Super Mac N Cheese at the Motown Macdown


Garden Fresh Gourmet founder and CEO, Jack Aronson, recently invited me to participate in the first annual Motown Macdown in Ferndale, Michigan.  This macaroni ‘n cheese competition is a benefit for Justin’s Vision, a non-profit organization which sends children with severe illnesses and their families to the Give Kids The World Village in Kissemee, Florida.  The Macdown was to be a fierce battle of accomplished and well known chefs in Southeast Michigan:  Brian Polcyn of Forest Grill & Cinco Lagos, Brian Perrone of Slows BarBQ, Chris Franz of The Rattlesnake Club, Matt Baldridge of Cliff Bell’s, The Hungry Dudes bloggers and me–The Vegetarian Guy.

I got to work creating what I do best, delicious plant-based dishes, with a goal of showing vegans and non-vegans alike that a dairy free mac ‘n cheese can be as satisfying as its counterpart.  My entry was not only 100% plant-based, but also gluten-free–emulating the classic American macaroni and cheese many of us grew up on.  I drew inspiration from  my grandmother’s Greek pastitsio, a noodle and cheese dish, which I frequently enjoyed during childhood visits to her home.

Super Mac ‘N Cheese: MyFoxDETROIT.com

The recipe includes some ancient whole grains (quinoa, teff and amaranth), cashews, almonds and extra virgin olive oil–all healthy and energizing ingredients. This dish feels and tastes like the traditional mac ‘n cheese, without the simple carbohydrates or cholesterol laden fats.  It thrives on the synergy between flavor, texture, healthy ingredients and comfort. The coup d’etat is my chive and extra virgin olive oil puree, which adds a zesty “zing”–mostly appreciated by us grown up kids.

 

Although my entry did not win the competition, it was the surprise of the event.  After the blind tasting, many were asked if they knew one of the dishes was vegan and gluten-free.  Most tasters had no idea and were pleasantly surprised!  Proving that this dish can stand on its own in flavor and texture no matter what one’s dietary preference is.

The Macdown was a huge success.  Not only was it a great time with music and song–but it sold-out!  Justin’s Vision not only gained a lot of recognition and press through this fundraiser, but it raised enough funds to send a family to the Give Kids The World Village and helped to pave the way for the next exciting fundraiser!

Super Mac N Cheese

Super-food, Vegan and Gluten Free

Serves 6

10 cups water

½ teaspoon sea salt

1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil

8 ounces Ancient Harvest quinoa macaroni

½ teaspoon sea salt

2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

Preheat oven to 350 F.  In a large saucepan, bring water, ½ teaspoon sea salt and 1 teaspoon olive oil to a boil.  Add macaroni and stir to remove clumping.  Cook until the pasta is tender around the edges, but firmer than Al Dente.  Strain, rinse with cool water, drain well and place in a bowl with ½ teaspoon salt and 2 teaspoons olive oil.   Mix well and reserve.

 

Blend A

½ cup raw cashews

1 tablespoon dijon mustard

1 ½ cups soy milk or other non-dairy milk

Puree all ingredients in a blender until very smooth and transfer to a bowl.  Reserve.

 

Blend B

3 tablespoons nutritional yeast flakes

25% of Blend A

¾ cup soy milk

1 cup Daiya cheddar style shreds

Puree all ingredients in a blender until very smooth. Reserve.

 

Bechamel

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

¼ cup yellow onions, minced

1 teaspoon garlic powder

2 tablespoons teff flour

2 tablespoons amaranth flour

2 tablespoons almond flour

1 teaspoon black pepper

½ teaspoon smoked paprika

1 ½ teaspoons sea salt

¼ teaspoon turmeric powder

½ cup soy milk

75% (the rest of) of Blend A

½ cup water

1 ½ teaspoons lemon juice

½ cup grated Daiya cheddar style shreds

Lightly oil a 6×9 baking dish, set aside.  In a medium saucepan on medium-low heat, slowly cook the onions until clear around the edges, then add the garlic, teff and amaranth.  After 1 minute, add the almond flour, black pepper, smoked paprika, sea salt and turmeric.  After another minute, stir in soy milk and the remaining Blend A.  Simmer and stir until a thick gravy consistency, about 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in water, lemon juice and Blend B.  Transfer to baking dish and fold in the noodles and ½ cup Daiya.  Spread out evenly.

