Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Vegan in Worcester, MA

My friends Dave and Jo moved to Worcester, MA about a year ago.  At the time, Worcester offered them one significant feature: it was equidistant to two important places outside of Worcester. In the past year, however, they have discovered that Worcester offers them far more than a convenient geographical location.  They have grown to appreciate other important Worcester qualities, such as cheap rent, loud neighbors, vandalism, and theft.  I was eager to see what this special place was all about, so I forced myself upon them for 20 hours.

I made sure to eat plenty of food before I visited Worcester, hoping that a calorie surfeit would fuel me through most of my stay.  But eventually, hunger got the best of me.  When I apologetically mentioned this to my hosts, Dave reminded me that there was rumor of a vegan restaurant somewhere in Worcester--"Belmont something-or-other."  That rang a bell.  I vaguely remembered hearing about such a phenomenon through my deteriorating Boston area vegan network.  So off to Google we went.

It wasn't easy to find Belmont Vegetarian Restaurant's eye-watering Web site, but along the way I did find http://vegworcester.com/, which I initially assumed to be a squatted domain.  According to this site, there are quite a few vegetarian-friendly restaurants in the Worcester area, though only 3 or 4 seem to be exclusively vegan (including the ubiquitous Loving Hut). So my culinary prejudice diminished.  We departed for Belmont Vegetarian Restaurant.

From the outside, it looks like any sub shop store front you'd find on a busy, gritty, New England "city" street. Inside is a bright, spartan dining area containing two booths and an order window, which is flanked by a chalkboard displaying the day's menu.  The chalkboard listed: "Curry, BBQ, Veggie Stew, Black Bean + Soy, Pepper Steak, and Mac + Cheese."  Eventually, Steven, the proprietor and cook, approached us with an offer to try a sample plate.  "You try everything.  If it's not for you, you can go on your way," he offered, amicably.  "Go on our way?"  I thought.  That's like saying, "If the water is too cold at this oasis, you may crawl 46 miles to the east for an alternative."  But we humored him and tried everything, while listening to light reggae.

The food is generally differently-prepared soy or tofu chunks, like you might find at a buffet. You have three options when you order: small ($6.50), medium($9.50), and large($11.50).  You get a bed of rice upon which Steven will scoop any combination of chalkboard items.  I ordered the pepper steak and curry, and was quite pleased; the pepper steak was especially good and spicy,  the curry was pleasant and mild.  I considered getting one of the "patties" displayed behind the order window, but the medium bowl had stuffed me a bit too much.  Maybe next time.

UPDATE:  I only thought that vegworcester.com was a squatter domain because it came up in Google search results.  I couldn't believe that such resource existed. I assumed that some crafty Search Engine Optimizer has mashed the word "Veg" with every city he or she could imagine, and sat back to enjoy the long tail traffic.  It's a great site and I wholeheartedly recommend that everyone in the Worcester area--and beyond--visit it to find out what's edible in the region.  Thanks, Drew!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Gardein Again, Including Limited Edition Collector's Meal

I don't think I've ever bought Gardein products for myself.  They're very similar to their meaty counterparts (well, what I remember of their meaty counterparts) and that makes me uncomfortable. The less my food resembles a corpse, the more eager I am to eat it. But whenever I visit Back East, my Mom stocks the fridge with all sorts of booty from the remote Whole Foods, which I appreciate very much.  Invariably, there are a few Gardein products in the haul, and I don't mind trying trying them because God damn it, I'm in the middle cultural nowhere and lucky to eat anything that's not iceberg lettuce.

So, Gardein product the first: Tuscan Breasts.  Uncanny meat-like texture under a tasty, tomato-based sauce. This seems to be the "no frills" Gardein product, and it performs exactly as advertised.  I think a transitional omnivore would really dig it. It's shown here with a variety of Whole Foods buffet sides.

