Roasted Vegetable Pesto Polenta

Hello, is anyone out there? After a lengthy absence I am back with some recipes! I doubt anyone will see this after so long, but I’ve been cooking up a storm lately and decided to post if for no other reason to give myself ideas at some future date when I’m not feeling as creative.

Like a lot of Americans, I’ve spent the time since my last post, which I see was just after “the election”, in a state of deep depression, stress, and anxiety. Much of it was directly related to the election and continues to this day, and will undoubtedly continue through 2020, although some of it was due to personal reasons. The good news is I’m feeling better personally. (Though still feel increasingly terrible as an American.) Dark as my days may have been, I never stopped wanting to cook, and I frequently made really good stuff, but I wouldn’t say I was being particularly explorative when cooking over the last couple of years. Occasionally a friend would tell me I should post something here, but I either didn’t agree the meal warranted a post or just didn’t have the wherewithal to get around to it.

I moved into my third new place in three years in California a few weeks ago. I’m sill in the Bay Area (I’ve barely moved a mile each time), but have downsized to a slightly more affordable condo as opposed to the single family houses Mark and I shared. I wasn’t sure how the transition to a multi-family building would be for me, and there are still some things I’m getting used to, but I wasn’t expecting to get as extra-excited about cooking as I have! Especially since although I REALLY lucked out regarding the size of my kitchen, the electric stove top is vintage to the 1983 building construction and it’s a freakin’ mess! (The double oven, though, is brand new!) Ironically, the stove is probably partially responsible for my recent cooking zeal because it “forced” me to buy an induction burner, which I’ve wanted for years, and use it for most of my cooking, AND I LOVE IT. I should have bought one a long time ago: if nothing else it would have saved me from the ten times I’ve let my homemade soy milk boil over when making yogurt!

I’ve been more consistently going to farmers markets lately, and being at farmers markets makes me intensely happy. I come home with a basket full of produce, eager to turn it into delicious meals. My meals have become a little more imaginative and healthy than they were. I’ve never actually eaten badly, by any means, and maybe it’s just the summer season with all its bounty, but I feel like I’m just eating fresher and healthier than ever before. I’m actually overwhelmed with ideas and meals I want to make! As I said, I thought maybe I’d try to document some of them here, because I know these things come and go in phases and in a few months I might not be feeling quite as imaginative or excited. So to that end, here is last night’s…

Roasted Vegetable Pesto Polenta

One trend in my meals of late has been roasting vegetables, making some sort of whole grain or grains, concocting some new sauce, grabbing handfuls of fresh herbs, and serving a one-bowl meal of it. I scored a huge bunch of basil for $1.50 at the market yesterday, so I made pesto. Although I have been doing a lot of experimenting lately, I actually made a very traditional pesto, although for me THAT was experimental because as a vegan, I’ve never actually made pesto exactly as you’re supposed to, since obviously I don’t eat cheese. I really like Follow Your Heart’s vegan parmesan, though, so I used that.

1 cup whole grain polenta-ground corn
4 cups water
1/2 tsp salt

2 cups cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
1 zuchinni or summer squash, sliced
1 small onion, roughly chopped

1/4 cup pesto (homemade is best, but Trader Joe’s sells a vegan version)
3 Tbsp corn relish
vegan parmesan (optional)

I made the polenta in my Instant Pot using these directions, but basically to make it, you put the water in a pot (Instant or otherwise), then slowly whisk in the polenta meal. Then you add salt and cook it until it’s done, stirring often if you are making it on the stove, or on the Porridge –> More setting on the Instant Pot. Both methods probably take the same amount of time when it’s all said and done, but with the Instant Pot method I just walked away from it for half an hour, so that’s easier.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Toss the prepared vegetables in olive oil and sprinkle with some salt. Roast them until they are tender, about 25 minutes.

To serve, scoop some prepared polenta into a shallow bowl. Dollop half the pesto on top. Add the roasted vegetables and dollop the remaining pesto on top of them. Finally top with the corn relish, and if desired garnish with vegan parm. The corn relish I used was my home-canned relish using a recipe from the excellent Saving the Season by Kevin West. If you don’t have corn relish, find some other pickled item to add a “zing” – otherwise maybe just try a little lemon juice. I liked the contrast between the sweet polenta corn and the zip of the corn relish.

I served this with field green salad tossed with a simple balsamic vinaigrette (olive oil, balsamic, Dijon, and salt):

As I’ve eaten ALL my meals lately, I ate this on my balcony, and it felt like being in a particularly cozy restaurant.

