Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Getting prepared

I haven't been blogging about the food I'm eating lately because it's largely been salads in preparation for what will be a very decadent gastronomical excursion to Las Vegas and Laguna Beach. My eyes are bleeding from staring at the computer and scouring forums and websites to choose the best places to dine.

Though I have to say that my first decision was not difficult. After reading about Claudia's dinner at one of Mario Batali's joints in New York, I decided I just had to check out one of his places for myself. Claudia informed me that he had places in Las Vegas and I settled on B&B Ristorante in the Venetian. Hello sweet potato lune, you shall be mine. We have reservations for Saturday night at 7:30. Afterward, I plan to hoof off some of those calories by walking up the strip toward the Bellagio, but we shall see. I hope I don't eat myself into misery. Though I know Claudia is hoping I try.

The choice for dinner for our one night in Laguna Beach wasn't terribly hard, either. We're tourists, so the experience and the view are as important as the food. So I chose k'ya in La Casa del Camino hotel (a runner-up to my choice of accommodations, the Casa Laguna Inn & Spa). You had me at "three cheese macaroni," k'ya.

Still up for grabs on our agenda is Friday night. I have had a lot of good food in Las Vegas and I'm very tempted to go back to one of my favorite restaurants (which include Crustacean--apparently now closed--and Nobhill), but we have a busy day scheduled and I'm thinking of staying off the strip and going for something a little more casual. Since Nashville is pretty much void of really good, vegetarian-friendly Chinese food, I'm tempted to head to China Town. Kung Fu Plaza got a positive review for vegetarian items, though it is also a Thai restaurant. Harumpf. I'd prefer dim sum, but finding vegetarian dim sum outside of New York or California is likely pretty...unlikely. I'm also considering Agave for dinner. Mexican food is different out there than it is here...I would hit some of the specialty vegetarian places, but I'm travelling with a non-vegetarian. So I'm trying to be considerate (despite his insistence that we visit In-N-Out and have sushi while there). Also still open is lunch on Saturday. Other lunches will probably come from Whole Foods which is, luckily less than a mile from my hosts' home. I do know that I will be visiting the Bellagio for some gelato. Oh yes.

So that's what I've been doing with my time lately. We leave tomorrow and come back "Friday week" as they say in these parts. I'll have a full report.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Someone noticed...

...that I don't like carrots. There are lots of vegetables that I don't like, but when I was growing up, my mother stuck a carrot in my hand at least three times a week. I was scarred. Kids these days have it so easy with their baby carrots. Back in my day, I had to suffer full-grown carrots with their bitter cores and all. Complaints fell on deaf ears.

Though I did have a choice: eat the carrot before dinner or after dinner. But the only time I had reprieve from eating the carrot was the ever-so-welcome summer when I instead had to water-log my kid-belly with half a cantaloupe to get my vitamins. Luckily, I can still somewhat enjoy a cantaloupe. A full size carrot? No. I can't really even stomach a baby carrot. I buy bags of them with good intentions only to see them get slimy and rotted on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. I will occasionally slip some into a lasagna, tofu noodle salad or eat the artfully-carved carrot garnish at the local Thai restaurant, but for the most part, I leave carrots to the rabbits. I know; I'm a bad vegetarian.

Related: the truth about baby carrots.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Pasta Primavera

Pasta Primavera is one of those meals that is so easy and delicious but I just never think about making. But the other night, I wanted something light and flavorful, so I got inspired. Bear with me, though. I took a few liberties and this isn't quite a traditional version.

