Saturday, December 19, 2009

Beetroot, Caramelized Red Onion & Spinach Lasagna

Now, I know I say I don't really like vegetables, and it is true that they'd never make any top ten list of my favorite things on earth. But, there are a few - a very few - vegetables that make me happy. Oddly, they tend to be those vegetables that are most maligned: brussel sprouts, collard greens, beets. Perhaps its just that I feel the need to promote those vegetables generally sneered at. No one likes to be left out, after all.

That still doesn't mean I want them lightly sauteed in flaxseed oil, raw with a squeeze of organic lemon juice or, as prepared in my most verdurous nightmares, steamed. I don't care what anyone says: there is no good reason to ever subject any vegetables to a preparation method that essentially means tossing them in a tiny Turkish bath. They either come out undercooked or overcooked, and either way, its a travesty. If you're going to eat vegetables, why not enjoy them in something like, say, a nice lasagna made with homemade ricotta and imported Pecorino Gran Reserva.

Although I get bored somewhat easily and eventually removed it from the menu out sheer perversity, casunziei - a beetroot ravioli from Venento - with poppyseed browned butter, spring pea puree and pea greens was always the most popular appetizer at the restaurant. When we got a couple pounds of red beets in our CSA basket this week, I immediately tossed them in the oven to roast.

As they roasted, I looked out at the snow-covered back yard and the thermometer reading sixteen degrees and decided that the season called for a dish more substantial that the delicate ravioli I'd first intended.

Now, every vegetarian who has ever found herself a conference dinner attendee, a guest at a wedding, or stuck in a holiday buffet line has suffered through those ho-hum vegetable lasagnas. You know, the bland and doughy concoctions that always - always! - contain a mix of viscous tomato sauce, mushy zucchini and shredded carrots. They're the ones that, if you're nice, make you smile bravely and say, "Well, I was lucky they had a vegetarian option." And if you're me, you grimace while you eat roll after roll and wait for the dessert course. And because of these epicurean catastrophes, I've avoided making any but lasagna bolognese. Well, there was that one time I made a swiss chard and roasted onion lasagna, but that was when B. and I had just begun dating and I, trying to show off my culinary skills had wrongly assumed that he was, unlike me, a good vegetarian and would prefer a lasagna of all vegetables rather than a meaty fake meat bolognese. Now seemed as good a time as any to branch out.

As the beets continued to roast, I caramelized sliced red onions with balsamic vinegar and a little brown sugar. After the beets cooled enough to touch, I peeled and shredded them, then mixed in ricotta, eggs, lemon zest and poppy seeds. Finally, I quickly sauteed spinach in olive oil and tossed in a little pecorino. Three CSA vegetables, all in one dish! I'm a big fan of no-boil lasagna noodles, so after making a quick bechamel, I layered the pasta, sauce and vegetables and into the oven it went.

In truth, I wasn't sure what to expect. I was half-afraid it would turn out to be a flavorless mess, that somehow in the oven, it would morph into the generic vegetable lasagna, soupy and bland. But, happy days! An hour later, we had a luscious, rich and creamy lasagna with a good depth of flavor. I paired it with a dry champagne - and much to my great surprise, even sauteed some brussel sprouts as an accompaniment!

Maybe vegetables aren't as bad as I thought ...

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Linguine con pollo di piccata al limone e capperi ... er, linguine with chicken piccata

Earlier in the day, I'd made some seitan chicken cutlets with the idea that, for dinner, we'd have a good Southern meal. Visions of fried chicken danced in my head. But, as the night grew dark and cold, I grew less interested in slogging through the snow to the corner store for vegetable oil and breadcrumbs. What to make? Inspiration comes from odd places, sometimes, thus the Sopranos to the rescue.

On a side note, I should explain: while I love my parents very much, they did something wrong in not being Italian. Because, really, I should be Italian. I don't understand how this German-Irish-English thing (an ethnic mix many might argue dooms me to a life of dubious meals largely concocted of overcooked potatoes and less-than-prime cuts of meat) happened. In truth, I do love sauerkraut, think potatoes are divine and parsnips pretty nifty; maybe someday I'll even try to make a seitan brisket. Maybe. But, in truth, I'd trade away a platter of pierogies with fried onions and sour cream for the perfect lasagna bolognese any day. (And I do make a damn good lasagna bolognese, if I might be so bold.)

So, idly flipping t.v. stations while wondering what exactly I was going to do with all this seitan chicken, I came across the Sopranos. And, as they seem to be doing in a good third of each episode, the actors were eating. I tell my husband that he should be in the mafia. Not because I want diamonds or fur coats or fancy cars - because I want to have dinner several times a week in Italian restaurants with gorgeous food. I've no idea whether this is actually the case, but it sure is on the Sopranos. And even when they're not in a restaurant, there seems to be an endless stream of casseroles, lasagnas, manicottis, and tiramisus all appearing on tables, in kitchens, being handed to grieving families at funerals.

I have eyes, it seems, for food alone.

But now, my mental menu had been switched to Italian. I decided, based mostly upon what was in the cabinet and my now total lack of interest in suiting up in snow pants and boots that seem to weigh ten pounds each, to try a dish that I'd never had in my pre-vegetarian days: chicken piccata.

