masa dough makes 12, but I divided it into 20 pieces to match the filling.

Sandra uses a tortilla press

Sandra recommends using a tortilla press

I made the little pastries in a simple turnover shape, but the book describes all kinds of variations, from round to torpedo shaped. These held about 2 tablespoons of filling, and you need to leave room to seal them without breaking.

Filling and Sealing...

Filling and Sealing…

And yes, I dug out my ancient deep-fryer for this. If you want to make yours without frying, there are doughs that work just as well in the oven. I figured it was a rare and special occasion, and I wanted to try these the authentic way.

Frying in my ancient deep fryer!

Frying in my ancient deep fryer!

The resulting empanadas, golden and crispy, were a delight. Filled with the savory, nut-crunchy potato medley, they were absolutely irresistible. I’m sure that all the other recipes are equally delicious. There are chapters of vegetable, chicken, beef, pork and fish empanadas, and  I will definitely proceed to the dessert empanadas chapter next. The salsas and sauces chapter gives you options for gilding the lily, and manages to surprise with some salsas you may not have had before.

Thank you, Sandra Gutierrez, for bringing these little packages to the table. Everyone will find a recipe or two that will thrill their friends and family, even the ones with special diets.

They are truly little gifts, the kind that you can unwrap with your mouth.

 

Masa Dough

Fried or Grilled

Gluten-Free/Vegan

Mexico/Guatemala

In Mexico and Central America, you’ll find empanadas made from corn that has been soaked in water mixed with lye (the chemical known in Spanish as cal ). The process is called nixtamalization and it loosens the outer germ of the kernels, causing them to swell and become plump. The moist corn is then ground into masa or dried and ground into very fine flour called masa harina, used to make tortillas, empanadas, and other things. Empanadas made with this kind of dough can be either grilled or fried, depending on whether one wishes the dough to remain meaty in texture or to turn crispy. When working with masa harina, understand that brands will vary in the amount of water they’ll need to reach the desired consistency. So I recommend testing the dough before rolling it, as described below, and always keeping the dough covered as you work, so it doesn’t dry out. See opposite for more tips on working with this dough.

 

Makes 12 empanadas (I divided it into 20)

 

3 cups (340 g) masa harina, plus more as needed

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

2 to 21⁄2 cups (480 to 600 ml) warm water (110°F/43°C), plus more as needed

 

In a large bowl, whisk together the masa harina and salt. Gradually add 2 cups (480 ml) of the warm water, kneading the mixture with your hand until it comes together into a ball with the consistency of mashed potatoes (if the dough is too dry, add a few more tablespoons of water at a time; if it’s too wet, add a few tablespoons of the masa harina at a time). Turn the dough onto a clean surface and knead it until smooth, about 30 seconds or to the consistency of play dough; return it to the bowl, cover it with a damp kitchen towel, and let it rest for 10 minutes so that all of the liquid can be fully absorbed. To determine whether the dough is the proper consistency, shape a bit of the masa into a ball and press it flat into a disc. If the edges of the masa crack when shaped into discs, add a bit more water (a few tablespoons at a time); if the dough is too soft, add a bit more masa harina (a few tablespoons at a time).

 

Note: The dough is best made just before using but, if needed, it can be made up to 4 hours ahead of time (keep it wrapped in plastic and refrigerated). Empanadas made with this masa dough can be filled up to 1 hour before cooking; keep them covered and refrigerated until ready to grill or fry (depending on what each recipe calls for). Once cooked, the empanadas freeze beautifully (see individual recipes for instructions).

 

Spicy Potato and Peanut Empanadas

Empanadas de Pipian

Colombia

These gluten-free and vegetarian empanadas are spicy, comforting, and exotic all at the same time. They combine the best of African and native Colombian flavors that define the cuisine of the Cauca region. The tomato-based sauce that moistens the filling is called hogao, and although most times it’s not spicy, my recipe carries a good kick courtesy of a hot chile. The potatoes must be diced finely and then cooked just until tender, so that each cube can retain its shape. The result is perhaps the most elegant empanada you’ll find in the Latin American culinary landscape, juxtaposing creamy and crunchy textures that explode on the palate. In Bogota, they’re served as tiny appetizers, dipped into a silken peanut sauce (see Creamy Peanut Sauce, page 165). My empanadas are on the larger side and I serve them as an entree.

