Summertime, and the Livin’ is Easy–in Michigan!

In May, 2010, I released my cookbook, Vegetarian Traditions. The following 10 months, I traveled from San Diego to Michigan a number of times for events, book signings and cooking demonstrations–short trips which barely gave me time to catch my breath.  My wife, Sara, and I decided to spend the summer of 2011 in the Detroit area, allowing us to do events every week, catch up with old friends and take part in community activities.  What I discovered was exciting!

Michigan, as a whole, is in a heavy state–consistently near the top of the charts for the most overweight, even though it is one of the top agriculture producers with farming being the second largest industry.  I was always troubled by the obesity since there is so much fresh produce available in the numerous farmers markets, road side stands, grocery and produce stores, all carrying the amazing Michigan bounty.  However, this summer, I felt change in the air.

We kicked off our Michigan summer with a cooking class on Mackinac Island during their Lilac Festival.  Although the natural beauty of Mackinac Island is dazzling, the tourists always seemed to be disconnected with what they ate. Food on the island is solely for entertainment purposes–fudge, candy and restaurant cuisine prepared for taste and presentation.  This trip was different.  Not only did they invite me, a vegan, health-oriented chef, to do a demonstration in the community center, but the local chefs and residents seemed to be yearning for change towards a better and healthier cuisine.  This was evident, not only through what I was told, but also on the restaurant menus.  Mackinac Island has not lost its status of being the fudge capital of Michigan, continuing to use more sugar than anywhere else in the state—but, Rome was not built in a day.

My next surprise was when I was invited to teach a class in Wyandotte.  This is in the “down-river” area of Michigan’s very industrial community with hard working, blue collar folks.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered the class was sold out.  In a charming health food store, Total Health Foods in Wyandotte’s historic downtown area, the impressive crowd was eager to learn and discover as much as they could about healthy food and cooking. The down-river experience didn’t stop there.  I was invited to pass out Inn Season Cafe’s Brown Rice Salad and sell my book in three areas which are not synonymous with vegetarian lifestyles:  Allen Park, Shelby Township and Warren.  All of these events were organized and run by the optimistic and high energy Mary Ann Demo.

Allen Park, a down-river community where the Detroit Lions practice in the summer months, is a wholesome, unassuming town and, much like Wyandotte, many of the residents worked for the auto industry or one of the other numerous plants in the area.  The farmers market was set up in a parking lot close to the downtown area.  It was quiet and may take a while to catch on, but at least Mary Ann and the Allen Park residents are making the effort and it is a good place to spend a Friday afternnoon.

The relatively new Warren Farmers Market is housed in the Warren Town Center, a wonderful facility with pavilions, a wading pool and an interactive fountain located near the GM Tech Center.  This busy market had farmers selling Indian lauki (calabash) squash, purslane and amaranth in addition to a robust presentation of the usual Michigan bounty.

The Shelby Township Farmers Market is located on the historic Packard Automotive Proving Grounds, a beautiful property with buildings designed by famed architect Albert Kahn.

Although the day I participated was unusually hot, many local residents braved the heat to purchase fresh, local produce.  One of the farmers was selling a succulent and very sweet watermelon in addition to an impressive selection of Michigan produce–the perfect antidote for the heat.


I was really excited to see several Detroit urban farmers at the historic Eastern Market, the nurturing core of Detroit’s urban expansion since 1841. Brother Nature and Grown in Detroit, just to name a couple, feature an impressive variety of fresh-picked produce from local gardens. In addition, Randy Hampshire of Hampshire Farms, is still the certified organic anchor here, selling grains, beans and breads–not to mention his fresh ground cornmeal.

The Royal Oak Farmers Market and the Birmingham Farmers Market, the two I frequent the most, were busier than I ever remember.  The Royal Oak Market is located within blocks of my former restaurant, Inn Season Cafe, where we sponsored the first organic farmers back in 1990.  Today, certified organic farms, such as Cinzori Farms, Hampshire Farms and Maple Creek Farm, anchor the organic presence, providing some of the best produce in the area and often feature unique heirloom varieties.

