Checking In

Hello! I am alive!

…which sounds dramatic and/or flippant, but given that my most recent post basically said, “We’re still in the middle of the pandemic, and also I HAVE CANCER,” it is, perhaps, a necessary clarification.

So, yes. I am alive. I am on the other side of two lumpectomy surgeries, one sentinel node biopsy, two mediport placements/removals (because the incision for one of them didn’t heal and I needed to get it replaced), four rounds of T/C chemo, 19 rounds of radiation, and countless blood draws/pokes/proddings/various scans. It sounds like a fucking lot when I list it out like that, and, well it was. It’s been a rough seven months since I last posted. But. I am alive.

We got a cat! We started fostering Mattie in May of 2020 and adopted her earlier this year. She’s been a real light in the middle of so much darkness.

I probably should’ve checked in here sooner, if only to tell y’all that I’ve been blogging my way through my ~cAnCeR jOuRnEy~ over here. I began that blog when I found out I’d need chemo, and it’s been immensely helpful—not only to keep all my family and friends updated from afar, but also to work my way through the complex and often overwhelming thoughts and emotions that come along with a cancer diagnosis.

It’s also become a surprisingly meaningful and evocative chronicle for me; I’ve tried to capture so much of the experience in sensory detail, because I don’t want to forget it. Which maybe sounds counterintuitive—so many people, upon hearing of my diagnosis, would react with something like the following: “My wish for you is that you’ll be able to finish treatment and move on and forget this ever happened.” To which I say: FAT FUCKING CHANCE. This is a huge, massive, unforgettable and ongoing part of my life. Breast cancer is a sneaky beast; even though I have done everything my doctors recommended to remove cancer cells from my body, there is never a guarantee that they’re all gone—which is why I’ll be on hormone therapy for 5-10 years to starve out any remaining microscopic disease that’s hanging out hidden somewhere. Even if I wanted to forget, the daily pills and monthly injections wouldn’t let me. And again… I don’t want to forget. I want to look back and read old posts and think, “Wow, you DID that. You did.”

Anyway. Between the writing I’ve been doing for blog #2 and the writing I do for work, I haven’t really felt like writing for this poor ol’ blog. Plus, this is nominally a food blog, and… I have been doing almost zero cooking. Steven does it all, Earth angel that he is. I didn’t have the energy to review the takeout we ordered during the height of the pandemic; chemo gave me weird food aversions; the list of reasons I didn’t/don’t feel like blogging here goes on. (I still can’t eat broccoli or homemade seitan, even two months post-chemo. I also cannot stand the smell of a certain style of freshly baked bread. Thinking about all three of those food items still makes me queasy. THANKS, CHEMO.)

Food blogging just doesn’t appeal to me the way it did once upon a time. I still read lots of food blogs, but I just don’t have the energy for it myself. So, realistically, it’s gonna stay quiet around here. But! I post on Instagram pretty frequently, and I’ll probably be writing over at the new blog every so often. Follow along there—I’d love to have you.

So, farewell for now. Wishing y’all safe, happy, and healthy months to come. :)


Dispatches from Lockdown, Part Two: 2020 Strikes Again

Hey, hi, hello. I last wrote in July, four months into Ye Olde Pandemicke, with a little 30,000-foot overview of my life at that point. Five months later, and what has changed? Well… not very much. And also, a whole freaking lot.

Literally the only place I go these days, other than doctor’s offices and my backyard.

We are still working from home. We are still hardcore isolating. We are still watching as selfish jerks at every level of normal society and government screw things up for the rest of us by pretending things are hunky-dory and they can hang out with friends and not wear a mask and go to bars and have big ol’ holiday parties and also not provide any consistent guidance or stimulus money or rent relief or eviction protection (or, I don’t know, literally any kind of intervention) to the millions of struggling Americans who are barely keeping it together. So here we are in December, cases are spiking, and we’ve collectively decided, Oh well, nothing to be done now. Let them eat cake (maskless, of course). The most we can do is hold on and hope that come inauguration day, we’ll swear in a new president who will display some leadership and accountability, two concepts that have utterly disappeared from the federal government (and many state governments!) in the past four years.

Meanwhile—and this is the crappiest meanwhile, so prepare yourself—SOME OF US are staring down unexpected health crises and would RATHER NOT have to face our local hospitals becoming overwhelmed by holiday-induced COVID cases and shutting their doors temporarily.

Because on top of this being a giant flaming turd of a year, my own damn body decided she had to make up for a history of robust health and inflict upon me the big ol’ C-word. Yes, that C-word. I have cancer! At 33! When I am otherwise in possibly the best physical shape of my life! COOL!

It’s breast cancer. I caught it early. My surgeon is hopeful I will avoid chemo and only need surgery and radiation. It still—to put it mildly—sucks.

Cancer in the middle of a pandemic looks like this: Virtual appointments whenever possible. Texting “HERE” to office staff when I’m in the parking lot and waiting to be let in. Providers wearing masks during procedures that normally wouldn’t require masks, so that I can’t see the full faces of the kind nurses and techs who are soothing me when I start shaking so hard toward the end of a procedure they think I might fall off the table. Hard conversations with my surgeon, where she tells me that back in March, local hospitals started canceling all “nonessential” surgeries and she had to fight to get her cancer patients in for surgery. The utter terror that if I catch COVID, I can’t get scheduled for surgery or treatment until I’m good and healthy again. (You know, healthy BESIDES that rogue clump of mutated cells that’s currently Muahahahing inside me…)

Cancer in the middle of a pandemic means not seeing my family for Christmas for the first time in my life. (OK, to be fair, we probably would not have traveled for the holidays anyway, given the rise in cases. But… I can still blame cancer!) It means telling my parents they couldn’t come visit me when I was first diagnosed, because they have some contact with the outside world and I just couldn’t expose myself. It means not seeing anybody at all, ever, for the foreseeable future, even though friends near and far want to shower me with hugs and love and support.

