Sunday, July 31, 2011

autumn in july

It's hard to believe that my first full day in San Francisco was a week ago!  What was harder to believe than that, though, was the difference between Philadelphia and San Fran, temperature-wise.  Mister walked me out to catch a cab at 5am.  In the midst of a serious heat wave, at 5am it was already 86 degrees with a serious amount of humidity. By the afternoon, temperatures would soar over 100 degrees, with a heat index of 115.  By the time that happened, though, I was pulling on my jacket and wrapping a scarf around my neck to protect my tender throat from the ripping wind and low-60s temperatures in San Francisco!

San Francisco?  Wait - did someone say Picture Parade?

After flying from one side of the country to the other, as well as remembering how mind-numbingly boring the Salt Lake City airport is and being amazed that Delta still serves complimentary snacks on their flights, I made my way through San Fran's public transit system, BART, and arrived at the bottom of the 4-block hill I got to climb to reach our hotel.

Here is our pretty (and yes, Jackie, tiny) room at The Chancellor.  I loved the hunter green accent wall.  I also loved the warning strategically placed on the floor of the bathroom.

There are two things of which I am certain: the first one is, if you're looking down to see that warning, you will probably notice that the surface is elevated.  The second thing I was certain of was that I would inevitably forget and trip into the bathtub - I'm still surprised that didn't happen.

How many hotels really provide a rubber ducky?
After settling in and hanging up some more wrinkle-prone clothes, Sister and I headed out into Union Square to see the sights.  We popped into Lush, but ultimately did not buy anything because it always feels stupid to buy stuff from stores I have here in Philadelphia - also, I'm not sure how well some of that stuff would travel.

We did need to grab a few items (oops - toothpaste is good to have) and there are two things on almost every corner in San Fran (from what I saw) Starbucks and Walgreens.  I was pretty happy about the first, but the second came in handy.  Additionally, they had these awesome vegetable chips so my sister and I got a couple of bags and headed out to the actual Square to do some people-watching.

Sister got Taro Chips, which tasted kind of like a cross between potato and sweet potato chips.  As Sister explained, this makes sense, since taro is a root vegetable.

I couldn't contain my excitement upon finding Jackfruit Chips.  I've seen Jackfruit as an ingredient in a few recipes I have and entrees at restaurants, but I've never actually seen or eaten Jackfruit.  With great anticipation, I tore open the bag and took a deep sniff - to discover that jackfruit chips smell awful.  They tasted great and had a satisfying crunch to go along with just the right amount of sweetness, but they sure did smell bad.

This ended up being breakfast on day 1 in Oakland
Never fear!  We had reservations at Millennium for dinner, so when we were finished munching on chips and watching a far more colorful array of people than those I've watched in Philadelphia (I'm telling you, there's something about California that brings out the crazy in people - it's like the whole state is one giant cocktail), we headed back to the hotel to shower, dress, and make ourselves up for a delightful dinner (generously covered by our Dad).

The restaurant was intimately set, with dim lighting and tables a bit closer together than I would have put them (then again, each additional table probably brings in at least $500 more a night).  It was darkly trendy with a waitstaff that was edgy and yet completely professional and well-versed in the etiquette of fine dining.

We started with a plate of Herb Marinated Olives, accompanied by bitter (in a good way) orange segments and caramelized onions.  As we picked at that, our server helped us select a nice, local Dolcetto to accompany our meal.

I'm pretty sure PA wine stores don't carry Urban Legend and that is a shame for many reasons.  First, it's a nice, easy to drink wine that went well with each course of our dinner.  Additionally, there is always something charming (to me, at least) about drinking wines that give a tip of their anthropomorphic hat to city life.

It was a nice, dry balance to the salty olives, but our appetizer was similarly complemented by this wine.

We shared a Black Bean Torte, laid over top of a ragout of savory veggies and cashew "sour cream."  I don't know if it always comes in two pieces or if they did that because I mentioned Sister and I would be sharing, but it was just the right amount for each of us.

Sister was so great about letting me photograph everything we ate before she touched a single shred of lettuce.  Here she is, posing with her entree, South Indian Cornmeal Crusted Zucchini.  She had such a hard time choosing between the two curries on the menu - at least I know what to cook for her when she comes to visit - I can make a pretty mean curry when I need to.  Ultimately, we enlisted our fabulous server's assistance in that choice, too.

While it was ineffably exciting to know that I could choose anything on the entire menu, I had little trouble deciding on my entree.  I can't remember exactly what it was called, but it involved a crispy, egg roll-like crust, filled with eggplant, grilled seitan and a bunch of other tasty things.  One thing it had was oyster mushrooms - since Mister can't stand mushrooms, I really haven't experimented much with them, so I figured I'd give these a try.

They weren't awful, but I'm still not a mushroom lover, no matter how good for me they are.  Something interesting that I noticed was how seafoody they tasted.  I assume that's how they got their name, but there was a remarkable sea-oriented flavor to these dirt-dwellers.

It was a lot of food - the portions here were a bit more generous than those served at Horizons, and I always felt that Horizons' portions were perfect.  Neither of us finished our entrees, having pigged out on the olives and had a good go with the torte, but we agreed to forego the last bites in order to save room for dessert.  I mean, really - you can't go to a renowned fine-dining restaurant of any stripe (much less the colorful zigzag of vegan!) and leave without dessert.

