Wednesday, January 25, 2012

New American Vegan: 3-Recipe Review

Okay, time to stop procrastinating. You'd think that, being an otherwise unemployed pregnant housewife, I'd write things to post up here more often, but that's clearly not the case. Procrastination is one of my most highly-trained skills. Case in point: I started writing this review four days ago, and am only just now getting around to posting it. Go me. 

I've posted up several recipes recently(-ish) from a lovely cookbook called New American Vegan by Vincent J. Guihan, for Tangy Pumpkin, Tomato, & Jalapeño Soup, Tofu Cutlets, and Hot Grilled Portobello Steak Sandwich with Gravy. All were fabulous; go check out the individual posts if you want details!

So now it's time to review the cookbook itself. 

New American Vegan starts off with a somewhat lengthy exposé on the author's personal veganism: why he went vegan in the first place, why he feels veganism is an important issue, and a brief overview on why he felt the need to write a cookbook when “there is hardly a dearth of cookbooks for vegans available today.” 

There are many great things I can say about this book, and I will. But there's a few negative things too, so let's get those out of the way now. 

First, I am personally not a fan of “preachy” vegetarians or vegans. Actually, I'm generally not a fan of any kind of “preachiness” on any controversial topic. I can't deny that there are many wonderful reasons to eat a vegetarian or vegan diet; I've been vegetarian myself for 8+ years, dabbling in veganism for the last few, and I've never felt healthier. Personally, I believe most of the world would be better off on a plant-based diet. My diet is a fact most people learn about me pretty quickly, and I'm always willing to talk about it if people are genuinely curious. That's the thing though: if people don't ask, I don't talk about it. There's no quicker way to turn people off to a “radical” idea than to offer unsolicited reasons for why they should consider it. Of course, most people don't bother to read the introductions to cookbooks anyway, so this isn't really that big of an issue here. Plus, most of the people buying this book specifically are already in agreement with Guihan to some degree or another; it may come across as a little preachy, but in this case he's preaching to the choir. 

My other (minor) complaint? Pretty much every vegetarian/vegan cookbook I've ever read contains a certain number of “staple” recipes, and New American Vegan is no exception. Guihan offers his own recipes for vegetable stock, vinaigrette salad dressing, and tomato sauce. I know that many cookbook authors write from the mindset of creating the “only cookbook you need,” and that these recipes can be invaluable to someone with no cooking experience who has no idea how to make the basics at home. That said, as someone who has been cooking for a few years now and who already owns a somewhat extensive collection of cookbooks, I get tired of repetition. I already know how to make a perfectly adequate tomato sauce, thank you; I'd rather these pages in a cookbook be taken up with something new that I've never seen before! Like the last point though, I realize this is a personal issue; I'm sure his recipes are quite delicious, and that many new cooks will be grateful to have them. 

On to the good. 

As I said before, there are many good things that can be said about New American Vegan. I'm always amazed at the creativity that eating a plant-based diet can inspire. While a number of the recipes in this book are simply Guihan's take on classic dishes (such as Old-Fashioned Hearty Lentil & Vegetable Soup or Jambalaya), others are something exciting and truly new to me. For example, I have seen a number of recipes for a vegan crème brulée; most of them use either silken tofu or ground cashews to create that signature creaminess that we all love. Guihan's version is Banana & Avocado Brulée, a completely plant-based version that doesn't so much mimic the classic as offer an entirely new take on the idea. (Yes, this recipe is on the list to try sometime soon!) Another example: between published cookbooks and the Internet, there are more veggie burger recipes in existence than any rational person could try in a year. (I sense another interesting idea for a food blog coming on... or maybe just an idea for a regular feature on this one?) Guihan's offering is a Chickpea and Coconut Burger, a flavor combination that it would have never crossed my mind to try. Many vegetarian cookbooks offer some kind of pizza recipe; Guihan offers a few too, but also includes a recipe for Spinach, Arugula, & Walnut Pesto Stromboli with Kalamata Olives & Sun-Dried Tomatoes. I don't think I've ever seen a Stromboli recipe in any of my cookbooks before, so the author definitely gets bonus points for the inclusion of this one. 

