Friday, December 30, 2011

Anatomy of a Vegan?

I love information and I love graphics (I guess), so obviously I love infographics. They just make it so much easier to wrap your head around concepts that are otherwise overwhelming or vague.

So I’m excited that the folks over at Advanced Physical Medicine put together an infographic to represent who vegans are and what we’re about. The cleverly named Anatomy of a Vegan infographic, based on a 2011 survey conducted on Facebook, addresses everything from the amount of money vegans spend on groceries to the reasons people become vegan in the first place.
But I have some problems with the way this information is represented. First of all, the infographic’s introductory blurb asks, “Did you know there are 3 million+ vegans in the United States?” But the survey included only 144 respondents, 6% of whom (somewhere between 8 and 9 people, whatever that means) are no longer vegans.

That might explain some surprising results. For example, 48% of survey respondents have an annual household income of under $30,000. It’s possible that this evidence debunks the common belief among omnivores that only the wealthy can afford to be vegan, while poor people must eat whatever they can get their hands on.

But it seems more likely that those 48% of the survey’s participants, who needed access to Facebook to participate, are students (like me!). Even though Facebook’s demographic is no longer dominated by the student population, I think the fact that 46% of survey participants have only earned a high school degree (so far), 74% are single, and 88% have no children supports my theory that the majority of participants are currently students.

Or maybe nobody wants to marry vegans. That might be true, too.

Along those lines, the part of this infographic that will be most disappointing for all the single vegan ladies is that only 17% of vegans are male. I guess that’s why one of the most commonly cited challenges of being a vegan is “dating non-vegans.”

Personally, I don’t mind dating non-vegans; in fact, I’ve never even met a vegan guy I wanted to date. The one drawback of dating an omnivore is occasional hot dog breath, but it beats scrounging around for one of those twenty-four (and a half) vegan guys who participated in this survey.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Restaurant Review: Veggie Galaxy in Central Square

Before I went vegan, one of my favorite things in the world (I’m talking right behind bursting into joyful song in inappropriate unusual situations) was brunch. I once told my friend Nadia, over brunch, that I could never be a vegan for the simple reason that bacon... exists. About a week later, I went vegan.

My character inconsistencies aside, brunch is awesome and anyone who says otherwise is not my friend. Unfortunately, that’s probably why I don’t have any vegan friends: brunch is generally not a vegan-friendly meal. Bacon? No. Eggs? Duh, no. Coffee?! You try asking the haggard diner waitress if she could please bring you some soy milk.

But it’s the brunch experience that I really miss – waking up too late to eat a proper breakfast and walking over to a breakfast-all-day diner, drinking bottomless coffees and chatting about any old thing (but probably all the fun you had the night before).

So when my bouncy, recently tattooed friend Amanda suggested we check out a new vegetarian brunch place after our hot yoga class, I jumped at the opportunity. It’s called Veggie Galaxy, it opened a few months ago in Central Square, and I should point out that it’s not only a brunch place. They serve breakfast all day, but they also serve dinner and vegan desserts.

The founder, Adam, had a similar brunch-withdrawal experience to mine when he decided to go vegetarian. As he explains on the Veggie Galaxy website:
“After becoming vegetarian, the menu selections at diners narrowed for me. No more Club sandwich, tuna melt or meatloaf. No Reuben, no BLT, no eggs Benedict with a nice thick slice of Canadian bacon. I still loved going to diners, but always ended up with either an omelet or pancakes.”
So he founded Veggie Galaxy to fill that vegetarian diner gap. I say an omelet or pancakes beats watery oatmeal, which is what vegans have to call a meal at most diners, but I digress. Last week, Amanda and I bopped over to Veggie Galaxy after class. We were all sweaty and yoga-y.
Amanda just loves Veggie Galaxy.
I was ready to gain back the ten pounds of water weight I’d just sweated off, so we started with a “Vanilla Zebra” coconut milk shake:

As we sipped the shake, I looked around the restaurant. Almost everyone who worked there could be described as “biker/hipster.” And by “biker,” I mean bicyclist. They were thin and covered in tattoos, most wore thick-rimmed glasses, and men and women alike had haircuts that involved some variety of spikiness. I am not sure this style even exists in Santa Barbara, but apparently it’s a scene in Cambridge. Amanda sighed and said with admiration, “I bet all those line cooks work as bike messengers during the day.”

The biker/hipster line cooks at work.
I was so enticed by the dinner menu that I didn’t even end up ordering vegan brunch. But it’s nice to know a place exists where I could order vegan brunch, if I felt like it. I went with the vegetable pot pie (roasted seasonal vegetables, house smoked tofu, mushroom gravy, tarragon basil pesto), because I haven’t had pot pie since I’ve been a vegan. It’s just one of those things I never think to make for myself.

