Sunday, 22 September 2013

A Season of Roaming


Would you forgive me if I told you that I had one of the best summers of my life? Everything moved so quickly that by the time I would finish a blog post it was no longer up to date or relevant. I can't type as quickly as my life is passing me by. And it seems all that much more rapid because every moment feels like one worth savouring, every moment is worth holding on to, worth cradling and observing and embracing. When I sit this computer in front of me and start typing I fear that I am missing out on something, that time is slipping away, that I should be doing something more meaningful.


Looking back on my last blog post however, I am reminded of the value of taking the time to sit here and reflect. Because without reflection it is so easy to forget, and if you forget everything that you have done then how worth doing is it? I like to come back here and revisit how I felt at some particular moment of time. And, if you are someone who eats, many moments in time are anchored around food in some way. For me, and for many I am sure, life revolves around food: our relationships, our feelings, celebrations, meetings, bonding, new beginnings, farewells and everything in between.


I can look back on my summer and see the meals that I ate, the settings in which I ate them, the people that I laughed and conversed with, the stories and memories we shared, the experiences we recounted, the people that ebbed and flowed around us, the warmth of the air that surrounded us, the scenery that acted as our backdrop, the events that led us to that table or that park bench or onto the grass, the train coach or even just to a couch, a kitchen counter or on a food-in-hand promenade. The food that we eat extends our experiences and our memories to all five of our senses. This must be why our meals are a part of so many of life's memorable events.


I would love to recount all of the experiences I was blessed to be a part of this summer, but I have waited too long to share and I do not have time to write the novel I would need to write. In brief, what flitters through my mind is weekends spent drinking beers at the beach, a trip to the Okanagan, exploring lakes along the way there and passing through a dozen wineries on the way home. I went to the Sasquatch music festival at The Gorge in Washington, went on a road trip to Portland aimed at exploring breweries that resulted in the discovery of so much delicious food. I also went on a brief but beautifully memorable sailing trip up the Indian Arm and also spent two weekends camping on the sunshine coast. On top of that I spent a pleasant week in Seattle that was work related but turned out to be more fun than serious (except for when I missed my 6:30 am train). Also of note is that I ran my first 10 K race in July which prompted me to pay closer attention to what I was eating than ever before.


Even though I recognize that this already sounds like an amazing summer in itself, it actually was made even better by a visit from my mom and littlest sister to Vancouver in early August and then even better by a trip to Italy and Spain with my second littlest sister, my sister-in-law (of sorts) and my very best friend. I am using this post to catch you up on my life and show some of my favorite pictures from my trip.


I have to say that in Italy, never in my life have I eaten such a high concentration of amazing food. My stomach growls and my mouth waters thinking back to it. It is quite sad to think that I will not really experience that culinary satisfaction again for years to come since I do not know when I will make it back. Even at the best restaurants in Canada I think it is hard to match everyday Italian cuisine. In Barcelona, I did not love the food I ate quite as much as what I experienced in Italy, it may be that we were not as strategic in choosing our restaurants. We did find one tapas bar, called Cal Pep, which was hands down the best place I ate at at in Barcelona and for some reason I feel obligated to promote it. 


In Italy, it was hard not to eat well (unless we were near a major historical site). As such I rarely made the effort to remember names, but there are some that I will mention since I find them impossible to forget. In Monterosso Al Mare I will always dream of Ristorante da Ely, for their perfect ravioli with pesto and Ristorante Al Carugio for their pesto gnocchi and for their kindness. From Florence we went to Chianti for a wine tour and there, at Tenuta Casanova we had the most amazing meal I have ever had - a multi-course lunch where everything came from the farm from the chickpeas, tomatoes and eggs to the honey, truffle oil and the balsamic (I kid you not) - served with a variety of lovely wines of course. I also have to mention La Ciambella Roma in Rome because in the touristy parts of Italy we fell victim, more than once, to bad tourist-trap restaurants. This one, not too far from the Pantheon, was a wonderful find. The four photos below, including a zucchini millefeuille, come from there.



Now, back in Vancouver, I am trying to recreate some of my favorite dishes from Italy. They were, for the most part, all very simple; the high quality of Italian ingredients is undoubtedly what made them so unforgettable. Grilled zucchini with olive oil, garlic and sea salt, toasted bread with grilled tomatoes, al dente pasta with the most flavourful of pesto. I am clinging to the memories with a jar of artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes that I brought home from a grocery store in Barletta. I also have my Cannensi Olive Oil which I could not live without at this moment.




