Wordless Wednesday: See-Food Diet

Veggie Today – Calamari

The Beer Plant – Crab Cakes

Secret Garden – Spicy Shroom Summer Rolls

Secret Garden – Ramen Hype

Sanctuary Bistro – King Oyster Scallops

Sweetgrass (CLOSED) – Pottage

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.

Bundles of Joy

This blog post is sponsored by iHerb but as always,the opinions and experiences expressed in this post are my own.

Pandemic or not, the holidays must go on. They may look a bit different, but the sentiment is all the same. We’ll spend time together, even if we’re physically far apart, spreading joy, creating memories, and of course, giving gifts. The beauty of online shopping is that your selections can arrive on your loved ones’ doorsteps with contact-free, hassle-free delivery. What can you send that will satisfy the foodies in your life, and where can you find it all? Consider iHerb your personal Secret Santa, or perhaps, Mystery Maccabee.

Delivering holiday cheer to over 180 countries across the globe, iHerb boasts over 30,000 natural products, from supplements to pantry staples, guaranteed at the highest quality and lowest prices possible. Free or discounted shipping ensures that your presents will arrive on time for the big event; no excuses, no empty stockings. If you ever need help, you can talk to customer service 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in 10 different languages. Plus, do I have to remind you that all this shopping can be done from the comfort of your own home, happily ensconced in fuzzy slippers and warm pajamas? That’s a big present you’re giving to yourself right there.

After almost a full year under varying degrees of quarantine, we’re all getting a bit restless. Anyone who enjoys spending time in the kitchen is undoubtedly clamoring for a new project. After you’ve made your hundredth batch of banana bread and thousandth dalgona coffee, what’s left to try? Here are some fun foodie bundles to kick start brand new edible adventures.

Sourdough is almost too obvious to include, but still, too good to ignore. There’s a reason why this once uncommon approach to bread baking has risen to mainstream fame in recent months. The satisfaction of cultivating wild yeast, kneading dough by hand, watching it slowly come to life and rise of its own accord; the whole process is incredibly soothing, gratifying, and of course delicious in the end. Sometimes it’s not easy to create your own starter though, which is where the handy Cultures for Health Sourdough packets come in. They have options for Whole Wheat, San Francisco-style, and even a Gluten-Free blend! Pair that with some fun flours for your budding baker to experiment with, like rustic spelt or rye from Arrowhead Mills. Don’t forget to include primo sourdough food, since these yeasty beasts thrive on sugar. Consider Madhava agave nectar to develop a greater depth of flavor while fueling that starter the right way. Accessory options are endless, from nice bread knives to cutting boards, but you can never go wrong with a nice pack of colorful Full Circle dish cloths to both cover the growing dough and clean up after. Bonus points if you can rustle up a proper banneton bead proofing basket for fun and functional packaging.

Cheese making may not be the first activity to have crossed your mind, especially if you too have vegan leanings, but fear not! The handy Real Cheese Kits from Cultures of Health can be made with dairy-free milk, too! Take your pick from Paneer & Queso, or Mozzarella & Ricotta, or both, because you can never be too cheesy. Make the process foolproof by including Now Foods Soy Milk Powder, so your lucky recipient doesn’t need to worry about schlepping home a few gallons of liquid before getting started. Soy is also a great option for this kind of application, since it has more protein to better mimic that of cow’s milk, creating better curds. Add in a lovely cheeseboard or slate along with a cheese knife to really fancy up the package, along with snacks to pair with the completed cheeses. I happen to love the contrast of sweet, chewy dried fruits, particularly Made in Nature Dried Apricots, but do cater to your beneficiary’s tastes. All-fruit preserves could be a nice alternative, as would a bottle of tangy pomegranate nectar for a bolder acidic hit. Crackers are mandatory; Simple Mills makes a variety of flavors, but I happen to love the basic Sea Salt variety to let the cheeses themselves shine. Now that’s a [small, outdoor, socially distanced] party waiting to happen!

