Friday, 24 January 2014

Tacos Fritos: The most awesome vegan food idea ever.

Hi everyone,
It's week 3 into the year and I haven't fallen off the blog-wagon yet!
I shut my eyes, and plonked my finger down onto the international dialling page of my (old fashioned paper) diary.
I opened my eyes and looked down... Honduras.
Is Honduras even a country? I've never heard of the place?  I realised my starting point for this weeks blog was going to be my know-all friend Google.
Before you all lambast me for my lack of geographical and cultural knowledge - let me give you a little bit of context... During my high school years I didn't really study geography.  In the "identified lower-socio-economic-area" (don't you love latte sipping middle class speak for "they're such bogans that we've called them bogans") High School I attended, we didn't study geography.
Back in those days (I'm old enough to say that now) we had a class that was called SOSE.  It was supposed to stand for "Studies of Society and Something or Other" or something along those lines.  During this class we learned a smattering of history, along with "society" studies.  In my high school this included informative and useful topics such as "How to fill out your Centrelink form" and "What you should do when you get arrested".  Note it wasn't "if" it was just assumed that the whole pack of "identified lower-socio-economic-area-persons" would get arrested at some point before they turned eighteen.
Hence - another one of my motivations for blogging about vegan food, and making vegan versions of food all over the world is to learn more about geography, different countries and cultures this year. 
So, where is Honduras?  It's in Central America, and sits in between Guatemala and Nicaragua.  So from that I was expecting some Spanish type influences to their local cuisine.  That's cool, I love Spanish food!  What's not to like? - lots of gutsy flavours with plenty of tomato and chilli, fun one-pot rice dishes, and really cool-sounding names for things. 
I did a little bit more research, to have a look at what kinds of things I'd be trying to make vegan this week, and learned that Honduran cuisine is pretty interesting!
The country is influenced strongly by Indian and Spanish cuisines, with tortilla bread being pretty much the most popular food.  It's not unusual for a house-hold to be preparing fresh home-made tortillas every day.  These are usually served as an open "Baleda" for breakfast - traditionally with fried eggs, cheese, sour cream and beans.  Okay, something like that would be a bit more of a challenge to do vegan.... but not impossible.
I keep reading, after that power-breakfast I wonder what a Honduran would be munching on for lunch?
It turns out the like soup - with either a red-bean or coconut milk base, they like rice and beans on the side, (hey great)! and they eat lots of fish (okay not quite my bag).
Then I discover the jack-pot.... Tacos Fritos.  Yes - it's what it sounds like.  Fried Taco.  I thought I was going to have to get the USA to find food this... well, fried.  Let's face it, I could have thrown a lentil soup recipe at you, or a rice'n'beans recipe at you, but let's face it, there's hundreds, if not thousands of recipes out there fitting that bill already.  So, I stepped up to the challenge of the Tacos Fritos... making my tortillas for my tacos from scratch like a proper Honduran would of course.
Here's the recipes.
Tortillas (Taco shells)
You won't get a regular hard crunchy taco shell - they will be a yellow coloured, soft-ish taco shell.  I discovered they're actually perfect for holding (well stuffed) and eating with one hand while continuing  to cook the rest of your batch of tortillas.
You will need:
1.5 cups of self-raising flour
0.5 cups of polenta
about 0.75 cups water
2 tbs vegetable oil (I used rice bran oil)
pinch of salt and pepper.
I used the dough blade on my food processor - placing the flour, polenta, seasonings in, and then slowly adding the oil followed by the water.  I found that I needed to just give it about a minute to form a dough.  You may need slightly more or less water, this will depend on the humidity, and on your flour.  Go slowly and remember - and remember you can always add more, but mixing is not a reversible process.
You will end up with a yellow ball of dough.  Mine was a little bit sticky - so I applied some flour to a board and kneaded the dough a bit, just to get it a little bit more cohesive and elastic without being super sticky.  You don't have to knead it like you would fresh bread though - you're not aiming to develop the gluten; as the tortillas will be flat.
I then broke off small balls of my tortilla dough, and rolled each one out to a thin roundish shape.  I'm not going to pretend they were perfect circles by a long shot.  I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the not quite perfect circle shape adds character.  You need to roll them quite thin - about 2-3mm thick.
I used baking paper to sit in between each tortilla so that they don't stick as you roll them and then put them aside ready to cook. 
To fill my tortillas, I got a little bit lazy - in that I made a very basic Spanish style bean mix, using red kidney beans, canned tomatoes and one of those packets of "taco spice mix".  In my defence it was a week night, and in addition to cooking for the blog I had to write an essay for my masters.
To turn your basic Taco into a Tacos Fritos you need to take about a tablespoon or so of your bean mix and place it into the middle of an un-cooked tortilla, and spread it up and down in a bit of a mo-hawk type stripe.  You want to then fold up the bottom of the tortilla so the beans are covered, then fold the right side over the beans, fold the top down, then roll up until all of the bean mix is contained inside the Taco like a neat package. 
Google described them as "flute shaped".  I've seen a flute, and I've seen my Tacos Fritos.  Mine were exceedingly fat and squat flutes - but I was okay with that. 
I heated a fry pan with a enough vegetable oil to cover the bottom. (in theory you could deep fry them - but shallow frying is more forgiving; if you deep fry and your taco is imperfectly sealed they will fall apart in the oil and make quite a mess) 
Once the fry pan was hot I placed in the tacos Fritos, and gave them a minute or so on each side - I modelled my Tacos Fritos on a rectangular prism- ensuring a deep golden-brown colour is achieved all the way around.  As the mixture inside is already cooked and warm, it's just about making sure the bread is cooked through.
I served my tacos fritos in a similar manner to how you'd serve enchiladas - I placed the fried tacos on a plate, and then topped with fresh salsa, guacamole and salad... I just couldn't have  a taco without guac.  You can eat yours as-is, or with condiments, it's up to you.
As to the taste review - I was really impressed.  The home made tortillas had a much more interesting texture and flavour than shop tortillas.  Frying them gave a crispy texture on the outside - and definitely was an interesting and different way to eat Tacos.  Thanks Honduras for the awesome Tacos Fritos.
I'll also include instructions to prepare the tortillas to use as a regular taco receptacle - as while the Tacos Fritos were good, you may want to make regular tacos with them too.  Here's the instructions:
You need a very very hot dry fry pan/wok/grill plate etc. to cook the tortillas.  Put your stove top on the highest setting.  Also - make sure you've got your window open and/or your fan going.  You will make some smoke while doing this, and you won't have time to be distracted by the smoke alarm.
Once your pan is as hot as it's going to get, place the tortilla(s) down on the pan - I fit 2 at a time in my pan, if you have a big pan and can fit more that's okay.
Stay in the kitchen - they will cook quite quickly.  Once you see raised "bubbles" or bumps on the tortilla surface it's ready to flip over.  There will be black (burnt) spots - they are just extra flavour and character. 
Use a spatula to flip them over.  Once the pan is super hot they will take between 10 and 30 seconds a side.
As each tortilla cooks stack them up on a plate - it's best if you use them while they're still warm.
Have a great week everyone :-)

