October 31, 2012

What will your cat wear for Halloween?

Photo by Aaron and Kate.
This is not my cat, but I know him, and Percy is definitely the kind of cat who would allow his people to dress him this way. Perhaps he's a Packers fan, and requested the outfit!

Photo by Aaron and Kate.

In any case, he's decked out and ready for trick-or-treating cats to show up at his apartment. He's giving out catnip — and I think it's organic catnip. Meowhaha.

But what will we give to the little human trick-or-treaters who come to our house, assuming anyone shows up in the rain?

Well, we have cute little bags of pretzels.

And lollipops. As I pointed out to my husband, who bought all this stuff because he still remembers the hoards of kids who came to the door in Madison, "I think we still have some of those lollipops left from last year." Which I should go find and toss. Anyone who shows up on Halloween will get a big handful of pretzels or this year's lollipops — or both!

Happy Halloween!

To everyone who has suffered loss during the storm, I send condolences. I can't imagine what you have been through, and I hope the stress will ease up soon. So sorry for your losses. I grew up on the East Coast, and it's especially painful to see all the suffering in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York.

October 26, 2012

My kitchen is open ...

There were times, especially two summers ago, when I may have been addicted to HGTV. I watched remodeling, re-gardening, re-decorating and house-hunting shows with alarming regularity. I was obsessed. After a while, though, there were certain words and phrases that I noticed popping up all the time, that were starting to grate on my nerves. If you watch HGTV, you know exactly what I mean. "Open-concept," "ensuite with double sinks," "granite counter tops with stainless steel appliances." "This kitchen needs updating," the house-hunters would whine. "The ensuite only has one sink." "Eewww," they would moan, "white appliancesso 80s." Our house in Wisconsin was built in 1916. It didn't have an ensuite with two sinks. The kitchen, which we remodeled when we bought the house, had white appliances by choice. Open-concept? Ha! No open-concept, but I love that house.

In May 2011, after renting in Seattle for two years, we purchased a small house here from a contractor who had owned the house for 15 years, and had remodeled it prior to selling. The house was built in 1912, and though mostly it was simply restored, the kitchen was remodeled. It's now open-concept with granite counter tops and stainless steel appliances. I could be on HGTV! I actually like the openness — I can see everyone and everything as I cook, and though the kitchen isn't large (approximately 11-1/2 by 11-1/5 ft.) it feels spacious, and the 3-1/2 ft. wide breakfast bar/counter is a great workspace. The 4-1/2 ft. mud room added to the rear makes it feel roomier, especially since it opens to a deck. The house's nine foot ceilings also make it feel bigger than it is.

My old kitchen is much funkier — not as modern as the new one — and at least one of my attempts to liven up the current one was foiled by a strange design feature. The cabinet tops have a trim on the front that is much higher than the actual tops. When I put a decorative object on top, it goes down so low you can't see it. My kitchen may be a little boring, but I like it. Here's my kitchen — I didn't straighten or specially clean it for you. This is it.

You are looking into the kitchen from the dining room in the first two photos and into the kitchen from the rear door in the third. See how open it is? The breakfast bar/counter is large enough that my husband often uses it as a desk, though I'm not in favor of this.You can see part of my cookbook shelf in the top photo.

This is the interior, moving clockwise from the breakfast bar/counter area to the stove, fridge and around to the sink across from the stove. The fridge looks much wider than it actually is, and in fact, because it's located right next to the wall, access is inconvenient. To clean it I have to remove all the door shelves and angle the fridge shelves to get them out. It's a chore. Sometimes it's even hard getting food in and out because the space is so narrow.

Here's the stove. It's got five burners but I've never actually used the long, narrow middle one. The oven controls are all electronic which took some getting used to — even now we sometimes set the timer wrong. The big drawer under the stove holds all my baking sheets, cooling racks and other stuff.

In the first photo you see the pantry cupboard on the right, next to the sink. The lower part has four shelves and the upper part has three. It holds a lot. We need a step stool to reach the top.