Gardein product the second: Limited Edition Savory Stuffed Turk'y.  (They're too snooty to call it "Stuff'd Turk'y," unfortunately.)  This was really good. It's a Gardein orb stuffed with celery, onions, cranberries, and bread crumbs; coated with a light, crispy breading.  It's like a croquette.  It comes with a delicious gravy that gives Tofurky's a run for its money.  This is my favorite of the few Gardein products I've tried thus far, due to its under-emphasized meatiness. It's all about the breading, stuffing and gravy.  And that's really what Thanksgiving is all about, anyway.  Well, that and smallpox.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

I Am Grateful For The Tiny Amount of Light Available

I blog after dark.  That's just the way it works out.  Consequently, the photos that accompany my blog posts are starved of the bright, natural light that wholesome vegan food deserves.  This post is a case in point.  A friend and I went to Café Gratitude tonight, armed with only my iPhone 3GS to document the mostly-raw experience.  Thanks to iPhoto, I was able to adjust the photos to the point where you can almost discern their subjects.

Enough about photos, let's talk about the experience.   This was my first visit to the legendary Café Gratitude, and I was instantly pleased to find it was humble and homey.  I had expected it to be swank and natural-fiber-artsy for some reason,  filled with solemn patrons alternately ingesting their manna and uttering spiritual affirmations.  I imagined that I would be forced to walk into the center of a cavernous dining area, squinting beneath a spotlight, and proclaim my order to a reproachful priestess who would bellow, "'Dazzling?' Surely you're joking, bland fellow.  You shall not sup upon "I Am Dazzling" in this House.  You shall eat "I Am Foolish," instead.  Now be gone."

I Am Honoring
But no. The service was pleasant and easy-going.  The patrons were motley and talkative.  At one point, a boombox started belting The Beatles' "Birthday," and everyone started to clap rhythmically while the servers hopped up and down and sang along for the benefit of a lucky, aging guest.

While you are not required to, you may order your dishes by their "affirmation" titles rather than their prosaic titles.  For example, the daily house special is called "I Am Celebrating," and the live burger is called "I Am Cheerful." When it came time to order, I had no qualms announcing to our affable server, "I Am Elated, and I Am Effervescent."  (Though when I received the "effervescent" house ginger ale, it was clear it would have been more accurate to say, "I Am Overwhelmed By The Hot, Stinging Fist of Raw Ginger.")

I Am Elated
I Am Honoring (live nachos) was pretty darned good and a little spicy;  I Am Elated (Enchilada del dia, basically the nachos in a live tortilla) was OK, and came with a tasty side of slaw;  I Am Cheerful (live sunburger) was dense but flavorful.  The tiramisu, however, was excellent.  I haven't had anything close to tiramisu since my reckless omnivore years, and this was well worth waiting for.  In fact, all of their desserts looked amazing.  I think we would have done well to just get the nachos and a couple desserts, but the extra time it took to ingest the shrugworthy entrees allowed us to fully to soak up the positive atmosphere.

I Am Finished.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Eastern Capital Sandwich With A Side of Beer

A couple weeks ago I came across a package of Tofurky "Philly-Style" Steak Deli Slices at a remote Whole Foods.  I usually just put vegan "cold cuts" between a couple slices of bread with some lettuce, tomato, and mayo and call it a meal.  That's about the extent of my patience with sandwiches. But I noticed a unique recipe for Philly cheese steaks on the back of the package, and it went a little something like this:
  1. Put a couple tablespoons of oil in a pan and heat it.
  2. Put a mound of chopped onions and peppers in the oil, in the shape of your roll.
  3. Place a layer of folded Tofurky slices on top of the peppers and onions.
  4. Put a mound of Daiya cheese on top of the Tofurky. 
  5. Cover and cook for about 8 minutes until the bottom layer has begun to caramelize and the cheese has melted.
  6. Slap the sizzling mass on a roll with some mustard and mayo and take the whole mess back to the TV.
I was incredulous, but #5 sold me--just set it and forget it.  I was impressed with the results: the flavor-to-effort ratio was phenomenal, and the Tofurky took on an toothsome moistness. As a bonus, my apartment smelled like an East Coast greasy spoon for hours.  So I made another one tonight (pictured above), using jalapeños and Hickory Smoked Tofurky Slices instead of Philly-Style slices.  It was equally delicious, though I should have used about 8 slices instead of 4.

