Back in October I wrote that I had recently enrolled in a new degree program, and right now I’m deep into my second full semester. One of my courses is Issues in Biodiversity. In addition to doing a lot of reading and writing, we have all been tasked with designing a personal Biodiversity or Sustainability Action Plan for the semester. Some of my cohorts are elementary school teachers, and they’re devising wonderful projects that involve their students, such as planting a pollinator garden or creating compost for a community garden.
The assignment directions note, “Making a behavior change that positively impacts sustainability can be done simply through your choice in which products you buy, or how much you use your car.” As someone who doesn’t own a car, is an all-weather bicycle commuter, shops at farmers markets for a lot of my produce, carries all my groceries in my backpack, keeps my thermostat set at 65-67 degrees in the winter, and refuses to install central air conditioning, I jokingly said to some classmates, “What? I have to give up more?” But the idea of making a personal change struck me as a terrific challenge.
Lately I’ve been coming across articles claiming that veganism was less sustainable—less eco-friendly—than several omnivore diets. In some cases, the conclusions were based on false comparisons, like imagining that vegans lived solely on exotic foodstuffs with high carbon footprints (avocados, for example) and pitting them against omnis subsisting on locally grown organic meats and vegetables. Still, I found these articles to be somewhat troubling. Cowspiracy (2014) contributed to my decision to go vegan. Since its release, critics have debunked several facts presented in the documentary, especially the percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions produced by industrial farming. Nevertheless, it still seemed—at least to me—to make implicit sense that eating a plant based diet was more environmentally sustainable than one including animal products.
For my Action Plan, I’ve decided to investigate the sustainability and carbon footprint of my diet and see how many positive changes I can make. I’ll be blogging about my discoveries, the changes I make, and posting recipes here. This blog will also be linked to my Instagram account, so that people who like my food photos will have the opportunity to learn more about the ecology of their diet. Wish me luck!
This past January I made an impulse decision to apply to a graduate program I’d recently discovered. Although I regularly juggle multiple interests through work, volunteering, hobbies, and travel, I’ve often wished I could do more to make a difference in the world. One day, while cycling through Chanthaburi, Thailand as part of Bike for Elephants 2018, I learned about a program that suddenly made my aspirations seem possible.
Fast forward to June, and I’m hiking through 107-degree heat with eighteen other eager minds studying ecological field methods in Baja, Mexico. We were all first-semester students in Miami University’s Global Field Program, an innovative graduate program that combines summer field coursework with online learning during the school year.
One reason the GFP appealed to me is that I’ve always loved travel. My experiences abroad have introduced me to extraordinary people and practices, shown me new ways of appreciating the world. But because we would be studying desert ecology—sleeping outdoors, abandoning the comforts of home, and being the only people wherever we went—I didn’t expect those sorts of revelations. I honestly didn’t know what to expect.
One of our first assignments required us to map our location, Rancho San Gregorio. My map resembles a pre-Renaissance doodle: there is no world beyond a few structures, everything is two dimensional, and each building is front-facing, albeit from multiple points of view.
In addition to lacking perspective, my map is also bizarrely scaled: the gardens and open spaces have been minimized, the central building (seen in the photo above) is oddly compressed, and the cacti are wildly misproportioned. I’m not really sure what drove me to make such odd choices, but I believe my college art professors would not be impressed.
The significance of scale is a theme to which we returned time and again. In one learning activity, we read about the relationships between the area of a habitat and the number of species inhabiting it (Gotelli, 2008). We then used this concept of species-area relationship (SAR) to estimate the minimal sample area needed to characterize the local ecosystem, a sort of scale model for biodiversity.
The process we used is called the relevé method. Four teams measured out initial 5×5 meter square areas (quadrat) and then expanded them to 10×10, 15×15, and so forth. Each team identified and counted species within their quadrats: cardon, boojum, ocotillo, creosote … the total number of species increased with the size of the quadrat … until it didn’t. Once each team expanded their squares past 25×25 we rarely found any new species. We had found our minimal sample size.
Why is this important? Imagine looking at a small corner of a meadow. You might see a cluster of flowering clover. While this could make for a beautiful photo, it doesn’t capture the meadow as a vibrant community of plant life. In fact, that clover might be an island surrounded by a sea of wild grasses. Examining random plots of the right sample size would give you a much better sense of the meadow’s species richness.
