Saturday, January 31, 2009

Emily and the origins of my veganism

During the course of this blogging adventure, I have become acquainted with a number of very cool and interesting people. I have been corresponding most often with one woman in particular who asked me about what first influenced me to become vegan, and in answering her it has made me reflect upon a number of things. I took a survey not that long ago put together by a graduate student from I can't remember where, that was trying to measure a number of things, one of them being whether or not vegans fully disclose the reasons why they became vegan to their vegan friends in the same way as to their non-vegan friends. And in answering the questions I had to admit, it really depends.

I think often I am wary of getting too explicit with non-vegan/vegetarian people, especially if I don't know them very well, for fear of alienating them. And so I am careful in my approach and how I explain things. And, the other thing is that there are a number of reasons why being vegan makes sense to me, whether in terms of my health, the environment, or for spiritual and moral reasons. I always say the main reason is because I seek consistency within myself. I am not comfortable doing something that goes against what I feel is right or that conflicts with my own sense of integrity.

One thing that really impacted my life, something I have never ever really gotten over, started when I was ten years old and we moved to a small town in West Texas, a mere speck on the map of that gargantuan state, a town called Bronte. I have to admit, as much as I have hidden these photographs from those bygone years, I was truly a nerd-child. A book-loving, ugly-80s-glasses-wearing, Little-Miss-Sunshine child, who loved animals and read all the time. I was ecstatic that we were moving to a town that I was sure had to have been named after one of the amazing Bronte sisters. Since we were trying the "out in the country" living experiment, my parents let my sister and I adopt two baby Barbado ewes that were so little we had to bottle feed them. I of course named mine Emily.

Once I started school, my romantic dreams were dashed as reality set in. I was saddened to discover the locals did not pronounce Bronte in the way that those beloved sisters did, but rather were living in "Brawnt," and everyone thought my accent was so funny that I must be from "Ing-lund." None of my classmates had heard of Wuthering Heights, let alone read it. I came home from school that first day with two burning questions for my parents: 1) Had I been saved? and 2)Who was I kin to?

Despite this culture shock, the year we spent in Bronte was a happy one. We ended up rescuing two baby rams who also had to be bottle-fed, and before long we had a happy family with four sheep. They were awesome. People who say sheep are stupid have never really given them a chance. My Emily was so smart and sweet and full of personality. Each of the sheep had their own unique temperament and way of expressing themselves. One of the rams did a little dance when he got excited; my sister's ewe was very vocal and was sure to chime in a "baaahh!" whenever we argued. They loved running and playing chase and got excited by the thunderstorms. They were perfect childhood playmates. I m forever grateful to my parents that we had the chance to experience living in Bronte that year.

After a little more than a year we ended up moving to a bigger city and left our country house behind. I was devastated at the idea of saying goodbye to the sheep and to my precious Emily. That last day before they were picked up by their new "owners," my mother took a bunch of photographs of them, starting when they were in the far end of the corral, snapping the pictures quickly, one after another, as they ran closer and closer all together to greet us, excitedly, vibrant and funny, jumping and dancing and full of life. I cried so hard watching them as they rode away in the back of a truck. I wasn't alone in my grief, and the rest of my family was also saddened that we had to part with our wonderful pets.

I harbored illusions that they had gone off to be someone else's pet, and it took me quite awhile before I fully realized they probably wound up as someone's dinner. I knew I would never eat lamb and the idea that anyone would seemed as bizarre to me as eating the family dog.

Pre-digital camera days, we took the film to the drugstore to get the pictures developed several weeks later. I couldn't wait to see how they turned out, but there had been a mix-up and we had someone else's pictures--a little child's family birthday party. We took the pictures back to the store in the hopes that the family would do the same. I imagined this family picking up their pictures, expecting to see birthday photographs, shocked and confused at having instead a bunch of pictures of running jumping prancing sheep. I thought they might do the same as us and return the snapshots, but they never did and we never saw those pictures. Those images have remained with me, however, even after all these years.

I don't believe in being preachy. I know that everyone is different and people choose what feels right to them, and that many truths are subjective. I also know there are so many good, wonderful, loving and loyal people who are omnivorous and have no desire to be vegetarian, let alone vegan. And these are people I love and respect. But in reflecting upon some of the reasons why I am who I am today, I must admit I have never understood the logic behind what makes one animal a pet and another food.

