Monday, January 30, 2012

I Can't Believe It's Not Cheesecake (Mousse)

When I became a vegan, there were certain foods I knew I could easily veganize by using substitutes for eggs and milk. But there were some foods I assumed could never be properly veganized. Cheesecake was one of those foods.

For my eighteenth birthday, my parents threw me a surprise dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. All my best friends and my (then-unbeknownst-to-me) gay boyfriend came, and we gorged ourselves on all the horribly delicious appetizers and entrees we could stuff into our faces. We didn’t save any room for dessert, but we were at the Cheesecake Factory for Pete’s sake, so we felt obliged to order some cheesecake to go.

The next day, I had my wisdom teeth pulled. All four. Impacted. It was rough. And what made it rougher was that I had a piece of perfectly good, uneaten chocolate-chip-cookie-dough cheesecake from the Cheesecake Factory sitting in my refrigerator.

I could barely open my jaw wide enough to swap out the bloody squares of gauze wedged into the gaping holes where my wisdom teeth used to be; there was no way I was going to manage to eat that cheesecake. So instead, I watched my family members devour it, bite by bite, until every last morsel was gone.

I made a vow that day: nothing was ever going to keep me from eating cheesecake again. It wasn’t that serious of a vow, though, because it became pretty much null and void when I went vegan. Until now.

Last week, I was shopping at Trader Joe’s and stumbled upon this display:
How perfectly delightful, I thought, that Trader Joe’s would name a product “This is not a tub of cream cheese. This is a tub of non-dairy spread.” I decided to purchase a tub of it to show my support for two-sentence-long grocery item names.

Part of me wanted to be boring and put it on a bagel or something. But a bigger part of me wanted to honor the vow I had made to myself on the day after my eighteenth birthday, and I decided to try to bring cheesecake back into my life.

Now, I’d had yummy vegan cheesecake on two occasions: at Café Muse in Hollywood and at Loving Hut in San Francisco’s Chinatown. But I’d never attempted to make my own cheesecake, vegan or otherwise, so I decided to set my sights low. I’d make cheesecake mousse. That way, I wouldn’t have to worry about baking it (and I wouldn’t have to go out and purchase any graham crackers for the crust). Here’s what I used:

Vegan Cheesecake Mousse
(makes 4 servings)
1 container vegan cream cheese
1 container firm tofu (about 15 oz)
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp maple syrup
2 tbsp flaxmeal + 2 tbsp water (egg substitute)
2/3 cup powdered sugar

The only real instruction for this recipe is to combine the flax meal and water in a little dish first; after a few minutes, it will congeal into an egg substitute. Then I just dumped it into the food processor with the rest of the ingredients and pulsed it until it was smooth. I separated the mousse into four small dishes and refrigerated it for a couple of hours.

Success! It tasted sweet but not too sweet, and the consistency was actually pretty close to cheesecake. If you are feeling fancy, you can always add a strawberry or raspberry garnish. Next time, I’m going to serve it in shot glasses, layered with vegan chocolate mousse. Yum!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Top 10 Accidentally Vegan Junk Foods

As a vegan, my diet consists mostly of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and grains. I'm an advocate for eating local, unprocessed foods as much as possible, blah, blah, blah. That's all well and good. But sometimes, I've got to have snacks. Disgusting, over-processed, diabetes-inducing snacks. And thanks to Peta's list of brand-name products that are "accidentally vegan," now I know what my options are.

Below is my list of Top 10 junk foods that are, purely by accident, vegan-friendly.

10) Reese’s Peanut Butter Puffs
If I can’t have Reese’s peanut butter cups, I’ll settle for their slightly significantly less exciting younger cousin. In the realm of junk food parading as breakfast cereal - and it’s a surprisingly vast realm - Reese’s (Reese?) is the obese king.

9) Smartie’s
According to my British friends, there is a UK version of Smartie’s that is way more delicious than our version here in the US. Well, those aren’t vegan. Sure, our Smartie’s might not be all that delicious – they might even be the thanks-for-participating prize of choice at pretty much every elementary school spelling bee – but you know what they’re great for? Gluing to a piece of graph paper in color-coordinated rows to learn about fractions.

8) Ghirardelli Hot Chocolate (Double Chocolate)
The chocolate mocha and chocolate hazelnut versions are also accidentally vegan, but if I’m fancy enough to drink Ghirardelli hot chocolate (and snobby enough to pronounce it with a hard “g”), I think I can handle the double chocolate, thank you.

7) Big League Chew
Never mind that the last time I actually purchased a Big League Chew, it was from the snack shack at my middle school baseball field and I was wearing tube socks and Adidas Sambas. Back then, I had no qualms about shoving fistful after fistful of those gooey pick shreds into my mouth, then tipping the bag back and pouring in the rest, so the resulting wad of gum was nearly impossible to manage between my jaws. It's good to know I can relive that experience any time I want.

