Archive forRecipes

Zucchini Gratin, Lemon-Basil Seitan

Hello, I’ve missed you! I have recipes! With really, really, really bad photos!! In fact, the photos are so bad I’m ashamed of them, especially as someone who has urged you to keep up on my life if you’d like to by going to my photo blog, though I tell you the photos there are of a little higher quality. I’ve been doing a lot of things, and even posting regularly (though perhaps not as personally) on my photo blog, but I sure haven’t been posting here, have I? I’m not going to make any promises that I’ll be posting regularly now, but I did make a dish or two last night I liked enough to want to record, so here I am.

And what have I been doing with my time instead of cooking magnificent, blog-worthy food? A lot of wildlife volunteering, of course. I have regular shifts at two different wildlife hospitals here, which I absolutely love. It’s very interesting working in two very different places, and it’s going to be REALLY interesting in the next month or so when baby wildlife season starts. I have so much to learn, especially about all the non-raccoon and non-raptor species as well as the differences between Virginia and California species. I’m interested in caring for all animals, although both hospitals are aware of my special interest in both raptors and rabies-vector species and I’ve have started working with the education raptors (and other species) at one of the hospitals and have been handling rehab raptors at the other. California seems to be a lot more rehab-friendly than Virginia was and my volunteer work here has been my favorite thing about California. It’s really great.

My next favorite thing about California is NATURE. It took me a while to get used to the parks here as they are very different than Virginia’s parks, and arriving during the middle of summer AND a drought was probably not an ideal introduction. All the parks were dry, brown, hot, hilly, open, and apparently devoid of wildlife when I first got here. As it turns out, though, winter in California is a magical time. I despised winter in Virginia, but in California, everything turns green – and not just an ordinary green, but a GLOWING green – and thousands and thousands of raptors migrate through here: the parks have become extremely beautiful and I don’t know if there is just more wildlife this time of year or if I’ve gotten luckier, but I’ve started to see so many more animals that it may be even better than Virginia. Plus the weather is amazing: comfortable temperatures and NO SNOW. The San Francisco Bay area is a very populous, congested area, yet there are so many parks and open spaces, it’s pretty amazing. I typically go hiking several times a week and don’t repeat many parks all that often, and I have a thick folder full of used park maps, and there are still many I haven’t yet been to. Also, I stare at Google Maps a lot looking for green areas to explore, and yet, nearly every week I talk to someone who mentions some park I’ve never even heard of. It’s really pretty incredible. I LOVE it.

Last, but not least, is friends. I don’t have that many here, but some of my very old friends are coming to me. 🙂 Our good friends Brad and April moved to the Bay Area a few months after we did, which was SO GREAT. And at long, long last, Fortinbras has FINALLY made it back to California. He moved to LA just a couple of weeks ago. I wish he was closer, but LA is way better than Baltimore, and we are driving distance from each other, if not pop-by-on-a-whim close. He drove up here the week before last, which was the first time I’d seen him since I left Virginia in July. He’s actually the reason for my first recipe today because he bought a bunch of zucchini and yellow squash while he was here and we didn’t eat all of it, so a few were languishing in my fridge and needed to be used up. I’ll typically just lightly saute zucchini and top with a flavored salt, but though he’ll eat that, Mark tends to take only a few slices and I’m always harping on him about eating more nutrients, so last night I had a little more time for dinner preparations than I usually have and I tried to think of something different to do with the zucchini and squash that might appeal to Mark. I decided to make a gratin.

I’ve made gratins in the past, often relying on the gruyere recipe in Artisan Vegan Cheese, but I’ll be honest with you: I haven’t made fermented cheese since I moved. I keep wanting to and not finding the time. What I have been making a lot of, though, is various cheese recipes by Lacey at Avocado and Ales. Lacey left me a lovely comment on my last post so I checked out her blog and found she’s pretty amazing. (Lacey, if you are reading this, I tried to leave you a comment telling you that but I had issues doing so and I don’t know if you ever saw it.) So when I googled around for gruyere ideas and found a recipe (that I think was adapted from the original vegan cheese bible, The Uncheese Cookbook, which you would THINK a vegan of as many years as me would own but I for some reason do not), I took a tip from Lacey and replaced the acid with vegan lactic acid powder. I don’t think I’ve ever actually had real gruyere cheese if you want the truth, but I thought the resulting sauce was pretty tasty. Also, she didn’t write this particular recipe, but you should really check out Lacey’s recipes – I’ve quit buying Daiya mozzarella and just make her mozzarella, which I prefer, on pizza, and her vegan cheddar sauce is really great.

Anyway, on with the recipe:

Zucchini Gratin
Cheese sauce adapted from a recipe in the comments on this page, with inspiration from Lacey at Avocado and Ales

4 small or 3 large zucchini and/or yellow squash, evenly sliced
1 small yellow onion, sliced into half-moons
1 recipe vegan gruyere sauce (recipe follows)
1 cup bread crumbs
vegan parmesan, optional

Vegan Gruyere Sauce:
1 cup water
2 Tbsp tahini
2 Tbsp nutritional yeast
2 Tbsp flour
4 tsp arrowroot
1 1/2 tsp onion powder
1 tsp vegan lactic acid
1/4 tsp salt

Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees. If you don’t have pre-made bread crumbs, make some first so you can work with a dry blender or food processor: toast about 3 slices of white or whole wheat bread until they are quite dry, then roughly crumble into a dry blender or food processor. If you’d like, add some seasonings: I added a little vegan chicken broth powder, salt, and dried parsley. Process until you are left with small crumbs and set aside. Next make the gruyere sauce by placing all ingredients in a blender or food processor and processing until smooth. Pour into a small saucepan and heat over medium heat, stirring until sauce is smooth and thickened. Set aside. Slice the zucchini or squash and the onion, then heat a little oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until soft, then add the zucchini and squash until they are lightly cooked. Pour the gruyere sauce into pan and mix everything up, then pour the mixture into a medium baking dish.

Sprinkle the bread crumbs on top.

If using, top with vegan parmesan. I just happened to have seen Follow Your Heart’s shaved parmesan for the first time the other day and bought it out of curiosity, so I used that, but I don’t generally buy or make vegan parm and if I hadn’t had it, I would likely have generously sprinkled Dragonfly’s Bulk, Dry Uncheese, which I always have on hand and use for all my powdered or sprinkly cheese needs, on top.

Bake for 20 minutes, remove from oven, and let sit for 10 minutes before serving.

BAD, CURIOUS CATS!

They are so cute and SO annoying when I’m cooking.

Mark’s thoughts on the gratin? He liked it a lot. He declared himself a “foodie”, closed his eyes and said he tasted hints of “berry”. I said that was absurd, to which he commanded, “Silence! Do not contradict the foodie!” In a slightly less silly assessment, he said it was both creamy and crunchy and he enjoyed that dichotomy. He also ate all of what was on his plate and didn’t make a single complaint about the fact it was squash, which he ordinarily has very mixed feelings about. Success!

Mark suggested that I also post the recipe for the seitan I served, which I agreed to do because it gives me a chance to talk about my brand new Instant Pot, which I’m excited about. I’m a little late to the Instant Pot game, which is surprising because I love kitchen gadgets, but with my move last year to California, I spent the first half of 2015 purging as many material items as I could from my life and not buying anything. And the second half of 2015 found me needing to be extremely frugal because CALIFORNIA IS EXTREMELY EXPENSIVE. I’ve had my eye on an Instant Pot for a while, though, because although I managed to cram all my appliances into a kitchen that is much smaller than my previous one, several of them, such as my dough mixer and slow cooker, were inconvenient to use, and I had dreams of replacing the slow cooker and rice cooker with the Instant Pot to free up some space and make all of the appliances easier to reach and use. And then my stovetop pressure cooker stopped working properly – it would maintain pressure, but release a lot of steam while doing so. Now, I won’t lie to you: I probably just needed to replace the gasket, which would have been the cheapest solution, but I instead decided to take that as a sign it was time to indulge in the Instant Pot. And I’m really glad I did because I know it’s going to get a lot of use and now my dough mixer is going to be a lot easier to use from its new location on the counter. I had started getting back into baking a little bit when we first moved and I had some time (before I was able to start volunteering again), but I’d gotten pretty lazy about it partially because the mixer was just inconvenient to use. And another thing I’d been lazy about was buying and stashing a bunch of Gardein products in the freezer, which is NOT a frugal move. I should have been making my own seitan more regularly, but my preferred method for that was steam-then-bake and my slow cooker/steamer was also inconvenient to get to so I tended not to do it. Then I thought about returning to my previous favorite method of seitan making, which was pressure cooking, but my pressure cooker was getting on my nerves. ENTER THE INSTANT POT, in which I can steam OR pressure cook the seitan – though I’ll tell you now I’m pretty much always going to pressure cook it.

