29 August 2012

Nairobi: Gracia Gardens

Gracia Gardens is a fabulous hotel in a really nice part of Nairobi.  So nice a neighborhood, in fact, that I went for a run by myself and didn't once fear for my safety!  It might have been because I was just so happy to be in Kenya with my peeps that I was mouthing the words to my music as I ran.  Aaand dancing a little.  And grinning like an idiot.

I mean who would abduct somebody looking THAT crazy?  God, I'm awesome.

Gracia Gardens
Denis Pritt Rd
Nairobi, Kenya

We had lunch here on my last day in Kenya just because it was convenient.  I never imagined I would get such a well-balanced vegan meal out of the buffet.  I mean just LOOK at that beautiful plate!*

We'll start with the biryani on the bottom left: mediocre.  Few chopped veggies.  Absolutely bland.  BO-RING.  Next.

The green mashed potatoes above the biryani were pretty good.  While I didn't have the chance to ask a chef what was in them, Turner and I carefully determined they contain no dairy.  There are bits of maize and they taste like there's pureed peas and/or leafy greens mixed in with the potatoes.  Better than the biryani, but not the best thing on the plate.

The spinach in the center?  Lovely!  It was simple and good, with some onion to flavor things up.  Turner felt it was a little overblanched; I defer to his expertise.  But it was still delish.

The lentils on the bottom right were FAB.  They were flavored with cumin and were cohesive enough for us to know they hadn't been overcooked.  There were bits of other veggies in there, too, and it tasted especially good mixed with the spinach.

Lastly, the chapati or paratha at the top of the plate.  The very height of Kenyan cuisine features pan-fried unleavened Indian breads.  Not that I've been to India, but I wouldn't be surprised if this stuff is better in Kenya than in its home country.  Gracia's is so thin and firm, and so tastefully oily, that I couldn't get enough of it.  Turner pointed out that it's slightly undercooked, and while I agreed, I couldn't bring myself to care.  I just ate more of it instead.  I'd probably eat the freakin' dough if that was all I could get my hands on.

At this juncture, allow me to point out that all the food I've mentioned in Kenya thus far has been devoid of fresh tap water.  If it has tap water in it, the water's been boiled.  I'm sure you know you can't have salad here because it'll have been washed in water.  Gracia wins even more points for having so many safe food options for muzungus.

Speaking of tap water, my first morning in Kenya I accidentally rinsed my toothbrush off in tap water.  I had to douse it in hand sanitizer before I could use it again.  The taste wasn't TOO awful.  Just mostly awful.  Oh, first world problems!  I didn't even care!

* I like to call this the Mark Bittman style of food photography.  One day Mark Bittman will read my blog and shed a tear at how beautiful these photographs are, just as I have done on his website roughly one million times.

13 August 2012

ask alli: is Matt vegan?

Chances are, if you know me, you've asked me this before.  So has everyone else.  It's a popular question.  I think it's a polite way of saying, "Come on.  Be honest with me.  Doesn't Matt ever wish you would just cook him a steak?"  A valid question.  I don't begrudge you for feeling curious.  Well.  Does he?

There's more to it than just a simple yes or no answer, but I can begin by saying that no, Captain Adventure is not vegan, and no, he doesn't wish I would cook him a steak.  Conundrum?  I think not.

Matt grew up in a meat and potatoes family and was gifted with an I'll-try-any-food attitude.  Well, any food that hasn't been left in the fridge for more than 24 hours.  He doesn't like shrimp or lettuce.  That's about it.  Anything else, he's game.

I went vegan just shortly after we started dating, when we were around 21 years old, and he supported me from the very beginning.  It was pretty incredible, actually.  Matt's not your average guy.  You can tell because your average 21-year-old American guy would've hurled a string of questions a mile long at me every day, starting with, "Where will you get your protein?  Where will you get your calcium?  Where will you go out to eat?  What if there was a cow that was totally happy and the farmer was really nice to it, would you drink its milk then?  What if there was a chicken that was totally happy, would you eat its egg then?  What if there was a BEE that was totally happy, would you eat its honey then?  What if there was a sheep that was totally happy, would you wear its wool THEN?  WHY THE F*** NOT?!"

Look!  He walks on water.  LEGIT.
This is why Matt is the best husband of all time.  There's not a judgmental bone in his body.  His attitude toward my decision to go vegan was basically, "Of course.  How could you not?  I'll support you because being vegan will make you happy."