Especially when it looks like that.  We dwelt on the menu for a few minutes, briefly tempted by the Sweet Endings montage of cookies and truffles, but ultimately, could not keep ourselves from ordering (and sharing!) the Chocolate Almond Midnight: vegan chocolate and white chocolate mousses on a chocolate and almond crust laid on top of a generous squiggle of raspberry sauce and sprinkled with cocoa.  It was astonishing up to the very last bite which we each tried to pawn off on the other.

I won.  By that I mean, I ate the last bite.

After convincing our food-babies to let us stand up, we finished the last swigs of wine and headed out the door for an invigorating (if a little cool) walk back to the hotel.  I was so happy our hotel was only three blocks from Millennium - it felt like home!  Well, home in October.  We arrived back in time to redeem our Buy1 Get 1 Free coupon for nightcaps at the hotel bar and convinced the friendly bartender to take our picture.

Then we fell into a food-and-all-day-travel coma.

Waking bright and early the next morning, we headed down to the Mission District to check out the scene and take in what promised to be a fabulous lunch.

I'll admit, I may have been in the wrong part of the Mission district, but I cannot understand the allure.  It looked like straight up ghetto.  The only thing I can compare it to in Philadelphia is North Philly barrio/Kensington area... boarded up buildings, graffiti everywhere and not in the Philadelphia Mural Project kind of way.  It was not terribly charming.  Fortunately, all the creepy characters hanging out of dilapidated doorways were worth our lunch at Gracias Madre.

That's my Strawberry Margarita.  Apparently, tequila is not vegan (all Sister and I could come up with was the whole worm thing), so they make their margaritas with soju, a rice liquor akin to sake.  Sister felt a liquor closer to Japan than Mexico was not the best choice, but I liked my margarita just fine and isn't it pretty?

This, right here ^ is a plate of the most delicious Mexican food I have ever eaten in my whole life.  Seriously.  It was amazing.  I ordered Platillo de Legumbres which was just brown rice and black beans, accompanied by two side dishes of your choice.  My choices were platanos (plantains) and seasonal greens (as luck would have it, bright, beautiful, green kale was in season!) sauteed in garlic and olive oil.  If I walked out on to Mission Street after lunch and got hit by a car, I would have died a happy woman.  Sister and I were obsessed with the black beans.

Sister got Nopales, which is pickled cactus with cashew "cheese" over top, served with brown rice and black beans.  There was also a plate of warm, soft corn tortillas for us to share.  They had a texture unlike any I'd had before, probably because they were freshly made.  They didn't taste like much, though, and really didn't add much to the meal.  They did help scrape up any last trace of the black beans, though.

After lunch, we wandered around the Mission area a bit longer, then figured out a bus route that would take us to The Presidio to see the Golden Gate Bridge.  It was a heck of a ride - very crowded and then we hit traffic.  Just as I was about to go catatonic from all the people hanging over us (very glad we had seats), the bus stopped and let us all out.  Once we had a moment to breathe, we could appreciate the beauty of the bridge.

I'll be honest - I'm not a huge fan of tourist behavior.  I still remember going to Niagara Falls as a child - the first sight of the Falls is really quite exciting, but it wears off pretty quickly.  I think it was our third trip to the Falls when I said to my father, "Yup, it's still water."

Nevertheless, the only thing my sister wanted to do, out of the full itinerary I provided to her of what I wanted to do and where wanted to go, was to see the Golden Gate Bridge.  So we hopped on the bus and put our hair into hasty ponytails while pulling our hoods tight around our faces to see a method for cars to cross a chasm.

I'll tell you what - it is magical.  I was awed.  The Bridge itself really wasn't all that exciting - I expected it to be bigger than it was.  However, the sight of the fog rolling in over the mountains was astonishing.  The only thing I've ever seen that was anything like that was when I watched the clouds sink into Lake Tahoe from the top of a 10,000 mountain I decided to climb at sunrise (don't think I'm too cool - we drove most of the way).

After enjoying the view from many angles and elevations, we walked along the bay to the Warming Hut, which conveniently had nice warm coffee (it couldn't have possibly been higher than the upper 50s at the shoreline) and a variety of novelties to poke at while our fingers and noses warmed up.  Coffee in hand, we plodded down the beach to our next goal: The Palace of Fine Arts.

Once again, quite magnificent.  And, with its usual great timing, my camera battery died while we were there.  Once we'd taken in the sights, we headed out to meet a returning bus.  This involved a serious leg workout as we walked up the steepest hill in paved existence.  I don't know how people live on those streets, but they are certainly fortunate it doesn't freeze there, because even an eighth inch of ice would trap them inside their homes.

We returned to the hotel and let my camera battery charge while Sister took a shower and I refreshed my makeup and debated whether to brush my knotty hair or go with the whole windswept look.  Eventually, I opted for the windswept look, but that only lasted until after dinner.

