Oh hello! Thanksgiving, pressure canning, etc.

Hi! It’s me, Renae! I am still alive, still in California, still vegan, still cooking, still obsessed with wildlife. The only thing that’s really new is the pervasive feeling of being traumatized that I’ve felt since the election. I keep reading about these “fake news articles” that are apparently running rampant on the internet. Apparently it’s mostly a Facebook thing and I use Facebook so infrequently that I actually have no idea how to even SEE news articles in Facebook, but I keep hoping that maybe all news articles about Trump winning the election are fake news. Please tell me that is the case: please, please, please. But enough about that because I just can’t deal with it.

I’ve decided to write a post here today mostly because it’s raining today here in the Bay Area and I’m therefore not out hiking as I usually would be, plus I took a few pictures of my Thanksgiving table. We hosted Thanksgiving dinner here for our friends Brad and April, who moved to the area about the same time we did last year. I made:

seitan “turkey”
stuffing
mashed potatoes
gravy
green bean casserole
macaroni & “cheese”
cranberry relish
sauerkraut
bread

Here are some pics:

And Brad brought a really delicious sweet potato pie and brownies for dessert.

The “turkey”, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and green bean casserole I pretty much made up as I went along. The cranberry relish was from Brooklyn Supper and was really good. The bread was the poolish-version ciabatta from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart. The sauce for the mac & cheese was from Avocados and Ales. The “turkey” was pretty similar to the recipe for breasts of unchicken from The Homemade Vegan Pantry (which I love), but I pressure cooked it as a large loaf on Wednesday, then used Miyoko’s recipe for the yuba “skin” and baked it again Thursday afternoon.

The mashed potatoes were really random (well, as random as mashed potatoes can be anyway); Brad asked me if they had red pepper flakes in them, while saying they were really good. One of the random ingredients was a garlic-based spice mix that I bought from Garlic World while stopping in Gilroy one afternoon trying to avoid heavy Highway 1 traffic on the way home from Monterey, and which apparently contained red pepper flakes. And here’s a rough recipe for the green bean casserole for others like me who hate mushrooms:

Green Bean Casserole
2 lbs green beans, trimmed and cut into 2-3″ lengths
1 small onion, diced
2-3 stalks celery, diced
1 cup vegan chicken or veggie broth
3 Tbsp Ultra Gel
1 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 avocado
3 oz canned fried onions

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add the green beans. Cook until al dente, then drain and shock in cold water to stop cooking. Saute the onion and celery in some vegan butter or margarine until onions are translucent; set aside. Whisk together the broth, Ultra gel, onion powder, and garlic powder until the broth thickens. Mash up the avocado and add to the broth mixture and mix well. Stir in the green beans, onion/celery mixture, and half of the fried onions. Place in an oven-safe dish, cover, and bake at 375 for half an hour. Uncover and top with remaining fried onions, then continue to bake for 15-20 more minutes. I baked mine, covered, for half an hour, then cooled and put it in the fridge overnight so it only needed 15-20 minutes on Thanksgiving day.

Oh, and the stuffing was really easy:

Stuffing

1/2 loaf sliced whole wheat bread (about 10 slices)
1 large white onion, diced
4-5 stalks celery, diced
3-4 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
2 Tbsp vegan butter (I used the vegan butter from The Homemade Vegan Pantry) or margarine
1/4 cup chopped fresh sage leaves
2 Tbsp fresh thyme
1 Tbsp fresh rosemary, chopped
1 1/2 cup vegan “chicken” broth + 1 tsp poultry seasoning whisked in

Chop the bread slices into cubes and spread out on a sheet pan. Bake in a 240-degree Fahrenheit oven for about 45 minutes or until dried out, stirring occasionally. Melt the butter or margarine over medium heat, then saute the onion, celery, and garlic until the onions begin to turn translucent. Add the sage, thyme, and rosemary and cook another minute or so. Stir in the bread cubes, then add as much of the broth as necessary to soak the bread. Place in an oven-safe dish and bake, covered, at 375 degrees for half an hour. Uncover and bake another 20-30 minutes or until slightly crispy on top. Again, I baked mine, covered, for half an hour Wednesday night, then uncovered for half an hour Thursday afternoon.

I was so organized with my cooking and planning that I was able to go for a short hike Wednesday afternoon before it got dark, and on Thursday morning had a couple hours to just read and be by myself without running around like crazy. 🙂 Really all I needed to do Thursday was bake the bread (I had made the poolish the night before), set out all the appetizers, and re-heat everything. I am good at holidays!

