Sunday, September 25, 2011

Thai Cucumber Soup

Hello, fellow herbivores. Long time, no blog.

At some point in time, I'll probably write a rambling muse on the therapy of cooking here in this journal--because, quite frankly, cooking is one of the few activities that I've found that truly relax me and can help cure a bad mood.

And I've had a lot of those lately--bad moods, that is. To sum it up, less than four months ago, I escaped nearly three years of an abusive relationship. And upon being on my own, I found myself more concerned with my favorite alcoholic recipes and constantly being around other people, rather than the joys of cooking for myself. So, several weeks, countless hangovers, and about ten added pounds of body weight later, I gave myself a kick in the ass. Well, a very gentle one--more like a pat. Simply put, I decided to stay in one night and cook for myself. After relishing in a capri salad and cheese ravioli, I remembered the peacefulness in cooking. The quietness of the kitchen, the ability to be alone but not left with thoughts of stress, just thoughts of...flavor. Relishing. As I'm writing this, two pop culture images come to mind. One, the 1999 romantic comedy Simply Irresistible and one of my favorite newer works of fiction, Aimee Bender's The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. In both, the female protagonist eventually realizes that whatever emotion she is experiencing ends up being "tastable" in her cooking product. In Simply Irresistible, the chef cries a tear and her customers all cry tears of joy when they eat her entree; in Lemon Cake, the main character has a repulsion to eating because she always experiences the emotions of the chef, until she learns to cathartically release her own troubles by becoming a chef herself. Indeed, just as artists experience emotion in their creativity, so does a chef, even an amateur like myself. There is an enjoyable solitude, a creative outlet, and a sense of playful fun in preparing food for myself--all feelings I have not been able to find, in any other activity, in the midst of my personal troubles.

So through the past couple of weeks, I have played with new recipes (which I will soon be sharing) and old favorites, modifying even standards like vegetarian chili. Also, yesterday I decided to take my health into better concern. For several weeks, I have been toying with the idea of leading a more vegan lifestyle. I'm sure I will post more on this in coming weeks. I don't have, necessarily, a more opposition to dairy or egg products, but I do wish to cut out as many unnecessary animal products in my life, such as gelatin. As I've mentioned this to my friends, I've been continuously cautioned about the health risks in becoming 100% vegan, which I don't think is ever going to be my goal. I see myself being halfway between vegetarian and vegan, hopefully, at some point. Still, it has made me reflect on my health. While in the cycle of an abusive relationship, my weight fluctuated from quite slender to quite plump--up fifteen pounds, down fifteen pounds, repeatedly. As my emotions plummeted when my self-rescue didn't prove to be quite as revolutionary as it could have been, my weight seemed to maintain at, well, plump. Not fat, but not in shape, not fit. I lived on greasy bar food like onion rings and jumbo pretzels, Taco Bell, delivery pizzas, and these irresistible walnut brownies I kept finding at the E.W. James bakery. So don't be surprised if you start seeing calorie-conscious entries in this blog, which formerly was focused on fattening comfort foods and sinful desserts!

So, now, let me share with you what I'm actually eating now while I'm writing this blog, because it's pretty damn tasty. Whoever said that vegetarian food is bland has evidently never tried any variation of Thai cucumber soup, because this is one of the most overwhelmingly flavorful dishes I've ever prepared. (Or is it just all of that emotion I'm finally allowing myself to experience, pouring itself out into the pot around the flakes of parsley?)

I grew my own tomatoes and cucumbers this year, a venture that has been overwhelming. Who could've guessed the amount of produce five vegetable plants would provide? Overloaded with cucumbers, I went to the trusty All Recipes looking for something besides a salad or hors d'oeuvre to create with them, and stumbled onto this tasty dish.

As always, I tweaked the original recipe somewhat. Rather than using two tablespoons of sliced green onion, I added a half of white onion (chopped) and one stalk of celery (chopped), which I think was a good decision--it added quite a bit of zest. I also added in chopped red peppers to add some sweetness, which is quite appropriate for a Thai-inspired soup. I more than doubled the amount of parsley, because it tends to balance out an extra-spicy dish. The biggest change I made to the recipe is that, before adding the sour cream, I put the entire mix into a food processor, just to make the chopped veggies a little less prominent, and the soup smoother. I didn't completely puree it, though, wanting to keep a little chunkiness to it. I added more sour cream than the recipe asked for, then let the soup thicken for about fifteen minutes before pouring my first bowl.

The chile peppers I used, by the way, were also homegrown, given to me by a favorite customer of mine from bartending. If you ever have a chance to grow your own vegetables, do so; it's quite rewarding and relaxing, much like cooking. If you just don't have the time or capability, at least seek out fresh produce from friends who garden, or at the very least, a farmer's market. Without any additives, fruits and vegetables have more flavor. And honestly, there's few things in life that smell quite as wonderful as a fresh tomato, just picked off the vine. My homegrown cucumbers made this recipe.

