Vegetarian Black Beans Worth Crowing About

The Black Beans with the Secret Ingredient

Felicia Sanchez's Centre Street Cafe black beans have a smoky flavor and a mysterious ingredient.

For many years, I’ve been enjoying the black beans at one of my favorite restaurants, Centre Street Café.  They have a wonderful smoky flavor, but there was a certain something—a little kick—that I just couldn’t place. Recently, I learned the secret behind these delicious black beans.

A little while back, video producer Kate Raisz of 42°N Films and I asked Centre Street Café chef/owner Felicia Sanchez if we could shoot a video of her making a dish featuring fresh and local foods for a project we were working on.  The project’s on hold, but we got a sweet little video out of it that just screams “fresh and local.”  We’ll post the video of Felicia making her delectable Mexicali Composed Salad soon.

Chili Garlic Sauce

Tuong Ot Toi Vietnam Chili Garlic Sauce

As if the video was not enough, Felicia also generously shared her black bean recipe, which is one of the components of her Mexicali Composed Salad.  I finally learned her secret: Tuong Ot Toi Vietnam Chili Garlic Sauce, a blend of ground chilies and garlic. When I tracked down the Tuong Ot Toi sauce at my local grocery store, I saw it was bright red with a familiar rooster logo.  I discovered that Huy Fong Foods, the California company that makes Tuong Ot Toi sauce, also makes Tuong Ot Sriracha, which is also a bright red Asian hot sauce with the same rooster logo.

Sriracha

Tuong Ot Sriracha

Tuong Ot Sriracha is a paste of chili peppers, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt and is based on a sauce that originated in the city of Srirachai in Thailand. The company’s founder, David Tran, is an ethnic Chinese Vietnamese farmer who was born in the Year of the Rooster, hence the rooster logo.

Once you’ve bought some Liquid Smoke and your Tuong Ot Toi sauce, the recipe is quite simple.  You don’t even have to soak the beans before cooking them. According to Felicia, the real secret to making good beans is to not let the pot come to a boil, because boiling toughens beans.  But I think it’s the rooster.

Centre Street Café Black Beans

From Felicia Sanchez, Chef/Owner of Centre Street Café in Jamaica Plain, Mass.

Ingredients

1 lb. black beans (you don’t need to soak them)
1/2 onion, sliced thinly
1 TB Kosher salt
1 TB cumin
1 TB paprika
1 TB cider vinegar
1 TB canola oil
2 TB liquid smoke
2 ½ TB minced garlic
1 ½ TB Tuong Ot Toi Vietnam Chili Garlic Sauce

Preparation
Rinse and sort through the black beans to pick out any stones or dirt.

Put the beans into a large pot with all the other ingredients.  Cover with at least 2 inches of water.

Bring the beans almost to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. (Don’t boil the beans, because it will toughen them.)

Simmer the beans until soft (approximately 1 ½ hrs).

Keep beans covered with a little water; add water if necessary.

Makes approximately 6 ½ cups.

Dinner at Alinea: Art, Theatre, and, of course, Food

A trio of edible cocktails

Our "artful" dinner began with a trio of edible cocktails

I’ve often heard people talk about food as art, but I’ve never seen it that way myself until I was treated to a fabulous experience last week involving food. Although it took place at a restaurant, I felt like I was sitting on an art museum stage, participating in a performance piece.

Alinea logoMy sister Louise was celebrating a special birthday and invited Michelle and me to celebrate with her at Alinea, a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Chicago’s tony Lincoln Park neighborhood.  Alinea is located in its own two-story building. The décor is sophisticated and modern, befitting the temple of food created by chef/owner Grant Achatz.

The approximately twenty courses on the tasting menu feature marvels of molecular gastronomy as well as more traditional morsels. Although it may sound like more food than you could possibly eat in one sitting, the courses are small and are spaced out over a serene four hours.  Since each course is designed to surprise you, you don’t actually get to see the menu until the end, when you are given a souvenir paper listing what you’ve eaten.

