Butternut Squash Coconut Curry Noodles

butternut squash coconut curry noodles

Today, I am going to tell you a little story about the power of denial. And the power of really good Thai food.

It all started when I was nearing the end of my vegan transition, which basically meant that I was starting to actually tell people that I was “vegan” (but still had a lot to learn). I had also just moved back to Michigan and was starting a new job in Ferndale, a city in Michigan with a small but fun and eclectic downtown that seemed to me to be bursting with amazing food options. One of those options was a small hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurant that charged only $6 for a lunch special that was not only generously portioned but exceedingly delicious. And, to my delight, it was (or so I thought it was) “vegan”. Coconut-Vegetable Curry, as I assumed at the time, was of course made strictly of coconut milk, vegetables, tofu (non-GMO, of course) and secret Thai spices that made it so delicious that I would eat the entire aforementioned generous portion in one sitting, inducing an afternoon food coma that was not the most conducive to productivity in my new job.

I was obsessed with this curry dish. I would crave it. My co-workers soon became obsessed with their respective favorites from this small place as well. Eventually, we were all sheepishly suggesting office carry-outs 2, 3, 4 times per week. After all, it was cheap, quick and delicious. So delicious, in fact, that I tried to ignore the splitting headaches I would get after each meal, the bloating, or the fact that my mouth was so parched that I would go through 4 bottles of water within an hour after eating. 

But it was one day that I went in to this restaurant for my weekly office pick-up duties that I noticed that behind the checkout counter, there was a glass refrigerator filled with cartons of heavy cream. Yes, as in dairy cream. I started glancing around the small restaurant, searching for the coffee pot. Surely, that’s what the cream was for. But there was no coffee. Then I remembered. Ah, yes. They serve Thai iced tea here. That’s what the cream is for. But there was a lot of cream. I mean, loads of it. And slowly, I started realizing that all of that cream wasn’t just for iced tea. It was for something else: our food. A few questions with the manager confirmed my suspicions. Devastation crept in.

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Creamy Almond Butter Noodles

So, there are days — more frequently, lately — where I have this nagging urge to just stop what I’m doing, throw my hands to the air and scream why can’t I just be normal?!?!?!?!?!?

Am I alone here?

Take, for example, today. Dishes piled high in the sink. Wedding thank you notes waiting to be written. A workout routine that’s been neglected for far too long. Friends whose calls have gone unreturned. Job applications waiting to be sent out. A doctors appointment that needs to be made. It would be a good idea to tackle one of these items on my to-do list, don’t you think? Yeah, I think so, too. So what do I do? I decide to bake a cake.

WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME?!?!

Aside from baking cakes at very inopportune moments, I have other traits that are really starting to get in the way of real life these days. Like my incessant need to tweak this site. If you haven’t noticed (and how could you not), the tweaking — of the logo, the setup, the sidebars, even the photos — has bordered on compulsive. This has made being normal quite the challenge. Weekend plans with Gennaro to catch a long-anticipated movie can be easily threatened by my sudden awareness of a glitch in the way this site appears in a certain browser. You know, because double- checking different browser shots is the kind of thing I do to pass the time before heading out to the movies. Hours later, I’ve re-vamped the entire look, only to discover, this time, that my pictures are ever-the-slightest bit bigger in this new design. And I don’t like it. By now, Gennaro is asleep on the couch, and I’m having one of those moments again.

What is wrong with me?!?

As you may have quessed, the compulsive tendencies carry over into my recipe-writing as well. I’ve even been known to make recipes after they’ve been posted and decide, this really would be better with less sweetener, and more nuts. And so I’ll change it, likely annoying several people in the process, none more so than myself. Can I pass this all off as “being a perfectionist” and call it a day? Well, luckily, I do recognize (sometimes) when enough is enough.

…Like with these noodles. I adapted the recipe for this sauce from a recipe in Delicious Meets Nutritious, the cookbook from the folks at Xagave (which is actually a pretty awesome cookbook, by the way). When I say adapt, I usually mean “overhaul,” since I am not always content to only play around with a recipe a little bit (surprise, surprise). But in this case, I made 3 very small changes. Tasted it. Loved it. Thought about it.

No, I wasn’t going to change anything else, thank-you-very-much.

