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.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Vegan Stuffed Shells: Part II...

Disaster Averted

Click HERE to read Part I.

You think it's easy trying to hide all of this crap?  You try it!

Once my wife was out the door on Tuesday evening, I checked the original recipe to make a list of ingredients for the store. I needed two more cans of navy beans, and we only had a half box of shells left. I figured I’d better pick up another box, just to be safe. As for the sauce, I would have loved to have used my wife’s homemade recipe. But attempting to make sauce, while simultaneously trying to prepare and assemble stuffed shells for the first time, would have meant certain disaster. In short, it would have validated every one of my wife's issues with me cooking in secret. I would have looked like a damn fool, for sure. As such, I decided on Newman’s Own Sockerooni… always an acceptable stand-in when time is short.

After slogging through a half dozen 400s at the local track, I stopped at Wegmans to pick up the ingredients. Aside from my initial complaints, my other major quarrel with the recipe was with the texture of the bean filling… mushy, bland, and lacking in substance. I definitely wanted to add another element to the filling, but I couldn’t decide between mushrooms or spinach. Finally, I just decided to add both, and tossed a 12-oz package of white mushrooms, as well as a 10-oz package of frozen organic spinach into my shopping basket.

When I returned home, my next task was to hide all of the ingredients for the next twenty-four hours, so my wife wouldn’t discover my big plans. Whenever I get the urge to cook in secret, I have the best luck when I plan ahead and pick up my ingredients a day in advance of the great adventure. However, this strategy often backfires. On multiple occasions, my wife has discovered all of the foreign goodies scattered about the fridge and pantry, and then questioned me about them ad nauseum.

I'm usually pretty aware of basic ingredients we have on hand. But I don’t have enough mental or emotional energy to keep tabs on every item in the house. My wife, on the other hand, has a running inventory in her head that seems to update itself every half minute. There are times when she’ll have the pantry open for less than a second to grab a granola bar from the top shelf, and she’ll notice the extra can of crushed tomatoes on the bottom shelf, which I’ve tried to hide behind the peanut butter, balsamic vinegar, tamari, brown rice, and steel cut oatmeal.
“Hey… What's this back here? Why do we have an extra can of crushed tomatoes?”
Unfortunately, shrugging it off or playing dumb is rarely a successful strategy.
“What do you mean we’ve probably had it for awhile? I just used the loganberry-infused rice vinegar three weeks ago, and I know for a fact that those crushed tomatoes were not back there.”
At that point, my goal changes from keeping the mystery ingredients a secret to keeping my intentions private.
“What do you mean you just thought it might be nice to have extra crushed tomatoes on hand? Did you go to Wegmans last night? You did, didn't you!?”
By this time, any further effort to keep my plans a secret is not only worthless and futile, but downright pathetic.
“What else did you buy? And why did you even go to Wegmans? I just went there two days ago. We don't need to be going to Wegmans every night. Why didn’t you tell me you needed another can of crushed tomatoes?”
At that point, I have no choice but to rattle off my entire shopping list.
“What use would we possibly have for teff flour, star fruit, hemp seeds, and coconut wax? Were you going to try making something tonight? I hope you’re planning on following a recipe."
And finally, I hold my head and shame and reveal my intentions to surprise her with a secret creation that I just know will be delicious.
"Why would you even dream of making something like that. You should always follow a recipe the first time you make something. You know how I hate wasting food. You remember what happened the last time you tried to make those tomato almond cranberry fondue bars.  They were a complete disaster.”
Needless to say, I’ve learned to be more careful about hiding any ingredients that I’ve dared to bring into our house unannounced. As I began unpacking, I decided that the best strategy would be to separate all of the mystery items. If she happened to discover just one odd item, I might be able to get away with it. But if she found two or three stashed together, the cat would be out of the bag, and I’d have more explaining to do.

The frozen spinach was the least threatening item, as we often use it for lasagna or enchiladas. I doubted she’d have any reason to go into the freezer from the time she hot home from work the next morning until the time she went to bed thirty-five minutes later. I hid the bag on the bottom shelf behind an opened box of frozen pretzels that had been there since 2009. The two cans of navy beans were next. There was absolutely no room in the pantry, and I had previously learned my lesson while trying to hide canned goods during The Great Crushed Tomato Debacle of 2011. I decided to stash them both in the trunk of my car, where they’d be safe for twenty-four hours.

