Monday, July 5, 2010

What's the Difference?

One of the daily negotiations I make with myself is whether it makes any difference if I grab a handful of peanut-butter cups from a coworker's stash or partake in cupcakes at an office party. Somebody's already bought them, the damage has been done—what's the difference?

Most of the time I cave. But lately I've been thinking harder. Of course I've known all along that one less person grabbing the candy and one less person eating a cupcake does—if you really follow it's effect down the line—make a difference. If there's consistently less of a demand, even by a factor of one-fiftieth (I work in an office of about 50 people), then maybe the person who orders the cupcakes will eventually buy fewer—maybe will even buy two fewer since I often eat more than one.

There is such a thing as vegan doughnuts, and the ones at BabyCakes NYC are better than anything at Krispy Kreme or Dunkin' Donuts—and healthier (they're not deep-fried). Unfortunately, I don't live in New York, only visit.

As for cupcakes, I'm pleased that in DC, both Hello Cupcake and Red Velvet Cupcakery have a vegan option.

I made my own cupcakes this week—coconut—from Vegan with a Vengeance—and liked them a lot. The cake part is probably better than that of either of the above shops. The frosting, made with coconut milk, nondairy shortening, and powdered sugar, was a little sweeter than I'd like, but I wanted to use it all up, so part of the problem was just the quantity. Next time I'll go easier and save the leftover. And will try it with low-fat coconut milk. But they're excellent.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


"I think it's pretty much agreed that it goes: Open minded: Good. Judgmental: Bad. But are we being too quick to judge judgment?"
-- Carrie Bradshaw

Okay, here's the thing: Along with all the fun discoveries and recipes; the feeling of healthfulness; the pleasure and confidence that come with making a life change that I know is right for me; my longtime disclaimers to dining companions that I don't have a problem being in the presence of meat eaters, so please, order what you want; the reassurances in this blog that I ate meat for 35 years and dairy for 12 more, so who am I to judge? . . . I still judge.

People say, "I could never be a vegan -- I love cheese too much." And I think, "Of course you could. If I can, you can." Even though I also thought I could never be vegan as recently as a few months ago.

At lunch, a colleague tells a story of being on vacation in Greece and having the most fabulous, fresh-caught seafood at a little island restaurant and then noticing some dead octopuses hanging from a hook nearby. She says to us, her lunch companions (of whom I'm the only vegetarian), "And I was like, I know where this comes from, but do we have to look at that while we're eating?" Ha ha ha.

And I'm like, well, no -- clearly you don't have to look in most places you eat. You'd never want to eat fish or meat again if you had to confront daily where they came from and the horrors these creatures went through to get to your plate.

But I don't say that.

Everyone else in my family eats meat. Do I wish they wouldn't? Yes. But I'm a recent convert, and everyone knows there's no one more passionate than a convert. I wish everyone would come to Jesus! (Especially anyone who just ended up here by Googling "come to Jesus" and "convert." Here, have some tofu "chicken" salad.)

I live in a house at least partially made of glass -- refusing an office cupcake one day, then grabbing a handful of Hershey Kisses out of a bowl on someone's desk when everybody's gone. (Hey, she bought them, not me.) Then I go home and make a batch of vegan chocolate thumbprint cookies and think, why do we even need to eat dairy, these are so good?

What I know is this: It is possible to like, respect, love someone whose choices you disagree with. I never could understand it -- and frankly detested it -- when I heard people say things like "I love my gay friend, but I disapprove of his lifestyle." Or "I think abortion is murder, but I still like you even though you had one." Now, as much as I hate to admit it, I'm starting to understand that a little.

And that may be the hardest thing of all to get used to.


One thing that being vegan has done is given me a new appreciation for flavor. Among the cookbooks I bought in my born-again fervor in late December was This Can't Be Tofu! by Deborah Madison, whose Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone I've had for years. Tofu isn't new to me, either -- I've been using it ever since I stopped eating meat in 1997, most often in stir-fries. It's a great vehicle for flavor, and it's a chameleon of texture depending on what kind you buy and how you prepare it -- though I admit I haven't explored its possibilities too much until now.

I once tried making a mock-chicken salad with tofu from another cookbook that was just
eh. I've already written about Deborah Madison's vegan mayonnaise from This Can't Be Tofu!, but the next recipe I tried from that book was the Curried "Chicken" Salad. It doesn't really taste like chicken salad -- even less so than the eh recipe. In consistency it might actually be a little closer to a chunky egg salad. But man, is it delicious. It should just be called curried tofu salad. Why does it have to be anything else?