Another unexpected thing about my new place is that my favorite “room” is the balcony! (Well, one of the two balconies!) I absolutely love it out here (I’m composing this post from it!). The weather is (almost) always perfect here, so it’s always pleasant to be outside. Here’s a picture taken of my lunch (gumbo!) earlier yesterday: on the table you can see the basil that would shortly become pesto:

I don’t know what it is about this balcony, but I honestly feel like I’m on vacation every time I’m out here. It puts me in a very relaxed state. Since I work from home, I’m able to eat all three meals outside and mentally it’s extremely good for me. I usually read while I eat, or if I want to watch TV or a movie while I eat dinner, I use my tablet. It’s sooo much nicer than what I’ve done for years, which is eat dinner on the sofa (unless we had guests). The only downside to the balcony is I miss the cats, who used to sit on my lap while I ate, but now have to sit by the door and look forlornly out at me since they can’t come out here. But having such a wonderful place to eat is probably another part of the reason I’ve been so into cooking.

I’ve also been canning a lot since I moved. A friend, who had helped me pack my jars last time, came to visit the new place and commented that it looked like I had fewer jars this year than I did last year. So I promptly canned two different kinds of pickles, 40 pints of different soups, chili sauce, and ginger syrup – I must have added at least 75 jars to the shelf since I got here. I should do a post soon on the beautiful jar shelf Fortinbras built me and all the stuff I’ve been canning. I’m currently developing a “gumbo starter” recipe I want to pressure can. (Hence yesterday’s gumbo lunch!)

And in other news, I’m only even more involved in wildlife rehab than I was the last time you heard from me. Because it’s the busy season, I’m working a ton of hours on wildlife-related stuff, several days a week. I’ve also started doing at-home rehab: some baby mammals (I’m actually picking up a batch of 30-gram opossums tonight), but mostly, and my favorite – OWLS! That’s right: I keep owls in my house. It’s amazing. Once the animals I’ve raised and/or healed are ready to go, I usually get to release them myself, so in addition to all the rehab, I’ve been doing a lot of wildlife releases. I’m not allowed to share pictures from inside the hospitals or of rehab patients in my home on social media, so sorry, I can’t post tons of adorable owl pictures, but here is a video of me releasing a white-tailed kite last week:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sQWRS8PtU3I

And finally, I’m still trying to hike a few times a week, although I’ve added kayaking and biking to my activities as well. I’m still seeing all kinds of amazing animals when I go out! A friend and I came across this Great Horned owl fledgling in Redwood Regional Park last week.

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On Food and Cooking, and procrastination

I fully intended, I swear, to do a post on caring for cast iron for you this weekend. However, not only did we have company most of Saturday, it was – and still is – over ninety degrees here in Virginia! Which I’m loving: although I dress in black and to me every day is Halloween, I’m all about moving to the tropics. However, even the climate-control-loving Smark hasn’t been able to muster up the wherewithal to turn on the A/C in April, and it’s positively sweltering in the house. So slaving over a hot stove wasn’t something I was really looking forward to. Another cast iron post is forthcoming, but probably not until later in the week when the temperature cools down to a more seasonable – and reasonable – 65 or so.

In fact, I don’t have a recipe to share with you today. Did I even cook this weekend?! I don’t remember. It was hot, I know that. What I would like to share with you, though, is a recommendation for On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee. Now, I read a lot; usually two or three books a week, but almost entirely fiction. I do tend to read cookbooks cover to cover as well, and I read a disproportionately large number of books about physics, but other than that I rarely read any non-fiction. I have been looking for years, however, for a book about the science of cooking. And have I ever found it! I can’t remember what brought it to my attention, probably a mention on a food blog somewhere, but I checked it out of the library and it’s exactly what I’ve been looking for. It’s fascinating! It’s huge! I’ve mostly been skipping around reading a section here, a section there, instead of reading it straight through, as it’s enormous and very textbook-like, but I’ve been marking many pages that contain topics I want to more fully explore or that have given me ideas for experiments I can try. It’s not a cookbook; the only recipes it contains are a few fairly incomprehensible Medieval and other old recipes in sidebars that illustrate the history of an ingredient or technique. What it is is an encyclopedia of what seems like everything there is to know about food and cooking. The history of all types of food. How nutrients are absorbed in our system. The hows and whys of all cooking techniques. How yeast works…. I’m flipping through it now to glean more examples of the range of information this book contains and it’s just impossible to narrow it down. I just opened to a cut-out diagram of the molecular structure of a plant leaf. Now I’ve just flipped to a page containing the heading “Unusual Fermentations,” which leaves me in danger of abandoning this post to go read it, given my love of fermentation. (They don’t call me Renae Ferment√© for nothing. Okay, no one calls me Renae Ferment√©. But they should.)