For pressure cooking, the Instant Pot is far superior to a stovetop pressure cooker, because you can set the timer and just walk away – in fact, I could leave the house if I wanted to. (And the weather in California is generally so glorious I USUALLY want to leave the house.) PLUS there is none of the really annoying “run cold water over the pressure cooker to bring the pressure down” nonsense I was always doing with the stovetop cooker. I’m not yet sure about making rice; I doubt it’s going to be easier or better than my high-end fuzzy logic rice cooker, whose place its taken on the counter, but I also didn’t get rid of the rice cooker and I intend to bring it out of the cupboard when I want to cook something in the Instant Pot AND have rice, which I think might be rather often.

Basically, though, I convinced myself I’m going to save tons of money on bread and fake meat by investing in the Instant Pot. Hopefully that’s true. I’ve already baked a couple loaves of bread – the bread crumbs in the recipe above? Made from homemade bread. I will also hopefully use the slow cooker feature much more often than I was slow cooking before because I am very often not home during dinner-making hours, usually coming home starving and throwing something sub-par together as fast as I can.

So that’s my Instant Pot story. If you have favorite Instant Pot tips and recipes, please share!

As for the seitan recipe, generally when I want to make seitan of any type, I’ll google Vegan Dad’s lunch meat recipe to get the basic ratios of beans/liquid/vital wheat gluten (though you’d think I’d have it memorized by now), then I season it however I’m in the mood for. Previously I would steam and bake as Vegan Dad instructs, but now that I again have a reliable pressure cooker, I’ll be doing that as it takes half the time and is in my opinion easier. Something that I’ve been doing for a long time is cooking large batches of dried beans and freezing them in 1-cup portions to be used for seitan down the road. I’ll be able to either slow cook or pressure cook these beans in the Instant Pot from now on.

Enough blather, here’s the actual recipe:

Lemon-Basil Seitan
Seitan adapted from Vegan Dad’s lunch meat; sauce lightly adapted from Epicurious

For the seitan:
2 cups water
1 cup cooked or canned beans (I usually use some sort of white beans but used canned Lebanese fava beans this time)
1/4 cup neutral oil
1 Tbsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp vegan chicken broth powder
2 Tbsp nutritional yeast
2 tsp onion powder
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp salt
2 3/4 cup vital wheat gluten

For the sauce:
1 cup vegan chicken broth
zest and juice of one lemon
4 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1/2 cup (lightly packed) basil, chiffonaded

To make the seitan, add all ingredients except the vital wheat gluten to a blender or food processor and process until smooth. Measure the vital wheat gluten into a large bowl, then pour in the liquid and stir with a wooden spoon, or just mix with your hands. Lightly knead until entirely mixed. Form the mixture into a log shape. Take a large piece of clean cheesecloth or muslin and roll the seitan up like a tootsie roll, tying the ends with kitchen string. Place in a pressure cooker and cover with water or vegan broth. (I used plain water but salted it generously.) After bringing up to pressure, cook for 50 minutes to one hour then release the pressure naturally. (I kept my Instant Pot in “Keep Warm” for 10 or 12 minutes, then moved the valve to “Venting” to release the remaining pressure.) After removing it from the pot, you can unwrap the seitan at this point, but let it completely cool before slicing or using. In fact, the seitan is best used the next day after firming in the refrigerator overnight, though you can use it as soon as it is cool.

For the Lemon-Basil sauce, slice as many pieces of seitan as you want and pan fry them in a pan large enough to accommodate them, then remove from the pan. In the same pan, pour a little olive oil, add the garlic, and stir a couple of times, then pour in the broth and lemon juice and zest. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until reduced to one half or one third of original volume. Add the basil and stir, then return the cooked seitan to the pan, coat with the sauce, and re-warm. Serve. I served mine with the gratin above and rice made with vegan chicken broth in the Instant Pot.

Boy, is this picture bad:

So there you have two recipes and an update on my life. If you are interested in seeing some GOOD photos, again, I refer you to renae.org, where you can also find my photo blog. I have a lot of super-exciting photos like this one:

and this one:

there. That’s all for now – I’ll try not to be a stranger. Leave me Instant Pot recipes. 🙂

Comments (9)

“Chicken” Pot Pie

I live!!! Were you wondering? The only difference is where I live. Can you guess where?

Yes, Mark and the cats and I have moved from one coast to the other. So I’ve been busy with THAT. I work remotely now (at the same job I had before), which is really cool. From my home office I have a view of the bay and San Francisco. I’ve started volunteering at not one but two wildlife hospitals, which I absolutely love, and I’ve been exploring a lot of the parks around here, usually in a rather fruitless search for wildlife, though I’m getting better at finding it. You can read – and SEE – more about my nature and wildlife adventures at my photo blog, which I’ve been a LITTLE better at updating than this one.

Now with food! The other day I went shopping at Trader Joe’s and decided to put together an easy pot pie for dinner, using TJ’s chicken-less strips, some frozen veggies, and TJ’s crescent roll dough (which I was pleased to find was vegan since they didn’t have any vegan pie crusts and I wasn’t feeling like making one). Well, Mark scarfed that dinner down and then tried to eat the half of my pie that I didn’t eat, although I said I was saving it for lunch the next day. Then we had friends over for dinner two days later that weekend for Mark’s birthday so I asked Mark what he wanted for his birthday dinner and he said, “MORE OF THOSE POT PIES!!!” So I doubled the recipe, swapped in fresh veggies for frozen, and made it again, and guess what else I did? I TOOK PICTURES SO I COULD DO A BLOG POST! Yeee-haw!!

This is a meal you can make as simple or as complicated as you have the time and patience for. You could make it entirely from convenience foods: store-bought vegan “chicken”, frozen veggies, and pie crust, or entirely from scratch: your own chicken-style seitan, all fresh veggies, and if you are a better person than I, a homemade crust. The pot pies I made for Mark’s birthday dinner were a hybrid. The quantities below make two 2-serving pot pies, although it’s easy to vary the size of the pot pies by choosing whatever baking dishes you have on hand. I made double this for Mark’s birthday dinner, which served four of us and left us with a couple extra pies for lunch the next day.

“Chicken” Pot Pie
adapted from Allrecipes.com

1/2 white or yellow onion, diced
3-4 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
3/4 cup green beans, trimmed and chopped
1/2 cup fresh or frozen peas
1-3 Yukon gold potatoes (depending on size), chopped
12 oz vegan “chicken” strips (or reconstituted Soy Curls, or chicken-style seitan), chopped into bite-sized pieces
1 3/4 cup vegan “chicken” broth
1/3 cup unsweetened, plain soy or almond milk
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp vegan margarine
leaves from a few springs fresh thyme, or about 1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp fresh or dried rosemary
black or white ground pepper, to taste
1 package vegan crescent roll dough (like Trader Joe’s brand)

I did a lot of the prep work for this the day before, chopping everything and storing it in the refrigerator. Here are the “chicken” strips and veggies, chopped:

I also pre-chopped the onions:

I used Trader Joe’s “chicken-less strips”. In fact, I think almost every single ingredient except the herbs (which I am amazingly growing) and the “chicken” broth came from Trader Joe’s. Trader Joe’s is the closest grocery store to our house, which is convenient because we are on an extremely strict budget these days.

Peas from Trader Joe’s!

The next day when I was ready to prepare the pot pies I did the following:

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Put the celery, carrots, green beans, peas, and potatoes into a large pot and cover well with water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about 20 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Put the olive oil and margarine in a Dutch oven over medium heat. When the margarine has melted, add the onions and saute for a few minutes, then add the garlic and saute until the onions are soft.

Add the thyme, rosemary, and pepper.

Incorporate the flour to make a thick roux. Cook for a minute or two to take the raw edge off the flour.

Start slowly adding the “chicken” broth, stirring thoroughly after each addition of 1/4 to 1/2 cup.

Stir in the soy or almond milk. Here is the gravy after all the broth and the milk have been added. Remove this pot from the heat.

Brown the “chicken” in a large skillet. This step may be optional for some types of “chicken” and is personal preference, but at least for the TJ’s “chicken-less” strips, I preferred to do this. Note, though, that I skipped it the first time I made these pot pies and I got no complaints from Mark. Or myself.

Stir the drained veggies and the “chicken” into the gravy.

Find some oven-safe dishes that are a good size to bake the pot pies. I like making individual pot pies, although most of the pictured dishes are a tad large for a single serving. Divide the pie contents between your dishes. Remember that for the dishes pictured here, I had doubled this recipe.

