Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Chocolate-Covered Gentile Joy

As a kid, I loved those occasional Saturday-night sleepovers at friends’ houses. Besides a night of giggles and girl talk, it often meant going to church on Sunday. For someone raised in a non-religious home, it wasn’t the prospect of a sermon or singing hymns that was so enticing, but the food. 

Whether it was a bland wafer and sip of faux wine or a bountiful post-Sunday school potluck, I loved the combination of ritual, new experience, and something different and edible on my tongue.  Today, the intersection of food and religion still fascinates me—from Buddhism to Islam and beyond. That's why, when researching a short piece I wrote for Vegetarian Times on Passover foods, I was excited to stumble upon this accidentally vegan treat:

As part of the investigative reporting process, I felt it was important to make a thorough examination and ensure they were, as you might say, "kosher" for vegans. They were. Definitely no dairy, eggs, or anything weird lurking inside, and they tasted pretty good, too. They're simply matzo crackers--which are essentially flour and water--coated (very thinly) in chocolate. If it's been a while since you've had, say, a Twix bar or some other mainstream candy thing with a crunchy component, you might be able to imagine that you're munching on that while you're munching on these.

Passover's not over yet, and I found these at my local supermarket. You might be able to find them at yours, too!

p.s. The box promises to deliver "real chocolate." Is there any other kind? Please say no.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Chez le Dentiste

I went to the dentist today. Care to hazard a guess on what this uninsured girl paid for an office visit and a cavity filling?

81 euro.

I'm kind of OK with that price.

What does it cost where you are for a visit to the dentist?

Friday, January 31, 2014

Teetotally Surprised

This isn't exactly related to Paris or veganism, but the last 31 days of not drinking have certainly been an adventure.

I embarked on this intentional dry spell for a few reasons, beginning with willpower. Do I possess any? I've been able to dig in and move past some other toughies over the years--a wicked nicotine addiction lasting more than a decade being the biggie. But--as anyone who knows me well will attest--I LOVE drinking. More specifically, I love the taste of a good red wine (or white. or rose. sparkling or not.).

I also adore the relaxing effects that alcohol delivers. Another thing most close friends and family know about me is that I'm an anxiety case. It's gotten better over the years, and I've never had to rely on pharmaceuticals to see me through it--because why should I? I've got booze! Alcohol really worked for me on that level, but deep down, I've always felt there were probably healthier ways to deal with those worrisome feelings.

And finally, I've really been wanting to take control of my health, but just have't been able to lately. I've gained a few pounds (five, to be precise) since moving to France, and it's really eroded my confidence as it relates to body image. And I've also experienced bouts of acne in the last  few years that I suspect are hormonal, but knowing that the liver helps regulate hormones, I wondered if a taxed organ might be impeding my body's ability to heal itself.

The experience was wonderful and weird and interesting. I expected to have wine cravings, but I really didn't. I did end up craving sugar, which is what our bodies convert alcohol into, so that made sense. I ate chocolate for breakfast probably 25 out of the past 31 days. But not before downing a glass of lemon water, followed by another glass of water with a dropperful of milk thistle, a powerful herb that supports liver health.

The hardest part of living "clean and slobber" (as my old friend Chris from my SF/SPCA days would quip) was the social aspect. Attending events where the wine was flowing and not engaging in the liquid experience was so overwhelmingly incongruous to my normal habits that my brain didn't know how to handle it. It sometimes felt like I was having an out of body experience, watching a tray of Champagne flutes float by and saying "non, merci."

Mostly, I said "no" to social engagements--especially parties or gatherings at old watering holes. I just didn't think it would be fun without booze, which got me wondering: Is going to bars and cafes just a big waste of time?

Three weeks in and feeling good!

Unexpectedly, my anxiety actually seemed to decrease without alcohol in the picture. I don't know what that's all about exactly--especially considering I would often drink coffee in those moments when I'd normally order un verre de vin rouge--but I welcomed it. And I didn't have problems sleeping like I thought I might. In fact, I slept really, really well, nearly every night.

