Vegan Moroccan Dinner Party – Part 1

I recently had the pleasure of hosting a vegan dinner party for new friends.  As I don’t normally cook this way, it was a challenge to come up with a menu that didn’t consist of any animal products—no meat, dairy, eggs, cheese, honey, etc.  After a little research, I decided to do a Moroccan meal. This flavorful cuisine utilizes lots of vegetables, legumes, spices and herbs so I thought it would be suitable for an entire vegan menu.

This is part one of a two part blog.  This blog will cover the appetizers and cocktails and part two will cover the table setting and dinner menu.

The Cocktail

I always like to serve a welcoming cocktail that sets the theme for the coming meal.  In this case, I wanted to create a cocktail that would combine some of the classic flavors of the Middle East, including citrus, spices and the unique perfumey flavor of orange blossom water (available at Indian and Middle Eastern stores or online).  After a little research and some mandatory taste testing, I came up with this recipe.

The orange peel and spice simple syrup infusion smelled wondering simmering on the stove.The cocktail turned out to be a very unusual yet refreshing drink with flavors my guests found to be somewhat mysterious!

Feel free to experiment with this recipe.  Substitute cloves or cardamom for the star anise or try switching the orange liqueur to limoncello.  Instead of using sparkling water, you could use unsweetened iced tea.  And if you’re looking for a non-alcholic version, use orange juice instead of orange liqueur.

For a non-alcoholic version, replace the orange liqueur with orange juice.

Appetizers

I found a very unusual hummus recipe that included saffron, cumin, cloves and cinnamon.  I was a little afraid to try it because it called for honey and it was hard for me to imagine a sweet hummus.  However I was pleasantly surprised to find the flavors worked so well together and will definitely make it again.  It was both both savory and sweet and the combination of spices gave it a rather complex flavor profile.  Here’s the recipe. (Note: I substituted agave syrup for the honey to keep it vegan.)

Moroccan Spiced Hummus with Honey

Starting at the top left corner going clockwise: chili spiced peanuts, Moroccan spiced hummus, olive tapenade, pita bread, taktouka.

I also made a Moroccan dish called “taktouka” which is primarily made with tomatoes and green peppers.  I substituted pasilla peppers for the green bell peppers which gave it some mild heat.  I served the taktouka and hummus with a basket of pita bread.  Here’s the link with the recipe.

http://mymoroccanfood.com/home/taktouka

I rounded out the appetizer tray with some store bought chili spiced peanuts and a dish of olive tapenade.  I used a silk scarf with a colorful paisley pattern to line my serving tray.  The blue and white hand painted vase was a gift from a former student from Turkey (from my previous career as an international student advisor).  I filled it with some greenery from my backyard and added a candle on the other side of the tray.  While my living room is not exactly a tent camp in the middle of the Sahara, I tried to represent in some small way the warmth and hospitality of a Middle Eastern gathering.

Next week’s blog will feature the dinner menu and table setting.  Stay tuned!.

I thought these paper napkins with the thistle crowned owl were appropriate as they reminded me of the falcon, an important symbol in the Middle East. The white ceramic appetizer plates from Crate and Barrel also seemed fitting because of their textured handmade finish.

Cheese Box Conversion

A good friend was recently cleaning out her closets and came across an old cheese box.  She offered it to me and I of course I accepted!  I used to have an end table that had been made out of an old cheese box so I knew these boxes could be turned into very interesting home decor items.  Without any alterations, it could be used for a multitude of storage needs–hats, belts, gloves in a closet, to display oils and vinegars on the kitchen counter, or to hold sewing or knitting supplies.  Just imagine it stocked with glasses of iced tea or lemonade served up at a summer garden party!  But since the box was in excellent condition and had that rustic quality I love, I wanted to find a way to display it so that I could enjoy it on a daily basis.

For inspiration, I did a quick internet search for “cheese box DIY.” Lots of great ideas came up but the idea that appealed to me most (for now anyway) was to create a hanging shelf with it.