Pop open the crescent roll dough package and use the pieces to form a top crust over each dish. Use a knife to create a few vent holes in each crust.

Arrange the pot pies on a large baking sheet and bake for about 45 minutes. When I doubled the recipe and baked all these dishes at once, I found I had to bake them a little longer. You want the crusts to be golden brown – probably even a little darker than they are pictured here.

I served this with homemade bread (I’ve been baking more than I was in Virginia!) and a fresh tossed salad.

This has been the first post I’ve made in months, and the first picture-heavy recipe post I’ve made in FOREVER, so that’s probably all the pictures I’ll bombard you with, but as I mentioned before, I have been sharing a few of my nature and wildlife photos over at blog.renae.org, so if you are interested in following my quest to find wildlife in the Bay Area, check it out over there. And hopefully I will be back here soon with more food. My current kitchen is small and features a stupid glass-top stove I don’t get along with, but working from home has provided me a little more leisure for cooking as I no longer have a commute, and we have to be very frugal to live here, so I’ve been spending a fair amount of time in the kitchen. Mark’s been urging me to start posting here again, so perhaps this will be my comeback!

Comments (10)

Szechuan Soup

Wow…I made a draft of this post on May 12, and the only reason I didn’t publish it that night was I was too lazy to process the photo of the soup. Everything else was written. OK, in fairness to me, I have NOT been lazy; I’ve been very much the opposite of lazy. But I never found the time to deal with that one photo, which is ridiculous since I’ve processed hundreds of photos since then. If anything I’m even busier now than I was then, but I made the time to publish this now while tonight’s soup simmers. 🙂

So here’s my old post:
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I feel like on those random times I actually manage to post a recipe here lately that it’s always soup. There are a few reasons for that:

  • I love soup.
  • I’ve had to eat alone most nights this year and making a huge pot of soup is an excellent way for me to have a lovely dinner and then a week of lunches.
  • I love soup.
  • I eat dinner ridiculously late year-round but as I have this weird thing about not eating dinner when it’s light out, my dinner hour just gets absurd in the spring and summer, so I like eating something lighter like soup.
  • I love soup.
  • Also since it’s spring, I usually go for a hike after work and usually eat something to tide me over for a while before doing so, so when I get home for dinner, I don’t want a large meal.
  • I love soup and shouldn’t have to explain myself.

As I’ve mentioned, we are moving to California in a couple of months, and it’s finally starting to feel real. I’ve started cleaning out the house of things that won’t move with us so I can donate them. I also need to start cleaning out the cupboards so I don’t have to either throw away food or move it across the country. Tonight’s soup used up all kinds of things from the fridge and the cupboard! Cans of baby corn and young jackfruit I don’t remember buying, the remainder of a cabbage that needed to be used up, a random hot pepper I found, a zucchini that was on its last legs, the rest of an open jar of tomato sauce. And bonus: it tastes awesome! And very spicy, just the way I like it!

Szechuan Soup

1 onion, cut into half-moons, then cut into quarter-moons
6-8 cloves of garlic, minced or pressed
1-2″ of garlic, peeled and grated
8 cups vegan “chicken” broth
12 oz tomato sauce
3 Tbsp soy sauce
3 Tbsp Chinese black vinegar
1/2 cup soy curls
1 small can young jackfruit in brine, drained and shredded
1/4 cabbage (green, Napa, or Savoy are all fine), cored and chopped
1 cup baby corn, chopped
1 zucchini, chopped
1 medium orange hot pepper, sliced
Szechuan pepper, to taste

Heat some oil in a large Dutch oven, then add the onions and sauté for a few minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and cook for another minute, then add the broth, tomato sauce, soy sauce, and vinegar. Bring to a boil, then add the soy curls, jackfruit, baby corn, zucchini, and pepper. Reduce heat and simmer for an hour or until everything is cooked. Add the Szechuan pepper to taste.

I am nearly finished the Virginia Master Naturalist training. We had our last field trip this Saturday at Huntley Meadows; we learned about birds on the first leg and herps on the second. We saw a lot of cool stuff, including this green heron:

And LOTS of frogs; this is a green frog:

Also lots of turtles. This is a totally adorable baby snapping turtle, probably born in September of last year. He’s smaller than a silver dollar and SUPER CUTE.

Here’s a different baby snapping turtle with some chapstick as a size reference:

And here’s a sign of spring: red-winged blackbirds mating:

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Back to the present: I just got back from California; if you want to see some pictures from there, tune into blog.renae.org; I’ll be adding a couple every day this week.

Comments (3)

Black-eyed Pea and Barley Soup

I’m not going to be all conventional and apologize for not posting. LIFE IS BUSY. Sometimes overwhelmingly so. Anyway, here is a soup I’ve been making all year that I never get tired of. I’ve been making huge pots of it even when Mark is out of town (I’ve seen very little of him this year, sadly) because like most soups, it just gets better and better sitting in the fridge all week, and it’s pretty versatile, it’s hearty enough to be an entire meal, and I’m perfectly happy having it for lunch every day of the week. Which is especially good when Mark’s not around because I don’t always get around to making myself some fancy dinner, which means I don’t always have leftovers, and leftovers are what I have for lunch 95% of the time, so it’s been important to have a backup plan for lunch.

Another great thing about this soup is you can make it as my recipe states and it’s delicious as is, but then you can spice it up at the table, so if you have some diners that don’t like spice, they don’t need to add anything, while heat-lovers can add as much Tabasco and/or fresh-sliced jalapenos – both of which are great additions – as they like. Like almost every food I eat, I prefer it with fresh lemon juice squeezed over it, but again, you can control how much by doing that at the table. It’s also good with tomatoes in it: one thing you can do is make it as is and eat it like that a day or two, then add a can of diced tomatoes to it and serve a more tomatoey version of it the next day to change things up. You can also add greens, or maybe okra to make it gumbo-y – as I said, it’s very simple and therefore versatile.

And ANOTHER great thing about it is you don’t need to pre-soak black-eyed peas, so no need to plan ahead with this soup like you do most dried beans. It’s ready to eat in just over an hour, very little of which is hands-on time. It would also freeze well, although I’ve never done so.

Black-eyed Pea and Barley Soup
1 onion, chopped
2 large carrots, chopped
2-3 stalks celery, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1 1/2 cups dried black-eyed peas
3/4 cup pearled barley
1/3 cup bulgur
10 cups vegan “chicken” broth
2 packets Goya ham flavor concentrate (it’s vegan, but it bothers you, sub some liquid smoke)
2-3 bay leaves
1/2 tsp thyme

Heat some oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat, then saute the onions, carrots, and celery until the onions begin to brown. Add the garlic and saute another minute or two. If necessary, deglaze the pot using white wine or some of the broth. Add the rest of the ingredients, bring to a boil, then turn the heat back and simmer for an hour or until the beans and barley are soft. Remove the bay leaves.

In other news, sigh. I don’t even know where to start. Life is great, but there is a LOT of it! I’ve been taking pictures, of course, but instead of bombarding you yet again with a ton of photos, how about I direct you to my new portfolio site! Yes, after being hassled for years by Mark to create a portfolio, I finally did it. You can see it at renae.org. (Yes, between ieatfood.net and renae.org, I am very proud of my domain-buying skills 🙂 ). I also set up a photo blog that’s linked to from the portfolio; feel free to follow it if you miss me because I tend to do much shorter posts and therefore am there a little more frequently, though obviously I’ll be posting pictures and not recipes. Not that I seem to post many recipes here lately…

In addition to raccoons …

… and raptors …

… I’m going through the Virginia Master Naturalist program, which is great, but it’s yet another thing taking up my time. AND IT’S FINALLY SPRING!!! Which means I HAVE TO GO OUTSIDE ALL THE TIME. Especially right now because the bluebells are blooming!! I’ve got a few pics of them on the photo blog, but here I am reveling in their beauty Sunday morning:

I’m STILL keeping up with my Photo365 “one year of portraits” project – almost six months in! – hence the photo above. And others like this one in Shenandoah National Park last weekend:

And to hell with it, I’m just going to be ridiculously vain and share this picture I took of myself because I HATE pictures of myself, or rather I used to, so I have a hard time believing I can look so non-terrible in a photo. I must be an awesome photographer – I wish I actually looked like this picture, haha. But my self-indulgent Photo365 project has at least made me far more comfortable in front of the camera than I used to be!

That’s it for today. Farmers’ market season is rapidly approaching so hopefully I will be inspired to make a few more food posts in the upcoming weeks, although: LIFE. Baby raccoons, raptor chicks, naturalist projects and field trips, MOVING, UGH UGH UGH! I do intend to do my “vegan on safari” post here soonish, in tandem with a “gear to take on safari” post on the photo blog, so I’ll hopefully be back in this space soon!

