An April Fool’s Birthday Party: Illusion Food

April 7, 2011
vegan meat loaf

Vegan "meat loaf" cake and "ice cream"

This year, we celebrated my friend’s birthday with a party on April Fool’s Day, April 1. It was the perfect time to try out my menu of Illusion Foods.

Some years ago, on a Food Network television show called Dinner Impossible, Chef Robert Irvine was invited to a magician’s convention in Las Vegas. His mission was to create a dinner menu of Illusion Foods.

In other words, each dish had to look like one thing, but taste like something else. He served a soup that tasted like Ceasar Salad and another soup that tasted like pizza.

With the help of chemicals like xanthan gum and liquid nitrogen, he mutated mango and chocolate to create Dessert Nachos.

He cut tortillas into triangles, baked them, and sprinkled them with cinnamon and sugar. Chocolate and some chemicals were frozen and blended to create “ground beef.”

Grated “cheese” for the nachos were made with mangoes and some other chemical that allowed it to stay somewhat pliable when frozen and grated. And the “salsa” was sauce made from strawberries and cherries.

Inspired by that show, I came up with a vegan version of his Illusion Food menu. I used the pizza soup idea and served it with grilled triangles of pizza dough.

vegan pizza soup

Vegan Pizza Soup

(Sorry, no photo of the bread. The reality of food blogging is that you often eat all the food before you remember to take a picture!)

Salad was in the shape of a centipede. I used carrot sticks for legs, and cut pieces of red bell pepper for head and stingers on the tail. The antennae were made from the tips of tiny green onions.

centipede salad

Centipede Salad--not for the faint of heart!

I should have put it on a different platter, so you could see the colors better, but you get the idea.

The main course was Cake, Ice Cream, and Sauce. The birthday girl exclaimed, when it was presented, “raspberry sauce!”

vegan meat loaf

Savory cake, ice cream, and raspberry sauce--not!

The “cake” is a vegan “meat” loaf made from nuts, vegetables, and bread, baked. The “filling” and “frosting” is a cauliflower puree.

Scoops of “ice cream” were actually mashed potatoes, and the “raspberry sauce” was a beet sauce.

Dessert had to be birthday cake and ice cream, so I tried my hand at fondant for the first time, using a vegan fondant recipe.

I cut and decorated the cake to look like a chameleon. Vegan ginger ice cream was frozen in candy molds in the shape of fish.

chameleon cake with vegan fondant

Chameleon Cake with vegan fondant and Vegan Ice Cream Fish

The party was a hit, although it did somewhat confuse one of my older friends. It’s kind of like when you see a white person speaking fluent Chinese…the image in front of you, and the image of what it’s supposed to look like don’t quite match.

So eating ice cream and cake that taste like meat loaf and mashed potatoes was a little discombobulating. But still delicious!


Vegetarian Chilaquiles (not a vegan recipe…yet)

March 3, 2011

Vegetarian Chilaquiles

Vegetarian Chilaquiles or "Mexican Lasagna"


During a recent vacation in Mexico, one of the most popular dishes our group (made up of all omnivores, plus me) ate was chilaquiles, also known as Mexican lasagna. It’s quick to throw together and can be made with just vegetables, or enhanced with beans, if you so desire.

After eating refried beans and cheese at every meal in Mexico, I swore I didn’t want any more for awhile. Then the day after I got home, I went to the warehouse club, found queso fresco, and got the other ingredients to make chilaquiles and refried beans. I’m not regretting that decision. In fact, I made some to serve friends while I told them about my trip and showed them photos.

The first batch I made, I was skimpy with the tortilla chips, so there was too much filling. The second batch I was too generous with the chips, so it got too dry. You’ll soon find out what ratio works well for you.

It’s great comfort food, kind of chewy, warm, gooey if you use cheese, with as much of a spicy kick as you want. The top tortillas stay crunchy, but the ones inside get chewy and softened with the filling. And if you use a salsa made with fruit, you get sweet and sour in addition to the spicy and salty flavors. Yum!

Play around with this and have fun with it. It’s easy to see why this is such a popular dish. You’ll soon figure out your favorite combination of ingredients, but here is a basic vegetarian recipe to start with, followed with ideas for variations to try.

I’m planning to develop a vegan version of this, so stay tuned for that.

Vegetarian Chilaquiles

(these are approximate amounts; you can use more or less, to your taste)

2 TBS oil
1 green pepper, sliced
1 onion chopped
1 can (8 oz) tomato sauce
2 cups prepared salsa
8 oz queso fresco, crumbled*
about 11-12 oz tortilla chips

To make the filling, saute oil, green pepper, and onion until soft. Stir in tomato sauce and salsa. Mix well.

In a 1-1/2 quart casserole dish, spread a layer of tortilla chips about 2 chips deep.

