Vegetarian Casserole

Casseroles are fun and easy to cook – and the result is always rewarding.

Cooking rich flavored Casseroles when using meat is a piece of cake – but achieving complex and deep flavors in a vegetarian Casserole – this was a challenge. It took me a lot of trying and a lot of failures. Most recipes I found resulted in disasters – mushy vegetables, bland flavors …

When my family members were drawn from their hiding places by the smell (“what’s cooking ? will it be ready for tonight?”) – I knew I got it right.

When cooking – I always think that using your imagination and being creative is a good advice – but in this case – I suggest to stick to the vegetables I used (you can omit the kohlrabi if you cant find fresh small ones). No green vegetables – no mushy vegetables.

One last thing – to get deep “Umami” flavors in vegetarian cooking – I use Vegetarian Dashi stock  (based on Kumbo & Shiitake). In this case – I used fresh Shiitake mushrooms instead. You can use either – or even use dried Shiitake (put them in a little warm water for 10 minutes – then add them and the water to the Casserole). But please – do use one of those options !!!

Ingredients

  • Onions, Carrots, Potatoes, Kohlrabi, Mushrooms (Shiitake/Portobello)
  • Umami Stuff – choose one of the 3 options
    • Fresh Shiitake Mushrooms
    • Dried Shiitake – re-hydrated in warm water – add both mushrooms (cut into cubes) and the water
    • Vegetarian Dashi – add it instead of part of the water. The simplest way to prepare it – just place some Kombu and dried Shiitake in a jar – add cold water to cover and let it rest in the fridge for 24 hours
  • A few garlic cloves
  • Red/Black beans – ready for cooking. Please don’t use canned beans nor frozen pre-cooked beans. The Casserole will cook for a long time – if you start with cooked beans – you will end up with a mush. See my post about preparing dried legumes for cooking
  • Tomato puree – Mutti – i’m biased
  • Smoked Paprika – Imported Spanish Paprika – do make the effort to find it – its worse it (smells like – “Mom – what are you cooking with bacon ?”)
  • Chili flakes – I think its a must – even a very little amount

Heat your oven to 150 degrees celcius.

Put a heavy pot (that can later be placed in the oven) on medium heat – and add a generous layer of olive oil (this is the only fat going into the Casserole – so do be generous).

I work in the following order – each time preparing the next vegetable to join the party while the previous are sweating in the pot (remember to stir the vegetables in the pot gently while preparing the next vegetables).

  • Onions – peel and cut to small “cubes” ( I try to cut all vegetables to the same size of my beans – the result is more appealing) – add to the pot and start simmering
  • Carrots – peel and cut to cubes – add to the pot
  • Potatoes – peel and cut to cubes – add to the pot
  • Kohlrabi – peel and cut to cubes – add to the pot
  • Mushrooms – remove stems – cut to cubes – add to the pot
  • Garlic cloves – peel and dices – add to the pot

When vegetables smell like heaven add

  • Tomato Puree – 2 tbsp.
  • Smoked Paprika – 2 tsp.
  • Chili Flakes – as much as you like

Stir gently to cover all vegetables in a nice shiny red color

  • Add the beans

Now add water (if using Dashi – add it now). Water should cover the vegetables + 2 centimeters – remember – we have uncooked beans in there – and casserole will be cooking for a long time.

  • Add a generous amount of salt (I use Atlantic salt – I do believe it adds flavor – but this is definitely not a must)

Bring to a boil. Turn of the heat. Cover with a baking sheet and the pots lid on top (the baking sheet helps reduce the evaporation of the liquid). Place the pot in the pre-heated oven for … a long time (2.5 – 3 hours). Although vegetables and beans will be fully cooked in 1.5 hours – we do need that long time to develop flavors and get the sauce “concentrated”.

Important Notices

  • Don’t put your pot in the oven and forget about it !!! The first 1.5 hours are safe – but after that – you need to check if there are enough liquids left a few times. We don’t want a soup – but you still need the liquid to be at the vegetables level at the end of cooking. So keep watching and if needed – add some boiling water.
  • Use your experience – if liquids are evaporating too fast (not all pots are made equal) – adjust the oven temperature. If I have to leave the house for an hour – I just lower the temperature to 100 degrees – check there are enough liquids – and leave. Casseroles are designed to be forgiving …
  • If by the end of cooking – you Casserole is still very “liquidy” – just open the lid and leave it in the oven for a few more minutes to evaporate the liquid. Liquids should be at the vegetables level when done.
  • After the first 1.5 hours – taste for salt – i’m pretty sure you will have to add some more

Once ready – take the pot out of the oven and … let it rest !!! Do not eat it immediately – it must be left calmly for at least 2 hours (there is some magic happening in a Casserole after its removed from the heat – ingredients “suck” up the sauce – and flavors “develops”). It will taste even better the next day.

