The genius of the Mediterranean

I love the food of the Mediterranean. I lived in France for a year – in the Loire Valley, but I prefer the food of Provence. I’ve never been to Italy or Greece, except in my fantasies, but I have been to Spain and Portugal and Israel and Argentina…cultures that emphasize fresh, delicious, in-season produce in their cooking. Cultures that melt tomatoes in olive oil, that brilliantly combine garlic and lemon parts to make miraculous, simple un-sauces, where perfect olives of infinite variety are tapas…

In all of these places, veganism would seem preposterous to most people. Why would you willingly cut out whole categories of food? No matter. I’m grateful for the inspiration. Grateful for the history and tradition and invention.

And so, voila, my homage to the Mediterranean.

I should note that when my 5-year-old tasted this, she said, unsolicited, “You should definitely serve this to your clients. Definitely.” I also think this would make a super yummy pizza topping. And a little secret: the broccoli and tomatoes were left over from a crudite tray. Ew – refrigerated tomatoes. But in this dish, delicious!!

Mediterranean pasta

  • 1 tbsp + 1/4 cup olive oil, divided
  • 2 shallots, finely chopped
  • 2 cups broccoli florets, broken into small pieces
  • 2 cups cherry or grape tomatoes
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 1/2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 15-oz can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 4-5 fat garlic-stuffed olives (or Greek-cured or kalamata), sliced
  • Juice and zest of half of a lemon (I used a Meyer)
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • 1 lb whole wheat penne
  • 1/2 cup almond meal

Put a large covered saucepan of water to boil over high heat. Once boiling, cook the pasta (add salt!) until al dente, and then drain. Meanwhile, heat a large cast iron pan over a bit over medium heat and add the tbsp of oil, and then, one it’s shimmering, add the shallots and broccoli. Saute for 3 or 4 minutes, then add the tomatoes, garlic, and oregano. Coax the tomatoes into melting by poking them with a sharp knife. Add the rest of the oil, the chickpeas, olives, lemon zest and juice, and salt to taste. Let simmer and melt while the pasta cooks.

Heat a small cast iron pan over medium heat, and add the almond meal. Toast, stirring often, for about ten minutes until well toasted but not burned.

Toss the pasta with the sauce, adding a drizzle of olive oil if you like. Sprinkle each serving with almond meal, and serve.

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The old New World

In my dreams, I live in Oaxaca, Mexico. I cook alongside my neighbor mamas with our earthen pots set over communal fires, roasting chilies and cacao beans for grinding…. I can feel the coarse chocolate between my fingers, smell the smoky warmth of ancho chiles, and taste a big pot of something dark and delicious simmering all day over hot coals. Our children play in the fields, boots muddy from nibbling tomatoes off the vine. And for a snack, we serve them pupusas with refried beans and marinated tofu.

Perhaps not. It’s my dream.

Pupusas with refried beans and marinated tofu

Marinated tofu

  • Olive oil
  • Zest and juice of a good lime
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • Zest of half an orange
  • 2 tbsp chile powder
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • 1/2 tsp coriander
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 lb tofu, sliced into steaks (1/2″ thick and 2×3″ wide/long)

Pupusas

  • 2 cups masa harina
  • 1 1/3 cups warm water
  • 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup peanut oil
  • 1/2 cup minced onion
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 15-oz can pintos, drained and rinsed
  • Salt to taste
  • Oil for frying
  • Salt to taste

Place the marinade ingredients and tofu in a large zip-top bag, seal, and toss from one hand to the other to distribute the marinade evenly over the tofu. Let marinate for about an hour, tossing every once in a while.

Meanwhile, place the masa, warm water, and salt in a large bowl, mixing first with a wooden spoon, then kneading with your hands for a minute or two. It should be soft, pliable, and not at all sticky. Cover with a damp dish towel and let sit for 10 minutes.

