Back to basics . . . and childhood.

My parents used to make what they would call a “hamburger hotdish” for dinner a lot of the time while I was growing up.  It was a dish similar to hamburger helper that was made on the stove top in a big ass skillet.  It was pretty simple, ground beef, onions, celery, macaroni and canned tomatoes from my dad’s garden.  We’d eat that with peanut butter and jelly on white bread with big glasses of milk.  It was a pretty standard meal at our house.  I never really used to think about why we’d eat that so often.  I’d just scarf down the hotdish so I could have more peanut butter and jelly.  But now I realize why it was on the stove at least once a week.

It’s cheap.

Dirt.  Frickin’.  Cheap.

Because of several money issues in the last month or so, I’ve been forced to cut my food budget roughly in half.  Which means no more exotic, organic foods from the co op, no more specialty mail-order vegan products for a while either.  I’m back to supermarket veganism . . . well, Target veganism to be more precise.  Problem is . . . I don’t really know how to cook that way.

I’m used to having interesting vegetables, artisan breads, imported pasta, and organic canned goods.  Granted, the generic cheap stuff is still vegan (more or less), I worry about chemicals used during farming and in the processing of the food.  Cest la vie, I guess.  I do still buy and voluntarily eat Oreos from time to time, so I should probably stop bitching.

Anyway.  I didn’t even know where to start with making cheap food.  So I went back to the classic meal I’d seen my parents make hundreds of times: Hamburger Hotdish.

I’ve been toying with “skillet meals” for a while now.  Mostly because I had some weird craving for hamburger helper.  As a freshman at college, during my vegetarian years, I started eating hamburger helper on a regular basis and just subbing out the ground beef for some veggie crumbles.  It was a comfort food.  Warm and salty and squishy.  At first my aim was just to recreate that feeling with my food while keeping everything vegan.  Then I realized what sort of potential skillet meals had.  You can make just about any dish in a vegan skillet version.  Vegan Beef-a-roni, vegan cheesburger helper, vegan chicken ala king, even vegan tuna casserole.  I started making them all the time because they were easy, complete meals, that only used one pan.  It was as if I’d discovered the secret to college cooking.

But now, I see that not only are they fast, easy, tasty, and leave you with less cleaning . . . they’re cheap, as long as you use the right ingredients.  In my original days of coming up with these meals, I’d use expensive, frozen, meat analogues:  Morningstar chik’n strips or boca crumbles or whatever was on sale at the co op.  But as a better, cheaper source of protein, now I’m using tofu.

I recently discovered that in a nonstick skillet, you can treat crumbled tofu sort of like ground beef for these sorts of things.  Just heat the skillet to medium high heat, add about 2 tablespoons of canola oil, crumble in the tofu, let it saute for a minute or two, and then drizzle it all with a healthy amount of soy sauce.  Then you just have to let it fry until it’s starting to brown.  TA DA!  The perfect protein base for skillet meals.  And coming in at about $2 a pound, it’s economical and vegan.

So the next hurdle was making my parents’ hamburger hotdish concept healthy.  I mean, macaroni and meat with some tomato sauce isn’t exactly what I would call good-for-you.  The meat became tofu.  The noodles became whole-grain pasta.  The sauce got some herbs added to it so it wasn’t so damn boring.  And the whole thing got an injection of vegetables for the sake of nutrition.

At the end of it all, I did all the math.  I got three BIG servings out of the recipe for less than $4.  Dinner tonight, and lunch and dinner tomorrow.  SUCCESS!  Just for my serving tonight, I made some toasty crumbles for the top and sprinkled on a little bit of nutritional yeast for flavor.

here's a cruddy picture of it I took with my webcam

A Basic Skillet Meal

Ingredients:

  • 2 Tablespoons canola oil
  • 1/2 Pound of firm or extra firm tofu
  • 3 Tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • 1 teaspoon basil
  • 1 15-ounce can of tomato sauce
  • 1 1/2 cans of water
  • 1/2 of a 13.5 ounce box of whole grain pene pasta (a generous 2 cups)
  • 1/2 of a 16-ounce bag of frozen, cut green beans
  • salt and pepper to taste

What to do:

Heat a large (12-inch), nonstick skillet over medium high heat.  While that’s heating, wrap the tofu in some paper towels and gently squeeze out some of the water.  Don’t worry about getting it too dry, most of the excess will cook off.  Once hot, put the oil in the skillet and crumble in the tofu.  Fry this for 1-2 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Then gather all the tofu into the middle of the pan and drizzle the soy sauce over it evenly.  I just pour it out of the bottle, so 3 tablespoons is an estimate.  Don’t stir for 2 minutes, just let it sizzle.  The soy sauce is reducing a bit in the pan and that’s what you want.