It was the ultimate exercise in restraint, but the right choice. Sometimes, you have to quit while you’re ahead. This recipe was the perfect balance of creamy, spicy, sweet and salty. Over noodles, it was downright addictive. You can substitute peanut butter for the almond butter here (the original recipe calls for peanut butter). You can also use this as a dipping sauce, which is how it’s billed in the cookbook. Instead of heating this, you can also blend everything in a blender. But I like the way the flavors of the ginger and the garlic are sort of mellowed out when it’s heated through. This is such an easy, quick dinner, that it almost justifies a reckless foray into unecessary cake-baking for dessert.

Almost.  

One Year Ago Today: Turkish Shepherd’s Salad

Creamy Almond Butter Sauce:

Adapted from Delicious Meets Nutritious

1 tablespoon agave nectar

1/4 cup creamy almond butter

1 teaspoon fresh grated ginger

1 clove garlic, grated or pressed

1/2 cup lite coconut milk

3 tablespoons wheat-free tamari soy sauce

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

Directions:

1. In a small saucepan, over medium heat, combine all ingredients except for lime juice. Whisk until almond butter is melted and the sauce is heated through, about 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in lime juice. Set aside.

Toss with:

1/2 lb. cooked gluten-free linquine (eyeball it if using a 1 lb. package)

3 scallions, chopped

This recipe serves about 3-4 but can easily be doubled.

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Garlic Fried Rice

Ever since enjoying an unassuming yet delicious side of garlic rice at Kuma Inn about a month ago, I’ve been trying — rather unsuccessfully — to recreate it at home. The garlic was at that perfect brink of not-yet-burned but perfectly browned. Its deep, toasty flavor was infused into every grain of rice. Following my recreation attempts, I’ve discovered that it takes a lot of garlic to reach that level of flavor — or else there’s some trick that I haven’t yet discovered.

At any rate, I’ve compromised. I love Thai fried rice, so I threw in some basil leaves for a boost of flavor. Less garlic, more basil, and a little Thai chile for heat — the perfect combination for a tasty, inexpensive vegan dinner. Perhaps I’ll never figure out how to get the intense garlic flavor of Kuma Inn’s garlic rice. But for now I’m perfectly happy enjoying this subtly garlicy rice dish. I enjoyed mine as a main course with tofu and a side of veggies, but you can omit the tofu and serve as a tasty side for an Asian-inspired meal.

Garlic Fried Rice:

1/2 block diced tofu (about 1 1/2 cups diced) (optional)

2 teaspoons olive oil, divided

2 teaspoons sesame oil

6 cloves garlic, minced

3 cups cooked long-grain brown rice

2 Thai chili peppers, sliced

2 green onions, sliced, greens topped off (use for garnish)

1 tablespoon wheat-free tamari

1/4 teaspoon salt (plus more to taste)

20 fresh basil leaves

Directions:

1. If using tofu: in a large saute pan, heat 1 teaspoon olive oil over medium heat. Add diced tofu and saute until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Remove tofu to a plate.

2. In the same pan, add the rest of the olive oil, sesame oil and minced garlic. Saute garlic over medium-high heat until just browned, about 1 minute. Add cooked rice, scallion, chilies, wheat-free tamari, cooked tofu and salt. Increase heat to high and saute, stirring constantly, for about 3-4 minutes, or until rice starts to brown on the bottom of the pan.

3. Remove pan from heat and add in basil leaves. Stir to incorporate basil. Add salt to taste. Garnish rice with green scallion tops.

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Pan Glazed Ginger Tofu

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of eating at Kuma Inn, a small, intimate, reasonably priced Filipino-Thai tapas restaurant (bonus: it’s also BYO). All of the dishes were quite good, but Gennaro and I both particularly liked a really delicious tofu with Thai basil in a soy-mirin broth. It reminded me of how good tofu can be. So, if you live in New York or are in for a visit, be sure to check out Kuma Inn for good food, a fun atmosphere, and good music to boot (Chef King Phojanakong doubles as DJ as well).

Inspired by Chef King’s flavorful dish, I came up with this simple yet flavorful dish, and in doing so broke out of my plain, baked tofu rut. This tofu was lick-the-plate good, with a sweet and spicy sauce that goes great with some plain rice and vegetables to round out the meal. If you like a firmer tofu, you can bake the slices before adding it to the sauce, or sear it on each side before slicing. If you’re in a tofu rut like I was, this recipe is a must-try.

