Sunday, June 8, 2014

Mama Wren Returns... With A Vengeance

Last spring, we bought a small wren house made of recycled plastic and hung it in the dogwood tree just outside our back door. Being the bird dorks that we are, we were hoping to attract a pair of Carolina wrens and provide them with a nice place to make a home and raise multiple broods. The primary difference between a wren house and nest boxes for other birds, like bluebirds and swallows, is that the entrance is much smaller. It’s large enough to allow access to wrens, chickadees, and a few other petite birds, while keeping out the larger, aggressive breeds, as well as other unwanted pests.

English Sparrows in particular are assholes, as they’ll regularly take over the established nests of other birds, destroying any eggs or offspring in their way. They’ll even attack the adult inhabitants, if they feel so inclined.

My sister has set up several nest boxes for her barn swallows, and she’s been spending the past month trying to keep the English sparrows at bay, dismantling any nests that they begin building in the nest boxes. Last week when she checked on one of her boxes with an already established nest, she found that the mother swallow had been pecked to death by a gang of rogue English sparrows.

She wasn’t happy. Neither was my brother-in-law, who promptly went out and bought her a bee-bee gun.

Fortunately, we haven’t needed to resort to heavily artillery, as these feathered British Douche-Bags are too big to squeeze into the wren house.

After we hung the house, we watched out our dinette window in anticipation, hoping that a Carolina wren would show up to explore the new dwelling and eventually stake it’s claim. We did receive several visits from an inquisitive pair of chickadees, who closely investigated the house for almost a week. However, they ultimately moved on, deciding that the blue-roofed dwelling was not for them.

As more time passed, we were about to give up hope when an unexpected couple showed up. One day while at work, I received an excited call from my wife, announcing that some new neighbors had started to move in.
“WE HAVE CAROLINA WRENS!!!” I screamed at the top of my lungs, disturbing everybody else in my department. My supervisor Lisa, who despises all creatures feathered, just mumbled to herself, shaking her head in disgust. 
“Nooooooo, try again,” said my wife. 
“Um… White-throated sparrows?” 
“No, we have a pair of house wrens!” she exclaimed. 
“House wrens… Oh, cool!”
Although I was really hoping for Carolina wrens, I was happy to have their close relatives. In the five previous years we’d lived in our house, I hadn’t seen nor heard any sign of a house wren within a mile of our property. It didn’t take me long to get familiar with these lively little creatures. After only a few hours, we became acquainted with their ear-splitting, shrill chirping sound, which began as early as five in the morning and carried on until dusk every evening. Once they had decided that this would be the place, they began furiously constructing a nest, carrying giant twigs to the house and jamming them into the tiny opening. Within a few days, their handiwork was complete.

For the next several months, we enjoyed nature’s finest reality show from the comfort of our kitchen table, as our resident pair of wrens raised and fledged two broods of offspring, chattering and carrying on all summer long. Since the house was hanging just to the left of our back door, we’d get a tongue-lashing from Mama Wren every time we walked by or got too close to the nest. On the two occasions that I lifted the roof off the house to peek at the babies, she flew in like a rocket, screaming bloody murder as she danced about between the branches of the tree just a few feet away. We didn’t take it personally, as we were well aware that she was simply sticking up for her helpless, vulnerable offspring.

Once summer came to an end, Mama Wren and her male counterpart moved out, abandoning the house that had served them successfully for the past two months. Once I was sure they weren’t coming back, I discarded the nest and thoroughly cleaned and disinfected the house using vinegar and boiling water. Although nesting season had come and gone, my wife suggested that we hang the house back up in the tree and fill it with some soft bedding materials, just in case any of our pint-sized feathered friends wanted a place to roost during frigid evenings in the upcoming winter.

During my next trip to the Bird House, our go-to store for all things feathered, I picked up a bag of bird-bedding, jammed a large wad of it into the newly-cleaned wren house, and hung it back up in the dogwood tree. For the next several months, we endured what turned out to be one of the coldest, most miserable winters I can remember, with stretches of not just days, but weeks, of sub-zero temperatures. And yet, our entire backyard continued buzzing with activity, as the bird traffic at our multiple feeders remained constant.
“How do they not freeze to death?” my wife wondered aloud several times throughout the frigid season.
“I guess their feathers keep them warm.”
Truly, I had no idea how they didn’t turn into feathered popsicles. With the constant bitter conditions, I expected there to be a hoard of wrens, chickadees, and other small birds waiting in line for an opportunity to spend the night in a sheltered dwelling lined with warm bedding. But we never saw a single bird show any interest.

As winter began to wind down in late March and the first signs of Spring made their presence known, we began camping out by our family room window, waiting for the spring birds to show up. And every night at dinner, we’d keep an eye on the dogwood tree, in hopes that our pair of wrens would return for another season. As far as we could tell, the house had remained vacant throughout the entire winter. We decided to leave the bird bedding in place, thinking that any potential occupants would appreciate the gesture.

