Life’s a Beach

I just put rice on for supper. This time it was spraying the pan with grapeseed oil, and adding brown rice, salt, all-purpose seasoning, and dried cranberries. When it’s done, I’m going to add black beans and a vegetable protein. Not sure whether it will be “chicken” or “fish.” I enjoy the taste of the “fish” better, but “chicken” would probably coordinate better. As I have said before, I occasionally eat meat, eggs, and drink milk. But what I have discovered over time is that a plant-based diet is better for my mental and physical health.

Most of the reason I still become an omnivore is that I don’t believe in making other people bend to accommodate me. When I go to other people’s houses and they offer to cook for me, what we’re having is what we’re having. It’s just how hospitality works for me. And on one occasion, I got a craving for bacon and asked for it on a veggie burger. It was at a restaurant, and Dan went to the bar and ordered for us. When she came back, she said, “the next time you’re going to do that, you have to order it.” Something about the bartender looking at her like she had three heads. However, I will tell you that bacon tastes even better with veggie protein than it does with beef, especially spicy black bean patties.

Last night I made myself a “double cheeseburger” with spicy black bean patties and vegan cheddar. It was so good I considered making myself a second one. I didn’t bother with “bacon,” because I have tried every single brand of veggie bacon available, and to me, they all taste like bacon-flavored plastic. Well, except tempeh. It’s not terrible, but that’s the best endorsement I offer.

I do love the hell out of veggie sausage, however…. especially the breakfast ones. Morningstar Farms makes maple-flavored patties, and Field Roast makes Smoked Apple Sage links. If you’ve tried veggie sausage before and didn’t like it, might I suggest cutting it longways and frying it on medium heat? Respect first contact, and don’t touch it until it’s time to flip. Let the bottom caramelize in the oil. The crispy outside is my favorite part. It makes my hot dogs look weird and kind of hard to eat, but I’ll never go back to meat dogs if I can help it. The ingredients in them scare me- always have.

And yes, I do enjoy both Beyond and Impossible burgers, but not as much as patties made out of black beans or chickpeas.

Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

Speaking of TED talks, I am reminded of Brené Brown. I really love her, but not just because what she says makes sense. When I watched her TED talk, I thought she looked familiar. I decided that I just knew someone who looked like her, and then I remembered that she went to University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work. My aha! moment was when I realized that I was the supervisor of their computer lab in 1999, and she was probably one of “my kids.” I fact checked it with her team, and it’s true. So I met her before she was a household name. I wish I could say that I remembered more about her at that time, but being able to say that we’ve actually been in the same room is enough. Most people who’ve watched her would give a limb to be in the same room now. But it’s not like she’d remember me and we’d go shopping together or anything.

Moving on, the title of this entry also comes from hospitality. My family and I are all getting together at a beach house in Galveston starting the first week of June. I’m all set except for needing to get a bathing suit or some board shorts and a top. I love swimming in the ocean, and wish we’d lived in Galveston longer when I was a child.

As an adult, my favorite memory involves my mother. I called her up and said that I was going to the beach for the day, and did she want to come? To my surprise, she said “yes. Come get me.” When we got there, she actually got in the ocean with me, and I don’t have any memories of her doing so when I was five. She hate hate hated cold water, so getting into pools and oceans was not her vibe. My mother was also constantly obsessed with calories, and therefore every time I ordered dessert she would just sit there, looking longingly and never taking a bite.

I always ordered something sour, like key lime pie, because to eat chocolate cake in front of her seemed like cruel and unusual punishment. When I ordered dessert at our post beach dinner, I offered her half and she ate it. That day was just full of unexpected pleasures, and exactly what made it so special. She got out of her comfort zone in a way that made me incredibly happy, and the memory ranks in my Top Ten list.

