Monday, September 15, 2014

MoFo Noshtalgia: Pizza Bianca

special summertime edition:
foods that remind me of special summer memories

vegan pizza bianca

Just days after my 16th birthday, I flew off to spend the summer in Padua, Italy with my parents. That trip turned out to be one of the most influential experiences of my life. My father was teaching a graduate level course in Padua for a short time, and as soon as my school had finished for the summer, my mom and I went over to join him. My mom had just been laid off, so her summer was wide open. My brother was 20 by then, and selected to have the house to himself for the summer over the option to join us for a family vacation. Ha ha!

In Padua, we had a small apartment located about a 20 minutes-walk from the city center. Padua is a wonderful city, with a huge university, some amazing historic and artistic treasures, a thriving local community, not at all over-run by tourists, and just a short distance from Venice (maybe it was 45 minutes on the train?). My dad had to work during the week, so my mom and I would spend our days together exploring the city, grocery shopping, visiting the churches and museums, and taking amazing day trips to various nearby spots. One day we went to Dante's home. Other days we went into Venice to explore. On weekends, we would take longer jaunts together with my dad - to Lake Como, or to the Italian Alps, or to Venice for the weekend. It was such a special time together.

teenaged amey had long hair

I already really liked art and drawing and painting - but that trip to Italy convinced me that I wanted to study art for reals. With the emotional passion of an adolescent, I fell in love with the early Jackson Pollocks at the Guggenheim Museum in Venice. I soaked up all the art and paintings and beauty and architecture I saw around me. I wrote poems about St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice. I decided I would learn to speak Italian. This trip was the right thing at the right time, and something inside me came to life.

One of the simple joys of that trip was having just one home base all summer. We went to the same produce stand, the same laundromat, the same neighborhood stores, and we began to recognize faces and also we began to be recognized. I enjoyed flirting with the son who worked at the shop near our house.

Just down the street from our apartment was a neighborhood trattoria - offering pizzas and salads and simple restaurant fare. We went there often, and my favorite thing to order was the Pizza Bianca, "white pizza." I think it was just cheese and herbs. Maybe some garlic? But, definitely no tomato sauce. And no meat either, because I was already a vegetarian by then. I loved that pizza.

I loved it so much that on our very last day, my mom and I ordered some pizzas to bring home in my suitcase! I think maybe we froze them the night before or something like that. Then we sealed them up in plastic and foil, and tucked them in my suitcase. Our flight was arriving home on the exact day of my friend Megan's birthday, and my plan was to arrive at her party with Italian pizzas! I figured that they would stay frozen in the air...

It was all a great plan, until the airline lost our luggage. Oh noes! It was a good two or three days before we got our luggage, and my parents and I just kept thinking about those pizzas in my suitcase! ha ha. By the time we got the bags, we took the pizzas straight from my bag to the trash without ever daring to unwrap them. Alas.

Fueled by my desire to eat more of that deliciousness, Pizza Bianca was one of the very first things I ever learned to cook for myself. I learned to make pizza crust from scratch and I figured out how to recreate the now-forgotten toppings. I made it for my family and friends. This weekend, I recreated a pizza bianca for Mr VE&T and myself ... without any actual attempt to recreate the original. I just decided to make some delicious "white" toppings: roasted garlic, caramelized onions, and sauteed fennel.

In the name of efficiency, I used the premade pizza dough from Trader Joes and it worked great and was quite tasty. On top of the dough, I added a little olive oil, smeared around a bunch of the roasted garlic, spread out the caramelized onions, then carefully spread on a bunch of tofu ricotta (with a little bit of rosemary in it). On top, I added the fennel just to one half of the pizza. I wasn't sure if we would like the fennel, but we both did. This pizza was crazy good - and we have some leftover for dinner tonight too! huzzah!

