Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Weekend Eats

funny pictures of cats with captions

Happy Memorial Day everyone. We didn't go out of town or even attend any BBQ's this year, instead we spent a lot of time in the park with Bella and just took the time to go to some places we'd been wanting to check out, including Foodswings in Williamsburg and Counter in the East Village. So I have one good review and one not so good review to share with you. Aren't you on the edge of your seats now, knuckles white from gripping your chair in suspense?


Here's a hint: Foodswings is AWESOME.  Those little gems you are looking at are the "drumsticks." We tried one of each flavor: Buffalo Style, BBQ, Southern Fried, and Sweet Southern Fried BBQ. Asking me which one I liked best would be like asking someone which one of their children they love the most. These are moist and juicy, and the texture was almost frighteningly realistic, but the different sauces (vegan blue cheese, BBQ, and what I think was a honey mustard) really put them over the top and are very literally finger-licking good. Look, I've eaten plenty of gourmet and fancy food, but I'm going to say that these are one of the best things I've ever had. If I'm not being clear here, they're REALLY REALLY GOOD.


Oh yeah, we also had a breaded chick'n cutlet sandwich, with soy bacon and ranch dressing, which was also crazy good, but after eating the drumsticks everything else kind of pales in comparison. The sandwich was really juicy and flavorful though, and their fries were perfection.


This is a very casual place, but everything is vegan and from what we can tell, really delicious. This isn't health food, people, but it's vegan fast (junk) food at its finest. It's a good thing for my waistline that we don't live close enough to eat here more often, but I'm already anticipating an excuse to head back over to W'burg for another round.

Which takes us to our second restaurant visit this weekend, which I'm not so enthusiastic about. This is the first time I'm giving a negative review on my site, and I feel bad about it, but I have to be honest. Counter was not very good.

We ordered from the brunch menu and my first complaint is that although they have several vegan options, they are not clearly labeled on the menu. So you end up having to ask which dishes are vegan and which are not. I asked if the frittata was vegan (it was) but our server said "yeah, yeah" as if it should have been obvious, but when they also serve real eggs on their menu, it's not at all obvious that the frittata would be vegan. We settled on an order of the french toast (again, vegan but not labeled on the menu as such) and the veggie burger.


The french toast wasn't bad, but it wasn't great either, and for $12 it should have been great. As you can see, it came plain, without any fruit or even garnish for that matter. And now that I'm looking again at their menu online, it should have come with fruit. On top of that, the bread was mostly dry and way too thickly cut. The side of hashbrowns that we ordered, though, were pretty good, although the homemade ketchup that we got with them was bland and had a strange aftertaste. 


I was so excited when the burger came because it looked fantastic, but was disappointing. Again, the bread was really dry and also far too thick. After a couple bites, I ended up taking the top off and eating the rest of it open-faced. The burger itself was described as a mix of mushrooms and homemade seitan, which made me think it would be really savory and meaty, but sadly it was also dry, grainy, and somewhat crumbly. It honestly reminded me of that veggie burger mix you get from a box. The fries that came with it were nicely spiced, but slightly on the greasy/soggy side instead of being crispy. It didn't taste horrible, but again, it was a whopping $16 and for that much, I expect a lot more!

Counter is a really cute, bistro-style place with such a tantalizing menu that just doesn't live up to expectations. That, on top of being overpriced, is a bad combination. I'm willing (and lucky to be able) to pay more for food that is organic, fresh, local, and high quality, but I don't think I'll be spending my money again at Counter. With so many other great vegan places, especially in the East Village in Counter's proximity, there's no need to be disappointed with your meal.

Foodswings
295 Grand St.
Brooklyn, NY 11211

Counter
105 First Ave.
NY, NY 10003

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Unique & Elegant Vegan Hors D'Oeuvres Class at Natural Gourmet Institute


This past week I took the "Unique & Elegant Vegan Hors D'Oeuvres" class at Natural Gourmet. You may remember that just the week before I took "Homestyle Chinese Cooking" there, and now I can safely say that Natural Gourmet is my favorite place in the city to sign up for cooking classes. They are so friendly, helpful, and organized, and offer a wide variety of interesting and all-vegan classes.

Our instructor was Louisa Shafia, author of Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life, and former chef at the famous Millennium in San Francisco. Louisa, if you are reading this, I would like to say that despite one student's bizarre skepticism at the beginning of the class (not mine!), your hors d'oeuvres were all unique and elegant, and delicious.

