Rita: The Kosher Chick

Restrictions have nothing on her.

P.G. Drunken Brunch of the Month, Take 1

Posted: February 10, 2010 | Author: Rita | Filed under: brunch, Rita | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments »

As much as I love my fellow Pretty Girls, we don’t see each other so often, what with each of our hectic schedules and vastly different neighborhoods we reside in. Most of us might be in the same city, but that doesn’t mean it’s so easy to get together! As Johanna mentioned, regularly hanging out is a new goal of ours, and thus the first ever Pretty Girls Drunken Brunch of the Month was born. If anyone can do homemade brunch, it’s us!

For the inaugural edition I decided to use a gravalax recipe I’ve had for over a year but never found the right occasion to make it until now. Joh made scandalously good bagels and green pepper jelly and Bakezilla brought the prosecco and juices; a perfect trifecta of brunch.

I’ll leave it to her how she actually made such wondrous, bready delights but you can certainly have my gravalax recipe! It came out great, especially considering I’d never made it before!

- 1/4 filet salmon (it doesn’t have to be the highest quality, necessarily)
- 1/4 cup kosher salt
- 1/4 cup sugar
- Handfuls of dill
- 1/2 tsp all spice (optional but recommended)
- Slices of fresh ginger or 1 tsp ground ginger (optional but recommended)
- Freshly ground black pepper

Debone the salmon, if necessary. Set aside. In a bowl, add the salt, sugar and optional spices together. Rub both sides of the filet with the salt mix. If there is skin, just rub the exposed side, or remove the skin and do both if preferred. Garnish each side with pepper and smother each side with dill, enough to cover the sides completely. Slice the salmon in half and fold together. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap then place in a ziplock bag and refrigerate for 48 hours minimum. The salmon should be weighted down and turned over every 12 hours. When it’s done, rinse off and pat dry with a paper towel. Slice, serve.

After all of us eating almost a dozen bagels fresh out of the oven, the entire plate of gravalax and consuming the whole bottle of prosecco, for having great times with friends on a lazy, brunchy Sunday, I deem the first round of PGDB to be a success!

Special Delivery

Posted: February 3, 2010 | Author: Rita | Filed under: Rita | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments »

Not to brag or anything, but my mom is a great cook. Really! If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then all the women in my neighborhood back home particularly fawn over the recipes for her brisket, salads, and stuffed grape leaves, all of which they have appropriated for their own meals (and then served back to us when our family comes over for dinner).

My mom also likes to send her scattered kids care packages on occasion. Imagine my surprise when a small box arrived at my doorstep the other day, no return address. There’s only one person who it could have been from. Inside, of all things, were brand new containers of spices, ginger, coriander and cumin, as well a (broken) bottle of light soy sauce. A note was included, written on the back of an envelope:

“Dear Rita,
Here’s a recipe inside for a wonderful marinade I made with tuna steaks — unbelievably good! Works with any fish and I imagine chicken and other stuff. Enjoy!!! XX I love you…. Mom”

That just about melted my heart. Tucked inside the envelope was the recipe.

Ginger-Soy Marinade
2 garlics [sic] crushed
2 slices ginger
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp coriander
1 tsp cumin
2 tsps sugar [or sage? Hard to read. Knowing my mom, it's sugar.]
Optional: 1 tsp chili powder

When I asked her about the recipe, she said for tuna steaks it only needs to marinade for 10 minutes, since the tuna absorbs sauces quickly. Upon my asking her to clarify whether that meant 5 minutes per side for 10 minutes total or 10 minutes each side, she said, “I don’t know, I don’t do things so exact.” It’s also good for chicken. Cook it on a grill pan and you’ve got yourself a tasty dinner.

This story doesn’t top what she sent my brother though! I’d love to see the look on his face when he opened his box and found… an eggplant along with a head of garlic and a can of chopped tomatoes for a simple eggplant salad, which we eat tossed with pasta or on its own as a side.

