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.

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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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Asian Broccoli Slaw, Marinated Tofu, and Salad Dressing….and bats!

Last night’s dinner was rather generically Asian-themed. I had a random bag of broccoli slaw I needed to use up and the best-sounding recipe I found when googling was something very similar to what I present below, so from there I decided to take the whole meal in an Asian direction. I prepped everything in advance, and when mixing up the slaw dressing, tofu marinade, and green salad dressing, since they were all so similar, I didn’t even bother washing the mixing bowl between each of them, keeping prep quick and easy. Here are all three things I made:

Asian Broccoli Slaw

1 12 oz package broccoli slaw (or grate your own broccoli; cabbage would be good too)
3 Tbsp sesame oil (not toasted)
3 Tbsp rice vinegar
2 Tbsp low-sodium soy sauce
2 Tbsp peanut butter
1 Tbsp grated ginger
2 tsp minced or pressed garlic
2 tsp brown sugar

In a small bowl, whisk together everything but the slaw. In a larger bowl, toss the dressing with the slaw and refrigerate for at least an hour for flavors to blend.

Asian Marinated Tofu

1 lb extra firm tofu
1 cup vegan broth
1/4 low sodium soy sauce
2 Tbsp sesame oil
2 Tbsp rice vinegar
1 Tbsp minced or pressed garlic
1 Tbsp grated ginger
1 Tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp toasted sesame oil

Whisk together everything but the tofu and set aside. Slice the tofu into 1/2″ slabs and arrange in a 8″x8″ or 9″x9″ baking pan. Pour the marinade over the tofu and let marinate for at least half an hour. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. When ready to bake the tofu, pour off some of the marinade so that the tofu is about half-submerged. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until golden.

I served this over some mung bean noodles, which I soaked in boiling water for 15 minutes (don’t keep it on the heat, just boil and set aside), then tossed with leftover tofu marinade. I also lightly stir-fried some julienned orange bell pepper in some sesame + toasted sesame oil, then tossed with toasted sesame seeds and served both the peppers and the tofu over the noodles.

Asian-flavored Salad Dressing

4 Tbsp sesame oil
3 Tbsp rice vinegar
2 Tbsp low-sodium soy sauce
1 Tbsp grated ginger
1 tsp minced or pressed garlic
1 tsp peanut butter
1 tsp brown sugar

Whisk or shake together all ingredients. Serve over a green salad.

Not that you can really see the dressing, but here’s the salad:

And here are all three components together:

In wildlife news, I have to take at least six hours of continuing education hours to renew my rehabbers permit every year. Last year I was so busy and there were so few classes held nearby at times I could go that I was cramming in readings at the last minute. This year I’ve scored all six hours within nine days of the permit year beginning. This I did by attending an all-day bat workshop yesterday. I was very excited about this because I’ve always had a particular love for bats and I intend to accept bats one day when I’m rehabbing out of my own home. It was a great, very informative class, although also kind of depressing because some of the species in our area (the Mid-Atlantic) are federally endangered, and many more are state-listed as threatened or endangered. Even the most optimistic bat enthusiasts are very worried that the species suffering from White Nose Syndrome will be extinct in just a few years. This is very bad. Although so far the fungus affects only those bats that hibernate, migratory bats are being killed by wind turbines, so there’s unprecedented death rates for all kinds of bats. Bats eat their weight in insects every night. You don’t want to live in a world without bats. I can even relate the wildlife portion of this post to food for once, because one of the consequences of extinct bats is going to be crop failures, greatly increased food prices, and/or higher instances of pesticide use.

I was able to take some pictures of the live bats. (Because I’m rabies vaccinated, I was also able to handle the live (and dead) bats, which even more exciting!) Unfortunately I think I’m going to have to retire the crappy “all-purpose” lens I tend to leave on my camera as a default because the pictures S.U.C.K. and I’m super disappointed by them. True, the lighting in the room was dim and terrible (though probably a lot more bat-friendly than camera-friendly), but I still think I could have gotten decent pictures with a better lens, including some I left at home. Live and learn, I guess. So I apologize for the horrible, horrible, horrible pictures, which don’t do any justice to these awesome little creatures, but bats are too cool for me not to share and I feel compelled to raise awareness of White Nose Syndrome. As of right now, it’s confined to the eastern and more northern parts of Northern America, but it WILL soon migrate to the south and west, and it’s devastating.

