30-Minute Mozzarella

Clearly I have been on somewhat of a cheesemaking streak lately. I know that as I have been yammering on, lately, about the joys of making your own cheese, various friends have been looking at me like I have two heads. They will tell me that it sounds pretty cool, but they think that I am crazy for embarking on such an ambitious task. While I recognize that not everyone in the world is ever going to be super excited about making their own cheese, I need to reiterate, as I always do, that it is really, really, really easy. Like stupidly easy. I hesitate to say this as I do like the props I get for taking on something so seemingly “advanced”, but you guys. It is EASY. Now that I’ve tried a couple of beginner cheeses, I am definitely keen to explore the more challenging ones, and they certainly can get complicated, but stuff like mozzarella is easier to make than say, a loaf of bread.

In fact, mozzarella can take only 30 minutes to make. Seriously. So I command you to stop being intimidated by it right now.

Here is what I love about making my own cheese:

First, I love any kind of cooking that feels like a science experiment, or alchemy, depending on your take on these things, in that you take a couple of very simple ingredients, and through a chemical process, transform them into something new and very special. It feels like magic and I love it and get a huge sense of accomplishment from doing it.

Second, as I said in my post on ricotta, I genuinely believe in learning by doing. Cheese is one of my favourite foods, and I think I learn a lot about the cheese I buy from others and consume by learning to make it myself. I am down with any and all angles that allow me to deepen my love and understanding of cheese.

Finally, it tastes good. Really, really good.

If you are curious to try making cheese, then I strongly encourage you to try this mozzarella recipe. Because it is so easy, and you can make it for a weeknight dinner, it comes together that quickly. It will demystify the whole prospect of home cheesemaking immediately. The only caveat is that you’ll need to buy some rennet, which is hard to find in stores. I highly, highly recommend purchasing some online from cheesemaking.com. It is run by the great Ricki Carroll, the same woman who wrote the wonderful book that I am learning to make cheese from. Her prices are great, she ships really fast, and has no problem shipping this stuff to Canada. I think I had my supplies in less than a week. I bought the smallest container of this liquid vegetable rennet, which is enough to make a few dozen batches of cheese.

I have made Carroll’s “30-minute mozzarella” twice now. The first time, we ate it on grilled pizza, and then just the other night, I tossed it, still warm, onto a gorgeous caprese salad composed of heirloom tomatoes and basil fresh from our garden. The mozzarella has the most wonderful smooth texture, and it complemented the tomatoes beautifully. We ate it alongside sausages that Graeme had just made from scratch, also using our bounty of garden herbs, and it felt really, truly wonderful to savour this meal that had been so profoundly prepared from scratch. When making (as well as growing) your food yourself, it doesn’t need to be fancy to be something that you savour and enjoy with great pride.

I look forward to sharing more cheesemaking adventures with you in the future. In the meantime, enjoy the mozzarella.

30-Minute Mozzarella
Adapted from Home Cheesemaking. Makes approximately 200 grams mozzarella.

Ingredients:

  • 0.75 tsp citric acid, dissolved in 1/4 cup cool water
  • 2 litres/0.5 gallon whole milk (NOT ultra-pasteurized, that stuff is useless)
  • 1/8 tsp lipase powder (optional, also available for purchase on cheesemaking.com, just adds a bit of flavour), dissolved in 1/8 cup cool water and allowed to sit for 20 min.
  • 1/8 tsp liquid rennet, diluted in 1/8 cup cool water

When all your ingredients are ready, start heating your milk in a big saucepan on medium-high heat, and add the citric acid solution (and lipase, if using) when the temperature reaches 55F. Stir thoroughly.

Heat the milk to 90F, stirring often. Remove the pot from the heat, stir in the rennet slowly with an up-and-down motion for about 30 seconds. Cover the pot and let it sit undisturbed for 5 minutes.

Uncover the pot, and check to see if the curds and whey have separated. It should look something like this:

The curd should not be too soft and the whey should not be too milky. If it is, let it sit a few more minutes until it separates more. Cut the curd so that it’s not one big lump.

