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!


Crowd-Pleasing Vegan Broccoli Salad With Cranberries

January 11, 2011
vegan broccoli cranberry salad

Easy, Crowd-Pleasing, Vegan Broccoli-Cranberry Salad

Here is another one of those easy, basically dump-and-mix salad recipes. It’s a broccoli salad with cranberries or raisins, that you can make vegan very easily. I started with a popular recipe by Paula Deen, famous food celebrity.

Then I read some of the many comments and tried some of them out. All the variations I tried seemed to come out well.

The salad is a lovely mix of crunchy, creamy, salty, sour and sweet. You can substitute other dried fruits, such as dates or raisins, for the cranberries. You can use different nuts. We used pecans in some batches and almonds in others, when we made food for a memorial service and started with 24 pounds of broccoli florets.

We made some with the carrots, and some without, when we thought we had run out of carrots. I had brought liquid smoke, intending to add it in place of the bacon bits or vegetarian, fake bacon bits, but I forgot to add it. So it’s quite a versatile salad.

It has been very well received whenever I’ve served it, too. Even a friend, who doesn’t care for raw onions, ate it and didn’t complain.

You can make it vegan by using vegan mayonnaise and vegetarian bacon bits. With the combination of vegetables, nuts and fruits, the salad packs a nice wallop of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, too.

You could go through the trouble of blanching the broccoli if you find it too hard. But I prefer the less-work method, and it’s not necessary. Hey, you burn more calories when you chew more!

Here’s the recipe.

Crowd-Pleasing Vegan Broccoli Salad

4 cups broccoli florets (about 2 stalks)
1 cup minced sweet onion
2 carrots, grated
1/3 cup chopped nuts
1/2 cup dried cranberries or raisins
1/4 cup vegetarian bacon bits
1 cup mayonnaise
2 Tablespoons white vinegar
1/4 cup sugar

Mix all ingredients together.

The only complaints about this broccoli salad I heard were from those who were making it. We were using warehouse club bags of already cut broccoli florets, and dumped and mixed them with the other ingredients.

“This broccoli is too big!” and “How are they going to eat it–with their hands?” is what I heard them saying. “Aren’t we going to cut it smaller?” “Aren’t we blanching it?”

“NO!” I said. “We don’t have time.” We had hundreds of pounds of food to make, and no time to waste cutting or blanching broccoli.

“If anyone has a problem with the food, they can come talk to me,” I said.

Of course, I couldn’t help teasing them when we ate some for dinner that night. “Where is the quality control around here? WHO is in charge of this food? Look at this broccoli tree on my plate! Don’t choke on it!”

I guess you can’t please everyone.

But they had a point. The floret I had was the size of my palm. I cut it with a knife before eating it. So if you cut the florets yourself, be as meticulous as you so desire.

I hope you enjoy this Crowd-Pleasing Vegan Broccoli Salad With Cranberries recipe. Let me know if you try other variations and how they turn out.


Frozen Pea Salad, With or Without Feta Cheese

January 11, 2011

pea salad with feta cheese

Frozen Pea Salad with Feta Cheese

In planning for the recent memorial service for my best friend’s husband, I needed some really easy, dump-and-mix recipes that tasted delicious. They also had to be made by people who don’t cook very much. And the ingredients would ideally be found at the local warehouse club, since we were cooking for 150 (that number grew to 215 by the day of the service!!)

Oh yeah, there were more variables. They had to be okay made ahead of time. They had to be okay sitting out on the buffet table for an hour or two, in case the speakers went on and on forever (there would be an open mic at the end, so anyone who wanted could say something. We had only guesses as to how long the service would last.)

Food safety was a concern for me. Food cannot sit for more than two hours at temperatures warmer than refrigerated or cooler than hot. Bacteria start to grow that can make people sick, and I wasn’t about to make anyone sick on MY watch!

They had to not need to be heated. We only had a few hotel pans and warming trays, not enough for this large a crowd.

But if we could refrigerate it as we made it, then put some of it out before the service, keep the rest at a safe temperature, and refill as necessary, that would work fine. (We ended up borrowing our own, my neighbors, and other friend’s refrigerator spaces, plus a huge cooler with ice, to keep things properly chilled.)

I found this recipe online, which used frozen peas, feta cheese, and balsamic vinegar. I altered it a bit and came up with the versions we used.

One version was close to the original, with feta cheese. The other could be for vegans, although I opted to use commercial mayonnaise, which has eggs in it. I wasn’t about to prepare gallons of vegan mayonnaise, and we couldn’t afford to buy commercial vegan mayonnaise substitute.

But I am sure you could use a vegan mayonnaise instead. Depending on your product, it might get a bit watery if the mayonnaise breaks down. But the mayo with eggs holds up fine.

Also, I developed a version made with white vinegar, in case we couldn’t get the balsamic. (I’ve planned enough dinner parties based on warehouse club ingredients, only to be shocked to find them not in stock. Then I needed to to change the menu at the last minute. I wanted to avoid that possibility this time!)