While none of the recipes alone were too difficult, we did learn how challenging it is to prepare and garnish so many bite-size pieces for a cocktail crowd. I've never worked in catering, but I can see now how labor-intensive it must be. Our menu included: Avocado Cucumber Soup Shooters with Toasted Almonds & Mint, Sundried Tomato & Thyme Puree on Crostini, Indonesian Corn Fritters with Tamarind Ketchup, Black Bean Chipotle Sliders, Baked Tofu Bahn Mi Sandwiches with Pickled Cucumbers & Miso Herb Dressing, and for a sweet bite, Green Tea Tofu Cheesecake Triangles with Graham Cracker Crust. Who wouldn't love to attend a party where all that was served?!

Baked Tofu Bahn Mi Sandwiches with Pickled Cucumbers & Miso Herb Dressing

The Baked Tofu Bahn Mi sandwiches had an absolutely amazing dressing on them, made from fresh pineapple, sweet white miso, dijon mustard, brown rice syrup, and other seasonings. It was sweet and tangy and really brightened up these little bites. Traditional bahn mi sandwiches usually have a fatty meat (pork), pickled vegetables, and lots of fresh herbs, so this was a much lighter, sweeter variation. I would definitely like to make this recipe for full-sized sandwiches too.

Indonesian Corn Fritters with Tamarind Ketchup

The Indonesian Corn Fritters were, without a doubt, the class favorite. I'm still dreaming about these delicious little fritters. Made from fresh corn and millet, and seasoned with lemongrass, ginger, and galangal, these were incredibly fragrant and flavorful. The homemade tamarind ketchup put them over the top. I am going to make these at home, and soon.

Sundried Tomato & Thyme Puree on Crostini

The Sundried Tomato Puree on the crostini was also very flavorful. The puree itself is actually raw, the tomatoes are basically blended in a processor with fresh squeezed orange juice, raw cashews, garlic, and herbs. It would also be delicious as a dip for crudite, to keep it all raw, or mixed into pasta as you would use any type of pesto.

Black Bean Sliders

These cute little open-faced black bean sliders were topped with a dollop of the tamarind ketchup from the corn fritters, and a pickled cucumber from the bahn mi sandwiches. The burger base is black beans, brown rice, walnuts, smoked paprika and other seasonings. They were a bit dry on their own, but definitely benefited from the condiments.

Avocado Cucumber Soup

I don't even like cold soup (I'm talking to you, gazpacho) but I actually liked this one. With jalapeno, cumin, lime, and mint, it had a completely unexpected kick to it.

Assortment of hors d'oeuvres that ended up in my belly.

And lastly, for dessert we had the green tea cheesecake bites. The crust was made from coconut oil, raw almonds, orange zest, sugar, and graham cracker crumbs. The filling was made from silken tofu, sugar, coconut oil, green tea powder, vanilla, orange and lemon juice. These were really delicious. There was just enough green tea powder to give it color and a hint of flavor - a delicate balance because too much green tea powder would make it bitter. The citrus juices really brightened these up, and it tasted like a perfect spring/summer dessert. My only complaint was that the texture was basically exactly like silken tofu - I'm going to play around with this recipe to see if I can make it a little creamier and fluffier, to give it a more traditional cheesecake mouthfeel.

Green Tea Tofu Cheesecake Triangles

Yum!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Homemade Shitake & Bok Choy Dumplings with Soy-Rice Vinegar Sauce


I recently wrote about the Homestyle Chinese cooking class that I took at Natural Gourmet. My #1 reason for signing up for this particular class was because I wanted to learn how to make homemade dumplings. I had bought a pack of dumpling wrappers some time ago at a grocery in Chinatown, and they've just been sitting in my freezer ever since, silently judging me. Frankly, I was a little intimidated by the thought of making dumplings. What to fill them with? How to fold them all nice and neat? Natural Gourmet came to my rescue.

Now I feel foolish because making homemade dumplings is SO EASY. Ridiculously easy, in fact, and fun! They just might be my new favorite thing to make. I'll show you here how I learned to make them, and share the recipe with you for both steamed and fried dumplings and their dipping sauce.

