Sunday, May 31, 2009

Click Your Heals, Close Your Eyes, and Repeat After Me….

I’ve got to tell you, there is nothing like being home, in Chicago, in the summer. I’m reminded why I live here. It truly is the loveliest city on earth, and no one can convince me otherwise.

There are so many fantastic restaurants and places to pick up vegetarian and locavore cuisine, but I have to say again… there’s no place like home! I love to cook, but sometimes find it tricky cooking for one or two. That’s why I always try to keep things really simple. We’re talking 3-5 ingredients, and usually something I picked up from the store that day.

I am really lucky to live in a city chockfull of farmer’s markets. Literally, you can look at the schedule and there is one somewhere in the city, almost every day of the week. Because we are located in the middle of the “breadbasket,” you will find every imaginable flower, vegetable and fruit, along with fresh breads, dairy products and preserves. Some even have meats and eggs.

I am actually a member of a Community Supported Agriculture program, or CSA for short. I have been a member of these programs for several years now, even before I moved back to Illinois. It works like this: you pay a fee prior to the season. Mine farm splits their sessions into Spring, Summer and the Autumn and Winter are lumped together. After that, every week you get a box of fresh produce. Some even offer eggs, dairy products and meat. It is a great way to support local farmers, as the money is going directly to them. Also you can actually go and see where your food comes from. My CSA does not offer eggs, so I joined a separate one for eggs and some cheese.

Another really fun aspect of the CSA is discovering new foods and getting creative with what is often way more kale than you ever dreamed of (or whatever crop is abundant that week). Because I travel so often, it’s really nice to make up small portions of soups and sauces and freeze them. I actually get my delivery every-other-week, and just bought a ½ share which still gives more food than I can handle. I’m getting to know my neighbors quickly!

This weekend I received watermelon (which I’ll eat right away, just pass the salt please!), giant asparagus, beets and tomatoes, along with lettuce, cucumber, apricots and some herbs. I’m making a wonderful beet soup and smoked mozzarella polenta with melted tomatoes for tonight’s supper. I’ll probably make a big batch of gazpacho and just put it in a pitcher to sip on all week. Everything is fresh, simple and really delicious.

One of my favorite chefs in the world is a genius named Rozanne Gold. I love all aspects of her cooking philosophy, and have literally cooked everything in 2 of her cookbooks. She is my secret weapon (not so secret now, eh) when it comes to entertaining. Don’t get me wrong, I adore a man who takes the long way around the kitchen. I will wash dishes and praise him and tell everyone how great he is. I just don’t want to do it! To me entertaining is about visiting with friends, enjoy great nibbles, and drinking great wine. And if I’m in charge, the food will be simple.

I definitely encourage everyone to look into a CSA. If for some reason they don’t have one locally then go to farmer’s markets. It’s vital to support our growers who are trying to do things the right way. There is nothing you can do that will make the biggest impact on the environment more than cutting down on eating animal flesh and animal secretions. Even if you just went veg for 1-2 days a week…wow, that would be HUGE. Just think about it.


Thursday, May 28, 2009

Fake Meat and Paul Westerberg

A common mistake folks make when migrating from eating animals and their secretions to a vegetable-based diet is being lured in by meat substitutes. Pretty much any food you can think of in an animal form comes in a non-animal form. This includes wieners, bacon, steak, and luncheon meats. It’s a slippery slope because I gotta’ tell you… they just don’t taste the same.

Way back when, there was a place in Oxford, Mississippi called the Good Food Co-op, and I worked there. We certainly were no Whole Foods, but I did have my first brush with fake deli meats. I remember really trying to like the Fam and cheese sandwich I’d grilled myself (I swear, that’s what the stuff was called), but it tasted exactly like meat flavored Play Doh. It was a salty, smoky mockery of a ham sandwich. Ick.

Today’s options are much more broad and do include products I really like. For example, I sincerely prefer soy bacon (LightLife brand) better than the pig version. And I swear, if I made most people my blueberry pancakes with a side of the LightLife sausage patties they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Especially if I added a cup of grease.

That being said, in most cases I think you need to take vegetable protein foods for what they are and relish that. I love tofu salad. I’ve never had egg salad, but imagine it is not terribly dissimilar in taste. I love seitan satay w/ peanut sauce. It doesn’t taste like chicken. It taste like the ginger marinade I soak it in plus a sort of nutty-mushroomy something. It does have a meat-like texture, but I honestly try not to make that association as the concept kind of wigs me out. I sincerely try to take all foods on their own merit and judge them accordingly, without trying to substitute or compare. I do the same thing with boyfriends, but that’s another blog for another time.