Insert metaphor about friends being like lampposts? guiding my way?!

Cancer in the middle of a pandemic also looks like a huge, immeasurable, beautiful shower of love in the form of home-cooked meals, flowers, cozy socks, maple candies, and bath bombs. It looks like a generous gift card to a meal delivery service from colleagues. It looks like postal workers probably thinking I have a shopping addiction as they drop off package after package of treats and goodies and little gifts from beloved friends and family who want me to know that, even though they’re not here-here, they’re here. It looks like texts and video chats and emails that give me the time and space to say as much or as little as I want, that distract me and allow me the opportunity to vent. It looks like new connections with friends of friends, women who also faced the ol’ C-word too young and are all too familiar with the tough choices you have to make when you’re diagnosed in your 30s.

It looks like Steven becoming, somehow, even more selfless and caring than I already knew he was. It looks like me never having to wash a single goddamn dish or make a single goddamn meal, because he doesn’t mind doing it and he knows it lightens my load. It looks like him whipping up a bathtub tray out of scrap wood because I’ve suddenly discovered baths and I need somewhere to put my book and my candle and my tea while I’m soaking in steaming water for an hour or more in the middle of a Sunday. It looks like us against the world, but not in an adversarial way. (But also totally in an adversarial way if we’re talking about anti-maskers and science-deniers.)

Don’t get me wrong: You will never, ever, ever hear me saying that “everything happens for a reason” or that I’m grateful (???) for my cancer because it realigned my priorities or put things in perspective or taught me courage or whatthefuckever. I mean, it might very well do those things, but that doesn’t mean I have to be thankful for it. Pretty sure I could’ve found perspective without the life-threatening illness, thanks. But what I’m saying here is that while cancer in a pandemic is, like, the ultimate, most craptastic (and somehow most fitting) 2020 surprise I could imagine, I can choose to focus on the little scraps of good it reveals. I’m not searching desperately for a “reason” this happened; I’m not railing at fate for bestowing this unwelcome and unreturnable gift upon me. I’m just saying, hey, this sucks, but at least I’m not in this alone. At least I’ve got my people, and my pets. And that’s something to hold onto, in this utterly unrelenting joke of a year.

Whatever you’re facing, I hope you, too, have something to hold onto.

Dispatches from Lockdown

Well, hi there. Long time no write, right? Like most (all?) of you, my life during the past four months has been lived almost exclusively from the confines of my home.

It all happened rather suddenly: One weekend I was in Rhode Island with Steven, attending a baby shower for my brother-in-law and sister, the party guests laughingly trying to avoid hugs because we’d heard that the new coronavirus was making its way toward us. The next weekend, I was back in Maryland; on Sunday night (my 33rd birthday!), I received a work email telling everyone to stay home for the next two weeks.

You know how that story played out: Two weeks became a month, a month became two months, and here we are in July with no plans for the vast majority of our staff to return to the office. Looking back, my family feels so grateful nobody got sick at our little baby shower gathering. We were so naive! Given what we know now, it seems shocking we got together. Steven and I FLEW to Rhode Island, for crying out loud! In a PLANE! Via the AIRPORT! With all those PEOPLE! Phew.

The end of a raised garden bed, with a few green plants poking up. On the side of the wooden bed is a stainless steel colander; inside are freshly picked lettuce leaves and two bright pink radishes.

Freshly picked lettuce and salad rose radishes a few months back. My garden is much wilder now!

And here we are in lockdown. I’m lucky: I have a house and a partner and a garden and pets. My job is stable. Unlike many of my friends, I’m not stuck in an apartment with almost no outdoor access. My garden has never been so well-tended as it has been this year. My home office (previously used as a craft room/repository for random things with no other home) has never been such an official office-y office space. My pups have never received so much nonstop attention. Steven works from home normally, so having me here has been a bit of an adjustment for him. And me? I’m actually loving working from home. I can take breaks and go putter outside if my creative juices aren’t flowing (and, early on, they flowed like molasses, let me tell you). I can start dinner at 2:00 p.m. to save myself time later. I can wear ACTUAL SUMMER CLOTHES because I’m not sitting in a freezing icebox of an office building. In that regard, lockdown has had its silver linings. (Which is not to minimize the deadly gravity of the pandemic, of course, but I’ve got to take the good where I find it.)

A triangular desk wedged into the corner of a room between two windows. There's a laptop on it, along with some plants. Outside the windows are lots of flowering native plants!

My current office! Steven custom-built this desk so it fits right between the two living room windows.

Steven and I recently switched office spaces (he moved into the office room; I moved into his living room desk space) and now I have a great view of some of our wildlife garden. In the last week alone, I saw:

  • A rambunctious chipmunk chasing a very perturbed dove. 
  • A pair of American goldfinches chowing down on the seedheads of some bee balm, while a chipping sparrow waited her turn.
  • A hunched-over raccoon sloping through my front yard and into the back, perhaps in search of a cooling drink on a 90-degree day.
  • Multiple hummingbirds sipping nectar from the bee balm, flitting from one tubular petal to the other. Just this morning, a female ruby-throated hummingbird hovered by my window, seeming to stare at me as I looked back at her just as curiously. <3
  • Countless birds, bees, squirrels, and other wild friends just living their lives.

It’s distracting! But also lovely. 

Socially, my introverted self has been… just fine, to be honest. Weekly video chats with my college friends have sustained and cheered me; it’s been so nice to reconnect with them all as a group and to just be silly together. I connect with home-friends and here-friends; I talk with my family; I’m doing OK. I’m enjoying backyard picnics and getting into cocktails and supporting my local businesses by getting takeout every so often. 

I’m taking the bright sides and the silver linings wherever I find them, basically. 

A vine twines around a wooden fence; its leaves are covered in raindrops and one little mouth-like flower bud pokes up at the center.

Lonicera sempervirens (coral honeysuckle) in early spring after a rainstorm.