Another thing I love about this book is Guihan's emphasis on sauces. It seems relatively unique; most cookbooks contain specific sauce recipes as part of specific recipes. It's easy to find a vegetarian/vegan cookbook with recipes for gravy, or pesto, or exciting salad dressing. But Tarragon Aioli? Artichoke, Caper & Black Pepper Butter? Strawberry Chipotle Sauce? New American Vegan has these and more. And better yet, Guihan offers advice on how to use them: what kinds of recipes in general, and some of his recipes later in the book go great paired with specific sauces. I really think he's onto something here; the addition of exciting sauces has the potential to add a whole new level of appeal to vegetarian and vegan cooking. 

I also appreciate how this cookbook contains a nice mix of simple and complicated recipes. It seems like many cookbooks focus on either keeping it quick and easy or on “gourmet” meals which are inevitably complex and time-consuming (but ultimately worthwhile if you have the time). Guihan's recipes range from expeditious (Quick, Rich Borscht, which you can have on the table in 30 minutes if you chop your veggies quickly) to elaborate (Spinach & Cheeze Tortellini, which requires making pasta dough from scratch, stuffing it, and then cooking it). One of the things the author says in the beginning is that he wanted to create a cookbook that beginners could work from, but which also had room for growth built in; having such a wide array of recipes definitely creates that possibility for the ambitious home cook interested in expanding their abilities. 

So there it is: the good and bad of it, in my opinion. Some recipes are nothing fancy, but there are a lot of unique dishes to be found in here; I think it's worth picking up!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Hot Grilled Portobello Steak Sandwich with Gravy: Weeknight meals with substance!

Small confession here: I was originally planning on making a different recipe from New American Vegan as the third-recipe leading up to my book review. I was going to make Chocolate Avocado Fudgesicle Ice, and while that still sounds amazing, I keep forgetting to buy the ingredients I need when I'm at the grocery store. Plus, due to my weird pregnancy-related issues with chocolate, I haven't exactly been in the mood for something like this, despite the fact that eating the avocado would make my midwife happy.

Nope, I'll just stick to fulfilling my “good fat” requirements (seriously, midwife's orders) with plain avocados. In grilled cheese, in quesadillas, on nachos, with a spoon... Yum. Being pregnant is such a chore sometimes.

Anyway, I ultimately decided to go with a different recipe for this post. I actually made this a few days ago; I did try to take pictures, I swear, but they didn't come out very well. I could blame the lighting in my apartment, or my camera, or my cat, but it's really just because I'm not particularly skilled at food photography. No sense in trying to hide it; I'll work on it, I swear. And I'll try to actually include pertinent pictures in future recipe posts.

Back to relevancy. Last week, I found myself with a package of portobello mushrooms and no real plans for what to do with them. I was home by myself and it was getting close to dinnertime, so I figured I had best pull out the cookbooks and work something out. Normally, being home by myself ultimately leads to lazy meals; I love cooking, but sometimes it's hard to motivate myself to do so if I don't have anyone else to cook for. Unfortunately (or fortunately, as may be), I desperately needed to do some shopping. Being lazy, at that point in time, would have likely meant making a pot of rice or quinoa and steaming some veggies to go on top. Always a good meal, but I wanted something with a little more substance!

The winner that night? A recipe I found in New American Vegan for Hot Grilled Portobello Steak Sandwich with Gravy. Naturally, I didn't follow the recipe perfectly. Lacking bread, I instead decided to serve my mushrooms over a big bowl of mashed potatoes. It probably would have been good as a sandwich, as intended, but I thought that my way equaled comfort food at its finest (and easiest).

As I mentioned earlier, D wasn't home that night, but I thoughtfully set some aside for him to try later. His verdict? Via text: “The mushrooms. Are. Amazing!!” *beams* I do love making him happy!

Hot Grilled Portobello Steak Sandwich with Gravy
from New American Vegan by Vincent J. Guihan, reprinted with permission

1-2 cups gravy of your choice
4-8 portobello mushrooms, stemmed and thinly sliced
1 small red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon tamari
1 teaspoon lemon juice
sea salt
4 slices whole wheat bread

Make 2 cups of gravy if you want more for your side dishes, or if you want to make a triple-decker sandwich, or if you like your gravy really thick (in which case, make a double batch and reduce by ¼). More gravy seldom hurts.

The number of mushrooms depends on how thick you like your sandwich and how large your portobellos are. For portobellos bigger than about 4 inches, 4 mushrooms should do for 2 sandwiches if you want something light. [Guihan] usually use[s] 3 larger portobellos, but [he] love[s] mushrooms. If your portobellos are smaller, use 6 to 8, depending on how small they are.

