Around five years ago, our local organic stores began stocking black sesame paste, and it wasn’t long before I’d bought some and was brainstorming ways to use it. One of my most successful creations was a black sesame cake, which soon became so popular with my friends that I was making it all the time.
And at one point in the middle of my black sesame period, the workings of fate also brought a sweet little abandoned marble tabby kitten into my life. I didn’t name him for a while, preferring to watch his personality unfold and see what felt best, and in the meantime called him Baby (which I still often call him today). As he grew bigger I saw that the dark gray of his grownup fur was about the same color as a black sesame cake… and so his name was found! I decided to call him Sésame… pronounced say-zahm in the French way.
Today is his fifth birthday, so I thought I would share a recipe for the cake he was named for! And to pay further tribute to him I have prepared it using the zebra cake method, alternating between white sesame batter and black sesame batter. It takes a while to achieve this effect, but it’s very pretty I think. To save time, you can make larger stripes or just use one type of sesame paste for a solid color cake – gray if you use black sesame paste or tan/beige if you use white (plain) sesame paste.
This cake is very moist and has a unique flavor profile. The black sesame has fragrant nutty notes that are nicely complemented by the vanilla.
Striped sesame cake
Black sesame batter
¾ cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 heaping soup spoon black sesame paste
2 tablespoons neutral-flavored oil
2 teaspoons white vinegar or apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup cold water
White sesame batter
¾ cup all-purpose flour
¼ cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
1 heaping soup spoon white (plain) sesame paste
2 tablespoons neutral-flavored oil
2 teaspoons white vinegar or apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup cold water
Equipment needed: one round cake pan (layer-cake type). Mine is 8 in. (200 mm) in diameter.
Begin by preparing your cake pan by oiling the bottom and sides or placing some baking paper in the bottom (as you can see in the photo, I like to leave a tab on one side to make it easier to pull the cake out). You’ll also need four small bowls – cereal or soup bowls are fine. Preheat your oven to 350°F/180°C.
Combine the dry ingredients (flour, sugar, baking soda and salt) for each of the batters in two separate bowls. Then do the same with the wet ingredients (sesame paste, oil, vinegar, vanilla and water). I used a heaping soup spoon of each sesame paste, as shown here. Be sure to mix the wet ingredients well so that the sesame paste is fully diluted.
Add each wet mixture to a dry mixture and combine until you have a fairly smooth batter. Be careful not to overmix.
Now take your prepared baking dish and drop a spoonful of black sesame batter onto it, right in the center (if you want your stripes to be bigger, use a larger amount of batter than this).
On top of it, place an equal amount of white sesame batter. As you’ll see, the bottom batter will spread out underneath it all on its own. Do not attempt to spread it yourself as this could damage the pattern.
Add another spoonful of the black sesame batter on top of that. Little by little, the batter will spread, forming stripes.
Keep going until you have used up all of both batters (note: it takes a while). At some point, the center of the design may shift over to one side of the pan, but this is fine. It happened to me twice with this cake, creating the design you can see in the photo below. The inside will still be full of stripes!
Place in the oven (preheated to 350°F/180°C) for 20-25 minutes.
Test for doneness by stabbing with a toothpick in various discreet spots (such as any naturally formed cracks). If the toothpick comes out with raw batter on it, put the cake back in the oven for another 5 minutes or more.
Allow the cake to fully cool before cutting into it. Since it’s quite moist due to the sesame paste, it needs to set a bit or the pattern could get smooshed.
As you can see, the inside is wonderfully striped and marbled!
The other side of that same piece looks like this – a bit more marbled than striped.
Variations: if you don’t have sesame paste or can’t find the black kind, you can make this same zebra-patterned cake in a chocolate and vanilla (or matcha and vanilla, etc.) version.
As you’re already well aware, this is a surreal moment in history, with much of the world’s population on lockdown, under mandatory or recommended stay-at-home orders. Here in Paris, we’ve been en confinement, as the expression goes, since March 17th and we still have a couple more weeks to go.
Among other things, this means we have to do most or all of our own cooking at home, using whatever ingredients we can get our hands on. At a time when we’re supposed to keep trips to the outside world to a minimum, what are the best shelf-stable foods to choose? In the panic-buying rush, most people seemed to think of pasta first, wiping supermarket shelves clean of all its forms. As for me (and I don’t know how many others did this, since I went into self-isolation earlier than the rest of the country), the first place I went was the lentil aisle!
I tend to go with dry lentils rather than canned, as they’re less expensive, easier for pedestrians like me to carry home (no water weight), can easily be purchased in bulk (no packaging to throw out or recycle) and take up less room in your pantry.
Even after the lockdown period is over, lentils will be a good thing to have on hand. They can be kept for a year or two without going bad and are a quick fix when you have nothing else in the house and can’t go out for whatever reason.
For those of you who may be new to lentils, or just haven’t had them lately, I thought I’d share a super easy recipe for lentil soup. I’m calling it “lockdown lentils” in reference to these strange times, but also because it can be modified endlessly to accommodate whatever seasonings you have on hand while locked down. The only two ingredients you absolutely need are lentils and water – everything else is optional! I’m nevertheless including some recommended ingredients and spices that take them to another level. Feel free to substitute other things as needed.
The type of lentil you use is also up to you. In the photos shown here I’ve used green, but you could also use brown, yellow, red or beluga (black) lentils. Note, however, that red lentils become mushy as they cook, so a red lentil soup will be thicker than the one you see here.
To make your lentils go farther, serving more people or stretching out over more meals, serve it over a nutritious cooked grain such as brown (whole-grain) rice, spelt or buckwheat.
Makes 2 servings
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion (50 g), any color
1 or 2 cloves fresh garlic
Half a carrot (50 g)
Half a medium to large potato (75 g)
1 cup (175 g) dry lentils
4 cups (950 ml) cold water
Half a vegetable bouillon cube or salt to taste
1 dried bay leaf
½ teaspoon ground coriander
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
¼ teaspoon black pepper
¼ teaspoon each thyme, rosemary, oregano etc.
unsweetened plain soy cream or yogurt (optional)
fresh cilantro (coriander) or parsley leaves, for garnish
balsamic vinegar or soy sauce, to drizzle on top
Equipment needed: wire sieve
Drizzle a bit of olive oil in a saucepan and turn on the heat to medium-low. Dice the onion and heat it, stirring often, until soft and translucent. Meanwhile, dice the carrot and crush the garlic. Add the garlic to the saucepan and stir constantly for about 30 seconds, being careful not to allow the garlic to overheat or stick to the pan.
Add the diced carrots and continue stirring constantly. After about a minute, add the 4 cups water and stir the vegetables to dislodge anything that may have stuck to the bottom of the pan. Cover the saucepan and turn the heat to high to bring the water to a boil.
While waiting for the water to heat, place the lentils in a wire sieve and rinse thoroughly. Check through the lentils to remove any rogue items such as tiny twigs or stones.
Add the lentils to the saucepan and continue to bring to a boil. Once the water is boiling, turn the heat down to low. Peel and dice the potato and add to the pot, along with the half-cube of bouillon (or salt), bay leaf and other herbs and spices. Stir to combine everything, cover the saucepan loosely and let simmer.
After about 25 minutes, the lentils should be cooked all the way through and the carrot and potato should be tender. Turn off the heat, stir and taste to adjust the seasonings. If it seems too salty, you can add a bit of extra water. Remove and discard the bay leaf.
Ladle the soup into bowls. If you like, you can top it with some unsweetened soy cream or soy yogurt (or other plant-based alternatives). Drizzle a bit of balsamic vinegar or soy sauce over that and garnish with fresh herbs.
Variation: omit the potato and carrot and use less water to prepare lentils for use in a salad (I don’t recommend red lentils for this, since they become mushy when cooked).
Let’s take a break from current events and go on a little trip to Iceland! One that takes place mainly in our kitchens.
I had the good fortune to visit this fascinating and beautiful country back in 2011, spending a week in Reykjavík with a side trip to see the attractions of the Golden Circle. I loved my time there, and although I haven’t had the chance to go back yet, Iceland has continued to have a special place in my heart. Below are a few more of my photos from that trip (click on any photo to open a slideshow view).
One of the things this tiny island nation is known for is its literary output, with one of the world’s highest numbers of authors per capita (one in 10 Icelanders will publish a book). In the years just after my visit I read a couple of novels by Halldór Laxness (Iceland’s Bell) and Sjón (From the Mouth of the Whale), but I didn’t get to any further Icelandic literature until this past December.
In France, a major general strike began early in December 2019 and lasted nearly until the end of January. This meant very few metros and buses were running, and even when they were, the prospect of squeezing into one and possibly getting crushed by the other sardines did not appeal. So I decided just to lay low and not really go anywhere (except by foot) until it was over. As an introvert, I didn’t see that as much of a sacrifice, especially since it was also pretty cold and miserable outside. Of course, if I’d only known what was to happen just a couple months later, I would have gone out more…
With my extra free time I began reading even more than usual. I delved into an Icelandic novel I’d found in the street, Heaven and Hell by Jón Kalman Stefánsson, which turned out to be the first in a trilogy. Many parts of this story fit in perfectly with my situation, following solitary characters who had to trudge across hostile frozen landscapes (not totally unlike my 35-minute trudges through December rains and heavy air pollution to reach my Japanese class). But the story drew me totally and completely into Iceland and reawakened my passion for the country. See my review of the book here.
As you know, one of the things I often do when I’m enthusiastic about a book or film is to make a recipe inspired by it! And this was no exception.
I looked online for an interesting Icelandic recipe and found something called plokkfiskur, which is a blend of mashed potatoes, onion and mashed fish mixed with a creamy béchamel type sauce. The dish originally hails from Norway, as do the people of Iceland themselves, if you go back far enough in history. To veganize it, I replaced the fish with artichoke hearts (a very good suggestion by my mom) and wakame seaweed. And if I do say so myself, the result is really delicious! It’s like a very gourmet twist on mashed potatoes, and could be served as a side dish or a main dish, depending on the portion.
A side note about the name… plokkfiskur, I read, means “mashed fish” and since there isn’t any fish in my dish I should really call it… plokkþistilhjörtur? (as þistilhjörtu is the word for artichoke). That seems kind of fun to pronounce! But I’m unsure of how the case ending should be handled, and there could be other details I’m unaware of, so for now am just using the original term in those handy quotation marks. So if you’re an Icelander yourself, or just know the language well, please feel free to suggest an alternate name for this dish!
Icelanders commonly eat plokkfiskur with rugbrauð (rye bread), which in some parts of the island is actually baked right in the ground using geothermal heat! You can see how it’s done here:
After some Googling, I learned it was possible to replicate this baking method with hot water in a slow-cooker, or even in a conventional oven inside a large pan of water (much like Boston brown bread). I followed a vegan recipe for it that I found on a blog that has since unfortunately disappeared and made some adaptations of my own. My first attempt at it was quite successful and I was absolutely delighted with the bread, which I have now remade several times. One of the interesting things about it is that it contains absolutely no oil, but due to the cooking method comes out very moist. And although it contains molasses and a bit of sugar, it isn’t a sweet bread. It goes well paired with either savory or sweet things.
I realize you may not happen to have a slow-cooker, or it might not be the right size or shape for a loaf pan (although you can get creative here and use a container of a different shape), so feel free to bake it in a conventional oven or simply use store-bought rye bread. But I wanted to include the recipe here for anyone who wants to attempt this culinary adventure. It follows the main recipe below.
10.5 oz (300 g) firm potatoes, peeled
9 oz (250 g) canned artichoke hearts (weight after draining)
3.5 oz (100 g) white or yellow onion, diced (1 medium onion)
1 heaping teaspoon dried wakame seaweed
1 cup (236 ml) soy milk plus more if needed
½ bouillon cube
3 tablespoons flour
¼ teaspoon ground white pepper
small bunch chives
Serve with rye bread (store bought or homemade with the recipe farther below).
Start by peeling and chopping the potatoes. Boil for 20 minutes or until tender.
While the potatoes are cooking, continue preparing the rest of the ingredients. Dice the onion and sauté them in a little olive oil until translucent (do not allow to brown).
Incorporate the flour, stirring well to coat all the onions.
Add the soy milk, stirring well. Crumble the bouillon into the milk once it heats up, and add the white pepper. In combination with the flour, the milk will form a kind of béchamel sauce. You may need to add a bit more milk than the one cup, if the result is too dry.
Combine the seaweed with a bit of cool water (it will plump up and double in size in a few minutes).
Add the potatoes and then the seaweed to the pot.
Slice the artichoke hearts into quarters and gently incorporate into the mixture.
You now have a delightful gourmet and slightly oceany tasting mashed potato dish! Top with fresh chives after serving.
Icelanders often scoop some of the plokkfiskur onto their rye bread to eat them together.
Geothermal rye bread
Makes 1 loaf
1½ cup (150 g) rye flour
¾ cup (94 g) all-purpose wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 cup (236 ml) soy milk
3 tablespoons molasses
2 tablespoons sugar
Equipment needed: electric slow-cooker large enough to fit loaf pan (or a large stovetop stockpot and a container that can fit inside it).
This bread may just change your life!
Start by sifting all the dry ingredients into a bowl.
Add the molasses to the soy milk and whisk to incorporate it fully. Be sure to do this as a separate step rather than mixing the molasses straight into the batter.
Prepare your loaf pan with a piece of baking paper (or oil the inside well). Fold the molasses and soy milk mixture into the dry ingredients and stir only until you have achieved a homogeneous consistency. Be careful not to overstir.
Transfer the batter to the prepared loaf pan, and spread it around to an even level. Cover the top with a piece of aluminum foil.
Fill the slow-cooker with boiling water (this one takes 3 liters), or else fill it with water and allow enough time for it to preheat. It is very important for the water to be around 90°C before you add the loaf pan. If the dough is heated too slowly, the baking powder and soda will not be activated and the bread won’t rise. My slow-cooker heats to around 90° to 95° on the high setting, but yours may be different. You can check the exact temperature using a candy thermometer.
In my slow-cooker, the baking process takes about 18 hours. Since the lid does not form a complete seal, the water evaporates down after a few hours, so I try to time the baking so that I can check it every few hours and refill with hot water as necessary. To check if the bread is done, stick a toothpick in it, both in the middle and the sides. With this method, unlike in an oven, the bread begins baking from the center outwards so the sides and ends are the parts that will not be done if the bread is not yet ready.
When you have confirmed that the bread is indeed baked all the way through, remove it from the slow-cooker and allow it to cool. Unmold it onto a cutting board and you’re ready to slice and serve it! It can be used with either savory or sweet things – serve it with the plokkfiskur above or with vegan butter and jam.
To learn more about Iceland, I recommend checking out the All Things Iceland podcast, created by American expat Jewells, who also happens to be vegan! She can also be found on YouTube and Instagram. I also enjoy the Stories of Iceland podcast by native Icelander Óli Gneisti Sóleyjarson. And I of course highly recommend reading the authors I mentioned earlier, as well as (one day, when it’s possible) visiting Iceland yourself.
My recent discovery of a French vegan blue cheese here in Paris brought back some fond memories from my student days. I was living in downtown Milwaukee, finishing up my bachelor’s degree and working at a popular restaurant on Cathedral Square Park. Some nights after finishing up our last tables, a few fellow servers and I would take our exhausted selves down the street to Elsa’s On the Park, a cocktail bar that was way cooler than the place we worked at. We loved its sophisticated ambiance, avant-garde art, high-end cocktails and the fact that its kitchen stayed open late enough that we could get something to eat after our restaurant closed.
Looking online, I was happy to see that Elsa’s (described on the Google map as “trendy eatery for burgers & martinis”) was still there, in the same beautiful Victorian building. It now had a website and on it I found their menu, which didn’t seem to have changed. I recognized the same burgers, grilled cheese sandwiches and, best of all, their Hell’s Fire Fries: thickly sliced rustic housemade chips topped with melting gorgonzola cheese and hot sauce. Tucking into this spicy dish was the perfect way to forget that awful table that had run you off your feet all night and then tipped you only 10%, I found. The dish was also the perfect accompaniment to a stiff drink, ordered for the same reasons.
This Proustian trip down memory lane of course inspired me to see if I could reproduce this yummy treat, now that blue cheese had re-entered my world. A friend from the olden days volunteered to stop by Elsa’s to order the dish and report on what she was served, and it turned out to be the same as I’d remembered – thick fried potato slices with the skin on, something midway between fries and chips.
I’m quite happy with the result, which I have named in homage to the original dish. The vegan blue cheese I used, the Jeanne from Jay & Joy, is made with the very same mold cultures that you find in animal-sourced blue cheese (just in a base of cashews and almond milk instead of animal milk), and its flavors go as well with the hot sauce as I remembered.
Elsa’s is part of the student-days nostalgia I share with my brother, who also lived in Milwaukee in that time, also worked as a server (at a different restaurant) and also loved visiting this favorite spot. If recipes could be dedicated to people like books are, I would dedicate this one to him.
Anyway, if you can get your hands on a cheese like this and want to try it for yourself, all the info is right here.
Heavenly hot homefries
Makes a smallish dish of homefries (serves 1 or 2)
12 oz (350 g) firm potatoes, skin on, or more for a bigger portion
1 cup vegetable oil (such as canola, rapeseed or colza) for frying
vegan blue cheese, as much as you like – I used about 0.5 oz (15 g)
The potatoes I used are a variety called Grenadine in French, but any firm potatoes, such as you would use to make regular fries or a potato gratin, will be fine. If you opt to leave the skin on, clean them thoroughly with a vegetable brush.
Using a mandoline, cut the potatoes into slices about 1/8th in. (3 mm) thick. Be REALLY careful and make sure to use the safety attachment when you get near the end of the potato. If you don’t have a mandoline, you can try slicing them with a knife, but cutting them evenly may prove challenging.
In a deep saucepan, heat the vegetable oil on high. Once it’s hot enough for frying (350°F or 180°C – check out these directions for determining the temperature without a thermometer), carefully immerse the potato slices in the oil. I used 1 cup of oil and fried my potatoes in two batches, but you could opt to use 2 cups and fry them all at once if you like. The goal is to not crowd the slices so they don’t stick together.
Once the slices have begun to turn golden brown (it took about 10 minutes for mine), carefully remove them from the oil using a metal slotted spoon and place them on paper towel, ideally in a single thickness. Sprinkle a bit of salt over the top. As soon as the paper towel becomes saturated with oil, get another sheet for the remainder of the slices or the whole batch is likely to be overly oily and might get mushy.
Now that they’ve been fried, in your home, the potato slices are homefries!
Before they cool too much, transfer the homefries to a plate or bowl. Crumble some gorgonzola or blue style cheese over them and then drizzle some hot sauce on top. I used a Mexican sauce I brought back from my last stay in the US, but just about any hot sauce will do – choose whatever level of heat you can tolerate. I recommend against Sriracha, since it has a sweet side that might not be so good in this dish.
If your homefries have gotten cold or you just want to warm up the cheese a bit, you can place the fully assembled dish under the broiler for a few minutes (in an oven-proof container, of course). Note that vegan cheese tends not to melt as much as animal-sourced cheese.
And there you have the perfect dish to help you unwind, along with a martini, mojito or merlot, at the end of a long and aggravating day. Be sure to keep the hot sauce handy so you can turn up the heat if needed.
Rumor has it this dish tastes even better when you’re wearing Tapatio socks!
Today we have yet another recipe I concocted while visiting my parents back in the US this summer. I’d purchased a bottle of Baileys Almande, which isn’t easy to find in France but is so very delicious, and wondered if I could create a cocktail of some kind with it.
Its creaminess seemed to make it ideal for an ice cream drink. That made me remember the pink squirrel, a fun retro cocktail involving crème de cacao and crème de noyaux (made from apricot, peach or cherry pits, which give it an almond flavor – perfect for squirrels!) and prepared witheither heavy cream or ice cream. Crème de noyaux usually also contains red food coloring, which is what gives the pink squirrel its pretty pastel hue.
Incidentally, in researching the pink squirrel, I learned it was actually invented at a cocktail lounge in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, one of the cities where I spent my formative years.
I thought it would be fun to make a similar drink with a vegan twist, using Baileys Almande and nice cream (blended frozen bananas) instead of ice cream made from animal milk, and this is the result, which I have named “white squirrel.”
Of course, the drink is a bit more beige (or banana-colored) than white, but “beige squirrel” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, and even actual white squirrels are kinda beige, so it works, right? I think so.
The white squirrel would be a nice after-dinner indulgence for Valentine’s Day, which is nearly upon us. All you need are a few key ingredients and some advance planning, since the bananas have to be frozen for a few hours before you can start. Of course, if you have some vanilla dairy-free ice cream on hand, you could use that in place of the nice cream. If you can’t get your hands on Baileys Almande, you can substitute amaretto or another similar liqueur (scroll to the bottom of this post to see a Baileys-like product that’s available in France).
I found this fun vintage pink squirrel recipe, which appears to come from one of those great 1970s recipe card libraries like my mom has. As always with these old recipe photos, the creation is given a confusing mise en scène with unattractive colors and problematic lighting. What’s a cocktail doing on the kitchen table from Little House on thePrairie? And why is it being served with fruitcake? It’s an elegant drink that functions as a dessert in its own right, and as such should be served by itself.
So let’s make some white squirrels, shall we?
Makes 2 one-cup (236 ml) servings
3 frozen bananas (roughly 16 oz/450 g in total)
2 ounces (59 ml) white (clear) crème de cacao liqueur
2 ounces (59 ml) Baileys Almande (or similar – see end of post)
non-dairy whipped topping
cocoa powder or ground cinnamon/nutmeg, for garnish
Equipment needed: freezer, food processor or high-powered blender
Take your frozen bananas out of the freezer (after freezing for at least 4 hours) and weigh the amount you need, depending how many servings you want to make. In the photos in this post, you’ll see larger quantities because I was making more than two servings. Place the bananas in your food processor, but allow them to thaw for 10 or 15 minutes so they’re soft enough to blend without damaging your food processor.
Add the liqueurs to the food processor and begin blending the bananas. It’ll take a little while, but after a few minutes the bananas will take on a smooth soft-serve ice cream consistency. You may need to pause the blending to scrape down the inside from time to time, to help all the chunks to get blended.
When the nice cream looks like this and all of the banana has gotten blended, it’s ready!
Fill up your glasses with the nice cream mixture and top with the nondairy whipped topping. Sprinkle a bit of cocoa powder or grated cinnamon or nutmeg on top if you like. Serve with spoons!
Make a virgin white squirrel by substituting your favorite plant-based milk + 1/2 teaspoon almond extract per serving for the alcohol.
Turn this drink into a brown squirrel by adding some cocoa powder during the blending stage.
Where to find ingredients…
In North America: Baileys Almande can be found at most liquor stores these days, and most grocery stores carry a range of non-dairy whipped toppings, sometimes with a range of options (almond, rice, coconut). The products shown in the photos above were all purchased at mainstream grocery stores in the US.
In Europe: Baileys Almande is available in some countries (Germany and England, to my knowledge) but for some reason has still not become widely available in France. You can substitute amaretto or a similar liqueur – for example, Aujourd’hui Demain in Paris currently has this maca and almond milk liqueur (photo below), which I haven’t tried but which seems similar to Baileys Almande. Non-dairy whipped toppings (in a pressurized can or small carton) can be purchased at vegan grocery stores and also sometimes at kosher stores or in the kosher section of a general grocery store. See also my whipped coconut cream recipe.
As you may have noticed, I really love fusion cuisine and the improbable but delicious flavor pairings that come into being when traditions from different parts of the world are combined. Today’s recipe is one such dish: part Italian, part American and part… Nigerian? Allow me to explain.
This summer, I had plantains on the brain because I’d recently gotten my hands on a really cool plantain cookbook – by Tomi Makanjuola, who runs the blog The Vegan Nigerian – which has over 40 recipes showcasing the underappreciated fruit in almost every kind of dish you can imagine. As I always try to make at least five recipes from every cookbook I acquire, in line with the philosophy behind my cookbook challenge, I set about making some of the dishes right away (my favorites are the beans & plantain pottage and the smoky plantain, mushroom & avocado on toast).
As I began to appreciate the humble plantain more and more, I thought it would be fun to create a plantain recipe of my own for this blog. As I set about reflecting upon savory and sweet combinations not already covered in that cookbook, Hawaiian pizza popped into my mind. Many are the opponents of pineapple on pizza, especially one Italian friend of mine, but I happen to love it. So I thought plantain might work on a pizza too as long as there was also something spicy to balance out the sweetness. After brainstorming a list of likely ingredients, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.
To be honest, even I was not totally sure if plantain on pizza would work out. But I looooooved it! My mom and dad did, too (I was at their house when I made it). It has smoky, savory notes from the smoked vegan deli meat, crunchy oniony-ness from the red onion, freshness from the cilantro and of course the crispy sweet plantain goodness of the star ingredient. I also love how colorful it is (red, white, yellow, purple, black, green).
So as I was saying, this pizza is a fusion dish – pizza has its origins in Naples but was developed into the dish we know today in early 20th century New York City (listen to this interesting How to Be American podcast episode for more on that) and this particular one has a key ingredient that’s grown in Nigeria, but also other parts of Africa as well as Asia and Latin America. Plantain is therefore not a specifically Nigerian thing, but since a Nigerian cookbook author inspired me to create this dish, I’ve associated it that way in my mind.
If all this has intrigued you and you want to try making it too, read on!
A note about the crust: when I made this pizza, I used an overly complicated homemade pizza dough recipe that I wouldn’t recommend, so I’ll leave it to you to find one you like. It just needs to be thick or firm enough to support the rather hefty plantain slices.
Makes an approximately 12-inch (30-cm) pizza
one thickish (but not deep-dish) pizza crust, purchased or homemade
5 to 6 tablespoons pizza sauce (or tomato sauce plus Italian herbs)
3/4 cup (75 g) mozzarella-style vegan cheese (optional)
2 to 3 vegan deli-style smoked “meat” slices
1 to 2 medium-ripe plantains
1/2 cup (60 g) red onion
1/4 cup (30 g) sliced black olives
1/3 cup sliced canned banana, peperoncino or other hot pepper
small bunch fresh cilantro (coriander)
2 tablespoons cornmeal, for pan (or use baking paper)
Preheat your oven to 475°F (250°C) and begin by preparing the plantains. Slice each one lengthwise and remove the peel. Slice into rounds of equal thickness, about 1/4th of an inch (5 mm) thick, and sauté on both sides over medium heat until golden brown. It’s important for the plantain to be fully precooked as undercooked plantain can lead to tummyache, and the time it spends in the oven might not be enough.
Sprinkle your baking sheet with the cornmeal to prevent sticking or, alternatively, line with baking paper. Place the dough upon it, rolling it flat if needed – mine was rectangular and measured 10.5 x 12.5 inches (27 x 32 cm) before baking. Spread the pizza sauce on it evenly, using more than the recommended amount if necessary or desired. Cover that with the vegan mozzarella, if using (I recommend Daiya in North America or Violife in Europe). But you can also opt not to use any cheese at all. If you don’t use cheese, a sprinkling of nutritional yeast before or after baking will add a somewhat cheesy flavor.
Cut the smoky vegan deli “meat” slices into squares. Use however much you like.
Slice your red onion (and black olives, if not presliced) and place on top of the pizza.
Finally, slice up the hot peppers and place on top of the pizza in the amount that you like, depending how partial you are. I started with two peppers but ended up adding some more after the pizza came out of the oven as I really loved the combination.
Place in the oven (preheated to 475°F/250°C) and bake for about 10 minutes. Keep an eye on things because baking times can vary quite a bit depending on the thickness of your particular crust. If after 10 minutes it doesn’t seem done, give it some more time.
Remove from the oven and garnish with fresh cilantro (coriander) leaves. Your one-of-a-kind plantain pizza is ready! Slice it up and serve it to your hungry guests (…or yourself!).
By the way, what do you think of the tablecloth? An uncle of mine brought it from Liberia as a gift for my parents some years ago, and I thought it would fit well with this recipe’s West African theme.
Soooo yummy, if I do say so myself! I want to make it again. 🙂
Where to find ingredients…
Plantains can be found at most supermarkets, but if you don’t find any, look for a Latin-American, African or Asian grocery.
Mozzarella-style vegan cheese is increasingly available at mainstream grocery stores in North America, but organic shops are even more likely to have it. In France, you’ll find it at some organic shops, but for best results check at a vegan food shop first (in Paris: Naturalia Vegan, Mon Epicerie Paris and Aujourd’hui Demain).
Vegan deli “meat” slices will also most likely be found at organic and vegan food shops. In Europe, I recommend the brand Wheaty.
A few years ago, I happened to spend Christmas in the company of a Norwegian friend and got to experience a traditional dish commonly served the morning of December 24th in homes across his northerly homeland. The memory of its subtle sweetness and warming heartiness has stayed with me and this year, I decided to make it here in Paris. And to share it with you! Get ready to experience risengrynsgrøt (rice porridge).
This vegan version of the grøt (porridge) is very easy to make, composed of a just a few ingredients. And if you use rice milk, which is naturally sweet, there’s no need to add any sugar.
In preparing my own recipe, I drew inspiration from basic rice pudding recipes and also this Norwegian vegan risengrynsgrøt recipe. Some versions call for other milks, including full-fat canned coconut milk, but I found that rice milk thickened up nicely enough.
Risengrynsgrøt is traditionally served with husholdningssaft, a juice made from apples, grapes and cherries. Personally though, I dislike pairing sweet dishes with sweet beverages. And since I’m not Norwegian myself, I decided to flout tradition and have it with coffee.
My Norwegian friend later assured me that it was okay to have coffee too (emphasis his). I promised to have some berry juice later in the day to make up for it, but he only sighed and shook his head in dismay.
A word of caution about cinnamon:
There are two types, Cassia and Ceylon. Cassia, the most common kind due to its lower cost, can cause stomach pains and more serious problems if consumed in higher doses (1 teaspoon or more per person, per day) due to the coumarin it contains. So although cinnamon is yummy, be careful not to overdo it if you suspect yours is the Cassia variety.
Norwegian Christmas rice porridge
Makes about 3 cups (2 to 3 hearty servings)
1 cup (200 g) short-grain rice
3½ cups (830 ml) rice milk or rice milk blend
1 cinnamon stick (optional, preferably the Ceylon variety)
The rice you want for this recipe is the short-grain type, the kind used to make risotto. For the liquid, I recommend rice milk because it is naturally sweet (I used a rice and coconut milk blend). But you can substitute another plant-based milk and add a bit of sugar if needed.
Combine the rice, milk, pinch of salt and cinnamon stick in a saucepan. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Once it is boiling, turn the heat down to low and simmer (still covered) for 15-20 minutes until the rice is soft. During this time, stay close, stirring occasionally and ensuring that the mixture doesn’t boil over.
When the rice is done, taste it to see if you want to add some sugar. Remove the cinnamon stick (tip: save it to make pot-pourri with later).
Serve the rice porridge in cereal bowls. Place a pat of margarine or vegan butter in the center of each bowl and sprinkle the top with a small amount of ground cinnamon (see my word of caution about cinnamon above). When the margarine has melted, stir it into the porridge to combine.
If reheating leftover rice porridge, mix in some extra milk while stirring to achieve a creamy texture again.
Variations: add diced raw apple, raisins or dried cranberries to the rice near the end of the cooking process. Dust some sugar and/or gomasio over the top if you like.
Sunrise and Julenisser photos courtesy of Jon Helge Hesby
Where to find ingredients…
Short-grain rice: most general grocery stores offer this type of rice, labeled variously as risotto rice, arborio rice or sushi rice. In France, riz rond is what you want.
Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum or true cinnamon): check at high-end or specialty shops, or look online. Note that Saigon or Vietnamese cinnamon (Cinnamomum loureiroi) is closely related to the Cassia variety (Cinnamomum cassia) and therefore should probably also be consumed only in small quantities.
During my visit back home in the Midwest this summer, I decided to try baking a molasses cake with a crumb topping that my mom used to make when I was little. It was one of my very favorites back in the day, but I hadn’t had it for ages and wondered if my result would be true to my memories. Turned out, it was every bit as yummy as I remembered and the traditional recipe was even accidentally vegan (although some versions use butter instead of oil). I thought it would be a fun recipe to share with you all, especially since it’s somewhat uncommon.
Its name comes from the large amount of thick, gooey molasses that goes into it… so sweet that it attracts sugar-loving insects which must then be “shooed” away.