Put the mixture back on the stove and heat until 105F, stirring very gently. Remove from heat and stir gently for 2-5 minutes, depending on desired firmeness (I think about 3 minutes is perfect).

Scoop the curds out of the pot with a slotted spoon, or drain in a sieve. Put the curds into a microwavable bowl*. Press the curds gently with your hands or a big spoon to pour off as much of the whey as possible.

Microwave the curds on HIGH for approximately 1 minute. Take the bowl out of the microwave, drain off the whey, and gently fold the cheese over and over with your hands or your big spoon (I tend to do the latter because it’s hot!) as though you’re kneading bread. You are trying to make sure the heat distributes evenly throughout the cheese. (It does not require nearly as much kneading as bread, though! Just a minute or so.)

It will look something like this:

Microwave the cheese twice more for 35 seconds each (and add salt after the second time if you are using it). Knead it after heating each time. After the third heating, it should be getting nice and smooth. Knead it until it’s elastic, and stretches like taffy.

If it’s not stretching properly, and is breaking instead, then it may have cooled down too much. Microwave it again.

When the cheese is ready, roll it into balls. It is AWESOME to eat fresh like this, while still warm, and I recommend that you do so. If you are not planning on eating it right away, place the balls in a bowl of ice water until they’re properly cooled down, as this will ensure it keeps a smooth, lovely texture.

*There is a way to do this without the microwave, if you don’t have one, but I haven’t tried it! With the microwave, it is super duper simple.

Homemade Whole-Milk Ricotta

It all started with yogurt. I am an inveterate yogurt-for-breakfast eater, as well as a snob about eating healthy, creamy, full-fat, no-junk yogurt, which can make for an expensive breakfast habit. So when I discovered that it was so damn easy to make your own yogurt, I was hooked. It felt like alchemy; just do a couple of small things to your milk, let it sit for six or so hours, and ta da! Tasty, inexpensive, and you get to thrillingly exclaim “holy crap, I made yogurt!” to anyone within shouting distance. We get a little obsessed with learning to cook things we would normally buy from scratch in this here household, and all of a sudden I was aware that there was this whole world of dairy out there just waiting for me to mess around with it. And so, I bought myself this veritable bible of home cheesemaking possibilities, and set to reading:

source

Once you enter the world of homemade cheese, you have got a whole lot of new vocabulary to learn, and I will admit that I found myself a little bit overwhelmed at first. That said, Ricki Carroll’s book does a great job of explaining the basics and building from there, helping me to understand the process of turning milk into cheese, and what the various possibilities are. Still, despite the fact that I should have known better, I had a hard time believing that it could be as simple as it seemed. Most “recipes” consist of little more than milk, and an appropriate souring agent that does the job of separating it into curds and whey. Hard cheeses get a little bit more complicated, but Carroll assures the reader that classics such as ricotta and mozzarella are really perfect for beginners and dummy-proof.

So last week, I decided to finally throw my hat into the ring and start with some ricotta. I know that all of you who already know how to make things like ricotta, or have Italian grandmothers who did this every day like it was like breathing, are probably laughing at my hesitation. As always, making my own ricotta taught me that the world’s more traditional foods are usually very straightforward and simple to prepare; how else would they have become so ubiquitous? Like my experimentation with yogurt, watching the milk transform into cheese felt like magic. As the mixture warmed up and nothing happened, I was skeptical. What was I doing? And then, as it slowly reached the set temperature, the curds started to appear and I knew that I was creating something.

