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Vegan Black Rice Pudding

I have been thoroughly enjoying the acquisition of a black short grained rice from our local Asian supermarket, and wanted to take advantage of its incredible color and  rich nutty taste to make a sweet dessert.  Rice pudding immediately came to mind, and using Thai cuisine as my inspiration, I altered a recipe for Thai coconut sticky rice into a more traditionally creamy rice pudding that also happens to be vegan.

I used few ingredients, each of them contributing significantly to the unique flavor of this simple pudding.

Black rice has a flavor all of its own that I did not want to overpower, so I kept the amount of sugar low, an did not add the usual autumn spices that spruce up a more traditional rice pudding.

The first step is to cook the rice until it is very soft.  I used the same technique used for congee, a chinese rice soup whose texture can range from a thick porridge to a thin, watery soup.  This is accomplished with a high ratio of water to rice, which allows the rice grains to break down further than usual, letting the starches escape into the liquid to create a creamy texture. This translates nicely to pudding.

One cup of black rice. Note that this is a short grained glutinous rice, similar to sushi rice. Longer grained rice, such as basmati or wild rice, will take significantly more water and more time to cook.

This rice usually calls for one and a half cups of water to each cup of rice; I more than doubled it up to four cups, and might even consider using five next time.

The amount of water you use depends greatly on what type of rice.  In general, you want between twice and three times as much water as you would use to cook that rice under normal circumstances.  For short grained rice, that means 4-5 cups of water to 1 cup of rice.

Black rice is sometimes called purple rice, for this deep purple hue that the water takes on. The cooked rice also has a purple sheen to it.

Pour the rice and water into a pot and bring to a boil.  Reduce to a simmer and cover tightly; cook until all the water has been absorbed and the rice has started to break down.  This could be an hour or more.  Additionally, if all the water has been absorbed and you don’t think the rice is soft enough, you can add more water and continue cooking.

Once the water has all soaked into the rice, add one can of coconut milk and 1/2 cup of brown sugar.  Bring back up to a simmer and cook for another twenty minutes, uncovered and stirring occasionally.

Thick coconut milk provides a sweetness all its own, as well as the richness of cream.

I purposely used a small amount of brown sugar to keep the flavor of the rice from being overpowered. Coconut milk adds its own sweetness as well.

When you are done simmering it, the pudding should be nice and thick.  Additionally, it will thicken a bit further after it has been cooled.

The thickness of the coconut milk mixes with the starches released from the grains of rice to make a thick bubbling brew as it simmers.

At this point, you should taste the pudding and adjust the flavor to your liking.  You may find you would like it sweeter, and could add another quarter cup or more of brown sugar.  Another nice addition at this point is a little splash of vanilla, perhaps a quarter of a teaspoon.

Dad thinks the pudding is perfect just how it is.

Spoon into individual cups and place in the refrigerator.  This is a very rich pudding, and could easily serve 8.   It can be eaten warm or cold, and is best when served with whipped cream.

Vegan Black Rice Pudding

1 cup black short-grain rice

4-5 cups water

1 can coconut milk

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/4 tsp vanilla

@)———

Combine rice and water in a pot.  Bring water to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, covered, for an hour or until all water is absorbed.

Stir in coconut milk and sugar, simmer 20 minutes further, stirring occasionally.

Add vanilla and more sugar if desired.

Serve warm or cold.  Recipe makes 6-8 servings.

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Happy childhood memories are made of magic, and one of my favorites is coming in from playing in the cold to a bowl of hot homemade matzo ball soup.  From the wisps of steam rising from the bowl, to the sweet, tender carrots, to the way the  matzo balls melt on your tongue, eating a bowl of matzo ball soup will always transport me back to those days when life was simpler.

Nothing pleases me more than to share that feeling of warmth and comfort, so whenever I have a sick friend or family member, I will make them a fresh pot of this soup.  I don’t know if it is the soup or the kiss to the forehead that makes them feel better, but they invariably tell me that they mustered up the energy to eat at least two whole bowls full and feel better already.  Earlier this week I made up a pot for a friend, and I’ve been craving it ever since!

Prepackaged soup cannot hold a candle to homemade. My mom taught me that it tastes better when its infused with love.

My father told me a story the other day about my Grandmother’s soup.  The family would joke, he said, that she would buy a chicken, boil it for soup stock, roast it for dinner, and then take the bones and make another stock out of them.  This tale speaks to me of the resilience that my grandparent’s generation developed as a result of the Great Depression.  They learned to make do, or do without.  A luxury like a whole chicken would be stretched into many meals, and not a part would be wasted.