Post Script: I have such a particular memory of sitting down to dinner at that neighborhood trattoria and "announcing" to my parents that I wanted to study art. And, in fact, because of that trip, I did commit to studying art and Italian. I ended up majoring in fine arts in college, and studied Italian language all four years. I spent half of my junior year of college in Florence, and I still speak pretty passable Italian today. So many friendships and influential teachers that all came out of that first trip to Italy ~ a place I now love and have returned to many times. Who knows where these things will lead when we first embark upon them?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

MoFo: Feeling Saucy

Since I have been making a concerted effort to eat more veggies, especially at lunch time, I've also discovered the importance of a good sauce.

life is just so much better with sauce

If I just eat a bunch of raw veggies, it's fine and yummy enough - but it feels like I just had a snack, and not like I got to have lunch. Even a plate of plain steamed veggies just feels a bit blah. But! If I have a nice sauce that I can pour on, or mix in with the veggies, or dip the veggies into - suddenly the whole mood changes. Suddenly it feels like a bonafide meal! 

Some of my most favorite sauces lately have been tofu ricotta, homemade queso, and the Green Goddess dressing from Appetite for Reduction... I try to look for sauces or dips that are high in flavor, but not super rich or fatty, since I'm usually trying to keep my calories down. 

Yesterday I finally made the grilled Brussels Sprouts kabobs I've been wanting to try (fun! yum!), and I made a batch of spinach-basil sauce to go with them. I used a recipe from Healthy Hedonist - it's got jalepeno and light coconut milk and a whole pound of spinach and ginger and lemongrass.... positively packed with flavor. In truth, I don't think it was the best match with the brussels sprouts, but that's okay because they were just great on their own. I still have a lot of that sauce left over, so I'll have to come up with some other uses for it. I love how brilliant and green it is! 

I find that having one or two sauces/dressings/dips on hand in the fridge greatly increases my chances of eating veggies, and decreases the chances that I will just nibble mindlessly all afternoon.

Last week I even tried my hand at coming up with my own sauce. It had parsley and garlic and almonds and lemon juice. It was pretty lame. Just sorta thin and unremarkable in the flavor department. But luckily, Mr. VE&T came into the kitchen, and he had all sorts of good ideas. He added some of my homemade soy yogurt, and some tamari... and suddenly the whole thing was much more interesting and delicious.

Mr. VE&T is always encouraging me to make up recipes on my own, but I don't feel like I'm good at it at all. He's the one with all the ideas! He came waltzing in and made my lame-o sauce into something tasty and worthwhile. I keep suggesting to him that he develop a passion for vegan cooking! ha ha. In the end, we had our sauce with oven fried potatoes, steamed romano beans and some lightly sauteed tomatoes and onions. It turned out to be a pretty good dinner!

So, what are your favorite dressings / dips / sauces? I gotta expand my repertoire!
my attempt at drawing myself feeling "saucy"

Saturday, September 13, 2014

MoFo: My Beloved Farmers' Market Bags

My Most Prized Farmers Market Bags 

The first time I went to India was 10 years ago. I went with Mr. VE&T, and we did some traveling on our own, we spent some time with some dear friends in Delhi, and we even got to attend the wedding celebrations for our friend's brother. It was quite a trip - we were there for 5 weeks, and by the time we were leaving, I felt like I was finally getting the hang of things.

Naturally, we picked up a lot of small souvenirs on that trip - both for ourselves and for friends and family back home. Everywhere we went, people were trying to sell me pashmina scarves and silk saris - but I was completely uninterested. First of all, not vegan. Secondly, just not my style. I'm never gonna wear a sari when I get back home. However, there was something I wanted to bring home. All around me, I kept seeing Indian folks with these giant canvas bags, with advertisements printed on the side, packed full to brim and looped on the handlebars of their scooters, or outside the doorstep, or atop a woman's head. I wanted one of those bags!

why didn't I buy all of them??!!

