feeling saucy

As I write this, the temperature in Central Park is inching toward 50 degrees. But just days ago, we were still deeply mired in this nonsense:

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Not exactly prime conditions for lightening up the old diet, but as the results of some of my recent medical tests begin to trickle in, I realize that the time for me to make these changes could not be better.

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As it turns out, I was able to strike a pretty nice balance of plant-based goodness and familiar, comforting flavor on a cold and snowy winter’s night with this tempeh and mushroom ragú.

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As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been very interested in exploring tempeh as both a plant-based source of protein, and as a gut-healthy fermented food. My initial foray into cooking with tempeh yielded some killer black bean and tempeh tacos, but for round two, I wanted to see if I could achieve the richness and depth of a long-simmered meat sauce, in a meat-free version.

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My secret weapon: mushrooms.

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In both fresh and dried form, they provided the savoriness that I want in a ragú of this type, without any animal protein. A bit of low-sodium tamari and double-concentrated tomato paste provided even more backbone.

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While the texture wasn’t quite where I had hoped it would be, the flavor was right on the money, and as with any good meat sauce, it only improved overnight. I most certainly will tweak this recipe as I make it again, but this was a pretty fine place to start.

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Tempeh and Mushroom Ragú

extra-virgin olive oil
½ medium onion, fine dice (about 1 cup)
1 small rib celery, with leaves, fine dice (about 1/4 cup)
1 small carrot, peeled and grated or finely diced (about 1/2 cup)
Kosher or sea salt
8 oz. crimini mushrooms, trimmed and finely chopped
½ oz. dried porcini mushrooms + 1 cup boiling water
8 oz. tempeh
2 oz. low-sodium tamari
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 large clove garlic, peeled and minced or grated
2 tbsp double-concentrated tomato paste
One 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes with juice
½ to 1 cup water or wine

For serving:

1 pound hot cooked pasta (I used rigatoni, but an spaghetti or pappardelle would work as well)
Finely chopped fresh parsley
Grated Parmagiano, or a similar cheese substitute

* * * * *

Add a glug of olive oil to a wide, shallow pan. Add the onion, celery, and carrot with a big pinch of salt, and cook over medium heat until softened. Make space in the pan and add the crimini mushrooms, cooking until they are well-browned.

While the vegetables cook, soak the dried mushrooms in boiling water until soft. Remove the softened mushrooms from their soaking liquid and chop them fine before adding to the pan. Reserve the soaking liquid.

Crumble the tempeh into a bowl, and add the tamari, oregano, and garlic. Toss well to combine, then add to the pan. Add a bit more olive oil, then continue cooking, allowing the tempeh to brown. Add the tomato paste and toss everything well to coat, then slowly add the reserved mushroom soaking liquid, leaving any grit behind.

Stir in the canned tomatoes, and continue to cook uncovered over medium-low heat for 30-45 minutes, stirring occasionally, and adding a bit of water or wine to loosen any stuck bits from the bottom of the pan. Toss with hot cooked pasta, and finish with a sprinkle of fresh parsley and your favorite grating cheese or cheese substitute.

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bundle up

march

March! In like a lion, indeed. There’s been work stuff and health stuff and life stuff going on, and travel planned (San Francisco! Baltimore!) in relation to SHRUBS – it’s been a bit of a whirlwind in the Hess-Dietsch household of late.

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I’ve made this Crispy Thai Pork With Cucumber Salad twice now in recent weeks, and it is incredibly delicious. It is also incredibly easy, which I desperately need these days. Just crisp up some pork and a handful of garlic in a skillet, douse it with fish sauce and soy sauce and chilies and stock, a spritz of lime and a little brown sugar, and let it all cook down to sweet-spicy-sticky goodness.

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If you don’t eat pork, I suspect this would be equally delicious with ground chicken or turkey or even my new love, tempeh. And if you, like me, are absolutely over this cold, snowy weather, the fresh, bright flavors in this dish should be just what you need to pull you out of your winter funk.

The recipe is here, at Bon Appétit.

avocado tonnato

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I made something delicious yesterday, and I wanted to share it with you.

