Goodbye, Foodie February. Hello, Meditation March.

If I’ve learned nothing else about myself in February, I now know that I wouldn’t enjoy being a restaurant critic. Writing about my experience at restaurants is some of the least exciting writing I’ve ever had to do. Well, perhaps not as painful as that freelance article about elevator safety,¹ but still not something I’d welcome doing again.

Still, to do justice to the month, I’ve got one more review to submit. And in this case, I’m happy to do so. Ad Hoc was pure delight. This Thomas Keller restaurant is the French Laundry’s warm, unpretentious younger sibling. There is a fixed menu each night, and the food is served family-style. The restaurant is meant to feel like home, and the noisy families with their rambunctious children ensured that it did. The food was humble but delicious and the service was spot-on, making for a wonderful dining experience.

Our meal seemed simple enough: wedge salad, sirloin with sides of cabbage and grits, cheese course, and chocolate pudding. But the preparation of each dish elevated it: the surprisingly sweet tomatoes and creamy dressing on the salad; the perfect texture (at once creamy and chewy) of the grits; a delectable sweet-and-sour flavor to the cabbage; the pudding that was so balanced and, with homemade whipped cream and a graham and toffee crumble on top, so much more than regular chocolate pudding.

IMG_5902

It was sweet redemption after Poggio and a lovely note on which to end Foodie February. If you have plans to be in the Napa area, and you are looking for delicious, local food done right, you should give Ad Hoc a shot.

With that done, I can now clear my plate (hah!) from February and move on to… “Meditation March.”

Meditation March: the name makes me laugh. It’s a bit of an oxymoron- the idea of a march (loud, militant even) that is also a meditation. Or that people would be marching in support of meditation- a cause whose champions seem… well… unlikely to march. Meditators seem more likely to tread as lightly as possible.

But insofar as “march” indicates a steady rhythm, the name is apt. My hope is to meditate every day. I’ll try different approaches to see if there’s one that is a particularly good fit. I have tried meditation before, but never with any regularity or diligence, and I think My Year of 40 is the perfect time to give it another shot. The “new” aspect, in this case, is in making it a daily practice.

I’ll check in soon to let you know how it’s going. Happy March!

* * * * *

¹Back when I was still figuring out who I wanted to be, I flirted with freelance writing. And in that flirtation, I did indeed write that captivating article linked above. Same Jill Witty. Living on, ad infinitum, in the never-ending cache of the Internet.

Advertisements

Poggio: when Michael Bauer is wrong

Michael Bauer is a legend in the Bay Area. The restaurant critic for The Chronicle (for over 28 years now), Bauer annually publishes his list of the Top 100 restaurants in the Bay Area. Prior to this month, I had dined at sixteen of them (not great– but for someone who lives outside of the city, with three kids and a full-time job, not awful, either). Part of my mission in February was to knock a few more of these off the list.

Lazy Bear: check. Worthy of the Top 100, as well as a top 10 and even a top 5 if such a list existed.

Next up: Poggio. I chose this restaurant because it was one of the few Marin restaurants to make the list, and because it’s Italian food (something I almost never eat at a restaurant, because restaurants get it wrong so often– but in the spirit of My Year of 40, I thought I’d do so), and because I was able to secure reservations for a pre-Valentine’s Day dinner. Excellent.

Sadly, our revered food critic got this one wrong. The food was fine; we were “whelmed” (as in: not overwhelmed, not underwhelmed; just whelmed). The non-food experience was pretty awful.

We arrived to a packed restaurant but were shown to our table with not much delay. The waitress was curt and exuded a “couldn’t be bothered” kind of attitude. I asked her about a cocktail (vodka, amaretto, and cherry purée)– was it sweet, or not too sweet? (Cocktails used to be my business, and the sweetness of that drink would all depend on the ratios of the ingredients.) She told me that no, it wasn’t sweet at all; “Perfect,” I said, “I’ll have that one.” When the drinks arrived, my cocktail was almost undrinkable for how sweet it was. Strike one.

We were offered bread and sparkling water when we sat down. Fifteen minutes later, neither had arrived. Finally, we tagged a bus boy, who was able to help us. Strike two.

The food, meanwhile: good. B or B+. We started with pastas: I had the gnudi (delightful spinach & ricotta “pillows”), while Graham had the bucatini with guanciale. Both were tasty, but not particularly memorable or original. IMG_5847Next we split the polpettone, described as one of their signature dishes. It arrived, and it was meatloaf; good, yes, but meatloaf.  Brussels sprouts to accompany were mushy and bland. Are we sure this restaurant belongs on the same list as Lazy Bear?

