Saturday, February 26, 2011

Stoking the Internal Combustion Engine with a Hearty, Smoky Vegetarian Pea Soup

With a gaggle of teenagers over during this snowy and cold school break week, I was hard at work in the kitchen flinging 3 hots and multiple snacks in their direction. Their normally ravenous adolescent appetites were further stoked by an afternoon of tubing at Willard Mountain.

What's tubing, you say? Well, it's a fancy version of sledding and a much cheaper version of skiing. One dresses in warm layers of outerwear that don't have to come from a designer ski shop, at least two pairs of socks, sturdy boots and some waterproof gloves (mittens tend to fly off on the descent). Then you head to a ski slope (we paid $15 each for 2 hours of tubing) where you get a big, puffed-up inner tube on a leash. With reggae music booming, the attendant hooks your leash to a tow rope that drags you up the mountain, dumps you off at the top and then a burly farm kid sends you down straight or spinning down the snowy incline where you brake at the bottom over piles of hay.

It's outrageously fun and even an old chaperone like me with minimal athletic skills can enjoy it. Which I did. As evidenced by all the hay sticking to my fleece jacket. Just got a couple of bruises from not remembering to keep my hind end from drooping too low in the inner tube.

All that icy air got those teenage engines roaring, so it was back to the Crispy Kitchen to make vats of ziti and a salad bar.  Dan and I enjoyed a simpler, satisfying supper of Pea Soup.  Most pea soup recipes traditionally include a ham bone or bits of chopped ham, but I added a touch of olive oil and smoked paprika for my vegetarian version, full of chunky bits of other veggies.  It was satisfying and restorative; just the thing for apres-tubing on a cold winter's night.

And did I mention that Split Pea Soup is Cheap Eats? I figure it cost $3 or $4 to make this pot of soup, and we have enough for 8-10 mug servings.

Hearty, Smoky Vegetarian Pea Soup

1 lb. dried split peas

1 onion, peeled and chopped coarsely
3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped coarsely
1 large carrot, peeled and chopped coarsely
2 stalks celery, chopped coarsely
6 cups vegetable stock

Salt and pepper to taste

1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. smoked paprika

Pick through split peas to remove any pebbles or odd-looking peas. Rinse and drain.
Place in soup pot with onion, garlic, carrot, celery and vegetable stock. Bring to a boil. Lower heat, cover pot and simmer until peas are tender and start to break down, about 30 minutes.

At this point, you can mash up the soup with a potato masher or leave chunky as you like. I like a smooth base with bits of chunky vegetables, so I used my newest kitchen gadget (a thrift shop find for $2!), a Braun immersion blender to puree up about half of the soup.

Season with salt and pepper to taste. Swirl in olive oil and smoked paprika and serve hot.

Makes 8 big mugs of soup.

I'm sending a mug of this hearty, healthy, frugal and warming soup over to my buddy Deb at Kahakai Kitchen for her weekly Souper Sundays roundup. Head on over to Honolulu-based Kahakai Kitchen (where they go surfing instead of tubing) after Sunday's deadline to see all the great soup recipes that pour in each week for this event.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Schuyler Sweets and their Gluten Free Treats

Last Spring a new candy store opened in our little village of Schuylerville, Schuyler Sweets, owned by husband and wife Bob and Debbie Stickle.

When I first stopped in for Easter basket treats last year, the Stickles indicated that they were still researching which of their extensive selection of chocolates and candies were gluten-free. On this return trip, however, Bob was quick to point out which items were not gluten-free (mostly the caramels) and he even had a special batch of gluten-free chocolate-covered caramels in the candy case that had to come home with me for a husband treat in a sweet little beribboned white box. I also scooped up an assorted selection of their elegant little chocolates and creme filled dainties for a gift. Too bad I missed the Strawberry and Champagne Fudge that they had featured for Valentine's Day, which sounds really toothsome.

Interestingly, Bob is a diabetic, probably a rare trait in a chocolatier, but this also makes for a wide selection of sugar-free candies and chocolates.