Comments (2)

Spicy Bolita Bean Soup

Mark has been working in San Francisco and I’ve been having to eat dinner alone most nights. My Photo365 portrait project photo from the other night was this demonstration of what that’s like:

It’s a staged photo, which the discerning viewer can determine based on the fact that I didn’t bother pouring a glass of wine and I always have wine with dinner. But, with the addition of a glass of wine, that’s pretty much what it looks like. Perhaps I shouldn’t say I eat dinner alone, as I generally have company of a feline nature, but they aren’t a great substitute for Mark, who very rarely parades back and forth between my plate and my face while I’m trying to eat.

I do have a recipe for you though! I made this soup last week and it was good. It also required very minimal effort and the leftovers provided a very warming lunch for several days. I have a rather large collection of dry beans that I store and display in vintage mason jars, so sometimes inspiration for dinner comes in the form of staring at dozens of blue jars and picking one at random. I used bolita beans in this soup and they were quite good. Pinto beans are a common substitute for bolita beans, and I love pinto beans, but I think kidney beans would also have been excellent here. I also think next time I will experiment with using bulgur instead of the soyrizo, to get rid of the packaged food, and adjusting the spices accordingly.

Very prepared people will soak their beans – at least using the “quick soak” method – before cooking them, however, I am not always very prepared. I pressure cooked my beans for 23 minutes without soaking and they came out perfect. Sometimes if you don’t soak them before cooking, beans will end up kind of wrinkly, but these looked nice.

Spicy Bolita Bean Soup

1 small to medium onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
4-6 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
2 links soyrizo, crumbled or grated
1 cup bolita beans, cooked (or canned)
1-2 chiles en adobo, minced + some of the sauce, to taste
2-3 Tbsp tomato paste
6 cups veggie broth (I used vegan “chicken” broth)
1 tsp Mexican oregano
1/2 tsp cumin powder
1/2 cup frozen corn (fresh would be good too)
splash of apple cider vinegar
salt to taste

Heat some oil in a soup pot and saute the onions, celery, and carrot until the onions are translucent. Add the garlic and saute another couple of minutes. Add the crumbled soyrizo and cook another few minutes, then add the beans, chiles en adobo, tomato paste, broth, cumin, and oregano. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for about 15-20 minutes, then add the corn and simmer another 5 minutes. Splash some vinegar in to brighten it up a bit and, if necessary, add salt to taste. Serve with lime wedges.

So, yeah, about that photo project: I can’t believe I’m still keeping up with it! I never thought I’d be able to take this many pictures of myself, especially since I really hate the way I look in photos. But it’s been a very useful project: I’ve gotten better at editing in Lightroom, I’m forced to use my camera every day, and it’s actually kind of neat having a daily record of my life. I’ve been captioning the pictures with a small description of how the photo fit into my day. I’ve taken my share of quickie pictures standing in front of my bookshelf or in the back yard, just to get an entry out of the way for the day, but sometimes I stage goofy illustrations of my life like the one above. I use the cats as props WAY less often than I assumed I would, but of course they do make appearances…

Yesterday, the Mez and me.

Last week; on the way home from work that day I was thinking that I was drawing a total blank on ideas for that day’s portrait, then when Torticia pounced me as I walked in the door, I realized that was my picture. She stayed perched there the whole time I adjusted the tripod and set up the camera.

I do struggle for self-portrait ideas, especially when I can’t get outside, but the project has given me something to do that sort of keeps me from getting depressed about winter. Although time seems to fly on one hand and I can’t believe it’s the middle of February already, on the other hand, I’m just so tired of short, cold days. You know those bumper stickers that say, “I’d rather be fishing” or something like that? I was walking through my office today and I just suddenly wanted to slap a sticker on my forehead that said, “I’d rather be hiking”. I was just really annoyed I wasn’t on a trail somewhere. I really think I’ve become addicted to going to parks; I get all out of sorts if I can’t get out for at least a short hike AT LEAST once a week.

Between missing Mark and not getting to a park last weekend, I’m not in the best of spirits today. I can’t wait for the days to be long enough that I can hit a trail after work! The good news is we are getting there; the days are getting noticeably longer. I sometimes wake up before sunrise and hit a park before I go to work, which is a lovely way to start the day if I can rouse myself. And we’ve had a few unseasonably warm days here and there; if I can, I’ll sometimes go into work super-early on days I know are going to be extra lovely, and I’ll skip out early. One afternoon last week I went to the wildlife refuge and saw some eagles. This one is guarding his or her nest from a few hundred feet away. I didn’t see his or her mate, although often you’ll see them sitting side by side watching their nest. Rumor has it there are two eggs in the nest, so I’m trying to make it my business to get to the refuge as often as I can to stalk the parents before the US Fish & Wildlife closes a portion of the trail down again to protect the nest from people like me.

After helping raccoons and raptors on the weekends, I almost always hit up a park unless the weather is really bad. The other weekend I went to one of my favorite parks, Great Falls. I raged a little bit about the proposed price hike from $5 to the completely absurd $15 (seriously, WTF, NPS???) and then I bought an America the Beautiful pass which gets me entry to all national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges in the country for a year. Considering how frequently I visit national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges it doesn’t make sense for me NOT to have one. So I’ll be going to Great Falls frequently while I still live in Virginia even if they do triple the entrance fee.

If you don’t have an annual pass and the entrance fee at Great Falls enrages you, just go to Riverbend Regional Park, which is free, and hike into Great Falls on the Potomac Heritage Trail. It’s barely over a mile from visitor center to visitor center and it’s a lovely walk. Take your binoculars or super-telephoto lens because you can see the Conn Island eagle nest on the way. (This photo is unrelated to the Conn Island eagle nest, although I COULD dig up some photos of it if I were feeling ambitious.)

The eponymous great falls:

So that’s my update for now, and some soup. Coming soon: my long-awaited post on safari life for vegans and photographers.

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Black Bean Stir Fry

Yeah, that’s right, I HAVE A RECIPE. It’s not the most exciting or innovative recipe in the world, but I figured it would help me ease back into actual food blogging at some point. 🙂

The secret ingredient in this dish is Chinese fermented black beans. You are supposed to rinse these before use but the brand I bought wasn’t too salty and I didn’t bother. I really simplified the preparation for this dish. As I had some cooked brown rice in the freezer, this meal took about 15 minutes to prepare, most of which was devoted to vegetable chopping.

Black Bean Stir Fry

12 oz seasoned baked tofu, chopped
1/2 small head savoy or Napa cabbage, cored and chopped into 1″ pieces
1 small head broccoli, chopped into florets
2 leaks, white parts only, cleaned and sliced
2 small carrots, peeled and chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 hot pepper, chopped
1 small can sliced water chestnuts
2 scallions, sliced
about 2 Tbsp Shaoxing wine or sherry

For the sauce:
3/4 cup vegetable broth or vegan “chicken” broth
3-4 Tbsp Chinese fermented black beans
2 Tbsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp black vinegar
6 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1-2 Tbsp grated fresh ginger

1 Tbsp corn starch whisked into 3 Tbsp water

Prep the tofu and all the vegetables and set aside. Stir in all of the rest of the sauce ingredients (except the cornstarch mixture). Heat a wok over high heat and add a little oil. Add the leaks and stir fry for a couple of minutes, then add each of the remaining vegetables, except the scallions, and the tofu a minute or two apart in order of their required cooking time, stir frying the entire time (for the ingredients above, I went in the following order: leeks, carrots, celery, pepper, broccoli, tofu, cabbage, water chestnuts). Use the wine or sherry to deglaze the wok, then pour in the sauce and toss. Lower the heat a bit and let the sauce cook for a minute or so, then pour the cornstarch mixture into the wok, stir, and cook for another minute or so until the sauce thickens.

Top with the sliced scallions. Serve with chili garlic sauce or Sriracha on the side.

Aaaaand back to non-food matters. I’ve been suffering from photography withdrawal since returning from Africa. Yes, this is somewhat due to the fact that I’m sad there are no non-zoo lions in Virginia, but it’s compounded by the fact that it’s winter. We had such a FABULOUS summer that I got VERY used to going to a park every single night after work, but not only is it cold this time of year, worse, it’s dark when I leave work, so parks are out. It’s very depressing. I decided that to motivate myself I would attempt a “365” photo project, which means that every day for the next 365 days I need to take and publish a photograph. What’s more, I decided my theme would be self-portraits. Upon reflection I realized that people may think I want to take “selfies”, but that’s the last thing I want to do. I kind of see “selfies” as something you take with your phone at arm’s length. I can’t think of any reason I would take a picture of myself with my phone. The reason I chose to concentrate of self-portraits is, however, possibly more sad than a desire to take a good “selfie”. The reason is I used to take a lot of pictures of friends and I like taking pictures of people. Maybe not as much as I like taking pictures of animals, but I like it. The fact is, though, that I don’t go out that much any more, and I don’t particularly want to, which means if I want to practice taking pictures of people, that leaves me or Mark, and there’s no way Mark will agree to be my model, so I’m left with myself. Which is actually kind of appropriate because although I DID go out a lot in high school when I was teaching myself photography, there were still a lot of times when I was home alone with no subjects to photograph so I’d take pictures of myself. Like this one, which I like because THERE’S AN AWESOME PICTURE OF TIGER BEHIND ME in our living room:

Or more ridiculously, this one wearing my dad’s suit – and apparently carrying the mail – for some unknown reason:

Okay, I also like to play dress-up.

