Roasted Vegetable Napoleon redux: Meals requiring a day of prep, Is it worth it?

December 2, 2010 § 1 Comment

You may think I’m referring to Thanksgiving here, as it just passed and holds title for the one day of the year that Americans collectively come together to really enjoy their food. But, I’m not. This brief missive is inspired by a dinner a small group of friends shared in which our host, good friend R., gathered us to serve the savoury Roasted Vegetable Napoleon she had recently made from the Real Food Daily cookbook and was quite excited about. I’m guessing this napoleon took away half of R.’s waking hours to put together, and I say this because I arrived at 3pm in the afternoon to do a bit of learning at which point she was only about half way through her prep. work!

Last stages of prep.For those of you who revel in dish descriptions, here is my best attempt (ironically, I'm awful at this part). The napoleon consisted of a red onion marmalade (cooked in pomegranate molasses), sandwiched between layered discs of seasoned/roasted eggplant and portobello mushroom, fire roasted bell peppers, and homemade seitan. The tower of components rested gently over a bed of warm swiss chard and a portobello mushroom demi-glace (which derived its flavor from vegetables that were first roasted earlier that day). Each component was meticulously seasoned and cooked in its respective way, with the entire process being a good 6 hours, longer if one counts the seitan that R. makes regularly and always has on hand.The roasted eggplant discs

The dinner was lovely. This is the sort of food that puts the cloud of vegan or vegetarianism aside, and rests on the fundamental merit of excellence. In the midst of enjoying the wonderful meal, we wondered if it was really worth R.’s time to make, considering it took nearly her entire Saturday to prep and cook. Of course being on the receiving end, our answers were unanimously yes. R., however, describes the experience as a process that she enjoys immensely, and not necessarily as a finished product with a ‘worth’ stamped on it, measured in time. R. takes great pride in her work, in the technique, the process, the construction, all of it, and that pride of practice is apparent in the plate. Creating inspired food is a hobby not unlike sailing or running, only at the end of the day you’re able to share the benefits of your hobby with others. The evening meal becomes an added bonus to top off a day spent practicing something you love to do while discovering, experimenting and creating something new and tangible during the process.

The roasted portobello mushroom discs

I have to say, my social life has transformed in response to my new appreciation for food. Sit down dinners over wonderful meals and good conversation have taken over from the consistently interrupted restaurant dining experience that often restricts the time period of your evening and carries over into other less meaningful activities to fill in the space. The new delight in researching techniques, playing with ingredients and making things I might never have otherwise is an active dialogue shared amongst foodie friends at the dinner table. I don’t know why it is, but discussions about food open people up in a way that no other topic, short of war stories, tends to do. Maybe it’s that feeding and nourishing a person at your table is a means of creating a unique bond that mimics an aspect of the parent-child relationship in some way. Perhaps I’m stretching here.

Finished product

In The Making of a Pastry Chef, a book I’m currently reading, Andrew MacLauchlan traces the history of the pastry from the first crackers cooked on sun-exposed rock and man-kind’s first ovens made to bake some of the world’s first recorded breads (at least as we know them, courtesy of the ancient Greeks), all the way to modern times. He describes the evolution experienced by the ancient Romans in which food’s role in life moved from the center of sustenance to the center of celebration, 

Cooking, up to that time considered a lowly job, became known as high art and was heavily influenced by the food of its conquered territories. Early Roman feasts included many new tastes as trade with Asia, Persia and the Middle East introduced apricots, peaches, plums, quinces, and raspberries to Rome’s orchards, spawning the first international cuisine. The convergence of many ingredients gave rise to a culturally specific and complex cuisine. Food and dining held significant meaning beyond mere sustenance; they now related to celebration and revelry in the form of banquets and festivals.

In my own evolution, abundance of time and resource has spawned meaningful preparation and frequent revelry around large dining tables with good friends and many who have become so after sharing in the experience of witnessing someone’s laboring in a kitchen for half a day to ensure that each layer of a Roasted Vegetable Napoleon boasts the flavors and textures that will make the whole a masterpiece. So, is it all worth it? That entirely depends on what food means to you. If you’re reading this then the answer is most probably a hearty yes.

How has your culinary experience evolved or flourished over the years?


Peruvian Purple Potato Chips

November 1, 2010 § 2 Comments

A couple of my vegetarian friends got together this weekend at our friend K.’s house for a dinner. We had great food and wine and watched the sun set over the Pacific, all of this wonderfulness for which I have no pictures. Maybe I’m old school, but I tend to enjoy my moments. I did bring a camera with me, fully intending to take many pictures of the table that K. did an amazing job of decorating in the Halloween theme, but I was just having too good of a time to bother. 

