Friday, August 22, 2014

Transcendental Sandwich: Cinque-e-Cinque at Gagarin

On my second day in Italy, before my workshop began, I caught a train from Florence to Livorno to visit a dear old friend. I've known Nicoletta for 20 years now! Wow. That's half of our lives. She recently had a baby, and I was eager to meet her little sweetie pie. 

We spent the whole day visiting and catching up (there was a lot of catching up to do!). It was so wonderful. After a lovely lunch outside in the garden made by Nicoletta's mom (pasta with red sauce, veggies, fresh bread, home grown plums for dessert - ahh...) - we headed into the city center for a stroll with her sweet Mom, and her sweet little babe.

After a little roaming, we arrived (inevitably!) on the subject of Livorno's culinary specialty: "Cinque e Cinque." Literally, the translation is "five and five," and the origin of this treat is 5 Lire worth of bread and 5 Lire worth of "torta di ceci." (The lire was Italy's currency before the Euro, for you youngins). "Torta di ceci" is a thin, savory pancake/bread made with chickpea flour. In other areas of the Meditteranean, it is also known as "socca," "cecina," or "farinata."

Nicoletta and her mum led me to this unassuming local spot called De Gagarin. You wouldn't know it from the outside, but this is THE PLACE to have cinque e cinque in Livorno. It's all they serve. Inside was jam-packed with people, all happily grooving out on their delicious food.

Inside was so beautiful, but I chickened out and didn't take photos. It was tiny and rustic and the decor was as fancy as the exterior would suggest. But the emotional atmosphere was warm and inviting. Working the counter was a portly, friendly and efficient gal - serving up orders. Behind her was just one other fella, working the oven. The oven was enormous - a wood burning pit at eye-level, and with at least 3, maybe 4, huge round copper pans of torta di ceci baking inside. The pans were at least two-feet across. The oven was glowing with heat and torta di ceci potential.

Bread: Slab of Torta di Ceci: Eggplant Slices: Another Slab of Torta di Ceci: Bread

I went in thinking I would just have the classic bread-and-torta, but then I saw two ladies seated near the door who had EGGPLANT with their order. Hello! I asked Nicoletta and her mom and they said this was part of the specialty! So, obviously, I decided right then and there to get my sandwich with the additional grilled eggplant.

All of this together adds up to One Very Happy Amey. I was instructed by my pal that I had to get a drink with it: beer, iced tea, or a Coke. I chose a Coke. A rare treat! You'll see it poking out behind my bum in this pic.

I know this sandwich doesn't really sound like the most amazing thing - but it really was. I think it's one of those cases of just a few ingredients, each made perfectly and with care, coming together to create much more than the sum of their parts. I was pretty much levitating with joy and flavor appreciation with each bite. All that, and - best of all - it was a totally authentic culinary travel experience that was 100% vegan. Such a rare and wonderful treat when that happens.

We had such a sweet time. The little restaurant itself was already crowded beyond capacity, so we headed just across the street and sat on this little wall - each enjoying our treat, enjoying our time together, enjoying our new little baby friend in his stroller, enjoying the moment.

p.s. I've done some searching around online, in Italian, and have found a few good recipe sources for the bread and the eggplant, as well as the torta di ceci. You can expect a complete recipe/tutorial sometime soon.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Eating My Way Around Florence

Before my art workshop in the countryside began, I had a few Fun Days in Florence.

Back in college, I spent a semester of my junior year in Florence, and then stayed on for the summer. And since then, I've been back to Florence 3-4 times... but somehow - out of the blue - Florence completely blew me away this time around. I fell in love all over again, and more so than ever before. The non-stop BEAUTY, the art, the history, the walkability, the food... the whole damn thing. I was having some sort of magical experience.

Before I left, I did some searching online and found a few great (and recent) vegan blogger reports from Florence. I especially loved this series of posts from Farmers Market Vegan (1, 2, 3). They were so helpful, that I didn't really feel the need to recreate them. If you're headed to Florence soon, definitely check out her posts. What follows here is less thorough and more personal:

Day one in Florence. 
I had 3 main objectives: High-Class Art, High-Class Bread Products, long beautiful walks. 

