Friday, March 23, 2012

Changes Outside, Changes Inside

Here in Buffland, we've enjoyed the earliest of early Springs. For those not of the North, let me explain: when I was growing up down the street from SUNY at Buffalo's South Campus, (which was then in the heart of what was called North Buffalo), winter lasted a good six months, most years. You put away clothing from season to season. You ate hot, hearty meals for 2/3 of the year. Many people kept a reliable junker car for winter, so their good car wouldn't rust out from exposure to all the salt and snow. We often walked to school on a foot or more of hard-packed snow.

 Those days are long gone. My gloves got used less than a half dozen times this winter. I think I own all of one sweater now, and it's a lighter one, made for the cool evenings of old-fashioned Springs. I haven't worn it in two years.

 Our old houses are still constructed for the same weather patterns, though. And our markets,  contractors, and other goods and services still try to sell to us for the same types of seasons we had, back then. Flighty little canvas gazebos are dirt cheap, but they can't stand against the constant high breeze we've had, steadily, for the last several years-- they just blow down around you. And who wants to make a fruit pie in summer anymore, when the temp most June days is higher than it ever got for more than a week and a half in the Augusts of my childhood?

 But these cultural cues persist-- cues that that read like romantic fantasies now: pictures of large families having backyard barbecues, unworried about sun exposure or bugs or calories or the price of steaks. Recipes for fancy celebration cakes, or do-ahead menus that would take a second refrigerator to accomodate, and three days of heating up the stove to accomplish. What do these ideas have to do with real life? With real families? They set up scenarios that are impossible, now. What does this have to do with the way we actually cook and entertain and live, in the seasons we're getting this century?

 Not much, I think. When it's 78 degrees in the kitchen before you turn on an oven, there won't be homemade cakes and pies and cookies for ice cream sandwiches coming out of that kitchen. It's an unlivable scheme for most WNYers, who generally don't have the cash to install central air if it didn't come with the house. And if the house wasn't built in the last ten years, it probably didn't come with.

It's okay, though, our trusty markets are willing to do the work for us, and sell us those dream cakes for $8.99, made from a mix that costs a $1.50. They sell us on the fanstasy, and then sell a bunch of expensive, processed, tasteless trash to fill up on, if we'll buy into that false hope.

 So how do we adjust our eating, our cooking, to a new schedule of shifting seasons? What do you do when you're trying to eat local and fresh, and there's no strawberries because the rain beat them down, or the carrots all taste like soap from the chemicals in the ground? How to keep a budget when all the menus you planned are called on account of heat daze?

These last few summers, I've tried stocking up on frozen prepared foods, buying take-out, readjusting the menu, and just plain not eating. Not good ways to keep healthy, though, and not inexpensive, either. The best approach I can find so far is to eat more barely cooked or raw foods, mixed with a few well-chosen prepared items that need little or no heating. It makes us feel lighter and more energized, and it keeps us on a healthier food path.

 To accept this aproach wholeheartedly, is going to mean further commitment to change, and it's tough facing that. There are days when I wil be too tired to chop and assemble, and that's when I'm most susceptible to blowing my very necessary budget, and calling out for subs that leave us overfull and dyspeptic afterwards, or for hopping into the car and picking up a quick prepared meal at the deli. Which tastes wonderful, but makes the next week's budget tighter than ever.

 The answer for me, I'm afraid, is more pre-prep. Chop celery and soak nuts ahead of time. Have a good fresh sauce made before the heat hits. Precook pasta, grains, potatoes, rice and beans, and maybe pre-roast vegetables and make muffins in the cool of the morning. It's not tragic, it's different; it means using my usual thinking time to work, and shifting my writing work around to fit homekeeping needs.

 I'm aware, as I moan about it, how lucky we are to have choices at all, to eat as much and as well as we do. And still, I feel like this altered physical climate has sort of put me back into the social climate of my mother's early married days-- planning out my dusting, and gardening, and when will I have time to make those scones I wanted to share with my next door neighbor?

 I swear, I never meant to be this domesticated. Or maybe it was meant all along, in my blood, passed on like the Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook my childhood food memories were born from. Brought out by strained finances and global warming.

 How are you adjusting your daily meals to the new weather?

