Thursday, March 22, 2012

From Expo West to Santa Barbara
It Just Doesn't Get Any Better than This!

I can now take a deep breath ... the exuberancy and intensity of the largest natural foods and healthy living products convention known as Natural Products Expo West is over. The amount of planning, preparation, and work that goes into attending as a vendor is mind-boggling. The amount of excitement that it generates for everyone who attends is indescribable. It's been over for a week, but my adrenaline is still pumping strong!

Natural Products Expo West at the Anaheim Convention Center
Photo courtesy of Whitney Lauritsen

I was honored to be asked to speak on an a panel as part of the Platinum Education Series. Social media goddess, Caren Baginski, and I led a "Boundaries in Social Media: Etiquette Dos and Don'ts" panel discussion. I was blown away by the fabulous questions from the audience that followed our slide presentation. There is a real hunger for knowledge in the social media realm, in part, because it is evolving and changing so quickly. Thanks to Caren and enthusiastic members of our audience, I gained great insights, too!

Photo courtesy of Whitney Lauritsen

It was wonderful to connect with so many of my blogger friends. Among them, The Allergy-friendly Cook™Cybele Pascal, VeggieGrettie's Gretchen Tseng, Moreselist blogger and Morselicious creator, Maura Knowles, HealthyVoyager Carolyn Scott-Hamilton, Ecovegangal Whitney Lauritsen, PineappleShaveIce's Kristine Swisher,  Margaux Rathbun of AuthenticSelfWellnessNoshtopia's Stephanie Quilao, Jill Pyle of Vegan Cuts, and VeganYackAttack's Jackie Sobon.

With food, health, and wellness divas Cybele Pascal, Gretchen Tseng, and Maura Knowles

But now on to that which makes the heart beat faster, just at the sound of the word "Expo": for me, it's truly all about the food! I would be remiss if I did not first give props to all of my amazing colleagues at So Delicious® Dairy Free for winning a VegNews Best of Show Award for our new line of Almond Milk Ice Cream! (Can you say "Cherry Amaretto" and really mean it?)

Senior food technologist Jennifer Aleshire and president John Tucker receiving Best of Show award. 
Photo courtesy of VegNews.

A small sampling of the delicious new almond milk ice cream from So Delicious® Dairy Free.
(The Mocha Almond Fudge Bars and Butter Pecan Almond Milk pints are amazing!)
Photo courtesy of NewHope 360°

So Delicious Greek-style Coconut Milk Yogurt was also chosen as one of the Top 15 Vegan Picks from Expo West! I'm super excited about this award, because the Greek yogurt is my favorite of all So Delicious products! It's my go-to choice for baking, making tzatziki sauce and raita, and I even use it as a substitute for cream cheese on my morning bagel! 

Since I returned home from Expo, people have been asking me what some of my favorite new food finds are. Here's a just a few:

Photo courtesy of NewHope 360°

Holy heaven, this spread is divine! This is how you take a slice of bread and turn it into something decadent! I need not say more. Taste this for yourself, and fall madly in love.

I heard about Freekeh Foods just before heading out to Expo, and reached out to owner/chef Bonnie Matthews, who couldn't have been sweeter. Freekeh is an ancient grain that was created quite by chance in a Middle Eastern village some 2,000 years ago. It's deliciously nutty flavor and chewy texture make it a protein and fiber-rich alternative to rice in all kinds of recipes from salads and breakfast cereals to pilafs and puddings. Bonnie served the Curried Feekah Salad pictured above at Expo West, and I had to keep my distance from her booth, lest I completely devour it all. (It was that good!) Lucky for me (and you!) the recipe can be found right here.

O.M.G. Chocolate and coconut cavort bewitchingly in a dance of divine decadence.

I've been a fan of Stevita stevia products since the birth of this company. I admire the trailblazing attitude of founder and president Oscar Rodes, who fought a long and difficult battle to bring this safe, natural sweetener from Brazil to the US market. I was even on the phone with Oscar when he received a fax from the FDA ordering him to destroy all of the books and other literature in his warehouse that described stevia as a sweetener. To read all about Oscar's heroism and how the FDA banned and confiscated his shipments of stevia, read the full story here. Now they make liquid stevia in more flavors than you can shake a stick at: Chocolate, Cognac, Lemon, Mango, Orange, Peach, Peppermint, Strawberry, Toffee, and Vanilla. I can't wait to try them all!

They're vegan, aspartame-free, and the flavors pack a powerful punch! And hey, what's not to love about pomegranate gum?

