Saturday, August 30, 2008

Something Simple

Hey Everyone,

So I know it's been awhile since I've posted a blog, but that's because I have been trying to perfect some of my recipes. I know that I have been posting some recipes that are a little time consuming and that include unique ingrediants. But, I am spending some time working on my simple recipes. The truth is, I have several dishes that I have been making for years, and I just throw them together. They are simple, but I never pay attention to how many tablespoons of something I use, or what I use substitute if I don't have the usual in the house. Sometimes they turn out awesome, and sometimes decent. So, I've been working on paying attention and writing down the tablespoons and cups that I use to get the best flavor.

I've also been going through my cookbooks, and make the things that I used to make all of the time, but making vegan versions. This weekend I went to the UCF football game and a labor day party, and I made two different pasta salads. I will be blogging those this week, so keep a look out.

Other than that.... just keep on rocking!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sesame Vegetable Noodle Bowl

3 servings

After I made the summer rolls and peanut sauce, I had a lot left over. I went ahead and made a noodle bowl that ended up quite tasty. In noodle bowls and stir frys, I find that using really chunky vegetables brings out the flavor. So, when chopping up the veggies, make sure to use large pieces!

3 cups rice noodles
1/2 yellow onion
6 green onions
1 red bell pepper
1/2 cup baby corn
1 jalapeño
6 shiitake mushrooms
3 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon corn oil (or neutral oil)
2 tablespoons Sesame-Soy Sauce*
2 teaspoons basil
1 tablespoon cilantro
1 cup vegetable broth
1 cup Lime and Coconut Peanut Sauce*

A. Preparation:
1. Slice the yellow onion in cube-like shapes
2. Chop the green onion, green and white parts. One green onion should only be chopped into 3 to 4 pieces
3. Slice the Red Bell Pepper into cube-like shapes
4. Remove the stems, and slice the shiitake mushrooms
5. Thinly slice the garlic cloves
6. Remove the seeds, and finely chop the jalapeño
7. Chop the basil
8. Chop the cilantro
9. Chop the baby corn
10. Soften the noodles by boiling a pot of water, turning off the heat, and soaking the noodles for around 10 minutes, or until soft. Then drain and set aside.

B Putting it all together:

1. Heat the corn oil in a skillet in medium heat, and add the yellow onion and garlic. Saute for about 4 minutes. Add the vegetable broth, the sesame-soy sauce, bell pepper, baby corn, and mushrooms and cook for about 2 minutes. Then, add the green onion, basil, and jalapeño and continue to cook until everything is nicely sauteed. It should be about five to seven minutes. Everything should be cooked, but crisp.
2. Grab your desired amount of noodles (I use about a cup) and place in a bowl. Use a slotted spoon to top off the noodles with the veggies. Pour about 1/4 cup broth over the veggies to add some flavor.
3. Spoon a heaping 1/4 cup of peanut sauce over the veggies
4. Garnish with cilantro
5. If you feel like you need salt and pepper, add some!

Super Easy and you're done!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Lime and Coconut Peanut Sauce

Makes 2 1/2 cups

I did some research on how to make a peanut sauce and I really didn't know where to start. I did see several recipes for peanut sauces. Some called for peanut butter, and some for peanuts. Most of them called for coconut milk. I also saw some that substituted vegetable broth for the coconut milk to make it lighter.

I never buy or cook with coconut milk, and I thought this was good time to go with it. I also learned that coconut milk and oil are really good and healthy for you. Many people avoid it because of its fat content, but it shouldn't be avoided. I would just recommend using it in moderation just like everything else.

Since I liked the Sesame-Soy sauce so much, I decided to consult the same cookbook: How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. I did make my own version of this peanut sauce, but I couldn't have gotten started without the Peanut Sauce recipe in Mark Bittman's cookbook.

