motto: friendship

lauren, halimah and i recently got back from a westerly sojourn to visit our dearest friend mary in houston,tx where she is studying architecture at rice university. besides little overnight trips here and there, this was my first real experience with a ladies only vacation. and let me tell you - it was amazing! we bonded deeply over serious confessions, embarrassing stories, nonsense jokes and sex talk. we stayed up late, whispered once the lights were out, slept in daily, traded accessories, shooed off male suitors in bars, and drove around listening to oldies.

but, perhaps most importantly, we ate and drank our asses off. from the high brow to the low brow, we left no culinary stone unturned. during a week when most americans are cursing themselves for their holiday indulgences, and swearing to do better this time around, our appetites took houston by storm. we scarfed trashy tex mex at chuy's, gorgeous waffles at baby barnaby's, light-as-a-feather gourmet pizzas at dolce vita, and simply perfect avocado tacos from the truck adjacent to possibly the best dive bar that side of the mississippi, the west alabama ice house.

my favorite meals, though, were the ones we prepared for ourselves in mary's tiny, charming kitchen. except for sunday brunch, we made breakfast each morning, small, balanced little meals, much like the ones i make at home before work. toast, coffee, yogurt, fruit.

there were a few lovely home cooked dinners, as well, usually preceded by a hasty trip to the nearby h-e-b for ingredients and beer. buying a 12-pack of cheap craft beer in a grocery store is such a succinct pleasure for a pennsylvanian. back at home base, we'd share the prep work with jangly tunes from the college radio station as our soundtrack. the fragrance from the simmering pot filled the small apartment, and a voice from the couch would pipe up, "what smells so good?" while i whipped up the salad dressing, mary would spread out her prized vintage place mats, and uncork the wine. finally, we would all sit down together, a tender ritual that recalled the glory days when we all lived under one roof in west philadelphia.

my favorite dinner was on saturday night. at that point, we'd been in houston for a few days and had all fallen into an easy groove with one another. there were still a few days standing between us and our departure, and if i stretched my imagination a bit, i could pretend that we'd never have to say goodbye. earlier that day, we drove out to galveston to rest our eyes on the gulf of mexico and explore the meager town. standing with my bare toes in the sand in early january, the wind whipping through the beleaguered palm trees, felt cinematic and intense.

as we returned to houston, restless from the sluggish highway traffic, we pulled off for late afternoon milkshakes from a charming diner. an hour later, overloaded on sugar and a bit regretful for it, we were all craving something inoffensive and clean for our pummeled palates. mary, who somehow always knows what's right for every occasion, suggested a fennel-studded tomato soup recipe from a homemade life, the beautiful memoir and cookbook from one of our favorite bloggers, molly wizenberg. lauren gifted me this book for christmas and i'd devoured nearly all of it on the plane ride from philly to houston just days before, so it seemed extra fitting. single handedly and with the grace of a true cook, mary put together the most splendid meal i've had in ages.

alongside the tomato fennel soup was a salad of lightly dressed bitter greens with apples and shaved aged provolone, a hunk of 3-seeded bread, and roasted cauliflower with a pungent, citrusy sauce. it was flawless. after the plates were cleared and the dishes done, we played rounds and rounds of our favorite card game, which became increasingly rowdy with each beer we drank. at some hazier point in the night, we popped a bottle of prossecco, and toasted to our love, which is especially appropriate in texas, where the state motto is "friendship."

Tomato Soup with 2 Fennels
from "A Homemade Life," by Molly Wizenberg
~serves 4-6 (generous helpings)~
~takes about 40 minutes~

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
2 medium fennel bulbs, trimmed and thinly sliced (save some of the fronds for garnish)
4-5 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon fresh thyme or 1/2 tsp dried thyme
2 28 ounce cans whole or chopped tomatoes
3/4 teaspoon salt
sugar, to taste
pepper and vinegar, to taste

- in a dutch oven or soup pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. add the chopped onions and fennel, and sautee for 5 minutes.

- add the garlic, thyme and fennel seeds. cook, stirring occasionally, for another 5-8 minutes.

- if using whole canned tomatoes, crush them in a food processor, with your hands, or however else you'd like. if using pre-crushed, no need to crush further. in any case, add the tomatoes and their juices to the pot and stir everything together.

- fill one of the now empty tomato cans with water and add to the mixture.

- turn the heat down, and let the soup gently simmer, uncovered, for 40-45 minutes.

- when the fennel is very tender, and the tomatoes have reduced to make the soup taste full-bodied, it's done! add salt and pepper to taste. if the soup is too acidic for you, a pinch of sugar will mellow it out. if you want a little more bite, add a small splash of red wine vinegar.

- ladle into soup bowls, and top with a pinch of fennel fronds, and a dollop of yogurt or sour cream (optional, of course!).

