Quick and Dirty Product Review: Earth Balance Vegan Cheddar Squares

The scenario: Whole Foods was closing in six minutes, and I had to Supermarket Sweep the joint. Somehow, in the flurry of frantically emptying of the aisles of their vegan wares, a box of Earth Balance Vegan Cheddar Squares landed in my shopping cart.

In case you aren’t tapped into the vegan hivemind of the internet, everyone has been abuzz about these little crispy, carby, salty wonders. And I get it (sort of): it’s like the good people at Earth Balance sit around and think about all of the junky comforts that they ate as kids (spoiler alert: processed cheese is usually involved), and now they have decided to veganize it.

Who knew you could box and sell crack at health food stores?

So these crackers! They aren’t bad, but they don’t blow me away. To begin with, I am at least 80% sure that they taste nothing like Cheez-Its, cheddar, or anything that originated in a cow’s udder (although, of note, my staunchly omnivorous boyfriend reports that they taste “like Cheez-Its, but…better?”). That isn’t necessarily the worst thing: I think most delicious vegan eats stand on their own, and are better not compared to their animal-based counterparts. But that brings me to my next point: they’re sort of bland. I am a big fan of snacking (particularly at my desk, as I frantically attempt to perform twelve tasks simultaneously), and I am concerned that these crackers wouldn’t have what it takes to sate me during those midday eating-my-feelings binges. But I’m also, y’know, no longer a kindergartner who takes her cheesy crackers with a slug of apple drink, so my palate is probably not the intended audience for this particular product.

Nevertheless, all criticisms aside, neither I nor my dude half can stop popping these as we stream episode upon episode of Breaking Bad–there is definitely an addictive quality about them that is difficult to pinpoint.

The verdict: these are worth trying, especially if you have a child, or a childlike palate, or a childlike sense of wonder about the ever-expanding universe of vegan goods.

Vegan Alchemy: Crème Fraîche Edition!

Aw yeah! Crème fraîche!

Berries, creme, agave, good lawd.

 

I say it so enthusiastically (I’m basically shouting “crème fraîche!!!” to no one in particular, at 5:00am, much to the confusion of my dog), but until adulthood, I didn’t actually know what it was.

It’s hard to talk about my food roots without acknowledging my formative years as a member of relatively low socioeconomic status.  We were entrenched in what I now refer to as the “generic cereal” class strata, characterized by those industrial-sized bags of puffed sugar that somehow managed to contain at least six phases of corn in a single package, and also never tasted as good as the cereal they ripped off (probably because name-brand cereals had cooler mascots hocking their corn-derived black-holes-of-nutritional-sustenance).

To put it another way: Velveeta, the processed cheese food, was my Loch Ness Monster: an elusive thing of beauty that I longed only to possess, but that was, tragically, reserved solely for special occasions and company.

So, no.  I didn’t know what crème fraîche was as a kid.

In fact, it only recently came to my attention that dairy-based crème fraîche is ridiculously easy to make: heavy cream, a little buttermilk, let it sit around for 12 hours, and that is it.  How is this the food of rich people?  Shouldn’t rich people food be really labor-intensive (for your live-in servant), and not the natural result of, essentially, forgetting to refrigerate your dairy for a few hours?

But I digress.  My point is, maybe I haven’t had crème fraîche before.  But that won’t stop me from veganizing it.

After finding out how easy it was to make nonvegan crème fraîche, I thought: usually, vegan buttermilk substitute is made by whisking soymilk with apple cider vinegar; and coconut cream works the same as heavy cream in a lot of capacities; so, why wouldn’t I be able to combine and ferment these foods to produce similar results?

Naturally, I consulted Spice, Food Genius Extraordinaire, who gave me some tips (among other things, she recommended that I use unrefined coconut oil, which is structurally similar to butterfat. I happily obliged, because I would never argue with the addition of more fat to a recipe).

It’s hard to call what follows a recipe, because there is basically nothing to it: you whirl a couple ingredients in a blender, pour it in a jar, ta-da.  But I’m going to give you all a little instruction anyway, because 1. It’s so easy, I want to inspire you to make it for yourself; and 2. We dairy-eschewers love fancy fermented foods as much as anyone, right?  Right.  So! You’ll need:

So clearly, this is going to be a low-fat condiment.

So clearly, this is going to be a low-fat condiment.

1 can of coconut milk (or about 1 ½ cups)

½ cup unrefined coconut oil [mine was a scant ½ cup because, initially, I was bashful about using that much oil—but you have no reason to be bashful. Embrace that delicious fat!)

2 tablespoons of soymilk

1 capful (a teaspoon? Ish?) apple cider vinegar

1 capsule of vegan probiotic [not pictured, because that came later.]  (Sidenote! My probiotic is actually human origin, so I’m sure some will argue that it isn’t vegan, but whatever: humans can consent and the inert ingredients are vegan.  That’s good enough for me.)

Coffee cup optional.

Coffee cup optional.

Directions:

1. Mix together your soymilk and ACV and allow to curdle.

You didn't need to know what curdled soymilk looked like, did you?  Oh well, you're getting it anyway.