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Megan makes Japan Vegan - Okonomiyaki

Before I blog all things Japanese and vegan, let me share a brief comment on the weather in Australia right now for the benefit of my international readers.  Holy shit it's hot.  We're in the middle of a heatwave almost completely covering the nation - we're experiencing the hottest and longest heatwave since the 1930's.

I'm not enjoying the hot weather, especially the hot nights.  I've been overheated, cranky and sleep deprived all week.  Even the cats that normally have a go at each other have been too tired to bother taking a swipe as they walk past.  It's "I hate you but can't be stuffed punching you" hot... which for a cat is scorching.

It was a struggle to summon the energy to cook this week, especially as I knew that cooking involved switching on either the stove or oven, and nobody in Australia has any desire to warm up their house this week!

I really love Japanese food - there's elements of everything from the modern, fusion type food you get at Wagamama (by the way guys - awesome job on labelling the vegan items on your menu, it's greatly appreciated)  to the ceremonial attitude towards food and eating; the tea ceremonies, the neat little bowls and the "rice and three sides" model.  I also love the rich savoury umami flavours, just about anything served in a bento format, vegan sushi and inari. 

I've loved Japanese food since I was a teenager - during the many years I spent studying the Japanese/American Karate style (Black Dragon Kenpo) I tried to soak up a few elements of Japanese culture beyond the fighting style, and honourable/warrior type folk lore.  I watched manga and even read the Hagakurae. 

Growing up in Melbourne I was spoiled - especially after starting university with the cute Japanese cafes on Swanston St - every Friday night after study and work I would traipse in and order either my favourite bowl of noodles, with the vegetables all lightly steamed and arranged beautifully and separately on top of delicious buckwheat noodles... or my favourite bento box, with agadeshi tofu, rice, miso soup, crisp salad, a potato croquette and fried greens in teriyaki sauce.

I thought carefully through my favourite Japanese vegan foods; fighting against lethargy from the heat and reduced apatite sapping my will to walk into the kitchen.

But then I fondly remembered something I used to always order at Japanese take-away shops before I became vegan (but was vegetarian); Okonomiyaki.  I just love saying and typing that word... what a cool word, there is literally no English translation for Okonomiyaki; which are essentially a Japanese vegetable pancake.  Normally they're made with a rather eggy pancake batter, hence why the take-away version isn't vegan.  I made Okonomiyaki at home this week, and my partner tried some as well.  She says I'm allowed to make them again, which is generally a good thing. 

Here's how you can make your own Okonomiyaki; my recipe makes 4 good sized pancakes, you'll need:

1/4 a green cabbage (either a good sized quarter, or half of a little cabbage)
1 cup mixed frozen veggies (ie the peas, corn and tiny little cubes of carrot type)
1/2 a bunch of spring onions
1 cup plain flour
1 1/2 cups soy milk (start with 1 cup and add the rest if you need it - will depend on the moisture content of your vegetables)
vegetable oil for frying (I used rice bran oil)
Teriyaki sauce
Mayonaise - squirty bottle preferred (if you don't want to spring extra cash for one with "vegan" written on the label, check the ingredient list on the 97% fat free and 99% fat free - they are made of 'fake' and are vegan!)

The first thing you need to do is finely slice/shred the cabbage.  Remove the outer leaves, and the 'heart' at the centre and give it a good wash.  It's really important that you shred it as finely as you can - you want the little strips of cabbage to be at most a couple of millimetres across. 

Place your shredded cabbage in a large mixing bowl with the cup of frozen veggies.  I mixed these veggies by hand - mainly because it was hot and I wanted an excuse to touch something frozen.  a spoon would also work fine.

Add the flour, then 1 cup of the soy milk.  Stir the mixture gently with a wooden spoon until it's well combined - it should look like it's majority cabbage, with the other vegetables poking out there and there, and mostly holding together as a batter type mixture.

Apply a generous amount of oil to the pan and heat up to a medium-high temperature.  You need the oil to completely cover the bottom of the pan, otherwise they'll stick, even with a non-stick pan.