 

Topping

½ cup Daiya cheddar style shreds

¼ cup almond flour

2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

½ teaspoon mild paprika

Evenly sprinkle Daiya on top, then almond flour, oil and paprika evenly.  Bake for 30 minutes.  Allow to cool for 10 minutes before serving.

Note:  All ingredients were found at my local Whole Foods Market.  Many groceries now carry most of the ingredients.

The Great Plains Heartland

State of the Veg Union Part 4


Traveling east, through amber waves of grain, to Lincoln, Nebraska, on our San Diego to Detroit restaurant tour, my wife Sara and I marveled as the Rocky Mountains disappeared into the ground and flattened into the Great Plains of the mid-west.

We pulled into the historic Haymarket District of Lincoln, where the old rail and distribution system has been largely bypassed by 21st century modernization.

Over a century ago, way stations for the railroad system, which distributed grains, produce and farm products, were set up from coast to coast. These stations became distribution centers and agricultural hubs, standing out like sparkling jewels in corn and wheat fields when there was little else around.  Eventually, these became the urban centers, which were integral components for the westward expansion of America’s commodity food system. Thanks to local efforts, many of the magnificent edifices from the late 19th and early 20th century are preserved and now function as cultural centers of the community.

In one of those old warehouse structures stands Maggie’s Vegetarian Cafe–an all-natural, from-scratch cafe using local and organic ingredients whenever possible.   It is very casual and charming with down-to-earth sensibility.

Owner Maggie Pleskac was in the kitchen and made our Spicy Hummus Wrap and Unfried Falafel Wrap, which we found to be filling and delicious with noticeably fresh ingredients.

On the walls were pictures of the local farmers who supply the cafe–Maggie told us which one provided each part of the sandwiches.  We left with renewed energy from a simple, yet satiating, meal and felt good about supporting a business that reveres the local farmers, who I view as the true heroes of the modern food revolution.

Omaha was our next stop.  This city still has many of the mansions and magnificent structures from the early 20th century.  Reminiscent of the elegant neighborhoods populated by the auto-barons of Detroit, these were the homes of cattle barons.  Omaha was one of the capitals of the early factory farming industry in America.

Ironically, McFosters Natural Kind Cafe is at the edge of this neighborhood.  The building looks like an old Tudor-style home, but was originally Skip’s Skelly Gas Station, one of the original service stations on the old Lincoln Highway.  Now re-incarnated as a natural foods restaurant, it fuels visitors with freshly-prepared food.  Although they serve seafood and free-range chicken, it reminded me of the old-school vegetarian cafes–down to earth, funky and colorful, with an expansive, but uncomplicated, menu.  Unfortunately, we had filled ourselves in Lincoln, so a salad and carrot juice were all we could manage–both were fresh and flavorful.  We hope to travel through Omaha again–this time with empty stomachs.

Our appetites returned that evening as we pulled into Iowa City, Iowa, a college town with a number of veg choices.  We chose The Red Avocado, an upscale, yet cozy, vegan restaurant in the lower level of a house near the university.  We began with a Cilantro-White Bean Dip garnished with toasted pepitas and fresh baked flatbread (check out my version of the recipe below).

This was followed by a Corn-Mushroom Soup which was creamy and savory.  Our first entree was Corn Cakes with Shiitake Mushrooms and Tofu, a beautifully prepared dish with excellent flavors and textures.

Second was Gnocchi, properly light and fluffy–unfortunately, it was swimming in tomato sauce. Dessert was a chocolate truffle which we took to go because the restaurant was closing. Later, we discovered this to be the weak-link in the meal; however, the rest of the experience, including the great service, overcame any disappointment.  This was one of our favorite meals of the entire trip.