You didn’t need to know what curdled soymilk looked like, did you? Oh well, you’re getting it anyway.

2. Next, give your coconut milk a whiz in the blender and, while running, add the unrefined coconut oil.  Make sure it is emulsified.

That's what she said.

Just shove it in there. It’ll fit.

3. While the blender continues to run, add the soymilk mixture.

4.  This is where the original recipe ended: I poured the emulsion into a jar, covered, put a Barry White album on repeat, and left those friendly bacteria to reproduce.

Pouring like a champ!

But then.

Around hour twenty, I was annoyed. According to various people on the internet, dairy-based crème fraîche takes about 12 hours to reach desired consistency.  My vegan version had an additional 8 hours, and it had neither thickened enough, nor developed the pleasant fermented tang that I expected.  It was bubbling a little, which I took as a good indicator of bacterial multiplication, but I was still a little perplexed: why wasn’t my nondairy version performing? I bet that nonvegan crème fraîche didn’t even listen to Barry White.

Can't get enough of your love, baby.

Can’t get enough of your love, baby.

Finally, I remembered—around the time that I was finishing my morning pot of coffee–that borderline-zealot coconut oil proponents are always touting its antimicrobial properties.  So, the coconut oil, essential for its contribution of butterfat-like structure, was likely to blame! (My hypothesis is that, although the apple cider vinegar contributed good bacteria to the recipe, but there probably wasn’t enough to overcome the antimicrobial property of the coconut oil.) I had a lightbulb moment: why not add some probiotic strains?  It would function like a starter for the fermentation process. Thus came Step 5:

5.  Empty a capsule of vegan probiotic  into your crème, and stir until you’re reasonably confident that it has been incorporated.

After I added the probiotic capsule, I closed the jar and left my apartment for about twelve hours.  When I got home that night, it looked like this:

I really want to put that in my mouth.  (Inappropriate!)

And I was like, I really want to put that in my mouth. (Inappropriate!)

It had a nice, sharp tang reminiscent of sour cream!  Even the coconut-y notes present in the original emulsion were mostly gone (maybe just present enough to lend a little backbone to the crème), but the fatty richness remained assertive.  Success!

All told, my crème fraîche had approximately 32 hours to ferment, but I suspect that the majority of that was achieved in the twelve or so hours after I added the probiotic capsule.  In my completely unscientific opinion, I think that if you add the capsule at the beginning of the process, it will ferment at about the same rate as dairy-based crème fraîche–or about twelve hours.  But I would recommend just keeping an eye on it, and moving your jar to the fridge when it gets to be about the consistency of whipped cream.  After twelve more hours (or so) of refrigeration, you’ll have this incredible, peak-having substance on which you can put everything ever:

Hey, baby!

Magic!

Disclaimer: This probably does not taste just like dairy-based crème fraîche (after all, the ingredients you start with are completely different) but I wholeheartedly endorse pairing it with berries and a drizzle of agave (pictured above), and am so excited to stir it into soups/top roasted vegetables with it/ad infinitum.  Make this so you can join me in my fancy-fermented-food enthusiasm!

Product Review: LimeCrime Eyeshadow Helper!

So, we’re all devastated over all the controversy over Urban Decay’s eyeshadow primer potion being revealed as not truly vegan (not to mention their shady animal testing/oh no we’re not really policies). At least I am. I wear mildly shimmery shadows pretty much every day, and in order to avoid the creeping creasies and keep that stuff where it should be I relied on that primer like an orphaned piglet on its adoptive mother in my recurring dreams. I rationed the last of my old tube until it started smelling weird and resigned myself to tossing it out with no replacement in sight. Sob. So what’s a vegan to do?

Enter: LimeCrime! I’d never heard of this brand, but I just happened to be searching “vegan eyeshadow primer” on Amazon and it came up. Bam!

Fabulous!

Fabulous!

I ordered it immediately because I have a Prime membership now and it is super dangerous to my credit score. Apparently the formula used to contain beeswax but is now vegan, not to mention cruelty-free! I started using this stuff with wild abandon and I absolutely love it. I’d say it’s even better than the UD primer. It’s thicker, a bit creamier, and doesn’t have quite as much shimmer to it (depending on the UD primer that you used, since they make several). It is a little bit lighter in shade and you have to be a bit more careful where you put it, since it’ll show if you happen to groggily smear it on your general eyeball area with your finger like an animal not that I do that. Of course, I’m pretty brown, so this might not matter as much to you fairer peoples. At any rate, it works fantastically. The first day I used it happened to be a day I worked in a booth at an all-day festival outdoors in the sun, where I sweated profusely and ran around like crazy for many hours. And when I got home and collapsed on the couch, I was amazed to see that my shadow and liner hadn’t budged or smeared one bit.

Here’s the part of the post where you could see the amazing picture of my eyeshadow at the end of this day if I were smart and had gotten the photos off my old phone before getting a new one and could find the cord to connect the old phone to my computer. But hypotheticals aside, trust me, I still looked fresh to death.

Side note: of course, with a more powerful primer potion, you need a bit more power in your makeup remover. I recommend BWC’s removers. Both the lotiony and the watery ones work well with a cotton pad or washcloth and don’t irritate my sensitive eyeballs. I use pretty much exclusively waterproof liner and shadow and those are tougher to remove, but I find BWC does the job best.

