Wednesday, September 29, 2010

25 Things Chefs Never Tell You

Like every other profession, chefs hide some dirty secrets at the workplace. In an annual chefs' survey, Food Network found that in addition to giving critics special treatment, recycling bread from the bread baskets, and spotting roaches in the kitchen, some chefs leave the term "vegetarian" open to interpretation- and to my absolute disgust, one respondent reported seeing a cook pour lamb's blood into a vegan's pasta primavera. Yuck!
Truth be told, this isn't shocking news, though the lamb's blood is an extreme story. How many of us can recall going to a burger joint, being told that our grilled vegetables or veggie burger is cooked on a clean grill, and then bit into our dinner and felt a wave of nausea as meat-infused oil overwhelmed our tastebuds? I find this less common in nicer, more upscale restaurants in New York, (though I've lucked out with hole-in-the-walls- see my last post!) but here's to hoping that publishing this survey draws more attention to the issue!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Vanessa's Dumplings


My adventurous swim buddies and I needed some refueling after class on Monday night. And since we were already on the Lower East Side, I figured I could drag my burning legs a few blocks south to Chinatown, where tasty, cheap food can be found on every block.

Sometimes, hole-in-the-wall joints can be amazing foodie finds, and other times, well, you understand why they're just a hole-in-the-wall place. Vanessa's Dumplings, which has been lauded by Time Out New York and New Yorker mags, exceeded my expectations. For a whopping $5, I got a sesame pancake-vegetable sandwich, a steamed red bean bun, and a steamed vegetable bun that I ended up taking home because it was more food than I had anticipated!

My sesame pancake sandwich, with a very simple combo of carrots, cucumber, and cilantro, was enough to satisfy my post-swim appetite, but light enough where I didn't feel like I'd sink to the bottom of a pool. My bun was loaded with sweet mashed red beans, and I could barely finish it.

$5 is a safe enough price for a hole-in-the-wall, but a bargain for a tasty dumpling meal- I definitely recommend visiting Vanessa's. Gotta love Chinatown!

Vanessa's Dumpling House, 118A Eldridge Street btwn. Grand and Broome, 212-625-8008

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Coconut Rice with Black Beans and Plantains

For this post, I'm going to step back from my usual Vegeterranean inspired fare and bring it down south... to South America, that is!

I was so excited about Colombian food and how well I ate in Cartagena that I really wanted to recreate a version of the coconut rice and plantains comida that I eagerly devoured. I added some black beans for a protein boost and to make it more of a meal. This arroz coco con frijoles negros y plantanos dish can be served up for lunch, dinner, or as a dish to share at your next potluck!

I chose brown rice rather than long grain white rice, but there's a noticeable difference in taste- the heartier brown rice picks up a hint of coconut flavor, while the white rice definitely has a full-on tropical taste. Feel free to go with either, depending on how much you love coconut! You can also add more jalapenos if you want a spicier dish, but since Colombian food is relatively mild, I wanted to keep it authentic. Or at least as authentic as the Italian-American vegetarian could make it. Buen provecho!

The Whats:
 For the beans:
* 3 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
* 2 15 oz. cans low sodium black beans, one drained & rinsed, one still with bean juice
* 1/4 cup finely chopped red bell pepper
* 3 tbsp. finely chopped jalapeno (or poblano, if you prefer a pepper with a little less heat)
* 3 cloves garlic, minced
* 1/4 cup finely chopped red onion
* 1 tbsp. dried cumin
* 1 tbsp. dried coriander
* salt & pepper to taste
 For the rice:
* 2 cups brown rice
* 1 cup water
* 3 cups unsweetened light coconut milk
 For the plantains:
* 3 ripe plantains, green or yellow, peeled cut into 1 inch chunks
* 1/4 cup soy butter or olive oil
* salt & pepper to taste

The Hows:

1) Prepare the coconut rice: In a large saucepan, heat the water and coconut milk over medium high heat until mixture reaches a boil. Stir in the rice. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover saucepan, and allow rice to simmer for 25 to 30 minutes or until tender. Remove from heat, fluff with fork, and set aside. 

2) Prepare the beans: In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add garlic, onions, and peppers to the pan and cook for 5 minutes until softened. Add the beans, coriander, cumin, and salt and pepper if using, and stir to mix. Reduce heat to medium, and cook beans for 10 minutes. Remove from heat.

3) Prepare the plantains: Heat soy butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When soy butter is melted and foaming, add the plantain chunks and saute until plantains are tender and golden on both sides, about 8 minutes. Drain fried plantains on a paper towel and season with salt and pepper.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Basis Good Food Festival

Late update... blame it on work! I went market hopping last weekend- well, more accurately, market and festival hopping- and noshed all day long. Admittedly, snacking is the fun part of food blogging- after all, someone has to report back on these goodies!

