Sunday, April 25, 2010

Good Times at Eat Mobile,
Portland's Food Cart Festival!

I am extremely envious of PDX vegans. Yesterday I learned that there are some 500 food carts in Portland. I find that astounding, and I couldn't quite wrap my brain around that figure. But according to Oregon Business, as of January 2010, there were 461 mobile food carts registered in Multnomah County, with 33 applications pending. And lots more have sprouted up since then. Many of these delightful little bargain eating establishments are super vegan-friendly, and a dozen or more are completely vegan. Portland's food cart businesses are so ubiquitous and have become such a large part of Portland's food scene, that there's even a entire blog devoted to this gastronomic subculture and an annual Food Cart Festival sponsored by Willamette Week.

Well, living in Eugene does have its privileges. I am only a two-hour drive from Portland, where the International Assocation of Culinary Professionals Conference was held this past week. Vegan chef goddesses Fran Costigan, Bryanna Clark Grogan, and Julie Hasson were in attendance, and as part of the conference, were invited to attend the Food Cart Festival. So when Fran said she was coming to Portland, I was excited to have the chance to see my longtime friend, and when she mentioned the Food Cart Festival, I thought it sounded like great fun!

But fun doesn't even begin to describe this culinary adventure. After Fran introduced me to Bryanna and Julie, we set out by foot to find the festival, which was taking place beneath the Morrison Street Bridge. It took us a bit of a while to figure out that it was on the east side of the bridge, so we walked quite a way (roundabout, I might add—as we were searching for it), 'til we found it. The weather was gloriously sunny with a bit of a crisp chill in the air that felt considerably warmer as we walked over the Morrison Street Bridge.

When we arrived, there were very few people there yet, as IACP attendees were given a one-hour advance opportunity to enjoy all the offerings before the 1,200 plus ticket-holders were admitted. So we scurried around sampling all the vegan goodies we could get our hands on before the floodgates opened. Here you can see Julie with hands full of yumminess.

Julie and husband Jay recently opened their own food cart, Native Bowl, which features healthy vegan fast food made from scratch. The entire menu sounds enticing, and I cannot wait to try her Couch Bowl made with grilled tofu, sesame bean sprouts, Kochujang sweet and spicy sauce, jasmine rice, organic lettuce, carrots, scallions and toasted sesame seeds, the next time I'm in town.

Our first stop at the festival was at Mono Malo Tapas. ("Mono Malo" means "Bad Monkey" in Spanish.) Their vegan-friendly food cart features Montaditos, bite-sized toasted bread slices with various savory toppings. When all was said and done, their grilled garlic and herb portabello with romesco sauce turned out to be one of my festival favorites. After my first taste, I went back for several more.

The friendly folks at Sawasdee Thai Food offered up tasty samples of vegan fried rice and their Tofu Pad See Ew, a dish made with broad, flat rice noodles, also known as "river noodles."

Asaase Ital Palace, one of only two totally vegan food carts represented at the festival, had little bite-size morsels of their delicious spicy jerk faux chicken.

Always in the mood for Indian Food, I was happy to see the vegetarian food cart Bombay Chaat House at the festival. Their Aloo Channa (potatoes and garbanzo beans with onions and spices), was delicious.

Easily the most dangerous food I tasted was from Whiffies Fried Pies. The name alone was enough to send shivers down my spine. But since they were sampling two vegan pies, I had to give one a try.

Surely fried pies must be an invention of the American South. If deeply fried food is your thing, then Whiffies Fried Pies are sure to please. Although I could only eat one bite of their vegan Peanut Butter Creme pie, I can see how less health-conscious foodies would flock to this food cart. In fact, it's so well-loved, it won this year's People's Choice Award!

The remaining awards were given by a panel of culinary professionals, including editor-in-chief Antoinette Bruno, Scott Givot, the president of the IACP, chefs Kamal Mouzawak and Brad Farmerie, Jeff Miller, the president of Travel Portland, and writer Deborah Madison. Awards went to Garden State, PBJ's, Moxie RX, and The People's Pig. I'm not sure we tasted anything from any of these carts (I know we didn't have any pork), but a day later, it's all becoming such a blur!

After that shot of sugar and oil I was more than ready for a shot of Tropical Green Smoothie from Sip. Made with kale, spinach, orange, pineapple, coconut oil, agave, and ice, this refreshing beverage alone, was worth the price of admission. I seriously couldn't get my fill.

