Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Vegan Gumbo for the Win

So I get a produce share this week with probably 2/3 lb of fresh okra. That leaves me with 2 serious choices. Fried okra or gumbo. I mean I know I KNOW there are other things I can do with okra, but let's be honest those two routes are so damned good that who cares if you CAN do other things. I've been meaning to try vegan gumbo for a while after an ok-ish recipe my husband found that I really wanted to fix up. (My husband is vegetarian and there are just certain things I want to be able to make and include him on. Gumbo is one of them) So here is what I came up with.

As a warning I meant to add a bell pepper to the gumbo and honestly just forgot (this is what happens when you improv). I will probably add that next time I make this, but as this batch turned out so damned well I wanted to try to just reconstruct it as is. If you try this I'd recommend adding a finely chopped bell pepper to one of the vegetable stages. Which one really depends on what effect you want the pepper to have on the finished product. They both have pros and cons. I'm also going to group ingredients by phase and process because I personally think it will make the recipe more readable. If you'd prefer the all ingredients at the top traditional presentation let me know, but I don't make any promises. Also keep in mind this whole thing was improved last night with no real thought to developing a recipe, but my husband asked me to try to recreate it. This should be pretty close to what I made, but feedback will definitely help me refine the instructions. I also want to personally thank Paul Fehribach of Big Jones where I used to work for much of the inspiration and cooking bravery necessary to undertake this experiment. And with all that Awwwaaaaaayyy We Go!


Prep a bowl with 1st phase vegetables in it. They can all go in together.
4 medium carrots diced small
3 large ribs of celery diced small
1 medium/large onion diced small
4 cloves of garlic minced (I actually used jarred garlic for this)

Prep a bowl with the 2nd phase vegetables in it. They can all go in together.
10-14 oz okra cut into small pieces (this can be fresh or frozen)
2 medium zucchini diced

Prep a small bowl or ramekin with all the spices for the Gumbo. I know this might seem silly, but when you add them it needs to happen quickly so this step will make your life a lot easier.
2 bay leaves
1 tsp Thyme
2 tsp oregano
Several healthy twists of black pepper
1/2 tsp smoked salt
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 Tbsp chili powder
cayenne to taste (this really varies based on your audience)
1 tsp paprika
a pinch of onion powder and granulated garlic (the dry and fresh provide very different flavors)

Put the following roux ingredients in your soup pot and saute on high heat mixing regularly until it just starts to turn slightly reddish brown. As soon as this starts turn the heat down to medium low and continue to cook, stirring constantly until it turns a dark brick red. If you are just doing this for the first time and are unsure of pushing the roux until it burns then you can err on the side of a slightly lighter red brick color. Darker rouxs will come with experience and comfort.
4 tablespoons flour
4 tablespoons cooking oil (avoid unrefined oils such as EVOO as they can become carcinogenic when they are heated too much and this process keeps the oil at a very high temperature for an extended period of time)

When your roux has reached the right color throw your 1st phase vegetables and the spices into the roux and toss the vegetables until they have started to give off some liquid and the roux seizes and darkens slightly. At this point you can turn the temperature up to medium high as you saute the vegetables and add the spices so that they can toast in the roux.

Saute until the vegetables start to soften and the roux dries up a bit again. You should also smell the flavor of toasted spices. Next add the first phase of moisture and legumes.
1 cans of diced tomatoes (I use fire roasted for the extra flavor, but any variety will work)
1 cup of french lentils rinsed and sorted to remove any pebbles

Cook the slurry that results down on low heat until it's smooth and begins to dry up a bit again. This will take between 15 and 20 minutes. You will need to stir occasionally to keep the mixture from sticking to the bottom of your pot. When it has developed a strong tomato aroma and has started to thicken back up add the broth and second phase vegetables.

2 quarts of vegetable broth

Simmer the gumbo on medium low heat until the zucchini and okra are done to your liking. Taste the broth and adjust the salt to taste. I always start cooking with enough salt to facilitate the chemical cooking processes I'm performing, but no more so I can adjust at the end to taste. I probably put in roughly another tsp of salt at the end of this process, but I was using mostly home made broth that I hadn't added any salt to yet. So if you're using store bought broth you might not need to make any adjustments, or just add a little additional salt.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Ramen Noodles in 10 Minutes! A Test for My Good Foods Festival Demo.

