Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Vegan and a Vegetarian Taste-test Quorn Vegan Burgers

I have a lot of vegan friends who were huge fans of Quorn products when they were vegetarian.  I, on the other hand, spent my vegetarian years eating french fries, cheese, and oreos; nary a meat substitute crossed these lips until I went vegan and, by then, Quorn was no longer an option.  So when they recently contacted me to see if they could send me a sample of their new vegan burgers, I was both excited that they were branching out and anxious to finally give a Quorn product a try.

The burger on the box looked pretty meaty, which doesn't necessarily excite me; I don't like the look, smell, or taste of meat.  I prefer my veggie burgers to taste exactly like what's in them: beans, veggies, whatever.  The ingredients in these burgers were so foreign to me, though, that I didn't know what to expect taste-wise: "Mycoprotein (35%), water, textured wheat protein (wheat protein, wheat starch), onion, potato protein, sunflower oil. Contains 2% or less of rusk (wheat flour, ammonium bicarbonate), palm oil, natural flavoring from non meat sources, salt, sugar, tapioca starch, sodium alginate, smoked paprika, pectin, potato maltodextrin, barley malt extract, smoked yeast, potassium chloride, smoke flavoring, citric acid, gum arabic, silicon dioxide, tricalcium phosphate."  Ah well, all I needed to know was that it was vegan.

So, the actual burger doesn't look anything like the picture on the box.  Anything.

Since it was so thin, I decided to make all four burgers: two each for VM and I to taste.  This is what they looked like frozen:

They didn't look much different cooked; certainly no closer to the image on the box.  I will note that they did smell appetizing.

When I cut into the burger to investigate, it looked kind of like poultry.  There seemed to be a batter of some sort coating of the burger, which is what I think smelled so good. 

I piled up my double decker (VM stuck with a single) and prepared to feast.

No matter how many fixin's, how much ketchup (I like ketchup!), it was not my cup of tea.  I removed one layer of burger almost immediately, but the texture and the taste of the single still did not sit well with me.  Unlike Boca, it was not reminiscent of a beef burger.  Nor did it taste like any veggie burger I've ever tried.  If I had any idea what one tasted like, I'd assume it was most similar to a turkey burger?  There was a gamey taste that I couldn't quite place; perhaps that's their "mycoprotein (fungi)" ingredient? 

I will note that while VM did not suffer loudly through her meal as I did, she did pass on the leftovers.  So I don't necessarily think she liked it better, so much as she's just a nicer person than I am.

One oddity that I wanted to point out before any of you have a panic attack is that the nutrition facts for this burger currently indicate that it contains 5mg of cholesteral.  As we all know, there's no cholesteral in vegan food; so, what gives?  Marty's Flying Vegan Review was on the case; he contacted a Quorn representative and was basically told it was a misprint.  I can certainly forgive a mistake, but I do have to wonder why the same erroneous information is still posted on their website as of today, over a month later.  Surely it takes a while to reprint actual packages, but only a keystroke to correct an online error.  Hmmm.

In any event, it was very nice of Quorn to send me their product to try.  Perhaps I'm not the target audience for this type of burger, as I like my veggie burgers to fall on the side of veggies rather than burger.  Maybe some of you former burger/turkey burger/Quorn lovers out there will wholeheartedly disagree with my review.  If you think that's you, let me know and you just might win a coupon for a free Quorn product, courtesy of Quorn, that I hope you'll use to try these vegan burgers and report back.  Leave a comment by April 15, 2012, letting me know that you'd like to be considered for the distinct pleasure of (possibly) disagreeing with me and I'll let VM choose the winner.  [UPDATE: Check the comments for the announcement of the unfortunate lucky winners.]

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Champs Bakery: Third Time's the Charm

When I visited Champs Bakery on it's opening day in August 2010, it wasn't fully stocked, but everything I tried was delicious.  I was excited that their goal was to become an authentic Brooklyn bakery and anticipated visiting for every bonafide and just-because occasion I could come up with.

My second visit was much the same.  There hadn't been any aesthetic improvements to speak of and the offerings- while yummy- were still minimal in quantity and not exactly "authentic Brooklyn bakery"-esque.