I give LimeCrime’s Eyeshadow Helper two enthusiastic makeup-covered thumbs up! Buy this stuff and then buy some more for me, too.

Product Review: Vegan Cuts Snack Box!

I had a really fantastic day last Wednesday. My new dress (for one of many weddings this spring) came in the mail. My new mascara came in the mail. Even the air fresheners I ordered came in the mail. Slightly less exciting, but still, who doesn’t love the thrill of opening a box with STUFF in it? Way more exciting than air fresheners, I also got a box full of goodies in the mall – the Vegan Cuts Snack Box!

It's like Christmas EVERY MONTH!

It’s like Christmas EVERY MONTH!

Vegan Cuts is a great site that we’ve reviewed products for before, and they were kind enough to send me a box full of sunshine to take for a test eating. I had been wanting to try this bad boy ever since I first heard about the service, and this one was perfectly timed. I’m still going through the hell of finals week, and having portable snacks ready for me to devour on the couch or on campus has been super handy. I haven’t made it through the whole box yet, but here’s what I’ve eaten so far:

  • First to get destroyed were the Oloves lemony olives. I am an olive fiend and having a little pouch of olives say, “Oh hi Jessica, I’m all ready for you to eat me, also I’m covered in delicious lemon juice and herbs, let’s be BFFS” is a recurring dream of mine. I’ve had these on flights before in those little snack packs you pay $9 for, and they are absolutely delightful. Portable olives! GENIUS.
  • I also went to town on the Food Should Taste Good sweet potato chips. I agree with their Descendents-esque brand name – food SHOULD taste good, damnit. And these did! They were a little on the salty/oily side for me, but that didn’t mean I didn’t finish the bag. They were thick and crunchy and awesome with a little Pesto Vegenaise on top. (What? Like you wouldn’t do the same if you had some in your fridge.)
  • There was even a teeny little jar of artichoke bruschetta! After squealing for a while about how eety beety it was, I spread that thing on some crackers and it was the perfect snack for an intense study sesh. It was a bit oily, but the flavor was really delightful. I think this would make a great spread for a sandwich or two.
  • The Skinny Pop came in extremely handy on a day when I was in my car for way too many hours and then on campus for even more hours. I really love popcorn, to the point where I start to crave it sometimes, but mostly for the texture. I’m not big on loading it with salt and Earth Balance most of the time. This stuff was just right. Just a little bit of saltiness and oil. Also, it’s nice to have a 100-calorie pack of something that is more than a sliver of food that leaves you with a general idea of what eating it would be like. There were honest-to-glob handfuls of popcorn in there! I proceeded to get it all over myself in the car. I’ll definitely buy this stuff again since I’m lazy and never use my microwave popcorn popper. One criticism I do have, though, is I’m not a fan of brands using words like “skinny” and “guilt” on their packaging. We’re image-obsessed enough already, and equating our food with our feelings is unhealthy! It’s a rant for another day, for sure, but I just can’t help but say that I think it’s high time manufacturers stopped using terms that relate to one’s sense of self-worth to describe food.
  • TEESE! I haven’t gotten to eat this lovely little tube of nacho goodness yet, but I can’t wait. It’s been years since I’ve had it but I remember nothing but good things about it.
  • I am a huge Teecino fan. I can’t handle caffeine much. It’s kind of hilarious how hopped up and insane I get on a latte, and then crash so hard you’d think I was coming off a controlled substance or something. Teecino is great to have around for Sunday morning brunch when you can’t afford to be up all night but still want something hot and bitter and coffee-ish with your tofu scramble. I love that they’ve finally started making it in bags in the last few years! I can bring these to school and just get hot water and boom, instant late-night pick-me-up without the buzz!
  • I wasn’t a fan of the 22 Days chocolate protein drink mix. I’m spoiled by Vega (when I can afford it) – that vanilla chai is so delicious, it makes other protein drink mix powders cry. It’s also, like, $4 a pack, so it’s a treat when I can get it. I had this packet with me one marathon day in the lab, so I was really glad to have something to fit that mid-afternoon snack craving. I didn’t have my blender bottle cup on me so I just had to use a fork to stir this, and EW. It was GUMMY. I looked at the ingredients list and there was a ton of fruit pectin. That struck me as sort of weird. Why would that be in a drink mix? I mean, I can understand a little bit of some gums to provide a little viscosity, but seriously, this stuff was straight up gloppy. I added more water and stirred as best I could, then took a gulp – and tossed the stuff down the drain. I’ve had way worse protein drinks, but this one was a no go for me.
  • I didn’t eat the 22 Days protein bar myself, but Mr. Spice took it with him to work and when I asked him to describe it to me in detail he said it was “good.” A little gritty, but he said the flavor was overall very nice. I wish I had gotten to try a taste! It was a little heavy for me since I usually stick to lighter bars, but for a big strong manly man like him it was great.
  • The Meow Meow Tweet (cutest brand name ever) lip balm was rosemary eucalyptus-flavored. ROSEMARY in a lip balm! So crazy! It sounded delightful, and went on nice and smooth and made my lips feel super soft. The flavor was a little much, though. As in, when I put it on, I immediately exclaimed, “ITALIAN FOOD!” Mr. Spice agreed, and when I tried to go in for a smooch he recoiled saying, “Oh wow, Italian food.” I liked the balm itself but the rosemary flavor was just too strong and weird to be on my lips for long.
Always has to get her face in everything.

