The Yoga of Small Bites

Across the country, top chefs have adopted serving a series of small bites to their discerning customers in order to present food at its purest and freshest state.  In those culinary emporiums of the celebrity chef, the goal is to immerse the senses in the wonders of gastronomy.  Through visual presentation, tactile sensation, aromatic teases and tasting stimulating flavors chefs are wowing their guests with magnificent plates and anticipatory service.

stuffed okra

While the specific experience may be new, there is a long history for this kind of eating.  While the great cuisines of Europe are directly rooted to the indulgence of monks in abbeys of the middle ages (and indirectly in Roman high-society excesses), there are also culinary traditions from areas of the world less exposed to the American palate, such as China, Thailand, Vietnam and India.  One of these is the cuisine of Yogic India.  Entwined with the ancient medical science of Ayurveda, as well as religious philosophies which espouse spiritual cooking and distribution of food, the yoga of cooking has been refined over fifty centuries of recorded history.

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Many years ago, my personal culinary journey placed me in Vrindavan, one of the yoga epicenters of India.  This was Krishna’s hometown and continues to thrive as a philosophical retreat with over 5000 temples and numerous spiritual schools, particularly inclined toward bhakti-yoga.  I became enamored by the attention to detail placed on the food, not only in temples, but in households and street food as well.  With a different approach than Western chefs, the food not only had to look good and taste perfect, but it had to be cooked “a-la-minute” and more significantly, also digest well.

Govardhana Puja 2007

The Ayurvedic philosophy of balance was present everywhere, but especially noticeable in the traditional main lunch meal, called a thali.  This is where small bites came into play.  Originally served on banana leaves with clay cups or stainless steel trays for the common man, it was also served pure silver trays for the aristocrats.  Rice is placed in the center and small bowls of vegetables, savories, dahls, pickles, chutneys and raita surround it. In addition, freshly made pillow shaped chapatis are served with steam still spouting through a crack in the top.

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The meal balances the five tastes and five mellows of Ayurveda to create an ideal healthy meal with abundant complete proteins, phyto-nutrients and anti-oxidants.  Like the fine dining cooking in America, it is a complete sensual immersion, but unlike the West, one feels nourished and vitalized in body, mind and spirit with both sensual stimulation and dietary engagement.  The senses are wowed, but they are also brought on board as partners in health.  All ingredients were local and, without refrigeration, we shopped the market daily.  In my mind, this is the gold standard for us to strive for.  There were no leftovers and extras were shared with local sadhus and animals.

April 2009 photos (73)

While my explanations cannot do them justice, it can be said some of these meals were instances that created rare tears of joy as I ate.  The food was that good!  The cooks who prepared those meals are still my culinary heroes and inspire similar attention to detail in every meal I prepare.

Spring Risotto with Asparagus and Walnuts

asparagus-walnut-risotto

This is a simple, yet flavorful method of preparing risotto, more of a pilaf really. Good as a side dish or main course, this recipe is different from the traditional butter, wine and parmesan cheese approach, but every grain of rice maintains an inherent full and creamy flavor. I find asparagus at the local farmers market, thin or thick stalks are fine. The walnuts are from last year’s harvest.  Fresh nuts make a tremendous difference in flavor and texture.

Serves 6

Risotto:

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon garlic, minced

3/4 cup shallots, peeled and thinly sliced

1/4 cup red bell peppers, finely chopped

1/2 cup garnet yams, peeled and cubed

1/2 cup peas, freshly podded

1 bay leaf

1/4 cup fresh fennel weed, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon white pepper

1 cup organic Arborio rice

1 teaspoon sea salt

2 1/2 cups water

Separate pan:

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

2 cups asparagus, cut into 1 1/2 inch pieces

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1 teaspoon balsamic reduction (or 1/2 teaspoon balsamic vinegar)

1 cup walnut halves and pieces

1/2 tablespoon tamari

In a wide, thick-bottomed saucepan on medium heat, cook the oil, garlic, shallots, red bell peppers and yams until the shallots start to turn clear. Stir in the remaining ingredients and bring to a simmer, turn down and cover. Stirring frequently, cook for 20 minutes until the rice is tender and most of the water is absorbed.