Place a quarter of the mix into the hot pan - spreading and shaping until you have a 'pancake' that's about 1.5cm thick and as close to a round shape as you can get.  They do need to be completely cooked through - so that is about 5 minutes per side.  If you find that it's catching or getting a bit too dark too quickly, just reduce the heat a bit.  It's important that they're cooked through, as the texture of raw cabbage inside the pancake will reduce your enjoyment of the final product.

Place each cooked pancake aside, then wash and finely slice the spring onions.  Pat them dry with a tea towel, then fry them off in the hot oil - using the same pan and oil from the pancakes is fine, no need to do more dishes than you absolutely have to.

To serve (the word plate is not a verb) the Okonomiyaki, top each pancake with a generous amount of teriyaki sauce, then squirt a generous squiggle or spiral of mayo over each pancake.  Finally top with a sprinkle of the fried spring onions.

This is my favourite type of Japanese fast food, I hope you give it a go and enjoy it as well. 

I can't remember what country I'm going to do next week - it will be a surprise for all of us when I check my diary tomorrow.

Until then, stay cool :-).

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Megan makes Italy Vegan - Gremolata, Risotto and Sorbet.

Happy 2014 everyone! 


I decided to do something a different for my blog this year (yes like actually write in it for starters).  I’ve learned that I don’t do so well without a deadline or specified project (even if it’s arbitrary and self-imposed).  So this year, I’ve set myself a new vegan cooking and blogging challenge.


To be honest, I’ve had enough of most of my favourite celebrity chefs.  I’m sick of Jamie Oliver.  Every time I see him “smash something up” on a chopping board I want to wallop him over the side of the head.  “STOP IT JAMIE YOU’RE MAKING A MESS!!!” I shout at the television. 


I don’t know how Hugh gets time to dig in his garden and do all that country stuff with the amount of time he spends in front of the camera extolling the virtues of the quiet river-cottage life, while tut-tutting at anyone who would DARE eat the odd microwave meal while watching TV in their apartment after a long day at work.


 Poor Nigella – my favourite ever TV chef having her name dragged through the mud by that loser ex hubby with a penchant for DV; that being said who didn’t snigger briefly every time she was on TV this Christmas sprinkling icing sugar over something?


 I can’t stand the sound of Donna Hay’s voice, I just can’t share Maggie’s passion for figs, verjuce and nut brown butter, Whenever I see Rick on TV all I can do is shout “you home wrecking tramp!” then feel very sorry for that poor little wire-haired terrier. If I see Janella stick coconut fat and nuts in a Magi-mix one more time and call it healthy I’ll need a bex and a good lie down; and while I still think Richo is pretty cool, the challenge of making a vegan version of a suckling pig is probably a step too far for this humble home cook and blogger.


Clearly I need to do something new – so I had a think about what’s changed for me and what hasn’t.  It’s no surprise to anyone that I still love cooking, and I still love being vegan.  I also still very strongly think that everyone should be able to have great food, and that nobody should have to miss out on flavour.  I still also think that vegan cooking and food needs to be demystified – it’s just regular food. 


Just when I was ready to switch off the TV and do something useful over my Christmas break, Food Safari came on. 


“Hello Maeve” I say to the TV.  Maeve is lovely.  She’s also got a pretty awesome job, trying cuisine from all over the world, while wearing an assortment of unique and artistic colourful tops teamed with beautifully fitting jeans.  I wonder if I can do a vegan food safari?  I don’t have the camera crew or colourful tops and I strongly doubt that people will just randomly start inviting me over to cook vegan food for me so I can eat it while saying “mmm” “hhmmm!” while looking coyly away from the camera. 


So the format is going to have to be pretty much me cooking stuff at my house (bonus I get to eat stuff, and stay in my pyjamas!)

I’m going to call this year “Megan makes the world vegan”.  Clearly expecting all 7 billion or so of us to go vegan over the course of this year is probably what a business buzz word lover would call a “stretch-target”. 

So instead, I did what any sensible person would do, and allocated a random country to each week of the year, with a planned break over Easter and a knock off in mid December.

Partly by default as this is what I’ve been cooking; Week 1 of 2014 is going to be Italy.  After this week, I'll be pulling a random country out of a hat.  My list of countries is as per the international dialling code list in the front of my 2014 diary - so if it has a country code it's classed as a country for the purposes of this blog.

Italian food is awesome.  I’m yet to find a person when offered a suggestion of Italian food for dinner says “nope… can’t think of anything Italian I’d like to eat today.  The cuisine is complex, and dates back literally to Roman times.  Imagine life without Italian food.  No olives, pasta, pesto, pizza, minestrone, risotto, arancini, gelato….. Actually stop that.  Don’t imagine the world without those yummy things.  It’s just too sad.

One of the interesting recipes I found this week needed no modification to make it Vegan – that’s the wonderfully zesty and zingy Italian condiment, Gremolata.  Traditionally gremolata is used to season Osso Bucco (a meat stew) but you could use the gremolata to top pasta, risotto, grilled tofu, veggie burgers or all sorts of things.  Also, it’s very quick and easy to make. 


You will need the following things:

Bunch of parsley (flat or curly leaf is fine)

1 lemon – both the rind (without any of the white pith) and the juice.

About 4 tablespoons of sesame seeds

Salt and pepper to your taste.

If you have a blender or food processor just loosely chop the parsley, and chuck everything in, adding salt and pepper to your taste after wizzing it up.  If you’re going by hand, then chop the parsley and lemon rind as finely as you can, then mix it in a bowl with the lemon juice and sesame seeds, seasoning at the end.