Kombucha is also bubbling up to greater acclaim lately. Every state can boast local, micro-batch brewers, and your lucky friend could soon be one of them! Procuring a proper scoby is more than half the battle. Happily, Cultures of Health has got this one covered too, with a Kombucha Start Culture to begin the process from scratch. Every bit as easy as making pickles, it doesn’t take much to kick off a bubbling batch of fermented tea, though there are certainly some particular additions that can make the process even easier. Simple cane sugar is essential; no fancy alternative sweeteners need apply. Go for Wholesome’s Organic Sucanat to take advantage of the rich molasses flavor and trace minerals to bolster the brew. The options for tea are truly limitless, so it’s nice to include a variety of options to provide a range of different tastes to try. The Fruit Tea Sampler from Celestial Seasonings is a great place to start, offering five distinctive herbal teas to chose from. Contain your excitement, and presents, in a handy Now Foods Sprouting Jar, which is ideal for housing the budding beneficial bacteria, too. The mesh top will allow the scoby to breathe while keeping bugs out, so there’s no risk of infestation.

Make a list, check it twice, and then visit iHerb. Shop now to get 5% of your purchase, no minimum order. Spread joy, not germs, and give a gift that everyone will happily stay at home to enjoy.

10 Out of 10, Would Bake Again

Cookies, cookies everywhere, and not enough time to bake! We’re in the final stretch of the Christmas preamble, which means it’s now or never for holiday cookie platter planning. The options are truly endless, as every blogger and their best friend has the “perfect” recipe that will change your life, must go on your list right this minute, and may very well be the secret to world peace. Hyperbole aside, there are really no bad cookies out there, especially when given as a gift of good will, so we can all take a minute to review the options calmly, methodically, without going down the rabbit hole in search of the mythical “best” Christmas cookie.

My criteria for determining the ideal Christmas cookie assortments are slightly different from everyday cookie rules:

  1. They must be somewhat sturdy to keep their composure in transit.
  2. Nothing excessively messy, sticky, or smelly, so they don’t contaminate other cookies on the same tray.
  3. Festive, seasonal flavors always get the edge, of course. They should be special, to suit the occasion, after all!

So without further ado, here are my top ten recommendations for holiday cookie supremacy. Are they the very best out there, bar none? I’ll let you decide for yourself…

Brownie Crisps are like chocolate cookie brittle; the perfect mashup between classic peppermint bark and baked goods is waiting to happen if you just swap the chopped walnuts for crushed candy cane pieces.

Ultimate Vanilla Bean Cut-Out Cookies definitely make the cut, because it wouldn’t be Christmas without some sort of sugar cookies. Soft and tender yet structurally sound to meet the demands of more complex shapes, they’re the optimal blend of form and function.

Pumpkin Spice Blondies sing with warm spices to complement everyone’s favorite orange gourd. That said, try switching it up with sweet potato puree if you’ve already had your fill of pumpkin by now.

Persimmon Oatmeal Cookies are a slightly unconventional twist on the classic, which is always appreciated in a sea of unchanging traditional treats. Lightly iced, soft and sweet, it’s an easy way to introduce a new fruit to recipients yet to venture outside of the tried-and-true assortment.

Maple Ginger Sandwich Cremes will satisfy the sweet teeth of everyone on your list. Rich maple flavor carries these surprisingly soft cookies, accented by the subtle warmth of ginger.

Gingerbread Cut-Out Cookies with either chai or classic spicing are boldly flavored, crisp, and sturdy cookies that retain their shape when baked, travel well, and make a solid foundation for edible buildings. Make a village or just a herd of fawns; they’ll all be demolished in short order.

Pistachio Praline Linzer Cookies are dressed to impress, glittering on the outside with decorative pearl sugar and glittering on the inside with caramelized pistachio paste. These are real show-stoppers that could proudly crown any platter.

Christmas Popcorn Bars are a quick and easy way to add color, texture, and a dash of fun to your assortment. Like popcorn balls but more consistent in shape, and fewer sharp kernels to contend with, they’re a great option to have the kids help create, too.

1-2-3 Peanut Butter Cookies are clutch when you’ve run out of time, ingredients, and energy. They literally take just three ingredients that are probably already sitting in your pantry, are gluten-free, and universally loved. You can even transform them into classic Peanut Butter Blossoms by sticking chocolate nonpareils in the center before baking.

Chocolate Spritz Cookies take advantage of those old-school cookie presses that only come out once or twice a year, but their effortless elegance will make you reconsider that limited utility. Candy cane filling glues these cocoa morsels together, but if you’re already over “minter” (mint-winter,) omit the candies in favor of orange zest for an invigorating citrus punch.

I could go on, but sometimes it’s better to keep it simple, limiting the options to only the best, rather than exploring the full scope of wildly divergent possibilities. See anything here that catches your eye or makes your mouth water? Do you have your holiday baking game plan down pat?

