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.