Friday, May 18, 2018

Outings 2018, part 1 - In which we officially become curmudgeons

In January, we went to the San Antonio Fire Museum. It’s housed in what was a functional fire station until 2011, just steps from the Alamo. (There’s a tiny parking lot across the street at something like $5 a day, so if you get there early, you might get a spot there.) Tickets are relatively inexpensive ($5 per adult, $2 per child), and most of the docents are retired firefighters who are volunteering their time. The museum is in two parts: the first has antique firetrucks (the oldest is from 1892!) and exhibits about the history of firefighting in the U.S., while the second part is both more modern and interactive (kids can climb in the back of a firetruck and try on equipment, there’s an ambulance as well and a play area for little ones). We all had fun, though it should be said that you can easily visit the whole thing in about 1 hour.


In February, we had our big road trip, and we didn’t do anything special in March.

In April, we went to Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch (very close to, but not actually affiliated with, Natural Bridge Caverns). The Ranch is a drive-through safari, without any major carnivores. Admission gets you a bag of animal feed, though you have to pay an extra $3 for the guidebook that explains all about the animals you’re about to see – personally, I wish it were the other way around, because the guidebook seemed necessary to get the full experience, but you don’t really have to feed animals on your way through (we fed some of them, but still had about half of our bag left at the end of our visit). Honestly, without the guide, you’ll just be pointing to a lot of animals and calling them “some kind of deer”, but isn’t it nice to know which one is a barashinga from India and which one is a kudu from Africa? And in which species both sexes have horns? (The guide also has cool facts – did you know that a group of giraffes is called a tower?) Anyway, we were impressed by the watusi, which is the largest horned animal in the world (it’s from Africa, and both sexes have horns which, tip to tip, can span over 8 feet). We also liked seeing giraffes, scimitar horned oryx, addax, and zebras. My favorite part, though, was the ostrich which decided to repeatedly tap the passenger-side mirror next to me even as it ignored the food I threw on the ground. It was close enough that I could have reached out and touched it (except I’m really not supposed to, obviously). The speed limit is 5 M.P.H., and with 6 miles of road, plus stopping either to get a better look or because of traffic, the drive-through should take about an hour and a half. After the tour, there is a petting barnyard with goats, a chicken coop, some African crowned cranes, kangaroos, gibbons, and a lemur.


Then last weekend, for a May outing, we finally went to SeaWorld. We figured that since we’re locals now, we really should go at some point, but as tickets are so expensive (and we realized on the spot that parking is extra!), we always thought we would just go when we had out-of-town guests who wanted to go as well. It hasn’t happened yet, and the Engineer pointed out that this was the last time we could go without having to pay for the Little Prince’s admission, so off we went. Tickets are less expensive if you buy them at least three days in advance, but if you plan on going more than once, an annual pass is immediately worth it. (We didn’t go to the Aquatica water park, so we missed out on seeing the aviary.) So, good things about SeaWorld… Allergy-friendly places to eat; lots of fun for kids of the right ages/heights; opportunities to see animals we wouldn’t get to see otherwise. I mean, I watched Blackfish, so I didn’t need the protesters at the entrance to remind me of all that, but I still went to the killer whale show with the Little Prince. To be fair, SeaWorld does seem to have learned from the whole thing and they now certainly put the emphasis on their conservation efforts and collaborations with researchers to help populations in the wild. The trainers are called behaviorists, now. And the Little Prince loved the show and loved getting splashed by the whales! On the downside, none of the theaters were accessible to strollers, so the Engineer and the Fox missed out on this one. We also went to see the penguins, sea lions, dolphins, and sharks. As for the rides, I took the Little Prince on the Shamu Express, a kids’ roller coaster that unfortunately proved too intense for him (even though he has spent literally months now watching videos of GoPro users on roller coasters and water slides). The Engineer took him on the Rio Loco, a river rapid ride where they only got a bit wet. (For the record, the Little Prince is 42” tall, which is the cutoff for that ride.) His favorite, though, was the Sesame Street Bay of Play, a big playground that is somewhat adult-friendly as well. Since the Fox doesn’t walk yet, though, there wasn’t much he could do. Honestly, it looked like both the kids had fun (or at least, the Fox was perfectly agreeable, which is as much as I could ask at this point). So why did the Engineer and I dislike it? I think it’s because it was crowded, it was hot, tickets were very expensive and refreshments were outrageously so. Should you go to SeaWorld? If you enjoy being swiftly parted from your money, then by all means, yes. I guess we’re officially curmudgeons now.