The Baking cupboard is left of the stove and kitty-corner to the big counter. It's really handy to be able to reach whatever I need for baking from the work area. The counter (which you can see in a previous photo) holds the toaster, food processor and utensil can. I call the drawer under the counter the baking drawer but it's not really limited to baking equipment. Under the baking drawer is the pot cupboard.

Under the big food prep area are the spice drawers — the main one and the overflow. The third spice area is across the room to the left of the sink, under the dishes. It's at the top of the post. The cabinet under the drawers holds various cookware and mixing bowls. The tan clay lasagna pan is a piece I hand built.

You can't really see them in the photo but behind the bowls and cast iron are all sorts of cake, pie and muffin pans. There's a cabinet next to the cookware that holds stuff like pasta, onions and nori.

At the top left is the dish cupboard and on the right glassware, mugs  and a bowl collection. Most of this stuff (except the clay bowls) is from Goodwill and other resale shops.

The middle photo shows the knife drawer (which is also the potato drawer!). We don't have a lot of knives but exactly what we need.

In the bottom photo is a cabinet in the dining room that holds dishes, tablecloths and cloth napkins. The left drawer has assorted fabrics for photography and the right is filled with napkins. You can't see them in the photo but I'm a sucker for interesting cloth napkins that I find at garage/estate sales and resale shops. They barely fit anymore.

Last but not least, the top photo shows the metal shelves in the mud room that hold big stuff that doesn't fit happily in the cupboards — slow cooker, extra wok, pickle press, bamboo steamers, giant wood salad bowls, etc. There's also a tool crate, cleaning stuff, recycling and trash.

On the back wall is a Haitian oil painting that I love.

And just for good measure, here's a sampling of my favorite refrigerator "art".

That's my kitchen. You are welcome anytime!

October 25, 2012

Homemade nachos — what is "healthy?"

According to Wikipedia:  "Nachos may have originated in the city of Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico, just over the border from Eagle Pass, Texas,or in Ciudad Acuña, Coahuila, Mexico, at a restaurant called the Victory Club, owned by Rodolfo De Los Santos. In 1943, the wives of ten to twelve U.S. soldiers stationed at Fort Duncan in nearby Eagle Pass were in Piedras Negras on a shopping trip, and arrived at the restaurant after it had closed for the day. The maître d'hôtel, Ignacio "Nacho" Anaya, invented a new snack for them with what little he had available in the kitchen: tortillas and cheese sauce. Anaya cut the tortillas into triangles, added shredded cheddar cheese, quickly heated them, added sliced jalapeño peppers and served them.

When asked what the dish was called, he answered, "Nacho's especiales". As word of the dish traveled, the apostrophe was lost, and Nacho's "specials" became "special nachos"."

True story or not, nachos are extremely popular. And why wouldn't they be? A plateful of corn chips covered with cheese and salsa has all the right addictive qualities of delicious fatty and salty flavors. Up until last week, though, nachos were not part of my diet — I've tried taco salad and more recently, taco pizza — but never nachos. I know, right? Ms. Healthy just never thought of corn chips and melted "cheese" as real food. Duh. But then I ordered nachos at The Veggie Grill last week, and I wanted them again — just like everyone else.  Of course, being possessed of the gene that causes me to try to make everything I eat "more healthy," I had to make my nacho dinner "more healthy," too.

Now I want to be clear that "more healthy" may not be the same as "healthy," so before you rush off to make a big plate of nachos for dinner, keep that in mind. So, how do you make nachos "more healthy"? Well ... you could add a side of kale. (and, yes, I did that!) And you could start with "healthier" chips. I think the healthiest chips would be if you took whole grain, additive-free non-GMO corn tortillas, cut them into triangles, sprayed them very lightly with oil and baked them until crispy. Or you could compromise like I did and use Food Should Taste Good sweet potato tortilla chips. They are non-GMO, vegan and gluten-free. They are not especially low fat (6g per 1-oz.), but are lower in fat than many brands, and much lower in salt than most brands, yet still have a pleasantly salty/slightly sweet taste. One serving has 3g of fiber, 20% of your daily dose of  vitamin A and 2g of protein. They taste great — a little like sweet potato fries — and as an occasional food, they aren't so bad. For a healthier base, you could use oven-baked sweet potato fries.

