Table for One at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA

When I booked my flight to San Francisco for the annual Foodbuzz Blogger Festival, I decided to treat myself before the official festival began. I expected a hectic work week followed by an early morning flight and a jam-packed weekend of what can only be described as food blogger bliss. I wanted some quiet time and I deserved to have it at Alice Waters’ iconic Berkeley, CA restaurant, Chez Panisse. So I made a lunch reservation for one at the Chez Panisse Cafe.

When Chez Panisse opened its doors forty years ago, Alice Waters, the executive chef and owner, started a movement to build a food economy that is “good, clean, and fair.” She is a pioneer of the American cooking philosophy that promotes fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. She is an advocate for sustainable farming practices and food production. Alice Waters testified to the power of local sustainable food long before it became the fast-growing trend that it is today. Because this is a philosophy that guides my food choices, I was thrilled to go to the place where it all began and enjoy a delicious meal upon my arrival in San Francisco.

Some of my friends thought I was crazy for making the trek out to Berkeley to dine solo. When I told people about my plans, I received a few looks of pity, that I would have to endure the lonely experience of sitting at a table for one for an hour that would inevitably be a string of uncomfortable experiences: where to look? what to do? can these people tell I’m eavesdropping on their conversation just to satisfy my desperate yearning for human interaction?

Let's try a half-full mentality, shall we?

I experienced none of these things. Instead I nestled into my corner table, read every word of a beautiful menu, and took in every decorative element of the simply elegant cafe. I was not distracted by gossip from my tablemate. I was not rushed into a menu selection based on someone else’s readiness to order. Surrounded by people enjoying simple, fresh, seasonal food, I did not feel alone.

The meal began with bread and water, served in a beaker-like carafe, delicately engraved with the restaurant logo.

I selected the rigatoni alla Norma. I almost went for a salad because I felt that the pasta would be better for dinner. However as I watched other people’s plates come out, I noticed that several people had ordered full entrees and they all looked amazing. Besides, when will I ever be back at Chez Panisse for dinner? So as not to miss my opportunity, I just went for it. While I waited, I read Holly Hughes’ Best Food Writing 2011 and took in the decor.

Located directly above the main dining room (dinner only, prix fixe), the Chez Panisse Cafe offers a more casual environment with an a la carte menu. Mirrors around the room reflected the warm sunlight and the walls are papered with a collection of past daily menus. A few caught my eye, like Lunch for the First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton. I mused on what I would serve for lunch of Hillary Clinton was coming over, or Michelle Obama. I suppose you would serve what you do best and hope that she liked the selection.

The housemade rigatoni was incredible. I learned earlier this year what a difference fresh ricotta salata makes on a dish and experienced it again here. I was also struck by the uniformity of the vegetables in size and shape and made a mental note to work on my knife skills. I ate every bite on the whole plate and didn’t apologize for it. The servers were very attentive and offered coffee and dessert. I was really impressed with how friendly they were; sometimes when you visit an iconic restaurant such as this one, there is a hint (or a deluge) of snobbery from the waitstaff. Not the case at Chez Panisse. They were delightful.

Yes, I was stuffed but of course I didn’t pass up dessert. I ordered the Frog Hollow Farm pear crisp with toasted almond ice cream. The pears were so fresh and the crisp was exactly what it should be: light and crispy. The ice cream was to die for – how did they achieve the perfect toasted almond flavor? It was warm and smoky and nutty and everything I had hoped it would be. I couldn’t finish the whole thing because I was so full, but I had several perfect bites before I pushed the plate away.

After lunch I strolled through Berkeley and reflected on the meal. Dining alone is not all that bad. I felt way more present in the moment. I saw, smelled, tasted, and heard so much more than I would have if I had dined with a companion. I enjoyed every fresh, local, seasonal bite and was inspired by the dishes I tried. I love sharing food experiences with friends and family, but I will definitely do this again sometime. When I returned to my hotel forty minutes later, refreshed and inspired, I noticed the one downfall of dining alone. There is no one there to tell you when you have fresh, local, seasonal basil in your teeth. Oh well.

NYC Foodie Date: Planning a Picnic in Central Park

Kyle and I went on a trip to New York City recently and we filled our days with food and fun. I recapped one of of our foodie dates last week and here is another. On this day we decided to sleep in and have a leisurely tour of some of New York City’s finest food shopping and most beautiful outdoor scenery. We started our day with a couple of bagels at La Bagel Delight in Park Slope.

Hola, avocado cream cheese

Stuffed with the heavenly combination of dense crusty bagels and flavor-packed cream cheese, we got on the F train and sipped our iced coffees. We took the subway to Chelsea, a neighborhood on the west side of Manhattan. Soon we were in Chelsea Market, a gigantic food emporium filled with trendy gourmet specialty shops. This is one of my favorite places in Manhattan and I was so excited to show my good-eats-loving companion around.