Eggplant salad
1 eggplant
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tbsps olive oil
2 plum tomatoes, diced
1 small can tomato sauce
2 tsps sugar
Salt and pepper to taste

Dice the eggplant and soak in a bowl of cold water. Set aside for at least 10 minutes, then remove eggplant from bowl and squeeze out the excess water. In a large saucepan saute the garlic in olive oil until lightly browned, then add the tomatoes. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon sugar on top, stir, and saute until soft. Add the eggplant, tomato sauce and the remaining sugar and salt and pepper to taste. Cover the saucepan and cook on a low heat, checking every 10 minutes or so until soft. Adjust salt, pepper and sugar to taste. Serve warm for best results, though it can be refrigerated for later.

Together, these two recipes will make for a delicious meal! Does anyone else’s mom send packages like these or just mine?

Seven Species Salad

Posted: January 20, 2010 | Author: Rita | Filed under: Rita | Tags: , , | 4 Comments »

Tu B’shvat, the Jewish New Year for the trees, is next Saturday and I’m still unsure of my plans. Originally I had wanted to throw my own seder but it seems more and more like I won’t have the time (or money) to coordinate it! Luckily there are many excellent organizations having their own event but it’s usually for the best, I’ve found, to do things yourself. Or at least, it can be more fun that way.

Since Tu B’shvat is minor — the two Jewish cookbooks I own barely give it a paragraph, let alone specific recipes — and since it has been reinvented many times, I’m going to assume that as long as one sticks to the basic idea of the holidays as a New Year for the trees, then you can interpret and celebrate it any way you’d like, including what recipes to make!

One consistent custom, however, is to eat the seven species of fruit and grain mentioned in the Old Testament, which are wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates; all of which are healthy, flavorful and nutritious. Just mentioning these foods all together sounds so wholesome, doesn’t it? The reason there generally aren’t recipes for Tu B’shvat is because the above-mentioned foods tend to be eaten separately and not cooked, like nibbling on a bunch of grapes rather than eating something deglazed in red wine, say. That doesn’t mean we can’t come up with something, hmm?

If you’d like to combine them all into one dish for efficiency’s sake, it’s very easy to transform this into a salad:

Seven Species Barley Salad
Serves 4 – 6

- 1 cup pre-soaked hulled barley, cooked and cooled (see below)
- 3 teaspoons pomegranate juice
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt
- 1 red bell pepper, diced
- 4 – 6 figs, quartered
- Handful of red grapes, halved
- 1/2 cup crumbled feta or gorgonzola cheese
- 1/4 to 1/2 cup Whole wheat croutons (see recipe below)
- 1/4 cup sliced almonds
- Dates, sliced, for garnish
- Freshly ground black pepper

Note on the barley: though pearl barley is more common and takes faster to cook, the nutritious bran has been removed. In this way, pearl barley vs. hulled (complete) barely is like white rice vs. brown rice. If you want all the nutrition, go for the hulled, but you’ll need to pre-soak for many hours before cooking. Do this by placing the amount of barley desired in a bowl or container with double the amount of water and let sit on your countertop overnight. Done! You can even cook the barley in the water you soaked it in. Visit this website for more detailed info.

To boil barley: “The ratio of barley to water is 3 cups water for every 1 cup of barley. Over high heat, bring the barley and water, uncovered, to a boil. Cover, and reduce the heat to low. Allow the barley to simmer for 45 minutes. Do not add salt to your barley until AFTER it is cooked, since it can block absorption of water.

“Cooked barley will always retain some chewiness. You’ll know your barley is done when 20 percent of them have burst open. You can use the above method with non-pre-soaked barley too. Follow directions as above but cook for 1 1/2 – 2 hours instead.”

For the whole wheat croutons:
- Whole wheat bread
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Chopped fresh oregano, basil, thyme, or other favorite spices

Take a couple of slices of whole wheat bread and crumble into bite-sized pieces or smaller. In a small bowl combine oil and spices. Lightly coat the bread pieces in the mixture and place on baking sheet. Bake at 425 degrees until crispy, a few minutes.