Today was my last meal in the Twin Cities, so I decided to visit the sister establishment to the wonderful Spoonriver Restaurant, called Café Brenda. I have to say, I was a little disappointed. This was not just because of the food, but because it was almost the exact same menu as Spoonriver, only with an older and more traditional atmosphere. There may have actually been a few more fish offerings on the menu, and I’m guessing that could be due to the location being in the downtown area. They likely have more business men coming in wanting Walleye. Don’t know.

I started with a fennel tomato soup, garnished with fresh dill (all the tables donned a small clay pot of fresh herbs, which was nice). The basic flavor of the soup was great, but I found it extremely salty. In their defense, I rarely salt things, and actually suffer from low-sodium blood levels, but this was fairly salty and I found myself drinking massive amounts of their black lychee-flavored iced tea. Again, at first blush the tea was refreshing, but the aftertaste had a very distinct freshly-sharpened-pencil quality.

For my main course I opted for the tempeh Reuben sandwich. Instead of having the standard caper mayonnaise, I asked for a side of spicy mustard. The sandwich came with marinated nicoise olives, carrots and cornichons (which are one of my many weaknesses… I could eat an entire crock of these little gems!). The sandwich looked perfect, and the taste was expected. It was loaded with yummy sauerkraut and not over-loaded with Swiss cheese. I wasn’t blown away, and it was probably my fault for ordering a heavy sandwich on the first warm day I’d experienced in weeks. The olives and carrots were nice. I didn’t think the sandwich was exceptional. It certainly didn’t match up to the previous yummies I’d had at Spoonriver. My total lunch bill was around $14, which seemed resonable.

I did get one of Chef Brenda’s cookbooks and devoured it on the flight home. I maintain that she is an excellent chef, and learned she’d had Café Brenda since the 70’s. She is very committed to healthy and sustainable eating and her recipes look divine. Now, we’ll see how well I pull them off as I have special company coming in a few weeks! If my blog still appears after that it means I didn’t kill him.

Ironically, as I walked out the door of Café Brenda there were two people at the street-corner playing a song that sounded familiar. I stood here for a moment and realized the woman was singing the words to "Can't Hardly Wait," by one of my favorite Minneapolis bands, The Replacements. The lead singer of The Replacements, Paul Westerberg, had my heart when he sang the lyrics, “when you wish upon a star that turns into a plane” because that’s something I do so often, I can’t even tell you. But, the woman who was singing on the corner didn’t sound like Paul at all. She was more of a Suzanne Vega/ Shawn Colvin variety. And she took a lot of liberties with the tune that caused me not to compare, but to just enjoy. It was totally different from the Replacements, but I found myself standing there, smiling. The truth of it is, at this stage of the game I am likely to listen to the song she was singing over my old CD where Westerberg is belting out songs like "Shooting Dirty Pool" or "IOU." I love those songs, but I’ve changed.

So there I was, enjoying “fake Paul Westerberg,” and really liking it. Goodbye Rockin' Minneapolis.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Dairy Cows and Mr. Pibb

Like so many newly deflowered souls, I’m ready to do it again… so here we go--blog entry number two!

Today was an interesting day. The first half was spent in Mankato, MN. I never knew Dairy Queen was based in Minnesota, but I do now. On the 90 minute drive south of Minneapolis I saw no less than 7 of these red and white American icons. I also passed several dairy farms.

WARNING..KIND OF GROSS: I’m not sure how many people have actually been privy to the goings on of a dairy farm, but it is a quite interesting albeit smelly affair. The operation emits a stench that is distinguishable for a good 5 mile perimeter around the farm. And as sweet as it is to look into the big brown eyes of a sweet Jersey cow, high rubber boots are not just optional. The cows stand in several inches of …well, filth. I recently learned dairy cows can’t be allowed to roam free, as they might eat wild onions (which would affect the flavor of the milk) or worse, poisonous mushrooms (which is apparently how Abraham Lincoln’s mother died). So they sit, confined, impregnated and engorged… crying for their babies. It’s very sad. I like to kiss them on the soft face… they don’t seem to smell so bad if you’re up close. But, I didn’t do that today.

So that was this morning, and the day went well, but tonight was unbelievable. I mean, seriously… unbelievable.

I’d learned of Café Agri via Happy Cow, which is my go-to resource for finding veggie dining spots. While trying to listen to my GPS, and carry on a conversation with my friend, I was certain no culinary Mecca could possibly be located in this lovely little residential neighborhood, but sure enough, there it was. Situated on the corner, in what is probably a little artsy “break” for the neighborhood, sits the quaint Café Agri.

