Valentines Day!

What's a vegan and her omni boyfriend to do for dinner in DC? Obviously there has to be fabulous food, romantic atmosphere, and with any luck, money leftover for booze. Here's what I've been considering.

#1. Dream-date: Reservations for two at Restaurant Eve

I've been wanting to go to this fabulous restaurant for a while. Its definitely a special occasion spot for our budget, but the couple-run Old Town destination has been getting raves on their creative cuisine and excellent drinks. And the best part? Right there, on the website:
"While our menu does not reflect many vegetarian / vegan options, we happily accommodate and serve vegetarians / vegans regularly. All one needs to do is let us know ahead of time."
Sounds perfect! Meat for my bf, vegan delicacies for me, and the famous sommelier for both of us.

The downside? The whole V-day weekend is booked, and even if it weren't, I might feel guilty about blowing the entire budget on a Hallmark-manufactured holiday. *Sigh!* Maybe next year.

#2. Beat the Crowds: A non-Price-Fixed Smorgasbord at an Ethnic Restaurant

Usually the places that everyone herds to on V-day are French or Italian hotspots with outrageously overpriced fixed menus. Now, there is something to be said for a thematic dinner and a restaurant full of other couples, but French and Italian places tend not to be kind to vegans, expecially with a special menu just for v-day (each special containing meat, of course). Why not go to an awesome Indian or Chinese restaurant and have a ball without breaking the bank? We could spend more money than we usually do and still be way below the Valentines day standard of a $65-$85 special menu, not including drinks.

The downside? It sounded like a good idea... There are quite a few Indian and Chinese restaurants listed on Washingtonion, but oddly enough, plenty of the nice ones also have $75 priced V-day menus. The not-as-fancy ones tend to be in strip-malls in Vienna... but I'll keep looking.

#3. D.I.Y.: Fix an elaborate, romantic vegan meal at home

This is the cheapest option. Even if we set the grocery budget at $100 (which I highly doubt we could spend) we'd still be saving big bucks as expensive as the night usually is. I mean, we could even get truffle oil and organic strawberries and fancy wine, and I bet we still wouldn't break $70 for the whole shebag. Here's a couple ideas for dishes:

-Mini pizzas (shaped like hearts!) with roasted garlic, plum tomatoes and roasted red peppers
- Carmelized shallot salad from V'Con
-Portabello mushrooms w/ port wine reduction over mashed potatoes with garlicky broccoli rabe
-Fancy shmancy NSA wine & champagne
-chocolate dipped strawberries (or maybe cupcakes from Sticky Fingers!)

I think this would be both a do-able and romantic dinner- all though I'm betting my bf would want to sub a petite filet for the mushrooms. :P

The downside? Atmosphere! Pushing aside the issue of roomate and doggy presence, dining in a room adjacent to the kitchen means having to watch the dirty dishes piled up in the sink. Not to mention that cooking all day doesn't leave me much time to get dolled up or find a red tablecloth of any other of the valentine's day nonsense. And call me old fashioned, but part of me likes to be wined and dined on special occasions. *Sigh*

So far, option three looks best, but I'm still searching out cheap-ish Indian restaurants. Restaurant Eve and its ilk will have to wait till next year (or when I'm makin big bucks as a public interest atty- ha!)


Jerk Tofu, Mashed Plantains, Garlicky Kale

Lately it seems to me that I exclusively make and eat food from other cultures. This bothers me since there is obviously such a rich culinary tradition in the U.S. and plenty of things I haven't tried (and God forbid I disavow my southern heritage!). But the fact of the matter is, almost every other country is more veggie-friendly than us. (With the exception of maybe cream-soaked France.) My daily diet rarely consists of what I would consider 'merican food- its more like hummus and pita, beans and rice, pad thai, ect. And I have a sneaking suspicion that if you cut me I would bleed curry sauce. With the variety of vegetarian delicacies available, I hardly ever get around to mac and cheese, or shephard's pie, no matter how many good vegan versions there are. But when you want people to get excited about vegan food, there shouldn't be the sense that you have to use exotic ingredients or spices at every meal.