I feel like every time I get around to making a new post I have a new culinary gadget to rave about. Last time it was my Instant Pot. This time it’s my pressure canner! A couple months ago I had 60 pounds of tomatoes I needed to can in one weekend, plus 10 pounds of beets, half of which I was planning to pickle. I’ve done 60 pounds of tomatoes in one weekend in a water bath canner before, but for some reason it was feeling really overwhelming that day and I made the somewhat impulsive decision to buy a pressure canner. It was enough of an impulse decision that I didn’t have time to Amazon Prime it, so I had to find one locally. The only Ace Hardware that had it listed in stock was in Oakland, so I drove out there and went looking for it in that store, but was unable to find it. I asked for help and was told they’d have to special order it for me. I was pretty annoyed I had driven out there for no reason AND I REALLY wanted the canner at this point so I sat in my car and tried to think who else might carry it. I thought of Bed, Bath, and Beyond and went to their website on my phone and was delighted to find that there was a BB&B TWO BLOCKS from where I was that had the same canner in stock! So I went over there and looked around for it. I didn’t see it there either and was feeling a little frantic, until I looked way UP and saw it all the way up by the ceiling. So I had to find someone to get a ladder and get it down for me, but I finally got what I wanted!

I don’t know that pressure canning tomatoes really saves time in itself: the processing time is much shorter than a water bath, but once you add in the time spent venting steam before you start, then getting up to pressure, and then coming back down from pressure (which you must do naturally), really you spend the same amount of time working overall. BUT I can fit a whopping 22 pints into my canner! So basically I can do the equivalent 3 loads at one time, which IS a huge timesaver. I’d have bought the pressure canner for that reason only. But what I’m really loving about it is all the stuff I can now can that I never could before: basically, non-pickled vegetables, beans, and soups. The same weekend I had 60 pounds of tomatoes, I also had 10 pounds of beets, which is a surprising amount of beets. I pickled 6 or 7 pounds (I love pickled beets!) and used a water bath to can them, but then I pressure canned the rest. (By the way, I used my Instant Pot to cook the beets before doing either – the beets are what’s in the Instant Pot in the picture above!) So far I’ve used some of the non-pickled beets to make an impromptu borscht.

As I mentioned on Twitter the day I canned the tomatoes and beets, the “problem” with pressure canning is there is all this time waiting for the canner to come up to pressure that ends up being devoted to drinking and taking pictures of cats, who think they are canning helpers.

So anyway, now I’m on a big pressure canning kick with the goal of canning a bunch of things I can later turn into dinner on very short order – such as during the summer when they days are so long I often don’t come home from hiking until 10 p.m. and I’m starving. I’ve been soaking dried beans and pressure canning them, which I love because it’s so much cheaper than buying canned beans AND contains no sodium or other additives. For some reason I find it immensely satisfying. Last weekend I bought 40 more pounds of tomatoes (which were somehow still in season where I live) in order to make tomato soup. I used this recipe from Common Sense Home, which said I’d get 4 pints out of 8 pounds of tomatoes, so I made 5x the recipe, expecting to yield 20 pints. I somehow ended up with 35 pints! I basically have a TON of tomato soup!

But it tastes great and is really versatile: in addition to serving as regular old tomato soup (usually with grilled “cheese”, of course), it makes a good base for a ton of other soups, and regular readers of this blog may remember how much I love soup.

I used a Victorio strainer to strain the tomato soup and ended up with a large amount of a really dry tomato peel/tomato seeds/celery/onion/parsley pulp/waste, so I spread it out on my dehydrator’s shelves (I used 8 of the 9 shelves) and dehydrated the “waste” overnight. When it was totally dry, I ground it up in batches in a coffee/spice grinder, and I ended up with a whole quart of what I called “tomato soup powder”, which will be excellent to add to soups, etc. (I had previously made a pure tomato powder doing the same thing with the peels and cores from tomatoes I had canned.)

Since I knew it was going to be rainy all day today, I had decided to dedicate today to making Vegan Dad’s pressure canner chili, although I ended up with 9 1/2 quarts instead of the perfect canner load of 7 quarts that Vegan Dad promised (probably because I was overly generous when measuring pretty much everything). (Because you can do two layers of pint jars in my canner, but only one layer of quarts, the maximum number of pint jars I can can at one time is 22, but only 7 quart jars.) No problem: while canning the first 7 quarts, I soaked some of the tons of dried beans I have waiting to can, and I’ll be doing a second canner load of the remaining chili, plus a bunch of jars of beans.

That’s most of the food news here, I suppose. In non-food news, the wildlife rehab gigs I have going on here are going really, really great. One of the two wildlife hospitals I volunteer at has actually hired me as a paid staff member! It’s just an occasional substitute animal caretaker position, so I’m not raking in big bucks or anything, but I was extremely flattered to be asked to do it and I’m extremely excited about the educational opportunities it affords. And I was just made a shift leader at the other hospital, which doesn’t involve a paycheck but will hopefully give me the opportunity to work even more closely with the technicians there and learn even more. I’m also working with many of the education animals at the smaller hospital, particularly with the raptors. This is one of my favorite pictures from 2016, not because I look good (I wish I knew how to use Photoshop and could Photoshop my hair into not looking stupid), but because my buddy Elvis, the peregrine, is in it. Mark, who took the photo at our fundraiser event, says you can tell from the picture how much Elvis loves me. I don’t know if “love” is the right word to describe Elvis’s feelings for me, but I hand-feed Elvis on a regular basis and we do have a special bond, one that I had to build with him. And let me tell you, it is REALLY cool to bond with a raptor, especially a more “difficult” species like most of the falcons. AND LOOK HOW HANDSOME ELVIS IS!!

