NON-candified sweet potato

You know what I find kind of gross? That so much food is so horribly over-sweetned to the point where you get cavities just from looking at the thing. Sweet potatoes (so named, because they're already SWEET) are a major culprit in this really awful trope. They're really sweet to begin with. They really don't need more sugar, unless you're making a pie (in which case, sugar away).

I had a friend ask what to do for a Thanksgiving side dish using sweet potato that wasn't a dessert. He was really tired of perpetually seeing that marshmallow topped, sickly sweet crime against food sitting on the table year after year. He wanted something a little more exciting, but still not so out there that it would clash with the flavours of the rest of the food. I suggested that he spice them up, and roast them so that they get crisp on the outside, and creamy smooth inside.

1 large sweet potato, peeled and diced into 1 inch cubes
2 tablespoons of neutral flavoured oil (canola, peanut, grape seed, rice bran, etc etc)
1 stick of cinnamon
5 whole cloves
1/4 tsp (or less) fennel seeds, lightly crushed
1 whole cardamom pod (or two, if you like the taste)
3 whole dried red chiles
1 bay leaf (optional)
salt, to taste
a good grinding of black pepper
2 - 3 scrapes of nutmeg (optional)

Preheat your oven to 350ºF. Peel and dice your sweet potato.

In a large skillet, heat the oil over high heat. As soon as you put the oil in the pan, while the pan and oil are still cold, add the cinnamon stick, cloves, fennel seeds, and cardamom pod(s). Let the oil heat up, and make the spices very fragrant. You want the spices to smell amazing, but not burn. Add the diced sweet potato, and toss well to combine with the spices. Add the dried whole red chiles. If you want it more spicy, break the chiles into smaller pieces before adding to the pan. Salt generously. Toss to combine with the salt. Turn off the stove.

On a parchment (or foil) lined baking sheet, spread the diced potato along with all the spices, in one even layer. Bake at 350ºF for 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, and toss the potatoes around, so that they get redistributed. Put the pan back in the oven for another 10 - 15 minutes. You want the edges of the potatoes (and possibly the entire surface) to be a dark brown colour, and your entire kitchen will be fragrant with spices.

Remove the sweet potatoes from the oven, and grind on some black pepper and a scrape of nutmeg.


End of an Era

So in December end (G-d willing), I'll be leaving for Florida to finish off my last semester and get my degree conferred. I've lived here for a fair few years now, and am going to miss my friends, my family (some of whom I've been born with, and some of whom I've chosen as my family), and my favourite spots. Even now, I feel this tightness in my throat, because I know I'm really going to miss being a part of this wonderful city.

There are some things that you can only do in New York, and I'm glad to have done them. There are others that make living in New York truly unique, and I have done them or plan to do them.

- Order fried plantains at a Chinese food place.
- Walk in a park that's sitting atop a major street, and hear the traffic and city noise drop away as you go deeper inside.
- Take the subway to a place that's just a few blocks away, because you can't figure out the directions without the subway. I know what stop to get off at, but I can't be fussed to figure out what direction to walk.
- Helpfully point someone in the right direction when he's reading the subway map behind you really intently. "No no, this one doesn't hit Canal Street. You need to take the A for that one. Yeah, just transfer at 59th, and you'll be fine."
- Share a "Can you believe this thing that's happening" with a random stranger, and possibly even have a 30 second conversation about it.
- Notice that you're out of wine, and the store is only a block away, but you don't feel like getting up, so you pick up the phone, order delivery, and tip the guy a few bucks so he can get himself a bottle of something at the end of his shift.
- Actually decipher what the heck those announcements on the subway platform/train are saying, even when it's a human speaking, and the audio cuts out randomly, and the person is swallowing half their words.
- Find yourself sort of dance-walking while a really good song comes on your MP3 player; nobody notices, and you enjoy your little moment of private celebration amongst the masses of people. Catch someone else doing the same (but don't let them know you know).
- Smile when you realise that you can indeed spare some change, and brighten someone's day.
- Watch the children playing in the fountains or fire hydrants or parks in the summer. Know that were you that age, you'd totally be there having a blast.
- Curse the street sweeper passing your window at 4:00 in the morning, but then really appreciate the difference it makes in how clean the streets are.
- Throw a used water bottle into the trash, with the full knowledge that someone will come along, take it out, and make sure it gets recycled.
- Get the same thing at your favourite takeout place that they've got your order memorised. (Seriously. I'm awful at this, because I like what I like, and tend to order it repeatedly.)
- See the look of pride in someone's face when you're shopping in their ethnic market. (This happened to my friend this past weekend. He was at an Indian market in Queens by himself. An Indian guy approached him, and asked what was up. He replied, "I like Indian foods." The Indian dude looked so pleased, and said, "That's so great that you enjoy our food, and are seeking it out!")
- Find a moment of utter and complete quiet, after the neighbourhood shuts down for the night, and the cars have all parked for the night. Where I'm at now, it happens around 2:00 AM. It's still, silent, and peaceful, even while still hiding that pulsing, beating heart underneath.
- Watching really wealthy women get into physical fights over markdowns at Barney's, while enjoying a piping hot cup of coffee.

Anything else that I absolutely need to make it a point to do before I go? I'm not talking about restaurants, or shows. Those I can do in any major city, and still enjoy myself. I'm talking about those things that make you stop, and think "I can't find this anywhere else in the world, and I love my city because it's here."


Ask for what you paid for.

There are times when a customer will call to complain, because something that they ordered wasn't quite what they expected. There are various reasons. Sometimes, it's because we genuinely made a mistake, and the customer never got the thing that they ordered. It's rare when it happens, but it does happen. We are, after all, human. There are other times when it's been sat there waiting for the customer to arrive to pick up the food, and isn't quite at its best, now that it's gone cold. That can't be helped. In those cases, a simple "If you just microwave it for a minute, it'll be so much better, I swear", fixes the problem.

In other very rare cases, the customer gets a plate of something that they have ordered before, but find the dish to be completely different from what they thought they were getting. Again, I mention the human element, so as careful as all of the cooks are to make sure each plate goes out consistently, there are bound to be slight variations. Maybe one guy has a little heavier hand with the sauce, or another will be a bit more sparing with the dressing. Mind you, the recipes leave some wiggle room for such variations. There are, unfortunately, times when the person completely misunderstands the order, and makes what s/he thought the customer wanted, but ended up making something entirely different.

In most of these cases, the waiter will catch the mistake before it even reaches the customer. However, there are those weird times when it's a new waiter, or a crazy busy shift, and nobody has time to think clearly. In those once in a blue moon cases where the mistaken dish does reach the customer, often times the customer will say something immediately. And, about once every six months or so, I'll get either a email or a letter from someone, explaining that what they got wasn't what they expected.

This is when I'll go out of my way to reassure the person that (1) they're being listened to attentively, (2) they're not crazy for thinking that they didn't get what they expected, and (3) we will do whatever we can to fix the issue.

A similar thing happened with a company that we're using to keep our menus current, get a mobile version of our website, and keep the menus embedded in sites like Yelp and the like, so that if you're already on Yelp's site, you see our current menu. When I went through to check the work, the mobile site was basically plain text (which is what I had before anyway), the main site looked hideous, and the Yelp menu was just a link to our website, which defeats the whole purpose of hiring them in the first place.

I sent out a long email detailing what I didn't like. Within a few short hours, I got an email back from the rep from the company assuring us that they would fix all the issues immediately. I go on to the site this morning, and it all looks perfect.