To make this hanging shelf you’ll need a cheese box, two leather belts roughly the same width so that they can be buckled together, and a piece of wood for the shelf.  In addition you’ll need a saw and sandpaper.  I have an electric mitre saw which made my job very easy, but you could use a hand saw and a mitre box if you don’t have an electric one.

I decided to place my shelf about 2/3 of the way down on the inside of the box.  This would allow a bit more height in the space available for objects.  I had saved some pieces of wood from a moving crate and found they were a fairly close match to the natural finish of the box.  After measuring to get the right length, I cut the board at a slight diagonal in order for the shelf to better fit the curve of the box.

I sanded the edges of the cut until smooth and simply placed the shelf inside the box.  I did not see the need for glue or nails to hold it in place as it fit snugly and I knew additional weight would be placed upon it to hold it down.  I also like that the shelf is removable so that I can easily change up the use of the box in the future.

Next I took my two belts and buckled them together so that I had a continuous loop or circle. I used two brown leather belts that were roughly the same width and color but you could use any thickness, color or style.  I think woven cloth belts would look fabulous as well.  If you don’t have any good options in your closet (or your mate’s), you can always find lots of great options at thrift stores.

The next step is to take the belts, loop them around the box and loop one edge of the belt over a sturdy nail.  I wanted my buckles to show so I positioned them prominently.

I decided to hang it in my kitchen and displayed some of my grandmother’s antique butter molds.  I added some ivy in a jam jar to add color and life.  I think a collection of old spice tins or antique bottles would also be lovely. Or imagine this piece hanging in the bathroom displaying rolled up towels or bath salts and soaps.  What collections do you have that could be displayed to perfection in this box?

Flower Arranging Tips

 

Fresh flowers are a small extravagance that bring a touch of elegance and beauty to daily life.  With a little effort and some basic knowledge, a typical grocery store bouquet, which can cost as little as $5, can be stretched into several gorgeous displays that can last for 2 weeks or longer.  Here are some tips that will make them go further, last longer, and look better for the long haul.

Tip #1:  Don’t be afraid to cut long stems.
Long stemmed flowers can be beautiful but I think they look best in large arrangements, like the ones you see in hotel lobbies or restaurants.  In most homes, the arrangement needs to be scaled down and that means cutting the stems to a more manageable height.

Before: This grocery store bouquet has simply been removed from the plastic sleeve and had about an inch trimmed from the stems in order to allow fresh water uptake. It is lovely of course, but lacks fullness and has a spindly appearance.
After: Here, the stems of the same bouquet have been trimmed about 5 inches. The arrangement looks much fuller and more deliberate.

 

Remember, it is important to always cut at least an inch from the bottom of the stems before placing them in water.  The stems seal over and cannot take up fresh water so re-cutting is vital to keeping them alive. A diagonal cut is more effective that a straight-across cut because it provides more surface for water uptake. Also remember to change the water every day or so to keep bacteria at bay.

Tip #2:  Add elements from your own garden or yard.  While I recognize that those of us with yards are lucky and apartment dwellers may not have the same type of access, it’s possible to gather nature’s bounty just by walking in your neighborhood.  Last December I saw tree trimmers working on our street and noted lots of beautiful magnolia tree branches were being cut and tossed into a chipper.  I immediately ran out and grabbed several branches for my holiday decor!  I’m not advocating breaking any laws, here.  Just use your common sense and if you find a situation where you can legally gather some useful plant materials, go for it!

With a few sprigs of ivy from my yard tucked in, the arrangement now has more fullness, texture and dimension. Be open to all kinds of plant materials. Herbs add fragrance, while a delicate twig would also be lovely mixed in.

Tip #3:  Break up the flowers into several arrangements.  This is one of my favorite tips.  After you have added in extra greenery, you may find that the arrangement has suddenly grown much larger and can be divided into two arrangements.  I feel I have gotten “two for one” when I can get a second arrangement from the same bunch.

