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This one is a little photo tutorial of our dinner tonight which was my basic Aglio e Olio (Garlic & Olive Oil) pasta dish, made with capellini – my favourite of the strand pastas! Capellini is a very thin, delicate noodle that holds up well  to a clingy sauce like this one (or any creamy sauce); as long as you know how to cook it properly! The danger with these thinner types of strand noodles (capellini, spaghettini, vermicelli, capelli d’angelo, fedelini) is they cook very fast compared to other pastas and if you walk away from that pot as they simmer away you risk ending up with mushy pasta. So, I’m going to give you a little talk about how to handle this type of pasta in order to maximize it’s texture. The sauce also cooks very fast – in fact, you barely want to cook it at all lest you burn the garlic and end up with a bitter mess of blackened olive oil. This is why this meal is great for those nights when you’re feeling too tired or pressed for time to do anything “fancy”.

First, you want to peel and chop a LOT of fresh garlic. For our family of four, I use two heads of garlic. I like to save time by place the peeled cloves in my Magic Bullet, with a few glugs of extra virgin olive oil.

Lookit all that 'lick!

Then I pulse the bullet a few times to get the garlic and olive oil to turn into a sort of chunky paste. Try not to overdo it if you’re using a machine like this – you still want a little texture in there. If you’re mincing all that garlic by hand, just get it as fine as you can without feeling frustrated. As soon as you feel frustrated, have a glass of wine and mince it a little more. Then stop and add it to your skillet with the olive oil and a healthy pinch or two of dried, flaked chili peppers.

To make this into a sauce, all you’ve gotta do is gently warm this mixture on medium-low heat, stirring it now and then, until it starts to sizzle and become aromatic and turn slightly brown. The second it starts to look like it’s turning brown, remove it from the heat! Garlic burns very quickly, and extra virgin olive oil isn’t very heat-stable. You just want all three flavours to meld together in one perfect sauce.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Noodles coated in olive oil, garlic and chili sound delicious but aren’t particularly nutritious. C’mon, fatty – where are your vegetables?” Watch it, now, grasshoppers. I don’t resent being called a fatty (I am, and a proud one at that) but I do resent the implication that I would serve this as a meal and call it done. Oh ho ho ho ho, no. One of the best things about this meal is that you can use the pasta  to build a beautiful single plate feast of textures and flavours that are held together by the common thread of delicious and healthful garlic and olive oil – and it can be different every time, depending on what you’ve got lurking around in your fridge or freezer! Tonight, for instance, I found a big old cauliflower that wasn’t going to last more than another day or two, and a lonely package of Tofurky sausages, Italian-style (perfect!). I chopped ’em all up into bite-sized bits and put them in their own pan with a touch of olive oil and fried them together for a few minutes, just enough to get a crisp, browned edge on everything.

I love the Tofurky sausages. In fact, I don’t think I’ve met a single person who doesn’t love the Tofurky sausages, vegans, vegetarians and meat-heads alike. What’s not to love? They’re packed with flavour, their texture is pretty much right on the money, and Tofurky avoided making the same fatal mistake most other vegan meat analogue companies have, which is trying to keep their products fat-free. Sorry, Yves et al – in my mind, the inclusion of some fat in these products is what makes or breaks their tastiness, and so far, Tofurky is winning the game in that respect.

I occurred to me, as I was stirring the Tofurky & cauliflower, that the dish was going to end up looking a little pale and that it could use a splash of colour. Normally I’d chop up a couple of tomatoes or red peppers but I had none in the house. I dug around in my freezer to find some peas, and oh, look! Some argula (aka rocket/roquet to my European readers) is waiting to be eaten too! Green would go well with this meal, for sure. At this point, I started the water boiling.