Putting the linguine on to cook, I sliced the cutlets, floured and pan-fried them before making the sauce. What an easy dish! I think this whole thing took twenty minutes. And it turned out to be rather rich. I see why it makes a regular appearance on the dinner table in the mafia t.v. shows and movies. Now if only I'd had some tiramisu, as well ...

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Football Day in America and I Need Buffalo Wings!

As my husband keeps telling me, its football day in America ... so what do we need? Buffalo wings, obviously!

I must disclose: I was not a football fan before meeting B., but he patiently and subversively changed my mind. Force a girl to watch endless games of football on beautiful autumn days that could better be spent picnicking in the park and you end up with a cranky girlfriend. But, suggest to the same girl that a walk in the park should be followed by icy cider, crispy jalapeño poppers and the best veggie burgers in Brooklyn ... and where could those things be found but the pub by her house, the one that just happened to have a big comfy couch placed directly across from the large screen t.v.? ... and you end up with a wife who's bookmarked and has her own jersey.

But I digress ...

Buffalo wings are one of those foods that I never tasted before becoming a vegetarian. I'm sure they existed, but they hadn't yet reached that pinnacle of American popularity, appearing on every family style restaurant and school cafeteria menu. But, like many things I never tasted, I'm jealous. I feel left out. I covet the carnivore's plethora of snack food choices and the ease with which they obtain them. I want my own buffalo wings.

It just so happens that the seitan experiments continue and the most recent seemed ideal for making chicken nuggets. And if chicken nuggets, then why not buffalo wings?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

My Goodness, My Guinness!

Potato farls with creamy butter, freshly fried chips doused with curry sauce from the chip van outside some horrid dance club, and, today at least, a distinct lack of heavy snow ... there are so many things I miss about living in Belfast.

The haze of time has likely caused me to romanticize it much more than I should, but I still have rather a soft spot in my heart for Sundays at the pub. Whereas Sunday afternoons at the bar in Brooklyn involved jalapeno poppers and veggie burgers and the NFL (and there's nothing wrong with all that!), Sunday afternoons in Belfast offered endless pints of Guinness, traditional musicians playing music with Uilleann pipes, fiddles and bodhráns, and, perhaps most importantly, the carvery.

Of course, I never actually had anything off the carvery buffet except the side vegetables ... it wasn't as if any pub offered a giant seitan roast. But, without having ever tasted the roasts or pies, I still miss them. They just looked so good! How can you turn down buttery puff pastry topping braised beef and vegetables in rich gravy? Well, as a vegetarian, you dig into your boiled potato and plot to recreate the pie on your own.

Fast-forward a decade to a chilly winter in New England. What better comfort food to make than a big seitan and Guinness pie with root vegetables and flaky puff pastry? B. grumbled somewhat at the amount of time this venture took, but even he agreed it was worth it. (That, and he was left with five Guinness of his own.) I never had an actual beef and Guinness pie, but somehow I suspect that this version is just as good.

Probably better, but hey - I'm biased.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Seitan Sliders - Eat your heart out, White Castle!

I'm not a good vegetarian: I turn up my nose at crudite platters, I scoff at salads, and most telling of all, what vegetables do appear on my plate tend to be hidden in risottos or secreted in sauces. I'm certain that cheese is a food group unto itself, as are bread, wine and chocolate. I'm jealous of the wider range of umami foods available to carnivores, and thanks to my jealousy, I've become obsessed as of late with seitan.

I've bought (more than) my fair share of fake meat products, but while those fill some sort of void on the plate, none are really satisfying to me. Yes, its nice to have some veggie sausages with my biscuits and white gravy on Sunday mornings, but I want a wider range of options! And lately, what I want more than anything are sliders.

Sliders seem to have become ubiquitous, popping up everywhere from Burger King's "Burger Shots" to Wagyu beef sliders at the most expensive New York restaurants. And I wanted some, too. But, I trolled the internet in vain. The precious few recipes for vegetarian sliders all seemed to be for miniature veggie burgers or, worse, portobello burgers. (Don't get me wrong: I love mushrooms. I'm just very over the idea that portobello mushrooms must taste just like finest steak to vegetarians.)

Mini burgers are not sliders, in my book. I'm sure they're all fine and well, but I wanted something equivalent to those nutritionless, glutinous offerings from White Castle and Krystal. If I'd just wanted a mini veggie burger, I'd have invested in a cookie cutter.

Since my obsession with seitan has become full blown, I've been working like a mad scientist to create the perfect seitan beef with as meaty a texture and as rich a flavor as possible. When, yesterday, I finally succeeded, what better dish to try it out on than seitan sliders? With great anticipation, I steamed the buns and minced the onions.

Joyous days! The experiment worked and the sliders turned out awesome! My (also veggie) husband devoured his sliders, plus my leftovers, and pronounced them indistinguishable from White Castle - unless better.

See, as a good vegetarian, I should be all excited about dishes like cracked wheat with azuki beans and lightly sauteed kale seasoned with Bragg Liquid Aminos, but as I said, I'm not a good vegetarian. I'm a carnivore trapped in a vegetarian's body. And today I'm excited by seitan sliders.

Later note: It came to my attention that this is teasing, to put pictures and descriptions with no recipe. So, I posted a recipe some weeks later ... check out