Aquae Sulis and Mr. Darcy

My most recent travels saw me arriving in a beautiful little English town once known as Aquae Sulis. Doesn’t ring a bell? Today, it’s called Bath and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site for its rich past. If you’re into history, either of the Roman era or the Georgian period (or both!), this is a destination for you. It’s an easy trip from London, just 97 miles (1.5 hour by train) west of London. You’ll love it even more if you happen to also be a fan of Jane Austen, who lived here at several points in her life.

As you may have guessed, all these things fascinate me. Well, it was much more the Georgian era that drew me to Bath, but I was pleasantly surprised, upon visiting the Roman Baths center, by how the site managed to captivate me. In the interest of sticking to chronological order, let’s talk about that first.

When the Romans arrived in Britain around AD 43, they found a settlement of Celtic Britons around a site with a large natural hot spring and a shrine dedicated to a goddess named Sulis. The invaders duly named the town Aquae Sulis – Latin for “the waters of Sulis” – and built a major bath complex and temple around it (as shown above; click to enlarge photos). They encouraged the natives to continue worshipping Sulis, with whom they identified their goddess Minerva, a factor that helped the Britons to accept the invasion.

In the Roman days, the large bath shown above was covered with a vault roof. After the baths were rediscovered and restored in the 18th century, they were left without a roof and the sunlight stimulated the growth of algae, which is what’s responsible for this green color. There were other baths (hotter and colder ones), as well as various other rooms (saunas, massage rooms) similar to what you find in modern spas today. This center is really well done – in addition to seeing the baths themselves, visitors are taken through the site’s history with interactive museum exhibits and a high-quality audio guide available in some 15 languages.

In 1979, some archaeologists poking around in the Sacred Spring, the innermost pool of the bath complex (shown in the cover image of this post), found a number of “curse tablets” that had been thrown into it during the Roman days. Unhappy individuals would carve requests for vengeance upon those who had wronged them onto bits of flattened lead, roll them up and toss them into the waters for direct delivery to the goddess Sulis/Minerva who, they hoped, would proceed to take action.

The most common complaint was of theft, and the punishments sought tended to be rather harsh, along lines such as “may whoever nabbed my cloak while I was bathing lose his eyesight and his mind and never recover either until such day as he has returned my belongings to me”. Sometimes the accuser would make things easier for the goddess by listing the names of suspects. Did the curses work? We’ll never know, but a simple locker room could have prevented a lot of trouble!

(Don’t miss this great tutorial for making your very own curse tablet! And see if you can figure out what the author’s curse was.)

Also discovered in the baths were beautiful engraved semi-precious stones and colored glass that probably fell out of bathers’ jewelry, loosened from their settings by the heat.

The site does an excellent job of helping you travel back in time to the Roman days. Alongside some of the ruins, reproduction walls have been set up, but with a space between them and the floor to remind you which parts are real. In the various dark spaces of the labyrinthine baths, hologram-like projections of Roman bathers, complete with the sounds of their murmurs and dripping water, spookily recreate the mood of the distant past. These translucent beings were rather like ghosts… I wondered with a kind of delicious frisson whether one of them might turn and look at me.

Today, it isn’t possible to actually bathe in these baths, which are still lined with lead, but you can head to the Thermae Bath Spa for a steamy rooftop swim. Imagine how nice that would be in winter!

Fast-forward about 1,800 years and you’ll have arrived in Georgian Bath, the age of an author so loved by the people of England that they put her on the 10-pound note. I agree with this honor as she’s one of my favorites too. In Bath, you can visit the Jane Austen Centre, located on one of the same streets she lived on. Although it isn’t her former house, the center offers information about her life as well as artifacts from Georgian households and a short film hosted by the guy who played evil Mr. Wickham in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice. At this point I should confess that Mr. Darcy himself doesn’t really have any connection with Bath; I’ve just shamelessly used him as shorthand for all things Jane Austen, and also because I liked the idea of contrasting him (in the Colin Firth incarnation) with Emperor Claudius above. The city features prominently in some of her other books though, in particular Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.

If you’re already very well versed on Jane Austen’s life, touring the Jane Austen Centre probably won’t teach you anything new, but there are nicely done wax statues of her and Mr. Darcy, and you can dress up in Georgian clothing and have your photo taken. You may also like to browse in the gift shop (Darcy and Lizzie Christmas tree ornaments!) or (unlike me) have tea and fancy cakes in their upstairs Regency Tea Room. A brochure for the tea room even mentions vegan options, though I suspect you would want to call well ahead and check on that.

Every year in September, the city also hosts a Jane Austen festival.

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The Jane Austen points of interest continue at the Pump Room, located right next to the Roman Baths, where people used to go to drink medicinal waters in the hope of curing their various ailments. It was also just a fashionable place to be, to see and be seen. It is here that Catherine, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, first meets a special someone. The Pump Room is now a restaurant but still serves water from the spring that supplies the Roman Baths. The illustration above, by Thomas Rowlandson, shows how the Pump Room appeared in 1798. At left in the foreground, we see someone in a Bath chair, an early wheelchair invented in the city for the many invalids who flocked there.

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Another highlight of my visit was a tour through the beautiful Georgian home at No. 1 Royal Crescent, decorated as it might have looked between 1776 and 1796. Those of you who enjoyed my last post can imagine it as George Warleggan’s house (keep that in mind in a moment when you see what’s kept right next to his bed!).

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A cheerful table laid for breakfast. While you ate your toast and sipped your morning beverage (hot chocolate? coffee?), you could catch up on the latest gossip in the local newspaper. Who has lately arrived to take the waters in Bath? Who has just promised their innocent daughter to that gouty old man living on Cheap Street?

A gentleman doing well enough to live in this home would also have had the latest scientific gadgets, including an updated globe (this one appears to be Italian), and a device you can use to cure your own ailments at home using electric sparks (I didn’t get a photo of that).

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All ready for tea in the sitting room. Notice the cups have no handles, in the style of the cups used in China. For this reason, this type of cup is often called “tea bowl”.

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The elegant dining room set for dessert. The curators of this house did an excellent job of recreating the intricate molded blancmanges and other fancy desserts of the day out of silicone. The plates used here each illustrate a different scene from Aesop’s Fables. There’s more I could say about this room, but I should leave some things for you to discover on your own when you visit (don’t forget to ask about the pineapple and what used to happen behind that folding screen in the corner!).

Below stairs, in the kitchen, chunks of sugar were cut off of loafs and then ground up in a mortar. For any food historians reading this: the cookbook on the table is Food and Cooking in 18th-Century Britain by Jennifer Stead. Meat was sometimes cooked on a turning spit powered by a dog in a sort of dismal hamster wheel. The breed normally used for this purpose has since become extinct. Thankfully, this practice was already on its way out by the advent of the Georgian era.

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The gentleman’s bedroom, across the hall from his wife’s. Its furnishings include a washstand chest with a… chamber pot (?!) in its bottom drawer. Or perhaps it’s designed for footbaths. But if it IS a chamber pot, it’s hard to imagine how they could have kept that from smelling terrible even when closed. But then perhaps no one would have noticed, as personal hygiene was shockingly basic in this period. Ironically, given the name of the city and what should have been easy access to healthful spring waters, people bathed and washed their hair just once a year. Women wore their wigs day and night and kept their faces spackled with various substances including lead, followed by an egg-white wash and beauty patches to cover their smallpox scars. They also made liberal use of lavender, orange-blossom and rose essences, but really, how much difference can that have made? The Romans, who not only washed but also exfoliated on a regular basis, would rightly have been appalled if they could have glimpsed into the future.

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Apart from its museums (and there were many more I didn’t have time to visit), Bath is also just a very pretty town. Here, the Avon River is spanned by Pulteney Bridge, famous for being one of the world’s last bridges to still have shops along its full length on both sides. It was used in the 2012 film Les Misérables to recreate the look of Revolutionary-era Paris – Russell Crowe as Javert jumps off it to his (Javert’s!) death.

You can always stroll through Bath on your own, but a nice way to get a broader view of the city is to go on a walking tour. I went on this one with the charismatic and knowledgeable Mr. Elliott and definitely recommend it.

“What about food?” you may be wondering. “Are vegan options hard to find?” you may or may not be about to ask. The answer is no, they’re blissfully easy to find, as they generally are in the UK.

As much as Bath is steeped in ancient and less-ancient history, it also has one foot resolutely in the 21st century, so plant-based food is a thing there. I went to and recommend Chapel Arts Café (all vegan), where I had garlicky mushroom flatbreads with cashew crème fraîche, followed by carrot cake, The Green Rocket (mostly vegan), which offers a seitan and leek dish with puff pastry, a salad platter with hummus and tatziki sauce and onion rings, and Zizzi (a UK-wide omni chain with lots of vegan options – ask for their separate vegan menu), where I had “beetballs” and pizza with housemade vegan mozzarella. All really good! There were more veg restaurants than this, but sadly not enough time to try them all.

So there you have the lovely city of Bath, in a very brief and non-exhaustive nutshell. Definitely worth the detour for a weekend if you’re going to be in London. In the meantime, for a closer look at the city, check out the many mini-documentaries on YouTube (like this one about the Roman Baths, or this one about houses in Jane Austen’s day).

Cornish seitan pie

R&D.jpgIf you’ve been watching the hit BBC television series Poldark, a new adaptation of the book series by Winston Graham set in breathtakingly beautiful Cornwall, you may have noticed many meals consisting of savory pies. You’ll have seen them at Ross Poldark’s home Nampara at least, where the fare is simpler and more homespun than at Trenwith House and other wealthier residences. Demelza and Prudie can often be seen pounding dough on the countertop for this very purpose.

Cornish savory pies are traditionally filled with potato, turnip and beef (we’ll use seitan), and are basically a larger version of the well known Cornish pasty, which is a single-serving savory turnover filled with the same ingredients. Miners found them handy to take down into the mine with them for their lunch break. Some say that the edge served as a handle of sorts, so people could eat it with dirty mining hands and throw the edge away at the end.