Click Here For Video!

The heartlands of Nebraska and Iowa were a pleasant surprise.  We were heartened  to see the passion and commitment for local and organic foods as well as a relative abundance of plant-based options.

Next, in our quest to discover the state of the veg union, we visit a raw, culinary treasure in Downer’s Grove, Illinois.

Inspired by the Cilantro-White Bean appetizer at The Red Avocado in Iowa City, I created my own version to celebrate the heartlands of America and those good people who are making a difference.

 

White Bean Cilantro Dip

Click here for the recipe!

If you have questions or suggestions, please email or write me on Facebook or comment here.

 

 

Santa Fe to Boulder

State of the Veg Union Part 3

with Anasazi Bean Enchilada Recipe


Day three of our veg restaurant tour from San Diego to Detroit began in beautiful Santa Fe, New Mexico, the oldest capital in the United States. It was Memorial Day and this unique city of all adobe-style buildings was full of tourists, musicians and artists enjoying the cloudless day.  Not far from the festive atmosphere of the old town center, was our destination, Body–a one-stop-shop with an organic restaurant, spa, yoga studio and clothing boutique.

Body’s calming atmosphere and enchanting decor set our expectations high. After exploring the various rooms, the popular yoga studio and the spa, we took our seats in the large, yet surprising empty, dining room.  Although there are numerous items for omnivores, there is a substantial vegan and raw offering. We ordered all raw and the food began to arrive shortly thereafter.

The coconut lemongrass soup, fresh and beautiful in color, was light and flavorful; unfortunately, the rest of our meal was not as exciting.  The wrap lacked flavor and was mushy, the pizza was too salty and had far too much tomato sauce and the dessert was simply passionless.  We were a bit surprised, considering the care the owners had taken to provide such a comprehensive facility to the residents of Santa Fe.

To be fair, our visit was a snapshot, only a glimpse at what was obviously a well-thought-out concept. It may be that they over-extended themselves to the point of having gaps in the details of the food.  It certainly deserves another try the next time I’m driving through Santa Fe.

We continued north to Taos, another remarkable old Spanish town and artist colony.  Entering this city made us feel as though we had stepped back in time.  It is located in a tributary valley off the Rio Grande and on its north side is the famous Taos Pueblo, said to have been built between 1000 and 1450 A.D..  Nearly 1900 people occupy the pueblo community today.

Surprisingly, as far as vegetarian offerings, Taos is a one horse town and that horse is called El Gamal--a very casual and artistic vegetarian cafe serving traditional Middle Eastern fare.  We ordered babaganoush, tabouli, falafels, salad and hummus–unfortunately, they had run out of chick peas and couldn’t prepare the hummus.  The food was fresh and flavorful and we were grateful for their effort.

Our meals in Santa Fe and Taos did not come close to our amazing experiences in Sedona and Scottsdale, but still were a marked improvement from our last trip a few years ago and good enough to get us through the Cimarron pass and north to Colorado.

Our next destination was in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in one of the most liberal cities in Colorado–Boulder.  Known for its stunning setting and “hippie” appeal, it constantly acquires top rankings in health and quality of life. Leaf Vegetarian Restaurant is a small, upscale, jewel of a place located in the charming downtown area.  As we walked in, we were immediately taken with its beautiful decor, cleanliness and organization.

We began with a raw beet ravioli–a really stunning presentation, but, rather flavorless, relying entirely on the taste of the raw beets. Sara chose a delicious looking Mizuna salad with sea vegetables and I ordered Jamaican Jerk, tempeh over black rice with plantain chips, which was truly a work of art.

Although we appreciated the freshness and quality of the ingredients, the salad lacked pizazz. The Jamaican Jerk was heavy on tempeh, but was nicely balanced with black rice and good flavors.  We finished the meal with a peanut butter and chocolate vegan cheesecake, presented with impressive artistic flair, but it didn’t knock our socks off.