We met up with a friend of Sister's at Saha, an arabic fusion joint in the Carlton Hotel.  We had no idea what we were in for, just that it came recommended by a reader and the menu looked fun online.  We walked over and upon entering the restaurant, realized we seriously underestimated its popularity, a notion that was reinforced when a worried-looking hostess asked if we had reservations.  We didn't.

This actually ended up working in our favor.  She had two reservations for 2 tops, so when a third table with 4 seats became available, we got to sit in a luxurious little corner, complete with a fuchsia and tangerine curtain creating the illusion of our own little room.

Sister was quite pleased with our little corner "sofa" with a virtual harem of beautiful pillows and made herself at home quickly.  Once her friend arrived, we ordered a bottle of Malbec and our entrees.  The server, who was very attentive and friendly enough to make my sister decide he had a crush on me, brought us a basket of squishy Moroccan focaccia-type bread with a za'atar and olive oil dipping dish.  We housed that bread and he brought us a second basket so we could finish the dipping sauce.

Sister's Friend ordered Saha's Ravioli, which were stuffed with mushrooms served in a mango cream sauce, sprinkled with mint and red pepper.

Sister, always the adventurer, selected the night's Special, which was a round of eggplant, topped with tofu, topped with a ragout of sauteed veggies, served on a light saffron sauce with English peas.  She loved it and I quite enjoyed the bite I took.

I actually had a lot of trouble choosing because there were so many tasty options.  In the end, I fell in love with Spinach and Tofu served with chickpeas, noodles and a tomato vinaigrette, with harissa on the side.  I dipped the very edge of the tine of my fork in the harissa so I could test its heat....and nearly burnt my head off before I could chase it with a healthy gulp of wine while asking myself how on earth I cook with that stuff.  I can only imagine they have a more potent, home-made mixture than what I use.  My meal was absolutely delightful, but I couldn't finish due to the extraordinary amount of bread I ate before dinner.

Unfortunately, that also meant there was no room for dessert.  That is a complete and utter shame.  I found something I really wanted to order.

Slap Ya Mama???  Really?  I mean, seriously?  Creme Brulee, Paradisio, Gelato or Sorbet?  No, I want a Slap Ya Mama.  Can you really order that with a straight face?  I'm so sad I didn't get to try.  There's even a vegan version available!

Instead of dessert, we finished our wine and headed out to a speakeasy.  I'm assuming this is the West Coast reaction to the recent East Coast trend of drinking all the olde tyme cocktails.  As far as I know, we have only one "speakeasy" in Philadelphia, but I saw at least half a dozen in San Francisco.  The one we went to was Bourbon and Branch.  The doorman wore a fedora with a feather and a pin-striped suit with shiny black shoes.  My sister was very excited to give him the secret password along with her ID (I was just excited to be carded).

According to the House Rules, I wasn't allowed to order a Cosmo, so I reviewed my mental list of prohibition era cocktails (I studied before we went - I am OverPrepared Woman) and thought I was pretty hot stuff when I ordered a Stinger.  I was promptly mortified when the bartender said he couldn't make it because they didn't have creme de menthe.  So, he crafted something for me that involved brandy, bitters, vermouth, lime juice, and was topped off with orange peel.  It was strong and pungent and served in a martini glass - I was pretty sure this was how the Roaring 20s felt and I have often felt I should have lived in that time, so I was happy.

Another House Rule was that I wasn't allowed to take pictures, so you don't get to see my pretty cocktail, but it was probably too dark anyway.  I loved the ambiance.  I also loved the "hidden door" that masqueraded as a bookshelf.  You had to be super-special to get in there and we didn't have that password, so when we finished our drinks, we headed out for some karaoke.

As you can see, after being a bit crowded in the speakeasy, my hair found its way into a messy bun (though it never occurred to me to remove my scarf.  The karaoke joint, Pandora, is apparently one of the premier karaoke bars in the city - they had private rooms with bottle service, but since it was just the three of us, we stayed in the main bar area and got drinks from the bar.

By now, the liquid courage was flowing freely (helping with a bottle of wine, topped off by a nearly pure alcohol cocktail will do that), so a sip or two of my new drink merely wet my throat for a rousing rendition of "The Promise" by When In Rome, followed by "Walking in Memphis" by Marc Cohn, to the DJ's delight.  The bar closed and we walked back to the hotel, at which point my sister let me know that we had just been in the red light district of San Francisco, known as Tenderloin.  I have no idea how it got that name, but I think its hilarious that we ended two days of delightful vegan food by visiting a part of the city known as Tenderloin.

I've been typing for nearly two hours.  I think we're going to have to split this into two parts - stay tuned for our Oakland/Berkeley adventures!

Friday, July 29, 2011

surprise-spiked stew

Many moons ago, I came across a recipe for a middle-eastern spice blend known as za'atar.  Comprised mainly of sumac, thyme, sesame seeds, and salt, I didn't think it would be that difficult to make into a tasty blend, but our experience with the za'atar pizza proved otherwise.

More details about the San Francisco trip are forthcoming (probably over the weekend), but let me give you a sneak preview.  On our second night in San Fran, we dined at an arabic fusion restaurant (thanks for the tip, Susan!) and I would by lying if I said I didn't feel a little pang of terror when the server put down a basket of delicious looking bread to be dipped in a delicious looking oil.  Why the terror?  As he put down the black-flecked oil, he explained that there was a mixture of spices in the oil which I immediately recognized as za'atar.