Sweet Potatoes with Caramelized Onions and Bacon

I’ve said how much I enjoy Julia Turshen’s cookbook Small Victories, because it’s what I like to cook – simple, unfussy but delicious recipes. (I posted her apple and toasted oat muffins as well as her parmesan soup with tiny pasta and peas recently.) I also made her roasted pork loin with herbs and cream cheese, and then these sweet potatoes that were so good, I decided to share the recipe even without a good picture. I changed the recipe a bit by using bacon instead of pancetta and by peeling the sweet potatoes, and it was absolutely delicious. As a matter of fact, once the Little Prince agreed to “have a bite to be polite”, he decided that he now likes sweet potatoes! Small victory indeed. And in the original notes to the recipe, I love how Julia Turshen makes it clear that in order to properly caramelize onions, it takes time – at least 45 minutes. Too many recipes gloss over that step and tell you it’ll be done in 10 minutes, but that’s a lie!

2 lbs. sweet potatoes, unpeeled, scrubbed and cut into ½-inch dice (I peeled mine)
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
kosher salt
½ tsp. red pepper flakes (optional, I didn’t use them)
4 oz. pancetta, finely diced (I used bacon)
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
2 Tbsp. dark brown sugar, honey, or maple syrup
2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

Preheat your oven to 425 °F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Put the sweet potatoes on the prepared baking sheet. Drizzle with the olive oil, sprinkle with ½ teaspoon salt and the red pepper flakes (if using), and toss everything together. Roast the sweet potatoes, stirring a couple of times, until tender and browned, about 45 minutes. Set aside.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook the pancetta, stirring, until the fat is rendered and the pancetta is crisp, 5 to 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the pancetta to a bowl and set aside.

Add the sliced onion to the skillet (add a little olive oil if there’s not enough fat in the pan – it will depend on how much fat is in the pancetta, so trust your instincts here). Turn the heat to medium-low and cook the onion, stirring now and then, until the onion has collapsed and is very soft and browned in spots, about 45 minutes. Stir in the brown sugar and vinegar and cook until the liquid has evaporated, about 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt.

Add the reserved pancetta and sweet potatoes to the skillet and stir everything together. Serve warm.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Batch of links - Product reviews

- I bought some Eat Pastry chocolate chip cookie dough on a whim. Well, I had heard about it a while back (basically, vegan ready-made cookie dough sold in the refrigerated section), but had never seen any – and then, there it was, at Whole Foods, on National Cookie Day, so I bought a package. I really liked it, but mostly because I could eat it straight or make just a few cookies at a time (and the dough is soft enough to be easily portioned even cold). It doesn’t beat a homemade cookie, of course, but it’s a good product.


- Kind neighbors gave us some Pioneer Brand Sweet Cream Pancake and Waffle Mix over the holidays – the same kind served at Guenther House – and let me tell you, it has ruined us for most other mixes, and perhaps some homemade recipes as well. It’s clearly not lactose-free, of course; there’s buttermilk and milk in addition to the sweet cream. But oh, it was so worth taking LactoJoy for this!

- That being said, I would be remiss if I didn’t also tell you about Foodstirs’ pancake mix, which also surprised us with how good it was! The add-ins are an egg, melted butter, milk and yogurt, and it was possibly the best pancake mix I’ve ever bought (considering that I was gifted the one above). This is one I intend to buy again too!


- Also, I’m still on a Noosa kick, and I can’t tell you how much I like their mates line, especially the coconut almond chocolate! And their regular vanilla bean, of course.


- I tried a Victoria Vegan sauce, the arugula pesto alfredo sauce, and we really liked it! It goes well with any type of pasta and is quite creamy, thanks to cashews. I might keep one of those in the fridge from now on!


- I never got around to trying all of Ben & Jerry’s latest vegan flavors, mostly because I have sensitive teeth these days and don’t eat much cold stuff. I did try Cherry Garcia and liked it, but my favorite right now is the Coconut Seven Layer Bar flavor (coconut with fudge chunks, walnuts, and swirls of graham cracker and caramel). Granted, I’d like it better without the walnuts, but still, it’s awesome.


- I finally tried one of the dairy-free Halo-Top flavors – the peanut butter cup one. I found it oddly grainy and airy and bland. I guess that’s because it’s so low in calories? On the bright side, it does have a scoopable consistency right out of the freezer, and there are so many flavors that I’m sure there’s one I’d like more. For the record, it’s kosher, vegan, gluten-free and soy-free.

Three sewing projects for girls

I made two tops and one nightgown for my niece recently. (Well, one of the tops and the nightgown were made before Christmas, and I made the second top last month – I have so many more things I’d love to make, but sadly no time to execute anything!).

