Thursday, March 25, 2010

Pancakes, Again (it's Maple Syrup Season)

Last Sunday, Chase's Daily was serving the most adorable blueberry-cornmeal pancakes. They were off limits for me, so I made due (*sigh*) with a tofu scramble burrito, but since then I've been trying to duplicate those pancakes without using eggs or gluten.

Maine Maple Sunday is this weekend, so pancakes are timely. (On the Maine Maple Producers Association website there's a map that'll help you locate participating sugarhouses.) This spring warmed up early and stayed warm, and that's lousy weather for making maple syrup: sap runs when the nights are below freezing and the days are about twenty degrees warmer. Syrup will be scarce this year, and prices may get as high as $70 a gallon. In true locavore style, many people around town have sap buckets hanging from their own trees (one of my more eccentric neighbors has even tapped a utility pole). Unfortunately our maples are Norway, not Sugar, and they had some funky virus in the fall so I wouldn't eat anything leaking out of them, anyway.

Developing recipes without gluten takes a lot more trial and error than I'm comfortable with. It hurts my soul to throw away rubbery reject pancakes, even when they're not fit for human consumption. At least I've learned one important lesson from this week's pancake trials: corn flour makes things dense, and has no business in pancakes. Corn meal is where it's at.

These pancakes aren't light and fluffy like the ones I posted earlier this month. They're thin, and the edges are wonderfully crunchy. They're like a slightly sweet cornbread; fruit and maple syrup are the perfect accompaniment. Though I originally set out to make cornmeal pancakes with blueberries, I actually prefer them with raspberries. Use any type of berry, or skip the fruit altogether and serve them with vegan margarine.

Gluten-free Cornmeal Pancakes

¼ cup + 2 tablespoons brown rice flour

¼ cup + 2 tablespoons tapioca or potato starch
½ cup corn meal

2 teaspoons granulated sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt
⅔ cup rice milk

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
¼ cup berries (optional)

Heat a skillet over medium heat. Mix dry ingredients—rice flour, potato starch, corn meal, sugar, baking powder, and salt—in a medium bowl. Add rice milk and oil and whisk until just combined.

Spray or lightly coat skillet with oil. Pour batter onto skillet 1/4 cup at a time. Sprinkle a tablespoon of berries on top of each pancake. Cook 2-3 minutes, until bubbles form on top of pancakes and edges look dry. Flip, and cook an additional 1-2 minutes, until undersides are browned.

Yields four 6-inch pancakes

Monday, March 22, 2010

Need a Hug?

I have officially gone off the deep end and become a batty old lady. Instead of knitting useful objects, like hats and sweaters, I spent the weekend watching C-SPAN and making affectionate monsters.

It won't be long until I'm lining up Beanie Babies along the headrests in the back of my car.

I'd been eyeing this pattern since Hannah Kaminsky's Valentine's post. It's available at MochiMochi Land (along with an anthropomorphized campfire and this teeny tiny vacuum cleaner). At first I was intimidated by all the sewing, stuffing, and i-cord, but I made it through with the help of some online tutorials, and picked up some new skills. You want me to backstitch eyelids for you? No problem.

This was a quick, compelling knit—once the body was finished, the hair, horns, arms, legs were so quick and so fun that I couldn't put my needles down. These things are addicting, and I think I've caught the bug. I sense the future holds more cute but useless yarn creations...

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Make Soup With Whatever You Have

When I was younger and learning to cook, I used to follow a recipe for everything. I measured and weighed and ran out to the store any time I was missing an ingredient. Before I learned how textures and flavors work together, I really thought a half teaspoon of tarragon was difference between delicious and inedible.

I loosened up as I gained experience, and while I still follow recipes for baking, most of my main dishes are off the top of my head. I keep a running tally of what's in my cupboards, my freezer, and my vegetable drawer. I walk the dogs in the afternoon and daydream about what I'd like for dinner. Most of the time I can make it happen, but when things don't work out I usually learn something new.

As the weather warms up, my urge to clean includes emptying my cupboards of all the dried beans, rice, nuts, and pasta I bought in bulk and neglected. Soon it will be all I can do to keep up with local produce, so it's time to use up what I've got in storage.