First things first: a giant slab of schiaciatta for breakfast, in the company of the Palazzo Vecchio. I had 10 am tickets to visit the Uffizi Art Museum, and so I wanted to fuel up first. 

Schiaciatta is a very special bread native to Tuscany, a lighter sort of focaccia, and the traditional variety is just with olive oil and salt. It is so insanely perfect and good. I did a bunch of searching online (in Italian) before leaving, to discover the recommended schiaciatta spots in town, and also asked a few people where to find the best schiaciatta.

After about 3 1/2 hours of art-intake at the Uffizi, I was ready to have some lunch. I followed Farmers Market Vegan's suggestion and headed across the river to 5 & Cinque for lunch. I knew I would like this spot, because "cinque and cinque" is one of my favorite treats. You probably know it as farinata, or cecina. In fact, I have a whole post coming up about this excellent treat...

Anyhow, this restaurant is super cute, very friendly, and is located in a charming little mini-piazza near the Boboli Palace. I had a plate of grilled veggies, hummus and crackers, plus a side salad.

And, naturally, I also had an order of cecina. Not surprisingly, this place makes a totally delicious and perfect cecina. So good.

Finish off the meal with a nice little espresso!
I'll just come clean and admit that I actually really like watered-down American coffee. Back in my "cool" days, I liked espresso, or at least pretended to. But it had been years since I'd actually just had a straight-up espresso. Well, with a little sugar, I was pretty into it! And it helped stave off any trace jetleg - so that I could go for a nice long two-hour walk through the outer skirts of Florence. So pretty!

The end of my walk brought me to the Brancacci Chapel, one of my favorites ever. I love the Expulsion from Eden by Massaccio, but really all the frescos in this small chapel are so beautiful and engaging... historically, artistically, and narratively. Ahh. I spent about 2 hours there, sketching and soaking up all the artistic glory.

In Piazza Signoria (which is really central, near the Ponte Vecchio), there are two little spigots where you can fill your water bottle with either normal or sparkly water! Somehow, I never knew about this before this trip, but it is SO COOL. I am a 100% Sparkly Water Fan, so this was great news for me. I arranged my walking route to pass through the piazza multiple times, so that I could refill as often as I needed.

Using Farmers Market Vegan's tips, I visited a couple of natural foods stores in Florence. I especially had fun at La Raccolta. I had hoped to have dinner at the restaurant there, but they were closed in preparation for a remodel. That was a bummer, but on the other hand all the stuff in their store was on big discount. I stocked up on various goodies to take with me on my art workshop... and a croissant for breakfast the next day. Yum!

That said, I also found that the large Conad grocery store right by the train station had quite a fair selection of vegan products - including soy milks, soy yogurts, etc. Conad is a regular grocery store, but they also have a few stores around town called "Sapori & Ditorni Conad," which have all the basics plus more fancy stuff and regional treats. A great place to buy little foodie gifts to bring home. There's the one right by the train station, there's one near Ponte Vecchio, and another near the Duomo.

Did you know that it is against the law to go to Italy and not have gelato within 24 hours? Well, not really, but it is in my book. So I hustled over to Perche No' for some vegan Hazelnut (made with rice milk) and Dark Chocolate Sorbet.

It's so nice for me that chocolate-hazelnut has always been my favorite two-flavor combo, and that hazelnut is a relatively easy flavor to find veganized. This was pure happiness. Walking the streets of Florence, on a warm summer night, happily alone but with loads of tourists and Florentines also out walking, enjoying my gelato and taking in the sights. Ahhh...

Another day, more delicious schiaciatta options - this time from Pugi Sciaciatteria. One plain (always my fave), one with tomatoes, and one with onions. This served as breakfast and lunch (along with a bunch of fruit from the main market).

One night I met up with some friends at a new spot called Ditta Artiginale. The ambiance was super chic and fun, with big open-air windows and a very contemporary interior design. All my pals ordered wine, and I just got sparkly water (beverage of choice!). I didn't really know the drill, but when they brought the drinks, they also brought each person a plate with three special tapas treats on it. Alas, none of them were vegan, so I offered mine to my pals.