I think I’m all typed out! If you want to know more regularly than once very six months if I’m alive and well, you can visit my photo blog, which I update daily.

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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. 🙂

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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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Cat Update

I exist!

I have far more non-food-related news going on in my life right now than new recipes, so I return with a non-recipe post…but only because I am actually planning a recipe post later this week. Several people have asked about the cat situation, particularly since last time I alluded to the fact we had four cats. Which, for a couple of months, we did. So for you cat lovers, here’s a cat-only update. For those of you uninterested in cats, come back soon for some food.

So, back when I was furloughed in October, I was in the sunroom when Gomez and Torticia suddenly sounded an alert: someone was at the back door! Mezzie and Tish race to the door whenever any other living thing shows up outside the sliding glass door: bird, squirrel, raccoon, skunk, fox…you name it. But that day the cause of their excitement was another cat. And not just any cat, this gorgeous fluffy black cat, and she was pressing herself against the door as if she desperately wanted in, although the weather was quite nice out at the time. Gently kicking Mez and Tish out of the way, I opened the door, only to have the kitty run off a few yards. However, to my surprise, when I called to her she came running up to me and let me pet her. In fact, she let me pick her up. I fell for her immediately. I INSTANTLY loved this cat. She rubbed noses with me! I went back inside to get her some food and to call Mark to come look at her. She scarfed down a large can of food like she hadn’t eaten for days and by the time she was done Mark was in love with her too.

It took me several weeks to bring Heidi in when she was living in our yard, but I took this cat up to the animal hospital to be scanned for a microchip within a couple of hours. For one thing, she was a black cat and it was nearing Halloween. For another thing, I loved her and I was secretly hoping no one claimed her. She was negative for a chip and I SWEAR I made a good faith attempt to find her owners, checking in with the animal shelter and Craigslist, etc., but when no one claimed her in a week or so, Mark and I called her a Halloween miracle from the Great Pumpkin and we christened her Wednesday to fit in with Gomez and Torticia (conveniently, I also found her on a Wednesday).

I took Wednesday to our vet and told him we’d adopted a fourth cat. I was convinced he was going to think I was some crazy cat thief because Torticia is a tortie and Gomez is all-black, and the first cat I found in my yard was another tortie, and now the second cat I’d found in the yard was all-black. I mean, what at the chances that the TWO cats that show up in my yard within a few months of each other would be another tortie and another all-black cat?? Both the new cats were like tiny versions of Mezzie and Tortellini! I thought he’d think I was starting a bizarre collection. He insisted he just thought I was a good person to care about strays so much, gave her some shots, and collected some blood to run the standard new-cat tests.

Two days later I sprang to answer his call because Wednesday was going crazy being locked up in a room by herself and I was desperate to get the all-clear to let her mingle with other cats and have full run of the house. Only it wasn’t to be: the test results were positive for feline leukemia. I cried my eyes out when I got off the phone with him, because feline leukemia is pretty much an early death sentence. Unlike feline HIV patients who can often live many years with no symptoms of their disease, most leukemia patients die within 3-5 years. And since it’s contagious to other cats, Wednesday would have to go to a home where she could be the only cat. It’s REALLY hard to find someone who is willing to adopt such a cat. Honestly I don’t know that I would choose to do so. You can’t have any other cats (unless they too are FLV+), you have to live knowing they will very likely have a short life, and you’re probably looking at at lot of vet bills near the end of their life. I thought immediately of my friend Melissa, though, who lost her cat KK the prior year (KK was an orange tabby, like my cat Tigger that those of you who have been reading for years may remember, and like Tigger, KK was from Ocean City, MD: Melissa and I adopted them about the same time when we were in college together) and through my tears sent her an emotional email. I figured she’d probably be mad at me for asking her such a ridiculous question (“Hey, I know you are busy raising three young kids and working but how would you like to adopt a cat that’s going to get sick and die in a few years????”), so when she didn’t respond right away, I totally understood and began the arduous task of reaching out to EVERY cat charity I could find and asking for help. Very few did anything to help me, although I did finally find one place near Charlottesville that has a FLV room and would accept Wednesday if I agreed to sponsor her – essentially donate money monthly towards her vet bills and upkeep – which I kept on reserve as a last resort as I preferred to find her an actual home.