You simply take your seat and let the chef and his army of cooks and servers begin the show. The waiters didn’t actually sing or dance, but they were definitely choreographed. In a space no bigger than my living room, a half-dozen waiters circled around the five tables in our area, setting up each dish, reciting the ingredients, and explaining how to eat it.  Although they didn’t go so far as to bang a gong each time they served us, each course was announced with the fanfare of a royal decree.

Earl Grey pillow

Louise discusses the dish placed on a pillow of Earl Grey-scented air.

The food is presented and served in or on an amazing array of implements and dishes, from doll-sized dishes and tiny pedestals to a lit branch of oak serving as a skewer and a bowl constructed out of metal puzzle pieces. One of the dishes was placed on a white pillow of Earl Grey-scented air, releasing the distinctive smoky smell of bergamot to complement the Earl Grey tea, lemon, pine nut, and carmelized white chocolate favors in the course.

Alinea offers wine pairings, but we decided to order by the glass as the spirit—so to speak—moved us.  The wait staff were helpful at making suggestions as to what type of beverage—alcoholic or not—would be most appropriate at any given stage in the meal.  We started out with a delicious champagne cocktail, mixed with bitters and spices, and progressed to wine, beer, and a home-made purple carrot soda.

Our second dish of the evening

Our second dish of the evening was "Golden Trout Roe"

The meal itself began with a trio of what the servers called “edible cocktails,” and that’s what they were – luscious little bites infused with bitters, brandy, rum, fruits and spices. Each was just a single tingling mouthful that left me craving more.  The Golden Trout Roe—one of my favorite dishes of the evening—followed beautifully.  It was a soupy orange bowl that zinged with Dijon mustard, rutabaga, grapefruit, and the roe.  I would have gladly made that my entire meal.

Puff pastry

Puff pastry with venison

Puff pastry

My vegetarian puff pastry with celery root.

One of the most delightful surprises of the evening was how well they catered to my pescovegetarian diet. Louise told them I didn’t eat meat when she made the reservation, and the kitchen rose to the challenge. Unlike some fine dining establishments I’ve been to where the chef gives little thought or creativity to vegetarian cooking, the kitchen created vegetarian or seafood simulations of the courses containing rabbit, short rib, duck, venison, foie gras, and bacon that were every bit as dazzling as the meat dishes.

Our final course

This chocolate extravaganza was our final course.

The final course was a chocolate, peanut, blueberry, cream, honey extravaganza that was literally painted on our tablecloth.  The servers deftly poured liquid chocolate and other substances in circles, dots and swirls all over the table, then cascaded mounds of peanut nougat, frozen chocolate mousse, and other delightful substances on top.  We were each given a large spoon to dive into this artistically arranged mess.  It made an extravagant finale to an unforgettable meal—or should I say performance?

How to Make a Kickin’ Vegan Hoppin’ John

Black-Eyed Peas

These black-eyed peas have been soaked overnight.

When the clock stroke midnight on New Year’s Eve, did you dive a spoon into a pot of Hoppin’ John so you’d have good luck in 2011? Don’t worry, I didn’t  either. But I made up for it today by cooking up a pot of what I’ve dubbed  Kickin’ Vegan Hoppin’ John, so hopefully I’ll be swimming in green this year.

Hoppin’ John is an African-American dish that is eaten on New Year’s for good luck.  The main ingredient is usually black-eyed peas (said to be brought to America by African slaves working on the rice plantations), served with rice.  To cinch the deal, people usually eat some kind of greens—the color of money–with their Hoppin’ John.

There seem to be as many versions of Hoppin’ John as there are stories about how it got it that odd name or why it brings you good luck.  My theory is that it’s basically a pretty healthy dish, and, as they say, “Health is Wealth.”

Black-eyed peas take less time to cook than most other beans, but they don’t have much flavor. Hoppin’ John is usually made with bacon or a ham hock, but vegetarians have to find other ways to give it a kick.  Since one of my New Year’s resolutions is to find new ways to encourage myself and others to eat healthy and local foods as much as possible, I was eager to create a cheap, healthy recipe that would please both vegetarians and meat-eaters. I hope this dish will help you enjoy a happy, healthy 2011.