Begin by preparing your ingredients. First, prepare your gravy and leave it on low to keep warm. Next, bring the oil to heat in your pan on high heat. Add ¼ teaspoon sea salt. Add the sliced onion and sauté for 4 minutes. Slice the portobellos into ⅛-inch slices and add the portobello mushrooms and sauté for 8 to 12 minutes, or until the portobello slices are cooked through and the pan is starting to brown. Decrease the heat to medium-high and add the lemon juice, tamari, and water to deglaze the pan. Sauté for another 2 minutes. Remove the mushrooms from heat. Taste and add sea salt as necessary. Add any reduction remaining to your gravy.

When the mushrooms and gravy are ready, toast your bread very lightly. You want to dry it slightly so that it will absorb the gravy a little more readily, but not to the point that the bread is browning. Layer the mushrooms equally between the two sandwiches with tongs. Ladle piping-hot gravy over the mushrooms and onto the sandwich open-faced. Add the top layer of toast, and push down on the sandwich firmly with a clean palm. Ladle your gravy over the top.

My notes:
First off, note that I pretty much copied the recipe verbatim from the book; I know it's worded a little awkwardly at times, and I just wanted to point out that it's not my doing.

Anyway, as I said before, I didn't make sandwiches. Instead, I made a big pot of mashed potatoes, and served the mushrooms and gravy over them. To add a little more color, I served it with a side of steamed broccoli. The resulting meal was filling, too filling; I ate way too much, and consequently had a hard time sleeping that night. But it was so warm and comforting, I just had to eat all that I had served myself!

If I were making sandwiches, I'd probably go with a good, dense, hearty wheat bread. The author specifically notes that these kinds of sandwiches are traditionally made with white bread, and “the heat of the gravy melts the bread.” That would probably be good too, but I love how filling a good whole-grain bread can be.

The author recommends several gravy recipes from his book that go well with these mushrooms: Red Lentil Gravy, Red Onion Gravy, or Red Wine Gravy. His recipes did indeed sound delicious, but I instead chose to use the recipe for No-Beef Gravy from The Happy HerbivoreCookbook. I imagine that pretty much any good, savory gravy recipe would work well here; obviously, I would go with something vegetarian or vegan, but I'm sure carnivores could get fabulous results with a traditional brown gravy or an actual beef gravy.

Another thought: next time I make this, I might try using some onion powder (for flavor) rather than the fresh onions. I know that probably sounds like sacrilege, but I like experimenting. And besides, I always have onion powder on hand, but I don't necessarily always have red onions. I just want to see how it comes out; always good to keep your options open!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The inevitable question: boy or a girl?

It's amazing to me how so many people treat pregnancy as the only excuse necessary to inundate a woman with information and advice and stories. From friends and family I've heard stories of being offered advice regarding labor (Of course you'll get the epidural! Or, my hospital is the only good place to give birth!), lectures about why they should or shouldn't do something (Clearly breastfeeding is the only way to go! Or, remaining vegetarian during pregnancy is bad for your baby!), and stories about other people's experiences with birth. I even hear about complete strangers touching and rubbing the bellies of pregnant women with no permission asked!

Fortunately, I am a hermit who doesn't leave my house much, so I haven't had to deal with this much. And with my poofy cold-weather jacket on, I'm still not obviously pregnant-looking, even at 34 weeks.

Regardless, the fact that I am with child does still come up with surprising frequency. And whenever it does, you can be sure that the conversation will include two pointed questions:
  • When are you due?
  • Is it a boy or a girl?

I don't mind these questions, so don't get me wrong. Admittedly, I have gotten some slightly questioning looks when I say that I'm due in either late February or early March; you can almost hear the mental admonishments of “how can she not know her due date??” It's not that I don't know it, because I do. But there's a reason it's called an estimated date of delivery; the “traditional” methods indicate that I'm due on February 19th or 20th, but I've been told by everyone under the sun that first babies are usually “late.”

So we'll see how this turns out. Personally, I think having a Leap Day baby would be awesome, but the truth is that my baby will make it's way into the world when it's good and ready to.