I emailed her back today, and let her know that I appreciated the speed of her response, and her excellent customer service. Because she was so concerned that we were happy with their product, it meant that she immediately went through and tried to find what's wrong, rather than making excuses, or trying to find someone to blame. Her reply wasn't, "Well, it's because you didn't ______", but rather, "That's not how it should be. Let me take a look, and find out why it's broken." She did some investigating, and found out that a bit of code that should have been in there wasn't, and had the team put said code into place to make it all work again.

And now you have a happy customer, and a website that isn't broken.



There are certain ingredients that are worth seeking out when they're in season. Tomatoes, any kind of fresh berries, fiddlehead ferns, and pumpkin. It's not to say that you can't eat them out of season. I've seen those plastic containers of the fancy tomatoes in the market. They smell just fine, meaning that they'd likely taste OK too. I've seen butternut squash pretty much year-round. I've seen Brussels sprouts  in the middle of summer.

And I'm not saying that you should never eat those specific foods unless they're in season. If you want a tomato sauce, tinned tomatoes are lovely. For a berry based smoothie, frozen berries are a triumph. Brussels sprouts in summer work just fine if you can get those packets of frozen ones from Trader Joe (who seem to have them all the time, at fairly reasonable prices). However, there is something to be said for anticipating the season of those foods, waiting for them to come into their own, and then pouncing at your farmer's market or produce cart, and eating them fresh for that short time that they're available.

I find that the out-of-season fresh versions of seasonal foods tend to pale in comparison to the preserved version (tinned, frozen, etc), which only give you a glimpse of what the foods taste like when in season. There are other foods where the season really doesn't seem to affect anything. In some cases, it's because the flavour has been bred out of that food for so many years, that getting them out of season or in season doesn't make a difference, as the food itself tastes like nothing. The banana is one such example.

I remember being in India, where the fruit vendors would be out in force at the market. My mother would buy those teeny tiny bananas. They were the size of two of your thumbs held side by side. They had extremely thin skin, and would ripen very quickly. You could smell them from the front door. You opened one up, and took a bite. Instantly, this creamy, custardy sweetness would fill your entire head. It was intensely sweet, with a mild hit of sourness (very very mild). I'm thinking of those little bananas, and my mouth is watering at the thought. And then we'd come home to the USA, and have the typical bananas from the grocery store. They'd smell like nothing until the skin was so brown that you don't want to eat it anymore. They'd be sweet~ish, but have no other flavour. So disappointing.

The same goes for spinach. You will never convince me that the tiny little buttery leaves of "baby spinach" that come in the packets at the supermarket will ever taste nearly as delicious as the leaves of the thorny spinach that grew in my mother's garden, or reddish green leaves of the "wild" spinach (as it's called at the Indian store) that I would find from time to time when shopping in Jackson Heights, Queens. Yes, those varieties take a bit more work (and washing) to eat, but when you take a bite of the cooked dish, you see what you're missing.

There are some vegetables that are delicious regardless of the season, because they're grown in places where the climate is conducive to such things year round. Onions, garlic, dark leafy greens (kale, collard, mustard, radish, beet, etc), broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, and bell peppers are pretty tasty no matter what time of the year they're sold. Potatoes, yucca, yam, and sweet potatoes, seem to be lovely no matter the time of year. Same goes for carrots, cabbage, bok choy, chayote, plantains (I prefer the green ones, because you can eat the skin), and button mushrooms.

What I'm trying to get at is that there are times when eating seasonally is your best bet. When you're shopping at the grocery store, or farmer's market, or wherever you tend to shop, your best bargains will come from produce that's in season. Why? Because in-season produce tends to arrive all at once, in great abundance. When you have boatloads of it, you need to sell it off now, because it's going to go off on you if you don't use it immediately.

I recall being at Fairway Market on 125th, and they were selling zucchini for about $1 a pound, give or take. It's an atrocious price, because the stuff grows like a weed, and after you plant zucchini once, every single person you know will never want to touch the stuff again for as long as they live. Seeing something that grows so obnoxiously well being priced at that cost turned me off, until I wandered over to the Manager's Specials cart. They had a giant container of zucchini (about five or so pounds) priced at $1.50. That'll do just fine, thanks. I bought it, and used it all up that night, because when you roast the stuff, it shrinks down a bit.

That's what I'm getting at though. When you do see in-season produce being marked up at a high cost, just look around a little bit more, and you're likely to find it cheaply somewhere. I recall looking for fresh cranberries last year. Every store I went to had those tiny little bags from Ocean Spray, costing about $3. It's barely a half pound, and it was costing $3. I wouldn't accept that for an answer. I just happened to be at Whole Food for something else, and saw that they had an organic version of the tiny little Ocean Spray bags, costing around $4 and change. I ignored it, and kept searching. There it was! They had loose cranberries on sale for a little under $3 a pound. Done and done!

There are other times when eating only what's in season would result in a boring, nutrient deficient sort of meal, especially if you live in the frozen North, where nothing but nasty attitudes grow during the winter. There's a happy medium between eating strawberries in December, and avoiding dark leafy greens during the summer because it's not strictly in season. You sort of balance the need for shopping locally and seasonally with the difference in price and taste. Regardless of how in season or not it is, kale is going to be expensive. (In my mind it's worth it though, because it's so tasty.) No matter what the season, bananas aren't growing in Central Park. Wherever it is they grow, we're importing them anyway. Eat bananas whenever you want.

But for those few things that are still truly seasonal, I hope you join me in anticipating them all year, and then pouncing when they're at their best.


Billy Elliot

I couldn't sleep last night, and was in the mood for a movie with strong emotional impact. I've seen the film a few times before, so I knew that the right choice for last night's insomnia was Billy Elliot. If you have not seen it yet, you owe it to yourself to give it a look. In the USA, it's available on Netflix streaming as of the date of this post. 

The setting is done realistically, the interactions between the characters is believable, the reaction of the father to his ballet dancing son is extremely realistic. There are some really tense moments where you're feeling a bit rough, especially when you see Billy's desire to dance, and everyone else's disapproval of his pursuing a "girl's" pastime. There's a scene where the father goes to his dance teacher's house to inquire about the cost of something, where I just lose it. The preceding moments seem like he's about to go off and get drunk to smash the emotions he's feeling. Instead, he tries to find out how much it will cost to help his son. 

And you see all the hard work that the father puts in at the mines, in spite of popular sentiment (he crossed the striking workers to earn money for Billy's eventual trip to London). Most of all, you can see his pride in his son's accomplishments towards the end of the movie, and those moments get extremely emotional for me. 

I remember all the times my parents would work extra hard to get me something that I wanted. There was this genetics program at a university in Miami (while I was attending school in Ft. Lauderdale). It was tailored to high school students, and only about 20 or so students were accepted in either Dade or Broward counties. Most of the people attending had a car by this point. I didn't. My father would pick me up from high school, and then drive the hour down to the university to attend my classes. Then, he would wait in the car while I was in class. 

There was this science program in University of Florida. It only accepted like 100 students or so, but you got the chance to work with a professor for the seven weeks on a part of the professor's research. Again, we're talking a lot of money and effort to get me set up in this thing that I knew I wanted. They had to set aside enough cash so that I could buy necessities up in Gainesville, as well as drive me up there, as well as come back in the middle of my stay there to get my citizenship. Then after that, they had to drive me back up. 

Meanwhile, my eldest brother lived about an hour and change from Gainesville. He and my sister-in-law drove me from their home to Gainesville. Then, they took me grocery shopping for some basics, filled up the fridge, filled up the pantry, and took me out for pizza. Then, they drove back home. My second eldest brother lived in Jacksonville at the time. He'd drive out on weeekends where I had some time off, and pick me up to take me back to Jacksonville. There, he and his wife of the time would show me the city, or go to a theme park, or just mooch around the house and eat great food. 