A savory pie even played a role in the budding romance between Demelza and Ross in season 1 episode 3, as her newly acquired baking skills impress him and she begins to find her way to his heart through his stomach. Or at least in part – he likes other things about her too.

Now you can make a similar pie yourself and impress the dashing redcoat in your own life. But wait, this is the 21st century! So maybe he can make his own pie, but if he needs help getting started, you can share this recipe. 😀

Cornish seitan pie

Makes one 9 in. (23 cm) pie.

2 cups (250 g) seitan, finely sliced
1½ cup (150 g) yellow onion, diced
1½ cup (175 g) firm-fleshed potato, diced
1¼ cup (125 g) turnip, diced
1 tablespoon soy sauce, or more to taste
1 teaspoon herbes de Provence or Italian herb blend
1/2 teaspoon ground sage
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/3 teaspoon white pepper
1/3 cup (40 g) flour
2 cups (500 ml) vegetable broth
2/3 cup (160 ml) unsweetened non-dairy milk (not rice milk)
2 pie crusts (non-flaky)

Begin by assembling your ingredients. Peel and dice the potato and onion, and dice the turnip (no peeling needed). Set aside.

Slice the seitan into thin, bite-sized pieces, about 2 in. (5 cm) long and 1/4 in. (0.5 cm) thick.

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Heat a bit of olive oil in a frying pan and sauté the seitan a few minutes until the sides are a bit browned. Add the soy sauce, taking care to distribute it evenly, and stir well to coat all the pieces. Set aside to cool.

In a large stockpot, heat a bit of olive oil over medium. Add the onion and sauté for a few minutes, stirring frequently, until the onion is slightly browned and translucent. Add the potato and turnip and cook for five minutes, stirring frequently. Now add the flour and stir to distribute evenly. Allow the flour to “toast” several minutes, again stirring often, and then add soy sauce, herbs and other seasonings as well as the vegetable broth and non-dairy milk. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes and turnips are tender (about 15 minutes). Watch over the progress and add a bit more water or milk if the mixture seems to become too dry.

Taste and adjust seasonings to your taste. If it needs more salt, add more soy sauce in small amounts, tasting as you go along. Keep in mind that the seitan will be salty due to the soy sauce it was sautéed in, so you won’t want the vegetable mixture to be overly salty. Remove from heat and allow to cool a few minutes before going on to the next step.

Preheat your oven to 350°F (175°C). Line your pie plate with one of the pie crusts, making sure to press the dough into the bottom edge. Place the seitan into the crust, distributing it evenly across the bottom. Cover with the vegetable mixture. If the bottom crust hangs over the edges of your pie plate, as mine does (see above), measure the diameter and cut a circle of dough to form a top crust that will just cover the filling and then fold the overhanging dough of the bottom crust over the top and crimp the edges with your thumbs. With the remaining dough, you can cut leaf shapes (or whatever other shape that strikes your fancy). To make sure my leaves were all the same size, I cut a template from a piece of scrap paper.

Arrange the leaves symmetrically on the top crust and poke a hole in the center of the crust for hot air to escape. To give the crust a bit of shine, brush unsweetened soy milk over it evenly. Bake the pie on a center rack for about 35 minutes until it’s golden brown and smells scrumptious. 🙂

Remove from oven and allow to cool at least 30 minutes before cutting into it. If it’s still too hot, the filling will spill out from the sides onto the plate and you won’t have a nice solid slice. For this reason, it can be useful to make this dish ahead of time and then just heat it up briefly in the oven before serving.

Ideally, or perhaps depending how much of a Poldark fan you are, you’ll present this pie on a table spread with an old-timey delicate tablecloth like this one that I happened to find at a rummage sale just the other day, and you’ll use vintagey plates and cut it with a rustic-looking knife. A flagon of ale or glass of red wine will be the perfect accompaniment.

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At the end of dinner, bring out a dish filled with fruit native to Europe (I often notice grapes on the characters’ tables on the show). By the way, check out the monogram on my rummage-sale tablecloth! There’s an R for Ross, and an A for…? Hmm, that part doesn’t fit as well.

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After your meal, take a stroll to the nearest clifftop and gaze out at the sea dreamily as the wind blows through your hair.

Variations: Use the same filling to make individual pasties, cutting each pie dough in half and folding each half over once to make a turnover shape. Use other firm vegetables such as carrot or broccoli instead of potato and turnip. Just make sure they’re fairly tender before they go into the pie.

Bricks, doughnuts and sunshine

A few weeks ago I had the extremely good fortune to get invited to stay a week in London completely for free (well, after train fare). That’s an offer you just can’t refuse. So I packed up my laptop, arranged cat-sitters for Sésame and was off!

I love London and try to visit once a year. As a native English speaker living in France, it’s always somewhat refreshing to step on a train and in a couple of hours arrive at a place where I can just open my mouth and start talking with zero thinking-ahead time. Or rather, knowing that whatever I say will be completely normal. Or as normal as American talk can sound to English ears, I guess. 🙂

But more than that, when I arrive in London I always feel a general sense of comfort that I don’t get at “home” in Paris. It’s less densely populated, for one thing, and sidewalks are wider. People are much friendlier, something that even my introverted self values highly, as loyal readers will recall from this episode. And it’s also one of the vegan capitals of the world. So even though I like many aspects of living in France, a trip to London always feels like a visit almost-home.

Since I visit fairly often, I have the luxury of exploring the city at a leisurely pace and visiting just a few sites in each trip. This time, I mainly hung out with the friend who invited me, worked (as I couldn’t take the time completely off without longer advance notice) and enjoyed the city’s street art.

Allow me to take you on a little guided tour of my week.

First, the bricks! One of the first things I always notice when I get to London are the many brick buildings – bricks being rather few and far between in Paris. There’s something very grand and majestic about them, and something warm and inviting too, don’t you think? The university I went to in Milwaukee had several old brick buildings with ornate decorations (a bit like the one with the green door above), so bricks often bring me comforting memories of strolling about the campus, my mind filled with some fascinating thing I’d just learned, and of breathing in the vanilla scent of an old book I’d just cracked open at the campus library. I miss those days.

And the doughnuts! Somehow I’d never noticed before that doughnuts are largely absent from the pastry landscape of Paris. Logical enough, right? Since they’re not a traditional French thing. But neither are cupcakes or chocolate-chip cookies, and those are all over the place. So I think some room could be made for doughnuts. When I was still living in the States I wasn’t particularly a doughnut-eater, past childhood at least, but I was fascinated by the doughnuts London seems to suddenly have in abundance, and with very original flavors/themes. The nice thing is that most mainstream doughnut purveyors now offer not zero but several vegan options! The same is true for cupcakes (see photos). This was not the case just a few years ago, so things are really starting to move.

From this excited description you’ll probably assume I spent my time in London eating doughnuts. But I was actually more interested in their existence, and in taking photos of them. I ate just one during this visit: a massive caramel buttercream and speculoos-encrusted affair with coffee glaze called Houston, We Have Biscoff from Doughnut Time.

It also happened to be unseasonably warm and sunny the week I was there, especially for a city known for being overcast and foggy. The first day was as chilly as can be expected for mid-April, justifying tights and a light jacket, but after that it was positively summery. The sun shone brightly the whole rest of the week, and fruit trees were in full blossom. At the end of my stay, a local joked that I’d just experienced all the sunny days London would have in 2018. That could very well be true! In any case, I felt lucky to be able to soak up the sunshine and synthesize some vitamin D after the long, gray and depressing winter we had.

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I really appreciated the nice weather as I walked around the city in search of street art! The piece above is by Steve Powers. Incidentally, when making this piece he commented, “I love working in public and I love painting brick walls. London has some of the finest brick walls in the world.” You see what I mean about those bricks!

Two works by the world’s most famous street artist, Banksy. The one on the left appeared last year on a wall of the Barbican when a retrospective show dedicated to Haitian-American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat opened there. In it, we see how Banksy imagined the late artist (depicted in Basquiat’s signature style) being received by the British police when arriving for his own exhibition. Surprisingly enough, the Barbican did not repaint the wall and even put up some Plexiglas to protect the street art.

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A piece on Old Street by Ben Eine.

Left: Queen Elizabeth II as the guy from A Street Cat Named Bob, down on her luck and trying to sell copies of The Big Issue (Loretto). Right: giant stick people look down benevolently upon Shoreditch (Stik).

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I also did some hunting for mosaics by French street artist Invader to up my Flashinvaders score. At the time of my visit, London had 84, so this became a rather big undertaking. With the help of a local space invader hunter, I was able to find 77 of them by the week’s end. Below is a selection of my favorites.

My space invader hunt took me to a place I somehow hadn’t been aware of but that’s now my new favorite London museum! So I’d like to take a moment to share some glimpses of it with you…

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If, like me, you love the city of London and also enjoy seeing how people of the past lived, this museum is for you. It takes you through the city’s history from Roman times to the present, giving you a sense of how things once were in the form of artifacts and models. Included are souvenir mugs commemorating Charles II’s coronation, amulets for warding off the plague, very old false teeth, the actual wooden walls from a 1750s prison cells complete with graffiti by prisoners, a series of streets and shops from the Victorian days, fashions of the 20th century, models of row houses, Elizabeth II’s coronation memorabilia and finally books printed in other languages for immigrants to England (including a book designed to teach children of Polish immigrants to read and write their parents’ language – Polish now being the second-most spoken language in the UK).

By now you may well be wondering what there is to eat in London besides doughnuts! We did of course visit some of the city’s many fine veg*n eateries, such as Mildreds, By Chloé and Temple of Seitan.

My very favorite this time was a new 100% vegan pub called The Spread Eagle near Hackney. It opened in January and right from the start, a waitress explained to us, the owners made sure that everything used there was vegan, from the alcohols and other beverages (free from animal-derived filtering agents) down to the cleaning supplies and hand soap in the restrooms (from brands that don’t test on animals) and the upholstery on the bar seats (something other than leather/wool).

