tempeh two ways

Besides the “stuffed” part, these two recipes have little to do with our Canadian Thanksgiving up in Ottawa this past weekend. Fermented soy beans don’t have much in common with turkey and pumpkin pie, but somehow, last week’s discovery of tempeh reminded me of all I have to be thankful for.

The weekend was a cornucopia of food delights. Friday we scarfed injera and doro wat at an Ethiopian restaurant with an old friend of mine. After a delicious brunch at my aunt and uncle’s, Mark and I indulged all afternoon in delicious home-roasted coffee and mile-high ginger cookies — this time, the old friends were his.

All that food fueled a good cause— the true highlight of the weekend. On Sunday morning I hit a personal best half marathon time at the Ottawa Fall Colours Marathon. With the hubby’s support and 8 weeks of hard training, I achieved a time of 1:51:35. Knocking 2 minutes a mile off my last half marathon time made me finally feel like a woman who doesn’t just finish. She races.

It was a great way to begin a day stuffed with turkey, cabbage gratin, and pie (of which there were multiple slices).

And there were other, non-homemade treats. Sunday, at one of Ottawa’s esteemed Bridgehead coffeehouses, we got to try Clover coffee for the first time.  A late lunch at Von’s Bistro in the Glebe chased down the luscious mugs nicely. Both get five Fresh Cracked Pepper stars.

As I got to thinking about what I’m thankful for, a few things came to mind. One, the incredible variety of food available to me here, today. I’m so grateful to be able to sample the abundance of the world so freely, and so relatively cheaply. This brings me to my latest discovery and the topic of this post: tempeh (pronounced temp-ay), my latest experiment with a new plant-based protein source.

Tempeh is an old food. It’s been made for centuries in Indonesia from fermented soy beans, and it’s more nutty and chewy than even the firmest tofu.

I tracked some down at the Syracuse Real Food Co-op, and quickly discovered that tempeh can be used just about anywhere: stir-fries, burritos, pastas, and sandwiches are all worthy vessels. It’s low in fat and high in protein, and best of all, it’s fermented. (Yes, I have a thing for fermented things. Case in point.)

I searched for a few tempeh recipes online, and taking a pinch of inspiration from this one, concocted fajitas that showcased tempeh’s satisfying chew (pictured above). The next day I mixed up the leftover filling and stuffed it into poblano pepper halves, one of my favorite ways to use up leftovers.

One dinner is often a door opening into another. Along the way, two fabulous new ingredients boldly introduced themselves: tempeh, and canned chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. As I face the lows that a cold and rainy, post-race week will bring, I look forward to new experiments in the cozy refuge of my kitchen.

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mexi-quinoa acorn squash

My love affair with quinoa began a few years ago when a roommate wowed me with amazing salad of the said grain, topped with candied nuts. There was something different about this chewy, fluffy side dish. Something wonderful.

Quinoa (pronounced Kee-No-Wah), is a South American plant whose seeds are often confused with the grain family. The quinoa seeds function like rice, couscous, millet, or barley–more as a grain than as a seed.

The Incas referred to quinoa as the “mother of all grain.” I’m not sure whether this was because they knew about it’s unusually high protein content (12-15%) or that it contains a balanced set of amino acids. My guess is they probably just thought it tasted good and was easy to prepare.

When the little couscous-like grains cook, the germ unfold from the rest of the starch to create a whimsical spiral. I think it’s one of the nicest-looking things a person could eat, and I’m always looking for new ways to prepare it. It’s great in salads, but I thought I’d introduce it to my favorite winter squash: the acorn.

This dish is very easy to prepare and can be thrown together quickly. Since quinoa lasts in your cupboard for months, and acorn squash will wait almost as long, this supper can be adapted to most anything you have lying around: cans of black beans and corn, dredges of peppers and onions in your crisper, spices waiting to warm you.

Plus, any meal served in a one of nature’s edible bowls automatically gets bonus points. You don’t really even need a plate. If you’re a neat eater, that is.

So when you’re done reading the recipe, throw it out and experiment away. Trust me: squash are very forgiving.
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dolmas done right

I first tasted dolmas, or stuffed grape leaves, in Greece. I was 19 and still more or less uneducated in the cuisines of the near East. They were delicately Mediterranean, bursting with new combinations of taste and texture.

