Thursday, August 20, 2009

hey, I could make vegan sushi

Yeah, I know, another food post. But the reality is, I make more food than anything else.

I never liked sushi, despite the ravings of all my friends. It was the fish that turned me off, and the fishiness of the seaweed. When I discovered that sushi can be made with other stuff-- lots of other stuff-- I decided to give it another try. It took a little while to get used to the ocean-debris flavor of the seaweed wraps, but the stickiness of the rice and the complexity of the sweet-sour-salty-spicy rolls dipped in soy sauce and wasabi got me hooked.

Going out for sushi can be an expensive habit, and gets pretty boring if you're a vegan; at many restaurants, you're limited to one or two rolls, usually cucumber and avocado or asparagus. If you can learn to make sushi at home, though, the possibilities are limitless. And it's not as hard as it seems.

I've seen it made at home with more and less intricacy, but here's what Mr. Annie and I did last night (much credit to his practiced expertise.) Generally speaking, the only specialty tools you need are a bamboo mat to roll it up with and a wooden spatula to stir the rice with. As always, improvisation saves the day if you can't find or afford these things; you could probably form the rolls with wax paper or plastic wrap, and mix the rice with a regular wooden spoon or even your hands. I dunno. It seems like it would work.

The ingredients are a bit trickier. Most importantly, buy sushi rice. Don't use plain medium- or even short-grain rice. Trust me. They even have it at the crappiest Giant here. You'll also want some rice wine vinegar-- this is good to have on hand anyway-- NOT some other kind. Really, the rice is my favorite part, so don't mess it up. Also sugar, but you probably have that.

As for the seaweed (nori), I'm really a neophyte. All I know is, make sure it's fresh or it'll get crackly and hard to roll, possibly also grosser. I'm not great friends with the sea vegetables, but some have less of a seaside aroma and flavor; the kind we used last night was dark, dark purple and smelled the least offensive of the four or five packages kicking around the kitchen. You can also use rice paper if you really can't handle the seaweed taste. I would not blame you.

Fillings! The best part. Put in whatever you want to. Purists might prefer avocado, cucumber, asparagus, weird mushrooms, pickled vegetables, daikon, etc... Try those, do. Then branch out. The most fun part of a sushi-making party is trying new combinations of flavors and textures, so turn on your brain juices and throw in whatever seems good.

I do like the traditional dip, though: soy sauce mixed with wasabi. Adjust to taste, dunk judiciously, enjoy.

Making the sushi itself is kind of time-intensive, but not really difficult once you get the hang of it. Getting the rice just right takes practice, but start with the recipe on the bag. I would generally use less sugar and vinegar than they suggest, since you can always add more if you find it bland.

Okay, so rolling. This instructable describes the whole process probably better than I can, and explains some of the more fancy-shmancy ways to make it. Steps 3 through 9 actually describe the rolling process, though, if you don't want to just wing it. Make sure your knife is sharp.

My favorite roll of last night's attempt was an "inside-out" (uramaki) roll filled with peaches, vegan cream cheese, and chiffonaded mint from the garden. We toasted and crushed Cheerios and covered the outside with the crumbs.

(avocado, asparagus, cucumber: the trinity.)

Makes good lunch the next day, too. Your office will be jealous.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

hey, I could make my own conditioner

Okay, so I was visiting my sister in Boulder, CO this past weekend and used her Avalon-brand rosemary conditioner. I loved the scent that followed me around for two days afterward (it was a kind of grungy trip, and the desert, so lay off.) When I went to pick up a bottle at my local organic market, I noticed it was $11-- or a dollar per ounce. I've got a job and everything now, but I still can't rationalize spending a dollar every time I condition my hair. A bottle of rosemary essential oil, on the other hand, cost about $5, so I picked that up instead.

I'd seen recipes before for flaxseed hair gel, so I scooped about a half-pound of brown flaxseeds from the bulk bins ($2 or so, also good in granola and smoothies if you're a hippie like me, apparently.) A quick surf of the invaluable led me to a recipe for homemade conditioner/gel using just oil, water and guar/xanthan gum. Xanthan is god-damn expensive, so I just grabbed a jar of guar-- I'll have to see if it improves vegan baked goods too-- on my next jaunt to the Health Concern.