From Wednesday through Sunday every week, they serve super-delicious vegan Latin dishes by Club Mexicana. We had the chick’n “wings” with hot sauce and salsa verde, beer-battered tofish tacos, jackfruit and garlic tacos, a giant salad with popcorn chick’n and finally deep-fried ice cream with Mexican chili-chocolate sauce and cinnamon. It was so good that before we even finished eating, I started feeling sad that I couldn’t have it more often. If you’re in London but can’t make it as far as this pub, or the days don’t work out, you can find Club Mexicana fare at Camden Market seven days a week.

Another pleasant surprise in the good-vegan-options-at-mainstream-places category was Leon, a chain with locations all over the city. One evening when I was tired from walking too much (see “street art” above), not wanting to go anywhere far from the place I was staying, I wandered in to see what they might have.

I tried their meatless meatballs – made with eggplant/aubergine, black olives and rosemary and served over rice with some kind of magical tomato sauce and garlic aioli – and was blown away! I’m hoping and praying they come to Paris! Incidentally, I found their recipe for the meatballs, but they don’t say how to make the sauce… I think it’s too top secret to share. 😉 Another time I stopped in, I found that they also offer several vegan dessert/pastry items, like this baked pistachio & rosewater doughnut. So I guess I did have more than one doughnut on this trip after all! But this one was normal-sized.

So there you have a few ideas for things to do and places to eat next time you’re in beautiful London.

My best breakfasts of 2017

Last January, I wrote a post about the best books I’d read in 2016. But this past year, I didn’t read quite as many books and none of them were really exciting enough to devote a whole post to. So this January, for something a bit different, I’ve decided to talk about the 15 best breakfasts I had this past year. Some are my own original recipes, others are from cookbooks and a few were at restaurants or food stands. If you follow me on Instagram, you might recognize some of them!

As with my post about the books, my goal is to inspire you to try some new things. You might find a new favorite flavor combination or get ideas for further experimentation.  Many of these are simple enough that you can reproduce them just from the photo and description, but in other cases I’ve tracked down recipes for similar dishes or provided a link when the dish is from the archives of this very blog.

I’m a big fan of breakfasts—I find that having a substantial meal in the morning (with coffee or tea, of course) is a great way to start the day with enough energy to get a lot of work done before a mid-afternoon break. I often have just a large-ish breakfast and then dinner without any lunch. Of course, it helps that I work from home and can take the time—when there are no urgent deadlines—to make something interesting. But if you have an office job and are short on time in the mornings, these may still give you some ideas for things to prepare ahead of time, or to make for weekend brunches.

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Fresh seasonal fruit (here, apple and persimmon) over plain soy yogurt can make for a simple but tasty and vitamin-rich breakfast. Here, it’s drizzled with Bee-Free apple honey (substitute maple, rice or agave syrup) and topped with chopped toasted almonds.

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Homemade turnovers are really easy to make when you buy premade flaky pie dough and have an apple (or other fruit—pear, banana, berries, etc.) on hand. Check out my recipe for apple turnovers with a sweet, lemony miso paste.

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On Saturday mornings, all year round, there’s an organic outdoor farmers’ market in my neighborhood (on boulevard des Batignolles in the 17th between metro stations Rome and Place de Clichy). If you live in Paris or will be passing through, you can stop by for some vegetables and also pick up one of these delightful savory chickpea galettes with a soy-basil sauce. They’re completely vegan and super filling and yummy. Look for the stand in the easternmost section of the market, the part closer to Place de Clichy. Or if you’re a Sunday shopper, you’ll find the same people operating a stand at the boulevard Raspail organic farmers’ market in the 6th near metro station Rennes. Alternatively, stay home and make this one yourself!

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I recently acquired a great French cookbook devoted to breakfast recipes, L’Heure du petit-déjeuner végane a sonné by Melle Pigut. I love her recipe for scones and make it often. They’re very easy to throw together, as long as you can wait 20 minutes for them to bake! Here, I have spread them with a vegan chocolate-hazelnut spread. If you don’t read French or can’t find this book, you can try this recipe.

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This pudding-like dish made with sorghum is a common breakfast dish in Tunisia that I recently learned how to make. I’ve garnished it here with toasted almond slices and Bee-Free apple honey, but you could top it with fruit, grated coconut or whatever else strikes your fancy. Check out the recipe here!

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As an American, I have an undying affection for peanut butter and love incorporating it into breakfast dishes. I find it makes any dish more substantial and provides long-lasting energy. Here, I have spread some on toasted English muffins (newly possible to find in France!) and topped them with fresh nectarine slices and toasted pumpkin seeds.

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This amazing bowl of overnight oats, which I enjoyed at Vegabond during my stay in Amsterdam this October, is one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had, ever. It was made with rolled oats and chia seeds and topped with green apple, pecans, plenty of cinnamon and a fresh physalis berry. You can try making your own overnight oats with this recipe.

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Another recipe from Melle Pigut’s breakfast cookbook that I loved is these potato flatbreads. They’re also quite easy to make if you plan a bit ahead and have some cooked potato ready. Here, I served them spread with hummus, grated carrot, some fennel seeds and black pepper. If you don’t read French, you can try this recipe.

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One of my favorite new finds in 2017 is a gluten-free rice porridge from Marks & Spencer, which has recently opened some stores in Paris. I’m not gluten-intolerant, but I happened to try this porridge and LOVE the texture… I find it to be softer and creamier than traditional oat porridge. Here, I made it using soy milk and topped it with fresh fig and peach slices and a sprinkle of toasted blond sesame seeds.

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If you want to prepare an extra-special breakfast or brunch item (best to start the night before), try this French fruit cheesecake. This one is made with apricots, but you could use just about any fruit.

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One memorable breakfast was this homemade buckwheat muesli with sunflower seeds and almonds that I made following a recipe in the French cookbook Délices déshydratés. Served here with soy milk and fresh apricot. A similar recipe in English can be found here.

banana icecream

When it’s really hot out, banana ice cream makes a fantastic breakfast. The “ice cream” part makes it sound more like a dessert, but since it’s much more filling than traditional ice cream and is also just fruit, it’s ideal for the morning. To make it, simply follow these directions. Personally, I always add lemon juice too—I find that the banana/lemon combination strangely results in a cheesecake-like taste (don’t ask me why!). You can also opt to add other frozen fruit or cocoa powder, chocolate chips, etc.

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Another English muffin and peanut butter breakfast! This time the topping is sautéed mushrooms and red onion with a sprinkling of smoked paprika. I know this combination might sound weird to a lot of you, but I love it!

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This was a super yummy chia pudding with mango coulis and fresh berries that I had at a place called Superfoods & Organic Liquids (Mitte district) in Berlin. More about that trip coming soon! You can make your own chia pudding with this recipe. Chia seeds are amazingly good for you, by the way (read more about it in the recipe link).

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Last but not least, if you’re in a French mood, try my recipe for basic sweet crêpes that you can fill with just about anything (even savory items, if you leave out the sugar). In the photo above, I served them with bergamot lemon juice and sugar.

What are your own favorite breakfasts? Are you more of a savory or sweet person? Let us know in the comments. 🙂 Until then, bon appétit!

Scandinavian juleboller with spiced blackcurrant sauce

Christmas is just around the corner, and if you’re as busy as me you may still be wondering what in the world to make for Christmas dinner. Today’s decidedly festive Nordic recipe, created by French chef Ôna Maiocco, may be the answer!

This savory dish offers a range of lovely textures and flavors. Smoked tofu comes together with onion, toasted nuts and mashed potato to form balls with a nice firm consistency and a bit of crunch. These are paired with fluffy mashed potatoes (everyone’s favorite!) and a rich, creamy brown sauce based on a buckwheat roux with fruity notes provided by blackcurrant juice. Finally, an armada of spices (cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, turmeric and black pepper) makes this a perfect Christmas dish—juleboller in fact means “Christmas balls” in Swedish and Norwegian.

I discovered this recipe a few years ago in Ôna’s 2013 cookbook Boulettes et galettes végétales (in French only). I’ve made it for several Christmas dinners since then and it’s always a delight. And while I usually present only original recipes on this blog, this one is so good that I felt it deserved a wider audience and asked Ôna if I could translate it for you.

Before we go on, a few words about Ôna. From an early age, she had been familiar with healthy organic cuisine thanks to her parents, who were firm believers in the merits of this type of food. Several years ago, after a first career in biology, she returned to her roots, deciding to forge a path for herself in the culinary arts, her true passion. Ôna earned a degree in pastry-making and supplemented her knowledge through self-study. Building upon her family’s tradition and her own values, she opted to make local, organic, sustainable vegan cuisine her focus. In 2011, she won the top prize in the professional category of the French sustainable food culinary competition Saveurs durables.

Today, she offers cooking classes in her beautiful sunlit and spacious atelier in the 18th arrondissement of Paris. The classes are in French, but with enough advance notice and a minimum number of participants, a class in English can be arranged. In addition to the cookbook from which this recipe is adapted, she has also published Je mange veggie : Bien manger végétarien c’est facile ! (January 2016), a guide to plant-based eating, and Ma cuisine super naturelle : manger bio, végétal et local (October 2017), a larger and more comprehensive cookbook.

And now, back to our recipe. The version presented here includes a few tiny changes and adaptations from the original. I’ve doubled the original amount to serve more people, added the cranberries as an optional garnish and suggested pomegranate juice as an optional alternative to the blackcurrant juice. The mashed potatoes recipe is my own.

If you know you’ll be pressed for time on the day of your dinner, you can make all three parts (mashed potatoes, tofu balls and sauce) ahead of time and reheat them, but I recommend making at least the sauce the day of.

Let’s get started!

Mashed potatoes

Serves 4 after removing 2 cups for the tofu balls. Can be made a day ahead and reheated on the stovetop.

