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Culinary Wanderings #3

Welcome to the third edition of Culinary Wanderings! To give me a way to share a bit about my culinary adventures, and to learn from all of yours, I’ll be writing a post on the last Tuesday of each month to share any new recipes, ingredients, or other discoveries I’ve made in the kitchen. I would love for you to join by sharing your favorite or most recent food-related post from the month. You’re welcome to focus on one recipe, one ingredient, one new kitchen gadget, one new cooking or meal-planning technique, or to write about your entire month in food as I’ll be doing. Anything food-related that you want to share is appropriate. It’s all up to you!

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Planning, and Not Planning Meals

Shortly after leaving my teaching job to stay home with a soon-to-be-born Annabelle, I started making detailed meal plans at the beginning of each week and grocery lists based on those meals. This lasted for about two weeks before I realized the idea just did not work on Guam. The vast majority of what we eat is imported, and it has an awfully long journey to make. Shipments run late, and people seem to have a generally relaxed sense of time. Urgency really only appears to exist in true emergencies. What this means for food is that it’s often impossible to find pretty basic ingredients. There have been numerous times when all of the grocery stores we shop were out of onions – purple, white, and yellow.  Onions. That’s one item I used to take for granted, and a staple in so many of my favorite recipes. This past week, I planned to make vegetable lasagna and couldn’t find any eggplants, even though a lot of farmers actually grow those locally.

So, meal planning proved to be an exercise in frustration (and flexibility!) and I started sticking to staple pantry items plus whatever looked good in the produce section on any given week. I would wing dinners from there, and many nights didn’t know what I’d make till I headed for the kitchen to get started. I’ve been noticing that an awful lot of produce goes unused this way, however, and I end up making expensive extra trips to the store when I realize I have everything I need to make x, except one thing. I go after that thing and end up finding several more that look tempting. A hundred dollars later, our food budget is looking scary, and I have a bag full of things we didn’t really need.

So, I have gotten back to some version of meal planning. For the past few weeks, I’ve been taking an inventory of perishable items in the house every Monday. I plan dinners for early in the week that use those things, and base the rest of our meals on items we have, making a list to fill in any holes. Conveniently, Monday is “baking day,” so I can make rolls and anything else ahead of time that morning to prepare for the week. I’m still unable to find a lot of things, but that just means scratching one of the meals I’ve planned if I can’t creatively substitute, and coming up with something else based on what we have on hand. Much better than making extra trips to the store for things we don’t need!

Baking Bread

My whole wheat-mung bean loaves. Success!

As much as I love to bake, I have always felt a little hopeless when it comes to loaves of bread. I’ll make rolls, sweet breads, and cakes, but when it comes to sandwiches and toast, we use store bought bread. I was chatting with a blog friend recently and she asked if I bake our bread. I replied that I’d like to, but had given up trying. She shared a recipe she likes and I took the whole conversation the same way I take many things – as a challenge. I tried an altered version of her recipe and one other, and since then have been making fresh bread every Monday.

My first attempt used whole wheat flour, a bit of vital wheat gluten, and a mung bean flour I made by grinding some sprouted, dried mung beans in my coffee grinder. It turned out quite well, and with the sprouted mung beans I would imagine it had a rather high protein content for simple bread. One of our local health food stores sells these sprouted mung beans and sprouted lentils of the same brand, which I think I may try grinding as well. I always keep them on hand for a quick meal, since they cook very quickly and are highly nutritious.

This week’s bread experiment was a spelt loaf I made following this recipe from Food and Wine, though I did everything by hand since I have neither mixer nor bread machine. It turned out to be a beautiful and sturdy loaf, and it tastes nice as well. This bread made me realize, however, that baking our own does not necessarily save us money. A small bag of spelt flour around here runs you $8, and my single loaf used three fourths of that amount. My tofu-making, gardening guru, awesome friend brought me a massive amount of freshly ground rye flour this morning, so that’s next on my list. If you have a go-to bread recipe to share, I’d love to give it a go!

New Discoveries and Old Favorites

Not the prettiest pot pie I've ever made, but what it lacked in looks, it made up for in flavor!

Most of my cooking this month was of the little bit of this, little bit of that variety, but I did try a few proper new recipes along the way. I gave this sesame soba noodle salad a go, though I changed it up slightly and served it warm. It was good, but not great and made me realize that I really don’t care much for tahini as a prominent flavor in any dish. There are very few plant-based foods I don’t like, but tahini is a bit too bitter for me.  Along with our soba noodles, I served a simple miso soup made by adapting this recipe slightly. I’ll definitely go back to that one, with minor adjustments.