Always has to get her face in everything.

I still have the little packet of Parmela parmesan left, and of course the Teese tube. Overall I’d say this was an awesome box, and at $20 a month this is a really fun deal. I imagine the Snack Box subscription to be like the fun of opening my weekly CSA box, without all the disappointment of getting the same damned zucchinis four weeks in a row and lettuce that wilts in two days. It’s a fun surprise when you open the box, and who doesn’t love having portable snacks on hand? I am super pressed for time these days and rarely have time to cook, or even to pack myself snacks, so I really enjoyed having these ready to go. It also threw some much-needed variety into my boring snack habits. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a lit review to write up and a tube of Teese to stare at longingly.

Quick & Dirty Product Review: Kombucha Dog

I didn’t used to like kombucha. My issue was less with the flavor, which in my estimation was comparable to pickle juice (full disclosure: I fucking love pickles), but rather the eerie reverence with which its virtues are extolled. Have you ever spoken with a kombucha enthusiast? They try to get you on that bottle like an infant formula ad, proselytizing its health benefits more persistently than those canvassers permanently posted outside of health food stores who try to get you to pledge monthly donations (these people, incidentally, are largely responsible for the dwindling balance in my checking account. DAMN YOU, OVERGROWN CONSCIENCE). If kombucha praise were to be taken at face value, I (and everyone else who happens to imbibe) would basically be immortal by now.

But I don’t buy into the hype that accompanies kombucha. I acknowledge that it has probiotic cultures (hey, Jamie Lee Curtis can’t have all the fun), is fairly low-calorie, and contains a bevy of antioxidants. Compared to other aqueous solutions that I regularly attempt to hydrate with (note: not usually water), it is probably better than a soy latte. And, in the case of Kombucha Dog, it is one of the best beverages on Earth (back off, Snapple lady, your empire is built upon lies).

Unlike a lot of other kombuchas, which taste like the above-mentioned pickle juice, raspberry Kombucha Dog is sweet on the tongue, then tart, with a light, pleasantly fermented flavor throughout. It’s glass-bottled and fizzy, so drinking one is almost as satisfying as popping open a Mexicoke–and because there is less sugar than there is in Mexicoke, you don’t experience a bloodsugar plummet that makes you feel like a corpse an hour later (downside: your pancreas might get a little bored. Better take a glucose tablet. Party!). I had raspberry Kombucha Dog with bacon-flavored kale chips, and it was a delicious, albeit almost shamefully hippie-esque, gustatory experience.

About the hippie-esque gustatory experience: I know that kombucha is not strictly a vegan product. But I can’t help but suspect that my kombucha habit is a byproduct of having been vegan for over a decade; you eat a plant-based diet long enough and eventually you develop a palate for weird hippie foods. (It’s science.)

But if there is one thing I like more than delicious fermented beverages, it’s pups.

Pug Life.

Did you peep that label? I want to kiss that little guy’s face until he’s like, “Jeez, lady! I need space. You’re smothering me.” And the labels are more than just adorable: if you go to their website, you can adopt that smush-faced little man, or another equally photogenic sweetheart in need of a good home.

I got this wonder elixir at Rainbow Acres in Marina Del Rey, but it’s also available at Erewhon, Locali, and a number of other veggie-friendly establishments in L.A. Check it out!

www.kombuchadog.com

Oatmeal Raisin’ Hell Redux

Some of you readers may remember my old blog back on NotPopular.com (Thanks to Josh Highland for the hosting space!) on which I posted a bunch of recipes and ramblings back in the day. One of my favorite entries on it was my Oatmeal Raisin Hell cookie recipe. Raisin haters be damned! (Fine, I’ll give you some tips on how to substitute them. Punks.) These cookies are my go-to when I need cookies in a flash and don’t have time to shop for new ingredients since pretty much everything in it is stuff you most likely already have in your pantry anyway. They’re always a hit wherever they show up, and a batch makes quite a few of them. Sometimes I even make bags or tins of them as gifts for the dudes in my life that enjoy food more than gift cards. And the best part is since they’re egg-free, you can eat tons of the (DELICIOUS) dough without a worry that Salmonella is going to ruin your whole cookie-inhaling experience. My grandma clipped this recipe out of a newspaper in the ’50s or ’60s, and made these cookies for many decades. I’m proud to carry on the tradition, with a somewhat updated and veganized edition!

