Friday, July 31, 2009

The Summer's First Blueberries, Perfect for Sorbet

During peak season the Orono farmers' market happens on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and produce junkie that I am, I usually make it to both. Lately there's been something new each time: first broccoli, then raspberries, now jalapeños. This week, I spotted the first blueberries of 2009. They were just picked Tuesday morning, and I couldn't leave without buying a quart.

Wild blueberries are smaller, sweeter, and better for you than the puffy cultivated berries available year-round. Maine's blueberries are almost as famous as its lobster, but berries are vegan and they don't pinch. As a great writer once noted, they're loved by small girls and baby bears.

This week was miserably warm and humid, and it's been hard to get excited about anything but smoothies and ice water. Pancakes and blueberry pie are out of the question, but cool, sweet sorbet hits the spot. I planned to make ice cream, adapting a recipe by substituting coconut milk for heavy cream. The end result was lighter and fruitier than I intended, but thanks to the coconut milk, it didn't freeze into a solid block like pure fruit and water sorbets. Lemon juice brightens the flavor, so a taste of this sorbet cools you down like dunking your head in a swimming pool.

Last night's dinner? Salad greens with walnuts, snowpeas, and FatFree Vegan's Blueberry Vinaigrette, followed by a generous helping of sorbet. I can't wait to pick up more berries tomorrow. When the weather breaks and I can turn on my oven again, you'll see plenty of wild blueberry muffins, pie, and preserves.

Wild Blueberry Sorbet
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma: Ice Cream

2 cups wild blueberries, preferably fresh but frozen will work
3/4 cup water
1 cup sugar
1 cup coconut milk
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Put the blueberries, water, and sugar in a medium saucepan. Stirring frequently, bring to a boil over medium-high heat and simmer for 1 minute. Remove from heat and set aside to steep for 30 minutes.

Purée mixture in a blender or food processor. Pour through a fine mesh strainer into a mixing bowl or other container (you can save the seeds and pulp for smoothies). Place in the refrigerator until completely chilled, at least 3 hours.

When chilled, stir coconut milk and lemon juice into the blueberry mixture. Freeze according to your ice cream maker's instructions. Sorbet will be soft, but will firm up after several hours in the freezer.

Makes about 1 quart.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Visit me this September at MaineFare

MaineFare, an annual food festival that seeks to "celebrate the bounty of Maine" will take place in Camden September 11-13. The weekend features demonstrations, discussions, cooking classes, and tastings of Maine made food and beverages.

I've been invited to teach a cooking class on Saturday. I'm planning a vegan feast: corn and black bean chowder bursting with late summer and early autumn vegetables, savory squash biscuits, and time permitting, a pear dessert. You can buy tickets to the weekend's events, including my class (I'm listed as Chef Mary Lake—ha!), here.

In the meantime, this Washington Post article about the environmental impact of meat provides some food for thought. It's a good reminder that food choices often impact our carbon footprint more than choices regarding transportation and electricity. Incremental changes (Meatless Monday, for example), if adopted on a large scale, can have a tremendous positive impact on the Earth. From the article:

"Going vegetarian might not be as effective as going vegan, but it's better than eating meat, and eating meat less is better than eating meat more. It would be a whole lot better for the planet if everyone eliminated one meat meal a week than if a small core of die-hards developed perfectly virtuous diets."

I may not inspire anyone to give up meat and dairy entirely, but I hope that by sharing delicious vegan recipes at MaineFare, I can convince people that eating less meat is possible, and even enjoyable. Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Southwestern Corn and Black Bean Salad at MF&L

We're enduring our first hot, muggy days of the summer, and I haven't turned my oven on in over a week. Without a swimming pool or a sailboat, the only reason to celebrate this weather is the sudden burst of color at the farmers' market. Beside the green herbs, scallions, and lettuce, there are now bell peppers, chilies, summer squash, and raspberries, and soon we'll see sweet corn.

Southwestern Corn and Black Bean Salad is one of my favorite summer meals. Cooling, fresh, and substantial, I make it weekly while cilantro is in season. I've posted the recipe at Maine Food and Lifestyle, so visit me there!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Knitter. Vegan. Homeowner.

We're moving! After nearly two months of paperwork, we closed on a cozy little house on a quiet, dog-friendly street beside the river. Things may slow down here next month as we work on the new house and begin hauling things over from the apartment.