But then it turned out Melissa wasn’t purposely avoiding me because she didn’t want to have to say no to me – she just hadn’t checked her email in a few days. AND she thought she may be feeling called to agree to it! After a lot of research on Melissa’s part and a family vote, Melissa’s family agreed to adopt Wednesday. I was so, so, so, so happy! Because not only was Wednesday going to a great home with someone I trust implicitly, I’d be able to see her whenever I wanted! Plus, I was tired of going to Melissa’s house and not getting to see KK or any other cats. Wednesday has been at Melissa’s for over a month and is adjusting well to her three kids. This story has a happy ending!!

Wednesday is super difficult to take pictures of because she’s so dark and fast: if you level a camera at her, she’s immediately in your face, wanting attention. These are the crappy pictures I took for Melissa while she was still deciding; they do nothing to express the beauty of Wednesday, who is very tiny but very silky, very black, very, very pretty, and super personable.

This picture is absurd, but I wanted to capture her gorgeous tail.

I love this cat. And I love Melissa and her family for adopting her!

Now, another story, which is a little less dramatic, but like the first starts out sad then gets happy: Heidi.

Little Heidi. I told you how I came to adopt her this summer in this post, but unfortunately, during the whole Wednesday debacle it was becoming obvious it just wasn’t going to work out with her. I love Heidi: she’s very sweet and loyal and eager to show me how grateful she is I took her in. Seriously, I can read it in her eyes. The problem is Torticia has HATED Heidi since the day I let Heidi out of quarantine following HER blood test results (which were, thankfully, all negative). Mezzie, on the other hand, was super friendly with Heidi and tried to befriend her. Heidi, however, went on the defensive following Torticia’s rancor and struck out indiscriminately at both cats. After a few months, I don’t know if Mezzie got tired of his friendly overtures being rebuffed or if Torticia finally convinced him to join the dark side, but eventually Mezzie started hassling Heidi as well. With the two of them ganged up on the poor girl, I realized I couldn’t make the relationship work, so I turned to the SPCA, from whom I adopted Mez and Tish. SPCA NOVA is awesome to work with and they responded immediately with help. They posted Heidi on their website and promised to get Heidi into a safe foster home as soon as one was available.

Imagine my surprise when a week later no foster homes had opened up, but two different people wanted to adopt her! I liked both applicants tremendously but of course only one could adopt her. This Saturday morning Heidi will be moving to her new home with a very nice woman who was looking for a quiet, gentle kitty to love after her ex-husband took the cat he entered the relationship with. I feel really good about this. I know Heidi will be much happier in her new home and I think Heidi will be an excellent companion for her.

My sweet girl, I’m sorry I couldn’t give you the home you deserve, but I hope you know I’m giving you up so you can have a better life!

AND NOW LOOK AT THESE BULLIES!

Seriously, though, when they aren’t giving me headaches by hassling Heidi, Gomez and Torticia remain the most absolutely wonderful cats ever. And frankly, I’m looking forward to being back down to two cats. Four was too many, especially since there were three distinct “groups” to whom I had to pay separate attention. When I work with the raccoons and the raptors, I have to divide my time up between many animals, and I like that because I am exposed to so many different needs and personalities and I learn a lot. But at home, I really just want two awesome best feline friends with whom I have the strongest relationship possible. And a lot of the time I’m not home. So when I get home, I just want to see their two smiling little faces greeting me and not feel stressed out that I need to spend quality time with half the cat population of Virginia.

Yeah, they LOOK lazy, but they are MEANIE PANTS.

LET’S ALL HOPE NO MORE STRAY CATS TAKE UP RESIDENCE IN MY YARD.

Finally, in non-cat-related news, big excitement on the horizon!! Mark and I are going on safari in Tanzania for our 10th wedding anniversary in October! And Smucky and his girlfriend are going with us! It’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever done and I am beside myself! I am mentioning it here because, well, it’s pretty much the only thing I think of these days, but also because I’m soliciting advice. Our tour organizer knows we are vegan and has assured me it won’t be a problem, and I’ve actually seen the words “vegan-friendly” on the websites of some of the camps and lodges we’ll be staying in (can you imagine that?! The times we live in!), so I’m not super worried about starving, but I am a little worried about being hungry from time to time. We’ll be on some long drives and I get really, really bad headaches – and turn into a total monster – if I don’t eat when I’m hungry. Usually when I travel long distances, I load up on energy bars for the journey, and usually my destination is a city or at least someplace I can find a bag of chips or something if I’m really desperate. But what do I do when I’m in the Serengeti and there’s no vegan snacks around for miles? Because we will be taking tiny planes from camp to camp in Africa, there is a 12 kg luggage weight limit, most of which I’ll be devoting to camera equipment, and furthermore, we have to use soft-sided luggage like duffle bags. Basically I’m planning to take a very small carry-on bag for my clothes and toiletries – just enough clothes for 3 days or so (laundry service is provided in the camps). I won’t have space for a 2-week supply of energy bars, and besides which, it’ll be hot: a lot of them get melty and gross in the heat. Are there any of you out there who, even if you haven’t been on safari, are maybe avid backpackers and have suggestions for highly portable, filling snacks, or other not-starving-while-traveling tips? So far all I can think of is nuts, but I’m not even sure how much room I’ll have for those…and how I’ll keep Mark from eating all of them on the first day. (That boy loves nuts!)