I made some four days ago and have stored it in a glad bag in my fridge.  It still seems fine – though I imagine it would be okay to freeze as well if you wanted to keep it for longer.  I’ve found that it goes great on top of a pasta dish or a risotto along with a dollop of Tofutti.  It adds a lovely bright green splash of colour to the plate along with the zesty fresh flavour.

The next dish I made this week was a pumpkin risotto.  Risotto is another one of those Italian dishes that lends itself very easy to making vegan.  Here’s how I did mine.

-Half a butternut pumpkin diced into smallish cubes

-One onion, diced.

-3 bay leaves

-1 table spoon crushed garlic (from a jar is fine)

-about 1 cup of white wine

-6 cups of hot vegetable stock (I used the Massel “Chicken Style”)

-2 cups of rice (I used 1.5 cups Arborio rice, and 0.5 cup brown rice)

-About a table spoon of olive oil (to be honest I didn’t measure it I just poured a little bit into the bottom of my pot).

-salt and pepper to taste


I put a big pot on to a low stove heat with the olive oil and garlic in.  I then got to work dicing my onion and pumpkin.  By the time I finished cutting the vegetables the oil had heated up and was ready for the garlic and bay leaves to go in for a minute or so.  I then put the pumpkin and onion in and gave it a stir to coat with the oil. 


Once the onion goes a bit translucent (it loses the white colour) put the rice in, and stir to coat the rice with olive oil. 


Pour in the wine, and crank the stove heat up to about half of maximum. (Your stove may be different; if the pot doesn’t sound like it’s bubbling shortly after putting the wine in then you may need to crank it up some more.  If the thing sizzles and spits at you immediately then you may need to turn it down a bit).


Once the wine has nearly evaporated then you need to add in the first cup of stock.  Traditionally a risotto is made by slowly doling in ladles of stock from another big pot on the stove on low heat next to the risotto pot. 


I have a lazier method.  I boil the kettle and prepare hot stock one cup at a time using either the cubes or powder.  If you wanted you could also buy the liquid stock in the carton, decant it into a suitable jug and microwave it.


Also, rather than ladling in a spoon at a time, I add a cup at a time, meaning that you can leave it to its own devices for a couple of minutes at a time, as long as you stir it well after each addition, and are careful to keep the heat fairly low so it doesn’t boil dry the moment you turn your back.


Basically, you add the stock a cup at a time (so 6 additions in total) stirring after each.  The whole thing should take somewhere between half an hour and forty-five minutes to be finished cooking.  The mix of brown and Arborio rice will give you a traditional thick risotto texture, with a little bit of chewiness and flavour from the brown rice.  I topped my risotto with the gremolata and enjoyed it with a lovely glass of pinot gris a friend gave my partner and I for Christmas. 


You could also top it with your preferred cheese substitute, such as the commercially available parmesan sprinkly products, or some nutritional yeast (sadly you can't get either of these in a regular supermarket - you'll need to either order online or check out a reasonably well stocked health-food shop). 

You can’t finish a lovely meal without dessert, so I also learned how to make fresh fruit sorbet.  I was amazed at how easy it is to make – and the frugal part of me wonders if I can bear spending over 5 bucks a litre for the stuff again.

You’ll need the following.

-About a kilo of fresh fruit.  You could use berries, kiwifruit, mango, pineapple, peach, nectarine etc.  You may need to adjust the recipe a bit for things like citrus or bananas – as their texture and sugar profile is a bit different.  Don’t let that stop you giving it a shot if you see some cheap at the market though!

-2/3 a cup of sugar.

-2/3 a cup of water.

You’ll need to make sugar syrup out of the water and sugar, by heating them in a pot until completely dissolved.  Don’t let it boil for ages so that the syrup cooks down to a brown toffee, but don’t panic if you turn your back for a minute and it’s boiled a little bit.  If you’re feeling fancy here, you could have a go at flavouring your sugar syrup with a spritz of lemon juice, or a splash of rose water or orange blossom water.

You need to let the sugar syrup cool down, ideally to room temperature. 

Peel and roughly chop the fruit.  You can use a stick blender if you’re careful – you may wish to manufacture a shield over your bowl out of a tea-towel, or cardboard cut so as to let the blender in, but to protect your ceiling from luridly coloured fruit splatters.

Blend the fruit and sugar syrup until it’s completely mashed.  You do need actual sugar, and not a sugar substitute, as the sucrose in the table sugar affects the properties of the fruit as it freezes.

Once you’ve blended your fruit mix, transfer it to a plastic container of some sort (a recycled sorbet container is fine, or a lunch-box type container is fine… or several small ones if you don’t have a big one on hand) and pop it in the freezer.

Check on it once an hour, and stir it through with a fork.  As soon as it’s a texture and temperature you enjoy, it’s ready to eat.  If it gets a bit too hard, you can just remove it from the freezer and leave it out for about fifteen minutes to soften up – then if you prefer the soft-serve type texture, you can stick it in your blender or food processor and give it a quick wiz. 

Okay so that was 3 very easy Italian recipes.  As a bonus, this week was not just vegan, but gluten-free too. 

As luck would have it, next week the random country generator has indicated that I’m making Japan vegan next.  Until then, take care and don’t hesitate to let me know how it worked out (or didn’t) if you’ve tried any of these recipes.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Pasta for the people - All of the people

Pasta is awesome right? - it comes in all sorts of shapes, sizes, assortments, you can get ravioli filled with yummy vegetables, you can have it in a light salad, with a rich and hearty sauce, as a side to mop up the joooo from a yummy stew.... I've even seen chocolate flavoured pasta in speciality shops so you don't have to miss out on the yummy pasta goodness for dessert.