While in Chelsea Market, we visited a large kitchen supply store, a very cool wine shop, a brownie bakery, a cupcake bakery, a dairy bar and more. We were planning a picnic for later in the day, so we picked up some essentials along our trip. For example, bon bons from Jacques Torres. Totally essential.

We also visited One Lucky Duck, a juice bar created by the same folks who are behind Pure Food and Wine. I ordered a Thai green juice that included greens, pineapple, cilantro and lime. It also tasted very strongly of celery. We loved it!

The guy on the right is making our juice. He kept putting more and more vegetables in there; I could tell it was packed with nutrients.

From the Chelsea Market we took a little walk towards the water and did some shopping in fancy designer stores (not buying!). Kyle loved seeing the limited edition reproductions of vintage clothing and accessories at Levi’s, and I enjoyed admiring the beautiful patterns and silhouettes at Diane von Furstenberg. After getting our shopping fix, we hopped a train to Columbus Circle and picked up the core picnic items at Whole Foods. Then we headed to a nearby wine shop that agreed to open and recork a bottle for us to take into the park. It is not legal to consume alcohol while in Central Park, so I’m not going to tell you that we did.

Also on the menu: a veggie wrap, a wedge of aged mahon, and a bag of organic Ranier cherries. And bon bons of course, how could I forget? We dined near Strawberry Fields on the west side of the park, in a small clearing between the trees. We could see other people walking by on the paths just twenty feet away from where we sat, but they never saw us due to the bushes and trees around our picnic spot. It was a great balance of liveliness and solitude.

The weather couldn’t have been better. As the sun started to set, we chatted about all kinds of things, while spitting the cherry pits into the bushes and savoring the last few crumbles of Mahon and sips of Monastrell. It was a very relaxing end to an exciting day, full of new experiences and flavors. If you are looking to expand your culinary horizons while maintaining a romantic cozy vibe, I would recommend this date for you. Throw yourself into the hustle and bustle of the gorgeous Chelsea Market and the busiest Whole Foods I have ever visited, and then relax in a hidden picnic spot in the park while you reflect on all you have learned. Possibly under a young cherry tree near Strawberry Fields.

NYC Foodie Date: Walk Across the Brooklyn Bridge

Kyle and I went on a summer vacation to New York City last week, and I’m excited to show you all the fun foodie dates we went on while we were there. Some were budget friendly and some were splurges, but all of them were a great time. On our first morning in New York, we went for a budget option. This was one of my favorite days of the whole trip because it was filled with miles of walking and exploring and a lot of great food.

We started with bagels at Montague Street Bagels in Brooklyn Heights. This was Kyle’s first NYC bagel!

These weren’t the best bagels I’ve ever had, but they’re better than anything I’ve tried in Richmond, VA. They were delicious, and you can’t beat the location. Montague Street Bagels is just a few blocks away from this beautiful view. . .

Call me sappy, but it’s true: I never get tired of seeing the Statue of Liberty.

From the bagel shop, we walked through Cadman Plaza Park and entered the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian path from the stairs on the Washington Street underpass. Together we walked the 1.3 miles across the bridge, stopping to read the bronze history plaques and to take some pictures along the way. The pedestrian path is divided with cyclists on the right and runners and walkers on the left as you travel from Brooklyn to Manhattan.

The views are incredible and the walk is fun! This is an activity you can enjoy in the cooler months as well as the warmer months, although the winter walk is a bit breezier.

March 2008

Hey there, Melissa!

When you enter Manhattan from the bridge, you are near the NYPD headquarters. From there you have easy access to the financial district, TriBeCa, and Chinatown. On this trip, Kyle and I headed north towards Chinatown and stopped in at RBC NYC on the way. RBC has amazing espresso from a super fancy machine called the Slayer. One of these machines will set you back $20,000. The java did not disappoint.

Kyle traveled to France once and started every morning with an espresso and a pastry. He said that this espresso was the closest thing to European espresso that he has had in the United States. It was rich and oily, which sounds gross but it was actually really tasty.

I started talking coffee with the guys behind the espresso bar and they told me all about what makes the Slayer so special. This machine applies the pressure to pull the shot on a curve, gradually increasing and then decreasing the pressure from the beginning to the end of the extraction. Most espresso machines only have two pressures: on and off. The theory behind the Slayer is that the pressure curve pulls a better shot. The barista can also manually control the rate at which the pressure changes while the shot is being pulled.

After a little cawfee tawlk, they let me behind the bar to take some pictures of their fancy machine!