The end of the trip marks my mother’s birthday, so I am sure that my sister and I will go out to the cemetery in some sort of matching outfits to honor something that she always liked. It feels better to grieve with her than alone, but during Mother’s Day, that’s how it’s going down. I have purposely made myself busy that day, because otherwise I would hide under my blankets and sleep it off. I am going on the 2:00 tour of The International Spy Museum, and then I think I’m going to the Smithsonian National Zoo, weather permitting. This is because one of my favorite things to do in DC is to sit on the bench in front of the giraffe enclosure and write. I use a Bluetooth keyboard and either my phone or my tablet. I also really, really enjoy taking photos, and over time, I’ve gotten better at it. The reason I know this is that now I rely on my natural eye rather than The GIMP to get the angle I want.

I’m also going to take pictures at the spy museum, but I’m not going to post them publicly. It’s an experience that deserves to be a surprise when you go. No spoilers, especially since I’m going on opening day.

And on that note, I think my rice is ready.

New Territory

For the first time in what seems like eons, I am up and drinking coffee in the morning. It is currently 0700, but I’ve been up for at least an hour. My shift today starts at noon, so I did myself the favor of taking a sleeping pill early and getting rest that coincides with my circadian rhythm. I slept deeply, without dreaming, and as a result, I am not in as much pain as I am when I stumble into bed at 0300 and hope for the best. I actually made a whole pot of coffee yesterday and drank one cup hot, then turned off the heat so I could drink the rest this morning over ice. It is delicious, even black. I do love coffee with cream, but I’ve been so busy I haven’t been to the grocery store in two weeks.

They feed me at work, so it hasn’t been a problem… but I do miss all the delicious plant-based cooking I’ve been doing lately. One cannot live on pub food alone. It’s time to go to Whole Foods and restock… cheaper now that I get a discount for being an Amazon Prime member.

Regular grocery stores don’t generally have all the things I’m looking for, like rich vegan cheese and the veggie dogs that have sustained me for the better part of four years. My favorite toppings are vegan cream cheese and Sriracha. More than eating vegan is my excitement at learning to work with vegan alternatives, and making traditional recipes my own with vegan substitutions. It takes work, but that’s what makes it an exciting part of cooking. I’ve already learned how to create the perfect marinades for meat and seafood, the secret to the perfect bechamel, Hollandaise, etc. (the funny part being no matter how perfect I make Hollandaise, I still don’t like it). Basically, the foundations of French cooking are no longer a mystery. Excitement is stretching my mind in new ways, like mushroom paté and olive oil-based (or cauliflower) crusts for pizza (among other things). Pasta with nutritional yeast and Alfredo sauce made with cashews (plant-based bechamel with nutritional yeast rather than parmesan). Coffee creamer made with coconut fiber milk (Almond is too watery for me). “Pudding” made with coconut milk, Splenda, and chia seeds…. anything that gets me away from the things I’ve already mastered.

For instance, I would like to learn how to make vegan mayonnaise at home, because I could make regular mayonnaise with my eyes closed. For those not in the know, here’s the recipe:

Take three egg yolks and a tablespoon of vinegar and beat them with a whisk or put it in the blender (cheating). What you’re looking for is the acid turning the beaten egg yolks white, which in French cooking is called the sabayon stage. Slowly add oil (slowly)… too much at one time will make the sauce break. Switch out the oil for butter and that’s Hollandaise, as long as you use lemon juice for the acid. From here, when your mayonnaise is complete, it’s ready for sandwiches. Add ingredients like ketchup and pickles and you have Thousand Island dressing. Basically, the foundation for all cream salad dressings is the homemade mayonnaise I just described. White vinegar makes mayonnaise taste more like Miracle Whip,™ for all my American Southerners out there. Using olive oil makes your mayonnaise lower in saturated fat. It tastes a little different, but in a good way.

Because I don’t like Hollandaise, I’m much more fond of Bearnaise, which means sautéing shallots and tarragon in a bit of salt, oil and white wine to add to the Hollandaise you’ve already created. The reason I just can’t with Hollandaise is too many brunch shifts washing an egg pan with lemon dish soap, which smells frighteningly similar in a vomit-inducing kind of way. Plus, as Anthony Bourdain once said, any cook’s fall from grace will still land you a brunch gig, so Hollandaise is the smell of failure. That being said, a cook who can make mayonnaise and Hollandaise by hand with a whisk is no slouch in the kitchen. I can even tell when it’s perfect without tasting it. The secret is treating the mother sauce like driving a stick-shift car, using the analogy of egg yolks as the clutch and oil as the accelerator. Too much oil, add an egg yolk. Too much egg yolk, add some oil.

