An essential ingredient for creating inspired food

October 29, 2010 § 4 Comments

”You do find of course in a vegan restaurant the chefs themselves are often much more engaged and passionate with what they’re doing b/c the way in which they got to that place involved their own personal beliefs and philosophies moreso than in a traditional kitchen” – chef Daniel Mongraw of Saf in London

The following is a short Vegan Society interview with chef Daniel Mongraw from Saf, a well-known and highly rated (by non-vegans) vegan restaurant in London, with a dollop of food porn thrown in. Consider this a follow up to my post on inspired cuisine, in which I laid out my value-based appreciation for passionate food. In many ways, creating food of this calibre is a performance skill learned through practice. And as with any performance oriented discipline, passion is the catalyst for making okay performers good, good performers great, and great performers best in class.  

Categories aside, passion is the common thread that makes a restaurant’s food great or not. As Mongraw mentions, the passion of vegan chefs comes from personal values and so there is a natural drive to produce excellent food. He notes, “we can do things with textures, and flavors and senses, that the pleasures of eating food, you still get all that with vegan food“. With this goal, Saf is transforming the idea of vegan food from soggy sprouts to sensational, inspired cuisine; and the restaurant is changing diners’ perceptions along the way. Time Out voted Saf one of the 50 best restaurants in London, which has helped them to attract an even wider variety of diners, not just vegans and vegetarians who might not have high standards for the culinary experience. And the quality of the experience, not the cache or lack thereof (sprouts and tofu scramble, ick) is winning people over. With pioneers like Saf, Madeline Bistro and Candle 79, vegan food might one day make it onto the list of Friday night dining options. Imagine hearing, ‘should we go vegan, thai or molecular gastro tonight?’!!

Working in a vegan restaurant as a chef at the level we’re trying to work at is very exciting because there’s a sense that we’re trying to push the boundaries and do things that haven’t been done before and …be at a level that’s respected as just restaurant and just food.”


Peanut Butter Pie

October 26, 2010 § 8 Comments

We entertained a few international house guests this past weekend. In an attempt to contribute a bit of American flair to our Friday night dessert I made a Peanut Butter Pie. Admittedly, I did not come up with this idea on my own. My roommate bought a pre-made pie crust a while back (not the graham cracker kind), and I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with it ever since. Whenever I want a ‘pie’ I usually make a tart! So, this pre-made crust has kind of been a burden lingering in the refrigerator.

The foodbuzz network has a database of recipes which I used to skim through looking for anything I had all the ingredients to make, which left only (sad, I know) Peanut Butter Pie. In the end, I used the following recipe (link), which isn’t from the foodbuzz network, go figure. This peanut butter pie tastes a bit like a frozen version of the peanut butter part of a Reese’s pieces peanut butter cup (mouthful isn’t it). I garnished with shaved truffles, but you can always go heavier on the chocolate contribution. A little extra chocolate never hurt 😉 This is probably the easiest dessert I’ve ever made. I think it took a full 15 minutes, if even, not including the time to freeze.

Peanut Butter Pie
(makes one 9-inch pie)

1/2 (4oz) a pack of cream cheese at room temperature
3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/2 cup peanut butter
1/2 cup milk
1/2 (8oz) package frozen whipped topping, thawed
1 pie crust (graham cracker is preferred)
handful of shaved chocolate truffle shavings
Beat the cream cheese, sugar, peanut butter and milk until smooth. Fold in whipped topping. Pour into pie shell. Cover and freeze until firm.

Garlic Spinach Mac ‘n Cheese

October 21, 2010 § 10 Comments

A while back I caught an episode of Iron Chef America centered around spinach. I can’t remember who the contestants were, but one dish cooked that night has stayed with me ever since and has been begging me to recreate it in my kitchen. In an homage to that calling, I bring you a spinach mac ‘n cheese, with a heavy dose of garlic thrown in as my own spin on the dish.

Garlic Spinach Mac 'n Cheese enjoyed w. condiment

Mac ‘n cheese has been both a handicap and a love of mine for many years now. College opened the door to culinary freedom for me. It also presented the first time in my life that I was able to cook rubbish food (my mother is an amazing cook who tends to make everything from scratch, and she can probably count the number of times she’s had a box of mac n’ cheese in her pantry).

While on my own I went a little wild, indulging in the classic Kraft version many times a week, and enduring the ensuing stomach aches (true story). There was a brief hiatus between me and my beloved mac ‘n cheese until I moved into a job where I basically couldn’t leave my desk at all during the workday. I would scour Walgreen’s for the one-serving microwave packs and upped the ‘gourmet’ quotient with chopped tomatoes or frozen spinach. Now that I’m in the saddle with a serious string of culinary work behind me (tell me you can sense the sarcasm), I decided to reprise the dish with the Iron Chef spin in mind.

