Crowd-Pleasers

Most people who read this blog probably already know this, but H and I first met while playing softball (on opposing teams) in our law school intramural league. For the past several years, we have continued to play together in the summer in an adult recreational league of greater Boston.  Dorn’s has become a staple of our summer schedule and a centerpiece of our social life as a couple.

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Dorn’s 2012

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H and me decked out in red

Since H is the captain and I am the captain’s wife, we hosted our team’s post-season barbecue at our home way out in the burbs this year.

I should first say that I really love hosting parties.  H and I have lived in our house for just under 2 years and we have now had 5 great get-togethers in it (2 holiday parties, 2 barbecues, and a Superbowl party).  But holy hell is it a lot of work.

This isn’t really anyone’s fault but my own.  You see, it really wouldn’t be that big of a faux pas to just buy a bunch of pre-made platters and stuff to serve to a crowd (and frankly I’d probably end up spending about the same amount of money).  But no, I have this compulsion to make everything myself.

So as soon as H and I set a date for this year’s Dorn’s barbecue, I started planning a menu.  Our team consists solely of wings-loving omnivores and me, plus one vegetarian (who unfortunately wasn’t going to make it).  I decided to do my traditional taco bar, with meat, yes, but also with the option of Ancho Lentils from Post Punk Kitchen (click for recipe).  This way I can have a taco (never mind that these lentils are a total crowd-pleaser, delicious to everyone, regardless of dietary preference).  Plus hamburgers and hot dogs (which I wouldn’t have to look at…grilling is H’s job).  Everything else I served, I decided, would be vegan.

I don’t have a picture of the Ancho Lentils from my taco bar, but here’s an old one of the same recipe that I ate on a sandwich with dijon mustard.  Yes, they are versatile!
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I was all freaked out because I realized we were going to have between 20 and 25 people and I’ve never made food for that many before.  So I pulled a bunch of recipes and then doubled or tripled them to make enough.  Let’s just say I overestimated.

But no matter.  For appetizers, I decided to make Olive-Rosemary Tapenade from this PureWow recipe (minus the anchovy) that had caught my eye a few months ago.  The recipe requires some intensive chopping (especially when using non-pitted olives…ugh).  I did most of it on Wednesday night and waited until Friday night (the night before the barbecue) to mix in the chopped parsley and orange zest.

Here are the prepped ingredients, packed up and ready to go on Wednesday night.
Olive Tapenade Prep
Kalamata and castelvetrano olives, red bell pepper, jalapeno, and garlic

Oh, and when I was chopping the red pepper, I found this devilish little piece inside…
Devil Tail
H: “That picture just proves that vegetables are evil.”

Here is the finished product, served with crostini that I made according to this method by Chloe Coscarelli:
Tapenade with crostiniI also made the Summer Orchard Bruschetta from Happy. Healthy. Life. (click for recipe):
Summer Orchard Bruschetta 1Also served with crostini:
Bruschetta with crostini
I love, love, LOVE this bruschetta and am going to make it again and again!

Appetizers not pictured: hummus platter (Cedar’s original with carrots and celery); Utz honey barbecue chips; tortilla chips with salsa and guacamole (thankfully I didn’t make these by hand…I used Whole Foods medium chunky salsa and Trader Joe’s spicy guacamole autentico [which is incredible btw]).  Oh, and loaded tater tots (which weren’t vegan, so I guess ALMOST everything else I made was vegan).

So that there would be stuff to drink besides beer, I made Stoli Dolis (2 pineapples, cored and cut into rings, with vodka poured over them, which sat for 5-6 days and was WAY too strong…in the future I would soak the pineapple at least 2 weeks before serving) and Strawberry-Mint Water:

Strawberry Mint Water

I got the idea back in May, when H and I went to a wedding on Nantucket.  In the hotel lobby, they had a water cooler with strawberries floating in it and it was so incredibly delicious.  My own version did not disappoint either.

Drink Station

For dishes to serve on the side of the entrees, I did my favorite Vegan Caesar Salad with Avocado and Chickpeas from Post Punk Kitchen (click for recipe).  I didn’t take a picture of the trough of salad that I served at this barbecue, but here is a pic from when I made the recipe once before:
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I also made Creamy Avocado Potato Salad from Post Punk Kitchen (click for recipe).  I like that blog, a little.