I'm planning to pack up the kitchen last and keep up cooking as long as possible. The new kitchen is smaller, but it comes with a neat little storage area called a butler's pantry:

I'll begin interviewing potential butlers as soon as we get settled.

Our first meals in the new house were Subway sandwiches and an assortment of chips, olives, edamame salad, and hummus. In an empty house, with no plates, silverware, or even chairs, you can dispense with table manners. While moving into a previous apartment, we used naan to scoop Indian take-out into our mouths, and when that ran out, we used our fingers. When you're lifting boxes and pushing paint rollers, concerns about balanced meals are similarly forgotten. In a house with no clocks, who's to say fritos aren't a fine mid-morning snack?

The new house needs a lot of work. There's an overgrown yard, a rotted deck, shoddy insulation, and an outdated roof. The previous owner was not shy about her love of pink, and it will take many, many hours of painting to make the house feel like our home instead of Barbie's vacation cottage.

But the old-fashioned formal living rooms, tin ceilings, boarded-over fireplaces, and odd nooks and crannies have so much potential, and the dogs finally have a yard. Here are some of my favorite quirky features:

Nautical light fixture in the laundry room. It reminds me of a sailor's tattoo. Definitely a keeper.

These old-fashioned faucets are apparently retro now. They're so dainty.

This left-behind garden frog looks wise, like some kind of protective house spirit/guardian angel. He can stay.

We met some neighbors on Saturday. One of my husband's coworkers lives up the street, and she dropped off this thoughtful basket of vegan Fig Newmans, sparklers, and a bottle of wine (with two plastic cups—a nice touch!):

If you care to follow our ongoing renovations, we'll be posting about them here. More pictures of the new house are at our SmugMug photo album.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Perfect Food: Tofu Summer Rolls

I first tried summer rolls at a busy Vietnamese restaurant a few blocks down from our apartment in New York City. Quick, cheap, and tasty, we stopped in a few times a month for dinner or take out. They hustled customers along, bringing the check as soon as we finished eating. It was the sort of place where the food was no longer fit for consumption once it touched the table: instead of soapy water or Windex, busboys wiped down tables with diners' unfinished soda. It's a wonder the health inspector didn't shut the place down; apparently the owners' ties to human trafficking were a bigger problem for city officials than the sticky tables.

After we moved away and the back room human rights violations came to light, I pined for summer rolls. The combination of basil, mint, cilantro and peanut is nothing short of magical. Their texture holds even more appeal, with sticky, molecule-thin rice paper, cool slippery noodles, and crunchy raw vegetables in every bite.

I thought I'd never be able to make summer rolls at home. The rice paper at the store was white and brittle; how was I supposed to turn it into sticky, flexible, translucent wrappers? Recent discussions on the Post Punk Kitchen forums assured me that working with rice paper is easier than it appears. When I found basil, mint, and cilantro at the farmers' market this week, I decided to go for it.

The rolls were in fact easy to make, and this both thrills and worries me. Now that I can eat summer rolls anytime I want, will I ever eat anything else? I'm in the throes of a summer roll binge. Perhaps in a week or two I'll devise some creative fillings to make this recipe my own, but today I just want to celebrate the simple, fresh perfection of the traditional summer roll. I've strayed from the original only in adding a few strips of sweet, sour mango.

Preparation and set-up are key when making summer rolls. Once the ingredients are prepared, assembly goes quickly. For my first round, I stuck pretty closely to this recipe on Chow, substituting tofu for shrimp. Before you begin rolling, it's worth watching the tutorial video on the right side of the screen. I've since played around with the filling a bit, but my ingredients are merely suggestions; add, omit, or substitute anything you'd like.

Use store-bought marinated tofu (I like sesame-ginger Pete's Tofu 2 Go), or make your own: slice the tofu as needed in your recipe and marinate in 2 parts tamari, 1 part toasted sesame oil for an hour or more. It can then be fried, broiled, or used as is.

Tofu Summer Rolls (adapted from a recipe by Regan Burns on Chow)

8 ounces extra-firm marinated tofu, cut into 8 thin, flat strips
2 ounces dried rice sticks or rice vermicelli
8 round rice paper wrappers
1/2 mango, cut into thin 3-inch strips (optional)
1/2 cup mung bean sprouts
16 basil leaves (Thai basil if you can get it)
24 small mint leaves
16 small sprigs cilantro
1 cup shredded napa cabbage or iceberg lettuce
1/2 medium cucumber, peeled, cut into matchsticks
1 carrot, shredded
2 large scallions, trimmed, halved, and sliced into 3-inch lengths
1/4 cup chopped peanuts

Cook the rice sticks according to package directions. Reserve hot water.

