February 09, 2016

Banh Mi salad taco, anyone? / The BEST blue corn tortillas

Bahn Mi Salad from Veggie Grill — as a taco.

Making a pierogi quesadilla, recently, was the perfect introduction to the thought that using tortillas in nontraditional ways is a superb idea — Pad Thai taco, anyone? Since attending a talk by two of the authors of The Taco Cleanse,* I now understand you can put anything you want into a tortilla and call it a taco. Truthfully, there are so many wonderful-sounding recipes in The Taco Cleanse there's really no need to throw chow mein into a taco, but what if you don't want to cook. What if you don't have time? What if you pick up a bahn mi salad from Veggie Grill but are on a serious taco cleanse? No need to break the cleanse. A bahn mi salad makes a perfect taco, although I recommend warming the salad a bit first. I like it best with the kale just a bit wilted.

As I said, I've expanded my understanding of taco fillings. Our Saturday night tacos from the distant past were always the same — beans, shredded lettuce, cheese, salsa on a crunchy, store-bought taco shell. Now we are much more creative. The one above has curried tofu, cucumber and sauerkraut. Is that too weird?

And here we have a leftover-stir-fry taco. So many possibilities, don't you think?

Our happy, new, random taco life was smoothly coasting along when two events occurred — my son and his girlfriend mailed me a package of their favorite masa harina from San Francisco, and shortly after that, the tortilla press I ordered from Amazon.com arrived. (Unbeknownst to me, Jordan and Alison had been enjoying fresh tortillas for some time, thanks to Alison's cooking skills. They even had a tortilla press!) The ultra fine-textured masa harina they love (and with which they were thoughtful enough to surprise me) is made from blue corn, and the tortillas I made using it were unbelievable. They were softer and chewier than the yellow corn tortillas, and had a wonderful flavor. The brand is Tortillas de la Tierra, and I think they buy it at the farmers market. (If you live in the Bay Area and want to purchase some, leave a question in the comments and I'll get more specific information.)

And do I like the tortilla press you're wondering? Yes. I can't believe how easy it is to press the tortillas into perfect circles — I want to make tortillas just so I can use it. No regrets on adding it to my kitchen collection.

Inspired by the press and the lovely masa harina, my husband made deeply roasted chipotle butternut squash from The Taco Cleanse cookbook to fill our gorgeous blue corn tortillas, Except for cutting up the squash, it was really easy to make, and tasted great — very spicy in the bowl, but just perfect once it got into the tortillas.

We garnished our tacos with salsa and baked almond feta — another post for another day.

Do your tacos tend towards the traditional or the unusual?

*We were having so much fun with The Taco Cleanse, I just couldn't keep it to myself — I've bought four copies so far for family members and for us. The book is actually sold out on Amazon, and they are waiting for a new supply. I found all of my copies in local bookstores, but if you are heading out to buy one, you might want to call ahead to see if it's in stock.

February 05, 2016

South Indian cooking class

A few weeks ago we took a South Indian cooking class at Spice Route, a restaurant we like located not far from Seattle, in Bellevue.  The class was described as including a tomato chutney, a sambar-lentil soup, and dosa. And a full meal. We sometimes cook Indian food at home, and enjoy eating in Indian restaurants, but have never had a close-up look at the food preparation via a class. I'm especially attracted to the unique flavors of South Indian cooking so this seemed like a good opportunity to enhance our knowledge and skills.

The class began with each of us briefly explaining why we became vegan — or for the one non-vegan — why she was taking the class. (Her family roots were in South India but she grew up in the Pacific Northwest and knew little about how to cook the traditional foods of her heritage.) Then the instructor began describing the cuisine(s) of South India, and the diverse, heavily vegan/vegetarian population living in the region. He talked about the ingredients and spices he was using, some of which you can see in the above photo. Someone asked if we should be taking notes or if we would be receiving information and recipe sheets, and we were told we didn't need to take notes as the recipes and such would be emailed to us. I prefer to have handouts at the beginning of class so I can add my own notes, which is what we usually encounter in cooking classes we've taken.

As the teacher spoke, he prepared the tomato chutney. I wish I could tell you what was in it but alas, we never received any post-class information.

