Archive forReviews

Brookland Cafe, bluebells, babies (of the raccoon variety), and a trophy for Smark

Although we live nearby, Mark and I rarely venture to DC, which frankly, I do not like. If I need or want to do something in a city, I’ll usually drive up to Baltimore, where I am from, where I know people, where the streets make sense (They are a grid! They don’t look like someone threw a bowl of noodles on the floor and turned it into a map!), and where one is able to park their car. Mark and I lived in DC near Georgetown for a year, and more than once Mark drove home to our neighborhood, couldn’t find parking, and had to drive back to his office and sleep there because there wasn’t anywhere to put his car. Since we moved to Virginia, my forays into DC have been mostly limited to meetings for work, shows at the 9:30 Club (which I love), and occasional trips to the Smithsonian.

This is part of the reason you rarely see restaurant reviews on this blog; DC has plenty of options for vegans, but I’m barely familiar with them because I avoid the place (and I usually insist on Ethiopian when I am there!). But Mark was in a chess tournament near the Mall last Saturday, so after helping raccoons in the morning, I met him out there. After his tournament, we went out to dinner at a new vegan-friendly restaurant, so I thought I’d do a little review. And blab about my life, because you miss that, right?

I’ll go in chronological order, more or less. Mark, brave soul, drove downtown in the morning to register for the tournament, and I did my regular raccoon routine. We have 15 babies right now, but I think it was about 8 last weekend. This is Vinegar, and like Bender, he can’t roll off his back to right himself. (Most raccoons can – Vinegar is too fat!)

Once all the babies were fed and all the cages clean, I took the metro into the city and found Mark, who was doing well in the tournament. I didn’t hang around the chess place, though. I crossed Pennsylvania Ave…

…and headed towards the Mall.

I was hoping to see the rocket Antares during its takeoff, but the takeoff got scrubbed, for the second time, at the last minute. (It finally took off the next day.) I was disappointed, but I did think the Washington Monument looked a bit like a rocket prepared for liftoff with the scaffolding currently surrounding it. (It’s under repairs due to the earthquake we had in 2011.)

Did you know that the Smithsonian owns one of the original Paris metro signs that I loooooooooooove? (Oh, Paris; you pull off crazy streets and a lack of parking with so much more class than DC.)

I wandered around a couple of the Smithsonian’s gardens for a while…

… then headed back towards Mark. I witnessed a duck walking down the sidewalk outside the Natural History Museum. Why??? I guess she walked up from the Tidal Basin, but that seems rather dangerous. In retrospect, I wonder if I shouldn’t have tried to relocate her, although she seemed to know what she was doing.

Mark was outside waiting for me…with a trophy!!! He won every game of the tournament!

We went to Brookland Cafe for dinner because I had read online that they had a vegan menu and I wanted to check out their selection of vegan bar food. And I REALLY wanted a beer (it was hot!). It’s about 3 blocks from the Brookland CUA station. I had insisted we take the metro even though many stops were closed and we therefore had to take a shuttle for part of the way because I’d never been to Brookland and my base assumption for DC is there is no parking, but actually there was plenty of parking. That was around 6:30 on a Saturday; not sure if that makes a difference. The interior:

Mark was starved after his mental exertions, so we ordered an appetizer of jerk “chicken” tenders. These ended up being a veggie burger cut into strips and covered in a jerk sauce. I wasn’t expecting a veggie burger, but the sauce was tasty.

For his main, Mark ordered the mock fish sandwich. The “fish” looked and tasted like the fish filets I sometimes order from May Wah…which is good because we love those things.

I got the BBQ sandwich. This one was Gardein, I think even the sauce.

For our sides, we both ordered the “explosion” fries, which is a mixture of all four fries they have: regular, sweet potato, lemon pepper, and red pepper. Those were fun. Neither of us could finish our sandwiches, so we took the leftovers home. Because they were based on frozen products, it would have been fairly easy to make any of these dishes at home (except maybe the fries), and I prefer go to restaurants for things I can’t easily make at home, however, everything was also very delicious, the service was extremely attentive and friendly, and I like supporting places that have vegan menus, so I would definitely return. If we lived nearby, I could see Mark and I going there regularly for a beer on nights I didn’t feel like cooking. I would very much prefer it if they got rid of the television, though, and used real china and silverware instead of disposable plastic. I’m kind of hoping the latter is just a temporary measure for some reason.

Before I go, can we talk briefly about how much I love spring? One of the highlights around here is the Virginia bluebells. A couple of weekends ago I went to Merrimac Farm Wildlife Management Area to check them out.

