Wednesday, December 31, 2008


I've been meaning to post this for at least a week but computer glitches and phone-line overload have prevented that from happening. I will keep my fingers crossed as I type, save and (hopefully!) publish this entry.

I prepared a special vegan Spanikopita for a client's Christmas Eve party last week. I was dying to cut into it, but had to restrain myself for presentation sake.

I consider making Spanikopita a Zen-like experience. It's one of those foods that you need to 1) be patient with and 2) make while listening to good music (I chose Abba's Greatest Hits to sing along to).
Start with a hefty amount of fresh dill and parsley. Chop until they are itty bitty little shreds and the pile is half the size as when you started. [NOTE: It helps to have "Dancing Queen" playing while you do this.]

Combine in a large bowl with a big bag of spinach and your tofu, lemon juice, garlic, olive oil and nutritional yeast mixture. Then get ready to prepare the layers of filo.

Lay about 12 sheets of filo in an oiled baking pan, spreading each sheet generously with olive oil. Then spread the filling in evenly and lay another 12 oiled layers of filo on top.

Be sure to score the surface with a knife so that the pieces won't crumble after you cut into it once it's baked. This baby gets covered with foil then gets popped into a preheated 375 degree oven for about 20-30 minutes, then lower the heat to 350 and cook uncovered for about 10-15 minutes, or until golden brown.

I had to take mine out a little early since it was going to be heated a second time for the party and I didn't want it to get too browned and crumbly. But it still looked pretty tempting.

Dessert was a chocolate cake with Godiva liquor between layers topped by a chocolate raspberry tofu cream and garnished with some pretty little craisins and mint leaves. Alas, it's a sad affair not to be able to dig right in...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Dinner for 8

Yesterday I had a request to prepare dinner for a holiday party at St. Francis Hospital's Preventive Medicine Center. Nothing fancy smancy, just the entree (and then I threw in a dozen double chocolate chocolate chip cookies for good measure).

It’s been awhile since I worked at a restaurant, and as a personal chef cooking primarily for families I generally prepare a maximum of 4 servings for each entree. This was a little different from my normal routine, but I quickly relearned the process of completing multiple servings of an identical meal so that they’re all done at the same time. So it was assembly line time in the kitchen of Well on Wheels.

I chose a menu that looked festive with plenty of bright red bell pepper red and mustard greens green for contrast. The flavors were equally complementary, with a sweet and spicy theme from the peppers, caremelized onion and spicy mango sauce and sharp bite of the mustard greens. I think I may have to make this one for myself soon.

This recipe was inspired by one I found in the January issue of Vegetarian Times which called for a sauce made with spicy mango chutney. I’m really loving this shredded mango chutney made by Kitchens of India. It works well in this tofu sautee, and I bet it would be equally delish accompanying a rich coconut curry.

I’m also thinking… I know this sounds kinda weird… a little dollop atop a scoop of vanilla soy ice cream, or better still Purely Decadent coconut ice cream, would be heavenly. oooo… if only the health food store was open past 7:00.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Nataz "Adventures in Eating"

Now, when you see a banner like that hanging on the front entrance of a restaurant, you either think "yeah, sure" or "ok, let's see." We opted for the latter and gave Nataz in North Branford a shot at adventurous dining.

The concept is simple: price fixe four-course meals and BYOB. The catch is... there's no menu. The dinners are different every night, which makes it an adventure for most diners. And a potential hazard for vegans. Fortunately, we spoke with owner and executive chef, Rik, prior to arriving to be sure he could accommodate my no-eggs, no-dairy, no-gluten request, and he went out of his way to do so. In fact, the service here is the best I've ever enjoyed. Waitstaff is pleasant and attentive, and Rik spends half his time out on the floor greeting and serving guests (unless there's a twin doing double-duty in the kitchen... that could be the secret).

He prepared a special appetizer of Fruit Ceviche, a citrus marinated mix of fresh pear, pineapple and tomato, while my companion got a mini Caprese Salad with an assortment of artisan cheezes arranged on a platter like an artist's pallette.

