Sunday, February 27, 2011

What to Cook When Your Spouse Turns on You

What do you do when the person you thought you knew better than anyone else suddenly turns into something entirely different? What happens when you discover your most fundamental beliefs about the dearest person in your life turn out to be wrong? And most importantly, what the hell do you feed this person once this happens?

My story began one afternoon about six years ago with a series of increasingly desperate voicemails from my husband. When I finally caught up with him, he told me his internist, who had just seen the results of a routine blood test, had called him at work and ordered him to reduce his cholesterol level radically within a few months or else.

What the doctor said must have been far, far worse than that, because my husband declared that from that day forward, he’d be quitting cholesterol cold turkey. Starting now, we would have no animal fats in the house. Period.

“It’s the only way to get things better quickly," he said."We have to go vegan.”

‘We’ ?? What did he mean, ‘we’?

My husband. A vegan. This coming from a guy who treasured rare filet mignons and hunks of Gorgonzola above all other foodstuffs. A guy who thought buttering hot dog buns was a perfectly reasonable thing to do. A man who believed that no foodstuff couldn’t be improved by a melted cheese or a fried egg topping (or if sweet, a scoop of vanilla ice cream). You know those soap-opera turning points when a woman comes home to find her husband wearing her underwear and lipstick? It was kind of like that.

But I soon discovered that keeping vegan at home wasn’t as hard as I thought. This was in large part because I got to cheat with impunity: at the time, I was working as a pastry cook in a fancy beach resort, and the pastry chefs generously allowed us peons to snack on pretty much anything we wanted in the kitchen. So by time I got home every night, my hair smelled of chocolate and butter and I was thoroughly bloated on brownies, chocolate-chip cookies, and those endless rows of mini lemon tarts that I squirted with meringue and browned with a welding torch. And when I was home, I was happy and relieved to cook things that didn’t require separating dozens of eggs or whipping up gallons of cream. I enjoy veggies and beans in any case, so our vegan meals at home felt tonic and refreshing.

There were a few things that were truly agonizing to give up, though. The biggest one was cheese. My hubby and I LOVE cheese. Soy cheeses sort-of simulate the plastickly meltiness of cheap processed stuff, and brewers’ yeast is a wholesome near-doppelganger for that orange powder in boxed mac and cheese, but nothing in the vegetable world can approximate the nutty, funky, winy notes of a good Brie or Manchego. Or so I thought.

On one of my days off from the hotel, I was eating lunch at a Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant not far from home. As to be expected in a Vietmanese eatery, my table held a tantalizing assortment of condiments in small glass jars and bottles: dried chile flakes, bottled chile sauce, pickled chile slices, some vegan approximation of fish sauce, and a jar of soft beige cubes with a familiar smell: I recognized it as fermented bean curd, also used in Chinese cooking.

I’d never seen this used in Vietnamese cookery before. Nor had I seen it used as a table condiment. My curiosity was piqued and I smeared a bit of it on an egg roll. (I had no idea if it was intended to be used this way.) Yes, it was the same stuff Mom used to mix into stir-fried greens. But something else about it, in this context, tasted strikingly familiar—but not in a way I expected.

Honest to God, it tasted like cheese. Real cheese. It was winy, nutty, milky, and funky like a really good Gruyere. It had a pungent sharpness reminiscent of blue cheese. The texture was different from Gruyere or blue (soft and creamy rather than bouncy or crumbly) and the flavor was a lot more intense than either—it was more like a vegan cheese concentrate.

Then it struck me: I had discovered an almost perfect cholesterol-free cheese substitute – courtesy of two cultures whose traditionalists would no sooner eat cheese than eat their own children.

In the following weeks, I experimented with the cheese-substitute possibilities of fermented bean curd. I found it worked well melted into a soy-milk-based cream sauce to make a faux cheese sauce (albeit one that tasted more of Swiss-type cheese than cheddar). I tried adding kirsch to the sauce to make a faux cheese fondue, but without that stretchy stringy factor, it just wasn’t the same.

