Travel Hell and Christmas Eve Heaven

Ahhh holiday travel. Where two inches of snow translates into 3 days of travel delays.

Yes, my transit back to the good ole USSA was kind of a mess. Overnight in London Heathrow, overnight in ATL, numerous sleep-deprived marches through airports, but eventually, I made it home, to my hilarious dog (pictured) and adoring (or at least, adored) family. By the time I did make it back, there were 2 feet of snow on the ground, giving DC a freakishly rare white Christmas, and me a good excuse not to leave the house.

And you would think after being gone for 6 months I would have a lot of mail. I guess I felt like I was gone a long time and everyone would notice? But as a matter of fact, aside from student loan forms *shudder* all I received was one Christmas card... plus this awesome handmade cookbook-lette from Amey at Vegan Eats and Treats, "Cooking Up a Storm!"

Man was I excited to see that! This booklet is jam-packed with awesome looking recipes for all manner of deliciousness plus cute home-made drawings. It being Christmas, I went straight for the cookies and decided on the choco-cherry-pecan cookies. They took about 15 minutes all told, and they were so unbelievably delicious, especially with a tall glass of soymilk. Even in my sweets-filled household these went fast. Amey, your cookbook rocks! Thanks so much!

A few days after my initial arrival and many cookies later, my fam and I headed over to Peking Gourmet in Falls Church for the traditional Christmas Eve gorge. Peking Gourmet is famous for two reasons. 1.) It was President Bush (Sr.)'s favorite restaurant and there are pics of him splattered all over the place. 2.) The Peking Duck. You would think from these two snippets of info that I would hate the place, but actually I love it. It has a very limited vegetarian menu, but those items on it are phenomenal. I had the gourmet eggplant and my brother got a tofu dish that was equally fab.

I also love munching on the duck accompaniments: rice pancakes, plum sauce, and spring onions. Heaven. But truth be told, more than the food, I love the busy metro atmosphere in this spot, which has been in the Culmore shopping center forever and attracts hundreds of people over the holidays (and I suspect, most weekends.) The crowd out the door is huge on Christmas eve, but its always kind of exciting and we often see people we know. Definitely one of my favorite traditions of the holidays.

My other favorite tradition is the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. I love being in Europe, but the melancholic angst of Charlie Brown is just not something that translates well. After all, how would you translate the following into french: "Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you're the Charlie-Browniest!"

Ah, America.


Merry Christmas!

Back in the USA and cooking up a storm! But for now... Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!


just pictures...

Still not home for the holidays, still no camera, but here are some old, (but new to you!) pictures from the old days while I ponder my holiday menu and dream up ways of acquiring a new camera (or fixing my old one...)


Broke Food: Risotto!

One of my favorite scenes in all of movie-dom is from The Little Princess. (Take your pick, but I prefer the Shirley Temple version.) Little Sarah has gone from wealthy and pampered prep school queen to orphan scullery maid, due to the unfortunate disappearance of her Father (and his fortune) during the Boers War. Now she must discard her fabulous clothes and furniture and live up in the freezing attic with the other little maid, while the other girls mock her relentlessly and the mean headmistress tortures her for being poor. (Let's just keep our Marxist analysis to ourselves...)

Then, one particularly freezing and dreary night, while the two little girls are sleeping, the next door neighbor's Indian butler, who has been charmed by little Sarah, replaces the squalor of their attic with a lush bedroom, filled with soft bed-dressing and clothes, a sumptuous buffet, and beautiful paintings. The girls wake up the next morning to think that they have conjured the whole thing through the power of imagination.

I think you can pull a similar trick with risotto. Through pure mind power (read: stirring a lot) you can transform plain old rice and broth into a warming gourmet meal. With the help of an friendly butler (read: mushrooms, squash, or other veggies) you can take it over the top to something truly magical. It really works for me when I am feeling like an orphan scullery maid, which is often these days. (Don't worry, its just finals period.)

So here is my recipe, which I've shared before (many times before), but made as plain and wallet-friendly as possible. I've been eating it so much lately I feel like a risotto making machine, but if its your first time, be vigilant- you don't want to ruin the bottom of your pan by not stirring enough.

Risotto w/ [your favorite and/or cheapest vegetable]
1 large yellow onion, diced
2-3 cloves of garlic, diced
olive oil and/or earth balance
*1 c. white wine
1 cube veg boillon, or packaged veggie broth
Your vegetable of choice, plus an herb of choice

1. [First you will probably want to prepare the vegetable. If its mushrooms, slice and cook together with some thyme or oregano and olive oil in a saute pan until brown and slightly crispy. If using squash of pumpkin, slice in 1/2 and place in a pan in the oven along with some olive oil and sage and cook at 375 until soft. Asparagus can be sauteed or cooked in the oven with some oil and garlic. You get the picture.]
2. Fill a pot with water and boil along with a bouillon cube. Reduce heat to medium. (Alternatively, heat a package of veggie broth over low heat on the stove top.) Keep within reach of your other pot.
3. Melt 1 knob of Earth balance and a drizzle of olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. When bubbling add in garlic and onion and cook until translucent.
3. Add in rice and allow to coat with oil and mix with onions and garlic. Salt and Pepper liberally.
4. Add in white wine. (*If you can't afford wine like me, substitute two tablespoons of plain vinegar or white wine vinegar.) Stir until just absorbed.
5. Ladle in about a cup of the heated broth, stirring until absorbed by the rice. Repeat this step over and over again, ladling and stirring, until rice is no longer crunchy and coated in a thick creamy sauce.
6. At this point, add back in your cooked veggie, salt and pepper liberally, stir, reduce heat to low and cover. Serve with warm bread and a crispy salad.

