Friday, April 30, 2010

Almost vegan in Chicago 2.2

(See also: Part one)

Since I ate three noteworthy meals in Chicago, and already chronicled two of them in part one, this post will be shorter. That said, I have to include a gratuitous shot of the biggest package of Reese’s peanut butter cups I have ever seen, at the Hershey store off Michigan Avenue. Half a pound (that’s nearly a quarter of a kilo, for you international folk) apiece!

For dinner on Saturday, we knew we were going to eat at one of Rick Bayless’s restaurants. Topolobampo is just too pricey, but Frontera Grill and XOCO were options. When I was in Chicago for Lollapalooza in 2008, I got to eat at Frontera Grill, and it pains me to this day that I did not take pictures of my food. The 3-hour wait at Frontera Grill made us opt for XOCO, his newest outpost, billed as a quick-service (to be fair, I suppose 45 minutes is "quick" when compared to 3 hours) café serving Mexican street food and snacks.

The format felt a little alien to me, but had the line not been the better part of an hour long, I think it would have made more sense. When we finally got to the counter, we ordered, were given a number, and were led to two seats at a countertop in the dining area. Our chips and salsa were brought out first—their chips are thick and salty, the corniest of corn chips, the way I like them. The salsas are a roasted tomatillo (the green) and a three-chile (the red; my favorite).

Take a deep breath before you read this description and drool at the photo. Picture this: fresh, crusty bread is split in half, spread thickly with refried black beans, and baked to perfection in a wood-burning oven. Pickled onions and chunky guacamole are piled atop one half and sandwiched with the other. A rich tomato broth and a spicy árbol chile sauce are swirled together in a shallow bowl, and the torta is served partially submerged, cut side down, in that piquant elixir. A kiss of chopped cilantro completes this ethereal sandwich-of-the-gods.

Put more simply: I got the ahodaga torta off the menu, hold the pork, add guac and extra beans. But no words can accurately describe the volcanic explosion of flavor that occurred in my mouth from the first taste. The crunch as my teeth broke through the bread, the slurp of the absorbed-and-released chile-tomato broth surging across my palate, the smoosh of the avocado marrying the smooth bean purée, the snap of the cores of softened onion ribbons betwixt my bite, the roar of chile-derived fire searing my tongue, the aahhh of angels singing over my shoulder, the gasp of my taste buds as they had a 15-minute orgasm and collapsed in blissful afterglow.

This is why Rick Bayless is my favorite chef. I know of no one else who can, to this immaculate degree, take such a modest assortment of simple, fresh ingredients and, with just a judicious touch of herbs and fragrant spices, transform them into a dish brimming with astonishingly complex and perfect flavors. It’s alchemy, pure alchemy, precise and flawless.

::Catches breath:: Ok, ok, I must stop; it’s getting warm in here, as it did that night I ate this illustrious repast. So we concluded the experience with churros, cinnamon-sugar-rolled doughnut-like pastries, and a dish of vanilla bean soft-serve ice cream for dipping.

I don’t care how ridiculous I sound; that meal was downright life-changing.

After a stop back at the hostel, Matt and I went to Late Bar in the Avondale neighborhood to meet up with Chiko, another friend from the first leg of my Europe trip whom I hadn’t seen since. It was great to get to hang out with him again, and almost as great to get to drink my first-ever soy white Russian. For real! (There, in the middle.)

Yes, really, a vegan white Russian! I was positively giddy over it. Then, however, I spotted another drink on the menu I plainly had to have. I’m not a martini gal (or, for that matter, a creamy-alcoholic-beverage gal), but especially after the Mexican feast that was our dinner, I couldn’t possibly pass up a soy horchata martini. Real horchata (a milky, sugary, cinnamon-vanilla Latin American refresca) is made of rice milk, but in the U.S., it’s almost always dairy-based. I couldn’t believe my luck at finding a soy-based horchata concoction, shaken with vanilla vodka and sprinkled with ground cinnamon. It was even better than the white Russian.