My pal and I started off at the Hester Street Market, a relative newcomer to the city's weekend street markets. You'll find handmade jewelry, clothing, kids toys, and of course, belly-fillers. I enjoyed a tasty cuppa joe from Dora's, also a relative newcomer to the Chinatown/Lower East Side gourmet scene.

Maybe it was the hot coffee, but I then found myself seduced by the spicy scent of chai ice cream from Guerrilla Ice Cream. If you've never heard of Guerrilla Ice Cream or their sweet lemon-poppy or strong chai tea flavors, I'll give you one important reason why you should know about them- 100% of their profits go to marginalized populations in New York and around the world. That, and their chai ice cream was low on sugar, but big on cinnamon and clove flavor. Less sweet, more spicy- my kinda dessert!

Guerrilla Ice Cream was a clear hit... but a clear miss was the flavorless veggie empanada from La Sonrisa. I give them credit for offering a veggie option amidst chicken, beef, and pork empanadas, and you could probably do worse with frozen veggies (seriously, I know frozen mixed veggies when I see 'em!), but with no seasonings or flavor, this was one bland veggie empanada.

Ah well, probably a sign it was time to leave anyway. Hester Street Market has a lot of potential, so I'll be sure to check back there in a few Saturdays!

From Hester Street, we walked up to the Basis Good Food Festival in the Meatpacking District, where I found "fashionably late" can work for you and against you at a food tasting. Case in point: the Basis Festival offered up tastings from a variety of restaurants touting locally based ingredients from noon to 4pm... but having arrived at 3pm (okay, maybe this is a bit beyond "fashionably late"), many of the participants' stalls, like Colicchio & Sons, Ample Hills Creamery, and Minetta Tavern, were packing up for the day.

But, on the positive side, the vendors still standing were trying to get rid of the last of their samples, and so arriving at the end of the day resulted in free food! Yes, this is mooching, but really, paying $25 for 5 small tastes of food (and not all stalls offered veggie options) seemed silly at 3pm... but since it does go to a good cause, I can always donate online.

Though none of my samples were particularly creative, I sure was satisfied! (maybe this goes hand-in-hand with free food?) My first sample was a tasty salad of marinated beets with fresh goat cheese... and surprisingly, it wasn't from a farm stand, but from the Dirty Bird To-Go stand. I knew participant Dinosaur BBQ would bring something non-vegetarian, but for a chicken place to bring beets as a sampler? Kudos!

Next up with something veggie to eat was Counter- as to be expected! I enjoyed black eggplant caponata crostini- juicy, hearty, and delicious! I still have not eaten at Counter, and the crostini was a gentle reminder that I needed to change that fact. The Farm on Adderley also offered an eggplant crostini, with charred eggplant... and you know my feelings for grilled veggies. Yum!

I needed a break from eggplant, and I was disappointed that I missed the Mushroom Shepherd's pie from Scottish gastropub The Highlands- I had assumed there would not be anything veggie there either, but in these situations, I love being proven wrong. To all participants at the Good Food Festival- keep the veggie options coming!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Citrus Mushroom Toasts

There was no question- I had to recreate the lemony mushrooms I so loved at Eataly.

It's pretty easy as long as you have fresh, flavorful ingredients. I originally thought I'd vary it up and put these on toasts, but I quickly discovered my favorite Greek whole-grain toasts were too overwhelming for the delicate mushrooms, and I realized why the lightly seasoned fried polenta crackers worked best. That being said, if you have time to fry up some thinly sliced polenta triangles, by all means do so, or serve with some fluffy, fresh rosemary focaccia; the mushrooms would also work as a springy side dish. No matter how the polenta crumbles, I hope you enjoy this mushroom dish!

The Whats:

* 3 tbsp. olive oil
* 3/4 lb. mixed mushrooms (I used baby bellas, shiitake, enoki, and oyster), sliced
* 2 garlic cloves, minced
* 2 small shallots, minced
* 3 tsp. fresh lemon juice, plus more for finishing
* salt & pepper to taste

The Hows:

1) In a large, heavy-bottomed skillet, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add garlic and shallots to the skillet and cook for two minutes. Add mushrooms and lemon juice; cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until crisp at the edges. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt and pepper. Serve hot; add extra lemon if desired.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Cucuzza Squash Gratin with Garlicky Bechamel Sauce

I finally cooked that monster cucuzza squash, and I even surprised myself by not throwing it on the grill! Grilling is always a delicious, easy option (and I'll be honest, I still saved half the squash for grilling!), but for the sake of doing something a bit different and creative, I knew I had to vary it up.