Now stir the tofu occasionally for the next 5 minutes, or until it starts to get golden brown on the parts that aren’t covered in soy sauce.  Add the onion and garlic to the pan and saute, stirring occasionally, for 3-5 minutes.  Just until the onion looks cooked, but the tofu isn’t too browned.  Add the oregano and basil and stir.

Add the tomato sauce.  And then add 1 and 1/2 cans full of water, making sure to get all that good tomato sauce into the pan by swishing it out with the water.  Bring the pan to a boil.  Once boiling, add the pasta.  Cover and simmer for 10 minutes (or as long as the pasta calls for), stirring occasionally.  After the 10 minutes is up, check to see if the pasta is cooked.  If it’s a little firm yet, that’s okay.  Add the green beans and bring the pan back to a simmer.  You may need to add a little extra water to loosen things up a bit.  But if it looks like there’s a nice sauce in the pan, you don’t have to.  Simmer the whole concoction for 5 to 7 minutes, or until the green beans are hot.

Put it into a bowl (or on a plate, if you prefer) and eat it on up!

This is a basic outline for skillet meals, using this format, you can make a bunch of different variations.  Judging by my bank account, I’ll probably have the opportunity to post some more in the coming weeks.

Benny and Flo do Brunch

Benny and Flo on a plate

. . . how this vegan does brunch.

Eggs Benedict and Eggs Florentine are two simple, classic brunch dishes.  They are very similar:  English muffins topped with ham for Benedict and sauteed spinach for Florentine, with poached eggs and then smothered in Hollandaise sauce.  These are egg/dairy/meat filled cholesterol bombs . . . that I miss very much.

rain rain go awayIt’s a rainy day here in Northern Minnesota, so I figured that it was the perfect day to make a hybrid, vegan version of Benedict and Florence.  This took some planning.  While the English muffin, spinach, and even ham portions were easy to sub out for, the egg and the Hollandaise were going to be issues.

Tofu usually makes a decent egg sub, like in tofu scramble.  That wouldn’t pose too much of a problem.  Though, poached tofu sounds disgusting, so I decided to bake it and give it a much more toothsome texture and brown, crispy corners.

As for the Hollandaise . . . hoo boy.  Classic Hollandaise sauce recipes consist of two main things: butter and eggs.  Gross.  Even vegan substitutions for those couldn’t make the creamy, rich texture of Hollandaise sauce.  I needed a new plan.  I looked up other recipes for vegan Hollandaise sauce, but none of them really tickled my fancy.  They all involved either vegan sour cream or silken tofu, neither of which I had in my fridge, nor did I really feel like walking (in the rain) down to the co op to get.

So I did what any good vegan cook would do.  I made up my own.  It’s more like a modified bechamel sauce than traditional Hollandaise (which is basically hot mayonnaise . . . ew) and it more than does the job.

The recipe that follows is quite involved and took about an hour and a half to make.  There’s a lot of downtime in there, though.  Mostly when pressing and marinating the tofu.  Also, all the quantities given, except for the sauce are for one serving.  Feel free to double/triple/quadruple this recipe to suit your needs.  The sauce recipe will make about 4 servings.  So, one recipe of the sauce, a whole block of tofu, a 5 oz bag of spinach, and 4 English muffins should be just about perfect to feed yourself and three friends who trust your cooking.

Shall we then . . .

Benny and Flo do Brunch:

Ingredients:

The Tofu Portion:

I'm not actually left handed.

  • 1/4 pound of tofu (approximately), sliced horizontally off the block
  • 3-4 Tablespoons tamari (or soy sauce, shoyu, braggs, whathaveyou)
  • 1-2 Tablespoons rice vinegar
  • pepper
  • olive oil

Vegan Hollandaise Sauce:

  • 3 Tablespoons Earth Balance margarine
  • 2 Tablespoons all purpose flour
  • pinch of turmeric
  • 1 cup unsweetened soy milk
  • big pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons nutritional yeast
  • juice of 1/2 a lemon
  • 1 Tablespoon vegenaise
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Everything Else:

spinach and muffins

  • One whole wheat English muffin (do make sure it’s vegan), split, toasted, and slathered with some Earth Balance
  • A big handful of spinach
  • 2 Slices smokey vegan meaty substitute (I used smoked tofurky.  Feel free to use fake bacon or veggie ham if you prefer)
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • parsley and fruit for garnish (optional, but pretty)

The Method

The Tofu Portion:

pressing tofuFirst of all, press your tofu.  Wrap it in either a good thick wad of paper towels (I used about 5 layers on each side of the tofu, folded of course), or a clean, cotton, folded kitchen towel.  Set the wrapped tofu on your cutting board and put a heavy plate on top and add more weights on top of that.  I use my stack of cast iron frying pans, but you can use a pot of water or canned goods if you can stack them high enough.  Allow the tofu to press like this for 10 to 15 minutes.