Leaf deserves another shot. They have worked hard to earn their wonderful reputation and are extremely conscientious about presentation, as well as providing a positive restaurant experience.  It would require several more visits for a proper review. Still, when a restaurant strives to achieve levels of gastronomic perfection, any misstep is unfortunate. Consistent culinary home-runs are a difficult thing to achieve, but a chef or owner’s personal attention increases the odds tremendously.

It was becoming apparent that veg restaurants in this country become great through vision and passion. With the heartland of the Midwest ahead of us, we continued to search for restaurants which define culinary perceptions in their local communities with dedication to quality of food and life through good ingredients, working with local farmers and using high quality organic products. This is especially true for plant-based restaurants where customers expect healing and life-enhancing characteristics on their plates. This attention-to-detail enables an everyday dining experience to be life changing.

Click Here For Video

Next time, we visit the heartland of America in Nebraska and Iowa to continue the discovery of the State of the Veg Union!

Click Here For Recipe

Inspired by our journey through the ancient desert lands of cliff-dwellers, pueblos and conquistadors, I created this Anasazi Bean Enchilada recipe to honor the rich traditions and sun-drenched history of the American Southwest.

 

State of the Veg Union Part 2 Sedona

Feeling rather full after stopping at two delightful veg restaurants in Scottsdale, we headed north toward ChocolaTree Cafe in Sedona, Arizona, a mostly raw cafe with an awesome reputation.  The journey through the mountains was breathtaking.

The landscape slowly transitioned from a desert-scape dotted with saguaro cacti to a high mesa semi-desert grassland with clumps of riparian forests and a rocky balsatic plateau of dormant volcano rock.  The road danced around the Agua Fria river creating dramatic landscapes and vistas.

We diverted off the main highway to the old mining town of Jerome, now an artist colony and tourist destination.

Around the corner from a popular biker gathering at the local saloon, we discovered an early 20th century diner which originally served the Chinese mine workers in an era of oppressive segregation. This unfortunate history explained why the diner was tucked away and out of sight from the main street.  Today, the location is appreciated for its spectacular panoramic view and the new owners are committed to working with local farmers to supply fresh produce for the restaurant, which was probably done when it first opened over 100 years ago.  A nice addition to a meat-centric tourist town like Jerome.

As the sun was reaching for the horizon, we meandered down the mountain and continued our journey into Sedona.  Every time I come here, I am in awe of the incredible red rock formations which frame the town. This time, with the intense pre-dusk light, the town looked like it was surrounded by a large, gold picture frame.  Sedona is known for connections to planetary energies–a place to commune with natural forces and to recharge.  I often wondered why the much-touted spiritual connections bypass food as a vehicle of awareness–this culinary adventure turned that around.

We arrived at ChocolaTree just as the setting sun made the red rocks surrounding Sedona glow like burning embers.  The outside of the restaurant building and patio was adorned with handcrafted art pieces and paintings.  Walking in, we were greeted by a four foot tall Shiva Lingam from India, the centerpiece of this warm and cozy restaurant.

We were encouraged to peruse the offerings of both packaged and fresh menu items.  While ChocolaTree puts most of their energy into raw living food, they offer some cooked vegan dishes.  The Curried Spring Roll and the Raw Falafels were recommended as appetizers.  We also ordered the All Raw Wrap and the cooked Ethiopian Collard Greens on Quinoa for entrees.

We walked to the open-air garden courtyard, past the retail displays of crystals, essential oils, talismans and artwork.  Tables surrounded a beautiful old tree strung with delicate lights.  Adjacent to the seating area was a kitchen garden full of borage, amaranth, basil, oregano and many other scented herbs in various states of growth and harvest.   The patio held  magical appeal and gave us something to ponder and discuss.

The food arrived in a timely manner and we applauded the suggested Curried Spring Rolls–we consumed them in a flash.  The Falafels were a good attempt, but had not been dehydrated quite enough.  The All Raw Wrap was more like a salad–leafy greens and vegetables in a seasoned wrap with a light dressing.

