Sunday, October 28, 2007

A trip to Taqueria Doña Tere

A small group of us braved the chilly weather Friday to check out Taqueria Doña Tere and sample the elotes, champurrado, and other authentic Mexican lunch items.

I decided to try the elote as suggested--covered with mayonnaise, rolled in crumbled cheese and sprinkled with lime. It is very rare that I eat mayonnaise, but I wanted an authentic experience. It was...mayonnaisey. I think I would have preferred it with just a teeny bit of butter, cheese and lime instead of the mayonnaise. I don't think I've consumed that much fat and calories on a stick in my entire life. And once you've started eating an elote, you've pretty much committed to it because you can't really set it down (or share it, really). Despite the fact that I had my face buried in an ear of corn that I did not share, my dining companions did offer to share what they'd ordered. Jim Ridley from The Scene offered a bite of his bean and cheese gordita and boy am I glad I tried it. A layer of beans and cheese with fresh cilantro and onions (optional) between two thick corn tortillas. Delicious. Though, I fear not completely vegetarian (as in, I'd be willing to bet the beans contained lard).

But what is vegetarian is the champurrado, which was like cinnamon-y hot chocolate mixed with finely-ground grits (hominy). Claudia was kind enough to share her champurrado with me and it's a good thing because there's no way I could have finished an entire cup on my own; it really is a meal in itself (and likely whole grain!). And they also serve stewed nopales (the fruit of the prickly pear cactus stewed with onions and spices), which we were given to sample. Several people in the group really liked the nopales, but Claudia and I agreed it was too salty for our tastes and the dish was a little too spicy for me, as well.

We all also enjoyed washing down our food with Mexican sodas you don't find at most restaurants. Once again, on Jim's recommendation, I ordered the Senorial Sangria soda and I was not disappointed. I love sangria in just about any form and one that's appropriate for a non-three-martini lunch (because I don't work in the ad business any more!) is a winner with me. Next time, though I'll try the tamarind soda.

It was great to see some old friends and meet some new ones. Next time we all get together, we need to do so when we have more than an hour!

Thursday, October 25, 2007


When my friends and I were visiting New York City at the end of August, we were browsing around the shops of SoHo and NoLita when we stumbled upon quite a crowd at the corner of Prince and Elizabeth streets. When we investigated the fuss, we discovered a line of people waiting to get into Cafe Habana. And even more people spilling out onto the sidewalk eating ears of corn (elotes). Mmmm...corn. We didn't have the time or energy to deal with the crowd that day and I've regretted that ever since.

So imagine my delight when I read the Nashville Scene's Bites blog post where Jim Ridley tells us about a little place over on Nolensville Road selling elotes. Well, you don't have to imagine, because I commented there and wrote a post about it on Music City Bloggers. And I'm writing about it again. So, yes, I'm excited. I love corn.

Anyhoo, I'm not the only person salivating over this news. Claudia over at cook eat FRET is, too and we're meeting up tomorrow (Friday, October 26, that is) at noon to chow down. Ivy's hoping to join us as well and you're invited, too. You can find the elotes (and the bloggers) at Taqueria Doña Tere, a lunch trailer near the El Fandango Club at 2196 Nolensville Pike (and across from the Circle K). See you there!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Spaghetti Squash

I actually cooked myself a meal last night! I decided to bake one of the spaghetti squashes that I've been stubbing my toe on for two weeks. So I got out the cleaver and went to work.

The cleaver was a bad idea. It's necessary for a big ol' butternut squash, but next time, I think I'm going to use my bread knife again. Or maybe buy a cheaper bread knife just for squash. Anyoo, after wrestling with the squash, I baked it rind side up for 35 minutes at 375 degrees.

While the squash was cooking, I made a sauce for it. Like most people, I eat spaghetti squash like it's spaghetti, so I whipped up a quick pasta sauce for it. First, I caramelized some onions (not red ones, of course). Some notes about caramelizing onions if you haven't done so before--it helps to throw the onions in the pan and let some of the water cook out before you add any fat. It only takes a couple of minutes. Also, you need to prepare 3-4 times as much as you think you'll need since those slivers get even smaller once they're cooked. And be sure to cook them on medium to medium low heat and use plenty of olive oil or butter (I prefer butter) or you'll end up with crispy onion bits, not caramelized onions.

