"Bacon is the candy of meat."

Saturday, February 7, 2015

In Which I Visit Veganland

Readers of this blog will know that since I assumed daily responsibility for cooking actual dinners I have found myself in an off-and-on struggle to perk things up. With the kids having relatively limited repertoires, I've sometimes had a hard time thinking of things to cook that will be nutritious, tasty, acceptable on the Lucas Thumb Scale, and not too difficult or tedious to cook. It's a process.

At the same time, I've also been trying to get my own diet into a new place that helps me get more fit without forcing myself to go against my usual tastes and food interests. While Weight Watchers worked very well for me during the years after I'd given birth, I am emphatically not a Dieter. I've had good experiences in the Land of Low Carb (as a former employee of Atkins Nutritionals, I suppose that's a good thing) but this time when I tried to move back in that direction, I was feeling less inspired than usual.

One of my favorite food writers is Mark Bittman, whose "How to Cook Everything" books have been constant resources for me over the years. He has come to espouse a lower-animal product diet he sums up as "Vegan Before 6" or "VB6" -- eat vegan during the day until 6pm, and then incorporate whatever animal products you like for your last meal of the day. This seemed appealing to me in a way it never had before. Perhaps the flexitarian safety valve made me feel it was doable (plus Bittman's sensible recognition that sometimes you need to pass over the quinoa in favor of a bag of chips or a candy bar). I'm also living in a city that is very vegetarian-friendly, and where a majority of our friends are mostly vegetarian with the occasional pescatarian tendency. Plus, Vancouver is a city boasting of beautiful produce and access to global ingredients that make it easy to explore a zillion and one ways of cooking plant products.

I'd never actually looked at a vegan cookbook, so my friend Nicky kindly let me borrow a few of hers. I was immediately smitten with Isa Chandra Moskowitz of The Post Punk Kitchen. Her recipes are delicious, unfussy, smartly written, and infused with a New York-GenX spirit that feels right at home for me. So far everything I've made from her books Veganomicon and Vegan With a Vengeance has been a huge success.

So what is this bacon-loving, rare-steak-craving, sushi-addict eating? Well, avocados, a/k/a vegan lard, for one thing. While I could probably stuff a few whole ones down my gullet in a sitting, I'm trying to show restraint and eat them half at a time. My favorite way is laid on a slice of garlic-rubbed sourdough toast, and sprinkled with lemon juice and Maldon sea salt. Sometimes I will make a second slice of toast topped with my other new staple -- tahini. This is made even more fantastic by spreading a thin layer of Marmite underneath it, which adds a tang of salty yeastiness to the unctuousness of the sesame paste. This makes a fantastic lunch, and I'll add a little cherry tomato salad, green salad, or fruit salad to the plate to complete the meal. I've also tried avocado on a toasted bagel as a substitute for our usual lox and cream cheese on Sunday mornings, and that has been satisfying enough that I don't pine for the lox. I have even made a very satisfying vegan take on the BLAT by frying up thin slices of smoked tofu brushed with a little maple syrup and using them with the avocado (I didn't have any ripe tomato, but would add it if I had it) on toasted sourdough.

Lunch is served.

 I was somewhat terrified of vegan baking, and I haven't yet attempted a cake (so no final conclusions here) but I have discovered that at least with some things, eggs, milk, and butter are less necessary than I'd thought. I've made terrific buckwheat-blueberry pancakes using almond milk and applesauce in lieu of milk and eggs (plus vanilla and cinnamon) that distracted me even from the presence of bacon on the table during the last two Saturday pancake breakfasts. I made absolutely killer chocolate-chocolate chip-walnut cookies from Veganomicon that used almond milk, canola oil instead of butter, and ground flaxseed in place of eggs, and they're easily one of the quickest and most delectable cookies I've ever made.

The devil is obviously a vegan.

The real test was, of course, whether I could cook anything that the kids would be willing to eat. Tofu to the rescue! They are pretty good with tofu, and have eaten with gusto a vegan stir-fried noodles with plain and smoked tofu dish on several occasions. I cooked a tofu tikka masala, substituting coconut milk for cream and using tofu where my kids have previous had chicken. From Veganomicon I made a very easy and flavorful dish of lentils flavored with tamarind, and served it all with basmati rice. It went so well that nobody complained when I offered the leftovers for dinner the next night.

A surprise thumbs up on the Lucas Scale was achieved when I attempted "cheesy" vegan kale chips. Kale chips, as everyone knows, are complete crack, but they are totally irresistible when prepared with a paste of cashews, lemon, garlic, coconut oil, mustard, and that umami delivery system, nutritional yeast. My only regret is that I can't produce more than one bunch of kale's worth at a time, due to limited space in my oven.