I can't say I can give you precise proportions with this recipe- I had a squash that was probably over a foot and a half long (as I write this, I realize I should've measured it!), and you might have a cucuzza that is two feet long, or three feet long; you might also decide to use a larger baking pan, whereas I opted for a pie plate. Using more squash would require more bechamel sauce, so you'll need to size up your squash and adjust the recipe accordingly.

That all being said, I really enjoy gratins in the fall- you can use the wonderful end-of-summer produce still available at your local market, and you can also start breaking in your oven again for the upcoming cooler months. And everyone clamors for that crispy topping- use a vegan parmesan and breadcrumbs, and you're in business!

The Whats:

* 1/2 a large cucuzza squash, cut into medium-thick slices
* 1/2 cup vegan parmesan
* 1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs

For the garlicky bechamel sauce:
* 4 tbsp. soy butter
* 4 cloves garlic, crushed
* 1/4 cup all purpose flour
* 2 cups soy milk, at room temperature
* 1 bay leaf
* pinch of nutmeg
* 1/4 tsp. black pepper
* 1/2 tsp. garlic powder (optional)

The Hows:

1) Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Melt butter in small saucepan over medium-high heat until foaming. Add garlic and saute for 2 to 3 minutes. Whisk flour into the butter-garlic mixture and cook for one minute.  Reduce heat to medium-low. Add bay leaf and cook for 10 to 12 minutes, until sauce just thickens. Remove from heat. Remove bay leaf and stir in nutmeg, pepper, and garlic powder for extra garlic flavor, if desired. Set aside.

2) Spread 1/3 cup bechamel sauce on the bottom of a ten inch glass pie dish. Layer cucuzza slices in pie dish, 1 slice deep; cover with bechamel sauce and repeat layering until dish is filled. Sprinkle parmesan and breadcrumbs over the top layer; garnish with parsley or additional black pepper if desired.

3) Bake squash for 15 minutes. Set oven to broil, and broil squash for about 4 minutes, or until top layer is browned and crisp. Remove from oven and allow gratin to rest for 5 minutes before serving.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Discovering Eataly

Rule number 8 is my favorite of the "rules" of Le Verdure restaurant within Eataly. I think someone on that team is either vegetarian or vegan, or simply has it figured out.

Eataly, the new 50,000 square foot Italian food mecca in the old Toy Building, might've been introduced to New York City by none other than dynamic duo Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, but the brainchild behind the Eataly markets is Oscar Farinetti, who founded the popular flagship market in Turin. In the very Italian fashion of its sister store, the market prides itself on seasonal, sustainable food, some of which is even given the Slow Food seal of approval, and sales counters that specialize in only one specific item.

As a vegetarian shopper, you'll find lots of Italian treats throughout Eataly- imported pastas alongside a stockpile of Barilla dried pasta, and that's in addition to the counter where you can order freshly made stuffed pastas and pasta shapes; freshly made breads and pizzas; imported chocolates next to Italian pastries made on the premises; a Lavazza counter that's conveniently situated near the gelato counter (which, much to our disappointment, had sold out of the flavors we wanted- a consequence of opening-week buzz); a good selection of Italian cheeses and wines, along with bar tables in Eataly's "Piazza" where you can sip the vino and cheese that you've purchased. Hello Europe!

But consequently, considering the NYC-based creators, there's product promotion abound. Sure, the Batali cookbooks in the Library section and the Lidia Bastianich brand jarred sauces in the Pasta section surely aren't imported from Italy, but if you can get past some of the blatant product plugs, you'll have an enjoyable time exploring the new market.

My favorite section of course was the produce section with Italian veggies that I've never cooked with before (see my last post on Cucuzza squash), more mushrooms varieties than your favorite Whole Foods, fresh herbs, heirloom eggplants, and reasonably priced standard veggies like kale and tomatoes. In between the produce section and the Verdure restaurant, you'll find this guy: The Vegetable Butcher, who will clean and prepare the produce you select, and also give you suggestions on how to cook your choice veggies. Genius! Anything that might help people eat more veggies is genius in my book.


 Most importantly, the question remains- how well can a vegetarian or vegan mangia at any of the restaurants in Eataly? The answer is a simple, molto bene! My honey and I opted to sit at the Le Verdure bar rather than wait for a table. If you believe in signs, and I do, we received an uplifting one shortly after ordering a birra- another group of twenty-somethings, clearly waiting for tables at other outposts in the market, brought a hefty serving of prosciutto, mortadella, and other Italian meats to the bar. One of the women at the Verdure counter immediately came over and told them this was not permissible- Eataly was not a cafeteria where you could bring food from cafe to cafe, and additionally, as Le Verdure, they did not want anyone bringing meat to the vegetable-themed cafe, and especially did not want to offend visitors who came to enjoy the vegetable dishes.