However, we learned fairly quickly that house wrens are extremely picky about their interior furnishings.

By the middle of April, we began to hear their familiar call within the area. For the first few days, they stayed further away around the border of our property. But within a week, their chattering was again heard right outside our back door, as they began to investigate the house in the Dogwood for the second year in a row.

Late one Saturday morning after I’d returned from a fifteen-mile run, my wife and I were enjoying coffee on the couch when we heard an ear-splitting shriek right outside the back door.
“What on earth…” My wife leapt from the couch with coffee mug in hand and headed towards the dinette, and I followed.
As we peered curiously out the back door, it didn’t take us long to figure out that Mama Wren had taken issue with the contents of the house. After a few moments, we saw a large wad of bird bedding fly from the entrance of the wren house, plummeting helplessly to the ground below. A second later, Mama Wren poked her head from the entrance, let loose with an ear-splitting shriek, and disappeared back inside the house. After another moment she emerged with another beakful of bird bedding and hurled it into the air so far that it landed in a branch several feet a way.

“What a miserable, ungrateful little turd!” my wife exclaimed.
“Hmmm…,” I said, as I thumbed through Stan Tekiela’s field guide - Birds of New York, looking for the page on house wrens. “According to the bird book, a female wren will completely fill the nest cavity with uniformly small twigs, then line a small depression at the back of the cavity with pine needles and grass.”
“That bag of bird bedding cost almost five dollars!”
“I know. Maybe we should have bought a bag of sticks… or grass clippings.”
“Maybe that stupid little bird should be grateful we left her a supply of warm bedding.”
“Apparently, female wrens are shallow and materialistic.”
For the next fifteen minutes, we watched in bewilderment as Mama Wren emptied the house completely. Every few seconds, she’d poke her head out of the entrance with a huge wad of bird bedding in her beak and angrily fling it to the ground below before letting loose with another ear-shattering scream. By the time she was finished, the ground and brick sidewalk below, and even the branches all around the house, were absolutely littered with unwanted bird bedding.

No sooner had she tossed what was apparently the last bit of bedding from the house, when she and her mate began scrounging around for materials to build a nest from scratch. The lively duo spent the next three days gathering sticks and twigs of all sizes, hauling them to the house, and cramming them through the small opening. The smaller materials fit easily through the small opening. But on many occasions, they’d fly in with larger twig that was two, sometimes three times their size. We watched in awe as they approached the opening to the house and tried to wedge the monstrous pieces through opening in mid-flight. In a few instances, they’d manage on the first try. However, on many occasions they’d drop larger twigs onto the ground below. Instead of showing any signs of frustration, they’d simply dart to the ground, retrieve the dropped stick, and try again. By the second or third attempt, they’d realize they needed to turn sideways to successfully fit a larger twig into the house.

After the next was complete, both wrens spent their day flying back and forth between the dogwood tree and the larger maple trees on the border of our property, frequently entering and exiting the hanging house, standing guard on the tree, and carrying on loudly from the crack of dawn through the arrival of dusk.

Just a few days ago, I set a ladder up under the tree, and gently lifted roof to the house.

This is what I saw…

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Flooding In Fishers, New York

Yesterday during my lunch break, I was driving past Fishers Park in Fishers, New York, when I noticed that something seemed slightly off.  I had driven by that park hundreds of times before, but this time I got the feeling that the conditions, and perhaps the overall situation, were slightly awry.
"Hmmm...  something strange is going on here," I said to myself.
At first, I couldn't exactly put my finger on it...
"Oh wait, now I see," I exclaimed, as I had my a-ha moment.  "That picnic table is under water.  And that porta-potty is about to float away."
Western New York has had quite a bit of rain during the past few days, and Fishers was hit pretty hard.  The roads were passable for the most part, but everything else was pretty much under water.  Instead of heading directly back to the office, I decided to do what anybody with an iPhone would do on a slow afternoon.  I took a whole bunch of pictures.

And here they are, for your viewing pleasure.  Click on each photo to open up the full size version...

Something didn't look quite right from my car.

Gee, I wonder why the town has the parking lot blocked off.

Hmmm...  Looks like water is preventing the fire department from getting water.
That's ironic.

Perhaps the town needs to call the plumber to fix that port-potty.

The homeowners here may need to wait until tomorrow to mow the back yard.

Great news!  The fire hydrant off in the distance is still accessible.

You can't actually see the stream in this picture.  It's hiding under all that water.

This homeowner had the foresight to build the shed on top of a cliff.

Look closely at the farthest land mass.  There's a crane or heron standing there.

View from the new bridge on the Auburn Trail Extension, just south of Powdermill Park.

Is that a covered bridge, a gazebo, or a boat?  Yes...  Yes it is.