All in all, including hanging the ricotta to drain more of the liquid out of it, the process took less than an hour. Apparently mozzarella, which I hope to attempt later this week, takes even less time! And it was too cool to watch it all happen, with seemingly little intervention on my part.As I watched the ricotta drip, I thought about the ricotta we buy in the supermarket, and how we generally treat it as a means to an end. It is not something I tend to get excited about eating in and of itself–it is an ingredient in a tasty lasagna, or some other more complex dish. But fresh, and straight out of my own section of cheesecloth, it was the star of that night’s dinner. I ate it with spaghetti and some homemade garlic scape pesto (the recipe here is fabulous), generously seasoned, and it could not have tasted more delicious.
I am therefore convinced that making your own cheese is awesome for three reasons: first, it tastes fresh and wonderful, and elevates often under-appreciated ingredients like ricotta to being central and show-stopping elements of one’s meal. Second, it is really fun to do, and feels like magical kitchen alchemy. And third, and perhaps most importantly, it is a way of learning about cheese. And I love cheese. It is one of my favourite foods, and I consume it with alarming enthusiasm. And it is incredibly instructive for me to start learning how it’s made, and by proxy what it actually is, exactly, both in terms of my appreciation for this beautiful food, and for my understanding of what makes a cheese tasty, or sharp, or creamy, or pungent, or nutty. Anything that deepens my understanding and appreciation of cheese is a good thing, in my book.

And so, let me share with you the ricotta recipe from Carroll’s book, adapted in two big ways: first, I scaled down the quantity considerably, as I imagine that if you are embarking on this for the first time like I was, you probably want to smart small in case it all goes sour (literally, ha!). Second, I couldn’t find citric acid, which is what she suggests as a starter (which is odd, as I’d never had trouble finding it in stores before–I think it was just an off day in my neighbourhood), so I did a bunch of sleuthing and figured out how to substitute the right quantity of lemon juice instead, which worked like a charm. So I will offer you both possibilities in the recipe below. Enjoy, and if you try it, tell me how it went!

Homemade Whole-Milk Ricotta
Makes about 1 cup of ricotta. Adapted from Ricki Carroll’s Home Cheesemaking.

Ingredients:
1 litre whole milk
1/4 tsp citric acid disolved in 1 tbsp of water OR 20 ml (1 tbsp & 1 tsp) lemon juice
1 tsp cheese salt (optional–I didn’t use any)
1 tbsp heavy cream (optional and definitely made the cheese more creamy)

Add your citric acid or lemon juice and optional salt into the milk and mix thoroughly. In a medium saucepan, directly heat this mixture to between 185F and 195F (I did this over medium-high heat). Do not boil. Stir often to prevent any burning. Once it gets up to this temperature range, the curds should start separating from the whey (the leftover liquid). Make sure that the curds separate enough that the whey is not milky, and turn off the heat. Allow it to set, undisturbed, for 10 minutes.

Line a colander with butter muslin/cheesecloth and ladle the curds into the colander. Tie the corners of the cloth into a knot and hang the bag to drain, with a bowl under it to catch the drips. Carroll says to hang it for 20-30 minutes, but as this recipe makes only a quarter of the quantity she suggests in her book, it should be ready within about 15 minutes. It is really up to you how long you hang it for; do it until it reaches a consistency that you like.

The cheese is ready to eat immediately. If you would like to make it creamier, add some of the cream, and mix it thoroughly. Carroll says that in a covered container in the fridge, the ricotta should last 1-2 weeks, but we wouldn’t know, as ours was all gone within 24 hours.

Stay tuned for more cheesemaking adventures!

Ode to Tomato Bread

It is with a very heavy heart that I must inform you that a few days ago, we had the displeasure of leaving Barcelona and coming back to Montreal. This is not an experience that I would wish on anyone. Were it not for incentives like this, we would have been even whinier than we already are about leaving what is truly one of the greatest cities that I have ever been lucky enough to visit.

It would be an understatement to say that we ate our way through Barcelona. Before our visit, neither Graeme nor I would have ranked Spanish food as one of the cuisines that we got especially excited about, but man, did that ever change. Graeme spent much of our trip looking like a kid in a candy store every time we passed by any ham (which was just about every 5 minutes). He will have to write about the many charcuterie epiphanies he had in Barcelona in a different post, but in the meantime, this is what a man high on ham looks like:

I, on the other hand, became obsessed with the wonder of eating small plates of incredibly simple food that was so damn fresh and satisfying that I could not get enough of it. Barcelona solidified my love of the unfussy. I too, will have to elaborate in another post, but in the meantime, I’d like to talk about one of the best possible examples of insanely delicious simple Spanish food: tomato bread.

