Bedtime Story Plot Twist

How do you cope when you can’t sleep at night? Do you burrow deeper under the covers and count herds of sheep? Do you reach for your phone and scroll through social media feeds until your eyes can’t focus and the words all blur? Do you get out of bed to pull out a book, or binge-watch the latest trending series?

Me? I head straight to the kitchen. I’m not looking for a midnight snack, though. The first thing I’ll grab is a bag of flour. While the world outside is dark and still, all I want to do is revel in the soothing simplicity of making bread. Watching the yeast come to life, turning a shaggy, sticky batter into smooth, elastic dough. Gently, methodically kneading the warm mixture is almost like a massage enjoyed vicariously, without any messy human interaction.

Wordlessly, thoughtlessly going through the motions, it’s more about the process than the product. It’s usually a simple sandwich loaf I’ll find rising on the counter in the morning, still bleary-eyed and barely awake. Sometimes I’ll get more ambitious and try something new, a curiosity that I can’t decipher until taking a bite later. In other cases, it’s the perfect opportunity to fulfill longstanding cravings, set aside as being too time-consuming for the average day.

Scallion buns, soft as a pillow, twisted into golden strands that dance with green onions, might just be better than a full night’s rest. The stars aligned when I pillaged the fridge to discover a bouquet of fresh herbs already past their prime. This was their big chance, and mine, to make something magical.

The results would be equally satisfying steamed or pan-fried, but in my sleepless stupor, it was easiest to turn on the oven and walk away. Don’t go too far though, because they bake quickly, meaning you can leave the shaped buns in the fridge to finish off bright and early, rather than staying up all night.

Adapted from The Foodie Takes Flight, I would implore you to watch the superlative video to see how a real pro shapes these twisted sisters. Words can only do so much for such a visual technique.

Next time sleep is elusive and the hum of the oven beckons, I know exactly what I’ll be making. Do you?

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Power Play

Anything meat can do, plants can do better.

This is the rallying cry behind Plant-Powered Protein, the latest and greatest release from the prolific, esteemed cookbook author, Nava Atlas. Today’s innovative alternative proteins prove that you don’t have to sacrifice flavor, texture, or nutrition to enjoy a fully plant-based diet. It seems as though there’s a new option appearing on the market every day; the paradox of choice can be paralyzing, whether you’ve been vegan since the era of TVP, or are just testing the waters now.

Not all proteins are created equal. Where does one start with such a diverse palate of new ingredients? Aside from picking out the best brands, what can you actually make with these mystery meats once you get them into the kitchen? Never fear, Nava is here. In Plant-Powered Protein, she’ll guide you through familiar family favorites, from nostalgic classics to bold global fare, with dishes that are kinder to the earth and animals, not to mention much better for you.

It’s both with personal bias and my honest opinion that I share this book as a top recommendation, since I’ve had the pleasure of working with Ms. Atlas regularly for over a decade now, including this fresh trove of recipes. I couldn’t be more proud to have my photos lend the visual voice to such a compelling collection. Just imagine: Having created all of the meals pictured within, finding not a single failure, and experiencing the instant gratification of such easy instruction first hand. More than a mere armchair reviewer, my endorsement comes from a truly genuine place.

Wrapped up in these glossy pages, complete with recipes for making your own alternatives and suggestions for incorporating them into simple, everyday meals, you’ll get over 125 recipes that would thrill even the consummate carnivore. Bridging the divide between the conventional comfort food and a whole food plant-based approach, there’s something in here for everyone.

How can one possibly pick a handful of favorites from over a hundred tried-and-true winners? Truth be told, I can only go by my favorite photos at this point, since the flavors are all on point, instructions are easy to understand, and standard preparations couldn’t be quicker. All you need to do is figure out what you’re in the mood for. Breakfast for dinner? It’s hard to beat those biscuits with sausage gravy, or a spicy chorizo scramble. In need of a warming stew on a cold day? Set a pot of New England clamless chowder on the stove to simmer, and ease into a big bowlful of comfort.

You’ve also got plenty of lighter options like spinach salad with apples and bacon, or a clean, crisp deconstructed sushi salad that’s also great for a grab-and-go lunch. Flavors span the globe with inspirations that range from Korean, Mongolian, Thai, Mexican, and more. For the adventurous eater, you’ve got a ticket to any delicious destination in these pages.

For special occasions, look no further than the carne asada fries, an indulgent entree that you can totally justify as a balanced meal. You’ve got your starch, plenty of vegetables, healthy fats from avocado, and of course plenty of protein. What more can you ask for? The same can be said of the classic meaty pizza, dotted with spicy meatless pepperoni that puts the conventional rendition to greasy shame. It’s natural to make comparisons, but these recipes are simply unrivaled in flavor AND nutrition.

All that said, don’t just take my word for it. Get into the kitchen and taste these creations for yourself. Everyone should be so fortunate as to enjoy such a comprehensive, compelling guide through the world of meatless options. To that end, I’m thrilled to GIVE AWAY THREE COPIES of Plant-Powered Protein. Yes, three lucky winners will be able to cook up a storm, enjoying Nava Atlas’ delicious wisdom as I have for so many years now.

