A Return to Raw Night at the Green Owl: An Eastern European-Inspired Raw Dinner

Upon returning to my hometown of Madison, WI for a month-long winter break from my hectic life at Vassar College, I’ve engaged in a number of activities that have contributed to a true sense of homecoming. Even though I now happily consider the Vassar campus as my veritable stomping ground, Madison’s liberal, progressive, vibrant, eclectic, environmentally-minded community earns an eternal place in my heart, and during my extended visit back I’ve truly enjoyed partaking in the activities that, for me, define the Madisonian lifestyle. Those translate to frequently patronizing my two favorite heated yoga studios, Inner Fire Yoga and The Studio; shopping for high-quality, organic, and local produce as well as specialty health food items at the Willy Street Coop; supporting the Dane County Farmers Market every Saturday; whiling away the hours in my well-equipped kitchen; and sampling the generous amount of veg-friendly restaurant cuisine this fine city has to offer.

Concerning Madison’s restaurant scene, once again experiencing a certain special, monthly dining event excited me more than returning to any other eatery while back in my hometown: Raw Night at the Green Owl. I’ve returned to the Green Owl for their Raw Nights on six occasions now, determined to pay that sixth visit during my winter break after an excruciating four-month hiatus from the gourmet raw cuisine offered by Cara and Jennie. Last Thursday night, I, accompanied by two of my dear friends, satisfied this fierce determination at the Owl’s “Eastern European Winter Themed” Raw Night, which featured light, colorful, uncooked variations on the heavy traditional dishes of the Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, and the like.

raw night (3)

Foreshadowing the party of pink and parade of pickles that would characterize our meal, a creamy apple slaw mixed with locally fermented red cabbage sauerkraut and garnished with chives began my long-awaited reunion with the Owl’s ever-improving raw fare. An intriguing meld of tart, tangy, sour, and sweet flavors united by a lovely undertone of caraway, the slaw served as a fresh opening to the five tantalizing courses to come.

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Yet another brilliantly pink dish followed the slaw—a chilled borscht served with a dollop of cashew sour cream and topped with fresh dill and chive oil. I’ve long hesitated to sample borscht or to make it myself out of a fear that the soup will taste simply like, well, a pile of soggy shredded beets. Don’t get me wrong—I adore the earthy sweetness of beets, but always felt that an entire soup devoted to them would taste rather overpowering. Indeed, my skepticism proved accurate, as a beety boxer knocked out my tastebuds with the first spoonful of borscht, and I could only stomach another couple experimental tastes before handing off the cup to my dining companions (we opted to share two prix fixe menus between the three of us due to the generous portion sizes). However, I don’t want to blame the fabulous folks at the Owl for a less-than-appetizing soup, for I feel strongly that any rendition of borscht would inspire in me the very same negative reaction. Offering a redeeming quality to the second course, the creamy cashew sour cream inspired me to save it from drowning in its beety ocean as I stole the dollop from both bowls of soup.

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The final small plate of the meal included crisp endive leaves filled with a savory pumpkin seed pate and accompanied by cumin-spiced pickled turnips. Though the pate tasted like just about every other nut pate I’ve sampled in the past (not bad, just nothing special), I positively fawned over the brightly hued, impeccably tangy, surprisingly spiced pickled turnips. Blame my powerful adoration of all things pickled, but I would call these pickled turnips a work of culinary art, especially due to their employment of cumin—a spice I never would have considered adding to pickles. Green Owl: I’d like a barrel of the pickled turnips, okay? Thanks.

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Temporarily straying from our dinner’s otherwise pink theme, our main plate of Kofta Biryani drove our party of three into a symphony of “Mmm’s” and “Oh my god’s” with its quartet of dazzling components. Crusty on the outside with a delicately textured center, three deeply flavored walnut balls bathed in a creamy gravy boasting an undertone of cinnamon. Beside the walnut balls glowed a sunnily hued saffron-cauliflower “rice” pilaf studded with dates, bell peppers, and coconut flakes. Providing a refreshing flavor contrast to the three other unctuous aspects of the dish, a side of crunchy house-fermented brussels sprouts rounded out our main course.

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As per usual, dessert proved the most decadent, astounding, and utterly mind-blowing course of the entire meal…or of all of the meals I’ve eaten over the past couple of months. This cardamom-poppy seed cheesecake with orange blossom-blood orange glaze and citrus-apricot sauce left all three of us literally speechless, as we devoured both slices in complete silence, communicating with each other only with strained expressions of, “I finally understand what it truly means to experience a food orgasm.” And now I cannot force myself to think about anything else other than this cheesecake…so thank you, Green Owl, for ruining all my intellectual hopes and dreams. I’m okay with that, though, as long as I can curl up with a slice of your cheesecake every night.

Needless to say, my “welcome back” Raw Night dinner fulfilled and exceeded all of my expectations, and I’m currently attempting not to allow my absence from Madison, and thus from the Green Owl, during my spring semester of freshman year to cause me too much gastronomic suffering. Sigh. If any of you, dear readers, experience the pleasure of dining at the Green Owl for their Raw Nights, please let me know so my palate can live vicariously through yours.

Until next time, Ali.

Meeting the Madison Raw Foodies

While Vassar’s dining options include an impressive variety of creative and healthy vegan dishes, they falter, rather predictably, at providing food catering to a raw foods diet. Yes, both the Deece and the Retreat (Vassar’s main dining hall and cafe-style eatery, respectively) feature considerably well-stocked salad bars, but I certainly cannot hope to discover any cashew cheese, zucchini noodles, or kale chips within a 200-foot radius of either building. Though I don’t adhere to an exclusively raw diet simply because, from experimenting with doing so over the past couple of years, I find it unsustainable for my active lifestyle and too restrictive to truly enjoy. However, I prefer that both my daily breakfasts and lunches consist heavily of raw foods to ensure high nutrient density, thoroughly enjoy reveling in decadent raw desserts every so often, and immensely admire individuals who have vastly improved their health (many even reversing Western diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers) by committing to a raw diet. That said, I took great pleasure in sharing a potluck dinner last night with a handful of fellow members of the Madison Raw Food Meetup Group who, unlike the vast majority of my college campus, wholeheartedly appreciated the nourishing power of pure veggies, fruits, nuts, and seeds, as well as shared my enthusiasm for sprouting, dehydrating, juicing, and smoothie-ing.

Raw Potluck Collage

Starting from top left and working clockwise, our group of health-minded folk enjoyed:

  • A wonderfully tender kale salad massaged with a citrusy olive oil dressing and tossed with avocado and grapefruit.
  • Mushroom Pizzas with a tahini-based pate, tomatoes, and spiced avocado slices.
  • (My contribution!) Falafel and Hummus Wraps with marinated mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, zucchini, and bell peppers (recipe here). I adored the deeply savory, quite olive-y flavor of the pumpkin seed falafel, but opted to make a more seasonal wrapper out of winter squash rather than the one called for in the original recipe.
  • Satisfyingly crisp sundried tomato-basil crackers and sprouted rye berry crackers accompanied by the silkiest, most delectable cashew cream cheese in which my tastebuds have ever had the pleasure of frolicking (of course the woman who provided these dishes employed a VitaMix to yield such a creamy spread—oh, the jealousy!).
  • Two superfood dessert bars—the first of hemp seeds, dried figs, dates, and almond butter; the other a chocolatey date-nut square topped with shredded coconut.

The buffet table also included apple slices and almond butter, hemp seeds to top the kale salad, a strawberry cheesecake, and a platter of my Red Peppermint “Sugar” Cookies.

Boasting a larger turnout that the last raw food meetup I attended during the summer, last night’s potluck offered an informal, friendly setting in which to chat with likeminded vegans and nutrition junkies, including two members of the Madison-based band Sexy Ester, who describe their music as “post-modern power pop.” Lyndsay, the lead singer, described to me her journey to raw foodism: she adopted a vegan lifestyle at age 18 out of a deep love for animals and decided to experiment with a raw foods diet in an attempt to ameliorate long-term digestive issues—more power to her! I intend to keep in touch with her and continue to support her band’s endeavors.

Finally, I’d like to conclude this post by rehabilitating the powerful discussion I introduced in my last raw potluck recap, which describes my experience in and advice for finding the inspiration to remain vegan for life. The post touches upon my transition from health-focused veganism to passionate animal rights advocacy, and how both educating oneself of the three major reasons—the animals, the environment, and health—for becoming vegan as well as surrounding oneself with a community supportive of a compassionate lifestyle prove necessary “In order to thoroughly cultivate the dedication and unwavering psychology necessary to nuture a permanent vegan lifestyle” (as quoted from the post I’m referencing). I’d love if you’d take the time to read (or re-read) my musings and contribute your thoughts to the conversation.

Until next time, Ali.

Interview With a Farmer: Roots Down Community Farm

This post serves as the fifth of my “Interview With a Farmer” series. Through this series, I hope to cultivate a deeper relationship with small-scale, organic vegetable farmers, both in the Madison and Poughkeepsie—my hometown and my college town—areas, and to offer insight toward the staggering importance in supporting these hard-working, noble individuals, who act as the backbones in the fight against overly-industrialized agriculture.

Prior to this spring, I had never before encountered the gorgeous produce grown by Kyle Thom of Roots Down Community Farm, a five-year-old organic farm that offers bountiful CSA shares and just this year entered onto the Dane County Farmers Market scene after enduring a lengthy waiting list. One look inside Kyle’s greenhouse rife with every variety of heirloom tomato trellised methodically on a single string per vine convinced me of his utter dedication and passion toward providing impeccable fruits and vegetables to the near-Madison community. Kyle’s generosity, considering both the grocery bag bursting with veggie goodies with which he sent me home after the interview as well as the beaming smile he shares every Saturday at the market, surely will further his ventures in the strong agricultural network of southern Wisconsin.

On a more personal note, I’d like to apologize for my semi-hiatus from the vegan blogosphere over the past couple of days. Tuesday marked my official transition into the Vassar College community in Poughkeepsie, NY, and our freshman orientation schedule leaves little room for leisure activities such as blogging. I do plan on writing a post chronicling my meal plan and food preparations during my shift to college life, but probably won’t finish it until this whirlwind of introductions, social gatherings, and class registration has settled. Stay tuned, my friends!

Farmers Market Vegan: Tell me about your farm—where it is, what you grow, if you have a CSA, etc.

Kyle Thom: We’re in Milton, WI and we grow a wide range of diverse plants. We do have a CSA that feeds about 85 families a year with weekly and biweekly shares that run from late May to mid-October. We don’t offer any winter shares yet and our boxes contain strictly fruits and vegetables. We also attend farmers markets every week—the Eastside Farmers’ Market, the Fitchburg Farmers Market, and the Dane County Farmers Market.

Out in the fields with a glimpse of the greenhouse.

FMV: What originally brought you into the world of farming?

KT: I was very interested in ecology, wildlife, nature, being outdoors, and being active as a kid. I got into cooking when I was younger and always had a love for science; I find growing to be somewhat scientific and I’m a big dork about it—I get really into all the facts about it.

FMV: Out of those interests, how did the farm itself originate?

KT: I started farming as a teenager, helping on some farms in Stoughton where I grew up. I worked at Pleasant Hill Farm, which is no longer a CSA farm, unfortunately, but they were for a long time. There, I picked raspberries and washed spinach just as a side job to make some money when I was about 15 or 16 years old. I started farming as a partner with somebody in October of 2005 to try it out and fell in love with it. That’s when I decided I wanted to start a farm of my own.

Gorgeous green zebra tomatoes on the vine.

FMV: What would you identify as the greatest hardships and rewards about farming, respectively?

KT: The greatest reward is when people find value in what you do and in the food; they either tell you directly or you can tell because they’re enthusiastic about it. The greatest hardships, I must say, are weather, insects, and all the plagues that farmers have to deal with.

FMV: How do you manage those plagues?

KT: Well, insects can be managed through monitoring. Most insects hatch during a certain time of year, so if you know when that is, you can expect it. In weird years like this when there’s a warm winter, more insect eggs and larvae survive, but there are certified organic insect sprays that we can use if we have an infestation or if there’s an insect that could cause a major problem.

FMV: Would you say that your farm was hit hard by weather this year?

KT: No, I wouldn’t say that. We suffered some losses, but gained more of the earlier crops that matured faster in the heat.

Kyle displays the ginormous sweet yellow onions.

FMV: How long have you sold your produce at the farmers market?

KT: Since I started farming seven years ago. I began marketing myself at farmers markets because I knew I couldn’t build a CSA customer base right away—no one had ever heard of me or my farm. I started my CSA after two years with just 10 members, then joined the Fair Share CSA Coalition the year after, and finally became certified organic in my third year. It’s been a slow progression of meeting the goals I had when I started, but I think I’ve reached all of them. Now, though, there are new goals to set. I’d like to expand my farm and provide more food to more families.

In the greenhouse: basil and tomatoes.

FMV: Do you enjoy selling at the farmers market?

KT: Yes. I enjoy meeting new people and socializing over food. Sometimes I’m too tired to really want to be there, but when the crops are ready, they’re ready. When life gives you lemons…

FMV: You’ve got to sell the lemons! But you mentioned earlier that you also employ workers on the farm. Do you ever send them to the market to sell for you?

KT: No, I haven’t developed the infrastructure or obtained enough equipment to do that. Also, we haven’t really met anyone who is willing to pack a truck for that long or wake up at 3:00 in the morning to go to market. It’s a little hard to find the right person for that job—who you want to represent your farm and your name.

Milo, the adorable grey tabby of Roots Down.

FMV: What are your thoughts on the food culture in Madison?

KT: I think the food culture in Madison is extensive and very broad. There are a lot of ethnic foods in Madison compared to other cities, like Janesville, where I live; they’re a little more chain-oriented. I lived in Madison for quite a while and very much enjoyed the restaurants down there—lots of good chefs, lots of good food. I wish I had more time to visit.

FMV: Do you appreciate the connections between many restaurants in Madison and local farmers?

KT: I do. It’s cool to see chefs walking around the market on Saturday morning with their wagons. Hopefully one day, our farm will be able to sell to them more extensively.

Big ol’ green bean harvest.

FMV: Do you currently supply your produce to any restaurants or grocery stores?

KT: Not really. I’m constantly busy selling at markets and running around doing CSA drops— I don’t have much more time to also stop at restaurants. I’ve supplied to some chefs who come to the markets, though, like The Weary Traveler, Alchemy Café, Ian’s Pizza, and Underground Food Collective. They usually have small orders—a little bit here, a little bit there. But selling to restaurants is not really a priority for me.

Red and orange bell peppers in the field.

FMV: As a small farm, are you encouraged or discouraged with the current climate of food production, both in the Wisconsin area and beyond?

KT: I think I’m both encouraged and discouraged. The organic food movement is growing, and it’s encouraging to see so many young farmers starting up. I’m probably a young, beginning farmer myself, but it’s still encouraging to see other people like me doing it. The old generation of farmers is going to disappear soon, and we have to replace it.

FMV: Would you say that nation’s focus on local food is expanding?

KT: I think it’s growing, yes, which is very positive. Commercialized agriculture is definitely still a huge presence, though. There’s some scary things out there when it comes to cheap food—the way it’s shipped around and what sorts of chemicals people are putting in their bodies. America has such a problem with diabetes and obesity—corn and sugar plays a big role in that. But hopefully it’ll improve with the growth of small farms.

A second greenhouse brimming with beautiful heirloom tomatoes.

FMV: What advice would you give to aspiring farmers?

KT: It’s a lot of hard work—don’t get discouraged too quickly and be patient. Remember that you can’t accomplish everything in one year or one season, so just keep trying. Learn from older farmers whenever you can because getting on-farm experience is priceless. Working on several different farms is even better than on one because no two farms are alike—each one does things in its own way. I’d recommend reading a lot, too. Dig into seed catalogues or books on soil and biology so you can understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. That way, you can find value in each individual task because it’s all a chain. A lot of the best farmers I’ve ever seen will tell you that all the little things you do make a great crop.

FMV: Are you mostly self-educated or did you study horticulture in college?

KT: No, I don’t have a degree, I just started reading. I was homeschooled, so I don’t feel like I need the label of a college degree to be able to farm. I think farming is a very active, physical career that requires a lot of energy—you can’t learn that.

Picked melons storing in the cooler.

FMV: Do you think that the Madison/Wisconsin area serves as a good place to start a small farm?

KT: Yes. It has a great climate—it doesn’t get too hot and the winters aren’t that severe. It’s definitely enough to keep a farmer busy for 10 out of 12 months of the year, and if you have the space, you can store crops for the entire year.

An amalgamation of bumper stickers decorating the walk-in cooler.

FMV: What is your favorite fruit or vegetable growing on the farm?

KT: I get excited about almost everything! But I have to say, I really enjoy working with tomato plants, just because there are so many different varieties. I also really enjoy growing onions and garlic—anything in the onion family. I like growing melons, too—those are exciting. Oh, and fennel. It gets a frilly top and a blanched bulb beneath. When they’re all in a perfect row and weeded nicely with the fronds waving in the wind, it’s gorgeous.

FMV: Spoken like a true farmer!

You can find Kyle online at his website or on Facebook at Roots Down Farm, or you can email him at csa@rootsdowncommunityfarm.com.

Until next time, Ali.

August Raw Night: My Last of the Year

Lo and behold, last Thursday marked the end of an era, the finale of an epoch, the conclusion of a generation—I enjoyed my last Green Owl Raw Night of the year. After six progressively stunning ventures to Madison’s hub of vegetarianism for six increasingly complex dinners, culminating in a veritable uncooked feast of impeccable Thai flavor, I must bid adieu to my beloved monthly Raw Nights as I relocate in a mere week to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. While I anticipate a plethora of superb eating excursions to New York City, living only a simple hour-long Amtrak ride away from Manhattan, I won’t feel the welcoming sweep of the Green Owl’s kelly-green wings into its palace of raw yummies until returning to Madison in January for winter break. In the meantime, I’d like to mourn my four-month hiatus from the Owl by commemorating the astounding amalgamation of pure summer bliss in which I reveled last Thursday.

The Last Supper of summer’s bounty began with a juicy salad of yellow watermelon and heirloom tomatoes in a balsamic drizzle, topped with fresh basil. Literally any dish featuring heirloom tomatoes will smack a huge smile on my face, guaranteed, and this tangy, acidic, ever-so-slightly sweet salad certainly proved no different, especially considering that the refreshing crunch of the watermelon mingled amusingly with the tender succulence of the tomatoes. I only wish the Owl had perfected some sort of raw baguette (is that even possible?) to sop up all the juicy tomato deliciousness left behind on my otherwise clean plate.

A creamy soup of cucumber and dill followed, providing effective textural contrast and a palate-cleansing flavor against the bold salad that preceded. My waitress informed me that cashews formed the base of this soup, though I could only detect an incredibly fresh lightness of cucumber rather than a heavily cloying nuttiness. Every spoonful reminded me of biting into a crisp, perfectly fresh cuke.

Our last appetizer consisted of flax crackers with veggie hummus. The crackers harbored an intense sundried tomato flavor studded with Italian spices, rendering them rather pizza-like, while the cool, creamy squash-based hummus served as a mellow accompaniment. I did, however, think that the plate came packed with a few too many flax crackers than I would have cared to enjoy—I still had to save room for an entree and dessert!

And oh, what an entree for which I saved room. From left to right, the Green Owl mad genius team offered a cob of sweet corn slathered in garlic-infused coconut “butter”; two kebabs of tender red bell pepper, earthy cremini mushrooms, and crunchy summer squash; and two slabs of juicy barbeque papaya “steak” coated in a spicy dry rub. While the notion of a papaya steak blew my mind (not to mention my taste buds), the unbelievably sweet corn, brilliantly coated in coconut oil to mimic the melting deliciousness of fresh-off-the-grill corn cobs, claimed the title of my favorite aspect of the entire meal…

…except, perhaps, for dessert (how can you blame me?). While not the most photogenic dish I’ve enjoyed, I could not have wished for a more satisfying denouement to my numerous Raw Night experiences than this messy, juicy, fruity, tangy berry cobbler with banana ice cream. A bright magenta sauce of mixed berries that popped upon contact with my tongue pooled around a surprisingly smooth, walnut-based cake topped with fresh raspberries, while an ice cream consisting simply of bananas and vanilla bean rounded out the dish. According to my waitress, the cake contained some sort of seaweed that I would assume to be irish moss, since that would certainly account for its meltingly tender texture.

Farewell, Green Owl. You’ve fulfilled my yearning for gourmet raw goodies over the past 6+ months, and I will miss your joyous atmosphere, your unceasingly friendly waitstaff, your neverending creativity with uncooked vittles, and your ability to make me and my tummy incredibly content. Until January, thank you.

Until next time, Ali.

Interview With a Farmer: Garden to Be

This post serves as the third of my “Interview With a Farmer” series. Through this series, I hope to cultivate a deeper relationship with small-scale, organic vegetable farmers, both in the Madison and Poughkeepsie—my hometown and my college town—areas, and to offer insight toward the staggering importance in supporting these hard-working, noble individuals, who act as the backbones in the fight against overly-industrialized agriculture.

While I don’t interact with Scott Williams of Garden to Be as often as I’d like to during the summer, I look forward to seeing his smiling face every weekend at the indoor farmers market in the winter. Scott’s baby shooted vegetables including peas and sunflowers, as well as his microgreens, often grace my daily salads, reminding me of the honorable work he performs both as a farmer and as an activist for social justice. A beamingly positive and optimistic attitude in the face of unpredictability on the farm and the responsibility of raising two children inspire my ardent admiration of Scott, who truly understands and effectively elaborates on small-scale agriculture as a means of social change. In addition to his primary endeavor of supplying produce to restaurants and grocery stores, Scott also offers a “storage” CSA share that provides large quantities of vegetables commonly used for pickling, canning, freezing, and other forms of preservation.

Scott at the first outdoor market of 2012.

Farmers Market Vegan: Tell me about your farm—where it is, what you grow, if you have a CSA, etc.

Scott Williams: We’re 20 miles southwest of Madison, near Mount Horeb, right in the corner of Dane County. My wife, April, and I own seven acres and rent six more directly adjacent to us from Roger Sponem, one of the original owners of the land. He lives at a farm across the road; the land was his wedding present back in the 50’s. It’s really cool to have that connection with a heavily experienced farmer, to see his old tractors, and to have his blessing shining down on us. All our land is certified organic. We have two greenhouses that are roughly 1,200-1,500 square feet each, and operate one of them year-round to grow the microgreens and pea shoots that we sell at the Dane County Farmers Market, the Willy Street Co-op, and Metcalfe’s. But since 2000, we’ve sold primarily to restaurants in both the Madison and Milwaukee areas.

Ruby Streaks Mustard Microgreens.

FMV: You mentioned your organic certification, about which I’ve previously spoken with a couple other farmers. Do you find it difficult to maintain the certification?

SW: No, we do really well with it since I’m meticulous about record-keeping. I don’t find any of the rules too overly cumbersome, but it does involve a lot of paperwork. I used to do it all by hand—no computer or email for our first few years—but once we got Quickbooks in 2005, everything became much easier to keep track of. The application is fairly long, but our farm doesn’t do anything suspicious in terms of the questions to which the certifiers pay the most attention—our methods don’t change that much from year to year; we don’t use very many off-farm inputs other than seeds, potting mix, and compost; we don’t buy much in the way of chemicals, organically approved or not; and we don’t have both organic and non-organic production to keep separate. Everything we do is dedicated to organic production and we use really reputable sources for our seed and supplies. I like our certifying agent, MOSA; they’re easy to talk to and have always sent pretty good inspectors. I think there’s a twinge of cynicism in organic certification since the USDA is involved, and we all know that they are influenced by large corporate farms that do whatever they want—if they get help up in litigation for a supposed offense, they’ll just continue with it and call it organic, usually without USDA interference. But large farms are not specifically our competition. I’m happy to say that most people who buy from us can easily meet us—we’re at market during four months of the year, the restaurant chefs know us really well, and they introduce us to their staff—which makes for lot of interim trust and well-cultivated relationships that set us apart from those industrialized “organic” farms.

Buckwheat Shoots.

FMV: What originally brought you into the world of farming?

SW: Food politics and social responsibility. April and I were vegetarian for a super long time, and I recognized diet, food production, and food transportation throughout the world as political issues pretty early in my life—probably in high school, like you! [Motions to me.] At that point, I started gardening and working in social justice businesses, nonprofit organizations, and cooperatively owned businesses until I found myself in Madison and met Steve Pincus, the owner of and farmer at Tipi Produce, as well as one of the original founders of Outpost Natural Foods in Milwaukee and one of the most senior members of the Dane County Farmers Market. I had worked previously on a farm in Michigan, but the concept of small farming as a political statement didn’t make full sense to me until I started working with Steve on a farm in close proximity to a rather large city. I recognized that he was growing food for real people and deeply admired the amount of attention that he paid toward stewarding his little corner of the world. Steve worked with a lot of retailers and grocery stores, but only a couple of restaurant chefs would come and buy at the farmers market, like Odessa Piper, the original owner of L’Etoile. As a single young man who ate out for most of his meals, I didn’t want to hunt halfway around the world to find tasty, local, organic dining options, and became interested primarily as a farmer in collaborating with restaurants. The philosophy that April and I have always shared is that we all have a responsibility to one another other and to the land we live on, so sliding toward the world of farming and expanding that responsibility to restaurants seemed quite natural.

Heirloom Tomatoes.

FMV: Can you talk a little bit more about how farming connects to the social justice movement?

SW: I think at this point, I see that who we are, how we’re connected, and how we take care of each other is intrinsic in being able to take care of ourselves—food is a huge part of that. Take the programs April and I are involved in, for instance: we’ve always been members of the Fair Share CSA Coalition, we host farm tours for school groups, we hosted Bike the Barns a few years ago, we’ve served on the committee to start the Partner Shares Program that helps provide CSA shares to low-income families, and April is currently serving as a consultant for the Spring Rose Growers Cooperative, which is a co-op of Hmong- and Latino-American farmers who are trying to branch out and sell their produce at other outlets besides just markets around the city. April’s role is to create better marketing solutions to make the farmers more profitable and and their businesses more sustainable.

Salad Turnips and Red Radishes.

FMV: What would you identify as the greatest rewards and hardships about farming, respectively?

SW: Maybe I could start with the hardships. I think it always strikes people that where we live doubles as where we work. It’s sort of an adage, but there’s always something to do on the farm, and it’s a little difficult to manage work and leisure time, especially with a family. This year, for example, we didn’t see rain for two months and I had to run irrigation constantly. I can put off moving sprinklers and setting up drip lines by 15-20 minutes here and there, but otherwise it’s a very scheduled process. My alarms were always going off reminding me to go move the irrigation, go turn off the sprinkler, go turn that on—interrupting story time, bath time, or lunch. So one of the hardships is trying to balance separate aspects of life, because you’re right on the farm all the time. There’s also hardship in trying to grow food when certain factors are not entirely predictable. But even when some things aren’t working out, some things are, and it’s really rewarding to hear how much people enjoy the food, especially when the restaurant chefs to whom we supply our produce are recognized. To know that we provide one of the elements that’s a part of a chefs’ palate in creating these awesome menus, dinners, and experiences for somebody dining out is when I can truly say, “Oh, I’m so proud of what we do!” It’s an honor to work with artists and scientists who are very successful in such a competitive business field. Plus, it’s awesome to see my kids getting involved with food and showing interest in the farm, whether they’re playing on the tree swing or in the creek, or actually harvesting the produce and eating it. My son loves to cook, and to watch him learn and grow is so rewarding.

FMV: How long have you sold your produce at the farmers market?

SW: Garden to Be became a member of the Dane County Farmers Market in 2000 and started selling regularly in 2002 since there was a two-year waiting list. But by 2004, we started scaling our market stand back and shifted to selling primarily to restaurants, though we do still go to the winter market and have been for two years.

FMV: Even though you don’t attend the market as often as the farmers who sell every weekend year-round, do you enjoy selling there?

SW: I really do. I love the interaction and seeing regulars. For example, Johnny would buy the same thing every week. Then one day, he changed his mind and bought something new! I asked him, “Oh, what’s happening here?” He told me, “I’ve been in a rut. This week, I’m not buying the same of anything.” After that, I had a fun time asking myself, “I wonder what he’s going to buy this week!” I always think about that close connection with people that we meet and get to know at the market. I love the atmosphere and the spectacle of the market outside; it’s so exciting.

Scott and Chef John of Sardine Restaurant promoting microgreens at the Willy Street Co-op.

FMV: What are your thoughts on the food culture in Madison and the people who visit the market?

SW: First of all, what I tell my family and friends who live outside of Wisconsin is that Madison is so supportive of the important aspects in getting on the right track toward a healthy and sustainable food system. People recognize the importance of healthy food and taking care of our land in a sustainable manner, then they spend their money on it. They could be spending their money on anything other than food because, let’s face it, good food is expensive. But 10,000-plus people show up at the market every week and spend their money with local businesses on better food—raw food—that they then prepare themselves. It’s just amazing. The market’s been here since 1972, and I think what might be considered a regional cuisine has been forged out of relationships made at that market. For instance, Odessa Piper opened L’Etoile in 1976 and became the first chef in Madison to shop at the market from local farmers; now you see dozens of chefs bringing wagons around the market every week. That market has helped shape what has become a growing trend. I mean, how many cities do you go to where there’s that much attention paid to what produce is in season?

FMV: Do Madison’s qualities make you hopeful that similar attitudes toward food will expand to the rest of the nation?

SW: Yes, and they have. For example, in the time that Madison’s been involved in the sustainable food movement, the food scene in Chicago has changed dramatically. The Green City Market has grown, there’s dozens more markets there, and their attention toward food has now shifted from that of other big cities. The shift has started in other places, too. April and I visit family in the Cleveland, Ohio area, which is still sort of desolate to me in terms of where to eat, but there are a lot of great things happening there right now—farmers run CSA’s and deliver to restaurants, which they’ve never done before. I think that the Saturday market on Capitol Square has had one of the biggest impacts on the food scene in Madison in the last 40 years. It’s done so much to shape our restaurants, our co-ops, and our grocery stores, and has started a national organic trend.

Flats of microgreens and pea shoots ready for delivery at L’Etoile.

FMV: As a small farmer, are you encouraged or discouraged with the current climate of food production, both in Wisconsin and beyond?

SW: I remain pretty encouraged and try to keep a smile. We still have to improve the energy usage and transportation portion of food production. But large-scale industries are turning toward smaller suppliers now—Target, for example, carries organic products—and I’m definitely leery. Prior to having organic certification standards and knowing what any particular label might mean, we had to read a lot, and now we’re reading again. Alright, so a product is “certified organic”. But are they asterix-ing certain ingredients? It just reminds me how much responsibility rests with us as individuals to constantly push the envelope. Though, it’s really nice to know that, at the very least, there’s more attention paid to the types of chemicals used and more public money supporting energy efficiency in food production, s0 hopefully we’ll see more of that.

FMV: You mentioned earlier that you supply your produce mainly to restaurants and grocery stores. Can you talk more specifically about that?

SW: Yes, we supply to about 30 restaurants and grocery stores around Madison. Both of the Willy Street Co-op locations and two of the Metcalfe grocery stores mainly carry our microgreens and young shooted vegetables like buckwheat, sunflowers, and peas. As for restaurants, we offer larger quantities of produce, both pre-cut and still in the flats. The latter way, the chefs can cut as they want it, which is nice, especially for certain places like Shinji Muramoto’s restaurants—he can put the flat right out on the sushi counter and display the food that his diners will eat at that very meal, which is exciting. (You can find a full list of restaurants and grocery stores to which Garden to Be supplies here.)

Spring outdoor market stand.

FMV: What advice would you give to aspiring farmers?

SW: Go to the MOSES Organic Farming Conference. Work part-time or full-time on a farm. Do some research, pick a farm, and work on it. Read This Life is in Your Hands by Melissa Coleman. It’s a very honest, no-nonsense look at the nostalgic feeling that everyone gets from her father, Elliot Coleman—the master of organic market gardening right now. He’s written these manuals and workbooks that every CSA and small organic farm has copies of. Melissa’s book is a lot more about the hard work involved in farming and how much of your life you have to devote to it. There are a lot of jobs that require the same amount of work, I think, but farming is definitely as much a lifestyle as it is just a job—April and I hadn’t anticipated that. By the time we started realizing it, we were knee-deep in the farming world and completely addicted. But it’s a lot to consider—you’re a business owner, you need to understand so many things that you don’t think of in terms of personal gardening, you’re taking your passion out of a hobby realm and into a responsible business realm. I’d recommend reading anything that provides some sort of insight into the balancing working and living on a farm, as well as how to make sure you’re meeting your needs. Also, you need to have some experience. There’s nothing harder than being a beginning farmer who’s started a CSA and has taken both money and memberships, then spends their entire first year overcoming weeds and getting discouraged or despondent. It’s a really good idea to figure out a lot of those fundamentals while working for somebody else—they can cover for you, direct you, and guide you. Luckily, there’s a lot of resources for aspiring farmers to gain experience—the Fair Share CSA Coalition’s website offers all sorts of resources for first-time farmers and is updated pretty frequently. Michael Fields also offers internships and workshops, as well as links farms together so that interns or just agriculture-curious people can tour farms for a day.

FMV: Do you think that the Madison/Wisconsin area serves as a good place to start a small farm?

SW: I think there’s still tons of room, tons of business, tons of commitment toward, and tons of demand for local, organic food in Wisconsin. People here are very creative and open to both new ideas and really old ideas that haven’t been tested in the area before. It’s nice to see people who aren’t of Southeast Asian descent buying Asian melons and gourds from Hmong farmers out of curiosity, or experimenting with interesting herbs usually grown in Mexico. The average shopper in Madison and at the farmers market is savvy—they watch the Food Network, read cookbooks, pick up copies of Edible Madison magazine, and read restaurant reviews. They have direct access to what Tory Miller is doing inside L’Etoile. They can experience all these creative uses for food that they think they knew all about. It’s a great place to be and to grow food.

Garden to Be at Eagle Heights Community Gardens.

FMV: What is your favorite fruit or vegetable growing on the farm?

SW: That is really hard to narrow down. Every year, I’ll have my annual favorites. Last fall, for example, I randomly started growing salad turnips for the first time in a while—really sweet, white turnips with young, tender greens. I have this salad mix seeder and I decided that I would plant them really thick with baby turnips; they turned out so delicious. For about two months, I ate them all the time and decided that they were my favorite vegetable. But in this really weird way, I have always loved growing peppers and potatoes, even though they aren’t greatly marketable crops for us. I thought that for the amount of labor and space put into those crops, I couldn’t effectively charge as much as I would need to. But after the few years that we didn’t grow potatoes, I thought, “Man, why did we ever stop growing potatoes?” I love harvesting them, digging them, watching them grow, and trying to outsmart potato beetles. Peppers, too. There were years when I was growing just one or two plants of thirty pepper varieties—I just love their diversity. Those two vegetables, longevity-wise, are my favorites.

FMV: I’ve never heard anyone talk so passionately about potatoes and peppers.

You can find Scott on Facebook at Garden to Be or on their website, or you can email him at gardentobe@tds.net.

Raw Potluck Meetup and Remaining Vegan for the Long Run

Last Saturday, I attended my first event hosted by the Madison Raw Food Meetup Group—a modestly attended yet cheerful potluck at Jewel in the Lotus Yoga. The brightly hued, spiritually rich studio provided a jovial atmosphere in which to meet like-minded Madisonians, discuss vegan issues, learn about individual experiences with raw foodism, and sample an array of delightfully fresh uncooked vittles.

 

I provided three dishes: Raw Tacos—chili-spiced walnut “meat” topped with pico de gallo, guacamole, and cashew sour cream wrapped in a napa cabbage leaf; Spiced Melon Shooters—a creamy soup of cantaloupe and avocado uniquely spiced with ginger, cumin, and a hint of cayenne, elegantly served in Dixie cups; and Coconut-Lemon Meltaway Cookies, the scrumptiousness of which I’m certain you can gather simply from the title.

Rather blurry (I apologize) Raw Tacos.

Coconut-Lemon Meltaway Cookies

Goodies prepared by my fellow potluck attendees included a tasty mingling of contrasting flavors and textures in a “casserole” of Bragg’s-marinated mushrooms, sweet corn, and alfalfa sprouts; fresh-picked purslane; a pesto of kale, basil, walnuts, garlic, and nutritional yeast; and a superb dessert of rosewater-soaked date halves stuffed with almond butter and sprinkled with cacao nibs.

Mushroom-corn casserole.

My plate of raw fabulousness.

While seated upon tasseled, jewel-toned cushions, our small group of friendly strangers shared a deliciously nourishing meal and engaged in a surprisingly intriguing discourse pertaining to veganism. I chatted primarily with a lovely and fascinating woman named Sonya, who dove into the vegan realm a mere two months ago, yet offers the tremendous insight of an experienced activist. Our conversation flowed in and out of our personal journeys through veganism, my jealousy of her well-stocked raw kitchen (complete with an Excalibur dehydrator and a Blendtec), the vegetarian community in Madison, and the wild success of this year’s Mad City Vegan Fest. However, after touching upon one topic in particular, I couldn’t shake it from my contemplative mind: adopting a vegan diet solely for health reasons, only to backtrack into animal product consumption and repudiate a potentially life-altering shift in consciousness, whether toward animals, the environment, or both.

I’ve unabashedly admitted before that I, like many others, became a vegan out of a borderline obsessive desire to achieve optimal health through my eating habits. Eliminating animal secretions (I had already not eaten their flesh since the 4th grade) from my diet almost overnight, I dove headfirst into the ocean of veganism, immersing myself in the waters of vegan blogs, books, Twitter accounts, magazines, and podcasts. While I did so with the singular intention of stuffing my brain full of plant-based nutritional information (Becoming Vegan played a huge role in my early days), after a couple of months, the compassionate message at the heart of the vegan movement ceased to serve as a mere murmur and transformed into a veritable roar. Yes, these bloggers, authors, Twitter-users, columnists, and podcasters offered wholesome recipes and a wealth of nutritional knowledge, but they also shared an intense desire to rid the world of animal cruelty and environmental degredation—a desire that often crept (and often more-than-crept) into their work and that I could not ignore “once I finally allowed myself to absorb the true magnitude of the utterly inhumane impact a non-vegan lifestyle has on non-human animals” (as quoted from my blog’s Philosophy tab). I soon traded Becoming Vegan for Animal Liberation; cried while listening to Colleen Patrick-Goudreau’s podcasts on “free-range” egg farms, pigs, and animal mutilation instead of downloading only her nutritionally focused episodes; and expanded my Twitter feed to include PETA, Compassion Over Killing, and Mercy for Animals among the food bloggers.

But what if I hadn’t permitted the reality of egregious animal suffering to permeate my once purely health-conscious psyche? What if I hadn’t surrounded myself with a virtual community of like-minded people? What if I hadn’t continued to educate myself and expand my knowledge of vegan issues on a daily basis? What if I hadn’t shifted my perception of veganism from a rather superficial aspiration of weight management to a selfless urge to cause as little harm as possible to the world and all of its inhabitants? If I hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t call myself a vegan today.

Recently, I’ve encountered a number of former vegans who, after harboring supposedly steadfast ideals, somehow “unlearned” the cruelty to animals, to the environment, and to their health that originally inspired a passionate desire to live in accordance with their values. While I certainly don’t believe that their compassionate morals suddenly morphed into a bloodthirsty lust to harm living beings, I strongly suspect that they allowed themselves to conveniently forget the astronomical impacts of animal consumption, re-blanketing their once liberated true ideals with weak excuses and justifications—”Sometimes I crave a cookie and it’s hard to find a vegan one”; “I had to eat meat after getting pregnant”; “There was nothing else to eat at a party except for steak and I was famished. I just kept eating meat after that because I liked the taste”; “No one else I knew was vegan and I felt isolated”; “I felt tired all the time as a vegan. It just wasn’t right for my blood type.”

Perhaps, though, their true ideals never actually seized the chance to fully manifest themselves. As I discussed before, veganism never enveloped the deepest crevices of my soul until my reasons for maintaining the lifestyle matured from health-based to ethical. They did so because I constantly inhabited the virtual vegan world, which first introduced me to the magnitude of animal cruelty, provided a support group to combat the barrage of non-veganness in my real-world community, and continually enforced my decision to live compassionately. In order to thoroughly cultivate the dedication and unwavering psychology necessary to nuture a permanent vegan lifestyle, I strongly believe one must accomplish two tasks: 1.) Discover and heavily educate oneself about all three intrinsic backbones of the vegan movement—animals, environment, and health—to create a powerful plethora of personal inspiration and a constant reminder of why veganism remains essential in saving the world. 2.) Surround oneself with likeminded people, whether online or in a tangible community, to converse, share experiences, and reinforce each others’ imperative decision.

If these two ongoing missions rest incomplete, perpetuating veganism can seem quite difficult, isolating, hopeless, and finally, unmerited. Persuading oneself to forgo a vegan lifestyle, founded upon any of the excuses listed above or a number of others, becomes infinitely easier without a staunch “why vegan?” knowledge base or encouragement from fellow vegans.

I sincerely hope all of you have already or will soon uncover the motivation to remain vegan for the very very very long run.

Until next time, Ali.

July Raw Night at The Green Owl: The Best Ever

I’ve partaken in my fair share of Raw Nights at the Green Owl Cafe—just take a gander at my three previous reviews of their monthly uncooked cuisine. During my first sampling, I experienced disappointingly small portion sizes that did not merit the prix fixe cost, as well as subpar service. On the second occasion, the service had not significantly improved, though both the food quality and amount did indeed. My third visit offered satisfying service, though the food proved less than stellar. However, my sixth raw night excursion (I’ve not blogged about two of them), proved astounding. Impeccable. Utterly superb. I honestly harbor but one ridiculously miniscule qualm with the entire five-course meal and congratulate the Green Owl on finally perfecting their table service. Cara Mosely, the pastry chef at the Owl and mastermind behind their increasingly popular Raw Nights (as a former raw foodist of eight years), truly outdid herself with July’s Thai-inspired meal, imbibing it with powerful flavor, creative dishes, and farmers-market-fresh veggies. Confident that this most recent Raw Night signals the onset of many impressive and well-thought-out uncooked meals to come, I lament (well, not really. I can’t wait for my college experience to begin.) my departure to Vassar College in late August and will have to deem next month’s Raw Night my last until I return home for winter break in January.

Though a bit embarassing (or flattering?) to admit, the Green Owl waitstaff has begun to consider me a regular, at least of their Raw Nights. Upon sitting down underneath a kelly-green umbrella outside to enjoy the pleasant summer evening, our lovely waitress exclaimed, “Well, it’s nice to have you back—I haven’t seen you in a while!” What can I say? I love me some raw vegan food.

Our meal began with a small glass of watermelon mint juice, of which I failed to snap a photo, unfortunately. Suffice to say that the bright magenta-colored juice flecked with finely minced mint leaves served as a refreshing swig of summer’s essence—a foreshadowing of the astronomical deliciousness about to ensue.

A cup of unctuous coconut lemongrass broth, rife and chunky with plump shiitake mushrooms, juicy cherry tomatoes, and crunchy scallions—a chilled take on the classic Thai soup known as Tom Kha—soon graced our table. Briefly forgetting the raw nature of our meal, I expected a steaming hot sip of soup with my first spoonful, but performed a gastronomic double-take as the cool liquid hit my tongue, coating it in a masterful balance of spice and tang. Though the broth did not carry the familiar bright white hue of traditional Tom Kha (I would venture to guess that they implemented coconut water instead of the non-raw coconut milk usually present in cooked versions of the soup), it certainly satisfied the creamy texture expected at any Thai restaurant.

Never tiring of salads, I happily welcomed a Som Tum as our next course. Shredded green papaya coated in a slightly spicy citrus vinaigrette, studded with crispy green beans and scallions, topped with more succulent cherry tomatoes, and served over a bed of sweet, tender lettuce served as an enlivening palate cleanser after our more full-bodied soup.

Undoubtedly the highlight of the meal, the Summer Rolls literally brought me close to tears of sheer joy. A wafer-thin dehydrated coconut wrapper artfully flecked with black sesame seeds surrounded a rainbow-colored filling of shredded vegetables (which I assume had marinated in a sesame ginger dressing) including purple cabbage, carrots, and various herbs—the juxtaposition of the soft, chewy wrapper with the crunchy veggies provided ample textural interest. However, once dipped in a thick sauce composed simply of peanuts and spices, the summer roll catapulted itself from the earthly Raw Night King to the divine Raw Night Magistrate of the Universe. So, um, yeah, like, the roll was really good.

A popular dish in the raw food realm, Pad Thai constituted our entree of the night. Shredded daikon, summer squash, and carrot coated in a creamy cashew dressing that imparted a smidge of spicy chile flavor sat atop a bed of green cabbage, cauliflower florets, mung bean sprouts, and cashews. The tender, saucy noodles felt pleasantly light on the tongue and the tummy—a vast improvement over the usual heavy rice noodles that sit in a lump in your stomach. An uncomplicated yet genius sprinkling of toothsome cashews elevated the entire dish. However, my single culinary qualm of the night enters here: the raw cauliflower florets and shredded green cabbage offered nothing to the otherwise inspired Pad Thai and seemed like rather amateurish, completely unnecessary garnishes. Omit the offending crucifers, and I would have deemed our entree as infallible as the rest of our meal.

Finally, a deep bowl filled with a generous scoop of banana-coconut ice cream studded with vanilla beans, surrounded by a thick mango-lemongrass-ginger mousse, and topped with crispy banana chips concluded our tour of Thailand, following the close-to-perfect model exemplified by our previous four courses. This Siam Sundae had invaded my dreams during the week leading up to the July Raw Night, and the tangible manifestation of my foodie psyche set before me met and exceeded my every expectation. The creamy, smooth ice cream redolent with banana flavor and an undertone of coconut; the mysteriously spicy, intensely complex mango mousse with a consistency similar to lemon curd; the simple yet elegant garnish of crunchy banana chips—all three components culminated in a symphony of tropical Asian flavor to satisfactorily round out our meal.

The six Raw Nights I’ve experienced, from February’s disappointing dinner to July’s magical meal, have steadily increased in both food and service quality, reaching their current climax in this unparalleled gallery of fresh, colorful, lively, and playful uncooked goodies. I await August’s Raw Night with bated breath—Cara has promised a late summer meal featuring the bounty of heirloom tomatoes.

Until next time, Ali.