But of course it should come as no surprise that when I got to choose dinner for last night I stuck again to another culture and chose Jerk Tofu with various other carribean accoutrements. The set-up got me thinking about how I might make a dinner of a main item and 3 sides that my parents would adore, that was totally familiar and U.S. American. I may even tackle the V'Con chickpea cutlets everyone is so enamored of...

Anyways, for the Jerk tofu recipe I used Nava Atlas' recipe, subbing tofu for seitan because I was having a hard time tracking down seitan yesterday. (Alas- most big supermarkets around here are just getting Earth Balance so seitan is a real long-shot.) The recipe was easy, produced enough for 5 people with multiple servings, and was generally tasty.(As evinced by my meat-devotee boyfriend finishing all his tofu.) My only quibble was that for a sauce so sweet, a little more heat would have enhanced it. I'm not sure if I want to start subjecting my family to scotch bonnet peppers, but maybe adding 1 roasted anaheim pepper into the mix would have enhanced things. But, overall, this recipe was pretty amazing.

As for the sides, rice and beans is a no-brainer. The plantains and kale were only slightly more time consuming, and went great with the Jerk Tofu. For the Mashed Plaintains just slice 4 or 5 ripe (ie, not green) plaintains lengthwise, and fry them until soft and brown in a few knobs of Earth Balance and brown sugar (use some olive oil if you need to). I usually use a cast-iron skillet for this. Then, take them into a bowl and mash them (or use a ricer if you have one) with some soymilk, a pinch of salt, and more EB. Return them to the skillet and fry as a flat sort of pancake for about five more minutes, flip over, and put back in the bowl. The result is a sticky, starchy side that compliments the kale well.

For the Garlicky Kale, first rinse and cut or tear into pieces a good amount of kale, or half a bag of the pre-rinsed stuff. Dice 2-3 large cloves of garlic and let sit for a few minutes to make it extra healthy. Then, in a spaghetti pot or other large covered pot, heat 2 T olive oil on medium low-medium heat and add in your garlic. When its sizzling and fragrant, add in your kale, and using tongs quickly toss to coat with the oil and garlic. Next, sprinkle in some H2O (like 1/4 c.) and put the cover on. Let sit for about 5 minutes and serve.

*Extra Extra* The Times has an article about the environmental and economic cost of meat production by non-vegetarian Mark Bittman. Check it out here.


Pomegranate Quinoa and Veggie Tortillas

Pomegranates are one of those things that I pick up and put down several times during a grocery store trip. On the one hand, they're tart and delicious. On the other hand, they're expensive and I don't have many ideas with what to do with them- other than dig at it with a spoon while watching General Hospital. Luckily, my friend Sarah had an awesome idea which was: combine the seeds with quinoa! What a brilliant idea!

Now, when she did it there was some creative spicing involved. I was picturing a super simple side-dish with just a little pop, so I kept it really simple. I merely cooked the quinoa (with a little onion, salt, and pepper) then added in a pomegranate worth of seeds when it was cooked. Oh so good with black beans- it may just replace rice in my house for a while.

In the meantime I sauteed some veggies- zucchini, mushrooms, onions, and peppers, and whipped up a sweet little sauce with a bit of leftover tofu, roasted garlic, and roasted peppers. (With hot sauce and s&p to spare, of course.) The sauce was a little too sweet I thought, but I'm going to keep experimenting. Man do I love roasted garlic though. I wrapped it all up in some wheat tortillas and it was truly perfect. And provided plenty of leftover for lunch I might add.

The best part is that despite the fact that I had bought the materials for chicken and cheese quesadillas for the fam, they decided they wanted my vegan dinner instead. I just love that.

*Oooh also, Bazu from Where's the Revolution posted a review of a few DC restaurants, including Java Green a local fave. Check it out!