Shitake & Bok Choy Dumplings with Soy-Rice Vinegar Sauce
makes about 20 dumplings

For dumplings:
8 shitake mushrooms, cleaned, stemmed, and finely chopped
1/4 lb. baby bok choy, cleaned and finely chopped
1 carrot, grated
1/2 bunch chives, very finely chopped
1 Tbsp. fresh ginger, grated
1 Tbsp. toasted sesame oil
2 tsp. arrowroot
1 tsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground white pepper
20 round dumpling wrappers (*Check ingredients! The yellow wrappers usually have egg in them. The white ones are usually egg-free.)
4-5 soft lettuce leaves (like romaine) to line steaming basket

For sauce (makes 1/2 cup):
1/4 cup soy sauce
3 Tbsp. rice vinegar
1 tsp. toasted sesame oil
1 Tbsp. finely chopped scallion
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tsp. agave nectar

1. Make sauce: Combine all sauce ingredients and pour into dipping bowls.

2. Make dumplings: Combine all dumpling ingredients (except lettuce leaves) in a medium bowl. Mix together well, cover, and place in refrigerator 15 - 30 minutes. Take mixture out and squeeze out as much moisture as you can. (If you have cheesecloth and can use that to squeeze liquid out of the mixture, that would be perfect. I didn't have any cheesecloth, so I just squeezed out as much as I could with my hands.)


3. Put some water in a small bowl. Lay each dumpling wrapper on a flat surface. Dip your finger in the water and then use it to just moisten around the outer edge of the wrapper, in a circle. Do not use too much water or the wrapper will be very difficult to work with.


4. Place a rounded Tbsp. of filling in the center of each round, then fold neatly in half (like you are making a taco).



5. Here's the fun part. At the top of your "taco," use your fingers to pinch together the two sides at the top, so they create a little pucker (I like to call them fish lips) as shown in the photo below.


6. Take the puckered section, and fold the two "lips" over to the side, pinching the seams closed. Repeat this process once on each side of the center pleat, so that you have three pleats total. Pinch the seams closed so that dumpling is completely sealed, making sure to press out as much air as possible. Pick each dumpling up from the seamed edge and lightly tap the base on a flat surface until it can stand up on its own.





7. If you are going to steam your dumplings, line steamer with lettuce leaves, and place dumplings on top of leaves, as many as you can fit without them touching each other. Steam for 10 - 15 minutes.


8. If you are going to pan-fry your dumplings, add just enough oil (coconut or vegetable) to a non-stick pan on med-high to lightly coat the bottom of pan. Add as many dumplings to pan as you can fit without them touching each other. Cook dumplings undisturbed until they are browned on the bottom. Once you see they have browned, add some water (just enough so that there's maybe 1/4 inch of water on the bottom of the pan), quickly cover and steam about 10 minutes, until the water boils off and pan is mostly dry again. Serve hot with soy-rice vinegar sauce and enjoy!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Sunday Sandwich-a-Palooza

If you watch 30 Rock, you probably know that Liz Lemon's world view can be summed up thus: "All anyone really wants in this life is to sit in peace and eat a sandwich." Now that's a philosophy I can get behind. Everyone should be able to sit in peace and eat a sandwich. A vegan sandwich. And I'm going to show you some yummy vegan sandwich combos.

With the weather warming up, I find myself less and less inclined to spend my time in a hot kitchen cooking, so sandwiches are perfect. My absolute favorite sandwich requires no effort at all: peanut butter (crunchy, of course) and fig jam. This is a combo made in heaven. And apparently fig jam is also made in heaven, which explains the high transport costs, because this last jar that I bought from Whole Foods (insert "Whole Paycheck" joke here) cost a whopping $7.99! That's EIGHT BUCKS for a jar of fig jam. It's scandalous how much this cost, but I love this stuff so much. And it's not like I'm spending all my hard-earned dough on lobster and caviar, you know what I'm saying? A gal has to splurge once in a while, and fig jam is worth it, in my book. But to my readers out there, rest assured that there are more reasonably priced brands of fig jam to purchase. This just happened to be the only one I found on this particular shopping trip.

Fancy French fig jam

Fig jam also happens to be the secret ingredient in my newest favorite panini combo of the moment. It might sound weird, but I promise you'll love it. It's a delectable sweet-savory combo with tempeh bacon, caramelized onions, Daiya cheese, and fig jam, on raisin pecan bread.

Bacon, Carmelized Onion & Fig Jam Panini
makes 2 sandwiches

4 slices raisin pecan bread
1 med. onion, sliced into thin rings
4 slices tempeh bacon
about 1/2 cup of Daiya cheese, Mozarella style, shredded
2 Tbsp. fig jam
balsamic vinegar
2 Tbs. olive oil, plus more for grilling

1. Saute onions in 1 Tbsp. oil over med-low heat about 10 minutes until they slowly soften and begin to brown.


2. Once onions begin to brown, drizzle a small amount of balsamic vinegar over them. I used a fig balsamic vinegar, to complement the fig jam, but if you only have regular balsamic vinegar, that is fine too.



