Thursday, June 7, 2012

Not Just for Vichyssoise: Roasted Leeks

Roasted leeks - I'm making yummy noises in my mind just looking at this
Leeks have always been one of those things I have trouble knowing what to do with. I've made potato and leek soup dozens of times, and I love leek and mushroom risotto... and that's about it. With their tendency to pick up grit, their fibrous outer layers - leeks aren't the easiest vegetables to work with, at least for me.

Still, difficult things can offer great rewards. The delicate, sweet flavor of leeks is pretty special, and can get lost in rich or complex dishes. I don't want to oversell, but I think this recipe does them justice. Honestly, I was just fooling around and didn't expect much, but after trying them my first thought was "Holy shit, these are delicious! I'm never wasting leeks again." Sorry; I'm more profane in my mind. But aren't we all?

Seasonally, leeks are usually available from fall though late spring, though this will vary based on you're location (which is why I'm posting it in June - it's still vaguely wintery here in Scotland). Small, firm ones have the sweetest flavor, but too small and they'll be hard to manage and to eat in this form.

I'd happily serve these as an unexpected but simple appetizer, perhaps with a light, subtle dipping sauce, or just eat them all myself. Soon, I'm going to try cutting them into chip/crisp size and separating them rather than leaving them halved like this, but I also really like the combination of crispy/caramelized and velvety/sweet that you get when you leave them together in this form.

Delicious. I hope you think so.

Roasted Leeks

About 1-2 leeks per person.

Fresh, firm leeks
Olive oil
Coarsely-ground black pepper  
Sea salt

Oil an appropriately-size pan, keeping in mind that one with a lip should limit crisping more than a flat pan. Preheat oven to 375F or about 190C. I think. I don't trust my oven here, so regarding temperature and time, keep an eye on things the first time you make these.

Trim the root ends and the green parts of the leeks from where the outer layer begins to get more fibrous. Carefully rinse the sections of the leeks, letting the water run on the ends, especially if there is any looseness between the layers. If the sections are longer than 3 or 4 inches, you may want halve them lengthwise for ease of eating. Cut each section in half to expose the inside of the leek and place them in the pan with the cut side up.

Either drizzle, brush, or apply olive oil generously to the leeks, letting it seep down between the layers as much as possible. I use my fingers to rub the oil up and down them a little bit, without breaking them apart. Sprinkle with black pepper and sea salt to taste, and pop them in the oven for 10-15 minutes. As I mentioned above, my tiny dorm oven's consistency and accuracy is questionable, so keep an eye on things to gauge the time for yourself. They should be crispy on the outside and tender on the inside.


Those crispy outer layers are like candy


Saturday, May 26, 2012

Heaven is a Spring Risotto with Leek, Mushroom and Carrot

Risotto Primavera with Leek, Mushroom and Carrot

Over the last year, I have grown to love risotto. The creamy texture and intense flavor that result from the slow incorporation of wine and broth as well as the endless potential of risotto as a medium make it an impressive dish, and I personally enjoy the zen-like hour of stirring in tiny amounts of liquid. Plus, it's a great workout for your arms (well, one of them).

This recipe for risotto, which has been kicking around my kitchen since about February, was conceived of as a Risotto Primavera, meant to celebrate the early spring veggies I was beginning to see at the farmers' markets. The final version is includes leek and mushroom, but it could easily make use of almost anything you want, as long as you adjust when you add the veggies so that they are fully cooked (but not disintegrating) and which wine you're using. To me, risottos are perfect year-round because of that flexibility, and because they are somehow both warm and hearty and relatively light, so they don't feel too heavy for summer.

Brainstorm: serve ratatouille over a very simple chardonnay risotto? Just thought of that. I am getting a little excited about summer and for me that means ratatouille, one of the first dishes I feel like I really perfected. I'll post that recipe when all the good summer squashes are finally out.

A note about wine - risotto is the perfect example of why they say, "Don't cook with a wine you wouldn't drink." Why? Because risotto shouldn't taste like bananas. At least, not when it also has mushrooms in it. The flavors in whatever wine you use will be intensified in the cooking process, and as the alcohol cooks off they lose that "cover," so to speak, so it is important not just what kind of wine you choose (e.g. sauvignon blanc versus chardonnay) but what it tastes like. That might sound a little fussy to some, but I have made risottos where the wine clashed badly with the ingredients and it just was not good. The wine store people always seem to have good suggestions.

In general, I try to use a sauvignon blanc with nice crisp green notes for light, fresh risottos while a big, buttery, oaky chardonnay is great for when I want a richer flavor or am working with sweeter flavors like squash or carrot. But I would really advise you to go with your instincts when pairing, and use wines you like and are familiar with. This recipe could handle most white wines without too much trouble.

