Friday, July 29, 2011

Yes, I WOULD Like Fries with That, Thank You Very Much.

After writing a pretty negative piece about McDonald’s, I had burgers on my mind. Lots of people think McDonald’s burgers (and burgers from similar establishments) taste delicious, so they choose to eat them, even knowing how awful they are. There has to be an equally delicious alternative that won't kill you.

Obviously, I’ve chosen not to eat hamburgers, or turkey burgers, or most veggie burgers for that matter (they’re often made with eggs). But I can’t deny that the experience of eating a burger is downright fun.

First, you get all excited as you see it coming toward you on a tray (probably with fries of some sort). Sometimes the burger is not assembled when you get it – it’s open-faced so you can admire all the extra ingredients. In that case, the inevitable “How am I ever going to fit that in my mouth?” question is delayed until you put the thing together.

Once you have it in your hot little hands, you have to unhinge your jaw in order to bite into it. It sounds uncomfortable, but it’s awesome. The burger, or parts of it, falls out the other end in the messiest way possible. By the time you’ve taken a few huge bites, your hands and face are covered in condiments and burger parts and you're feeling pretty satisfied with yourself.

I was determined to experience burger-eating again. I have some experience with vegan burgers, but I wanted to find a yummy burger nearby. So I did some research. LA Weekly identified the BBQ Tempeh Burger at Seed as the best vegan macrobiotic burger in LA. Lucky for me, Andrew lives right down the street from Seed.

Yesterday morning, we went to the beach so Andrew could surf and I could do my yoga practice. Sidenote: practicing yoga on the beach is a balance between awesome and awkward. The rush of getting a meditative workout by the majesty of the ocean can be nearly outweighed by the embarrassment of maintaining downward-facing dog while a group of hipster teenagers swaggers by snickering at your up-turned bottom.

After about an hour of trying to be zen in public, I was even more starving than usual. While Andrew went to change out of his wetsuit, I headed to Seed to pick up some take-out. My plan was to try the BBQ Tempeh Burger, but the Blackened Tempeh Burger with Mango Salsa (with lettuce, onion, sauerkraut, and mustard-veganaise spread) sounded too good to pass up. I got it on a ciabatta roll with a side of sweet potato fries, to make it as authentic a burger experience as possible.

While I was waiting for my burger, I looked around the store (whose decor pulls off a compelling combination of trendy-minimalism and cozy-shabbiness). On one of the bookcases, I discovered two vegan macrobiotic cookbooks entitled “Love, Eric” and “Love, Eric and Sanae.”

I just love love, so I was intrigued. The cookbooks tell the story of how Seed chef Eric Lechausseur and his wife, Sanae Suzuki, came to discover vegan macrobiotic cuisine. Sanae was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1993 and, without health insurance in the United States, had to return to Japan immediately for a life-saving operation. During her long recovery, she and her husband began to explore food that “heals.”

With regard to food, macrobiotics is the idea that what you put in your body affects not only your physical health, but your mental and spiritual wellness. Apparently, good and bad energy can be conveyed through food. So a macrobiotic diet aims to deliver good energy through whole grains, organic vegetables, beans, and sea vegetables, grown locally and prepared simply.

I was totally satisfied by my burger. The odd combination of flavors (the most prominent being mango+mustard) was strangely perfect. It even kind of fell apart in my hands, so by the end I was delightfully messy. The sweet potato fries were delicious (even Andrew liked them, and he has a thing against sweet potato fries).

I tried to gage my energies after eating it. I couldn’t identify any good energy, per se, but I don’t really have any idea how one goes about identifying energy in the first place, so maybe I just missed it. And the only bad energy I felt came from Andrew, who wanted me to stop taking pictures of my tempeh burger already and come watch Game of Thrones with him.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Ronald McDonald to Kids: "I'm Still Going to Kill You - But Here, Want Some Apple Slices First?"

An apple a day keeps the... no wait, you're still at McDonald's.

Today, McDonald's announced a plan that it says will help its customers "make nutrition-minded choices whether visiting McDonald’s or eating elsewhere." The plan includes reducing added sugars, saturated fat, and calories "through varied portion sizes, reformulations and innovations" and reducing sodium by "an average of 15 percent overall across its national menu of food choices."

It doesn't get much vaguer than "varied portion sizes, reformulations and innovations." Does that mean there will be a healthy portion option alongside the Super-Duper-Diabetes option? Or that the absurdly sized items will be removed from the menu altogether? And unfortunately, reducing sodium by 15% overall across the menu doesn't mean much. Adding some low-sodium options that nobody who would ever set foot in a McDonald's in the first place would choose to balance out the sodium sand sculptures on the other end of the spectrum won't fix anything.

McDonald's USA President Jan Fields said, "The commitments we’re announcing today will guide the future evolution of our menu and marketing." The key word here is "marketing." Beginning in 2012, McDonald's will incorporate "nutrition messages" in all of its national marketing, from TV advertisements to Happy Meal packaging.

If a parent sees a commercial with healthy images linked to McDonald's, that parent might think, "Awesome! I'll take my kid to McDonald's for lunch, since now McDonald's is apparently healthy and inexpensive." The Happy Meal the child receives will include the same Hamburger, Cheeseburger, or Chicken McNuggets as before this bogus announcement, the same french fries (although a slightly smaller serving), and (get ready, this is going to knock the socks off your newly healthy feet!) a half serving of apple slices.