3. Saute bacon slices in remaining oil, until browned. Cut each slice in half in order to fit neatly onto the sandwich.
4. Divide cheese evenly between two slices of bread.


5. Add the bacon slices on top of cheese. Spread caramelized onions on top of bacon.



6. Spread fig jam onto top slices of bread. Brush outside of each sandwich with olive oil and press in either a panini maker or a grill pan until cheese melts and the sandwich is golden brown.


7. EAT!


Another combo that works particularly well with the raisin pecan bread we had is turkey, dijon, cheddar, and apple slices. Another salty-sweet combo that I love.

Turkey, Apple, Cheddar Panini
makes 2 sandwiches

4 slices raisin pecan bread
8 Tofurky Deli Slices (These slices are very thin. Use less if using another brand with thicker slices.)
about 1/2 cup Daiya cheese, Cheddar, shredded
1 Golden Delicious apple, cut into thin slices
dijon mustard
olive oil

1. Spread dijon mustard on all 4 slices of bread, then divide half of the cheese between 2 slices of bread.


2. Place 2 slices Tofurky on top of cheese, then arrange apple slices in a layer on top of Tofurky.


3. Place 2 more slices of Tofurky on top of apple layer, then divide the remaining cheese between the 2 sandwiches. (The layers should be bread, mustard, cheese, Tofurky, apples, Tofurky, cheese, mustard, bread.) Brush outside of each sandwich with olive oil and press in either a panini maker or grill pan until cheese melts and sandwich is golden brown.


If that's not enough sandwich excitement for you, don't worry, I have more. It seems the past three weekends in a row I've ended up at 'sNice, in either the Brooklyn or West Village locations. I wrote about my love for Terri already, but 'sNice just may be the best vegan sandwich place in NY. (Just for the record, they do have some dairy on their menu, so it's not entirely vegan, but the vast majority of their menu is vegan, and clearly marked as such.)

One of the best items at 'sNice is actually not a sandwich. It's the best milkshake I've ever had. Their milkshakes are all soy-based, and my favorite flavor is their malted. I honestly don't know if this is what they use, but you can buy vegan malt powder here. I haven't tried this myself, because if I were able to make these malted milkshakes at home, that could be a dangerous thing, and not just because it would bring all the boys to the yard. (Sorry, that was so lame, but I couldn't resist.)


But back to sandwiches. This is what we shared yesterday after an insanely long walk carrying approximately 30 pounds of coins that we needed to exchange at the bank (long story). This is just to say that by the time we got to 'sNice, we were ravenous like wild animals. We had a triple decker club sandwich that included layers of tofu, lettuce, tomato, vegan bacon bits, onion, and a thousand-island-type dressing.

Triple decker club at 'sNice

And also a Philly-style seitan sandwich with melted Daiya cheese and grilled peppers and onions on baguette. This is currently my favorite sandwich at 'sNice. It is really well seasoned and so good.

Philly-style seitan sandwich at 'sNice

And then the weekend before we shared a tempeh Reuben, with sauerkraut, cheese, and thousand island dressing:

Tempeh Reuben

And also a Thai "Chicken" wrap with chicken-style seitan, "Thai" salad (and by Thai, they seem to mean that it includes bean sprouts), and peanut sauce.

Thai "chicken" wrap

So that's my sandwich wrap-up for the week. I think we're going to be eating a lot of sandwiches in the near future, so this will probably be the first of an ongoing sandwich series. Unless I change my mind and decide to do a vegan milkshake series instead.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Chinese Homestyle Cooking Class at Natural Gourmet


I've been big into cooking classes lately. So far this year, I've taken the Winter Vegetarian Casseroles and Vegan Chocolate Desserts classes at the I.C.E. Last night, I took the Chinese Homestyle Cooking Class at Natural Gourmet Institute with the instructor Wai Hon Chu, co-author of The Dumpling: A Seasonal Guide. We had an all-vegan menu to prepare, which included: Shitake & Bok Choy Dumplings with Soy-Rice Vinegar Sauce, Stewed Daikon with Homemade Chinese Five-Spice Blend, Maitake Mushrooms & Silken Tofu in Black Bean Sauce with Baby Bok Choy, Stir-Fried Mung Bean Vermicelli with Bell Peppers, Bean Curd Rolls Stuffed with Shitake Mushrooms & Bamboo Shoots, Steamed Jasmine Rice, and lastly, for dessert, Sweet Potato Rice Balls in Sweetened Coconut Soup. Are you hungry yet?