 May the peace of this beautiful day be with you, Mari

 PS-- for lovers of the Dude, check out this event:, a charity extravaganza featuring a screening of The Big Lebowski. Worthy cause, and a good excuse to wear a bathrobe in public, too. I'll be there, in my growing-out blond hair, with a Dude at my side. Maybe we'll see you there?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Tried & Tweaked Thursday-- Icebox Truffle Pie

 When a good chocolate recipe comes along, I hold onto it forever, and usually end up adding my own touches after a few years or decades. So it is with this pie, a gloriously chocolatey concoction that gets better with every slice. This is one of those pies that takes no real cooking, not much effort, and tastes better than a mousse cake-- just as rich and creamy as you could want. You make up the filling in less than five minutes, pour into the crust, and refrigerate till firm and cool. That's it!

 And there's no eggs or butter, as in mousse. No chemical-flavored whipped topping or pudding mix, as in so many icebox pies. It's just deep deliciousness, cool and melt-in-your-mouth wonderful. I've served it to family and friends, always with a great reception.

 Yesterday, I made this on a whim, having a leftover graham crust on hand (although often I tweak this by using an Oreo crumb crust, or shortbread crust), and also having what I thought was an adequate amount of maple-flavored agave syrup from The Christmas Tree Shops, to fill the recipe requirements. That mistake led to my newest tweaks, and now there's no stopping me-- I'll be experimenting with this pie, on purpose, for ages. With the early summer temps we're seeing in WNY, it's a excellent dessert to have on hand. In fact, I ate a slice for breakfast.

Originally developed by a reader (Shannon Alison-Leszek) for the Vegetarian Times reader recipe contest, now adapted and renamed by Mari.

Icebox Truffle Pie

1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
generous 1/4 cup cinnamon flavored chips
12-oz. container firm silken tofu
1/4 cup maple-flavored agave syrup, or use half agave, half maple syrup
1 cup creamy peanut butter
1/4 cup broken walnuts
1 9-inch premade graham cracker crust, or chocolate crumb crust
fresh fruit, or other garnishes, optional

1. Place chocolate chips in microwave-safe bowl, and microwave on high for 30 seconds. Stir chocolate, and heat 30 seconds more. Repeat heating and stirring until chocolate is just melted. Add cinnamon chips, a little at a time, to melted chocolate, stirring to dissolve. Taste as you go-- you may want to add a few more. Set aside.

2. Combine tofu and agave/maple syrup in food processor, and blend till smooth. Add peanut butter, and process until smooth. Add chocolate mixture, and process once more until smooth. Add walnuts and pulse briefly, just to distribute nuts throughout the mixture.

3. Pour peanut butter-chocolate mixture into pie crust, smoothing the top; refrigerate at least 20 minutes-- I prefer two hours, minimum. Makes 1 9-inch pie, should serve 6 or more easily.

 Before serving, I like to garnish this one of several ways-- with a light dusting of unsweetened cocoa powder and/or a raspberry puree, or fresh raspberries, or the way we had it for breakfast-- with sliced bananas and whipped cream. You can, of course, make this in it's purest vegan form* and add fruit alone or vegan cream. You can even top it as Shannon did for the contest, with pretzels, chocolate-dipped or not-- the salt against all that chocolatey richness is wonderful, but we enjoy the way fruit flavors enhance and bring out the fruitiness of the chocolate. My other additions of cinnamon chips and walnuts give a candied quality to the filling, that is, I admit, an improvement on an already great idea. Thank you again, Shannon, wherever you are!

In the fridge, before the garnish.

 *Mari's Notes--

 If you use the right kind of crust and chocolate, this is a vegan delight, but cinnamon chips generally contain nonfat milks solids, so you'd have to use more syrup-- 1/2 C, and a dash of ground cinnamon instead, if you'd like to keep the flavors as they are here.
 The original topping of broken chocolate-covered pretzels, if used, are best added just before serving, instead of before chilling as had been called for, unless you like soggy pretzels.
 Finally, if you want to go for the total sexy dark truffle experience here, use bittersweet chips, ditch the cinnamon, add a tsp of instant espresso or Starbucks Via to the filling, and serve each slice sprinkled with dark unsweetened cocoa powder and a fluff of whipped cream, topped with a chocolate covered espresso bean for maximum chic.

 PS-- Nobody will know this has tofu in it, unless you tell them so after they have eaten it. And then, they won't believe you.

 Peace, Mari

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Tried and Tweaked Thursday: Cabbage Rolls with Nuts and Bulgur

 St. Pat's day is a huge holiday in Buffland, even for those of us that are not Irish in any way, or Catholic. With shamrocks and green beer flowing over the city like a keg of liquid grass, a parade that is never too hampered by March rains, and nearly every bar and restaurant in town serving some specialty for the day, it's a wonder that we ever make it past March at all.