Spread on about 1/3 of the filling. Sprinkle with 1/4 of the queso fresco.

Repeat twice more, using all the sauce. Then top with just tortilla chips and cheese. In other words, make sure the last layer on top is just chips and cheese, so your chips do not get all soggy.

Bake at 350 degrees F for about 40 to 45 minutes, until cheese is melted.

!Buen Provecho!

*NOTE: Queso fresco is a soft, tangy cheese similar to ricotta. You can also use crumbled ricotta, or shredded jack or mozzarella.

Tortilla chips on the bottom

Tortilla chips on the bottom of the casserole dish

One layer of vegetarian chilaquiles

One layer is done. Repeat to fill the dish.

chilaquiles are ready to bake

Top with chips and cheese. These are ready to bake.

Variations:

    -Add fresh chopped chiles to the sauté mixture
    -Add canned chiles to the filling
    -Add cilantro
    -Make your own salsa
    -Try using a non-typical type of salsa. For example, the warehouse club had mango-peach salsa.
    -Add drained and rinsed, cooked black, pinto, or kidney beans to the filling
    -Use corn tortillas instead of tortilla chips
    -Add corn

For Ginger Lovers: A Ginger Menu

December 18, 2010

A good friend fell off a cliff, broke his neck in two places, but is fine (thank you, gods!) and recovering. Recently, however, he’s been having some nausea as he tries to wean himself off the narcotic pain pills.

Because I know ginger is good to relieve nausea, plus it helps digestion, I whipped up a dinner for him with ginger in every dish, took it over to him, and had a great meal.

If you love ginger, you might get some ideas from the menu. Everything had ginger in it, but it was never overpowering. It’s one of those ingredients that can be aptly used to give depth of flavor, spiciness, or warmth. It can blend quietly into the background, or sing loudly as a star flavor.

Here’s what we had:
Asian Black Bean Dip, served with tortilla chips and sugar snap peas

Asian Slaw with Ginger-Wasabi Dressing (a very simple salad with won bok, Asian pear and green onions)

Rice (a mix of brown rice, white rice, and barley)

Tofu, Broccoli, and Sweet Potato
seasoned with ginger and soy sauce

Pineapple Sorbet with Mint, Basil, and Ginger

Pumpkin Cinnamon Rolls with pecans and candied ginger
Next time I will serve them without the pumpkin, since you couldn’t really taste it. I’ll use it instead to make Pumpkin Smoothies!

Ginger-Mint-Lemongrass Iced Tea

Ginger Ale the old style, fermented (my first attempt at this)


What to do with the first spring greens of the garden

February 25, 2010

White Beans and Broccoli Raab

The weather has been extremely cooperative, with cool nights, warm to hot days, and enough rain collected in buckets to water this year’s crop of fast-growing greens. I was able to pick some broccoli raab, or rapini, and use it in a simple, hearty dish.

I got the recipe from Bryanna Clark Grogan, although I just searched now on her site and was unable to find it. I think I may have asked her last year for it because I wanted to know what to do with the broccoli raab I was growing for the first time. The recipe is called White Beans and Rapini. You can find a link to her site on the right.

If you ask her nicely, she’s likely to share the recipe with you. Bryanna is extremely generous.

The Basic Idea
Saute some onions and garlic in toasted sesame oil, which adds a lovely flavor and aroma. Bryanna adds it to replace pancetta in a meat-eater’s version.

Add some cooked beans. So far I’ve tried white and pinto. Both were delicious, but the pinto had a bit more pinto flavor–duh!

Also add a touch of salt and some chopped broccoli raab, or rapini. I didn’t have that much, so I also added some Japanese mustard cabbage greens, a variation of bok choy. Saute until the greens are wilted. That’s it!

Both the mustard and the rapini have a slightly bitter flavor which offsets the somewhat creamy texture of the beans, and the sweet crunch of the onions. The bitterness will become more pronounced if you let the greens get bigger and older before picking them. But I wanted to sample from my garden before the bugs, slugs, and diseases beat me to it!

At any rate, it’s a simple, quick, and delicious dish that you don’t really need a recipe for. Use your judgment and let your taste buds decide.

Give the dish a try, and you’ll see why it’s quickly becoming one of my favorite go-to recipes. (Thank you, Bryanna!)


Vegetarian Thai Cooking Class

December 6, 2009

The first thing I did upon arrival in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was head to May Kaidee’s Vegetarian Restaurant. It’s on Ratchapakinai Road, next to the Sumit Hotel, about 4 doors up from the Thai Red Cross office, which is easy to spot.

Look for the plants in front of the tiny shop.

I had a bowl full of something luscious, with coconut milk curry and vegetables, and I was immediately happy.