We made the dumplings first, but sadly my hands were messy so I didn't pull my camera out. I learned how to fold and pleat them so they look all fancy like the ones you get in a restaurant. The dumpling filling was a mixture of shitake mushrooms (which featured prominently on the menu), bok choy (ditto), carrot, garlic chives, ginger, sesame oil, arrowroot, and soysauce. I'd always been a tiny bit intimidated to make my own dumplings, but now I love it! I will definitely make these dumplings again this weekend, so I can show you how we were taught to do them. (Oops, did I just commit myself?)

Next we broke into groups to make the three main dishes. My group made the silken tofu with maitake mushrooms, baby bok choy, and a black bean sauce. The bok choy we simply blanched for a few minutes until tender and arranged around the plate. I normally associate silken tofu with dessert items or smoothies and tend to cook with either firm or extra firm tofu for main courses, however I really liked the texture of the silken tofu in this dish. It was a nice contrast with the very "meaty," rich-tasting broth that was made from fermented soy (or "black") beans, mushroom broth, white miso, and some other spices. This was a very quick stir-fry and would be super easy to recreate at home.

Maitake Mushrooms & Silken Tofu in Black Bean Sauce with Baby Bok Choy

One of the other dishes was a surprise hit. I'm not sure that I ever had stewed daikon before, but I discovered that it tastes a lot like potato, and is great at absorbing all the good spices and seasonings in which it is cooked. Another reason this dish was a surprise was because I don't normally like five-spice powder, because I don't like star anise, or anything that tastes like licorice for that matter. Which includes fennel. The five-spice blend included Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, and fennel seeds, which pretty much guaranteed that I would hate it, but guess what? When cooked together with the daikon in a mushroom-based broth, it kind of mellowed out and the flavors all sort of harmoniously blended together. It was a very warm, comforting dish - just the kind of thing you would expect from a "homestyle" dish. It kind of reminded me of the the cooked potatoes and veggies (always my favorite part) that surrounded my mom's Sunday pot roast, just with Chinese seasonings, and minus the dead animal part. But you know, comforting.

Stewed Daikon with Homemade Chinese Five-Spice Blend

I realized that I also missed taking photos of the Bean Curd Rolls, but to be honest, they were my least favorite dish, so you're not really missing anything. Just imagine taking a big sheet of tofu skin, which I find somewhat unpleasant and rubbery, and filling it with some veggie stuff, then rolling it up pretty much like a burrito, steaming and then pan-frying it so it gets crispy. That's what it was. Meh. But the other dish was mung bean vermicelli, which is a really long way of saying "glass noodles," because that's what they are. If you've ever had Korean Japchae, then you know what glass noodles are. Surprisingly we used strips of jicama in this dish, which are not really Chinese, but make a good substitute for the more traditional water chestnuts, because of jicama's mild flavor and ability to stay crisp after being cooked. This was a good basic noodle stir-fry, and again, something easy to recreate at home, but it didn't blow my tastebuds away.

Stir-Fried Mung Bean Vermicelli with Bell Peppers

The final dish was our dessert, the Sweet Potato Rice Balls, which made me think of that Saturday Night Live skit "NPR's Delicious Dish: Schweddy Balls." I know, I'm real mature. The balls (haha...it never stops being funny) are made from a cooked sweet potato, mashed and mixed with sweet (glutinous) rice flour. It's quite similar actually to making homemade gnocchi. After you roll all the dough into little balls, they are boiled and then ladled into a barely warmed coconut milk sweetened with agave nectar. This is a nice, not overly-sweet, but very filling dessert.

Balls.

Sweet Potato Rice Balls in Sweetened Coconut Milk

Overall, the class was really fun and I brought home some new techniques and recipes. If you live in NY, and are interested in taking vegan cooking classes, I have to say that I preferred Natural Gourmet over I.C.E. because it was better organized and the assistants are so helpful they make you feel like they are your own personal sous-chefs. Both schools, however, are great and offer a wide variety of vegetarian and vegan classes. And next week, I will return to Natural Gourmet for "Unique & Elegant Vegan Hors D'Oeuvres." I can't wait to report on that class!