about bliss

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

daily bliss: a weekend in Madison

Last week, I had the pleasure of dining in Madison, Wisconsin all week long. This first installment chronicles the weekend that started my adventure, a short 36 hours that Gregg and I spent together, and with friends.

We arrived on Saturday morning, ready to hit the Capitol Square and the Dane County Farmers' Market. We joined the slow, lurching crowd and marveled at early summer produce, amazing plants, pretty peonies, and hearty breads. We paused on a street corner to hydrate with bottled water, and watched a small crowd of pro-Walker supporters get overshadowed by a group of brazen, nude bicyclists. After stocking up on Cress Springs Bakery bread, we left the throng and headed to Graze for a light brunch. Gregg ordered the egg special, which included a dollop of the most delicious hashbrowns we've ever eaten, while I ordered the seasonal pancakes topped with compound butter, strawberry compote, and maple syrup.

That evening, we spent time with friends C and C!, who shared some of their favorite eateries with us: dinner at Lao Laan-Xang, fruity drinks at Jolly Bob's, and a glass of wine at the Weary Traveler, all on the currently deconstructed Willy Street.

I'm a fan of southeast Asian cuisine, and I was eager to distinguish the differences between Laotian and Thai cuisine. I found the flavors similar, and perhaps the biggest difference was the combination of vegetables in the curries. I ordered the famous squash curry with tofu, spiced at level three...a generous three. A mouth and back of the throat sizzling three. Two Singha beers tampered the flames.

A fruity concoction at nearby Jolly Bob's extinguished the lingering flames. My drink--the Seafoam--looked like tropical waters, and tasted of pineapple and amaretto. We talked of vacation and dreamed of warmer climes before heading down the street to our next stop.

The Weary Traveler was an early meeting place for the Leftist Cocktail Party, a Madison based group who gathers weekly in solidarity during these troublesome times in Wisconsin. While I've missed the actual parties, I attend vicariously via facebook, and was excited to see one of their favorite hangouts. I enjoyed a glass of pinot noir and the dim, wooden, eclectic ambience.

The next morning, we joined our friends for a brunch blowout at Sardine, a French inspired bistro. Champagne cocktails, bloody marys, and monster mimosas filled our table as we developed a strategy. Our friends suggested eating in stages, and so we (er, they) began with mussels and oysters.

The presentation of both fruits of the sea was stunning, but I choose to crunch through the airy, buttery layers of a perfect pain au chocolat.

The cool, damp morning gave way to warmth and overcast humidity as we sat outside on the patio, framed by bright flower planters, and overlooking Lake Monona. The next course arrived--a simple fines herbes and gruyére omelette, served with frites and a mixed greens salad. The omelette was pretty and delicious--the tang of tarragon tasted quintessentially Parisien. A glass of Italian rosé was the perfect accompaniment.

We hesitated only momentarily when presented with the dessert menu, which featured a layered chocolate and hazelnut creation that rivaled the layered chocolate and hazelnut creation I enjoyed in Paris last Spring. Gregg and I tried to linger over the slim rectangle of crisp nut crust and creamy ganache, sliding our forks through the thick caramel. However, within minutes the dessert was a memory and a final taste in our mouths.

After saying goodbye to our friends, we headed downtown to explore State Street and to people watch as our lunch digested. Small boutiques and large bookstores beckoned us inside, where we mostly window shopped. We sat outside at the Union Terrace at UW-Madison and drank beer (!) while watching boats sail across Lake Mendota.

We headed to the nearby Monroe Street area to shop at Trader Joe's, relax over Italian sodas at Barriques, and then finally, eat dinner at Pasqual's. As our burritos and tacos disappeared, I started to feel sad that our weekend together was over. Gregg was heading home while I was staying in Madison for a week of workshops. I longed to hop in the car with him and chat about our adventures on the drive home, but alas, I checked into my hotel room and began preparing for the week ahead...

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

daily bliss: vegan week: day five and beyond: the ethical omnivore

Day five, my last day of vegan (mini) week, began with my usual oatmeal breakfast, my morning coffee laced with So Delicious Coconut Milk Creamer. It was, to quote a slogan on a local beer, "not bad."