The Ethiopian Collard Greens on Quinoa didn’t look appealing on the plate, but once I tasted it, I was hooked. The collard greens, cooked to a buttery perfection, had a touch of fresh ginger and were topped with crumbled kale chips, giving it a slight crunch.  The bed of quinoa was the perfect match, making the dish a delicious and sensuous home run.  After dinner, we met owner Jen Moore and discussed mutual acquaintances and what a cafe like hers can do for a  community.  We polished off the meal with a piece of Pecan Pie–raw and creamy with a fantastic maple-like flavor.  It left us practically speechless.  Wow!  We left with a few packaged food items and, finding all rooms booked in Sedona, proceeded toward Flagstaff.

The meal was not only fulfilling, but, energizing.  We stopped on top of the mountain and gazed at stars so profuse the sky seemed white.  We discussed the power of food, how it can create change in society, the quality of life and spiritual pursuits.  Perfect meal, perfect night…

Please check out our next travels through dust storms and dessert to reach Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico.

To see the entire Veg Tour as it unfolds, read more here…

If you have suggestions, please email or write me on Facebook or comment here.

Here is my version of The ChocolaTree’s  Ethiopian Collard Greens:

Ethiopian Collard Greens

with Red Quinoa and Kale Chips

Click Here For The Recipe

 

 

Historic Eastern Market in Detroit


It was 1973 and I had just moved from Cleveland to Detroit when I made my way to the Eastern Market for the first time at Mack and Gratiot near Detroit’s city center.  At this point in my life, my open-air market experience was limited to the West Side Market in Cleveland, established at the same time as Eastern Market, but much smaller.  All this was prior to my travels to India, where I became certain that my vocation in life would center around food and cooking.


The atmosphere, although intimidating to a young man, was fascinating.   I was entranced by this labyrinthine food system and wanted to learn more about it.  Eastern Market has been the culinary soul of Detroit since it began in 1841 on Cadillac Square.  It was moved to its current location in 1891, the former Civil War parade grounds where General Grant and Colonel Custer marched their armies.  This was also part of an Indian burial site and one of the avenues to Canada for the Underground Railroad.


Over the decades, markets evolve.  In the 70’s, Eastern Market was very different than it is today–a meat packing center with wholesale produce surrounding the public sheds and rough and tumble workers barking out orders, often in Italian.

Warehouse carts (like the ones Restoration Hardware sells today as period coffee tables) stacked with wood crates full of produce, were noisily pushed down the streets.  It was an era before pre-packaging, shrink-wrapping and frozen foods; orders and receipts were hand-written; all telephones had the same ring and chains rattled on manual warehouse door-lifts.


Wafting through the air were the intoxicating smells of spices from Rafal Spice Company, nuts roasting at Germack Pistachio Company and Rocky Peanut Company intermingled with hops cooking in the Stroh’s Brewery nearby.  Farmers came from all over the Midwest to sell in the public stalls and most commercial business had been conducted by 7 am.


For 170 years,  Eastern Market has nourished millions of people while maintaining its status as a cultural treasure.  Until recently, the surrounding neighborhoods were full of homes mixed in with industrial sites.  Since the decline of manufacturing, many residential neighborhoods of Detroit, especially around the Eastern Market, have suffered from decades of abandonment and dilapidation.  Open fields are dotted with worn structures where bustling neighborhoods once stood, making the entrance to the market somewhat dramatic.


In the last few years, the market has embraced the modern food revolution and is redefining what a market means to a city.  Once again, it has become the heart of Detroit, pulsing with nourishing energy and showcasing urban farming, certified organic farms, such as Hampshire Farms as well as the usual commercial farms.  The meat packing and wholesale vegetable houses have mostly given way to warehouse operations of dried and frozen goods, restaurants, urban living and public markets–a vibrant community, revitalizing the market for a new generation.


Every Saturday, year round, an estimated 40,000 people flock to the market and the farmers market in the sheds is also open on Tuesdays.