The barista controls the pressure by sliding the brown lever above the portafilter from left to right during the extraction. It was really cool to get the behind-the-scenes tour of how everything worked. After coffee, we took a walk through Chinatown. We found this vegetarian market that had rows and rows of vegetarian food, some dry goods and some frozen.

After walking around crazy Chinatown, we landed at Vegetarian Dim Sum House on Pell Streeet for lunch. I had heard great things about this place, and all the reviews were right. The food tastes fantastic and it’s a great value for the money.

We started with complimentary tea and then had five amazing dishes. . . for eighteen dollars! Wow, we ordered way too much food. We could only eat half of it and took half home to snack on over the next couple of days. This is definitely a pick that you should not miss if you are a hungry vegetarian wandering around lower Manhattan.

To conclude our budget friendly date, we hopped on a train to Midtown and did some window shopping before heading home to freshen up. We had a pull-out-all-the-stops super fancy date that night at Candle 79. The mood lighting was not conducive to food photos so you’ll have to take my word for it. It was an amazing meal.

Whether you go over the top with a fabulous date at Candle 79 or you go budget-friendly with a make-your-own fun value date, there are plenty of places in Manhattan to have a tasty foodie date. Check back later this week for some more of my favorite spots for delicious dates in NYC.

NYC Eye Candy

Kyle and I just got back from our whirlwind vacation in New York. Here is a quick peek at what we did and saw on this trip. More details later!

And while we are reviewing the highlights, did I mention that I met Rachael Ray?

It was an unbelievable trip and I look forward to sharing all my favorite NYC dining picks with you soon!

Motorino, Manhattan, NYC

As you may already know, Kyle and I are on vacation in New York City. We arrived on Monday afternoon and met up with our friend Melissa for dinner that evening. Her first suggestion was Motorino, a pizza place in the lower east side. After some discussion of alternative options, we all decided that Motorino was a great choice. We arrived at the small restaurant around 7:30 and were told that it would be a ten minute wait.  No problem, we walked around the block. When we returned the host came outside and told us this:

“I hate to do this because it’s really rude but I have a table available now for you but I would need it back around 8:15. Or you can wait another ten to fifteen minutes and take your time.” We must have looked at him quizzically because he immediately began to explain.

“We have a celebrity coming in and I need your table for their party at 8:15.” We looked at our watches and looked at each other. It was almost 7:45. I thought about how we had been traveling all day and were looking forward to catching up with a good friend over a bottle of wine and a Neapolitan pizza. Now I don’t have anything against 30 minute meals, when I’m cooking them in my own kitchen out of a Rachael Ray cookbook, but on this night I just wasn’t in the mood. I suggested that we wait for the next table and take our time.

Motorino makes Neapolitan style pizza in the gorgeous oven pictured above. They have a good beer and wine list, and they offer a “perfect pizza wine” which is a sparkling red blend that we really enjoyed. I don’t know about how well this wine pairs with pizza; it didn’t seem like an earth shattering life changing combination. However it was delicious, and perfect for a warm summer evening.

We ordered three pizzas and shared them all. I loved the Margherita, which was topped with a tasty tomato sauce, fresh basil, and fresh mozzarella. The crust was crispy and doughy all at once with a delicious char from the oven. As we dug in, we were joined by the celebrities of the evening. That’s right, there were more than one. Kyle played it really cool.

Melissa and I struggled to be cool too. We covertly took pictures.

We finished our meal as their pizzas were coming out. We didn’t want to leave them behind. We ordered tiramisu and another bottle of wine. It wasn’t hard to eavesdrop because although we were in a crowded restaurant, we could hear the woman of the hour loud and clear through the whole meal. For a tiny lady, she’s got a big mouth!

When we paid the check, they were finishing up. Guy Fieri left first, followed by a gaggle of guidos. Then the rest of the guests at the table of ten stood up and started to walk out. As soon as they left, we bolted out the door. See, I didn’t want to interrupt her meal but I was eager to say hi. Blame the second bottle of “perfect pizza wine” – I walked right up to her and said “Rachael! Hey Rachael, can I get a picture please?” She whipped around with a big smile on her face and said,

“Yeah, sure. Why not? Hey guys, how’s it going?” I shoved the camera in Kyle’s hands and leaned in to pose, afraid that the moment might pass if we didn’t seize it immediately. Then Rachel Ray laughed and said, “How great is that? You didn’t even ask him to take the picture, you were just like, ‘take this’ and he did it! What a guy, huh?”

 

What a guy indeed. I’m having the time of my life with my very best friend in the city that never sleeps, and I hope it never ends!

