Thursday, March 25, 2010

Simple Spaghetti Sauce from Scratch

I "invented" this because no matter how many jars of the stuff I buy, I always seem to run out of spaghetti sauce at the worst times, and peppers and tomatoes are usually a staple in my kitchen. 

I made it this week for my grandmother, in an attempt to convince her that marinara sauces don't have to consist of only pureed tomatoes and a little garlic powder.  It went over well, and I'm about to miss my self imposed posting deadline, so I figured I'd put it up.  

2 bell peppers, one red and one green, diced
4 chopped tomatoes, or one can of stewed tomatoes
5 tbs olive oil
1 clove garlic
black pepper and basil flakes or pesto to taste

Heat up five tablespoons of olive oil in one large skillet.  Sauté the garlic, bell peppers, black pepper, and basil flakes / pesto until the peppers begin to soften.  Add the tomatoes and let simmer for at least twenty minutes.  Goes well with just about any kind of pasta.

Monday, March 15, 2010

St. Patrick's Day Special: Vegetarianism and the Potato Famine

As an Irish-American, I have extremely mixed feelings about St. Patrick's Day. In my childhood, it was one of my favorite holidays: my Irish dancing school had a special feis (pronounced fesh, a type of Irish dancing contest), I liked getting to eat soda bread for breakfast, and then we went to Mass, and after that we ate a big meal while listening to Clancy Brothers records and talking about dead Irish relatives. It was fun in the quiet way such things often are, a chance to learn something about another part of the world, as well as my own family and roots.

Nowadays, I sort of dread it. Some of this is due to personal issues (my Irish grandmother died a few days after St. Patrick's Day), but also because somehow St. Patrick's Day mutated into Mardi Gras II when I wasn't looking, and now the popular view of St. Patrick's Day is a day where people can drink themselves stupid and otherwise behave like total assholes. (Thembi of What Would Thembi Do? explains it very well, even though I strongly disagree with her "we're all American, white people are just playing with having another ethnicity" conclusion.)

This perception, needless to say, really annoys me, and makes me wonder how the Cajuns really feel about Mardi Gras.

What does this have to do with vegetarianism? I've decided to make my St. Patrick's Day post into a sort of take-back-the-night post. We're going to talk about a vegetarian heroine of the Potato Famine: Asenath Nicholson.

Asenath Nicholson was a native Vermonter and a Congregationalist, admittedly not an obvious choice to become the subject of an Irish history lesson. She was a follower of Sylvester Graham, inventor of the famous Graham Cracker, and a nutrition nut. The 19th century exists in the popular imagination as "the good old days", a time of quaint technology and unquestioned social values and piety. This imaginary 19th century couldn't be more different from the reality: the 19th century was a time of huge social upheaval and constant technological advancement. It was an era of utopian ideals and much social experimentation that extended up to the first wave of feminism and including free love (at the Oneida Colony in New York State) and a meatless diet.*

Asenath Nicholson went to Ireland in 1844 armed with Graham's philosophies, right before the worst of the famine hit Ireland. She came to collaborate with the Hibernian Society in Dublin and the Belfast Ladies' Association for the Relief of Irish Destitution, her goal was to distribute Bibles and food to the peasantry in the countryside. She was appalled by what she found there: the anti-Catholicism and anti-Irishness of many of the relief societies throttled attempts at food distribution, and millions starved in the street while the food either rotted in the warehouses or was distributed in an indigestible condition.

Before the famine, the Irish peasant diet consisted of about fourteen pounds of potatoes a day. During the famine, the landlords tried to distribute a limited amount of badly ground Indian corn to defray starvation and supplement what rotten potatoes and other weeds people were scrounging to eat, but most Irish stomachs could not keep this badly ground corn down and so people starved regardless. Asenath Nicholson insisted that the relief agencies she worked with both double-grind the corn to make it edible, and show the people to whom the corn was being given how to cook and eat that corn. She was also famous (or infamous, depending on what your business was) for condemning "wasting" grain in the production of alcohol and in the feeding of large herds of cattle, insisting that simply giving people the grain to eat was far more efficient than giving it to cows that would later be slaughtered. A novel idea at the time!

Asenath Nicholson stayed in Ireland continuing in her relief work through Black 47, the worst year of the potato famine, and returned to New York in 1848. Sadly, she died of typhoid several years later, in 1852.

*Notice I didn't mention abolitionism? There was a consistant abolitionist movement from the early Colonial era onward. The first anti-slavery tract was written in the late 17th century by a group of Quakers, and of course, the free black communities always worked towards the abolition of slavery.