Clear a large surface for rolling the summer rolls. A plastic cutting board works well, as the rice paper will not stick to it. Place each remaining ingredient in its own bowl, and arrange them in the order in which they'll be used: basil, tofu, rice noodles, mango (if using), bean sprouts, mint, cilantro, cabbage or lettuce, cucumber, carrot, scallion, peanuts.

Fill a wide, shallow bowl with reserved water. Water should be quite warm, but not so hot that you can't comfortably dip your hands in. Submerge one rice paper wrapper in the water for 5-10 seconds. It will not appear pliable, but it will be by the time you're ready to roll it up.

Begin by laying 2 basil leaves on the bottom third of the wrapper. On top of these, place a slice of tofu. Follow with a scant 1/4 cup of noodles, mango (if using), a few bean sprouts, 3 mint leaves, 2 sprigs of cilantro, a scant tablespoon cabbage, a few cucumber sticks, and a generous teaspoon carrot. Place a few scallion pieces on either side of the noodle pile. Sprinkle chopped peanuts over other filling.

Fold the bottom third of the wrapper up over the filling. Holding it firmly in place, fold the sides of the rice paper in over the filling. Applying enough pressure to hold contents in, but not enough to rip the rice paper, roll the filling toward the open end. Your first few rolls might be sloppy, but by the end you'll be a pro.

Place finished rolls seam side down on serving plate. Don't let them touch—they're sticky!

Serves up to 8 as an appetizer, or as few as 2 as an entree. I can never eat more than three summer rolls, and I love them.

Serve with peanut sauce and sweet chili dipping sauce (omit the fish sauce).

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sights and Flavors from the Maine Vegetarian Food Festival

The 5th annual Maine Vegetarian Food Festival took place last Saturday at Portland's East End Community School. Hosted by the Maine Animal Coalition, this free event featured workshops on vegan cooking and raw diets, exhibitions by organic farming, fitness, and animal advocacy groups, and plenty of free samples.

In the last few months, Portland's growing appetite for vegan cuisine has made way for a raw vegan restaurant and two dairy-free bakeries. Representatives from the recently-opened GRO Cafe were mobbed by people scarfing down their handmade coconut-filled and chili-laced raw chocolates. Further down the rows of tables, I tried some cornbread and a brownie made by K's Vegan Treats, a bakery offering whole grain, sugar-free quickbreads, brownies, cookies, and cakes that will open later this summer in the Public Market House.

At the display of 13th Cookie, a bakery specializing in gluten-free, naturally-sweetened vegan confections, I tried a melt-in-your-mouth peanut butter chocolate chip cookie. 13th Cookie will open soon on Exchange Street, in the old Little Lad's basement location.

Green Elephant was present with samples of Southeast Asian appetizers. Silly's scooped up saucy barbequed tofu, and Pepperclub handed out samples of their airy cardamom cake and rich dark chocolate mousse. I tasted Cheezly, newly available in the US. I'm content to skip vegan cheeses altogether, but I was impressed by the authentic sharp cheddar flavor and the simplicity of the ingredients.

Over in the cafeteria, crowds were thick around a table of packaged snackfood samples. There seemed to be no plan directing the flow of foot traffic through the room; people approached the table from all sides to gather Lärabars, Veggie Booty, granola, and Primal Stick jerky. I tried to be polite and wait my turn, but caught in the melee of frenzied vegans, I nearly lost my temper and threw some elbows. Next year, a "start here" sign and a longer table might help.

Fearing we'd turn violent amid the agave-fueled crush, we left to have lunch at the calm, sleek Green Elephant. I don't need to review this restaurant: Green Elephant is the very embodiment of four chickpeas. I ordered steamed vegetables with peanut sauce, a healthy plate of broccoli, zucchini, sweet corn, snow peas, carrots, and green beans with a side of sweet marinated tempeh. Simple, but one of my favorites.