Those of you who have spent time in Spain will recognize tomato bread as something that is served as an accompaniment with most restaurant meals. Simply put, tomato bread is…bread, rubbed with tomato. Yep. It is usually toasted, and complemented with some good olive oil, salt, and maybe garlic. (All the recipes I have found online recommend rubbing the bread with garlic, but I am certain that some of the very best breads we had in Barcelona really just relied on the tomato.) It feels like it shouldn’t be as damn delicious as it is, but there is nothing a properly ripe, juicy tomato won’t transform into magic. And good tomato bread really is magic. The plate above is the very first plate of tomato bread we sampled at the end of our first day in Barcelona, when we were so jet lagged and hungry that we deliriously stumbled into Paco Meralgo, an awesome little tapas bar that ended up being our very favourite restaurant in the city. Imagine two weary travellers trying to muster up the strength to stay awake past 9pm being presented with the plate above. We didn’t really know what we were looking at, we just shoved the bread into our mouths in the interest of taming our blood sugar levels. One bite and we were revived. Crispy and juicy at the same time, it just tasted like really damn good tomato. For the rest of the week we cursed ourselves because little did we know that  this would be the very best tomato bread we would find on our entire trip; we even stopped by Paco Meralgo on our last night just to have it one more time.

We ate some absurdly delicious things during our time in Barcelona–some of the best ham I’ve ever had, some stunning seafood, incredible desserts, and other wonders that I will detail at another time. But the tomato bread was the anchor of our culinary experience there, and it is what I am most obsessed with trying to recreate back home. To begin with, it is clear that the dish relies on very ripe, very tasty tomatoes. It is lucky that I have developed this obsession at the start of tomato season; as I type this, a variety of tomatoes are growing, slowly and steadily, in my garden, getting ready to be experimented with.

In the meantime, I made my first batch of homemade tomato bread just two days after returning from Barcelona, to accompany a relatively simple summery dinner that I had thrown together (grilled steak and some roasted zucchini, shallots, bell peppers and mushrooms, with a garlic scape pesto). I bought a baguettine, sliced it and brushed it with olive oil, and put it in the oven to broil for a couple of minutes (as you can see from the top photo, I let it broil a little bit too long!). I then rubbed it with the ripest early-in-the-season tomato I could find, and salted it generously with some Maldon sea salt. What made the Paco Meralgo bread so transcendent were three things: the bread was perfectly toasted and crispy so that the tomato did not make it soggy; it tasted as tomato-ey as was humanly possible; and it was perfectly salted, so as to enhance the tomato flavour even more. I tried to keep these qualities in mind as I made mine.

The verdict? I accomplished, to my own delight, the first and third qualities very well for my very first try. But it still just wasn’t tomato-ey enough. This could be a matter of waiting for better, riper tomatoes, and I also think I need to be more aggressive and generous with the amount of tomato I rub on the bread. For a first attempt, it certainly evoked what we loved so much about the bread we ate in Barcelona. But it did not inspire the same level of fanaticism. We happily ate it all, and mopped up the leftover pesto with it nonetheless, and made notes for next time.

As we all know, sometimes mastering the simplest foods can be the trickiest. Watch this space for further tomato bread adventures!

Foccacia Pizza with Arugula Pesto, Tomato and Goat Cheese

This past weekend, we braved the Grand Prix crowds (i.e. my least favourite crowds of the Montreal summer), to attend the enormous 40th birthday party of our dear friend Alan. It was well worth it. Alan is one of the kind of person who seems to know absolutely everybody in Montreal, which means that a huge, spirited crowd gathered to celebrate with him, including seemingly every person I’ve ever met. Graeme was kind enough to provide the beer for the event, while I asked Alan if he needed anything in terms of food. He told me he was worried there wouldn’t be enough savoury stuff for folks to snack on, and so off I went in search of something to make that would satisfy a large group of party goers.