As far as gender goes, I don't know. D & I decided early on that we wanted it to be a surprise, so we simply didn't find out. Most people are very supportive of this, but we do run across the occasional incredulous response: How could you not want to find out? Isn't the suspense killing you?

No. It's not. :)

But just because we haven't found out scientifically whether we're having a boy or a girl hasn't stopped friends from speculating. We all know there are a plethora of old wives tales that can supposedly determine what gender a woman is carrying. In my unemployed housewife boredom, I decided to play on Google and look some of them up.

Girls steal your beauty. Is that so? Because I've had several people tell me that the opposite is true as well. Early on in my pregnancy, I was plagued with zits. I thought I had kicked pimples soon after high school through the adoption of a cleaner diet and better hygiene practices, but my first trimester brought them back, and with a vengeance. Before I knew I was pregnant, I was cursing this newfangled Illinois climate, the stress of moving across the country, too much chocolate, you name it; once I realized that I had a baby growing in my belly, I determined my newly-rediscovered skin problems were likely due to hormonal shift my body was now undertaking.

I spent most of my early pregnancy working at a little café called AOK Gourmet, and one of my coworkers there told me about how, when she was pregnant with her son, she too had skin problems galore. The opposite was true with her other child; when pregnant with her daughter, she had skin that absolutely glowed. This was the first that I had ever heard of a woman's physical appearance being a predictor of the gender of the child she carried. (How had I not heard any of these old wives tales before? I think I must be bad at being a traditional woman.) Not too long after, a friend informed me that it's actually girls who cause the appearance problems. Clearly, my recent outbursts of pimples meant that my baby was, in fact, of the female persuasion.

It's also worth noting that my skin problems have, for the most part, cleared up. I wouldn't say that I'm glowing by any stretch, but I'm definitely feeling less-conscious of my appearance at the moment. So what's the verdict here? Undecided.

A mother's intuition. Early on, one of my best friends told me, very matter-of-factly, that I was going to have a boy. When pressed, she could offer no evidence to back up her claim, she just “knew.” One of D's shipmates told him pretty much the same thing. I've had several other people tell me the opposite; obviously, we're going to have a girl. No particular reason provided; we just are.

I've had lots of people ask me what I think I'm having. Honestly? I don't know. I've had dreams that go both ways. Some mornings, I wake up positive that we're going to be having a little baby boy. Other times, I'm just hit with the inescapable knowledge that I'm carrying our daughter. Verdict? Undecided.

Ancient Chinese gender chart. A few of my friends have mentioned a method that uses a chart to tell you what gender your baby is. Upon further research, I determined they were probably referring to an AncientChinese Gender Chart, a 700-year old document which was apparently discovered buried in a tomb in Beijing. It uses two factors to determine what gender a child is: a woman's age, and the month during which a child was conceived. Depending on who you ask, this method is anywhere from 50-90% accurate. One key thing to note is that you're supposed to use your age according to the Chinese lunar calendar, or else the results may be inaccurate. The verdict? Whether I used my actual age or my lunar age, the result was the same: I'm having a girl.

Food cravings. According to most of the stuff I read online, women who eat a lot of sweet things are more likely be be carrying a girl, while cravings for sour or salty foods indicate a boy. I haven't had any real “cravings” thus far in my pregnancy, unless you count always being thirsty (for water) a craving. However, I have had an on-again, off-again aversion to sweet foods, specifically chocolate, for the duration. Seriously. For a few months early on, the very smell of chocolate made me nauseous. Based on this, I'd say the verdict is that I'm having a boy.

Morning sickness. I've read (and heard) predictions all over the map on this one. If you have morning sickness at all, you're having a girl. If you're severely sick, it's a boy. Nauseous at night = girl, while actual “morning” sickness = boy. If the need to puke in the middle of the night wakes you up, it's a girl. Or a boy.

I had pretty extreme nausea for the entirety of my first trimester. Basically, if I was awake, I felt sick. (Working at a café did not help much here.) The only time I didn't feel sick was when I was sleeping and, if my dreams were any indication, sometimes I felt sick even then. Despite suffering from near-constant morning sickness, I did not actually vomit once. There were plenty of times when I thought I might feel better if I did, but the contents of my stomach stayed resolutely put. And this nausea went away sometime during my second trimester, and hasn't really come back since; sometimes I get a little sick if I go too long without eating, and sometimes nausea is triggered by other unspecified things, but overall I've been feeling great since then. So the verdict here? Very much undecided.