 But we do, and there is rarely a shortage of cabbage afterwards, either. I'd like to recommend a dish for using that head of ruffled green you may have lurking in the crisper-- something non-Irish and utterly non-traditional for this holiday weekend, but good to eat anytime: cabbage rolls. Besides, for anyone named Kozlowski, like myself, a good cabbage roll recipe is a must.

 Unlike most cabbage roll recipes, these do not feature rice, and are filling without being heavy. I first came across them in a lovely book I ordered from a cookbook club, back before I knew what I was doing in the kitchen: it was Susan Costner's Good Friends, Great Dinners. The pictures are marvelous, the menus seasonal and not too fussy, the recipes well written and the food-- perfect. It was a bit of a steep learning curve for me, then, if only because I had so little training, but this magnificently sensual and evocative book gave me some real training as I cooked my way through it. I've seen other grain-filled rolls since, but none as good, and simply springlike, as these.

 Good Friends is by no means a vegetarian volume, but it features many recipes that are veg-based and suitable, and an entire menu for each season that is deliberately vegetarian, as well. From one of those menus came this recipe, which naturally I haven't left as is, due to the fact that I couldn't make the called-for tomato coulis the first time out. I've shared it in slightly different form before, but here's how I make it nowadays:

 By Susan Costner, adapted by Mari
(12 rolls)

1 Lrg head cabbage, regular or Savoy, (about 3 lbs.) tough outer leaves removed
3 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 garlic clove, peeled and minced
1 bunch scallions, finely chopped
2 celery stalks (with leaves if they're nice), finely chopped
1 lb fresh mushrooms, coarsely chopped
2 C bulgur, cooked according to package directions
1/4 C finely chopped fresh parsley
2 Tbsp chopped fresh dill
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/3 C walnuts, toasted for 10 minutes at 350 F, then coarsely chopped
Tomato-Caraway Sauce (recipe follows)
garnish: dill or fennel sprigs

Cut out the deep core of the cabbage and discard. Bring a large pot of salted water to a simmer. Add the cabbage and cook until you can easily remove the largest leaves, about 5 minutes.

Remove from the water and drain well. Carefully separate 12 of the largest leaves-- if not soft enough to roll easily, return them to the pot and cook until just tender. Cut the tough central rib of each leaf. Pat dry and set aside.

Melt the butter in a large skillet, add the garlic, scallions and celery and saute just until tender. Add the mushrooms and saute over medium heat, stirring frequently, until all the liquid has evaporated from the mushrooms. Add the cooked bulgur, parsley, dill, and salt and pepper. Stir in the walnuts and heat thoroughly.

Place the cabbage leaves, curly side up, on a clean flat surface. Fill each with 3-4 Tbsp of the stuffing. Fold up the bottom edge, fold in both sides, and roll up towards the top edge. Place seam-side down in one layer in a large casserole.

Add the sauce and simmer gently for 30 minutes, or cover and heat in a medium oven, about 350 degrees F. Heat just until warmed through and a little bubbly. Serve the stuffed cabbage, whole or sliced, with some of the sauce, and garnished with dill sprigs.


1/2 small onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 Tbsp olive oil
4 C coarsely chopped, canned drained plum tomatoes
1/4 tsp sugar
1 bay leaf
1 tsp caraway seeds
dash of dried dill, rubbed between fingers
1 1-inch piece fresh or dried orange peel
1 Tbsp tomato paste
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a saucepan, saute the garlic and onion in the butter and oil until tender but not brown. Stir in the tomatoes, sugar, bay leaf, caraway and orange peel. Cook, covered, over low heat for 10 minutes; then uncover, add tomato paste, and cook for 15-20 minutes more, till sauce is slightly thickened. Discard bay leaf and peel. (For coulis, force through a food mill.) Correct seasoning with salt and pepper.

***Mari's notes-- You can, of course, use your own light tomato sauce. These could easily go vegan using EVOO instead of butter, and a vegan sweetener. Or you can cheese them up with a parmesan topping. Serving size is two, but one is usually enough for us, with rolls* or a side veg, or both.

 *I like to serve Irish Soda Bread Muffins, from Recipegirl, using a half cup of whole wheat flour subbing for an equal amount of regular. I've also made them subbing a half cup of oatmeal, and I often use dried cranberries for the fruit.

