You know those moments where you’re not sure what your purpose is on this Earth, how you’re going to find it, and how you’re going to get there? And you feel all empty inside because everything is changed and nothing seems constant anymore? Yeah, that was me ALL month. I graduated in May, and I’m not sure what to do. My job for the past 22 years of my life has been to be in school, and now I’m thinking, “WUH, I’m supposed to be a person now? What’s this degree you speak of?” I’m sure a lot of you post-grads are feeling this way too. I worked my butt off and I’m not sure what’s next. The good news is, all of this time off has left me with some room for self-reflection and self-healing. The past six months have been hard – mentally, emotionally, and physically; and let’s be real, people, our bodies, heads, and hearts can only handle so much! Take it easy! Sounds like a good idea, Caroline, I’ll get going on that. Okay, heavy moment, over. What y’all are really here for is to see what I’ve been cooking this month. I took a week off to go to Disney World, and…
… Hold up. Did I say I graduated from college and went to Disney World?? Yes, I did say that. Yes, I did get Dole pineapple whip. Twice. No, I did not get any pictures with Mickey Mouse. Moving on.
Anyway, so I’ve been playing with the concept of cauliflower crust pizza, which, by now, I’m sure most of you have been beaten over the head with the idea. I have trouble calling it pizza, since I’ve had the real deal, and this is not it. Don’t get me wrong, I love cauliflower crust pizza — the texture (if you are lucky enough to get it right) is bomb, I love sliding in an extra vegetable, and it gives me a LOT of room to be creative with flavors and toppings. I don’t want to call it a pizza at this point, because I can’t do cheese. And the dough isn’t even a dough! It doesn’t rise, and you can’t pull it apart or stuff it with mozz (not that I would EVER do that, I’m just saying hypothetically…). So I’m calling it a cauliflower flatbread, because that’s the closest thing I can do.
I took the easy way out and bought the frozen ones from Trader Joe’s, which, after changing their baking instructions, actually work quite well! They’re cheese-less, unlike a lot of varieties I’ve seen out there, so they’re vegan friendly. Thumbs up, Trader Joe’s! Now, if only I could figure out how to master making this sucker crispy like a normal pizza. TBH, I haven’t done it. Nobody is perfect. And I’m going to keep trying, so hang in there with me. BUT I am very excited about what’s on top (if I can get the toppings to stay on the darned thing. Nevermind, I’m working on it).
Cauli-Flatbread Creation Number 1: BBQ Chickpea
I spend my summers in Missouri, and grew up in Colorado with a Mom who spent a good portion of her life in the “boons” of “Missoura.” She has a favorite barbecue sauce, like most people who grew up with the stuff. I assure you, I used to be a meat-eater (WOAH, SHOCKER), and we always had jugs of Show-Me Liquid Smoke for pulled pork and the like. When I say jugs, I mean, anything less than 5 gallons of sauce required going back to MO to restock because we were dangerously low and needed more. I don’t eat the pork anymore, but I still love that sauce, so I wanted a pizza that featured it.
This sucker has a good slather of BBQ sauce as a base. I layered on caramelized red onions (just sautee the onion, sliced thinly, adding liquid until the onions are browned), canned chickpeas, and mushrooms. After I baked it, I topped it with fresh arugula. The original instructions for the crust said to just put the toppings on the frozen crust and bake. THIS DOES NOT WORK. The result is a floppy and soggy crust that doesn’t crisp or hold together. I, and Trader Joe’s, figured this out quickly. The chickpeas also really liked to roll off the thing, but that’s because normal pizza has cheese to hold it all together. DUR. Must come up with a solution. But the flavors were excellent, so I’m trying this bad boy with the crust-baking technique from flatbreads 2 and 3.
Cauli-Flatbread Creation Number 2: Eggplant-Tomato and Chickpea
Okay, this result much more closely resembled a crust (which even burnt a little, woohoo!). The trick, which is on the amended crust box, is to bake the crust on it’s own, flip it, bake it again, and THEN add toppings and warm if needed. Totally works. I was motivated to make this one when I found this BOMB eggplant garlic spread with roasted red pepper, also from Trader Joe’s. I still wanted to use the chickpeas, but to keep them from rolling around, I mashed them up and mixed them with some good ol’ balsamic vinegar and some onion salt (Hey! Also from Trader Joe’s!). There’s some cherry tomatoes and arugula on top for good measure. I LOVED the flavor combination on this one, because frankly, eggplant is an obsession of mine. And the spread was close enough to a tomato sauce that I felt like I was eating a pizza. Ish. Minus the cheese.