I decided I was curious enough to try it again, so I pulled off a piece of Moroccan flatbread and dipped it carefully in the sooty mixture.  Then I did it again, and a few more times, and with my sister's help as well as her friend's, we polished off half the oil mixture with the first basket of bread, prompting a server to bring out a second basket (sorry, Atkins fanatics...).  It was utterly delightful and I decided that the only thing wrong with my za'atar was that I made it.

Imagine my delight when I was strolling through a farmers' market and found a spice shop with preblended za'atar?

This little bag of magical dirt became the "secret" to a very successful remake of a previously revolting dinner.  If that didn't give it away, tonight I made Saffron-Spiked Moroccan Stew from The Vegan Table.

I accidentally left out the minced ginger, but I felt like the brown sugar + cinnamon probably contributed enough of that flavor profile and was afraid of anything upsetting the delicate balance between that generous sprinkling and the slightly less generous amount of coriander, cumin, and salt.  The stew came out pretty well - not too much to report now that I've given up on saffron (at least for now - as the za'atar story shows, I never really give up).

What made this dinner special was actually the couscous base.  I wanted to do something a little special, because plain couscous is super boring and I didn't have faith that the "sauce" in which I was cooking the vegetables would provide sufficient flavor to overcome the blandness inherent in this north African pastina.  To combat that effect, I heated about a tablespoon of olive oil in the pot I intended to use to boil the couscous, then I sprinkled on about 2 tsp of my new za'atar and a generous pinch (or five) of kosher salt and let it heat up slowly.  When the time was right, I added the couscous and stirred it up while raising the heat to allow the spice-infused oil to soak into the pastina.  Finally, I added the water, brought it to a rapid boil and then turned off the heat and let it work its magic.

It most certainly was magical - I can't believe I got it right on the first try!  Next, I hope to replicate the dipping sauce for some focaccia I have not yet purchased.  It smelled divine - enough so that my little buddy felt like he might want some, too!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

back in the saddle (apron)

After a harrowing 24 hours, I am back in Philadelphia, safe and sound!  As a kind of fortunate twist to an otherwise non-ideal situation, my rearranged travel itinerary gave me an extra day off from work (it was kind of stupid of me to think I would get back to Philadelphia after midnight and be ready to go to work the next day anyway, but that's the name of the game, right?).  Several hours in an airport, two flights, two trains, one bus, and a few blocks later, I finally walked through my front door and joined Mister in bed for a nice 5-hour nap.

See, I figured my circadian rhythm is all off anyway between the time changes and the red eye flights, so I don't think I'll have much trouble getting back to sleep tonight.  After being more or less awake for 24 hours, I didn't really care about sabotaging "bedtime."  After a long wake-up, I took a shower and put together a short menu from The Vegan Table (and one bonus from The Urban Vegan):

1. Saffron-Spiked Moroccan Stew, although there will be a spicy twist this time around, since we discovered the first time that we aren't big fans of crocus stamen.  Also because of a neat souvenir I brought home from San Francisco... I could tell you, but I'd rather make you come back to find out!

2. Red Lentil Artichoke Stew - I did, at this point in my shortened menu-planning, wonder if I was going a little stew-heavy for the end of July, but then I realized they were the middle-eastern version of stew, not the Irish version.

3. Aloo Gobi because it's not a stew and because the only things that make Mister happier than a curry of potatoes and cauliflower is a giant pot of pasta.

4. Sloppy Joes from The Urban Vegan. Except that I forgot to get TVP, so it looks like that one will wait until I can drop into Whole Foods on my way home from work.  Considering Angst hasn't quite decided whether he believes I'm the lady who lives here, I figured I couldn't go wrong making one of his favorites to remind him who is mommy is.  It's amazing what a long weekend away will do - he hid from me when I came in the door!

Anyway, after a refreshing shower and a fresh coat of paint, I headed out to Whole Foods and Superfresh (who have apparently learned that people will find alternatives, since they dropped the price on chickpeas from $1.19 to $0.59!), with a quick stop into the wine store for my Apothic Red (still love it, though I had some very nice wines, ummm, an hour from wine country....imagine that!).

Tonight, I made Red Lentil Artichoke Stew as my inaugural dish back home.  It felt so much like home to see this:

Red lentils, artichoke hearts, tomatoes, and a bay leaf just spending a little time together in a hot pot, simmering and allowing their flavors to meld.  Looks like home to me!

It was a delightfully tasty way to remember I know how to cook!  It's been a little while, you know.