So with these aces up your apron sleeves, preheat your ovens and start softening your vegan butter… The baking season is here, and it’s time to make to make the days sweet!

Naturally Gifted

This blog post is sponsored by iHerb but as always,the opinions and experiences expressed in this post are my own.

There’s an art to gift-giving, whether you’re treating a close loved one or casual acquaintance. What do you get for the person who never asks for a thing, yet deserves the world? How can you decide what’s the very best option, from the overwhelming catalogues of diverse options out there? Where do you find the best prices to fit your budget, be it generous or more modest? When do you have time to do all this legwork, on top of all the usual festive responsibilities?

Calm down! There’s an easy answer for all of these burning questions. Just make your list, check it twice, and hop on over to iHerb.

Based in California but reaching customers in over 150 countries all around the world, iHerb boasts over 30,000 brand name natural products, guaranteed at the highest quality and lowest prices possible. Free or discounted shipping ensures that your presents will arrive on time for the big event; no excuses, no empty stockings. Plus, do I have to remind you that all this shopping can be done from the comfort of your own home, far from the maddening crowds and happily ensconced in slippers and pajamas? That’s a big present you’re giving to yourself right there.

So we’ve got a plan of attack now, but with such a huge number of promising gifts, what makes the cut for your lucky recipients? Everyone loves food, so that’s always a safe bet. Break it down into three categories of food enthusiasts and you’ll have impressive, indulgent, yet practical gift baskets to spread joy with ease.

Some people seem like they were born with a chef’s knife in hand, dominating the kitchen at dinner time with ease like a seasoned pro. The Vegan Cook can be the hardest to shop for, claiming that they have all the pantry staples and tools they need, but I’m willing to bet they don’t even know about the treasures they’ve been missing…

  • Lotus Foods Jade Pearl Rice cooks up to a brilliant pastel green hue, infused by the chlorophyll of tender young bamboo. Toothsome yet slightly sticky, it’s a nuanced, subtle side dish without any added spices, but works just as well in all your favorite recipes. Imagine jade green sushi, paella, or for the more adventurous, bamboo burgers.
  • La Tourangelle Artisan Oils are the foundation of countless recipes, but simply picking the best bottle from their diverse array of offerings can be overwhelming. This particular trio of aromatic basil oil, garlic oil, and herbs de Provence oil puts a world of flavor right at your fingertips to start, or finish, strong.
  • Better Than Bouillon No Chicken Base has seen me through the toughest winters, imbuing all manner of soups and marinades with an impossibly rich poultry flavor, the likes of which all other dusty powders can only dream of. Add a dab of this golden elixir to your average pot of noodles and like magic, you’ve have a taste of long-simmered chicken soup to rival grandma’s.
  • Eden Foods Shoyu is for so much more than Japanese cuisine. For that instant hit of umami, a little splash goes a long way. Not all soy sauce is created equal, so when you want something more than just a salt lick in a bottle, this is the stuff for you.
  • Fini Balsamic Vinegar with Porcini Mushrooms drizzles rich, thick lines of Modena’s claim to fame, reduced down to a nectarious sweet and sour syrup. The subtle earthy aroma of porcini mushrooms compliments without overwhelming the blend. The saying goes that you’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar, but I promise you’ll tempt more taste buds with the opposite approach.
  • Gustus Vitae Black Truffle Salt really needs no explanation. Truffles in any form are a luxury, something special to savor that wouldn’t typically make the weekly grocery list. Don’t splurge on diamond or gold jewelry; truffles are always dressed to impress, and they go with every outfit.

For The Vegan Baker, you might be surprised to see that not all my recommendations are simply sugar and spice. There’s a bold new world of flavors out there, waiting to be unleashed by the kiss of the oven.

