Lights! Camera! Vegans?

I took a few tentative steps into vegan territory with a terrifying and excellent food experience in mid-January. My friend Ruth was getting geared up to shoot a short film after Christmas. We had been on tour together a few months earlier and she asked me if I wanted to do craft services for the shoot. I jumped at the chance. I figured if I didn’t have to worry about the main meal of the day (the actual caterer’s job) I could certainly round up some snacks and make a few breakfast sandwiches to keep the crew happy. I had heard there would be twelve to fifteen people on set, nothing I couldn’t creatively handle in my kitchen the size of a shoe. I knew there would be dietary restrictions, had jotted down a few ideas, and was rearing to go for my first actual food gig. But by the time production week rolled around and I found out the crew had ballooned from fifteen to thirty, my stomach started to hurt. What if I let Ruth down? What if the grips yelled at me for running out of coffee? What if I accidentally gave bacon to one of the vegans? Then I found out Jeanne Beker had the lead in the film. What if I gave Jeanne Beker food poisoning??

Ok, so I’m a food safety nazi thanks to Mom and Nan and I managed to talk myself off the ledge, resting in the knowledge that no one was going to get ill. I could make thirty breakfast sandwiches. I could make thirty regular/vegetarian/vegan/non-dairy breakfast sandwiches, I was sure of it. But could I do it on a film schedule? I’ve only been on a few film sets, and they’re stressful at the best of times. You kind of have to throw yourself in headfirst, ask as few questions as possible, and expect to be yelled at by someone for doing something someone else told you to do. I’m kind of famous for holding grudges forever when someone yells at me (like that nun on my first day of kindergarten. I’m pretty sure Jesus wouldn’t approve, Sister. If that’s your real name). But the great thing about being yelled at in film is that it probably means you’re at the bottom of the food chain; no one will remember your name and you can start fresh on your next one with the hope that this time, you’ll nail it. Lucky for me, Ruth was insistent on having a positive set full of non-yellers. Everyone was really lovely and helpful. Most everyone knew it was my first time doing craft services and no one yelled at me. Even when the coffee ran out.

I try to be non-judgemental when it comes to people’s food choices (not so true at the grocery store…I love looking at shopping carts when I’m standing in line and wondering about the people with all the beige food). When it comes to meat, non-meat, lacto-ovo, pescatarian, vegan stuff, I try my best to get it. I’m puzzled sometimes when people give up food that they don’t really have to, food they’re not allergic to. I skimmed a copy of Skinny Bitch a few months ago and those ladies almost scared me into being a vegan. They made some excellent points, but they’re sort of mean (hungry). Was I really a lazy asshole if I drank coffee? And what? The only alcohol I can consume is wine from organic grapes squashed by the feet of milk-skinned cherubs? I got over it and ordered a pizza. But in all seriousness, I like the challenge of cooking for people with dietary restrictions. I do, I really do! Food should make everyone happy and it’s nice to figure it out for friends who can’t/won’t eat certain stuff. Which is all well and good when you have a few days to think about it and spend time making something halfway impressive.

I’ve never had to get up and cook at 4:30 in the morning before. I don’t how the hell bakers do it. And after the long day of shopping and baking I just had time to settle in for a two hour nap before the alarm went off at four-ish. I prayed to the gods of dietary restrictions that something genius would happen in my head. I had to be on set at 6 am with five breakfast sandwiches, two regular and four vegan. I had roasted a head of garlic and boiled some sweet potatoes the night before and the loose plan was to fashion a potato cake breakfast patty-type thing while the bacon and eggs were frying in a completely separate and far away place on my stove top. Because I guessed that someone who won’t eat honey wouldn’t appreciate a splatter of bacon grease in their sweet potato breakfast patty. I never understood why vegans won’t eat honey. Don’t bees make it for fun? And if everyone stopped eating it, what would they do for a laugh? But then I read that bees turn nectar into honey by a process of regurgitation. So I kind of get it. And here’s another fun-on-the-farm fact. Honey has been shown to be an effective treatment for conjunctivitis in rats. Gross. That’s probably the worst job I can think of.