Sticks and Sauces

Lately the list of food I want to cook is long outgrowing the list of food I'm actually cooking. Between a nasty flu and the start-up of a new semester (complete with heart palpitations over grades, summer jobs, ect.) my diet has been largely dependant on take-out thai and chinese. So when this 3 day weekend approached, I was more than happy to try out a couple of the recipes that have been on my mind.

First up was Coconut Tofu sticks from the blog What the Hell Does a Vegan Eat, Anyway?. I was so psyched to try this because I still secretly salivate over coconut shrimp, my fantasy non-vegan food. In fact, when I was reading their blog (which I often do) I actually shouted out "DUDE!" when I got to the post. It simply did not occur to me that you could veganize coconut shrimp! Its so crunchy, sweet, salty... exotic yet still greasy. Its the world's most perfect junk food. And guess what? The tofu version is pretty damn awesome as well.

The three-step battering technique did an excellent job of holding the coconut on to the tofu- I was fairly skeptical since I've had some disastrous battering attempts with tofu in the past. But the process really did the trick. No one at my table could keep their hands off the battered sticks. The recipe can be found here. I used some pre-made sweet chili sauce as a dip, but the dip they have created looks awesome as well. What a perfect appetizer or light supper. Fantasy fulfilled.

For my next project, I was in the mood for some pasta. I was reading this Times article recently, and the writer (Mark Bittman) was basically proclaiming that there is a new zeitgeist afoot for pasta sauces- that the new style is to have far more sauce than pasta. I definitely feel this way. To me, pasta sauce is usually just a vehicle for whatever veggies I'm hording (onions, zucchini, peppers) and the pasta is just incidental. After reading it though, it reminded me of a dish I've had a few times that is all about the sauce: Pasta alla Norma I'm sure one of my cookbooks has a recipe for this basil and eggplant laced dish, but I decided to wing it from the Epicurious recipe since it looked simple enough. (Its from Jamie Oliver, who is often fast and loose with the ingredients.) The recipe says it serves 4, but we definitely had way more than that.

The basic idea is that you fry quarters of eggplant in batches then set them aside. Then, you fry up some garlic and basil stems in the same oil, and after a minute put the eggplant back in, then add in some diced tomatoes and just let it get all saucy and delicious. The resulting super-chunky sauce is really vibrant and flavorful. I served it over whole wheat pasta, which holds up well against the strong sauce. (And obvs, I ommitted the cheese in favor of garlic bread to soak up the extras. Yum.)

Pasta Alla Norma
2 large, firm eggplants
1 T dried oregano
optional: 1 dried red chili, crumbled
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely sliced
1 large bunch of fresh basil, stems finely chopped, leaves reserved
1 T white wine vinegar
2 14-ounce cans diced tomatoes
1 lb spaghetti

"First of all, get your nice firm eggplants and cut them into quarters lengthwise. If they've got seedy, fluffy centers, remove them and chuck them away. Then cut the eggplants across the length, into finger-sized pieces. Get a large nonstick pan nice and hot and add a little oil. Fry the eggplants in two batches, adding a little extra oil if you need to. Give the eggplants a toss so the oil coats every single piece and then sprinkle with some of the dried oregano—this will make them taste fantastic. Using a pair of tongs, turn the pieces of eggplant until golden on all sides. Remove to a plate and do the same with the second batch.

When the eggplants are all cooked, add the first batch back to the pan—at this point I sometimes add a sneaky dried red chili. Turn the heat down to medium and add a little oil, the garlic, and the basil stems. Stir so everything gets evenly cooked, then add a swig of herb vinegar and the cans of tomatoes, which you can chop or whiz up. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, then taste and correct the seasoning. Tear up half the basil leaves, add to the sauce, and toss around.

Get your spaghetti into a pan of salted boiling water and cook according to the package instructions. When it's al dente, drain it in a colander, reserving a little of the cooking water, and put it back into the pan. Add the Norma sauce and a little of the reserved cooking water and toss together back on the heat. Taste, and adjust the seasoning, then divide between your plates by twizzling the pasta into a ladle for each portion. Any sauce left in the pan can be spooned over the top."
Adapted from Jamie Oliver.