Cool...  The panorama setting on my iPhone actually works!

And finally, a view of the Auburn Trail Extension, which is on high enough ground that it escaped the flood waters.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Owl House Brunch...

Kicking Ass and Taking Names from 11 am to 3 pm
every Saturday and Sunday

In my recent review of the Owl House, I mentioned their weekend brunch, which has earned an overwhelmingly positive reputation, and I promised to report back sometime once we’d given it a try. This past Sunday became ‘sometime’, we gave it a try, and I’m happy to report that it was just as good as advertised.

No need to rehash all the general details of the Owl House, as you can find that information in my initial review. Let’s get right to the meat of our experience… (er, perhaps the vegan meat of the experience… more specifically, the ‘maple tempeh bacon’ of the experience, on this particular day).

During my college years, going out for breakfast became one of my favorite pastimes, and I have to admit that I’ve devoured endless variations of Denny’s infamous Grand Slam over the years, as well as an obscenely large quantity of western omelets.

The highlight of this period was a cram session for my Biology 101 final exam at Denny’s in East Brunswick, New Jersey, with my roommate Ros. This predictably non-productive outing involved a pair of Lumberjack Slams, Neil A. Campbell’s Biology: Third Edition, approximately seventeen cups of coffee, and several tabs of Vivarin. By the time we returned to the Rutgers campus and took our seats in Loree Hall for the final, I was so wired that I promptly fell asleep only seven questions into the exam, quietly drifting off into a peaceful face-plant directly onto page two of my question booklet.

Almost three hours later, I awoke with a start, realizing that I had just shy of five minutes left to complete the exam. Hastily, I filled in alternating ‘B’ and ‘C’ answers for questions eight through one hundred on my answer sheet, handed in my exam with about forty-three seconds to spare, and left Loree Hall with my head held down in shame. Ros, if you’re reading this, please join me for a double face-palm as together we reflect upon this foolish ordeal. At that point in my life, wolfing down greasy mounds of eggs, bacon, and chicken-fried steak was clearly the least of my worries.

No, I'm not a Trekkie.  But I thought this was apropos.

Now that we’re eating plant-based for the most part, finding restaurants with breakfast options is a bit more challenging, but not impossible. As is the case with its superb lunch and dinner offerings, the Owl House makes an admirable effort to satisfy vegans, omnivores, and carnivores alike.

A quick glance at the menu revealed a number of promising options, including vegan stuffed French toast, fruit-topped vegan waffles, and several different variations of a tofu scramble. If you’re new to the vegan breakfast scene, the best place to begin just may be the Owl’s Breakfast, which includes two eggs or scrambled veggie tofu, applewood smoked bacon or maple tempeh bacon, as well as home fries and a side of toast. As we learned early on in our plant-based journey, tofu can substitute so seamlessly for scrambled eggs that even those with the most discerning palates will barely notice a difference.

This being our first trip for brunch, my wife played it safe and decided on the vegan version of the Owl’s Breakfast. As I carefully perused my options, I found the vegan fruit-topped waffle to be extremely tempting. But I ultimately opted for the Green Giant Tofu Scramble, which included seasoned tofu scrambled with broccoli and Brussels sprouts, topped with pickled red onions and garlic, along with toast and a side of home fries. At one point in my life, I was a pancake and waffle hound, but I knew that a savory entree was more likely to leave my demanding belly feeling satisfied.

Overall, we were both very impressed with our meals, which is not surprising, considering that it really takes effort and careful planning to screw up breakfast. When preparing a tofu scramble, the biggest potential pitfalls are under-seasoning and excess oil and grease, but this wasn’t the case with either of our dishes. Both scrambles were nicely seasoned and light on the oil. As I noted earlier, my Green Giant scramble was topped with pickled onions and garlic, which added a welcomed dimension of tanginess to the overall composition of the scramble.

The Green Giant Tofu Scramble...  served with a Not-So-Giant side of home fries.

My decision to order the side of maple tempeh bacon was simply inspired out of sheer curiosity. While I certainly enjoyed bacon, sausage, and other breakfast meats many years ago, I’ve never had any affinity for soy items that have been molded and formed to resemble their meat-based counterparts. As such, I typically order said meat-shaped wannabes with extremely low expectations. If I discover something that I actually enjoy, I simply consider it a bonus. In this case, I thought the maple tempeh bacon was… pretty good.

Rounding out our spread were two slices of multi-grain toast, as well as a meager portion of home fries. The toast was very good, and our server earned extra points for automatically substituting Earth Balance buttery spread in place of regular butter, knowing that we ordered the tofu version of our respective dishes. As for the potatoes, they were really good. However, I could have easily eaten two to three times the amount that arrived on my plate.