I believe that this frugality is something my generation would do well to learn.  While my grandma is unfortunately no longer with us, I still follow proudly in her footsteps.  Every carrot I peel, every stalk of celery I trim, every onion I chop, I save the scraps in a bag in the freezer.  I buy my chicken on the bone, and save the bones in another bag.  When both are full, it is time to make a soup.

My bag of vegetable scraps. This gets all of the (washed!) ends of celery, peels and ends from carrots, onion skins, and the occasional herb.

Raw, frozen chicken scraps. This is mostly bones. I throw away most of the skin, as fat doesn't add much to the broth.

To this day I still follow my Grandmother’s recipe, passed down to my mother and then to me.  No bouillon cube or can of broth could ever satisfy that craving like a rich, salty stock can.  Chicken bones give its flavorful base, while carrots, celery and onions add sweetness and extra depth of flavor.

Today I didn't have any extra scraps left over, so I just rinsed some fresh vegetables and chopped them into big chunks. No need to peel the carrots, just rinse the dirt off.

To start, put your frozen bones in your pot and add enough water to cover.  I use boiling water to start the chicken defrosting.  Anywhere from 6-12 chicken breasts/legs worth of bones is a good amount for one full pot. The more chicken you have, the more flavorful it will be!  I had closer to 12 chicken breasts worth – one very full Ziploc freezer bag – and it took about 12 cups of water.

You can also use the leftover bones from an already cooked chicken. Most of my roast chickens become soups.

Add in your vegetables.  If using fresh, about 3 whole carrots, 2 stalks of celery, and half an onion is pretty good, but the ratio isn’t critically important.  My veggie scraps tend to be heavy on the onion and light on the carrot, and it still turns out great.

I had so much chicken that I had to cram the vegetables down into it to get them to fit. I almost overfilled my pressure cooker - oops!

Last but not least, you need herbs for additional flavor, salt and pepper to draw out the flavor of all the other ingredients.  In this pot, I used 3 tsp salt, 1 tsp whole peppercorns, 2 tsp dried parsley, and 1 tsp thyme.  I also like to use basil, oregano and marjoram, from time to time.

Now, turn the heat up and let it cook!  For how long, you ask? Well, that depends on how you are cooking it.

Soup stock can be made in a pot on the stove, in a slow cooker, or a pressure cooker.  This changes the time it takes.   In a slow cooker, 8 hours is about right; I often will set it up the night before and let it simmer all night long.  A pot on the stove takes closer to four.  In a pressure cooker, only an hour.

You’ll know the soup is done when the bones break easily; that means all of the flavor has been sucked out and they have nothing left to give.  This is the a universal truth whether you are making your soup from chicken, beef, pork, or any other kind of bones.

When the bones break or crumble easily between your fingers, the broth is done.

When the broth is done, you need to remove everything that you’d added.  The vegetables will be mushy and flavorless, and the chicken dry and fairly tasteless as well – all of the flavor has gone into the broth, and those are now trash.  I like to scoop it into a strainer over a bowl, to save the broth that drips out of them and put it back in the soup.

This tastes about as good as it looks. Which is to say, not very. That doesn't stop me from snacking on a few bites of the chicken, though!

I can't let that broth go to waste! Once its finished dripping out of the strainer, back into the pot it goes.

The only thing I save is the chicken, carefully separated from the bones, to give to my pets as treats once it cools.

One final step, after spooning out the big chunks, is to strain the whole thing through a finer mesh strainer to get out all the peppercorns and little bits of crumbled bone that might be still in it.

I usually strain into a fresh pot, which I then use for the soup. That way the broth doesn't retain any gross floaty bits.

When the broth is getting close to done, its time to prepare your matzo ball mix.  Now personally, I take a little shortcut here.  I don’t think anyone can beat Manischewitz for matzo balls; I use their premade mix; it is super duper easy and the finished product is fabulous in flavor and texture.  I actually tried a different brand today, and I was not pleased with it.  I will be going back to Manischewitz from now on.

Preparation is simple.  Just follow the instructions on the box.

One egg...

Some oil...

Add the matzo meal mix...

Mix it up well with a fork, and then let it rest in the fridge for at least 15 minutes.

Three ingredients, mixed together, and left to rest for 15 minutes.  Once they have set, you roll them into small balls, put them in boiling salted water, cover, and cook on low for 20 minutes.

Roll and form them into balls. I like them smaller, about the size of a walnut.

As soon as they hit the water, they will start puffing up.

