The Virtual Potluck: Almost Meatless Goes Meatless

29 07 2009


Today is a special day in the short life of my blog. I have been honored with an invitation to a potluck. For today’s big spread, I am linked to 30 of the most interesting, diverse food bloggers, all for a common cause. In the virtual world, all of us are making a recipe from the book  Almost Meatless: Recipes That Are Better for Your Health and the Planet (Ten Speed Press, 2009;$22.50. ISBN: 1-58008-961-5) by Joy Manning and Tara Matazara Desmond. (check out Tara’s blog at It’s a wonderful book for the meat-lovers among you, one whose message is not really all that far from my own.

Eat less meat.

OK, I just skip it altogether, but these creative cooks have put their minds to cutting the amount of meat in familiar dishes, often by adding more healthful plant foods. So, you might wonder, am I adding a little meat to the robincooksveg message?

Nope. To participate, and to honor the book in all it’s glory, I picked a recipe that had chicken in it, and used tofu. So, in a sense, we are stretching the tofu, in this case, with antioxidant rich cauliflower. This recipe intrigued me from the first time I read through the book. Tara is a great friend and colleague, and of course, when her first book arrived, I wanted to soak up all that energy, and of course, steal her ideas! (just kidding!) This is the kind of food that I make for meat-loving clients, with just enough meat to satisfy that craving, and lots of plants to fill them up.

There were a few things that jumped out in the dish that grabbed my interest. First, the cauliflower is tossed with curry powder and roasted, making it gloriously yellow. I immediately thought that tofu would be really tasty done in the same way-even before she asked me to potluck.

Secondly, it was interesting to me that there were raisins and cashews in the salad, something that I love to do. Lastly, I just really craved a tasty salad in a sandwich on a hot day. So the dish was perfect for me to make.

When I got into it, I decided to cut the tofu in very small cubes, about 1/3 inch pieces, so that I could roast them on a separate pan for the same amount of time as the cauliflower. I also decided to take the curry powder that was intended for the dressing and put it on the tofu, so it would be as colorful as the cauliflower. Once I got going, I decided to just go all the way vegan, (and lazy) and use Vegenaise vegan mayo instead of making the amazing handmade one in the recipe.  It was really tasty, although the Chinese curry powder I used was not as yellow as it was ocher, so I put a little pinch of turmeric in to give it a little highlighting.

Then I knew I needed a really good bread, so I picked up a loaf of artisanal whole wheat sourdough from Rustica Bakery in Minneapolis.

Thanks, Joy, Tara and all my virtual potluck companions, for introducing me to this delicious sandwich. It’s a keeper!

Chicken and Curried Cauliflower Salad Sandwiches (reprinted courtesy of Ten Speed Press)

Chicken salad can be boring. our version adds bold spices and crunchy nuts to the sometimes bland sandwich spread. Cauliflower complements the chicken, making this dish rich in antioxidants as well as vitamins a, B, and e, but it also adds a welcome nutty, roasted flavor and interesting texture. salty cashews and plump golden raisins balance out the flavors.

Serves 4 to 6

1 medium head cauliflower, chopped into 2-inch pieces (about 6 cups)

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon canola oil

1 teaspoon hot curry powder

Kosher salt and freshly ground black  pepper

1 (1-pound) bone-in, skin-on chicken breast (12 ounces extra firm tofu, pressed, 1/3 inch cubes)

mayonnaise (I used 1/2 cup Vegenaise, added the pinch of turmeric, skipped to adding the cashews and raisins)

