comforts, confessions

it recently occurred to me that it's been quite some time since i was vegan. my first brush with dairy after nearly 3 years of cheat-free, rather blissful veganism, transpired in the warm, swank dining room of the wondrous Zahav, when I impulsively forked a tiny bite of soft sheep's milk cheese into my mouth. i told myself that it was kind of a special occasion, and didn't feel too guilty or weird.

that was back in 2009, when we still lived in our big, bustling house in west philly. for the next few months, random encounters with animal products followed, though i stuck firmly to the diet i'd chosen on a day-to-day basis. the times when i relented were sometimes wonderful (a dollop of fresh whipped cream on a 4th of july blueberry cobbler will remain in my memory for the rest of my life), and sometimes awkward and regret-filled (day-old mozzarella panini hurriedly consumed in the cramped office of the cafe where i worked at the time). it wasn't until sister Lauren started working the cheese counter at diBruno Brothers that i realized that i was ready to re-enter a state of mind where the occasional egg or wedge of cheese should not make my heart feel like shit. it didn't mean that i didn't care about animals, or the environment, or my own health. as an emerging adult, i felt i could hold onto my beliefs while re-exploring a significant culinary genre that i'd been keeping the lid on. and for the most part, i'm proud to say, i haven't gone totally nuts with the dairy, and still have a big, fuzzy place in my heart for completely vegan snacks and meals.

but, when the world feels harsh, or bed calls from the moment you leave it, or you spend the afternoon at work fighting off loneliness or some unnamed, mild despair, there can be true comfort in the products of animals. last week, i had just that sort of day, and found myself walking through the city twilight and right into the doors of diBruno brothers, the mothership of my acquaintance with fine, fine cheeses. there, my sweet friend and smiling cheese monger Rich sold me a small piece of an italian cheese he'd brined in beer and aged in-house. on my way to the counter, i couldn't help but scoop up a few olives from their sturdy barrel, and a slim baguette from its low basket. an idea was forming in my head, and i was already breathing a bit easier. i listened to a podcast from the Moth on the walk back to my house, letting the anxiety of the day go, knowing that these newly acquired snacks, little soul bandages of comfort, were jostling around in my bag.

home in the kitchen, i made quick work of plating the cheese, olives and slices of bread. a glass of malbec in a juice glass set up on the dining room table, and i sat down in complete silence to this unfussy cheese plate for one.

i ate slowly, with the true pleasure of knowing that this was all mine. cheese plates are often social affairs: your party hunched over the table with rounded knives drawn, comparing little bits of this or that, goat or cow, cracker or bread, lavender honey or fruited compote. but this was altogether different. this was a solo moment - in fact, a rather grown up moment, as i saw it- where i had been feeling down and knew myself well enough to seek out this simple remedy. the cheese was sweet, soft, rich, and just a little dank; not too challenging but not boring in the least. tallegio-esque, but with a different edge of intensity. as i quietly consumed it, i just started to feel really good. and though the me of four years ago would probably take offense to this statement, i felt it strong in that moment: dairy is a comfort. whether due to some biological reasons i know not of, or the more obvious connection to our first meals as humans and the physical bond to our mothers, it soothes in ways that sometimes friendly words or acts of kindness cannot.

sometimes i think this blog needs a new name (man, but i don't want to give up our logo! i love that thing!). lauren and i have bandied about a few ideas, but nothing seems quite right. i'm sure the answer is out there somewhere, but until we stumble across it thanks for putting up with the unarguable contradiction of a "vegan" blog whose authors swoon over water buffalo cheese...



the chills

a new year, an emerging winter with those telltale harsh blue skies and cruel winds. a year whose number is hard to imagine - 2012 - a clean symmetry to the numeral, a mystery to its contents. just shy of two weeks into this year, and the one we left behind already feels sealed. isn't it strange how our brains allow us to imagine time acting that way? january is a month that follows the last, but it doesn't feel as such - it's not just another chapter, but a new book completely. even the december whirlwind, so socially (and gastronomically) consuming, looks like a vague shadow now, even as our christmas tree still stands, green and proud, in the living room.

a very old ornament that belonged to my great grandmother, Nana Kane

one of the first meals of the year was prepared by dear Ryan: a massive pot of chili that fed us, like some modern miracle, for days and days and days. Ryan is a super good cook, but it didn't always used to be that way. but even back in his early 20's, when a sixer of pbr and a cheese hoagie counted as dinner, chili was one of those things that he somehow just intuitively knew how to make. how charming is it when men have a few solid, no-fail, feed-the-masses dishes in their repertoire? my dad's included pancakes, BLTs, and scrambled eggs. i still love eating eggs for dinner.

anyway, chili is one of those special foods that has a million interpretations, variations, an openness to each cook's trademark. chili is more a concept than an actual dish, one that can change with the seasons or the contents of the pantry. and, best of all, it never turns out quite the same but (barring scorched vegetables or horrendously ill proportioned seasoning), always turns out delicious.

a wide array of seeds and spices, plus beer and chocolate (!) are Ryan's secret flavor weapons in chili

on the day this batch of chili was made, january 2nd, we let it sit for hours on the stove. we even left the house to run errands, the giant simmering mass doing its thing over a low flame (leaving the house with even the smallest flame going makes me nervous, but i manage). when we came back, the spicy stew-y, tomato-y smells had occupied every room. hints of cinnamon in the bedroom, smoked paprika molecules haloing the TV. the rich fragrance of all the ingredients melding seemed to warm the house by a few degrees, and made the process of recovery from the new years extravaganza just a bit easier. and as the weak sun began to set, the chili was finally deemed ready, and we ate bowls of it on the couch, wrapped up in blankets. it was good to feel safe and fed, taking a moment of stillness before rocket launching into this year that lies ahead.

Ryan's Avocado Crema
(super good on chili, spread on a sandwich, or scooped onto a cracker)
~makes about 3/4 cup~
~takes 5 minutes~

1 ripe avocado
1/2 cup of sour cream
juice squeezed from half a fresh lime
dash of frank's (or other hot sauce) to taste
salt & pepper to taste
a few sprigs of fresh cilantro, chopped up

-in a medium sized bowl, mash the avocado with a fork.

- scrape the avo mash into a food processor fitted with a metal blade. add all the other ingredients and pulse to combine. you might need to scrape the bowl down once to make sure everything is mixed in.

- you can also skip the food processor and just mix everything up by hand. this a pretty unscientific process, but yields creamy, tangy, beautiful green crema that is the perfect foil for the deep flavors of the chili.