20 minutes later, you will have a pot of big, soft, fluffy matzo balls. Scoop them out with a slotted spoon and into your soup!

Make sure to cook these in a fresh pot of water, not in your broth; they will turn the broth cloudy!

Now, I’ve actually skipped a step here – the preparation and cooking of the carrots and celery for the finished soup.

While my broth was cooking, I prepared some freshly chopped carrots and celery – saving the scraps in my frozen veggie bag, of course.

Prepped and ready to go, about 2-3 cups each of carrots and celery. You can’t go wrong with more!

Before I pull the matzo meal out from the fridge, I set my pot of strained, ready broth to a simmer, and add the vegetables to let them cook.

Add the vegetables carefully, so you don't splash yourself with hot soup.

The carrots and celery will be perfectly tender and done in the time it takes you to roll and cook all your matzo balls, about 25 – 30 minutes.  Make sure to taste them to make sure they are cooked just right before you add the matzo balls to the soup.  If they’re done, then so are you!  Gently spoon the cooked matzo balls into the pot, and then ladle into bowl and enjoy.

A small bowl of heaven.

Grandma’s Jewish Chicken Stock

Bones from 6-10 chicken breasts or legs

Enough water to cover, about 10 cups

3 carrots, rinsed

2 stalks celery, rinsed

1/2 onion

@)———

Place all ingredients into a pot and bring to a boil.  Reduce to a simmer, and cook partially covered for 4 hours or until the bones break easily.

If using a crock pot, cook on low for 8 hours.

If using a pressure cooker, cook for 1 hour.

Once finished, strain the broth into a fresh pot.

@)———-

Matzo Ball Soup

2-3 cups of carrots, sliced

2-3 cups of celery, sliced

Matzo ball mix, plus egg and cooking oil

1 recipe Grandma’s Jewish Chicken stock

@)——–

Prepare Matzo ball mix according to directions.  Set in fridge for up to 15 minutes.

Bring your stock to a simmer.  Add carrots and celery.  Cook 25-30 minutes, until tender.

In a separate pot, bring salted water up to a boil.  Roll matzo balls and place in the water.  Cook on low for 20 minutes, covered.

Spoon finished dumplings into the broth and turn off the heat.

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If you are like me, when you think of pumpkin your mind immediately drifts to the classics: pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread.  Moist, sweet, and decadent, both of these make as fine a breakfast as they do a dessert.  For my money, though, pumpkin bread is the winner hands down.  It can hold its own as a side dish for lunch or dinner, making it suitable for any meal of the day, snacks included.

Everyone has their own recipe for pumpkin bread, and most have very similar results.  For me, the secret to a good pumpkin bread is that it be moist but not heavy, sweet without being cloying, delicately spiced, and with a nice crumb that holds together for spreading on cream cheese or butter.  I have used many, many recipes in the past, all of which turn out good. My current favorite is a modification on my mother’s banana bread recipe.

Roasted pumpkin awaits its tasty fate.

For this bread, I have significantly reduced the amount of sugar used, giving the bread only a hint of sweetness.  But one would be hard pressed to say that it lacks in flavor.  Generous spices enhance the natural sweetness of the pumpkin, while candied ginger and a sugar crust add an incredible ‘pop’ of sweetness in every bite.

This bread starts by creaming together softened butter and sugar.  I’ve seen recipes that use oil in place of butter, but personally I find that the creamed butter adds to the resulting texture of the bread, and keeps it a little lighter.

For those of you who are not bakers, “creaming” just means to mix together until the consistency becomes lighter and creamy looking.  This can’t be achieved with melted butter, nor with butter that is too hard.  For best results, use an electric mixer.

Creamed butter and eggs

Look how light and fluffy that butter looks!

Mix in the eggs, followed by pumpkin puree, whether freshly roasted or canned.  Next alternate your dry and wet ingredients, until all have been added.  For wet, I prefer buttermilk, which has a wonderfully rich taste in baked goods that nothing else can match.  But since I rarely have any on hand, a tin of buttermilk powder in the fridge lasts forever and is an easy substitute.

dry ingredients

If you happen to have it, substitute fresh buttermilk instead of water and buttermilk powder.

Once all the flour and water have been incorporated and the batter is smooth, its time for the best part:  the spices, vanilla, and candied ginger!

spices

Cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg; be generous with your spices!

vanilla

I love the smell of vanilla. I can't resist taking a whiff every time I open the bottle.

candied ginger

Kitchen shears make fast work of dicing the ginger, without leaving a sticky cutting board.

