Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Vegan Stuffed Shells: Part III...

How to Boil Water

Click HERE to read Part II.


In theory, this step should be fairly basic.  And yet...

Later that evening, I put on my game face when my wife left for work. I watched out the front living room window as she drove down the driveway and waited for an opening in traffic. After a few moments, she pulled out into the road, giving me a quick wave as she drove in front of our house. When her vehicle was out of sight, I scooted into the kitchen to make a mess, and hopefully produce some stuffed shells that could pass as edible.

First order of business was to heat up some water to boil the shells. When it comes to boiling water, I’m proud to say that I’m a seasoned veteran. Aside from the occasional batch of rice or pasta, I boil water every morning when I make my first cup of coffee using one of my many pour-over, manual brewing contraptions. As I filled up our large stock pot with tap water, placed it on the large burner, and turned the dial to the highest setting, I couldn’t help but smile to myself.

When my wife and I first met, it became apparent fairly quickly that she was a fantastic cook and knew her way around the kitchen. However, she had picked up a few habits and quirks along the way that were simply inexplicable… the most puzzling being the extended amount of time she spent trying to boil a pot of water. During our first few years together, pasta night was always a frustrating exercise in patience. I had learned early on that I should stay out of her way in the kitchen, unless she specifically needed my assistance. As such, I’d spend most of my time in the living room, watching ESPN or reading, while she prepared dinner.

On most evenings that we dined together, I wouldn’t be on the couch for more than half an hour before being called to the kitchen to help clean up dinner dishes and set the table. In our flesh-eating days, she was capable of having a bleu cheese-topped filet mignon, oven-roasted asparagus, and garlic mashed potatoes prepped and on the table from start to finish in well under than forty minutes. But pasta night was the one exception. After getting home from work, I’d be changed and on the couch with a magazine by quarter after five. Meanwhile, she'd be in the kitchen putting the salad together to go with the pasta.
“Hey, Honey. When’s dinner going to be ready?”
“Probably around quarter of six.”
“Need any help?”
“No thanks. I’ll let you know when you can start the dishes.”
“OK.”
At five thirty-five, I’d look up from my magazine and check in.
“Anything I can do in there?”
“No thanks. Just waiting for the water to boil.”
“OK. Just let me know when you need help.”
By ten of six, I’d be getting fairly hungry, especially since I thought we’d already be eating by then.
“Everything OK in there? Need any help?”
“I’m still waiting for the water to boil. This is taking forever.”
“Don’t you want me to set the table awhile?”
“We’re still about fifteen minutes from dinner.”
“OK. Just let me know when it’s time.”
After about ten more minutes, the water would finally come to a rolling boil, and the pasta could be cooked. Dinner would eventually be ready by six twenty-five… only forty minutes after the initial estimation. This pattern continued for at least two years. Then one evening during out third year together, I decided to investigate. As usual we were already twenty minutes past our alleged meal time, when my wife called out from the kitchen.
“This is taking forever to boil. Maybe the stove is broken?”
Tossing my magazine on to the coffee table, I jumped to my feet and marched towards the kitchen, determined to get to the bottom of this peculiar situation. As I approached the stove, I immediately noticed two glaring issues.
“Oh good. Maybe you can take a look at the stove and see what’s--,”
“Honey…,” I said, trying my best to hide my bewilderment.
“…Yes?”
“The stove isn’t broken.”
“How do you kno--,”
“The stove is just fine… better than ever, in fact.”
“Um… But why is—,
“Sweetheart?”
“Yes?”
“Where’s the lid?”
“It’s in the cabinet. Why?”
“Why isn’t it on the pot?”
“Well I never boil water with the lid on the pot.”
“Why?”
“I didn’t think it made that much of a difference.”
“Honey, it makes all the difference. It keeps the heat from escaping and can shave minutes off of the time to boil."
I opened up the cabinet to the left of the oven, retrieved the glass lid, and placed it on the stock pot.
"And see the numbers here on this dial? They go all the way up to ten.”
“Yes. I know.”
“You have it set halfway between five and six.” 
“I know.”
“Why?”
“Why… what?”
“Why is dial set just barely past medium? Why isn’t it turned all the way up to high?”
“Well that burner gets really hot on high, and--,”
“Honey, it’s a burner. It’s supposed to get hot.”
“Yeah I know. But I never turn it up all the way when I cook. The pan can heat up too quickly and burn the food.”
“But Sweetheart. You’re not sautéing vegetables or scallops. You’re just boiling water.”
“So?”
“The water is not going to burn. It’s actually going to evaporate long before it burns.”
“Oh… Right.”
“If you turned the burner all the way up to high and left the pot unattended for several hours, maybe… just maybe… all of the water would evaporate, and then you’d have a problem.
“Yeah.”
“But that’s not going to happen now because we’ve covered up the water with the lid--,”
“OK, OK! I get it!--,”
“And when the water starts to boil, the pressure from the steam will make the lid shake around--,”
“OK!”
“…and if you’ve fallen asleep in the other room, waiting for the water to boil--,”
“Enough!”
“…you’ll hear the lid jumping up and down and water splashing around long before it all evaporates.”
“OK!”
“Now,” I said, as I reached across the stove and cranked the burner up to its highest setting. “I’m going to go back into the living room and take a twenty-minute nap. Once the pasta water has reached a rolling boil, just give me a holler, and I’ll come in and set the table.”
I leaned in and kissed my wife on the cheek before heading back to the living room. I could hear her muttering to herself as I stretched out my legs and closed my eyes. Of course, I didn’t have time to get comfortable. Three minutes later, the water was boiling, and I was summoned to take care of my mealtime duties.
“Did the Maytag Man come to fix the stove?”
I had to duck to avoid a quick backhand from my wife, who was stirring the sauce.