To top it off, we were neglected for most of our meal (ran out of water; ready to order more beverages but nobody around, etc). When we were ready to pay, our waitress was nowhere to be found, so again we had to ask a different server to help us. That always feels awkward, but when you’re ready to go (and your babysitter is on the clock)– you’re ready to go. Strike three.

IMG_5850

(Here we are, the happy but impatient couple.)

Admittedly, this all could have been a case of one bad waitress. But the food wasn’t good enough to justify giving Poggio another shot.

Lazy Bear, you spoiled us! Next up… Ad Hoc.

The fanciest dinner party you’ve ever been to

For the second, shortest month of the year, I wanted to try something that didn’t require a daily commitment (unlike my month of veganism). Something that would be memorable, and not require too much advance planning or too much time to execute. Because, frankly: demanding work + three kids (one of whom is still physically dependent on me) = not a ton of time for new things. Later in the year I’ll embark on some challenges that will require more of a time commitment, but for this month, eating out sounded about the right speed.

Also: I promise not all of “my year of 40” will be about food — merely the first two months.

In this month of “landmark Bay Area restaurants,” my hope is that one or more reaches the bar of indelibly memorable. Do you have a mental list of those dining experiences? Those five or ten best meals of all time? For me, they have been not just about the quality of the food (although that’s obviously a requirement), but also about the atmosphere, the sensory experience, the presentation- the complete package.

It’s a high bar, but our first restaurant just may have been up to the task. LazyBear is one of the hottest tickets in town, which normally means I wouldn’t manage to get reservations, not being particularly savvy about these things. But this one sort of fell into my lap: I was at my computer right when tickets went on sale, and I acted quickly.¹

So it was that Graham and I found ourselves last Thursday at an understated venue in the Mission. We were ushered upstairs to enjoy wine, cocktails, or a glass of punch. We were served “snacks” (brought around like hors d’oeuvres, but in presentation, more like a series of amuse-bouches) that hinted at the fanciness and creativity of what was to come. (Below: Shigoku oysters with kiwi and chickweed)IMG_5819After cocktail hour, we were led down the stairs to the main room, a lodge-like space that had two long, communal tables running down the middle, with a busy kitchen at one end. We were instructed where to sit (fourth from the end, on opposite sides of the table). LazyBear really wants you to make friends over dinner.² They call the experience “the modern American dinner party,” and say on their website that they “hope Lazy Bear is the best dinner party you’ve ever attended.” Well, to one side of us was a couple that spoke in Mandarin to each other the whole time. To our other side was a party of four who could barely bring themselves to tell us their names, so wrapped up were they in their own quartet. New friends? Not so much. (Sorry to have failed you, LazyBear.)

The food and the rest of the experience more than made up for our lack of new friends. First, the food. Between the five “snacks” upstairs and the downstairs sit-down meal, we were served a total of 14 courses. All very small plates, all impeccably arranged for visual impact, all representing a harmony of flavors and textures that most humans would never dream up. And they worked, hands down, across the board. IMG_5829

As each course was presented, the chef described it to the whole room. Then we ate it (which, being a small plate, took about 30 seconds).IMG_5821

Between courses you’re encouraged to go watch the chefs in the kitchen and even ask them questions. This was dinner as theater, and it was a ton of fun. IMG_5823

And the food itself: really, extraordinarily good. It was playful, tasty, original, and fresh. Gastronomical whimsy writ large. IMG_5826

The night was an extremely strong start to my month of memorable dining. We walked away with a slew of new taste sensations, visual impressions, and if not any new friends, at least we had each other.

* * * * *

¹+1 for having a #foodies channel on my company’s Slack, and +1 for having a VP Engineering who’s dialed into LazyBear’s ticket release schedule.

²They provide little booklets with descriptions of each dish and room for you to make notes. At the end of the booklet, they write, “Did you sit next to anyone with whom you’d like to keep in touch? Write down their contact info here.” This is plenty cheeky, in the age of ubiquitous smartphones. Also- thanks for rubbing it in, LazyBear, that no, we won’t be keeping in touch with anyone from our table.

So long, veganism. Hello, February.

It’s February first! Time for a new adventure in My Year of 40. But first, some closing thoughts on my month of veganism.

