Wednesday, September 29, 2010

My Awesome Life: Going to Rad Parties, Meeting "Rock Stars," and Making Guests Cry

Over the weekend, I went to one of the coolest parties I've ever attended.  This is one of those parties that I've only ever seen the likes of 'round these parts -- almost Pennsyltucky but not quite, right in the Philadelphia Folk Fest's backyard, far enough from the city of Philadelphia that we all have to make our own fun.  When my friend Tara invited me, I thought it was just going to be a bunch of people playing music around a campfire.  Actually, though, it was her father's annual "Harvest Party" held at his wickedly awesome, mostly hand-built home.  There, he set up not one but TWO camp fires, as well as a stage area that was fully mic-ed.  Oh my god, it was rad.  I wish I had pictures and better video to post, but it was too much fun to be wasting time taking pictures.  Instead, I only have this VERY short clip of Tara and her boyfriend Pete performing.  It's not the best clip (what with Tara's self-proclaimed "fuck up") and it really doesn't do justice to how incredibly good those two are when they perform (they usually perform with a full band, but in my opinion, they are far better by themselves), but here goes nothing:



Anyway, I made baklava for the party (recipe from 500 Vegan Recipes by Steen and Newman)!  I'm, like, pathologically incapable of attending any party without bringing food.  I felt a little silly bringing it because I thought it was going to just be around a fire and I figured baklava was far too messy to eat around a fire.  But, turns out, it was the potluck event of the year, for which baklava was a perfect fit.  A lot of people don't know what baklava is, but there are others who freakin' love baklava.  Both types were well pleased with what they ate!

Before I left for the party, I ate some of it myself, and it's a good thing I did, because otherwise I would not have gotten to try any, because it got eaten pretty quickly.  However, here is a photograph of the solitary slice I ate:

Want to know something else kinda interesting?  The next day, Sunday, I met a childhood idol of mine, Evan Dando!  I used to love The Lemonheads when I was a kid.  I haven't listened to them in years, but my friend Julie loves him, so we went to his show at Philly's North Star Bar.  He ended up sitting in my car with us  before the show for a really, really long time chain smoking.  Then after the show, he asked me if we could do it again, and we did.  We sang along to Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark and he told me I had a great voice and should record with him!  Haha!  I don't think that's going to happen, but it was pretty darn fun.  Here's a picture of me and him:

OK, back to dinner.  What do I make when I'm not really interested in cooking?  Steen and Newman's Veggie Curry Feast, of course!  Why?  Because I really don't even look at the recipe to make it.  A buncha spices (more turmeric than I ever use in any one recipe anywhere else), some shallots, broccoli, cauliflower, a can of chickpeas, and a can of coconut milk (I buy organic coconut milk in bulk from Amazon.com).

My secret to making this recipe so damn good, though, is that I don't use red or yellow curry powder when it calls for curry powder; I use this delightful Thai green curry spice mix I got from Home Goods.  Sometimes, just for fun, I smell the spice mix because it smells so freaking good.  Then I insist that my guests smell it.  Then I tell them about the evils of eating fish.  Then I make them listen to Elliott Smith.  Then they leave crying.  It's awesome!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

There Are Plenty of Fish in the Sea... NOT!

Yeah, that's right, I just hit you all with a "NOT!"  Oh, snap!

For a long time, I've been crazy fish girl.  I'm always going on about the evils of eating fish.  It all started a few years ago when I worked at Borders and this book came out.  I didn't read it, but I flipped through it, which is almost as good.  And then I started listening to NPR all the time.  Every so often, there'd be an oceanographer on a program, and he or she would inevitably talk about the emptying ocean.  The overfishing.  Do you know that "overfishing" is a word -- it doesn't get underlined in red.  That's because it is a real and common problem.  And, I'd argue, among the world's biggest problems.
My friend Ken drew this fish "tattoo" on me because I am crazy fish girl.
I also read the excellent book What to Eat by Marion Nestle, where I learned all about the high levels of mercury and Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) in fish.  PCBs are basically all the accumulated chemicals we've ever used, all of which ended up in the water.  It's recommended that people not eat fish more than once a month.  That's messed up.  They're toxic.  But if you want to eat chemicals, more power to you.  I'm not going to judge you for it.  It's your health.  But I WILL judge you, and judge you harshly, for eating endangered fish!

