Saturday, February 27, 2010

Snob Review: The Grape

Ok. I have to put my actual snob hat on for a moment. The thing is, the point of snobetarianism is not to be elitist. I don't generally mean “snob” as in I only like things that are fancy or up-scale or expensive or involve odd flavor combos like chocolate and bacon or rosemary-caramel-peach-cayenne. Greasy diners, veggie sloppy joes, ketchup. These are all things I love and am just as snobbily defensive of as I am of good pinots and hand-crafted pasta. Snobetarianism is, among other things, about appreciating things that are done well, whatever they are. Just do what you do well, and I'm be there behind you the whole yummy way.

But. Do what you do poorly and out comes the snob hat.

And in this case, unfortunately, I'm going to sound like the more traditional snob variety – the elitist. Here goes...

For those of you who don't know, I live in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. About three years ago a little walking mall, charmingly dubbed Perkins Rowe, opened up in mid-BR. This is not the kind of place I tend to frequent – to quote from an article my friend, Tracey Duncan, wrote comparing Perkins Rowe to downtown BR, it smacks of “pseudo-cosmopolitanism.” It is “a reproduction of downtown Everywhere, USA . . . a monument to broken and deserted downtowns everywhere . . . [it] has none of the flavor that makes Baton Rouge spicy, none of the pungency of the muddy Mississippi.” What it has is a J. Crew, an Urban Outfitters and a Sur La Table. It has a California Pizza Kitchen and a movie theater that sometimes plays not as mainstream movies. And it has The Grape.

The Grape is a chain wine bar, which I have never before encountered, but am not against in theory, if for no other reason than that they have wine and outdoor seating. Something not common here in the BR. To be fair, they have a pretty nice wine selection – the wine list organized by white and red and then light, medium and full-bodied wines. They carry things I know that I like as well as things I'd be happy to taste and you can get glasses and half-glasses of everything, which can make for a pretty tipsy afternoon. The prices aren't even that bad – there's a solid range – although I think they may have gone up since the place opened two years ago.

The problem with The Grape is the food. The food and the service. The food is horrendous. Embarrassing. Insulting. And the waitstaff – at least the few I've had, particularly our waitress last night – are clueless. Not to mention the condescending wine lesson we got from the wine manager.

I won't go into all of the food, and again to be fair, I haven't tried anything they have with meat. Perhaps the meat is fantastic. But if they can't even get a cheese plate right. Good God. Get out of the game.

A cheese plate may seem simple, but cheese is actually a relatively delicate beast. It has to be well cared for. Cheese – real cheese – is a living creature. It has to be able to breath. Cut and stored properly. This isn't a hard task, per se, it just takes a little attention. The cheese at The Grape is not well cared for. Their Parmesan-style cheese selection – Bellwether Farms San Andreas – is often dried out, and their semi-soft is rubbery. For starters. Beyond the cheeses themselves, there was also our waitress's complete lack of understanding. First, she hadn't ever tasted the blue because she “doesn't like blues,” and then she offered my friends the mozzarella and fontina that they have “in the back for other dishes” as alternatives to the artisinal cheeses on listed on the menu. Both of these cheeses can be quite good, but the type The Grape keeps in bulk stock for their “other dishes” does not a cheeseboard cheese make. Then, when she brought the board out, I immediately noticed the the blue looked . . . odd. More like a pile of mush than a nice slice of cheese. She informed us that they were out of the Point Reyes, but she had gotten the kitchen to spoon up some blue cheese crumbles in its place because “it's pretty much the same thing.”


On top of that, the "homemade vinaigrette" on the Greek salad I ordered was uninspired, and the salad showed up without either the garbanzo beans or the pepperoncini that the menu claimed it contained. This is not the first time I've ordered something there that has come sans some important ingredient; the last time it was the basil missing from my tomato basil mozzarella flatbread. The waitstaff tried to tell me the basil was in there. Seriously. If there was basil in there that I couldn't even see, what the hell was the point? At restaurant that has sleek black furniture, velveted chairs and a fancy broad-side menu, I expect real, fresh, whole-leaf basil when the menu promises basil. On top of that, the mozzarella appeared to be the shredded kind.