Ok, onto the recipe itself!

While the barley is cooling, in a small bowl, whisk together the pomegranate juice and a pinch of kosher salt. Add the olive oil and whisk to combine. Set aside.

Combine the barley, red bell pepper, figs, grapes, preferred cheese, croutons and sliced almonds. Add the dressing and stir to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Garnish with date slices. Serve immediately or allow to sit in the refrigerator for up to 1 hour.

Important note: since I just made this up I haven’t attempted to make this recipe yet and I’m not sure if it works! Let me know if you try it yourself and tell me how it went! I suspect it needs lots of tweaking.

There are so many ways these seven ingredients can be combined! I’ll have more on that next week.

Freaky Fruits

Posted: January 13, 2010 | Author: Rita | Filed under: Rita | Tags: , , | 6 Comments »

For my next couple of posts I’ll be discussing Tu B’shvat, the upcoming, though minor, Jewish holiday. Tu B’shvat (literally, the 15th of the month of Shvat) is the new year for the trees, kind of like Arbor Day. Never mind that there is an arctic wind currently blasting through the entire eastern coast of the US right now, but I digress. This year it falls on Saturday,¬†January 30th. [Note corrected date! Sorry! - Rita]

For centuries Tu B’shvat was nothing more than a tax day, like April 15th, since everyone was required to donate a tithe of their crops to their priests then. But in the 1600s, kabbalistic rabbis in the mystical Israeli town of Tzfat decided to claim Tu B’shvat as more of a spiritual connection to the physical land and began the custom of a Tu B’shvat seder much like on Passover, with 4 cups of wine and featuring Israeli-grown fruits and nuts, all holding special symbolic meanings.

Up until last year I had no idea there even were such things as Tu B’shvat seders — I mentioned this is a minor holiday — but another way this day is celebrated is through environmental action and planting trees. Many a Jewish person will remember receiving certificates from elderly relatives that a tree has been planted in their honor in Israel, and what’s cool is that this is still being done today. Bloomberg’s MillionTreesNYC? Been there, done that!

Another custom is eating a new fruit on Tu B’shvat, something you have never eaten before, or at least not one you’ve eaten in the past year.

Personally, I love fruit and eat tons of it. I wait all year for clementines to be in season and buy them by the 3 pound bagful, enjoying them while I can. I’ve learned to distinguish subtle varieties of apple and when I visit my parents in Florida I’m overjoyed that good, fresh papaya is available to taste! Recently I read a fascinating book called The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce and Obsession, a zingy title which basically says it all. In it, I learned of fruits that sounded like they came out of fantasy novels: dragon fruit, cloudberries, jaboticabas, and many, many more. The point is that it’s so wonderful that we live in a world where such a wide variety of fruits (and trees) exist.

Dragon Fruit

Dragon Fruit

So now, what to try this year on Tu B’shvat?

I’m somewhat limited by what’s in season, available and affordable, but I’m officially soliciting suggestions: what should my Tu B’shvat fruit be this year? Maybe guava? What if I already ate guava paste this year? Hmm.

Check back next Wednesday for recipes and more indepth explanation on what’s eaten on Tu B’shvat and why!

P.S. – I already ate dragon fruit.

Happy New Year

Posted: January 6, 2010 | Author: Rita | Filed under: Rita | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments »

Wishing everyone a happy and healthy 2010! I hope everyone’s holidays were lovely.

The Hazon Food Conference was held over Christmas weekend, and I realize that in the previous post there wasn’t much actual information about what was discussed. Much of the workshops were regarding sustainable agriculture, CSAs (community supported agriculture), community gardens, permaculture, etc. There were a few of DIY foodie workshops too, making your own mozzarella, pickles and sourdough bagels. Many of these had a Jewish slant, Hazon being at the epicenter of the New Jewish Food Movement.

