Friday, August 27, 2010

The Kind Diet

As I mentioned in my first post, the person who initially inspired this journey was Alicia Silverstone, and her book, The Kind Diet. What appealed to me most about her book was Silverstone’s obvious exuberance and enthusiasm for the vegan lifestyle. She writes with humor, honesty, and passion. She leaves science to the scientists, nutrition to the nutritionists, and medicine to the doctors. She provides extensive endnotes referencing such esteemed professionals as T. Colin Campbell, author of The China Study, Dr. John McDougall, Dr. Neal Barnard and Dr. Dean Ornish. These men are devoted vegans who have spent a lifetime studying the effects, and inevitably benefits, of a diet independent of animal protein. I encourage everyone to check out their websites, particularly Barnard’s as he hosts a “21 Day Vegan Kickstart.” Think about it…you could change the way you look and feel in just three weeks!
Silverstone spends the first part of her book tackling the extensive nutritional, ethical, and environmental topics inherent to any discussion of a vegan diet, delineating the difference between the “kind,” i.e. plants and the “nasty,” or all animal products. In a voice that sounds a lot like Cher from Clueless, Silverstone brings the spotlight to important questions we have generally ignored and reveals the hypocrisy and deception inherent in the omnivorous lifestyle. This is not to say that eating animal products requires participating in the cycle of cruelty perpetuated by our current agricultural system. Only that not participating in it requires constant vigilance over what is on your plate and where it comes from, necessitating innumerable questions about your food. These questions are obviated when you choose a plant-based diet.
The rest of Silverstone’s book focuses on the food obviously. She divides her discussion into three categories. The first, the Flirt, is perfect for people who want to test the waters without making a serious commitment. Silverstone advises moving toward vegetarianism, checking out local health food stores and experimenting with unusual ingredients. Flirting is supposed to be fun, and flirting with food should be the same! This has been my favorite part of my food adventure; opening my mind and my kitchen to things I had never tried before, even things that irrationally scared me, like seitan. Silverstone even helpfully provides photos of cute vegan boys in this section to inspire you. The second category is the Vegan, and her final is the Superhero. The Superhero plan is based on the idea of a macrobiotic diet, emphasizing whole grains, greens, and minimizing processed foods as much as possible. One of my favorite Superhero recipes is Arame with Carrots and Onions. When I moved home I was craving seaweed madly and this recipe was my first experience cooking with sea vegetables. It’s a mild way to incorporate these magical greens into your diet.
In honor of Alicia  and her book, I made her Moroccan Couscous with Saffron loaded with zucchini, carrots, sweet potatoes, and cashews alongside her Sicilian Collard Greens with Pine Nuts. Topped off with a glass of Rosé, this was a perfect summer meal!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


One of the things I have struggled with in incorporating veganism into my life is the “special occasion.” As you can see from the pictures, this story has a happy ending, but not without a bit of contemplation. For my 25th birthday this year, I wasn’t sure I wanted to eat vegan, but I also felt uncomfortable contributing to our country’s flawed food system by making careless choices. As Michael Pollan says, we get to “vote with [o]ur fork” three times a day. The happy compromise was a relatively new Berkeley restaurant called Gather. Aside from the unbelievable food and unusual cocktails, Gather is devoted to “seasonal food, carefully sourced and thoughtfully prepared.” When we walked in the restaurant, there was a large chalkboard to the left of the kitchen naming the local farms they work with in a given week. It seemed like the perfect compromise for my omnivorous tastebuds and my vegan heart. Add in the charming wait staff and a designated driver, and I was a happy, if slightly drunk, customer.

A few weeks later, we were celebrating my mom’s birthday. She is more inclined toward the home cooked meal than going out, so I knew I had to step it up a notch. But, if you think about it, most fancy food revolves around meat. Think roast chicken with all the trimmings or handmade pasta with a slow-cooked bolognese (a favorite in my former life). These meals take time, and so show you care about the people you prepare them for. But, unfortunately, we just don’t connect vegetables and whole grains with elegance unless they’re stuffed into something…like a turkey. However, with a little inspiration from Gather, I hit upon the perfect celebratory meal. For dinner, I made grilled pizzas with James McNair’s whole wheat pizza dough and classic tomato sauce, and topped them with roasted eggplant, zucchini, and mushrooms and caramelized onions and peppers. I finished them off with fresh tomatoes and basil and a drizzle of cashew cream. The cashew cream was inspired by Gather and adds a warmth and roundness to vegan pizza without pretending to be cheese. My best experiences with vegan food stem from moments of creativity where you break the boundaries of what food should be (like pizza must have cheese) and write your own rules. I have for the most part avoided vegan substitutes for cheese and meat preferring to see outside our traditional culinary assumptions.