I could go on, but I think that sums it up nicely. In conclusion, the hummus was decent – garlicky with a balsamic tomato and onion 'salsa' on top. So if you like wine and cigarettes on the patio, by all means, but unless you like hummus, leave your appetite at home.

To read Tracey Duncan's article on Perkins Rowe in full, check it out in Sweet Tooth, a publication produced by Baton Rouge's Culture Candy Arts Org.

Other Butter Option 1: Marmite!

Here's another way in which I make my life hard:

I don't believe in margarine.

I'll eat it if I have to, that is, if I'm at my grandma's house and there's the tub of it on the table or if it's in cookies my friend made or if my father put it on the pb&j he made for me before remembering I don't usually go there on my pb&j. But I won't buy it. Perhaps it is healthier, in some cases, than butter, but I still think it's weird. Part of the snobetarian purity clause. If you want butter, suffer the consequences. Just don't eat it with a spoon.

Unless you want to, of course. Ya'll are big boys and girls.

As a vegan, however, I can't eat butter. This isn't much of a problem as far as things butter goes into - baked goods, etc - because there are other ways. Veggie oil for one. (I know, I know, it's basically margarine in another state, but here we are. I feel more comfortable with the liquid.) Where it really gets me down is in the toast department. I eat a lot of sourdough toast, and while the flavor of the bread stands up on its own, I'd still prefer a little butter to dry. So I'm on a mission to find a butter alternative. Not a substitute, that would be margarine, but something I can use instead of butter that has some of the same qualities. It's not butter, but it's still good.

The first option I'm going to present is: marmite. (Omg go to their website. It's adorable.) If you have no idea what this is, you're probably not alone. It's a UK product that doesn't get a lot of press here in the States. This may be because some people find it pretty offensive. As their ad campaign proclaims: you either love it or you hate it.

I happen to love it.

Basically, marmite is a spread consisting of yeast extract, vitamins and veggie and spice extracts. Brown in color, I've heard tell of people mistaking it for chocolate – by sight – and being rudely surprised upon mouth contact. It tastes nothing like chocolate. Nothing like chocolate. It's a savory spreads with a pretty strong flavor – definitely in the salty category. And when I say strong, I mean whoa, like butter wouldn't stand a chance getting through with marmite around. That's the main issue I have here using it instead of butter; it doesn't have the same anonymity. This is a spread with a no-miss personality, but it does satisfy the same umami-salt craving as butter. It just does it much more loudly.

Here's why I think it's particularly awesome for vegans: it's good for you. It has vitamin B12 as well as several other members of the vitamin B complex - thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, folic acid. Something non-meat eaters really need. And for those vegans out there who already make use of nutritional yeast as a cheese-type alternative, it's got the same type of savoriness. I'd the say flavor quality is somewhere between Bragg's and nutritional yeast – a combo that I use in a lot of Asian dishes to sub out the shrimp or fish paste.

It can be hard to find outside of big cities – in the BR you can get it at Whole Foods or World Market. If you have such things in your city, the small specialty import shop will often carry it. I imagine you can order it off line. It's an eensy bit pricey on this side of the Atlantic, but a little goes a long way. If you haven't tried it, give it a whirl. You might hate it, but you could love it, too.

I've been eating it on bread with tomato and local honey – questionably vegan, I know, but I think honey is magical and bee-keeping is magical and I always support magic.


This is going to be brief, since I don't think it's currently my place to post a sourdough recipe. First of all, there are a million and 1 out there. Like here for example. I will say, I got the gist of my recipe from Bernard Clayton's New Complete Book of Bread, which is the best bread book I have had the pleasure of working with.This is a strong recommendation because bread baking is my first and best kitchen love. I try to supply all of my bread kneads via my two hands and my red counter top, and everything I have made out of this book, including my sourdough starter, has been excellent. However, secondly, typing up a bread recipe is a pain in the ass. At some point, I'll do it, but for now I just want to highlight sourdough as particularly vegan friendly and generally the best bread ever.

