Monday, October 29, 2012

A savory vegetarian pot pie

My husband and I have been married for over twenty years and for all of that time, he has been a vegetarian and I have not. It has worked out well enough; we cook and eat vegetarian at home, since it is easier for a meat eater to compromise than the other way around, but I generally take every chance I get outside the home to be a carnivore.

I've grown to enjoy vegetarian cooking. Far from being restricted to plates of broccoli and salad, there are actually endless varieties of satisfying, hearty dishes one can make. Fortunately, Walu is an ova-lacto vegetarian (meaning he eats eggs and dairy), so that makes it easier. And in a pre-marriage compromise, I got him to agree to let me cook fish and shellfish once in a while. (Before any of you rise up and start quibbling about this, let me say in his defense that he wouldn't do it if I hadn't asked. Compromise is what marriage is all about, baby, and I won't let anyone give him grief over this. Lord knows, vegetarians get enough hostility masked as "teasing" about their principles. And by the way, Walu is gracious and unassuming about his vegetarianism.)

Still, there has always been something missing in the savory vegetarian dishes I make, something like the so-called "umami" found in meat. Umami is an indescribable "fifth taste"--something beyond salty, bitter, sweet, or sour. It is savory and complex, and it is this that I miss, now matter how hearty the dish.

I've been making vegetarian pot pies for many years now, but there was always something lacking, and the first time I ever heard about umami, I knew that this is what it was. So how to get it? I couldn't believe that I couldn't create something that wouldn't offer the same pleasurable, savory complexity.

Then, over the weekend, I thought I might have stumbled onto a possible solution. I was making a dish of shrimp and pasta, and happened to throw in a splash of Pernod and some saffron threads. There's nothing too original about that--these are classic ingredients for some shellfish dishes--but the resulting flavors were...yes, complex. There was just enough Pernod to taste if I knew to look for it, but not enough to make me say, "Ah yes, licorice." The saffron? Well, I honestly couldn't really say whether I tasted it or not, so perhaps, thinking about its dear cost, I was too mean with it and did not use enough. A case of penny-wise and pound-foolish if ever there was one.

This got me thinking about a vegetable hot pot recipe I've always enjoyed, one that, given the choice between that and the pot roast, I'd eat the hot pot dish every time--it is that good, and that satisfying. And at the base of the many, many, many chopped veggies are leeks--yes, that's right, a licorice taste.

So, "Duh," I thought, "Why not add leeks to my vegetarian pot pie?"

It's such an obvious thing, I don't know why I'd never thought of it before. So off I ran to the grocery store, only to discover--quelle horror!--that they were out of leeks.

Now, the thing about leeks is that they are member of the same family, Amaryllidaceae, as the ubiquitous onion, with which I have an unhappy and distressing relationship. Uncooked onion, or even too much cooked onion produces gastric misery in me that is not insignificant. Consequently, I seldom cook with it. It is not inconceivable that it is the onion-y essence that I am missing from these vegetarian dishes, but too many hours spent doubled over from onion indulgence will keep me from ever experimenting enough to find out.

Other members of the Amaryllidaceae family, however, like garlic, green onions, and yes, leeks, do not seem to have the same effect. Though I wouldn't say that I use them with abandon, I do occasionally add them to a dish. I can also get away with using onion itself, if I don't use too much, and if it is cooked thoroughly. And while any of these do add complexity to the flavors, there is still that last thing missing, the fifth taste. The grace note.

And while leeks in their full body goodness would be ideal, maybe all I needed to turn my standard vegetarian pot pie into an umami pot pie was...Pernod.

And indeed, that is what happened.

I am a fly-by-the-seat-of my-pants cook, so I don't measure things. But except for the Pernod, there is nothing fancy, foodie, or difficult about this, and it can be adapted to fit whatever vegetables are in season or favored. I also used Pillsbury's refrigerator pie crust, simply because I was tired and didn't feel like making my own. The pot pie could no doubt benefit from a homemade crust, but it isn't necessary.

If you can find leeks, I'd definitely opt for those instead of the Pernod, which is pricey. A bottle will go a very long way, though, and can be a great addition to many other dishes (especially shrimp). I think the key is using it with a light touch, so that you are aware that there is something there, but you don't necessarily get a licorice hit unless you know to look for it. I used about 1 teaspoon for the pie filling.

