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!

Ingredients:

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