Saturday, April 24, 2010

Veggie burgers...

It's difficult to know where to start with Mark Bittman's cookbooks. Mainly because they're so enormous - How To Cook Everything Vegetarian clocks in at almost 1000 pages. I use his How To Cook Everything as a consummate cooking reference - anytime I want to make something I look it up there first, and his recipes almost never disappoint. But the challenge of a vegetarian meal is how to get your head out of thinking that meat has to be the center of it. So what should that center be, or is it more about several peripherals that come together to form one holistic dish?

I decided there were a couple strategies here: 1) buy an ingredient and look up his suggestions for how to prepare it 2) open a page at random, or 3) search for things I know I like already, like gratins, or pasta dishes, or things involving beans.

Strategy #1 I did with tofu. I used half a block of extra firm tofu to make pad thai, then had some extra left over. He suggests simply roasting it for an hour at 350. He offers a few ideas for things to brush the tofu with. I cut it up into cubes, brushed it with a mix of miso paste and mirin wine (left over from the Japanese food kick prior to our trip to Japan in December), and roasted. This was really nice. When it was hot and fresh out of the oven, it tasted almost like cheese with a slightly chewy yet crisp exterior. It was good.

Strategy #2 I haven't really tried yet. But here are a few that come up when I open pages at random: pearl couscous gratin with pesto and goat cheese (how could this not be good?), parsnips and wheat berry pie with phyllo crust (ummm, not sure).

Strategy #3 has resulted in several dishes so far. Creamy baked noodles with eggplant and cheese. Good, but not amazing or worth the effort it took to prepare bechamel, eggplant sauce, layer it all, bake it, etc. Today I made his Espresso black bean chili and actually used dried beans, something I don't normally do but would like to do more often. They take forever to cook, even with his recommended pre-soaking (boil 2 minutes, let sit 2 hours), but this was an excellent chili, dark & smoky without being heavy. The chili also had a cup of espresso in it, which you wouldn't be able to identify if you didn't know. I took it to a potluck supper with cornbread and it was yummm... couldn't stop eating my own potluck contribution.

But the one I've made a couple times so far has been his recipe for The Simplest Bean Burgers. Really easy, and infinitely variable, and here's another thing that's great about his cookbooks - he always gives lots of suggestions for how to adapt dishes with what you have on hand. The template is:

2 cups well-cooked beans, can be white, black, red beans, chickpeas or lentils, or 1 drained 14 ounce can
1 medium onion, quartered
1/2 cup rolled oats (not instant)
1 Tblsp. chili powder or other spice mix
salt & pepper
1 egg
Bean cooking liquid, stock, etc. if necessary.

(My additions: several crimini (baby bella) mushrooms, grated cheddar.
I've done this with chickpeas and black beans. Both have great flavor, chickpeas held together better.)

Throw all of the above into a food processor, pulse but keep it chunky. Add liquid if necessary, burgers should not be wet or pureed. With wet hands, form into patties, let stand or refrigerate if you have time. To cook, saute 5 minutes per side or broil 5 minutes per side.

These are super easy and taste much better than the pre-made patties. Could grill them but they might fall apart too easily.His infinite variations include suggestions like adding fresh herbs, sauces, cooked veggies, nuts, spinach, you name it. I don't think you could go wrong unless you lose the consistency necessary to keep them holding together.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Tortilla pizza with refried beans and sweet potato

Since watching Food, INC several weeks ago, I've changed the way I eat. It's a great documentary, a disturbing look at how farming has become thoroughly corporatized. There were a number of things that disturbed me, such as how the push to make a profit has led to chickens whose growth process is sped up before their skeletal development can catch up, and cows eating corn (not a natural part of their diet) and having more E. coli infections as a result. There was also the very sad story of a mother whose toddler died eating a hamburger, and who has argued for higher inspection standards since ground beef can come from multiple plants with only the smallest sample tested for E. Coli.

So, this was all bothersome enough that I decided to switch to a more vegetarian diet. I don't think I'm ready to completely give up meat or poultry, but I do only want to buy beef or chicken from places that can guarantee a more humane, less corporate existence. I'm inspired by my favorite NY Times columnist & cookbook author Mark Bittman, who himself switched to a 70% plant-based diet recently. I guess you could call this being flexitarian. But I'm also conscious of what I'm feeding to my now 22-month old daughter, and if that part of Food, Inc that focused on the mother who lost her child was intended as a scare tactic, it worked with me. Sofia doesn't like meat much anyway (too hard to chew), loves seafood, and will eat chicken if it's interesting (say, a drumstick rather than a bland breast that's been dressed up).

If I can get my act together to post here more often, I'm going to start writing about my recent efforts to cook from three of the vegetarian cookbooks I own: Bittman's "How To Cook Everything Vegetarian," Madhur Jaffrey's "World Vegetarian," and Nava Atlas' "Family Vegetarian. I've been trying out a lot of recipes lately. Not all of them are a success. In fact, in order to promote family harmony, I think I am going to have to frequently fry up a piece of chicken or a steak on the side. It's also challenging to rethink my own expectations for a meal at which some form of meat is the center, with vegetables a sort of dutiful supporting act. I may flake out. But I'm going to try.

So here's one that has entered the regular rotation on the dinner table. Sofia loves it. It's adapted from a Dr. Sears baby newsletter from several months ago. Basically it's a tortilla topped with a number of good savory & sweet things and then baked, but it's infinitely variable.

Tortilla Pizza - serves 2-3 people

Package of small corn or flour tortillas
1 large sweet potato
1 can refried beans
frozen corn, defrosted
grated cheese (1-2 cups cheddar, jalapeno monterey jack, etc)
Generous handful of spinach, chopped up small
Salsa, chopped tomatoes, chopped avocado, green onions - basically any extra garnish.

Preheat oven to 400. Cook sweet potato in microwave. Take skin off, mash with butter, milk, and salt to taste.

On tortillas, spread a layer of refried beans, followed by a layer of sweet potato, spinach, grated cheese and corn. Bake for 10-12 minutes until cheese is bubbly. Salt to taste, serve with salsa, toppings & Tabasco sauce.