He maintains the same stance to this day.  Over the years, he has lost his desire to eat pork because - in his own words - pigs are just so smart.  He's started choosing vegetarian options when he eats out, and when we go out together, he usually gets something vegan so we can share.  He eats whatever I cook, which is always vegan, and doesn't complain.  In fact, he genuinely likes my food (especially the cupcakes).  Lately he's been eating tofu every day for lunch at work.  I asked him for a list of his favorite vegan foods that I could include in this post, and he said there are too many to remember.

He'll still eat meat and dairy occasionally, and thus, Matt is a testament to the relativity of labels.  Most of his meals are vegan or vegetarian, but he doesn't need the name to be conscious of what he's putting into his body.  He takes everything in moderation.*

Plus, he would hate being that person who has to say, "Oh, thank you so much for making this meal for me, but I can't eat any of it."  You have literally never met a nicer person.  Matt physically cannot appear ungrateful.  Once when I sneezed, Matt, who was out like a sack of potatoes, sleep-mumbled, "Bless you."  THAT is how deeply ingrained his kindness is.  Because cooking him a steak would make me unhappy (to say the least), he wouldn't even consider the possibility.  Just like Data cannot use contractions, Matt cannot want me to cook meat.

So now that I've had a chance to explain, my answer is that Matt may not be technically vegan... but what's in a name?

* Hot dogs are not part of that moderation.  The day you see Matt eating a hot dog will be the day he eats without washing his hands first.

Washington, D.C.: Smoke and Barrel

Washington, D.C. has an incredible vegan network.  If you find yourself in the area, check out VegDC.  Their website'll make it ridiculously easy for you to pick restaurants.

After spontaneously parking in Downtown Washington and strolling lazily around the MLK, FDR, TJ, and GM* monuments during a drizzle and subsequent rainbow, Dorothy and I thought VegDC would work for us.  Thing was, it was Sunday night.  A lot of Washington's best vegan joints were closed.  What is this, Brainerd?

Enter Smoke and Barrel.  You can practically taste the barbecue sauce on the air as you tie your horse's reins up, breeze through the door, and take the long piece of grass out from between your teeth.  They wouldn't even THINK about closing on Sunday night.  Hard.  Core.

Smoke and Barrel
2471 18th St NW
Washington, D.C.  20009
(202) 319-9353

The vegan and vegetarian items on the menu are handily marked as such, although Dorothy and I quickly realized that certain vegan dishes didn't actually have the vegan symbol - particularly the dishes that use the words vegan or vegetarian in the title.  If you're not sure, just ask your server.

I started with the house-made ginger ale for $3.  It was clear, and the flavor was very singularly focused on ginger.  I couldn't even taste sweetener, although I'm sure some small amount was in there.  The overall effect recalled east Asia more than cowboy BBQ, but I enjoyed it.

This Sweet Potato and Oat Burger for $10 just begged to be loaded up with barbecue sauce.  I slathered it up, took a big bite, and BAM.  All the sweet potato and onion built up the crunchy and tangy elements and came together in one pan-fried moment and I'm pretty sure I saw god, or at least John Wayne, or maybe just Marty McFly dressed up like Clint Eastwood.  As you work your way through the burger, bits of the patty may fall out onto your plate - and they'll taste totally different when you eat 'em separately from the burger.  In a good way.  In fact, I highly suggest just taking a couple bites from your patty.  Mm, sweet potato.

I requested fries for my side.  Those things rocked - Dorothy identified the seasoning as Old Bay, which was created in Baltimore for use on crabs and such, but works wonders for these little potato slivers.  It's got mustard, paprika, celery seed, bay leaf, pepper, and some other yummy stuff.  Next time you make fries, you'll know what to do.

Dorothy adored her BBQ Smoke Tofu Taco, BBQ style for $10.  She requested it vegan, so they left the cheese and sour cream out.  It came with BBQ sauce, vegan coleslaw (!), pickles, and your choice of a side - so Dorothy nabbed the Fried Okra.  Kay, that okra?  Holy Moskowitz!!  You haven't lived until you've tried breaded and fried okra.  It was like eating cheese curds, but without feeling like I was killing the souls of cows.

The tacos had so many fun flavors and textures going on.  They were spicy, messy, and utterly wonderful.  The tofu, jam-packed with taste, resembled ground beef.  And beneath all the loud sweet and smoky tones of the BBQ sauce, a lot of subtle flavors made the experience complete.  That was good food, my muffins.

After dinner, we visited the Starbucks across the street so Dorothy could grab something with caffeine.  It was late and we had a complicated drive back to Baltimore to make.  So I suggested she get a tea latte, and she got a Vanilla Rooibos - but it had A THOUSAND PUMPS OF SYRUP.  Too.  Sweet.

