Thursday, September 25, 2014

Homemade alcohol-free relaxing "beer"

Recently Sarah went on an antibiotic that means she can't drink any alcohol for a while. She is also on a no-sugar kick, so even if it was any good (it's not) fake beer isn't ideal given the malt. It's not the end of the world, but a beer sure is nice at the end of a difficult day, so I figured it was worth trying to see if I could come up with a reasonable replacement. The goals I had were:
1. Good taste
2. As beer-tasting as possible, especially on the hop side (as Sarah likes super-hoppy IPAs)
3. Actually relaxing (not just beer-flavored)
4. Ideally looks / feels kind of like beer too (carbonated and in the yellow-orange family)

Here is the most recent version (iteration 3, with many more likely to come) of the "recipe" I came up with:
1/4 cup dried whole hop flowers (I actually didn't have pure hops so I used a homemade blend of relaxing tea with hops, skullcap, chamomile, and a few other things)
Skullcap extract (I happened to have some we weren't using we got from Mom)
Club soda
1/8 tsp Truvia fake sugar
optional: Angostura bitters or orange bitters (note: these are alcoholic so I used a very small amount, see below)

I start by adding the hops / herbs to ~1 cup of water, bring it to a boil (in the microwave thus far), then remove from heat and let it steep for 15 minutes. I strain the herbs out and end up with about 3/4 cup of tea. Boil this (I put the tea in a glass measuring cup in the microwave) until it is reduced by half (halfway between 1/4 and 1/2 cup). Note that the tea gets a bit frothy as it boils so be sure to use a 2-cup measure or just closely watch it to prevent spillage. Once it is reduced, you will have an intensely bitter / hoppy flavor essence for the base of your beer. Stick it in the freezer or fridge until cool (earlier attempts used ~ 1 shot of tea so the heat wouldn't make the overall beer warm, but this is way better).

Remove the cool hoppy tea from the fridge, add ~ 1 dropper of skullcap and the Truvia and stir until it dissolves. Pour into a pint glass and add 12 oz club soda. Optional: if you want more complex flavor and a darker color, add no more than 10mL orange bitters or 5mL Angostura original (Gentian) bitters. The original bitters add a nice color as shown above, and great flavor, but it is 58% alcohol so it's important to not use much. The nice frothy head goes away fairly quickly, but regardless you end up with a drink that is carbonated, hoppy and bitter (but not too bitter thanks to the Truvia), and relaxes the hell out of you (hops is a soporific that helps you feel sleepy, skullcap in a nervine that makes you generally relaxed).

It's not a true substitute for alcohol, but it's a pretty tasty, pleasant, and relaxing beverage, and I highly recommend it for anyone looking to avoid or minimize alcohol but who enjoys beer.

Monday, June 16, 2014

On biking to work - part 1

Sarah n' bike

As an adult, the first job I ever biked to was just two relatively flat miles from my house.  I avoided biking when it rained or when it was cold, and I usually just wore my work clothes since I didn't work up too much of a sweat on the way.  In any case a shower was definitely not required, which reduced the complexity of my bike commute considerably.  I'd throw on my backpack to hold my wallet, lunch, and bike lock, and I was good to go.

When I started looking for a new job, I actually only looked within a 5 mile radius specifically because I didn't want to have to bike any further!  Luckily, by that time my radius was pretty close to the city and I was able to find something just at the five mile mark.  My new workplace had a shower - another requirement I'd had for any new job; and during D.C. summers, you really do want to shower after biking five miles.

Since my new ride was much more urban, I had to contend with cars turning suddenly in front of me, delivery trucks parked in the bike lane, cars stopping & turning without warning, and the worst fear of all - the fear of getting doored.  I'd heard awful, horrible stories about this - where someone opens their car door a half a second before you get there, and with no time to react, you slam into the door full speed, possibly flipping over it, possibly getting thrown into oncoming traffic.  Many things can happen - all bad.  Although in some cases the cyclist can't do much of anything, it's always a good idea to check your brake pads to make sure they're good and thick.  Once they get worn down they provide MUCH less stopping power.  I speak from personal experience as a person who let her brakes get too worn down.  It's really surprising how much quicker you can stop with new brake pads.

