Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Comfort Food: Winter Squash Curry Risotto

As mentioned in an earlier post, I have spent more time on airplanes this month than I have at my apartment, which means my poor kitchen has suffered from neglect for most of January. Winter months are a kitchen’s prime, when the stove should still be hot from 3 burners getting action each meal and the oven radiating with the sizzling sounds of roasting vegetables or the candied aroma of apple crisp. Sadly, my cold, dark abode seemed as though someone was using it for a changing room or refueling station – clothes abound, mail splattered across three different tables and an un-emptied dish washer.

Upon my return, I craved some home cookin’ that could rival my mom’s Roasted [insert animal chop here] with Mac n’ Cheese and Steamed Broccoli that used to feel so good when we came home exhausted from school drama or back-to-back sports games. Something warm, something filling, something flavorful. While I hadn’t been to the grocery store in what felt like ages, or 4 whole days, I did not feel like maxing out my credit card at Whole Foods after slapping my Visa all over Washington, DC. Even with the most disparate supply have I whipped up some passable meals.

I looked to my cupboard and what did I see? Butternut squash and a jar of curry. This of course brought on a few Thai-inspired ideas, but without a trip to the store I was stuck with what was on hand and I didn't have any basmati, white rice or rice noodles. Plus I didn't feel like a curry was necessarily considered comfort food and my mind was set. Peering further through the cupboards, my goal was to use up one of the miscellaneous grains that accumulate in the back corners of my cabinets (you known, the unused quarter- and half-cups here and there leftover from another brilliant meal). I spotted some Arborio rice and thought of how warm and comforting risotto sounded. Thai risotto? Hmmmmm…. It could work.

And it did. It was delicious.

If you have not made risotto, it is very easy. This is hard to convey in a recipe, because glancing through the directions, there seem to be many steps and a good amount of attention required. However, it is very simple I promise. Rice is typically cooked by bringing it to a boil, reducing the heat and simmering until the liquid is gone. Risotto does not stray far from that basic principle.

The difference lies in the amount of liquid that simmers at one time. Instead of pouring all the liquid and all the rice into one pan, you slowly add the liquid, a cup at a time, until it is absorbed. Then you add another until absorbed, repeating until the rice is done. Occasional stirring while it cooks allows the rice to release some of its starches, creating a thick and creamy sauce which is what makes this a comfort food.

Curry Squash Risotto
Serves 4
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes


1 Medium Butternut squash, peeled and cubed
1 c. Green bell pepper, sliced into 2” strips
4 ½ c. Water
2 T. Soy sauce, regular or low sodium
1 T. Canola oil
2 Garlic cloves, minced
1 ½ T. Ginger, minced
2 T. Green curry paste
4-5 Scallions, chopped, white and green parts divided
1 c. Arborio Rice
½ c. Coconut milk
1 T. Sugar
1 T. Fresh lime juice
Soy sauce to taste
½ c. Tomato, diced
¼ c. Fresh cilantro, chopped


Bring butternut squash to boil in a medium sauce pan. Turn heat to medium and simmer at a low boil until squash is somewhat tender but not mushy. Drain and set aside.

Bring water and soy sauce to a low boil in another pan and keep on medium-low heat while cooking the risotto.

In a large skillet, sauté garlic, ginger and white parts of onions in canola oil over high heat until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add curry paste and stir-fry 1 additional minute, being careful not to burn. Turn down heat to medium-high and add rice, stirring to completely coat in spices. Add 1 cup of seasoned water to pan. Lower heat to medium and let rice simmer ~5-6 minutes. When rice has absorbed most of the liquid, add another cup of seasoned water and stir. Let rice simmer until liquid is absorbed again ~ 8-10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add butternut squash, green peppers, and another ¾ cup of seasoned water to pan. Meanwhile, mix coconut milk with 1 cup of seasoned water. Once rice begins to look dry again, add the coconut milk and continue to simmer.

Meanwhile, mix the sugar and lime juice together in small bowl. When sauce becomes thick and rice is tender, stir in sweetened lime juice and season with soy sauce to taste. Divide risotto into servings and top each with tomatoes, green parts of scallions, and cilantro.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Cinnamon Raisin Coffeehouse Scones

One way I love to begin any morning is elbow deep in flour, clinking around measuring cups and searching for the open pack of sugar amidst the 9 kinds of miscellaneous sweeteners that have taken over the second shelf of my cupboard. Baking, whether it's for my coworkers on a random Tuesday or a birthday celebration, creates a personal sense of zen and the results (when the desired results are achieved) are some of the most satisfying I experience in the kitchen. The aroma of a sweet bread rising in the oven, the slow peeling of paper from the edges of firm and moist muffins, the breaking in half of a perfectly squishy cookie...not to mention the "oooo"s and "ahhhh"s of admirers who share in a collective comfort brought on by the sheer substantiation of 30 minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

In preparation for a very important meeting at work, I was certain that bringing some baked goods was very much needed in order to make our visitors feel welcome in an unfamiliar environment. Half of the group was flying in from the other side of the county and the other local half worked in departments that hardly collide. Homemade goodies seemed a fitting accessory to combat both issues of a room full of out-of-towners and a room full of strangers to boot.

