Thursday, April 29, 2010

Battle of the Boston Area Fast Food Joints

I'm as pretentious, and as ill served by the menu options at most chain restaurants, as any other Boston-area vegetarian. However, I also don't want to give the impression that I spend my entire life eating only at small, local Indian and Chinese restaurants, and so in the next couple of posts I will review two different local chains: one a much loved local institution, the other a pleasantly crunchy-granola burrito store.
First the much loved chain:


If nostalgia value was my only criteria for reviewing a restaurant, Friendly's would win by a landslide.  (My grandmother used to get mom to take us there about every week or so.)  They're a New England standby, a fairly unpretentious family restaurant specializing in delicious ice cream and the type of salty, greasy, American food my brother and I used to look forward to eating once or twice a week when we were kids: burgers, French fries, and chicken fingers.  Which is not to say it didn't offer alternative fare for my vegetarian teen years: my first cup of broccoli soup was eaten at Friendly's, and it was delicious.

When Eric and I went to the Charlestown Friendly's on Saturday, we were able to find the two meatless items on the menu: the vegetable quesadilla and the grilled cheese sandwich. They were both very good, appropriately toasty and cheesy and comfort foody.  However, I found out that the vegetarian friendly soups and salads were a thing of the past.  The Atkins obsession has done horrible things to what was once the only menu item I could depend on being able to get in every single restaurant: it has put chicken on all of the salads.

Non vegetarians don't understand why this is frustrating.  Just order it without the chicken, they say.  Most of my experiences trying to order meatless versions of dishes with meat on them end in said item being taken to the table and plonked in front of me completely loaded with meat.  Sending it back does no good, I usually get a long wait spent watching others finish their food for my trouble.  I have spent five bizarre years in customer service, and do not wish to be taken for the Customer From Hell,  I would just like to be able to go into any American-food restaurant with my non-vegetarian friends and be able to see something on the menu I can actually eat without having to conduct complex negotiations first.*

The main reason to go to Friendly's is that they have wonderful frappes and shakes.  Note to Non New Englanders, and maybe also New Englanders: a frappe is not a milkshake.  Milkshakes are milk with a couple scoops of ice cream thrown in, frappes are mostly ice cream with a little milk thrown in for drinkability.  If you have just been served your frappe and and are having a hard time drinking it because it hasn't quite melted enough to be drinkable yet or the straw's stuck in a lump of ice cream?  That's a frappe.  Vanilla and chocolate are their best, but they do a good strawberry and also a decent coffee.  (Although Bedford Farms does a better coffee frappe, but "comparative frappes" is a topic for a different article.)

*The Cheesecake Factory and Not Your Average Joes being rare exceptions to the general meat filled wasteland usually presented by restaurant chains of the Friendly's type.  They offer several different vegetarian menu options, and they're all decently priced and well prepared.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Canederli or Klöße (Guest Blogger: Eric Cheung)

Mary Beth and I had bought some Trader Joe's Organic Soft Multi Grain Bread last week and both loaves crumbled like cheap stucco.  We couldn't use the bread for toast, we couldn't use the bread for sandwiches, so I suggested using it for a recipe for Italian bread ball soup my mom taught me called Canederli.

I'm a new vegetarian (since January 7th 2010, so it doesn't count as a resolution), so I had extra incentive in attempting to adapt it to a meat-free soup.  The recipe calls for kielbasa and bacon, so I knew that if I didn't find some kind of replacement for the chunky saltiness then it would definitely be missing something.  Inspiration came from another item in our trip to Trader Joe's: smoked Gouda.

As I got to work Mary Beth came in and suggested that these could work as meatless balls for spaghetti, so I took half-a-dozen of them and fried, then baked them to be dipped in some sauce as a snack/experiment.

My recipe for both is as follows (measured for 1 1/2 loaves):

1 1/2 (36 oz.) loaves of old dry hard bread (cut into cubes)
1 heaping cup of Romano cheese
1/4 cup of cilantro
6 large eggs
1 cup of milk
1 cup of smoked Gouda (also cubed)
1/2 cup diced onion
olive oil
4 quarts of broth
flour and bread crumbs (as needed)

Sauté the diced onion in a small sauce pan, coated on the inside with olive oil, and set aside to cool (though not in the ingredients list, I often sauté my onions with roasted red pepper flakes, garlic, curry powder and/or ginger).  Pour bread, Romano Cheese, cilantro, smoked Gouda, eggs, and milk into a very large dry bowl.  Knead ingredients, along with cooled onions until evenly mixed.