So have I been West Coast brainwashed? When I tell you that I have also been RUNNING. Sometimes at 7am IN THE RAIN you will probably conclude that I have indeed. But I am really enjoying both the running and the new explorations in cooking, and I feel good. I still identify as an omnivore, and do not intend at this point to forego all kinds of eating experiences (animal and vegetable) when they present themselves, but I'm very happy to make daily visits to Veganland.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Family Dinner Continues Apace

Greetings Earthlings! I am pleased to report that my family has not yet starved to death under my care. In fact, I have hit on some dinners that have gotten the much-sought Lucas Two Thumbs Up rating.

The first thing that has happened is that Lucas started art classes at the amazing Arts Umbrella, which offers high-quality visual and performing arts instruction to children from preschool through high school. The school is located on Vancouver's famous Granville Island, which is packed full of art studios, galleries, restaurants, and the amazing Public Market, where I now spend a couple of hours every Friday busting our food budget for the week while Lucas takes his mixed media class. Even with the best of intentions, I can't help but return home with bags stuffed with endless varieties of delicious goodies -- lately I can't resist the pyramids of neatly stacked strawberries and blueberries, the multicolored bunches of kale, and the huge variety of grains, spices, and other nifty ingredients at the Grainry. And I never fail to stop by Oyama Sausage Co., whose massive selection of creative sausages made from local high quality meats has become the center of our Friday dinner. I can't even bring myself to look at their full selection of charcuterie, pate, and cheese, or I might never leave.

Sausages with herbed couscous, stewed zucchini, and fruit plate. 

Yes, Friday night is Sausage Night. Each week, I select three or four varieties (this is hard! they have dozens and dozens, and the selections change daily) and as soon as I get home I pop them into the oven while I put away all the produce and other tasty bits, and put together some simple and quick side dishes (couscous is a favorite). I've started cutting up a little fruit plate for Lucas and Baby Gateau, so at least they get some plant matter into them.

This week we sampled Toulouse pork sausage (mild and perfect for kids), Chicken with Preserved Lemon (a little dry, but tasty), Elk with Huckleberry (gamey in a good way), and Pork with Prune (delicious, but deemed "too fruity" by the kids). Others we've tried have included Duck with Truffle, Smokey Bison (Lucas's favorite), Pork with Red Wine and Herbs (fantastic), and Japanese Chicken (kids raved).

Ham night.
Another gift that kept on giving was the procurement of a spiral-sliced ham from Costco when we ventured across the border to Bellingham, WA. They have most of the stuff we're used to getting at the Vancouver Costco, but some of our favorite American products can only be found if we drive down to Washington State. Fortunately, I now know where to go when I run out of the supply of A-1 Steak Sauce my mother brought me when I whined that what they sell under that label in Canada is a totally different product.

The ham, cooked with a simple maple glaze, served us for umpteen meals. The first night, I served it with mashed sweet potatoes and a green salad, but everyone clamored for "regular" potatoes, so I made that the next night too. The ham showed up in school lunch sandwiches, in cold cut platters at home, and finally its bone and last scraps of meat produced a phenomenal French Canadian Pea Soup with yellow split peas.

My bella chicken.
And my crowning achievement was the Julia Child-inspired roasting of a chicken. I took a midweek trip to Granville Island to obtain a haggis for our cousin's Robert Burns Day party, and while at the butcher purchased a huge chicken. The last time I had tried to roast a chicken was a complete disaster -- it would not cook through, and only later did I realized that both my meat thermometer and the temperature gauge on the oven were busted. I have remedied that with an oven thermometer and a new meat thermometer and all is well.

French chef-type roast chicken is not a set-it-and-forget-it project. You have to baste and turn that bastard every 10-15 minutes, but boy is it worth it. It came out succulent, with a well-seasoned, brown and crisp skin and gorgeous drippings for a gravy. I roasted some potatoes in a dish alongside it and served a bowl of my favorite flash-fried kale with lemon, and it was a truly fine meal. It was big enough to give us a second night of roast chicken, plus its carcass tipped the balance and allowed me to clear out my freezer stash of chicken bits and vegetable trimmings to make the best chicken stock I ever made, following Gabrielle Hamilton's instructions in the Prune cookbook. I'd added a few extra drumsticks to the pot, and the meat from those later went into a batch of chicken tacos, while about the stock is what made that pea soup so rich and delicious.

But the very best part of all about my weekly trips to Granville Island may not be the delectable things coming out of the kitchen. It's that I have a little extra time to myself. After all the shopping is done, I settle myself down in a cafe or, better yet if I'm not driving, a bar and treat myself to something nice. Last week, the lovely bartender at the Liberty Distillery made me their delicious take on an Old Fashioned -- white whiskey with orange gomme syrup, bitters, lemon, and star anise. It was lovely, and I quite relaxed as I sipped it, while admiring the ruby red strawberries and opalescent black kale spilling out of my bags around me. It was a perfect start to the weekend.