On a purely superficial level, the best part about my month-long booze fast is that my skin really looks a lot better. More hydrated. Less acne. Less redness. Just better. And while I can't say for sure, I think I've lost weight. I'm really happy about that.

Another surprise is that I didn't really feel any different, physically. Not really any increased energy or anything like that. I don't know what I was expecting, but it seemed a little strange that besides clearer skin and possible weight loss, there were no real physical effects. I asked Jeff if I seemed any different, personality wise, as a drinker vs. non-drinker, and he said no. OK. Interesting!

Today is Chinese New Year. I'm having friends over for dinner and I may or may not have a drink. I love the thought of moderation, of not being dependent on anyone or any thing, and also of letting go of things that don't serve me well. I hope that it's not a slippery slope, and that an evening of social drinking won't "undo" the nice changes that have transpired in the last month. It's the year of the horse, and in the spirit of holiday, I'm charging forward at a good gallop, bringing good habits with me into the new year.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Cafe Pinson 2 Takes Flight

Press night at Cafe Pinson 2, from the outside looking in

Pinson means "finch" en francais, so when I say another organic, plant-based restaurant has gotten its wings, I almost mean it literally. Cafe Pinson 1 opened just about a year ago in the Northern Marais and was successful enough that the team behind the 99-percent vegan cafe invested in a second location.

The ardoise

The new spot--which oozes a more rustic and homey vibe that its predecessor--sits on rue du Faubourg Poissoniere in an area fast becoming a vegan vortex; within a five-block radius, there are roughly six veg(etari)an dining spots to choose from, offering everything from meatless burgers to organic raw food

On a dark and damp Wednesday night, I set out to meet up with good friend Terresa from La Cucina di Terresa for the cafe's inaugural press event. Terresa was already engaged in friendly banter with co-owner Damian when I arrived, but soon we were ensconsed on a comfy settee where we sipped, nibbled, and schmoozed our way to a better understanding of the Cafe Pinson experience.

The best chef in Paris, Terresa Murphy, lifts un verre of bio bubbly

The crudite tray, wtih curried dipping sauce

More crudite. When are those sweet potato dumplings coming around?!

Little verrines of creamy vegetable soup were also passed round.

I spotted--and resisted temptation to dig into--a jar of pickled asparagus on a shelf.

Natural wines are an exciting addition to the menu, which also includes such tempting delicacies as beet and parsnip veloute; potato and spinach cakes with kale pesto; pumpkin-mushroom risotto; and lemon tiramisu. Detox juices and retox swills (hello, coffee!) are also on tap.

Cafe Pinson co-founder Agathe giving Parisian "smile."

The DJ was almost upstaged by the vegetable platter.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Cool Cuisine

The rumblings began months and months ago: A new raw-food restaurant was due to launch at any moment in a Rive Droite neighborhood fast becoming Paris's new vegan epicenter. There was even a website to support the titillating notion, and a Facebook page, too. So why, then, won't anyone confirm an opening date, or respond to multiple emails begging for an address?

The two-course lunch special sets you back 14 euros
My reason for making repeated contact were more than personal; my next book, Vegetarian Paris, is about to go to press, and I really wanted to include this newcomer, especially considering that raw is a rarity in this city. (Pousse Pousse, a delightful little spot just a few blocks away, has been the only restaurant cru up until now.) I was stoked to hear it opened on December 21, while I was away in San Francisco. I couldn't wait to get back and see what it was all about.

We arrived 1ish on Friday, and were excited to see that we weren't the only folks hungry for something fresh. Settling into our table, I looked to my right and there sat Amelie Pieron, whom I'd met at a pop-up raw-food brunch she hosted in the 17e last year. (She has one last spot available at a pop-up dinner she's hosting on January 8. Get in touch if you want to try her amazing raw cuisine.) I was beginning to like this place already!