Don’t neglect cutting the ginger into little pieces.  If they are too big, they will all sink to the bottom instead of being well dispersed, and large pieces may be too sharp for some tastes.

Once it is well mixed, pour into a well-greased loaf pan.  Really, be very generous with your butter or crisco – this bread sometimes sticks!

pour

It may not look pretty now, but this is the good stuff.

Many years ago, before I was born, my parents went to Hattie’s Chicken Shack in Saratoga, NY.  My mother complemented the waiter on the biscuits, telling him that they were the best biscuits she’d ever had.  He ran to the back to get the owner, Hattie.  Mom asked Hattie what made the biscuits so good, and her answer has become our baking mantra:

“Just a little sugar, Sugar.”

So, in the immortal words of Hattie, the finishing touch to this and any sweet bread is just a little sugar, sprinkled generously on top of the bread just before baking to form a sweet, crisp top crust.

Pour some sugar on me.

"Just a little sugar, Sugar."

A line of brown sugar in the center makes it look fancy. Chopped walnuts on top are another nice touch.

Pop it in the oven for an hour, until the house smells fantastic, the bread is browned on top, and a toothpick inserted into the very center of the bread comes out clean.   Remove from the oven, and let it cool for 5-10 minutes in its pan before removing onto a cooling rack.

Now comes the only hard part:  Let it cool before cutting!

Candied Ginger Pumpkin Bread

1/2 c (one stick) softened butter

1/2 c sugar

2 eggs

2c cooked pumpkin

2c flour

1tsp baking soda

1/4 tsp salt

1c buttermilk OR 1c water and 4 tbsp buttermilk powder

1 tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp cloves

1/2 tsp nutmeg

1/2 – 1 c candied ginger, diced small

@)—————

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, and generously grease a 9×5 loaf pan.

Cream together butter and sugar.  Add eggs and beat well.  Mix in pumpkin.

Sift dry ingredients together and add to the mixture, alternating with the buttermilk.

Once the mixture is smooth, stir in spices and diced ginger.

Pour into the loaf pan, and top with sugar.

Bake at 350 for 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Cool in pan for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a cooling rack and allow to cool thoroughly before cutting.

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Cranberry Meatballs

In the early 1960’s my grandmother went through a “Cranberry phase,” led astray from her gourmet cooking by the cranberry industry’s insidious publications.  This dark time saw horrible atrocities committed against food; the war stories of the era are gruesome indeed, peppered with grotesque pairings of cranberries with all manner of incompatible food items, such as ranch dressing.  The horrors were so inhumane that, in deference to your delicate sensibilities, I shall not recount them here in any great detail.

To quote my mother:  “You’ll notice that those didn’t make it into my cookbook.”

The lone surviving recipe from these dark days is this dish, known as Cranberry Meatballs.  A far cry from the other madness-inducing flavor concoctions of its contemporaries, this savory-sweet dish is so good that the plates end the meal licked as clean as they began it, with nary a drop of sauce staining their surfaces.

These meatballs make a fine main course, but can also be served as an appetizer.  The recipe doubles easily, tastes even better on the second day, and freezes beautifully.  Because of this mystical versatility, they have become a potluck-party staple in my family, and are always a big hit.

This recipe calls for a many ingredients, but only a few easy steps.

All the ingredients for the recipe, doubled.

The most unusual ingredient is Heinz Chili Sauce, which I have never seen used in any other recipe.  I had no trouble finding it at the grocery store, once I realized that this is not the same as Thai chili sauce.

Begin by chopping or grating the onion into tiny pieces.

Grating the onion is so much easier and faster than chopping!

The next step is simple:  Dump all of the ingredients for the meatballs in a big bowl and moosh them all together.  You could be civilized and use a spoon, but you are going to be getting your hands dirty anyways – go ahead and dig right in there with your fingers!

Little known fact: The finger is, in fact, nature's spatula.

Once the meat mixture is thoroughly mixed, it is time to shape it into balls.  The mix is a lot softer than most meatball recipes, and the balls will be very fragile.  Be sure not to squeeze them too tight; you want them loose.

Shape the balls by rolling and patting them in the palms of your hands.

You can make these large or small, any size you want.  Mom makes hers about 4″ for dinner and 2.5″ for parties.  I like to make them itty bitty and bite sized.

Line the balls up in an oiled casserole or baking dish, close to each other but not squeezed tightly together.  You want just enough room between them that the sauce will seep between them as they cook.  If there is not enough room in the pan, it is perfectly acceptable to stack them two layers deep; this is preferable to cramming them all in one layer.

Be gentle as you set them into the pan.

