Friday, December 31, 2010

Food and her-story and a Happy New Decade

When I was little, I'd beg my mom to let me mix the cake for dessert. I loved cooking, as far as I understood it, but as a busy college student with six kids (mostly teenagers), Mom didn't have a whole lot of time to help me learn. By the time I was old enough to do it on my own, I was too lazy. Easier to watch my grandmother make her incredible soft jelly-hearted molasses cookies than to help her bake them. Now, I wish that I had. I'd give a hell of a lot to hear her tips and hints, though I know (cliche as it is) that the care she put in was the ultimate flavoring. Still, I cut out recipes that looked cool to me, at 15, 16. Obsessed over how to make my favorite omelet. Bought utensils for my someday grownup life. Tried to make a cold Champagne Peach soup for Valentine's when I was crazy in love. And finally started helping Mom out a bit in the kitchen.
At 22, keeping my own house and cooking for myself and my man, (and a little for the families I worked for as a full-time, salaried nanny), I lucked onto a wonderful resource-- Food and Wine magazine. My boss was a subscriber, and I fell in love with the glamorous gourmet dishes and exotic (to Buffalo) ingredients. I got my own subscription, needing to own those gorgeous soft-lit color photos of chocolate fondant and bitter salad with duck cracklings. It was a pretty steep learning curve for a girl that didn't know there was a difference between a dry and a wet measuring cup! But I tried out what I could afford to, dreamed about making the rest-- and learned in the process that I was a Foodie (as no doubt a good portion of readers here are; when I get some). Good food is the lens I view the world through; learning the nuances of what a given population eats is how I best absorb and understand their culture. It's all about the unimaginably wide world of taste. But there weren't many other foodies in my life; I had the wrong job, the wrong income, the wrong education.
I was the wrong age, as well, and being raised pretty poor hadn't prepared me for using expensive ingredients generously. Through the 20-something years since then, I've evened it up as far as education, neighborhood, understanding. The income has gone up and down, but now I know better too-- I don't have to serve a fifteen course meal for twelve to be a gourmet or love good food. I don't even have to serve meat, or heated food. The quality of the meal, the enjoyment of planning it, preparing and serving it, are there no matter if I make a salad and homemade bread, or a multi-course feast. I can make a simple pear crisp or a four layer tiramisu trifle, and it's always an extension of my personal aesthetic. My friend Abby would just say, "MMM. Mari food." Yes, it will be that. I have my certain standards, my ideas of how each bite should balance comfort and freshness, and they come through in whatever I prepare. Transitioning from a fairly plant-filled diet to a plant-based diet helped me solidify that habit. Cooking in restaurants and as a personal chef took it up a few notches further. And I've always read cookbooks the way some girls read love novels-- slurping up every hungry word, even the index.
So I've been cooking for 25+ years, a veghead for 15+ years. By feeding people without lecturing them, I appear to have influenced a few folks into joining me in the plant life. (Yay)
Let me say up front: I don't care what YOU eat. That's your business. At my house, you'll eat well, and heartily, and it will be made of plants. If you call yourself veg but eat certain kinds of animals, I don't care about that either; it's not my decision. I do care that you don't make a point of saying Vegetarian at restaurants, and then eating chicken-based soup or a fish fillet, because it makes getting a good meal at restaurants harder for me. Selfish, I know, but it's not like they hand out gold stars or weekends on the beach for being vegetarian. They mostly hand out ill-phrased questions and misunderstanding, with a side of suspicion. And until we all* eat nothing but fruit that's fallen from a tree and stop breathing in those poor airborne germs, there's no point in playing More Vegetarian Than Thou. I just want to be able to get some good soup once in a while, that I don't have to make for myself. Hey, I DO love to cook, but not every single bite I eat forever and ever amen.
That's my food history in short, and you don't want the long. Feel free to ask me anything, and I'll answer as I can. Please comment, discuss, chat, argue, and be nice.
Have a Happy New Decade!

And eat something good tonight. We're having nutball heroes (recipe follows) and a green salad. Peace, Mari

*Check out the Buffalo Vegetarian Society @ for food and veghead fellowship. I myself will be joining any month now-- soon as I am more mobile.

