Monday, March 28, 2011

Spicy Egyptian Lentil Soup Good Enough to Serve to 50 People at a Rehearsal Dinner

About a month ago, I was browsing Foodgawker and came across a delicious-looking lentil soup. I have a real love of lentils, and am always looking for new treatments (however, as much as I love them, I will never, never make a 70s-style lentil loaf. Have some respect.), so I was very drawn to this Spicy Egyptian Lentil Soup posted by afarmgirlsdabbles. In the blog post including this recipe, she describes a trip to Egypt to visit her sister, during which she reluctantly tried this soup, a local favorite, and was blown away. She was so impressed that, upon returning stateside, she recreated a soup with the rich, complex spice that Middle Eastern cuisines are so good at, accented by the bright flavor of lemon.
The original lentil soup as served in Cairo, with a glass of fresh strawberry juice and shawarma. Photo courtesy of afarmgirlsdabbles.
That very night, I made her soup, and had a similarly enthusiastic reaction. So, when I was called upon to help cook for the rehearsal dinner for the wedding of one of my closest friends, and was told that we were going to do a "Soup Bar" of 5 or 6 different soups to serve about 50 people, I jumped at the chance to include this. We served the soups in mismatched, over-sized coffee mugs with a choice of 4 or 5 different breads and a salad. The soup bar worked beautifully and, though my soup was a little more spicy than I had intended, it went over very well, particularly with the lentil-loving bride.

With the author's permission, here is that spectacular soup. I would add a bit more lemon than she suggests, but as she points out in her post, this soup is all about a "beautifully balanced, earthy, spicy heat" and preserving that balance is key. How much spice and lemon is dependent on the freshness of your spices, how long you simmer, how long you've soaked your lentils, etc., so this is a great opportunity to perfect your taste-and-adjust-spices skills. Just keep in mind that, as always, cumin needs to go at the end, because it will get very bitter if it is cooked for too long. Also, I highly suggest using red lentils. I'm sure the soup would still be delicious with green lentils, but the color and more delicate texture of the red lentils is ideal for this soup.

Also, please visit the original post at her blog to look at her gorgeous pictures of Cairo. I'm such a food+travel voyeur, and before too long, I'll be providing you some culinary travel experiences of my own. If all goes to plan and I get my student visa, I'll be in Scotland beginning in September for a Master's program at the University of Edinburgh, and who knows what exciting interpretations of local cuisine that will yield... seitan haggis? Kidding.

Without further ado,  

Spicy Egyptian Lentil Soup 

Serves 6-8

2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, diced into 1/4" pieces
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 large celery rib, diced into 1/4" pieces
1 large carrot, diced into 1/4" pieces
1 large baking potato, peeled and diced into 1/2" pieces
1-1/4 c. lentils (red or green)
2 qts. vegetable broth
2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp. turmeric
2 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice, plus additional lemon slices to serve alongside finished soup
salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Over medium-high heat, in a large saucepan or small stockpot, heat the oil.  Add the onion and garlic and cook until fragrant, about 2 or 3 minutes.  Add the celery and carrot and cook for another 5 minutes.  Add the potato, lentils, and vegetable broth.  Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer until all the vegetables are very tender.  This should take 40 to 50 minutes.

Puree the soup in batches, using a blender, and return it back to the pot.  Or blend carefully right in the pot with an immersion blender.  Add the cumin, cayenne pepper, turmeric, and lemon juice.  Season with salt and pepper.  I'm not known for adding much salt to my food, but I found myself adding more than I thought I would to boost the flavors.  Just add a bit at a time, tasting after each addition.

Serve the soup hot with slices of fresh lemon on the side.  Some warm fresh pocket bread would also be good with this meal.

Again, thanks so much to afarmgirldabbles for the use of her recipe and picture! Visit her site for more great recipes. 


Sunday, March 20, 2011

"Easy Like Sunday Morning" Vegan Carrot Cake Pancakes

There's kind of a funny story behind these pancakes. I was over at a friend's house, and she wanted a quick and easy dinner, so she decided to make pancakes. She sent her husband to the store for ingredients, and I begged him to pick up some carrots for me to snack on as well because I just didn't think I could take all that sugar. When he got back, my friend started joking around about how to use the carrots... and suddenly exclaimed, "can you make CARROT CAKE PANCAKES?"