This pot pie was served with a side of mashed sweet potatoes, which was to die for. Those biker/hipster line cooks really know what they’re doing when it comes to mashing sweet potatoes:

Amanda got the “Kendall Square” (a vegan burger with roasted red pepper puree, beer battered onion rings, roasted garlic mayo, and baby argula) with red cabbage slaw. She chose this particular burger because it came with huge onion rings on top of it:
Although I had been determined to save room for dessert (Veggie Galaxy is also a vegan bakery), the coconut milk shake had made it difficult to even finish the last bites of our delicious entrees. Dessert just wasn’t gonna happen.

But I will be back! And I really want to rediscover Veggie Planet, Veggie Galaxy’s sister restaurant, in Harvard Square, my old flouncing stomping grounds.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Indian-Fusion Cheela

I haven’t always been intimidated by my friend Saloni’s cooking skills. I never noticed what a natural cook she was while we were in college, since we ate the majority of our meals in a dining hall. But last year when I went to visit her at her apartment in Pennsylvania, I realized what kind of force I was dealing with.

This lady was flitting around the kitchen like Ratatouille, adding a pinch of this and a sprinkle of that to the multiple pots and pans on her stove, using a wooden spoon to taste the concoctions in each one, and making thoughtful analyses of what had happened so far, what was happening right then, and what needed to happen next in this whirlwind cooking experience.

She offered to let me help, but we both knew that I wasn’t going to contribute beyond chopping some vegetables, which she would then toss through the air in a graceful arch to land in one of the pots.

At that point in my life, I was subsisting mainly on peanut butter toast, which, as you might know, has only two ingredients: peanut butter and toast. One time I even messed that up, when I got distracted by an episode of The Bachelor schoolwork and let the peanut butter toast get cold. I stuck it back in the toaster oven to heat it up, but when I took it out, the peanut butter had melted all over everything and it stuck to my hands like edible napalm.

But yesterday when I went to visit Saloni at her parents’ house (which is relatively near my parents’ house), I was feeling a bit more confident. Nobody would ever try to convince you that I’m a natural, but over the past nine months of being a vegan, I’ve at least become less of an embarrassing spaz when I try to cook.

Saloni’s mom is gluten-free and mostly vegan, so they decided to make a simple, vegan, gluten-free, Indian-fusion meal for lunch. It’s called cheela in northern India, where Saloni’s parents are from, and chillah in western India. It’s basically an Indian version of a savory crepe.

Indian-Fusion Cheela
(makes one)

5 heaping tablespoons quinoa flour (or bean flour)
1 tsp olive oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp lemon hummus
handful arugala
¼ tomato, sliced
raw onion to taste

Saloni’s mom is gluten-free, so she makes her own flour out of chickpeas, cannellini beans, and in this case, quinoa. She makes the different kinds of flour herself in her incredibly powerful blender, but apparently you can buy them at stores like Whole Foods.
First, she mixed water into the quinoa flour a little bit at a time, stirring it in until the batter had a watery, crepe-like consistency. She said to start in the middle of the dish and stir your way outward, to make sure there aren’t any stealth flour lumps.

Then she spread the olive oil over the entire bottom of the pan and poured the batter in carefully, tilting the pan so the batter would spread out into a thin, even layer. She sprinkled the cumin and salt on top and let it cook for about five minutes, until it was easy to remove it from the pan with a spatula.

Now comes the fusion part. Traditional cheela is eaten plain or dipped in various sauces, but we ate our cheela like a wrap. We spread a thin layer of lemon hummus over the whole thing and added arugula, tomatoes, and raw onion slices.

It was quite a tasty spin on the basic lunch wrap. I’m visiting Saloni at her house in Pennsylvania over New Years weekend, and I can’t wait to cook up some more yummy vegan meals with her! This time, I won’t be scared.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Youtube Premiere: Very Simple Vegan Chocolate Cake

My first instructional cooking messy baking video: how to make Very Simple Vegan Chocolate Cake in a pan. It came out light, fluffy, and moist - no frosting necessary!

I think that's a pretty sweet thumbnail, too. It looks like I'm singing at you. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Holiday Parties: A Vegan Survival Guide

Last weekend, my parents hosted their annual Christmas caroling party. Friends, neighbors, and relatives came over to have a light dinner and then we went out caroling around the neighborhood. Afterward, we warmed up with mulled wine and cider. It was the perfect opportunity to show off what a good singer I am under the guise of holiday cheer.