1 egg yolk

1 1/2 teaspoons white wine vinegar

1/8 teaspoon salt

3 grinds black pepper

1/4 teaspoon mustard

1/2 cup canola oil

2 scallions, white and green parts, sliced very thin

1/2 teaspoon hot curry powder

2 tablespoons grated onion

1/3 cup salted roasted cashews, coarsely chopped

1/3 cup golden raisins

Toasted slices rye, pumpernickel, or other brown bread

To prepare the cauliflower and chicken, arrange 2 racks in the oven and preheat to 400°F.  Toss the cauliflower with the 1 tablespoon oil, (2 teaspoons) curry powder, and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a bowl, and arrange in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet or in a glass baking dish.  (Cube tofu in 1/3 inch cubes, put on another sheet pan, and toss with 2 teaspoons oil and the 1/2 teaspoon curry powder from the dressing, roast with the cauliflower.) Put the chicken in a roasting pan or on a rimmed baking sheet, brush with the remaining 1 teaspoon oil, and season with salt and pepper. Transfer both to the oven, one on each rack. Roast the cauliflower for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool. Let the chicken roast for an additional 10 to 15 minutes (30 to

35 minutes total), until a meat thermometer registers 160°F. Remove from the oven and cool.

To make the mayonnaise, whisk the egg yolk with the vinegar, salt, pepper, and mustard in a bowl. When well combined, begin adding the oil very slowly, a few drops at a time, until about a quarter of the oil has formed a smooth emulsion with the yolk. Add the remaining oil in a slow, steady stream, whisking constantly. To this half-cup of basic mayo, add the scallions, curry powder, and the grated onion. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed, and refrigerate until ready to use.(Stir a pinch of turmeric into half a cup of vegan mayo)

To prepare and serve the salad, when the chicken is cool, remove and discard the skin, cut the meat from the bone, and dice it into 1/2-inch pieces. give the cauliflower a rough chop so the pieces are no more than 1/2 inch. In a large bowl, combine the chicken (tofu), cauliflower, mayo, cashews, and raisins and toss until well mixed. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt, pepper, or curry if you like.

Scoop the salad onto toasted bread and enjoy.

Tip: When making the mayo, pouring the oil from a measuring cup with a spout or squeeze bottle makes it easier to control the flow.

curry-roasted and golden cauliflower

curry-roasted and golden cauliflower

curry-tofu cubes, instead of chicken

curry-tofu cubes, instead of chicken

Add crunchy cashews and raisins!

Add crunchy cashews and raisins!


A Vegetarian Watches Bourdain

26 07 2009

Vegetarians are in the minority, so it often happens that we end up watching food shows and reading food mags that are not really intended for us. We learn to sort out the things we can use, and not take too much personally. Listening to chefs wax poetic about lardo and foie gras doesn’t bother me. I don’t even care that they diss vegetarians. Really.

I’ve always enjoyed reading and watching Tony Bourdain, whether it was his books Kitchen Confidential and the one about Typhoid Mary, or his travel shows. He is a compelling writer and presence. He’s the cool guy, way too cool for you, sharing his cynical take on faraway places. His voice is rebellious, funny, sarcastic, yet sympathetic.

Unfortunately, Bourdain hates vegetarians.

Maybe that is too harsh, perhaps he hates the sin but loves the sinner, but he definitely enjoys taking shots at the meat averse. From the very beginning, he was a defensive meat man, deploying his rapier wit on the veg world as a whole. We can’t cook, not even vegetables, according to Tony, and are a bunch of fascists for trying to take his foie gras away. He is ready at any moment to go on a rant about how vegetarians are the evil authoritarians, organizing our sleeper cells for a major assault on meat eater’s rights.

Good thing we are only 3% of the population at best, and in truth, getting us organized would be like herding cats. Good thing we don’t take this stuff personally, as I am sure I am not the only veg watching and buying books, weeding out the smacks.

So the first time that I saw Mr Bourdain’s trip to Argentina in season 3 of No Reservations, I knew there was going to be lots of meat worship and probably veg bashing. I was not disappointed, Tony spent time riding with Gauchos, who claimed that when vegetarians come to visit, they are converted quickly to the carnvorous lifestyle of the cowboy. “You’re doing God’s Work,” he tells them, approving heartily as he gnaws on rabbit and soaks up liquor. Like most of his shows, he journeys from one drink to the next as much as one glorious vista or meal to the next.

