anti juice-ifesto

Update! I posted this yesterday, and today the NYT totally backed me up!

I AM FREAKING OVER JUICE.

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Truthfully, I’ve been over juice for a long time. It’s just that right now seems like the right time to publicly declare my over-juiceness. I will not be silenced on the topic of juice any longer! Ain’t I a woman?

(It’s not that gender politics has anything to do with juice whatsoever—though I’m sure I could work it in, actually: juice diets/juice cleanses/juice enemas—juice is a gendered food!

Mostly though, I just like working Sojourner Truth quotes into my everyday speech whenever possible.)

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Here is the kind of juice I’m not talking about: citrus juice you have once in a while when you go to a diner late at night. Boxed orange juice you get in airports when you are searching wildly for something even vaguely fresh-tasting. The first apple juice of the season when you live in apple country. Those, to me, are incidental juices. Once-in-a-while juices. Those citrus juices are months- or years-old and made with artificial chemicals—yuck. Those are desperation juices (well, except for the first apple juice of the season. That’s just nice.).

The kind of juice I’m talking about is Fancy Juice. Cold-pressed juice you watch being made in front of you from organic ingredients from a wicker basket on the corner. $9 a glass juice. That kind of juice. Kale-cucumber-ginger-apple juice.

First of all: if you like juice, please keep drinking juice. Go forth with your juice! I like eating caramels, so I will continue eating caramels.

But let us not pretend that juice is the path of health, OK? Because that is just patently crap.

Now, I like me a good carrot juice now and then, make no mistake. Sweet and invigorating. Karma Road, the lovely vegan café in my town, makes wonderful juices, and I love them. But I try not to lie to myself about how healthy my occasional juices are.

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First let’s get into the science. Not to get all paleo on you, but there is absolutely no reason that drinking juice is better for you than just eating the foods juice is made from, and there are reasons it is worse.

Juice is not a whole food, unless you have a Breville juicer or some super fancy machine like that, whereupon you can cold-juice the whole thing. Otherwise, with a centrifugal machine you’re throwing away (or, horror of horrors, making into god-awful muffins and things that everyone in your life pretends are tasty) the pulp, which is where mostly all the nutrients in fruits are.

So what you’re left with is sugar water. Concentrated, vegetal, kaley sugar water. Because it lacks fiber, which makes you feel full, you can drink tons of juice without your body sending you signals to stop—thus filling up on sugar water.

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There is nothing wrong with drinking sugar water, except that it’s terrible for you. I wouldn’t own a chocolate shop if I didn’t believe in eating things that are terrible for you at least once a day, but I don’t get why people waste their terrible-for-you food allowance on juice when they could be wasting it on, say, almond toffee. Yes, almond toffee is worse for you than juice. But how much worse? I wonder, because our almond toffee pieces come in 14 gram pieces and I see people drinking these insane 20-ounce (600 grams or so) juices all the time.

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Yes, your sugar water is made from fruits and vegetables, which makes it seem healthier, I get that. It is not though. Seriously. I guess if you never eat fruits and vegetables, a glass of cold-pressed juice will help your diet. If you’ve just left a steakhouse and need to round out your meal, sure, have a juice as dessert. But if you’re a sane eater and don’t usually leave steakhouses, if you’re someone with tries to live healthily, why get into juice? Or, more precisely, why treat juice like a meal, when it’s a treat? If you make juice yourself, it takes so much time and effort and cleanup. Why? Just eat food! Snack on some cucumber sticks, instead of downing a giant cup of cucumber juice.

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There’s something else too, something more personal.

Fruit juice.

I’ve tried, with the juiceheads, I really have.

But it seems to me that those who love juice usually don’t love food. This is fine, I guess, or whatever, but it sure bums me the hell out. To each their own and whatnot. But juice offends me. Juice is sort of—and I fully recognize that this sounds idiotic—an affront to fruit. And an affront to fruit is an affront to my soul.

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I’ve spoken before in this space about my fruit fetishism. For someone who lives for fruit—for the totality of fruit, the soul of fruit, the fruit-ness of fruit—there is something straight-up sad about juice.

Fruit is a sensual experience, and for the aesthete, all the specialness of fruit is missing when it’s mashed up into a thick, warm cup of juice. The pop of a cherry skin, the onrushing heat of a mango eaten over the sink, homegrown watermelon with sweet flaky salt sprinkled on top. These experiences do not translate to juice.

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Every Sunday when I make a special trip to the Rhinebeck Farmer’s Market for Aba’s Falafel, I wash it down with freshly picked and pressed black currant juice. Am I a hypocrite? Maybe. But black currants are not a fruit I desire to eat alone, and the juice is highly sweetened, which makes it a treat. Sunday mornings are my treat-time. And I fully, wholeheartedly, absolutely believe in treats. (Bet you couldn’t have guessed that.)

Juice is fine, but let’s not kid ourselves: it’ll never be more than that. Fruit, on the other hand, is life itself.

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“Vegan” is Not a Theme: Thoughts on Next Restaurant’s Vegan Menu

I flew to Chicago last week to eat Next Restaurant’s vegan menu.

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It was the most expensive meal of my life, which is saying a lot, because in the past decade or so pretty much all of my disposable income has been devoted to furthering my culinary education by eating vegan tasting menus in high-end restaurants. Alinea, Per Se, Charlie Trotter’s, Brushstroke, Craft, dozens and dozens of long meals at Kajitsu—my only hobby is eating fancy food.

The funny thing about being a vegan chef is that even though the food industry at large makes fun of vegans relentlessly, it’s surprisingly easy to go to a high-end restaurant as a vegan.

Just call to make a reservation and ask if they can make you a vegan menu. That’s it. Most times they’ll say yes—the only place I’ve been turned down was Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and they didn’t reject me, actually, I rejected them. I knew that Blue Hill serves only what they grow and kill, and since I live upstate and eat farm-fresh vegetables prepared well (not as well as they are prepared at Blue Hill, surely, but still pretty damn well-prepared) all spring and summer and fall, I wasn’t particularly interested in lightly steamed baby zukes for $100+. I politely emailed them and asked if they grew beans, for tempeh or tofu, or wheat to make seitan, or nuts—or if I got a vegan tasting menu if it would indeed be 100% vegetables. I received a polite response that that would be exactly the case, so I declined to go.

But otherwise I’ve been surprised, and no more so than at Alinea. I’ve been pretty obsessed with Grant Achatz for years, and went to the special vegan tasting menu we’d booked at Alinea a few years ago with butterflies in my stomach, wanting most of all for it to live up to the hype and my ardent ardor. It did, completely. Most of all, it was fun. Serious but playful, gorgeous but not overly prettied up, weird and bizarre and flavorful. We left the restaurant after four or so hours, gasping with pleasure at what we’d just eaten.

Since then I’ve learned more about the techniques used at Alinea, and though I’m no molecular chef I’ve found it’s fun to wow people with anise-scented smoke pouring out of a soup bowl, and that even easy(ish) avant-garde techniques like the now-ubiquituous spheres and caviar are deeply thrilling to the diners (and me!) at the modest little savory dinner series we do once a month in the back room at the shop. Wandering through the Alinea cookbook always gets my gastric and creative juices running.

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When Next, Grant & co’s new restaurant in Chicago which presents themed menus for four months at a time, announced a vegan menu, my tiny little circle of vegan foodies went insane. We prepared ourselves to scramble for the reservation tickets which are released online in bundles, like coveted concert tickets for the most hyped band of the year. We made our airline reservations before the tickets were available and had to just hope we could get tickets on one of the days we were in town.

We signed up for Twitter alerts whenever Next tweeted, and one day—when I’d just come from the woods where I had been mushrooming for two hours and only had two sad morels to show for it—we got the alert that the tickets were on sale. Jacob was traveling and couldn’t get to a computer. I feverishly got online and navigated the reservations system, wishing that, like Jacob, I’d tooled around the site previously in order to practice for this rushed moment. I finally got my party of six people tickets at 9:30 PM (the last seating on sale) on June 13, at the chef’s table in the kitchen. Amazing luck. I didn’t want to spring for the alcohol pairing, $100+ per person with a mandate that everyone at the table get the pairing, but I opted for the juice pairing, at a more modest $60 per person.

And so we assembled. My mom, Jacob, our family friend Harriet and I got to the restaurant half an hour early because my mom and Harriet, native Chicagoans, weren’t sure they’d know how to get to the restaurant, way off on the in the meatpacking district (ha). I was wearing a hot pink suit. (My brother, pictured, didn’t go because he lives off hot dogs and would have hated every second of it. Please note also that my brother is a human giant who must be about 6’5″, something I appear to have just noticed although he has been this height for a decade. This is unrelated.)

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Our friends Ruby and Alex pulled up on their bikes perfectly on time. We were led to the chef’s table, which was both in and not in the kitchen—it had a glass wall through which you could see the goings-on, but it was shielded by the noise of the restaurant and kitchen by walls on three sides.

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The juices began.

The juices were all delicious. But I’m not sure a juice can be exactly earth-shattering. And here I made a fatal mistake: I assumed that once I had drunk the juice, that particular juice would be over. But, without me quite noticing it, the juice was replenished. Over and over. Until the new juice came, and the cycle repeated. And so I filled up on juices. This generosity of juiciness certainly wasn’t a fault, but my overindulgence on juice did contribute to an increasing unpleasant fullness as the meal went on.