Pasta Primavera

1 zucchini and 1 yellow squash, both sliced in quarter-inch slices and the cut longways into quarter-inch wide pieces
1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
1 carrot, thinly sliced
1/4 cup olive oil
Dried Italian herbs or Herbs de Provence
Kosher or sea salt
4 ounces organic white mushrooms, sliced
1 ounce diced onions
1/2 - 1 pound farfalle (bowtie) pasta
Artichoke hearts packed in light oil and herbs
1 ounce finely shredded SarVecchio™ paremesan cheese

Spread zucchini, squash, pepper, and carrot in a large roasting dish and mix with oil and herbs (a light covering) with a sprinkle of salt and roast in a preheated oven at 450° for about 20 minutes or until they just start to brown a bit. Stir halfway through.

Cook the farfalle according to the directions for al dente, drain and set aside in a large bowl.

Sauté mushrooms and onion in a skillet with a bit of olive oil and place in the bowl of pasta.

Once the vegetables are roasted, put them in the bowl of pasta, scraping out all the oil and herbs. Add a couple of separated artichoke hearts and the parmesan cheese and mix the pasta to combine all the ingredients.

I was only cooking for two people, so I only used half a smallish zucchini and squash and only about a quarter of a red pepper I had in the freezer. And, okay, I totally skipped the carrot because I was in no mood to chop or shred a carrot. What can I say...Regardless, this was a light and flavorful meal that when started with a salad was actually quite healthy. The SarVecchio™ cheese is not a terribly traditional parmesan. It's got quite a unique but very delicious flavor that really adds a lot to this dish. Though I can't confirm it from the information on the website, the formaggiaio at Whole Foods told me it's a vegetarian cheese (not made with animal-based rennet). I highly recommend it.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Red Velvet Cupcakes

I was inspired by Taylor over at Mac & Cheese to make red velvet cupcakes for Valentine's Day. I've always loved red velvet cake, but have never made it. Actually, I've never made any cake or cupcake from scratch in my whole life, but as I perused the ingredients, I realized that I had everything I needed (except the cream cheese), so why not?

First of all, it was really no more work to make this cake batter from scratch than to make a cake from a box. Maybe a couple of extra steps, but not a big deal. I read both recipes she had posted as well as some comments and set about making the cupcakes. I'll post the recipe here with the revisions I made and will make the next time with explanations to follow.

Red Velvet Cupcakes (Vegan)
2 cups soy milk
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
4 tablespoons cocoa powder (drop this back to 2)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup vegetable oil (change to 4 tablespoons oil, 5 tablespoons applesauce)
2 ounces red food coloring
4 teaspoons vanilla extract
(I added 1 teaspoon of cinnamon)

Add vinegar to soy milk, and set aside to curdle. Sift flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl (I just stirred the mix with a whisk).
Add vegetable oil, food coloring, and vanilla extract to the curdled soy milk, and mix. Pour liquid ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix. Fill cupcake liners ½ full. Bake in a preheated 350° oven for 20 minutes or until done. Makes 24 cupcakes.

Cream Cheese Frosting
½ cup margarine, room temperature
½ cup Tofutti Better Than Cream Cheese, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 cups confectioner's sugar

Cream margarine, cream cheese, and vanilla extract. Slowly mix the confectioner’s sugar into the creamed mixture, and then beat until smooth and fluffy.

(Not Vegan)
½ stick butter (softened)
8 ounces cream cheese (softened)
1 box confectioner's sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 teaspoons lemon juice
dash salt

Blend butter and cream cheese with a spatula. Add vanilla, lemon juice, and salt. Cut in confectioner's sugar until it's all moistened and then beat until smooth and fluffy.

Explanation for changes. I used Hershey's Special Dark Cocoa because that's what I had on hand. But I don't think it was the absolute main culprit for the fact that my cupcakes were not red. Many recipes call for only two tablespoons of cocoa. Then again, those recipes aren't vegan. I'll test the batter with just two tablespoons next time and only add more if it's not chocolate-y enough. Also, who has two ounces of red food coloring? That's way more than comes in the standard four-color boxes of dyes and two local groceries did not sell the red dye separately. I only used about an ounce between two packages (and now I have way more yellow, blue and green food coloring than I will ever need) and it didn't appear that my batter was going to get any redder, so I gave up. I actually made reddish-brown velvet cupcakes. Regardless, these cupcakes were delicious. Though, as noted by Taylor, very moist, which is why I'd cut back on the oil even more next time. Call me crazy, but I'm a good southerner and good southerners are accustomed to dry red velvet cake. Though I prefer a little moisture in mine. I've had some that was so dry, it made me cough (just like that first bite of my mom's cornbread).

