Anything you want (vegan), you got it

Last weekend I attended Death of a Cruel Delicacy: A Farewell to Foie Gras Soirée to benefit Harvest Home Sanctuary. Aside from being for a great cause, the spread of food was incredible. Among the offerings were cookies, crème filled cupcakes, Field Roast Sausages, gardein tenders, chocolate galore, and the list goes on and on.

One of the biggest hits of the evening though was the black lumpfish Cavi*art. Yes, vegan caviar. Made with seaweed, Cavi*art has a glossy color and a taste of the sea. I’ve never eaten caviar, but I was told that it tastes very much like the real thing. Since it’s made from seaweed, Cavi*art is cholesterol-free and it doesn’t contribute to the depletion of fish and marine life. And it doesn’t have the ick factor of being fish eggs.

Guests were sent home with a hefty goody bag from sponsors. Mine contained a Go Max Mahalo bar—essentially a vegan Almond Joy, but made with rice milk chocolate instead of dairy milk chocolate. My husband got a Go Max Twilight bar, strikingly similar to a Milky Way.

What occurred to me on this night as I waddled home is that you can be vegan and have (almost) anything you want. There’s Faux Gras instead of its cruel counterpart foie gras; vegan shrimp, crab and even vegan calamari.

Some people question why a vegan would want to eat foods that taste like or resemble their fleshy counterparts. Surely, a whole foods plant-based diet is healthier, but many people don’t go vegan for their health. Some still love the taste of the meaty foods they grew up eating, but don’t want to contribute to factory farming, overfishing, and the other travesties that we contribute to by supporting animal agribusiness. Whatever category you fall into, the truth is that these days more than ever, anything you want, you can have it vegan.

Watermelon radish and Jerusalem artichokes

We had company last week so we had no choice but to sample from all the wonderful restaurants offering vegan food in the San Francisco Bay Area. This week I’m returning to the kitchen. We had some root vegetables from our CSA that we needed to use, so tonight’s meal consisted red daikon, carrots, and sunchokes roasted along with leeks paired with lima beans and barbecue tofu. The roasted vegetables were doused with a few drops of olive oil and sprinkled with a twist of salt and a pinch of herbes de Provence.

Red daikon (or watermelon radish) is native to China. On the outside it resembles a turnip with a white and green skin. Cut open, it reveals a beautiful magenta heart. Sunchokes, also known as Jerusalem artichokes, are easy to mistake for ginger root. Knobby and brown in color, sunchokes are the tuber of a variety of sunflower. When cooked, they have the consistency of a potato, but are much sweeter and nuttier in flavor.

The tofu came from Tofu Yu, an “artisan soy beanery” located in Berkeley. I picked mine up at the Grand Lake farmers’ market. They also sell at Whole Foods and other farmers’ markets in the Bay Area. Aside from tofu, Tofu Yu offers a wide variety of vegan soy-based products. Every one that I’ve sampled has been remarkable. Basted with a tad of Annie’s Organic Barbecue Sauce and heated for 10 minutes, their hickory smoked tofu rounded the meal out nicely. The meal was easy, with just a few minutes of active time spent chopping, sprinkling, and shoving things into the oven. It turned out quite delicious–and with very little effort.

Walking the walk

I’m not a connoisseur by any means, but I do enjoy a glass of wine with my dinner. My ideal night is to make dinner then enjoy it with a glass (or two) of red wine. I can’t think of a better way to unwind. Drinking a few bottles of wine a week can add up. For years to address that conundrum we’d enjoy the fine wine also known as “Two Buck Chuck.” (I may have mentioned I’m not discerning when it comes to wine).

In recent years my eyes have been opened up more and more toward the plight of farm workers—you know, the people who pick the food we eat. I had no idea that many of the federal labor laws in place to protect workers’ rights specifically exempt farm workers. According to a report (PDF) compiled by Bon Appétit Management Company and the United Farm Workers, “Agricultural workers are excluded from the protections of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and are exempt from many protections under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) as well as many state protections.” What this means is that the people picking our fruits and vegetables are often subject to miserable working conditions like toiling in extreme weather conditions without rest breaks, receiving no overtime pay for working exceptionally long hours, being paid paltry sums for their backbreaking labor, and more. The more I learned about this, the more I realized I needed to take personal responsibility to ensure I wasn’t supporting abuses to these workers. Part of that is supporting fair trade goods. But as I’ve come to realize, conventionally produced foods that have been treated with pesticides have implications on workers too.

It can be hard though. Like anyone, I’m guilty of experiencing sticker shock and balking at paying the price for organic foods. For example, when I see a can of organic beans beside a can of conventional beans, I’ve had to remind myself that it’s worth it to shell out the extra $.50 to ensure my food wasn’t doused with pesticides.