But as a sauce, it worked great. I later decided to try it as a base for a white lasagna filling with chard and sundried tomatoes – it turned out great: creamy, flavorful, and most importantly, gently cheesy. It was also super-healthful: Dark leafy greens! Soy milk! And absolutely no cholesterol or trans fats! I even made a pan of it to bring to my (non-vegan) foodie sister after she had a baby, and she ate it up.

And this was its biggest plus: it’s tasty enough to please food lovers who have no dietary restrictions. We’ve gone off our strict vegan regime (we’re still mostly vegetarian and prudent about our consumption of butter and red meat), but I still think this recipe is a keeper.

I was feeling quite pleased with myself and my amazingly original contribution to vegan cookery when I purchased The Artful Vegan: Fresh Flavors from the Millennium Restaurant, authored by the chefs of a high-end vegan restaurant in San Francisco. The recipes and photos looked spectacular—their use of sauces, textures, and flavors was utterly unlike the rustic hippie fare in most vegan cookbooks. I was flipping through the book, awestruck by their genius, when I saw something familiar: they, too, used Chinese fermented bean curd to evoke a cheesy flavor in one of their recipes.

Rats. So I’m not a total creative genius after all.

Yes, I came up with the idea independently. But they came up with it first – years before my husband and I ever dreamed of foregoing real Brie and Gorgonzola. And by the conventions of academic research, whoever gets an idea published first in credible form gets full credit for it. So props to them, they deserve it.

And remember, great minds think alike.


Note: Fermented bean curd comes in re-sealable glass jars and can be found alongside other jarred condiments in Asian markets. Most well-stocked markets will offer two varieties: plain (bean curd cubes in a clear, flavored brine) and red (bean curd cubes in a red brine flavored with red yeast rice and chiles). Use the plain kind in this recipe.

Don't be put off by the strong smell or taste; it's meant to be used in small quantities as a flavoring. Like any other powerful tool in your arsenal, it works wonders if you respect its power and use it as intended.

For the chard filling:

1 bunch chard, washed and chopped into ½” pieces (stems included)

½ medium onion, chopped

3 tablespoons olive oil

3 oil-soaked sun-dried tomatoes, finely diced

salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat a large saute pan over medium-high heat and add the olive oil. Add the onions and cook them, stirring occasionally, until translucent and just starting to turn golden.

2. Add the chard to the pan. Cook, stirring, until the chard and onions are evenly combined and the chard has wilted.

3. Lower the heat to medium-low and continue to cook, stiriing occasionally, until the chard stems are fully tender. Stir in the sun-dried tomatoes.

4. Add about 1 cup of white sauce and stir to combine. Set filling aside.

For the white sauce:

2½ cups unsweetened soy milk

2 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced

A ½” –thick slice onion, separated into rings

2 tablespoons unflavored oil, such as canola

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon crushed fermented bean curd

3 tablespoons white wine

salt and white pepper to taste

1. Heat the soy milk, garlic, and onion together in a saucepan over medium low heat for about 10 minutes, until the milk is hot and the onions and garlic are soft and have given off their aromas.

2. In a separate pot, heat the oil over medium heat and add the flour. Whisk vigorously to ensure the flour-oil mixture does not get lumpy. Cook, whisking constantly, for about 2 minutes. The flour should be cooked, but not browned.

3. Strain the milk mixture and pour the hot milk into the pot with the flour mixture. Whisk the sauce base over medium heat to eliminate lumps, and continue to whisk until the sauce thickens, about 3 minutes.

4. Whisk the wine and fermented bean curd into the sauce. Taste and season with salt (start with about ¾ teaspoon) and white pepper to taste.

For the lasagna (adapted from the fresh pasta recipe in The Artful Vegan):

1 cup semolina flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup lukewarm water (or more if needed)

1. Combine the flour, salt, and water. The mixture should be stiff but pliable enough to knead. Add additional water if necessary.

2. Knead the dough on a clean surface until the pasta dough is smooth. Wrap in plastic and allow to rest for at least 30 minutes.