First of all, look at these stunning avocados:
Avocados

Next, here is a picture of the “dressing” all creamy and beautiful in the food processor:
Potato Salad Dressing

Finally, I forgot to take a picture of the finished product.  But it looked like fingerling potatoes with green stuff on them.

Also on the side, and not pictured (I suck) was a pesto pasta salad, which was just cooked elbow macaroni tossed with Classic Pesto from Vegan With a Vengeance and chopped cherry tomatoes.  And the corn and black bean salad that I talked about in my last post.  Oh, and corn on the cob.  I was going to also serve collard greens but there was too much food and so I didn’t.

Finally, dessert!  I served a fruit salad in a watermelon bowl, which I didn’t photograph because the watermelon shell looked kinda wonky, plus it was dark by the time we got to dessert.  The fruit salad contained watermelon (obviously), pineapple, strawberries, blueberries, and kiwi.  I was able to prep the fruit salad ingredients well in advance of the party.  Here are the latter three ingredients packed up in a very large container:
Fruit Salad prep

Because our team’s color is red, I wanted to make an appropriately colored dessert.  I chose Vanilla Cupcakes with Strawberry Buttercream Frosting from Made Just Right by Earth Balance (click for recipe).  These came out great! I mean, they’re pink, but strawberries are red, so it works, right?  [One note: I noticed while making this that the recipe calls for 2 tablespoons of baking powder and I was like…no.  That is most definitely a typo.  So I used 2 tsp. and the cupcakes turned out great, so if you make this recipe do NOT use 2 tbsp.!]

Cupcake Platter 2

They looked so pretty on my cupcake platter!

Cupcake Platter 1

Bonus: M (an honorary Dorn) came up to visit and hang out at the barbecue.

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Obligatory sisters shot

And late Sunday afternoon, after two softball games and lots of house cleanup, I used leftover watermelon (which I had frozen) and leftover Summer Orchard Bruschetta (which was already getting soggy) to make this incredible concoction for the three of us to enjoy.Watermelon Frosty 1

Watermelon Frosties for all!

All in all, the party was a ton of fun, everyone was completely stuffed and happy, and no one seemed to even notice or care that the usual cheese platter/mayo-heavy potato and pasta salad/creamy veggie dip were missing.  I think the key to this lies in choosing recipes that utilize “normal” things that everyone loves (like avocado and chickpeas).  I call these “crowd-pleasers.”

The other thing is not to broadcast that everything is vegan.  I know some would disagree with me, but I really do believe that it’s important to let the food speak for itself.  Most people think that it must be very difficult to be vegan.  Frankly, I used to be one of them.  That was before I learned how to be creative and think outside the box and really understand and appreciate all of the things that can be done with plant foods.

Obviously, if people ask me questions, I am happy to answer.  But actually, at this barbecue, the only dish I got questions about was the Caesar Salad, (i.e., “How is the dressing vegan?” Answer: “It’s made with tahini.”  I didn’t mention the nooch though.)  Usually it’d be the cupcakes (“How did you make the frosting?” “How can you bake cake without eggs?”), but not this time.

Well. Hopefully this post was long enough.

A. Cook for Five Years

Today marks five years since I published my first blog post.  When I first started, there were only a handful of vegan blogs out there, which I read religiously. Some of them (Chocolate Covered Katie and Happy Herbivore, for example) are still going–with amazing success!–while others have sadly fallen away. My own blog has been somewhere in the middle (between “still going” and “falling away,” having never attempted nor approached the amazing success thing).

Now, of course, there are 63904850398 vegan food blogs and it’s overwhelming to think of how much our little lifestyle or movement or whatever you want to call it has evolved and spread. Combined with ridiculous advances in technology and information sharing, it’s no wonder that so many people have taken to the free media of blogging to share their passions.

Believe it or not, though, I didn’t set out to write a recap of the years or to wax poetic about veganism and technology.

