Sophie and Mango have got into the pleasing habit of trying out vegan recipes together on a Wednesday evening. This is not exactly a recipe blog, but a catalogue of trial and error, showing our successful and less than successful cooking adventures.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Wednesday Night Kitchen Eats Out


Reluctant as we are to indulge in flagrant acts of consumerism, in the interests of pure research we found an excuse to spend a weekend in London. In the event it turned out to be somewhat frustrating and disappointing - as I should have expected from indulging in consumerism.

I went up on Saturday lunchtime to meet my brother. Sophie and I had been terribly excited to discover a new vegan organic Japanese restaurant near King's Cross, Itadaki Zen. Finally some restaurant food that meets our exacting requirements of vegan-ness and refined taste? Possibly, but unfortunately closed on Sundays and Sophie wasn't able to make it until late Saturday night. The other exciting prospect was Zilli Green, run by a celebrity chef who became veggie after taking part in some reality TV show about getting healthy. Advertising imaginative, healthy food for relatively reasonable prices - and closed on Sundays. London on a Sunday started to look even less appealing than London on any other day. The place doesn't have much going for it apart from eating out and a few free museums. The other major finding from our pre-jaunt research was a slight feeling of apprehension about our beloved Pogo Cafe after reading about some factional ructions there. Were the winning faction really the bunch of joyless fanatics their opponents made out? More importantly, can they cook?

Taking the risk of a threatened fit of petulant left-out sulking from Soph, I went to Itadaki Zen with my brother. The place is very nicely done out, with wood fittings, linen hangings and a hand-made-looking mulberry paper menu. Worryingly it was almost empty, so I hope they manage to keep it going. The food was really quite good, very subtle with high quality ingredients. A major problem for me was that the portions were much too small, and the buckwheat noodle dish I had was a bit too plain to stand up on its own. I left feeling like getting a portion of chips on the way back to the Tube. We could have ordered more side dishes, but I reckon you'd have to spend about 12-15 quid to get a decent feed. Then again, it does generally cost that much to get a really good meal in London - some of the best food I've ever had was at Carnevale. So I'll probably go back next time I feel like spending half my week's food money on one meal. My brother wasn't very impressed as he said he could get more and better food for less money at a few different Far Eastern restaurants - however I am often dubious of their vegan-friendly credentials.

I visited my Gran, aunt and uncle, then back to my brother - who actually likes living in London - and his maniacally wisecracking collection of international housemates. They were going out to a 'sexually explicit performance art show' at a venue that sounded increasingly like a gentlemen's club the more he told me about it, especially when the woman who'd invited him dropped out at the last minute and warned him that the place was full of bankers. My initial curiosity wore off completely when he said it was called the 'Supper Club' so I left them to it and met up with Sophie in Camden where I had a quite acceptable falafel from a very affable young man at Funky Falafel (Affable Falafel? not bad).

After the Tate Britain (charmingly sponsored by planet-killing, death-squad funding BP) on Sunday morning, we headed back north. With some reservations, we had settled on the Loving Hut in Camden for Sunday lunch, based on some good online reviews. I was briefly involved with the rather odd religious movement behind the Loving Hut chain (see my blog post). I'd also had a few meals at the related Peking Palace which were tasty and imaginative if a little soya-heavy (I'm not against traditional soya products but you can overdo it). We liked the sound of the 'pay as much as you want' idea.

The atmosphere at Loving Hut was nothing short of bizarre. A TV blared away with some patronising American vegan nutritionist relating an endless series of disconnected factoids to an apparently heavily sedated studio audience, while the staff and a couple of other customers shouted disjointed phrases at each other and failed to communicate very much. The food was average at best, quite a lot like the Tai etc chains but with less choice and without the starters and salads which are usually the best thing there. I appreciate the attempt to promote vegeterianism / veganism and the 'pay as much as you want' concept, but the overwhelming thought in my mind was 'get out as quickly as possible' - not conducive to the digestion. The promoting vegetarianism / veganism effort is done much better at the Islington £4 all-you-can-eat Indian, who pull it off with retro-kitsch style and a sense of humour, or by anywhere else that does decent food. I can't imagine Loving Hut doing much to convince the veg-curious of anything much except that vegans are a weirdly earnest and slightly creepy sect who don't eat many vegetables.

We tubed south to Kensington for the afternoon, failing to achieve any of our objectives, which were to go to the V&A, to look in charity shops for that elusive pair of trousers to fit my skinny bum, and to meet some friends at Kensington High St station. We went to the park instead of the museum, couldn't find the charity shops, and the station was closed. We eventually found the friends at Earl's Court, an area with nothing to recommend it at all, and walked back through the park.

We had a few options for Sunday evening before we got the only cheap train available at 9pm. Most of them were around Soho. After much dithering, we ventured into the Vegan Routes bus. The menu looked quite appealing, though probably similar to what we eat at home, and so was the idea of eating on a bus. Unfortunately due to our excessive dithering and the endearingly relaxed attitude of the cooks, we didn't have time to eat there and rushed over to Maoz falafel. My second falafel meal of the weekend was not bad, with a big pile of help-yourself salads, with the slight reservations that I prefer falafel wraps to pitta bread, and having all the salad on the top means ending up with a big lump of rather dry falafels and pitta at the bottom. Good for a quick, filling feed if you're passing.