The place was packed. Ok, so there were only 11 tables, but at 6:30pm? That’s pretty good. And it was a really diverse crowd… girls in sweats in flip-flops, seniors in floral Capri pants and matching tops, and then the regular post-hippie types that were about my age. And then I come barreling in with my high heels and coat dress, holding onto my scarf for dear life…it’s rather chilly. But, I felt completely at home.

The tin ceiling was painted a deep indigo blue, the walls lime green, and the window sills were sunflower yellow. My table was right in front of the window, so I had a perfect view of the vegetable/herb garden and the cobalt pots of bright red geraniums. Am I in Tuscany?

My waitress could only be described as sweet, but not in an annoying way….just very attentive and bubbly. I like bubbly! She brought me the wine list (about 30-40 wines which can be purchased by the glass for $5 or a flight of 3 for $10) and a food menu.

No vintages are listed on the “by glass” menu, but I was familiar with a few of the labels. I decided on the J.Moreau & Fils Cuvee Rouge. This isn’t something I’d normally have on a lovely spring evening, but this isn’t typically spring to me… it’s about 55 out and I was freezing my ass off. The wine came and definitely made me smile. It wasn’t anything spectacular, but had this very distinctive Mr. Pibb quality that seemed fitting given the only place I ever remember having Mr. Pibb was at Dairy Queen. Ha!

It was so difficult to choose what I wanted to eat. Although Happy Cow had said there was meat served, I looked though the brunch, lunch and appetizer portion of the menu before finally seeing a fish entrée. In addition to everything being available as a vegan dish, many of the offerings either were or could be gluten free. Unreal!

My meal started with a wonderful simple salad that honestly looked like everything had just been picked from the side garden. I know that’s impossible… I can look out the window and see the tomato plants are babies, but my point is, everything is super-fresh. This wonderful toasted multi-grain bread was placed on the side of my plate. The presentation was so lovely that a neighboring table immediately asked me what I’d ordered and ordered 4 of the same. I probably could have stopped at the salad, but thankfully I didn’t.

I didn’t have my digital camera, so if you will, try to imagine this. A white plate is presented before me. The first thing on the plate is a field of pureed asparagus sauce. On top of that is a perfect wedge of wild mushroom polenta… it’s been pan seared and is very toasty on the outside, but so tender and creamy on the inside. On top of this warm-brown polenta is a layer of caramelized purple onions and currents. Now I’m not fan of raisins, but these had been soaked and cooked for a long time and melted beautifully into the onions. So we’ll call that the aubergine-colored layer (so we’ve got green, warm-brown, aubergine) and then it’s topped with grilled asparagus spears.

The layers of tastes were every bit as intoxicating as the aesthetic. The mushrooms were meaty and distinct. The asparagus tasted just like spring, and the wine reduction sauce that streaked through the asparagus had just a touch of clove, which was interesting and appropriate for a cool spring night.

So, I had a glass of wine (My Mr. Pibb wine was perfect), a large salad w/ homemade bread and this entrée that left plenty for take-home (if only I had a microwave) for about $30, with tip.

I am completely impressed with the vegetarian culinary scene in Minneapolis. I’m not 100% sure we have such a variety of up-scale venues that focus primarily on vegetarian and vegan cuisine in Chicago. I will say that most every place I’ve been lately (including heavy meat places like Custom House and Publican), the chefs have been unreal about concocting something off-the-menu for me, with prior notice. But it’s not the same. It’s not the same, even when you’re eating something divine, to look over to see your companion chewing on something’s bones. It’s my reality, but this was a nice indulgence. Can’t wait to come back!!!

Losing My Virginity and the Perfect Lunch in Minneapolis

I'm a virgin adjective I don't often get to use when describing myself. But this blog is something I've been thinking about for a while. If you travel or are located in the Midwest, what are the best spots to eat? Ok, so that's one thing. I will also rant about being a responsible consumer, the horrors (and I do mean worse than Hostel or SAW) of factory farming. If I'm going to write about something disturbing I'll give you a heads up, but it will happen...I get way too worked up and need an outlet and my friends are getting really upset with me ruining their BBQs.

Let me make a little disclaimer for myself: I HATE labels. I really do. So, although I often tell people I'm a vegetarian to make things neat, it's not really true. I'm actually working on keeping a vegan home, and will opt for vegan food, if it's available. Here's the rub, and what will likely get me my first hate-mail.....I really don't have a problem with eating fish, if they are not caught commercially. Wait, it gets worse.