Cauli-Flatbread Creation Number 3: Zucchini, Tempeh, and Eggplant
I stuck with the eggplant garlic spread for this one too, because it’s that delicious. But I needed more protein when I made this beauty (post-Barre hangry feels). So for the protein, I crumbled up some tempeh and sautéed it with garlic and chopped zucchini. I wanted more of the eggplant-tomato flavor from the spread, and something to hold it all together so the topping wouldn’t fall off, so I mixed MORE of the spread in the tempeh (wise decisions). I think this one was the most successful, because everything stayed together much better. And also, because tempeh and eggplant is a winning combination I’m going to play with from now on.
The First Mess:
I explored a lot more in the First Mess this month, because have certifiably fallen in love with this book. All of her recipes are easy to follow, fresh, and fun to make. I’m never disappointed, and I’ve found the dishes easily modifiable to suit my own tastes (I double the cinnamon in everything!) There have been a couple new dishes from this book I tested this month…
Roasted Chili Basil Lime Tofu Bowls:
As promised, I started with this sucker. This recipe caught my eye because I’ve been looking for different ways to prepare tofu that aren’t my typical Thug Kitchen baked tofu go-tos. Don’t get me wrong, I love those marinades. If you haven’t tried them yet, you’re missing out; but sometimes I want something that doesn’t take a day of marinating, and flipping and baking, and flipping and baking… What I love about this dish is that it doesn’t take a ton of prep time for the tofu to soak up the chili basil lime oil and retain the flavor through baking. This recipe has become one of my simple go-tos where I’m looking for something easy, fresh, and nutritious. The only hassle about this, is that it calls for cooked brown rice for the base of the bowl. Unfortunately, I’ve become a snob when it comes to rice. Whenever the opportunity comes, I make a huge batch of brown rice, you know, the kind that takes 45 minutes? The kind nobody has time for? Pro tip: make the time. It is so worth it. Brown rice cooked the longer way tastes so much nuttier and has a soft and fluffy texture. And with this fresh basil plant around at my disposal, all it takes is a couple sprigs sliced up and mixed in two or three-day-old rice to perk it right up! Anyway, I’ve made this bowl three times already, it’s that fantastic. Fresh lime juice gives it a bright, citrusy punch that is PERFECTLY counterbalanced by the spice from the chili flakes and the sweetness from the basil. YUM. The broccoli gets the leftover chili oil and some more basil, and then you top it all off with some sprouts. I chose sunflower sprouts, which are SO CUTE, I was so happy to have a reason to buy them! Because obviously, food is cuter when it’s small.
Creamy Quinoa and White Bean Risotto with Crispy Broccoli Florets
Fun fact, Fourth of July isn’t as much fun when you’re a vegetarian. And alone. My family was chilling in Florida on the Fourth, and I was not. So I wasn’t really in the mood to have a backyard barbecue for one. I was, however, in the mood to make risotto; which is very patriotic of me. Especially when you add the bottle of Argentinian wine I bought for the occasion. Anyway, if you’re not sure what makes risotto, well, risotto, it’s when Arborio rice (that part is essential) is cooked by adding broth or wine in portions, so the starch in the rice is slowly pulled out of the grain as it cooks. That’s where the uber creamy consistency comes from. There may or may not be some glorious cheese to contribute to that effect. So, vegan risotto tends to be challenging. Because, dairy. What Laura Wright does, is use pureed white beans and nutritional yeast to impart that thick, creamy, slightly cheesy element. And it works! This risotto was made from white quinoa and the puree, which adds tons of fiber and protein to the already protein-packed grain! Parsley and roasted broccoli go on top of this beautiful creamy goodness. I am so excited about the potential for this, because I need risotto back in my life. I’m thinking… sundried tomatoes? Crispy tempeh? Thoughts? I’ll get there. Next mission.
