Friday, May 29, 2009

For the Birds: Carrot-Orange Muffins

Before dawn on a cold, drizzly weekend morning, few things are worth waking up for, but it's not every day I get the chance to see an owl. Tomorrow, I'll rise and shine for the early morning shift of The Big Sit, a day-long bird watching event held at Fields Pond in Holden, home of Maine Audubon's Penobscot Valley Chapter.

Last summer when we moved from Boston to Bangor, the northern terminus of civilization, we hoped to become outdoorsy. Neither of us spent much time in the woods growing up; mine was a beach-going, sleeping-under-rooves kind of family, while exploring untamed mountains in southern California meant Rod had to carry a handgun, to defend against cougars and fugitives.

We're already becoming more earthy-crunchy: we've learned how to camp, eat fiddleheads, and tell a fir tree from a spruce. We joined Maine Audubon to learn more about the plants and animals in the Maine woods. They put on lots of interesting programs at the Fields Pond Center. I've learned about bird photography, seabird conservation, and badass raptors that'll steal and eat your cat.

Precision, though, has never been my strong suit. I do not know a black-capped chickadee from a Carolina, a herring gull from a glaucous, or even a crow from a raven. Categorizing and counting, though important for tracking and protecting species, doesn't interest me. I am a lazy and forgetful birdwatcher, content to be outside, gazing at the little guys while allowing them to carry on in anonymity.

Thus, the comprehensive list of Birds I Know on Sight:

1. Blue Jay
2. Cardinal
3. Pigeon
4. Great Blue Heron
5. Arctic Tern
6. Mallard Duck*
7. Peacock
8. Bald Eagle
9. Puffin
10. Ostrich
11. Flamingo
12. Penguin (Emperor, Chinstrap, and Rockhopper)
13. Toucan
14. Chicken*
15. Turkey*
16. Canada Goose

*I can also identify this bird by ear

Serious birder or not, anyone sitting outside at 6am needs hot coffee and a muffin. To my basic muffin recipe, I added shredded carrot and orange zest. The result is a fluffy, wholesome nod to carrot cake with a touch of citrus zing that'll knock the sleep out of your eyes.

Except for the cup of sugar, these muffins are fairly healthy. Applesauce replaces most of the oil, and whole wheat pastry flour provides fiber without weighing the muffins down.

Carrot-Orange Muffins

1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
1/2 cup rice milk
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon ground flax seed
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon freshly grated orange peel, lightly packed
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1 cup shredded carrot (2 medium)
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1 tablespoon toasted wheat germ (optional)

Preheat oven to 350F. Line a muffin tray with paper liners or oil the cups.

In a large bowl, whisk together oil, applesauce, rice milk, vinegar, flax seed, water, vanilla extract, and orange peel until well combined.

In a large bowl sift together the flours, sugar, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry and combine, without over-mixing. Stir in the shredded carrot and walnuts.

Divide batter evenly among muffin cups. Sprinkle wheat germ on top of each muffin.

Bake for 40-45 minutes, or until the tops of the muffins are browned and a toothpick inserted into the middle of a muffin comes out clean. Remove the muffins from the oven and cool on a wire rack.

Makes 12.

Variation: substitute one mashed banana for the flax seed and water for even fruitier muffins.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Veggie Thing: This Will Make You Hungry

Are you planning a summer trip, and wondering if you'll find delicious vegan food on the road or have to survive on peanut butter? Check out Veggie Thing, a user-generated showcase of mouth-watering photos from restaurants around the country. Searching for vegan birthday cake in Utah, or barbequed tofu in Memphis? Veggie Thing's contributors have got you covered. Their photos and descriptions have me practically planning a roadtrip.

I posted wagamama's yasai chilli men and The Vegan Flatbread from Flatbread Company. If you like the photos or think the food sounds tasty, click the thumbs-up icon!

After five contributions to Veggie Thing, I'll be elevated to elite Dictator status. As the Saddam of soy milk, the Kim Jong of kale, the Fidel of phyllo, I'll dine and photograph with an iron fist, ensuring that hungry vegans everywhere know what to eat when they come to Maine.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Vegan Eating in Montreal

Craving a few days of crowded sidewalks, street noise, and tall buildings, we drove northwest to Montreal for the long weekend.

