Sunday, October 9, 2011

BACK ON THE DRAGONWAGON: Summer's End Potato-Mushroom Chowder with Basil-Tomato Finish

How I have fed myself over the last couple of months is a blur. I have changed jobs, cities, pant sizes and, come to think of it, lifestyles.

For the second time I’ve moved to Chicago, affectionately known as the Second City. The irony is not lost on me, and I’m trying to embrace the momentum of this second wave.

The lifestyle change is thanks to a city that doesn’t require constant car travel, so as a result, I’m surrounded by delightful cafés and holes-in-the-wall that inevitably keep me from my kitchen. At least the city allows you to walk off its unending gastronomical gifts.

This weekend Chicago hit 80-plus degrees, right on the heels of a chilly, windy weekend. Friday night I found myself in the trendy Wicker Park neighborhood sipping margaritas and shoveling chips and guacamole in my mouth. The streets were full of gluttonous people like me, desperate to drink in that last sap of summer.

I wrote about summer’s start and end back in June when I commemorated my sister’s best friend, Summer, who died suddenly.  I knew Summer for many seasons, but year after year, her spirit remained unchanged. My sister pointed out that William Shakespeare’s sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” is resplendent in metaphor for her. Summer’s lease did indeed have all too short a date.

So as I flipped through Crescent Dragonwagon’s “Passionate Vegetarian” in search of my next undertaking, I stopped on page 157, “Summer’s End Potato-Mushroom Chowder with Basil-Tomato Finish.”

The finish is a misnomer.  The basil—those peppery summery leaves—infiltrates this creamy dish. I chose to develop the cream finish with homemade tofu sour cream (p. 909). The silken tofu, juicy tomato, garlic and abundant basil made me want to lick the inside of my food processor. This is not a recommendation, of course. The blade is machete sharp.

Summery as this soup supper sounds, it’s also packed with some October picks, like cool-season kale and potatoes that can stand up to the frosty weather to come. Carrots, onions and mushrooms create a savory, yet sweet and earthy base. When you add the vegetable stock, the soup turns a “beefy” brown color. The flecks of carrot-orange rise to the surface, like a trumpet announcing fall’s arrival. The autumnal colors are deliciously undermined by the verdant basil (and the heaping glass of Rosé wine that, along with some crusty bread, flanked my dish).

This all-star Dragonwagon recipe is housed in the section called “Soups for Spirit and Sustenance.” Sure, it’s easy to understand how food sustains the body, but what about the spirit? What we eat should nourish our souls, but more often than not, our daily choices suck the spirit right out of food.

Leo Babauta, author of the popular minimalist-loving blog “Zen Habits” once wrote about the automated services so many people love, like auto bill pay. It sounds as though it would simplify life, but Babauta argues it strips a level of our consciousness away.

So it is for outsourcing too many meals. When you don’t buy (or frankly, grow) the ingredients—handle them, examine them and smell them—you are robbing yourself of the full consciousness when you taste them.

Today is Sunday. I didn’t do anything overtly spiritual. I didn’t go to church. I didn’t squeeze in a yoga session. But this summer’s end soup, from earthy start to bright basil-tomato finish, filled my stomach and fortified my spirit.

Who doesn't relish a fresh start? It's never too late to get back on the Dragonwagon. Summer may be over, but thy eternal summer shall not fade (without your permission, anyway).

Saturday, June 25, 2011

THE ALISON/DRAGONWAGON PROJECT: Spring Risotto of Artichoke, Lemon, Garlic and Mint

That blur? Not my photography skills. It's steam from this comforting risotto.
Today my sister's best friend from high school, Summer, died. She was 29. In fact, she had just turned 29 on the Summer Solstice, June 21.

Unlike many of us, Summer lived up to her name. My name means "little truthful one," and while I'm known for my frankness--and as a journalist, I seek the truth--sometimes I find it hard to nail down anything as true.

But this I know is true: Summer was bright and warm-hearted. A hug from Summer felt like sunlight.

I was on the road today, working on a story when I found out about Summer. I had planned on returning home at a decent hour, with the goal of making a soothing risotto out of a once-fresh (now-browning) artichoke, arborio rice, some squishy lemons, a fistful of mint leaves, a quarter bottle of leftover white wine and a few cloves of garlic stuck to the bottom of my produce drawer. But it was a steamy day in Georgia, and I returned home rather washed-out, heavy of heart.

I made the risotto anyway. 

