Butternut Squash Mac & Gruyere; Quick Pickled Carrots

I don’t really like doing this, but my first recipe tonight is going to call for another recipe from a cookbook, which I’m not going to publish. However, I know a lot of you have Artisan Vegan Cheese (which I am loving), and if you don’t, you can just substitute some other cashew-based, creamy “cheese”. This dish was inspired by a couple of butternut squashes I got before the farmers market closed for the season…and the soft “gruyere” from Artisan Vegan Cheese I had to find a use for.

Butternut Squash Mac & Gruyere

10 oz pasta shaped appropriately for macaroni & cheese
1 small butternut squash
2 Tbsp oil
2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp nutritional yeast
1 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1 cup vegan broth
1/2 cup soft gruyere from Artisan Vegan Cheese, or some other creamy cashew-based “cheese”

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Cook the pasta to al dente, drain, and set aside.

Peel and chop the squash into bite-sized pieces. To peel the squash, chop off a little off both ends, stand it up bulbous side down, and carefully slice in half lengthwise. Remove and reserve the seeds. Use a sharp vegetable peeler to peel the squash. Slice it, then cut into cubes. Toss the pieces with a little olive oil and roast until soft, about half an hour. Remove from oven and set aside. TIP: put the seeds on a small pan, lightly salt them, and roast them as well for about 5-10 minutes, until lightly browned and crunchy. Let cool and eat them up, or reserve for garnishing the mac & gruyere.

Heat the oil in a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat, then whisk in the flour, nutritional yeast, onion and garlic powders, salt, and nutmeg. Cook for a minute or two, then whisk in the broth. Continue whisking as it thickens, then stir in the “gruyere” or other cashew cheese. Stir until well-mixed and thick.

Combine the squash and pasta in a baking dish, then stir in the cheese mixture. Cover and bake for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and let rest for 5-10 minutes.

If desired, sprinkle with the roasted squash seeds. Alternatively, you could top the casserole with bread crumbs before baking. This was creamy and yummy and pairs well with greens and anything that’s smothered in barbecue sauce.

Now, a bonus recipe since I kind of cheated you in that one, although I’ve just stolen this one from David Lebovitz, who got it from Epicurious.

Quick Pickled Carrots

1 lb baby carrots (or regular carrots, peeled and cut into sticks)
1 cup cider vinegar
1 1/4 cups water
1/4 cup sugar
2 garlic cloves, lightly smashed
1 1/2 Tbsp coarse salt
1 1/2 tsp dill seeds
2 bay leaves

Bring a pot of water to boiling and blanch the carrots by cooking them for one minute, then draining and running cold water over them. Place all of the remaining ingredients into a sauce pot and bring them to a boil, then simmer for a couple of minutes. Place the carrots in a quart canning jar and pour the liquid over them. Let them cool to room temperature, then put a lid on them and refrigerate for at least 24 hours before eating. (If you don’t have a canning jar, cool the carrots in the liquid in the pot before transferring to another container.)

It’s hard to make these look very exciting, but they are fun and tasty. I’ll be having them on the side of most of my dinners for a while.

The weather in Northern Virginia was gorgeous this weekend, so today found me at one of my regular haunts, Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge. I think this is a mockingbird, but I’m a little unsure because his wings seem a little too rounded. Please correct me if I’m wrong!

Eastern bluebird:

Cedar waxwing:

Circumhorizon arc in the clouds:

Time to go home!

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Tofutti Ricotta – review + recipe

Today I was definitively diagnosed as suffering from (daily, yay) migraines. I’m not telling you to solicit pity or anything, just to explain tonight’s dinner (although it also sort of explains why I’ve been quiet lately). I met with my doctor this afternoon to go over the results of my MRI, which was composed of images like this:

…which because I LOVE neuroscience, I found fascinating, but which are also creepy because those are MY eyeballs on stalks. However, we also now know that is my very normal brain, which is a good thing.

Is showing you pictures of my brain too intimate? I think it may be, although people are always showing off their sonograms and frankly I find this much more interesting to look at. Sorry, though. Try not to think of Large Marge every time you see me.

Moving on, having ruled out anything terrifying (other than the eyeballs on stalks) like brain tumors, migraines it is. This is bad because migraines are annoying, but it is GOOD to have an explanation for this annoyance, and GOOD to have medicine, which I can start tomorrow. I was resistant earlier to the idea of taking medicine, but after this past week, I’m ready for it.

So I stopped by Wegmans on my way home this afternoon to pick up what I hope is my miracle cure. While waiting for the prescription to be filled, I wandered the aisles, and guess what I found?? Tofutti Better Than Ricotta Cheese! I had no idea this was a new product! As the label says, wow!