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I’m used to these kind of long tasting menus, but in my everyday life I’m a nibbler. I eat tiny meals all day long, but I rarely sit down and eat a large amount of food at a time. I knew I’d be full by the end of the meal, but I was so incredibly unpleasantly full that by the last three courses I was taking tiny bites in order not to throw up. Again, the extravagant profusion of deliciousness cannot exactly be a flaw of the dinner, and as stomachs go mine is a rather small one, but the last quarter of the dinner was pretty much a wash for me because of the extreme fullness.

Let’s move on to the menu itself.

OK, first of all, here is what I think the menu gets wrong: “vegan” is not a culinary category.

Veganism is an ethical system, not a way of eating. People who eat the Adkins diet, or that weird stupid paleo diet, or eat a strict locavore diet, tend to have some commonalities in their eating patterns. Vegans often do not. There are junk food vegans, locavore vegans (me!), low-fat vegans, high-fat vegans (me!), fruititarian vegans, raw vegans—hell, there are even paleo vegans. Vegans are defined, for better or worse, by what we don’t eat.

And thus the problem.

One cannot plan a menu around an absence.

Tasting menus at fine restaurants are about lavishness, deliciousness, beauty, creativity—and a personal vision. They need an anchor. Next’s other menus—”Paris 1906,” “The Hunt,” “Childhood,” “Kyoto,” “El Bulli,” “Thailand”—provided them with the guidelines and restrictions that are necessary for creativity to truly flourish. “Vegan” really doesn’t. I can see how stripping away animal products could seem, to a mainstream chef, to be enough austerity to get the creativity flowing, but the truth is, as any vegan with a sharp knife knows, there’s an entire world of deliciousness to be cooked out there with nary a dead or tortured animal in sight.

The types of vegan restaurants in New York City alone attest to this: Thai (Pukk), Korean (Hangawi), Japanese (Kajitsu), Chinese (Veggie Dim Sum House, etc.), Hippie (Caravan of Dreams, etc.), high-end (Candle 79, etc.), avant garde (Dirt Candy, etc.), sushi (Beyond Sushi), Indian (dozens), bakeries, donut shops, ice cream parlors, diners—OK, so maybe NYC is an exceptional vegan paradise, but you see my point, right?

Without a doubt, no vegan restaurant in the world (with the exception of Kajitsu, my heart-restaurant) has the amount of money, toys, high-quality ingredients, and sheer cheffy talent that bounces off the walls of Next. My experience there was exciting and pleasant and gave me inspiration and ideas to play with for months to come. But it also left me oddly depressed.

One factor was the attitude of the wait staff. Supremely polite, interested, interesting, and knowledgeable, they nonetheless exuded a pride in the vegan menu that sometimes veered into egotistical arrogance. The servers constantly praised the menu, telling us before we could taste the dishes how much we were going to love them, how much effort went into them, how unique and special they were (my editor mom’s one complaint about the menu, apart from her own painful fullness, was the server who referred to a dish as “super unique.”). “We really outdid ourselves,” “We’re going to have a lot of fun tonight.” “You wouldn’t even believe it’s vegan,” “We actually made it all in-house.” Lots of superlatives, lots of excitement. Nothing wrong with that, I guess. It’s just not exactly my style, or what I expected from the House of Grant, who (in my limited experience consisting of eating once at Alinea and obsessively rereading his autobiography and cookbook) always shows, never tells.*

At one point a server mentioned that a battered swiss chard leaf actually included “beer in the batter, instead of the sparkling water we’d usually use, because we like to drink beer.” I’m not sure if he’d ever eaten at one of the thousands of bars, pubs, fast-casual restaurants and high-end establishments in the country that tout their beer-battered this or that, but a visit to one such tavern might be useful in order to understand why maybe bragging that you sprung for the beer batter instead of the water batter in my $300 dinner might not be all that thrilling. Was the beer vegan? Was it made in-house? Now there’s information I’d have liked to have.

The impression one was left with was that the staff was so incredibly proud of the menu being vegan that the actual cohesiveness of the meal was somewhat secondary. It was as if by daring to cook a vegan meal they’d already scored so many points in the food world for cutting edge transgressiveness** that the hard work was done the day they decided to go temporarily vegan.

A signature Alinea move (one I’ve copied more than once, one I love) is the centerpiece that becomes part of the meal, and it was repeated at Next: a large heavy square glass dish filled seemingly with a random assortment of rocks, pond water, and aquatic greens was dramatically spooned onto plates with the explanation that the water was actually a light vinaigrette and the greens were salad greens.

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“No frogs in here though…” said one waiter. “I guess that wouldn’t be vegan!” said another. “No wait, I guess frogs would be OK…as long as they weren’t being eaten.” said the first waiter. Their tone implied…something. Something having to do with the hilariously weird rules—rules like, “Hey, let’s maybe not kill so much!”—vegans bizarrely follow. We played along, good-naturedly. But it put something weird into the air.

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Also, what as up with the tablecloth change? I just honestly do not get what that was about. At Alinea the white tablecloth is often (always?) removed near the end of the meal and a neoprene one unrolled so that the chefs (swoony Grant Achatz, crush o’ my heart) can dramatically go all Pollock on the table itself, painting it with swirls and dots of sauces and nibbles, liberally dropping liquid nitrogen frozen things that explode and shatter with infinite beauty. If Sylvia Plath had eaten at Alinea, she would have written “what I love is / the piston in motion— / my soul dies before it” about their dessert course. How she wrote it without eating dessert at Alinea, I have no idea.

At Next the first few courses were served on rocks, tree stumps, and in tree branches on a beautiful bare wood table. As the menu progressed we saw more china plates, more silverware, and finally the table was cleared to make way for a heavy white tablecloth. To what avail aside from making some sort of point about a progression of dishes from elemental to avant-garde…I can’t quite figure out. It was just a weird break in the flow of the dinner, really.

OK, let’s get to the food already.

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“Starter and burnt avocado” —served on a rock, with a “kale bouquet” (hilariously immediately fulfilling Jacob’s and my joke earlier in the day that the dinner would be just kale, to mess with vegans who are so obsessed with kale), this dish was unctuous and luscious and salty. Real salty. I love salty, so I didn’t mind. But as dish after dish came out with the salt level turned up to the max, I started not to love salty so so much. And started to drink more juices. And we’ve already talked about that.

This dish celebrated umami flavors, and I, for sure, certainly appreciated this. I was thankful it wasn’t a “light” meal, the spalike steamed vegetables like most people think vegans eat. My culinary philosophy is to prove to the world that vegans can create rich, deep flavors as well as flesh-eaters, and this feeling clearly steered this menu as well. Which was gratifying, even when it went too far into shoyu/sea salt/miso land.

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Here’s my one catty I’m-more-vegan-than-you point about the dinner: the next dish had house-made “sprouted tempeh,” and the kidney bean/chickpea tempeh we make at the shop is just plainly better. The tempeh didn’t have much of a mycelium, which is my real sticking point with tempeh. It was a bit of a mush. But maybe they wanted it that way, and maybe we just have different tempeh tastes. That’s fine. I know I should be giving them kudos for making their own tempeh in the first place.

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The “frozen baked potato,” a crispy sweet potato shell filled with sweet potato sorbet, possibly likely made with their fancy-pants anti-griddle (a device, if memory serves, that Grant invented), was one of those dishes that makes you realize that you just mess around in the kitchen for kicks and sometimes people trade you money for what you make, while these guys are COOKING. Cooking dishes you’ll remember the rest of your life, like sweet potato sorbet in a frozen sweet potato crispy shell. Like that.

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No one else seemed to adore the “nori dumpling” as much as I did. My friend Adrienne, who ate at Next a few days before we did, called the dish “fishy,” but I didn’t get such a fishy flavor…I just loved the fresh green color, the nice clean nori flavor, and the springy texture. I loved that goddamn nori dumpling.

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“Leek and banana” How is it possible that I have no memories of this dish, apart from an appealing crispiness and bite-sized nature?

“Earl grey rambutan.” OK so I have to confess that I just have a Thing with Fruit. Like: I fucking adore fruit. And as a chocolatier, I make a lot with fruit, but truthfully I think fruit is so goddamn good that it’s just a little bit of a sacrilege to make fruit into anything, when really what you should be doing in order to bring about total human liberation and possibly even the coveted Revolution Grrrl Style now is just eating fruit. That’s it. Done. Eating fruit is pretty much the closest I get to a religion, and adding fruits to my Fruit Life List is my only other serious passion other than eating in fancy restos. So when I eat dishes made with fruit, I’m kinda touchy. And this earl grey rambutan thingie—well, have you had rambutan? We eat a lot of rambutan in Hawaii that we buy from dudes in pickup trucks on the side of the road. Eating a rambutan is like having an orgasm while eating an ice cream cone on top of a ferris wheel. I’m not being flowery here, that’s pretty much the dictionary definition of what rambutan tastes like. And “earl grey rambutan” was kind of weird and hard to eat because it didn’t slide into your mouth, like actual rambutan does, and you couldn’t really get at it with any utensil, so you sort of had to pick at it with your finger, which I certainly didn’t mind and which explained the nearby moist towel, but the earth didn’t move or anything when you finally got the one-bite morsel into your mouth.