You'll notice Crescent Dragonwagon of  "Passionate Vegetarian" dubbed this recipe a "Spring Risotto of Artichoke, Lemon, Garlic and Mint" (p. 488). I bought the ingredients two weeks ago when it was still spring. Now summertime, I felt a little bit like a failure throwing together these fading items. And I felt wasteful if I didn't.

Risotto is a dish that requires patience. There's a lot of stirring. Sometimes it seems as though the rice will never cook fully or get starchy enough. That I'm wasting my time. That it won't be worth the effort. And I don't own a pressure-cooker, so I couldn't try out Dragonwagon's method, which is O.K. because I operate under enormous pressure most of the time that cooking risotto forces me to slow down and meditate. And stir, stir, stir...

I remember "stirring the pot" with Summer back in high school, when I was a staunch Calvinist and she was what I considered a hippy-dippy Arminian. The difference, to anyone who's not aware, is completely trite, even in Christian theological circles. Outside of Christian circles, it's downright insane. Summer and I (and my sister) would bicker after school in her mother's history classroom, and finally, Summer settled the argument by saying we'd find out who was right someday when one of us got to heaven first.

Now it seems Summer's win is everyone's loss.

In the end, this spring risotto tasted Summery. The lemon and mint mingled almost to a mojito-like brightness, but the garlic brought it back to a savory center. I sipped a glass of the white wine that didn't all make it into the dish.

If I didn't live several states away, I'd love to pack up this dish and serve it up in lemony ladlefuls to Summer's family members, who probably in their grief couldn't stomach a bite.

But like most dishes, especially risotto, it's not about the plated result, but rather the process, the story, the journey. 

Summer's path through life was paved with lots of love and light. Her passing just a few days into the season doesn't need to be seen as a total loss or a bitter irony. We'll make of it what we can. We'll savor our memories, Summer after Summer.

Thursday, June 9, 2011


Is there a more perfect shade of orange?
You know those 100 calorie snack packs? Add this sweet potato to your rotation. A small to medium one is 100 calories or thereabouts.

Among the staple recipes in "Passionate Vegetarian" is Crescent Dragonwagon's Basic Baked Sweet Potato (p. 810). You can bake them in advance and repurpose their rich nutrition throughout your busy work week.

At least that's what I did today. I made my morning frittata, and while the oven was still hot, I grabbed two leftover sweet potatoes from pantry storage, rubbing them in oil, wrapped them in foil and baked them for about an hour at 400. 

I don't add butter and brown sugar, which would surely triple the calorie content, because these sweets are simply sweet enough. But these orange wonders don't just pack sugar carbs, they are also rich in dietary fiber and protein, Vitamin C. They're most known for having loads of Vitamin A.

For leftovers, I suggest tossing them as a final step in this Red Lentil Thai Chili. I discovered this recipe as part of the Boston Vegetarian Society's ad on the T. Don't cook the sweet potatoes along with the lentils. Just add them to the pot with the coconut milk at the end.

I also recommend using sweets as the filling in Dragonwagon's Jazzman's Pie (PV, p. 257). It's a vegetarian twist on the classic shepherd's pie, using sweet potatoes, tomatoes, a creole vegetable saute and a dark roux. I made this amazing, wintery pie a good year before I launched "The Alison/Dragonwagon Project." I'll have to make it again when the weather turns chilly and take some beauty shots. It looks and tastes like autumn. Not fall. Autumn.

Monday, June 6, 2011

THE ALISON/DRAGONWAGON PROJECT: Basic Baked Beets, Greek-Style Summer Squash

There are two types of people: Those who love beets, those who hate beets. But the gap between these two groups shouldn't be so great. In fact, there might not be a gap at all if roasted beets got to people's palates before pickled beets ruined them.

I say this because I used to be in the hating group. Both my parents bred an intense loathing of the vegetable into our family. The image of the fuchsia-staining, salad-bar variety of pickled beets is hard to overcome.

My first taste of unscathed beets was in Paris at a Lebanese food stand. They were chopped up in a wrap full of other roasted vegetables, doused in a yogurty dressing. I liked it, but never told my parents. I figured it could be a fluke. Or just Europe.

Years later...close to a decade later, I tasted the most delicious bit of beet seated proudly on a goat cheese cushion atop a raw round of summer squash. All three ingredients were acquired locally at a farm in Georgia. I gobbled up the amuse bouche. And again. And again. The beet flavor was unlike what I had remembered from childhood, though I never dared challenge what I had been taught about the purple devils. This time around it tasted like a parsnip, raspberry and sweet potato had a threesome.