Much of what took my interest, though, were the food justice workshops. These tended to overlap with the workshops mentioned above but also were concerning how to help our communities with regard to hunger and poverty, and also how to unite our communities around a greater good. For example, I met someone like Jonathan, a charismatic guy with so many ideas on how to improve people’s lives he can’t bear to contain them all. Based in San Francisco, he built a community garden next to a formerly dilapidated children’s library so impoverished city kids could get the chance to experience where their food really comes from: not the grocery store but a plant!

At another workshop I learned about anti-hunger advocacy. The president of MAZON, a major Jewish anti-hunger organization, who led the workshop, said that he even went so far as going on a Food Stamp Hunger Challenge Diet of only spending $21 a WEEK on food, to raise awareness of this issue. A week! That’s how much California gives out in food stamps per week. Insane, right? And he gained weight because the cheapest stuff out there is total junk food.

I met many, many people with the same goal and aspiration: to help others. It was refreshing to meet so many people like this all in one place.

One last panel I’d like to mention was titled “American Kosher: From Manishevitz to Tootsie Pops”. While it delved more into the spirituality of keeping kosher than I expected, I did learn a couple of amazing facts. Did you know that there were kosher meat riots on the Lower East Side in New York City, not once, not twice, but three times?? Yes, it’s true. Due to kosher butchers’ price gouging, housewives went on rampages in 1902, 1903 and 1917, attacking those who dared purchase any of the immorally high-priced meat. You’d think that would discourage further hikes in prices but I guess the butchers didn’t learn the first two times around.

All in all, this was a very enlightening experience. Part of my responsibility now is to create an event or program in my community relating to what I’ve learned. A group of young New York scholarship recipients and I are discussing now what we’ll do next. Be on the lookout, it will most likely be Tu B’shvat related, the new year for the trees, which is coming up at the end of January. This can be a great opportunity for a fun, educational meal. Recipes will definitely be provided!

What else? I’m looking forward to 2010. 2009 was a mixed bag for me. Food-related wishlist for this year:
- Join a CSA (financially pending).
- Change up my daily menu more; a girl can’t live on swiss chard and bulgur wheat alone.
- Grind coffee myself instead of buying ground beans.
- Buy more organic food (financially pending).
- Step out of my comfort zone and create different kinds of ethnic foods. Thai? Indian? French??
- Buy and read more cookbooks.
- Do more anti-hunger advocacy of some sort!
- Finally eat a banh mi.

Those all seem doable. Happy new year, everyone!

What a Weekend

Posted: December 27, 2009 | Author: Rita | Filed under: Rita | Tags: , | 1 Comment »

630 people. Four days. One conference. I am here in the rugged beauty of Asilomar State Park, where the Pacific Ocean meets a rocky beach, to attend the fourth annual Hazon Food Conference. Among the many ideas and emotions running through me, more than anything I feel blessed to be here, being able to exchange knowledge with a wide variety of people from across the country and around the world, from as near as Salinas, CA to as far as South Africa. As a Goldman Young Adult Fellow I am deeply grateful for this opportunity that the Fellowship enabled. Almost 50 other Fellows are here and we are discussing our next steps and how to bring what we’ve learned back to our communities, how to create teachable moments, how to build more sustainable communities.

I am here because I am interested in the nexus of Judaism, eating healthily and sustainably and helping those in need. Many others are focused on environmental issues, bringing down “the Man” of giant agribusinesses, or simply because they enjoy food! But what is this Food Conference all about anyway? Hazon states that they exist to create a sustainable world for Jews and for all people. Clearly, with over 600 people here, that chord resonates.

There are several programming tracks to choose from but I have gravitated to the Food Justice and Food Systems and Sustainability sessions. Thursday, December 24th was the first Conference day and I went to a panel on running a sustainable food business. Bottom line: it’s a lot of work and you have to hold on to your vision! In the evening Hazon screened films; I watched The Garden, a documentary about a 14 acre community garden in South Central Los Angeles fighting to keep it out of the hands of a developer, a powerful story of politics, injustice and people’s connections to land.