Nutballs in Tomato sauce (adapted from Rose Elliot's THE COMPLETE VEGETARIAN CUISINE, by me and also Amvyn from the CLBB)

Prepared or homemade tomato sauce
Generous 1 C raw brown nuts** ground fine in FP or blender
1 Tbsp EVOO
1 med to large onion, chopped fine
1-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp fennel seed
scant 2 Tbsp fresh herbs, such as rosemary, sage, basil, or marjoram (optional)
1 tsp dried oregano, or 1 tsp fresh oregano or parsley
1 large tsp tomato paste
1/3-1/2 C grated Parmesan, Romano or Cheddar cheese
2/3 C fresh breadcrumbs
1 egg
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Butter or oil a small baking dish.

Saute onions, garlic, fennel and dried oregano in EVOO over medium heat until soft. Let cool a bit, then combine all ingredients EXCEPT tomato sauce in a large bowl with your hands, being careful not to compact mixture too much.

Form into eight small balls, place into pan so as not to be touching each other, pour over enough tomato sauce to cover the bottom of the dish, and bake at 350 F for 25-30 minutes.

Mari's notes: Serve hot over pasta or rice, crumble into sauce, or best of all, serve warm topped with more sauce and more cheese if desired for a Nutball Hoagy. Add your favorite spices in place of mine-- more fennel and some sage makes it more sausage-y-- rosemary is more Italian, etc.

For a vegan version, omit cheese and egg, and add 1 Tbsp peanut or cashew or almond butter. You may not need/want the tomato paste here, either. Adjust salt as needed. This version is delish; I make it just as often as the other; it depends on mood, menu, and what I've eaten that week. Originally it was from Rose Elliot, British Veg Queen, but Brits don't use enough seasoning for me.... And just as often I double the nuts and seasonings and leave the rest as is.

I've been making this so long, there's no measuring anymore, just blending with my hands till it holds together. Use more or less crumb, onion, whatever.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Cold and Raw in Kenmore

