Sugar Snaps in the Spring

Spring is here in San Diego; the Winter rains have spawned a lush green on canyon hillsides and the mockingbirds are starting their mellifluous Spring rants.  Oranges, tangerines and kumquats are in abundance at the farmer’s markets, while the first sweet organic strawberries are beginning to show themselves in the fields like voluptuous damsels in red dresses.  At the Hillcrest Farmers Market, the Rodriguez Brothers organic booth offers the first sugar snap peas, reminding me of early Spring in Michigan where they were one of the first crops to show up after the thaw.

At my former restaurant, Inn Season Cafe, we would prep crate upon crate of the sweet pods and serve them steamed as a side vegetable, seared for use as an appetizer or added at the last second to a stir fry, so they stayed crisp on the plate.  Today, I am steaming them in a skillet with just enough water to completely steam out within a minute.  As I prepare the peas for steaming, I enjoy the melody of the crisp “snap” as I remove each end of the pods before pulling off the string.  After steaming, I quickly toss them with a few drops of ume plum vinegar just before serving.  Fresh, crisp and full of life, they are one of the Spring’s delights.

Barry Koral And His Avocados

Barry Koral, one of the farmers at the Hillcrest Farmers Market in San Diego, and I wax poetically every Sunday as shoppers clamor for his avocados, chermoyas, guavas, sapotes, passion fruit, Persian limes, kumquats, blood oranges, Meyer lemons and local macadamia nuts. Although he is not “certified” organic, he describes everything he does at the farm as “beyond organic.” He is a “fixture” at the market, proclaiming to all who pass by the value of his avocados, the life-giving properties of his figs or the “passion” in his passion fruits.

A few weeks ago, he invited my wife and me to an event at his home and orchard in Vista, a community within San Diego County. It was a live-food celebration with about fifty people in attendance. When we arrived, I immediately sensed that this was a “connected” domicile, reminding me of similar homes where the energy of the residents seem to be “one” with the living cycles of the planet. Barry seemed to take enormous pleasure entertaining his guests with his wit, creative spirit and love of life. It was a marvel to see him work the room and share quality moments with each person in attendance. After he delivered a spirited talk and shared poetry with all of us, the crowd took to the raw food buffet like wheat-grass to a juicer. The food was fresh and vitalizing, and everyone seemed re-energized by the association and community spirit.

Raw Ginger-Beet Salad

6 cups raw beets, peeled and grated

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

1 tablespoon lime juice

1 tablespoon fresh ginger juice

1/4 cup sweet onions, minced

Mix all ingredients in a bowl fifteen minutes before serving.

Amaranth Quesadillas

Quesadillas, as most people know them, are a study in cheese.  A white flour tortilla with a few onions, a sprinkle of jalapeños and perhaps a a few tomatoes, kernels of corn or fresh cilantro held together with oozing melted cheese. As an occasional culinary distraction this may sound good, but it is not something to eat everyday–perhaps something to eat when stranded on an island without anything else.

My Amaranth Quesadillas have provocative flavors and a creamy texture–without the dairy. They make excellent appetizers, party snacks or light meals. I made this recipe for lunch recently after a Hillcrest Farmers Market shopping trip.  All the vegetables I used for the quesadillas were what I had just purchased, fresh and fragrant.  The tortillas I choose are locally-made, par-cooked Mama Cesana Wheat Tortillas.  A quick heat on the grill cooks them up nicely and adds a favorable carbon flavor.  It is possible to do the same grill treatment with pre-cooked tortillas, but only to bring them back to a fresh-cooked state.

Amaranth is considered one of nature’s super-foods and is used in tropical and temperate climates around the world, especially India.  I first experienced it during an early summer trip to Crete as a green called “vleeta,” used by the Greeks in Horta (boiled greens).  The variety commonly used there is a green one.

Similar to buckwheat and quinoa, the Amaranth seed grains are without gluten and have unusually complete proteins. Like spinach, it has a high oxalic acid content Hopi Indians used red color-producing plant as a clothes dye.  If red amaranth is not available, spinach, lacinato kale, lamb’s quarters or mache would work well for this recipe.