Naturally, some people would eat before the meeting so I searched for something that could be eaten in the morning as breakfast or in the afternoon as a snack, a good accompaniment to coffee or tea. This ruled out anything that serves exclusively as a dessert, like bars or brownies. Cookies are usually a safe call, but I wanted something more unusual and unexpected as an office nosh. I also anticipated a variety of taste buds, some with a sweet tooth and others more adverse to overly sweet foods. This is Phoenix - adventurous tastes are hardly a dime a dozen. I needed something that incognito that looked normal to the hesitant sweet tooth but that would also exceed expectations.

I think scones are generally a crowd-pleaser, so long as they are not too dry, the right amount of sweetness and the perfect size. Cinnamon raisin is a good flavor to accommodate different tastes, as it doesn't need to be overly sweet and even if you don't like raisins you can usually get over it because the combination is so lovely. When I was young, I hated raisins but would rarely be seen passing up a good piece of cinnamon raisin toast. There is just something about the robust cinnamon mixed with something sweet and soft that could make anyone forget about shriveled, wrinkly raisins. I don't believe my co-workers were disappointed with this whatsoever. Both the extreme sweet-tooth bakery fiends and more savory Sallys were appeased by these.

Cinnamon Raisin Coffeehouse Scones
Serves: 6-8
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 20 minutes

1 ½ c. Unbleached all purpose flour
½ c. Oat flour
¼ c. Raw sugar
1 tsp. Baking powder
¼ tsp. Baking soda
¼ tsp. Salt
½ c. Vegan margarine, cut into small pieces

2/3 c. Soy or almond milk
½ tsp. Cider vinegar

Mixture to brush scones
¼ c. Soy or almond milk
½ - 1 tsp. Cornstarch

1 c. Sifted powdered sugar
2 T. Soy or almond milk
½ tsp. Vanilla extract


Preheat oven to 400ºF.

In a small bowl, stir cider vinegar into milk and let sit while preparing dough (milk will curdle). Prepare dough in the meantime.

Whisk together flours, sugar, baking powder/soda, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Blend margarine into flour mixture using a pastry cutter, a fork, or two knives until dough becomes crumbly. Add milk and stir until dough just comes together. Be careful not to over mix the dough.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out dough into a wide disk 7-8 inches in diameter and 1-1 ½ inches thick. Cut circle in half and cut each half into 3-4 triangles. Place on baking sheet and prepare the milk wash by stirring cornstarch into ¼ cup milk. Brush mixture over each scone. Bake in oven 15-20 minutes or until golden brown on edges.

Place a sheet of wax paper below a wire rack, transfer scones to rack and cool 5-7 minutes. Prepare the icing by whisking soy milk and vanilla into powdered sugar. With a spoon, drizzle icing over each scone. Let the icing set an additional 2-3 minutes before serving.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Polenta Pizza with Sausage and Root Veggies

January is off to a crazy busy start, and I've found myself in an odd limbo between wanting desperately to cook real food and wanting to forgo the kitchen drama in exchange for a lovely Spinach Sabzi Plate at the Middle Eastern cafe down the street. I have far exceeded my threshold of eating out however; I've been out of town traveling half the month and will be gone yet again the next two weekends. Sadly, the stockpile of beautiful root vegetables I bought from the Farmer's Market around New Year's Day was threatening to go limp with so much as a slight squeeze. Wednesday arrived and I had yet to chop an onion (dramatic exaggeration - like I'd go all week without making something), I had to do something with the remaining produce in my refrigerator before I left town again.

So many root vegetables popped out at me as I stared into my fridge and cupboards .... rutabagas, parsnips, winter squash, turnips, sweet potatoes, and fingerling potatoes (oh the most lovely little purple ones!). My immediate reaction to such a display is, "ROAST." I loves me some roasted veggies. Most times I try preparing them another way, I usually miss that crispy, semi-burnt crunch on the outside with the sweet, soft, near sugary inside. My only apprehension toward roasting all the time is a self-conscious insecurity that I'm simply lacking creativity. Well I ditched that hogwash and came to the resolution that I would roast these babies anyway and be creative about how I used them afterward.