The first most important thing for you to remember about cooking pasta is, don’t be adding anything to the cooking water, except maybe some salt – and even that isn’t necessary (or even desirable, if you’re watching your sodium intake). Don’t add oil – it messes with the pastas cooking time and finished texture. Some people like to cook their pasta in stock, which isn’t such a bad idea if it’s veg stock (and oil-free); but please remember that pasta isn’t supposed to be flavourful – it’s supposed to be bland so that it can absorb the flavour from whatever sauces you use. And puddins? This aglio e olio sauce packs a big punch! You really want the garlic and earthy olive tones to shine on these noodles. The second most important thing to remember about cooking pasta is, use lots and lots and lots of water. You want those noodles to be really floating in there, not all crammed together. The number one reason people think they need to add oil to their pasta water is to prevent the noodles from sticking together; but noodles won’t stick together if you use enough water in your pot, and stir, stir, stir the heck out of them in the first couple of minutes after adding them to the pot. Bring that water to a high boil. Add salt, or not. Add the noodles (and tonight, I added the frozen peas, because the capellini cooks as fast as they do), and stir constantly until the water returns to a boil. If you want, you can walk away at this point for a couple of minutes, but always come back and give them another healthy stir or two before they are finished.

With a fast-cooking noodle like capellini, I like to keep a big cup of ice water beside the stove. When the timer goes (these are al dente in 4 minutes and über-tender in 6!) I turn the heat off, and dump the ice water right into the pot. This stops the cooking immediately!

Then they are drained immediately. DO NOT RINSE YOUR COOKED PASTA, YOU FOOL. I remember a room mate I had way back in my early cooking days counselling me to run my pasta under cold water for a minute or too after it was finished cooking. He insisted that his mother had taught him it was good to get rid of the “extra starch”. Now I can laugh about it – “extra starch”? What did he think pasta was? That “extra starch” is going to help whatever sauce you use adhere better to the noodles, to deliver maximum flavour impact.  Toss your unrinsed noodles & peas back into the pot (not on the same burner you were cooking them in – it’ll still be hot enough to burn them!). Add the aglio e olio, then toss it all together so the noodles get nice and coated. I find tongs work really well for this job, but a couple of forks or some wooden spoons will do well too. Be gentle – you don’t wanna mush or cut the noodles up.

At this point you wanna add whatever extras you’ve got on hand, like our pan-fried cauliflower and Tofurky sausages! Again, mix it very gently until everything is just tossed together, and serve hot. I plated mine on some fresh, organic arugula, and topped it with a generous helping of my Almosen Sprinkle (a mixture of ground almonds, nutritional yeast, and sea salt).

Capellini Aglio e Olio with peas, Tofurky, cauliflower & arugula

The addition of the chili flakes to the sauce really takes the flavour of this dish to a whole ‘nother level, but you can leave them out if you’re not a fan of their heat. I have also added a splash of white wine to the sauce right as it hit the sizzle point, just enough to add a hint of that dry, fruity flavour. Other delicious additions are a handful or two of minced, fresh parsley, chiffonade of basil, chopped sundried tomatoes, or ribbons of roasted red peppers. Mangia!

Just to be clear, I haven’t abandoned my “I Cook the Beatles” project. In fact I’m hoping to incorporate some of it into the Vegan Mofo 2010 thing I’ve got going on this year. But that may just prove to be a little too much intersectionality, even for me, so for now I’m not even going to pretend to have a theme.

This is my first VeganMofo, by the way. Despite having kept track of my vegan food expliots for many, many years on the internet (see: VeganMania, Kreeli’s Tasties, Hey Christa What’s for Dinner?, this blog and various and sundry vegan food topics on various and sundry message boards – both vegan and non-vegan) I have somehow avoided the whole vegan food blog craze. I kind of took myself out of the “vegan online” loop back in 2004/2005 when I quit participating on pretty much any message board that had veganism as a focus. I quit in a huff. I was a flouncer. I will talk about that more another time, but suffice it to say, I was completely disillusioned with the online vegan community, especially as my own my own feelings about radical anti-oppression politics expanded and grew. So, when I quit my once beloved Veggieboards, and Kittee implored me to join the PPK, I declined. I was still too burnt out and too stung. I was also in the very early stages of starting up my own vegan food business, which took up enormous amounts of my time and energy. After working on that all day, plus homeschooling my two kids – I had very little left for online shenanigans.