While the dough sits, heat a small cast iron pan over medium heat. Add the peanut oil and the onion, and fry for about 5 minutes. Add the cumin and stir until fragrant, about thirty seconds. Add the pintos, and stir until the beans are coated in onions and oil. Mash the mixture with a potato masher until well mashed and no whole beans remain. Add more oil if the mixture isn’t creamy enough. Taste for salt, turn off the heat.

Divide the dough into 8 balls, and poke a well in the middle of each ball. Add about a tsp of refried beans to the well, cover the beans with the surrounding dough, then pat between your hands to flatten the pupusas into about a 1/4″ thick disk. Place the raw pupusas on a sheet of wax paper.

Heat a large cast iron pan over slightly hotter than medium heat (medium-high was too high on my stove). Add about a tbsp of oil for frying the pupusas. You just want a thin coat, not a pool. Fry on each side for 2 or 3 minutes.

When you’re done with the pupusas, turn the pan up a little more, and add about a 1/4 cup of oil. Fry the tofu steaks for about 5 minutes per side, until they’re crispy golden. Sprinkle with a little salt.

To serve, top a pupusa with more refried beans and a tofu steak. Eat with your hands standing over your earthen pot.

Channeling Nana

I love making soup. First of all, for some reason, it’s nearly always a hit with my kids, which means they EAT. Secondly, there is simply nothing better than a bowl of soup and a hunk of home-baked bread. But this soup, this soup is the soup my great-grandmothers made. And probably your great-grandmothers, too, regardless of where they lived, maybe flavored differently…or maybe not. There is nothing fancy or pretentious about this soup. It is hearty and delicious. That is all.

Split pea soup (with optional hot dogs)

  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 4 or 5 shallots, chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 3 carrots, diced
  • 2 celery stalks, chopped
  • 2 cups yellow or green split peas
  • 2 quarts veg stock
  • 1 cup frozen peas
  • 5 vegan hot dogs, sliced (optional)

Heat a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion, shallots, garlic, carrots, and celery, and saute until softened and fragrant, about ten to fifteen minutes, stirring often. Add the split peas and veg stock, cover, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer for an hour or so, until the split peas are soft and fairly melty. Add the peas and hot dogs, if using, and heat through. Serve with (vegan) buttered and salted bread.

And thank your great-grandmothers.

Repurposed scraps (aka, lunch!)

My kids had eaten, and despite having gone grocery shopping yesterday, I have nothing in my fridge. I don’t want another sandwich, because I had peanut butter and banana on toast for breakfast. I’m bored. What’s for lunch?

Well, more than making everything from scratch most of the time, I’m also a huge fan of repurposing left-overs and scrounging scraps together to make something yummy and healthy in no time flat. The key for this concoction is that I had a cooked grain waiting to be used in my freezer. Without that, I would’ve had to resort to a tortilla or bread. Another important factor is knowing how truly variable this so-called recipe is. Today, I had a sausage, a red bell pepper, and 3 scallions in the fridge, and turmeric barley in my freezer. You could do this with any kind of onion (and/or garlic), most any kind of vegetable (e.g., summer squash, green beans, shredded cabbage, broccoli/cauliflower/Brussels sprouts, even handfuls of spinach or a few kale or chard leaves), any source of (vegan, ahem) protein (beans, cubed tofu, whatever),  a grain, and SIMPLE flavoring. Did you hear that, Mom? Keep it simple. I made a sort of Mediterranean dish, but you could swap out the za’atar and balsamic for some cumin and oregano and a splash of red wine vinegar or lime juice, and call it Mexican, or a pinch of curry and ginger, and call it Indian. Simple. This is a kind of stir-fry, but I don’t always want a Chinese flavored stir-fry. So, here you go. My afternoon masterpiece.

Mediterranean sausage over turmeric barley

  • Frozen cooked turmeric barley
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 vegan Italian sausage, quartered lengthwise and chopped
  • 1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
  • 3 scallions, chopped
  • Splash of balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tbsp za’atar
  • Kosher salt to taste

Defrost and heat the barley in the microwave, about five minutes. Heat a medium cast iron pan over medium to medium-high heat. Add olive oil, then add the sausage until starting to turn golden. Add the bell pepper until softened, then add the scallions. Let cook for another minute, then add the balsamic, za’atar, and the salt. Serve over barley. Enjoy!