3 Garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
1/2 yellow onion, finely chopped or pureed
1 tablespoon peanut oil
1 cup coconut milk
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 cup roasted peanuts, finely chopped

For taste and garnish:
a pinch of red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon cilantro
1/2 tablespoon sliced scallion

Puree the yellow onion in a food processor until smooth. A few lumps are okay, but try to get as smooth as possible. In a skillet set the peanut oil to medium heat and saute the sliced garlic for about a minute to release some of the flavor and aroma. Just saute until the garlic turns a light brown color. You don't want to burn or scorch it.

Pour in the onions and cook for about one minute.

Add the milk, brown sugar, peanuts, lime juice, and soy sauce, and stir until smooth with a few peanut chunks. Simmer until the sauce thickens, about 15 minutes. Sprinkle some red pepper flakes, cilantro, and scallions on the sauce for garnish and presentation.

Serve immediately over a a noodle bowl or stir fry, or chill and serve cold as a dipping sauce for summer rolls or polenta.

Delights and After Thoughts:
I originally made a peanut sauce for my sesame-tofu summer roll recipe. I was a little skeptical about this sauce at first because it didn't look like the usual peanut sauce that I get when I order summer rolls. But, after I cooked it and tasted it, I fell in love. I just wanted to eat the sauce alone, and then my mind started to wander about what else I could make with this sauce. I had a bunch left over after the summer rolls, so I used it on a noodle bowl. It would also be great in a stir fry, or as a dipping sauce for polenta or bread.

I got such excellent feedback from this sauce that I think I am going to use it, or modify it for many different recipes. You might actually taste this sauce, and just want to eat it for dessert, so don't be surprised if you eat it all in one sitting. Plus, it looks so pretty topped with red pepper flakes, cilantro, and scallions. I'm getting pretty good at presentation, don't ya think?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Sesame Tofu Summer Rolls with Lime and Coconut Peanut Sauce

I have been wanting to make summer rolls for a really long time now, and I decided that it was definitely time to give it a shot. Even though I've been enjoying summer rolls for years, I really wanted to make them right, so I spent some time really paying attention to how much and to what ingredients were rolled in them when I would order them. Every restaurant added some different things here and there, but they all had the same base ingredients. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I was going to roll in my summer rolls, and I think I came up with a pretty refreshing combination. I am totally content with vegetable summer rolls, but I wanted to fancy them up a bit, so I added tofu.

I really enjoyed making the summer rolls, and I was really happy with how they turned out. I think you will be too! This is a time consuming recipe, so just take your time and have fun with it.

I started with the Sesame Tofu. I marinaded it in a sauce that I borrowed from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman.

Pan Fried Sesame Tofu

Everything you will need:
1 block extra firm tofu (not silken) pressed
Click here to learn how to press tofu

Soy and Sesame Marinade
1/2 cup soy sauce
2 Tablespoons rice vinegar
2 Tablespoons sesame oil
1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds
1 tablespoon raw sugar
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon peeled and minced ginger
1/2 cup minced scallion

To cook the tofu
2 tablespoons of corn oil
I used corn oil because it is a neutral oil. You could also use grapeseed oil.

First, you want to toast your sesame seeds. You can do this by setting a skillet to medium heat, and then pouring the seeds into the pan. Shake and stir often until the seems start to turn a gold color (about 3-5 minutes). When done, Combine all of the ingredients and stir until the sugar is dissolved and everything is mixed together.

Once your tofu is pressed and ready, stand the tofu up long ways and cut down the middle so you're making two flat pieces. Then, cut each block into medium-sized cubes or rectangles. Once you have cut your tofu, mix and coat the tofu with the soy and sesame marinade, and place in the refrigerator. After about a half hour, mix the tofu again and marinate for another half hour.

Once the tofu is done marinating, it's time to get cooking. Put the oil in a skillet over medium heat, and when it's hot, slide in the tofu. You will not want to place the tofu on top of each other, so you may have to work in batches. Cook about three to four minutes and flip one over. Make sure the bottom is brown and golden. If it looks that way, then carefully flip the rest over and brown the other sides. Once finished transfer to a paper towel and let some of the oils soak off the tofu. Cool until you're ready to make the summer rolls.