Though I grew up in a tourist town that caters to the Quebecois, my French is extremely limited. I can count to ten, say please and thank you, and tell a waiter or shopkeeper to shut his mouth. Thankfully, everyone we encountered this weekend spoke flawless English and tolerated my butchered street names. The rules of French pronunciation are a mystery to me. All those eaux, oit, and ois: I never know whether to pronounce the consonants or make a gagging sound in the back of my throat. In Maine, Desroches can be day-roe-shay or duh-roshe-ers. The French call Calais kal-ay, but our eastern Maine town is cal-lus.

Before heading north I consulted Vegan Montreal and marked several restaurants on our map. The city is refreshingly vegan-friendly, especially in neighborhoods near the colleges. Lebanese take-out counters offer hummus and falafel, and most restaurants advertise vegetarian choices in their windows. Throughout the weekend we made several stops at java u, a coffee chain with a nightclub atmosphere that carries pre-made sandwiches (the dr. jones, a basic hummus wrap, is vegan) and soy milk for lattes.

Our first night in town, we ate at the all-vegan Aux Vivres (awks veev-rays) in the young, vibrant Plateau Mont-Royal district.

The cheery plant-filled dining room was packed on a Saturday night. The menu emphasizes salads, Asian noodle dishes, sandwiches, and smoothies. The special was a veggie sausage ratatouille, but since it was warm I ordered summer food: a tofu burger, roasted potatoes, and coleslaw. Rod ordered a tempeh burger with the same sides.

Maybe my expectations, based on online reviews, were too high, or maybe my tastes are too particular, but I wasn't thrilled with dinner. Our nearly flavorless playing card-sized slices of tofu and tempeh were dwarfed by enormous chapati buns. The bread was nutty and delicious, but I could have used a lot less bun and a little more burger. Fortunately the crispy roasted potatoes with funky chipotle ketchup and creamy, lemony coleslaw hit the spot.

Aux Vivres also serves fresh juices and thick fruit, soy, and coconut milk smoothies. I tried a balanced and refreshing apple, lemon, and ginger juice, ideal for cutting through the fog of spring allergies.

For dessert, we split an enormous slice of carrot cake. The ginger and nutmeg flavors were nice, but the cake was too dense, and the lemon frosting was overly tart. We left half the slice on the plate. A decade ago, vegans might have resigned themselves to baked goods like bricks, but in 2009, there's no excuse for subpar vegan cake. Get yourself a copy of Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the Worldand some baking soda and head back to the drawing board.

I wanted to try other dishes at Aux Vivres, but we didn't make it back (they're closed on Mondays). Four chickpeas for vegan-friendliness, but the food, based on my limited sampling, needs jazzing up.

We went twice to ChuChai, a vegetarian Thai restaurant that's almost vegan, except for some egg noodles and a few desserts. Chuch, next door, offers the same menu, but it's more casual and has a deli-style take-out counter.

ChuChai features about a dozen basic entrees, each available with seitan shrimp, fish, duck, chicken, or beef, as well as fried tofu. I chose good ol' bean curd, but Rod's veggie chicken tasted frighteningly real.

Lunching at a sidewalk table, I ordered a fresh spring roll which came with both sweet and sour and peanut sauce. Fortunate, as I can never decide between them.

Fresh rolls (rice paper wrapped around julienned carrots and cabbage, marinated tofu, rice noodles, lettuce, and mint) have quickly become my favorite food on the planet. Simultaneously sticky, soft, crunchy, and light, ChuChai's fresh roll was as good as any I've had. I could have eaten eight of them.

Rod's hot and sour lemongrass soup, with cabbage, tomatoes, and carrot, was quite sour, with a just the right amount of chili heat. His spicy eggplant with basil came in a savory, smoky brown sauce that highlighted the sweet basil but wasn't spicy.

The tofu pad thai was too salty for my taste, with lemon and carrot overwhelming any chili, lime, or peanut.