I also have at my side, two brand new cookbooks that I have had my nose in the entire weekend and I think they are two of the most beautiful cookbooks I have ever purchased. First, there is Plum by Makini Howell with recipes from a popular vegan restaurant in Seattle. I am most excited to try the vegan creme fraiches and ricottas. I also am keen to try the author's strategy for making "egg foam" which she claims is an excellent egg white substitute in recipes. I will report on how that turns out. The other cookbook is Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi which is filled with creative vegetable centred recipes. Tonight, I am planning to try the Lentils with Broiled Eggplant, the photo looks irresistible. The recipe calls for a final topping of creme fraiche, which I plan to substitute with the vegan creme fraiche from Plum. 

So this is where my life stands, filled once again with recipes and a passion for cooking. Also, the Vancouver rain is back in full force so it is certain that I will not be getting out as much as I would like to. Instead I may find more time for cooking and documenting and hopefully I will still manage to live life to the fullest. 


Thursday, 30 May 2013

An Elusive Mushroom Ravioli


I did not mean to disappear. But somehow, over the last couple of months, life became so hectic that all I could do where this blog is concerned, is miss it. I still cook, I'm still trying to be vegan and I still even write the entries to posts but I never have time to finish them. Even this post, as I start to write it, I am sure it will leave you a little unsatisfied. Mainly because I am not posting the recipe for these images because it is one that needs some adjusting.


So much has happened and so much is going on - I would bore you with the list of things  - like the fact that I moved to a new apartment (with lots of sunlight), spent the last few weeks cleaning and unpacking and painting, I take Italian classes 2 nights a week, I have been running an impressive number of times a week, I went to Portland last last weekend, went to Sasquatch music festival this past weekend and bought a ticket to travel Italy and Spain in the summer. As usual I am also working every day, only now, harder than ever. We had a nice couple of weeks in May and I spent as much of those sunny hours outside as I could, on my bike, on my friends' sailboat, at Granville island and so on.


I usually find about an hour and a half to cook in the evenings, which is enough to make a decent meal and to sit down and enjoy it, but no time to photograph or write down the recipes.

I made this ravioli filled with mushrooms, leeks and a cashew cheese for Mike's birthday in March (I can't believe 2 months have already passed). The sauce was made with a cheese-less pesto, cashew cheese and coconut milk. I have also tried to make a few vegan pizzas and discovered I would rather top a pizza with fresh avocado than a fake cheese. I really have not warmed up to daiya yet - I don't miss cheese enough to try to replace the real thing with a fake. I am impressed by the idea of making my own cashew cheese but don't think it is the right thing for a pizza.


Some of the things to come, that I am eager to make and post are: a spinach, pesto and tomato bruschetta, a vegan chocolate-raspberry cake, vegetable dumplings, a mediterranean chickpea salad, shiitake and green bean fresh rolls, parsnip tacos and a creamy pasta salad made with an avocado-based dressing. 

I also bought an intimidating Vegan cookbook - put out by the Millenium Restaurant in San Francisco - I'm hoping to be inspired to make some dazzling new creations. For now, I thought it was important that I let whoever decides to stop by here that I do plan to come back soon and cook, photograph and ramble endlessly about my life just as before :)


Friday, 22 March 2013

Creamy Cauliflower and Roasted Fennel Soup


This is probably my favorite of the soups that I have made. It is so simple and filled with a variety of delicious, white vegetables. If you blend it enough it should be super smooth and the fennel should add a substantial yet soft component. 

When I was a kid, my favorite of all of the Campbells cream soups was the cream of celery. I liked the texture and the flavour of the soft celery in the creamy broth. This soup reminds me of that, actually this soup was inspired by Campbell's cream of celery as disappointing as that may sound.


A bonus to this soup is that there is no dairy in it, but it is still super creamy. It is also completely vegan; something I am still trying (but struggling) to be. I have been eating out a lot, and in an attempt to not be annoying, I have been complacent in eating things that likely contain some form of dairy or eggs. My best and most cowardly strategy may have to be to stop eating out and find more delicious vegan things to make at home, which also means finding more time to cook.