Sesame-Tofu Summer Rolls

I had a little bit of trouble at first rolling the ingredients, so before you start here are some tips:

*Have all of the ingredients chopped up and ready to go. I placed everything that I had in bowls and formed a line.
*Have a pot of hot water that you will dip the summer roll wrappers in. You don't want it to be too hot because you will need to dip your hands in it. Try to get it to the temperature where if it was any hotter, than it would be too hot.
*Be gentle with the wrappers because they are fragile, but when rolling, be generous when you fold the corners. At first, I wasn't folding them in enough, and the rolls were not rolling as compact as I wanted. Eventually I got the hang of i
t and so will you!
*Go to an Asian Grocery store to buy the right brand of rice sticks and summer roll wrappers. I wasn't able to fin
d the right brands or enough options at the local grocery store. When I went to the Asian Supermarket they were able to point out to me the best brands for making the rolls. I also found out that the wrappers are also called Spring Roll wrappers.

Remember, this is the fun part, so don't get frustrated. It takes a little practice, but you will soon be on your way to summer roll heaven.

Everything you will need:

1 half of a head of lettuce, shredded
1 cucumber, diced small and de-seaded
3 carrots, shredded
1 half cup cilantro
Several mint leaves
1 block or pan friend sesame tofu
about 6 cups of rice noodles
15-20 summer roll wrappers
a hot pot of water

-The first thing you want to do is make sure you get all of your ingredients ready. I went ahead and ripped the lettuce with my hands and then placed it in my food processor to shred it. You can probably also chop it manually, but if you do use a food processor remember not to puree it. You don't want it to be mushy. If you can buy already-shredded lettuce at the store, then do that. I looked around, but didn't find it.

-I did the same with the carrots.

-I also mention to de-sead the cucumber because you don't want the summer roll to get watery.

This is a picture of the brand of rice noodles that I used. To cook these, you want to bring a pot of water to a boil, then turn off the heat and place your noodles in. I used two bunches of noodles, which ended up being around 6 cups cooked. Soak for around 10 minutes in the hot water and then drain the noodles. Run cold water over them until they are cool. You will want them to be cool enough to work with. Make sure you then drain all of the water out of them so your summer roll isn't watery.

Once everything is ready and lined up, it's time to work with the wrappers. When I first tried to do this, it took me probably about 10 minutes with the first five rolls until I figured out how to do this correctly. Take one wrapper out, and soak in water for 30 seconds. You don't have to say one-Mississippi.... just count like normal. The wrappers seem thick, so you would instinctively want to soak them until you see that they become thin, but the reality is that it keeps thinning after you take it out of the water, so just count to a quick 30 and take them out. You have to do this with your hands, so grab each side of the circle wrapper after you take it out of the water, and lay it on a flat surface next to your ingredients. At first I tried to use tongs to grab the wrapper, but it ended up folding like saran wrap, and it became a chore to straighten it all out. I eventually let the water cool a bit and used my hands, and life became much easier!

So, you have the soaked wrapper on a flat surface and all the fillers ready. I started with about 1/4 cup noodles. I placed the noodles about 2 inches away from the top of the wrapper. Then I grabbed lettuce and made a generous layer on top of the noodles. I then sprinkled the carrots over that. I made a layer of the cucumber right in front of the noodles. Then, I sprinkled about a teaspoon of cilantro across the cucumbers. I broke up a large mint leaf into two and placed that on across the cilantro. If the leaves are smaller, use two. Finally, I took two pieces of the sesame tofu and placed them next to each other in front of, or partially covering the cucumber.

Grab the top of the summer roll and start to roll over the top of the ingredients until it finally covers it and fold the corners in. I realized that I wasn't folding the corners in enough, so fold them in pretty tight and continue to roll (and fold) until you can't anymore. Then, place on a plate and try the next one. You'll eventually get the hang of it. I just continued to roll until I ran out of noodles. I still had some tofu left over, but I pretty much used everything else up. I think I actually needed to chop some more cilantro at some point because I ran out of that. But, I compensated for that in the measurements above. I ended up making 16 rolls. Serve immediatly with the Lime and Coconut Peanut dipping sauce!