Recently, I recorded much of what makes Eastern Market unique.  It is a must-stop destination when visiting or living in the Metro Detroit area.  Join the party!



State of the Veg Union, Arizona Part One

I planned my current book tour in Michigan to span most of the summer,  so my wife, Sara, and I made the decision to drive from San Diego to Detroit–stopping in veg restaurants the entire distance.  Every chef fantasizes about doing this, but most of us don’t get the opportunity because we’re so busy.  Because of time limitations, we had to pick and choose restaurant destinations, sacrificing key veg cities, such as Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle and New York–but this was not to be a contest. It was also a chance to experience how veg awareness has been developing outside of the big cities… Read entire intro

First Leg in Arizona

The departure day arrived and, with the SUV packed to the brim with everything needed for a book tour and food demonstrations, we headed east on US 8. Our first stop was Natures Express in Yuma, Arizona. This is vegan fast food in a Mexican border town, an area full of desert ranches and meat eaters. While their focus is fast food variations on meat dishes, it was a positive experience. We ordered two sandwiches, first the lentil burger with mushrooms, which had good texture, but a plain flavor–it could benefit from some Mediterranean or Middle Eastern spicing. Second was the “South of the Border” burger with their Chick-un patty. This sandwich had all the flavor and spiciness one would expect from a town near the border and we really enjoyed it. We were very grateful for this vegan sustenance in the middle of vegetarian nowhere, which propelled us all the way to Phoenix.

The next day we headed to Fresh Mint in Scottsdale, an unassuming cafe in a tidy little strip mall. Knowing we were to eat at two restaurants in Scottsdale, we ordered lightly and shared both dishes. We ordered the Cucumber Rolls filled with tofu, raw matchstick vegetables and fresh mint leaves. This was presented with a flavorful peanut dipping sauce. The beautiful presentation and bright flavors of the raw vegetables and mint were perfectly complimented by the peanut sauce.

We followed it with Kung Pao Soy Chicken, a traditionally flavored dish nicely supported by brown rice and assorted steamed vegetables. According to owner Mai Ly, the beautiful presentations and delicious flavors were inspired by Buddhist vegetarian traditions. The entire experience was wonderful and Mai Ly and her husband Michael Beck, impressed us with their charm and wit.

Still in Scottsdale, our veg quest led us to Chakra4 Organic Herb & Tea House.

As soon as we entered, the smell of herbs enveloped us and the serene and healing atmosphere immediately put us at ease–I half expected a shoulder massage as I perused the menu. We started the meal with their refreshing herbal iced tea of the day, followed by a Raw-vacado plate–a delicious nut-based avocado guacamole served with raw marinated crudite vegetables.

Next came the Veggie-Dilla, a vegan vegetable quesadilla with fresh vegetables, pinto beans and raw underpinnings of sun dried tomato-nut cheese. This was accompanied by a Chipotle salsa and a green salad–our favorite dish of the journey so far. The fresh-local-organic connection was obvious and the vitality of the dishes exploded on the palate in waves of delicious flavors. To top it off, we ordered a slice of Chocolate Ganache Pie for the road. Sara was so taken with its rich flavor and creamy texture, I barely had a chance to start the car before it was gone. The food at Chakra4 was provocative and satiated all the senses. If I were within a hundred miles, this would be a worthy detour. We breathed a sigh of relief, knowing we had several hours to muster up an appetite for our next culinary stop in Sedona.

This first leg of the tour was inspiring. We were beginning to see that a shift had occurred in public perceptions and awareness. On a small scale, vegan restaurants are gaining mainstream acceptance and adding new dimensions of flavor and health to local restaurant scenes.

See the video here 

Please check out the next installment where we experience the best of Sedona, Arizona.

If you have suggestions, please email or write me on Facebook or comment here.