The jar of Newman’s Own Sockarooni presented more of a challenge. The pantry was out of the question, and I didn’t want to store it with the beans and take a chance on a big mess and broken glass all over the bottom of my trunk. After scanning all around the kitchen, I had a brilliant idea. I opened up the cabinet just above the fridge to the left, where we store the conservative collection of spirits, coffee liqueur, and various vodkas that we rarely use, and I wedged the tomato sauce in the lone vacant spot just in front of the Amaretto. I was in the process of closing the cabinet when I had an awful thought.
“No… No, she wouldn’t… Would she?”
My arm came to an abrupt halt, as the cabinet door hung halfway open, waiting in limbo. My wife has had some pretty rough nights at work, but she’s never been driven to a hard vodka and tonic at eight o’clock in the morning. Still, there’s always a first time for everything. With my luck, that first time would be ten hours later. I opened the cabinet back up, rearranged the various bottles, and pushed the jar of sauce way back to the inner bowels behind the vanilla vodka and spare coffee maker.

Next was the 12-oz package of mushrooms, which needed refrigeration. I considered stashing them in the trunk with the beans, but I didn’t want them getting bruised or damaged. The refrigerator itself was out, as she’d be sure to pick those out without even opening the door. Then, I remembered the extra beer in the cooler out in the garage. Luckily, there was just enough room above the bottles to set the package of mushrooms and close the lid tightly.

The final item to hide was the box of stuffed shells. After another quick survey of our available storage, I decided to hide them in plain sight. Boldly opening up the pantry, I pulled out the drawer, and thrust the shells directly behind the already opened box way in the back. While this would have seemed like a foolish move at any other moment, I figured they’d be safe. After all, what are the chances she’d have a need for raw pasta shells after working an overnight shift?

However, the next morning I learned that it’s unwise to assume any location in our kitchen is safe. I was sitting on the couch with my coffee around quarter of eight when my wife walked through the door.
“How was your night?”
“It was fine,” she said, dropping her bag on the table and removing her shoes. “…a pretty slow evening actually.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed her rummaging around through her bag. She appeared to be searching for something. After a moment, she pulled what looked like a container of McDougall instant soup. I watched helplessly as she made her way into the kitchen, opened the pantry door, and pulled out the sliding shelf. As she stooped down to put away the unused soup, she paused and reached into the back of the pantry. 
“What’s this?” She appeared from around the corner, holding the unopened box of stuffed shells in front of her. “Did you know we had these?”
I lurched forward and showered Indy’s rump with a half-swallowed mouthful of coffee.
“Um… Had what?”
“These shells. When I made them the other night, I bought a new box. I didn’t know we had an un-opened box.” 
I began to clumsily mop up the coffee that I’d spit all over the cat, who had turned his head to glare at me disdainfully.
“No, um… Where were they?”
“That’s weird. They were right here in the pantry next to the half-used box.”
“I don’t know.” I pressed my hands to my gut, as I felt the contents of my intestines begin to churn around uncomfortably. “I… guess we already had them.”
“How could I have missed this open box?”
“Maybe they just got pushed all the way to the back behind all the other pasta.”
The pain in my belly continued to get worse as an audible gurgle belched forth from my mid-section, followed by creaking sounds resembling antique furniture being rearranged on an unfinished hardwood floor. As the moan trailed off, Indy flattened his ears back in absolute disgust. 
“Huh. That's funny. Well, I guess you won’t have to buy shells for awhile.”
“That’s so weird.” She continued mumbling to herself as she headed towards the front hallway. “I’m going upstairs to change and wash my face.”
“Can you make it quick?”
“I think I’m going to shit myself.”
“The coffee,” I said, waving my empty mug around as she peered around the corner.
“Oh. Yeah, be right down.”
Fortunately for the couch and cat, she was fairly speedy washing up and getting ready for bed, and I made it upstairs just in time.