Peruvian purple potato chips served here w. guacamole

For the starter I made Peruvian purple potato chips with a Peruvian Aji dipping sauce (recipe below) followed with a spinach zucchini cream cheese puff pastry loaf for the main. For dessert I did a three-tier vegan chocolate cake w. non-vegan cream-cheese coffee frosting. The only thing I have pictures of are the Peruvian purple potato chips, and this is only because I made a test batch a few days before the weekend. The test batch wasn’t completely successful. I cut the potato slices a bit too thin, which resulted in some unevenness since I didn’t use a mandolin potato slicer. This caused uneven baking, so you’ll see in the picture that many of the halves are brown (read: burnt). For the actual dinner, I did a mixture of Peruvian purple potato chips and classic Russet potato chips. I honestly preferred the Russets. The purple potatoes were a novelty for me, and I was eager to work with them. And although I probably didn’t use them to their fullest potential, I have so say, I didn’t much care for them. They were a bit bitter, which could be because the darker color absorbed more heat during the baking process??? When I expand my Peruvian repertoire and develop a good sauce, I may return to purple potatoes for a creamy mash. In the meantime, my heart is set on baking tarts =)

Peruvian Purple Potatoes
(serves 4 as a side or appetizer)

-5 Peruvian purple potatoes cut diagonally at about an 1/8th of an inch thickness 
-cooking oil spray
-Sea salt to taste

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lay aluminum foil on a baking sheet. Lightly spray the surface with cooking spray. Lay out the potato slices and sprinkle with sea salt. Bake for an indeterminate amount of time, average time should be somewhere around 30 minutes per baking sheet. You must check on the potatoes frequently, as some may cook faster than others. As you find these, remove them and let the others continue to bake.

Peruvian Aji sauce (not pictured)

-1/8th of a head of lettuce
-2 jalapeno chiles with the seeds and veins removed
-1/8 of a cup of mayonnaise (I use an eggless mayo from TJoe’s)
-salt and pepper to taste
-3 green onions
-one small handful of cilantro leaves
-1 tsp minced garlic

Combine ingredients in a food processor until smooth.

As an aside, I just put in my first order to CSN using the $75 I won from Croque-Camille’s giveaway (thanks again to Croque-Camille and CSN). I ordered the following list of awesomeness, all of which I’m eager to put to work soon:

-4 mini 4-inch tart pans
-2 mini 4.5-inch springfoam pans
-2 silicon baking mats
-1 two-tier cooling rack

In the process of making out the order, I realized where all my interest in the kitchen lies, and apparently it’s in the oven. There will be a lot of baking going on in the future here!!!

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.”

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.

Watermelon Tomato Gazpacho, full stop, summer is over

September 30, 2010 § 7 Comments

Watermelon Tomato Gazpacho

I just completed a power cooking session: 3 courses in a full two and a half hours, which  produced the following:

1st course: Watermelon-Tomato Gazpacho
2nd course: Brussels sprout casserole
3rd course: Plum tart w. homemade coconut chocolate truffle ice cream (ice cream was made the night before)

So, there are a few things I realized: first, power cooking is a serious stress reliever! Two, don’t turn the oven on if you’ve got two things to bake and neither is anywhere near completion! The rest are nuances of the dishes. I was not a fan at all of the brussels sprout casserole, and will post it as a FAIL in the upcoming days, with details as to why. Next to come will be the recipe for my plum tart and homemade coconut ice cream!! So check back for that in the near future or sign up for the updates!

To kick it all off, tonight I am posting the watermelon-tomato gazpacho for my friend who needs cold soup!!…and for all the poor folks suffering in California from the heat wave. This is a great first course because it combines all the ingredients of a watermelon salad, but pureed so that it’s just easier to eat, and you can serve it to your friends who are short on teeth this way =)

There was nothing original added on my part here (this was a learning exercise for me, taking on the challenge of dishes I’ve never done before, but mainly it was all about my tart, the beauty). I used the recipe from Good Housekeeping (link), which is pretty solid as is. As far as flavor goes, there’s not much I would change, but watermelon paired with other ingredients is new to my palate, and I’m going to have to think about it a little more thoroughly as I eat my way through the rest of life. I would serve this as a dessert to an uber health conscious crowd (or gluten free, vegan, etc.). Otherwise, as a first course I believe it’s a nice opener, a little unusual, but still good, which is just the way I like my food. The only difference here is that I adapted the recipe to make two servings:

Watermelon-Tomato Gazpacho
(adapted for serving size from Good Housekeeping, makes 2 servings)

2 cups watermelon cubes
1/3-1/2 cup cubed cucumbers (adjust according to how bland you like your food, less cucumber => stronger tomato/watermelon flavors)
1 + 1/2 roma tomatoes
about 10-12 good sized basil leaves (picked from my plant, I usually just take whatever the poor thing can bear to give me)
the juice of one lime
pinch of salt
green onion for garnish (one stem chopped should do it for two bowls)

Puree the watermelon cubes. Pour into a large bowl. Then puree the remaining ingredients (cucumber, tomato, lime juice, basil, salt). Incorporate this into the watermelon mixture.

Note: if you like your gazpacho a little chunky, don’t puree the mixture too thoroughly.

Sweepstakes: Foodbuzz sponsor, Concannon Vineyard is giving away $20,000 to host a family reunion (but in the details it looks like they’re just handing over a check). You can enter here, and find the details and official rules here.

Pan seared tofu fillet on a bed of ginger carrot salad (Vegan)

September 28, 2010 § 6 Comments

pan seared fillet of tofu served over ginger carrot salad

I used to find Iron Chef difficult to watch because of the cutting of the fish heads and sometimes live animals being slaughtered. My interest piqued when the show’s producers decided to present a special vegetarian episode. There was also a spinach episode way back with Cat Cora (maybe?) that featured spinach mac & cheese. What’s not to love about that??!! So, Chef Michael Symon now does a show on the Cooking Channel that breaks down three courses from an Iron Chef episode. Again, if you’re sensitive to seeing dead animals, this program is not for you. But if you can kind of put that aside, he relays inspiration and creativity through breaking down the amazing out-of-the-box Iron Chef dishes in steps.

...for sure the 2nd best thing I've ever made, taste wise

It’s one of these episodes that served as the inspiration for this dish. He performed the operation on a fish (tearsob, Cat??!) but the whole time it just looked like a little white piece of silken tofu. And all I could think was, how am I going to recreate this dish in my own kitchen (minus the fish of course). I also recommend shows like these (there are also instructive videos on that break down the winning dishes from Top Chef…love chef Voltaggio’s video on Kevin’s unique version of the Singapore Sling which won him Top Chef!!!) for presentation, which is parallel to outlining. When you have an approximate for presentation of your main ingredient, the rest is fill in the blank, e.g. hmm, I need a base of unruly vegetables, etc.. 

For the base (can’t remember what Symon used), I decided to make a carrot salad. I just had carrots lying around and have been wanting to make a carrot salad for a while. I decided to go Asian, just in staying true to the tofu. So, the carrot salad is infused with hot chili sesame oil, ginger and garlic. 

Ginger Carrot Salad
Measurements are approximate, the quantities here will make about 2 plates (as shown above) 

1+1/2 shredded carrots
1 tsp grated ginger
1 clove of grated garlic
1 stem of green onion finely chopped
1 tbsp of sunflower seeds
3 tbsps of hot chili sesame oil (if you find you need a bit more oil, fill in with sesame oil or extra virgin olive oil)
salt and pepper to taste
juice from half a lime 
Mix. Cover with a plastic wrap and refrigerate. You will love this. The aroma will hit you in the face and you’ll have a hard time not eating it all on the spot. The longer you let this marinated mixture sit, the stronger the flavor will be. 

Pan seared tofu fillet in ‘butter’ lime sauce
1 pkg silken tofu
tempura mix
corn starch
all purpose flour
oil for the pan
salt and pepper 

2 tbsp earth balance
grated lime peel (the shavings from one lime is enough)
salt and pepper 

This process may be a bit difficult to translate. I started by cutting the tofu into fillet-like pieces (see picture). Then, thoroughly dried each piece in a paper towel. I created a mixture (unknown quantities, just a little of this and that) of corn starch (probably a tbsp), flour (probably two tbsps) and tempura flour (equal parts as flour). I coated each of the tofu pieces in the dry mixture (see picture), then put them into an oiled frying pan on medium heat (the pan should already be warm), adding salt and pepper to taste to each side. Once both sides were cooked w. a golden brown finish, I set them on a cooling rack and added the butter and lime peel to the pan to create a sauce. When serving I spooned this sauce over the tofu fillet, which I served over couscous (see below). Hope you enjoy. This was definitely one of my best so far. Bar is raised now!! 

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