Seriously, I could've hugged this woman. If that wasn't a sign of good things to come, then I'm a meat-dress wearing Gaga.

As with every meal I've enjoyed at a Batali restaurant, I was not disappointed.

We started with a fresh vegetable soup, garnished with fresh pepper and Ligurian olive oil. There was no mistaking the freshness of the veggies in the soup, and it was both flavorful and light. A great starter.

We also split the salad special on the chalkboard- grilled veggies with farro and arugula. As I've gushed in past posts, I think grilling makes vegetables even more wonderful than they already are, and with a light marinade with just a touch of balsamic, these grilled veggies really shined. We loved the variety of veggies- green and yellow squash, peppers, fennel, asparagus, eggplant, frisee, radicchio. A hearty portion of veggies tossed with the farro really made for a filling dish.

A trifecta of shiitake, oyster, and king mushrooms sauteed with garlic and a hint of lemon is what dreams are made of. No, seriously, I was thinking about these delish mushrooms for days, and I'll be attempting this recipe later in the week. The lemony kick was a great counterbalance to the usual earthiness of the mushrooms, and the delicate polenta "crackers" were warm and crispy and did not take away from the flavor of the mushrooms. I love how something so simple can be so delicious!

Overall, we had a wonderful time at Eataly, and thanks to Batali and Company yet again, my expectations are sky-high... I only wish they were high enough where I could piggy back on the next plane to Italy.

Eataly, 200 5th Avenue at 23rd Street, 646-398-5400

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What the F*ck Should I Make For Dinner?

Just like when I was 12, profanity still makes me laugh. For better or for worse.

So I cracked up when I saw this basic recipe finding site, What The F*ck Should I Make For Dinner? The recipe finder gives you an option, and you can click "I don't f*cking like that" to get to the next recipe or you can click on my favorite option, "I don't f*cking eat meat" to access their vegetarian/vegan recipes. Thank you, dear creators, for thinking of us f*cking vegetarians! Check it out!

Love it! Ellen's Vegetable Dress

Just one more reason to love Ellen DeGeneres- who else would counter Lady Gaga's hideous VMA meat dress with a vegetable dress?

I'm a big fan of the Gaga, and I know she's stated "It is certainly no disrespect to anyone that is vegan or vegetarian," but I'm still kinda grossed out by it (and it takes a lot to do that!). I know everyone has a right to make a statement, but yuck. Thank you Ellen for offering a waaaaaaay cooler alternative! I hope Gaga will someday make a statement about vegetarianism or veganism that will be just as attention-getting.

(image borrowed from the VegNews website- you guys rock!)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Cucuzza Squash

 If this squash could talk, it would bellow like King Leonidas in the movie '300': "This... is... SQUASH!!!"

I've never even seen the Italian Cucuzza squash in a store until I visited Eataly this weekend (writeup to follow soon!) so of course, I had to purchase it. I'm not 100% how to prepare it- sure, it's squash, but something this epic needs a recipe of proporzione epica. Any ideas?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Mai Sushi

I'm not 100% sure why a sushi resto would need to brand itself with "Real Ingredients. Real Sushi. Real Simple"- it seems a bit redundant for a sushi place- but after reading some blog buzz on the new Mai Sushi in Midtown, I figured I could use some teriyaki tofu on my Friday afternoon.

Though their branding seems like it's jumped on the locavore bandwagon and their offerings are relatively standard, what is particularly notable about Mai Sushi is their variety of takeout options and the diet-conscious/non-committal option of ordering certain dishes, like tempura, by the piece instead of a whole meal, and the choice of bento box sized portions or snack sized portions.

Who doesn't love options?

Quick veggie takeaway options at Mai include 3-piece inari snackers (but be sure to read the labels when picking up from the deli- some of their inari snackers have salmon roe), tofu caprese, teriyaki tofu steak, cucumber-avocado rolls, small portions of pickled vegetables, and large pieces of vegetables battered in tempura- I actually got a tempura special of squash and spinach for under $2. Standard, but good. Their tofu caprese is snack sized, and priced so at around $3- a tasty, non-traditional treat. I also treated myself to candied sweet potatoes with black sesame seeds- not overly sweet, these were perfect in my book!

A restaurant can also be found in the back, but with all their easy takeaway selections, I'll visit again when I'm in need of a satisfying, inexpensive snack. Good thinking Mai!