I started with this flannel nightgown. The pattern was very easy, but had one MAJOR drawback: the neckline is MUCH too small! I realized this only after I had cut my pieces, so I asked my sister for measurements, then altered the pattern as you can see on the photo below to make the neckline bigger. After that it looked decent, though I feel like the bias tape edging is a bit wider than what I would have liked… I used Michael Miller’s Flannel in Robin in the Hood Coral and coordinating bright pink double fold bias tape.


The second top I made was this Ice Cream Dress, though I made the blouse version because I didn’t have enough fabric for the dress. My niece’s favorite color is purple, so I used the rectangular tunic I had once made from a bedsheet, since I wasn’t wearing it anymore, and coordinating scrap fabric from a pair of pajama pants in my discard pile for the pocket and button loop.


Finally, I made a Lucy Tunic. The pattern was easy to follow and made an adorable tunic! I was originally looking for something in dark green with a more whimsical coordinating fabric, but could not find anything that worked. So I ended up using the reverse strategy when I found this whimsical hedgehog print and, at the suggestion of the shop owner, went with a lime green coordinating cotton. I modified the pattern a bit by throwing in an adorable circular pocket on the front using this tutorial – and I wish I could get away with wearing one of those too! Come to think of it, the Lucy Tunic does come in women’s sizes… Anyway, if you make it non-reversible, do take out the side-seam pockets from the lining, though – I didn’t, and I feel like it’s a bit too heavy. Also, something interesting happened: my sewing machine is a modern one now, with a computer for a brain, and it comes with a button presser foot that basically makes button holes all by itself. I thought this was fantastic, right up until I tried setting it up for a pair of buttons I had in mind for this tunic (the same ones as for her blue Petite Facile sweater). And lo and behold, they were too big for the button presser foot! I felt like the other stitches on the machine didn’t allow me to make solid buttonholes manually, so I ended up using smaller buttons from my stash. But yeah, score one for the old machines, I guess. It turned out nicely nonetheless – now I just hope she likes hedgehogs!

Friday, May 11, 2018

Vegan Pumpkin Cheesecake with Apple Cider Reduction



The Engineer made a recipe not long ago and announced that he would have about 5 cups of apple cider left over in the jug after that, for me to dispose of (given the internal labor division of our household and all). I made apple cider doughnut pancakes with 1 cup of it, and then decided to tackle a recipe that has been in my bookmarks for probably three and a half years: vegan pumpkin cheesecake with apple cider reduction, which turned out to be a mitigated success. I mean, there was a point at which I thought I would have to chuck the whole thing down the drain because it was still liquid after 2 hours in the oven, but leaving it in the fridge overnight before serving it worked wonders. It was still wobbly as heck, and it was near impossible to land a slice of it upright on a plate, but it was somehow more solid than the vegan pumpkin cheesecake with cranberry toping I made a year ago… The recipe is from the Candle Café cookbook, but judging from the picture that accompanies the original post on The Kind Life, I wonder if it’s the type of cookbook that doesn’t actually give you the real recipe used in the restaurant!

I’m therefore making a few changes in the recipe below, but I admit that I haven’t had time to test them (and since the cake calls for 2 cups of maple syrup, testing this again would severely deplete my reserves of the stuff). I would omit the soy milk entirely – who puts liquid in a cheesecake, anyway? I’m also omitting the agar powder, which wouldn’t be needed without the liquid, I’m sure. I’m also halving the amounts for the apple cider reduction (the original recipe made way too much) and using the full recipe for the frosting. Obviously, it’s not necessary to frost a cheesecake, but it made this one special, helped camouflage the overbrowned top of the cake, and was the Little Prince’s favorite part (I’d actually recommend not using the cream cheese, though, as I found the frosting better before adding it). I’d consider making a graham cracker crust, too. All in all, this cake was good, but not great, though it could certainly be improved!

For the cheesecake
4 cups vegan cream cheese
2 cups agave nectar or maple syrup
1 cup pumpkin purée
1 ½ cups (12 oz.) silken tofu
1 cup arrowroot powder
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
½ tsp. freshly grated nutmeg

For the apple cider reduction
2 cups apple cider
½ cup unrefined sugar
1 pinch nutmeg

For the vanilla frosting (optional)
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) vegan margarine, softened
½ cup creamed coconut (or coconut meat)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup vegan cream cheese (optional; see note above)

For the cheesecake
Preheat the oven to 350 °F. Wrap aluminum foil around the bottom and up the sides of a 9-inch springform pan to prevent any leaking.