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Warm and Spicy Kale with Shiitake Mushrooms by Maria Guadagno (click for recipe)

Even though I’ve been prone to long blogging absences (I’m looking at you, 2010), I’ve thought of this website almost as a diary these five years. It means a lot to me to be able to look back at old posts. The memories that they evoke go far beyond the actual food that was eaten to remind me of wonderful times shared with family and friends. Even my bar exam posts are enjoyable for me to read, safely positioned as I am, two years removed from that hell.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s not any big deal that it’s 5 years for this blog. This blog is very unassuming. I use a free blogging service and I don’t have any fancy software for photo editing, nor do I engage in more than the bare minimum of food styling or background design.  I take photos on my point-and-shoot digital camera (or, more recently, on the iPhone).  I’ve never tried to promote the blog to sponsors or do anything with it other than give credit to some of the wonderful recipes and products I’ve encountered and show how fun and exciting a vegan diet can be, and how accessible, even fit into a very busy lifestyle. At the end of the day, I blog for me.

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Caesar Salad with Avocado and Chickpeas by Isa Chandra Moskowitz (click for recipe)–LOVE THIS RECIPE

It might seem like the majority of my posts are about going to restaurants or making food from other people’s recipes, and that is accurate in a way. The truth is, I have thousands and thousands of recipes, in cookbooks obviously but mostly ones in electronic format that I’ve scoured and pooled from all corners of the Internet. Finding new recipes just happens to be super-exciting for me (nerd), and often times after I see a beautiful photo of a recipe on a blog, I get tunnel vision and just want to make THAT recipe immediately.

Nevertheless, I have learned so much about cooking since the inception of this blog. This is the one message I really want to convey in this post.

It started out with a simple lesson from my dad: the basis for any good dinner is onions and garlic sauteed in olive oil. Dad taught me to heat the oil a little, add garlic first so that it can infuse the oil, and then add the onions and cook until they’re a little translucent and a little browned. But I’ve since learned that with some meals, it isn’t as good to add garlic first, because it gets too browned/burnt by the end of the cooking process. For example, when I cook leafy greens or asparagus now, I like to warm the oil and add the veggies first, then the garlic once the veggies have started to soften. I’ve also learned that all veggies, especially leafy greens, taste amazing finished with a splash of lemon juice.

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Banana Cupcakes from Chloe’s Kitchen by Chloe Coscarelli (these were later topped with Lemon Icing)

Things like this aren’t groundbreaking, but my current grasp of them is a testament to my growth over the past 5 years, and the process that all of us as cooks undergo.  Somehow, without studying the actual science behind the chemistry of cooking, we come to understand it.  I know that, even when making something as simple as a stir fry, certain ingredients have to go in earlier because they take longer to cook (onions, broccoli, carrots) and others have to go in at the very very end because otherwise they will reduce to nothing (mushrooms, bean sprouts).  Fresh herbs ALWAYS go in last. It’s second nature by now.

Over the years, I have learned to recognize when vegetables are done cooking by looking at them.  I know how to get a great sear on a piece of tofu or tempeh.  I know how to cook perfect brown rice and recently I’ve started doing it with add-ins too (most often with sliced shiitake mushrooms).  These things were learned over time.  Cooking from the recipes of others helped with this education. I am grateful for it and most of all, I truly love it.

Finally, I have learned about so many new foods and uses for foods since becoming vegan and since starting this blog. And I am still learning!

For example, just recently I tried jackfruit for the first time. I only learned about it in the past few months and now after making it I’m not really sure how this thing hasn’t exploded more forcefully in the vegan world. I mean, look at it:

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It may be hard to totally tell from the picture, but in person this stuff looks exactly like pulled pork or chicken.  Like, weirdly so.

I made Jackfruit Carnitas (click for recipe) from Made Just Right, the Earth Balance blog, and enjoyed them the first night as tacos.

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Served on corn tortillas with a dab of Mindful Mayo, some vegan slaw (I went with Summer Slaw from Happy. Healthy. Life.–click for recipe), and fresh cilantro.

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The Summer Slaw:

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The next night I had the leftover jackfruit as a BBQ “Pork” sandwich. Just…look.

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With the addition of barbecue sauce it truly takes on a pulled pork texture. I could see myself eating this at every barbecue from here on out. Again, amazing that I could have just discovered a brand new food!

Anyway, this post has gone on for long enough and I think I have made my points, but in closing, I am truly looking forward to continuing my journey as a cook and as a blogger!