Woah. A whole half serving of preservative-soaked apple slices packaged in a plastic bag. Because heaven forbid McDonald's actually hand your kid a real apple.

This marketing campaign seems not just unhelpful, but dangerous. The fact is, McDonald's food is not good for you. Forget "nutrition-minded choices"; if you're standing in a McDonald's, you have already made a poor nutrition choice. Research cited in the McDonald's press release found that while 88% of its customers are aware of the current option to substitute apple slices for french fries, that choice is made for only 11% of Happy Meal purchases. Obviously, McDonald's customers aren't interested in the apple slices.

This new initiative (if it can be called that) makes light of the very real, very dangerous obesity epidemic facing the United States. McDonald's will profit from branding itself as "nutrition-minded" while actually worsening the problem by encouraging more people to eat at McDonald's.

The only good component of this plan that I can see is the funding McDonald's now plans to provide to certain community nutrition awareness programs. Just as long as it doesn't come in the form of a Happy Meal toy.

Monday, July 25, 2011

You Are the Wheat Gluten Beneath My Wings

Last week, I ate lunch with my friend Kara at Milk Street Café. The people there were over-the-top accommodating; they had no problem letting me invent a vegan sandwich using their ingredients since they didn’t have one on the menu, and they even recommended another establishment nearby as a more vegan-accessible alternative.

The restaurant they recommended is called My Thai Vegan Café. The only way this place could be any more of a hole-in-the-wall would be if it were literally a hole drilled into a wall. But who wants to eat in an actual hole in a wall? It would be so cramped.

I met my other friend, Katie, at South Station and we walked over to China Town. My Thai Vegan Café is on a corner next to a deserted lot, and you have to climb up a sketchy-looking staircase to get to it. Just being on the staircase makes you feel like you're taking a risk of some kind, but to make it worse there are open windows with no screens along the side of it. Maybe this wouldn't bother anyone else, but I got nervous about plummeting down into the deserted lot below.

The restaurant itself is quaint and clean, there’s a lot of open space, and the servers are a bunch of adorable middle-aged Thai women whom you can imagine serving their own children the same delicious food at home (assuming their children are vegan).

As a starter, we ordered the Golden Triangles (mostly because the name sounded mysterious): ground fake chicken, onions, mushrooms, garlic, lemongrass, some other vegetables, and curry spices deep fried in wheat flour and served with peanut sauce:
Then we got the Pad Thai (an obvious choice). It was some of the best Pad Thai either of us had ever eaten:

As a second entrée (we didn’t realize how much food this would actually be), we ordered the Cashew Nut Chicken. Katie made the decision to substitute “duck” for the “chicken” because, as she said, she had no idea what actual duck tasted like. So she would be less likely to be disappointed by whatever the fake duck was than by whatever the fake chicken was.

The “duck,” or “mock duck” as it is known in hip vegan circles (of which I strive so hard to be a part), was served with roasted cashews, onions, mushrooms, red bell peppers, snow peas, scallions, and celery. It looked like this:
It was delicious – we were both quite pleased with the taste. But the fake duck breast had a little fake duck wing attached to it. It looked like there should be a bone inside, but when you cut it, it was just all fake duck meat. That made me suspect that back in the kitchen there was a fake duck breast mold into which the wheat gluten mixture was poured.

I have to ask: why? I don’t want to eat a duck, even if it is a pretend duck. I’d rather just eat the duck-flavored wheat gluten stuff in chunks or strips or whatever its natural form is. And where does one get a fake duck breast mold? Is there a market for such things? Maybe the folks at My Thai use their mold to make duck breast-shaped Jell-O for dessert. Kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.

Despite the weirdness of the fake duck, this is about as good as an unpretentious little vegan place that doesn't have a website gets.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Happy Graduation! I Made You a Salad.

Basically it’s too hot to do anything in Boston right now. Well, it's too hot to do anything except walk around and ask each other, “Hot enough for you?” Bostonians just love to ask each other that. But they pronounce it, “Hawt inuff fawya?”

Well yes, it is hot enough for me, and luckily it is also too hot to grill. So at my little brother Brian’s college graduation party today, I didn’t have to deal with the stench of burning meat.

Actually, my mom was really considerate of my veganism while purchasing and preparing food for Brian’s party. She bought some roll-ups and finger sandwiches with cold cuts in them, but she spent a lot of time preparing delicious vegan salads as well.

I was able to pull together a plate that looked like this:

Ridiculously, that paper plate says, "Reach for the Stars!" on it.

Aside from the hummus/roasted vegetable roll-ups and the grilled veggies, there were two yummy salads. Here are the recipes (they're salads, so you know... just throw everything in a bowl together):

Mango and Black Bean Salad

1 can (15 oz.) black beans, rinsed and drained
1 ½ cups chopped peeled ripe mango
1 cup thinly sliced green onions
½ cup cooked brown rice
3 tbsp. fresh cilantro, finely chopped
2 tbsp. fresh salsa (you can also use tomatillo)
2 tbsp. fresh lime juice
2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
¾ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Classy Ramen Salad

16 oz. chopped cabbage
1 bunch chopped green onions
½ cup dry roasted peanuts
1 cup sunflower kernels
1 ½ packages uncooked ramen noodles
3 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. pepper
¾ cup vegetable oil
4 tbsp. rice vinegar

And there was fruit salad for dessert! So many salads.

