Saturday, December 5, 2015

Give Peas a Chance: A Guide to Meat Substitutes

It's easy to become accustomed to doing things a certain way -- soups are made with chicken broth, gravy is made with beef or poultry stock, chili has ground beef -- that it's easy to go-to the traditional meaty bases of so many dishes. Meat can be an incredible flavoring agent, and certain cuts are definitely worth tasting every now and then if you enjoy them, but replacing everyday meals with vegetarian alternatives can make a huge difference both in your wallet and in your general health. Here's a quick guide to which substitutes work best.

Soy meat substitutes -- This is probably the easiest. There are frozen ground beef substitutes, veggie burgers, and chicken patties available in nearly every grocery store that mimic the real thing so well you might never notice. But they tend to be higher in sodium, so just don't rely on meat substitutes too often.

As for more natural alternatives, tempeh is my personal favorite. It's quite versatile and there are different varieties available, usually various combinations of soy and whole grains. It's a block that's been fermented, so it has a mild nutty flavor and firm texture similar to lean ground beef. Crumble it into a stir fry, grill into patties whole, or cube it and marinate for a kebob, it can fill in with aplomb on most dishes.

Tofu -- Tofu is polarizing. People either love it or hate it, although most have only tried it a few times at best. There are different varieties, the most common are silken and regular tofu. Silken tofu is better for using in smoothies or baked goods and has a slippery feel, while regular tofu is more rough and granular but makes for a much better addition to savory dishes.

Silken tofu is best blended into other things, like aforementioned smoothies. It's often used in place of eggs in baked goods, and can be similarly scrambled like eggs for a breakfast dish.

Regular tofu is more appropriate for stir fries, salads, and other dishes where it's kept in larger pieces. It absorbs marinades and sauce flavors much better than silken tofu and retains its shape more. However, it can be slower to cook. To mimic the Chinese restaurant experience, cut your tofu into pieces the night before and freeze them in a ziploc. Fry the frozen pieces, being careful of any splattering from oil, and you'll have that signature chewy, delicious texture.

Nuts -- These can impart good fats along with protein in many dishes, they can be toasted or added raw. Crushed cashews are fantastic for thickening up sauces and soups, especially curries.

As for being a meat substitute, these are best used either as a topping or well blended with whole grains. They can add new dimensions to everything from casseroles to stir fries, just be careful not to overcook them.

Beans -- Similar to nuts, these are best used as an addition or filler to dishes with other flavorful agents. They're more versatile than nuts because they can be heated on a higher temperature for a longer time, although anything will burn if you really put your mind to it.

Some people prefer to use them whole, others like a refried or crushed version. For dishes like black bean burgers, crushed is best, but in soups, casseroles, or enchiladas, either whole or refried can work. Refried has a deceiving name, but it does not require a lot of extra fat to taste good.

Chickpeas -- These are extremely versatile, being used in batters to pizza crusts to salad toppings. They do well being marinated, pureed into hummus and batter, baked alongside other vegetables and absorbing their flavor, being a high protein topping to a salad, the list goes on. They do contain carbs, as do most things in life, but the fiber and protein of whole chickpeas offsets it in moderation.

Wild Rice -- This is one of my favorite additions to vegetarian soups, because it thickens and adds texture without being intrusive. It's not low carb, but it has enough protein to justify itself in moderate doses. I use it to thicken soups, and it's especially divine in chili. It can also be used with balsamic dressing and/or olive oil with herbs, fresh chopped vegetables, garlic, and brined cheeses like feta to make a portable cold salad. This also applies to whole grains like farro and quinoa.

Polenta -- Also not a member of the non low-carb family, but it's similar to pasta. I like it in breakfast hash in place of potatoes.

Seitan -- This is pure gluten. Yes, evil gluten! It's stretchier and spongier, so this works well sliced into thinner pieces and treated like stewed barbeque, or used in place of steak or shredded chicken and beef in tacos. It can hold onto a lot of flavor, it's best combined with vegetables or other sources of protein due to the texture. However, its ability to absorb sauces and marinades make it more versatile than meets the eye!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Quick Mexican Pizza

Sometimes you find that you have several things to use up in a short time frame, and that's exactly what happened here -- I had a small avocado that needed to be used that day, some leftover bacon bits, and some shredded West Indies chicken breast. I was thinking of baked potatoes but wound up coming up with this much lower carb version. Forgive the poor lighting, but it's delicious just to look at.