As it turns out, I can.

That night, we looked in to plain vegan pancake recipes on line, and then I added spices, shredded carrot, and raisins, and what we came up with was pretty great. When I tried to recreate them at home, however, the incredible 6 tablespoons (!) of baking powder that the original recipe had required suddenly became a big problem. After several iterations, and a great deal of tweaking, here is my final recipe: perfected today, on one of the first sunny, temperate Sundays of the season, hence the name. A lot of the magic is in the technique; because the rising depends on the baking powder, so keeping those nice little bubbles intact is key. Read on...

"Easy Like Sunday Morning" Vegan Carrot Cake Pancakes

Dry Ingredients
     3 c. flour
     3/4 tsp. salt
     3 Tbsp. baking powder
     6 Tbsp. sugar
     3 tsp. cinnamon
     1 tsp. nutmeg

Wet Ingredients
     3 c. soymilk (plain, original, or vanilla, depending on how much extra sweetness you want. I work with plain, myself, but if you only had vanilla, you could decrease the granulated sugar a bit to adjust for it)
     6 Tbsp. oil
     2 tsp. vanilla
     1 c. golden raisins, rinsed to remove bits and stems, then soaked in hot water to soften them
     2 c. grated carrot, drained

Combine all the dry ingredients thoroughly with your hands, making sure to break up the little clumps that baking powder tends to form. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk the vanilla into the soy milk, then do the same with the oil. When they're thoroughly mixed, fold in the carrot and raisins, combining well.

Preheat a pan to medium/medium high or a skillet to 375ish. If that seems too hot as you make your first pancake, go ahead and adjust to what you think is best.

Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, then pour the wet ingredients into the well. Firmly and quickly fold the wet ingredients into the dry, using as few strokes as possible, but combining thoroughly. You should be able to do this rather quickly, and if there are a few little bumps, don't worry about it. Over-mixing will break up the bubbles formed by the baking powder and make your pancakes too dense and flat.

When your pan is preheated, spray with canola oil. The batter will be thick and a bit clumpy, so it will be tempting  to spread it to get it into a better pancake shape, but don't (I made this mistake a couple of times before I figured it out). Far better to try to control shape and thickness while pouring, again so you don't destroy the rise.

Cook until the edges are beginning to firm and the bubbles in the center of the pancake pop and the batter doesn't refill the hole (awkward to say; great way to judge pancake done-ness). Flip gently and cook for a couple of minutes until golden brown.

They will be a little more dense than normal because of the carrot and raisin, but they should have a good texture and rise. Cut open the first one and make sure it's done in the middle, and adjust your cooking time if needed. Serve with syrup, cashew cream, jam, agave nectar, or whatever strikes your fancy.


P.S. I think you're going to get a book review soon, because I went to McKay's today (locals, you know what I'm talkin' 'bout) and bought a cookbook and a bunch of memoirs and essay collections by food writers, including Ruth Reichl, Calvin Trillin, Judith Jones, and Edna Lewis. Am Super Excited.


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Roasted Eggplant, Portobello and Kale Lasagna with Tofu Ricotta, Vegan Bechamel and Chunky Tomato Sauce

For millions of people, lasagna evokes home, comfort, and indulgence. Those are not qualities particularly identified with vegan cooking, but they are root of why I, and many people, love to cook and eat.

I am, actually, not one of the lasagna people - I don't remember having had it growing up, and I didn't like it very much the few times I had at a friend's house or wherever. So when Melody from Hollywood the Write Way told me that it was one of her favorite foods, I decided that I would take on the challenge of making a lasagna I did like.

As I've planned this recipe, I realized one great thing about lasagna, namely its flexibility. You can use any vegetables you have available, whatever is seasonal, whatever is in the fridge. You can do just a tomato sauce, a béchamel, both, or even a creamy tomato sauce. The basic requirement is lasagna noodles, and you can just go from there.