I don’t know, we might be heading into selfie territory with this one:

Anyway, I’m REALLY unphotogenic, increasingly so the further I get from high school, so I’m hoping that over the course of the year I’ll come away with at least a couple of photos of myself that I don’t hate, either because I improve at taking them or I come to terms with my appearance. One of those things. Although I have absolutely no confidence I will actually keep this up for 365 days. I’m surprised I’ve done it for three, quite frankly. The only reason I’m mentioning it here is to make myself a little bit more accountable by actually confessing that I’m doing it. It will actually be much easier to keep up with in the spring and summer when I’m out hiking every night as I usually take my tripod with me and I can just hop in front of it for a shot or two. I have absolutely no idea how I will possibly manage to take a different photo of myself every single night of the long, cold, horrible winter. That will require a lot more creativity than I have. But here’s to trying!

I assure you I will VERY RARELY, if ever again, post any of these self-portraits here. This is supposed to be a food blog and most pictures of me will make you lose your appetite! But here was photo 1 of 365, taken while I was figuring out how to tether my DSLR to my laptop in Lightroom. Gomez thought he’d assist with that endeavor.

And today’s:

I’m kissing her little paw!

An outtake from today that shows Torticia, who NEVER looks bad in a picture, better:

I said I don’t take “selfies” (because I’m snobby and I take “self-portraits”), but that’s not entirely true. I can’t be trusted not to take pictures of myself with my underwater camera just because I CAN take pictures of myself underwater and I think that’s awesome. In the pool at the lodge in Zanzibar:

See what I said about being unphotogenic?!

Okay, NEXT, a request. So I’m going to apply for the Virginia Master Naturalist program this spring and although there aren’t really any previous education requirements, I feel like it would be a good idea to do some reading before classes begin in February. Anyone have any favorite books on natural history, biology, or the like? When I read science books, I usually read physics or neuroscience books, so it’s sort of a new field for me.

Next stop: SERENGETI!

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“Pork” seitan

One of my go-to seitan recipes is Vegan Dad’s Veggie Lunch Meat. (All of Vegan Dad’s seitan recipes are good: and even Mark can make them!!). Anyway, although I refer to Vegan Dad’s lunch meat recipe for the basic bean/vital wheat gluten/liquid ratio, I often mix up the seasonings a bit to get different flavors. Follows is a porcine take on it, with all due credit to Vegan Dad (who I am so glad is blogging again!).

“Pork”-flavored Seitan
Lightly adapted from Vegan Dad’s Veggie Lunch Meat

1 cup cooked (or canned) white beans
2 cups water
3 Tbsp beet juice (OPTIONAL)
2 tsp soy sauce
2 tsp smoked paprika
2 tsp onion powder
2 tsp salt
1 tsp liquid smoke
1 or 2 packets Goya “ham” flavoring (there is no ham in it)
2 3/4 cup vital wheat gluten (plus maybe a couple teaspoons more if you add the beet juice)

So the first thing you need to procure is some cooked white beans. Since I make this seitan often (Mark scarfs it down so fast I can barely keep it in stock!), what I do is pressure cook a whole pound of soaked, dried white beans (like Great Northern), then divide it into 1-cup portions, reserving one for immediate use and freezing the others. These containers are the perfect size for freezing individual portions:

Then the next few times I want to make seitan, I just grab one portion from the freezer, either thawing in the fridge or on the counter for a few hours if I have time, or sitting the container in very hot water to thaw and warming slightly in the microwave if necessary. Yes, I was canning at the same time I was making this seitan and had a lot of help from a certain Torticia, and yes there will be more cat pictures at the end of this post (about time, eh?).

Put all of the ingredients except the vital wheat gluten into the jar of a blender. For the beet juice, I pour in a little juice from the jar of pickled beets that I always have open in the fridge. I do it to add a pink color, which looks lovely while the gluten is raw but almost entirely disappears when it’s cooked, therefore there’s really little point in doing it, but I’d just be pouring that pickle juice down the drain eventually anyway and it at least provides a little extra zing to the final seitan. But totally don’t go out of your way to use it if you don’t have it handy.

Blend until smooth.

Combine the blended mixture and the vital wheat gluten in a large bowl.

Stir with a spoon until you can’t …

… then mix with your hands until all of the vital wheat gluten is incorporated. Then knead for a few minutes until you can see the gluten start to form (this will look like “strings” forming within the dough ball) – you don’t need to work it hard like you would bread dough but just enough to give it some structure.

Rip off a big ole piece of aluminum foil (you can re-use this several times and I encourage you to do so) and place your seitan at one end of it. Form it into a thick log as shown.

Roll the foil around the seitan log and then fold the two sides up as you would wrap a package (or twist them like a Tootsie Roll – I prefer folding it as it’s easier to prevent tearing the foil when you open the package later, but know that the seitan will expand while cooking, so if you fold, make sure you do so tightly enough that it stays folded).

Steam the seitan for one hour. You can do this on the stovetop, but I love my slow/multi-cooker for this task (and many others). Obviously, I put the lid on after taking this picture.

Once it’s done steaming, cook the seitan at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for another hour. I often use the toaster oven for this.

Let cool completely at room temperature, then refrigerate or freeze. It’s best used after a rest of at least a few hours in the fridge, so this is something I like to prepare at least a day in advance.

You can slice it thinly as lunch meat for sandwiches as Vegan Dad suggests, or use it in any recipe calling for seitan or meat. (Put it in a food processor for perfect minced “meat”.) Here I’ve cut thick slabs to bake up in some barbecue sauce.

Seitan slathered in barbecue sauce is just about my favorite thing. I put a few slabs in a baking dish …

… then top with homemade barbecue sauce. And here I have scattered some pickled grapes on top because I pickled grapes last night because apparently pickling grapes is something that I do these days. I pickled grapes TWO WAYS last night. (By the way, pickled grapes are awesome.)

Mark had already stolen about a quarter of this loaf before I made dinner tonight, so after popping my barbecue dish into the oven, I chopped the remainder of the seitan loaf into two pieces about 8-10 ounces each and stored them in the freezer, each chunk of which will provide a good amount for a later meal.

And here is what I had for dinner tonight: barbecued seitan, scalloped potatoes, and peas:

I promised you cat pictures. It’s been a while! So, the cats, and especially Torticia, are ALWAYS helping me cook. Torticia is the most loyal little buddy in the world; if I’m in the kitchen, she parks herself on the island and watches over me, EXACTLY as Tigger used to do. (I always said that would be what I missed most about Tigger so I find it extremely comforting.) If there’s a box on the island SO MUCH THE BETTER. She sat in the box of peaches I canned last week for several days. It rained hard here all day Saturday – the first weekend day it’s rained all summer, and frankly, I NEEDED that rain to keep me in the house and get some canning done. So I was canning several different things Saturday and making the seitan, and this is what was happening on the island the whole time:

You can see my seitan baking in the background of this one:

If those pictures seem a little skewed towards my beautiful Torticia, know that I have a picture of Gomez on my credit card and on the skin I created for my Macbook Air to obscure the fact that I’ve become a Mac user. Okay, I’m not fooling anyone, but HOW PRETTY DOES MEZZIE MAKE MY LAPTOP LOOK?? He’s so ridiculously handsome.

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Slow Cooker Cowboy Beans and Potato Radish Salad for the Fourth

While many of my fellow Americans were traveling, watching parades, attending or hosting cookouts, and watching fireworks or setting off their own fireworks on Friday, the Fourth of July, I for one was just happy to have a DAY OFF. No work, no raccoons, no raptors, no obligations. I didn’t set an alarm and I slept until 10:30! It was so great! And the weather was sensational: clear skies and about 80 degrees with none of that thick humidity that so characterizes summer in the DC metro area. Ordinarily weather that spectacular would have pulled me to a park, but I figured they’d all be crowded and anyway, I kind of felt like I needed a day of rest. So instead I spent what would have at one time been a normal amount of time in the kitchen but for me lately was a LOT of time. I decided to make a fairly traditional Fourth of July dinner for Mark and myself, and I’m going to share some of the recipes! That’s right, I remembered this is a food blog!