I have to admit, I still get nervous in social situations where people are eating non-vegan food. I worry that they will notice I am not eating the food and will confront me about it. Sometimes I appreciate the opportunity to explain why veganism is a good idea, but most of the time I just feel slightly awkward and (strangely) apologetic.

But I am proud to report that there were hardly any conversations about veganism at this party. One of my aunts did tell me I had “gotten all California” since I left the east coast, but since she didn’t specifically cite my veganism, I could pretend she was just talking about my flowy scarf and laidback demeanor.

I did have a conversation about bees and whether vegans should eat honey, this time with my Uncle Timmy. He is a peaceful, kind vegetarian who raises bees as a hobby. Unlike my energetic friend Katie, who on more than one occasion has attempted to convince me of the benefits of a honey-eating lifestyle, Uncle Timmy didn’t seem to care one way or the other whether I ate honey. But he did describe the process of gathering the honey, and he said it seemed like the bees really didn’t mind it. So eating honey is back on the table (so to speak).

This party felt like a turning point for me. Yes, my mom catered to my vegan diet in choosing which foods to serve. But my veganism really wasn’t an issue otherwise. Everyone could focus on how awesome it was that Brian had graduated from college and not worry about what I was (or was not) eating.

Months ago, when I first told Brian that I was a vegan, he chuckled and said, “Hey, maybe you could try eating some weirdo vegan food while you do some yoga on the beach. Do you think you could be any more of a stereotype?” But today he ate the delicious vegan food my mom had made and didn’t mention the word “vegan” once. Maybe I’m kidding myself, but it seems like people back home don’t think veganism is so crazy anymore.

You know what is crazy, though? This heat. Nobody complained that most of the food was vegan – maybe nobody even noticed. They were too busy going around asking each other, “Hawt inuff fawya?”

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Meghan the Fancy Pants: Prix Fixe at VeeVee

Before I was a vegan, I used to get quite excited about prix fixe menus. For those of you less cultured than I, “prix fixe” means “fixed price.” So for a prix fixe menu, you pay a certain amount and you get a three or four course meal. Sometimes you have a choice between two or three items for each course.

I recently discovered that the reason we in the States use the French term “prix fixe” is because over in France, almost every restaurant offers a prix fixe menu every night. Even random, sloppy-looking joints have a chalkboard outside the front door announcing the prix fixe menu for the evening.

In the States, however, “prix fixe” usually means the same thing as every other French term: “fancy pants.” Expensive restaurants will offer special prix fixe menus for Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, and other occasions on which objecting to the absurd fixed price makes you feel cheap and like you don’t love someone enough.

My problem with prix fixe menus is that they are rarely vegan. If the average person is paying $100 for three courses, one of those courses better be a steak.

So imagine my delight when I found out that VeeVee, a cozy establishment in Jamaica Plain, offers a vegan prix fixe menu every Wednesday! I would have paid any amount to try it (within reason), but luckily it only cost $25.

I went with Amy, who was staying with me at my parents’ house for a few nights before starting work in DC, and my friend from college, Alex, who is gluten-free and mostly vegan.

Amy and I had proven ourselves decidedly un-fancy by taking every form of public transportation Boston has to offer to arrive at VeeVee. After having been squashed up against a sweaty shirtless man making racist comments on the bus and taking the orange line to Green Street (a stop at which drive-by shootings don’t not happen), I was ready for a dose of classiness. Especially if it came with deliciousness.

And I was not disappointed! The first course was a farro salad with cucumber, corn, cherry tomatoes, and some unidentified greens. Don’t worry, I didn’t know what farro was, either. Turns out it’s a whole grain form of wheat that’s good to eat hot or cold (in this case, it was cold).

The entrée was warm black lentils with olive oil croutons surrounded by cauliflower puree. Those croutons were amazing. It was one of those meals during which you keep looking up and making eye contact with the person across from you (in this case, Amy), confirming the intensity of your shared flavor experience with nodding and raised eyebrows.

And for dessert: ice cream made of coconut milk in a chocolate ganache with toasted coconut shreds and mango slices on top.

By the time it was all over, I was wishing I had another Wednesday evening in the Boston area so I could come back. And my fancy quotient was through the roof.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

I'd Turn Tricks for Treat

I don’t get the cupcake craze. Everyone’s into them and cupcake stores are popping up in cities all over the country, but come on. They’re the same minimum-effort dessert your third-grade classmates’ moms brought in for the whole class to celebrate their kids’ birthdays.

Plus they’re just a disaster to eat. It’s pretty much impossible to bite into one and not end up with frosting stuck to your nose (and maybe your eyebrows, depending on the size of the cupcake).

But I recently ate a cupcake and I liked it. I was with my friend Janie, who was on a mission to get some frozen yogurt after a decidedly vegan-unfriendly lunch in downtown Needham, Massachusetts. I figured I’d tag along, watch her eat the frozen yogurt, and sulk about how it wasn’t vegan.

We passed by Treat, a cupcake shop, and Janie suggested we go in: “Maybe they’ll have a vegan cupcake!” I knew it was unlikely, but Treat looked like the kind of fancy place that would be air-conditioned and it was about 100 degrees and humid outside.