As I write this, I am at work, at 7 pm, waiting for an experiment I am running to complete so I can clean up and go home. This working late pattern has me drawing up huge lists of beautiful looking recipes but leaves me with little time to actually test any of them out. 


My gramma said something interesting to me while I was visiting her this past weekend in Winnipeg. She expressed that the whole business of eating is just a nuisance; that we would have a whole lot more time on our hands if someone would just invent a pill that we could take which would provide us everything we need to survive.

It frightens me a little to think how much extra time I would have to waste if I did not have to eat. No more looking at recipes, or planning meals, or writing blog posts, or shopping for groceries, or going out for dinner - never mind the actual cooking and eating part of it all. I imagine we would all go crazy if we did not have cooking and eating to think about - or maybe we would just all be a whole lot better at doing a lot more things. Until then, I will keep at wasting my time doing the aforementioned food-related activities whenever I can.


Creamy Cauliflower and Roasted Fennel Soup


Ingredients

  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1 leek, chopped
  • 2 parsnips, peeled and sliced
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 6 cups of water (or more)
  • 2 bouillon cubes (no MSG)
  • 1 head of cauliflower, chopped
  • 2 small fennel bulbs, trimmed and chopped
  • Reserved, chopped fennel fronds (the part that looks like dill) to garnish
  • Sea salt to taste
  • Sweetener (agave or honey), to taste (~ 2-3 tsp) 

Directions
  1. Preheat oven to 375F.
  2. Heat 1tbsp of olive oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. 
  3. Add chopped leek, parsnip and garlic.
  4. Sautee for 8 - 10 minutes
  5. Add cauliflower, water and bouillon cubes. The water should just cover the vegetables, so adjust water volume as required.
  6. Bring soup to a simmer and cook for about 20 - 30 minutes - until cauliflower is tender.
  7. Meanwhile, toss the chopped fennel in 1 tbsp olive oil and season with ground sea salt.
  8. Spread the fennel on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
  9. Roast the fennel for 10 minutes, toss, then continue to roast another 10 minutes until just soft but not brown (slightly browned is okay).
  10. Working in batches, puree the soup (without fennel) in a blender until smooth.
  11. Return the soup to a pot.
  12. Stir in roasted fennel and season the soup with sea salt and sweetener.
  13. Serve the soup warm and garnish with chopped fennel fronds. 

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Vegan Roasted Squash and Tarragon Biscuits


One of the toughest parts about turning 30 is knowing you have reached an age where many of the things that you thought you eventually would do, you probably, actually, will not. Taking singing lessons, getting a black belt in Karate, becoming a great painter and re-learning calculus are some things I will most likely not have time to do until retirement. 

Not being shy anymore is something else I thought I would have accomplished by this time in my life. I have definitely made serious progress compared to the mute and socially terrified human being I once was. There was a time where the idea of presenting at conferences, defending my thesis, teaching classes and passing job interviews seemed impossible and unimaginable  Although these events tend to keep me up at night in anticipation, I somehow managed to trudge through them all, ending up a stronger and braver person on the other side. 

But I still find myself in many situations where I am reminded that the timid girl I once was is still a part of me, and for some reason, she is usually the first person on the scene in a stressful situation. Having recently started a new job, I am constantly being thrown into situations where I have to converse, plan and present to people who I am not only not familiar with but also intimidated by. Trying to relax and hide my nerves is something I have to continually work at, but I am determined to keep pushing myself and hope that some day I can enter any unfamiliar setting with confidence and ease.



Something else that I am finding more mentally taxing than expected is a creative writing class, which I attend on Tuesday evenings. I did not picture myself feeling shy in this class when I signed up for it. Everyone is just there to learn and develop their creativity; there are no grades, no co-workers, no job prospects and no competition. I love the class and the opportunity it gives me to practice my writing in a completely creative context. I am expected to write everyday and am given a multitude of writing assignments that inspire me to write freely and explore my unconscious. 

The hard part comes when I have to read my work out loud in class and also give verbal feedback to other's stories and poems. Being socially anxious seems to be a deep rooted personality trait, an innate reaction to uncomfortable situations, that I cannot completely shake. At the end of a class I find myself somewhat drained and deflated; discouraged by my fear of being outspoken. 

On the flip side, I also feel slightly thrilled knowing that I am pushing myself. Every time I speak out loud - as embarrassed as I feel afterwards - I know I have taken one more step towards my goal of someday completely overcoming my shyness.



