PAN Vegan Pledge – Cooking and Community

Photo of Cooking Demo

One of my favorite aspects of the PAN Vegan Pledge is the weekly meetings. Every Saturday, we meet for about 2 hours. The Peace Advocacy Network (PAN) provides us with plenty of tasty vegan food as well as helpful information. During the meetings, pledges can ask questions, share shopping tips, and generally just get to know one another. In addition to casual socializing, we also enjoy a weekly speaker or two. In all honesty, I was a little afraid that the lectures would be filled with horrifying photos of slaughtered animals. It turned out that the fellow who sat next to me last week had exactly the same fear. We bonded over this and laughed as we realized how counter-productive it would have been to make potential vegan-converts lose their appetites over lunch.

At the first meeting, Christopher McJetters shared why he sees veganism as more than a simple food or even lifestyle choice; for him it’s an issue of social justice. At the second meeting Dara Lovitz explained many of the environmental effects of animal agriculture. I plan to devote a separate post to “what I’ve learned,” so please hold on to your questions for a few weeks.

But not all of our speakers are lecturers. This past week we were treated to a cooking demonstration by Rachel Klein (pictured above), owner of Miss Rachel’s Pantry in Philadelphia. I had heard wonderful reports of Miss Rachel’s weekly Farmhouse Table Dinners, so I had been anticipating this meeting all week. Needless to say, she did not disappoint!

photo of food prep

Rachel made two dishes: a simple carrot ginger soup and a baked tempeh sandwich. As you can see, carrots and ginger were two of the primary ingredients in the soup. To this she also added potatoes (she recommended yukon golds or red-skinned potatoes over russets for a creamier texture). To make the soup even richer, she added coconut milk. Much of this was prepped in advance, because we couldn’t really devote the entire two-hour meeting to food prep. Instead Rachel focused on showing us how to make baked tempeh. First off, she recommended slicing the tempeh into thin strips for maximum flavor and a pleasing texture.

photo, marinating tempeh

She then poured soy sauce and liquid smoke over the sliced tempeh, all the while chatting with us and answering questions. “Where can I buy tempeh?” “Can I substitute Braggs Liquid Aminos?” It turns out that Rachel buys her tempeh from Hardena Resto Waroeng Surabaya, a little Indonesian restaurant that also makes their own tempeh, and yes! you can make substitutions (although one pledge pointed out that Braggs actually has a higher sodium content than soy sauce or tamari). As we were shuttled out of the kitchen for Dara’s lecture, Rachel baked the strips on well oiled baking sheets and then constructed the sandwiches. Everything was so fresh and so delicious! Whole grain baguettes were spread with homemade sun-dried tomato cashew “cheese,” layered with the savory tempeh, and topped with thickly sliced, ripe tomatoes and fresh basil.

One thing Rachel noted was that while vegan cooking doesn’t need to be expensive, prepared vegan food can be pricey due to the amount of prep work involved. As an example, she pointed to the lunch she made for us. Carrots, potatoes, coconut milk, tempeh … none of these are high-priced luxury items. But making a cultured cashew cheese requires significant time, labor, and knowledge. Buying what’s organic and in season and producing quality food in small batches also adds to the cost. For me this was a real “lightbulb moment.” Factory farming is heavily subsidized; small family-owned farms that sell at farmers’ markets or direct to restaurants and caterers are not. Now that I know this, and especially because I’ve sampled Miss Rachel’s cooking, you can bet she’ll be seeing me at one of her dinners in the very near future!

photo of produce from farmers market

Duly inspired by the fresh flavors in Rachel’s cooking, I went straight from the meeting to the Rittenhouse Farmers’ Market. Peaches, cherry tomatoes, and “fairy tale” eggplant are only some of the wonderful items that I purchased. As I biked home with both my belly and my backpack full, I started planning a Sunday dinner that would highlight fresh summer produce but also leave us with some leftovers for a busy Monday.

photo of tofu and asparagus

Sunday was a real scorcher, but luckily my boyfriend loves to grill. We marinated the eggplant in a mixture of balsamic vinegar and soy sauce. Squares of pressed firm tofu were slathered with a simple mix of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and basil. And the asparagus was drizzled with olive oil, fresh lemon juice, and sea salt. As the my boyfriend set the coals to fire, I started on a pot of quinoa.

photo of dinner

Once everything was ready, I drizzled a bit of vegan pesto onto the tofu to accentuate its flavor.

photo of leftovers as a salad

On Monday I turned the leftovers into a gorgeous salad for a super easy but equally delicious dinner.