Friday, the second day of the Conference, I experienced some of my most meaningful moments. In the morning I attended a fantastic panel called Keeping the Tzedek (Justice) and Tzedakah (Charity) and was exposed to amazing Los Angeles-based social justice groups through congregations, like Ikar, a spiritual community in the vein of B’nai Jeshurun in New York, which created meals for homeless shelters as a community, then sitting down and eating with those they cooked for, interacting, discovering what else they can do to help. I heard from Eric Shockman, president of Mazon, a Jewish anti-hunger organization, about food policy and how we have the capacity to eliminate hunger in our lifetime.

I greeted Shabbat on the sands of the Pacific, danced during Havdallah, learned how to make bagels, clapped along to Yiddish songs sung by a Jewish cowboy from Petaluma, CA and so much more.

One great benefit of the Food Conference is connecting to a vast network of activists and people simply concerned with sustainability in their hometowns. I was surprised to see so many families here, some with children as young as 8 weeks! How fantastic! I also met people like Marina, who is starting a CSA in Brooklyn, and Josh, who is heading to Guatemala in a week as part of the American Jewish World Service’s Avodah program.

A great wave seems to be cresting. Many people, Jews and non-Jews, are fed up with eating products created with unpronounceable chemicals or caged, hormone-laced meat; they want to ensure that no one in America goes hungry from lack of means. Among the trees, along the dunes, More than 600 visionaries and leaders are crackling with energy wondering what they can do next, how they can help, or are teaching others their solutions.

I am grateful to be merely one these 630.

Pre-Conference Time

Posted: December 23, 2009 | Author: Rita | Filed under: Rita | Tags: , , | No Comments »

Today’s the day I fly out to Northern California! After staying a night in the Bay Area, I’m hitching a ride to Monterey (ok, on a shuttle bus) and will be surrounded by foodies, nutritionists and many others at the Hazon Food Conference Thursday to Sunday, the 24th through the 27th.

Some exciting news: I was asked to guest post on The Jew and the Carrot, Hazon’s own blog! I’ll be cross-posting my conference experiences here too so all you Pretty Girls fans will be able to follow along. The amazing Joh showed me how to set up Twitter on my non-smartphone, so throughout my time there I’ll update with the workshops I’m checking out, and perhaps something along the lines of “OMG dinner is so yummy” but I’ll keep that to a minimum!

The Conference seems fascinating. Though there are several tracks ranging from DIY Food to Food Justice to Jewish Food Education, after perusing the schedule I’m having a difficult time picking just one I’d like to attend per period. Choices, choices. The schedule can be found here if you’re interested in seeing what the workshops and panels are all about. I find myself gravitating to the Food Justice and the Sustainability tracks, but learning how to make my own mozzarella sounds quite tempting as well. Any recipes I acquire will be reposted here and given due credit, of course!

Unfortunately, I will be missing the pre-conference chicken shechita (ritual slaughtering), which takes place as I’m travelling. Not that I’m into slaughtering animals myself but when else would I get to experience this? And these birds aren’t just for demonstration. We’re going to be eating them later on! I mean, whoa. Talk about locally sourced! I think it’s important to really see what it means to know where your food comes from, but I’m sure this topic will come up over the course of the weekend. It’s actually pretty controversial because even though at previous Food Conferences there were shechitas (one year was a goat!), some people believe that it’s a little hypocritical for an eco-friendly organization to promote eating meat since raising cattle causes a lot of environmental problems. But again, I say it’s all about knowing where your food comes from; I’m sure whoever was out there with the chickens will think twice about grabbing a wing come dinnertime!

This is so exciting. I’m not quite sure what’s going to happen, but I can guarantee that it’s going to be educational, fun and filling! Till then, happy holidays everyone!


Posted: December 16, 2009 | Author: Rita | Filed under: Rita | Tags: , | 4 Comments »

An amazing thing happened last week: I discovered that I was granted a Young Adult Fellowship to go to the 4th annual Hazon Food Conference!