When I was about to enter college, I wanted to do something with medicine. My mother, my father, my sister, and I all trooped into the admissions office at the local private university. My mother had brought an enormous folder with every award, prize, and extra college level work I'd done since as far back as she could find (she even had some awards from my elementary school!) to show the admissions counselor. My father came along to lend his support, and let the counselor know that both parents were behind me 100%. My sister came along to talk about my personality, and how I'm such a good student that I never had to study, and still scored high on my exams. 

They had filled up all the slots to the dual admission program (where you would do 4 years of undergrad, and 4 years of medical school, and both acceptance letters were sent before you even started college). However, after seeing the support of my family, and my grades, and my SAT scores, and my volunteer projects, the counselor said, "We're going to do everything in our power to get you in. Don't you worry for one moment." 

Mind you, I never did enter medical school. I stopped after the first four years. College wasn't for me. But no matter what job or life path I follow, I can't forget all my family standing beside me, holding me up, encouraging me to do whatever I wanted, and cheering when I made a success of it. 

I don't know what I'm getting at here, but I just wanted to share my experiences with very loving, caring people. Maybe I'll also tell the story of the friends who have been equally supportive along the way in some not-too-distant future. 


See you later sounds less final than goodbye.

I feel like it was just moments ago that I walked into Sacred Chow for my interview. I was nervous, not because I badly needed employment (my husband was making plenty of money for both of us), but because I wanted a career in a restaurant. I wanted to know if my food was good enough that people would pay their hard-earned money for it, and enjoy it. I wanted to see the inner workings of a business, and maybe even have some small part of steering the direction it'd go in the future.

Regardless of what I wanted though, I had no experience in a restaurant. I did have drive, and a published cookbook in hand. I had passion for food. I also had the ear of Cliff for an hour and change, as we talked about our families, our passions, our likes and dislikes. I cooked food. I washed dishes (once in a rare while, and only after I'd used them). I helped put together catering orders, and special requests. I waited tables for a while.

It was while I was waiting tables that I realised that I could do more for the company than earn all this money to wipe tables. It started with the menu and the website. I wanted to make them better, more simple to use. That branched out into helping to hire and train new waitstaff. That then expanded to sitting in the office, reading the riot act to one of the cooks, who was asking for more money while she was spending half the day on the phone, and burning food on the stove (which I'd then go have to remake). If a person is hard-working, and on task, and shows up on time consistently, of course we'll give them more money. But then coming in and demanding a raise, when I've had to clean up your messes is another thing.

The bookkeeper at the time had health problems, and had to move on to take care of herself. The other waitstaff were slowly replaced, one by one, by new people who were more on-task than the ones we had before (who would spend the time on the floor reading books, and entertaining personal friends, rather than attending to the customers). The second bookkeeper had to move on. Before long, the only two left in the business who'd been there the longest were Cliff and me.

When you spend five to eight hours of every day with the same person, you become friends. I took him to visit my family in Virginia, who immediately embraced him and his son with wide open arms. We ate, we laughed, we visited the air and space museum (don't judge; it was a mob of five children who needed to be entertained!), we came back and relaxed before going out for Ethiopian.

Then there were the times Cliff and his son would come visit us at our apartment over by The Cloisters. We would have more meals than is decent for any group of people, talk about work, talk about family, talk about friends. He'd text me on weekends to keep me up to date on what's going on. (I'm better on the phone, where I can hear someone's voice, so I tended to send either a short reply to let him know I got it, a picture message, or I'd call him back.)

Around two months ago, things started to align just so. Our lease would be over at the end of the year. My husband would be able to move into the dorms, where the rent would cost half of what we're paying right now. My mother has been asking me to come visit with her in their home in Phoenix, AZ. I started feeling the drag of the city. I still love New York. Every time I walk out of my door, I'm reminded of why I wanted to move here in the first place.

There's this rhythm to the city that is unlike any other I've been to. There's a pace that I love being around. Whenever I visit friends in the countryside or the suburbs, I feel lethargic, and tired. The pulse there is much more subdued. The moment I step back into Manhattan, I feel my step spring up faster, and my body respond to the speed that we love so much.

However, after living here for a certain amount of time, and looking at your bills every month, and then looking at the spectre of the student loans looming over your head, and realising that you're just exhausted all the time, you realise it's time to make a change. Every job I've ever had has always lead back to teaching. Whether it be teaching other staff at that job, teaching the customers, or teaching privately, it just leads me back to that path, no matter how much I like to think I'm doing something different.

And I'm good at it.

So, G-d willing, if everything continues to fall into place correctly, I'll be leaving the Sacred Chow family in December, to go to Phoenix for a couple of months, to stay with my mother. Then, after I've had that time with her, and the school year begins there, I'll be moving to Korea for one year to teach English. It's something I've always wanted to do, and I don't know why I've waited so long to pursue it.

If there wasn't enough of the universe pointing me in this direction, I checked the cost of flights from Phoenix to Seoul.

$600 each way. From New York, the most reasonable priced were nearly $1,300 each way. My mother has found multiple tickets from New York to Phoenix for around $150 each wait. This was cheaper than the flights from California itself (even though the flight from Phoenix has a layover in California!), which cost about $150 more. I'd be saving somewhere to the tune of half the ticket fare by doing exactly what I wanted to do in the first place: spend time with my mother before embarking on a new phase of my life.

Over my time here, I've learned a whole lot about myself, about running a restaurant, about cooking, about making food more appealing (even when you're using the humblest of ingredients), about becoming more mature, and having confidence in myself, even when I don't believe that I can do it. I've learned that even at your lowest points, when you feel like the entire world is against you, that your friends will be there to hold on tight, and say, "This will pass. It will turn out OK. I'm here." I've learned that it's OK to experience emotion, be it good or bad. I've learned that when someone hurts me, or says something mean to me, my immediate job is to say (calmly and rationally), "Please don't speak to me/treat me in that manner. I don't appreciate it, and it's not coming from your best self." I've learned that an immediate, unconditional, "I'm sorry", can heal wounds.

Note how I didn't say, "I'm sorry you're feeling upset." That's more condescension and nastiness. It's two words. "I'm sorry." I've learned that a hearty bear hug can turn a horrible day slightly better. I've learned that I'm worthy of kindness, of compassion, of love. I've learned that other people want me around (I'm especially learning this as I'm telling my friends about my plans). I've learned to say no.

I've learned to say yes.

I'm not saying no to Sacred Chow; I'm saying yes to my needs. I'm not abandoning New York. New York will always be my home, and the place I return to when I need that little jolt of energy. I'm not abandoning my friends. They'll always have space in my heart. And no matter how long we spend between conversations, when we do pick back up, we will wrap each other in comfort, and pick right up where we left off.

I'm saying yes to me, and the things that I can offer to others.



It's rare that you find someone with whom you feel safe. Not just loved, not just cared for, but safe. When you find those people, you let them know, and don't let any embarrassment stand in the way. I've got a couple of people like that (my angel husband, my friend Cliff, and a few close friends), but I don't know if I tell them enough, for fear of it sounding weird.

I just got off the phone with a friend who's going through a very rough patch. He wants to end his life, because he can't handle the emotions that are surfacing. He reached out to me, because he said that aside from his wife, he feels safe in my and my husband's arms. He qualified it with saying, "I don't mean to sound creepy or anything," before I cut him off with, "Of course it's not creepy; you're family to me."

