Home Made Coconut Yogurt

Ah, home made yogurt! Fresh and delicious.

A Word on Fermentation

As a fermented food, making yogurt at home brings an element of danger. Normally leaving a moist food out at room temperature for over 24 hours translates into multiple runs to the restroom later that day, so what is it about a controlled fermentation that safely produces some of the world’s favorite flavors? I’m talking about things like yogurt, kimchi (kim chee), sauerkraut, kombucha, sourdough bread, aged cheeses, etc.

Somehow fermenting inhibits the pathogens from growing on the food, while beneficial bacteria and yeasts flourish. In fact, fermenting food is a known and traditional technique for improving the shelf life of food and is probably one reason it became popular. Even so, it’s still a kind of homestead alchemy that I imagine most people have never attempted or considered. Until I came to the Natural Epicurean, I would never have tried, quite frankly.

Below: Fresh coconut yogurt with homestead honey. Looks like ice cream, right? I say it tastes just as good! :)

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Healthy Cooking Class

I conducted a cooking class for some friends last week – my first class ever. I was very excited and had a great time. We cooked a quinoa salad and Thai spring rolls with a peanut sauce and I showed them some steel cut oats, as well. I also brought some raw almond-flax muffins with a lemon-blackberry icing.

This is something I would never have done had I not started culinary school, so it was kind of a milestone in my career journey. I really had a lot of fun and felt fairly comfortable. I wish I could have had my ingredients a bit more prepared, but otherwise it went very well and everyone seemed to learn and enjoy the presentation.

Below: Making spring rolls with lots of greens, herbs, and vegetables. Here I am dipping a rice paper wrapper in hot water to soften it for the rolling process.

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Better Batter – A Gluten Free Option

Jean Brooks, from Serious Sourdough Bakery, shared with me and the other Natural Epicurean students a gluten-free flour that she said is the best option on the market today. She said you could use this flour as a one-for-one substitute for all-purpose flour in almost any recipe, so I had to try it. The flour? Better Batter, which is not available in Austin but I have a feeling could be very soon. It is available by mail order, which is how I came to acquire five pounds of it. (It’s on Amazon.com, too.)

Jean cooked some biscuits for us in a gluten-free lab one day and I was seriously impressed. It had been quite a while since I had experienced biscuits and these were no mealy, gritty, phony biscuits either – they were flaky and delicious.

I had empanadas on the brain – I used to love empanadas from my days in Orlando. Casa de las Empanadas, if you still exist on Oak Ridge Blvd, I am thinking about you. Bahama Breeze and I are homies that go way back, as well. Ah.

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I cooked an empanada recipe from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone that included onions, spinach, collard greens, and beet greens. The Better Batter did its job amiably and the result was hot, tasty, and gluten free. It will hold me over until Bahama Breeze moves back in to Austin and develops a gluten-free version of their West Indies Patties. Sigh…

If you’re wondering, Better Batter uses a combination of rice flours, tapioca starch, potato flour/starch, and includes zanthan gum. The ratios? Who knows? That’s a trade secret, but I’m glad someone came up with it. :)

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East Side King Beet Fries

Just for kicks, I replicated the beet fries at East Side King* at the Liberty Bar. Hot, sweet, blood red and delicious, served with a side of Kewpie mayo (the most popular mayo in Japan, according to wikipedia). I didn’t have Kewpie, although it’s sold at Central Market, so I used veganaise and plated it on this miniature dish. I need some new blog photo-worthy plates!

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* East Side King is a food truck owned by Paul Qui, head chef at Uchiko and winner of Top Chef Texas 2012.

Cooking Par-Tay: Tamales and Fruit Compote

For our weekly extracurricular cooking gathering last week, I decided to use za’atar to create tamales. Za’atar is an herb mixture from the middle East that I thought would work well in a tamale format. I learned about Za’atar in a class last week and liked it instantly. It’s herby and robust and just begs to be rubbed on bread or just about anything (food, that is :P). I drove down to a Middle Eastern grocer down the street from school after class and bought a small bag.

For the tamales, I used mushrooms for flavor and texture, and added onions for more depth. Mushrooms cook down to a chewy texture and have a earthy flavor that I knew would work well with the za’atar. Google helped me create a vegan masa, which is the soft corn-based outside of a tamale. Traditionally, lard is used to help the masa hold together but I used olive oil to make it more heart, body, and Earth healthy.