I felt embarrassed asking the girl behind the counter about a possible vegan option… but when I did, she smiled and said, “The whole top row of this display case is vegan. And here’s our vegan/gluten-free menu!” She handed me a print-out with their many vegan/gluten-free options: “The Plain Jane,” “Vanilla Coconut,” “Orange Chocolate,” “Cookies N’ Cream,” “Mint Cookies N’ Cream,” “Golden Cookies N’ Cream,” and “Crispy Crunchy Not So Nutty.”

Suddenly I loved cupcakes. I wanted to eat every vegan cupcake in that display case. But I had to settle for choosing just one (I’m on a grad student budget, here): Mint Cookies N’ Cream, a chocolate cake cupcake with a dark chocolate layer and mint cookes n’ cream frosting.

The girl who was serving me even ran back into the kitchen to get me the vegan version of an Oreo cookie to stick on top. It came in a little box that was reminiscent of Chinese take-out. It also came with a fork, so I could eat it without smashing it into my face.

Janie seemed to enjoy her frozen yogurt, but not as much as I enjoyed my vegan cupcake from Treat. If only I lived around here so I could Treat myself (!) after every unsatisfying meal.

Monday, July 18, 2011

People in Meat Houses Shouldn't Throw Bones

Do you love the planet but also love meat? Then check out the Environmental Working Group's 2011 Meat Eater's Guide to Climate Change and Health.

With the help of environmental analysis firm CleanMetrics, the EWG assessed the "cradle-to-grave" carbon footprint of 20 popular types of meat, fish, dairy, and vegetable sources of protein. The study includes the greenhouse gas emissions of conventionally produced (non-organic) meat at every stage of production, from the growing of animal feed to the disposal of unused food.

The EWG found that lamb, beef, cheese, and pork generate the most greenhouse gases (mostly methane and nitrous oxide). Yes, cheese. So "vegetarians who eat dairy aren't off the hook."

Instead of these high-impact foods, opt to get your protein from lentils, tofu, beans or peanut butter; these foods have the least greenhouse gas emissions. An appealing infographic demonstrates the carbon footprint of all the foods analyzed, in terms of car miles driven per 4 oz. consumed.

The Meat Eater's Guide includes a "Tips for Meat Eaters" section, which lays out some rules to live by if you must eat meat. First of all, eat less meat and dairy. When you do eat meat, eat "greener" meat that is grass-fed or pasture-raised, antibiotic- and hormone- and nitrate-free, certified organic, certified humane, and/or low sodium.

But even if all meat eaters follow these guidelines, it still won't be enough to reverse the damage the meat industry is doing to the environment. So the EWG suggests getting in touch with political representatives to encourage them to change the policies that allow (and encourage) the industry to be so environmentally damaging.

For instance, taxpayer subsidies for animal feed should be cut and programs that support pasture-raised livestock should be supported; regulation of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) should be more strongly regulated; conservation requirements on farms that collect subsidies should be increased; etc.

Susan Carpenter of the LA Times' summarizes the EWG's findings here. She quotes TV chef Mario Batali, who endorses The Meat Eater's Guide, as saying: "Asking everyone to go vegetarian or vegan is not a realistic or attainable goal, but we can focus on a more plant-based diet and support the farmers who raise their animals humanely and sustainably."

I agree with Batali - I think it's unrealistic to expect most Americans to cut meat out of their diets completely. But if you're willing to commit to eating less meat and making sure the meat you do it is as environmentally sound as possible, sign the EWG's "pledge to eat less and greener meat." They hope to get 100,000 supporters to agree to give up meat one day per week (why not celebrate Meatless Monday?) and to eat more fruits and veggies.

Sign the pledge here.

Let's all move out of our collective meat house before it collapses around us. It's starting to smell pretty rancid, anyway.


Saturday, July 16, 2011

No Moose Were Harmed in the Making of This Mousse

The other night, my parents decided to throw a dessert party for our neighbors. Dessert parties are the best because you don’t have to prepare a huge meal; you can skip right to the part everyone’s waiting for anyway. My mom made a blueberry cobbler (which she veganized by substituting Earth Balance for butter), so I wanted to compliment it with something chocolatey.

Mousse! While I was in France, I discovered that everyone loves chocolate mousse. I ate it for dessert almost every night while I was there, not worrying about cream content (because I was being a vegetarian). Obviously I’m back to being a vegan now, so I needed to find a way to veganize chocolate mousse.

As usual, I was able to pull together a recipe from various online sources, mostly this one. Here’s what I used:

1 bag vegan chocolate chips (semi-sweet)
1 package Nasoya silken tofu
3 tbsp maple syrup (100% pure from Vermont, of course)
1 tsp vanilla

The first part of the preparation really stressed me out: I had to melt the chocolate chips in a double boiler. I wasn’t even sure what a double boiler looked like. Apparently, it’s just a round-bottomed pot that fits into a regular pot. You heat up water in the regular pot and put whatever you want to melt into the round-bottomed one, so it melts without ever coming into contact with the hot water.

I had to stir the chocolate chips constantly so they wouldn’t burn. The possibility of the chocolate chips burning made me incredibly nervous for some reason, and I watched them intensely until I had stirred them into a big melted blob.

Then I mixed the chocolate blob with the other ingredients in the blender (this was before the blender committed suicide), divided it into adorable little dessert dishes, and put them in the refrigerator to set. Here’s what the mousse looked like ready to serve:

When the neighbors showed up, they were quite interested in talking about my veganism. Kathy, who lives across the street, even ran back to her house to grab her copy of The Veganist to show me. But despite their general enthusiasm, most people were weirded out when I told them about the tofu in the chocolate mousse.