After a morning writing, wrapped up in a fleece blanket against the damp chill, I decided to drive to Sheboygan for lunch at one of my favorite restaurants, Field to Fork. I had already settled on the hummus and giardinera as a suitable vegan lunch, but when I arrived I saw that minestrone was one of the soup selections. 

Their soup is thick, hearty, and not tomatoey. Chunks of root vegetables and seasonal-ish squashes intermingle with beans and hearty greens. I ordered a bowl, and was surprised when it arrived garnished with a skiff of cheese. I've ordered this soup so many times, always reassured of its vegetarianness, and clearly not mindful of the cheese. 

I pushed the cheese to the side of the bowl, but it was melting into the soup anyway, a distinctive tang and sweet saltiness. 

Oh, it was delicious. 

Later that evening, Gregg and I headed to a graduation party, where we huddled outside, hands wrapped around too-cold soda cans, trying to stay warm in the unseasonable cold. We wandered into the garage (all the best Wisconsin parties include a garage) to fill our plates. Well, Gregg filled his plate with a variety of meat dishes kept warm in Nesco roasters (another ubiquitous Wisconsin party favorite), while I spooned some salsa and grabbed a handful of corn chips. Our friend T proudly told me his taco dip was vegetarian and even included a layer of beans. It looked delicious: cool, creamy, and crisp. Gregg explained that I was dairy free this week, and we walked back outside to shiver and munch. 

Restaurants and social situations challenge our dietary lifestyles. While some vegetarians and vegans choose to overtly share their politics in these moments, I usually try to eat inconspicuously. At moments like this--the restaurant, the grad party--part of me longs for a more conventional dietary lifestyle that doesn't complicate social relations. 

I realized during my vegan experiment how relatively easy it is to eat and socialize as a vegetarian--how friends make subtle modifications to foods, or how many side dishes and party foods are vegetarian friendly. Living vegan is much harder. Eggs, butter, milk, and/or cheese linger in unsuspecting foods. Especially in Wisconsin, these items are abundant on buffet tables and menus. 

On Sunday, Gregg and I, along with his parents, headed to our county's annual celebration of Dairy Month: Breakfast on the Farm. This breakfast couldn't be a starker contrast to my short week of plant-based eating. Scrambled eggs dotted with onions and ham, glued together with cheese; cinnamon bread spread with butter; donut holes; link sausage; handfuls of cheese curds, string cheese, and cheddar cubes; milk; and ice cream make this an absolute dairypalooza. 

We noshed our full plates under a big tent, listening to polka music and visiting with friends and neighbors. This year I particularly appreciated the squeaky creaminess of cheese curds. 

After our large, generous, non-plant based breakfast, we toured the farm, checking out huge farm equipment and mooing at dairy cows small and large. 

I was struck by the size of the farm--800 cattle!--and the "propaganda" displayed on tables and posters. These cows eat silage that is largely corn based, as described by a large sign. And, in another information booth, a major pharmaceutical company explained the importance of antibiotics for sick cows, and mitigated worries about the drugs entering the food system. 

After reading many books about modern agriculture, environmentalism, and humane treatment of animals, as well as the effects antibiotics have had on our ecosystem, I believe that we have harmed our animals and ecosystem in some fairly substantial ways. Cows, as ruminants, are meant to eat grass. Studies show that they need antibiotics because of their diet of corn. And, new strains of bacteria like MRSA and e. coli can be traced, in part, to the influx of antibiotics at all levels of the food chain. Bacteria are smart, mutating and resisting the drugs we create to kill them. 


Enough to make veganism seem like a feasible, safe solution.

And yet, I love dairy. 

And, I love breakfast on the farm: the camaraderie, the community celebrating and supporting one its most storied and historical ways of life, and a huge economic force (our county has more cows that people). 

And yet, I wish we hadn't reached this point where we alter animal diets to our timeline and our production needs. Cows become machines rather than sentient beings. If we all ate a little less animal food or animal produced food, couldn't we preserve the animals' more natural ways of life? Frolicking in the sun, nibbling grass, and roaming pastures rather than bedding in sand, eating mixed silage, and standing bracketed indoors? 