  • 8-10 medium potatoes of a variety that’s good for mashing (Yukon Gold or others)
  • 2-3 tablespoons vegan butter, margarine or olive oil
  • 1/3 cup unsweetened soy or other plant-based cream, or more as needed
  • 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • a few grinds of white or black pepper, or to taste

Peel the potatoes and cut them into large chunks. Place them in a large stockpot, add enough water to cover them and bring to a boil, covered, over high heat. After the water starts to boil, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, covered but leaving a little space for the steam to escape, until the potatoes are tender, about 25-30 minutes. Drain the water and mash the potato chunks using a potato masher or immersion blender (if using a blender, try not to overmix).

Reserve 2 cups of the mashed potatoes (before anything else is added to them) for your tofu balls and set aside.

Add the vegan butter, plant-based cream, salt and pepper to the remaining potatoes and mash further to combine. Taste and adjust the seasonings as needed. Put the cover back on the stockpot and set aside.

Juleboller (Christmas tofu balls)

Makes around 30 tofu balls, enough for 4 people if served with mashed potatoes; otherwise enough for 2-3 people. Can be made a day ahead and reheated in the oven.

  • 3/4 cup (80 g) nuts (almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts etc.) or seeds (pumpkin, sunflower)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 2 cups, loosely packed (300 g) mashed potatoes reserved from the above recipe
  • 7 ounces (200 g) smoked tofu (or use plain tofu plus a bit of liquid smoke)
  • 1/2 cube vegetable bouillon (enough to make 1 cup bouillon)
  • 1/2 cup (50 g) rolled oats
  • 1/3 cup (60 g) dried cranberries, for garnish (optional)
  • Small bunch parsley, for garnish
  • 1 recipe spiced blackcurrant sauce (scroll down for recipe)

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Begin by chopping the nuts, tofu and onion.

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I used a combination of hazelnuts, walnuts and almonds, but you can use any nuts or large seeds. Chop roughly; the pieces should be around the size of a pumpkin seed. Be careful not to chop too finely as you want recognizable pieces of nuts in the final product.

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Break the tofu into chunks with your fingers and then crush the chunks between your fingers and thumb to form coarse crumbs as shown.

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Peel and roughly dice a medium onion.

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Heat a dash of olive oil in a sauté pan and begin browning the onion over low-medium heat, stirring frequently.

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After a couple of minutes, add the nuts. Stir to combine.

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Add the cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and black pepper and stir to incorporate. Take a moment to enjoy the wonderful Christmasy scents that are now filling your kitchen. 🙂

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Continue browning the mixture, stirring often, until the onion is soft.

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While waiting for the mixture to cook, dilute half of a bouillon cube in 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (88 ml) hot water. Keep the remaining half-cube out as you’ll need it for the sauce recipe.

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Transfer the reserved 2 cups of mashed potato to a medium or large mixing bowl. Mash any remaining lumps, as the potatoes need to be as smooth as possible to hold the tofu, oats, nuts and onion together.

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Add the tofu, rolled oats and onion/nut mixture.

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Pour the bouillon uniformly over the top of the mixture and stir thoroughly to combine. Preheat your oven at this point to 350°F (180°C).

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Roll up your sleeves and, with scrupulously clean hands, shape the mixture into balls of around 1.5 inch (4 cm) in diameter. But they don’t have to be exactly this size—just try to make all the balls the same size as each other for a uniform result. Place them on a baking sheet covered with baking paper.

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When the tray is full, put it in the preheated oven and bake for 20 minutes. In the meantime, you’ll prepare the sauce and reheat the mashed potatoes (if serving).

Spiced blackcurrant sauce

Makes enough sauce to go with the tofu balls in the above recipe.

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons buckwheat flour (the buckwheat plays an important role in the flavor)
  • 1/2 cube vegetable bouillon (enough to make 1 cup bouillon)
  • 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon (100 ml) unsweetened soy cream
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons (70 ml) blackcurrant juice (not syrup!) or pomegranate juice
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons granulated sugar (or more to taste), UNLESS you use a sweetened juice
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper

 

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Heat the 2 tablespoons of olive oil over low-medium heat. While waiting for it to heat, dilute the remaining half cube of bouillon in 1 and 1/4 cup (300 ml) hot water and set aside.

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When the oil is hot, add the buckwheat flour and whisk to incorporate. Stir frequently.

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After a few minutes, it will have formed a thickish roux base and be simmering lightly.

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Add the bouillon (not shown), blackcurrant (or pomegranate) juice, soy sauce and spices. Whisk to combine.

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Add the soy cream and whisk to incorporate. Simmer, stirring frequently, for another two or three minutes. Taste the sauce to see if it needs any sugar (if it’s too acidic) or more salt (add more soy sauce) or more of the spices. Turn off burner and cover the saucepan to keep the sauce warm. At this point, if the tofu balls are almost ready, you can reheat the mashed potatoes if they need it.

Plating

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Once the tofu balls are done baking, begin plating the mashed potatoes (leave the tofu balls in the oven for the time being so they don’t lose heat). If you want to get fancy, a circle mold like this one will give you a nicely defined cylindrical shape. But you can achieve a similar effect using a measuring cup or small ramekin or bowl.

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Just after baking, the tofu balls can be a bit fragile (they firm up more after they cool a bit), so remove them from the paper carefully, using a twisting motion to gently release the part that’s stuck to the paper.

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Arrange the tofu balls around the mashed potatoes. You can use more tofu balls than this if your plate is larger, and also depending how many people you will be serving (just make sure you have enough for everyone). 😉

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Spoon the sauce over the tofu balls, add some cranberries and garnish the potatoes with the parsley sprigs.

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You can also opt to serve the tofu balls alone without mashed potatoes.

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Finally, here’s a more casual presentation with a mound of mashed potatoes (not molded) in the center and the sauce poured over the top.

Whichever way you choose, waste no time in getting everyone around the table and tucking in, as this dish is seriously yummy and you’ve been sweating in the kitchen long enough!

For a festive Scandinavian ambiance, put some nice Swedish Christmas songs or choir music on.

Enjoy and God Jul (Merry Christmas) to you!

If you liked this dish and can read French, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Boulettes et galettes végétales, the book it comes from. I’ve been impressed by every one of the recipes (both savory and sweet) that I’ve made from it. It’s actually now out of print, but (as of December 2017 at least—act fast!), you can still get it on Amazon.fr. Also check out Ôna’s new book, Ma cuisine super naturelle : manger bio, végétal et local.

Variations: Instead of mashed potatoes, serve with rice or couscous (note however that you will still need mashed potatoes in the balls to hold them together). Use roughly chopped or whole pumpkin seeds as an additional or single garnish.

Canals, bikes and tiny cars

How could I let so many years go by without ever visiting Amsterdam? This is the question I began asking myself almost as soon as I arrived. It’s so close to me (just an easy three-hour TGV from Paris) and has so much to offer.

I soon fell in love with this charming city teeming with bicycles and crisscrossed by canals. I adore the stately narrow houses standing guard alongside them, topped with ornate gables of various kinds. My favorite is the stepped gable but the other kinds—with a vaguely Haussmannian sloping slate roof or a piping of white frosting trim—are beautiful too.

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In the second photo above, you can see a hook hanging down from the top of the building. These were installed on most houses for the purpose of moving furniture in through the windows rather than up the stairs (the stairs in many buildings are steep with shallow steps—I would have appreciated a hook option to get my suitcase up to my hotel room!). These houses were also built to lean slightly forward so the items being hoisted up and down wouldn’t scrape across the façade. For houses without a hook, people use the same kind of exterior elevator you can sometimes see in Paris.

This trip was also the chance to increase my number of countries visited and get a bit closer to beating my brother in our friendly “who’s traveled the most” competition. He is frustratingly one country ahead of me at the moment, although I still think he shouldn’t be allowed to count business trips! (sore loser, yes). 😉

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Another thing I enjoyed in Amsterdam were the chances to try figuring out the exact meaning of signs and writing (and overheard talk) using the bits of Dutch that I know thanks to the Belgian delegation of my United Nations of friends.

Of course, their purpose is obvious right away… the first one means that if you’re not careful, a giant angry dog could burst out of nowhere and dispatch you to the hereafter, but how do they say it exactly? In English, we get right to the point with “Beware of dog” while in French it’s “Chien méchant” (mean/dangerous dog), which gives only an implicit warning. In Dutch the sign reads “Hier waak ik” or “I’m watching (over)/guarding here”—again requiring the would-be trespasser to draw conclusions. The different approaches to conveying a single message are interesting.

In the second photo, a sticker alerts mail carriers to the types of junk mail the occupant does or doesn’t accept. And in the third one, a friendly-looking sign with a rhyming poem tells people that they can park their bikes there if they’re going into the nearby café. As a translator, my natural impulse is to try coming up with an English equivalent that also rhymes… something like “Coming in for a beer? Then you can park here.” But then the idea of tea is lost, and the syllable count isn’t quite right. But this gives you an idea.

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The first thing you notice upon arriving in Amsterdam is probably how very many bikes there are. In the city center they far outnumber cars, and as you explore the streets you see them chained to any and all conceivable fixtures, even (or especially?) when there’s a sign warning people not to). It seems an extremely practical way to get around, and very eco-friendly of course. For those times when biking isn’t possible, there are buses, trams and even a subway with a couple of lines. As a pedestrian, however, you have to be very careful when crossing streets as the chance of stepping in front of a silent but rapidly approaching bicyclist is always high. Especially at night, when bikes are not only silent but practically invisible. I suppose when you live there you have the reflex of looking carefully both ways even in the absence of engine noise.

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The second thing that stands out is the number of canals. I’d already known there were canals there, but hadn’t realized how extensive they are. This city of 219 sq. km has over 100 km of canals (spanned by some 1,500 bridges, each with its own name)—far more than in Venice. In fact, Amsterdam is often referred to as the Venice of the north. The canal ring area, dug in the 17th century during the Dutch Golden Age, was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010.

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As you can see in this 1671 map by Joannem de Ram, the city is a veritable spiderweb of waterways. A number of maps like this are on display at Het Grachtenhuis (the Canal House), a very cool little museum that I discovered by chance.

