Fun with Flavored Pastas

If you want a fast, easy, filling supper, pasta is the way to go. I’m not talkin’ mac-n-cheese here (that deserves its own post). You don’t have to slave over elaborate sauces to get elaborate flavors, either. There are many pasta companies which make flavored pastas, some of which are quite good and come in an astonishing array of flavors. Don’t (just) think of Italian food when you think of pasta: think Asia, Spain, Mexico, India, Tunisia, Cuba, The Caribbean. And that’s just a smattering of the offerings from one artisanal pasta company. That company is Pappardelle’s which offers a wide selection online, but is only available at Farmer’s Market’s otherwise. When I can snag some of this locally, I do, making a point of trying something different each time.

That fast easy meal I was referring to is to cook flavored noodles (flat noodles only take a few minutes), then drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with parmesan cheese. It’s fast, easy and filling. If I’m trying out a new flavored pasta for the first time, this is the way I make it because I want to know what the flavor of the pasta is, how strongly flavored it is, so that I can make the right choices when serving it with a sauce or tossed with veggies. If you want to enhance or complement the flavors, Boyajian makes flavored oils (which I also use for popcorn).

In the course of taste-testing with only simple dressings, you may be inspired to create something more elaborate with things like Goan Curry Angel Hair pasta, Lemon Ginger Fettuccine, Lime Cilantro Linguine, Orange Szechuan Linguine, Porcini Mushroom Linguine, Spanish Saffron Trenette, Spicy Thai Linguine, Sweet Potato Pappardelle, Tunisian Harissa Fettuccine, Lavender Fettuccine,  Chipotle Black Bean Tagliatelle, or Orzo in Asian, Cuban, Southwestern and Thai flavors, not to mention fruit and chocolate pastas for even more adventurous eaters. 😉 They also offer three flavors of lasagna noodles: Peppercorn Trio, Roasted Red Pepper, and Spinach Garlic. (I sometimes use the red pepper flavor in my lasagna, and would love to try the Peppercorn lasagna noodles.)

Pappardelle isn’t the only one making flavored pastas: other brands are available in most supermarkets, albeit with fewer and less adventurous flavors. Al Dente is the brand I most often see. I’ve tried more of their flavored pastas than Pappardelle, mostly because they are more readily available. I can’t go down the aisle without looking to see which flavors are there and grabbing a couple of bags. Pasta is one of my fall-back foods when plans change and I don’t have time to cook or just don’t feel like doing much in the kitchen. Noodles, a light drizzle of olive oil (with or without flavoring), a bit of Parmesan cheese and I’m there. 😀

Peppercorn pasta with sauted portobello mushrooms, tomatoes and parmesan cheese.

If I’ve got fresh mushrooms (portobella, crimini, button), I may saute them up and toss with the pasta. One night I had a couple of left-over portobellas and a couple of tomatoes, so I sauteed the mushrooms in a little bit of garlic oil, and then just cut the tomatoes in chunks over the pan and cooked with a bit of basil until the tomatoes dissolved, then served it over two bowls of Al Dente’s Three Peppercorn Fettucine. De-lish! Tomatoes and mushrooms are both good choices if you don’t want to serve the pasta “nekkid”. 😉 They’ll both cook to bits in no time and with water for the pasta needing to boil, it won’t add anything to the total cooking time.

Some of the flavored pastas I’ve had are so good by themselves that I’m reluctant to do something “saucy” with them. 😉 But on the other hand, some flavors are so good they set me dreaming of what I can do with them. 😀

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Raisin Buns

raisin tea bunsA childhood favourite of mine, I have adapted this recipe to my grown-up vegan requirements (which was quite easy to do).  Lovely and sweet, these buns go well with a cup of tea or coffee.  They are also a replacement for cookies when it comes to dessert.  You may notice this recipe is similar to my recipe for tea buns.