And now I’m off to make dinner…a dinner that I hope to be able to post as a recipe here.

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Nashville

Very good friends of mine moved to Nashville for work-related reasons a few months ago. I’d have gotten down there to see them sometime anyway, but when Nick Cave’s 2013 tour was announced, getting tickets for the Nashville show at the historic Ryman Auditorium was inevitable – my friend V and I always see Nick together: in DC, LA, or Tennessee!

Other than a brief sojourn through the very edge last summer en route to southwestern North Carolina, I’d never been in Tennessee before. I picked my weekend judiciously: Friday and Saturday temperatures were near 80. Heading south in the US is always a bit of a risk for a vegan; I have preconceived notions of endless barbecue pits, bacon-wrapped cheeseburgers, and gallon jars of mayonnaise. I am very pleasantly surprised to be able to tell you that Nashville is actually very vegan-friendly! The food situation was not at all what I imagined.

My first impression of Nashville was that it is very tiny. I flew in from Dulles on a tiny little commuter plane and arrived in tiny little Nashville International, where I strolled to my rental car on foot. Other than Charleston, which also has a teensy airport, I’m used to huge, sprawling airports – like Dulles – with shuttles, trains, multiple terminals, and miles upon miles of walking. Every time I visit the South I’m also immediately impressed by how friendly everyone is. People are nice in the South. Up here in the Midatlantic and north, people are BORED OF YOU and not afraid to let you know it.

I collected my car and headed to V and C’s house to rouse them from their 9 a.m. slumber. V immediately slipped into hostess mode and we were off to see the sights of Nashville. Which really aren’t that many as it’s a very tiny town. One of the more interesting and unexpected was … the Parthenon?!

Yes, that’s right. Nashville is home to the world’s only full-scale replica of the Parthenon, which I was told by the attendant is even better than the real Parthenon because it represents the Parthenon in its glory, not ruins. I have to admit, the top floor with its immense statue of Athena – created to look exactly as it would have looked in ancient Greece – was pretty interesting. To give you a sense of scale, here is me in front of Athena.

Another fun thing to do was the farmers market. The market comprises a flea market, food court, farmer stalls, and a garden center. V and C bought a bunch of plants to start a garden. And I’m wearing a hat C bought at the flea market.

Nashville’s greatest attraction, however, is Didi Mao! Didi Mao is the 6-month-old kitten belonging to V and C and she’s super, super, super awesome! She looks like Gomez and acts like Torticia. She’s very friendly and playful and we hit it off instantly. LOVE Didi Mao.

So, the food. When she first got there, V promised me there was plenty for me to eat, and although I would never accuse her of lying to me (except about bloody marys, boat drinks, Prosecco, hammocks, and guacamole), I wasn’t really expecting to, you know, see the word “vegan” right on menus. BUT IT’S THERE! Nashville knows what vegans are! Nashville seems to HAVE vegans! (Nashville also has really good beer, by the way.) After a long, adventurous day, we decided to settle in Friday night with a box of wine and what V claimed was the “best pizza in the world”. We got carry-out from Five Points Pizza, which not only has a vegan pizza on the menu, but will make any other pizza vegan with Daiya cheese. And V was right, the pizza was GREAT. Definitely one of the best I’ve had, and I love me some pizza. It may have been better than my pizza!

Nashville even has a few completely vegetarian restaurants. The Wild Cow is almost entirely vegan and really great. It’s one of those rare restaurants where I’m actually overwhelmed by the menu because I have too many choices. I ended up getting the Buffalo grinder, which is tempeh or tofu smothered in Buffalo sauce, with shaved carrots, pickles, and vegan ranch. I had a side of garlicky kale, which was perfect. I forgot to take a picture until after I’d eaten half the sandwich. I’m looking forward to returning here the next time I visit V, and I think she is too.

Across the street from the Wild Cow is Rosepepper, a Mexican restaurant, which we visited Sunday afternoon before I headed back home. I was pleasantly surprised to see a vegan burrito on the menu and it was HUMONGOUS, but I’m afraid it was also rather bland. It consisted of steamed carrots and cauliflower, a few black beans, and rice, and really could have used some spice.

