Thursday, May 30, 2013

Homemade Gnocchi with Butternut Squash and Tomato Sauce

I've always been a bit intimidated by gnocchi. Everyone who knows anything says that gnocchi has to be light and cloudlike. If you don't get the technique just right, they say, you end up with unpleasant, leaden little nodules. The first time I attempted it, I made the dough very stark and simple: flour and potatoes. That was it. Most gnocchi recipes include at least one egg, in order to bind it. This drier dough held together just enough that I thought it would work. It didn't. Each gnocchi came apart the second it hit the hot water. I was so concerned with making it light that I made it too light.

This time around, the results were much better. There's egg replacer (Ener-G brand) and a bit of non-dairy milk to bind it all together. The real secret is in the main two ingredients. Be sure to use the starchy russets, not any of the fancier varieties of potatoes. I bake them a little after they boil in order to get the moisture out. They need to be really dry in order to work, so don't skip this step. Also, go easy on the extra flour. Too much will weigh your gnocchi down.

There's one tool that you might not have that you really need for this: the potato ricer. You don't want to use a potato masher for this because you'll get a gummy, overworked dough in the end. You don't need a special kind of ricer or even a top-of-the-line one, so if you can spare the 10 bucks at Target (or wherever), definitely pick one up. You can also use a ricer to make the fluffiest mashed potatoes you've ever had in your life, so they're useful beyond just making gnocchi.

This is a kid-friendly recipe and a fun one for little helpers, especially pressing the potatoes through the ricer (Play Dough Factory, anyone?) and making the dough into gnocchi.


For the gnocchi:
3 medium russet potatoes, peeled and quartered
2 tbsp egg replacer, whisked with 1/4 cup warm water
2 tbsp almond or soy milk
1 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp nutmeg
2 1/4 cups unbleached flour, plus more for dusting

For the sauce*:
2 cups of butternut squash, cubed
1/2 of a red onion, chopped
1 6 oz. can of tomato paste
2 tblsp olive oil
1/2 jalapeno pepper, seeded and diced (optional)

 *The classic accompaniment for gnocchi is brown butter and sage. To make that instead, melt 6 tablespoons of Earth Balance over medium heat. Add to that about 10 fresh sage leaves, rolled and sliced very thinly. Keep the butter and sage going on the heat until it starts to brown. Add 2 tsp lemon juice and remove the pan from the heat. Add the gnocchi and toss and return the pan to the heat until it's all well coated.

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.

Make the gnocchi: Put the potatoes into a big pot of water and bring it to a boil. Simmer the potatoes until they're soft, then drain them in a colander. Line a sheet pan with foil and place the drained potatoes on it. Put them into the oven for five minutes to remove any residual moisture.

Once the potatoes are cool enough to handle, push them through a potato ricer. They'll come out in soft threads like this:

In a bowl, combine the potatoes with the egg replacer mixture, milk, salt and nutmeg. Add the flour and mix with a wooden spoon until a dough forms. Add more flour, a tablespoon at a time, until you get a dough you can work with. Be careful not to add too much or to overwork it. You want it to just come together.

Turn the dough out onto a floured work space and use a knife or pastry cutter to divide it into six sections. Take each section and roll it against the counter into a long, thin rope. Take your cutter or knife and cut 1/2 inch segments off:

I'll make a confession now: I forgot to do what is, aesthetically, the most important part of making gnocchi: the fork grooves. I know, I know. We had a bit of a doggie emergency come up at this point in the process and I had to stop for a bit. When I got back to it, I was thinking more about getting done than with spending the time to do the fork grooves. Honestly, it's an optional thing. Sure, it makes the gnocchi feel more authentic, but it's not the end of the world if you skip it (the dog is fine, by the way). The fork step is fun if you've got kids helping you make this, so by all means do it if that's the case.

The fork method is really simple. Hold the fork like you would if you were going to eat with it. Take the gnocchi and set it on the fork, then press lightly down and roll it off the fork. You can also just leave them on the counter and press and roll the fork on them that way.

Fill your water pot back up and bring it to a boil. Start dropping the gnocchi into the water in groups. You don't want to crowd the pot, so don't do them all at the same time. Give them a quick stir to make sure they aren't stuck together and leave them alone. After about 3 minutes, they'll start floating to the top. That's when you know they're done. Don't pull them out until they float or they'll be too doughy.

You can put the finished gnocchi back on that sheet pan you used to dry out the potatoes. Just spray it with some cooking spray so they don't stick. Don't put them back into the oven, though.

Make the sauce: Heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the squash cubes and spread them out in a single layer.