This was not the first holiday party I’d attended this season, and since it is my first holiday season as a vegan, I’ve been taking note of ways I can avoid awkwardness (for myself and my omnivorous fellow party-goers) in a trial-by-error kind of way.

Of course, your best bet is to just celebrate with other vegans. But if like me, you have few (okay, zero) vegan friends, and you don’t want to turn into an anti-social Grinchy McGrinchface, you will inevitably end up in a non-vegan holiday party situation. So I’ve compiled the following list of three simple behaviors that, I hope, can help other vegans avoid some of my holiday party fouls.

1) Bring a delicious vegan dessert to share.
If possible, make it yourself. And don’t tell people it’s vegan until they’ve gorged themselves on it. If you show up at the party and announce, “I have a plate of vegan cookies!” people might be afraid to try them. So let them enjoy the cookies and then savor their surprise when you mention that those cookies all over their faces they just ate were vegan. This trick worked great with the chocolate chip cookies I brought to a holiday sparkle-themed party and the peanut brittle I made for my parents’ party.

Note: this only works if your vegan dessert actually tastes good. Don’t bring nasty vegan cookies to a party.

2) Don’t talk about being a vegan.
Probably the only way to pull this one off is to not even mention you’re a vegan – as soon as you do, the person you tell will demand details. Why are you a vegan? How do you manage it? Where do you get your protein? Well, you certainly don’t get your protein from two pieces of red velvet cake, a caramel brownie, and a handful of M&Ms every few minutes. But the person you’re talking to thinks she does, and if you draw attention to her indulgences, she’ll just feel self-conscious and get defensive. At holiday parties, people want to stuff their faces in peace. This is one time when you shouldn’t disturb that peace.

3) If you must talk about being a vegan, direct the conversation to how weird raw foodists are.
I was the token vegan at my parents’ party, and people kept asking me about it. If I had refused to answer, it would have just seemed creepy, like I had lost my powers of speech or something. So instead, I bonded with them about the only dietary restriction more alienating to omnivores than veganism: raw foodism. “Yeah, it’s sometimes difficult to avoid eggs, but ohmygod those people don’t eat spaghetti. Can you imagine?”

And if all else fails, just start singing a Christmas carol really loudly. Joy to the World works well. At any other time of year, you will almost certainly be ostracized for such behavior – but at Christmas, people will admire your holiday cheer and join in.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Hard Christmas Crack: Vegan Peanut Brittle

A couple weeks ago, the UCSB music department hosted a holiday party. I ended up getting kind of drunk on wine – not embarrassingly drunk, just kind of drunk – because there was nothing for me to eat except chips and salsa. It struck me that in general, holiday parties are not the best place to be a vegan.

So when my friend Linda (the plucky Mendelssohn scholar with whom I drove up to San Francisco last month) told me about her husband’s vegan Christmas candy recipe, I got excited and demanded she share it with me.

A few days later, I got an email from her equally plucky and slightly sillier husband, Chris. He described the peanut brittle recipe, which has been in his family for generations, with helpful commentary. I think he reads this blog, so he knew that if he didn’t go into great detail, the chances that I would screw up his family’s peanut brittle recipe were about as high as my cholesterol heart rate would be after I inevitably ate the whole tray of it.

I decided to attempt to make the peanut brittle the night before my parents’ annual Christmas caroling party. I couldn’t help but imagine Chris’s great-great-grandmother cooking up a batch of this very same peanut brittle hundreds of years ago over an open fire in one of those old-school cauldrons. In my mind, she looked like a jolly combination of Chris and Linda (although obviously that doesn’t make any sense) and wore a frilly yet practical apron. In this imaginary past, she was a vegan and substituted Earth Balance for the butter the recipe called for.

Vegan Peanut Brittle

2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup white Karo (corn syrup)
6 tbsp Earth Balance
2 1/2 cups red Spanish peanuts, skin-on
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp vanilla extract

I could not find any red Spanish peanuts at Whole Foods, so I just went with the bulk regular peanuts. Obviously, I had some strong reservations about using corn syrup. I justified it by reasoning that Christmas candy is supposed to be terrible for you, and who am I to get in the way of Christmas? There is a war on Christmas going on, people, and I know what side I’m on. The side of high-fructose corn syrup.

Chris’s instructions indicated that I ought to grease a sheet of foil (or a marble slab, but who has a marble slab?!) beforehand, because I wouldn’t have time to do it while cooking. That made me anxious.

So did the rest of his instructions, actually. He used a lot of italics to emphasize words like “immediately” and “fast,” and just reading through the recipe made me fairly certain I was bound to mess something up.

