Sunday, January 31, 2010

Dinner at Jack Astor's, Kitchener



Restauranting is not the easiest thing when you're a vegan. Honestly, when it comes to my daily life I often forget that I'm "different". Veganism is just life in our house. It's only when I venture out of my house that I realize I'm a dietary minority and that my choices are strange to many other people.

We had dinner plans with some wonderful friends of ours on Friday night, and Jack Astor's was selected as the place. I looked through the online menu and learned that (like pretty much every other family restaurant) a garden salad and nachos-sans-cheese are pretty much the extent of vegan-friendly choices on the menu. I did see a couple of noodle dishes, so I called ahead to see if they were okay.

Unfortunately, they all had fish sauce in them, but the person I spoke to over the phone was VERY helpful and welcoming. He said he wanted to look at the menu more thoroughly, so he took my email address and sent me a message later in the afternoon, with dishes that were close to vegan-friendly and thus could be made vegan-friendly with a few minor substitutions. He even included a rice stir fry option that is not on the regular menu, but could be made with relative ease with items they have stocked in their kitchen.

While I don't think it is appropriate to apologize for being vegan, I do understand the difficulty many restaurants (chain or otherwise) have with accommodating us and so I expressed regret if I was causing him or his staff any extensive inconvenience. I received this email in return:

You do not need to worry about calling ahead, just ask the server for a vegetable stirfry with the appropriate modifications and it won't be an issue. It is not an inconvenience at all, and by no means is it difficult to figure out some suitable menu options for you, its actually quite fun digging deep into the ingredient list of every product (for a kitchen manager at least!)! Look forward to your visit tomorrow, thanks for emailing ahead!

And you know, his friendliness and welcoming attitude made my day.

So, we went on Friday night and I mentioned to the waitress that I had spoken to the kitchen manager and that he had said a veggie stir fry would not be problematic for the kitchen staff. She was very courteous as well, and returned to the table to clarify that the teriyaki sauce they use is suitable for vegans (it was!) rather than just using it.

As vegans, we often talk about the horrible restaurant experiences we have and so I thought it very important to share this success story. The eyerolls, the "what...you don't eat what?" comments are unfortunately more the rule than the exception. As a rule, I always call ahead when heading to a restaurant I am not uber familiar with, and I typically get the "Well, there's salad...". The Jack Astor's Kitchener location was the first to not only take the time to go through their menu in a detailed way, but they also went as far as offering something that is not a standard item on their menu to ensure that I felt comfortable.

And because restaurants themselves often only hear complaints, I fired off an email to the Jack Astor's head office, thanking them for their enthusiasm in accommodating me. I hope that they will consider including some vegan options as permanent menu items (the teriyaki dish is a great candidate!) but in the meantime I just wanted to reiterate how much I appreciated their hospitality. I can't guarantee this kind of treatment at all Jack Astor's locations, but I can confirm that the Kitchener location rose to the occassion and made sure I was comfortable and able to enjoy dinner with my friends. And so, I am giving the Kitchener, Ontario location of Jack Astor's the This is Vegan Seal of Approval with hopes that they will continue this positive attitude toward vegans and consider expanding their menu to provide more vegetable-based animal-free options.

Jack Astor's Bar & Grill
509 Wilson Ave
Kitchener, ON N2C 2M4
(519) 748-1604

Friday, January 29, 2010

Colourful Vegetable Bake



I always get so, so, so disappointed when recipes don't turn out. It's the way things go...not everything can be perfect and amazing all the time, nor would we want it to be because our recipe roster is already so extensive that we don't eat the same thing twice over the span of nearly three months. So, sometimes it's good when recipes are a fail because it means I can have seitan wingz sooner, although it is a letdown when you put a lot of time and effort into something.

The recipe for this casserole is found in Calciyum, which I have had great luck with in the past. I really have no idea what went wrong here because it sounded delicious in print form and it smelled delicious while it was baking...it was just missing something. I really wanted to like it, because it is full of so much variety and subsequent nutrition. Brussel sprouts, carrots, potatoes, broccoli, tomatoes, collard greens, etc. Crazy amounts of vitamins and nutrients packed into one casserole.