Its multi-media exhibits tell the story of Amsterdam in a unique and entertaining way, incorporating video, holograms, claymation, physical models and projected images that create a sort of augmented reality to take you back in time. You learn why the canals needed to be dug, how their layout was chosen, why the city’s houses sometimes lean to one side and what lies beneath them. One of the highlights is a model of the Grachtenhuis itself with its rooms furnished in the styles of different periods from its history. It seems that a popular hobby among rich Amsterdam ladies back in the day was to have a dollhouse version of their own home made. I wonder, was it strictly for show or did they also play with their mini-house when no one was around?

Amsterdam is also a place where you can see a few species of very, very small cars. I remember the first time I saw a Smart Car, on one of my early trips to France—they’re so small compared to typical American cars that we took photos of ourselves next to them, even in the days of film cameras when doing so was arguably wasteful. But those are luxury sedans next to these little guys (the official term for vehicles this size is microcars). The first red car and the white car above are Cantas, developed in the Netherlands specifically as a mobility aid for disabled drivers. They run on gasoline, and when I encountered one going down the road its engine sounded like a lawn mower. They’re allowed to drive on sidewalks and you don’t need a driver’s license to operate them. And as you can see, they need to be secured to something with a chain, since just about anyone could pick one up and tuck it under their arm. The black cars are examples of the Birò, the world’s smallest electric car. See it in action here. So cute! You also won’t want to miss the Canta ballet.

Our wanderings through the city were sometimes random and sometimes purposeful, as we had come in part to find some of the space invaders installed back in 1999 by the eponymous French street artist. Those of you who follow my Instagram already know that we succeeded! Out of the original 26, we found 18, although many if not most of those had been “reactivated” (replaced) by fans due to destruction of the originals. Some of them have a small row of tiles installed underneath them, and we were thinking this might be to indicate that they’re reactivations.

After a morning of Invader-hunting, it was time to refuel at Vegan Junk Food Bar. I won’t say much here as I mainly wanted to share these photos and pass on the name before moving on to Van Gogh. Suffice it to say that these burgers were pretty much life-changing, and that those are sweet potato fries with scallions and a truffle mayonnaise. Yes!

So, of all Amsterdam’s museums, the most “must-visit” of them all is undoubtedly the one devoted to Vincent Van Gogh. It’s the largest collection of his works, and he was very prolific for a time before unfortunately slipping into madness. Among other works, you can see these very famous pieces. And also take the artist home with you in crocheted form. In an interesting coincidence, the temporary exhibition of the moment was The Dutch in Paris.

Something funny happened one morning when we were in search of food and realized that the coffee shop across from the hotel offered a vegan breakfast. Okay, we already knew what “coffee” shops in Amsterdam were really about, but were sort of thinking that if they also served food, maybe it was more of a restaurant during the day. And perhaps this one was, but that didn’t stop people from also coming in to smoke. It was a bit surreal to be sipping at your coffee and eating baked beans on toast while at the same time inhaling fumes of a most herbaceous kind from the next table (and baked beans on toast are already strange enough for me). Furthermore, as smoking in buildings has been banned for some ten years already in most of Europe—including in the Netherlands, for regular cigarettes—it was odd to have ashtrays on the tables. Not that I’m even opposed to this kind of thing… it’s more that it hasn’t come into my reality for a long time. Anyway, we saw the humor in it though and weren’t deterred from enjoying our breakfast. Well, as far as possible, since it was a somewhat underwhelming breakfast, especially since they had no plant-based milk and a coffee with milk in it is one of the cornerstones of breakfast for me. But it was filling enough and did the job. Looking more closely at the menu after eating, we noticed the “Happy English” option—an English breakfast “with Popeye’s spinach :)” and wondered just how this “spinach :)” was incorporated (space breakfast?) or if the dish came with a rolled combustible as a dessert course.

That evening, my friend bought a vegan space cake (actually a space cupcake) from the same place to have at the hotel. I was almost going to have part of it but then decided not to, as I’d heard something about unpredictable results and wasn’t in the mood for unpredictable things. The effects of this cupcake, however, were reportedly just as underwhelming as the breakfast, but we both enjoyed the drawing of the enthusiastic chef, so there was that.

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Speaking of weed, another culinary highlight of this trip was The Dutch Weed Burger, a fast-food restaurant fully in line with the spirit of its home city. But no, it’s not that kind of weed, not this time. Behind the provocative name is a culinary philosophy devoted to highlighting the virtues of another kind of plant—seaweed! From burgers and hot dogs to drinks and desserts, everything is made with a bit of added seaweed of one variety or another. We had a burger with kim chee plus the “wish ‘n’ chips”, a drink made with chlorella and a brownie (normal kind). It was all divine. I also loved their cute logo (a sort of partial Jolly Roger with a spatula and a trident) and the many clins d’œil to what people usually think of when you put the words “Dutch” and “weed” together—they refer to the restaurant as a burger “joint” for example, and their quarter-pounder is called the “extra high”. While waiting for our order, we paged through a book of plant-based, seaweed-added recipes called Groente uit zee that was written by one of the restaurant’s founders. It’s also available in English as Ocean Greens. I of course now want to get it, but luckily for my overcrowded bookshelves, it’s not so easy to obtain in France.

After the coffee shop imbroglio, we realized there was a better place to eat in the morning only a few blocks away. Vegabond is a little café that serves breakfast and lunch items, in addition to a range of hot drinks (with plant milks), and it also houses a vegan grocery store with a wide range of products including a locally made almond-based brie. I loved sitting there early in the morning before anyone else arrived, enjoying the ambiance of the sleepy street with a canal flowing lazily in front of it.

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On our second-to-last day, I decided to make a side trip on my own to Delft (one hour from Amsterdam by train) to visit the Royal Delft factory and museum. I’d been wanting to see this town ever since reading Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and seeing the film adaptation of it (although it was actually filmed somewhere in Luxembourg). And of course I also love all things porcelain, pottery and tile, and blue and white designs.

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The town of Delft has (disappointingly) not remained frozen in time in the days of Vermeer, but it was still fun to amble around and look at the old buildings and narrow canals, which run right alongside the houses in some places. I was rewarded in my explorations with some “Delftware” street art!

The factory and museum showcased old plates commemorating Dutch royals as well as large murals made entirely of Delftware tiles and a 17th-century Dutch dining room set up for dinner with period tableware. You can enter a part of the factory to see where the pieces are fired, as well as a workshop where artisans painstakingly paint designs on prefired porcelain—interestingly, the glaze is black when applied and turns blue with the heat.

Your path out of the museum naturally takes you through the gift shop, which I personally found quite enjoyable although most everything was far out of my price range and too delicate for an apartment lacking a china hutch. The tea services, vases and so on are arranged in descending price brackets as you make your way through the shop, so in theory there is something for everyone. Among the more unique items was a €4,150 hand-painted Delftware version of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, which in their defense is not actually that bad when you think about it. The work of painting it by hand to match the original must require a certain effort, and then you have a one-of-a-kind conversation piece bringing together two iconic Dutch things: Delftware and Van Gogh. Or maybe you could just sit at a Delft sidewalk café to draw the thing yourself in a sketchpad and tell people later how you did it on site. 😉 But anyway, those who don’t have the means for such a purchase can console themselves with a Delftware Christmas tree ornament (as I did) or rubber ducky (quite cute actually). A “Delftware” car was parked outside the gift shop, but didn’t seem to be for sale.

This little trip made for a fun afternoon, but it might not be worth the two-hour round trip if your time in Amsterdam is limited, since you can already find Delftware (or similar) and much more beautiful canals and houses in the capital.

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That evening, back in Amsterdam, dinner was at the exclusive, by-reservation-only Japanese restaurant Men Impossible. It was my favorite dining experience of the trip. Guests are seated around a single communal table, a set-up that creates a truly intimate ambiance, and given a warm welcome by the gracious and friendly Atsushi, the proprietor and chef. After directing you to a seat, he hands you a laminated manga (click on the photo of it above to expand) that explains how to order and eat his ramen dishes which, after a starter, are the stars of the show. Atsushi makes all the ramen he serves by hand the same day—you can see why guests must reserve in advance! You choose between warm and cold noodles plus a soup that doubles as a sauce (I picked mushroom) and a flavoring that gets added toward the end (I had black garlic). The process for eating the dish was very precise, so the manga really came in handy—for example, you’re supposed to eat the soup and ramen separately at first (only dipping the noodles into the soup/sauce), and then pour the soup over the noodles later on. I don’t know if I managed to follow all the directions correctly or not, but this dish was one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten. The mushroom soup offered rich flavors bursting with umami and the noodles were very fresh with an amazing texture. And despite manning the kitchen and dining room all by himself, Atsushi was very attentive to his guests. I cannot recommend Men Impossible highly enough. If you’re ever in Amsterdam, find a way to go there (you can make a reservation online). And if you’re into space invaders, you’ll find one on the same street!

The last thing we visited before returning home was the Anne Frank House, a place I’d been curious about for years, ever since reading The Diary of a Young Girl as a teenager. We were actually very lucky to get in, as we hadn’t thought to reserve tickets before the trip started and on the day I checked for openings, absolutely every time slot during our stay was full except one (a group must have just canceled). I reserved spots for us as fast as I could! Plan far ahead if you want to visit this house during your stay.

The tour through the building and its achterhuis (“house behind”), as Anne called it, where her family hid, was a solemn and somber experience. I should point out that the hiding place actually no longer has any of its furnishings—Otto Frank, Anne’s father, requested that it not be furnished again and the photos above are of a recreation in another place. But you can stand in the same rooms where they lived and try to imagine their experiences. To recreate the conditions of the time, the windows are covered with blackout curtains and the interior kept fairly dark. Photos of the family and their helpers hang on the walls, but the audioguide that visitors are given as they enter the site has no recordings to go along with the spaces in which the family had lived, as if to promote reflection. We silently shuffled forward through the small, crowded spaces in step with the other visitors, each of us lost in our thoughts, imagining perhaps the day when the police came to bang on the door of the hiding place and take everyone away. There was a palpable sense of unease in the air and one woman began to cry.