This is a Tricolor Bat, squawking because she’s dropped her mealworm. To reward them for good behavior while they were out being handled by those of us with rabies shots and admired by everyone else, these education bats were fed treats of mealworms. You can see this bat’s mealworm in front of her. (Education animals are non-releasable animals that rehabbers and wildlife organizations have received special permission to keep (as opposed to euthanizing) as teaching tools.)

This is a Big Brown Bat. Big Browns are a migratory species not affected by White Nose, unlike the similar-looking but smaller cave-dwelling Little Brown Bat. One kind of good thing is new Big Brown colonies have been found in areas where Little Brown colonies have been wiped out by White Nose, so nature is replacing one species for another. Note that despite the name – and he is in fact bigger than a Little Brown Bat – like all North American bats, he’s really quite small. I was actually surprised by how tiny all of our bats are. They’re not at all like the beautiful, wonderful flying foxes I saw in Australia.

Side view of a Big Brown:

Silver-haired Bat. I think he looks like a teeny-tiny, legless bull.

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Asian Mustard Greens with Tofu

Every year in October (although once I think it was November), vegans around the world unite and participate in a blogging event called Vegan Mofo, in which they strive to blog nearly every day of the month, and every year I think yeah, I should do that, but then every year I think HAHAHAHA HOW COULD I EVER DO THAT? I’m busy all the time, but it seems like October is THE busiest time of the year for me, even with the wildlife stuff winding down a bit. I also tend to travel a lot in October. Of course, I’m just a big whiner because lots of bloggers are just as busy as I am and a lot of them travel more than I do and yet they still manage to post every day for Mofo. I just feel as if I would get stressed out about it so I’ve never made the commitment, much as I admire everyone else who does it and enjoy reading all the blogs.

Anyway, that’s a long way of saying I’m not doing Mofo because I’m a big whiner. Ironically I’m suddenly brimming with blog post ideas over here and I have a bunch of meals planned this week and next that are new and possibly blog-worthy, so maybe I could have pulled it off after all. I honestly think I could have done a Month of Vinegar theme, I have so many post ideas involving vinegar alone. Wouldn’t that have been awesome? I’m kind of regretting not signing up and at least doing a food diary. Y’all care what we eat daily chez Renae, right? Fortunately, as wildlife duties have been slowing down, our daily meals have been getting more interesting. I don’t know how interesting tonight’s really is, but it features mixed Asian mustard greens that I got at the farmers market and I get really excited about things like bundles of mixed Asian mustard greens so here I am, sharing my glee with you. I’m pretty sure I’m going to cry myself to sleep when the farmers market ends at the end of this month.

Asian Mustard Greens with Tofu

1 bundle mixed Asian mustard greens, stems removed if necessary, and chopped
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1 lb extra firm tofu, chopped
3 cups soybean sprouts
1-4 chili peppers, sliced (depending on the type and how much heat you like)
2 green onions, sliced, white and green parts separated
1 small hunk of ginger, grated
4-5 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1/2 cup vegan broth
1/4 cup fermented black bean paste
2 Tbsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp Shaoxing wine (or dry sherry)
2 drops stevia (or 1 tsp sugar)
2 Tbsp cornstarch whisked into 3 Tbsp cold water

First stir together the broth, black bean paste, soy sauce, wine, and stevia in a small bowl or liquid measuring cup. Set aside. Also set aside the cornstarch and water mixture.

Put some oil in a wok and add the white parts of the green onion, ginger, garlic, and chili peppers. I do this cold – although in general you heat the pan and then the oil before adding anything else – to prevent the garlic and ginger from scorching. Turn the heat to medium high and start stirring when it begins sizzling.

Add the onions and cook, stirring, for a couple of minutes.

Add the tofu and cook, stirring for another couple of minutes.

Add the greens. Look how pretty they are! Stir and let them cook down a bit.

When the greens have wilted, add the sprouts and stir until they wilt as well.