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“Baby artichoke” made me sad.

I once told my BFF Maresa that I had to be alone when eating artichokes because eating artichokes was a deeply personal activity involving about a quart of really fatty vinaigrette and about one thousand napkins, accompanied by curiously and horrifyingly sexual noises. Then once when I found some artichokes on sale and invited her to share with me while we were both working late one night she was awed and honored to be invited into my weird artichoke ritual. But she declined because she knew that I secretly wanted all four artichokes by myself.

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“Baby artichoke” was teenaged artichokes, firstly. Babies can be eaten entirely, but these had to be scraped. Except that they were so charred (“Up the umami! Char ‘em!”) that the scraping didn’t result in much. This was all offset by the luxurious delicious white artichokey sauciness that dwelled within the heart of the artichoke—some sort of mousse whose flavor was so delicious that the fact that you were only given tiny mouthfuls of it and had to suffer through the rest of the charred leaves once you’d wolfishly wolfed down the buttery richness seemed like some sort of grand statement about the vacuity of the universe.

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“Fermented apples and lichen” I loved this one. I was excited to actually eat lichen after reading so many articles about all these Scandinavians lichen-ing it up in their fancy restaurants these days, but the fermented apples seemed to have been fermented about five minutes before and were coated in such a thick layer of saltiness as to make them fairly inedible. New ferments can be like that—in time the lactic acid fermentation eats away at some of that salt, but if you want to dig into your fermented deliciousness before it’s gotten good and rotten you might want to scrape off some of that salty salty salt. This was served with house-made apple cider vinegar, really more of a supercharged apple cider, strained and spooned into sipping cups table side.

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I know I’m coming off like a real shithead here. What do I know about food, me with my vegan chocolate shop in a town of 10,000 people, me about whom no New Yorker articles have been written, who went to a crappy culinary school and who’s been vegan twenty of my thirty-five years and therefore probably has no palate at all? I dunno. I spend every minute of every day reading about food, foraging for food, touching myself inappropriately while thinking about watermelon, and eating and making food. That’s all I’ve got. I’ve just got my own palate, and my own thoughts, and here they are. Take ‘em or leave ‘em.

The next dish was “lily pond,” which I discussed a bit above.

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“Rice yogurt and white asparagus” was house-made rice yogurt and white asparagus cooked three ways.

Not to get ludicrously vegan on you, but I always feel bad for white asparagus. While its green friends are happily photosynthesizing, gorging themselves on the deliciousness of sunshine, white asparagus lives in little tents, or underground, or somewhere where sun can’t get to it. But who cares, I still love its pale soft flavor. And this dish was one of my favorite of the night. It felt like what you’re supposed to feel when you think of the words “a sophisticated menu.” A white meal on a white plate. White yogurt, white crackery thing, white spargel. Some bits of perfectly brunoised compressed pear mixed in with the asparagus, just to mess with you. Single-tone dishes really impress me, who knows why. Maybe because in culinary school I was always taught to garnish each dish with a damn sprig of something green or a little dice of red pepper or something to “set off” the food on the plate, and flaunting this feels fun. This dish was garnished with some purslane, which fit the flavors, but it did mess with my dream of a 100% monotone plating. Ah well. The sweet smooth flavors of good old “rice yogurt and white asparagus” knocked me out. Excellent.

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“Salsifies with oyster and dandelion.” We were given a heavily italicized speech about how this dish would blow our minds because salsify tastes like oysters and one preparation of it was served with oyster lettuce which is lettuce which tastes like oysters, and the other side of the plate showcased the earthy side of salsify by pairing it with dandelion and how we had to eat the oystery side of the plate first. Both halves of the plate tasted nice, but I have never eaten an oyster so I guess I can’t comment on this dish much.

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“Swiss chard and douchi.” I discussed the beer-battered swiss chard above. It was delicious. Underneath was a mixture of fermented black beans and black garlic, which was described as “fermented,” and, because I am a huge giant asshole, I had to smilingly interrupt and, with what I hope was the interested mind of the obsessive foodie and not the jerkishness of a jerk, said that I had been emailing with a friend of mine, Sandor Katz (total name drop, which the server totally responded to—I win!), about black garlic because although it seems fermented it’s actually a microbial process or something I couldn’t quite remember that makes it black, and anyway, the dude who invented it in the modern sense holds a patent on it, and isn’t that weird, and on and on until the server politely explained that this actually was fermented, together with the black bean, and there we were. I wonder if he meant that the black beans were fermented, since “douchi” is the name for those delicious Chinese fermented black beans? I wonder if they made their own fermented black beans. Probably. That’s awesome. I’ve only bought them. I wonder where you even get the culture for that? Hmm.

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Moving on! Before I stop writing this report and go spend an hour Googling to find douchi starter.

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“Kombu atoll:” A beautiful plate, a beautiful plating, this dish reminded me so much of beloved Kajitsu that my heart hurt. I once read in New York Magazine how Grant Achatz went to Kajitsu and adored it, and I could see the influence of my beloved Masato Nishihara (who has since moved on to cook at a non-vegan restaurant in London, breaking my heart for good and leaving with boxes of chocolates I showered on him at the last dinner we ate by his gentle quiet hands) in the dish. It was a beautiful broth with a cloak of yuba (homemade? We were not told. Fun fact: my Pig Out Bar research has told me that if it wasn’t homemade or from Hodo Soy Beanery in San Francisco [from which Jacob FedExes me some whenever he travels to SF for work] it was probably made from GMO soy beans.). I’m just being a snot again. I love kombu, I love yuba, I loved this dish.

This one came with a tamarind, aloe, and pea juice that I adored. More pea juice in my life, please.

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“Cherry blossom and almond” was delightful mostly because it included an exceptionally tasty cherry which, fruit fetishist that I am, was the highlight of the latter part of the menu for me.

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I hated “spaghetti squash Bolognese.” Mostly because it was an idea literally out of one of those dreadful 1970s health food cookbooks that veganism is trying to hard to purge from its system these days. Everyone in the world with access to spaghetti squash has taken spaghetti squash and mixed it with a tomato sauce. Everyone. And then everyone has realized that it’s actually better slathered with brown sugar and olive oil and salt and eaten for breakfast on the half shell. “Spaghetti squash Bolognese” came with a jokey speech about how clever it was, and marked the turning point in my stomach capacity from “oh man, I’ve been drinking a lot of juice,” to “I wonder if $300 means we can put this shebang on hold while we all take several rapid turns around the block in order to free up more stomach space,” so maybe I just resented valuable real estate being rented out to such a lousy roommate as those bites of lukewarm spaghetti squash with decent tomato sauce.

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The “mushroom cart” was this thing that was a play on a cheese cart where they wheeled in a cart with a bunch of mushrooms and showed you how pretty they were, then they came back to you a few courses later in the form of a truffled mushroom farotto that was perfectly mushroomy, perfectly tasty, even delicious, but certainly nothing to dream about for the rest of your life, like I’ll be dreaming of the “transparency of raspberry” I ate at one Alinea, one fine day when Next wasn’t even a gleam in its daddy’s eye.

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The juice accompanying this dish was simultaneously my favorite and least favorite of the night, and that these can both exist side-by-side is sort of a metaphor for the whole dinner, is it not? It was huitlacoche, blueberry, and bell pepper. I adore all kinds of weird rotten food, so I love the huitlacoche, the “corn smut” virus that attacks and deliciously digests/ferments corn. I asked if it was homemade and they said they bought it, and now that it think about it—is it even possible to make huitlacoche outside of a lab or spontaneously in a cornfield? I wonder. Hmm. On top of the huitlacoche layer was a vivacious bell pepper foam, which I goddamn straight up loved. I’m sure it was just bell pepper juice run through an iSi whip, but who cares? Truffles are just mushrooms, and no one argues with the fact that they’re the best thing on the planet. Good is good. This juice was good.

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But then Ruby said it reminded her of pizza, and it suddenly reminded everyone at the table so completely and totally of pizza that we knew we couldn’t drink any more. She was perfectly right, and it sort of perfectly ruined the juice. It would have been a great thimbleful of deliciously pizza-y liquid, but it was an entire cupful, and none of us made it even halfway through. (Let it be known that I harbor no ill will against Rubez, and wouldn’t have finished it anyway. Let it also be known that Ruby was wearing the most adorable blue Betty Draper vintage dress of all time and looked, as usual, amazingly dapper.)

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The next dish was randomly and insistently Thai, a sort of larb with a “quinoa wire,”*** in a meal that had heretofore been devoid of many cultural references. It was tasty, as was the juice served with it, “mango, galangal, kaffir lime.”

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Then “curry roasted cauliflower,” which was literally what you make for dinner on Friday night when you get your CSA. Cauliflower. Roasted. With a nice curry sauce. Roasted cauliflower happens to be one of life’s best pleasures, and had I had this dish at a takeout veg place in the East Village I would have gone to bed happy that night. As it was, it made me slightly uneasy, like I was missing something. Or not getting something.

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This dish came with some garnishes, including a sprouted chickpea with lots of greens attached, in a glass cylinder you had to take from its spot in a hollowed out log, à la To Kill a Mockingbird, then poke out onto the plate with the single chopstick provided. This seemed to me gimmicky, and since I am a person who adores culinary gimmicks I’m surprised I was as jaded about it as I was.

