Explorations in Flavor and Cooking – End of Week One

July 10, 2011 § 3 Comments

Last night at midnight I’d officially made it through the first week of my 30 day vegan challenge. As I wrote in my last post (on day 4!) it’s been challenging to say the least. I’m starting to get the hang of it, filling up on lots of fresh veggies and fruit, but man is it tough. Not to mention that I’ve just been hungry a lot! There were several times this week that I really thought – I’m going to have to quit. Luckily, or unluckily depending on how you look at it, I documented it here so I felt quitting would be, well losing I guess. I’ve never been known to be one to hold back on indulgences – I enjoy my desserts, pasta, wine, all in all just good food. This has kind of become a self control challenge – let’s see what I can do. And, while I’m testing my self control, I’m trying new flavors – good and bad.

It’s so easy to get stuck in a routine of making the same thing over and over – or even just ordering the same things when you go out. We all have our go to recipes that provide us quick comfort on week night ensuring a good meal. In the age of multi-tasking, it can be hard to find the time to try something new. My go-to recipes all include meat, seafood, or dairy, so I’ve been starting fresh over the past 7 days. My adventures in cooking this week: quinoa and eggplant.

I’ve seen lots of recipes with quinoa that look great but had never made it before. I actually was really overzealous and bought a package at Costco I think two years ago thinking I’d get healthy and it just sat in the pantry until it expired. I don’t know how to describe quinoa – it’s a grain that is like a tiny little pearl. Once cooked its quite light and fluffy. It’s known for it’s “delicious” nutty taste. I for one, didn’t think it was so delicious. To me it just tasted like health food – and not good health food. I had made a veggie stir fry and served it over the plain quinoa. I’d cooked the veggies with coconut oil which is healthier than olive oil, but man was it plain. It needed a spicy sauce or something. The picture above looks much more appetizing than it was. That was the night I almost quit – I could barely take it.

But the next day I decided to try it out again as I had some cooked quinoa leftover and I made what turned out to be a very good Greek quinoa salad. The key, I learned, was the dressing. The red wine vinegar was acidic enough to counter balance the quinoa flavor – providing a nice salad with some added protein and texture.

To make the salad, rinse and cook the quinoa according to the package instructions. Add diced and seeded cucumbers, scallions or red onion, red pepper, and black or kalamata olives. I didn’t have tomatoes on hand but they’d certainly be a great addition. The dressing is two parts olive oil and one part red wine vinegar with a generous portion of dried oregano. The result – a quinoa salad I can enjoy and feel satisfied from!

The cooking adventures continued Friday night with a homemade marinara sauce made of tomato, roasted eggplant, peppers, and garlic. I’ve never made eggplant. Clarification: I’ve never purchased or ordered eggplant. There is nothing about eggplant that appeals to me – except it’s beautiful purple skin, which I do have to admit, is quite special. This eggplant avoidance comes directly from my mom. She hates the thing after many years of eggplant parmesan on Friday nights when Catholics still observed meatless Fridays. So needless to say, we never had eggplant in our house.

I recently saw Rachel Ray make this marinara and figured anything with roasted peppers and garlic has to be good right?  The kitchen smelled amazing with the vegetables and garlic roasting away. Even my husband couldn’t wait for his meatless dinner to be ready. As I pulled each item from the oven, the fragrance intensified and my stomach churned. This was going to be gooooood! I had full confidence in Rachel’s testament that this was in fact the best marinara ever. Or not…

I plated that gorgeous pasta, pouring extra sauce full of all those veggies over the top and sat proudly to eat it. I took a bite and — nada. It tasted, well, I don’t quite know how to describe but kind of just like some plain ‘ol marinara from a nondescript jar. No depth. No complexity of flavors. This sauce had a whole head of roasted garlic in it I may add – and still nothing? Rachel was a bit too sure of her testament – or what it may have been is that I still just don’t like eggplant. Last night as I recounted the story to our friends and they had ordered babaganoush. To confirm this like or dislike of eggplant I tried it and yup – no me gusta. So perhaps the eggplant flavor killed it for me.

So, I know I haven’t made a sale of this by any stretch – but if you like eggplant, you might like this recipe. I did have the leftovers today for lunch and doctored it up a bit and it was much better. I sautéed some garlic and crushed red pepper in oil and then mixed in the pasta – the extra heat and spice gave it the kick it needed. If you do try it, I’d suggest just using canned roasted red peppers. I don’t have a gas grille and trying to roast them under the broiler was a pain. I think I’ll try it again but just leave out the eggplant and see how that changes it.

So, we’ve had some successes and failures this week in the kitchen. In the end though I got to end my week on a high note. We went to Ceviche with friends before a fabulous concert. I’d recommended Ceviche as it’s right across from the arena and is one of our favorite restaurants. But as my husband pointed out – “what on earth are you going to eat?” As he says, before I was picky, now I’m just plain difficult.

So what did I eat at a restaurant full of meaty and seafood delights? I ordered my usual aceitunas y pimintos – marinated olives and peppers to start as I mused over the menu. As I’ve learned in just a few weeks, there’s only a handful of vegan options at any restaurant. I decided upon the gazpacho, arroz con pimientos, and champinones al ajillo which I confirmed all complied with a vegan diet. The gazpacho arrived and the beautiful pink color had to mean one thing – cream. There was no way that soup didn’t have dairy. I confirmed with the waiter and yes, they add cream. Interesting for a gazpacho as I’ve never had it that way. We switched the creamy gazpacho for a house salad, which I finished without a second thought. Whatever is in their vinaigrette is amazing. The arroz con pimientos – saffron rice with peppers – was so flavorful I’m not entirely convinced it was vegan. I’m guessing it had to have seafood or chicken stock in it. I confess to eating every last grain and everyone at the table reassured me saying they were pretty sure it was vegan friendly – I think they may have just been trying to be nice.

Now for the champinones al ajillo – these are sautéed mushrooms in garlic oil and finished with a sherry flambé. If you’re following along, you know I don’t like mushrooms. At all actually. So the fact that I’ve now eaten mushrooms twice in one week is pretty big. There was something spicy in it that I couldn’t figure out what it was, but must have been some red pepper flakes infused in the oil. The combination of sweet sherry and spicy, garlicky oil was amazing. I think I’m starting to like mushrooms – that’s good.

For me, this meal was success. I was worried about eating there and being tempted, wanting everything else on the table than what sat before me but I wasn’t. I thoroughly enjoyed my meal and the best part was I didn’t leave with that overstuffed feeling I usually have when I eat there. Instead, I felt content and happy.

I wonder what this week will have in store for me! On to week two…

Update: Check out how I did with my 30-day vegan challenge and read my recap here.


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