Matt, Chiko, and I then made our way to Club Neo and danced our hearts out till nearly 5 in the morning. It was a spectacular end to a spectacular weekend getaway in Chi-town. I can’t wait to go back!

If you like this, you might also like...
Los Angeles, parts one, two, three, and four
Europe, of course
Denver 2009
Dallas 2008 and 2009
Mexican cruise, parts one, two, and three
Chicago 2008 (my first-ever post!)

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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Almost vegan in Chicago 2.1

Earlier this month, Matt and I took a weekend road trip to Chicago to see a concert. We left on Thursday after work, drove a little more than halfway, and stayed the night at a questionable Motel 6 in Iowa City. The next morning, we had breakfast down the street at Bruegger’s Bagels, a chain that actually JUST came to Kansas City but which I had not yet tried. I got a whole grain bagel (plain, toasted) and a Rainforest Nut coffee (brazil-nutty and delicious!). While waiting in line, I spied a kind of peanut butter I’ve never seen before, Sunland Dark Chocolate. It was all-natural, vegan, and just a couple bucks more than a side of PB off the menu, so we picked up a whole jar.

We drove the remaining few hours to Chicago and arrived at our hostel in Greektown shortly after 5pm. That’s right—I spent five weeks in Europe and didn’t so much as see a hostel, and then I go on a simple little road trip and wind up in one; go figure. (Really, though, with its downtown location, $39 per person, per night rate for a private room, and $5 parking nearby, we didn’t need much convincing.)

As in Los Angeles, Matt put me in charge of food. Even though Greektown was rife with thick aromas of gyros and spices, I couldn’t resist the chance to eat at Karyn’s on Green, a stylish all-vegan restaurant a mere 3-minute walk from the hostel.

Within seconds of being seated, we were offered fresh bread and whipped herb butter. What a treat it was to dig right in without having to ask or even wonder if the "butter" is vegan!

We ordered a Macabeo (Spanish white wine) and a Tempranillo (Spanish red wine) to share, but before we knew it, our food was already coming out. Matt ate the barbecued seitan meatloaf with escarole and roasted fingerling potatoes. I was quite hesitant to try it, given my abhorrence of BBQ sauce, but it’s a good thing I had a bite anyway, because it wasn’t at all what I expected. Rather than being smoky and cloyingly sweet, the sauce was mild and tomatoey, with a hint of cumin. Matt, a committed omnivore, loved this dish.

Although a great deal of the menu was enticing, I had to take the opportunity to try something I’m not likely to find at home—raw pasta. The spiralized zucchini noodles were tossed with cherry tomatoes, teensy enoki mushrooms, and a cashew basil pesto which was thick and salty enough to disguise the slippery sweetness of the “noodles.” Though not my favorite meal of the trip, it was surprisingly satisfying, and I’m very happy I tried it.

Of course we had to have dessert. I couldn’t resist the strangely-yummy-sounding chocolate terrine—compressed pear, salted cashew mousse, raspberry sorbet, and cocoa nibs. The pear was a bit odd, but the chocolatey sauce and the rich raspberry sorbet made a fantastic pair.

Matt and I walked to the House of Blues that evening for the H.I.M. show we’d come to see, taking the subway back to the hostel afterward.

The next day, we headed down to Belmont Avenue for some killer shopping (The Alley was especially awesome). Once we’d worked up an appetite, we walked the short distance to the renowned Chicago Diner. Even though it seemed busy inside, we were seated right away.

Despite my lack of predilection for comfort food, I was so excited to eat here! I mean, come on, it’s famous. Plus, their menu has a great selection of ethnic-food-inspired options, which is more up my alley. Naturally, though, I had to start with a coffee with soymilk. Matt uncharacteristically opted for a beer, but I’m glad he did. See, I’m a beer hater, but upon cautiously taking a sip of his Peak Organic espresso amber (teehee) ale, I found myself taken aback—I didn’t loathe it! How can this be?! I took an other drink to make sure, and yes, it was true! The beer was mildly flavored and only lightly carbonated, with a truly pleasant suggestion of espresso in the background, and no nasty beer aftertaste. Yay! At long last, I may have found a beer I actually enjoy! Of course, for all I know it’s not even available in Kansas City. Oh well; victory nonetheless!