Two of my more time intensive meals were pot pies and lasagna, both of which take time in general, but are complicated by the fact that in this house satisfying everyone requires making one vegan and one omni version. The pot pies especially made me think of childbirth: It had been so long since I’d made them that I’d forgotten what a tremendous amount of work it is. Midway through, I considered giving the whole idea up, but I pushed through and by the time my work was complete and I was gazing at two beautiful pies, I had practically forgotten about all the trouble.

I made two alterations to my usual pot pie routine this time around: for the crust, I replaced some of the flour with chickpea flour. I also used a cookie cutter to stamp hearts into the top crust, reducing the overall crust content. My only complaint with pot pie is that I always feel like we’re eating a tremendous amount of flour! I liked my cutout crust, as it still felt like a traditional pie. I typically make my gravies with pureed white beans instead of a flour/milk mixture. It’s surprisingly good, and makes a very nutritious gravy. Midway through my preparations this time, however, I realized I had no white beans, and no unsweetened milk. I thought fast and starting soaking the half cup or so of cashews we had in the pantry. I pureed those with some water and used them as my gravy base. I will never look back – it was perhaps my best gravy ever.

For lasagna, I vary my vegan mozzarella cheese alternative virtually every time. This time around, I finally had all of the ingredients to try the “Buffalo Mostarella” from The Ultimate Uncheese Cookbook. It was nice on pizza later in the week, but I didn’t like the flavor in lasagna, so I don’t think I’ll make it again for that purpose. One recipe from the same book that was a hit was the Broccoli Pesto, which we put on some einkorn pasta. There are some great recipes in there that really are one of a kind when it comes to vegan “cheeses.” I suppose they’re just not something most people make from scratch, especially given the options in stores these days, so you find very few, if any, recipes online for different kinds of cheese. I’ll definitely be using this one more and more now that I’ve found most of the ingredients the recipes use. Miso features heavily, which is why I ended up making miso soup. I had to use the stuff up!

Annabelle with her chocolate-strawberry birthday cake.

I did a bit of baking this month as well, what with Annabelle’s birthday and National Oatmeal Cookie Day and all. I’ll admit the latter was just an excuse to feed a craving, but my fabulous daughter turning two was a darn good excuse to bake. We talked about what kind of cake she wanted in the week leading up to her birthday, and her request was for chocolate cake with strawberries. I decided to go with a recipe I remember working out well in the past: the “Raspberry Blackout Cake with Chocolate Ganache-y Frosting” from Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s Vegan With a Vengeance. I just swapped all the raspberry in the cake for strawberry, replaced the sugar with coconut sugar, and we were all set. It was a nice looking cake, but in the end I decided that this recipe from Moosewood really is the best there is. I may as well toss every chocolate cake recipe I tried before it out the window – I don’t need them!

When our local coffee shop posted a photo of their oatmeal cookies for “National Oatmeal Cookie Day,” I headed straight for the pantry and set to work on another tried and true recipe from Vegan With a Vengeance, the “Big Gigantoid Crunchy Peanut Butter-Oatmeal Cookies“. I changed up quite a few things to make them a bit less of a sugar bomb and accommodate for ingredients I was missing, so ours had molasses, raisins, flax meal, and whole wheat flour, but boy were they good! Andrew declared them “some of” my best cookies.

Speaking of old favorites reborn, give this tasty breakfast a try:

Recipe: Indian Inspired Scrambled Tofu

I’m well aware that soy isn’t exactly in fashion right now, but have you guys noticed that it’s delicious? Sure, it’s high in  phytoestrogens. So’s broccoli. I certainly eat it mindfully, and stick with organic and non-GMO, but I’m not afraid of the stuff. I go with fermented soy when I can, and try to keep it at or under a serving a day because, you know, all things in moderation, but some days that doesn’t pan out. I simply don’t buy into the idea that it’s terrible for you. It’s not, you just have to know what you’re eating, and stay away from the conventional stuff since it’s heavily sprayed with creepy pesticides and lines Monsanto’s pockets.

Anyway, I love tofu and could eat a good tofu scrambler for breakfast every day without getting tired of it. I arrived at this recipe by subbing tofu for the eggs in an Indian recipe and adapting that to include a few things that tend to make tofu especially delicious.