So I enlisted the help of my little brother, Brian. I figured that way, if the peanut brittle came out terribly, I could blame it on him.
Brian, not messing anything up.
First, we melted the sugar, water, corn syrup, and Earth Balance over medium-high heat in a big pot. When it started to boil, we dumped in the peanuts and stirred the mixture with a wooden spoon. At this point, we inserted the candy thermometer to keep track of the temperature; when it got to 300 degrees, we were supposed to take it off the heat immediately.

That is, apparently, the "hard crack" temperature, at which the candy becomes perfectly brittle. Obviously, I wanted my peanut brittle to be the equivalent of hard crack. Hard Christmas crack. That stuff's addictive.

Chris’s instructions said we would be “stirring constantly” for twenty minutes or so, so I let Brian take care of that (his arms are significantly more built than mine are, since he works out like a maniac), while I helpfully held the candy thermometer in place. I had to hold it so that it wouldn’t touch the bottom of the pot, or its reading would be skewed.

We were stirring so quickly that the wooden spoon became a blur.
Surprisingly, we weren’t stirring for twenty minutes at all – after only about seven minutes, the thermometer read 300 degrees. I think it’s because we were using an electric stove instead of a cauldron over an open fire, like Chris’s great-great-grandmother. Whatever the reason, we took it off the heat and followed Chris’s next three directions, which read:
- Once you kill the heat, immediately stir in the baking soda. This will make the mixture foam up. Don’t freak. Keep stirring.
- Then, immediately stir in the vanilla. This will make everything smell like toasted marshmallows (and peanuts). Keep stirring all the way to the greased foil/marble slab.
- Dump it, fast fast fast. As close to “all at once” as you can. Luckily, there’s enough oil in the candy that you shouldn’t have too much sticking to the sides of the pot.
Oh, the anxiety! All those italics. As Brian kept stirring like the gym rat he is, I added the baking soda. When it foamed up, I was tempted to freak, but I remembered that Chris’s instructions had explicitly said not to freak. So I remained calm and added the vanilla.

When it was time to dump it (fast, fast, fast!), we recruited my mom as an extra spreader. I poured the molten candy onto the pre-greased foil while she and Brian frantically spread it around with wooden spoons until it just wouldn’t spread any more:

We let it sit for two hours. While we waited, we played Parcheesi and stared at the cooling tray longingly. Finally, it was cool enough to eat:
Here I hold, in my hot little hipster hands, a delicious heart attack.
It was delicious! Perfectly brittle and the right combination of sweet and nutty. And it was a huge hit at the Christmas caroling party. Thanks, Linda and Chris (and Chris’s great-great-grandmother)!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Restaurant Review: Sublime (Award for Most Ridiculous Bathroom Soundtrack)

Before last week, I only used the word "sublime" in reference to the 19th-century literary concept (or the ska punk band whose 1996 hit "What I Got" made me wish my mom smoked pot so I could sing about not getting angry). But Sublime is also the name of what seems to be the only 100% vegan restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. And "sublime" is a pretty good descriptor of the meal I ate there on Wednesday night with Victoria and Kinley.

In addition to a bunch of food-related awards, Sublime has won the Zagat award for décor, and it’s obvious why: the atmosphere feels like a swanky restaurant in a hotel lobby. Palm trees extend toward skylights and there is even one of those fancy walls that look like they’re made of falling water.

But what stuck out to me the most, as ridiculous as this sounds, was the bathroom soundtrack. I noticed pretty quickly that the musical accompaniment to my bathroom, er, activities was a catchy tune with lyrics along the lines of, "Germs and dirt can make you sick, so wash your hands – quick, quick, quick!" It was reminiscent of those instructional songs that maniacally happy traveling groups perform for impressionable children in elementary school multi-purpose rooms.

As I washed my hands – over and over, compulsively, since the song was making me anxious – I waited to hear what would come next. Was this an entire CD of similar cleanliness-themed children’s songs? The "Wash, wash, wash" song ended… and then it started right back up again. It was playing on loop!

Baffled not only as a patron of the restaurant but as a musicologist, I left the bathroom to report back to Victoria and Kinley. Obviously, they jumped up immediately to go experience the "Wash your hands" soundtrack for themselves. In between hilarious trips to the bathroom, we managed to immensely enjoy our meals.