Makes 4 quesadillas

1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1 cup sweet onion, diced
1/2 teaspoon garlic, minced
1 bunch red amaranth, large stems removed, chopped (3 cups)
Using a 10 to 12 inch skillet on medium heat, cook oil, onion and garlic until the onions are clear around the edges.  Add the amaranth and cook until the stems are tender.  Reserve.
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup sweet onions, finely diced
1 cup green bell peppers, finely diced
1 tablespoon jalapeño peppers, seeded and minced
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
Using a 12 inch skillet on medium heat, cook oil, onions, bell peppers and jalapenos until the onions are clear around the edges. Add sea salt, transfer and reserve.

3/4 cup cilantro leaves
2 tablespoons lime juice
1/4 teapoon garlic, minced
1 1/2 tablespoons water
1/2 cup pepitas
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
Place all ingredients in a food processor and blend until a coarse pesto consistency. Reserve.


1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon garlic, minced
1 tablespoon sweet onion, minced
1 tablespoon jalapeño peppers, seeded and minced
1 cup fresh tomato, finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves, finely chopped
In a small sauce pan on medium heat, cook oil, garlic, onion and jalapeño.  Cook until the onion is turning clear around the edges, then add the tomato, sea salt and vinegar.  Cook for 4 to 5 minutes until tomatoes are cooked, then stir in the cilantro and turn off.  Reserve.
1 avocado sliced into small cubes
1/4 teaspoon sea salt

4 whole wheat tortilla flat breads, 10 to 12 inches in diameter
3 tablespoons olive oil
Lay a tortilla on a flat and clean surface and spread 2 tablespoons pesto mixture on one half of the tortilla.  Spread 1/4 cup amaranth mixture evenly on top of the pesto.  Sprinkle 1 1/2 tablespoons pepper mixture evenly across the amaranth.  Fold the tortilla to a half moon shape.  Repeat with three more tortillas. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a 12 inch skillet on medium heat.  Cook two quesadillas at a time and add more oil as necessary.  Lightly brown on one side and turn over to brown the other side. Transfer to a cutting board and cut into triangles.  Serve with salsa and avocado garnish.

Celebratory Cooking

Opportunities arise throughout the year to celebrate.  Some of the biggest challenges a vegetarian host faces is developing a menu which will satisfy everyone–the carnivores and vegetarians alike.  Generally speaking, vegetarians are very easy to please.  They tend to be so food-deprived at parties, that when they attend an event where they can trust everything that is served, they are grateful beyond measure.  Sometimes carnivorous attendees who are new to my cooking decide they aren’t going to like anything.  I often hear cracks like “we stopped at McDonald’s on the way over” or “guess my diet will begin tonight.”  I’m proud to say, I never hear those cracks on the return visits!

With every event, I begin to “meditate” on the menu as soon as I know a party is imminent.  This past Christmas dinner is a perfect example to use in understanding my type of planning.  Because of the type of celebration it was, I looked to “tradition.”  In cooking, this translates into looking at where the dish came from and understanding what the original cook(s) intent was.  Over the years, this historical vision became a passion for provenance and a journey to discover vegetarian traditions in every culture I came in touch with.  The obvious Greek influence which came primarily through my grandmother and my aunt Irene, who were both excellent cooks, gave me a taste for the Mediterranean palate.  In my late teens and early twenties, I had the good fortune to visit and spend time in India, where I learned to cook dishes with ancient stories and also where every ingredient was connected to a healthy result.  All of this influences my menu decisions.  Even life changing events can play a part in menu planning.  My father passed away shortly before Christmas this year.  For me, he was a partner in celebration, always engaging and enjoying family gatherings.  I wanted to prepare a few things he would have enjoyed.

Once my menu and schedule for preparation is set, I prepare a shopping list to ensure I am not sending someone out for ingredients constantly, and then the cooking begins.  I began with the bread baking.  I made two different batches and proofed them together.  The first was a four grain loaf with oats, cracked wheat, quinoa and millet.   The second was a Tuscan baguette with home harvested fennel and corn meal which I sliced and used for a canapé base.