Some time ago, when I had posted on the Bike Garden's Facebook page that I was making vegetarian pot pie for supper, my sister-in-law Susan asked for the recipe, since she too is married to a vegetarian. It seems to run in Walu's family. But at the time, I didn't feel like I'd figured it out completely. Now I think I have, so Susan, this is for you:

Preheat the oven to 400.
Boil two red potatoes until they are cooked about half-through.
In a large pan, saute 1/4 sweet yellow onion and two chopped carrots in about two tablespoons of olive oil.
Add one clove of minced garlic and salt to taste.
Add 1/2 teaspoon red chile powder and cook for one minute.
Add 1 tablespoon of flour and cook for one minute.
Add: 1 can of red kidney beans, rinsed and drained, 1 can of chopped red tomatoes, and 1 cup of vegetable broth.
Add the drained potatoes.
Add freshly ground black pepper to taste.
Add 1 teaspoon of Pernod (you can leave this out if you've added leeks and sauteed them with the carrots and onion).

Simmer until about half the liquid is gone. Spoon into a pie pan lined with unbaked crust. Top with pie crust and bake until golden brown. Let sit for ten minutes before serving. Makes four large servings.

Monday, October 22, 2012

A conference in the garden with Sydney

My friend Sydney Plum and I are collaborating on a book together, and every Friday we are supposed to get together via our cell phones for a conference. Actually, we are supposed to be Skyping, but I just haven't had the time to sit down and figure out how to do it, so we talk to each other the old-fashioned way.

I begged off last Friday, though, because I simply had too many other pressing deadlines, and so Sydney and I agreed to postpone the meeting until this morning. Well, it's a beautiful autumn day, and while I was out in the back garden doing my usual morning clean up (we have dogs--need I say more about this?), I thought, "I need to have my conference out here." After all, didn't I create this space for the express purpose of visiting with my friends?

So Sydney, in lieu of Skyping, here is what you would see while we chat about our book:

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Tech Terrace Holiday Wreath Sale

I recently received this announcement from our neighborhood Holiday Home Tour committee. I think this is a terrific idea; it will give the whole neighborhood a festive look and help raise money for some special projects, so I thought I'd pass the information along to my neighbors.

Wreath Sale to Usher in a New Tradition
This year the Tech Terrace Neighborhood Association, in conjunction with the Holiday Home Tour, will be selling fresh greenery wreaths as a fundraiser to support neighborhood projects.
The 24” fresh wreaths will be on sale December 1st during Home Tour hours for $30. Preorders (along with payment) will be taken until October 30th.
A large red bow will be included with each purchase.

We hope you will include these lovely wreaths in your holiday decorating and join us in unifying the holiday look of the neighborhood.
There will be a limited number of these wreaths ordered.
(We will be taking pre-orders at the meeting on Thursday, October 25th.)
(If you can't make it to the meeting, let me know in the comments below and I'll tell you how you can place your pre-order.)

Checks payable to:
T.T.U.N.I.T Neighborhood Association. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Scenes from Tucson

Earlier this week I was in Tucson, Arizona for the annual Garden Writers Association Symposium. As always, the opportunity to meet up with my friends and colleagues left me both reflective and inspired. I'm still processing some of the things I learned, and when I've worked them out, I may do a more thorough post on the trip. In the meantime, here are some of my favorite images from a very productive few days.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

A pretty good biscuit

My friend Nancy complained not too long ago that she feels like a failure as a Southern woman because she can't make a proper biscuit. When she said that, I thought, "Well, golly, I'm not sure I can either, having never tried."

I remember proper Southern biscuits, though, since my grandmother would make them when she came for her yearly visits. I have a vague memory of my mother making them, too, before she discovered the Pillsbury Doughboy. In fact, somehow I wound up with her biscuit cutter when she passed away, and I found it the other day while moving things back into the now-completed kitchen.

Seeing the cutter reminded me of those childhood biscuits, and remembering Nancy's comment, I decided that it was high time I tried my hand at making some.

For a recipe, I turned to the Joy of Cooking and used the "basic rolled biscuit," but found the results less than satisfactory. For one thing, I used my mother's cutter, and though you can't tell in the photo, it is pretty small. Also, the recipe called for rolling out the dough to half an inch thick.

