Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Florence - here I come

One of the perks of living in Europe is that Tuscany is just around the corner. Well, not exactly, but close enough for a weekend trip. Thursday is a holiday and we took Friday off and booked a get-away weekend in Florence. I can hardly wait for tomorrow morning. Ever since my first school trip to Italy I have been a fan of this country. Well, the school trip then was more about drinking and who goes with whom, but still, the country's charm got me.

Then last winter my then-boyfriend "kidnapped" me and took me on a surprise trip to Rome where he proposed to me. Hmmmm, romantic - and one more reason to love Italy.

And now Florence. They say it has the most cultural treasures of all of Italy. I've googled a bit and read that they also have nice rich vegetable stews such as pappa pomodoro and ribollita. And as I've noticed last year in Rome, in Italy pizzas are not necessarily drowned in cheese. It was totally normal ordering pizza without cheese in restaurants, every street vendor had some. And all those yummy grilled antipasti veggies... Coming from Germany, Italy is vegan heaven.

And the weather is supposed to be really nice for the weekend - I'm excited as a six year old on Christmas Eve :-)

To end with a recipe I'll present you with one of my favorite soups: green split pea soup. Easy as pea pie :-) To get me into this Italy mood we had it with fresh oregano and some extra virgin olive oil drizzled over it.

1/2 cup split green peas
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 small piece of ginger, minced
1 carrot, grated
bouillon cubes
3 potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 large leek, sliced
handful of dried tomatoes, sliced
the best extra virgin olive oil you can afford
some fresh oregano

Place the peas in a large pot together with the onion, the garlic, the ginger and carrot, cover with plenty of water, bring to a boil and cook until tender - 30 min to 1 hour (or longer, depending on the water in your area) Soaking the peas for a couple of hours before cooking will considerably speed things up. Do not add any salt to the water or the peas will take forever.

Once the peas are tender add bouillon cubes to taste (depending on how much water you've used), the potatoes, the dried tomatoes and the leek. Cook until the potatoes are tender - 10-20 minutes. By now the peas should have totally disintegrated, making for a nice, rich, creamy, hearty, stew-like consistency. Serve with fresh oregano and some olive oil drizzled over it. For complete protein serve with a slice of toasted sour-dough bread (or regular bread, we had it with sour-dough - the usual bread in Germany).

Without the olive oil this is a naturally fat-free dish.

And with this I'm off to Florence :-)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Mochi Tsuki - Making Mochi

After my last post some people asked about making mochi yourself. Around New Years, many Japanese make mochi at home and enjoy this in a party-like atmosphere, much like at a barbeque. Mochi making is usually done in winter when the new rice is just in. Mochi are a very warming, strengthening food. After all, one large mochi is the equivalent of one bowl of rice. It is a light yet high-cal food, good for staying warm in the un-inunsulated Japanese houses in winter and a good light food for sick people.

Mochi can be eaten stuffed with anko, a paste from adzuki beans. Or they are dusted with roasted soy flour, which gives them a great nutty flavor, and then dipped in a mixture of soysauce, water, and sugar. This was my favorite way to eat them. Or you can roast them, or really dry them and then roast them in the oven, they will pop and triple in size. Lastly, you can add them to soups, zoni is a traditinoal New Year's soup.

I remember a mochi-making party: It was a beautiful day in early January, sunny and almost warm, and we were all outside at work having a mochi tsuki party. Unfortunately I hadn't brought my camera to work that day. But could I ever make mochi again myself? Watch the video:

You will understand that I prefer resorting to shop-bought mochi now or doing without :-)

I couldn't resist pasting another video, mochi making during Sakura Matsuri - the cherry blossom festival. Pretty cool, here the rice is pounded to the rhythm of taiko drums. Ooooooh, makes me homesick for Japan (even though the video was apprently shot in San Fancisco) :-)

Monday, April 21, 2008

Ichigo Mochi - Strawberry Ricecakes

Ichigo mochi (or, more properly called ichigo daifuku) were my favorite treat when I was living in Japan. Even though... thinking about it I guess my favorite treat were daigaku imo - fried candied sweet potatoes, caramelized with sugar and a splash of soy sauce and sprinkled with sesame seeds. But anyway, ichigo mochi were my favorite spring treat. Mochi, small dumplings made of pounded sticky rice and filled with anko, a paste of sweet red adzuki beans, are a year-round favorite treat in Japan, even though mochi are most popular in winter around new year's. In January, I started seeing mochi stuffed with strawberries from Okinawa (which is so far south that strawberries start ripening there when the rest of Japan ist still cold and wintery).