Touch and go, touch and go.

After a while, you won’t need this analogy. You can just tell by looking what it takes to be successful. The same touch-and-go can also be extrapolated to bechamel, the foundation of both Alfredo and macaroni and cheese. You start with a roux, which is adding flour to fat and stirring until incorporated, then adding milk or cream and letting the heat rise until it reaches the “coat a spoon” stage. Then, take it off the heat and add your cheese. It beats the hell out of store-bought.

Rarely do I create marinades for beef. I just use a dry rub of salt, pepper, and garlic powder. If the meat is not marbled with fat, I add olive oil. If it is, the fat in the meat is enough to let it confit, French for “cooks in its own fat.” The advantage to using a marinade with vinegar is that if you are using a tough cut of meat, the vinegar will break down the proteins so it turns out tender. I suggest red wine vinegar or lemon juice for this… lime if you’re making fajitas.

Actually, with fajitas, I start with a fresh lime margarita marinade, tequila and all. Then I add chili powder, cumin, paprika, and a tiny bit of cayenne pepper.

For vegans, you can marinade hard pack tofu and grill it, but tofu takes twice as long in the marinade as meat protein. In either case, it helps to have a Food Saver to get all the air out. Meat, especially, will marinade in half the time (still better to leave it overnight). ZipLoc bags will do in a pinch, just make sure to let all the air out of those, too.

And speaking of Food Savers, they’re wonderful for cheeses, because air is their natural enemy. Same for guacamole, although you can stave off the brown by putting cling film directly on top of it rather than just sealing the container.

Another great tip I’ve learned is that acid neutralizes salt, so if you’ve over-salted something, squeeze a lemon on top (if it will enhance the recipe, like a white clam sauce). A great salsa will do the same thing, as well as adding heat for those who like that sort of thing. I take an acid reducer, partially to neutralize tomatoes, alcohol, and coffee, but mostly so I can add enough heat to unstop my nose without burning off my culito (little ass, in Spanish). Habanero and any kind of fruit salsa is my favorite. Peaches or pineapples are a great place to start. You can also add fat with a bit of diced avocado, another way to stave off gastrointestinal distress.

Peppers are rated by heat using what’s called the Scoville scale, and Scoville units refer to the amount of sugar water it takes to kill the burn. Therefore, fruit salsas are the best way to support enormous amounts of heat, and why fruit sodas are popular in regions where the food is incredibly spicy. Cream sauces with lots of heat work as well, because the more the fat, the more the sauce can handle large amounts of cayenne, red pepper flakes, etc…. Probably why red pepper flakes are so popular on pizza (just get extra cheese- an invaluable tip from me to you).

So, as you can see, I know what I’m talking about when it comes to what I’ve already learned. Becoming vegan (at least at home, where no one has to accommodate me) is the next step in boldly going where I’ve never been before. It’s the new territory in which lots of chefs/cooks are afraid to venture. My excitement exceeds my trepidation, because if you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always got.

I’m just trying to stave off boredom in my own kitchen, and so far, it’s working out nicely. However, this post is not about vegan evangelism, just my own journey. If it speaks to you as well, all the better. You don’t have to change your whole life to enjoy a plant-based meal once in a while. You’ll probably enjoy it for what it is- a break from the monotony of cooking the same things ad nauseam.

I would say that I’m only trying to strain my brain, but my smartass chef friends would say I needed a chinois for that. They’re just so funny…. and unlike me, generally predictable…. exactly the rut in which I’m trying to escape.