Not to get too sappy here but it’s fair to speculate that I would never have taken this project on had I not started culinary school, so that is really cool to think about and makes me feel good about where I’m at. It’s also cool to be able to discuss our cooking outside of class with our teachers, and they provide useful information to help us get better. All of the Natural Epicurean staff have been really helpful to discuss our home cooking experiments. Plus I’ve come into contact with fellow students who have brought food knowledge into my life, so that’s been great as well. Going to cooking school has accelerated my food knowledge and experience for sure.

Below: Boiling 2 cups of water with some olive oil and salt before adding about 1 cup of masa – use more or less masa until the dough gets thick like a typical dough.

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Below: Spread some masa on a water-soaked corn husk, then put some of your filling in the center.

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Below: Bring the edges together, roll, then fold the bottom end up.

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Below: Stack the tamales into a steamer basket in a deep pot. Put about 1-2″ of water in the bottom.

Below: A cooked tamale, garnished with a cashew lime cilantro sauce and chili powder (lime zest + cilantro + soaked cashews). A VitaMix would have been very useful in creating the sauce to help smooth it out. Maybe I’ll get one soon… :)  I found that the masa was sturdier after the tamales sat in the fridge overnight.

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Below: Sweet corn bread with fruit-coconut milk compote. The compote was spicy with cinnamon and cloves and sweet from fruit and a touch of honey. Mmm!

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Cooking with Terry Hope Romero and Isa Chandra Moskowitz

Cover of "Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan...

Cover via Amazon

I volunteered to cook for the Texas Veg Fest Friday night and it gave me the opportunity to work with two of the best-known vegan cookbook authors around, Terry Hope Romero and Isa Chandra Moskowitz. I helped make seitan tamales! I made the tomato-chile sauce and I assembled a lot of the tamales. I worked mostly with Terry and she was super cool. Good times. :) I heard about this opportunity from Molly from The Lone Star Plate blog. We met outside Conscious Cravings near UT Austin – how cool is that?

We cooked in an East Austin commercial kitchen along side vegan baker Kristen from Capitol City Bakery (available at the soon-to-open Counter Culture brick-and-mortar location) and Lou (graduate of The Natural Epicurean) and Serafina from gluten-free bakery True Nature’s Child (I wrote about them in one of my first blog posts). Celeste’s Best cookie dough was being made and Sue from Counter Culture was there, too. Everyone was super cool. Apparently there is a tortilla business that operates in the same kitchen, as well. Who knew?

Below: Me with Terry Hope Romero, author of Veganomicon and Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World.

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Playing Around with Raw Desserts

Two fantastic desserts at Casa de Luz inspired me to go home and try making some. I wanted to make them as simple as possible, so I stuck with raw ingredients.

Below: Banana with coconut meat, almonds, and a date.

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Below: Next, I made a raw blackberry cookie with almond and flax meal, topped with a blackberry lemon juice icing. All sweetened with agave. I really enjoyed this one. The icing had a ice bright quality from the lemon. 

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Foodie Movie: How to Cook Your Life

I watched the movie “How to Cook Your Life” on Netflix recently and really enjoyed the philosophy shared by the film’s subject, Edward Espe Brown. Brown is a Zen teacher and, according to Wikipedia, he is one of the founders of Greens restaurant, a critically acclaimed vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco. Brown was once the cook at the Tassajara Zen Center in Northern California.

Edward Espe Brown

Edward Espe Brown (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here are some of the quotes Brown shared in the film….

  • “When you are cooking you’re not just working on food, you are working on yourself.”
  • “Study food – study cooking, happiness and joy. Study what it is you want in your life.”
  • “We are cooking the food but in practice the food is cooking us.”
  • “Handle the ingredients, pots and tools as you would your own eyes.”
  • “When you wash the rice, wash the rice, when you cut the carrots, cut the carrots. A lot of time we have stuff on our minds. Take care of the activity.”
  • “Cooking brings your hands nourishment because your hands get to be hands instead of playing around with your iPod or computer. They get to do something instead of sitting around all day while you’re entertaining yourself with your iPod and your internet and all of the other things we do. Our hands don’t get to do much any more.”
  • “We will pay a lot of money not to cook. To avoid “(in a scared voice) Ack! A potato!” And we get upset because we can’t make the food taste like the fast food. Our taste buds have been changed.”
  • “It’s not just biscuits (that we try to replicate at home). We try to replicate (the lives and people) we see on TV or in magazines. We try to make ourselves into what we see as ideal.”

What Does It Mean?