As I noted in my review of dinner last week, portion control was also an issue with their appetizers, but even my wife was able to give them a mulligan for this.
“Appetizers aren’t supposed to be huge,” she had pointed out. “They’re simply meant to whet your appetite, tide you over, and get you primed for the main course.”
She’s one hundred percent right.

However, breakfast is a different story, as every entrée should automatically be accompanied by a hearty portion of home fries... no questions asked. Especially for us crazy vegans who rely even more on starches and complex carbs to satisfy our energy and protein needs, a mammoth pile of home fries is always a welcome sight.

Come on, guys! When the menu indicates that an entree is served with home fries, I expect more than three forkfuls. Some of the fruit-covered waffles that passed by our table were the size of an assault helicopter. All I’m asking is that you spread some of that love and generosity to your fried spuds department.

Again, a minor quibble in what was an overall enjoyable brunch. Upon our next visit, I’m pretty sure I’ll order the breakfast nachos or a fruit-topped waffle to serve as a prelude to my main course. That way, I’ll be less likely to go hungry if home fries are still on the endangered species list.

Ending on a positive note, the Owl House will keep your mug filled with an endless supply of java courtesy of Joe Bean Coffee Roasters - Rochester’s premier artisan coffee roaster. And finally, if you’re in a celebratory mood, you can order a drink from the list of breakfast cocktails. I’m not much of a Bloody Mary fan myself, but the Put Up Your Dukes (Joe Bean Coffee, Vegan Bourbon Cream, and Black Walnut Bitters) sounds intriguing. Definitely worth a try on our next visit.

The Owl House serves brunch every Saturday and Sunday from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm. Visit their website at the link below to view their full menu and make online reservations:

Please note that this was actually taken at Joe Bean Coffee Roasters
and not at the Owl House.  I just liked the picture, that's all. 

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Owl House in Rochester...

Vegan, Plant-Based Dining At Its Finest

It recently occurred to me that I’ve been maintaining this blog since 2011, and I’ve never written anything resembling a restaurant review. As my wife and I have gradually transitioned from the Standard American Diet (SAD) to more of a whole-foods, plant-based diet (…WFPBD???), the experience of eating out has changed dramatically. While many mainstream restaurants have entrees on their menus which can technically be considered ‘vegetarian’, most offerings are simply unimaginative, uninspired afterthoughts. Like Pasta Primavera… a boring heap of white noodles topped with a handful of over-steamed vegetables, swimming in butter, oil, or cheese sauce. Or the token Veggie Burger… a frozen, manufactured pattie made of soy protein isolates and leftover vegetable chunk rejects. This hardly qualifies as gourmet dining.

However, through patience and perseverance, along with a bit of imagination, we’ve discovered a few strategies for ordering plant-based meals at mainstream restaurants, along with a few unique establishments that offer an impressive array of vegan and plant-based entrees.

The Owl House, which is located at 75 Marshall St just off of Monroe Ave, is a restaurant that easily qualifies as the latter, offering up some of the best vegan, plant-based dining in all of Rochester.

They also have a lot of great beer on tap.

The establishment occupies both floors of a two-story house, with a patio in the rear for outdoor seating during the warmer months. The first floor is home to a cozy bar near the front entrance, along with a collection of intimately-arranged tables scattered throughout the rest of the room. And by ‘intimately-arranged’, I mean they’re close enough that you can easily reach over your neighbor to the right and grab a Buffalo Cauli Wing from the platter of an unsuspecting diner two tables over. In other words, if you need a night out to discuss an upcoming drug deal or another matter of a private nature, you may want to request a seat upstairs.

The Buffalo Cauli Wings...  are...  FANTASTIC!

Speaking of upstairs, the tables on the second floor are spread out a bit farther apart to allow for a more private meal. In our experience, we’ve always been seated upstairs when we have reservations, whereas a downstairs table was our destination on the lone occasion we dropped in unannounced. Whether this is by design or simply a coincidence, we always try to make reservations for weekend evenings, as we prefer the upstairs seating.

A few weeks ago, my wife realized that they’d changed up their menu, so we decided to sample several of their newest offerings and made reservations for the upcoming Friday evening.

For appetizers, we ordered the Maryland Style Old Bay Tempeh Cakes and the Battered Smoked Tofu Nuggets, which were both absolutely superb. The Tempeh Cakes rivaled any other ‘fishy’, plant-based cakes that we’ve tried, and the Tofu Nuggets were tender and crispy, and yet, they were not dripping or weighed down in the excess grease and oil that so often accompanies most fried food. In addition, they were served atop a delectable cabbage slaw, which had a lively, spicy kick I wasn’t expecting.

Horseradish, I initially suspected… but our server later confirmed that it was Dijon mustard.