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The cauliflower was served with—oh man, I don’t want to say it. Ugh. Naan. Naan which was stale and thick and not tasty. Ugh, it gave me a stomachache to say it. Sorry!

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And onward, to desserts.

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“Olive oil jam and bitter chocolate” with Sichuan buttons. Sichuan buttons (Szechuan buttons? I dunno, it’s 4 am and I have to work tomorrow and I’m not Googling around to check how p.c. my spelling is at this point) are these weirdo rare flowers which make your mouth nicely numb. They were almost invisible on the silver spoon they were sitting on, and we were instructed to eat them first and wait until we felt the buzz to eat the dish, which was 99% Vahlrona and a powder of e.v.o. jam. Half of our table didn’t get buzzed on the buttons, but I did, and was supremely pleased because I sort of think flowers are fruits-to-be and so maybe I could add them to my Fruit Life List. The dessert itself was interesting and deep and roasty and tasty.

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“Hibiscus and pistachio.” And we are back to serving food on tree stumps. Everything on this stump was delicious, except that the “pistachio butter” that enclosed a delicious cube of some sort of pudding wasn’t buttery, it was waxy, probably just pistachio paste mixed with enough cocoa butter to give the treat its square shape, and while it was tasty, it didn’t have the fatty luxuriousness promised by “pistachio butter.” The rest of the dish was a firework of yum.

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Everyone at the table loved the juice that accompanied this dish, “malt, bitter chocolate, black sesame.” It was cold-brewed cocoa powder mixed with malt and black sesame. Maybe something’s wrong with me. I liked it…I don’t know. Maybe at this point in the meal my palate and stomach were just sort of done. It did get me thinking about cold-brewing more than just the coffee we serve as iced coffee in the shop, though. Cold-press extraction. Lots of possibilities there, for sure.

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I loved the last dessert. I’m going to steal it as soon as I can. It was a little round of moss (inedible) topped with a sweet nest of fried sweet potato, topped with the best marshmallow, vegan or otherwise, anyone on this planet has ever eaten. Lightly charred and perfectly marshmallowy. Perfection.

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The mignardies were “steamed crepes” and everyone at our table and everyone I’ve read about online universally emitted a collective “meh” when taking their tiny bites of them. They reminded me a lot of these gross gummy little wheat-free cupcakes I used to have to make when I was a pastry chef at a horrible rat-infested macrobiotic restaurant by NYU, once upon a time in a land far far away.

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And we tumbled out into the night through the almost empty restaurant at 1:45 am, exhausted, fattened up, not quite exhilarated.

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I’m glad I went. I learned lots and I ate some truly astonishingly delicious bites.

But from now on, when I am in Chicago with money to burn and an appetite to be schooled on how to cook a dinner that will change your life, I’ll head to Alinea.

The next night, back in New York, we went to M.O.B. in Brooklyn because we were seeing friends play at the giant arena around the corner before we headed upstate. I was still full from the dinner—seriously. I never really get salads when eating out because I love to make salads, and a badly made salad kills your soul, especially when you pay a 1000% markup for it. But I got a small side salad and a small artichoke mac and cheese, and wanted to weep with the perfection of both. The mac and cheese had a cashew béchamel, with smoked artichokes and…it just all came together so nicely. Simple. Elemental. The salad had just the right amount of dressing, the greens were farmer’s market fresh and juicy, the whole thing was garnished with two perfect rounds of watermelon radish. The service was friendly and nothing more.

It was exactly what I was in the mood for.

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*Fear that this review of Next will kill my life’s goal chances of someday making out with Sir Grant: extremely high.

**And let’s be clear here: with a foodie culture that bows down to bacon like so many culty Asian vegan restaurants worship the Supreme Master Ching Hai and spend countless hours waxing poetic over nose-to-tail this and happy-meat that and making vicious fun of vegans as cheerless ascetics who eat cardboard for dinner and like it—a vegan menu at such a revered restaurant truly is a transgressive act.

***I’d like to throw something out here: no matter what you call it, and no matter what it’s made from, anything cooked in a deep fryer is automatically delicious, and nothing deep-fried is better or worse than anything else deep-fried. Basically, everything you fry in hot oil is as good, and no better than, a McDonalds french fry. This restaurant in my town fries woody herbs alongside their fries: rosemary and sage and everything. It’s delicious, everyone loves it. Salty, and you get the illusion of freshness from the herbs. Sometimes they don’t even strip the herbs from their woody stalks, and you find yourself eating handfuls of sage twigs. Sure, fine. Take quinoa and make it into a batter, fry it up and call it a “quinoa wire,” OK. Shove it in my mouth. It’s all good. Really.

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2012 Highlights (from the entire Lagusta’s Luscious crew!)

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Here’s how my little chocolate business has gone:

In 2003 Jacob and I started making truffles for family gifts, inspired, like all good things are inspired, by an article in Martha Stewart Living. I didn’t know what on earth I was doing.

In 2004 everyone we gave the truffles to in 2003 wanted more of them. And I saw that this was a little hole in the vegan marketplace, so I decided to start selling them on the internet. I made them once a month, in-between cooking for the meal delivery service I ran, and kept a little email mailing list I’d announce the shipment on. People would email me back to order, I would send them a PayPal invoice, and off their chocolates would go.

Things went pretty much like this until 2010. Over the years we got a website, a fancier ordering system, and a bunch more customers (not just friends). I made chocolates once a week, not once a month. It was nice. The chocolate holidays (Christmas, Easter, and, of course, V-day) slammed me, made it difficult to get my cooking work done and difficult to sleep. The chocolate side of things was growing, without me feeding it. (The meal delivery would have been growing too, but it was so exhausting that I kept it to 20 clients or less so I could manage it and have a reasonable life, too.)

In 2010 I decided to shut down the meal delivery service and focus on a sweeter life, with less onions to peel and less pots to scrub.

Here’s the difference, dish-wise, between the two jobs:

  • Meal delivery dishes took hours of scrubbing giant pots, leaving you with oniony, wrinkly hands and exhausted arms. 
  • Chocolate dishes can go right into the dishwasher with no scrubbing, and make the entire kitchen smell like hot chocolate.

Looking back, the choice was easy.

In 2011 we scraped up our pennies and borrowed pennies from wherever we could and bought the building. It was an 11-month-long odyssey, my friends (buying a building in foreclosure with almost no money—patient persistence is necessary, and since I am the most impatient person in the world, it was constantly tough for me. Thankfully, Jacob is amazing at smooth-talking banks and having patience, so while I was ranting and renting my garments with stress, he was cooly Making It Happen. It’s all detailed here, along with some TMIness about my own internal state at the time.)

Then began the renovation process (detailed rather haphazardly here). The word “renovation” still fills my heart with a cold chill. Oh, the months!

OH, THE MONEY! The delays, the work, the schlepping, the buying, the designing!

It was so much work.

(Was it worth it? Every night when I switch off the lights and lock the door [yes sometimes it’s technically morning when that’s happening, but still], I take a moment to look at the shop and get the same frisson of pleasure that I got the first day we opened. Opening the shop is my favorite thing I’ve ever done, and I love it every single day.)

We finally opened on June 28, 2011. (Jacob’s birthday! He was on tour in Europe at the time, and I sent him a photo of the shop and told him that instead of any presents [I was a little busy and a lot cash-strapped at the time, OK?], I got him a chocolate shop.)

It was fun from the start.

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2012 was our first full year of being open, and it brought lots of changes in our Luscious little world. Here’s a rundown of the biggest ones:

  • 2012 was the year we went from being a micro-business to a small business.
  • It’s the year I had to learn how to be imperfect in front of other people, too. 

The biggest change in my personal work world was how many more people I work with on a day-to-day basis.

As late as June of this year I was still clawing on to Solitude Sundays (what I always called them in my head) where I worked alone. Alone! It was super tough, yes (every time we had a party of five who all ordered Drinking Chocolates, I’d set a new record for how fast one person can stir ganache into hot almond milk, top it with almond whip, marshies, and cinnamon, pour it into a cup, put a lid on it, and get it to them), but I loved having a day all by myself at the shop, so quiet and still in the back of the house.

I could use all the space, live completely in my head, work on secret formless projects I didn’t have to chat about to anyone until they were more complete, nailed-down, ready to be tasted. Sometimes things like Thyme, Preserved-Lemon and Sea Salt Caramel need a little marinating time in one’s own head before they’re ready to be trotted out for a tasting. I’m like that (I used to be like that?)—I want things to be perfect before anyone sees them.

I’ll never go back to Solitude Sundays, I know that.

That’s a good thing, but it’s a little bittersweet, too. Change is good, Lagusta! Moving forward is good!

Now I work more collaboratively, and it’s one of the most exhilarating processes I’ve ever participated in. I’m continually blown away by the brilliant ideas of the women I work with, how they help me solve problems and come up with amazing new ideas. If I don’t have an idea down perfectly, I know I can bring it to them and they’ll help me make it better.

It’s terrifying not to perfect things before I show them to other people, but I’m getting better at it.