That was extremely pleasant, although I think Bull Run Regional Park is still my favorite place to see them. I missed them there at their peak, but I did head down there one night after work this week.

Although the blanket of blue wasn’t as heavy as it would have been a couple of weeks ago, it was still beautiful.

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Fermentation Fervor

Last week I randomly stopped by Sandor Katz’s website (author of Wild Fermentation and The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved) and was shocked to find he had an upcoming event scheduled in DC. So I immediately ordered a ticket and last night after work, I headed to Chinatown…

… to the synagogue

… and spent two and a half hours listening to him speak. Unfortunately, I didn’t lug my big camera with me and my phone is inexcusably terrible at taking pictures. But I tried to get some pictures because I knew I was going to want to tell you how great the talk was.

Sandor and a cabbage.

Sandor is a fountain of fermentation knowledge. He just rattles off the Latin names of various bacteria as if he’s reciting the alphabet and he’s very inspiring. I think even more than all the facts and scientific stuff he went over, my big take-away from the session was really just his attitude. I’m a very laid-back, relaxed cook and I don’t do a lot of measuring, but I have always calculated an amount of salt to use in my sauerkraut and other pickles based on the weight of the vegetables. Sandor, however, says you don’t have to bother with all that measuring nonsense. You just chop up some vegetables – however you want, or you know, don’t bother chopping them – and add as much salt as you feel like and put it in a jar, or some other vessel. Then when it tastes good, you eat it. And that’s that. To prove how simple a process this was, he made some sauerkraut while talking to us, without even thinking about it.

We also got some samples, including of a prior batch of his sauerkraut, so yes, I’ve tasted Sandor Katz’s sauerkraut and it was tasty! We also got kimchi, pickle juice, and beer.

If Sandor should make an appearance near you (and who knows, with a new book due out in a couple of weeks, maybe he will), I definitely recommend checking it out. Buy a ticket in advance too, because this event sold out and there was a line down the block to get in. Which I thought was pretty awesome. I didn’t realize until last night just how big a deal Sandor was. It was kind of interesting to be in a room with so many other people that share my interest in this stuff, even if I am terribly shy and of course didn’t talk to any of them. I often feel very isolated, but it turns out that whenever I venture out into the world in pursuit of one of my interests, whether it be wildlife or fermentation or whatever, there are plenty of other people around, even here in Northern Virginia, that are into it as well. Who knew? Anyway, the class was great and I can’t wait to get a bunch of jars of various things bubbling away…I’ve been lazy lately and this talk was exactly what I needed.

Once the class was over, I walked down 6th St NW towards the metro station …

… which is on the left corner of this picture.

Hopped on the Red Line at Gallery Place …

… and transferred to the Orange at Metro Center. I have a lot of bad things to say about DC, and even a lot of bad things to say about the Metro, but I DO have to say that the stations are nice and it’s very clean. That’s because they’ll arrest you for so much as finishing a candy bar on the escalator (no food allowed) or drinking anything, even if you’re handicapped! And if you are handicapped, you’ll need something to drink because you’ll be stuck underground forever because the elevators NEVER seem to be in service. I think they are a little overzealous in some of their policies, but it is probably the cleanest metro I’ve ever been on. It also has a particular smell that I forgot about until last night, and surprisingly, it’s not the smell of urine like the New York subway – I don’t even want to KNOW what they’d do to someone they caught urinating there – it’s not a bad smell at all. It’s just how the DC metro stations smell – I think it’s all that concrete or something – and you forget about it when you no longer have to ride it every day and then do so again after a long time. I had to wait a while for my train, which is why I have so many pondiferous thoughts about the metro’s odiferousness.

In addition to wondering why I’m talking about how the DC metro smells, you’re probably wondering why I’m being so fartsy-artsy with the black & white photos. Well, I mentioned a whole ago that I’d been taking some pictures with an infrared filter. I had a lot of fun with that, but it’s kind of a pain because of the very long exposures. The long exposures were part of the fun, but they aren’t very conducive to spontaneity, and I was thinking I wanted to get some fun IR pictures while we are in France and the Netherlands in May, and I might not always want to be carrying a tripod with me. Soooo, I found a camera that had been internally converted to take only IR pictures. With this modification, you can use the camera normally, so exposure times are normal, and you can see through the lens on the viewfinder, even auto-focus and all that good stuff. But every picture you take will be infrared-only, so this probably isn’t something you want to do to your only camera. But I found a used camera that already had the mod, AND the camera was one I was interested in anyway, a Panasonic Lumix GF2, which is a micro 4/3s camera, which means it’s really tiny but takes SLR-quality photos and leaves me with complete creative control, which is a must for me because I only use the manual settings.