What makes it so wonderful is the aromatic, green (even when not literally green),
fresh flavors -- lime juice and zest, scallions, celery, subtly garlicky homemade mayo (see above), and lots of chopped flat-leaf parsley. (I've never really appreciated fresh parsley, as I so rarely buy it, and when I do, I tend to toss it into something cooked.) It also calls for curry powder and a tablespoon of mango chutney. Who has mango chutney lying around? I skipped that and didn't even miss it.

Then the other day I was in Trader Joe's with D., and -- having no idea that the recipe called for it -- he picked up a jar and said out of the blue (because when has chutney even been part of our discourse?), "Here's mango chutney with ginger." Um, okay . . . thanks!

So I made the salad again last night with that added, and it was even better: a little background sweetness for the other flavors, none of them overpowering. My fingers smelled gently of lime and curry powder and parsley when I went to bed. But best of all of this is the flavors -- they remind me of a spring picnic. Not a bad thing amid the gray-crusted curbsides of February.

This salad on homemade bread has become my favorite sandwich to take to work -- and yes, I have been taking lunch more often, which is another bonus. Today it was accompanied by peanut-butter oatmeal cookies (vegan, yummy, and made by me from this cool cookbook) as well as one of those perfect Mineola tangelos whose rind comes off with ease, whose wedges fall away effortlessly, and whose juice is as tangy as a kiss from someone to whom you have no resistance whatsoever.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Big Slice

Sunday afternoon, D. and I had a lovely winter lunch at Roscoe's, a fairly new wood-fired pizza place in Takoma Park that we've been to a couple of times over the last several months. It was Valentine's Day, and D. isn't a vegan (yet, ha ha), so I said sure, why don't we go to Roscoe's, that's fine -- it's nice. My main thing is to be vegan for myself at home, and elsewhere when I can be.

Well, it turns out Roscoe's has not only a vegan panini (as an editor and the son of linguists, I cringe every time I have to say "a" panini, which of course is a plural) but also a vegan pizza, called the Vegani, with rapini, chopped tomatoes, and mixed olives (and presumably no cheese). I was very excited because this was completely unexpected -- though not exactly surprising: If you've ever been to Takoma Park, you know it's a haven for vegans and other oddballs (I used to live there).

When I ordered it, the cute waiter with the neo-barbershop-quartet facial hair and the tattoos on the underside of his forearms (a star on one, the words "tat two" on the other -- we asked him to pull up his sleeves all the way so we could see them) told me that they had a vegan cheese made from arrowroot now -- would I like that on the pizza as well? Why not? Arrowroot wasn't even on my radar before I started eating vegan, and I'd started noticing it in cookbooks, though I hadn't gotten around to Googling it yet.

Well, the pizza -- with a nice yeasty, charred Neapolitan-style crust -- was delicious. And the "cheese" was tasty, creamy, and a little blistered, though not elastic like melted mozzarella. Fine by me.

It was a wonderful meal not only because of the company and the occasion but because I had pretty much accepted that pizza wouldn't be a part of my life anymore (a letting-go but not a sadness or a hardship, as many might think it would be for a pizza lover like me),* and now here I could eat it again. We'll be going back to Roscoe's a lot.

So how hard is it to have some creative and well-made vegan selections on a menu along with everything else?

Not hard at all.


* This reminds me of Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals, which I blogged about early on. In it, the author -- responding to those who view vegetarians as sentimentalists for avoiding meat -- writes of two friends ordering lunch: “One says, 'I’m in the mood for a burger,' and orders it. The other says, 'I’m in the mood for a burger,' but remembers that there are things more important to him than what he is in the mood for at any given moment, and orders something else. Who is the sentimentalist?"

Thursday, February 4, 2010

What We Talk About When We Talk About Cheese

One thing that will probably prove to be an adjustment over time is giving up cheese -- though for the foreseeable future I'll probably still allow myself tastes of it every once in a while.

For instance, last week I was invited to lunch by a PR person who has been some help to me of late and whom I'd never met. She was treating, and she suggested an excellent Italian restaurant down the street from my office. This is a fine-dining place, not one where you can easily choose something like spaghetti with marinara (not on the menu) or simply ask for olive-oil-and-garlic substitution (well, maybe you can, but I haven't tried there). Everything that didn't have meat had cheese, so I ordered the vegetable lasagna, which had cheese. And probably cream.

I haven't yet missed cheese. Even before becoming vegan, I'd been reading a lot about how artery-clogging and caloric cheese is -- a fact I'd always conveniently ignored -- and had already started cutting back. While I love a good Brie or Saint-Andre at a party, I hardly ever buy either one. I do admit to usually having crappy 2-percent American cheese slices in the fridge at all times; so now I'll have a supply of crappy soy American cheese on hand -- what's the difference? Parmesan is great on pasta, true, but does pasta with a good, fresh, flavorful sauce really need it? I honestly don't think so; we're largely conditioned to add it. In sandwiches and burritos, I find that avocado or guacamole provides a nice element of creaminess, such that I don't even miss cheese.