3. Divide the dough into four pieces. Run the pieces, one at a time, though a pasta machine at the second-thinnest setting. (Mine is a hand-cranked model with seven settings; I roll my lasagna at 6.)

4. Dip each rolled-out sheet into boiling water for about a minute to cook -- it doesn't take long.

5. Keep the cooked pasta on a sheet pan lined with a linen towel or napkin while you assemble the lasagna. Do not allow the pasta sheets to touch each other.


1. Smear a layer of sauce on the bottem of a 8 x 8” baking pan. Cover the bottom of the pan with a layer of lasagna. Top this layer with half the chard filling.

2. Top the chard filling with another layer of lasagna, then the rest of the chard filling.

3. Top the second layer of chard filling with the rest of the lasagna noodles, then cover the noodles evenly with the remainder of the sauce.

4. Bake the lasagna, covered, for 20 minutes in a 400 degree oven. Uncover the lasagna, raise the heat to 425 degrees, and continue baking until top of the lasagna is lightly browned on top.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Foodie Tuesday: Dreams of a Drowning Sandwich

Is it possible to crave something you’ve never tasted? Could you ever have an irrational, stalker-like obsession with a dish you’ve never encountered but just know you’re destined to love? I have.

My obsession began several years ago, when I lived in California. Flipping mindlessly through the local weekly tabloid one day, I spotted a brief review in the dining section that stopped me in my tracks: it waxed eloquent about tortas ahogadas, wonderfully drippy, incendiary Mexican sandwiches offered by a taco truck in a working-class neighhborhood not far from me.

At that moment my obsession was born. Everything about that sandwich spoke to me in a powerful, primal way. The torta ahogada, the review said, consists of a dense, crusty roll, split and filled with chopped or sliced pork , tangy pickled onions, and optionally, a thin layer of refried beans. This alone would be tasty enough, but the defining feature of the sandwich – and the one that now fuels my daydreams – is that the already sumptious sandwich is drenched with ladlesful of thin, fiery tomato- and chile-based sauces. (Ahogada means “drowned” in Spanish; at that truck, the review said, the sandwich is served in a styrofoam bowl rather than on a plate – the better to contain those copious drips of spicy sauce.) And yes, you’re supposed to eat this with your hands.

I had to have one.

In my mind, I could feel the crunchy crust of that roll giving way under my teeth to the firm, spongy crumb soaked in savory meat juices and fiery chile sauce. I could taste the tangy snap of the onions against the buttery succulence of slow-cooked pork and the creaminess of the beans. I could feel the slow burn of chiles de arbol on my lips, a sensation that always makes me happy.

Then I pictured myself trying to eat that darned thing with my bare hands while balanced on the hood of my car in a neighborhood known for gang conflicts. If I were an eager gang initiate who had to pick low-hanging fruit for some face-saving ass-kicking, there’d be no easier target than a skinny middle-aged Asian woman with both hands occupied by a sandwich.

I chickened out. And regretted that decision ever since.

My cowardice went on to haunt me. From then on, the fates taunted me with constant sightings of blog posts and magazine articles mentioning tortas ahogadas – the best and most famous ones, I learned, are found in Guadalajara, where they are a local specialty. But no other places within reasonable driving distance served them. And a year after my lust was kindled, I got a job in small-town Florida, where just finding a decent taco is cause for celebration.

My lust remained unrequited. Finally, I had enough. Last week, a combination of prolonged cold weather, a mostly vegan post-holiday diet, and a seemingly perpetual string of bad luck made me desperate for some culinary comfort. Like many people, I find slow-cooked meats and good crusty bread fantastically comforting. But unlike most people, I also find solace and catharsis in chiles, the hotter the better. Their vibrant colors and flavors simply electrify me when my spirits are sagging. And chomping down on a big mouthful of edible explosives when I’m down feels like yelling a defiant “F- you!” to the cosmos: You think you can take me down? I can eat THIS and guess what, pal, it only makes me stronger!