I purchased my very first ichigo mochi and fell in love with it. The tender consistency of the mochi, the anko's subtle sweetness and the fragrance, aroma, sweetness, and juicyness of the strawberry was better than anything I had ever had before. I spend tons of yen on ichigo mochi in spring.

Back in Germany I had no way of getting mochi. Until the other day, that is. I was in Berlin and on my way back in the train station I came across a sushi place that offered mochi. Oh joy! I grabbed a pack and when I was home I stuffed it with strawberries and dug in. Very un-ladylike and very un-Japanese. If you've ever had these gems you will understand :-)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Vegan Fajitas

What can one say about fajitas? Not much. Everybody loves them, so without further ado I'll present you with the recipe. Quick, simple, and very satisfying. The fried tofu stripes convince even die-hard steak lovers.

Vegan Fajitas

2 large onions
1 yellow and 1 red bell pepper
avocado (or guacamole, I prefer the whole fruit)
1 small can of red kidney beans
1 pack firm tofu
soft tortillas

Spray a non-stick skillet with olive oil, heat over medium, add the onions. Fry for a minute or so, add three tablespoons of water, cover. Stirr frequently. If the oniosn start sticking to the pan, add more water. Cook until tender and caramelized. The trick is to have the heat relatively low so the onions don't crisp up but really caramelize, which will take thm around 20 minutes.

Cut the bell peppers into stripes and cook as described above for the onions.

Heat the beans with some water in a small sauce pan. Mash with a fork, add more water if needed. Season with garlic, ginger, salt, pepper, and hot stuff if desired (tabasco, chili...)

Cut the tofu into stripes. Heat 2 tblsp olive oil in a non-stick skillet over high heat. Add the tofu stripes and fry on both sides until they are golden brown and a nice crunhy crust has formed. Add more oil if needed. Add a very generous splash of soy sauce and immediately pull the skillet away from the heat. Shake the skillet so the tofu stripes are covered evenly with the soy sauce. The soy sauce will instantaneously start boiling and spluttering, covering the tofu stripes in a tasty, salty sauce.

Arrange everything nicely on a plate. Build your fajitas and enjoy :-)

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Easter Bread

Originally this was supposed to be an Easter bread. But then I didn't find time to bake during the Easter holidays, nor the week after that. We went to see our parents on Easter and it actually snowed on Easter Sunday!!! And last week I was busy with essays and project work for business school. I finally got around to making my favorite bread yesterday, so I just labelled it spring bread. It turned out like it wanted to make up for everything that has gone wrong lately: perfectly soft inside, perfect soft crust, and the aroma of almonds and raisins that have plumped up in Jamaica rum.

Easter Bread
makes a huge loaf, half the recipe if desired

1 cube fresh active yeast (40g, ca. 1.5 oz)
3 c all-purpose flour
3/4 c WW flour
1/4 c sugar
1/2 cup vegan margerine, melted, tepid
1 1/2 c non-diary milk, tepid
1/2 cup almonds, chopped
1/2 cup raisins plumped up in 1/2 cup rum, rinsed with water to get rid of excess rum on surface

Warm approx 1/2 cup of the milk until handwarm. Sift the flour into a large bowl, and make a "puddle" in the middle. Pour the warm milk into this puddle and add a tblsp sugar and the yeast, breaking it into small chunks. Now stir in very little of the flour surrounding the puddle until it forms a soft dough with the yeast and the milk.

Dust some flour over it and let rest in a warm place until the starter dough starts bubbling and rising. Depending on how warm it is in your kitchen this will take anywhere from 10-30 minutes. I'm using A LOT of yeast for this bread because I enjoy the intensive yeast taste in baked goods. You can also make this bread with half the yeast or even less.