When I ordered the book from the library, I figured I’d end up just skipping over the meat and dairy chapters. However, I actually found the dairy section fascinating. (I haven’t read any meat chapters.) Although McGee does not advocate the avoidance of dairy, he points out that it is unnatural for humans to consume the milk of other animals, and that relatively few people on the planet do or even can. He also says that the recommendation by the US government that adults consume a quart of milk a day in order to fulfill their calcium needs is foolhardy and the product of the US dairy council’s funding. He points out that consumption of animal protein increases the need for calcium (meaning vegans actually need less calcium than omnivores), and that although milk is a “valuable” source of calcium, it is “unnatural” and not necessarily the best source and that the best way to prevent osteoporosis is to exercise, eat a well-balanced diet low in animal protein, and to eat a variety of calcium-rich foods including dried beans, nuts, tofu, and various greens. The point I’m trying to get across here is that this book is a great resource for completely unbiased information about why a vegan diet can be healthier than others, and even provides support on the moral issues behind it (by stating that it is unnatural for humans to consume dairy products). Often the most easily-accessible sources of data backing up a vegan diet are pro-vegan websites, which detractors won’t accept as a source because they have an “agenda”. So if you are at all interested in backing up your claims that your vegan diet is sound from a completely unbiased source, try On Food and Cooking.

But that’s not why I sought out this book. I very rarely bring up vegan “issues” because my goal is to present delicious and nutritious food that just happens to be vegan in an effort to show it’s not weird. I’m mostly loving this book for all the chapters about foods I do eat…which is most of the book, because even if you are omnivore, most of your food intake should be grains and vegetables. Did you know that cashews are related to poison ivy and that’s why you never see them in their shells? Their shell contains an irritating oil and must be removed without contaminating the seed. This book is going on my wish list: it’s the type of reference you need to keep in the house; borrowing from the library isn’t going to cut it!

That’s really all I have to say. It’s still hot so I don’t know if I’ll do any real cooking tonight, so no recipes right now. But here are some pictures of Brachtune to tide you over. She spent hours outside this weekend, in the morning and evenings when it wasn’t quite as hot. She used to be very nervous outside and only make short excursions totally inspired by jealousy that Tigger (who LOVED going for walks) was out and she wasn’t. Lately it’s like she’s been possessed by the spirit of Tigger and is doing all sort of Tiggerish things.

I love watching her walk at eye level. She just has the cutest paws in the world.

I also love those dark rings around her eyes. She’s like Cleopatra.

Sunday I planted some herbs: spearmint (I got a big plant of this, which I’m calling the mojito bush), regular and Vietnamese coriander (cilantro), thyme, tarragon, mizuna, rosemary, and sage. The bay leaf plant is the only one I have left over from my previous herb pot that I didn’t kill.

I also got a rainbow chard plant, because apparently it’s easy to grow and it’s “cut-and-regrow”. For $1.29, I figured I couldn’t go wrong. The leaf in the picture is just 2 1/2″ long right now: so cute!

I have to wait a week or two to get the tomatoes, basil, and shiso, and for Mark to get his peppers. I’m accepting bets on how long it takes me to kill these plants. Mark’s giving me six weeks, which is generous of him. I really wish I were better with plants. I try every year and every year it’s just a slow decline towards a painful plant death. Oh well. I generally get at least enough use out of them before they die that they pay for themselves by costing less than I’d have paid for a bundle of the same thing in the grocery store…if you don’t factor in the $37 I spent on dirt.

So other than spending time outside with The Toonse and planting my doomed herbs, I mostly spent the weekend when not courting guests melting in my chair reading. Here was my view:

Or, another view:

(I still have tan lines on my foot from the sandals I wore in Australia.)

Oh, that’s right. I did cook up some frozen tofu for dinner last night. Except I’m one of those people who cleans up as she goes along when making meals and I kept grabbing the tofu instead of the sponge. I think you understand why:

Which is edible?! It’s hard to tell; I’m generally not a big fan of frozen tofu. I only freeze it when I have it and it’s about to go bad. And I only break it out on days when it’s ninety-two degrees out and there’s nothing else in the house to eat.

Right, well, another cast iron tutorial coming your way very soon – I promise.

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Zaru Soba

I’ve always wanted to try fresh shiso (a.k.a. perilla, a.k.a. beefsteak plant), the Japanese herb variously described as minty and basil-y. For a while, I seemed to keep coming across recipes that called for it. Unfortunately, it is one of the few things I’ve never seen at Super H, or elsewhere around here. So I bought seeds and tried to grow them. Twice they didn’t even bother sprouting. Then I went to San Francisco and enviously looked at the fresh shiso in the Japantown grocery. I almost bought it just to taste it, but I thought eating it plain and by itself would be pretty weird, so I instead bought yet more seeds from Soko Hardware. Those seeds did sprout, however, they didn’t grow more than an inch tall before dying. So I was very excited to come across both green and red shiso plants at the nearby herb store this spring. And weirdly, my shiso plants are just about the happiest plants I have right now! I realized, though, that I’d better get to eating them before I kill them.