The party was at a dance studio with limited kitchen facilities, so I wanted to make something that didn’t require reheating. I had also just come back into town from attending a conference, so I didn’t feel like I had time to create a million teeny hors d’oeuvres. What could be eaten cold, would be plentiful, and didn’t need to be put together portion by portion? I soon realized that the obvious thing to make was pizza.

Graeme and I have a few favourite pizza dough recipes. For your everyday pizza, covered in sloppy toppings, we keep coming back to the beer pizza crust recipe from Hellbent for Cooking. We have yet to find a better one. But sometimes I like a good rectangular bakery-style pizza, which seemed like it would lend itself well to being eaten in small portions at a party, and for that I always return to the foccacia bread recipe in my beloved Rebar cookbook. It makes an awesome foccacia, and if you slop some toppings on it, translates into a very tasty and fluffy bakery-style pizza.

I made two large foccacia pizzas for Alan’s party: one with roasted garlic, eggplant, wilted spinach and feta, and another with arugula pesto, tomato and goat cheese. I am going to post a recipe for the latter, but if you want to make the former then just make the same dough, and then cover it in olive oil, and the toppings I just listed. C’est tout! The arugular pesto is actually from the very same Rebar cookbook, grabbed from a separate recipe and plunked on top of the pizza. It is full of flavour and the most beautiful green colour when fresh. I recommend making double the amount and then saving some to throw on pasta for a really simple, tasty meal.

Foccacia Pizza with Arugula Pesto, Tomato and Goat Cheese
Adapted from various parts of Rebar: Modern Food Cookbook.
Serves 6 for a main course, many more as an hors d’ouevre.

Ingredients:
For the dough:

1 3/4 cups warm water
1 tbsp/1 packet of yeast
1/2 tsp sugar
2 tsp salt
1/4 cup olive oil
4 cups unbleached flour

For the pesto:
1 cup arugula leaves, packed
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup grated Romano or other hard cheese
3 cloves roasted garlic*
1 clove fresh garlic
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp chile flakes
1/4 tsp cracked pepper
1/4 cup olive oil

For the toppings:
2 medium tomatoes, sliced
100g soft goat cheese

To prepare the dough:
In a mixing bowl, combine the warm water, yeas and sugar, and let the mixture sit until it foams, for 5-10 minutes. Stir in the salt and olive oil, and then start adding flour, one cup at a time, mixing well. If you’re using a stand mixer, once the dough starts coming together, kneed with the dough hook until the dough is smooth and elastic. If doing it by hand, turn the dough out onto a floured surface and kneed by hand until it gets there. Form the dough into a ball and place it in a large, lightly oiled bowl. Cover with a clean, damp cloth, or plastic wrap. Let rise until doubled in size. [I have started refrigerating dough overnight as I have come around to arguments in favour of a slow rise, but if you want to make it all on the same day, that has worked totally fine for me too, and should take about 1 – 1.5 hours depending on the temperature of your house.]

After the first rise, punch down the dough, cover it again, and let it rise until it more or less doubles again. Preheat your oven to 350F. Place the dough on a well-oiled 12 x 16″ baking sheet. Gently (gently!) stretch the dough to roughly fit the dimensions of the pan. Cover the dough with your toppings, and make sure that as you do so, the dough as a good 15 minutes or so to puff up a bit before putting it into the oven.

To prepare the pesto:
Pulse all the ingredients, except the oil, to form a coarse paste [I just used a magic bullet for this]. Add the oil and pulse to blend.

Brush the dough generously with the pesto, and then cover with slices of tomato and dollops of goat cheese (and really, anything else you think would be tasty!). Season with a bit of salt and cracked pepper. Place the pizza in the oven and bake for 20 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through, until the crust is browned just the slightest bit–be careful not to overbake!

*To roast garlic, chop the tops of the cloves and place them in tin foil with a teeny bit of olive oil and salt and pepper. Wrap with the foil and roast in a 400F oven for 45 minutes or so, until the cloves are nice and soft. Cool, and then remove the peels and enjoy!