I told him to get his butt over to our place, where he can feel that security and comfort. I don't want to see any harm come to him. He and his wife are very dear friends, and we love being together, because none of us has to be "on" for the other. Something about our connection with each other is like that feeling you get when you come home after a day at work, and can just relax and be. Hopefully, his coming over will be a reminder of those good feelings, and all the positive things about being alive.

If you're reading this, know that your life has meaning. Your life has worth. It's a precious gift, meant to be shared with the people you love. Find those people that make you feel safe, and let them know in clear, unambiguous terms. Tell them, "I love you, and feel safe with you. Thank you." It's all about making those connections with each other, and enriching each other's lives.


Indian Pickle

This is an Indian pickle. It involves taking a fruit (mango, lime, lemon; in this case, lemon and green almonds), preserving it in salt, and then adding spices, oil, and dried red chiles. At a typical South Indian meal, you'll see a combination of raw vegetables (cucumber, tomato, onion, etc), stewed or steamed vegetables (with or without spices), rice, and Indian pickle.

Because you're often eating with your hand, picking up a salt shaker to season your food isn't an option. Instead, you take a bit of the spicy, salty, sour pickle, and eat it along with your food. It allows the adults to adjust the spiciness of the food to their liking, and when made without the chiles, for the youngsters to bump up the salt, as desired.

Unlike a European or American pickle, where you're meant to eat it in large pieces, the Indian pickle is used strictly as a condiment. The kind that my mother would make would often be with these tiny green mangoes that she'd get during mango season. They're hard, unripe, and very sour. Since we couldn't find those same green mangoes here, we substituted green almonds, which have the exact same flavour as the mangoes, to excellent results.

Each home will have its own mix of spices, chiles, and salt that they use for their pickles. At the end of the cooking of the spices and chiles, you grind the chile and spices together with heated oil, and mix it into the preserved fruit. The oil helps preserve the pickle (and makes for a delicious addition to plain rice, when eaten as a snack).

I remember making huge batches of pickles with my mother during the summer. We'd sit down, and prepare piles of mangoes, salt them, and make the spice blend after the mangoes had leaked out all their juices with the salt to make a salty, sour brine. My mother would switch up the spices each time, constantly tweaking the recipe in the search for perfection. It's been years since she made pickles, because there hasn't been enough green mango to make it with in her home in Arizona.

This is my nod to my mother. I've tweaked the recipe from her version, to suit what I had access to. Instead of using the dried Indian chiles, I used a bunch of dried Guajillo and Pasilla chiles. Lemon is easy enough to find, but they don't have the same flavour as the tiny little mangoes. The green almonds, when I tasted them raw, took me back to those long summer afternoons in India with the first bite. After finely chopping the pickled lemons and almonds, I tossed them in the spices, oil, and chiles. The taste is quite divine.


Trying something different.

I'm in the process of planning for a certain person's lunch thing, and I'm in the process of trying to find a place to go. The good part is that there are multiple websites that tell you multiple things. Whether you use Google, Yelp, Supervegan, Happycow, or word-of-mouth, you're going to find a variety of different suggestions. Some of the sites even have "featured" restaurants, which will move up to the top of the list, regardless of whether it suits your needs or not. Yes, I realise that in Manhattan, it's relatively easy to get around. However, when I put my zip code as an address in Washington Heights, and the results are all showing places way the hell downtown, I'm going to get annoyed and go somewhere else for my search.

No I'm not. I'm going to actually just get frustrated, and default to those same places that I've managed to find on my own over the years. I understand that companies need to make money. I get that. However, I like the model that Google has used all this time. Yes, they have sponsored links, but there are a maximum of like three at the top of the search results. If it does indeed apply to me, I'll click it. If it doesn't, I'm not bothered, because it's not that much to scroll past. I've seen certain sites that have like five or more featured links up above my search results I'm looking for. This doesn't make me want to visit that site again. Instead, it makes me want to give up my search, and default to what I know will be a good choice, even if the other choices being presented are unique and exciting.

That's my barrier to trying something new: if I get annoyed enough in a short period, I'll throw up my hands in frustration at the whole thing, and go back to what I know. There's a reason that I've more or less given up on most cookbooks and the like. Trying to search through all these pages for something that I'm not 100% sure will even work is an exercise in annoying myself. Instead, I heat up some oil, throw in some mustard, cumin, and coriander seeds, add some aromatics (garlic, onion, or ginger; sometimes all three), some turmeric, some dried red chiles, and add whatever vegetable I'm making for dinner that night. Everythings cooks until it's my desired tenderness, and then gets a hit of salt.

Depending on my mood, I'll vary things up, by switching the spices, or aromatics, or the heat (whether it be black pepper, fresh chiles, dried chiles, ground chiles, etc). Sometimes I'll finish with an acid (cider vinegar, lemon juice, lime juice, kimichi water, etc). Other times I'll leave it be. Whenever I end up cooking though, it's the same 100 or so (per bean, grain, or vegetable) recipes in some vague rotation. Yes, I could very well go out and hunt through books for more varied techniques, but like most people, I end up getting annoyed, and just go back to what I know.

Until, that is, I get brought to something new and interesting. That's a completely different scenario. In those cases, I'll try that thing, and end up loving it. The only times that happens is when someone physically drags me to a place that I haven't been to.


Stuck, but not trapped?

There are times that I despair of ever being able to step away from work for longer than a couple of days with my friend. Yes, I work with Cliff, and have done for years. Over those years, the two of us have become good friends. He's met my family, I know his son, we talk about each other to our other family and friends, and we genuinely enjoy our time together. This is why it's so sad to think that I can't take him, his son, and my husband along for a nice vacation.

Whenever one of us (usually me) goes off to vacation, or some other trip, the other has to stay behind to hold down the fort. Why? Because something invariably goes straight to hell in some way when both of us are not around. Then, the phone calls start. Our staff is wonderful, but there are some things that can only be handled by a manager who has all the keys, who has all the bank account information, who has the authorisation to make decisions, etc. As of now, there's two of us: Cliff, and me. Yes, he is technically the mastermind behind the business, and started the place from a seed of an idea years ago. However, he doesn't like me to call him my boss. I can call him my friend, I can call him my business partner, I can call him Cliff, but not my boss. "You are as much a part of this as I am, Dino!"

And it's true. Neither of us makes decisions alone; we talk things through, and come to an acceptable compromise, or through the collaboration of our brains, we come up with something better than either of us would have alone. On the one hand, it's wonderful to be teamed up with someone who's so creative and excited about work. On the other hand, I wish that some day, we really will all be able to go off on a trip together (preferably out of the country if we can swing it!), and rest without being nervous that everything back home is falling apart.

This morning, I got a call from Cliff saying that the bank account is overdrawn. We're never overdrawn. We're extremely careful about writing out cheques, and keeping track of the bank balance, so that everyone who needs to get paid does get paid in a timely fashion, without the drama of bounced cheques. Unfortunately, one of the large cheques that we deposited last week some time bounced, because there was insufficient funds. Which meant that we got hit with overdraft fees, and all kind of other fees. And, of course, just for fun, it dropped us to a negative balance, which meant that any cheques from us that anyone would have tried to cash over the Sunday would have been returned for insufficient funds. ARGH!

Four hours later, the situation is sorted out, but it involved phone calls, running around lower Manhattan to find our bank, and then talking to all different people to figure our mess out. Although it wasn't necessarily hard work, it was all things that could not have been done by anyone other than Cliff or me. There's only so much you can do over the phone. Many things require getting there in person to sort out. And now, it really is sorted out, but I'm really grateful that I was here to deal with it. Same things happen when I go off on a trip for any reason. Something dumb will happen, and Cliff tells me about it (because we tell each other everything; we've been working together too long to have any secrets), and we have a moment of gratefulness that he was here to sort that mess out.