Changing eating habits is another thing that just seems to get more difficult with age. One of the hardest parts might be having to get those who surround us to support and get on board with our desired changes. This is the challenge I am facing with trying to convince Mike that my switching to a vegan lifestyle wont affect him very much. I am determined to show him that we can enjoy our food just as much now as we did before, by cooking as many delicious vegan foods as I can.

Biscuits are actually the first thing that came to mind when I thought about cutting dairy out of my cooking. I make biscuits a lot. And every time I make them I wonder - how am I going to make these taste good if I omit yogurt, milk, butter and a whole cup of grated cheese from the recipe? Well, I tried. And so far this is what I have come up with. 

All of those dairy products listed above have been replaced by coconut oil and coconut milk. A flavorful fresh herb is a critical ingredient for adding flavour. The squash is also an important flavour component and just the right amount of salt and a touch of sweetness is needed. One really handy thing about going vegan is that you can taste literally anything you are making, before you actually cook it. This helps big time in making sure you dont mess up the seasoning of a dish before you cook it, which is especially handy with baking. As you are mixing up the ingredients, give the dough a little taste. If you are not satisfied, try drizzling in a little more sweetener or stirring in some more herbs or even finish the biscuits with a little sprinkling of fleur de sel.



Vegan Roasted Squash and Tarragon Biscuits

Ingredients
  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1.5 tsp fine ground sea salt
  • 1/3 cup coconut oil (solid)
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh tarragon
  • 2/3 cups roasted squash*
  • 2/3 cups of light coconut milk
  • 1.5 tbsp agave syrup

Directions
  1. Preheat oven to 400F (preferably with a baking stone on the middle oven rack).
  2. Mix the flour, baking soda, baking powder and sea salt in a large bowl with a fork.
  3. Add the coconut oil to the flour in pieces. Use your fingers to break apart the coconut oil into the flour and mix it around in the flour until the flour takes on a grainy appearance.
  4. Mix the chopped tarragon into the flour.
  5. Roughly mash the roasted squash with a fork and mix into the flour.
  6. In a separate bowl, whisk together the coconut milk and the agave.
  7. Next, add the wet mixture into the flour mixture and mix it in. The dough may seem very crumbly at first.
  8. Turn the mixture out onto a counter surface and work the dough until everything just begins to hold together and is well mixed.
  9. Lightly flour the counter and then flatten out the dough with your hands into a 1/4 inch thick round.
  10. Cut the round in half, pick up one half of the dough and put it on top of the other half of dough.
  11. Flatten the dough out again, pressing gently with your fingertips and sprinkling with flour as needed.
  12. Repeat steps 10 and 11 two more times, cutting the dough, layering it on top and flattening it again. This does not have to be neat and tidy, the squash in the dough will likely stick to your fingers as you try to flatten out the dough.
  13. Once you have the dough flattened out for the third time, use a small round cookie cutter or cup to cut out 1.5 -  2 inch diameter rounds from the dough.
  14. Place the biscuits onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. The parchment paper is important for ensuring the bottom of your biscuits do not burn - especially if you are using a dark baking pan.
  15. With the leftover dough, gather it back together and cut out more biscuits. Then with the final scraps, just form rough round biscuits by shaping the dough with your hands.
  16. Bake the biscuits about 6 - 10 minutes - depending on the heat of your oven and the size of the biscuits the time will vary. I suggest looking at them after 6 - 7 minutes. Once they start to brown you can remove them from the oven.
  17. Allow the biscuits to rest 10 minutes before serving.
*To roast the squash: toss peeled and cubed squash pieces with a drizzle of olive oil, sea salt, and a crushed/ minced garlic clove. Lay out slices on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Roast about 20 minutes, until soft, at 400F, flipping the slices once after about 10 minutes. Let cool.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Vegan Breakfast Sandwich (with Potatoes, Smoked Tofu and Avocado)


Testing the vegan waters these past couple of weeks admittedly has not been as easy as I anticipated. For the first few days I found that I was essentially always hungry. I had trouble thinking of what to eat and could not constantly snack as I usually do because there was nothing vegan in my house to snack on. I realized that sticking to my goal would require some preparation and pantry stocking. 