Delights and After Thoughts:

Sesame Tofu: One mistake that I made with the tofu was marinating it for too long. I pressed the tofu the night before, so I thought that I would marinate it overnight. But, when I went to cook it, it didn't make my tofu crisp as I had planned on. I believe that the long marinade defeated the purpose of pressing the tofu. So, I did some research afterwards and found that most recipes recommend marinating tofu for an hour after pressing, and no longer. So, that is why I suggested an hour in my recipe.

Since they were being rolling inside the summer rolls, the texture of the tofu wasn't a priority, but if I was making a stir-fry, I would hope to get them crispy the next time! I really felt like the sesame tofu made an excellent addition to the summer roll, and the sweet sesame flavor was quite delightful.

After you are done, save the leftover marinade. I used the rest for a noodle bowl, but you could also throw it in a stir fry, or use to dress up a salad. If you have any recommendations or tips for cooking tofu that would be great. I would love to read them!

Summer Rolls: Since I rolled 16 of these things, I made sure to bring them into work the next day for everyone. There was no way I was going to be able to finish 16 summer rolls! I was really happy that I got excellent feedback from everyone, and I even told them to be brutally honest, so I think I'm on the right track.

I originally wanted to cut them in half, but since I didn't get the hang of rolling them tight until roll #13, most of them would fall apart if I did that. Regardless, making them was really fun, and it would make a fun date night activity.

The great thing about summer rolls is that you can roll in them whatever you want. You can feel free to leave out the tofu, or maybe use tempeh instead. You can experiment with using fruit, such as mango. Next time I think I am going to make simple summer rolls with just lettuce, carrots, and noodles. But, I plan on tossing the noodles in the soy-sesame marinade. I'll let you know how that turns out.

I also recommend using your own judgment when it comes to measurements. I really wasn't sure if I had chopped up an accurate amount of everything when I started, but I actually used up everything around the same time except a little bit of carrot and the tofu. Lucky me! It all worked out because I ended up making a noodle bowl (which I will blog about tomorrow) with the leftover tofu.

The Peanut Sauce that I served with it is not the usual sauce that I get when I order summer rolls, but it was delicious and really worked well with it. Everyone that tried it also seemed to really like it. I am adding that recipe next, so it will end up right above this one with a separate link. Have fun, and I would love to hear feedback or suggestions!

Working With Tofu

First things first: You gotta tame your tofu!
Before you cook your tofu, you're going to have to drain it to get the desired texture and flavor. This process takes about 40 minutes, but if you're in a hurry, you can probably cut it down to 30.

Here are the steps for draining or pressing you tofu:

-Take 2 paper towels and place them on a plate. Fold them in half so you have a good cushion for the tofu.
-Take the tofu out of the container
-Place the tofu on top of the paper towels and then take 2 more paper towels, fold them, and place them on top of the tofu
-Grab some saran wrap and place that on top of the paper towels. This protects whatever you are using to drain the tofu from getting ruined...if you care
-Place a heavy object, such as a book, on top of the tofu. Phone books work well.
-let sit for 20 minutes
-Change out the paper towels
-Flip over tofu and do the same on the other side
-Prepare your tofu and Cook!
If you do not press your tofu, it will probably cook soggy. Also, draining tofu will let other marinades absorb into the tofu. So, now that we have this down.... let's move on!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Summer Rolls and Noodle Bowls

Hey Everyone!

The theme for this weekend was Asian Cuisine. It's probably my favorite type of food. I love big Vietnamese soups, noodle bowls, summer rolls, Thai curries, and sushi. Over the weekend I made Sesame Tofu Summer Rolls with Coconut and Lime Peanut Dipping Sauce. I love summer rolls so much, and I think I could eat them everyday. I remember when I first had them. My sister moved to Orlando to go to college, and one time when I was visiting, she took me to this restaurant called Viet Garden in downtown Orlando. She ordered the summer rolls and I fell in love right away. They had everything in them that I love.... clear noodles, garlic, lettuce, shrimp (at the time), and cilantro. I could really eat cilantro in everything, but don't worry I won't add it to every recipe! Anyways, we became regulars at Viet Garden. We would also bring my parents there, and the owner became our friend and would sit with us for a little bit whenever we would dine there and we'd catch up. Good memories!