My choices for this lasagna were roasted eggplant and portobello with sautéed kale, a chunky tomato sauce, a tofu ricotta and a béchamel sauce. Mine is a somewhat complicated recipe (I'm just glad I didn't try to make the pasta from scratch like I had originally planned), but don't worry, this could be so much simpler. The ricotta is a snap to make, and the sauce is actually pretty easy to do from scratch, though you could certainly use store-bought sauce and just heat it up. From there, you could save a lot of time by using veggies that don't require any prep other then slicing. Also, you can make it ahead and bake it whenever you need to, so you have a hot, gourmet dinner with only the baking time... not so shabby, eh?

Roasted Eggplant, Portobello and Kale Lasagna

For tomato sauce:

1 large (28-30oz) can of diced tomatoes, or whatever consistency you like the best. If you want lots of sauce (not me! I just like it as a filling), then you may want as much as twice this much tomato, and adjust other ingredients to taste.
2 medium shallots
4 med. cloves of garlic
1 Tbsp. tomato paste or more to taste (optional - it will make the sauce richer, and will help if you want to make a lot of sauce)
1 large sprig of fresh basil
Fresh or dried oregano
Olive oil
Balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper

For the béchamel:
5 Tbsp. Earth Balance vegan margarine
3 Tbsp. flour
3 c. coconut milk, heated
1 large shallot
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. white pepper
1/8 tsp. nutmeg

For the tofu ricotta:
1 lb. firm silken tofu (aseptic will work the best - the kind that comes in the vacuum-sealed boxes; it has a different texture)
1/4 c. basil chiffonade
1/4 c. green onion
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tsp. tahini
1 tsp. sea salt
1/4 tsp black pepper

Other ingredients:
1 package lasagna noodles
1 large eggplant, or 3-4 Japanese or Chinese eggplants, if you can get your hands on them
2 large portobello caps
1 bunch of kale
2 cloves garlic

First, clean the mushrooms with a clean cloth or a mushroom brush. Don't wash mushrooms; they'll just absorb the water and lose flavor. When they're clean, slice them thinly to create nice mushroom cross-sections. Grease a cookie sheet and lay the slices of the mushroom in a single layer. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, then roast at 400 for 7-10 minutes, until aromatic and tender. Transfer to a bowl, cover and set aside.

Next, wash your eggplant(s). If you're using a large eggplant, slice it in half down the middle, and then slice each half in pieces about 1/8 inch thick. If you're using the Japanese or Chinese eggplants, just cut diagonally into medallions. In a large colander, place a layer of eggplant pieces, then sprinkle a layer of salt over them. Be thorough; the salt is going to be washed off, so it won't affect the flavor. Repeat with the rest of the pieces, making sure that every layer has been salted well. Put the colander in the sink or over a bowl, somewhere that it can drain. The eggplant will shed water and, more importantly, some of the bitterness they have. Heirloom and any non-commercial eggplants tend to be more bitter, so this is all the more important. Some recipes may not list it, but you should always sweat eggplant.

While the eggplants are sweating and the mushrooms are roasting, prepare the tofu ricotta. Crumble tofu in a bowl, add the rest of the ingredients, and combine until the mixture resembles ricotta, mashing with your hands or a fork. It should be pretty flavorful, so if it isn't, add more ingredients as needed. It will taste milder when cooked in the lasagna. Cover and refrigerate until needed.

Somewhere in this time range, you'll want to start your tomato sauce. Finely chop the 4 cloves of garlic and thinly slice the shallots. In a large saucepan, heat some olive oil to medium. When the oil is hot, add the garlic and shallots, and cook until translucent. Add tomatoes and stir in tomato paste, mixing thoroughly. Chiffonade the basil (make a stack of leaves, roll them up like a cigarette, and slice them thinly on the diagonal), then add to the sauce. Add oregano, salt and pepper to taste. Let the sauce simmer for 20 or 30 minutes, drizzle in some olive oil and mix thoroughly, then reduce and let it sit at low, stirring occasionally, until you need it.