I can only give an approximate range on the ingredients, this was one of those throwing random things in the pot sessions. If any of you have follow-up questions, please feel free to post them, and I’ll do my best to get back to you with more accuracy (I wouldn’t mind making this one again!). And by the way, it was delicious. The whole tray was gone by the end of the night.

Garlic Spinach Mac ‘n Cheese
(serves 4)

-A bit less than half a pound of elbow macaroni
-2 cloves of minced garlic
-Somewhere around 6 tsps of Earth balance margarine (tried to keep it low-fat)
-Around 3 tsps of flour
-1 cup of pasta water (saved from cooking the elbow macaroni)
-4 tsps of half and half
-1 small handful of grated mozzarella cheese
-2 small handfuls of grated cheddar cheese
-2 tsps of grated parmesan cheese
-2 cups of frozen spinach (thawed)
-salt and pepper to taste
-red pepper flakes (as much as you can handle)
-2 handfuls of breadcrumbs

Cook the elbow macaroni. Save 1 cup of the pasta water.

In a separate vessel, melt the Earth balance on medium heat in a large frying pan. Add the minced garlic. Let the butter soak in the garlic for a short bit. Smell the wonderfulness. Let that make you happy and hungry. Whisk in the flour followed by the pasta water and half and half. This mixture should become a bit thicker, I believe this is called a roux. Add the cheeses, whisking along the way. Make sure all of the ingredients are incorporated without lumps. Add the spinach and incorporate well. Season with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. When the sauce tastes amazing, add the elbow macaroni. Delicately fold the sauce into the pasta until all is well mixed. Pour into a glass baking dish. Dust breadcrumbs over the top and broil on high just until the breadcrumbs turn a golden brown.

My note of caution to you is that this main dish, though wonderful, is a slab of fat. To be fair to your body, have it with a side of steamed broccoli and a salad.

B’s Perfect Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

October 17, 2010 § 2 Comments

My friend B and I plowed through a marathon baking session this weekend, making three batches of goodies:

1. Rustic Goat cheese Apple Walnut tart
2. Pomegranate Melting Moments cookie sandwiches
3. B’s perfect oatmeal chocolate chip cookies

This session was not without purpose. I hadn’t seen my friend in a while and we kind of bond over a love of food given our shared vegetarian diet constraint. So, now that I have this ongoing project of cooking/baking new things, we thought it would be cool to center a night around baking. The weather has been so depressing recently that it just felt right to hole up inside and whip up endless trays of warm, hearty treats.

So, the first of the treats was a variation of the rustic tart I’ve been very openly obsessed with posting here for the past few weeks. This might actually be my 9th tart in the span of like 20 days or something similarly strange. My inspiration here was the abundant apple supply we have here at the house, and a cylindrical block of honey goat cheese I picked up recently. For the tart crust (see my earlier post for the recipe and step by step), I substituted white flour with whole wheat as my ‘experiment’. It was NOT good. The classic sensational pleasures of the tart (flaky, butter goodness) were killed with this crust. My hunch is that in order to adapt the whole wheat to parallel the experience of the white flour crust, much more butter will need to be added, in addition to other substitutes that I honestly hadn’t looked into at the time. The whole thing was a bit cardboard-like and not picture worthy, although I managed to salvage a shot from my recycle bin to post here in case you’re interested. For the base I spread a layer of honey goat cheese, then followed with sliced apples and a brown sugar/chopped walnut topping. 

Oh, another thing worthy of noting here is that the pictures featured in this post are the first I’ve taken using a backdrop!! The reason I decided to go this route is because the overcast depressing winter sky is rendering all times of day unworthy of shooting with natural light!! Not to mention we baked all these goodies at night, so using a backdrop (in this case white) is the closest I was able to get to simulating mid-day. I will most likely expand my repertoire of backdrops and venture into props for your amusement. I’m sure staring at white space is going to get boring over time =)

Back to the food, the second batch of goodies was a spin on Liv Life’s Passionfruit Melting Moments. Her pictures were amazing and made me want to get my hands on those cookies. My attempt here is a version that replaces about 3/4 cup of pure pomegranate juice for the passionfruit juice that the original recipe calls for. The recipe is exactly the same otherwise. The extras I will note here are that the recipe only makes about 6 cookie sandwiches (if you decide to go down the road of filling) and that I would aire on the side of cooking them longer, like 15 minutes minimum, with an eye on them for the remainder. My result was delicious. The cookies really do just about melt in your mouth, likely attributable to the combination of corn starch and powdered sugar. My hunch is that it’s possible to make these cookies gluten-free all the way. It’s going to require some experimentation and research. In the meantime, I don’t really plan to make these cookies for a while. I’d say I had my fill. I realized in the course of sampling that I’m not really a cookie person. Maybe there is a petite French woman inside of me somewhere, but I don’t like my desserts too sweet, and definitely prefer a cake or a tart any day. 