A few notes:

  • These babies are a tad on the salty side of your average cookie, and I think it gives them a little somethin-somethin’ since these are also nice and sweet and spiced, but you can take it down to 3/4 teaspoon if you like. Try it with a full teaspoon the first time and see what you think.
  • A #40 cookie scoop (completely full and then scraped against the side of your mixing bowl) works great for these. You want smallish cookies, no bigger than a rounded tablespoon or so.
  • I like mine soft so I find that 10 minutes at 375 F is pretty much the sweet spot in my oven. You can go higher, up to 12 minutes (and even turn the heat up to 400) if you’d like crispy cookies to dunk in your tea or something, but I really love these chewy and they can burn pretty easily if you don’t watch them.
  • I also really like using my little mini measuring cup plunger for measuring out the molasses. That way you really get every drop out. I use mine anytime I’m doing syrups or other thick sticky liquids. Not necessary, but nice to have!
  • If you don’t dig on raisins, you lamewad, then any other chopped “plump” dried fruit like chopped dried apricots, craisins (crazy raisins!), cherries, or even chopped nuts or chocolate chips will work just fine.
  • In my old recipe I used Ener-G egg replacer, but over the years I’ve swapped it for flax eggs. Ground flaxseed works great in this crunchy oaty cookie, but I wouldn’t use it in a lighter cookie or cake. I haven’t gotten on the chia egg train yet but I bet it would work great here too.
  • As to rolled oats, you can use whole or quick-cooking (which I prefer just because it’s a bit smaller and makes for easier mixing and more even cookies), but not instant.
  • This is one of those easy-ish recipes that you can actually mix entirely by hand. I use my stand mixer to cream the shortening with the sugar just because it goes faster, but it’s totally not necessary if you have a good sturdy mixing spoon and a strong bicep.
  • You can easily double this recipe! I’ve done it many times. You’ll be in the kitchen swapping out sheets a lot more frequently, but you’ll have dozens and dozens of amazingly chewy gooey hearty cookies at a moment’s notice.

Oatmeal Raisin’ Hell Cookies

makes about 3 dozen cookies (give or take how much dough you eat)

Cat not included.

Cat not included.

You’ll need:

  • 1/2 c shortening
  • 1 1/4 c granulated sugar
  • 6 T dark molasses
  • 1/4 c ground flaxseed meal
  • 6 T water
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 3/4 c all-purpose flour
  • generous 1/2 c raisins
  • 2 c rolled oats
IMAG1984

Note the all-knowing visage of Her Veganness Isa Chandra Moskowitz looking on in the background. She watches over us all. May she bless every batch of cookies.

Place rack in center position of oven and preheat to 375 F. Grease (or attack with nonstick spray) 3 cookie sheets. (You can use 2 but it just means you’ll have to re-grease one of them after the first batch is done.)

In a small bowl, mix together flaxseeds and water with a small whisk or fork. Set aside while you mix other wet ingredients. Give it a couple of minutes to sit and get funky and weird.

IMAG1990

Girl, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.

In a large bowl, with either a stand mixer or a mixing spoon, cream together shortening and sugar as much as possible, then add molasses and vanilla extract. By now the flaxseed sludge should be thick and gooey and pretty much a solid mass. Add it to the other wet ingredients and mix well.

In a separate medium bowl, mix the flour, salt, baking soda, and cinnamon with a whisk until well-combined. (This is a great sifting shortcut! I only use my sifter when I’m working with powdered sugar or cocoa since it’s such a pain to clean. This works just as well for airing out the flour and mixing the dry ingredients.) Add half of the dry ingredients to the wet and stir until combined, then add the rest. Add in the raisins and stir to mix, then the oats one cup at a time. Stir to make sure everything’s well-distributed and no oats are left lonely and dry at the bottom of the bowl.

Drop dough by the rounded tablespoonful (see note) onto greased cookie sheets at least an inch or two apart. These won’t spread too terribly much if you keep them small.

IMAG1991

All the little cookies say ah-ah, I want to

Pop in the oven on the center rack and bake for 9-11 minutes one tray at a time. Let each batch cool on the tray for at least 5 minutes before transferring to cooling rack to cool completely. Store covered in a cool, dry place. Serve with a few shots of almond milk and a smile.

IMAG1992

Best beer/whiskey/almond milk glass ever.

See you at the Crossroads

Ever since Madeleine Bistro went more or less underground, LA has been sorely lacking in gourmet upscale vegan dining options. We’re lucky enough to have a plethora of casual vegan restaurants and even some fantastic new veg-friendly hotspots like the swank  The Village in Studio City, the incredibly delicious STREET on Highland and Melrose, and the ever-scrumtrulescent Mohawk Bend in Silver Lake. But 100% plant-based places are rarely all that fancy, and sometimes a vegan wants to get her high heels on and be able to eat more than three things on the menu, you know?

Enter Crossroads. No, it’s not based on the Bone Thugs-n-Harmony song, nor on the Britney Spears vehicle, nor the used clothing trading company. It was founded by none other than vegan megachef Tal Ronnen, whom I can personally attest to being 100% good dude. The Conscious Cook author/Gardein golden boy has created a beautiful yet unpretentious setting in the Fairfax/Beverly Grove area that serves all-vegan cuisine and gets me that much closer to my dream of being the world’s foremost vegan gourmet restaurant critic. This Friday night the hubs and I were lucky enough to get a reservation on the second night it was in business and I’m so, so glad we did. Forgive the quality of my crappy cell phone photos – it’s dark as a mother in there. Moby was eating there at the same time, NBD. Bottom line: the place has a few kinks to work out, as does any in its early days, but overall it’s fantastic.