One of the drunken cowboys shares a mug of mate-admitting that his no-vegetable, all meat and alcohol diet requires it in order to go to the bathroom. Ahem.

The twist is when Tony goes to watch actual ranch work, and practically falls to pieces at seeing the pain of the cows. Yes, Mr Meat and his crew are such city-fried greenhorns that they actually have never seen the real-life pain of a simple branding-just a little branding, for cripes sake. And a castration. Insert joke here. After all these years of preaching nose-to tail, entrail cookery, junk food like giant greasy burgers made from cheap, factory farmed beef, and complete disdain for the concept of vegetarianism, Bourdain can’t take a little branding.

Seriously, as someone who grew up in farm country, I have witnessed the realities of animal husbandry and been moved, obviously in a different way. I give him credit, he puts the scene in the show, and narrates how uncomfortable he is, at that moment, with participating in the process that causes so much pain and suffering in these animals. He speaks eloquently on how it hits home with him. He is a sensitive guy.

Then he declares that skipping his steak that evening will get him through this crisis of conscience, and the storyline snaps instantly back to the celebration of carnivorism. Hundreds of sides of beef are crucified on metal crosses for the Festival of the Lake, where thousands of Argentinians line up as they roast next to open fires. Tony’s only qualm is that he wants his steak less overcooked than the masses-he makes a point of selecting a choice cut and cooking it nice and bloody.

The pain and fear in the eyes of the calves is forgotten, or perhaps, like many shows, the thing is shot out of sequence, so the ever-so-brief epiphany has not happened yet.

He would not want to ruin his meal, or for that matter, upset his audience by challenging their own choices.

This striking scene really serves to lay bare the kind of duality, putting it nicely, or hypocrisy, to be a little more frank, that goes on in the minds of most meat lovers. I guess I don’t get how you can eat the stuff without being ok with how it got there. The farmers I know who raise meat humanely also kill those animals themselves, without a shred of sadness. They have a lifestyle built on this cycle of birth and death, and if they were troubled by it, they would not be able to live it. As much as I don’t want to participate in the meat part, I can respect the fact that they look it in the eye and don’t flinch.

On the other hand, Bourdain swaggers and trash talks the other side, when he is apparently in huge denial. I don’t even get how he can be so far in denial, with all his years in this business, with all the awareness of the factory farming system that has reached headline status in the professional food world. In another season, he killed a pig and freaked out about that, too. He says he is respecting these cultures, and I get that. The folks he visits are into this, it’s a travel show, we are ugly Americans.

Maybe he is just a guy who doesn’t like to think too deeply on things that might upset his apple cart. Lots of us have those blind spots. Still, give us vegs a break. Some of us would have that moment of empathy for the calf, and maybe, just maybe, at least respect the choice to abstain.

Teeny Tiny Brain Food Mushrooms

19 07 2009

I had one of those flash back moments the other day at the Coop.

If it only had a prettier name, like Artisanal Mini-Mushrooms

If it only had a prettier name, like Artisanal Mini-Mushrooms

The store had just opened. A man who looked vaguely familiar had entered before me, and caught my eye because he was acting rather pushy to the worker there. As I rolled my cart nearby, I gathered that he wanted the organic bananas to be discounted for him. The response of the very patient coop worker implied that this was a regular event, and one in which he did not feel much urgency. As a former coop worker, I surmised that this guy always bought his bananas first thing in the morning, and always demanded the discount.

As I plucked some gorgeous local new potatoes from the rack, I caught another glimpse of the man’s face. Suddenly I remembered where I had seen him before.

Back in the day, when I cooked at an all-vegetarian worker owned restaurant in town, that guy was a regular customer. He stood out then by his habitual “condiment abuse”. Every day, he would order the cheapest brown rice and tofu based dish, then approach the condiment table. There, we kept a shaker of nutritional yeast, and a ground sesame seed and salt sprinkle called gomasio.

