Tangy and Bright Marinated Beans

food, recipes

You may be like me right now: using pent-up anxious energy to haul your Dutch oven to the stove at 8 a.m. to prepare a big pot of beans. I feel like I’m on nonna time – waking up early and letting bread rise or soup simmer until some shoulder tension eases. It’s only a matter of time before I’m in a “house dress” and wearing leather soled shoes while I putter around my house. For now, the meditative stirring and gentle burbling of long cooked beans melts the worry away. And bonus, I get extra creamy, flavorful beans at the end of it all!

I typically make my dried beans the same way each time, not for a lack of creativity, but for the broad application of the flavors. For starters, I soaked my beans overnight and put them in fresh water in the morning to cook. I just like using fresh cooking water to have a clean start – I leave my beans on the countertop overnight. Who knows what the night goblins drop in there, you know?

Right into that heavy Dutch oven go lemon peel, crushed garlic, salt, black pepper, bay leaves, red pepper flakes and a good amount of olive oil. A pot of beans loves a little fat, so feel free to put in bacon, salami, or other fatty, salty meats. I personally just like to keep my beans vegetarian – truly rated E for everyone beans. Over a gentle heat, simmer the beans until they are infused with flavor and creamy inside.

Now after this you will undoubtedly have an overabundance of beans. Even using a fraction of the dried beans will yield just SO MANY beans. Whether it’s cause for concern, or a cause for celebration you will need to find ways to consume said beans without getting sick of them. Maybe on day one you make a plate with crusty bread, a pile of beans and some bean liquid and top it off with a runny egg. Another time you add the beans to some greens and serve that over pasta with a generous sprinkling of cheese…Then what?

You definitely don’t want your beans to go bad – so why not give them an olive oil bath to preserve them for as long as possible? Inspired by Marcella Hazan’s marinated eggplant and marinated pepper recipes from Marcella’s Italian Kitchen, I thought marinating beans would yield a product equal parts delicious and sustainable. These marinated beans use lemon juice and olive oil, but any acidic liquid could replace the lemon juice. Red wine vinegar would also be lovely. Additionally, any herbs, spices or funky additions like chilis would yield both flavorful preserved beans with a delicious vinaigrette.

What I love even more than the long shelf life is the ability to just add more beans to the existing liquid. Got a jar of olive oil with a few beans in it? Add more string beans or white beans. As long as the olive oil prevents bean-air contact, your beans are safe to enjoy.

I like to pile these beans onto some crusty bread with sliced radishes and some salty, hard cheese. These are also a welcome addition to salad (using some marinade as dressing, obviously) or a side to fish. You could even make a zesty, cold pasta salad with the beans and marinade for a riff on a picnic staple. Regardless, you’ll have bottled springtime you can crack open even when there’s snow on the ground in March.

Marinated Beans

1/2 cup cooked white or navy beans

1/2 cup blanched string beans, cut into half-inch pieces

Juice from 1 lemon

Extra virgin olive oil

  1. Get yourself a little glass jar to store your beloved beans. I’m using a stout little Ball jar from some leftover jam.
  2. Layer your white beans and string beans in the jar. They don’t have to be stacked one way or another, the jar will get a good shaking later. Just leave some room between the beans and the lid.
  3. Juice the lemon right over the jar, being mindful of seeds. Now is when you can also add any herbs to the mix.
  4. Cover the remainder of the beans with olive oil, making sure all beans are submerged and there’s still room between the top of the jar and the oil.
  5. Place the lid on tightly and shake to combine the beans with the liquid. It will separate during storage, but it’ll at least give all the beans a chance to get to know the flavors.
  6. Keep refrigerated and dive in whenever you want.
Vegan Ricotta with Cherry Preserves

Challenges and Joys of Vegan Cheese

food, lifestyle

I’m not vegan, but I understand and participate in the shift towards a more plant-based diet. Enter the meat substitutes and dairy facsimiles that start trends, line health aisles at the grocery store and ignite meaningful conversations about our food system. Again, I eat pant-based as often as I can. I’d consider myself closer to being vegetarian than vegan, but I try to stick to vegetables and grains instead of the substitute products available, especially if those products have unfamiliar ingredients or are no better for me than good old-fashioned vegetables. I guess my biggest concern is: what are in these substitutes, and how are they made?

Now, I don’t consider tofu a meat substitute. I eat it when I’m in the mood for it and in my eyes it’s a protein on its own, with recipes geared towards its unique texture and flavor abilities. I know meat substitutes are often made from tofu. You’ve heard of tofurkey, right? Therefore, I’m not considering tofu as I talk about vegan substitutes because it is not a substitute.

I had the opportunity to fully understand these substitutes when a friend recommended a vegan cheese making kit. I’ve made fresh ricotta, which is easy enough to do if you have a big pot, whole milk, lemon juice and some free time, but I have never even tasted vegan cheese. My first step in understanding the vegan cheese making process was breaking down the traditional cheese making process.

Cheese is just curdled milk. Sorry to burst your bubble. It’s basically strategically spoiled milk that tastes delicious and gives me relentless acne. As I see it, most cheeses require milk, an acid like citric acid or vinegar, and rennet. Specific flavors can be added and the curds can be aged, but at its core cheese contains those basic ingredients.