Kickin’ Vegan Hoppin’ John

Ingredients

Olive oil spray
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, cored and julienned
1 celery stalk, thinly sliced
1 carrot, thinly sliced
1 hot green chili, cored and most or all of the seeds removed, depending on how hot you like your food
2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1 cup dried black-eyed peas, soaked overnight, drained, and cooked until barely soft (you can substitute 2 packages frozen, thawed and rinsed or 2 15 oz. cans, rinsed)
1 14.5 can diced tomatoes
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon smoked paprika (regular paprika will work, but the smoked paprika adds a nice kick)
½ teaspoon salt (adjust to taste)
½ teaspoon pepper (adjust to taste)
1 teaspoon Liquid Smoke (adjust to taste)
1 12 fl. Oz. bottle dark beer
Tabasco sauce (to taste)

Coat a large sauté pan with a few sprays of olive oil and heat pan to medium.  Sauté the onion for a few minutes until it begins to soften.  Add the red pepper, celery, carrots, and hot pepper and stir occasionally for three minutes.  Add the garlic and cook 1 minute.  Add the diced tomatoes with their juice.

Drain the black-eyed peas and add to the pot. Stir in the bay leaf, thyme, smoked paprika, salt and pepper, and Liquid Smoke. Pour in the beer. Stir well and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, until the liquid is reduced but there is still some sauce. Remove the bay leaf. Add Tabasco sauce and adjust seasonings to give it the kick you will need to get through 2011 in health and wealth!

Hoppin' John

Kickin' Vegan Hoppin' John over brown rice, served with a side of collard greens.

Serve over a bed of cooked brown rice with a side of collard greens for extra good luck.

8 Tips For What to Bring to a Potluck

Each dot represents a vote for a favorite dish in this cooking competition.

Trying to figure out what to bring to the next potluck?  Read on! The PescoVegetarian Times has conducted an experiment to determine which items at potlucks are most popular.

Elyse Cherry's "Happy Chriswanukah!" cake was a runner-up in the store-bought category.

Yes, Michelle and I turned our annual ChrisKwanukah holiday party into a friendly cooking competition this year. Everyone got a chance to vote on their favorite dish in four categories: best appetizer, best main dish, best dessert, and the popular wild card category, the best “Yes, I made it! I made my way to the store to buy it” store-bought item.

While not exactly a controlled lab test, the PescoVegetarian Times did allow meat dishes to compete–strictly in the interest of science, of course.  What’s more, the results were tabulated by my neighbor, Judy Glaven, who’s a PhD scientist, so hopefully some magic science dust got sprinkled over the data.

Here–in unscientific order of importance–are my tips:

1.      Come early. The first entrants got to put their dish in the best places on the table and more people got a chance to sample what they made.  I thought Jacquie Bishop’s “Celtic Cod and Veggie Soup” was one of the best dishes, but because she was a late arrival, hardly anyone tasted it. Several worthy chefs didn’t even make it into the contest because I accidentally missed their entries (sorry, folks!)

2.      Make it a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach. The winning appetizer, which we unfortunately did not photograph, was Amelie Ratliff’s beautiful “Stuffed Endive.” She made three different dips, which she spread in individual endive leaves and fanned out on a large round platter.  In addition to looking good, you could kind of guess what you were about to eat. It was also light and healthy, which enabled our guests to feel entitled to eat at least one extra dessert. (This dieting tip only works if you don’t look at the scale the next day.)

Phoebe O'Mara won in the main dish category for her sweet and sour meatballs.

3.      Old favorites (especially with a twist) are always a hit. Our neighbor, Phoebe O’Mara, brought sweet and sour meat balls, the main course winner. As a pescovegetarian, I was unable to taste her entrée, but I heard it was great.  Of course, she had a bit of an advantage, as she lives next door and was able to bring her own crock pot with her.