My friend and I were sharing a white stucco flat on the island of Naxos, overlooking the Aegean Sea. We had met an Australian woman named Grace, who introduced us to the cigar-shaped delicacies packed in olive oil. I was a sucker for anything offered to me in that accent — or any accent, for that matter. To this day I still adore two of her recommendations: dolmas and halwa, a sweet spun from sesame-seeds.

In those lazy days we lived on dolmas and baklava. These days all I can find are the canned ones packed in excessive amounts of oil, unless I want to pay a dollar apiece just up the street. With the way the weather has turned, that seems like a steep price to pay to have a cool Greek snack at hand. If you love the nutty, lemony squish of a chilled dolma on a dog-day afternoon, a dolma’s all that will do ya.

And then — thank Zeus! — along came my friend Susan. Being schooled herself in these mysterious dolmatic ways, she passed on her expertise to me. Though I observed more than I participated, I learned that making them yourself cuts the oil and the need to fly back to Naxos. I also found out that dolma is from the Turkish word for “stuffed thing.” Turns out I have more in common with this finger food than I thought.

Grape leaves should be easy to find in a well-stocked international grocery store. I used a California-Style brand called Castella, but the choice was rather arbitrary in front of a shelf full of them. Grape leaves must be one of those foods, like the “single use appliance,” that doesn’t seem to have many other uses. I declare these, however, to be wise stewardship of the leaves that nurture our wine-producing grapes the world over. If they’re good enough for grapes, they’re good enough for me.

These are an easy substitute for the endless chopping, precision rolling, and meticulous fish- handling of sushi. They are deliciously cool and light, the perfect compliment to a serene back porch gathering around a pitcher of Sangria, or to a rollicking twilight tapas bash. Easy to make and easy to eat, these dolmas are so good you might just want to break a plate or two. Just make sure they’re your own, and not someone else’s Royal Daulton.

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red riot redux (beet and ricotta stuffed shells)

My last dinner in the mountains called for something special. Something with a little more preparation than what I’d been eating during my two-week sabbatical. Yes, crackers and cheese will satiate. Sure, four days of leftovers will keep you alive. But as great as convenient meals are, certain times remain where food transcends its usefulness and becomes something more.

I wanted that. I had eaten well, but I wanted more.

Food is, thankfully, more than filling our bellies. And while I realize that not everyone has the luxury of seeing it this way, I think that too often the people who DO have the chance to, don’t. It sounds convoluted but maybe if we could, as a culture, learn to revere food a little more, others could have enough for a change. It’s a leap of logic, but I believe strongly that with appreciation comes respect, and with respect, stewardship. If we were better stewards of the bounty of Earth and her creatures, maybe others could go to bed with full bellies too.

It’s all the beet’s fault, getting me off on this tangent. Yes, the scruffy little beta vulgaris has put me up to this, with its surprising flesh and juice that always makes me think I cut myself. Three little beetroots staring back at me from my farmer’s market sack; unlikely reminders of the value of food beyond accomplice to survival.

I wanted to make something worth eating under that 7 o’clock summer sky, clear as the eyes of a child. Something that involved some boiling, peeling, slicing, pureeing, grating, whisking and stuffing. Something that was not meticulously followed from a book that I could put my stamp on, make my own. And while I must give credit where credit is due and cite my sources, the final product ended up feeling as though it was truly mine.

Is this not how we live? Piecing together this and that, sayings and gestures we’ve responded to in others, expressions and beliefs we’ve found are magnets to our hearts. I am this and that and this thing too. I come from here and from there. So too are the meals I take the most pleasure in.

Awhile ago, my friend over at fx cuisine humbly shared his beetroot pasta disaster with the world. I admired his honesty of imperfection, and was intrigued by the beety creature he felt he wasn’t quite able to bring to life. Being already firmly rooted in beet-love, it was easy to convince myself to try out his dish. Besides, it’s not often that I indulge that most basic of human rights to creamy, cheesy pasta topped with crispy Parmesan.