Spaghetti Squash Noodle Bowls with Lime Peanut Sauce
There’s something about a meal with spaghetti squash that makes you want to pat yourself on the back. Not because it’s necessarily difficult to prepare one, just that the darned thing is so huge, and scraping out its stringy innerds out of the hard and blistering-hot shell requires a little determination. So, naturally, having an end product that didn’t fall on the floor AND tastes yummy makes me feel a little warm and fuzzy inside. This Asian-inspired squash was no exception. I made it for my family who, like me, loves meals made out of this yellow beast. The thing that made this dish so awesome was the sauce (my dad agrees. He loves sauces). It struck a cord with me, because I KNOW I’ve had a sauce that tasted just like this. It reminds me of the dipping sauce they used to give us at our favorite hibachi restaurant in Colorado Springs. We used to go there for every birthday, celebration, or whenever we felt like amazing fried rice and chicken and shrimp. It was the kind of place where, even today, we walk in and the receptionist shouts, “You guys got so big!” So this squash hit home a little bit. It’s made of a whole lime (yes, a whole lime, minus the peel), ginger, hot sauce, peanut butter, garlic, agave, soy sauce, rice vinegar, and garlic. Whew, that’s quite the list. Fortunately, mixing that sucker was the most-labor intensive part of the dish, INCLUDING gutting the damned squash. Once it was baked, all I had to do was mix in the sauce and add the toppings: steamed broccoli (YAS), wilted kale leaves, sliced red onions, toasted cashews, cilantro, and sesame seeds. It was a hit (Dad went back for seconds). I’m mildly considering just making the sauce so I can put it on everything. I’m thinking…. grilled shrimp?
Stone Fruit Pecan Crumble
There are two things I love about summer fruit. 1: It’s phenomenal mid-July and I can’t get enough of it. So, I buy a LOT of berries and stone fruits. 2: Summer fruit is amazing in crumbles, cobblers, pies, etc. So, even when if the fruit I buy goes too far for eating it on its own, that’s nature’s way of telling me it’s time to bake with it. Bruised, wrinkly, overripe fruit is perfect for baking because it has higher-sugar content. Which means you don’t need to add as much sugar to the mix, since the fruit has enough on its own. I generally cut down on the sugar a recipe tells me to use, since I like my desserts…. not so sweet (or a la mode, but that’s another deal). There were five peaches (two yellow and three white) calling my name on the windowsill, so it was time to make this crumble.
I’ve made my fair share of fruit desserts. My grandpa was quite the fruit and vegetable enthusiast, and he grew EVERYTHING. Spending my summers in Missouri, at the farm, we had our pick of fresh produce. When Grandpa died, so did a lot of his plants; but Grandma kept the blackberry bush. Every July, she picks and freezes gallons of them. Yes, gallons. As in, every season, she has at least five gallon jugs chilling in the freezer, ready to be used. And as I grew up and learned to cook, she taught me how to make blackberry cobbler when I visited. I can make a mean cobbler without referring to a recipe, not to toot my own horn. This cobbler, while delicious, is authentically Southern. That means it’s really bad for you. We’re talking butter and sugar out the wazoo. While I still know how to make the original, sometimes I want a healthier version, like this one.
The filling is crazy easy. Sliced stone fruit (you could used plums, nectarines, peaches, the works…), cinnamon (doubled, of course), lemon juice, a thickening starch (arrowroot powder or corn starch), maple syrup (halved), and a little sea salt. One that’s all mixed in a shallow pie dish, I made the crumble. The crumble is probably the easiest topping for a dessert I’ve ever made. That includes the pre-made pie crust, because you have to defrost that darned thing. All you have to do is pulse a cup and change of raw pecans, maple syrup, cinnamon (you know the drill), and sea salt. THAT’S IT. Dollop the crumbly goodness on the fruit, pop it in the oven and you’re done.
Now here’s the thing about how I do fruit desserts. I like ice cream. A lot. In my opinion, there’s nothing better than warm fruit and vanilla ice cream. That includes birthday cake. Sorry, folks, this girl had apple crisp and ice cream every year for her birthday. I passed on the cake. So, CLEARLY, this crumbled needed to be tested as soon as it came out of the oven. What did you want me to do, wait for the pecan topping to get soggy? Wait until everyone came home so we could all try it together? I don’t think so. I love this crumble. The topping is simple and nutty, with a tiny pinch of salty-sweet (something I’m gathering Laura Wright likes to do with her recipes) that complements the fruity sweetness of the filling. Mine was, of course, topped with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. I like the simple things, y’all. All I know is, I need to make another one (or three) before stone fruit season is over. Gotta happen. Besides, making fruit desserts of any variety reminds me of my childhood, and everyone needs to be reminded of the easier days sometimes.