Around August, we ramped up like crazy for the chocolate season ahead. It’s good that we did. We needed every body we could cram in those 1000 square feet. And I LOVE the amazing women we hired. Still, it’s been a major shift for me in the way I always figured the shop would run. It’s so strange to me when an order, or even a Drinking Chocolate, goes to a customer and I didn’t have a hand in any of it—I didn’t make the ganache or fold the boxes or dip the truffles or even ship out the package. (I started doing this thing where I write “Enjoy! XO, L” on all the packages I ship out, like I’m a fancy person, like people should be excited to get packages from the great Lagusta herself!! Oy!)

All this is strange.

I know in the scheme of things we are still a very, very small business, and always will be, no matter how much we grow. But I always thought we’d be a micro business. Just me, with Maresa helping out when she wasn’t making cupcakes and cakes.  And it went like that for a long time—I’ve been unable to get rid of Maresa since the day 5 or so years ago when she showed up at my old kitchen in Rosendale and said she’d work for free. Now I’d pay her anything she asked because she’s not only the sister I never had, but also so essential to the business that I sometimes wake up from nightmares where she went on a short vacation (really though, Reesey, you should take more days off!). We’ve had other people working on the shop since it opened, but never more than 3 of us at a time. From when the Oprah thing came out (keep reading!) in November until we went to Hawaii we were averaging 5 people a day working in the shop, and there were a few days when I looked up and we’d crammed SEVEN PEOPLE, each working with elbows tucked in their little stations, stirring flavorings into ganache or checking the temperature of caramel.

Unbelievable.

  • The finishing of the façade.

This article came out about Chocolate in the Hudson Valley in the early part of 2012 in one of our the fine local alt-weeklies.  It mentioned all the chocolate shops in the HV except us. Our customers kept coming in and saying “Why didn’t they mention you???”

Everyone working in the shop was kind of outraged.

Secretly (ok, maybe not so secretly), I was pleased as punch. Do you know what this means? I kept saying to the little crew. We’re still an underground business!! 

The publisher of the magazine, however, happens to be a regular shop customer. One day he came in and apologized profusely about the omission. He didn’t happen to see the article before it went to press, otherwise he would have made sure they covered us. He promised some press to come to make up for the oversight.

I was honored, of course, but also a little rueful.

Being an underground business REALLY pleased me.

If it were up to me, we wouldn’t even have a sign on the door. I had this idea that we’d be a secret around town that you had to know someone to find. You’d open this unmarked, plain teal door and walk into a wild chocolate wonderland. How cool would that be?

As everyone reminded me, banks need mortgage payments in exchange for the building, and utility companies need money in exchange for power to power tempering machines. And student loans from a certain someone with a double major in English and Women’s Studies (oh, and the French minor) still has student loans to pay. So, concessions needed to be made.

Our friend Molly made our amazing sign. I liked it. Most particularly, I liked that it didn’t tell what we sold. Keeping the mystery!

In time though, everyone else got REALLY tired of saying, “We’re a chocolate shop!” to people who popped in just to ask what the crap it was that we sold.

So. Over my objections, we got these fancy letters for the front of the building. I got to pick out the font, and I picked Futura, so we could seem as much like we were living inside a Wes Anderson movie as possible.

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Speaking of the chocolate letters:

  • I made this really cool banner for the website. 

Maybe it’s not a year highlight to you, but to me, who manages to screw up the website majorly every time she touches it, who has pretty much been taken off website duty by Erin and Jacob, who are constantly tinkering and improving and fixing and perfecting, being able to make and upload the rotating banners on the top of the page was sort of a minor miracle.

new banner copy

How Wes Anderson-y does it look??

  • I created the hardest, bestest recipe of all time. 

Oh, Peanut Butter Toffee Crunch Bars! Your butterfingery devils, you. How we love to hate you. 

  • Pate de Fruits.

I love these little gems. Finally making them after years of wanting to was so satisfying. The cantaloupe was my favorite, but I loved them all.

  • Ice cream. 

I LOVED making ice cream this summer (and milkshakes!). And we’ve got so many fun summery plans for cold treats to come, I can’t wait to share ‘em…

  • Ridding the shop of corn syrup

I’m so proud of our Innovation of the Year: homemade organic cane syrup to replace corn syrup!

  • Flowers. 

Candied homegrown flower tablets. Sigh. My heart is bursting.

  • Molly’s window project

Our resident genius artist, Molly Rausch of Postage Stamp Paintings, painted our windows so beautifully, I don’t think we’ll ever take it down.

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  • Oprah Magazine + press

I guess I should stop with things that were important in my personal soul and all that and get on to the actual tangible markers of the year.

One of those was that we got some mega press.

We were in a bunch of local magazines and papers, and that 1/4 page mention in Oprah magazine sure raised our profile quite a bit. From when the magazine came out until the end of the year, we were solidly slammed with orders.

  • Donations

Not being so terrified that we weren’t going to make mortgage payments every month has meant that we can afford to do more donations!

I knew there was a reason why being a bigger business was good—this is one of the major reasons.

As someone who always figured she’d be a penniless activist for a “living,” doing good is a huge part of our mission at the shop. Nothing feels better than being able to support the groups, people, and work we believe in. Here’s a partial list of donations we did in 2012:

  • The wildest Halloween ever.

There were so many sad events in the wider world this year. They’re beyond the scope of this blog post, but it’s crushing to remember them.

Hurricane Sandy was responsible for the cancellation of the Google NYC Halloween party, for which the Google folks had ordered hundreds of chocolates from us. They said we should give the chocolates out to New Paltz trick or treaters, which meant we had the craziest, most fun (in spite of the Sandy sadness living in our hearts) Halloween ever in the shop, which was crammed with people for hours and hours—long after the chocolate ran out, actually. My oh my does word spread fast in this town.

  • The dough sheeter!

We bought a dough sheeter, thus ending 10 months of a croissant desert that we (me!) barely survived. Croissants are back forever, woo!

The most fun and the most work I’ve had in a long time (which is saying a lot—I have a lot of fun and work a ton on the regular). I hope it continues forever. We did two dinners last year (you can see millions of photos of ‘em at the link above), this year I’m hoping to do one a month March-October.

  • Partnership with Tuthillltown Spirits

Tuthilltown has quickly become a household name in the Hudson Valley as well as the country (the world, maybe?) for well-crafted whiskies and more. We were honored when they asked if we wanted to partner up on a special chocolate to be sold in their distillery shop. Our Four-Grain Bourbon Caramel Chile Bars are one of our best-sellers, and it’s always so nice to meet people who found us from a bar they tasted at the distillery.

The whiskey is delicious on its own, too, which is nice for a whiskey drinker like me. Manhattans (and chocolate!) for all!

I asked everyone who works at the shop for their best-ofs, too:

  • DawnMarie: Unlike everyone else, is probably out having fun and not immediately responding to emails, so I’ll update this post with her best-ofs when I get ‘em. (I’m hoping one of her favorites will be that crazy day she wrapped ten zillion bars…)
  • Favorite thing to make:
    Sundaes in the summer!  Especially with gooseberries on top. (Customer-“you mean the ice cream, marshmallows, AND whip are all vegan? *face lights up*)
  • Favorite thing I ate:
    Chocolate- ginger orange blossom truffle
    Cupcake- pistachio & rosewater
    Savory- latkas with sour cream & apple sauce!
    Drink- lavender lemonade
  • Highlights:
    -Learning from and working with empowering, progressive, and witty women. Plus Jacob!
    -Actually being able to eat anything in the shop without worry of the ingredients.
    -Listening to good music all day
    -Maresa’s cake scraps!
    -Lagusta’s training nights & whatever she cooks for us.
  • Favorite moments:
    I was having just your typical case of the rainy-pms-ing-monday-finals week-blues. My day turned around when I walked into work and my senior recital was being played as the shop’s music. What a supportive, loving feeling. And then I got to make chocolate all day. Chocolate shop therapy at its finest.
  • During one of our busy days, I messed up and used black rasberries instead of red rasberries for a recipe and I already added in the balsamic syrup. I felt awful even telling L since we were pressed for time but  she didn’t even break a sweat. She just looked at it and went, “don’t worry- I’ve got an idea!” And just like that she made a tangy, fruity, amazing truffle out of my mistake- with black rasberries, balsamic syrup, lemon, lime, and strawberry that the customers all loved! Lesson learned: when life gives you lemons, make a new chocolate.
  • Jayme: 
  • Favorite thing I made: Holler Mountain bark. The first thing I made from start to finish. :)
  • Favorite thing I ate: Pear, clover, & brown sugar cupcake.
  • Beet coriander truffle!
  • Highlights: when Non vegans walk in and are surprised & impressed that we are a cruelty free/Vegan shop. When vegans realize they can have ANYTHING they want! Putting bows on a zillion barks.