Schuyler Sweets is located at 123 Broad Street in downtown Schuylerville, and is open Tuesday through Friday, 1-6, Saturday 10-5 and Sunday 11-4. You can also find them on the web if you are interested in ordering their candy through the mail or give them a call at (518) 695-4171.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Second Time's The Charm in Trying Namaste Foods

The kind people at Namaste Foods recently asked if I would review a couple of their products on this blog and they generously sent me a reusable tote bag, some coupons, recipe cards and a package each of their Blondie Mix and Say Cheez Pasta.  After a disappointing round with the Blondies (the crust was hard on top, but the bottom was underdone, even after the requisite baking time and the clean toothpick test), I made the Say Cheez Pasta a couple of days later and was similarly disappointed.  The noodles had a nice, springy texture (they contain hemp seeds), but the sauce was not to my taste.  Say Cheez is a vegan, dairy-free and gluten-free pasta dinner, and the ersatz "cheez" was just not delicious.

I relayed my comments back to Namaste and the spokesperson offered to send me some other products to sample.  I demurred, but even so, another Namaste package arrived at my door a few days later containing a bag of Chocolate Cake Mix and Taco Pasta Mix.  I sampled a bit of the pasta seasoning mix and found it palatable, so I made up a batch, throwing in some frozen corn kernels in with the boiling pasta, and then adding in a 14 oz. can of diced tomatoes (drained), some chopped cilantro and shredded Cheddar.   So far, so good.  The Taco Pasta was gobbled up for dinner by everyone at the Crispy Kitchen.

Then it was on to baking up the Namaste Chocolate Cake Mix. I was a little leery after the Blondie debacle, but this was fantastic cake.  Unlike some other gluten free mixes that only make one layer, this cake mix makes two regular cake layers and it was truly delectable and moist.  The cake was not too sweet, either, which is how I like my sweets.  My husband is not particularly a chocolate lover, but he was having this cake for the next several days as breakfast and snack, so it was truly a hit.  I frosted it with homemade vanilla buttercream frosting, snazzed it up with some red sugar sprinkles and this was a festive and delicious Valentine's Day dessert for us.

Thanks to Namaste Foods for sending me not one but two boxes of samples to try.  While the first two were not something I would buy, the second two items were tasty and the chocolate cake, in particular, is one that I will seek out again and again.  I am not only impressed by the flavor and moistness of the cake, but the Namaste products are a bargain as well.  The 26 oz. Namaste Chocolate Cake Mix makes two standard cake layers, while the 15 oz. Betty Crocker Devil's Food Cake Mix only produces one layer.  One can buy 6 bags of Namaste Chocolate Cake mix now on Amazon for $29.99 (includes free shipping) and make 6 two-layer cakes, compared to the Betty Crocker Mix, which Amazon is now selling for $21.46 (plus shipping), and which only makes 3 two-layer cakes.

Locally you can find Namaste products at Four Seasons on Phila Street in Saratoga Springs and at Pure and Simple on Washington Street in Glens Falls.  I'm impressed that this small company was confident enough in its products to try and win me over with something different even after I gave them my feedback about the first box of Namaste goods.  I'm also delighted that they make their products in a dedicated gluten-free, soy-free, corn-free, dairy-free, and nut-free facility, so I don't have to worry about cross-contamination issues and so that I can serve Namaste baked goods to some family and friends that have other food allergies.  But most of all, I'm delighted that I can make a darn good chocolate cake, all two layers worth, for my family as an occasional treat.  Thank you Namaste!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Gluten Free Food Find of the Week: The Pomelo

The citrus family is on full display in the produce section of our local supermarkets right now.  Time to check out a new citrus friend, the Pomelo! 

It looks like a grapefruit, but it has a much thicker white pith.  Because of that pithy section, the pomelo is somewhat difficult to peel, but it is worth the extra machinations.  The flesh is really fragrant and sweet, however, with none of the bitterness that grapefruit typically has.  I think I picked one that was perfectly ripe, which I did by surreptitiously sniffing its stem end while the produce clerks were looking the other way.  It had a full grapefruit aroma, so I popped the pomelo into the cart.