All the pictures above except the colors ones of Sandor (which were taken with my phone) were taken with the new camera. None of them look very strange because they were taken in the city and things like buildings don’t reflect a ton of infrared light, especially at night. So those end up looking very normal once they’re converted to B&W. Things look a little different out in nature (or my yard) during the day. No, it didn’t snow (the weather’s been awesome and this is a particularly beautiful spring, I’ve found) – grass just reflects a lot of IR light.

We have a bunch of bamboo in our backyard. I keep maintaining it’s going to attract pandas, but so far we haven’t had a panda infestation that I know of.

I’m hoping to take some shots someplace other than my yard this weekend! None of these pictures were altered in any way other than being converted to B&W using Picasa, by the way. In fact, if anyone out there has any recommendations for a good RAW editor for Linux (I use Ubuntu) PLEASE let me know! I tried to get Lightroom and Photoshop working with wine, but it was a no-go. I don’t want to spend much time at all post-processing – I’m on a computer all day at work and I tend to keep away from it at home – but I am interested to see if I get better images working with the RAW files.

I try not to veer too much off topic on this blog (though somehow I’ve decided cats and raccoons are totally on topic), but at the risk of boring some of you, I might post a few. There’ll be more food next time, though, I promise! Quite likely fermented food!

Oh – one final thought. Any vegan tips for Nice, France? Mark has swapped out Marseille from our itinerary for Nice, which I’m cool with because Nice looks très belle, but I’m not as sure about eating there. Speaking of France, though, je lis les romans français! I read the English version of Julien Parme in about a day, and it kind of irked me in being SO like The Catcher in the Rye. It’s practically the same book 60 years later and in Paris. Putain. BUT the French version is perfect for my skill level and much more enjoyable. I bought a few other short, easy-seeming modern French books as well, but if anyone wants to suggest some more, I’m all ears. My reading skills are definitely way up, but my listening and speaking skills are pretty lousy. Story of my life – that’s true my English as well! But I’m hoping subtitles magically appear under everyone’s face when they speak in France. French subtitles are fine. My tutor said I’m out of luck with that. Putain.

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Tofutti Ricotta – review + recipe

Today I was definitively diagnosed as suffering from (daily, yay) migraines. I’m not telling you to solicit pity or anything, just to explain tonight’s dinner (although it also sort of explains why I’ve been quiet lately). I met with my doctor this afternoon to go over the results of my MRI, which was composed of images like this:

…which because I LOVE neuroscience, I found fascinating, but which are also creepy because those are MY eyeballs on stalks. However, we also now know that is my very normal brain, which is a good thing.

Is showing you pictures of my brain too intimate? I think it may be, although people are always showing off their sonograms and frankly I find this much more interesting to look at. Sorry, though. Try not to think of Large Marge every time you see me.

Moving on, having ruled out anything terrifying (other than the eyeballs on stalks) like brain tumors, migraines it is. This is bad because migraines are annoying, but it is GOOD to have an explanation for this annoyance, and GOOD to have medicine, which I can start tomorrow. I was resistant earlier to the idea of taking medicine, but after this past week, I’m ready for it.

So I stopped by Wegmans on my way home this afternoon to pick up what I hope is my miracle cure. While waiting for the prescription to be filled, I wandered the aisles, and guess what I found?? Tofutti Better Than Ricotta Cheese! I had no idea this was a new product! As the label says, wow!

I immediately snatched it up in a flurry of excitement. For occasional use, I’m a big fan of Tofutti’s Better Than Cream Cheese and Better Than Sour Cream, so I had high hopes for the ricotta. However, I was slightly hesitant about it because honestly, although I’ve never made a spectacular homemade “cream cheese”, and Tofutti’s sour cream is more realistic than anything I’ve made as well, I’ve never had any problems making tofu “ricotta”, so I wasn’t sure I needed this product. Nonetheless, I bought it…for you! So I could do a taste test and write a review for YOU. Because I care! I’ve been trying to make extra-healthy dinners lately, but I decided that tonight I would splurge and make something easy (because I have a headache), but decadent and fun (to celebrate because I hope to not have a headache tomorrow! Or the next day!). And educational for my readers!

So the “ricotta” went home with me, for the rather outrageous price of I believe $4.39, in addition to some just-as-processed Gardein Beefless Tips, tinned tomatoes, and pasta – WHITE pasta. That’s right, I’m celebrating.

Unfortunately, I was slightly put off when I opened the ricotta.

It just didn’t look…great.

