Sunday, January 15, 2012

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Adventures in Arepas...brand name counts.

I love arepas. Many of my friends and family ask me, "What are arepas?" I usually respond with, "Really? You don't know what an arepa is?" It is just that they are so delicious, I can't believe people don't know what they are. An arepa, made popular in Colombia (it is possible I learned about these from my freshmen year college roommate who was from Colombia, so I can't blame my friends who don't know about them), is a patty of fried or cooked corn flour. In Colombia they usually use yellow corn flour (Areparina) and in Venezuela they usually use white (Harina PAN).

In New York, you might know arepas from the street fairs where they usually have yellow arepas with cheese. I have never eaten them because of the cheese and butter I know are mixed in. But, in New York, you can also get the most amazingly delicious arepa I have ever had at a Venezuelan restaurant in the East Village called Caracas. I found this restaurant while seeking out food with my vegan, gluten free friend. We were in a gluten free bakery, hungry for non-bakery food and the woman who worked there recommended this place. It has become an absolute favorite. They stuff their arepas with all kinds of things. And they will substitute tofu at no extra charge. My favorite is the one stuffed with sweet plantains, tofu and avocado. I also like the one stuffed with tofu and guacamole. Here is an arepa from Caracas although the lighting is a little dark:

They use the white corn flour at Caracas and this one has the tofu, plantains and avocado. Delicious. So I thought I would try my hand at making my own arepas. After some online research I found that it actually looked pretty easy. Make a dough from the corn flour, water, and salt. Then fry it in a pan. So I did just that. Here is where my experiment went wrong....not a disaster, just not quite right. On every website it was recommended to get the brand name corn flour Harina P.A.N. I could not find this so I used regular yellow corn flour. The arepa came out OK but I think the flour does make a different. It just was not a light and fluffy as those in the restaurant (granted, it could also be my technique as I am not one of the Venezuelans who work in the restaurant and make these every single day). 

Now, I knew they would be different because I used yellow flour instead of white, that was expected. But they did come out more coarse and crispy than those Colombian style ones I have had in the past. Again, it wasn't horrible, just not quite right. I made some beans (sauteed them with onion, garlic, and a little cayenne pepper), put in avocado slices, and squirted some lime on top. Not too bad. 

I tried one more time but I was using the same flour. I made them more like a patty which is how I usually eat the Colombian ones. And I put a TON of beans and guacamole on top. It was yummy but still not quite right. 

So if anyone sees Harina P.A.N. or Areparina in a store, let me know! Everything I read said that, in this case, brand name counts. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Great Gingerbread People Experiment of 2011!

As I finished my two day effort to make Gingerbread people cookies, my sister likened my cooking to science experiments. This one, I admitted, was a failed experiment but one that definitely taught me a lot.

I wanted to make Gingerbread people (I use people because my mom was really worried about me using only Gingerbread men and having gone to an all women's college, I agree), but my first obstacle was finding a Gingerbread person cookie cutter. I settled for a snow-person instead.

So, I set out to make Gingerbread Snow People based on this recipe on my favorite vegan website

Mistake #1: I substituted Brown Rice Syrup for Molasses. Molasses scares me. It is SOOOO thick. And it was kind of expensive. So I hypothesized that Brown Rice Syrup would have a similar effect as Molasses. Conclusion: While the end effect of the cookies was not favorable, it is uncertain that the sole cause of this outcome was due to this substitution. But it sure did not help!

I was very proud of myself for chilling the dough overnight. I am usually impatient and try to roll dough right away, ending up with a sticky mess. The next day, the dough was surprisingly easy to work with.

Things were going well. I even hand cut one Gingerbread person amongst the snowmen. Then, I put them in the oven...

Major spreading!!! I was left with really overweight Snow People. I suspect they ate too many cookies :) I tried to make them look the part by using the cookie cutter to make the imprint of the original Snow Person shape. 

I think one Snow Person saw their fate and decided it was too much to handle. He made an attempt on his life. 

The knife and the spatula jumped down to try to stop him but it was too late. The Snow Person had taken his own life. 

OR, perhaps he just fell because I stupidly tried to balance the tray on our dish drying rack...not even on the rack, on the dishes in the rack. MISTAKE #2. I had to pause for a while and clean that up. 

By this time, I felt defeated. My cookies were coming out hard and crunch instead of the desired soft and chewy and they were also HUGE. 