On March 21st (Yes I know today) I am doing a demo at the Good Food Festival at the UIC forum on how to make home made ramen noodles from scratch.  I only have 20 minutes to do the demo so I wanted to time myself.  I figured I might as well record the endeavor and put it up or others to learn from.  It's a rough video taken on my partner's phone, but I've received feedback that it's been useful for people none the less.  I hope by posting here that can continue.  Enjoy.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Restaurant Review: Uptown Inspiration Kitchen

So it's been a long time since I did a restaurant review, but then it's been a long time since I posted much of anything.  I've been eating my way around Uptown Chicago and decided that a couple of the places that I have completely fallen in love with need some more advertisement.  That seemed like as good a reason as any to dust off the old restaurant review format.

The first place I want to talk about is Inspiration Kitchen.  This is hands down the most amazing little hidden culinary gem I've come across in Chicago.  The reasons for it's excellence lie in it's mission.  It's not a for profit restaurant.  It is instead a small bistro/high end cuisine front end to a major social mission non profit.  The non profit that runs Inspiration Kitchen is named Inspiration Corporation and they do job training for people who are out of work.  I don't know exactly how the financing works, but I know that Chicago has work training financing available to people who are on unemployment, so I imagine Inspiration takes advantage of that program.  They also help their students navigate the food assistance infrastructure while they're in the program, and provide placement services to their students when they are done with training.

Here's what makes this so amazing.  They aren't training people to go work at a greasy spoon.  This is a 13 week intensive culinary program where they learn by making food at Inspiration Kitchen.  They get plating instruction, a broad array of preparation training, and real life experience with several different service models.  Brunch and Lunch are traditional restaurant menu models, while dinner is entirely Prix Fix.  The other nice thing is that because the restaurant is a non profit, and most of the people working the kitchen aren't employees the prices are amazingly low.  The average price on their menu runs between 9 and 10 dollars for a very high quality brunch or lunch service and a higher quality of ingredient than most restaurants can provide at that price point. The dinner Prix Fix is $22 for 3 courses or $36 for 5 courses.  That quality of service and food with that quantity at any other restaurant would be at least 40-60$ a person.

The other thing that makes Inspiration Kitchen a fantastic and unique experience is the wait staff.  At most restaurants at best waiting tables is a fun social job.  With very few exceptions your waiter isn't making a career out of what they're doing, and they certainly aren't "passionate" about it.  This is not true of Inspiration Kitchen at all.  The wait staff are either all or for the most part graduates of the program who have decided to stay on and continue to help with the restaurant (so explained my waitress on the first visit).  They are gregarious, fun, incredibly well informed about the food and the social programs the food facilitates and as a result the entire customer waiter/waitress experience is completely different from any other restaurant I've been to.  My servers have always been up beat, excited to see me, and quite honestly borderline flirty in some cases (in a very fun appropriate sort of way).  We have a standard brunch/lunch waitress, and she remembers everything we order, she knows James is vegetarian, and knows exactly which specials we will love and which ones we won't.  It brings all the friendliness I love about neighborhood greasy spoons together with high class cuisine.  To be honest I can't imagine any other establishment accomplishing that very difficult feat.

So now I've fawned all over Inspiration you're probably thinking "It's too good to be true this place sounds impossible".  Well . . . ok it is kind of impossibly awesome, but there are a couple downsides and I'd be remiss if I didn't talk about them a little bit.  The two big downsides to Inspiration are both tied to the fact that it's a training program.  The first and simplest one is just that the menu is fairly small.  the menu fits on a single sheet of white printer paper.  It's very attractive, and they update it every now and then as things come in and out of season but your options for any given service will be somewhat limited.  That said, given that it is a culinary training program at work this is hardly unreasonable, and I still guarantee you will find something you love on the menu.

The other downside is that the food preparation consistency isn't what it is at other restaurants.  Now when I say this I'm not necessarily talking about quality.  I've never gone in and gotten what I thought was an unacceptable meal for the price, ever.  That said the potatoes in the roasted potato hash at brunch are always cooked a little differently, the pancake thickness and texture will vary, as will the slaw on your fried chicken sandwich.  I've occasionally found chunks of sweet potato in the soup. etc. etc.  Aside from the very rare outright mistake like the hunks of sweet potato in the pureed soup a lot of these consistency things aren't really a problem.  It's more if you have a dish one day and it's absolutely how you like it and you always want it to be exactly like that. . . you may be a bit disappointed next time.  The trade off between consistency and quality is something that gets talked about quite a bit when you read articles about the business issues related to running a restaurant.  Customers will have something they like and they will never want it to change at all, ever.  When you're running a job training program that type of consistency is just not possible.

