Sunday, August 30, 2009

Chard Empanadas with Zebra Tomato Salsa

I share my little garden plot in the backyard with my next door neighbors, and we have a free trade policy regarding the veggies. They've taken a few zucchini and tomatoes off of my hands, and their patch of swiss chard has provided me with greens since the spinach gave up earlier this summer. The chard is still growing like crazy, so I picked a bunch to make these empanadas over the weekend.

Empanadas take on a variety of forms and fillings around Latin America. Basically, it's a dough of wheat or corn flour - sometimes mixed with cooked and mashed plantains or potatoes - stuffed with a sweet or savory filling. They're either baked or fried, and we went the baking route here since it was cool enough to use the oven.

I love cooked savory greens in tacos or enchiladas, so empanadas seemed like a great place to put a mess of greens. Here's my simple filling ingredients and recipe:

5 or so cups swiss chard leaves with thick stems removed, or any other greens like kale, collards, or spinach
2 tbsp. raisins (optional, but I love raisins with greens)
1 medium white onion, diced
1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
salt and black pepper to taste

1. Heat oil over medium heat, and saute onions until soft and translucent - 5 minutes or so - mixing in cumin and cinnamon towards the end, just to toast the spices a little.

2. Add greens and raisins, and just enough water - no more than a tbsp. or so is necessary - to steam the greens a little. Cook over medium heat for a few minutes until the leaves wilt, and then turn heat to low and continue cooking until most of the moisture has evaporated, another 5 minutes or so. Cooking the greens until they're a bit on the dry side helps keep the empanadas from getting soggy during baking.

My shortcut here is a set of plastic turnover makers my mom gave me - old school empanada cooks probably would never use anything like this, but I love my kitchen gadgets. Here's what I'm talking about:

My mom and I used these to make sweet pumpkin turnovers when I was home last fall (can't remember the German or Norwegian name for them right now). They're like little omelette makers - you drape a disc of thinly rolled dough over the turnover maker, fill with a couple spoonfuls of greens, and fold together, applying enough pressure to seal the edges. You could do the same thing by hand, but these things eliminate all stress from empanada production.

What about the dough? I used about a half cup of masa harina, or fine corn flour, and about one and a half cups of all-purpose flour, along with 2 tbsp. olive oil and 2 tbsp. canola oil. This was mostly guesswork, like most of my work with bread dough. Mix the flours and oil, along with a little salt, until the flour and oil are well-combined. Add just enough water, mixing constantly, until the dough no longer sticks to your fingers. I chilled this overnight, covered with plastic wrap so it didn't dry out.

Letting the dough rest overnight, or at least a few hours, seems to make it easier to work with, and less prone to tearing or falling apart during assembly of anything like this.

Writing instructions for working with bread dough or baking always intimidates me a little - I just won't pretend to any expertise - so let's talk about salsa. Salsa I can handle :)

I have three varieties of heirloom tomatoes in the garden - Arkansas Travellers, something French, and Green Zebras. The zebras are ripening first, and they're amazing. I didn't want to overwhem their flavor in this salsa, so it's just the basics. A cup of diced tomatoes, 1 tbsp. diced white onion, 2 tbsp. cilantro, and a tiny splash of lime juice, with a sprinkle of salt.

If you're still with me, I baked the assembled empanadas for about 25 minutes at 400 F, turning them over half way through. You'll know when they're done, as the edges turn golden brown. This is a good recipe for making ahead of time, and the assembled empanadas would keep well covered with plastic wrap in the fridge for a day or so before baking or frying. This is nice stuff to make for friends or family, but it's just as good tearing into a pile of piping hot empanadas and fresh salsa on your own. It's a little trouble, but worth it.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Campfire Ratatouille & Wasabi Mashed Potatoes

I couldn't let summer go by without making ratatouille, with everything coming from the garden or the Fargo-Moorhead farmer's market. It was hot and humid when when I made this earlier in the week, so I fired up the grill instead of using the oven.