Beyond all the grazing up and down the aisles at Expo, I did manage to enjoy some incredible meals. First at Au Lac Vegetarian Restaurant in Fountain Valley, where they now have both cooked and raw vegan menus. Everything we ordered was superb, and I highly recommend both the cooked and the raw Sweet and Sour soups!

And of course, there was the So Delicious Vegucated red carpet screening and dinner gala Friday evening at Expo. All of the food we served was made with So Delicious ingredients, and while I only had a chance to take a sample taste here and there, attendees seemed to really enjoy! With close 200 guests, it was standing room only, and I was delighted to see such a diverse audience so engaged in the film. After the film, So Delicious president John Tucker introduced filmmaker Marisa Miller Wolfson, who conducted a Q&A session in which she fielded some challenging comments and questions with style, candor, and grace. I was very proud that evening to be part of a company that not only makes delicious vegan products, but also supports a film that is transforming lives.

After the crowds had dispersed, I stayed behind with a few friends including Marisa, producer Demetrius Bagley, and Allison Rivers Samson of Allison's Gourmet. How warm and comforting to be surrounded by so many vegan friends!

After Expo, I stopped off in LA on my way to Ojai and had dinner at M Cafe de Chaya. Another eating orgy ensued. I was super hungry, because I had only eaten one real meal during the previous three days (although I did do a fair share of grazing), and my eyes grew quite large when I surveyed the the menu. Inari Sushi stuffed with braised shiitake, a Madras Tempeh Wrap made with masala-baked tempeh, brown basmati rice, toasted almonds, raisins, frizzled onions and crisp veggies in a soy yogurt dressing inside a whole wheat lavash, Kale with Spicy Peanut Dressing, and a fresh carrot-apple-beet-ginger juice were all delectable and hit this hungry vegan's spot.

I earned two days of R&R and spent them with my bff Marr at my favorite retreat, The Emerald Iguana in Ojai. Although I was sick with flu-like symptoms, I decided to make the best of it and enjoyed being in the warm, Southern California sunshine as best I could. I rested a whole lot in my comfy king-sized bed and stretched out and relaxed on a poolside lounge chair. It's such a lushly serene and beautiful place! 

Even though I didn't have much of an appetite (at least I thought I didn't until food was in front of me!), I made the most of eating out! The first night I met my dear friend, Ashley Vincenti from Teeccino at Om Fusion of Thai in Oak View (one of those rare Thai restaurants where they totally get vegan and won't serve you a dish made with fish sauce!) Ashley thoughtfully picked up a bottle of Alkalol (a naturally soothing herbal nasal wash) for me, which cleared up my sinuses and made me feel a WHOLE lot better! (Thank you, Ashley!)

On my final night in Ojai, Marr and I drove to Santa Barbara to meet the lovely and beautiful Alison Cox of Edward & Sons for what would be an unforgettable dinner at Adama

Joining us were Joel and Dean (also of Edward & Sons) and Matthew Koch, creator of Mac & Chreese. What great company to be in!

Alison suggested that we order a variety of dishes and share. I'm so glad she did, because everything was  beyond delectable! We started with appetizers of Fritto Misto (cauliflower in a lightly curried batter with sweet chili sauce),

Caesar Salad (The dressing was perfect, and I loved the addition of broccoli!)

Vegetable Sushi with Sweet Potato Tempura, 

and Sweet Potato Portabella Mushroom Quesadillas (even the salsa was spectacular!)

Moving on to the entrees, Marr, Matt, and Joel couldn't resist ordering the Lasagna made with layers of brown rice noodles, butternut squash, cashew cream, spinach, sautéed veggies, and marinara sauce. (Scrumptious!)

Dean ordered the Gardein Piccata served with spinach, artichokes, capers and garlic mashed potatoes,

Alison ordered the Panang Curry made with cauliflower, broccoli, butternut squash, and tofu, (I love a good panang!)

and I ordered the Jackfruit Tacos served with black beans and quinoa. (Cooked or raw, I adore jackfruit!)

After eating all this indescribably delicious food, you'd think that none of us would have room for dessert. But the temptations beckoning to us from the glass dessert case were just too great. We ordered Blueberry Turnovers (which Deeahna so very thoughtfully made for us on the spot!), the most amazing vegan Hostess-like Cupcakes (only so much better!), and truly the most incredible Carrot Cake I have ever eaten in my life!

At the end of this trip I realized that it isn't just me, but it seems like most vegans are pretty food-obsessed. (Ever wonder why there are so many fabulous vegan food blogs?) Marr reasoned that it's likely because we are eating the most delectable and natural food for our bodies. I heartily agree.