It's why I despair of not being able to spend off time with my friend. The responsibilities are much greater, but the rewards when the plans you've been making all that time actually materialise are pretty amazing too. And, if we keep working at it, we'll get to the point where things will begin to more or less run themselves, and we'll be able to focus on building the brand, and growing the business. From there, we'll be able to look into opening more locations, or franchising, or any number of other ways to get our food out to more people more easily.

It will happen! I know it will. We're both intelligent, talented, and creative. We just need to work through it, and I know we'll get there.


Is it just me?

There are times when I forget that the whole world isn't vegan. I live in a vegan bubble. My husband is vegan, and we keep a vegan home. We don't own any leather, feathers, wool, silk, or any other animal clothing or furniture. The fridge is all vegan. Our lifestyles are vegan, insofar as we are concerned about the welfare of all animals, whether they human or nonhuman. For us, being vegan is an affirmation of life. It means that we hold life in high regard, and that we believe in dignity for that life. Again, this means that both of us are deeply concerned about the rights of people, whether they have the same genetic makeup as us, or whether they're a totally different species. All those creatures are beings, and deserve to have their bodily integrity respected.

When I come to work, the waitstaff are vegan. My business partner is vegan. He's raising his son to be mindful of other beings too. And the message is sticking! Mini Preefer won't eat at the school cafeteria, because they don't let him just get the vegetable sides. If you're getting a school lunch, you have to get the meat on your plate, and his objection is so strong that he prefers to bring his own lunch from home. I wish I had that kind of courage at his age!

Most of my friends are vegan. Even those who aren't are very comfortable with coming to my home, and having the entire meal be vegan (and enjoy it, of course). Even when I go to their house, and I'm cooking, they'll make a supreme effort to let everything be fully vegan. Even when it's a party that I'm attending at a friend's house, and they have omnivores at the table, they'll make sure that at least 75% of the meal is vegan, and will sometimes go so far as to double check about whether I'm comfortable with the provenance of the sugar, or the alcohol. Nobody has to go to that level to make me a huge spread of food that's safe for me to eat. I'd be happy to eat a bowl of noodles with some vegetables. I'm quite content with a bowl of beans and rice. But then, I see the effort that my friends will go to so that they ensure that my husband and I are not only well fed, but fed elaborately.

That is such a blessing that I make sure that my friends know how much I appreciate it. It's not every day that you meet people who consider you such a friend that they care for you like you're their family. In a way, my friends are my family, and I love them dearly.

And then, I'll open up a magazine. I'll walk into a grocery store. I'll see body parts being displayed up for sale, and shudder violently. I'll see a beautiful recipe on a certain New York newspaper's food section, and think "Ohhhh, that looks so good! DAMNIT. Why did they have to throw ham into that? Was that even necessary!? If you wanted something salty, there's a million options out there. If you want something smoky, there's even more options.

There's other times, at the grocery store, where I'll absent-mindedly drop a jar of mayonnaise into my basket, thinking, "Wow, that's really cheap for vegan mayo." But, as a vegan, I have this reflex that has been ingrained for years: the second I pick up a packaged product, I immediately flip around to the back to skim the ingredients list. You can immagine my disappointment at seeing mayonnaise made with eggs. "Mayo doesn't need eggs! What's wrong with people!?" This reflex has saved me on more occasions than I can count. "Non dairy creamer" is often full of dairy byproducts. Strange, that. Who decided that everything in the world has to have whey in it? The worst was when I picked up a sausage container to read the ingredients, and only realised after picking it up that it was animal meat in there, not veggie meat. I'm standing there thinking, "How did they manage to make a gluten free sausage. I want to know how it's done. Oh. They made it gluten free by grinding up an animal's body. Boo."

I sometimes forget how it felt to be a vegan in a smaller city. I felt like I was crazy, and that I didn't fit in anywhere. Everyone around me was unabashedly eating animals, their body parts, their secretions, and the products made from them. I've burned myself in the kitchen a couple of times. The smell of my flesh burning is the same as the smell of an animal's flesh burning. It turns my stomach to have to smell that smell ever again. You feel like you're all alone, and nobody else understands what's going on in your head. With that isolation comes depression. With that depression comes more withdrawing from the people around you. And onwards it goes until you find yourself in self-destructive behaviours. It's a horrible self-feeding cycle.

Fortunately, I found a group of people online who are also vegan. I met my husband through that group. Although that particular website is no longer around, there are plenty of others out there. We have blogs, we have websites, we have forums. They all have spaces for us to find each other. And find each other we must, or we let the rest of the world dictate how we see ourselves, which can get damaging. If you don't live in a huge city like New York, with an active and vibrant vegan scene, find your own vegan scene. Make your own vegan bubble.

And if you do have loving family and friends who make an effort on your behalf, never let them forget that you love them, and appreciate the effort. Even when the results aren't perfect, I'm still thrilled that someone tried, and is willing to share such an intimate act with me as making something with their hands, and having it become a part of me. Even those friends who buy something in get my gratitude. To think that they stood there in the store, and walked a mile in my shoes, turning everything over to read the ingredients carefully. Checking an unnamed popular search engine to see if a certain weird ingredient is animal, vegetable, or mineral. And then to go through the effort to bring it home, and lay it out nicely for me.

Either way, you're not crazy. You're not alone. People do understand you. You're amongst friends. Come to the table, relax a bit, and bond over something delicious.


Clean space, clean mind.

At home, and at work, I've noticed that we've all been getting a little antsy about the clutter that inevitably builds up when busy people don't have time to cull it all. At home, it was a huge stack of old bills that were long past paid and settled (some from accounts that are no longer open!), which neither of us really wanted to throw in the trash, because we're nervous about someone fishing that stuff out of the trash and using it to wreak havoc on our identity. Identity theft is serious, and neither of us wanted to suffer the consequences. However, I saw that we had a paper cutter at work, and asked Cliff if I could borrow it to shred those piles of documents that needed to be gone from our lives. He agreed, and we started on the pile.

At work, it's a little more ongoing, as there are office items that no longer work (and can't be repaired), old papers that we don't need to keep around, and foods that are past their prime. We've been fairly aggressive with it over the summer, as the hours are not as busy as the regular year. I've seen the office go from piles upon piles of stuff to becoming much more clear, and easy to see everything.

More than that, however, is the feeling of freedom that comes from having all that excess stuff gone. Mind you, it's a process. It's not like we've gone and did a major overhaul in one night, and ended up with an awesome space all of a sudden. If only, right? It's more of a gradual process that you have to make yourself do, because otherwise, things get out of control really fast. I remember helping a former friend of mine clean her storage unit. I swear there were broken things, garbage, random papers that had no relation to anything, and random building material lying about. All of them had some kind of story, and some kind of memory. My thinking was, "If all this crap is so special, what the heck is it doing in an unheated, uncooled storage unit, mouldering away?"

It the question I had to ask myself as I started ruthlessly going through my belongings to pare down. There were clothes that haven't fit me in years that had to go. Costumes that I paid a fortune for, but would never wear again (either because my tastes have changed, or my waist has changed). Books that I have on my kindle, but also in paperback and hardcover. I've got backups for all my data, so that if I lose my kindle, I can re-download the lot of it. I have redundant backups (one in the cloud, one in my hard drive, one in the back up hard drive, one in google drive, one in sky drive, the list goes on...). What was I holding on to the paper copies for? It's not even like they had sentimental value. These were books that I managed to get for free or very cheap, and held on to, because I did re-read them. However, once I had the opportunity to get them on e-book, I did, with the view of getting rid of the physical copies.