Experiments and composting problems

After trying the Lentil, Butternut Squash, Kale and ginger soup at Little Havana I was determined to make my own version at home. Seeing as its pretty straightforward in taste, I figured I wouldn't have much trouble faking it. However, its back to test kitchen on this one.

Lentils are one of the foods I've been trying to incorporate into my diet more since I've always been afraid of them. (Are they beans? Are they mush? Whats the deal?) But that means I'm not quite up to fluff on preparing them correctly. My experiment was as follows:

-Sautee some cubed butternut squash in garlic and EVOO until coated and slightly softened.
-Add a package of instant lentils and 2 c. of water
-Bring to a boil, then throw in a few handfuls of shredded kale and 2 T. of fresh sliced ginger.
-At the end, season well with salt and pepper and toss in 1 T. of brown sugar.

In the end, this was certainly a decent lunch. But it wasn't *magic* *sparkling* *transcendent* like the soup I had at Little Havana. I think this has something to do with my own lack of prowess with lentil cooking, in addition to a missing flavor. So, I must get back on the saddle and try again. I think next time I will try a traditional lentil soup recipe, then add in the extras. We shall see.

Meanwhile, despite my best efforts, the dogs got into the compost! I think this had more to do with the novelty of sitting in a little box then it has to do with their interest in onion peels, moldy squash and coffee grounds, but all the same. (Although it was pretty cute to find our fat beagle sitting there trying to figure out how to get out.) My first improvement is to put a thicker layer of dirt over each addition. Second, I have to make sure the dogs are both inside when I add something in so they dont get super excited and curious. Failing that, I guess i could put some rocks around it or something... who knows? Any ideas?

Oooh, also my Dad brought me back a bunch of un-labeled mystery spices from Pakistan. Maybe one of these is the missing spice for my food? Or maybe I should just start randomly adding them to things to see if they taste good? More on that story as it develops... ;)

Like a manna from heaven, 101 cookbooks just posted a recipe for Lentil soup. Just the thing!


New Years Resolutions

I am one of those people who has an ongoing list of self-improvements, house improvements, world-improvements- essentially I am always noting the many ways in which I could make things better, if I ever get around to it. New Years rather cruelly plays on this particular weakness of mine, giving me a deadline by which to start all resolutions simutaneously (start doing yoga everyday! keep nails neat and manicured! drink more green tea! be kinder to siblings! GO!). When it comes to food I usually have a list as well, but these goals are often more attainable then, say, a stringent new exercise routine.

One resolution is to bake more. In college I made a lot of muffins and breads for mornings that were too hectic to for anything else. These days I am more absorbed with stovetop cooking, so I don't have nice things to wake up to. No more! I have obtained The Joy of Vegan Baking by Colleen Patrick Goudreau, and already tried my first recipe, the cinnamon coffee cake. It was very easy and delicious, definitely the perfect accompanyment to coffee.
The book in general is incredibly thorough and useful, with plenty of conversions and tips. And you know, it is just nice to not have to constantly be conjuring up the best sub when veganizing a recipe. (Bananas or Ener-G? Or just extra baking soda?) Instead, you can just brainlessly throw a recipe together without over-analyzing. Its also sort of an inspirational cookbook, with lots of inserts about factory farming and the dairy industry to keep you sticking to your vegan guns.

My other resolution is to get back to composting. Ever since moving to a new house, I've gotten lazy about it. And honestly, there is no excuse for any vegan or vegetarian not to compost, since a majority of their trash will always be compostable. A problem I've run into at my new house, however, is that living with two dogs makes composting slightly more complicated. They are always eager to get at whatever I'm throwing out. Even rotting carrot peelings are a lure (apparently.) So my little brother and I came up with this design to keep the dogs out and the compost in. So far, its working pretty well. And I'm back on a roll with my resolutions! Now I just need to get to the other 200 things on my list. And oh yeah... law school...

Extra composting tips, for those so inclined.