I fully expected Matt, as a comfort-food-eater, to like the Chicago Diner as much as, if not more than, I did. He was indeed a fan of his lunch, the Diner Burger, a "100% Angus-friendly seitan patty with special sauce, lettuce, tomato, onion, and cheeze on a toasted harvest roll," with a side of mashed potatoes.

I chose the Shawarma sandwich ("Shawarma sweater, it’s cold out" – inside joke, sorry), which had sliced gyro-style seasoned seitan (!), fried cauliflower tossed in tahini (!!), and hummus on toasted whole grain ciabatta. Fake gyro meat?! I died and went to heaven (then ate my side of sweet potato fries dipped in the spicy harissa sauce).

I loved this so much, there are just no words. I couldn’t even finish it all (but was more than happy to eat the leftovers cold on the drive home the next day), and thus had to make the probably-wise choice to forgo the vegan cheesecake for dessert. Next time! I must come back someday (and in the meantime buy the cookbook). Me + Chicago Diner = happy camper.

Coming up later this week: part two!

If you like this, you might also like...
Los Angeles, parts one, two, three, and four
Europe, of course
Denver 2009
Dallas 2008 and 2009
Mexican cruise, parts one, two, and three
Chicago 2008 (my first-ever post!)

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Friday, April 23, 2010

Quick blueberry compote

After the novel that was Tuesday’s post, I’ll keep this short and (literally) sweet. Years ago, I saw a recipe in Health Magazine for a blueberry pancake sauce, and this compote is loosely derived from that. I never actually saved it or wrote it down, so ever since I first tried it, I’ve winged it, and permutations along the way have been inevitable. I don’t know if it even resembles the original anymore, but I DO know that it’s fast, easy, and so tasty that I used to eat the leftovers out of my fridge with a spoon between classes in college.

1 lb. frozen blueberries
1/4 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice
3 Tbsp [raw] sugar
Pinch of salt
2 Tbsp warm water
2 tsp cornstarch
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
Orange zest (optional)

In a small saucepan, combine the blueberries, orange juice, sugar, and salt.

Bring to a boil over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the blueberries begin to burst, about 10 minutes. In a small bowl, whisk together the warm water and cornstarch. Add to the saucepan and bring the mixture back to a boil. Cook, stirring constantly, for 2-3 more minutes, until thickened. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla and orange zest, if using. Serve warm.

I made this blueberry compote along with French toast for brunch one weekend morning, modeling it after the Floridian French toast platter Matt ate at First Watch (which I showed you in the last entry). Blended lite silken tofu, soymilk, vanilla, and a dash of cinnamon comprised the batter in which I soaked whole grain bread slices, then pan-fried them until golden. I topped them with sliced bananas and fresh raspberries, dolloped pools of blueberry sauce around the edge, and dusted the whole thing with powdered sugar. Matt devoured his just like that, while I added a drizzle of maple syrup to mine. This is just one way to use this versatile sauce—try it with pancakes, waffles, crêpes, or oatmeal at breakfast; with grilled tofu or fake chicken at dinner; over ice cream, shortcakes, or cheesecake for dessert; or simply eat it with a spoon.

Yield: 4 large servings. Per serving (about 1/2 cup): 106 calories, .8g fat (2g sat), 26.1g carbs, 4g fiber, .6g protein.

If you like this, you might also like...
Overnight steel-cut oatmeal
Blueberry cornbread muffins
Homestyle blueberry cobbler

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Long-winded March leftovers

It seems like I just did a leftovers post, but no matter. I’m a little behind on posting, clearly (as well as reading others’ blogs, sorry everyone! I will catch up). Time is just flying—soon it’ll be time for April leftovers already, not to mention the maple cinnamon pecan milk entry I promised Hannah, plus I have to tell you about my trip to Chicago a couple weeks ago, and the vegetarian Ethiopian cooking class I took last night! Needless to say, there is much to come in the next few weeks.