Then there's the frosting. The first batch got tossed out completely. I did not use the Toffuti; I got lazy and bought Neufchatel lower-fat cream cheese instead (I didn't feel like driving to Whole Foods to get vegan cream cheese). And used Smart Balance margarine (from when I bought it instead of the intended Earth Balance). I was slightly low on confectioner's sugar, so I augmented it with just a bit of powdered Splenda and corn starch. This frosting was terrible. Too loose (I blame the Neufchatel and perhaps the Smart Balance) and too brown (that second teaspoon of vanilla's not necessary). This is all, of course, my fault and not the fault of anyone's recipe. Since I obviously did not follow a recipe.

So I started over. I looked up some other recipes and opted to go for full-fat cream cheese, cut the butter to ½ a stick instead of ½ a cup, cut the vanilla back so the frosting would be whiter, and tossed in some lemon juice to make it easier to blend (all that fat really wanted to clump in my mixer). Perfect. Some of the best-tasting frosting I've had in my whole life (not to be immodest). Really, absolutely delicious.

So what do you have when you put delicious frosting on a delicious cupcake? A delicious frosted cupcake, of course. Despite a few setbacks and a disappointing color (not to mention a very messy kitchen), I would say these cupcakes are a real winner. The SO agreed.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

You say Roesti, I say Rosti

I'm not Swiss, but I was recently faced with the challenge of what to do with a heaping pile of shredded potatoes and shredded cheese after helping a friend test graters (more on that when I'm able to reveal our findings). Though I don't typically take my hash browns scattered, smothered and covered, I opted to try out a rosti with my bounty of free shredded stuff.

Rosti with cheese

• 1 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold (or other waxy potato), peeled and shredded
• 1/4 cup finely diced onions
• 1/2 to 1 cup shredded cheese (cheddar or other savory cheese)
• salt
• pepper

1. Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat in a 9 or 10 inch frying pan (preferably non-stick). Add onions and cook for 2-3 minutes. Pour olive oil and onion mixture over shredded potatoes in a large bowl and stir to coat the potatoes. Mix in shredded cheese and salt and pepper to taste (at least 1/2 teaspoon of salt; pepper optional).

2. Heat three tablespoons of oil in the same saucepan over medium heat and add potato mixture. Tamp down and form into a cake and cook until golden brown. Transfer to a plate and heat three more tablespoons of oil in the skillet. Invert the plate of potatoes or flip over with a spatula to cook the other side of the cake. Should take about 7-10 minutes for each side.

Sounds tasty, no? It is. And not terribly healthy, particularly with the skins from the potatoes removed. But not every dinner can be 100% healthy. Or 100% perfect. As you might be able to see from the photo, my rosti got a little too rosti. I'm not sure if I had the heat up too high or if I just wasn't paying attention to the time, but it got past golden brown and well into charcoal black in some places. But it was still good. The parts I was able to salvage, that is.

The rosti was served as a side dish for some Quorn Naked Cutlets marinated in Drew's All Natural Sesame Orange Marinade. A little steamed broccoli rounded out this very flavorful (and easy) meal.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Over Christmas, I finally got a couple of my mom's cast iron pans. She's got loads of them, a result of dwindling numbers of living relatives and dwindling family sizes with each generation.

I haven't had much interest in making cornbread for many years. Primarily because my mom makes the best cornbread. And I like for her to make it for me. But as she lives three hours away, it's become necessary that I make it on my own. Real cornbread, that is. Not Jiffy. For one, Jiffy has lard in the mix. For two, Jiffy is sweet cornbread and cornbread's just not supposed to be sweet.

