Thursday, May 24, 2012

Ignorance is Bliss

I hate it when I read something that ruins something for me that I think I’ve been doing right. Most recently, this happened with an article in Mother Jones titled Steak or Veggie Burger: Which is Greener? 

For probably ten years now, I have been buying veggie burgers at Costco, sometimes Boca Burgers and sometimes Morningstar Farms, but I have pretty much had one or the other in my freezer for the better part of a decade now. I even keep a bag of the ground beef substitute in the freezer and a box of whole-grain Hamburger Helper on the shelf for those times when we need a quick-but-satisfying-and-substantial hot meal.

They’re quick and easy and nutritious, in addition to actually tasting good and not having a bunch of animal fat and residual antibiotics and hormones. Tom has to watch what he eats to keep his cholesterol in check, so we substitute them frequently. 

Or we used to, anyway. Until I read the article that told me how they’re made (Hexane? Really???) and how much energy goes into coaxing soybeans into something that passes for a burger closely enough that you can grill it, put it on a bun with the condiments of your choice and not feel like you’re missing a thing.

After I read the article I sent the link to my husband so he could read it on his phone. “Well, there is no free lunch, or in this case, guilt-free lunch, is there?” he texted back from study hall twenty minutes later. I concurred dismally that no, there certainly isn’t and reached for an Ambrosia apple grown in Washington state and trucked to my supermarket in Kansas City.

Then a couple of hours later he asked me a question that sent me to my two stand-by recipe books – the La Leche League cookbook, Whole Foods for the Whole Family and the three-ring binder where I started writing down my Nana’s secrets when I as a teenager – “Didn’t you used to make something yourself when we went to vegetarian potlucks, or when veggie-kids stayed overnight at our house?”  

He was absolutely right. “Spaghetti and wheatballs.”

“That’s it! I liked that.”

“Well, let’s resurrect it then.”

I found the “Un-Meatballs” recipe in Whole Foods and decided it was a bit bland for my current palate, since I don’t have kids to accommodate most of the time now, so I would make some adaptations.

For starters, I baked a loaf of bread in the bread machine specifically for the recipe. I used olive oil instead of canola, I added some dried onion and herbs, a dash of crushed red pepper, garlic salt instead of salt, some dried chives…and instead of blending unbleached white with the wheat flour, I used 100% whole wheat flour, some additional bran and cracked wheat and made it heavy on the seeds, adding a quarter cup of each:  raw sunflower, sesame, and flax, and a tablespoon of poppy. When the bread was done, I let it cool before slicing it and cutting the slices into cubes and drying them on a cookie sheet for a couple of days before storing them in an airtight container.

Tuesday night I decided that the time was right for wheatburgers for dinner. On Monday I had been on a road-trip, gotten not nearly enough exercise and I had eaten way too much sugar and junk food (granola bars are still junk food) the day before. I had even eaten a McDonald’s cheeseburger. It was a good day to go veggie, so I decided to give resurrecting a recipe from 20 years ago a whirl.
1 ½ Cups whole grain bread cubes and crumbs
½ Cup cooked and drained lentils (optional)
½ Cup chopped pecans or hazelnuts (optional, but delicious)
¼ Cup dried, minced onion*
1 ½ teaspoons veggie seasoning
1 Tablespoon chives
Two eggs
Broth of your choice, beef, chicken or veggie
1 T Worcestershire sauce
1 ½ teaspoons soy sauce
1 small white onion, finely minced
6 mushroom caps, chopped
1 carrot, grated
One Tablespoon Olive Oil

Combine the dried bread, lentils and minced onion* (if using dried. If using a fresh onion, we’ll get to that in a minute) and mix in the egg and the broth. This is a bit tricky – you may have noticed that I didn’t state an amount of liquid, I just said “broth.” That is because it depends on the bread. How dense or light it was to start with, whether its fine crumbs or dense, dried cubes, etc. What we’re shooting for in the end is a consistency that can be shaped into patties or balls and fried in a skillet.) I buy broth at Costco. I can buy a box with twelve quarts of organic veggie, chicken or beef broth for about ten bucks, and I keep it on the shelf all the time. The closeable boxes are handy as hell for making soups and sauces and bases and gravies. Add the eggs, soy and Worcestershire sauce then add the broth slowly. You can always add more if you need to – but it’s kinda hard to take out extra if you put in too much…

After you set the bread and broth aside, sauté the mushrooms, minced onion (if using fresh) and grated carrot in olive oil with the white pepper and veggie seasoning, then remove from heat and let cool before adding to the bread, broth and eggs.

