Sunday, August 25, 2013

Jackfruit Soft Tacos

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Yields 2 servings
Active Time: 1 hour
Passive time: 2 hours, to cook the jackfruit

I grew up in the southern part of the United States, where barbeque potlucks were standard and frequent social events throughout the summer. What I remember most vividly from them was the searing heat coming off of the barbeque pits, and how it mingled with the oppressive heat that defined the season. Barbeque sauce offerings were diverse, spanning from basic concoctions to Cheerwine and other cola-based marinades. I remember waiting in lines dotted with endless large plastic bowls of sides, like Duke's mayonnaise-laced potato and cold pea salads, canned fruit, deviled eggs and chocolate cake. I remember feeling the weight of the food on my patterned styrofoam plate as I made my way to one of the many wooden picnic or folding tables arranged on the grass or under a canopy, excited to taste everything even though I was familiar with it already. 

Although pulled pork is something I no longer want or need in my life, discovering canned jackfruit and manipulating it into a similar-textured product in this application unexpectedly brought back some of the sensory memories associated with those potlucks. Even though the contents of my plate as well as my feelings and opinions about animal-based food has changed dramatically over the years, I love the ability food has to evoke seemingly small but powerful sensory memories

The more I use jackfruit, I think of it less of a meat analog and more of a textural element that pairs perfectly with crisp and fresh complimentary ingredients. Here I've used heavily seasoned jackfruit as a soft taco filling, and garnished it with radishes, carrots and watercress, then finished it off with a rich, cilantro-laced sauce. Everything here tastes clean and vibrant, and can be completely prepped ahead of time (and easily doubled or tripled) to create an easy, low-maintenance meal for guests or just for two. 

for the sauce
6 oz. Tofutti sour cream (1/2 container)
2 tsp tahini
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
1 tsp apple cider or coconut vinegar

for softening the jackfruit
2, 20 oz. cans of jackfruit in water or brine (this can be found in most Asian markets or online)
3 cups vegetable broth (more or less, to ensure the jackfruit is completely submerged)

for the seasoning and baking the jackfruit
1, 1 oz. packet of pre-made taco seasoning
olive oil, for greasing the baking sheet

to serve
soft tortillas
watercress, lettuce or mache
radishes, sliced thinly or on a mandoline
sliced carrots
fresh cilantro
lime wedges
sliced Thai chilis

To make the sauce, combine all of the sauce ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth. Transfer to a container and allow to chill.

To soften the jackfruit, place it into a crockpot with the broth. Cook over high heat for about 2 hours. Remove the jackfruit from the broth* and allow it to slightly cool, then gently break it into flakey pieces with a fork. Any tough ends can be cut up into smaller pieces with a knife and the seeds can be discarded.

Preheat your oven to 350. Place the jackfruit into a bowl and sprinkle with the seasoning. Stir well to combine.

To bake the jackfruit, lightly grease a baking sheet and place the it on it in a single layer. Bake for 40-50 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes to prevent burning or sticking. Test the jackfruit after 40 minutes—it should be dry but still have a soft bite to it. Bake for an additional 10-20 minutes as needed.

Allow the jackfruit to slightly cool, then serve immediately, or transfer to a container and refrigerate until ready to serve. It tastes good warm or cold.

Serve the tacos with the fresh vegetables and chilled sauce on the side. Assemble as desired.

* The leftover broth can be reserved for another application or frozen for future use.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Cultured Cashew Cheese

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Yields: one cup of cheese
Active time: 10 minutes
Passive time: overnight, to soak the cashews, then 6-12 hours to culture, plus 12 hours more to allow the flavors to blend

Before I went vegan, I was obsessed with cheese. One of my favorite things was to stop by a well-stocked cheese case in a grocery store and read all of the names of the cheeses and wonder what each one tasted like. I used to consume whole wheels of brie in one sitting, savoring its oily gooeyness, or repeatedly slice into marbled hard cheeses, admiring the different patterns revealed in each slice before relishing each bite. However, once I went vegan, that obsession went away and, after sampling a slice of commercially prepared vegan cheese and hating it, the need for the taste went away altogether. 

A few years later, I fell in love with grilled cheese made with Tofutti slices, and teared up when I tasted melted Daiya for the first time during a trip to Seattle at Pizza Pi. Commercially prepared vegan cheese has come a long way over the past few years, and I now consume and savor it with the same level of obsession I used to have with dairy-based cheese.

Even though I can easily buy Daiya or Tofutti the shelf, I still like to experiment with making vegan cheese at home. After seeing several intriguing methods for making nut-based fermented cheese floating around out there, I decided to develop a similar version using coconut vinegar and coconut cream, a combination I use often and love. Once combined, the vinegar and fat play perfectly off one another, and the level of richness and acidity can be easily manipulated by tweaking the ratios.