Pour in the broth mixture and bring it to a boil.

Then stir in the cornstarch mixture, allowing it to thicken the broth and coat the tofu and vegetables. It will become shiny.

Serve with rice and garnish with the green parts of the green onions. Mine wasn’t very spicy so I heaped some chili garlic paste on the side as well.

As you’ve probably noticed, I tend to add a personal photograph or twelve to the ends of my posts. However, I don’t have much to share with you this week. I didn’t even take any pictures of raccoons this week (too busy trying to convince them I could clean their cages much faster without two of them on my head). So I could search for some earlier photo you haven’t seen – I only have a gazillion of them – but no, I’m too lazy to do that. Last night I was testing the remote control for my camera to see from what angles and distances I could get it to work and thus the following photos got imported from the camera along with tonight’s pictures of greens and tofu, so THAT’s what you get to look at. Pictures I took to test stuff and intended to trash. Wow, I’m really hurting for content.

I don’t think when I tripped the shutter on this one that I realized I was taking a picture of Mezzaluna, but you may recall several posts back when I mentioned that we play a game with him in which we place pipe cleaners in hard-to-reach areas that he has to hunt down and retrieve. If you can see it (it’s on the shade right above his head), this one looks easy but it’s tied on securely and is the more challenging than it looks. He kind of needs opposable thumbs for that one, but I’ve seen him get even harder ones by being clever, so he’ll get it.

DERRR does the remote work when I’m directly in front of and 6″ away from the camera? AM I A HUGE DORK?

Hm, okay, next time I’ll find some real pictures, or just give you a break from my mediocre-to-bad photography.

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Bitter Melon Stir Fry with Vegan Mince

I guess you could say today has been a typical Saturday. It’s just about 7 p.m. and here is what I’ve done today:

  • Went to a national wildlife refuge to take pictures
  • Dropped some donations off at a thrift store
  • Went to the library
  • Went to the farmers market
  • Sliced and prepared 7 trays worth of fruits and vegetables to be dehydrated
  • Cleaned the old seasoning off of two cast iron skillets
  • Re-seasoned two cast iron skillets
  • Pruned the bushes and pulled the creeping vines off our windows
  • Peeled and prepared a brine for 2 pints of pearl onions (to be pickled in balsamic vinegar tomorrow through the next two months)
  • Made hot sauce from the chiles I’ve been fermenting for the last week
  • Edited photos from the wildlife refuge
  • Went to a national park to take pictures
  • Edited photos from the national park
  • Found a recipe to play with while trying a new vegetable: bitter melon
  • Wrote a blog post about bitter melon

I need a nap. Anyway, yes: bitter melon. I’ve seen it referred to in recipes, usually Indian, so I’ve long been familiar with the idea of it, but I don’t think I’ve ever purchased one. But one of the farmers at my farmers market was selling them and you know I can’t pass that by. I intended at first to use it in an Indian recipe – I even warned Mark about it (he claims he doesn’t like Indian food, although he actually does) – but I’m out of a few Indian spices and need to get to the Indian grocery, so I decided to go in a Chinese direction instead. After some googling, I decided to veganize and adapt this recipe on Serious Eats. Here’s the outcome:

Bitter Melon Stir Fry with Vegan Mince
I don’t know why I turn into a Brit or Australian when referring to the product Americans call ground beef (or ground pork, or ground whatever), but I do.

8 oz bitter melon
4 oz vegan mince (ground “meat”)
2 Tbsp grated ginger
1/4 cup shaoxing wine, divided
3 Tbsp fermented black beans (available in Asian grocery stores; either dried or in a paste/jar is okay)
4 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
3 Tbsp light soy sauce
1 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp garlic chili paste or plain chili paste
2 tsp black vinegar

So if you’ve never had it, here’s the deal with bitter melon. It looks like this:

It doesn’t look like any Western vegetable I can think of, but it’s related to cucumbers and cooks like summer squash. To prepare it, all you do is cut it in half length-wise …

… and then scoop the seeds out.

For this dish, and most others unless you are stuffing it, you’ll then slice it into half-circles and optionally chop it.