My husband's hot and sour noodle soup with rice noodles, bean sprouts, tofu, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, scallions, cilantro, peanuts, and fried wontons was even more photogenic:

The vegan scene is clearly alive and growing in Southern Maine, but seems stalled in northern and eastern parts of the state, where the economy and traditions are tied to animal agriculture and fishing. Central and downeast Maine made a modest showing at the food festival, with Kelp Krunch bars by Franklin's Maine Coast Sea Vegetables available, and Ahimsa Custom Cakes, an Auburn-based vegan bakery, displaying gorgeous photos and samples. I'm excited that Portland is embracing wholesome, compassionate eating, and over time I hope the trend spreads north. At next year's event, I'd love to see more vegan-friendly businesses from the rest of Maine get some love.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Allow Me to Boast...

...about my new layout. Is it not the cutest? Marina at Penny Lane Designs came up with the new logo and template. I asked for classy, fun, and inviting, and I think she nailed it. I can't say enough about Marina's creativity and professionalism. She responded quickly to all my questions, and was patient when I repeatedly changed my mind. I'd thought I'd never be able to afford a blog makeover, since most web designers charge well over a thousand dollars, but Marina's designs are beautiful and affordable.

If you're considering a new look for your blog, or need customized business cards, invitations, or announcements, I highly recommend Penny Lane Designs.

More food talk tomorrow. In the meantime, have a look around.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Zucchini-Olive Bruschetta at Maine Food & Lifestyle

It's zucchini time! Most meals I keep it simple, roasting summer squash with salt and lots of black pepper. For something fancier, zucchini-olive bruschetta comes together quickly and smacks of sophistication.

I've posted the recipe at Maine Food & Lifestyle.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Berry Season

I'm not a fan of summer weather. I love cool temperatures, hot tea, precipitation, and baggy sweatshirts. It's why I live in Maine instead of San Diego.

Fortunately, summer is made more tolerable by the arrival of my favorite food: fresh-picked strawberries. Nothing beats a petite, ruby red berry, warmed and sweetened by the sun.

To make the most of the short season, I went picking twice last weekend, starting at Langley's Strawberries in Hermon. The rows were neatly weeded, the plants heavy with perfectly ripe berries, and in no time I'd filled 4 quarts. Picking didn't go as quickly at Tate's Strawberry Farm in Corinth, where two of us spent an hour and a half combing through weeds and rotten berries to fill a dozen quarts. I got a funny lower back sunburn from bending over the rows so long.

My husband can't fathom picking fruit in the hot sun for recreation; back in California, picking is a minimum-wage job taken out of desperation. But we Mainers are a hearty, self-sufficient people prone to doomsday fantasies, so we like to play at survival. (If all the grocery stores were destroyed in a nuclear war, would I know how to gather berries and store them for the winter? Could I bake beans in a fire pit, and make my own toilet paper out of leaves?)

After picking, though I had 16 quarts of strawberries and a pint of sour cherries from the farmers' market, I couldn't resist pulling over at a roadside raspberry stand. These things only come once a year, I told myself, like Christmas.

I had some canning projects in mind. Seeing Food, Inc. made me want to drop out of the industrial food system entirely and eat only what I can buy directly from a farmer or grow myself. I'm not resourceful enough to pull this off without starving, but the sentiment is there.

I preserved some of the strawberries in syrup, to pour over ice cream and cheesecake. I also put away a dozen small jars of strawberry jam for Christmas gifts (don't worry, you'll have forgotten by then), and some pints of strawberry-lemonade concentrate, delicious mixed 1:1 with seltzer.

I love putting fruit by for later use, but the sugar required for all this canning—almost 5 pounds—alarms me. Maybe I ought to invest in a chest freezer, so I can preserve summer fruit without turning it into candy. Or perhaps a dehydrator, and I'll make fruit jerky. Any tips or suggestions, readers, for August blueberries and September apples?

I reserved the reddest, prettiest strawberries for pie. Simple is best with fruit this perfect.

Summer Strawberry Pie
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma: Desserts (The Best of the Kitchen Library)

9-inch pie shell, pre-baked and cooled
1/2 to 2/3 cup sugar, depending on your berries
2 tablespoons thickener (cornstarch, tapioca, or arrowroot)
6 cups stemmed strawberries
2 tablespoons lemon juice

Stir the sugar and thickener together in a medium saucepan. Add 2 cups of strawberries and mash with a fork or potato masher. Place over medium heat and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture boils. Reduce heat and simmer gently for 2 minutes. Place syrupy mixture in refrigerator and cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally.

When mixture is cool, fold in two cups whole strawberries. Pour into pre-baked pie shell. Arrange remaining 2 cups strawberries on top of pie. Chill until ready to serve.