Although I am back in Philadelphia, I’m still thinking about scale—especially in terms of time. This semester I’m studying our city’s green spaces and interviewing people involved in greening the city. One person enthusiastically listed many things street trees bring to a neighborhood: shade, beauty, habitat. But another person claimed, “Trees are easy.” He explained how street trees provide a form of immediategratification. And while that isn’t a bad thing per se, street trees can give residents a false sense of how green our city really is, which might make us less willing to support efforts whose effects we might not see for decades.
Many early cultures used a technique called hieratic scale in their visual arts. With hieratic scale, the most important figures appear the largest. Looking back—my map of the ranch, a close up of a flower, and greening a sidewalk—all these employ a form of hieratic scale. My map, for instance, reveals both my awe of cacti and my inability to distinguish much beyond man-made structures. The sudden popularity of trees suggests that we urban dwellers have difficulty investing in things we cannot see or touch.
My GFP cohorts and I are hoping to join a network of individuals engaged in conservation efforts around the world. My wish, of course, is to help the elephants. But I suspect that I’ve been looking at elephants as if they were clover, and I were strolling past the edge of that meadow. While the clover might seem sparse and precious to me, the meadow is not my home. If it were, the clover might appear abundant, maybe even a nuisance. If I want to make a real difference someday, then I will have to learn to accept multiple truths, embrace multiple perspectives.
Gotelli, N. J. (2008) Island Biogeography. In A Primer of ecology (pp. 154-177). Sunderland, Massachusetts, USA: Sinauer Associates.
During our fourth Saturday meeting (at the end of week 3), we were treated to a second cooking demo, this time by vegan Chef Lenka Zivkovich. Pictured above are some of the wonderful treats she prepared for our lunch: veggie hummus wraps, bbq jackfruit sandwiches on mini bagels, and cumin-spiced carrot “meatballs” ringed with crostini. When we entered the kitchen, much of what you see above had already been prepped in the interest of time. One think that I found particularly wonderful about both Chef Lenka’s and Miss Rachel’s demos was that although both work as professionals in the cooking industry, they provided us with easy and low-cost options. Both of them passed around ingredients with which we might not be familiar (like canned jackfruit), but they also used items they had picked up at the local Trader Joe’s (like raw cashews and barbecue sauce).
Chef Lenka devoted most of her discussion to, you guessed it, cashews. And I just couldn’t resist, the photo above is of a cashew fruit – the stem-like growth on the underside of the fruit is the nut. Lenka first made a thick and creamy custard of cashews and water in a blender. She explained that the cashew to water ration could be altered to produce a variety of basic products. A 1:2 ratio yielded a creamy custard that could be flavored with a little vanilla and used as the “batter” for french toast. Since Chef Lenka offers a wildly popular vegan brunch at a local restaurant, you know this recipe is winner! If the water content is increased to a 1:3 ratio, the result is a vegan substitute for half and half. Lenka made us a quick smoothie with this creamy base, bananas, and spinach.
One of the amazing things about the pledge meetings is that there are always surprises. Local sponsors have donated wonderful items, such as the tempeh wraps above from Hip City Veg – and mentors have taken it upon themselves to make additional dishes like the gorgeous salad above or the tempting desserts below.
One of the biggest surprise treats came when our organizer mentioned that Chef Lenka had offered to create a late afternoon Happy Hour for our group at Plough and the Stars, where she works. Not only did I immediately sign up for the event, but I emailed some of my vegetarian and “veg-curious” friends to invite them.
When we arrived, Chef Lenka welcomed us and explained what she had prepared. She had organized the dishes on a beautiful buffet table and portioned everything small so that we could try a bit of everything. The dishes included inventive items like a “crabcake” made of both artichoke and palm hearts and a savory grilled watermelon.
Some of my favorite items included (pictured below, clockwise from the left) a truffled mushroom bruschetta, the “double-heart crabcake,” a mini kebob with king mushroom, mock chicken, and fresh papaya, and a fried “shrimp” with a creamy sriracha sauce.
Although the buffet was so bountiful, Lenka had one more surprise in store for us: her celebrated raw, vegan creme brulée. Not surprisingly, she used a cashew base. But the dessert also included hints of coconut and vanilla. She browned the raw sugar topping on site with a portable torch and brought the custards to us herself.
The happy hour left us all completely sated, and we vowed to return to Plough and the Stars for one of Chef Lenka’s prix fix vegan dinners once she returns from a well earned summer vacation.