Unfortunately, having a plan to do something, and actually executing that plan are two different things. It took me looking at my bookshelf, looking at my kindle, and looking at my apartment. I have the books in a format that's comfortable for me to read from. In fact, the kindle is better than the paper, because it doesn't take up space in my bag. When I travel, I have hundreds of books to choose from, rather than the one or two that I remembered to pack. In one fell swoop, I gave away the entire lot of paper books, because I didn't need them anymore. It would do someone else good by introducing them to that story, rather than collecting dust on my shelves at home.

I'm still fiercely holding on to my pots and pans, even though I do periodically get new ones that I like. Same goes for the knives. I need to go through and purge those items too. There are knives that I haven't reached for in ages, and some that I use every day. There's no discernible reason for me to hold on to the tools I'm no longer using. Better to set them (and myself!) free and let it go to a new home. As for the pots, there is a small meagre chance that I might need more than three or four at a time, in case lots of people come over, but that's not a good enough reason to hold on to them. In that off chance, I can make cold dishes that don't involve cooking on the stove, I can use my baking sheets to do some dishes in the oven, I can use tupperware to store some of the stuff I've made the night before, and the list goes on.

Seeing all the clean spaces at work has really inspired me to go home, and continue the massive overhaul. My mother gave me two pots that her mother had bought ages ago. I feel a stronger connection to those than some of the fancier pots that I have, so I end up using them more frequently. (Seriously, the best way to thank someone for giving you a piece of kitchen equipment is to use it as often as possible, so that you think of them when you use it; otherwise, set it free, and let someone else think fondly of you when they use it). I've reached a stage where I do need two pressure cookers (because I love the little beasts for doing pretty near everything but my taxes), but not three small sauce pans. I need one large nonstick skillet, in which I make stir fries, curries, dosas, pancakes, etc. I actually don't end up using the cast iron skillet, or the other flat skillet, so they can both go. Same goes for the wok. Ever since I got the huge nonstick high sided skillet, I end up doing my stir-fry there, because it doesn't require so much oil.

Somehow, it's also made me feel much more productive. Being able to sit at my desk, and get right to work, rather than moving aside piles of clutter, make things go much more smoothly. I imagine once I get my kitchen streamlined, I'll be able to do the same there. It's like the surroundings I work in really do reflect the state of my well-being.


Don't follow blindly; follow mindfully.

This applies to life, but also to recipes. There are times when the instructions that you're given don't make sense, and there is no way to quickly get into contact with the author of those instructions. In cases like those, I ask that you follow mindfully, not blindly.

There was a recipe that I'd seen for a certain tofu dish. It read like any other: press tofu, pat dry, add spices, add 2 tablespoon of salt, 2 tsp of pepper, and 1 tablespoon of red pepper flakes. At that moment, I put the brakes on my train of thought. It was like hearing loud, screaming claxons, warning me away from disaster. How is it possible that you have almost equal amounts of salt and heat? That seemed way excessive. I assumed that it was a typo, and scaled the red pepper flakes back to a much more reasonable 1 tsp. The dish turned out delicious at the end. It was a tiny bit on the spicy side, but still quite tasty. If I had gone with that full tablespoon of chile flakes, I shudder to think of the pain that would result from that level of heat.

Years ago, when I was visiting Quito, Ecuador on a class field trip, one of the people there knew the directions to a specific place we all wanted to go check out. For the sake of this story, we'll say it was a ... library. Yes. A library. Stop looking at me like that!

Anyway. On the way to the library, we had to cross multiple intersections. I was able to follow along, because the street signs for stop, go, and walk/don't walk are pretty universal. Unfortunately, the guy who was leading the way wasn't paying close enough attention, and wandered into traffic. My friend yanked me back before I was about to do the same. "That's the DON'T WALK sign, Dino. What are you, nuts!? Just because that idiot is walking into oncoming traffic doesn't mean that you need to be a lemming and follow him off the cliff!"

Whether it be adding entirely too much heat to a recipe, or walking into oncoming traffic, both are situations where a bit of mindfulness, and careful attention would prevent some pretty horrible disasters. It's the reason why when I make a recipe for the first time, I'll go through and read it thoroughly. I'll make sure I understand the instructions. If there's a technique that I'm not familiar with, I'll go onto a popular video posting website, and look it up. Why? Because when I'm on unfamiliar ground, I want to make sure that the path is going to be as smooth as possible. Even with all that preparation work, there are times when I'll miss a step completely, and slap myself on the forehead for being such a dunce.

Similarly, when I'm in a new city, or following directions for the first time, I'm extra careful about looking all around, making note of the road that I'm on (and the road I need to be on), checking frequently with the GPS (sorry, but printed maps confuse me, since they don't have a giant arrow pointing me to where I need to go) to ensure that I'm not going the wrong way. Even then, I still manage to get myself lost with hilarious frequency.

Think what would happen if I were to take a recipe or a new city without all those precautions!

The point is that by being careful, I'm not guaranteeing that I'll be perfect. There's no such thing. What I'm doing is stacking the odds in my favour that I will end up successful in my ventures. When I'm reading or making a recipe for the first time, I don't like distractions (TV turned on, someone chatting to me casually, my MP3 player in my ear), because I find myself losing my spot as I follow along the recipe. Similarly, when I'm trying to navigate a tricky set of directions (or even a simple one; I really am pretty hopeless at getting to the right place the first time), I pull my earphones off, and clear my brain of erroneous thoughts. In the car, I'll ask that the radio be turned down, and that any conversation not involved in getting us there in one piece be put on hold (I don't drive, so I'm frequently assigned the role of navigator).

There are memorable flubs in both cooking and life that I could tell you about, but that's for another day.


Don't expect things to turn out exactly.

I've said this before a bunch of times when it comes to life, but it also applies to cooking: don't expect things to be exactly the way you've wanted them to be; life has a way of throwing you a surprise from time to time, and it helps to be open to it.

A couple of months back, I went down to Virginia to visit my brother (and his wife, and their two kids). It just happened to be the same weekend that my 2nd brother was able to get his son for the week, and had flown up from Florida. Also the same week that my dad had flown up from Florida too. At that point, my mother and nephew (sister's son, for the record) had already been in Virginia for a couple of months, and were nearing the end of their stay. Because everyone else was coming down to VA, my sister made the flight out from Arizona (her husband was working, and couldn't get the time off). For that reason, I and my husband made the trip down (since everyone else was there).

My mom mentioned that she got her wish (a large family reunion; we haven't all been together under one roof in over 20 years), but not quite the way she expected it to happen. In her mind, she had just casually put out to the Universe (or G-d, or the Powers That Be, or whatever you choose to call it) that as she hit her sixtieth year on this planet, she'd like all her children to be together under one roof, over there in Arizona, where my sister has an extremely large house (for the record, my eldest brother's house is also enormous). The reason being that my mother would be in her comfort zone, while still having everyone together. My sister's house has a pool, a large back yard, and pretty much all the amenities you could hope for.

But, as life goes, things don't always turn out just so. With the majority of the family living on the East coast (me, my husband, brother, his wife, their two kids, my 2nd brother, his kid), it would have been a logistical nightmare to coordinate everyone's time off and flights to get out to Arizona. A trip down to Virginia, however, is a short bus ride for my husband and me (also, one that doesn't require much planning; the bus I take lets me book up to the night before, and still costs the same).

Somehow, what started off as a visit to her son and daughter-in-law became a massive family reunion, without her realising it. We still had a good time. We still all got to be together. I didn't have to take time off from work.