I removed a few of the flowers from the original bouquet and placed the remaining flowers in a different container, roughly the same size as the first vase. This container had a wider mouth which enabled me to add more greenery from outside.  When you select flowers, try to find bunches that still have unopened buds to extend the life of your arrangements.
Here’s the second arrangement from the same bunch.  I took the Gerber daisies and a sprig of the chrysanthemums and cut the stems much shorter for a smaller vase. I had camillias in bloom in my yard so I added a few white blossoms to the mix. This smaller arrangement in the bathroom is a cheerful greeting first thing in the morning.
The roses and the initial lily blossoms faded after about a week. These two lily blossoms were just buds the first week. I removed some of the additional greenery I had in the previous arrangement and moved the flowers to a smaller container.

Tip #4  As individual flowers fade, remove them and downsize the arrangement.  Just because a few of the flowers in your arrangement have started to lose their petals or wither doesn’t mean it’s time to toss the entire arrangement!  All you need to do is pull out the bad ones and downsize to a smaller vessel. Remember you can continue to plump up the arrangement with cuttings from the great outdoors.  The picture on the right shows how this same arrangement looked after the first week.

My smaller arrangement in the bathroom evolved as well.  I replaced the camillias and greenery as needed.  The Gerber daisies are slightly less vibrant in color but it otherwise it still looks great. The camillia blossoms tend to fall off every couple of days but since I have an abundance in my yard right now,  I added fresh ones as needed.

Here’s the final arrangement. While not quite as impressive as the first arrangement, it’s not bad given that these flowers are nearly 3 weeks old!

By day 17, the chrysanthemums and Gerber daisies continued to thrive.  I changed up the container again and added fresh greenery.  I got another 4 days out of this arrangement before I had to toss it out.  Three weeks of fresh flowers in my home for about $5?  Now that’s a pretty good deal!!

If anyone has tips on how to keep the cat out of the flowers, please let me know!

Chocolate + Wine = LOVE

With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, I’ve been thinking about a dessert that would be a fitting finale to the special dinner I’m planning.  I have noticed that several of the wineries I’ve visited lately have recommended replacing the liquid in box brownie mixes with red wine. Knowing that chocolate and red wine are a winning combination, I thought this sounded like an idea worth trying.

I prefer to make my baked goods from scratch so I decided to figure out a recipe, but if you want to take the easy route you can simply replace the liquid in a box brownie recipe with red wine.  If you prefer a non-alcoholic version, you could try substituting grape or cranberry juice for the wine/liquid.

After a quick online search, I found a few recipes that pulled the main ingredients together.  I routinely use a couple of substitutions that make my sweets a tad healthier–namely coconut oil and stevia.  I also decided to play up the berry flavor notes in my Cabernet Sauvignon with the addition of dried cherries.  After my adaptations, here is the recipe I came up with:

Chop 4 ounces of unsweetened chocolate into roughly the same size pieces for even melting.

I almost always substitute coconut oil for butter or other shortenings in baked goods.  I find the flavor of coconut oil enhances most desserts, but it has other benefits as well.  It is a very healthy medium chain fatty acid with a long shelf life and a high burn point. It is known to have a positive effect on cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Some studies even show it assists with weight loss!

Also, I typically substitute half of the sugar in recipes with stevia, a natural plant-based zero calorie sweetener.  The particular brand I use is a cup-for-cup substitution and I find it does not drastically change the texture of baked goods when used in combination with sugar.  You can eliminate the sugar and use 2 cups of stevia, but beware that there may be a slight aftertaste and the texture will be less dense.

This recipe uses only a half a cup of wine so I will use the rest in stew that I plan to make the next day.
I used dried Bing cherries which have a good balance of sweetness and tartness. Give them a coarse chop before adding to the batter.

I should point out that there is no need to use an expensive bottle of wine for this recipe.  I keep a couple of bottles of inexpensive wines on hand just for cooking. I have often heard television chefs say one should never cook with a wine one wouldn’t want to drink but I take issue with this. I have never noticed an appreciable difference in a bottle of “Two Buck Chuck” vs. a bottle of fine wine when it comes to cooking with wine.  I served the brownies warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream accompanied by a nice glass of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.  The dried cherries compliment the berry flavors in the wine and add a little chewiness, while the chocolate balances the tannins and oak in the Cabernet.

I think my Valentine will be one happy camper come February 14th!