I've been thinking about going up to at least 50% raw food for a few years, now. It's not so easy when you live in Buffalo, NY, or anywhere East Coast-ish. We don't have these year-round farmer's markets with abundant produce that easily translates into wonderful raw dishes like people in LA or San Fran. And I'm a foodie first and foremost, so it HAS to be wonderful, or at least very very good. And a veghead for 15+ years, yeah, and it hasn't been hard and it may have even saved my life. Going raw is a whole other basket of apples, especially if you're an aspiring pastry chef!
But as Ani Phyo says, no need to be extreme. We're sinking into a raw habit, slowly and with lots of mistakes being made. Last year, I instituted the Raw-Day-a-Week plan. It has become the Mostly-Raw-Day-a-Week, but it's happening now, that way. That's the critical issue-- what you need to do to make it real, do. And skip the craziness that comes from throwing your life out of whack over what's on your plate. There are, in the end, more important things.
So I got a book, Ani Phyo's RAW FOOD ESSENTIALS and I'm borrowing a dehydrator (to make it simpler for family to deal with, and for the hubby-man more than myself-- I can live without cookies, but not everyone can) and tomorrow I'm making Rawmesan with cashews to put into a raw style Caesar. Caesar salad, sans anchovies*, is literally my favorite thing in the world to eat-- preferably with a side of crusty real baguette and a glass of Penfolds Chardonnay. My dream dinner, my Last Meal on Earth meal, my passionate hungry need. I used to go on binges, when my garden in Indianapolis was producing romaine off the charts, and make it three or four times a week. There aren't alot of restauants in this area that make a real, good Caesar anymore, though I used to be able to find one easy enough. Everything slides, and nowadays people make them with crappy mayo cut with cheap pre-grated parm and think it's worth two bucks more than a side salad, but it's not. Now, Alicia Silverstone has a Caesar that's vegan and almost raw, but frankly I hate tahini, and can't abide the use of garlic powder, even to make croutons. Besides, croutons are not essential to me. I've been messing around with a delicious Walnut & Almond Caesar that uses cold-pressed walnut oil with the olive oil in place of mayo, and quick-candied spiced almonds, but it has cheese. If I combine the ideas of nuts and nut-based cheeses, and steal the shoyu idea from Alicia but use miso instead, I might have an awesome vegan Caesar, and nearly raw, too.
I'm thinking here of the excellent miso dressing The Juicery Cafe (sadly defunct, was in the Northtown Plaza in Amherst with an outpost in Delaware Park) used to serve on salads and Lite Bites. I loved the Hummus Lite Bite, and that, with Hungarian Mushroom soup and a Starburst smoothie***, was pretty much my usual meal at the Juicery. Luckily for me, both my niece and my sister worked there a year or so before it closed, and I was able to get a copy of the miso dressing recipe, which I use and tweak. The light miso makes a thick, creamy dressing that really needs no cheese to satisfy in a caesary-style.
When I perfect it, I'll let you know.
Anyway, it's almost the last day of this year. It's cold, but not brutal here in Buffland, and the sun has winked at us often today. We are lucky to get so much sunshine all through our winter-- believe me, there's much less in Indianapolis this time of year! And we have better food.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was at Cafe Allegro on Hertel Avenue for my writing group, and hungry since it was 6pm and I hadn't eaten since 11am. There wasn't anything on the day's menu that was veg, but when asked if they could make me a grilled cheese-- they said sure. So I asked for sliced tomato, mustard and fresh spinach on it too, and some chips, and in a few minutes there it was-- stuffed and dripping, gooey melted deliciousness on a plate. Allegro is good that way-- they often have veghead grub on the daily board, but not a whole lot in the way of vegan. Still, it doesn't hurt to ask, and they have a huge variety of Republic of Tea teas. Also in the summer, wonderful fruit smoothies made with more real fruit than anywhere I've tasted, rotating in a big slushie machine, but better than a slushie by far.
You see, I went for hot food that night... and ever since, have been jonesing for soup: hot, homey and full of good things. The kind of soup that makes you feel comepletely nourished in a single bowlful. The kind you eat crouching over the bowl, dipping toast into every other bite. That same week, I made some Minimal Minestrone, and Christmas week, a potato and broccoli soup with dill.
Last night, I got a bowl of Panera's (veghead) Creamy Tomato. It's good, but not perfect; could be tangier, but a splash of hot sauce works. Tonight, my soup craving still unsatisfied, I've got some Butternut Squash roasting for this:

Roasted Squash Soup with Maple-Glazed Bananas**

One 2-pound butternut squash, halved lengthwise and seeded
Kosher salt
1/2 cup pecans
1 banana, scooped into balls with a melon baller or sliced 1/2 inch thick
1 tablespoon pure maple syrup
1 cup water
1/2 cup crème fraîche (you can use sour cream or vegan sour cream)
Pinch of ground cinnamon ( I like a dash of ginger and coriander, too)
8 small watercress sprigs


Preheat the oven to 375°. Butter a medium baking dish. Season the squash with salt and set it cut side down in the baking dish. Bake for about 1 hour and 10 minutes, until the squash is very tender. Let cool slightly.
Meanwhile, spread the pecans in a pie plate and toast for about 7 minutes, or until fragrant. Let cool, then coarsely chop and transfer to a medium bowl. Add the banana and maple syrup and stir to coat.

Peel the squash. In a blender, puree the squash, water, crème fraîche and cinnamon until very smooth. Transfer to a medium saucepan and warm over low heat. Ladle the soup into bowls, garnish with the banana-nut topping and watercress and serve hot or at room temperature.

From Competing at the Bocuse d’Or: Team USA’s Unbeatable Recipes, Pairing of the Day: February 2009
Published February 2009, Food and Wine Magazine
**Recipe by Adina Guest and Timothy Hollingsworth

Eat something good tonight. Peace, Mari

*The original Caesar had no anchovies, and used romano cheese, not parm. The lettuce leaves were left whole, as well.

***(The Juicery's Hummus Lite Bite was a mound of cumin-y hummus on a bed of mixed greens with yellow miso dressing. MMM. A starburst was a blend of fresh strawberries & fresh-squeezed orange juice.)