Suggestions for combos:

Butternut squash and sage

Lemon and Asparagus (add in a bit of lemon juice and zest when you add in the cooked asparagus.)

Mushroom and Leek with thyme, my personal favorite.

I suspect one can stretch this recipe into new territories, like using beets, fake cheese, or non-italian flavorings. However, even minus the veggies this is pretty awesome comfort food, and the only thing you really have to buy is the rice. Ah, cheap, classic, kitchen magic. "Because every little girl cook is a princess."

Song of the Day: Neko Case- This Tornado Loves You


Broke Food: Pancakes!

I love Belgium and all, and I don't mean to be a bratty American, but oh man, was my Thanksgiving ever LAME! 12€ (which is twice my daily budget) for mashed potatoes with pumpkin in it and some lingonberry sauce at this terribly hip club for ex-pats. I would have made something myself, but not having the money nor apartment space to cook for everyone, I decided to go where everyone else was going...bad idea. Next year I'm having a real Thanksgiving, come hell or high water, and I will even get a you-tubed version of this year's Macy's parade and some football americano...

I was consoled, however, by a) free drink tickets and b) fantasizing about what glorious good eats I will cook up over my brief sojourn in the USA over the holidays. Not only will I have access to all my lovely cookbooks and pantry staples, but my little brother will be in residence as a sous chef... and you know I will be cooking up some latkes, pot pies, brunch goodies, plus all the goodies I missed on Thanksgiving. So, there's that to look forward to. Plus all the mouthwatering food in the blog-o-sphere... as usual, Team Vegan does not disappoint.

AT ANY RATE... still as poor as a Charles Dickens/ Victor Hugo character, so have been subsisting on many boring and simple meals such as oatmeal and lentils (but not together.) The next few blog posts will explore some new dirt-cheap meal alternatives, and though I still have no camera, I eat these items often enough to have a million pictures of them.

I never realized before how little time and money it takes to make pancakes from scratch. When you don't have any fruits or veggies, a little flour and soymilk and you still have something great. More importantly, when you do have fruits and veggies, you can transform them into something really special (and more crucially, filling and leftover-producing.) Here's my standard recipe (approx, as have no great measuring tools yet), plus variations:

1 C. flour
2 tsp. baking powder
pinch salt
3/4 C. soymilk
1 tbsp. sweetener
1 tbsp. oil or melted margarine

-Combine all ingredients in a bowl and stir until "just mixed." (You can also do the seperate bowl for wet/dry ingredients thing, although my research suggests this does not matter so long as you assemble your ingredients promptly.) Drop by the ladleful onto a medium hot greased skillet. Serve with syrup or whatev.

VARIATIONS: You can pretty much put anything in pancakes, which makes it ideal when you have like, 1 rotting pear on the shelf. You may have to adjust the liquid or flour, but essentially you just need to chop something into small pieces and figure out appropriate accompaniment. Examples...

Apple Onion Curry Pancakes - cut up an apple and a small onion and add to the mix, ommiting the sweetener. Add in 1 and 1/2 tsp curry powder. Serve with mango chutney and soy yogurt.
Banana Oatmeal pancakes- Replace 1/4 of the cup of flour with oatmeal flakes. Mash in a banana with wet ingredients. Add in a dash of nutmeg and cinnamon. (I've also made this with a rotting pear, and it was great.)
Cowboy Corncakes - Recipe here!

Pumpkin or squash pancakes- make like the banana pancakes and add in mushed leftover pumpkin or squash. This one can be sweet or savory depending on what's on hand.

I secretly suspect you can make almost anything into pancakes, and I intend to try it more as I get more and more desperate. Carrot pancakes? Mushroom pancakes? Brussels Sprouts pancakes? Why not... Yes, on my gravestone, please write: "Here lies T, she made everything into pancakes."

Song of the Day: Trude Herr- Ich will Keine Schokolade


Last Minute Thanksgiving Ideas

Well, they don't celebrate Thanksgiving in Belgium. I guess this isn't all that incredibly strange, since nothing about the colonist/Native American encounter has any real parallels in Belgian history, but still, I'm a bit disappointed. Its even a school day! Apparently an ex-pat club is having a big thanksgiving dinner at this fancy night-club with a menu including "pumpkin mashed potatoes." What? Come on Europeans, you're doing it wrong.