Okay, now to the amazing cookies…

Whenever we do potlucks, my friend B brings the most amazing oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. I’ve always had her near, so I’ve had the luxury of being complacent in learning to bake them myself. But since I’m now interested in learning to cook and bake wild storms, I had to learn to make these cookies. There is a bit of a chemistry experiment involved, but don’t let that derail you. They are, for the most part, easy enough and they are delicious crowd pleasers.

B’s Perfect Oatmeal Chocolate Chip cookies
(from a Reader’s Digest best of issue many years ago, makes about 24 cookies)

1 cup soft butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 cup boiling water
1 tsp vanilla
1 + 1/4 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups quick oats
12 oz chocolate chips (I like bittersweet, the original recipe calls for semi-sweet)

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Cream the butter and sugar together. In a separate vessel, dissolve the baking soda in boiling water. Stir this into the creamed butter/sugar mixture. Add the vanilla and dry ingredients to the mixture. Finally, add the chocolate chips. Drop small balls on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes.

Creamy Shiitake Spinach Orzo

October 14, 2010 § 13 Comments

Hey, sorry to post and run but…

Here’s a quick dish I threw together as a last minute lunch for my friend who came to visit me today!! I was looking to use up the last of my shiitake mushroom loot and some orzo in a creamy dish that might complement the overcast sky and colder temps, and as a result came up with the following (the sun is out now so I’m happy and out the door!!):

Creamy Shiitake Spinach Orzo
(makes 2 hearty main course servings)

2 cloves of garlic minced
1/2 an onion finely chopped
1 cup of frozen spinach
8 shiitake mushrooms, cut into small pieces
1 cup of cooked orzo
2 tsps parmesan cheese
salt and pepper
2 tbsps milk
3-4 tsps water
oil for pan frying

Cook the onions and garlic on medium heat in an oiled frying pan. When the onions are translucent, add the frozen spinach along with about 3-4 tsps of water. Let the water cook off a bit, then add the shiitake mushrooms. Season with salt and pepper. Let this mixture cook for about 2-3 minutes, then add the milk and cooked orzo, and mix on low heat. Mix in the parmesan cheese, and finally turn off the heat and let the orzo sit covered for about 5 minutes. Serve and enjoy!

Daikon Polenta Cakes

October 13, 2010 § 2 Comments

I had a mini Iron Chef-ish session in the kitchen this afternoon; ingredient: Polenta & Shiitake Mushrooms (yes TWO ingredients)!!! The day was a bit hectic with various goings on, so I was only able to do 2 courses. I have to say that I had never eaten or cooked with polenta prior to today. I was eagerly looking into it as a carb substitute. I have over time slowly moved from white rice to whole wheat couscous and am now expanding my horizons to include more gluten-free options, just to keep the diet a bit more balanced (and b/c I get more than my fill of wheat-based flour from my recent tart obsession).

The menu

Daikon Polenta cake

1st course: Daikon Polenta cakes
2nd course: ‘Chick’n’ Piccata over Honey Goat Cheese and Polenta Cake

So, first I must say that the daikon polenta cakes were delicious. The issue needing work on this experimental project of mine is simply finding a way to make the form stiffer so that I can pan fry it with less oil. I think adding a bit of mashed potato may work, although each additional carb added takes away from the flavor!! I will play around with this, and hope to report back with an updated and more presentable version.

Why daikon??
I am obsessed with the daikon rice cakes at the Slanted Door in SF. I generally dislike eating out for various reasons that would warrant a post all on their own, and as a result rarely frequent restaurants. But, if I were to count how many times I’ve dined at Slanted Door it very possibly would be just shy of a three digit number. I go there only to start my meal with the daikon rice cakes. The rest of the meal is a blur I rarely remember or waste stomach space on, but the cakes are first and the cakes I always love!! Now that I’m on this crusade to cook creative and inspired dishes at home I felt it appropriate to take a stab at this favorite dish. I picked up about half a long stalk of daikon radish at the local Asian market this past weekend and in the spur of some moment remembered I had to finish it. So, the polenta staring me in the face was a kind of natural marriage, at least in my warped brain. The pairing was surprisingly pleasant and, texture aside, the difference in flavor was barely noticeable.

Ingredients used in the daikon polenta cake, sans polenta and daikon

This was a true experiment, so I don’t have measurements. Instead I took a picture of the exact ingredients that I used so that if you decide to recreate this, you have somewhat of a roadmap. The cooking method is as follows:

The daikon, this is what half a huge stalk turns into after a quick shred and strain

Sauté the onion, garlic and green chile in an oiled (a substantial amount that will go on to cook the full mixture: daikon, polenta and all) soup pot. Add the shiitake (I saved the tops for the main dish). Let them cook, then follow with the shredded daikon; season w. salt, pepper and liquid aminos. Incorporate the ingredients until the flavors are evenly distributed. Finally add your pre-cooked polenta. Stir until the polenta is smooth and the mixture resembles a creamy mash. Pour the mixture into a wide glass dish and let it cool. When you’re ready to serve, pan fry disced cut outs until crispy, golden brown. 