First up is a pizza that Matt helped me make on a Sunday evening. I bought a refrigerated ball of fresh-made multigrain pizza dough at Whole Foods, split it in two, froze one half, and used the other for this thin-crust pie. I made the pizza sauce recipe from Skinny Bitch in the Kitch—I’ve cooked a lot from that book lately! It turned out so fantastic that I ate several spoonfuls straight out of my Vitamix. (Perhaps I’ll do a post on that sometime down the road.) Anyway, we topped the pizza with all the leftover veggies in my fridge – including onion, zucchini, red bell pepper, and probably more I can’t remember – along with a packet of Boca crumbles and a couple ounces of finely shredded jalapeño jack-style almond cheeze. I was never a cheese person, so I’m not much of a fake cheese person either, but I gave this stuff a whirl and I actually really enjoyed it. SO, long story short: we made a pizza. It was awesome.

Matt came over hungry one night and I, like the thoughtful and accommodating person I am (::cough::), threw together a nice little meal for him of a veggie burger on an Ezekiel bun and a warm barley-vegetable salad tossed in a garlicky vinaigrette and garnished with minced fresh spinach. We also had a bottle of Spanish cava (sparkling wine) on hand, so we popped that open and drank it out of my hand-blown Murano wineglasses I picked up in Venice. Am I fancy, or what?

I made mini versions of Love and Olive Oil’s double shot mocha cupcakes (crowned with chocolate-covered espresso beans), and Matt went so nuts for them that I made (and we ate) two more batches by the end of that weekend.

Somehow I ended up on a fried rice kick, and I cooked or ordered it half a dozen times in the span of a week. This one’s from Bangkok Pavilion, a nearby Thai restaurant my friends and I like.

Here’s another seemingly-effortless dinner at home that makes me look like quite the domestic goddess. (My modesty is just alarming, isn’t it?) I bought a fat loaf of ciabatta bread at Whole Foods, tore out and snacked on the insides, and oven-toasted the "shell." I then topped it with slices of rice mozzarella, leftover homemade marinara sauce (recipe/post coming soon), leftover homemade TVP meatballs (recipe/post also coming soon; gah, more promises to be fulfilled!), more marinara sauce, and a quick-sautéed mixture of mushrooms, onions, and garlic. I put the open-faces sandwiches under the broiler for a few minutes, and voilà—vegan meatball subs! They were perfect with a Spanish Jumilla red wine. Yeah, I gotta say...I’m good.

Matt and I tried a new restaurant, Ra Sushi in Leawood. It’s not a traditional Japanese dining establishment by any stretch—it’s full of Americanized glitz, glamour, and pretension. Nonetheless, it was incredibly good. To start, we shared the “spicy rice crispy treats,” which are soy paper hand rolls filled with crispy rice balls, spicy tuna mix, cucumber, avocado, lettuce, and sautéed nuts, served with a soy chili sauce. Impressive! Tasty, too.

The sushi roll I chose, the Yellow Monkey, was equally unique and delicious—mango, roasted red pepper, marinated artichokes, and cream cheese, rolled in rice and seaweed, topped with mango and cashews, and drizzled with a kiwi-wasabi sauce. Wow! I’m not usually a fan of cream cheese in sushi (or much of anywhere else), but I’m glad I rolled with it (har har) for this one. So good!

We walked across the street to complete our meal with gelato at Paciguo. After my gelato binges in Europe set the bar so high, I’ve been pleased find that the gelato here at home is excellent too. In mine (on the left), I got tiramisu, crème caramel, stracciatella (chocolate chip), and wedding cake (a new favorite of mine, and one that I [not surprisingly] never saw abroad). You’d have to ask Matt what all was in his, becausing I was too busy “mmm”ing over mine.

Genghis Khan! Mongolian barbecue, a local legend, and my favorite restaurant in the world. I made my usual mix of broccoli, carrots, red bell pepper, edamame, corn, tofu, peanuts, egg noodles, soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic water, white pepper, and a storm of curry powder. I don’t know how I find room for the sesame bread and fresh fruit.