Oh, if you don't have a side of beer handy, a scalding cup of Dunkin' Donut's coffee in a polystyrene cup will suffice.

Cranberry What-The-Fuckies

VeganMoFo is teaching me  how
to become a more sensitive,
compassionate friend.

Again, I found myself with a backlog of leftovers.  So, cookietime.  I googled for "veganmofo 2010 cookies" to find a recipe, and was stopped dead in mid-scroll by these.  Holy Mother of God.  (Where do people find all this natural light, by the way?)  Wing-It Vegan's "Katie's Beet Cookies" post originated with  this recipe, which seemed simple enough for my baking skill level.

The only ingredient I was missing was pureed beets, which I was certain I could find at my local rip-off health food store.  Alas, the only beet product they had in stock was sliced, salted beets.  So I had to improvise.  It seemed like the primary criterion for a substitute ingredient was "red."  So, how about apple sauce and beet juice?  No; there was a dusty valley in the beverage isle where beet juice used to flourish.  OK, how about pomegranate juice?  That stuff is red.  Sadly, the only bottles of pomegranate juice I found had one-inch thick layers of solid sediment at their bases; not a good sign.  Okay, how about cranberry sauce?  No, they're all sweetened and gelatinous.  Fine, then just frozen cranberries.  I'd thaw them and whiz them in the food processor.

When I got the frozen cranberries home I popped one in my mouth to evaluate the degree to which they differed from beets.  Turned out, quite a bit.  They were very sour.  So I read the back of the bag and noticed a simple method for turning them into a sort of sweet mash, commonly known as "cranberry sauce."  Yes, the very same jellied cylinder available in cans. Well, I thought, home-brewed cranberry sauce would be much better than that.  Surely this would be the perfect substitute ingredient. 

Sure, they look edible...
But when I finally rendered my "sauce," it was pretty lumpy.  I feared it would not mix well with the dry ingredients, and cause uneven baking. Why not puree it?  Like beets?  So I whizzed the cranberry sauce in my Cuisinart and produced what I thought was a damned close approximation of pureed beets.  I found that I had to add about a quarter cup of water to it to get it to mix with the dry ingredients, but I eventually ended up with a purple goop approximating cookie dough.  (It's probably significant to note that I only added a tablespoon of sugar to the dry ingredients because the cranberry sauce required so much.)
Cookies don't do that.

Everything went smoothly until I took them out of the oven. They were strange.  They had a uniform, almost plastic texture.  They were soft and spongy, and not even slightly crisp.  They were unusually pliable.

I let them cool and then tried one.  It was like a pleasantly flavored jelly sponge cake.  In other words, horrible.

So I made two clear mistakes here:
  1. I tried to bake a colloid.
  2. I liquefied most of the sugar before baking, leaving none to caramelize during baking.
Fortunately, I believe that every experience is valuable, especially the experiences in which you fail miserably. Failure is more instructional than success.  In fact, I bet I can find a pithy quote on the topic in under 10 seconds...
“Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.” -- C. S. Lewis

 WTF is a "finger post?"

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Return To Escape From New York Pizza

50% artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes,
50% black olives and mushrooms.  100% fuggindalishis.
That title will not make sense to anyone who does not eat pizza in San Francisco.  I'm talking about Escape From New York Pizza.  Previous to tonight's meal, I had not had a slice of their New York style pizza in over 7 years.  That's because I went vegan, and they did not.  Yet I'm still vegan.  How is this possible?