But the only way I was going to get my torta ahogada fix was if I made it myself. So I did. But before I did, I had to research how exactly to go about doing it. And I discovered the following:

The sauces: There are actually two separate sauces involved in a traditional torta ahogada. This is because the sandwich is an inherently welcoming and democratic dish: by convention, diners choose how hot they want it, and servers calibrate the proportion of its two brothy sauces – a thin, savory tomato broth and an intense puree of chiles de arbol – to each diner’s requirements. The truly crazy can go with just the chile sauce (this is a step too far even for me). But timid palates can choose just the tomato sauce and still have a splendidly messy and comforting meal. A mix of 2 parts tomato sauce to 1 part chile sauce is plenty hot for most people.

The bread: According to Cristina Potters, author of the blog Mexico Cooks!, an authentic torta ahogada is served on a birrote salada, a kind of dense, crusty roll almost impossible to find outside Guadalajara. I didn’t even try finding one here in the Florida swamps. The second-best thing would be any roll dense and resiliant enough not to dissolve the minute it hits the sauce. I ended up using Mexican-style telera rolls, which weren't perfect (they're not crusty and a they're a bit softer than I would have liked) but they did the job.

The meat: Pork is traditional, but I’ve seen mention of versions made with beef. Potters calls for chopped freshly made carnitas (fried pork chunks) in her version of the recipe. I love carnitas, but I didn’t feel like spending the time (or calories) on a big ole batch of deep-fried meat. So instead, I used the need for cooked pork as an excuse to try Mark Bittman’s slow-roasted pork shoulder recipe. This produced WAY more meat than I’ll need for a few sandwiches, but a supply of high-quality roast pork in the freezer is never a bad thing.


Adapted from Mexico Cooks!

6 dense, crusty sandwich rolls

3 cups warm chopped or sliced cooked pork

1 batch tomato sauce

1 batch chile sauce

1 batch pickled onions

refried beans as needed (optional)

For the tomato sauce:

1-1/2 pounds fresh ripe tomatoes

1 medium white onion, chopped

1 clove garlic

1 bay leaf

salt to taste

1. Cook the tomatoes, onion, garlic, and bay leaf in a pot of boiling water and cook until tender.

2. Drain the vegetables, reserving the cooking water. Remove the bay leaf and blend the vegetables in a blender until smooth. Add cooking water as needed to obtain a thin sauce. You should have about 3 cups of sauce.

3. Strain the sauce through a fine-meshed straining, pressing on the solids to extract as much sauce as possible. Add salt to taste.

For the chile sauce:

1-1/2 cups dried chiles de arbol, rinsed and de-stemmed

2 tablespoon cider vinegar

1 teaspoon oregano

2 whole cloves

Salt to taste.

1. Bring 4 cups of water to a boil, stir in the chiles, cover, and turn off the heat. Let the chiles simmer until softened, about an hour.

2. When the chiles are soft, drain them, reserving the cooking water. Put the chiles and the remaining ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth, adding cooking water as needed to dilute the mixture to a thin sauce. You should have about 3 cups of chile sauce. Add salt to taste.

For the pickled onions:

1 large onion, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon salt

3 tablespoons cider vinegar

1. Toss the onions with the salt until it coats the onions evenly. Place the onions in a colander or strainer and set the strainer over a bowl. (The bowl will catch the juices drawn from the onions by the salt.) Allow the onions to sit for half an hour or more, until they sweat and look wilted.

2. Rinse the onions thoroughly under cold water to remove the salt. Squeeze out any excess water and place the onions in a clean bowl. Stir in the vinegar and allow the onions to rest for at least 15 minutes before service.

To assemble the sandwiches:

1. Split the rolls, heat them in a low oven, then spread each with a thin layer of warm refried beans if you're using them, then fill each with about 1/2 cup of the pork and some of the onions.

2. If needed, gently reheat the sauces. Place the sandwiches in shallow bowls or plates with deep rims. Cover each sandwich with a generous portion of the sauces. (The proportion of hot sauce to tomato sauce should be up to each diner.) There should be about 1/2 cup of sauce for each sandwich.

3. Serve immediately with extra sauce on the side and a big pile of napkins.