  • Acid: would you drink a glass of milk followed by a shot of vinegar? Probably not. When you add acid to milk it begins to curdle, forming solid pieces. Doing this over medium heat while skimming those curds away from the whey forms ricotta in it’s most basic form. This is how most cheese making processes start.
  • Rennet: rennet comes from enzymes found in cow stomachs, so not exactly vegan but plant-based substitutes have existed for years. Vegetarian rennet, derived from artichokes, cardoons or nettles, does the job just as well and has been used in traditional Spanish and Portuguese cheeses. The rennet helps the soured milk curds solidify into cheese by working with proteins to coagulate. In order for rennet to work, milk must already be high in calcium and phosphate (which is why rennet might not work well with older milk or goat’s milk).
  • Aging: I love fermentation. Allowing the flavors in cheese to develop over time with bacterial growth gives certain cheese that funky allure. Earthy rinds on brie and savory umami from Parmesan turn the curdled milk into culinary delicacies.

So then how does rennet coagulate almond milk despite a lack of calcium?

In my short experience making vegan cheese, the process involves no coagulation at all. In fact, vegan ricotta involves no cooking at all. The ‘curds’ are not formed by intentionally spoiling the milk, but by incorporating macadamia nuts. The nuts add fat content as well as texture (just make sure to both soak and blend them enough so you aren’t left with any grit in the finished product). While the vegan cheese did not behave like ricotta and did not melt, I’d say that what it lacked in textural satisfaction it made up for in flavor. And yes, I love a good cheese pull and much as the next person, but I believe cheese should act as a flavor enhancer to the dish and not simply a textural layer (unless we’re talking grilled cheese or pizza, then the pull is crucial to the dish, and flavor and texture are equally important). The citric acid provided that curdled tang and the bits of ground macadamia nuts added that grainy texture that ricotta takes on after some time draining.

Vegan products, until very recently with the injection of ‘bleeding’ plant-based burgers into the main stream, have been engineered to behave like their non-vegan counterparts and not necessarily taste as such. Vegan cheeses offered textural similarities to dairy cheeses, but struggled to emulate flavors unique to cultured dairy. Slices of vegan cheese could melt like American cheese but could not offer any flavorful addition to a dish (I mean, American cheese offers very little but STILL).

Recently, vegan cheese makers have employed culturing and aging methods to better assimilate vegan cheese into the world of artisanal cheese plates, moving away from coconut oil-based emulsions and leaning towards something based on fats naturally found in cashews and macadamia nuts. Flavors from nutritional yeast add the missing umami lacking from other attempts.

Now to the more philosophical stuff: is vegan cheese even cheese?

When it comes to finding a food substitute, I understand the inherent identity crisis. Artificial meat is still not meat. Almond milk is technically not milk, but calling it creamy almond juice does not necessarily have the same ring to it. Therefore, vegan cheese by definition is not actually cheese. Cheese by definition is formed by curdling milk, and as I mentioned earlier, alt milk cannot curdle. However, who cares when environmental, ethical or dietary needs are on the line? I think progress in the vegan cheese world proves that artisanship and flavor do not need to fall to the wayside to craft a substitute. Relying on crutches like soy often minimize the clientele as more folks see soy farming as problematic to the environment, and can’t shake soy’s bad reputation despite contradictory research. With advancements in vegan cheese making, there could soon be environmentally sustainable, health conscious and flavor-comparable substitutes hitting the mainstream as hard as imitation meat burgers.

Tofu, meet the omnivores

food, lifestyle, vegetarian

My first encounter with tofu was neither pleasant nor life changing. I ordered a miso soup that accompanied a sushi dinner. I remember dunking my spoon into the cloudy amber liquid and lifting jiggly chunks of tofu out from beneath the brothy surface. The flavor was nothing spectacular but the texture was just a little off-putting. I had little to no desire to give tofu a second chance.

But this wouldn’t be a good blog post if I didn’t try tofu again. Many years later I tried tofu in a rice bowl, cooked until crispy and drenched in creamy coconut curry sauce. I thought “man, this is good.” For a second I thought vegetarianism was possible for me.

But the truth is, I love meat. I grew up in an Italian household and that meant fish for Christmas, lamb for Easter and fresh vegetables on the side. The comforts of a Sunday sauce simmered with meatballs or a fried chicken cutlet at my grandma’s house could never be replaced by vegetarian alternatives.

Though I love meat, I have no desire to try something marketed as a “meat alternative.” It’s not meat, don’t try to make it meat. What do I want? I want to highlight plant based proteins and meals for their naturally, non-meat flavors, which brings me to tofu. Let’s edit the dialogue…

While some “meat substitutes” capitalize on tofu’s ability to crumble like ground beef, I prefer to savor this jiggly soy protein for its naturally appealing qualities, and that means heavy handed seasoning and crisping the edges until golden brown. Since tofu is a blank canvas seasoning is everything. It’s not the time to be timid in the kitchen. In my experiences, tofu tastes best with a sweet and salty sauce (like here in this vegan noodle bowl). The tofu’s creamy texture also compliments a bit of spice nicely, so go ahead and add those chili peppers.

When cooking tofu, at least for a crispy result, it is imperative to really squeeze that liquid out. Put the block under some weights and let it just release liquid for as long as possible before cooking. This will ensure maximum flavor absorption and minimal spongey texture.

The downside to tofu? Not great for leftovers unless eaten cold. In my experience reheating tofu results in that rubbery texture. Certain things (like the aforementioned noodle bowl) don’t taste spectacular cold or reheated, but a cold tofu dish tastes great. These shawarma spiced tofu pitas tasted arguably better the next day cold: the tofu maintained crisp edges and didn’t seize up and become little morsels of rubbery nightmares.

Takeaways to this tofu rant: vegetarians and non-vegetarians can enjoy tofu. Period. If you try tofu and it’s spongey or jiggly, give it a shot elsewhere. Season it aggressively and don’t expect a meaty flavor. Instead, approach tofu with open-mindedness and interest to try something new. You might be an omnivore like me and begin incorporating more plant based meals into your diet too, no disguise needed.