Serve it on your favorite “sauce absorbing platform” – rice/quinoa/mashed potatoes … my favorites is real Couscous (not to be confused with Israeli couscous – nor with those awful instant couscous packages you can buy in any supermarket).

 

Preparing Dried Legumes For Cooking

As a vegetarian – one of your challenges is to find new sources for proteins.

Legumes are perfect candidates – both rich in protein and very comforting to eat.

I try to avoid canned legumes – and even frozen pre-cooked legumes. I prefer my legumes to be cooked in my chosen liquids (according to the specific recipe).

I buy dry legumes – soak them overnight – do some pre-cooking – and then freeze them in small batches – so they are ready to be used whenever I want to cook.

I know this sound like a lot of effort – but trust me – there is very small work involved – and once you have batches of different legumes ready to cook in your freezer – creating a delicious meal in a short time becomes a piece of cake. Its healthy – its even cheap – what more could you ask for ?

Here is my method (learnt from a lot of googling and cookbook reading). This method can be used for any kind of bean and chickpeas (some legumes like mung beans and lentils do not require any preparations).

Place the dry beans/chickpeas in a bowl and cover with a lot of cold water. Let them soak for at least 8 hours – preferably overnight. I usually put the bowl in the refrigerator to avoid fermentation – especially when soaking chickpeas. During the soaking time – try and replace the water a few times (I admit I don’t always do that).

After the soaking – its time for some pre-cooking that makes those legumes a little easier to digest (and helps avoid a lot of unwanted side effects).

Drain and wash the bean – place them in a large pot and cover with a lot of water.  Add 1-2 bay leaves and bring gently to a boil. While heating – a lot of foam will rise to the surface – skim as much as you can with a spoon.

When water are boiling – turn of the heat – drain the beans and wash under cold water.

Then … repeat this process (boiling – draining – washing) for 2 more times. You will notice that on the last boiling process – there will be almost no foam on the surface – well done !!!

After the third boiling – drain the beans and wash them – don’t let them dry. Put them in small plastic bags (zip-locks are great) – and place in your freezer immediately.

When you want to use them – just defrost the “block” of beans under cold water – and add them to your pot. Just keep in mind they are not cooked – so make sure your recipe calls for uncooked beans – or else – fully cook them before using.

French Crepes

Sweet Crepes are our family’s favorite breakfast.

A very easy recipe – yet – i’m actually proud of resolving the chemistry of the batter. I managed to master the process of preparing it – my method (described below) is easy and yields a batter with no lumps – no need to pass the batter through any colander.

The original recipe was taken from the Robuchon cookbook.

Ingredients

  • 45 gram sugar
  • 3 eggs + 1 egg yolk
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract (I use vanilla paste)
  • A pinch of salt
  • 200 grams all purpose flour
  • 2 spoons of melted butter
  • 2 cups of milk

Now – here is the method – just follow the directions in the exact order !!!

In a medium  bowl – put the sugar + eggs + vanilla extract and salt.

Whisk using a manual beater – no need for electricity in our case.

When the batter is homogeneous and sugar dissolved – and the flour and combine it with the batter.

You should get this yellow “mud” – very hard to beat – that’s actually good news.

Add the melted butter and beat again until it is fully absorbed by the “mud” and it becomes shiny.

Now – start adding the milk – a little at a time. Start mixing slowly – until the “mud” loosens up and is well mixed with the milk. Then you can add the rest of the milk and mix well. No lumps – no worries – piece of cake.

The batter has to rest for at least 30 minutes before you start preparing you crepes.

Preparing the Crepes requires a dedicated pan – and some practice – but its easier than it seems.

Heat the pan on low-medium heat. Rub some butter of the pan – just to give it a nice shiny layer.

Now take the batter in a ladle – and pure it on the pan while rotation the pan – so the batter is evenly (and very thinly) spread on the pan.

Watch the sides of the Crepe – when they start turning brown – its time to turn your Crepe to the other side.

You can do it this way

 

Or just use a spatula to carefully turn the Crepe over.

Let it cook for another minute and then put it on a plate and cover with another plate (just pile the Crepe one on top of the other to keep them warm until you prepare the rest). Make sure to wipe the upper plate from time to time from water drops.

Kids love them with Nutella – I prefer to sprinkle sugar and a lot of lemon juice – try sugar a Grand Marnier to feel really French for a moment.

 

 

Udon Noodles

Important Disclaimer !!!! I’m not Japanese – and I’m far from being an expert in Japanese cooking !!!

Yet – I’m very good at finding the “correct” recipe online (the one that will yield the result I am expecting) – and then working them out – to make them doable at home in a practical way that can be encapsuled in our daily routine.

That’s the story of this recipe … I wanted to make fresh Udon noodles (fallen in love with them while visiting Japan). Searched and found this recipe Original Udon Recipe – by Fuji Mama – and gave it a go.

Result was awesome !!! Great chewy noodles !!! Exactly what I wanted – accurate recipe – family members couldn’t be happier – CHAPEAU Fuji Mama !!!!