The first challenge I faced was breakfast. Weekdays were easy to handle because I eat the same thing every morning - plain oatmeal with agave and blueberries - done. But on weekends I usually make elaborate, egg-centred meals and finding alternatives is vaguely dejecting. Eliminating bacon several years ago was easy enough, but a breakfast without eggs is nearly impossible to find - especially if you are eating out. 

My first vegan weekend started with the breakfast sandwich described here. The only standard breakfast item left for a vegan, that I can think of, is potatoes. I have had some delicious breakfast wraps that had potatoes in them - so I thought adding them to a sandwich would give them a breakfast feel - as opposed to being just another sandwich. 

One morning I also went for breakfast at Slickly Jims, a restaurant on Main Street. There was literally only one vegan item on the menu, a tofu scramble, although they have a wonderful selection of vegetarian options. I ordered the modest sounding tofu scramble and was relieved to find it enjoyable - the texture of the tofu was soft - like lightly whisked, soft scrambled eggs. The scramble was perfectly seasoned and flavoured with chili and sesame oil. With it came seasoned potatoes, marble toast and a homemade berry jam. 


The next morning I made a scramble of my own but without tofu or eggs. Instead I used potatoes, mushrooms and peppers and topped it with a variety of diced fresh herbs and chopped avocado. I served the scramble with some vegan biscuits and sliced fruit. The vegan biscuit recipe is something I have made twice in the past ten days but the recipe is not quite perfected. I have not yet found the right ratios of coconut milk, roasted squash and flour. I also made a creamy vegan fennel, cauliflower and parsnip soup - also soy and dairy free - actually it was made with 100% vegetables. I am really excited to perfectly tweak the ingredients and share that recipe.

Other than what I have described here, I have had many salads with roasted veggies, soba noodle bowls with tofu and veggies and peanut sauce, vegetable soups, lots of melon, oranges and other fruit and too many pistachios and cashews.

Over the next few weeks I want to get into using more beans - there are a gazillion heirloom varieties at whole foods that I am excited to play with - and I think it is time I tried fava beans. I am foreseeing veggie burgers, tacos, wraps and all kinds of bean and whole grain salads and warm single dish dinners in the near future. 

Now I am mentally tackling how to manage eating out with friends, how to say no to sharing someones granola bar, decline an offer for chocolates or refuse co-workers' home baking. So far, I have not been very good at this - not because I cannot resist but because I am afraid to see the look on peoples faces when I tell them I have stopped eating dairy and eggs - sometimes I just do not feel like explaining myself.

Also, after walking past a container of burrata at the grocery store the other day - and remembering my upcoming trip this summer to Italy - I am not sure I can 100% say no to fresh mozzarella in Italy. I might have to do some Slow Food research to figure out what animal farming in Italy is like. I am hoping to find out that Italian farming practices are not as frightening as they are here. Like I said - its not easy - but I am working on it.


Vegan Breakfast Sandwich - with potatoes, smoked tofu and avocado
The only effort in this recipe involves cooking some potatoes and smoked tofu. 
The amounts below are for 1 sandwich but obviously will vary with the size of your bread slices.

Ingredients
  • 1 - 2 small potatoes (fingerling used here)
  • 2 slices of fresh bread
  • 2 tbsp prepared hummus
  • 1/4 avocado
  • 1 or 2 slices smoked tofu
  • 2 sun-dried tomato halves
  • 2 slices daiya cheese
  • Lettuce leaves
  • Vegetable or olive oil
  • Salt, pepper
  • Smoked paprika (optional)
Directions
  1. Cook the potatoes - add to a pot covered by an inch of cool water. 
  2. Bring the water to boil, lower heat and simmer the potatoes gently until tender - about 10 minutes.
  3. Allow the potatoes to cool.
  4. Slice the smoked tofu into 1/4 inch slices.
  5. Chop the sundried tomatoes.
  6. Mash an avocado in a bowl with a fork.
  7. Slice the potatoes into 1/4 inch slices.
  8. Bring a pan to warm over medium heat and add a tbsp of oil.
  9. Add the tofu and potato slices to the pan.
  10. Season the potatoes with salt, pepper and smoked paprika.
  11. Cook potatoes and tofu until browned on both sides.
  12. Toast the bread if desired - in he oven or in a toaster.
  13. Assemble the sandwich by smearing one slice of bread with hummus, the other with avocado and adding everything else in between. Preferably the cheese should contact with the warm tofu or potatoes.