The first thing I did was quick soak some beans to make cowboy beans. I took about a pound of Steuben Yellow Eye Beans, put them in an 8-cup Pyrex measuring cup, poured boiling water over them, covered, and set aside for an hour. I used the yellow eye beans because I have a lot of them (because I LOVE them!), but you can use whatever bean you think would be good. I’d have used pinto beans if I hadn’t used the yellow eyes. And then I did this:

Slow Cooker Cowboy Beans

1 lb dried beans, your choice (something like pinto, kidney, or Steuben Yellow Eye), soaked overnight or quick soaked (by pouring boiling water over them) for 1 hour
1 onion, diced
1/2 cup seitan, ground (preferably a “pork” flavor…I’ll probably do a post on this soon) (grind in a food processor, blender, or meat grinder)

For the sauce
1 pint canned diced tomatoes
3 chilis en adobo + some of the sauce
1/4 cup blackstrap molasses
1/4 cup chopped onion
3 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
5 cloves garlic, peeled
5 drops stevia (or a couple tablespoons white or brown sugar)

Put the sauce ingredients into a blender and blend until smooth. Drain the beans and place them with the rest of the ingredients, including the sauce, into a slow cooker and cook on high for 5 to 6 hours, or until beans are soft.

Here they are plated. Mark put his on his veggie dog, which is an excellent vehicle for them.

I also whipped up some potato salad, which helped to go through some of the pounds of young potatoes I’ve been collecting at the farmers market because I can’t resist them. (I can’t resist anything at the farmers market.) Because I also had a ton of radishes and was planning to buy even more radishes at the market the next day, I decided to throw some radishes into the potato salad as well, which added some crunch and interest. Mark hates mayo and I’m not keen on it in salad-sized doses, so often I’ll do vinaigrette-based potato salads, but since I grew up with mayo-based potato salads (and according to the number of people at my brother’s party the other weekend who informed me my mother’s potato salad was delicious, apparently I grew up with a good recipe!), I decided to go a little more traditionally (for me) creamy, so I did a yogurt-based dressing this time. Of course, putting radishes in potato salad is certainly NOT traditional in my family. (Although radishes always remind me of making green salads from my mom’s garden as a kid because radishes were my favorite part.)

Potato Radish Salad

2-3 lbs young potatoes, cut into bite-sized pieces
4 large or 6 medium radishes, sliced thinly then cut into 2-centimeter-wide sticks
2-3 spring onions, sliced

For the dressing
1/3 cup plain, unsweetened soy yogurt (Homemade is much, much better than store-bought. And I really, really need to do an updated post on it; that old one is embarrassing.)
2 Tbsp grapeseed oil
2 tsp Dijon mustard
juice of 1/4 to 1/2 lemon, depending on the tanginess of your yogurt (mine is quite tangy so I used 1/4 lemon)

Chop the potatoes – I never peel them – and put them into a medium to large pot. Cover with cold water, then bring the pot to a boil. Salt the water, reduce the heat and simmer until the potatoes are soft. You don’t want them falling-apart soft, but I like mine soft enough that they just start to break apart when I stir the dressing in. When they are done, drain them into a colander.

Meanwhile, whisk together the dressing ingredients in a small bowl. While the potatoes are warm, mix them together with the radishes, spring onions, and the dressing. Cover and refrigerate for at least a couple of hours.

And this was my whole plate Friday night; also featured are some dilly beans, pickled onions, and a Field Roast veggie frankfurter in a homemade bun. I ALMOST made homemade hot dogs just so I could say everything I served was made from scratch, but then I made some sauerkraut and went on a 7-mile jog/walk instead (couldn’t avoid going outside in that spectacular weather after all). But Field Roast is good and I had three lonely frankfurters in the freezer to use up anyway.

So that was my Fourth of July dinner. And here is an osprey dinner! (You can’t see it, but the parent osprey just put a bite of fish into the beak of her baby.)

I got that picture while kayaking last weekend. There is a nest right by our launch site, and as we were returning just before sunset, the mother (or father; they both tend to the young – but that one looks kind of big so let’s say it’s the mother) nabbed a fish and swooped back into the nest and started feeding the one baby. I was REALLY close. It was awesome! I take my mirrorless camera on the kayak with me because it’s weather sealed (and if I drop it in the Potomac I won’t have AS BIG of a breakdown that I’d have if I dropped my dSLR and a telephoto lens into a river just a few months before we go to Africa), so I whipped it out and took a ton of pictures, all excited. It took me a few minutes to even realize there was another kayaker just behind me, who was doing the same thing, although with a dSLR and the Canon 100-400mm. So we ended up talking (I don’t know what’s up with me chatting up wildlife photographers all the time because I’m normally very shy, but it happens) and I told him he was much braver than me taking that setup on a kayak. He said you just have to be very careful. (I’m pretty careful with my camera equipment, but I don’t know if I’m a careful kayaker. I’m a new kayaker.) And of course, when I went to process my pictures I was kicking myself for not being as brave as that guy because they sucked. I’d have gotten some spectacular shots if I’d had my dSLR and 400mm lens. I deleted all but three, including all of the ones where you could see the mother actually putting the fish into the baby’s mouth. I love my mirrorless camera for some things, but not for wildlife. 🙁 Of course, it’s really hard to take telephoto pictures on a kayak anyway. Even if I weren’t scared of losing my camera, it’s practically impossible to sit still in a kayak.

Anyway, although I was disappointed with my osprey pictures from last week, let me tell you a happier osprey story from last week. Some good citizens saw an osprey chick fall from its nest platform, tangled in fishing line, so they cut it free, got it out of the water, and brought it to the Raptor Conservancy of Virginia (where I volunteer). Kent at RCV warmed it up, dried it out, and kept it fed. As he told me today, there’s about a 48-hour window for returning chicks to their nest before the parents abandon it. So less than 48 hours later, one of our volunteers took the healthy chick back, waded out to the platform, and somehow returned the chick to the nest (about 8-feet off the water), and cleared the nest of the rest of the fishing line. Before he departed, he made sure the parents were still in the area, AND the parents were later confirmed to be seen feeding the chick! Success! Had the operation not been successful, I’D have been feeding a baby osprey today when I went into RCV! Which would have been a new experience for me, but it’s sooooooooo much better for them to be raised by their parents. (Besides, I had my fill of feeding chicks today: several red shouldered hawks chicks, a couple of barred owl chicks, several great horned owl chicks (oh my gosh, how they hate my guts!), a bunch of screech owl chicks (so, so, so tiny and cute!), and five barn owl chicks (OH MY GOD, THEY ARE SO AWESOME! AND HISSY!!!!))

Parent feeding chick > Renae feeding chick.

I hope the Americans out there had a lovely Fourth of July, and that the rest of you had a nice fourth of July. 🙂

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Dilly Beans, and canning tutorial

I’d been saying for several years that I knew one day I’d get into canning, but it wasn’t until last summer than I finally took the plunge. I bought a bunch of new canning jars (although I already owned a great deal of vintage jars that I store food and goods in, and ferment things in, and dispense soap from, and drink out of…you get the picture: I had a lot of jars and I bought a lot more jars) and Marisa McClellan’s wonderful Food in Jars. I’d been reading Marisa’s blog for a long time, so I had a good idea of what I was getting into, and I knew I’d trust her recipes to be both tasty and safe. Marisa’s book is a fantastic resource for the new canner, and especially those who might be daunted by visions of 15-hour canning sessions, pounds of fruits or veggies to peel and cook, and tons of finished jars of store…and eat. Food in Jars is great because most recipes yield about 4 pints, which is perfect for trying out recipes with little investment, squeezing short canning sessions around busy schedules, and not overwhelming small households with hundreds of jars of the same thing. Plus, Marisa is personable and very responsive to commenters on her blog.

The first recipe I made from her book, and the first thing I ever canned, was Dilly Beans…which I think is probably the first thing a lot of people try. And for good reason: they are easy and delicious! Since Marisa generously shared her recipe on Serious Eats (it’s actually slightly different than the one in the book in that it makes 5 pints instead of 4, and which worked out perfectly brine-wise for me), I’m going to go ahead and repeat it here with my photos just to inspire any of you out there who are like me and want to try canning but are worried about the initial investment or the time it might take up, or think it might be difficult to do. However, if like me you end up enjoying canning, I strongly urge you to buy Food in Jars or Marisa’s new book Preserving by the Pint, because the recipes are good and easy to understand and there is a ton of info for new canners.