Ingredients:

  • 2 1/2 cups of flour (I have used whole wheat and spelt, but also good with all-purpose)
  • 25ml  (5 tsp) baking powder
  • 5ml (1 tsp) salt
  • 1/2 cup organic sugar
  • 1/2 cup Earth Balance butter
  • 1 cup raisins
  • 3/4 cup milk (soy or almond)

Combine flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar.  Cut in butter so the consistency is like breadcrumbs.  Add raisins and milk.  Roll out onto floured surface.  As is the family tradition, use a drinking glass to cut out circles.  Whilst I use a small glass for tea buns, raisin buns are so yummy I use a large one!  A large glass will still deliver a dozen buns.

Place on baking sheet and bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes.  Let cool…if you can resist that long.

Uh, what does vegetarian mean?

This post is sort of a follow-up post to my introductory post “Vegetarians Like Good Food“. So, what does vegetarian mean? For me “vegetarian” means a bit more than just meatless. Not too long ago I got a cup of French Onion Soup which was labeled vegetarian at a local restaurant. I was interested in how it’d be with something other than beef broth as the base. It looked & tasted like beef broth. If it wasn’t, then it had to have been something synthetic with artificial beef flavor. Is something made with beef—but the meat is strained out—vegetarian? For me, the answer is no. For other people the answer may be yes. I don’t really care whether your answer is yes or no to the French Onion Soup question, but this is something that people who wish to eat—and cook—vegetarian cuisine need to figure out because when we eat at a restaurant and order something labeled as vegetarian, we have no idea how that restaurant defines “vegetarian”. It sometimes seems like there are as many definitions of “vegetarian” as there are vegetarians.

For some people there’s no distinction between “meatless” and “vegetarian”. The French Onion Soup was meatless, but unless that broth was totally synthetic beef flavor (which is a possibility because it had the over-salted flavor of boullion cubes) I wouldn’t consider it vegetarian (and I’m not alone in this). Of course, you also get into a what-does-that-mean thing even with the term “meatless” because of the centuries-old religious tradition of “meatless” Fridays—which means eating fish. I consider fish to be meat. Basic biology: it’s in the animal kingdom, not the vegetable kingdom. It’s a vertebrate: it has a skeleton just as all other animals do. A lot of people who consider themselves vegetarian still eat fish, even vegetarians who would turn their nose up at the suspicious onion soup.

You can’t always get a firm idea what a vegetarian diet consists of by reading vegetarian cookbooks, either. Some define it so narrowly that the cuisine would almost qualify as vegan. But others…well, one day at a bookstore I was thumbing through a Chinese vegetarian cookbook. It looked pretty good, except for the fish sauce in most of the recipes. Fish sauce is a traditional Chinese ingredient, but I don’t consider it vegetarian. But I was more shocked by the “vegetarian” holiday cookbook which featured—I’m not kidding—a whole section on cooking turkey. Not tofurkey. Turkey. I’ve got no problem with vegetarians eating turkey for Thanksgiving: food is tightly bound to family, tradition and culture, so if you wish to honor that, it’s okay by me—but a cookbook purportedly devoted to holiday meals for vegetarians shouldn’t include turkey. Anybody can cook a turkey: the challenge for vegetarians is non-turkey! 😉 [But that’s another blog post.]

The first vegetarian I ever encountered was at a party many, many years ago. He was making a big deal about what he could and could not eat and generally being obnoxious to people eating the finger food. (A word to the wise: if you want people to embrace vegetarianism, don’t attack them or act like an asshole.) He had this way of talking like everything he said was from the Voice of Authority. From this I got the single most garbled interpretation of vegetarianism I’ve ever heard. For instance: he would eat fish, but not eggs. It was Wrong to eat this or that, though he didn’t explain why, probably because his examples were a list of non-sequiteurs that made no sense. He seemed to pick and choose at random, or probably according to his own preferences.