Once the onions were nearly done, I added some diced tomatoes, chopped garlic (from a jar; I cheated), olive oil, salt and pepper. I stirred and let the mixture cook for just a couple of minutes--I like for my tomatoes to still be in chunks.

Once the squash was done, I scooped out the strands, mixed in the sauce and voila! Dinner. I took pictures, but it's not the most attractive dish, so I won't bother to publish them. But it was tasty! And I've still got half the squash for dinner tonight--not sure exactly how I'll prepare it, though. I might peruse a few sites and books for some inspiration.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Bad cook, bad

It's Tuesday and I don't remember the last time I prepared something more than a salad or sandwich for a meal. I've been really busy and going out a lot, so I have been relying on restaurant food and frozen dinners. Sunday night, I ate the Seeds of Change Spicy Thai Peanut Noodles for dinner. I'm hesitant to stray past Amy's for frozen dinners, but this dinner was pretty good. It is fairly spicy (I'm a lightweight), but not so much that I couldn't take it. The tofu chunks were a palatable size and the mix of ingredients was quite tasty. That's what's rather remarkable about this entree. Unlike a lot of frozen dinners, it not only looked like something you'd want to eat, it also looked like the photo on the box after it was been prepared. The vegetables maintained a bright color (even the broccoli) as well as the proper taste. As in, the carrots tasted like carrots and the broccoli tasted like broccoli. It hadn't been packaged in such a way that the flavors inside the container all blended into one singular taste. It really looked and tasted like it had been recently prepared.

Last night, though I took a step down from frozen dinners. A step down? Yes. I ate cookies for dinner. Granted, they were Kashi Oatmeal Dark Chocolate cookies, which is not your standard junk food, but cookies nonetheless. And I ate four of them--half the box. Tonight, though I resolve to actually prepare myself a meal. My refrigerator is nearly bursting; certainly there's something in there I can throw together to make something decent.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Vegetable stock really is an acceptable alternative, y'all

If this is starting to look like some sort of vegetarian review of Nashville restaurants, I apologize. I hope to get back to cooking soon, but I've been catching up with friends quite a lot. I do intend to make some sort of concoction with butternut squash and phyllo in the near future, so be on the lookout for that.

In the meantime, my whirlwind week of dining out ended yesterday with a trip to Bistro 215. It was a friend's birthday and Bistro 215 gives diners a free dinner on their birthday, so it was a natural choice. Also, the weather was just the right temperature for dining al fresco. I was a little hesitant about dining outside since Tennessee's recent ban on smoking in restaurants has forced the smokers outside, creating a suffocating cloud of smoke on most patios, but Bistro 215's patio was amazingly and thankfully smoke-free.

After being seated, I asked for the special vegetarian menu. Oops, I'd gotten Bistro 215 confused with its neighbor, Green Hills Grille. But the server pointed out the three vegetarian options at the end of the dinner menu. I opted for the vegetable napoleon since I'm a fan of polenta and rarely make it at home since it has a tendency to pop and I've burned myself on it.

When the entrees came, it was another server who brought our food--luckily for me. He asked me if I was a vegetarian and when I said yes, he informed me that the polenta was made with chicken stock. He asked if I wanted it or a substitution, noting that he was also a vegetarian and didn't eat it. Of course, I said I did not want it and was really disappointed. But he helpfully suggested a few items for me to choose from to replace the polenta and I settled on some asparagus.

The meal was quite good, but I'd really wanted the polenta. Our original server said he wasn't aware that the polenta was made with chicken stock and apologized profusely. I suppose that it really only occurs to the most diligent of vegetarians to ask about every single ingredient used in food preparation. I really don't want to be the kind of person who wants every restaurant meal to come with a Nutrition Facts label and a list of ingredients, but I'm starting to think that I really need to ask more questions. It reminds me of when I ordered mushroom barley soup at Noshville and when it arrived at the table, I could see the oil slick floating on top and asked for a manager who confirmed that the soup was made with a base of animal stock.