I think the problem was that it seemed really, really dry. It's held together by tofu and a little bit of soy sauce, and there are a few herbs involved too, but other than that there were really no flavour enhancers present in the recipe. I think if I were to try it again I would definitely give it a healthy dose of sriracha or something, to zip it up a bit.



This failure seriously has me sad. And nobody likes a Grumpus. So, Steven the Vegan is here to lighten the mood:

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Project: Cupcakes Care (about Haiti) ... a great success!



This project started late one Sunday night, with the glow of CNN lighting up the bedroom. In the context of philosophical queries about the nature of our world and the assumed existence of god that always seem to plague me when the biggest tragedies happen to the people who are already suffering the most (which seems to be pretty much all the time) and the subsequent feelings of helplessness that follow. Further followed by a frustration with some media outlets and their incessant spinning of stories, telling people not to contribute (because who knows where the money is going?) and saying that our money here in Canada (or in the US) needs to stay here for "our people". The arbitrary lines we draw between "our people" and "their people" are so disenchanting. The notion that compassion cannot transcend our border patrol is ridiculous.

Like everyone else I went to donate money, and then went for my daily dose of theppk.com where there were talks about vegan bake sales for earthquake relief in some of the bigger cities. Organizing a bake sale is not a reality for me at this time. I don't know any other vegans here in Kitchener (although I'm sure there are some - hello?) and an event like that was something I didn't have time to arrange and promote in the wake of my thesis defense. As such I decided to do my own little cupcake drive...something small, somewhat silly, but something nonetheless, so that I could get my hands busy and shake the feeling of uselessness.

I put up the post and dragged out my faithful companion - my pink Kitchenaid mixer - and got to work. And faithful she was, not giving me any trouble even though I worked her to the bone this past week:



Double chocolate and golden vanilla have been making their way around this hometown of mine for the past week, spreading the joy that only a vegan cupcake can bring while raising a few dollars for our friends who need it the most. I expected only a couple of responses from my Facebook and blog posts, but they just kept rolling in. Me and Pinky (the first sign of severe mental illness - you begin naming your kitchen appliances) and Paul too, we kept working away in a flurry of flour, sugar and unsweetened cocoa.

KW, together we raised $320.00 for the Free the Children Haiti Earthquake relief fund. We did this by sustaining only minor damage to our wallets and waistlines.



No animals were harmed in the pursuit of this project, although this human did sustain some minor injuries. I tripped and fell on someone's front porch while making one of my final deliveries, shielding the cupcake box with my body so that the sweets were safe and sound in my clutch, which in turn resulted in my knee being ripped open to the point where it currently needs FOUR bandages to hold it together. Because you see, I am a consummate jackass who trips and falls on a daily basis and should probably have my head examined for underlying neurological disorders. However, remnants of my favourite gray cotton tights on your front porch are but a small price to pay for door-to-door cupcake delivery, yes?

I want to thank everyone who participated, those who donated and bought cupcakes and those who spread the word. I would love nothing more than to continue Project: Cupcakes Care and raise even more money for Haiti, but I am a bit worn out at this point, jumping from my major life's work (my master's thesis) to a new project in a mere matter of hours and so I think I need to rest. And then determine what exactly it is I'm going to do with my life now that I'm done grad school (send your suggestions to hellomarycakes@hotmail.com).

In the meantime, I hope you will continue to consider how you can help those in Haiti and I will do the same. Compassion is such a cool thing, because it means you give, but it also gives back to you. Cupcaking left me so distracted and exhausted that the philosophical and ideological debates that generally go on in my head on a daily basis went silent under the purr of Pinky's trusty motor. This project was very small, but it got me out there doing something instead of just thinking about how horrible things are. I'm going to chase that sense of awareness for awhile and hopefully find some other volunteer projects I can get involved with.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Raunchy Red Lentil Soup



I received a dutch oven for Christmas and since then have been obsessively making soups. Obviously cast iron dutch ovens are great for the oven but I love the way soup comes out when I use mine. Don't ask my why. I'm sure science can explain it, or maybe it's all just in my head (as so many things are). Either way, I will go on the record as saying that the dutch oven vastly improved my soup repertoire.