I asked my friend, and she wasn't sure where to get one. I asked one of our drivers, and he did not know. And, to be honest, on that first trip, Mr. VE&T mostly stuck to pretty touristy parts of town - and these bags were definitely not tourist items. On the LAST day of our trip, walking along a long street in Delhi full of shops and stalls, I hit pay dirt! I found a stall selling the bags I so dearly wanted. With no haggling at all, they cost 40 rupees each, which was about $1 at the time. I got a couple for myself and a few for gifts. 

That very same bag - fully loaded with produce just this morning, 
faded and worn, after 10 years of hard labor

These bags are so downright amazing. At first, they had a plastic coating inside, which was great for wet produce from the farmers market. Over time though, that coating is only partly intact. I use these bags ALL THE TIME. I use them to go to the farmers market and the grocery  This adorable pink bag with a fancy lady tamarind is my favorite and gets the most use. This year, the handles finally started to fray, and my most industrious mother sewed on new handles for me. You probably can't tell from this picture, but this bag was packed FULL today - I know for a fact that I've loaded these bags up with at least 30 pounds of produce, with no problem at all. They are real workhorses. 

This one is also tattered and softened with age and use. I like that the only words in English on this bag are "For Vitality" and "with 3D hologram" - ha ha! Whatever this product it, it's clearly working because that couple looks super stoked. Today this bag held all my goodies from Trader Joe's for me.

The market streets in India are truly one of my happy places.
colors! faces! people! humanity! activity! hustle and bustle!

As you can see, my bags are showing their age. So, last time I went to India, just a few years ago, I really wanted to restock. However, my bags were hard to find! Everywhere I looked, I kept finding cheaper plastic bags that clearly weren't built to last in the same way. I searched and searched! I cannot tell you how many bag stalls I went to. I was truly on a mission.

this young kiddo spoke a little English and he is the one who sold me my bags

That was my 3rd trip to India, and by now I feel much more comfortable and at ease ... and happily penetrated far from the touristy zones selling pashmina scarves - until finally I found one bag shop with a few bags the way I like them. I bought the few they had... just to have on hand for the future. 

In fact, a couple of years ago, my mom's car was stolen - and later it was recovered, but the meanies had thrown out all the stuff she had inside it : including her Indian shopping bags! As a true testimony to the merit of these bags, she told me that of all the things she lost from her car, it was the Indian shopping bags that she missed the most. Luckily, I had my new purchases stashed away, so I was able to give her a replacement. 

This darling bag is from my last trip to India, and I just adore how much those two are in love with each other. I also love that in small print underneath, there is a health warning about how this mouth freshener might be harmful to your health. A mixed blessing!

This bag is smaller, but like the others it is super sturdy. It also has a zipper on the top. I mostly bought it because I was unable to resist the charm of that design, and I wasn't sure if the smaller size and the zipper would make it less useful. In fact, it has turned out to be one of my favorites! It's a little too small to help out at the farmers market, but it's great for toting around my paper, folders if I'm going to a meeting, my wallet, or even for a quick trip to the grocery store for just a few items. Today it helped out at the natural foods store, where I just needed some almond milk, tofu, and pistachio nuts. 

is it weird to love your shopping bags this much? 

Back when I bought these bags, I knew I wanted one, but I had no idea just how much I would fall in love with them. Nothing like a truly practical souvenir that goes on to last forever. These trusty bags are an essential part of my weekly farmers market and grocery store excursions, and I wouldn't know what to do without them! 

whenever I come home from shopping, all the doggies come running to the back gate.
Stevie and Dottie come wiggling up to greet me, but Snoopy puts his nose right in the bag to see what I got. 
Naughty little fella! 

Friday, September 12, 2014

MoFo: Mr. Dewie's Cashew-based Ice Cream

Since I'm doing summery posts for MoFo, it seems like I probably shouldn't let a whole month go by without talking about vegan ice cream!