Asenath Nicholson: University College Cork, Multitext Project in Irish History

Ireland for Visitors: Black 47

Great Famine (Ireland)

Haber, Barbara (2002). From Hardtack to Homefries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals
The Free Press
New York, New York

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Lilac Blossom, Greystone Plaza, Nashua, New Hampshire

When I'm not blogging about food, or doing my day job, I run.  It was this running hobby, and the periodic races that I get involved in because of it, that inspired my folks to reward my latent athletic chops by treating me and Eric to a meal at one of the best Chinese restaurants in southern New Hampshire.

It was sunny, it was Sunday,  I had just spent an hour running the Claddagh's Irish Classic 4-Miler, and my stomach was growling.  After a quick trip to my parents' house to shower, Eric, my folks, my mom's friend, and I got in my mom's car and headed north.  

Lilac Blossom doesn't look like much from the outside, as it's quartered in a late Eighties mini-mall in the middle of the boring, relentless schlock on the Daniel Webster Highway, but inside it's an oasis of clean white walls and the fresh, teasing scent of ginger and garlic.  There had been some confusion with the reservations, but we were quickly lead to a table and asked if we wanted anything to drink.

I ordered my usual white wine, but I was still a little dehydrated by the run, and by the end of a cold, so I don't really remember if I drank much of it or what it tasted like.  I spent most of the meal drinking water.  Not that that was a detriment to the meal, in fact, I could better taste the delicate flavors that followed because I stuck to cool H2O.

We started with steamed vegetable ravioli (pot stickers to non New Englanders).  They were chewy, but not unpleasantly gluey or sticky, and the mushroom, spinach, and caraway seeds whetted my appetite for more food.  We then moved on to the two types of tofu we ordered: fried tofu with spinach, and spicy Szechuan-style bean curd.  I have been a vegetarian for nearly thirteen years, but I am a newcomer to liking tofu, and I have never figured out how to cook it well.  If you are also a newcomer to liking tofu, Lilac Blossom's fried tofu with spinach will make you an instant tofu fanatic.  The tofu, deep fried and covered in garlic sauce, has a doughlike texture that is completely unlike the eggy consistency of silken tofu as it is more often prepared and served. The spinach was fresh, and managed to be simultaneously crisp and dripping with garlic sauce.

The next dish, the spicy Szechuan-style bean curd, did use soft tofu, but was sufficiently loaded with pepper fire that the soft tofu was a welcome reprieve from the delicious burn instead of a bland entity in an otherwise wonderful dish.  I have to admit I wasn't all that crazy about the vegetable lo mein, although it was also delicious.  I tend to prefer my lo mein pan fried, and this lo mein was not, and therefore a little too squidgy for my taste.  However, it was nicely flavored with ginger and a little sesame oil, and there was no objective reason for not liking it.

We were given orange slices and fortune cookies to finish off the meal, and we drove back down Route 3 well fed and happy.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Terran-Style Hasperat

I've been a Trekker for nearly twenty years, and my favorite Star Trek character aside from Spock is Major Kira Nerys from the third Trek series, Deep Space Nine.  The only thing my two favorite characters from Trek have in common, aside from the traumatic childhood so common to Star Trek aliens, is that they both come from very advanced cultures (well, the Bajora were advanced before the Cardassians got to them) and that they are vegetarians as a result.  Anyway, tonight I honored the always kick-ass Kira by preparing human-friendly version of hasperat, a famous Bajoran delicacy.

Two sources inspired me:  Keckler (of Television Without Pity fame) wrote a review of the Star Trek Cookbook that mentioned hasperat, and last night, as I was watching an episode of Next Generation, I got the yen to google "hasperat" and found this yummy sounding recipe.  That did it! I spent a particularly boring day at work coming up with my own version, which is as follows:

  • 1 tomato
  • 1 cucumber 
  • 1-3 tablespoons of red pepper hummus
  • 1 diced jalapeno pepper
  • a few squirts of siracha hotsauce (which, alas, I could not have tonight as I am getting over being sick and I'm still not quite a hundred percent yet)   
  • 3-4 slices of cheddar cheese
  • 2 large lavash wraps (tortillas are okay, but I find they tend to be a little too stiff for cold wraps) 
  • several leaves of Romaine or Boston lettuce
Lay the lavash wrap on a plate, and spread with red pepper hummus.  Scatter the diced jalapeno pepper over the hummus, and then layer cheese on top.  Add the slices of tomato and cucumber, and put the lettuce leaves on top.  Roll tightly. 

"Real" hesperat is also supposed to have a sour taste, as it is to be soaked in brine for hours before eating.  I contemplated adding pickle or tabouli to the sandwich, but Eric's not all that fond of pickled things and my poor post-cold stomach wasn't really on board with the idea either.  I'd love to hear how it tastes if someone does try that, though.