Anyways, here's what would have been on the menu at MY dream Thanksgiving.

1.) Glühwein!

A favorite in Christmas Markets in Germany, this is basically mulled wine: hot wine with spices and a little rum. Its totally delicious and a great start to the meal. My boyfriend's famous recipe is HERE. (Incidentally, hope to be enjoying that in Berlin in a few weeks!)
Another holiday cocktail? The Zombie, a trashy tiki classic with lots of holiday elements (cinnamon! citrus! rum!).

2. Roasted Golden Beet Salad with Beet Happening Dressing

Thinly sliced golden beets tossed in a simple marinade and roasted in the oven, then served over spinach salad with pecans with the leftover marinade as a dressing. Delicious, seasonal and gorgeous.

The dressing/ marinade:
Combine in a food processor: 2 chopped shallots, 1/3 C. Balsamic vinegar, 3 T. maple syrup, pinch of salt and pepper. Drizzle in 1/3 C. Olive oil until blended.

3. Aunt Mary's Sweet Potatoes

A vegan version of my Aunt Mary's sweet potatoes have been my thanksgiving favorite since... oh, forever? So simple and delicious, and a great alternative to the marshmellow covered southern-style dish.

Apple-Pecan Sweet Potatoes

2 (big) Cans Sweet potatoes in syrup
Brown sugar
2 Apples
Earth Balance

1. Preheat oven to 375. Pour out your sweet potatoes, reserving a few tablespoons of the syrup. Mash them in a medium casserole dish with the syrup, a little soymilk, and a tablespoon of brown sugar. (Whip 'em if you feel like it.) Next, slice your apples into thin, lengthwise slices, and cover the sweet potato mixture. Last, roughly chop the pecans and mix them with a fork with about 2 tablespoons earth balance and 1 1/2 tbs brown sugar. When this mixture is crumbly and the pecans are fairly coated, sprinkle this evenly over top of the apples. Bake until brown and bubbly on top.

4. Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes and Mushroom Gravy
People are devoted to their own mashed potato recipes, so all I have to contribute is that, to fancy things up, I like to add a whole head of roasted garlic into the mix when I blend the potatoes with earth balance and soymilk. And it just wouldn't be the same without Dreena Burton's mushroom gravy recipe, although I have to say I can't find the recipe online. I suspect it wouldn't matter, because like meat gravy, everyone is convinced that THEIR mushroom gravy is the best. (Dreena's really is though!)

5. Veganomicon Seitan Pot Pies

An instant classic from Isa and Terry, these pot pies are perfect for when there are just a few vegetarians at the table, and you want to make all the turkey-eaters incredibly jealous.


So no Thanksgiving for me, but at least I will be home over winter break and cooking up a storm with my vegetarian brother. Hope everyone has an amazing holiday week, with a minimum of relatives asking you if you've "given up on this whole vay-gun thing yet." I'll be looking forward to drooling (/sobbing) over delicious pictures in the weeks to come.

In the meantime, here are a few more places to look for vegetarian Thanksgiving guides, just to get even more excited:
The Epicurious Guide
The Times has been super veg-friendly this season, and has a zillion recipes.
Vegan.com's Thanksgiving Feast
Bryanna Clark Grogan's Holiday Recipes


Dammit, Janet!

My bloody camera is broken!

And its a shame, because I've been cooking such weird and good food lately, especially soups. (Cheap! Hot! Long-Lasting!)

However, will have use of a new camera soon and anticipate using it for various baking experiments with my crazy European oven. In the meantime, I will just be spying on everyone else's blogs and crying about Europe's mystifying lack of Thanksgiving.


Good luck with Bad luck

(Obligatory Brussels Photo: Grand Platz!)

I'm always amazed at how people can continue to latch on to the belief that people are inherently bad, selfish animals. Sure, you can find plenty of evil things that people do, but they so dim in comparison to the incredibly good things that people do, for no apparent benefit to themselves.

Take the other day. I'm on the bus, and this girl in the seat across from me leaves her cellphone without noticing. The girl sitting next to her, leaps off the bus, and runs down the street to return it to her. In the process, the bus doors close, leaving her to wait for the next bus 15-20 minutes later. Most remarkably, this girl just smiled and shrugged when the doors closed in her face! Just to be nice, she missed her stop and added another wait to her, no doubt, busy morning. I love people.

A similarly bizarre kind thing happened to me the other day, when I was approached by someone who recognized me from my drivers license photo and handed back my wallet! The money was gone, but the documents and identity cards were all intact! Its so amazing how the initial tragedy- losing the wallet, is completely out-shined by the random act of kindness that followed it.

My friend Kat said that I evidently have "good luck with bad luck", and I couldn't agree more! She also made me this amazing pumpkin soup that somehow, magically, lasted me a week when I was dying without my money access cards. There are more recipes for pumpkin soup out there than anything, but this one was basically pumpkin, potatoes, shallots, soy creamer, and veggie bouillon. It was, needless to say, simple and amazing!