Pan Glazed Tofu:

1 block extra firm tofu, halved lengthwise then cut into square slices 1/4″ thick

1 teaspoon olive oil (plus more for baking)

1/4 cup dry white wine

3 tablespoons reduced sodium wheat-free tamari

3 tablespoons agave nectar

3 green onions, sliced, greens topped off (save for garnish)

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated

1-2 Thai chile peppers, sliced (optional)

1 teaspoon arrowroot

fresh cilantro (optional) for garnish

Directions:

1. If baking tofu first, preheat oven to 350. Lay tofu slices flat on a baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil. Bake in preheated oven for 10 minutes, turn, and bake for another 5 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, whisk together remaining ingredients in a bowl for the sauce. Heat a large skillet on medium-high and add sauce. Heat until bubbly, then add tofu. Toss to coat and simmer until sauce has reduced to desired amount. Sprinkle with cilantro and green onion tops (optional). Serve immediately.

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Vegetarian Pho

Anthony Bourdain (among others) would likely have a field day castigating the notion of a vegetarian pho. But with all due respect to Mr. Bourdain, whose No Reservations sits atop my list of all-time favorite shows, I would have to say that he has no clue what he’s talking about when it comes to the often polarizing subject of vegetarian food. I’ve been living in New York for about three years now, slowly accumulating a list of favorite meals I’ve enjoyed as a resident. I’ve noticed a burgeoning trend when it comes to this list: the majority of my favorite meals here have been meatless. From the delicious, almost euphorically good Mulata arepa at Caracas Arepa Bar to the dosas and dahl at Jackson Diner. And to me, a great falafel from any of the city’s many falafel trucks is more New York than a dirty-water hot dog. Even vegan ice cream (to many, an oxymoron) is well represented by Stogo, my favorite local ice cream shop.

Just recently, I discovered a wonderful neighborhood joint called Lan Cafe. It’s one of those places I’ve walked by several times, but never stopped long enough to pick up a menu or consider ordering from there. Then last week I found myself deep in the thrust of a bad cold. I didn’t want to cook, I barely even wanted to eat, but the one thing I wanted badly was a good, spicy soup. Turned out, my hundreds of trips walking past Lan Cafe paid off, because I remembered that it was a vegetarian Vietnamese restaurant, which meant vegetarian pho. Theirs was delicious — a sweet and spicy blend of deep flavors and bright notes of cilantro and mint. I told myself that when I recovered, I would try to recreate their pho and post it here.

One reason I wanted to make a homemade pho was that, while Lan’s was certainly delcious, I suspected there was some hidden sugar in theirs — both in the broth and in the hoisin sauce, which is a must for an optimal pho experience. I decided to experiment with making a homemade hoisin sauce. It turned out super good! The best part is, it can easily be used for a number of dishes, and you won’t have to worry about the processed sugar that is in just about all store bought hoisins I’ve seen. So below, I’ve included a recipe for the hoisin I made along with the pho recipe. It’s somewhat of a labor-intensive process to prepapre everything, but well worth the effort, and you’ll have a big pot to last you all week. For my recipe, I used Chinese Five Spice powder instead of steeping the broth with cinnnamon, clove and star anise. My Aunt Sue bought me a nice blend of Chinese Five Spice for Christmas and I’ve been dying to use it in something.

Vegetarian Pho:

1 quart vegetable stock

5 cups water

1 long ginger root, cut into quarters

2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

1 1/2 teaspoons Chinese Five Spice powder

3 tablespoons reduced-sodium wheat-free tamari

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

2 tablespoons agave nectar

1 bunch baby bok choy, chopped

1 cup bean sprouts

1 carrot, peeled and sliced

3 scallions, chopped

1 block extra-firm tofu, cubed

1 package rice noodles

salt to taste

homemade hoisin sauce (recipe below)

chile garlic sauce/paste (to taste)

fresh mint leaves (for serving)

fresh cilantro (for serving)

lime wedges

Directions:

1. In a large soup pot, bring vegetable stock, water, ginger root, garlic, five spice powder, soy sauce and pepper to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain broth into a new, clean pot. Discard solids. Add agave nectar and salt to taste. Bring stock back to a boil and add vegetables and tofu. Cook for about 10 minutes, or until vegetables have softened.

