Sunday, July 29, 2012

Peachy Keen

Summer provides an embarrassment of riches, in terms of fruit.

The berries are plentiful, cheap, and taste amazing.  Everyone knows that.  But, although I love berries, like all normal people, I hate to have to spring for organic ones.  And, yes, you pretty much have to spring for organic ones--berries are polluted as fck.  That can totally be worth it, of course, but it kinda sucks when the store is selling two pounds of conventional strawberries for $3.99 right next to you. 

It's OK, though, because PEACHES TO THE RESCUE!  The peaches were so cheap at the grocery store, only $0.99 per pound.  And, what's better, you can blanch and peel the skin off peaches, so that there is less pollution on them, even if they're not organic. Yayyyy!

First up, I made the Unbaked Peach and Berry Crumble from Vegan Holiday Kitchen.  You know what's great about a holiday-focused cookbook?  It's really code for a cooking-seasonally cookbook, which is awesome.  Is it springtime?  Check out the Easter recipes!  Fall?  Thanksgiving.  Winter?  Don't make me say it, you know.  And during the summer, it's easy to just look through this book's "Summer Entertaining" section, which is expansive, and much focused on what to serve/bring at a barbeque. 

I'm not going to lie, I didn't peel the peaches for this dish.  It's just such an easy recipe and that was this whole other step that wasn't required, and I didn't do it.  Hopefully I won't get cancer.  I did buy organic berries, though, because I know they're particularly dirty.
So, yeah, you don't bake it.  The peaches are sliced and cooked on the stovetop along with some Earth Balance, maple syrup, and cinnamon.  The topping of oatmeal, nuts, and sugar also gets toasted on the stovetop with some vegan butter.  Then, you just put the peaces in whatever kind of bowl, throw the berries on top, and sprinkle the topping on.  It looks really pretty, right?  I'm sure everyone would ooh and ah at a potluck.

I didn't take it to a potluck, though.  I ate it all myself!
This picture was taken while it was still warm, but it does stay good for two or three days in the fridge.  The sauce thickens and the topping becomes wet, but it's still really good, and does not suffer from being eaten cold.

After I finished it, I decided I had not gotten my fill of peaches yet, and I bought tons more in order to make the Basil Peach Pie from Vegan Pie in the Sky.  Goodness knows I have enough basil in my garden to use!

Now, look, I make no secret of my gross inexperience with pie crusts.  This was only the second time I've made a true fruit pie, and the first time, it was a major fail, crust-wise.  But I did do a couple things to try to improve it this time around.  First, I asked my stepmother what the heck it means when cookbooks want you to cut the butter to put into the crust.  I really had no idea!  But I'm here to serve, you guys, so here goes:

Cutting the butter into the pie crust means that you literally take your stick of cold butter and use a butter knife and slice it into little squares, and THEN work them into the flour.  Same with shortening. 

Maybe that was obvious to you guys, but it sure wasn't to me.  And, you know, Moskowitz and Romero do not actually tell you to cut the butter in their buttery crust recipe, they say to scoop out about a half-tablespoon at a time and "cut" it into the flour, or to use your fingers.  All this cutting business confuses me, but I'm familiar with how to use my fingers (years of experience), so I did that.

The other thing I did to try to improve my crust-making is I bought a silicone pastry mat to help me guide how big and round to rolling pin the crust bottom and top.   Oh, by the way, that link to the mat I just posted?  DO YOU LIKE TO COOK?  That site has the least expensive prices for high-quality cookwear I've ever seen.  I bought a couple new knives from there, a knife sharpener, some silicon mats, some high-end kitchen towels, and a few needed utensils, and it ended up being, like, $80. 

These thing helped me, but I still haven't gotten the hang of lattice-work.  This crust is not perfect, but it's OK.  It doesn't really matter, right:?  The point is: basil peach pie!  Basil.  Peach.  Pie.  Who cares what the crust looks like?

The first bite of this pie is unexpected.  It's good, but at first, you're like, "Basil in my pie, kinda weird, right?"  Then you have a second bite.  And it tastes better.  You get used to it quickly and soon you're scarfing it down.  It's delectable.  Unusual.  Refreshing.  Something new and delicious.