When I finally got my money back, I got more good luck: I finally found some black beans! You wouldn't think this would be such a triumph, but I've really been dying for them and they are, evidently, very rare in these parts. I cooked them up with some hot sauce, onions and tomatoes, and served them in a tortilla with sauteed mushrooms and corn with some lime yogurt and avocados. I was literally in heaven. Certainly the first thing I will do upon return to the US is pig out on the freely-available Mexican food!

But still, even with all the good luck, the food expenses here are killing me. I've been eating a lot of witch-sauce, rice, couscous, lentils... I need to get back into strategizing a healthy diet with a shoe-string budget. No more avacados and eggplant for me, its back to basics! But then, restrictions can be good for your creativity as well... Wish me more good luck!

More black beans: chipotle black beans and red quinoa
More pumpkin:Kabocha, Eggplant, and Mushroom Stir-Fry
More Mushrooms: Creamy Mushroom and Leek Risotto

Song of the Day: The Clash- Career Opportunities


Soy una perdedor

I've never considered myself an especially unlucky person, but there is one area of my life in which I consistently demonstrate terrible juju: losing valuables. I've lost a passport, 3 ipods, my birth certificate, class rings, cameras and countless headphones and pieces of jewelry. And this week I lost MY WALLET. In a FOREIGN COUNTRY. It was probably stolen, but I don't think that ruins the unbroken chain of bad luck that follows me around when I need to not misplace something. This is especially bad because it had a lot of the identity papers I need to prove myself to the endless stream of beaurocrats making me jump through hoops. So, needless to say, I was not pleased.

However, I'm starting to wonder if God has chosen me to lose everything for a reason. Maybe a certain amount of items have to be lost everyday on earth, and God figures I'm kind of used to it and can handle it without freaking out. Or maybe I do it to myself to add drama and excitement to otherwise perfectly wonderful weeks... and what's more exciting then being money and i.d.-less in a foreign country? On this occasion though, luck was on my side (kind of) because I had just done the grocery shopping for the week, so at least I was covered as far as food. (And don't tell anyone, but they aren't especially harsh about making people buy bus tickets here.) So I actually had a marvelous dinner, seitan steak with red-wine mushroom sauce, fingerling potatoes and sugar snap peas.

My parents often wonder how I get over these terrible losses so quickly... and while, yes, I'm frustrated at the weeks of paperwork ahead, I figure: 1) these things have to happen to somebody, 2) I could be prone to a much worse habit, say, breaking bones or drug addiction, and 3) if I spent more than 5 minutes mourning my lost possessions, I wouldn't have time for anything else.

Song of the Day: Whiskeytown- Mirror, Mirror


Back on track

La Pasionaria on Avenue de Stalingrad

I'm back! After a bout of bad internet connectivity and the loss of my camera cord, I thought VeganMOFO was going to be more like VeganNO-Fo for me, but now things are relatively straightened out.

And not just with the internet. After weeks of constant stress, I have now basically figured out everything I needed to know, from how to print at the Flemish copy shop, how to order a beer in french, where to find seitan and tempeh and vegan chocolate, and most critically, how to cook without burning my apartment down. (Although that last one took rather more attention then one might think.) Despite constant reminders of my own stupidity, my general outlook is now very sunny. Brussels is beautiful, dirty and bizarre... but certainly filled with amazing food. I don't think I've ever eaten so well in my life! The trick is to not spend all your money on food, which is something I accomplish by shopping the Sunday markets for fruits, veggies, and spices, the organic market just for the most hard-to-find luxuries (since its so expensive) and the corner bodega for everything else.

One thing I've gotten very obsessed with is soy yogurt. They sell it in huge containers at the organic market, and in every flavor under the sun. (Including plum and apricot!) I like to get the plain and cover it in strawberries, puffed quinoa "soufflé" (another amazing discovery) and a drizzle of agave nectar. Another way to use it is my own version of a Waldorf Salad: thinly sliced roasted beets, apples, and carrots with walnuts and a bunch of lemon juice, tossed in yogurt, salt and pepper. I feel like I ought to be sitting at a fancy hotel in the fifties when I eat this, and its also a good way to use up the yogurt since everything here goes bad in about two days. (I guess they don't like preservatives here? So un-American.) The same is true for fruits and vegetables, which I don't really understand. Have they been injecting our strawberries and broccoli with preservatives? Or is my American fridge just stronger?

Either way, I essentially need to empty the contents of my fridge bi-weekly to be able to eat things before they deteriorate, so I've been experimenting with simple-as-possible meals with very few elements. A winner the other day was smoky tempeh and broccoli in some garlic-chili hot sauce. This was one of the meals that nearly set my flat on fire ("smoky" tempeh indeed), but it was still quite good.

And I had missed tempeh so much. It may mean having to go to 3 different grocery stores to stock up on things, but at least I have a routine now.