I started out carrying my toiletries bag, towel, work clothes and shoes in a backpack.  There was a special bike cage in the parking garage, which was awesome.  One major drawback was my clothes still felt damp after hanging in a locker all day.  There was almost no air circulation, even though I left the locker door open.  Only one piece of clothing - my towel in this case - could be slung over the door of the locker.  I had a cubicle so I couldn't hang my clothes in my office.

I started getting back problems and wondered if it had something to do with carrying stuff on my back instead of in a pannier (a bag that can attach to a rear bike rack).  I went ahead and invested in a rear bike rack, and some slim black Trek bags to carry my gear.  The Trek bags were the cheapest bags in the store, which is why I decided on them.  This decision would come back to haunt me later.

At some point during one work day, the cleaning staff of the women's locker room actually threw away my towel and my expensive REI base layer (okay, slightly less expensive because I'd bought the children's size to save money, but still!).  You can replace a base layer, but that towel was the perfect size and thickness to bring to the gym.  It had worn down enough that it dried really fast, but still had enough wicking power to get the job done.  I was really mad, especially since now I had to close and lock the locker, and there was no chance of my gear getting even slightly dry during the day.

Various things happened, such as:

-Building management threw away my  hair drier I'd left plugged in in the locker room "for legal reasons", even though I'd taped up a sign next to it that said "use at own risk" specifically so they wouldn't remove it "for legal reasons".

-One day the showers only gave out cold water.  I skipped showering that day.

-Building management got a towel service for the locker rooms.  It was awesome, but I'll never forget you perfect towel!

-A woman from my company's upper management showed up in the locker room out of the blue one morning.  You really cannot see management naked or in any state of disrobe ever.  I can't stress this enough, it's just too weird.  Hide in a shower stall or bathroom stall for the next 45 minutes.  You can thank me later.

-I got an office, with a door! I brought in some hangars and hung my clothes behind the door.  They finally got dry during the day.

-I learned how to bike over small patches of ice.  Beats small patches of sand, for sure!

-I went from being a white-knuckled, granny-paced, hyper-vigilant stress ball to actually enjoying myself.

For some reason, when you bike five miles to work, even though you have some evil hills to conquer on the way, no one will be impressed when you say "five miles".  Lie, lie like a rug.  Get some street cred.  Just tell them how long it takes you, and that will sound better.

I'm tired, so that's about all for today.  Next up - how I was betrayed by cheap panniers, the desperate cyclists' commute, winter bike commuting, and more...

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Mojito Cupcakes

When I saw fresh mint at the farmer's market this past weekend, I knew it was time to make some mojito cupcakes. I got the recipe a few years ago from Vegan YumYum, (who in turn modified the vanilla cupcake recipe from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World), although I make the frosting with a lot of extra rum. These are the best. Here's how it goes.

First you infuse some fresh spearmint in soy milk:
Mojito cupcakes

Then you add lime juice and rum to curdle it, and cream with sugar:
Mojito cupcakes

The lime zest goes in with the dry ingredients:
Mojito cupcakes
As usual it all gets mixed together and baked, then topped with frosting once cool. Here's how I do the frosting:
1/3 cup nonhydrogenated margarine (I use Earth Balance)
1/3 cup nonhydrogenated shortening (I use Whole Foods brand)
3.5 cups confectioner’s sugar (you may need more)
3 Tbsp dark rum (I use Barbancourt 5 star)
1 Tbsp lime juice

Beat the shortening and margarine together until well combined and fluffy.  Add the sugar and beat well until thoroughly combined (if too dry, start adding the rum and lime juice, but don’t add liquid all at once or it will splash).  Add the rum and lime juice and beat a few more minutes.  If too runny, add more powdered sugar.  Add to the cooled cupcakes and garnish with a fresh mint leaf (add the mint leaves right before serving so they don’t wilt). I like to drip a little bit of extra rum into the icing right before serving so you get that volatile rum aroma when it comes up to your nose. The result: Mojito cupcakes

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Jurassic Park-ty Food / Costumes

When our friend Riley told us he was having a Jurassic Park themed birthday party, we were overwhelmed with ideas to help make it memorable and excellent. Little plastic mosquitoes frozen in pale juice amber? Make a tray for drinks, tape a cell phone to the bottom that is set up to periodically vibrate to make the ripples in the drinks?

