Thursday, January 27, 2011

Banh Pho Timbales with Demi-Glace, Bok Choy, Basil, Lime, and Onion

I think this might be my best recipe yet. It came about because I bought a couple of packages of banh pho noodles for $1 each, thinking I'd be able to use them for pad thai. I looked up banh pho, and started thinking that soup sounded really good to me, so I tried to make it from scratch. And failed. My soup was okay, but it was bland and obviously didn't use all the wonderful fresh ingredients to their full advantage. My attempt at pho's complex broth worked out pretty well; I cheated and used some miso to give it some richness, though I made a mushroom broth first with other veggies, onion, garlic, five-spice, etc.

Having all the elements of pho in place, I decided to give them new form (a.k.a. salvage what I could). The wonderful, wonderful result was these pho timbales with a rich demi-glace, bok choy, basil, lime, and white and green onion.

As I've discovered while doing research for this blog, Vietnamese people all over the world take Pho very seriously (click on the link above for pronunciation info and more). While the presentation here is markedly non-traditional, all the flavors are drawn from the classic Vietnamese dish and its many variations (for the people who feel betrayed by the lack of beef and fish sauce, I'm clinging to pho chay). I hope that this comes off as a tribute rather than a desecration, and I would be eager for seasoning corrections from readers. Also, I don't want to share the fate of Rachael Ray, who was lambasted for her "Phunky BBQ Pho with Pork." This was fair, as she used angel hair pasta and called it her dish Thai-inspired.

One unique characteristic of Pho is the use of charred onion and charred fresh ginger to add flavor and color to the broth, a detail I include in my recipe. It is thought that this element may have came in to the dish from French colonials, since the charring method is not found in other Vietnamese soups, and is shared by the French pot-au-feu. I did take a bit of a short cut with Chinese five-spice powder, but you can also use cinnamon, clove, star anise, fennel, and a hot pepper (the five-spice I have uses Szechuan pepper).

For Pho Timbales

Banh Pho noodles (rice noodles), fully cooked
Five-Spice Powder
An oil with an unobtrusive flavor, like grapeseed

In a large bowl, sprinkle noodles with oil, then salt and five-spice. Add the seasonings progressively, mixing well in between additions and tasting. It does take a lot of seasoning because the noodles are such a blank slate, and the flavor will intensify slightly as the noodles cook and lose water. Spray a jumbo muffin tin or set of small custard ramekins with oil, then take handfuls of the noodles and pack them into the tin, making sure that each cavity is full, and tucking any stray noodles back in. Bake for 20-25 minutes at 450, checking for done-ness with a spatula. The sides should easily pull away from the muffin tin; the top should give, but the noodles should not separate as you poke the top. Remove from oven and let them rest while you get the plates ready.

For the Demi-Glace

With a broth, there's a lot of flexibility based on what you have, etc., but here are some basic guidelines.


Mushroom broth, veggie broth, or vegan beef-style broth (They make vegan beef bullion cubes. Who knew?)

Fresh onion and fresh ginger, charred over a gas flame or roasted under a broiler until charred. If you are using the oven, don't have the oven on, just the broiler.
Five-spice powder

If you're making your broth from scratch, the charred onion and ginger will add a great dark golden color to your broth. Don't waste any of that; I would even take some of your broth and swish it around in the pan you roasted them in to get every last bit of caramelized onion. Don't use too much water, though, because you want your flavor to be as intense as possible. Mushrooms make a great addition to a home-made broth.

If you're using a prepared broth, bring it to a simmer and add your charred onion and ginger, five-spice, and whatever you need to adjust the flavor of the broth you're using (onion, mushroom, ginger, garlic, etc.). Watch out for salt, though, as prepared broths are often pretty salty to begin with.

I didn't get to try this, because I couldn't find mine, but I think if you added a little bit of dulse or some other dried seaweed, it might contribute a little bit of the fish-sauce flavor. Also, ume vinegar has the particular kind of saltiness that feels very sea-foody, so I'll try that combo next time.