So the long and short of it is, I made sweet potato breakfast patties topped with a little slice of soy cheese on English muffins (they’re egg and dairy-free, thanks be to Jesus). I was hoping that didn’t offend anybody. I know some vegetarians who won’t eat fake meat products, so would some of the vegans get mad if I made something with fake dairy? Did bees regurgitate soy and I just hadn’t known for all these years? Jesus, I was so scared. But luckily I was too tired and busy to worry about it and it all had to be done in an hour.

Try these for your vegan or vegetarian pals. Roast a head of garlic. Peel and boil two large sweet potatoes. Add the roasted cloves of garlic and a couple of teaspoons of vegan margarine. Add salt and pepper to taste and some smoked paprika (they’ll think for a second you’ve added bacon grease, so give a head’s up), a teaspoon and a half or so of flour and some chopped chives. Mash together, carefully form into patties, and fry in hot canola or vegetable oil until golden. Put on a toasted English muffin with one of those soy cheese slices. A McVegamuffin! I wish I had more time to perfect the recipe because they were a little mushy. Maybe a bit more flour and hotter oil with a longer frying time. I will perfect these at some point, but they got packed in foil and brought to set with high hopes that the vegans would find them somewhat enjoyable. They did! Sweet waves of relief. Not for long, it was time to get back to my kitchen and make thirty regular breakfast sandwiches for the rest of the crew. I forgot to take a photo in my rush to get things done, but for future reference a regulation size oven can hold upwards of thirty foil wrapped English muffins with bacon, egg and cheese. I cabbed it downtown to location where everyone was filming outside in -25. Another wave of relief when I realized that the sandwiches were good and hot and that’s all anyone cared about. I could have made them out of fried boot leather and the crew would have been happy.

Day 2! Not quite so early a call but still had to be on set with a few breakfast treats. I didn’t want to repeat the sweet potato patties so I had a go at some black beans. And as pleased as I was with myself for pleasing the vegans on morning one, I showed up on morning two and exclaimed “B’ys, I’m not gonna lie, these things kick ass.” Jeanne Beker (not a vegan, likes black beans) loved them. “Jeanne, smoked paprika will change your life.” Yep. I said it.

If your friends don’t like these you need new vegans in your life. Drain and rinse a can of black beans and zing them up with a bit of water (I used a hand blender, worked fine in a pinch and I didn’t have time for the food processor). Salt and pepper. Juice of half a lime. One teaspoon of ground cumin, one teaspoon of chilli powder, a liberal sprinkling of smoked paprika. Some chopped chives. Enough oatmeal that the mixture can be formed into patties. Fry them in hot vegetable or canola oil until golden brown. I wouldn’t hesitate to serve these to meat eaters. Black beans, man. Seriously. People are worried about bananas going extinct. I’m not a huge fan so I’d be ok. If black beans went extinct I think I’d die.

The vegans got sweet treats too. Cookies and muffins for everyone else, but I was too afraid to attempt vegan versions of those. Googled and chose the first vegan brownie recipe that popped up, from  A little too easy, and maybe too good to be true as you’ll find out soon enough. If you are a vegan who can’t eat a lot of sugar, I can’t help you. Maybe try honey? Shit! The bees. Right.

Vegan Brownies

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 cups white sugar
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 cup water
1 cup vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350F. In a large bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt. Pour in water, vegetable oil and vanilla. Mix well until blended. Spread evenly in a 9×13 greased (with vegan margarine) pan. Bake for 25-30 minutes until the top is no longer shiny. Let cool for at least 10 minutes before cutting into squares.

Deadly brownies, vegan or no. I guess you can’t go wrong with that much oil and sugar. On the first morning I brought them in, one of the lovely make-up artists asked me if there was a lot of sugar in them. I blinked and said “Uh. Yes. But definitely no eggs. No sir.” Oh shit. So I only just this second read some of the online reviews that came with this recipe…one claims that these brownies are only vegan if you use raw sugar because animal bone char (what?) is used in the bleaching of regular white sugar. Seriously? So uh, sorry folks. Maybe they weren’t vegan. And as I can’t afford to buy raw sugar for all my baking needs, I guess I won’t be baking for vegans anymore. And if this fun-on-the-farm fact is actually true, we’re doomed as a species anyway. Just when I was feeling sorry for the bees.