I fed some to my father and step-mother, who I visited this past week, and my step-mom said it was the best thing I'd baked, but, to be honest, it seems like she says that every time I bring something over.  I also fed it to some old friends of mine from my parents' stomping grounds who were all like, "Can you send this by mail order?"

And guess what.  I had so much extra filling for this pie that I put it into my freezer.  Soon, I'll make some Basil Peach Galettes, based off the recipe in Veganomicon for Individual Heart-Shaped Apple Galettes.  You know, to feed to my Pittsburgh friends this time.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Home-Grown Tomatoes, Grilled "Cheese" That Will Explode Your Brain, The Quiet Storm

People always talk about how tomatoes you grow yourself taste better, and how grocery store tomatoes are crap.  Although I believed that was true, and would not buy tomatoes out of season even though they're in the stores year-round, I thought, you know, they're not THAT bad, at least not in the summer.

Nevertheless, I wanted to grow a whole bunch of them, and taste what everyone had been saying.  Last summer, I got plenty of tomatoes through my CSA, and I just didn't think they were any different than the organic ones from the store; as long as I never put either one in the refrigerator, they tasted fine by me.

And I still think that!  However, the brandywine tomatoes I'm growing on my porch are definitely the greatest tomatoes I've ever eaten.
A smaller brandywine tomato, one of the first of the season.
I actually haven't cooked with one yet, because I keep on just eating them!  Mostly, I've been just slicing them, sprinkling on some chopped basil from one of my plants, and adding some salt and pepper.
This was a trick I learned from my older sister as a child.  She used to love to slice tomatoes and eat them with just salt and pepper.  The basil is my only no-duh addition.  You may not believe me, especially if you're one of those "I hate raw tomatoes" people, but it does NOT taste like a raw tomato!  It actually tastes like a delicious marinara sauce.

A lot of the time, though, I never even manage to put any salt, pepper, and basil on them before I eat them completely unadorned.  They are far better than my CSA tomatoes last summer.  I cannot explain this, but it's true.

The only "cooking" I've done with my tomatoes was adding some slices to the grilled "cheese" sandwiches I made.  I never photographed one with a tomato in it, though.  Still, do you guys want to hear about the greatest damn grilled "cheese" sandwiches ever?  Great!  Here goes...

So, in the book Vegan Diner, there's this recipe called Great Smoky Mountain Cheeze that I'd been wanting to make for some time.  It's tofu-based, and it's got agar powder.  Eaten alone, it tastes good, but not amazing.  However, it is just totally perfect for heating in a grilled "cheese" sandwich!  The way it heats is so terrific -- the texture is perfect.  I never was one to eat grilled cheese without pesto, and I'd made an enormous amount of pesto from the basil in my garden.  Also, I really believe that grilled cheese should be on rye bread.  It just tastes best.

So, rye bread, buttered on the outside with Earth Balance, Great Smoky Mountain Cheeze smeared on the bottom slice, pesto on the top slice, cooked on my pre-warmed cast-iron skillet.  MMMMmmmm.  It was so good that I'd make one and bring it to friends just to be like, "OMG, you gotta try this!"  It was so good that I insisted my vegan friend Kate stop by, even if just for a few minutes, so I could make her one.  It was so good that I ran through the streets naked yelling, "GRILLED CHEEZE WIT A Z, BITCHEZ!!"  Well, OK, I didn't do that third thing, but I really, really wanted to.

Do you like those little strawberries next to the yummy, yummy grilled "cheese"?  I grew them in one of my sub-irrigated planters!  I have only six plants in there, and they produce about as many strawberries as you see in that picture every day.

In other news, I don't usually eat out, but I do occasionally eat at Pittsburgh's vegetarian/vegan restaurant The Quiet Storm, and I'm almost always thrilled with what I get.  I don't prefer to eat there on a Sunday because there is only a brunch menu on Sunday, and I really prefer their non-breakfast items, and also because the brunch items have been steadily increasing in price since I first started going there, but it seems like I only ever make it on a Sunday!  Boo.  Nevertheless, the food always pleases me.