Once you have the broth done, cook it down slowly to a syrupy consistency, stirring regularly. If you leave it alone for too long and you have some problems with the consistency, add a couple of drops of water and whisk. Traditional beef demi-glaces are cooked for many hours, sometimes even a period of days, with spices and meats added during that time. Taste your sauce as you go, adjusting flavors.

If you are having a lot of trouble getting it to thicken or if you are a naturally impatient person like me, you can add a little arrowroot (only a pinch) to thicken it. As with any time you are using arrowroot or cornstarch to thicken a liquid, take a little bit of the demi-glace out and mix it in a small bowl with the arrowroot, then return that mixture to the larger saucepan and whisk until completely combined.

When your demi-glace is done, cool it completely and transfer it into a plastic squeeze-bottle if you have one, or some other container if you don't, and refrigerate it until you need it. Any extra you have left over will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks.

For the Plate

Thinly-sliced white onion
Bean sprouts (I forgot to include them when I plated the dish for the picture, but you should definitely use them)
Basil, cut chiffonade
Bok choy leaves, whole or sliced to your liking
Mushrooms, whatever kind you like, sauteed in a light oil, like grapeseed (I used portobello because that's what I had, but use what you like. Also, feel free to have them raw, I just can't handle raw mushrooms).
Sliced green onion
A wedge of lime, to be squeezed over the dish when ready to eat

 Arrange a generous amount of white onion on the plate, then place a pho timbale on top. Stack your mushrooms on top of the timbale and drizzle it generously with the demi-glace. Surround it with the bok choy, basil, sprouts, green onion, and a decorative slice of lime. When you're ready to serve, squeeze a slice of lime over the dish.


Vietnamese Pho

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Vegan Pizza Extravaganza in Three Parts: Leonardo, St. Francis, and Mary Shelley

I had an idea recently to take make a vegan version of the classic Neapolitan Pizza Margherita, the pie that started it all. Famously sparse and featuring the best fresh basil, sliced tomato, and fresh mozzarella with only a light layer of sauce, the Margherita requires that great attention be payed to each element. Other than that I have a deeply-ingrained aversion to using tomatoes out of season (the real thing straight off the vine in July ruins you for the beleaguered January import), I am very happy with how this turned out. Behold, my pizza Leonardo, named for Da Vinci, vegetarian and animal lover, who would buy caged birds just to set them free.

The crust is rolled a bit on either side, which looks kind of cute and works well if you have thick- and thin-crust people at your table. My friend Sybil, the contributor of the fantastic pizza dough recipe below, tossed all the crusts in her wonderfully free-form way, and I love the look of an irregularly-shaped pizza. Also, I really cannot express how much better homemade crust is than the pre-made ones you can buy at the store. Really.

In addition to the Margherita/Leonardo, I came up with several other pizza combinations, which I think worked out very well. In keeping with my theme, I named them after vegetarians-in-history as well - St. Francis and Mary Shelley. The roasted fennel and roasted garlic pizza, which features two very Italian ingredients, I named for St. Francis of Assisi, one of the patron saints of Italy as well as of animals and the environment.

As for Mary Shelley, it is often written that she was a vegetarian, though that isn't entirely clear. Her father and later her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, both were, and most importantly, the Creature in her most famous work, Frankenstein, was, saying in the novel, "My food is not that of man; I do not destroy the lamb and kid to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford my sufficient nourishment." At any rate, I think she is a fitting namesake for this complex and sultry pizza with fresh rosemary, mushroom, and scallions.

Sybil's Best-Ever Pizza Dough 
Makes 2 pizza crusts.