2. Meanwhile, prepare rice noodles separately, according to package directions. Drain and set aside.

3. To serve, individually add rice noodles to bowl. Pour in soup. Top with a generous dollop of homemade hoisin, chile garlic paste, and top with mint and cilantro leaves. Serve with lime wedges on the side.

Homemade hoisin:

1/4 cup black bean paste (found in Asian food aisle)

1/4 cup agave nectar

1 plum tomato, roughly chopped

5 tablespoons water

1 teaspoon arrowroot

2 teaspoons chile garlic paste/sauce

Directions:

1. Add all ingredients to a blender and blend until smooth.

2. Transfer to a small saucepan and heat over medium heat until bubbly and thickened, about 5 minutes.

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Raw, Grain-free, Vegan Sushi Rolls

Let me first apologize to those sushi purists out there who object to anything rice-free being called sushi (which literally means “vinegared rice,” not “ground nut and vegetable thing”). I am sincerely sorry. Second, let me apologize to those raw purists for calling this dish “raw” even though the recipe calls for a teaspoon of toasted sesame oil and nori, which is lightly toasted as well. I thought I could sneak it past everyone, but in the interest of full disclosure, I thought I would just come out with it (any true raw purists out there who know whether either of these ingredients is actually forbidden? I would actually love to know). I have to confess as well that this was not my genius idea, but a treat I have enjoyed several times at the Living Zen Organics Cafe at the Detroit Zen Center — a place I’ve praised here before, and one I’ve included in my “Delectably Free Faves.” Being a frequent visitor of the cafe whenever I am back in Michigan, I have had the privilege of being able to study their raw sushi enough to pay homage to it with a version that is somewhat distinct in flavor and texture, but still quite good. In fact, Gennaro, my harshest taste-tester (by default, really, because he is the only person who samples all the meals I make before posting them here), gave this dish a “very good,” which translates to two thumbs up from him (I’ve learned to decode his comments after years of experience, being that he is un-critical by nature, which has proven to be both a blessing and a curse).

This dish also seems like an appropriate continuation of the holiday detox theme. This is a carb-free sushi that provides several health benefits from walnuts, which are high in fiber (a must for any successful detox), vitamin E (good for the brain and the immune system) and omega-3 fatty acids (also good for brain health and immune function, as well as well as beneficial for cardiovascular health). Sunflower seeds, as well, are a great source of vitamin E. They are also high in magnesium (good for bone health and for regulating nerves) and selenium, which contains cancer-fighting and detoxifying properties. Add vegetables and nori, which is rich in potassium and iron, and you have one delicious, super-healthy meal, appetizer or snack. This sushi is also a great way to get a picky eater to eat nuts, I might add, as they are ground up and seasoned, making them virtually unidentifiable in the dish.

Raw Vegan Sushi:

Yield: 4 rolls

4 sheets sushi nori

1/2 cup raw sunflower seeds, soaked for 3 hours, drained and rinsed

1/2 cup raw walnuts, soaked for 3 hours, drained and rinsed

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

1 tablespoon reduced sodium wheat free tamari or coconut amino

3 scallions, chopped, white part only (use rest for garnish)

3 tablespoons – 1/4 cup water

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 large carrot, julienned

1/2 large cucumber, julienned

1 avocado, sliced

1 teaspoon wasabi paste, plus more for serving

Directions:

1. In a blender, combine sunflower seeds, walnuts, sesame oil, tamari, scallions, water and sea salt until fairly smooth, but with some texture remaining (but not large chunks). This process may take some coaxing with a spoon, and you may add more water as needed.

2. Spread about 1/4 of the nut mixture over 3/4 of the sheet of nori, leaving open space at the end of one side of the sheet. Using your fingers, spread about a 1/4 teaspoon of the wasabi paste about 1/4 inch away from the edge of the clean end, making a thin layer which will be used to seal the end of the nori after the sushi has been rolled. Place some julienned vegetables and sliced avocado on the end with the nut mixture, and, tucking the vegetables in with your fingers, tightly roll the sushi (special sushi tools, I’ve found, are handy for this but not necessary), pressing down on the nori as you go. When rolled, press the end of the nori down slightly with finger to seal.