Pour the broth into a large pot and set it to boil, staying mindful of it as you do the following:

Liberally flour a cutting board, or other dry surface, and dust the excess from your hands into the bowl.  Roll the mix into large meatball sized balls and roll the balls in the flour.  For each ball roll them gently from hand to hand until they have a nice, thin, and even coating of flour.  Set these balls aside on the on-deck circle next to the pot of boiling broth.  As the broth boils gently place each ball into the pot.  It will sink to the bottom.  Take as much time as needed; you'll keep the soup boiling for thirty minutes after the bread balls rise to the top of the broth.

For meatless balls: make the bread balls smaller, fry them in olive oil turning them frequently, and, if necessary, bake them at 300° for twenty minutes.

Basic Vegetable Broth

I've been going to post this for over a week, but it seemed too trifling to post on its own.

Of course, I didn't have the time to try any new cooking experiments this week, so you're getting it on its own.

Oh, the irony!

3 cups diced carrots
3 cups diced onions
3 cups diced celery
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 gallon water

Saute the onions and celery in the olive oil until they're brown.  Then add the carrots and saute them for a minute or so.  Add the water slowly, and cook at a rolling boil for half an hour.

Cool down, divide up, and freeze.

Hopefully, this week I will have time to test and post some recipes that will involve this broth.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Tortilla Espanola with Purple Potatoes

My boyfriend and I had a quiet day planned: giving blood in the morning, and then a trip to Trader Joe's to stock up on our favorite yuppie food items.  (Trader Joe's won a place in my heart when I found out that you can buy whole boxes of blueberry instant oatmeal.  No other supermarket does this and I have no idea why.  Blueberry instant oatmeal is awesome.)  While browsing the vegetable section and comparing prices, a bag of mixed creamer potatoes caught my eye, and amid the red and white potatoes I beheld an unexpected delight: creamer purple potatoes (also known as blue potatoes).  I've been longing to cook with these babies for several years, since my mom had dinner at a gourmet stake house a few years ago, ordered them as a side, and was so happy and weirded out by them she ordered another side of purple potatoes so she could bring them home to her home from college-crazed, foodie-vegetarian daughter.

Like most potatoes, purple potatoes have a creamy texture if they're cooked properly.  They don't taste all that much different from red potatoes, but they have potent antioxidant properties, and their rich purple color comes from the same pigment you can find in the average blueberry.  Their only downside is that they're pretty pricey -- the mixed bag was moderately priced at two bucks for a smallish bag, but on their own I've seen them go for as much as five bucks a pound.

Anyway, the upshot of this is that I spent a good chunk of this afternoon looking for a recipe to use them in.  I considered a raclette, but I didn't feel like frying peppers yet again, so I combed my cookbooks and found this omelet recipe in my old standby, Anna Thomas's The Vegetarian Epicure, Book Two

Of course, I have modified the original to fit my budget.

olive oil
3-5 creamer potatoes (preferably purple)
a chopped onion
3 eggs
cilantro and pepper to taste
cheese (I cut up the last of the old pepper jack and Havarti that have been around for a couple of weeks, and they worked wonderfully well together)

First, boil your potatoes until they are soft.  Drain and put them back in the pan and set them aside.  Beat three eggs together with your cilantro and pepper. Grease your skillet with about two table spoons of olive oil.  Add your onions and potatoes and brown lightly.  Once brown, you can pour your egg mixture over the whole thing.  Wait until the top of your omelet is almost completely dry, and then slowly peel the omelet back from the pan.  Fold it over in on itself and fry it for a few more minutes.  If you need to check to see if it's done, prick it with your spatula -- if there's no egg goo, you're good to go.

Slide it onto your plate and enjoy.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Spinach, Potato, and Zucchini Soup

A few weeks ago, I used my last Barnes and Noble Christmas Gift Card to buy Anna Thomas's Love Soup (Fab Ebert-penned interview on the awesomeness that is Anna Thomas here).  I've been reading Love Soup on and off over the past few weeks for inspiration, but this is the first recipe I have more or less test piloted.  Just as I do in all my recipes ganked from cookbooks, I basically tailored this dish to whatever I had lying around.  Where I used frozen spinach, Anna used fresh basil, where I used garlic broth, Anna used light vegetable broth, and, finally, I admit I used cilantro for her parsley.

