Monday, December 12, 2011

VegNews Vegan Yoga Retreat to Mexico

Who: VN Managing Editor Elizabeth Castoria and Associate Publisher Colleen Holland
What: A week of yoga and vegan food on the stunning Pacific coast of Mexico
When: November 26 to December 3, 2011
Where: Haramara Retreat, Sayulita, Mexico
Why: Because I was invited!

The Scoop: When Colleen first told me about the idea of hosting the VegNews Vegan Yoga Retreat the week right after Thanksgiving, my first thought was, YES. Being warm is my lifelong project, I love yoga, and the food was guaranteed to be amazing, so I could totally not have been more thrilled to co-host (along with Colleen and the incredible co-creator of Laughing Lotus Yoga Centers, Jasmine Tarkeshi) this trip.
 Me, Jasmine, and Colleen, aka the luckiest gals on the planet

 Despite my initial excitement, nothing could have prepared me for just how phenomenal the trip would be. Haramara is situated on a hillside in the thick of the jungle that plummets to the beautiful Pacific Ocean. There isn't any electricity in the luxurious casitas, so everything is lit at night with highly atmospheric oil lamps. The pathways around the retreat are covered in natural arbors of vines and bouganvillea, and the sea sparkles constantly at the bottom of the hill. The scenery alone would have been enough to qualify the place as paradise, but there were a few other things that nearly killed me with ecstasy. The group of people who joined us on the trip could not have been more wonderful. From hard-core yogis to folks who just wanted a little getaway, everyone who came with us was a total delight—it was truly an honor to spend the week with each of them.

Oh, and then there was this little thing called the food. Holy heck! The entire kitchen at Haramara went vegan for the full week that we were there, and, under the direction of the highly talented Chef Hugo Gutiérrez, the staff created show-stopping meals three times a day. Were there three courses for each of those meals? Yes. Does the project of feeding myself now seem utterly hopeless because I can no longer just show up at the right time and be spoiled rotten with fresh, elegant cuisine? YES. If it were possible to clone Chef Hugo and have one of him cook for me in SF, let's just say I'd be largely unconcerned with the moral or ethical implications of cloning. 

 Hello, amazing vibrant veggie tacos and fresh salad

Jasmine led us in four hours of yoga every single day, and though I've practiced off and on for the last 10 years, I'd never connected the dots between the founding principles of yoga and veganism. It was a truly revelatory experience to learn from Jasmine not only how to attempt a crow pose, but how these two non-violent principles are interwoven. As someone who's only ever thought of yoga as a nice way to work up a sweat, I'm now so excited about deepening my understanding of the practice's more-spiritual side. The week at Haramara left me rejuvenated, relaxed, and really ready to go again next year! A huge thanks to everyone who made our first yoga retreat such an amazing experience. To check out many, many more photos, don't miss our Facebook gallery.

The retreat was a transformative experience, and it makes an appropriate final post for Press Pass. Yes, after four years of out-of-the-office adventures with the VN crew, we're moving away from the format of this blog. Keep an eye out for new ways to keep up-to-date with our after-hours escapades in early 2012. From all of us at VegNews, thank you for reading!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Thanksgiving Potluck

Who: VN Editorial Assistant Joni Sweet
What: A vegan Thanksgiving potluck
When: Saturday, November 26, 2011
Where: My cozy apartment in San Francisco, CA
Why: To celebrate the best holiday of the year!

Mmm. Thanksgiving dinner with all the fixings! 

The Scoop: Thanksgiving for me is usually spent eating all of the traditional favorites alongside my brother, sister, and Dad in Upstate NY. While the bad news is that I couldn’t afford to fly across the country to indulge in our annual tradition, I did host a really fun Thanksgiving potluck at my apartment in San Francisco with my boyfriend Jeremy. Together, we spent the day whipping the apartment into shape and cooking up a storm for our party of 10—nine of whom turned out to be East Coasters, with my longtime friend Iyla and her two guests hailing from my home region. If I couldn’t be in NY for my favorite holiday, at least I could dine with other orphans from the East Coast.

Tofurky roast with cherries, carrots, and sweet potatoes.

When everyone brought their dishes, I couldn’t believe the colorful, decadent feast in front of me. I marinated and baked two Tofurkys (one with ginger-garlic, the other with Tofurky’s recipe for a Caramelized Onion & Cherry Roast). Jeremy and I also roasted pecan- and fig-stuffed Delicata squash, tossed a leafy green salad with homemade herbed vinaigrette, and mashed sweet and Yukon Gold potatoes. No one was disappointed, though, when my friend Sophia revealed that she had also made mashed red-skin potatoes—two giant bowls of smooth, buttery deliciousness at one party? Count me in. As if that wasn’t enough, Sophia wowed everyone with her vegan egg-salad sandwiches and stuffed baby mushrooms. Iyla cooked a gorgeous carrot-apple soup, spiced with nutmeg and ginger, with a side of Southern cornbread. And because nearly everyone else brought a bottle (or two) of wine, we kept toasty for the entirety of the evening. No one even seemed to mind that we had to eat our soup in shifts because I didn’t have enough spoons.

