Sunday, March 18, 2012

Asparagus Flan and Bento/Vegan Ingredient Hunt

How does the saying go...Spring turns people's thoughts to .... fresh vegetables? In my region, we're not usually even thinking about what the rest of the world calls "Spring" weather until late in April, but 2012 is ushering in record-breaking temperatures. St. Patrick's day set a temperature record that hasn't been broken since the 1880's: 80 degrees. Birds are already singing and nesting, leaves are budding on the trees, and people are in various states of dress outside in the open air.

The truly local produce isn't even in the ground yet, but it feels like farmer's market season, so this weekend was a chance to get a head start on some recipes I've been wanting to try. My co-op had some truly beautiful golden beets that were calling my name, so they came home in my bag and were served up alongside a dairyless and fat-free adaptation of Asparagus Flan - a recipe I've seen Emeril Lagasse do on his "Green" show and included in his book "Farm to Fork." Recipe found here via Food Network, I left out the crab garnish. Some braised kale and dandelion greens with a little garlic, and the spring display was complete.

My co-op shopping trip was exciting for other reasons as well. I found ingredients I had been looking for in multiple small and large grocers with no luck.

Bento Ingredients: I found Ume plums! The sweet and pickled accompaniement to so many Japanese-focused onigiri and rice dishes. Besides the co-op, the only other place in my area that would think to carry such an item would be Whole Foods, but its a minimum thirty minute drive to get there, and I've yet to find them for sale when I do manage a Whole Foods visit.

The downer about this discovery is that the package of 8-12 plums has an asking price of $18.95!! Not at all cost-effective for people on a budget, so they went back on the shelf. But it's nice to know that if an occasion presented itself, they're available.

Meat-free ingredients:

Daiya shredded vegan cheese. Probably not a big deal for most people, but getting rid of the dairy cheese habit has been a struggle for me because I'm such a cheese flavor fan. Back in the 90's when I first went vegan, all that seemed to be available was soy cheese slices that looked like the ubiquitous American processed cheese food product we all know. Flavorful, but not shreddable or easy to add to latin dishes.

The local big chain grocers have a small selection of soy and rice cheese, but they don't have the shredded variety. It's exciting to have the option, and I plan to do a review when I get around to making sweet potato empanadas - so if you're a cheese fanatic, stay tuned.

Seitan. Pronounced the same way your giggly pre-teen inner self is thinking
it's pronounced. Church lady flashbacks aside, it's a wheat-based alternative protein that can be flavored to add to savory dishes where you might normally incorporate meat. It's not soy per-se, though it's often flavored with soy sauce, so it could change things up for people who are tired of tofu.

I have recipes and ingredients for making homemade Seitan to use in different things, but with the weather being nice, I don't especially feel like like baking first in order to cook something later. Thirty minutes and I want to eat and be outside again, so it was nice to find the WestSoy Seitan available. It's not intended to be a pound-for-pound subsitute for chicken or beef and the amount you get in a $5 package may not appeal to some. Prepared in the right recipe as a flavoring or addition rather than a centerpiece, you'll get good mileage from it.

Teas, Herbs, and The Dr. Oz/a.k.a. Oprah effect:

I happened to catch an episode of the Dr. Oz show this week where he was discussing four different herbal remedies for people with weight issues. He suggested if people were having trouble with bloating that they try eating a handful of Caraway seeds after a meal. It isn't new, as people in Germany and Europe have been chewing the seeds and adding them to breads and other dishes for a long time. You've probably enjoyed them at some point in rye or pumpernickel bread, though I don't imagine the average American household cooks very often with Caraway seeds even though they're tasty.

Well, in my different trips to find my other ingredients and spices on my grocery list, there was a curious thing. Caraway seeds are OUT OF STOCK at all but one of my local stores. Even the co-op, which sells seeds and spices in bulk, only had a few tablespoons left in its large plastic bulk storage jar. The other spices were untouched - spices like Cumin and Tumeric that were recently studied at Penn State and shown to have a slight effect on staving off blood cholesterol (via NPR article here.) Plenty of those healthy spices left for the rest of us.

I'm just amazed that, as a culture, we cling to anything touted as a weight-loss aid. I'm sure Caraway seed manufacturers are grateful for the publicity, and there's nothing inherently harmful in consuming them as a supplement, but Caraway seeds aren't going to get rid of the 50 extra pounds hanging around your waist, and the bloating won't disappear if you're ingesting copious amounts of sodium in your meal beforehand.

But I digress. I came home with a small jar of my own Caraway seeds in case there's a shortage later in the year - you've been forewarned! They're sitting next to the Fennel seeds, the Smoked Paprika, the Tarragon that went in the Asparagus Flan, and my go-to Herbes de Provence.

I wonder if the Dr. Oz Caraway fanatics are aware that Caraway seeds can be brewed as a soothing and savory tea to get the same purported effect? I feel a new blog post entry on the horizon....

Happy Early Spring to you and yours!