Ingredients

1 brick firm or extra firm organic tofu (sprouted is awesome, if you can find it!)

1 tomato

1/2 yellow onion

1/2-1 cup greens of your choice (spinach, chard, whatever you fancy)

3 Tbsp oil or vegan margarine

1-2 tsp cumin seeds

1 tsp salt, or 1 Tbsp tamari

1/2 tsp turmeric

1/2 tsp garlic powder

1/2 tsp onion powder

1/4 tsp ground mustard (optional)

2 Tbsp – 1/4 cup nutritional yeast

Fresh lemon juice, to taste

Fresh cilantro for garnish (optional)

Crumble your tofu with a fork or your hands. Chop your veggies as fine as you like them. Mix tofu with tomato, greens, and spices and set aside. Heat oil over medium heat in a skillet, add cumin seeds and saute for thirty seconds or so, until fragrant. Toss in onion and soften before adding the tofu/veggie mixture. Cook until veggies are all done to your satisfaction. Turn off heat, and add nutritional yeast and a squeeze or two of fresh lemon juice. Garnish with cilantro if using, and serve.

There are so many other veggies you can add. I love a good, mild green chile when I have them on hand, carrots, olives. Fresh garlic is great, too. Whatever you need to use up! You can absolutely toy with the spices, too, to find the blend that suits you best. I usually serve with a nice, (vegan) buttery slice of toast, or a side of whole wheat pancakes.

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Have you tried any new recipes, or made any brilliant food-related discoveries this month? How do you handle meal planning, or not planning? Do you have a tried and true bread recipe you’d like to recommend? Do you enjoy coming up with creative excuses to bake? Please, dish – let’s talk food!

If you’ve written about your own culinary adventures recently, feel free to link up your post or posts below. Linky will be open all month, so feel free to come back by and, if you do, please visit a fellow linker and share the foodie love!

8 Responses to Culinary Wanderings #3

  • I love the idea of cashews in gravy. I have used white beans a couple of times for a white sauce/gravy, most recently in a creamy leek pasta dish that was yummmmy. I will definitely have to try cashews, though!

    I’ve been baking all our bread for the past 2 or 3 months now. I just use a pretty basic half white / half wholewheat recipe. I also find that baking your own isn’t necessarily cheaper, even with simple ingredients–mostly because we seem to eat it a lot more quickly! Mung beans sounds fascinating–do you have a link to a recipe you can share?

    • melissa says:

      I highly recommend cashew gravy. Let me know if you give it a try! My favorite mung bean recipe is copywrighted, so I won’t post it here, but I’ll send you an email in a bit :)

  • Jess says:

    You are my culinary inspiration :) I don’t know how you it!

    • melissa says:

      You are too sweet! Believe me, there are plenty of things in my house that go undone so that I can spend extra time in the kitchen when the mood strikes. You have to do what you love, right? ;)

  • Amy says:

    I’ve been trying bread too! I did the sprouting and grinding, and was happy with the results. But, my sourdough attempts have been not so great. My loaf was similar to the rocks that line my garden…But, I’m trying again today! If you haven’t tried sourdough, it is very interesting to try to figure out the “personality” of your starter. Obviously, I have not. The timing is crazy to keep up with! But, you seem a much better cook than I, so you’d probably figure it out!

    • melissa says:

      Oh, please share any tips you have as you go along, or let me know if you find the perfect recipe! I’m glad I’m not the only one who doesn’t have perfect results every time. My downfall with cooking is my forgetfulness. I have made sourdough starters more than once (even a teff starter, which I was really excited about!) and I always end up forgetting to feed them. I’d love to try again, and I just might do it now that you’ve put the idea in my head :)

  • That bread looks great, you have just inspired me. I have been toying with the idea of getting a bread maker for a while, in the mean time I need to start regularly making bread, yum.

    Your pot pie looks seriously good for a cold winters day… I love the idea of cashew milk for a gravy.

    Love reading about your kitchen experiments!

    • melissa says:

      Thanks, Christine! Pot pie is definitely a wonderful wintery meal, but can even be appreciated here in the land of eternal summer ;)

      Please share if you find any great bread recipes, or end up trying out a bread maker. I keep toying with the idea, but so love the acts of kneading, mixing, and shaping my dough that I’m not sure whether I’d be able to appreciate the convenience. Ah, but convenience is nice, too.

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