The next preparation was Eggplant bharta canapé.  A traditional Indian fire-roasted eggplant dip to which I added chilles, red amaranth leaves and lime. I served it on the sliced Tuscan baguette discs.

The centerpiece entrée was an Eggplant and Zucchini Parmesan with Cavolo Nero (Lacinato Kale) and an almond ricotta.  I made it the previous morning to allow the flavors to meld and make cooking dinner on Christmas day a simple affair.

The other entrée was Asparagus Strudel and was baked just before serving.  Ten layers of phyllo dough were coated with a red pepper oil and maple syrup mixture and enveloped around fresh asparagus with a caramelized shallot and cashew nut puree.  I served it with roasted red pepper sauce.

On the side, I made some choices that would balance the meal through flavor, texture and visual appeal.

Muli Kofta, traditional Indian gram flour cakes made with grated daikon radish and greens.  Garnished with bundi and sweet pepper relish.

Organic Rigatoni pasta salad with pistachio-lacinato pesto.

Swiss Chard horta, Cretan boiled greens with extra virgin olive oil and lemon dressing.

Fresh tomato salad drizzled with balsamic reduction (see first picture).

To add a sweet finish to the meal, Sara baked my vegan Pecan Tart recipe  (She never cooked before last year, when I had to leave her to help take care of my father.).   The tarts were delicious with the right amount of sweetness and without the fatty finish.  When the meal was over, everyone relaxed, shared gifts and spent the evening in a state of joyful satiation—as my father would have liked.

Fast, Furious and Fantastic—A quick lunch solution

As I sat at my computer completely lost in cyberspace, I felt a cold nose on my arm.  Our faithful-to-her-stomach German Shorthaired Pointer Tea-Bird, who tells time better than anyone I know, was letting me know it was time for lunch.  She usually begins the ritual with a long stare, moving into heavy sighs and impatient breathing and finally the “nudge,” making it is clear that I have gone way beyond the acceptable time-frame.  Into the kitchen we go, Tea at my heels, and we confer about what to do.  As I survey the contents of the refrigerator, she takes on the serious task of examining every shelf and together we agree on tofu, onion, carrot, celery, red cabbage, broccoli and red bell pepper. We decided on a stir fry, quick and nourishing.  My wok is in the process of re-seasoning (a 2-day affair) so I break out two 12 inch skillets and a 6 quart sauce pan for the noodles.  I cook the tofu in one skillet, the vegetables in the second and boil water in the sauce pan all at the same time.  The result is a meal-in-one dish finished within 20 minutes.  Everyone is happy, especially Tea-Bird, who can’t get enough of the mugwort Soba noodles!

Tofu Stir Fry with Red Miso Sauce

Serves 6

1 1/2 teaspoons organic expeller-pressed canola oil

1 fourteen ounce block medium firm tofu, cut into 2 inch wide by 1/2 inch thick triangles

3 teaspoons tamari

In a 12 inch skillet on medium-high heat, cook the oil and tofu until it starts to brown.  Turn the tofu, cook for 45 seconds to a minute and add the tamari tamari.  Turn down to a simmer and cook four to five minutes until the tamari is absorbed.


1 cup miso, Kyoto red (low sodium, unpasteurized)
1/4 cup mirin

2 tablespoons brown rice vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
1 1/2 tablespoons tamari
2 cups hot water from noodles (see noodles)

Mix sauce ingredients in a bowl and then add to the tofu, allowing it to simmer and thicken for a few minutes.  Turn off heat, cover and reserve.


2 teaspoons canola oil

1 1/2 tablespoons ginger root, peeled and minced

8 cups chopped vegetables: onion, carrot, celery, red cabbage, broccoli and red bell pepper

1 tablespoon tamari

Heat a 12 inch skillet on high heat, add the ginger root and, ten second later, add the vegetables and tamari.  Cook for 10 minutes stirring, turning or flipping until the vegetables have a seared edge and are cooked “al dente.”  Reserve.