NYC Summer Vacation

image

I am currently on a train to New York City (sans wifi) for my big summer vacation. Hence, another first: first time posting from my WordPress app for Android. Please accept my apologies if this post looks a little wacky due to the new posting method. I’ve been a little nervous about whether this will work or not, but hey, you don’t know until you try.

Kyle and I are headed north to meet up with my other partner in crime, Melissa, who is a Virginian transplanted to Brooklyn. We have a ton of fun things planned so I don’t know how often I will get a post in, but I am looking forward to sharing all my adventures with you in the near future.

Here is a taste of what is on my list for this trip:
*chelsea market
*candle 79
*bagel boy
*angelica kitchen
*rbc nyc espresso
*wichcraft
*picnic in central park
*palo santo
*oral fix

Any suggestions?

Hope you have a great week – I know I will!

Discovering Hidden Gems in Virginia

Last weekend I took a trip to Franklin County, VA to learn about Homestead Creamery. Luckily I didn’t have to work on Friday, so Kyle and I took advantage of the day off and headed west a day early. On the way, we stopped at Smith Mountain Lake. Smith Mountain Lake is a gigantic lake in Franklin County, VA that is home to several marinas, resorts and private estates, as well as a State Park. The park features hiking and biking trails, a boat launch and a large sandy beach. On a clear 80 degree day, we were most interested in the beach.

The park charges a $3 admission per adult to enjoy the beach, and I think it is worth it. The clean and well-staffed swimming area features a sandy beach with roped-off swimming areas and two lifeguards, indoor restrooms, a grill and snack stand with eating area, a beach volleyball net, and a fun slide that sits on a floating dock.

You can also rent boats onsite, but we opted to just lay out on the beach and do a little swimming and wading to cool off throughout the afternoon. Though it was never overcrowded (as most coastal VA beaches are this time of year), as the day wore on, people started to leave and we found the spot to be very peaceful.

What a treat!

In the late afternoon, we packed up and made the one hour drive to Roanoke, VA, where we stayed for the night. After checking into our hotel, showering and freshening up, we took a short drive towards town for dinner. I took this overnight stay as an opportunity to try a restaurant that we had never made it to on our first trip to Roanoke in April. Wildflour Market and Bakery is a lovely little cafe and bakery in the Southwest Historic District.

I had gotten a few recommendations that this was a vegetarian friendly restaurant so I have wanted to try it out since planning our road trip last spring. We finally made it there last Friday night and it was worth the wait. The charming interior feels like a cross between a big city cafe and your best friend’s kitchen. The tasteful decorating draws you in and makes you feel at home.

There were large painted canvases all around the restaurant, displaying local artists’ work. The bar looked like a few converted bread baker’s cabinets. It may well have been, as Wildflour has a thriving cake business.

Our cheerful waitress helped us navigate the menu and pointed out the whole section of vegetarian options that they had available. Wildflour lists a millet veggie burger on their menu that piqued our curiosity. While we were deciding what to order, our waitress brought a small sample of the burger for us to try, which was really thoughtful. I noticed that she greeted almost all of the other customers by name and her exceptional customer service was very impressive. She even asked us, “so are you all new around here, or just passing through?” Because clearly if we weren’t new to town or just visiting, she would have known us by name already. Oh, small town charm.

The millet burger was  a winner, so Kyle chose it for his entree. Pardon the dark photos, the romantic low lighting was far from ideal for taking pictures. And oh what a stir I caused when I pulled out the camera. I guess they don’t see many food bloggers at Wildflour? Which is a darn shame.

The burger came on freshly baked bread. At this point I suppose I should mention that Wildflour prides itself on making nearly everything they serve from scratch. You can taste the difference. It’s fantastic.

I had the spinach ricotta pie and a side salad with homemade maple mustard vinaigrette.

The fluffy savory quiche was a good choice after spending all day in the sun. There was enough food there for me to feel satisfied, but it was light enough to not weigh me down for the rest of the evening. The vinaigrette on the salad was really tasty, and I understand why Wildflour sells containers of their homemade salad dressing to go. This would be a kitchen staple for me if I lived in the area.

Wildflour does not only excel in fresh from-scratch cooking; they also have a booming cake business and they specialize in doing wedding cakes. There were over a dozen varieties of cake to choose from after dinner, and because we had heard that Wildflour was great at cakes, we couldn’t pass on dessert! After much deliberation, we split a piece of carrot cake.

It was heavenly. If I was planning a wedding, I might consider getting married in Roanoke, VA just so I could have this cake. Do you think they would deliver to Richmond? Probably not. But you bet I would drive from Richmond to Roanoke for another slice. It was deeee-lish.