  • Cultures for Health Real Sourdough Bread is the equivalent of that shiny new big kid big you’ve coveted for ages, but with training wheels. Sourdough is a particular challenge I’ve always aspired to, but failed miserably at. Taming wild yeast can be much more daunting than it seems on paper, so for those who want to roll out some serious dough, this is literally the starter for you.
  • Nutiva Organic Coconut Oil provides all the health benefits touted by the tropical fruit, the functionality of gee, and the rich flavor of butter. This could also slip seamlessly into the snacker’s pack (read on for more about that) as it’s the secret ingredient for truly perfect movie theater popcorn!
  • Barney Butter Blanched Almond Flour is the cream of the crop (or perhaps, top nut of the tree?) when it comes to pantry staples. Almond meal has long been an essential component of my gluten-free baking repertoire, and this fine, even consistency of this grind is second to none. Whip up French macarons without even needing to sift, or bust out the most tender, flavorful tart crusts you’ve ever tasted.
  • Enjoy Life Semi-Sweet Mini Chips are not your average chocolate morsels. Noteworthy for their rich flavor, balanced sweetness, and smooth, creamy melt, they’re also the only dairy-free mini chip on the market that I know of. These diminutive cocoa cones will take your cookie game to the next level.
  • Dandies Mini Marshmallows are a particular weakness of mine. If I can resist eating those fluffy little vanilla pillows straight from the bag, they will inevitably work their way into all sorts of sweet recipes, like my Impossible Fluffernutter Pie, Pumpkin Spice Blondies, and Grasshopper Pie, just for starters. For that instant injection of childhood whimsy, it’s hard to beat the gooey, chewy delight of fresh marshmallow.
  • Color Kitchen Rainbow Sprinkles finish off your grand creations with a cheerful splash of color, minus the traditional chemical cocktail and unsavory shellac. Truly vegan sprinkles are tough to come by, when you consider the questionable waxes and glazes, which makes this assortment of organic hues shine all the more brightly.

Not everyone is as savvy behind the stove or at the oven, but no one can resist a good snack. For The Vegan Snacker, temptations are particularly great around this time of year, but there are a few things you can bundle together that really stand out from the crowd…

  • Dr. Kracker Seedlander Crispbreads have occupied a place of honor at snack time since I first crunched into a box well over a decade ago. Time sure does fly, but the quality of these nutty, seeded wheat planks hasn’t changed one bit. They’re fancy enough to serve when unexpected company drops by, hearty enough to hold you over until dinner, and versatile enough to pair with absolutely any dip or spread.
  • Nutzo Peanut Butter Pro happens to be just one of my favorite things to slather on top of the aforementioned crackers. A fitting match with just as many crisp, fresh nuts and seeds mix within, it’s the kind of nut butter you could find yourself eating at midnight with a spoon. Speaking from personal experience, there are far worse late night cravings to indulge in, so you might as well spread the good stuff on thick.
  • Earth Balance “White Cheddar” Puffs are compulsively munchable, even for those who don’t regularly define themselves as dairy-free. Light as air, impossibly cheesy, I dare you to limit yourself to just one serving. No matter how big they make these bags, it would never be enough for my cravings. Though it’s been many years since I last had the florescent orange variety, I daresay these are a big upgrade on the original, especially since they won’t stain your fingers and clothing to coordinate with the color of a traffic cone.
  • Quinn Vermont Maple & Sea Salt is like kettle corn that grew up and went to college. Microwave popcorn gets a bad rap for releasing dangerous airborne chemicals when heated, to say nothing of the unsavory oils, but that needn’t be the case! Satisfy that craving for perfectly fluffy, crisp kernels with all natural ingredients, and apply seasoning from separate packets to suit your exacting demands. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, the bag is even compostable, if you want to impress the especially eco-conscious.
  • Sahale Pomegranate Vanilla Cashews take buttery, jumbo cashews and tumble them with a tangy-tart pomegranate glaze, contrasted by floral vanilla sweetness. Rarely do pomegranates get prime billing in any snack, which makes this blend all the more extraordinary.
  • Cocomels Sea Salt Coconut Milk Caramels are bites of pure indulgence, plain and simple. Soft, chewy nuggets of burnt sugar bliss, coated in dark chocolate and finished with a touch of salt to accentuate the combination, this is the cherry on top of the proverbial 16 scoop sundae. Anyone who doesn’t go crazy for these dairy-free delights is of questionable character and shouldn’t be on your gift list to begin with.

Never run the risk seeing your painstakingly selected goodies re-gifted ever again. Selectively bundling only the best bites and gourmet ingredients covers all tastes, appealing to even the pickiest, trickiest recipients. It’s impossible to miss with any of these choices, although the greater difficulty may now be relinquishing those sweet and savory favors to their intended beneficiaries…

When in doubt, double up, and give yourself a little holiday cheer, too! All customers get 5% off their order, and new customers get an additional $5 off their order of $40 or more by clicking here!