Recently, I've been really wanting to make a beer risotto. I think it could work. I'll get on that soon and see what I come up with.

To the recipe!

Risotto Primavera with Leek, Mushroom and Carrot
Makes 3-4 servings, if I remember correctly. I pretty much ate it all myself.

Please forgive me if the measurements look a little strange; this one I had to do in metric because of the measuring cups I have here and converted it using the internet.

A generous 1.5 cups of Arborio rice
1.5 cups of wine
4-4.5 cups of veggie broth
3 smallish leeks
10 medium chestnut mushrooms, sliced
1-2 small carrots, quartered and thinly sliced
1/2 medium onion, diced
3 cloves of garlic
1/4 c. Earth Balance or other vegan butter (plus a little extra to add at the end, if you like)
1/2 tsp. thyme
1/2 tsp. celery seed
1/4 tsp. white pepper

Set out the wine in advance to let it get to room temperature, that would be ideal. Return the rest to the fridge so it's nice and chilled for you to drink while you cook (at least that's what I do).

Prepare the both, heating it to just below boiling in a large pot on the stove. Add the thyme, celery seed, and white pepper, stir thoroughly, and let it sit on the heat, covered, while you prep the veggies.

Slice the leeks, separate the rings, and carefully rinse them by submerging them in water and swishing them around a bit to wash all of the grit off. Leeks are notorious for sneaking dirt and grit into your food, so be thorough.

Slice the mushrooms thickly enough that as they cook they'll hold up to lots of stirring (though this needn't be too thick, they're usually pretty sturdy little guys). Quarter the carrots and slice thinly. Dice the onion and smash and finely chop the garlic.

Melt the vegan butter over medium heat in a large pot and then sauté diced onion and garlic until the onions are translucent, being careful not to burn the garlic. There should still be plenty of liquid from the melted butter at this point, and if not, add a little more and melt it, because it needs to coat the rice.

Add the rice and stir until it is fully coated in the butter. Then add the room-temperature wine, stirring as it incorporates into the rice. This is the last point at which you'll have any breaks, so make sure that all your other ingredients are at hand and you have a drink nearby, the windows open, etc., because in my experience it can get pretty hot standing over a pot for an hour (or 45ish minutes, but I rounded up for dramatic effect).

So, using a ladle or teacup or something, add about 1/3 to 1/2 cup of the hot broth to the pot and stir consistently until it is fully absorbed. Then repeat FOREVER.

You'll need to time carefully(ish) when you add your veggies so that they cook the right amount. For this recipe, add the carrots first, perhaps about 15 or 20 minutes in, and then the leek and mushroom 5 or 10 minutes later. I always think of it as about halfway through. 

The only really tricky thing about risotto is developing that eye for the texture it needs to have. I watch how quickly it oozes (somehow always a gross word, but I can't really think of another) back in to place when I scrape a spoon across the bottom of the pan - there shouldn't be any liquid flowing ahead of the risotto, but it should never be dry and should move freely, if that makes any sense. The idea is to keep it always at the point where the liquid is almost fully absorbed but the risotto is moist and isn't sticking to the pan, which seems like it can happen almost instantly, hence the constant stirring.

There are those people who say you can make perfectly acceptable risotto in a crock pot. I hate them a little bit. Risotto is a labor of love - I put in the effort because of how much I adore the result, and I think you can taste it. That gentle coaxing of more and more liquid into each fat little grain of rice is a process that I believe can't be replace by a pressure-cooker or other such modern gadgetry. I can just feel the ghost of some Italian nonna backing me up on this one.

The cooking process usually takes me about 45 minutes. Remember that you don't have to add all the liquid, just as much as you need to get the texture right. Taste it as you go along - there should be no hard or grainy bit at the center of each grain of rice, but you the grains should still be distinct. You don't want it to go all soggy or have turned into a big mushy pudding. But, ultimately, it's about your taste - stop when you think it tastes right. 

The traditional texture of risotto is referred to as all'onda, which means "like waves," referring to the way it moves when you tilt a plate of it. I like a risotto that you can eat with a fork rather than a spoon, but that's a personal preference. Just keep in mind that risotto continues to cook after you take it off the heat, and it will firm up a bit as it cools, so leave it slightly more moist than you want it to be when you serve. It is meant to be served immediately, but I always make extra and leftovers are delicious. One thing I've been wanting to try with my leftovers is little pan-fried risotto cakes, perhaps lightly breaded. Next time!

To finish, stir in a couple of tablespoons of vegan butter. Purists would tell you to whip this in as quickly as possible to emulsify the butter with the liquid (obviously, that method is more suited to risotto with more liquid at the final stage).