So, for years, I've been telling anyone and everyone, including a total stranger at the Philly Folk Fest that I overheard saying she was a vegetarian "except for fish," that fish is the WORST thing to eat!  Eat beef, eat a chicken, whatever, that's far more responsible than eating fish.  I find the term "pescatarian" to be highly offensive.  What a terrible, terrible thing to be.  Also, not to be an echo chamber, as I'm sure most people have heard this said before, but fish ain't a vegetable.  Don't kid yourself about vegetarianism and eat fish.  Although, I admit, I feel guilty writing that because it is my opinion that people should be as vegetarian/vegan as they can manage and not give it up just because they eat something that isn't vegetarian/vegan sometimes.  Frankly, people's self-labels don't particularly interest me.  What interests me is sustainable food production.  So cut way back on meat, cut way back on cheese and eggs, that's cool with me.  You don't have to be 100%.  But the same does not go for any endangered fish!  It is NOT COOL to eat endangered fish.  Hear this: you are officially an asshole if you eat endangered fish.

Some endangered fish I see people eating all the time include all sorts of tuna (everyone knows about the fact that bluefin will be extinct within 10 years, but even albacore is being overfished, and really, no one knows where their tuna is coming from), Chilean Seabass, any kind of sea turtles, octopus (calimari), cod, sturgeon eggs (caviar), and sturgeon themselves.  A friend of mine told me that she even saw Trader Joe's selling Orange Roughy!  For shame!  They are seriously endangered.  Not cool, Trader Joe's, not cool.
Orange Roughy, which is also called by the charming name Slimehead.  Haha.  Slimehead.
Conservative estimates say worldwide fish populations have decreased 75% since the beginning of commercial fishing around 1950.  That's the CONSERVATIVE estimate.  The more realistic one is 90%.

So what's up?  Why have worldwide catches gone down so dramatically?  Well, basically, because commercial fishing is far, far too efficient.  Huge ships put out nets that trawl the ocean floor, scraping the sea floor and destroying plant life and habitats, not allowing ANYTHING to escape.  They then throw back, dead or dying, the "bycatch."  Poor countries make deals with fishing corporations to let them trawl their waters, starving their local populations that relied on fishing to feed their people.  Now we have an empty ocean and West African food refugees.  It's not cool.
Trawling.  This drawing doesn't do justice to the harm trawling causes.
So, do people have to give up all fish?  No, there are some sustainable fish -- farmed ones that are fed a vegetarian diet (non-vegetarian farmed fish use 5 oz of wild-caught small fish per 1 oz of fish farmed).  If you must eat sea life, choose mussels, clams, and oysters.  They're farm-raised vegetarian and not pumped full of antibiotics because they're not disease-prone.  Also catfish.  US-caught crabs and lobster are plentiful right now because we've killed off all their predators, but they could very well end up overfished eventually, at current rates.  But for now, they're pretty safe. 

OK, it's link time.  Firstly, god bless the Monterey Bay Aquarium web site, where you can read at length about every kind of commercially-available fish, their sustainability (or lack thereof), and their health hazards.  I get so much information to preach at people from them.  Also, after years of ranting and raving about fish, I found out there is a documentary about it called The End of the Line!  Documentaries and railing against overfishing -- two of my major interests!  And guess what -- it's on Netflix Watch Instantly.  So you probably have no excuse not to watch it.

