Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Most Epic Pantry Challenge Ever

I've blogged about pantry challenges before, but I've never actually described the rules for one of these. Basically, there comes a point where every foodie / enthusiastic home cook / bargain hunter collects enough items that it starts to become ridiculous. I am slightly guilty of this.

For one, I love Big Lots, and with Big Lots, many of the items you see on the shelves are a one-time-only, first-come-first-serve thing. If you see a really good deal, you pretty much have to snag it up because it probably won't be there later. Although I don't usually buy multiples of the same item to put back for later, I do sometimes, and that would explain the large amount of organic canned tomatoes I have.

Another way the pantry pileup occurs is when you love to cook, especially when it comes to authentic ethnic cooking. I have a large rack of spices. They range from smoked paprika to berbere to Chinese 5-spice to white pepper. I also have a lot of flavored vinegars, Asian cooking essentials (tamarind paste, gochujang paste, toasted sesame oil...), various flours (oh, gluten-free baking, you have really taken over my pantry!), and many different species of legumes. Yes. I said species. Lol. Also, I did to buy the occasional ingredient to make that one recipe and then I just never get around to doing it...

So, every once in awhile when I start to run out of room, I do a "pantry challenge". It basically consists of me using up as many of the ingredients in my pantry as I can, while only buying produce and the basics (tea, almond milk, etc.) at the grocery store. It typically lasts for a full month and it mostly involves me getting around to cooking all those recipes I had previously picked out and bought the ingredients for.

This pantry challenge, however, is different. That is because this is going to be my most epic challenge yet. I need to pretty much use and/or consolidate every single ingredient in my pantry, fridge, and freezer. How long will this challenge last? Well, probably about 2 1/2 months. And why such a hardcore deletion of my personal ingredient stockpile?

Because I'm moving to Georgia.

I mean, a little challenge is good for when you have a few too many cans of black beans, but when you're expected to pack up your entire kitchen and move it across multiple state lines, everything must go! So for serious this time, expect lots of ethic dishes, bean dishes, and gluten-free baking because I have a LOT of cooking to do (luckily, it's pretty much one of my favorite things, lol).

The non-vegan stuff isn't mine... but everything else is!
Of course, as I look at it now, it's not really that much stuff to use up in it's entirety...

You might be wondering (or you might not be, who knows), why the Midwest Vegan would pack up her kitchen and her person and move to the South. Well, it's because I've decided that I need a Ph.D., and the plant biology department at the University of Georgia agrees with me! Although, I'm going to be studying fungi more than plants. Truth be told, I am a girl who loves her fungus, and not just the delicious, eatin' kind either! Not only am I glad to be going to school to get an advanced degree (I've been working really hard the last couple of years with that goal in mind), I am super stoked to move to a city where there are lots of other people like me. I honestly don't fit in here. People here just don't understand why I care about recycling, or why I eat organic produce, or for that matter, why I enjoy taking a good run or dip in the pool. There is no music scene (well, in my taste.. well, actually, yeah, there's no music scene), no places that show indie flicks, no health food stores, no yoga lessons... There is nothing here in this town even remotely interesting, so instead of being like so many others I know and just "settling for" this place, I'm actually leaving it. I've found somewhere else I'd rather call home, at least for awhile.  

And since I'm pretty excited and I can hardly contain myself at the prospect of leaving this dirty little river town, I'm going to make my boyfriend take a picture of me flipping off one of the various Pony Express statues around town.

Nah. I'm just joking... Though, I will for sure take a picture of some corn. Just to be ridiculous. Then I will put it on my fridge next to the photo of me flipping off the Pony Express to remind me of what Missouri is like. I'm dramatic like that.

