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Monday, November 9, 2009

A vegan giving thanks

No one else is vegan in my family, which is kinda surprising when you consider what great vegan chefs they all become when Johnny and I are around.

Ridding one's diet of all animal products has never been the easiest of undertakings, but having family support can make all the difference in the veg experience. So this post of thanks goes out to my extremely tolerant, understanding, and helpful family. Y'all go out of your way at every gathering to make sure we have plates full of healthy and tasty, animal-free food. And we really appreciate it!

Accomodating us vegans at the Thanksgiving dinner table has never been too much of a stretch because my parents themselves converted to Earth Balance (vegan butter) years ago. (That one was an easy sell!) So most of the side dishes are automatically vegan. Then my mom always makes a vegan dressing in addition to her traditional one, and uses Tofutti cream cheese in the spinach casserole. My dad makes a small batch of vegan mashed potatoes in addition to the milky batch. I bring some kind of faux-turkey. And we all pig out. This year, we stuffed ourselves silly and then drove up to visit Johnny's family, who had also prepared Thanksgiving dinner, and proceeded to pig out a second time!

But even on the less-momentous occasions, my family is on top of things. Most Sundays, we eat dinner at my grandmother's house. This past week it was red beans and rice -- with a separate, meatless pot of the beans for us. My aunt "M" is highly trained in cooking with dietary restrictions. She gives me assurances like "We'll wrap your burger in foil so it doesn't touch the grill that was formerly touched by meat!" I'm like "It's ok, the grease was cooked off long ago!" -- but she doesn't buy it.

A few weeks ago, my aunt "C" held dinner at her house, and went all out: Creole white beans with bell peppers and onions, brown rice, salad, and crispy, buttery (Earth-Balancey) French bread with artichoke hearts baked on top:


I don't know what I did to deserve such support, but let me tell you, my peeps are amazing.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Southern vegans and MimicCreme

Now that we're mostly settled in the new house, I've been on a domestic kick for the last couple of weeks. You might say there's been a whole lotta down-home cookin' going on. Tonight it was "Bayou Beans 'n' Greens" from the vegan cookbook for singles, Veggie Bites. Johnny and I have made this easy dish several times, and tonight the main characters were kidney beans and kale. We also had leftover tomato-basil soup with a couple of slices of garlic toast on the side.

I used to have quite the addiction to La Madeleine's super-creamy tomato basil soup...it never seemed like it had nearly as much tomato or basil as it did cream! Who knows how many heart attacks can be traced back to that soup!? I'm happy to report that, although my judgment may be slightly skewed for not having had any dairy products for the past 8 years, my vegan version of it was at least reminiscent of my old favorite. I found a zillion postings of a recipe for it online, and then just subbed Earth Balance and my new favorite vegan cream: MimicCreme! It was super-rich. Johnny found it a little on the nutty side -- he would have used a little less of the nut-based cream -- but still enjoyed it. Since we had already eaten some last night, tonight we threw in a piece of grilled pineapple to spruce it up. Really good stuff!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Acme vegan

If you're any kind of vegetarian, you probably think you know at a glance which restaurants never to set foot in -- and you're usually right! So I'm thrilled to report an amazing meal Johnny and I had at a seemingly unlikely restaurant -- Metairie's Acme Oyster House! Whoda thunk it?!

Initially, things went as expected -- we got question-mark expressions at the front door from the first couple of staffers who tried to help. But then they whipped out their kitchen manager, Michelle Matlock, and our journey to tastiness began!

Michelle was exceptionally well-versed in her ingredients. She ran through the menu pointing out all the things that could be veganized. She also thanked us for "proving her point": the very same day, she had written a directive to her C.O.O. regarding the restaurant's lack of options for vegan and gluten-intolerant diners. She said that Acme Oyster House has been around for a hundred years, and needs to catch up with the times. Awesome!!!

We chose a table in a windowed room, where our server worked with Michelle to give us an absolutely amazing, and totally unexpected, dining experience. Comme hors-d'oeuvre, we ordered a veganized Remoulade Martini. Instead of the usual shrimp, chunks of roasted vegetables took the leading role in this performance in a martini glass. They were bathed in a remoulade sauce and sat on shredded lettuce. A delectable decoration of olives and okra on a toothpick adorned the top of the creation.

The fanciness of this appetizer -- along with the rich flavor -- was enough to make my night. But there were more surprises to come! The main dish that followed was nothing short of outstanding -- the most amazing deep-fried onion rings IN THE WORLD atop a gigantic heap of artichoke hearts, red bell pepper, baby carrots, mushrooms, squash, and zucchini in a reduction sauce bursting with flavor, heaped over yellow rice, and framed with pear slices on one side and pickled, peppered green beans on the other.