My salad was mixed greens, fresh pineapple and pear slices tossed with a balsamic vinagrette. It would've been topped by a tangle of breaded and fried onion strips, but alas, these were coated in flour so I had to forgo the crunchy treats (and who needs those pesky trans fats anyway?). A basket of warm and toasty bread and a tray of accoutrements such as herbed olive oil, fresh butter and white bean compote accompanied the salad.
For my entree, Chef Rik prepared a primavera with mushrooms in a marsala wine sauce atop rice. It was a colorful array of snap peas, zucchini, yellow squash, tomato and carrot, and flavorful (though I added a bit of the herbed olive oil and fresh black pepper to perk it up - next time I'll remember my vegan Parm!).

My dessert was almost a reprise of my appetizer, minus the pickled flavor. Still, I can't complain about a champagne glass filled with fresh pineapple, strawberries and mango. The perfect palate cleanser.

All in all, I enjoyed my dining experience, mostly because of the effort made by the chef and his staff. I know it's tough for a "regular" restaurant to please a vegan. This kinda reminded me of going to my mom's house for dinner; it's just nice to be home.

Monday, December 15, 2008


This weekend I baked a lot of cookies. Probably about 6 dozen. It was for a good cause, the Unitarian Universalist Society of New Haven was having a craft fair and bake sale. Thanks to all who stopped by for some goodies. And special thanks to Dianna, Budget Babe and photographer extroardinaire, for the fab photos.

Small batches of cookies (Chocolate Chip, Chocolate Chip Pecan Craisin, Double Chocolate Chocolate Chip and Toasted Coconut Almond) and a test run of Vanilla Cupcakes with Pomegranate Pink Frosting. Most were gluten-free. I think I'll have to make this an annual event.

Afterward, I dropped off a bunch of cupcakes and cookies to the Food Not Bombs kids serving the homeless vegan dinners on the New Haven Green. It was really cold out there, so I hope these sweets warmed them up a bit. Thanks, Donna, for the phone #!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Pot au Pho

Brrrr.... it's nights like this - frigid, windswept and threatening - when I find myself craving pho, that delectably light, yet warm and satisfying Vietnamese soup that's a one-bowl meal. Last night was no exception. We had a holiday party on the late night agenda, yet being that I knew my dining options would be limited once we arrived, the plan was to eat ahead. So we headed downtown to Whitney Ave. to this reliable little hideaway.

Set up a flight of stairs from the streetside Asian apothecary, Pot au Pho is a cozy spot for an informal, inexpensive and quick meal. The upstairs has two tables with limited seating, so you're welcomed downstairs to join the small but lively college crowd that typically gathers most weeknights.

We started our meal with the summer rolls, thin rice paper packages filled with rice noodles, shredded cabbage and fresh basil accompanied by a peanut dipping sauce and spiralized pickled carrot salad. I chose the Soup Chay for my entree, a humungous bowl brimming with clear broth flavored with Star Anise, baby bok choy, carrot rounds, shiitake mushrooms and chunks of steamed tofu. It's amazing how such light fare can prove to be so filling.

I had my heart set on the delectable banana tapioca pudding for dessert and requested it at the beginning of the meal, only to be crushed when told they had already sold out. This is no ordinary pudding. It's the perfect blend of creaminess with the warmed bananas and chewy tapioca all bathed in a decadent coconut milk cream. I think I may have to make a special trip there this week to get my just desserts.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Holiday Survival Guide for Vegans

I must admit, I have mixed feelings when it comes to holidays. While it's great to get together with family and friends we don't often see, it can be difficult to be seated at a table overflowing with pot roast, sliced ham and meatballs. I often find that this can add to the typical stresses of shopping, wrapping presents, gift giving and driving around from party to party.

To keep upbeat this holiday season, I've prepared a few simple party tips for vegans. Let's call it the "Holiday Survival Guide for Vegans." Whether it's your party or someone else's, the most important thing is to think like a Boy Scout and always be prepared. Oh yeah, and try to have fun, too.