I recognize that many people disagree with me and question the logic of my beliefs. I don't want to proselytize, but I do want people--including myself--to have as much information as possible and then make an educated, informed, ethics based decision on what to eat. Balancing ethics and tastes is perhaps one of the most difficult struggles we face. My mini-week of plant-based eating showed me the conflicting desires between preserving another creature's way of life and satisfying my omnivorous tastes. 

For now, I will continue to eat dairy and eggs, but I will also continue to support alternate foodways, seeking out organic, humanely sourced milk, eggs, and cheeses, recognizing that this is, for me, a necessity, for which I will pay higher costs. (and that touches on another tangent about the cost of such foods and the critique that such foods are the provenance of the "wealthy." Despite what you may have heard about professor salaries, I am not wealthy, but I do try to spend my values, to put my money where my values and ethics are, recognizing yet again that not everyone has this capability.)

Thanks to my readers for following along and sharing thoughtful comments that supported and challenged me throughout my mini-week. 

And thanks to Gregg, who ate vegan dinners with me all week long:)

Friday, June 10, 2011

daily bliss: vegan week: day four: chocolatey goodness and competing ethics

Yesterday was an easy, tasty vegan day. For breakfast, I ate my standard steel cut oats with nuts and dried fruit and brown sugar and soy milk, drank orange juice, and sipped a strong chai spice tea spiked with sugar and vanilla soy.

Lunch included leftovers from Monday night and a toasted whole wheat pita.

I met my friend B for coffee at Starbucks and sprang for a grand soy caramel macchiato ($4.99! woah!). Later, I snacked on my usual hummus plate.

After a trip to the grocery store for So Delicious coconut milk creamer per reader suggestions, as well as a half gallon of organic valley skim milk for Saturday and beyond, as well as a bottle of Starborough Sauvignon Blanc (a beveragetastic trip!), I drove to Wilfert Farms to purchase three pounds of asparagus. The farm is just north of town and the drive is pretty, past new mcmansions and old farmhouses.

Last night I cooked a veggie stir fry—asparagus, broccoli, carrots, vidalia onion, ginger, and garlic—with baked tofu and crushed cashews. My standard glaze of tamari, rice vinegar, orange juice, brown sugar, toasted spicy sesame oil, and red pepper flakes coated the veggies and draped the whole wheat cappellini I served with the stir fry.

And, since baking is one of my modes of bliss, I decided to bake vegan cookies: chewy chocolate chocolate chip cookies from Veganomicon, or, online, the Post Punk Kitchen. I'm out of flax seed, so I made them without. I used Valrhona cocoa powder, and a variety of Ghiradelli chocolate chips—the baking discs and the mini chips that I can find only at the outlet store (a must-stop on every trip around the great lake!). If I had more time and patience I would've toasted the walnuts.

I was chatting with my Mom (on the phone, alas) as I portioned out the cookie dough and laughed as I ate raw cookie dough. We always debate the wisdom of eating raw cookie dough, what with the danger of salmonella in raw eggs. The only danger now would be tiny insects in the flour. I tried not to think about the possibility of this non-vegan addition:)

The cookie dough was not as stiff as I thought it would be, and I worried that the cookies would spread all over the sheet. To my relief, the cookies baked up tall and firm. Gregg thought they looked weird, but with one bite his reservations were gone.

Deep, rich, decadent...these cookies defy vegan stereotypes. The premium chocolate adds so much flavor that I didn't miss the distinctive tang of butter (I used organic canola oil in lieu of my preferred baking fat). I will definitely bake these cookies again and share with friends and family.

These cookies challenge the idea that plant-based foods cannot provide satiating bliss. So does an avocado. A handful of pistachios. A perfect roasted and brewed cup of coffee.

And this is an important lesson, where taste and ethics collide. So often people respond to my vegetarianism with statements like, "I could never give up meat. It tastes too good."