To be honest, we didn’t have a great experience in Roanoke the first time we visited earlier this year. However, our trip to Wildflour Market and Cafe and our drive around the Southwest Historic District turned it around for us. I will always have fond memories of Roanoke because of the evening I spent exploring this little corner of the town. We had the perfect romantic date to end a perfect day lounging at the lake, and our expectations were exceeded at every turn. I’m looking forward to making another trip out there in the future!

Field Trip to Franklin County

At the beginning of the weekend, Kyle and I set out on a 3-hour drive to Franklin County, VA. I made some egg sandwiches and iced coffee before we hit the road. Can you guess where we were headed?

The long country roads eventually led us to Homestead Creamery, producer of the best milk in Virginia.

Kyle and I met up with Brandi and Nick on a beautiful summer day to learn about our favorite creamery and tour the production facility and dairy farm. Brandi is a new blog friend who is an excellent writer and photographer. Based on her posts, I think she is probably a phenomenal baker as well. Check her out at branappetit.com.

I purchase Homestead Creamery milk weekly at Kroger or Ellwood Thompson, but I had never tried their butter or ice cream before our visit. I had heard that their ice cream was amazing but I don’t usually keep ice cream in the house unless I buy it for a special occasion. What drew me to their milk was the fact that they are a local, sustainable operation that uses recyclable glass bottles and produces high quality milk without the use of hormones or antibiotics. What kept me buying their milk week after week was the superior taste and the bottle deposit program. When you buy a bottle of Homestead Creamery milk, the purchase price includes a $2 bottle deposit, that is returned to you when you bring your bottle to the grocery store you purchased your milk from. Then the bottles go back to the creamery to be cleaned, sanitized, and reused.

Glass bottle conveyer belt

Over the last year, I have become very conscious of where my food comes from, particularly animal products. I try to eat all eggs and dairy from happy, healthy animals. This can be particularly challenging in restaurants or while eating at other people’s homes. While dining out, I don’t always know the origin of the cheese on my sandwich or the milk in my coffee, but I am still working on making mindful choices every day. However, one thing that I can easily control is the food that I bring into my home. I felt confident that the products from Homestead Creamery met my ethical and quality standards, but I still wanted to see for myself.

Enter Donnie Montgomery, co-owner of Homestead Creamery.

Donnie graciously set up a private tour for us outside their normal tour schedule. He warmly greeted us at the farm store and then spent three hours telling us the story of his 10-year-old creamery, showing us how the current operation works, and patiently answering all of our questions along the way.

We started at the beginning, where the milk comes in to the creamery on large trucks. It is then brought in to a holding tank and mixer. It is here that they skim the milk to the right fat content and sometimes add flavors, like chocolate, strawberry, and orange cream. The white and chocolate milks are all natural; the strawberry and orange cream are not due to the artificial coloring that they add at this step in the process. Next comes the homogenizer and the pasteurizer.

Pasteurizer

Finally we saw the bottling operation.

Bottle sanitizer and conveyer belt

Donnie also showed us the butter churner and ice cream machine. The butter is molded and wrapped by hand. Likewise, the ice cream is hand scooped into containers for sale. Neither of these processes has been automated yet. I kind of like it that way.

Ice cream machines

Cold Storage AKA Ice Cream Heaven!

 There was no milk in storage because Homestead Creamery’s milk is as fresh as it gets. The milk is brought in from each of their two dairy farms, located less than 10 miles away, every morning. It is minimally processed, bottled, and sent out to the grocery store the same day or the next morning. To get a better idea of where all the milk comes from, Donnie took us out to his farm.

Happy Cow

Isn’t she adorable? Donnie has about 100 cows, and they are each milked at 4:30 AM and 4:00 PM every day. We got a chance to see the milking parlor and Donnie explained how the milking apparatus simulates milking by hand. I was relieved to hear that the cows are content to be milked, and most will walk right into the milking parlor on their own, without prompting, when it is their turn.

Milking apparatus

I was fascinated by the production process and the cows at the dairy. And being the supply chain nerd that I am, I was equally intrigued by how the supply chain has morphed over the last ten years in order to grow distribution to a larger geographic area as efficiently as possible. Although local customers still receive home deliveries from one of the creamery’s milk trucks.

Seriously cool

Of course I was also interested in how they plan to continue to grow the business and Donnie spoke candidly about the different product lines that they had tested and were planning to roll out in the future. I love getting an insider’s perspective on my favorite products.

When we returned to the creamery, we took in the beautiful scenery and met some of the other animals that call the creamery home.

And then it was time for ice cream!

Words cannot describe how delicious this cherry vanilla ice cream was.