Melt the margerine and let cool again to tepid, warm the remaining milk to tepid, and add the liquids together with the remaining ingredients to the bowl. Knead until everything comes together in a soft dough. I am still using the mixer/kneader I inherited from my grandma. Must be from the sixties or something like that.

If after 10 minutes of kneading it is still too sticky knead in some extra flour. You don't want to use too much, though, the softer the dough now the better the results later. Let rest in a warm place until the dough has risen to twice its volume. Preheat the oven to 350F/160°C.

Punch down. Divide the dough into three parts and form thick strands with each. Braid the strands on a piece of parchment paper or a floured surface. Give it a nice wash with some soymilk. I just poured very little into my hand and tried to distribute it nicely on the surface without making a huge mess (I did make a huge mess though, but the results totally justify it :-)).

Transfer the lot onto a baking sheed and into your oven. Bake for 30-40 minutes, enjoying the sweet aroma that will fill your kitchen. Total baking time will depend on your oven and on how big your loaf is. Mine was HUGE, smaller loaves might be done quicker.

Let cool and either break off chunks and dip into coffee/tea or slice it nicely and enjoy with margerine and homemade jam. Hmmmm, Easter has just begun for me :-)

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Some whining, some anatomy, and some Veganomicon

There are times when eating only fulfills the purpose of transporting me from the state of "hungry" to the state of "not hungry". Now is one of these times... Things have been a little sub-perfect here lately.

As I've mentioned before I'm doing my MBA this year. And I don't know why it has to be this year, but of all years this is the year when all goes wrong. So we had planned that I do my MBA. We had wanted to get married anyway so we scheduled it for August 2007 before business school started in September. Everything could have been perfect except that I ran and feel down some stairs and broke my food two weeks before our wedding (Note to self: never never never run down stairs again). Talk about horror. So we cancelled the wedding, and I started business school on crutches. Wonderful.

After the plaster came down and I slowly learned walking again, walking wasn't a pleasure at first. I resorted to my trusted friend - my bike. Nine weeks after I fell down those stairs I was riding my bike at high speed when I got caught in tram tracks on the street and the dream of flying came true for me - I was catapulted 20 feet across the street and landed on my wrist (should have remembered that judo class... never never never fall on your wrist).

The pain was intense but I didn't give it much thought - after all this had been one hard fall and my hand was supposed to hurt. But then I woke up at night and wanted to cry my wrist hurt so much. We went to the emergency room where I was treated by a doctor who didn't care about what I told him where it hurt but who told me where it was supposed to hurt according to the X-ray. Well, try arguing with a doctor!

After some weeks of further fruitless treatment at that clinic I went to a different doctor. It took me a few weeks to get that appointment, and the new doctor immediately referred me to a hand surgeon. Another 8 weeks waiting time for an appointment, which I finally had last week.

Let me tell you, it feels so good to finally be taken seriously. Only, things don't look too good for my wrist. Luckily there are definitely no bones broken but apparently two very important ligaments are ruptured. I have a surgery scheduled for May 8, and will have my arm in plaster for at least 6 weeks.

Um, have I mentioned it is my right wrist? That's where business school comes into play again. Great. The one year I take out a huge loan to pay heaps of tuition I screw up my wrist and can't write for half the time - no notes, no written exams... Wonderful. I've started talking to my professors and the ones I've talked to so far were really helpful and will find ways to assess me without written exams.

Still, this diagnosis has somewhat depressed me. It felt good to finally have a diagnosis and not be told over and over again that I only imagine the pain and that I should stop whining. On the other hand - the doctors are not certain the surgery will be successful. They say if things don't turn out the way they want them to turn out, they may have to shorten my ulna bone to take away some pressure from the torn ligaments. Hey, sure, I'd love to have them cut open my arm and chisel and saw away at my bones... This would mean weeks and weeks pf plaster again, just when I wanted to start looking for a nice job with my new and shiny MBA degree. Oh perfect!

