Thursday, December 11, 2008

Vegetarianism & Vegetarian Gumbo

Vegetarianism: what comes to mind when you read that word? A diet without any meat, certainly, but what does that entail? Do you imagine a diet of salads instead of stews and tofu instead of steak? Do you think of your favorite meaty entree—lasagna or tacos—with the meat removed? Or maybe you are vegetarian and you think of all the varied and interesting dishes that make up your diet.

As an omnivore, it is easy for me to jump to the conclusion that a vegetarian diet is a diet with many of my favorite foods removed from it, but this would be a vast misrepresentation of what a vegetarian diet has the potential to be. People choose to be vegetarian for many different reasons, but whether it is for health or ethical reasons, it leads to the same thing: placing a specific limitation on what one can eat. But instead looking at this limitation as something that leads to a duller diet with less variety, I believe that it is important that we look at it as exactly the opposite.

Ever heard of the book Gadsby: Champion of Youth? It is a short novel by Ernest Vincent Wright in which the letter “e” is never used. Now, you might be wondering why someone would want to do such a thing, and make an already difficult task—writing a novel—even more difficult? Well, it’s pretty simple: for the challenge. By placing this limitation on his writing, Wright forced himself to expand his vocabulary, find new and more interesting ways of saying things, and make what might have been a very ordinary novel anything but. I think that vegetarianism does a similar thing in the context of food. Taking meat out of your diet forces you to do what I am always trying to do in my cooking, which is to step outside the box, to seek out new ingredients, and new ways of doing things.

Now, of course, I realize that vegetarians generally don’t choose to be so simply for the sake of challenging themselves—as I said, there are a lot of reasons to become vegetarian—but the resulting challenge accounts for some of the most interesting foods we eat. If no one had ever decided to remove meat from their diet, would we have all the delicious vegetarian dishes that we have today? It’s doubtful. And imagining a world without vegetarian cuisine is as dreadful as imagining a world without Chinese, Italian, or French cuisine—a bland culinary world indeed.
This little exploration of vegetarianism was inspired by the Vegetarian Gumbo I made for dinner recently. The recipe came from the lovely 101 Cookbooks blog, in a post about a month ago. (And on a quick side note, if you haven’t checked out this blog, you really should! Heidi’s recipes are perfect examples of how wonderful vegetarian cuisine can be.) This recipe really showcases the kind of creativity in cooking that a vegetarian diet inspires. It takes many of the traditional elements of gumbo—making the roux, slowly stewing the ingredients, finishing with the file—and then adds a twist to make this a meatless, but fully balanced meal.

The change, of course, comes in the addition of protein, traditionally chicken, shrimp, and/or sausage. It would have been easy to toss in some beans, or maybe even tofu (though the thought makes me cringe a little), but instead, Heidi has you poach eggs in the gently simmering gumbo. The result is a warm, earthy stew surrounding a rich poached egg, creating the ideal dinner for a cold winter night.
If you liked this post--or even if you didn't--please leave me a comment and let me know. I'd love to hear what you think!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Holiday Baking: Brownies with Dried Cherries

Well, it’s December, which means it is officially time to get my holiday treat making on. From a very young age, my mother instilled in me the tradition of holiday baking. We worked hard, whipping up shortbread, gingerbread, almond crescents, sugar cookies, and other morsels of Christmas cheer, always sampling at least one new treat each year.

I’ve decided to start early this year and sample as many holiday goodies as I can before the 25th. My waste-line may not like it, but I’m pretty sure that the secret to happiness can be found in Christmas cookies, so it should all work out.

This weekend, I took a David Lebovitz book out of the library, and though overwhelmed by the number of recipes I wanted to try immediately, I eventually settled on a recipe for brownies with dried cherries.

Lebovitz calls these rich nuggets of chocolaty goodness the “absolute best” brownies, and I’m not going to argue with that. They come out exactly the way a brownie should: thin, soft, and a little gooey. I am a huge dark chocolate fan, so these are ideal for my tastes: not too sugary, but very rich, and plenty sweet. I used 60% cocoa this time, but I think I’ll bump it up to 70% or higher next time and get a true dark chocolate brownie.
And then there are the cherries. Is there any better combination of ingredients as chocolate and cherries? Wait, don’t answer that—it doesn’t matter. These brownies are like black forest cake without being so cake-y. The recipe calls for dried cherries, and I was tempted by the candied cherries in that thick, gooey syrup at the grocery story, but I am very happy I stuck to what the recipe told me. The dried cherries added just the right amount of flavor and fruitiness without adding any sweetness. I think the candied cherries would have made them too sweet and sticky.