The restaurant itself is just gorgeous. Tal and the other founders clearly paid a lot of attention to detail. The bar is the focal point of the main dining room, and I’d be happy to wile away a few hours here chatting it up with the friendly bartenders.

IMAG1967Our reservation (DEFINITELY make one) was for 9 PM, and we ended up having to stand at the bar and wait for a good half hour for our table. I’m pretty forgiving of slow/disorganized service when a place is brand new, and it ended up giving us a few moments to hang out and try the drink options. Some of these beverages were downright crazypants – they were out of the Caprese Smash and I really wanted to try a concoction with 9 ingredients, especially one with Sriracha bitters. I ended up going with the Punch Lyfe and the Mr. got an old-fashioned. Both of us agreed they were THE BEST EVER and immediately ordered a second round. I ended up getting the Sunset & Vine the second time around, which looks super pretty on account of the beet juice, but tasted sorta eh also on account of the beet juice. The Punch Lyfe seriously was amazing and I’d get it again in a heartbeat, and the hubs’ old-fashioned was no joke the best I’ve ever had.

SUNSET & VINE milagro reposado / solerno / lillet rouge / st. germain / rhubarb bitters
blood orange / beet / basil / ginger beer,  and PUNCH LYFE tullamore dew / gingersnap liqueur / orange marmalade / angostura / sparkling wine; both $15

After being seated we ordered about a billion dishes. One thing to note here – the portions are not just small, they are TEENY. Some dishes are bigger than others, of course, but for the most part you’re going to be getting just a bite or two off each plate. Again on the service, it was somewhat poorly timed. We ended up getting four dishes at once, which of course didn’t all fit on the table, was a little uncomfortable, and not to mention made us look like total hogs. First up was the kale spanakopita.

photo (1)

KALE SPANAKOPITA / 8
harissa spiced smoked tomato fondu / mint oil

These were nothing short of goddamned delightful. The little tomato fondu (say that in as obnoxious of an accent as you can for full effect) was creamy, rich and thick, and the little spanakopita (you have to press your fingertips together and move your hands up and down while saying that like you’re in an old racist cartoon) were crisp on the outside and full of creamy, chewy kale on the inside. We both oohed and ahhed over these babies. I could have eaten about twelve of the little two-bite rolls.

Flat bread - PISTACHIO KALAMATA TAPENADE & SPICY ROASTED CAULIFLOWER   / 10

Flat bread – PISTACHIO KALAMATA TAPENADE & SPICY ROASTED CAULIFLOWER / 10

We saw a couple at the table next to us eating this, and had to get it for ourselves. The texture on the cauliflower was just perfect. It was almost like a BBQ chicken pizza, but vegan and for grownups. Definitely would get this dish again. This was probably the biggest dish we had, and luckily one of the tastiest.

KITE HILL CHEESE PLATE   / 14 assorted cheeses / housemade jams / and other goodies -- (GF optional)

KITE HILL CHEESE PLATE / 14
assorted cheeses / housemade jams / and other goodies — (GF optional)

I was really excited about the cheese plate, and ended up being a little disappointed. The serving size was ample, and I enjoyed the accompaniments, but the cheese itself left a bit to be desired. It was just way too springy. Too much agar or carageenan or somethin’. The cheeses weren’t labeled, but from their facebook page I can guess that the red-rinded one in the center was their Costanoa and the one on the far left was the Cassucio. The White Alder (in the foreground, with a mottled white rind) was the only one I really enjoyed, as it was creamy and rich and spread nicely across the little multigrain bread provided. Still, I think they’re all worth trying because new vegan cheese duh.

“CRAB CAKES”   / 8 hearts of palm / apples / beets / horseradish cream -- (GF optional)

“CRAB CAKES” / 8
hearts of palm / apples / beets / horseradish cream — (GF optional)

The mini crab cakes were teeny tiny, barely two bites each. Our only complaint with these was that the texture of the veggies inside was a little bit off – they were just barely too firm and too big, which was a bit distracting, but the flavors were on point. It reminded me quite a bit of a dish that Fatty’s used to serve that I dearly miss. Don’t know that I’d get these again, but they were nice.

IMAG1961

SPICED CHICKPEAS / 8
oven-dried tomatoes / parsley garlic whip — (GF)

The spiced chickpeas were also a bit weird in the texture department. I don’t know if they were undercooked, but they just seemed a bit too firm. The parlsey garlic whip was a lovely complement to the spicy red sauce, but in the end I wasn’t crazy about these garbanzos. And you know how I feel about garbanzos.

PAPPARDELLE BOLOGNESE   / 12

PAPPARDELLE BOLOGNESE / 12

Even though we had ordered enough dishes to keep our waitress busy all night, we agreed we were still hungry after all that and ordered the papardelle. This dish ended up being my least favorite, sadly – the sauce was just way, WAY too salty. And I LOVE SALT. Both of us WHOAED Joey Lawrence-style upon our first bites. The flavors were great, the veggie meat crumbles were great, the pasta was great – but the salt level just threw everything off. I probably would have enjoyed it just fine if not for that. Hopefully it was just a one-time mistake and not the way it’s supposed to be made.