He would shake these condiments over his food until the volume of condiment matched the volume of the base dish. It was a habit that we worker/owners in the restaurant noticed. Both condiments were actually pretty expensive, in that volume. One prep cook decided to up the amount of salt in the gomasio, hoping that the saltiness of his customization would deter him. Of course, it only irritated our other customers, and he was unfazed.

All these years later, here was the yeast and gomasio guy, pinching those pennies for organic food. He might be cheap, but he only ate organic, vegan food.

So what was so special about that yeast?

Yes, this whole story is a roundabout way to get to the nutritional yeast.

If you haven’t had nutritional yeast, you are with the majority. To be specific, T6635 Vegetarian Support Formula Saccharomyces Cerevisiae, made by Red Star Yeast. It’s a light yellow flake, the kind of thing you can put in a parmesan shaker. Sounds a little scary, but it has a mild, cheesy taste. It’s nothing like Brewers yeast, so if you have tried that, this tastes much better.

Fifty years ago, the Red Star people started producing this yeast, which is grown on molasses that has been enriched with minerals and bacteria grown B12. It’s the only vegan, food based source of B12, other than supplements or enriched foods like soymilk.

Why? Well, this yeast is 52% complete protein, and packed with B-vitamins, minerals, fiber, and even some trace miracle compounds like beta glucans, glutathione, trehalose and mannan, all of which are good for balancing blood sugar. Chromium is also high, a big helper for blood sugar balance. Vegetarians, diabetics and women on birth control pills are all prone to b2 deficiency. Thiamine is necessary for your nervous system. B6 supports the antibodies and red blood cells you need, as well as your nervous and musculoskeletal systems, and of course, B12 prevents nerve damage, anemia, digestive problems, infertility and depression.

Just 2 tablespoons a day is all you need (you don’t have to cover all your food an inch deep) and you are covered for B’s. Overall, the miracle yeast boosts immunity, lowers cholesterol, prevents cancer and supports blood sugar balance.

So why aren’t more people eating it? I suppose it gets promoted as a vegetarian health food thing, so people assume it is awful. Maybe they associate it with hippies. Maybe eating yeast sounds freakish and unhealthy. There were anti-candida people who swore up and down that it would encourage yeast overgrowth in your body, but it has never been shown to cause that problem, and it is completely inactivated when it is harvested and dried. It’s just a fungus, no weirder than eating a mushroom. Tiny little mushrooms by the thousands, to be more accurate.

I admit, I forget to eat my yeast. It’s kind of nostalgic for me, I love to make sandwiches with tahini and a sprinkling of the yeast, or a tofu scramble with the yellow flakes mixed in. It’s not cheese, so don’t get carried away. The most popular way to eat it is sprinkled on popcorn. Like a touch of miso, the yeast adds a depth of flavor and a little umami to dishes you add it to. A tablespoon in your hummus, salad dressing or soup is really delicious.


And if you can find a place that lets you have it for free, by all means. Just don’t abuse the condiments. Somebody might blog about you twenty years from now.

The Rustic French Food Story

13 07 2009

My latest copy of Food and Wine magazine arrived this week, bearing a little gift.

As I was leafing through, reading a little here and a little there, I came upon one of those photo spreads, of a gorgeous meal in a breathtaking old French farmhouse. Like Bon Appetit, Gourmet, or Saveur, any upscale food mag has these sorts of stories. Attractive people, perhaps a celebrity, maybe an already famous or up-and coming chef, or even some carefully chosen “civilians,” striving to make a meal that the reader has been shown (through market research) to aspire to having. The setting is key, aerial shots of lush gardens, ocean views, long rustic tables packed with beautiful people having a good time.

Entertaining Porn.

It’s all in good fun, especially when you are relating to someone who seems kind of like you, except that they and their closest friends have been chosen for the honor of being featured in the magazine. I always think that they must have carefully invited only the pretty people they know, keeping the whole event a deep secret from their gnarly, fat friends, at least until the photos are done. Or hired some models.