Combine the cream cheese, agave, soy milk, pumpkin, tofu, arrowroot, agar, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a large mixing bowl and stir together. Transfer to a blender and blend until smooth and ingredients are fully integrated. (This may have to be done in batches.) Pour the mixture into the prepared spring form pan.

Put the cheesecake in a large baking pan and fill the pan halfway with hot water. Bake for about 2 hours, until lightly browned. Remove, let cool, cover, and refrigerate. The cheesecake can be made up to 2 days ahead of time.

For the apple cider reduction
To make the apple cider reduction, combine the cider, sugar, and nutmeg in a pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is reduced by half and is syrupy, about 1 hour. The reduction can be made and refrigerated up to 2 hours ahead of time. Bring to room temperature before serving.

For the vanilla frosting
Mix together the confectioners’ sugar and margarine in a large bowl or a stand mixer. Set aside.

Combine the creamed coconut and vanilla extract in a blender and blend for 2 minutes. Transfer to the bowl with the sugar-margarine mixture, add the cream cheese (if using), and mix thoroughly until a smooth frosting is formed.

To serve, remove the foil from the pan. Run a knife around the outer edge of the cheesecake and release the spring form pan clamp. Put the cake on a plate or cake stand. Pipe or spread the top of the cheesecake with the frosting. Drizzle the reduction over the cheesecake. Cut into wedges and serve. (I threw some pomegranate arils on there because I had them lying around and because I felt like it needed some color.)

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Soup

I’ve been making soup for lunch every once in a while this winter. It is easy, albeit time-consuming, to feed it to the Fox, and on the days when the Little Prince is home for lunch, he usually pokes at his before declaring he is done, but this gives him the opportunity to try other things that I think of as soup-sides, like his new favorite cheese on a cracker. I made a creamy chickpea bacon soup that was really a variation of the typical Canadian split pea soup; the Little Prince LOVED the bacon, of course, and while he refused the touch the few stray chickpeas that had escaped my immersion blender, he ate the broth containing creamed chickpeas without a fuss. And when I made the otherwise-unremarkable garlic and chicken soup, he professed his undying love of chicken. Some of my favorite soups included the delicious-but-not-photogenic egg and pasta soup from Orangette as well as this curried coconut carrot soup, that I made with less broth than called for and served with a dollop of plain yogurt and fresh herbs.


Then, I undertook the annual task of clearing out as much of the contents of the freezer as possible before our summer road trip. I had a bag of parmesan rinds, but not enough to make pasta in parmesan broth, so I decided to try the parmesan soup with tiny pasta and peas from Julia Turshen’s Small Victories. This also helped me clear tiny pasta out of the pantry, all the more reason to make it! And as it turns out, the Little Prince initially rejected the soup, up until I pointed out the tiny letters, at which point he laughed and said wanted to eat them (small victory right there). So he ate most of the pasta, trying not to accidently eat too many peas at the same time; the Fox and I ate all the components, and we recommend this delicious soup.

The recipe comes with this bonus tip from Julia Turshen: If cheese gets stuck to the bottom of your pot (which is a strong possibility, let’s face it), mix into it 1 cup water and 1 cup vinegar, bring to a boil, then turn off the heat and let stand 10 minutes. Pour out the mixture and wash the pot.

6 cups water or low-sodium chicken stock
1 large yellow onion, unpeeled and roughly chopped
4 garlic cloves, unpeeled and crushed
1 cup (110 g.) of 1” pieces of parmesan rinds
kosher salt
1 cup (160 g.) tiny pasta, such as ditalini or orzo (I used alphabet pasta)
1 cup (130 g.) frozen peas
freshly ground black pepper

In a medium pot over high heat, combine the water, onion, garlic, and parmesan rinds. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until the liquid is really fragrant and heady, about 45 minutes.

Strain the soup into a clean pot and press down on the strainer to get every last bit of broth out. Season the soup to taste with salt. (The broth can then be refrigerated or frozen until ready to use.)

When you are ready to eat, bring the soup to a boil and add the pasta. Cook for 2 minutes less than the package says to, then add the peas and continue cooking until they are bright green and cooked through, 2 minutes.

Divide the soup among four bowls; sprinkle each serving with grated parmesan and a few grinds of pepper.

Saturday, May 05, 2018

Apple and Toasted Oat Muffins



I had some sour cream to use up before the expiry date, and as I was passing my bookshelf in the kitchen, I saw Julia Turshen’s Small Victories and remembered that there was a recipe for sour cream pancakes I wanted to try in there. It was very good, especially with the accompanying roasted blueberries, but the pictures didn’t come out decent. However, while I had the book out, I took a look again at all the Post-It flags I had placed on recipes I wanted to make, and I ended up making a half-dozen of those in the following two weeks. And suffice it to say, I’m really glad I bought this book! I’ll post more recipes in the coming weeks, but I’m starting with the apple and toasted oat muffins. (This recipe also appeared in People magazine.)