A lot of self-identified vegetarians make choices not based on some ideal vegetarian cuisine, but according to their own preferences. In principle I don’t have any objections to this: everyone has to find their own way. But sometimes in restaurants I look at food—like the French Onion Soup—and wonder if their definition is the same as mine…And I have to confess inwardly cringing when I talk to a self-identifying vegetarian and after I mention my own reasons for giving up seafood, she says she still eats seafood, and then five minutes later she’s talking about chicken and then finally after a half hour she says that really she just doesn’t eat beef any more! (Last I heard she was into exotic meats.) There are many shades and varieties to vegetarianism, but I really have a hard time thinking of someone as a vegetarian if they’ll eat anything, absolutely anything, except beef. 😆

I’m not a vegetarian, but I eat like one most of the time. I hope from this blog post you have some idea what kind of vegetarian food I eat. The blog posts I write here will not tell you how to cook fish or turkey; the posts will not extoll the virtues of beef broth or fish sauce. They will sometimes have dairy products, like milk, eggs, cheese, as well as honey occasionally. (I know some cheeses are made using rennet derived from animal sources. I buy vegetarian cheeses when possible, but do not limit myself to those so labeled: most cheeses do not specify the source of the enzymes they use.) I hope that most things I’ll write here will be acceptable to most vegetarians and that vegans will be able to adapt any recipes I post to a vegan diet. How you cook depends on what kind of vegetarian cuisine you choose. As I see it, a vegetarian diet is all about choice. (And really good food!) 😀

Craisin Muffins

craisin muffinsToday I was in dire need of baked goods. Yes, dire need. I decided to make muffins, but it was one of those days when every recipe I read required more ingredients than I had on hand. Improvisation and veganisation was needed! I used Boyfriend’s muffin cookbook, found a recipe entitled Christmas Morning Cranberry Muffins, and proceeded to change just about every ingredient – the original recipe called for cranberries, white sugar, all purpose flour, walnuts, eggs, and orange peel. I have to admit I was afraid they would only be fit for the garbage, but they turned out lovely. Now renamed Craisin Muffins, this is what you will need:

  • 1 cup Craisins
  • 1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1/4 cup organic sugar
  • 10 ml (2 tsp) baking powder
  • 5 ml (1 tsp) salt
  • 5 ml (2 tsp) cinnamon
  • 5 ml (2 tsp) ground cloves
  • 1 flax egg
  • 3/4 cup orange juice
  • 1/3 cup melted Earth Balance butter sticks

To make the flax egg (as suggested by the all-knowing Boyfriend), put 1/3 cup flax meal in a bowl and mix with water until just moist. Let sit about 10 minutes until flax meal swells and is a gluey texture.

Preheat oven to 375F. Stir together flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, ground cloves, and Craisins. Add the flax egg, orange juice, and melted butter. Combine until the mixture is moist. Fill greased muffin cups and bake for 20 minutes. They may not be pretty, but they sure are tasty.

Big Green Monster

Ever since seeing Rene Russo blithely drink down glasses of a thick lumpy green liquid in the wonderful remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, I’ve wondered just what she was drinking. I looked around online, but couldn’t find out exactly what was in the movie. A friend of mine, however, turned me on to the Classic Green Monster. Which is green, but not lumpy or disgusting. According to the author she developed this recipe ten years after the movie came out, but I’ve got a good imagination so I can make myself a Big Green Monster in the morning and pretend I’m Rene Russo, the woman who single-handedly, with that one performance, made middle age look hot. (And I’m not talkin’ flashes, here.) 😉

I call my version a Big Green Monster both to distinguish it from the original and because it makes a lot—and I sometimes double the recipe. I didn’t pay any attention to the amount the recipe said so the first time I made it I was surprised when I filled one glass and had more left! (One regular batch makes at least 20 ozs!)

The changes I made in the recipe are:

I use 2% milk instead of almond milk. She’s a vegan; I’m a vegetarian. If you have problems with dairy, go with her choice.

I sometimes forget to peel and freeze the bananas. Not a problem. It’s fine if you make it with a room temperature banana. When I do freeze the bananas I break them into more or less equal pieces before freezing because it just seems like it would be better in the blender than a big frozen banana icicle. If you want to keep a stash of bananas in the freezer so you can make Monsters every day, this works out fine: use whatever number of pieces equal one banana (depending on how many pieces you slice or break the banana into before freezing). If part of a banana is bad, break off the bad part and add the remaining pieces as a bit of extra banana to future batches. Use ripe bananas. If the banana doesn’t have spots on the peel, it isn’t ripe. In my house, when I was growing up, we called those “sugar spots”. The more spots, the sweeter the flavor.