It was clear that guests and hosts were going to go all out with costumes, decorations, etc (see the evidence here) so we wanted to do our part. We watched the movie to get more ideas, and in the end decided to do fossil cookie excavation (from the early scenes in the desert) and a cake for the front gate to jurassic park (so we'd have an excuse to incorporate flame). We also made some little dino side dishes from a special effects cookbook we had, a little stegosaurus avocado to go with chips, and an apatosaurus watermelon bowl.

For the fossil cookies, Sarah made a custom dinosaur footprint cookie cutter by cutting up an old catering tray we had:
Homemade Dinosaur Footprint Cookie Cutter

We also made some bone cookies (from a dog bone cutter we had), one person cookie , and then I hand cut a trilobite and a t-rex skull:
Trilobite and dino skull fossil cookies

The fun part was that we then laid out the cookies on a tray, covered
them with cinnamon sugar, and dusted a bit of cocoa on top for color
(so it looked like dirt and sand), and left a little brush on top of
the whole thing to excavate the cookies:

For the cake, since a gate isn't that cool looking, we wanted to add a sound and motion component as well as the flame (we'd done flaming sugar cubes before in other cakes). I found a talking horse birthday card where you could record your own audio and the horse would play the audio while his mouth opened and closed. So here's the plain ol' boring cake before being lit and opened: Jurassic Park Gate Cake

And here's the reveal where we light it and see what's inside:

In the light the roaring looks like this:

We also made a fruit bowl out of a watermelon and cucumbers (it looked better earlier before the legs collapsed as the toothpicks cut into the cucumber), and a stegosaurus out of avocado:
Dino fruit bowl & avocado stegosaurus

The other really serious effort went into Sarah's costume. We didn't want to buy anything, so I just wore a Mexican wrestling mask I had and went as a dinosaur, and Sarah wore a lab coat I had to be a scientist. But she really wanted to be a dinosaur geneticist, so she made this baby dinosaur out of a glass vase, paper mache, duct tape, foil, and brilliance:
Sarah making baby dino bursting from egg

Here is what we looked like at the actual party: El Raptor w/ Scientist

I can't stress enough how fantastic everyone else's costumes and decorations were, you can see more pictures from the party, and there were people dressed as virtually every character, isla nublar beer, dino egg party favors, inflatable dinosaurs, dino kites, test tubes to drink out of, and the list goes on and on. Here is one example of some of the excellent costumes (man on safari being eaten by tiny dinosaurs, triceratops in cocktail dress, and lawyer who got eaten):
Elegant Triceratops w/ Man being devoured by tiny dinosaurs

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Cabin, Hiking, and Recipe Planning

We took a few days off to go hiking a few weeks back, and I was quite proud of my recipe planning.  I looked up all the spices for each recipe, at what point they got added to the recipe (to keep those separate), and put them in teeny tiny adorable tupperwares, which I then labeled.  I also measured out the olive oil we'd need and put that in a small jar.  Later, I'll get to all the critical items I forgot.  But for now - let's just admire the cabin.

Below is the cabin we stayed in.  Jon googled and googled until he found a dog friendly place with a fireplace AND a hot tub.  We adored that hot tub.  Perhaps a bit too much, more on that later.

View of cabin from front

On our very first day, we decided to take the short way on forest service roads to a hike.  At first there was occasional patches of snow, then more snow, then deeper snow, until we got totally stuck.   It took us a good 45 minutes of shoveling, dragging our boots across the snow like tiny snow plows, stomping it down with our feet, breaking up twigs and putting them in the path of the wheels, but eventually we made a three point turn on a one lane road in 5 inches of snow with a Dodge Neon.  And we are still married.  In fact, we didn't fight ONE BIT about that!  No, instead we fought over getting the last beans out of a can which were stuck to the bottom while preparing dinner.  Yes, that is what we fought about.  Pro marriage tip: feel free to drive up any narrow snowy mountain roads with a wildly inadequate vehicle.  But avoid westbrae chili beans, they stick to the bottom of the can.

