Thursday, February 11, 2010

Chocotorta, my favorite export from Argentina!

There are few things more inspirational than the love of friends. Over the past two weeks, I've celebrated the birthdays of two dear friends, and of course, we love to mark our celebrations with food. The first birthday was my friend, Agustin, where I learned the recipe for today's treat. In Argentina, a country known for tango, empanadas and all great things beef, there is a dessert out there that combines my love of chocolate, coffee and tasty, tasty dairy, the key element preventing me from becoming a vegan. Once I learned how to do it at Agustin's house, I knew I had to re-create this near-orgasmic experience for my samba godmother, Rachel, the one person who just might love these three things more than I do. What is this tasty, no-bake, slap-your-mama delight? It's the chocotorta, Argentina's favorite icebox cake. Give yourself about 30 minutes of prep time and another 2 hours for it to chill, and you, too, will know the wonder of the chocotorta. This particular recipe is suited for a large party and can serve 15-20 people, is four layers, and fits in a 13x9 pan.

2 cups (500 mL) strong coffee
5 packages chocolate tea biscuits (preferably Chocolina by Bagley)
1 kg. bucket of dulce de leche
750 g sour cream ( this would be the equivalent of 1 1/2 of the 16 0z. size)

Brew the coffee and pour into another pot/container to cool. If the coffee is extra strong, it's fine to drop an ice cube or two in the coffee to speed up the cooling process. In a large mixing bowl, empty the container of dulce de leche and the sour cream. Mix the two until they are completely blended together into a smooth mixture that's uniform in color. Line a 13x9 pan with aluminum foil. Take the tea biscuits and dredge them through the coffee and place them in the bottom of the pan. Generously spread the dulce de leche mixture on top of the cookies and repeat the layers until the dulce de leche is gone. Top the last of the dulce de leche with one more layer of cookies and place the pan in the refrigerator for at least two hours. The longer it has to set, the better it will taste.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
-To speed up the process of soaking the tea biscuits, wet a few of them at a time instead of one at a time.
-If you'd like to know exactly how long is enough to pass the cookies through the coffee, slowly count to three, then remove them. That way, they are just soft enough to become cake-like, but not so soggy that they'll crumble inside the coffee.
-This is a cake that can withstand being in the freezer and will be just like new if left to thaw for an hour or two. The more layers you have in your chocotorta, the more time you will need to thaw it out.
-There are different variations on this recipe. Feel free to use milk in place of coffee, for example, or add some of your favorite liqueurs to the coffee for 21+ party

This recipe is proof that even in a country like Argentina, where cattle is king, there is still something in it for us veggies, and how sweet it is!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Sopa de fideo: the Mexican answer to Jewish penicillin

I first got introduced to this tasty liquid concoction back inn my college days at my girl, Rebecca's house. Her mother, also named Rebecca, is a beast in the kitchen, and many a happy tummy moment has been had in her house. I remember having this soup for the first time and wondering what she did. She very simply explained the steps to me, I locked them in my brain, and took it home with me. The next day, I was at the store, shopping for ingredients to make my own sopa de fideo, which means, loosely translated, "noodle soup." I've made a few changes over time, and I have to say, I have never made the same sopa de fideo twice. Today, I prepared it, as I do many times, to help me fight of the onset of a cold. Because this recipe has a tomato base, it makes the broth a great source of vitamin C. When combating a sore throat, the way I am, the best thing to do is consume liquids that are room temperature and warm to soothe the vocal cords. Interestingly enough, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) often talks about the importance of consuming warm foods in the winter time to create a warming effect inside the body so as not to throw of the internal balance of yin and yang energies. For me, this translates into foods chock full of heat, such as curries, berbere (an Ethiopian spice), cayenne, and of course, jalapeños. If I'm going to get rid of a cold, there needs to be some sweating and sniffling going on, and I'm going to share one of my favorite variations of sopa de fideo in the following recipe:

2 large cloves minced garlic, preferably fresh
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 small potato, cubed
1/2 cup each frozen peas and carrots and corn
2 medium size vermicelli nests (these are mostly found in the Hispanic grocery section)
2 tbsps olive or canola oil
1 6 oz. can tomato paste, preferably organic
3 cups of water (more or less can be used depending on preference of broth consistency)
1/8 tsp salt
1/8 tsp cumin
4-6 jalapeños sliced lengthwise (it will say "rajas" somewhere on the can or jar)