On our evening visit, I tried tofu with basil, coconut milk, and chili. Containing all of my favorite ingredients, it was delicious, though a little more chili would enhance rich and tangy flavors in the sauce.

If I lived in Montreal, the only thing that might keep me from visiting ChuChai weekly are the prices. Entrees run $12-15, without rice. The take-out counter is cheaper, at two items for $7.99, three for $10.99. Unless you want to people watch on the sidewalk patio, this may be a better option, since service was slow and erratic during both our visits.

If you're in Montreal and looking for a nice dinner or some noodles to-go, ChuChai is worth a visit. Choices for vegans are abundant and interesting, earning it four chickpeas.

Now that we're back home, it's time to sort through the photos and catch up on laundry.

Au revoir for now, mon ami!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Strawberry Rhubarb Things

Rhubob, as it's known in Maine, isn't something I grew up eating. Our adventurous neighbors--the ones who foraged fiddleheads and pickled things other than cucumbers--offered homemade preserves, but we declined. Too sour, too weird.

Until recently, I was under the mistaken impression that raw rhubarb was poisonous, so I was concerned to see a vendor at the farmers' market chomping down on a stalk. I was afraid to cook with it, believing that, like blowfish, it would kill me if underdone. No need to worry, though: rhubarb leaves are toxic, but uncooked stalks, while incredibly sour, are harmless.

Because there was little else in season and the magenta stalks looked like flamingo celery, I bought a bunch of rhubarb last weekend without a recipe in mind. I made a classic strawberry rhubarb crisp, working loosely out of the gingham Betty Crocker and adapting a topping from the Veganomicon Berry-Coconut Crisp. The results were deliciously sweet and tangy, but because I poured ingredients freestyle and mixed with my bare hands, I can't yet give you an accurate recipe.

Spooning it up with basic vanilla, I couldn't help but wonder, "Why not cut to the chase and put the fruit in the ice cream?" A search brought up only a few strawberry rhubarb ice cream recipes, so I felt terribly innovative. The following is my basic vanilla recipe, with strawberries, rhubarb, and a little extra sugar. I thought it could have used even more sugar, but my husband liked it just the way it was, so I'll leave the sugar to your judgement.

This is soft straight out of the ice cream maker, but after a night in the freezer it's firm enough to scoop. I don't usually post recipes that require expensive niche appliances like an ice cream maker, but as a vegan and an ice cream fiend, I don't know how I'd live without one.

Vegan Strawberry Rhubarb Ice Cream

1 cup chopped rhubarb (2 thin stalks)
1 cup thawed strawberries (approximately 1 1/2 cups frozen)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 15-ounce can coconut milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

In a medium pot, bring rhubarb, strawberries, and sugar to a simmer over medium high heat. Reduce heat to medium and simmer, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes, until sugar is dissolved and rhubarb is soft.

Add coconut milk and vanilla extract. Stir until any lumps in the coconut milk are dissolved. Puree if smooth ice cream is desired.

Set aside in refrigerator 2-3 hours, until completely chilled. I know you're impatient and you want your ice cream now, but if you don't let the liquid cool completely, all you'll get is sludge and heartbreak.

Freeze according to your ice cream maker's instructions.

Makes approximately 3 cups.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Leek and Asparagus Barley Risotto

Rainy spring nights call for warming, comfortable dinners. My recipe for seasonal Leek and Asparagus Barley Risotto is on Maine Food & Lifestyle Magazine's blog. It's hearty, healthy, and easier than traditional risotto.

One of the best parts of making risotto is opening a bottle of white wine, using a little to deglaze the pan, and sipping a glass or two while stirring. Forget Napa: try The Villager White from Oyster River Wine Growers, in Warren, Maine. The label features a painting by Bangor artist Emily Leonard Trenholm.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Simple Asian Salad with Tatsoi

The weather's warming, and Memorial Day Weekend is almost upon us, but the surest sign of summer's approach are my first bug bites of the season. On Sunday, a thirsty gnat from the deep woods got stuck inside my hood and left red welts on my neck that look like hickeys, but aren't nearly as much fun.