Our pomelo was a lovely fellow, but a bit pricey at $3.19 each.  I'm hoping that I can grab some pomelos more cheaply at the Asian markets in Albany (these citrus fruits are natives of Southeast Asia), because it really was a nice treat. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Red Pack Tomatoes Review

When it comes to my love apples, I am definitely in the camp of preferring to use my own homegrown tomatoes, fresh, frozen, or canned. Store-bought canned tomatoes still reside in my pantry, however, especially those smaller cans of diced tomatoes for popping into soups or draining and spicing up into zesty salsa.

Recently the Red Pack Company sent me a couple of cans of their tomatoes to sample, along with some kitchen toys, including this giant replica Red Pack can that now houses my bird seed stash. I received a can opener, pasta fork, pizza wheel and a can each of whole tomatoes and crushed tomatoes.

I hadn't used whole canned tomatoes in years, but it brought back memories of how much fun it is to grab a tomato and squish it into the sauce pot. Messy, yes. But fun.

I used my Red Pack tomatoes to make up a batch of vegetable-stuffed marinara. I am always trying to get daughter #1 to eat more veggies, and have become rather stealthlike in this endeavor. I stick all kinds of vegetables, sauteed, minced, pureed or whizzed around the food processor. For my Red Pack Sauce I used a can each of the whole tomatoes and crushed tomatoes, sauteed up a mess of minced garlic, tomatoes, green pepper, mushrooms, parsley and snuck in some roasted eggplant. Delicious! The Red Pack tomatoes have a bright, acidic taste that was really great in my tried and true tomato sauce, so I can recommend this brand.

You can find Red Pack tomatoes locally at both Hannaford and Price Chopper supermarkets. I noticed Price Chopper has the 28 oz. cans of Red Pack on sale for 5 cans for $1.00, so that's a good deal.  

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

That Seventies Soybean Casserole, Revisited

Back in the day there were a lot of really nasty "natural foods" cookbooks and recipes that gave healthy cooking a bad rap. Tasteless cardboard concoctions of tofu and alfalfa sprouts, bean loaves of strange texture and stranger taste, and similar dubiously edible casseroles made most folks eschew, rather than chew, vegetarian fare.

I was reminded of this when I was leafing through an old cartoon book by Matt Groening, published before he hit it big with the Simpsons. One "Work in Hell" cartoon features a flyer from twins Akbar and Jeff's newly reopened Tofu Hut, and what a menu awaits: "Natures Sandwich", a sauteed tofu wedge 'n' strips of munchy cabbage in a leathery whole-wheat pita pocket. Or how about a nice Beet Frothy or Kelp Sickle? Then there's always the salad bar where diners can load up their plates with chunkstyle carrot pieces, slippery sprouts, soy cubes, and flavorless midget tomatoes.

You see what I mean.

I myself am still a little wary of millet (it's crunchy bird seed!) and tempeh, though the old man really likes it, especially barbecued and tucked in a homemade bun. But the mighty soybean, that powerhouse of legumes, has been one of my favorite throwback 70s veggies to grow, store and cook with for a while now.

To begin with, soybeans are incredibly easy to grow and are very prolific.  We are still eating through our garden harvest of dried soybeans from two summers ago.  We like the Envy variety (available through Johnny's Selected Seeds) which grows vigorously and have no discernible insect pests.  We pick the green soybeans as they mature to steam and salt for edamame snacks or Roasted Soybeans, and then leave the rest to ripen and dry.

Once the soybean pods are brown and brittle, it is easy to pull up the plants and then shell the beans on a lazy summer afternoon.  We store our dried soybeans in a big joint compound bucket lined with a plastic kitchen bag and just scoop some out when we need them for a bean dish.  Soybeans are great added to chili or stir fries, once they are soaked overnight in water to cover and then drained and cooked for 45 minutes to an hour until they are tender and creamy.