I can't do a ratatouille post without giving props to the movie, which is not only a great food movie, but one of my favorite films from the past few years. If you want to see a beautiful tribute to the Ratatouille version of the classic dish from Provence, check out this post from A simple kind of life from a few months back. My ratatouille on the grill isn't nearly as elegant, but still tastes great.

The idea for ratatouille on the grill comes from a "campfire ratatouille" recipe in American Wholefoods Cuisine, by Nikki and David Goldbeck. It's a massive collection of vegetarian recipes, published in the early 80s, and back in print. It was the first vegetarian cookbook I really got into when I found it on some friends' bookshelf years ago.

This contains all the ratatouille regulars, with eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, and red onions. It's all tossed in a cast iron pan with lots of extra virgin olive oil, a little white wine, salt and pepper, and dried oregano and thyme. I added fresh basil and flat leaf parsley towards the end. This was on the grill for around a half hour - I let it cook down to something that resembled a chunky pasta sauce, and used it with rice and pasta for the next few days.

This next dish isn't the prettiest thing I've ever made, but was great comfort food. Wasabi powder and fresh grated ginger are mixed in with the mashed potatoes...great as long as you don't go overboard with the wasabi. On the left is Miso Mushroom Ambrosia, from Lynne Rosetto Kasper's How to Cook Supper. I'm kind of obsessive about listening to The Splendid Table on NPR every weekend, and found her new book at the library. I might need to buy this one - a great mix of recipes, commentary, and passion for good food, just like the show. I added tofu to the miso mushroom recipe for a little protein. Topped with fresh chives, it was a nice mix of meat-and-potatoes comfort food with some lively East Asian character.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Squash Blossom Crema, and my favorite summer cookbooks

I'm determined not to let a single squash blossom go to waste this summer. This is a recipe I've been looking forward to since I picked up Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen a few months ago. This soup is chock full of pumpkin blossoms from my brother and sister-in-law's garden, and garnished with some of my zucchini blossoms.

This recipe turned out great, and the handful of vegan replacement ingredients were excellent - I'm pretty sure most people would be surprised there's no dairy here. Almond milk and vegan chicken broth powder provide savory and creamy elements, along with a boiled potato - I blended the soup in the food processor halfway through, and the potato provides a silky texture when blended. Sweet corn, diced zucchini, and roasted poblano pepper give the soup additional heartiness.

Bayless's recipe calls for a half cup of cream, so I used soaked and well-blended raw cashews. Unless you have a really great blender, this is the only time-consuming part. After scraping the sides a few times, and adding just enough liquid to make a cream, soaked and blended cashews make a nice cream substitute.

Of course, the majority of vegan food doesn't need dairy or meat stand-ins to achieve delicious flavor. That's why summer is the perfect time for the two Donna Klein cookbooks in my collection - The Meditteranean Vegan Kitchen, and Vegan Italiano. In both books, Klein builds awesome vegan dishes around fruits, veggies, fresh herbs, seeds, grains, and nuts, without using dairy or meat replacements to mimic anything. I turn to these books often this time of year, because her approach really lets fresh ingredients play the starring role. Above is one of my favorite ways to prepare fresh greens - spinach with raisins and walnuts. This recipe works well with all kinds of greens - kale, chard, collards, etc.

This is another Donna Klein recipe - grape tomatoes from my garden, sauteed in olive oil just until the skins start to wrinkle, then tossed while hot with red basil, sweet green basil, cilantro, and Italian parsley. As much as I love snacking on tomatoes right from the vine, this tastes even better.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Tired feet and paws on the Superior Hiking Trail

I'm taking a break from food here to post some pictures from the Superior Hiking Trail, where the pups and I spent the last few days walking and camping. It's one of my favorite places anywhere, though trail life lost a little charm on Wednesday, when we were soaked to the bones by rain all day long. I'm already starting to miss it though, sitting here in my dry apartment with a cup of tea :)

The SHT is a trail system running from Duluth, Minnesota, along the north shore of Lake Superior, to the Canadian border near Grand Portage. We did a middle section, between Baptism River and Caribou River. Northern Minnesota, especially near the big lake, is a beautiful place. The trail climbs to mountain tops with expansive views of Lake Superior, winds inland to tranquil and isolated lakes, crossing clear streams and dense forest along the way. I did a little trail work here with MCC a few summers ago, and it was my first time back.