2 1/4 c. flour (white bread flour tastes great and rises really well, but you can do any mix you like. Whole wheat flours won't rise quite as much, and this recipe isn't adapted for non-wheat flours)
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. yeast (or 1 packet)

Dissolve 1 Tbsp. yeast in 1/4 c. warm water. Mix and let sit for about 10 minutes, until yeast is frothy. If your yeast doesn't get frothy, it is no longer active, and you need to toss it out and start again. Add yeast mixture to the flour and salt. Add about 2/3 c. of water, enough to moisten and form into a ball. Knead onto a floured surface for a few minutes, until smooth and elastic. Put into a greased bowl and cover with a damp kitchen towel to let it rise for a few hours. After it has risen, divide dough in two parts. Roll out on a floured surface, then put each crust on a greased pizza pan. Let the dough rise again in the pan for about 30 minutes. Top as desired and bake at 450 for about 15 minutes.

Cashew Ricotta
Makes enough for 2 pizzas.

1 c. whole raw cashews
Lemon juice

Rinse cashews well, then put them in a bowl covered with fresh water. Soak for at least several hours, ideally overnight. Remove from water, place in a blender (my food processor doesn't work nearly as well as the blender), and just  barely cover with water. Begin to blend, starting at a lower speed and working your way up. Blend the cashew cream until it is very smooth. You should not be able to see any particles in it at all. If your blender is ancient like mine, and has some trouble chopping the nuts, it may help to add a little bit of water to make it easier on the poor decrepit machine.

Now, add salt and lemon juice in small increments until you reach the desired flavor. Cashews are sweet, so you need enough lemon to counteract that and make it a little tangy, and enough salt to make it savory. The combination of rich, tangy and savory reads "cheese" in the mouth. As you flavor it, though, keep in mind that you're going to cook it down, which will intensify the flavor, so you don't want to over-do it with the salt or especially the lemon.

In a saucepan over medium heat, cook your cashew cream, stirring consistently to keep it from scorching on the bottom of the pan. If it does burn, you'll be able to taste that in the final product; a little bit of toasty flavor isn't such a bad thing, so don't throw out the batch, but it's best if it tastes more like a fresh mozzarella. Cook it until it holds a a peak well when you swirl it with a spatula, and sticks thickly to your spatula rather than dripping or globbing off.

When you reach the point where it doesn't seem like it's thickening any more, pull it off the heat and let it sit for a couple of minutes. It will thicken a little more as it sits. When you're ready to use it on the pizzas, use a spoon to drop little dollops onto the pizzas. It will brown, so for aesthetic reasons, you may want to poke down any of the taller points so they don't burn.

Pizza sauce

1 large can of crushed tomatoes (base the size on how many pizzas you intend to make and how much sauce you like. You can also make extra and freeze it or use it later on pasta or something)
1-2 Tbsp. tomato paste (maybe less, tomato paste can make the sauce intense pretty quickly)
Any fresh herbs you may be using on the pizzas, particularly fresh basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano
Fresh or roasted garlic
You may want to supplement with your choice of dried herbs, onion or garlic powder, etc.

In a sauce pan, combine tomatoes, tomato paste, herbs, garlic, etc. Cook together on low to med-low heat for as long as possible to blend all the flavors. You can start the sauce just before you pull the rising dough out of the fridge, then it can cook as you knead it and it rises for the second time. Be careful not to make the sauce too strong, because it will lose moisture while it's cooking on the pizza, and if you have more delicately-flavored ingredients like fresh herbs and mushrooms, it can easily overpower them. I had that problem with the Mary Shelley pizza below, and it would have been much better if the sauce had been a little less overbearing. Also, if you have a stick mixer, you could use that if you want a smoother texture, just be careful not to splatter yourself with hot tomato sauce because those will be some ugly burns.

The Leonardo

Fresh basil
Sliced tomato - if out of season, vine-ripened or smaller species like romas have more flavor
Cashew ricotta

Select and rinse either single leaves or sprigs of fresh basil, drying them off well. Slice tomatoes thinly, then lay on a paper towel to dry them a bit. Some pizza fanatics claim that seeding the tomatoes makes the pizza better, but I disagree. The seeds have most of the tomato's acidity, and (particularly if you are working out of season or not with the best-quality, local tomatoes) I think that extra flavor is a good thing.