I usually use organic spinach instead of kale, but kale is good, too. My hands are small, so two handfuls for me may be less than you (or the original). It’s not brain surgery; don’t worry about exactly how much two handfuls are or what size bananas. You’ll have a tasty Monster anyway. I thoroughly rinse the whole bunch of spinach and keep it in a sealed bag or container in the fridge so I don’t have to wash spinach every time I make a Monster. Discard any leaves that look like they’re going bad.

I use smooth peanut butter for the nut butter. (Peanut butter and banana sort of go together. My mother loves peanut butter and banana sandwiches. So did Elvis. May be a southern thing.) I skip the chia or flax seeds —because I don’t keep these on hand (though that could change). For the protein power I use unflavored whey protein. The brand I use comes which a scoop and that’s more than one-third of the recommended daily allowance, so one scoop is adequate for me. Check your brand; your mileage may vary.The protein powder can be added at any point in the blending, even as a last ingredient. Blend well.

I usually add 2 ice cubes, but I use 4 ice cubes if the banana isn’t frozen — just to get a bit more “chill” in the drink. I also sometimes add 1/2 – 1 tsp ground ginger to the milk (depending on how much ginger kick you want your Monster to have). When fruits like dewberries, peaches, strawberries, and blueberries come into season, I’m going to try them and I’ll experiment with nutmeg and cinnamon, too. I’ve been hung up on the banana monster for several months and I’m ready to branch out. 😀 (I tried mixed summer berries and also dewberries and though the flavor is fine, the color is disgusting. If you use blueberries, raspberries, dewberries, blackberries, etc, omit the spinach because the green will push the color of the drink close to grey Ugh!.)

Occasionally I’ve added a few spoonfuls of nonfat unflavored Greek yogurt to the Monster when I’ve got a small amount of yogurt left over. In small amounts it doesn’t seem to affect either flavor or texture and it’s a good way to finish up that last little bit of yogurt in the container. 🙂

If you want, you can make a double batch. I do this sometimes so I have a ready-made Monster the next morning. If you do this, it’s a good idea to whip it in the blender again because it tends to get a bit sludgy in the fridge over time. I don’t notice this if I drink half a regular batch and then drink the other half later that day, but the texture does change after a day in the fridge. Running the blender again, makes it good as new. 🙂

I don’t think I’m quite carrying off the Rene Russo vibe with the kicky glasses (see below) I use for the Big Green Monster. Really, I’m more of a Scooby Doo kinda girl. 😉

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Wok Popcorn with Wow Flavors

Wok popcorn in a B-movie bowl. (One of two B-movie themed bowls I have.)

Wok popcorn in a B-movie bowl. (One of two B-movie themed bowls I have.)

Popcorn was one of the things that kept me from starving in college. That and squash and 99 cent pizza that had the taste and texture of cardboard slathered with tomato sauce. I know I ate other things, but those are the big three that stand out in my memory.

When my popcorn popper (which got me through college) broke many years ago I started making popcorn in my wok (with a lid). Then I got lazy and switched to microwave popcorn. Then I got annoyed because it seemed like we were always out and were constantly buying these boxes of little greasy flat bags of microwave popcorn. I was also always looking for something that tasted like what I used to make. You’d think the low-fat low-cal versions would do it, but they tasted so bland I could hardly believe I was actually eating popcorn…or anything.

Then when the local grocery store started carrying things in bulk I discovered I could fill up a bag of organic popcorn, which was not only cheaper than microwave (or pre-packaged organic), but healthier than microwave popcorn. The wok popper was back in action! 😀 For my wok I use a rounded 1/3 cup of popcorn and 3-4 Tbls oil, sprinkled with sea salt when it was done. I think 3 Tbls is optimal, but you can get away with a little bit more without the popcorn being too greasy. The wok shape is well suited to making popcorn, being very close to the size and shape of my old defunct popcorn maker. I have an electric stove and turn the burner to 6 (your stove may be different). Add oils, then popcorn, put the lid on and stand by to shake it when it starts popping good. 🙂 When the popping slows down to the point where there’s several seconds between pops you can take it off the burner and tip it into your favorite popcorn bowl.