Vegetable and bean soup is one of those easy, versatile dishes I can whip up with basic ingredients and almost no planning. It lets me finish off vegetables that are on their last legs, and the seasoning can go in any direction. Rather than give you a recipe (I'm sure you've got several!), I'll share my fast-and-loose method for vegetable soup.

Here is last night's dinner. It contained:

olive oil
minced garlic
chopped carrots
cooked, cubed sweet potato
cooked black beans
vegetable broth
chili powder
bay leaves
chopped tomatoes

I sautéed the vegetables first in olive oil, then added black beans and broth a cup at a time until the soup looked right. For the seasoning, I used the time-honored technique of add—stir—taste—repeat until the soup tasted right. I let it simmer for 20 or 30 minutes, adding the tomatoes toward the end. Voilà, soup!

Topped with sliced avocado and lime juice, it was deliciously sweet and earthy. Fresh cilantro would have been good, as would bell peppers and coconut milk, but this was a no shopping meal, and the soup was fine without (though I liked the combination of black beans, sweet potato, and cumin enough that I'm going to keep working with it, and maybe create a new recipe).

This is the way I cook all summer, when dinner is as simple as washing and chopping vegetables from our CSA and tossing them with beans and grains from the cupboard. In summer I like to use fresh herbs, but I'm limited to dried in winter. Unless I'm testing a recipe, I wing it, going wherever my taste buds take me. I rely on the following guidelines:

For Italian-style soups, I use:
• oregano
• basil
• thyme
• garlic

For Mexican:
• cumin
• oregano
• garlic
• chili peppers (fresh, dried, or ground)
• lime juice

• cumin
• coriander
• turmeric
• ginger
• cinnamon
• chili peppers (fresh, dried, or ground)
• lemon juice

• ginger (freshly grated)
• garlic
• coconut milk
• chili peppers (fresh or dried)
• peanuts or peanut butter
• kaffir lime leaves (or plain old lime juice)

Thanksgiving at Grandma's:
• thyme
• sage
• bay leaves

Vegetables, beans, and grains have flavors of their own; I strive for a balance between hot and creamy, sweet and sour, fresh and savory. These combinations have worked for me:

• winter squash, black beans, Mexican, Indian, or Thai seasoning
• chickpeas or cannellini beans, tomatoes, chopped kale, chard, or spinach, Italian seasoning
• leeks, potatoes, wild rice, garlic, Thanksgiving at Grandma's seasoning

The possibilities are endless, and soup is hard to mess up (just beware of red cabbage and beets: they turn everything magenta).

Which dishes do you like to make without a recipe?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Tempeh Stuffed Cabbage at Maine Food & Lifestyle

Looking for a St. Patrick's Day dinner? Get my recipe for Tempeh Stuffed Cabbage at Maine Food & Lifestyle. It's great with mashed potatoes!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Salted Peanut Brittle

I married someone who loves candy but couldn't care less about pastries. (I know! What is wrong with him?!) Peanut brittle is one of his favorites, so I make it when I feel like being extra nice. I've adapted a Mrs. Fields recipe for Macadamia Nut Brittle, using vegan ingredients and a little peanut butter. It's a sugary splurge for sure, to be consumed in moderation. Salted peanuts make all the difference here: this sweet-and-salty peanut brittle is downright addictive.

Salted Peanut Brittle
Adapted from Mrs. Fields Cookie Book

1 cup salted peanuts
6 ounces non-hydrogenated vegan margarine (I used Earth Balance)
1 cup granulated sugar
¼ cup water
1½ tablespoons natural peanut butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon baking soda

Grease the bottom of a 9x13-inch baking dish or a cookie sheet with edges, and spread peanuts in a single layer.

Stir margarine, sugar, water, and peanut butter over medium heat until sugar crystals melt. Raise heat to medium-high. Monitor mixture, stirring occasionally, until it begins to darken. (If you have a candy thermometer, heat until mixture reaches 250°F.)

Remove from heat and stir in vanilla and baking soda. Immediately pour over peanuts and spread with the back of a spoon.