In honor of National Farmers Market Week, I’m posting two recipes that spotlight vibrant, local summer produce.
First up we have an Arugula and Beet Salad Plate with Chick-Pea Tabbouleh that I made last Sunday. For the tabbouleh, I simply added diced fresh tomato (in this case 4 small Indigo Rose beauties that were red on one end and black on the other), about half a bunch of coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley, a cup of rinsed canned chick peas, the juice of 1/4 a lemon, and a generous tablespoon of olive oil to a box of Near East Tabouleh (this would work just fine with a cup of plain bulgur, you would just need to add salt to taste).
For the salad I boiled some gorgeous and strikingly pale chioggia beets, peeled and sliced them into eighths, and arranged them over a bed of arugula. About a week ago I had bought Kite Hill’s Truffle, Dill, and Chive almond-based “cheese”; this salad provided the perfect setting for it. Although the texture reminded me a bit of silken tofu, it crumbled well and had a mouthfeel reminiscent of fresh goat cheese. Coarsely chopped pistachios added salty, crunchy goodness – and seemed more interesting than the usual almonds. Because the plate already contained so many flavors and textures, the salad needed nothing more than some olive oil, a bit of aged balsamic vinegar, and freshly cracked black pepper for dressing.
Fast forward to later in the week when I was home alone (my boyfriend flew off to visit his family) and feeling hungry and lazy! For some, the mouse surely plays while the cat is away – but this little rodent’s idea of “play” usually entails eating her way through as many perishable odds and ends as possible, cleaning out the refrigerator, and maybe indulging in a night of Netflix and take-out on a Friday night. Although I was tempted to call out for Thai food, two small but gorgeous eggplant sat waiting in my refrigerator. So I put down the laptop, picked up my knife, and put together a simple meal of Soy and Citrus-Glazed Eggplant With Baked Marinated Tempeh.
Because this striped variety of eggplant tends to be less bitter than the more common dark purple variety, I simply sliced them crosswise, placed them on a lightly oiled cookie sheet, and put them under the broiler for a few minutes (turning once after about five minutes) with the oven set to 400 degrees. For the tempeh, I placed thin slices in a baking dish and poured about about a tablespoon of soy sauce and a teaspoon of liquid smoke over the them. The tempeh baked uncovered while the eggplant broiled below.
In the meantime I made a simple glaze of a tablespoon each of soy sauce and mirin (Japanese rice wine, but you can use cooking sherry), squeezed in a bit of orange juice (about a tablespoon), and added brown sugar to taste. This lent the eggplant both sweetness and sheen. Blanched baby kale and brown rice rounded out the plate. And that dollop of spicy goodness you see? That would be my new favorite condiment, Trader Joe’s Sambal Matah. After I finished my first jar back in March or April it disappeared from the shelves, and I panicked. When it miraculously reappeared in June I bought 3 jars. If you enjoy chile and lemongrass and live anywhere near me, you might consider doing the same!
Leaping Libesters, Batgirl! While I’ve been busy studying the ingredients lists on all my groceries and snapping photos at every Vegan Pledge meeting, blogger and almost-Philadelphian Vegan Rescue nominated me for a Liebster Award! Before I get to the details of that, I want to thank Jessica (a.k.a. Vegan Rescue) for such an honor. I recently discovered her blog and have been sharing her posts with friends because her recipes are just that amazing. Can you imagine anything more worthy of a summer supper outdoors than Corn Fritters with [vegan] Mayoketchup Sauce? And guess who ran to the nearest farmer’s market to pick up some fennel after eyeing her Raw Fennel & Grapefruit Almond Salad? So to have her include me in her company … two words: mind blown. Thank you Jessica!
On to the award! First things first, the rules (there seem to be multiple sets floating around):
Thank the person who nominated you, and post a link to their blog on your blog.
Display the award on your blog.
Answer 10 questions about yourself, which will be provided to you by the person who nominated you.
Nominate 5 – 11 blogs that you feel deserve the award, who have a fewer than 1000 followers (comment on one of their posts to let them know).
My Answers to Vegan Rescue’s Questions:
What is your favorite comfort food? A big bowl of Asian noodles, preferably with lots of tender-crisp greens some heat, and maybe some pan-seared tofu.
What is your dream job? I used to think that I already had the perfect mix of jobs because I am both a university professor and a fitness instructor, but maybe some day I will move far far away and teach yoga classes to visitors at an elephant sanctuary.