I make a lot of lentil soups, with rainy day lentil soup as the household favourite. As great as it is, I was also looking for a simpler middle-of-the-week-it's-lunch-what-do-we-EAT?! lentil soup.

When it came time to switch the calendar to 2010 I found Sarah Kramer's GO VEGAN calendar online at Vegans Love Lava. Because I am pretty much in love with her cookbook How it All Vegan (mostly because it gave me vegan peppermint patties but there are also many more goodies between its covers!) I decided that this was going to be our calendar for the year. Besides, I wanted to give Vegans Love Lava my business, as they are based out of Guelph, Ontario and so they are my neighbours (and sweet as pie when you bombard them with questions!).

The calendar is cool because it offers tips on being vegan as well as a different recipe for each month of the year. This raunchy red lentil soup is January's recipe and it is most definitely something we will make again. It's raunchy because it's SPICY! - the lentils are zipped up with a jalapeno. I also threw in a healthy dose of a very expensive but insanely amazing hot sauce that we picked up at a gourmet hot sauce store a couple months ago and use VERY sparingly because it may as well be liquid gold for what it cost us. The recipe makes for a perfect lunchtime serving, just enough for two people to have along side of a couple toasted tomato sandwiches.

I haven't looked at February's recipe yet - I think it's more fun to be surprised when you turn the calendar (I am a very simple creature).

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Cashew Baked Tofu with Winter Squash Rings and Rice



I am in the process of juggling working at the clinic and coordinating Project: Cupcakes Care but I thought I would take a moment and share a picture I randomly found on my hard drive, of a meal I made nearly a month ago. I don't know how I possibly forgot about it, as it was one of the best dinners we've had in awhile. You can tell my mind has been all over the place lately.

I'd never baked tofu before (which is weird, because why wouldn't you?! It's so easy) and I'd never used cashew butter before either. This dish was definitely a venture into the unknown but well worth the risk because it was awesome. The recipe is found in Eat, Drink and Be Vegan and the author recommended pairing it with her recipe for winter squash rings. Who am I to argue?

The thing is, I used a butternut squash and so aside from the few slices cut at the very bottom, they were less like winter squash rings and more like winter squash hockey pucks (man...how Canadian am I?). I did take very good care to ensure the two ring-like slices I managed to salvage from the very bottom of the squash survived long enough for picture purposes. "Winter squash rings" just sounds a bit better than "winter squash hockey pucks", no? Anyway, the rings/pucks were smothered in herbs (including fresh rosemary from the rosemary plant my grandma gave me and I still haven't managed to kill!) and while the tofu was very good, the squash was crowned winner of this meal.

And as a reminder to those of you in the Kitchener-Waterloo area, you still have about 23 hours to get your order in for Project: Cupcakes Care and support the Haitian earthquake relief effort through Free the Children. I'm very excited about the outpouring of interest and support, and made my first few deliveries yesterday evening. My first contributor liked them so much she's ordered a second dozen (thank you Jenn!). Check out my post and see how you too can enjoy the deliciousness of a vegan cupcake while helping out with a very important cause.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Project: Cupcakes Care!

It is easy, in such devastating times, to be overcome with grief, frustration, confusion and helplessness and the feeling that there is nothing you can do.

As it turns out, there is something you can do.

There's just one question and a simple yes or no answer will suffice.

Do you like cupcakes?!

If the answer is yes, continue reading. If the answer is no, it begs the question of what exactly is wrong with you, but that is neither here nor there.

If you are among the awesome who love a good cupcake, I am selling cupcakes with 100% of the proceeds going toward the Free the Children Earthquake Relief Fund (http://www.freethechildren.com/). Free the Children is an amazing organization focusing on not only immediate relief, but long-term assistance to help Haiti get back on its feet.