After 13 years as a vegetarian, that statement/sentiment can be difficult to understand (except for bacon;)), especially coming from those who seem to espouse a vegetarian ethic, but do not commit to the lifestyle. However, this week has taught me humility and compassion to those who utter such words, since I feel the same way about milk and the pantheon of cheeses and ice creams and sour cream and buttermilk and butter. Oh, and butter.

Taste and ethics collide. Or, I should say, competing ethics: an ethics of bliss, expansion, and mindful deliciousness vs. an ethics of mindfulness and ahimsa (the Buddhist concept of doing no harm). Can these be reconciled? Is it enough to buy dairy and eggs from local producers? From certified organic, humane companies? Does supporting these local friends and farmers and regional cooperatives challenge the industrial complex that mass produces dairy and eggs with nary a thought about the cows and chickens as sentient beings? Is it enough that the cows and chickens that produced my dairy and eggs are "happy"?!?

Thursday, June 09, 2011

daily bliss: vegan week: day three: moment of truth

Day three began with a question: cafe au lait, or cafe au soy?

Whichever would I choose?!?

I conceptualized the vegan week experiment a few weeks ago, and shared my idea with my friend N. We're both vegetarians and yoga dorks, and we were curious about eating detox programs or plans, and I told her my tentative plan.

After a semester, nay, an academic year of stress, and laxity about my healthy habits, I needed to do something more dramatic than simply eating less and exercising more in order to shake up my system.

I settled on veganism rather than the more hard core (and, in my mind, unhealthy) juice fast, or the more challenging all whole, unprocessed foods paths. I've read about the dairy and egg industries enough to know that they're both problematic. I've read about the side effects of dairy foods--and wondered how my allergies (trees, grass, pollen, certain raw fruits) might react to no dairy. I wanted to know how much more difficult it would be to live and eat vegan rather than vegetarian.

The fact that I was ready to quit after two days speaks volumes--for me, this was a difficult leap.

With supportive comments on this blog and the various social networks I'm part of, as well as the inner over-achiever cheerleading loudly, I did not give in.

I went to Starbucks.

On Wednesday mornings, my favorite yoga teacher leads a power yoga class that challenges me...and also keeps me from eating a full breakfast beforehand. On occasion, I've gone to Starbucks afterwards for their perfect oatmeal (meh, but quick and tasty and healthier than most restaurant breakfast options in this town) and a latte. Yesterday I ordered a double tall soy latte, and somehow the baristas worked their corporate coffee magic, because the steamy, creamy beverage tasted blissful.

I survived the coffee test, and ate light vegan foods throughout the day, including a plate of hummus and veggies alongside a broiled smart dog for lunch, and a snack of triscuits and peanut butter once again in the afternoon.

The second test of the day was dinner. Late afternoon temperatures soared towards 90, and after an overheated walk and with a slow-to-kick-in air conditioner, I wasn't in the mood to cook. Gregg and I walked to our favorite Italian deli, where I ordered the veggie pasta salad: tri-color rotini with crisp carrots, celery, cauliflower, broccoli, red peppers, and onion in an Italian vinaigrette. Our server set down a plate of garlic bread. To eat or not? To question or not?

The irony: today I wanted to eat it, so I hoped they didn't use real butter. Every other time I eat it, I hope and pray they use butter.

I abstained.

The night was lovely--an orange sun glowed in the Western sky and the warm air was tempered with a fragrant breeze. We walked to the nicest restaurant in town for good wine and beer, and the server poured my second glass (of Vermentino) full, full, full. We walked home through damp streets and heard echoey thunder in the distance. Upon reaching the top of the stairs, I promptly went to bed.

Lessons of the day: a day of light vegan food is not enough to support several glasses of wine! Also, wine is a delicious part of any dietary plan! And, finally, being surprised by difficulty is a wonderful challenge.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

daily bliss: vegan week: day two: dairy cravings

Yesterday morning I made my second cafe au soy, and poured soy milk over some organic oat and honey* granola. The latter was delicious--better than milk, even; however,  the former was disappointing, tasting nothing like my morning treat. 

Throughout the day, I kept thinking about cafe au lait, and my craving was intense. My crabbiness was fairly strong, too. My mind oscillated between two obsessions yesterday: cafe au lait, and warm weather (we were supposedly having record heat all across Wisconsin--except for the lakeshore, which was 20-30 degrees cooler than the surrounding environs). 