You can vary the amounts of each ingredient to suit what you have on hand as long as you maintain a balance; the tortilla will be thin and crispy, so sometimes minimalist is best. You will need:

1 large tortilla
2-3 tbsp enchilada sauce
1/2 cup shredded monterrey jack cheese
2 tbsp finely diced red onion
3 oz precooked white meat chicken, cut into cubes or shredded
1 small avocado or 1/2 large avocado, diced
homemade bacon bits to taste

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees and put the tortilla on a nonstick cookie sheet. Add the enchilada sauce, cheese, chicken, and bacon bits, and turn the heat down to 420 once you put the tortilla in. Let it bake for 5-6 minutes or until the edges are becoming brown and the cheese is melted. When it's hot, add the diced avocado and red onion. Cut into triangles and serve with salsa or sour cream.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

How To: Making Paneer Cheese

Paneer is a fresh cheese often used in vegetarian Indian dishes, especially in the Punjabi region up into Nepal. It's vegetarian because it requires no rennet, only minimally processed milk and an acid. Once you get the hang of it, it's easy to make at home if you have a supply of raw or minimally pasteurized milk. I prefer the raw, as do most cheesemakers, but it's not available commercially in all places. Some Indian and Pakistani markets sell paneer that's either imported or made in house, and other fresh non-melting cheeses like leijpajuusto can be used, so you don't have to make it every time you want some palak or shahi paneer. But it does help. Wrapped in cheesecloth in plastic or a ziploc bag, this is best used fresh or within 2-3 days of making it.

About buying proper milk -- you want to stay away from ultra high pasteurized products, and find the closest thing to raw as possible. If the expiration date is within a week, and the milk is not old, you've found what you need. UHP milk will leave you with a soupy mess that, at best, can be turned into makeshift ricotta.

What you need:

1/2 gallon raw or minimally pasteurized milk
1/3 cup lemon juice mixed with 1/4 cup water OR 3 tsp citric acid dissolved in 1/2 cup of water
a colander or strainer
a large square of single layer cheesecloth, apx "18x18
a bowl of ice water
kosher salt

Start by lining the colander or strainer with cheesecloth and placing it over a large pan or bowl, assuming you want to keep the whey. Bring the milk to boil on the stovetop, constantly stirring so the bottom doesn't burn. After around 15-20 minutes of this the milk should start to "rise" -- watch carefully for this. Pour the lemon juice or citric acid into the mixture and stir gently, taking the pot off the heat. You should have sizeable curds, like very liquidy American cottage cheese. If the curds are small and not sticking to each other, add more lemon juice or citric acid. It's always better to keep more acid on hand than you need when making cheeses like this to aid in coagulation. Pour it out of the pot through the cheesecloth lined strainer and allow as much whey as possible to filter through, and give it about five minutes to settle in. Use this time to get your pot and stirring spoon cleaned or soaking, those leftover curds stick when they dry!

Tie each corner of the cheesecloth together and lift the strained curds up. I prefer to hang the cheesecloth over the sink for another ten minutes or so to let the curds come together while they're still quite hot; they shouldn't be sticking too hard to the cheesecloth. Once they've cooled for a few minutes, twist the top of the cheesecloth tightly so it coils into itself and you're left with a rounded, covered soft ball. Place it between two towels and put something heavy on top, like a ceramic plate or bottle of water, for at least 30 minutes. The longer you allow it to press, the firmer the cheese will be.

Dissolve a few tablespoons of kosher salt into the ice water, and place the pressed paneer into the cold water. Keep it in the refrigerator or somewhere cool for 1-3 hours, then remove it and pat it dry. This is when you can either slice it up and add it to a dish or put it in a ziploc bag for later use. When you're ready to use it, the cheesecloth should peel away easily without taking much (if any) curd along with it. Paneer is great to simmer in gravies and sauces because it absorbs flavors well and doesn't melt (although it can be overworked and start to crumble).

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Golden Saffron Oven Pancakes

It's the season to break into your spice cabinet to find flavor to compensate for the fresh, green variety of summer. This isn't a bad thing, though -- it can result in adding a new twist to an old favorite. This recipe can be made in any amount any number of ways (by adding pureed fruits or vegetables, mainly) as long as you stick to the formula of 1/4 cup milk, 1/4 cup flour per 1 egg.

Salted saffron can be made in a hurry if you have a mortar and pestle. Combine coarse salt with a good pinch of red saffron threads. Let the threads sit out in the open for at least 20 minutes. Then use the mortar and pestle to grind them together until you get a grainy orange mixture.

You'll need:

2 eggs
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup flour
1 tsp salted saffron
1 heaping tsp ground turmeric
cream cheese, baked camembert or creme fraiche to serve alongside

Whisk together the milk and eggs, and then add the flour and spices. Mix until thoroughly blended and bright yellow and let the batter sit for 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees and pour the batter into a very greased, nonstick 9 inch cake pan. Bake for 15 minutes or until slightly browned, then allow it to cool for about 10 minutes. Serve it with a soft, subtle cheese and a side of honeyed figs.