For some reason, tofu and chocolate seem like two things that just shouldn’t mix. Like toothpaste and orange juice. Or garlic and french kissing.

I acted really confident, assuring everyone that this tofu-chocolate combination would be just delicious. I hoped I was right. For all I knew, it would be disgusting.

As people started tentatively tasting it, I willed it to be good. Please, Tofu, I thought. Please be smooth and pleasant instead of chunky and brain-like.

That was the first time I’ve attempted to communicate telepathically with tofu. But it worked! The chocolate mousse was a huge hit. Everyone marveled at how a vegan dessert could be so tasty.

And now that I think about it, tofu and chocolate are a combination that just makes so much sense. Like chocolate and peanut butter. Or chocolate and... pretty much anything, let's be honest.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Meghan the Veghan Gets Malnourished

This morning after a short yoga practice and a shower, I started feeling weak. My skin was clammy, my hands and knees were shaky; I felt unsteady in general and had to sit down.

When I told my mom, she made that tsk tsk noise and said, “You know, I do think there are certain things your body needs that you’re not getting enough of as a vegan.”

And that’s when I realized I was the worst vegan ever. On the first day of my trip to France, I discovered that I had forgotten all my supplements at home in Santa Barbara. I knew I needed to purchase some, but they were so expensive there that I had to settle for a 20 Euro bottle of multi-vitamins; I told myself I’d buy the rest once I got to Boston.

Well, here I was in Boston, and had I remembered to purchase the rest of my supplements? Of course not. In Santa Barbara, taking my supplements is part of my morning routine, like making coffee. But since I’ve been traveling, it’s been easy to just forget. And now I was collapsed on the floor of the upstairs hallway, demonstrating to my mother that I am not fit to take care of my own diet. How embarrassing.

While my mom went to the store to pick up the supplements I needed (tsk tsking the whole way), I decided to make myself a tofu smoothie so I’d at least get a boost of calcium, magnesium, and protein.

I had a ton of frozen açaí left over from my Superfood Sundae experiment, so I dumped that into the blender with an entire container of Nasoya silken tofu. I threw in a few handfuls of blueberries, a banana that looked like it wanted to get eaten soon, and a dollop (I love that word) of agave syrup.

I pushed “on” and the ingredients blended themselves up for a bit… then BOOM! The blender exploded. Not out the top, as you would expect, but out the bottom, where the blending compartment attaches to the base. Half-blended purple ooze covered the countertop, the floor, and my face.

“Seriously?!” I asked the blender. It didn’t answer, but it sure looked smug.

At that point, my mom returned with my B-complex, Calcium/magnesium/zinc, and multi-vitamin pills. She looked at the self-satisfied blender, she looked at her daughter covered in purple smoothie, and she tried her hardest not to laugh.

I’m pretty spacey about a lot of things, but today I realized that taking my supplements cannot be one of those things. It’s important to me to be a healthy vegan, not just for the obvious reason of staying alive, but in order to represent veganism positively to not-yet-vegans. It’s not that I have an agenda to convert non-vegans, but I certainly don’t want to repulse them by appearing all malnourished and gross.

To make myself feel better, I went to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Speaking of malnourishment… have you seen those dementors? Somebody needs to feed them a sandwich.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Restaurant Review: Life Alive Cafe (Overcoming Redundancy)

The other night, I decided to check out self-described "urban oasis and organic cafe" Life Alive's Cambridge location with my vegetarian friend Amanda. Edible Boston had recommended it in their feature on vegan-friendly restaurants, so I had high expectations. As an academic, I don't believe everything I read... unless it's in one of the Edible Communities magazines. Eat locally, people!

Before I could eat at Life Alive, though, I had to overcome the redundancy of its name. I don't like redundant things. I'm always circling them on my students' papers and writing in huge red letters, REDUNDANT! just to shame them.

But maybe Life Alive wasn't as redundant as it seemed. The restaurant could have been named Life Dead (which sounds like the title of a depressing avant-garde art exhibit) or Death Alive (... zombies). I'll take my life alive over dead any day. Plus, their website told me that I was "entering a world of pleasure. A world of delicious, organic, and therapeutic food, created with love to feed your vitality."

I read those words and was convinced. I wanted to feed my vitality. And if I had to be redundant to do it, well, I would be redundant to do it.

The menu at Life Alive consists of salads, tortilla wraps, soups, smoothies, "jubilant juices," and "fresh fantastic food." Amanda is even more into alliteration than I am, so she felt compelled to order a meal from the "fresh fantastic food" listings. She got The Swami ("Our Sweet Curry Miso Sauce saturating a flavorful mix of tamari almonds, raisins, shredded carrots, broccoli, dark greens, and pearl onions over brown rice with a sprinkle of nutritional yeast").

All the menu items sounds like cards in a Magic: The Gathering game. The Mystic Mountain, The Goddess, The Innocent, The Alchemist... The Hot & Healthy Bachelor (?).

I went for The Sufi Poet because it sounded the most peaceful and because it was hard to resist the menu description: "Delight in our red lentil hummus whirling atop cranberries, cashews, cucumber, granny apples, shredded carrots, and spring greens all infused by our Balsamic Vinaigrette and we promise you'll be ecstatic!"