Of course, lockdown has also been stressful AF. There were times (early on, especially) where everything felt so dark and hopeless, especially as our ignorant turd of a president seemed determined to get us all killed. To see and hear scientists and epidemiologists provide recommendations, only to have them laughingly ignored by the president/various state officials/”BUT MUH FREEDOM!” people, is just… beyond infuriating. As a perhaps overly empathetic individual, I’ve had my heart broken over and over again during the past four months. And that was even before the latest spate of racist police violence spewed into our collective consciousness.

I protested. I broke our fairly strict quarantine to go to a nearby small city and join a BLM protest because I couldn’t not do it. I donated, because my stimulus check could be put to better use elsewhere. And when Steven and I drove to Rhode Island last month to meet our new nephew, born in May, I had heartfelt and scary and hopeful (socially distanced) conversations with resistant and confused family members.

The tenor and intensity of these conversations felt different. I felt empowered to speak with more passion, and I felt my family members listening with more open ears than they might’ve in the past. It was good. 

A top-down long-arm selfie of two young women, one middle-aged woman, two young kids, and a baby in a front pack.

My sister, me, my mom, and my nephews on an easy little hike in Rhode Island.

And about that trip home: That was good, too. Steven and I quarantined carefully beforehand and then drove up to RI with minimal stops, only pausing to get gas and let the dogs potty. With careful avoidance of liquids, we didn’t even need bio breaks for ourselves! One week of expanding our little quaranbubble to include my immediate family was just what we needed. Paddling in my parents’ pool with my nephews, drinking my dad’s home-brewed beer, playing games… it felt so normal. We even saw extended family, from a distance. The return back to real life was a bit rough, but so it goes.

So here we are, approaching the middle of July, as our national ability to exercise self-sacrifice and self-restraint has apparently reached its limits and we’ve just accepted a second wave of infections, worse than before, as the price of… well, what, exactly, I’m not sure. I, for one, am staying the eff home. I will confine myself to my books and my garden and my backyard and my video calls. I will wear my mask. I will indulge in our twice-monthly grocery store trips, and maybe an occasional visit to my beloved Saturday morning farmers market (but probably not, because people were crowding each other the last time I was there and it made me a little panicky). 

I hope you’re all as well as can be, under the circumstances. I’ve been reading, even if I haven’t been commenting, and I appreciate those of you who’ve been able to keep up with normal posts as the world disintegrates around us. I hope to be back soon, to share some of the meals Steven and I have made recently. We shall see. :) 

Faux Fish Face-Off | What’s the Best Vegan Fish?

It’s a faux fish face-off! In one corner, long-time veg brand Quorn and its very traditional, very geometric fishless fingers. In the other — upstart (well, relatively) Gardein and its lumpen yet realistic Friday fish-fry favorites: fishless filets. Which faux fish will ride the wave of success and reign sea-preme? Will you ever forgive me for this terrible wordplay?! To the very of-fish-ial vegan fish review!

In the foreground: a box of Quorn fishless sticks with the word "Vegan" quite large across the top. In the background: a sheet pan filled with raw chopped potatoes.A few months ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find the vegan Quorn fishless fingers available at Wegmans. Longtime vegans will remember that for a long time, Quorn’s mycoprotein-based products were vegetarian, but not vegan. That’s been changing recently, with the introduction of some vegan products (especially in the UK!) and the word that the company is “investigating” ways of making their line egg- and dairy-free. Anyway, I’d never tried the fishless fingers before, so I was excited to give them a shot.

First, the good: the packaging! The Quorn fishless fingers came loose in a cardboard box. No plastic at all! And they didn’t suffer for it, either: I tasted zero freezer burn, and my palate is quite sensitive when it comes to freezer burn. Go Quorn! Way to be environmentally friendly!

Now, alas, the bad: everything else. :(

A sheet pan with chopped potatoes and six breaded Quorn fish sticks. They are very rectangular.I detected no fishy flavor in these sticks. I noticed no flaky fishy texture. They were just a tasteless mush ensconced in a fairly standard (and fairly flavorless) breading. What a letdown! Yet when I searched for Quorn fishless fingers reviews, I discovered that PETA apparently gave Quorn a “Best Vegan Fish” award at some vegan food award ceremony. That is… bizarre. Especially when there is a clear and preferable alternative available: Gardein fishless filets.

Now, the fishless filets are not exactly a new product, so perhaps PETA was recognizing Quorn’s entrance into the vegan realm. But seriously, Gardein’s fishless filets are orders of magnitude better than Quorn’s, in my humble opinion. They have everything going for them: a decadent, crispy coating. Flavor that’s actually reminiscent of the sea. A pleasant texture.

A top-down image of a plate with two crispy Gardein fishless filets, roasted potatoes, ketchup, and tartar sauce.

OK, sure, as filets they’re technically in a different category than sticks. But they are just infinitely better. Unless you’re 100% dead-set on replicating the fish stick experience (i.e., being able to eat a fair number), Gardein will do ya better. The only potential downside is that they’re a bit rich, so you probably can’t scarf a bunch of them in one sitting. But paired with roasted potatoes and tartar sauce, they make for an excellent fish and chips dinner. Highly recommend!

What other vegan fish products do you enjoy?

Vegan in Montréal, Canada | Three Days in Montréal at Christmastime

Despite growing up just 300 miles from the Canadian border, I somehow made it 31 years without visiting our friendly neighbor to the north. Shame! It wasn’t because I didn’t think Canada was a worthy destination; I’ve seen enough jaw-dropping photos of friends on hikes in Banff to know that Canada’s got plenty to offer. But I’ve always kept the Great White North in my back pocket, so to speak: Ontario and Québec are close enough that I could take a quick flight for a long weekend, so I’ve never really prioritized traveling there, opting for the excitement of an overseas trip instead.

You can see where this is going, of course: I finally pulled this reserve destination out of my pocket and booked a trip last December, thanks in part to a great deal I found via my beloved Scott’s Cheap Flights. The timing was serendipitous; I’d realized Steven and I wouldn’t be able to swing a December trip to Europe to enjoy some Christmas markets, and then, voilà: cheap flights to Montréal, a Francophone city with a dash of European charm and its own festive Christmas markets. Sold!

