A Vegan Oasis – Candle79

October 11, 2011 § 4 Comments

Candle79 is one of the vegan restaurants we scouted out on our trip to NYC last week. I can’t say enough good things about this place – nice staff, comfortable environment, and most importantly, amazingly flavorful and wholesome vegan food! Whether you are vegan or not – I highly recommend checking them out if you’re in NYC.

Overall the meal was fantastic. We thoroughly enjoyed all the options we had and the fact that we didn’t have to worry about what was in them. Portions are a tad on the small side – this is an upscale restaurant so with an appetizer and desert, it is perfect. Pricing was perhaps a bit high, but considering all ingredients are fresh and organic – not to mention delicious – its well worth it! They have a cookbook coming out November 1, and it will likely be my first vegan cookbook I buy it inspired me so much.

The restaurant has a quaint entrance on 79th street on the Upper East Side. The downstairs is pretty contemporary feeling with sleek lines and warm colors. We were seated upstairs in the back which was fine but next time I’m definitely asking for the front upstairs as there were booths and sweet tables by the window.

The meal started with a little treat from the chef. It was a crostini with some type of spread – I believe it was eggplant and artichoke. Whatever it was, it was amazing. I should warn you – these pictures seriously stink! I need to invest in a camera. I hate taking photos with flash but looking back at these, flash may have been better. Sorry.

We were really tempted to order the guacamole timbale as an appetizer as the next table had it. However, given that guacamole is often on the restaurant menus in Orlando, we went with the tri-colored beet salad with endive and almond cheese and kalamata olive vinaigrette. OK, first things first, I’ve never had a kalamata olive vinaigrette before but I will be figuring out how to make it because it was really delicious. I wouldn’t have every thought to pair olives and beets but it worked very nicely. Also, this was my first forray into nut cheeses. This is a common for vegans and I’d yet to try one anywhere. The almond cheese in my opinion tasted almost like a very dense whipped cream – perhaps like a mousse-like creme fraiche. It provided just enough creaminess to the dish to compliment the salty vinaigrette and hearty beets.

Luis ordered an impressive wild mushroom squash risotto. The risotto was drizzled with cashew cream and topped with frizzled leeks. The crispy leeks were a very nice compliment to the creamy, rich but simple risotto. The risotto was just decadent enough to be truly enjoyable but didn’t leave that harsh full feeling once we finished.

I ordered the live zucchini manicotti. The “live” should have warned me this would be a cold dish but it didn’t and I was a tad surprised to take a bite and meet cold food. But despite the lack of warmth – this dish had tons going for it. The zucchini are cut very thinly to roll into manicotti and stuffed with a vegetable portobello pistou. The pistou was actually almost like a tapenade mixed with diced portobellos. The dish is finished with a tomato sauce and topped with a parsley pine nut salad. A perfect bite of all elements was bold and vibrant. I’m definitely going to use this for inspiration at home – I’ve been thinking I can even just buy pre-made tapenade and mix with some mushrooms for a quick fix similar to this.

Last but my gosh certainly not least – dessert. Dun dun dun! Aside from some delicious vegan chocolate chip cookies from the Whole Foods bakery, dessert hasn’t been on my mind in the past three months. But I couldn’t resist the tempting menu. As a mousse lover, I ordered the chocolate peanut butter bliss and boy was it bliss indeed. Chocolate mousse and peanut butter mousse are layered and covered in a chocolate shell and then finished with a tart berry coulis. Honestly all I can say is yum. And this was truly decadent – for such a small little dessert, the two of us couldn’t even finish it.

There’s no doubt we’ll be going back to Candle79 next time we venture to NYC. I’m so glad we found this little gem on the Upper East Side. We almost missed it entirely by trying to eat near our hotel in Midtown. Luckily a quick google search and scan of the yelp reviews confirmed we had to go. As a matter of fact, I just finished Crazy, Sexy, Diet which I was reading while there, and many recipes in the last chapter are from this very restaurant and we almost missed it entirely!

Until next time, I’ll be waiting for that cookbook to come out.

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Dreaming of Seeds, Roots, and Leaves – Review of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

October 9, 2011 § 1 Comment

This post is long overdue. I’ve been meaning to write it for some time now as I finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle several months ago. The book influenced my thinking about my relationship with food so much, that I thought it only fitting to provide a full review here. In fact, it was while reading this book that I decided to undertake my 30 day vegan challenge.

I was first introduced to Barbara Kingsolver probably 10 years ago when I read her stunning novel, The Poisonwood Bible. She has an amazing ability to portray a place and its people with such depth that not only do you feel like you’re right there in the midst of it all – but it makes you idealistic, wanting to make the world better. While that novel dealt with Africa and had me ready to pack my bags and go make the world a better place, this one is much closer to home and frankly way more manageable – this is about transforming your kitchen table.