It cooks in about the same time squash does and has a similar texture. It’s not at all like a melon, but it is very, VERY bitter. Also, Mark insists it looks like squid tentacles. I tend to fall into raptures over any new vegetable I come across, but bitter melon is going to have to do some serious work to win me over. I tasted a very small bit before cooking it and quickly realized I’d better make Backup Dinner in addition to Experimental Dinner, so I chopped a red bell pepper and a head of broccoli. I used an entire 14-oz package of Tofurky mince, but used maybe a third of it with the bitter melon, which is why I called for 4 oz above. I also only used a third of the sauce in the bitter melon dish (although I did NOT adjust the measurements above for the sauce). I used the remainder of the mince and the sauce to make a broccoli/pepper/mince stir fry. I’m going to power on and give you the recipe, though, because you might like bitter melon more than I do (although I do not recommend you invite a bunch of people over and serve them a main dish of bitter melon without knowing what it tastes like).

Put the mince in a bowl and add the ginger and half the Shaoxing wine. Shaoxing wine, by the way, is Chinese rice wine. You can sub sake or dry sherry. Mix everything together, then set aside.

Fetch your fermented black beans. Now this is a staple you should keep on hand. They often come in a paste-like consistency, in a jar, but you can also buy them dried, which is what I usually do because they keep longer that way.

Measure them out and put them in a small bowl.

Add the rest of the Shaoxing wine, garlic, soy sauce, sugar, chili paste, and black vinegar.

Heat some oil in a wok or skillet over medium high heat, then add the bitter melon.

Stir fry for a minute or two, then add the mince. Stir fry until the bitter melon is soft, about 5 minutes. Add the sauce and combine well.

Serve with rice.

Here it is with the backup dinner I fortunately made. I actually ate nearly all of the bitter melon dish, so I guess I didn’t detest it, but I don’t think I’m going to rush up to bitter melons at the farmers market with the unadulterated glee with which I attack, say, romanesco. I think Mark put 1 mm of bitter melon (a.k.a. squid tentacle) on his tongue, spit it out, and that was the end of bitter melon for him. However, the sauce is good and Mark really enjoyed Backup Dinner. He informed me it had a “good taste,” which he “assumed [I] was going for.” I agreed: yes, I usually do go for “good taste” when cooking. It turns out “good taste” to Mark means “complex, with different layers of flavor.” In this meal, Mark tasted salty, sweet, spicy, and … bitter. It took him a while to come up with the word “bitter”, but I thought it was interesting because I never told him the squid tentacles were really called “bitter melon” because I knew there was no way in hell he’d eat something called “bitter melon”. Yet he was gushing about how much he loves “bitter tastes”, even though “most people don’t”. SO HE SHOULD HAVE LOVED THE BITTER MELON, NO? Anyway, in conclusion, bitter melon is very … interesting.

In other news, today was largely a day of photography, and it follows that you will be subjected to pictures. No animals today; I didn’t get any good animals shots at the wildlife refuge this morning. But Great Falls, on the Potomac, was looking mighty spectacular today. I narrowly avoided a storm, but was rewarded with great light. These look much better in high-res, so if you are so inclined, you can click on them for the full-size version.

From Overlook 2:

Looking in the opposite direction, after the falls:

If you look carefully, you can see kayakers:

From Overlook 3, at a pretty wide angle:

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Spicy Mint Noodles

Shopping for dinner ingredients last night, I was attracted to the wide selection of fresh herbs at Whole Foods and grabbed on impulse some mint leaves, cilantro, and Thai basil. Inspired by Fortinbras’ favorite dish at Lotus Vegan, I came up with these Spicy Mint Noodles.

Spicy Mint Noodles


Once again, Gomez is in this picture.

12 oz wide rice noodles
8 oz firm tofu, chopped
8 oz spinach
2 cups bean sprouts
several sprigs each: mint, cilantro, and Thai basil, torn or roughly chopped
1 cup veggie broth or vegan “chicken” broth
sriracha or garlic-chili sauce, to taste (I used several tablespoons of homemade sriracha)
3 Tbsp soy sauce
3 Tbsp brown sugar
2 Tbsp tamarind paste
1 Tbsp grated galangal or ginger
2 Tbsp cornstarch dissolved in 2 Tbsp cold water

Soak the rice noodles in cold water, then bring to a boil, then turn the heat off. When the noodles are almost completely soft, drain and set aside.