It kept her awake.  That, and the game we made up: Name One Weird Thing From the Animal Rights Conference for Every Letter of the Alphabet.  Was a good game.

* GM is for the old favorite George Mason, who helped the much more famous James Madison write the Bill of Rights after alienating his neighbor G-Dubs during the Constitutional Convention by refusing to ratify the document without amendments.  Oh, and he kept slaves and pretended he didn't like slavery.  Ahh, history.  I love unfairly applying the lens of the present to all the idolized rich white men of the past.

12 August 2012

Baileys Crossrds: Athens

After a full day of tabling at the Animal Rights Conference, Dorothy and I heard about a protest everybody seemed to be gathering for.  It involved something about Air France transporting some kind of primates for lab research, a lot of angry vegans, a suspiciously vague target, and a creepy guy with a beard.  As soon as we were alone, Dorothy and I looked at each other and said, "We have to get away from all these VEGANS."  A whole day of enormous vegan egos was just a little overwhelming.  Who has the energy for a vague protest after that?!

So we spent an hour at REI,* then, on the recommendation of one of their employees, we went to this utter hole-in-the-wall.  The hole-in-the-wall to end all holes-in-the-wall.

3541 Carlin Springs Rd
Baileys Crossrds, VA 22041
(703) 931-3300

Each step closer to this place increased my trepidation.  Surely there was lard insulating the windows and exploded chicken broth coating all the food.  Each step from the door to the counter inside further ratcheted up my anxiety.  Good thing Dorothy was there.  She took the reins and struck up a conversation with the young Greek guys behind the counter.  Their English was flawless and they were super accommodating.  I relaxed.  This food would be okay.

Our $6 House Salad came with iceberg, cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, red onion, jalapenos, green bell peppers, and a red wine vinaigrette.  Dorothy wants those of you who don't feel like dying when you look at olives to know that these were fresh and tasty.  The veggies were nice and crisp, and the dressing a lovely complement.

The Greek Oven-Browned Potatoes for $5 looked so yummy.  Dorothy fielded the first couple bites and mentioned a possible meat broth problem.  I stuck my face up close, took a big whiff, and was instantly repelled by my utter certainty that the taters were wading in chicken juice.  Fail.

You can tell Dorothy and I are friends because we're both suckers for dolmades.  These were $7, stuffed with that magical Greek seasoned rice.  We'd never had warm dolmades before, but I actually enjoyed this raised temperature.  Because we requested everything meat, dairy, and egg free, we got a nice tangy tomato-based sauce instead of the yogurt stuff they usually come with.  We enjoyed both that and the salad dressing as dolmades dips.

While ordering, our eyes had alighted on the Green Bean Casserole for $5.  Dorothy, who all weekend had forgotten all our travel memories (good-naturedly, like Dory from Finding Nemo, except on a functional level), looked at me and said, "Remember that butter bean dish?"  I immediately accessed the 6-year-old, well-thumbed memory from the real Athens, and knew she was implying that this green bean thing would taste like that butter bean dish, which was SO INCREDIBLE that even Dorothy remembers it.

It was almost that good.  A really satisfying, simple, tangy flavor settled over the casserole, and the green beans were cooked down nicely.  I don't know about you, but green beans are one of the few green veggies I love cooked that far down.  Mm.  Greek comfort food.

So thanks, REI guy, for selling Dorothy a kick frame backpack and recommending this holiest of holes-in-the-wall.

* REI?  Obvies.  Where else would two vegans who are sick of vegans go?  Besides this hole-in-the-wall.

11 August 2012

Arlington: Busboys and Poets

This meal was made possible by true vegan boss Caryn Ginsberg, author of Animal Impact and activist extraordinaire.  Half of what came out of her mouth during our one-night stay with her were questions like, "Anybody want a refill on their banana-date smoothie before I make another one?  Oh, and by the way, would you like me to make coffee for you or can I give you a map and directions to Starbucks?"  She even asked me what my favorite animal is!*  I'm totally geeking out about her.

Like she EVEN PAID for this meal on top of hosting us.  Who DOES that?

Busboys and Poets
4251 S Campbell Ave
Arlington, VA  22206
(703) 379-0007

Busboys and Poets is a cool local chain that has the feeling of Panera, but 10x more authentic and 1000x better food.  So not at all like Panera. Ew.  God.  Panera.

The GF and vegan items on the menu are clearly marked.  You have tons of choices, including a vegan tuna salad!  I stayed away from that one this time.  I've never even had tuna.  (Can you blame little meat-eating-before-age-12 me for staying away from that SMELL?)  But I'm intrigued.