The Inconsistent Vegan

First of all, I’m sorry for procrastinating on writing the next post on this blog. I know you’ve all been sitting on the edge of your seats waiting to hear what happened at The Big Show™ (that was a joke). My prediction about going into the interview calm and relaxed because I had nothing to lose came true. We all talked easily and laughed a lot. I wore black pants and a red and white striped shirt with a grey jacket (so DC), and the chairs in the conference room turned out to be gaming chairs, black with red piping. So I started the conversation by taking off my jacket and thanking them for buying chairs to match my outfit. The joke landed, and like that, we were off. I should know something one way or the other by next week, but even then, I will have another interview with the department head, which will be much more about HR kinds of things since I’ve already been given preliminary approval. And then the University of Maryland hiring process takes over, and that is state bureaucracy, so if I actually get an offer, it may be close to two months before I actually start. I’m not bothered by this- getting hired at University of Houston was the same way. It just comes with the territory of working for a state school.

The title of this entry comes from me committing to be vegan at home. I realized that with all the crap I eat (at work, dining out, etc.), at least some of my meals have to contain nutritional value. But the voice of Anthony Bourdain is always in my head. I remembered his treatise on the audacity of vegetarianism/veganism, and just how much I agree with it. Basically, he said that food is about hospitality, and when you reject someone’s food, you reject them. No matter what you’re offered, eat it. Choke it down if you must. It’s that important.

Maya Angelou once said (in an Oprah interview, I think), “when people show you who they are, believe them.” Nowhere is that more apparent than when someone offers to cook for you. If you sit down at their table, they are indeed showing you who they are. Food reflects both one’s self and family history.

I don’t have any food allergies, so when people ask me if I have any or if I have a preference as to what we eat, I used to say, “nope. Just the fact that you’re cooking for me is enough, because the last thing I want to do after hours of cooking for others is cook for myself.” Perhaps now I should say “make something that makes you happy.” I can think of several sub-par meals I’ve had over my lifetime (in restaurants, not at friends’ houses) that I remember as some of the best food I’ve ever eaten, just because of who was sitting at the table. I am guessing that the same is true for all of you.

Therefore, I just want to take care of my body when I’m alone. I don’t feel the need to make anyone else adapt for me, or preach on the evils of eating meat because I just don’t buy it. I have issues with buying meat where you don’t know your source, but other than that, I’m “game.” There are few people I respect more than Temple Grandin, and if you know her work, you’ll understand that to me, it’s not about giving up meat, but giving up the mistreatment of animals before we eat them. I believe in giving thanks for their lives, a nose-to-tail approach so that nothing is wasted, and eating lots of vegetables because humans weren’t meant to eat meat every day, a lot of what’s driving animal cruelty because the demand to do everything bigger and faster supports it.

Just being mindful is enough for me.

I will say, though, that I enjoy Quorn and Dr. Praeger’s meatless chicken a lot more than I enjoy poor quality nuggets and patties of the real thing. I have also discovered Dr. Praeger’s crabless cakes, and it was really hard not to eat the whole bag at once.

They’re probably vegetarian. I didn’t check. Baby steps.

But from now on, Pizza Night is one of those Daiya Supremes, because I can’t get enough of them. I was going to try and have it ready by now, because I’m working at 1800, but now I think I’ll bake it when I get home- note to all those who metaphysically show up at my house that dinner has been moved. I’m sorry if you don’t like vegan pizza, but if you get to show me who you are, then I get to do the same.

Choke it down if you must.

Unexpected Pleasures

Last night, my sister and I ended up at Chaplin’s, another ramen house closer to her DC hotel. The restaurant we originally planned for that I couldn’t think of yesterday is called Toki Underground, but is closed on Sundays. I recommend that if you come to town, try them both. As I said yesterday, you can’t go wrong with the tsukemen style ramen at Toki Underground, and at Chaplin’s, it’s the miso that is so over-the-top delicious that there isn’t even a word for it. Lindsay also had a matcha pina colada that was delicious, but after one sip, I was convinced it would kick my ass. I had a bit of house sake and ice water instead. Even the basic house sake was top shelf- smooth.

After dinner, we went back to the hotel and I asked Lindsay if I could make a cup of coffee in her Keurig. She said “sure, but I’m about to go to bed.” I said, “well, I still have to make it home.” She invited me to stay. In less than a second, I was in bed with the covers pulled up to my chin. “Staycation” might as well be my middle name. In fact, I was taking a marketing survey the other day and it said to describe your dream vacation. I told them I wanted to go to Washington, DC. Even though it’s my own city, it never gets old. I am a perpetual tourist, albeit one that knows all the local customs. I have often said, and I mean it, that I could see one incredible thing every day of my life and by the time I died, I still wouldn’t have seen it all. And let me tell you, even if you’ve traveled to and from DC a hundred times, the view of the monuments from the air never gets old, either. I tear up every time on the approach at night.