Now that I have immersed myself in Crescent Dragonwagon's "Passionate Vegetarian," I am forced to make recipes that perhaps I would ordinarily skip over. Basic Baked Beets (PV, p. 701) is one of them. Olives will be another, eventually. Guest blogger, anyone?

Dragonwagon, too, waxes philosophical on beets. She loves them, but cautions against the jarred or canned "sad-sack, limpid purple ovals." Indeed.

Her method is simple: Fresh beets, stems removed, rubbed in olive oil, wrapped in foil, placed in baking dish, roasted at 350 degrees, 35 minutes to done.

I ate the whole bulb, skins and stub of stems. I sauteed the beet leaves with a little sesame oil, salt and pepper. I flanked the plate with some of Dragonwagon's Greek-Style Summer Squash (p. 799), also delicious, especially as I let the vibrant magenta beet juice marble the dish.

I shake my head at how closed-minded I was about beets in the first place. What had they ever done to me? My dislike was rooted in fear and ignorance, for to know beets is to love them.

I've been told the French use beet juice as a food coloring for strawberry milkshakes because of some restrictions on red dye. I have historically hated almost everything pink- or red-colored or flavored, conjuring images of Kool-Aid mustaches on bratty children. But who knows? Relishing a baked beet may be the first step to overcoming these childish hang-ups.

Now if I could only eat an olive without shuddering...

Friday, May 27, 2011

THE ALISON/DRAGONWAGON PROJECT: Deviled Summer Squash Casserole

Anything with the word "devil" in the title.

Casseroles used to be cool. I don't know what happened to them. They've been relegated to the ranks of potlucks, Thanksgiving dinners, bad cooks and busy moms and dads.

Perhaps with the rise of foodie-ism came a snobbery toward the shady, possibly carcinogenic "Cream of..." cans that you mix with cheese and noodles and call it a casserole day.

I think there are plenty of bad casseroles--and plenty of opportunities to deconstruct the beloved flavors of some so-so casseroles (think Tuna Noodle, King Ranch). But in this case, the pictured "Deviled Summer Squash Casserole" (Passionate Vegetarian, p. 800), is not reminiscent of any pantry casserole concoction. It's fresh, creamy, colorful, spicy and tangy.

PV's author Crescent Dragonwagon likes to use corn starch, instead of traditional roux-making, to thicken some of her dishes. It's a calorie-saver, and in this dish, the flavor is still preserved. The thickening happens in the oven.

The gist of the dish is sliced summer squash, whatever variety, with some sliced mushroom caps, in a zesty sauce, covered in breadcrumbs and baked to golden perfection.

That zesty sauce includes fresh tomatoes, garlic, cheddar and cream cheeses, corn starch, salt and pepper and Pickapeppa sauce (a Dragonwagon standby). Everything is pureed in a blender. 

You also need to sweat out an onion and seeded jalapeno to add to the casserole mixing bowl.

Like most casseroles, nothing bad will happen to it for 35 minutes at 375 degrees. In fact, very good things happen to this dish in the oven when it's topped with breadcrumbs and maybe a little butter (not a Dragonwagon recommendation).

It's a summery dish, but it's got a cold weather, comforting feel to it, too. Good all year round.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

THE ALISON/DRAGONWAGON PROJECT: Pamela Jones's Absolutely Incredible Roasted Vegetable Salsa and Beans-and-Greens Enchiladas

These are the vegetables before they take a bath in olive oil,
roast in the oven and get pureed in a smooth, spicy salsa..

This salsa ("Passionate Vegetarian," page 915) tastes luxurious, but it's actually an economical show-stopper. I made a big batch, snacked off it with multi-grain chips, used part of it in Dragonwagon's "Beans-and-Greens Enchiladas" (PV, page 342)* and froze the rest.

Making this salsa feels luxurious, probably because it involves a bountiful bowl of colorful produce and the food processor. It's a piece of kitchen equipment that's essential for the everyday cook. I'm sure Dragonwagon would agree. There's also something high power about it. Something elusive for those unaccustomed to its charms. You get to spinning that once-confusing lid on and off...snapping it into position with ease is akin to those who can wield a chef's knife with that perfectly pivoted "chop chop chop."