A few vestiges from the days of their hiding remain. Some of the film stars from Anne’s collection are still pasted to her bedroom wall, and the pencil marks where Otto marked his daughters’ heights as they grew can be seen on the wallpaper behind a plastic panel.

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As we exited the building at the end of our visit, it had just been raining and an enormous rainbow stretched across the sky over the rooftops. As if Anne were saying hello.

My friends are used to hearing me say I want to move to whatever European city I’ve just been to, and to avoid testing their patience I won’t do that this time. But between you and me, this is a city I could probably get used to.

If you’re interested in learning more about Amsterdam but can’t visit just yet, you may want to check out Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City (I’m about one-fourth through it and so far it’s been an entertaining read) or The Coffee Trader, a historical novel by David Liss set in 17th-century Amsterdam. I read it years ago and loved it.

Where will my travels take me to next? Stay tuned!

Chocolate cake with azuki filling

In recent weeks, I’ve been experimenting with more and more Asian-inspired flavors and ingredients. It all began when my friend Yukiko introduced me to a Japanese dish that has become one of my top favorite recipes of all time. My discovery then furthered when I got my hands on Elizabeth Andoh’s outstanding recipe book Kansha. In it, she focuses on shojin ryori, or “temple cooking”, which in line with the Buddhist principle of non-harm is plant-based. I now realize how much more there is to Japanese cuisine than the usual sushi, maki rolls and mochi that we’re all familiar with. I’ve tried about seven or eight recipes from this book so far, including cold buckwheat noodles with a tangy umeboshi sauce and herbaceous shiso, creamy/crispy kabocha squash croquettes, candied sweet potatoes and pancakes filled with red-bean jam (check my Instagram from a few weeks ago for photos of all these).

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In Japanese cuisine, an effort is made to combine a range of colors, textures and flavors in each dish. Pasta with a creamy sauce is paired with a crunchy, tangy salad made of colorful carrot, cucumber or red pepper. White rice is cooked together with a few spoonfuls of black rice to become lavender, and is then studded with bright green edamame beans. Sweet preparations may include a few drops of soy sauce or a touch of miso to temper the sugary taste. Such combinations result in works of art that are pleasing to both the palate and the eyes.

It was in this context, then, that I began imagining ways of integrating these principles and ingredients into familiar Western dishes. After my discovery of red-bean (azuki) jam, I wondered how it would taste paired with chocolate. This fusion recipe is the result: a traditional chocolate layer cake with a sweet azuki filling, topped with a sprinkling of powdered sugar and kinako (toasted soybean flour).

I’m quite pleased with the way this experiment turned out. The dark, rich chocolate goes very well with the sweet paste, which gains a caramel-like dimension from the soy sauce. The kinako adds an interesting color contrast as well as a nutty, toasted flavor. And with the traditional layer cake form, it would be the perfect birthday cake for anyone who (like me!) enjoys Asian cuisines and is not a huge fan of cakes slathered in frosting. 😉

This recipe is also a good example of mindful, contemplative shojin cooking (“slow food” in contrast with today’s trends), since the azuki paste takes time and watchfulness to make. I recommend making it the day before the actual cake.

So, what exactly are azuki beans? They’re smallish red legumes with a white stripe and must not be confused with kidney beans (see below). I get mine from my local organic shop, but they should also be available online.

kidney vs. azuki

You may already have heard of azuki (sometimes spelled adzuki) beans, or red beans, being used in Asian desserts. When I lived in San Francisco, I would sometimes buy something called a mooncake, which has a red-bean filling, when I passed through Chinatown. If you live near an Asian supermarket, you may be able to get pre-made red-bean paste there. But if you’re a do-it-yourself type, like I am, or want your filling to be free from preservatives and coloring agents, or just less sweet than the ones found at stores, you can make your own with the recipe below. In making this jam, I drew inspiration from two recipes: Andoh’s and this one from the blog Just Hungry (but any errors in the following are purely my own fault).

This azuki preparation (tsubu-an in Japanese) can also be spread on toast or pancakes like jam, used as a topping for oatmeal or rice pudding, or even served with cheese in lieu of a fruit chutney. The blogger behind Just Hungry recommends enjoying it with ice cream and strawberries, which does sound pretty good.

Azuki filling

Makes about 2¼ cups of filling. Can be made a day or two before the cake.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup (200 g) dry azuki beans
  • ¾ cup to 1 cup (150 to 200 g) granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon (5 ml) soy sauce, or more to taste

Equipment needed: food processor or high-power blender (alternatively, a potato masher  or fork and some patience).

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Place the dry beans in a bowl and add enough water to cover them. Allow to soak for 24 hours (keep in the fridge for best results). The beans will lose their red color as they soak. If you don’t have time for this soaking step, you can skip it, but the cooking process will take longer.

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At the end of the soaking stage, rinse the beans and transfer them to a large stock pot. Fill  it with enough water to cover the beans (never add salt when cooking legumes, except at the very end) and bring to a boil. Allow to boil for one minute, then drain and rinse the beans with cold water.

Return the beans to the pot, refill with fresh water and bring to a boil a second time. Allow to boil for one minute as before, then drain and rinse the beans again. Rinse and wipe the inside of the pot with a sponge to remove all residue. Although lengthy, this process ensures that all impurities are removed. If you have plants, you can save the cooking water to water them with once it’s cool.

Now you’re ready to cook the beans for real! Return them to the pot and refill with fresh water to about 1 inch (2 cm) above the beans.

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Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered, until the beans are soft enough to crush between your thumb and pinky finger (45-60 minutes). If you did not soak the beans before cooking, this step may take longer. Check them every once in a while during this time, adding more water if the level goes down too low and they aren’t done yet. If you have a table in your kitchen, this is a good time to take a seat and delve into a good book.

When the beans pass the thumb-and-pinky test, drain them but reserve about a cup of the cooking water.

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Return the beans to the pan and add about ½ cup of the reserved cooking water back in, or more as needed—the idea is to have just enough to keep the beans from getting too dry and sticking.

Add the sugar and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until you have a thick syrupy sauce (about 15 minutes). The beans will darken in color once the sugar is added. If at any point they become too dry, add more of the reserved cooking water in small amounts (¼ cup at a time).

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Now add the soy sauce, stir to incorporate, and taste. If it seems too salty to you, add a bit more sugar. If it seems too sweet, add a bit more soy sauce, or ¼ teaspoon salt if you need more saltiness but want to limit the soy sauce flavor. Simmer for a minute or two more, then remove from heat and allow to cool.

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Transfer the beans to a food processor or high-power blender and pulse or purée until you have a smooth, paste-like consistency.

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Mine ended up looking like this because the little food processor I use is not super powerful. You could also opt to mash it with a potato masher or similar. It’s fine if a few chunky bits remain.

Store the azuki filling in the refrigerator and use within 5 to 7 days.

Chocolate cake

Makes two cake layers.

Ingredients

  • 3 cups (375 g) all-purpose flour
  • 1¼ cup (250 g) white or raw cane granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon (7 g) salt
  • 2 teaspoons (9 g) baking soda
  • ½ cup (40 g) unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
  • 3 teaspoons (15 ml) vanilla extract
  • ¾ cup (177 ml) neutral-flavored oil, like sunflower or canola
  • 2 tablespoons (30 ml) white vinegar
  • 2 cups (500 ml) cold water

Decoration

  • a few tablespoons powdered sugar
  • a few tablespoons kinako (roasted soy flour), optional

Equipment needed: two 8-inch (20-cm) round cake pans (or bake them in two stages using one pan—be careful to divide the batter evenly). You can use pans with a larger diameter if you like, but the layers will be lower and the cake shorter than what you see in these photos.

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First, preheat your oven to 350°F (180°C). Combine all the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. I used a raw cane sugar in this case, but regular white granulated sugar is fine.

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Combine the liquid ingredients in a smaller bowl and whisk to combine.

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Prepare your cake pans by lining them with some baking paper. Apply a bit of oil to the pan first to make the paper stick. I like to leave little “handles” like these on the sides to be able to dislodge the baked cakes more easily.

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Whisk the dry ingredients together and then add the liquid ingredients to the bowl with the dry mixture. Whisk everything together just until combined, being careful not to over mix as this would make the cake stiff.

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Transfer the batter to your prepared baking pans, diving it evenly between the two, and place in the oven. Bake at 350°F (180°C) for about 20 minutes.

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Check for doneness at this point by inserting a toothpick or fork into the center of the cakes. If it comes out clean, the cakes are done. If not, put them back in the oven for another five minutes and check again. When fully baked, place them on a baking rack or stovetop to cool. Allow the cakes to cool completely before attempting to remove them from the pans.

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You will notice that each cake layer has a domed shape. The tops will need to be leveled before you can assemble the two layers.

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Using a large knife, carefully slice off the top of each cake, depositing the pieces you cut off into a bowl. Crouch down to look at the cake from the side, at tabletop height, to check whether it’s even enough.

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It will look something like this. Remove the baking paper from underneath it and transfer it, cut side facing up, to a clean plate.

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Apply the azuki filling thickly, spreading it with a spoon or large knife to ensure that it covers the surface evenly. Reserve a small amount to fill in any gaps that remain in the sides once you’ve placed the other cake layer on top.

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Now carefully place the other cake layer, cut side facing down, on top of the filling. The cake will have a nicely defined edge along the top. With a frosting knife or flat spatula, fill in any gaps between the two layers with more azuki filling and smooth out the sides. Cover the cake with a cover or an upside-down salad bowl until just before serving. Powdered sugar tents to “melt” into the surface of a cake, so if you apply it ahead of time you will most likely have to do it again and the results will not be as nice. If you will be serving the cake the next day, keep it in the refrigerator until about an hour beforehand.

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A few minutes before serving the cake, apply the powdered sugar. I recommend using a sieve such as this one, or a sifter of some kind, to prevent any large clumps of sugar from falling on the surface and ruining the powdered effect.

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You can use more sugar than this if you like. It depends how opaque you want the surface to be.