The best guests at the best Thanksgiving dinner!
Never would I have thought that Thanksgiving without my family would be so warm and welcoming. After we indulged in hot apple pie topped with vanilla bean soy ice cream and baklava for dessert, we headed out to burn some calories with a night of dancing. Next year, I do hope to make it back to NY and have Thanksgiving with my family, but this year’s event will go down as one of the most joyous and genuine celebrations of gratitude for years to come.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Vegan Fusion Immersion

Who: VegNews staffer in Portland, Lara Bradley
What: Stopping by the 10-Day Cuisine Vegan Fusion Cuisine Cooking Immersion by Chef Mark Reinfeld
When: Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Where: Portland, OR
Why: A chance to meet a well-traveled and multi-talented chef

The Scoop: From romantic Paris to ancient and mysterious Machu Picchu to humble Portland, award-winning international chef and author Mark Reinfeld (founding chef of Blossoming Lotus Restaurant and winner of the VegNews Cookbook of the Year in 2005 for Vegan Fusion World Cuisine, co-authored with Bo Rinaldi), holds his Vegan Fusion 10-Day Cuisine Immersion course in alluring destinations the world over. When he opted for our rain-soaked city, I had the pleasure of finally meeting Mark when he invited me to come to one of his classes. As kind as he is talented, I watched in the background as he gently led his students through the culinary delights of the day, one of three days focused on raw food. When all was said and done, I dined like a queen indulging in sun-dried tomato herb flax crackers, raw un-stir fry with cauliflower rice, raw hot and sour soup, spicy cashews, and a jaw-dropping cashew cheese. Jamaican gingerade, the day's beverage, was a great accompaniment to the meal.
The amazing, totally raw meal!

Just when I thought it could not get any better, the students whipped up a decadent dessert of chocolate mousse (shh ... the secret ingredient is avocado!) topped with macadamia cream that put chocolate mousses I've enjoyed in the past to shame. Then there was the key lime ice cream with strawberry coulis topped with a walnut coconut date crumble. It took me to Nirvana and left me there.

As we were dining, the students spoke of why they took the course and their thoughts of the class that was ending the following day. All remarked how much they learned, how knowledgeable Mark is, and how this was some of the most delicious food experiences they had ever tasted. Some students were vegetarians and vegans, while others were totally new to this healthy and tasty world and excited about their new path. Students walked away not only with fond memories and world-class culinary skills, but also a personalized cookbook of everything prepared, a Vegan Fusion tote, apron, and a nice size professional portrait of Mark and all the students. They were sad their new little community was coming to an end, but excited about their future and looked forward to sharing their new dishes with friends and family.
Moi and Mark

I don’t know about you, but I am already packing my bags for Machu Pichu for the 2012 immersion course and am counting the days until I eat that chocolate mousse again, this time while perched atop a mountain in the Andes some 8,000 feet above sea level, bearing witness to times gone by.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Girlfriends' Getaway at The Stanford Inn

Who: VN Associate Editor Jennifer Chen
What: A vacation with my girlfriends
When: November 11–13, 2011
Where: The Stanford Inn, Mendocino, CA
Why: To spend quality time with my best friends

The Scoop: Every year, my best friends, Alina Kwak and Diana Breen, and I get together for a mini-vacation. While boys are great, there is nothing like a girls' weekend away. My friend Diana has been vegan since she was 15, so I suggested we take a trip to the Stanford Inn, a beautiful and enchanting veg-friendly inn, located in the coastal town of Mendocino, CA.

We arrived on Friday and were greeted warmly by the staff. Plus, vegan chocolate chip cookies were waiting for us inside our room. (And yes, every room gets cookies every day that you stay. My kind of place!) We ate dinner at Mendocino Café, which had several vegan options. The Healing Bowl, with soba noodles, kale, and tofu in a miso broth, was my pick.

On Saturday, we started our day with a warm Vinyasa yoga class, followed by brunch. The Stanford Inn vegan breakfast, complimentary for inn guests, is not to be missed. Everything you could ever want veganized—frittatas, French toast, crêpes—is on this hard-to-pick-just-one-dish menu. I went for the mind-blowing Portobello Benedict. After that, we worked off our brunch with a two-hour canoe trip along the Big River. Then, we hit Frankie's for vegan pizza. You can build your own pie with vegan cheese and a choice of tomato sauce or pesto (all vegan). Believe it or not, the inn also hosts a daily vegan happy hour with free (!!!) dessert and tea or coffee so we hustled back to indulge.

Wild Mushroom Crêpe, filled with spinach, wild mushrooms, 
shallots, served with roasted butternut squash 
and puréed garden greens on top of poblano créme.

Saturday night, we were excited to try the special five-course wine and mushroom tasting menu at Ravens, Stanford Inn's restaurant, in celebration of Mendocino's annual Wine and Mushroom Festival. Ravens' Chef Sally Owens and Stanford Inn Co-owner Jeff Stanford took the time to explain Ravens' culinary philosophy to my friends and I. Nutritious food is key, as Jeff explained. While each dish was a standout, my hands-down favorite was the mushroom crêpe. It was light and fluffy and the mushrooms were packed with umami flavor. And don't even get me started on the puréed garden greens!