I switched to circles hypothesizing that they would stay together more and come out better. I used a cup (the cup I was using as a rolling pin) to cut them out. They were easier to deal with but still came out HUGE! 

I adjusted. I made smaller circles using a smaller cup...

Somehow I did manage to get this outlier...a somewhat normal looking Snow Person. Every experiment has its anomaly. 

While the smaller circle cookies were in the oven, I attempted vegan icing. I had gotten all natural food coloring so I was excited to try to make colors. I put some powdered sugar and almond milk in 2 different mugs (one for each color). I also added some extra vanilla because it seemed like it needed more flavor. Then I realized the almond milk had vanilla in it. Mistake #3?? Not sure. 

It took a while to get the consistency and color I wanted. This was not it...

Finally the color looked like an actual color. The consistency was not quite right. It was hard to get out of my icing tube squirter thingy. So it ended up very goopy and hard to shape. But I took my model Snow Person and tried to do him/her up right. 

I made the small circles into sandwiches with the icing. That was easier. The problem was they were still very crunchy cookies, not ideal for cookie sandwiches. 

My sister claimed she still enjoyed them and would eat a whole plate. But she will eat anything with sugar. 

 I saved these deformed ones for her.

THE RESULT: A LOT of gingerbread cookies that are too crunchy for my taste but somewhat edible. I learned a lot about icing in the process and in the end probably should have used the molasses as scary as it is. I will still serve the cookies at our holiday party at work because I have a ton of them and they are edible just not ideal. But they are certainly not my best work although they were an interesting experiment. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thanksgiving and Thanksgiving Past

For the past two years, my mom and I have really cooked up a storm at Thanksgiving. I get excited about cooking in a "guest kitchen" that is big and has actual counter space and I like introducing my family to my vegan foods, as much as they may protest. The past two Thanksgivings, I have also tried some new dishes that have been great additions!

My favorite dish is what I call Chickpea Meatballs. It is adapted from the chickpea cutlets of Last year I tried the cutlets and I found the cutlets to be a little dry. Here are some shots of the chickpea cutlet process:

First I mashed up the chickpeas. 

Added the ingredients and the vital wheat gluten, which I had used for the first time, made it meat-like. 

My very own meat-like substance. 

The cutlets waiting to be cooked. 

Cooking the cutlets. 

But I was not a fan of the cutlet format, so a couple days later I tried the meatball format. I made some changes to the recipe, too. Mainly, I changed the order of which I put in the ingredients. I put in all the wet ingredients and the spices in first. Then I pre-mixed the vital wheat gluten and the breadcrumbs and them mixed it all together into a dough-like substance. I also add a little extra veggie broth at the end. It keeps them nice and moist. Then I roll them into little balls, sprinkle them with paprika then fry, then finish them off in the oven for a very short time. 

Cooking the chickpea meatballs

Ready for the oven. 

The chickpea meatballs at this year's Thanksgiving. 

These chickpea meatballs have been great. I have eaten them plain, with mushroom gravy (keep reading for this one) and as you would eat meatballs in pasta with red sauce. 

Another hit of the Thanksgiving meal for the past two years has been the mushroom gravy. Again, I got the recipe from And this year we made it again, thinner, and used it as a pasta sauce. Very yummy. 

Last year, mixing the onion, garlic and mushroom for the gravy. 

Last year's gravy on the stove. 

Last year's gravy. 

This year's gravy, a little thicker. 

Last year I also made my own stuffing. I have a problem with onions, though. So this is as far as a I got chopping the onion last year. 

This year my mom did any necessary onion chopping and I hid upstairs. My eyes are very sensitive. The stuffing came out really well last year:

I love a lot of celery and there is the onion my mom finished chopping. 

Toasting bread. 

And here is the stuffing. 

This year we opted for the Whole Foods brand vegan stuffing mix in order to save time and energy. I recommend it. It is tasty. 

Both years we also made the standard mashed potatoes and yams. 

Last year we made A LOT of potatoes and yams. This year we really cut back. 

Last year I did well with garnish. 

Here are last year's yams. 

This year's yams came out much better. 

The potatoes this year were a little garlic-y but good. I slacked on the garnish. 

We also made vegetables each year...

Last year's Thanksgiving plate...plastic

This year's Thanksgiving plate... fancy

And here is this year's Thanksgiving table (meat made by my mom for the rest of my family is strategically hidden). 

All in all, two years of great Thanksgiving meals. And who says Thanksgiving is all about the Turkey?