Engagement Weekend

{ Monday, September 29, 2008 }
The sweetie surprised me last weekend with a trip to Vermont. Unbeknownst to me, she had arranged for us to stay at the Inn at the New England Culinary Institute. In addition to the inn being a beautiful place to stay and the fact that staying at a culinary school is just plain cool, this is also the school that my favorite celebrity chef attended.

We arrived in Vermont late Friday night, so the sweetie had done some research and found a vegetarian restaurant for us to stop at along the drive. Thinks of everything, that one.

Early Saturday morning, we drove to Mt. Mansfield and took a gondola ride most of the way to the top. We then started out on a fairly challenging, very rocky hike up to the highest point in Vermont. I did drag my hiking boots all the way to Vermont but left them at the hotel, so we were hiking in tennis shoes which made the wet rocks all the more exciting to navigate. We didn't end up making it all the way to the top, but stopped at one point along the trail where Mr. Sweetie got down on one knee and proposed. Of course, I said yes! Our self-portrait immediately after the proposal.

All smiles and in love.

We picked the ring out together a few weeks ago, so the proposal wasn't a complete surprise but I was definitely not expecting it at that moment. I thought that it would come at some point during the weekend, but I was expecting it would be at dinner later that night. I actually thought we'd left the ring in the hotel room, so the sweetie was halfway through the proposal before I caught on and thought, "OMG, this is it!" It was so perfect!

The entire weekend was beautiful and while its just the beginning of the foliage season, I thought the trees couldn't be any more gorgeous. I prefer there to be a bit of green, rather than all reds and golds, and we had a lovely view from the top of the mountain after some of the morning fog burned off.

Later that night, the boy had arranged another surprise--we had a private dinner cooked for us by one of the chef instructors at the school. The sweetie had designed the menu in advance (all vegan, natch) and we got to watch the chef prepare the food and learn some neat tricks (maple syrup in coffee? In mushrooms??!). Here we are, getting ready to eat butternut squash risotto.

And raspberry sorbet for dessert, with a message on the plate:

And a final pic of my sexy fiance on the trecherous hike.

Barley Salad

{ Monday, September 22, 2008 }
I've been feeling pretty uninspired when it comes to dinner lately. For one, I haven't had much energy to make anything beyond just the basics. The other reason for my funk is that I feel like we eat all the same things every week. The other day I took a peek in our cupboard to see if I could find something for dinner that wasn't rice, and I found some barley. We don't eat too much barley, which is unfortunate because it serves as refrigerator velcro, as Alton Brown would say. I threw it together with most everything I could find fresh in our fridge and the results were incredible. You can serve this salad warmed or at room temperature.

Barley Salad

1 cup barley
1 1/2 cups water or vegetable stock
1 can artichoke hearts, diced
1 1/2 cups button mushrooms, sliced
1 tomato, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 can kidney beans (which is about 2 cups worth in case you soak and boil them yourself, as I do)

2 tbls dill, chopped
2 tbls olive oil
4 tlbs white wine vinegar

Rinse barley and combine with water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil uncovered, then cover, lower heat and simmer until water is absorbed and the barley is tender, about 10 minutes.

Add chopped vegetables and beans to cooked barley and stir to warm through. Combine dressing ingredients in a small bowl and whisk to combine. Toss barley mixture with dressing, season to taste with salt and pepper and enjoy!

Apricot Jacket

{ Thursday, September 18, 2008 }
When I first saw this sweater at Skinny Rabbit way back in 2004, I fell in love with it. I love the girly eyelet details and the figure flattering ribbing, but at that time I didn't feel like my skills were up to the challenge, especially since the pattern is originally written in German and the English translation is rumored to be difficult to follow.

Four years later, I was still longing after this pattern. There are so many beautiful finished sweaters on ravelry (Ravelry link) and I finally felt up to the challenge. I found an ebay seller who had the pattern and took advantage of extensive googling and ravelry searching for tips.

Of course, I didn't get gauge with the yarn I chose so I had to rework all of the stitch counts. While I was at it (and since that wasn't enough work already), I decided to adjust all the sizing to end up with a sweater an inch or two smaller than the smallest size. I started with the back and it did look small. Blocking helped . . . a little.