Things have changed a lot for me over the last five, six years, though. My kids are both in public school. My business grew and grew and grew…and then I stepped away from it. I still don’t regularly participate on an vegan-ccentric message boards (though I have signed up at the fledgling abolitionist board on Gary L Francione’s site); but I surely do appreciate the vegan food blog culture that has arisen as a result of them and I am feeling ready to jump into that particular fray. As far as spreading the good vegan word, talking about the food we eat is definitely the safe, least controversial way of doing it and it’s something that we can all relate to. Also, food is my passion. I love to eat. And coming from an art school-cum-housewife background, creating delicious, enticing and family-friendly meals is a way for me to at once take care of those I love, and express myself creatively. So here I am…one more Vegan Mofo to add to the list of 700 of you out there. I feel so grateful that so much good information is being shared about vegan cooking and food so easily nowadays. When I first started, waaaay back in the mid-1990s, the pickins were slim online and there weren’t a tenth of the commercially available cookbooks we can buy now. Way to go, fellow MoFos, way to go. I’m really excited to be taking part.

Without further ado, I present to you my family’s vegan Dia de los Muertos feast.

Vegan "Mexican" Food

We enjoy a Mexican feast of this calibre every year around this time. I normally try to prepare it on November 1st bur this year neither my daughter nor I felt well enough to enjoy such luxurious magnificence, so we delayed it by a day. It turned out that the actual Dia de los Muertos was November 2nd this year, so it was probably our ancestors way of telling us we were doing it wrong to begin with.

I have been making vegan enchiladas for years but they aren’t particularly authentic. First, I have a hard time sourcing corn tortillas locally. Second, I use a tomato-based sauce, knowing full well that real enchilada sauce has no tomato whatsoever, but derrives it’s red colour from pure chili peppers alone. In some ways, you could almost call these a casserole dishes filled with non-traditional ingredients my attempt at making a Mexi-style lasagna. But you know what? I’m not Mexican, nor do I have Mexican heritage. I also put tofu in my “ancient grains” hippy tortillas.

Tofutti "Better Than Cream Cheese", refried pinto beans, black olives, on whole grain tortillas

Baked tofu, broccoli & hot pickled banana peppers in a creamy concoction

We’re not going for authenticity here, folks – and that may be for the best, since I’m not super fond of pork fat in my beans.

Guacamole should never be a homogenous green paste!

I am, however, fond of guacamole on my pseudo-enchiladas.

Adding to the non-authenticity are these incredible polenta fries.

Just cornmeal, water, seasonings, oil and an oven!

Polenta isn’t Mexican. But it sure is delicious! Especially cooled, cut into sticks, baked until crispy and then dipped in a chipotle-Vegenaise aioli.

And since we have gone all over the globe procuring ingredients and flavours from several different cultures, I figured why not bring the Germans into it, with this delicious coleslaw.

cabbage, carrots, beets, green onions & a lime-chili vinaigrette

By far, my kids favourite part of the annual Dia de los Muertos feast we prepare is the Pan de Muertos (literally translates to “Dead Bread”) and the spicy hot chocolate I brew up for us to dip it into. Normally I make up a big loaf, shaped into a skull, with little bread “bones” stuck all around the edges, but this year we decided to try something new and made, instead, 16 individually-sized skull-shaped buns. It was a fun way to get the kids involved in preparing the meal and we got some very creative skull-and-bones bread sculptures out of the oven. The only sad thing was, I realized too late that the yeast we were using in this batch of bread wasn’t filled with the joie de vive that I needed it to feel and the bread didn’t really rise. Oddly enough, it still produced some very edible and dare I say delicious – if dense – little skull biscuits, that tasted juuuust fine. Especially dipped in our cups of chili-and-cinnamon laced thick hot chocolate.

Pan de Muertos & Spicy Hot Chocolate

There were no actual complaints; though the perfectionist in me was sorely tempted to chuck the whole batch out and start anew, even if it meant we wouldn’t be eating dessert until 3am. This is progress for me, people!

This year I skipped making the molé; normally I do that up with some Mexi-rice on the side, but I kept the gathering low-key since my husband was working in the evening and I wasn’t going to be feeding as many people as we usually do. As it is, I’ve got an entire tray of mixed enchiladas in my freezer just waiting for the next evening I’m too wiped to prepare something from scratch. Anything fiddly like that, that involves a lot of rolling and stuffing, I try to make extra of. It’s the housewife in me – she knows that it’s the chest freezer, and not Valium, that’s really mother’s little helper on the roughest of days.

O-bla-di O-bla-da, Life Goes On

November 2010