Spicy Dilly Beans
Recipe by Marisa McClellan, shared on Serious Eats

3 pounds green beans (I had 2.8 lbs, all but about 6 green beans I was able to force into 5 pint jars)
2 1/2 cups white vinegar
2 1/2 cups water
1/4 cup pickling salt
5 cloves garlic
5 tsp dill seed (not dill weed)
5 tsp red chili flakes or cayenne powder, or 5 small chili peppers, slit (last year I used fresh chilis that Mark grew), or you can omit this if you don’t want spicy dilly beans

About the vinegar: although I use it by the gallon around the house, I usually don’t cook with white vinegar, preferring a myriad of flavored and homemade vinegars, however, in an unprecedented move I followed most of the canning recipes I used last summer faithfully instead of getting creative, and not only did these turn out delicious, but everyone I’ve served or given them to has raved, so I’m sticking with the white vinegar for now. In an older version on her blog, Marisa uses apple cider vinegar.

The first thing you need to do when getting started canning is purchase or scrounge up the following:

  • canning jars and rings – You will need 5 pint jars for this recipe and they will come with rings, which hold the lids on in the boiling water bath until they’ve sealed to the jar.
  • lids – Although you can and should reuse the jars and rings for many years, lids can only be sealed once. New jars will come with a new lid for each jar, but if you are reusing jars, you will need to purchase enough new lids for the batch you plan to make.
  • a pot large enough to fit the 5 jars (in a single layer) as well as water to cover by a couple of inches, plus another couple of inches head room for boiling
  • an insert for the pot that the jars can sit on instead of sitting directly on the bottom of the pot
  • small saucepan for warming lids
  • jar lifter or some other device, such as tongs, for moving jars into and out of the boiling water bath – Jar lifters are cheap and are a LOT easier than tongs, so I do recommend you pick one of these up if you can
  • magnetic lid wand – optional but handy device for lifting lids out of simmering water; you could also use tongs
  • dish towel – for setting hot jars on
  • clean towel – for wiping jar rims after filling

As much as I love kitchen gadgets and pots, I have no desire to buy a dedicated canning pot (unless I later decide to get into pressure canning, which doesn’t really interest me at the time). I already had this 12-quart Calphalon stock pot and pasta insert that is perfect for up to 5 pint or 4 quart jars. Unfortunately I can’t really find it for sale anywhere; I bought it as part of a larger set years ago. But if you already have a large stock pot, you can easily rig something up without a pasta insert, just by putting a heat-safe trivet on the bottom for the jars to sit on.

The first step in canning is to sanitize your jars. You can run them through a dishwasher cycle if you like, or bake them in the oven at 200 degrees for 15-20 minutes, but since you are going to be boiling water anyway for the water bath, the easiest thing to do is just boil them. So put your insert into your large pot and the jars on the insert, then add water to cover by a couple of inches (I also like to add a glug of white vinegar, which keeps the jars sparkling) …

… then bring to a rapid boil for 10 minutes. Now what you should NOT DO is at this juncture realize you need more vital wheat gluten for the seitan you are simultaneously making and just drive off to Wegmans to buy more, leaving the water boiling on your stove because you are an idiot. DO NOT DO THAT. (The good news is Mark was home the whole time I was gone, although until/unless he reads this, he had no idea!)

Put the lids in a small saucepan, cover with water, and bring to a very low simmer. All you want to do is warm the seals on them so they adhere to the jars later.

Use your jar lifter or tongs to remove the jars from the water (very carefully pouring the water out of them without spilling it on yourself) and place them on a folded dish towel. You can keep the water simmering while you continue prepping.

Prepare the brine by combining the vinegar, water, and salt in a medium pot and bringing it to a boil. Let it simmer until you are ready to use it. I saw this fourth burner pot on Marisa’s blog and yes, I DID have to buy it, but I don’t use it just for canning. You can absolutely use any pot you have that the brine will fit in; I just like this one because it has a spout that makes it easy to pour into the jars later, and also when canning, the stove tends to gets crowded and this pot takes up little stove real estate.

Next, prepare the green beans (or you could do this ahead of time if you are more efficient than I am). I don’t do that whole bean snapping thing. I just do not have the time for that nonsense. I line a bundle of beans up, chop off the ends with a sharp knife, turn the bundle around, line them up again, and chop the other end off. The important thing here is that you make sure the beans will fit in the jars, so what I do is trim one to the perfect size for my jars then lie it on my chopping block as a template. I’m not super fastidious about this, but if you don’t make them short enough to fit, it’s annoying later to go back and trim them down.

It’s easiest to fill the jars if you keep the trimmed green beans orderly:

By the time you’ve trimmed the green beans, the jars should have cooled enough to handle, so stuff each one with as many beans as you can fit, without smashing the beans up. I find it easiest to put a bundle in, hold the jar on its side …

… then shove another bundle on top, then sit the jar upright and fill in any gaps with more beans.

Put one clove of garlic, 1 tsp of dill seeds, and 1 tsp of chili flakes or cayenne pepper or one whole chili pepper into each jar.

Turn the burner under the brine off and pour the brine into each jar, leaving 1/2″ headspace. Carefully (they’ll be hot!) tap each jar on the counter and/or poke a chopstick around the edges to remove trapped air bubbles. If necessary, add additional brine to bring the headspace back to 1/2″. (By the way, you want to add HOT brine to the jars so they don’t go into shock when you later put them in the hot water bath…so don’t pre-make that brine and add it cold to the jars.)

Use a clean towel to wipe the rims of the jars (spilled brine could keep the lids from sealing properly). Next, turn the burner under the lids off and carefully remove the lids from the pot, placing one (seal-side down) atop each jar. Screw a ring onto each jar just until hand-tight.

Jars ready for canning:

If necessary, bring the large pot of water back up to a rolling boil, then use the jar lifter to carefully place each jar onto the insert on the bottom. You will probably have to remove some of the boiling water from the pot now that the jars are full; I use a 2-cup Pyrex measuring cup to do this or you could use your small saucepan. Once all jars are in the pot, you want the water to cover them by about 2″ (so they are entirely submerged even when the water is bubbling). This picture is hazy because my camera was looking straight down into the steaming water.

Once the water is at a rolling boil after the jars are in, set the timer for 10 minutes. Let the jars boil (this is what is meant by “process in a hot water bath” that you may have read in recipes) for 10 minutes, then use the jar lifter to carefully remove the jars and set them back on the dish towel (the dish towel helps prevent shock from a cool counter or table top). [Note: Always process canning recipes for exactly the amount of time specified. If you don’t process for long enough, the internal temperature of the jar may not go high enough to create a seal and safely preserve your food, and if you process for too long, you may end up with overcooked food. Use only canning recipes from sources you trust. When in doubt refer to the USDA Canning Guidelines or the Ball website. Do not use older publications as the USDA guidelines have changed over the years and older canning books may be outdated.]

As the lids seal, you may hear a little “ping” from each one. This is a joyous noise because you know the lid has sealed when you hear it, however, not all seals will ping, so don’t worry if you don’t hear it. I usually hear a ping, but none of these five pinged for me and they all sealed. Let the jars sit overnight (or 8 hours) to completely cool, then you can remove the rings and test the seals. There are two tests you can do: 1) push the middle of the lid slightly. If it gives or pops, the lid is not sealed. 2) gently try to pry the lid off with your thumb. If it comes off, it’s not sealed. If you buy quality lids, they should almost always seal, but everyone will occasionally have one that does not. If you have one that didn’t seal, no problem: just put the jar in the refrigerator and use it up first.

Pro tip: always write the name of the contents and the date packed on the lids. These dilly beans will be good for at least a year. Also, store the jars without the rings. Apparently there is some debate amongst canners about storing with or without rings, but I’m firmly on the “without” side because a) rings could get stuck on over time and b) if the seal breaks during storage (a rare but possible occurrence), it’s harder to notice it if the ring is on. (Note: if after storage, you go to open a jar and find that the lid comes right off without being pried, throw the contents of the jar away. They might be okay, but it’s better safe than sorry in this case.)

The Serious Eats recipe says wait at least a week to eat these pickles; the book says two weeks. I’ve always waited two weeks, which may seem interminable, but believe me, it’s worth it!

Some people don’t know how to open a sealed jar. I use the bottle opener hook of my can opener (it looks like this one), but you can also use a church key or dull butter knife or spoon.