The only food I miss from my omniverous life is thin-crust, preferably wood-oven baked, pizza.  Like Pepe's, in New Haven; or Luna in Hartford, back when they were on Franklin Avenue.  As with the death of a twin sibling, you eventually learn to cope with shattering losses and move on, looking forward to the little pleasures that you might be lucky enough to unearth on the barren, overcast wasteland of your lonely existence. If you're really lucky,  the dead will dig their way out of the ground and come crawling back into your life, a little different than you remember them, but almost as lovable.  That's kind of what eating tonight's EFNY pizza with Daiya cheese was like... maybe in part because I was watching Episode 2 of The Walking Dead.

Yes, Daiya cheese on an Escape From New York Pizza.  Imagine my excitement when I saw this tweet from @vegansaurus last Friday:
BREAKING: Escape from New York Pizza in the Mission HAS VEGAN CHEESE!
Vegan Pizza and The Walking Dead.
A perfect match.
And imagine, further, my excitement at the revelation that all the Escape From New York Pizza locations now offer Daiya cheese, including the one in my neighborhood. Of course I knew it might not be the same slice I remembered from my youthful years in this city, but it was as close as I was going to get. Indeed, it was very good.  As good as Paxti's? Maybe. As good as Panhandle's? Ha! Way better. As good as Amici's? Hm, I need a refresher. In fact, I'll have to order a lot more pizza this week to answer all of these wonderful, wonderful questions.

San Francisco Green Festival, Fall 2010

Adorable food transportation
from Earthlust.
Twice a year, affluent San Francisco consumers converge on the San Francisco Concourse Exhibition Center to save the planet Earth by buying as many eco-friendly products as their Sherpa bags will accommodate.  Such products include hemp clothing, cork flooring, solar flashlights, hybrid bicycles, flatulence-mitigating dog treats, water bottles, water filters, herbal tinctures, Vita-mixes, dehydrators, and sex swings masquerading as "yoga sling systems." And most importantly, beer, wine, and vegetarian food.

Let's play a practical joke on Stomach.
You can go home with plenty of pre-packaged food, but you can also chow-down in real time at one of the several vegetarian food vendors.  (I did both.) I was surprised to see Underdog slinging wursts, and then more surprised to learn that they were slinging only their vegan wursts at the festival.  (I think they were simply Tofurky brats, but it was still nice to see.) But I decided on a raw Coconut Curry plate from Lydia's Lovin' Foods--a mound of broccoli, cauliflower, and parsnip "rice", decorated with delicious green crackers.  It was fantastic to ingest, but left me feeling like I had swallowed a handful of misshapen paperclips for about 24 hours.  I'm not casting aspersions on Lydia's delicious, healthy food; my upper GI was simply not conditioned for a sudden, unprocessed fiber bomb.  But hey, that's the kind of personal sacrifice I'm prepared to make to save our beloved planet.

Kale chips, seeds, and seaweeds.
After you've accumulated all you can carry in your reusable bag and your reusable stomach, it's customary to get hammered at the extremely popular Organic Beer and Wine Garden. (It's a bit of a misnomer; there's not a shred of flora nor ray of natural light anywhere near the roped-in pen.) I chased down my paperclips with lots of pale ale from the Eel River booth, one of only two brewers at the festival this semester.  Hey, saving the planet is hard work that deserves reward.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Week One of VeganMoFo 2010, The Aftermath

Sure, it's gratifying to make your own meals.  It's a wonderful experience when you share your meals with other people who enjoy home-cooked food.  But it can take a toll on your kitchen.  I try to "clean as you go," but after 5 days straight of slapping together recipes I was left with a dishapocalypse. Thank God we're only blogging on weekdays; I can attack this mountain of debris over the weekend.