So that's why things have been a bit silent at this blog lately. Please bear with me, there will be happier posts about happy food again. For one, a supermarket nearby has started carrying vegan ice cream. Pure bliss :-).

And, to end on a happier note: I have very successfully tried Veganomicons "Acorn squash, pear, and adzuki soup with sautéed shiitake mushrooms". If you haven't tried this soup yet you don't know what you are missing. On a scale from one to ten, this was a clear eleven. Yum!

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Butternut Bounty Contest - the Round-Up

Let me start by apologizing for making you wait for so long for this round-up. Since you are probably not interested in hearing all my excuses about stress and work and so on let's get straight down to the purpose of this post:

When I first asked people for their favorite way to prepare butternut squash the majority advised me to just roast it. Apparently the simple things in live are sometimes the best! But then I did get some real recipes and therefore I am excited to present to you a proper round-up of this very first Bounty Contest:

"Butternut Squash. Who doesn't love this veg? It is dynamite in flavour and its versatility is much appreciated by this little vegan", writes VeganCowGirl and submitted two recipes that make me drool when I read them:

Sweet Squash Puff Packets: squash, apples, and sweet potatoes wrapped in puff pastry and baked until golden and flakey. I must admit that I find the combination of squash with apples intriguing and puff pastry is absolutely irressistible anyways. VeganCowGirl writes she had never worked with puff pastry before, so it was an exercise in discovery-cooking. Judging from the photos it was a successful experiment!

Next up are her Squash Sushi. Sushi, well, of course. Vinegared rice, tasty crunchy nori and tender squash - that must be one divine combo. I love sushi and was glad to discover that vegans can still enjoy it, with veggies. I had never thought of making it with butternut so this is a great idea.

Jennifer of Veg*n Cooking and other Random Musings sent me an email with her favorite ways to prepare butternut: "I tend to go a different way with things than most people. My favorite way to have butternut squash is in Mexican food." She submitted a recipe for "Spicy anasazi bean and quinoa stuffed roasted acorn squash". Quinoa is one of my recent favorite discoveries and the spices she uses do sound enticing.

The second recipe she suggested was "Vegan veggie enchiladas". Another great idea, and so simple when I think about it. Enchiladas rock! I must try them with butternut squash. Do contact Jennifer and request the recipes - they sound amazingly delicious!

And lastely Stonie of Dr. Stonielove's Bewildered Beast provided proof that, yes, it is possible to make squash gnocchi that do not fall apart when cooking. She submitted a mouthwatering recipe for Butternut squash gnocchi - with chili pepper for extra pizzazz - and an even more mouthwatering photo. Man, Stonie, you are a genius - photo and cooking-wise.

So, a total of five recipes that make me want to start cooking right away. Five recipes, each different and creative, each sounds delicious. I should not have labelled this a contest because now I have to single one out and proclaim it the winner. Believe me, this is hard and all of you are my winners.

So (drum-roll) after some deliberation with the co-host (my husband) we decided that the crown in this Bounty Contest goes to (more drum-roll) VeganCowGirl for the Sweet Squash Puff Packets. I had promised you a surprise prize but I didn't specify one before since I wanted to tailor it a bit to the winner. Since Vegan Cow Girl lives practically around the corner (Belgium) I decided that my favorite vegan fair-trade, 70%-cocoa chocolate is going to survive the trip across the border. Congratulations to VeganCowGirl and thank you to all of you for participating and making the bounty on our table even more delicious thanks to your great recipes.

Edit: O blush, o shame... There was another entry I just discovered, in the comments section of the original post. Vinelady of Cooking Aboard submitted this amazing, mouthwatering Thai Squash Soup, a soup she cooked aboard a sailboat! A beautiful dish with my favorite Thai flavors: coconut milk, curry paste, and lemon grass. I love Thai food so this competition might have taken a totally different direction had I not missed this great entry. Go and check out this great soup. I deeply apologize to Vinelady for not including her. I feel so bad I'm giving out another prize which Vinelady totally deserves: more of my favorite vegan, organic, fair-trade, 70%-cocoa chocolate. Congrats!