To enter, leave me a comment below about your favorite meatless entree. Do you use a homemade protein, or do you have a favorite store-bought brand? There are no wrong answers as long as you keep cooking! Don’t forget to come back and fill out the entry form to log your submission, and unlock a number of additional methods to rack up extra entries.

Let’s make 2021 the year that “Where do you get your protein?” becomes a question only suitable for omnivores. Plant-powered is the way to be!

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Worshiping at the Alter of Althea

Guru. Pioneer. Celebrity. Savant. God.

Matthew Kenney is many things to his multitude of fervent followers, but one thing cannot be denied: The man knows how to cook. Well, more accurately, he knows how to treat his vegetables right, heat need not be applied. He is not just a chef, but a brand in and of himself. Commanding the table at over two dozen fine dining establishments worldwide, he’s arguably the trailblazer at the head of the raw food movement. These days, his formal education from the French Culinary Institute manifests in less rigid preparations, mandating minimal processing, rather than a complete abstinence of heat.

Three Beet Carpaccio

As a prominent figure in the plant-based movement from the days before it was cool, his name hit my radar sporadically, but my experience with his food has been limited. Only once before, over a decade ago, was I fortune enough to dine at Pure Food and Wine before its scandalous closure. Thankfully, the man is unflappable, soldiering on with new projects seemingly sprouting up everyday. Althea in Chicago offers a compact menu of re-imagined classic dishes spanning numerous global cuisines, along with Kenney’s own fusion creations. The only knock against the place is location. Completely hidden away on the 7th floor of Saks Fifth Avenue, you must navigate through racks of stiff men’s suits and deftly dodge the perfume counter to earn your meal.

Kimchi Dumplings

Stemming from the Greek name that can be applied to either a woman or a man, Althea means “wholesome,” from the verb althos, meaning ‘to heal’. Fittingly, the mission statement of the eponymous restaurant is to meld plant-based culinary art and ultimate nutrition.

Mightyvine Tomato + Zucchini Lasagna

Most raw approaches treat food only as fuel, leaching out all the joy and whimsy from the act of eating. This was one of the rare instances I can look back on the concept and it has the potential to compete with any Michelin-starred cooking.

Kelp Noodle Cacio E Pepe

Truly alive in more ways that old-school “uncookery” would imply, colors vibrate off immaculately plated dishes, flavors explode with incomparable intensity; the full essence of each vegetable is celebrated. You won’t find dehydrated planks of flaxen juicer pulp here. This menu is designed from a place of joy and abundance, from a creative food lover unleashed from traditional culinary boundaries. Defying easy explanation, this is an experience that you simply must enjoy firsthand to properly grasp. Book your table, book your tickets, get yourself out there; it’s worth traveling any distance to enjoy.

Althea
700 N Michigan Avenue
7th Floor
Chicago, IL 60611

Fresh Starts

Strapped for cash, struggling to make ends meet as the year winds down, the time had come to sacrifice some of my extraneous toys. I finally bid adieu to an old friend, and sold my juicer. The behemoth had flown with me from Connecticut to California made the drive from Oakland to Austin, surviving both treacherous journeys without so much as a scratch. Don’t get me wrong; I loved the masticating monster. It just never found a stable place in my daily routine. Peering out from the cabinet periodically, it would catch my eye as the light glinted off its stainless steel facade, only to return to the darkness untouched.

It deserved better. A machine should be used, not just stored. Helping to kick-start a neighbor’s newfound fervor for juicing, it’s a relief to see the old gal find a loving new home, as hard as it is to let go. Before that fateful day, we gave it one last whirl, squeezing the last drops of joy from our time together.

Releasing a golden wave of liquid sunshine into my glass, tropical notes of pineapple spiked with the bright acidity of fresh lemon flowed freely in this last hurrah. Naturally sweet without any sugar, the blend was tart, tangy, bright and bold. It glistened with vitality, fresh and invigorating. That would be enough for a morning wake up call, but to celebrate the occasion, a splash of sparkling white wine felt like an appropriate final touch.

As I raise this glass, to friendship and new beginnings, my heart swells with hope for the future. May 2021 be better for all of us.

Cheers!

Continue reading “Fresh Starts”

A Eulogy for Eateries, 2020

Like so many poor souls infected with COVID-19, a staggering number of restaurants met their untimely demise this year. Well-established eateries and fledgling startups alike were afflicted. Mom-and-pops, national chains, dive bars, bastions of fine dining; none were spared the wrath of this indiscriminate virus. No one could have predicted the devastating impact on business across the board, let alone prepare for it. Restaurants which already operate on razor-thin margins took the first hit, and keep taking the abuse, even as many other sectors begin to show signs of recovery. It comes as no surprise that we have excessive losses to mourn this year, but still, it’s no less sad.

The fatalities, like the number of cases, continue to rise unabated. At the time of this writing, approximately 1 in 6 establishments have turned the tables for the last time. To put that in perspective, that’s over 100,000 individual restaurants, touching countless lives. Their loss is felt profoundly by owners of course, but also employees, devoted regulars, and adjacent businesses that thrive on their success as well.

