Inspired By A Trip to Spain, We Celebrate a New Year

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I think it was my grandmother who first told me that the older one gets, the faster time goes by.  Back then, it didn’t mean much to me, but it surely does now. It seems like we’ve barely celebrated the start of one year, when the next one slaps us in the face. For twenty years, I’ve marked the beginning of each year with an open house, inviting friends and acquaintances to come for food, drink and conversation. Perhaps it is my hope that through this ritual we can, if only for a moment, quiet the forward rush of time. Also, I love the idea of  colorful characters from the many parts of my life coming together, and getting to know one another. This year, on the second Sunday in January, upwards of forty people dropped by mi casita. Having had the privilege of spending two weeks in Spain last fall, and taking a cooking class in Barcelona,  a Spanish theme seemed inevitable. And so, inspired by the food of Spain, I created a menu, not authentically Spanish perhaps, but rather my impression of a few Spanish dishes, cooked in my style. So, here in pictures and words, are the dishes I served, with a couple of recipes and the complete menu following at the end.

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Photo at the top–Vegetable Paella. Medium grain brown rice sautéed along with diced onion, garlic, tomato and a pinch of smoked paprika and of saffron, cooked in lightly-salted vegetable stock. When the rice is nearly done (about 5o minutes later), I added in diced, steamed  carrot, butternut squash and  sweet potato, and continued cooking for about ten minutes. At this point, I seasoned the paella with a generous sprinkling of umeboshi vinegar (find this in a good natural food store, or substitute a bit of lemon juice and additional salt). Just before serving, I stirred in thawed frozen peas.

Photo above: Seafood Salad.  Surprisingly, I found an exceptionally nice seafood mixture (raw shrimp, scallops, calamari and cooked mussels) at Costco. A day ahead, I briefly steamed some diced fresh fennel and then marinated it in a mixture of orange and lemon juices (along with the zest), mirin, olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper (save the feathery fennel leaves for garnish). Separately, I marinated thinly-sliced raw red onion in a similar mixture. The morning of the party, I quickly cooked the shell fish (when the shrimp is firm and thoroughly pink, the seafood is ready). Then I combined the briefly-cooked shell fish with the marinated fennel and red onion. The marinade from the vegetables was almost enough for the entire dish, but I did add some more orange and lemon juice, olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. This can be served chilled or at room temperature.

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All photos by Robert Starkey

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For A Meaty Entree, Try These Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms

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Over the past weekend, I cooked for a lively group of guys on retreat and served these stuffed portobello mushrooms to the vegetarians. They were scarfed up so fast, I really didn’t even get a proper taste.  But in this case, I’m pretty sure the vegetarians fared better than the omnivores who had to make do with boring old roast chicken. If you’re looking for a recipe your meat eating family members are likely to enjoy as much as your vegetarian friends, this could be it. This is a rich entree, so make it for special occasions (or make any occasion special by serving this comforting dish). Recipe after the jump…

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Photos: Top–stuffed portobello mushrooms come out of the oven.  Above–the mushrooms, before stuffing, after 35 minutes of roasting.

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An Answer To That Perplexing Question: What To Take To A Potluck?

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Call me anti-social if you like, but in general, I’m not a big fan of potlucks. I guess, I’m afraid there won’t be anything I want to eat. My worst nightmare is a table laden with boxes of cold Kentucky Fried Chicken, tired raw veggies and dip, congealed pizza, cookies from Safeway, and convenience store soda.  And so, when someone says “potluck,” I tend not to hear. But once in a while, to be social, I violate my unwritten rule against participating in these sometimes sad affairs, and promise to attend.

And what then? Then I must come up with something to bring.  As a professional cook, I’ve convinced myself that a contribution like purchased salsa and chips would be an embarrassment. I feel obligated to cook something from scratch. But what?  My goal each time is to conjure up a dish which will serve as a complete meal, so I’ll have at least one dish that’s satisfying even if there’s little else that seems appetizing. By complete meal, I’m thinking: whole grain, protein and vegetables all in one dish. And that’s what today’s recipe represents.  Here’s what I took to a potluck yesterday: a wild and long grain brown rice salad with marinated tofu (I also made a version with poached and diced chicken breasts), arugula, roasted sweet potatoes and mushrooms, celery, dried cranberries and toasted sunflower seeds with a balsamic vinaigrette dressing. If my approach seems selfish, so be it, but in reality I’m always thinking to make a dish lots of other people will enjoy as well.