I always get to this point in a project and begin to stress about the fit. Up until now, I've always calmed my nerves by making everything a little bit bigger as insurance. (I've also made a bunch of huge sweaters.) Mr. Greenjeans was my first sweater that really fit and, since it was top-down, I was able to try it on as I went. But this? I have no idea. I'm trying to trust my tape measure and just press on.
But these are not sleeves, people. These are the two fronts. These are supposed to cover my chest! Maybe blocking will help?

Babymaking--Take One

{ Tuesday, September 16, 2008 }
Dear blog,

I have a secret. The boy and I are trying to get pregnant. More specifically, the boy is trying to get ME pregnant and although we've told a few family members and friends, it still feels like I'm divulging something top secret by talking about it here.

Until recently we've talked about children as a possibility for some point in the future, likely two years off. That all changed in March when I was "diagnosed" with endometriosis. I put diagnose in quotes because a definitive diagnosis can only be obtained through surgery. So, we suspected that I had it in March, but it wasn't until my surgery in May that we knew for sure. The interesting thing about having a suspected diagnosis of endometriosis is that, if you're not too familiar with it (and I wasn't), you'll most likely google it on your blackberry on your way out of the doctor's office. If you're like me, the first hit you get will inform you that its the leading cause of infertility among women. You may also learn that most women who are able to get pregnant with it, do so within 3-6 months of their surgeries. So, we decided to get moving on this babymaking thing sooner rather than later.

We chose to use anonymous donor sperm from a sperm bank that required a doctor's approval before they would ship to us. So, off I went to see the doctor. I was curious what he might have to say about our chances of getting pregnant with the endo. Well, he was very negative and suggested that we might have the best luck using intrauterine insemination (IUI), which is a procedure by which the sperm is delivered directly into the uterus through a long catheter threaded into the cervix. He wanted us to try only inseminating when I was releasing an egg from my right ovary, since the left ovary had all of the endometriosis on it; to use an injection to trigger me to ovulate at a specific time; and to perform two inseminations per month. He also wanted to put me on medication to stimulate my ovaries to release multiple eggs per cycle, but I resisted that one. We were adamant that we wanted to do the inseminations at home, rather than the office. Luckily, the doctor was open to this and showed the boy how to perform the insemination (and let us practice in the office with the speculum, which was interesting!).

When the time came, we went in for an ultrasound and learned that I was getting ready to ovulate out of the right side. The next morning, I had the injection to trigger ovluation and the following two days we picked up the sample at the clinic and drove it home for the inseminations. Two weeks later, I took a home pregnancy test. Negative.

I felt, at the time, a little uncomfortable with the whole process, to be honest. I eat organic produce. I've eliminated animal products from my diet and I'm working on getting them out of my home. Yet a month ago, I injected myself with a syringe full of hormones taken from pregnant guinea pigs. I'm starting to wonder if maybe there's a better way.

Best (Vegan) Ice Cream Ever!

{ Sunday, September 14, 2008 }
OK, maybe I'm getting a little bit carried away with the "best ever" posts, but still, this ice cream is darn good.

Last christmas, my sweetie and I were gifted with the ice cream maker attachment for our kitchen aid mixer. Since then, we've experimented with several different vegan ice cream recipes, but haven't been fully satisfied with any of them. Various flavors of the old standby (soy) and even a raw ice cream made from mashed bananas all left something to be desired.

So, when the boy brought home a recipe for coconut whipped cream from the New York Times (again with the Times!), I figured we had nothing to lose. Veganizing it was simple, but I did experiment with a couple batches trying to lower the fat content while maintaining the creamy texture. I'm pretty happy with the result.

Coconut Vegan Ice Cream

1 can cream of coconut
1 can light coconut milk
4 cups non-dairy milk
1 cup shredded coconut, optional
4 tbls agave nectar (or sweetener of your choice)

Whisk together ingredients in a large bowl. Freeze in an ice cream maker, according to manufacturer's directions.

This makes a double batch for my ice cream maker--I have to freeze it in two separate batches or else it overwhelms the poor bowl and doesn't freeze well (ask me how I know). If you prefer not to make two batches, I recommend using the leftover 1/2 can of cream of coconut for pina coladas and adding the coconut milk to homemade thai food.