In the eye of the storm now, between holidays and stifled festivities, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge just a few of these losses. 2020 has been a turbulent for me personally as well, beginning in the Bay Area, and ending in central Texas, so this particular restaurant obituary will follow that same winding path. My deepest condolences to all those mourning these losses.

Before the virus truly sunk its claws into the world and began the first wave of widespread shutdowns, Analog quietly slipped away in February, going gentle into that good night. Lining the walls with records, VHS cassettes, and old school video games, entering through the narrow doorway felt like returning to my ideal 90’s childhood library. Hosting popups for many fledgling vegan chefs, I remember spending one of my earliest nights in Oakland there, tasting Hella Vegan Eats for the first time. Their house menu of thick sandwiches stacked high with all manner of classic deli fare was the real attraction, though. Seitan Reubens, bahn mi, meatless corned beef; they were slinging these thick stacks before it was cool, true to character. With another strong supporter gone, the future of the analog medium itself hangs in the balance.

Crispy, tender, and well-seasoned falafel has been strangely difficult to come by in San Francisco, which is why the arrival of Liba Falafel was such a venerable establishment of Middle Eastern delights. Beginning life as a mobile truck and eventually taking root in Oakland as a brick-and-mortar, their fried chickpea balls were as famous as the rainbow of accoutrements that came with them. Arrayed like the salad bar of dreams, the purchase of one box would allow the voracious eater to fill it with as much Israeli salad, schug, onions, roasted peppers, and pickles as would fit. Clearly, this self-serve approach couldn’t survive such stringent coronavirus measures, and has become a thing of the past. After 11 years on the streets, they leave a gaping falafel-sized hole in SoCal.

Originally unleashed upon the world as Republic of V, Animal Place’s Vegan Republic has undergone quite a few struggles to stay afloat despite widespread support. COVID-19 was just the final nail in the coffin. Opened in 2014 as the first all-vegan store in Berkeley, there’s still nothing that’s equivalent to their selection of specialty plant-based goods in the area. From home goods to clothing to groceries, it was a paradise where everything on the menu was vegan, not limited to purely edible entrees. It also served as an event space, sharing the floor with vegan authors like myself on special occasions, becoming a meeting place for the community at large.

Nick’s Kitchen, once booming with three distinct outposts, turned belly-up seemingly overnight. All street-facing locations have closed, but this story isn’t a complete tragedy; this incomparable plant-based Filipino food has been reborn as a special order delivery service directly from Chef Reina. Rumor has it that nationwide shipping will soon be an option for more widespread access than ever. I’m holding out hope for this exciting development, because at about the same time as this announcement was made, I had reached the end of my time in California, too.

Heading down south to Austin, TX, it breaks my heart to have just barely missed experiencing the legend that is Veggie Heaven. Most Chinese restaurants have a token tofu dish or serviceable vegetable plate in a pinch, but now, none exist with a 100% vegetarian menu. Where does one go for sizzling mock meats, eggless hot and sour-style soup, or teriyaki cauliflower wings now? Seriously, I’m asking for myself here. There seems to be no equivalent establishment to reasonably pick up the slack.

Sending shock waves through the community, Mother’s Cafe called it quits after 40 years in Hyde Park. A bastion of old-school, nostalgic vegetarian and vegan dishes with a Tex-Mex twist, the owners attempted to survive on takeout only during these uncertain times, but found it entirely unsustainable. At least, as small consolation, they plan to eventually offer some of the restaurant’s best sellers as packaged food, as they currently do with their widely acclaimed cashew-tamari salad dressing. There’s no replacement for a mother’s love, though. For generations of locals that grew up in this dining room, this loss truly feels like a death in the family.

Best known for moist cupcakes, tender scones, and chewy cookies, Happy Vegan Baker also had a legendary Chick Un Salad along with more satisfying savory delights. Carrying the torch at farmers markets and events year round, their treats would also fill the deli cases at Fresh Plus, Natural Grocers, Tom’s Market, Dias Market, and Rabbit Food Grocery. Though they never had a static outpost, these snacks and staples were always close at hand. I personally regret not loading up my own fridge while I still had the chance.

All that glitters isn’t gold, and Austin will have a bit less of a shine now that Curcuma is no longer serving golden lattes directly to the public, alongside their renowned raw, healing cuisine. The trailer is no more, but the golden paste lives on for homemade turmeric treats. There’s no replacement for their distinctive pecan tacos though, made with spiced pecan “meat” on crisp jicama “tortillas.”

Open in Austin for less than a year, Cosmos Kitchen was taken from us before its time. Though well-liked and highly reviewed, accolades could not save it from the pitfalls of social distancing, with the reduced volume and revenue. Filling tacos with meatless al pastor, chorizo, picadillo, and more, the flavors transcended all dietary boundaries. The absence of this colorful food truck will be mourned by eaters across the city.

To all those that have left us this year: Thank you for all the delicious memories. You will not be forgotten. Your struggles, successes, and inspiration will live on, within us all.