Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Foodie Blogroll (and some blueberries)

Mutual Menu is proud to have joined The Foodie Blogroll, developed by Jenn DiPiazza, creator of the blogs, The Leftover Queen and Travel Up Close. I'm having a lot of fun checking out these and the other sites on the blogroll. Please check it out and feel free to add your foodie blog to the mix.

Today's food front wasn't the best. There was a huge, chewy, and not entirely satisfying rice krispy treat from the Barnes and Noble's cafe and a bag of cheddar Sun Chips a while later. But that's what happens when your car battery dies in the swampy, summer heat of a Jersey strip mall parking lot. I waited about 3 hours for two AAA trucks to come: one to tell me my battery died and another one an hour later to replace it. So, I had my junk food. One of the highlights of the day (other than a lunch hour that turned into three hours) was the pint of blueberries a colleague gave to me. Just because. Just because the pint was only 99 cents at Stop and Shop so he handed some pints out to quite a few people. They're fresh from Hammonton, New Jersey and just sweet enough. Each berry is plump and not one that I've eaten so far is mushy or tasteless, which can often be the case with supermarket berries. I've packed a huge cupful to pour over my morning cereal at my desk tomorrow. I do wish it could be summer forever. With all the berries, peaches, plums, and nectarines, it sure does make getting in all the fruits I need and crave that much more pleasurable. Of course, I do love me some pink lady apples in the fall, but that post is just a few short months away.

Taking Care in How We Prepare

Try thinking of something more difficult than making a meal to simultaneously accomodate vegans and omnivores alike. It's nuts. Literally. Many foods---such as peanuts---are a mealtime nemesis for many people, thus affecting the lives of those who care for and chow down alongside them.

Twice this week, I've been privy to the details of young people confined to a life so cognizant of reading ingredients and interrogating food-service staff that it actually makes me feel relieved to be just vegan. A student attending the college where I work has a potentially fatal allergy to peanuts. Earlier this week, the dining-service staff were instructed to refrain from using any sort of peanut-based cooking product throughout the entire summer semester; all snacks with any peanut ingredient were immediately removed from the cafeteria's vending machines. If this student even so much as breathes peanut dust, it could quite possibly kill her.

This past Saturday night---at a dinner to celebrate Joselle's mother's recent birthday---a family friend told me about her grandson, whose dietary restrictions are even more prohibitive. In addition to a plain old peanut allergy, this adolescent lad has no choice but to keep his distance from all food products hosting wheat gluten and dairy (if you thought you had a rough childhood, think again). Fortunately, his loving mother works diligently, mastering meals to suit both his needs and tastes. I was most impressed to hear of her party-ready cupcakes made with rice powder (let's just hope this kid can still indulge in a little sugar).

Hearing about these cases makes me consider what a true luxury it is to be able to choose veganism, rather than merely conform to it. For folks with biological guidelines, it's not that simple; and I'm sure it's no piece of gluten-free cake for their loved ones either. As Joselle and I discuss our mutual menu, I'm also eager to learn more what it means to share a table with those who savor their survival most of all.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Gnocchi for All

Ever since I had the penne with shrimp, sundried tomatoes, and pine nuts at Aya's with Brian and his family a few weeks back, I've been having a moment with pine nuts. First, I made the pasta salad with ravioli and pine nuts from 101 Cookbooks. Then I made this tasty gnocchi with shrimp, asparagus, and pesto, adapted from the July 2007 issue of my trusty Cooking Light magazine. This is super fast and very easy to adapt for vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores without extra steps and excessive clean-up. This also makes the perfect summer al fresco meal.

The recipe calls for toasted pine nuts but I usually accidentally forget this step. If you toast, knock yourself out. If you don't, it is still just as delicious, although toasting does enhance the nuttiness and flavor. This dish is also even yummier when you have it with a glass of chenin blanc by Beringer's. A small note on my wine pairing technique: this bottle is $7.99 and tastes good. Therefore, I pair it with the dish.

Gnocchi with Shrimp and Asparagus Pesto (suitable for pescetarians and
omnivores; dietary adjustments follow)

2 quarts plus 1 tablespoon water, divided
1 (16 ounce) package of gnocchi (note: check label to make sure it is
vegetarian; some pacakges contain egg or mono- and diglycerides, which are
often animal-derived)
4 cups slices of asparagus (about 1 pound)
1 pound peeled and deveined large shrimp *
1 cup fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted or untoasted
2 tablespoons shredded parmesan cheese **
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice (about 1 lemon)
2 teaspoons fresh or bottled minced garlic
4 teaspoons extravirgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon salt (I used Kosher)

1. Bring 2 quarts water to boil in large pot. Add gnocchi; cook about 4
minutes (you will know they are done when they float to the top). Remove gnocchi
with slotted spoon or strainer and place in large bowl; leave this water in the
pan and don't turn off the heat. Place asparagus and shrimp in pot; let cook for
about 4 to 5 minutes or until shrimp is done (shrimp will quickly turn coral and
shrink in size--don't cook much past this point). Add asparagus and shrimp
to gnocchi in bowl.