Since I've been spending so much time cooking, I thought it was time to take on this project and make my own. And let me tell you, this was quite a project! I really didn't know how time consuming it was to prep for and create a summer roll. I just rolled until I ran out of noodles and that made me 16 rolls. It only took me to roll #13 to get them compact and rolled to perfection, but I eventually got it.

I ended up having the sauce that I used to marinate the tofu left over as well as the peanut sauce, so I decided to make a noodle bowl with peanut sauce and added some vegetables that I cooked in the sesame marinade.

Keep a look out for these recipes:
Sesame-Soy Marinaded Tofu
Sesame Tofu Summer Rolls
Lime and Coconut Peanut Sauce
Vegetable Noodle Bowl with Lime and Coconut Peanut Sauce

I should have them posted by Wednesday!

Thanks for stopping by!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

30 Days of Vegan

It has been a little over a month since I have been completely vegan and made these changes in my life. I called it a 30 day challenge. My goal was to go 30 days eating no animal products. I honestly didn't intend for this to happen, but I was at a time in my life where I needed a change. I was going out all the time, drinking a lot, eating unhealthy, and waking up late. I would go to work, come home, eat dinner, and go to sleep. On the weekends, I would go out late, then I would stay in and sleep all day. I was just feeling unhealthy and starting to become unhappy with my physical and emotional self and I needed a change in my lifestyle.

In the past, when this type of thing has happened, I run full force into it and then I give it up somewhere between 6 months to a year. I knew that this time I did not want that to happen, so I needed to make these changes slowly. My first healthy move was to give myself three vegetarian days a week, cut down on fried foods, white flour, and enriched and processed foods. This way I could pace my meals out, and make sure that I was getting more vegetables and eating whole grains. This started the end of May and during this time I realized that even on my non-vegetarian days, I wasn't even going for meat. I felt so much better when I didn't eat meat, but I was still eating fish on m non vegetarian days. I went out and bought this book called, "You Don't Need Meat," which taught me a lot about the meat industry and how meat and animal products effect our bodies. I learned the dangers of what I was ingesting and I knew that I didn't want that in my body.

So, about 3 weeks into my 3day veggie diet, I decided to cut out meat all together, but I was still eating fish. As time went on I realized that all I was doing was using fish as a substitute for meat, and that defeated the purpose of this health kick that I was on. I started doing more research on the internet and picked up some other books. I learned about how corrupt the animal agriculture industry is, how many times they have been sued for lying about what is really going into their products (not to mention the cruel animal practices). I also found out that the animal agriculture industry is responsible for more greenhouse gasses than all of the trains, cars, trucks and planes combined. Not only that, but if we took all of the grain that we feed to the animals that are eventually killed for their meat, we could be on our way to ending world hunger.

All of this information really effected me, and I wanted to make sure that my meals were not meat centered, and that is when I decided that I wanted to cut out all animal products for 30 days. Cutting out meat, fish, and animal products completely would be a way to train my mind to create meals that aren't focused on meat, but are focused around grains, vegetables, legumes, and fruit. I committed to only 30 days because I wasn't sure how my body was going to respond to this change. I wasn't sure what kind of cravings I would have, and I never expected myself to give up shrimp or sushi! One day I even ordered vegetable sushi to go and had this feeling that I was going to be totally unfulfilled, but to my surprise it was just as delicious as fish sushi and I was totally content afterwords.