As we get closer to summer, my CSA bag grows fuller every week. Friday's delivery included mesclun mix, beet greens, chard, spinach, and spring onions, as well as this gorgeous vegetable:

Meet tatsoi. Tatsoi-san's dark green, spoon-shaped leaves are as tender as baby spinach and taste a little like raw pumpkin. I didn't find detailed nutritional information online, but it's safe to assume a dark green leafy vegetable is good for you.

I'd never seen tatsoi before, so rather than sauté or wilt it, I tossed it raw into a salad to get the full effect. Less assertive that spinach, the leaves provided a mild, earthy grounding for crunchy spring onions, almonds, and celery, and for sweet carrots and Veganomicon sesame dressing.

Baked and broiled tofu made the salad a meal. In the fridge, I had some tofu triangles that had been marinated overnight in tamari and baked at 350F for 40 minutes. To breathe life back into the leftovers, I broiled them very close to the heat for 3-4 minutes, creating a scorched, salty exterior, perfect atop the mellow greens.

I love becoming acquainted with unfamiliar plants that arrive in my CSA bag. If I had seen tatsoi at the grocery store, tucked into the foreign-foods-we-don't-know-how-to-cook bin, I probably would have overlooked it. Instead, it inspired a fresh, delicious salad, and I'm hoping for more tatsoi in this week's delivery!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Tried & Tasted: FatFree Vegan Kitchen's Quick and Easy Potato Soup

On a cold, rainy weeknight, running low on vegetables and creativity, I pulled a forgotten bag of potatoes from the shadowy cupboard where they'd been quietly sprouting for weeks.

I hoped to turn them into a warming meal, using SusanV's recipe for Quick and Easy Potato Soup. I'm a frequent visitor to Susan's colorful, informative blog, FatFree Vegan Kitchen. I've salivated over her photos and envied her classy layout for months, but had yet to try any of her recipes. So when she posted that FatFree Vegan Kitchen would be the featured blog for this month's Tried & Tasted, I bookmarked the potato soup.

Tried & Tasted, created by Zlamushka's Spicy Kitchen and hosted this month by Vaishali at Holy Cow!, encourages food bloggers to use and write about each others' recipes. At the end of the month, the host compiles the posts, providing a wealth of feedback for the featured blogger and publicity for participants.

Feedback on recipes is invaluable. While developing recipes for this blog, I make each dish a few times times, adjusting until I'm satisfied with its taste, texture, and appearance. But my notion of "sauté until golden," or "stir until few lumps remain" may differ from yours, and "cook over medium heat" is by no means universal. Most importantly, tastes vary. Unless you tell me that the stew was better with a teaspoon of cayenne, or that your cupcakes collapsed and the cookies fell apart, I'll never know. Even on blogs with a large and active following, like FatFree Vegan Kitchen, few readers comment after they've used a recipe to share how it turned out.

I'm sure by now SusanV knows her potato soup is fantastic, but I'll outline my impressions nonetheless. The recipe is written two ways, one for users of the robust VitaMix, and one for saps like me with common, pedestrian blenders. Making the soup without the mighty VitaMix requires 15 minutes' extra simmering, but during this time the ingredients require no attention.

I baked my potatoes in the microwave (5 minutes, turn, then 5 minutes more) because it dirtied the fewest dishes. With the simmered potatoes and onion I blended whole raw cashews, nutritional yeast, and plain Rice Dream. Usually I pass on creamed soup recipes that rely on non-dairy milks, but here the mild rice flavor was nicely compatible with potatoes. Soy would be too sweet.

This soup is so much more than the sum of its ingredients. The dominant flavor--no kidding--is bacon. If I hadn't made it myself, I wouldn't believe that it doesn't contain bacon fat. If I ordered this soup at a restaurant because the waiter told me it was vegan, I would send it back. Rosemary, white pepper, and nutritional yeast are the only seasoning, so where is the bacon coming from? Was it that my potatoes were old? Was it baking them? What is the secret ingredient that I, the cook, am not aware of?

My only critique is that recipe says it makes 4 servings. Maybe Susan's potatoes were bigger than mine, or maybe I'm just a glutton, but I got two main dish servings, tops.