This morning, it was announced on local news that the Obamas were having their portraits revealed at the National Portrait Gallery. I nearly threw on my clothes and ran, but didn’t for two reasons. The most important was that I didn’t have my psych meds on me, and withdrawal from them is getting the shakes, a massive headache, chills, sweating, and crying because of all the other symptoms. So I really didn’t have any choice but to come home. I also knew that because the Obamas were going to be there, if the event was open to the public the line would be an entire neighborhood’s worth of people and if I wanted to get in, I should have left last night with a tent and my Kindle. I will, however, turn up eventually. The NPG is probably my favorite so far of the Smithsonians I’ve visited, because they have everything from Lincoln-era photos to modern art. In fact, the portrait of Bill Clinton looks like it’s made up of multi-colored hamburgers and hot dogs (you have to get close to see the shapes). How’s that for knowing the president’s personality? 😛

Yes, I know Clinton is now a vegan. But that does not mean that there aren’t incredible vegan versions of all types of junk food. I know, I’ve tried them. There is nothing in the world I love more than healthier versions of “bar food.” Two words, people. Daiya. Nachos.

Back to you, Bob. Let’s go to the phones.

My “staycation” also included watching the Olympics on TV. A Canadian whose name I cannot remember (comment, would ya?) stole my heart both with her technique and skating to my mother’s absolute favorite piece of music, Rhapsody in Blue. Quick flashback- when my mother and I both sang in the same church choir, we always ended with a devotional by a different member. She had come to see Alejandro Vela play it at HSPVA, and her talk was about watching his technique and seeing how a particular figure was done, and it being a light bulb moment for her.

The last unexpected pleasure was coming home and having to deal with Amazon customer service. A book that I’d ordered for a baby shower on the 24th (the twins, who I now know are boys [!!!!]) hadn’t arrived yet, and when I told them that, they not only sent me a replacement, but I told them I needed it by the 24th and they threw in same-day shipping for free. They did all of this through web chat, which was spectacular. I didn’t have to go wait in line, and I didn’t have to wait to talk to anyone. Being put on hold is a special kind of hell, but through chat, the response was immediate. Five stars, highly recommend.

I’ll tell you which book I chose after the shower is over as not to spoil the surprise. I will tell you, though, that it was one of my favorite books when I was a toddler, and it’s not a book that is popular today, so I know it’s a likely possibility that it will be a unique gift.

Hopefully an unexpected pleasure for the babies and parents alike.

To InfiniMeat and Beyond

BURGERFI has a new Beyond Burger, which I was excited to try because they are all the rage with vegetarians and vegans right now. I can understand why they’re excited. It does taste like a burger. But here’s why I’m not so crazy about it….. The pictures look like the burgers are fat, like Chili’s or something. What arrived was as flat as a McDonald’s basic hamburger patty, but three times as large as the bun. Plus, it tasted like McDonald’s poor quality beef as opposed to Quorn chicken patties, which are so much better than that Tyson’s crap. Though I’m sure that the Beyond Burger contained less fat & calories than anything Mickey D’s has to offer, my official review is “meh.” I was disappointed that something that looked incredible on the menu and package at Whole Foods just fell apart all over the place, and I could have spent that money on a chickpea or spicy black bean burger that would have stayed together and tasted better.

Side note-  All Quorn products are not vegan- some are made of mycoprotein and egg whites (which, obviously, enhances the chicken flavor). If you are vegan and want to try it, vegan options will say so on the package. However, I have not tried them, thus will not even attempt a review until I have. That being said, I have not once been disappointed by Quorn. My favorite are the “chicken breasts” stuffed with goat cheese and cranberries.