On top of the chips I added canned pinto beans that I heated with chipotle in adobo, garlic and various herbs. The healthiest version would be dried beans you soak and cook yourself. The worst might be commercial beans filled with salt and preservatives and packed in a can leaking BPA. Or, you could choose a brand of low-or no-salt beans, organic or not, that is sold in cans that don't contain BPA/BPS.  (Lots of controversy as you'll see if you follow and read the link, then read the comments.) For the cheese topping, I made a cashew cheese in the Vitamix. I didn't use a recipe, just blended cashews and water, then added stuff I thought would give me the flavor I was after. This included nutritional yeast, chopped kalamata olives, red pepper flakes, truffle salt, liquid smoke, basil, garlic, turmeric, a small amount of tapioca starch to thicken it when it was cooked, and who knows what else. It tasted great and didn't contain any added oil — just the fat from the cashews. If you didn't want to make your own sauce, you could use a prepared product like Nacheez or Food for Lovers Queso. On top of the cheese sauce I put Frontera chipotle salsa, and chopped fresh tomatoes from the garden. If I'd had cilantro, ripe avocado and jalapenos, I would have added those, too.

This was a very fast and delicious dinner — satisfying my craving for nachos. It tasted great, but, was it healthy? Maybe not by some people's standards, but it was more healthy than the nachos I could get at the bar around the corner, or probably even The Veggie Grill. It's all relative. As I've said in the past, everyone has a different opinion and standard for what they consider healthy. Or more healthy. Or healthy enough. If you're used to eating a plate of greasy, dairy-cheese nachos every weekend, moving towards a version like I've described might be a step towards a better diet. If you eat only whole, organic foods and would never dream of eating nachos, it might be a step backwards!

The whole food health and safety issue is so convoluted and confusing that sometimes I think nothing we do matters, and we can just eat anything we wish (not animal products, of course). Then I recover my sense of trying to choose the healthiest products I can find and do the best I can with the information I have. I will probably continue to buy and prepare  whole, organic food most of the time, and canned and jarred foods that are what I believe to be high quality in content and packaging, when I need speed and convenience. We all make choices and compromises based on our preferences and situations, but I think it's possible to keep learning and making better choices for ourselves, the animals and the planet.

October 24, 2012

Easy hot breakfast polenta in five minutes

For years I avoided microwaves and never owned one. Even now they make me uncomfortable, but a great big microwave came with our house, and I guess I've found the convenience factor too alluring to ignore completely. I don't use it for much, but it occasionally makes me a hot breakfast in minutes on groggy mornings. And there's no pot to clean.

For my morning polenta I use 1/4 cup of coarse organic polenta plus 1 cup of filtered water, a handful of raisins and a few nigella seeds (opt.). I microwave it in a large soup bowl for five minutes. (Every microwave is different. Start with 4 minutes and see if you need to add more time.) While the polenta cooks, I cut up some black olives and small tomatoes. When the polenta is done, I add my cut up toppings with a good sprinkle of pumpkin seeds (or walnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, cashews, whatever) and dig in. I've also been known to make a version with blueberries and almond milk.

I was hesitating to publish this because it seemed to me I had already published a similar post, so I searched my blog. Weirdly enough, exactly one year ago today on Oct. 24, I posted about the very same breakfast. I think mofo is messing with my brain.

Oh well. Might as well throw in a picture of my pretend cat, Lucy. After all, what's a good bowl of porridge without company to enjoy it with? And Lucy, at least, wasn't in the 2011 post. :)

October 23, 2012

Birthday dinner number two

My husband and I went out for my birthday on Friday night, but the family wanted to celebrate, too, and the only night we could get everyone together was Sunday. My husband volunteered to cook, and the guests contributed gourmet salad and cookies.

I requested Dreena Burton's No-Fu Love Loaf as the main course because I had just read a wonderful description of it on Facebook, and it sounded so homey and delicious. Plus the recipe is on Fat Free Vegan Kitchen blog as part of Susan Voisin's review of Let Them Eat Vegan. I don't yet own the cookbook but I want it.