People will often cry at sad stories of a child who lost his beloved dog, but if it is a cow or sheep or chicken, it doesn't resonate the same way. And they may say that is because they are not "companion" animals. But I think that is because people are conditioned to see what they expect, and no one likes the cognitive dissonance that could result from eating a companion animal. For I know that I have never had a friend like Emily, neither before nor since. I think even if I had never known her, I would have wound up vegan eventually regardless. But there is no denying that her life and death affected me deeply.

Home-made vegan pizza!

As you know from my previous posts about Mambo's, Rudy's, and La Fiamma, I am frequently in the mood for good vegan pizza. But as everyone is talking these days about the reality of tough economic times, there is the distinct possibility that I will be eating out less and less and cooking at home more and more... Luckily, making delicious vegan pizza is not hard to do.

My husband and I got these totally awesome "air bake" pizza pans as a wedding gift this past June (thanks again Becky!) and those pans, combined with Bob's "Perfect Pizza Crust" recipe (from a package of Bob's Red Mill unbleached white flour), make creating a delicious pizza crust as easy as... well, as easy as pie! The pans are perforated with these wonderful holes so that the crust bakes evenly and perfectly. The only thing I do differently than what the recipe calls for is that I add some Italian seasoning, some basil, and a few red pepper flakes to the flour before mixing with the liquid. It gives it a little kick. These pizza pans are so huge, I think almost 16" diameter, that one dough batch from this recipe, which should make two pizzas, only makes one pizza.

I think Bob's Red Mill products are really the best, and they also offer whole line of gluten-free flours as well. They are based out of Oregon, and it would definitely be fun to go and tour their facility some time--you can even eat lunch or breakfast there--they have a very vegan-friendly menu and even a vegan soup of the day. But that's a trip and blog post for another time. . .

To get back to the pizza, I made the pizza sauce base from canned tomato bases and then added fresh garlic, some red wine and more seasonings to taste. For toppings I chose red pepper, mushrooms, red onion, black olives, some vegan rella mozzarella and, of course, spinach.

I have to say that vegan rella mozzarella has really improved over the years, and I am liking it lately a lot more than I used to years ago. And maybe I am getting used to it too. It would probably take a non-vegan some time to acclimate. As a waiter at Kalga Kafe in Portland once told my omnivorous husband, "If you aren't vegan, you probably want the regular cheese. No offense," he added, looking directly at me, "it's just two very different worlds man. Two different worlds."

The pizza was delicious, if I do say so myself. Unfortunately, there was a bit of a mishap during the photographing portion of this process. My husband, who kindly and wonderfully most-often photographs the food in my posts, was being both funny and creative when he decided to try and take a picture of me through the holes of one of the pizza pans, which is also when he dropped the camera, lens out, onto the kitchen floor, where it met its untimely death. We managed to fiddle with the lens enough to coax a few last pizza pictures out of it before it died completely, and I am afraid that this is the end of our time with our beloved little Canon.

Needless to say, my poor husband felt terrible, and in an overwhelming instant, I was forced to admit my new addiction to food photography and this whole vegan-blogging thing. I panicked, picturing myself going days, weeks, who knows how long, with no way of visually capturing the beauty of the vegan food that is such a part of my daily life. Ultimately my husband and I decided to fore-go any extravagant Valentine's Day presents this year and opt for a new camera instead, and luckily, my mother-in-law is loaning us her camera until our replacement arrives. So thankfully the life I have grown accustomed to is still in tact.

And I should add that I am grateful to my husband for his willingness to be my food photographer whenever I call on him, even in the middle of crowded restaurants. He frequently waits as his warm food grows cold until my food pictures are taken before he begins eating, and when at home he will drop whatever he is doing to help me when I need him. I am also grateful for his sense of humor and creativity that was partly the cause of this accident because without that, he wouldn't be the wonderful man that I love so much who makes every day a true pleasure, and as hard as it would be to overcome my new-found addiction, I would choose him over a camera any day.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Vegan seaweed fish (and the subject of fake meat)

You may recall from an earlier post that when I was in Portland this past Fall, I picked up a vegan faux fish. It was an impulse buy, and I was attracted to it for its novelty. I later happened to be watching an episode of Kitchen Nightmares where Gordon Ramsey chastised a restaurant owner for serving the very same faux-fish at his vegetarian-friendly restaurant. He called it "gimmicky." And I thought, perhaps it is, but I was intrigued enough to buy it, which I guess in some ways proves his point.