Click HERE to read Part III.

This is Indy's state of mind BEFORE my stomach went postal.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Vegan Stuffed Shells: Part I...

Shattered Hopes and Dreams

The broccoli was the best part of the meal.

“OK, now you’re starting to lose me.”
“Why is that?”
“A half-assed, bland tomato sauce shouldn’t be the first option listed… especially if homemade or even sauce in a jar would be better.”
I was blocking the entrance to Abby’s cubicle, eating my leftover stuffed shells. Even with her back turned to me, I could sense her disdain towards the recipe my wife and I had tried the previous evening. Typically, I offer her a small sample of my leftovers. In this case I didn’t bother, as the meal had been a complete fail.
“Yeah, I guess a few spices added to a can of crushed tomatoes is a bit underwhelming.”
I also wasn’t too keen on the lemon flavor. The recipe in question, from The Great Vegan Bean Book, was called 'White Bean Lemon Basil Stuffed Shells'. The only lemon of note was from the half cup of chopped fresh basil, with the suggestion to "try lemon basil" set aside in parentheses. Since lemon basil is pretty tough to come by in mid-March, we just used regular basil. To add lemon flavor, my wife decided to grate a teaspoon of lemon zest into the bean filling. Unfortunately, it was way too strong.
“You mean there wasn’t a substitute?”
“No. She just thought of that on her own, hoping it would turn out.”
“Problem number two,” Abby announced emphatically. “If the dish is called ‘White Bean Lemon Basil Stuffed Shells’, there should be a viable substitute listed. The author didn’t give a lemon flavor alternative anywhere in the recipe?”
“That’s unacceptable. Lemon basil isn’t exactly plentiful in the middle of March.”
“I know,” I nodded. “And even a teaspoon of lemon zest was overkill. It basically tastes like lemon bean mush. Next time, we’d either find the lemon basil, or use less zest.”
“Next time… I hope there’s not a next time. I wouldn’t ever make that recipe again.”
“Well, it has potential if we used homemade sauce and modified it slightly.”
“All of that stuff should be tested before the recipe is even approved for publication. That sounds like a lazy effort to throw a book together.”
I certainly couldn’t argue with Abby’s point. The book in question had ended up being the odd duck in the group of three that I’d gotten my wife for Christmas. In all fairness, it probably didn’t stand a chance from the beginning. On Christmas morning, my wife had also been fortunate enough to unwrap Isa Chandra Moskowitz’ new book Isa Does It: Amazingly Easy,Wildly Delicious Vegan Recipes for Every Day of the Week, along with a promise that we’d pre-order Angela Liddon’s upcoming Oh She Glows cookbook once it became available. I had simply ordered the bean book because I wanted to surprise her with at least one cookbook that she wasn’t expecting. When she’d opened it up, I had a hard time gauging her level of interest.
“Hmmm. Beans,” she’d remarked, giving it a thoughtful nod.
After flipping through a few pages for a cursory glance at several recipes, she cast it aside in favor of Isa’s new book.

For the next two-and-a-half months, she cooked almost exclusively from Isa Does It, every night managing to transform all of the fruits, veggies, grains, and legumes we imported into the pantry into platters of vegan, plant-based gold at the dinner table. Seriously, out of the twenty or so recipes we’ve tried so far, I can recall maybe one or two that have been just above average, as opposed to spectacular.

Meanwhile, The Great Vegan Bean Book sat forgotten on the bookshelf… cast alongside our extensive collection of meat and dairy cookbooks that have been collecting dust for almost four years.

Then, March 10th rolled around, and Isa got a well-deserved break when the Oh She Glows cookbook arrived at our doorstep. For two weeks, my wife concocted a majority of our meals from Angela Liddon’s glorious new publication, churning out another handful of delectable, mouth-watering plant-based main courses, side dishes, and desserts. Again, every recipe we’ve tried so far has been nothing short of spectacular.

And still, The Great Vegan Bean Book remained untouched on the bookshelf, rotting away into a puddle of disinterest and neglect.

Some of our current favorites.