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  • Eating any food that Lagusta makes us (awww). Learning some real knife skills. Being able to work in an amazing, caring, human/animal/environmentally conscious environment.
  • Favorite Moments: Working from 10a-730p with Maresa & Lucy without sitting down once and then enjoying a Taco Shack feast before finishing up the last 3 hours of work.
  • Erin:
  • Dipping truffles. (LY note: Erin is really great at dipping truffles!)
  • Making ganache start to finish is pretty fulfilling- from the recipe, to flavoring, piping, rolling, dipping, decorating…
  • Favorite moment was the night we all did yoga together, talking about our favorite poses. (very inflexible LY note: THIS WAS MY LEAST FAVORITE MOMENT.)
  • Favorite eating was shiitake sea salt truffle, RSSC (Rosemary Sea Salt Caramels, natch), and turtles- and mac and cheese! (LY note: I like making snacks for the crew!)
  • Funniest was when I called her “teal nail girl.” (LY note: Maresa and I almost hired her right off the bat because her nails matched our logo. [Even though you’re not allowed to paint your nails in a food service environment. But this was just at the interview, so it was OK.])
  • Fave customers- maeve and julian :)
  • Fave times- when vegans come in expecting one or two vegan things and get SUPER EXCITED when they fing out every last thing is vegan. (LY note: this is my fave time too.)
  • Jacob:
  • STUMPTOWN! And indulging in a coffee obsession and taking it to unforseen heights.
  • Maresa’s macarons!
  • Sweet Pea Green Tea chocos.
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  • Lucy:
  • Turtles. (Lucy is our turtle expert, for sure.)
  • I loved learning how to make caramels.
  • Christmas rush. in the middle of it, I realized how much all of us has learned and how we could just bang it all out and do a good job.
  • Favorite eating was pickle tempura, and chocolate lemon confit caramel.
  • Fave customers- any shy old men. and the Smylies. also, the guy who gets gifts for his girlfriend “just because he loves her” and is always really polite.
  • BOTH Erin and Lucy loved the chocolate tasting night!
  • Maresa:
  • Favorite eating: every last bite of the savory dinner (LY note: Maresa came as a diner! It was so great to cook for her.). and, apple caramels. and maui macadamia cream.
  • Successfully making pb bars in less than one day (this happened once. it’ll go down in history like rudolph).
  • Favorite customer: susan blickstein, who was with us through our coffee evolution, and would always give the lowdown on town-happenings.
  • Favorite moment: sitting on the bench with L, eating pistachio ice cream, and comparing legs. also, realizing that our gals are totally the best ever. (LY note: this is my favorite moment, too.)
  • Jeeeze, there’s a lot more!

Fun events, amazing customers (truly, amazing), delicious tempeh, our anniversary party, so many delicious chocolates (cream eggs!), wrapping paper with yours truly’s mug on it, the back room renovations, PARIS, that crazy cute caramel apple I made!

But this is getting too long, and I’ve got to start my New Year’s Eve dinner preparations.

If you have Lagusta’s Luscious-related highlights to share in the comments (or on Facebook or Twitter), I’d be honored.

why we won’t have croissants for a while / generalized grumpiness about the entrepreneurial life

I’m really proud of our croissants.

They’re gorgeous, buttery to the max, and entirely vegan, yet not made with horrible artificial crap. The only ingredients are local organic flour, beautiful organic coconut butter, sea salt, organic coconut milk, a bit of organic sugar and a pinch of yeast.

I’m always thinking about how making chocolates epitomizes the idea that something can be “simple, but not easy.” That’s the croissants recipe to a tee. So simple, but it’ll take you five hours to make it. When I make them for the shop, I make 100 or so at a time, late at night while I watch movies and make Jacob hang out with me, then I freeze them and bake just a few a day, which sell out in the morning and then that’s it until tomorrow, because day-old croissants aren’t the perfect apex of ultimate perfection, so out they go. (We make Croissant Caramels with any leftovers at the end of the day!)

Around the holidays last December, I just couldn’t cut it anymore. My late nights were spent making chocolates for the flood of orders, and something had to give. So no croissants for a while. Then I went on vacation. When I came back I made a batch, but my heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t incorporate the coconut oil into the batter efficiently enough, and it all leaked out when they were baking. I had a feeling the batch wasn’t going well, but I was tired and didn’t want to do another “turn” (folding the dough like an envelope and rolling it out into a thin sheet is called a “turn.” My recipe has four of ‘em.) so I just went with it and they were not fit for eating and were barely fit for grinding into crumbs for Croissant Caramels. When you make a recipe that potentially brings in $300 (100 croissants x $3 each), ruining it pretty much ruins your day. But it happens, and I was gentle on myself and decided to just not make croissants again until after the next crazy time, Valentine’s.

You might have noticed that it’s now mid-March and no croissants have been forthcoming.

I’m trying to find ways to make the shop (which I love) compatible with not working 100 hours a week (which I do not love), and it seems that somehow croissants just aren’t compatible with that goal. The other thing about croissants is that in order to make them as fluffy as possible the coconut oil needs to be as cold as possible, which means that rolling it out is a major workout for your wrists—rock hard fat on top of cold dough. Can I say it again: not easy.

Unless, that is, I buy something called a dough sheeter. A dough sheeter is basically a giant pasta machine, the kind you might have gathering dust in your garage that you always mean to break out to make some homemade ravioli but never really do (I have 3. Sigh.). When I buy a sheeter, we’ll be croissantizing up a storm, because the dreaded rolling step is taken out of the equation—the dough just magically passes through the sheeter four times and presto, done!

But a sheeter is $1000-$1500. So: not easy.

And here’s where I get grumpy about being a small business owner, particularly a vegan one. There seems to be this trend in the vegan world of for-profit businesses asking for donations in order to start up or stay in business. This infuriates me. I know the money donated to these donut shops or bakeries who want to buy an espresso machine (yep) comes from well-meaning animal advocates, which means it’s not going to wonderful animal charities who desperately need the money. Not that small businesses don’t need money—hoooo boy, they do. We do. But (and I know I’m making myself sound really high and mighty here, and it’s probably because I feel really really really high and mighty about this) no matter how much I want a dough sheeter (and no matter how much you might want croissants!), I couldn’t live with myself if I put up a Kickstarter.com campaign to get my pals and customers to “donate” to the “cause” of me making money.

We’re still slowly doing renovations on the building the shop is in (stay tuned for a fun announcement, around next month or so!), we still have to pull off all the ugly siding on the outside of the building, spring is coming and I really want to buy a cool bike rack and some beautiful landscaping outside the shop, quarterly sales tax is due—it’s going to be a while until that sheeter enters my life. But that’s just the way it goes.

And that’s the story—a bittersweet one, you could say—of why we don’t have croissants right now.

But soon!

 

Rethinking dairy from a vegan point of view

Here we go! My dairy manifesto!

This essay was written in 2007 for inclusion in this cookbook put out by the restaurant where I worked for many years, Bloodroot Feminist Vegetarian restaurant, in Bridgeport. CT.

Enjoy! Let me know what you think!

Part One: Rethinking Dairy

Westerners have been using the milk of other animals for many years in our cuisine, but I see this as an accident of geography, not desirability – cows were here, so we used them. Now that other choices are available to us, I see no reason why we should continue to use the milk of other animals, especially when it has been widely documented that producing milk causes considerable strain on animals. Yes, high-quality dairy products – minimally pasteurized (sometimes even raw or fermented), humanely produced – are becoming more available, and many will see this as a step in the right direction. But for those of us who believe that (to paraphrase Alice Walker) animals were put here for their own reasons[1], dairy is not an option.

Throughout my nearly two decades years on the vegan path, my thinking about dairy has evolved. Like many vegans, I found dairy the hardest food to give up. I have come to believe, however, that this is mostly because we’re used to it and excellent vegan alternatives to popular dairy dishes do not widely exist. If they did, undoubtedly many more people would be amenable to eating non-dairy meals. Out of habit, we use cow’s milk, but this does not mean that it is the best choice (ample evidence shows that it is, in fact, a terrible choice[2]).

What if, for example, coconut palm trees were as plentiful in North America as cows in factory farms are? It seems to me that in that case, our cakes and cookies and all manner of foods would use coconut milk, and that would be thought of as the natural choice. Since my ethics preclude me from using cow’s milk, the versatile coconut has worked its way into my cooking more and more, and I now believe it is the ideal candidate to replace cow’s (and goat’s and sheep’s) milk altogether. This essay is the result of my studies on the topic, and before discussing the merits of the coconut, I will counter three possible negative assumptions about its use as a primary “dairy.”

The coconut is not perfect. Obviously, eating what is indigenous to a particular area is preferable not only for environmental reasons, but because it is better for the body. For most of us in the United States, coconuts are not indigenous, and cows, while not native, are at least more local. Moreover, coconut milk comes in cans, and canned food cannot be said to have the same vitality as fresh food, not to mention the waste issue.

However, even acknowledging these issues, coconut milk is a better choice than cow’s milk. Olives don’t grow in Connecticut, but we at Bloodroot rely on olive oil on a daily basis. Cow’s milk does not come from the soil and is not a truly seasonal product, thus using coconut milk in place of it does not make a negative impact in either our planetary or personal health. Yes, coconut milk comes in cans, but it is widely available organic and without any additives except a small amount of guar gum (a vegetarian emulsifier). It is heated to high temperatures as part of the canning process, but so is the vast quantity of milk on our shelves. Perhaps as the popularity of coconut milk grows, it will be available fresh in health food stores for cooking purposes.

It might seem that nominating the coconut for the title of Best Dairy Replacement is futile, as that crown has already been awarded: most vegans use soy milk in all ways that dairy milk is usually used. However, at Bloodroot we have found soymilk to have a beany and rather overly plastic flavor that we do not enjoy, and the comparatively long list of ingredients in soymilk does not compare favorably with coconut milk’s three ingredients (two if you do not count water). As well, it seems that, in a desire for oversimplification that the (increasingly corporatized) natural foods industry has fallen prey to, the fact that soy has health benefits has been overused as a marketing tool and most health-conscious people eat far too much soy, especially processed, lifeless soy products.