Still, I carried on, making a satisfying sandwich for lunch: toasted honey* sunflower seed bread with a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, impromptu guacamole (avocado and lime juice), sabra classic hummus, red bell pepper, cucumber, and salt and pepper. Mmmmm!

Throughout the afternoon I puttered around the house, waiting for the fog to lift and the air to warm up before my afternoon walk. At 3:00 I headed out to the lake, bundled up, but thankfully stripping off my fleece jacket along the way. 

Cafe au lait! Milk! Latte! echoed through my head, but I came home and ate Koeze natural peanut butter on Triscuits (try it! salty, crunchy, delicious.)

After a quick trip to the Pig (yes, we have a Piggly Wiggly in our neighborhood) for a few provisions, I set out to cook up a vegan Mexican feast. Gregg called on his way home from work. "How do you feel about strawberry margaritas? And can I just say that I want cafe au lait in the worst way!"

He's used to my non sequiturs:) 

"I feel good about strawberry margaritas! And I don't see how anything could be bad with that delicious vanilla soy milk!" (he sampled some sraight up the night before, declaring it awesome, and egg nog-esque.)

Grrr. No one was going to put up with my whining about cafe au lait. 

Our Mexican meal consisted of spice rubbed baked tofu (I used a mixture of chipotle powder, chili powder, and a Penzey's spice blend called Arizona dreaming); black bean dip (black beans mashed with lime juice, onion, salt, and pepper); guacamole; sauteed peppers and onions; salsa; and, for Gregg, sour cream. We folded everything into warm flour tortillas. 

But the pièce de résistance was the strawberry margarita, made with lime juice, triple sec, tequila, and last night's strawberry sorbet. The drinks were thick, frosty, tangy, and absolutely refreshing. And dairy free! (duh! who sneaks dairy into a margarita?!?)

I told Gregg that I might discontinue the experiment on Wednesday morning, since the cafe au lait cravings were so strong. 

I mused about obsession, addiction, and pleasure. My morning (and often afternoon) cafe au laits are more than the drink itself--though the frothy, warm, robustness hits the right notes as a day begins and an afternoon slumps. More so, there's a ritual to this drink, in the preparation: using my special pan from mom to heat the milk; grinding a handful of beans; pouring cool water into the coffeemaker; wetting the coffee filter; listening to the happy perk of the machine; smelling freshly brewed coffee; frothing the milk with a small whisk; pouring the right proportion of coffee to milk. 

There's beauty in the simplicity of this ritual. 

And while the steps are all the same with soy milk, the taste is different, and the drink and ritual become less about bliss and more about sacrifice. 

Does this make sense, or am I, as I'm wont to do, overthinking?

*yes, I realize that honey is not vegan if one is strict about veganism. I've decided to give honey a pass in the few prepared foods I have on hand. I am not, however, adding honey to anything.*

Monday, June 06, 2011

daily bliss: vegan week: day one: got milk?

Breakfast, as we know, is the most important meal of the day. It's also, for me, the hardest to veganize. My favorite morning ritual is a mug (or two) of warm, frothy cafe au lait with a spoonful of raw sugar. As I heated and frothed the vanilla soy milk this morning, I was concerned that my daily kickstarter would be unquaffable. While I won't proclaim a cafe au soy delicious, I will say that it wasn't bad. On the other hand, the vanilla soy milk tasted wonderful in a bowl of steel cut oats with brown sugar, cinnamon, dried cranberries, and pecans. Its subtle nuttiness added to the complexity of the dish and I liked it better than regular milk.

I resisted any and all nibbles until lunchtime, when I ate a portion of last night's black bean couscous salad, with a handful of blue corn chips and Salpica tomato jalapeno salsa. Two cups of hot darjeeling tea and a few almonds, dried cherries, and chocolate chips completed the meal.

For a snack, I ate Sabra classic hummus with cucumber spears, carrot sticks, and pretzels. A small glass of iced tea almost vanquished my afternoon cafe au lait cravings.