Chop the tofu. Whisk together the broth, sriracha or garlic-chili sauce, soy sauce, brown sugar, tamarind, and galangal or ginger. Heat some oil in a wok over medium-high heat, then add the tofu and stir fry until golden. Add the spinach and let it cook down a bit, then add the rice noodles and stir fry (gently) for a minute or two. Pour in the liquid mixture and stir. When it boils, stir the cornstarch mixture. Toss in the bean sprouts and all the herbs and let it cook for a minute or so until the sauce thickens up.

I know I promised raccoons, but I think I’m going to give them their very own post, either tomorrow night or Friday – I promise!

In the meantime, here’s my buddy the cardinal. We have several cardinals but as I rarely see more than one male at a time, I tend to think of them all as one male and one female, whereas there are probably several couples. Cardinals mate for life, which I find sweet. My cardinals are always happy to have their picture taken…if I’m inside. They hide in high trees if I’m outside with the camera and swoop down to eat the second I go inside. I made Mark take the screen out of the window closest to their feeder so I could take better pictures. Conveniently for the cats, this window is right in front of one of their cat trees so they have a better view of Bird TV all day long.

One of the first things I do when I wake up in the morning is go into the sunroom and look for signs of who was in the yard the night before (we have raccoons, skunks, opossums, and foxes) and to see who is in the yard at the moment. This morning I sleepily rubbed my eyes and saw:

Usually the blue jay senses me moving to get my camera and flits away. I guess he was more hungry than cautious this morning because he stuck around for quite a while and let me admire him.

The next pictures are for my mom. As I was watching the blue jay, out of the corner of my eye I sensed movement across the yard, then I saw a tiny animal which I at first thought was a baby squirrel. It suddenly raced towards the house and noticing it was more brown than gray, I realized it was the chipmunk. I was surprised to look down and suddenly see him at the base of the bird feeder; I’ve never seen him linger around there. Did you know that chipmunks can apparently make a standing jump of heights 12 times their size? I didn’t until this morning when I watched this chipmunk jump from the ground to the top of a 2-foot high planter. He missed the first time and slid down the side, poor guy…but it was hilarious. He made it the second time, then leaped over to the bird seed.

He’s becoming a more regular visitor. He was on the back patio the other morning when it was raining:

I have no idea why my yard is wildlife central – we live in the suburbs – but I love it!

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Rice Noodle Salad Redux

Tomorrow is my company’s holiday potluck and I volunteered, as usual, to bring a salad. So last night I went to Wegmans and wandered around until inspiration struck. I decided to go with a rice noodle salad, so I bought a few things and then tonight whipped up a sauce to pull them all together. I knew I had posted a rice noodle salad here a few months ago, but I didn’t realize until now that what I made was almost identical. Nonetheless, I took a bunch of pictures of it, so I’m posting it anyway!

Rice Noodle Salad…again

1 package rice noodles
about 3″ of a wide daikon, shredded, julienned, or cut on spiralizer
2 carrots, shredded, julienned, or cut on spiralizer
a few leaves of savoy or Napa cabbage, shredded
1 red bell pepper, thinly julienned
1 cup bean sprouts
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 Tbsp sesame paste
2 Tbsp brown sugar
1 Tbsp grated ginger
1 Tbsp tamarind paste
1 Tbsp toasted sesame oil
1 Tbsp lime juice
sriracha to taste

Prepare the noodles. Begin by soaking them in cold-to-room-temperature water for 10 minutes (this prevents them from sticking to each other later), then heat the water to a near boil and cook just until al dente. Drain, rinse with cold water, and toss with a bit of sesame oil to prevent sticking. Set aside.

Prepare each of the vegetables by julienning, shredding, or cutting on a spiralizer. Here is my daikon:

And here is my cabbage:

Put each of the vegetables in a bowl as you prep them.

Chop the cilantro, then place in the bowl with the vegetables. Set aside.