Well, I didn't realize it, but my friend who had suggested the place snuck off and told them I was vegan, and before long they returned with a whole plate of 100% vegan tapas treats for me! How cool is that? Ditta Artiginale is super vegan-friendly actually. They have a tofu dish on the regular menu, and I noticed they offered soy or almond milk lattes too (not so easy to find in Italy!). Also, the proprietor who owns and runs the place is a real gem. Super friendly and enthusiastic about his new place - rightfully so!

In fact, the next morning, I headed back over there for a soy cappuccino. Ahhhh. Italians are better at making cappuccinos than other people. It's just a fact. It was a such a peaceful way to start my day, and I knew it would be my last shot at a soy cappuccino for a while. I savored every little bit and enjoyed the quiet of the Florence streets in the morning... before another busy day of art, bread, and walking.

After a few tries, I found my favorite schiaciatta spot on Via Guelfa: Vecchio Forno Firenze. Look how bright and puffy that bread is!! And they had one that was covered in veggies: potatoes, onions, zucchini, tomatoes and eggplant. I had the plain one for breakfast and the veggie slice for lunch. Ahhh. Carby perfection. I went back to this place a few times - including on the very last day of my trip.

These goodies are from the same bakery - though I had to pass them up. SADLY, one can only eat so much bread in one day. I take tourist pictures of bread I didn't even eat.

On the very last day of my trip I returned to Florence for one final day of tourism. You guessed it: lots of walking, lots of beautiful art, and lots of bread. But, since it was my last day in Italy, and since I hadn't had any gelato at all for three weeks (!!), I figured I had to make up for lost time. I went to the two spots that Farmers Market Vegan had suggested: Perche No? and Festival di Gelato - and had the Hazelnut-Dark Chocolate combo at each place! Mwahahaha! In the end, I slightly preferred the chocolate at one spot and the hazelnut at the other place... but they were both great! 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Vegan Prepares to Travel

Hi Friends! I'm finally back from my trip to Italy... and also I'm finally "back" - if you know what I mean. It always takes me about a week to really arrive back home: to get used to dollars instead of euros in my wallet, to stop thinking in Italian, to find my daily rhythm again.

Even though it's back-tracking - I thought I'd do a post about some of the Emergency Vegan Supplies that I took with me on my trip.

My travels were a bit unorthodox, because I was participating in a 3.5 week artists' workshop in the Tuscan countryside. I knew that our days would be very full, and that I wouldn't be able to easily get myself to stores with special vegan food. Also, we had a woman lined up to cook for us so that we could have more time in the studio, and I didn't entirely know what to expect from that. 

I figured veggies would be pretty abundant, and I knew I'd be eating more bread than I could shake a stick at - so I focused on bringing lots of high-protein snacks. I brought at least one for every day of my trip, and didn't bring a single thing home with me - so that worked out well. In the end, we did eat a fair amount of beans, but I was really glad to have all these protein snacks with me.

Also, it was a good chance to finally use up lots of the odd ball snacks and protein powders and power bars that I had been accumulating. Blame it on the Vegan Cuts Snack Box, or impulse purchases, or my snack-hoarding tendencies... but the pantry was getting a bit full...

I brought: lots of different protein powders, various protein bars, lots of Primal Strip jerkies (Thai Peanut is my favorite flavor!), lots of dry-roasted edamames (YUMS), a couple of chia bars (lots of Omega 3s), and some of my favorite Wild Garden Hummus packets. It was a good assortment! I learned years ago that if I'm going to be gone for a month, a wide variety of snacks is really important.

p.s. The other good thing about packing so many snacks is that it guarantees that you will have room in your bag to bring home new snacks from your travels! 

I am also a compulsive Airplane Snack Packer. I don't like to be hungry on a plane. It is bad.
So, I brought all of this good stuff along for my flight - and, uh, ate it all. Ha ha. I also brought along my Number One Travel Snack: a humungous bag of carrot sticks and celery sticks. I love how the veggies feel so hydrating and fresh in the stale airplane experience. I ate almost all of them, but had a few left for a late night snack when I arrived in Florence. It's a good thing I brought so much food along, because the "vegan" meal that United provided wasn't actually very vegan at all, and because there were flight delays and I arrived at 11:30 pm, instead of arriving at 5:00 pm. I had anticipated going out for dinner on my first night, so it was good I had extra snacks. 