At this point, I'm afraid I must share some bad news with you. I have some creepy food pictures to show you!  I'd been trying to use Matt's infrared camera on its normal, non-creepy setting, but alas.  Perhaps I should have just used the creepy setting, because some of the pictures turned out creepy anyway, even with Matt's best anti-creepy Photoshop skills applied.

I got the Vegan Pepperoni Calzone for $12.  Yes.  A vegan calzone!  In a legitimate restaurant, not my hodgepodge kitchen!  Can you believe the food industry these days?  The calzone contained sauteed onion, bell peppers, and mushrooms, all coated with melty-delicious vegan cheese and jiving with perfectly seasoned vegan pepperoni.  The whole wheat crust was delish and the marinara for dipping sublime.  I'd been worried the thing would be to heavy and dense, but the veggies balanced that expertly.  It was very tasteful Italian done right.

Caryn - who, by the way, is a raw vegan marathon runner (HOW COOL IS THAT) - got a $6 House Salad.  Could've used more tomatoes or something, but the avocado certainly had a positive impact.  She also had the Yellow Gazpacho for $7.  Pretty!  It was blended rather than chunky, except for the guac mixed in.  Uh, yum!  Avocados save the day again.  That soup was fantastic.  And you definitely do NOT want to see that picture.  You'd never eat soup again.

Dorothy declared that her Tempeh Panini, $9, was one of the best things she's ever had.  In her life.  So she, in her own words, wound up shoving it unconsciously into her mouth.  Her bacon tempeh, especially with the phenomenal roasted bell peppers and extra avocado she requested, wound up tasting incredible, like a BLT but vegan and a grillion times better.  So not really on the same level as a BLT.  Like.  At all.  Ew.  The whole thing was salty and creamy in perfect balance.  Oh, and her side salad was yummy too and stuff.

There were FIVE options for vegan dessert, you guys.  And I didn't decide to kick sugar till the following day, so this was my last big indulgence.  The decision was made easy when our server mentioned Rocky Road Cheesecake for 7 bucks - the room went quiet.  I could hear my heartbeat.  Beads of perspiration sprang up across my forehead.  In the voice of triumph itself, I proclaimed, "I'll have one slice of vegan Rocky Road Cheesecake please, and could I aso get a little more water and maybe a napkin?"  Applause from all corners.

The slice was perfect.  Smooth and creamy, with a nice subtle, blooming chocolate flavor.  That vegan whipped cream added another lovely layer of taste.  I don't even like whipped cream.

Dorothy's brownie a la mode for $6 presented the best that our vegan brownie world has to offer.  It was dense, chewy, and full of chocolate chips.  The authentic vanilla ice cream, which tasted almost disturbingly like dairy ice cream, set off that deep chocolate flavor like the wind sets off a glider.  In a good way, not a crashy way.

That was a meal I'll hold dear in memory for life.  Especially the part where the cheesecake made me delirious.  (Is it MY fault the Olympics were on in there?  I think not.)

* Cats.  Always and forever, cats.  I am constantly fighting the impulse to have 10,000 cats.

08 August 2012

Animal Rights Conference, ditching sugar, and crazies


I know, you're totally either like, "Uh, weird, Alli.  You actually went to a conference full of vegans?  I think I lost your number.  Really bad.  Like, forever," or you're like, "DOOD how did you score that amazing weekend?!"  Let me explain.

Super amazing fantastic awesome hilarious wonderful vegan friend Dorothy lives far away.  So in order to see her this summer, I flew out to the east coast.  She's part of a non-profit called The Vegetarian Resource Group, which is a really cool organization with tons of nutritional info on the vegan diet for new vegans and for doctors and nutritionists.  The VRG always snags some table space at the Animal Rights Conference in Washington, D.C.  So Dorothy took me with to work the table. Which means I got in for free.  Holla!  Thanks, VRG!

I learned a lot.  For example, did you know that 70% of cats in shelters are euthanized?!  Are you disturbed?  Me too.  Makes me want to adopt 5,000 cats.  Did you also know that monkeys are still used in this country as lab research animals?  Monkeys.  Like, chimpanzees even.  Seriously.  I will also adopt 5,000 monkeys.


I also happened to be reading The Kind Diet by Alicia Silverstone over the weekend.  I know what you're thinking: is this like a Noxema commercial or what?  But seriously.  If you've ever been at all interested in health, animals, losing weight, nutrition, how Asians are so healthy, or veganism in general, I cannot recommend this book enough.  To be perfectly honest and overdramatic, it kind of changed my life just now.