What a promise! We also got the Spring Alive smoothie to share: blueberry, strawberry, pineapple, mango, spirulina, coconut-milk ice cream, and almond milk. It was kind of weird because it had small chunks of dried mango in it, and they kept getting caught in the straw. It tasted pretty good, though.

When my Sufi Poet arrived, I was, as promised, ecstatic. It was the perfect size and all the ingredients tasted fresh. For dessert, I ordered a package of Liz Lovely snicker doodle vegan cookies. The only way the experience could have been any better would be if we had gone on a Thursday night, when there's (Life A)live music.

Overall, my experience at Life Alive was just wonderfully wonderful. The food was deliciously delicious and the atmosphere was a satisfying blend of earthy and crunchy. After that meal, my life felt more alive than ever (if that's possible).

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Beantown Spinach Artichoke Cannellini Dip

No idea why I look so joyful while mashing ingredients in.
I love artichokes. Seriously, I cannot overstate my love for artichokes. When I was in elementary school and we were learning how to make graphs by gathering information about each other and plotting it, I was the only student who answered "artichokes" for my favorite food. All the normal kids who answered "ice cream" or "pizza" made fun of me.

So I was thrilled to discover a can of artichoke hearts while nosing around in my parents' pantry. I knew that my mom also had a huge, Costco-sized bag of spinach she was trying to use up, so I decided to make spinach artichoke dip.

Spinach artichoke dip is, of course, usually quite cheesy. Most vegans substitute tofu for the cheese; you need to substitute something, or the dip won’t be smooth and spreadable. Unfortunately, I only had firm tofu and all the recipes I found online called for silken tofu (which has the most disgusting texture ever, but which is great in smoothies, desserts, and, apparently, spinach artichoke dip).

I was going to have to get creative. Back to the pantry. The only thing I could find in there that seemed like a reasonable substitute for silken tofu was a can of cannellini beans. I imagined the cannellini beans all blended up; they would have the same texture (and color, not that it mattered) as silken tofu.

I also considered the fact that I was in (a rural suburb of) Boston, otherwise known as "Beantown." I'm pretty sure that moniker originates from the dish Boston Baked Beans, which is just beans baked in molasses or sometimes maple syrup. So I convinced myself that it made sense to substitute beans for tofu when cooking in (okay, near) this city. I made the decision to use beans in my cooking as much as possible for the next couple of weeks, just to show respect.

Compiling various vegan spinach artichoke dip recipes I found online (and, of course, substituting cannellini beans for silken tofu), I came up with the following recipe:

1/2 yellow onion, diced
1 8.5 oz can artichoke hearts
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 15.5 oz can cannellini alubias beans
2 handfuls of spinach
2 tsp. minced garlic
1 tsp. basil
1 tsp. parsley
1 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar

I preheated the oven to 350 degrees. While it was heating up, I cut up the onion and artichoke hearts and started grilling them in the olive oil. The kitchen already smelled delicious.

Then I dumped the cannellini beans, spinach, garlic, basil, parsley, salt, and apple cider vinegar in the blender. My mom grows basil and parsley out in her vegetable garden, so I was working with fresh herbs (to counter the less-than-exciting Costco spinach). Here's what the blended ingredients looked like:

It was pretty gross-looking. But I had faith that once I added in the grilled onions and artichoke hearts and baked the whole thing, it would come out tasting great. I ended up baking it for 18 minutes, until it was just barely brown on top. Here's what it looked like:

I scooped it out and served it warm with vegan chips, brown rice, and snap peas to my dad and to myself, like so:

I think this dip was my most successful vegan cooking endeavor in a long time. The texture was perfect, just like the spinach artichoke dip you'd buy as an appetizer in a restaurant. It tasted awesome, and it's totally healthful! The recipe made quite a lot of dip, about 12 servings I'd say, so there's a lot left over for me to snack on in the next few days.

I think I have a new favorite food, just in case you're a second-grader collecting data for a graph. It's called Beantown Spinach Artichoke Cannellini Dip, and I invented it!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Confession: I Cheated on My CSA

I often write about how much I love my Community Supported Agriculture membership at Fairview Gardens Farm in Goleta, CA. It's been invaluable to my vegan cooking efforts, since I get weekly helpings of all my favorite fruits and veggies (and some random ones I don't quite know what to do with).

But I'm in Massachusetts right now, and my CSA farm is all the way across the country, so... what happens in Massachusetts stays in Massachusetts, right? Today I hit up another CSA... with my mom.

My parents are members at Powisset Farm in Dover, just a short drive from their home in Westwood. Here's what the farm looks like:
Look how beautiful it is. How could I resist?

There were thirteen different items out on tables for us to pick up: lettuce, kale, basil, fennel, chard, beets, cabbage, onions, carrots, kohlrabi, potatoes, squash, and mizuna. I was intrigued by the mizuna. I'd never even heard of mizuna. Turns out, I got all excited for nothing: it's just a kind of bland green to mix into salads.

But we also got to go out in the fields and gather our own flowers, herbs, snap peas, and fava beans:

Just in case you can't read it, the sign says, "These are ready when they are huge, plump, and even with a few brown spots!" I read it and chuckled. Then I got up in there and picked myself some fava beans. I never get to pick my own fava beans at Fairview. I felt like a real-life farmer - granted, one who has had everything planted and tended for her. Some people would probably say it's more convenient to have all the vegetables already collected for you, but I think there's something fun about going out and getting them yourself, if you have time.