The basic premise of the book is local eating, but that barely does it justice. Kingsolver’s family embarks on 365 days of eating only foods that traveled less than an hour and ideally from farmers they know – the majority of that being grown themselves. Throughout the book she explains the ups and downs of this lifestyle, not to mention the hard work, dedication, and self control it takes to achieve it. In the end, I guarantee despite the perceived daunting task of living off your own back yard, you’ll be compelled to plant something, anything to call your own, even if it is just a pot of basil.

I am slightly embarrassed to admit this, but until reading this book, I’d never stood in the grocery store wondering how odd it was that we had so many choices – and the same choices year-round. It never occurred to me that I shouldn’t see a bright juicy tomato in the dead of winter. In my defense I guess, Florida doesn’t suffer from winter like the rest of the country, but still. Likewise, instead of rejoicing at the sight of dirt on my food, I thought it was somewhat, well, dirty. How did this happen? How did we become largely oblivious to the basics of life and so far removed from the only thing that sustains our very existence?

This book really caused me to pause and think – think about what goes into my mouth ever day. What are my actions doing to those around me? Am I supporting my local neighborhood with every bite, or some far off land and doing more harm than good by perpetuating that buying cycle? One of the strongest takeaways was the amount of oil we spend transporting foods. I don’t know if I’ve been living under a rock, but it seems we as a nation spend all kinds of time discussing the cost of our cars and gasoline, but no one ever talks about the cost of our dinner plate – and I’d argue, the vast majority of normal Americans don’t realize the impact. According to the stats in this book, we consume almost as much fossil fuels in the transportation of our food as we do by transporting ourselves via cars. She says each food item has traveled an average of 1,500 miles – that’s pretty insane when you stop and think about it.

Not only will Kingsolver give you plenty of stats and figures that will make you really stop and think if you want to keep going the way you’ve always done – she also shows us a whole world of amazing fresh and complex flavors unattainable through “traditional” contemporary means – aka the supermarket. Your mouth will be watering with every description of vegetable and bean variety planted in her back yard. Shockingly she says, Americans eat less than 1% of vegetable varieties that were grown a century ago. Less than 1%! No wonder you can walk the supermarket some days and still feel like there is nothing to eat. It becomes same old, same old, because no matter what week you go, you pretty much get the same stuff, just different prices.

Not only can local eating be better for your taste buds, neighbor, and the environment, but it can have drastic benefits for your health. If you really eat local, you essentially cut out all the processed crap we are so used to. She says that one third of our healthcare costs are paying for our bad eating habits. Imagine if we just cut it out?

The meat section is very informative with somewhat detailed information on the harsh realities of factory farms. One of the hardest chapters to read in the book for me was where she talks about harvesting her own chickens. But the reality is – you can only know the life they’ve lived if you grow them yourself. It is the safest way. I’m now mostly vegan and haven’t had chicken in months. That chapter pretty much solidified the vegan decision for me. I figured, if I can’t do it myself, I shouldn’t eat it. But that’s just my point of view. If nothing else, moving away from factory farming isn’t just good for the animals, it’s really much better for your health.

In the end, Kingsolver weaves together an idealistic tale of living off your own land and hard labor which while nice to dream of, is somewhat unrealistic for the vast majority. But she does inspire consciousness with every bite which I know has made a huge difference in my life. Sure, there have been days I’ve bought the asparagus even though I know it’s not in season, but I’m making small steps where I can – reading more labels and paying attention to where it all comes from, trying to cut out the crappy fillers in our foods (soy and corn), and being more conscious and grateful about those that produce that food.

If you’re at all curious about our food system or even just think reading descriptions of foods is delicious – then this is a book for you. Just be prepared. She’s gentle with her stats and opinions, but once planted, the seed grows.

My Husband A Vegan (?!?!?) and Vegan Lunch Boxes

August 27, 2011 § 2 Comments

I’ve been thinking a lot about this whole vegan “thing”. I haven’t given up yet, but I’m not convinced this is going to last for the long haul. I sat here on Sunday mindlessly watching TV – off daydreaming of eggs and parmesan cheese and thinking, have I had enough? At that moment Luis looked at me and said “I’m going vegan for 30 days” and gave me a high five.

Ummm….OK??????

Let’s be clear: this is a big deal. My husband is Guatemalan and a serious meat lover. Ropa vieja, carnitas, filet mignon, you name it. I remember a dinner out recently as I approached my 30 day mark, eating some sad and badly prepared veggies as he devoured a steak rooting me on to not to give up. I don’t even like steak but I wanted a bite that night – I was hungry!

So fast forward and I’m approaching two months, having the same questions and here Luis is saying he’s giving it a shot. He was even trying his best to convert his mom tonight – I’m sure she was thinking “Dios mio! What’s happened to my son? Quick call 911 and get him a steak!”