Ravens' Chef Sally Owens, the genius behind the dishes.

Sally and I discussed sharing some of Ravens' best recipes with VegNews Recipe Club subscribers. (If you're not signed up for our free weekly recipe newsletter, head to and sign up today!) I am so excited we will feature the Portobello Benedict recipe in December. It's so delicious that I might have to make it every weekend. Sally also told me that Ravens' will be releasing a brand new cookbook, so stay tuned.

If you've never been to The Stanford Inn, definitely add it to your bucket list. Companion animals are welcome, and you'll see quite a few four-legged guests in the dining room. Daily cookies, a bountiful garden, an indoor salt-water pool, and some of the best vegan eats await you.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

San Francisco Walk for Farm Animals

Who: VN Managing Editor Elizabeth Castoria and Team VegNews
What: San Francsico's Walk For Farm Animals
When: November 6, 2011
Where: Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA
Why: To support the awesome work of Farm Sanctuary, and get a little stroll

The Scoop: Our lovely and talented associate editor, Jennifer Chen, is magic. She is the kind of person who actually has her life together enough to organize fun events, which she does frequently. A potluck brunch based on an amazing vegan cookbook? Jenn teamed up with Editorial Assistant Anna Peraino to make that dream come true. Dinner parties on the cheap that also happen to be hugely fun? Jenn's an expert. So it came as no surprise when she organized a team for us to participate in Farm Sanctuary's Walk for Farm Animals.

Anna, Jenn, Brendan, Sutton, and Chloe, ready to walk!

On a brisk Sunday morning, Associate Publisher Colleen Holland, Art Director Sutton Long (and her amazing wonder-pup, Chloe!), Anna, and I joined Jenn and her husband, Brendan Hay, in Golden Gate Park to walk. Farm Sanctuary has been holding walks since 1986 across the US. The events attract stars like this year's spokesperson, Emily Deschanel, and draw thousands of participants each year. All together, the walks have raised nearly $2 million for Farm Sanctuary since the beginning. In addition to getting a little exercise in, walkers get to hear speakers (including Farm Sanctuary Co-founder Gene Baur), enjoy snacks, and raise awareness. We basically couldn't have hoped for a better day, and it was a joy to chat about everything from iPhones (and how they are taking over our lives) to holiday plans (and how we can't wait for the carb-fest better known as Thanksgiving!). It was (another) fun, out-of-the-office event organized by Jenn, and as a team we even exceeded our fundraising goal! I'm already looking forward to next year, and to all the fun things that I'm sure Jenn will organize between now and then.

Team VegNews post-walk with Farm Sanctuary's Gene Baur

Monday, October 31, 2011

Texas State Veggie Fair, Take Two!

Who: VN contributor Eddie Garza
What: 2nd Annual Texas State Veggie Fair
When: October 23, 2011
Where: Dallas, Texas
Why: To bask in vegan fried goodness deep in the heart of Texas

The Scoop: Jamey Scott of Dallas Vegan is obsessed with fried foods. He’s a native Texan. And like most Texans, Scott grew up anticipating each year’s state fair, where he would relish in deep fried comfort foods of Texas-sized proportions.

That is, until he went vegan.

At the State Fair of Texas, typical foods found are fried bacon, fried butter, fried bubblegum, I could go on. You’ll also find penned-up piglets waiting to be auctioned. Scott’s retort: parody the country’s largest state fair by hosting an all-vegan version just blocks away.

The Texas State Veggie Fair falls on the heels of its ugly step-cousin, the State Fair of Texas, but you won’t find any farmed animals here. Instead, they’ve corralled a host of animal-advocacy and rescue groups, renowned speakers in the animal rights movement and vegan chefs, mixed in with traditional state fair foods and entertainment. “The fair is an opportunity for people to enjoy a fun and festive experience without supporting animal agribusiness,” says Scott.

That fun includes a vegan fried foods competition, with a panel of judges comprised of some of Dallas’ top food journalists, and two winners taking home sizable cash prizes. Sabali Mpozi Earth of Vegan Comfort from Houston took this year’s “Best Tasting” award for fried spicy chicken-less strips, and Arlington home chef Meredith Whitley’s fried banana pudding snagged “Most Creative” nods.

 The fried-food challenge winner: spicy strips!

Fairgrounds were lined with over a dozen vegan food vendors serving a lip-smacking spread of fair faves including caramel apples, Frito pie, fried pizza, fried pickles, corny dogs, and coconut ice cream sundaes. Clowns, jugglers, and alt-country rockers kept crowds entertained as they waited in hour-long lines for vegan fried foods.

Bravo to the incredibly creative crew at Dallas Vegan for hosting another successful, inspiring and imaginative event!

Photos courtesy of Sylvia Elzafon

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Vegucated Dessert After-Party Hosted by VegNews

Who: VegNews Associate Publisher Colleen Holland
What: The Vegucated After-Party
When: October 25, 2011
Where: The VNHQ in San Francisco
Why: To toast the new film, Vegucated, following its San Francisco premiere

The Scoop: Here at VegNews, we love throwing parties. Delicious vegan nibbles, a little Champagne, some great music, and excellent guests always make for an unforgettable evening. And now that we've finished zhooshing up our rooftop deck and event space at our Mission District offices, we can hardly wait to play host to many a future vegan soirée.