How could such an innocent product be bad?  Of course this is a rhetorical question - I'm going to tell you exactly how it can be bad (and not in a food poisoning kind of way though that would be bad too)

I'm sure you've all been aware of the Barilla controversy.  Let me sum it up for you if you don't like clicking on the link.

Barilla CEO made a public statement that he would never depict a gay couple in his pasta adds, and that gays could simply choose to eat another pasta if they wished.

After much controversy - and the good folk in Barilla's PR department (poor buggers) gave their CEO a bit of a talking to; the CEO apologised for his statement, going on to say that he identified his pasta brand with a strong family image, and didn't want to use gays in his add as he felt that "women were the heart of the family."

Ahhh - a solution exists.  Here's a family with women at the heart.

Firstly - Congratulations to Carrie and Camille on the very healthy and happy looking additions to their family.  Also, Carrie, thank you for being a strong, proud and visible member of Canberra's community.  Finally, Go Caps!.

The upshot of the whole Barilla "gays can go and have another pasta" issue is this... yep, we can take our pink dollar to another pasta manufacturer or we can make our own fresh pasta at home.  Scroll down through my blog and you'll find a lovely fresh pasta recipe.

I'm going to share below my "bolognaise" recipe.  It's easy to make, basically it's just like a traditional bolognaise, but with red lentils instead of minced meat.

For those of the vegan persuasion, check out the dried pastas on the shelf at the shops rather than the fresh ones which can be made with eggs.  There are heaps of brands and varieties.  For those who are gluten-free, there's plenty of options at the regular supermarket, usually in the "allergy" section.  Or you could just have the bolognaise sauce with some rice - it will still taste really good.

Here's the recipe.
Bolognaise sauce - makes enough for you and your visitors.
Start with:
a splash of olive oil
1 heaped teaspoon of crushed garlic (from a jar is totally fine)

Put a big heavy-based pan on a medium heat, with the oil and garlic.

While the pan is heating up...
Dice one onion
2-3 sticks of celery
and a carrot (or if you have a food processor you can chop them using that)
and grab yourself a bay leaf or two.

Once the garlic is sizzling quietly, add the vegetables and bay leaf to the pan and give it a good stir.

While that's going on, get yourself the following items.
1 cup of red lentils (dried ones)
1 can of crushed tomatoes
1 jar of commercial tomato based pasta sauce (most of these are vegan - watch out for the sneaky "tomato and bacon" flavour ones if you're keeping it fully vegan)
A splash of white wine (leave the splash in the bottle for now - but just have it on hand for when we need it.)

Once the onion is transparent, there's likely to be a few bits of garlic and other detritus slightly sticking to the bottom of the pan.  That's okay - in fact that's good.  Even if you've gotten it all a bit more stuck than you wanted, that's all good too.  Get your splash of white wine and splash it into the pan.  Stir the vegetables around with a wooden spoon the wine will boil rapidly and help pick up all those bits from the bottom of the pan.

Once most of the wine has evaporated (the alcohol content will cook off as well) drop the bay leaves (or just one) into the pan. 

Follow it with the can of crushed tomatoes, and the jar of pasta sauce.  Rinse the can out with half a can of water, and do the same with the jar - putting the lid back on and giving it a good shake, pouring the rinse into the pasta sauce.

Once the sauce has come to a simmer, add the red lentils, giving it a good stir.

Keep it at a simmer for about 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

After 15 minutes get yourself the following items
A spoon to taste
salt and pepper

Taste the sauce - making sure you pick up a lentil or two in the taste test.  Ask yourself the following.
Are the lentils cooked yet? - they should be soft, not at all crunchy or hard.
Does it taste like what I want?
If yes - fantastic, you're done!
If not evaluate as follows.
-Too sweet?
Add a bit of salt and pepper to taste, stir and test again.
-Not herby enough?
Consider adding some dried herbs like basil or oregano.  Start with 1/2 a teaspoon of each dried, then step it up to meet your needs.
-Too acidic?
Sometimes this happens with canned tomatoes.  Add a teaspoon of nuttelex, stir through well.  That will take the edge off any excess acidity from the tomatoes.
-Want it to have some kick?
-Add a little bit of chilli.

And there you have it - Pasta sauce for the people.  Just cook your preferred pasta size, shape, colour, type, or even some rice, polenta, gnocchi.... or whatever you'd like with it, and enjoy! 

If you'd like to stick on a vegan pasta garnish in the absence of parmesan cheese, you could give the following a go to 'tart up' the final product.

-Garnish with a sprig of parsley or some fresh basil leaves

-Roast a cherry truss tomato in the oven (with olive oil at about 180 for about 15 mins) - leave the green stalk on, and plonk on top of your pasta dish at the end of cooking.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Megan empowers you to make vegan chocolate avocado cup cakes

Some of you have dreamed of this day.  Waited eagerly.  Maybe even salivated a little. 

I am sharing my recipe for vegan chocolate avocado muffins.  The idea of chocolate and avocado as a food combination is not a new one.  A lot of chinese resturants/cafe's will offer a chocolate avocado smoothie on their drinks menu.  To be honest, I've always been a bit skeptical.  I've always thought that avocado is for guacamole and guacamole alone.  I've had a Steven Covey-esque paradigm shift on this one.  Avocado is not just for guacamole, it's for cup cakes too!

Some time ago, a friend with a high-pitched voice and appropriately asymmetrical hair gave me a vegan food challenge - to make something delicious that combined chocolate and avocado.  I debated a few ideas in my mind before finally setlling on making these cup cakes with chocolate fudgy icing.  I gave them to the friend with the high pitched voice and appropriately asymmetrical hair as a thank you gift for feeding my cats while I was away from home over a weekend.