4.      Shrimp sells. All of the shrimp dishes, including Evelynn Hammonds’ “Shrimp Pesto Pizza,” which she assembled and baked at our house, went fast.  Of course, she was one of the first people to arrive, proving tip #1.  Kate Raisz and Stephanie Stewart’s “Shrimp with Feta” also got eaten, along with the shrimp cocktail that Michelle and I provided.  (As hosts, Michelle and I were not allowed to enter the contest, although I’m proud to say quite a few people wanted to vote for the Moroccan (Kwanzaa) Chicken, Lemon Couscous, Spinach and Chickpea Curry, and the three kinds of latkes we made.)

5.      Any kind of meat is a winner. Evan Williams made a “Helvetican Pot Roast,” which was also a hit, as were the aforementioned meatballs and chicken.  I’ve always associated Helvetica with a typeface rather than food, but apparently Helvetica is also the Latin name for Switzerland, and this was a Swiss-inspired dish. Who knew?

6.      Don’t apologize for what you made. Quite a few of our guests, including one of our winners, looked sadly at their dishes and said, “It didn’t come out as good as I hoped. Don’t put it in the contest,” yet I heard many of these same dishes praised.  Chin up. Think about the crap that people eat McDonald’s every day.  Whatever you brought it is bound to be tastier.

This fabulous array of desserts included the winner, Dick Lehr's Mocha Cake, in the top left.

7.      There’s always room for dessert. Between the home-made and the store-bought ones, there were at least ten desserts, and our guests almost managed to eat them all. The hands-down winner in the home-made dessert category was Dick Lehr’s delicious Mocha Cake.  It was so good that people didn’t believe he made it.

8.      If you can’t cook, bring something fabulous. There was lots of competition in the store-bought category, from the fabulous platter of sushi from JP Seafood that Glenda Buell had delivered to some wonderful wine.  The winner, Jon “Satch” Satriale, not only worked the crowd, asking them to vote for him, but hedged his bets by bringing cannolis from both Mike’s Pastry and Modern Pastry in the North End.  My personal favorite was the “Happy Chriswanukah!” cake pictured above, which was “brung” by Elyse Cherry. She was embarrassed that Chriskwanukah was misspelled, but I say, see tip #6!

And the winner of my ultimate Latke contest is…

A Menorah

A menorah is lit during Hanukkah, the eight-day "Festival of Lights."

I look forward to Hanukkah every year because it gives me a free pass to eat fried food without guilt. During the eight-day “Festival of Lights,” Jews are practically commanded to eat fried foods to commemorate the oil that miraculously lasted for eight days during the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd century BCE.

Although Jews have probably been making some form of fried pancakes for a couple of millennia, the first latkes certainly didn’t contain potatoes, since the potato is a product of the New World–specifically Peru–and has only been available in “the old country” for about five hundred years.  [The Peruvians are still really serious about potatoes – they grow hundreds of varieties, and they even have an International Potato Center, which I hope to visit someday.]

The box grater: my latke tool of choice.

My grandmother Frieda made latkes, but, unfortunately, I didn’t inherit a latke recipe from her.  She grated the potatoes by hand, and my father told me she used to joke that her ingredients included a bit of scraped knuckles.  In her memory, I always use a box grater when I make latkes.  Even though it’s more work, I prefer the texture of hand-grated potatoes.

Since I don’t have a recipe that’s been handed down for generations, every year I hold a contest in my kitchen seeking out the ultimate latke recipe.  The recipes are all pretty similar: they call for potatoes (or other root vegetables), some type of starch (usually flour or matzoh meal), eggs, onions, and, of course, oil.  If you use enough oil, they’re pretty easy to make.  The trickiest thing about making latkes is making sure you drain the liquid out of the grated potatoes before frying, since they are actually quite watery.

This year, I decided to commemorate the origin of the latke by trying out some non-potato recipes.  At the Boston Vegetarian Society vegan cooking class that Michelle and I attended last month, Chef Didi Emmons demonstrated her “Root Vegetable Latke” recipe.  She says you can use any root vegetable, but she favors parsnips and beets, so that’s what I made when I cooked them at home to kick off the first night of Hanukkah.  Since this was a vegan recipe, there were no eggs, and she used arrowroot powder instead of floor.  Add minced onion, salt and pepper, and fry! The resulting pancakes were thin and colorful, full of long lacy edges that picked up the oil while frying, which made them a delicious vehicle for sour cream. But I missed the potato flavor.