The 2nd course was straightforward. I used this recipe from Little House of Veggies, and simply served the ‘Chik’n’ Piccata over a pan-fried polenta cake that I slathered with a layer of honey goat cheese (or chèvre as my gracious French tutor from Canada taught me at an italian restaurant in Ferney-Voltaire, the author’s home located on the France/Geneva border, and oh the story behind that…sorry for this digression that could easily go on for pages, but life’s toils mixed with food associations are my great pleasure. Proust’s madeleine episode had just a minor effect on me). Cheers!

Chocolate layer cake adorned w. molded chocolate collar (Vegan)

October 11, 2010 § 9 Comments

I have been spending a bit too much time on baking desserts recently, and tend to use these sorts of dishes as bookends to my day. This simply means that I eat cakes and tarts for breakfast and then go back for a 2nd dosage at the end of the day for dessert. In the meantime, I’ve been kind of preoccupied with some issues here and haven’t been eating good foods throughout the day, in the pages so to speak. I noticed that I’ve been very lethargic over the past few days and I need to stop this spiral!!! So, I am going on a fruit and veggie diet for the next week. Check back for some interesting recipes (maybe?). Although, this week is about practicality, so I won’t be focusing on creativity, just getting back to nourishing my brain and my body! So, please enjoy this last sweet treat before my mini hiatus =)

Cherry Tea Cakes recently posted an awesome piece on chocolate collars with a how-to video link (see below). This inspired creativity is why I love the foodie community. The chocolate collars are molded chocolate strips that frame the outside of the cake to give it that ‘someone cared enough to dress me up and I belong in a serious pastry case’ look. I generally don’t bake without a couple of days notice, but after seeing this video and having recently vowed to make a vegan chocolate cake, I just got up and started baking within minutes, literally.

The vegan chocolate cake is a special calling, as I generally find the cakes I get from vegan restaurants to be dry and uninteresting. They make me wish I hadn’t entertained the idea of cake at all!! I decided to start with a basic recipe online. It’s pretty classic and posted just about everywhere (the one requiring vinegar). I made two small two-layer cakes, and only decorated one with the collar, the other is still waiting for my creative hand to receive inspiration from somewhere!!

The cake was, unfortunately, dry!!! I plan to try an applesauce or chocolate pudding variation in the future. In the event that it’s just impossible to produce a moist vegan cake (this just can’t be!!), layering is an excellent tactic. The more layers, the better. If one can construct multiple, perhaps 4+ thin layers sandwiching frosting, this would be optimal, as the cake layers would be too thin to detect the dryness, and that dryness would be infused with the moistness from the frosting. It would be sensory confusion, at least we can hope. For the frosting I just used a pre-made container, as I was kind of thrown off guard by this experiment and didn’t have vegan cream cheese on hand.

Making the collars

Note on the chocolate collar: the one I did here (pictured below) has what you can call a very ‘rustic’ look to it. I didn’t take much care to ensure the chocolate was spread evenly in making the collar, which is key if you are going for a very refined and classic look. I was just experimenting, and I quite like the rustic look. Taste wise, chocolate collars don’t add too entirely much to a chocolate cake. It does, however, add a variety of texture, which is paramount to inspired creative cuisine. I think taking this to the next level would involve flavored chocolate collars (think mint, cayenne pepper, etc..). Check out the video (below) for directions on construction.

When constructing the collars, start here. The cake should be lightly frosted so that the molded collars will stick to the sides of the cake.

              For a cake this size you will need only a handful of chocolate chips (I used Ghirardelli dark chips). I heated them in a microwave in my glass tart dish, originally trying this experiment with tupperware. FAIL!!! Within one minute the thing was fried and the chocolate had died, leaving an ugly stench in its wake. So, if you do go the microwave route, stick to a very durable dish, porcelain preferably, and keep your eye on it like a hawk. You’ll want to warm the chips until they’ve just begun to melt. They will still retain the general shape of the chips, but that’s fine. Once you stir them, the mixture will become smooth, and if not, just keep zapping them at 15-ish seconds. It’s better to be cautious with chocolate!

Vegan Chocolate cake:
(makes two mini 2-layer cakes)

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/6 cup unsweetened cocoa
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup coffee (at room temperature)
1/3 cup soy milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsps vinegar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Mix all the dry ingredients. It’s best to sift them so as not to let pass any dry clumps. Add the wet ingredients (sans vinegar) and mix with a fork until fully incorporated. Once incorporated, mix in the vinegar. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 25-30 minutes.

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