After welcoming Vaute Couture and its vegan fashion pop-up show in September, the sisters behind Spork Foods and their brand-new vegan cookbook in October, we were beyond excited to host the dessert after-party for Vegucated's San Francisco premiere in November. It was a packed house at the nearby Victoria Theatre for the 7pm screening, followed by a Q & A with the film's Creator/Director Marisa Miller Wolfson, Producer Demetrius Bagley, and star Brian Flegel. If you haven't yet seen this movie, look for a local screening or order a copy on DVD. According to our editorial team in the current edition of VegNews, "Vegucated is a fast-paced, fact-filled, and often hilarious feature-length documentary that's equal parts Saturday Night Live skit and educational tool." In short, it's entertaining, enlightening, and an amazing force to promote a plant-based lifestyle. Check it out!

But let's get back to the after-party. It was a balmy evening in San Francisco and the rooftop deck was softly lit (candles) and perfectly toasty (heat lamps). The dessert spread from Obsessive Confection Disorder alone was worth the cost of admission (decadent brownies! German chocolate caramels! Apple cider candies!), but the 100+ guests also enjoyed Turtle Mountain's coconut ice cream, mint chocolate coconut milk, and the seasonal coconut soy nog. For two hours, people nibbled and mingled before listening to a lovely speech by Marisa about the film. It was an honor to support this groundbreaking documentary, and we look forward to watching it take over the country. For more details, check out the film's website, and the full screening schedule can be found here. Here's to getting Vegucated!

Vegucated's Director, Marisa Miller Wolfson and the film's Producer, Demetrius Bagley, show off their feature in the November+December issue of VegNews at the VNHQ.

Hearty Vegan Brunch and Burgers & Beers Benefit

Who: VN Associate Editor Jennifer Chen
What: A Hearty Vegan Brunch with VN staff and a Burgers & Beers Benefit
Where: San Francisco and Berkeley, CA
When: Sunday, October 23, 2011
Why: A glorious day of eating awesome vegan food

The Scoop: When the cookbook Hearty Vegan Meals for Monster Appetites by Joni Marie Newman & Celine Steen arrived at the VNHQ for review, we were floored by the hunger-inducing food. Tater Tot Surprise, Cinnamon Swirl Bread, and Coconut Crème Brûlée Baked Oatmeal were just a few recipes we were drooling over. So VN Assistant Editor Anna Peraino and I organized a staff-wide potluck based on our favorite brunch dishes from the cookbook. We, after all, have monster appetites. Here is our hearty menu:

VN Hearty Vegan Brunch Menu
Banana Split Waffles
Tater Tot Surprise
Coconut Crème Brûlée Baked Oatmeal
Cappuccino Muffins
Atella Rolls
Grilled Cheese Sandwiches*
Morning Mimosas*
*not featured in the cookbook

My brunch plate from top:
Tater Tot Surprise, Grilled Cheese, Banana Split Waffles, Atella Roll,
Coconut Crème Brûlée Baked Oatmeal, Cappuccino Muffin (center).

It was a beautiful and sunny day in Noe Valley where Anna, our host, lives. We piled our plates high with all the goodies we had prepared. Associate Publisher Colleen Holland made the Banana Split Waffles fresh and piping hot from the waffle iron while my husband, Brendan Hay, made his signature Grilled Cheese Sandwiches, the only recipe not from the cookbook, but a VN staff favorite. I savored every bite and when my very full plate (see above) was empty, I was ready for a hearty nap on Anna's couch. We were impressed with every single dish, and even made a non-vegan a believer in the power of vegan grilled cheese sandwiches (score!).

Joni Sweet and Lyndsay Orwig enjoying brunch.

After the brunch, I squeezed in a dog date at the Presidio with Art Director Sutton Long and her pup, Chloe, and my pup, Buddy, to walk off the billions of calories I had consumed. Believe it or not, then I headed to Pyramid Brewery in Berkeley to partake of vegan burgers and beers. Harvest Home Animal Sanctuary hosted a fundraiser at the brewery and I love any event where I can eat and support animals in need. Harvest Home Animal Sanctuary cares for abused farm and domestic animals and assists local humane societies and rescue groups.

What's better than vegan burgers and beers? Nothing.

It was a great event, and Brendan and I shared a brew while chatting about all the amazing vegan food we ate.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

12th Annual Brower Youth Awards

Who: Publisher Joseph Connelly
What: Brower Youth Awards
Where: Herbst Theatre, San Francisco
When: Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Why: Skateboards and Girl Scout Cookies

The Scoop: At the podium, 2011 Brower Youth Award recipient Alex Epstein dedicated his words "to the young people in the room." Alex is 20.

It gets better.