So the final note I want to make is about which services are the best at Inspiration.  I have a hard time choosing when service I prefer, but I honestly think my favorite is brunch.  Their lunch and dinner services are kind of a toss up for me.  I certainly go to lunch more often, but that has more to do with affordability than preference.  Much as their dinners are an absolute steal most nights I just don't need that much food.  Ultimately I'd say go in for brunch first, and then try their lunch services.  You'll end up doing dinner sooner or later just our of curiosity.  Once you've experienced the joy of their stuffed french toast you'll come back to a lunch or dinner service so you can taste the little bit of heaven that is deep fried brussel sprouts in herb aioli.  I've hated those little green beasties since I was a child.  Now I can't stop eating them.  Trust me, it's worth it.

Ambiance: 5 of 5
Service: 5 of 5
Food Quality: 4.5 of 5
Flavor Quality: 4.5 of 5
Cost/Value 5 of 5

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Countless Uses for Kefir Grains

A few months ago a friend of mine gave me just over a teaspoon of kefir grains.  I have practiced several different forms of fermentation over the past several years.  I've made home made sour cream, yogurt, kombucha, and kim chee.  I can honestly say that kefir is the easiest and most dynamically useful fermentation that I have played with.  It is also the easiest.  As I just gave some kefir grains to some other friends I thought it would be worth while to writeup my process for creating kefir, and the various ways that I process it.

First a teaspoon of kefir grains is enough to culture about a cup of milk over the course of a couple days.  If you use warm milk the process goes more quickly, but the kefir grains and milk can both be cold when you combine them, and everything will still culture correctly.  The culture needs to breath while it is cultivating.  To accomplish this I culture my kefir in a mason jar with a 2 layers of cheesecloth held in place by a mason jar ring.  However, the friend who first gave me his culture just left the lid loose on his kefir jars and never ran into any problems.  After a day you will want to taste your kefir to see if it is as sour as you would like it.  When the culture tastes how you would like it to taste then you strain out the grains.  I generally put the grains back into the mason jar that I did the culturing in, replace the cheesecloth with a normal lid and put the culture in the fridge till I am ready to use it again.  The culture is very hearty and I haven't had any problems leaving it for a week or longer between cultures.  Every few batches I rinse the grains off to avoid too much milky solid buildup.

If you let the culture go long enough it will become a full yogurt consistency at which point the curd will separate from the whey of the kefir.  This isn't necessarily a problem, and I often strain the whey for use in other products such as bread.  However, when you have a thick product it is difficult to get the kefir grains out without damaging them.  I take a fine mesh strainer and put the liquid in to it and then take a spoon or butter knife and run it sideways across the bottom of the strainer.  It's important to keep the side of the spoon vertical as opposed to angled so you don't push the grains down into the strainer making your product lumpy, and damaging the culture.  If you do this regularly it will breakup your grains, but as long as they aren't actually pushed through the strainer it won't cause any problems with future batches.

That is a basic rundown of how I make kefir.  It's nearly impossible to messup a batch.  The worst you can do is let it go "too long" and have it fully separate when you wanted a lightly sour smooth batch.  It's still a wonderful product, just a little different.  Kefir can stand in for buttermilk in all of it's uses.  I've used kefir to make buttermilk biscuits, pancakes, and even as a base culture for sour cream.  The sour cream turns out a bit less nutty and a bit more yogurt like than when you use buttermilk, but it still works in pretty much all the same ways. I've also strained the whey as a I said above and used it to make bread.  If you get a particularaly thick batch it eats almost exactly like yogurt.  We got through a ridiculous amount of kefir every week in my house, and I highly recommend this to anyone who's up for making some.  As I just gave out some culture it will be a little while before I have more to spare, but I'm sure I'll be able to give some away in a couple weeks.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Montezuma's Orange

So this is an absolutely brilliant drink my partner came up with last night on a whim.  I told him he had to send it to me so I could put it up in the hopes that someone else could experience it's wonder.  It's stupid simple, but wonderful in a way that I can't even express in words.

3 parts Godiva chocolate cream liqueur
1 part Cointreau
4-8 drops habaƱero tincture

Directions: pour, pour, drip, stir, drink

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Vegan Jambalaya

So I made this for a gaming get together with my friends the other night.  It was a throw things together kind of meal, but one of my friends asked for the recipe, so I tried to recreate what I did and figured I might as well post it here.  If anyone tries it let me know if any of it doesn't make sense or generally what you think.  I haven't really proofed the text, so it might be a bit rough.