Last time I was in Chiang Mai, I took a cooking class from The Farm, an organic farm about 20 minutes out of the city. It was a well-organized class, the food was delicious, and it was a nice break to get out of the city and spend a relaxing day making mouth-watering food. I highly recommend it.

This time I wanted to take a class that was specifically vegetarian, not just a cooking class that substituted vegetarian ingredients. Since May Kaidee’s had a cooking class available, I had to taste the food before signing up.

No use taking a cooking class from somewhere with tasteless, or worse, awful food.

So I was relieved that the food was delicious and that it was close enough to my guesthouse, which meant I would be coming back often to eat. (I did–I went every day except when I was out of commission due to food poisoning…grr.)

Class started at 9 am with a bowl of fruit and yogurt for breakfast. Then the other three students and I, plus Duan, May’s sister, who runs the Chiang Mai restaurant with her husband, daughter, and brother, set off for the local market.

There Duan pointed out and explained several ingredients crucial to Thai cuisine. She showed us sticky rice, kaffir limes, ginger, galangal, lemongrass, holy and Thai basils.

Choy sum swarming with bees


Most of the produce was already familiar to me, including long beans, choy sum (Chinese greens with yellow flowers that the bees were swarming around), gailaan (sometimes called Chinese broccoli, and what Duan called kale), round and long eggplant, pumpkin (large, flat, and brown, like a more rowdy cousin of the Japanese kabocha).

The Thai papayas are enormous, at least eight inches long, orange and shaped like a cylinder. The papayas in Hawaii are much smaller, shaped like yellow pears on steroids.

We also saw the rice noodles that people ordered by width and watched the vendor chop them with her cleaver before putting them into a tiny plastic bag secured with a rubber band. The thin version, like fetuccini, are what is used to make Pad Thai, the popular fried noodle dish. The uncut sheets are the wrappers for uncooked spring rolls.

After filling our baskets, we walked back to the shop, past a rotund yellow dog that took up half the road. Cars, people and motorcycles inched around it to pass. We couldn’t decide if she was pregnant or just obese.

The Somphet Market Dog--fat or pregnant?


Back at the shop, we chopped some baby corn, greens, and cauliflower before heading upstairs with bottles of drinking water, to get to work.

Each of us had a station with a wok and shared areas with dark and light soy sauce, chili paste and already-chopped garlic and chilies.

For each recipe, Duan walked us through the steps. “Put one spoonful of oil in your wok. Now add chilies, half spoon, and garlic, half spoon.” Spoons were the Asian soup spoons, the long ones with handles bent upwards, that come with bowls of gau gee min and ramen, Asian noodle soups.

“Now, quickly…KHON!

That meant “Stir!” in Thai. We spent many hours that day khon-ing.

“Next put tofu and vegetables….khon faster!”

And so it went. After the first three dishes, I lost track of how much of what went into what. Fortunately, all the recipes had been printed out for us, so we stopped after a few to make notes about substitutions and anything else not already written for us.

Duan prepares rice wrappers to make uncooked spring rolls.


Each of us had a tasting spoon, which we kept in a pocket in the front of our aprons, for sampling the dishes as we finished. This was an interesting part of the course, because we learned how much of a difference in flavor small substitutions could make.

For example, clear Tom Yum, coconut Tom Yum, and Tom Kha soups were identical, save for the amounts of coconut milk we added, but the flavors were more different than you’d imagine.

Four hours later, we had a spread large enough to feed us all for lunch and dinner. Fried noodles, soups, several kinds of curries, and the famous Kao Soi, a northern Thai curried noodle specialty.

The finished uncooked spring rolls: light, fresh, chewy, crunchy, spicy, and refreshing, all at once.


We also made lip-smacking peanut sauce, and May Kaidee’s famous and possibly the most popular dish on the menu: Pumpkin Hummus. Various seeds, spices, chilies, and cooked pumpkin were pounded with a mortar and pestle. The end result was creamy, complex pumpkin magic.

Duan said it was their mother’s special recipe. She used to make it for them growing up, and they ate it with everything, from balls of sticky rice, to spread on bread as sandwiches, or as a dip with vegetables. It was easy to see why this was such a popular dish.

The only non-vegan things were the yogurt in the morning, plus the egg noodles in the Kao Soi. But that was a variation on a curry dish, so you could leave them out.

I gave my leftovers to my Thai massage friends, since I did not have a fridge in the guesthouse and did not want to tempt fate with even more food poisoning.

Thank you, Duan, An, Nain, and Opal, for delicious food every day, and for your help! Khob kun mahk kha!

If you are interested in taking the cooking class, visit the restaurant and talk to one of them. I highly recommend it.

May Kaidee Vegetarian Restaurant, Chiang Mai, Thailand


Thai Thanksgiving Feast

November 27, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving to you all back home in the U.S.!