Pancake

Butternut squash and Honeycrisp pancake

In late November, I was delighted to find an article in the Wall Street Journal in which Katy McLaughlin asked five noted chefs to share their pancake recipes.  I tried out the Butternut Squash and Honeycrisp Apple Pancakes recipe from Chef Jake Martin of Fenouil in Portland, Oregon.  I was surprised at how hard it was to grate butternut squash by hand, since you can peel it with an ordinary kitchen peeler. If I ever need to grate butternut squash again, I’ll break tradition and use a food processor! It was also hard to find Honeycrisp apples, although eventually I spotted them lurking in the organic apple bin in the grocery store.  The grated squash and apple get sautéed, along with chopped yellow onion and minced shallots.  Martin uses Panko bread crumbs as the starch, which makes the pancakes more substantial, like a burger. Although I liked the consistency of these pancakes, Michelle and I agreed they were too sweet to serve as an entrée.

Beet, carrot and potato pancakes

For my final contestant, I decided to bring some potato back into the mix, so I made another Wall Street Journal recipe:  “Beet, Carrot and Potato” from Chef Eric Greenspan of the Foundry in Los Angeles.  It combines beets, carrots and Yukon gold potatoes with red onions (half are sautéed, half are grated and added raw), along with the traditional flour and eggs.  Not surprisingly, these tasted the most like the traditional latkes I love, since they contained actual potatoes.

And the winner of the ultimate latke contest is…none of the above!

My standby is still the traditional, 100 percent potato latke (although I may walk on the wild side and make sweet potato pancakes). I enjoyed making the recipes, however, and will definitely try some of the techniques again, such as sautéing some or all of the onions, or using Panko bread crumbs.

I suspect the recipes I tried are a bit healthier than the potato ones, since they contain vegetables. But in the end, anything you fry in oil is not a health food, and, after all, isn’t that the point? During Hanukkah, it’s all about the oil.

[Box grater image credit: CreativeTools.se PackshotCreator CreativeTools.se PackshotCreator Box grater.jpg|thumb|description]

Heirloom Beans: More Than A Hill of Beans

A hill of Rancho Gordo beans.

Until recently, if you’d asked me if I’d be willing to pay $7 or $8 a pound for a bag of dried beans, I’d have said, “Are you kidding? Why pay that much for something you can pick up at the supermarket for less than a dollar? Beans are beans.”

But—as I’ve learned–beans are not just beans.  If you go to the grocery store, you can usually find about a half-dozen kinds of beans for sale.  If you go to a natural food store, maybe you’ll find a dozen.  But there’s a planet full – literally – of different kinds of beans.  According to Wikipedia, over 4000 varieties of beans have been cultivated in the US alone.

Heirloom beans are pure, distinct varieties that have been cultivated for generations and can be regrown from seeds every year.  Like heirloom tomatoes, each heirloom bean has a distinct flavor profile and is suitable for specific recipes.

This fall, I attended a panel on Heirloom Beans at the Chefs Collaborative Summit, where my bean knowledge grew faster than Jack’s beanstalk. (Chef’s Collaborative also has a nice little publication called Cooking with Heirloom Beans that you can download for free from their website.)

Panelist Mike Holleman, director of culinary development at Indian Harvest in Bemidji, Minnesota, passed around a basket of 20-year-old beans for us to look at.  He told us that, technically, the beans were still edible, but since the older a bean is, the longer it takes to cook, you wouldn’t want to use them.

Although maybe some of the chefs in the audience could tell, to be honest, I’d never have known that these beans were practically as old as some of the emails in my Inbox. My advice: Know Your Farmer.  Since you can’t tell how old your beans are just by looking at them, you need to find a reliable supplier whom you can ask.

Since beans are seldom served without lots of other ingredients, I don’t know what most of them taste like. Like coffee and vodka, the best way to learn about beans is to taste them straight up.

I went on an heirloom bean hunt.  While they haven’t made it to most supermarkets, you can find some varieties at natural foods stores and gourmet stores. In addition, you can order them online from companies like Rancho Gordo New World Specialty Food in Napa, California.  (If you need instructions, Rancho Gordo has a very funny little video on how to cook beans on their website.)