Most of the hikes were on the snowy side, which is harder than normal hiking, because you slide around more on slopes, and it's a little more challenging to walk when your boots are sinking in with each footstep.  The dog agreed, even she walked in the existing bootprints!

One great thing about hiking in the snow was the place was deserted.  We saw no sign of anyone, except for the boot prints of some long gone hiker and many animal tracks (we are so not Teal'c*, we had no idea what made any of the tracks except for the deer and rabbit tracks).

Sarah & Leeta on High falls trail

Note the impending stream crossing, where I will winge and wobble and frantically grasp for Jon's hand.  It's really not a feminist moment.  I actually bought a balance board, which is a device you use to practice balance on, in response to my less than admirable behavior during stream crossings.

Another great bonus of hiking in early March: frozen waterfalls.

"Ice beard" frozen waterfall

These were plentiful on the Otter creek trail.  So were sketchy icy scary parts, and hand holding.  Jon was very accommodating.

Another hike, High Falls trail, had amazing views.  Here's a picture of a majestic, many-hued, stunning landscape that looks like utter crap in the photo.  I can't stress enough how this landscape could bring a tear of joy to your eye, make you believe in a higher power, and make a mental note to learn watercolor painting so you can return and capture it's true essence.  Yet once translated into pixels...well, you see what I mean.

High falls trail

Here's the kitchen, where we cooked like gangbusters:
Kitchen and gas fireplace / heater

Now, onto lessons learned.  One of the meals I'd planned was tacos.  We had recently purchased a bag of Beyond Meat's new burger crumbles, feisty flavor.  (Who was in the focus group for that name?)  Anyhow, I totally forgot to bring them, tacos.  I also planned a thai coconut vegetable curry...and forgot rice.  I'd planned to make biscuits but forgot ground flax seeds for the egg.  However, despite my screw ups, we actually still ended up having too much food somehow.

In a non-food related lesson, 7 hot tub trips in 4 days is one too many.  My skin became really raw and red and dry.  I had no lotion, but we did have warming massage oil, so I tried that instead.  Don't ever put warming massage oil on red irritated skin.  It's a bad, bad mistake that will result in an immediate desperate shower, which will hurt also.

Finally, hiking in the snow is awesome, and I totally want to do it again.  It's gorgeous, peaceful, relaxing, and it you have a dog, especially nice, because they love snow so much, and you get to watch them bound around happily.

*Sci-fi reference

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

24-Course vegan dinner at Rogue 24

Last night I had a 24 course dinner. It took about 4 hours. It was fancy. It was incredible. Here's how it went down. You can see the full size pics at

Before bringing out the food, we were seated right next to the open kitchen. We were the first people to arrive, so we had 9 people entirely working for us, which was pretty cool.

Courses 1-5:

Clockwise from right:
Compressed cucumber w/ lime & mini pickles, rice puff with carrot tops and carrot gel, fried beet tangle, celery root raw ravioli with sunflower seed "cream" and celery powder, and vegan mozzarella balls with tomato powder.

The balls were very good, they had an odd texture (almost like a donut hole on the outside) but great flavor. The ravioli were delicate and pleasant, the beet tangle was rich and crunchy and delicious, the rice puffs were tasty in a fun and odd way, and the cucumber was good but unsurprising.

Course 6:
Globe artichoke w/ Meyer lemon, eggplant puree,fermented garlic, dried kale and vegan parmesan.

This was an incredible dish, a flawlessly executed take on a classic combo (artichoke / lemon) with a few nice twists (the eggplant / fermented garlic / kale).

Course 7:
"Peas and carrots:" Fried thinly shaved carrots, carrot powder, carrot tops, peas, pea puree, and blood orange truffle gel.

This was a very creative reinterpretation of another classic pairing, I liked it (especially the texture of the fried carrots) but not my favorite.

Course 8:

Avocado cream w/ three seaweeds, lime, espelette, and chili powder.

The avocado cream was just amazing, and although I generally don't like the texture or flavor of seaweed, these had a relatively muted flavor and the avocado complemented them perfectly. This was probably the dish that most surprised me in terms of how much I liked it relative to what I was expecting.