After returning to wok popping I started experimenting with flavors, first adding Hungarian hot paprika to the oil (okay, but blackened). Then I hit on adding chili oil. I use Boyajian flavored oils. (They make a “natural butter flavor” popcorn oil, but I haven’t tried it yet.) So I substituted 1 Tbls chili oil for part of the oil. Then I tried substituting garlic oil for part of the oil. Then garlic and chili oil combined. Now I’ve added some basil oil to the mix. I’ve also experimented with butter, but butter is, surprisingly not as buttery as artificial butter, the taste of which is corrupting palates everywhere. I haven’t quite given up on butter as an ingredient, but I’m going to have to change my expectations of what it will taste like. Butter burns easily; substituting a small amount for some of the oil will prevent that, but then again, a small amount isn’t really discernible. 🙄

I’d recommend beginning as I did by substituting 1 Tbls of flavored oil for part of the 3 Tbls regular oil, then increase to 2 Tbls if the flavor isn’t strong enough, up to a total of 3 Tbls. Some flavored oils can be quite strong and some very mild. This can also vary with the brand you use (this post refers to using Boyajian oils), so begin with one flavor and gradually increase or add other flavors. That decreases the chance that you’ll end up with a badly seasoned batch. The great thing about beginning your own experiments with flavored oil by using tablespoons is that 3 teaspoons equal one tablespoon, so you can tweak the proportions very finely and use a number of oils, say, maybe use 2 teaspoons on one flavor and add an extra teaspoon of another flavor.

This article suggests that popcorn maybe a better “super food” than other much ballyhooed exotic foods. Glad the scientists are finally catching up with me. 😉 It’s been one of my all-time favorite snack foods for my whole life.

I was surprised to see that the amount of popcorn and oil in the article was the same as mine. I use 1/3 cup popcorn because that was the amount recommended for the now-long-defunct popcorn popper—but the amount of oil I’ve been using was just what I’d come up with on my own: the ancient popper had this tiny ring just above the bottom which indicated the amount of oil.

Unlike the instructions in the article at the beginning I don’t test pop a few kernals. It pops good and has few unpopped kernals, so I don’t know how important it is to get the oil to max heat before dumping in the 1/3 cup of popcorn. It gets a slight pre-heating because I put the wok on the (electric) burner and turn it on before I go to the pantry for the oils and popcorn, so the oil isn’t totally cold when the popcorn goes in, but it’s not to maximum heat. Avoid the temptation to crank the burner up on High then turn it down: it won’t cool down to the optimal temperature as fast as you think and you’ll end up with some charred pieces of popcorn. Not to mention oil on High is a good way to start a grease fire. (Caution: Do not leave wok on the stove unattended!)

As soon as I read the article on popcorn being a super food I went into the kitchen and made a batch of popcorn. 😎

Quinoa and Lentil Salad

quinoa lentil pilaf

Fresh and tangy, this salad hits the spot when looking for a light-tasting lunch.  I have made this recipe quite a bit and it’s been a hit with everyone who has tasted it.  You can make it as a side dish, eat it for lunch, or bring it to a neighbourhood barbeque (like I’ve done).  Make sure you rinse the quinoa and lentils before cooking.

You will need:

  • 1 cup quinoa
  • 1 cup red lentils
  • 1-2 red peppers, diced
  • 30 ml (2 tablespoons) olive oil
  • 30 ml (2 tablespoons) tamari
  • 1/4 cup orange juice
  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1/4 cup raisins
  • 1-2 cloves garlic
  • 1 teaspoon onion flakes
  • 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2-3/4 cup unsalted cashews

Cook quinoa and lentils together for 10 minutes.  You can put them in the cold water, wait to boil, and then keep on medium high.  Drain the quinoa and lentils and let cool.  Typically, I put them in the fridge until they get really cold.

Add the rest of the ingredients and mix well.  The salad is ready to eat; however, you may want to let it sit a while to let the ingredients get to know each other.  The longer it sits, the better it tastes.