I felt that I earned a zero-effort to-go meal after a week of hard work, so I got a Soyrizo burrito from my local Papalote today.  Oh, so good. And I only had to wash one dish afterward!  Unfortunately, my proximal Papalote wasn't serving the seasonal Pumpkin Tamales that the Mission location is offering for a limited time.  But this sucker always pleases.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Wherein I Blog About Making A Recipe That Someone Else Had Blogged About Making

We take a lot of the Internet's magic for granted.  A talented recipesmith can put together an interesting dish way out in the middle of nowhere, and the next day I can follow her instructions and produce the same dish, 1665 miles away.  (Well, not the same dish; there are some minor components that can't yet be conveyed over the Internet, such as skill, experience, and technique.) By comparison, it took about 770 years for the first cheesecake recipe to travel from Greece to Great Britain.  What's more, I'm certain that my version of Isa's Butternut Rancheros is far more genetically similar to the original than the British cheesecake was to its Greek ancestor. (Though it's clear that the attractiveness gene did not make it into my remote manifestation.) Welcome to the future.

Two elements of this recipe will forever remain in my culinary arsenal: the charbroiled squash, and the ranchero sauce.  Ok, those are the two core elements of the dish.  My point is that they are independently delicious, and can be used to great effect in separate dishes.  But now that I'm thinking about it, you could cube the roasted butternut squash and wrap the whole thing in a tortilla.  It would probably blow a mind.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Delicious Abomination

While I was tweetstalking @DomesticVegan late last month, another of her gorgeous tweets crossed my voyeuristic Twitter client:
Need a new dinner idea? How about #vegan Wild Rice Pub Burgers? http://bit.ly/ckEc6W

"Hell, yeah, I need a new dinner idea," I exclaimed. "In fact, I need 22 ideas for the impending VeganMoFo."  Add the fact that I like pubs and burgers, and that I already had the side of beer on hand, this idea was what middle management would call  a "non brain."

So while I was making last night's red lentil stew I also prepared the rice for this recipe. (Let me add, parenthetically, that I had never before planned a meal this far in advance.) Having that squared away made preparing the burgers ridiculously easy.

But there's a catch.  After forming 6 relatively perfect patties, I realized that I had enough material to make 7 1/2.  Rather than let the remaining 1/2 burger go to waste, I made a one-and-a-half burger.  It was huge.  When the bun saw me plop that monster down on the grill pan (I don't have a non-stick pan), it was like, "Aw, shit." And then there's the grill pan.  I think that these burgers would benefit from the surface area and sizzling oil of a frying pan, especially when they're embarrassingly large.  This big boy tasted incredible, but was lacking the cohesive texture that a pan or skillet would have promoted. Fortunately, I have 6 normal-sized patties sitting in the freezer, eager to be used as directed.

Thanks for the excellent recipe, Jess!  I promise that this is the last of my VeganMoFo harassment.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Red Lentil Soup [sic]* from Allrecipes.com

Among the 14 tweets @DomesticVegan produced back on October 25, 2010, was:
Dinner: Red Lentil Soup! One of my favorites! So easy, healthy, and delicious!
For some reason, that stuck with me. It's such a sincere tweet.  She seems so darned wholesome, this Minnesota girl.  Surely I, too, would enjoy this easy, healthy, and delicious dish, despite my flaws and sinful lifestyle.  I could just go to the store to get the ingredients, assemble them according to the recipe, and experience a brief but deeply gratifying period of simple perfection. Enjoy some clarity.  Maybe lapse into some optimistic thoughtfulness, should the moment get a hold of me.  Who knows, I might even plan for my future a little bit, maybe refill a prescription or two. Wouldn't that be swell?

Well, dear reader,  it turns out that Day 3 of VeganMoFo 2010 is the first day of the rest of my life.  I just birthed myself into a bright, hot, thick-and-delicious bowl of red lentils and squash, and by golly it's a beautiful place to be!  My one departure from the rules was adding more cayenne pepper than suggested, and using hot curry powder instead of not hot.  Otherwise, I think this recipe's a winner out of the gate.

Now go simmer yourself some salvation.  (Goes well with beer.)

