Spiced Green Lentils With Pomegranate, Sweet Potato, and Pistachios (4-6 servings) and Asheville Wrap-Up

Bryan and I recently spent a long weekend in Asheville as an early celebration our anniversary. (Ten years next month! Where did the time go?!) If you're vegetarian and live within reasonable distance of this funky mountain town, you MUST go. Asheville is a haven for vegans and vegetarians. Nearly every restaurant worth mentioning (and there are dozens in Asheville) serve creative, flavorful meatless options, and the city boasts several vegetarian eateries, including the Laughing Seed and the all-vegan Plant.

The Laughing Seed's barbecue platter: vegan chipotle beans, cornbread muffin, tangy Southern slaw, and BBQ jackfruit

We always eat well in Asheville. Each time we go, we revisit some old favorites (like Laughing Seed) and add in a few new places. We tried a couple new-to-us restaurants this time around, including Bhramari Brewhouse, Chai Pani, and Zambra.

Pillowy veggie samosas, crispy kale pakoras, and salty-limey okra fries from Chai Pani

We spent a cozy evening at Zambra over tapas for our anniversary celebration, taking in the fresh air from our table in the breezeway. Zambra serves beautifully-plated, unique tapas options and offers an extensive wine list.

My two generous glasses of velvety-smooth Tempranillo suggested top notes of "I forget which tapas we ordered" with lingering hints of "but I know they were all amazing."

Of course, there's much more to do in and around Asheville besides just eat. We drove to nearby Bryson City to hop a train on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, where our beautifully-restored 1942 steam engine chugga-chugged us past stunning views of Fontana Lake and the Nantahala and Tennessee Rivers.

The unique color of the lake comes from the residue of copper mines!

We listened to spooky tales of Asheville's sordid history and even used ghost-hunting equipment to detect spectral activity (no luck) on the Downtown Spirits Tour. We browsed the eclectic downtown shops for hours, gazing at the local art in display windows and listening to street musicians as we passed by. We spent a cacophonous afternoon at the Asheville Pinball Museum, where we played vintage classics (Sadly, my favorite, Gottlieb's Haunted House, was sold since our last visit) and brand-new iterations (Ghostbusters!) alike.

If you're a pinball fan, the admission price is about the best $15 you'll ever spend.

But the place that always, always feels like home in Asheville is Malaprop's. Bryan and I have been to more than our fair share of bookstores -- believe me -- but Malaprop's is our favorite by far. It sounds silly to call a bookstore "book-focused," but if you've visited enough of them, you know that some bookstores emphasize collectibles from various trending fandoms while others spotlight cozy seating but offer few reading choices. Malaprop's, however, wants to attract readers who read. It's Heaven, and it makes my bibliophilic heart so, so happy.

I took home five new books, including Carla Snyder's One Pan, Two Plates: Vegetarian Suppers, which I've already cooked from twice. The concept is simple: Use one cooking vessel to serve up a flavorful dinner for two people. I'm already finding that each serving is pretty big, however. Both times I've cooked from this book, I doubled the recipe so we'd have leftovers for lunch the next day, only to find I had leftovers for two lunches for both of us. But hey, when the food is this good, I can't argue. The dish I'm featuring in this post (you know, when I'm done rambling about trains and pinball and books and ghosts) is complex; the lentils are earthy and peppery, the spices add aromatic interest, and the garnishes of pistachios, chèvre, and mint bring in a layer of bright, tangy, sweetness. It's perfect, really!

Hello, beautiful.

Spiced Green Lentils With Pomegranate, Sweet Potato, and Pistachios (4-6 servings)

Click here for a printable recipe.

You will need:

  • 1/4 cup sunflower or canola oil
  • 2 tsp ground coriander
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • A generous pinch of ground cloves
  • 2 small onions, chopped (or an equivalent of dried minced onion if you've got an angry IBS belly like I have)
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 1/2 cups green lentils, picked through and rinsed
  • 3 1/2 cups vegetable broth
  • 1 lemon
  • 1/3 cup roasted pistachios, coarsely chopped
  • 2-3 oz goat cheese, crumbled
  • 1/3 cup pomegranate seeds
  • 2 Tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 Tbsp chopped mint leaves

Steps:

  1. Heat a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat and add the oil. When the oil shimmers, add in the coriander, cumin, cloves, onion, garlic, and sweet potato, plus 1/2 tsp salt and some ground black pepper. Sauté until the onion starts to soften and the garlic is fragrant -- about 3 minutes. 
  2. Add the lentils and broth and allow the mixture to come to a soft boil. Turn the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the lentils and vegetables are tender and the liquid has been absorbed -- about 30 minutes. (Follow the author's advice and start checking after 15 minutes to see if the mixture needs more broth. I ended up needing to add a quarter cup after 25 minutes because the lentils were still a bit crunchy.) Remove from heat.
  3. Cut the lemon in half and squeeze the juice (Watch those seeds!) over the mixture. Then add in the chopped pistachios. Add more salt if needed, although if your broth is salty or the pistachios are heavily salted, you might not need to do so.
  4. Scoop each serving into a bowl, and then top each bowl with a tablespoon or so of the pomegranate seeds and goat cheese, plus a sprinkling of parsley and mint. This can be served hot or at room temperature.

As I said, I doubled the original recipe, although I kept the garnishes at almost the original measurements. I think they work well as an accent but don't need to dominate the dish. The only other change I made was to swap out the original olive oil for sunflower, as olive oil tends to burn on my stove at higher temps. Look at the gorgeous, gorgeous colors of this dish!

Produce spotlight: Microgreens

Farmers' markets are the perfect place to try new foods and for several reasons. First, they give growers, bakers, and artisans the opportunity to sell interesting, uncommon foods that might not sell as well in large grocery stores. Second, they allow customers to ask questions about the products -- how they're grown, where they're from, and how best to prepare them. (Many stands also offer samples and recipes!) Third, that direct interaction with customers gives sellers immediate feedback, allowing them to customize their offerings from week to week, focusing on what customers request instead of what supermarkets (often unrealistically) demand.

A couple Saturdays ago at Chapel Hill Farmers' Market (By the way, how did I get so lucky to have a biweekly market directly across the street from me?!), I bought a box of microgreens from Open Door Farm's stand. They looked a little like alfalfa sprouts, and I was drawn to their delicate, tangled stalks in hues of eggplant, mustard, ivory, and ruby. According to Open Door's website, "microgreens are basically the harvested seedlings of vegetable and herb plants," but unlike sprouts, they are grown in soil. Open Door Farm offered a few different mixes of microgreens, but I went with the rainbow mix, a combination of arugula, amaranth, beets, broccoli, cabbage, chard, collards, kale, and kohlrabi. What a variety! 

After some online research, I found a few ways to use the rainbow microgreens in my own kitchen and took photos of the results throughout that week.

Here, colorful microgreens garnish a bowl of black bean soup sprinkled with crushed tortilla chips and drizzled with chipotle sour cream.

They added a crunchy layer in a sandwich wrap filled with sliced apples, cheddar cheese, and whole-grain mustard.

Microgreens gave an extra flavor accent in my favorite brunch sandwich (inspired by Lititz, PA's Tomato Pie): melted brie, scrambled egg, and raspberry jam on toasted sunflower bread!

Microgreens don't stand up well to heat, so they're best used in cold dishes, as finishing garnishes, or in the very last step of cooking. I'd buy them again to add to salads, throw in stir fries, or maybe even try in a smoothie. 

What will you try at the farmers' market this week?

Review: Emile Noël organic pumpkin seed oil

One of the nicest things about blogging is that occasionally, a company contacts you to ask if they can send you something free so you can write about it! So when Emile Noël -- a French, family-owned company that produces organic, virgin, fair-trade oils -- asked me to pick a flavor to review, I was thrilled but stumped. How would I choose from the 12 oils they produce? 

After much consideration, I decided on the most unusual of their offerings, organic pumpkin seed oil. Cold-pressed and chock full of omega-6 fatty acids, the oil has a low smoke point, so it's best used for finishing dishes and in salad dressings. 

The scent of the oil is toasty and deep -- somewhere between dark sesame oil and roasted peanuts. The color is a dark amber reminiscent of maple syrup but with the gorgeous sheen of liquid caramel. On its own, the flavor is intensely nutty and dark, and it was clear from my small spoonful that a little bit of the oil goes a long way.

Since the oil was new to me, I had to do some research online to learn how to use it. Apparently, in parts of Eastern Europe, the oil is often used as an ice cream topping; however, I wasn't thrilled by the idea of oily ice cream, so I decided to look for other ideas. Here is a brief summary of the ways I tried using the oil, with a short review of each method:

  • As a finishing oil on roasted broccoli: I roasted broccoli florets in olive oil and salt and then drizzled a bit of the pumpkin seed oil on top when I served it. I couldn't really pick out the oil's flavor as I was eating the broccoli, which means either I didn't use enough of it, or it just blends very harmoniously with the broccoli.