2. Combine 1 tablespoon water, basil, and next four ingredients (through
garlic) in a food processor; process until smooth, scraping sides as needed to
combine everything. Add oil (drizzle through food chute with processor still on
if you can find the attachment--I did not and it still came out fine). Process
until well- blended. Add salt and basil mixture to gnocchi mixture. Toss until
well-coated. Serve immediately.

Serves 4. Serving Size: 2 cups
355 calories, 9.3 grams fat, 26.5 grams protein, 3 grams fiber

* To make lacto-vegetarian: Omit shrimp. Or, if making for a mixed crowd, you can boil the shrimp separately from the asparagus by placing it in the water after the gnocchi and asparagus has been drained. Place in a separate bowl to keep it away from the main meal and whoever wants shrimp can just spoon it onto their plate.

** To make vegan: Omit shrimp and omit cheese from pesto mixture. If making for a mixed crowd, you can sprinkle the cheese on the final dish of those who want it.

Breakfast in Belmar

It seems inappropriate to use a fishing metaphor to describe a vegan restaurant, but Kaya's Kitchen asks for it. Only a 10-minute walk from the Atlantic Ocean and a beatific beach in Belmar, NJ, this restaurant is a great catch! Joselle and I shuffled down to this hip shore town late Sunday morning in an attempt to make it to Kaya's for brunch. We arrived just in time (before the staff actually announced an early-afternoon closing, since they were "out of food")---but the rush was definitely worth it.

With bountiful brunch portions, it's no wonder Kaya's runs out of grub. Fluffy vegan pancakes and french toast adorned our respective plates (Joselle's french toast was topped with fresh fruit and coconut flakes), along with full side saucers piled with perfectly-seasoned tofu scramble and roasted potatoes. If that weren't enough, some of the best mock ham and sausage I've ever experienced came with my meal, officially known as "The Hungry Vegan."

My only quasi-complaint is that I mistakenly received a more standard order of amazingly fluffy flapjacks infused with fresh banana, rather than "The Happy Hippie" peanut-butter-chocolate-chip-banana pancakes I'd originally requested. Considering my casual response to this mix-up, the server might've thought that I was, instead, referring to myself as a happy hippie; not their beloved dish (for the record, while I am typically happy, Joselle will attest to my non-hippie character). It also could've simply been a case of busy brunchtime service and too few hands and seats to meet the needs of the relatively meager masses. Hopefully, Joselle and I will get to the root of this happy accident when we return for breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner before the end of the season.

Make sure to call ahead when planning a visit to this tasty spot, especially if you're taking the New Jersey Transit North Jersey Coast line from New York City or another town along the way (the Belmar station stop is located directly behind Kaya's business strip). A mellow atmosphere mixed with apparantly limited food resources at the restaurant makes for an unpredictable encounter. Reservations are highly recommended, along with a healthy appetite. Bring your beach chair for a stroll down 10th Avenue after your meal---and don't forget the sunscreen!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Parchment Solution

If you're cooking a meal for vegetarians and omnis alike, sure, you can bust out 4 or 5 pots--one for the grains, one for the veggies, one for the meat, another for mixing everything together . Or you can just cook up a pot of quick-cooking grains, like quinoa or pasta, steam or quickly stir-fry some veggies in the same pot the grains were in. And while the grains and veggies are cooking, you can throw some marinade and seasonings on a piece or few of fish, wrap the mix in some parchment paper and pop it into an oven where it will steam and cook in 10 minutes or so. The French call it cooking en papillote. With this method, you've used just one pot, you can buy parchment paper made of recycled material so you don't feel bad about tossing it, and the meat and veggies never have to touch. Here are some more specific tips on utilizing the en papillote method:

  • This method works best on tender foods that cook quickly: thin chicken breast instead of a chicken thigh and flaky salmon instead of meaty fish steaks. Additionally, be sure to combine foods that will cook at relatively the same rate. So don't add hunks of potatoes, which take a long time to cook, with a fish that only takes 10 minutes.
  • Although you can substitute aluminum foil for the parchment paper, don't use wax paper. It tears easily and will eventually burn. Parchment paper is safe in oven temperatures of up to 450 degrees.
  • Another word about aluminum foil: use parchment when steaming foods seasoned with highly acidic or salty rubs, like vinegar, since these seasonings can create an untasty chemical reaction with the aluminum.
  • Add a bit of moisture, such as water, wine, or broth to create steam or add veggies with a high moisture content, such as spinach or tomatoes.

