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.

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