The positive feedback on rich, indulgent and delicious flavour of these cup cakes was so good that I've made them several times since.  I think part of the reason they work so well as a vegan indulgence is that quite often vegan cakes use tofu to replace the dairy component.  Usually, this works just fine; but for some flavours the nutty/soy-ish flavour of the tofu can permeate through.

The avocado has a much milder flavour, but it's texture is a great analogue for butter in this recipe. It gives you the best of both worlds, by helping the chocolate cake to be rich and moist, without lending that background of soy flavour.  It's perfect for vegan cakes, and would be also great for anyone who needs to avoid dairy food, or reduce saturated fat intake.  The omega 3 fatty acids in avocado are good for you.

The avocado also takes the place of butter in a rich fudgy icing, alowing the chocolate flavour to play the lead role in this treat.

Here's the recipes, it makes a lot of cup cakes but trust me, you'll need them.

You will need:

Dry ingredients
3 cups self raising flour
1/2 a cup cocoa powder
1/2 a teaspoon salt
2 cups sugar

'wet' incredients
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 ripe avocado
2 cups water
2tsp vanilla essence
2tbs white vinegar

You will have to:
Pre-heat your oven to 180C, lightly grease (cooking oil spray is fine) your muffin trays and set them aside.

In a big bowl; combine all of the dry ingredients.

In a seperate bowl mash the avocado until completely smooth.  This will take a few minutes if you're doing it by hand with a fork, you could be forgiven for using a blender or food processor for this job.

Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients, then add the vanilla essence, vinegar, avocado and oil.  Mix to incorporate a little.

Add the water bit-by-bit until you have a glossy smooth cake batter.

Dispense the cake batter into the cup-cake trays.  You will get 8-10 big cupcakes or anywhere up to 24 miniature cupcakes.

Place the cup cakes in the oven.  They will take about 10-18 minutes to cook, depending on your oven and the size of your cupcakes.

Once they're cooked, remove from the oven and let them call in the trays for a few minutes before turning out onto a cooling rack.

Now, you can make the icing.  You will need.

1 avocado
3 cups icing sugar
1/2 cup cocoa powder
2tsp vanilla essence
2tbs golden syrup

Mash the avocado until smooth.  My comments RE blenders/food processors remain valid here.
mix the vanilla essence and golden syrup with the avocado. 

Sift the icing sugar and cocoa into a large bowl, then incorporate the avocado mixture.  You may need to add a small amount of water to get the texture right. (it should be thick and fudgy, so that it will stick to the under-side of a knife or a spoon).  If your icing is too dry add a little water.  If it's too wet, add a little more icing sugar.

Place the icing in the fridge and leave there until the cup cakes are at room temperature. Leave it for at least an hour or so.

Spread the icing on top of the cupcakes, feel free to add any other decorations you like.  Be creative and have fun.

So, there it is.  You are now empowered to make your own delicious vegan chocolate avocado cupcakes.  How on earth am I ever going to convince anyone to feed my cats for me again?

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Megan's (mostly) vegan food adventure

Hello readers,

I've just returned from a holiday in Fiji, which sounds utterly delightful.  However, a pleasant blog about a pleasant holiday would be a direct violation of Murphy's law, so I'll tell you about what actually happened in Fiji.

The trip was taken a bit at last minute, I was needed to fill a gap on a group trip due to cancellation.  Rather than have everyone on the trip miss out, I arranged leave from work, organised my travel insurance and packed a suitcase full of books and swimsuits for a tropical adventure.  I pictured myself strolling to a little village, buying fresh mangoes from little pop-up roadside markets, and eating all manner of lovely fresh vegetables with plenty of rice.  Yes, you guessed it faithful reader, time for the record scratch.

The group trip ended up actually being at a villa, about a three hour drive from Nadi, which for the astute geographers amongst you will realise is pretty much the opposite side of the island.  I was in fact, almost completely isolated.  Never fear, the group stopped at the supermarket near the airport to stock up on supplies to group-cook at the villa.  I was told to relax, there would be plenty of vegetarian options.

The experienced vegans reading this may share a knowing nod with me now.  There is a difference  between vegan and vegetarian, and sometimes that difference requires vegans to be seasoned and experienced label readers, picking up all manner of trace ingredients that sneakly put animal products into your food.

I manage to during the group shop grab myself a liter of soy milk and a large box of Oreos.  Little did I know how much I would be needing these two rather average food items in the days to come.

The morning of day 2 of my Fiji adventure dawned.  I breakfasted on white bread toast, with marjarine (probably not vegan, but the toast came kindly 'buttered' before I could inspect the container) and a glass of soy milk.  About three hours after this breakfast I manged to accidentally take a header off a 3 meter sheer cliff.  I hit my head on a rock and lost consciousness.  I came to back at the holiday villa with my partner holding me and talking to me.  "Just let me go to sleep" I say.  She kept me awake, kept talking to me and by doing so most likely saved my life.  My concussion was quite severe, and I'm in fact still recovering from it now.  Having an accident or injury while on holiday is never fun, especially when you're in a non-first world country where medical resources are fairly limited.  While I'm confident the Fijian doctor I saw (Dr Raam) was really friendly and knowledgeable, his proscription of panadine forte and Fiji bitter was probably not what I'd be getting in an Australian hospital.

