Monday, January 18, 2010

prelude to vegan recipes: kitchen theory and practice

i’m planning on posting a series of my favorite vegan recipes. they’re more like approximations and suggestions than recipes, really. some of them will be adaptations from books and websites and other sources. almost all of them will be highly adjustable, with some conceptual information, and visuals, of course. a little different from how recipes are usually presented, i think.

before i post the recipes, though, i thought i’d preface with a little vegan kitchen primer. it’s not exhaustive and i don’t even consider myself particularly qualified to write something like this, but something compels me... there’s this weird phenomenon: in my experience it seems like people tend to perceive vegans as being good cooks, regardless of whether it’s true. it’s happened to me a lot, and maybe some of that undeserved praise has gone to my head, especially now that i’m experimenting so much with food preparation. so, here’s what meager vegan wisdom i have to offer.

pantry prerequisites

milk substitute: i buy both rice and soy milk in huge bulk packages from costco. i like rice milk on cereal, soy milk for drinking, and a mixture of the two for cooking. if you have a blender or food processor and a bag to strain it through you can easily make your own milk from a variety of nuts and seeds.

yogurt: there are some disgusting vegan yogurts out there. wholesoy is not one of them. i love wholesoy raspberry yogurt. it’s delicious mixed with fresh berries, or with grape nuts or granola. grape nuts and soygurt makes a highly nutritious breakfast full of fiber, vitamins and minerals, especially calcium and iron.

bread: my new favorite is dave’s killer bread in “good seed.” it’s healthy and scrumptious. local breads are great too, because they usually don’t contain preservatives and other bad badness, they’re fresher, and they didn’t have to be shipped. in boise there’s zeppole, a bakery that makes wonderful artisan breads, many of them vegan.

oil: i use organic extra virgin olive oil for about 80% of my oil needs; 15% canola, and 5% other random ones like sesame. i typically don’t use vegan butter, so i substitute with oil. i just read a book called “olive oil from tree to table” by peggy knickerbocker, with beautiful photos by laurie smith. it gives a brief history of olive oil, traditional methods of harvest and pressing, grades, taste, and how to buy, store and use the oil. it’s fascinating, and it makes oil appreciation (snobbery) seem appealing. the rest of the book is recipes, many of them non-vegan, but the photos are so gorgeous it’s worth looking at them anyway.

baking: wheat flour, oat flour, ener-g egg replacer, vegan white-ish and brown sugar.

produce: frozen and fresh vegetables, frozen and fresh fruit, as much organic as possible.

other: firm/extra firm organic tofu, beans (canned and/or dry), TVP, quinoa, pasta, hummus, nuts, seeds (for eating and sprouting), raw tahini and nutritional yeast flakes.

weird ingredients

i get pissed when vegan recipes call for all kinds of exotic shit. i like to cook with what i have on hand, and no, that does not include umeboshi paste. however, there are a few weird ingredients that i’ve discovered to be pretty unavoidable and/or awesome, so if you haven’t used any of these before, i think it’s time to step outside your comfort zone. none of these expire quickly so you can easily keep them in stock:

nutritional yeast: great for scrambled tofu, sauces, and for lending a mild nutty/cheesy flavor to things. it's high in b vitamins, and has complete protein with all nine essential amino acids. i like to use flakes rather than powder. find it in the bulk foods section.

nori: seaweed sheets for making veggie sushi. also useful as a garnish.

quinoa: a fabulous whole grain (“pseudocereal,” actually, because it doesn’t come from a grass) that has basically replaced pasta in my diet. it’s like rice or couscous, but better, and better for you; quinoa contains complete protein, has tons of minerals, and is lower glycemic than a lot of grain-ish foods.

light agave nectar: sweeter than sugar or honey, low-glycemic, wonderful in tea, and can replace sugar in many recipes. a bit controversial, though, same as practically any sweetener.

ener-g egg replacer: a powder (mostly potato and tapioca starch) that you mix with water to replace eggs in baked goods.