Monday, July 25, 2011

a quick 'hello' from NorCal

Having a blast here in San Francisco/Oakland!  My sister and I have packed a huge amount of fun and activity into the last few days!  I'm not going to give away too much, but here's a taste of the fun you'll have when I get back:

  • near fatality on my first flight
  • finding out how stinky dried jackfruit is
  • a fabulous dinner and terrific experience at Millennium (thanks, Dad!)
  • wandering around San Fran's Mission district 
  • lunch at Gracias Madre
  • dinner at Saha (arabic fusion!)
  • karaoke at Pandora - I won't tell you what I sang, but I have to share my sister's best quote of the night: "I felt like I was watching a peep show with my sister singing in the background." 
  • switched to our Oakland hotel
  • traveled up to Berkeley
  • had a banana-butterscotch cinnamon bun at Cinnaholic (and it was everything I wanted it to be)
  • dinner at Saturn Cafe
More to come, but I didn't want to keep you waiting too long, so there's your little teaser and I'll see you in a few days!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

cat's gonna starve

Angst has a peculiar habit of waiting until I get home from work to become ravenously hungry and eat all his food then beg for more.  The theory is that Mister is so scary when I'm not here to protect him that Angst can't possibly risk coming out of hiding to eat.

Well, he's going to need to get over that or he'll be a hungry, hungry kitty by the time I get home this time.  Tomorrow morning (and by that I mean a little more than 4 hours from now) I'll be rising and shining in place of an absent sun to gather my things and head to the airport.  Mister and I are pretty sure that at some point, probably after the sun goes down, Angst is going to start bugging Mister to either let me out of the bedroom or, if he remembers me going out the front door, to let me back in.  The way he does this is by walking into Mister's room (having summoned all his courage to try to find me - what a devoted kitty), squeaking urgently until Mister stops what he's doing and follows the cat.  Angst then leads him to whichever door he's supposed to open to 'free' me.  He did this the other day when I didn't get home from work early enough to protect him from a thunderstorm.  Mister let him into the bedroom to see that I wasn't there and apparently, this was quite shocking to the poor little bugger.

I think he's in for a traumatic few days.  Hungry, too, since he wants me to believe Mister never feeds him.

I, on the other hand, anticipate an absolutely fabulous next few days.  I also anticipate that it will be just as devastating to leave as it always is, despite that I know I will miss Mister and Angst, and despite that Northern California is supposedly quite different from SoCal, where I have the more recent experience [of never ever wanting to leave].  I am brimming with excitement, looking forward to all the wonders that await me on the opposite coast.  I'm not completely sure how I expect to get to sleep because I'm pretty amped up right now and I still have to pack anyway.

Fortunately for me, Mister slept ultra late today so he's also not remotely sleepy and has agreed to stay up until 4 to make sure I get my booty out of bed and out the door.  I am terrified that my weeks and weeks of sleep deprivation will catch up tonight and I will wake up at noon tomorrow without an outside force acting upon me to prevent that.

To reward him (and feed him and keep the excessive pizza purchases at bay), I made a huge pot of pasta tonight.

Pasta Primavera with Fresh Veggies and Herbs from The Vegan Table makes a tremendous amount of food - how could you not with 12 oz pasta combined with a veggie ragout of 2 zucchinis, 2 peppers, 4 carrots, 5 tomatoes, and 10 asparagus spears (as well as all the seasoning)?  It always occurs to me after I've cut up the veggies that I could probably get away with halving this recipe, but this time around, I didn't want to.  I wanted there to be ample leftovers for Mister's meals.

Here are the rest of Mister's meals this weekend.  Except the Tempt Chocolate Fudge ice cream.  He'd better leave at least some of that for me....

Anyway, big pots of pasta make Mister happy, so for our last dinner together until Wednesday, I wanted something special.  With all those veggies to chop, it definitely was "special" and a bit time-consuming, but the results are delicious.

Beautiful, too, wouldn't you say?

Anyway, I'm off to shove clothes, books, and other essentials into a bag or two and try to get at least a three-hour nap before heading to the airport.  I will try to check in, but the laptop is way too big, bulky, and heavy to take with me, so I'm at the mercy of what I can find (although I'm pretty sure my sister will have hers).  Either way, I'll be keeping my little owl journal and my camera close at hand, so you can count on a nice picture parade and possibly multi-part story when I return.

Depending on whether I get treated like the rockstar I am, I may also have some posts for the other blog...

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

sometimes the sequel is better

While it is rarely true in motion pictures, I find that a dish is usually better the second or third time I make it.  I can only imagine that this is because the first time, I stay strictly close to the written recipe, and on future adventures, I break free of the tyranny of the recipe, allowing myself to tweak a little here and there.

Tonight, I reprised Pasta Shells with Black-Eyed Peas from The Vegetarian Times Complete Cookbook.  We liked it just fine the first time around, which is why I made it again, but since I looked back over my original post, I remembered to give it a little more flavor this time around.  Mission accomplished: a generous sprinkling of my beloved sea salt blend took this from a decent dinner to a fantastic meal.

The shells were a little bigger than I thought they'd be, once they were all cooked up.  I knew they weren't as small as the ones I usually get, but these are really big - as in, almost clever-hors-d'ouevres-stuff-them big.  It was actually kind of fun trying to see how much "filling" I could force into each shell before stuffing it in my mouth.

I'm an adult.  I can play with my food if I want to.

extreeeeeeme close-up!

Anyway, in about 24 hours, I'll be trying to force myself to go to sleep so I can get up at some horrid time like 4am (which is when I should be going to sleep, not waking up).  Fortunately, the happy ending is that after I sleep through a four hour plane ride and groggily locate the bathroom and Starbucks at the Salt Lake City airport, I will find myself in San Francisco, ready for a much-needed, incredibly deserved [albeit short] vacation.