I am happy to cover any and all ingredient, supply and equipment costs so that every penny you contribute goes STRAIGHT to those who need it the most (plus I get to lick the spoons when all the cupcakes are packaged up and sent off, so it's win-win here).

I am also able to deliver straight to your door if you live within Kitchener-Waterloo. If you are in Cambridge, message me and we can perhaps find a halfway point. Unfortunately I'm unable to go any further than that. There will be no charges for any of this. Again, all of the proceeds go to the earthquake relief fund. If you donate $10, exactly $10 goes into the little piggy bank that eventually finds its way to Free the Children. You are essentially donating money to help our friends in Haiti, and I'm giving you cupcakes as a thank you.

Choose between DOUBLE CHOCOLATE and GOLDEN VANILLA, both topped with a fluffy buttercream frosting and can be yours in the following quantities:

1) The Delicious Duo (2 cupcakes) - $5

2) The Saucy Six (6 cupcakes) - $10

3) The Divine Dozen (12 cupcakes) - $15

These cupcakes are dairy and nut free. Please advise if you have any special dietary concerns or allergies. I am also able to make gluten free cupcakes at special request, in quantities of 6 and 12.

If you would like to place an order, please do so by FRIDAY, JANUARY 22, 2010 at 10am. Cupcakes will be delivered over the weekend, or at a time specified by your convenience. Comment here, or drop me an email at hellomarycakes@hotmail.com.



Double Chocolate!



Golden Vanilla!


It may not change the dire circumstances plaguing Haiti today (and in the years to come, no doubt), but it's a little something and progress is built upon a bunch of little somethings.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Zen Gardens, Cambridge



So, Friday at 3pm was my (dun dun DUN!) oral thesis defense. A defense is the culmination of several years of study and field research presented to a committee of professors and subsequent begging and pleading (in the most professional way) for your Master's degree so that you can finally get your life back. So, several weeks of preparation (and several years of research) leading to the most stressful 2.5 hours of my academic career. I have no idea what happened there...it was a pure Will Ferrell in Old School moment where I blacked out but must have got something right because they all signed off on my thesis! Hurrah! I had to complete a few minor revisions over the weekend, but other than that I was done like dinna!

Speaking of dinna, that kind of achievement warrants not having to cook. And so, on Friday night we headed out to Zen Gardens for a celebratory feast.

There used to be a location here in town, but sadly it closed a couple of years ago. Thankfully, there's another location a couple towns over that isn't necessarily convenient, but is close enough for a treat now and again. It's a vegetarian restaurant, but most options are vegan...and I love seeing this on a menu in a town where most restaurateurs stare at you sideways when you say you're vegan:



To say we stuffed our faces is the understatement of the year. I may have unbuttoned my pants when we got back to the car afterwards. May.

The thing with Zen Gardens is that you want to order every single thing off the menu. It is impossible to commit to just one meal, especially since it's not like it's around the corner and somewhere we go once a week.

So, we diversified...essentially ordered an unnecessary quantity of appetizers and meals, spread them about the table and sampled away. Here is a very low-quality (the restaurant is very dimly lit) picture journey of our meal:



Soy chick'n balls with a mango ginger sauce.



Proof that there is a god, and yes s/he is vegan.



Seitan platter!



Sauce flavours: teriyaki, sweet and sour, curry and black bean



Steamed dumplings



Steamed BBQ buns



Very poor quality picture, but so so so good.



Soy-ham fried rice - sweet, spicy and savoury all at the same time, so so so good!



We ate a lifetime's worth of soy, but it was a celebration and what is life without a little unnecessary indulgence now and again. A celebration several years (and many tears) in the making warrants a bit of excessiveness, no?

Zen Gardens
65 Water St. N
Cambridge, ON N1R 3B4
(519) 620-8809

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Cheezy Nachos



I am an American Idol junkie, in all its embarrassment and shame. I know it's a put-on and disgrace to the music industry, and I don't really care. It keeps me occupied on boring winter nights.