3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 with remaining nori, nuts and vegetables.

4. Cut sushi into equal-sized pieces using a sharp knife (serrated is best). Serve with additional wasabi, pickled ginger and wheat-free tamari sauce. Sprinkle with sesame seeds if desired.

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Carrot Ginger Dressing

I’m busy early in the week this semester. When the days are long and I’m getting tired, I’m always tempted to order in or hit the salad bar at Whole Foods. Just a little Sunday night preparation, however, goes a long way. Last night, for example, I washed and cut up some romaine, roasted some tofu, and sliced some red onion. By adding some sprouts and this dressing I had a simple and healthy lunch and dinner, and one that will last me at least a couple of days. Despite the very low calorie content of this dressing, it’s amazingly flavorful. Prepare a batch for yourself and let it brighten up your busy week as well.

Ingredients:

1 cup diced carrot (about 2 carrots)

1/4 cup water

2 teaspoons fresh grated ginger

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon wheat free tamari

1 teaspoon agave nectar

1 tablespoon sesame oil

1 teaspoon grapeseed oil

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

2 tablespoons fresh orange juice

pinch salt to taste

Directions:

Blend everything in a blender until fairly smooth. Dressing will be thick and carrots will still have some texture, but no crunch. Chill in refrigerator before serving.

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Peanutty Stir-Fry Salad

food 031I think one of my favorite flavor combinations in the whole world is peanut butter with soy sauce, sesame oil and chile flakes. Peanut butter is rich and creamy, and seems to perfectly compliment the heat and saltiness of the rest of the ingredients. You sometimes see this combination over noodles, or in some sort of Szechuan stir fry. One of my biggest problems with preparing stir-frys, however, is the fact that my kitchen equipment — and just about everyone else’s in America — is not equipped to make them. The heat needed to make the perfect stir fry requires special burners — something I definitely don’t have on my way outdated oven. For something different, I decided to make a cold salad uses the same ingredients and flavors of a stir-fry.

I just got back to New York after a 10-day trip to visit my family in Michigan. For my last day there, my aunt (another food allergy vitctim) and I decided to prepare a vegan feast. A picture of our spread is below. My aunt’s quinoa stuffed peppers came from Susan O’brien’s Gluten-Free, Sugar-Free Cooking, a go-to cookbook for my family. The kale salad is raw and dressed in an almond butter dressing. I will post the recipe soon. While at home, my family and I ate at the Living Zen Cafe in the Detroit Zen Center: http://www.detroitzencenter.org/index.htm. The raw kale salad they serve singlehandedly had me transformed from a kale hater (something I’ve never before admitted) to a kale enthusiast. I have been working on a similar recipe ever since.

food 044This peanutty salad can be served with any number of vegetables or proteins. The sauce would also be great on rice noodles or for dipping. My favorite part is the way the broccoli absorbs all of the wonderful flavors of the sauce. One word of advice is to make sure that the blanched vegetables are very well drained. Maybe the only downfall of the dish when I made it was that some of the water from the vegetables diluted the sauce slightly. It was still tasty, but this sauce is too good to be at all watered down.

Ingredients:

1 package firm or medium firm tofu, pressed with a paper towel to absorb water, then cubed

florets from 1 head broccoli (use the stems for coleslaw)

1 carrot, peeled and sliced

1 green pepper, cut into 1″ pieces

Cooking spray or a little vegetable oil

Sauce:

3 tablespoons peanut butter (or almond butter)

2 tablespoons tahini

1 tablespoon wheat-free tamari (Bragg’s liquid amino would also work)

1 tablespoon agave nectar

2 tablespoons minced jalapeno

3 tablespoons yellow onion, minced

1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil

2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

2 tablespoons water

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350.

2. Lay tofu flat on baking sheet and spray with cooking spray or drizzle with oil. Bake for 45 minutes at 350, tossing once halfway through.

3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Prepare another bowl filled with ice water to cool vegetables. Salt the boiling water and ice water if desired. Add broccoli, pepper and carrot to boiling water. After 1 minute, remove to ice bath to stop cooking process. Leave in ice water for another minute, then drain vegetables well.

4. Prepare peanut sauce: add all ingredients to a blender and blend until smooth. Toss with vegetables and tofu to serve.

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