Julie couldn't wait to show us Potato Champion's cute little Spudnik cart. Touted by many as the best fried potato sticks in Portland, their vegan Belgian frites-style potatoes were served with a tangy homemade gravy that's made with vegetable stock, balsamic vinegar, and onions. Here Fran shows off her dish, which we shared, because neither of us could imagine devouring the whole portion on our own.

The biggest bowl of guacamole I've seen in a long time, (and perhaps ever), belonged to the vegan-friendly Taqueria Los Gorditos, which I've read has just opened a full sit-down restaurant. Their awesomely extensive vegan menu lists gorditas, tacos, tamales, huaraches, nachos, burritos, fajitas, quesadillas, enchiladas, mulitas, and empanadas that are made with grilled veggies, Follow Your Heart and Daiya Cheese, Tofutti Sour Cream, Soyrizo, and SoyCurls. We sampled their vegan Sopes along with their tempting guacamole and sassy red sauce.

It was at about this time that the event opened to the public, and hungry foodies quickly started forming lines.

Fortunately, we'd already had our fill of food and fun (mostly food). Well-intentioned plans for dinner were at this point placed permanently on the back burner. Between finding our way to the festival and making our way back to the west side of town, wandering into Peets Coffee and then into Whole Foods, my trusty pedometer said that we clocked more than 12,000 steps. And after all that grazing, I'd say it's a good thing (for me) that we did! I never dreamed there were so many wonderful food carts in Portland. Now more than ever, I look forward to my next excuse to visit the Rose City.

From left to right: Bryanna Clark Grogan, Julie Hasson, Peter Reinhart (the "Leonardo da Vinci of bread"), Fran Costigan, and me!

Friday, April 09, 2010

Amazake—The Amazing Shake!

I'm a total coconut freak. I'm addicted to So Delicious Coconut Milk Beverages, Purely Decadent Coconut Milk Ice Cream, and Taste Nirvana Real Coconut Milk Water. I also can't seem to get enough of Cool Coconut Amazake!  This delectable indulgence is like a lusciously creamy, thick, rich milkshake. But it's dairy-free and gluten-free, too! It's made from organic brown rice, and although it is delightfully sweet, amazingly, there's no added sugar of any kind. It's sweetened from the rice, itself. And if that wasn't enough, the label is so vibrantly colorful and impossibly cute that it makes me happy just looking at it!

Cool Coconut Amazake is sensational all by itself, but this morning I decided to make myself an Amazake Colada Smoothie. I just threw some Trader Joe's frozen pineapple chunks and a bottle of Cool Coconut Amazake in the blender ...

And voila! A tropically delicious way to start the day!

After decades of enjoying this delicious beverage, I finally got a chance to visit Grainaissance to see how Amazake is made. I was greeted by the lovely Leah, office manager extraordinaire! I've spoken with her many times and was delighted to meet her face-to-face.

I was immediately overcome with the intensely sweet smell of brown rice cooking, as soon as I entered the production area. Amazake is made by a natural malting process. Whole grain rice and filtered water are brought to a boil, and the rice is cooked until tender. The rice is then cooled and cultured rice (called "koji"), is added, causing enzymes to break down the carbohydrates into simpler sugars. As the mixture incubates, the natural sweetness develops, creating a smooth, creamy, nectar-like beverage. Finally, fruits, nuts, and natural flavors are added to produce a variety of flavors like Chocolate Almond, Vanilla Pecan Pie, and of course, Cool Coconut.

How exciting to see the entire process, and then be able to enjoy a bottle right off the line!

I've heard all kinds of strange pronunciations for Amazake, but the correct way to say it is: ah-mah-zah-kee. But something so completely delicious, rich, and creamy that is also dairy-free and gluten-free* should be called the Amazing Shake! You can find Amazake at most natural food stores, but if yours doesn't carry it, ask them to start. This is an all-natural treat that you'll not only enjoy, but will feel great about giving to your kids. Visit the Grainaissance website for recipe ideas, money-saving coupons, and more information. And you can follow them on twitter. Oh, and did I mention that Grainaissance also makes Mochi? I'll write more about this amazing little gluten-free puff pastry in a future post.

*All flavors are gluten-free except Mocha Java, which contains barley.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Book Review: The Allergen-Free Baker's Handbook by Cybele Pascal

I am usually very reluctant to try gluten-free recipes for baked goods. In my experience, the results are often less than spectacular, lacking in both texture and flavor. But with The Allergen-Free Baker's Handbook, Cybele Pascal has made a believer out of me. In fact, I never knew gluten-free could taste this good!