I've been researching cocktails on so I know some fun things to order (I am Over-Prepared Woman - that's my superhero name), and I've scoped out a natural, non-toxic nail salon where I hope to get a manicure to pass the time between my flight's arrival and my sister's.  This time tomorrow I'll be packing and panicking and hopefully, remembering to check-in online.  I'll be packing my fun little owl book as well as my camera (and the battery charger!), but I have absolutely no idea if I'll get a chance to post while I'm out there.

That being said, it's time to reveal what's behind Secret Door #1.

I've decided to create a new blog.  Don't worry - I'm not abandoning this one!  Angst Loves Spinach will continue to be my primary blogging home, but Pretty Woman in an Ugly World is going to be a kind of supplement, so to speak.

I realized that although this was meant to be a "look ma, I'm learning to cook vegan!" blog, there are a lot of times I've written up reviews of restaurants or other food-oriented establishments.  Customer service is very important to me and I feel like it is a dying art.  In an effort to put the spotlight on those businesses that continue to offer World Class Customer Service, as well as expose those who don't quite know how to spell it, I've created this new blog.

The spark behind it was two-fold.  If you want to wander over there, you'll find the "story" laid out amidst the tabs (which I know are still woefully lacking from this blog, and I hope to correct that soon!), but let me give you a brief synopsis:

As I mentioned in the last post, 13 of Mister's and my friends joined us for an evening of fun at North Bowl, based on our recommendation because we so enjoyed the first time we visited.  Our experience this time around was so far from the first experience as to be unrecognizable.  Our waitress was quite possibly the worst waitress I've ever had.  It was embarrassing, since it was my suggestion and most of our friends were from out of town.  I sent off a long, detailed, and "passionate" email to the management that very night, letting them know how unacceptable our experience was.

Management's response was swift and favorable - they reviewed their video tapes, identified the "culprit" and will address this occurrence with her.  Additionally, at the time of my choosing, Mister and I and two friends have been invited back to the bowling alley for a round of bowling and drinks on the house.

At my work, we try to keep an evaluation of World Class Customer Service by asking ourselves at the end of a customer interaction, "How does the client feel about me?  How the customer feel about our company?"  So, how do I feel about North Bowl?

I'm thrilled with them.

Seriously!  Within 12 hours of me writing that email, the management took the appropriate steps to ensure my future satisfaction with their establishment.  That kind of customer service is so out of fashion these days that it reminded me of something I had pondered long ago.

In the beginning of the movie, "Pretty Woman," Julia Roberts's character, Vivian (perfect '80s name) finds herself rudely turned away from a boutique on Rodeo Drive.  She is devastated because all she wanted to do was buy a dress so she would look appropriate for her dinner date.  I'm sure at least most of my readers are well enough acquainted with the scene that I don't have to rehash it, but here is what has stuck with me for years now: when she returns to the hotel and gets "in trouble" with Barnard, the hotel manager, she tells him her sob story (while losing her composure) and he, despite his notions about her and her occupation, has an irrepressible desire to make it right.  He picks up the phone, calls a fancy department store and calls in a favor, resulting in Vivian getting the perfect dress and everyone is happy.

The reason this stuck with me is because it is my opinion that a person should not have to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars per night at a high-end hotel to be treated with respect and dignity.  The a$$-kissing is nice and I suppose that's something for money to buy, but it just feels like more and more often, we accept substandard service simply because there is no outstanding service available (or affordable).  I had an entrepreneurial moment while watching the moving about 5 years ago that I would like to get into hospitality just so that I could start my own hospitality business modeled after the service demonstrated at the Beverly Wilshire, but somewhere "normal" people could go.  Everyone deserves a little sucking up once in a while, don't you think?  (that is, by the way, absolutely a goal I have for this vacation - we're staying in two boutique hotels and I expect to be treated like a female version of Edward Lewis.)

So, in an effort to shift our service paradigm, especially in a time when money is far more scarce, so far more valuable, I want to highlight businesses that either offer incredible service consistently or companies, like North Bowl, who are willing to do whatever it takes to regain your business after someone messes up.  Occasionally, I may also write a scathing review of a business that exhibits unapologetically horrendous service, obviously hoping to influence my readers to take their hard-earned dollars elsewhere.

So, if you get bored in my absence, please, feel free to poke around on Pretty Woman in an Ugly World and let me know what you think!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

sunshine polka dots

Happy Monday!  The countdown is on - Monday down means only three more days until I wake up before the sun and race it westward to California!  I'm scheduled to touch down at 1pm-ish, so if I win, I might admit the world is coming to an end.

Anyway, I hope everyone had a great weekend.  As my previous post shows, I was pretty busy on Saturday, and Sunday as well, but in a totally different and far more fun way.  On Sunday, we met up with friends we haven't seen in a while - some of them we haven't seen since our wedding!  Fifteen of us descended upon North Bowl in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia and spent about five hours eating, drinking, and making merry.  It was a mixed bag, in terms of the service level being a bit below where I expect customer service to be, but we weren't there for the waitstaff, we were there to see each other.  Even Mister managed to be social!