Let the cooking begin!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Bowls of Goodness

As you all know, I am quite a fan of the hot-breakfast-in-a-bowl. Of course, as much as I love my oatmeal (I'm missing it right now! I'll explain why in my next post.) sometimes, other grains are just as good. My grandma recently gave me a bag of Gluten-Free Mighty Tasty Hot Cereal from Bob's Red Mill. It's made from whole grain brown rice, corn, sorghum, and buckwheat. By itself it's a little boring, so I thought I would jazz it up a little:

The directions on the package make four servings, so I had to devise a way to make this a single serving. Especially since (and I've noticed this with most cereals that contain coarse ground corn), the amount of water you use quickly evaporates after about 2-3 minutes and the cereal is not yet done yet. I know, I know, I suppose I could just use more water, but I was more interested in making a creamy porridge. So, to remedy this situation, I added unsweetened almond milk at the point where most of the water is gone and continued to cook it until the cereal was done. Perfect! Then, to add some flavor, I added either chocolate chips (gluten-free) or carob chips (not gluten-free), cinnamon, a touch of almond butter, and some protein powder (because that's how I roll) and topped it with flax seeds and nuts. The result is a super-satisfying hot cereal that keeps me going until lunchtime! I can't really think of a name for this, since it's just a breakfast thing I put together, so how about...

Jess's Tasty Gluten-Free Chocolate-Almond Porridge?

I mostly just love the word "porridge".

1/4 c. Bob's Red Mill Gluten-Free Mighty Tasty Hot Cereal (what a mouthful!)
3/4 c. water
1/8 tsp. cinnamon
dash of salt
1/2 c. unsweetened almond milk
1 Tb. gluten-free chocolate chips
1/2 Tb. almond butter
2 Tb. chocolate protein powder (I use Lifetime Life's Basics Plant Protein)
2-4 drops vanilla stevia, optional
1 tsp. sliced almonds, for garnish
1/2 tsp. golden or regular flax, for garnish

1. In a small saucepan (real small), bring the water and salt to a bowl. Stir in the Hot Cereal, and reduce heat to medium (or medium-low, you want a nice, slow simmer). Cook for 2-3 minutes or until most of the water is gone. Be careful not to burn the cereal!

2. Stir in the almond milk, cinnamon, chocolate chips, and almond butter, turn up heat to medium-high until it comes to a boil, then reduce heat to medium and allow the cereal to cook for another 7-8 minutes. Stir well to make sure all the almond butter and chips are melted. Add a little more almond milk if it's too thick for you liking.

3. Remove from heat and stir in the protein powder and stevia, if using. Garnish with the sliced almonds and flax and enjoy!

This was actually the last of my Mighty Tasty Hot Cereal, so I'll be moving on to some brown rice farina next, and we all know how much I love my farina!

I have also been cooking from The 30-Minute Vegan's Taste of the East. It's a really good cookbook and the food is divided up into sections: Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Thai, and Fusion. Although I've really been digging the recipes from the Chinese section, I just had to make this Black Rice Pudding from the Thai section:

This particular rice pudding has a chewy texture and a hint of nutty flavor from the black rice. It's made creamy with coconut milk and sweetened with agave and brown sugar. When I made this, I used only about 2/3 the amount of the sugar, just because I wanted something I could also eat for breakfast. And, although I didn't add the optional mirin (no thanks!), I did put in a good amount of cinnamon. To finish it off, I added some unsweetened coconut chips and granola pieces for texture. The crunchy granola bits really added a something-something to it that I liked.

In total, I've only made about three recipes from this particular cookbook, but I really enjoyed them! I can't wait to cook more! Next up, I'll be making the Cantonese Lemon Tofu. I've got my wok (the one I got this past Christmas) completely seasoned and ready to go!

And finally, I've got a pretty big announcement in my next post and it will involve the most epic pantry challenge ever. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Chimichurri Baked Tofu and Confetti Rice Salad

I ordered a copy of Terry Hope Romero's Vive Vegan as soon as it came out. Unfortunately, I haven't really been able to cook with it until recently. I am a huge fan of Latin American cuisine and luckily, I live in a place where I can get authentic ingredients relatively easily. Eventually, I plan on tackling the more complex recipes, such as the empanadas, tamales, and various seitan-based dishes, but for now I'm sticking to the fairly basic ones. 