In all fairness, she’s probably set me straight dozens of time in the kitchen when it comes to proper technique… from showing me the safest, most efficient way to slice an onion, to how the food processor should be assembled, to how long to preheat a stainless steel sauté pan before adding a splash of olive oil. Under her loving guidance, my culinary skills have definitely blossomed. That being said, I never pass up the opportunity to remind her who finally taught her the proper way to boil water.

Speaking of, the water in our large pot had come to a rolling boil. I removed the lid, added twenty shells to the water, and turned the burner down to seven.

Next order of business was to make the filling. The original recipe called for two 15-oz cans of white beans to be pureed until smooth in the food processor, along with a quarter cup of nutritional yeast, a half cup of lemon basil, and salt and pepper to taste. Since I’d be adding spinach and mushrooms to the filling, I decided to puree just one can of beans, and cut the nutritional yeast in half. While many vegan and plant-based cooks add liberal amounts of nutritional yeast to everything possible, I prefer adding small amounts, as the taste can be overpowering and unpleasant.
“If you want to know what vomit smells like,” Abby had once commented, “unscrew a canister of nutritional yeast, stick your nose in there, and take a big long whiff.”
I couldn’t agree more.




I still added the full half cup of chopped basil, since I’d be using spinach and mushrooms to make up for the second can of beans that was withheld, and one can never have too much fresh basil, in my opinion. Finally, I added a generous pinch of sea salt, along with a few turns of worth of cracked black pepper from the grinder, screwed the top onto the food processor, and pureed the ingredients into a smooth, pasty consistency.

Around that time, the microwave timer went off signifying that the shells were done. I removed the pot from the burner and dumped the contents through the large, metal strainer that I’d placed in the sink. Then, I carefully laid each of the shells on a large baking sheet that I’d lined with a double layer of paper towels, as instructed by the book. Hopefully, they’d be cool enough to handle when the filling was ready.




To make the rest of the filling, I’d be venturing outside the confines of the recipe, as well as my comfort zone. I opened up the 12-oz package of mushrooms and dumped half of them onto the cutting board. After cleaning them and removing the stems, I cut them up into small cubes, tossed them into a bowl. It seemed like a fairly hefty amount, but then I remembered how much mushrooms cook down when they release their liquid.
“Ah, what the hell?” I dumped the rest of the mushrooms onto the cutting board, washed and cubed them, and added them to the bowl.
Of course, no pasta dish is complete without onions and garlic, so I retrieved a medium yellow onion from our room-temperature produce shelf in the other room, skinned it, and diced it up, pushing the pile to the northwest corner of the cutting board. As for garlic, I’m a firm believer that more is better. I broke four large cloves off the head that was sitting in front of the canisters of flour and sugar, crushing two at a time through our garlic press. As I squeezed garlic pulp through the microscopic openings, I heard Abby’s voice interrupt my thoughts, spoiling the rhythm that I’d established.
I don’t neeeeeeed to use a garlic press! I just cut up the garlic with my chef’s knife! I’m too good for a garlic press!
Several weeks ago, we’d been discussing garlic preparation at the office, more specifically the odor that permeates one’s pores and lasts for days if the skinned garlic comes in contact with the skin for more than half a second. Betsy and I were commenting how we each relied on our trusty garlic press to minimize skin contact and to accomplish this.
“I don’t need to use a garlic press,” Abby had boasted. “I just crush each clove with the face of my knife, flip the skins aside, push all the cloves into a pile on the cutting board, and chop them up LIKE THIS!!! HYAH HYAH HYAH HYAH HYAH HYAH HYAH!!!”
She engaged in an intense chopping motion with her hands and arms, to accompany her martial arts war cries.
“And you manage to do this without even touching the garlic?”
“That’s physically impossible,” Betsy had chimed in. “How do you skin and chop garlic without even touching it?”
“Yeah, do you have magic garlic?” I had asked, doing the best Joe Pesce impression I could muster. “DO THE LAWS OF PHYSICS CEASE TO EXIST ON YOUR CUTTING BOARD?”
“I don’t know, but I just do. I push all the cloves into a pile on the cutting board and chop them up LIKE THIS!!! HYAH HYAH HYAH HYAH HYAH HYAH HYAH!!!”
After several more rounds of this ear-splitting martial arts charade, Betsy and I had just shrugged and chalked it up to Abby being full of crap, as usual. As I crushed the last two cloves through the press, the sound of her voice continued to invade my thoughts and ruin what little emotional feng shui I had remaining.
I don’t neeeeeeed to use a garlic press! I just cut up the garlic with my chef’s knife! I’m too good for a garlic press!
As she continued chittering and chattering away, the deep, red hue of the Newman’s sauce to my left seemed to bleed outside of the jar, polluting other nearby objects in my field of vision, and I found myself feeling slightly agitated.
I JUST CRUSH EACH CLOVE WITH THE FACE OF MY KNIFE, FLIP THE SKINS ASIDE, PUSH ALL THE CLOVES INTO A PILE ON THE CUTTING BOARD, AND CHOP THEM UP LIKE THIS! HYAH HYAH HYAH HYAH HYAH HYAH HYAH!!!
Give it a rest, Abby.
HYAH HYAH HYAH HYAH HYAH HYAH HYAH!!!
“That’s enough, Abby” I mumbled, pushing minced garlic into a neat little pile on the cutting board.
HYAH HYAH HYAH HYAH HYAH HYAH HYAH!!!
“Bite me, Abby!” I heard myself blurt out loud.
The screeching babblings of my-coworker finally subsided, leaving me once again to work in peace and quiet.

Part IV...  Coming soon.