Enviable outdoor pizza ovens are built, hogs are spit roasted for an adoring crowd, tables groan under platters of casually gorgeous food. And with the recipes at the end, you can do it, too!

So, having read so many of these rather stagey, fantasy pieces, I was skimming along, not really paying attention to the article. Oooh, nice courtyard. The French chef is H-O-T, his wife and daughter are photogenic as all get-out. He is friends with locavore hero Dan Barber and the big name French chefs. Yes, predictable, familiar, leading to the payoff we all know is coming, right? The perfect party, the flowing wine, the recipes.

And suddenly, the hot Frenchman starts talking about his latest culinary passion. Foie Gras? Spleen Sausages with Blood Gravy?

Mais Non, ma Cherie.

He is way into Vegan Food.

Rub your eyes and read that again. The hot chef is totally down with eggless, dairyless, meatless cuisine and is serving it at the party, gorgeously strewn on the platters, mouthwateringly photographed. It seems that the produce at his perfect, sustainable farm is so good, and his commitment to flavor and purity has taken him to a place that I just didn’t see coming.

Clever, clever devils those F and W writers. They actually figured out that if you give the chef and the food the same respect, the same Entertaining Porn flourishes, the readers would go along for the ride. Just imagine, a few years ago, the same story would have been treated more as some kind of spa thing, perhaps apologizing a bit about how spartan the menu was, there in wacky France. The riche must be cleansing from months of decadence by eating vegetables for a week, how stylish.

To be fair, the Chef’s name is Alain Coumont, he is fabulously successful as the founder and owner of a chain of restaurants called Le Pain Quotidien, and he has earned every moment of his success. That he sees vegan food as the future shows that he is forward thinking and his efforts to introduce it quietly into his restaurants show he is a savvy marketer and businessman. All of us who celebrate vegan food should thank him for helping raise the consciousness and get plant-based food some respect in a serious food magazine.

It’s just that it always takes a guy like that to get vegan taken seriously.

Avoid Cancer, Go Veg, Try This Funky-Looking Cereal

7 07 2009
The Secret to Long Life (maybe)

The Secret to Long Life (maybe)

Does it ever strike you as funny, that a vegetarian diet is called “health food,” and at the same time, considered somehow lacking? The very same people who look at your lunch and say, “oh, you eat so healthy!” will insist that they can’t live without meat. Hmmm.

Well, the latest study on the relationship between vegetarianism and health looked at cancer. In The British Journal of Cancer, a new pair of studies have been published that gives the veg diet a bit of a thumbs up. In the study, they tracked 61,000 vegetarians and similar numbers of meat and fish eaters for 12 years, looking for incidences of 20 different types of cancers. They figured in other risk factors, including smoking, alcohol use and obesity. Overall, among 100 vegetarians, 29 will get cancer, and among 100 meat eaters, 33 will.

Among the 20 cancers, multiple myeloma risk was 75% lower in vegetarians, and blood and lymph cancers 50% lower. On the downside, vegetarians had the same risk of bowel cancer as meat eaters, a result that surprises everyone. Vegetarians were actually more likely to get cervical cancer, which we now know is caused by a virus, and there is now a vaccine to prevent it.

The researchers were cautious, as they always should be, and suggested that we need more study. They suggested that the reasons for the difference could be the viruses and mutation-causing compounds found in meat, liked the N-nitroso that has been shown to damage DNA. As you may have read in the past post on safer grilling, charring and grilling meat is also a known way to add carcinogens to your diet.

Of course, in these kinds of studies, there is no way to find out what kind of vegetarian diet the healthiest vegetarians were eating. The Brits may well have been downing buttered potatoes and pudding, instead of kale and papayas. They also might be eating lots of vegetarian Indian food, which is very popular there.