Assessing the resources at my disposal and keeping in mind this meal was also feeding non-vegans, I wanted to make some kind of comfort food that is familiar but healthy of course. I hadn't made polenta in ages, but cornmeal slop isn't always appetizing to shy eaters. Having just used my spring form pan to make a chocolate cake, I spotted it out of the corner of my eye and thought...PIZZA! Polenta makes a fabulous crust. Although it lacks the crunch and chewiness of a wheat dough, it takes to seasoning very well and hold up firmly. I planned on the roasted vegetables as a topping, but a classic tomato sauce didn't seem to fit so I went with a Bechamel of sorts. And of course I needed a protein portion. With chilly weather upon us and even the prospect of rain (yes, it rains in the desert sometimes), I thought of a comforting herb-seasoned sausage that would pair well with the deep flavors of rutabaga and parsnips. All in all, it was no typical pizza. The final piece was round with sauce and toppings, and it sort of looked like a pizza. It tasted much more fabulous.

While this recipe looks long and laborious, each part is really quite simple. You can always do a separate task while one portion cooks or roasts and you can even make most of these ahead of time, say, for other meals and reuse them here. Don't be intimidated by the long list, it's very easy!

Polenta Pizza with Sausage and Root Vegetables
Serves 2

Roasted Vegetables

½ c. Parsnips, peeled and cubed
½ c. Rutabaga, peeled and cubed
½ Medium onion, sliced (½ inch thick)
½ c. Winter squash, peeled and cubed
½ Broccoli, cut into small florets
1 T. Olive oil
Salt and Pepper

Polenta Crust
2 c. Water
½ c. Polenta
2 T. Nutritional yeast
¾ tsp. Garlic Powder
½ tsp. Salt

½ c. TVP
¾ tsp Marjoram
½ tsp Onion powder
½ tsp Garlic powder
¼ tsp Thyme
¼ tsp Allspice
Pinch of nutmeg
Black pepper to taste
1 tsp Soy sauce
½ c. Boiling Water
½ tsp. Ground flax seed
1 T. Water
¼ c. Chickpea flour (or any other flour of choice)

Béchamel Sauce
1 T. Vegan margarine
2 T. All purpose flour
¼ c. Silken tofu
¼ c. Soy/Almond milk
¼ c. Vegetable broth
1 T. Nutritional yeast
Pinch of nutmeg
Pinch of white pepper

Additional Toppings: Toasted pine nuts, vegan parmesan, sun-dried tomatoes, kalamata olives…


For roasted vegetables: Preheat over to 450ºF. Combine all vegetables except the broccoli and coat with ¾ tablespoon of olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread evenly on cookie sheet or roasting pan and roast in oven for 30 minutes. Toss broccoli with remain oil and add to other veggies after 30 minutes. Roast additional 15 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside. Reduce oven temp to 350ºF.

For the polenta crust: Bring water to a boil. Slowly pour in polenta and whisk until mixture is even. Turn heat to low simmer and stir periodically with wooden spoon to prevent clumping until polenta sticks to sides and bottom of pan ~ 10 minutes. Stir in remaining ingredients and remove from heat. Pour polenta into 9” spring form pan and spread as evenly as possible. Once crust has cooled slightly, place a layer of plastic wrap over polenta and press down to further even the crust out. Refrigerate for ~ 10-15 minutes.

For the Sausage: Place TVP in medium mixing bowl. In a small bowl, combine spices, soy sauce and boiling water. Whisk well and add to TVP, making sure all spices are blended. Let TVP hydrate for 5-10 minutes. Mix ground flax and water together, stir quickly and let sit 1 minute until mixture become gummy. Add ground flax mixture and chickpea flour to TVP and combine with you hands until mixture sticks together easily. Roll into mini sausage balls. To cook sausage, heat ½ tablespoon of canola oil over medium-high heat. Add sausages and cook until brown ~ 7-10 minutes. Set aside.

At this point, the polenta crust will be cooled and ready to bake. Stick in oven (that should be at 350ºF). Bake for 10-15 minutes until crust is golden.

For the béchamel sauce: Melt margarine in a small sauce pan and whisk in flour to make a roux. Cook ~ 1-2 minutes, but not until flour is brown. In a food processor, combine roux with remaining ingredients except nutmeg and white pepper. Blend until completely smooth and transfer mixture back to sauce pan. Heat over medium-high heat until sauce starts to bubble. Turn down heat to low and cook until it reaches consistency of Velveeta-like cheese. Stir in nutritional yeast, nutmeg and white pepper.

Assemble Pizza: Remove crust from over. With a spatula, pour ½ of béchamel sauce over polenta and spread evenly. Top with roasted veggies and sausage. Drizzle remaining sauce over top of pizza. Bake in oven another 10 minutes until sauce starts to brown slightly. Top with any other preferred toppings such as toasted pine nuts or vegan parmesan.