I don't actually eat loads of ice cream, but when I'm in the mood, it can really hit the spot... especially on a hot summer day. Sometime last year, someone on the PPK mentioned that a friend of hers was starting an ice cream company and was looking for Bay Area bloggers who would be willing to review it. Naturally, I got right on top of that. Back then, the nice guys at Mr Dewie's were just starting out with almond-based ice creams, and they sent me some coupons, but I couldn't find their stuff in Santa Cruz... so it remained an unrealized dream.

All this time later, they switched from almonds to cashews, got some seriously rave reviews from every single person at the Expo West, and then sent me an email asking if I'd be up for trying again. Heck yeah!

At my local Whole Foods, they carried three flavors: Coffee, Caramel Almond Crunch, and Chocolate. I had two coupons in my hand, so I had some important decisions to make. I knew I wanted to try the coffee flavor, and in the end, I decided that I can get chocolate vegan ice cream without too much hassle, so I picked the Caramel Almond Crunch.

First things first. The cashew-base on this ice cream makes it so unbelievably rich! It's super thick and creamy. On the package, it suggests letting the ice cream warm at room temperature for a few minutes, until it is more easily scoopable. I'm sure that's a good idea, but damn is it hard to wait!

Next up. Coffee Ice Cream. Huzzah!!! Growing up, we didn't eat many sweeties in my house, but my parents were big fans of coffee ice cream and I developed a special affection for coffee ice cream long before I every enjoyed an actual cup of coffee. I have really, really missed a good, flavorful vegan coffee ice cream option ~ and I need not lament any longer. I really loved this stuff so much. I still have about half my tub left and I like to sneak over to the freezer and savor just a few nibbles at a time. I am seriously cherishing every coffee-ful bite.

I love crunchy bits in my ice cream, so it's not really a surprise that I really liked the Caramel Almond Crunch too. Even after being so impressed with their coffee flavor, the richness of the caramel flavor was a such a surprise, and there are definitely plenty roasted almond chunks in there to fit the bill and live up to the name.

There are a lot of vegan ice cream options these days, and I definitely think Mr. Dewie's deserves its place in the freezer. It's much more rich and decadent than many of the other vegan ice creams I've tried, and I love their flavors (they also have a Chocolate Orange flavor that I have yet to try). The cartons are a bit pricey (about $7) ~ but I think it's worth it for special occasions and dinner parties.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

MoFo Noshtalgia: Lemonade

As far back as I can remember, my parents had a huge lemon tree in their backyard. The tree itself was quite big, but the lemons in particular were huge. It was a "Eureka" lemon tree - and those lemons tend to have super thick rinds. So, the lemons would look enormous, but inside there was just lots of lemon rind and normal sized lemon in the middle of all that rind.

The tree was right outside their kitchen window, and all year long we could look out the window to see the beautiful green leaves and the bright yellow lemons. It made us all so happy. Sometimes when my mom would be cooking dinner, she would ask one of us to run out to the lemon tree and pick out a lemon for her. This was such a silly little thing, but I remember loving it. I wasn't so enthusiastic when she asked me to clean my room or take out the trash. 

If you've ever had a lemon tree, you know that often a lemon tree will have more lemons on it than you could possibly use. And if you've ever been a kid during summer time, you know that you will often have more time on your hands than you know what to do with. At least, that's how it was in the 70's before kids were small professionals going from one appointment to the next. We were wild and unscheduled and free. 

Authentic picture from 1979, with my brother, my cousin, and me in the back. Check out our awesome duds! 
I think Lisa's shirt has a rainbow and a unicorn, my brother has some groovy stripes, and I - of course - am wearing a Snoopy shirt! Such good fashion sense.

With all that time on our hands, occasionally our young minds would get it together to put up a lemonade stand. It was usually my brother and me and a few other kids from the neighborhood. With the help of my mom, we would juice up a bunch of lemons, mix in a bunch of sugar, make a sign, and set up shop in the front yard. Our parents live on a street near the downtown, so there is a fair amount of car and pedestrian traffic. I have such a strong memory of watching all those cars driving by and being completely confused about why no one was stopping to buy our lemonade. Didn't they have endless time on their hands? Weren't they just dying for some lemonade? Weren't they eager for social interactions with unknown children?? Ha ha. Now that I am an adult, I understand.