These 30 days have been a life changing experience, and I have never felt better. I started carrying around a paper pad with me to write down ingredients that I wasn't familiar with, so that I could look them up later. I wanted to know exactly what I was ingesting, and I have learned so much. For example, do you know what Mono and Di glycerides are? Well, I didn't either until I went to Panera and asked to see their nutritional list. Yes, most of their bagels and breads are vegan, but one of the ingredients listed is Mono and Di Glycerides. When I looked this up I realized it came from partially hydrogenated oils, which is trans-fat. But, they are not considered a fat by FDA standards, so legally they don't have to list it as trans-fat even though that is where it is extracted from, and it works the same way. I also realized that I see Mono and Di Glycerides in most processed foods and breads, and it's being used in place of trans-fat. This way, companies can still make the same products and list it as healthier. There were other things that upset about how Panera makes their food, but I won't go into all of that. It's interesting to learn about all of these ingredients, what they do, and where they come from. You are what you eat!

I really had to train my mind to adapt to these changes. For example, when everyone at work might be eating cake I have to tell myself that I can't have it even though it looks so good. I know that if I eat it, I will just feel bad. People ask me if I miss certain things like that, and I just tell them that I can have cake, I can have ice cream, I can have Jell-O, and anything that I had before, just not with animal products. In fact, I have vegan ice cream at home and I can't tell the difference. I bet you wouldn't be able to tell the difference either. I make vegan cupcakes and everyone LOVES them!

Reflecting on this time I've realized that I want to stick with being vegan and I don't want to incorporate animal products back into my diet. I also cut down caffeine, started exercising, and doing yoga. I have more energy, I sleep better, I am happier, my mind is becoming calmer, and I am more confident. I've realized that food is like any addiction, and I have stopped craving foods such as meat or soda. Sometimes I hear people mention that when you are craving something that it means that your body needs it. But, I don't believe that's completely true. Many people crave things that are bad for them like cigarettes. But, your body doesn't need cigarettes, you are just addicted to them. I think that holds true for food as well. There are so many antibiotics in animal products and as a meat based society we become addicted to them.

I'm saving money as well. I do love food, I love to cook, and I love go out to dinner, but I have lost my desire to go out and get expensive fancy dinners. When I do go out to eat now I don't have a huge problem finding something, but I do know that it is almost impossible (unless I am going to a health food place) to find something completely vegan. I make sure that I avoid anything with meat, fish, cheese, milk, and eggs, but I have to realize that if I go out to eat I will probably eat vegetables that are sauteed in a little butter, or that a sauce might have fish oil in it if I go out for thai. I try as hard as I can to avoid those issues, but my animal intake is limited and that is what is important to me.

Being vegan is still new to me and I'm still learning new things, and I'm glad I can share my experience with you. Also, my friends and family have been so supportive during this time, so thank you! I'm not sure what I am cooking over the weekend, but hopefully I'll have a new recipe for you to try!

Monday, August 4, 2008

Roasted Carrots and Red Peppers

Serves 6

12 Carrots
4 Red Bell Peppers
5 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
3 tablespoons dried dill

Preheat oven to 400. While waiting for the oven to heat, peal carrots and slice into large diagonal chunks. Depending on the size of the carrot, you should cut only into two to three pieces per carrot. Toss in a bowl with the olive oil, salt, and pepper. Remove from bowl and place on a baking sheet in one layer.

Some people like to leave the red peppers whole while they are roasting in the oven, but I like to cut the top off and seed the red pepper before I roast it.
Once you have prepared your red peppers, you may go ahead and use the same bowl to coat with olive oil, salt and pepper. Place the red pepper on the same baking sheet if there is room. If not, use another one or something similar.

Roast in oven for about 25 minutes. When finished, you will notice that the the outside of the red pepper has started to blister and the carrots will begin to darken around the edges.

When finished, let cool and slice the red pepper. Then sprinkle the carrots and red peppers with the dill, and you're done!

Delights and Afterthoughts:
Roasting any type of vegetable and adding some seasonings really enhances the flavor and is a pleasant addition to any dish. The measurements that I listed above can be modified to your liking. For example, I usually just take the dried dill and just sprinkle over the veggies from the shaker. I don't usually measure the olive oil either. I just make sure everything is nicely coated enough to make a rub and cook in. But, it's up to you.