- serve, very hot, preferably to a table of your best friends.



paesono's, eat your heart out

now it's no surprise that us VR sisters love our sammiches. tempeh, tofu, seitan or just some veggies and hummus will satisfy us for brunch, lunch, dinner or even that late night snack. it's fun to watch the ingredients of a sandwich change over the seasons. summer gives us eggless salad, lettuce and ripe tomatoes in a wrap versus that ooey gooey grilled cheese or seitan steak that fills a winter belly and warms cold bones.

i've been making about a sandwich a week these days, almost exclusively using tempeh in a variety of different forms. gone are the light tempeh chicken salad sammies of spring, replaced by smokey tempeh bacon, red wine glazed tempeh strips or spicy bbq tempeh crumbles.

somehow a sandwich of epic proportion came together last week. i decided to next level some shit and purchased maitake (hen of the woods) mushrooms from work on a whim. next thing i know, onions and italian peppers were being caramelized, tempeh was triple hot sauce-ized and kale was getting a healthy shower of lemon and red pepper flakes. spread some veganaise on a fresh ciabatta and there in front of me was a sandwich so full i could barely close it.

a pickle on the side and a southern tier old man winter ale rounded this meal out nicely. a belly so full i could have gone into hibernation after this, but knowing, instead, i could do it all again tomorrow, if i was ever hungry again.

i was pretty much "winging it" when i made the tempeh, but i do believe it was based on a vague memory of the recipe in Isa Chandra Moskowitz's Veganomicon. Enjoy!

hot sauce glazed tempeh
by Isa Chandra Moskowitz

8 ounce package of tempeh
1/2 cup wine (whatever you have in the cupboard, just nothing too sweet)
1/4 cup hot sauce (i used a blend of frank's, crystal and tapatio)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (juice from 1 lemon)
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
(i add a a 1/8 teaspoon of pimenton - smoked paprika !!)

- bring a pot of water to boil.

- whisk all marinade ingredients together in a bowl large enough to fit the tempeh slices.

- cut the tempeh into strips. when the water is boiling, add the tempeh, lower the heat and steam for 10 minutes.

- remove the tempeh and then immediately place in the marinade bowl for 1 hour, flipping every now again to cover with the marinade.

- preheat a greased grill pan over medium high heat. to grease it, brush lightly with olive oil. (you can also pan fry,which is what i did, but it won't have those nice grill marks!)

- grill each side for 5 minutes. when the second side is almost done, spoon some of the marinade over the tempeh and let cook for 30 more seconds. (or, saute until golden and crispy!)


screw your rez

and eat cake for breakfast! i'm only half kidding. on the one hand, i respect that the beginning of each new calendar year is as good a time as any to re-evaluate your habits, priorities and decision-making logic. sometimes we get in routines and ruts without hardly noticing, and a shocking amount of time can go by without pausing to wonder why. maybe jan 1 is an arbitrary time to stop and take stock, but for for some reason - either manufactured or natural - it is cemented in our culture as the time to do just that.

on the other hand, the idea of a clean, refreshed slate is nice, especially after the holiday fetes and feasts that define december. and surely, setting new goals and tidying up one's physical and/or mental state is a healthy practice every now and again. but something about the way we even talk about "resolutions" seems to imply an inevitable tapering off of discipline and eventual failure. i've never been a fan of capital D diets or exercise fads, and the dawning of the new year spawns a nauseating number of both. seeing copious beautiful salad recipes and "7 Days of Juicing!" features gracing mainstream magazine covers is better than the ubiquitous glistening slab of protein, but i wish versions of these articles were written year round, not just during the be-a-better-you season.

thus, i appreciated this dose of sanity from our man mark bittman in the most recent issue of bon appetit, which seems to be a reaction to the extremism that dominates the resolution fervor. basically, he just proposes making small but meaningful changes in your diet and lifestyle, ones that you stick with consistently, and that over time, help you make lasting, sustainable progress. what sensible advice! everybody needs a level headed, Dad-like voice to talk them down from the ledge of carb-free crash diets and sugar-free sadness. mark bittman is The Dude of the food world (albeit, with a less bitchin head of hair), and i really admire him. in my dreams, we'll do a J together one day on a balcony overlooking new york city skyline.

an awesome, healthy diet doesn't have to be synonymous with an ascetic lifestyle that will be tempting to abandon every day. i'm pretty certain that both bittman and the dude would want you to take it easy, man. you can even have cake for breakfast! yeah, it's healthy and vegan, but cake is cake, dammit. and alongside a wedge of citrus and a cup of tea, this will kick the old metabolism into high gear. the gentle carbs and walnuts will keep you full until lunchtime, and the touch of whiskey will warm you for the morning commute through the frozen sludge.

Breakfast Cake with Boozy Currants
adapted from Sinfully Vegan by Lois Dieterly
~makes approx 12 slices of cake~
~takes 90 mins, largely unattended~

3 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour
2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp cinnamon (or 1 tsp cinnamon, 1 tsp ground ginger)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/3 cup canola oil
1 cup brown sugar
2 tsp ground flax
2 cups unsweetened applesauce
1/2 cup apple cider or apple juice
3/4 cup of currants
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/3 cup (maybe a little less) whiskey, bourbon, or dark rum

- put the currants in a small bowl. pour in liquor almost to the top so that mostly all the currants can take a nice booze bath.

- preheat the oven to 350F. lightly coat a bundt pan with canola oil.

- in a large bowl, sift the flour, baking soda, cinnamon (and ginger, if using), and salt.

- in another bowl, with an electric mixer, or briskly by hand, combine the oil and sugar until well mixed.

- in a separate bowl, combine the apple cider and flax powder. whisk with a fork until the flax is dissolved. add this mixture to the oil and sugar.

- beat the applesauce into the wet ingredients, and then work in the dry ingredients until just combined.

- fold in the currants with the liquor, and then the walnuts. stir to incorporate but do not overmix!

- pour the batter into the bundt pan and bake for about 50 minutes. check the cake about 45 minutes in - gently stick a knife or a toothpick into the center part of the cake. if it comes out clean, it's done, and if there are little bits of batter stuck to it, it needs a few more minutes.

- cool in the pan for about 15 minutes. then, flip the bundt pan over and then gently shake to remove the cake from the pan and let cool more fully on a rack. sprinkle with powdered sugar for extra fancy points!