While cooking the rice, heat a sauté pan on medium high heat, add oil and asparagus.Cook, turning frequently, until the asparagus starts to brown on the edges, add the red pepper flakes, stir in and add the balsamic reduction or vinegar.When the vinegar cooks out, add the walnuts, stir them around letting them toast lightly.Add the tamari, stir to coat the nuts and asparagus.Take off the flame and set aside.When the risotto is cooked, fold in the asparagus and nut just before serving.Save a few pieces of asparagus tips and walnut halves for garnish.Serve immediately.Optionally, one may garnish each dish with shaved organic asiago or parmesan, but I prefer ground toasted tamari walnuts sprinkled over the top.

Harvest Vegetable Salad

 

Staying healthy sometimes can be a challenge.  Aside from taking common sense precautions, there is a lot we can do to keep ourselves healthy with food–colorful foods, that is.

The darker and more colorful fruits and vegetables are healthier with more anti-oxidants and immune building micro-nutrients.  For example:  red and yellow beets, carrots, radishes and red peppers–which all happen to be in my Harvest Vegetable Salad recipe.  Local farmers markets should have plenty of these vegetables in stock!

Harvest Vegetable Salad Recipe

Serves 6

Vegetables

1 ½ cups golden beets, peeled and grated

2 cups carrots, peeled and grated

2 cups parsnips, peeled and grated

½ cup red radishes, sliced into 1 inch long matchsticks

½ cup celery, finely diced

¼ cup sweet red pepper, finely diced

½ cup green onions, angle sliced thin

In a large bowl, mix all ingredients.

Dressing

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

¼ cup dried currants

½  teaspoon sea salt

¼ cup brown rice vinegar

1 teaspoon ume plum vinegar

¼ cup lemon juice

In a medium bowl, whisk together all dressing ingredients and fold into the vegetable mix at least 30 minutes before serving.

Tip:  Use a food processor with a grating blade to grate beets, carrots and parsnips.

Santa Fe to Boulder

State of the Veg Union Part 3

with Anasazi Bean Enchilada Recipe


Day three of our veg restaurant tour from San Diego to Detroit began in beautiful Santa Fe, New Mexico, the oldest capital in the United States. It was Memorial Day and this unique city of all adobe-style buildings was full of tourists, musicians and artists enjoying the cloudless day.  Not far from the festive atmosphere of the old town center, was our destination, Body–a one-stop-shop with an organic restaurant, spa, yoga studio and clothing boutique.

Body’s calming atmosphere and enchanting decor set our expectations high. After exploring the various rooms, the popular yoga studio and the spa, we took our seats in the large, yet surprising empty, dining room.  Although there are numerous items for omnivores, there is a substantial vegan and raw offering. We ordered all raw and the food began to arrive shortly thereafter.

The coconut lemongrass soup, fresh and beautiful in color, was light and flavorful; unfortunately, the rest of our meal was not as exciting.  The wrap lacked flavor and was mushy, the pizza was too salty and had far too much tomato sauce and the dessert was simply passionless.  We were a bit surprised, considering the care the owners had taken to provide such a comprehensive facility to the residents of Santa Fe.

To be fair, our visit was a snapshot, only a glimpse at what was obviously a well-thought-out concept. It may be that they over-extended themselves to the point of having gaps in the details of the food.  It certainly deserves another try the next time I’m driving through Santa Fe.

We continued north to Taos, another remarkable old Spanish town and artist colony.  Entering this city made us feel as though we had stepped back in time.  It is located in a tributary valley off the Rio Grande and on its north side is the famous Taos Pueblo, said to have been built between 1000 and 1450 A.D..  Nearly 1900 people occupy the pueblo community today.

Surprisingly, as far as vegetarian offerings, Taos is a one horse town and that horse is called El Gamal--a very casual and artistic vegetarian cafe serving traditional Middle Eastern fare.  We ordered babaganoush, tabouli, falafels, salad and hummus–unfortunately, they had run out of chick peas and couldn’t prepare the hummus.  The food was fresh and flavorful and we were grateful for their effort.