Let me say for the record that I am an omnivore, and have not given up meat entirely. I have given up meat most of the time. As a cook, I am very interested in vegetarian/vegan cooking because it takes skill to recreate your favorite dishes without the use of meat, eggs, dairy, etc. For instance, fluffy crusts with olive oil instead of butter or Alfredo sauce made from cashews and nutritional yeast. As a junk food junkie, I also enjoy making “shitty bar food” healthier, such as nachos with Daiya cheddar or pizza with mozzarella shreds that melt better than the real thing. Also, pretty sure that Whole Foods’ 365 brand “hot dogs” kept me alive for the better part of a year…. I did so much with them:

  • Cream cheese and Sriracha (the non-blended chili garlic sauce as opposed to The Big Bottle™)
  • Bleu Cheese dressing, wing sauce, and shredded carrots
  • Mustard, ketchup, and vegetarian chili
  • Classic- mustard, ketchup, and sweet relish
  • Chicago- you can order the neon relish and sport peppers online

There are four really good reasons I have flipped my diet this way. The first is that I don’t have to worry that vegan and vegetarian food will spoil before I get a chance to eat it. The second is that I have to splurge on beef and chicken so that I know my source and am not advocating animal cruelty. Meat that isn’t expensive is generally because it isn’t made from animals who were actually allowed to have a life and weren’t pumped full of dyes and antibiotics…. chickens in particular. The third is that plant-based foods are infinitely more sustainable. The fourth is that when I eat nutritionally dense food, my overall mental health improves. This is not to say that I can control it by nutrition only, just that combined with medication, I am more healthy overall. I am most impressed by the healthy fats.

My obsession with vegetarian and vegan food started with a bang in two ways. The first is that I cracked an egg and noticed there was blood in it. I asked Chef Dana about it, and she said, that’s a chicken abortion. I told her I didn’t care if she was a chef/butcher or not, if she ever said that to me again I was going to force her to be vegan the rest of her life, because ew. I was only half-kidding.

Additionally, one of our neighbors in Portland, who’d also previously been a butcher, started a vegan Italian trattoria that is unfortunately now closed, despite many, many five-star reviews. I would have given it at least one Michelin star, but they didn’t ask me. That is how I became convinced that anyone could make a great meal with filet mignon, but it took work and excellence in the kitchen to create memorable plant-based dishes.

However, I feel it necessary to say for the record that vegetarian/vegan food will not necessarily make you lose weight, because so many people believe it. The difference is not caloric intake, but the types of calories you ingest. Portion control is still just as necessary… I mean, come on. Alfredo sauce made from cashews? Please.

I’ve even changed my morning coffee to better fats, because both animal and plant fat naturally bind to coffee. Trader Joe’s has what they call “Coconut Beverage,” which comes in plain and vanilla. It has the same amount of fat as 2% milk, so your coffee is still just as creamy, yet not as unhealthy as either half-n-half, or what I like to call “chemical shitstorm,” all the dairy and non-dairy fat free creamers of the world. Coconut Beverage is different than coconut milk, in that it is coconut-watered down. Pure coconut milk, while delicious, contains enough fat and calories for an entire day. A pina colada is basically three meal replacements at once.

For ovo-lacto vegetarians, I also believe in Bulletproof coffee as a breakfast replacement. Take one tablespoon of grass-fed butter (I use Kerrygold) and one tablespoon of coconut oil and throw it in the blender with eight ounces of coffee. I like to make the coffee strong AF so it stands up to that much fat, but adjust your own to taste. The reason you only need 8oz of coffee is that the little amount of caffeine plus the mind-bending nutrients of the coconut oil and grass-fed butter will keep you buzzing for HOURS without the crash later. Just make sure the coffee is still hot and that you have a blender that will stand up to the heat, because if you try to make it out of room temperature or cold brew, the butter and oil will separate. What you’re looking for is a creamy latté with much more foam on top. You might disagree with me, but I can barely taste the coconut, if at all, and just tastes like a better version of a coffee house drink that doesn’t cost five dollars.

These are, so far, the best tips I have for a nutritionally dense diet without animal fat. I will probably come up with more, but right now I have to get ready for an event tonight. I’m going to dinner at the Mexican Cultural Institute, cooked by the adorable Pati Jinich…. meat included.