We started with the gardein sliders, which were topped with Daiya cheddar cheese. There were four of them, which meant that we each got one and then had to awkwardly slice the fourth one into three equal parts:
Our waiter, Julian (who was quite knowledgable and helpful), brought out some complimentary pesto polenta to have with our sliders as an appetizer. This dish started off on the right foot with me by being complimentary. But beyond that, its texture and pesto flavoring made it much more interesting than the boring bread most restaurants bring you:

For my main dish, I went with the mushroom ravioli. The combination of tomato "butter" sauce, basil, and whatever delicious ingredients they put into the cashew cream was incredible. I’m glad I ordered the large size, because I ate them all up rather quickly:
Kinley, who has been a vegetarian for over a year, opted for the Singapore Street Noodles (rice noodles, Asian vegetables, red pepper, water chestnut, curry, ginger, cilantro, basil, and chili sriracha sauce). She gave me a little bit to try, but they were too spicy for me:
Victoria ordered the Wolf’s Thai Pizza, which uses thai peanut sauce instead of tomato sauce and doesn’t even bother with a cheese substitute. Instead, it’s topped with snap peas, red peppers, marinated tofu, green onions, cilantro, and roasted peanuts:
We shared a bottle of cabernet sauvignon from La Parra vegan winery in Chile. The fact that Sublime, an all-vegan restaurant, offers some wines from non-certified-vegan wineries makes me feel less self-conscious about my lack of wine discrimination. If it’s wine – especially if it’s red wine – I’ll drink it, certified vegan or not.

Julian recommended the coconut cake (white cake with a coconut butter crème) for dessert, and obviously I took his advice. It was served with an almond tuile ("tuile" is the word you use if you want to refer to a really thin, sweet cookie or wafer but you can’t bring yourself to be un-fancy for even a second), which provided a nice contrast in texture when eaten in the same bite as the moist cake:
From the complimentary pesto polenta to the heavenly coconut cake, my meal at Sublime was, at the risk of sounding redundant, just sublime.

Except for the bizarre bathroom music, for which I have decided to invent the Meghan the Veghan Award for "Most Ridiculous Bathroom Soundtrack." I listened to the singer’s instructions (I had no choice!) and "wash, wash, washed my hands" so many times and so vigorously that now they’re all red and raw. Gross.

Monday, December 12, 2011

(Swedish) Pakistani Stew

I’m on vacation in Fort Lauderdale, visiting one of my best friends from college, Victoria. One of our other best friends, Kinley, showed up a couple days ago and we’ve been reliving our glory days: staying out way too late and making Victoria’s mom come pick us up after last call. It’s a bit embarrassing. The only difference is that now one of us is married (ugh… Kinley…) and we’re all approximately 20% less fun.

I can’t complain. Right now, I’m sitting in a lounge chair next to the pool with my laptop sticking to the tops of my thighs which, like the rest of my sunburned body, are steadily accumulating a slimy film of sweat. It’s awesome.

Why, you might ask, don’t I just take advantage of the similarly hot and sunny weather where I live, in Santa Barbara? The answer, I suppose, is that this type of relaxation is addictive. If I give myself one beach day at home, I will never return from the beach and, consequently, never finish my graduate degree. Give me an inch and I take a mile, you know how it goes with me.

In addition to being my first Florida vacation in years, this is also my first time being a house guest as a vegan. My original strategy was to prepare a vegan dish for everyone else to try along with their normal-people meal, but that strategy has been derailed.

That’s because Victoria’s mother, Martha, discovered a vegetarian Swedish cookbook that had been gifted to her years ago when one of her cousins went through a week-long vegetarian phase. Martha is Colombian, but she learned Swedish for love about thirty years ago and so she went about translating a few vegan recipes I might be interested in.

We settled on the recipe for Pakistani Stew. Well, it’s what Swedish people perceive as Pakistani Stew. If you're getting bored of this blog post, and if you happen to understand Swedish, feel free to just use the recipe below:

The best part about this meal, other than that it tasted wonderful, was that we all got to participate in preparing it. Martha translated the (rather simple) Swedish directions aloud in her Spanish-accented English and we all got to work.

Here’s what we did:

(Swedish) Pakistani Stew
¼ head white cabbage
1 head cauliflower
2 carrots
1 onion, diced
4 potatoes, diced
1 can whole tomatoes
1 packet frozen peas
4 tbsp olive oil
½ tbsp cumin
½ tbsp cinnamon
2 cups water salt to taste
cilantro to taste

We chopped up the cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, onion, and potatoes, and tossed them into a pot to cook in olive oil on medium heat. It took about ten minutes of stirring for them to become rather tender:
Then we added the peas (a “packet” is obviously a vague amount of peas, but we all like peas so I just dumped in an entire frozen bag), tomatoes, cumin, and cinnamon.