Serves one in about 10 minutes’ time.

Carob waffles for dinner

Full disclosure: this is not, by any stretch, an original recipe. It’s a heavily modified recipe from Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero’s book Veganomicon. The original recipe is for chocolate chip brownie waffles, which is what my daughter asked me to make for dinner. Well, I’ve cut down on my chocolate consumption, so in order to make only one thing for dinner, I replaced the chocolate chips and cocoa with carob chips and carob powder. I LOVE carob. I really do. Regardless, these waffles are total decadence. Don’t think that just because you’re using carob and whole wheat that these are healthy. Go eat a carrot, if that’s what you’re looking for. A girl’s gotta have fun every now and again.

Carob waffles

  • 2 cups (10 oz) white whole wheat flour
  • 2/3 cup carob powder
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp table salt
  • 1 3/4 cup vanilla flavored unsweetened almond milk
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 very ripe mashed banana (about 1/2 cup)
  • 1/3 cup coconut oil, melted
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 cup carob chips
  • 1 cup coarsely chopped pecans

Preheat your waffle iron. Whisk the flour, carob powder, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt in a large bowl until completely combined. In a medium bowl, whisk the almond milk, water, banana, coconut oil, sugar, and vanilla. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry, and whisk until just combined. Fold in the carob chips and pecans.

Pour about 1/3 cup of batter into each quadrant of your waffle iron, and bake until your waffle iron tells you it’s ready.

Makes 3 4-square waffles.

Middle Eastern tomato stew with creamy tofu

I had one small ball of pizza dough in the fridge that needed to get used. I have a family of five to feed, and one small vegan pizza wouldn’t cut it. Didn’t want to make pasta (with pizza?). And I’ve been craving shakshouka, the delicious Israeli stew of tomatoes and red bell peppers, rich with olive oil, served with a poached egg on top.

And so this simple stew was born.

Middle Eastern tomato stew with creamy tofu

  • 1/2 cup olive oil, divided
  • 8 oz green beans, chopped into 1″ pieces
  • 1/4 red onion, sliced
  • 1 lb firm tofu, sliced into 1″ squares/1/4″ thick
  • 1/3 cup red wine
  • 1 28-oz can San Marzano tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1 roasted red bell pepper, chopped
  • Salt to taste

Heat a large cast iron pan over medium-high heat. Add 1/4 cup oil, and when hot, add the green beans. Let fry, stirring often, for about three minutes, then add the red onion. Fry until the green beans are blistered and the onion is browned, about three more minutes. Remove the green beans and onion to a bowl and set aside. Add the rest of the oil and the tofu to the pan. Be patient. Don’t touch the tofu until it comes up easily from the pan. Then flip it with a thin metal spatula and brown it on the other side. Once it’s good and brown, turn the heat down to medium, and add the wine to deglaze the pan. Add the rest of the ingredients and the green beans and onion. Stir well to coat everything in the tomatoes. Bring to a simmer and turn the heat to medium-low. Let simmer for about ten to fifteen minutes, until the sauce is reduced and thick.

Enjoy with focaccia, roasted potatoes, rice or another grain, or just a spoon. Delicious!

If I had a hammer

Coconut tools

It happens frequently that I make a meal for a client of which I’m particularly proud. I enjoy creating dishes, but what I really love is pulling recipes together – whether they be my own or someone else’s – to make a meal that turns into something magical. This week, that meal was inspired by the works of Madhur Jaffrey. Close to 2 decades ago, a friend gave me his used copy of World of the East Vegetarian Cooking. I’ve used it some. Not as much as I’d like. For various reasons. Since I started my work as a personal chef, I’ve used it a few times, because my first client has an adventurous palate and likes lots of vegetables. Still, I find that I often don’t end up using the cookbook, even when I’ve pulled it out.

My newest client has some particular dietary requirements necessitating meals low in carbohydrates and kid-friendly. And the family has requested a rotation of various cuisines, including Indian. And so, enter Madhur Jaffrey.