Lessons learned: avoid Sundays; avoid Loving Hut; leave plenty of time for Vegan Routes; you have to spend a bit of money to get really good food in London.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Cupping muffcakes...

Cake yayayay cake yayay!

So, I've been baking. No surprise.

First, I tried a new number from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World - chocolate and vanilla marble cakes. These were particularly fun to make, blobbing two different flavours side-by-side in the cases (note the natty reusable silicone cases, thanks Mum!) and then swirling them about in various ways. Some techniques make better swirls than others. But I defy any recipe, vegan or not, to make better tasting marble cakes than these. They had a particularly pleasing dense-but-moist crumb, thanks to the addition of cornflour.

Yesterday I decided it was time to release from the freezer the bag of blackberries we picked last September. Long overdue, really! But what to do with them? Google provided many a mouthwatering option, but taking into account both my limited ingredients and desire to limit the sugar intake at least a little bit, I decided on this recipe for Vegan blackberry muffins.

Well, sort of. I read the recipe, made a note of it and then largely ignored it. On Sunday, to go with the marble cakes, I decided to throw the box out of the window and attempt some kind of mashed banana-based topping, in the absence of margarine. Turns out, banana is not so much like margarine and does not make for good icing. As a result of this, I had in the fridge a bowl of mashed banana coagulated with cocoa powder, icing sugar and soy milk powder.

Enter a new and more cunning plan. Being that the muffin recipe was banana based, I merely blended the chocolate/banana mess with a few tablespoons of oil, forewent the extra sugar in favour of a spoonful each of molasses and agave (also in the blender for ease of emulsification), and then poured the whole lot into the mixing bowl to add the flour and baking powder. Of course I'd also nearly run out of wholemeal spelt flour too, so I used the rest of the pack and topped it up with rye flour and some plain. Stir in the blackberries, plop them in cupcake cases and bake.

And they were perfect! Not too sweet, not too chocolatey, tender and moist with lumps of sweet, soft fruit throughout.

Here is my recipe as modified:

1 mashed banana
1/2 cup sugar (whatever kind you fancy)
2 tbsp soy milk powder
3 tbsp oil
1 tbsp agave nectar
1 tbsp black molasses
2/3 cup wholemeal spelt flour
2/3 cup rye flour
2/3 cup plain flour
3 tsp baking powder
1 cup water

Blend the banana, sugar, soy milk powder, oil and a drop of water until they emulsify. Add the other sweeteners and blend again. Decant into a mixing bowl and add the flours 2/3 cup at a time along with a tsp of baking powder. Mix in and then add a splosh of water to relax it again after each addition of flour. I pretty much judged by eye the amount of liquid needed. It should be your average cake/muffin consistency - gooey but spoonable. Stir in berries and bake for 25 mins at 200.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Glaze of Glory

This follows on from Sophie's post with the lovely photos, but I had to get that title in so I've started another post.

We had invited our friends Josh and Flo round (as well as a bedraggled refugee from Titnore Woods tree protest camp who I met at work but who didn't make it round) and as usual were wondering what to cook. I got a couple of free butternut squashes from work and some cheap beetroots, asked Sophie if she had any ideas, and she immediately replied, "glazed and roasted." She sent me a link to VeganDad's recipe for bourbon-glazed squash. I thought it was a bit unwise to buy a bottle of bourbon when neither of us drink, and suggested...

Blood Orange and Maple Syrup Glazed Squash
2 medium butternut squashes
2 blood oranges
Generous splosh of maple syrup
Olive oil
2 tbsp cornflour

I peeled the squashes and cut them into medium chunks. Squeezed the juice out of the blood oranges and sliced off some of the rind, which I finely chopped. Mixed the rest together and whisked in the cornflour.

I had heated the oven to gas mark 5, and put the squash in the oven in a tray with about 1/3 of the glaze. Roasted for about 15 minutes, then stirred in some more glaze, and kept doing this til it was cooked.

Along with that we had beetroots roasted with rosemary and thyme, and the Basic Broiled (=grilled in British English) Tofu and Diner Home Fries (what a strange name - something you make at home that's supposed to taste like something they serve in a diner that's supposed to taste like something you make at home) from Veganomicon.

To top it all off perfectly, our friend Flo brought round a wonderful chocolate tart with an avocado-based topping.

A successful and enjoyable evening, with lovely food and conversation - a very satisfying Wednesday Night Kitchen Thursday Meal.

For your viewing pleasure...

... a tantalising trio of 'tubbles... tangy tender tofu... and tremendously tempting tart... But you'll have to wait for the full write up - because it is DEFINITELY Mango's turn to contribute!

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Extremely belated Christmassy cake/snack pics

I've just about recovered sufficiently from the trauma of the festive season to post these rather belated photos of my culinary efforts during said time. No, ok, that's a poor excuse for just having not got round to it yet.