2 cups brown long grain rice
1 cup lentils
6 cups water or salt free vegetable stock
1 onion
3 medium carrots
3 medium celery stalks
8 oz crimini mushrooms
1 bell pepper diced
1 zucchini diced
3 cloves garlic
2 cans of fire roasted tomatoes
a large pinch of oregano
a large pinch of thyme
hot sauce to taste
salt and pepper to taste
olive oil to just coat the bottom of pan

Saute your garlic and onion in a pan with the olive oil on high heat
until they start to brown and coat the bottom of the pan in a light
fond.  Then toss in the chopped carrots, and the herbs and continue to
toss until the fond develops into a medium dark color.  Deglaze the
pan with your water or salt free veg stock.  Rinse and go over your
lentils and add them to the simmer water and cook for 10 minutes.
Then add the rice and mushrooms and cook for 10 minutes or so.  Then
add the celery and cook for another 10 minutes.  Then add the
zucchini, bell peppers, canned tomatoes, salt and hot sauce to taste.
Simmer until the lentils and rice are tender.  If the mixture dries
out before the rice and lentils are as tender as you would like just
add additional water.  If you didn't have sodium free veg stock, but
want the veg flavor add veg bullion instead of salt in the final
stage, you just don't want to add salt until the lentils are done

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Infusions: Coffee

So somehow I missed doing a blog post on coffee flavored infusions back when that was my focus.  Someone asked me for the recipe for a coffee liqueur I did for a party a couple months ago and I figured I'd point them to my blog post . . . NO BLOG POST!!!  So here we go.

Coffee is a classic infusion flavor.  It is bright, brings some caffeine to the party, though in more natural quantities than those hopped up alcoholic energy drinks (shudder), and is among the most classic of flavors.  It's earthy, deep, slightly bitter, yet incredibly smooth when carefully balanced.  Unlike most other ingredients I've posted about there is quite a bit of complication in choosing your source ingredients.  Ginger is more or less ginger, blueberries are more or less blueberries and so on and so forth.  Certainly quality varies, but for the most part you either have "great fruit" or "mediocre fruit".  Coffee on the other hand comes in myriad varieties and beyond the basic quality concerns of freshness there is roast preference, the type of beans you prefer, how ground you want your beans to be, etc. etc.  Really it's all the same variables that go into a great cup of coffee, only applied to alcohol extraction instead of water extraction.  There is no "best bean" you will need to experiment a bit to find out what you like the most.  That said here are the things I recommend:

Go Dark: I like my coffee fairly nutty, but I like my coffee infusion to be fairly dark.  The alcohol doesn't take out much of the carbon bitterness of dark coffee, but it does take out the carmelization in the bean's sugars and the complex flavors that develop.  I've made some delicious liqueur from Turkish and espresso coffee.  That said a more moderate if still somewhat dark full city roast might bring a set of flavors to the party that you prefer.  As with all things, experiment.

Go Fresh: This I cannot emphasize enough.  Coffee gets stale over time, and depending on the nature of the coffee that time can be very brief indeed.  At one point, just to see if it would work I got the leftover espresso grounds from a local coffee shop and made liqueur out of them.  To explain what this is about, when you make a GOOD shot of espresso you overload your mechanism and then pack everything down.  This results in some of the grounds falling out.  It's just part of pulling a good shot.  Some techniques waste more or less coffee, but they all waste some grounds.  The liqueur I made tasted delicious, but for the first couple months of it's existence it smelled a bit like the garbage can.  I couldn't figure it out, but it was very disconcerting.  I do know that when coffee is ground that fine, and left out exposed to the air it goes stale very very quickly, and I've never had a similar effect with fresh coffee.  So go fresh, and avoid the smell of compost in your liqueur.

Ratios: I recommend about a cup of grounds to a 5th of liquor, though to be honest I rarely measure, so that is a very rough estimate.  You can't really let this infuse too long.  The joy of a cold alcohol infusion in coffee is it doesn't bring out all those unpleasant volatile bitter compounds that you find in a hot brew of the bean.

Flavor Profile: We've all had coffee.  This will be a somewhat less round version of the flavor, and much less bitter that a hot brew.  It can be slightly nutty, very deep, and excellent with all things cream, much like a normal cup of Joe.  The most traditional flavor to go with coffee liqueur is probably vanilla.  Kahlua is coffee and vanilla.  It's a sure fire hit.  Other good flavors are cacao, cinnamon, cardamom (hmmm Turkish Liqueur), and really any deep earthy spice.  As always experiment and see what strikes your fancy.