While certainly hot, this isn't an overwhelmingly spicy dish, although you could certainly make it so. You could also tone it down, as I did with the added red peppers and parsley. This is an excellent soup to whip up for a seasoned vegetarian, who's sure to appreciate the flavor, or to shut up a mouthy meat-eater who likes to complain that vegetarian food is gross and bland.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Garlic Mushroom Souffle

Maybe it's the elegance of the word "souffle," but I had thought these would be very difficult to make. I didn't trust the simplicity of the recipe. But you know what? They took about five minutes to prepare and ten minutes to cook--and tasted so good! (And, yes, after realizing how easy souffle is to prepare, I now want to try several different variations!)

Allow me to apologize for not having a picture. I made two souffles, one for me and one for Ty, and laid them out on the table for a picture. Ty was at school all afternoon, though, so I decided not to wait on him and dug into mine. Then I liked it so much that I ate his as well and decided I'd just make more later if his feelings seemed hurt that I didn't share my new recipe. :) But here is a photo from of a souffle which looks very similar to what I made. The recipe featured on this site is almost exactly the same as what I used--except it lacks the two tablespoons of ground marjoram that made my dish so yummy!

This recipe comes from the Bible of vegetarianism, The Cook's Library Vegetarian--which, if you don't have, you must get now! It is great for advanced chefs to use, but there are also recipes like this which are quite simple, for newer cooks. And it's dirt cheap. You will never get tired of this cookbook.

I had wanted to try this recipe for awhile, but lacked souffle dishes. I searched websites and bakeware aisles of various stores, never finding a great deal of souffle dishes. Then one day, wandering in the clearance section of T.J. Maxx, I found a set of two white souffle dishes for $1.50, and a set of four very cute, modern orange souffle dishes for $4! Be weary if you purchase online, particularly if your souffle dishes are also being referred to as "ramekins." Anything holding less than 10 oz. is not going to hold even a mildly substantial appetizer.

The recipe I used said it made four servings in 5/8 cup dishes. I did not have enough to fill two of my souffle dishes. (Neither of my dish sets' packages indicated how much they hold, but I'm guessing they are 10 oz. cups.) So if you are cooking for a lot of people, definitely multiply your ingredients. I thought 3/4 cup of chopped mushroom caps (I used fresh baby bella caps) seemed rather scarce, but it was definitely the right amount. The only alteration I did was increasing the amount of flour, because after I added the eggs, I knew the mixture was just too damp to bake well. (And that turned out to be a wise decision.) I also added a pinch of black pepper, but next time, I would probably embellish it with some parsley and oregano.

It's a very warm, hearty appetizer, and would be perfect paired with a warm soup or a fresh salad before a meal. And think of how impressed your dinner guests will be if you serve it some attractive dishes. Souffle's on!

Vegetable Rice Pie

Since I never give recipes star ratings, it would be pointless to say this is a five-star recipe; you have nothing with which to compare it. So let me just say this to illustrate how delicious vegetable rice pie is: I'm famished just remembering the name of the recipe!

I found the recipe on AllRecipes, home to many rare and scrumptious vegan ideas. One of the best, and most underused, cooking ideas is to create a pie with a rice crust, in lieu of a traditional pie crust. For veggie dishes, you should definitely try this out; I promise, the taste of your dish immediately will increase.

Although the recipe called for a pie pan, I fortunately chose to make it in a larger casserole dish. Once I had all the ingredients ready, I realized there was just too much food to fit into a pie pan. So for those of you who do want to serve it in a pie pan, go light on everything, especially the rice. More advice: do use fresh vegetables, as the recipe suggests! I know it is convenient and easy to use frozen vegetables in your cooking, but this recipe is definitely worth the freshness. I find that frozen vegetables often lack the taste and flavor of fresh produce, so therefore I usually must compensate with a heavy amount of seasoning. However, this time, I added just a dash of "herbs de provence" and let the onion and cheese carry the recipe into its savory self!

However, I did make one major alteration: I made a top shell for the dish using mozzarella cheese, which I would definitely do again. Mozzarella provides a yummy contrast to the Parmesan and is a good coating for broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots. Vegetable rice pie is definitely in my top five favorite recipes. Make it tonight for dinner; I guarantee you'll eat every bite!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Cream Cheese and Herb Soup

Dear readers, I am sharing with you right now my secret weapon--the dish I make when I want to give myself some gratification at the end of a long day, and especially when I want to wow my boyfriend or anyone else cooking dinner. If I had to pick one dish I've learned to cook as my absolute favorite, it may just be cream cheese and herb soup, which I found in The Cook's Library Vegetarian. (Does it surprise readers that my favorite dish doesn't contain chocolate? It does me.)