From what I've gleaned by reading people's wild ideas on the internet, it seems like the point of conditioner is to spread a thin layer of oil on your hair to replace the natural oil you strip off when you clean it with shampoo. I'm not sold on shampoo in general, but it's what I'm using now. Basically, what you need to do is to emulsify the right amount of oil in something, like water, that will deliver it evenly. In my conditioner, I used water and flaxseed goop because I liked the idea of flax proteins, and I thought I might try it as a leave-in conditoner, in which case the goop would give it more hold.

Here's what I did:

1 cup water + 1 tsp flax seeds + 1 tiny cast iron skillet
bring to a boil, simmer until reduced in half and gooey. strain out the flax seeds, play with the slime.
I would probably reduce this down a little more next time, since the conditioner ended up thin.

pour the flax goo, 1/2 cup water, and 1/4 tsp guar gum into the food processor, whir until thin. add a few teaspoons olive oil (what we had in the kitchen) and a teaspoon or so of the oil that separated off the almond butter in the cupboard (why not?) squeeze a little lemon juice in (I've heard acid helps smooth the hair shaft) along with some shakes of the essential oil and mix again.

The resulting goop was... less goop-like than I would have liked, so I shook in more guar gum (maybe 1/4 tsp more) until it thickened up to a good consistency. A stint in the freezer to cool it helped too.

I tried a couple of containers for this, including a glass jam jar and a hot sauce bottle (well-washed, don't worry) before remembering the emptyish hand soap pump kicking around the bathroom.

The verdict? Mr. Annie and I both used it in the shower, and for his shorter, thicker hair it worked really well. My longer, finer hair ended up kind of oily the next morning, although I kept touching it in the evening because it was so soft. The rosemary scent had all but disappeared the next morning too... maybe a result of cheap oils? I'll keep working on this one...

Monday, October 13, 2008

hey, I could make dinner with the spare change in my car

I don't even have to say the E word, right? The thing is, most people I know had no money before the world ended last week, so hey. Same old. Tonight is another night of eating in, and eating on the cheap. And what says Depression Couture like lentils? Here's a kick-ass recipe for lentil soup, another food that can go terribly wrong (but doesn't have to.) It's adapted from the indomitable Bryanna Clark Grogan, who calls it Shawrbat'adas Filasteeniya (Palestinian lentil soup.) I'd also like to point out that these proportions will feed four hungry people, at least. That means that the cost per person, not including energy and time (about 45 minutes) is just about 63 cents.

1 large sweet onion: $.40*
1 cup red lentils: $.85
1/4 cup jasmine rice: $.10
1 tsp cumin: $.05
1 tsp turmeric: $.05
1/4 c olive oil: $.55
2 low-sodium vegetable boullion cubes: $.50
salt: ? not much.
total: $2.50

Heat up a nice big soup pot on medium heat. Dice the onion. Add the oil, let it heat up for a moment, then toss in the onion, along with a pinch of salt (to help draw out water and instigate caramelization.) While they're browning, dissolve the boullion cubes in six cups of hot water. (Don't get it from your tap unless you like the taste of heavy metals. Heat it up your own self. ) You can use broth if you want (more on this and life with a juicer at a later date) but I find boullion cubes, powder, or concentrate more convenient.

Once the onions look nice and brown, throw in everything but the rice. Bring it to a boil, reduce to low, and cook covered for 15 minutes. Then, add the rice, cover, cook for 15 more minutes.

At this point, the soup is done in the sense that you could choose to stop here. But, if you've got the equipment and time, there's an optional step that I think is worth it. I use a pitcher-type blender for this because it's what I've got, but I bet an immersion blender would be a lot easier and less hazardous. Next time I might try the food processor. Working about a cup and a half at a time, blend about half the soup into a puree, and add it back into the pot. It sounds easy, but blending hot soup is a fool's errand if ever I embarked upon one. Just remember: keep it small, and don't be shy about holding that lid on.