I'll let the photos do the talking from here, with a little explanation along the way. The top photo is from Lilly's Island on Sonju Lake. It's barely an island - a few big rocks with some pine trees, but a peaceful and charming place, connected to the mainland by a narrow boardwalk.

This is a popular rock climbing area called Section 13, dramatic cliffs rising above the Sawmill Creek and Baptism River valleys. We stopped here for lunch and a rest - here's Maya, who loved to run up to cliff edges along the trail and peak over. Both dogs were on leashes on the trail - not always my favorite way to hike, but a good idea here.

Our section of the trial is said to be prime moose habitat. We didn't see any - just tracks - but here's Otter doing her moose impression in Egge Lake. This is black bear country too, so we kept our beans and rice and dog biscuits tied up between the trees every night.

I can't talk about the SHT without talking about berries. Great stretches of trail are essentially berry buffets - raspberries were in abundance, along with my favorite berry, the thimbleberry. Ripe thimbleberries make me very happy, partly because this is the only area where I've found them.

Speaking of berries, trail food doesn't get much better than this - a peanut butter and berry bagel sandwich, sort of a proto-PB&J, with raspberries and thimbleberries.

We heard more wildlife than we saw - grouse, loons, woodpeckers, and lots of other birds. But I was so proud of myself when I spotted this little dude. Toads have been one of my favorite animals since I was a little kid, and this is the coolest toad camoflage I've ever seen up close. He looks exactly like this rock, and much like the surrounding forest floor. I snapped a quick picture and snuck away. Didn't want to make him feel bad since I noticed him there.

Here's a giant rock along the trail, known as a glacial erratic. It's around 20 feet high, sitting alone in the forest like it got lost along the way to a mountain.

One more lake before I go - this is Wolf Lake, home to the Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center. You know how it is - photos never quite capture these places, but the view from the cliffs over this lake was just gorgeous.

One more pic of the dogs, for the road. This was late on our last day, and we were all pretty soaked at this point. We stopped here to rest and check the map, in a grove of towering old cedars, along a little stream. Cedar groves were the only relatively dry places in the woods at this point. After this the choice was camping another night with wet everything, or hitchhiking out on forest service and county roads. We took the hitchhiking option, which turned into a mostly walking and getting even wetter option, though we got a little help on the way from a delivery truck driver - you can't beat random acts of kindness.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Heirloom Tomato Panzanella

I picked up these heirloom tomatoes last weekend at the Fargo-Moorhead farmer's market - I'm not sure what the varieties are, but each had a different character. My favorites were a mottled red and green on the inside, and were sweeter than any tomato I've ever had - sorry I don't know the variety, because I'd love to recommend it :)

Panzanella is an Italian dish built around stale bread, tomatoes, and other veggies. I based my version on a simple and elegant take by Lidia Bastianich, in a short piece she did for Time magazine a couple months ago. It's about ways to recycle old bread, instead of tossing it out. Here's my panzanella, featuring cubes from a loaf of multigrain bread a little past its prime.

In addition to the tomatoes, we have some thin sliced cucumbers, red onion, and fresh basil. For seasoning I used about 2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, about the same amount of red wine vinegar, and salt and pepper. That's all there is to it - everything is tossed together, and left to mingle for at least 10 minutes. My bread cubes were very dry, so I recommend a little more time if that's the case. Even with very dry and hard bread, the oil and vinegar will moisten the bread and add great flavor. Here's another pic, just because I like this so much.