First and foremost, do not cheat and used a premade vegetable broth. This cookbook offers you an extremely awesome vegetable bullion--make that before you make the soup. You'll savor every drop of effort with each bite of this amazing, tasteful soup. Another tip: the recipe recommends whisking the cream cheese after blending the soup in a food processor. If the whisking isn't working, don't feel guilty about combing the cream cheese with the rest of the soup in a food processor. This recipe makes four servings; consider how minimal that really is. With all the work involved in making this soup, you may want to increase portions of each ingredient so you'll be able to enjoy leftovers (and this does reheat well, trust me). I recommend serving it with fresh vegetables and saltines, as pictured above.

I love cooking this as a precursor to a romantic entree for dinners with my boyfriend, but I also prepare it for myself often when I crave fine cooking, because this is excellent cuisine. Imagine hearty, warmed milk and cornstarch, with the tang of cream cheese, shrouded perfectly in an array of parsley, thyme, basil, and oregano, topped with zesty chives. Finely flavorful, this soup belongs in a five-star restaurant--or in front of your most hard-to-impress dinner guests.

Vegetable Couscous

What is it Seth Rogen says in Pineapple Express..."couscous, the food's so nice they named it twice," right? Couscous and its complementary spices and ingredients are very commonly found in Indian food aisles of grocery stores, but, fun fact: it actual origins are North Africa. Wherever it comes from, or whatever style of food you decide to cook with couscous, one thing is for sure, it's a welcome deviation from usual rice dishes. Couscous even has a different texture than rice; it's "fluffy" and soft. Additionally, some health-oriented websites posit that couscous dishes are usually lower in calories than rice dishes.

The recipe I used is from The Cook's Library Vegetarian, also known as my own personal Bible. Seriously, this cookbook, given to me by my mother, is the only reason I know my you-know-what from a whole in the ground in the kitchen. Not to say that it's elementary, because there are some extremely challenging recipes in there, and a multitude of ingredients that I had never even heard of before reading about them in this book.

With the exception of not including turmeric or turnips, I stayed very true to the recipe. Usually, I take the time to make my own fresh vegetable bullion, as the book suggests, but, admittedly, I cheated and used a pre-made vegetable broth from the store. This was actually my first experience cooking couscous. The book rates this recipe as "moderately difficult," but I think anyone but a complete novice would be able to handle this. My boyfriend, who at first turned his nose up to the idea of another vegetarian dinner, saw me helping myself to seconds and gave in. He loved it. I used slightly more of each ingredient than the recipe asked for so I had leftovers to take with me to work the next day--a welcomed change from my usual packed lunches of crackers and apples.

The casual cook may not find this recipe to be something you can just make yourself for lunch. The book indicates that it takes twenty minutes to prepare and forty minutes to cook, but keep in mind that even if you decide not to make fresh bullion, you still must finely chop many vegetables (a time-consuming process) and continuously monitor and stir the ingredients in stovetop pans to prevent overcooking or burning. This recipe, which has zucchini, carrots, onion, green beans, and red bell peppers, would be a perfect dinner for two, or, increase the portions and make enough for a family dinner or dinner party with friends. I guarantee you that you'll want to share this zesty little spice-filled meal--vegetable couscous is, in a nutshell, scrumptious.

Stuffed Celery

"Delicious" is not an adequate enough word for these delectable little snacks. I have made these at home just for a daytime treat and an accompaniment to dinner, and I've even whipped up a batch and taken them to work to give my happy hour customers.

I found the recipe for stuffed celery at AllRecipes. The main change I made was using feta-stuffed green olives instead of pimento-stuffed olives, which I have to recommend any readers do as well. It gives the stuffing a saltier, warmer taste that contrasts well against chilled, crisp, and fresh celery. For the garlic, I used a hearty amount (about two and a half tablespoons) of Spice World Minced Garlic. I increased the seasoning, using black pepper, basil, and parsley. The next time I make stuffed celery, I plan on adorning it with chives.

This is probably the best-tasting and most creative way to eat "boring" celery, so it's great to make for party guests, children, or people who are struggling to eat lighter, healthier meals but find regular salads undesirable. Because the recipe on AllRecipes is so barren, it leaves a great deal of room for you to experiment and adjust this to your taste. Just imagine how tasty it'd be with cilantro stirred into the stuffing.

Vegetarian Reuben

Having never tasted an actual reuben, I had long wondered what was the appeal of this sandwich. At a restaurant where I used to bartend, the reuben was among the most requested dishes, and at my current pub job, people always ask why we don't serve reubens. So when I saw this recipe on AllRecipes, I decided to give it a shot.

A few warning signs should indicate that I wouldn't like this recipe. One? I don't like rye bread. Two? Thousand Island is probably my least favorite dressing. Three? I'm not the biggest sauerkraut fan. But this was more an experiment in taste. And no, it wasn't awful, but it did confirm why I veer away from sauerkraut.

For those of you who crave a creamy, tangy, this recipe is one of the easiest and quickest I've ever shared in this blog. Any meat-eaters trying to cross into vegetarianism will appreciate this, too, as it may be a good substitute to a meat-packed reuben. I'd really like some feedback on this recipe from readers, particularly those who have had actual meat-containing reubens before. What do you all think about this recipe?