Maryland Style Old Bay Tempeh Cakes

Battered Smoked Tofu Nuggets

As for dinner, my wife opted for the Seared King Oyster Mushrooms, while I chose the Los Tacos with Cauliflower. When our server set the plate in front of my wife, we thought there had been a mistake, as there appeared to be a half dozen over-sized scallops arranged over a bed of asparagus. But she assured us that the scallop-like beasts on the platter before us were, indeed, mushrooms. Apparently, our observation was a common one among other diners. After just a few tastes, we both agreed that her entree was delicious. The mushrooms were tender, nicely-seasoned, and topped with a pesto that was, again, light on the oil and grease but heavy on the flavor.

Aside from cauliflower, my tacos were stuffed with tomatillo salsa and shaved radish… a combination that worked very well. While the tacos themselves were rather small, there were three of them on the plate, and they were served with a side of bean salad that was filling and surprisingly tasty. As expected, I made a mess of my main course, with taco detritus and salsa juice dripping down my face and fingers all over my plate as I ate.
“That’s disgusting,” my wife remarked, appalled by my primitive, slovenly display. “…and so are you.”
I enthusiastically nodded my head in agreement, as I continued to brutally torture the tacos on the plate before me.

Los Tacos w/Roasted Cauliflower

Seared King Oyster Mushrooms

As usual, the collection of artisan microbrews on tap was extensive, and our server was extremely generous in offering us samples so we’d be sure to enjoy our eventual beverages of choice. To round out our meal, we shared a piece of tofu cheesecake topped with blueberry glaze. Even in our meat-eating days, I wasn’t the biggest fan of cheesecake, and I’d still prefer a good fruit pie or cobbler. But I do have to admit that the slice we shared was pretty good. Inspired as always, it only took my wife three days to bust out the cookbook and make a homemade version.

Vegan Tofu Cheesecake

So, are there any disappointing aspects to this wonderfully eclectic establishment?

Well, for starters, the front of the beer menu is hard to read because the word ‘BEER’ is written sideways. The first time we visited, it took me almost twenty minutes to find the damn thing. Only after my wife happened to inadvertently tilt the menu on its side did I realize that the word ‘BEER’ was scrawled across the front.

The beer menu shown in the picture above is actually tilted over on its side.
When the menu is held upright, the word 'BEER' is indiscernible.

As for the appetizers, I do find that the portions tend to be a bit scant, and we’ve basically resigned ourselves to ordering two each time we visit, just to be sure we don’t go hungry. Of course, my wife has pointed out to me on multiple occasions that this probably has less to do with the portion size, and more to do with the fact that I barely make any effort to actually chew my food or even come up for air as I wolf down multiple globs within a span of mere seconds in grotesque, gluttonous fashion. Perhaps she has a point. Regardless, we have no problem ordering multiple appetizers, as this gives us a chance to enjoy an even greater variety of plant-based, culinary goodness with every visit.

Any of you burger and steak lovers starting to get nervous? Relax… and take a deep breath. While the selection of vegan options is impressive, the menu also caters to omnivores and meat-lovers, offering a number of entrees featuring chicken, beef, pork, and seafood.

Having visited several times during the past year, we’ve noticed that the menu undergoes occasional changes. Whether this is a result of seasonal and local availability of certain ingredients, or simply a function of the meandering mood, tastes, and inspiration of the chef(s), I’m all in favor of seeing new entrees and specials on the menu each time I visit.

And now, on a completely personal and somewhat selfish note, I have two simple requests…
  • The Gentle Lentil… the best lentil burger I’ve ever had anywyere… WHERE THE HELL DID IT GO!?!?!? BRING IT BACK… PRETTY PLEEEEEEEEAAAASE!?!?!? 
  • And please, I beg of you… Don’t ever… EVER… ditch the Buffalo Cauli Wings. These are by far the best cauliflower wings available anywhere. 
OK… Tantrum over. Not a big deal, really. I suppose it’s a good idea to give the classics an occasional break, and I’m sure the Gentle Lentil will make its triumphant return at some point.

Bottom line… The Owl House is definitely worth a visit. Whether you’re into sausage and steak or tempeh and tofu, this eclectic little gem has plenty on the menu to satisfy your tastes, as well as your appetite. And even if you are into sausage and steak, give the Smoked Tofu Nachos or The Hot Beav Burger a try. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Also worth noting, the Owl House serves brunch on Saturdays and Sundays from 11am to 3pm, and there are a handful of vegan items available. We haven’t gone for brunch just yet, but I’ve heard it’s fantastic, and I’ll report back once we give it a try.

They also have a lot of great beer on tap.