This is only a taster of the various goodies I produced to see myself through the holiday (my family having not really caught on to the concept of veganism - in consequence I spent many a troubled hour planning and preparing my Christmas goods, lest I be forced to survive on slices of stale bread for the week). A brave few deigned to sample them and were, I hope, pleasantly surprised.

On the right, sprinkled delicately with icing sugar, we have my own variation on the mince pie, mince pie cupcakes - for which I adapted Isa Chandra's excellent jam doughnut (well that's not quite how she's put it, but I just can't bring myself to use the phrase 'jelly donut') cupcakes. It's a fairly basic vanilla cupcakes, with - and here's the genius - a dollop of mincemeat placed on top of the batter before they go in the oven. Like some kind of gastronomic wizardry, the filling gently sinks into the cake and winds up somewhere in the middle. Incredible, but delicious.

On the left, an absolute marvel that was pulled together with the addition of lemony cream 'cheese' icing - gingerbread cupcakes, again Isa Chandra's recipe. I wasn't sure about these when I first made them (my complex scheme involved making the cakes ahead of time and freezing them til the night before), my un-iced test cake being somewhat...lacking. Fortunately the icing on the cakes was, well, the icing on the cake, and topped with a few raisins came together to form a not only visually delicious but really rather tasty creation.

These immaculately wrapped golden filo parcels are a take on the Greek snack spanakopita - I'd made the recipe in Vegan with a Vengeance (I do have some recipe books not written by Ms Moskowitz and Romero, honest!) before, but less successfully, and faced with a much leftover filo pastry, spinach, silken tofu and a rare glimpse of that precious metal, the pine nut, I knew there was only one way to go. Having totally winged it I thought they came out rather nicely. My folding technique has definitely improved if nothing else.

This last one has nothing to do with Christmas, except that they were made in December, but I thought they looked so cute I wanted to publish them anyway. This is the pumpkin and chocolate chip cupcake recipe from, you've guessed it, Ia Chandra's Vegan Cupcakes take over the World. I adapted it a little and used raisins instead of choc chips - the first time I did it according to the recipe and although nice, along the the pumpkin (I used a Kuri squash, actually) they were just a little bit cloying for my taste. Raisins added a little more bite and a fruity zing. Cinnamon icing and sliced fresh banana on top for the extra je ne sais quoi.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Cracking the crepe conundrum

In October, I became the proud owner of a carbon steel crepe pan. Such a wonder this thing is that I cannot tell you - perfect pancakes, almost without fail, almost without oil. So why has it taken so long to blog about it? Not through lack of delicious dishes, that's for sure - possibly more through the embarrassment of having eaten very little else since its arrival.

But wonderful as it was to eat meal after delicious meal rolled into soft, fresh pancakes - vegetable curry with chutney, veggie sausage and tomato with white sauce poured on top, Isa Chandra's sweet potato crepes with coriander-tamarind sauce (the recipe that began the whole debacle) - for me, there was something missing from the equation.

I grew up in a house where, when frying pancakes, the aim of the game was thinness. Thin, crisp, golden brown pancakes (and to clarify, I use the word pancake here as in a British or French pancake, what Americans call crepes), wafery, crinkled at the edges, and not a hint of doughyness. It was this that eluded me. Mango, the non-believer, perfectly content with the crepes of average thickness that we were rolling off the pan week after week, told me again and again that it simply wasn't possible to get the same level of thinness in an eggless pancake. And I was almost ready to believe him. I was so close to giving in and settling for second best.

Until today. Yesterday, we made up a mix on the fly for brunch - I more or less melded two recipes from the Veganomicon and VWAV. The one in VWAV is tried and tested, but savoury - and today we were aiming for sweet, but the Veganomicon offering was over-complicated. So I took a little from each and winged it. Disaster nearly ensued. The first pancake stuck a little, refused to be turned, and wound up as a sticky, partially cooked mess on the plate. Mango thought the mix was too watery, and added more flour and a bit of oil. It worked after this, but the product was a little thick, though tasty. The mix went back in the fridge after we'd eaten our fill, and I brought it out again at dinner, after Mango had gone home. I decided to try to achieve the desired crispness. I turned the heat up under the pan a little more, used a little less batter, got some good swirly wrist action going - and the end result was in fact much improved. There were the beginnings of laciness at the edges, and a slightly more toothy bite to the outer layer.

But when I revisited the batter for the third time this morning - that's when the magic happened. I decided to go completely mad, and thinned the batter down a little more so it was almost back to the original consistency. By now the starch would certainly have swelled enough to be able to handle a bit less saturation. Again I turned the heat up higher than normal, wiped the pan with the barest coating of oil, and swirled in the mix. There it was - the delicate, almost translucent crepe I'd been hoping for. But could I lift it and flip it without incident!? Yes! Once the edges had begun to pull away from the pan, I gently slid the spatula twixt steel and crepe... Ta da! And the proof was in the eating. Crisp, wafer thin, spread with a little apricot jam and a few raisins - delicious.

Admittedly this isn't really an easily replicated recipe as it went through several alterations, but I think the key was in the long refrigeration - giving the ingredients time to bind, thereby gaining that all-important stretchyness. It's certainly going to be worth experimenting with! Now I know it can be done.