 

Cousin Don Hobson has worked tirelessly to make the Birmingham Market a success.  A wonderful addition to a beautiful city, it has become a must-do on Sunday for many of the local residents.  In addition to a wonderful organic presence, including Nature’s Pace Organics and Blue Water Organics, the market highlights numerous vendors with local hand-crafted products.  These two markets are great for finding vegetable treasures to make everyday meals an event!

So, as my summer trip comes to a close, I leave feeling that Michiganders are now riding the crest of the modern food revolution–actively incorporating healthy changes into their lives.  I am pleased that my book is now in the kitchens of so many on that path to change.  Sara and I feel an even stronger connection to our home state as we have come to appreciate how rich Michigan is with the incredible farmers markets, wonderful restaurants like Inn Season Cafe and The Cacao Tree and the best corn, cherries, blueberries, peaches, heirloom tomatoes, potatoes, kale–just to mention a few!

Our last Summer hurrah will be the Food Is Medicine event at the Wellness Training Institute with Dr. Michael Dangovian, an integrative cardiologist who combines modern cardiology with a Yoga-based stress-reducing program.  Late September is the peak of the Michigan harvest and I will showcase foods from local farmers while demonstrating how easy it is to add these gastronomical treasures to any home repertoire.

Book update:  Vegetarian Traditions is now available to purchase at the Birmingham Wellness Institute in their new location in the Birmingham Triangle District  and Essence On Main in Clarkston.

A Market Inspired Recipe:

Big smiles and bright faces greeted me as I approached the Green Tops booth at the Birmingham Farmers Market.  This is what the high school students participating in the farmers market program at the Baldwin Center in Pontiac call their self-grown produce business.  I was pleasantly surprised to find Asian long beans on their table and bought all of them.  My first experience with this type of bean was in India, but soon discovered this is a favorite type of green bean throughout Asia.  They have a nutty flavor, are tender when cooked and only need trimming every foot or so–a real prep bonus!

Asian Long Beans in Tahini Sauce

Serves 4
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

½ teaspoon garlic, minced

1 cup sweet onions, thinly sliced

3 cups Asian long beans, trimmed into 4 inch long sections and steamed

1 ½ cups cooked garbanzo beans¼ cup tahini (sesame butter)

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 ½ cups water

½ teaspoon sea salt
In a skillet on medium heat, cook olive oil, garlic and onions until clear.  Add long beans, garbanzos, tahini, lemon juice, water and sea salt. Turn down to low heat, cover and simmer for 10 minutes.  Serve hot.
Note:  Green beans may be substituted if long beans are not available.

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.

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

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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.

 

Raw Food – Living Markets

In 1981, I visited a 300 acre organic farm in Southern Michigan which housed the Creative Health Institute.  It was there that I was exposed to the early years of Live Foods as directed by the late matriarch of the movement, Ann Wigmore.  The farm grew the grains which became the sprouts in the food; full of life-enhancing enzymes, it was both energizing and healing.  The Creative Health Institute was, and continues to be, a remarkable healing center where life-giving practices are embraced.

Raw or live foods are rooted in traditions which date back to our human origins.  Before refrigeration, fermentation and enzymatic growth in food was widespread in the cuisines of world, including Roman garum sauce, Chinese soy products, Japanese pickles, Korean kimtchie, Indian dosas, Thai fish sauces and Indonesian tempeh. Sometimes cooked, sometimes raw, these foods contributed significantly to the diets of the cultures they came from. The modern raw food diet originally drew inspiration from the proto-Christian Essenes most commonly known as the sect of John the Baptist, a desert-dwelling Judaic group who used the sun to dry their sprouted manna bread.

Raw living foods help stimulate the immune system and facilitate the flow of chi energy throughout the body.  There are countless people who claim it clears the mind, balances the body and heals many illnesses.

The most common endorsement I hear is that the raw foods increases energy in daily living.  Whether one embraces the diet entirely or includes a percentage of raw food, the benefits are real.

There are probably more raw-foodies per capita in Southern California than any other part of the country.  No doubt the weather and year round availability of local fresh foods plays a significant roll.  The sensual pleasures of the palate are plentiful with thoughtfully prepared raw cuisine.  I have seen many raw food chefs to be very good with presentation and flavor.