Song of the Day: Of Montreal- An Eluardian Instance


Witch Sauce and Strange Things

The really lovely thing about being in a foreign country is that so many things seem mysterious which might, if you were at home, seem commonplace or even obnoxious. You glimpse strange things while walking by open doors, smell heady and unknown delicacies cooking, and hear live music playing from rooftops and basements... all of it seems to have some story that is more interesting by virtue of the fact that you don't understand it, aren't part of it. My downstairs neighbors' late-night fighting, for instance, takes on a romantic quality that causes me to speculate about their passionate french, rather than merely stomp on the floor like I probably would in the US. Similarly, the large, empty office buildings near my flat, tucked in the middle of residential neighborhoods, inspire my imagination with their dark names, "mercelis" or "syalin corp."... They sound like ancient gothic cults or obscure security organizations bent on global domination, but they probably produce antibacterial hand spray or water filters or some such thing.

At any rate, one of the biggest mysteries has been my cooking. Without proper measurements, essential ingredients, cookbooks, (and some would say common sense), I've been consistently making jaw-droppingly good meals for myself. Its truly uncanny.

Take the other evening. I decided to inaugurate the "oven" (ie, huge toaster-oven contraption with instructions ostensibly in hungarian) by merely roasting a sweet potato I was lucky enough to find. While waiting, I sliced up some ginger and shallots and contemplated a little sauce for the sweet potato... maybe with some coconut milk too? Cardamom? Hell, an apple... why not.... and while I sauntered in and out of the tiny kitchen (a feat readily accomplished in one step) I heard a strange sizzling sound, and some popping. It turns out, the "oven" gets incredibly hot, and all of the jars, plastic bags of spices, and fruits nearby were cracking, melting, and cooking. While I hollered and jumped up and down calmly removed the scalding items from their place and cleaned up the burst spices, the shallots caramelized and the coconut milk boiled down to a thick and creamy and ridiculously tasty sauce for my *perfectly cooked* sweet potatoes. What else to call a sauce that turns perfect when all hell is breaking loose, except "witch sauce?"

Tonight I made it again, more intentionally, and served it over some tempeh, carrots, pasta and sugar-snap peas. It was still suspiciously delicious. Here is the gist of the recipe, as usual without measurements, but you get the picture.

Witch Sauce Serve over roasted root veggies or as a light pasta sauce

In a small sauce/saute pan, heat a good glop of olive oil over medium heat. When hot, add in a sliced large shallot (or sub 1/2 an onion) and about 1" worth of peeled and chopped ginger. Cook for 5-10 minutes, until shallots have become soft and caramelized. In the meantime, chop 1/2 of an apple into small chunks. When shallots are ready, sprinkle pinches of any combination of the following: black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, paprika, curry powder. Cook a moment longer, then add in apples. Stir, then add in 1/2 a can of coconut milk and a dash of hot pepper sauce (if you want) and turn the heat up to high. Bring to a boil, stirring frequently, then let simmer a few more minutes until sauce has thickened. Serve over whatever, but it seems to like orange vegetables.

There is something very satisfying about knowing that no matter how confused and alert I am, when making this sauce tonight there was probably someone walking by on my little street, smelling my bizarre and delicious sauce, hearing my weird music, and wondering what on earth was going on behind the curtains...

Song of the Day: St. Vincent- The Strangers

*PS- Sadly, I guess I'm not doing VeganMoFo. My internet, like everything else in BRXL, operates in a fashion that is beyond my earthly control or understanding, and precludes regular posting. But on those occasions when it is working I'll love catching up on everyone else's month, and can't wait to do it next year. :)*


Minimalist Eggplant and Mushroom Tagine

I know that when one is stressed and overwhelmed, experts would say that the best thing to do is go for a jog, have some chamomile tea, and confide in a friend. However, at the moment I'm finding that complete denial is also working just fine.

For instance, tonight, instead of acknowledging the mountains of loan deferrals, residence paperwork, and french notecards, I have been pretending that I am giving a very nice dinner party for myself with a sophisticated minimalist Moroccan theme. (Not poor, minimalist. There's a difference.) I'm also pretending that none of the paperwork is urgent, and that I'm not likely to default on my loans/ get deported/ become an utter failure, etc, if I do not complete all these things.

Luckily, the dinner party did not dissapoint. Did you know that you can make a pretty rockin' tagine with about 6 ingredients? (More if you use individual spices rather than a spice mix.) Here's the completely measurement-less recipe, for those of you playing along at home.

Minimalist Moroccan Tagine Serves 1, obviously

In a pan or pot heat a good puddle of olive oil over medium heat. Add in 1 diced shallot and cook for a few minutes, or until translucent. Add in 1/2 of a eggplant which you have previously sliced, salted, wiped off and diced. Cook until eggplant chunks are starting to brown, and add in a few handfuls of sliced mushrooms. Cook another 3-5 minutes, then sprinkle over veggies a palm-ful of tagine spice mix, found at your local Belgian farmers market. (Or merely sprinkle over a mix of equal parts cinnamon, ginger, cumin, smoked paprika, plus a little pepper and turmeric.) Raise heat to medium high and add in two diced plum tomatoes plus a handful of diced dried apricots. Cook until tomatoes start to break down, then lower heat to medium low and cook another 5-10 minutes.