What is the Hazon Food Conference? Well, Hazon I’ve mentioned in a previous post; they’re a Jewish organization all about creating a sustainable, healthy environment for all, as well as being pro-biking! They rock. Part of being sustainable and healthy is eating sustainably and healthily, and for the past three years they’ve held these Food Conferences to host workshops on how to do so and discussing current trends in what is called the New Jewish Food Movement. Personally, I find this very exciting.

I’ve definitely known of the Food Conference but never figured I would be able to attend because it’s clear across the country (this year, in Monterey, CA), and not even counting airfare, registration and room and board is another $700 or so. On my salary, uh, that isn’t possible. But right before Thanksgiving, their email list sent out an application for a last minute grant — the Joyce and Irving Goldman Family Foundation decided to sponsor New Yorkers in their 20s and 30s (like me!) to attend, including airfare! They asked for the Young Adult Fellows to participate enthusiastically (check) and upon our return, create some programming or event in our communities based upon what we learn at the Food Conference, such as hosting a Sustainable Shabbat, or starting a CSA, etc. (Double-check — I’ve been wanting to do something like this for a while!)

Sooo, the night before I left to go home for Thanksgiving, I stayed up until 4 AM honing my application, knowing there was no way I would be able to finish it later, and sent it out. Finally last week I heard back that I got it! I’m thrilled!

The crazy thing is, it’s over Christmas weekend. Meaning, I leave in less than two weeks. And I have to plan everything out! I’m the kind of person that absolutely needs to know logistics beforehand, otherwise I get very anxious. The flight’s booked and I’m going to stay through New Years with my friend from the Bay Area after the conference ends, but I need to figure out everything else!!

There are programming tracks and I plan on participating in as many as possible. They are: Do-It-Yourself Food; Food Justice; Israel: Food and Agriculture; Jewish Food Education; Jewish Tradition and Food: History and Culture; Health and Nutrition; Food Systems and Sustainability; Fasting and the Holiday of Asara B’Tevet (a minor fast day); Kids, Teens and Families; and Food for Thought.

They all sound great but I’m especially interested in Health and Nutrition, Food Systems and the Jewish Food and Culture tracks. Hey, we’ll see. And then on the last day they’re having a shuk (market) where we can purchase local goodies.

Though only the lobby of the conference grounds has Wi-Fi, I’ll try and update while there. We’ll see how it goes!

Oil Alternatives

Posted: December 9, 2009 | Author: Rita | Filed under: Rita | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments »

It seems like every week there’s another Jewish holiday, right? Coming up starting the night of December 11th is one of my faves, Chanukah (or “Hanukkah”, whichever spelling works for you). I’m still a bit annoyed that my Thanksgiving was sadly pumpkin-less, so at some point I’m going to have to figure out a way to incorporate it into the festivities.

The big food deal for Chanukah is oil. It wouldn’t be a festival of lights if there wasn’t any oil in which to create the lights! Of course, since oil must be incorporated into what’s eaten, like all Jewish holidays this makes for a fattening time of year. Since I’m concerned about being healthy and not having a heart attack due to deep fried sufganiyot (jelly donuts) or deep fried latkes, it was with interest when I read recently somewhere that what some people are doing now are not necessarily deep frying potatoes or sugar, but splashing olive oil atop dishes, like a garnish. Hey, that counts!

I’m not much of a soup person, but one cool suggestion is creating a butternut squash soup or pureed veggie soup of choice and drizzling high quality olive oil just before serving. Or, an arugula, walnut, cider-soaked onion salad tossed lightly with olive oil and spices. Unless you like salads, though, this isn’t particularly exciting. But at least if someone asks why you’re not downing latkes like everyone else, you have an excuse, “I had my fill of oil already, thanks!” (Assuming you have enough willpower to turn that stuff down.)

Another thing you can do which I snack on at home sometimes, is, just like in a fancy restaurant, pouring a small plate of good quality olive oil and either shaking in tons of zahtar spice mix or balsamic vinegar and wiping it up with doughy slices of challah. This isn’t exactly healthy though… but you can tell yourself at least it’s not a donut.