I'm guessing anything that works in mashed potatoes would work well here: garlic, chives, chipotle peppers, even tempeh bacon crumbles. This recipe is a keeper, though I'll double it next time so I'll have leftovers. It's an easy, delicious way to use up neglected potatoes.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Stop the Presses: Curry and Cupcakes in the News!

My local paper, the Bangor Daily News, ran a story today about my blog and recipe column in Maine Food & Lifestyle Magazine. You can read the article here. My goal was to communicate that there are many health, environmental, and ethical reasons to go vegan, or to at least eat fewer animal products and more plants. I hope the message came through. If I sound dismissive of vegan pet food or rockin' animal liberation tee-shirts, it was not my intent. I seem to have had a Biden moment. To the hardcore vegans, lacto-ovo vegetarians, and tofu-curious omnivores, I say: come one, come all.

I was skeptical about BDN photographer Gabor Degre's photo: who poses like that with their broccoli? But considering I'd rather have teeth pulled than my picture taken, it turned out really nicely. I look dopey, but at least you can't sense my contempt for the camera.

The part of the article you'll want to cut out and tape to the fridge are the recipes. Last weekend I worked hard (if you can call eating 5 or 6 cupcakes a day hard work) developing a recipe for light, sweet, and airy cupcakes that celebrate strawberries, my absolute favorite summer food. They're adorable with fluffy vanilla frosting, but just as delicious topped with sliced berries or a spoonful of jam.

I based the Vegetable and Chickpea Curry on a dish I found on the Post Punk Kitchen forums a few months ago. Because the recipe is flexible and forgiving, it’s become one of my mid-week staples, and I alter it each time I make it. Any hearty seasonal vegetables can be substituted for the carrots, broccoli, and bell pepper. I use spicy Muchi curry powder, so if using a milder blend add chili flakes (or not, gringo).

Thanks again to Mr. Degre, and to BDN lifestyle writer Emily Burnham for spotlighting vegan living in central Maine.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Giacomo's: Grand Reopening

My heart was nearly broken last winter when the Barking Cat Cafe, Christopher's pub, New Moon Cafe, and Giacomo's Groceria all closed within a month of each other. Suddenly downtown Bangor was devoid of any class. All we had left were two Irish bars, one for old people and the other brimming with loud, stumbling college kids. Proximity to shops and cafes had been the only reason to live downtown, so I was ready to pack up and move to the 'burbs. I would get a barbeque and learn to garden.

Christopher's is still vacant, and the vegan brunch void created by Barking Cat's closure has yet to be filled. Fortunately, New Moon reopened under a different name, and today, Giacomo's 2.0 was unveiled. It's no longer a groceria, but an Italian-style cafe, advertising panini, wine, and espresso.

Though it's not on the chalkboard, the cashier assured me I can still get my soy chai. There are a few grocery items for sale, including Little Lad's Herbal Corn and Artisan Brick Oven bread. I'd love to see a selection of pasta, sauces, and olive oil reappear.

There have been some changes to the menu, and though Giacomo's doesn't offer any vegan sandwiches, there are now more vegetarian choices. I can't have been the only customer requesting meat-free options; it's nice to see the owners have responded. I ordered (and mispronounced) the new greca, deliciously salty roasted eggplant, red peppers, red onion, and basil on a nutty whole grain ciabatta bread (hold the mozzarella).

It's a more subdued alternative to the unruly vegetable antipasto, a tangy, sloppy sandwich with kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, romaine, and tomato on rosemary focaccia. So far, so good, but let it be known that the chickpea salad and stuffed grape leaves must come back to the deli case. A freezer full of locally-made ice cream will show up soon for the summer, and I'm hoping for Gifford's raspberry sorbet.

My husband ordered the new tre formaggi, a fancy grilled cheese on ciabatta. It's not vegan, but I love the photo. Look how he eats around the perimeter of the sandwich, like a raccoon:

Though I'll miss the original Groceria, it's nice to have my downtown caffeine and lunch spot back in its new, streamlined form. Nowhere in Bangor sells better coffee, and you can't beat employees who learn your name, ask about your pets, and remember which blend of coffee you like.