He also cooked the sambar. Watching him cook, I realized I was missing a key ingredient in my spice collection — hing. He added quite a bit of hing to the food. He also seemed to be adding a large amount of salt, which he said was necessary to develop the flavor. Salt, like sugar, has addictive qualities, and the more you use, the more you want. Since I tend to limit my salt intake, the food in the class, delicious as it was, tasted very salty to me, and I was extremely thirsty after eating it. I don't like having to get past the salt taste to be able to experience the flavors of my food.

When I first read the class description, and saw dosa on the list, I was pretty excited, but once at the actual class, I realized it was a bit misleading. I LOVE masala dosa, and have always wanted to know how to make my own. I've read about making them but I thought a first-hand lesson would be helpful. Our teacher told us less than I already knew about the subject, and we got to watch someone cook dosa on the grill, not learn how to make them. Eating masala dosa is pretty great, but it's not the same as learning to make them.

On my plate you can see the foods cooked in class, along with idli, a wonderful thick, spongy pancake made from rice and Urad Daal, and a couple of bonus chutneys — the beige one is coconut chutney.  Like dosa batter, idli requires fermentation, and our teacher told us it was too hard for us to make it in class. I guess that means I'll have to teach myself.

In the above photo, you can see a cook making dosa on the grill.

The demonstration was great, the food was delicious, and I was stuffed, but I'm still a little miffed that we weren't given recipes and ingredient lists. I understand that traditional cooks don't measure ingredients, but even approximate amounts and recipe techniques and steps would would be helpful. I have no idea how to make any of the things we theoretically 'learned' to make in class. I guess it's back to my cookbooks, the Internet and blogs to find out what I want to know about South Indian cooking! The cookbooks I currently have are Dakshin Vegetarian Cuisine From South India by Chandra Padmanabhan, and a really oldie but goodie called The Yogi Cookbook by Yogi Vithaldas. Do you have a favorite Indian cookbook?

January 27, 2016

Banana split smoothie

I love recipes. They are a source of inspiration — new ideas, new ingredients, new techniques. Sometimes the hardest thing about cooking is figuring out what to make, and having a good collection of recipes to turn to can eliminate the mind-wracking search for a lunch, brunch or dinner idea. As much as I admire creative recipes, though, I often cook on the fly, inventing as I go. Or fall into a rut. The rut is especially apparent when it comes to breakfast. I can find an interesting recipe or create my own at dinner, but breakfast usually finds me in a muddle.

I'm not a morning person, and never have been. As a child, I could never bring myself to eat breakfast before leaving for school — it was just too early. Even, more recently, when I used to rise at 6 a.m. to get ready for work, it was only so I could leave the office earlier in the afternoon, not because I was at my best in the morning, or because I wanted time to make a good breakfast. Breakfast? Hardly. I'm all in favor of brunch recipes, but breakfast ideas are usually lost on me. If I can drink it from a mug or spread it on a cracker, it might get consumed. Most of the year, when it's relatively warm out (and in the house) smoothies are my breakfast of choice — throw stuff in the blender, pour it into a jar, and drink it. I have my set list of favorite add-ins, and vary the fruit a bit, but my smoothies don't change much from day to day.

Not long ago, on a mild winter day, I came across a recipe for a healing banana split smoothie at Lexie's Kitchen and Living that sounded so delicious I was willing to break out of my breakfast rut to try it. I had it three days in a row, but then I began to miss all the foods I had been adding to my smoothies to make them healthier and more filling, and I decided to incorporate my old smoothie ingredients with the new ones, and fall into a new, delicious smoothie rut. To the banana split smoothie ingredients in the blender, I added one tablespoon of chia seeds, two tablespoons of hemp hearts, 1/3 cup of uncooked rolled oats and a handful of raisins. I didn't add the thick slice of organic lemon (with skin) that usually goes into my smoothies because I didn't think the flavor would go well with the peanut butter and cacao. And I used an unfrozen banana since the cherries I added were frozen. It tasted great and kept me full for hours. This is my new 'in-a-rut' smoothie, and I love it!