The menu at 42 Degres is eclectic, featuring pizzas, maki, soups, burgers, and desserts. Cashews are an integral component of many dishes, but they also make use of novel ingredients, such as parsnips, to replicate the look and texture of rice in their sushi rolls. The a la carte menu ranges from 7-9 euros for entrees and desserts and 11-14 euros for plats. The two-course daily lunch formule costs 14 euro; at night, you get three courses for 27 euro. The drinks menu features bottled organic juices, natural wines, kombucha, and not-very-raw coffee.

The beet "millefeuille" with cashew cream.

One waitperson serviced a busy lunch crowd and did it well.

Our waitperson was efficient but didn't exude a particularly welcoming vibe, but that was OK. The ambiance and our own anticipation made up for it.

The food, when it arrived, was devoured in approximately 5 minutes, and not because we're gluttons; the portions were small. (With the exception of the rather grand-looking bowl of vegetable "noodles" delivered to several other tables, which made us wish we'd ordered that instead.)  My dining partner found his a la carte portobello burger trop salee, though he managed to consume it in its diminutive entirety without further complaint.

I went for the two-course special, which promised a betterave millefeuille avec creme de cajou, and that's exactly what arrived, together with a tasty salad dusted with nut crumbs. I just wish it had been several sizes larger. When we joked about heading around the corner to VG Burger for lunch #2, neither of us was completely sure if the other was serious or not.

Dessert--a lemon tart with a nutty crust--was tasty and different from other raw desserts I've enjoyed, and not just because it was served warm. The filling had the consistency of a pudding, and seemed very "un-raw"--so much so that I asked if it was made, by chance, with soy. I was assured it was made with cashews, and that no soy is used in the restaurant. (I should have known better.)

The portobello "burger" with kale "chips."

The tarte au citron, which arrived at the table in a very un-raw warm state.

My verdict? Good but not great. Like many raw restaurants, it suffers from the less-is-more-money syndrome, and there are still a few kinks (like over-salted dishes) that need to be worked out in the kitchen. But generally, the food is tasty and I'm excited they're here to give visiting vegans and locals alike more varied dining possibilities.

Friday, October 25, 2013


The cheery sign at VG's front door

Paris is experiencing an interesting culinary trend: Burgers. What's so special about burgers, you ask? Well, I'm talking about veggie burgers. They're EVERYWHERE! First, there was MOB, then East Side Burgers. And next month, HANK opens in the Marais. October 2013, however, belongs to VG.

I met Celine, VG's gorgeous, super-friendly owner, at Paris Vegan Day. She had just opened VG a few days earlier and expressed a bit of worry that no one would show up to eat her delicious food. "I'll come!" I said. I don't think my words offered much comfort, but today, I held true to my promise anyway.

VG's owner, Celine, and her husband Suri

If you arrive by bicycle, you can pedal along the La Fayette velo piste right to VG's front door. (Otherwise, Metro Poissonniere is two minutes away.) Outside, a few bistro tables and a sandwich board let you know you've come to the right place. Inside, it's a family affair: Celine, her husband, and her belle-mere share the culinary stage, slinging burgers, chatting with customers, and otherwise making vegetarianism friendly and accessible.

Vegan carrot cake!

The menu fuses traditional burgers with imaginative items inspired by Celine's Spanish heritage and her husband's Laotian background.

Diners choose from the a la carte menu or one of several daily formules. On this day, the menu options spanned a handful of continents: American burgers with Mexican condiments (guacamole); Southeast Asian Pad Thai; and even Spanish-style potatoes and roasted peppers. I went for the edible equivalent of the missionary position: A burger and fries. Not necessarily the sexiest choice, but then I've never been able to resist the words "frites maison."

The fries are thin and tasty, and served with a biodegradable bamboo fork. The burger was equally delicious, and slathered in a cumin-spiced guacamole. Warning to non-French folk who come expecting burgers of McMansion proportions: That's not what you'll get here. Instead, count on perfect, we're-not-getting-fat, but-we-are-getting-full size. My meal left me sated, so much so that I couldn't squeeze in even one bite of the very tempting vegan carrot cake. ((Vegan Carrot Cake!))