So what to do.  Firstly, don't freaking eat endangered fish.  If you must consume sea life, please limit it to sustainably raised/caught sea life.  Also, advocate for ocean preserves.  If we had a heck of a lot more sections of the ocean where it was not legal to fish, populations could increase.  Third, spread the word.  Call people out when they eat endangered sea life.  Complain at restaurants.  Complain at grocery stores.  Tell other people to advocate for ocean preserves.  Just keep on pushing for it, make it a part of your identity, like I do -- "Hi, I'm Melissa, I'm a liberal atheist cooking addict who believes we need more ocean preserves.  Do you know about ocean preserves?  No?  Well, let me tell you ALL about them..."

Monday, September 20, 2010

Pizza Pizza Daddy-o

A while back, I bought a pizza stone at Goodwill for, I think, $5.99, which seemed to be a really good deal to me.  I had never made my own pizza, but I'd been known to bake bread on occasion, and I thought a baking stone might be just what I needed.

This weekend, I finally made my own pizza.

I still had a lot of tomato sauce in my freezer from making extra when I made that eggplant parmesan a couple weeks ago, so I decided to make conventional pizza.  That is, not highbrow pizza -- no tofu ricotta, no pesto of any sort, just dough, sauce, vegan cheese, and toppings.  I know, I know, pre-made vegan cheese is not exactly the tastiest thing ever.  But I'm actually used to it, and also, I think it tastes pretty good cold, less good hot.

Making pizza dough is fun!  I always get a little thrill from leaving dough to rise, coming back, and seeing it has doubled in size.  Pizza dough gets especially spongey and  stretchable.  Then you get to stretch it!  You can stretch however you please, use any shaping methods you are capable of, shape it however you want to -- or, more likely, however close to a circle you can manage.  Pizza dough does seem to have a mind of its own.  It won't give in too easily to your stretching whims.  I want to go to a local pizzeria and watch some professionals in action, maybe learn to do that whole pie tossing thing -- what do you think?  Think I could learn it?

My favorite pizza topping combination ever is pineapple and green peppers.  I've come to learn that this is not a normal pizza topping combination.  For years, it's been virtually impossible to convince my friends to go in for it.  Honestly, I don't know where or how I got started on this myself.  I think that it just struck me as being tastes that ought to go together, and I try not to doubt my instincts.  I had some nice farmer's market peppers and a can of pineapple chunks (I drained the juice into some Tupperware and put it in my freezer -- you never know when you might need a cup of pineapple juice).
While I was cooking this, I heard a scary explosion in my oven.  I really was convinced for a moment that there was some kind of gas leak or something, and I would be blown up in my apartment, and never get to see the end of season two of The United States of Tara (tragedy!).  But no.  Actually, my brand new (used) pizza stone had split into three pieces.  Stupid me!  I don't even have a gas oven!  I should have read up on the internet.  Turns out, you should have the pizza stone on the bottom of your oven as it heats up, because putting a cold stone into a hot hot oven causes stone death.  I was a little bummed, but I had another pizza to make, so I kept on.

Now, the crust on that first pizza struck me as a bit too plain.  Pretty good, actually -- good texture, simultaneously crispy and soft -- but a little boring nevertheless.  So for my next pizza, I melted a little vegan butter, mixed in some garlic powder and a little bit of salt, and brushed it on the crust.  The second pizza would be peppers and mushrooms.  Now sans pizza stone, I cooked it on some parchment paper on a cookie sheet on the lowest possible shelf in my oven and cooked it a little shorter, about eight minutes.
Oh my god, adding that butter on the crust made it so much better.   Next time, I'm brushing that all over all the dough before putting the sauce and everything on.  And look at how beautifully golden it is!  Nice, right?  And, you know, a pizza stone really is not necessary.  I think I'd rather get myself a cast iron skillet and make deep dish pizza crusts instead of a new stone.  This pizza was rockin'.  Also, it's hard to tell, but both pizzas are quite large.  Definitely pizza party-worthy.