THERE WERE EVEN SCRIBBLES OF SAUCE AROUND THE BORDER OF THE PLATE.

I don't care what something tastes like, if you drizzle sauce around it, COUNT ME IN. But sauce aside, we couldn't get over the intense flavors that melded together in this colorful mountain of deliciousness. I felt sorry for everyone else at the table eating oysters or whatever they had -- I didn't actually notice. My description cannot possibly do it justice, but trust me at least when I say, this was no pile of veggie boredom. It was magnificent.

Johnny and I were stuffed by the time we had cleaned up our plates, but when our server came back around to ask if anyone wanted dessert, I couldn't resist asking if there was a vegan option. Sure enough, our favorite chef came through for us once again, delivering an enormous goblet of Cherry Remoulade topped with...whipped cream???!! Michelle accompanied this finale to the table to explain that the whip was absolutely dairy-free -- thanks to the fact that it was the cheap stuff. "Basically hydrogenated canola oil," she assured us. As a person that normally steers clear of cis-turned-trans fats, I dove into the dessert like there was no tomorrow. After all, it's not every day that you happen upon a seafood-centered restaurant with a kitchen manager so willing to go out of her way to make a couple of vegan diners at home. Thank you Michelle! I hope more vegans come your way.*

*A final note to those potential vegan customers: This all went down at Acme's Metairie location and Michelle did add that it would be wise to call ahead and make sure she's there before dashing over for a NOLA-style vegan feast. Otherwise, you will probably find yourself eating rabbit food as you feared!
**UPDATED FEB. 11, 2011: Michelle Matlock no longer works for Acme Oyster.

Acme Oyster House ~ 3000 Veterans Blvd. ~ Metairie, LA 70005 ~ (504) 309-4056

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

13...bad luck or bad management?

I’ve only been here a month, but ever since I even thought about making a move to New O., a restaurant by the name of “13 Monaghan” (shortened in conversation to just the number) has popped up here and there as the place to go for an unexpectedly vegan-friendly menu. Since we were in the Quarter tonight, Johnny and I decided to take a break from Bennachin’s (actually, we were out of cash, so it wasn’t an option) and give 13 a try. As much as I hate to say this about any place that caters to vegans – we won’t be going back anytime soon.

Walking in, it seemed that, in this restaurant too, someone had forgotten to turn the vent hood on…the whole place was filled with smoke from the kitchen. We started to sit at one of the high tables with bar stools, but then thought better of it and hunkered down at a regular table in an attempt to stay below the fumes. To no avail.

As our waiter handed us the menus and I asked my usual question about vegan menu recommendations, he replied with “I recommend that you not be vegan.”

Huh?

Now I'm the first to give a guy the benefit of the doubt, and so I wondered briefly if it was a playful jab. Wait for it…wait for it…there was a fantastically awkward pause as he watched for my reaction (probably thinking, “Did I just say that out loud?”) and I stared blankly at him, waiting for him to crack a smile and say he was just teasing.

Being vegan, I know how to take some teasing.

But he didn't, so we eventually stumbled over his comment and, after browsing the options, ordered a couple of BBQ tofu po-boys. Then the wait began.

And continued. On and on. I think the smoke inhalation didn't help our patience levels.

Finally, no less than thirty minutes later (with only one other couple being served before us, and their two dishes arriving fifteen minutes apart) – the long-awaited po-boys arrived. Yes, they were good. But good enough to put up with no vent hood, terrible service, and fonky ketchup (yes, I said FONKY, as in NAYS-ty, which you should be sure to rhyme in your head with "pasty")? No way.

By the time we left, my eyes burned, but unlike at Bennachin’s, there were no spices to blame – it was just greasy kitchen smoke. I asked our waiter what the deal was. He said they used to keep the door open to air the place out, but the health department said it was against code. And the employees haven’t been able to convince the owner to ventilate the restaurant otherwise.

Fortunately, the only after-plan we had was to walk down Bourbon, and if there's any place you can smell like two giant tater tots and not have anyone notice, it's there.

13 Monaghan ~ 517 Frenchmen St. ~ 70116 ~ (504) 942-1345

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Vegan + Bennachin = Woo-hoo!