I immediately snatched it up in a flurry of excitement. For occasional use, I’m a big fan of Tofutti’s Better Than Cream Cheese and Better Than Sour Cream, so I had high hopes for the ricotta. However, I was slightly hesitant about it because honestly, although I’ve never made a spectacular homemade “cream cheese”, and Tofutti’s sour cream is more realistic than anything I’ve made as well, I’ve never had any problems making tofu “ricotta”, so I wasn’t sure I needed this product. Nonetheless, I bought it…for you! So I could do a taste test and write a review for YOU. Because I care! I’ve been trying to make extra-healthy dinners lately, but I decided that tonight I would splurge and make something easy (because I have a headache), but decadent and fun (to celebrate because I hope to not have a headache tomorrow! Or the next day!). And educational for my readers!

So the “ricotta” went home with me, for the rather outrageous price of I believe $4.39, in addition to some just-as-processed Gardein Beefless Tips, tinned tomatoes, and pasta – WHITE pasta. That’s right, I’m celebrating.

Unfortunately, I was slightly put off when I opened the ricotta.

It just didn’t look…great.

I crumbled it with my hands. It felt distressingly like cold, damp okara. If any of you have followed my depressing okara trials, you’ll know that I am no fan of okara, and let me tell you something: cold, damp okara is the WORST kind of okara. Worse, the ricotta TASTED a bit like cold, damp okara. The photo may make it look as innocuous as a bowl of crumbled tofu, but it’s actually very grainy and disturbing, whereas crumbled tofu is pleasant and fresh. Those of you who don’t make your own tofu or soy milk may be wondering what the heck okara (the ground-up remains of soybeans that is a by-product of the soymilk-making process) looks, feels, and tastes like. Suffice it to say, it’s a grainy, bland mess. Raw Tofutti ricotta tastes a little bit like what I suspect chalk would taste like if you ground it up and added water with a touch of lemon juice. Slightly tangy wet chalk, in other words.

I became alarmed at this point. My celebratory dinner suddenly seemed in danger of being GROSS. So I decided I would make TWO versions of my dinner, one with the now-frightening Tofutti ricotta and one with my own tofu “ricotta”. I didn’t want to “waste” my good “cotton” (i.e., non-silken) tofu on an experiment, so I took a box of firm silken tofu and whizzed it in a blender with a little salt, 2 or 3 tablespoons of Dragonfly’s Bulk, Dry Uncheese Mix, and about 2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice.

While I was blending up my own “ricotta”, behind my back, Senor Gomez was not nearly as skeptical of the Tofutti stuff as I was!

Hahahahaahahaha!!! Oh man, this hilariated* me. He REALLY liked that stuff.

Anyway, so I pre-heated the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit, then ground up the Beefless Tips and sauteed them with a small onion and some garlic in a skillet, deglazing with white wine.

I put 28 oz of whole tinned tomatoes into the blender, with a bunch of chopped garlic, frozen basil, and some dried oregano, red chili flakes, and salt, and processed. It’s like a circus in my kitchen at times, by the way.

I also cooked some pasta al dente and drained. I set up two small bakers and put a thin layer of sauce on the bottom of each, then topped with some of the pasta.

Then I added the “beef”.

Next up, the “ricotta”, Toffuti on the left, homemade on the right.

Closeup of the Tofutti, looking suspiciously okara-like.

I added more sauce, pasta, another layer of “ricotta”, and the rest of the sauce.

Another close-up of the Tofutti version:

I covered and baked for 45 minutes. After removing, let sit for 5 to 10 minutes before serving. Here is the dish with MY ricotta:

…and here is the Tofutti ricotta. It MELTED! THANK GOD. Soooo much more appetizing. And actually not gross!

I served myself some of each for a taste comparison. Tofutti on the left, Renae on the right.

The verdict? To my surprise, the Tofutti was okay. Baking it did WONDERS. However, it was just okay. It was not worth anywhere NEAR its $5 retail price (which is absurd). My tofu ricotta cost about $1.75 – and would have been mere pennies had I made the tofu myself – and tasted BETTER than Tofutti. It’s also better for you. To be honest, I had a pretty hard time distinguishing which lump of pasta bake was the Tofutti Ricotta and which was the Renae Ricotta on my plate during the taste test (a.k.a. dinner, which by the way I balanced with a lovely, abundant salad); they tasted and looked similar. Mark said the Tofutti was okay, but when he went back for seconds, he only got more of the Renae Ricotta, which he said was better.

In conclusion, Tofutti ricotta is a useless and extremely over-priced product. I can’t even say it’s a good convenience product because it takes only SECONDS to make a nice, fresh tofu ricotta. You don’t even need the blender: just crumble up some regular tofu with your hands and work in some salt and lemon juice, and nutritional yeast if you want. You also can’t really eat Tofutti ricotta raw, unless you are a glutton for punishment or are a cat.

Hahahahahaha.