I visited Champs a few more times after that, but for naught.  The staff seemed bored, the space neglected, and the offerings uninspired.  When I go into a vegan bakery and don't get anything; something is radically wrong.  And so I took a break from Champs.

Lots of things have happened in the world of Champs since.  They closed down their relatively nearby sandwich shop, Boneshakers, and have turned Champs into a diner.  I was skeptical, but so many friends and fellow bloggers (even the healthy ones) were raving, so I had to give it a shot.  The second I laid my eyes upon their "A"* I knew I had made the right decision.

I was warned that there would be a wait (another excellent sign) and there was, but not too long.

The booths are roomy and adorable- all vinyl and glitter.  There are no juke boxes on the table, but judging by the smell, they clean the tables with authentic diner spray!  Eventually it subsides.  In contrast to their old skool aesthetic, they serve an unexpectedly mean chai latte.

Let me forewarn you about two things so that you're not surprised.  1) They serve cow's milk for coffee.  I don't know why, but when I asked they assured me that everything else in the establishment is vegan.  2) Be prepared for the thickest head of foam you've ever seen on a latte. 

The menu is pretty awesome, and especially befitting the dinery vibe; I dare you not to find at least 3 things you want to try right off the bat.

One friend chose the biscuits and soysage gravy: "house made biscuits with soysage gravy served with a salad".  It was all Northwest-looking with it's white gravy and sausage.  I'm not a b&g fan, so I didn't taste it, but the other tablemates all appreciated the dish.

Another friend went with the tofu Benedict: "tofu on toast with soysage, hollandaise, sauteed tomatoes, home fries and salad" for the fourth time in a row; it's fair to say she's addicted.

I settled on the monte cristo: "french toast sandwich with melted cheese and veggie ham, with home fries and salad", a particularly impressive looking non-vegan sandwich that I've watched being consumed around me my whole life and have never gotten my hands on.  The traditional non-vegan version that I'm familiar with is quite a bit different than the Champs version.  The minor omissions were turkey and raspberry jam, but the major omission was not having the entire sandwich dipped in batter and fried.  Yes, really.  I'm sure this method is healthier, but I was still disappointed.  Other than that, the greens were mixed (no iceberg here) with a nice, light dressing, and the potatoes were a surprising miss: undercooked and much too mushy for my taste.  But overall, the charm and the possibility already had me hooked; my plate was simply an image of  potential. 

Yes, you read that right.  Here's the rub: even though it wasn't exactly what I was expecting/what I would consider an authentic nod to the original, my dish was representative of all that Champ's can achieve.  For instance, if I deconstruct the sammie, I'm impressed.  For starters, the French toast.  On it's own it would have been exactly the way I like it: soft and ready to be drenched in maple syrup.  And the ham & cheese?  Perfect ratio.  Throw in some tofu-egg cutlets & slap them on a kaiser roll and I'd be good to go.  If they'd just master the "home fries" we'd be all set.

Next up?  Dessert.  True diner style, you get up to peruse the packed case of brownies, bars, and cakes...as well as the various donuts (Dunwell), cookies, scones, muffins, etc. that are displayed up and down the counter.

My friends both gravitated towards the rainbow cookies.  I had a taste and, while okay, it wasn't close to the authenticity that I've managed to replicate in my own version of the rainbow cookies of my youth.  Solid effort, though.

I chose two things (!): an oreo cake ball that was less like a munchkin and more like a fudge truffle, and the cereal cookie.  The true standout dessert, it was dotted with FRUITY PEBBLES (my fave) and marshmallows.  I mean, really.  Could there have been a cookie more suited to my palate?  It far exceeded my expectations; good thing there were only two left in the jar because I could have eaten a million. 

Final verdict?  Champ's has finally hit it's stride.  The dining area, the staff, and the offerings are all spot on.  There is a reason there is a continuous crowd waiting for a table; I will be revisiting shortly.

* As an example of how clean things were, I present the spotless cover of the Sriracha bottle:

Ketchup bottle was the same!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Potluck Cakewich!

This weekend I had the distinct pleasure of attending a fantastic potluck (my first) thrown by my good friend, BYOL.  In addition to his other more obvious talents, he apparently has a penchant for potlucks; I have never known anyone to have that many plates, bowls, mugs, cutlery, and cloth napkins on hand.