The flavor of balsamic vinegar is sweeter than white, so you will need to add some sweetener to balance the flavors.

Frozen Pea Salad With Feta

1 pound frozen peas, thawed
1/2 cup chopped almonds
1/2 cup minced sweet onion
1/2 cup mayonnaise
2 TBS vinegar (white or balsamic)
1/2 cup feta cheese crumbles
sugar or other sweetener, optional*

If your peas are still a bit frozen, they will freeze the ingredients as you mix them, so they need to be mostly or fully thawed.

If you are in a rush, microwave them one or two minutes, to thaw them out enough to use.

Mix all ingredients together. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

*If you are using white vinegar, add a small amount of sugar or other sweetener, to balance the flavors.

pea salad vegan

Pea Salad (without feta cheese)

Vegan Frozen Pea Salad Without Feta

1 pound frozen peas, thawed
1/2 cup chopped almonds
1/2 cup minced sweet onion
1/2 cup vegan mayonnaise
2 TBS vinegar (white or balsamic)
salt, to taste
sugar or other sweetener, optional*

If your peas are still a bit frozen, they will freeze the ingredients as you mix them, so they need to be mostly or fully thawed.

If you are in a rush, microwave them one or two minutes, to thaw them out enough to use.

Mix all ingredients together. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

*If you are using white vinegar, add a small amount of sugar or other sweetener, to balance the flavors.


Homemade Croutons

October 19, 2010

homemade croutons

Homemade croutons are easy and delicious


If the only croutons you’ve ever had have been from a box, or on an iceberg salad from a fast food place, you have no idea what you are missing. The taste, texture, and value of homemade croutons are fabulous.

They are easy and delicious to make. So why aren’t you making your own?

Maybe you just don’t know how. Here’s how to make croutons at home, with delicious results.

Basically, croutons are just toasted bread. The difference is that they are toasted longer, so that the interior of the bread dries out, giving a satisfying crunch throughout, not just on the surface.

However, if you like that crunch just on the outside, the good news is, you have full control when you make your own. You can leave them in the oven for less time, to get a softer, chewier finished product. Or keep them there longer, to get almost a tooth-shattering morsel. The choice is yours.

Simply use some leftover bread. I don’t like bread heels, the slices you cut off at either end of a loaf. So I tend to use those, or just the odd slice or two that collects after a while.

I also use the pieces that are broken up and can’t be used for a sandwich. If you make your bread with a bread machine, you know about those pieces. They are ones in the middle, where the paddle has been, and cut a big hole.

Any bread is fine. You can use fresh bread or stale, whole grain or white, sweet or savory.

Recipe: Homemade Croutons
2 slices bread, cubed (or a similar amount of rolls or buns,) about 3 cups
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon onion powder
salt to taste (optional)

I use a serrated knife to cut the bread into cubes. Place the bread cubes into a 9 by 13-inch baking pan. I prefer this to a cookie sheet, because the cubes stay inside when you mix them, but you can use a cookie sheet as well.

Add the olive oil. Mix well. Sprinkle on the garlic and onion powders. Mix well. Spread out evenly in the pan.

Bake at 350 degrees F for 10 to 15 minutes, until browned and hard. Stir halfway through.

Homemade Crouton Tips

–Stick around while they are baking, because they can overcook very quickly.

–Be sure to cool them completely before storing in an airtight container.

–Try to make them on a day that’s not raining, because the moisture in the air from rain (and snow too?–I live in Hawaii–we don’t have snow–someone with experience will have to answer this for me!) will make them get soggy soon after you remove them from the oven.

–You don’t even have to use bread slices. Any shape or size will work. Have some leftover rolls or buns? Use those.

–In fact, for variation, try using sweet bread sometimes. It makes for a nice complement to a carrot soup, for example.

–You can add salt if you like, but I leave it out because salad dressing has a lot of flavor, and I like my croutons to add to the flavor, not compete with it.

–These are excellent on leafy green salads or soup. Try some with this vegan chocolate vegetable soup, for example.

–They can be quite addictive, so don’t be surprised to find yourself munching on them right out of the oven!

Now you know how to make croutons at home. It’s very straightforward and simple, and if you try it for yourself, you’ll see how delicious they are. You will likely never buy pre-made again.

I know, I know. You’re becoming a food snob, like me! ha ha.


Kerabu Nenas, Pineapple Salad

June 3, 2009
Kerabu Nenas, Pineapple Salad

Kerabu Nenas, Pineapple Salad

We often ate this salad in Malaysia, an innocent-enough combination of raw carrot, onion, chile, and cucumber. The surprising addition of pineapple helped to create a light, oil-free dressing with a touch of sweetness and just enough tropical flair to win a spot at the top of the favorites list for many in our tour group.

Don’t let the simplicity fool you into thinking this is worth passing over. Sometimes simple is best.