½ cup uncooked regular rolled oats
1½ cups plus 2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour, divided
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 pinch of ground cloves
¾ cup granulated sugar
½ cup lactose-free butter, melted and cooled
½ cup lactose-free whole milk
1 large egg, beaten
1 tsp. vanilla extract
½ cup raisins
1 large Granny Smith, Fuji or Gala apple, peeled and diced

Preheat oven to 350 °F. Place baking cups in a 12-cup muffin pan.

Spread oats on a rimmed baking sheet; bake in preheated oven, stirring occasionally, until oats are golden brown and smell toasty, 5 to 8 minutes.

Stir together toasted oats and 1½ cups of the flour in a large bowl. Whisk in baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, salt and cloves. Stir in sugar, butter, milk, egg and vanilla.

Toss together raisins, diced apple and remaining 2 tablespoons flour until fruit is well coated. Add mixture to batter, and stir to combine. Using an ice cream scoop, spoon batter into each of the 12 baking cups.

Bake muffins until browned and a wooden toothpick inserted in center of muffin comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool to room temperature.

Vegetarian Nut Loaf

I’m still in a pattern where my dinner on Monday nights needs to be made ahead of time. I recommend this mushroom, kale, and cheddar frittata (that I served with sorghum-glazed carrots) or this pork tajine. A meatloaf would also be a good idea, but I’m still trying to perfect my recipe. Today’s vegetarian loaf, though, is ready to share!

See, I had bought some cashews to make another vegan alfredo pasta, which was good, but then I had leftover nuts to use. So I decided to be a bit more ambitious and make a vegetarian nut loaf. It turned out to be rich and hearty, full of umami, and really satisfying. For some reason, I didn’t have any onions (poor inventory keeping on my part, I guess!), so I actually had to do without, but it came out fine anyway! You can adjust the herbs to your liking, too. This was delicious! I’d call it Commensal-worthy.

Note that using the food processor for prep saves a lot of time (I recommend starting by shredding the cheese, then switching to the S-blade for the nuts and mushrooms), and most of the prep work can even be done ahead of time. This loaf reheats beautifully and makes lots of leftovers. I served it with roasted sweet potatoes, but it would work well with a green salad, too. And if you happen to have some mushroom gravy, it would be divine!

1 onion, medium chopped
1 Tbsp. lactose-free butter or oil
2 cups finely-chopped mushrooms (See Recipe Note)
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 tsp. dried marjoram
1 tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. dried tarragon
1 tsp. dried sage
red wine or sherry
2 cups cooked brown rice (I cooked up 1 cup of dry rice)
2 cups walnuts, finely chopped or pulsed in a food processor
1 cup cashews or almonds, finely chopped or pulsed in a food processor
5 eggs
1 cup lactose-free cottage cheese
¾ lb. grated lactose-free cheese: parmesan, grana padano, gruyere, cheddar, or any combination
½ cup mixed fresh chopped herbs such as parsley, oregano, and thyme
salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350 °F.

Sauté the onion in oil or butter until it begins to soften. Add the mushrooms and a pinch of salt and pepper, and cook until the mushrooms release their juices and become soft. Add the garlic and dried herbs, and continue to cook. When the pan begins to dry out again, add a good splash of red wine or sherry and cook until it is reduced. The contents should be moist but not swimming in liquid. Remove from the heat and let cool a little.

While the mushroom mixture cools, grease a 9-inch loaf pan and line with parchment paper or foil.
In a large bowl, toss the brown rice and nuts together. In a separate bowl beat the eggs with the cottage cheese. Add the egg mixture to the rice/nut mixture, then stir in the cooled mushrooms, grated cheese and fresh herbs. Mix well. Taste for seasoning and adjust. (If you're worried about the raw egg, you can fry up a little patty to taste, but my eggs were pasteurized. You can also keep the mixture in the refrigerator at this point for up to 24 hours.)

Fill the loaf pan with the nut mixture, rap a few times on the counter to get rid of any air bubbles and smooth the top with a spatula. Decorate with slices of mushrooms or whole walnuts if desired. Place loaf pan on a baking tray. Bake for about an hour or until the loaf is firm (slightly longer if the mixture was refrigerated). Remove from the oven. Rest on a cooling rack for ten minutes, then lift the loaf from the pan using the excess parchment paper or foil. Peel off the parchment or foil and serve on a platter, garnished with fresh herbs.