Alicia (we're totes on a first name basis) explains in the book that sugar - especially the white, processed variety, but basically anything sweet - can give you nausea, headaches, fatigue, under-eye bags, acne, irritability, anxiety, dizziness, heart palpitations, crying, depression, CANCER, weight gain, and diabetes.  Um, fun.  White sugar and corn syrup in particular can leach vitamins from your body and kick your immune system in the butt so you're prone to colds and junk.  Obviously, the more sugar or sweetener you consume, the worse these problems can get, but the sweet stuff in ANY quantity can cause your skin to cloud up, your energy to swing up then crash, and your mood to plummet.  White flour also winds up causing the same problems.

Because these are symptoms I've often observed in myself without understanding the cause, I'm swearing off sugar.  I'll still eat stuff that's made with brown rice syrup, barley malt syrup, or other super natural sweeteners once in a while.  But I'm SO over pimples.

Now what am I going to do with my enormous vat of evaporated cane sugar?


Some vegans are cray cray.  90% of the vegans I've met in my life have been wonderful, mentally-balanced people.  But conferences always attract the crazies.

There was this one guy who, without a shred of evidence, passed out a sheet to everyone on the first day that said high-level factory farm butchers were coming to blow up the conference.  He got kicked out.  One dude passed out pamphlets that, without a shred of evidence and at least 2 grammatical errors, explained that your cat food is killing your cat and you should switch to vegan cat food.  And most of the crazies just had this aura of... how can I say this.  An I-care-about-animals-more-than-you-so-I'm-a-better-vegan-now-let-me-talk-your-ear-off-about-just-HOW-MUCH-I-care-about-animals attitude.  Interesting how at the extreme, social skills seem to fall by the wayside.  I promise, it's not that hard to care about animals and interpersonal relationships at the same time.

I'll stop before I get - aha, ha - catty.

Most of the people I met were truly fantastic and down to earth, like the guy who opened a fancy-pants restaurant in his native Vienna with his wife, or the woman who gave Dorothy and I the hook-up to travel down to Bolivia to rehabilitate animals, or the sweet cute guy who totally made eyes at Dorothy the whole weekend.

But talking about the crazies is just so much more FUN.*

* I'm sure they're very special beautiful butterflies deep down and have mothers who love them or whatever.

02 August 2012

ask alli: does it bother you that I'm eating meat right now?

Haha.  Good question, omnivores!  I'll switch out your red meat for some raisins, 'cause the answer is full of irony.

Let's glaze over the fact that that was only funny to me

Every time I sit across the table from someone who is eating meat, I'm playing the don't-think-about-it game.  I'm super good at it!  I mean, I assume a lot of omnivores play it too: when they're the ones eating meat.  They don't want to think about the fact that what they're eating used to be some animal's beloved baby.  Am I right?

Plus, as long as the meat isn't on my plate, it's easy to forget it's there.  Omnivore takes a bite of dinner, Alli takes a bite of dinner.  Easy peasy.

Topless Robot
Hilariously, when the meat-eater asks me if what they're consuming bothers me, it's called to my attention and then I have to fight like Zefron to get my head back in the don't-think-about-it game.  Because when I AM thinking about it, Lisa Simpson's friendly lamb is all I can picture.

Well.  To be honest, it's a little more disturbing in my head.  I imagine a cow or pig or sometimes even my cat.  Then I think about somebody killing that animal.  Then I stop picturing things to avoid an all-out snot-nosed public disturbance sobbing fit.

Vegans who are in it for the health benefits can have similar feelings.  They might be less sensitive to the animal's life (although I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a vegan who's apathetic), but their reaction to meat eaters can involve utter incredulity.  They want to know why the person across the table would be wreaking havoc on their entire body, from bones to blood to guts, with not only meat, but cheese, milk, and butter as well.  (Except what they're literally thinking is probably more along the lines of rotting dead animal flesh, coagulated fatty pus, cows' breast milk, and even MORE coagulated fatty pus with extra fat.)

I've been lucky lately.  Most of the people I spend time with are very conscientious eaters.  But there are always times I need to stop myself from going down the lamb spiral of craziness.  Lots of the people I love eat meat, and I really enjoy sharing meals with them.

Being vegan has always been a personal choice for me.  I don't want to force others to become vegan or vegetarian; it's a decision everyone has to make on their own.  And I really, really don't want the person sitting across the table to feel uncomfortable.  Why would I be sitting at a table with you if I didn't care about your feelings?

Plus, I feed my cat meat.  Granted, it's really crunchy organic bits that smell vaguely of cat breath and do not in any way resemble meat, but still.  I try not to think about it when she licks my face.  Because getting licked in the face by a cat is THE CUTEST THING EVER.*

* Yes, even cuter than Zefron.