This odd thing sat in my freezer for some time, mainly because I wasn't sure what to do with it. Finally, last weekend I decided to just go for it. I considered various ways to prepare it involving recipes that called for fish as an ingredient, or even making it into fish tacos, but in the end I decided just to go simply, since I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. So I ended up just baking it as it was by itself in the oven, and it seemed to grow a little in size during the process. I served it with vegan tartar sauce, roasted red potatoes, and some steamed spinach.

And ultimately, it was pretty...ok. I wasn't blown away, but it wasn't terrible. I think as an ingredient in something, it could be quite good. But on its own it was kind of a strange combination of rich and bland, which sounds weird but I don't know how else to put it.

The part of my meal that made me happiest that evening was actually the spinach, which was perfect. But keep in mind I have a serious thing for spinach. I think I ate almost an entire bag of it that evening, only lightly and briefly steamed until it began to shrink in size--(I don't have a thing for over cooked spinach.) And the potatoes were also good. And making vegan tartar sauce was fun, (it was basically some nayonaise with lemon juice, pickles and a bit of minced onion.)

Do I regret buying the faux fish? Not at all. I would have forever wondered about it if I hadn't. Would I buy it again? Probably not. I think my meal was a perfect example of how sometimes the simplest things are the most satisfying, like my spinach for example, which was probably what Gordon Ramsey was trying to say.

That doesn't mean I am not interested in maybe trying out some faux fish recipes for fun sometime--I used to really enjoy the controversial (in the vegan world) "tuno," until it disappeared off the market, at least as far as where I live goes. I say controversial because many vegans didn't like it while others did, and there is a lot of online commentary as to whether or not it tasted good or bad.

I find the whole subject of faux meat interesting. I think it can be fun because there are so many ways to make really amazing-tasting vegan "meat," despite stereotypical representations to the contrary. Because of this, often it becomes very apparent that the "taste" argument people frequently give to explain why they could not be vegan loses a bit of its weight. At the same time, when I have encountered a fake meat that tastes an awful lot like the real thing, it sort of freaks me out. I think I like the ones that have a good flavor and texture, but that can also stand on their own as being different enough from the real thing so as not to be creepy to me. Which is another reason it might be fun to make faux meat myself--being involved in the production process directly would make it more enjoyable. So I am definitely interested in trying out some other vegan fish recipes. If anyone has any good ones, feel free to let me know and I would really appreciate it. In the meantime, however, I think I will steer clear of the seaweed fish and stick to my spinach.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Vegan Mexican food at El Gitano: 1125 E Sunset Drive

Tasty vegan Mexican food is always a treat, especially in the middle of long dreary winter days when the sun begins to feel like nothing more than a hazy memory. El Gitano will make you forget the dark cold days, at least for awhile, as you enjoy their delicious chips and salsa and sip on a margarita. El Gitano has a section on their menu that is vegetarian, and they are also very accommodating when it comes to adapting menu items to make them vegan. One of the things vegans frequently have to be aware of at some Mexican restaurants is whether or not the food they ordered was cooked in animal fat, or if animal by-products are used during the preparation process. It can be hard to relax and enjoy your food when you have to ask a million questions, although people are generally very nice when they answer them, which makes it easier.

The staff at El Gitano have always been very nice whenever I have eaten there and had questions to ask, which I appreciate. And, in addition to being located in Bellingham, they also have restaurants in Mount Vernon and Burlington, although for this particular entry I am choosing to focus on the one in Bellingham. Since they have such a great website, and a way to ask questions or make comments, for this post I also decided to go one step further than usual, and I have actually been corresponding via email with the general manager Cecilia Chamorro, who has been very helpful and assuring in explaining the restaurant's commitment to providing vegetarian options. For example, their chips are cooked in a separate fryer, and only 100% vegetable oil is used. In addition, their fajitas are cooked in olive oil, and if you ask for no sour cream or cheese, they can be made vegan quite easily. And I can tell you from experience that they are delicious!

I had the pleasure of eating vegan fajitas with corn tortillas at El Gitano this past Friday with my husband, mom, and brother. My mom also ordered vegetarian fajitas and thought they were really good, going so far as to say she didn't even miss the meat! As you can see from the picture, the veggie fajitas are made with bell peppers, potatoes, mushrooms, carrots and onions. The vegetables are not overcooked, and are quite fresh and flavorful, and the portions are generous, (I can always get another meal or two out of my leftovers), so you are getting a really good value in terms of both flavor and price.