Of the hundred or so fundraisers, awards, dinners, conferences, and other functions I attend each year, the Brower Youth Awards, named in memory of environmental pioneer David Brower, might just be the one I most look forward to. Each year, six BYAs are given to "the most visionary and strategic activists between the ages of 13 to 22." The public awards ceremony—which culminates a week of Bay Area speaking, networking, training, and bonding sessions for these overachieving leaders—is a delightful mix of youthful optimism and untarnished naivete.

The awards bring a tear to the eye and hope for the future. Nothing is more inspiring than young people who believe in themselves, are fearless, and won't take "no" for an answer.

The 2011 Brower Youth Award honorees: Vorva, Tomtishen, Epstein, Pulido, Davila, Walk, and Thiermann

At 14, Epstein co-founded New York 2 New Orleans Coalition, mobilizing 1,500 NYC high school students, via 43 trips, with 9th ward post-Katrina New Orleans' residents. Next was college, where he co-found The Philadelphia Urban Creators, a cadre of young community organizers building relationships with disadvantaged communities. Epstein's motto: "When you have positive energy, good things happen."

Kyle Thiermann isn't your typical Santa Cruz, CA surfer dude. His online video series, Surfing for Change, encourages the multi-billion dollar surfing community to make small adjustments that can add up, including divesting $340 million from coal-funding banks. "Changing the world can be as simple as changing a daily personal decision," advocates 21-year-old Thiermann.

Junior Walk, an anti-strip mining activist from West Virginia, fights big coal in Appalachia with Coal River Mountain Watch. Walk, 21, is an outspoken advocate in a fossil-fuel dependent community, and risks being ostracized, which doesn't deter him from his mission. "Eventually, this will get stopped," Junior says of the environmentally devastating practice of harvesting coal via mountain top removal. "We're gonna be there for the final nail in the coffin."

Tania Pulido, also 21, uses agriculture as a tool to reach out to people. She works with Urban Tilth, a community garden in the food desert of Richmond, CA, a Bay Area city plagued by high crime and environmental racism. Inspired by her fellow awardees to take her activism "to the next level," Tania's words of wisdom include "never give up on yourself," useful for someone also fighting the local Chevron refinery.

Victor Davila went veg two years ago because he wants to live longer. Davila is 17. He started EcoRyders, workshops that combine environmental and health education with skateboarding, in his native Bronx, NY. "I don't have to move out of my neighborhood to make it a better neighborhood; I can make my neighborhood better," one skateboard at a time.

As 11-year-olds, Girl Scouts Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva created Project ORANG—Orangutans Really Appreciate and Need Girl Scouts, cutest acronym ever—when they learned that the cookies they sold contain palm oil from plantations destroying orangutan habitat. Project Orang has been featured in national media, and garnered the pair an audience with the leaders of the Scouts—and a promise by the org to use only sustainable palm oil in the future.

Tomtishen and Vorva, now at the ripe old ages of 15 and 16, respectively, best sum up the spirit and substance of the inspirational BYAs: "We can dream in a way that is not limited by an adult's perspective."

Congratulations to all 2011 BYA recipients on your amazing, encouraging activism.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Michael Pollan and the Food Movement

Who: VegNews Editorial Assistant Joni Sweet 
What: Edible Education 101 class with Michael Pollan 
Where: Wheeler Auditorium, UC Berkeley, California 
When: October 4, 2011 
Why: To hear how corporations are affecting the food movement

Author of The Omnivore's Dilemma Michael Pollan
The Scoop: The world is growing, Western diets are poorer than ever, and many people have become dependant on big box stores for their groceries. As part of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program, national grocers like Wal-Mart agreed this past summer to open new stores or remodel existing ones to help bring more fresh food to food deserts—primarily low-income neighborhoods with little or no access to fresh, healthy food. I was interested in learning more about how corporations are affecting the food movement, so I decided to go a panel discussion on the issue as part of the Chez Panisse Foundation’s Edible Education 101 series of classes at UC Berkeley open to the public. While the classes are continuing every Tuesday throughout the fall semester, this particular panel was made of Jack Sinclair, the executive vice president of Wal-Mart’s food division in the US; Jib Ellison, founder of Blu Skye Strategy Consulting which transforms markets using principles of sustainability; and Michael Pollan, a noted author and professor.

Since Sinclair is responsible for developing Wal-Mart’s overall food and grocery strategy, he was able to tell the audience a lot about how Wal-Mart is working to improve the food crisis. He presented information that shows Wal-Mart’s effort to build relationships with small farmers, offer more organic produce at an affordable price, and how it's working towards its goal of nine percent of all produce sold to be sustainably sourced. Additionally, Sinclair said that Wal-Mart is working on revamping its food nutrition labels to make them more readable. I don’t think many people could argue with the hard numbers Sinclair presented to the audience that backed his claims.

However, what the audience did question was Wal-Mart’s controversial ethical practices regarding workers' compensation and salaries, sourcing standards for products, and extensive stocking of processed foods. Sinclair seemed to respond with stock public relations answers to tough questions, which included asking how Wal-Mart employees are supposed to afford organic food, whether Wal-Mart will put a limit on how profitable it will become, and how it could claim to be providing healthy food, while still stocking the shelves with processed junk food. Sinclair would often reference Wal-Mart’s ethical code and its dependence on its “valued” employees, rather than providing direct answers to such questions. Sinclair also reminded the audience of Wal-Mart’s policy of giving the customer freedom of choice, versus urging them to buy more healthful produce.