* "Soup" is not the word I would use to describe my results.  "Stew" is more accurate.  But stew is also more delicious than soup, so I'm not complaining.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Pumpkin Spice Cookies from VegNews

The thing about making a shitload of soup is that you'll be eating it for a while.  That's good, if it's good soup, and if you like to eat food every day.  But it's bad when you need to blog about new vegan food all the time.  Does a good blogger blog about eating his leftover soup, which he blogged about yesterday?  Hell, no. He quietly eats his delicious leftover soup and then makes cookies and blogs about those.

The cookie recipe is VegNews Recipe Club's most recent dispatch, Pumpkin Spice Cookies.  (If you're not already subscribed to the Recipe Club newsletters, I recommend you become so forthwith.) These were the obvious cookie choice, as it's autumn and that's when pumpkins rise from their spookypatches and cause all sorts of mischief for peaceful folk, and especially for misshapen, parentless children.  Having a batch of pumpkin cookies cooling by the window is guaranteed to keep the maleficent squash at bay. But enough Christian mythology; it's cookietime.

First of all, these cookies are easy to make in spite of their wild ingredients.  (Chocolate-covered raisins?  And chocolate chips? In the same cookie?  VegNews says, confidently, "yes.")  Second, making them was educational, teaching me a few things which I've listed below.  Finally, they taste good.  They're not mind-blowing; they're subtle and sophisticated--even with the chocolate covered raisins.   Oh, and finally-finally, I actually found all of the ingredients which I didn't have on hand at my local health rip-off market.  That's kind of a first.

So, education.  Here are some things I learned by making Pumpkin Spice Cookies:
  • Parchment paper can be reused several times
  • While the "back of a spoon" is definitely an effective Martha Stewart technique for flattening cookie dough, the cookies I flattened with my "front of the palm" had a more earnest and appropriately rustic appearance.  But if you're going to frost them (I didn't), using a lightly greased silicone spatula can be an effective, impersonal technique, especially suitable for e.g. a Professor of Robots.
  • If you're spending too much time screwing around and drinking wine and smoking out on the soccer field between batches, you can refrigerate your dough to keep it firm and maleable until you get back.
  • You can toast shredded coconut on some tinfoil in your preheating oven. Takes about 6 minutes and you need to keep mixing it around to brown it evenly and prevent it from burning.
  • 350 degrees F doesn't sound that hot, but it's more than enough degrees to induce pain and possibly damage in careless human flesh.
  • Some cookies taste better after they've cooled for a while. (And that's obviously my opinion about these.)
I'm going to take most of these to work tomorrow and see how they fare among the omnivores.  It's often difficult to discern between reactions conveying, "Hey, these are really good!" and those conveying "Hey, these are really good, for vegan cookies! Loser." But I will try very hard to figure out who my enemies are.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Viva Vegan's Potato-Kale Soup with Sizzling Chorizo

Happy Vegan MoFo! Gainful employment, the World Series, The Walking Dead, and  congenital laziness have all conspired to prevent me from getting my first post in before dawn. They have failed. Not only am I posting, but I am posting about food that I made with my own two hands; food that I dished out into a solid, reusable bowl and ate with a stainless steel spoon. Tonight I successfully assembled and ingested Terry Hope Romero's Potato-Kale Soup with Sizzling Chorizo, from Viva Vegan!

There are a ton of recipes in Viva Vegan that I'm looking forward to making, but I picked the potato-kale soup tonight because it's simple and easy.  (And because I like potatoes, kale, and soup.)  I made the recipe even easier by cheating in a few places: I used Field Roast Mexican Chipotle Sausage instead of the Seitan Chorizo Sausages in the book; I used ordinary olive oil instead of the annatto-infused oil; and I used apple cider vinegar that I had on hand instead of white wine vinegar.  The results?  Still delicious.  I don't get "stuffed" with soup very often, and I am definitely stuffed with soup right now. 

Thanks, Terry!