The farmer’s markets in San Diego feature a number of live food vendors.

Here are some of them:

GreenFix Smoothie Company

Peace Pies

Koral’s Tropical Fruit Farm

Macadamia-Sunflower Hummus is a versatile recipe suitable to serve with any cuisine.  Serve it as a dip or use it as a spread in a sandwich or on a cracker.  The Basil Leaf Rolls are just one of many dishes I have used the hummus with.

Macadamia-Sunflower Hummus

1 cup raw macadamia nuts

1/2 cup raw sunflower seeds

2 cups water for soaking

1 teaspoon fresh garlic, minced

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon sea salt

3 tablespoons lemon juice

1/2 cup water

Place the nuts, seeds and soaking water in a container for 2 to 8 hours. Puree all ingredients in a food processor until smooth.  Serve cold or room temperature.

Basil Leaf Rolls

10 large lettuce-leaf basil leaves
5 tablespoons Macadamia-Sunflower Hummus
1 San Marzano Roma tomato sliced into thin 1/4 inch wide strips

Rinse basil leaves and spin-dry in a salad spinner or pat dry with a clean cloth.  Spread 1/2 tablespoon hummus evenly on each leaf.  Place a tomato slice on one end of the leaf and roll it “roulade-style.”  Repeat with each leaf. Slice into 1/2 inch wide rolls.  Serve right away.


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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.

Georgia on my Mind

Pomegranate is a neighborhood style restaurant at the edge of University Heights.  As a change of pace, we decided to have a dinner out to celebrate the last day of my son Spyros’ visit.  Entering the restaurant, we stepped into another world, chock-full of a spirit and hospitality unique to Russia’s feisty neighbor, Georgia.

11 2009 004

In ancient times, Georgians were the fabled Scythians Herodotus wrote about.  In modern times, most of what we hear about is strife and unfortunate news.  Some of the cultures in the area are renowned for their unusual longevity, such as the Abkazians,who have been victims of recent political power struggles, thus threatening the lifestyle which has made them a rare example on the planet.  But, what we rarely hear about is the strength of the people and the amazing cuisine that makes them that way.  As John Robbins points out in his book Healthy At 100, this cuisine is full of foraged wild greens, mushrooms, roots and tubers, along with seasonal cultivated vegetable crops and preserved foods.

The menu at Pomegranate starts with a warning of the experience to come:

“Once upon a time in the West … on the corner of El Cajon Boulevard and Louisiana Street, there appeared a Russian-Georgian restaurant.  Our food is robust, for heroes of the table, as our motto amply testifies: “Borscht by the bucket, vodka by the inch.” Our service is “Allegro ma non troppo!” As for parking, it is positively Darwinian:  survival of the fittest.”

11 2009 005

Our experience at the restaurant did not disappoint as the food is flavorful and very generous in portions.  The walls are covered with graffiti by happy customers in languages from around the world.  One can imagine many of those scrawled quips were created under the influence of copious servings of vodka, Georgian beer or the special wines made from indigenous Georgian grapes.  The menu boasted 20 vegetarian items so we started with beautifully prepared vegan borscht, full of zest and a good texture.  Next, we grazed a salad sampler plate with a red cabbage slaw, a carrot slaw, a potato salad, a red bean salad and a green bean salad—all tasty.  We finished with a vegetable stroganoff and an eggplant “ratatouille” called Ajap Sandhali.  Both were outstanding.  Perhaps it was the spirit of the place that made everything so good, reminiscent of the family feasts I would enjoy in Crete with long tables of relatives.  Or, it could have been the feeling of authenticity–that we were in the midst of Georgians, celebrating their culture as participants, not just observers.  Whichever way I recall, it was a memorable dinner, for the food and the people.  I even took the opportunity to scrawl my own message, in honor of my father who loved this place.    On the way out, the owner and waitress both enthusiastically invited us to their Thanksgiving dinner, noting it will be home-style–family, friends and great food.