1. Plan ahead. You might want to call the host or hostess to let them know ahead what you can and can't eat. Ask if there's a special dish you can bring to share with others. This will help make it easier on your host/hostess and also ensure there's at least one thing you can eat.

2. Eat ahead. If you don't know what will be on the menu, eat a full meal ahead of time so you won't wither away at the dinner table.

3. Grab a snack. I always pack a snack in my pocketbook just in case hunger pangs strike before, during or after the party. Fresh fruits like oranges and apples, dried fruits and nuts travel particularly well. Larabar makes a great raw snack that keeps well, too.

4. Drink plenty of water. Hold onto a glass of water throughout the evening and take a few sips here and there to help hydrate and prevent headaches. This will also make you feel less hungry if you haven't found much to graze on.

5. Breathe deeply. Think of the delicious meal you're about to enjoy or the one you've already eaten at home as you inhale and exhale deeply. Visualize a pleasant dining experience of good conversation, a bounty of food and peaceful contentment.

6. Take small bites. If you're lucky enough to be gathered at a table which includes an array of veggies among the offerings, don't hesitate to take a second serving. Then make it last as long as you can.

7. Compliment your host/hostess. Enjoy what you can, and let the chef know how much you appreciate that they included some yummy foods you can eat.

If you'll be hosting your own holiday party this year, BRAVO! Make it a healthy and compassionate one for all to enjoy. For tips on creating the perfect vegan table, please read the article in Veg Family's Magazine for Vegan Family Living.

Happy holidays!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Food is elementary

For the past two days I've had the priviledge to attend a food educator training session for the "Food is Elementary" curriculum developed by Dr. Antonia Demas of the Food Studies Institute. Words can't express how impressed I am with this organization and the amazing work Dr. Demas does. Her program teaches children of all ages about healthy food and nutrition through hands-on multi-cultural lessons that engage all of the senses. And it's real nutrition, too, about vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans (not the typical USDA Food Pyramid nutrition stuff that encourages the consumption of meat and dairy).

The training session was geared specifically for teachers who have volunteered to become part of a pilot program to incorporate these lessons into their regular curriculum. I commend all of them for their incredible enthusiasm, creativity and commitment, as it was a pleasure to share this learning experience with everyone.

Even though I consider myself to be relatively well-versed in vitamins and nutrients, there was still plenty to learn, particularly in the methodology department. Most important, I liked the "No YUCK" rule. Antonia explained that students should be introduced to these new foods gradually, in a safe environment, encouraged - but not forced - to try them. First with smelling and touching, then with taste. It's ok if somebody doesn't like what they eat, as long as they politely indicate this... maybe with a "this is different" or "I've never tasted something like that before" comment. This encourages a sense of freedom and independence so that children learn to appreciate the food on their own. No more cajoling or demanding "Eat it! It's GOOD for you!!"

For most of the teachers, this food was new, too. We created and sampled staple dishes from a variety of ethnic traditions, including Egyptian, Italian, Soul Food and Native American. Who knew okra could taste so divine?! Our group was assigned the task of walking like Egyptians, and we created this lovely Bulgar Wheat Pyramid Pilaf with Dried Apricots, Pistachios and Pomegranate Seeds.

Our main meal consisted of a Barley Salad with Leeks, Artichoke Hearts and Fresh Dill. It couldn't be any easier: simply soak your barley in water, rinse, then put in a pot with water and bring to a boil. Cover it and let simmer for 10-15 minutes. Dump it into a collander to drain off any extra liquid. Then return the pot to the burner and sautee leeks and artichoke hearts in olive oil for a couple of minutes. Add the barley, some frozen peas, fresh chopped dill and a little salt and you're done. Delish!

We also read the lesson plan on the Egyptian culture, learning that the slaves who built the great pyramids ate a diet consisting solely of bread, onions and beer. How's that for the perfect fuel?!