Mai Sushi, 16 E. 41st Street between Madison & 5th Aves, 212-400-8880

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Hola Vegetarianas! Eating Veg in Cartagena

Sorry for not posting this right away- perhaps I'm still in vacation mode :)

Trying to eat vegetarian in Cartagena, Colombia wasn't like trying to scale Machu Picchu without hiking equipment, but it was kind of like getting by in a remote village with little Spanish language skills... mine of course consisted of "Soy vegetariana y no como carne, pollo y mariscos- tienen platos vegetarianos?"

Which, all things considered, was all I needed to say at some places- as a more tourist-friendly city, beautiful Cartagena aims to please, and with a little explaining, I found several restaurant owners willing to accommodate. Even on day tours with set comidas, grilled fish and chicken were cooked separately from the coconut rice, lime marinated veggies, and plantains, making it very easy to offer someone my extra piece of fish in exchange for some extra veggies or coconut rice (which was fabulous, by the way, I'll be making this at home soon!)

The eating highlight of my trip? The unexpected discovery of a vegetarian restaurant in the San Diego district of Cartagena called Girasoles.

Open just for breakfast and lunch (and offering takeaway options, for potential visitors who might be concerned about their afternoon snack/dinner options), Girasoles served vegetarian items (like vegetable empanadas, and carrots and radishes in a creamy dressing, though I'm not 100% sure if this dressing was entirely vegan) and vegan items as well (marinated seitan and soy milk flan anyone?) As the English-speaking Colombian tour guide who shared a table with us explained, many people make a point of eating a vegetarian meal once a day for their health- a different reason than many American vegetarians/vegans, but I think no matter what the reason, as long as people are more open to the idea that you really don't need meat in your diet, they're off to a good start!

For the Girasoles set lunch, we enjoyed Colombian-style vegetarian- we started with a simple, pinto bean soup, followed by a plate of seasoned rice, marinated seitan, salad, and cold vegetables in a creamy dressing. Unlike other Latin American cultures, Colombian food is very simple- no heavy sauces, seasonings, or spices- so it can be light and easy, especially if you're eating veg! The best part? A filling lunch for my honey and I set us back about $6.50 USD... yes, for the two of us.

In addition to sampling Colombian food, we also found veg-friendly options in other global cuisines that have made their mark in Cartagena. We stopped in El Bistro in the Centro district for dinner one night, a German-owned bistro with a Latin and French serving staff that made Continental-Latin fusion. Authentically Colombian? No, but the delish vegetable curry with rice was enough to satisfy my tastebuds. (sorry for the grainy photo!)

Italians have also made a big impact in Cartagena (this should not have surprised me, we're everywhere!) and we discovered a number of Italian restaurants, as well as plenty of other restos that serve at least one or two pasta dishes in addition to traditional cuisine. I can't say I had a problem with this. Though there are a number of inexpensive options for Italian, my honey and I chose Da Danni, owned by two Italian-trained Colombian chefs. Though the bill came out to what would've been a typical dinner out in NYC, my rigatoni arrabbiata was far better than the pastas I've had to endure in Little Italy. Definitely worth it.

I even lucked out in a Colombian sushi bar, of all places! Tabetai, also located in the San Diego district, has a vegetarian roll that is not on the menu- a Japanese-Colombian fusion of avocado and fried banana. Vegetarian and not traditional- it's how all eating should be! Isn't the adventure aspect of a vacation really what it's all about?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Plant-based Goodies in the News!

Published on the same date, it's as if the writers knew that these tidbits would be shared on my blog! :)

First up in the news is what all of us health-conscious vegetarians and vegans already know, yet it's still important news for average burger & fry-noshing Americans- CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta writes on his 'The Chart' blog about a large scale study (85,000 women and 44,500 men) that concluded animal-based protein diets are associated with increased mortality rates, higher BMIs, and higher cancer rates. I'm happy that someone who's so prominently featured on TV is sharing this info- kudos Dr. Gupta!

And if you've read that article and thought, "I better get some plant based goodies in my system STAT", then you'll find a fun feature in the New York Times' Well Blog about tasty vegan treats. In an effort to combat the ridiculous stereotype that some omnivore perpetuate- that vegetarian/vegan food is boring and bland- the blog cites the recent episode of Food Network's "Cupcake Wars" where vegan chef Chloe Coscarelli won top honors with her vegan cupcakes (and if you scroll down to the comments, the blogger links to the winning cupcake recipes) that wowed the judges.

Okay, so cupcakes are definitely not the healthiest thing you can put in your system, but hey, I did preface this post with "goodies" didn't I? Happy reading (and baking)!