Visit their website at the link below to view their full menu and make online reservations:

Directions to The Owl House

To get to the Owl House from the Village Green in Bar Harbor, take Mt. Desert St west, turn right onto Eden St/Rt 3, turn right onto Myrick St, turn left onto Downeast Hwy/Rt 1, turn right to merge onto I-395 toward I-95 Bangor, take exit 1A to merge onto I-95 S toward Newport, take exit 103 on the right ontoI-295 S toward ME-9/ME-126, continue onto I-95 S, take exit 59 on the right onto I-495 S toward Worcester, take exit 25B to merge onto I-290 W toward Worcester, take exit 7 to merge onto I-90 toward MA-12, keep left to merge onto I-90 W towards Springfield/Albany, keep left on Berkshire Spur W, take exit 22-61 to merge onto I-87 N toward Albany, continue on NY Thruway toward Buffalo, continue onto I-90 W, take exit 45 to merge onto I-490 toward Rochester, take exit 17 onto Goodman St, take a slight right turn onto Broadway, turn left onto Monroe Ave, turn left onto Marshall St, and the Owl House is almost immediately on the left. You can find on-street parking up and down Marshall Street. If you average 73 MPH and only make short stops to use the restroom, the trip should take you anywhere between 10 ½ and 11 hours.

The Buffalo Tempeh on French Bread...  not currently on the menu.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Vegan Stuffed Shells: Part IV…

Victory is Sweet!

Click HERE to read Part III.

Is it any wonder that I'm not allowed in the kitchen unsupervised?

When it came to sautéing the veggies, I relied on my wife’s advice that she’d offered me several years before. As a novice, I’d typically place the stainless steel sauté pan on a burner set to medium-high and immediately toss in the oil, onions, and garlic, all at once. Seven minutes later, I’d wonder why I had a crusty, sticky mess of half-cooked onions and charred garlic in the bottom of the pan. One evening, she gently pointed out that the best way to sauté in stainless steel is to heat the pan slowly over medium, add the oil several minutes later when the pan has heated up, and add the veggies once the oil has had a chance to come to temperature. As usual, her advice was golden… not ‘charred’ golden , but ‘carmelized’ golden.

I placed our medium-sized sauté pan on the burner and set the temperature dial to medium. In this particular instance, I chose to forgo the oil completely, as twelve ounces of mushrooms will easily release enough liquid to sauté a medium onion as they cook down. After a few minutes, several drops of water danced and spattered around on the surface of the pan, indicating that it was ready. Using a wooden spatula, I scraped the pile of mushrooms off the cutting board and into the hot pan. Within a minute, the liquid began seeping out of the lively fungi, flooding the stainless steel surface. I dumped in the onion and stirred the mixture around until everything was uniformly coated with mushroom runoff.

The frozen spinach was the last ingredient to prepare for the filling. As the veggies continued to sizzle and sputter, I dumped a cup’s worth of frozen spinach into a Pyrex container, put it in the microwave, and set it to cook on high for a minute and thirty seconds. The whirrrrr of the microwave droned out the sizzling from the pan, as I agitated the contents with a few quick stirs. The bottom of the sauté pan was starting to brown slightly, as most of the liquid had evaporated. Rather than panic, I splashed few tablespoons of tap water into the veggie mixture and stirred everything vigorously. After a few moments, the brown residue began to loosen up and lift from the bottom of the pan, coating the mushroom and onions with a nice layer of caramelizationOnce the microwave sounded, I added the minced garlic along with a final splash of water to prevent any charring.

Holding the Pyrex measuring cup over the sink, I pressed and mashed the spinach into the bottom, squeezing out all the excess liquid. Using my already slimy hands, I restrained the mushed spinach on the bottom of the measuring cup as I dumped the liquid down the drain. Somewhere in the kitchen, I’m pretty sure we had some sort of contraption or strainer specifically designed to drain spinach, but I didn’t feel like snooping around in the cabinets for hours. Once I was sure I’d squeezed every last drop of liquid, I spooned the spinach into the bean filling and mixed it around.

A quick examination of the pan revealed that the veggies were ready. The onions were translucent and slightly carmelized, the mushrooms, which had been reduced by over half their original volume, were tender and glistening, and the garlic was a deep, golden hue. I turned off the large burner and moved the pan to the back of the stove. After a few minutes, the veggies had cooled, and I dumped them into the bowl with the bean and spinach mixture. I stirred the entire concoction around with our over-sized rubber spatula until everything in the filling was combined into a homogenous mixture.

I’ll admit that the bean filling didn’t have the most appetizing appearance, as I imagined the brownish yellow tinge to be a hue that would feel at home in a sick infant’s dirty diaper. But I was counting on the color and texture of the Newman’s Sockarooni to lend some vibrant qualities to the final appearance of the dish.

By this time, the twenty-three shells on the baking sheet were cold, as they’d had ages to cool off. I moved the pan over to the counter next to the filling, where they’d be easily accessible. The instructions in the bean book indicated that I was supposed to cover the bottom of an 8x11 baking dish with half the sauce and save the other half for topping. I retrieved yet another Pyrex dish from the cabinet, opened up the jar of Newman’s sauce, and dumped what appeared to be half of its contents into the bottom of the dish, spreading it around with a rubber spatula to evenly coat the bottom.

