Smitten Kitchen cookbook adventures: redux

(It’s been a while since I posted, though I’ve kept cooking, delightedly, out of the SK cookbook. But these I couldn’t resist.)

Spaghetti squash and black bean tacos with queso fresco

Y’all, if squash tacos are wrong, I don’t want to be right.

I used to be a taco purist. I was raised in New Mexico, which like most US-Mexico border states has its own sub-type of Mexican cuisine, and things other than meat or maybe beans, and some sort of melty cheese, don’t enter into the taco equation. Fish tacos? No. That is crazy talk. California crazy talk.

Even when I started cooking vegetarian tacos, I wanted a mixture that at least looked as much like beef as possible, which is why I like using black lentils in my lentil tacos.

It wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco and then Portland that I became corrupted had my horizons expanded and started eating crazy things like tofu tacos and soy curl tacos. Still, these things attempt to appear like meat. They’re seasoned. They’re meat substitutes. Robo Taco even calls theirs a vegan al pastor, and al pastor is pretty much the most non-vegetarian thing there is.

But then I had potato tacos. Potato? In a taco? And then I went to Austin, where breakfast tacos are a thing (a thing I was and am slightly obsessed with, although for some strange reason I did a terrible job of documenting this obsession), and I had awesome, weird tacos of various sorts.

And then I saw this recipe, and I was hungry for something with squash, and I love squash with black beans (okay, so I have made squash empanadas before, but those aren’t tacos! really they aren’t!) it looked super duper easy to make for lunch tomorrow. And it is. And then I couldn’t resist trying one and I ate it right up without bothering with a plate.

So I might be wrong. But I’m happy there, in Wrong Land. Please don’t come and get me.

In all seriousness, this is an easy recipe and SO GOOD. I skipped out on the cilantro garnish (it’s the middle of winter, there’s no good-looking cilantro around) and chose scallions instead (it’s a double dose of onion, but it works). I used taco seasoning I had on hand instead of adding cumin and coriander to chile powder. I did use canned beans, but this recipe would, I am 99% certain, be about ten times more awesome if only I had access to leftover SK black bean ragout. So you should do that. And I got feta, which is a suggested substitution. No queso fresco at Whole Foods, not a huge surprise. It takes these even a bit farther from the taco classic, but we’re already out here in Wrong Land, so don’t worry, buy some feta. Or goat cheese. Something crumbly and white. And then put some Aardvark on it, like you do.

Smitten Kitchen cookbook adventures (4)

#5: Slow cooker black bean ragout

Apparently a ragout is a main-dish stew (related to the Italian ragu), usually cooked long and slow. Now you know!

This is a basic bean dish, probably not that different from one you’d find in any veggie or vegan cookbook, and that’s exactly what I wanted for post-Thanksgiving. It does come with some interesting suggested extras like lime-pickled red onions (I used the onions I pickled with the celery for the potato salad) and cumin crema (I used some of the Greek yogurt I had from the galette), and it was nice to be inspired to take the toppings up a notch. The result was tasty in an understated way and super easy — you just chop the onions and mince or crush the garlic, then put everything (onions, garlic, beans, spices) into the crock pot to cook. No presoaking required!

My crockpot cooked the beans in about five hours on high, and I turned it down to low while I made some rice once they were done, because I didn’t want to make the garlic toasts she suggests (the recipe also says you can put the beans in anything you want — including tacos, which after my breakfast taco experiences in Austin, sounds awesome). I served it over rice with scallions, cilantro, avocado (thanks to Whole Foods 5/$5 ‘Black Friday’ special), and the onions and crema.

One bowl of it was totally satisfying and tasty. I’m going to have it for dinner again tonight, and I’ll probably make it again in the near future, starting it in the morning and running it on low while I’m at work. I don’t often make full meals in my crockpot but I’d like to do more. And I’ve made black beans in the crockpot before, even from a cookbook recipe (Vegan Lunchbox, if I remember correctly) but I preferred this one to any other that I’ve made. So it definitely needs to go into the regular rotation, unlike most of the recipes I’ve tried so far which have been great but mostly on the complicated side (except the kale salad which I also want to make again).

Smitten Kitchen cookbook adventures (3)

#4: Butternut squash and caramelized onion galette

This is one of the recipes that immediately hit me with a “Where has this been all my life?” kind of force. I love winter squash, lately I’m obsessed with caramelized onions, and anything that involves expanding my pastry dough repertoire is a fun challenge. I decided to make it for Thanksgiving dinner. It’s labor-intensive enough that I’d want to reserve it for a special occasion, but the results, at least in my opinion, are beautiful and very tasty: so worth it. I did see a few partial pieces left on people’s plates, but I also got a few nice compliments. Perhaps not to everyone’s taste, but certainly to some people’s.

