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.

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