These dilly beans are really popular and I bring a jar or two to every party I attend in the summer and throughout the year. There is an ever-growing number of people who love to receive a jar of these or other of my canned items as a gift as well. When I give canned foods as gifts, I tend to stick a ring back on it, so if the recipient doesn’t use the contents in one sitting, they have an easy way to secure the lid and refrigerate the jar. Personally, I save up the standard-sized metal and plastic screw-on lids that come on commercial products like peanut butter, Vegenaise, cocounut oil, etc. and use them for storing jars in the fridge as they are less hassle than a lid + ring, and I toss used lids in the recycle bin as I open jars. If you give jars away, tell your friends to recycle the lid, but to save the jar and ring. I always tell recipients that they are welcome to keep the jar (and ring) if they want it, but if they have no use for it, to return it to me so I can fill it up for them again. 🙂

Dilly beans make any barbecue fare – nay, any meal – many times better, are awesome in bloody marys, and are just great snacks! These are from the open jar I currently have in the fridge, canned last year. The pepper is one of Mark’s, and yes, I will eat that (and the garlic!) too. Pickled peppers, yum! (Pickled ANYTHING, yum!)

If I can be like Bryant Terry and provide a soundtrack for this recipe, or any canning recipe, it would be any (non-annoying) song by Led Zeppelin. Mark and I both consider Zeppelin to be quintessential summer music and I listened to my all-Zep playlist over and over last summer while canning. In fact, whenever a Zeppelin song comes on now, I’m instantly transported to sitting on a barstool in my kitchen peeling, coring, and canning 100 lbs of tomatoes last summer. Which was a really zen thing for me for some reason. (Does anyone want a tutorial on canning tomatoes once tomato season hits? Because as awesome and delicious as dilly beans are, tomatoes are by far the most useful thing I canned: I haven’t bought a single can of tomatoes in a year, and I used to go through a LOT of cans of tomatoes!)

[PS If you feel like Led Zeppelin is overplayed, enjoy one of my other favorite summer songs. YOU’RE WELCOME.]

I’m extra excited about canning season this year because all I’ll have to buy is new lids, so it’ll be much cheaper this year than it was last year when I had to make the initial investment in the jars (which aren’t really expensive, but I bought a lot). And canning just does it for me. I’m as guilty as most other Americans of generating more waste than I have any right to burden this planet with, but I HATE it. I get really, really sick thinking of all that trash sitting in landfills, most of it not biodegrading, and all the plastic floating in our wonderful oceans. It’s true I keep on consuming, but I really try to think about packaging, and purchase as little of it as possible. To me, canning is just so great because I support my local farmers by purchasing everything I can from the farmers market (I’d grow it myself if I didn’t have a black thumb!), and I carry it all home in my market basket and reusable shopping bags, and I can it in reusable jars, and not only do I have a bounty of delicious, local ingredients to enjoy year-round, but I’ve wasted NO PACKAGING. It just makes me deeply happy. And I have LOVED opening my jars all year and enjoying the contents. I’m still amazed every time I open a jar of my home-canned tomatoes and they smell just as fresh as the day I canned them. It’s a scent and sensation I’ve never gotten from commercial canned tomatoes, even the really expensive ones I’d buy because I’m a pizza snob. So if you’ve been on the fence about trying canning, hopefully I’ve given you the push you needed to try it out this year – it’s very rewarding. And it doesn’t have to take a lot of time.

You didn’t think I’d leave without a picture totally unrelated to food, did you? Here is a groundhog climbing a tree:

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Wonton Soup and Kimchi to chase the sickness away…and I love nature!

Warning: the “recipe” for this post isn’t really a recipe and I don’t even have a picture of it. It’s just an excuse to say hello. I haven’t really cooked all month. Mark and I were in Charleston for a week, then he went to Boston for a week for work and came home deathly ill. He’s been home almost two weeks and still isn’t fully better, but at least he’s no longer cycling between being delirious and comatose. The only things he has wanted the whole time he’s been sick are wonton soup and kimchi. Frankly, I’m a little wonton soup- and kimchi-ed out but he’s STILL requesting it. Some nights I fix myself something different because I can’t eat wonton soup six nights a week. But here’s the recipe for making Mark a little happier when he’s sick; it’s actually extremely easy to do:

Wonton Soup
frozen vegan wontons (the Asian grocery stores have many varieties of vegetable wontons that are vegan-friendly, but read the labels)
as much water as you desire broth
vegan “chicken” bouillon – enough for the amount of water you are using
a couple splashes of rice vinegar
a few drops of chili sesame oil
maybe a little soy sauce
if you feel like it, miso

Bring the water to a boil and add the bouillon, vinegar, oil, and soy sauce if you are using it. If you are using miso, scoop some broth out before it comes to a boil and whisk the miso into it, then set it aside. Add the frozen wontons and cook until they are warmed through. If using, stir the miso into the soup. It’s also a great idea to add a lot of grated ginger to the broth, especially if you are serving the sick. Top with sliced scallions if you have them available. And I like to add sriracha to my bowl.

Serve with copious amounts of kimchi. Rather than making kimchi, I bought some. Mark was nothing but grateful to me during his illness, except for telling me I didn’t buy ENOUGH kimchi the first time. But that’s okay, kimchi is really good for fighting germs, so I just went and bought him more.

Yes, I realize this is a ridiculous “recipe” to give you after weeks of radio silence, but believe me, that’s what’s been going on culinary-wise in my house for the last two weeks.

Aside from taking care of Mark when necessary, I have been EMBRACING SPRING. I probably say this every April, but OH MY GOD I have NEVER been so glad to see spring. Last winter was cold, snowy, and STUPID. There is probably some truth to the fact that I’m more glad this year, even over other snowy years, because I feel like I just appreciate life in general more and more all the time. Not that I ever didn’t appreciate life, because I’ve led a happy life, but I don’t know; I seem to actually take the time to be thankful for things more than I did when I was younger. And to that end I’ve spent nearly every day of spring so far in a park, hiking and taking pictures. It feels weird to be sitting inside right now at 5:53, in fact, because I’m usually outside gallivanting around at this time. (I gave myself until 6 to write a post before going out so I’d better hurry up…).

I have felt neglectful of the blog, though. Not that I had any recipes to post, but I still felt as if I wasn’t doing something important to me. SO, I’m going to try to post much more often, BUT until the farmers market starts (next weekend, FINALLY!) and provides me cooking inspiration and/or until the weather turns less AWESOME than its been and I’m not pulled outside like a magnet every night after work until after dark, I’m probably just going to have pictures for you, and they probably won’t be food related. But so as not to be super annoying, I’ll just do one a day. Maybe two…we’ll see how good my self control is. So to start off, I present a few pictures of something that gives folks in this area super spring fever (other than the DC cherry blossoms): Virginia bluebells. The gorgeous usually-blue plant lives in marshy floodplains and is one of the first things to bloom every spring. They peak for a week or so and then they are gone, but while they are around, if you find a place where they are abundant, it’s like being in a wonderland. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen. I’ve been bluebell stalking in several places this year, some of them new to me. I’m letting myself post a few more than one picture today just because I’ve been gone a while (and also I can’t help myself when it comes to bluebells).

The pictures tonight are from two parks. The first ones are from Riverbend Park, which I just discovered a few weeks ago (when looking for prominent bluebell locations) and have since fallen in love with. Riverbend has everything: the Potomac River, the Potomac Heritage Trail, woodland trails, a meadow trail, BLUEBELLS, it’s free, AND you can hike into Great Falls National Park, which is lovely, but kinda pricey and the parking lot is often full on really nice days so it’s cool to “sneak” in for free. It’s only about 1.5 miles from Riverbend Visitor Center to Great Falls Visitor Center! I’ve been to Riverbend several times in the last few weeks and love it. And it’s especially great when the bluebells are blooming!

My favorite bluebell spot in previous years has always been Bull Run Regional Park, and even though Bull Run was a near fiasco when I went for my first visit of the year a couple of weeks ago (the trail was so muddy and slick I nearly fell about a hundred times, AND they are doing some water main work that disrupts the bluebell trail in two places and is ugly and constructiony), I have to say that when I returned for the bluebells, it won my heart again. Bull Run is THE best place to see bluebells. If you are local and go nowhere else to see them, go there. I might prefer other parks for other reasons, but for bluebells, Bull Run is #1. There are just ACRES of them. My tip: on the bluebell trail (from the entrance across from the water park), once you get to the water, head left off the trail. There is a very narrow path through the dense bluebells for a while (though it eventually stops), and if you keep going, you’ll find yourself completely surrounded by bluebells for as far as the eye can see. And you won’t run into everyone and their brother walking their dog and taking cellphone pictures while you are off the official path. After enjoying the blue solitude, head back to the trail and finish the loop – it’s all lovely (minus that construction), but there’s nothing like being totally immersed in a carpet of blue.

Okay, I NEED TO GO OUTSIDE now. I will be back, hopefully tomorrow, with another picture or two…although I can’t promise it won’t have bluebells in it.

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