Overall, I found the talk quite interesting and engaging. As a big-business skeptic, I have to admit I was impressed with Wal-Mart’s current efforts in improving sustainability measures, healthful food options, and relationships with small, organic farmers. Sinclair said what many have known for some time—that people prefer local food because, in addition to not requiring lots of resources to transport it, the produce also tastes fresher and lasts longer—and that Wal-Mart has been improving relations with local farmers in communities across the US. On the other hand, I feel the audience brought up some very important points that still remain unanswered in a direct way. While Pollan didn’t actually speak much, he did suggest that perhaps labeling chemically laden food should be a requirement, versus the extensive, costly process organic farmers must go through to get the organic certification. Sinclair said the responsibility of that should lay with the government, and not with Wal-Mart.

If you’re interested in these issues, I would recommend watching a video of the lecture or going to one of the upcoming lectures if you’re in the Bay Area. Additionally, if you want to know more about how organizations across the US are working to increase food security, check out Combatting Food Insecurity in the US.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Tuesday Night Fine-Dining at Millennium

Who: VegNews Editorial Assistant Hilary Pollack

What: A VIP dinner with vegan personal chef Rebecca Dienner 
Where: Millennium in San Francisco, Calif.
When: October 4th, 2011
Why: To get the inside scoop on the delicious fall dishes at one of the city's best vegan restaurants.

The Scoop: The first autumn rains of San Francisco touched down this week, meaning that my comfort-seeking winter appetite will soon kick into full effect. I've already started longing for warm, hearty meals instead of the delicate salads that I subsist on for most of the summer in order to stay cool. Thankfully, one of the best vegan restaurants in the country is just a couple of neighborhoods away, and I'm also fortunate enough  to have a couple of friends who work there, holding all of the secrets to the menu's top picks. On a nonchalant Tuesday evening, my dear friend Rebecca—a vegan chef herself—and I frolicked to Millennium for a taste of the finer things in life.

 This is not hokey gnocchi.

We were daunted by the overwhelming appeal of nearly every single thing on the appetizer menu—oscillating between the heirloom tomato and melon salad, the black bean torte with caramelized plantains, and the coriander seed-crusted oyster mushrooms—but my friend Justin, who has worked at Millennium for several years, offered us some real talk by immediately recommending the gnocchi. Not just any gnocchi; this was the Seared Potato Gnocchi with vanilla-braised lobster mushrooms, grilled oyster mushrooms, saffron-lemon cashew cream, sweet pepperonata, and fried sage. It was love at first bite; this rich dish wowed us with its nuanced but harmonious reworking of the pillowy potato pasta. If only I could replicate it for holiday meals to come! Sadly, I am still a Tofurky-baking culinary amateur. We were also treated to the Roasted Fig Bruschetta, which perfectly balanced both sides of our palates with its synthesis of sweet smoked-onion marmalade, macadamia nut cheese, and radicchio-cherry tomato salad. 

Choosing a cocktail also proved difficult, since Millennium's cocktail program is world-class and ridiculously inventive. Ever wet your whistle with a libation flavored by muddled tarragon, heirloom tomatoes, or basil vodka? I opted for the Happy Boy—a concoction of gin, lemon verbena, watermelon, beet purée, and lime juice—which proved refreshing, potent, and totally unique. I am a beet person, but initially even I was skeptical of the root vegetable's inclusion. But one sip, and I was sold. And tipsy.

My artichoke jungle shortly before being scarfed.

Now for the main event. As a mushroom freak—of the non-psychedelic variety—I immediately gravitated towards the Roasted Artichoke, stuffed with a portobello, pecan, and eggplant-piccadillo filling, all resting atop creamy porcini mushroom-toasted farro risotto. Come one, come all, my precious fungi. If I see the word "porcini" in a dish I barely care what else is in it; my destiny is clear. Rebecca was also charmed by her choice: the Heirloom Tomato Coconut Masala, with a butterball potato-chickpea cake, mint chutney, and pickled cabbage. 

After about half an hour of recovery/digestion/sparkling wine time, we were ready for our sweet finale. Upon being presented with dessert menus, we were immediately sent us into a tailspin of indecision. Finally, we pulled our server closer. "What should we really get? We can handle it. Be honest with us," we implored her. The Molten Chocolate Rum Cake had caught our eye, but she caught us off guard with some restaurant philosophy. "Chocolate is always a good choice, but that's the thing—it's always a good choice. Some things, you can't get anywhere," she spoke to us cryptically before nudging towards the Vanilla-Pear Tart. We abided by her suggestion and were far from disappointed. The slightly salty walnut-pecan crust of this delectable dessert gorgeously complemented its syrupy medallions of perfectly in-season pear. 

 The tart that stole our hearts.

 Bellies full, curiosity satiated, and many thank-yous distributed, we wandered back out into the evening's drizzle. Autumn's harvest flavors are as warm and rich as the colors of its leaves, and Millennium was the perfect place to immerse ourselves in them. With the guiding light of its knowledgeable staff, we had the chance to experience the best tastes of the season. 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Blessed Evening (No, really!)