Is that really so necessary? Vegetable stock is very tasty and is an excellent base for soups as well as seasonings for grains (such as a wild rice blend that I like to use as a stuffing for acorn squash). Perhaps one of our advocacy groups could spend just a little time and effort on some sort of chef education program to promote the use of vegetable stock instead of animal stock in food preparation and make restaurants safe for vegetarians. Vive le revolucion!

It would also be nice if chefs and restaurateurs educated themselves on what foods are and are not vegetarian. For me, it's pretty simple. If there is a trace of dead animal in an item, it's not vegetarian.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A trip to Panera

I have a lot of friends who love Panera. I think that today was only my second time ever in a Panera; I'm more of an Atlanta Bread Company gal, I guess. But I was out shopping with a friend at lunch today, and decided to give it a try.

I had a salad for dinner last night (still loving the Naturally Fresh Pomango dressing with fresh fruit, gorgonzola and walnuts), so I decided on a sandwich. There are exactly two vegetarian sandwiches and since I don't like peppers and onions, I decided on the portobello and mozzarella panini. Their description:

Portobello & Mozzarella
Portobello mushrooms marinated in our balsamic vinaigrette with fresh mozzarella, caramelized onions & fresh chopped basil, grilled hot on our Focaccia.

First of all, I don't really care for onions. They hurt my stomach and, well, give me onion breath. But I do like caramelized onions--caramelized meaning that they've been sauteed to an extent that they're a nice caramel color and are sweet in taste. So I was ready to have one heck of a good sandwich.

A good sandwich is not what I got.

Let me say that I am not a trained chef, but I know how to caramelize onions. I also know that you caramelize white or yellow onions, not red onions. The sandwich I got was not what I was expecting at all based on the menu's description. Though in Panera's defense, they do indicate on the website's nutritional information for the sandwich that the onions are red. I suppose they do this as a cost-saving measure--use the same onions for this sandwich as they do for all the others. But I can't imagine why their executive chef really thought this was a good idea. Particularly when it should have been anticipated that during a lunch rush, the cooks would not take the time to fully caramelize the onions. My sandwich had an inordinate number of slightly cooked pink onions on it. So many pinkened red onions that when I first got it, I thought they'd accidentally given me a ham panini instead.

It appeared to me that what transpired in the kitchen was that a thin slice of fresh mozzarella had been placed on a panini, topped with a sprinkle of very small marinated (not fresh) portobello mushrooms and then covered in a large handful of red onions that had been slightly cooked in some oil. I did see two small pieces of green, which I suppose was chopped basil. But there was not enough of it to register a basil taste in any bite. The onions were still so moist from not being cooked down that the panini bread was soggy inside. It was a really unpleasant sandwich. But lunch was my friend's treat and I didn't want to complain (or wait for another sandwich). I just opened it up and picked through the pink onions to eat the mushrooms (which also were sub-par), cheese and a little bread.

In my opinion, I'd say this sandwich needs a major overhaul or needs to be removed from the menu. It would benefit a little from having actual caramelized yellow or white onions or even fresh white onions. And having a decent amount of fresh basil would also help and probably even some tomato. But there's not getting around the fact that the canned "marinated" portobello mushrooms are tasteless (I detected no hint of this balsamic vinaigrette of which they wrote), small (for portobellos) and have an unappealing texture. That texture is okay for a smaller white or button mushroom, but not one that's more than an inch long, I'd say (these ranged from 2-3 inches in slices). Portobellos might not be the best choice for a fast-casual restaurant.

The sandwich may not have been what the chef had in mind, but I don't even see how the base ingredients could have made a good sandwich in even the best of circumstances. Portobellos need to be fresh and caramelized onions should be caramelized (not pink).