The difference is the creaminess. If I may paint a picture for you. . . most ice cream producers whip a bunch of air into their ice cream which makes it very light and fluffy. Homestead Creamery does not. It is thick, heavy, and creamy. It is smooth like gelato and the flavors are perfect. Of course the difference may also be the minimal processing, the happy cows, and the commitment to quality. But seriously. . . the creaminess. . . Find this ice cream and don’t turn back! I think we’ll be making some room in the freezer to buy this on the regular.

Overall, we had a great time at the creamery. Now that I’ve looked the milk-producing-cow in the face and seen the pasture where she grazes and the process that brings her milk to my local store, I feel even better about bringing Homestead Creamery’s products into my home. Donnie was a fantastic host, and our travel companions were awesome too. Brandi and Nick are super nice, cool people with whom we discussed everything from ice cream to the housing market to horror films. It is so fun to meet people in person that you feel like you already know through their blogs.

After all that I experienced this weekend at Homestead Creamery, I highly recommend that you do two things:

1. Check out this Whole Foods Whole Story post about Homestead Creamery.

2. Try their products if you’re local. Set up a tour if you’re able. You won’t be disappointed!

Vegetarian Tomato Gravy

Has your market or garden been overflowing with greens lately? Mine has, and I have really enjoyed trying out all the varieties that are fresh and locally available this time of year.

Check out this beautiful red Swiss chard.

This bunch was begging to be sauteed and served with some comfort food.

I immediately thought of the delicious rice bowls we had at Rosetta’s Kitchen in Asheville, NC.

Then I thought of the tomato gravy I had on the same trip at Early Girl Eatery.

And the first of many Asheville-inspired dinners was born. Balsamic baked tofu with sauteed chard and tomato gravy is short on prep time and long on flavor. The dish is comprised of four separate components that you throw together at the end.

  • Brown rice, which requires a very hands-off preparation
  • Baked tofu, which also takes care of itself
  • Swiss chard, which just calls for a stir every minute after it hits the pan
  • Tomato gravy, which is the most hands-on component, but really very easy

When I finished cooking and tasted the tomato gravy, I was surprised at how awesome it was, considering the minimal effort it took to prepare. I immediately wanted to put tomato gravy on everything. I can’t say that I feel the same about a lot of the things I cook, like honey wheat sandwich bread (really not that quick and easy).

Doesn’t that look like a whole plate of comfort? Yum.

Part 1: Brown Rice

Get your rice cooking first because it takes 45 minutes to an hour. Cook according to package instructions and then keep warm without drying out.

Part 2: Balsamic Baked Tofu

Drain and press a block of extra firm tofu (I used the fine herb variety from Twin Oaks). Cut the tofu into 1/2″ to 1″ cubes and toss in a bowl with enough balsamic vinaigrette to coat. Marinate for 20 minutes. Lightly oil a baking sheet and preheat your broiler. Drain the tofu cubes and reserve the leftover marinade for the greens. Spread out the tofu cubes in a single layer on the baking sheet and sprinkle the tops with olive oil. Place under broiler for 4-5 minutes, then turn the to onto the other side and broil for 4-5 minutes more until the edges are crisp and brown. Keep warm.

Part 3: Sauteed Swiss Chard

Wash and dry the greens in a salad spinner. Stack the leaves and cut them crosswise into strips, chopping perpendicular to the stems. Heat 2 Tbsp olive oil in a large pan and add the greens to the pan, along with 2 cloves of chopped fresh garlic. Saute until wilted, and then toss with the leftover marinade from the tofu. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Part 4: Vegetarian Tomato Gravy

I adapted this recipe from the original from the Vegan Food blog. Feel free to make your own substitutions as you see fit.

Ingredients:

  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • 2 Tbsp flour
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 tsp raw granulated cane sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
  • pinch ground cayenne
  • 15 oz. can diced tomatoes, with juice

Preparation

  1. Heat the butter over medium heat in a medium pan. Stir in the flour with a whisk until no lumps remain. Let simmer for half a minute to toast the flourand then remove from heat.
  2. Slowly stir in the milk while whisking the mixture.
  3. Return pan to heat, stir and bring to a boil. The mixture will thicken over a few minutes. Turn heat down to low.
  4. Add the sugar, salt, and pepper. While stirring, add the juice from the tomatoes. Return to a simmer.
  5. In a shallow bowl, mash the tomatoes with a fork or potato masher until they are choppy or shredded, in juice. Make sure you keep some tomato lumps and do not over-mash the tomatoes.
  6. When the gravy has returned to a simmer, add the tomatoes. Turn the heat up to medium-low and stir while cooking for 3-5 minutes or until the gravy thickens.

Combine parts 1-4 on one plate, and you get this.

A taste of the Southeast in your own kitchen.