6) Wheat Thins
Wheat Thins are one of those snacks that you just barely convince yourself are healthy for you to eat an entire box of. They’re basically crackers. They have the word “wheat” in the title! Come on.

5) Fruit by the Foot
In the hierarchy of elementary school cafeteria snack trading, Fruit by the Foot is the bourgeoisie. You could trade up for a Fruit Roll-Up pretty easily (jokes on the wrapper, hello?!), but no way was I going to score a Fruit by the Foot in exchange for the low-fat cheese stick or apple my mom stuck me with.

4) Kellogg’s Unfrosted Poptarts
A lot of people think the best part of poptarts is the frosting. I disagree. I think the best part of poptarts is the goopy, slightly grainy, artificially flavored “fruit” filling that sticks to the roof of your mouth like napalm. Lucky for me, I can have it in fake brown sugar, fake blueberry, or fake strawberry form.

3) Nabisco Oreo Cookies
When I was a kid (and had traded shrewdly that day in the school cafeteria, duping some poor sap into exchanging his Oreos for my chewy granola bar), I used to enjoy Oreo cookies in the most disgusting way imaginable. I would use my front teeth to scrape the crème filling off, and then – rather than just swallowing it – I would collect it from behind my teeth and use my fingers to roll it into a little ball. That ball would grow as I added the filling from three to four cookies, discarding the chocolate cookie part as I went. Then I would pop the huge, spitty crème ball into my mouth and suck on it until it dissolved. I can’t wait to resume this enchanting little ritual as soon as I get my hands on some Oreos.

2) Swedish Fish
Yes! Swedish Fish are the best.

1) Sour Patch Kids
I never understood this snack. Am I really nomming on kid-shaped candies? And what is a sour patch? Is it like a vegetable patch, but instead of vegetables, it grows… sour? Do the candy kids live in the sour patch? How did they get so delicious?

The world may never know. But at least I know what to snack on as I ponder these questions.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Nutty and Nice: Lemon Walnut Hummus

A couple of months ago, I splurged and spent over $25 on a fancy bottle of walnut oil. I figured it was $25 toward my health, since one tablespoon of the stuff apparently has enough omega-3 fatty acids to sustain a family of four on a vegan desert island for a month (or something like that).

But since making this purchase, I have been anxious about using the walnut oil, so the bottle is still mostly full in my cabinet. This type of thing happens with every splurge I make. For example, last summer I spent 80 euro on a designer purse in Florence, Italy. Maybe that doesn’t seem like a lot of money to you, but at that point, the rest of my “purse” collection consisted of canvas shopping bags that had been given to me at organic food festivals and similar events.

Anyway, after spending so much money on this Florentine purse, I was afraid to use it for its intended function. I was plagued by fear that it would get stolen (the purse itself was far more valuable than anything inside it) or that my lip gloss would melt all over it or that some other misfortune would befall it.

The fancy walnut oil in my cabinet was becoming the food equivalent of my Florentine purse (which, by the way, is still in fantastic shape). I needed to use it for something. So a couple of nights ago, I decided to make walnut hummus with lemon juice. Here’s what I used:

Lemon Walnut Hummus
1 can chickpeas, drained
1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts
2 tbsp (fancy) walnut oil
1 tsp salt
2 cloves garlic, chopped
juice from 1 lemon

I had no idea what I was doing (I’m sure that is not incredibly surprising), but as it turns out, making hummus is about the easiest thing I’ve ever done. I just dumped everything in the food processer and pulsed it until it was the consistency of, well, hummus.

It turned out a bit tangy, which I liked, and nutty at the same time. I immediately decided to make hummus to bring to every party I’m invited to in the future. It’s so easy, and there’s something undeniably cool about the person who brought the homemade hummus. I want to be that person.

Unfortunately, this hummus was almost too good. David ate nearly the entire batch in one sitting (apparently when I said, “Would you like a bit of hummus to hold you over before dinner?” he heard, “I made this batch of hummus just for you, and I don’t want any of it myself”).

But since it’s so easy, I’ll just make another batch in the next few days. Now that I’ve moved past my anxiety over using my inordinately expensive walnut oil, there’s nothing stopping me.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Shit Meat Eaters Say to Vegans

Yesterday, I decided to get on the "Shit BLANKS Say [to BLANKS]" bandwagon. If you can't beat 'em... right? So my roommate Erin and I spent an afternoon frolicking around our neighborhood and trying not to get kicked out of our local Ralph's supermarket. Here you go:

(the picture is a link to the video)

Monday, January 9, 2012

Restaurant Review: Mike and Patty's (Bigger Isn't Always Better)

I am not a very competitive person, generally. As a fifth-grade softball player, I was relegated to right field, where I tugged up stray blades of grass and honed my (now perfected) zoning out skills. And I’ll likely fail as an opera singer, since my diva ways do not extend far beyond writing a self-indulgent blog and photo-documenting all my meals.