I call it avocado tonnato – a simple dish of avocado wedges napped with a creamy tonnato sauce, its richness punctuated with briny capers, the freshness of celery leaves, and the brightness of lime juice and zest. It’s as tasty as it is easy – just the thing for a simple summer (no cook!) meal. You can find my recipe over at food52.

tweaking taco night

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I’ve been gravitating toward far simpler food during this pregnancy. Though I’m in the home stretch now, my appetite still comes and goes, and the only dishes that reliably work for me these days are straight-up comfort food, meals that are strongly evocative of my youth: simple pastas, mac and cheese, and Mexican food by way of Eagle Pass, Texas and Detroit, Michigan.

I grew up with taco night – and I’m willing to bet many of you did, too. And despite my heritage, I’m also willing to bet our taco night looked pretty much the same as yours: that familiar cardboard box of crispy taco shells, the packet of dry seasonings to mix with ground beef, little bowls of crunchy lettuce and diced tomato alongside. It was an easy weeknight dinner, a meal we all loved, and while I haven’t bought a “taco kit” in years, I still find myself craving those flavors and that satisfying crunch.

But I’m trying to pack as many vegetables as possible into my meals, too, both for the nutrition they bring to the table, and because everything at the market is just so good right now – and that’s how a recent taco craving morphed into this salad. It’s got a little bit of everything I wanted – crisp and crunchy vegetables, savory meat and beans, sweet summer corn, and a creamy, smoky dressing, punctuated with salty strips of crackly baked tortillas. This is a late summer salad that combines some of the best tastes of childhood with the fresh, bright flavors of the season.

taco (salad) night

my favorite taco salad (serves 4 as a main dish)
several leaves crisp romaine or butter lettuce, torn into bite-sized pieces
seasoned ground beef (recipe below)
1.5 cups drained, cooked beans – black or red, just make sure they taste good
½ cup shredded cheddar or monterey jack cheese
1 cup finely shredded red cabbage
1 cup fresh corn kernels – off the cob
1 cup zucchini – cut into matchstick slices
1 cup seeded and diced fresh tomato
½ c sliced scallions/green onions
½ c sliced black olives
crispy tortilla strips (recipe below)
creamy cotija dressing (recipe below)

Place a layer of lettuce leaves on a big platter (or on individual plates). Using a slotted spoon, add a layer of the seasoned ground beef, then the beans. Sprinkle grated cheese over. Layer on the remaining ingredients, drizzling a bit of the dressing on as you go, and finishing with the crispy tortilla strips. Serve with additional dressing alongside.

seasoned ground beef
1 T neutral oil (I like to use grapeseed)
½ cup finely grated white or yellow onion
kosher or sea salt
2 cloves garlic, minced
1-2 t ground cumin
1 t dried marjoram
½ t ground chipotle
½ t cayenne pepper
½ t smoked paprika
½ t sweet paprika
1 lb. lean ground beef (I use a locally-farmed Angus that is 90% lean)

Heat the oil in a wide skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and a pinch of salt, and cook until softened. Add the garlic and spices, and cook a few more minutes, until fragrant. Crumble the beef into the skillet and stir to coat with the spice mixture. Continue cooking until the meat is well-browned, adjusting the salt and other seasonings to taste. Set aside until ready to use.

crispy tortilla strips

crispy tortilla strips
6 corn tortillas
1-2 T neutral oil
kosher or sea salt

Preheat oven to 400. Line a baking sheet with parchment or foil. Stack the tortillas and cut them into ¼-inch thick strips. Scatter strips on the baking sheet, and toss with oil. Toss again, then back, tossing occasionally, until crisp and browned, about 30 minutes. Season with salt and set aside until using.

creamy cotija dressing
juice of ½ lime
¼ t kosher or sea salt
⅓ cup prepared mayonnaise
⅓ cup creme fraiche (or sour cream)
½ cup finely grated cotija (or pecorino) cheese
½ t smoked paprika

Combine the lime juice and salt in a small bowl, stirring until the salt is dissolved. Add the mayo, creme fraiche or sour cream, the grated cheese, and paprika, and whisk until well-combined. Taste and adjust salt if necessary. Refrigerate until ready to use.