I went there with my friend Heather a week ago, and was tempted to get some kind of a breakfast burrito, but I decided, ultimately, to go for sweet/savory instead of just savory/savory, and I ordered the Nyam -- described on the menu as "Jamaican-inspired cornmeal & coconut pudding, topped with roasted sweet potatoes, bananas, & cinnamon-maple syrup."  It came with fresh fruit, and black beans.  And, you know, it was awesome.  I pretty much inhaled it between sips of hot coffee with soy creamer.
Nyam from The Quiet Storm.  This place never disappoints!
To close off this entry, wanna see my first fully-grown cucumber?  It's pretty daggone cute, I think.  I may be a bit too sentimentally attached to my home grown fruits, though.
Awww, baby's first cucumber!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Bloomfield Balcony Garden, Part 2: Zucchini

It's easy to make mistakes when you're new at gardening, and I've made quite a few.  Every failure is a lesson, though, and there are so many things I learned this year so far that will be invaluable each year to come.  Some of my early mistakes?  Well, as I mentioned in my last entry, I know now that there is no need to start zucchini indoors.  When I put some seeds into my sub-irrigated planter, they sprouted within a week and were monsters within a month.
Zucchini just starting to fruit

You can see all the blossoms and some baby fruit in that picture.  I couldn't even manage to stand far enough away from the plant on my balcony to take a picture that included everything.  The leaves were huge -- up to two feet wide, I'd say.

A gardening friend who lives somewhat nearby told me that she'd decided against doing zucchini again this year because last year, the squash bugs destroyed them.  Stink bugs, too, she said.  I thought I'd try my luck with it anyway.  But she wasn't wrong.  As soon as the leaves were out and open, I began observing some holes through them.  I decided not to waste any time before taking action.

I made the Bad Breath Pepper Garlic Spray from Gayla Trail's web site You Grow Girl and sprayed it all over the leaves.  This stuff is basically just water, pepper (I used cayenne), garlic, and onion.  Totally edible, but it worked like magic to stop bugs from eating the zucchini leaves!  My zucchs grew, provided maaaad fruit, took more water than the plants in any of my other sub-irrigated planter, and kept reaching for the sun.

Then I left town for a weekend.  My friend Sara agreed to come by on Saturday to refill my sub-irrigated planters, because those zucchs easily drank the whole thing in one day if it was hot.  I left on Thursday; then, apparently, on Friday, there was a storm.  A wicked, intense, probably-made-stronger-by-global-warming storm.  On Saturday, I got an email from Sara.  My zucchini had taken the plunge.

It's tragic really.  Zucchini plants with everything to live for, reaching a little too hard for the sun off my balcony, thrown into my neighbor's cavernous yard by a storm!  Sara couldn't even figure out how to get over there to retrieve it from the ground, which I cannot blame her for.  I mean, you guys have seen those pictures of the view off my balcony.  Here's another one.
Check out his turtle sandbox guy! Haha!
It's a worker yard.  Gated off.  No one lives there, although a kind-seeming older gentleman does come by on weekends sometimes to do handy work.  He called up to me one time, "You've got a farm going!", which made me feel all warm and fuzzy.  The main building has an incomplete wall, waiting to be bricked up.  There's no proper entrance.

When I came back on Monday night, I had to move a gate that actually wasn't attached to anything to break in there.  It was difficult and heavy to carry everything back.  My poor zucchs were goners.  Dried up, broken, dirty.  They were once so alive and productive!  The worst part, though, is that my GrowBox actually broke.  The part that holds water is completely cracked.  It's too big of a job for duct tape to solve.  Believe me, I tried.

I learned some valuable lesson, though, from the whole zucchini experience.  Like NEVER EVER LEAVE TOWN, EVEN FOR FIVE MINUTES.  Nah, I kid.  But really.  Here's what I learned, in chronological order:

1.  Only plant zucchini outside (OK, OK, we've got that one, move on!).

2.  Only put zucchini and squash together into one planter, and no other type of plant, because there is nothing else that can compete with its zealous largeness!  Half my planter was empty, because I was stupid enough to try to start some lettuces in the same planter.  They sprouted, but proceeded to be 100% blocked from sunlight by the greedy, space-hogging zucchini.  I mean, you'd hate to be seated next to these things on a plane.