In a medium saucepan, heat the oil and add the onion, garlic, and all the vegetables. Cover the pot and allow to sautee over a low to medium flame for 10 minutes, occasionally stirring. Separate and add the vermicelli nest to enhance the flavor of the pasta and stir around for a minute before adding the tomato paste. Once the tomato paste is incorporated into all the ingredients, slowly add the water while stirring to smooth out any tomato paste lumps. Simmer for about five minutes while occasionally stirring to prevent the starchy pasta and potatoes from sticking to the bottom. After five minutes, add the salt, cumin and jalapeño slices, taste after stirring. If there is not enough fire in the soup for your taste, feel free to use some of the escabeche (jalapeño juice in the jar or can) to turn up the heat. Allow to simmer for an additional 3-5 and serve. Feel free to garnish with a sprig of cilantro for presentation and flavor. The addition of a dollop of sour cream or a sprinkling of queso fresco is also welcome as long as the soup is being eaten while healthy. This recipe serves 2-3 people.

One of the major concerns that people have when sick is the abundance of mucus production. I have always noticed that if I go vegan while sick, it can shave a few days off my recovery time. Dairy products and eggs have a tendency to create more mucus than usual, and being sick really drives this point home. This vegan recipe is certainly a step in the right direction, and I'd be willing to bet any amount of money that Mama Rebecca's sopa de fideo trumps Bubbe's chicken noodle soup any day, and I'm Jewish!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Mmm, quinoa!

Okay, I know there are a lot of us out there who are saying "Quinoa? What's that?" You might even be trying to figure out how to pronounce it, I know I was at first. Well, I'm going to attempt to iron a lot of that out today.

I had no idea of what I would post next or when I was going to do it. Then, I received a call from my friend, Lunise, yesterday afternoon to hang out for a little while. I was only there for a few minutes when she mentioned that she was hungry, as was I, since I skipped breakfast that morning (big no-no!). In the midst of pondering how exactly we were going to stuff our gullets, Lunise threw her arms up and said "I know, we can have quinoa!" It took me a second to process what she was saying because I'd never heard the pronunciation before, but it set in eventually. I reminded me that I needed to do a lot more research on this tasty little grain that had never touched my lips till that afternoon.

I'm about to fast forward for a second. When I got home, I decided to to my homework. One of the first things I wanted to know was how to pronounce it correctly. I heard Lunise say "keen-wah," while I'd only heard "keen-o-uh." Well, my good friends at showed that we were both right. Who knew? With that confusion cleared up, it was time to do more digging. I found a page titled "All About Quinoa, " so how could I not click? Karen Railey, the author, provided a wealth of information that I never knew. I was familiar with its history with the Incas and that it's grown in the United States, too, but there were lots of other cool tidbits that were there. Turns out that quinoa isn't a grain at all, but actually the seed of a plant called Chenopodium. In fact, the plant has way more in common with beets, spinach, and Swiss chard, and its leaves are also edible. Quinoa can be cooked in just about any way imaginable: boiled, roasted, popped, in salads, in place of rice, in casseroles, as a cold cereal, you name it. Did I mention that it's also super-nutritious? It's chock-full of all kinds of vitamins, minerals, protein, and amino acids. What can I say, it's a super-seed that more of us should definitely be shoveling down our throats, and when you prepare it the way Lunise and I did, that'll be quite the tasty task. To read more about the quinoa plant, you can go to the site that I visited:

So, what exactly did we do? Well, it's important to rinse the seeds first to get rid of this soapy substance called saponin, that, while nontoxic, can leave a bitter tasting pot of sadness, and we don't want that. Then, we commenced to using the 2:1 ratio, which means that we used twice as much liquid as we did seeds, just like when cooking rice on the stovetop. Here's recipe that was used:

4 cups water
2 cups quinoa, rinsed
1/8 tsp salt
5 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
2 tbsp teriyaki sauce
1 tbsp vegetable/olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
4 leaves rainbow chard
8 oz. (half a block) firm tofu, drained and cubed
1/8 tsp each of cumin, cayenne pepper, and seasoned salt

Tofu marinade (optional):
1/4 cup soy sauce
dash of cumin, cayenne, and seasoned salt

I'm going to dictate the preparation directions as if we did them in the right order, because, to be honest, we just threw the stuff in and made it work deliciously. However, I realize that not everyone can do that and I'll break it down in orderly steps for sanity's sake.