This recipe can be varied endlessly. Leaving out the shredded coconut makes an ice cream with a less pronounced coconut flavor that lends itself well to other additives. For just a hint of coconut (and less fat) use a whole can of coconut milk and omit the cream of coconut altogether. This results in more of a sorbet textured ice cream.

For this batch, since I was freezing in two batches anyway, I made two different flavors. To the first batch, I added little pieces of frozen cookie dough leftover from the big cookie experiment of 2008. To the second batch, I added cocoa powder until the batter looked reasonably chocolately (it took about 3-4 tbls). They were the two best homemade ice creams we've made and this recipe will definitely become our standard from now on.

Best (Vegan) Chocolate Chip Cookies Ever!

{ Thursday, September 11, 2008 }
I may be one of the last people to have read the New York Times article on chocolate chip cookies. (On a recent visit to Whole Foods, I found the recipe displayed alongside the recommended chocolate disks, just in case I hadn't already seen it all over the blogosphere.) Well, I already have a chocolate chip cookie recipe that I love (even though its not vegan) and I didn't have much interest in switching, but I did want to try my hand at some of the recommendations in the article.

First, I veganized the recipe I already had. I love this recipe, because it calls for oatmeal to be ground to a fine powder--upping the nutritional content without sacrificing texture. I subbed out earth balance margarine for butter and egg replacer for the eggs, which got me close, but the recipe required a bit more tweaking to get the moisture content right.

Next up, there's this whole idea of resting the batter in the fridge for 36 hours before baking. This whole cookie experiment took place over two weekends and four batches of cookies. (I take this stuff seriously, people!) The first couple batches were baked at 0, 24, and 48 hours after mixing. 36 hours may be optimal for the cookies, but its darn inconvenient for me. If I mix up a batch of cookies in the evening, I sure don't want to be baking them for breakfast two days later! As the article suggests (and other foodbloggers have confirmed) the cookies definitely taste better after resting. 24 hours is better than 0, but 48 hours was even better. The cookies had a better flavor and took on a richer color after baking. Even the raw batter was better after resting!

Left to right: 0, 24, and 48 hours after mixing

I was also intrigued by the addition of sea salt in the NYT recipe. I'd already discovered the amazing combination of sea salt with caramel, but it wouldn't have occured to me to add extra salt to cookies. I mean, there's already salt in the batter, right? The second weekend (and next two batches) were dedicated to exploring the addition of salt, as well as continuing to work out the moisture issue with the batter. I can't tell you whether just upping the salt content of the recipe would work the same way, but there is something added with the extra sea salt on top of the cookie. I didn't measure the amount, but a more generous sprinkling did produce a better tasting cookie. I started out with a light dusting and ended up upping the amount a couple times.
In the end, the boy and I couldn't stop eating these things. They were really that. good. Go make them, but don't say I didn't warn you!

Best Vegan Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 cup Earth Balance margarine
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
egg replacer equivalent to 2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 cup non-dairy milk
2 cups flour
2 1/2 cups blended oatmeal (measure oatmeal, then blend in a food processor to a fine powder)
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
12 ounces chocolate chips
4 ounces dark chocolate, grated (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Blend the oatmeal and combine with flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, cream the earth balance and both sugars until the mixture is pale and fluffy. Add egg replacer, vanilla, and milk and mix until combined. Slowly add dry ingredients to the wet and mix just until combined. Stir in chocolate chips and grated chocolate, if using. Scoop onto parchment lined cookie sheets (I use a #20 scoop and divide each scoop into two balls). Flatten each ball slightly and liberally sprinkle with kosher salt. Bake for 10 minutes, rotating sheets midway through cooking.

Even though the oatmeal makes me feel slightly less guilty indulging in these, they are still pretty outrageously high in fat and sugar. My next cookie experiment will involve lightening these up a bit, but I'm in too much of a sugar coma to think about that right now.

Pinkie Blankie

{ Monday, September 08, 2008 }
With a name like that, could it be any other color?

Pinkie Blankie by Julie Ridl (Ravelry link)
Knit with 6 skeins of Knit Picks Comfy in the Flamingo color on US2 Addi Turbos (honestly, I don't think I ever use different needles, unless I'm making sock on US1 DPNs)

Knit for Mr. Sweetie's new baby neice. I followed the pattern fairly closely, changing it only to add an extra border of stockinette between the garter stitch edge and the lace pattern. I knit 9 repeats across, but could have added a couple more. I was concerned about running out of yarn and ended up with some leftover and a smallish blanket. The baby arrived as I was casting off, so I wouldn't have had time to knit it bigger anyway. Small as it is, I love this pattern and the yarn is super soft and comfy (good choice of name, those knitpickers are always thinkin'!)