To go with the loaf I asked for smoky potato wedges from The Complete Guide to Vegan Food Substitutions because they're so delicious, and potatoes just seemed the right choice with the loaf. To add more green, my husband steamed a big potful of Brussels sprouts. It was a dark and gloomy night more suited to Halloween than a birthday dinner, so the photos you see of the loaf were taken the next day when there was a tiny bit more light. The actual dinner plates were much more festive!

Instead of using bulghur wheat for one of the ingredients in the loaf, we subbed quinoa, and it worked great. We also subbed toasted cumin seeds for the fennel. The loaf was just as good as I hoped it would be; everyone at the table enjoyed it. One son said "this tastes just like something you would get at a vegetarian restaurant." And he meant that as a complement. The surprise hit of the evening, though, and totally unexpected, was Miss E's reaction to the Brussels sprouts. They must have been steamed just right because she LOVED them, and gobbled them up. Go figure.

October 22, 2012

Veggie Grill

Friday was my birthday, and my husband made reservations to have dinner at Sutra, a vegan fine-dining restaurant in Seattle. Sutra operates like a supper club in that there are one or two seatings a night and a fixed menu. The food is wonderful, but when my husband checked the menu, he saw that the entrée had a fennel seed sauce. No one in their right mind would serve me fennel seeds twice (he's already made that mistake once) — and certainly not on my birthday ... in public. When Sutra failed to contact him about possible substitutions, he decided to call and cancel. He asked where I'd like to go instead.

I considered Café Flora, a nice, upscale place with delicious food. But then I remembered that when we were out with friends on Wednesday night, they were raving about the new-to-Seattle Veggie Grill, and I wanted to try it. It may not seem like a birthday-worthy dining spot, but it was exactly what I felt like doing. Sutra will have to wait until they make something that won't make me gag — to put it bluntly. And my favorite time to go to Café Flora is for lunch on a sunny day, so I can sit in the fabulous solarium. That might not happen again until next summer. So Veggie Grill won the toss.

Seattle recently got two Veggie Grill locations, and one is in a shopping center about 10 minutes from our house, and that's where we went. (It's a very popular shopping center so if you go on a weekend, don't expect to find easy parking.) The restaurant is kind of like a fast food place with very minimal decor — for some silly reason, I thought it would look a little better, but no matter, it was clean and pleasant. It was easy to order at the counter, and the staff was extremely polite and friendly. Since it was my birthday, and I wanted to try a few different things, we ordered a starter of Uptown Nachos (Tortilla chips, chili, VG-cheese, corn salsa, avocado, soy cream, jalapeños). Oh yummy. I have no idea what was in the cheese or cream, but most everything else was recognizable, and I just let my food jeebies go and enjoyed it. Too bad I forgot the camera and had to use the phone.

My husband ordered the V-Burger, and I do know what was in that because Veggie Grill publishes the nutritional information of their meat-subs on their Web site. He loved the sandwich and the sides.

I had the (gluten-free) Urban Plate, which I would be happy to have again, and again. The presentation was gorgeous and the food delicious. You're only seeing some of the kale on the plate because the mushroom arrived on top of the tempeh, and I had to move it to take a photo. There was so much kale, and my husband kept saying, "wow, look at all the kale," and "the kale looks so good," so I gave him about a third of the kale. The kale was, in fact, perfect — tender and delicious. The mushroom had a slight smoky taste and the tempeh was the best-tasting I've ever had. Even the texture seemed better than tempeh I cook at home. It was too much food and I couldn't finish it — probably because of the nachos.

As we sat and ate my husband looked at the crowd and asked, "do you think all these people are vegan?" No, I don't. I think Veggie Grill has created a friendly, pleasant, fun, delicious vegan restaurant that has reached across dietary lines.

