… for me, anyway.
In many peoples’ minds, lent has a strong association with sacrifice. When I was a practicing Catholic, every year for the 40 days leading up to Easter lots of us would give up something we enjoyed, or things that were bad habits: sweets, alcohol, cussing, etc. And back in the old days, we’d avoid meat on Fridays during lent (often turning instead to fried seafood, oddly enough).
Well, giving up oil and all animal products — especially dairy — for a month was my very own nothing-to-do-with-Easter sacrifice.
I did pretty well, though not perfectly.
In fact, during the last week of my fast I had two pretty big cheats, both work related — one for my paid day job, and one for my blogging work.
Since I’m sure most of you would rather get right to the food, I’ll write about that first. But if anyone’s interested in takeaways from my Engine Two “plant strong” month-long challenge, read the the end of this post.
In and out of bounds
Like I confessed (all kinds of Catholic-sounding threads in this post!), I had two big cheats this past week. Maybe three.
For-sure cheat #1 occurred when I was a last-minute seat-filler at a nonprofit awards dinner. Unless I wanted to eat nothing but a mini salad I didn’t have much of a choice. Pictured here is a fresh take on pear brown betty, courtesy of Chef Proprietor Jason Smith of 18 Seaboard and Cantina 18 fame, and one of my favorite local chefs. The fruit was sliced ultra-thin, so the texture was wonderful. A light, lemony sauce and cherries added a delicious twist.
On Saturday night, I helped judge a chef competition as part of a benefit event for Guiding Lights, a local nonprofit. Chefs (and in some cases their teams) from eight local senior living communities ditched their workday cooking styles to create exciting entree and dessert small plates. So yes, I tasted 16 different dishes — not a single vegan one among them. My tummy was confused and full … but happy.
Posted here are photos of winning Chef Korey Tibbet’s offerings. Pepper-crusted ostrich filet (cooked perfectly — so tender!) over gorgonzola risotto (fantastic! one of the best risottos I’ve ever tasted) with a red wine reduction and some kind of warm roasted tomato relish that was super scrumptious.
Dessert was equally ambitious and delicious: a thin slice of dense chocolate truffle brownie terrine (heaven!) with a white chocolate mousse, tiny crispy chocolate balls, some type of creamy sauce and a sugared mint leaf.
Another dessert came in a close second for all three of us judges: a champagne sabayon with strawberries, honey and a hint of Grand Marnier. The champagne was an especially nice touch, giving the sabayon an ethereal lightness, almost a fizziness.
Not sure …
The maybe cheat was vegetarianized Diablo Chicken at An in Cary.
I haven’t been to An in years, and had forgotten how good it is. Way back when, it was one of the area’s first uber-chic and creative Asian dining spots.
The menu description of the dish sounded fantastic: chicken tempura, bean sprouts, peppers, scallions, roasted cashew sauce, peanuts and jasmine rice. Now, I’m not a big fan of slabs of tofu, and if I’d know that’s what the chef planned to use in place of the chicken I might have ordered something else.
I’m glad I didn’t. The tofu was so good I even called the restaurant later to ask if they made their own or sourced it from someplace special. But no, it was just run-of-the-mill firm tofu. So I have to assume that what made it special was tempura frying technique.
And that’s where the “maybe” comes in. Some people use eggs whites in their tempura preparation, while others use soda water instead. So I’m not sure if I cheated during that lunch or not.
Regardless, the dish was fantastic. So many great textures, lots of crunchiness, pretty color and a zingy sauce.
In bounds …
This next picture shows yummy vegan tacos from Market. Chef Chad always features several totally plant-based dishes on his menus, which I appreciate. Dishes designed specifically to be vegan — versus those that are modified — are usually pretty creative and flavorful.
The tacos were filling, so I only had room for a tiny take home treat from next-door-neighbor Escazu.
Hmmmmm … what was waiting for me in that cute little box?
Two lovely truffles, of course: one olive oil and black pepper (at right), and one cherry vodka. The interior of the first was tenderly smooth and luscious, and the evoo taste was distinctive rather than subtle.
I’m glad I actually considered which order I should eat them in (as opposed to indiscriminately popping them into my mouth as I usually do). The cherry vodka truffle was intense. Pow! The flavors burst in my mouth like a firecracker once my teeth pierced the exterior shell.
And finally, lunch at Mami Nora’s, a Raleigh offshoot of a Durham-based joined known for its Peruvian style rotisserie chicken. My black beans and plantains were good (especially the beans, with a dollop of one of the spicy chicken-dipping sauces stirred in), but the true star was the fried yucca. I’ve had plenty of yucca in my day. It’s a root similar to a potato, but with a slightly different, lighter texture. (If I had my choice I’d select yucca fries over their potato cousins any day.) Mami Nora’s were some of the best I’ve eaten, texture- and taste-wise.
I think the 28 mostly vegan days were, overall, successful. I feel cleaner, lighter, healthier.
I bragged to friends and family after three weeks that I felt I’d lost at least 8-10 pounds because my clothes were fitting so well. But when I got on the scale yesterday morning I was surprised to see I’m only 5 pounds lighter.
I’m a little confused about that, since pants that have been killing me for months — and some that I couldn’t even get into — are fitting great. In fact, some dress slacks I bought in November now need to be altered. The area I’d been complaining most about — my new-since-menopause fleshy torso — is much better.
So I can’t explain the just-5-pounds. Nor can I explain why so many others lost significant amounts of weight during the challenge. (A staffer at Whole Foods lost 13 in one month!)
But I’ve never been overly scale dependent, so I’m not really bothered by the numbers. I feel good and it was all worth it.
Here are some things I learned:
Eating vegan outside of the house is extremely challenging. Maybe not in a big city like New York. But here, yes. Ethnic restaurants were my best bets. Thai, Mexican, Mediterranean, Japanese. (Alas, not Indian, since they use a lot of ghee.) Raleigh only has a few non-ethnic dining spots that offer create vegan entrees. (Thank God for places like Market, the Remedy Diner and Irregardless.)
Eating E2 outside of the house is nearly impossible. It’s the no-oil rule that’s the deal breaker. I had no problem requesting “light on the oil” — but aside from salads (and hey, don’t forget to bring your own dressing) there just aren’t many oil-free vegan dishes out there.
Eating E2 inside the house is easier, but not exactly what I’d call exciting. Loading up on veggies, fruits and good whole grains was great. But “sauteeing” in broth or juice, ugh.
It IS possible to adjust to low-sodium foods. During the E2 challenge I bought less prepared foods than I typically do (and I don’t buy a lot of them in general). The first few bites of no- or low-sodium soups or things I’d prepared myself tasted a little ho-hum, but as I kept on eating my palate could taste other subtleties. I find that a touch of (good) salt can brighten flavors, but now I believe that too much masks them.
So here’s what I plan to do going forward. As best as I can, I’m going to cook and eat “plant strong” (E2-ese for vegan) at home, and cut way back on oil. When dining out I’ll revert to my typical pescatarianism, and try not to overload on cheese and other dairy. And I’ll attempt to restrict indulgences (alcohol, desserts) to weekends.
And, as always, when I travel … all bets are off!
I feel good about this balance between eating responsibly and healthfully, yet still allowing myself to enjoy exciting, delicious foods.