Now go buy some greens before they’re all gone!

Asheville-Like-A-Local in 36 Hours or Less

Kyle and I took a road trip last month to Asheville, NC and while we spent about 3 beautiful days there, I think you can get a great Asheville experience in 36 hours or less. Keep reading the longest post in vegology history below to see how to enjoy a weekend in Asheville like the locals do. If you want to read about our first 24 hours there, check out this post. For the story how of we got to Asheville on the beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway, read ­­­­Spring Road Trip and Road Tripping Roanoke to Asheville.

We woke up on Saturday morning, after a night of drinking and cheering on the Pittsburgh Penguins, to overcast skies. We had planned to go hiking that morning, but we were feeling the after-effects of all of the local beers we had sampled the night before and there was rain in the forecast, so we decided to check out another brunch spot instead.

We ventured on over to Sunny Point Café, where there was a very long wait. It wasn’t so bad though, because while we waited we enjoyed self-serve coffee on their garden patio. This was seriously such a good idea. You sign in to put your name in for a table and then grab a mug and help yourself to fresh brewed coffee. A sign on the coffee urn instructs you to notify your waiter when you are seated and they will add the bottomless coffee to your bill. Ingenious!

When we were finally seated, we enjoyed some awesome breakfast food. Sunny Point Café sources a lot of their ingredients locally and sustainably. Kyle ordered a breakfast sandwich on a croissant, with a side of stone ground chipotle cheese grits.

I ordered the MGB (mighty good breakfast), with two fried eggs, chipotle grits, vegetarian sausage, and a warm biscuit. Delish!

After brunch, we headed to nearby Black Mountain to check out Pisgah Brewing Company. Pisgah is an organic brewery with distribution only in western North Carolina. They have won a ton of awards for their beer and we were excited to see what they were all about. Our GPS took us to an industrial park hidden in the mountains off of a state road. We were wondering if we were in the right place when we parked in a gravel lot next to a commercial kitchen appliance distributor. We rounded the corner and saw this.

We found the brewery! After a quick tour and Q&A session with one of their marketing guys, Kyle and I hit up the on-site bar. This tasting was one of the highlights of our vacation.

If you are planning a visit, please taste some of their beer. A free tasting is not included in the tour, so you will have to purchase some beers at the bar. It is important to note that they accept cash only and they do not serve food, so have a snack before you arrive and bring cash. Pisgah offers pints, half-pints, and samplers that feature a 5 oz. sample of each of 4 beers – your choice. They also sell growlers of all of their draught beers, with varying prices depending on the beer. We ordered two samplers and got to taste eight beers. They were all delicious! I am so sad that we can’t buy Pisgah Brewing Company beer here in Richmond.

Beer tears aside, we had a great time and can’t wait to go back again in the future. At this point we had about 30 hours left in Asheville, so we had to boogie. Onward, my friends, to downtown Asheville! Downtown offers a collection of boutiques, restaurants, and coffee shops. There are cute little park areas with street performers, and there is endless free entertainment in the form of people watching. It started to drizzle so we ducked into World Coffee Cafe to grab an espresso con panna and a croissant.

I wouldn’t normally get whipped cream on my espresso AND get a buttery croissant on the side, but we were on vacation! Kyle and I sipped our espressos while watching the locals and tourists stroll by the front of the shop. Although it was raining, it was a beautiful 80 degrees. It was the kind of spring rain that was more a refreshment than a nuisance.

When the sun broke through the clouds, we walked over to the Grove Arcade, a large historic building filled with shops and cafes. The architecture was gorgeous but the stores left something to be desired. Many of the storefronts were closed (on a Saturday afternoon!) and the “farmer’s market” was a sparse array of prepackaged foods and produce from near and far. I am confident that the ramps were local, yet I have never seen an orange grove in North Carolina so I believe the fruits might have been shipped in. Although it is a grab bag of specialty shops, the Grove Arcade is worth a peek inside. And if you are interested in furniture, or men’s suits, or any of the random retail that the shopping destination offers, you might be in for a treat.

After wandering around for a bit, the buzz from both the Pisgah tasting and the doppio espressos had worn off, and we decided to move on to the next beer tasting opportunity. We walked to Jack of the Wood to try some more local beers. If there is one thing we learned about the people of Western North Carolina, it is that they love to brew beer. If there are two things we learned about the people of Western North Carolina, the second is that they love to bake. And I’m not talking about the kind of baking you do with flour and sugar. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, visit the hippie towns of Asheville and Boone, and you’ll soon catch on.

Where were we? Oh yes, Jack of the Wood Pub.