I made several test batches of this cheese and think that placing it into a dehydrator for 6 hours produces superior results, but it can also be placed in a dark spot at room temperature for 12 hours to develop. The dehydrated version will offer a more intense and complex depth of flavor with a slightly darker color, while the room temperature version will yield a mild flavor and a brilliantly white color. If the concept of fermenting/culturing isn't your thing, you can skip it, and simply place the mixture into the refrigerator for the flavors to mingle for 12 hours before adding any additional flavorings (suggestions below).

1 cup whole raw cashews, soaked overnight
1/3 cup water
4 tsp coconut vinegar* 
couple pinches of salt
pinch of sugar
2 probiotic capsules (open the capsule, and add the powder only to the mix)
1-2 TB unsweetened canned coconut milk (skim the heavy part off the top of the can)

Rinse the soaked cashews in cold water, then transfer to a blender or food processor. Add the water and puree until very smooth. It's ready when you can rub the mixture between your thumb and index finger and not feel any grit. 
(I have an older blender, so I puree for a full minute, then allow it to cool/rest for a bit, then repeat about 5 times to obtain the right smoothness.)

Add in the coconut vinegar, salt and sugar and puree again. Stir in the probiotic powder. Do not add in the coconut milk yet.

If using a dehydrator: Scrape the mixture into a nut milk bag. Place into a dehydrator, flattening it out as needed if you have a layered tray dehydrator. Dehydrate at 115 degrees for 6 hours. Final result: intense flavor, slightly darker color.

If you don't have a dehydrator: Transfer the mixture into a sanitized glass jar. Cover with a tea towel and secure with a rubber band. Place in a dark spot (I put mine in my kitchen cabinet) for 12 hours. Final result: mild and tangy flavor, bright white color.

If you don't want to dehydrate or leave at room temperature: Transfer the mixture to a container and place into the refrigerator for 12 hours. Final result: mild and subtle flavor, white color.

Next, scrape the mixture into a clean container and add in the coconut milk and stir. Add any additional flavorings to taste** (or leave it plain), then cover and place in the refrigerator for an additional 12 hours to allow the flavors to develop. 

The cheese will last a couple of days in the refrigerator. Use it on bagels, crackers, crusty bread or with fruit and vegetables, or as a vegan goat cheese substitute.

* I think coconut vinegar is the best vinegar to use for vegan cheeses, and strongly recommend using it over apple cider vinegar, as I've received mixed reviews on using it in cheese applications like this.

** Herbs, dried or fresh, such as dill, tarragon or chives; olives, crushed nuts, minced garlic, nutritional yeast, tahini, sun dried tomatoes or mellow miso. Salt and pepper, to taste.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Farro Crab Cakes

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Yields: 12 cakes
Active time: 50 minutes
Passive time: 1 hour, to chill the mixture

I'm at a really weird place in my life right now. A few months ago, I quit my seven-year old job in legal marketing to take some time off to refocus my life and priorities. I've never not worked full-time for as long as I can remember (since 1997!), so the prospect of being unemployed terrified me. 

Removing that piece from my life has had a profound effect on how I conduct my days: long walks outside have replaced sitting in an office and commuting into work on the bus and subway; my cat's occasional meowing and small talk with neighbors has replaced daily conversations with my coworkers; and cleaning the house, cooking or taking a yoga class has replaced my task and project lists at work. Neither one is better or more valuable than the other, just different. And I've had more time to reflect and think about things without the frustration or stress of work occupying any type of space in my mind.

During my entire working career, I was always a type-A, anxiety-filled perfectionist, and I assumed that this recent gift of time off would have shaped me into a more relaxed and centered human being. However, what I've learned in the past few months is this: I am and always will be that anxiety-filled person no matter what is going on in my life. Despite having succeeded in several areas of my life, I will always tend to be the kind of person who serially dodges taking risks and fears failure more intensely than anything else, and adjusts my actions accordingly. This way of thinking has kept my life predictable and certain, but has also kept me in the same spot professionally and—in some ways, personally—throughout my life.

During my time off, I've spent some time thinking about how my life would be different if I weren't so irrationally anxious, and realized that this kind of energy has also served me in positive ways. The energy that fuels my nervousness and overthinking is the same energy that also allows me to enjoy creating new ideas and to execute and perfect them with an obsessive passion. This blog is just one outlet for that energy, and has become a unique, unexpected and perfect vehicle for connecting with other vegan or veg-curious readers (that's you!)—so thank you if you've actually read this far into this post and continue to read this blog. One of my biggest motivations to keep up the blog is the interaction with, and feeling that I am also a part of, the larger vegan community out there.