As proud as I am of those pizzas, the cake was the real star of the show. One of my favorite bakeries in the Bay Area is The Prolific Oven. They are a lovely lunch spot that knows the key to happiness is a slice of cake with every meal. For as long as I can remember, my favorite cake has been the Chocolate Orange Almond (also available in just Orange Almond for all you lightweights). Fortunately, it’s my mom’s favorite too, so we never had to fight over which cake to buy whenever we went there. For her first vegan birthday, she requested a 100% vegan Chocolate Orange Almond cake, and I was happy to deliver. Unlike most almond cakes, Prolific Oven’s is not overwhelmingly flavored with almond paste. It has a subtle almond taste and flecks of crushed up almonds throughout the cake. Bright and citrusy orange buttercream separates the layers of cake and the entire thing is enrobed in chocolate buttercream. This cake is not for the faint of heart, but for those who truly appreciate subtlety and layers of flavor. This cake was also the impetus for this blog. I intended to photograph it and put it up on my facebook page with the caption “The most productive thing I have done all summer.” Little did I know that it would lead to actual productivity in the form of this blog.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Perhaps the best introduction to this blog would be a brief history of my food life. I am not a person who has always loved to cook. As a child, I loved to help my mom bake goodies, but I was more invested in achieving the perfect “baker’s smudge” of flour on my cheek than in truly learning technique. As I got older, I prided myself on being the kind of girl who hates to cook. I couldn’t be tied down to any of those pre-feminist traditions! I was sent off to my freshman year of college with a book titled, “Help! My Apartment has a Kitchen!” Apropos indeed. But, by my sophomore year in college, I realized that if I didn’t cook it, no one else would. I had a short lived deal with my roommate where she would cook and I would clean up, until I realized her idea of cooking was opening a jar of pasta sauce and boiling water. Even I could do that. I made tentative steps into the world of cooking with lasagna and chili and frequent frantic phone calls for advice. My junior year I was fortunate enough to spend in Italy. I don’t want to sound too much like Liz Gilbert, but eating that well, every day, changed my relationship with food. From that point on, I became less tentative and wholly enthusiastic. The idea of “dinner peace” really relates to the feeling I get in the kitchen. For me, cooking is an escape, but also an accomplishment. I love the feeling that I can spend a certain amount of time putting ingredients together and almost immediately reap the fruits of my labor. And you can have this sense of accomplishment three times a day, every day! There is nothing in life that more fully meets the definition of “instant gratification.”
I have always considered myself a pretty healthy eater, except for a total lack of good judgment when it comes to Oreos. But I tried to incorporate fruits and vegetables into every meal, and always opted for whole wheat when I could. All of this changed, however, last February. Although not Catholic, my family and I have always enjoyed the certain ascetic triumph that only comes with Lent. Last year, we gave up all sweets. Difficult, yes, but it helped me realize that I am a total sugar addict (seriously, I need twelve steps), and now abstain from sweets more often than not. This year, my mom sent me a text reading “Vegan for Lent?” I was a little surprised. She told me she had seen Alicia Silverstone on Oprah, touting the benefits of being vegan, and thought it might be an interesting experiment. Up to this point, I was a true omnivore, eating anything that was put in front of me. I had friends who were vegan, vegetarian, pescetarian, etc., but I never felt the need to follow suit. I like animals, in theory. In reality, I only like my dog, Olive. So being vegan was going to be a radical change for me. But, I like a challenge, so I responded, “Yeah!” and that’s how it all started.
My six weeks of being vegan were eye-opening. I was amazed by how little I missed meat, and even dairy (cheese did still call my name). But I was disappointed. Veganism had not delivered the promised oodles of energy and perfect skin, rapid weight loss and (in the words of Liz Lemon) rockstar BM’s. Rather, I felt much the same as always, but my hair and fingernails completely stopped growing. By the time Easter rolled around, I was ready to give up entirely and never look back. To be fair though, I was a California girl enduring a Boston winter away from all my loved ones, and chugging through the last semester of my Machiavellian graduate program. Perhaps it might all have been much worse without the vegan influence.
My true “food revolution” came after I moved back to California. After the emotional roller coaster of the previous year, I felt in need of renewal. I was uncomfortable in my body and didn’t know how to find my way back to peace and confidence. A little research directed me to Andrew Weil’s food pyramid, and I decided to try it, with a few vegan modifications, for two weeks. Weil’s food ideology emphasizes vegetables more than fruit and whole grains rather than whole grain flours. I continued to eat fish roughly once a week. And after two weeks, I had oodles of energy and perfect skin, and had lost three pounds. Seven weeks later, I feel more alive and joyful than ever, and have lost ten pounds. With just those two small adjustments, I feel like a whole new person. My excitement from these changes inspired this blog. Every night, I look down at the amazing, colorful, vibrant, nourishing food I eat, and want to share it with people. I have met with a lot of skepticism, apprehension, and disbelief on this path, but I also meet a lot of curiosity and excitement at the possibility I am offering. My goal in this endeavor is to lift the veil a bit and offer some beautiful, delicious and inspiring answers to the question I always get, “What do you eat?”