8 to 10 cups water

1 package Eden Foods mugwort soba noodles

Boil water in the sauce pan and add the entire package of noodles.  Cook for 6 to 7 minutes “al dente,” set aside 2 cups of water for the sauce (see sauce) and drain the noodles.  Toss with the vegetables.  May be served individually in large soup bowls with the tofu-miso sauce on top or, as I did this time, in one large dish with the tofu-miso sauce on top.

The Theory of Vegolution

Balboa Park 2009-14

It was another beautiful day in San Diego and we decided to go to Nature’s Express for lunch.  Just a block away from Balboa Park it is a perfect location for a light meal after a stroll through the beautiful park.   In spite of a variety of past experiences restaurants here, we had a good feeling about it.

Natures express

The location has had many incarnations in the last 20 years.  First, there was the iconic Kung Food, next, The Vegetarian Zone, then an empty building.  After a number of years,

seemingly as an answer to the whispered cocktail wishes of San Diegan vegetarians, Eatopia in OB moved into the space to resurrect the name Kung Food and proselytize their brand of veganism.  Heavy in soy based meat substitutes they served in an egalitarian format that removed service and placed all the food equally in hot and cold steam table bins.  We tried to forgo our culinary and societal egos each time, but it was difficult.  The hot food was not color-coded and, instead of presenting the food at the table, they had someone dish it out mess-hall style with the not so enthusiastic line of “what do ya want?” often difficult to hear through the blaring reggae music.  We would then trudge with tray in hand to the counter, place our plate on a scale and get financially judged for the amount of food we were about to eat.  They even opened a fast food drive-up window on the side of the building to serve a burger-and-fries style fast food.  This was an exciting alternative to try out.  Time and time again, we drove up to the window and had to park for 20 minutes before receiving our “fast food” order.  At that point, our undercooked fries and sit-in-your stomach burgers were anti-climatic.  We tried–really tried, but to no avail.  I do give them credit for giving it a go.  From my own experience I understand how much effort it takes to pull off a good restaurant.  Apparently there was some managerial disagreement with the owner and they left the location in a huff.  The next incarnation was a non-descript lacto-veg restaurant with table service.  It was just ok, with mediocre food and a heavy dose of dairy products.  Not our cup of tea.

Natures express menu

A number of months ago, it was a pleasant surprise to discover Natures Express entered the picture and was entirely vegan.  I was particularly interested and managed to drag others to try it.  We started with the fast food window.  It was dressed up Boca burgers, wraps and fries that were passable.  Our 13 year old companion tea-bird (with her discerning palate) particularly enjoyed the fries.

The other day, we worked up the courage to enter the main restaurant.  It was nice inside, with a good aroma and enthusiastic people.  They still had the steam tables, but it was self serve and the food looked pretty good.  First was a simple, but very fresh looking salad bar, next was the cold raw food bar with eight or nine different preparations and the final bar was hot food with another eight or nine dishes.  All the food was colorful, identifiable (very important!) and well labeled.  I could also tell they use good ingredients on par with some of the best vegetarian restaurants.  The pricing was set up by the plate, which allowed light and heavy eaters to pay the same price and not feel embarrassment for copious helpings.  In addition to the food bars, a cooler with prepared sandwiches was nearby as well as the full menu from the drive through.  They also serve pizzas in the evenings.  The servers were enthusiastic, helpful and available.  “Mundo” especially went out of his way.  Our expectations were low, but the food was well prepared, nicely spiced and good to eat.  It was still egalitarian vegetarian, but they have done it right.

As a final note, noticed the Nature’s Express sign was painted over and the San Diego location has been removed from the Natures Express website.  Are we about to experience another incarnation?  A call to the restaurant confirmed they are indeed changing the name to Vegolution.  If the food stays this good, they could name it whatever they want and it would still be all right with me.

July 2010 Update:

The restaurant has evolved into the  fittingly titled Evolution Fast Food.   They help to fill a void in San Diego, which trails behind many other cites in dedicated vegan restaurants.

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Hillcrest Market This Week

hillcrest market 10 25 2009I love Sunday mornings at the Hillcrest Farmers Market.  It seems to get better with each week…something extraordinary is happening there.  Sure, there are wonderfully fresh fruits and vegetables, as well a plethora of prepared food vendors, but I really enjoy the people.  As I enter the market, there is a feeling of collective awareness.