I crumbled it with my hands. It felt distressingly like cold, damp okara. If any of you have followed my depressing okara trials, you’ll know that I am no fan of okara, and let me tell you something: cold, damp okara is the WORST kind of okara. Worse, the ricotta TASTED a bit like cold, damp okara. The photo may make it look as innocuous as a bowl of crumbled tofu, but it’s actually very grainy and disturbing, whereas crumbled tofu is pleasant and fresh. Those of you who don’t make your own tofu or soy milk may be wondering what the heck okara (the ground-up remains of soybeans that is a by-product of the soymilk-making process) looks, feels, and tastes like. Suffice it to say, it’s a grainy, bland mess. Raw Tofutti ricotta tastes a little bit like what I suspect chalk would taste like if you ground it up and added water with a touch of lemon juice. Slightly tangy wet chalk, in other words.

I became alarmed at this point. My celebratory dinner suddenly seemed in danger of being GROSS. So I decided I would make TWO versions of my dinner, one with the now-frightening Tofutti ricotta and one with my own tofu “ricotta”. I didn’t want to “waste” my good “cotton” (i.e., non-silken) tofu on an experiment, so I took a box of firm silken tofu and whizzed it in a blender with a little salt, 2 or 3 tablespoons of Dragonfly’s Bulk, Dry Uncheese Mix, and about 2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice.

While I was blending up my own “ricotta”, behind my back, Senor Gomez was not nearly as skeptical of the Tofutti stuff as I was!

Hahahahaahahaha!!! Oh man, this hilariated* me. He REALLY liked that stuff.

Anyway, so I pre-heated the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit, then ground up the Beefless Tips and sauteed them with a small onion and some garlic in a skillet, deglazing with white wine.

I put 28 oz of whole tinned tomatoes into the blender, with a bunch of chopped garlic, frozen basil, and some dried oregano, red chili flakes, and salt, and processed. It’s like a circus in my kitchen at times, by the way.

I also cooked some pasta al dente and drained. I set up two small bakers and put a thin layer of sauce on the bottom of each, then topped with some of the pasta.

Then I added the “beef”.

Next up, the “ricotta”, Toffuti on the left, homemade on the right.

Closeup of the Tofutti, looking suspiciously okara-like.

I added more sauce, pasta, another layer of “ricotta”, and the rest of the sauce.

Another close-up of the Tofutti version:

I covered and baked for 45 minutes. After removing, let sit for 5 to 10 minutes before serving. Here is the dish with MY ricotta:

…and here is the Tofutti ricotta. It MELTED! THANK GOD. Soooo much more appetizing. And actually not gross!

I served myself some of each for a taste comparison. Tofutti on the left, Renae on the right.

The verdict? To my surprise, the Tofutti was okay. Baking it did WONDERS. However, it was just okay. It was not worth anywhere NEAR its $5 retail price (which is absurd). My tofu ricotta cost about $1.75 – and would have been mere pennies had I made the tofu myself – and tasted BETTER than Tofutti. It’s also better for you. To be honest, I had a pretty hard time distinguishing which lump of pasta bake was the Tofutti Ricotta and which was the Renae Ricotta on my plate during the taste test (a.k.a. dinner, which by the way I balanced with a lovely, abundant salad); they tasted and looked similar. Mark said the Tofutti was okay, but when he went back for seconds, he only got more of the Renae Ricotta, which he said was better.

In conclusion, Tofutti ricotta is a useless and extremely over-priced product. I can’t even say it’s a good convenience product because it takes only SECONDS to make a nice, fresh tofu ricotta. You don’t even need the blender: just crumble up some regular tofu with your hands and work in some salt and lemon juice, and nutritional yeast if you want. You also can’t really eat Tofutti ricotta raw, unless you are a glutton for punishment or are a cat.


The reason I find those pictures of Gomez so hilarious is because when I was growing up, I had the Most Awesome Cat in the World, Dracula. Dracula had THE biggest personality you’ll ever find on a cat. I even have a tattoo of him, he was so awesome. Like Gomez, Dracula was all-black. What I find really weird is I actually sometimes CALL Gomez Dracula, which seems so bizarre to me because Dracula died years and years ago and other than their species and color, they have little in common. You’d think I’d accidentally call him Tigger, but I have never done that even once. Anyway, among many, many goofy things Dracula did, if you put a paper lunch bag on the floor, he’d stick his head in it and then walk until he hit a wall. Then he’d back up, change directions, and again walk until he hit a wall. (This makes Dracula sound very stupid, but he wasn’t – he was just…unique.) Evidence:

* a perfectly cromulent word.

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