1. Umami. Again. Think fermented things like kimchi. And sourdough. Among other things, this means this bread has a super rich flavor without the spreading of the butter (something I will also have more to say on later).

2. According to several sources - including an amazing pamphlet on "real" sourdough that my father discovered somewhere and gave to everyone but me for Xmas - the fermentation process the dough undergoes before baking makes the wheat in sourdough bread easier to digest and thus often acceptable fare for people with wheat allergies.

3. Resists molding and staling.

4. Is exceptionally awesome paired with the red lentil soup below.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Not My Red Lentil Soup

My friend recently asked me if I was a soup person or a sandwich person. I answered without hesitation: sandwich. Of course sandwich! The ripe tomatoes, the soft avocado, the sharp cheddar. Or Swiss cheese, blue cheese, brie. Spinach, ice-burg lettuce, shredded carrot, lemony hummus. Roast chicken breast, pickled green beans, tapanade, cold ham, creole mustard, green apple, pepperoncini, slivered almonds. And sweet sour sourdough.

Everything is good in some combination on a sandwich.

“Really?!” he said, aghast. “I am definitely a soup person.”

Huh, I thought. Soup.

And then, I was talking to another (vegan) friend about this here blog, and he mentioned that he does a soup night with his friends every Sunday. He makes two kinds of soup and the friends bring their own kinds of soup, and everyone digs in. Dives in. Something clever.

Soup again? Really?

I guess it always seemed to me like soup was soup was soup. Liquid food. Kind of weird. I mean, chicken soup is one thing – it has a greater purpose, a reason for being that transcends the everyday of taste, texture and nutrition. It's comfort food, healing in a bowl. But aside from that, the only soup I'd ever been that crazy about was gazpacho, and that's probably because it's cold. This excites me first because it's different, and I'm always sort of blindly attracted to “different,” and then secondly because it's a summer meal, and summer is my favorite eating season. All of those fresh tomatoes! Basil! Peaches! Etc! To be honest, it could just be that summer is my favorite season period – why else move to Louisiana? - as I don't at all mind sweating in the shade for hours on end with a glass of ice tea and a good novel. And gazpacho fits right into that. It's difficult to eat anything hot in the summer down here, for one because I'm hot, and for another because my kitchen is insanely hot (my one AC unit doesn't quite touch it). Chewing is a lot of work when it's that hot. And gazpacho is tomatoes without the chewing.

But anyway, the point is I've never been that into soup. It's never been something I've cooked much. I don't go out of my way to find interesting soup recipes. So when I accidentally bought five pounds of red lentils to make a particular Indian dal dish – damn those top-loading bulk bins at Whole Foods - I had to figure out what else to do with them, and I turned to my cookbooks.

This is where the plug comes in.

The first and last book I opened was Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian. Let me take a minute here to say: this is the best vegetarian cookbook I have ever come across, hands down. Particularly if you like Asian food, because while she goes everywhere from Greece to Morocco to Mexico to Japan, I find her Indian and Southeast Asian dishes fucking phenomenal. Excuse my French. Perhaps I'll write a more thorough review of this book later, but I just wanted to be sure you know where I stand on the matter.

The recipe I decided to try is below with verrrry little variation. There are only a couple of small changes I make to this soup. And the most brilliant thing about it is: it's incredibly easy and takes basically no time at all. That is, it has to cook for about an hour altogether, but you can be off in the other room blogging or whathaveyou, no prob.

Red Lentil Soup with Mustard Seeds and Curry Leaves

3 tbsp peanut or canola oil

1-inch piece of peeled fresh ginger; grated to a pulp

4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed to a pulp

1 cup red lentils, rinsed and drained

4 cups vegetable stock or water

10-15 fresh curry leaves (use 5* basil leaves as a different substitute)

2 medium tomatoes, chopped

1 ¼ tsp salt

Freshly ground black pepper

¼ tsp cayenne

½ tsp whole brown mustard seeds

*since curry leaves are absolutely not to be found in Baton Rouge, LA, I have always made this soup with basil. I, however, still use 10-15 leaves.

  1. Put 2 tbsp of the oil in a medium sauce pan over medium-high heat. When hot, put in the ginger and garlic and stir for a minute. Put in the lentils, stock or water and curry leaves and bring to a boil.