  1. Bowls are my number one meal as a vegan. They’re an easy and satisfying vehicle for vegetables, and they’re quick to throw together. They’re also endlessly adaptable- toss anything you want in them. Roughly speaking, a bowl “recipe” would include a whole grain (or not), a legume (or not) and lots of veggies (cooked- otherwise we’re just making a salad). Add some enhancements- maybe some seeds, avocado, or nuts- and then flavorings- aminos (see below), sesame oil, vinegar- you get the picture- and you’re off to the races.
  2. Aminos make everything taste better. I first discovered Coconut Aminos two years ago: vegan, gluten- and soy-free, they’re your new best friend. I put this stuff on everything: grain bowls, salads, raw or cooked vegetables, veggie burgers. It’s the bomb. A little salty, a little umami, a lot delicious. More widely available, but not soy-free, is Bragg Aminos, which is nearly as good.
  3. Quinoa is a breakfast food. I need to start my day out with some protein, which has been more challenging as a vegan (gone are the eggs; gone is the Greek yogurt). Luckily, there’s quinoa. Besides being the only “grain” (actually a seed) that’s a complete protein, it plays well with both sweet and savory foods. While I eat it for lunch or dinner in one of my veggie bowls, at breakfast I pair it with apples, cinnamon, walnuts, a drizzle of maple syrup, and a bit of almond milk.
  4. Within limitation, there is freedom. Knowing that I had a narrower spectrum of foods to work with forced me to be more creative. Maybe this is no longer the case after many months, or years, of being vegan, but in a one-month timeframe, I felt forced to think outside my usual food norms to arrive at meals and snacks that were satisfying. And I enjoyed the challenge.

In the end, I’m not entirely parting with veganism. For me, right now, there seems to be no better way to stay motivated to eat so many vegetables, while also forcibly avoiding foods that aren’t good for me.¹ For now, I’m going to be “88% vegan.” Here’s how I came up with that:

(3 meals + 2 snacks per day) * 7 days per week = 35 eating occurrences per week. If I have 4 non-vegan meals per week, then I’ll be 31/35 = 88% vegan.

Which leads me to February, and my “try something new” for this month. In February, I’ll be trying:

Landmark Bay Area Restaurants²

Frankly, this is a compelling reason for me not to be 100% vegan in February.³

First up: a surprise restaurant for date night with Graham.  Stay tuned!

¹I’m talking to you, butter.

²That I haven’t already tried, or perhaps that goes without saying.

³With apologies to my vegan cheerleaders. 88% is still about 500% more vegan than I used to be.

The inconvenience factor

It is hard (for me) to be vegan and not feel like I’m either a) inconveniencing people or b) trying to stand out. I don’t intend to do either, but most of the time, I feel as though I am doing both. My most recent example happened this evening. I was out with a group of women¹ at a pizza restaurant. Scanning the menu, I knew I would not be able to share food socially with anyone at the table (inconveniencing people). Then I felt the need to apologize for that (standing out). Then, I had to ask my waitress to “hold the bacon” on my salad (well, perhaps that wasn’t so egregious).

And restaurants are actually the easy part- they deal in special requests all the time. Eating at other people’s houses: much harder. You don’t want to be “that” guest- the one your hosts have to go to extra trouble for. This weekend we went to our friends’ house for dinner- vegan friends!- so we felt easy, not trouble at all. But the vast majority of my friends and family are not vegan.

Is it just part and parcel of any special diet? Perhaps. But it feels more uncomfortable to me to be dogmatic about veganism than it would if, say, I had a gluten or a peanut allergy. In the case of veganism, I’m making a conscious choice to inconvenience others for what amounts to my own pleasure. My sister Beth and I chatted about this (she is pescatarian and gluten-free) and her approach is to stick to her diet unless she feels she is burdening someone. Seems like a fair and relaxed approach to me.

People have been asking me whether I’ll stick with this after January. Short answer: no. Long answer: yes, in part. I think I’m going to try a partial-vegan diet, such as VB6 or vegan five days a week. I don’t want to go whole hog (embrace the pun) back to animal products; I feel so healthy right now and am not yet ready to give that up. At the same time, I can’t envision being a strict, 100% vegan; I don’t think there’s anything wrong, either health-wise or animal rights-wise, with occasional animal products, carefully chosen. I’ll keep you posted.