Mayan numerology system. A couple of websites I perused mentioned some method of ancient Mayan numerology that can be used to determine the gender of your child. Like the Chinese system, it uses a mother's age, but it uses the year of conception rather than the month. If both are even numbers, then you're having a girl; if one is even and the other is odd, the baby will be a boy. I was 25 when I got pregnant, and the year was 2011; the verdict here is that I am having a girl.

There are so many more too! Apparently where you carry the baby can determine something, as can where you carry any gained weight. There is some sort of test that involves tying your wedding ring to a string and holding it above your belly; if it swings back & forth, it's a girl, while swinging in circles means it's a boy. I've read that women who have a major increase in appetite are more likely to be carrying a boy, but I've also read that the reverse is true. There was even some nonsense about peeing in a cup and adding Draino and seeing what color it turned! Even if I had Draino on hand (which I don't), that's just a little too weird for me.

So the final verdict? Ultimately, I still don't know. There seems to be a slight leaning toward having a girl, according to the “methods” I mentioned. The uncertainty of the back-and-forth leads only to one inevitable conclusion: there's a reason why these are called “old wives' tales!” I do believe we'll just find out the old-fashioned way.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Tofu Cutlets!! Yes, I really am that excited.

Here's something you probably don't hear very often from non-vegetarians: I've had a craving lately for some good tofu. In all honesty, you probably don't hear that very often from actual vegetarians either. Well-prepared tofu is something to be savored, something to be enjoyed, something to be admired even (by those who aren't very good at preparing it), but I don't know that it's something frequently described as crave-worthy.

And by crave, I *don't* mean in a pregnant sort of way. Really, I don't know that I've had many actual pregnancy cravings. Unless you can count water. I simply can't get enough water these days.

But I digress. Good tofu is something I frequently crave, possibly because of what my standards as to what constitutes “good” are and how difficult it can be to find tofu that meets those standards. Before moving to Illinois, my honey and I used to live in Woodland, California, and there was a Chinese restaurant there that had the best tofu I've ever had in a restaurant, hands down. Something about they way they cooked it... it came out nice and firm on the outside, a little crispy around the edges, a little chewy on the inside, and was always covered with some sort of yummy sauce. Our favorite was the sweet and sour tofu (which is a dish that, regrettably, one does see very often in restaurants), but their lemon tofu and king pao tofu and pretty much every other tofu dish were amazing as well.

By contrast, the first Chinese restaurant we tried out here in Illinois was, well, bad. Not as in spoiled, it just wasn't very tasty at all. The tofu was barely cooked, limp, and fell apart when you tried to seize a piece with your chopsticks. (It's possible that this had something to do with my chopstick technique.) The meal was an extreme disappointment.

So far, most of the good tofu I've eaten in Illinois has been tofu that I've cooked myself. I'm not trying to say that I'm a fabulous tofu chef, because I'm not. I just know how to cook it so that I like it, that's all. Usually I either bake it or just pan-fry it with a very light amount of oil, low temperature for a long time. I can cook a decent homemade sweet and sour tofu, and I make a mean stir fry. I like crumbling it and putting it in my marinara sauce, and I like using it in lasagna as a suitable substitute for the ricotta cheese. (Vegan standby or culinary sacrilege? You decide.)

The fact remains: cooking good tofu will always be a challenge of sorts.

And as such, I'm always looking out for new recipes for “basic” cooked tofu. Something simple that produces good results will never go amiss with me. Not surprisingly, I felt strongly compelled to try the recipe for Tofu Cutlets in New American Vegan. Easy and quick. Nothing about the recipe was a revelation by any standard, but the marinade offered was delicious, the cooking method straightforward and simple. Served with a side of steamed veggies, both D and I were impressed and satisfied.

Well, maybe not entirely satisfied. I could have easily eaten two or three times as much as I did. And that *could* very well be the pregnancy talking.

I hope you weren't expecting a relevant picture.
My food photography skills are rather lacking, so instead I present the cat,
who remains unimpressed with my culinary efforts.