I also made some more doughnuts!  Better this time.  I used less dough in each doughnut and dipped them all in my delicious melted Enjoy Life! brand soy, dairy, and gluten-free chocolate chips.  With sprinkles, for pretty-making!  See how cute they are?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Seen in the 'Ville. WARNING: controversial

Oh, Phoenixville.  I love you, I really do.  There are a lot of great people around these parts.  But sometimes, it's a little too easy to make fun of you.

Exhibit A
 There used to be a liquor store at this Bridge Street location.  Boy, do I miss that liquor store that was in walking distance.  Now, though, it would seem that we're getting a Latin butcher?  I love these hand-drawn signs.  They really give me a lot of confidence that all laws regarding the disposal of... ummm... blood will be followed.  Ewwwww.  Listen, I'm not actually an animal rights activist or anything.  If people are going to eat meat, I would prefer for people to get their meats from an actual butcher instead of wrapped in plastic from a supermarket, because at least that's REAL.  For me, eating vegan is a political act.  It's about the environment, about reducing my carbon footprint, about the cruelty and pollution involved with factory farming, and also about eating healthfully.  I never even saw a real meat shop before.  But if that means they're getting their meat from local farms and doing it old school, well, I'm not going to eat it, but I'm not going to protest it either.  These hand-made signs, though!  They don't inspire confidence.

You know what else doesn't inspire confidence?  This:
 Where do I even start?  OK, first of all, kings are not elected.  That's just stupid.  Maybe you could elect Jesus president, or prime minister, or, hey, even congressperson of your life.  But kings are just not elected.  Sorry.  Secondly, Jesus isn't running for office.  I wish he were!  I wish there was such a person as Jesus and he would come to Phoenixville and run for mayor.  But, frankly, I think Jesus would be a little insulted by the idea that he should be "elected" to something.  I mean, you know how Jehovah's Witnesses don't vote because, according to them, the bible says that Christians shouldn't be of this world, they should be concerned with the next world, and they should not get involved with the politics here because that ties them to country instead of god, and that's sacrilegious or some shit?  Well, fine, that's cool.  Don't vote if you're a Christian, that's cool.  I'd actually really appreciate that.  But this bumper sticker just gets it all mixed up.  What's this talk of elections?  But, ok, let's say that Jesus WAS trying to get "elected" "king" of "your life."  Don't you think Jesus would make a pretty shitty king?  He's never around.  He doesn't pay your bills.  All he ever talks about is himself.  "I am the way, follow me, believe in me, blah blah blah."  He'd make a terrible king of your life -- too self-obsessed.  Whatever, though.  I know that any Christians reading this are pretty pissed off now.

OK, I'm done pissing people off.  Now I'm celebrating with a picture of my friends Reed and Jess that I took from inside the candy shop that's kinda hidden off Bridge Street (they sell all kinds of dried fruits and nuts, yesssss).
Aren't they precious?  I just think they're so precious!  I want to bake cookies for them and serve them elaborate meals, because that's how I show my love.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Food for Hippies

I have this hippie friend Jenn, who is awesome.  She's like a ray of sunshine.  She goes to hippie shows and spins and spins.  I don't know how she does it without becoming dizzy, but she does.  The gal can spin.  Plus, she's, like, incapable of lying, super-supportive, and earnest.  She's also a vegetarian, and, although not entirely vegan, at least has not eaten cheese for years and years.  Her weakness is sweets, because she doesn't bake herself, which you've gotta do if you want to eat vegan and eat sweets.

She was at the Philly Folk Fest with me, and she really kept me in the couscous.  Seriously.  She brought all this couscous, had a little boiler plate or something (truth be told, I don't know how she cooked it), and she fed me lots of it, which I appreciated so so much.  I wanted to pay her back.  So I had her over to dinner.
Jenn and Asa worshiping the Folk Fest gods.  She'd absolutely hate this picture, but it's the only one I have, and also, I kind of love the picture, because it's ridiculous.