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The vendors add to this with the dedication to product and craft.  People who attend take part with enthusiasm, as if like children in a candy store, exuding good moods, chatting and smiling all the way.  All in all, the market has a festive atmosphere with music, food, good company and the prospect of preparing the wares later on.  Every week I meet old friends and their dependable produce, but there are always one or two new vendors that add to the mix.  For me, it is a safe haven in an uncertain world.

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One of the new vendors is Sun Grown Organics micro greens and edible flowers.  I was pleasantly surprised to see the colorful tables full of culinary gems.  I began filling bags with a bevy of different greens, flowers and sprouts.

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In addition to the expected varieties, there were micro red perilla (shiso), fennel, popcorn sprouts, batchelor button flowers and  pink petals.

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Roots Kind Foods was there again this week.  I picked up a couple of wraps to go with the micro green salad for lunch.  After closing their café in OB (Ocean Beach) they have made a name for themselves at farmers markets around San Diego.

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Mariella from Guanni chocolates has started selling truly incredible vegan chocolate bars.  Good enough to sway even those who normally shy away from chocolate.

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Phil from Sage Mountain Farms had giant butternut squashes to compliment his always full display.  He asked me to save the seeds and bring them back because he wanted to share the few squashes he had and it is a  especially sweetvariety that is hard to get.  I am still buying his organic strawberry jam that is out of this world.

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La Milpa Organica is one of the most consistent booths at the market.  Every week one can find the tables overflowing with an abundance of greens, from amaranth to sorrel.  There are also multiple varieties of fresh herbs such a multiple varieties of mint, dill, fennel, sage and lavender.

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Lone Oak Ranch had beautiful pomegranates, fuyu persimmons, fuji apples and fresh pressed pomegranate juice.  The juice is naturally sweet and very refreshing unlike the pre-sweetened store bought varieties

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At The Market and Back Home


The Hillcrest Farmers Market is fantastic this time of year. Before the summer heat takes a toll, an amazing variety of local produce is available. La Milpa Organica has tables full of kale, chard, purslane, sorrel, lamb’s quarters, yellow beans, green beans, edible calendula, lavender, mint, dill, fennel, dandelion, beets and radishes. This week, Barry was also selling provocatively described black cherry tomato plants.


Down the way, the Rodriguez brothers were still offering candy-sweet organic strawberries, a wide variety of lettuces, tomatoes, zucchinis and herbs. Matt at Lone Oak Ranch had spectacularly sweet organic fruit which included white & yellow peaches, nectarines, plums, apricots and pluots .

hillcrest-market-2Phil from Sage Mountain farms gave me a couple of bulbs of Russian chesnok garlic last week and I came back for more. These tiny one-and a-half inch bulbs were incredible roasted, having a mild and nutty flavor. This week I picked up some broccoli, homemade organic strawberry jam, zucchinis and sweet torpedo onions.


Arriving home from the market, I put away the morning harvest and formulated what to prepare. While the purchases will last a week, the first meal of the afternoon which spotlights the fresh picked nature of the produce. This evening did not disappoint. I started with a Market Ratatouille using long purple Chinese eggplant, tomato, sweet torpedo onion, chesnok garlic, red bell peppers, fresh basil and Sage Mountain zucchini. While slow cooking the ratatouille in a large pot, I also prepared a Basmati rice, Millet and Black quinoa pilaf with magenta spreen lamb’s quarters and lemon from our tree. As a plate garnish, the fresh picked incredible yellow beans from La Milpa Organica added textural balance and color. This was a simple dinner and there was some dessert from the previous evening to add a sweet finish: Nectarine Upside-Down Cake which had fruit from our tree lightly candied with a gran marnier syrup. It was even better the second day!

Often, I find the simple pleasures of going to the market, prepping, cooking and then serving to add meaning and depth to daily routines, adding depth to an entire week. Grounding, centering, connecting, or whatever words one wishes to use, market-centric cooking makes for a good life.