Tofu Cutlets
from New American Vegan by Vincent J. Guihan, reprinted with permission

1 pound extra firm tofu (pick a block about 2 inches thick if you have a choice, and don't buy silken tofu)
3 tablespoons tamari
1 teaspoon brown mustard
1 teaspoon agave nectar
1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
dash of liquid smoke

You can always substitute sugar for the agave or add a tablespoon prepared catsup if you prefer (catsup usually has a lot of sweetener). Try replacing some of the tamari with 1 teaspoon red miso and 1 tablespoon water. Or just use the marinade you like!

Begin by preparing your ingredients. Next, slice the tofu. Press your hand gently down on the tofu. With your knife, carefully cut through the center of the tofu. Cut each half into quarters, and each of those quarters into eighths. You should have squares that are about ¼-inch thick (although it depends on the shape of your original block of tofu). Now, you'll need to marinate your tofu. Add the tofu to a medium-sized bowl. Whisk the marinade ingredients in a small bowl, add to the tofu, and toss to combine. Cover the bowl and let stand for 15 minutes on the counter or, if you prefer, 2 to 4 hours in the refrigerator.

To cook the tofu cutlets, preheat your oven to 400º F and roast your tofu cutlets on a baking sheet with all of the marinade for 10 to 15 minutes (or until lightly browned). Flip the cutlets and roast for another 10 to 15 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove from the oven.

My Notes:
As I said before, easy and quick. I only made a half-recipe, as I only had half of a block of tofu on hand. I used regular soy sauce instead of tamari, and I used grapeseed oil instead of olive. I left out the liquid smoke, because I don't have any. One clove of garlic did the trick, and I used a spicy brown mustard for fun.

I marinated for 15 minutes, but ideally, I think this recipe would come out even better if allowed to marinate for 20 or even 30 minutes. I baked for 10 minutes on the first side and 15 on the second. I definitely recommend at least 15 minutes on each side; when baking tofu, a longer cooking time will create for a more pleasing, chewier, “meatier” texture, which is the objective for many people. I dumped the extra sauce in with the cutlets when I baked them, as directed, but a lot of it ended up burned onto my baking dish. This didn't affect the final taste at all, but it did make cleanup a little more difficult; I'd recommend lining whatever baking dish you use with foil to make your life easier.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Pumpkin, Tomato, & Jalapeño Soup: In search of winter squash recipes

The world needs more savory winter squash recipes.

Back up for a second. Last fall, I joined a six-week CSA program from Genesis Growers, which was pretty much the only CSA I could find that had a fall program and also delivered anywhere close to me in the North Chicago suburbs. (My former CSA, Nevermore Farm back in California, had a year-round program; I have clearly been spoiled.) Now that those six glorious weeks are over, I'm back to buying questionable produce from the Commissary and the local grocery stores. But I shouldn't complain; six weeks of fresh local produce is better than nothing, right?

Anyway, pretty much every box that I received during those six weeks contained some variety of winter squash. Pumpkin, acorn squash, buttercup squash, banana squash... I was inundated with squash faster than I could conceivably cook with it, primarily because my repertoire of squash recipes is lamentably small.

This is about half of what I used to have.  Admittedly, that pumpkin did not come from the CSA; it's a leftover Halloween pumpkin from the Wal-Mart.  Could you resist buying a 2¢ pumpkin?

My usual plan of attack when it comes to any variety of winter squash is to roast in the oven, mash into purée, and then save for future baking endeavors. Does this make me a bad vegetarian, the fact that I don't really know many main-course-type recipes for squashes? Sure, I can make a mean pumpkin soup, but it's not something I make very often, as the straight pumpkin-ness of such a soup can be a little overpowering. I also have a fabulous recipe that my mama sent me for a butternut squash lasagna that I'd like to try out one of these days, but it hasn't happened yet.

Most other winter squash recipes that I've seen tend to involve baking them with butter and brown sugar or maple syrup and spices, and then eating it straight. Personally, I've never been a huge fan of the quintessential sweet baked winter squash. I mean, most winter squashes are plenty sweet on their own; is it really necessary to add extra sugar? (This is the same reason why I've never been a fan of most traditional Thanksgiving recipes for candied yams... is it really necessary to add marshmallows and brown sugar to an already sweet vegetable? Sugar overload for sure!)