My favorite Indian dish – and the one I’ve been pining for for two years since going vegan – is saag paneer. I don’t know why it took me so damn long to veganize it. I made it three times in two days for three different clients, all with different needs. This is the Platonic ideal of vegan saag paneer. But don’t miss the sides of this meal. The salad – in which the above coconut makes its appearance – is OUTSTANDING and well worth the tools and manual labor (just for the coconut; the rest of the salad is SUPER easy and fast).

Saag paneer, turmeric-scented quinoa, sesame green beans, and Gujarati cucumber and peanut salad

Saag paneer

  • 1 14-oz tub firm tofu
  • 3 tbsp peanut oil
  • 1/4 tsp garam masala
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tbsp freshly grated ginger
  • 1/4 cup sliced pickled jalapenos, minced
  • 2 lbs baby spinach, well washed (not dried) and pureed in a food processor
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • 1/4 cup coconut milk

Press the tofu between layers of paper towels and place something heavy – like a cast iron pan – on top.  Let it sit for about 20 minutes, and then cut it into about 1/2″ cubes.  Heat the oil in a large cast iron pan over medium heat, and add the tofu.  BE PATIENT.  Don’t touch the tofu until it’s good and golden, otherwise you’ll lose the best part to the pan.  Turn it with a thin metal spatula.  Let it get golden on a couple sides, then remove to a plate in a single layer, and sprinkle with the garam masala, cayenne, and salt.  Set aside.

Turn the heat on the pan to medium-high or slightly lower, add a little oil, if necessary, and add the garlic, ginger, and jalapenos.  Saute for about 30 seconds until fragrant.  Add the spinach and kosher salt, and toss and saute for about 2 minutes.  Turn the heat to medium, and let the liquid evaporate for about 10 minutes.  Add the tofu back to the pan, scraping the plate into the pan to get all the yummy bits of oil and spices.  Add the coconut milk, and let simmer until creamy.

Turmeric-scented quinoa

  • 4 cups water
  • 2 cups quinoa
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • 2 tsp freshly grated turmeric root

Boil the water in a medium saucepan.  Rinse the quinoa in a sieve and add it to the boiling water, along with the salt and turmeric.  Reduce the heat to medium-low, and let simmer until all of the water has been absorbed, about 20 minutes.

Sesame green beans

  • 2 lbs fresh green beans, cut into 1″ pieces
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • 6 tbsp coconut oil
  • 2 tsp brown mustard seeds
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tbsp freshly grated ginger
  • 1 tsp freshly grated turmeric
  • 1/4 cup sesame seeds, toasted
  • 1/4 cup chopped cilantro
  • Zest of half of a lemon
  • Juice of 1 lemon

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, and add the green beans and a healthy handful of kosher salt to the pot.  Let the beans boil for about 4 minutes, then drain and rinse under cold water.  Set aside.

Heat the coconut oil over medium-high heat, and add the mustard seeds.  After about 30 seconds, add the garlic, ginger, and turmeric, sauteeing until the garlic is golden, then add the green beans, sesame seeds, cilantro, and the zest and juice of the lemon.  Toss until heated through.

Gujarati cucumber and peanut salad

  • 1 cup roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped
  • 3/4 lb Persian cucumbers, diced into small pieces
  • 2 tbsp sesame seeds, toasted
  • 1/2 cup freshly minced coconut meat
  • 1 fresh jalapeno, minced (I omitted this for my clients, but I think it would only make it more awesome)
  • 2 tbsp chopped cilantro
  • 2 tbsp coconut oil
  • 2 tsp brown mustard seeds
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • Juice of half a lemon

Put the peanuts, cucumbers, sesame seeds, coconut, jalapeno, and cilantro in a bowl.  Place the coconut oil in a small cast iron pan over medium-high heat.  Add the mustard seeds, and fry for about 30 seconds, then add them to the bowl, along with the salt and lemon juice.  Try to not eat it all before serving it to your guests.