Our meals in Santa Fe and Taos did not come close to our amazing experiences in Sedona and Scottsdale, but still were a marked improvement from our last trip a few years ago and good enough to get us through the Cimarron pass and north to Colorado.

Our next destination was in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in one of the most liberal cities in Colorado–Boulder.  Known for its stunning setting and “hippie” appeal, it constantly acquires top rankings in health and quality of life. Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant is a small, upscale, jewel of a place located in the charming downtown area.  As we walked in, we were immediately taken with its beautiful decor, cleanliness and organization.

We began with a raw beet ravioli–a really stunning presentation, but, rather flavorless, relying entirely on the taste of the raw beets. Sara chose a delicious looking Mizuna salad with sea vegetables and I ordered Jamaican Jerk, tempeh over black rice with plantain chips, which was truly a work of art.

Although we appreciated the freshness and quality of the ingredients, the salad lacked pizazz. The Jamaican Jerk was heavy on tempeh, but was nicely balanced with black rice and good flavors.  We finished the meal with a peanut butter and chocolate vegan cheesecake, presented with impressive artistic flair, but it didn’t knock our socks off.

Leaf deserves another shot. They have worked hard to earn their wonderful reputation and are extremely conscientious about presentation, as well as providing a positive restaurant experience.  It would require several more visits for a proper review. Still, when a restaurant strives to achieve levels of gastronomic perfection, any misstep is unfortunate. Consistent culinary home-runs are a difficult thing to achieve, but a chef or owner’s personal attention increases the odds tremendously.

It was becoming apparent that veg restaurants in this country become great through vision and passion. With the heartland of the Midwest ahead of us, we continued to search for restaurants which define culinary perceptions in their local communities with dedication to quality of food and life through good ingredients, working with local farmers and using high quality organic products. This is especially true for plant-based restaurants where customers expect healing and life-enhancing characteristics on their plates. This attention-to-detail enables an everyday dining experience to be life changing.

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Next time, we visit the heartland of America in Nebraska and Iowa to continue the discovery of the State of the Veg Union!

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Inspired by our journey through the ancient desert lands of cliff-dwellers, pueblos and conquistadors, I created this Anasazi Bean Enchilada recipe to honor the rich traditions and sun-drenched history of the American Southwest.

 

May Markets Shine

The celebrated markets of the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles County often overshadow the incredible, yet unsung, farmers markets of San Diego.  There are fifty markets in San Diego supported by more certified organic farmers than any other county in America, over 320.
At least one market is open every day of the week, supporting most of the communities in the area. This type of shopping enables us to follow in the footsteps of the great food cultures where purchasing the freshest ingredients is a daily ritual.  The choices are remarkable–a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and nuts grown in micro-climates ranging from sub-tropical to temperate.

Most weeks, I visit three or four markets, buying enough for a couple of days and keeping me connected with the farmers and vendors.  Some of my favorites are  Archi’s Acres, JR Organics, Sage Mountain Farm, Suzies Farm, JR Organics, Tom King Farms, Conscious Cookery and Koral’s Tropical Fruit Farm.  Each market reflects the feel of its community, becoming de facto social centers.

A few years ago, shortly after I created www.thevegetarianguy.com, I began filming my culinary finds, the farmers and community members.  Over time, my blog has expanded into sharing new discoveries, tastes and recipes while applauding the efforts of local food heroes wherever I go.

My short videos provide introductions to the farmers, products and the unique atmosphere of the markets. This portal into the San Diego markets gives a taste of what is possible and shows the path to connecting the dots between food, farms and life. The following is a sampling of my recent videos.