Finally, one more potential flaw of the coconut should be discussed: it tastes like coconut. While most of the time this is a positive aspect, as the flavor of coconut is divine, when it is used in all the same ways cow’s milk is used there is a danger of “over-coconutization.” Again, perspective is essential: most milk drinkers might not be able to pick out the flavor of milk in a dish, but this is because of its ubiquity and not because milk itself lacks flavor.  To some, cow’s milk vanilla ice cream tastes like vanilla; to most long-time vegans it would taste like cow’s milk. That said, I do not make vegan vanilla ice cream using coconut milk, because I have to acknowledge that it would be coconut-vanilla ice cream.

However, the flavor of coconut does back down when paired with strong flavors. My chocolate truffles use coconut milk instead of cream, and the chocolate is so intense that the coconut is not noticeable. At Bloodroot we make chocolate, coffee, and many other ice cream flavors using coconut milk as a base, and the coconut is not the primary flavor. To our palates, coconut has a cleaner flavor than soy or rice milk, and a more rich texture than nut milks.

The fat content of the coconut is a primary reason it is an ideal vegan product. I have found that most less-than-delicious vegan desserts are so because of a lack of fat, which contributes a mouth feel that cannot be replicated. Balanced vegan diets do not usually need to be concerned with fat, and the fats found in coconut are not unhealthy (this aspect is discussed below). Compared with soy, rice, or nut milks, coconut milk has more fat and is therefore much more tasty and makes desserts (as well as savories – see the recipe for Mushroom Stroganoff, for example) more satisfying. In ice creams as well as many other dishes, it also contributes a vastly improved texture. Fat (along with sugar and alcohol) prevents ice cream from freezing too hard, so coconut milk-based ice creams have a texture much more like that of similar dishes made with dairy cream.

It is at this point that a rather parenthetical discussion of “real” vs. “vegan” foods becomes relevant.

Sometimes well-meaning tasters of my vegan chocolate truffles proclaim them “just as good as ‘real’ truffles.” I always want to ask them: are they invisible? Cow’s milk is popular, but it has not staked a claim on reality to such an extent that any other milk must be deemed an impostor. Soy milk, rice milk, coconut milk, and all manner of nut and seed milks have been used in many cultures for hundreds of years, and it reveals a Western bias to reduce them to the category of imitations. Let’s stop comparing vegan dishes with “real” versions, and start comparing them to “cow’s milk” versions (and then let’s stop the comparisons all together).

Another coconut product is perhaps even more exciting for vegans is coconut oil (also called coconut butter).

Many people have a negative impression of coconut oil because it is a saturated fat (it is solid at room temperature).   However, it does not pose a problem for those who do not consume an excess of fat and/or cholesterol since more than half of it is composed of medium-chain fatty acids, which are used as energy and not stored as fat.  Coconut oil does not contain toxic trans-fatty acids found in hydrogenated vegetable oils, which have been found to contribute to heart disease.  Therefore, remarkably, this most luscious and luxuriously fatty food is not used as fat in the body but works as instantly available energy.

In addition, unlike most vegetable fats which are unsaturated and prone to  destabilizing reactions with oxygen, coconut oil is highly stable and has a high smoke point. This is important because in order to get the nice caramelized brown color that makes vegetarian food so much more satisfying, oil must be heated very hot. When oil is heated, it can burn and become carcinogenic. Because coconut oil has a high smoke point, it is less likely to burn and thus much healthier than less saturated fats for searing, sautéing, and pan- and deep-frying. That this saturated fat is our best choice for frying seems to run counter to the general wisdom that unsaturated oils such as olive oil are always best for our health.  It is important to keep in mind that the health benefits of unsaturated fats are only valid when those oils are stable, and for high heat frying, coconut oil provides a healthy alternative.

In addition to not being harmful, coconut oil has an important positive effect on the vegetarian body: it is one of the only vegetarian sources of lauric acid, which enhances brain function and the immune system and has anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties and is therefore beneficial for those with compromised immune systems.[3]

If you have the resources and want to use the very best coconut oil available, buy organic Omega Nutrition brand. It is, to my knowledge available via mail order and is sold in some health food stores. It is packaged in dark plastic containers (like flax seed oil), which helps prevent it from becoming rancid, and is available at omeganutrition.com and 1-800-661-FLAX (3529). Do not buy the raw “virgin” type, as it is undeodorized and tastes too coconutty and raw for cooking.

Now that you’ve bought your oil, a primer on the best way to use it is in order. For vegans looking for a butter substitute, coconut oil is perfect in all applications (except possibly for spreading on toast and the like), and its fatty richness excels in baked goods. When replacing coconut oil for butter, shortening, or lard in recipes, the amount can be reduced by 25 percent (which is good news considering how expensive coconut oil is) because it is almost pure fat, in comparison butter and others, which contain significant percentages of moisture and/or milk solids.

Because coconut oil is solid at room temperature, in cooler climates it can be melted prior to measuring, which makes it a little easier to work with. Otherwise, it can be measured, packed down, in dry (flat-topped) measuring cups. If there are a lot of air pockets in the cup the measurement could be off by a significant amount, so either pack it well or add grapeseed or another neutral oil to fill up the cracks (even better, use recipes that call for weights!). Store coconut oil at room temperature.

Part Two: Resistance is Fertile

The “coconut dairy” is an idea borne from the need for a new way of thinking about vegan food. Once we move beyond worrying about replicating animal products and using any means possible (chemical-laced margarines, etc) to get there, we can begin to explore the creative possibilities of vegan cuisine. This process – the creativity that results from immersion in an “alternative” culture like this – is typified by the phrase “resistance is fertile.”

A recent novel we have been enjoying at Bloodroot is Ruth Ozeki’s All Over Creation. Some of the characters in the book use “resistance is fertile” as a slogan. This sums up my own explorations in cooking from a political standpoint. I became vegan because I felt that if I could live without causing others to suffer, I had the moral duty to do so. For several years I was proud to be living my political beliefs on a daily basis in this way, but I was deeply unhappy with the food I was eating. I believed that making the choice to stop eating animals was enough – eating French fries at every meal and iceberg lettuce salads and “healthy candy bars” didn’t matter, as long as they were vegan.

Slowly (thanks in large part to the women of Bloodroot) I came to have a more nuanced view of the politics of food. I saw that most food, even most food in health food stores, travels many hundreds of miles and is distributed by large agri-business corporations who often have political views I do not share (discrimination against lesbians and gay men, pro-globalization politics, exploitative marketing practices in “developing countries,” etc). I came to develop what Mary Daly calls a “biophilic” point of view, from “biophilia,” meaning “love of life.” Whereas I originally became vegan out of opposition to one practice (keeping and killing animals), I began to cultivate a philosophy of food with a wider progressive agenda. I saw that we could have a huge positive environmental impact by supporting local farmers, eating seasonally, and gardening. And of course, local, seasonal food tastes much better. Today I feel that the quality of my food – the way it is grown, the way the workers who pick and process it are treated, the distance it travels, even down to the packaging it is shipped in – is just as important as whether or not it is vegan. When vegetarians and vegans limit our politics to the realm of animal rights, we are doing ourselves a disservice. If Bloodroot has taught us anything in its almost three decades of existence, it is that feminism, progressive politics, animal rights, and environmentalism work best when they work together.

This is what “resistance is fertile” means to me. The Bloodroot atmosphere is fertile – women are teaching other women how to spin and knit, the air is laced with onions and garlic frying, books are being bought and discussed, the garden is teeming with gorgeous green little treasures. It is a site of resistance to the culture of violence and mediocrity that is the mainstream world. The more deeply I incorporate this culture of resistance into my life and work, the more fertile my life becomes – opportunities open up, creativity flourishes, hope is rekindled. In order to create the world we want to live in, we have to be able to imagine it.  Resistance is fertile.


[1] “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.”

[2] See, for example, The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell, or Diet for a New America, by John Robbins. When one also notes that 70 percent of African-Americans, 95 percent of Native Americans, 60 percent of Hispanic-Americans, and 90 percent of Asian-Americans are lactose intolerant (source: John Robbins), the USDA recommendation that all children drink milk every day seems not only unhealthy, but also culturally insensitive.

[3] Coconut oil is a good choice for frying, but expensive. The other oil we tend to use for frying and browning foods is grapeseed oil. It is not unrefined, but has a very high smoke point (485°F), is not genetically modified and is high in vitamin E. Make sure the grapeseed oil you are using is a by-product of the wine industry, otherwise it could be heavily sprayed with pesticides. Chemically treated grapeseed oil is dangerous because chemical toxins are concentrated in a plant’s fatty acids and a plant’s fatty acids are concentrated in its seeds.

The frugal simple singleish gourmet: Japanese-style simmered turnips. Also: the tale of a peel.

I’ve been cooking for myself, and it’s so strange.