The dough is made with a mix of flour, salt, butter, sour cream or greek yogurt, vinegar, and water. I’ve never made dough with something like yogurt or sour cream before, and I couldn’t tell you exactly what effect it had. Mostly what I noticed is that the dough was BUTTERY. My family pie dough recipe is shortening-based, and I usually use Earth Balance to make my pastry, so it was really noticeable to me — it tasted rich and decadent and even a little too much at times. It came together fairly easily — certainly easier than pie dough because you can just toss in the liquid ingredients and stir everything together, although requiring more effort to be worked down to the texture she specified (‘like couscous’). The dough has to be chilled for at least an hour and can go up to 2 days (I did mine overnight), so you definitely want to make it first.

I used kabocha squash instead of butternut, and found the prep a bit easier, but still labor intensive, because it has to be chopped before being roasted. I also ended up using Emmental cheese instead of fontina because (who’d have guessed?) Safeway doesn’t stock fontina. The assembly was pretty easy once everything was prepped, although I wish the recipe had reminded me to take the dough out of the refrigerator about the same time I started the baking/caramelizing, because it was a bit hard to roll out.

Nevertheless, the galette came out of the oven looking just like the picture, except without the egg glaze because I wanted to keep it egg-free (and I’m lazy). So overall, this was a huge win, and I intend to make more galettes in the future because they are awesome, although I may use a different dough to avoid the BUTTER situation and the necessity of buying ingredients I rarely use.

Smitten Kitchen cookbook adventures (2)

Update on the gratin: I baked some delicata squash tonight and pureed a bit of it with some vegetable broth, to put under the leftover gratin. As I expected, it was delicious that way.

#3: Kale salad with dried cherries, walnuts, and goat cheese

My lackadaisical grocery shopping also interfered with the execution on this in that I entirely forgot the walnuts. Although I think they’d be a great addition, their absence did not in any way interfere with the awesomeness of this salad. The dressing is fabulous and really easy. I have no idea why I’ve never made homemade honey mustard dressing before, but it comes together in about 30 seconds (counting the shaking) and tastes fantastic. The crumbled goat cheese kind of melts into the dressing as you toss it, and the kale and radishes get very tender, although the radishes retain some crunch. If I hadn’t already had gratin and been on my way out of the house, I could easily have eaten half the salad on my own. It claims to serve 4, but if you like kale, I’d say two unless you’ve got something else just as good on the table.

Honestly, though, my second thought besides “That tastes great” was “Obviously this is a salad made for someone who’s not that wild about kale, despite being a raw kale salad” (which is what the intro note is all about, so it’s definitely true). The dressing covers up the taste of the kale almost completely, which bummed me out a little since I love kale. And the radishes didn’t come though all that well either. Mine are a tad old but alone they still taste fine. The dressing is just very strong. I also think I might chop the radishes next time instead of paper-thin slicing them. I’m not exactly sure why they’re so thin, but I just didn’t like the way they behaved. I also wanted shorter kale ribbons so I halved the leaves before chiffonading them (the technique is described, but not named, which is very accessible but a missed learning opportunity). I also replaced cherries with cranberries, which are cheaper.

Overall, it reminded me of VeganYumYum’s BLT salad, which is absolutely my favorite thing to do with raw kale, and whose dressing is much fattier, so it could be a nice simple replacement for that by hitting some of the same cravings. Tempeh crumbles — not bacon ones, but plainer ones — might be a good addition to make it a meal!

Smitten Kitchen cookbook adventures (1)

I just got the Smitten Kitchen cookbook and have been drooling over the recipes. I decided to make a few this week and see how it went.

#1: Fingerlings vinaigrette with sieved eggs and pickled celery

ZOMG, if you’ve never put eggs through a sieve (and really, who has?) you are missing out. This salad is awesome. I was skeptical about the pickled celery, but it does a great job of adding crunch while reinforcing the vinegary taste — there isn’t a ton of dressing for the amount of potato, so this works well. The sieved eggs merge a little with the dressing and get smeary on the potatoes. It’s good.