The heading on fx’s post read “can you make something out of it?” I’m still not sure if this was an invitation for his readers to try their hands at the dish or just an aesthetic inquiry, but I took it as the former. Off I went, scheming and dreaming, determined to effect the harmonious reunion of beets, ricotta and pasta upon my plate. And that’s where 10 years of part-time jobs in restaurants came in handy. When I first started at fude, a funky Winnipeg bistro, we had a popular dish called the Red Riot. It was crab-stuffed pasta shells with a rosé sauce — aka a tomato-cream. A dish I hadn’t thought about in years came back to me full-force, with the perfect blueprint for my new creation.

Off to work I went, not sure how it would end up, but enjoying every minute of trying. The cheerful bubbling of the water, reddening more and more every minute as the beets deepened into their characteristic hue. Guiltlessly whirling whole-milk ricotta into beet puree, and watching it take on the color of a sunset or an embarrassed cheek. Tossing in handfuls of zippy Parmesan, grating fresh nutmeg for the first time in my life (thanks to the well-stocked cupboards where I was staying), spooning the mixture into pre-cooked jumbo pasta shells and watching the edges curl over as if each concealed a secret.

I sat down under that June sky and pressed my fork into the first shell. Pink began to escape the shell, picking up just a hint of the balsamic glaze I had drizzled over the plate. Rescuing it to my fork, I sampled my creation. It’s not often I’m truly blown away by food, especially not my own. (Honestly, I’ve gotten so picky!) But this, my friends, was pure delight wrapped in a pasta shell, each bite containing music and the glint of distant lands and the best things of the earth.

And for all of you who made it to the bottom of this post, I offer a gift from author Tom Robbins, whose passage on my favorite root might just be the best bit of food writing I’ve come across yet:

The beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried, all but fossilized; the dark green sails of the grounded moon-boat stitched with veins of primordial plasma; the kite string that once connected the moon to the Earth now a muddy whisker drilling desperately for rubies. ~Tom Robbins

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skippin’ jenny (vegan hoppin’ john)

I’m having a blast with Veganomicon, a cookbook that arrived on my doorstep one dreary afternoon from the sunnier climes of Berkeley. I had a bit part in helping its sender find an apartment in Syracuse, and I can’t wait to try more of its recipes out on her when she arrives. It’s my first vegan cookbook, and so far it is proving itself a mighty contender beside the omnivore-focused books on my shelf. Filled with recipes that are sure to stun even the most die-hard flesh eater, this book promises no end of fun with my favorite food group.

New York is the furthest South I’ve lived in North America, yet still miles away from the soul of Southern cookery. But since I’m a sucker for smoke (give me bonfire-perfumed sweaters, lapsang souchong tea, smoked cheeses and fish any day), Southern cooking seems right up my alley. So, wanting to branch into Southern cuisine a little more, the BBQ Black-Eyed Pea Collard Rolls jumped to the top of my list of things to try. I don’t know what exactly drew me to the recipe—something about it sounded smoky and satisfying, and different from how I normally cook.

My only contact with smoky food was purely of the accidental sort, up until landing a job at the Ouisi Bistro in Vancouver. There I was introduced to Cajun and Creole cooking, slinging their marinated Alligator, Andouille gumbo, and Jambalaya for eight months straight. And their cornbread? I left Vancouver carrying 12 extra pounds of it. Some souvenirs are tough to lose, even when they’re strapped right around your belly.

But onto the recipe: Black-eyed peas star in the famous Southern dish, Hoppin’ John. Eaten on New Year’s Day, the dish is thought to be lucky and is consumed widely. The beans’ characteristic markings are supposed to symbolize coins; when your plate runneth over your proverbial cup is said to follow suit. Collard greens, large cabbage-like leaves, are often served alongside Hoppin’ John. In this recipe, they star right alongside the beans, wrapping them tenderly like a rotund grandmother.

Now for the fun part. According to Wikipedia, on the day after New Year’s Day, leftover Hoppin’ John is called Skippin’ Jenny and shows a continuing frugality supposed to last throughout the year. Little did I know I had a namesake dish!

I happen to like Skippin’ Jenny much better than BBQ Black Eyed Pea Collard Rolls. My apologies to the cookbook’s authors Isa and Terry, but I might just have to re-christen your creation. After all, your lighter, greener, more vegged-out version is quite likely to make this Northern cook want to skip. I promise I’ll give you credit.

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