3.  Next year, while still being on an edge, I'll place my zucchini on the edge that actually gets some sunlight from both sides, so that it won't want to lean so badly and be so susceptible, with its enormous, flight-worthy leaves, to tip on over in a storm.  See, look, let me show you another picture of my setup.

You can see up on my balcony, but down on the left by my stairs, there is a wall.  It's pretty difficult to access, actually, but next year, I'm gonna keep zucchs and yellow squash in a sub-irrigated planter down there.  That way, it'll get enough sun from either side to, you know, take over the neighborhood, a la Little Shop of Horrors.

More on gardening in a day or two!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Bloomfield Balcony Gardening, Part 1

When I decided to move from Phoenixville, one of the things I knew I absolutely had to find in Pittsburgh was an apartment that had space to garden.  I was looking for a real backyard ideally, one with grass and sunlight and space.  But I would settle for a sturdy balcony that faced south, which is the direction to face to get maximum sunlight hours, because I could settle for a container garden.  I ended up in Bloomfield, thankfully, facing south.
The view from my balcony
It's certainly not fancy.  There isn't a blade of grass that is on the property of the row home where I live.  But my balcony has room for containers, and kind of a great view, in its own way.
Way off in the distance, to the right of the tree in the middle, you can see the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning.
View of the neighbors
The balcony actually wasn't very sturdy, though.  It was falling apart.  I was looking forward to attaching large planters to hang off the deck railings, but there was really no way it was going to hold any weight without collapsing.  The thing was eaten by carpenter ants, I think (please do not get me started on why I think that).  I begged my landlord to look into it, because he's a handy guy, and decent to boot.  Finally, one Saturday morning, a small crew swept in, tore up the deck and railings, reused aspects of it, and rebuilt the rest with new wood before I'd even finished sleeping until noon.  Best part?  The new railing ledges are wide enough now to hold planters without using those deck railing bracket things.

I'm a gardening newbie, so I did what I always do: I got books from the library and read them.  I loved Grow Great Grub by Gayla Trail.  The Edible Balcony by Alex Mitchell came out in February, and I already had it reserved from the library; it was enormously helpful and inspiring.

I actually bought myself a cheap greenhouse and an even cheaper light to start seeds indoors.  I would have been happy to start them on my kitchen table without a greenhouse, but my cat cannot leave anything well enough alone, and nothing would have survived.  So I figured the $40 greenhouse was worth the expense.  I got myself some peet pots and seeds and soil and I was ready to go!

I started many, many tomato plants -- 1/2 brandywine, 1/2 sweetie.  Some basil, cilantro, zucchini, marigolds, wildflowers.  They all were fine with being transplanted outdoors except the zuccs.  I actually began regretting starting the zucchini indoors almost immediately.  They shot up so quickly that I felt sorry for them because they just didn't have enough room!  When I planted them outside, they died within days, but that was OK, because I knew I could plant some seeds outside and they'd be fine.  Zucchini are irrepressible growers.

After a bunch of reading, it seemed clear that sub-irrigated planters were the way to go.  I bought three Garden Patch GrowBoxes. The beauty of these things is that they're built in such a way that there's a compartment of water on the bottom, which you fill, and then a compartment of soil above it, where you put your plants.  But then, there are two parts of the soil compartment where the soil drops down into the water area -- it's as if you packed soil tightly into a square-shaped colander, and then put that colander into water.  Not to mention that the whole bottom of the soil compartment is like a colander.  It makes it so that the roots of your plants can just reach down and take as much or as little water as they want.  They literally grow through the bottom and dip into the water, greedily.  This means that you cannot over or under water your plants (unless you fail to fill your water reservoir every few days).  You can also leave it alone for a relatively long time and it'll be fine.  And, you can plant different things that require different amounts of water in the same large box.  It's pretty damn cool!  And the plants love it, as you'll soon see.