Notes: When I make my usual breakfast smoothie, I use water or a combination of water and homemade soy yogurt for the liquid, though I've been using almond milk as called for in Lexie's recipe. And I use frozen organic fruit (from Costco) such as cherries, mango, blueberries, strawberries or cranberries, singly or in combination. If the smoothie is too thin, I add a few cubes of ice. My preferred brand of almond milk is 365 organic almond milk from the refrigerated case at Whole Foods because it seems to have the fewest noxious additives of the refrigerated almond milks. I should make my own, I know.

January 22, 2016

Tortillas, tortillas, tortillas, Taco Cleanse, tortillas, pierogi quesadilla?

TORTILLAS PART THREE: Not long after my tortilla craze took hold (read about it here if you missed it.), I saw a post on Cadry's Kitchen about using tortillas to recreate a dish from The Chicago Diner — Pierogi Quesadilla. Once I understood that Cadry was using just the pierogi filling, (according to the Chicago Diner menu, it contains "sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, green onions, sautéed mushrooms & Daiya® Cheddar with vegan dill sour cream.") and not the noodles, to fill her quesadillas, I was eager to try it myself. Actually, I was eager to interest my husband in making it — I am the tortilla maker — and he was enthusiastic, though if you compare Cadry's photos to mine, you'll see that she is more artistic. The tortilla in the photo above was one of my puffier ones so I was able to stuff the fillings inside it rather than stacking two together, or laying the filling on top and folding it over, both of which are more traditional quesadilla preparations. My husband's quesadilla was of the stacked variety. We also forgot to cut them into wedges, being eager to consume them as soon as possible. (Just a note: for our cheese we used one of Miyoko's Kitchen's hard cheeses, and though it didn't exactly melt, it tasted melted.) This was our first 'adventurous' tortilla experience — a far cry from the standard, but delicious, weekly taco dinners my husband used to make on his weekend cooking night, while our kids were growing up.

The second serendipitous event to occur after my tortilla awakening, was the appearance of two of the authors of The Taco Cleanse, at a book talk/demo, in Seattle. It took place not far from my house at The Book Larder, a bookstore dedicated to cookbooks.

Jessica and Stephanie had us laughing out loud as they talked about their book and recipes. It was probably the most entertaining book talk I've been to in years. The whole time they spoke, they cooked — or rather, Stephanie cooked. Apparently, Jess' sole recipe contribution to the cookbook was tater tot tacos. Jessica is a master of the "I don't know how to cook taco," and I know there are many vegans out there who will be grateful to her for that. I now know that you can put anything into a tortilla — Pad Thai, curry, pizza — and call it a taco.

In addition to entertaining us, they also fed us. We had tacos filled with soy curls , peppers, sour cream, etc., and they were good. Though, of course, they would have been even better on fresh, homemade tortillas. :D

Naturally, we purchased a copy of the The Taco Cleanse and have been eating tacos pretty steadily ever since. For our first plunge into The Taco Cleanse, I made fresh tortillas while my husband made his version of gallo pinto — Costa Rican rice and beans — except he used kidney beans and no rice.

He also made abundant roasted potatoes so the tacos would be more fun. And a green vegetable, of course, on the side. Plus we still had dill sour cream leftover from the pierogi quesadillas, and a jar of salsa.

Here's what our tacos looked like.

I still don't have a taco press but I'm wielding my cast iron frying pan like a real pro; just this morning I developed a new technique that flattens the tortilla just right. But as you can see, I've acquired a tortilla basket. I was in a Good Will store looking for, (cough cough), a tortilla press, among other things, and I spied a nice little basket sitting by itself on a shelf. I swear it was calling me. I had some reservations about employing a used basket to hold food but I followed directions for cleaning baskets, and disinfecting  food contact surfaces with bleach and water. I scrubbed the basket, rinsed, then soaked it in bleach solution, and dried it in front of the fireplace. It looks and smells clean. I lined it with a thick napkin to keep the tortillas cozy while they wait for us to eat them, and it keeps the tortillas warm for at least an hour.

I made tortillas for breakfast, and ate leftover-bean tacos. After my husband finished his share of the tortillas, he asked, "What about dinner? Are you making more tortillas for dinner/" It's clear to me that I have to up my production, and resort to reheating. It's come to this.


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