Vegan Kerabu Nenas, Pineapple Salad

1 can (20 oz/567g) pineapple chunks in juice
2 carrots, thinly sliced
2 cucumbers, thinly sliced or julienned
1 sweet onion, thinly sliced
1 jalapeno, chopped (remove the seeds from half or all if you want a milder salad)
2 tsp lemon juice
2 TBS sugar
1/4 tsp salt
2 TBS reserved pineapple juice

Drain pineapple, reserving 2 TBS juice.
Mix all ingredients together.
Let stand for at least one hour, for flavors to develop.


Chocolate Coma: Chocolate Dinner Party (Part 3: Main Dish)

April 21, 2009
Triple-decker chocolate main course: Ginger Jasmine Rice, Cocoa-Spiced Tofu, and Chocolate-Carrot salad

Triple-decker chocolate main course: Ginger-Jasmine Rice, Cocoa-Spiced Tofu, and Carrot-Chocolate salad

Chocolate Main Course

Soup, salad and dip at the all-chocolate dinner party were followed by a main dish consisting of three separate parts.

Fragrant brown jasmine rice, an obscene amount of minced ginger, and orange peel went into the rice cooker to work magic while we ate our appetizers. This provided the base for a vertical plating.

The rice was packed inside a ring mold, an old tuna can, with both ends cut out. The pros use purchased stainless steel ring molds. I say, Re-duce, Re-use, Re-think.

The protein was tofu, cubed, rolled in a mixture of cumin, chiles, cocoa powder and other spices, then fried. This was placed on top of the rice.

Shredded carrots mixed with a hot oil-cumin seed-cocoa powder mixture, which helped to wilt them slightly, became chocolate-carrot salad. Mint added a fresh, different flavor. This sat on top the tofu, and the whole thing was garnished with a tiny sprig of basil mint from the garden.

Then the ring mold was carefully removed, leaving a circular tower of food. I made a sauce with some of the reserved spice mixture from the tofu, cooked in some oil, to bring out the flavor and make an orange oil. Iron Chef Bobby Flay does this on all his dishes, apparently, using chiles blended in oil to make a bright orange sauce.

Mine wasn’t quite the same, but it was close enough for a first try. Drizzled sauce around the plate provided fancy flair.

The combination of flavors worked well together, blending orange, ginger, chocolate, and earthy southwestern spices and chiles. In retrospect, however, I’m not sure I’d serve them again in combination, because I’d rather each dish had a chance to boast its bold complexity without competition from the others.

The tofu recipe needs some adjustments. While the flavor was complex and rich, the texture was close to mush, and the proportion of spice mixture to tofu was off. I’d like to fix the recipe and add it to my repertoire of old faithfuls, so I will wait to post the recipe.

Are you full yet? Save room for dessert: mocha birthday cake.


Chocolate Coma: Chocolate Dinner Party (Part 1: Cold Appetizers)

April 18, 2009
Le Menu

Le Menu

The All-Chocolate Dinner Party
Seeing as how the guests “ooh”-ed and “ah”-ed at the appropriate times, ate everything I served them, and then waddled out the door at the end of the evening, I’d say the chocolate dinner party was a success. It was a belated birthday party, and the birthday girl loves chocolate. Thus the theme ingredient.

For the most part, the chocolate in the dishes (with the exception of the birthday cake) provided an earthy richness and depth of flavor and not so much chocolate taste per se. There is not a lot out there in terms of chocolate vegetarian savory dishes that I could find, so it was a bit of a challenge to put dishes together, but I managed a few.

We started with a green salad, topped with chocolate-miso vinaigrette. It was loaded with garden leaves and herbs: endive, beet greens, basil, lemon basil, marjoram, arugula, fennel, green onions, and of course, flowers: snapdragons, pineapple sage and calendula blossoms.

Chocolate-Canary Bean Dip with Organic Tortilla Chips

Chocolate-Canary Bean Dip with Organic Tortilla Chips

The other cold appetizer was a dip made from canary beans I had purchased years ago in Ecuador at a grocery store. They tasted like a cross between a kidney and pinto bean. Blended with cumin, chili powder, hot sauce, semi-sweet chocolate, olive oil, garlic, onions, water, salt, and apple cider vinegar, they made an interesting, complex dip.

As I threw everything together yesterday, it was starting to taste annoyingly like the main course, which would have been redundant, and I was worried I would have to come up with a new main course at the last minute. Fortunately, I managed to tweak the dip enough so it ended up with a mildly spicy, sweet-sour flavor.

Sorry, no recipe, since I just threw things in, tasted, added, tasted, added some more, etc. until I said “Mmm” when I ate it. The deciding factor was my father’s more-like-the-general-public palate. When he said, “Yeah, that’s good,” I stopped.

(Hmm, looks like a chocolate cake crumb at the bottom of that menu above.)

Still to come: Chocolate Vegetable Soup, the main course, and the piece de resistance…birthday cake!


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