The folks at Powisset keep a blog with recipe ideas involving the produce they offer. You can search by ingredient (but not by "vegan," unfortunately). Fairview has a blog, too; theirs is arguably more helpful, since it gives you a heads up about which items you're going to get that week. If you're the type to plan recipes ahead of time (and I assure you, I am not that type) then this is a really important feature.

So which CSA is better? Luckily for me, I don't have to choose. I can have my (eggless) cake and eat it too, visiting Powisset while I'm out here and resuming my relationship with Fairview when I get back home. But shhh! Don't tell.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Super Easy Superfood Sundae

I’ve been hearing the phrase “superfood” tossed around a lot recently, and obviously it has made me curious. Why, I asked myself, would I waste my time nomming on mediocre, everyday food when I could be ingesting super food? With, I presumed, super powers?

I did some digging around online and discovered that (surprise!) a lot of so-called “superfoods” are vegan. I also discovered that their super powers are limited to lowering cholesterol and inflammation, helping arthritis, preventing osteoporosis, and reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer (there might be some other things, too).

…so they can’t turn invisible? Bummer.

Finding out about superfoods’ pretty disappointing super powers made me grumpy. Good thing one of their other lame super powers is improving your mood.

You know what else would improve my mood? Eating a sundae for breakfast. So I decided to layer all my super ingredients in a sundae dish. Here are the superfoods I used (and what’s so super about them):

Walnuts: omega 3s, monosaturated fats
Blueberries: antioxidants, phytoflavinoids, vitamin C, potassium
Oranges: vitamin C, folic acid, potassium
Oats: fiber, protein, magnesium, potassium
Açaí: antioxidants, monounsaturated oleic acid
Ground flax seed: omega 3s, monosaturated fats

I was working with frozen Sambazon açaí juice; a better choice would have been to use their little packets of açaí pulp, but I didn’t have any. First, I cooked the oats and mixed in the ground flax seed. Then I began layering the ingredients in the sundae dish.

I started with a little açaí (it had the texture of shaved ice), then put in the orange slices, then a layer of hot oatmeal/flax seed, then more açaí, then a handful of blueberries. I topped the sundae off with walnuts. It looked like this:

I wanted to take this photo in natural lighting, like all fancy food photos are taken, so I went outside on my parents’ deck. Unfortunately, it was about 90 degrees outside, so the frozen açaí melted immediately and it all started looking pretty messy. If only açaí had the powers of Mister Freeze.

But it tasted great! (Of course, it’s possible I only think that because those sneaky superfoods improved my mood.) It's awesome that these foods that taste so yummy and seem like a treat are good for you. In fact, it's pretty super.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

See, This Is Why People Hate Vegans

I hate passive aggression, so I love It's been one of my favorite time-wasting sites for years now. My friend Linda sent me a link to this recent installment, in which a self-righteous vegan leaves her omnivorous roommate a (not so passive aggressive) note, making ridiculous impositions. In case you can't make it through the whole thing, here are a couple quotations:

"I can no longer tolerate seeing meat, eggs, dairy, honey, or any other products from animals in our kitchen or anywhere else in the apartment. Do you understand?"

"You could at the very least eat these things away from me, like when you're out of the house. You could have done it in your room. That second suggestion isn't an option anymore, though, since I told you I will not allow these types of food anywhere in the house."

As a vegan, I am embarrassed by things like this. I understand the note writer's disgust toward being around animal products, and I even understand where her outrage comes from. But her attitude demonstrates why a lot of people think vegans are intolerant (and intolerable). I almost wish this note hadn't been posted on because it represents vegans so poorly.

The appalled reactions in the comments section reflect the damage done. One commenter writes, "She's obviously a zealot. There's no reasoning with them." Them? Crap.

I don't want people to hate vegans. I want people to love vegans and I want them to want to be vegan. So please, the next time you're going to write a crazed, intolerant letter to your omnivorous roommate, stop yourself and leave a note that says, "I made some extra tabouli for you. It's in the fridge. Help yourself!" instead.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Rime of the Vegan Mariner

"Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink."  - Samuel Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

In case your 9th-grade English teacher didn't require you to read Coleridge's 1798 classic, here's a brief synopsis: a wedding guest runs into an old, decrepit sailor (a.k.a. "the ancient mariner") who really likes to hear the sound of his own voice. The wedding guest really just wants to get to the wedding, but instead he gets roped into listening to the Mariner tell his depressing life story:

The Mariner's ship gets stranded in Antarctica and a helpful albatross (which is, apparently, a type of bird) leads the crew out of harm's way... and then the Mariner takes it out with his cross-bow. No reason, he just feels like it. Obviously, the creepy sea spirits get pissed and curse the whole crew with devastating thirst. There is "water, water, every where, nor any drop to drink." The crew blames the Mariner and makes him wear the dead albatross around his neck. A dead bird. Around his neck. Blech.

I'm going to stop there because the poem isn't called "epic" for nothing, and I'm bored of summarizing it. The point is, I really related to the Mariner on my trip to Costco today.

I tagged along with my dad and my Uncle Stephen because I was interested to check out what kinds of vegan treasures Costco might carry. Obviously, there is a huge produce section (some of which is organic), a lot of different nuts, and a whole aisle of bottled water. But aside from that, Costco's vegan options are pretty much non-existent.