Turns out, though, that the girl has some dietary restrictions.  Garlic and onions give her really bad, hospital-visit-inducing heartburn!  Whaaaaat???  No garlic or onions?  I think I'd just freakin' kill myself.  I mean, if I couldn't eat garlic or onion, I think I'd probably be eating cheeseburgers or something.  I don't know.  How can you even avoid garlic?  I don't think that's really possible.  She and I and some other friends shared a cheese-less pizza about a week ago, with spinach and extra sauce -- did that sauce not have any garlic in it?  Well, maybe, because Phoenixville's XPress Pizza is not exactly the most highbrow of pizza places, and I really wouldn't be surprised if they got their sauce from a can.  But still.  Garlic is in everything.

I had gone food shopping before I found out about these dietary restrictions.  The plan: Veganomicon's Braised Seitan with Brussels Sprouts, Kale, and Sun-dried Tomatoes, along with Poppy Seed Polenta.  OK, it doesn't have onions, but it does have shallots.  She didn't say no shallots!  I reduced the amount, though.  And the garlic?  Well, I cut it in half -- 2 cloves instead of 4.  She was still pretty freaked out about it though, but I told her that there was NO WAY that she never eats garlic.  Garlic is in everything that is tasty, pretty much!  Two cloves in the whole recipe was not going to kill her.  Also, I didn't tell her this, but there was garlic in the seitan I'd made as well.  

Now, I had chosen this meal carefully.  I wanted to feed her something truly amazing.  Something that would knock her socks off.  Generally speaking, I find that if you want to blow someone away with a meal, you make something that has some wine in it.  Wine makes sauces incredible.  I had made this recipe before and knew that no one could not like it.  You'd be insane not to like it!  You should probably be committed against your will if you don't like it!  It's, like, the greatest thing ever.  If this were served at a restaurant, people would stand in line to eat it, I'm pretty sure.

And, you know, she did love it!  Now, she's nuts, she puts tons of salt on everything, on every bite (including that cheese-less pizza we shared), but, covered in salt, she ate it all, exclaiming that it was "One of the best things [she] ever ate, ever" and went back for seconds.  I think, also, I've turned her on to the joys of polenta, which is good, because a gal cannot live on couscous alone, which, I suspect, she mostly does  AND, no heartburn!  So, yeah, I guess shallots are fine.  And two cloves of garlic never hurt anyone, except vampires.

In other news, I finally made Vegan Yum Yum's Mini Baked Donuts, which I've been talking about making ever since I bought the petite donut pan in Pittsburgh's Strip District (an amazing place filled with food markets -- extensive ethnic markets, veggie stands, and also a renown fish market, which I'll try to ignore because, more than anything, I'm against the eating of fish -- it doesn't really bother me if people eat chicken or beef of whatever, but eating fish is just environmentally inexcusable).  I glazed them all, then dipped half in good, old-fashioned sprinkles,
and half in toasted coconut.
They look so pretty and cute, but I didn't think they were that great.  They'd be better dipped in coffee, because they're not as sweet as, like, a Krispy Creme or something.  Next time, I want to make some chocolate-dipped ones and some maraschino cherry-glazed ones, because that would increase the sweetness factor.  Plus, I'd make them a bit smaller (put less dough in each donut alcove), because, again, that would increase the sweetness since the glaze to dough ratio would be higher.  I ate a few, but I brought most of them to Phoenixville's Sunstone Studios/Lighthouse Lounge, for their Wednesday night open jam/mic (hippies again!).  Nicest people, most casual place.  Every one got eaten and appreciated.  I'm definitely my own harshest critic.  It's just like, if you bake enough, you get to be a little picky.  Why make something that is just ok if you can make something that is amazing?  But people like things that look pretty, so they were hard to resist, which I totally get.  Plus, you know, free homemade donuts!  Who is gonna turn that down?
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