Serve with rice and sliced almonds. (Mint tea would be nice too, but let's not get too fancy.)

All together, this piecemeal dinner actually turned out shockingly good. So good that I may even be up for doing some work tonight. And actually, I think that a few hours of avoidance might be just as effective as those other, more healthy techniques... not that I will ever know. :)

Song of the Day: Wilco- Wishful Thinking

A more elaborate (and also delicious) tagine:
Eggplant and Chickpea Tagine


A Beautiful Sunday

Sunday I woke up in my new flat to a strange stillness. Having left my windows open the last few nights, I'm getting accustomed to waking up to honks, shouts, and a general morning buzz from the nearby thoroughfare. Aside from the overcast gray skies and the occasional church bells, something was off. Having already earmarked the day for checking out the flea market in St-Gilles, I got dressed and headed in the direction of the metro.

On the streets the stillness continued, punctuated by the occasional bicycle bell. In fact, when I looked around, I realized there were way more bicyclists than normal. Upon walking a little further, I realized that, actually, there were ONLY bicyclists. (Well, the occasional roller-blader.) Instead of taking my life in my hands every time I crossed the streets, I was one of a throng of pedestrians and non-motorists crowding the fashionable Avenue Louisa. I started to think I was in the middle of some kind of Critical Mass.

When I reached the metro station, I had the matter cleared up. The ticket counter informed me that metros were free all day, since across Brussels this was a day without cars,(Journée Sans Voitures)! Finally in on the joke, I grinned walking the foggy, spacious streets that were filled not with crazed cab-drivers and poor-park jobs, but little children on roller skates, parents carting babies in little bicycle cabs behind them, and old couples holding hands on bikes as they leisurely rode down a hill. What an amazing experience... confirmed proof that another world is possible!

By the time I was at the market, I was jubilant. And luckily, the market itself was no let-down. Stretching several blocks in a spiral around Gare Midi, the different stalls boasted all kinds of fruits, veggies, flowers and spices, as well as tons of clothing, suitcases, shoes, kitchen supplies, you name it. I was so relieved- a few days in posh Ixelles and I was starting to think I was going to have to live off lentils. There's a better solution: just save the shopping for Sundays! I found a bunch of spices (including the elusive black salt), some gorgeous plants, some kitchen stuff, even a jacket for 3 euros. (I'll learn how to barter later, for now just seeing some reasonable prices was thrilling enough.)

All the way home the streets were still filled with bikers of all ages, shapes and nationalities, lots of whom were eating ice cream, laughing with their friends, or waiting for small children to catch up. I wish this car holiday happened every Sunday...

St-Gilles Weekend Market- Sundays 6am until 2pm, streets surrounding Gare Midi Station

Song of the Day: Beta Band- Squares


A perfect avocado, Euro-Poor Lentils

After a traumatizing arrival in Brussels (mr. cab driver, how was I supposed to know I live on a "Rue" and not a "Boulevard?") and finding my studiously nouveau-bohemian sub-let in Ixelles, I immediately did the following:

-got lost for an hour looking for a simple grocery store in the neighborhood;
-almost cried when I saw how expensive mere essentials like bread and chocolate soymilk were;
-almost cried again when I saw the first perfectly ripe avocado I'd seen in Europe (this time, tears of joy);
-proceeded back to apartment with ungodly expensive essentials, to find that it was no use washing off veggies with brown chalky water from sputtering sink;
-just collapsed in a useless heap on the floor, stuffed food into my face for about two hours, stopping only to pour cheap red wine straight from the bottle down throat;
-prayed would wake up hungover in Berlin.

Ahem. So this was day one.

Day two was a little better. I found a knife. I fixed the sink. I put some food on a plate. This was to get my nerve up for an endeavor involving public transportation and meeting fellow students from my program. Notice the lovely avocado.

Although I still got lost, still speak nothing of French except some extremely un-useful anarchist quotes, and still almost had a panic attack trying to avoid insane Brussels motorists, I made it home in one piece and felt a good deal more civilized.

Day 3 I even ventured to cook something. Finding that the only things that are even *close* to reasonably priced are lentils and red wine, I decided to combine those two things for this simple and satisfying recipe.

Euro-Poor Lentil Stew - for the girl with no measuring cups or money

Simmer a diced shallot or a couple cloves of garlic in olive oil over medium heat until fragrant. Add in a half coffee cup of lentils along with a handful of diced carrots, red pepper, and mushrooms, or whatever is handy and doesn't cost and arm and a leg. Cook about five minutes, than add in a diced plum tomato and a palm-full of herbs de provence. Cook till tomato juices are simmering, than add in enough red wine to almost cover the lot of it. Cover and simmer until lentils are soft (10-15 minutes). Serve with crusty bread (and more wine.)

What will Day 4 bring? Lord knows... but hopefully more avocados...