For the record, Idol is just the tip of the iceberg. I also cannot get enough of Big Brother and Biggest Loser and whatever else the clicker manages to land on during my incessant channel shuffling. All in all, I'm sure a reality tv addiction support group would be happy to have me as a project challenge. Ooh, perhaps we could make a reality show out of THAT?! Paging Dr. Drew!

Anyway, last night was the season premiere of American Idol, and so I set oral defense preparations aside in favour of two hours of mindless entertainment.

And what is premiere night without snacks?

These are nachos, featuring a cheezy sauce that I found on Happy Vegan Face (I think?), but I saved it over a year ago and can't seem to find the link for it now. I am very happy I saved it when I did, however, because it was amazing. We stirred in some organic salsa and topped the nachos with onions, bell pepper, fresh tomatoes and jalapenos. Because I cannot find the recipe online, I will post it here - to be removed if the original author comes forward and provides their link.



CHEEZY SAUCE (for Nachos)

1/2 cup plain rice milk
1 cup water
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
1 heaping tsp yellow miso
10 raw almonds
10 raw walnut halves
1 tsp onion powder
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp dry mustard
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/2 cup salsa verde
1 tbsp sriracha (i think i'm addicted)
1/4 tsp sea salt
2 tbsp cornstarch
1 tbsp whole wheat flour
1 tbsp tahini

Directions:
1) Blend together all the ingredients except the salsa verde.
2) Pour into a saucepan and warm over medium-high heat. Stir consistently (careful it doesn't burn!) and incorporate salsa.
3) Let warm until it reaches the consistency you like (about two minutes seems to do it).
4) Pour over nachos and top with fresh veggies!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

A Canadian Girl Cooks a Caribbean Feast



I was supposed to spend this last week with my toes in the sand somewhere far closer to the equader than Ontario, Canada. Unfortunately, the universe had other plans for us this first full week of 2010 and we had to back out of our travel adventure. It turned out to be a bit of a blessing in disguise, however, as it appears I will finally have the opportunity to defend my Master's thesis next week.

All the same, it's a bit of a bummer trading in the bikini for a parka and Microsoft Powerpoint. In an effort to lift my spirits a bit I decided to bring a little bit of the Caribbean into our house last night, with Marley on the iTunes and a Jamaican-inspired meal on the table. It was -15C outside and Montego Bay inside, with jerk seitan and all-spice seasoned rice and beans.

The rice was alright, but the seitan was amazing. I'd never had anything along the lines of jerk chicken, etc. in my pre-vegan days, so it was a whole new world of flavour for me. The recipe is found in Vegan Express, which specializes in wholesome and adventurous meals that can be on the table within 30 minutes. It took me quite a bit longer than 30 minutes, however, because no one around here sells packaged seitan and so I have to make it from scratch anytime a craving hits.

Making seitan is fairly straightforward: wheat gluten, soy sauce, water, garlic and spices made into a very elastic dough. It is very similar to the seitan roast I make around the holidays, but rather than taking on a roast shape its made into bite size chunks fit for stir fries and the like and rather than steamed it is boiled. It takes about an hour of boiling to get it just right. I'm not the greatest at making my own seitan (I can't explain why, something is always just a little bit off), and yesterday made me really miss my beloved vegan grocer (and seitan supplier), a victim of the recession. All the same, the seitan turned out alright after boiled and then crisped up in a pan:



I made extra...it will go great in tonight's sweet and sour stir fry, in lieu of tofu.

In terms of adding flavour, I kind of "invented" my own jerk seasoning (onion powder, garlic powder, salt, sugar, thyme, cinnamon, allspice, red pepper flakes, nutmeg), because our local supermarket apparently doesn't carry it (they never have anything I need, it seems) and I wasn't willing to pay $9.99 at a local specialty store. Luckily, I had all the right spices on hand. No clue how authentic they all are, but it was gooo-oood. Those spices, combined with molasses and pineapple juice and a couple other extras made for an amazing sauce to drench the seitan in. Yum!



It's not a beachfront villa, but it will do.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Roasted Garlic Soup with Focaccia Bread



Good morning, Blogosphere!

I'm stranded around the house this morning, waiting for our new internet service provider to show, so I thought I'd post some pictures of my new favourite soup.