I'm actually not going to spend a lot of time talking about our experience with North Bowl because I used up a lot of my words in the email I wrote to the management.  The happy ending, for now, is that the management responded quickly and appropriately and my happiness with the venue has been restored by their actions.  More details coming later....along with one of two upcoming surprises. [ilovesecrets]

Tonight I had a real conflict within while trying to determine what to make for dinner.  The part of me that hates when food grows limbs in our refrigerator and runs away or turns funny colors really wanted to make the Black Bean Burgers since I'm using up the burger thins from when I made the Lemony Chickpea Burgers and I don't know how long it will take them to grow "friends."  Another part of me wanted to make a longer-cooking meal since I had time, and yet another part of me wanted to make a meal with lot of leftovers for lunch this week.  Eventually, I settled upon the Mexican Rice and Bean Bake from Vegan on the Cheap.

Because a 4oz can of about two tablespoons of diced green chilies is pointlessly expensive, I pick up a cubanelle pepper at Whole Foods and diced it to saute with the garlic, and in place of the onion, I use my last shallot.

I'll admit, this picture made me a little nervous.  For one thing, I've never cooked a cubanelle pepper and I wasn't sure of its exact heat level.  The lightness of the pepper worried me, as it seems like they get hotter as they get lighter (ghost chilies, anyone?).  Also, apparently, shallots make my eyes tear the way onions make people who eat onions eyes tear.  I really wasn't sure what I was getting myself into.

[I would like to take just a moment to direct your attention to the pretty little Whole Foods brand pinto beans hiding behind the bowl there - 89 cents each, baby - that's right!  Thank you, Lacy!]

Turns out, I was getting myself into a fabulous base for a very tasty dinner.  I know I've made this before, because I know this isn't the first time I've said, "no, I am NOT baking this."  I can't remember when, though - what I do know is that I should make this more frequently because at the moment, it's a contender for the 2nd place spot for my favorite rice-n-beans recipe.

It's just spicy enough to keep things interesting, but I'm still able to eat it, which I consider a plus, since it's my dinner, too. In addition to the "just right" heat level, the little drops of sunshine scattered throughout (also known as "corn") added a satisfying and sweet pop of "other" flavor into a very savory and spicy dish.

Stay tuned for the unveiling of Secret #1 soon!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

grocery shopping on saturday night

It's the thing to do.  It'll make you feel good.  All the cool kids are doing it.  Or, well, nothing quite says "party animal" like going grocery shopping on a Saturday night.  I'd say I'm a total loser, but working six days a week and not getting home until 9PM on five of them tends to make the food shopping schedule a little bizarre.  Besides, since everyone else is already at the bar, restaurant, dance club, or strip club, I don't have to dodge as many people as I do on say, Sunday afternoon.

I only did one "leg" of my shopping adventures.  I really just wanted to get enough food to make one of the recipes on my new menu, so I went to Superfresh and got a head start on about a third of my list.  My menu is short but my shopping list is relatively long.  The main reason for this is my desire to stock the shelves, fridge, and freezer with enough appetizing and affordable food that Mister won't eat pizza every single time he's hungry while I'm in California.

That's right.  I'm going back to California on Friday, for my first ever Sister-Vacation.

We've gone on plenty of vacations together, obviously.  I mean, we did live together growing up and all, so if my parents decided to go on vacation, they usually took us both with them.  However, we've never done more on our own than just hang out for a day at the mall or go out for dinner and drinks.  I've visited her at college and stayed with her when she graduated, but we've never actually gone somewhere together.

We're off to San Francisco and I am stoked.  I'm reading and re-reading my VegNews magazines for ideas of where to go and what to do.  Sometime in the next couple of days, I will make our reservation to dine at Millennium, a fine-dining vegan restaurant I've heard plenty about but never been to.  Very excited for that.  The other thing I am absolutely the most excited for (besides spending plenty of time with my sister) is our trip to Cinnaholic.  I want to drool just thinking of it.  Mountains of vegan cinnamon buns waiting to be turned into your own personal cinna-bundae (clever, yes?) with custom icings and toppings.  It might be fruitful to walk back to San Fran after that...

It seems so long ago this was just a little, crazy idea hatched through text messages and now it's nearly here!  I'm sure I'll ramble a little bit about the trip every day between now and Thursday, and then possibly go missing for a few days, then come back with a massive picture parade post, so let's move on to my mini-menu to carry us through until Mister gorges himself on pizza and sandwiches and I eat, drink, and breathe in everything I can on the West Coast.

1. Mexican Rice and Bean Bake from Vegan on the Cheap.  I was going to make the Salsa Rice and Beans, but I continually and unfortunately neglect this tasty recipe in its favor almost every time, so I decided to mix it up a bit.  It's not like I'm actually going to try baking the brown rice.  Can you hear me laughing from wherever you are?

2. Better Bean Burgers also from Vegan on the Cheap.  I was actually intending to make these tonight, but Superfresh was hiding the cheap black beans, so I will have to wait until I see the prices at Whole Foods tomorrow.