So, these days, I'm not making sweet Jiffy cornbread any more, but I'm still cheating and using a mix. For two reasons: I don't keep milk on hand and because Weisenberger's mix is so darn good (and the perfect amount for two people). Though I suppose it wouldn't kill me to try to make it with soy milk sometime. Though, God love her, that would probably kill my mother who's unhappy that I'm even eating yellow corn meal. Nope, to her, real cornbread is made with white cornmeal. Hey, sue me, I like yellow corn better! Regardless, here's my mother's very simple cornbread recipe (adapted over the years to exclude shortening and critter goo):

Real Southern Cornbread
• 2 tablespoons oil (canola, vegetable or corn oil--not olive oil)
• 2 cups white cornmeal (yellow is good, too!)
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 2 teaspoons salt
• 1 large egg
• 1 cup milk (skim, 2%, or whatever you've got)--you may not need the whole cup, though. Add enough so that the batter pours slowly.

1. Preheat oven to 450°F. Place oil in a 9-inch cast iron skillet or similar-size glass baking dish place in oven while it's heating.

2. Mix cornmeal, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. Add egg and milk and stir until just combined.

3. Remove the pan from the oven when it's fully heated and swirl the oil to coat the bottom and partway up the sides. Pour the batter into the skillet and bake until the bread is firm in the middle and lightly golden (about 20 minutes). Cool five minutes, flip inverted onto a plate and slice into triangles.

I was lucky enough to get a divided pan along with a skillet. Clean-up takes a little more time, but the crispy edges makes it very worth it. I served it with purple hull peas (seasoned with a little Liquid Smoke), corn (frozen, not on the cob) and steamed broccoli for a good southern (and healthy) meal.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A weekend of Asian food (and a little Mediterranean, too)

Many people spent this past weekend celebrating the Chinese new year with, well, Chinese food. Despite this being the year of the rat and being a rat myself, I did not celebrate with Chinese food. But I did have some "Asian" food.

I'm not typically a fan of using the word "Asian" as a blanket descriptor, but that's the term they use at Basil Asian Bistro, where the SO and I dined Friday night. I started out with vegetarian spring rolls and a few bites of the SO's coconut tofu soup and had tofu vegetables for dinner with a side of brown rice. Everything was delicious, but I was particularly pleased with the soup. I wished I'd ordered a cup for myself instead of having to bogart the SO's.

The restaurant itself was dimly lit for a nice, romantic dinner. Despite its openness, the tables were well-spaced for a reasonable amount of privacy. The service was attentive but may have been a little overworked that night as it was a tad slow at first. I'd heard good things about the restaurant, but really knew I'd made a good choice when I was spotted by Claudia of cook eat Fret. She said it's one of her favorite places in the area and she knows her food, so that's quite an endorsement.

Saturday afternoon, the weather was lovely for February and it made me want to eat al fresco. Given that there aren't a lot of patios open this time of year, we decided to get take-out and head for a park. I got a falafel plate from up the street at Gyros International (the SO got beef gyros--yuck). The falafel is prepared (by an ever-so-friendly and accommodating man) when you order it so you have time to pop in next door at the African grocery and get some plantain chips and ginger cookies. Unfortunately for me, that day the grocery was also filled with what appeared to be boxes of charred chickens or ducks. The smell of crispy fowl was not pleasant. But the people who work there are pleasant, so I smiled, paid for my desserts and got out ASAP.

Saturday night, we ate out yet again. This time, we were in my neighborhood since we had plans to see a show at the Exit/In later. So we opted for a healthy but filling dinner at Miss Saigon. I got one of my two usual favorites, the #10 mixed tofu with vegetables over vermicelli and convinced the SO to try the lemongrass tofu. The #10 was good as always and the lemongrass tofu was roughly the same dish except that the vegetables are topped with the tofu and a sauce rather than just mixed (shredded) tofu and peanuts. It was very good, but had a kick. There was still some lemongrass stinging the SO's lips for a while after dinner.