After about 10-15 minutes of sweating, rinse the eggplant thoroughly. Roast in the same way you roasted the mushrooms, in a single layer on a greased cookie sheet, sprinkled with salt and pepper, for 7-10 minutes at 400. When they are finished, transfer to a bowl, cover, and set aside.

While the eggplant is roasting, prep your kale. Wash and drain it, then piece by piece, fold in half along the stalk, then cut off the stalk from top to bottom. Pull the kale into pieces about 1-2 inches across. Chop 2 cloves of fresh garlic. Heat a large pan with a little bit of oil to about medium. When hot, sauté the garlic for about a minute, then add the kale, mixing so that it cooks evenly. Just before it's done, which will only take 2-3 minutes, drizzle a little bit (2 Tbsp.-ish) of balsamic vinegar into the pan and mix. This will give the kale a nice touch of tang and will blend nicely with your other ingredients. When kale is fully wilted, remove to a bowl and cover.

Now, fill a large stockpot with plenty of salted water to boil the lasagna noodles. Turn it on high and, while you're waiting for it to boil, begin your béchamel sauce. The béchamel is the most needy of all the elements of the lasagna, so set out the ingredients first (Earth Balance, finely-chopped shallots, flour, warm coconut milk, salt, pepper, nutmeg, bay leaf) so that you won't have to stop whisking the sauce. First, melt the Earth Balance in a saucepan at about medium. When it has melted, add the shallot and cook for about 1 minute. Add the flour, sprinkling in a little at a time and whisking constantly. When the flour's all in and fully blended with the Earth Balance into a roux (it will puff; whisk vigorously), cook for about 3 minutes, whisking consistently to keep it from burning. The flour needs to cook to take on a nutty, toasty taste rather than a doughy raw-flour taste. After 3-ish minutes, add the warmed coconut milk in a stream, whisking to mix thoroughly. Add the bay leaf and bring to a boil over medium-high, whisking constantly, then reduce and simmer, for about 10-15 minutes, whisking occasionally to keep it smooth and prevent it from scalding. Whisk in salt, pepper and nutmeg. At this point the sauce should cling thickly to a spoon; if it isn't, you can use cornstarch or arrowroot to thicken it by pulling out a small cup of the sauce and adding the starch, whisking it together thoroughly, then adding it back and mixing it with the whole, letting it cook and thicken. When the béchamel is done, leave it on low and stir occasionally to prevent it from developing a skin until you're ready to use it.

When the pasta water has begun to boil robustly, add the strips of pasta one at a time, alternating to keep them from sticking together. Bring back to a boil, stirring occasionally with a slotted spoon to prevent sticking, but you don't want to disturb the boil too much. When they are almost done (fully flexible but not fully tender to the bite), pull them out, because they're going to get to cook more in the oven. Drain and lay out on an oiled tray so they don't stick together as they cool. Be careful with your hands, the large pieces of pasta hold heat much more so than spaghetti.

Oil a large casserole dish, and put some of the tomato sauce or béchamel in the bottom. I used the béchamel, but for me it seemed to act like glue, so I might try the tomato sauce. Either way, coat the bottom with the sauce and layer lasagna noodles on top of it. If you used the tomato sauce in the base, pour some of the béchamel onto the pasta. If not, leave it plain, then layer all your kale over it and place the portobello on top of the kale. Cover with a layer of pasta. Layer slices of eggplant, then generously cover with the tomato sauce. Cover with a layer of pasta, then add the tofu ricotta, spreading evenly. Cover with pasta, then pour the rest of the béchamel over the top. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for about 30 minutes at 350. Uncover, then bake for another 20-30 minutes, until the top is golden.

When the lasagna is done baking, let it sit for about 15 minutes, then cut and serve.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Breaking News: The Vegan Home Chef guest blogs at Hollywood the Write Way

Yes, you heard right! I'm writing a 3-day series of guest blogs for Hollywood the Write Way about vegan living and eating, including a brand-new recipe for Roasted Eggplant and Portobello Lasagna. The first blog went up today, and tomorrow the lasagna recipe will be posted on both her blog and mine, then the final post will follow the next day at I would have let you know sooner, but I've been at work all day and just returned to internet access. I hope you all enjoy it all, particularly the lasagna!