The dude at the table next to us ordered all four desserts on the menu and ate all of them by himself. Not to be outdone, we ordered some of our own (though not all four, which I still regret bitterly.)

IMAG1968

CARROT CAKE ICE CREAM, CHOCOLATE BUNDT CAKE, both $4

First of all, OMG SO CUTE. The desserts are itty-bitty (and only $4 a pop!) so don’t feel guilty at all for ordering one of them after eating here. Or all of them. The chocolate bundt cake was super rich and dark – in fact, the cocoa level was a little too strong and bitter, and I’m a dark cocoa fiend. But once I got to the ooey gooey caramely center I couldn’t help but exclaim OMUHGAH at that. It was ridiculous. In the best way. And the carrot cake ice cream? GOOD LORD SO GOOD. Absolutely delicious. Also, the little slices of carrot are candied and they’re bunny ears. GET THIS DESSERT.

Overall, I really loved Crossroads. There were a few hiccups but that’s more than understandable during the very early days of a restaurant. I really believe this is going to be the new vegan place to be, and know that my non-veg friends wouldn’t complain about eating here. The atmosphere is really classy, the food and drinks are bomb, the bartenders all wear cute suspenders, and the bathroom sink is mad fancy.

CRAZY SINK!

CRAZY SINK from inside the restaurant’s holodeck.

Well done, Mr. Ronnen and company. I’ll be back soon!

Crossroads

http://www.crossroadskitchen.com/

8284 Melrose Ave

Los Angeles, CA 90046

(323) 782-9245

 

Duty Now for the Future (Or, CHIPOTLE HAS TOFU! YAY!)

The first time I made the pilgrimage to a Chipotle (this was circa 2005; they were not as omnipresent as they are today), I looked at the mound of guacamole being heaped upon my forearm-sized burrito, gasped aloud, and asked, “Is this the promised land?”

But now Chipotle has even surpassed my initial impression, because they have added another vegan protein option to the menu.

Yay!

Yay!

You may feel you are experiencing déjà vu as you read this.  Hasn’t Chipotle offered faux meat in the past?  Yep.  Your memory doesn’t deceive you: it was a seasoned Gardein, and it made a fine taco.  But this option was never actually featured on the menu, so those not tapped in to the vegan hivemind didn’t know it existed.  After a few short months, it was pulled entirely due to “lack of interest.” (Otherwise known as: “No one ordered this secret menu item that we never actually told anyone about.”) I will always remember that summer of (Gardein-)lovin’ fondly.  It was beautiful, but it was never meant to be.

This time, the protein is a braised tofu that Chipotle is calling “sofritas.” (I’m guessing this is some derivation of sofrito? Silly honkeys and their misguided attempts at appropriation.)  And it is on the signage in the restaurant, so consumers are actually aware of its existence.

It’s currently being tested in a handful of San Francisco bay area locations, and as fate would have it, one of these locations is practically adjacent to my office. I had my gentleman procure some for us while I was working on Saturday in the hope that it would dull the pain that accompanies being an empty office because it’s Saturday.

It did!  The only pain I felt after lunch was a gluttony-induced stomachache. The tofu is extra-firm and cooked in a tangy, semi-spicy sauce.  Imagine if barbacoa and a block of tofu had a lovechild: barbacoa called tofu (okay, actually he texted, and it was at 1:00am) to “hang out.” He poured a couple glasses of red wine, put on an Otis Redding record, and, well…you can imagine the results—or taste them firsthand, if you happen to be in the bay area.

I had a generous portion of the tofu on tacos with black beans, fajita vegetables, salsa (“Uh, the spicy one,” is typically how I distinguish it) and guac.  Other than a serious oozing problem (this is not a dish I would advise shoveling into your mouth as you handle important documents), I have no complaints. I ate two of the three tacos, and then almost died from a combination of gluttony and pure happiness.

Side-effects include needing way more napkins than you have at your disposal.

Side-effects include needing way more napkins than you have at your disposal.

The mister, on the other hand, had his tofu served in a burrito. This burrito easily weighed more than the dumbbells I use when I do bicep curls: it was Man-vs.-Food, seriously-do-I-get-a-plaque-for-finishing-this sized, and I’m proud to say that my svelte gentleman took it down.

Look at the scale of this beast.

Look at the scale of this beast.

The only real drawback to this option is that, since we now have a vegan “meat,” guacamole costs extra.  But come on: it’s like twelve ounces of guac. It’s worth the $1.50.

While he was buying the food, my fiancé asked the Chipotle employee how the tofu was selling (I think to gauge the regularity with which we will have to buy it in order to ensure its permanent presence on the menu; three times a day?  Five?).  She responded, “Oh, great!  It tastes just like meat!”  Sigh.  Nevertheless, I hereby pledge to eat as much Chipotle as necessary to keep this option alive and well.  It’s a big commitment, but I’ll do it for our future. And for all of you.

Sorry We Party.