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Pad See Ew

Since I was looking for a replacement for tofu massaman, I went with my friend, (evil)Amy to Siam Cuisine (not Siam Cafe on Nolensville) last night and tried tofu Pad See Ew (substitute tofu for prawns).

It was a very delicious and certainly less fattening alternative to my beloved massaman. The soy sauce base sweetened with sugar really made the broccoli go down easier (sounds like a song, no?). Not that it needed the help--the broccoli was a nice bright green and slightly crunchy--not overcooked at all, but cooked enough to get rid of the raw taste. There was a hearty amount of tofu as well as a garnish of kale and carrots. I ate the carrots, but skipped the kale as well as most of the fried egg. The dish was well-presented, too which you would be able to see had I not, yet again, let my zealousness take over. I was 3/4 of the way through devouring my dinner before I thought about taking a picture. Which was too late, of course.

Another nice touch is that Siam Cuisine is all decked out for Halloween. And I don't mean just a little bit. As Amy noted, it seems they cleared out the Halloween section at the Target down the street. They even bought special orange linen napkins. Hilarious.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Wedding

I attended the wedding of a non-vegetarian friend of mine Saturday night. It was not a large affair and I don't expect people to cater to my unique eating habits, so I ate a snack beforehand and expected to load up on cake.

And though the buffet was stocked with the usual suspects (chicken fingers, prime rib, meat ravioli), there was a very well-stocked fruit and vegetable selection as well as fettucine with a selection of sauces and one of my favorite party foods, spanakopita. And truly the best wedding cake I've ever tasted (the groom's sister-in-law made it)--strawberry cake with buttercream frosting. However, having eaten that cake sometime after 9:00pm, meant I was wide awake on a sugar buzz until the wee hours of the morning.

I started to feel a little guilty about being a vegetarian that evening, though. After the ceremony, the groom asked me if I was happy with the food. I just felt terrible. This man just recently lost his mother (as in, just days before his wedding) and he was getting married and he asks to see if I ate okay? I just felt very self-conscious at that moment. I feel like my lifestyle choice is very unselfish, but it was hard to feel that way when I know that these two people had to actually think about whether or not I--and just one other guest--would have enough to eat.

There's a larger social commentary to be made here, I'm sure, but I don't have the energy for it. I will say that for most weddings, I really don't expect the food to be good and I felt that way long before I was ever a vegetarian. But I do expect the cake to be good. There's no excuse for bad cake.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The downward spiral

What I eat directly affects how I feel. That's true for everyone actually, but I'm either more sensitive or more aware than most people. Which is why I don't slide on the downward spiral very far. A day or two of eating junk usually leaves me lethargic but craving better food.

That said, today is day two and the final day of junk consumption. I did have a salad yesterday for lunch, but after I had only some of a freezer-burned frozen dinner (it'd been in there for two years--don't judge me!), I pigged out on tater tots. But hey, they're vegan. As are the Jujyfruits I bought to give away at Halloween but opened yesterday.

Today, I had more Jujyfruits and though I had a decent sandwich, I had a huge box of Raisinets. They were really good. But now I have a headache and really, really need a nap. I've had my fill of junk for now. I'm back on track starting with a planned salad for dinner. I'm still happy with the Pomango salad dressing and am planning to add some of the season's last affordable strawberries to it, too. Maybe that will be sweet enough to keep me away from the Jujyfruits (side note: I worked in a movie theater in college and lived on popcorn, Coke, and Jujyfruits for a year; I have no idea how I stayed so thin doing that, though).

All that to say that when I get back from a weekend trip to Memphis Sunday, I'm planning to get cooking again. A comment from Lannae about sweet potato samosas has me thinking about the butternut squash I've had in the freezer since February. I got fairly burnt out on the squash last winter, so the last one went into the freezer. I'd been trying to think of what to do with it other than soup, so I think I will sub it for sweet potatoes and make samosas. I'm just trying to decide how sweet or savory I want to make them. I'm open to suggestions. I also remembered that during a visit to see my friend, Christy last year in Las Vegas, I had some really tasty sweet potato tamales. Perhaps some butternut squash tamales are in order? I've never made tamales, so I'm a little intrigued and a little scared.

