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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Vegan Happiness

A few years ago my wife read the funny and subversive vegan anthem, Skinny Bitch. Overnight she became a pescaterian. Gone were the chicken wings and steak bones she used to gnaw on with great pleasure. Gone too were the sausages, bacon and ribs that were part of her diet. Overnight I lost my culinary-companion.

Since I'm a stay-home-writer (except when I'm traveling), I cook most of our meals. That means cooking twice. One meal for me (brown sugar ribs, grilled sausage, braised beef, Moroccan preserved lemon chicken) and another for Michelle (tofu with sautéed spinach and shiitake mushrooms, spring vegetable soup, grilled vegetable chopped salad).

Her change in diet caused me to change the way I cooked. Not having animal products to thicken sauces and add layers of flavor hobbled my cooking. Then I discovered three beautifully easy-to-prepare flavor enhancers that are inexpensive and totally vegan. Also, they do not use any oil.

Reduced Balsamic Syrup

When balsamic vinegar is heated over a low flame, water evaporates, leaving behind a dark, flavorful liquid. Amazingly, the vinegar's lip-smacking tartness is transformed into sweetness that retains a touch of acid. The thickened, reduced vinegar tastes very much like expensive, aged balsamic vinegar that sells for as much as $40.00 a pint. 
Use the least expensive balsamic vinegar available. The restaurant supply company, Smart & Final, sells a gallon of Italian balsamic vinegar for $20.00. That one gallon yields a quart of reduced balsamic which in turn will last months.

To make the reduction, use the ratio of 4:1. Four parts of vinegar will yield one part of the reduced liquid. 1 cup of vinegar will produce 1/4 cup of syrup, which will make enough salad dressing for four meals.

The key to the reduction is low heat. Overheating creates a harsh flavor. Allow only a few, occasional small bubbles to appear on the surface of the liquid. As the balsamic reduces, lower the flame.

I reduce a gallon at a time to create 4 eight ounce squeeze bottles. That amount lasts us months. To reduce that much liquid using a low flame can take six to eight hours.

You can make a smaller amount in a few minutes. Just keep in mind the ratio of 4:1 and a low flame.

Onion Jam

All vegetables give off their water when exposed to heat. Cooked over a low flame, thin sliced onions give off a milky liquid that adds to their sweet caramelization. Traditionally onions are sautéed in olive oil to prepare them for soups and stews. To avoid using olive oil simply use a low flame and stir continuously to prevent the onions from sticking to the bottom of the pot.

The onion jam can be refrigerated in airtight containers for a week or frozen for a month. Used as a base to make pasta sauces, soups or braises, the onions add a depth of flavor and sweetness.

In the Basque region of Spain, where pintxos, open faced sandwiches, are popular, room temperature onion jam is spread on grilled bread as the base for imaginative toppings that include charred red and green peppers, fresh wild arugula and quick fried thin strands of green cabbage.

Serves 8
Ingredients

2 pounds yellow onions, washed, ends and skin removed
Sea salt and ground pepper

Directions

Thinly slice the onions the long way, from stem to root. Heat a large pot over a low flame. Add the onions. Season with sea salt and pepper.

Stir frequently with a wooden spoon. Because the onions render slowly, it is helpful to have other things to do in the kitchen. As the onions cook, they give off their liquid. Stir the onions around in the liquid to coat.
In time, the onions will turn golden brown. The longer you cook them, the darker they will get. I like them light brown although some people enjoy the jam when the onions take on a rich, dark brown color. Taste and decide which you like.

Remove from the heat. Let cool and use or refrigerate.

Tomato Essence

Delicious any time of their season, ripe tomatoes are one of nature's wonders. Eaten fresh from the garden, few vegetables can compare with the rich flavor of a summer ripened tomato. For a cook wanting to avoid using oils and for anyone who wants to steer clear of commercially processed food, tomatoes are a great blessing.

With very little effort, roasted tomatoes give up a delicious liquid that can be used as the basis for a salad dressing, soups, pasta sauce and braised dishes.
The technique is the essence of simplicity: turn on the oven, put in the tomatoes, come back in an hour, they're ready to use. To create tomato essence, use a wire mesh strainer or, better yet, a food mill which will separate the solids from the liquids.

It's that easy.
Serves 8

Ingredients

4 pounds ripe, farmers market tomatoes, washed, stems removed

Directions

Preheat the oven to 450 F.

Place the whole tomatoes on a baking sheet lined with nonstick parchment or a Silpat sheet (available in most supermarkets and specialty stores like Sur Le Table or William Sonoma).

Bake one hour or until the tomatoes begin to sag.  Remove and let cool.
There are two liquids available at this point. A clear, light liquid, perfect to make a salad dressing and a thicker liquid with pulp that is a delicious basis for soups, pasta sauces and braised dishes.

To create the first lighter liquid, place the tomatoes in the strainer or food mill over a non-reactive bowl and gently press down. That will release the clear or lighter liquid. Remove, cover and refrigerate.

Place the bowl back under the strainer or food mill and vigorously press the tomatoes until all the liquid and pulp have passed through leaving only the skin and seeds behind.

Remove, cover and refrigerate.

Tomato Essence Salad Dressing
Serves 4

Ingredients

1/4 cup first pressing tomato essence
1 tablespoon reduced balsamic syrup
Sea salt and black pepper

Directions

Substitute the tomato essence for olive oil and mix well with reduced balsamic syrup. Season with sea salt and black pepper.

3 comments:

Arthur in the Garden! said...

I love these ideas! I will be busy this weekend at least making the onion jam! thanks

Arthur in the Garden!
www.arthur-in-the-garden.com

wallflourgirl said...

Hello! It was great meeting you (at the UCLA panel) yesterday. As a seesawing vegetarian/pescetarian, I love these ideas for adding a flavor kick to my dishes. I'm a bit of a sauce fanatic, and would definitely recommend finding a good honey peanut sauce or sweet & sour sauce recipe for other great options both you and your wife can enjoy. I douse almost everything I make with them (although I'll have to try the reduced balsamic and onion jam now). Thanks for the fun read!

Amy An said...

Love the recipes.
Just want to say that Costco Balsamic vinegar has lead in it so although it is cheap, you probably want a different source.