There I was, standing in an enormous warehouse of bulk food, and there was nothing for me to eat. Somewhere along the way, I must have killed an albatross. I wouldn't be surprised - I've done a lot of weird things.

I wandered up and down the aisles, feeling lost and depressed. There were sample tables set up at the end of every other aisle, some nearly overwhelmed by hoards of people desperate to try a quarter of a lobster ravioli, but none of the samples was vegan. I had wandered to the farthest reaches of the store, beyond the walls of toilet paper rolls.

It was then that I looked up and saw it: an unassuming sample table manned by a nondescript Costco employee. There was no line. And in each of the little paper cups arrayed in rows was a blob of Summer Fresh Tuscan Bean Salad. It was delicious and it was vegan! I snatched up a tub of it immediately. Its ingredients are: barley, navy beans, chick pea, green pepper, red pepper, green onions, canola oil, sundried tomato, pesto sauce, garlic puree, white vinegar, sea salt, spice, citric acid. I just ate some for dinner in a wrap with hummus.

After finding the Tuscan Bean Salad, I gained confidence and was able to discover a few more vegan options: Edy's all-natural fruit bars, Sambazon acai juice, and a very large bag of quinoa.

I really disliked feeling like a vegan mariner, stranded among insane amounts of food but unable to eat any of it, so I'm not going to invest in a Costco membership back in California. But I know every Costco is different and that the stores switch up the products they carry quite frequently, so maybe I'll venture back in after a while.

And now, go like one that hath been stunned and is of sense forlorn. A sadder and a wiser (?) man (or woman), arise the morrow morn.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Vegging Out in France

Long ago, I decided that I would switch to vegetarianism during my trip to France with the UCSB Chamber Choir. We have had a lot of group meals that were provided by host families or prepared especially for us by restaurants, so I knew sticking to veganism would be difficult, if not impossible, and I didn’t want to be living on Clif Bars (though I did pack about twenty of them just in case).

It’s not that it makes any less sense to be a vegan in France. In fact, I was tempted to launch into an aggressive tirade on more than one occasion when some of my traveling companions ordered foie gras. Foie gras is goose liver, after the goose has been force fed corn. In terms of animal cruelty, it’s about the equivalent of drowning a kitten… and paying an exorbitant amount of money to do it.

I’m back to being a vegan now, and I’m still in the airport in Paris. That’s because the airport in Paris is the most vegan friendly place in France, apparently. Right next to my departure gate, there’s a restaurant called EXKI. Its slogan is “natural, fresh, and ready,” and there is a picture of a carrot instead of the “I” at the end of the word, so obviously I headed there immediately. All their food is organic and much of it is gluten-free and/or vegan; I got a lentil salad (organic green lentils, peas, sweet and sour onions, red pepper, artichoke, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar) and carrot and coriander soup.

Despite the amazing EXKI in the airport, France doesn’t seem too concerned about catering to vegans. If I had been able to cook my own food I would have had no problems, but as I said, I was usually grabbing lunch at a restaurant with a group of five other people. But eating vegetarian in France has been quite easy. I have eaten a lot of veggie quiche and unpasteurized cheese, going out of my way to eat vegan whenever I can.

At first I thought it would be possible to put meals together the way I do at vegan-unfriendly places in the United States: by combining many different vegan side dishes. But I soon realized that wouldn’t get me anywhere. That’s because restaurants in France love to douse things in mayonnaise. It’s as if someone gifted France a huge tub of mayonnaise and France thought to itself, “How am I ever going to use up all this mayonnaise? I know. I’ll put it all over everything, no matter how ridiculous the combination.” So you think you’re going to order a delicious side of raw mixed veggies? Sorry, they’re covered in mayonnaise. Enjoy.

I used to research vegetarian-friendly places in Paris, and on a few occasions I was able to convince a good chunk of meat-eaters to accompany me to check them out. The most successful vegetarian outing in Paris was to Pom’Cannelle, a cozy little restaurant on the isle of Saint-Louis. The servers were quite accommodating and friendly, pointing out all the different vegetarian options on the menu. I went for the Quiche Provencal, which came with a mixed salad and looked like this:

The best part about Pom’Cannelle was that everyone who went with me said it was the yummiest meal they had eaten so far. They got meat dishes and I got a veggie dish and everyone was happy. I love it when that happens.

In Tours, our meals were provided by a restaurant called Cinema Studio near the Conservatoire Francis Poulenc. I was delighted to discover that almost every meal was vegetarian (and fresh). Tours is much more compact than Paris, obviously, so it was easier to find tasty veggie dishes for the meals we had to buy ourselves. One night, I stumbled upon a little place called L’étape à pâte (81 Rue Colbert). I got a simple pasta dish with vegetables and olive oil (and, thank goodness, no mayonnaise):

My best vegan meal, though, was in Nanclars, a tiny village in the southern part of the country. The choir was being put up with host families, and on our last evening there they prepared a potluck dinner for us. Many of the residents of Nanclars tend their own organic gardens, so the dinner was quite vegan-friendly. Obviously, there were tons of different cheeses and quiches there, too (as well as some nasty-looking meat concoctions), but I managed to pull together a vegan meal of lentil salad, fresh tomatoes, and three different types of cous cous!

Now I’m about to head home to Boston for a few weeks, and I’m pretty excited about exploring all the different vegan possibilities there.