When the sautéed veggies are cooled, add them to the bread crumbs, liquids and eggs. Mix thoroughly and shape into patties or balls and fry in olive oil over medium heat until golden brown and cooked through.  

When I made this for dinner on Wednesday, I made two nice sized patties and nine good sized “wheatballs” for spaghetti the following night.

I served the patties with steamed green beans and potatoes and a sauce made from sautéed mushrooms and onions, beef broth, a splash of red wine and corn starch. I then added a pinch of salt, just a splash of red wine, the slightest dash of soy sauce and a couple of sprinkles of white pepper. This mushroom sauce was then drizzled over the burger and the excess was a lovely compliment to the steamed veggies.

And there you go. A green and healthy alternative to both meat and processed veggie burgers that can be totally vegetarian if you want it to be, and still satisfy that craving for a substantial, hearty, tasty, protein-packed meal. And while it isn’t fat free, the fats are all monosaturated “good” fats that allow for absorption of fat-soluble vitamins without the health-risks of other oils and butter. 

Friday, January 27, 2012

I hate it when this happens...

Last night my son -- he moved into our building as part of his nefarious plot to never buy groceries again -- came in from work and announced that he was over whatever bug had plagued him for days and he was hungry.

I have 16 credit hours and a job, and all my classes are Monday through Thursday. I wasn't really planning on cooking so much as I was planning on having them fend for themselves. But I'm a Mom, his Mom, first and foremost, so I fed the boy.

I went into the kitchen with no idea what the hell I was going to make, I just started cooking. I started with a Near East Rice Pilaf -- Garlic and Herb, to be exact, and I cooked it in the automatic rice cooker. If you don't have one of these, get one. It will change your life at least as much as the Shins.

While the rice cooked, I looked in the fridge and on the shelves. I had quite an assortment of veggies...I decided that I would bake chicken and rice and veggies, and that it would be hearty enough to fill him up yet not too rich and heavy after he had been feeling puny for a few days.

Now, I try to keep my life simple. So I pretty much always have chicken breast marinating in some sort of acid-based dressing, because it keeps for days and just gets more flavorful the longer it soaks. But I also pick up a rotisserie chicken in the deli at Price Chopper when they have a special, and it just so happened that I had one of those in my fridge as well. While I chopped veggies, Tom cleaned most of the white meat from the breasts and put it aside for me.

I started by ever-so-slightly steaming a couple of cups of cauliflower, and while it steamed I sauteed half an onion, three stalks of celery, twelve baby bellas and half a yellow bell pepper in one tablespoon each of butter and olive oil. I chopped a couple of cups of broccoli into smallish florettes and left them raw.

When the rice was almost done, I put it in the bottom of a deep, covered baking dish and spread it evenly, and in a large mixing bowl I combined the raw broccoli, a can of water chestnuts (drained), the sauteed veggies, the steamed cauliflower and the chicken breast that I had chopped into cubes. After thoroughly mixing the chicken and veggies, I covered the rice with the mixture.

Then I set that aside while I made the sauce...

Three cups of veggie broth
Three tablespoons corn starch
two tablespoons of cream cheese
dash of soy sauce

Thicken the broth with the corn starch, blend in the cream cheese to make it creamy and the soy to add salt and a tiny bit of color. Pour the sauce over the veggies and rice and bake for about a half hour at 325-350. The objective is to get it hot through, and for the sauce to barely boil, but the veggies to be hot but remain slightly crisp.

It was one of those necessity-as-mother-of-invention meals that turned out better than I anticipated and I will definitely make again, and before I was finished with dinner I was kicking myself for not taking a picture.