Next is the marinade.  Slice your tofu down the middle (the short way) so you have two rectangles.  Place the slices on a plate (I used the same one with which I pressed the tofu.)  MarinadePour your tamari and rice vinegar on top of your tofu and swish it all around with your hands to mix it up and get all sides of the tofu slices covered.  The strength of the marinade is up to you.  If you like it a little saltier, use the full amount of tamari and less vinegar.  If you like it a little more sour, use less tamari and more vinegar.  I use the full amount of both, but you can be the judge.  Also, you want there to be enough marinade on the plate so the tofu sucks it up really well.

Cover and let the tofu marinate for 15 to 20 minutes.  Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Line a small baking sheet with aluminum foil.  Pour a couple teaspoons of olive oil on the foil and spread it around with your fingers (or a pastry brush if you must).  sprinkle ground pepper on both sides of the tofu and put on the baking sheet.  Drizzle with a little more oil.  Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes.

While the tofu cooks, you can move on to the sauce . . .

Vegan Hollandaise Sauce:

Heat a small saucepan over medium low heat.  Add the Earth Balance and heat until it is sizzling and boiling quite a bit.  Whisk in the flour all at once to make a paste and continue to whisk it constantly for about a minute.  Add in a SMALL pinch of turmeric for color and mix well (you want your sauce yellow, but you don’t want it too yellow).  Slowly whisk in soy milk.  Bring sauce to a boil, whisking frequently.  Boil for 2 to 3 minutes and remove from heat.  Whisk in the cayenne and nutritional yeast.  Add the lemon juice and mix well.  Taste for seasoning.  I probably ended up adding in about a teaspoon of salt, but I didn’t measure and I really like salt.  I just kept adding it until I thought my sauce was sufficiently salty.  Season to your taste with salt and a bit of black pepper.  Lastly, add the vegenaise for a little bit more creaminess.

The finished Hollandaise

The finished Hollandaise

Keep the sauce warm by covering it with a lid or you can put it over low heat if you watch it carefully and whisk periodically, as to keep it from burning.

Putting it all together . . .

finished tofuBy the time your sauce is done, your tofu ought to be coming out of the oven.  You want it nicely browned with just the edges starting to get crispy.  Mine took about 20 minutes.  You want your tofu to look roughly like mine in the picture there.  Let this cool a bit, but keep it warm while you finish your prep for the last of your ingredients.

Heat 1-2 teaspoons of olive oil in a small skillet (about 8 inches) over medium heat.  Add a big handful of spinach, more or less filling the pan as it cooks down a lot.  pan o spinachCook until the spinach is wilted.

Meanwhile, toast your English muffin.  When toasted, butter it!  To heat up my smoky vegan meaty subsititute, I placed slices of smoked tofurky on my English muffins and put them back in the toaster oven.  If you don’t have a toaster oven (I suggest you get one, first off), you can use your full size oven to get your muffin/meaty combo all toasty.

Now that you’ve got your tofu baked, your sauce thickened, your spinach wilted, and your muffin toasted . . . it’s time to plate . . .

Step one

Step one

Place your muffins on a plate . . .

. . . step two . . .

. . . step two . . .

Divide up your spinach and spread it on top of the faux-meat.

. . . step three . . .

. . . step three . . .

Place a baked tofu slice on top of each muffin half.

. . . step four . . .

. . . step four . . .

Smother the tofu slices in the vegan Hollandaise sauce.

Then garnish with some chopped parsley, cut fruit and a lemon twist and you’ve got yourself a delicious hybrid of eggs Benedict and eggs Florentine made vegan.

. . . and then garnish!

. . . and then garnish!

Admittedly, this is not a low-calorie recipe.  To be honest, I rarely try to make things as such.  Also, it is quite involved.  It’s not the lazy Sunday sort of meal one would hope a brunch dish to be.  Well, unless you’re like me, that is.  I love involved cooking on Sunday mornings.

However, this is definitely an impressive brunch dish.  Especially if you’re making a meal for other vegans.