The unfortunate side effect of falling off the cliff is that I spent most of the holiday bed-ridden.  My partner stayed by my side after the injury to care for me.  Sadly, this meant that we couldn't access the group food, or participate in shopping trips to make sure that food we could eat was purchased.  While not vegan, there are some foods my partner can't eat.  Finding meals that satisfy us both at home is generally easy, but is a bit more of a challenge while travelling.  The three days after my injury involved some pretty serious starvation.  My partner and I shared the box of oreo cookies, with no real meals for about seventy two hours.

Imagine our delight when we are informed the locals would be cooking a Fijian feast for us at the villa, after nothing but Oreos for a few days.  I was told that there would be a vegetable curry.  The night of the feast rolled around, our stomachs gurgled in hunger and anticipation.  I must say that never before has the word feast been so badly used.  The table was laden with fish curries, roasted chicken and pork dishes wrapped in taro leaves.  The vegan options included dry baked potatoes with the unmistakable odour of keroene, an iceberg lettuce salad, a pumpkin curry (so popular and delicious that I managed to scrape one mouthful for myself after the bowl had made it's way down to my end of the table) and cold baked taro.  The smell of fish permeated everything and I struggled to eat a few mouthfuls of potato as nausea struggled against hunger.  My partner and I held hands and walked off to our bed, united in our disappointment.

The next morning, day 4 of our 9 day trip a nearby resort opened it's doors to us, after being closed for a wedding function.  We stroll in at 8am, eager for breakfast.  My partner orders herself a cooked breakfast with all the trimmings, absolutely delighted to be having a full meal again.  I read through the menu carefully, sighing.  There's nothing on the menu that's vegan, or can be made vegan with a modification.  The closest thing is a serving of banana and coconut pancakes.  At home, I'd make the dish with coconut milk and mashed banana, using a little chick-pea flour to replace the egg.  I can only realistically expect that this resturant has used eggs in their pancakes, and probably not ethical free-range eggs. 

I make a difficult decision, one that most vegans have had to make at some point; the choice between going hungry or eating something that doesn't sit well with your ethics.  I ordered the pancakes.  I hadn't had a propper meal in about four days, and my body was screaming out for some nourishment so it could start healing from the injury I had suffered.  I discussed it with my partner at the table, she understood how seriously I felt about the situation, and how much it matters to me to be vegan, to live my ethics.  She very rightly pointed out though that skipping a meal at this point would be very bad for my health, I was still struggling through the concussion from my head injury and wasn't fully sure how much of my light headedness at the time was due to the injury, or purely due to hunger. 

The choice I made is commonly referred to in vegan circles as 'the Paris excuse'.  The idea is that, while travelling, or in a situation where vegan food is not available, a vegan can make a decision to eat something not vegan, but return to full veganism as soon as they are back in their normal environment, without losing the title of being a vegan.  I feel that this scenario already comes in under the definition of a vegan; namely a person who does all they can to minimise all forms of animal exploitation through rejection of animal products in all consumable items.  In the luxury of Australia's national capital, 'all that I can' is quite a lot; there's a vegan cupcake shop a 2 minute walk from my office.  In a remote town in Fiji, 'all that I can' isn't quite so much.

The final days of the holiday were made quite lovely by the wonderful resort staff, who did introduce me to one local delicacy, fried coconut.  The recipe is quite simple; you take a fresh coconut, open it (generally with a sharp knife and strong hand... be careful don't cut yourself!).  Take the solid flesh of the coconut and cut it into chip shaped wedges, remove most of the furry bit of the outer brown skin.  Fry the coconut in hot oil, then baste generously with sweet chilli sauce when done.  These are a common 'bar snack' over in Fiji.

The holiday eventually wraps up, and we make our homeward journey.  I buy myself a packet of pringles to munch on the journey home.  The trip home involves a 3 hour bus ride, followed by a five hour flight, followed by another 3 hour drive.  I wasn't sure of finding food at the airport or on the plane.

My partner and I breathe a sigh of releif as we touch down at Sydney Airport and clear our way through customs.  I stand at the baggage carousel clutching the half full box of pringles.  One of the people from the group I was travelling with makes their way up to me.  They begin to question the ingredients on the box of pringles, going on ot suggest that it contains traces of dairy product.  The woman squeaks at me "As a vegan I thought you wouldn't eat something like that?"  I'll confess, My response wasn't as diplomatic as it could have been.  I snapped back "Do you really want to have a debate on this with me right now?"  She harumphed and stalked away to the other end of the baggage carousel.

Perhaps, I should have wipped out my copy of "but you kill ants don't you?" and explained to her that veganism is never really a perfect black and white activity, but a constant aspiration.  Perhaps I could have explained to her that hunger was the most common sensation I felt during the trip, behind pain from my injuries.  But really, I just couldn't be bothered justifying myself to someone who was  a meat eater.

This kind of harsh assessement happens to vegans and vegetarians quite regularly.... the number of times I've been asked "are those leather shoes?" "is that a wooly jumper?" I realised that this woman assiginging herself as the vegan purity police, Sydney Airport international baggage carousel region was essentially doing the same thing.  One theory is that this is a bit of tall poppy syndrome.  Vegans are trying to walk the talk.  To really live their values.  They should be applauded for it.  Vegans are also people, trust me I'm a very regular normal person, I do the best I can, but sometimes that just isn't perfect.

The holiday wasn't all bad though, in fact in line with my theory that the universe is all about balance, something very wonderful happened to couteract all the nastiness of near-death experience and vegan haters.   Despite the adversities we faced, my partner and I pulled together and made a great team, dealing with all the problems we encountered together.  We agreed that regardless of what challenges life manages to throw at us, we want to face them as a couple.  Shortly after our return to Australia (after a CT scan to confirm that I've suffered no brain damage) we ordered rings to celebrate the commitment. 

