Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Cooking Tips for Delicious Success from Horizons Chef

One weekend in January, Brian and I went to see a cooking demonstration by Horizons chef and owner, Rich Landau, at Foster’s. If you are in the Philly-area and haven’t been to Horizons yet, please go. If you’re not in the area, it’s definitely worth making the pilgrimage for.

I first went to Horizons just a few weeks into my relationship with Brian to celebrate his birthday. I was a full-fledged meat-eater and had no intention of ever going vegetarian. I loved the food at Horizons, especially Brian’s meat and potatoes dish of savory seitan and potatoes. And the chocolate hazelnut dessert? Amazing. It’s safe to say that that early experience with delicious vegan cuisine (and delicious cuisine period) built a strong foundation for my later transition into and openness to veganism.

When Rich Landau came out to start the demonstration, he looked like a guy who drinks beer and watches the game while eating a plate of ribs. Not that he’s not fit (he is), just, well, he looked like a guy’s guy and not some delicate vegan flower (please don't be offended, delicate flowers; I love y'all). This is a good thing. He’s a great ambassador for the food because he loves to eat and, more importantly, he loved to eat meat. He didn’t stop eating it because he disliked the taste. He stopped because he realized that cows did not lay steaks the way chickens lay eggs. Once he found out the truth, he stopped eating meat. I liked that he said he can still pass a burger stand and wonder if anyone is watching because he is tempted. I can relate. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. This is where Horizons comes in. It’s a restaurant for people who love good food. The fact that it is vegan is a bonus.

The samples distributed during the demo were delicious; even though they were pretty cold by the time they were passed out. Just imagine how great a full-size, freshly cooked plate of these dishes would taste like at Horizons. I also purchased the restaurant's cookbook, Horizons: New Vegan Cuisine by Landau and his wife and Horizons pastry chef, Kate Jacoby (she’s doing a demo at Foster’s some time this spring). It’s contains helpful cooking hints, travel stories, and over 80 mostly Caribbean-inspired recipes. Brian and I talked about going to Horizons for Valentine’s Day but it’s even pricier than usual that day so we’re doing the recession special and recreating the dishes at home. Here are some helpful hints I garnered from the cooking demo.

General Cooking Hints
* Seitan and tofu aren’t “mock” meats. They are real, ancient foods packed with flavor, protein, and other nutrients.

* Enjoy seitan and tofu on their own merits. Don’t compare seitan to filet mignon and you won’t be disappointed. Just enjoy it for the hearty, delicious component it is.

* Just like you have to flavor chicken, you have to flavor seitan and tofu. Flavoring and cooking properly makes all the difference.

* Cook with a neutral (and less expensive) oil with a high smoke point, like canola. Finish your dish by drizzling it with flavorful, stronger oils, such as extra-virgin olive oil or toasted sesame oil. Don’t waste their flavors and risk burning them by using them to cook with.

* A word on herbs: Use fresh herbs to finish a dish and dried to start. Some herbs dry better than others. Rich Landau, for instance, loves dried thyme (so do I) but hates dried parsley. Experiment to see which herbs are enhanced or downgraded when dried.

Tofu Tips
* Favorite Horizons Brands include Fresh Tofu, which is made locally in Allentown, PA (available at Essene and Whole Foods) and Natural Pacific from Hawaii.

* Rather than pressing tofu, allow it to sit on a plate for 15 to 20 minutes. This allows some of the water to drain away but some of the water is retained to ensure juiciness after cooking.

* Use extra-firm to cook with (grilling, searing, roasting, etc) and other kinds for baking (soft silken, for example)

* To Sear Tofu:
--Cut tofu lengthwise into 3 or 4 slabs
--Combine spices (caraway and coriander seeds are good) in a coffee grinder.
You want them to be coarse and not too fine so that oil reaches tofu but not so chunky that only the spices sear.
--coat tofu with spice combination (more are available in the Horizons cookbook), coarse sea salt and a medley of coarsely ground peppers.
--Add enough oil to a stainless steel skillet to generously coat and place over high heat. When the oil starts to ripple, you’re ready to add the tofu.
--Place one piece of tofu and let it sit for several seconds before adding the next piece. If you add them all at once, you’ll cool down the pan and oil and the tofu won’t sear properly. Be patient.
--Cook until the sides of tofu start browning. Now you’re ready to flip to the other side. The side you’ve cooked should be very brown and crisp. If it’s not, you’ve flipped too soon.

* Mediterranean Sauce: Once you’ve seared your tofu, you can either eat it as is or prepare a sauce for it. To make this Mediterranean sauce, you’ll need:
--canola oil, enough to generously coat pan
--half a medium onion, chopped
--1 garlic clove, chopped
--medium tomato, chopped
--can of organic hearts of palm (Rich Landau recommended
Native Forest), cut into slices
--a spoonful or two of drained capers
--few sprigs of fresh time
--sea salt, to taste

--Cook canola oil over high heat in same, unwashed pan as you cooked the tofu in. You want all those brown bits for flavor. The oil is properly heated when ripples form.
--Add onions and ground pepper. Cook until onions soften and turn translucent.
--Add garlic, tomato, hearts and palm and capers and stir well, making sure to scrape the bottom of pan for brown bits to incorporate flavor. Cook for several minutes. Don’t overcook and thicken the sauce but cook it long enough so it’s not runny. Experiment with times to get it right.
--Sprinkle sauce with crumbled fresh thyme and sea salt to taste and pour finished sauce over seared tofu slices.

Seitan Tips
* Seitan is simply flavored wheat gluten. Gluten is the very high protein remnant of flour that has had its starch washed away. Seitan is a food that is thousands of years old and was originated either by Eastern European monks or in Asia.

* You can make your own seitan using recipes from such cookbooks as Veganomicon by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero or How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman. Or purchase it readymade at the store. Horizons uses Philadelphia's own Ray’s Seitan, which is available in Philly at Essene and Whole Foods.

* When using prepackaged seitan, drain and rinse in a colander before using.

* To make Horizons’ delicious and tender, Barbeque Seitan, check out their cookbook, Horizons: New Vegan Cuisine. I didn't get the proportions but the sauce is made of ketchup, blackstrap or Barbados molasses, jerk spice, and grated ginger. I could have eaten platefuls of this.

Stay tuned because the next cooking demonstration I am attending is with Christina Pirello at Essene this Saturday.