Pearls of Wisdom

Some dishes just have no right to be so good. They’re too simple, too ordinary, too easy to yield such spectacular results. No matter how uninspired the ingredients look on paper, a jolt of bold flavor belies such humble components. It’s the kind of dish that makes you what magic has conspired in the kitchen, or perhaps, some secret MSG is spiking the punch.

Such is the case for the curried couscous salad at Mendocino Farms. The creamy, golden yellow pasta pearls don’t even look vegan at a glance, but lo! Clear labels reassure eaters that it’s vegan mayonnaise carrying the torch.

Decadent to a degree that would make the average side salad blush, a large part of me wants to hate it on principle. One should never add sugar to a savory dish, and at such a lethal dose! Mayonnaise should be used sparingly at best, a breezy whisper across a slice of bread, barely detectable by the human eye. Then, to go ahead an add even more oil on top of that fatty spread sounds purely excessive, unnecessary, uncalled for, hedonistic in the worst kind of way…!

But, falling prey to the offer of a free sample, I cast all common sense to the wind, letting go of those ingrained notions of decency just long enough to get hooked. I can’t get enough, and I don’t quite know why.

Perhaps the appeal is exactly for all those reasons. It’s because it flies in the face of preconceived boundaries of health and balance, that somehow, it manages to simply WORK.

I can’t claim to understand the compelling appeal of the curried couscous salad, but I can’t deny it, either.

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Chickens Come Home to Roost

Wasn’t it hard to give up meat? Didn’t you crave your old favorite foods?

Asked about my conversion to a plant-based diet, the questions are as predictable as they are consistent. When I went vegan, despite what my culinary background might suggest, I was not the least bit interested in food. In fact, I was a terribly picky eater, shunning all green vegetables, most fruits, and yes, any sort of meat that resembled the original animal. It wasn’t hard to make the switch because I barely ate anything to begin with!

Staple foods like ramen, mac and cheese, and hotdogs were my primary sustenance, despite my mother’s valiant attempts to expand my palate. Only after making the switch did I declare that veganism would not become a limitation, and declared that I would try absolutely everything cruelty-free.

Prior to that moment, however, one dish that would bring everyone to the table was chicken paprika. Despite the difficulties posed by two fussy children and one equally discerning husband, my mom did enjoy cooking, and tried repeatedly to find something that we could all eat together, in health and happiness.

Chicken posed the least threat; bland and anonymous, it’s really the tofu of the animal world, and thus got a pass from all of us. Onions were a bit contentious, but she was very carefully cut them into large chunks, so us kids could easily sweep them aside on our plates.

It’s incredibly basic, as the most comforting dishes tend to be. In tough times, when I miss my parents, my cozy home back on the east coast, and all the tenderness they showed me as I grew into a self-sufficient little herbivore, I do crave these flavors. Swapping out the meat is effortless now, thanks to the rapidly expanding array of plant-based options in stores.

I still don’t miss the chicken one bit. All I’m missing now is the company.

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Bean Me Up, Scotty

Is there anything less glamorous, less thrilling than a pile of beans? Common beans, simply seasoned beans, just cooked and served, not even drained of the excess pot liquor. The humble staple food has kept many afloat in hard times, but it’s not exactly something to write home (or a blog post) about.

At least, that’s what I thought until I landed in Austin and had the pleasure of spending time there with born and raised Texans. They’d like the world to think that barbecue sauce flows through their veins and they cry tears of Big Red in agony, but in truth, these people are powered by pinto beans. Simmered for hours until meltingly tender with little more than salt and pepper, perhaps a chili or a bit of bacon, and for a really fancy flourish, a dab of sour cream can be found swirled on top.

As much as bread or a side of slaw, beans complete the meal. I was once told that if you find yourself at a picnic in Texas without any beans at the table, it’s not really a party; just a meeting at best.

Suspend disbelief, look beyond the humble, spare components, and you’ll begin to believe it, too.

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Que Pasta?

Some foods are just better in concept than reality. Towering sandwiches built way beyond the capacity of an average mouth are sure to disgorge their fillings after even the most careful bites. Ice cream sundaes gleaming with a scoop of every flavor are guaranteed to melt into murky sludge, no matter how many spoons are digging in. Don’t even get me started on coleslaw so slick with mayonnaise that it could also pass for white cabbage soup.

All these disappointments are easily prevented, but 9 times out of 10, the basic construction is a recipe for failure. Seven layer dip is a top offender in my eyes, a frustration compounded by the potential of each flavorful new tier. Refried beans, salsa, cheese, guacamole, olives, lettuce, and herbs – What’s not to love? Well, let’s start with the physical impossibility of fitting all that goodness on top of one tortilla chip, defeating the whole purpose of that deliberate assembly. if you can manage dig down to the bottom without breaking said chip, you’ll be up to your knuckles in guacamole, which strikes me as a pretty serious party foul.