Christmas Lima Beans that have been soaked overnight.

For my first experiment, I decided to buy a bag of Rancho Gordo’s Christmas Lima Beans at South End Formaggio in Boston. I wanted to try them first, because I like Lima beans and these ones supposedly taste like chestnuts.

Like other kinds of Lima beans, Christmas Lima Beans are flat and oval-shaped.  The beans are ivory-colored, with mottled reddish markings.  Although they did turn chestnut-brown when cooked, their rich, earthy flavor reminded me more of mushrooms than chestnuts.  With the addition of sautéed onions, carrot, fennel, mizuna, and a few herbs, the beans made a delicious stew that even my dinner guests who were not bean-lovers  enjoyed.

Although $6.99 still sounds like a lot for a bag of beans, when you think about it, it’s a lot cheaper than most other forms of protein.  I fed four people and had leftovers for several more meals.  I’d say that amounts to a lot more than a hill of beans.

So, one bean-tasting down, 3,999 varieties to go.

Can Institutional Food Be Tasty and Healthy?

Meal preparation assembly line

City Fresh Foods staffers assemble Caribbean meals for clients.

Given the low rates that public institutions–such as schools, elder care facilities, and child care centers–are able to pay, is it possible to produce institutional meals that taste good and are good for you? City Fresh Foods founder Glynn Lloyd boldly states that “Bottom line – it doesn’t have to be crap.”

The market for government-subsidized prepared meals tends to be dominated by the big companies like Sodexo and Aramark that produce most of the institutional food served at universities, hospitals, military bases, and the like.  While the big guys are changing some of their practices to use local suppliers and provide healthier foods, these corporations are not going to make fundamental changes to our current food system.

City Fresh logo

City Fresh logo

The Sustainable Business Network of Greater Boston recently sponsored a tour of the City Fresh building, which is tucked away in an industrial corner of Roxbury in the former Dancing Deer Bakery factory.  The company prepares 8,000 meals a day, primarily for the “public market”–-publicly-subsidized meals at schools, child care centers, elder care facilities, and other institutions. It’s a highly capitalized, labor-intensive, low-margin business– a far cry from the tiny inner-city catering business that Glynn Lloyd started in 1994.  Today, City Fresh employs 75 people, and 95 percent of them are from the neighborhood.

Glynn and Sheldon Lloyd

City Fresh founder, Glynn Lloyd (l) and his brother, Sheldon Lloyd (r)

“We have to provide a good service,” Glynn Lloyd says, “because our staffers have kids in schools who get our meals. Even my grandmother was getting City Fresh meals.”

While Lloyd confesses that their meals are still far from where they want them to be, City Fresh is trying to make the food as healthy as possible. Diabetes and obesity are rampant in communities of color. “Our kids are dying,” Glynn Lloyd says.  “We need to push the envelope.”

While many of the challenges are financial—how do you deliver a prepared, hot meal for well under $2.00 a person?—there are also more practical issues, like chicken bones, to chew over.  City Fresh tried to serve children fresh chicken, instead of the high-fat, processed chicken nuggets served at most schools, but the children only get 15 minutes to eat.  “Our kids can’t cut the chicken,” the school administrators said, so City Fresh had to resort to the dreaded chicken nuggets.  The City Fresh version is made from whole breast chicken meat, but they are still battered and flash fried.

Machine for bagging bread

City Fresh staffer operates a bread-bagging machine.

City Fresh buys from as many local vendors as possible, which helps keep money circulating in the community.  They get their bread from a local bakery and grass-fed beef from a farmer within 100 miles of their facility every two weeks.  They also buy local produce from their sister company, City Growers, which is trying to turn vacant urban land into sustainable farms.

While I was impressed by City Fresh’s efforts to create tasty, healthy meals on the shoestring budget that our society has allocated for publicly supported institutional meals, what I took away from the tour was that this is a social problem that no one company can solve.  Maybe, just maybe, if we tried subsidizing local food systems instead of industrial agriculture, we could all eat better food.