On the left you can see some dried soybeans and on the right are some soybeans that were soaked overnight. 

I wanted to try something new with my dried soybean stash, so I perused a bunch of cookbooks and found an elegant recipe for a Gratin of Dried Lima Beans in my copy of Sylvia Thompson's wonderful "The Kitchen Garden Cookbook" (NY: Bantam, 1995). This cookbook always has unusual recipes for preparing garden vegetables and herbs, so with a bunch of deviations from the original, here's my adaptation of this flavorful recipe. A Seventies Style Soybean Casserole, this ain't.

Mediterranean Style Soybean Gratin

1 cup dried soybeans (makes 2 cups cooked beans)

1 Tbsp. olive oil

1 large onion, peeled and chopped (everything gets a medium chop)
1 large carrot, peeled and chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1/2 green pepper, seeded and chopped
1 (14.5 oz.) can diced tomatoes

8-10 mushrooms, sliced

1 tsp. dried thyme
1 tsp. dried rosemary, crumbled
Salt and pepper to taste

1 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1/4 cup brown rice flour
1 cup fresh bread crumbs (I used 2 slices Rudi's Gluten Free Wheat Bread)
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley

Soak soybeans overnight in water to cover. Drain and place in a medium saucepan with fresh water to cover. Bring to a boil. Turn heat to simmer and cook, covered, until beans are tender, 45 minutes to an hour. Drain beans, but reserve bean liquid.

Heat 1 Tbsp. olive oil in frying pan. Add onions and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add in carrots, celery, garlic, and green pepper. Cook another 2-3 minutes, stirring. Add 1 cup reserved bean broth and simmer over low heat, until carrots are crisp-tender, about 5-7 minutes more.

Add tomatoes (and their juice)and simmer another 5 minutes. Then, using a slotted spoon, remove all the simmered vegetables to the bowl with the cooked soybeans and mix well. Pour pan juices into a large measuring cup and add in enough bean broth to measure 2 cups. Reserve.

Wipe frying pan with a cloth or paper towel to dry. Add sliced mushrooms to pan and saute over medium heat until browned, about 3-4 minutes, stirring frequently. Mix mushrooms in with beans and sauteed vegetables. Add thyme, rosemary and salt and pepper to taste.

Turn mixture into a 1-1/2 quart casserole dish.

Heat oven to 375 degrees F.

Heat butter and 1 Tbsp. olive oil in frying pan. Whisk in rice flour to make a roux. Slowly add in reserved pan juice/bean stock mixture, whisking constantly to keep lumps from forming. Add salt and pepper to taste. Simmer, stirring, until sauce thickens, about 4-5 minutes. Pour sauce over vegetables in casserole dish.

Blend bread crumbs and Parmesan. Sprinkle over bean casserole. Drizzle a little extra olive oil over the top and then pop in the oven and bake for 45 minutes, or until bubbly and crumb topping is lightly browned and CRISPY.

Garnish with chopped parsley.

Serves 6.

This is a great vegetarian main dish and the leftovers are wonderful heated up over cooked rice. We all really enjoyed this intensely flavorful dish.

I am sending this elegant soybean gratin over to My Legume Love Affair #32, which is hosted this month by Sandhya's Kitchen. This monthly event celebrates the diversity of legumes and was founded by Susan, The Well-Seasoned Cook. Check back with Sandhya after the Feb. 28 deadline and you'll be amazed at the number of blog entries for this deservedly popular foodie blog event.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Those Bachelor Brothers Made me Cook

Hector and Virgil are two eccentric, middle aged twins who run The Bachelor Brothers' Bed and Breakfast on an island off British Columbia for their "clientele of slightly confused and gentle bookish people". They live with Mrs. Rochester, a parrot who is as likely to spout a Bible passage as a curse, Waffle the cat, Caedmon the absent-minded handyman, a bassoon, and frequent overnight visits from Hector's beauty products saleswoman and journalist girlfriend Altona.