Dinner didn't take long, so we got down to Elliston Place a little earlier than expected. So we headed over to Cafe Coco for some caffeinated beverages to help our old bodies stay awake past 10pm. And much to my amazed delight, there were still several pieces of Italian wedding cake in the cooler. The SO had never had it before, so I talked him into sharing a piece.

If you've never had Italian wedding cake, I am very sorry. Because it's amazing stuff. Years ago, I had it and was so taken with it, I decided to make it myself. And then I read the recipe. So I have never made it and only rarely eat it. Take a look at the recipe and you'll see why. But I will occasionally calorie-splurge when I see it available in an establishment with trusted desserts (such as Cafe Coco). Needless to say, after eating half that piece of cake plus a small soy chai latte, I was rarin' to go for the next few hours. I think I finally settled down (read: crashed) around 1am. I can hardly fit in my jeans today, but that cake was oh so worth it.

As for Sunday night, I cooked at home. Vegetables and cornbread. It was the beginning of the detox from the excesses of the weekend. More on that later.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Joey's House of Pizza

They ain't quite as good as John's on Bleecker Street, but Joey's House of Pizza in Brentwood (as well as the House of Pizza in the Arcade in downtown Nashville) is certainly very good and good enough to satisfy my cravings for authentic New York style pizza.

My only idea for improvement is for more locations and longer hours of operation. Until that happens, I'll have to settle for the occasional lunch with one of the ever-growing number of friends I have working in the Brentwood area.

Okay, one other request would be for the vegetable calzone not to have onions and green bell peppers, but that's a little too much to ask.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Truth About Hummus

A favorite local lunch spot of mine serves really good hummus. Usually the standard garlic plus a selection of flavored ones such as spinach pesto and chipotle (isn't chipotle passé now?). Anyway, I figured the other day, hey, hummus is just mashed chickpeas and a little other stuff; I can make that! So I did. First, here's a basic recipe:

One can (14-15 ounces) chickpeas, drained and rinsed
4-6 ounces of tahini (to taste--I like more; get tahini at the Mediterranean grocery, Wild Oats/Whole Foods, or the hippie aisle at the Kroger)
2-4 ounces of lemon juice (to taste--I like more)
2 ounces water
2 cloves of minced garlic (or two tablespoons of the already-minced garlic--in oil or water)
2-3 hearty pinches of cumin (to taste)

Blend all ingredients and garnish with extra virgin olive oil and kalamata olives.

Here's what the recipes don't tell you.

1. You really ought to do this in a good food processor. I don't have one, so I used my blender. And I think I nearly burned out the motor. Maybe doing half that recipe at a time would have been a better idea. Until I get aforementioned food processor.

2. You can add other ingedients for a nice flavored hummus. One recipe called for roasted red peppers packed in oil. What that recipe didn't mention is that those peppers still retain a lot of moisture, so once you've added enough to get the flavor, your consistency isn't right. It was a little runny, though it tasted good. Again, probably would have been a good idea to cut the recipe in half and make the first one standard and then leave out the added water in the recipe for the roasted red pepper version. Maybe even cut back on the lemon juice. Or I could have roasted my own pepper in the toaster oven and tried it. It would not have been as juicy.

3. Fifteen ounces of chickpeas plus another twelve ounces of other ingredients yields a lot of hummus. A lot. As in, enough to feed more than ten people. Ten hummus-loving people. Maybe 14-16 standard hummus-liking people. So ignore any recipe you find calling for more than one can of chickpeas unless you're preparing it for a large party or perhaps an army.

Now I'm off to make some care packages of roasted red pepper hummus for unsuspecting friends and neighbors. Drive-by hummussing.