Put the rest of the ingredients in a small bowl. Adjust the ratio of each to suit your taste; I just estimated above what I used. I adore this little Fire King bowl for making small amounts of sauce.

Whisk. This sauce would also be good as a dipping sauce for summer rolls. In fact, it ended up kind of watered down in the salad, but was good enough to show off, so I might have to make it again soon for dipping.

Put the noodles into a large bowl or pot, then thoroughly mix in the sauce.

Add the vegetables and toss until everything is combined.

I’m thinking this will be a good potluck dish because it doesn’t need to be warmed before serving and in fact can just sit on my desk for a couple of hours in the morning instead of taking up space in the refrigerator.

The bundle of cilantro I bought was HUGE! Help me out: what are your favorite cilantro-centric recipes?

In other news, I had some Tofutti ricotta left over from my taste test last week, so I thought I’d sprinkle some on a butternut squash before baking. Mistake. The Tofutti ricotta did okay in the pasta bake I made for my review, but it did not fare as well baked “in the open” instead of mixed in a casserole and covered. I put a bunch of the ricotta in the hole left by the seeds, and a thin layer on the rest of the squash. The ricotta in the hole melted to a very thin, watery, tasteless liquid, and the remainder of it turned…kinda brown and crusty. Looks like cat food, non?

That whole brown part was hollow and crispy and slid right off the squash. The ricotta added absolutely no taste to the squash; it was like water. (The brown part was like crispy water, I guess.) I should have just poured it off and sprinkled some of my normal brown sugar on the squash; it would have been much better. I definitely won’t be buying that stuff again. I gave the rest of it to Gomez, who likes it far better than I do, though I can’t imagine why.

What’s that you say? You miss the raccoons? Well, that’s understandable!

Scrumpy was found alone near a school a few weeks ago. As you may expect, young raccoons like toys similar to those you would give your cat or dog. They are so dexterous and curious, however, that they also enjoy toys made for human children, with buttons they can push and parts they can yank on. They get into as much trouble than a toddler, that’s for sure!

Renata is much larger than Scrumpy and in fact her siblings were released months ago, but she wasn’t ready to go. She’s adopted Scrumpy and will over-winter with us to take care of him, which works out well because raccoons like company and also learn from each other as they grow. Renata kept pushing her face into the camera when I was trying to take Scrumpy’s picture. Does your cat or dog walk towards you whenever you try to take a picture? Raccoons are like that too, except I think usually their motive is more to steal your camera than to say hi.

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Rice Noodle Salad

Summer is waning, I’m sorry to say. Instead of a blast of already-100-degree heat on my face when I leave for work in the mornings, it’s pleasant, even cool sometimes. It’s a bittersweet time of year because although it’s nice to have a relief from the oppressive heat, I hate to see summer end. Fortunately (or not), it’s usually still quite warm to hot during the day, especially when you are cleaning raccoon enclosures. So last night’s dinner was still a welcome almost-no-cook treat.

Rice Noodle Salad

1 package rice noodles – I used wide ones, but thinner ones would work too
1 huge or 3 smaller carrots, cut on a spiralizer or julienned
1 small daikon, cut on a spiralizer or julienned
1 cucumber, cut on a spiralizer or julienned
2 cups bean sprouts
1/2 small head Savoy (or about 2 cups Napa) cabbage, shredded
2-3 scallions, thinly sliced on the diagonal
1/2 cup peanuts, crushed

For the dressing
3 Tbsp rice vinegar
3 Tbsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp brown sugar
juice of 1 lime
1 red chili pepper, minced

If you really don’t want to cook anything, soak the noodles in very hot water. I’m too impatient to do that and always boil mine for a couple of minutes. When they are al dente, drain them, rinse under cold water, and toss with some toasted sesame oil. Set aside.

Meanwhile, prep all of the vegetables. Whisk together all of the sauce ingredients. Then toss everything together except the peanuts and scallions. I used my hands to mix everything together before realizing that was a really stupid move considering I used a jolokia pepper in the sauce, but for some reason, it didn’t burn. (I’m not convinced what this farmer is selling to Whole Foods as jolokia peppers are really jolokias; they’re not that hot.)

Top with crushed peanuts and scallions. Serve with sriracha.