Spring at the Little Italy Mercato

Imperial Beach, A Vegetarian Farmers Market

San Diego County Macadamia Nuts

A Recipe For Red Orach

One of my favorite amaranth varieties is red orach,  also known as garden orach, French spinach and mountain spinach.  Red orach was first documented in the New World in 1714 and Thomas Jefferson grew a green variety in his Monticello gardens.  It was discovered as far back as Mesolithic times and was commonly grown in the Mediterranean before spinach became popular;  the  red and green varieties were used to color pastas in Italy due to natural color retention. A member of the salt-bush family, the tender leaves have a light salty flavor which combines nicely with sorrel’s lemony flavor.  The over-sized leaves and colorful presence make orach a favored annual in ornamental gardens.

In San Diego, I first began seeing Red orach in the La Milpa Organica booth at the Hillcrest Farmers Market a few years ago.  Farmer Barry Logan specialized in ancient greens and heirloom vegetable varieties which made his stall the organic anchor of the market.  While La Milpa is no longer operating, the influence lives on. Suzie’s Farm is growing many of the varieties Barry used to sell and I was pleasantly surprised to see red orach a couple of weeks ago and began using it in salads, greens, tarts, pastries and, of course, stuffed dishes. For those of you who have not had the pleasure of cooking red orach, have no fear–it’s easy to work with.  If you can’t find it at your local market, request it, talk your local farmer into growing it and/or plant it in your garden as a culinary ornamental.

Stuffed Red Orach with Pomegranate Molasses

10 large red orach leaves

Filling
1/2 cup garbanzo beans, cooked
1/2 cup artichoke hearts, cooked
1 tablespoon green onion, minced
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

Mix garbanzos, artichoke, green onion, sea salt and oil in a food processor and process to a coarse paste. Place a generous tablespoon of filling on the wide end of a leaf and roll into a thick cigar shape.  Repeat until all leaves are used.

Cook
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons white spring onion, minced
1/2 teaspoon garlic, minced
2 tablespoons Meyer lemon juice

Place a ten-inch skillet on medium-high heat and cook the oil, crushed red pepper, onions and garlic until the onions are clear around the edges.  Placed the red orach rolls in the pan, cover and let sear for 1 minute.  Pour in the lemon juice, cover, turn down heat to low and cook for another 2 minutes.  Turn the burner off and leave covered until ready to serve.

Pomegranate Molasses

2 cups fresh pomegranate juice
2 tablespoons agave syrup
2 teaspoons Meyer lemon juice

Place a skillet on medium heat, add all ingredients and reduce to a syrup consistency.  Allow to cool before using.  May be prepared ahead of time to use as a condiment.

Serve
Drizzle Pomegranate Molasses onto plate and place a red orach roll on top.  Serve hot.

Notes:
To simplify the cooking process and make it a quick dish, use Eden Foods organic canned garbanzo beans and organic canned artichoke hearts.

I use fresh pressed organic pomegranate juice from Lone Oak Ranch but the recipe will be fine with bottled 100% pomegranate juice.






Summer Surfing at the Markets

 

Friday at the Mission Hills Market
My home is in Mission Hills, a gorgeous area of San Diego founded by early 20th Century visionaries in the Arts and Crafts tradition with charming historic homes, parks full of spectacular foliage and a strong community presence.  I was thrilled when a farmers market sprang up in the middle of the tiny downtown several Fridays ago.  There are a number of good vendors in the one city block which comprises the market.  This Friday market kicks off my weekends with fresh, organic ingredients.
I have been buying sweet and plump blueberries at Smit Orchards stall for the last few weeks.   Their radiant blues and purples have been a colorful addition to morning oatmeal, smoothies, cobblers and pies.
Pepper season heated up in the last month.  The Padron Peppers from Suzie’s Farm have been an exciting side dish when I saute them a skillet with a little olive oil and coarse sea salt.  Robin, the owner, described how the peppers start off mild and become hotter as the vines get older.  He plants them at intervals to make sure he’s able to harvest the sweet young peppers at their prime.
When Suzies Farm has the historic Italian Jimmy Nardello peppers, buy them! I prepared them the same way as the Padrones.  They have a sweet flavor and melt-in-your-mouth texture.
Tender baby-beet greens from Maggie’s Farm went into my summer squash with coconut curry dish.  They also had a variety of heirloom potatoes which I used for a roasted potato chole and baby romaine heads which I cut in half, browned in a skillet and served as an antipasti plate garnish.
Saturday at the Little Italy Mercato
Saturday mornings are in full swing at the Mercato in the heart of Little Italy.  Each market is defined by the neighborhood it is in and this three block market has an Old World Italian flavor with modern urban chic.
Justin Noble of Sage Mountain Farm grows starship zucchini, a type of patti pan squash which I steamed and served with a lemon-dijon sauce.  He also grows Armenian cucumbers which are not really cucumbers, but a member of the melon family. They are a refreshing and crunchy addition to salads along with heirloom tomatoes, which are starting to flood the markets.
The founder of La Milpa Organica, Oasis Benson,  moved north and entered the organic olive business.  Good Faith Farm sells two kinds of raw, organic olives– Sevillanos and Kalamata–along with their delicious olive oil, which is so fresh it must be refrigerated.  These delicious olives are cured with first quality ingredients (brown rice vinegar) and are probably the healthiest olives one will ever encounter.
There are several musicians throughout the market.  Santiago Orozco and his band Todo Mundo often play in the amphitheater at the top, east end of the market.  The upbeat Latin rhythms and positive message of his music enhance the festive atmosphere.