  2. Cover partially, turn the heat down to low and cook gently for about 40 min or until the lentils are soft.

  3. Add the tomatoes, salt, pepper to taste and cayenne. Stir and bring to a simmer again.

  4. Cover partially and simmer gently for another 10 min or until the tomatoes have softened.

  5. Note: this is the step I always ignore. I like my soup kind of toothsome, but if you'd rather the uniformity: Press the soup through a sieve; do not forget to collect all of the puree at the bottom of the sieve. Return soup to saucepan.

  6. Put the remaining tbsp of oil in a small frying pan and set over med-high heat. When very hot, put in the mustard seed. As soon as they begin to pop, a matter of seconds, pour the oil and the seeds into the soup. Mix well and reheat if necessary. Serve hot.

    Serves 4

A couple small comments: I don't have a good way of mashing my garlic to a pulp so I just smoosh it a little with the side of my knife in the process of peeling it and then chop it into smaller bits. I also tend to use more than the equivalent of 4 cloves and a little more ginger. I also like to make my own broth – usually involving an onion, some garlic, celery, parsley, one hot green chili and a stalk of lemon grass, plus maybe anything else that seems to be on the verge of going bad – and freeze it. I always freeze a 4 cup portion so I'm all set for this soup. That said, I have made it with water, and while I think the depth of flavor is a little lacking, it's totally passable.

This soup is really just incredibly good. The right amount of spicy, and the mustard seeds add a savoriness that isn't present in a lot of vegan dishes. I like to eat it with one of my other favorite food items: homemade sourdough. Which we will discuss shortly.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Vegan CHOCOLATE-chip Banana Bread

This is a modified version of the "How it All Vegan" recipe. I cut the sugar and the fat further, because I don't like my banana bread to make me feel queasy, and also I like it with CHOCOLATE-chips because CHOCOLATE beats dates, hands down.

CHOCOLATE-chip Banana Bread (spiced!)

2 ripe bananas, mashed

1 tbsp lemon juice

¼ cup oil

¼ cup sugar

¼ cup applesauce

1 cup flour

1/3 cup wheat germ

¼ - ½ tsp garam masala (or cinnamon, allspice, pumpkin pie spice, etc)

¼ heaping tsp salt

¼ heaping tsp baking powder

¼ heaping tsp baking soda

1/3 cup CHOCOLATE-chips

Preheat oven to 375.

  1. Mash the bananas in a bowl until desired mushiness – I like mine kinda lumpy – and then stir in lemon juice, oil, sugar and applesauce.
  2. In a separate bowl combine all dry ingredients.
  3. Add the dry mixture to the wet and mix. Stir in CHOCOLATE-chips.
  4. 'Pour' into a lightly oiled loaf pan and bake for approx. 30 - 40 min. When toothpick comes out clean, you're done! De-pan and cool on rack, ideally.

I'm really into garam masala right now, partly because I have somehow acquired a ton of it (Santa likes to get me spices for Xmas) and partly because it adds a really nice depth of flavor to sweet things. It's more complex than cinnamon, with the heat of peppercorns and cumin along with the more traditional sweet-related flavors of cardamom, cloves and anise, among others. It's often used in Indian dishes, so if you don't have it on hand and you're interested, that's the go-to cuisine for using up the rest. Also good on oatmeal in place of cinnamon.

Another thing – I cut the original recipe by a third because it calls for 3 bananas and I only had two. That's why those measurements at the end are “heaping”; they were originally ½ tsp, which doesn't get cut by a third neatly. I sort of eye-balled it. It all worked out just peachy, except that it wasn't quite enough batter for my 9 ½ X 5 in. loaf pan. So I would either double the recipe or use a smaller pan if you want a loaf that doesn't look squat.

The bread is lighter and spongier than your average non-vegan variety, but it has a really nice flavor and once it cools completely it gains a lot of integrity. It also has CHOCOLATE - the only word I think one should ever be allowed to yell via typing.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Mission Vegan: Day 4

Several things come to mind, but I'm going to stick to the latest. One of my vegan meat tricks.