Well, I can’t give up now can I?

The biggest question my husband had in his new vegan quest – “What on earth will I eat for lunch?” He works for a hotel so lunches allow just enough time for a visit to the cafeteria, which will have a few daily options. I asked if he wanted me to make him lunch the first day which he said, no, no, don’t worry. But I knew we were in trouble as the texts started rolling in around 12:30 the next day:

Is mayonnaise vegan? –No

Is rice vegan? –Depends

Is chocolate vegan? –Only dark

There was only one thing to do. I had to create a vegan lunch box. So Monday night after we dined on that delicious summer tomato pasta (If I could have that every day, the beginning of this post would have been different) I set to work in the kitchen and prepared a few containers of flavorful lunches for his first week.

Raw corn and tomato salad – olive oil, balsamic, basil, salt and pepper

Pasta with peas – a little good quality fruity olive oil, basil, salt and pepper (cooked a whole package of pasta when I made the summer tomato pasta so this was a super quick fix).

Greek quinoa salad – red peppers, cucumber, scallions, and oregano vinaigrette

Lentil salad – One of my favs with red onion, cucumber, and lemon vinaigrette

All these can travel easily, don’t require refrigeration immediately, or reheating, making them perfect vegan lunch box options. A side of nuts and seeds, veggies and hummus and he was good to go.

Now, I’m still not saying being vegan is easy. But I’m also not saying it’s necessarily “hard”. It is just about making it convenient – thinking ahead and being prepared. Here’s to yummy lunches that leave you light and fulfilled – vegan or not!

Another easy vegan lunch recipe you may enjoy: raw zucchini pasta with chickpeas and tomatoes.

Vegan Shmegan

August 11, 2011 § 3 Comments

I live in a black and white world. Things are either good or bad, right or wrong. I’m either successful or not, skinny or fat, and the latest…vegan or not vegan. I’ve always struggled with the grey zone. But the reality is, the world we live in is very grey. Things are not always as they first appear and what you think is true one day can turn out to be false the next.

I spent the last few days in Seattle for work. Being a vegan on the road hasn’t been easy – but I’ve managed. This trip luring me in with seafood probably caught the same day was just too big a temptation and I was anxious about how I’d cope and what I’d decide. I know it seems petty that this made me nervous but I was almost to 40 days and really determined to keep going. In my eyes, if I caved, I failed – it was all black and white.

I missed lunch the first day so when dinner came, I was ravenous. I was with a friend and we went to a kinda French / Cajun place – his favorite restaurant in the city. I was a tad nervous all day – if I ate fish, I wouldn’t be able to call myself a vegan. We sat down in this gorgeous restaurant with beautiful decor and a stellar menu. I was instantly excited. Everything looked delicious – surely they could make me a fabulous vegan meal in this place. I wasn’t even tempted to get fish. Reminder: looks can be deceiving.

The waiter came and I explained I was vegan to which I got a nervous and somewhat perplexed look back. I asked if he would talk to the chef and see if they could make me a vegan meal to which he said something along the lines of, “the kitchen is really busy, the chef doesn’t really have time for that.” I was flabbergasted and embarrassed. I really wanted to stand up and leave. Was I the only vegan to ever step foot in this restaurant? Apparently so. I regretfully ordered a salad (again I had NO lunch) and some green beans and while they were good I was left with a sour taste in my mouth.

But just when you think things are down, they can turn around. Wednesday was my 40th day being vegan. And I made it! I lucked out and the catered lunch had plenty of salad, steamed asparagus, and rice. It got even better when we ended up at a wonderful Mexican place for dinner and I had the most delicious and outstanding vegetable fajitas. I went to bed satisfied and content.

Then Thursday I found myself at Pike’s Market, world famous for fish – oh and they had lots of tempting French bakeries. I got to meet up with my cousin for lunch and we stopped at a little oyster bar. I’m not into oysters anyways but the salmon caught my eye. Everyone says you have to have salmon in Seattle. I waited and rationalized to myself that I had made it 40 days, that I could be a vegan that has the occasional piece of fish (have I mentioned I’m hard on myself?!) The salmon finally arrived and while it was good – was a bit of a let down. All that stress, anxiety, and over-analyzing for a dry piece of salmon. Story of my life.

Moral of the story? Things can change in an instant and it isn’t always greener on the other side. In everything we do, we romanticize what life on the other side is like – in another city, another culture, a more exciting job, as a non-vegan 🙂

But we often find ourselves looking back and saying, “you know what, that wasn’t half bad.” Hindsight is 20/20 as they say. And looking back – that fish had nothing on a great platter of sautéed veggies, but the next place might be better. Next time I see a great piece of fish, who knows, maybe I’ll eat it, maybe I won’t.

So vegan shmegan…I need to loosen up and find happiness in the grey zone. But lets be realistic, one minute and day at a time…

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