And what about the main attraction – aside from Didi Mao (oh, and that minx V, of course) – of the weekend? Nick Cave was amazing!! Of course. He always is. I’ve seen a LOT of shows over the years and there are some performers who just have an incredible stage presence and can really rock a live show…and many more who can’t. Nick Cave is one of the best live performers I’ve ever seen. And the Bad Seeds are really tight.

I generally hate seated shows, and the Ryman, being the former home of the Grand Ole Opry, has rather church-like pews, but it didn’t seem as bad as most seated shows, and in fact, most people stood most of the time. You were also allowed to take drinks into the venue, which I’ve found is sometimes not the case in the more theater-like venues, such as the Strathmore, where yes, I’m going to see Nick in tomorrow night…

Nashville isn’t a city I’d have gone out of my way to visit, but you have to like a city that identifies so closely with music, and it’s super-easy to get around (there’s no traffic!), there’s a lot of beer, and it’s surprisingly vegan-friendly. I’m looking forward to visiting V, C, and Didi Mao again soon, so SOMEONE HAD BETTER GET THAT HAMMOCK HUNG.

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Chestnut-stuffed Peppers; Cucumber & Radish Salad

My favorite farmers at the market now have chestnuts. I’ve bought fresh chestnuts before and I recall them being a huge pain, although curiously I don’t recall much else about them. Nonetheless I was of course compelled to purchase a pint of them.

They’re still a huge pain.

I wanted to do something savory with them so I got the idea to use them in stuffed peppers. Here’s what I did.

Chestnut-stuffed Peppers

1/2 pint fresh chestnuts
1/4 large onion or 1/2 smaller onion, diced
2 large cloves garlic, minced or pressed
3 Tbsp red wine
1/2 tsp rubbed sage
1 cup vegan broth
1 1/2 cups cooked brown rice
salt
2 long sweet peppers
vegan cheese (optional), for topping

Here are my chestnuts. I peeled the whole pint but only used half of them in this recipe. I’ll roast the other half later.

Cut an “x” in each chestnut. I used a paring knife and had to be a bit stabby with it. It’s probably very easy to cut yourself when preparing chestnuts. It requires a bit more effort than doing the same thing to tomatoes you want to peel.

Put the chestnuts in some water, then bring it to a boil.

Boil the chestnuts for about 5 minutes, then turn the heat off but leave them in the pot. They are easier to peel when they are warm, so scoop out a few at a time and leave the rest in the water as you peel them. The shells will likely have started to open at your “x”.

Use your fingers and/or paring knife to remove the shell. The skin almost always comes off in the shell; sometimes you’ll have to rub it off. This one looks disconcertingly like a chocolate candy to me.

I’ll be honest, peeling chestnuts is a real bore and took forever.

At long last, they were done.

Roughly chop them.

Put some oil in a small skillet and add the diced onion. Cook for a minute or two, then add the garlic.

Add the chestnuts and cook another few minutes.

Add the wine, using it to deglaze the pan …

… then add the sage, broth, and salt to taste.

Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and cover, and simmer until the chestnuts are soft. I left mine for 40 minutes while I went to exercise. Stir in the rice.

Pretty peppers.

Cut them in half lengthwise.

Remove the seeds.

Stuff 1/4 of the mixture into each half.

Optionally top with vegan cheese. I used a small bit of Daiya mozzarella and a generous sprinkle of Dragonfly’s Bulk, Dry Uncheese Mix.

Cover with foil and bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 40 minutes. I used my toaster oven, which worked great. Here it is finished. This was okay, but I wouldn’t say it was worth the effort of the chestnut peeling.

Cucumber and Radish Salad

2 pickling cucumbers, or 1 regular cucumber
3-4 large radishes
1/4 large or 1/2 smaller onion
3/4 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup water
juice of 1/2 lemon
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt (or to taste)
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
pinch red pepper flakes
3 springs dill, chopped (or just pull the fronds off)

Thinly slice the cucumbers and radishes; a mandoline is preferred for this task. Also very thinly slice the onion.

In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining ingredients.

Toss everything together. Preferably put it in a bowl with a sealing lid. Refrigerate for at least an hour, occasionally shaking and/or flipping the bowl over if it has a sealable lid.

And here it is finished. I make variations of this frequently during the summer so there was no surprise here. It was a good choice to accompany this meal because chestnuts are a bit sweet, and I also served sweet corn on the cob, and this was a tangy, refreshing contrast.

In kitty news, Gomez and Torticia recently went in for their annual exams. I love taking them to the vet because they are not Tigger. Tigger hated hated HATED the vet. There are some vet techs out there who actually refused to be in the same room as him, and he left more than one doctor bruised and bloodied in his wake. In fact, it was generally a bloodbath and I’d have to walk out in shame. He was a TERROR. These two little sweet darlings, on the other hand, are SO GOOD! They react quite differently from each other, however. Torticia looks at the whole experience as one fun adventure and makes herself right at home, whereas Gomez rather quivers in fear the whole time.