My local Hy-Vee finally got in some flat-leaved parsley the other day. For the longest time, they only seemed to have the curly-leaved parsley. After doing some research (because I can't let any question go unanswered), I discovered that curly parsley is available year-round while flat-leaf parsley tends to be seasonal. Generally, flat-leaf is used for cooking while curly is demoted to garnish duty. And seriously, you can taste why. Curly parsley is gross.


Curly and unpleasant on the top, flat-leaved and tasty on the bottom.

So, anywho. The minute I saw the flat-leaved parsley on sale, I grabbed a bunch. I had had the Chimichurri Baked Tofu recipe from Vive Vegan on my mind for a long time. And since I already had everything else the recipe called for, I knew it would be a snap to make. And it was! Provided you have a food processor, of course. Basically, chimichurri is an Argentinian sauce made of parsley, vinegar, onions, garlic, and oil. Kind of like a parsley pesto, but without any nuts. As per the recipe's suggestion, I made the sauce a day in advance of using it to allow the flavors to meld. Then I baked some tofu, putting the sauce on it about halfway through the baking time. Then I served it with some sautéed petite green beans. It was awesome!

So although sautéed green beans weren't the most authentic accompaniment to this Argentinian-style tofu, it sure was delicious! The recipe uses an entire package of tofu (cut into eight sections), so once the green beans were gone, I served the last of the tofu with my Confetti Rice Salad.

My Confetti Rice Salad makes a refreshing side dish. It's basically a mix of fresh chopped veggies, beans, and cooked rice in a very light vinaigrette. I see these sort of salads around here often at dinners and potlucks. Usually though, they're done up Midwestern style with lots of heavy oil dressing and cubes of Velveeta (ick. I know right? Even before I gave up dairy, I wouldn't touch Velveeta. That stuff shouldn't count as food!). But anyway, like I said, this recipe is light and refreshing and is awesome with quinoa instead of the rice (just use the same amount of the dry grain, and cook according to directions on the package. This also makes the recipe come together a lot quicker). You can also leave out the beans and add avocado (1/2 of a ripe one, cubed), or leave both in and eat it as a main dish.

Confetti Rice Salad:
1/2 c. dry brown basmati rice or quinoa, cooked according to package directions
2/3 c. frozen corn, thawed, and squeezed to get excess water out
1/2 c. canned black beans, rinsed and drained
1/2 a red bell pepper, diced
1/2 an English cucumber, diced
1 Roma tomato, chopped
1/4 c. cilantro, chopped
1/4 c. Pickled Red Onions from Vive Vegan or regular green or red onions, chopped
1/2 Tb. oil (I used walnut, my fave)
1/2 Tb. red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. cumin
1/4 tsp. salt, or more to taste
1 lime, cut into wedges

1. After the rice/quinoa has completely cooked, drain it if necessary, and set it aside so it can cool.

2. Once the grain has cooled, toss it with the corn, black beans, bell pepper, cucumber, tomato, cilantro, and onions. Drizzle it with the oil and vinegar, and the chili powder, cumin, and salt, and toss everything until the salad is well-combined.

3. Serve it as a side dish, with a little bit of squeezed fresh lime. Enjoy!

Actually, I've been cooking out of quite a few of my vegan cookbooks. I finally have the time to make recipes that require more of my attention now that I've graduated and switched to days. Among the books I've been cooking from (other than Vive Vegan) are 30 Minute Vegan's Taste of the East, Blissful Bites, and Vegan With a Vengeance (an oldie but a goodie!). Stay tuned!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Girl Went Down to Georgia...

... and was lookin' for a vegan meal.

Sorry. I couldn't resist! Anywho, last week I had the pleasure of visiting Athens, Georgia. I'm applying for graduate school there (at the University of Georgia) and they flew me down for a two days of tours and interviews. The trip wore me out, but I love it down there. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that everything works out, though I won't find out for sure if I'm accepted until the end of February / beginning of March. It was quite an experience. It was the first time I had flown by myself (and I had only flown once before), and I flew into the Atlanta airport which was pretty big, but once I get the hang of it, it was actually fairly easy to get around. They also have LOTS of food there. I ate a big plate of collard greens and hot sauce there. And it was awesome. So yeah...

