Staying Sane and Well Fed through the Holidays

OK, so this column was supposed to be the Pound Cake column.  It’s not, because a good, reliable vegan pound cake recipe has been even more elusive than I ever dreamed possible.  I have made a gajillion of them (I counted) and each and every one looked beautiful for most of its baking time, and then gently collapsed as it was nearing completion.  Research continues.

In the meantime, the holidays are upon us.  It’s the time of year when we might be tempted to forget meal planning and cooking at home, and just grab whatever we can at the mall food court or call out for Chinese.  We know, however, that eating out is hard on our wallets (right when we need to be saving that cash for presents and travel) AND it’s hard on our health.  An occasional meal out is a treat, but eating fast food instead of a good, home-cooked meal just isn’t good enough for you and your family.  Let me show you a couple of things you can do to make quick meals easier.  I’m also going to talk about a few gadgets you might ask for or give this holiday season.

First of all – while you’re making your shopping list and your holiday card list, take time to make a menu.  Remember easy options like whole grain pasta dishes, soups, steamed veggies (old school, but delicious and very quick), and my hands-down favorite meal – a pot of greens, a pot of beans, a pot of brown rice, and a microwaved (or slow-cooked) sweet potato.  Just switch out the seasonings in the greens, the type of beans, the type of greens, the seasoning in the beans…you get the idea.  It can be different every night for a week, but still essentially the same healthy, fiber-rich meal, and the whole thing can be made ahead and waiting when you get home.

Those of you who read my columns regularly know that I LOVE my slow cookers.  I have four of them, in different sizes and shapes, and sometimes I have them all going at once.  You can either use them to cook in, or you can use them to hold food you’ve finished cooking while the rest of the family goes about their holiday errands, or you can use them to free up a burner or two when preparing large holiday meals.  They’re also great for keeping cider, mulled wine, or cocoa hot at parties.   If you don’t have it yet, I recommend Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker, by Robin Robertson.  It’s hands-down the best crockpot cookbook I’ve ever seen.  It’s almost entirely vegan, with just a couple of small non-vegan options suggested.

Don’t forget your rice cooker.  You can make a pot of brown rice ahead and it will be hot and moist and ready for you when you get home.  If you’ve thought even further ahead, you’ll also have some beans in the slow cooker.  If not, open some canned beans and some salsa, add a salad and you have a meal.  Layer the whole thing into a taco salad if you prefer single dish dining.  If you’re thinking of asking for or giving a rice cooker as a gift, go ahead and spring for one from Japan, like a Zojirushi.  The quality is much higher than the cheaper ones commonly sold in the U.S., and they have some super-cool functions, like fuzzy logic that helps make your rice (or pretty much any other kind of grain) just the way you like it.

If you have a pressure cooker, you can make beans in no time flat – even without pre-soaking.  I love my old jiggle-top cookers, but you might prefer to invest in a safe, modern “2nd generation” cooker.  To go with it, I recommend any of Lorna Sass’s books on pressure cooking.  My favorites are The Complete Vegetarian Kitchen and Great Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure (which are both vegan).

I’ve already done articles on these items.  Today, however, I have a new gadget I’d like to talk about.  It’s hard to believe, but I’ve recently fallen in love with George Foreman.  Not the man, but the indoor grill with his name on it.  Maybe this is not a revelation to you, but I have seen these things for several years, and always thought of them as space-eating gadgets for carnivores.  Imagine my surprise when my vegan friend Katy told me that she uses her George Foreman grill to make killer tofu and tempeh, and that veggies are great grilled on it.  I went out and got one, and she’s right!  Another friend uses hers to grill apples.  Yum.  The only sad thing is that some veggies take awhile to grill, so be sure to get a big enough George Foreman grill.  They come in a whole bunch of sizes.  I got one with grill plates that can be removed and popped into the dishwasher, but I wish I had gotten a bigger one.

Ideas for the George Foreman:
Grill Veggies:  Slice yellow onions (sweet ones like Vidalias are best, but pretty much any yellow onion will do).  Slap them right into the grill and close the lid.  Grill until they look limp and have very distinct grill marks.  It’s hard to overgrill them.  They just get sweeter the longer they cook.  These are good on almost anything.

Slice eggplants into medium-thick slices (about 1/2 – 3/4-inch thick).  You might want to brush them with olive oil, but it’s up to you.  They don’t really stick either way.  Grill them until they start to soften all over and have distinct grill marks.  These are terrific on their own, or even better if you drizzle on a dressing made with about 2 parts soy sauce (tamari), one part lime juice, and one part toasted sesame oil.  Cut them up on salads.  Yum.

Zucchini and yellow squash are good grilled , as are mushrooms.

Tempeh:  Just cut your block of tempeh into sticks or “fingers”.  Brush lightly with olive oil or toasted sesame oil.  Grill until hot all the way through and grill marks are very clear.

Tofu:  My favorite way to do tofu in the George Foreman grill is to marinate it quickly in the following:

1 cup tamari or good quality soy sauce
1/4 cup toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons freshly grated ginger
2 tablespoons freshly grated garlic
Cut one pound of firm, Chinese-style tofu (not the silken Mori-Nu variety) into three slabs or “steaks” crosswise.  Marinate them for about 10 to 15 minutes in the marinade above.  Drain them briefly, and slap them into the grill.  Grill for about 15 minutes, or until the steaks look very browned and puffy when you open the grill, but collapse quickly.  The resulting tofu is chewy, salty, tangy, and has crispy edges.  You can refrigerate and reuse the marinade for 1 more pound of tofu, but use it within a few days.

This chewy tofu is great as is, or cut into small bites for a salad (especially with the eggplant above), or cut up into a big bowl of soupy greens.

Apples:  After you finish cooking dinner, throw some apple slices (Golden Delicious or Granny Smith work well) into the grill and let them cook while you’re eating dinner.  The sugars in the apple will caramelize and turn a simple apple into dessert.  Sprinkle them lightly with cinnamon and enjoy.

(Addendum)  Grilled Bananas are also delish!  Halve them first across, and then lengthwise and grill them for a few minutes, or until they’re warm and showing grill marks.  Or longer, until they’re soft.  Your choice.