Torticia at the vet:

Gomez at the vet:

Torticia at the vet:

Gomez at the vet (look at that scowl!):

I’ve zoomed in and enhanced this photo so you can see Torticia’s extremely cute “vanilla” toe. LOVE that the vanilla toe has a pink paw pad and the chocolate toes have brown pads!

Silly cats. Anyway, everyone oohed and aahed over their beauty, sweetness, and marvelously soft and silky coats. I love that no one who sees them can resist petting them. They are in optimal health, although little miss Fatso needs to shed some pounds. Gomez forgot his ordeal within two seconds of returning home. (Torticia, world’s most agreeable cat, couldn’t have cared less if I’d packed her back up and driven her back there a second time.)

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Australian Avocado Pizza

I HAVE BEEN SO BUSY! I’ve been feeling bad about not posting, but yesterday I looked in my book database and realized it took me two weeks to read the last book I finished. That’s crazy! Usually I finish a book in two days. So believe me, I’m not being negligent because I don’t care about you. It’s just been an insanely busy summer.

In exciting news, Smuckalert is here! I told him I would make pizza Saturday night, so while the oven was pre-heating I asked him what he wanted on his pizza, and he asked me a strange question: “is it tomato- [read: to-mAH-to] based or avocado-based?” Whaaaat? In what country is the default pizza not assumed to be made with tomato sauce? Actually, I’m pretty sure the default in Australia IS tomato sauce, but Smucks assures me that “chicken avocado” is a normal pizza over there. I’ve ordered pizza in Australia and I don’t remember any such thing, but there is the fact that I would likely completely ignore a “chicken” anything pizza on a menu. My response Saturday night was, “I don’t have any avocados and I don’t know what the hell an avocado-based pizza is, so what do you want on your tomato pizza?” But I like to please Smucky and I was intrigued by this avocado pizza, so I decided it was perfectly okay to make pizza twice in three days and dragged Smucky to Wegmans this afternoon to stock up on avocados. Usually avocado-anything is “California-style” (and believe me, it’s appropriate), but I’m calling this Australian pizza because I really do think it’s mostly an Australian thing. The ingredients for this were mostly dictated by Smucks, so it’s also Smucky’s pizza.

Avocado Pizza

pizza dough – the ingredient amounts listed below are about enough for 2-3 large individual pizzas
2 ripe avocados, peeled, pitted, and chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
juice of 1 lime
4 frozen teaspoon-sized cubes of cilantro (Trader Joe’s sells this), or about a handful fresh, chopped
1/2 – 1 tsp salt
your favorite vegan “chicken” – I highly recommend Gardein – chopped into bite-sized pieces
thinly sliced onion
thinly sliced tomatoes
thinly sliced jalapenos
vegan mozzarella

If using frozen dough, remove from the freezer 1-3 days in advance, and from the refrigerator 1-2 hours before baking. Preheat the oven as high as it will go an hour before bake time.

Slice the avocados in half, peel and pit them, and roughly chop them, then place it in a food processor or blender.

Place the cilantro, garlic, and lime juice in the food processor or blender as well and blend until smooth. Add some water to thin so it’s a bit more spreadable than guacamole, then add salt to taste. Blend very well. Place in a bowl just big enough to contain it and cover it to keep it from oxidizing and turning brown.

Defrost the “chicken” enough to chop (if necessary) and chop into bite-sized pieces. Thinly slice the onions. Slice and chop the tomatoes.

Thinly slice the jalapenos.

Sprinkle some flour on your workspace and shape or roll out your dough, then transfer to a semolina- or cornmeal-dusted pizza peel. Spread a nice layer of avocado puree on the crust.

Top with the jalapenos, tomatoes, and onions.

Add the “chicken”.

Sprinkle with the “cheese”. I also like to dust it with Dragonfly’s Bulk, Dry Uncheese Mix, which I keep in a shaker.

Bake until crust is browned and “cheese” is melty.

Serve hot.

Cut with scissors because it’s the awesome thing to do.

Smucky has come a long way. When I met him nearly 10 years ago, he never would have been this happy about eating vegan food. I let him keep deli turkey and mozzarella slices in the fridge when he stays here, but when I asked him if he was going to put real cheese and chicken on his pizza, he said no, vegan was fine! He said he was a bit nervous about the “chicken”, but after trying it thought it was pretty good. That’s why I recommended Gardein. Every non-vegan I’ve given it to has really liked it, and I’m typically extremely wary of giving fake meat to non-vegetarians.

Smucks devoured his pizza and then helped me with mine…although he was rather displeased about the jalapenos on mine (I left them off of his).

Sometimes I worry I’m going to have to have Smucky’s laptops surgically removed from his face, but I insist on technology-free dinners. I try to extend the conversation after the meal for as long as I can before the boys return to their computers. Here is Smucky after dinner looking very deceptively cute…he’s actually being very evil. BUT I CAN’T TELL YOU WHY.