Having written about food and health for many years, I think I can generalize about one thing. Study after study comes out about foods that prevent cancer, promote health and make you feel great, and they are usually all plant foods. You never see a headline that touts sausage as a life-extension tool, or even chicken as a great way to live to 100. Nope, it’s always pomegranates and blueberries, kale and broccoli, green tea and oatmeal.

As I have said before, I am sure that there is a way to eat small amounts of clean meat and keep your risks to a minimum. The vegetarian way just skips over the whole meat issue and sticks to plant foods, with some small amounts of dairy and eggs for ovo-lactos. Here is a breakfast that you can share with your meat-eating friends, to counteract their protein choices with antioxidants, fiber, and anti-cancer chemicals galore!

Crazy-Ugly Fruit and Protein Oat Cereal

In the spirit of an anti-cancer diet, this breakfast is composed of only high-antioxidant, fiber rich foods, all of which have been associated with lower risks. They are also pretty tasty, once you get past the oats looking purplish.

2 cups ing cherry juice (all fruit juice)

1 cup thick rolled oats

1/2 cup dried goji berries or cranberries

2 tablespoons protein powder (rice, soy, hemp or whey, take your pick)

kefir or non-dairy milk or yogurt and sweetener to taste

In a 2 quart saucepan, bring the juice to a simmer, stir in oats and dried fruit. Cook for 5-10 minutes, stirring every few. When the oats are soft, take off the heat and let stand, covered, for 5 minutes. Stir in the protein powder, add more juice or water if you like it thinner, then serve with kefir or non-dairy alternatives and sweetener to taste.

School Lunches Evolve and Sprout a Veg Option

1 07 2009

Remember school food? Little aluminum trays filled with steaming rubber meatballs in greasy orange tomato sauce, or the enigmatic Salisbury Steak? It was enough to make a vegetarian out of the bravest diner.

I grew up eating the school lunch, and can even attest to having worked in a public school food service kitchen for several months. I was the baker, making hundreds of chocolate chip cookies every day. The kids didn’t want any oatmeal cookies, just chocolate chip.And pizza.

As far as I could tell, Salisbury was an adjective meaning that the object had been printed with stylized black stripes. There must once have been a delicious dish from Salisbury, but once you have worked in a public school kitchen and watched the staff dump a 50 lb box of the frozen meat-pucks onto pans, it’s hard to imagine. My favorite part was when they took the sheet pans of hot “steaks” out of the oven and poured the grease off into coffee cans. The school sold it for use in cosmetics.

Kinda puts you off both Salisbury and lipstick, doesn’t it?

Fast forward to the 2009 School Nutrition Operations Report. The School Nutrition Association has been tracking what’s for lunch since 2003, and things have been getting better. Between ’03 and ’09, the percentage of schools offering a vegetarian meal has grown from 22% to 63.9%. Amazingly, 20% now offer a vegan option. Institutions are slow to change, and believe me, this would not have happened without a push.

In fact, In 2008, The US Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service did a “call for comments,” and received 10,000 requests for more vegetarian food. So if you ever hear of a call for comment-shout out! Over the years these public comment opportunities have come and gone-and helped shape things like the regulations on organic food, so they are taken seriously.

So what are the veggie kids eating? No surprise, pizza and pastas top the list, with rice and beans and other mexican fare tossed in. Big salads, veggie and cheese sandwiches and other non-scary foods are also making the cut. As we would expect, kids are happiest with simple stuff.

The progress that has been made is, unfortunately, tenuous in the current economy. Like it or not, school lunch planners have to make do-the current average food cost on a school lunch is less than $3. The big problem for them is buying fresh produce, and paying labor. It’s lots cheaper to use processed food.

Like the frozen meat pucks.

If it were not for our backwards food system, in which cheap, subsidized foods flood the market, vegetarian food would be the cheap option. Believe me, you could not buy decent meat and make the little salisbury steak meal for the pennies that it costs the school district.

Congrats to the schools, and the kids and families that worked to get their veggie plate. Now we just need to keep making those meals more healthy, veggie-filled, and sustainable.