From About Georgia:

“Georgia is an amazing cluster of cultures, religions, fascinating landscapes and ancient history. The country where everyone can find something to his liking – from snowy peaks to subtropical shores, from deserts to lush forests, from cities to enchanting villages. Ethnic Georgians constitute a majority of the population. The official language is Georgian, one of the oldest languages in the world. Tbilisi is the capital and by far the largest city.”

“Georgian cuisine uses well familiar products but due to varying proportions of its obligatory ingredients such as walnut, aromatic herbs, garlic, vinegar, red pepper, pomegranate grains, barberries and other spices combined with the traditional secrets of the chef ‘s art the common products do acquire a special taste and aroma, which make Georgian cuisine very popular and unique.”

“The Georgian table is conducted in a wise manner in accordance with the ancient ritual. The head of the table “tamada” is elected as proposed by the host. The tamada must be a man of humour with an ability for improvisation and a philosopher’s wisdom. If there are many guests at the table he appoints assistants who in Georgian are called “tolumbashis”. The tamada’s toasts follow one another in a strict never violated order. The guest is obliged to listen attentively to each toast and appreciate the beauty of style and the purpot of the worlds said. If is not allowed to interrupt the tamada when he is saying the toats. The tamada’s assistants and other guests may only add something to the toast or develop its ideas. If you wish to say a toast, you must by all means have the tamada’s consent or else you will find yourself in an awkward position. This table ritual does not put restraints on the guests but maintains discipline at the table. The feast proceeds among jokes and is accompanied by a dance competition, table songs and music, quotations and aphorisms from the works of poets and writers.”

Food Trends

Hillcrest Market 09 27 2009-3

Is it possible?   An abundance of high quality food is causing fine dining to change?

Over the last two decades, high-end chefs in America established their reputations around dishes created from rare ingredients and items served at the peak of freshness. In recent history, these two areas of food products have not readily been available to the public. Indeed, to their credit, the very chefs who helped to build networks of local farmers, food purveyors and distributors and who, in turn, expanded their offerings to the general public are responsible for the public demand. Chefs were the rock stars of the dinner table and everyone wanted in on their secrets, or to emulate their craft.

hillcrest market sept 2009 (2)

Today, we have an economic downturn, but this as the only cause of the change of economics in the restaurant industry, albeit a predominant factor. The same formerly rare food products are now becoming readily available and markets have started to feature local, up-to-the-minute fresh foods. For example, just over a decade ago mesclun lettuce was only seen in upscale restaurants, now it is everywhere. The same micro-greens and baby vegetables chefs would wow customers with are sold at major grocery store chains. Casual restaurant concepts around the country serve organic food and these formerly exotic ingredients. Why spend $150 for one dinner, when the same food can found at an upscale bistro-style restaurant for $30 to 50 dollars per person. To add to the dilemma, one can eat like a king much cheaper than this by shopping at local farmers markets and cooking at home. Recipes and techniques are readily available in a matter of minutes on the internet. Food is no longer the lone star, now more than ever, the upscale restaurant has to entertain through service, constructed presentation and themes designed to mentally transport the diner away from the locale they sit in.

Beach 2009-20

While enjoyable, this is often a distraction that competes with the food. High-end restaurants have been the bastions of the well-to-do with an additional peppering of the middle-class. The foods of the rich and noble have always been looked up to and desired by those not as fortunate. Numerous parallels to this can be studied in the history of culinary endeavors. Thus, culinary economics are cyclical as engineering advances in food manufacturing and agriculture offered food products previously only available to the elite, thus making them available to the general public. Grocery store shelves are full of such storied items; White flour, refined sugar, Strawberries out of season, refined oils and frozen foods are a few examples. As a result, products available are determined by what is purchased, not by what is healthy.

recipes 2009-56

We advanced ourselves into nutritional depletion and are facing the consequences with such issues as obesity and malnutrition in lower income children. Education is the key to transcending this economic wheel of misfortune. The first steps are simple, starting with reading labels and learning what you are eating. Next is to act on it by shopping local and eating organic foods.  Cooking at home and  growing a garden are the most significant things to do that will educate us about the value of food.

It is not a black and white decision, but a gradual commitment to change. There is no time like the present to take charge of our destiny and good health.