The potluck was in honor of another good friend who just happened to be celebrating a ridiculous amount of milestones occurring within a relatively short time span.  Any excuse for a party, I say.  And so, for this momentous occasion, I decided to finally bust out the Cakewich!

Don't be fooled; the preparation wasn't all fun and games.  For starters, my kitchen looked like my pantry had exploded!

It took a couple of experiments with different recipes to settle on the best tasting and looking cake.  The winner: Veganomicon's vanilla-yogurt pound cake.  Unfortunately, it contained a lot of ingredients I prefer not to bake with.  Well, I suppose the yogurt's not so bad.

But the silken tofu made me gag; the look and smell would scare any non-vegan away!  I'm sure you all have someone in your family who thinks vegans lap this up straight outta the package.  Some of you may have even been lucky enough to have been served some at a family function!

It looked less ominous once blended (thank you, Magic Bullet).

But I did get to use the hand mixer, which I really enjoy.  Batter before:

Batter after (note VM's no-mess, anti-drip technique in action):

Going in:

Coming out:

You're going to slice off the top dome of the cake and then slice the cake in half horizontally.  I'd recommend flipping the top layer so that you wind up with the nicest possible side of the slice facing up, as it will be the top of your finished cake.

The guest of honor is a fellow Biscoff fan, so the "peanut butter" was actually Biscoff spread (one jar).  I keep my Biscoff in the panty, but remember that it melts quickly.  Even though I let the cake cool completely before spreading, it got a little runny during preparation just from being in the still-warm-from-the-oven kitchen.  Refrigerate the cake quickly and consistently until ready to serve.  I don't recommend for outdoor affairs in the warm weather, but it was the perfect consistency when served indoors on a relatively cool evening.

It wasn't until I was finished that I realized I'd missed the opportunity to create a giant Biscoff fluffernutter.  Next time!  It looked pretty hilarious just as it was.

Funny at any angle!

All of the contributions to the potluck were smashing and a good time was had by all; congrats to both the successful party organizer*, and the honoree!

*You may have read recently that BYOL is my nemesis.  We do disagree on a lot of things that I happen to be right about.  For instance, I ALWAYS prefer kale over collards.  I would never do aisle push-ups on a long airplane flight.  I also happen to have a special affinity for the Magic Bullet, while he dotes on his VitaMix (in the interest of privacy I won't mention it here, but she even has a name); this particular rivalry began the first day we met.  And so this is why myself and my merry band of mischief-makers (along with a generous dose of wine) decided that Ms. VitaMix had to sleep with the fishes on Saturday night.  And by fishes I mean whey protein (non-vegan roommate).

photo courtesy of MVG
Beware the headless VitaMix!

photo courtesy of MVG
As it turns out, they're not as close as he'd intimated.  A full 24 hours later and he hasn't mentioned anything "missing".  I'll bet dollars to donuts that a home-wrecking Magic Bullet is somehow involved.

Happy potluck Cake-wiching to all!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

"Fur is Gross, By the Way" (at Pure Food and Wine)

Most of the people I've asked for their opinion of Pure Food and Wine have responded with one, all, or a combination of the following descriptions:

  • trendy
  • expensive
  • small portions
This kept me away for years; Quarry Girl's famous "Eight...." review didn't help matters either. 

But a few months ago a friend asked me if I wanted to join him for dinner there, for which he had a coupon.  I was happy to finally give it a try.

I arrived early for our 7:00pm reservation and the restaurant was already filling up.  I was really surprised by the amount of passers-by who stopped to peruse the menu posted outside, but I will note that it didn't entice anyone to enter in the span of the fifteen minutes I was waiting.  Perhaps they realized this wasn't a drop-in type of place.

More shocking, however, was the giant, fur hat I spied through the window- atop an otherwise obscured, incompassionate patron.  Now I realize that Pure Food and Wine's clientele isn't necessarily vegan, but is it too much to expect that a customer would at least make the connection?  As if it isn't bad enough that someone would wear fur in a vegan establishment, this particular chapeau was so huge that it was undoubtedly a purposeful, "look at me" fashion choice.  The person wearing it, to whom I referred to as "Fur Hat*", was seemingly oblivious to both the fashion and vegan faux pas of the statement.