Why is it so important to buy local tomatoes? Conventional store-bought tomatoes are hybrids created almost solely for shelf life, so they lose most of their flavor, texture, and scent. Local tomatoes, from a farmer's market or produce vendor, aren't traveling hundreds of miles over weeks, so they can be consumed within several days of being picked, making the most valuable quality flavor. Maybe this is obvious to many of you, but I'm from tomato country, so I just thought I'd throw it out there for those who may not be as spoiled as I am.

Back to the pizza: spread a very thin layer of tomato sauce over the crust. Lay tomato slices and basil carefully on the pizza, then add dollops of cashew ricotta in the spaces. Resist the temptation to load it up with toppings, focusing instead on making each element look beautiful. Bake for 15 minutes at 450.

The St. Francis

1 bulb fresh fennel per pizza
1 bulb fresh garlic per pizza
Cashew ricotta

Remove the stems and leaves and wash fennel bulb. Slice in half, then remove what you can of the hard core at the base of the bulb. Cut the fennel into slices about 1/4 inch thick. Lay them in an oiled sheet pan, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast at 450 for 20ish minutes, but keep an eye on them in case your oven runs hotter or cooler than mine.

To roast the garlic, cut off the top portion of the garlic bulb so that the very top part of each garlic clove is sliced off. Obviously you want to keep as much of the garlic as possible, so the idea is just to open up each of the pockets in the bulb so that you can remove the cloves once they are roasted and are much softer than the tough, papery shell. If there are any that weren't opened up by the first cut, like the ones on the outside of the bulb, you can just open them with the tip of your knife

Roast the bulb whole at 475 for about 30 minutes, keeping an eye on it so the top doesn't burn. You can roast it at the same time as the fennel, if you're making them both for the pizza; just do the first 20-25 minutes at 450, then kick it up to 500 for the last little bit, mostly to toast the top. Let it cool a bit before trying to remove the cloves, then be careful not to squish the roasted cloves as you remove them. The papery skin of the garlic is very tough, and if you're having trouble, just use a knife to open it up a bit. I did some damage to mine trying to pinch or tear open the skin of cloves I'd missed when cutting of the top at the beginning.

Spread sauce over pizza crust. Arrange roasted fennel and garlic on pizza and add dollops of cashew ricotta. Bake for 15 minutes at 450.

The Mary Shelley

Mushrooms, cremini or your favorite, cleaned with a dry cloth and sliced
Sliced scallions
Fresh rosemary, washed and with leaves removed from stems
Cashew ricotta

I like these directions: put toppings on pizza, then bake for 15 minutes at 450. Eat. Enjoy!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Crepe Use #1: Mushroom, Potato and Cabbage Blintzes

"Crepes are a bitch." This universally acknowledged fact was thus stated by a friend recently as we tried with mixed success to turn out perfect, golden crepes in her kitchen. Crepes are a bitch, but if you can master them, they will bend over backwards for you. Their flexibility is amazing; you can use them to line cupcake tins and make little custards or tarts, you can serve them with fresh fruit compote and a dusting of maple sugar for breakfast, and you can make wonderful savory, creamy fillings for dinner crepes. You can even layer them with a sweet, nutty filling, press them, and cut them into a cake reminiscent of baklava. I think, however, that blintzes are among the best ways to use the mighty crepe.

The Yiddish word blintz describes a thin pancake (a blini) stuffed with filling and pan-fried into a little packet; the food itself, however, seems to predate Yiddish by quite a while, having its origins in pre-Christian Eastern Europe. Blintzes were championed by American Jewish immigrants, and have since become a part of our national heritage. Traditional blini are often made with a yeasted batter, though the ones below are not. Buckwheat blini are a Russian tradition that I am looking forward to trying out.  My blintzes are served topped with a mushroom gravy, though you could do a million other things - a sour cashew cream would be de-licious. Allison Bradley collaborated on this recipe and provided my opening quote, and Rachel Sharp provided moral support, acted as taster, and did the dishes. Thanks, guys!