But at Mike and Patty’s, a neighborhood breakfast joint in Boston’s fabulous Bay Village, a long-dormant competitive streak was awakened within me. I was meeting my pregnant-but-somehow-still-skinny friend Bridget for breakfast there before I headed back to Santa Barbara, and I arrived five minutes before she did.

It was immediately apparent that seating would be an issue. Mike and Patty’s, though charming and cozy, is cramped, to say the least. The single table was occupied by two couples and a baby in a carrier and the two counter stools were occupied by another, nerdier couple. Both parties had just gotten their orders.

Since there was nowhere to sit, I considered the option of just standing there balancing the plate on one hand while eating off it with the other, like I used to do in my little cottage before I had a kitchen table. But the only place to stand was directly in front of the counter, silently staring down a woman I had to assume was Patty, who wanted to take my order. I tried that for a while, but it got awkward pretty quickly.

As I waited, another customer showed up, carrying a messenger bag. Now it was really crowded. There was just no room for me, the random guy, and his messenger bag. As the couples with the baby prepared to leave, I watched the guy eying their soon-to-be-available seats. I hoped he didn’t think he was going to get one of those seats. Suddenly competitive, I began to imagine the altercation that would ensue if he made a move, and I clenched my fists, preparing for the worst.

But at that point, Bridget arrived and I realized I had had nothing to worry about all along. Bridget is pregnant. In the hierarchy of seat claiming, Pregnant beats Random Guy with a Messenger Bag any day.

The reason we had come to Mike and Patty’s is because it is quite vegan-friendly. Although there are no flat-out vegan items on its menu, many things are easily veganizable. They have Daiya vegan cheese substitute and Tofutti cream cheese substitute. And both Patty (at whom I had been awkwardly staring while I stood waiting for Bridget to arrive) and Mike (who was quite visible in the tiny kitchen and able to participate in conversation) were exceptionally friendly and willing to make substitutions.

I went with the Vegetable Torta (sweet potatoes, poblano peppers, avocado, refritos, and jicama slaw on a roll) and substituted Tofutti for the goat cheese. Putting sweet potatoes in a sandwich is one of those things that had never occurred to me but once I tried it, it made so much sense:
Thanks, Mike and Patty, for a perfect last meal in Boston. I understand why seating is so competitive – the food is worth it.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Restaurant Review: Mi Lah in Philadelphia - "Get Your Brunch On!"

Have I mentioned how much I love brunch? Of course I have. So it should come as no surprise that I was determined to find a vegan brunch spot in Philadelphia while I visited my friend Saloni there this weekend. My search was pretty easy; Saloni already knew of a place within walking distance of her house.

It’s called Mi Lah, which originates from the Indian Buddhist word for “nature, harmony, happiness, and kindness.” I support all those things, and I also support Mi Lah's use of local, seasonal ingredients.
The décor was quite unremarkable, so I will not remark upon it. But the menu made up for the décor’s lack of enthusiasm: across the top of the menu were the words, “Get Your Brunch On!” I found this delightful, if slightly aggressive.

I would get my brunch on, and I would like it. Bring it on, Mi Lah.

We started off with a complimentary plate of fruit: grapes with orange and apple slices. I like things that are free, so I liked the fruit plate, but if I was going to Get My Brunch On as the menu commanded, I’d have to step it up.
Free fruit always tastes good.
So I ordered what seemed like the menu item that would be most conducive to the Getting On of My Brunch: veggie sausage and avocado on oven-fresh biscuits in mushroom gravy with Red Bliss sweet potato home fries and bronzed coconut king mushrooms.

I wasn't sure what a king mushroom was. I hadn't even been aware that mushrooms operated under a feudal system; had I been unknowingly consuming bourgeois mushrooms my whole life? Or worse, peasant mushrooms?

Well, this king mushroom (which, as it turned out, was just an exceptionally long mushroom) was fried in a light coconut batter. The sweet potato home fries were crispy on the outside and just the right amount of mushy on the inside. And the biscuits, veggie sausage, and avocado were stacked eggs-Benedict-style, with the mushroom gravy substituting for hollandaise sauce. The combination of textures was perfect:
Saloni, who was considerably less concerned with Getting Her Brunch On, went with the corn masa cakes with refried black beans, avocado, and fresh mango salsa. The corn masa cake, underneath heaps of avocado and salsa, was surprisingly flavorful and very filling; Saloni couldn’t finish the whole thing, even with my help:
I wish Mi Lah were in my city so I could Get My Brunch On all the time. But I will have to try to make up for it by inventing new vegan brunchy recipes myself. In fact, while typing this post, I have decided that my New Years resolution will be to represent Mi Lah out in California by embracing “nature, harmony, happiness, and kindness” and, most importantly, by Getting My Brunch On as often as possible.