Who: VN Assistant Editor Anna Peraino
What: Dinner from Papalote and Bon Iver live in concert
Where: San Francisco and Berkeley, CA
When: September 22, 2011
Why: Burritos and Bon Iver are both alliterative and life-changing.

The Scoop: You know when you have those days where everything looks like it's going to go totally 100-percent uncontrollably wrong, and then somehow it turns into one of the best days of your life? The evening of September 22 was one of those days for me. Three friends and I bought tickets to Bon Iver at UC Berkeley's famed (and by "famed" I mean Jerry Garcia, Joan Baez, and Pink Floyd performed there) Hearst Greek Theater. Now, most of you probably don't know me (hi, Mom!), but Bon Iver is one of my absolute favorite, love-you-forever, own-all-your-albums-and-singles-on-vinyl bands. They make sweet, sweet love to my ears and I listen to them daily—but more on that later. First, the drama!

So crappy thing about this concert: it started at 7pm, and my friends and I are all SF residents, and two of us have to make the lovely (read: obnoxiously traffic-filled) commute up from the South Bay. I was to meet a friend at 6pm, grab burritos, and then meet the others at a designated SF intersection at 6:45 sharp. Sounds easy, right? Most definitely wrong! My first friend was late, and we didn't get out the door until 6:30. Luckily, however, a bus that could take us (quite literally) to the doorstep of Papalote was rolling by as we began our walk. We made it to Papalote just as our piping hot burritos came off the grill—filled with potatoes, carrots, mushrooms, black beans, rice, guacamole, and the best salsa in the universe (I mean it!), these rolled-up delights are one of my favorite meals in SF.

Imagine this exact burrito, minus the plate and plus my lap. 

After getting the burritos, it was a quick two-block walk to the designated meet-up. Somehow, some way, all four of us arrived within minutes of each other, and so the quad was off! Unfortunately, the lovely (read again: obnoxiously traffic-filled) drive across the Bay Bridge to Berkeley ended up taking an hour, and we arrived at the Greek with 15-ish minutes until Bon Iver was to take the stage. Plenty of time, right? Again, no. All the parking lots were filled! As the clock ticked closer and closer to 8pm, we were almost resigned to driving a mile away (and down a really, really steep hill) to a second parking lot, but fate stepped in in the form of a coed talking on her phone. "Do you need a parking spot? I have one right around the corner." God bless us, every one.

Five minutes (and $25 later—we really couldn't thank her enough), we arrived at the venue, burritos in hand. The outdoor ampitheatre was filled to the brim with excited listeners, the four of us included. And magically, as if the universe was waiting for us to arrive (so nice of it!), Bon Iver came on right as we were taking our seats.

And let me tell you readers, the show was absolutely amazing. Eight musicians, two drum sets, a piccolo, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, and a whole host of instruments collided in the musical glory that was that show.

Bon Iver and 8,500 of our closest friends! 

As if we didn't already feel the good juju all around us as we left the concert, as we neared our car, we saw a family of deer grazing in the nearby woods, two little fawns included! Five feet away from us! No joke! It was a blessed evening, filled with the best food, friends, music, and nature around.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Rockin' at Rootstalk

Who: VN West Coast Sales Manager Lara Bradley
What: Rootstalk Festival
Where: Salem, OR
When: September 22–25, 2011
Why: For a little local reporting!

The Scoop: As the sole Oregon staffer, it was just a hop, skip and jump to head to the Mountain Rose Herbs Annual Rootstalk conference, held just outside of Salem. A gorgeous lush setting where skyscraper size Douglas-fir trees the commanding authority, was once again the setting for this three-day and night gathering of teachers and masters speaking on everything botanical: including herbalism, aruyvedic medicine, wild mushrooms and edible plants. More than 700 nature-loving folks attended the event wherein all proceeds benefited Cascadia Wildlands, a non-profit whose mission is to combine personal connection with nature and community.

 Me and CoreyJean, ready for fun

Shawn Donnille, longtime advocate of the veg lifestyle, enthusiastically put this event on every year to give back to the community. The mornings start off with yoga under the trees, followed by informative lectures with intermittent breaks for canoeing and hiking with Sierra Club members. I found myself hovering at the Viva! Vegetarian Grill food cart, and had my pick of an array of fast food from their all vegan menu. My dog, CoryJean, preferred their hotdogs, sans the onions, as I shamelessly devoured the steak sandwich dripping with cashew cheese. Folk music strummed the attendees’ spirits, while storytelling by campfires was the evening serenade. There was even a masquerade ball under the stars where mere humans were transformed into mystical faeries and frolicking forest creatures while drinking dandelion wine. A hoedown not to be missed, I am getting my fairy wings ready for next year.

  The most important element for any festival: the food!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Portland VegFest 2011

Who: VN Office Manager Lyndsay Orwig
Where: Portland, OR
When: September 17 + 18, 2011
Why: To hang out with some cool vegans in the city known as vegan mecca.