I first saw Cybele on a recent Martha Stewart show. Cybele prepared her Classic Crumb Cake, which like all of the delicious recipes in this book, is also dairy-free, egg-free, and soy-free. (You can view the entire segment and get the recipe here.) It has been decades since I've enjoyed a delicious crumb cake. Those little Hostess Coffee Crumb Cakes and their rival Drakes Coffee Cakes were staples at our house when I was growing up. I adored them, and Martha seemed to be impressed with Cybele's vegan, allergen-free version.

So what a treat to stumble upon a vegan recipe that might bring back so many fond memories! I know how to make a vegan cake taste moist and delicious, but I doubted that a gluten-free vegan cake could be as good. Cybele's secret to making her cakes, cookies, muffins, and pie crusts taste fabulous is her all-purpose gluten-free flour mix: a blend of super-fine brown rice flour, tapioca flour, and potato starch. Once I made a batch, I was all set to try the Classic Crumb Cake (and all of the other recipes) in her book.

While the cake was baking, the fragrance of cinnamon filled my kitchen with its heady aroma, and I was struck by how gorgeous the cake looked when it came out of oven.

And even more gorgeous was this individual piece served up on a plate!

You can really see how moist, light, and fluffy it is. This vegan gluten-free version tasted very much those beloved little coffee cakes of childhood, even though it was made entirely with cruelty-free, allergen-free ingredients. And apparently, I'm not the only one who thought it was delicious. These cakes quickly found many happy customers!

I couldn't wait to try all of the other recipes in this book, which is filled with stunning, mouth-watering photographs that inspired the baker in me. Since I'm a scone girl, I decided that next I'd try the recipe for Cherry Oat Scones.

At first I made them as directed, but I didn't think they were quite buttery enough. So now is a good time to take note of some of the other ingredient substitutions suggested. Since all of the recipes are soy-free, Cybele steers clear of soy milk, tofu, and butter substitutes like Earth Balance Buttery Spread, instead choosing soy-free ingredients like Living Harvest Hemp Milk, So Delicious Coconut Milk Yogurt, and Spectrum Organic Shortening. While the Spectrum shortening sufficed in most recipes, I do prefer my scones to taste a bit more buttery. So I asked Cybele why she didn't use the new Earth Balance Soy-free instead of shortening. She explained that it contains pea protein, which can be an allergen for many people with peanut allergies, and that it can also be hard to find. Since I am not allergic to soy, I decided to switch to using Earth Balance after trying her recipe for Cherry Oat Scones. I made the scones again, and they were far more buttery, as you might expect. But it's wonderful for people who are sensitive to pea protein or who can't find the soy-free Earth Balance, to know that they can still enjoy tasty flaky scones and just about any other kind of cake, cookie, bread, or muffin you can imagine.

Among the tempting goodies pictured on the cover of this book are enticing cupcakes, a sumptuous frosted red velvet layer cake, rich fudge brownies, and a selection of sugary cookies. Among them are Linzer Hearts, a twist on the Austrian Linzertorte. Linzer cookies are traditionally made with the same ingredients as a Linzertorte, which of course, includes butter and eggs. Two cookies are sandwiched together around a layer of preserves or jam and sprinkled with confectioner's sugar. In the US, raspberry jam is most often used, and the center of the top cookie is cut-out to reveal the brightly colored fruity filling. Linzer cookies were another childhood favorite. (I knew them as "Linzer Tarts.")  As a little girl, I would squeal with delight any time I'd encounter those beautiful, big, round, raspberry-filled cookies with the scalloped edges at our neighborhood German bakery, Walken's. (Owned by actor Christopher Walken's family.) Cybele's allergen-free version is every bit as yummy and sensationally sweet, and the heart shape added an extra loving touch.

As an added bonus, you get all these cute bite-size heart-shaped cookies when you cut out the centers!

The Allergen-Free Baker's Handbook is a godsend—not just for people with multiple food sensitivities, but for anyone who loves delicious baked treats. With allergen-free vegan recipes for Irish Soda Bread, Banana Cream Pie, Orange Chiffon Cake with Orange Rum Sauce, and dozens of others, I'll be baking my little heart out for weeks to come. If you or anyone you know has food sensitivities to dairy, eggs, wheat, gluten, soy, nuts, or sesame, this book is sure to delight. And if you are lucky enough to already own it, please tell me what your favorite recipe is. I'm having a hard time deciding what to make next!