Although I have decided not to eat animals with legs, under any circumstances, I don't really think it's horrible if people are game hunters and eat what they kill. I don't mean the kind of "game hunters" who pay high prices to shoot an antelope in a barrel. I'm talking bows...out in the woods... man against beast... and all that crap. It's not for me, but I think it's better than eating a steer who has spent 24 hours in complete terror...lined up in front of a slaughter house, waiting for his throat to be slit. Or drinking the puss-tainted milk of a cow who was milked by a machine that created unbelievable infection in her udders.

I'm not perfect and I don't flip out if someone serves me quiche. Having said that, fish is meat, people. And I have eaten it rather recently, in a pinch, but it does count as meat and is not something I feel comfortable with. I will not be rude or judgemental, and I always appreciate the effort and kindness of someone who prepares a meal for me. This is just my new-found truth, and it's a big deal to me.

Ok...that's enough of that....on to something really wonderful.....

I'm in Minneapolis today for work. I'm an interior designer, but I work for a railing manufacturer. So, I spend my time traveling around the Midwest, working with architects and their fantastic buildings. I talk, and teach and draw, most of the day. But I also eat! And I love to seek out new and yummy restaurants that are veg-friendly, but will also fit within my expense account.

Since discovering Spoonriver Restaurant I have to pace myself not to have every meal there. It is located just one block from the aLoft hotel where I typically stay. I usually go for lunch, although I've been for dinner as well. The vegetarian lunch specials are filling and tasty and just the perfect amount without causing me to need a nap!

Today I had the wonderful veggie croquets. These were a delightful mix of curried rice, potatoes, and bits of shredded vegetables. They were placed in a really light yogurt sauce. I honestly can't tell you what was in that, but it may have had a bit of cucumber and cilantro. On my lunch plate was a side of perfectly steamed broccoli and then a simple salad, that was anything but simple! It contained really fresh greens....none of those half-wilted purple bits. There were perfectly blanched haricot vert, grape tomatoes, cucumber and just slivers of purple onion. All of this we dressed in a very classic French tarragon vinaigrette. Now...I forgot to tell them no raw onions, which I detest...but these were mild enough that they didn't funk-up all the other ingredients.

So, I had the lunch special, a side of delicious walnut bread, and a coffee for less than $20. It wasn't cheap, but really over-the-top good and the atmosphere is fantastic. I don't really know Minneapolis yet, but Spoonriver is located across from the Guthrie Center? The interior is completely clean and sleek and eco-friendly design is in play here...I recognized the environmentally friendly, bamboo-filled resin panels right away!

On my way out I picked up a little baglette of their Amish Cashew Brittle. I'd been too good all morning and new I'd need a sugar/tea fix around 3. This did not disappoint.

Spoonriver has several vegetarian options on the menu, and will gladly accommodate even the strictest vegan with their "mock duck," salad and the like. Every time I go I swear I'll get the vegetable tacos, but the specials never fail to real me in. And the dessert tray? that for dinner, because you won't be going anywhere once that lovely silver dish is brought before you. Oh Mylanta they are good!!!

I don’t know much about the chef, Brenda Langton, even though I understand she has another restaurant called Café Brenda. This restaurant is said to be “gourmet vegetarian and seafood,” while Spoonriver is more a “locavore” spot. Spoonriver also has a little gourmet-to-go section, featuring fresh made sandwiches and salads, as well as locally produced condiments and treats. This is a perfect little “something,” to bring back to my hotel for dinner (each loft-room has a fridge).

Ok…so I’ll post this puppy. I hope this is useful and fun! Yeah!

Monday, May 4, 2009

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About Me

To me, food is more than sustenance. It's is culture, community and craft. Our consumption choices reflect our values and beliefs. To that end, Bunny Bites is a collage of resources, recipes, and venues I rely on to inspire my plant based diet.

Professionally, my career requires a passion for aesthetic, harmony, self-awareness and functionality. I look at food through the same lenses I view a lovely space or building. Whenever I sit for a meal I consider my impact on the life of other creatures, my influence on society and my effect on the environment...but to be honest, the food comes first! A meal should be personal, so the food has to turn you on in some way.

My journey to plant-based eating is an interesting and complicated one. I'm hoping to be a kind of "night-light" for those who have been sleeping, but now find themselves awake and need a glass of water. And I LOVE hearing other's challenges, questions, discoveries, concerns and experiences. So, please share your comments!!!