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.

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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]

A “Poached” Pair of Poached Pear Recipes

A pair of pears

This week, I had the opportunity to “poach” a pair of poached pear recipes from two distinguished sources, chef Didi Emmons and Cook’s Illustrated.

Michelle and I made the first poached pear recipe at a cooking class at Haley House, sponsored by the Boston Vegetarian Society and taught by Didi Emmons.  Emmons is the author of two cookbooks, including Vegetarian Planet.  For $39 each, Michelle and I watched a cooking demo and then helped cook a four-course dinner, which our class then sat down to eat.

Poached Pears

Poached Pears in Red Wine with Lemon Grass wait to be chilled

Didi Emmons’ poached pear recipe takes a fairly standard approach.  The pears are halved and cored, and then cooked in a red wine syrup (red wine and sugar) until tender.  Her recipe used lemon grass, which added a lovely tartness to balance the heavy richness of the wine syrup.  She served the pears with soy vanilla ice cream because it was a vegan meal.  The cranberry-red poached pears looked beautiful next to the pale ice cream.

A few days after our cooking class, I decided to make a recipe that I’d saved from a free Cook’s Illustrated email a few weeks ago.  Sadly, the “Caramelized Pears with Blue Cheese and Black Pepper-Caramel Sauce” recipe no longer seems to be available for free on the site, although it only costs $34.95 a year for an online subscription.

Like Emmons’ recipe, the Cook’s Illustrated approach only calls for a handful of ingredients, but it requires much more attention.  The pears are poached and then caramelized in a simple syrup (water and sugar).  You have to watch the pears and the sauce carefully so they don’t burn.

I was attracted to the recipe because it called for salt and roughly crushed black pepper in the caramel sauce. Having recently blogged about salted caramel ice cream from batch ice cream and salted caramel on chocolate cup cakes from The Cupcakory, I was curious to see what black-pepper caramel sauce would taste like.

The final product

Caramelized Pears with Blue Cheese and Black Pepper-Caramel Sauce

Plating the finished dish was like creating a sculpture.  You stand the two halves of each pear up against each other, with a wedge of blue cheese stuffed in between, and then you drizzle the black pepper caramel sauce over it.

The result was a wonderful mixture of sweet, spicy and salty flavors. While Michelle and I enjoyed Didi Emmons’ recipe, we both preferred the caramelized pears with the blue cheese.   But if you can find them, either recipe is well worth “poaching” for a fine ending to a fall or winter meal.

How to (Not) Cook Kale

The kale that I actually enjoyed eating.

I finally get it.  The secret to cooking kale is not to cook it.

I enjoy eating most types of greens, and I cook most of them the same way. I rinse them really well because they can often be gritty, tear off any nasty looking bits, remove any big, tough stems, cut or tear the greens into smallish pieces, and steam them in a small amount of water until they are beginning to soften but are still crunchy.  I drain the greens in a colander.  Then I spray some olive oil cooking spray into a non-stick pan, heat the pan, and sauté the greens for a few minutes.  I season them with salt and pepper, garlic, and something spicy, like chipotle.  It’s a tasty and healthy way to eat greens.

Kale, however, is one of the few greens that I don’t like, and Michelle likes it  even less than I do.  As far as I’m concerned, kale tastes like curly green cardboard, however you cook it.  It’s tough, and it doesn’t have much flavor.

As I reported in my post, Improving Black Women (and everyone else)’s Diets By Any Greens Necessary, author and nutritionist Tracye Lynn McQuirter is full of excitement about eating raw kale.  She swears that her kale salad recipe is the most popular one in her book, By Any Greens Necessary.

When I confessed to having a bad attitude about kale in last week’s post, I got a couple of comments from kale defenders about how great it is.  So I decided it was time to try McQuirter’s recipe.

The recipe is simple, but it calls for a couple of ingredients that you may not have hanging around the house, unless you are already a health nut, in which case you probably don’t need to read this blog.

The vegan equivalent of fish sauce

Unusual ingredient number one is Bragg Liquid Aminos, which is sort of the vegan version of fish sauce.  It smells like dirty underwear and tastes pretty salty. I know I just made it sound terrible, but it actually tastes like the vegan equivalent of fish sauce and it’s really good for you, so I think you should give it a try.

Unusual ingredient number two is nutritional yeast, which I haven’t eaten since the 1980s.  My housemates at the time used to sprinkle it on everything they cooked and I got sick of it. Now that I recall, nutritional yeast is actually very good sprinkled on popcorn, but I digress.