Matt and I went out for breakfast/brunch at First Watch. I ate the fresh fruit crêpes stuffed with strawberries and banana and topped with organic strawberry yogurt, with a small cup of granola, a toasted English muffin, and a side of my beloved breakfast potatoes.

Matt had the Floridian French toast, made with sourdough bread, wheat germ, and powdered cinnamon sugar, topped with strawberries, banana, and kiwi, and served with blueberry syrup. (Just ignore those sausage links.)

I’ll end this post as I began it, with pizza. This is at Pizza Fusion, and it’s got tomato sauce, red and yellow peppers, artichokes hearts, roasted garlic cloves, and vegan cheese on a whole grain crust. Delizioso!

If you like this, you might also like...
Belated February leftovers
December-January leftovers
Random 2009 leftover madness

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Friday, April 16, 2010

Kidney bean–brown rice chili

I will admit that most of the time, when a recipe calls for dry beans, I substitute canned. (So far on this blog there has only been one exception.) Despite the fact that 99% of the prep is hands-off, cooking beans from scratch still requires me to remember to soak them the night before. Even the quick-soak method means I need to start the recipe over an hour ahead of time. My point is, I understand if you choose to use canned beans in this recipe (which is, like the skinny bitchtastic brownies, from Skinny Bitch in the Kitch), BUT I do highly recommend going the dry bean route. The firm bite and chewy texture of freshly cooked beans is just so different, and so much better, than canned. That said, I’d estimate you could replace the dry beans with three 15-oz. cans of rinsed and drained kidney beans if you’d prefer.

2 cups dry red kidney beans
1 Tbsp coconut oil (or canola oil)
2 onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup chili powder
1 1/2 tsp sea salt
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp dried sage
Pinch cayenne pepper
15-oz. can diced tomatoes
1/2 cup medium-grain brown rice
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 carrot, peeled and shredded
4-6 corn tortillas, cut into strips (optional)

In a large stockpot, combine beans and enough cold water to cover by 2 inches. Cover and let sit for 8 hours or overnight. (Alternatively, bring to a boil over high heat, cover, remove from heat, and let sit for 1 hour.)

Drain the beans, return them to the stockpot, and cover with water by 1 inch. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce to a simmer.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté for 4 minutes. Add the garlic, chili powder, salt, pepper, cumin, oregano, sage, and cayenne and sauté for 1 more minute.

(Sorry for the blurry pic!) Add the onion mixture to the beans...

...along with the tomatoes and rice.

Cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the bell pepper and cook for 15 more minutes. Add the carrot and cook for 5 more minutes, or until the beans and rice are tender.

Serve with homemade tortilla strips, if you wish: while the chili is cooking, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease a baking sheet with cooking spray, and arrange the cut-up tortillas in a single layer. Mist the top with cooking spray, and sprinkle with salt. Bake for 3-5 minutes, or until just beginning to brown. Set aside to cool until the chili’s done.

I LOVED this chili; in fact, I think it gave my three-bean chili a run for its money! I’m convinced that using dry beans made all the difference, since the chewy texture they lend (along with the rice) is the highlight of the dish. It’s quite mildly spiced, but feel free to add a minced jalapeño or more cayenne to kick up the heat if you wish. The crispy baked tortilla strips added a fun crunch and pulled the whole thing together nicely. If I’d had any cilantro, I would have stirred some in at the end. This would also be great served with guacamole or vegan sour cream. It’s low-fat, super-filling, and even better leftover!

Yield: 6-8 servings. Per serving (6): 338 calories, 4.2g fat (2g sat), 61g carbs, 20g fiber, 17.6g protein.
Per serving (8): 253 calories, 3.1g fat (1.5g sat), 45.8g carbs, 15g fiber, 13.2g protein.

If you like this, you might also like...
Chickpea lentil slow-cooker stew
Dal makhani: a refresher
Three-bean vegan chili

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

No-bake almond butter balls

Sometimes you can take a bunch of tasty-on-their-own ingredients, combine them in a way that should be good, and end up with something awful. This is NOT one of those recipes. It is the exact opposite—a bevy of sweet ‘n salty items that, when smooshed together, become more than the sum of their parts.