As peanut brittle cools, it will be sticky and chewy (not brittle). Allow it to sit for at least 3 hours, until firm enough that you can easily free it from the cookie sheet and break it into pieces. Store in an airtight container.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Review: SodaStream Penguin

I don't usually review kitchen tools because I don't want this blog to read like a glorified Williams-Sonoma catalog, but the Sodastream Penguin is worth sharing. We used to buy sparkling water in bulk. (One member of our household, who shall remain nameless, is a recovering soda fiend. As methadone is to heroin, sparkling water is to Diet Coke.) With all the money we're not spending on Pellegrino and Poland Spring, the Penguin, a countertop gadget that carbonates tap water in seconds, paid for itself in less than 6 months.

The Penguin is easy to use: you just fill a reusable, dishwasher-safe glass carafe with cold water, drop it in, and press the beak-like lever a half dozen times. No clean-up and no electricity, and best of all, no plastic bottles to dispose of. The only upkeep is exchanging empty CO2 cylinders every 110 liters, using prepaid UPS shipping boxes.

SodaStream offers soda concentrates in flavors like classic cola, root beer, and diet pink grapefruit, but I'm enjoying sparkling water mixed with last summer's Sunshine Rhubarb Juice and Strawberry Lemonade. I'll take the occasional homemade sugary beverage over diet sodas full of mystery dyes and sweeteners. Sometimes I jazz up plain sparkling water with fruit instead. Blueberries look elegant in the bottom of a martini glass:

If you're a fan of bubbles, or are trying to cut back on soda, the Penguin is fun, convenient, and will save you money in the long run. See the SodaStream website for photos and videos of the Penguin and other seltzer-making gadgets.


A word about product reviews:

Occasionally I receive invitations to try products free of charge and review them on my blog. So far, I've yet to take any companies up on these offers, because I didn't feel the products were a good fit. They were either:

1. not vegan,
2. not gluten-free, or
3. not something I could imagine using in real life.

So far, all reviews have been unsolicited and products have been purchased with My Own Money. I'd love it if some Lärabars and a Tofu Xpress came pouring in free of charge, but no such luck so far. If, in the future, I do review a product I've received for free, I'll let you know, for I am a pillar of integrity.


Monday, March 8, 2010

Scarves No; Cowls Yes

Like most beginning knitters, I made a lot of scarves while I was learning the basics. Back and forth, row after row, I'd get out my tape measure after only two feet to see how much was left to go. I like wearing scarves, but knitting them got old fast. I've become a fan of the cowl, a more entertaining solution for cold necks. I love knitting in the round; I can really get on a tear when I don't have to turn my work at the end of each row.

The pattern for this Crofter's Cowl is available for free on Ravelry. Instead of working two halves in the horseshoe lace pattern and grafting them together, I knit six pattern repeats and called it a day; all my horseshoes point in the same direction, and there was no pesky sewing.

I am not overstating things when I say I am in love with this cowl. I can't stop looking at it. I can't stop wearing it, even inside the house. It's so soft and so purple I almost want to eat it.

Whence comes the inspiration for this lovely and practical Crofter's Cowl? According to the Scottish Crofting Federation, a crofter is a tenant farmer in the Scottish Highlands. I like to imagine hearty crofting matriarchs sitting before a peat fire, knitting up wee lacy cowls for the men out working the soggy hillsides. Spring in Maine can be like the Scottish Highlands—relentlessly windy and damp—but a flash of purple keeps my chin warm and my spirits up.

It doesn't get any better than this.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Maple Syrup Needs Pancakes

It seems our wet, brown, snowless winter is already over (unlike the mid-Atlantic, we've had nary a flake since December). Temperatures reach the 40s most days, our yards are turning to mud, and the sap is beginning to run. The spring melt means that Maine Maple Sunday is approaching, so I've been making pancakes.

There are lots of recipes for vegan pancakes, and lots of recipes for gluten-free pancakes, but gluten-free vegan pancakes? Not many. I am a goddang trailblazer.