After stirring that all together, we added two cups of water and a handful of salt (Martha told me, “Look away!” as she poured in a ridiculous generous amount of salt) and let the whole thing simmer for ten more minutes.

We served it over the leftover quinoa from the meal I had made the night before, and it was delicious. I have never combined cumin and cinnamon before, but now that I’ve tried it, it seems like an obvious combination.

Everyone went back for second helpings, and Kinley ate the leftovers for breakfast the following morning. In fact, she's eating them right now, and washing them down with a Bloody Mary. Being married makes you so weird.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

An Etiquette Lesson: The Vegan House Guest

For the first time since becoming a vegan, I'm a guest in a non-vegan household. One of my best friends from college, Victoria, invited me to spend a week at her parents' home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida before I head up to Boston for the rest of my month-long vacation (the one perk of being a graduate student).

Me and Victoria, in love.
This is not the same Victoria who recently visited me in Santa Barbara (though she is equally beautiful and brilliant). This Victoria lives in Bogota, Colombia but has spent the last few months visiting her parents in Florida, where she grew up. Her mother is Colombian and her father is Swedish, and both are friendly, gracious, generally hilarious people.

But I was still nervous at the prospect of staying in a non-vegan household for a week. How would I approach mealtimes? I didn't want to make these wonderful people feel uncomfortable, but neither did I want to eat their Swedish meatballs and Colombian... whatever meat they eat in Colombia. Ham? I don't know. It would be tricky to handle.

I took a red-eye flight and arrived yesterday morning while Victoria was at work as a substitute teacher. Her father made me some fancy Irish oatmeal in hot water and added golden raisins and apples - so far, so good. I decided to go to sleep for as long as possible to avoid any more food encounters until Victoria got home.

It didn't work. I woke up at noon, totally starving. Victoria's father had told me to help myself to whatever vegan things I could find in the kitchen, so I opened the cabinets and discovered a whole container of Seeds of Change quinoa + brown rice packets. Jackpot! I heated one up and ate the whole thing.

When Victoria got home, the first thing we did was go grocery shopping. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as Trader Joe's in Florida, but there was a Whole Foods nearby. I stocked up on bulk quinoa, Daiya vegan mozzarella shreds, Earth Balance, almond milk, and all kinds of veggies. I was prepared for the week!

Victoria had a great idea for approaching mealtimes with her parents. They would cook and eat whatever they would normally cook and eat, and I could make a vegan dish to share with everyone (and obviously eat most of it myself).

Last night when we got home from grocery shopping, only Victoria's mom was around for dinner. So I decided to make a lot of my favorite go-to vegan dinner: quinoa + Daiya + whatever veggies I have + soy sauce. In this case, the veggies on hand were kale, zucchini, and summer squash. Neither Victoria nor her mother was familiar with quinoa, so I got to show them how to cook it (which is not too exhilarating, but I get my thrills where I can).

When the quinoa was ready, we melted the Daiya into it so it got all sticky and clumpy. Cheezy quinoa! Yum. With veggies and soy sauce, it's a perfect meal. Victoria and her mom loved it and helped themselves to seconds. It felt good to share a vegan meal I had invented myself with them. We sat around and finished off two bottles of wine while chatting about love, cultural differences, and Republicans.

So far, so good. My philosophy when staying with non-vegans, I decided, is to let my commitment to being a good house guest trump my commitment to being an obnoxious vegan. I'm not going to stray from my vegan diet, but neither am I going to talk anyone's ear off about why my meal is better than theirs. I'll let you know how it goes!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

"C" Is for Christ!-(These Cookies Are Vegan?!)-mas

I realize this is the second cookie recipe I’ve posted in a row. If that bothers you… well, sorry I’m not sorry. It’s Christmastime, Mr. Grinch!

Besides, I had to post this recipe because of the amazed reaction it got from my omnivorous friends. There is something quite satisfying about omnivores trying something I've made and remarking, “This is vegan?!” It’s the exact opposite of the feeling I get when I totally botch calculating the tip at a restaurant and my friends exclaim in disbelief, “You went to Harvard?!”

But as I got started on my chocolate chunk cookies, I was beginning to wish I had paid more attention in the one math class I took as an undergraduate. Or, you know, in sixth grade when I learned how to add fractions. I was trying to do math in my head (calculating the ratio of dry ingredients to wet ingredients can be tricky!) and I ended up adding altogether too many chocolate chunks.

Okay, full disclosure: I got a little excited and just dumped in the whole 10-oz bag. These cookies turned out to be little more than some cookie dough holding together ridiculous amounts of chocolate chunks.

