Thursday, July 31, 2008

Comfort food: veggie pot pie

A veggie pot pie can really be easy as pie. Made from items in your freezer and cupboard. And so delicious. Of course, put an old shoe in between two pieces of flaky crust and someone is bound to rave over it. Admittedly, the crust is not the healthiest food on the market, but there are some ways to reduce its effects.

For this veggie pot pie, start with the ingredients in the picture:

- bag of frozen "stew vegetables". Might be nice to get some that are not in huge chunks like these are but these do work.
- two frozen pie shells - vegan, of course (usually they are but not always) - you might want to choose whole wheat crusts if your grocer's freezer has them, for additional flavor and greater healthfulness.
- onion - or not, depends on your preferences - could also use frozen chopped onion
- mushroom or brown gravy mix, vegan. I didn't see any at my store, so I grabbed a can of sliced button mushrooms and some veggie broth instead, along with superfine flour (rice flour or regular wheat flour can substitute)
- soy-based vegan margarine

Not shown here: veggie seasoning. There are so many varieties of seasoning mixes out there. Go for flavors you love. I chose Spice Hunter's veggie grilling spice.

The steps:

Take the pie shells out of the freezer and separate. Let thaw a bit while you prepare the filling.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Melt 1-2 Tbsp of margarine in a saute pan. Chop the onion (if using) and add to pan, cook over medium heat, stirring, until it starts to get translucent. Add in drained can of mushrooms (if using). Stir and cook about a minute.

Add 1 - 2 Tbsp of flour (fine flour or rice flour is nice for gravies). I used 2 Tbsp here. Mix together, cook for about 30 seconds. Add vegetable broth, about two cups, a little at a time, stirring until mixed and thickened each time.

Alternatively, make up a batch of brown or mushroom vegan gravy from a packet.

Dump in the bag of frozen vegetables. Stir to coat and mix together. Add a generous dollop of vegetable seasoning (shake it on) and mix it up.

Pour into one of the frozen pie shells. Invert the second shell over the first. If it is mostly thawed you should be able to pat it down gently over the mixture and seal the edges by crimping them. Poke some holes in the top with a sharp knife.

Bake for about an hour. Check after about 20 minutes. If the crust is already browned you can tear some aluminum foil and wrap it around the edges to keep the crust from burning. Look for signs of bubbling filling. After 30 minutes, reduce heat to 350 degrees.

It's so yummy you'll want others around to share it.


* Use different mixes of vegetables. Add peas, corn, beans. If you use smaller pieces you can fit more in there and thus the ratio of good to bad (where "bad" is the oil in the crust) will increase. Add in fresh or frozen chopped bell peppers.
* Try a one-crust version. Pour the mixture into a pie pan and put a crust on top only.
* Use puff pastry - either as a full pie or smaller pockets.
* Use "chicken" vegan gravy.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Wrap parties aren't just for movie makers

Consider having a wrap party after the next football game. Or protest. Or whatever. Or just offer the materials for lunch or dinner.

Displayed here are several ingredients that can be made into wraps: avocados, salsa, sliced bell peppers, sliced tomatoes, sliced baked tofu, hummus, vegan mayo, veggie pate, little greens, and soy chorizo.

The soy chorizo can be cooked up in a few minutes in a saute pan and can be hot or cold. You might like to add refried beans and offer the option of making hot burritos.

This type party lends itself well to a group event, where each person brings one or two ingredients.

To make it even more fun and enjoyable consider taping a list of suggested groupings on the wall near the ingredients. For example, note that these ingredients go well together: hummus, soy chorizo, sliced tomatoes, avocados. For a great list of possibilites with catchy names, take a look at Vegan Express, by Nava Atlas.

Oh, one more advantage: leftovers. These kinds of ingredients move readily into other dishes later.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Vegan Fire and Spice: Just What the Tastebuds Ordered

Robin Robertson’s new cookbook, Vegan Fire and Spice, is garnering rave reviews from all over. And with good reason. The dishes are easy to make, use commonly-available fresh ingredients, and offer a splendid array of tastes.