Perhaps we’ve just been thinking about this all wrong. Instead of serving as a starter, these flavorful layers are really meant for the main event. Trade that frilly shredded lettuce for more substantial fare like pasta, and we’ve got a game-changing entree on our hands.

Imagine if baked ziti went on a vacation to Mexico and came back with a fresh new lease on life. Emboldened with spicy enchilada sauce, this unconventional addition allows you full license to scoop out the entire stratified marvel in one satisfying serving.

Gluten-free Tresomega Nutrition noodles inspired this dinner time revelation thanks to their second annual blogger recipe contest. Made of organic quinoa, rice, and amaranth, these macaroni are one of the rare wheat-free varieties up to the task, remaining properly al dente when cooked with care. Snag a box or two online at Sam’s Club and find much more inspiration on the Tresomega Facebook page and Twitter feed

Complex in flavor but not in preparation, you can speed through assembly with some easy food hacks, pull out all the stops with homemade staples, or mix and match depending on your preference- and patience. Most critical here is the creamy cashew-based cheese sauce, which has a subtle tang thanks to unsweetened yogurt and the subtle smoky spice of chipotle canned in adobo, but in a pinch, good old pepper jack style vegan cheese shreds will certainly do the trick. There’s no shame in make it mostly homemade; a little shortcut is better than not cooking at all, every single time.

Lose the chips and dip into a new favorite main dish with those same luscious savory layers. This bold new interpretation was built on a stronger foundation than those earlier models and will never let you down.

Seven-Layer Pasta Bake

1 (15.4-Ounce) Can Refried Pinto Beans or 1 3/4 Cups Homemade (See Following Recipe)
1 (8-Ounce Box) Tresomega Quinoa Elbow or Penne Pasta
1 (10-Ounce) Can Red Enchilada Sauce or Homemade (See Following Recipe)
1 (14.5-Ounce) Can Diced Fire-Roasted Tomatoes, Drained
1 – 2 Cups Vegan Cheese Shreds or Homemade Cheese Sauce (See Following Recipe)
1 Cup Guacamole, Prepared or Homemade (See Following Recipe)
1/2 Cup Sliced Black Olives
2 – 3 Scallions, Thinly Sliced

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease a 7 x 11-inch casserole pan. If possible, opt for glass to see all those lovely layers! Set aside.

Set a large pot over high heat on the stove and bring approximately 4 quarts of water to a rapid boil. Add the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, for only 6 minutes. It will be noticeably under-cooked, but that’s exactly what you want! If you cook it to al dente perfection now, it will get too soft after baking. Immediately drain and rinse with cold water.

Begin the assembly process by smearing the refried beans evenly across the bottom of the prepared casserole dish. In a separate bowl, toss the par-cooked pasta with enchilada sauce, stirring well to coat, before evenly distributing the spicy noodles on top. Add the drained fire-roasted tomatoes next, followed by the vegan cheese shreds or sauce.

Bake for 20 – 30 minutes, until hot all the way through and lightly browned on top. Let stand for at least 5 minutes before topping with dollops of guacamole, a sprinkle of black olives, and a final flurry of sliced scallions. Serve right away, while piping hot.

Makes 6 – 8 Servings

Unfried Refried Beans:

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1/2 Yellow Onion, Minced
1 Clove Garlic, Finely Minced
1 (14-Ounce Can) or 1 1/2 Cups Cooked Pinto Beans, Thoroughly Drained
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cumin
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 – 1/2 Cup Vegetable Stock

Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over moderate heat. Once shimmering, add the onion and garlic, sauteing until aromatic and lightly browned. This should only take about 8 – 10 minutes, so don’t wander off!

Add in the pinto beans, cumin, salt, and 1/4 cup of the vegetable stock next. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 5 minutes. Take a potato masher and smash the beans into creamy submission, adding more stock if needed to reach the right consistency. Enjoy hot or let cool before storing an an air-tight container in the fridge, for up to a week.

Instant Enchilada Sauce:

1 (6-Ounce) Can Tomato Paste
1/4 Cup Vegetable Stock or Water
1 Teaspoon Onion Powder
1 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
1 Teaspoon Dried Oregano
1 Teaspoon Ground Cumin
2 Tablespoons Chili Powder
1/4 Teaspoon Salt

This is really a no-recipe sort of recipe that you could probably figure out by simply looking at the list of ingredients. All you need to do is whisk everything together until smooth and you’re good to go!