The other night we dined at Bennachin and all I can say is THANK YOU AFRICA FOR YOUR LACTOSE-INTOLERANCE!!* I assume that this is what’s behind the absence of dairy throughout the menu, with the exception of dessert. So far we’ve been twice. There was a bit of a downside to the first trip – the folks in the kitchen had forgotten to turn on the vent hood, as I found out after the fact. Our eyes felt a little burn from the time we walked in, but then we made the mistake of ordering the curry. We had the furthest seat from the kitchen, but by god that spice travelled! It was clear when the curry was set on our table that it was the source of our eyes’ woes. We ate some and then took turns going outside to air out our eyeballs. I waited too long, until they were screwed shut and squeezing out a steady flow of tears. I stumbled outside, down the steps (thank goodness there were only two, because I couldn’t see a thing) and waited a while before going back in to eat the rest of dinner. We didn’t finish the curry. I think it’s one of those dishes you have to be a native to enjoy.

But for the rest…I cannot begin to say how much I love this food!! What a great restaurant! The jama-jama (spinach) is dreamy, the fried plantains heavenly. The vegetables over couscous were surprisingly delicious, and the coconut rice didn’t really taste like coconut, so Johnny enjoyed it too. The ginger drink is AMAZING – there's nothing like ginger's sweet punch in the throat! And I also loved the red tea. The best part is leaving there feeling like I’ve eaten something more nutritional than not – a rarity in the restaurant experience. Wish this place accepted some form of payment other than cash, but them’s the breaks.

* I received a comment from someone who was offended by this remark. I wish he/she had left a more specific criticism so I could respond appropriately, but I'll just have to make do with what I've got. First, I certainly did not intend to seem ignorant by referring to a link between Africa and lactose intolerance; for the record, I am aware that 1) not every adult in Africa is lactose-intolerant and 2) Africa is not the only continent on the planet with a high prevalence of lactose intolerance. Indeed, only a small percentage of the world's population can digest milk sugar in adulthood. Check out this map I found of the percentages of lactose intolerance in different places (from Wikipedia):
And here's an article about how lactose intolerance is truly the norm, rather than a disorder that should be treated (as the dairy industry would have us believe):
http://www.scienceinafrica.co.za/2002/june/lactose.htm

By the way, if this had been a review of a Chinese restaurant, I would have just as readily thanked Asia for its lactose intolerance.

I try my best to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, so I ask my readers to do the same for me. When I make a faux pas -- let me know, but please be nice about it. I'm doing the best I can.

**Update: Bennachin now accepts credit cards!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

NOLA vegans on the inside

Last night Johnny and I were finally victorious in our quest to try out Basil Leaf, an uptown Thai restaurant located at the corner of S. Carrollton Avenue and Jeannette Place. I say “finally victorious” because this was our third attempt to eat at the seemingly often-closed restaurant. (I thought to call ahead this time!) But our two previous trips had not been in vain – each ended with a jaunt across the street to make the acquaintance of Lebanon’s Café, which turned out to be such an awesome find, it is deserving of a tangent. I asked our server there what she would recommend that we could eat, and almost fell out of my chair when she said she was vegan too! There’s nothing like that to put a couple of vegan diners at ease. In our two trips thus far, we’ve taken her advice and ordered the musaha (a deliciously spicy appetizer of sautéed vegetables), the vegetarian grape leaves (decent, I thought), the vegetarian plate (satisfying renditions of hummus, baba ganuj, tabouleh, and falafel served with pita bread - the kind of stuff vegetarians get tired of, but it was still good), and the lentil soup (SCORE!). And it was super-reassuring to be able to get a thumbs-up from a vegan on the inside. You’re probably thinking, Duh, it’s hummus, the one food that can’t NOT be vegan, but a Middle Eastern restaurant in Dallas ruined that delusion for me. If you're reading this, Ali Baba on Abrams Road, putting yogurt in hummus is a sacrilege!

So we couldn’t believe our luck last night when our server at Basil Leaf turned out to be vegan too. My first reaction was Omg! Infiltration is underway! My next reaction was Wow! Check out this guy's hair! "Jeremy" assured us he would guard against fish sauce in anything we got, so we ordered soup, veggie spring rolls (which we dipped in an exotic plum sauce and a scrumptious peanut sauce), and mussaman curry. Overall and with the exception of the sauces, we weren’t too thrilled with our choices, and especially since everything was a little pricey. It was nice to have a sympathetic server, though, especially one with a fabulously funky hairstyle. If someone else is paying next time, I'll try the panang ($17!).

Conclusion du jour: Every restaurant should have an in-house vegan!

Basil Leaf ~ 1438 S. Carrollton Ave. 70118 ~ (504) 862-9001
Lebanon's Cafe ~ 1500 S. Carrollton Ave. 70118 ~ (504) 862-6200