Do I even need to tell you how beautifully this goes with vanilla ice cream and whipped coconut cream?

I made another version using the raspberries and sour cherries. Sweet, tart, and bursting with fresh-picked fruit, it wasn't around long enough to photograph.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Know-it-All Vegan's Review of "Food, Inc."

Last weekend I saw Food, Inc., a documentary narrated by Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma) and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation). While readers of these books will be familiar with the film's topics and conclusions, this brutally honest examination of industrial food production will be a wake-up call for most viewers.

The film first examines milk, egg, and meat production, with footage of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), slaughterhouses, and meat processing plants. Any reasonably observant person knows what to expect in these scenes: cows knee-deep in their own waste, sick chickens suffocating to death in crowded warehouses, animals sliced apart at breakneck speed. While the filmmakers do not explicitly advocate reducing or eliminating consumption of animal products (neither Pollan nor Schlosser is vegetarian), I don't understand how anyone seeing this gruesome footage could draw a different conclusion. It compels you to watch a cow, caked in feces and too sick to walk, being driven into the slaughterhouse by a tractor, and says: this is your cheeseburger, your meatball, your roast beef sandwich. When confronted with PETA brochures, it's easy to dismiss these images as sensationalist. If someone else presents the truth about factory farming, maybe the message will get through.

An aspect of factory farming that deserved more attention in the film is the widespread use of pharmaceuticals. Because food animals live in crowded, filthy conditions without access to fresh air or appropriate food, they're uniformly pumped full of antibiotics. Not only are these antibiotics passed along to humans who eat meat, eggs, and milk, their concentrated use encourages the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. (A measure restricting the use of antibiotics in livestock was recently proposed in the House of Representatives. It's supported by the Obama Administration, the American Medical Association, and the Union of Concerned Scientists, but opposed, predictably, by the National Pork Producers Council. Read about it here. I'm skeptical about its chances, because restricting antibiotics without losing many more animals to illness would require providing them adequate space and healthy feed. That would make meat more expensive, a repercussion few legislators are brave enough to stand behind.)

The film contrasts large-scale meat and dairy production with scenes of Polyface Farm in Virginia, where poultry and livestock graze and socialize until they're gathered up for slaughter. While farmer Joel Salatin discusses his guiding principles, behind him a group of pigs wag their curly tails as they nose through a pile of compost. Is this free-range method of farming healthier for the animals, and the humans who eat them? Certainly. But a scene of the presumed Good Guys slitting the throats of living, kicking chickens and hanging them upside-down to bleed to death over a plastic bucket is hardly reassuring. I can't imagine anyone leaving the theater craving nuggets.

The film next looks at the effects of industrial grain production on the land and on Western diets. Pesticide run-off poisons the water supply, monoculture depletes nutrients in the soil. As grain production increases, the American diet becomes less diverse, and more dependent on corn-derived pseudo-foods like high fructose corn syrup. Unless you've read Omnivore's Dilemma, you'll be amazed at how many of your calories come from corn and soy. Cameras accompany an overweight working-class family to the grocery store, where they buy calorie-dense hamburgers and soda and tell their daughter to put back a peach.

Farmers supplying grain and animals to multinational corporations complain of crushing debt and constant intimidation. When patented genetically-modified seeds ride the breeze to another farmer's fields, Monsanto calls it stealing and files a lawsuit. The film reveals how Big Agriculture uses its considerable legal and economic muscle to prevent small farmers and consumers from speaking out about food safety and inhumane treatment of workers and animals. The mother of a child killed by E. coli-contaminated beef, fearing a lawsuit, is unwilling to discuss on camera how the experience has changed her family's eating habits.

Food, Inc. is a frightening, uncomfortable, vitally important movie. Anyone in the industrialized world who eats food should see it. For those of us already trying to make healthy, sustainable food choices, it offers affirmation. I hope it frightens others out of complacency.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Green Pea Pulao Recipe at Maine Food & Lifestyle

Peas are here! I've posted a recipe for Green Pea Pulao at Maine Food & Lifestyle. For this yummy Indian side dish you want English peas—the kind you have to shuck—not sugar snap or snow peas.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Keeping it Simple

It's mid-July, and it looks like our long, rainy spring has finally dried out. With temperatures in the 80s, it's too warm to turn on the oven. Fortunately, most fruits and vegetables showing up at the market are best eaten raw and unadulterated. We're drinking smoothies, eating salads, and snacking on berries.