Zucchini–the Fruitcake of Summer

Last week’s CSA share featured zucchini, perhaps the summer’s most maligned vegetable. If you don’t live in a town filled with home gardeners and farmers markets then you might not be familiar with zucchini overkill; but simply put, zucchini is the fruitcake of summer. Despite its tendency to overstay its welcome, some of us are still enjoying that lovely summer squash (as we will fruitcake for that matter)

Sign announcing "Leave zucchini on your neighbor's porch month"

A complex computer algorithm must be driving Highland Orchard’s CSA, because we’ve only received zucchini twice all summer. For this reason, I was practically ecstatic to find two beautiful zucchini in last week’s share. Also included were two ripe tomatoes, three beets with greens, corn, basil, and more. As soon as I saw the zucchini thoughts of an herby roasted ratatouille entered my mind. Luckily we just happened to have a few purple and white striped eggplants and an onion waiting at home. Is it just me, or does the universe sometime seem to be run by an empathetic cook with a taste for global cuisine?

Cartoon image from Pixar's Ratatouille

Because my boyfriend and I have slightly different eating habits, if he’s planning to make, say, pork chops for himself, I will prepare something that will work as a side for him and a main dish for myself. At some point last week he bought fresh chicken sausages. You know those math puzzles where they give you a string of numbers and you have to guess what comes next? They baffle me. Seriously, unless the sequence is 5, 10, 15 … the answer might as well be “antelope,” because I can never see the pattern. But present me with a random collection of ingredients, and–while I might not be able to use every single item (radishes, the eternal conundrum)–I’ll immediately start planning single dishes or even whole meals. The minute I saw those sausages I knew the time had come to break out the zucchini: grilled or pan-seared sausages, roasted ratatouille, and polenta with pesto. What a perfect meal! In fact, I was so enthusiastic about roasting vegetables that I filled two trays and planned on leftovers.

photo close-up of the ratatouille
Ratatouille Redux (better the next day)

Roasted Summer Vegetables:

  • two medium to large zucchini, cut into half moon slices
  • two small (not baby) eggplants, half-inch dice
  • one medium sweet onion, diced
  • grape or cherry tomatoes, pricked with a fork
  • olive oil
  • oregano (herbs de provence works well too)

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Toss the the zucchini with a light sprinkling of oregano in small amount of olive oil and place in an even layer on a lightly greased non-stick cookie sheet. Toss the eggplant and onion in a bit more olive oil and spread into a greased baking pan. Place both in the oven. After 10-15 minutes, check your zucchini. When they are brown on the bottom, flip them and add the tomatoes to the cookie sheet. Stir the eggplant mixture. The vegetables should be done in 25-30 min. Toss everything together, season with salt.

Note: once the zucchini were done, I placed the eggplant mixture under the broiler for a few minutes for additional browning.

Basil Pistachio Pesto (vegan)

  • bunch of basil (about a cup, chopped)
  • 2 tablespoons of pistachios
  • 1 clove of garlic – peeled, smashed, and minced
  • 1 tsp nutritional yeast (more to taste)
  • olive oil
  • salt (I use Maldon salt for almost everything)

Place the basil, pistachios, garlic, and nutritional yeast in a blender. Add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Pulse-mix for about 30 seconds. Mash everything down with a spatula, add more olive oil, and mix again. Repeat until desired consistency. Season to taste with salt, pepper (if desired), and additional nutritional yeast.

As my boyfriend cooked his sausages, I pan fried slices of ready-made polenta. I dolloped the pesto on the polenta and garnished his vegetables with a parmesan-romano blend. The meal looked beautiful, but it it left me a little disappointed. Although I love roasted vegetables, the classic “stewier” form of ratatouille would probably have better complemented the polenta. We were also running low on tomatoes, so the dish didn’t feel balanced.

Another reason to love leftovers? a shot at redemption, a fix for a flawed meal.

The next day I smeared fish fillets (cape capensis) with the leftover pesto and baked them at 350 degrees. While they cooked, I reheated the vegetables in a skillet along with a diced fresh tomato. Served alongside local sweet corn, this turned out to be a real winner (despite the ratty photo of a warmed-over plate taken with a Blackberry)!

photo of dinner plate
Dinner, Version 2