I also served tofu puffs with a sweet chili-vinegar dipping sauce. Super H sells these tofu puffs, which Mark loves:

I cut them in half and toast them in the toaster oven for one to two toast cycles to warm them up and make them slightly crispy outside:

I make a dipping sauce for them based on a recipe I got off the internet many, many years ago, back when I actually owned one of those evil appliances called a printer and used to print out recipes and store them in a huge, untamed notebook. I think I lost the printout so I can’t tell you where I got the recipe (I think a Thai recipe site) or if I’m even still making it as directed.

Sweet Chili-Vinegar Dipping Sauce

3 Tbsp rice vinegar
1 Tbsp brown sugar
1 Tbsp chili-garlic sauce
1 clove garlic, minced or pressed
pinch of salt

Whisk everything together.

Serve with the warmed tofu puffs.

Now, about those raccoons. They’re often asleep when I arrive to clean their enclosure.

You learn very quickly to NEVER put ANYTHING you don’t want mutilated within reach of a raccoon. They are extremely devious! Here is one on its back destroying a paper towel I made the mistake of putting down for half a second.

But seriously, how could you possibly be mad at this face?

Or this one?

Answer: you can’t.

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Curry Laksa

Let me first say how much I and Mark both appreciate all of the comments we received on my last post about losing Brachtune. It’s been hard for us – the house seems so empty without any animals – but your kind thoughts have been a big comfort. I never really thought anyone would read this blog when I first started it, but having the support of people from around the world when I’m feeling this down is really incredible. Thank you.

Mark’s been battling quite a chest cold for several days now, and I’m hoping this tickle in my throat isn’t going to turn into anything worse. But I happen to think that spicy soups are just the thing at the beginning or end of a cold (or the middle, or, well, any other day, quite frankly), and I had most of a can of coconut milk left from another recipe that I wanted to use up, which got me thinking about laksa. I don’t see laksa much on menus in this area for some reason, although maybe it’s just never found under the vegetarian section so I miss it. So the first time I ever had laksa was actually in Sydney (where it was found under the vegetarian section of a menu). I’d therefore be hard pressed to call myself a laksa expert so the recipe I present here may have little in common with a genuine laksa, but it was spicy and good so I’m presenting it anyway. I used this recipe as a reference for the spices.

Curry Laksa

8 oz rice noodles (either wide or vermicelli)
4 shallots, roughly chopped
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2″ piece ginger, roughly chopped
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp ground dried lemongrass (I bought this at Penzeys for those times I don’t have lemongrass on hand, obviously you can substitute fresh lemongrass)
2 Tbsp sambel olek
peanut oil
3 cubes frozen cilantro (or a handful fresh, chopped)
1 cube frozen basil (or a few leaves fresh)
2 tsp curry powder
4 cups vegan broth
1 1/4 cup coconut milk (this is what I had leftover; I’d just dump an entire can in if I were making this again)
1 carrot, cut into squat matchsticks
1 can young green jackfruit (in brine), shredded
1/4 cup chopped bamboo shoots
1/4 cup water chestnuts
1/2 cup frozen corn kernels
1 cup frozen spinach
1 cup frozen asparagus stalks, chopped
tofu puffs or frozen fried tofu, chopped
limes, to garnish

I didn’t have a lot of fresh veggies and didn’t want to make a trip to the grocery store, which is why my veggies are pretty weird. I’d really have liked to have had bean sprouts, so much so that I almost did make that trip to the store. If I had, I’d have gotten some fresh cilantro and maybe basil (Thai or holy basil if they had it), and some green vegetables of some sort.

Place the shallots, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, coriander, and sambel olek into a small food processor or chopper.

Process until smooth.

Pour some peanut oil into a soup pot over medium heat, then dump the paste from above in and fry until it darkens somewhat (but do not let it burn).

Meanwhile, prepare the rice noodles. I soak them in boiling water until they are done.

Drain the jackfruit. I’m using it as a sort of seafood alternative here, by the way.

Shred it with your fingers.

Add the broth, coconut milk, curry powder, the jackfruit, and any non-frozen veggies that are relatively hard (like the carrots).