***Special thanks to Grace Eddy for being an excellent taste-tester and for talking to me while I stirred for an hour.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Today's Lunch - Tofu Cottage Cheese with Curly Endive on Olive Ciabatta

Not to brag, but I just wanted to share this delicious sandwich which I have just consumed: 

Every part of it came from the farmer's market, which I visit every Saturday. While the long term rewards of getting my ass out of bed are easy to see (i.e. I get to eat much better quality food all week), sometimes a little instant gratification helps, so I usually get an olive ciabatta and tofu cottage cheese from the Engine Shed, at least when they turn up. 
Today I decided to amp up my usual routine of scarfing it all down sitting on a park bench somewhere by adding some onion, curly endive, and (of course) a little cayenne pepper, making for a wonderful and healthy little lunch. I need to post my recipe for tofu cottage cheese at some point, though there are hundreds out there. But with something so simple, it's all in the proportions, and personal taste varies so dramatically (Garlic! Cayenne! Lemon!). I'll do that some time soon. 
Anyway, I know this post isn't contributing a lot, but I hope you can draw something from it... make some tofu cottage cheese? Put cayenne pepper on sandwiches? Use other greens than lettuce? Whatever.

May your sandwiches be inspired!


Friday, April 20, 2012

Coco Chocolate: good enough to make me like sweets

Note they advertise their vegan chocolate on the sign...

I suppose that title is a little extreme. I don't always hate sweet foods, I just don't feel drawn to them at all. At restaurants, the dessert menu holds no sway for me. Every once in a while, I'll want a little taste of something sweet, but I never really enjoy more than a couple of bites. A piece of baklava is perfect. The only exception I can think of is cake, though I tend to scrape off the icing. A travesty, I know.

Most people, when they hear this, say, "Oh, you're so lucky! My sweet tooth owns me" or something similar. And to them I say, "People, you haven't seen me eat mashed potatoes." Starches and salt, and I'm helpless. It's a trade-off.

But, as with a really good homemade baklava (that's you, Palmyra), every once in a while, something will hit me hard. And such it was with my first experience at Coco Chocolate in Edinburgh.

 Their hand-made organic chocolates are so appealing, the in-house graphic design so lovely, and the store itself so inviting, that I fell a little bit in love. I took their chocolates home to Tennessee as Christmas gifts to all of my favorite people (Haggis spice! Frankincense and myrrh with gold dust! Date and ginger!), and was delighted to learn that all of their dark chocolate is vegan.  

As  I was deciding on my first visit what kind of  made-to-order-from-the-real-deal vegan hot chocolate I wanted, the young lady behind the counter mentioned their award-winning rose and black pepper flavor, so naturally I had to try that. Rose isn't my favorite, but with each sip I was sensing every flavor, how the new tastes interacted with the underlying flavors of the chocolate, the texture of the liquid with tiny bits of melting chocolate suspended through it - such a memorable experience. I’ve since had the Aztec hot chocolate, which in truth I liked much better, but I really don't doubt that you could walk in off the street and order anything and it would be great.

One of my complaints about some artisanal food products and haute cuisine in general is that sheer novelty doesn't always make for good food. "Creative" (read: bizarre) flavor combinations aren't always pleasant, or even palatable. Sometimes, they make you want to spit that wild mushroom foam right into your napkin. Occasionally, though, they are surprising, challenging, and can make you think differently about food and taste.

While Coco offers all the classics made with the great care, it is their more unusual pairings that I'm drawn to - pink peppercorn and nutmeg, hazelnut and sea salt, and even a tobacco-flavored dark chocolate bar. Each is carefully thought out to complement the chocolate's own complex flavor, and in my experience they have all succeeded. 

I came home from my most recent visit with tobacco and date and ginger dark chocolate bars, which I’ve been enjoying a little piece at a time. During that visit I also learned that they serve mochas, so I’ll be back soon. And while I’m there, I might pick up that orange, lemon and geranium bar… and the lime and coconut, just to celebrate it almost being summer… and I really want to try the Earl Grey dark chocolate… 

Those are candied flower petals in the dish

If you're lucky enough to be in the Edinburgh area, you can find Coco Chocolate at 71 Broughton Street, Edinburgh EH1 3RJ, or 174 Bruntsfield Place, Edinburgh EH10 4ER, or visit their website. They also run a chocolate school in Roslin for the amateur confectioners among us. The owner is Australian, and chose to return home after gifting the UK with her delightful stores, and there are two Coco Chocolate shops in Australia, if there are any interested Aussies out there. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Attack of the Social Media!