So excited to discover this green Tabasco sauce on a neighboring table. I recommend splashing it over everything you order (except the carrot cake).

Miam! My burger with guacamole and vegan cheese on a sesame-seed bun.

Celine plans to expand the VG menu over time to include more items with Spanish, Asian, and world-cuisine influences, and she'll soon begin offering artisan buns made by a local boulanger. Just yesterday, she launched a fancy new vegan burger, and to kick off the fun-in-a-bun, there'll be a guess-the-name-of-the-burger contest on their Facebook page in a few days.

Also: Hurray! VG is a late-breaking addition to my next book, Vegetarian Paris, published by Vegetarian Guides. (Advance copies for sale soon!)

Friday, October 18, 2013

Pie Love You

Three of my favorite things: Bread, fresh produce, and vegan cookbooks!
I first met Dynise Balcavage (aka The Urban Vegan) years ago--maybe 2006?--when I worked at VegNews and she pitched an article on Buenos Aires. I accepted her proposal straight away. Why? Because it was everything an editor wants: An enticing snapshot of the article to come (Tango! Outdoor markets! Vintage hotels!) accompanied by great clips and a way-better-than-average cover letter.

Throughout that first collaborative experience, Dynise proved herself to be the consummate professional, not only submitting her story and gorgeous photos on time (a rarity--believe me!), but more importantly, delivering a quality story interwoven with interesting facts, fun anecdotes, and information that the reader could actually benefit from.

Perpetually pretty and loaded with talent, too!

In the years that followed, I interviewed Dynise for various stories I'd written for other publications, and called on her culinary expertise when the situation called for it. Two years ago, we finally met in the flesh at Paris Vegan Day, and I wasn't the least bit surprised to learn that Dynise is as delightful in person as she is with the written word. Her blog is something I always look forward to, and I've always loved the diversity of her recipes and the straightforward, relate-able tone that permeates everything she produces.

In a stroke of luck, I received a copy of Dynise's latest book, Pies and Tarts with Heart, and an invitation to join the Pies and Tarts with Heart blog tour. Hells yes! The only thing I like more than pies and tarts is slavering over delicious visual representations of them. This book is loaded with gorgeous photos taken by a photographer Dynise knows well: Her talented bf, Paul Runyon. Nice work, Paul! But it's the recipes that are the real stars of this book. Not only are they simple enough for baking amateurs like me, but they're creative, intriguing, and (yay!) vegan.

Urban (Parisian) Vegan
Seeing Dynise at this year's Paris Vegan Day gave me the opportunity to thank her in person for producing this I'm-about-to-lick-the-page tome, but also to catch up with her in a relaxed, non-professional way. Yesterday, over a leisurely lunch at Cafe Pinson, we yakked and yammered over colorful bowls of grilled vegetables and fluffy falafel cakes (I forgot to take a photo!), and discovered we had more than a few things in common, including a love of foods that marry salty and sweet.

"I'm freaking out over that recipe with peaches and sea-salt," I professed.

I would definitely win any pie-eating contest that required diving face-first into this salty-sweet masterpiece

"You mean the Peach Pie with Salted Agave Drizzle?" she asked.

"Yes--that one!," I said, swooning--and possibly drooling a little bit. "And the Chocolate Peanut-Butter Pie, AND the Chocolate-Bourbon Pecan Pie!"

The conversation quickly shifted to the salted-chocolate tartine spread her comrade-in-cuisine Fran Costigan made at PVD, then veered off into directions of love, fashion, health, hobbies, heartbreak, previous careers, and other juicy, real and relevant topics.

Dynise and her culinary comrade Fran prep for their presentation at PVD '13 
Like me, Dynise is at a crossroads, plotting her next act. Will she continue her reign as a revered blogger and cookbook goddess, or will she surprise us all by reinventing herself into something entirely new? I can't wait to find out. And in the meanwhile, I'll be baking pies.