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After the powdered sugar, use the same method to sprinkle some kinako on top. Or if you prefer, you can apply the kinako first and then the powdered sugar. It depends which color you would like to be more prominent.

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And now you’re done!

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After serving, cover the remaining cake and place it in the refrigerator (without preservatives apart from sugar, the homemade azuki paste can go bad if left too long at room temperature).

Variations: Use the azuki paste as cupcake filling: after filling the cupcake cups half-way full with batter, deposit a small dollop of azuki paste in the center and push it down until it’s submerged by the batter. Also try it as a frosting for the top of a single-layer cake, or as a spread for toast, etc. as mentioned in the azuki filling recipe above.

Tofu bánh mì

Vietnamese food has been on my mind a bit lately due to the recent opening of a great new vegan restaurant in the 9th arrondissement, La Palanche d’Âulac. I had lunch there a couple weeks ago and fell in love! Scrumptious food (noodles, egg rolls, soups, coconut desserts) and a dining room that manages to be both spacious and cozy at the same time. And it is of course always very nice to be able to choose what actually appeals to you on the menu of an Asian restaurant rather than having to select from only two or three items that happen not to contain oyster sauce. Paris did already have a vegan Vietnamese restaurant, Vietnam in Paris, but for some reason it didn’t win me over like this new place has. If you live in Paris or will be visiting, definitely put La Palanche d’Âulac on your list.

So today I thought I would bring you an easy but delicious Vietnamese recipe that also happens to have a French connection. As you may already be aware, Vietnam is a former French colony—from the late 19th century to 1945, together with what is now Cambodia and Laos, it formed French Indochina. During this time, the colonizers introduced bread to the region and this fusion sandwich featuring traditional Asian ingredients was eventually born. The name bánh mì literally means “wheat cake” and so is the Vietnamese word for bread, as I understand it, but outside of Vietnam, the term is used to refer to this iconic and so very delicious sandwich.

If you have a Vietnamese or general Asian grocery store in your area, you can try looking for Vietnamese baguettes, which are made with added rice flour and so differ a bit from the firmer, crustier traditional French baguettes. But any baguette-shaped bread will work. A must for this recipe is the toasted sesame oil—be sure not to buy untoasted sesame oil by mistake because it’s key to this sandwich’s yumminess.

Since the various components of this sandwich can easily be marinated ahead of time, it’s ideal for bringing to a picnic or a day of hiking. Just assemble it shortly before leaving to ensure that the bread doesn’t get too soggy (you may also want to bring the “sauce” or soy-sesame marinade along in a separate container to add just before serving).

Tofu bánh mì

Makes two sandwiches

  • 7 oz (200 g) firm tofu
  • 1 long baguette or 2 submarine sandwich type buns
  • 1/2 cup (50 g) carrot, shredded/grated
  • 1/2 cup (75 g) cucumber, sliced thinly and chopped into quarters
  • 1/4 cup (60 ml) rice vinegar
  • 1 green onion/scallion, chopped into rounds
  • small bunch fresh cilantro (or coriander in UK English)
  • 1/4 cup (60 ml) soy sauce or tamari sauce
  • 1/4 cup (60 ml) toasted sesame oil (be sure it’s the toasted kind)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon Sriracha or other hot sauce
  • a few tablespoonfuls vegan mayonnaise
  • 1 or 2 limes

 

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The first thing you’ll want to do is get your carrot and cucumber marinating. Shred or grate the carrot and chop the cucumber into small pieces. Place in a smallish bowl and add 1/4 cup (60 ml) rice vinegar. Stir the veggies a bit with a fork to make sure they’re evenly covered by the vinegar. Set aside and take note of the time, as this should marinate for about an hour (longer is okay too).

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Next you’ll be preparing the tofu for its marinade.

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With a non-serrated knife, chop the tofu into slices as shown. Be careful not to cut overly thin slices as the tofu could break apart. Each sandwich will get three or four of these slices.

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In a non-stick pan over low heat and without any oil (this makes it firmer — also there will be plenty of oil in the marinade!), brown the tofu about five minutes on each side until golden as shown and slightly crispy.

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While you’re waiting for the tofu to brown, prepare the tofu marinade. Combine the soy sauce, toasted sesame oil and hot sauce, and then stir in the two minced garlic cloves.

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As soon as the tofu is done browning, transfer it to the soy sauce and sesame oil marinade and toss a bit to coat evenly. Allow to marinate for the remainder of the time that the veggies are marinating, or longer, but the tofu should ideally marinate for at least a half hour. Stir them halfway through, changing the positions of the tofu slices to be sure that they all get to soak up some of this magical marinade.

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Once the marinating step is finished, you can begin to assemble your sandwiches.

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With a serrated knife, slice a length of baguette (this one was about 8 inches/20 cm long), taking care not to cut entirely through to the other side as having one uncut side helps keep all the fillings in. Spread the bottom part with some mayonnaise and squeeze a bit of lime juice over the top. Alternatively, you could mix the mayonnaise and lime juice ahead of time, but the result will be much the same.

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Add three or four slices of marinated tofu, depending on the size of your bread and how stuffed you want the sandwich to be. Spoon some of the marinade over the top.

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Now top that with your marinated carrot and cucumber, plus some sliced green onion and fresh cilantro leaves. Make sure you’re using only half of all the ingredients for your first sandwich so that the ingredients for the second one don’t come up short!

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Close the sandwich, and you’re done! If you have overstuffed it and it threatens to spring open, you can secure the bread with some of those long toothpicks that have fancy decorative tops.

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You can use the excess tofu marinade to stir-fry some seitan, mushrooms or other veggies for a great Asian umami dish (serve over rice or noodles). If any of the rice vinegar remains from the other marinade, you can add it to a homemade salad dressing.

Variations: Substitute or add different fillings: avocado, marinated radish, red bell pepper, etc. Experiment with a peanut-based sauce by mixing some peanut butter into the tofu marinade. Garnish the fillings with sesame seeds before closing the bread for an extra-fancy touch. For a gluten-free version, prepare everything as described (making sure that the soy or tamari sauce you use is a gluten-free one) but serve over a bowl of rice noodles.

Creamy miso ramen soup

Have you ever met a new friend and immediately felt as if you’d always known them? I experienced this not long ago when Yukiko, an online contact of mine (we first met in a group for volunteers of an international vegan organization) visited Paris from her native Japan and we got together for a smoothie in the Marais. It turned out she was planning to move to France very soon to be with her French boyfriend. As we shared impressions of Paris and discussed expat life in France, and of course the usual favorite topic of vegans from anywhere in the world—food and cooking!—the time ran short and we still had more to say. Another meetup was thus in order, and we decided to make it a culinary one so she could introduce me to one of her favorite Japanese dishes.

One chilly day not long after, she appeared at my door with a smile, bearing a cloth shopping bag full of goodies—fresh organic oranges, carrots, green onion, ginger root, vegetable bouillon and, best of all, some homemade miso that she’d brought with her from Japan! On my end, I’d stocked up on ramen noodles, sesame paste and toasted sesame oil, shiitake mushrooms and soymilk. We put on aprons, rolled up our sleeves, and set to work making the dish she had chosen: tantanmen (担々麺), a Taiwanese-Japanese fusion dish featuring Chinese ramen noodles and a Japanese-style creamy miso broth, served with a crisp carrot salad for a balance of textures in line with the traditional Japanese approach.

As we worked, Yukiko and I chatted about this and that and all kinds of things and Sésame padded in and out of the kitchen, the tip of his tail curled into a question mark, checking on our doings and trying to detract our guest’s attention to himself. We kept discovering more and more things we had in common, from similar past (mis)adventures in the romance department to literary interests and even our age—we were born the same year, exactly one month apart! In spite of all our chatter, we eventually managed to finish the dish, and sitting down to this fragrant soup at the end of the afternoon was just heavenly.

Tantanmen has since become one of my new favorite dishes. It’s the perfect comfort food for a chilly winter day, especially around this time of year when sunshine and fresh warm breezes are but a distant memory and there’s at least another month of cold ahead. The creamy miso broth with earthy garlic notes and a touch of spicy cayenne warms your tummy while the noodles fill it, the tender shiitake mushrooms and toasted sesame add an extra dimension of texture and flavor, and the tangy ginger and citrus of the carrot salad provides a burst of freshness that reminds you of the spring season that is surely coming back around sooner or later.

Since we can all benefit from a warming winter pick-me-up right about now, I decided (with Yukiko’s blessing) to share her recipe with you!

There’s some room for variation in this dish, for example substituting seitan or tofu for the mushrooms or using a different crisp vegetable (cucumber, radish or a crunchy lettuce such as romaine) in place of the carrot, according to what you have on hand.

The soup and salad may be served separately, as shown in the main photo above, but they’re best enjoyed together for the contrast of textures, so for the presentation you may opt to place the salad directly on top of the noodles, either to one side as shown in the last photo below, or all around the edges of the dish, leaving the noodles and mushrooms visible at the center.

Carrot salad with tangy sesame-ginger dressing

Serves 2 (about 3/4 cup dressing; some will be left over)

  • 14 oz. (400 g) raw carrots, julienned or roughly grated
  • small bunch fresh parsley or cilantro
  • 4 tablespoons sesame paste (tahini)
  • juice of 1 orange
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

Equipment needed: food processor or blender for the dressing, julienne peeler or other device (spiralizer, grater) for the carrot (or just cut julienne style with a regular knife)

Start by making the dressing (can be made even a day ahead). Place the sesame paste, orange juice, soy sauce, sesame oil and grated ginger in your food processor or blender and pulse until you have a creamy consistency. Taste and add more soy sauce, sesame oil or ginger if needed.

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Julienne the carrots, roughly chop the herbs, and toss together in a salad bowl. If you will be serving the noodle soup within the hour, you can go ahead and add the dressing, tossing to coat the carrots evenly. If you’re using a more delicate item such as lettuce or cucumber in place of the carrots, wait to add the dressing just before serving or your salad may wilt. Add the dressing a little bit at a time; you probably won’t need the whole amount, but it’s good to have it on hand in case you do! (If some remains, it makes an excellent dip for crudités, and can also work as a spread in a bánh mì type sandwich.) Transfer to serving bowls and top with an extra sprig of parsley.