It might be easy in our American black/white worldview to dismiss some of the things that Edward Espe Brown says as muddled or hokey or too “hippie.” Maybe they don’t align with the things you were told when you were small. But I think there is a lot of wisdom in his words if you open your mind.

As I was blanching greens today in class, I thought about caring for those delicate, cooked leaves as if they were my own eyes. Cooked collard green leaves are very delicate and soft. They can tear very easily. But I put aside distractions and focused on the food. We were “only” blanching greens, but by caring for the greens and putting our full attention to them, we made them into something beyond ordinary. Chef Shahnaz told us that she spent a lot of time cooking greens at the Kushi institute, because it takes a long time to master the seemingly simple ways of preparing them well.

Below: Blanched greens I cooked with some teammates in class on Thursday. At bottom is a delicious dressing made in the VitaMix and at the top is a braised cabbage we cooked with cumin. Simple and delicious.

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Cooking at Casa

I had a day off Friday from class, so I volunteered in the morning at Casa de Luz, Austin’s premiere (and possibly only) macrobiotic restaurant. Casa de Luz was how I heard about The Natural Epicurean culinary school, so in a large sense, it was very instrumental in my life! The food was so delicious and nourishing, and the space was so tranquil and enriching, that I had to know how I could learn those skills.

Volunteering at Casa means chopping veggies for three hours and at the end getting a free lunch (or dinner, if you volunteer in the afternoon). I figured it would be a good chance to practice higher volume chopping. I got what I bargained for there! And the meal was fabulous as usual.

Below: A pallet of fresh vegetables delivered to Casa that I noticed as I entered the restaurant.

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Below: Cauliflower that I chopped. I’m not sure where this ended up.

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The meal below is a great example of balance on a plate. To feel truly satisfied after a meal, one needs a balance of tastes and mouthfeel plus nutrients. Popcorn as a meal doesn’t work – it’s a simple flavor (buttery, salty) and one texture (crunchy/starchy) over and over again. Plus, it’s very light on nutritive elements. As a meal, it doesn’t work. Believe me, in desperation, I have tried.

This meal, however has warm and cool, crunchy and smooth, acid and neutral. It even has the slight sweetness of root vegetables and the saltiness to contrast against. In macrobiotics, overly sweet food is generally not suggested, but every plate has some element of sweetness to maintain balance. Japanese sweet potatoes are a great example of this that I’ve seen used at Casa de Luz. As for nutrients, this plate is loaded with carbs, protein, fiber, and an adequate amount of fat. If I had a choice between this plate and almost anything else, I would choose this. I might need a second helping, though.

Below: What a meal, and I helped make it! Blanched greens with a nut/seed sauce on top (just made a similar sauce in class called sun cheese, which is also used at Casa), short-grain brown rice, lentils with cilantro (amazing), pickled radish that I chopped, and steamed veggies.

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Below: I love the natural lighting at Casa de Luz. Maybe that’s where they got the name from!

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Soy Glad to Meet You

Yes, there has been a trend of corny blog post titles. Isn’t it fun?

Chef Shanaz was our instructor for soy lab today. She knows her soy!

Below: Group B prepping for lab kitchen.

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Below: One of the dishes we made was ginger tofu, which called for 1 tablespoon of ginger juice. I grated a good bit of ginger and squeezed out the juice.

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Below: One of the dishes my group made was tempeh “chicken” salad, with celery, pickles, parsley, and green onion. It was pretty dang good!

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Below: Tofu egg salad (top), pan-fried tempeh and ginger tofu (left), and tofu mayo (right). Tofu mayo is surprisingly good!

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Below: Pan-fried tempeh sticks – I really liked this presentation.

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Demo Kitchen

Chef Rachel is such a pleasure to be with. She brings a calmness and a high level of consciousness to not only her cooking but also attention to the mind and body of the cook her/himself. She showed us a few preparations of some delicious local (Johnson’s Backyard Garden) carrots.

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Below: Sweet carrot, warm, moist, and salty (in the case of the nishime). None were overcooked – these were very well cooked carrots and they had me looking forward to the day when I can replicate them identically. Chef Rachel talked about using high quality ingredients, which was key in this dish, and not getting in their way. 

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Below: Why am I rubbing my foot with no shoe on? Chef Rachel showed us some self-shiatsu techniques which had us feeling quite nice.

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Home Study

I bought some Johnson’s Backyard Garden carrots and tried the nishime technique that Chef Rachel showed us earlier. Yum!

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Below: The nishime-style carrots look like little owls. This is also known as the jewel cut.

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