Before you say anything—I know, I know, honey’s not technically vegan. Use agave nectar if you must, though I think it could affect the texture. If you really don’t care at all whether it’s vegan, feel free to use nonfat dry milk powder in place of the (more expensive and harder to find) soymilk powder. For that matter, use natural peanut butter instead of almond butter, or unsweetened cocoa powder in place of the carob. Agave or honey, soymilk or skim milk, almond or peanut, carob or cocoa, vegan or not, there’s no need to take food too seriously. Just play around and have fun!

1 cup dry soymilk powder
1/2 cup creamy almond butter
1/3 cup honey
2 Tbsp ground flaxseed
Dash of vanilla extract
Pinch of sea salt
2 Tbsp carob powder

Combine the soymilk powder, almond butter, honey, flaxseed, vanilla, and salt in a large bowl. Grease your hands thoroughly with cooking spray and dig in, squishing everything together until well mixed.

Roll the mixture into about 16 balls (minus however much you munch on right out of the bowl) and place on a small baking sheet. Transfer to the fridge to chill for just a few minutes.

Place the carob powder in a medium bowl. Put the chilled almond butter balls, a few at a time, into the carob powder, and shake the bowl to roll them around until completely coated. Place them back on the baking sheet and chill for an additional few minutes.

These will keep in the refrigerator for at least a week or two, but good luck keeping them around that long. It’s far too easy to pop one, two, five of them at a time, right at the fridge door! At breakfast, for dessert, or in between meals, you’ll find these calling your name at all hours. Surprisingly well-rounded nutritionally, they also make the perfect pre- or post-workout snack. No-bake, no-guilt, and delicious!

Oh, and Hannah, the fact that I could have called these "chocolate-covered nut balls" did not escape me, trust me! ;P

Yield: 16 servings. Per serving: 125 calories, 5.6g fat (trace sat), 16.2g carbs, 2g fiber, 3g protein.

If you like this, you might also like...
Homemade almond milk
No-bake PB-choc-oat cookies
Raw pecan pie cookies

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Thursday, April 8, 2010

Tidy joes (vegan sloppy joes)

I’m really not a fan of American food; in fact, I list it in the sidebar at right as one of my hates. This makes Urban Vegan’s sloppy joes recipe very special indeed—it appealed to even me! Once I removed the offensive barbeque sauce, at least. (I live in the BBQ capital of the country, and yet I can think of no smell, save sauerkraut, that repels me more.) The one thing that gave me pause about these sloppy joes was that mine turned out to be not at all sloppy, so I have renamed these tidy joes—they won’t make a mess of your plate or your health!

2 Tbsp canola oil
2 onions, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 red bell pepper, chopped
2 cups tomato sauce
1 1/2 cups texturized vegetable protein (TVP)
1 scant Tbsp chili powder
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1 Tbsp brown sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
Hot sauce to taste
4 whole grain hamburger buns

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Sauté the onion until translucent...

...then add the garlic and red pepper and sauté for an additional minute.

Add the tomato sauce, TVP, chili powder, red wine vinegar, soy sauce, and brown sugar and turn the heat to low. Stir well, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes, or until most of the liquid is absorbed and the TVP and red pepper are soft. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and hot sauce.

A toasted whole grain bun was the perfect vehicle for this, but it would be great over brown rice too. I actually just ate the leftovers with a spoon, and loved it. These tidy joes have just the right amount of tang from the tomato sauce and vinegar, tempered nicely by the sweetness of the onion and pepper and the dab of brown sugar. A couple generous dashes of Tabasco rounds out all the flavors, making these truly above-average joes.

Yield: 4 servings. Per serving (without bun): 260 calories, 7.4g fat (.5g sat), 28.7g carbs, 9g fiber, 20.9g protein.

More Urban Vegan recipes...
Black olive tapenade
Whole grain rosemary-olive bread
Cauliflower-chickpea tagine

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