What is your favorite way to unwind after a long week? I love sitting down to a really exquisite and interesting glass of wine and a light snack, and then maybe curling up with a novel or film later in the evening.
What inspired you to become a blogger? I teach writing, and I wanted to see if I could maintain a steady stream of short writing, much like I ask of my students. I’ve also had people ask for recipes when I post photos of my cooking, so this seemed like a good way to combine my writing and my cooking.
If you could travel anywhere in the world where would you go? As with the “dream-job” question, I feel like I’ve been so lucky to have visited so many amazing places: Thailand, the Peruvian Amazon, Belize, Indonesia, but I’d really like to visit Myanmar – and, for something completely different from my usual tropical inclinations, I’d love to see the Northern Lights!
Do you have any hobbies (other than blogging)? Travel, fitness, film, reading … I sometimes make jewelry, of course I enjoy cooking, wines, fashion, coffee …
What is your biggest fear? Not doing enough, not making a positive impact, not leaving the world in a better place when I die.
What is the best advice you would give yourself 10 years ago? Follow your instincts and regret nothing. Even if things don’t turn out the way you imagined, at least you will only have yourself to blame 😉
How long have you been blogging? About 2 years, but I took a break for about 6 months.
What is your favorite blog post? I’m not sure if this means mine or someone else’s, but if it’s mine it would have to be my Birthday for Giving. I wanted to do something meaningful for my birthday, so I set up an Indiegogo campaign to benefit the Friends of Asian Elephant Hospital in Lampung Thailand, the world’s first hospital for elephants. Even though many of the donors were friends and family, my post got a lot of traffic, and I did end up with some international donors.
My Nominees (apologies if any of you have over 1000 followers):
So what do you do for date night when one partner has joined the Vegan Pledge and the other has not? Interestingly enough, topics like this were covered at one of our Weekly Meetings. A panel of long-term vegans answered questions like, “Do you only date vegans?” One young panelist answered something along the lines of, “If I did, I’d be single for the rest of my life!” Another panelist noted that, while she doesn’t date vegans exclusively, a prospective date’s response to her lifestyle can be a good litmus test. In other words, if you potential date says, “I hope you like ketchup and fries, because we’re going for burgers!” you might want to pass. In other words, regardless of the issue, a red flag is a red flag. Lucky for me, my steady date isn’t a very picky eater and is usually game for any new food experience.
So last week we decided to pay a long overdue visit to Mama Palma’s Gourmet Pizza, an intimate brick-oven pizzeria with an extensive and eclectic menu that offers everything from Peking duck to cajun shrimp to smoked asparagus tips on a pizza. Mama Palma’s also happens to be owned by the family of one of my most energetic and enthusiastic Sunday 9 am fitness participants (her mama is the Mama). And since Brunella’s photo stream suggests that she has enough energy to work out all day (that’s us in the photo below) and then work all night (she’s their hostess), you know there must be magic in those carbs.
Like many small restaurants in Philadelphia, Mama Palma’s allows patrons to bring their own wine (they also have an extensive beer list). In keeping with the spirit of the Pledge, I decided to bring a bottle of Vegan Vine Cabernet Sauvignon to accompany our meal. Vegan Vine wines are produced by Clos LaChance Winery, a family-owned and certified sustainable operation in Northern California. Right now they seem to be producing 2 varieties of 100% vegan wine: Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. This Cabernet was more fruit-forward, less tannic, and overall less complex than that varietal is capable of producing. I’d place it in the “easy drinking” category with plenty of bright fruit on the palate but not much in terms of a finish. In all honesty, I had wanted to bring a Brunello di Montalcino or even an old-vine Zinfandel, but I had a horrible time cross-referencing Barnivore’s list with what was available and appealing via the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s product search page.
As we browsed the menu and sipped our wine, Brunella sent over one of the evening’s specials: an overflowing plate of fresh asparagus, mushrooms, zucchini, broccoli, tomatoes, and olives all sautéed over the oven flames and accented with garlic and fresh basil. I could easily have made a meal out of the vegetables, but I had spent so much time ogling Brunella’s food photos on Facebook that I couldn’t not order pizza. Since Mama Palma’s offers pizzas in three sizes, my boyfriend and I decided we’d each order an 8″ pie. I went with the Grilled Eggplant Parmesan and simply asked them to replace the mozzarella with non-dairy cheese and hold the grated parmesan. My boyfriend ordered the Nonna, also a red-sauced pie, topped with grilled eggplant, grilled chicken, capers, homemade fresh buffalo mozzarella, and garnished with basil.