Athens! Athens is a very vegetarian-friendly place (the majority of restaurants carry vegetarian items on their menus) and it's also pretty accomodating of vegans. It actually blew my mind how veg-friendly this place was, because in my hometown most people haven't even met a vegetarian (and they definitely don't know what a vegan is... or how to even pronounce the word "vegan"). I ate a lot of good food, both at restaurants and at the student/faculty potlucks. They have quite a few vegetarians in the plant biology department (of course!) and many items were naturally vegan. I didn't bring along my camera because to be honest, I don't have the balls to take pictures of my food in public. Also, I was surrounded by graduate students and recuits, and I really wanted to make a good impression. So, I supplemented this blog post with pictures of the restaurants themselves, lol.

One of the days, I ate at Cali n' Tito's, which is an authentic Cuban restaurant that is very popular with the students from UGA. Apparently, you can pay $2 or something and BYOB and drink on the patio tables with your meal. College students that have just turned 21 seem to find that awesome.

 Source - this isn't my photo. Click here for the source.

Cali n' Tito's, also had a variety of vegetarian options. They had your standard fare such as tacos and burritos, but they also had empanadas, tamales, and other things I can't quite remember. As you know, I'm quite the tamale girl, so that's what I got, but it was a tough decision between them and the empanadas. They had a veggie tamale (no cheese) filled with corn, potatoes, and onions that even came wrapped in a banana leaf. However, looking back it may not have been vegan depending on what they used in the masa dough. I'll admit I stumbled a little with that one. I've just ate vegan ones for so long that I forgot they existed any other way!

The yucca fries, however, were vegan. And awesome. It was the first time I had yucca (or cassava) and it was just like I imagined it, only fluffier. They were like a potato, only way better. I also tried fried sweet plantain and it was good. Much better than any fried plantain I've tried to make!

I also had the awesome experience of eating at The Grit, a vegetarian-only restaurant with plenty of vegan options. A long, long time ago, I was reading an issue of Vegetarian Times. In this particular article, they had gone and rated the best regional restaurants. For the South, The Grit was rated the best in the region. I remember thinking that it seemed like a real tasty place to eat, but I was sure I wouldn't ever get the chance to eat there.

Until I did.

Four years later.

Weird how that happens!

Source - This isn't my photo. Click here for the source.

The Grit has a retro diner feel to it, which I liked. The also have a lot of rotating specials along with a small standard menu. There is a little bit of everything there, so if you have a group of people and they all want something different, this would be the place to go. For example, one of my hosts got a fancy grilled cheese (just veg), while the other got a quesadilla (just veg), while I got the noodle bowl special of the day (vegan). They also have certain nights of the week where they serve ethnic meals. For instance, this past Thursday was Indian night, so they had an appetizer, main dish, soup, and one or two other items to choose from.

So yeah, speaking of the noodle bowl of the day, the night that I went it happened to be tofu and veggies in a spicy basil sauce with rice noodles, which was exactly what I was craving. There was plenty of tofu, although a little lacking in the veggies, and the sauce was tasty. I would have paid a little more attention to what I was eating, but after a hanging out in a plane, an airport, and a shuttle the majority of my day, the nuanced flavors of my dish were the last thing on my mind. I was just ready for some tofu! 

The only caveat: I didn't find the servers very friendly. It's possible they were just having an off-night, which happens, but I sure hope they aren't like that all the time! But in general, I would like to go back and give the other menu items a try. They have a vegan seitan gyro that's got my name on it!

Anywho, Athens is a awesome place (they also have Thai and Indian places I have yet to try, as well as an Indian and Chinese grocery) and I truly hope that I'll get the opportunity to move down there. If not, then I guess I'd just like to visit again!