 Here's to cabbage, and good beer, and a happy St. Pat's day!

 Peace, Mari

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Turning Over New Leaves

 One thing everyone knows, nowadays, is that we can all benefit, both health-wise and taste-wise, from eating more veg. But knowing that isn't the same as knowing how; recipes that are seriously fortified with veg can be expensive, or unseasonal, or just too damn much work for some of us. I say this after 18+ years as a vegetarian cook, and one who passionately loved vegetables before that change occurred. I'm also a person on a budget, and a person that doesn't have four hours to prepare a daily six course meal just because I don't consume animals.

 The key, for me, has not been in finding the right recipes, but in learning how to add more vegetables to any, and every, recipe I can. I started doing this as I soon as I left my mother's home and kitchen, and I've never stopped. Here are my basic, everyday ways:

 Add an extra veg at the beginning of preparation:

 Making a green salad? Against the background of mixed lettuces and whatever else, try a few handfuls of raw zucchini or crookneck squash, finely diced, and a handful of chopped dried fruit as well, such as apricots, craisins, or apples, dried or fresh. These two additions go well with most dressings and a wide spectrum of standard salad toppings. When you're done, throw in a handful of chopped nuts, to boot. Or cook some pepper strips, carrot strips or zuke on a hot, dry griddle till the vegetables brown and soften a little. The combo of crisp greens and slightly wilted veg is always a winner.

 If you're sauteeing or sweating aromatics such as onion and garlic to begin a soup, stew or skillet dish, add in some thinly sliced carrots or peppers there, too. If you've already got 'em, add in tomato or mushroom, or slivered green beans. If the recipe doesn't call for garlic, or onion, add some anyway.

Add an extra veg in the middle stages of prep:

 Say you're making a batch of soup or a casserole-- go beyond what's called for, and throw in one extra thing, be it a couple handfuls of frozen edamame in the stew or a layer of sauteed peppers, greens or okra mixed into your mac-n-cheese. Substitute two lightly cooked vegetables any place you'd normally use just one to stand in for an animal product: when I make Giada D.'s stellar manicotti, I use sauteed mushrooms and red pepper instead of beef, and it's divine.

(above, a bubbling veg stew I just keep adding more vegetables to-- the zuke chunks were last)

Never let a grain or side go unadorned:

Making a batch of corn muffins? Add 1/2 C thawed frozen corn, along with some fresh dill or cilantro if you have it, to the batter. It adds moisture, sweet flavor, and welcome texture. Add a little grated sweet potato or parnsip to that zucchini cake, for that matter.

 Throw diced tomatoes, thawed peas, a cup of cooked pinto beans, or chunks of bell pepper into rice, barley, quinoa or wheat berries while they cook. They bring their own moisture to the process, so generally, no adjustment is needed to the water ratio.

 Even if you're eating the side with a veggie-filled stew, another veg will make it more interesting. I do this with potatoes as well, and if you think plain potatoes in cream and a dab of butter is good, you should try it with peas and spinach added, or with chunks of zuke thrown into the boiling water a moment before you drain the potatoes. In this case, I add some mint and dill as well, or oregano.  Put zucchini strips into the water of the pasta just before you drain that-- it's enough to cook it perfectly, and the sauce doesn't get watery.

Add an extra veg at the end of cooking:

 Last minute additions make for inspired eating, whether it's a slice of raw onion popped into a salad, or adding interest to a cooked soup or stew, a handful of sliced kale stirred into a taco topping just before serving, or a salsa of fresh peppers and fruit to eat with those muffins.

 Put a layer of chopped tomatoes under the crumb crust of that veg-filled mac-n-cheese, or that layered eggplant casserole; marinate some frozen corn and use it to top your sandwich filling; grate raw carrot or beet onto a portobello steak or a tofu stir-fry. Toss olives or raw tomatoes into red sauce at the last minute. Throw ripped fresh spinach into everything, including the greased pan you're about to fry that cage-free egg in. It's better that way.

 It gets to be a habit, after a short while. And it frees up your ideas of what stew, tacos, pizza, sauce, mashes, and classic soups should include... which means you'll be less bound by old ways of cooking, in the future.  

 Now you know my ways-- what are yours? Are you trying to eat more vegetables, too, and if so-- what vegetables are you using? I've mentioned the same five or six here; maybe you have a different set of go-tos, and I'd love to hear about them.

 Peace, Mari