Even this diagram doesn't really show explain smart this thing is.  If you look IN the water in that picture, you see a box.  That box is the section of soil that has walls like a colander in the water, but it's part of the top.  Really clever.

I have some regular planters as well.  Someone on Freecycle gave me a whole bunch of those 5 gallon kitty litter containers.  Another Freecyler gave me a drill, which made me feel awesome (I have a really professional, expensive drill, like I was a real toolman!).  I bought some spray paint and a drill bit at Home Depot, and I spray painted some of the litter containers and drilled holes in the bottom. 
You can see a kitty litter planter painted blue on the left where I've planted sunflowers.  There is cilantro in the middle and some flowers on the right.  This was probably about two months ago, much has changed since then.

Please come back to read part 2 tomorrow!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A 4th of July Mash Up of Foods

Oh hey!  Happy 4th.  When I rule the world, I think the thing to do would be to always have Wednesdays off.  A day between the weekends to relax.  This shit is amazing -- so unreal.

My father gave me one of his old cameras.  It's complicated, I really do not understand it.  It makes me want to cry a little bit, actually.  Seems like I can never get it to focus right.  Nevertheless, this entry is my first foray into photography with my new Sigma DP1S, so try not to judge me too much, OK?

Food time.  Let's start way back.  Do you guys read the Earth Balance web site Made Just Right?  They send me an email or two every day, and I check out the recipes they post.  The recipes are submitted by readers and bloggers -- they're not tested by anyone, but that's OK by me.  I like to test things.  Anyway, back in March, they posted a recipe for Lemon Tofu with Pasta & Vegan Cream Basil Sauce, which came from the blog Mighty Vegan.  I had never read that blog before, but now I love it!  At the time, I made the recipe for a bunch of my girlfriends, and it was delicious, so I made it again more recently, figuring I'd, you know, take a picture this time and post it on my blog, and talk about it, as I so enjoy doing.

Couple things.  The recipe, as printed on Made Just Right, is way too complicated.  I didn't make it gluten free, just used normal pasta.  Also, it never tells you when to add the lemon juice or, more importantly, to what.  There are three parts to the recipe: the tofu, the veggies, and the sauce.  OK, and the pasta part, but that's just "boil the pasta."  Eventually, I found the original recipe as posted on Mighty Vegan, and it turned out the lemon juice was supposed to have been added to the tofu.  Well, guess what, I added it to the sauce.  And guess what: IT WAS DELICIOUS THAT WAY.  I did it again that way the second time, cuz why mess with a good thing?  Also, the basil cream sauce was apparently just supposed to be drizzled atop the tofu and veggies at the end, but I wasn't feeling that, so I mixed it into the pasta.  The recipe makes so much sauce that there's plenty to mix in.  Then I put the tofu and veggies on the pasta.  One more thing!  The veggie portion doesn't call for any onion or garlic to be sauteed in it, but I was like "F that!" and added them both. Actually, the recipe does say, "Put whatever veggies you want into it" (not in those exact words).  My point is, I guess, the recipe is written in a way that is somewhat problematic, but it's an excellent recipe, and on the Mighty Vegan site, it's written much more clearly. 

Next!  On the day that was the hottest of 2012 thus far, I thought I'd prove I was hardcore by not giving up my plans to bake jalapeno cornbread and have some friends over for a dinner of home-cooked chili.  I made Veganomicon's Skillet Corn Bread -- the Jalapeno-onion variation.  I actually totally failed to take a picture of it while it was all pretty in my cast iron skillet, but my friend Julian did, so here it is.  I don't know why the pic's all long and stuff.

