A Seasoning for All Seasons

0
Even our huge Le Creuset Dutch oven couldn’t hold it all; this is about 20% of the finished goods.

For those of you who have followed the blog, you may have noticed my absence for what seems like an unconscionably long time. Which it has been. In the interim, a giant plague hit the world, I leaned into my semi-retirement, and our family — me, the bride, and two cats — moved to Portugal. While I’m sure at some point I will miss southern California, it hasn’t happened yet, and we’ve been here six months.

Life in Portugal has been pretty great, but it is not without its challenges. The ancient O’Keefe and Merritt gas stove that had been my constant companion for nearly thirty years now belongs, as does our house, to someone else. Its replacement, an electric convection oven, acts up in different ways that the old one did, so it’s taken some getting used to. The oven is also physically smaller than the O’K & M, which meant that some much beloved sheet pans had to go. Our induction range top, while brilliant for boiling water, tends to develop hot spots, which I’m not so crazy about. First world problems.

Our local grocery store(s) also have an irregular supply of spices, and some American staples, such as Italian seasoning and vanilla extract, are vanishingly rare. When you can get Italian seasoning, it often looks like this:

Now I don’t know about you, but I believe no Italian seasoning component should be red. As it turns out, this is just a mixture of sun-dried tomatoes and oregano. Some segredo do mundo (secret of the world).

I tapped my inner pioneer on the shoulder and asked, “What would Vasco da Gama have done?” Had he been interested in Italian seasoning — and there’s zero evidence he was, though his voyages to India sparked a global spice trading market — he would have had his cook make it. So I had my cook make it.

That would be me.

One can find any number of recipes for Italian seasoning out there on the Interwebs, and this one is an amalgam of many. Some omit parsley and marjoram (mine doesn’t), some omit sage (mine does), and the precise balance of ingredients varies, but I think I hit on a blend that seems “authentic” to me.

The one problem I had was that I made too much. Much too much. Like 1.7 kilos. A typical bottle of McCormick’s Italian Seasoning has a net weight of .75 ounces, which equates to 0.02 kilos. I’ll save you the step of getting out your calculator here: I made about 85 bottles’ worth. I am about to become the local Oprah of Italian seasoning. “And you get a jar of Italian seasoning! And you get a jar of Italian seasoning! And you get a jar of Italian seasoning! And you get a jar of Italian seasoning!”

Don’t do that.

This looks more like a drug bust than an overabundance of a pantry staple.

I’ve cut my recipe down to 10%, which will still yield plenty of the herb blend for any normal human. I wrote the recipe by weight rather than volume, but you could probably get away with using the ratio with tablespoons (5-3-3-3-2-1.5-1), since dried leaves all pretty much weigh the same.

Just put the herbs in a big bowl and give them a good stir, or, if you prefer, put them in a sealable bag and give them a good shake. If you want to go the heroic route (and you happen to be near Lisbon), I still have all the constituent components, because I bought them all in 1 kg bags. I’ll sell them to you real cheap… but you also have to take a jar of you-know-what.

INGREDIENTS (all leaves, not ground)

  • 50 g Oregano
  • 30 g Marjoram
  • 30 g Basil
  • 30 g Thyme
  • 20 g Rosemary
  • 15 g Parsley
  • 10 g Summer Savory

Potatoes au Gratin sans Fromage (Vegan-style)

3

It's plane to see.

It’s plane to see.

We’ve been doing Meatless Mondays around the pad for years now, and that frequently means one of several standbys, often involving potatoes. [What can I say, I’m Irish.] My original intent had been to take a whack at Chef Thomas Keller’s Potato Pavé recipe, but time and energy conspired against me, so I opted for Potatoes au Gratin. As luck would have it, The Bride and I dined a few days ago at Crossroads, an excellent vegan restaurant in Los Angeles, and that inspired me to retool the cheese-oozing, cream-dripping, diet-busting fave of my youth.

Generally speaking, I’m not much of a fan of ersatz food products (diet sodas largely excepted). I’d much rather have a beautifully grilled portobello mushroom served like a burger than any sort of the Frankenmeats that often try to pass themselves off as beef patties. As a consequence, my first order of business was to strike off most of the over-the-counter vegan cheese substitutes available, as they more often taste like Firma-Grip paste with a side of FD&C Yellow No. 6 than anything resembling fromage. What I wasn’t willing to sacrifice, though, was the creamy, viscous, umami-laden mouthfeel of the real deal. Fortunately, I didn’t have to.