Continuing the non-cooking theme, I made another fun recipe from Ani's Raw Food Kitchen. This is one of her breakfast scrambles - raw almonds and sunflower seeds, ground and mixed with water and turmeric for that great color. Delicious stuff, mixed with tomatoes, mushrooms, and fresh basil, rosemary, and Italian parsley.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Stuffed Zucchini Squash Blossoms

I've been waiting all summer to try making stuffed and fried squash blossoms, and finally got around to it yesterday. I thought stuffing and battering these delicate, feathery blossoms might turn into a disappointing mess, and I was happily so wrong. It's really easy, and if you have access to fresh blossoms - I think any squash works, from zucchini to pumpkin - I promise you will love these things! I don't promise much, so that's how I feel about these.

To start things, I googled vegan squash blossom recipes, and found this very helpful recent post from Tami at Vegan Appetite. I did my breading a little differently, but did a similar cashew cheeze filling - I especially like the touch of white miso with the cashews. My full recipe is below, but here's the final product:

Let's start with fresh blossoms. Mine are usually wide open in the morning, and then close up later in the day...I don't know if picking them at either stage makes a difference, but I picked these later in the afternoon when they were closed up. I've also seen pictures of flowers for sale at farmer's markets that are wide open and blooming. Here's a little bowl of blossoms, along with some fresh herbs that I mixed with the creamy cashew filling.

I made the filling first. Here's the ingredients, blended to a thick, creamy consistency. You could probably get away with using unsoaked cashews if you're in a hurry, but soaking helps make a creamier cheese.

1/2 cup raw cashews, soaked for at least a couple hours, or overnight, and drained
1/4 cup raw walnuts
1 tbsp. shiro (white) miso
2 tbsp. nutritional yeast flakes (optional, but great if you like nooch)
1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
chopped fresh herbs - sage, Italian parsley, and basil, between a teaspoon and tablespoon of each
salt and black pepper to taste

First process everything but the herbs in a blender or food processor, and mix in the herbs at the end. I think it would look more like a pesto if you add the herbs at the beginning, which would work too. Here's the cashew filling - maybe not the prettiest thing you've ever seen, but delicious - I could eat this by the spoonful.

The tricky part of making these little guys is, of course, getting the filling inside the flower. Some people recommend removing the little inside part of the flower...wikipedia says stigma or pistil, and I bet any flower people totally know what I'm talking about. Anyway, I didn't bother, and didn't notice anything. I say don't worry about it.

My cake decorating funnel bag made filling the blossoms a snap. If you don't have one, you can just cut a small corner off a plastic sandwich bag. Doing this with a little spoon would work too, but I think it would be harder. I filled each blossom about 2/3 full. Back to the Vegan Appetite post, Tami suggests using a little filling to get the blossoms to stick together and stay closed. That's what I did, and it worked perfectly. Here's the stuffed blossoms:

I skipped taking pictures during the breading process, since my hands were a mess and I'm tired of getting food on my camera :)

I'm always tinkering with how to get breading/battering right, and wanted a light, crispy crust for these. This worked pretty well.

1. In one bowl, mix about a cup of water or unsweetened nondairy milk with about a tbsp. of corn starch or potato starch - I used enerG egg replacer, which is mostly potato starch. Mix regularly while you're doing this, so the starch stays suspended in the liquid.

2. In a second bowl, I mixed a half cup of all-purpose flour with about a tsp. of salt, and generous sprinkles of black pepper, dried thyme, oregano, and sage.

3. With your fingers or tongs, carefully dip a blossom first in flour mixture, shaking off extra flour after removal. Then immerse the blossom in the starch/liquid mixture. Finally, dip the moistened blossom back in the flower mixture, coat completely, and again lightly shake off excess flour.

4. Almost there! I fried each blossom for about five minutes, in preheated oil on the stove top. I used a combination of peanut and olive oil, which may sound weird. My unscientific thinking is that peanut oil takes a long time to start smoking, and olive oil tastes really good, so I went for the best of both worlds. A deep frier would be handy, but I used my cast iron fry pan.

There you go. I thought of eating these with some kind of dipping sauce, but they tasted way too good to mess around with making a sauce.