Other than kale and the two previously mentioned items, the only other ingredients in the salad are olive oil, chopped red onion, chopped garlic, and cayenne pepper.  After you mix everything up in a bowl, McQuirter recommends you marinate it at room temperature for about a half hour before serving.

Michelle and I ate the salad with our dinner last night, and, to my amazement, we enjoyed it!  Michelle even went back for a second helping. Raw kale actually has more flavor than cooked kale, and, although quite chewy, it didn’t make me think I was eating cardboard.  While the recipe called for more raw onion and garlic than I care for, the combination of the onion, garlic and cayenne gave it some bite, and the two mystery ingredients gave it a salty, almost—dare I say it—meaty flavor.

While I don’t think kale will ever become one of my top ten favorite greens, now that I’ve learned how to (not) cook it, I won’t be upset if it shows up in my CSA box again.  So thank you, Tracye Lynn McQuirter!

Cooking Up a CSF Feast with a Jody Adams Bluefish Recipe

Grilling the bluefish

Grilled Bluefish with Pomegranite Glaze

Michelle and I spent six woman-hours last night cooking a delicious dinner featuring the bluefish from our final Community Supported Fishery (CSF) delivery for the August 2010 season. The six hours doesn’t include the time I spent trolling the aisles of Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods looking for pomegranate molasses (couldn’t find it so we made our own from pomegranate juice), chicory (must not be in season, so I bought other greens), and whole coriander seeds (not in stock, had to make do with ground coriander).

Cooking molasses

Cooking down the pomegranate juice into molasses

The pomegranate glaze features the aforementioned pomegranate molasses, garlic, red onion, mint, coriander seeds and orange zest, and it’s a delicious complement to bluefish, which I always think of as a very “fishy” fish because it’s so dark and intense. Although the molasses has sugar in it, there’s only a hint of sweetness in the sauce.  The rich flavor is a perfect foil for the oiliness of the bluefish.

The reason the dinner took so long to make—besides making the molasses from scratch—was that it was actually five dishes. In addition to the bluefish, the recipe called for “Dukkah,” garlic yogurt sauce, farro, and “Fiery Greens.”  While the entire recipe is not online, there’s a link for the fish and a similar yogurt sauce at starchefs.com.

Farro with carrots, celery and onions

Farro, which I’ve never made at home before, is a delicious healthy grain that reminded me of barley, although the grains are larger and toothier.  Adams adds the farro to a sauté of onion, celery, carrots and garlic and cooks it with chicken stock—we used veggie stock—and bay leaves.

Cooking the greens

Fiery Garlic Greens featuring broccoli rabe and arugula

The greens are blanched and then sautéed with lots of olive oil, garlic, and hot pepper flakes. The Dukkah is an Egyptian seed, nut and spice mix of blanched almonds, hazelnuts, macadamia, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, and coconut, all of which have to be separately toasted and then ground together.

The Six Hour Recipe

Dinner was worth the wait!

The mixture of all these tastes on the plate—sweet, spicy, fishy, oily, salty, bitter—was what made it worth the effort.

Besides the recipe, the other star of the evening was the bluefish from our CSF, Cape Ann Fresh Catch. I was delighted to open my email on Tuesday and find that the fish of the day was a gorgeous two-pound bluefish fillet. I picked up my share at Community Servings, cut it in half, carefully wrapped the pieces in plastic wrap and freezer bags and froze them. When we opened one of the packages, we defrosted it and it was still beautiful and as good as fresh.

Our CSF bluefish

Beautiful fresh bluefish from Cape Ann Fresh Catch CSF

This is the first time that I’ve belonged to a CSF, and it’s been a wonderful opportunity to support local, sustainable fishing and learn a little about the ups and downs of the industry. Each week, we get an email telling us what they’ve caught, the boat that caught it, a little information about the fish, a recipe, and a blog post.  Over the six weeks, we’ve enjoyed a variety of fish, including hake, fish dabs and bluefish.

The catch—no pun intended—is sometimes there is no catch.  Deliveries have been cancelled due to quality issues and weather. While as a CSF member, you share the risk with the fisher folk, Cape Ann has made an extraordinary effort to provide us with the best possible fish each week.

If you’re lucky enough to live in their delivery area, I encourage you to sign up for Cape Ann’s next season, beginning November 1,  or check out this list of CSFs around the country.