What other oil alternatives can you come up with?

Eatin’ With Vegans

Posted: December 2, 2009 | Author: Rita | Filed under: pasta, pumpkin, quick, Rita | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments »

A few times now I’ve referenced a vegan friend of mine who needs to be accommodated at times when it comes to cooking or going out to eat. As someone who’s lived her whole life with dietary restrictions, I’m completely cool with this, even if it’s really not for me! Said friend, despite being a pretty strict vegan and strictly kosher, doesn’t do much cooking for herself and is a little bit clueless when it comes to the kitchen. So, like any good foodie-ish friend, I offered to make her dinner some Sunday and guide her a bit on how to cook.

For her birthday last year, I got my friend Veganomicon, a friendly vegan cookbook with simple but tasty recipes, what I thought would be the perfect gift. But as it turns out, despite being very encouraging to novices and offering lots of tips (“Here’s how you core an apple,” say) my friend, ok I’ll just call her B., barely used it, partially because she was still a little afraid to! That just isn’t right!! Cooking is one of the greatest things one can do for oneself. To be able to feed yourself is to be self-reliant, and making a meal or dish is a great blend of creativity, science, health and timing. You can’t beat that! I resolved to help create a delicious, healthy, vegan meal for B, show her a couple of pointers and just have a good time hanging out with her.

B. picked the main, which was Pumpkin Ricotta Ziti with Caramelized Onions and Sage Breadcrumbs, except since she has a sensitive stomach, the onions were nixed just in case they’d upset her. But hey, anything pumpkin is totally awesome by me. Even the recipe called for it to be paired with a light salad or veggie, so I also made sauteed swiss chard to go with it. Dessert was medjool dates — mmmm. I freaking love medjool dates, they’re like chewy natural candy.

So, you may be asking, how the heck can ricotta be vegan? I certainly was thinking that there’d be no way to mimic anything to even remotely resemble cheese. But it’s actually super easy and I wouldn’t have known the difference. In a food processor, blend raw cashews (cup and a half?); then one pound firm tofu (= one package), crumbled. Add two cloves garlic, 1/4 cup lemon juice, two tablespoons olive oil and half a teaspoon of dried basil. Blend in food processor. Done! You’ve got yourself some vegan ricotta. It even looks like it, too. For the pumpkin part, spice up a 15 oz can of it (cinnamon, 1/8 teaspoon cayenne, whatever else you want), mix, then mix it in with the ricotta in a bowl. Done!

While the ziti boils in a pot, make the sage breadcrumb topping. Now, this is key to the whole dish, because the breadcrumbs are pretty effing delicious. In a food processor (Clean it out after the ricotta! Or not, since it’s all going to the same place anyway.) chop up stale bread to make into the crumbs. B. didn’t have any stale bread on hand, so we toasted some for a few minutes then just pulled it apart with our hands into crouton-sized pieces. In a pan that we buttered up with margarine, coat the crumbs, then toss with fresh sage and let it pan-fry for a few minutes longer. No fresh sage was on hand so we just used dried. It worked well regardless.

When the ziti was drained, we mixed it with the pumpkin ricotta, poured into a lasagna pan, covered in breadcrumbs, then baked at 350 for about 35 minutes. Done! How easy is that? And since this dish is especially heavy it was definitely a good idea to accompany this with something light and leafy.

Another vegan friend of ours joined us for dinner, and between the three of us we ate half the pan. This is a damn delicious meal, vegan or not.

I’m glad I got to spend some time with a good friend doing something that I really enjoy, and getting to share that joy with her and showing her the ropes. We plan on doing dinner night another time soon!

Johanna: The Improviser

Never quite follows the recipe. Doesn't really measure. Tastes with her fingers. Somehow, it always works.

Alyssa: The Triple Threat

Can do it all. And modest to boot.

Bakezilla: We Use Mixers Too

She likes to bake. Actually, baking is the only thing she does. It's a passion.

Rita: The Kosher Chick

Restrictions have nothing on her.