Thursday, May 26, 2011

Get Stuffed on Vegan Baked Stuffed Shells.

One of the things I've been trying to do lately is cut back on the packaged vegan "meats" and "cheese." This is partly because I've been wanting to cut down on the amount of processed foods we consume, and partly because since I've been pregnant, they just haven't really appealed to me at all. Especially Daiya cheese. The very distinct smell of Daiya just kills me right now. I have eaten it a couple of times - once on a pizza at John's of 12th, and recently on a panini I got from Whole Foods - and it still tasted good to me, but I just can't bear to open up the package and smell it. Instant heaves.

This current condition motivated me to crack open my copy of The Ultimate Uncheese Cookbook, which I have to admit I have had for some time but hadn't tried any recipes from it yet. The recipe for Baked Stuffed Shells immediately caught my eye and I was surprised at how easy the instructions seemed. Stuffed shells is one of those great dishes to have when company comes over, because it looks impressive and like you did a lot of work, and nobody needs to know that it's actually fairly easy to prepare.

One thing I will say is that I was a little concerned when I saw that the filling included vegan mayonnaise... I don't know, maybe I was just imagining the regular, eggy mayonnaise baking inside some pasta and it was making me want to hurl. I had to keep reminding myself that vegan "mayo" is an altogether different product, and I should keep an open mind and follow the recipe as instructed before making any judgements. I'm really glad I did because this filling was so rich, creamy, and convincingly ricotta-like. I truly believe that you could fool people with this one. There was nothing "vegan" tasting about it.

The directions are simple to recap for you: just boil 16 large pasta stuffing shells as instructed on the box. In a large bowl, combine the following: 1 lb. regular firm tofu, mashed; 2/3 cup vegan mayonnaise; 2 tsp. dried parsley; 2 tsp. dried basil; 2 tsp. onion powder; 1 tsp. garlic powder; and salt and pepper to taste. Mash everything together into a thick paste. Spoon about 1 1/2 - 2 Tbsp. of the filling into each shell. Pour about a cup of your favorite tomato sauce on the bottom of an oiled 9" x 13" baking dish and arrange the shells in a single layer on top of the sauce. Spoon 4 -5 cups of tomato sauce over the shells, then sprinkle with vegan Parmesan and bake at 350 for 30 - 45 minutes.

I did happen to have a little bit of Follow Your Heart mozzarella in my fridge, so I grated that on top in addition to the parmesan. Follow Your Heart has a much milder smell than Daiya, so it didn't make me nauseous, but it also doesn't melt (or taste) like Daiya does, as you can see in the picture. It probably didn't need the extra cheeze on top and I think I would probably just stick with the parmesan next time I make these.

I wish I had taken a picture of the filling for you, but to be honest I made these on Sunday and just wanted to get them in the oven so they'd be ready before our Sunday night shows (Game of Thrones and The Borgias, if you're interested). But like I said, the filling was incredibly creamy and flavorful. Rich but surprisingly not heavy. Utterly addictive. We definitely stuffed ourselves with these and can't wait to make them again.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Peanut Butter & Jelly Bars & Some Vegan Good News

I've really been neglecting my blog lately, and for that I must apologize. I am trying to pick it back up and begin posting again with some regularity. You see, for a while now I've been trying to eat really simple, easy foods. In my mind, I wanted this to mean lots of whole grains, steamed vegetables, and fresh fruits. In reality, it has been something more along the lines of cereal with rice milk, and peanut butter sandwiches. Lots and lots of peanut butter sandwiches. Peanut butter and jelly. Peanut butter and banana. Peanut butter, jelly, and banana. Peanut butter, banana, and agave. Peanut butter and, a few times, vegan cheese slices. I haven't gone for peanut butter and pickles... yet. If you haven't guessed it by now, I'll tell you my news: I'm pregnant!

I've been waiting and waiting to be able to share the news with everyone and it feels great to finally be able to do so. This is our first child, due to arrive towards the end of November. I'm not feeling too bad, going into my second trimester, but the first trimester was filled with the typical nausea, food aversions, and an almost comical level of fatigue. I'm talking near-narcolepsy over here. I've never been so tired in my life and the last thing I wanted to do was stand in my kitchen to cook ANYTHING.