Next, from the book… “Fill each shell with a tablespoon of the bean filling and arrange them in the bottom of the pan.” Easy enough, but I was glad I boiled a few extra shells, as I tore several in the process of trying to load them with bean detritus. As it turns out, I would have had leftover shells anyway, as I only managed to squeeze sixteen into the baking dish… another strike against the recipe, which seemed better suited to a more traditional 9x13 sized dish.

After covering the top of the shells with the rest of the sauce, I stepped back, took a deep breath, and admired my handiwork. I had just prepared and assembled an entire dish of stuffed shells without any assistance from my wife. The question still remained as to whether or not they’d be edible, but I felt like I deserved a few moments to savor the fruits of my labor before worrying about such trivial issues as ‘taste’ and ‘end product’.

The final adjustment I made to the recipe was the cooking time. The book suggested 30 minutes in a 350 degree oven, until heated through. Seeing that the shells my wife made earlier in the week had barely been heated through after 30 minutes, I left them in for a full forty minutes before testing them. A quick poke of the finger after forty minutes revealed that they were, indeed, heated through.

I wanted to cut into one for a sample right away, but then I remembered yet another golden rule in the kitchen that I’d learned from my wife. Once your main course is complete, always let it rest for a good ten to fifteen minutes before diving in. I was first introduced to this rule when she’d pull a flank steak or pork tenderloin out of the oven, or remove a piece of salmon or a filet from a pan. She always stressed the importance of letting the meat rest for a good fifteen minutes or so before cutting into it.

As we’ve gradually shifted our dietary preferences and practices during the past several years, the rules haven’t changes. While the tender cuts of meat have been replaced by plant and grain based casseroles, burgers, lasagnas, and other such goodies, the rules remain the same… Once the concoction has been removed from the oven, let it rest for a little while just to give it a chance to cool off, let the sauces thicken up a bit, and let the flavors and ingredients cook together for just a bit longer.
“The heat that’s released from the hot, steaming, sizzling ingredients will continue to cook the entire dish,” she had reassured me. “Just be patient.”
Of course, her last order was a result of me hovering back and forth over both of her shoulders, trying to get a close-up sniff or glimpse of whatever wondrous treat she’d whipped up for dinner. Even without her presence in the kitchen on this particular evening, I still hovered impatiently over my own creation, as it festered for a final few moments.

Finally, I scooped a shell from the dish with a spatula, dumped it into a small bowl, and took a bite. It was… it was… In all honesty, I really wasn’t sure what I thought. It was definitely better than the lemon disaster we’d tried just a few days earlier, but my taste buds weren’t exactly jumping up and down for joy. I finished off the rest of the lone shell fairly quickly and decided that I needed to conduct further evaluation… I immediately scooped four more into the bowl, covered them with sauce, and continued eating.

As I delved deeper into the depths of my culinary creation, I was able to formulate some constructive feedback.

First, the good...

The filling was much better. Instead of mush, it actually had sustenance and texture. The decision to add mushrooms and spinach was clearly a wise choice. And the extra ten minutes in the oven had definitely made a difference. Whereas the original recipe was somewhere between warm and tepid after thirty minutes in the oven and a ten minute rest, my version was still piping hot after forty minutes in the oven and fifteen minutes of rest.

As for the bad…

No, wait.  As for what could be improved upon during future attempts...

These poor shells were absolutely screaming for my wife’s homemade marinara sauce. While Newman’s Own Sockarooni is definitely a cut above most other jarred, store-bought sauces on the shelf, the fact remains that it’s out of a jar, and it’s not fresh. As such, once it comes out of the oven, it hardens and congeals into a homogenous, lifeless layer over the shells. My wife’s homemade sauce, on the other had, remains lively and and varied with it’s non-uniform chunks and fresh spices, lending a new experience to every bite. Let’s face it… we don’t eat pasta for the pasta. We eat it for the sauce.

Second, my next attempt would include an additional element of ‘creamy alfredo-ness’ in the filling. The answer, of course, would be to include a small amount of cashew cream sauce in the next batch.

And the final area with potential for improvement was the mixture of spices I’d chosen. I had initially intended to add ground fennel to the filling, but I couldn’t locate any in the maze of spices that we keep in the cabinet just above the counter. Instead, I opted for whole fennel seed, to give the filling a ‘sausage-type’ quality. While I could definitely taste the fennel in the final product, my next try would include ground fennel, or combination of the two, to make its effects more consistent throughout the flavor of the dish.

And salt.  Let me tell you about salt.

You can tell that somebody is a talented cook when they can nail recipes that require one to ‘salt and pepper to taste’. For years, I was used to following recipes with set amounts of salt, i.e. a quarter teaspoon, a half teaspoon, and so on. When my wife entered the picture, she started making recipes that required one to ‘salt and pepper to taste’.