Here’s what I cooked this week:

Thai Coconut, Coriander and Broccoli Soup by Donna Hay (via Epicurious). This was delicious but a bit too spicy for the kids (sigh). I replaced the water with vegetable broth and served the soup with a bit of shredded unsweetened coconut. Perfect for winter- warm, healthy, and satisfying. Grade: A

Roasted Buffalo Cauliflower Bites by Rhea Parsons (via One Green Planet). We already have a go-to roasted cauliflower recipe that we love, but this blog is not about sticking with the old, tried-and-true things.² This recipe is supposed to remind you of hot wings. They were indeed hot- even for Graham, which is saying something- but I found them fairly addictive. I’ll be making these again and will use less hot sauce. Grade: A-

Walnut Banana Bread by Mark Bittman. I usually love it when recipes call for unusual ingredients, but in this case, the cooked brown rice (!) had a strange and not wholly pleasant chew. It’s hard to get banana bread wrong IMO, but this recipe did just that. Grade: C-

Curried Tofu Scramble – a method, more than a recipe, and one that works well. The curry powder lends a surprising sweetness to the veggies and tofu. If you’re anti-tofu, you could just as easily throw in chickpeas or other sturdy beans in its place. See recipe below. Grade: A

Curried Tofu Scramble
modified and adapted from Super Natural Cooking by Heidi Swanson

Ingredients:
1 pound extra-firm tofu
1 T. sunflower oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 onion, chopped
2 teaspoons Sri Lankan Curry powder
3 big handfuls spinach leaves
6 oz. broccoli florets
1/2 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt, plus more as needed

Directions:
Drain any water from the tofu, press it between a couple of paper towels to release excess moisture, then crumble into small pieces.
Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat, add the garlic and onion, and sauté for just a few minutes, until they soften up. Stir in the curry powder and then the tofu and broccoli. Cover and cook for 4 to 5 minutes, until the tofu is thoroughly heated and broccoli is tender. Add the spinach and stir for a minute or so, until it wilts and collapses, then stir in the salt. Taste and adjust the seasoning. If you want a brighter curry flavor to come forward, sprinkle with more curry powder. If the flavors aren’t quite popping, add more salt a couple of pinches at a time.

Serves 4 to 6.

* * * * *

¹Moms, to be more precise. Fellow kindergarten moms. Moms that I don’t even know that well, around whom I was trying to be “winning.” Not sharing a pizza with these moms = antisocial = not winning.

²That would be a sad blog indeed.

The hardest thing about veganism

No, it’s not giving up cheese. Or bacon. Or half-and-half. (Truth be told, I barely miss the first two. Half-and-half: that’s another story.)

It’s not forgoing eggs. (But I can tell you right now, if I could add one thing back into my diet, it would be eggs.)

To understand what is hardest for me about veganism, you’ll need a sense of my typical day.

During the week, I head to work early in the morning. I return home in the evening, just in time to eat dinner, nurse the baby, and put the big kids to bed. I am lucky: I come home to a home-cooked meal, prepared by my husband or our au pair. This is also by necessity. If it weren’t this way, I wouldn’t get to eat until 8pm at the earliest, which might seem quite reasonable to many of you, but when I’m trying to get to bed by 9:30 (with lights’ out by 10), an 8pm dinner is just too late.¹

Since going vegan, unfortunately, I no longer have dinner waiting for me when I get home. Instead, I have walked in to find grilled flank steak, roasted chicken over green beans, cheeseburgers, or sausage and greens soup. These are all foods that I would have devoured just weeks ago, and they are happily consumed by the other members of my household (minus the baby). Unable to eat these foods, I scramble to throw together a dinner. Some nights this is easy, if I have the raw materials ready to go, or if I have leftovers from something I cooked on the weekend. Other nights, vegan dinner prep might take a half hour or more, time that I don’t have to give.

The low point of my vegan week arrived when I came home to the smell of freshly baked bread. I felt like Winnie the Pooh, eager beyond measure for his honey pot.² Alas, Graham had followed a recipe that used milk. To be ravenous, and to follow my nose to a loaf of homemade bread (still warm), and not to be able to eat any because of a diet of my own choosing? Torture.³

In the short term, I will have to be more diligent about buying and prepping over the weekend, so that weeknight dinners come together easily. Over the long term, this feels like a pretty big strike against veganism. Graham won’t be going vegan any time soon ever, and as long as my schedule remains this busy during the week, I’m not sure I’ll have the energy to be the lone vegan. It’s a bummer, really. I haven’t made any decisions about how I’ll eat after January, but I do know that I feel great, I’m eating far more vegetables and legumes than I normally do, and I’m actually enjoying what I eat. Stay tuned…

Here’s what I cooked this week:

Curried Spinach and Tofu from Mark Bittman. This is vegan saag paneer, and I was skeptical before making it (given how much I love saag paneer). YUM- surprisingly delicious. I ate this four times over the course of the week and never tired of it. Grade: A

Creamy Thai Carrot Soup by Minimalist Baker. My kids liked this and had fun guessing the secret ingredient (peanut butter). I thought it was fine, but I think I’d take regular (PB-free) carrot soup over this one, nine times out of ten. Grade: B+