Although these past few months have definitely made me think about my life differently, I don't think I've changed much as a person. Unemployment has had its benefits, but I look forward to working full-time again in the coming months.

In the meantime, I wanted to share one of my favorite recipes I came up with a few months ago—farro crab cakes. Their texture is super similar to tempeh-based crab cakes, and offers that signature toothsome and flaky-textured bite. You can make the batter one hour or the night before, and all the prep that's left is a quick breading of panko and a quick brown in a hot pan. These crab cakes are perfectly finished with a dab of sriracha-Vegenaise or creamy dill sauce to make a filling brunch or light dinner. 

for the crab cakes
1 cup of farro
3 cups broth
1/4 cup shallots, minced
1 sheet of toasted nori, crushed into a powder
1 tsp Old Bay seasoning
1 tsp dried dill
1-2 tsp sriracha
2 tsp capers, plus 2 tsp of the brine
8 Ritz crackers, crushed with your fingers
1 1/2 tsp Ener-G, whisked with 2 TB water
1 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 TB raw tahini
1/4 cup chopped red or orange bell pepper

1/3 cup panko crumbs, for breading
cooking spray, or olive oil, for frying

for serving
1/8 cup each of sriracha and Vegenaise, for serving OR 1 tsp dried dill, mixed with 1/3 cup Vegenaise

To prepare the farro, rinse it in a sieve, then transfer to a medium-sized pot. Add the three cups of broth, bring to a boil, then cover and reduce to a low simmer for about 25 minutes. Check the farro after 20 minutes—it should be slightly chewy and expanded to twice its size. Continue to simmer for an additional 5 minutes if needed, then drain any extra broth off the farro and allow it to cool. 

Transfer the farro to a food processor and pulse just a few times—you still want it to be a little chunky. Remove it from the food processor and place it into a medium-sized bowl.

Next, transfer the rest of the crab cake ingredients into the food processor, except for the bell pepper, and pulse until combined, then transfer it into the bowl with the farro.

Fold in the bell pepper and stir to combine. Then, place the mixture in the refrigerator to chill for at least an hour.

When you are ready to make the crab cakes, divide the mixture in half, then form six equal portions from each half to create 12 equal-sized portions. Roll them into balls, then flatten them out between your palms a bit. Press them into the panko crumbs, tapping off any extra.

Heat a skillet over medium heat. Add about a tablespoon of olive oil or some cooking spray into the pan, then fry the cakes until golden brown. Serve immediately with the sriracha or dill sauce. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Cauliflower Jerky

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Yields about 2 cups
Active time: 15 minutes
Passive time: 12-14 hours

A few weekends ago, our refrigerator stopped working. What elevated it from being annoying to obnoxious was the fact that we had bought it brand new less than one year ago. Although the unit was fixed by the end of the day, we still lost everything in our freezer as it stopped working the night before, and most of our refrigerated items became slightly warm and soggy.

As I waited for the repairman to show up (they gave us no window of time), I did a quick inventory of what I had in my refrigerator without opening it and knew I had some kale and cauliflower that needed to be salvaged. I quickly opened the refrigerator, snatched up my fresh vegetables along with a bit of leftover broth that needed to also be used up, closed it, then pulled out my dehydrator in the effort to preserve the vegetables without a cool place to store them.

To achieve a jerky-like texture, this cauliflower was drenched in a thick blend of tahini, nutritional yeast, sriracha, apple cider vinegar, liquid smoke and broth, then dried at 130 degrees for 12 hours—and was worth the wait! This cauliflower is pleasantly chewy, while the sriracha imparts a nice subtle and even heat throughout. A generous sprinkling of salt before and after dehydration is complete is essential to pull all of the flavors together here while a bit of dried parsley adds a nice pop of color throughout. 

1/4 cup, plus 2 TB raw tahini
1 TB nutritional yeast
1-4 tsp sriracha 
1 TB apple cider vinegar
1/2 tsp liquid smoke OR smoked paprika
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup vegetable broth, plus a bit more as needed to make the batter smooth, but still thick
One head of cauliflower, separated into small, evenly sized florets*
dried parsley, for serving
extra salt, for serving

*Try to cut the florets as small as possible—the smallest pieces get the chewiest and have the best flavor.

Combine the tahini, nooch, sriracha, apple cider vinegar, smoke element and salt together. Add in the vegetable broth and gently stir until smooth. You want it to be the consistency of a beer batter. Add a bit more broth to achieve a thick but smooth texture.

Toss the small florets into the mixture. Stir gently until every piece is well covered. 

Distribute the florets into an ever layer into a dehydrator. Sprinkle the salt evenly over the top. Dehydrate at 130 degrees for 12-14 hours. Sprinkle with a little extra salt and dried parsley to taste once dehydration is complete.