So I feel a little guilty adding this next part, but as you saw at the beginning of the post, my birthday is in October and I'm a Libra — on the cusp, but still possessing substantial Libra qualities. We Libras can be both artistic, and also obsessively tuned to see both sides of every story. We have a hard time making decisions because of this need to review all sides of an issue.  The issue foremost in my mind in relation to Veggie Grill is that of isolated soy protein, which I usually avoid. I do eat soy products like tofu, tempeh, miso, edamame, and tamari, but I usually don't eat isolated soy protein. All of the burgers and chick'n at Veggie Grill contain this product, and it makes me nervous, though of course, I know there are many opinions on the topic. Veggie Grill stands on the side of believing it is health promoting.

In the interest of balance, I'm sharing a video of Dr. John McDougall speaking about the dangers of consuming soy isolates as compared to the dangers of consuming meat and dairy. It's a very interesting video. What do you think?

October 19, 2012

Creamy lime pie in a flaky crust

Gather the limes.

Zest and juice the limes.

Bake a flaky crust and pile in the creamy lime filling. Refrigerate.

Enjoy. The gluten-free and vegan recipe for amazing, creamy lime pie is a tester recipe for Laurie Sadowski's upcoming pie book. Laurie is the author of The Allergy-Free Cook Bakes Bread which I reviewed here and here.

October 18, 2012

San Diego part 3 — Loving Hut

It's surprising how much lots of sunshine, fresh air and walking on beaches can tire you out. Not that I'm complaining — we thoroughly enjoyed our third day in beautiful San Diego, but by evening we were pretty tired out, and ambivalent about whether we wanted dinner or not. But my husband was really eager to try the local Loving Hutpart of the restaurant chain founded by The Supreme Master Ching Hai, so we headed out to University Heights for a late supper. If you're not familiar with Loving Hut, you can read my review of the Seattle restaurant here. We generally refer to the restaurant as "the cult," and sometimes I can't remember the real name, but we like Loving Hut, and family members have eaten in Loving Huts all over the world. Although part of a worldwide chain, each restaurant is individually owned, and the owners control the menu. All the food is vegan, but you never know exactly what you'll find at the different locations.

We were both feeling a little overfed and our stomachs were a bit wonky so we were looking mainly for soup. Specifically, my husband was craving pho. We started with fresh spring rolls, pictured at the top of the post, and we each ordered a medium-size bowl of soup. The spring rolls were tasty but we actually didn't finish them — very unusual for us. Ken loved his pho (fresh rice noodles, soy slices, soy ham and white fungus flower served with basil, bean sprouts, cilantro and onion), and ate the whole thing.

I ordered Noble soup, (fresh asparagus, carrots, king mushroom, bean curd, enoki, cilantro), and it was exactly what I wanted. There was a odd, squeaky-crunchy -not-in-a-good-way, item in the soup that I couldn't identify that the waitress said was enoki, but I could see the enoki mushrooms in the broth and this didn't look like any enoki I've ever seen. Could it have been the bottom part of the enoki cluster that usually gets cut off? Other than that, the soup was perfect. We were both very happy with our dinners and left the restaurant feeling a lot better than when we had entered. We would happily return to Loving Hut in San Diego.

Sunday was our last morning in San Diego before catching a flight back to Seattle. We didn't have much time because when you fly somewhere with my husband you get to the airport VERY early, but we wanted to go for a walk near the hotel and get some exercise before heading to the plane.

I really liked the look of the street we walked down, especially the tiny patios on the right filled with plants, interesting furniture and art objects, and could easily imagine living in one of the brick townhouses.  I wish I had photographed some of wonderful porch settings.

We headed to the Gaslamp District — an area filled with shopping and restaurants — and  happened upon the 4th Annual Fifth Avenue Auto Showcase. While I'm not a classic car aficionado, it was hard not to be impressed by the assortment of classic autos that had been lovingly restored by their owners.

I took a few photos of some of my favorites. The only disconcerting thing is, if some of these cars are antiques, then I must be an antique, too.

Last but not least, I finally got to see, if not actually eat at, Croce's  Restaurant and Jazz Bar, founded by Jim Croce's family after his death in a plane crash.

San Diego is a beautiful city, and I hope to visit again soon.