Lest you think I’m a total curmudgeon, let me admit that I had a great time at yesterday’s potluck. I realize that the most important part of these events is not the food, but the getting together with folks, in this case gay and lesbian people and our friends in Vallejo (thanks to Ric and Richard for being such gracious hosts).  And by the way, there was a table laden with a wide variety of items, and I found a great plenty to eat. All in all, a good day–bright sun, warm conversation, and despite my worst fears, enjoyable food. A recipe for the wild rice and arugula salad is after the jump.

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More Secrets of Japanese Vegetarian Cooking: My Lunch With Fumi

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I drove down recently to Fumiko (Fumi) Arao’s home in the lush hills above Silicon Valley where we planned to test recipes for our upcoming cooking class. When I arrived, to my great pleasure, Fumi told me she was putting the finishing touches on lunch which we were to share with her husband, Ken. In a way, it was a simple lunch, but even so, it was apparent that Fumi had expended no small amount of thought and preparation time. Eating Fumi’s food is always interesting because she subtly combines traditional techniques she learned from her mother and grandmother in Japan with the principles of macrobiotics she’s studied in the U.S. Into this mix, of course, is the reality that Fumi is well-travelled and has been exposed to a rich mix of cuisines.

On a cool, rainy day, lunch consisted of warming foods, well cooked and seasoned. There was kabocha squash, baked and stuffed with seasoned tofu, thick fried tofu simmered with red wine, soy sauce and dried figs, blanched kale tossed with olive oil, umeboshi vinegar and toasted pumpkin seeds, and short grain brown rice cooked with ample quantities of fresh ginger. Well satisfied, we headed into the kitchen to work on recipes for the class.  But that is a story for another post. Fumi’s recipes are after the jump…

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Photos: Top–Fumi smoothes the tofu filling in the kabocha squash. Above: Our lunch of stuffed squash, thick fried tofu and figs simmered in red wine, and blanched kale with pumpkin seeds, with rice in a separate bowl.

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Oodles of Noodles: Warm Up With This Hearty Miso Udon Soup

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We’re finally getting what we’ve needed for months here in Northern California, a dose of stormy, wet weather. The hills are turning fresh and spring green, at last. With drizzle coming down outside, I decided to warm up my insides with a bowl of udon noodles and vegetables in a rich miso broth. Although I usually recommend whole grain noodles (brown rice, whole wheat, buckwheat), I must confess that sometimes the allure of fat, wheaty udon calls to me. I especially like fresh udon noodles, because not only do they save time, but they seem to drink in the broth and become more succulent than dried noodles do. Of course, if you can’t find fresh udon noodles in your Asian or natural foods market, dried will do, as will linquine. In either case, you will need to take the extra step of cooking them separately according to package directions. I think you’ll love that this recipe begins like a stir fry, and then after water is added, becomes soup.  You could have this on the table in 20 minutes, and you need dirty only one pot: your trusty wok. If you live alone, as I do, I’ve scaled this recipe for you.  I ate a little more than half for dinner, and just finished off the rest for lunch. Perfect. It’s still raining outside and inside, I’m feeling warm and cosy. Recipe, after the jump.

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Entrees: Long-Baked Sweet Onions with Tahini-Miso Sauce

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As cool and damp as it was, today was the sort of day when it made sense to crank up the oven, warming the whole house. Here’s a recipe which starkly demonstrates heat’s transformative power: raw onions, so sharp and pungent, baked in a hot oven become wonderfully sweet and tender. In conceiving this dish, I’ve very broadly adapted a recipe from The Art of Just Cooking, by the late and legendary Japanese cooking teacher, Lima Ohsawa. This homey dish would make a nice centerpiece for a simple vegetarian dinner, or a welcome side with most any meal. While this recipe is easy to make, do plan ahead, because onions take their own good time to fully reach their sweet potential. Recipe, after the jump.

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Photos: Sharp, crisp and pungent raw onions (top photo) turn soft and sweet with about an hour and a half of baking time (photo just above).

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Smoky Barbecue Tempeh: I’m Betting That Even You Tempeh Skeptics Will Like This

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There’s no denying that tempeh, the fermented whole soy bean product which originated in Indonesia, has a bit of a strong flavor. Some people love it, but for others, it’s an acquired taste. That’s why when cooking with tempeh, I think it’s best to work with it’s strength by pairing it with other assertive flavors–ginger, garlic, soy sauce, spicy peppers. You’ll find all of these and more in this recipe for smoky barbecue tempeh. If’ you’re looking for something to serve on a bun which is tasty, vegan and full of veggies, this is it! While this is looser than a burger, it’s thick enough that it stays on the bun, and you can easily eat it with your hands. This barbecue would be great served with Asian pickled veggies on top: cucumbers, carrot, ginger. The full recipe is after the jump, and you’ll find more of my recipes using tempeh here, here, here, and here.

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