My energy and taste buds are very slowly starting to come back to me, although some things that I usually love to eat are still kind of unappealing, like asparagus and some other green vegetables for that matter. Fortunately, so far, I haven't experienced any non-vegan pregnancy cravings. If anything, meat, eggs, and dairy seem even more repulsive to me than usual. If in the future I do find myself suddenly drooling over something I wouldn't normally eat, I hope that I will have the presence of mind to evaluate the underlying reason for my sudden craving - am I not getting enough iron? Enough fat? (I know I get enough protein, I won't even entertain that as a possibility.) But I'm trying to not think too much about what I might do in that situation, and instead just focus on maintaining what has so far been a very healthy and happy vegan pregnancy.

But this is a food blog, not a pregnancy blog, and I intend on keeping it that way. Therefore, in celebration of my good news, and in homage to my constant peanut butter and jelly cravings, I decided to make these peanut butter and jelly bars to share with you.

I saw this recipe in the March issue of Bon Appetit, and knew that I wanted to make a vegan version as soon as I felt like standing in the kitchen for more than ten minutes. That day finally arrived, hurray! These are SO good and were well worth the wait, perfect for dessert, breakfast, or a snack any time of the day, really. They were very easy to make and would also be a great recipe for bake sales.

Vegan Peanut Butter & Jelly Bars (adapted from this recipe)
makes 16 bars

Nonstick vegetable oil spray
1 1/2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
3/4 cup smooth peanut butter
3/4 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) Earth Balance or other vegan butter, room temperature
1 flax "egg" (mix 1 Tbsp. ground flax seed with 2 Tbsp. water)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
3/4 cup jelly or jam (I used raspberry, but feel free to use your favorite flavor)
1/3 cup coarsely chopped salted dry-roasted peanuts

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line 8 x 8 x 2-inch metal baking pan with heavy-duty foil, leaving 2-inch overhang around edges and pressing firmly into corners and up sides of pan. Coat foil with nonstick spray. 

2. Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt in small bowl. Using electric mixer, beat peanut butter, sugar, and Earth Balance in large bowl until smooth. Add egg and vanilla; beat on low speed until smooth. Add flour mixture; beat on low speed just to blend. Note: batter will be coarse and pebbly, not smooth.

3. Transfer half of dough to prepared pan (about scant 1 1/2 cups). Place remaining dough in freezer for 10 minutes. Using fingertips, press dough evenly onto bottom of pan. Spread jelly over in even layer. Remove dough from freezer and scatter small pieces over jelly layer. Sprinkle chopped nuts over.

4. Bake bars until top is golden brown, about 30 minutes. Cool bars completely in pan on rack. Using foil overhang as aid, lift bars from pan. Gently peel foil from edges. Cut into 16 squares. Enjoy with a glass of non-dairy milk!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

From Gluten-Free to All-Gluten... Recent Classes at Natural Gourmet

If you've been following my blog for a certain length of time, you may already know that I'm a big fan of taking the recreational cooking classes at the Natural Gourmet Institute. I've learned Chinese Homestyle Cooking, made vegan hors d'oeuvres, and a Southeast Asian banquet there before, to name just a few of the classes I've taken in the past. They offer so many all-vegan classes, some focused on technique, others on various types of cuisine, and I always enjoy learning the new recipes and, at the end of class, getting to sample everything we've made.

This past week I took two classes - one was a vegan cake baking & decorating class, and all of the recipes were gluten- and soy-free. Not realizing the irony at the time I registered, the second class I took was a seitan-making workshop, meaning we were working with 100% gluten. It's all about balance, right?