Add salt to the water and bring it to a boil. Add the quinoa, bring to a boil, then simmer the covered pot until most of the liquid has been absorbed. Right before closing the lid to simmer, add the garlic and teriyaki sauce to the pot and stir thoroughly. Allow at least 15 minutes for cooking time. To a wok or cast-iron skillet, add the vegetables to the hot oil and sautee for 2 minutes. At this point, add the tofu (and its marinade, if you chose to do so), and cook for 1 minute before incorporating the quinoa into the pan. After getting all the ingredients well mixed together, add the spices, adjusting according to personal taste. Don't be afraid to add an extra bit of water or a touch of water if you feel the quinoa is too dry while stirring.

This dish can be eaten as a meal and serves 4 non-starving people. We were famished, so we ate everything except a half-cup of the contents of the pan, but we were certainly stuffed afterwards! A few things that I want to mention: I like to marinade tofu first before adding it to a recipe in a bit of soy and a pinch of the spices used in the recipe so that the flavor is already infused into the cubes, which is achieved after only 30 minutes. If you prefer your tofu to be a little bit more on the bland side, the marinade is not necessary. Also, never be a slave to a recipe. If you feel that a dish needs a little extra something, add it. If you don't feel an ingredient is needed, exclude it. Always remember to taste the food before serving it to others so that you can confidently serve plenty of plates of tastiness. Enjoy, and thanks for showing me something new, Lunise!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Allow me to introduce myself...

Who is The Chicago Vegetarian? Me! I am a not-so-mild-mannered individual who was raised as an ovo-lacto vegetarian and can totally relate to the struggles of not eating anything that had a mother in this man-eat-meat world. As a small child, I always felt that I might be able to make my way around the kitchen as well as my mother, but was never allowed to until I sneaked into the kitchen at 9 years old to make myself a fried egg sandwich. This is when a lifelong love affair with cooking began. From making dinner for my family to selling German Chocolate cakes to the neighbors downstairs, my ability to prepare different dishes for different occasions grew during my high school years. However, the demands of a full-time college schedule and a part-time job made it way too easy to resort to eating restaurant food and endless packages of ramen noodles. This lifestyle didn't exactly do wonders for my waistline, or for my health in general, and it did take its toll in the form of developing allergies to food additives, especially MSG, not to mention a net weight gain of 55 pounds over 6 years. I learned the hard way that the idea of a vegetarian not being able to get fat was a total fallacy, because I had become the People's Exhibit A. However, the best thing to ever happen for me was close on the horizon: I finally moved out of my parents' house. In terms of diet, it was fantastic because I only had myself to depend on. The possibility of coming home to a meal that was less than nutritious wasn't going to happen unless I prepared it, and I definitely wasn't going to be picking up the phone for delivery because to be honest, it wasn't in my budget. The meals I ate were totally my responsibility from that point on. What was a broke sista to do?
Suprisingly, a lot. I found out that with a few dollars and a smidgen of ingenuity, AKA hustle, you can get a lot of great ingredients to fill your fridge and cupboard and still pay all your other bills on time. My pursuit of the perfect meal has led me to all kinds of grocery stores to make great meals for very little. It's also led me to the doors of more than a few restaurants. Hey, a girl's got to draw inspiration from somewhere, right? However, I do keep my restaurant visits to a minimum because not only is eating at home a great way to save money, but it's a great way to stay healthier. With my blog, I hope to be able to share with all of you the things that I've picked up just by watching my mother, friends that I've visited, or ideas that just happened to pop into my head that ended up being great tasting meals. While I will be sharing recipes here with you, I will also share tips about food preparation, time saving techniques, and about what foods to look for when grocery shopping. I'll also let you in on my hidden gems in Chicago where great grocery shopping can done and a great dining experience can be had.
As a vegetarian here in a city that loves its meat more than most, it can be hard to find your place amongst others, especially in social situations like dinner parties or group outings involving ordering food. You can often feel left out or feel awkward, as if your dietary lifestyle is somehow imposing on others. I totally understand the feeling because I've experienced it on many occasions, being presented with such suggestions as "just pick the meat out" or "well, they have salad." I hope that my blog will help those of you out there in similar situations to find a good way to deal with this dilly of a pickle. I look forward to taking you with me around my beloved city to prove that Chicago really is vegetarian friendly, especially to this one!