Like Frederick the field mouse poet, we're savoring and storing away the colors, tastes, and smells of summer, to relive during the long gray winter.

So no recipe today. The only cooking I could muster this week was a cinnamon and cocoa-laced black bean stew for the October issue of Bangor Metro Magazine. It felt so wrong, eating stew and acorn squash in July.

Take a walk, go for a swim, pick some strawberries, and shuck some peas. I'll be back next week with canning projects, Green Pea Pulao, and a review of Food, Inc.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Search for Vegan Food in Bangor: Bagel Central

Bangor, Maine's third-largest city, hasn't experienced the culinary renaissance that in the last decade has transformed Portland into a foodie destination and is now sweeping up the coast to Rockland. Tastes tend toward meat and potatoes in this old lumber town. The pickings are slim for vegans, decent for vegetarians.

Tom at Bangor Vegetarian Network has a helpful run-down of vegan and vegetarian options at most restaurants in the area. I've written about Bahaar Pakistani and Taste of India, both of which are great for vegans, as well as Giacomo's, which I love for its coffee and atmosphere, if not its deli counter.

Another downtown option is Bagel Central, a popular bakery/cafe with vaulted ceilings and a lively atmosphere, located alongside the Kenduskeag Stream. Besides their fluffy, bready bagels, Bagel Central serves omelets, pancakes, and oatmeal, as well as soups and sandwiches for lunch. Vegetarians can find plenty to eat. Unfortunately, with the exception of the plain water and sesame water bagels, the breads contain egg. Vegan cream cheese, peanut butter, and jam are available, though I've been known to bring Earth Balance margarine in my purse.

At lunchtime, Bagel Central offers a rotating selection of soups which are often vegetarian or vegan. In winter, these tend toward hearty vegetable barley, chickpea stew, and chili, with a spicy, chunky gazpacho available in summer. There's often hummus in the deli case, which I substitute for cheese when ordering The Brady Gang, a towering vegetable sandwich fit for a lumberjack.

We visit Bagel Central a few times a month, to gaze out the giant windows and eat ourselves into a carbohydrate stupor. I give it two chickpeas. Vegans can eat, but choices are limited. If Bagel Central offered a vegan wheat bagel and natural (non-hydrogenated) peanut butter, I'd go for breakfast more often.

Monday, July 6, 2009

A Vegan Camping Menu

We spent Fourth of July weekend way downeast at Cobscook Bay State Park. Campgrounds near Bar Harbor and Moosehead Lake have been booked solid since March, but if you drive northeast and stop just before Canada, you can still get a waterfront site on short notice.

Tourists overlook poor old Washington County, where conveniences are scarce but the coastal scenery is the stuff of calendars and postcards. With its scruffy, rolling blueberry barrens, massive pines, and rocky cliffs dropping away to the ocean, Washington County feels like a well-kept secret compared to the frenzy of southern Maine in July. Massachusetts can have Ogunquit, Boothbay, even Acadia. The empty distances that shelter Washington County from economic development also deter daytrippers, ensuring plenty of privacy and unspoiled views for the rest of us.

This ain't Vermont, though, so vegan food can be hard to find in rural areas. Nearing the end of our two-hour drive, we stopped in Machias at the Fat Cat Deli, a casual lunch spot overlooking the river. I was relieved to find vegetarian chili and a vegan hummus sandwich on the menu. I wasn't expecting much flavor, but the smokey, tangy chili surprised me, and the hearty homemade pita was nothing to scoff at.

For $5.50, I was full all afternoon. We'll definitely make Fat Cat Deli a regular stop on downeast trips.

We arrived at our campsite, on a steep, wooded hill overlooking Whiting Bay. Equipped with books, knitting, and a cooler full of campfire food, we hoped the rain would hold off. Our menu included:

Curried Lentil Burgers with grilled onions
• Prospect Park Potato Salad from Veganomicon
• Cole Slaw, based loosely on this recipe
• Fritos (a picnic necessity)
VeganomiconWheat-Free Chocolate Chip Cookies
•Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale

Outdoor cooking proved problematic, so I wasn't able to get an appetizing picture of this spread. It's rained steadily for the last three weeks, and our soggy firewood was practically inflammable. Instead of a roaring campfire, for most of the weekend we had a smoking, hissing, dripping pit. By the time we finally got flames going the first evening, sacrificing an entire New York Times and an unread New Yorker to the effort, it was long past dark. We spent the better part of the next afternoon trying to build a fire, and when our onions, burgers, and buns were finally grilled to perfection, a thunderstorm rolled in, driving us into the tent with our plates.