It was a really big squash, in case you are wondering. And I hope it's not freezerburned.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Best of Nashville

The Nashville Scene released it's Best of Nashville issue last week while I was visiting the Redneck Riviera, so I'm a little late in registering my approval for mentions of some of my favorite restaurants.

My favorite local restaurant, Zola was honored by readers as well as the writers for Best Use of Too Many Ingredients. Whereas that may sound like a bit of an insult, it is not. My dining companion and I went to Zola to celebrate my birthday recently (as we always do) and I ordered chef's selection of a vegetarian option (as I also always do). My dining companion got the menu's vegetarian selection, but I wanted to see what the chef/owner would come up with this year. Last year, I got the most delicious dish that included among other ingredients, Israeli couscous and capers in a pocket of phyllo and topped with a sauce that I'd love to tell you about but can only say it was amazing. The year before, I was treated to a special olive plate that I will remember forever.

That's the thing about Zola--Deb Paquette combines an array of everyday and very unusual ingredients in such a way that your tastebuds practically jump for joy. This year, I got a "Mediterranean Burrito" that used phyllo as the wrap and was stuffed with chopped asparagus, eggplant, red and yellow peppers and about a half dozen other things that I can't even remember. And it was divine. It bothered me to leave any on the plate, but I was nearly bursting about two-thirds of the way through it. But each bite was even better than the previous. And unlike Anthony Bourdain, Paquette and her staff are gracious and accommodating to vegetarians, even when we order off-menu. Judging by the delightful and thoughtful entrees I've been served, I might even say they were happy to accommodate me.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Dinner Party

I have some friends who like to entertain in their home. They're very considerate of my diet and quite gracious hosts. It's not a sit-down dinner, usually but a very good selection of fruits, vegetables, multi-grain breads with dipping oil and other finger foods. I am generally considerate of their diet as well, but sometimes questions arise.

Last night, the topics of marshmallows and rennet came up. The hosts had made a healthier version of Rice Krispies Treats with a Kashi cereal and some dried cranberries. Nonetheless, it was made with marshmallows, which contain gelatin. Gelatin is, unless otherwise noted as "vegetarian," derived from animal connective tissue. And it pops up in the craziest places, including local favorites, Moon Pies as well as Starbursts and Altoids. So I politely declined the treats, but was pushed a bit so I decided to just say that I don't eat marshmallows and why. The wife was surprised, but the husband, who is from Georgia and familiar with the marshmallow plant knew exactly what I was talking about.

I then indicated how I'm trying to phase out some other things from my diet that aren't very vegetarian, including most hard cheeses. I love cheese (they know this) and they served some very good sharp white cheddar for dinner. I had a few bites, but I'm still trying to cut back in hopes of cutting out animal rennet cheeses altogether. I've already cut out Parmesan (real Parmesan; Kraft parmesan--in the green can--is not real Parmesan but is vegetarian), but it's going to be really difficult to cut out artisanal cheeses, particularly European cheeses. I don't know that I'll ever be 100% rennet cheese-free (mostly due to eating away from home), but it'll be a goal. In the meantime, I'll continue to enjoy my favorite vegetarian cheeses at home: Sargento (most types) and Tillamook (all but the two-year aged cheddar).

You know, I never did get around to telling my old neighbors back in Memphis that I was a vegetarian. Though they did eventually stop asking me if I wanted a hot dog or hamburger when they were cooking out after a couple of years of declining without too detailed an excuse.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Business Lunch

When I first became a vegetarian in 2000, I worked for a large manufacturing company based in the meat-and-potatoes Midwest. So business dinners and lunches (particularly when visiting company headquarters) could be a real challenge. I mean, just because I'm a vegetarian doesn't mean that I want to eat a salad at every meal. But I've had to suffer through eating a large plate of asparagus accompanied with bread at Ruth's Chris (it was good, though), eating cheesestick appetizers as a meal and, of course, eating mediocre iceberg lettuce salads at more places than I can think of.