Next blog, I promise you a propper recipe..... the much requested and rather popular chocolate avocado muffins with fudgy chocolate icing.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Vegan snack extravaganza

For once, I'm not starting this blog with an apology.  Yes, it's been a while since I've blogged.  Masterchef is well and truly over, Andy in all his boyish glory is of all things off to open a mexican resturant with his bestie Ben.  All the best to Bendy in their mexican ventures.

As some of my faithful readers who know of me in the 'real world' may have worked out, I've been busy doing other things; being happily swept off my feet and also a bit of being there for my urban family.  See, all good worthy and important stuff.  Nothing to apologise for.

Recently, I've also been spending a lot more time than I'm accustomed to in front of the TV; doing my patriotic duty of cheering on the Aussies to proud maritime glory in the olympics.  Something else I've been doing while watching TV, is a lot of snacking (who said I wasn't a multi-tasker).

Even better, I've been snacking away happily with a friendly bunch of non-vegans as we worked to keep our energy levels up while we cheered the aussies on to olympic awesomeness.  I have been thoroughly spoiled, with massive amounts of care and effort lavished upon me to ensure that there was something available for me to munch on; so I wasn't left out when snacking with the gang in front of the TV.

This experience has made me realise that my blog has a bit of a hole in it.  Just like your "three squares" which can be either vegan or not vegan in equal degrees of deliciousness, vegan snacks are just like any other non-vegan snack.  Vegan snacks can cover the full spectrum of bite-size, crunchy, savoury, sweet, spicy, chewy, hot or cold.  There's a vegan snack for every palate and occasion.

Here's a few vegan versions of classic snacks, there's no real preparation or cooking involved.  I took a trip to my local supermarket and searched the shelves high and low until I found an adequate selection.

You don't get much more classic than the "chip'n'dip" a feature of many classic aussie gatherings since I first remember.  These days the the supermarket is full of great vegan dips.  For those who don't like reading labels, hommous is always a safe bet.  It would take a strange producer indeed to put anything animal related into a tub of hommous.  Also try eggplant dip (baba ganoush) or beetroot dip, almost all of the regularly available ones are vegan.  Also tomato salsa (found in a jar in the chip aisle) is vegan.  Sadly, it's pretty much impossible to get a completely vegan guacamole, they all seem to be 'padded out' with cream cheese.  Making your own is very easy though, you could make a super lazy version by just mashing some avocado with a little lemon or lime juice on top to prevent the fruit from enzymatic browning.

To dip into your awesome dips, there's heaps of stuff.  A surprisingly large selection of chips are vegan, the plain corn-chips, plain, salt and vinegar and some of the BBQ flavours are fine.  Moving beyond chips, there's also heaps of other crunchies, give some seaweed flavoured rice crackers, grissini (bread sticks) ryvetas, water crackers and for a last surprise, BBQ shapes are all vegan.  Also, I'm stating the obvious here but, some vegetable crudites are always popular, try carrot, celery, cucumber and capsicum cut into sticks.  I wanted to check out the savoury shapes to see if they're vegan too, but they were on a really tall shelf and I couldn't reach a packet to check the label.  Readers, let me know if you have better luck than me?

Anti-pasto can either be a vegan disaster zone, with a plates loaded with different smoked meats and sausages, and no vegetables in sight, or it can be vegan snack heaven.  Your supermarket deli has heaps of great vegan stuff to add to an antipasto (antipasti?) plate.  Try stuff like sun-dried tomatoes, olives, marinated capscium, grilled eggplant and artichoke hearts.  For something a bit more substantial, try some dolmades, they are rice and lentils cooked with spices wrapped in a grape vine leaf. 

Traditionally, I would busily load myself up on crackery type snacks so that I'm not starving hungry when the rest of the party-goers start tucking into the inevitible party pies and sausage rolls.  The good news is now that vegans can have heaps of hot snacks without having to scour the freezer looking for a box labelled vegan specifically.  Frustratingly, some companies will make you pay through the nose for those 5 little letters on the front of the box, when an inspection of the ingredient list shows their product is very basic to produce, usually made from lentils and veggies and should be very cheap to produce.  Now that I'm past my rant, here's a vew hot vegan snacks that can be easily thrown into the oven to cook up with no fuss.  Try things like potato wedges, potato gems, hash browns or veggie spring rolls and dim-sims.  There are a few specialised items in the freezer section; a company called "Syndian" will sell you items labelled as vegan and gluten free for a price.

Finally, this blog on snacks would not be complete without a brief chat about sweets.  You can get some lovely vegan sweets at the supermarket.  For those who don't want to read labels and don't want any concern over weather the item is 'fully vegan' or not, there's quite a few things speficially labelled as vegan.  You will find them in the health food aisle, and include rum-balls, white and 'milk' chocolate, chocolate mintons and even a vegan version of tim-tams. 

If you don't want to blow more than five bucks on a single packet of biscuits, there's a few more options available.  Gingernut biscuits and Choc Ripple biscuits are both vegan... yep, totally vegan.  How cool is that.  If you want something that's a bit more of a treat and have time to do it, the Lindt 70% and higher chocolates are vegan; they come in blocks, but if you have time to melt some and dip strawberries in it, you'll have a very pretty mini-dessert.  If you want a cold dessert, you'll find soy ice-creams in the freezer section; and most sorbets are vegan. 

To all those who host vegan house guests, thank you.  I, and every other vegan are incredibly grateful for your understanding and effort in attempting to feed us. 

Until next time, take care and make sure you eat something yummy!