Absolute Best Brownies with Dried Cherries
Adapted from Ripe for Dessert by David Lebovitz
Makes 9-12 brownies

6 tbsp. butter
8 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
¾ cup sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 large eggs
¼ cup flour
1 cup nuts, toasted and chopped (walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, or pecans)
1/3 cup dried cherries, chopped

Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a 9-inch square cake pan and line the bottom with parchment paper.

Melt the butter in a medium-size saucepan. Chop the chocolate and add it into the butter, stirring over low heat until melted. Remove from heat and stir in sugar and vanilla. Beat in eggs, one at a time.

Add the flour and stir energetically for 1 minute, until the batter loses its graininess and becomes smooth and glossy.

Stir in the chopped nuts and cherries. Scrape batter into prepared cake pan and bake 30 minutes. Cool completely before removing the brownies from the pan.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Cozy Comfort Food

As I am writing this, I am sitting at my desk with a pleasantly full belly, listening to the gentle pattering of rain falling against the window. Sorry if that was overly poetic for you, but I am basking in that dreamy haze one only experiences after a good, uncomplicated square meal. I’m not talking about the feeling one gets after eating something exotic or elegant. While these are notable experiences, tonight, I only want to talk about the simple pleasure of enjoying an ordinary home-cooked meal. Warm, creamy, and savory all describe the chicken I made for dinner.
Yes, I know, there is way too much food on that plate. It’s messy and unbalanced and I don’t care. It was awesome. I served the chicken I’m going to talk about with a creamy risotto of my own invention, and the incredible roasted broccoli Adam recently blogged about over at The Amateur Gourmet.

The chicken recipe comes from a Jamie Oliver cookbook. It is a chicken breast stuffed with sautéed mushrooms and garlic and parsley, wrapped in puff pastry, baked, and then finished off with a creamy Dijon-wine sauce. The tantalizing picture in the cookbook lead me to believe that this could be tricky and fussy for two reasons: first, I always seem to have trouble with stuffing chicken breasts—I always either don’t cut a big enough pocket in it, or I cut it in the wrong place, or I over-stuff it. Second, I was certain that the puff pastry would give me trouble even though I bought it in frozen sheets. I imagined it would somehow end up in a tangled, unsalvageable mess that I would inevitably throw across the kitchen in an angry fit. Not that that’s ever happened before … ahem.

ANYWAYS, as you’ve probably already discerned, none of these things happened and the recipe was a success. The garlicky mushroom filling added a welcome earthiness to the rich pastry and sauce. And also, wow, there are few things that smell better than sautéing mushrooms and garlic in a healthy chunk of butter.

Stuffing the breasts went off without a hitch. I think that actually having the right size of breast—nice, big 7 oz ones—made a world of difference. Obviously, trying to cram a bunch of stuffing into a tiny slit in a small piece of meat is just asking for trouble. Now, I can’t actually finish an entire 7 oz chicken breast on my own, but that’s what boyfriends are for!
Wrapping the breasts in puff pastry was quite easy as well. I used puff pastry sheets from Pepperidge Farms, and one sheet was the perfect amount for two breasts.

While the chicken was baking, I prepared my broccoli, risotto, and sauce. I managed to time it perfectly—usually, I always have something that takes too long, or something done way too soon, but this all came together quite well. And the chicken came out of the oven looking like heaven, ready for Andrew and me to curl up, dig in, and enjoy!

Superb Chicken
Adapted from Happy Days with the Naked Chef by Jamie Oliver, where it was titled My Old Man’s Superb Chicken
Serves 4

6 oz of mushrooms (I used white and cremini, but feel free to experiment with different varieties!)
1 tbsp. butter
1 tbsp. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 hand-full chopped fresh parsley
4 7oz skinless boneless chicken breasts
1 1lb 2oz package of puff pastry sheets (2 sheets)
1 egg, beaten
2 tbsp. Dijon mustard (Jamie Oliver uses whole-grain)
1 cup dry white wine
½ cup cream
Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400F

Chop the mushrooms, half rough, half fine. Heat butter and olive oil over medium heat, and add the garlic and mushrooms. Sautee slowly for about 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and stir in the parsley. Allow to cool.

Slice the chicken breasts lengthwise, going only about halfway through so that you create a pocket in each chicken breast. Stuff the pockets with the cooled mushroom mixture. Cut each of the pastry sheets in half lengthwise and wrap one half around each of the chicken breasts. Don’t worry about it being perfect—just do your best to cover as much of the chicken as possible. Brush the pastry with the beaten egg, and cook in the preheated oven for 35 minutes.

While the chicken cooks, heat the mustard and wine in a small saucepan. Simmer and reduce until you can no longer smell the alcohol—ten minutes or so, but use your nose. Stir in the cream and simmer until the sauce coats the back of a spoon. Remove from heat and season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve one breast per person and drizzle with the sauce.

If you liked this post--or even if you didn't--please leave me a comment and let me know. I'd love to hear what you think!