There was only one issue … as you will see in the original recipe – it takes a lot of effort to work the dough – it even calls for using your feet.

I prepared those noodles a couple of times the way described in the original recipe (no feet – good workout for my arm muscles) – but I realized I was no Japanese housewife – there must be a simpler way to do that.

Important notice – the beast pictured above is powerful !!! The dough is so tough that even my brave and loyal Kenwood screams in pain every time I beg him to help me knead this dough … don’t do that to your mixer unless you are sure he’s got what it takes …

Now – here is my way of preparing Udon noodles – same recipe – different method.

In the bowel of your Mixer put 2 cups of bread flour + 1.5 cups of all purpose flour.

Mix 1 cup of hot water with 4 flat teaspoons of salt (yep – 4 – its not a typo) and mix to dissolve the salt.

Add the water to the mixer and start kneading slowly. It will look like a mess – you will feel the urge to add water – but trust me – be patient … the dough will eventually look like dough – a very dry dough though. To get chewy noodles you need to work this dough for a long time – at least 20 minutes.

When the dough is ready – wrap it tightly with plastic wrap and let it rest for at least 4 hours. No – you cannot skip this rest !!! without it the dough will give you such a fight when you try to convince it to become noodles … don’t go there …

To make noodles out of the dough – I use a simple pasta machine. I roll up the dough using the pasta machine and then use the large pasta cutter to take the sheets and cut them into noodles. If the dough is dry enough and is well rested – this task is a piece of cake. Last piece of advise – use flour – a lot of it – make sure your noodles don’t stick to each other.

After a little practice – it takes me 10 minutes to turn this

into this

Watch me

Noodles should be cooked in hot boiling water. Large pot !!! Lots of water !!! Really boiling !!! No salt added to the water !!! 3-5 minutes – just taste them – make sure they are completely cooked – but don’t let them turn mushy.

Now pay attention – when noodles are ready – strain them in a sieve and then rinse them under cold water. But I mean – really rinse them. We need to take all that sticky stuff of the noodles. We want them slickly and chewy – not sticky and mushy.

Next step is really open to your imagination … just stir fry them with your favorite ingredients and your favorite sauce.

Here is my vegetarian version. Vegetables change based on my mood and on what’s available : Bok-choy, snow peas, Mushrooms (look for fresh Shiitake if you can),  Julienne of carrots, Broccoli … anything works.

My sauce is a combination of the following : Brown sugar, Mirin (good quality – not corn syrup marketed as Mirin), Sake, Soy sauce, a drop of toasted sesame oil + a little of my magic vegetarian Shiitake based sauce I bough on my last trip to Hong Kong and is about to be finished (I guess its time to panic).

Last (but not least) trick … I don’t use a wok to stir fry – since like most of us – my stove doesn’t have this special burner that enables the wok’s sides to be heated as well as the bottom of the wok. I use a flat “Sautez” that heats very well to stir fry. Its a trick I read somewhere online a long time ago – and I apologize I cannot give the reference as I really do not remember where I read it … so i just pass the knowledge on …

Heat it very well before you start. Add the vegetables (pay attention to the order based on their cooking time) – then add the noodles – then the sauce … stir … fry … add something crunchy (I love toasted cashew nuts)… add something green (green onions always work) – and you are done !!!

Green Beans

OK – i’ll admit two things about this recipe :

A – not sure if this even qualifies as a recipe … but for my defense I must state – this is by far one of my favorites !!! serve with anything – rice, quinoa, couscous,  next to your protein … simple and yet – delicious.

B – I know great chefs use a blanching technique for green beans – short cooking in boiling water – then an ice bath to stop the cooking process – a technique that will keep them beans crunchy and vivid green – I beg to differ …

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Three ingredients … so do make an effort to use the best … Fresh green beans – fresh garlic (not those horrible frozen cubes) – and most importantly – good qualify tomato paste  (i’m biased for Muti – can eat it with a spoon).

Clean the green beans – discard the steam and cut to half (yes – of course you should rinse them to).

Peel and chop the garlic cloves.

In a pot – over medium heat – put a nice quantity of olive oil – add the garlic when the oil is still cold !!!

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Let the garlic cook a little – the smell will tell you its time for next step.

Add the tomato pure to the pot – and let it cook in the oil.

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Once again – trust your nose to detect time to proceed – noses never lie.

Add water – not too much – you need to get to a sauce consistency …. not too thick not too watery …

Salt – and you are done.

Now add the green beans – and let cook – covered – for … as long as it takes for the beans to be fully cooked – tender – and covered nicely with this simple yet tasty sauce. Remember – those are not chef’s bean – but rather a housewife version of bean – let them cook … thoroughly … to the point they are “melting” tender – but yet resemble green beans.

Stir the beans gently once or twice while cooking – just to make sure they are cooked evenly and covered with sauce.

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