We packed all sorts of fun into our three-day trip to Montréal. The weather was frigid, not even hitting 10˚F on our first two days, but we layered and bundled up and found it wholly manageable. (I like to think my days in Minnesota and Wisconsin prepared me!) Plus, the chilly weather made it all the more reasonable for us to spend, say, two hours drinking tea and dining on delicacies! Here are some highlights of our all too brief visit.

Stuffing our faces with poutine at La Panthère Verte

By the time we checked into our hotel late one Friday afternoon, we were getting hungry. We pulled up the Google map I’d made of vegan eats in Montréal, suited up for a night of walking in the bitter cold, and headed out for a requisite Montréal meal: poutine!

Vegan poutine at Le Panthère Verte in MontréalWe opted to get ours at La Panthère Verte, a small vegan chain with six locations in Montréal. We opted for the Rue Saint-Denis location, which was about a 15-minute walk from our hotel. La Panthère Verte is fast-casual, so you order at the front and then take your seat. We opted to split a large (“duo”) bowl of poutine, and Steven got a side of lentil soup as well. We also each wanted a beer, so we placed our order at the front and were told to wait a couple minutes; the cashier would meet us at the bar (located closer to the front of house) to pour them. We settled into our seats and waited, but eventually had to get up and ask about the beers again because the front-of-house staff seemed to have forgotten. Not a big deal by any means, but I did wonder why the restaurant was so sparsely staffed on a Friday night!

Beers and food in hand, we ate. Neither of us had realized that the poutine would be served with sweet potato fries, and I’ll admit that we were a little disappointed not to get the true poutine experience. Still, the salty, tofu-based curds were surprisingly cheese-like, with a texture that actually did remind me of the one time I tried legit cheese curds ages ago. We shoveled forkfuls (forksful?!) of gravy-covered fries and tofu into our welcoming gullets and found it a satisfactory experience. The fries were a little mushy by the end, though, and I suspect regular fries would’ve stood up to the onslaught of gravy a bit better. I took the lion’s share of the poutine, as Steven also had his lentil soup — a warm, gently spiced affair perfect to take off the chill.

Post-poutine, we decided to get drinks — but not at Le Panthère Verte. The atmosphere at this location didn’t quite seem conducive to leisurely sipping cocktails, and the plate-glass storefront let in quite a chill. I wanted somewhere warm, and we opted for L’Gros Luxe, a local chain of hipster-perfect bars. Steven sipped a whiskey, I had an Old Fashioned, and we sat at the bar as the tables behind us slowly filled with coworkers and friends gathering for a holiday cookie exchange. Inveterate people-watcher though I am, I prefer to to watch from the periphery — not enveloped by the group. We soon made our escape.

Enjoying a quick vegan breakfast at Copper Branch

Here is an amazing fact about Montréal: Not only is the aforementioned Le Panthère Verte a fully vegan chain, but this freakin’ city has a SECOND vegan chain! Copper Branch also has locations in Toronto and Québec City, but for our purposes, the dozen or so locations in Montréal made it simple to find a quick vegan breakfast en route to Mont Royal.

Straight-on shot of a wrap filled with tofu scramble, tomato, and lettuce.Copper Branch focuses on healthy, organic, and often gluten-free plant-based dishes, including all-day breakfast items. In the mood for something warm (rather than one of the billion smoothie/grain bowls on offer), Steven and I both chose the Southwest Wrap Scramble, featuring tofu scramble, vegan cheese, veggies, and a spicy sauce. It was, in a word, fine. Nothing spectacular, and a bit drippy for my tastes, but adequate. I didn’t love — or, frankly, understand— the inclusion of lettuce in a hot wrap. Who wants to bite into warm, wilted lettuce? Why not add a heartier green instead?! That said, I liked the generous portion of tofu scramble, which helped to power Steven and I through an energy-requiring (yet ultimately abortive) attempt to summit Mont Royal.

Steven got a hot coffee on the side, while I chose a matcha coconut latte. It was nice and hot and didn’t skimp on the matcha, even if it was a bit overly sweetened for my tastes.

Failing to reach the top of Mont Royal

Mont Royal, you tricksy devil. Lured by promises of the best view in the city, Steven and I huffed and puffed our way up dozens of wooden staircases set into the hills until we found ourselves on Mont Royal proper. We’d plugged the Mont Royal chalet — from which one could enjoy that spectacular view — into our offline Google map, but ended up following posted signage toward it instead. As we set off, we spotted even more wooden staircases leading up to a viewpoint, but they were chained off by very official-looking signage that seemed to promise falls and grievous injury if you ignored them. We watched as more than a few fellow hikers clambered over the chains, ignoring the signage completely, but we figured a more leisurely stroll up to the chalet via this alternate route (no more stairs!) would get us there eventually.

A snowy path through some trees.

This is very much not a scenic overlook. Alas.

Alas, it did not. We walked and walked, following the signage until it… stopped. We checked our Google map, which showed the chalet somewhere back behind us, closer to where we’d come from. Plus, we had definitely not ascended high enough to reach any kind of spectacular viewpoint. With a 1:00 p.m. lunch reservation looming, we turned around. The downhill walk went faster, and we marveled at the many hardy runners making their way up the hill, braving the icy temperatures and lots of actual ice. Soon we were back at the chained-off staircase, which we suspect would’ve taken us right to the chalet. Without time to make the trek up, we cursed ourselves for not hopping the chain in the first place and set off north of Mont Royal to make our afternoon tea reservation.

Frankly, I’m still salty that we didn’t get to the chalet. We briefly considered making a second attempt later in the afternoon, post-tea, but the rapidly setting sun and our increasingly frozen fingers dissuaded us. We still had a nice hike in the bright winter sun, and it gives us a reason to return to Montréal. We’ve got to experience the city in the warmer months, right?