I ended up with a biscuit that tasted fine, if not exciting, but the texture seemed more disc-like than airy and light. Here they are slathered in honey and butter, both of which will hide nearly any baking sin:

I figured a little research was in order. I turned first to Michael Ruhlman's book Ratio. As Ruhlman points out, the ingredients for quick breads are not complicated: flour, water, butter, salt, and a chemical leavening, such as baking powder. When I compared his ingredients for biscuits to JoC's, there didn't seem to be much difference. Ruhlman's technique, however, differed radically. Where JoC simply recommended rolling the dough out and cutting it, Ruhlman treats his biscuits more like a puff pastry, with multiple steps before baking.

The idea in a puff pastry (or any dough in which the final product is supposed to have light, flaky layers) is that very cold butter, trapped in layers of dough, will steam while baking and, well, puff up. In true puff pastry, the dough is rolled out, folded on itself, refrigerated for a while, then rolled and folded again, then refrigerated again--and so on up to seven or eight times, creating exceptionally thin layers of dough and butter. (I remember watching Julia Child make puff pastry on her television show years ago and thought it a very fancy thing indeed--little did I imagine the relationship it had to plain old biscuits.) I could suppose that a biscuit made this way would indeed be pretty close to the iconic Southern biscuit we all know and love. Ruhlman rolls and folds his dough twice, then refrigerates it for an hour and repeats the process. Once I tallied up the amount of time that it would take to make a batch using this technique, I found myself considering the possiblity that icons are generally overrated.

Plus, it just isn't what I remember my grandmother or mother doing. They simply didn't have the time to make something that required that much fussing. They mixed the dough, rolled it out, cut the biscuits, and the batch went into the oven. That's what I remember, and since the biscuit I'm looking for is as much about memory as it is about flakiness, I wanted something with a technique I could recognize.

So I did a little more research and found Alton Brown's recipe online. Again, the ingredients were more or less the same, but Brown's technique was something between JoC's bare bones and Ruhlman's time-consuming version. Brown does recommend folding the dough, though only three or four times, and without refrigeration between the folds.

It took me two or three more tries to get a biscuit I liked, but I finally did. It isn't as light and fluffy as one you might get in a restaurant, but then again I'm not rising at 3 in the morning to start them either. (Does the extra step of refrigeration between folding make that much difference? I'll have to try it sometime to find out.)

I used JoC's ingredients for buttermilk biscuits, but divided in half (Walu doesn't eat anything but cereal for breakfast). I made the dough in a food processor, mixing just until the dough holds together (this holds true for all quick breads, since over-beating or kneading them yields a biscuit/pancake/cornbread/scone/etc. that is tough and chewy). Then I turned it out onto a lightly floured surface, rolled it out to 3/4" thickness, gently folded it on itself, and repeated three more times.

I also put away my mother's biscuit cutter and used one that was 2.5" in diameter. Finally, for a little extra "flavor zing," I brushed the tops with buttermilk and sprinkled them with a little Kosher salt before baking. The result was a reasonably flaky, very serviceable, no-fuss biscuit that took no time at all to make. So I'll say to my friend Nancy: This biscuit probably isn't an icon, but it's a pretty good one, easy to make, and perfect for a Saturday morning and a favorite jar of blackberry jam.

And if there are any of you out there who have secrets for biscuit-making that you'd like to pass along, please do! I'm still a relative neophyte at this baking business, and I could use all the help I can get.

A Pretty Good Biscuit for One
(Makes four 2.5" biscuits)

Preheat the oven to 450F

1 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt

3 Tablespoons cold unsalted butter (cut into small cubes)

Pulse in a food processor until the butter is mixed in and has the consistency of peas or smaller.

3 ounces of buttermilk

MIX until the dough just comes together.

Roll out the dough onto a lightly floured surface until it is about 3/4" thick, then fold it gently in half. Repeat three to four times, taking care not to "work" the dough. (Also, don't let the dough sit around and get warm; cold temperatures are key to the flakiness.) Cut it with any size biscuit cutter you like, but I prefer 2.5-3" biscuits. Place on baking sheet and brush with buttermilk and sprinkle lightly with kosher salt. Bake 10-12 minutes until browned on top.