Wine, however, was something that I just never really thought about. One day this summer though, I saw an article about grape pickers in Napa County who had been rushed to the hospital after being exposed to pesticides. They were experiencing difficulty breathing. The light bulb went off and it occurred to me then that choosing organic is not just good for my own health and for the planet, but of course it’s also better for the workers who spend countless hours in the fields picking our food. When we choose conventionally-produced wines (and other products) that have been treated with pesticides, we might be getting a less expensive product, but in the end, someone is paying the price.

This week, a friend came to town to visit and on our list of things to do in the Bay Area was to visit some local wineries. We spent Sunday afternoon experiencing what Sonoma County is best known for: its decadent wines. A little research yielded several wineries that don’t use pesticides. We visited two of them: Cline and Bartholomew Park. The former is not certified organic; the latter has been since 2005. The wines were delicious, we had a wonderful time and got a few bottles for the road. And we took pride in knowing that while we may have paid a little more for the wine, it was well worth it in the end.

Ask and ye shall receive

Have you ever passed a local café or restaurant and thought, I’d love to eat there if only they had [insert fantasy meal]? Well sometimes all you have to do is ask. I’ll admit that it’s not always that easy, but sometimes making your dreams come true is really as simple as planting a seed.

This summer I stopped into Zachary’s, a local pizza chain that’s always bustling, to inquire about vegan options. They had a vegan whole wheat crust and one could order the pizzas with tomato sauce and vegetables. But who wants a deep dish pizza without cheese? I asked about offering vegan cheese, provided some ideas for cheeses and even where they could find them (some of the country’s largest distributors now carry them). Then I promptly forgot about it. So I was very pleasantly surprised last week when I received an email from the chain informing me that it is now carrying vegan pizza with Daiya vegan cheese at all three of its locations. In an instant I became a hero in my community. Apparently, I’m not the only one who asked for it either.

I really had no choice but to go eat there that very night. Zachary’s did not disappoint. If you’ve never tried deep dish pizza, you haven’t lived. I’m a big fan of carbs. This pizza has a thick, flaky, buttery crust (made with vegan margarine of course), delicious homemade tomato sauce, and a thick layer of melty vegan cheese. One slice in and you’re full. But you can’t stop there. I’ll definitely be back and will spread the word far and wide.

It’s one thing to get restaurants to offer your favorite vegan options; another altogether to get them to keep them on the menu. To ensure the success of these vegan options we have to support the businesses that make them possible. Unfortunately there are only so many times I can eat vegan pizza. That’s why I’m encouraging those of you in the San Francisco Bay Area (or those of you lucky enough to visit) to run, don’t walk, to Zachary’s.

I don’t mean to oversimplify things. I have had an experience before when I’ve talked to a local restaurateur who told me they were adding an item per my request. Then I visited repeatedly to order said item only to find that either they never really offered it or didn’t explain to employees the availability of it, making the experiment a grand failure.

The bottom line is that you shouldn’t be afraid to ask. After all, your efforts may be  rewarded deliciously.

A reason to celebrate

Not that we really need a reason to celebrate, but 2012 will be the year of the duck. And the goose. At least in California. You see, next July after a long eight-year phase out, the sale and production of foie gras, French for fatty liver, will be illegal in the state. Violators of the law could be fined up to a thousand dollars a day. What could possibly be so wrong with a food product that it would be outlawed in an entire state?

Foie gras has been called one of the cruelest forms of animal agriculture. Ducks and geese raised to produce foie gras are force-fed via a tube shoved down their throats. This force-feeding takes place several times a day until the birds’ livers have swollen up to ten times their normal size. The resulting condition, hepatic lipidosis, is literally a diseased liver. Undercover exposés have documented birds whose organs have become so enlarged they’ve ruptured completely. Some have had their throats torn by the pipes.

Photo from Hudson Valley Foie Gras (c) Animal Protection and Rescue League

To celebrate the demise of this so-called delicacy in California, Harvest Home Animal Sanctuary is giving foie gras a hearty send-off this weekend. A volunteer is hosting Death of a Cruel Delicacy: A Farewell to Foie Gras Soirée which will feature an incredible array of vegan appetizers and desserts. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, or will happen to be there this weekend, come celebrate this joyous occasion with us. At the event, you can:

  • Help raise funds for Harvest Home Sanctuary’s animal healthcare fund;
  • Enjoy seasonal vegan appetizers, specialty beer and cider;
  • View original photography of the sanctuary’s ducks;
  • Donate vegan food to support the Emergency Food Bank of Stockton/San Joaquin and be entered to win a free Harvest Home t-shirt;
  • Receive a free holiday goodie bag;
  • Bid on silent auction items like jewelry, clothing, artwork, gift certificates, sanctuary greeting card sets, and a sanctuary vegan dinner for four;
  • See a short film of Harvest Home’s rescue work;
  • And join a game of Harvest Home Trivial Pursuit.

Space is limited. Purchase tickets in advance online here. Hope to see you there!