Vegan afternoon tea at Le Parloir in Montréal, CanadaEnjoying vegan afternoon tea at Le Parloir

Our three-course afternoon tea was the perfect antidote to the failed Mont Royal attempt. With chilled digits to warm and bruised egos to salve, we happily spent a good two hours sipping on hot tea, working our way through a dozen or so small bites, and eavesdropping on our fellow diners’ conversations. I heartily recommend this experience, and you can read a much more detailed account here.

Soaking up the holiday magic at a Christmas market

Oh, friends. Let me tell you a minor tale of woe. Recall how, when planning this trip to Montréal, my primary motivation was to enjoy the city’s festive Christmas markets. Early research showed at least two promising markets, but then, in early December, tragedy struck: While finalizing my plans for the trip, I discovered that one of the markets had been canceled for the 2018 season. Needless to say, I felt this tragic blow deep in my holiday-loving heart. Clearly the Grinch was at work here.

Steven en route to a Christmas market in MontréalBut! All was not lost. There was still one Montréal Christmas market scheduled, and we made our way there on Saturday night. We availed ourselves of the metro; Montréal has a $10 24-hour pass that includes transportation to the airport, so we timed the purchase to take advantage of that boon. A brief journey later, we exited the Atwater station to a Christmas miracle: SNOW! Perfect light flakes floating down around as as we walked just a few blocks to the Village de Noel de Montréal. Our route took us through an expansive lot selling Christmas trees; I forced Steven to pose among the snow-dappled pines for a photo. It was — not to put too fine a point on it — festive as fuck.

Christmas market in MontréalA few minutes later, we entered the market proper. It was a compact affair, with just the right number of people: enough for it to feel festive, but not quite packed enough to trigger much crowd-induced anxiety. Two or three rows of vendors (all cozy in little chalets) sold everything from socks to snacks, and we made sure to stop for glasses of vin chaud — served, as I’d desperately hoped they’d be, in commemorative cups. Not the fancy ceramic mugs I’ve seen doled out at European markets, but light little plastic numbers that we brought home as our only souvenirs of the trip. Hot mulled wine in hand, we meandered over to the chest-high tables, where you could lean in and sip your wine while being warmed by the fire pits at the tables’ center. We petted a few jauntily be-sweatered dogs, watched a vendor serve up raclette, and generally enjoyed the merry ambiance… all to the tune of Die Hard dubbed in French. Apparently the Christmas village shows movies some nights on a big outdoor projector, and speakers placed throughout the village let everyone hear the film, even if they weren’t watching it. Rapid machine gun fire — so festive! (In all seriousness, it was a little unnerving. The speakers weren’t terribly loud, and you couldn’t hear them from every part of the market, but I wondered if maybe this wasn’t the best movie to pipe out, context-less, in a crowd.)

My only regret from the Christmas market (well, aside from failing to get a cute photo together) is not trying maple syrup snow candy. Ever since reading about this delicacy in a Little House book ages ago, I’ve been enamored with it: You pour heated maple syrup on fresh snow, twirling it as you go, to create what’s essentially maple taffy. As a certified maple lover, it’s a dream food for me — but I’ve never seen it being made before. And then, there it was: a maple syrup snow candy vendor, twirling hot syrup into a sweet delight for just $1. BUT. I did not have any cash on me. In a truly boneheaded move, we didn’t withdraw any Canadian cash from an ATM before heading to the market. And I call myself a seasoned traveler. :( Needless to say, I was crushed not to finally try this most quaint of Canadian treats.

Anyway. We spent a good hour at the market, then headed back to the city center to stuff our faces with sushi.

Enjoying roll after roll of vegan sushi

My preparation for traveling tends to be pretty passive: I peruse blog posts and Pinterest for inspiration, putting together a personalized Google map of vegan eateries, hotspots, accommodations, etc. Steven took a more active route for this trip: He posted in the vegan Montréal subreddit asking for recommendations. One spot was mentioned repeatedly: Sushi Momo Montréal, an all-vegan sushi joint on trendy Rue Saint-Denis.

Sushi Momo MontréalSteven and I had visited another vegan sushi spot previously — Pirata in Vienna — but I’ve got to say that Sushi Momo blew Pirata out of the, ahem, water. Not only is the vibe super inviting and fun, with little booths tucked into every available space and all sorts of eye-catching decor, but the food is incredible. These sushi rolls are not your run-of-the-mill veg option, with avocado/cucumber/carrot/blah. We started with edamame (duh) and then moved onto a five-piece Momo roll (sweet Japanese tofu, avocado, mango, cucumber, tempura, oba leaf, Japanese curry aioli, basil-miso emulsion) and a five-piece tempura Dino-Dino roll (baby spinach maki, cucumber, avocado, inari, mushrooms cooked in sake, truffle-miso emulsion, wasabi emulsion, teriyaki sauce, ito-togarashi).

Apologies for the crappy photo (the lighting was tricky), but I hope you can see how beautifully these rolls were presented — especially the Momo roll in the background. I am not a sushi connoisseur by any stretch of the imagination, but even I could tell that this was really damn good sushi. Every ingredient was balanced by another one, creating a perfectly harmonious bite with something to hit nearly all the basic tastes and requiring just the smallest bit of soy sauce to bring it all together. Each bite had a blend of textures to keep things interesting, and I truly wished I could’ve expanded my stomach to try more. We did end up ordering a third roll, the name of which I cannot recall.

I can’t recommend Momo Sushi highly enough. Our experience was perfect all around, from the moment we arrived early for our reservation (oops) and were seated anyway to the bustling yet inviting ambiance. It’s definitely quite a hipster-friendly place, but the service was great and the food was even better. If we ever up sticks and move to Montréal, rest assured that the existence of Momo Sushi will have played a not-insubstantial role in that decision. I dare you to read through the menu and not end up salivating.