Tips adapted from April 2007 issue of Cooking Light.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Skeletons in the Closet

No one's perfect. As The Lazy Vegan brings to light, even the most pious of vegans/vegetarians are faced with hardships in our daily choices. I've been vegan now for about a decade, and continue to face the dilemma of when to say when. Which fights are really worth fighting, especially when you're also a pacifist who's tired of defending his passion for said fighting?

The fact remains that I have a violent, bloody history---and there are times when part of me misses it. My mom's cheesteaks were champions. Even better, Double Whoppers with cheese, sides of onion rings, and chocolate milkshakes were a frequent favorite at the Burger King in my neighborhood (and every neighborhood I encountered, for that matter). And, like most Philadelphians, Tastykakes were an obsession (it was not uncommon for me to stuff my face with two-for-a-dollar Tasty-Klair pies). Ah, the memories!

Am I proud that I perpetuated a consumerism of gluttony and greed for the sake of filling my adolescent gut? No. Am I happy to have gained an omnivore's perspective on the human diet to better inform my eating into the future? Definitely.

Wow, my eyes are misting over with nostalgia as I continue to stuff my lunchtime face. That part hasn't changed. What has changed is the sloppy goodness between my slabs of bread; still meat-like, but much more friendly to one and all.

The Lazy Vegan

Please check out this great blog,, which is meant to foster discussion between vegetarians and meat-eaters. I came across a great post, "More on 'to be or not to be' vegan," ( note: I'm going to relearn HTML soon so I can direct link again) which offers a very smart and nuanced stance on why a vegan or vegetarian diet may be ideal but not practical for all.

As with any impassioned belief, black and white thinking can often overlook the messier daily concerns we contend with when choosing what to eat. A lot of vegan literature I've come across have bolstered their support of veganism by, not only taking to task the very real ethical issues that factory farming and meat consumption bring up, but by completely villainizing eating meat. I do not think that some meat consumption is unhealthy; in fact, I do think there are health advantages to consuming meat. Just as there are various health advantages to eating an entirely plant-based diets. I do not think we know enough about nutrition, or at least I have just seen one too many nutrition trends come and go to say with absolute certainty that one diet fits all. Even the actual, real, day-to-day diets that fit under the vegan umbrella are open to interpretation and debate. Our food choices are shaped by our family and cultural influences, as well as by the quirky personal preferences we're born with that can adapt over time. We are not just the sum of easy-to-categorize and ostensibly objective biological urges. We think and try stuff too. Once I allowed myself to read about factory farming and made the conscious decision to really take that information in rather than blocking it out as I had for years, I could no longer eat meat and poultry without calling that into serious question. But I've also made the conscious decision to continue to eat fish, cheese, butter while still being well aware of the damage fishing and dairy farms do to the animals, the farmers, and the environment.

Why? In part it is because I do feel more satisfied when I consume some meat source. A part of me, even though I know it's mostly silly, is concerned about getting enough of the almighty Protein. A big part of me just likes the damn taste--the mouth feel of real butter and cream from cow's milk, and the crisp, salty-sweet tamarind garlic fried white fish I plan on eating during a family dinner at Origins Thai ( this coming Saturday Humans surely are not strict carnivores but I'm not entirely convinced that we weren't designed to consume some flesh. I've heard the argument that if we were truly made to eat meat, we wouldn't need to disguise our inherent disdain for flesh by seasoning and cooking it. But this doesn't completely explain why many humans devour sashimi and beef carpaccio. I don't have a definitive answer. I'm rationalizing my decision to eat fish as much as I rationalized my prior meat-eating habits. This blog was designed in part as way to think out loud and share a conversation with others who think and eat.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Right Here, Right Now

Joselle and I traveled a handful of miles the other evening to see Cassandra Wilson in Manhattan's Central Park. We slipped into a virtual tub of amicable people and pleasant weather, after a quick stop at New York's Better Burger in Hell's Kitchen. Fast food has officially become hip in the veggie-conscious, green-bean world, apparantly. With McDonald's aesthetics and a diner sheen, this chain offers comparatively-pricey snacks for folks concerned about chemicals and animals in their quick-grab packets.

Yes, it's convenient and inspirational to find a vegan presence in a world of immediate gratification, but the packaged organics, prepared veggie slabs, and over-priced secret sauces still leave me feeling a bit empty. Maybe it's just the whole concept of a ragged concoction of veggie-consciousness and big business that makes me sad; or it could just be the changing face of our urban centers and the economic culture that feeds them. Even an alternatively refreshing fast-food vegan spot like Foodswings in Brooklyn's Williamsburg section faces defamation by a trite hipster clientele.