Before I made this I had never roasted garlic before. And now I can't stop roasting garlic, just because it makes the house smell like an Italian restaurant. I find it so shocking that people find the smell of garlic offensive!

Besides the fact that just the smell alone makes my stomach growl and my heart happy, garlic is a superfood that puts many modern pharmaceuticals to shame. It promotes cardiovascular health, may aid in fighting off various cancers and is probably most touted for its antiviral, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Read about these in more detail here. Not so smelly now, huh?!

Find the recipe for this soup in Vegan with a Vengeance, and for the focaccia bread in Vegan Soups & Hearty Stews for All Seasons. While roasting whole garlic heads is relatively easy (although a bit time consuming) preparation is quite easy. If the smell really gets to you, I highly recommend wearing gloves while squeezing the soft garlic out of the peel when it is finished roasting.

Oh, one final word to the wise from an anxious cook who makes silly mistakes and rushes through steps because she is s0o0o0o0o hungry. If you use a blender to puree your hot soup, for the love of God be mindful of how much you put in there before turning it on. Scalding, garlicky liquid everywhere.



No wonder the dog runs for the hills the second I go anywhere near the kitchen.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Shepherd's Pie



Winter sucks. So does this picture...there is no natural light to take a proper picture, because it gets dark around 4pm these days.

Enough complaining, though. Winter also means stocking up on comfort food, and who doesn't love comfort food?

This shepherd's pie is from How it All Vegan and I love it because it doesn't try to mimic meats at all, like other ones I've tried. Instead, it uses a lentil base for all your iron needs, plus tons of earthy vegetables to contribute to an authentic taste. It's great for cleaning out the produce drawer in your refrigerator - pretty much anything goes. Perfect for those January nights when the dog won't even go outside, it's that cold.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Cool Hummus Pizza Bites



Happy New Year, dear readers! Hope you had a great time celebrating and aren't feeling any after-effects (wish I could say the same for myself).

We rang in 2010 with a lot of dancing at a black tie potluck. I made two things: spring rolls (which I forgot to take a picture of when I brought them out and when I finally remembered all 50 of them were gone...they were that good - special thanks to my mom for helping me make them!) and these hummus pizza bites.

I like this kind of hors d'oeuvres option because the recipe is insanely simple AND they don't need to be warmed up or fussed with prior to serving, so they are every bit the perfect party food. I got the idea for it from a little insert that came with my Pampered Chef baking stone, but instead of using cream cheese and mayonnaise as per the recipe I use jalapeno hummus. I'm sure they would taste great with YoSo cream cheeze and Vegenaise but I rarely buy that kind of stuff. This is much easier and in my humble opinion, even more delicious.

Cool Hummus Pizza Bites

1 package refrigerated crescent rolls (make sure they are vegan!)
1/2-3/4 cup hummus (to taste - there's no such thing as too much hummus!)
1 small clove of garlic, minced
2 cups assorted freshly cut vegetables (I used bell pepper, cucumber and green onion)

1) Preheat oven to 350F. Unroll crescent roll dough and arrange in a circle on a baking stone (you can use a regular pizza pan, just monitor it while it bakes - these buggers go from uncooked to burnt very quickly). Roll the dough into a 12" circle and press to seal any holes. Bake 12-15 minutes, or until light golden brown. Remove and place on cooling rack. Let cool completely.

2) Spread hummus evenly over the top of the crust. Top with chopped veggies and cut into bite-size pieces. If you're not serving them right away be sure to keep them in the fridge.




It's that simple!

Sigh, I really wish I had a picture of the spring rolls...they were so freaking good. I guess I'll just have to make some more.

May 2010 be your best year yet...cheers to health, happiness, and the memories waiting to be made.

P.S. The 21 Day Vegan Kickstart program begins TODAY! Sign up to their mailing list and get tons of tips and recipes delivered right to your inbox. Great for those new to the vegan scene, but there are also lots of ideas for vegan veterans too! Resolve to make your health a priority this year; your body will thank you!

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