Unlike just about everything else you cook like this, do not stir these around. We're looking for a caramelization on at least one side of the squash. Put them on the heat and cover them and leave them for at least five minutes. It'll be hard, but resist the urge to stir!

Once you have some browning going on, add your onion to the pan. If you're using the jalapeno, add it as well. Now it's okay to stir it around. Cover it and cook for another 2-3 minutes until the onion is soft. Add the whole can of tomato paste and stir it around. It'll be very tight and won't look like a sauce at all.

Once it's softened up a bit, add a ladle of pasta water and stir it around. Cover and let it simmer for a bit. The water will be absorbed and sauce will not be quite so dry, but it still won't be quite there. Add another couple of ladles of water, one at a time. After the third, you should have a proper sauce.

You can add anything to this at this point. I like my sauces simple, so I just threw some oregano in and some salt and pepper to taste. Once you're happy with the sauce, add your gnocchi and give it a toss. At this point, it's ready to serve.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Okra and Potato Hash with Rosemary

Okra is one of those seasonal veggies that seems to be here and gone in the blink of an eye. It's also one that most people are only familiar with as a breaded, deep-fried nubbin. In fact, Doug saw me chopping them and said, "So that's what okra looks like!" I'd originally intended to make this with brussels sprouts, but saw these at the store and couldn't resist the idea of preparing okra in a way I've never tried before. It may look weird, it may be a bit slimy when you open it up, but okra is delicious and easy to work with.

This recipe is really simple, as any hash should be. These three ingredients are the stars of the show:

Peanut oil (obviously, if you have allergies, you'll want to go with something like olive oil. But if you can do it, peanut oil is the way to go. It adds a flavor that no other oil can.)
2 cups of sliced okra, ends removed, sliced 3/8 of an inch thick (this was about 1.5 pounds of whole okra)
2 cups of yukon gold potatoes, diced small
2 tsp garlic, minced
1 tsp chopped fresh rosemary (or whatever you have on hand. Fresh basil would be great in this.)

Put enough oil in the skillet to cover the bottom and then some. Heat it up over medium-high heat and drop in your okra. You want a saute pan or skillet that's big enough so that all your okra fits in a single layer. Season with a little salt and pepper and let it saute for a while. You want one side to brown nicely, so don't stir it too often until that happens.

Once the okra's browned on at least one side, add the potatoes and stir it all around so that the okra and potatoes are nicely mixed together. If the pan is dry, add a little more oil. The okra and potatoes will soak up the oil. Season with a little more salt and pepper.

Cook the potatoes with the okra, stirring them to keep them from burning or sticking. Once they're browned a little and cooked through, stir in the garlic. Keep it cooking for a bit until you smell the garlic in the pan. Add the rosemary and toss it all together. Taste it for seasoning and cook for another minute or two. Plate the okra and potatoes and serve immediately.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Tempeh Tacos with Grilled Guacamole

Whenever I think of tacos (or any other Mexican dishes), I always hear Jim Gaffigan's voice in my head. He has a bit where he talks about what it must be like being a waiter at a Mexican restaurant in Indiana, with clueless old people asking "what is a taco?" and "what's a burrito?" and "what's a toe-stah-dah?" and getting the same answer every time: "It's a tortilla with cheese, meat or vegetables." Growing up in rural Missouri, I always thought that was exactly what Mexican food was. I loved it, but they seemed to be scamming us by renaming the same dish over and over again.

Of course, a place like Chi-Chi's isn't real Mexican food. And the tacos my mom would make out of a box and a packet of powder weren't, either. At some point, I realized that and have really enjoyed putting just about anything into a tortilla and calling it a taco. Some restaurants get it right (if you're a non-vegan and in Ballard, Oaxaca is a must), but most get it wrong in the exact same way.

These tacos are just one of the types I've started making since going veg. They're very easy to throw together and have a really great flavor. The nutty earthiness of tempeh works really well with the flavors in the sauce. Grilling the avocados and onion before putting them into the guacamole competely alters the flavor in a way liquid smoke or a smoky seasoning simply can't. You can also just cut up or mash up some avocado and throw that on if you don't have time to make the whole thing. The finished product is pretty simple and stripped down, but you can add or subtract veggies or other toppings until your heart's content.

For the tacos:
1 1/2 cups veggie broth
2 tbsp tamari (or soy sauce)
2 tbsp tomato paste
2 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp cumin
2 tbsp olive oil, divided
1 8-ounce package of tempeh, diced into 1/2 inch pieces
1/2 bunch of cilantro, leaves torn from stems
1 cup of vegan mozzarella cheese
Good corn tortillas

For the guacamole:
2 avocados
1 medium white onion
1 roma tomato, diced
2 tsp lime juice
1/2 tsp cumin
Pinch of sea salt
Fresh ground pepper
A little chopped jalapeno, to taste

Wrap your tortillas in foil and put them in a 200 degree oven.