Who knows, man; maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm just hungry and cranky, and afraid to look at my own greasy little mitts in the mirror. I know I can't survive on deep-fried fakeness and vegan cupcakes forever, and I think that scares me a little. That's one of the many reasons I'm so grateful to have Joselle in my life. We get to listen to Cassandra Wilson's recipe for "Come On In My Kitchen" to the tune of quality, homemade food preparation---all while spending some peaceful, appetizing, quality time together...right here, right now.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

This Is Us

Vegan Marshmallow Goodness

This technique for doctoring up marshmallows with something other than graham crackers and chocolate comes from my good friend, Sky. Before passing it on to me, she sent it in to Veg News' ( Vegan Marshmallow Contest. And she won! I haven't tried it yet but she's promised to bring her prize of Sweet & Sara ( vegan marshmallows to NYC and perhaps share her creation when we meet up at Caravan of Dreams ( in NYC for dinner in July:

So sweet it is. Cut a large marshmallow in half (or just rip 'em, tiger) and delicately smoosh a perfectly ripe strawberry between said halves. Insert a toothpick to hold the wonderfulness together and pop it in the freezer for a bit. Meanwhile, melt some dark chocolate. Grab them bad boys out of the freezer, insert into the dark chocolate, let cool and then... well, yum.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The Interdietary Couple

What happens when a vegan and an omnivore fall in love? Well, first the vegan takes the omni out for her birthday and she eats a salad with bloody rags of medium-rare flank steak and he asks her, "Uh, is that how you wanted it cooked?" And she replies, with her mouth full, "Mhhhmmm." The omni has a Nigella Lawson fetish and especially enjoys baking. Around the time these two meet, which is Christmastime, the cookbook, Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Romero very conveniently comes out. It takes the omni baker until Easter to actually bake something from this book (the lychee cupcakes with coconut glaze). They are a huge hit with the vegan and his mom, the omni and her mom. The omni eats ham on Easter. And steals some of the vegan's Morningstar Farms fake steak strips.

Throughout this time, the omni sometimes wonders if she could go veg. Maybe. She's always loved animals. She, like most, tries to put out of her mind that the rags and strips and legs on her plate were once alive and walking around (or most likely not walking, as she soon discovered). One day, she gets a magazine from the Humane Society and reads their article on factory farming while chowing down on a piece of lemon roast chicken (an all-time favorite) and suddenly cannot chew it. This is where having a dog comes in handy. The vegan and omni have an idea to start a blog about their experience on sharing the table together. But suddenly, the omni is sorta kinda a vegetarian (she's still eating shrimp and such).

This blog is about something that most couples and groups of people do together: eat. When we're around those who enjoy eating the same things we do, we don't have to spend as much time thinking about what we're eating (or not eating). Brian and I have spent time with our respective groups of friends and families and have been the odd one out at least once during a meal: Brian with my crew at a soul food restaurant in Manhattan eating a very bland (and expensive) plate of wilted greens and starch while the rest of us ate fried chicken, buttery cornbread, and ribs. Me with Brian's crew eating at the vegan Native Foods in Southern California, enjoying the un-chicken wings but being sorely disappointed when my entree comes and it's just a sour lemon mush of quinoa and flavorless steamed veggies. Brian tells me I should have picked the fun junk food instead of trying to eat healthy.

Now, more than ever before, we're all concerned in some way with what we do or do not eat. Food is a communal experience that has incredibly personal meaning. It is a matter of simple likes and dislikes that is backed up with our family histories and hundreds of years of culture and history guiding our desires. We don't want to shy away from the politics of food but our primary aim is to find a way to make sure everyone is, at least most of the time, fed to their satisfaction. Since Brian isn't much of a chef and I am obsessed with cookbooks, the Food Network, and baking at 2 am, I've discovered a whole new way of cooking as I've tried to find options we can both enjoy. While I've never had any troubles finding vegetarian recipes to cook for Brian and I, I could not find many resources that dealt with couples, families, and friends managing the day to day life of loving and living with people whose diets may not always blend. Brian's had years of people asking him what a vegan is and if he can eat fish so he can offer his perspective on how to make veggies feel welcomed at the table as well as how to answer the question of whether or not fish is a vegetable. I am just exploring vegetarianism for myself and often feel torn between my ethical concerns with eating animals and my tastebuds. Mostly, we'll just be eating and posting pics of what we eat and hope anyone who visits will share their ideas about eating.

Mostly, we'll just eat.