In researching it, I discovered that it’s actually an Amish recipe. I’ve always been fascinated by this unique culture, which you’ve probably heard of even if you’re not from North America. This group, most famous for rejecting modern technology, is made up of several distinct but related traditionalist Christian church fellowships with German and Swiss Anabaptist origins. Several hundred thousand of them live in rural parts of the US and Canada, and their best known settlements are in Pennsylvania. There are some in my home state of Wisconsin, but I’ve never encountered them anywhere but on the Amtrak – since they don’t drive or fly, trains are their main form of transportation when going long distances. I find it quite remarkable that they’ve managed to preserve their way of life and language (Pennsylvania German) all this time.
This British reality TV show provides an interesting glimpse into an Amish community that hosted a group of decidedly non-Amish teenagers from the UK. Other more traditional documentaries can also be found on YouTube.
Molasses is the star of this scrumptious moist dessert, which in my view can compete with the most decadent chocolate cake any day in terms of richness of flavor. It’s made by refining sugarcane and tastes something like a stronger and darker maple syrup with notes of gingerbread and honey. Molasses isn’t used so often today, but it was a very common sweetener in the Americas before the 1900s.
Unlike white sugar, molasses contains nutrients. It’s an excellent source of vitamin B6 and key minerals including calcium, magnesium, iron and manganese (one tablespoon provides 20% the recommended daily amount of each).
Traditional versions of this cake call for a lot of sugar – one recipe I found actually calls for 3 cups of it (!) for 4 cups of flour. I read that the Amish view high-calorie food as a plus, since they do a lot of manual labor and need the energy. Fair enough, but being a sedentary city-dweller myself, I dialed the sugar back to just 1¼ cup, which was quite enough in combination with regular molasses. If you’re using the more bitter blackstrap molasses, you may want to add more sugar.
Finally, this recipe yields quite a lot of cake (enough for a large Amish family!) so feel free to cut the amounts in half and use a smaller baking dish. Alternatively, make the recipe as is but put half in the freezer for later.
Let’s make a cake!
Amish shoo-fly cake
Makes one 9 x 13 in. (22 x 33 cm) rectangular sheet cake
4 cups (150 g) all-purpose flour
1¼ cups, packed (300 g) brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (236 ml) neutral-flavored oil such as canola (in France, try huile de colza désodorisée)
1 cup (236 ml) molasses
2 cups (473 ml) boiling water
2 teaspoons baking soda
Preheat your oven to 350°F (180°C). Start with the flour in a large mixing bowl. Add the brown sugar and salt and stir to combine.
Add the oil and stir to incorporate. You may need to knead it with your hands at some point to achieve a fully homogeneous result. The texture will be similar to moist sand.
Reserve 1 cup of the crumb mixture to top the cake with just before baking. Set the large mixing bowl of dry mixture aside.
Take another large bowl for the wet mixture. Add the molasses, scraping the measuring cup thoroughly to get all of it out. Add the boiling water and stir to combine, then add the baking soda (the mixture will foam up, which is why it’s good to use a larger bowl).
Now incorporate the wet mixture into the bowl with the dry mixture. Stir to combine, being careful not to stir too much as this can make the cake texture tough (it’s okay if a few lumps remain). Pour into a greased baking dish.
Sprinkle the reserved crumb topping over the the batter, taking care to ensure the coverage is even. Place in your pre-heated oven and bake for 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Remove from oven and let cool completely before attempting to cut into it, otherwise the squares may not keep their shape.
Cover the baking dish with plastic wrap or transfer leftover slices to a Tupperware container so the cake doesn’t dry out.
I hope you enjoy this one-of-a-kind cake! Who knows, it may just become one of your favorites, too.
Where to find ingredients…
In North America: Molasses and brown sugar can be found at most grocery stores with a wide range of products.
In France: Molasses (mélasse) and brown sugar (sucre semoule) can be found at organic food shops but not always at mainstream grocery stores. Note that sucre semoule is a very specific moist sugar that’s different from sucre roux and sucre complet (also known as rapadura), which are dry sugars. Then moistness comes from the presence of molasses, so if you’re in a bind, you can actually make brown sugar yourself. Still, it’s better/safer to get prepared brown sugar if you can. Baking soda (bicarbonate de soude alimentaire) is not as common a baking ingredient in France as in the US, but you should be able to find it at most grocery stores if you look around enough. This is something I stock up on whenever I make a trip back home. Be sure the label says alimentaire or that it’s otherwise safe to use in baking, as you might find it in a cleaning-product form with non-edible chemicals added.
When you last heard from me, I was explaining why it took me so long to make my first visit to New York City and showing you my nostalgia-fueled journey there on the Amtrak. But did I like it there? As the title of this post suggests, yes, yes and yes! Let’s take a look at the highlights.
First, I had the good fortune to be hosted on the Lower East Side of Manhattan by an old friend and former roommate from my undergrad days. Being roommates again was a high point of my stay, reminiscing about the good old days and learning about this new-to-me city from someone who’d already explored it a fair amount.
Right from the start, on my first day walking around, I discovered that one of the ideas I’d had about the city was wrong. In the US, New York City has a reputation for being unfriendly. People there, I’d always heard, were constantly in a hurry, invariably gruff and surly and probably planning to rob you. Even Sesame Street made sure we knew what a tough city it was.
So although I knew stereotypes don’t always reflect reality, thank heavens, on some level I’d mentally braced myself. “Do your worst,” I told the city. “I live in Paris!” Nothing could faze me after 10 years in the French capital.
But it turned out that while the reputation Paris has is (generally) well deserved, New York City’s isn’t. Throughout my entire stay, I consistently heard Excuse me, Sorry and Thank you, and on several occasions people spontaneously offered me help when I looked like I needed it. On my way into the city, loaded down with a heavy suitcase, I was looking at a flight of subway stairs in dismay when a passing woman volunteered that there was an escalator a bit further down the hall. Another time, I was sitting on a bench applying band-aids to my blistered heels when another passerby offered to supply me with more band-aids should I need them. And on the train to the airport on my last day, my fellow travelers (who could see from my luggage where I was going) helped me figure out what to do when the train service was temporarily halted, without my even having to ask.
So perhaps most New Yorkers are only “rude” in comparison with, for example, invasively friendly Midwesterners. In small-town Wisconsin, strangers actually get a bit too much into your business sometimes, so I can imagine rural folk who haven’t traveled much being disappointed by city-dwellers who don’t always have time to chat with you.