Mushroom, Potato, and Cabbage Blintzes

Mushroom Gravy

This can be prepared pretty easily as you make the other parts; the key is keeping the temperature low to moderate so that you don't end up burning it while you work on other things. Once you've got the basics together, give it a stir once in a while and it should be fine. I'm more...impressionistic...when it comes to gravy than with other recipes. I always taste it as I go, adjust seasonings, add more flour or broth or whatever, and I suggest you be prepared to do the same. I think it's really more about method.

1-2 cups cremini or your favorite mushrooms, sliced or chopped, as you prefer
3 cloves fresh garlic
Flour, about 1/4 c.

Veggie broth, at least several cups
Salt, about 1/2 tsp.
Black pepper, about 1/4 tsp.
Sage, about 1/2 tsp. dried
Rosemary, about 1/2 tsp. dried
Thyme, about 1/2 tsp. dried
Any other herbs you like
Earth Balance or your favorite vegan margarine
Coconut, rice, or soy milk, or a little cashew cream (optional - the recipe will still work beautifully without it)

Saute garlic in some Earth Balance, and after it begins to sizzle, sprinkle a little flour over it (sifting would be an ideal method), not more than about 1/2 tsp. at a time. Stir and repeat the process until it begins to create a paste. Add a little veggie broth, along with the dried herbs and a little bit of salt and pepper. Mix them in, then begin to alternate between adding a little flour and a little more broth, stirring and letting your gravy cook a little in between. When you have about 1/2 cup of your herbed paste, mix in a more significant amount of veggie broth and add your mushrooms, bringing the mixture to a simmer. Taste and adjust seasoning, then add flour or broth as needed to adjust for texture. If you like, you can start to use coconut or rice milk (or soy, but I can always taste that almost-vanilla-y flavor and I don't want that in my gravy) instead of more veggie broth.

Blintz Filling

3-4 medium potatoes, cut into 1-2 inch chunks
4 c. cremini or your favorite mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1/2 large head cabbage, sliced into thin strips about 2 inches long (or however you like it)
1 small to medium yellow or white onion (really anything except a red onion), diced
1/2 cup veggie broth (keep a little extra around to use as needed)
Kosher salt
1/2 tsp. grated fresh nutmeg (super-easy to do, just buy the whole nutmeg instead and use a little grater - this is the one I have)
4-5 cloves fresh garlic, finely chopped
Earth Balance
Olive, canola, or other cooking oil

Cut potatoes into chunks and bring a pot of salted water to boil. Boil the potatoes until soft but not crumbling, and set aside. It would probably be smart at this point to test your veggie broth to see how salty it is, so that you can adjust the amount of salt you use as you season the veggies.

Melt some Earth Balance or your favorite vegan margarine in a pan and lightly saute the garlic, then add the mushrooms. Sprinkle the mushrooms lightly with kosher salt and then give them a dusting of nutmeg, probably about 1/2 teaspoon. Saute until soft, keeping in mind that they'll be cooked further when added to the onion and cabbage mix. Set mushrooms aside.

In a large, heavy pan, saute onions in a small amount of oil, about one tablespoon, for 1-2 minutes, until they begin to soften. Add shredded cabbage, and cook until cabbage is soft, though you don't want things to start falling apart, so don't overdo it.  Mix in mushrooms, then gently fold in potatoes. Taste and adjust seasoning - you want enough just salt for it to be savory, but let the nutmeg be the star. Also, when salting, think about how salty your veggie broth is; some broths have plenty of salt for this recipe and you may not need to add any at all.

Turn your oven on to warm, because from here on in you're going to have lots of things to keep warm in there.