For now, in restaurants I'm not being as strictly vegan as I could be, though I have to say I am being a lot more vegan in restaurants than I expected to be. When I told a friend in December that I was starting to be vegan, I clarified that it would be "mainly in what I cook for myself -- it's too hard to be vegan when out." Well, I already don't think that's true.

I am making an effort to avoid egg and dairy at lunch and have been eating very well -- almost indistinguishably from how I'd been eating before: Yesterday I brought a sandwich of "chicken" salad I made from Gardein Chick'n Filets, fantastic vegan mayo I made for the first time (one of the coolest, healthiest, why-didn't-I-try-this-years-ago? surprises so far), and my own homemade bread. Today, eating out with a friend, I had tofu and broccoli with Thai basil sauce -- no different from what I would have ordered at this restaurant two months ago in my non-vegan vegetarian days. The day before yesterday I had roasted vegetables over greens at a favorite lunch spot, where I now merely have to choose certain delicious options over other delicious options I used to order (i.e., those with cheese).

Having my options narrowed in certain places doesn't seem like a hardship at all when the discoveries multiply every day.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Some Things I've Been Eating

I feel like I'm actually eating better than I have in years -- and I don't mean more healthily (which may be true, though I ate pretty healthily as a non-vegan vegetarian); I mean more tastily.

Tonight I had Gardein Chick'n Filets. Gardein is a new line of products created with the help of Tal Ronnen, author of the cookbook that helped start me on this path. (The fact that the book is a bestseller can't help but be a huge boost to the company.) I thought the Tuscan Breasts were only pretty good in texture, but the Chick'n Filets are fantastic -- almost as good as the amazing-but-troublesome Quorn "chicken" that tastes like the real thing but that I'll never eat again in my life.

About ten or so years ago, my ex and I discovered Quorn and were completely taken with it. It tasted and felt exactly -- but exactly -- like chicken breast meat. Then one night after eating it, he got violently ill (and I mean vomiting-out-the-car-window ill). It turns out that a documented small percentage of people have that reaction to the fungus-related mycoprotein that Quorn is made from, and he apparently was one of them. At the time, the FDA hadn't actually approved Quorn; it was in the "generally considered safe" category -- that word "generally" kind of gives one pause, no? I haven't checked back to see if that status has changed. All I know is that my ex immediately stopped eating Quorn for good, and I did too; even though I didn't have a negative reaction, I couldn't comfortably eat something that affected other people so frighteningly. (In any case, Quorn also contains egg.)

Gardein products, on the other hand, are made from grains and other familiar ingredients. I don't know what they do to get the texture they achieve, but the ones I've tried are "generally" (ha ha) excellent. In addition to the Chick'n Filets, I love the beefy BBQ Skewers. The first time I had them, I browned them in olive oil on the skewers they come with, then removed them and cut the "meat" into chunks and added it to a sautee of mushrooms and grape tomatoes, splashing the whole thing at the last minute with a glug or two of balsamic vinegar, which caramelized really nicely. I served it with orzo and broccolini (squeezed with a little lemon).

Tonight I dredged the Chick'n Filets in flour, browned them in olive oil while some sliced mushrooms cooked off to the side in the same pan, then dowsed it all with white wine, making a really lovely sauce; again I had orzo as well as a small baby-arugula salad with dried cranberries and a lemon-mustard dressing (lately I prefer lemon juice to vinegar in salad dressing). This used to be my favorite way to cook boneless chicken breasts and thin pork chops way back when I ate meat.

It's so strange -- I almost never actively miss eating meat, and I don't feel compelled to recreate the sensation of it in my mouth at every meal. By the same token, I'm not going to say that the taste of meat revolts me. I always enjoyed it when I ate it. It's the abjectly cruel and horrifically disease-ridden conditions in which most of the world's meat (yes, most) is produced that made me stop eating it -- and now have made me stop eating eggs, dairy, and other animal products.

I'm not sure why these meat doppelgangers I've recently discovered have made me so happy. I guess I've been conditioned from a young age to respond to their taste and "mouth feel." If people never ate meat to begin with, we'd probably never need to reproduce that particular sensory experience.

What's most remarkable to me is that it's possible to get that sensation with a clear conscience.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Cole Porter, Patron Saint of Veganism

Thanks to my pal Diablo for the blog's goofy title.

As we tossed around ideas by text message, I thought this one was more amusing than actually usable, but I kept coming back to it. So I looked up the lyrics to "Begin the Beguine" and found the line that, taken ridiculously out of context, turned out to be the not-so-ridiculous perfect epigraph.

I considered it a sign that Begin the Vegan was meant to be the name.