The Little Red Smoky Chicken Sandwich

I’m not tooting my own horn here (lies), but I kicked off the little red chicken 2012 kitchen adventures with the invention of a sandwich. A chicken sandwich, naturally. I’m a little hesitant to proclaim myself an inventor on the internet. I’m pretty sure I’ll get angry emails from people telling me this sandwich has already been invented by Jamie or Gordon or Nigella. But for now, I’m claiming full responsibility for the best chicken sandwich I have ever eaten.

It was that week in January when there’s a random assortment of holiday food in the house. There’d be no other reason for me to have mini ciabattas in my deepfreeze and chives sitting in my fridge. For shame! Chives are deadly! I had invited some family over for lunch a couple of days earlier and made two roast chickens. We wiped out one of them, but the other was sitting in my fridge, all forlorn-looking like a turkey on boxing day. Luckily nothing’s forlorn in my fridge for long, so one night the ciabattas came out of the freezer and the sandwich gods aligned my stars.

Some of you may have guessed by now that I have a strange obsession with smoked paprika. I’ve mentioned it in a few posts and I will continue to do so until I change the world one tin of smoked paprika at a time. It’s not just me; I made my smoky roasted potatoes for my sister and brother-in-law last year on a visit to Halifax and I left a tin of the stuff at their place. Shortly after, Robin emailed to tell me it had changed her life. And it could change yours. Especially if you’re a vegetarian/vegan and you miss bacon. I had a few vegetarian pals over for a meal last winter and made a baked black bean dip with cheese. Robert came too, and halfway through the appetizer he leaned over and whispered, “You didn’t put bacon in this did you?” Mildly insulted, I rolled my eyes and said “Jesus Robert, it’s the applewood smoked cheddar and smoked paprika.” Great for roasted potatoes, eggs, burritos, anywhere you want a deep smoky flavour. Used unapologetically and profusely in my kitchen, especially when I cook for vegetarians. I figure if you make everything taste like bacon without using meat, no one will be angry. Not even the vegans. I think.

On to the little red kitchen chicken sandwich. I made it to taste and you should too, depending on how smoky/salty/creamy you like your sandwiches. Chop up some leftover roast chicken. Add fresh cracked pepper, sea salt, 1-2 tablespoons of mayonnaise, some chopped chives and a generous amount of smoked paprika. Lightly toast some mini ciabatta buns in the oven, then add the chicken mixture and some greens.

I’m normally against all things labeled low-fat because they’re filled with weird and unpronounceable ingredients, but I like the Hellman’s half-fat olive oil mayonnaise. And for the love and honour don’t use Miracle Whip, or as I like to call it, The Childhood Mayonnaise of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians Everywhere. You don’t need tangy zip, you just need regular mayonnaise. I think I used McCormick’s brand smoked paprika; you can usually find it in the aisle with the regular spices at the grocery store. Look a little harder and you might find the La Chinata brand. It’s Spanish and gorgeous but it’s really hot. You might be up for it, but it might scare some people. Have a go, but take it easy.

Have with beer in front of the TV. Quick and impressive and you can be all “What, it’s just a chicken sandwich,” when deep in your heart you know you’ve just converted someone over to the smoky side. Yes, I just rolled my eyes at myself.

Out With a Bang: Moroccan Lamb and a Lesson in Food Processing

Week 52. A whole year of experimenting wrapped up with one final feast and the christening of a new holiday. Ever since I bought my place four years ago I’m getting a kick out of inventing new traditions. Like putting up my tacky powder-blue Christmas tree, so ugly it would make you weep. But when it’s all decorated and lit up, a Christmas miracle happens and wisemen start showing up at my house with myrrh and other assorted goodies. That’s how beautiful it looks, shining out the living room window in all its made-in-China glory. Another tradition was born when Mel and I were sans family this holiday season so we drank Bailey’s all day and made curry and samosas instead of a turkey. I loved it so much I’m doing it again next year.