Gotta give some props here to Tori Avey’s blog, The Shiksa in the Kitchen, which published a recipe for Dairy-Free Saffron Scalloped Potatoes that launched me in the right direction. Basically, there are two parts to the recipe: The potatoes and onions, and the sauce. Here’s a list of ingredients:

100_4774100_4770100_4768

DAIRY-FREE, GLUTEN-FREE, VEGAN POTATOES AU GRATIN

For the Sauce:
2 tbsp non-hydrogenated butter substitute (I used Earth Balance)
3 1/2 tbsp flour (I used Cup4Cup gluten-free flour)
1 can (13.5 or 15 oz) coconut milk* — NOT THE NON-FAT OR LOW-FAT VERSION!
1 cup Almond Breeze almond milk, unsweetened
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp finely minced garlic (or 1/2 tsp garlic powder)
½ tsp tamari sauce (gluten-free soy sauce)
1 ½ tsp mustard powder
¼ tsp Piment d’Espelette (or hot paprika or cayenne powder)
1 tsp celery flakes or parsley flakes (optional)

For the Taters:
4-5 lbs Russet potatoes (you could use Yukon Gold as well, but Russets are way cheaper)
1 large onion
several dashes paprika for colour and presentation, optional

You have a couple of choices here (more if you are not acting as your own sous chef, which I was). Either make the sauce first (which I did), or slice the potatoes and onions first. If you are slicing the veggies first, please feel free to skip ahead. [Do remember to put your potato slices in a bowl of cold water to keep them from going brown while you’re working on other stuff.]

Making the Sauce:

Making the roux.

Roux the day.

Melt the butter substitute (or margarine, even if it’s not called that) over medium heat in a saucepan or pot, and whisk in the flour a tablespoon at a time, stirring more or less constantly to make a roux. Let it brown a bit, maybe two minutes or so, and then begin adding the coconut milk, about 1/3 of a can at a time. [The full fat variety of coconut milk will probably have a big fatty plug at the top of the can; this is a good thing. Smooth it as you whisk.] Then add the almond milk and spices, continuing to whisk all the while (nothing says “M-m-m-m, tasty!” quite like a thumbnail-sized lump of mustard powder in your finished dish). The reason I used tamari rather than regular soy sauce was to keep the recipe gluten-free; if you don’t care about that, your basic Kikkoman will work just fine. All that need be done from here on is to keep it at a simmer; it only has to be warm (and liquid) enough to pour over the potatoes. Cover it (to keep it from reducing) and turn the heat down low while you focus on the next task: preparing the potatoes.

Preparing the Vegetables:

Spud ends.

Spud ends.

First, preheat your oven to 350ºF / 175 (actually 176.67)ºC

The potatoes (peeled or unpeeled, according to the chef’s whim) should be sliced to a thickness of about 1/8″ or so. More skilled craftsmen than I can perform this task handily with nothing more than a knife, but I use a mandoline (as you can see at the top of the post), and because I am a manly and foolhardy man, I use it without the safety guard. [THIS IS NOT RECOMMENDED!] Should you find the safety guard oppressive, one alternative is to wear a steel mesh or Kevlar glove. But in the true Anthony Bourdain spirit of recklessness, well, I don’t do either of those things. That being said, not only is slicing off your fingertips or shaving your palm — a real possibility! — painful and disfiguring, it also invalidates the recipe’s claim to being vegan. (Blood, even accidentally spilled, is an animal product.) When all the potatoes are sliced (and put in a bowl of water to prevent their discolouring), repeat the process with the onion.

Potatoes and onions, ring the bells of St. Bunion's.

Potatoes and onions, ring the bells of St. Bunion’s.

Layer the potatoes and onions into a greased large baking dish or Dutch oven (I used a 5 qt. Le Creuset Braiser, which worked magnificently). First set down a layer of overlapping potato slices, then scatter some onions on it, then ladle some of the sauce over. Lather, rinse, repeat, until the dish is full (I had about 1/2 lb of sliced potatoes left, which I put in the fridge, and will roast or fry later). Sprinkle some paprika on the top, if you so desire.

Ready for some ovenizing.

Ready for some ovenizing.

Cover with foil (or put on the lid), and pop it into the oven for 60 minutes at the aforementioned 350ºF / 175ºC. By then, the potatoes should be soft and yield easily to a fork. Give them another 10 minutes in the oven uncovered, and finish them off with about 5 minutes under the broiler to brown the top (be watchful during this process, because it can go pretty fast, depending on the distance between the dish and the flame).

Remove from oven, and allow them to cool for about 10 minutes.

Brown is beautiful.

Brown is beautiful.

Coda: I realized (a little too late) that some diced green chiles would be a terrific addition to the sauce; I heated some up and spooned them over top, but it didn’t have quite the same effect. Also, you may want to add some salt (or allow your diners to) at the table, as it was a tiny bit shy on the NaCl for my taste. And a little fresh ground pepper is also nice.

*The full-fat variety of coconut milk runs about 700 calories a can, which is a not inconsiderable amount, but don’t be tempted by low- or non-fat substitutions, because they won’t provide the same mouthfeel. And when you consider how many fewer calories it has than cream (52 per ounce vs. 103), it’s totally worth the “splurge.” [Also, the almond milk is only 7.5 calories per ounce, and given that you’ve also left out all the cheese, there’s a pretty dramatic reduction in calories compared to the standard au gratin recipe.]