I originally made this as a side dish to go with the Baked Polenta with Herbs topped with Monica's Marsala Mushroom Marinara Sauce. It made a pleasant addition to the dish, but I think this would also make a great dish for holiday meals such as Thanksgiving. It can really go with anything. I hope you enjoy!

Monica's Marsala Mushroom Marinara Sauce

Makes about 8 cups

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 small onions
2 chopped garlic cloves
3 cups assorted mushrooms, finely chopped (such as cremini, oyster, portobella, shiitake, or baby bella)
1 cup marsala
1 - 14.5 oz can of fire roasted diced tomatoes
1 - 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes
1/2 Tablespoon garlic powder
5 chopped fresh basil leaves
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1/2 tablespoon oregano
2 dried bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
sea salt to taste

In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium high heat, add the onions and garlic and saute until translucent (about 10 minutes). Add the Marsala, then add the mushrooms and cook until they are soft (another 8-10 minutes). You can use any type of mushroom, but I urge against using the white button mushrooms because their mild flavor won't contribute to the rich flavor of the sauce. Once the mushrooms are soft, add both cans of tomatoes and the other seasonings except the salt. Stir together and bring to a slight boil over medium heat and stir for about 5 to 7 minutes.. Reduce heat to low and let simmer for an hour letting the sauce thicken and absorb the flavor. Taste about a half hour into it and add salt if needed. When finished remove the bay leaves and serve over Baked Polenta, Spaghetti, Shells, or whatever your heart desires.

Delights and Afterthoughts:
One of my first loves in life was spaghetti with meat sauce. I would eat this at least once a week growing up and would cook it in batches because it was always so easy to make and eat all week. I got very good at making this, and although I never actually made my own marinara sauce, I was very good at adding to to it and flavoring it. I would always buy Ragu Chunky Tomato, Garlic, and Onion pasta sauce (which is vegan by the way), and add ground beef. It was so simple, but now that I am vegan, I needed to come up with a recipe to emulate this sauce.
Although I love the Ragu sauce, I wasn't about to use it on my recipe site. I want my recipes to be totally authentic and homemade, so this was my chance to create a marinara sauce that could resemble what I am used to, and versatile enough where I can change it for other recipes.

I couldn't have been more happier with how this sauce turned out. The mushrooms take on the 'meat' consistancy, but also add to the unique flavor of the sauce. I originally made this sauce to top the Baked Polenta with Herbs, which made a heavenly combination. I didn't need to add the salt because I felt like the mushrooms and marsala added enough flavor, but it's up to you. I ended up freezing over half of the sauce in batches, and I can't wait to defrost and eat over spaghetti or shells. YUM!

Baked Polenta with Herbs

Makes about 12-15 squares

2 cups vegetable broth
2 cups plain soy milk
1 1/2 cups polenta (corn grits)
2 tablespoons fresh basil
2 teaspoons fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon minced onion seasoning
2 teaspoons nutritional yeast
1/4 cup olive oil

Bring the milk and vegetable broth to a boil in a large saucepan. Pour in the polenta while stirring. Stir in the basil, rosemary, garlic, minced onion, and nutritional yeast and continue to stir. Turn down the heat to low, or until it stops boiling, and continue stirring until the polenta thickens up to a chalky thick paste. This took me about 15 minutes, but I have read that it can take up to 30 minutes depending on what polenta brand you purchase. I purchased Bob's Red Mill Polenta.

Once it gets thick enough, remove from heat spread into a flat baking sheet or casserole dish so the polenta is about 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick spreading flat with a spatula, and let chill in the refrigerator for at least four hours or overnight. When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 450 and cut polenta with a knife into desired shapes. As you can see from the picture I cut mine into squares and triangles. You can also try cubes, circles, or french fries. Grease the baking sheet generously with the olive oil and bake for 10 minutes on each side, which would be a total of 20 minutes. The outside of the polenta should start to look golden and crisp.