Sunday at Hillcrest Farmers Market
Mariella Balbi of Guanni Chocolates is located in the center of the Hillcrest Market and always greets me with her beautiful smile.  Her vegan Wari Bars made from 100% Peruvian Criollo cacao are a chocolate lover’s delight.
La Milpa Organica is the gold standard of market stalls in San Diego.  This week I purchased amaranth, Swiss chard and magenta spreen lamb’s quarters to make tarts, pies, tortes and simple seared greens with garlic, hot red pepper and coarse sea salt.
Karen at Archis Acres picked out a giant head of red leaf lettuce for me.  I made lettuce wraps filled with Haas avocados, Cherokee red tomatoes and pepita, cilantro and lime pesto.
At Michelle Larson-Sadler’s booth, the Conscious Cookery, I found organic Anasazi beans grown in the Four-Corners area and smoked New Mexican chipotle and pasilla chiles.  These ingredients will become a mole.
Phil of Sage Mountain Farm had Italian torpedo onions, cherry tomatoes, hard-neck garlic and fresh basil with the root–the perfect ingredients for a fresh heirloom tomato, basil, red onion and rubbed garlic crostini.
Matt of Lone Oak Ranch supplied me with some of his very best white and yellow nectarines, white and yellow peaches and candy-like pluots which I am using for grilled fruit salsas this week.
If you have been keeping up with my blog, you will have noticed me waxing poetic about red walnuts from Terra Bella Ranch.  The season is over, but Jeff and Nicolina’s excellent Chandler walnuts are still available, as well as their beautiful dried apricots, raw almonds and sun-dried tomatoes, all of which I use regularly.  I toast the walnuts and almonds for approximately 12 minutes at 325 F degrees and keep them available for snacks, salads and garnish.  Because of the healthy volatile oils in nuts, they can become rancid.  I store untoasted nuts in the freezer.
The small Poblano chiles from Sage Mountain Farm are delightful.  I cut off the tops, scoop out the seeds and fill them with a corn tamal-style filling or a thick and creamy walnut filling, reminiscent of an Oaxacan walnut sauce which Frida Kahlo used to make at her Blue House.  Next I put them onto a chili roasting rack which goes directly on the grill.  I can never make enough of these!
I found Palestinian sweet limes, sweet cocktail grapefruit and Reed avocados at the Rancho Mexico Lindo Farm booth.  She also had red, pink and green prickley pear fruit, which are considered a health tonic.
San Diego farmer’s markets are a treasure trove of exciting, fresh and organic ingredients.   Markets like this can be found across the country in every community.

 

Cooking Inspiration From Sage Mountain Farm

Last Sunday at the Hillcrest Farmer’s Market in San Diego, Phil Noble of Sage Mountain Farm was showing passersby a large shoot of elephant garlic. He was explaining the colossal versatility of the leek look-alike which is only available a few weeks in the Spring when the shoots are young and tender. The mature oversized bulb is usually found in stores labeled as a mild alternative to the traditional garlic bulb. Phil said that every part of the shoot can be used in cooking–from the tentacle-like roots to the top of the dark green shoots.