Creamy miso ramen soup

Serves 2

  • 10 oz. (280 g) brown rice ramen noodles, or other noodles
  • 6 oz. (175 g) fresh shiitake mushrooms
  • 1 tablespoon miso, preferably red
  • 2 tablespoons blond sesame paste (tahini)
  • 1 cube vegetable bouillon
  • 2 tablespoons sesame oil, divided
  • 1 and 3/4 cup (400 ml) unsweetened soy milk
  • 3/4 cup to 1 cup (200-250 ml) hot water
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce, or more to taste
  • pinch cayenne pepper
  • 2 green onions/scallions

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Begin by rinsing and slicing the shiitake mushrooms.

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Place them in a nonstick skillet or frying pan over medium heat, without any oil at this stage as the mushrooms will release liquid as they cook. As always with mushrooms, the volume will reduce considerably, so don’t worry too much about overcrowding at the beginning if your skillet is on the smaller size, as is this one in the photo above.

While the mushrooms cook, mince one clove garlic.

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When the mushrooms have become tender and browned, as shown, you can push them to one side and, tipping the skillet slightly, add the toasted sesame oil and minced garlic to the other side. Reduce the heat to low or medium-low, cook the garlic a minute or two, stirring gently, then mix it in with the mushrooms and remove from heat. Note that this is just my own convenience-based approach and not the way my friend did it. You can alternatively remove the mushrooms and return them to the pan again to combine them once the garlic has browned. Set the mushroom-garlic mixture aside. Ideally, keep them in the skillet and cover them so they retain some of their heat (unlike what I have done in the photo below). 😉

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Prepare your ramen (or other) noodles according to the directions on the package, being very careful not to overcook them because they will be heated further once combined with the hot broth at the end. If in doubt, go for al dente. Drain the noodles, return them to the pan they cooked in, cover to maintain the heat and set aside.

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You will now make the creamy miso broth. Combine the sesame paste, the remaining clove of garlic (minced), miso paste, bouillon cube, soy sauce (not shown) and 1 tablespoon of the toasted sesame oil in a small or medium ceramic or glass bowl. Ideally, you should prepare these ahead of time so the mushrooms and noodles don’t lose too much heat while you make this part. Heat 1 cup water in a tea kettle, but not to boiling. If you have a way to check the temperature, it should be around 158°F (70°C). Add about 3/4 cup hot water to the bowl and whisk to combine.

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Heat the 1 and 3/4 cup (400 ml) unsweetened soymilk on the stovetop until close to simmering (do not allow to reach a boil). Turn off the heat and quickly incorporate the miso mixture with a whisk. Important: avoid reheating after this stage, and definitely do not bring it to a boil since the soymilk would most likely separate and the health benefits of the miso (a fermented product) would be neutralized.

Add the pinch of cayenne pepper, taste, and adjust if needed. If you want the broth to be saltier, add a bit more soy sauce. Cover the broth and transfer the drained noodles directly to the serving bowls. At this point, you will want to work somewhat fast since you need to put everything together without losing too much of the heat—this is why it’s useful to have the salad already prepared ahead of time.

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Ladle the broth over the top of the noodles, dividing it evenly between the two bowls, until you have the right quantity of broth for a soup but the noodles can still be seen poking through the top.

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Add the shiitake mushrooms to the top of the noodles and ladle a bit of the broth over the top of them. Top with sliced green onions and you’re ready to serve your dish!

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As I mentioned above, you can serve the soup and salad separately, as shown here, or in the same bowl, as below. Encourage your guests to combine noodles and salad together in each bite. 🙂 You will want to remember to provide a spoon too!

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I hope you enjoy this soup, a fusion dish that celebrates international encounters and friendship. It tastes best when made with a friend! 🙂

Variations: Instead of mushrooms, use finely sliced tender seitan or diced tofu. Substitute lettuce leaves or sliced cucumber for the carrot.

Tunisian sorghum pudding

Last weekend, I had a visit from a longtime Tunisian friend who is very dear to me, and who was passing through Paris on his way to the US. There was just enough time for a short visit. In between updating me on his family’s doings and his plans for the upcoming months, he fished some interesting things out of his bag and placed them before me.

One was a mtabga, a sort of sandwich his sister had made that same day—harissa and chopped yazoul (a delicate wild garlic) in a folded-over homemade semolina flatbread. We shared this, and it was divine, although harissa always involves some sweating and nose-blowing for me (of all North African cuisines, Tunisia’s is said to be the spiciest). Next, he produced a box of scrumptious chickpea cookies from a local bakery, which you may already have seen if you follow my Instagram. And finally, he plunked a clear plastic bag containing an unfamiliar gray flour on the table. “It’s drah,” he explained, in response to my perplexed look. This did not help me much. But we did a quick search and found that its English name is sorghum!

I don’t know about you, but sorghum is not a grain I could have identified in a line-up. I had heard of it, of course, but could not have guessed at how it is used. Turns out it is native to Africa, although the US is now its largest producer, and it’s used as both human food (in part to make sorghum molasses) and as animal fodder. It is the world’s fifth-leading grain crop. As it doesn’t have an inedible hull, it is usually consumed as a whole grain with all its nutrient-rich outer layers. It also happens to be gluten-free and is apparently a common ingredient in gluten-free baking mixes. And after making this dish, I can understand why—the flour gelled easily into a thick flan consistency without any binder.

And now a brief aside for the linguistics enthusiasts among you. The Tunisian name, درع, is sometimes transliterated dro3 with a number 3 at the end to represent the ayn, a pharyngeal consonant that is notoriously difficult for non-native Arabic speakers to pronounce—having studied the language for two years, I can confirm this! The ayn creates a sound almost like an extra syllable (although it is actually not) and, to my ears, the word comes across as something like drah-ah. Elsewhere in the Arabic-speaking world, sorghum is called سورغم, which sounds very similar to the English word. An etymology search revealed that our English word comes to us from Modern Latin via the Italian sorgo, “a tall cereal grass”.

I now bring you a recipe for an easy Tunisian sorghum dish that my friend’s mother makes. Called simply drah after its main ingredient, it’s most commonly eaten as an energy food for breakfast and so can be considered a sort of porridge. But since the consistency is similar to that of flan, I think it would also make a very nice light dessert.

I made mine with rice milk so it would have some extra natural sweetness, but in Tunisia some make it with water only. Flavorings can also vary, but I chose orange-blossom water for its subtle floral notes (ginger is another popular ingredient). In Tunisia, this dish is most often eaten topped with some crumbled halwa chamia, a dense sesame-based confectionery, but almonds and honey are another common way to enjoy it. For a fully plant-based dish, I used Bee Free vegan apple honey, and I imagine that maple syrup, agave syrup or molasses would also work well. Because the honey is so sweet, I did not put any sugar in the pudding itself, but you could add 1 or 2 teaspoons of sugar to the mixture as it cooks if you prefer a sweeter taste or don’t want to use a syrup on top.

Sorghum pudding can be eaten either shortly after it’s made (allowing some time for it to cool, as it immediately forms a skin underneath which the temperature remains molten for a time) or room temperature/chilled. Wait until just before serving before adding the almonds and syrup to ensure that the almonds remain crisp.

Tunisian sorghum pudding

Makes two servings of one cup each

Ingredients

  • 5 tablespoons sorghum flour
  • 1 cup rice milk (or any plant-based milk)
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 teaspoons orange-blossom water
  • small pinch of salt
  • 2 tablespoons flaked or slivered almonds, toasted (see directions below)
  • 2 tablespoons vegan apple honey, maple syrup, agave syrup or molasses

Equipment needed: strainer, hand whisk

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Begin by sifting the sorghum flour through a strainer into a medium saucepan to break up any lumps. The burner should not be turned on yet.

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Add the (cold or room-temperature) rice milk, water and pinch of salt and whisk to thoroughly combine BEFORE turning on the heat. Note that once the liquid heats, any additional sorghum flour added will turn into lumps and it will be next to impossible to break them up.

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Turn on the heat to medium and heat to simmering, stirring constantly or at least very frequently. When the mixture begins to boil, add the orange-blossom water and continue stirring until it thickens. You will want to stand right there and watch it until it’s ready, whisking to prevent the formation of lumps. It takes about five or six minutes for it to reach the desired thickness and could boil over quickly, so stay put! Make sure you have your serving bowls nearby.

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When it’s ready, it will look pretty much like this and be making dramatic glopping sounds as the mixture boils. When it has the consistency of a thick potato soup, it’s done. Pour it into the serving bowls right away because it begins to form a skin as soon as it’s taken off the heat.

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After the pudding has been poured into the serving bowls, and while it cools a bit, toast your flaked or slivered almonds. Place a dry non-stick frying pan over medium-low heat and stir or toss occasionally until lightly browned. You will want to stick around for this step too as lightly-browned can become far-too-browned or even burnt in very short order. Have a small ceramic bowl ready to transfer them to when done.

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When they look like this, they’re ready. Transfer them quickly to the bowl or (as I have done) a cutting board or other heat-resistant surface. If you leave them in the hot pan while searching for a bowl, you run the risk of the almonds browning even further.

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If the pudding’s surface seems firm (by now it should have cooled enough, but check the top to be sure), drizzle your honey or syrup on it and finish with the almonds.

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And there you have it! Once the honey or syrup and almonds have been added, it should not sit around too long as the almonds will gradually get soggy and the syrup watery (becoming like a flan with caramel sauce, which is not bad but not the intended presentation either). You can see this effect a bit in the photo below because I got distracted by something between the preceding photo and this one. 😉 But the taste is still good, however it looks. Enjoy!

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Variations: top with halwa chamia or any type of chopped nut (pistachios would be great) or even dried fruit such as golden raisins. Sprinkle some gomasio in with the nuts for a salty contrast to the sweet topping.