Not Your Average Joe

Of all the foods that Americans try to claim as their own, the Sloppy Joe may be one of the few that an actually trace their roots back to the good old U.S. of A. First referenced in the 1930’s and attributed to a cook only credited as “Joe,” it has humble beginnings befitting of original description of “loose meat sandwiches.” Doesn’t that just sound finger-licking good?

Many similar dishes exist abroad, owing largely to the simplicity of the concept, but few would recognize the childhood staple outside of these United States. However, the idea is still as foreign to me as tikka masala. I certainly enjoy it and appreciate its unique nuances, but can’t quite put my finger on what makes the best renditions so great. I must have been at least 20 years old before I ever assembled my own meatless melange. My mom never made it for our family meals, and I didn’t know enough to ask.

Lacking that essential reference point, it would be some bold claim to say that my illegitimate version is the best… But feels entirely fitting for this modern recipe revival.

That’s because instead of using the predictable, one-note tomato sauce base, I’ve pumped up the flavor volume with The Beet Goes On sauce from Bold Palate Foods. With a natural, subtle sweetness, deeply earthy savory notes, and bright spices, it’s a dynamite starter for any daring dining adventure. Simmered into an equally hearty and heart-healthy base of tender lentils and chopped cauliflower, there’s no contest when comparing nutritional stats.

Though you could very happily slap this thick stew on a bun and call it a dinner, I love the snappy, tangy bite of dill pickles on top. Conventional garnishes might call for a slice of day-glow orange American cheese, but I prefer to go bold, pouring No Cows on This Ranch dressing all over instead. It’s hard to beat that creamy, cooling, herbaceous contrast.

Tired of toting such big buns? Alternate serving suggestions run the gamut from spaghetti to baked potatoes, french fries, or even tacos. No need to stick to the beaten path when brighter, bolder, and smarter options are out there.

Be bold, and enjoy with reckless abandon.

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Birthdays with Benefits

With age comes wisdom, grace, and maturity… Or so they say. While I have yet to experience any of that myself, I do keep getting older, despite best intentions. There’s still at least one very good reason to celebrate the passage of time, though: Birthday freebies. I don’t throw parties anymore but darting around town to collect these gifts is its own kind of festive event. My list of national vegan birthday freebies has been immensely popular for obvious reasons, as it would be a shame to leave anyone out of the fun. If you were born, recently or long ago, you too could enjoy these treats! Now that I’m living in Austin, however, I’ve uncovered a whole trove of new local specialties.

Amy’s Ice Creams is a treasured Austin establishment that got its start in 1984 and is still scooping strong. The menu at large is still firmly dairy- and egg-based, but you can always find at least one vegan specialty that will make you melt. Depending on the day, you might find chocolate, coffee, or snickerdoodle ice cream, or a range of fruity sorbets. Snag a free scoop on your birthday when you sign up for the Sundae News email list.

Greasy spoon diners have never been as good as Kerbey Lane Cafe, slinging a full, separate vegan menu for the meatless among us. Pancakes are their claim to fame, so it should come as no surprise that they’d share a free single pancake of your choice or small cup of vegan queso to help celebrate your big day. Sign up for the Kerbey Lane Love Club for your annual gift. Keep an eye out for special seasonal variations; my favorite is the pumpkin spice flavor, but you can’t go wrong with the classic, plain and simple. Best of all, even your pup can be a member of this club! That’s right; your lovable mut will beg for their very own baby pancake on their birthday, too. Hopefully they’ll stop drooling over your plate then!

Mix, match, and stir-fry yourself loco at Woko Loco, where you can get a free box of fresh veggie goodness on your birthday. All you have to do is download the Woko Rewards app and cash in on your big day. You can build your own Asian entree with a base of rice, noodles, or zoodles, tofu, eight flavorful sauces, and up to 16 different vegetables! If that’s too overwhelming, just ask for the Veggie Lover box and they’ll take care of the details. Don’t forget to use my promo code when you sign up: 9984

Which is your favorite sandwich? That’s the very question Which Wich is asking, and they don’t make it easy. This micro-chain is especially vegan-friendly with a clear menu section outlining which ingredients are free of all animal products. Join the Which Wich Vibe Club to get a FREE small sandwich (or wrap, or salad) for your birthday. If I were you, I’d opt for the black bean patty, avocado, jalapeno hummus, and quinoa, but you can build your own combination from the wide variety of vegetable options, too.

If you’re starting to feel the squeeze after so much celebratory indulgence, head over to Juiceland for a fresh start. Sign up on Five Star Rewards and you’ll get a coupon for $5 off, valid for one week before and one week after your big day. That’s plenty to cover a wide range of smoothies, juices, shots, coffee, and even some snacks or light meals. It’s hard to resist the Jackfruit Carnitas Supreme, a meaty Tex-Mex bowl-in-one, but on a hot day, nothing hits the spot quite like the protein-packed Strawberry Mylkshake. Don’t forget, you can add in black pepper, cinnamon, cayenne, sea salt, or habanero to your blend at no charge, any day of the year!

Since dropping anchor for their first brick-and-mortar location in South Manchaca, The Vegan Yacht has more space for diners and menu options. That includes their organic soft serve ice cream, made entirely in house. Flavors rotate every few weeks but you can always count on getting a unique seasonal specialty. To anyone who says that ice cream in January isn’t a compelling prospect, just try repeating that when presented with a swirl of marshmallow cocoa like this beauty. Pumpkin spice in the fall and eggnog in December are two other noteworthy bestsellers. No signups or advanced notice necessary to redeem your treat; just walk in and let them know you’re celebrating on your special day!

Anyone would be delighted to snarf down a 7-inch Vegetarian Sandwich at Snarf’s, free of charge, so make sure you sign up for the Insider’s eclub to log your birthday! You’ll get a voucher to use to place your order online or in the app, whenever the craving strikes during your birth month. Don’t forget to leave out the cheese and mayo to make this one vegan. Jazz it up with artichoke hearts or extra mushrooms for that meaty, umami bite.

RA Sushi really pulls out all the stops when you join The Hook Up. On your birthday AND half birthday, you’ll get a full $20 gift certificate to make it rain maki rolls. Don’t miss the lavishly adorned Vegetarian Roll, vibrant and verdant with cucumber, avocado, arugula, asparagus, and romaine hearts, all wrapped in green soy paper. Go to town with garlic edamame, shishito peppers, or spicy cucumber salad to complete the meal. If you dine in, you’ll even get your choice of flavored mochi for dessert, on the house! That’s a  truly sweet AND savory gift!

Bow down to Bao’d Up. These fluffy steamed buns are made fresh daily in each of four central locations. Plump, pillow-y soft, and stuffed with your choice of sweet or savory fillings, you have two vegan options to chose from: Veggie for a healthy snack, or red bean for a light dessert. Download the app, create an account (use my referral code 2271, please!), and snag one free bao on your birthday! While you’re there, you might as well treat yourself to a side of fries, pickled veggies, or slaw, because the mayo is all eggless, too.

Although two dozen cities now host their own Alamo Drafthouse theaters, it was originally founded here in Austin. If you sign up for their Victory program, you’ll get a free movie ticket, delivered on the day of your birth! You’ll still need to pay for food if you go in hungry, but it’s worth the splurge. Their crispy buffalo cauliflower, complete with vegan ranch dressing, is the stuff of legends. Make sure you input all your details correctly because they do check ID at the door.

Remember, these offers are all subject to change, especially under rapidly evolving COVID-19 protocol. Always call in advance to check hours and availability when in doubt. Celebrate to the fullest, and stay safe!

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