Variations: True to spirit — Deb’s recipes often come from pantry constraints and previous experience — I used the yellow potatoes from my CSA instead of fingerlings and just cooked them cut in half and then cut them into quarters on the plate to get similar sizing. My celery was smaller so I used 3 stalks (a measurement of quantity here would be great, but you can estimate by pouring the pickling mixture into a bowl and cutting about enough to fit in with it) and I used a small red onion (again from my CSA) rather than buying shallots (which are hard to find and more expensive). I chose savory and parsley for my herbs (optional), but I think chives and parsley would actually be ideal because I love chive with potato and the parsley is nice and fresh.

#2: Wild rice gratin with kale, caramelized onions, and baby swiss

I wasn’t as enchanted by this one, which surprised me because it’s full of things I love. I’m going to blame it on my execution, since even more than the other one, my pantry / shopping forgetfulness and some sloppy construction (lack of sufficient bowls) meant that I didn’t quite execute on this as intended. It was just a little thin and too oily and crunchy for me, although the flavor is good. I think just didn’t hit tonight’s cravings, too. I really wanted something hearty and thick, and without a sauce and spread across a too-large baking dish, this just wasn’t going to be it.

Variations/execution failures: I halved the recipe and used barley to make up the amount of rice I was missing (reasoning that it’s also nutty and chewy; this actually worked well and I’d probably do it again). I used more oil than called for with the onions, more kale, less broth, more cheese, and cornmeal instead of breadcrumbs (I just forgot to buy them, oops). I don’t have a smaller baking dish, so everything was spread out a little too much, and I didn’t pre-mix the gratin filling before putting it in the dish and carefully salt/pepper it so it would be evenly flavored, so I ended up with under- and over-seasoned spots. It’s easy to see how it ended up too oily and crunchy — although surprisingly, I really wanted MORE kale. Kale cooks down like whoa, so it almost disappeared into the onions and rice. If you don’t really like kale, you can go for the amount in the recipe, but if you like it, I suggest more. I think this would be great with some cooked butternut squash, too, either in chunks or as a sauce. That would add some smoothness and heartiness, and I think when I try again (which I will) it will be with that addition.

Also, I have no idea what the heck baby swiss is. I wonder if this is a misprint and it should be baby kale, caramelized onions, and swiss?

Straus Family Creamery: not just cheese

I mentioned Straus Family Creamery back in my Mt. Tam post as providing the milk that goes into Cowgirl Creamery cheese. Besides that, of course, they also make milk and other dairy products, like yogurt. Ryan very kindly brought some SFC whole-milk Eurostyle yogurt to dinner the other day as an unexpectedly awesome component of a shopping list for chickpea curry. The curry is supposed to be served with yogurt, and I didn’t have any, so I asked if he would bring some.

I usually get TJs French Village rBST-free fat-free yogurt when I do buy yogurt (which is rare these days), but let me tell you, although I like the TJs yogurt, the SFC yogurt is AMAZING. It is fresh-tasting, tangy without being sour, and rich without being overwhelming.

I <3 Straus Family Creamery. I think I'm going to have to start making the extra effort and expense of getting their dairy products when I do eat dairy. I really, really want to support them.

Mt. Tam: cheesy edition

Back in August, training for Waves to Wine, I did a ride with J & C which ended with trip to Berkeley Bowl and the Berkeley Marina.

C & I looked at cheese while we were in Berkeley Bowl and saw Mt. Tam, which was a contestant in the Tomato Nation NCheeseAA (it made it to the final “fourmage”). The contest was the first time I’d heard of it, and Berkeley Bowl was the first place I saw it. It’s like Brie on crack — soft cheese, white rind. Triple cream. Mmmmm.

But it was $20 for a small wheel, so we decided it should be a treat for after W2W. Since then I think C has had it already herself (direct from the Creamery), but I hadn’t. Yesterday I finally picked some up at the Cowgirl Creamery shop in the Ferry Building, and today I ate half of it after getting home from donating blood (along with slices of a green apple).

Uhh….yeah. It’s the Best Cheese Ever. A robust but not overpowering flavor, slightly tangy, soft, rich, organic and vegetarian, and the milk comes from a farm where the cows are treated humanely and attention is given to sustainability and land management. This is a cheese I can get totally behind.*

A 10-oz round cost me $14, which is a hell of a lot for just any cheese, but doesn’t seem like that much for a piece of pure heaven in cheesy form.

*When I first became vegetarian I ate a lot of cheese — I’ve always liked cheese, so it was pretty much last on my list of things I wanted to worry about giving up. But over time I’ve worked on eating less of it because most cheese is produced under similar conditions to most meat, so to be consistent with my reasons for giving up meat, I would need to give up any cheese with similar production methods as well.