Prepare the tempeh: Heat a  tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Drop the tempeh in and let it brown on one side before flipping it over (about 5 minutes per side). This adds some flavor but also takes away the bitterness that raw tempeh has. Any time you cook with tempeh, do this first. It will make a world of positive difference in your tempeh experience (I usually steam it for about 10 mintues before using it in stir fry dishes). Meanwhile, combine the broth, tamari, tomatoe paste, smoke paprika, cumin and the other tablespoon of oil and whisk it all together.

Once you've browned the tempeh, pour the sauce into the pan and turn up the heat. Put the lid on and let it come to a boil for about 3 minutes or so. Remove the lid and turn the pan down to a simmer, stirring occasionally. After about 5 minutes, the sauce will thicken and reduce as it simmers and it'll all end up looking like this:

Prepare the grilled guacamole: Heat your grill (or a grill pan) to a medium-high heat. Slice the avocado and the onion in half, remove the seed from the avocado and brush all the halves with some oil. Put them on the grill, cover them and let them hang out for a few minutes. Once they're all good and charred, dice the onion (it'll be a little slippery) and scoop out the avocado flesh. Add everything else and stir it around until it's creamy. If you need to add more lime to get it there, go for it.

Spread or spoon the guacamole onto the tortillas and put the tempeh, cheese and cilanro on top. There you have it: cheese, meat or vegetables, vegan style.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Mushroom Lasagna

Everyone has a go-to recipe (or twelve). You know, the kind you get to know like the back of your hand and can usually prepare without consulting a cookbook or recipe. I'm usually tinkering with it, substituting and customizing it and making it my own. When it comes to lasagna, my go-to has long been Ina Garten's recipe.  It's a delicious white lasagna. The difference with this one, though, is that I never had to change a thing. It needed no tweaking or additions or substitutions. It's perfect as-is. It's a simple recipe, which is why it's so good. The bechamel is rich and tangy and a perfect complement to the mushrooms and cheese. It's also chock full of non-vegan dairy ingredients. It became my mission to figure out how to make a vegan version of it.

Luckily, vegan cookbook author Dynise Balcavage seems to have faced the same challenge. Her bechamel is about as close as you can possibly get to Ina Garten's. Like Ina's, her recipe is simple, straightforward and delicious.

Based on recipes from Ina Garten and Dynise Balcavage.

3/4 lb. lasagna noodles
1 1/2 lbs. brown crimini mushrooms, sliced
2 cups vegan mozzarella cheese, shredded (Follow Your Heart or Daiya is best)
2 tbsp Earth Balance vegan butter
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

For the sauce:
6 tbsp Earth Balance butter
3 tbsp flour
1/2 cup nutritional yeast
3 cups soy or rice milk
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 tsp salt
dash tumeric
freshly ground pepper

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Put a large pot of salted water on high heat. A splash of olive oil will help keep your noodles from sticking together once they're drained, so add that now. Add the noodles and cook about 10 minutes (or about a minute or so if you're using a fresh pasta). Drain and set aside.

Prepare the mushrooms: Heat the olive oil and butter in a large skillet and add the mushrooms. Stir them up well to get them coated. Add a pinch of salt and saute them for about 5 minutes, tossing them frequently to ensure they cook evenly. They should end up looking like this:

Prepare the bechamel: Melt the Earth Balance in a medium saucepan. Whisk in the flour and nutritional yeast to make a roux. Stir it constantly while it browns, for about 5 minutes. It'll be dry and kind of pasty/crumbly:

Slowly whisk in the milk, a bit at a time, until it's smooth. Add the nutmeg, salt, tumeric and garlic and pepper. Bring it to a boil, stirring constantly. Lower the heat and simmer, whisking frequently, until thickened. Once it's thickened, remove it from the heat and set it aside.

Assemble the lasagna: Put a thin layer of sauce in the bottom of a 9x13 baking dish. Top it with noodles, sauce, mushrooms and cheese, then repeat two more times. Put a little more cheese on the top layer. Usually, I end with a layer of noodles on top with cheese on top of that. This time, I dispensed with that last layer of noodles and just piled the cheese on top of that last layer of mushrooms and sauce.

Put it into the oven for about 40-45 minutes, until it's browned a little and the cheese is melted.