The Scoop: I love Portland. I have visited the city a few times—most recently for the first-ever Vida Vegan Con—and every single time I enjoy myself immensely. What can I say, Portland relaxes me—the food is great, the people are nice, and maybe I just have a thing for rainy, cloudy skies.

This past weekend, I was lucky enough to visit this fabulous city in the Northwest in order to table at the Portland VegFest, which took place at the  Oregon Convention Center, and was attended by 6,700 people. It's definitely one of the bigger festivals in the US, and there was a ton of free (and delicious) vegan food, as well as awesome speakers, including Wayne Pacelle of HSUS, Grant Butler of The Oregonian, and Dr. Neal Barnard of PCRM.

 The crowded convention center.

I had the pleasure to work at the VegNews booth along with past VegNews employee Katie Paul, her husband, Dan Paul, who was also representing HSUS, and VegNews Street Teamer Bronwyn Ewers, who lives in nearby Tigard, OR. We were neighbors with Chicago Soydairy and ecoVegan, both of which have been featured in VegNews and have wonderful products—they were inundated with hungry attendees for the entirety of the show.

Bronwyn, myself, and Katie working the booth.

Though the booth was busy, I was able to break for quick snacks. On Saturday, I bought a plate of delicious Ethiopian food from Sengatera Ethiopian Restaurant, and then on Sunday I picked up some Yellow Tofu Curry and a few Spring Rolls from VegeThai. Both meals were tasty and satisfying, and helped to get me through the rest of the busy day.

My bountiful plate of Ethiopian food. So good!

This was my first time attending the Portland VegFest, and I hope it's not my last. It was truly a fun and successful event, in one of the best US cities. I'll stop gushing now.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Natural Selection at its Best

Who: Former VN employee, Katie Paul and husband Dan
What: A dinner at Natural Selection
Where: Portland, OR
When: Sept. 17th
Why: To check out Portland’s latest fine dining venue

The Scoop: As a former VegNews employee, volunteering for VegNews during the Portland VegFest has become a much anticipated annual tradition for me. I live in Seattle, a vegan friendly city in its own right, but I am always thrilled to jaunt south to Portland for a change of scenery. This year, I was asked to take on another task: to review a new restaurant in Portland called Natural Selection. This weekend was beginning to sound more like an indulgent getaway, and nobody had to twist my arm to get me to participate. I looked forward to the weekend all week long, and now, a week after the excursion, I still can’t stop thinking and talking about it.

Our phenomenal main course: polenta with summer squash

My husband Dan and I drove down to Portland on Saturday morning, and spent the day at Portland VegFest enjoying the company of friendly Pacific North-westerners and sampling both new and familiar vegan foods. As we headed to the quaint neighborhood of Alberta for our dinner reservations at Natural Selection, we were regretting all of the pre-dinner munching damage that had already been done. But, as we walked into the restaurant, we instantly regained our appetites. I appreciate good interior design almost as much as I appreciate good food, and this restaurant has both. However, to say that its cuisine and design are ‘good’ would be entirely misleading because it was perhaps the most delicious and thoughtfully designed meals in one of the most inviting and thoughtfully designed spaces I have ever experienced. Yes, this is a superlative description for a superlative dinning experience. Natural Selection is an exquisite fine dining experience without the fussy pretense.  The décor matches the cuisine: rustic and modern with a warm European influence. The food is plated with precision, but the silverware is unmatched. The open concept space conceals nothing; all 360 degrees of the space is aesthetically lovely, even the dishwashing is a part of this view.  Every detail is inviting and unpretentious yet, at the same time luxurious and immaculate. This juxtaposition is balanced seamlessly, creating an authentic atmosphere.

The human element also contributes to the Natural Selection experience.  Chris and Aida greeted and served us warmly, and explained the food intelligently. Natural Selection is the kind of high-end restaurant where you can ask what ‘flageolets’ and ‘cipollinis’ are without feeling like someone’s going to make you where an epicurean dunce cap. We watched head chef, Aaron Woo work passionately and efficiently with his kitchen staff as we devoured the fruits of their labor.

Me, slightly before devouring dessert
What distinguishes Natural Selection from other fine dining venues is that chef Aaron reinvents his menu weekly, featuring grains and seasonal fruit and vegetables. Needless to say, this constantly changing menu requires a great deal of creativity and dedication. The payoff is that Natural Selection loyalists can always count on a different culinary experience every time they frequent the restaurant. Two different four course meals are offered at a prefix price, and every dish is also offered a la carte. Dan and I ordered the two prefixed four course meals and ate off of each other’s plates. Such a fun way to share a meal with a loved one or a close friend! In between each course a palate cleanser was offered to help prepare our senses for the next course. Our favorite dishes included sweet white corn soup with basil, peppers, carrots, and citrus; and creamy polenta and piperade with summer squash, tomatoes, squash blossoms, and eggplant. Ending the meal with two desserts: peach crumble and orange and pecan cake, really hit the spot and left us with a sweet impression that would have our taste buds officially won over. Yes; we just might make Natural Selection the catalyst for another Portland getaway. 

Next time we visit, we will be sure to try some drinks from Natural Selection’s drink menu, which is just as thoughtful and inventive as their food menu.