Welcome back, Giacomo's!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Farmers' Market Fiddleheads

Last weekend, my beloved Orono Farmers' Market resumed its summer schedule and location along the Stillwater River.

Like a dork, I showed up the minute it opened. I chatted with farmers I hadn't seen since October, and marveled privately at the growth of their beards. There were a few new vendors, including Good Hike Bars out of Old Town. For $5 I picked up a half dozen of their granola squares, made with local cranberries from Ellsworth, Maine. They're sweet and chewy, and full of hearty stuff like oats, flax, and peanut butter.

Few plants are ready to pick and eat in early May, and I wouldn't know what to do with a pot of cabbage seedlings. Inventory was limited, but I took home some scallions, radishes, beet greens, baby lettuce, and a quart of fiddleheads.

Maine is apparently renowned for these baby ostrich fern fronds; foodies in Boston and New York pay through the teeth for them. Growing up in southern Maine, the only person I ever knew who ate fiddleheads was my elderly French Canadian neighbor. Because he also ate dandelion greens and poutine, and because they looked like alien tentacles, I dismissed fiddleheads as fringe food. Could you eat them? Yes. But should you? Only if stranded in the godforsaken wilderness.

I hadn't given fiddleheads much consideration until recently, when I saw them featured on some vegan food blogs. The ferns were in abundance at the farmers' market, so I bought a quart for $3.99 from my maple syrup man, who'd foraged them himself. Then I used this recipe to create a simple lemony fiddlehead pasta.

Trimming their stems and washing them free of debris is a pain, but fiddleheads have a mild, earthy flavor, somewhere between asparagus and green peas, that makes them worth the effort for the few short weeks they're in season. In this dish, their leafy centers absorb the lemon juice, white wine, and olive oil nicely. If fiddleheads are out of season, or if they creep you out, you could substitute asparagus or broccoli.

Fiddlehead Pasta with Lemon & White Wine

13 oz. linguine or fettucini
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 quart fiddleheads
3 tablespoons vegan margarine (like Earth Balance)
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup dry white wine
freshly ground black pepper
lemon slices to garnish

Cook pasta according to directions, then drain it and toss with 1 tablespoon olive oil to prevent it from sticking together.

While the pasta cooks, trim the ends of the fiddleheads. Remove any brown, papery casing, and rinse them several times in cold water.

Bring a small pot of water to boil. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet over medium heat.

Parboil the fiddleheads in the pot for 2 minutes, then rinse them in cold water.

Sauté the fiddleheads in the olive oil for 5-7 minutes, until they are just beginning to brown. Add the margarine, garlic, lemon juice, Italian seasoning, salt, and cooked pasta. Toss in the skillet until evenly distributed. Add wine, and stir occasionally for 3-5 minutes, until most of the wine has evaporated.

Serve with lemon slices and black pepper (and the rest of the wine, obviously).

Serves 4.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Spring Salad with Apricot Glazed Tofu

My first CSA vegetables of the season: mixed greens, radishes, and spring onions. To these I added broiled tofu and a sweet apricot-sesame dressing for a light, crunchy springtime meal. The recipe is at Maine Food & Lifestyle.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Cupcakes de Mayo

¡Hola! Just a quick post to share some Mexican-themed treats from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World:

Mexican Hot Chocolate Cupcakes topped with Chocolate Mousse and a sprinkle of cinnamon. Dark and gritty with a spicy little kick, just like the beverage. You'll never guess the secret ingredient that makes the mousse so creamy and luscious. (Hint: it rhymes with mofu.)

These Coconut-Lime Cupcakes are so intense I can only handle them once a year. Rich, sugary, and sour, eating them is like sipping a cool tropical cocktail while sucking on Sour Patch Kids.

I ran out of confectioners' sugar while making the Lime Buttercream Frosting. Who knew you could make your own?

¡Hasta luego, amigos!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Tasty Toasted Birdseed

Welcome to my breakfast cereal reawakening.