Of course, now that I’m ready to harvest them, I have no idea what all those wonderful shiso-inspired dishes were. And since I’m not that familiar with the taste, I’m not able to dream up my own concoctions. So after considering this conundrum for quite a while tonight, I eventually decided to just make zaru soba topped with a lot of shredded shiso, to familiarize myself with the taste.

Soba are Japanese buckwheat noodles, often served cold (really, room temperature, I believe) in the summer with a dipping sauce. For the dipping sauce I would need dashi. Usually for dashi, I just soak some kombu into water for a while.

Sometimes in addition to kombu, dried shiitakes are suggested for vegan dashi.

I may be the only vegan on the planet, other than my husband, who hates mushrooms. At least it seems that way. But every now and then I’ll get brave and try something mushroom-related. Soaking a dried shiitake in my dashi seemed pretty innocuous, although I will not be attempting to eat that nasty thing after it’s served its purpose.

You can simply soak the kombu and optional shiitake in room temperature water for several hours or overnight. I use a kombu piece about 4″ square per 4 cups of water. I was in a hurry tonight, so instead of soaking, I simmered it gently for about 20 minutes, then removed the kombu and shiitake.

The resulting dashi can be stored in the refrigerator for about three days, or frozen.

Zaru Soba

1 bundle (about 3.5 ounces) soba per serving

Dipping sauce (tsuyu) (makes enough for 2-3 servings):
1 cup dashi
2 Tbsp dark soy sauce
2 Tbsp light soy sauce
2 Tbsp mirin
a couple of drops of stevia (or 1 tsp of sugar)

Toppings (choose any or all):
chopped scallions
toasted sesame seeds
shredded or torn nori
chiffonaded fresh shiso leaves
wasabi
shichimi (Japanese 7-spice powder)
grated ginger

Cook the soba until al dente, being very careful not to overcook. Rinse under cold water very thoroughly, washing and rubbing it between your hands to remove any starch.

The “zaru” in zaru soba refers to the bamboo serving dish or basket the cold noodles are usually served on. If you have one, neatly arrange one serving of noodles on each zaru, otherwise use a pretty plate. I’m always interested in plating my meals in an attractive manner, even when only serving myself, but it seems particularly imperative with Japanese foods. So pick something nice! Sprinkle the soba with a few sesame seeds and top with some of the shredded shiso and/or nori. Set aside.

Whisk together the sauce ingredients; taste and adjust accordingly to your preference.

Place about 1/2 cup into each individual dipping bowl.

Place each of the toppings on individual serving dishes. Each diner adds the individual toppings to their dipping sauce or noodles, then dips a chopstick full of noodles at a time into the sauce.

One thing I did learn tonight that I didn’t realize before, is that the “sesame leaves” sold in the produce department at Super H are really Korean shiso! They look a little different – are flatter and darker in color – although it may be that what they have are just not as fresh as my living plant. They sell them shrink-wrapped on styrofoam so it’s hard to tell and I never really knew what to make of them.

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a few photos

My homemade chili oil:

My tempeh-making luck ran out and I ended up with another bad batch this weekend. I’m not sure why. The only thing I can think of is that the Ziploc bag was too full and the soybeans therefore layered too deeply. I didn’t weigh the soybeans; I just guessed at the 8 ounces I was going for, but possibly it was more than that and therefore too much. At any rate, here is what tempeh looks like when it doesn’t turn out. It didn’t smell that great either.

I want you to know that I am very careful about the food I buy and I would never, ever buy anything made of wheat flour that had been breached.

Here are two of my tomato plants. The one on the left is Roma and the one on the right is San Marzano. (Mark’s hot peppers are in the background.)

I grow them in Earth Boxes, which my mother-in-law turned me on to and which are great. In fact, here’s the San Marzano plant I put in a regular container:

It’s not nearly as big and healthy. Unfortunately, the Earth Box isn’t doing wonders for the two heirloom varieties I have, Mr Stripy (which I totally bought just because I wanted to grow Tigger Tomatoes) and Brandywine. Those plants don’t look as healthy.

While I was outside photographing the tomatoes, I scanned the yard for anything colorful I could photograph. The only color I could find in the entire yard was this tiger lily. Everything else is green, green, green.

Well, unless you count my tiny little tomato blossom:

Or the incredibly tiny flowers on Tigger’s catnip:

Much of our backyard looks like this:

As you can imagine, we have a lot of problems with pandas! And ninjas.

The cats can’t stand it when we’re outside without them. They sit forlornly at the door and meow piteously.

They often hang out on the patio with us, on leashes, but it was about to starting raining again, so instead of bringing them out, I went back inside and began pondering dinner…in which I hope to feature:

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