Dragonwagon's friend's recipe calls for a few pounds of fresh tomatoes and tomatillos, a blend of peppers (poblano, ancho, Hungarian wax, jalapeno, serrano), an onion, a head of garlic, cilantro and cumin seeds. In my current, not-so-urbanized city, I couldn't find the tomatillos, so I added some prepared salsa verde to my finished blend.

Pretty straightforward, otherwise. Toss everything (unpeeled, uncored) but the spice and herbs in olive oil and roast for 40 minutes at 400. I must admit I got rid of the seeds first, although I am sure that robbed the salsa of some well-developed heat. I wouldn't have been able to endure the heat anyway.

The smell of these vegetables roasting is worth the extra time and effort...and I love recipes that give me a reprieve, buying me time to clean up or just kick up my feet.

Peeling the garlic skins is much easier once the oils have released in the oven. I kept the skins on the peppers, though, a deviation from PV.

Putting everything in the food processor is the grand finale, with a good sprinkle of sea salt. Buzz until smooth and velvety. Curtains close.

This recipe gets three checks, suitable for your household and for guests, who may just want to take the reserve home.

*As for PV's "Beans-and-Greens Enchiladas," no picture for them, but that is no diss to their deliciousness. I wish I had used real cheese; I substituted veggie cheese. I also froze my leftovers, which have reheated well for those who aren't texture-phobes. The tortillas get pretty soft and saucy this way, which I don't think Dragonwagon would approve of too much, given her various PV rants on overly sauced foods! For a mid-week day meal, these protein-packed enchiladas taste like perfection, even if the texture isn't.  

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

THE ALISON/DRAGONWAGON PROJECT: "Terrible Delicious" Talk-of-the-Town Barbecued Tofu

I let Julia Child pick the first recipe of The Alison/Dragonwagon Project. Before she died in 2004, Child requested the barbecued tofu recipe from Crescent Dragonwagon, author of famed vegetarian resource "Passionate Vegetarian," which won a James Beard Award. Another Child connection: Dragonwagon won a Julia Child award for a cookbook that preceded PV, "Dairy Hollow House Soup & Bread." 

For both women, it was impossible to tell their stories properly without weaving in memories of many meals shared with their respective late husbands, Ned for Dragonwagon and Paul for Child. From weekday meals to elaborate feasts, these culinary icons prove food isn't just about the connection to the earth. It is about our connection to each other.

But I must admit I ate PV's "Terrible Delicious" Talk-of-the-Town Barbecued Tofu (p. 668) alone and in sandwich form...not sure how Dragonwagon--who has given me her blessing for this blog--would feel about that one. Dragonwagon did chime in and let me know there are indeed some aspics in PV, a tomato one and some other fruity, potluck salad-style aspics made with agar. While I was hoping to avoid aspics altogether, it is a far cry from what Julie Powell of The Julie/Julia Project had to endure when she cooked her way through Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."

Back to the tofu: A friend's mother once told me, "If you can read, you can cook." This is mostly true, but I've discovered that wisdom in cooking comes from improvisation and innovation.

I was forced to improvise the barbecued tofu. PV calls for strips of tofu sliced from a firm block, and I inadvertently purchased cubed (but firm) tofu. I hate wasting food, so I worked with what I had and decided to transform the dish into a barbecued chop sandwich. From how it tasted, I'd say it was a faithful rendering.

In lieu of liquid smoke and salt to taste, I simply used smoked salt, a Washington-made variety from the Artisan Salt Company (Salish Alder Smoked Salt, Fine).

What I did follow with care were PV's instructions to marinate the tofu in the garlic onion paste for about 36 hours. I reserved the marinade, later adding it as a base to a homemade salsa.

Among the ingredients Dragonwagon seems to love is Pickapeppa Sauce. I miraculously found a bottle at a regular grocer after keeping an eye out for a while. I don't like to be inundated with too many condiments and sauces, but this one is worth the couple dollar investment. It tastes like a mix between Worchestershire sauce and A1, but with some fruity, chutneyed notes.

I must admit I thinned out the homemade barbecue sauce just a tad. The orange juice and zest was a little overpowering for my taste, but once it baked into the tofu, it turned my apartment into a citrus smoke factory. This is a good thing.

When I use cookbooks, I use a recipe rating system, passed down from my mother. It is pretty simple: Three checks means a dish is so fantastic, you'd want to make it for company. Two checks means it is good enough to serve to your own household. One check serves as a reminder to never make a recipe ever, ever again.

This recipe got three checks, already scribbled alongside PV pages 668-670.