1 large potato, diced
1 medium zucchini, diced
1 pint of potato peel broth
2 heaping tablespoons of pesto (I like Classico's jarred version, it has a good deal of olive oil and garlic)
10 oz of frozen spinach or 1 package (I find frozen spinach is less stringy when it cooks down in soup)
cilantro, lemon juice, pepper, and salt to taste

Defrost the frozen spinach.  Pour potato peel broth into your soup pot and slowly bring to a boil.  Add the chopped potato, and simmer until it gets tender.  Then add the zucchini and frozen spinach.  Stir in the pesto and then add your cilantro, lemon juice, pepper, and salt to taste.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Pepper and Tomato Soup

Also known as "I lost it at the Farmer's Market today" soup.  Inspired by the tomato based soup recipes in Anna Thompson's Love Soup, as well as a really cool salsafied version of gazpacho I tried at the Cactus Club in Boston a few years back.  It took about thirty minutes to make, and most of that was dicing veggies, so it's an easy soup to satisfy cravings for.

1 yellow or orange bell pepper, diced into medium chunks (green peppers are too sharp tasting, red are too sweet) 
6 large tomatoes, also diced into medium chunks 
1 can red or black beans 
1 small onion, diced to fry
2 cups water
1 tbs lemon juice 
1 1/2 cup olive oil
pepper, garlic powder, ginger, and cilantro to taste

Fry the peppers and onions in olive oil until they soften and brown.  Add the water and lemon juice and let boil while dicing up the tomatoes.  Add the tomatoes, pepper, garlic powder, beans, and cilantro.  Boil for about five more minutes, keep an eye on the tomatoes to be sure they're not beginning to look too much like stewed tomatoes.  

Best with some Italian crusty bread, although pita bread is also a pretty good companion for the soup.  

Friday, April 9, 2010

Burritos with Rice, Peppers, and Pinto Beans

This recipe was born out of last night's demise of my plans to make my friend Jill's recipe for tacos.  Those of you who live in the Boston area probably know this, but Thursday is the worst day to try to go grocery shopping at the Foodmaster chain of grocery stores.  They get their supplies on Friday, so those who shop on Thursday are doomed to frustration if they try to find the simplest of things.  (The simplest of things in this case is heretofore defined as Morningstar Farms "fake hamburger".)  Luckily,  they are not Market Basket and their vegetable selection is usually halfway decent, so I made this instead.    

2-4 lavash wraps / tortillas
Olive oil
1 diced bell pepper of each color: red / orange / yellow / green
1 small onion
Pepper to taste
1 can pinto beans
Habenero or pepper jack cheese (or, if you’d like, the regular cheese you have sitting around with a good dose of hot sauce sloshed onto it)

Cook rice according to the directions on the packet. 

Dice the onion and sauté it in 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil heated in a large frying pan until the pieces are just starting to brown.  Add the peppers and let them cook down until they’re soft.  Drain the water out of the can of pinto beans, but do not rinse them.  (The salt in them will be the only salt you use to flavor this.)  Slowly stir the pinto beans into the  pan.  Fry this mixture for another two minutes or so.

Combine rice and the pepper mixture in the lavash / tortilla shells.  Top with cheese.  

Monday, April 5, 2010

Mr. Crepe, Davis Square, Somerville

My birthday occured a few days before I changed jobs, and we almost scrapped doing anything to celebrate on the day of my birthday because we were worried about spending money.  However, Eric got ahold of a menu for a crepe place I had long been dying to try, and as the prices were exceedingly reasonable I met him up in Davis Square after work, and we gave it a shot. 

We read from a list of savory and sweet crepes, and decided to share the Super Fennel Crepe, which had fennel, tomatoes, mozarella and spinach, and an unnamed crepe with fresh spinach, portabello mushrooms, and basil with a cheese I could choose. (I chose feta.)  I hadn't had a crepe in about five years, and these did not disappoint.  The crepe batter was light and fluffy, and the inner contents were pleasingly crunchy and steam cooked.  The feta was a little salty, but that was my fault, as I chose it.

My only complaint is that Mr. Crepe's tea ordering procedure is a little hard to figure out.  I ordered a cup of tea with my meal, and I was asked to choose the type of tea I would like out of a collection of jars on the counter.   I selected my tea (Jasmine) and then... just stood there while the girl working the counter dealt with several other customers.  I finally put the tea cannister down on the counter in front of the register, and was eventually served a cup of tea, but there seems to have been a lot of unneeded uncertainty involved in this transaction.