Course 9:
Aerated cauliflower soup w/ seared cauliflower, almond "crouton", compressed granny smith apple, pumpkin seed, and pink peppercorn.

The texture of the soup and crumble were very strange and I found this dish a bit on the bizarre and jarring side. Out of the entire dish, I got one bite near the end that happened to include the right balance of all components and it was great. The chef suggested that I should play with my food more before eating other dishes to address this.

Course 10:
Vegan ricotta w/ roasted peppers, honeycrisp, honeycomb, and smoked applewood powder.

The chef had mistakenly listed the avocado dish twice, so he had to make this one up on the spot, but it was just incredible (one of my favorites). He used Tofutti ricotta as a base (which is usually gross), somehow overcame that, and the balance of the ricotta, chile, smoke, and honey was divine. The textural diversity of the crispy / crumbly / creamy / chewy components was another major plus. He asked when I made the reservation if I ate honey or not, and checked again before serving it.

Course 11:
 Alliums w/ New Zealand spinach

This was another favorite dish of mine despite being relatively simple. It was roasted shallots, onion crisps (super thin crispy flakes made from powdered onion), grilled spring onions, and charred onion powder, accompanies by small dollops of vegan creamed spinach.

Course 12:
Roasted salsify in ash with beach herbs

I'd never had salsify before, so it was hard to tell how much of the complex flavor was innate to the root and how much came from flavors he added. But this seemed like the simplest dish of the night: a roasted salted root with a nice light fresh herb. Tasty and interesting, but not amazing.

Course 13:
I forgot to photograph this one, but it was one of my favorites: sunchokes with roasted onion over a pine nut crumble (similar to a shortbread cookie or biscotti) with red watercress and sea grass.

Course 14:

 La ratte potato sphere with olive oil & tarragon

This was the only dish that was surprising enough to actually startle me. He told us to eat it in one bite, and in my mouth it "popped" in a way I wasn't expecting (it seems like the interior was pressurized). The flavor was good, but I couldn't totally get behind the texture which I found a bit gelatinous.

Course 15:
I can't quite recall what the crumble underneath the broccoli was, but it was an excellent combo. This was about the best broccoli I've ever had.

Course 16:
Buckwheat gnocchi w/ ginger-black miso broth, charred onion shoots, and date jam.

This was a magnificent dish. It felt relatively simple like comfort food, but again just perfectly executed. The broth was flavorful and somewhat sweet, the gnocchi had a lovely texture and gentle nutty flavor, and the jam and onion provided a nice counterpoint to the rest of the rich base flavors

Course 17:
Lightly seared squash w/ kumquat jelly and curry

This was another dish that surprised me with how well balanced it was. There was just a hint of char which faded into background notes when you ate it with the rest of the roasted squash and jelly. It didn't taste "burned" at all, and made me realize I need to step up my game when winter squash season hits next time!

Course 18:

Winter mushrooms w/ forest moss, "snow", and pine oil

This dish didn't really come together for me. The mushrooms were a bit on the bland and rubbery side, and while the other textures and flavors were interesting this was just OK to me overall.

Course 19:
Black lentils w/ roasted turnip and pear, carrots, etc.

I don't know what all of the flavors in this dish were, but it was another favorite. One of the big chunks shown is pear, the other is turnip. The lentils had a marvelous creamy texture and intensely rich and complex flavor I couldn't identify but really enjoyed.

Course 20:

Vermicelli with toasted grains (oats / farro) in toasted grain broth

The sweet potato / starch noodles had a good flavor, but I found the broth to be too salty and I didn't really like the flavor that much either. This was my least favorite dish, although it was tough to follow the black lentils.

Course 21:
Coconut-yuzu sorbet w coconut "snow," black sesame paste, and yuzu gel

I think the coconut "sorbet" (much thicker / firmer than sorbet usually is but I don't know what else to call it) also had yuzu (a kind of citrus) in it along with the side of yuzu gel. The coconut / yuzu / black sesame was a great flavor combo, and this was also a fun mix of textures.