Sometimes I just get a craving for Mexican food, and having grown up in Texas I have a thing for good salsa, and El Gitano's salsa is always good. It is actually one of my favorite things about that restaurant. And I frequently order a side of pico de gallo as well, which is also wonderful. I have to say their margaritas are not as good as the ones at Casa (where they use fresh-squeezed limes), but the food is so tasty it makes up for it. The staff at El Gitano are also very nice when it comes to calling in an order for take-out, (although eating there is half the fun, especially because of the mariachi band that makes everything feel more festive).

So if you are missing the sun, and Summertime seems to be an eternity away, take a break and treat yourself to the best vegan Mexican food in Bellingham, like I did. In fact, I got so carried away that for a moment I couldn't help but wonder if there was a connection between the beautiful sunshine that finally found us this weekend and the delicious dinner I had this past Friday night. . .

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Swan Cafe at the Bellingham Community Food Co Op: 1220 North Forest Street


  I emailed the co-op with questions when I first learned of this change and recieved the following response:
 "Unfortunately for you the gluten free rolls are no longer vegan. Once upon a time they were. I am really bad with time and can’t tell you exactly when the switch happened. Anyways we were having some issues with our rolls turning out and there was an egg replacer drought (these things happen). Faced with the choice of no gf rolls or gf rolls with chicken eggs we decided to try eggy rolls. They turned out great and we didn’t look back. Please know that you can special order a dozen or more gf rolls w/o egg (they freeze well)."

 What follows below is my original review of the Swan Cafe /  Co op for this blog from 2009, during which time the gluten-free rolls were vegan. I will write a more current Swan  Cafe review at a later date.

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(Original Post from 2009):  I have to admit, there were a few years that I quit going to the Food Co Op. It seemed to me that for a little while, there was a shift from veggie and vegan options to organic meats and cheeses, which I definitely understand there being a market for, but I didn't want it to be at the expense of the vegetarian/vegan market. During this same time, different products I used to count on began disappearing, so I started shopping more at other local places, such as Terra Organica. Even the deli seemed to have fewer options and the salads seemed bland. Let me also clarify that I never complained to the Co Op or inquired as to whether or not my perceptions were accurate which I maybe should have done; I was just frustrated and went elsewhere, and the days sort of stretched into years, until one day I decided to check it out again.

So in an attempt to be fair now, I have returned to the Co Op and plan to becoming a dues-paying member once again. I am pleased to report it is much improved and my previous perceptions have changed. The freezer section is packed full of vegan options again. The cosmetic section has a number of great options and offers many of the things I have been looking for and haven't wanted to order online, such as Beauty Without Cruelty make-up. And I have become a huge fan of the deli at the Swan Cafe.

As you know I like good takeout, so I never actually eat at the deli, but rather prefer to pick something up to go, and their tofu/2 salads combo option is really great. Gone are what I thought were the bland salads and now here are the flavorful options. For $5.79 you can choose which kind of tofu you want and two different salads, and the portions are very generous. Also, everything is clearly labeled as to whether or not it is vegan. And if you are not a fan of tofu, you can go for the three salads option for the same price. In addition, your meal comes with a huge roll, and the gluten-free one is also vegan, and quite tasty. (**please see above--this roll is no longer vegan. 4/26/2011)

This place is a great choice for groups that consist of people with mixed dietary needs. I love coming here for takeout nights with my husband, mom, and brother. I am the only vegan of the group, while my mom can't have wheat or gluten, and both my husband and brother are omnivorous. There is something for everyone here.

Pictured above is my dinner from a night awhile back. I chose the Swan Cafe tofu and a sweet potato salad, as well as a quinoa pea and pumpkin seed salad. Everything was delicious and nutritious. I was feeling particularly lazy that evening and also picked up a sandwich for my work lunch the next day, which unfortunately I do not have a picture of but can also recommend. (It was tofu with avocado, lettuce, tomato and veganaise on a whole wheat bun and it was fresh and good and very filling.)

So if, like me, it's been awhile since you have visited the Co Op, check it out and start enjoying paying your dues again because of all of the valuable choices you will have that make it worth it. (I do not know yet if the new one on Cordatta is open yet, but I look forward to visiting it soon as well.)