It’s a day ahead here in Thailand, so my Thanksgiving was celebrated one day before the U.S.

I went to visit my two Thai massage friends at their shop and took some Pad Thai, Penang Curry, and rice from my favorite vegetarian Restaurant here in Chiang Mai, May Kaidee’s.

They had raw cucumbers, blanched cabbage and oyster mushrooms, sticky rice, nam phrik, (hot chile paste, made by pounding chiles, garlic, salt and sugar and frying it for a short while), and egg omelette.

My kind of Thanksgiving spread--vegetarian, mostly organic, and international


We shared food. The nam phrik on the omelette was really spicy, and they laughed at me as I coughed.

They hadn’t really heard of Thanksgiving. I tried to explain it’s a holiday when people eat turkey and just eat too much.

But I had decided to come to Chiang Mai instead and visit the Elephant Nature Park, to remind me to be thankful, which is in line with the true spirit of the holiday.

(I’ll post the sad and happy details of my visit to the elephant park in a separate post.)

I tried to say, “You are my Thai massage family.” That resulted in a lot of confusion and laughter, and they eventually understood me.

My friend June has a northern accent, so her pronunciation is a little different than so-called standard Thai at times. But her animated personality and boundless energy make for a lively time, whether we are discussing politics, massage techniques, animal cruelty and the complete lack of regulation and protection for animals here, or how to eat sticky rice.

She insisted I eat it the traditional way, balling it in my hand, then dipping it into the curry or nam phrik. When she was a child, she used to roll the rice between two palms to create a dense ball that was then too chewy and hard to eat easily.

Kids will be kids the world over.

It took two of them, plus pantomime, to explain how they used to squeeze the essential oils out of a piece of orange peel onto a ruler. Then they touched the ruler to the palm of their hand and pulled it away repeatedly. Eventually the oils created spider-web-like strands. The mandarin oranges we had for dessert (along with apple bananas) didn’t have enough essential oil in the peel to make it happen, so I had to take their word for it.

I laughed so much, I was getting a headache from my cheek muscles contracting. That, plus a sore face from smiling, crying, and trying not to sob at the elephant park, were not helping.

They gave me a kaffir lime (ma kroot) to sniff the peel, which is supposed to help with headaches.

Kaffir Limes, Ma Kroot in Thai


It did, until my friend said she wanted some of my extra weight, because she is too skinny and runs out of energy. I told her to take all she wants, and that the reason she is so skinny is because all her movements are vibrant, full of energy, and overexcited.

I imitated her, and we both laughed until our stomachs hurt. She told me she never guessed I’d be a mirror to her behavior.

Then I had a headache again.

They fed the stray dogs outside, named Ding Dong, Long, and Kencham, then put out a hot water bottle so Ding Dong can sleep on it.

Ding Dong, an old street dog with mange and aching joints


He is old and gets stiff after sleeping when it’s cold like this. When he gets up, he shrieks in pain for a few minutes, until his joints warm up and stop hurting.

Sometimes they massage him, to relieve the pain.

“Khon jai dee,” I tell them often. Good, kind people.

Long sleeps hidden in the plants fronting the shop, two feet away from the mopeds, cars, and traffic.

My Thanksgiving dinner was an international celebration, and I was happy to spend it with my Thai “massage family” of therapists here in Chiang Mai.

And although my time at the Elephant Nature Park earlier in the day was emotional, it reminded me of many things I am grateful for.

This Thanksgiving was probably the nicest one I’ve ever had. Ironically, there was no turkey, no stuffing, no overeating, no blood-related family, and I wasn’t even in the U.S.

I hope yours is as full of warmth, love, and good eats as mine was. Happy Thanksgiving, and please remember to give thanks.


Pad Thai for Breakfast

November 24, 2009

I went back to my favorite, May Kaidee’s Vegetarian Restaurant, not wanting to experiment with breakfast. I get that way with recipes sometimes, going back to tried-and-true old favorites rather than trying new things, because when I get too many flubs and just want good food, I want good food!

Good old Pad Thai to the rescue. Not everyone knows the Thai name, but everyone has probably had some: Thai Fried Noodles.

Possibly the most well-known Thai dish, Pad Thai

The chewy rice noodles were perfectly complemented by the cooked-to-perfection vegetables, including carrot, onion, Chinese broccoli (gailaan), won bok and bean sprouts. The baby corn had a fresh flavor, lacking the metallic taste so often found in the canned. Dollops of spicy-creamy peanut sauce dotted the top. I was happy my chopstick abilities are up to snuff, or I would not have been able to pick up the crunchy peanuts that were used as garnish.

At the rate I’m going, I’m going to have to jog home in order to lose the weight I’m gaining from all the delicious food (and some not so delicious, too.)


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