I don’t think I’ll ever give up cheese totally except for properly-produced stuff (for me, it’s just too hard), but I’ve greatly reduced my consumption of it and other dairy products, and tend to skew toward small amounts of high-qualty cheese. Finding a cheese that meets my criteria for production, like Mt. Tam, is very exciting. Finding out that it’s heaven on a plate is even more exciting.

Toronto: activities

What I actually did in Toronto:

The ROM. You can see one of the most interesting things about it from the website — the building was recently renovated and a “Crystal” added on to the front. It wasn’t as crystalline as I expected from the name, but it’s an interesting addition. The interface between the new and old buildings was what fascinated me the most. Inside, the shape of the galleries in the Crystal is conducive to exploring and more open than the traditional materials.

I was really impressed with the ROM in general. The presentation of the materials was very thoughtful, like the exhibit about the changing styles from the Middle Ages to the present. I know about the eras (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, etc.) but their presentation of them illustrated the transitions and transformations very well.

I spent most of my first day in the museum, taking a break to eat lunch at Fresh on Bloor (admission for the museum allows multiple entrance and exit). The lunch was excellent and huge. I had a chickpea wrap and their signature sweet potato fries with miso gravy. The gravy was a bit intense, but everything else was great, and I saved half and ate it for dinner because there was so much. This was my favorite place I ate while I was in Toronto.

The link says “nontraditional vegetarian food”, but I actually saw it as kind of “traditional modern” in that it was a lot like what I would get in good vegetarian restaurants around here. But maybe that’s non-traditional for Canada!

That night I went to a Fringe comedy show called “Between Commutes”, which was a sketch show about the hassles of commuting. I was expecting a bit more of it to be about public transit, but some of the sketches were very funny, and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

The next day, after picking up the loaner bike and having coffee with the owner, who is wonderfully nice and generous, most of my day was taken up by a visit to Toronto Island. The island is car-free, so I took the bike on the ferry (the ferry was quite crowded with bikes) and rode around, looked at the lake, and relaxed in the park. It was nice to be away from cars, and everything seemed to run at a slower pace as everybody relaxed in the afternoon sun. I took a walk on a beach, and stopped briefly to swing on a swingset. I’m not sure I was supposed to be on the swingset, but no one stopped me, and I enjoyed the feeling of flying that I recalled from childhood.

On the way back, I ate at Urban Herbivore in the Kensington Market area. I had a sesame tempeh sandwich and a fresh juice (red juice — beets, apples, carrots, lemons, and ginger — which tasted wonderfully gingery but with good body from the vegetables). I wasn’t originally going to have any juice because it was expensive, but the server spontaneously refunded me my sandwich cost because he was slow to get it to me. It didn’t seem slow to me — I was writing in my journal and had only just started wondering when my sandwich might arrive when it did — but I appreciated their effort to hold themselves to a high standard, and felt that buying a juice when I wouldn’t have otherwise was a good way to return the kindness. The sandwich wasn’t the best, with the tempeh overly dry and salty, but the bread was excellent and the sandwich well-made overall, so I enjoyed myself. It was an interesting neighborhood to watch while I ate — it reminded me a little bit of the Mission.

Sunday I had a notion to go to a farmer’s market, so I decided to visit the Distillery District (history), but I got a slow start and the market was mostly gone when I got there. But I did see the old buildings and art galleries and studios full of quite fascinating art. My favorites were two artists working in encaustic, Joya Paul and Tanya Kirouac (Tanya’s site at seems to be down). Both had some lovely flower/nature paintings. I also liked Thompson Landry gallery and Nathalie Maranda‘s paintings in that gallery.

That evening, I had a drink with the fun and inimitable Emily, whom I had missed while in Toronto five years ago. It was fun, and we talked animatedly about food, our jobs, and travel.

My last day, besides Urbane Cyclist, I went to Bakka Phoenix Books and LinuxCaffe. Both are Toronto landmarks, with Bakka Phoenix being the incubator of several Canadian SF talents including Cory Doctorow. LinuxCaffe, in their own words, “is a cozy corner caffe offering dark organic coffees, simply delicious food and pleasant surprises. It is also the home of Toronto’s Open Source software communities, hosting user group meetings, workshops and distributing free software.” It’s basically a friendly cafe with an open culture, lots of geeks, and a bunch of old software books. Very nice place, though it was quiet on Tuesday lunchtime in the summer.

That was my last stop before returning the bike and a brief visit to Union Station; then it was back to Pearson in time for a spectacular cloudburst, a delayed plane, and a fantastic sunset on takeoff.