New blogs to check out: Thrifty Living and Big Raw Vegan Goodness

One thing I have really been enjoying during my journey into the vegan blogging world is the new contacts I have been making. It is so awesome to make connections with people I might not ordinarily have that chance to meet. I have started following two more blogs that offer interesting vegan-related recipes, photos, and musings that I would like to tell you about.

The first one is called Thrifty Living where you can find: "musings on sustainable living and self-sufficiency, including natural health, organic gardening, vegan recipes and much more." Let me begin by saying her pictures are spectacular. Her photo of the pancakes from the recipe that I got from Bellingham Foodie made them look so lovely my mouth watered just looking at it. In addition, her recipes are great and really clear and easy to follow. She seems like quite a master when it comes to faux meats, which I am interested in learning more about making so that I can impress my omnivorous friends and family. I just checked out her recent soup recipe posts and they look so good, I am going to have a hard time deciding which one to try first. There is such a wealth of info on this blog, that I know I will have a lot of fun going back and reading all of the past entries.

The second blog is called Big Raw Vegan Blog, and as the name suggests is primarily about raw vegan food, but also contains: "Truth, Sarcasm and Anti-establishment, DIY, Off the Grid Health & Beauty Tips, Hints & other Fun Stuff." The writer, Zucchini Breath, is quite prolific on this subject and posts creative and interesting recipes often, while also asking questions worth pondering, such as those posted in a recent entry regarding having vegan options available in public schools. Raw food is a subject I admit I do not know much about, so I have enjoyed being surprised by the different types of raw food options, such as raw eggplant hummus. Zucchini Breath was also kind enough to tell me how to make fruit leather, something I look forward to trying.

So welcome, my new veggie friends! It's a pleasure to meet you and I enjoy your work. And also a quick hello to Jill in Alaska. Thanks to everyone for reading this and for writing.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

More vegan goodness from Sarah Kramer's Vegan A Go-Go!

I have recently realized that the cookbook I am using the most these days is Sarah Kramer's Vegan A Go-Go. I know I have mentioned it before, but you really must pick up a copy if you haven't already. It is full of fun and easy recipes and such an accessible and travel-friendly size.

Recently I used "Miki's Pumpkin Bread" recipe (p. 141) to make some fabulous vegan muffins. I left out the chocolate chips because I thought pumpkin and walnuts would be sweet and tasty enough. They turned out great and were really delicious. My husband particularly loved them, which is always a good thing. (I ended up making them again for a work potluck and iced them with vanilla frosting, consequently turning them into pumpkin cupcakes since a muffin isn't really a muffin anymore once you add frosting.)

After returning from Stretch Island and all of our decadent holiday eating, I wanted to make something simple and wholesome for lunch for both my husband and myself, and I tried the recipe for "Faux Egg Salad," (p.50) and we had some delicious sandwiches. This recipe is sooooo easy and really good. I added a bit more mustard because I tend to like mustard, and of course you can tweak the flavors until it's just the way you like it, but this recipe is definitely a keeper.

If you are looking for something to spend your holiday gift card on, definitely purchase this great little book. (And on that note, a little shout-out to a fellow veggie I met while browsing through the cookbooks at B&N Friday evening, trying to decide how to spend my gift card. I didn't get your name, but I enjoyed talking with you--hope you were able to get that cookbook you wanted!)

More vegan sushi!

One thing I love about Bellingham is the abundance of vegan sushi options. As previously mentioned, Kyoto is my absolute favorite, but there are a number of great local places that offer good sushi as well. My most recent discovery was at the Bellingham Public Market, at a little place called Maki Zushi. I had heard from a friend that the size of the rolls at Maki Zushi are generous, and that is definitely the truth--one was all I needed.

I am a fan of multi-tasking when things are hectic, so any kind of take-out + grocery shopping combo always works well for me, especially if that take-out is both healthy and satisfying. This of course makes the fact that I can order my food and then do some shopping at Terra Organica/Bargainica absolutely perfect. I can't remember the name of the roll I ordered, but it was quite tasty and had a variety if fresh veggies in it, including carrots, avocado, cucumber, and either red or green leaf lettuce. I also recall that the toasted sesame seeds on the rice had a particularly good sesame flavor.

I want to say the cost of the roll was a little under $5.00, but I am not absolutely positive. I think I am close though, which is a good bargain when you think about that being the total price of a take-out dinner. So next time you have to grocery shop but you really wish you had time to also eat some vegan sushi, check out Maki Zushi in the Public Market.