I was baking the cookies to bring to the sparkle-themed Christmas party my friends Katie and Kacey were hosting (don’t act surprised that I have the type of friends who throw sparkle-themed parties). Since I (incredibly) don’t own any sparkly clothing or accessories, I figured I’d better bring some delicious cookies to make up for it.

As unbelievable as it sounds, I had thus far not invented a recipe for vegan chocolate chip cookies. Back in my very early days as a vegan, I turned to a helpful instructional video for a recipe that worked just fine. But now it was time to get creative! I had a bag of vegan dark chocolate chunks in my refrigerator so I decided to go for it – chocolate chip cookies are pretty hard to mess up, I figured.

Vegan Chocolate Chunk Cookies
(makes about 24)
2 cups flour
1/2 cup Earth Balance
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup organic white sugar
2 tbsp flax meal + 4 tbsp water (equivalent of 2 eggs)
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt 10 oz. vegan dark chocolate chunks (or to taste)
2 tsp vanilla extract

While the oven preheated to 350 degrees, I mixed the flour, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl together. Then I melted the Earth Balance, brown sugar, and white sugar together in a sauce pan on the stove top, over medium heat. I just wanted to see what would happen if instead of melting the butter substitute on its own, I made a yummy sugary mixture all at once.

When the Earth Balance and sugar were melted, I added the flax meal + water combination and the vanilla extract and stirred it all together. It was tempting to just drink it straight out of the sauce pan - it smelled delicious - but it was scalding hot so I abstained.

Then I poured the hot, wet ingredients into the bowl of dry ingredients and mixed it all together. It has since occurred to me that this is backward from the usual combination method - dry ingredients slowly stirred in to wet ingredients - but hey, I never took a baking class at Harvard. If they even offered one (and I have a sneaking suspicion they did), I would have been too busy not learning how to calculate a tip properly to enroll, anyway.

When the batter was all sticky and gooey, I dumped in an entire 10 oz. bag of dark chocolate chunks. Then I packed the batter into little 2-inch balls and arranged them on a cookie sheet. I baked the cookies for just eight minutes, since I wanted them to be moister than the gingerbread crisps I had baked a few days earlier.

It worked! They were a total hit at the sparkle-themed party. I had the satisfaction of smiling and shouting, "Yes!" when person after person approached me to exclaim something along the lines of, "Christ! These cookies are vegan?!" These were the messiest, gooiest chocolate chunk cookies I'd ever eaten. I think they more than made up for my lack of sparkles.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

It's Beginning to Smell A Lot Like Gingerbread

There’s not much to complain about in the way of weather here in sunny Santa Barbara. But around this time of year, it’s hard not to notice the distinct lack of, well, anything remotely Christmassy happening. There is no crisp bite in the air to nip my nose, no blustery wind to knock me over as I bustle down the street laden with shopping bags, and certainly no snow.

But Erin and I have been doing what we can to bring some Christmas spirit to our rickety old cottage. A few days ago, we wanted to immerse all our senses in said Christmas spirit. That meant turning on Love Actually (to satisfy our sense of sight); drinking wine (sense of taste); blasting holiday music (sense of hearing – and yes, the combination of holiday music and the sound from Love Actually resulted in Christmassy cacophony); bundling up in hats and scarves (sense of touch – and general warmth because, as I’ve implied, our cottage is old and drafty at night). But what about our sense of smell?

We’d have to bake gingerbread cookies! This was on Erin’s agenda anyway, since she likes to gift little packets of cookies to our friends each year. But these gingerbread cookies would be vegan. Here’s what we used:

Vegan Gingerbread Crisps

6 cups unbleached white flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tbsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 cup shortening, melted
1 cup molasses
1 cup packed brown sugar
½ cup water
1 egg substitute (1 tbsp ground flax meal + 2 tbsp water)
1 tsp vanilla extract

powdered sugar
almond milk

Because this recipe involves taking a three-hour break while the dough sits in the refrigerator, we got started early in the afternoon. I have to admit, Erin did most of the baking on her own because I was too busy dancing around and lip-syncing U2’s version of “Christmas Baby Please Come Home,” using a rolling pin as a microphone.

She sifted together the flour, baking powder, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon in a big bowl. She mixed the shortening, molasses, brown sugar, water, flax, and vanilla in another bowl. Then she told me to knock off my ridiculous dancing and help her combine the wet ingredients with the dry ingredients. We alternated who poured the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients and who got to use the mixer:

We divided the dough into three chunks and wrapped them in plastic wrap, then stuck them in the refrigerator for three hours. This gave us enough time to take care of less important tasks (I graded my students’ final papers and Erin pretended to write her masters thesis).