Amey, the happy vegan traveler

Next up: Some culinary highlights from Florence

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

DIY Soy-Cashew Yogurt Update!

Hey! Remember a little while back when I got so excited and posted about finally making my own homemade yogurt? Well! I've been at it ever since and now I am a total pro.

you can call me YoPro

I still use Miyoko's recipe from Artisan Vegan Cheese - but I reduced the cashews to 1/2 cup per recipe (down from 2/3 cup). I really like this because it results in a tangier flavor and the cashew flavor is no longer noticeable. 

my two big yogurt jars

Nowadays, I make a double batch every time. These are my two big jars. I make the yogurt using a bit of the last batch as the starter, pour it into my jars, and just put the jars in the oven (turned off) for a while. I'm not even too specific about the timing. After 7-8 hours, I take a peek, stir 'em up a little... see how they look. If I'm content with how thick the yogurt has become, I'll transfer them to the fridge. If not, I'll leave them another hour or so.

To my delight, each progressive batch has gotten tangier and tangier! Also, I've noticed that it gets thicker as it ages, so at the end of my double batch is the best time of all. I'm gearing up for 4 weeks in Italy, and I'm hoping that if I make a little batch before I go, it will last four weeks in the fridge for me and so I can use it as starter once I get home again. I don't want to lose all the magic of my yogurt power that has been gradually building all this time! 

I have yogurt with breakfast almost every day: sometimes with some fruit, or cereal, or a little dab of jam, or all three! This yogurt is so tangy - which is what I love about yogurt - and then just a little touch of sweetness goes so nicely with it. I like it more than any store bought vegan yogurt I've ever bought - I don't think I'll ever go back! 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Bollywood & Dosa Friend Night

Last week, two of my special friends came over for a quality night together. One of my pals just took off for two months in Europe, and I'll be gone for a bit too, so we wanted to revel in some serious QT together (quality time, folks) before being apart. 

Miss K had an idea to have a girls' night and watch a Bollywood movie together, and then Ms S and I decided that as long as we're watching a Bollywood movie, we may as well also be eating dosas and uttapams. What Fun!

thematic centerpiece!

We split up the work of cooking: I made a batch of dosa batter, some coconut cilantro chutney, and an unintentionally huge batch of sambar. My buddies made the dosa filling, some tamarind chutney, and a glorious batch of pistachio-cardamom ice cream

a little peek inside!

I really love dosas, and I really love uttapams... but usually if you go out to eat, the servings are so huge that I am forced to chose one or the other. With the joy of home cooking, we made small dosas and small uttapams so everyone got to try both.

Both dosas and uttapam are made with a fermented batter of rice and dal, and you can make a thin crepe with it (that's the dosa), or you can make a thicker pancake with it (and that's the uttapam)... it's cool because you get two pretty different culinary experiences out of one batter. We went for a pretty traditional potato-masala filling for the dosas (busted our frozen curry leaves out of the freezer!), and for tomato-onion uttapam

the whole spread of glorious yum

If you've ever gone out for South Indian food, you know that it's always served with lots of components: usually at least two chutneys and the sambar on the side. So, it can be a lot of work to do it right if you're doing all the cooking yourself! Sambar is one of my favorite foods, and this was the first time I've made some that I really loved. I used this recipe I found online, and it was just right for the spice and flavor profile that I prefer. The only thing I would change is adding still more tamarind, because I like my sambar with a good sour punch. 

I used another recipe from the same website for the coconut cilantro chutney and was equally delighted with the results! Again, my favorite chutney I've made to date. I gotta check out more recipes from that site, pronto. 

The tamarind chutney that Ms. S brought was a really perfect compliment to the one I made, and I was so glad she brought it. As you can see, I even busted out my special little metal bowls that I bought in India for our condiments! 

This night was The Best
We even got furry snugs.