3. Pasta Shells with Black-Eyed Peas from The Vegetarian Times Complete Cookbook.  I was poking through some old posts and I came across the first time I made this, so I decided it was time to repeat.

4. Pasta Primavera with Fresh Veggies and Herbs from The Vegan Table.  Talk about a cookbook I've been neglecting!  I nearly had to blow the dust off of it!  Anyway, I wanted to make the last meal I cook this week to be something very big with lots of leftovers (for obvious reasons, I would assume) but more importantly, leftovers Mister would find attractive.  I remember this making a huge yield, so I specifically sought out the cookbook for this recipe.  Regardless, when I return from Cali, I'll have to devote a whole week to this book because I'd forgotten how many great recipes there are in there.

5. Chickpea Stew with Fried Polenta from The Vegetarian Times Complete Cookbook.  As I was making this for dinner tonight, I found myself reflecting on how this is truly one of my favorite recipes.  Because I've grown to love cooking so much and since I'm continually trying new recipes I find myself hesitant to declare "favorites" the way I imagine a mother avoids and appearance of liking one child more than another.  Realizing, however, that food does not have feelings, I would like to let you in on a personal secret:

I love this one the most.

I love cucumbers

This is something that I forget almost every winter.  I love cucumbers.  I love the way they smell, I love the way they taste, I love their crunch and the fact that you would have to do something really bad to a cucumber to make it not naturally cool.  Something evil, like microwave it.

For however happy cucumbers make me, there is something else that makes me sad.  That thing is always the same: tomato seeds.  I don't know what it is about tomato seeds, but I find them utterly repulsive and everything about them makes me unhappy.  I hate cutting into a grape tomato to have the seeds squirt out and more than that, I hate slicing the core out of a "normal" tomato and finding it left behind a virtual colony of gross little seeds, encased in some gelatinous substance that then adheres them to the wall of the tomato I just want to dice.  There have been times that the sight has literally caused me to gag.

Fortunately for everyone, a cucumber and tomato salad cannot be beat and even I'll admit that.  Additionally, something wonderful happens to raw tomatoes when they marinate for 30 minutes or more in a "dressing" of sea salt, lemon juice, and olive oil.  It's almost as though the salt and lemon juice "cook" them a little.  My only complaint about this salad is the incredible amount of dressing left at the bottom of the bowl.

In case you haven't guessed, either by the salad or process of elimination, tonight's dinner was Chickpea Croquettes with Greek Salad Topping from Vegetarian Times: Quick and Healthy.  I've made this before, when it was originally featured in Veg. Times, but I don't remember being quite as impressed with it that time as I was tonight.

Since it was Friday and I was pretty proud of myself for making it all the way here again, I decided there was nothing wrong with a little cooking partner.  Meet Aperitif:

Malibu Pineapple Rum + Papaya Nectar + Lime Perrier

I don't know if I've only used this bag of chickpea flour for this recipe and nothing else (and therefore it has been sitting, bored and cold in the refrigerator, for a year) or if I've managed to sneak it into something else, but I have to say - I'm completely intrigued by chickpea flour.

What's even more awesome is that this stone-ground "good source of protein" has a recipe for hummus on the back which is created not by pureeing chickpeas in blender, but rather by combining this flour with water and a few other flavor elements.  I really want to try that when our current super-tasty Cava Mezze Roasted Garlic Hummus runs out.  Considering how great it is, that shouldn't take long.

I combined the hummus mix chickpea flour with cumin, salt, and chili powder, then whisked it until it was homogenous in color and not nearly as pretty as it is above.  In place of boring old water, I decided to mix it with vegetable broth for added flavor, so perhaps that was a contributor to my happiness with how it came out.

Add in some diced orange pepper for crunch and deception.  That's right - those little orange cubes are liars for two reasons.  One, they were supposed to be red, but red peppers are not having a happy season just yet.  More importantly, though, because the finished product was far more garlicky than I expected it to be, I kept expecting the crunchy texture to lead to the distinct realization that I'd bitten into a clove of garlic.  That was not true, though, as the sweetness of the pepper shone through after only an additional chomp.

One of the most rewarding parts of the evening was cooking up 8 of these suckers without setting off the fire alarm.  This may not sound like an achievement to you, but almost every time I "fry" something with spray oil on a skillet, I end up overjudging the heat I need on the burner, which results in me burning at least the surface of something (they're "blackened," like cajun-creole, ya know?) and generating enough smoke to set off the alarm.

That didn't happen tonight because I finally figured out that it's okay to a) cook with the exhaust hood running and b) lower the heat once the skillet it where it's supposed to be.  This results in more evenly (and quietly) cooked food.

When I was preparing to set the table and deliver our dinner to it, I turned to find Angst had camped out in "Roast" position in front of the fridge.  Bizarre little cat.  Turns out he was thirsty and knows that's where Mommy keeps the "special" (Brita) water.  Spoiled, I tell you.

Anyway, dinner was delightful, especially with the crunch and sweetness of the orange pepper to break the potential monotony of a pretty bland-looking meal.  Chickpeas in chickpea flour?  It doesn't exactly scream excitement.... but maybe it should.  After all, it is spiked with chili powder and cumin.

Speaking of spiked....