For the entire travelblog click here…

May Markets Shine

The celebrated markets of the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles County often overshadow the incredible, yet unsung, farmers markets of San Diego.  There are fifty markets in San Diego supported by more certified organic farmers than any other county in America, over 320.
At least one market is open every day of the week, supporting most of the communities in the area. This type of shopping enables us to follow in the footsteps of the great food cultures where purchasing the freshest ingredients is a daily ritual.  The choices are remarkable–a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and nuts grown in micro-climates ranging from sub-tropical to temperate.

Most weeks, I visit three or four markets, buying enough for a couple of days and keeping me connected with the farmers and vendors.  Some of my favorites are  Archi’s Acres, JR Organics, Sage Mountain Farm, Suzies Farm, JR Organics, Tom King Farms, Conscious Cookery and Koral’s Tropical Fruit Farm.  Each market reflects the feel of its community, becoming de facto social centers.

A few years ago, shortly after I created www.thevegetarianguy.com, I began filming my culinary finds, the farmers and community members.  Over time, my blog has expanded into sharing new discoveries, tastes and recipes while applauding the efforts of local food heroes wherever I go.

My short videos provide introductions to the farmers, products and the unique atmosphere of the markets. This portal into the San Diego markets gives a taste of what is possible and shows the path to connecting the dots between food, farms and life. The following is a sampling of my recent videos.

Spring at the Little Italy Mercato

Imperial Beach, A Vegetarian Farmers Market

San Diego County Macadamia Nuts

Living Patio Potager

After selling Inn Season Cafe in 2002, Sara and I began to restore homes. Our passion was to breath life back into homes built in the 1920s with Arts and Crafts influences and handcrafted before the age of drywall and engineered trusses.  We appreciated styles such as Tudor Revival, Cotswold, Spanish Revival and Craftsman for the romantic concepts they added to daily life.

We restored the homes to their original luster and outfitted them with modern amenities to accommodate today’s lifestyle.

As one may imagine, the area I concentrated on was the kitchen.  I designed each one with the home chef in mind, one who supports local farmer’s markets and enjoys cooking as a form of relaxation.  For me, it was important for the kitchen to be the hub of the home–the place where raw ingredients are assembled to create nurturing meals.

In every house, I created a potager, a kitchen garden full of perennial & re-seeding herbs, culinary and medicinal plants. Mostly, I planted items not easily found at the local farmer’s markets or plants that are best harvested just before serving.  They included: French tarragon, thyme, oregano, sage, mint and fennel, tender greens like sorrel, arugula, varieties of kale and lettuces, and medicinal plants like chamomile, peppermint and lemon-balm.  Time and again, people would be very excited about the gardens and the vision of fresh-from-the-garden vegetables, herbs and flowers.

The potager goes hand-in-hand with farmer’s markets, victory gardens and the entire concept of local food.  Kitchen gardens were a part of our history as much as the local farmer’s market.  When I saw Dennis Stowell at the San Diego’s Little Italy Mercato promoting the concept of the Patio Potager, I was enthused.  The garden boxes, available on a subscription basis, enable one to pick lettuce, herbs and other vegetables at home just before using them.

No matter where one lives, a large home or a small apartment, they can take advantage of the Patio Potager concept, which can be described as a living CSA (Community Supported Agriculture)– a parallel concept to the one I used in my restoration gardens.

After the box is harvested, it is exchanged for a freshly planted one.  Dennis follows the planting cycles so every week there is something new to enjoy and harvest. Few culinary experiences can surpass eating fresh picked vegetables.

If his idea takes seed, it could be a marvelous solution for all the wannabee urban gardeners with limited land, small verandas and busy schedules.

A little piece of the farm comes to you.







After The Flood

After the Flood Video

I never would have believed that the devastating San Diego floods in December could actually have a positive effect on a farm, but I was wrong.  On the north banks of the scenic Tijuana River Park in San Diego is Wild Willow Farm. The community farm and education center for San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project was caught in the once-in-a-decade rain which flooded out the area.  I decided to head down to the farm to see what had happened with my own eyes.