So it was that December 30th became known as Lamb’s Eve in the little red kitchen. I wanted to have a crowd over for the last new recipe of the year; it needed to be a mildly impressive meal that would involve my new KitchenAid roaster (it’s the same colour red as my kitchen and makes me happier than licking a bowl of cake batter) and my brand-spanking new food processor (from Santa, he’s younger and cuter than you think). Admitting I’ve gone without one for so long is a little embarrassing, but then I think about how I made that flourless chocolate cake with a smoothie blender and I feel like MacGyver. Whatever I chose to make had to be marinated in something fun and it had to be big enough to fill the roaster. Lamb. There’s a celebratory piece of meat for you.

A Jamie Oliver recipe I’d been wanting to try forever. Jamie suggests strolling down to your local butcher, getting him to butterfly a fresh leg of local free-range meadow-fed certified very happy lamb, and picking up a fresh bouquet of flowers and a bottle of red from the shop on the way home. Or in my case a twenty minute walk to Sobeys in a blizzard and back, frozen New Zealand lamb legs, a giant butternut squash and two bottles of wine weighing me down like a sherpa on the walk home. And not a flower shop in sight. The idea of deboning and butterflying a leg of lamb was laughable, even after a half bottle of wine and some youtube tutorials, so I splurged on boneless. They looked smallish and I bought two to be safe; I was planning on feeding close to ten people and running out of meat is a pretty fast way to ruin a party. I figured this way if we had too much everyone could take home leftovers for cold lamb sandwiches.

The food processor? She got broke in real good. Lamb and marinade prep turned out to be the most exciting event the little red kitchen has seen thus far. Between the mess of blood on the counter and the big plastic bag for the meat, it looked alarmingly like an episode of Dexter. I hesitate to use the word “butterfly” to describe what I did; I took my sharpest knife and cut until everything lay a little bit flatter. I could hear that Australian guy from the youtube video yelling at me, but I only had a couple of hours of marinating time and I was desperate. I was doubling the recipe and I was so excited about my new food processor that I overfilled it. Everything was so green and pretty and fragrant. I kept sticking my finger in it and licking and thinking how great I was. I took the blade out and lifted the plastic handle to pour the marinade into my bag of lamb. Oh yeah, there’s a hole there. A cascade of green on the counter, down the cupboards, onto the floor. Me screaming, “No, no, no, NO!!!” There was nothing to do but move fast; I grabbed what was left in the plastic bowl and heaved it into the bag of lamb, throwing the bowl aside and grabbing the bag before it toppled and spilled on the floor. My only regret now is that I was alone and couldn’t get any action shots.

Lamb With Chickpeas, Yogurt and Pan-Roasted Veg

1 leg of lamb, butterflied and opened up like a book
2 tsp coriander seeds
3 gloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
a large bunch of fresh cilantro, chopped
a large bunch of fresh mint, chopped
1 14oz can of chickpeas, drained
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Juice of half a lemon
1 pint of natural plain yogurt
12 baby turnips, scrubbed
a bunch of baby carrots, scrubbed, tops left on
1 butternut squash, unpeeled, cut into 8 wedges
2 red onions, peeled and quartered
1 whole bulb of garlic, broken into cloves
2 tsp ground cumin
extra virgin olive oil

Score the lamb on both sides. Using either a mortar and pestle or a food processor, grind or whizz up the coriander seeds with the garlic, cilantro, mint and half the chickpeas until you have a paste. Season these paste or “marinade” with salt and pepper, then add the lemon juice and yogurt. Place half of this flavoured yogurt in a large plastic bag and add the lamb. Place the other half, covered, in the fridge. Tie the bag up to seal it and turn it around to allow the yogurt to coat all the lamb. Leave to marinate for at least an hour but up to 24 hours in the fridge. Preheat the oven to 400F. Place all the veg, chickpeas and garlic in roasting pan then sprinkle with the cumin, salt and pepper. Drizzle with olive oil and toss together to coat. Remove the lamb from the marinade, then place the meat directly on the oven rack with the pan of vegetables on the shelf below. Cook for about 1 hour, tossing the vegetable halfway through. Serve the lamb well cooked with the veg and flavoured yogurt on the side.