Here we tasted beers from the local Green Man Brewery. We had the ESB, IPA, Porter, Stout, and Cask Irish Stout. They were okay, not great. After the amazing experience we had at Pisgah, the Green Man beers couldn’t really compete. However the service and atmosphere at the bar were great, and if you’re looking for a dark, oaky, underground pub in downtown Asheville, definitely make a trip to Jack of the Wood.

You could have dinner at the pub, but we were looking for something a little more inspired than nachos or potato skins, we ducked out and walked to the other side of town, to one of the most renowned vegetarian restaurants in Asheville, Rosetta’s Kitchen. This place came highly recommended so we had to fit it in. When you enter the restaurant, you go immediately up a brightly painted flight of stairs, and turn left into the colorful dining room. Past the dining area is a chalkboard menu and counter where you can order your food.

love this poster!

There is also a case of baked goods that all look utterly delicious. I noticed several vegan options, and I loved that they included an ingredients list on most of the labels.

When your food is ready, the friendly staff brings it out to you. While you wait, you can sip a local beverage (the theme of the day was beer, okay?) and enjoy the scenery.

I ordered the Buddha Bowl,  “organic spring mix, organic brown basmati rice, sea veggie salad, tomatoes, avocado, mung bean sprouts, and grilled smoky tofu topped with our sweet tahini BBQ sauce.” Wow, amazing. Loved it.

Kyle ordered The Mountain, “layers of long grain brown rice, sautéed kale and fried local made tempeh topped with our sweet tahini BBQ sauce.” His was also fantastic, although a little simpler than mine.

Okay so here’s my take on the vegetarian food in Asheville. There were so many delicious options everywhere, that it really felt like I was dreaming. I loved the Laughing Seed, and Early Girl Eatery, and Sunny Point Café. I think you should try them all, and there were even more restaurants that we didn’t get to try that I would love to visit next time. However, if you are a vegetarian or vegan visiting Asheville, do not leave without going to Rosetta’s Kitchen. They have a great variety of dishes that are so difficult to choose from, and their creative menu will inspire you to cook more interesting food in your own kitchen. Vegetarian and comfort food are two terms that don’t usually go together, but at Rosetta’s they do. GO there!

At this point, we are about 14 hours into our 36 hour (or less) journey. You’re already downtown, so go visit a bar. If you’ve had enough beer (like we had), go to bed. But before you go to bed, run to the grocery store to get breakfast food because you’re going to need fuel in the morning. Kyle and I had postponed our hike until Sunday morning, so we stopped by the local grocery store, Ingles, to pick up pre-hike breakfast food and post-hike picnic lunch food.

When we woke up on Sunday morning, we assembled our fruit, yogurt and granola bowls and packed up our things to check out of the hotel room.

I was sad to say goodbye to our luxurious hotel.

Just kidding, we stayed at the Courtyard. Although the Mountaineer Inn might have truly been an unforgettable experience. At hour 24, we grabbed coffee on the way out of town and got back onto the Blue Ridge Parkway to drive to the Mount Pisgah Trail.

Well rested and excited for the views that the trek promised, Kyle and I slung our backpacks over our shoulders and started the climb.

The trail is definitely steep in spots, and most of it was rocky, which helped us get our footing. If the trail had been a dirt path, we probably would have slid back down it!

I made the mistake of forgetting my sunscreen, not realizing that most of the trail would be open overhead. I imagined the leaves on the trees would protect me, but we hiked most of the path in direct sunlight. I had some pretty adorable backpack and sports bra tan lines by the time we got to the top. After the climb back down, my shoulders were getting crispy. We had a perfectly clear day, so I could feel the strong sun on my face and shoulders as we rounded a corner and realized we were getting close.

About ten minutes later, we were at the top and enjoyed a 360-degree view from the octagonal observation deck that had been built by local Boy Scouts. It was quite a reward for one of the most strenuous hikes I have ever completed.

The views were breathtaking!

Okay, the hike was breathtaking. But once I got to the top, sat down, and caught my breath, the views were still pretty amazing. Kyle and I spent about 30 minutes at the top. We ran into a couple from Tennessee who had each hiked 500 miles last year. They offered some great suggestions for hikes in the South. When we felt like we had taken in enough of the landscape, Kyle and I trotted back down the mountain for a victory lunch at an overlook off the Blue Ridge Parkway.

That brings us to about 30 hours in Asheville. At this point, Kyle and I hit the road for a 6-hour drive back to Richmond. Overall it was a lovely vacation, and on the 5 year anniversary of falling in love with each other, we fell in love with Asheville, NC. We wish we could have stayed another week (or year!) but that wasn’t in the cards for this trip. If you are lucky enough to have more time in Asheville, check out my Travel page for more ideas on what to do while you are there.