  • As salad dressing: I dressed a salad of spring mix, Gorgonzola, and chopped apples with a vinaigrette made from the pumpkin seed oil, some olive oil, mustard, lemon juice, dried thyme, and salt and pepper. Here, the pumpkin seed flavor was more pronounced and worked as a nice complement to the sweetness of the apple and the tang of the cheese. I'm glad, however, that I cut the pumpkin seed oil with olive oil, as I think the flavor would have been too intense on its own.

  • With roasted sweet potatoes in a cranberry-chipotle sauce: Unfortunately, the smoky, spicy chipotle flavor dominated here, and I couldn't taste the pumpkin seed oil at all. (However, that recipe was BANGIN' and I will definitely make it again this fall!)

  • In pumpkin chocolate chip bread: I replaced 2 Tbsp of the vegetable oil with the pumpkin seed oil, and wow. Just wow. This bread was intensely moist, nutty, and comforting. This was definitely my favorite recipe of the ideas I tried out. I doubt that anyone would try the bread and immediately recognize the addition of the pumpkin seed oil, but it did add that autumnal je ne sais quoi that an average pumpkin bread recipe is missing. I'll definitely bake this again later in the year.

In fact, I think I'll continue to find more ways to use the oil once the weather turns cold again. Most of the ideas I found online called for ingredients that are seasonal to fall, so I'm sure I will be bringing it out again during that time.

My only complaint about the oil is that the recipe section of the company's website does not give any recommendations for this particular oil. In my opinion, if a company wants American consumers to try out an unfamiliar ingredient, it should give specific suggestions for how to use it. In fact, some of the recipes I found came from Emile Nöel's competitors!

But I will continue to look online for new ideas for using this smooth, nutty, versatile oil!

(And congrats again to Erin M. for winning a free bottle of Emile Nöel organic mild olive oil!)

Veg*n Chef Profile: Matt Props

Ask most chefs about their formative influences, and they’ll most likely cite a James Beard Award-winning artisan or an esoteric New York restaurant (or possibly a grandmother).

Matt Props, a vegan chef in Durham, answers the question from a surprisingly different angle.

“Punk rock, hip hop, and jazz,” he tells me over the phone, a grin practically audible over the line.

“Punk has a do-it-yourself mentality,” the Ohio native explains, noting that bands often played in garages or basements when traditional music venues were inaccessible. “Hip hop is about creating a persona and a voice and an angle,” he continues, while jazz involves “taking classics and adding your own twist.”

Like his musical influences, Props’ culinary projects are inventive, persona-driven, and improvisational. Stay Fresh and Day One, both of Props’ restaurants, take over Durham’s Ninth Street Bakery once a week. Stay Fresh (open on Tuesday nights) is a “no-frills,” order-at-the-counter enterprise, and Day One (open on Saturday nights), while still casual, is a tad more structured and cozy. Both operations feature the music Props grew up listening to and the vegan cuisine he loves to share with an ever-growing fanbase.

Props, vegan since the age of 16, fully recognizes that “vegan” is often unfairly associated with an “air of elitism and privilege,” and that many people think vegan food, while healthy, is “all brown rice” and “flavorless.” Furthermore, he adds, people tend to think that vegans are “starved for options” (no pun intended) and will gratefully eat whatever animal-free options they can find, no matter how tasteless. (“I’ve been to weddings where the vegan option is just grilled asparagus on a plate,” he sighs.)

But Props wants to defy that desperate, flavorless reputation by proving that vegan food can be creative, tasty, and satisfying. “A lot of what people eat everyday is vegan but they don’t know it,” he notes. Through both his pop-up eateries, he aims to serve “relatable food,” or what he terms “vegan cuisine for the masses.”

To that effect, Stay Fresh has featured biscuit-laden brunches, Chesapeake Bay-inspired delights, and a burger night. Similarly, Day One, Prop’s collaboration with baker and fellow hip hop enthusiast Ari Berenbaum, has served up meals inspired by Chinese take-out, Southern picnic eats, and, perhaps most interestingly, neighborhood bodegas. Of course, all the items contain no animal ingredients, but they do highlight Props’ own imaginative twist on familiar favorites. For example, bodega night starred portabella mushroom jerky, pig-free pork rinds, and scratch-made SpaghettiOs (dressed up with caramelized leeks and capers).