 

Makes 20 empanadas

 

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup (120 g) finely chopped white onions

1⁄2 cup (50 g) finely chopped leeks (white and light green parts only)

3 large cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon ground annatto (achiote) or Bijol (see Notes)

1 cup (185 g) seeded and finely chopped plum tomatoes

1⁄2 cup (60 g) roasted red bell pepper , cored, seeded, and finely chopped

1 small serrano pepper, finely chopped (with seeds)

2 teaspoons fine sea salt

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 cup (150 g) ground roasted peanuts (unsalted or lightly salted preferred)

3 cups (455 g) peeled and finely diced Yukon gold potatoes, boiled until fork tender

1 recipe Cornmeal and Cassava Dough (page 27)

Vegetable oil for frying

 

Make the filling: Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions, leeks, garlic, and annatto or Bijol and sauté them for 1 minute, or until fragrant. Add the tomatoes, bell pepper, serrano pepper, salt, and cumin; continue cooking until the mixture has thickened, about 3 minutes. Remove it from the heat and add the peanuts and potatoes. Cover and chill the filling for at least 4 hours or overnight.

 

Assemble the empanadas: After the filling chills, make the dough as directed on page 27. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper; set them aside. Divide the dough into 20 equal pieces (about 2½ ounces/70 g each). Roll each portion into a ball and keep them covered with a damp kitchen towel as you work. Line a tortilla press with a zip-top freezer bag that has been cut open on three sides so that it opens like a book. Place a ball of dough in the middle of the tortilla press and flatten it into a 5½-inch (14-cm) round, about 1⁄8 inch (3 mm) thick (or roll it out with a rolling pin). Place 3 heaping tablespoons of the filling in the middle of the round, leaving a small rim. Use the bag to fold the dough over the filling, forming a half-moon; press the edges together with your fingers to seal. Transfer the empanada to a prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the rest of the dough and filling, keeping the empanadas covered as you go.

 

Fry the empanadas and serve: Fit a large pan with a metal cooling rack and set it aside. In a large skillet with high sides, heat 1 to 1½ inches (2.5 to 3 cm) of vegetable oil to 360°F (180°C). You may also use a deep-fryer according to the manufacturer’s directions. Working in batches of 4 or 5 empanadas at a time, carefully slide them into the oil and fry them until golden, 3 to 4 minutes, turning them over halfway through. If the oil gets too hot as you fry and they’re browning too quickly, lower the temperature and let the oil cool slightly before frying any more. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the fried empanadas to the prepared rack to drain. Serve them immediately or keep them warm in a 250°F (120°C) oven for up to 1 hour before serving.

 

Notes: Once fried, these can be frozen for up to 3 months. Freeze them in a single layer on baking sheets lined with parchment paper; once frozen solid, these can be transferred to freezer boxes or zip-top bags. Reheat them at 350°F (175°C) for 12 to 15 minutes or until their centers are hot.

 

Bijol is a seasoning made with powdered annatto, which dissolves quickly in liquid and tints food yellow. If you use annatto paste in its place, dissolve it in an equal amount of hot water or stock before using it.

 

Cornmeal and Cassava Dough

 

Fried

 

Gluten-free/Vegan

 

South America

 

In Colombia, empanadas from the Cauca region will sometimes be made with a mixture of precooked cornmeal (called harina pan or masarepa) and yuca or cassava flour called almidón de yuca, also known as tapioca starch or tapioca flour. Cassava flour produces both a crunchier crust (almost like a corn chip) and a chewier bite than dough made strictly with cornmeal. The dough is made golden with ground annatto seeds or with a product made of seasoned annatto, called Bijol, which is easy to find in Latin American supermarkets (see Sources, page 172). Use whichever is easier to find, as the taste will be the same. Try my tortilla press method (see page 22) to simplify the process or stay traditional and roll out the dough with a rolling pin. This is a terrific gluten-free recipe that can be used in place of the Master Dough (page 29) used for fried empanadas; they won’t be authentic, but they will be delicious and wheat-free.

 

Makes 20 empanadas

 

3 cups (420 g) precooked yellow cornmeal (masarepa or harina pan) (see Note), plus more as needed

1⁄2 cup (64 g) cassava flour or tapioca starch

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 teaspoon ground annatto (achiote) or Bijol

3 cups (720 ml) hot water (about

115°F/46°C), plus more as needed

 

In a large bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, flour or starch, salt, and annatto or Bijol. Add the water slowly, in a thin stream, kneading the mixture with your hands until it comes together into a ball with the consistency of mashed potatoes (if the dough is too dry, add a few more tablespoons of water at a time; if it’s too wet, add a few tablespoons of the precooked cornmeal at a time). Turn the dough onto a clean surface and knead it until smooth, 45 seconds to 1 minute or to the consistency of play dough. Return the dough to the bowl, cover it with plastic wrap or a damp kitchen towel, and let it rest for 10 minutes (to allow the fine grains to absorb all of the liquid).

 

See page 38 for instructions on how to fill and shape this dough and a recipe for an empanada that uses this dough.

 

Note: Masarepa is a product that has been made with precooked cornmeal (there is no need for you to cook it before using here). Empanadas made with this dough must be fried as soon as they’re shaped or they’ll crack open. Plan to make the dough just before you have to fill the empanadas. This empanada dough is not suitable for freezing.

 

 

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