As you may remember, I'm not a fan of fakery.

i.e. fake meat

This is one of the vegan challenges. At least for me. For anyone who has recently eaten such things and hasn't completely lost touch with the way they taste in this our shared dimension of reality. Now, I don't mean meat itself, necessarily, but it proteinaceous nature. That fifth flavor: umami.

Umami, briefly, is the savory flavor we perceive – separate from salty – in things such as meat and cheese. Animal products, often, but not animal products alone. It's present in a number of vegan friendly foods, and figuring out how to use them can take a vegan dish from merely edible to actively enjoyable.

Today we spotlight the olive. Very vegan, very umami.

For dinner tonight I made a pretty simple red pasta sauce – I grew up in New York where good Italian food is actually good Italian food – and I'd say it was the olives that satisfactorily took the place of ham or bacon or sausage or cheese even. That and a pinch of nutritional yeast. But we'll get to that later. Of course, tomatoes are umami, too, but the brine on the olive really brings out its umami characteristics.

Tomato Sauce with Green Olives and Fennel Seed

(measurements variable)

olive oil (2 tbsp)

garlic (3 cloves)

dried red chilies (3 - I use whole, but flakes would do)

onion (half)

fennel seed (1 tsp(?))

canned tomatoes (14 oz. - cause it's winter and I don't support fresh off-season produce)

Bragg's/salt (tsp-ish)

smidge of sugar

nutritional yeast (2 tsp)

chopped green olives (7 – pitted. Duh.)


  1. Saute the garlic and chilies over medium-high heat in olive oil for about a thirty seconds and then added onion and fennel seed. Saute until onion is translucent.

  2. Add everything else, bring to a simmer, lower heat to very low and let simmer until sauce has thickened and flavors have melded.

  3. Optional: I added broccoli florets – about two hands-worth – at the end for some extra etc.

Usually I would grate Parmesan or Romano over this – maybe add feta or fontina. But with the olives I don't miss it. So there.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

That said, let's go vegan!

This seems like a funny place to start after everything I just said, but here we are.

Lent. The 2010 season of vegan.

I like to do lent, not because I'm Catholic or anything, but because I enjoy obstructions. Or, I think they're useful. (Exciting!) It's something I noticed first in my writing. If you challenge yourself to work within certain boundaries, you often end up coming up with things you never knew you had in you. Creative problem solving. Creative weaseling.

In this case, creative cooking.

Of course, I also think we can all stand a little doing-without in America. So this season I'm doing without animal products. I cut processed sugar two years ago, and it was actually astounding what had to go. That is, it's not so weird if you think about it, but who thinks about it? This is one way of forcing thinking about it.

I've already, in my normal semi-vegetarian life, noticed that there's only about two brands of yogurt (at Whole Foods, the farmer's market goat yogurt is a different story) that don't have gelatin in them. I mean seriously. Keep your horse hooves out of my yogurt! So now I'll find out what things have secret milk and eggs.

The biggest challenge for me is that I'm not a fan of fakery. Fake meat, fake cheese, fake butter. I don't care if it has 0 trans fats; vegetable oil does not taste like butter in any of its naturally occurring states. So isn't it a little gross when it does? What's making it taste like butter? What factory bits am I ingesting? Blech.

Actually, I went for years without really eating much butter at all. I just wasn't into it. I gave up on cows milk years ago. But I've been getting back into it all. Now that I can get farmer's market local butter, it goes on my sourdough. Full-fat local yogurt. Full-fat local choclate milke. Omg. It's good. Who knew? Do I just give that up for 40 days? Do I fake it?

We'll see. I'll keep you posted.

In the mean time, I'll do my best to keep up with the vegan recipes that work out best. I have a small back stock - my obsession with Asian noodles and also red lentil soups - and I've ordered myself the vegan cookbook I've been putting off for a while: How It All Vegan! by Sarah Kramer and Tanya Barnard. I've shared my life - through vegan roommates, friends and lovers - with these two ladies before and always respected what it is they do. Now we'll do it together.

For the next 40 days it will be the vegan unit of Snobetarianism.