A graduate of Bauman College’s Natural Chef Certification program (where he completed an internship with vegan superstar Colleen Patrick-Goudreau), Props self-identifies as “a chef first and foremost,” adding that he loves to “apply classic culinary techniques to things that aren’t traditionally vegan.” Even as a vegan, he doesn’t shy away from meat-heavy cookbooks, instead scouring them for techniques and flavor pairings he can adapt for vegan dishes. “Just because a cookbook has a picture of a fish head on it,” he advises, “you shouldn’t discount its advice.”

So how has Durham’s food community responded to his vegan-remixed classics?

The most common customer reaction Props has experienced has been sheer gratitude. Props designs his themes with his too-often-marginalized diners in mind, and to that end, his menus always include at least one gluten-free option. (He is also able to work around other allergies with three to four days’ notice.) According to Props, Durham’s vegan community has been “phenomenally supportive,” and the gluten-free diners have been “the most supportive and thankful and hopeful.” Props wants customers to feel welcome and return often enough that they feel comfortable making suggestions for themes or menu items.

For as often as Props’ diners have communicated gratitude, they have also happily expressed surprise at the creativity and robust flavor of his dishes. He gets a real thrill out of seeing born-and-bred Southerners enjoying his animal-free take on soul food.

Now that Props has established his culinary identity, he is focusing on the future. “Ultimately our goal is to have our own space,” he explains with pride. Currently serving up dishes with a staff of only three or four, Props is comfortable in Ninth Street Bakery and thankful for the “amazing support” the owners have given him. However, in the future, he’d like to expand his workspace to give himself, his co-workers, the local DJs he hosts, and his diners more elbow room.

“We’re trying to foster a real community,” he explains.

Props’ focus on the future and the positive allows him to remain optimistic in spite of occasional challenges. As the hip hop community has known for years, haters gonna hate. Within the chef scene, some traditionally-minded cooks view the idea of a vegan chef as a joke, even taking offense at the notion that chefs could conjure up flavor without using any animal-derived ingredients.

Perhaps drawing on that hip hop swagger, Props just laughs off their sneers, boasting, “I love proving them wrong.”

 

Update: Check out Day One's Jamaican Night this coming Saturday, July 13th! 

 

Wallaby Greek yogurt review and GIVEAWAY!

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A few weeks ago, Wallaby yogurt contacted me about doing a review and a giveaway, and I was happy to oblige. (Free food? Yes, please!) 

Greek yogurt is all over the place lately. According to the Huffington Post, Greek yogurt now takes up 36% of the yogurt market in the U.S. (up from just one percent a few years ago) and is now used to make everything from frozen yogurt to cream cheese. Greek yogurt is thicker, richer, and more protein-packed than its traditional, thin counterparts.

With so many varieties of Greek yogurt on the market, what makes Wallaby unique? Some yogurt producers simply add gelatin or starches to thicken their usual yogurt, slap on a Hellenic font, and assume they've made an acceptable Greek yogurt. (I'm looking at you, Yoplait.) Wallaby, however, uses a traditional slow-cooking method to prepare the yogurt before straining it in small batches. The company also makes its yogurt from organic milk from small family farms, which you can read more about here. Plus, there's nothing artificial in the product, which both my stomach and my soul appreciate! 

At about $1.50 a cup, Wallaby Greek yogurt is more expensive than traditional yogurts, but it's less expensive than many of its Greek competitors. Most Wallaby Greek flavors offer 12 grams of protein per serving and around 15 grams of sugar (some other Greek yogurt brands contain more than 20 grams of sugar per serving). The sweetness level is just right -- not cloying but not too tart, either. 

My favorite non-fat flavor was the peach, because the jammy filling reminded me of a sunny summer day. Among the low-fat varieties, I preferred the honey flavor. The floral-scented, thin honey perfectly contrasts the tangy, thick yogurt. All of Wallaby's Greek varieties come in a two-compartment container, giving consumers the ability to choose their own yogurt-to-filling ratio with every spoonful!

So now that I've had my fun trying several different varieties, I'd like to give YOU, my readers, an opportunity to do the same! Just post a comment above for a chance to win one of three prize packs, each valued at $10! Each prize pack contains coupons for five single-serve containers of Wallaby Greek yogurt. The coupons are redeemable for both the non-fat and low-fat varieties. (Wallaby products are available at Whole Foods, so please make sure there is one in your area before you enter the drawing.)

I'll randomly select three winners on April 1st -- no foolin'! Check back at the start of next month to see if you've won!

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