As we rolled the balls, Mom gave me her #1 tip for this recipe, spoken with a knowing wag of her finger: The meatballs don’t stick as much if you oil the pan.  But for the easiest cleanup, bake in a disposable aluminum pan!

Once all of the meatballs have been formed and placed into the pan, dump the three sauce ingredients into a bowl and stir them together well.  Spoon this sauce gently on top of the meatballs.

Try to distribute the sauce as evenly as possible, coating all of the meatballs .

To smooth out the sauce, Mom will pick up the pan and shake it.  You could spread it out with your fingers or a small brush, but be very gentle – the meatballs can break easily.

After an hour of baking, the balls will have firmed up and can be stirred to better coat them with the sauce, then its back into the oven for the last half hour of cooking.  Baked slowly with a low heat, they stay moist and tender.

These can be kept warm in a crock pot for hours without doing them harm, which has proved useful at many a church potluck and office party.

After enjoying a meal with my parents, I brought some home to feed the very lucky ravenous beasts I live with, who enjoyed it served over farfalle with a side of sundried tomato creamed spinach.


Cranberry Meatballs

(A)
2lb lean ground beef (85%)

2 eggs

1/2 c applesauce

1 medium onion, chopped finely or grated

1/2 c seasoned bread crumbs

1 tbsp dried parsley flakes

1 tsp salt

1/4 tsp pepper

(B)

1 can (16 oz) whole cranberry sauce

1 jar (12 oz) chili sauce

2 tbsp lemon juice

@)—————-

Preheat your oven to 325 and grease a large casserole or baking pan.

Mix ingredients (A) in a large bowl.  Form into small meatballs.  These will be very soft and loose; don’t squeeze them too tight.

Mix ingredients (B) and pour over meatballs.  Shake gently but do not stir, because the meatballs are fragile.

Bake, uncovered, at 325 for 1 hour.   Gently stir, and then bake another 30 minutes.

This serves 6-8 as a main course, 12-16 as an appetizer.  They go well with rice or noodles.

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Pumpkin Lentil Curry

On this unseasonably cold and snowy day, I wanted a dish to warm us through and through.  Something with the autumn sweetness of pumpkin, the bite of ginger, and the savory warmth of curry.

Winter Squash

So many gourds, so little time. Any winter squash could be used in this recipe.

When cooking with pumpkin, I find that fresh roasted is far better than canned puree.  It has better texture and flavor, and a nicer color to boot.  Roasting pumpkin is very simple; scoop out the seeds, cut into small pieces, and place cut-side down in a baking dish with about half an inch to an inch of water.  Roast in a 375 degree oven for 45 minutes to an hour, until the pumpkin is soft.

A grapefruit spoon is one of my favorite kitchen tools. The serrated edge makes quick work of scooping the seeds out of gourds.

With the cut side down, the pumpkin is easy to scrape off of its skin. If you roast it with the skin in the water it becomes fragile and harder to work with.

Once the pumpkin is fully roasted, allow it to cool enough to handle, and then scrape the flesh off into a container to store until you are ready to use it.  It should last a week or longer, plenty of time to find creative uses for it.

This simple to make pumpkin curry starts with red lentils and some basic indian spices, simmered in water or broth until tender.  I chose vegetable broth, as I find it to be the most flavorful, and it made this dish fully vegan, so I can share with with my roommate.  If you don’t have broth, water will do in a pinch!

Red Lentils.

The secret to a good curry: lots of spice! Many of these spices can be found very inexpensively at most Asian or Indian grocery stores.

Once the lentils are done, its time to add the rest of the spices, the pumpkin, and some cooked spinach to give it a healthy boost of green vegetables.

Tasty, healthy, and easy to make. What's not to love?

Pumpkin Lentil Curry

2c broth or water

1c dried lentils

2c pumpkin puree or fresh roasted pumpkin

1c cooked spinach

3/4 tsp salt

2tsp garam masala

1 tsp turmeric

1/4 tsp ground coriander

1/2 tsp cumin

2 1/2 tsp curry powder

1 tsp ground ginger

1 tbsp brown sugar

@)——————-

Rinse your lentils and remove any foreign materials; they often have little rocks or twigs.

In a large sauce pan, bring your water or broth up to a simmer.  Add the lentils, salt, garam masala, and turmeric, and simmer for 10-15 minutes, or until the lentils are tender and most of the water has been absorbed.

Add the rest of the ingredients and stir well.

Serve by itself or with basmati rice.

Total cook time: 25 minutes.  Makes 4 servings, at 230 calories per serving.

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