I’ll be honest, I still don’t know what the hell that means, but she excels in that department.
“It means, just keep adding salt until it tastes good."
Okay, Dear. Fine…

But how can you judge the flavor of a dish while it’s still cooking versus once it’s finished and been sitting for fifteen minutes… or three hours… or overnight? If the dish truly isn’t finished cooking until it’s had a chance to rest, wouldn’t it be possible to keep adding salt while it’s cooking until you think it tastes good, but then find out an hour later after ‘resting time’ that you’ve added too much salt?

I’m clearly still struggling with this skill. My wife, however, has it down to a science… just another indication of her talent in the kitchen.

Speaking of… the big moment came the next day after I got home from work, when she sampled my efforts. Earlier that morning, she had stepped through the back door after another 12-hour overnight shift.
“Good morning, Honey!” I had called out cheerfully.
“Why did you use the food-processor last night?”
“How the hell did you know I used the food processor?” I had gasped in bewilderment.
“Because the parts are all right there next to the sink."
She motioned towards the drying rack, which was a good fifteen feet away from where she was standing.
“I made stuffed shells last night.”
“I know we weren’t happy with the version from earlier in the week, and I wanted to see if I could make a better version. We’re going out to eat tonight probably won’t have any leftovers, so I thought I could bring them for lunch tomorrow. You can have some, too.”
“Oh, OK. I’m going up to change.”
She dropped her bag on the table, took her shoes off and headed towards the front hallway. I can apparently try to cook anything that I want, as long as I have a good reason.

Later that day when I got home from work, she heated up two shells in the microwave to tide her over while I showered and got ready to go out for dinner.
“Now, remember. I want your honest opinion. If they’re disgusting… tell me.”
I waited in agony as she cut into the first shell, took a bite, and chewed thoughtfully. And then I waited some more.
“You want my honest opinion?”
“These are really good. They’re a lot better than what we had on Monday.”
“Yes, they are.”
“You like the filling?”
“Yes, it’s good.”
To stay that I was completely stunned would be an understatement. For all intents and purposes, the news may as well have been delivered by Gordon Ramsey.

Of course, I was also ecstatic. For all of the crazy experiments that I’ve attempted in the kitchen, it’s a rare, refreshing occasion when I create something that passes as edible. There was a time when I rarely used recipes, instead relying on ideas and inspiration from the inner bowels of my imagination. In theory, they sounded like they’d be delicious. However, after a string of duds and failures, I followed my wife’s advice and began relying on cookbooks on a more regular basis. Once I experienced some success preparing proven recipes, I gained the confidence and knowledge to begin developing my own variations. Some of them have turned out to be really good (cough cough Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter Walnut Oatmeal Muffins cough cough).

And of course, I’ll admit that I’ve poked my share of harmless fun at a number of my wife’s culinary idiosyncrasies. But the truth is that I’d be lost in the kitchen without her guidance and advice. Before we met, my idea of gourmet cooking was to slice up a boneless chicken breast, toss it in a non-stick skillet with some barbecue sauce, and add a bag of frozen vegetables just before the chicken was cooked. I’d usually wait too long to add the veggies. By the time they were cooked through, the chicken would be overdone and dry, and I’d add more barbecue sauce to mask the flaws.

Once my wife entered the picture and began churning out imaginative, delicious dinners night after night, I happily accepted my new positions as dishwasher and head bus-boy. This continued for several years as we ate the typical meat and dairy-laden American diet. Once we began shifting to a plant-based diet, she had to start from scratch and learn a whole new set of skills and techniques to help her cook with a variety of unfamiliar and interesting ingredients. This was a perfect opportunity for me to jump in, get my hands dirty, and learn right along side of her. While she still retains the title of ‘Head Chef’ of the household, I’m much more competent, confident, and successful in the kitchen, thanks to her tutelage. For that, I’m extremely grateful.

As for my stuffed shells, one can probably figure out how to make them, as I’ve basically included all of the ingredients and measurements in the paragraphs above. But I’m not going to share a recipe in its entirety until I improve and perfect it to the point where I’m completely satisfied. But there is hope, as even Abby enjoyed my leftovers the next day at the office.
“They don’t suck,” she reassured me. “In fact, they’re pretty good.”
That type of feedback is cause for celebration, in my opinion.

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.”
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.
“The stove isn’t broken.”
“How do you kno--,”
“The stove is just fine… better than ever, in fact.”
“Um… But why is—,
“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.”
“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… 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.”
“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.
“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--,”
“…and if you’ve fallen asleep in the other room, waiting for the water to boil--,”
“…you’ll hear the lid jumping up and down and water splashing around long before it all evaporates.”
“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.
Give it a rest, Abby.
“That’s enough, Abby” I mumbled, pushing minced garlic into a neat little pile on the cutting board.
“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.