Easy Chipotle Cheese Sauce:

1 Cup Raw Cashews, Soaked in Hot Water for 1 – 2 Hours
1/2 Cup Unsweetened Plain Vegan Yogurt
1 Chipotle Canned in Adobo Sauce
3 Tablespoons Nutritional yeast
1/2 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 – 3/4 Cup Water

Thoroughly drain the soaked cashews before tossing them into your blender with the yogurt, chipotle, nutritional yeast, garlic powder, salt, and 1/2 cup water. Begin blending on low speed, slowly ramping it up to high as the nuts are broken down. Pause to scrape down the sides of the container as needed, making sure that all the pieces are incorporated. Puree until completely smooth, drizzling in up to 1/4 additional water while running the motor if needed, to reach a silky, pourable consistency, somewhat like pancake batter.

You can enjoy this all by itself as a simple queso dip or spicy cream sauce, but it can also be stored in an air-tight container in the fridge for up to 4 days if not using immediately.

Basic Guacamole:

2 Large, Ripe Avocados
1/4 Cup Finely Chopped Onion
1 Jalapeno, Finely Minced (Optional)
2 Tablespoons Lime Juice
1/4 Teaspoon Salt

In case you needed a refresher course on how to make guacamole… it’s okay. We all have days like that.

Pit and peel your avocados, placing them in a medium bowl along with the onion, jalapeno (if you like it hot,) lime juice, and salt. Roughly mash with a fork or potato masher until creamy but still slightly chunky. Use or eat right away; guacamole is always best fresh.

Printable Recipe

Grace Under Pressure

The race is on: Stomachs are rumbling and the call for a quick, cozy dinner is at fever pitch. Even the thought of bundling up to grab Chinese takeout seems onerous, too exhausting after spending so much time on the road or at work already. Besides, once jackets are off and pajama pants are on, there’s no going back.

I have good news for you. Believe it or not, the makings of a hearty, warm, restorative meal are already sitting in your pantry, and they’ll come together in mere minutes, with minimal effort. You don’t even need to leave the plush luxury of your bunny slippers to make it happen.

Could there be anything more comforting than a big bowlful of velvety tomato soup? Whole cashews are cooked right into the mix for this almost instant blend, transforming humble broth and vegetables into an impossibly luscious, creamy bisque. Fire-roasted and sun-dried tomatoes join forces to lend a robust, full-bodied tomato flavor that tastes like it spent all day simmering on the stove; only you need to know it needed just a few minutes in the pressure cooker.

No fancy equipment? No problem. Bring out your standard soup pot and plan to simmer for a little bit longer. It may be difficult to wait, but it’s worth the extra time, and still beats greasy lo mein by a long shot.

Yield: Makes 4 - 6 Servings

Heat ‘n Eat Creamy Tomato Bisque

Heat ‘n Eat Creamy Tomato Bisque

Whole cashews are cooked right into the mix for this almost instant blend, transforming humble broth and vegetables into an impossibly luscious, creamy bisque. Fire-roasted and sun-dried tomatoes join forces to lend a robust, full-bodied tomato flavor that tastes like it spent all day simmering on the stove; only you need to know it needed just a few minutes in the pressure cooker.

Cook Time 25 minutes
Total Time 25 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
  • 1 Medium Yellow Onion, Diced
  • 3 Cloves Garlic, Minced
  • 1 Teaspoon Salt
  • 4 Cups Low-Sodium Vegetable Stock
  • 1 (28 ounce) Can Fire-Roasted Crushed Tomatoes
  • 1/2 Cup Sun-Dried Tomatoes
  • 1/2 Cup Raw Cashews
  • 2 Tablespoons Nutritional Yeast
  • 1 Tablespoon Balsamic Vinegar
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
  • 1/2 Cup Julienned (Thinly Sliced) Fresh Basil

Instructions

  1. Heat the oil in your pressure cooker set to sauté function. Add the onion and garlic and cook until softened; about 5 minutes. Sprinkle in the salt and continuing cooking for about 10 minutes, until the onions begin to evenly brown. Be patient while caramelizing the onions because the more golden-brown they get, the more-flavorful your soup will be.
  2. Pour vegetable stock into the cooker along with the undrained can of tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, cashews, nutritional yeast, vinegar, and black pepper. Lock the pressure cooker lid in place and close the steam vent.
  3. Seal and cook over high pressure for 8 minutes. Once the cooking cycle has completed, quick-release the steam vent to quickly break the seal.
  4. Transfer the soup to a blender and thoroughly puree until completely smooth. Ladle into bowls and garnish with basil to serve.

Notes

No fancy equipment? No problem. Bring out your standard soup pot and plan to simmer for a little bit longer.

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

6

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 130 Total Fat: 8g Saturated Fat: 1g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 6g Cholesterol: 0mg Sodium: 500mg Carbohydrates: 13g Fiber: 3g Sugar: 5g Protein: 5g