Stuffing our faces at brunch

A white marble table piled with a plate of pancakes, a tureen of sliced sausages, a bowl of hash browns, and a plate with an omelette on it.Our streak of delicious meals continued on our final day, when we enjoyed brunch at Lov. (It was a vegetarian restaurant when we visited but has recently gone fully vegan!) The combination of rumbling bellies and a favorable exchange rate inspired us to order way more food than we usually do: an omelette for Steven, gorgeous fruity pancakes for me, and sausages and hash browns to share. Yum. My gluten-free (!) pancakes were sweet and tasty and topped with chai cashew cream and berries; the savory sausages and hash browns balanced them out nicely and provided me with some protein. I recall Steven’s omelette being decent, if not outstanding, and quite filling.

The interior of Lov, with whitewashed brick walls, hanging wicker chairs, and rattan light fixtures.If you can’t tell from the photos, Lov has a very curated aesthetic, all white marble and exposed brick and natural materials. It works quite well, with lots of natural light creating a welcoming space. It’s definitely trendy (just look at all the light fixtures in the photos of the interior), but hey, if it gets people in the door and eating vegan food, I’m not complaining.

Feeling festive in Old Montréal

A wide brick alleyway with glowing holiday lights, green pine garlands, and a generally festive atmosphere.Although much of the picturesque Old Montréal district was under construction when we walked through it, we did manage to find some festive little nooks, crannies, alleyways, and storefronts!

The ridiculously adorable Maison Pepin alleyway functioned as a kind of mini Christmas market, with lots of greenery and natural decor on offer both outside and in the shop proper. It’s basically an Instagrammer’s dream, too, with plenty of opportunities for oh-so-festive holiday selfies. I can’t even be mad about it, though; it’s too freakin’ cute!

Other options

I’m glad we had three days to eat our way through Montréal, but I wish we’d had more! Here are some spots we didn’t get to try.

  • Sophie Sucrée, a vegan bakery that serves up some truly beautiful pastries.
  • Invitation V, a modern-looking bistro with cuisine from many cultures.
  • Lola Rosa, another internationally inspired café with an impressive menu. Serves brunch. Another spot to get vegan poutine in Montréal!

This is not an exhaustive list, for Montréal is incredibly vegan-friendly. Let me know your favorite spots!

Small-Bite Sundays: Pancakes and Cozy Winter Reads (12/8/19)

Small-Bite Sundays -- winter

IT’S BAAACK! My Small-Bite Sundays series, in which I indulge in some old-timey blogging and share whatever I feel like sharing. I’m not sure why I abandoned this practice back in 2018, but I realized that it dovetails perfectly with my approach to VeganMoFo this year (low-pressure rambling, basically). So! I intend to get back into the small-bite spirit in the months ahead. I probably won’t post every weekend, but hopefully it’ll help me retain some of the happy blogging momentum I gathered during MoFo.

Right now I’m looking at the photo I chose for that graphic above, and I’m wishing we’d get some snow here in Maryland. It’s been cold lately, but we’ve yet to see the flakes fly. (Well, apparently that’s not entirely true: I was in Puerto Rico at the end of October/beginning of November for work, and on the day I flew home, Steven texted me in the morning to say it was snowing (no accumulation, just flakes). Leaving the gorgeous hot and sunny weather of Puerto Rico for the chill of Maryland was… rough.) Now we’re in full-on holiday mode, and I wouldn’t mind a nice snowstorm. Ah well.

Small bites to read, winter edition

I’m dedicating the month of December to lighthearted reads only! As I do every year, I set myself a reading goal for 2019: This year, 85 books. I’m one away from finishing! I’ve read quite a lot of nonfiction this year, and to be honest, some of those reads are still weighing on me.

In particular, I can’t stop thinking about Darcy Lockman’s All the RageI haven’t even been able to write up my Goodreads review for it yet, because there’s so much I want to say. Lockman writes about the way even the most egalitarian (hetero) partnerships tend to fall back into gendered roles when children enter the picture, and the stats are bleak. She explores the (many!) reasons why this happens, but it’s a tough, painful read. Steven and I have worked hard to cultivate a partnership based on equality, and I’ve always just assumed that equality would continue if/when we have children. Lockman’s research shows that we’ll have to work really damn hard to make that happen, though. I absolutely recommend this book if you’re at all interested in this topic, but be warned that it’s a tough read. I had to take frequent breaks — I even returned it to the library and then checked it out again later! — because it was really bumming me out.

…which brings me to my December reading goals. :) I’m focusing on lighthearted, cozy reads for this month, because I deserve it! Right now I’m reading Graham Norton’s Holding. Yes, that Graham Norton! While browsing the stacks at my beloved local library a few weeks ago, I noticed his name on the spine and was immediately curious — I didn’t know Norton was a fiction writer! When I realized Holding is a mystery set in a small Irish town, I added the book to my quickly growing stack. Turns out Norton is quite a good writer, wry and charming and focused on the minutiae of small-town life in a way that reminds me of J.K. Rowling’s non-Harry Potter fiction. This is a more than respectable debut novel! It’s a quick read, but enjoyable if you like light mysteries (and/or small Irish towns).

(Also, quick note — if you use Goodreads, add me as a friend!)

Small bites to eat, winter edition

A slightly skewed top-down view of a kitchen table loaded with food and plates.Thanksgiving dinner! My brother and sister-in-law visited from Seattle for the holiday, and we had quite a nice, low-key Thanksgiving. We had a Gardein roast, stuffing, roasted Brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes, gravy, and a gingery sweet potato mash. Our friend Sara brought over a delicious cranberry sauce she’d made, which featured chunks of apples and oranges and was topped with pecans. For dessert, we had apple pie, cranberry-orange bread, and pumpkin pie (the classics). This year I tried Bryanna Clark Grogan’s pumpkin pie filling, and it got rave reviews. I used canned coconut milk and upped the spices, and I also used my pecan-date crust because my sister-in-law is avoiding wheat at the moment.