Song of the Day: Pavement- Shady Lane


Up-side down, Phake- Me-Out Pflaumenkuchen

On a nice cool evening a few nights ago I was walking down the street with my friend when we encountered what looked like a large crate of plums, discarded by the side of the road. Curious, we examined closer to find that, indeed they were plums, and most were still good. Now, if this were the U.S., I would have assumed that each one was fitted with a tiny razor blade and that would be the end of the story, but being in Berlin I decided to whimsically cast aside my American paranoia and bring the lovey plums home. I would make pflaumenkuchen, I thought. (Oh, how innocent I was back then.)

You see, a while back I had bookmarked Mihl from Seitan is My Motor's post on pflaumenkuchen, thinking it would be a good thing to make since a) plums are falling from the sky and b) I could impress my man with some traditional home-cooked german fare, rather than just bitching about how I can't cook because there are no chipotles in Germany. It all sounded well and good, until I started to make it.

The first problem happened in the grocery store, when I couldn't find yeast for the life of me, tried to ask a shopkeeper, and then, gesticulating wildly, dropped my purse along with thousands of euro coins all over floor. (Yeast is "hefe", in case you're wondering.)

Then came the measuring. You see, having no access to measuring cups at the moment, I thought I would try some improvisation: a shot glass! I merely converted the measurements into shot glass ounces and hoped for the best, rather absent-mindedly and cockily combining things while chatting on skype with my mother in the states. But soon, I realized that something had gone wrong. The dough was incredibly sticky, not warm like yeasted things ought to be, and getting worse by the moment. (Looking back, I think I doubled the soymilk and halved the yeast. Ugh.) Before long, I was frantically adding in flour using my elbows (hands too sticky) and cursing the day I ever thought I could bake. I suddenly knew, with frightening clarity, that never again would I spend a casual afternoon making muffins or cupcakes. Instead, I would be the stupid American who doesn't understand celcius or the metric system and has to busy herself with dropping coins all over supermarkets for small German children to find. German children whose mothers probably make a killer pflaumenkuchen. UGHHHH.

*Ahem*. However, an hour later, when my terrible little dough had not risen yet, I decided to strike back with trademark American ingenuity. I put all the plums I have dutifully cut up, along with some vanilla sugar and earth balance, in the bottom of the tin. I rolled the dough out thinly, cut it to size, and placed it on top. Then I cooked the whole thing for about 30 minutes. Here is what appeared after some flipping:

Not bad, right? At least pretty, or nothing a little powdered sugar couldn't pretty up.

As for the taste? The plum part was delicious, the dough was not too sweet and (obvs) un-risen and a little tough but had sort of a plum juice layer that tasted a bit like marzipan. And my boyfriend? Thought it was all intentional. Hurrah! Am not most worthless cook in Europe after all!

All the same though, I still have the ingredients, and 1/2 a crate of plums left... I think I want to try Mihl's recipe again, this time not fuc*ing it up utterly... maybe I'll use something a tad more accurate for measuring this time? While I ponder it, I may as well finish off the rest of my little monster creation, which, after all, really wasn't too bad. Particularly with a bunch of powdered sugar and a glass of soymilk.

Song of the Day: Die Stern- Was hat dich bloß so ruiniert?


The advantages of being confused

I've always said that one of the reasons I like vegan cooking is the creativity it inspires. Without use of certain canonical ingredients, you're forced to rethink recipes and flavor combinations and challenge your notions of what makes a meal. In a way, the same can be said of traveling. Lacking the regular faculties at your disposal (language, culture, ect) you can sometimes come up with something bizarre and wonderful. But like veganism, it takes a little getting used to.

This was especially true of me at the cool bio-market I found in Kreutzberg. I was so stoked to find an organic market with plenty of veggie options, but it was also completely overwhelming. I went with the intention of making enchiladas, since German living has made me heavily crave some Mexican food. (It just isn't done here, man!)Walking around though, even armed with a dictionary, I had massive problems finding the needed ingredients. They had bizarre and enticing items but not some of the normal stuff I live for. (A thick soy creamer that was awesome, but no tortillas or chipotles, for instance.) The prices made no sense. (1 euro for apple-juice but 5 euros for veggie dogs?) I ended up deciding to make a simple pasta with soy-sausage, just to test things out. (And to stop walking around the store in circles like a weirdo.) Among my loot was vegan chorizo and an ostensibly normal pasta sauce- papaya chile!? Is this what Germans eat? Evidently not, as meine freund was equally surprised by the combo.

The dinner, however, turned out fabulously. The pasta sauce was slightly fruity and spicy and perfectly complemented the smoky chorizo. With some whole wheat pasta and a beer I was in heaven. The sausage was especially impressive- which only makes sense given the over-availability of all kinds of sausage in these parts.

Now, by baby steps, I feel a bit more prepared to take on something slightly more complicated... maybe bagels? Or a plum-cake? Maybe I should just stick to the ingredients that are readily available before I start getting fancy. :)

Song of the Day: Metric- Gimme Sympathy


Haben zie vegetarianisch essen?

Ahhhh, Berlin. When its trying, it can really be the most charming city in the world!