For nine years, I had the meal delivery as the backbone of every meal—if there weren’t leftover complete meals in the fridge waiting for me, there were enough imperfect cast-offs (overcooked noodles, improperly chopped veggies, oversalted sauces) to repair and handsomely dine on. In Hawaii, where I hide out for a few weeks every year, my sweetheart Jacob and I shop at the farmer’s market and I cook quick, market vegetable-based meals in a tiny kitchenette that doesn’t invite lingering. But right now Jacob’s on tour for work and I don’t have a meal delivery service to provide me with fresh, organic, vegan deliciousnesses every night, nor do I have plentiful farmer’s markets that decide what’s for dinner.

It’s really bizarre. It’s making me think about food in all kinds of new ways—it’s really made me understand why people don’t necessarily want to cook the ludicrously labor-intensive meals I used to make for the meal delivery themselves. Five hours for dinner? Yeah, homemade pasta and long-simmered sauces made from homemade stocks are nice, but not workable for a Tuesday night.

Also? Food is really expensive! Who knew?  I’m realizing that having the meal delivery groceries mixed with my personal groceries allowed me to splurge in ways that quickly came to an end when I started cooking for one or two (for example, not wholesaling mushrooms is so painful—you can’t possibly expect me to pay $16 a pound for wrinkly non-local shiitakes when my mushroom grower sells them for half that!).

Plus, I’m enjoying the challenge of avoiding the market, after almost a decade of making shopping lists as long as my arm and constantly ordering dry goods, wholesale produce, trekking to every farm within driving distance, etc etc etc. I’ve got a ton of pantry items, a lot of great local garlic, squash that is doing an amazing job staying firm and sweet in the basement, lovely potatoes…and that’s about it. At the periodic winter farmer’s markets I can snag salad greens if I manage to get up early, glorious pea and sunflower shoots, and assorted other roots and greens. Aside from that, I’m trying really hard not to buy silly organic produce trucked in from California, and I’m also trying to keep things super frugal because of Top Secret Plans I’ve Mentioned Here And There And Can You Even Believe They Still—STILL—Have Not Yet Come To Fruition. (More on that…the end of March? Who even knows anymore.)

So. Here we are. These days I’m a gleaner, foraging for treasures that exist in the walk-in (a giant vat of olives!), pantry, cellar (OK, just the basement), and skimpy farmer’s market.

Happily, my current favorite cookbook, Kansha, fits in with my new austerity perfectly.

Austerity–now there’s a word that doesn’t exactly make your mouth water. Let’s not call it austerity. How about…simplicity?

Yeah, simplicity is better. I’m trying to make a lot of my life simpler, anyway–my 2011 mission is all about doing less and appreciating more. Doing what I’m doing, instead of doing 50 things at once. So, moving from fancy-pants complicated meals for 20 families to joyfully spare yet tasty meals for one person fits right in. Kansha means “appreciation,” and I’ve been enjoying teaching myself to appreciate simpler meals.

Last night, Jacob was home for exactly one night before he ran off into the world again, so I thought about what we could eat. I didn’t want to run to the store for anything additional, so I prowled around the fridge and came up with a Kansha-inspired appetizer that was so nice, I decided to share.

For a main dish we had this Italianish thing that I find myself making once a week or so: caramelized onions in an obscene amount of olive oil, plus massive amounts of minced garlic, kale or escarole, white beans, really nice dried pasta, and some lemon juice and harissa hot sauce (I have about a gallon of homemade harissa in the freezer, so it’s making a lot of appearances lately. My recipe is loosely based on the one in the excellent Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, by Deborah Madison.). Sometimes I add water and make it a soup. It’s one of those dishes that’s easy, but really rewards care: enough olive oil, enough lemon juice, enough salt. It also improves with age, so it’s nice to make a big pot of it.

In addition to the Italianish thing, I also had exactly two turnips* grown by my friend Jessica, a chef-turned-farmer with the greenest thumbs you’ve ever seen, hanging out in the fridge.

Two turnips! I used to buy turnips by the bushel! Another weird thing about moving from commercial cooking to home cooking is that I have no clue how much food it takes to feed me. At the farmer’s market last weekend, I just stood talking to Jessica and another friend of ours, turning over two turnips and four carrots in my hands and asking them if they thought that was enough for one person.

I felt like a child, and it felt good. Zen mind, beginner’s mind, all that. I’m really enjoying looking at food in this whole new way. Shopping for the meal delivery had become so routine—I prided myself on my ability to eyeball how many potatoes I’d need for 40 cups of mashed potatoes, but I have no idea how many potatoes I should cook for a simple smashed side for myself (less than five, it turns out. Fun fact: after about three potatoes, your stomach pretty much almost spontaneously combusts.). Scaling back. Retraining my brain. Exciting.

I took Jessica’s two beautiful turnips out of the fridge. (I’d eaten the four carrots in the car on the ride home from the farmer’s market—they were small! Now I know. Buy more carrots.) What could I make with them to show my appreciation, my kansha, for this simple sweet night to ourselves, for this gift of silky pink turnips from an earth now frozen so solid?

I cut them into thick half moons, and heated my nice cast iron frying pan. One of the great things about making the slow transition to cooking all my meals at work to actually using my home kitchen is my glorious collection of secondhand cast iron pans. At work I have an induction stove that I am wildly in love with, but cast iron doesn’t work with induction technology, so my cheapo battered home electric stove actually comes in handy since it allows me to use such nice old pals.

I was thinking of making a Japanese-style dish of simmered turnips–very simple and classic and home-style. I couldn’t resist, however, first searing the turnips in a little grape seed oil in the pan. In my (limited) experience, Japanese simmered dishes don’t begin with a sear (subtle, elegant, super clean flavors are usually the goal), but I’m so addicted to the umami-richness of the nice browned edges that most vegetables get when they meet hot oil over high heat that I went for it.

After the sear I added some shoyu and a little yuzu juice I had hanging out in the fridge (a rapidly-aging leftover from the January Chocolate of the Month). I poured in just enough water to come maybe 1/3 up the side of the turnips, turned the heat to a bare simmer (just a little bubbling here and there) and put the lid on the pot. Every five minutes or so, I slid the blade of my thinnest paring knife into the thickest turnip, waiting for the moment when the turnip slid off the knife on its own—a sign that it was cooked but not mushy.

While the turnips cooked, I turned my attention to the turnip peels.

Normally I would toss them in the compost (OK, really I would just toss them outside, since the compost is all the way across the frozen tundra of the backyard), but Elizabeth Andoh had written so arrestingly about not wasting any precious part of a vegetable in Kansha that I rinsed them, finely sliced them, and decided to give them a quick deep-fry.

 

I felt slightly weird about it, to tell you the truth. I’m not much of a peel eater. I have not one but two friends who have independently admitted eating beet peels to me, and both mentioned it for the same reason: somehow they knew it would freak me out. And it sort of did. Beet peels! Yuck! Just take 30 seconds and peel your beets, people! So leathery!

But these turnip peels seemed nice enough. And what are peels but just slightly tougher parts of a vegetable (not beet peels though, those are just gross)? When turnips are fresh and tiny and springy and young I never peel them anyway, so these thicker peels were an edible waiting to happen, right? And making a quickie deep-fried garnish is a cheffy trick that seriously fancifies any meal. It always seems impressive, and, even though I’ve done it for Jacob a million times, with everything from carrots to leeks to sage to scallions, he still adores it.

But could I make turnip peels impressive and worthy of adoration? Let’s see.

I put my tiniest cast iron pal on the burner, poured in the grape seed oil and cranked it up. When one peel piece instantly sizzled when I tossed it in, I carefully put the rest in, gave them a quick stir, took a quick crappy phone photo, and drained them, saving the oil like my grandma saves bacon grease. I tossed them with salt, wiped out the pan (marveling at how I had also helped to season the pan with all that oil), and tried a spoonful of fried turnip peels.

Just lovely. Like a Pringle, really. (Secretly, all starchy deep-fried things taste the same, can we admit it? And that taste is the taste of awesome.) Jacob wanted to eat them all once, Pringle-style, but I restrained him.

Meanwhile, turnips were cooked. I stacked them up on the plate, added a few drops more yuzu, and garnished them with the fried peel. I wished I had a tiny, beautiful herb for the plate–one shiso leaf or even a little bit of parsley or basil for some color and brightness, but it was February and there was nothing green in or outside the house (OK except for the half-dead rosemary plant I am losing the battle to keep alive for the caramels.). Oh well. Simplicity. Four ingredients. I brought it to Jacob: first course is served!

We poured a little bit of sake and ate.

Quiet + freshness + earthiness + tanginess + umami whispers + all that simplicity I was going for, with none of the blandness I was worried about. Yum.

We ate the Italianish thing, just fine, a sturdy, comforting meal especially nice for Jacob after eight hours of flying. Then we ate some March chocolate of the Month testers, and talked about how to improve them, and we played with the cats, and washed the dishes, and my jetlagged boyfriend went right to sleep. A funny, mismatched meal, but it suited the cozy night. Nothing fancy, just you and me, appreciating everything.

*After writing this all up I just realized that pink turnip might be….a radish? I’ll have to ask Jessica. Either way, in my experience radishes and turnips are weirdly interchangeable–both roast well, simmer well, and fry well. Did the idea of roasted radishes just blow your mind? They are amazing!

Edit! My chef pal Cathy reports that she believes my turnip is a Misato Rose Radish. Thanks Cathy!!