But it didn't quite end up how my mother thought it "should" be. Rather, it ended up like it was.

This applies to food. I was at the grocery store, shopping for vegetables and the rest. I was going to be cooking for a friend, and wanted to make him some of the South Indian dishes that my mother would cook when I was a kid. Lemon rice is one of those dishes that pretty much everyone loves, and is fairly simple to make. Unfortunately, the store's lemons looked awful. They were hard, and unripe, and didn't smell of citrus. Also, they were 2 for $1. Ouch! The limes, on the other hand, were plump, thin skinned, fragrant, and half the price.

If I had been one of those folks who's careful about following a recipe to the letter, I'd have ignored those beautiful limes, and opted for the bottled lemon juice. Instead, I decided to try the lemon rice recipe (which is one of those dishes that my mother gets asked to make pretty much universally) using limes instead of lemons. The flavour was divine! Who knew that you could change a fundamental component of a recipe that much, and still have it be delicious?

There have been times when I'm at a friend's house, and making hummus, and we don't have any lemon juice. I've managed to substitute the lemon with cider vinegar to excellent results. My friend who is allergic to soy was coming over for lunch. Instead of using the soy sauce that a particular recipe called for, I used a mix of chickpea miso dissolved in the broth from soaking shiitake mushrooms and kombu. It didn't taste like the original recipe, but it tasted better.

Whatever your challenge is, whether it be in life, or in cooking, face it with an open mind, and find a different solution. Or, in some cases, expect the odd turns and twists that life has sent your way, and enjoy them.


Reducing (not removing) fat

There are times when you want to give your soup or stew a bit more of a creamy consistency, without adding screaming amounts of fat to it. The "easy" way is to dump a bunch of coconut cream onto the whole thing, or creamed cashews/almonds (lightly roast the nuts, add them to a blender, add water until they're just covered, then blend on high until smooth; strain through a sieve for a finer consistency). Even though these are healthy fats, at the end of the day they're still fats. If you're trying to be sensible about your fat consumption, there are other ways to add some creaminess. I'm not suggesting that you skip the soy/almond/cashew/coconut milk all together. Instead, it's best if you use those ingredients in moderation, towards the end of cooking, while still building a creamy base. This is very easy to do, with a few simple ingredients.

Cauliflower 1 tsp canola, vegetable, or olive oil 1 large onion, diced 3 potatoes, peeled and diced 1 head cauliflower, chopped (stems and all) Water, to cover the vegetables 1/4 cup coconut milk/cashew cream Salt & Pepper to taste 3 scrapes of nutmeg Start in a stock pot, and add your onions. Crank up the heat to high, and let the onions sizzle. Add the oil at this point. The reason that you get the onions going in a dry pan is because you want the onion liquid to come out quickly, which lets you reduce the amount of oil that you'll need. If you added the oil first, some of it will evaporate, and the onions will tend to absorb them. This way, you're still going to get them cooked through, while adding the least amount of oil possible. Once the onions are softened and translucent, add the potatoes. Add enough water to cover the potatoes. Let the potatoes boil at a rapid pace, until they're half cooked. Then, add the cauliflower. Don't stir. Don't worry if there isn't enough water to cover the cauliflower. It's OK. They have plenty of water in them. Cover the lid, and let the whole thing cook until the cauliflower is tender, and the potatoes are cooked through. Then, with a blender or immersion blender, puree the soup until it's smooth and creamy. Stir through the coconut milk, and season to taste. At the end, scrape in a touch of nutmeg. If you only have ground nutmeg, add a couple of scant pinches. For some reason, nutmeg makes creamy things taste more creamy. Stir, and taste. The soup should be creamy and smooth. If it's not quite creamy enough for your liking, keep reading.

Tofu Soft tofu is a wonderful ingredient to have around. When you puree it with a bit of soup base, it lends a very creamy texture and taste to the soup, without adding much fat, and boosting the protein content. Take a ladle of soup, and puree it with about 6 oz of soft tofu. Stir through the soup, and taste for seasoning. You shouldn't be able to taste the tofu at all, as it's a small amount that gets incorporated into the soup. In fact, if you want a sort of tofu sour cream, just blend that same amount of tofu 1/4 cup soymilk, and 1/2 tsp of lemon. Puree in a blender until completely smooth. If it's not getting blended enough, add more soy milk as needed. You want the smallest amount of soy milk possible while still being able to blend the mixture. Taste for sourness. If it's too sour, add a bit more tofu, and blend again. If it's not sour enough, add a few squeezes more of lemon. When your soup is ready to serve, throw a dollop of the sour cream on top, and let each person blend it into their own portion.

I have a soy allergy. I'm sorry to hear that. Living with allergies can be tough, but it doesn't mean you can't eat healthy! If you can't have tofu, feel free to substitute some canned white beans (cannelini works great) with the same way I mentioned tofu above. You won't get that same thickness, but you will definitely get a lot of creaminess. In fact, there's no reason why you couldn't add some cooked white beans directly to the cooked soup base, and puree it directly there.

It's creamy. Now what? The reason I gave you this simple base is not to eat it as-is (although that would be extremely delicious). It's so that you have a creamy base with which to work into other recipes. For example, if you want a gravy, add a bit of nutritional yeast (about 3 TB per 1 cup of soup), 1 1/2 TB potato starch (or cornstarch works too), dissolved in 2 TB cold water, and whisk well. Heat over medium high heat until thickened. Let it cool. If you want it a bit thinner, whisk in a bit of water. It'll be an awesome, gluten free, low fat gravy that you can use over mashed potatoes, as a dipping sauce for cooked vegetables, or anything else that suits your fancy. To make a more substantial soup, feel free to add any additions you have lying around. I like a few handfuls of baby spinach in the bottom of the bowl with the piping hot soup ladled over it. It also works great with roasted vegetables, frozen peas, frozen corn (for a delicious tasting corn chowder, add frozen corn, and leftover diced roasted or baked potatoes), chopped green beans, roasted red peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, or whatever else your imagination can come up with. The point is that you have a starting point, from where you can expand and reach out further, until you find something that you enjoy, and is your own creation.


What's all this stuff?

Recently, we've been getting questions about our fermented foods that we feature on the menu. I wanted to explain a little of the process that goes towards making these foods, so that everyone has an idea of what it is you're eating, and how to make some of your own!

Kimchi. We used to order sauerkraut from the same people who supplied our pickles. They make excellent food, but it bothered me that we weren't making our own fermented cabbage when it's so easy and delicious when it's made in house. I can add a lot more flavour, and control exactly what goes into the dish, and I can control the quality of the ingredients to ensure that only the best of the best ends up in the final dish.

Kimchi is made from napa cabbage, daikon radish, scallions, ginger, garlic (a lot of garlic, actually), a bit of sugar (to get the cultures started), and salt. It's left to ferment for three days to get the initial juices going for the cabbage and daikon, and then it's aged for two weeks or so to mellow out some of the harsher flavours. By the time it's ready to use, the kimchi has become sour, and has all the flavour of the ginger and garlic infused through it.

We don't add any soy sauce or anything that's got an oceany taste (like nori, or kombu), or any hot pepper flakes, because we want the cabbage taste to come through. It tastes like a sauerkraut with a more rounded flavour. I'm glad that we switched to making our own kimchi, because it ensures that I know exactly what's going into it, and can make sure that it works well with the other ingredients in the dish it's served in (the Tempeh Rueben, to be specific).