The cake class was great because, you know, cake! The cake recipes were good, but I have to say that they weren't as good as anything I've had from Gone Pie or Babycakes (two sources of gluten-free vegan deliciousness) here in NY. We made a French Vanilla Cake with Vanilla Bean Frosting; Chocolate Cake with Caramel Chocolate Frosting; Lemon Cake with Lemon Frosting; Strawberry Banana Cake with Banana Icing; a Tropical Carrot Cake with Creamy Coconut Frosting; and a Pistachio Almond Cake with Almond-Scented Frosting, but the most fun was getting to play with all the different pastry tips to work on our cake decorating skills. Here are some of the fine examples from our class:

This was our instructor's chocolate cake - very inspiring!

This was the Pistachio - Almond cake... I think she had some decorating practice already!

I had the pleasure of meeting mtvVegan in the class - she also did a great job decorating her cake!

This was the Tropical Carrot Cake that I made and took home.
I'm a good wife, right? Although I need some more practice on my cake-decorating skills....

The seitan-making class that I took it with my friend Valerie from Lifestyles of the Chic & Vegan was great fun. Having only made seitan using Vital Wheat Gluten before, I had no idea how much work was involved in making seitan from scratch. You extract the gluten from wheat flours by mixing with water, letting the dough rest, kneading kneading kneading, soaking in water, then rinsing rinsing rinsing with alternating hot and cold waters while your beautiful ball of kneaded dough transforms into an ugly, stringy, gloopy mess, before it magically comes back together in one big ball of gluten. And that's how you make seitan! Honestly, it was entirely too much work to do on a normal day for your dinner, but I might do it once a year, maybe for a special holiday dish or something. The rest of the time, the Vital Wheat Gluten and Seitan Quick Mixes are perfectly acceptable and much, much easier and faster to make.

Our instructor was chef and cookbook author Peter Berley, with whom I took a Vegetarian Winter Casseroles class last year, where I learned such creations as Beer-Braised Kielbasa with Sauerkraut & Onions, Tempeh & Vegetables in a Spicy Lemon-Coconut Broth, and Seitan & Vegetable Enchiladas with Spicy Mole Sauce. Peter's recipe for the seitan workshop were just as delicious and inspiring - we made Seitan Wrapped Burdock, Leek, and Carrot Rolls; Braised Chickpea Stew with Seitan Chorizo & Fennel; Pan-Seared "Steaks" with Chimichurri; Gluten Puffs with Sweet & Sour Sauce; Seitan Sausages; Savory Seitan-Stuffed Summer Squash Proven├žal; and Eggplant & Seitan Falafel with a Lemon-Tahini Sauce.

Valerie & I worked on the seitan steaks with chimichurri sauce - if you don't know chimichurri, it is an intoxicating blend of parsley, cilantro, mint, garlic, shallot, jalapeno for a little kick, olive oil, and some rice vinegar for acidity. I know I sound biased because we made this dish, but it really was the biggest hit of the evening among all the other students.

Valerie thinks our dish was ugly but I thought that vibrant green sauce was just gorgeous!
Also delicious was the falafel made from seitan and roasted eggplant:

At first, I thought Seitan & Eggplant falafel sounded kind of strange, but the falafel balls really had the exact same texture as regular falafel, but the roasted eggplant and ground seitan really gave them an extra depth of flavor and savoriness. They were very tasty. And some of the other dishes:
These were the gluten puffs - deep-fried goodness with a sweet & sour sauce.
Satisfies all those Chinese take-out cravings.

This was actually an improvised dish that Peter Berley made with some leftover seitan - a roulade stuffed with a Mediterranean vegetable mixture. Delicious!

The seitan-wrapped burdock, leek, and carrot rolls

The Proven├žal-stuffed squash dish - rustic and very delicious.

Braised Chickpea Stew with Seitan Chorizo - a vibrant, flavorful dish!

The best part of the class... fixing our plates to sample everything

A very colorful tasting plate full of many different, all delicious flavors
We enjoyed the class with Peter so much that we are contemplating signing up for his homemade tofu class. Not that I really see myself making homemade tofu on a regular basis, but like changing the tire on a car*, I figure it's probably a good skill to know, right? I've also signed up for a vegan truffle-making class with the wonderful Fran Costigan the end of this month, so stay tuned for more deliciousness!

*I don't actually know how to change the tire on a car. I should probably learn sometime.