We had a great weekend, despite our cooking problems. We took a short hike...

... read by the fire...

... let Graeme and Ellie run wild...

... and made some time to stop and photograph the roses.

I'm daydreaming about what to pack in the cooler on our next camping trip. I'm imagining steamed veggie sausages with grilled peppers and lots of mustard. Please send your camp food suggestions my way!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Review: Portland's Mesa Verde

We found Green Elephant closed on a recent Sunday evening, so we walked a few doors down to Mesa Verde. I used to love this vegan-friendly Mexican restaurant in high school, but I hadn't been back in more than ten years.

The decor has certainly gone downhill: the black plastic tables, overly-large wood-paneled booths, and green metal-backed chairs looked like they'd been salvaged from a T.G.I.Friday's. A television over the bar blared ESPN throughout the restaurant. It was dark, and the table and chairs were sticky; this place felt more like a dive than the bright, fun Mexican restaurant I remembered.

Our server was extremely helpful in determining which dishes could be made vegan. I was a little scatterbrained about my order, but she cheerfully made several trips to the kitchen to inquire about sauces and side dishes. The menu features the standard line-up of quesadillas, tacos, burritos, and enchiladas, and almost everything can be made vegan with vegetable, bean, tofu, or tempeh fillings and soy cheese.

We skipped the margaritas, having overindulged at a wedding the previous night, but the couple at the next table got a huge pitcher for $12. Chips and salsa are no longer free, so we simply ordered entrees. I got tamales with tempeh and mole sauce, and sides of pinto beans, brown rice, and salsa.

I'd wanted to try tamales since the early 80s when I saw them prepared on an episode of Mr. Rogers, but since Mexican food is scarce in Maine and they're usually made with meat or cheese, I'd never had the opportunity. They were surprisingly rich, with nutty tempeh and smoky mole sauce over soft, creamy cornmeal. The rice and beans were filing, if not exciting. The mole sauce had a little bit of bite to it, but I still doused the plate in hot sauce.

Mesa Verde doesn't have a website, but you can find links to other reviews on the Portland Food Map. Most are negative. My food was decent, no worse than Margarita's, and the service was great, but the dark, depressing atmosphere will probably keep me from visiting again. If I lived in Portland I'd be all over Mesa Verde for take-out. Margarita's is a better option for dining in; it's a chain and offers very few vegan options, but I don't feel dirty when I leave.

I give Mesa Verde three chickpeas for a wide selection of vegan items.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Changes & Summer Knitting

School's out for the summer so I have more time to cook, knit, write, and tearfully watch Michael Jackson videos. (I was always a bigger Janet fan, but have you watched the Bad video lately? No human being, before or since, has ever been that cool.)

Happily, this blog will get a much-needed makeover soon. I don't know about you, but I am tired of these damn polka dots. I'm not terribly design- or tech-saavy, so I'll be working with someone to come up with a clean, fun, and colorful look. I'll be adding new features, like a list of frequently asked questions. I thought about changing the name; seriously, when was the last time I talked about mittens? I write almost exclusively about food. At this point, though, the name and address are out in the world too much to make changing them feasible. I'll just have to start posting my knitting projects a little more often, like Hannah at BitterSweet.

My busy spring schedule is one reason I haven't had much knitting to post; when things get hectic, I still cook and eat, but my evening knitting time gets trampled.

The other reason is insecurity; I am a much better cook than knitter. I knit mindlessly, while talking, watching television, or riding in the car. I can't be bothered to follow a pattern, which limits me to scarves, hats, and easy mittens. As much as I would love to brag abut my handmade sweaters or stuffed animals, I just don't have the patience.

Last week I stopped into my local yarn shop and was humbled by the amazing, gorgeous, intricate projects those ladies seem to complete in no time. Their monogrammed mittens are works of art, while my mittens are... let's call them "rustic." A trip to the yarn shop always leaves me inspired and totally intimidated. With summer here, I'm getting a start on Christmas gifts: hats, mittens, pillow shams, and the nascent necktie above.

For now, Graeme models one of my cabled hats: fierce!