Would that there were such a wonderful B&B, but alas, this bibliophilic retreat is a fictional one, from the pen of author Bill Richardson. His first book, "The Bachelor Brothers' Bed and Breakfast" is a charming treat, and so is the sequel, "The Bachelor Brothers' Bed and Breakfast Pillow Book", a continuation of the adventures of Hector, Virgil and their circle of friends, punctuated by recipes, recommended book lists, many verses of bad poetry and letters from guests who have stayed at their B&B.

It is one such letter in the book that intrigued me and set me on the path of some culinary research. One satisfied customer sends on his mother's recipe for Bread and Butter Pickles and relates how he spent time visiting his parents and copying out childhood favorites from his mother's recipe cards and cookbooks.

They all had such interesting names: Bully Pudding (a cake with chopped dates and nuts baked in), Cheese Dreams (open-faced melted cheese sandwiches, Self-Saucing Fudge Cake (sounds like a Hogwarts dish) and Double Snackers. I never did find out what Double Snackers are, but I kept imagining that they'd be some sort of delicious thing paired with yet another bit of deliciousness and melded together.

I decided that I would create my own Double Snackers and got to thinking about making a savory kind of sandwich cookie. It should be salty, crispy, but also gooey. And cheesy, since the author had gotten me salivating about what Cheese Dreams might be. I decided to make a double batch of my Southern Cheese Crisps and then make a small bit of Herbed Cream Cheese to cement two Crisps together into one delicious Double Snacker.

They are mighty tasty. A bit rich, but that's what double snacking is about. Two of these babies were perfect as an appetizer, washed down with a glass of dry, red Chianti. Yum yum.

This book-inspired cooking post is going to wend its way over to Simona at Briciole who is hosting another one of her delightful Novel Food blog event. Novel Food is cohosted with Lisa of A Champaign Taste and celebrates the love of reading with the love of cooking and there are always intriguing new book selections to seek out when reading each of the Novel Food roundups. If you are interested in joining Novel Food, the deadline is Feb. 13.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Mushrooms Baked in Vine Leaves

Though it is far from summer here in upstate New York, I was leafing through the redoubtable Elizabeth David's "Summer Cooking" (NY: Penguin, 1987) for some recipe inspiration and was attracted by her recipe for Mushrooms Cooked in Vine Leaves. I had mushrooms and I have several jars of brined vine leaves made from our enormous grapevines, so I was intrigued to make this dish.

I usually used my vine leaves to make dolmades, those seductive and silky stuffed grape vine leaf appetizers that are also perfect as a light meal paired with a salad. However, David's recipe lured me with her siren line "the great point about this dish is that the vine leaves make cultivated mushrooms taste like field mushrooms". Now that kind of kitchen alchemy was attention getting.

The dish was very easy to prepare. Basically, you line a casserole dish with fresh grape leaves blanched in salted water or brined grape leaves. David recommended rinsing the brined grape leaves and then adding salt later in the dish, so I thought I would not rinse my leaves and wash that tasty brine off and then skip the salting later on. This worked.

Then you wash and trim some mushrooms, place them stem side up in the casserole, slice up a couple cloves of garlic and add them and a drizzle of olive oil. Season with black pepper or any herb you might like to throw in. (I think rosemary would be great for next time). Another covering of vine leaves goes on top, then you cover the casserole and bake in a slow oven for 35 minutes to an hour. I baked my shrooms at 350 for 45 minutes.

The baked mushrooms did taste a little more complex, though I'm not sure they tasted like wild mushrooms. The vine leaves get nice and CRISPY on top and the garlic is meltingly soft from having been steamed inside the vine leaf packet.

Altogether an easy and satisfying dish.

I am sending this over to my blogger friend Girlichef's Hearth and Soul Hop, Vol. 33, a blog event that focuses on home cooked, home grown, real food. Food from my hearth that feeds the soul. That would describe this earthy, simple dish. Hop on over to Girlichef's blog to see the other inspiring posts.