Many of us who have been vegetarian or vegan for a while reach a point when we want to do more than order Indian take-out. We want to make Indian take-out. Not to mention African, Caribbean, South American, and more. We want to shake up our own kitchens by bringing in different techniques and flavors. This book promises to give us the means. The book is a reworking of Robertson’s Some Like it Hot, with all recipes veganized and 25 additional recipes added. It is also the first to be published by Robertson’s new enterprise, Vegan Heritage Press. I recently tested several of the recipes from different parts of the book and all were successful. Some made it to a coveted place on my sure-to-make-again list because they are simply too good.

The cookbook is divided into sections, each section a geographical region that is known for spicy and hot dishes. When you open to that section there is a list of recipes, categorized by “appetizers”, “soups”, and so on. The recipes, then, are not listed in their entirety in one place. The index is complete, however, so if you are looking for a specific recipe and don’t remember where it comes from you will find it there. It makes sense to look within a region for a menu of dishes rather than take a chance on mixing cultures, picking one from Italy and another from China, for example. For this reason I find the arrangement agreeable.

Each recipe is on its own page. No sharing. I prefer this standard, as it’s easier to find the recipe and to follow it.

There are no pictures, other than on the cover. I love pictures but I appreciate the economies of leaving them out. It adds to the adventure, too.

The recipes are easy to make. I admit to being an occasionally ambitious cook, happy at times to create complex dishes that take specialized skills. Most of the time, though, I prefer to put together meals quickly and easily and know they will turn out right even when some parts go wrong or I have to substitute some ingredients. Forgivable recipes, I call them, that’s what I look for.

From my experiments with Fire and Spice, I believe that’s what we have here: forgivable recipes. When I made the Senegalese soup (p. 119) the first time I got distracted and burned the mix of onions and celery. I didn’t want to start over so I scraped out the less-burned parts and dumped them in another pan and continued on. I suspect the soup would have been better if I’d had the full contingent of onion and celery and none of it was burned but it was nonetheless delicious. When I made the vegetable pakoras I didn’t chop the cauliflower enough, and I made the mistake of throwing in the cauliflower before I had the flour and water mixed. But I soldiered on and although the pakoras were not beautiful they were tasty indeed. Way too tasty, considering I made a full batch and there was only the one of me in the house.

Some of the mistakes I made came about because the recipes are not always as specific as they could be. One recipe calls for two Granny Smith Apples, another for a head of cauliflower, another for one or two yams or sweet potatoes. Not all of these recipes specify the size of these vegetables or an alternative measure, like weight or number of cups. In my experience some vegetables and fruits can vary dramatically in size. Sometimes the directions lack a little: the pakora recipe says to mix enough water into the flour mix to “make a batter”. But how thick?

And sometimes the timing is off. When I made the Chickpea and Green Bean Curry (p. 158) I had to make my dinner guest wait because it took much longer for the green beans to cook than estimated. My beans were fresh and cut according to directions and I think they were typical of what you would find in a grocery vegetable section, so I’d suspect my experience would be typical. Most of the time I did find the time estimates within the recipes to be accurate, however. What I would have appreciated, though, would have been estimates of time to make the entire dish.

Minor gripes. Most of the recipes do list ingredients by weight or cups and most of the directions are clear and unmistakable in intent.

The recipes call for fresh vegetables and fruits most of the time. Occasionally they require canned diced tomatoes or canned beans, but most of the ingredients are fresh, as they would be in their native countries. This means you do need to do a little preparation. The good news is that most of this preparation can be done ahead of time, as it would be in a restaurant if you were the sous chef (according to Wikipedia the more correct term may be commis chef, one who prepares vegetables unaided). The better news is that this is basic prep, nothing fancy, nothing beyond you.

Should you be new to kitchen equipment or preparation, though, there is a helpful section at the beginning of the book that tells you all you will need to know. There is also a section on the nature of spices, chiles, and other “exotic” ingredients. I inserted the quotation marks because seitan is about as exotic as they get here, meaning you should be able to find most of the ingredients, or reasonable substitutions, in any well-stocked grocery store, and the few remaining can be obtained at a natural foods store or even online.

Using fresh ingredients means the dishes will taste as good as they should. It’s worth using the freshest you can find because you’ll notice the difference.

Even though I see this book as the guide to an adventure the seasoned vegan is going to want to take, a brand new vegan cook can confidently prepare these delicious dishes and be proud.