Just when we were about to go in we ran into friends of ours outside who, coincidentally, had reservations at the same time (and a coupon of their own); the staff at PF&W was kind enough to seat us right next to each other without ceremony.  The waiter was pleasant and remained cordial and efficient throughout the meal, as did all of the staff that serviced our table. 

None of us imbibed, but the mojito did get my attention on the cocktail menu.  I'll note that our large glasses of water were kept filled at all times.

Oddly, the meal didn't start with an amuse bouche.  PF&W is definitely in the echelon of restaurants that you would expect to offer one, but they did not.  Later in the evening I was sure I spied one (some sort of dumpling) at a nearby table, but I can't be sure.  If it was, is it possible they are not offered to coupon-bearing patrons?  I thought the very point of coupons was to bring in new customers so that you could impress them?  What do I know?  No amuse bouches for us.

For an appetizer, my date and I shared a Natsu Maki of avocado, pickled onion, and cream cheese- if memory serves.  I regret that I didn't photograph the menu, as the current online version isn't indicative of all of this past weekend's offerings.  Perhaps sushi wasn't the most inventive choice for us to have made at a raw restaurant, but we were both happy with our selection; all components played together really well.

Our accompanying couple shared mushroom scallops (again, I don't recall the description).  The more verbose of the two, BYOL, has reported that it was "tasty but the sauce was lacking that special quality that sets Pure apart from other places. That said, the cabbage in our appetizer was particularly fresh and the oyster mushrooms were boasting with flavor. The dish was also of a generous size."

photo courtesy of BYOL
Periodically throughout the meal I would see Fur Hat wandering around the dining room.  Yes, you read that right; as if it wasn't bad enough that she wore fur to the restaurant, she insisted on wearing it in the restaurant.  Interesting.

A surprising number of the few entree offerings contained pear as a main ingredient, so for dinner I chose the decidedly pear-less Hen of the Woods Tacos al Pastor: "smoked guacamole, hearts of palm, chayote squash, guajillo crema fresca, pickled onions [and watermelon radish]."  My first impression was that it looked kind of sloppy; I was rather disappointed that more of the ingredients were not components of the actual tacos, but rather an accompanying salsa of sorts.  It tasted pleasant enough, but there was nothing particularly exciting about it.  I'd wanted to be wowed and I wasn't.

As half of the entree options contained mushrooms, my mushroom-eschewing companion didn't have much of a choice either; he ultimately went with the often recommended Zucchini, Local Heirloom Tomato Lasagna: "basil pistachio pesto, sun-dried tomato marinara, macadamia pumpkin seed ricotta".  He loved it and, while I wouldn't necessarily order it for myself, I have to say that the ricotta was really delicious.

photo courtesy of My Vegan Gut
One of our friends ordered the Sunchoke Gratin with Vanilla Poached Pear: "black kale pesto, shaved black truffles, truffle hazelnut cream".  This looked more of what I expected a dish at PF&W would look like- both in size an presentation.  BYOL reported that it was amazing, "The Black Kale pesto was rich, the chickpeas were sweet and filled with flavor, and the sunsmoked gratin was unlike anything I've ever had before."  I tasted the gratin, which I can confirm was delicious, but I want to stress how fabulous the pesto was; it was kale after all.

photo courtesy of BYOL
Our other friend chose the Lemon Alfredo Noodles with Marinated Portabella Mushrooms: "sundried tomatoes, wild rapini, black garlic basil reduction".  I'd actually had my eye on this, but I didn't think I was in the mood for lemon.  It didn't photograph well, but it looked extremely appealing in person.  It's diner, a respectable non-sharer, says that both her meal and drink were great (I didn't realize she had one), and noted that she's dined at PF&W quite a few times and has been consistently pleased.

photo courtesy of BYOL
Dessert was a tough call.  It seemed as though everyone wanted to share, while I wanted to order at least three for myself.  Our neighboring diners chose to share the lemon cannolis with pistachio gelato (again, the lemon deterred me- especially in dessert).  They looked amazing and received two thumbs up; we were all impressed that there were two (albeit small).