I recently went back to school, like Billy Madison.  Not like Billy Madison in the sense that I’m fighting five year olds for their snack-paks, but like him in the sense that I’m about ten years older than other students and regularly suppress the urge to pinch their youthful faces and scream, “Stay here!  Stay as long as you can!  FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, CHERISH IT.”

(Unlike them, and seemingly half of my professors, I have held an adult job.)

Basically: school (or at least my school—shout out to UC Berkeley, GO BEARS!!!, et cetera) is a time-sucking vortex, and the void remaining where my time once was is now filled with books and learning and producing papers in a flurry of caffeine and confusion. Whereas my Friday nights of yesteryear used to at least vaguely resemble raging parties (raging, one-lady parties with Prince records and bloody marys and nail painting), they now look like this:

Astutely notes that reading this book on a Friday night is my sadness threshold.

Astutely notes that reading this book on a Friday night is my sadness threshold.

It’s pretty bleak.

But I have to bring the party somewhere.  You can’t just hold party in.  It’s bad for your kidneys.

So this Friday evening, I brought the party to my wok and deep-fried hearts of palm in pure love (in stores it’s sometimes packaged as “canola oil”).

Hi I love you.

Hi I love you.

It was like Woodstock, but with more calories and more people you probably wouldn’t mind seeing naked (um, nevermind).

Since this post is being written in posteriority, the recipe that follows is an Unsolved-Mysteries-esque dramatization of true events.

Step 1: Clutter your counter with ingredients.  You will need:

Hearts of palm, cornstarch, soymilk, flax meal, panko, and ranch (because you always need ranch, duh).

Hearts of palm, cornstarch, soymilk, flax meal, panko, and ranch (because you always need ranch).

Step 2: Turn your stove to medium/medium-high heat and add an inch of oil.

Step 3: Whisk together some soymilk (or, you know, whatever unsweetened nondairy beverage you have) and flax meal*.  I haven’t a clue what the proportions are, except that it’s more milk than flax, but just do it (a ½ cup of milk and a couple tablespoons of flax meal ought to work).  Whisk with conviction; you’ll want it to thicken a bit, as this will function as an egg wash.

Step 4: Make like Henry Ford (minus that whole “being profoundly racist” thing) and create an assembly line.  First, you’re going to log-roll the heart of palm in a thin coat of cornstarch. Tap off any excess.  Second, you’re going to dip it in your flax/soymilk wash.  Finally, you’re going to roll it around in crunchy, wondrous panko—and then you’re going to deep fry it.**

Dip in each bowl from left to right.  (Pretend that there is something in that middle bowl, like in Hook.)

Dip in each bowl from left to right. (Pretend that there is something in that middle bowl, like in Hook.)

Step 5: Gently drop your battered heart of palm into your wok and then repeat with those remaining.  I wouldn’t fry any more than four at a time for the sake of quality control.  After they have been saturated in hot oil (mmm) for a couple minutes, flip with a pair of tongs.  When they’re uniformly golden brown, transfer to a plate with a napkin on top to drain.

Step 6: Nomnomnom.  I served these like I would mozzarella sticks–with vegan ranch and marinara (duh).  But I bet aioli, or a sriracha mayo, or really anything else that is normally paired with fried things would be a good bet.

 

Andrew WK-level party.

Andrew WK-level party.

* It has recently been brought to my attention that Bob’s Red Mill is evil/not a friend to our adorably furry counterparts (I mean, not furries.  Well. Maybe them, too?).  I didn’t realize this when I purchased these products, but I hereby dis-endorse them.  Now moving on.

** You don’t know how to deep fry things?  What are you, a health food enthusiast (a communist)?  I don’t trust you.

To ensure that your oil is the proper temperature, dip the handle of a wooden spoon into it.  If bubbles form around it slowly and lazily rise to the surface, raise the temperature or give it an extra minute or two to heat up.  If they’re frenetically forming and bouncing off of your handle, then your wooden spoon is beginning to fry.  Resist the urge to eat it, and turn the heat down.  When bubbles form and rise to the surface of the oil at a brisk but comfortable pace, you’re golden (and soon those beautiful hearts of palm will be, too!)

 

 

Quick and Dirty Product Review: Earth Balance Vegan Aged White Cheddar Puffs

While wiling away an evening at Whole Foods in a post-workout Mariana Trench-sized carbohydrate ditch, I just about snapped my neck when I saw these babies on the snack aisle.

“Vegan” in tiny letters so as not to scare off the omnis, natch.

Obviously I had to try them. I added them to my already-overflowing handbasket and ripped into the bag the moment I got in the car.

The verdict? These things are basically puffy corn puffs covered in weird non-dairy cheddar-type flavor powder. The cheddar flavor is pretty mild, which is sort of nice, but definitely don’t go into it expecting Chester Cheetah-level cheesiness unless you want to be disappointed. At first I wasn’t into them and enjoyed my cheesy kale chips a lot more (hey, they were on sale), but over the weekend the Mr. and I obliterated the whole bag. I am writing this with cheezy flavor powder all over my shirt and fingers right now. They’re good, but not so great that we ate them all in one sitting (which is how we usually eat snacks). I don’t know that I’d buy them again because they are pretty messy and the texture isn’t my favorite. I’d say they’re worth trying.