But, we would inevitably get a few passers-by, or even an occasional driver, to stop and try our precious lemonade. It was such an innocent and fun thing to do with each other and with our neighborhood pals ~ and I'm sure our parents were delighted that it kept us busy and out of the house for a good couple of hours. Every once in a while, I'll still see kids out selling lemonade or fruit from their garden, and if I'm not too busy, I try to stop and be an enthusiastic customer... just to keep the spirit alive.

A few years ago, my parents' hot water heater burst and the hot water burnt the roots of the lemon tree, and it died. They were quite sad to see it go, and promptly planted a new one. It takes a few years for a fruit tree to pick up steam, but as far as I know, they've got plenty of lemons now.

And I've got a lemon tree of my own too... As soon as we moved into our house, I planted a dwarf lemon tree right by our front door. It's beautiful and productive and I love it. I used lemons from my own tree for today's lemonade ... though my own supply is running low until the next wave of lemons comes along. Sometime soon, I  hope!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

MoFo: Summertime Dinner Party

This meal is actually from a couple of weeks ago... but when I realized that MoFo was coming down the pipeline, I started snapping pictures of everything I ate - figuring that there would be days like today when no one would want to hear about a piece of baked tofu for breakfast and random leftover veggies for lunch...

So, a little while back, I had my parents and my aunt Laura and her partner all over for dinner and then to see some of the paintings and drawings I did during my art course in Italy. I wanted to make something special, and I decided to use my precious home-grown tomatoes to show everyone just how much I actually love them.

Sometimes I feel like Golum out there in the tomato garden, greedily cherishing each little red orb;
chanting "my precious, my precious..." in a creepy little voice over and over

If there's One Food that says "summer!" to me, it's definitely tomatoes. Especially home-grown tomatoes. The last couple of years I've been dry-farming my tomatoes, which basically means you just water them when you plant them, and never again. The result is fewer, smaller tomatoes that are packed with the flavor of 6-7 regular tomatoes. They are so amazing! And sweet! and super dark red! Before I left for my big trip to Italy, I was feeling sad that all the tomatoes would ripen while I was gone. But, happily, upon my return, I saw that there were still loads of tomatoes left for me. There were even enough that I could lighten up on my greedy-Golum tendencies and share my tomatoes with my loved ones.

This idea was inspired by the Salad Samurai cookbook, but I went my own way with it. First, I made a big batch of my favorite tofu ricotta. Then I grilled up a bunch of eggplant slices, and sliced some tomato halves, piled on a generous dollop of tofu ricotta on each one, and topped with a fresh basil leaf. These look so cute, they were very tasty, and extremely easy. 

I also made some crazy good corn-meal-crust pizzas. I used the store-bough pizza crusts from a brand called Viccolo. Their crusts are so extremely good! My favorite way to prepare them is with a crushed garlic clove or two, and a drizzle of good quality olive oil. First I rub that combo all over the crust. Then I layer on a mountain of fresh, super thin julienned basil. On top of that go all the tomatoes. Too many tomatoes will make the pizza soggy, so I do have to practice a little bit of restraint. At the very end, I sprinkle on some large flake salt before baking. So delicious!

Like me, my aunt and her partner are also vegans, but they are also really committed to a no-sugar, no-oil, no-salt diet ~ which is not how I typically cook. They pretty much never make exceptions, which means that when we have family meals, they usually just bring along their own food. I wanted to try my hand at cooking for them, even though I don't usually cook that way. I made them some tomatoes too - just tomatoes and fresh basil leaves.