We had strategically used the appetizer’s cornucopia of vegetables as an excuse to order pizzas that featured grilled eggplant, which we both love. As you can see from the photo, the crust was thin and temptingly charred and the eggplant beautifully browned. Ladling the sauce on top kept the crust crisp and the eggplant moist.
As we bicycled home full and happy, we started listing the pizzas we wanted to try during future visits. “I want to try that one with the lemon and wine roasted garlic.” “The polenta bread, people keep raving about the polenta bread online!” “Did you see that guy’s salad?” “Did you see the piece of vegan cake at home in the refrigerator? I got it for us to share.” “I’m too full to eat dessert.” “Me too.”
I can’t believe I already passed the halfway point of the PAN Vegan Pledge. For this post I thought I would share some of the questions and problems voiced by my fellow pledges, as well as some very helpful resources that I’ve recently discovered.
As early as the 2nd Meeting (the end of the first week), some pledges were feeling frustrated. As you might expect, hunger and boredom were the two biggest complaints. Access to specialty items was highly dependent upon where people lived. And people with very full or “awkward” schedules found it more challenging to prepare meals in advance. Some pledges confessed to eating the same thing all week long; others admitted to eating out more. Most of us probably should have simply remembered to carry simple snacks like nuts or dried fruit. Maybe our organizers are psychic, because at that meeting they gave us a portable Veg Dining Guide.
Although the guide is specific to the greater Philadelphia area, it shows how many non-vegan restaurants offer an array of vegan-friendly options. These restaurants also span cuisines from the more familiar Mediterranean (think pasta aglio e olio) to the slightly more exotic Middle Eastern (crisp falafel, creamy hummus, smokey baba ganoush) to the wonderful flavors of South, Southeast, and East Asia. And while you might not fancy dining out several nights a week, browsing the guide can provide you with inspiration to break out of your go-to recipes.
In addition to the dining guide, PAN also has an online Vegan Lifestyle and Recipe Guide. The online guide combines meal plans, nutritional information, as well as simple recipes all on one handy website. But with the growing interest in plant-based diets, more and more resources have become available online. The Vegan Society – based in the U.K. – was founded in 1944 and became a registered charity in 1979. Their website is quite vast, but it includes a very clear breakdown of vegan nutrition by two registered dietitians. Click on the plate for a link to their page, which includes a helpful chart.
The Vegetarian Resource Group (you’ve probably seen their Vegetarian Journal at the checkout counter of the grocery store) has compiled a wealth of nutritional information, like a guide to Protein in the Vegan Diet. Helpful tip: Miss Rachel told us last week that a serving of tempeh contains as much protein as a serving of porterhouse steak – minus all that saturated fat and cholesterol! Finally, Vegan Health offers an even more detailed breakdown – including specific information about key nutrients such as Vitamin B12 and Omega-3s as well as information for specific populations such as diabetics.
So how am I faring? Sure, I too was hungry the first week, but I believe that was more due to the twenty odd fitness classes I taught (more than my usual) than any dietary shift. That said, I have found myself craving sweets. Why? Gone is the occasional Petite Vanilla Scone from Starbucks when I grab that Doppio! Off limits is that surprise Tastykake pie that my boyfriend would sometimes hand me when I returned from teaching a double class! Between the slight shift in diet and weather that makes me want to live on fruit, I also somehow lost a pound or two over the past few weeks. Although I’m sure it’s only temporary, I used this as an excuse to sample an array of vegan snacks.
Both the Complete Cookie and the Nugo Bar boast a healthy dose of vegan protein (8 and 9 grams per serving, respectively) – and taste great. The only qualm some people might have with the Complete Cookie is that one cookie is equivalent to two servings. So if you are counting calories, keep in mind that one cookie contains over 300 calories (but also packs 16 grams of protein and no sugar alcohols). So far I’ve tried the Lemon Poppy, Snickerdoodle, and Pumpkin cookies – all really delicious and super satisfying!
Finally, I’ve also discovered pro football player David Carter. You might know him as the 300 Pound Vegan. His website contains his blog and his “Stronger” recipes. While I don’t aspire to his level of physical fitness, just knowing that he can get through his day on a plant-based diet makes me feel confident that I can do it too!