But on several occasions, locals actually did strike up a conversation. One afternoon, taking a break from a street art expedition in Brooklyn, I sat down in a café with a matcha latte and pulled Orlando out of my bag. The middle-aged gentleman working on a laptop at the table next to mine took his headphones off to remark on a coincidence: he was in the middle of writing an opera based on another of Virginia Woolf’s books! We spoke for a few minutes about the smallness of the world and the difficulties of adapting stream-of-consciousness literature to a musical form. When I asked when he expected to finish the piece, he chuckled and said sometime in the next decade. We each went back to our respective occupation and, making a mental note to pay more attention to operas, I wondered if he were somebody famous.
Little encounters such as these add a nice human touch to one’s existence, I find. This dimension of city life is something I’ve talked about on this blog before, and my stay in New York City only reinforced the fact that I truly miss it.
As for the city itself, one of the things I was most interested in was its background. I’d already learned about its Dutch roots at museums in Amsterdam and was curious to know more about other ethnic groups, like Jews and Italians, that don’t have so much of a presence in the region I’m from.
The Lower East Side, as it happens, is an ideal starting point to learn about the city’s history of immigration. Just a few blocks from my friend’s apartment, I discovered and fell in love with the Tenement Museum, a learning center that explores the uniquely American story of immigration and the rich, diverse landscape it continues to create. For me, an immigrant myself, this topic has special resonance. Founded in 1988, the museum is made up of two former Orchard Street tenement buildings, each featuring several apartments restored to the way they would have looked at different points in history. The museum offers different guided tours designed to focus on particular themes telling the stories of actual families who lived in the buildings. I opted for the Sweatshop Workers tour, which takes you through the cramped living spaces of two Jewish families, the Levines (c. 1892), who operated a small garment factory in their sitting room and kitchen, and the Rogarshevskys (c. 1908), who worked at apparel factories outside the home and therefore had different living circumstances.
On this tour, and also a separate Tenement Museum walking tour that I joined, I learned that Orchard Street and surrounding areas were once the beating heart of the nation’s garment industry, with most families doing piecework in their homes for long hours six or seven days of the week. Walking down the street, you could have looked up and seen someone bent over their sewing at just about each window and heard the whirring of sewing machines from all sides. It was also a street clogged with pushcarts since itinerant vendors were a convenient source of groceries in the day.
The district has been home to various ethnic groups that arrived and dominated, population-wise, in waves. In the 1840s, so many settlers from the German states had come that the area became known as Klein Deutschland. Next were Italians and Eastern European Jews, and by around 1920 the Lower East Side had the largest community of Jews in the entire world. After World War II, Puerto Ricans and African-Americans began to appear in greater numbers. Today there’s a prominent Chinese presence, but a mix of other ethnic groups live there too.
To learn more about New York City’s immigrant history, check out the Tenement Museum’s podcast, How To Be American.
To take a peek inside 97 Orchard Street, watch the video below. If you look around YouTube a bit, you may also find a funny Saturday Night Live tribute to the museum.
And for a deeper dive into the immigrant experience, I highly recommend Betty Smith’s semi-autobiographical novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn focusing on an Irish-Austrian family living in the Williamsburg slums in the early 20th century. Titles of other fiction and non-fiction works about immigrants in NYC are listed in the museum’s shop.
A vestige of the Lower East Side’s Jewish days can be seen in the beautiful and painstakingly restored 1887 synagogue now known as The Museum at Eldridge Street. Below are a few glimpses into its interior.
The two other museums I saw on this trip were the Guggenheim – the building was the main attraction for me since Frank Lloyd Wright (a Wisconsin native!) is my favorite architect – and a museum devoted to Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi.
Other art can be seen on the city’s walls for free. There are quite a few impressive murals by Brazilian street artist Kobra, and Invader has quite a few pieces there too. I also saw some pieces by Stik and Frank Ape.
And what about the vegan food scene? It was, of course, amazing! Much like in London, you can find decent vegan items on the menu of just about any mainstream restaurant, and there are many fantastic all-vegan places. Within a three-block radius of my friend’s apartment, I counted three places to get vegan ice cream. Just down the street from the Tenement Museum is Orchard Grocer, a little food shop and delicatessen with a range of delicious made-to-order vegan sandwiches. I was very impressed by their Bowery breakfast sandwich and their Edith bagel with cashew cream cheese and carrot lox that could easily be mistaken for smoked salmon. Adjoining this shop is Moo Shoes, which has a nice selection of vegan footwear, bags and T-shirts.
Other places I loved included Riverdel inside Essex Market, which offers a wide range of gourmet vegan cheeses plus hot and cold sandwiches (their hot breakfast sandwich was divine!), Beyond Sushi, Dun-Well Doughnuts and Van Leeuwen ice cream. There were some spots I didn’t manage to get to, like Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s Modern Love in Brooklyn, so those will just have to wait for my next visit!
So there, in a rather long-winded nutshell, you have my first visit to New York City, a place I strangely felt at home in right away. Maybe because it combines the things I like about Paris (a major international city filled with people from all over the world and lots of art and culture) with the things I like about the US (friendliness, the ability to chat with strangers, greater acceptance of veganism and a wide availability of vegan food) and of course the fact that I blend in and don’t have to be an ambassador for my country.
10/10 would visit again! I have to, anyway, since I still have so many more things to see there.
Have you been to New York City, and how did you like it?
Would you believe that I, a travel enthusiast who has lived in various cities around the world and been to places like Morocco and Iceland, had until very recently never been to New York City? Me neither, and I can only ascribe this oversight to my younger self’s burning desire to always head for more remote and exotic places. Every time I would travel, back when I lived in my native USA, it was over the state of New York to farther destinations, very often France.
It wasn’t that I didn’t ever want to see it. I just figured NYC wasn’t going anywhere and I would get there eventually. But this glaring omission became more and more embarrassing after I moved to France and casually admitted to several French people that I hadn’t been to NYC yet. This city is – understandably enough – any French traveler’s first and main destination in the US, and for an American to not go there is incomprehensible. It would be like someone from Avignon in southern France never bothering to visit Paris.
And they have a point – never visiting a world capital like this one is something to lament. But the difference between these contexts lies in the distance separating one’s place of residence from the destination city. In Wisconsin, where I grew up, our country’s cultural capital is far enough away (880 miles/1,416 km) that planning a trip there entails a certain amount of planning and hassle. And you also have to fly there, emitting unmentionable quantities of greenhouse gas into the air.
Or do you?
Well, most people opt to fly such a distance (roughly equivalent to Paris-Warsaw), because the alternatives are 14 miserable hours in a car or 23 even more miserable hours in a bus. But wait, isn’t there another option? What did people do before cars and buses? Okay, yes they took stagecoaches, but they also took the TRAIN.