Polenta and Me

I feel like I have been trying to master polenta for years; like most traditional Italian foods/ways of cooking, polenta is at once incredibly simple (just cornmeal and water, at its base!), but at the same time it takes patience and experience to make a really great one. I am embarrassed to admit that I used to cook up a polenta in about 10 minutes, and I could never figure out what the big deal about it was since it was kind of bland in taste and texture. Yeah. Sorry polenta, it wasn’t you, it was me. I have since seen the error of my ways.

In the summer, when we are in hardcore BBQ-ing mode (and we BBQ probably at least 3 times a week in hot weather; so much nicer than being stuck in the kitchen!), grilled polenta makes a frequent appearance on our dinner plates. The soft, fresh-off-the-stove hot stuff is perfect stick-to-your-ribs eating in winter, while solid, lightly grilled wedges make the perfect starchy accompaniment in summer. It is not difficult (and also inexpensive!) to whip up a giant batch that will satisfy a group, and it is awesome with whatever extra BBQ-related sauce you have sitting around. I love the varying textures that you can find in a grilled polenta: a little bit charred, a little bit melty, and at its best nice and creamy.

Last weekend, we had a couple of Graeme’s colleagues and their families over for dinner, and we served some grilled polenta alongside freshly-made Italian sausage, an arugula and grilled squid salad, some grilled asparagus, and this unbelievable tasty and pretty rhubarb cheesecake from Nami-Nami. This is literally the best cheesecake I have ever made; I urge you to go make it immediately. In fact, I will be making it again this weekend.

One of our guests is not a big meat eater, so Graeme and I were conscious that the polenta should be the kind of thing that could stand on its own such that it could be someone’s main course, rather than being relegated to a side dish. As such, I packed it with cheese and roasted garlic to give it more flavour and richness, and Graeme whipped up (off the top of his head, because he’s awesome like that!) an accompanying grilled corn and roasted tomato salsa. Probably the least “fancy” part of the entire meal, this pairing was lovely and fresh and textured and we devoured the leftovers the next day. Simple, when done with thought and care, can be so damn good. There are a million ways to enjoy polenta on and off the BBQ, and we are happy to share what we did this time as but one drop in the tasty bucket.

Grilled Polenta with Grilled Corn and Roasted Tomato Salsa
Serves 8-10 people.

Ingredients:
For the Polenta:

2 cups cornmeal (I like it as coarsely ground as possible)
10 cups water
lots of salt, pepper and some dried red chili flakes
1 head of garlic
1 cup ricotta
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan (or other similar hard cheese)

For the Salsa:
3 ears of corn, shucked
4 or 5 tomatoes
A generous amount of fresh oregano, basil, or whatever other herbs you have on hand
Olive oil

To make the Polenta:
Preheat your oven to 400F. Take your head of garlic, and chop off the top of it so that the tops of all of the cloves are exposed. Place it on a piece of tin foil and drizzle a bit of olive oil on top, and sprinkle a little salt and pepper. Wrap up the garlic in the tin foil, and roast it in the hot oven for approximately 45 minutes, til the cloves are good and soft. Take it out of the oven, unwrap and let it cool so that you won’t burn your fingers when it’s time to squeeze the garlic out!

Bring the water to a boil with some salt, then drizzle in the cornmeal while stirring vigorously to avoid clumps. Reduce the heat to low (seriously, as low as you can possibly go and still have the thing be cooking). Stir it. For a long time. At least 45 minutes. Don’t go more than a minute or two during this process without stirring. If it’s gotten super thick but still isn’t very creamy, add a bit more water. Stir it until it’s nice and thick and CREAMY. When it’s about done, add in your ricotta, Parmesan, and remove the garlic cloves from their skins and mix it all in. If you want, smash some of the garlic against the side of the saucepan to make it distribute more evenly, but don’t do that too much–it is an awesome surprise to discover whole cloves of sweet roasted garlic in your polenta! Then season to taste. I just used salt, pepper and some dried chili flakes, but you could add whatever you’d like. Be generous with the salt. Pour the polenta out into a lasagna-sized baking dish and refrigerate for at least one hour, until it is nice and solid.