For years, before I discovered an easy formula for fruit smoothies, I sat down every morning to a bowl of cereal. I went through a ton of the stuff. While perusing the newspaper on a Sunday, I could single-handedly polish off half a box of Raisin Bran, pouring in a few more flakes to soak up the milk at the bottom of the bowl, then a little more milk to wet the extra cereal, and so on, until I'd downed a 1200 calorie breakfast.

Growing up, I loved Kix, Cheerios, and Rice Crispies. Raisin Nut Bran, sold in small, expensive boxes, was a luxury reserved for grown-ups, or special occasions like birthdays and chicken pox. Waffles, omelettes, bagels? Who needs 'em. The dinner menu at my fourteenth birthday party was Cocoa Puffs and chocolate cake.

Returning to veganism after several years eating dairy, I remembered how much I hate the taste of soy milk. It's fine for baking and in boldly-spiced chai, but I can't stand soy's beany flavor all over my corn flakes. Original Rice Dream (never vanilla) is the only non-dairy milk understated enough to serve its purpose in a cereal bowl without hijacking the flavor. Forgetting to put a carton in the fridge, I'd often skip breakfast rather than eat cereal with warm milk. When my mornings got busy, I switched to smoothies, which were portable and better for me anyway.

I hadn't bought cereal in over a year, but during a recent spell of stomach flu, Raisin Bran was the only thing that sounded edible. Reading the box, I was disappointed to learn that my old favorite was full of junk. The first three ingredients may be whole wheat, raisins, and wheat bran, but the fourth and fifth are sugar and high fructose corn syrup. Instead, I bought a pricey box of organic cereal, sweetened with brown sugar, and some granola to go on top. The first bowl really hit the spot, and now I'm eating cereal for breakfast, lunch, and snacks.

Those slim boxes of natural cereal do not last long; if I continue to be a sweetener snob, this is going to get expensive. In the spirit of frugality and independence, I decided to make my own müesli. (The umlaut is not strictly necessary, but müesli is Swiss, so we'll use their spelling. Any excuse for an umlaut, really.)

The primary difference between müesli and granola seems to be the size of the chunks: in granola, the oats and things are stuck together in clusters, but in müesli each oat stands alone. Müesli is easily prepared raw, with uncooked oats and fresh fruit. So that they wouldn't turn to mush in milk, I decided to toast my oats and give them a thin coating of maple and brown rice syrup.

This crunchy cereal highlights the subtle flavors of raw nuts and seeds. It's easily adapted to your tastes, so browse the bulk section of your natural foods store for ingredients. I recommend toasting wheat germ and coconut along with the oats, as they give the cereal a light, earthy sweetness.

A few nights ago, I was puttering around the kitchen and had just popped a tray of oats in the oven when my husband called, asking if I wanted to join him and a few coworkers for happy hour. "I can't leave now," I said. "I'm toasting müesli." At that moment, in my Common Ground Country Fair tee-shirt, cotton rag socks, and crocs, I became the world's most stereotypically crunchy vegan.

"Wait, that sounded silly," I revised. "Let me change into my hemp sneakers and I'll be right over."

So here's a recipe for hippies, vegans, birds, the Swiss, and anybody else who loves healthy homemade breakfast cereal.

Mary's Toasted Müesli

3 cups rolled oats
1/4 cup toasted wheat germ
1 cup finely shredded coconut
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup brown rice syrup

3 cups seeds, nuts, and dried fruit of you choice. I used:
1/2 cup large coconut flakes
1/2 cup pepitas
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup sunflower seeds
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup dried cranberries

Preheat the oven to 300F.

Combine the oats, wheat germ, and finely shredded coconut in a large bowl.

In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, whisk together the maple syrup and brown rice syrup until consistency is uniform, 2-3 minutes. Pour the syrup into the oat mixture and stir to coat.

Spread the oat mixture onto a baking sheet (clean-up is easier if you line the baking sheet with parchment paper), and place in the center of the oven. Toast for 40 minutes, until golden brown, stopping to stir the oats halfway through. This will fill your kitchen with a wonderful grandmotherly aroma.

Allow the toasted oats to cool for about an hour, then toss in a large bowl with the remaining ingredients.

Store in an airtight container. Makes 7-8 cups.