Back at home, I began lunch preparation, anxious to incorporate my latest find. Since it is mild, elephant garlic can be used in greater quantity without the fear of being the “stinking rose.” I thinly sliced the white portion of the elephant garlic and braised it with some baby beets (also from Sage Mountain Farm), a little extra virgin olive oil, a small amount of water and then I covered and simmered it for about 20 minutes. The tiny beets became tender morsels still attached to the buttery soft beet greens.

I also prepared elephant garlic-herb tofu by sautéing firm tofu with a little extra virgin olive oil. As the tofu turned golden brown, I added dried basil, elephant garlic roots and premium tamari (Nama Shoyu from Goldmine Natural Foods). To serve, I garnished it with slivers of the green top of the garlic shoot. The firm meatiness of the tofu was nicely complemented by the seared herb flavor and the slight pungency of the garlic. The tender roots retained a slight crunch, enhancing the texteral landscape of the dish.

As a third dish, I prepared sautéed red amaranth from La Milpa Organica with minced white elephant garlic, crushed red pepper and coarse sea salt. As the amaranth wilted, I added the Sage Mountain asparagus, covered the pan and turned the heat down to a simmer. Served with freshly baked bread, a Fuerte avocado from our tree and a beautiful salad of Sun Grown Organic sprouts, the meal was at once delightful and energizing.

Vegetarian traditions are as old as humanity and are the key to longevity in cultures where disease is diminished. Central to these traditions are local, fresh and organic foods. By supporting local markets, we bolster our health while sustaining the planet for future generations.

Heavenly Vanilla

food 10 2009-12

Few culinary ingredients evoke more passion or have the sensual complexity of vanilla.  In its direct, pure state, it is like heavenly ambrosia.  More often, it is the secret ingredient which compliments other spices and flavors, putting the final balancing touch to a dessert, pastry or the occasional savory dish.

Most of us have experienced vanilla through extract, a process that produces vanilla flavor through a medium of alcohol or glycerin.  The cheaper varieties are not even real vanilla, but a synthetic flavoring called vanillin.  When purchasing vanilla extract, I suggest making sure it is made from pure vanilla beans.

MainHouses

The modern culinary revolution in America has increased awareness of long treasured, and often rare, culinary staples.  One of indispensable products used in high-end cuisine are vanilla beans, or more botanically correct: vanilla pods.  Not long ago I was contacted by a long-time friend living in South India who now lived on a farm and was growing Ayurvedic herbs as a livelihood.  He was also growing vanilla and wanted to know if I was interested in his crop.  When I asked whether the vanilla was organic, he described his product:

“I sun dry them, so they are organic sun dried vanilla pods. Or beans as most people call them. Vanilla is from the orchid family and the bean is actually a seed pod. You have to sun dry them and keep them wrapped in cotton and a wool blanket in a wooden box at night so they ferment. This fermentation brings out the aroma. Some big producers probably use some type of hot air blower in a warehouse to dry them.”

Vanilla

I agreed to purchase his crop and am now selling these wonderful heavenly pods.  If you are interested, please contact me at thevegguy@georgevutetakis.com.

Once you get the vanilla, my friend offers further suggestions:

“You can make an extraction out of some also with alcohol, I have heard that even Stoli vodka works. A friend of mines’ wife also told me she put some with the flour she bakes with for three weeks and it worked good. I am sure you know about putting it with sugar, coffee, etc. Cut length wise and keep in glass jar with sugar for three weeks.”

I usually prep the pods by cutting a slit lengthwise and scraping out the black vanilla paste to add to recipes.  I save the scraped pods and add them to jars of organic sugar, Grand Marnier or other infusible product.  After 2 to 3 weeks, the infused product is as strong as vanilla extract.  It makes the expense of the pods economical compared to the price of a good quality extract.