I decided to make a stay in Berlin for a few days/weeks before going to Brussels, and I'm so relaxed I hardly want to leave. Its perfect weather, I'm in Kreutzberg, the coolest part of town, and I'm just starting to pick up enough German to ask if things are vegan. (Well, I'm not QUITE there yet, but getting closer all the time.) At any rate, I know all the good curse words. From what I've gathered during my cultural studies, Berliners are particularly fond of three things: parks, poetry, and coffee. Could this be my dream city?!

In terms of food, I've been spending most of my time around the southeast part of town, enjoying the various coffee-shops, bakeries, ice-cream stores and doner stands that have vegetarian offerings. But let's face it, I want real food, and meine Deutch- freund just does not eat often enough. So I had to pack off on my own for a bit, and made a pilgrimage to Hans Wurst, the famous vegan restaurant in Prenzlauerberg. I didn't take any pictures of the food, but it was marvelous. I had a tofu and pumpkin kebab in curry with rice, with a sweet cucumber-berry compote on the side. After how much I had been craving some tofu this was really thrilling. The place was also a bit of a D.I.Y. mecca it seems, with a crafts corner and wide variety of zines, along with a artistic and concert line-up. Nice for me, the menu was double printed in English and German. I will definitely be heading back, if I can figure out how to get there a little bit more efficiently than walking from Alexanderplatz next time.

I also found a cool vegetarian restaurant in Kreutzberg, but I'm not so sure that its vegan, called Naturkost Seerose. This place has awesome fresh juices (like a fizzy carrot-apple that rocked my world) and a buffet of salads and warm offerings, of various vegan-ness.
During the afternoon there is always a friendly group sitting out front, and inside there is charming music and jugendstile furniture. I dig it and I'll be back.

I have a few more weeks here so I definitely plan on straying out of Kreutzberg more often and finding some of cool restaurants everyone else has mentioned during their travels. One helpful resource isBerlin-Vegan, a guide to vegan culture in and around Berlin. In the meantime, I WILL get around to cooking something, one of these days. Something other than coffee, that is.

Song of the Day: Barbara Morgenstern- Come to Berlin


Pasta with Creamy Lemon sauce, mushrooms and corn

Its no secret that I'm hugely obsessed with Russian history at the moment. So I was stoked to find a huge tome about the Russian Revolution at a used bookstore, and it has been my constant companion in the morning along with a cup of coffee while I pretend to ignore the thousands of things I have to do before I leave. At any rate, I read this paragraph this morning, about a moment on the historic 25th February, 1917, and I had to share it:

"A young girl appeared from the ranks of the demonstrators and walked slowly toward the Cossacks. Everyone watched her in nervous silence: surely the Cossacks would not fire at her? From under her cloak the girl brought out a bouquet of red roses and held it out towards the officer. There was a pause. The bouquet was a symbol of both peace and revolution. And then, leaning down from his horse, the officer smiled and took the flowers.With as much relief as jubilation, the crowd burst into a thunderous 'Oorah!'" (Figes, A People's Tragedy, 310)

Can you believe that really happened!? Just a reminder that truth is wilder than fiction in this crazy world...

Anyways! Despite the hustle and bustle of my last week in town, and my conflicting desire to lie around and read all day, I managed to make something really scrumptious for dinner, so good in fact, that I made it twice. Its a pasta sauce with lemon, white wine, cream, mushrooms and corn... its too delicious for words. Actually, I think it might be suited well to something other than pasta, but I can't think of what yet. So let me just share the recipe, and hopefully you can think of something better to do with this delicious sauce.

Creamy Lemon Sauce with Mushrooms and Corn

-2 small or one big shallot, diced
-Zest and juice of one large lemon
-3/4 C. baby bella or any other type mushroom, sliced
-1/2 C. dry white wine
-Corn from 1-2 sweet corn husks
-3 T. soy creamer
-3 T. Earth Balance

1. In a large pan over medium heat, add shallots, zest, mushrooms, white wine, and lemon juice. Simmer for 10 minutes or so, until liquid has reduced by 3/4.
2. Add in corn and stir, cooking for another minute or so.
3. Add in cream and reduce heat to low. Continuously stirring, add in EB by the tablespoon, waiting for one to melt before adding the next.

Serve immediately over whole wheat pasta or...?

And thanks to everybody for the tips on what to bring abroad. You guys are brilliant. I think I have narrowed the list to the following:
-Nooch and Arrowroot powder (would that I could bring EB)
-wooden spoon, measuring spoons and cups (yeah, f*ck the metric system!)
-my immersion blender (I just cannot resist.)

Also (because I haven't jumped around enough in this post), I would like to direct you all to go read this awesome post by The Discerning Brute about masculinity and consumption of meat. Its so enraging that people think strength or vitality is conveyed by eating a diet of rotting flesh, and yet this stereotype persists, trapping both women and men in its nonsense. Thank goodness young people have such an array of awesome male and female role models to choose from showing that considering your ethics when you eat is subversive and powerful!

Song of the Day: Ben Folds Five- Underground