So this summer, wishing to rectify my offense and shrug off the growing shame of it all, I wondered if I could fit in a visit on my way back to France from Wisconsin, but without flying. First, I already felt bad about the carbon cost of my trip to the States and wanted to avoid another flight’s worth (trains have a carbon footprint too, but a much smaller one). Second, I hate flying anyway (too much space between me and the ground!). And third, as a fan of train travel and old movies, I wanted to try the sleeper-car experience. This was my chance!
Making this trip by train takes just as long as by bus, but the experience is so much nicer, even if you opt just for a seat and not a sleeper car. You can get up and walk around, move to the observation car and admire the landscapes, eat in the dining car or snack bar car and engage in conversation with different fellow travelers (and not just your one seatmate on the bus). And if you get motion-sick in buses like I do, the choice is especially clear.
But I was determined to have my own sleeping compartment, just like Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest but probably without the stowaway. With some luck, admittedly too close to my travel date for comfort, I found both a decent price and an itinerary (the Lake Shore Limited) that wouldn’t have me changing trains early in the morning. After an hour-and-a-half ride from Milwaukee to Chicago in a normal coach car, I transferred at Union Station to the train that would take me all the rest of the way, leaving at 9:30 pm and arriving at 6:30 pm the next day.
Amtrak’s smallest private room, the Viewliner roomette, is a compact space – measuring just 3’6″ x 6’6″ (110 x 201 cm), it’s no wider than what you see in the photo above. It makes up for this in height, however, with a very high ceiling to accommodate the adjustable upper bunk, so it didn’t feel too confining. It’s designed to sleep two, but I think with two people this tiny space would quickly feel MUCH smaller.
The compartment contains a small sink that folds down from the wall, and… wait for it… a toilet! Yes, and it’s out in the open with no wall separating it from the rest of the room. This is where things could get weird if you’re traveling with someone. It’s just as well that I never bumped into Cary Grant and had to hide him from the police! Rest assured, though, that if you book the roomette alone, the entire compartment is yours and nobody else will be traveling in it.
When I boarded, my room was in its default configuration with two facing seats, but in the hour after our departure the car attendant came through to convert everyone’s roomette for sleeping. You have the option of sleeping in the upper bunk or having the seats below converted to a bottom bunk (my choice).
My fears of being unable to sleep in a rocking, creaking, groaning metal box proved groundless – the bed was very cozy and I actually got a great night’s rest. When I awoke, the morning sunlight was gently filtering in through the curtains and we were chugging along the eastern coast of Lake Erie somewhere in Pennsylvania or New York state.
Starting at an early hour (I think 6 am), complimentary coffee and orange juice are made available in the hallway of each sleeping car. For reasons I’ll get into later, I’d brought some food along and had these coconut-cashew bites for breakfast in my room.
Another very cool thing about traveling in a sleeping car is you can take a shower! And even though I could have just waited until I got to my destination to take one, I wasn’t about to pass up this rare (not available to coach travelers) and kind of amusing opportunity. Plus it’s always nicer to be clean. Each sleeper car has one shower room at the end of the hall with a little cubicle and a tiny space outside it to stand in and get dressed. Towels, soap and these strange put-them-together-yourself shower slippers are provided. The water flow was minimal (or maybe not much was left?), so it took me a long time, punching the button every few minutes to get more water to come out, like with a campground or locker-room shower. And it’s a rather precarious business, what with the train rocking and jolting and you being all soapy and slippery. There’s a large metal bar you can grab onto, but I could also see how with the wrong timing you could end up lurching into it headfirst and getting knocked out cold. That must not happen too often I suppose, or there would be no more showers on trains. I, at least, escaped injury.
Next it was time for lunch, and this is where my story takes a kind of Twilight Zone turn. Before my trip I’d checked the avid Amtrak travelers’ forums to see if any vegan options were to be had, and everything seemed to indicate I needed to call and reserve a vegan meal at least three days ahead of time. So I did that, only to have the Amtrak lady on the other end of the line tell me that actually my train was not going to have a dining car and that no vegan options were possible. Other people would have a standard meal delivered to their rooms, but no special meals like vegan or kosher could be had. Disappointed but not surprised, I thanked the lady anyway and grumbled about this for a while to my family members. And I duly brought a bunch of food with me on the train, although it wasn’t quite enough and I wasn’t able to find anything decent at Union Station in Chicago.
So I was not only shocked but also relieved to learn that actually there was a dining car on my train and that a completely vegan meal was part of their permanent menu (!?), no need to reserve anything. Who knows how such contrary information was provided… my phone call may have gotten routed through a wormhole to the 1990s. But now you know: if you’re traveling on the Lake Shore Limited, you can have this very nice Asian noodle bowl. It seems there’s also at least fruit as a vegan option for breakfast. Still, it’s always a good idea to have some extra food on you, since life is unpredictable.
I spent the rest of my time relaxing in my little room, reading Orlando and watching the various stations of upstate New York file by. Finally, as the sun dropped lower over the horizon, New York City loomed into view.
All in all, I was quite satisfied with this train adventure. Of course, it was a somewhat expensive option ($375 for the roomette, all included vs. about $175 for just a coach seat) and definitely more than air travel (maybe $120 one way). You also need the luxury of time to be able to travel this way. But with our environment in the state it’s in, I’m in favor of a shift back to slower transport and a more relaxed attitude to work schedules, for example, to make such travel more realistic. Efforts should also be made to lower train fares and make trains more efficient. If this had been a high-speed train such as the TGV in Europe or the Shinkansen in Japan, the trip would have taken much less time. In the meantime, if I were to make this trip often, for cost reasons I would probably sacrifice my comfort some of the time and go for the coach seat.
I would also like to see Amtrak make a bigger effort to reduce single-use plastic. Two plastic water bottles were provided in my roomette, but there also seemed to be a drinking water tap in the sink. And although the lunch came in a balsa-wood box (along with a card explaining that it was to help save the environment), everything inside the box was wrapped in or composed of single-use plastic. Perhaps some of it was biodegradable, but it still seemed like a lot of unnecessary packaging. BUT, three cheers for Amtrak for (after all) having a vegan choice on their normal menu.
Have you ever traveled long-distance with Amtrak? How was your experience?
If this post has intrigued you and you want to prolong the train-riding mood, make yourself some popcorn and check out one of the many films set on or around trains. In addition to North by Northwest (1959), I especially recommend The Ghost Train (1941), Mystery Train (1989) and Murder on the Orient Express (2017 or earlier versions). An honorable mention goes to The Darjeeling Limited (2007; not my favorite Anderson film, but you can’t beat his aesthetic). If you have others to recommend, leave them in the comments!
Be sure to also take a look at the English royal family’s own private train.