Once you’re ready to grill, cut the polenta up into generous pieces; I like to cut it into squares and then cut those in two into triangles. This batch got me about a dozen such triangles. Either brush the polenta or your grill with a bit of oil to keep it from sticking. Grill until it’s nice and hot throughout, the skin is a bit charred and crispy, and it smells awesome. Serve with sauce.

To make the Salsa:
Preheat the oven to 350.  Lightly brush the tomatoes with olive oil, put them on a baking tray, and put them in the oven until they are soft.  Remove from the oven and let cool.  Once they’re cool enough to touch, peel the skins off the tomatoes, roughly chop them, and put them in a bowl.  In the meantime, fire up the grill and roast your corn.  Once it’s cooked, slice the kernels off the cob and add those to the tomatoes. Chop up generous amounts of fresh herbs and toss those with the tomatos and corn.  Check and adjust the seasoning, and serve spooned over grilled warm polenta wedges.

The Quest for the Perfect Veggie Burger



Let’s make this absolutely clear: nothing is better than a good hamburger.  When I make burgers I go to the butcher and buy beef shortribs, bone and grind them, and make the most delicious and meaty burgers with them.  They are a delight to behold and to eat and are truly one of the finest burgers you have never had the privilege of trying.

But sometimes it’s nice to have a vegetarian alternative to the classic burger.  I’m not interested in commercially-available soy protein based burgers.  They offer very little in terms of flavour, and from an environmental and ethical perspective, I’d much rather eat well-raised beef than a highly-processed food reliant on a byproduct of the petroleum industry.  When I want a veggie burger, I want something flavourful that gives me something that I wouldn’t normally get from a beef burger.

Making veggie burgers is surprisingly difficult though.  The ones I’ve made in the past have generally tasted good but it’s been really tough to get the texture right: a meat burger has that great firm bite, but my experiments in bean-based veggie burgers have been mushy.  When you bite into them, the patty flattens and squeezes from the side of the bun.  It’s not great.

The best veggie burger recipe I’ve tried to date comes from Mille Petrozza of my favorite Teutonic thrash band, Kreator, and can be found in Annick “Morbid Chef” Giroux’s suberb cookbook Hellbent for Cooking.  Mille’s burgers are oat-based and have this wonderful firm texture that is pleasant to bite into.  They also seemed like the perfect base from which to explore different veggie burger flavours.

I went for the classic flavour of black beans for this veggie burger experiment, and used Tex-Mex inspired spices to season it.  We topped the burgers with sour cream, some homemade mango salsa that needed more heat, sliced avocado, red onion, and cilantro to keep with the Tex-Mex theme, but you could really use any toppings for this.

It was a fairly successful experiment.  The flavours were all solid and while I never set out to replicate the taste of a beef burger, this burger did have a nice earthiness that didn’t bring beef to mind, but did recall the sort of taste that makes a burger so great.  It was decent texturally, though it perhaps could have used more oats in proportion to the beans.  Though it could just be that I tend to make my burgers wide and flat, because Anna had one of these for leftovers the next day but she made hers thicker and said that the texture was better on that one.  In the meantime, the quest will continue until I have made the perfect veggie burger.

Black Bean Burgers
makes 4 decent sized burgers

Ingredients:
1 cup dried black beans, soaked overnight
1 cup oats
1 small onion, diced
1 tsp coriander seeds, toasted and ground
1 tsp cumin, toasted and ground
1 tsp crushed red pepper
1/2 tsp dried oregano (more if using fresh)
A handful of chopped cilantro
4 cups vegetable stock
Salt and pepper

Soak the beans overnight.  Chop the onion and cook it in a medium-sized saucepan with your choice of oil until the onion is translucent.  Add the beans, throw in the veggie stock and your spices, bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to a vigorous simmer.  Simmer until the beans are nice and tender, probably close to an hour, then add the oats and boil until the whole mixture is thick and gooey.  Let this cool for a bit then transfer it to a food processor, add the cilantro, and process it until the whole thing is a nice uniform mixture.  Form into burger-sized patties and fry in a skillet until they’re nicely browned and crispy on the outside.  Serve with your favorite toppings.