October 17, 2012

San Diego part 2

I snapped this photo to remember the impossibly blue sky in Coronado.
On Saturday we went to Coronado. My husband wanted to show me the historic, Victorian Hotel del Coronado. This is a luxurious resort and spa that will set you back a substantial amount to stay there, but it's free to gawk. In fact, busloads of foreign tourists arrived by the minute.

The Web site describes it thus: "Since it was first built more than 120 years ago, the Hotel del Coronado has been a beacon of grandeur and refinement among vacation destinations in Southern California and the world. With its iconic red-shingled roof adding a dash of majestic color to the dazzling azure Pacific coastline, The Del stands as the definitive example of what a luxury resort should be." Who wouldn't want to stay here? And visit the spa?

We wandered the the opulent indoor public areas and, ahem, used the facilities, before heading out to the gardens. The gardens were lush and exotic with beautiful views in every direction. The tree I photographed is a dragon tree, and it was quite striking.

There was an enormous pool in a beautiful setting and lots of people were swimming and frolicking, which now that I'm back in Seattle, seems so unfair.

We followed the garden path down to the beach and were in for a surprise. The huge beach with its warm, soft, almost fluffy, white sand was too inviting to resist. Off went the shoes and we headed down the beach for a long walk.

In the photo above you can see a pile of sand pumpkins that belong to an enterprising artist (under the umbrella). We noticed quite a few street artists, on the beach and back in the city, who build interesting piles of stones or other natural materials, and for $5, they let you take a photo. 

This gorgeous pile of seaweed let me take its picture for free, and I couldn't resist its charms. I may even print and frame a version of my seaweed photo because I like it so much.

On Friday I wanted to live in La Jolla, but on Saturday Coronado was my destination of choice, so I looked on Zillow.com to see what real estate prices were like. Clearly, living here is not in my future, unless I come upon a few million dollars.

All those hours of sun and sand finally got to our stomachs and we headed back to San Diego for lunch at Evolution. Evolution is a funky, all-vegan, fast food place.

As you can see from the menu board, there's lots of "chick'n" and "cheese," but also some raw foods, and juices, smoothies and shakes. Even soft-serve and raw soft-serve.

Lots of choices to meet different preferences, but all served from the counter, just like McDonald's. There were also two cold cases with pre-packaged restaurant food, cookies and such, and cold drinks.

 There was an enclosed outdoor seating patio filled with potted plants and a fountain, making for a very pleasant place to have a quick lunch. When we arrived, the patio was deserted, and we assumed it was because we were having such a late lunch, but pretty soon more people began arriving and there were quite a few occupied tables.

 While perusing the menu, I noticed that hidden among the Gardein burgers was a house-made bean burger for $1 additional, and I went with that. It was huge and I could barely finish it, but I have to say it was kind of bland, even with all the condiments. On the plus side, it didn't fall apart much and was very filling.

My husband chose a bowl of chili, and we both had sweet potato fries. He said he liked the chili, and we both thought the fries were good. The potatoes were fried in slices instead of spears, and lightly salted. I always forget, though, that I make sweet potato fries in the oven and they're not very greasy, but these were the real deal — in all their deep-fried glory.

After lunch we headed to Pacific Beach for some more walking and ocean viewing. And people watching. PB has a completely different vibe from the other two very elegant beach towns we visited — it's gritty, a little crazy with activity, and draws a mostly young crowd. The beach walk is lined with rooming houses and bars where tightly-packed bodies are partying. There are loads of open-air restaurants and (tacky) beach shops and lots of people biking and hanging out. We walked the beachfront path enjoying the sunshine and ocean air. After we'd exhausted our walking urges, we popped into Goodwill to see what the beach had to offer thrifters, but either I was too tired to deal with bargain hunting, or this was the most disorganized Goodwill I've been in. I swear, there were no size categories and I didn't have the patience to look though the jumble. Must be getting too old.

We went back to the hotel to rest, and super tired once again, dragged ourselves out to a late dinner. Tomorrow I'll cover dinner, and our last morning in San Diego.