Mushroom Nut Burgers by Mark Bittman. Bittman rarely leads me astray, but this one doesn’t do justice to mushrooms, or to veggie burgers more generally. The flavor was decent, but the texture was off (too wet). I’m on the hunt for a better veggie burger recipe. Suggestions? Please leave them in the comments! Grade: B-

Grain-Free Chocolate Chip Cookies. These were a big hit when I brought them to work. I think they are slightly oily but the flavor is delicious. See recipe below. Grade: A

Grain-Free Chocolate Chip Cookies
adapted from “The Microbiome Solution” by Robynne Chutkan

Ingredients:
2 c. almond flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 c. organic raw honey
1 teaspoon molasses
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup coconut oil
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 350F. Line a baking sheet with a Silpat or parchment paper. Add the almond flour, baking soda, and salt to the bowl of a food processor and mix well. Add the honey, molasses, vanilla, and coconut oil o the mixture. Process until it becomes a dough. Transfer to a bowl, add the chocolate, and mix. Drop the dough by rounded tablespoons onto the baking sheet at least 2 inches apart. Bake for 7 to 9 minutes, until the tops of the cookies are set and the edges begin to brown. Allow to cool on the pan for 10 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

* * * * *

¹Yes, I am incredibly unhip. I used to make fun of my parents for having this exact same schedule, and now I can’t function any other way. But since I know I’ll be up with the baby at least once, if not two or three times, each night, if I don’t at least aim for a 10pm-6am sleep schedule, I’m sunk.

²This allusion further confirms my first footnote.

³In a #firstworldproblems kind of way.

The most surprising thing about veganism

I am one week into my month of veganism. In some ways, this diet has gone as expected: I’m eating more vegetables. I spend more time reading food labels. I get less enjoyment out of my daily coffee.¹

But there have been some surprises, too. My favorite breakfast cereal? Not vegan.² Weight loss (after months of post-partum struggles)? Surprisingly effortless (more to come on this topic in a subsequent post). But the most surprising discovery of all?

Being vegan is easy.³

I had imagined it would be difficult, and I’m clearly not alone: when I tell people about my month of veganism, the number one comment I hear is, “that’s got to be hard.” And if we mean “hard” as in “hardship,” then yes, there is some hardship involved (see my coffee comment above). But if we mean “hard” as in “challenging,” well, in many respects, it’s easier to be vegan than omnivorous.

Why? Because we face too many choices in our daily lives. And too many choices cause more unhappiness and more stress, not less. (See this article and this one.) Veganism reduces choice. Whether at a restaurant, or at the office, or in your home kitchen- there are fewer options available to vegans. So you go with what you’re “allowed” to eat, and the choice is made.

No more taxing my brain at restaurants as I scan a menu with endless, delicious-sounding options. I just hone in on the few vegan choices (sometimes only one) and go with it. At work, I turn a blind eye to the homemade banana bread that someone’s mom made (with eggs and butter, assuredly); I ignore the salami, cheese and yogurts in the fridge; I know I’m not allowed to eat these, so they don’t even enter into my consideration set. If I’m hungry, I know exactly what my (few) options are: carrots with hummus or peanut butter; fruits; Kind bars.

Granted, this “easy” aspect of veganism is also part of a trade-off, and many of us would gladly accept the pain of more choices if it means we get, say, half and half in our coffee.

Still, this first week has gone tremendously well, and so far I’m rather enjoying my veganism.

Here’s what I cooked this week:

Coconut-Cardamom Vegan Overnight Oat Parfait from Oh She Glows. Easy, if you don’t bother with the jam (I didn’t). A great portable breakfast, but a little too sweet and rich (for me) for breakfast. Grade: B+

Dark Chocolate Quinoa Breakfast Bowl from Minimalist Baker. I messed this up by just making regular quinoa and then mixing the ingredients in (instead of cooking the quinoa in coconut milk & almond milk) but it was still delicious. Grade: A

Crowd-Pleasing Vegan Caesar Salad from Oh She Glows. No idea whether this is “crowd-pleasing” because I made it only for myself, but I’ve eaten it the past three days, so that should tell you how much I like it. Grade: A+

Ultimate Vegan Mac and Cheese from The Glowing Fridge. This is cool because the “cheese” sauce is made from vegetables, but it comes out the same bright orange color as Kraft Mac & Cheese. My kids loved this and even Graham called it “a winner.” Grade: A-

¹ Soy creamer, almond milk, coconut milk, coconut creamer: I have tried them all. They don’t live up to half and half.

² Trader Joe’s High Fiber Cereal. It has whey in it. Who knew?

³ Only in some ways. Being vegan is also hard, which is the topic of my next post.