I think this soup is rich and satisfying, and I'm pretty lukewarm on lentils in general. It's reminiscent of a soup I had once in an Indian restaurant, except this one doesn't have butter and it's a lot cheaper. You can toss in a pinch of curry powder, some black pepper, cayenne, whatever you want. Oh, and a note on turmeric: as the poor man's saffron, it's definitely a lifesaver. But boy does it stain. If you're attached to your countertops, try not to set your spoon on them after you stir the pot.

*Obviously, I've listed the prices of each ingredient; yours probably won't be exactly the same, and my math might be faulty. It kind of scared me just doing this amount of division. And, I tended to round up instead of down. Just a disclaimer.

I buy my lentils, rice, and spices in bulk at the Indian-Pakistani grocery down the street. I know the guy who runs it since I like to support my local grocers, and he cuts me a deal on a samosa now and then. More importantly, his store, like many other ethnic groceries I've been to, has a great deal on imported goods like spices, beans, and grains. I buy herbs and spices there in plastic packets at about half the price of grocery store jars. Rice costs less than a dollar a pound-- for the good stuff-- and red lentils are comparable. If you're lucky enough to have one of these around, and their prices are right, I urge you to support them. It's easier than getting up at 9 on a Saturday morning to buy apples at the farmers' market for $4/lb, and you're still supporting local, independent businesses. I'm not saying you shouldn't go to the farmers' markets, but Sudivha Bazaar ain't Wal-Mart either.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

hey, I could make tofu taste good

In a move that some people might call ironic, my move to veganism involved a move away from tofu as a staple. Because the reasons I left meat and dairy are led by environmental concerns, it makes sense also to question the soy mega-industry in America. The tofu I do buy is organic (Trader Joe's is a good source for this, cheap) but I'm wary of monocultures both in our farmlands and in my body.

BUT tofu is still a convenient, versatile source of protein for an exhausted student. And if you're gonna cook it, cook it right.

The way I start most stir-fry type recipes involving tofu is the same. Where you go from there is what changes a bland, boring basic into a culinary event. So:

Start with extra-firm tofu. I guess firm is okay too, but why not go for it and get the good stuff. It's the same price anyway. They (the vegetarian food police) say you should always press your tofu before you cook with it, to get all that extra water out. I never do this because I am too impatient and because it doesn't seem to make much difference as long as you cook it right. I do dump the block onto my cutting board and press it (over the sink) with my hand for a few seconds, like squeezing a big sponge. Good enough.

Then, heat up your biggest frying pan on low heat. My jury is still out on non-stick or not, but I use what I got and right now I got teflon. If you're working with something else, heat up the pan dry, then add the oil. It'll keep the food from sticking so bad. I don't know why.

While you're heating the pan, slice up your tofu. I generally just lay it big-surface-down and slice it into 1/2 inch slabs, but you can make triangles or sticks or whatever inspires you. Just don't make the pieces too small since you'll have to turn them over one by one later.

Add just a little oil. I can't say how much because it's a secret or maybe I just don't know. Just don't put in too much or you'll get oil burns, I promise. Make sure the heat is low. Then, lay your tofu down easy. If you can't fit it all in, put the rest in a container and cover it with water, then stick it back in the fridge and remember to use it up within a couple of days.

Let your little tofu buddies bubble and crackle for like five minutes or so, until you can see a little bit of brownedness creeping up from the bottom. Flip them over gently with a fork or a tiny, tiny spatula (I happen to have one of these for some reason.) If they stick, they're probably not ready. Listen to the tofus.

Repeat this process on the second side. Then, you can either pour in a glaze like this delicious one or toss in some chopped veggies and toss the whole thing around. I like to do both, and with the second option I usually top it off with some peanut sauce and dump the whole thing on some rice noodles.

If you know someone who "doesn't like tofu" make them try it this way. Then explain to them that's like not liking potatoes. Just silly.