The reason I find those pictures of Gomez so hilarious is because when I was growing up, I had the Most Awesome Cat in the World, Dracula. Dracula had THE biggest personality you’ll ever find on a cat. I even have a tattoo of him, he was so awesome. Like Gomez, Dracula was all-black. What I find really weird is I actually sometimes CALL Gomez Dracula, which seems so bizarre to me because Dracula died years and years ago and other than their species and color, they have little in common. You’d think I’d accidentally call him Tigger, but I have never done that even once. Anyway, among many, many goofy things Dracula did, if you put a paper lunch bag on the floor, he’d stick his head in it and then walk until he hit a wall. Then he’d back up, change directions, and again walk until he hit a wall. (This makes Dracula sound very stupid, but he wasn’t – he was just…unique.) Evidence:

* a perfectly cromulent word.

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Sauerkraut Noodles with Seitan

Every October 6th my father emails me to wish me a happy German-American Day. And every October 6th at least one food blog reminds me it’s National Noodle Day. So for dinner tonight, obviously I was having German noodles, right? The only trouble was the noodles involved in German dishes are always egg noodles, and even if I found a non-eggy noodle I thought would suffice, I’ve been eschewing the heavy dinners I feared anything “German noodly” would turn out to be. So I went browsing around Wegmans looking for a wheat-alternative noodle that would help me make a lighter dish. I found this rice spaghetti, which are absolutely, positively nowhere near being German. Nonetheless, I decided to try them. You could absolutely be much more authentic and use wide wheat noodle, although if you are vegan, you’ll probably end up having to use linguine or something similar.

Sauerkraut Noodles with Seitan

1 1/2 cups chopped seitan (I like to make a big batch on the weekend and freeze it in smaller portions)
1 cup vegan “beef” broth
3 Tbsp German mustard
2 Tbsp vinegar – I used malt, but really any kind would be okay
1 tsp vegan Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp liquid smoke (optional)
1/2 tsp caraway seeds
1/2 tsp chili pepper flakes
1/4 tsp celery seed
1 white onion, sliced into slivers
14 oz sauerkraut
2 Tbsp vegan sour cream (optional)
noodles of your choice, cooked unless you are using rice noodles like me

Whisk together the broth, mustard, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, liquid smoke, caraway seeds, chili pepper flakes, and celery seeds in a medium bowl. Chop the seitan and add to the broth. Let it marinade for a while, say, half an hour or so (or much longer in the refrigerator).

The directions on my rice spaghetti said to soak it in water for two minutes before cooking. If you are using any other noodles, cook them as directed and set aside.

Heat some oil in a Dutch oven and add the onions. Cook until they begin to get soft.

Drain the seitan, reserving the marinade.

Add the seitan to the onions and cook until the seitan begins to brown.

Stir in the sauerkraut. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any homemade, though I do have a pot fermenting that will be ready in a couple of weeks, so I had to make do with an authentic German brand from Wegmans.

Add the broth and the sour cream. I’m not sure the sour cream added that much flavor to the final dish so I wouldn’t go out of my way to include it next time.

CAT INTERLUDE. I have THIS whining at me the entire time I’m cooking anything:

I swear, that is SO like Tigger!

If you are using regular cooked noodles, boil off the broth a bit, or perhaps thicken it with a bit of cornstarch dissolved in cold water. I, however, needed to finish cooking my now-soaked rice noodles, which were softened, but not al dente. So I gently stirred in the noodles, lowered the heat a bit, covered, and let the noodles cook for 5 to 10 minutes. My original plan was to bake this dish like a casserole, but I wasn’t sure if the rice noodles would go soggy before everything else was heated through, so I kept it on the stovetop. The noodles stayed al dente.

And that’s all there was to it. I can’t figure out if that rice spaghetti was being marketed towards an Asian crowd (it seems proud to be a product of Singapore and I did find it in the Asian section) or a gluten-free crowd (it’s labelled as such) or what, exactly. I think it would seem more natural in an Asian dish, but then, I eat a lot of rice noodles in Asian dishes so maybe that’s just what I expect. You won’t get an experience like the European egg noodles that come to mind when you think “German noodle dish”, but I think I felt a little less fat after dinner than I would have had I used heavier noodles. Mark really liked this; he had three servings and informed me it was “elite”. So I don’t know, maybe my German ancestors would have found this meal absurd, but it was tasty and it’s hard to argue against something when you have people going back for thirds.

As I mentioned in my last post, we released some more raccoons a couple of weeks ago. Here’s a glimpse:

I think this one looks like he’s picking a lock…which by the way would be a great profession for a raccoon if he were human, and not just because they have built-in masks. I think that’s why I find this picture so hilarious.

Back inside, we have a few younger raccoons who will be over-wintering with us or who will be released around January. What is this one doing?

Gnawing on my camera strap, that’s what. If you want to know what kind of person I am, I’m the kind of person who will give a raccoon my camera strap when asked. I also give them my shoes, which they find just as fascinating.

Like I’m going to turn THIS face down.

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