Mel Lions, one of the founding members, explained that what could have been a disaster was instead a windfall in many ways.  The flood waters washed the salt from the nearby ocean out of the soil and when the water receded, a 1/4 inch layer of nutrient-rich silt was left in the fields and the planted seeds sprouted after two days of being under water.   Numerous colonies of bees living on the farm were the biggest loss. Ironically, they were brought there by beekeepers for safe, temporary housing until a better home was found.

Mel believes the most significant benefit was learning how the floods and currents work with the river.  He said ancient cultures modeled their lives around the flood cycles of the alluvial plains they settled on. Now, Wild Willow Farm will work the land to take advantage of future floods as the native peoples had done over thousands of years.

Farmer Misha Johnson of Wild Willow Farm said they will grow potatoes this year without having to water with a dry-farming method.  They plan to use the limited rainfall of San Diego and layer with various forms of water-preserving organic mulch–he compares it to making a lasagna with the different kinds of mulch retaining the moisture.

Before leaving, I helped Mel remove some windows from a recently donated office trailer.  While driving home, I pondered the significant role this farm will play in the local community.  Not only will it supply food for locals, but will help to educate by showing how to connect to the land with food that can be produced so abundantly, organically and sustainably.  Each time I pay the farm a visit, whether it be for events or just to help out, I learn a tremendous amount; the dedication of the volunteers is infectious and it makes me feel one step closer to the earth.

In the future, Wild Willow Farm plans to work with local chefs, schools, budding farmers and local markets to bring awareness and demonstrate the amazing qualities of sustainably grown and local organic produce.  Exciting days ahead!







Toasted Almond Caesar Salad


Toasted Almond Caesar Recipe Video

Every week I explore the farmers markets of San Diego.  One of my most recent discoveries at the Hillcrest Farmers Market is Rosie romaine lettuce; Sage Mountain Farm and Suzie’s Farm both grow and sell the red-hued romaine.   Delicate and tender, yet crisp, it is a perfect lettuce for my Toasted Almond Caesar Salad–a simple recipe with a big impact that stands up to traditional Caesar Salads which use eggs, anchovies and Parmesan cheese.

Modern food lore describes the original salad being invented in Tijuana on July 4th, 1924 by Caesar Cardini, the Italian Mexican restaurateur.  Being low on normal salad ingredients, he whipped this one up to satiate his hungry customers.  Since then, the name of the salad has had a life of its own and it is often served in Italian restaurants as part of the traditional cuisine.  For me, the name Caesar evokes my Greek heritage and I have revisited the unique relationship Greeks have with lettuces.

The ancient Greeks, believing the tender greens were under the domain of Adonis,  would not eat lettuce for fear that the quick-wilting propensity of this plant was an omen of impotence.  To avoid falling victim to the ancient prophecy, prepare the salad just before serving or right at the table, so the lettuce does not have an opportunity to wilt.

Discovering freshly picked, flavorful and tender heirloom varieties of lettuce at our local market is a simple joy of life.  Picking up a head of lettuce, observing the freshness and color, then speaking to the farmer about it brings back memories and stories of Greek markets I have known.

The Rosie lettuce I used for the video is from Sage Mountain Farm.  Based in Temecula, they sell at markets around San Diego County.  Phil Noble, owner and farmer told me he also grows a similar variety called Sweet Valentine.  Both of these lettuces have long stems, skinny red leaves and have a delicate bite.  Look for them in the spring!

Toasted Almond Caesar Salad

Serves 2 to 3

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (preferably from Crete)
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/4 cup blanched almond flour/meal
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
8 cups of romaine lettuce, washed and torn

into 2 inch pieces

1/2 cup sliced almonds, salted and toasted

In a large wooden bowl, mix the oil, mustard, almond flour, pepper and salt.  Add lettuce.  Using a pair of tongs, turn the salad with a twisting motion until the dressing has thoroughly covered the lettuce.   Mix in the toasted almonds, saving a few for garnish.  Serve on individual plates and garnish with the remaining almonds.  Serve immediately.

Note:
Toast sliced almonds on a cookie sheet in a 350 degree oven for 6 to 8 minutes. Let cool before placing in the salad.