After stuffing ourselves silly with deliciousness, we retired to the sofa and checked out a few different Bollywood trailers before settling on "Jab We Met." Ms. K had the genius request of a blanket for more snuggly goodness -- so we each got blankets, a hot drink, and cozied up. After a little digestive time had passed, we got the ice cream out of the freezer and busted into it. Wow. I don't know how she did it, but Ms S. made a truly wonderful and balanced Pistachio Cardamom Ice Cream - a strong cardamom flavor that wasn't overpowering, a super creamy texture, a beautiful pale green color... It was lovely, but I didn't photo-document it, so you'll just have to imagine it!

I asked for Bollywood movie suggestions on Facebook and got so many great ideas. I'd already seen quite a few of them, but I'll share the list here in case you're looking for a fun night with your friends!
3 Idiots
Hum Tum
Dhoom 2
Chennai Express
Om Shanti Om
Bride and Prejudice
Monsoon Wedding
Kuch Kuch Hota Hai
Kambakkht Ishq

Have fun!!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

BBQ Veggie Salad & BBQ Tofus

Twenty years ago, I set off for a semester in Florence, Italy. While there, I met my art teachers, who have been an important part of my life ever since. One very special part of studying with them is the community of students we have built over all these years. Back in the day, we were all surly, highly emotive art students. Today, we are all grown-up, a bit more emotionally balanced, and still sharing this special connection of continuing to study and grow and learn together... In fact, in July I'll be heading back to Italy to study with my teachers again.

Our community of students is spread out around the world - mostly Europe and the USA, but also beyond. So, any opportunity that we have to be in the same place at one time is special! 

Recently one of our pals who lives in the midwest was coming out to San Francisco with her husband and their new baby. We all gathered together at a friend's house and had a wonderful afternoon together. I got to meet everyone's little kiddos, and catch up on their lives, and enjoy the conversation and connection together. It was especially sweet, since of the four of us who got together, only two of us will be able to go to Italy this summer.

I brought one of my favorite tofu dishes of all time: Grilled Herb Tofu, from the Real Food Daily Cookbook. I just love this tofu so much. The marinade is savory, without being too dominant in any one direction, and it's also packed with fresh herbs: basil, dill and parsley. The resulting tofus are so good! Of course my awesome friends made lots of other dishes that were also vegan (I wasn't even the only vegan there!), so I ended up with a heaping plate full of goodness. 

I also made the Long Weekend Grilled Salad from Oh She Glows, which I absolutely love! Chock full of veggies and avocados and topped with a cilantro-y dressing... this salad is pretty much pure summer in a bowl for me. I haven't had this book for long, but I've already made this salad a handful of times!

Our lovely friend who hosted us lives a good distance away, and at first I was reluctant to go because I don't really like driving long distances, especially by myself. But, I'm SO glad I went, and the drive home went so quickly because I was still buzzing with all the happy friend love from our afternoon together!

Friday, June 13, 2014

What I Ate For My Birthday Weekend!

My birthday was last Monday, but when you're birthday is on a Monday, you've just gotta seize the moment and make a whole weekend out of it! I turned 41, which isn't really a big, exciting milestone you've been anticipating all your life. So, celebrations were peaceful and low-key... mostly involving lots of friend time and lots of carbohydrates. Ah, a perfect combo. 

The whole affair started off with a Saturday morning Pancake Breakfast with my sweet mom and dad, who I love so much. My dad was a little disappointed, because he wanted waffles - but I invoked Birthday Privilege and made pancakes. Not just plain ol' pancakes either - but the Carrot Cake Pancakes from Isa Does It. I've had my eye on that recipe since I first got the cookbook, and I LOVED THEM. They were chock full of carrots, and of course I added the optional pecans, which was not a mistake. I made a double batch, and between the four of us, there were just a couple left over. Mmmmmmm. I cannot wait to make these again!

To go along with the pancakes, I also got lots of really yummy fruit at the farmers' market that morning: two kinds of cherries, and super fresh strawberries. Plus! I found the new Apple Maple Breakfast Links by Field Roast at the Whole Foods here in town, and so we had those too. They were super good and I will most definitely be buying them again! I wanted some sort of savory / protein to go with the pancakes, and these were a great match. I'm not sure if I could really pick the apple & maple flavors out, but they did taste like yummy little breakfast sausages, so I was very happy.