The talented and meticulous a-k of Swell Vegan posted Gluten-free Gingerbread Buckwheat Pancakes in December. I played with buckwheat pancake recipes for awhile, but they felt and tasted like pulverized cardboard. I want to like buckwheat, but maybe it's an acquired taste I'll have to work toward. I decided instead to strive for soft, fluffy, nutritionally void diner-style flapjacks, the kind that soak up syrup like sponges and disintegrate in your mouth, washing all your cells in glucose almost the instant they hit your tongue.

After much consideration of protein, starch, and fiber, I had the most success with this recipe, described by the original poster as "not bad." Replacing the eggs, milk, and melted butter with vegan alternatives was easy. I was skeptical of using rice and almond flour, which tend to be grainy, but the resulting pancakes were smooth and fluffy with a golden nutty flavor. The flax seed provides plenty of binding, so even without xanthan or guar gum, these pancakes hold up well in a maple syrup bath.

Fluffy Gluten-Free Vegan Pancakes

2 tablespoons ground flax seed
6 tablespoons water
1 cup rice flour (brown, white, or a mix of both)

1/2 cup potato starch

1/2 cup almond flour

3 teaspoons granulated sugar

3 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt
dash of nutmeg (optional)

1 cup soy or rice milk

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/3 cup wild blueberries (optional)

Whisk flax seed and water together in a small bowl. Set aside for 10 minutes; mixture will thicken.

Heat a skillet over medium heat. Mix dry ingredients—rice flour, potato starch, almond flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg—in a medium bowl. In a small bowl, mix wet ingredients—soy milk, oil, vanilla, and flax mixture. Add wet ingredients to dry and whisk until just combined.

Spray or lightly coat skillet with oil. Pour batter onto skillet 1/4 cup at a time. Sprinkle a tablespoon of blueberries on top of each pancake if desired. Flip when bubbles form on top of pancakes and edges look dry. Cook an additional 1-2 minutes, until undersides are browned.

Yields 8 4-inch pancakes

Monday, March 1, 2010

How to Pack a Tiffin

Nothing brightens a dreary workday like a thoughtfully packed lunch. If I've got something delicious or unusual waiting in the fridge, the whole morning seems special. Unfortunately, few people treat themselves to a healthy, exciting, substantial midday meal. (Teachers must be the worst—if they get a lunch break at all, they spend it making copies and responding to email, and inhale a yogurt as the kids come in from recess.) Packing lunch is a simple chore, but taking a few moments to enjoy something flavorful, colorful, and fun will replenish your energy and make you feel human again, no matter how wild your morning.

I recently purchased a 3-tier tiffin from To-Go Ware. Unbuckling and unstacking the metal layers is a sensory event, a visual and tactile experience superior to popping open a tupperware or plastic bag. Having several small, compact containers allows me to enjoy a variety of flavors, textures, and colors.

Though I pack my tiffins slightly differently each day (I need variety), my general guidelines are as follows:

•Bottom layer: bean and/or grain salad, usually the protein source and heaviest part of the meal
•Middle layer: raw fruit or veggies
•Top layer: dip (in the 2-ounce sidekick container), nuts, some kind of sweet

There are endless possibilities, so this setup never gets old.

Chickpea salad on quinoa, celery sticks, clementines, and homemade cinnamon-almond butter.

Since metal tiffins can't be microwaved, I pack foods that can be eaten cold or at room temperature. This tangy Italian-inspired chickpea salad comes together in five minutes, and it packs a lot of protein and flavor. When I'm out of chickpeas, I use lentils and it's just as tasty.

Quickpea Chickpea Salad

2 cups cooked (or canned) chickpeas
2 tablespoons dijon mustard
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 medium tomato, chopped
1 small carrot, grated
chopped herbs, dried or fresh (basil and parsley are nice)
freshly ground black pepper (lots)

Toss all ingredients in a bowl. Taste and adjust flavors. Serve over cooked grains (try quinoa for added protein) or salad greens. Serves 2.

Tiffins' fun to cost ratio is out of this world, and I suggest you treat yourself to a set, but even if you're working with tupperware and brown bags, pack something that brings you energy and joy.

What are your favorite packed-lunch foods?