On top of my general dislike of sweet baked winter squash dishes, I face the additional issue of having a very low tolerance for consuming sugar right now. One of the ongoing themes of my pregnancy has been an on-again, off-again aversion to overly sweet things. Seriously. Aren't pregnant women supposed to crave ice cream and chocolate? Not me; for the majority of my first trimester, the very smell of chocolate made me nauseous, and even now I can only eat it in small amounts, if at all. I've generally had to cut the amount of sugar in my own baked goods in half if I want any hope of actually eating them. My husband and I received a goodly amount of sweet treats for Christmas, mailed by family and friends back in California, and I had to unfortunately burden him with the task of eating most of it. (The horror! Thank goodness I'm married to such a considerate man!)

Thus, my dilemma. I love winter squash, but I've been looking to avoid having bags and bags of frozen purée in my freezer, awaiting future baking projects. Not that I think D would really object if I spent copious amounts of time over the next few weeks baking pumpkin bread and scones and such. Honestly, I'm less than two months from the estimated due date of my baby; surely the mythical “nesting” instinct will be kicking in soon. But I'd love to add some variety to my squash adventures.

So not surprisingly, I was thrilled to find this recipe for Tangy Pumpkin, Tomato, & Jalapeño Soup in one of my newer cookbooks, New American Vegan by Vincent J. Guihan. This soup is described as being “rich and full-flavored,” which I found to be very true. I initially cooked up a batch yesterday and finished up the leftovers for today's lunch. I loved having an excuse to finally use the immersion blender that I received as a holiday present from my in-laws; it worked like a charm, and D was thrilled with the perfectly blended texture. I served it up with a cheese and avocado quesadilla for a perfect winter meal.

A perfect soup for a chilly Illinois day.

Tangy Pumpkin, Tomato & Jalapeño Soup
from New American Vegan by Vincent J. Guihan, reprinted with permission

2 cups water or vegetable stock
2 cups pumpkin purée (canned saves time, but if you want to work from scratch, go for it!)
1 small jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced (about 1 tbsp, or less if you don't like it spicy)
4 medium tomatoes, cored, seeded, and chopped (about 2 cups)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil or the nut butter of your choice
1 tablespoon minced fresh garlic
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
1 teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon cloves, ground
½ teaspoon coriander, ground
¼ teaspoon sea salt

This is a spicy soup. You can always add ¼ teaspoon black pepper instead of the jalapeño pepper if you prefer something quite a bit milder. Swapping the oil for a tablespoon of macadamia or cashew butter will add some richness to this soup. Tahini is also good, but it will provide a nuttier taste. If you really want to taste the pumpkin, macadamia is preferred. Add 1 tablespoon minced cilantro for a little green flavor and extra color for garnish.

Begin by preparing ingredients. Bring 2 cups water [or vegetable stock] to a boil. Prepare your vegetables and spices. Once the water has come to a boil, add the chopped tomatoes and spices [this includes garlic and ginger]. Decrease the heat to medium and simmer uncovered. Reduce by ⅓. This shouldn't take more than 15 minutes. Remove from heat. Add the pumpkin and oil or nut butter. Stir to combine, then blend with the hand blender until smooth. Decrease the heat to medium-low. Cover the pan and return the soup and cook for another 3 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand for 5 minutes. Taste and add salt as necessary. Ladle into bowls.

My Notes:
I am generally incapable of making a recipe as directed. I used one (14.5 oz) can of tomatoes instead of fresh, since it's January and any fresh tomatoes the store might have would probably taste like cardboard. I only used about ¾ of the jalapeño, since I'm not a huge fan of spicy, and I cut the amount of pumpkin down by half, since pumpkin can be really overpowering to me. Next time I might try bumping the pumpkin amount up to 1½ cups, but I do think that using the full 2 cups might be a little bit much for me and my husband. Also, I didn't actually use pumpkin; I used purée from a red kuri squash. In my world, most winter squashes are interchangeable.

One tablespoon minced fresh garlic turned out to be about two good-sized cloves. I was admittedly a little wary of the addition of ground cloves at first, but just go with it here; the end result is worth it! I used water instead of stock, and oil, since my kitchen doesn't usually contain fancy (and expensive) things like macadamia nut butter (although I sincerely wish I could afford some).

As I noted earlier, (finally!) having an immersion blender made preparing this super easy, although you could just as easily use a regular blender if that's all you have. Overall, this soup was very quick and simple to make, and could be easily made more so with the substitution of canned pumpkin and even pre-minced garlic. The recipe doesn't indicate how many servings the recipe makes but for me, it made about four.