Once your blintz filling is mixed thoroughly, drizzle about 1/2 cup of veggie broth over it and mix a little more so that the moisture is evenly distributed. Let simmer for about 5 minutes, or until the extra liquid has cooked down. Once the filling is done, transfer to an oven-safe dish or bowl and keep in a warm oven while you make the crepes.


This is the third crepe recipe I've tried in the last week...the other two were from vegan cookbooks, and I got so frustrated that, after throwing out almost an entire batch of crepe batter (chickpea flour was a failure), I turned to the only person I knew I could trust on the topic - Julia Child. I've adapted this from her Mastering the Art of French Cooking with Simone Beck and Luisette Berthole. 

1 cup cold water
1 cup coconut milk (I'm going to try soy and rice milks too, but I anticipate that the coconut provides more richness without adding an obtrusive flavor)
Egg substitute equivalent to 4 eggs - I used the powdered Ener-G egg replacer, prepared according to the instructions on the box
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 c. flour
4 tbsp melted Earth Balance

Put the water, coconut milk, prepared egg replacer, and salt in the blender jar. Start blending on low, then slowly add the flour, then the melted butter. Blend for about a minute on high, then refrigerate covered for at least 2 hours but as long as overnight.

The first tricky part is finding the right pan. A small skillet or omelet pan often works well, though I haven't had much luck with the plain stainless pans or cast iron. I have a little 7-inch Revere Ware copper-clad stainless pan that works very well, but after all this, I'm going right out to buy a real crepe pan. Make your best guess, and if it doesn't work and your crepes stick, just abandon it and try another.

The next tricky part is the technique. Spray your pan with a little canola oil, then heat it to medium-high. When it begins to smoke, pour in a little less than 1/4 cup of batter and quickly swirl it around to fully cover the base of the pan. Don't take more than a couple of seconds to do this. Put the pan back on the stove and leave it there for about a minute. When the top of the crepe is dry and the edges are beginning to curl and brown, slip a rubber spatula under the edge to loosen the crepe a bit. If the center seems to be sticking, it is probably not done enough, so give it a bit longer. When the crepe slides around easily, flip it over in the way that seems best to you (though, personally, I never feel more like a chef than when I'm flipping things with the pan). Give the crepe another 30ish seconds on this side, then transfer to an oven-safe dish that you can keep warm in the oven while you work on the other crepes.  You may need to make crepes a little thicker than you would normally so that they stand up to the blintzing process

Blintz Construction - a.k.a. "Blintzing"

When all the crepes are done, take one out of the oven and lay it on a clean, dry working surface. Leave the others in the warm oven until you need them.

Melt a little bit of Earth Balance in a pan - you can use your crepe pan if you want, but you may want to use a larger one so you can fry about 4 blintzes at a time. Put a large blob of filling in the middle of the crepe (on the ugly side, so that the better-looking side shows in the final product), then fold it into a little packet with the seam running down the middle of the blintz and no holes for the filling to creep out. Prepare as many little blintzes as your pan will hold with enough room to scoot them around and to turn them (probably 4-5). Note that if you have a crepe that is a funny shape, you can make a workable blintz by leaving the top open, like the center blintz in the picture above. As long as there is enough crepe above the blintz filling so that it doesn't come tumbling out, you can turn our a pretty, golden, fluted blintz.

Once the pan is hot (fully heated to about medium), place your blintz seam-down into the pan, then repeat with the other blintzes. While they begin to cook, you can prepare the next batch. After about 20-30 seconds, scoot them so they don't stick, but take care to scoot them by their little butt ends rather than the smooth sides so that they don't unwrap. After about a minute, it should be safe to check them and see how they're browning without having them fall apart on you. When all your blintzes have golden-brown bottoms, turn them over and brown their tops a bit, too. When they are finished, put them on a cookie sheet and keep them in your warm oven while you finish the others.

When they're all finished, plate the blintzes and serve drizzled with  mushroom gravy.