And then I also made, from Quick-Fix Vegan, the Smoky Chipotle-Chocolate Chili. I made it nice and spicy.  This book is so great!  It's just so easy to throw something together from it, yet the recipes are solidly tasty.  
Do you know what the problem is with cornbread that has veggies cooked into it?  You either have to keep it refrigerated, speeding up its getting stale, or let it turn to poison on your counter.  I did both, half and half.  What I learned is that there is absolutely no point in NOT putting it into the fridge (as I said -- poison), but putting it into the fridge sucks too.  I've made all the variations of the Skillet Corn Bread, but, well, never again, I'm only making the original recipe now.  They are delicious, especially the double corn one, but totally not worth it if you intend to have leftovers.  I ended up throwing much of the bread out, and then I was left with tons of spicy chili (I'd doubled the recipe) with no starch to temper it.  The solution I came up with was to make some kind of vegan mac and cheese and mix it into the chili.  It would have to be the "cheater" kind of mac, not the kind you bake.  I decided to do the nice and simple one that's in Vegan Diner, called Cheezy Mac.  Brilliant idea, me!  I mixed them together and enjoyed the hell out of my leftovers.
It's blurry, sorry.

But wait, there's more!  For dessert, I finally made something from Vegan Pie in the Sky!  It came out, when? October of last year, November?  I had it pre-ordered, and then I proceeded to never bake from it.  I know that there are those out there who would consider me an inexperienced baker no matter how many cookies I make because I have not perfected pies.  Those people are really not wrong: there is a pie-shaped hole in my heart.  But I finally bought a spring form pan and I started with something easy: Chocolate Galaxy Banana Cheesecake.  
It looks kinda shiny, that's too bad.  It's really quite beautiful in person.  Also, I'd never made a graham cracker crust or any kind of cheesecake, so I didn't realize that I didn't need to push the crumbs against the sides of the pan to be so high up.  I wasn't thinking straight, I guess.  Live and learn, though, my next cheesecake will have a neater, more-tame crust.
The question stands, though, how did it taste?  AMAZEBALLS!  Really, so extremely good.  I'm a fan of the old bananas-in-baked-goods trick, and this, thankfully, contained no vegan cream cheese.  If it had, I would not have made it, because I hate that crap.  Instead, it had silken tofu.  I didn't think it really tasted like a real cream cheese cheesecake, more like a delicious cream pie, but some non-vegan friends who ate some told me they would not have guessed it wasn't "real" cheesecake" if I had not told them.  Probably, I'm just harder on my own cooking/baking than others are.  

Oh my god, there's so much more.  It HAS been two months since I last posted.  For my friend Mary's graduation party, I made these Two-Tomato Pastry Purses from Quick-Fix Vegan.  I only managed to hold on to one to take a picture of, and it's leftover and doesn't look as good as it originally did, but let me tell you, these are great, so so easy, and were a huge hit with everyone.  The olives cook in with the tomatoes and sun-dried tomatoes in this way that makes it taste like they were cooked with wine, which they totally weren't.  And puff pastry -- who doesn't love puff pastry?  So delicious.
I also made some chocolate chip cookies for her party, which I forgot to photograph, but someday in the future I will tell you all about how I've made every kind of vegan chocolate chip cookies and finally found a recipe that is as delectable and chewy as the butter-filled kind and it's actually kinda healthy!  But that's for another time.

OK, just one more thing!  So I went away for this past weekend (when I get the pictures, I'll post about what I cooked during my weekend at the beach!) and when I got home, I didn't have a chance to cook and I hadn't been shopping but a girl's gotta eat, right?  So, TO THE FREEZER!  I had some frozen hamburger buns, some of those Black Bean Sunburgers frozen from before, but no fixins, really.  You know, no onion, lettuce, tomato.  What else?  Well, I also had some frozen pesto!  I have five basil plants going (and going quite well, if I may say so myself) and so I'd made some pesto and frozen it.  I heated up a burger, spread the defrosted pesto onto it, and put it on a defrosted bun.  Presto, pesto! (OK, that was lame, shut up.)
Oh, hey, you know that feeling when you're eating something that entirely came out of your freezer, yet is almost entirely homemade, and it's so good that you feel like you are so incredibly lucky to eat so much better than everyone else, and you feel pity for all the non-vegans out there who can too easily rely upon sub-par pre-prepared foods and meat that all basically tastes the same?  You know that feeling?  That's what I was feeling times a million while eating this.

ONE FINAL THING.  Happy 2 year anniversary, blog!  I may have neglected you on occasion, but you're never far from my thoughts.
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