from Jamie’s Dinners (Penguin, 2004)

Belbin’s saved the day yet again. I didn’t even attempt Sobeys on the day before New Year’s Eve in my quest for fresh mint and cilantro and the lead up to the great food processing massacre of 2011. Chickpeas went in the marinade but not in the pan. I underestimated the super power of my new roaster and didn’t think there would be room so I left them out. I heard it laugh at me when I shut the oven door, but time was getting short and I had to shower. And it was a hair-washing day so there was no time to futz with garbanzos. That may be the weirdest sentence I’ve ever written. I don’t even know what a baby turnip is so I bought sweet potatoes instead. I did however think of Nell who loves to make fun of us settlers on the other side of the pond because what we NL’ers know as a turnip is actually and scientifically a swede or a rutabaga. I wondered how it evolved that way until I scientifically decided that rutabaga is just a silly word. Can you hear your nan or pop saying “rutabaga”? Neither can I. Discussion over.

Here’s the thing with the actual cooking of the lamb. Jamie suggests placing the meat directly on your oven rack and letting the pan of veg catch the drippings below. That’s fine and dandy if, along with your local butcher and flower shop, you have a kitchen staff to clean up your shitty mess afterwards. I thought about it for three and a half seconds. That’s probably how long it would take the smoke detectors to go off as soon as the meat hit the oven rack. In addition to my fire safety concerns, out of the five tenants who lived in my house between May and October, one kind soul had cleaned the oven (which sort of makes up for the fact that I still can’t find my shovel or favourite cereal bowl) and I just didn’t have the heart for it. For the sticky burnt mess I knew would happen. So I put the lamb directly on top of the all the vegetables. They didn’t roast so much as turn into a stew, but I didn’t have to use my fire extinguisher.

A tasty recipe to end the year.  Minted couscous on the side and Sandy and Didi brought some lovely salads. Dessert wasn’t new but a different version of a now favourite recipe. If anyone remembers the chimney sweep’s gelato blog from a few months back (homemade vanilla ice cream with espresso and whiskey), this time I gave the Jamaican version a try. And if anyone looked up the other meaning for Jamaican chimney sweep, I’m referring to the version with rum and not the one with the sock and the handstand.

There you have it. Fifty-two weeks of food, friends, successes and a couple of fun failures. A new holiday! Lamb’s eve! We decided that night to do it all again next year and every year after. December 30th. Same pals, and maybe a few more. A different lamb recipe perhaps, hopefully no cataclysmic mess to clean up. But lots of booze and food and a crowd to steam up the windows in the little red kitchen. And that makes this little chicken very, very happy.

A Christmas Blog. Because You Need It Now.

February might be the bleakest month of the year. Unless you’re in Vancouver. I left St. John’s a week ago to go on tour and while I bask in the sun and buy marinated mini bocconcini at the Granville Island Market, I’m missing what is, by all accounts, the shittiest week of weather to have hit Newfoundland so far this year. I don’t know how long of a drive it was to actually get the athletes to the snow during the winter Olympics, but I still get confused when I see people on city buses with snowboards.

I’ve been feeling guilty for letting myself get behind on the blog this month because I know peace in the Middle East totally depends on it. I was thinking how embarrassing it would be to post Christmas recipes in early February until “The White Ninja” hit St. John’s last week and it occurred to me just how awesome my tardiness is. I would bring back Christmas to the masses, remind people of the booze, food and twinkling lights of a few short weeks ago. January is all about taking a breath and starting again and deciding that YES!! This is the year you will get in shape and look good in front of your ex and learn to speak a new language and trek the Himalayas. And if it all doesn’t happen by January 15th, you throw in the towel, put on soft pants and eat nachos until Lent rolls around. I think February should be the new December. I think people should keep the lights up til March, possibly April. Depriving yourself of the foods you hold near and dear to your heart in February is tantamount to sticking your tongue on a cold piece of freezing metal. Both are pretty stupid.