Cashew Kefir (kee-fur). Kefir is yoghurt product. It's used in Eastern Europe and Russia. We make our kefir with rejuvelac, which is a fermented grain beverage. Rice or quinoa (or both) are soaked overnight. The water is discarded, and fresh water is added to the grains. They are left to ferment for three days to get the wild yeasts and bacteria going. That liquid is poured off, and used to soak the raw cashews. The cashews soak overnight in the rejuvelac, and are pureed the next morning in the blender. That is then left to ferment for another three days to really get properly sour.

The cashew kefir is the base for the cashew sour cream. More cashews are added to the liquidy cashew kefir, and blended together. That is then allowed to ferment for three more days, so that it gets thickened and tangy.

The instructions for making rejuvelac and a host of vegan dairy products (cheese, yoghurt, sour cream, cream cheese) can be found in Miyoko Schinner's book Artisan Vegan Cheese. It's filled with interesting and different cheeses, using techniques that dairy cheese makers use, but adapted to vegan ingredients and needs.


What is your favourite lunch menu option.

What is your favourite lunch menu option.

What is your favourite lunch menu option.
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Customer Service: How to do it right.

Boss-man bought some crocs. He went onto their website, and picked out a pair for himself, and for his son. His fit perfectly, and he had no problem with them. His son's were too tight. We wanted to exchange them for a slightly larger size. The options are as follows:

- Go into a physical store, and return them, with your Internet receipt. They'll sell you a new pair. Now, seeing as how we bought the shoes online, there is a reason that we didn't go into a physical store: we lack time, or the inclination to schlep across town in a busy section of the city, which is perpetually crowded with crazy people looking to spend their money. We want the experience of shopping from home, getting our stuff, and moving on with life.

- Contact a customer service rep, who will create a return shipping label for you. This part was very easy, because they have an online chat function, meaning that I don't have to sit on the phone on hold, and listen to musak. Good deal. There is no option to just exchange the shoes for a bigger size. Whatever. We chose this option.

The issue with the second option, is that Crocs won't pay for return shipping. So now, we need to package the shoes into a bag, slap on the mailing label, go to the post office, and pay for shipping. Then, crocs issues you a coupon to use on your next order, so that you can get free shipping on your next pair. Essentially, this took entirely too much time and effort to fix a problem. It also means that we won't be buying from /their/ website, when so many others have much better policies.

Enter Zappos. I've shopped with them before, and trust them. When I had to buy a new pair of sneakers, I went through Zappos. Why? They offer free shipping to you AND back to them. When a pair of shoes doesn't fit right, you return them with a pre-paid mailing label. Then, you get an email saying, "We're so sorry that the shoes didn't fit right. To make up for your trouble, here have a free overnight shipping on your next order." Not only did they pay for me to get the shoes in the first place, they also paid for me to return them when they didn't fit right. Then, they rushed to make it even faster to get my next pair of shoes. At the time that I bought those shoes, I didn't have a lot of money to spend, so I could only afford to buy one pair of shoes at a time. This meant that I had to order a pair, try them on, and then send it back if it didn't fit well.

It took three tries, but Zappos was very good every single time I ordered.

Mind you, it's not a huge thing. Shipping a pair of crocs that you shove into a bag is not that expensive. However, I now have a bad feeling towards the crocs website, because they're making me go through more work than was necessary. Zappos, even though it did take a few tries, will have my business, because they made every step of the process very easy on me. So now, I asked Bossman to return the shoes, and just buy the next pair from Zappos, and move on with life. Congratulations, Zappos: you've got a new customer on board.


You've got a friend in me.

When I was a kid, I loved to read. It helped me to escape from the loneliness of being the only Indian kid in a sea of more assimilated Americans. It wasn't just the fact that I was Indian that was the issue, but also the fact that I was shy and awkward. I loved being with people. Whenever my parents would take me out with them, I'd have lots of playmates (if there were children around), or conversations (if it was just adults). I could carry on about pretty much anything, from religion to science, because I really did enjoy watching documentaries, and asking questions.
So to go to school, and be more or less ignored by everyone was difficult to cope with. I liked being around people, but it's hard to fit in when your clothes are third-hand (first someone would give the clothes to my dad, who'd wear them out, then pass it on to my eldest brother, who'd pass it on to my second eldest brother, who'd pass it on to me). They were clean, and in good repair, but never of the name brands, and never a good fit. I didn't exactly have a choice of dressing fashionably. You wore what you got, and once in a while, mum would take us to garage sales, and let us get "new" clothes from there that were more our style, as long as they cost less than $1 a garment.
Suffice it to say that I hated going to school when it involved group projects, or interacting with the other children, but loved going when it involved learning new things. I would take my textbooks home at the beginning of the semester, engrossed in all the new knowledge that they were just giving away for free without charging me anything. By the time I'd come to class the next day, I'd have already finished that chapter ages ago. This didn't endear me to my classmates. (Although all my teachers loved me.)
Over time, I began to withdraw further and further into myself. I'd bring a book with me no matter where I went, even if I knew there were going to be other children around to play with. By the time I hit 8th grade, I was starting to find myself attracted to other boys, which made me withdraw even deeper into myself, because what if someone found out this terrible secret? The worst of it was that I wasn't fooling anyone. I'm so gay that you can spot it from outer space. Either way, it made me even more lonely and isolated.
By the time I hit high school, I was paranoid, and withdrawn, and only willing to talk with or hang out with a couple of people. For a natural extravert, this is torture. Being forced into seclusion is not pleasant for someone who draws energy from being around people. I found the drama club, and found other people as lonely as I was. Other people who could escape for a while into stories, and instead of just reading it to themselves, sharing those stories on the stage. It was a heady feeling.
However, as someone for whom friends are a novelty, it was difficult for me to maintain friendships, because I didn't really understand the protocols. I wasn't really good at knowing how much to share of myself, and how much of my talents to give away selflessly. It took until senior year of high school for me to perfect my public face, and keep my inner self sheltered carefully.
In college, I became acquainted with a whole different group of people. Unlike the ones in high school, all the students really wanted to be there (as tuition was really high, which meant that you'd only attend if you could finagle the finances). It was nice to be around other science nerds, who didn't care about your sexuality, but more so about your ability to absorb the information and build upon it. After I graduated, I'd built up a tight-knit circle of friends whom I'd regularly hang out with. It was a completely different feeling. I'd still reach for a book as soon as I was on a bus, or lazing about at home. I'd still spend hours in the library, sat in between the shelves, lost in a new book.
And then came the Internet (for me) around 2004. I was online a bit before then, but around 2004 was when I really began to get involved with online forums, and make friends there.
I've come full circle, however. My husband met me online, moved in after we got married, and has been with me since. My other online friends have slowly become in-person friends.
Even so, I still have a bit of insecurity around making new friends. I still have that leftover residue of being the kid that nobody wanted to talk to, or be around. I love being around people, and have a fairly wide net of acquaintances that I've met in person and online. I've got a pretty good handle on being able to strike up a conversation with complete strangers, and enjoy myself thoroughly.
It feels weird to know that people want to be my friend; that they want to hang out with me and come to my house. That they want to eat my cooking. That they seek me out.
In other words, if you do seek me out, don't be surprised if I immediately respond. I don't like to play games, and keep the other person waiting. If you want to make an overture, I'll most likely return it immediately.
But if you don't, and you prefer to keep your distance, don't worry. I've still got my books.


 Old friends
 Old friends
 Sat on their park bench like bookends

Man, that song gets me all choked up every time I hear it. I remember all the friends I've left behind, the friends I've lost track of, the friends whom I'll never forget even though they're not alive anymore. I think of the friends that I hope will be my own old friends, the friends who are old friends already.

Just wanted to take a moment to remember and think about all those people who have touched my life in the past, and thank them for it.

Happy new year.