Finally, a few days later, my wife and I had been discussing what to have for dinner the next day between Words With Friends turns. After unsuccessfully browsing several blogs for some inspiration, she had an idea.
“Hey, why don’t I look for something in that bean book.”
“What bean book?” I had murmured, without looking up from my phone.
“You know, the book about beans that you got me for Christmas.”
“…book about... beans?”
“You know… The Great Vegan Bean Book.”
“great vegan… what? Bean book?”
“You know, you got it for me for Christmas.”
“No I didn’t,” I’d said, as I dropped ‘UNRAZED’ on my co-worker for 118 points.
“The bean book you got me from Amazon!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You got it for me along with Isa Does It!”

“Maybe somebody else got it for you.” I tapped the ‘play’ icon on my iPhone, dropping 45 points worth of ‘FECES’ on my neighbor. “I sure didn’t get it for you.”
“Yes you did! Stop messing around!”
“Bean book?”
“Here, I’ll show you!”
She got up from the couch and disappeared into the kitchen, returning a few moments later holding The Great Vegan Bean Book.
“This book!”
“I’ve never seen that before in my life.”
“You got this for me for Christmas!”
“Did I?”
“I’ve never seen it within a hundred yards of our kitchen. Must be a pretty crappy read.”
“OK!” She tossed it on the coffee table. “I’ll admit that I’ve been a bit pre-occupied with the other two books.”
“A bit?”
“So I’ll look through this tomorrow and text you a few possible recipes to consider while you’re at work.”
“Are you sure your mom didn’t get you that book? I still don’t recall when I would have—,”
The next day at work, she sent me three different dinner options from the book, including the lemon shells recipe. While all three recipes looked like they had promise, I ended up choosing the stuffed shells, as I was had a craving for pasta. Maybe if I had read the recipe more closely, I would have been more likely to recognize some of the its potential shortcomings, which Abby had so eloquently presented to me in the form of a graduate level dissertation after the fact. The lack of a true homemade sauce as the first option should have been a red flag. But I’m not used to analyzing recipes that closely, and my inexperience reared its head, in this particular instance.

Feces are not hard to come by on a plant-based diet.

That evening at dinner, we both inspected the shells closely before cutting into them and taking our first bites. Our reactions could best be described as… slightly south of underwhelming.
“Meh,” I managed through a mouthful of lemon bean mush.
“They’re fine,” my wife added.
Anytime my wife says something is fine, that’s her code for saying it could be better, or more accurately, it’s not very good. Right away, we both agreed that the sauce was bland and that the lemon flavor was much too strong. As Abby would reiterate the next day, homemade sauce would have been the best option, but even a jar of Newman’s Own Sockarooni would have been preferable to the crushed tomatoes and spices that were indicated within the recipe.

As we finished off the remainder of our uninspiring meal, I decided right then and there that I was capable of coming up with a better variation of a plant-based white bean filling for stuffed shells. While Abby had recommended that I stay as far away from the recipe as possible, I was confident that I could use it as a foundation for an improved product. I wanted to try making it again fairly soon, as I typically have a limited window of opportunity before my ambition wanes and apathy sets in.

The other requirement was that I wait until an evening when my wife was working overnight. If I made my intentions known to her, I was sure to be hit with the flurry of obligatory questions and observations:
“Why are you making stuffed shells again when we just had them? ... Why do you want to experiment when you’re not sure how they’re going to turn out? ... Why don’t you let me find a recipe that we can decide on together? ... We’re having lasagna this weekend at my sister’s birthday party. Isn’t that too much pasta in one week? ... You know I don’t like surprises when they involve the kitchen. ... Are you making this up or following a recipe? ... You’re making this up, aren't you? ... You should really follow a recipe the first time you make something. ... Do you know how to plug in the Cuisinart?”
I checked my wife’s work schedule and saw that she was working overnight the next two evenings - Tuesday and Wednesday. Tuesday was out, as I had plans to punish the fast-twitch muscle fibers in my legs for the first time in over three month and run some 400s at the local college’s all-weather track. Wednesday evening, however, was wide open.  I decided this would be the night that I made culinary history by attempting to make stuffed shells for the first time in my life, without even following a real recipe.

Click HERE for Part II.