We decided to go for it with the Frozen Black Forest Shortcake: "chocolate cherry ice cream, almond chocolate cream, sake sesame fruit".  Not surprisingly, this was the best thing I ate all night!  I'm not even going to get into how it was created raw, but suffice it to say it was an upscale, raw, version of my old friend the tartufo.  The shell was decadent, the ice cream chocolate/cherry at it's best, and it was resting atop a delicately flavored (my companion thought bland) shortbread cookie.  I did taste one of the little fruit squares and I'll be damned if the pear didn't finally get me.

But that notwithstanding, high marks for dessert; I could have eaten 3 more (obviously).

photo courtesy of My Vegan Gut
One critique: the gentleman who brought our dishes to the table was not our waiter.  While he didn't judge me when I squealed as he approached with our dessert was extremely pleasant, I would have appreciated if our meals had been presented with an explanation of the dish, as I'd already forgotten what the specifics were by the time they came out.  It would have only taken a couple of extra seconds and would have truly lent itself to the upper scale establishment.

So let's re-cap:

  • Trendy?  Yes; very.  And decidedly non-vegan.  The dining room is inviting: warm-hued, quiet, and boasting great big comfy upholstered chairs, just the way I like them.  No one was snooty; in fact, I would have appreciated a little more ceremony.

  • Expensive?  Well, yes.  I would have liked to have ordered a few more dishes in order to get a better sampling of the offerings, but the cost was a bit prohibitive for such abandon.  For a once-in-a-while splurge it's not bank-breaking, but I can think of other restaurants I'd prefer.  Perhaps try and/or revisit next time a coupon comes around.

  • Small portions?  Yes and no.  I probably could have eaten our companion's appetizer on my own, but sharing the sushi was more than enough.  There's certainly no chance of having entree leftovers and the desserts are quite miniscule, but I was surprisingly satiated when we left. 

Full disclosure?  An hour later I had Lula's.   To be fair, I wasn't necessarily hungry; I just...wanted it.  Cinnamon on top, caramel swirl on the bottom (extra credit to the scoop-ess who got a real workout giving me the last of the luscious cinnamon).

I wasn't the only one!  Chocolate chocolate chip:

*Fur Hat:
When I got in line for the (disappointingly untidy) restroom, Fur Hat was in front of me.  She was soft-spoken, but friendly and out-going: immediately turning around and talking to both myself and the diner behind me about how much she was enjoying her meal.  Astonished by her seeming naiveté, I asked her if she was vegan.  "I'm trying, but I still eat fish and cheese."  And, apparently, wear fur hats.  Before I could think of how to respond with aplomb, she began raving about "Dr.Cownut [sic]" cheese.  I was perplexed by how her exuberance for her meal was in such severe contrast to her offensive headwear, and it was her turn before I could muster a thoughtful, yet pointed comment.

As it turned out, she and I both wound up exiting the restroom at the same time as BYOL was going in, and he mentioned, "Fur is gross, by the way," as he passed.  She turned to me, wide-eyed, to ask what he'd said.  I responded with a hesitant point and a poignant grimace, "He doesn't like your hat."  I saw the comprehension as it passed across her face and she melancholically repeated what she'd confirmed she'd heard: his exact words.  It was obvious that her feelings were hurt, and then she was gone.

Surely there is a more delicate and effective approach for when one finds themselves in these situations- particularly when you are a vegan in a vegan establishment that is populated predominantly by non-vegans.  Suggestions?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Cross Culture: Impeccable Indian Cuisine in Princeton

After the last, horrendous Indian-in-Jersey experience, I was due for an impeccable feast.  I found it, rather unexpectedly, in Princeton, NJ. 

Tucked innoccuously in the back corner of a somewhat convoluted strip mall is the extremely vegan friendly, Cross Culture.  Coincidentally, it's in the former space of Zen Palate.

When I was invited to a celebratory engagement dinner I emailed ahead in order to avoid having to grill the server in front of a group of people I knew and didn't know in varying degrees.  The response I received was pleasant, specific, and accomodating; not only did they point out which vegetarian menu items were vegan by default (a lot!), but they stressed that they would be willing to tweak others in order to make them so.  It was obvious that they were familiar with veganism and most welcoming to vegan diners.

I am happy to report that the email was not just a rehearsed fluke; the servers are consistently aware and most courteously and unblinkingly obliging.  Yes, dear readers; lest you think this place is hit-or-miss, rest assured that I've now tested it out on four, separate occasions (for you), and the food, atmosphere, and service has been stellar every single time.  The dishes are divine; the restaurant is warm, inviting, and spotless; the servers are professional and kind: a dining experience trifecta of greatness!

Behold our appetizers:

Aloo Tikki: "Potato patties and green peas flavored with chili peppers and coriander."  I consider Aloo Tikki an Indian knish; these are larger, milder, lighter, and creamier than most I've had.

Papadum: "Thin and crispy lentil flat breads."  Sometimes Papadum have an underlying flavor I can't put my finger on and don't appreciate, but these do not; they are wonderful and huge: dip them in your tamarind chutney and munch. 

Vegetable Samosa: "Crispy fried turnovers deliciously filled with mildly spiced potatoes and peas."  It's a Vegetable Samosa; you can't go wrong.  Assorted Pakora: "Fresh vegetables dipped in a delicately spiced batter and fried to golden perfection."  Here's the thing: VM and I are pakora fanatics.  We used to go to an Indian restaurant Happy Hour and fill our bellies with them, leaving room only for a couple of cocktails (yes, she's the best VM ever).  There is no limit to the amount of pakora we can indulge in: good and bad.  But these pakora?  They were FANTASTIC!  Potato, cauliflower, and spinach/onion: it was hard to pick a favorite, so good thing we didn't have to.

I promise you we didn't eat everything.  How could we?  We still had dinner coming.  (Apologies for the dark and sometimes blurry pictures; once the sun went down, the lighting at Cross Culture was positiviely ambient).

VM's first pick was Bhindi Masala: "Okra sauteed with onions, tomatoes and oriental spices."  A word about this dish: sofantistacallygoodwemayhavefoundanewfavorite!  I don't know how they do it, but the sweetness in this spicy dish is so unique; how has it eluded me for so long?

They were able to veganize the Palak Panir by omitting the cheese and adding potatoes. Voila! Aloo Palak: "Fresh homemade Indian cheese gently cooked with garden spinach and mild spices [and potatoes]."  Palak Panir was always one of my favorites, but even as a vegetarian I'd pick out the cheese cubes.  This is the best veganized version I've had; I was blown away.

Next up, Aloo Gobhi: "Fresh cauliflower and potatoes seasoned with Indian spices, cooked to perfection with onions, green peas and tomatoes."  Admittedly, this dish is generally more a VM pick than my own.  But this Aloo Gobhi was the best I've ever had; I'd order it again anytime.

Can't find the Chana Masala on the menu?  Don't worry; it's under "accompaniments".  It should be under "necessities" because, really, it's not an authentic Indian meal without it.  Chana Masala: "Chick peas and fresh tomatoes cooked in traditional spices."  This is one of my favorite Indian dishes of all time and Cross Culture's version did not disappoint.

Light basmati rice was generous and complimentary.

I ordered the Homemade Tandoori Roti: "Whole wheat bread baked in the tandoor."  It wasn't naan (not veganizable), but it made a fine subsitute.  I was told that the puri is also vegan (I'm not a fan), and the paratha veganizable.  VM couldn't resist; she ordered the vegetarian Aloo Paratha: "Paratha bread stuffed with delicately spiced potatoes."  I seem to have been too busy drooling to have taken a photograph.

The leftovers were packed with pride and care, and the food reheated with ease.

A couple of notes:

  • For those of you, like me, who like things spicy, remember to ask!  Their general spice is geared for the mild-at-heart, but insiders know they will spice your food on a scale of 1-10.  I got the 10 on two occasions and it was terrific: flavorful, obviously from authentic chiles, and not fire-breathing dragon hot.  I'd be tempted to try a 12 (ok, 15), but 6-7 seems to be a respectable level for groups that can handle a little heat.  Don't be a wimp.

  • Cilantro: I'm not a fan.  I can normally tolerate it in cooked foods, but I didn't detect a whiff of it in all these delicacies.  That's not to say it wasn't in there (allergy-afflicted, always ask), but it didn't bother me if it was.
  • The restaurant is BYOB, but otherwise I'd recommend the chilled Pellegrino as a nice compliment to the food.

Cross Culture is a vegan-friendly gem tucked away in a Princeton shopping complex; support it!  I'd suggest a dedicated road trip, but if you ever just unexpectedly find yourself in the area, definitely give it a try.