Course 22:
Chocolate "rocks" filled with sorbet and chocolate mousse, w/ dark chocolate threads and strawberry balsamic reduction

One of the rocks had a strawberry balsamic sorbet, the other two had a very light and fluffy chocolate mousse. The reduction paired perfectly with the dark chocolate (~75-80% cacao). All of the desserts were excellent but this was my favorite.

Course 23:
Peanut butter "sandwich"

This was peanut sorbet served with thin peanut brittle, brown sugar crumble, and concord jam. It was very good, although I felt more emphasis was placed on texture as the flavors were relatively straightforward (just peanut / grape / brown sugar).

Course 24:
"Happy endings" aka "little things" or "small bites."

All wonderful, although the chocolate ones were a bit on the oily side so they quickly melted in my fingers. From bottom/right to top/left: jellied passion fruit, chocolate orange truffle, white chocolate w/ something I forget (but I loved it despite not usually liking white chocolate), complex crisp of huckleberry and blackberry, and chocolate peppermint meltaway. A delicious cap to a 24 course meal (this box counts as one course)!

I was surprised that in over a year of offering a vegan meal, only 7 people had actually ordered one (it does take a week's advance notice, but still).Overall, I would recommend Rogue 24 without hesitation to anyone. Of 24 dishes 10 really impressed and delighted me, 3 I didn't like much (but none were bad and I ate them all), and the other 11 were still very good. I would not go for the wine / beer pairing again (it cost almost as much as the food and was not nearly as enjoyable), and it's pricey enough ($125) that it's certainly not something I'd do often, but I certainly enjoyed the meal a lot more than a night at a decent hotel somewhere!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Homemade Cinnamon-Pecan Praline Vegan Ice Cream

It turns out good vegan ice cream isn't terribly hard to make at home if you have a Vitamix. We came up with this recipe by tweaking one that comes with the Vitamix cookbook. Their version is also based on nuts, but they use water instead of soy milk, and their version is good fresh but freezes into solid ice if you don't finish it right away. Our version can be eaten fresh (~soft serve texture) or frozen and just set out for a few minutes before serving. Here's the recipe, with pics of each step along the way:

Pecan praline coating:
¾ cup pecans, chopped
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp cinnamon
1 Tbsp margarine
1 Tbsp brown sugar

Ice cream:
1 cup pecans, chopped
3 cup vanilla soy milk, frozen into cubes
½ cup vanilla soy milk, chilled
¼ cup maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla
1 Tbsp dark rum
1 tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp salt

At least 4 hours before making your ice cream, freeze 3 cups of the vanilla soy milk (I do it the night before). Also, dry roast all of the pecans in a skillet until fragrant and golden (be careful not to let them burn). Set aside 1 cup of the pecans and freeze them. Put the rest of the pecans in a bowl, and keeping the skillet hot, melt the margarine. Add the salt, cinnamon, and brown sugar and mix well, followed by the pecans. Keep stirring until the pecans are coated, and the coating has mostly dried and crystallized onto the pecans. Set aside (separately from the 1 cup of plain pecans).

Once the cubes have frozen hard (they should be totally dry), add all of the ingredients listed under “ice cream” (except the frozen cubes of soy milk) to your Vitamix (please don’t try this in a normal blender; it will likely break). Chip the cubes out of the ice cube tray (mine always stick pretty badly) and add them to the Vitamix. Select variable 1, turn the machine on, and quickly increase to 10 and switch it to “high.” Use the tamper to press all of the ingredients down into the blades. Wait ~30-60 seconds for the sound of the motor to change and four mounds to form. Be sure not to overmix or it will melt extra. Pour into a bowl, fold in the praline pecans, and freeze.

Note that I made this recipe with the intent of freezing it after you make it and having it still be good. You could reduce the rum and liquid soy milk if you wanted to eat it right away, which will make it firmer up front.

Here are pics of each step:
I find that using a silicon ice cube tray (in this case, a gummi bear shaped one) prevents the frozen soy milk from sticking to the tray.

Note that the tray always ends up with some soy milk in it, and I have to use a knife to chip them out.

This shows the texture of the ice cream when it comes out of the Vitamix, it is definitely on the soft side due to the rum / salt / soy milk.

This is the cinnamon pecan praline awaiting being stirred into the ice cream prior to being frozen, and the finally eaten!