 Here's my plate (though I did have seconds!) - complete with roasted asparagus! 

I can't really tell you how happy this breakfast made me. Sometimes it feels like my Instagram and Facebook feeds are full of lucky vegans posting pictures of all their amazing weekend brunches they are enjoying, and I get pretty envious. I'm really not very satisfied with the vegan breakfast options here in Santa Cruz, and so I've been slowly building pent-up longing for a good, proper, balanced, fancy breakfast. This special morning with sweeties and savories and veggies and fruities and hot coffee and family and fun was JUST PERFECT.

 Yummers is begging for asparagus. His favorite. 
He can be quite bossy and persistent about it.

On my actual birthday, two awesome friends came over for dinner - it was nice to keep the whole thing quiet and low-key. They brought a really beautiful salad (with strawberry-balsamic dressing!), and I made Grilled Herb Tofu Sandwiches with caramelized onions and sundried-tomato pesto. Apparently I was too busy eating to take pictures of all that vegetable goodness - but I did snap a picture of the dessert I made. After much deliberation, I decided to make the Double Chocolate Strawberry Pie from Vegan Diner for my bday dessert and it was great! I love the simplicity and ease of this recipe, and I love the combo of the rich chocolate + raspberry liquer with the super bright freshness of the berries. 

It's no surprise to me that I mostly celebrated my birthday with special breakfast treats. Most days I try to keep my breakfast simple and nutritious, but I do really love fancy breakfast. I always wake up hungry, and ready to go! So, another treat I made myself for my birthday weekend was a batch of the Baked Apple Oatmeal from Oh She Glows. Except that it's not really apple & pear season - so I used peaches instead. SO GOOD. The recipe calls for lots of nice warming spices like ginger and nutmeg and cinnamon, which all go just as well with peaches as with apples.

I just made a half batch, which gave me about 4 modest breakfasts. I portioned them into little pyrexes, and then I had special breakfast for a few days in a row. What a treat! This picture was taken when the oatmeal was fresh out of the oven, still steaming away. This was my first time making baked oatmeal, and I really loved this recipe. Next I have my eyes set on her Baked Carrot Cake Oatmeal recipe. Mmmm. 

Also, on the weekend I got together with some of my friends from high school (and earlier!) and their cute kiddos. We had a really sweet little lunch picnic in the park overlooking the harbor... with time to catch up, kids playing, and beautiful sunshine. My friend Carey surprised us by bringing really yummy mini-cupcakes from a local bakery, and she even brought me my own little special box of FOUR mini vegan cupcakes in different flavors. Wow! And then they all sung Happy Birthday to me, which I wasn't expecting! I dug right into the Mocha Cupcake... and saved the others for later. They were really good, and I loved the modest mini size. She also brought along shiny noise maker tooters, which the kiddos enjoyed with great festivity and relish!

On my actual birthday, I taught yoga in the morning and then rushed off to my weekly yoga group practice. I joined this group about a year ago, and it has really enhanced my life and my practice. Because I teach on Monday mornings, I am always a little late to join our practice. When I finally got there, they had put flowers and a card and a special chocolate bar down right where my yoga mat would go!! I was so super touched. And then, after a really great practice together, I came out of savasana to find a chocolate cake with 41 chocolate chips on it! We had a very sweet little moment together, and then we went out in the sunshine for some strawberries and cake. It really meant so much to me. I feel lucky to have friends who I have known for so many years and also new friends who I am still getting to know!

All in all, it was a very nice birthday weekend... lots of good food, quality time with the people I love, good yoga time, lots of special surprise treats from my friends, and a generally mellow vibe. 
Onward, ho!

Bonus Fur Pics:
A rare moment of Footie and Yummers near one another, but not engaged in active paw-to-paw combat. They don't love each other, but we love them both. 

I love this picture of our doggie crew. This pretty much sums it all up. Stevie looking up at us. Snoopy keeping Dottie busy so that she won't bother Stevie. Snoopy's tail in motion. A good little moment in time.