And for their dinner, instead of pizza, I made them a giant mountain of grilled veggies (no marinade), and then I made a summery tomato sauce to serve with the veggies. The sauce had roasted tomatoes and garlic cloves, fresh basil, soaked cashews, some dried herbs, and some lemon juice. I thought it turned out pretty well, and I hope they liked it!

It was sort of a funny turning of the cards. Usually, if I am going to someone's house for a dinner, I will just offer to bring my own food. Sometimes, they will be eager to try to cook something for me, and I am always so grateful because I never expect it. Recently I went to a friend's house for dinner and they had found some vegan recipe online, because they were totally not used to cooking vegan. She was nervous about whether it had turned out or not (in the end, we all agreed that it was pretty good). It was funny for me to be on the other end, hosting someone with a more restricted diet than my own and feeling nervous about whether or not they would like it. ha ha!

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

MoFo Noshtalgia: "The Walker" of Yosemite

For many, many years, my family and I went to Yosemite every summer for a week. It was always my grandparents, my mom, my two aunts, me, and then any number of other people who would come each year. We stayed in the tent cabins at Tuolumne Meadows, where you had simple cots and wood stoves in your cabin,  and you could walk to the showers and bathrooms. It wasn't luxury camping, but it certainly wasn't roughin' it either. My grandparents were in their late 70's and 80's and  after decades of backpacking together, they appreciated the enhanced comfort in their later years. The rest of us youngsters had no excuse, but it sure was nice.

During the day we would wake up early, pack some sandwiches and granola bars and then head out for a day of hiking and exploring the High Sierras. Over the years we went on so many amazing day hikes together. Some hikes were just perfect, some were comically difficult (only comical after the fact), some years there were jillions of mosquitos, some years it was so cold, and other years it was so hot. There were some special spots where you would almost always see the wild deer, or marmots, or my grandpa's favorite bird - the water ouzel. And one of the things about going back, year after year, is that the memories build upon each other, and the same places gain meaning and resonance.

All these years later, my mom's parents have both died, but when I go to Yosemite I feel so close to them. I feel their presence and the memories of all those beautiful hours spent hiking and talking and appreciating nature and swimming and reading and playing Scrabble together.

The last two years, I haven't been able to go to Yosemite, and I really miss it a lot. Last year, my dad was sick, and we cancelled our trip. This year, I went to Italy. Also, since my grandparents died, the momentum for a family trip seems to have disintegrated a bit... which is both sad and understandable. So. In absence of a beautiful week in the High Sierra... I did the next best thing and celebrated with a memorial meal: "The Walker."

authentic presentation of "The Walker"

What's "The Walker," you ask? When you stay in the tent cabins, you are supposed to eat your dinner at the "restaurant" there at the campground (a giant tent) - partly so they make more money, and also to attract fewer bears and wild animals to the tent cabin area. So, at night, after a long day of hiking, we would all gather for our nightly meal. But here's the thing: there was only ever one vegetarian option on the menu: "The Walker," featuring a baked potato, the steamed vegetable of the day, and a side salad comprised of 95% lettuce. I think that for one or two years they secretly had vegan veggie burgers, and if you knew to ask, they would make you one... But that came to an abrupt halt.


You would think that a national park in California would have lots of vegetarian visitors, but the menu was not at all accommodating. In our group we usually had anywhere from 3-5 vegans, and night after night after night, we would order the dreaded "Walker." Maybe they just figured vegetarians didn't eat enough protein to have the physical stamina to do more than walk, but after some of our long hikes, that damned baked potato could be quite a bummer! Plus, the only vegan thing they had to put on it was ketchup. Ha ha. It was simultaneously disappointing, annoying, and hilarious.

slightly enhanced walker-experience: extra veggies on my plate, extra veggies on my salad.

And so today, in absence of a trip to Yosemite, I could quickly bring back all those most treasured memories of days spent with my most beloved people with this "excellent" meal! Ha ha. Somehow, even in its total mundaneness - it still felt so special and meaningful to eat this lunch and think of all those summers together. I miss those days a lot.