Braised Greens

braised greensIsn’t this a gorgeous picture?  Mustard greens, Swiss chard, and kale simmering in vegetable broth – you can even see the steam rising!  This was the first time I had tried braising greens and they were delicious!

If you are unfamiliar with braising, it is a method to cook leafy greens in a small amount of liquid for a longer period of time than you would usually cook greens.  The slower cooking makes the flavour of the greens come alive, as well as tenderising them.  And it is so easy to do:

Put greens of your choice in a skillet and add vegetable broth until the greens are almost covered.  Next, add your favourite spices or herbs (I used garlic, onion flakes, black pepper, and Herbamare).  Cover the skillet tightly and simmer for 10-20 minutes.  If you have put a lot of greens in the skillet, go for the full 20 minutes.  The greens should be tender.

I drain the broth from the greens, but you can be inventive and make a sauce from the leftover broth.

Over the weekend, I served this with mashed potatoes and Tofurky kielbasa sausages – quite a tasty side dish!  I  have also braised greens and mixed them with the Potatoes with Curry recipe posted earlier.  One more tasty way to eat your greens!

Granny’s Banana Bread

Banana bread in 9x13 pan, just out of the oven.

Banana bread in 9×13 pan, just out of the oven.

This was my maternal grandmother’s recipe. She used to bake it for me when I was a child. We had 2 huge pecan trees in the backyard which provided a ready source of pecans. Pecans freeze well, so we always had a supply on hand. If you don’t have pecans on hand this is still excellent without them. Something unusual about this recipe is that it has a very fluffy cake-like texture and so is not baked in a loaf pan, but a 9″ x 11″ pan, then cut into kid-sized squares which I ate warm, straight from the pan.

2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter or margarine
1 1/3 cup sugar
2 eggs
2 ripe bananas, smushed
1/4 cup pecans

Melt-in-your-mouth good, hot from the oven!

Melt-in-your-mouth good, hot from the oven!

Use ripe bananas! This means they will have black spots on them. In our household when I was growing up, we called them “sugar spots”. 🙂 No spots: they aren’t ripe and consequently aren’t as sweet. The more spots the sweeter the banana.

Sift the flour together with the salt and baking soda.

Cream together the butter (or margarine) and sugar.

Add the eggs one at a time and beat well after each one is added.

Add smushed bananas and pecans, then add the flour mixture.

Bake at 300-325° in greased and floured 9″ x 11″ pan for about 30 minutes or until a toothpick stuck in the center comes out clean. (I usually bake 325 degrees and just a couple minutes longer with my oven.) Bakes well in 9″ x 11″ pan, however more than one pan of a smaller size could be used. Reduce baking time if smaller pans are used.

Unlike my Granny’s cornbread recipe which was passed down through the generations orally, my mother did actually write this down on an index card, probably because there were more ingredients and measurements to remember and this wasn’t made as often as cornbread. I’ve rewritten the recipe slightly for the sake of clarity and ease of use, but made no changes.

My grandmother was born at the end of the 19th century and had a third grade education. She wrote letters occasionally with an uneven handwriting, but as far as I know she never wrote recipes down. Though she lived with us when I was a kid and did some of the cooking, the index box in the kitchen with neatly lettered recipes was my mother’s. This was a family recipe, probably originating with my grandmother, great-grandmother or my grandmother’s sister. If I had to date the recipe I’d guess early 20th century. (I recently stumbled onto a photo online of a vintage official Chiquita Banana recipe and advertisement which was nothing like this, which strengthens the idea that this recipe was something one of the family matriarchs came up with based on their general knowledge of baking.) Granny had one cookbook, Searchlight Recipe Book, which she may have consulted on occasion (it has a lot of cooking techniques, tips, measurement equivalents etc in it), but the only recipe that I know of which she made from it was the “Dark Fruit Cake” which my father liked (and was the only fruitcake he’d eat). My grandmother cooked good, simple, plain food, and for her that was mostly a matter of putting ingredients together either from memory or instinct. My culinary legacy from my grandmother who helped raise me was Banana Bread, Cornbread, Okra and Tomatoes, and an old (1949) Searchlight cookbook, pages now yellowed, with strange inexplicably stains on recipes that no one had ever made.