Cook until the veggies are almost soft, then add the herbs, frozen veggies, and any other items (except the tofu puffs and bean sprouts, which I’d just top on the soup raw later).

To serve, place some noodles in a large bowl, then ladle the soup over them. Top with the tofu puffs and bean sprouts if you have them. Squeeze the lime over the soup before eating.

I am supposed to tell you that Mark recommends seasoning this with sriracha. Mark, of course, recommends seasoning everything with sriracha.

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Mark Makes a Stir Fry

I was in for a special treat last night when Mark agreed to make me dinner. And now YOU are in for a special treat because I photographed it for you. I really need to get a video camera, though, because believe me, still photos don’t do justice to an evening in the kitchen with Mark.

Markery (Mark’s Stir Fry)

sushi rice, prepared
2 carrots, chopped
1/2 onion, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
2 red chili peppers, sliced
1 scallion, chopped
3 small heads broccoli, chopped (Mark really likes broccoli)
1/2 pound smoked tofu, sliced
1 cup cashews (Mark also really likes cashews)
vegetarian stir fry sauce, to taste
garlic black bean sauce, to taste
soy sauce, to taste
1 Tbsp garlic chili paste
1 Tbsp cornstarch + 2 Tbsp water

First, get the rice cooking. Mark selected sushi rice, so he first rinsed it in the pot of the rice cooker. He said he needed to rinse it extremely well in order to reduce his carbon footprint. When I pointed out that rinsing uses up a lot of water and wasn’t really reducing his carbon footprint, he informed me that Han Solo had a very large carbonite footprint.

Next, start prepping your vegetables. Peel the carrots.

I said PEEL the carrots …

… then chop them. Pick your next vegetable to prep.

The onion was the last one in the air, so he donned my onion goggles …

… and got to work.

And then this happened, after which he said the onion pieces were too small and he’d meant to have large pieces, but I refused to give him another onion.

Next Mark elected to chop his chili peppers. His first rule of working with chili peppers is to not put them up your nose.

Next, slice them with a knife.

Then he rinsed them under running water to remove the seeds.

Mark was pleased to discover a four-leaf clover when chopping the bell pepper …

… and enjoyed ripping the heart out of it.

Intermediary glass of orange juice.

Little man made of scallion and chili pepper ends, carrot peel eyes. Mark gives new meaning to playing with your food. Also, he must have chopped the scallion by this time.

Next he chopped the broccoli, probably a bit more of it than really necessary for two people.

I don’t like stir frying raw broccoli, so he asked if he should steam it first and I said he could just microwave it for a couple of minutes. So here is Mark explaining microwaves – they are from the “future”. (Again, I really need to get a video camera.)

Meanwhile, Mark discovered the package of smoked tofu …

… and sliced up about half of it.

Next he wanted to put together a sauce for the stir fry. He wanted to just use soy sauce but I said soy sauce alone would be too salty, so he rummaged through various ingredients and found Vegetarian Stir Fry Sauce …

… which he poured into a small bowl.

Next some garlic black bean sauce …

… and soy sauce.

To his immense surprise, this tasted pretty good.

So he whisked it up very well.

And then added this much chili paste – he wanted me to show you exactly how much.

The finished sauce:

In a separate small bowl, he whisked together a heaping tablespoon of cornstarch and 2 tablespoons cold water.

At this time the rice finished cooking, so he tasted it, then added salt and rice vinegar (because the sushi vinegar I bought last time is nasty).

Then it was time to get cooking. He poured some oil into the hot wok.

The onions went in first.

Then the carrots.

And the peppers … and I think he had mixed the scallions in with the peppers.

Then the broccoli and tofu.

Followed by four pounds of cashews.

Stir fry it all up until veggies are all crisp-tender.

Then pour in the sauce.

When the sauce comes to boil, pour in the cornstarch mixture and mix well.

Then remove from heat.

And celebrate with more orange juice.

Behold your beautiful meal.

Finally, it’s time to taste the fruits of your labor.

Not too bad!

And here is my plate:

My verdict? It was actually pretty good! A bit salty and rather heavy on the cashews, but tasty and cooked to perfection. A job well done, Smark! I’d definitely be willing to let him cook for me again.

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