As an appetizer, I picked up a bunch of fancy olives from Wegmans’ deli bar. They have a seriously impressive selection, with literally dozens of varieties of stuffed olives, oil-packed peppers, and more. Perfect for an antipasto platter.

A small blue plate with a stack of pancakes, topped with a deep red fruit compote.In non-Thanksgiving eats, I made Isa’s Puffy Pillow Pancakes for breakfast this morning. <3 They are always a win! I added cinnamon (because, duh) and topped them with a fruit compote. That was another win. We had a team holiday party at work this week, and about half the fruit tray was left uneaten. It sat in abandoned the fridge for a few days, and I decided to bring it home on Friday because it would otherwise get tossed by the cleaners. Soft, squishy, slightly overripe fruit is not the best for eating raw, but cooked down into a compote with a bit of sugar, water, vanilla, and lime juice, it made for a perfect pancake topping. Food waste win!


What have you been reading and eating this week?

(FYI, this post contains affiliate links!)

Cacao Tea Review: A Caffeine-Free, Chocolate-y Treat

A glass mug full of cacao tea. In the background is a packet from Cacao Tea Co.I’m a devoted fan of hot beverages, and I’ve got a tea chest to prove it. Loose-leaf and bagged, black and green and herbal… it’s all there. What I had never tried until a few months ago, however, was cacao tea. Record scratch.

I’ve had so-called “chocolate teas” in the past, but they invariably left me disappointed. Generally speaking, I like rich, bold, dark chocolate, which is almost impossible to taste in a tea. Instead, most chocolate-based tea blends have a stronger chocolate aroma than actual flavor, leaving me disappointed and wondering why I didn’t just make hot cocoa instead.

So when the kind folks at Cacao Tea Co. reached out to me a few months back and asked whether I’d like to try some of their thoughtfully crafted cacao husk tea, it didn’t take more than a few minutes of browsing their website before I responded with an enthusiastic, “Yes, please!” After a phone call with Jessica — the company’s founder — I was even more excited to try it. Here’s why.

Top-down image of cacao tea in a glass mug.

  • It’s naturally caffeine-, gluten-, and sugar-free. Although I love (love) coffee and the comforting ritual of drinking it, it doesn’t exactly love me. I’m sensitive to caffeine and quickly get addicted, which is not a state in which I want to remain! I also can’t drink anything caffeinated in the evening without suffering the (sleepless) consequences. Cacao tea is a great alternative.
  • It’s ethically sourced. Y’all know I had to ask Jessica about this, and she assured me that her company takes care to source their cacao from suppliers who pay farmers more than a living wage.
  • The company donates 15% of its profits to charity. Specifically, to charities that provide meals to families in underserved communities in developing countries.
So, what is cacao tea?

It’s simply the husks left over after cocoa beans are harvested and the nibs are removed. You can brew the husks to make a chocolate-y, tea-like beverage.

How do you make cacao tea?

However you want! I tried it three ways: steeped in a tea strainer, brewed in a French press, and boiled on the stove for 5-7 minutes. The latter is my favorite method because it creates a nicely concentrated and rich drink, but the French press method is my go-to when I make it at work.

What does cacao tea taste like?

Like chocolate! OK, maybe not like hot cocoa, but like a rich and pure form of chocolate. Not bitter, but deep and nuanced. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the flavor! It was much better than those tepid “chocolate teas” that have disappointed me time after time.

When I spoke with Jessica, she called Cacao Tea Co. her passion project, and her love for the product was obvious. I’m so glad she reached out to me, and I’m glad I’ve added a new, caffeine-free hot drink to my repertoire. Up next? Experimenting with it! You can use a concentrated version of the tea in baked goods, which is obviously quite appealing to me. I’ve got a few other ideas I’d like to try, too… a cacao-oat milk latte? Cacao sorbet? Cold-brew cacao?! Actually, scratch those last two… I’m sticking with hot drinks only as the winter approaches. :)

Although this cacao tea was provided to me for free, this review is 100% my unbiased opinion. I only accept review products that align with my ethics, and I always note when I’m reviewing a product I did not purchase myself. (See more here.)

Cooking from Cans: Pigeon Peas and Coconut Rice

How often do you use the recipes on the boxes and cans in your pantry? I don’t do it very often. But as I was poking through my stash of canned beans, I noticed an appealing recipe on a can of coconut milk: Gungo (Pigeon) Peas and Rice. I had a can of pigeon peas; I obviously had the coconut milk; I had rice… so why not try it?!

In retrospect, choosing to make this rather heavy dish — which required 45 minutes on the stovetop (with me stirring and testing the rice frequently) and which is best eaten hot — on an 83˚F day was perhaps not my finest move. I blame my caffeine-addled brain; slightly jittery from too much cold brew and too few carbs, I clearly lacked some key critical thinking skills. No matter; a little sweat never hurt anyone. Anyway, this came together relatively easily in one pot and required minimal dishes  for preparation — just a cutting board, a can opener, and a measuring cup for the water/broth and the rice. The result? Not bad! Perhaps a little simplistic in flavor, but it’s probably because I had to make quite a few substitutions. Specifically, I:

  • Used brown rice in place of “Grace Rice,” which I can only assume is white rice.
  • Replaced the escallion (!) with a few rather anemic scallions I’ve been regrowing in water for a few weeks.
  • Opted for dry thyme rather than fresh, because I didn’t have fresh.
  • Used garlic-ginger paste rather than fresh garlic and ginger, because I was lazy.
  • Added a teaspoon of dried allspice rather than pimento berries (!).
  • Used a mysterious hot pepper (grown from seeds my dad bought in India!) rather than the Scotch bonnet.

So, yes. Given that rather extensive list of substitutions — most of which replaced flavorful fresh ingredients with, um, less flavorful and less fresh ingredients — it’s no surprised that my rice wasn’t terrifically flavorful! It was not bad at all, though, especially when I added some lime juice. (It was missing an acidic element, in my opinion!)

For the curious, the recipe is here. I also recommend scrolling through the Grace Foods produce list — I enjoyed seeing all the Jamaican and Caribbean favorites, especially this amusingly-named “Grace Food Drink.”