I worked from home today so I could keep Smucky company. I’m extremely busy at work these days and was quite wrapped up in it, but I did end up having to take a few pictures of the cats, busy as I was.

Thinking about submitting this one to Cat Fancy for their cover.

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Chana Masala

Life’s been hectic! I constantly feel as if there are not enough hours in the day, even on weekends. Especially on weekends. I’m busy at work and in my personal life. Work intruded upon personal life this evening when I got home late. Waiting for me was an unhungry Smark, who confessed he’d filled up on tomato sandwiches all day. (We love tomato season in this household!) When Mark is not hungry or eating elsewhere, that ordinarily means Indian food, yay! But I was hungry and it was late, so I didn’t want to spend a long time making some authentic, perfectly spiced, slow cooked meal just for myself. What I did want to do, however, was use up the cooked chickpeas I had in the refrigerator, so I decided to make an easy, low-stress chana masala, which is Fortinbras’ favorite Indian meal. The “easy” part is that I didn’t measure any of the spices, although I’ve tried to estimate the amounts. Interestingly, midway through my meal, Mark showed up exclaiming, “that smells good; can I have some?” He then proceeded to have two servings, which he does every time I make Indian food. So how he can go around saying he doesn’t like Indian food is beyond me. Anyway, here’s what I did:

Chana Masala

3/4 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp asafoetida (this doesn’t usually go in channa masala, but I love the taste and even the smell of it; you can omit it)
4 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1 small onion, chopped
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp (or to taste) cayenne pepper
1 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes
2 Tbsp tomato paste
1 Tbsp amchoor (dried mango powder; can substitute lemon juice, which you would add at the end of the cooking time)
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp ground ginger (I was too lazy to use fresh, which I would ordinarily do)
1 tsp (or to taste) salt
4 cups cooked chickpeas
1/2 cup frozen peas, optional (I like to have at least a bit of green in everything I make)

Heat some oil in a pot, like a Dutch oven, over medium high heat. Add the mustard seeds and cook until they begin to pop, then turn the heat down and add the fenugreek and cook for a few seconds or so. Then add the cumin seeds, garlic, and asafoetida (if using) and cook about a minute. Next, turn the heat back up a bit and add the onions, turmeric, and cayenne and cook for about 7 or 8 minutes, or until the onions are well-cooked. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, amchoor, garam masala, paprika, ginger, and salt, and about half a (tomato) can of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about 10 minutes or until the tomatoes are starting to break down. Add the chickpeas and cook for about 30 minutes, adding a half-cup or so of water if it gets too dry. Adjust the seasonings. If using, add the peas and cook until they are heated through. If you don’t have amchoor, add some lemon juice for tang.

I served it with roti.

Wow, I feel I’ve posted so infrequently this busy summer that we need to catch up! I made my first batch of beer and it was really good! So good I wish I’d made a lot more than a gallon. I’ve also been baking bread from the spent grains, which I’ve been dying to do ever since Peter Reinhart raved about it in Whole Grain Breads. I tried nagging the few people I know who have made beer before to make some more so I could have the grains, but finally I decided to just make my own damn beer! I can’t wait to make more. Any fellow brewers out there?

I got my copy of Papa Tofu Loves Ethiopian Food and I can’t wait to make everything in it! If I use it half as frequently as I use the original Papa Tofu, it’ll be worth far more than I spent on it. If you love Ethiopian food, you will love this zine. If you’ve never had Ethiopian food, now’s the time to find out what you’ve been missing!.

Mark has taken an interest in cooking and been making our Sunday meals for a couple of weeks now, which is nice because I’ve been so busy, especially on Sundays. He kept declining my requests to do a post until he surprised himself with his awesome summer roll-making skills yesterday and announced he may do a post after all. He submitted what he described as “the first chapter” of his upcoming post to me today and all I can say is, um, prepare yourselves. I’m not sure what you should do to prepare yourselves, but you may want to brew your own batch of beer and drink a few before attempting to read Mark’s manifesto theory of the universe science fiction novel recipe for summer rolls. In the meantime, here is his first Sunday meal: nutloaf.

Torticia is fat! She doesn’t overeat, so I’ve been trying to make her exercise more, with varying degrees of success. One thing I do is play “the food game” with them. The rules of this game are I throw pieces of dry food across the floor and they have to run after it and eat it. Their little chomping of each tiny bit of kibble reminds me of Pac-Man. They love this game and demand to play it several times a day. I try to get Tortilla Chip to run up and down the stairs as much as I can.

Gomez waits patiently.

She’s fat, but she can run.

And now, for your enjoyment, here are some pictures of raccoons, who are responsible for taking up a lot of my precious time, not that I’m complaining:

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