So I went on a little spree this morning and created a Vegan Home Chef Twitter account, @veganhomechef (my first experience with twitter... we'll see how it goes), a Facebook page for the blog,, and even a Pinterest account ( where I'll pin recipes from other bloggers, ideas, and more. I've been a Pinterest addict in my personal life for a while, so it seems a good time to get my chef-self in on the action.

I'll look forward to hearing from you all via those! At last count, Vegan Home Chef has had hits from 57 countries, and maybe branching out into those fora will make it a little easier for people all over the world to keep in touch.

I'm hoping to step up the posting soon, because my semester ends in less than a month and then I'll need something to keep me from going crazy while I work on my dissertation - and what better than working on recipes for you? (And me. Let's not kid around. I'm the one who gets to eat everything). Thanks for the support, everyone!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Neeps and Tatties (or, Scottish Root Vegetable Extravaganza)

A snow day in Edinburgh - Arthur's Seat seen from the Castle
I hate the cold. I really do. But even in the dead of winter, even this far north, there's a silver lining to be found. Namely, an excuse to revel in root vegetables.

Scots of centuries past knew what they had to work with: tubers. Haggis, Scotland's national dish, is also the result of the use-what-you've-got mentality: oats mixed with sheep entrails, onion, and spices, all packaged in a stomach. Luckily, there's plenty of interesting and tasty veggie haggis around here, too. But it's the "neeps and tatties" that usually accompany haggis that keep me coming back for seconds. Neeps and tatties are mashed swede (or rutabaga, to US readers) and mashed potato, seasoned simply and both rich and fresh-tasting. I've not yet had any here that were too heavily buttered or seasoned, probably because they're often served with a wonderfully flavorful brown gravy. 

Veggie haggis, neeps and tatties at The Conan Doyle in Edinburgh

The first time I cooked with swede was while my friend Kelly was visiting me here in Edinburgh. She had been traveling around Europe for the last 8 months, picking olives for oil in Italy, working with horses in Ireland, and generally being very glamorous (or so it seems to me, but I get to have more than one pair of pants and sleep in a real bed every night). She had picked up a recipe for swede while staying in Skibereen, in Cork, with a host named Aoife who used them in her Sunday roasts. Paired with potatoes and onions, carrots, parsnips, and whatever else is lying around, this is wonderfully simple and delicious way to tackle swede for the first time.

Roasted Neeps and Tatties 

Neeps and tatties - swede and potatoes, in my kitchen window

One large swede
About an equal amount of potatoes
Salt and black pepper

I keep making it with just swede and potato because there's something so perfect about that simple pairing, but you can certainly add any number of other vegetables, particularly onion, carrot, or parsnip. You can also experiment quite a bit with seasonings, but keep in mind that both swede and potatoes (and indeed most root vegetables) are naturally sweet.

Preheat your oven to 400F/200C.

Begin by washing and peeling the swede; their skin is tough, so I do it with a knife rather than a vegetable peeler due to my tendency to accidentally peel my knuckles. Personally, I like to cut the swede in half, set it on my cutting board, and peel down the sides with my chef's knife. I never have gotten comfortable with those little peeling knives.

Dice the swede into small chunks. It is more dense than the potato, so plan to make your swede pieces smaller than your potato pieces so that they cook evenly.

Carefully wash the potatoes and dice them in to chunks slightly larger than the swede. I almost never peel potatoes, because the peel is so good for you and can be really tasty, but that's a personal preference. If you want to peel your potatoes, go for it.

In a mixing bowl, thoroughly combine the swede and potato, then drizzle generously with oil. Add salt, pepper, and thyme to taste, and toss well. It always seems to me like I'm adding too much seasoning, so I eat a piece of the raw potato to check, because it sucks to get to the end and sit down to eat and realized you've under-seasoned, and then you're seasoning at the table to compensate, and that's just not as good.

Also, I hear, it can cause you to eat more salt, because you get more flavor from salt that's incorporated into a dish during the cooking process than from sprinkling it on after, when the grains are intact (or something like that). Salt is my great vice, so I'm trying to think about these things... now that I'm getting older...

For this recipe, I like to use Summer Harvest's rapeseed oil, which is produced here and has a great clean flavor. Somehow olive oil isn't quite right here (though it will work just fine, of course).

Back to the recipe. Once you have appropriately seasoned your mix, spread them in a single layer on a large pan and bake for about 40 minutes. You can adapt this part a bit to a variety of uses - I bake mine uncovered for a little bit of crispiness and extra flavor, but you could cover it if you want it softer and more moist, or bake covered for the first part and uncover later.

And, done! Enjoy.

Forget about a main dish, I'll take a big bowl of this for dinner, thank you.