(If you’re curious, here’s the “chicken” broth I used (affiliate link!). Better than Bouillon is killer!)

Silver Diner Review | Vegan Options at Silver Diner

When I first moved to Maryland seven (!!!) years ago, I was delighted to discover a local diner chain with vegan options. Back then, Silver Diner had a location at the mall near my office, and it was a not-infrequent destination for celebratory team lunches. The options were good and creative, too, more than just your average portobello burger or veggie wrap. Unfortunately, the mall location closed years ago, and I haven’t really been to a Silver Diner since.

This year, though, Silver Diner has upped its vegan options game, introducing a Just Egg Benedict, adding the Beyond Burger, and offering an entire section of vegan entrées. So when a (vegan!) friend suggested we head to the location in Frederick as part of her low-key birthday celebration, Steven and I thought that sounded like a perfect idea.

After much deliberation, I ordered the cauliflower mac and cheese, which features tempeh bacon, roasted tomatoes, asparagus, and a cheesy sauce served over cauliflower and zucchini… all topped with Beyond Meat meatballs. An unexpected combo, to be sure, and not only because there’s no pasta in this mac and cheese. I was dubious, but hopeful. Local vegan restaurant Great Sage has an outstanding mac and cheese that includes both pasta and big chunks of cauliflower, and I’ve often pondered ordering that dish sans pasta, but with added cauliflower.

Alas, Silver Diner’s take on cauli mac and cheese couldn’t live up to Great Sage’s classic version. Instead of big, toothsome cauliflower florets, the cauli, tomatoes, and zucchini are finely chopped, mixed with nearly undetectable  bits of tempeh bacon, and stirred up with a Chao- and nooch-based cheesy sauce. In fact, I wouldn’t even call it a sauce, because it was indiscernible from the rest of the dish’s elements (as I’m sure is obvious from the photo).

To be fair, it all tasted pretty good (if a bit overly herby). The Beyond Meat meatballs were tender and flavorful, and the asparagus was cooked just right. But to call this a mac and cheese is, frankly, absurd. Call it a stew, maybe, or a cauliflower “rice” dish, but not mac and cheese. It irks me that Silver Diner is presenting this as a vegan take on mac and cheese when our mac and cheeses are not generally pasta-free! If any curious omnivore were to order this, I fear they’d be quite disappointed. It felt like a dish that just wasn’t well conceptualized. Why are there meatballs served on top?! That’s not a feature of mac and cheese. Nor are roasted tomatoes. It’s just bizarre.

On the bright side, the side of fries we ordered for the table to share were absolute perfection, the perfect combo of crispy, salty, slightly herby goodness, and my dining companions enjoyed their dishes (Beyond Burgers and Just Egg Benedicts). And afterward, we got to hang out with Maggie: always a good time.

Bits ‘n Bobs ‘n Buffalo Cauliflower

Hello, hello, hello!

While I haven’t exactly missed the daily MoFo blogging, I have missed feeling connected to my blogger pals. All the more incentive to keep up a semi-regular posting schedule, right?! (It also doesn’t hurt that I’m still catching up on MoFo posts, yikes.) And so: My first foray into non-MoFo casual diary-style blogging. It feels weird. I still feel like I need a “point” to my posts, a recipe to share or a restaurant to review. And I do have a few of those in the works: an extremely overdue post about my trip to Copenhagen last March (!!!), a review of a vegan-friendly local diner, etc. But for now, something much simpler. :)

We kicked off September with Labor Day weekend. Three-day weekends are just so magical! I had a pretty great one, full of fun knitting and good food and a nice solo hike, where I spotted this tree with a little heart motif. I agree, tree. I heart being outdoors too. On Sunday morning I whipped up a tasty (if monotone) breakfast: tofu scramble, home fries, and a kiwi. It’s much healthier than that bland palette suggests! I used this tofuevos recipe, which is my absolute favorite bare-bones (i.e., no veggies) scram. I always reduce the soy sauce, though, because two tablespoons is just too much. A half tablespoon is perfect, plus a little sprinkling of black salt for some eggy flavor.

What else, what else… I haven’t been photographing my dinners, partially because MoFo is over but also because the sun is setting earlier. :( Ugh, autumn. Please stay away! I did snap a quick pic of this buffalo cauliflower and tofu I made last night. I used Chocolate Covered Katie’s baked buffalo cauliflower recipe as a template, with some modifications: I doubled the cauliflower to a whole head, added a block of pressed firm tofu, and switched up the sauce a bit (1/3 cup of Frank’s Red Hot plus two tablespoons of vegan butter). It was spicy enough for me! I served it with some homemade vegan ranch and fresh raw veggies. (About that vegan ranch: It’s mayo-based and so simple! I omitted the raw garlic and instead used a few cloves from this amaaazing garlic confit I made last weekend.) This is a dinner that feels indulgent but is actually decently healthy, with lots of protein (half a block per person!) and plenty of veggies (~half a head of cauliflower, plus pepper and carrots on the side). Yes, please.

I’ve also been enjoying the fruits (…veggies…) of my gardening labor, as I mentioned in my recent MoFo post. Today I picked a couple handfuls of cherry tomatoes, a few carrots, and LOTS of those fun little sour gherkins. So colorful! The tomatoes went right into a panzanella salad, along with some rosemary-garlic sourdough squares, basil, green pepper, and a garlic-lemon dressing.

And finally, here’s a sweet shot of Maggie (formerly Margaret), a hound mix we fostered for six months (!) last year. She was adopted by our close friends about six months ago, which is amazing: She gets spoiled to within an inch of her life by our friends, and we get to see her frequently! We hung out with Maggie and her canine and feline brothers on Saturday night while celebrating our friend Rachel’s birthday, so we made sure to snag some cuddle time on the couch. This girl is incredibly sweet and goofy, and it’s absolutely wonderful to see her enjoying life in her forever home. <3

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