TVP/TSP (textured vegetable protein a.k.a. textured soy protein): made from soy, high-protein, high-fiber, low-fat. can be cooked and seasoned to make faux-meat crumbles. good in chili and for taco stuffing.

often when i’m cooking i’ll spend five or ten minutes popping open a dozen or so herbs and spices, sniffing them, contemplating, sniffing again, even if i basically already know what they smell and taste like...i need to experience what they smell like in the context of whatever i’m making, so i have to smell them in the moment. that’s how i decide what seasonings to use. here’s a list of what i consider to be the essentials:

garlic powder
onion powder
parsley (fresh)
italian seasoning

i try to keep a vase full of organic italian parsley on the counter at all times. it’s so decorative, practical, and cheap--about $1.50 for a large bunch, and it will stay fresh for a couple weeks if you change the water frequently. in the summer i grow my own, along with rosemary, oregano, chives, thyme and basil.

sprouts and wheatgrass

sprouts are one of my favorite raw foods. i constantly have at least one tray of alfalfa growing, and i sometimes do peas, sunflower and broccoli. it’s like an indoor mini-garden.

i use a 3-tray “biosnacky” germinator, but you can also just use a glass jar with a draining lid or fabric rubberbanded around the top. it took me a while to get the hang of rinsing and draining properly. here’s a basic formula for alfalfa:

-soak a couple tablespoons of seed in a glass jar for about 24 hours, rinsing and draining them until the water runs clear at least seven or eight times.
-spread the seeds in a closed container with proper drainage.
-keep the seeds just damp, not in standing water, and give them ample indirect sunlight.
-gently rinse and drain them a couple times a day. this is the step that requires finesse if you’re using a sprouting tray, because you have to try to retain all the seeds while dumping out the water. once they sprout roots they’ll cling to the grooves in the bottom of the tray and it won’t be as tricky.
-you should have mature alfalfa sprouts in just a few days. it takes longer in the winter. keep rinsing them every day so they don’t go peculiar on you.

i also like to have a pot of wheatgrass growing for adding to juices and smoothies. hardcore wheatgrass junkies grow it in huge trays. i’m a very casual user.

it is one of the greatest tragedies of my life that there has always been a food processor in the house and i never used one until recently. food processors are fucking indispensible. they allow you to make hummus, nut butters, sandwich spreads, thin/evenly-sliced veggies, and even things you’d typically use a blender for, like smoothies, nut milks, vegan mayo, etc.

processors can be expensive new, but they’re cheap and somewhat abundant at thrift stores. i went looking for one for reed and found the above-pictured old moulinex, perfectly functional and still sharp, at savers for 99 cents.

it sounds kind of incongruous, but now that i’m hardly eating any (commercially) processed foods i’m using my food processor constantly. it’s wonderful for raw foods.

juicers are not essential, but i absolutely love having a juicer. you can get masticating or centrifugal juicers--typically centrifugal is faster, easier to clean, less expensive, and maybe a little more compact, but with masticating you can do other things like make nut butter. i have a centrifugal “juice fountain” by breville, and i have no complaints.


i’ve been using nonstick pots and pans forever, but i’m going to make the switch to stainless steel because i’m paranoid about the chemicals in nonstick coating. right now i only have one 2-quart stainless steel saucepan that i found at a thrift store. it heats up quickly and evenly, and i love that i can use metal utensils on it.

it is different, though, cooking without the nonstick coating. my first attempt was a huge disaster, everything stuck, i had to scour the pan. my mom told me you have to heat up the pan first, then add the oil, and i don’t understand why that would make a difference but since i started doing that i haven’t had any more catastrophes.

reading up on copper-clad pans i picked up a neat trick: if the copper gets really grimy and discolored, salt half a lemon and rub it on the copper to remove stains. it works well, although i like leaving it stained, the colors are pretty.


j.a. henckels has spoiled me for any other knives. i recently thrifted a few 69-cent kitchen knives to use on fruits and vegetables for juicing so that i can cut on an easy-to-clean glass cutting board. (glass cutting surface = knife damage). they’re decent knives, actually, made in japan, full-tang/triple-rivet, stainless, somewhat heavy, and sharp enough. but they’re nothing like what i’m used to.

the knife i use more than anything is the above-pictured twin pro s high-carbon stainless steel 8” chef’s knife. so if you’re thinking about investing in moderately expensive cutlery and you only have enough money (about $100) for one knife, get that.

other advice:

use an oven thermometer. i recently discovered my oven is about 40-50 degrees too cool, unless i use convection, in which case it’s inexplicably accurate.
keep a (preferably filtered) compost bucket near your kitchen sink. i have a stainless steel pail with a carbon filter so it doesn't smell gross or sprout gnats.

pick up a variety of non-matching plates, bowls and glasses from thrift stores. i think eccentric dinnerware enhances the eating experience and can even inspire you to be more creative.

play around with garnishes, even if you're only cooking for yourself. i like the look of fresh herbs, vegetable confetti, julienne veggies, chiffonade leaves, sprouts, colorful seasonings, sauces... so many possibilities! i can’t wait to grow edible flowers this spring.

find a quality scrubbing brush that will help strip down the wax on apples and other produce. i don’t ever peel carrots anymore, because the outer layer is so full of nutrients--i buy organic and i scrub them within an inch of their lives.

No comments: