Saturday, January 9, 2010

Vegan Meat (American Style)

In general, creATE is not a restaurant review site, but last week I had such a great meal while vacationing in Chicago that it quickly became clear that the Chicago Diner would warrant a blog entry.  The Chicago Diner opened in 1983 by a former Chicago Board of Operations commodities trader and his partner with the goal of creating a vegetarian restaurant that had a down-home American feel, serving “meat and potatoes” comfort food in the vintage diner atmosphere of vinyl seats, laminate tables, old photos, and neon signs on the walls.  Although the diner had many skeptics in the 80s when it opened—including hecklers and robberies—it has since received Readers Choice awards from Vegetarian Times, VegNews, The Chicago Reader, Timeout Chicago, and The Windy City Times.  Celebrities such as Madonna, Kevin Bacon, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have dined at the Chicago Diner, and the restaurant ships its vegan baked goods to Whole Foods stores around the Midwest. 

Despite its awards and guest visits, the diner maintains its humble atmosphere and the staff members were friendly, earthy, and knowledgeable.  The diner’s menu is completely vegetarian, with most items vegan or can be made vegan.  The diner serves brunch until 3:30PM daily, which includes options ranging from vegan scrambled eggs, French toast, and pancakes.  Appetizers include wings, vegan nachos, and taquitos.  For lunch and dinner, guests can choose from over twenty vegan entrées and sandwiches such as country fried steak, meatloaf, burgers, and cheese steak sandwiches.   Desserts are complete with cheesecake, vegan milk shakes, cookies, and cupcakes.  Seasonal microbrews are also served.  Prices are very reasonable, with entrées from $8.99 to $12.99 ($4.99–$9.99 for brunch).  Adventurous cooks can also purchase the Chicago Diner’s cookbook to make diner food at home.

Shortly after a co-worker who frequents Chicago often recommended the Chicago Diner to me, I read an article about it in VegNews, so needless to say, when my boyfriend Cody and I arrived in Chicago on Monday, the Diner was the first place we visited.  From downtown, it was an easy ride up the Redline train to Belmont street and a few blocks walk from there.  Curious to try something “meaty”—and also craving a hot meal after walking through Chicago in early January—I opted for the “Eggstatic Sandwich,” an egg-blt with fried tofu “eggs,” soy cheese, tempeh bacon, lettuce, tomato, and sprouts, served on sourdough bread with Creole mustard.  Cody chose our server Jeff’s recommendation of the Philly Cheeze “Steak” sandwich: sliced barbeque seitan, sautéed onions and peppers, melted soy cheese, all on top of a hoagie bun.  Cody and I had high hopes of ordering a vegan milkshake or slice of cheesecake for dessert, but we were too full and opted for a chocolate chip cookie, which tasted much better than most vegan cookies I’ve had.  Here are some pictures of our delicious lunch.

I must confess that until recently, I have been skeptical of vegan substitutions for meat products, enjoying the earthy beans, grains, and veggies quality of vegan life.  In a few words, the sandwiches were delicious, surpassing every expectation.  Maybe I just got hungry, but it tasted good to have a hearty American meal, and one containing no animal products to boot.  Our meals contained no trans-fats or high fructose corn syrup, two ingredients that make meat and dairy and sugar substitutions easier.  As vegan lifestyle becomes more common in America, I’m starting to think that vegan “meat and potatoes” options and innovations will follow. 

Consider, for example, vegan chef Tal Ronnen’s, new cookbook, The Conscious Cook.  Similar to the Chicago Diner’s owners, Tal Ronnen is a vegan that enjoyed the concepts of a vegan lifestyle but always craved meat and dairy.  His latest cookbook outlines reasons for going vegan in a simple but convincing manner, includes interviews with guest chefs, and includes recipes for such delectable and “meaty” meals including “Gardein ‘Steak’ Sandwiches,” “Tomato ‘Mozzarella,’ and Pesto Panini,” and “Pine-Nut-and-Basil Seared Gardein ‘Chicken’ with Lobster Mushroom Beurre Blanc, Braised Kale, and Roasted Fingerling Potatoes.”

I’ll be trying some of Ronnen’s recipes in the next few weeks and experimenting with my own.  If you have any suggestions for “meaty” meals you’d like to see made vegan, thoughts on vegan substitutions, or comments on anything else, please don’t hesitate to post.  Thanks again for reading!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Mindful New Year's Resolutions

Happy New Year, everyone!  My apologies for the brief creATE hiatus, but I am happy to announce that creATE is back in the swing.

In deciding what to write about for the first article of the New Year, and new decade, I decided to write about resolutions, risking the fact that it is somewhat cliché.  In the spirit of creATE, I’m not going to urge readers to create resolutions, but provide some insight for reflection for those readers who want to reflect on the year past and consider trying something new in the coming year.

According to Maia Szalavitz of Time Magazine (click here for article), 48% of Americans will make New Year’s resolutions for 2010.  Of those 48%, about 65% will keep the resolution for part of the year, and of that 65%, 35% won’t even keep the resolution for any length of time.

Szalavitz offers some tips for keeping your New Year’s resolutions, including setting realistic goals, exercising self control in tempting or provocative situations, and not punishing yourself when you slip a little. Szalavitz also suggested quitting “cold turkey,” i.e., using the mindset that if you can’t stop doing something for a short period of time, smoking, for example, you won’t be able to moderate it successfully.  She also encouraged readers to surround themselves with friends and family that would be supportive of their goals.

In light of this article, and other publications and books I’ve cited in previous blogs such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and The Daily Green, here are some things I’m considering doing this year.

Be compassionate towards yourself.

Diet.  Thanks to our very productive, very integrated society, Americans can make dietary choices that run the gamut of completely natural to completely processed foods, of homemade meals to fast food burgers.  This year, think about the fact that we are what we eat (and what we eat eats).  If reflecting on that makes you feel like you’d like to improve, then think of one or two ways to change.  These might include:
  • Eating more colors (fruits and vegetables)
  • Eating more organic (consuming less pesticides and growth hormones)
  • Eating more seasonally
  • Eating less meat
  • Becoming vegetarian or vegan
  • Cook more meals at home
  • Grow your own food
Lifestyle.  Not only are we what we eat, but we are also defined by how we live.  Many of us have a lifestyle depicted by rushing from one activity, job, or appointment to another, from the time we wake up until the time we go to bed, sometimes for only a few hours. This rushed lifestyle not only causes personal stress, but it stresses our relationships and the environment.

One way to reflect and change our lifestyles is by slowing down in order to determine what’s important.  We can’t do everything, be everywhere, and please everyone all at once.  Make a list of things you currently do—including your job and other responsibilities—and things you want to do in the coming year—including goals for the coming year.  Decide how many of these activities, responsibilities, and goals you can attack at once and prioritize them.  Once you have these under control, you can add other responsibilities and goals to your daily life.

Relationships.  The people we associate with also influence our entire physical and emotional wellbeing.  Take the time to reflect upon the relationships you have.  Here are some tips. 
  • Spend more time with the family members and friends that make you feel good and encourage you to be your best. 
  • Heal broken relationships that are important to you. 
  • Visit more family members, particularly the oldest and youngest ones. 
  • Call a friend you haven’t spoken to in a long time.
  • Make plans to see people, no matter how far they live.
Be compassionate towards others.

Again, our relationships and how we interact with and treat others define us.  Not only does this involve maintaining and healing good personal relationships, but the desire to improve also involves treating those who may not understand your choices with compassion and respect.  Find ways to explain your choices to others in ways that are not condescending or preachy.  You just might inspire them to change as well.

Be compassionate towards the world.

I have always admired the Native American way of thinking of our planet, not as something we own, but of ourselves as mere passers-through, borrowing the resources we need to live.  Here are some ways we can change our lifestyles in this spirit of this mindset.
  • Reduce your waste.  Ditch the bottled water for one reusable water bottle.  Bring containers to the grocery store to buy foods in bulk.  Bring your own grocery bags.
  • Reuse and recycle.  Reuse anything you can such as glass jars and shipping boxes.  Recycle whatever you can’t reuse.  Buy cloth napkins, more dishtowels, and washcloths instead of paper napkins, paper towels, and wet wipes.
  • Grow your own food.  This virtually eliminates the possibility of consuming pesticides and reduces support big-business farming and food production and transportation.  Plus it tastes better.
  • Eat more seasonally.  This helps reduce the costs of transporting foods to your grocery store.  You’ll also be more mindful of what you’re eating.
  • Eat less meat.  If you’re not convinced that this helps heal the world, just watch Supersize Me or Food, Inc.
  • Use green cleaning products.  It’s easy and cheap to make your own household cleaners using mostly vinegar and baking soda and a reused spray bottle. 
  • Compost.  Composting is a superstar of eco-conscious living.  By composting, you reduce your food waste by making your own soil with it, and then use that soil to grow more of your own food, or at least return it to the earth naturally.
  • Reduce the amount of fuel and energy you use.  Dry your clothes on a clothesline. Bike or take public transportation whenever possible. Buy a hybrid car.  Carpool.  Turn off lights you aren’t using.  Dial down your thermostat when you aren’t home.  The fact that we use so much energy creates so many opportunities to reduce it.
  • Get informed on what’s going on in the world.  Watch the news, read magazines and newspapers, subscribe to podcasts.  Being more informed is more likely to lead to more conscious choices.
  • Volunteer.  For anything.
I’d love to hear your thoughts, questions, and comments on this issue, and if you are choosing to make a New Year’s resolution.  Happy New Year!