And tonight, I prepared a spiced red lentil dal, based on this recipe from the post punk kitchen--vegan foodies with a hipster sensibility and a bevy of delicious recipes (they're the same folks who penned Veganomicon). I served it over a bed of carolina aromatic rice (thanks, Mom and Dad for this treat from Charleston!) and dotted it with a few garam masala roasted chickpeas. We had a few spears of asparagus left in the fridge so I roasted those too for an informal side dish.

My final celebration was to be a strawberry sorbet--I had hopes of hitting the fruit puree with a little bubbly or a little wine, but after opening two bottles gone bad I gave up. I chilled the puree and the ice cream canister and decided to give it a go after only a few hours in the cold, to no avail. Of course having a fully frozen canister is necessary! Science prevails over impatience yet again!

A handful of dry cereal and another mug of hot tea will round out my evening, and I'll go to bed with the glow of success...

...and some dairy cravings. A slice of whole wheat toast with butter. A milky, foamy cup of chai. A nub of cheese.

I hadn't suspected this desire for dairy, and I hope it fades over the next few days.

Other than such cream and fat fantasies, day one has been delicious...and nutritious.

daily bliss: black bean couscous salad

I love summer: streaming sunshine, sapphire skies, sparkling lakes, colorful blossoms, fresh produce, and more time to cook, dream, and play.

Fresh produce is still in short supply in Wisconsin--we're in the midst of asparagus season, with a smattering of rhubarb. Yet, I've been craving cold bean and grain salads. Departing from the local, seasonal mantra I usually espouse, I made this salad for Memorial Day weekend celebrations and again last night. You can adjust the recipe in size and in ingredients--add the seasonings and southwest veggies you most like. I suppose you could 'sconnie it up by adding cheese, but the clean flavors of the salad shine without hunks of cheddar. 

Black Bean Couscous Salad


Combine the following ingredients into a large bowl. You can adjust the quantities according to your preferences. This salad keeps about a day or two in the refrigerator before becoming too watery. 

whole wheat couscous, prepared
corn, sauteed with garlic, onion, cumin, salt, pepper, and ground chipotle powder
diced bell peppers
diced avocado
grape tomatoes, quartered
black beans, rinsed and drained
lime cilantro vinaigrette, to taste

lime cilantro vinaigrette:

Combine the following ingredients in a jar or small pitcher. I like a more vinegary dressing, so my proportions of oil to vinegar are usually 1 to 3. 

olive oil
white balsamic vinegar
maple syrup, honey, or sugar, to taste
lime juice
cilantro, finely chopped

Sunday, June 05, 2011

daily bliss: june is dairy, er, vegan month

Eleven years ago, I ventured into vegetarianism on a whim (and inspired by a cute southern boy I went on a few dates with).

Today, I'm happily vegetarian, eating a mostly whole foods diet, and only occasionally sampling bacon and ham (my kryptonite!).

For the last year and a half, I've thought about doing a vegan experiment, going as far as purchasing a vegan cookbook, the awesome Veganomicon. And yet, I couldn't make the leap. The thought of cafe au lait transformed with soy or almond or rice milk made my heart sink. I've eaten 90% vegan some days, but never 100%.

This week I'm going to try.

Seeking a cleansing and an overall wellness realignment, I'm turning to veganism for an almost week (Monday-Saturday) to jumpstart this return to a more healthful way of life. Today, I bought soy milk for my coffee. I thought about the foods I eat regularly that I'll need to avoid--a dish of low fat yogurt at snack time, a skiff of butter on a piece of whole wheat toast, a sprinkling of parmesan on pasta or salads.

This shouldn't be too difficult, right?

Except for dairy month.

June, that halcyon month of sapphire skies and deepening green foliage also recognizes one of Wisconsin's claims to fame: dairy. Each county celebrates with a breakfast on the farm event, spotlighting a great farm and dishing up plates full of dairy goodness.

Because our breakfast on the farm is next Sunday, I'm doubtful that this vegan experiment will turn out like the vegetarian one did.

I'll bet a wedge of 10 year aged Wisconsin cheddar on it:)