After three hours, Love Actually was turned back on and the holiday music was cranked back up (obviously, we had never taken off our scarves, hats, and mittens, nor had we stopped drinking wine), and we got to the fun part.

We preheated the oven to 350 degrees. Then we sprinkled some cutting boards with flour and rolled the dough out flat. It was at that point that we discovered we had no cookie cutters. We would have to use the rim of a glass cup to make circular cookies, and knives to design our own gingerbread shapes. Erin had more success with this step than I did; her stars and holly shapes were much more accurate than my bathroom door symbols gingerbread people:

Since my cookie-design skills are less than exemplary, one of the gingerbread woman’s legs was significantly thicker than the other. But she was beautiful anyway. And to be honest, Erin's "reindeer" looked more like a dog. There, I said it.

We baked them for ten minutes, until they were just barely brown on the bottom. Then it was time to frost them. To make the frosting, we mixed powdered sugar and almond milk in a dish until it was the consistency of Elmer’s glue. Then we poured it into a plastic bag and used scissors to make a tiny incision at the tip of one of the corners. This made it easy to squirt the frosting wherever we wanted it, and since it was so thick it didn't melt or spread out.

The cookies tasted great but were kind of crunchy - hence gingerbread crisps instead of plain old gingerbread cookies. Erin was disappointed because she likes her cookies like she likes her amphibians: nice and moist. But I thought they were perfect, and they made our little cottage smell delicious.

Friday, December 2, 2011

App Happy: Vegan Xpress

I am generally suspicious of anything that makes use of the metaphor "express." Unless you're my therapist trying to get me to express my emotions so we can get to the bottom of my irrational fear of fireplaces, I don't want to hear it. At least the Polar Express is an actual fictional train. In 2008, there was no way I was getting on board John McCain's "straight talk express" - heck, I don't even shop at Express.

So when my only vegan friend (and founder of Go Vegan Santa Barbara), Carrie, told me about the iPhone app Vegan Xpress last month, naturally I was skeptical. Not only did the title of this app abuse the word "express," it went the extra step and dropped the "e." Dropping the "e" in "express" is probably only trumped in absurdity by replacing the "c" in words like "candy" with a "k."

But a recent experience at In-N-Out burger changed my mind about the Vegan Xpress app. No, I don't regularly frequent In-N-Out, but my friend Victoria was visiting California for the first time, and when she brought it up, I couldn't deny her the experience. So while she nommed on her animal style burger, I snacked on a side of fries.

I knew they were vegan because I had Googled it (and Google is obviously always right). But it occurred to me how handy it would be to have an app that would list vegan options at restaurants that didn't prioritize vegan patrons: accidental vegan options, like the fries at In-N-Out.

I got pretty excited at the idea of inventing this app, but then I remembered that it already existed: Vegan Xpress. So yesterday I decided to purchase it.

Now, the only thing I dislike more than the appropriation of the word "express" is paying money for iPhone apps. My iPhone cost enough money already. But I justified this $1.99 splurge by telling myself that it would save me the gas money I would otherwise waste while driving around looking for a vegan restaurant.

The app does four things. First, it lists vegan offerings at normal-people restaurants. So if I (heaven forbid) end up at a Taco Bell with my omnivorous friends, I can check out Vegan Xpress and... boom! I'm ordering the Fresco Bean Burrito. If I end up at Carl's Jr. I'm screwed, unless I feel like drinking some BBQ sauce.

And now I know that while the french fries at In-N-Out are, in fact, vegan (as are the fries at Burger King), the fries at McDonald's are not (except, apparently, in Canada).

The second thing the app does is list foods you can buy in a grocery store that are surprisingly vegan. For instance, almost any Wonka candy - Gobstoppers, Laffy Taffy, you name it - is vegan, and so are unfrosted pop tarts! Disturbingly, almost every kind of Oreo cookie is also vegan... so what the heck is the "cream" filling?

But the best thing about Vegan Xpress is its last two functions: beer and wine. The app gets its info from, which lists vegan beers, wines, and liquors. Now, I've known about Barnivore for a while, but the convenience of having an app to refer to while I'm wine shopping cannot be overstated.

I've never made much of a point about drinking vegan wines, just because it's pretty impossible to tell which wines are vegan. Some vegans steer clear of wine all together for this reason, but... yeah, that's not gonna happen for me. So now, a quick consultation with Vegan Xpress can give me some peace of mind!

In fact, my mind is feeling very peaceful, since I am sipping on some vegan wine at this very moment. I was going to use it to cook something, but then I got distracted writing this post. Thanks, Vegan Xpress.