T is for Tamale

{ Monday, September 01, 2008 }
I've always loved tamales and I've wanted to learn how to make them for a long time. Since its pretty difficult to find a vegan tamale at a restaurant, I figured I'd try my hand at a homemade version over the long weekend. As with most things, this journey started with google. I found several recipes that looked good, but ultimately decided to use the masa recipe here along with the fillings here and here.

Note: I had a hard time finding chipotles in adobo sauce, dried corn husks, and dried ancho chiles at my regular supermarket, but I was able to find them all at a spanish grocery near my house. (The checker asked if I was making tamales and then I'm pretty sure she laughed a little bit after I said yes. Mockery only makes me more determined people!)

The first steps were to soak the corn husks in warm water and to prepare the masa dough. I set those both aside while I whipped up the ancho chile sauce. This stuff was quite a bit of work and made a huge mess. Word to the wise--be very careful when pouring this stuff to strain it. It looked like a murder scene in my kitchen with all the red spatters everywhere. (And my pan did eventually come clean, although I had my doubts at one point). This sauce was then added to the filling from the banana leaf tamale recipe. I slightly modified this recipe by using zucchini instead of calabacitas and, of course, leaving out the cheese.

After I added the chile sauce to the veggie mixture, I felt like it still needed a little kick, so I added one chopped chipotle pepper with some extra adobo. Problem solved--this stuff was screaming hot. It had this gringa crying. I should have started with a 1/2 pepper. Lesson learned and maybe the supermarket checker had reason to giggle.

On to the sweet potato filling. I modified this recipe as well. I wanted to make a half batch and didn't want a 1/2 can of tomatoes left over, so I used a couple fresh tomatoes along with the red chile sauce I had already made. I didn't learn my lesson and added a full chipotle pepper; however, the recipe calls for 2-3, so at least I was starting to catch on. I mashed up the baked sweet potato and all the ingredients were ready.

The boy helped with this next step and it took a little bit of trial and error to figure out the best method. I had read somewhere online that you should flatten a piece of dough with your hands, place it on the husk, top with filling, and then form another piece of dough for the top. We didn't have much luck with this, as it was impossible to keep the filling from seeping out between the two layers.

Don't do it this way!

I have also seen people making tamales by spreading the dough onto the husk with a spatula. This was the method we ended up using--we spread the dough onto about 2/3 of the husk and then put filling on one side of it so that one side would fold over with dough for the top and then the opposite side would fold over the first with no dough. There are good folding instructions here. We also had better luck with the sweet potato filling because it would smoosh down and allow for better folding--the squash filling tended to come out and make a big mess.

After what seemed like hours of folding, we were ready to start steaming these bad boys! I crammed as many as would fit into the top of a steamer pan and left them to their own devices for about 30 minutes.

Having a steam bath.

To round out the meal, I made salsa with homemade tortilla chips and salad. I'm no salsa expert, but I like to chop the tomatoes, add salt, and let them sit and juice for a few minutes.

Leave us alone, we're juicing!

Then, I added red onion, garlic and cilantro. Lime juice and some jalepeno would have also been good but 1) my limes were bad and 2) my mouth was still on fire from tasting the chipotle sauce, so I left well enough alone. The chips were easy peasy--cut up some flour tortillas and bake in a single layer at 350 until crisp, turning once.

I had originally planned to make a more spanish-inspired salad but, again, I couldn't bear the thought of putting anything else spicy in my mouth so it ended up being a pear, fig, and baby spinach salad with balsamic vinaigrette. The cool pears were the perfect counterpoint to all the spiciness of the tamales. Wanna know my secret for vinaigrette? Good quality balsamic, a dash of olive oil, and two pinches of sugar. So simple and so incredibly delicious!

We especially loved the sweet potato tamales. The sweet offset the insane heat of the sauce, making the whole thing extra yummy. I'm not sure how soon I'll be setting aside an entire day for this process, but at least now I can say I've done it. Plus, I have a freezer full of tamales for the next craving.