Conquering Tofu


This is a terrible confession to make as someone who spent 15 years as a vegetarian, but it is not until recently that I really learned how to cook tofu. While I have often enjoyed this much maligned protein source when eating out at awesome places that really know how to prepare it, at home it always felt spongy and squeaky. Not wanting to contribute to its bad reputation, I pretended nothing was wrong.

Then, one fateful day, while trying out a new tofu recipe, I saw that it called for one to “press” one’s tofu. I looked up what this meant and it changed my life. Pressing the tofu, in addition to keeping it in the freezer (as we almost always do), helped so much with its spongy texture that all of a sudden it became less agonizing to work with. Nowadays we pretty much always keep a block or two of tofu in our freezer, and we utilize it with considerably less angst.

While I am pleased to have come such a long way in my tofu journey, I will also confess that I am a little bit lazy about always turning to the same handful of recipes, like the Grilled Tofu & Soba Noodles from 101 Cookbooks and the Sensitive New Age Sloppy Joes from my treasured Rebar cookbook. While I highly recommend both of these, I do aspire to be more adventurous. Recently I decided that I should branch out, and almost immediately I stumbled onto a sample recipe from a cookbook that I have already mentioned coveting on here: Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty. His Black Pepper Tofu appealed to the junky Chinese food lover in me, and I was intrigued by his suggestion that you coat your tofu in cornstarch and pseudo-deep fry it. I knew I had to try it, and let me tell you: IT RULES. It is recipes like these that are increasingly convincing me of the versatility of tofu; this tofu was crunchy and without a hint of sponginess. It was about as close as I can imagine getting to awesome Chinese fake tofu in my own kitchen, especially as quickly as this dish cooked up. The flavours were awesome too–sweet and spicy and really incredibly fragrant–but that tofu preparation is really what convinced me to put it up here, because I know that I will be stealing it for all manner of other dishes. It really transforms it as an ingredient. I have tofu shame no more.

Black Pepper Tofu
The original recipe, up at Epicurious, is awesome and can be followed as is. I will post my adapted version of it here as well, as I added in some veggies to make it a self-contained dinner, and scaled it considerably down. This cooked up fairly spicy, so adjust the chiles and pepper if you aren’t too into that. Either way, enjoy it!

Serves 3-4

Ingredients
300g firm tofu, pressed
Vegetable oil for frying
Cornstarch to dust the tofu
4 tbsp butter
4 medium shallots (12 ounces in total), thinly sliced
4 fresh red chiles (fairly mild ones), thinly sliced
6 garlic cloves, crushed
1.5 tbsp chopped fresh ginger
1.5 tbsp sweet soy sauce (kecap manis) [I could not find this, so I put in more dark soy sauce and a bit more sugar]
1.5 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tsp dark soy sauce
1 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp coarsely crushed black peppercorns (use a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder)
1 head of broccoli, cut into florets
4 small and thin green onions, cut into 1 1/4-inch segments

Start with the tofu. Pour enough oil into a large frying pan or wok to come 1/4 inch up the sides and heat on medium-high heat. Drain the tofu and cut into large cubes, about 1 x 1 inch. Toss them in some cornstarch and shake off the excess, then add to the hot oil. Fry, turning them around as you go, until they are golden all over and have a thin crust. As they are cooked, transfer them onto paper towels.

Remove the oil and any sediment from the pan, then put the butter inside and melt it. Add the shallots, chiles, garlic and ginger. Sauté on low to medium heat for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the ingredients have turned shiny and are totally soft. When the mixture is almost done, steam the broccoli for 2 minutes, until it is bright green but still nice and crunchy. Add the soy sauces and sugar to the shallot mixture and stir, then add the crushed black pepper.

Add the tofu and broccoli to warm them up in the sauce for about a minute. Finally, stir in the green onions. Serve hot, with steamed rice.