My current job is based on the gulf coast of northwest Florida, a place that has great seafood but lacks a wide selection of restaurants that include thoughtful vegetarian selections. Likely because the people who visit locally-owned restaurants are looking for fresh seafood, so I can't blame them. Supply, demand, all that. Yet another reason I like staying in a condo and preparing all my food from what I buy in the Greenwise section from Publix.

Inevitably, though, I have lunch meetings down here and I have to balance my desire to have something other than a salad with my desire not to be a wet blanket on co-workers and business associates who don't really care to go to McAllister's or Panera. I once really liked the Donut Hole's egg salad sandwich, but I'm trying to really cut back on eggs (and mayonnaise), so I didn't have a good suggestion for lunch today. Just that we not go to a specifically seafood restaurant. So we ended up at Pineapple Willy's in Panama City Beach.

Funny, I haven't been to Pineapple Willy's since the summer of 1983 when my family stayed the one and only time at Pier 99 (since gone and replaced with a high-rise condo, Shores of Panama--this is a good thing; Pier 99 was a dump). I remembered liking the place then and it is very kid-friendly. But not terribly vegetarian-friendly. There were exactly two meat-free items on the menu, from what I could tell. Onion rings and a "house salad." So guess what I had for lunch. Iceberg lettuce, a few cherry tomatoes (better than sliced large tomatoes), a few cucumbers (oh hey, that's a nice bonus), shredded cheese, onion and bell pepper (which, fortunately was easy to remove) and croutons. A fairly bland and unexciting salad. But they did serve Newman's Own balsamic vinaigrette dressing, so that helped. It just would have been nice to have something a little more interesting.

Oh, and I totally got the Vidalia onion rings. They were pretty tasty. But, you know, a roasted portobello mushroom sandwich woulda been nice for lunch. Eh.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007


As I've mentioned before, I don't like store-bought salad dressings. But I can't go this entire week without eating some salad, so I perused the selection of dressings in the Greenwise section of the local Publix and found this Naturally Fresh Pomango Dressing. This dressing and the market lettuces salad I had at Marche for brunch this past Sunday inspired me to do a little something different with my salad while I'm away from home this week.

So tonight's salad had a base of baby romaine lettuce tossed with the Pomango dressing and topped with walnuts, slices of golden delicious apple, and gorgonzola cheese. Fortunately, this was a combination that worked thanks in large part to the Pomango dressing which is light (not oily) and citrusy without being overly sweet or tart. So, in short, Naturally Fresh Pomango Dressing = thumbs up for a light, citrusy and slightly sweet salad (with fruit, nuts and light, soft cheeses).

Monday, October 1, 2007

Amy's Indian Samosa Wraps

I'm in Destin, Florida this week for work. I've been in the hospitality business for a while and my favorite places to stay (for business) are condos, particularly when travelling alone or for more than a few days. That's because I'm not a huge fan of eating in restaurants alone or for several nights in a row, so staying in a condo with a full kitchen enables me to go to the grocery and get what I need to eat in for a while. It helps me stick to my nutrition plan, too.

And, also, I get to buy groceries and expense them so I go to a new grocery and try some things I don't typically try at home. Tonight, I got some Amy's Samosa Wraps. This wasn't much of a risk since I've never had an Amy's product I didn't love.

Until tonight. The wraps were okay and I'm full (and I should be considering the two wraps in the package have a combined whopping 520 calories), but they weren't as good as every other Amy's product I've had. The wraps were a little dry. And though I'm sure they were authentic as possible, I think they could have benefitted from a little chopped tomato inside. But the wrap itself was the driest part. I suspect it's because it's vegan, but I could be wrong. It's highly likely that I just overcooked them a bit. Regardless, a little chopped tomato in with the rest of the filling would be nice, but it might not hold up to the freezing process so well.

All that said, next time I want to spend a ton of calories on an Amy's dish, I think I'll stick with the cheese lasagna. Yum.