Two new recipes for the dwindling weeks of 2011. More Paula Deen cupcakes and Nan’s Christmas shortbread recipe that’s been in the family for years that I shamefully tried for the first time in December. When I called her to get the recipe (she’s on speed-dial next to Paula Deen) she told me it comes from Mila Mulroney…whether that means she read about it somewhere or Mila gave her the recipe over a cup of tea, I’m not sure. But the latter certainly wouldn’t surprise me.

Red Velvet Cupcakes with Vanilla Bean-Cream Cheese Frosting

1 cup butter, softened
2 cups sugar
1 tbsp vanilla extract
3 large eggs
1 tsp distilled white vinegar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup sour cream
1 (1 oz) bottle red food colouring

Preheat the oven to 350F. Line 2 (12-cup) muffin pans with paper liners. In a large bowl, beat butter, sugar and vanilla at medium speed with a mixer until fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vinegar. In a medium bowl, combine flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt. Add to butter mixture alternately with buttermilk, beginning and ending with the flour mixture, beating just until combined after each addition. Stir in sour cream and food colouring. Spoon batter into prepared muffin cups, filling two thirds full. Bake for 16 to 20 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in centre comes out clean. Cool in pans for 10 minutes. Remove cupcakes from pans, and cool completely on wire racks. Spread or pipe frosting over cupcakes. Garnish with cake crumbs, if desired. Store cupcakes, covered, in refrigerator up to 3 days.

For the frosting:

3/4 cup butter, softened
1 (8 oz) package cream cheese, softened
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped, seeds reserved
7 cups confectioners’ sugar

In a large bowl, beat butter, cream cheese, vanilla extract and vanilla bean seeds at medium speed with a mixer until creamy. Gradually add confectioners’ sugar, beating until smooth (I reduced confectioners’ sugar to 6 cups and the frosting was plenty sweet…that Paula is one wild and crazy gal).

Paula Deen’s Holiday Baking, 2011 Special Collector’s Issue

I made these for the Fourth Annual Hobbit House Christmas Party. Hobbit is home to the little red kitchen and it’s the one magical night of the year when fifty-plus people can squeeze themselves into 792 square feet of fun. You’ll get over two dozen if you go with regulation-size muffin tins. In keeping with the festivities in the tiniest kitchen in St. John’s I made them mini and managed to get six and a half dozen (baking spray worked fine instead of papers and oven time was reduced to about ten minutes). If you’re expecting over fifty guests this will work out beautifully. Unless your crowd’s like my crowd in which case most people will eat three or four and leave crumbs and a bowl of leftover icing for the latecomers. Everyone loves red velvet cupcakes, even people who have a thing about food colouring. Sometimes red things just taste better, especially at Christmas and especially in a little red kitchen.

Nan’s Shortbread

1 cup butter
1/2 cup icing sugar
1 1/2 cups flour

Preheat oven to 350F. Beat for 10 minutes with handmixer. Top with a small piece of maraschino cherry. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until just golden around the edges. Best if eaten within a couple of days.

These cookies make me understand why kids sit in sandboxes and eat the stuff. If the golden sand of a Tahitian beach was a cookie, this would be it, kids. Real easy to make, just be sure to beat them for the full ten minutes and take them out of the oven when they’re barely golden. So light and fluffy and melt-in-your-mouth you’ll forget you’re eating anything at all and you’ll eat six just to remind yourself. Nan says they’re best the day you make them, and she knows best. Don’t push it more than three or you’ll lose that crispy-melty-buttery sort of feel.

February should be for belated Christmas parties. String up some lights, make some sweets and see how many people you can fit in your kitchen. Put on your soft pants and start fresh in March when there’s a little bit more light in the day. You need to store your energy for that Himalayan trek you’re planning anyway.