When the polenta is finished cooking, top with the marinara sauce and serve with a side of the roasted carrots and red peppers.

Delights and Afterthoughts:
I was very happy with the outcome of the polenta, but I did want to mention that I did grease the baking pan with olive oil, and the polenta did stick a little to the bottom, so that is why I suggest being generous with the amount of the olive oil you use. I wasn't sure what to expect since I had never cooked or tasted polenta, but I think it's one of my favorites now! It reminds me a little bit of potato pancakes, so I think it would be great topped with applesauce. It would also a make a great binder in a casserole recipe that calls for eggs or cheese to hold ingredients together. It was fabulous topped with the mushroom marinara sauce, hot or cold. When I cooked the polenta, I wanted to give it some flavor with the vegetable broth and the use of fresh herbs, but I didn't want to make it too powerful since I would be topping it with the marinara sauce. I do want to try other flavorings for the polenta such as adding sun dried tomatoes, black olives, mushrooms or chopped up spinach to the mix, and use a light sauce centering the dish more on the polenta than the sauce. I think I'll really enjoy how versatile polenta is to cook, and I can't wait to try these other options and share them with you! Stay tuned!

The Weekend and Recipes to Come

Weekends are all about being therapeutic for me after a long work week. There is nothing more relaxing and refreshing for me than doing Yoga on Saturday and Sunday, hitting the sauna, taking a long nap, cooking, eating, and maybe catching up on a movie that I ordered from Netflix. I had the most invigorating Yoga class on Sunday, and after I cooked dinner, I had planned on blogging, but I was just too relaxed. Since today is my day off from exercising, I will post the recipes tonight, so look for them. But, for now, here's a quick summary to hold you over:

This weekend I decided to make Baked Polenta topped with a Mushroom Marinara Sauce and a side of Roasted Carrots and Red Peppers. This was my first time making polenta, and although I did have a little bit of trouble with it, I was very happy with the outcome. Since I have become a vegan, I have purchased a few vegan and vegetarian cookbooks, but what is interesting is that all of the current ideas I have for recipes are influenced by my non-vegetarian cookbooks.

I'm a big fan of using the food that I have in the house to substitute or add to a recipe if possible. This way, I don't have to go out and purchase other items, and I can use all my creativity into making these recipes my own. I usually decide on the type of dish that I want to make by looking through my pantry, then I flip through my cookbooks for ideas, (or search on the internet) and finally end up condensing my ideas into a fresh and delightful animal-free recipe. Sometimes this takes a couple days. I actually thought long and hard about how I was going to cook the polenta for about a week. I would write ideas down during the day in my notebook, and then visualize it and make changes in my head while I was laying in bed. By the end of the weekend, I had a pretty good idea of what I was going to do.

I first became inspired to make polenta from a recipe that Heidi Swanson has on her site, 101 Cookbooks, called Baked Polenta Fries. They looked delicious, and I knew that I wanted to make polenta, but I wasn't quite sure how I wanted to make it or what to make with it. She talks about using dipping sauces, but I wanted this for a dinner, so I knew that I wanted vegetables to be involved. I flipped through my Everyday Italian cookbook and didn't see a vegetable dish that really grabbed me. Plus, I had never made polenta before, and I kept on reading that many people enjoy it with marinara sauce, so I wanted to be safe and follow that trend until I became familiar with the flavor. My decision to make a mushroom based marinara sauce for the topping came from a conglomeration of what I had in my pantry, and two sauce recipes from Everyday Italian. I thought that just the polenta and sauce wasn't enough nutrition, so I decided to add roasted vegetables on as a side dish.

I was especially happy with how this recipe turned out, and now that I have an idea of what polenta tastes like, it has opened a whole new world for me of new dishes that I can make with it such as appetizers and casseroles. Be on the lookout for this recipe either later tonight or tomorrow morning so you can enjoy it too!

PS. My awesome camera broke, so I have been stuck taking pictures with my camera phone or photobooth. I wish I had better pictures for you, but these will have to do for now!