Igo Vego Food Cart Review

Nationally respected and locally adored, Madison’s food cart scene has exploded over the past couple of years. The downtown area boasts 42 lunch vendors (as compared to the 57 in Chicago), offering quick, inexpensive, and reliably tasty eats inspired by just about every world cuisine imaginable—indeed, 77 Square contributor Lindsay Christians paints an ethnic culinary picture:

On a sunny spring day on the University of Wisconsin-Madison Library Mall, an  adventurous eater can sample bayou jambalaya, Peruvian cilantro rice, Thai  spring rolls, Indonesian nasi goreng and crunchy balls of falafel, all without  traveling more than a city block.

While enthustiastic cart patrons revel in this veritable smorgasboard of meals on wheels, Madison street vending manager and expert Warren Hansen, who has twice presented at the San Francisco Street Food Festival, asserts that “We are truly at capacity. We couldn’t jam another one downtown if we wanted to.” Hansen’s weariness certainly poses no problem to vegans, as oodles of the current food carts feature absolutely delicious animal-friendly, plant-based options, such as Banzo’s falafel and hummus platters, Dandelion’s all-vegetarian selection of hearty sandwiches and wraps, and Good Food’s customizable menu of wraps and salads to which you can add tantalizing basil baked tofu.

Always thrilled to welcome another source for vegan-friendly fare to Madison’s gastronomic scene, I first discovered Igo Vego, a 2012 newcomer to the world of food carts, at the Mad City Vegan Fest, where I did not sample the cart’s array of wholesome, handmade vegan burgers, though I vowed to revisit the brightly colored refurbished pop-up camper for lunch in the very near future.

In 2004, Tammy Markee-Mayas, the founder of Igo Vego, began educating herself and her family about the corrupt intentions of the American food industry and sought to transition her diet to a more health- and earth-friendly one via a vegetarian, locally sourced lifestyle. Tammy recounts her truly remarkable journey into the food cart realm and beyond on her website, summing it up with her honorable and ambitious set of goals:

Our idea is simple. We make delicious, healthful, convenient, sustainable, and absolutely chemical-free vegan burgers with love and integrity; we source as much organic and local ingredients and work directly with local producers as we are able; and we strive to minimize garbage and remain focused on composting.

And there is so much more that we want to do! Like creating opportunities for aspiring farmers to acquire land and learn how to grow following the permaculture model, to empower the people we work with, and to establish sustainable, strong, local economies – economies made by the people, for the people, and directly benefitting the people in that community.

Separating her future plans into four phases, Tammy envisions first selling her burgers wholesale to local restaurants and retailers, as well as directly to the public at the farmers market and online. From there, she hopes to open a flagship “cafe market,” eventually transitioning to a co-op business model and establishing storefronts across the state, the Midwest, and finally the nation. Go Tammy!

Needless to say, Tammy’s passion toward wholesome eating and sourcing local, sustainably grown products only heightened my sense of urgency to sample the Igo Vego menu. At my first opportunity, I biked to Capitol Square with Connor, my restaurant-perusing companion who frequently occurs in the blog’s restaurant review posts, on a gorgeously sunny day, ravenous after working at the Troy Kids’ Garden for four-and-a-half hours and extremely excited to gobble up a hearty, veggie-loaded vegan burger.

Connor proudly displaying our bikes in front of the Igo Vego food cart.

As a gluten-free eater, I wholeheartedly appreciate Igo Vego’s option to order any of their four unique veggie burgers served on a bed of brown rice instead of a vegan bun (locally sourced from Nature’s Bakery Co-op, by the way!). All of their burgers sounded absolutely delectable—the Veg-Out features black and brown rice, kale, carrots, celery, and a secret sauce; the Sweet-n-Spicy boasts walnuts, sweet potatoes, and jalapenos; the Two-Alarm Chili promises a spicy kick with brown and black rice, kidney, pinto, and black beans, bell peppers, and chili powder; and the Mystic Mushroom marries three types of mushrooms with kale and sundried tomatoes. I opted for the Mystic Mushroom burger served on a generous mound of brown rice and topped with succulent diced heirloom tomato, slathered with mashed avocado, and drizzled in a savory almond cream. *The clouds part and the angels sing as the aforementioned pile of deliciousness descends from the heavens.* Not one to pass up a massaged kale salad, I also ordered a side of the Garden Veggie Hearty Harvest Salad, one of two salad specials for the day (I strongly suspect that they rotate these salads according to seasonal availability).

Igo Vego’s patties sport a soft, light texture, rather than a dense, chewy one—certainly not a negative quality, but simply different from most of the veggie burgers I’ve experienced previously. The intensely savory, complex flavors of the patties, however, will surely delight any food cart patron, regardless of how they prefer the texture of their veggie burgers. Rife with impressively fresh juicy tomatoes, crisp cucumbers, sweet yellow bell peppers, and tender kale, the salad also left me quite delighted. Though I decided to forgo dessert on this particular occasion, Igo Vego also offers two raw nut-and-date balls—the Loco Cocoa bites with walnuts, dates, maple syrup, and cocoa; and the Nutty ‘Nilla bites with hazelnuts, maple syrup, dates, and vanilla bean powder—two more reasons to return to the newly established and thriving food cart!

Igo Vego’s healthy offerings certainly transcend the stereotype of food cart cuisine as heavy, oily, and devoid of vegetables. I eagerly await my return to the cart to sample the rest of their three veggie burgers and look forward to Igo Vego’s expansion into a brick-and-mortar restaurant—I’m confident they have a successful future in store.

Until next time, Ali.

Creating Demand for Vegan Options in Restaurants and a Spring Dinner at Graze

In a recent recap of my prom night dining experience at L’Etoile, I barely skimmed the surface of the inherent flaws and impossibility of “humane meat and dairy,” as well as introduced Colleen Patrick-Goudreau’s insightful concept of “excusitarianism.” I also asserted my belief in patronizing non-vegetarian/vegan restaurants to increase demand for plant-based menu items and to show business owners that the market for more compassionate, mindful meal options harbors a huge potential for profit that continues to grow as the public recieves more information about the all-around benefits of a vegan lifestyle.

I have absolutely no intention of seeming difficult or unreasonable when requesting vegan options at restaurants that do not cater specifically to my diet, but rather wish to help businesses broaden their menus to appeal to an even wider range of diners, thus increasing their monetary success while advocating for a plant-based diet in the process. Indeed, on the countless number of occassions that I’ve telephoned a non-vegan eatery seeking vegan accommodations, I’ve received nothing but quite positive responses assuring me that providing a plant-based meal would bring no burden whatsoever to the restaurant.

And frankly, it shouldn’t. Restaurants do business in the hospitality industry, where success is based on how well they cater to customers. Keeping an eye on public dietary trends certainly serves a restaurant’s best interests, as diners with specific food allergies or lifestyle choices are obviously more likely to patronize the businesses that offer them options. For example, many restaurants have added gluten-free fare to their menus in the midst of a growing American aversion to wheat and an increasing prevalence of celiac disease. Others have shifted their offerings from heavy gastronomic “splurges” to lighter, vegetable-based fare in an attempt to appeal to a more health-conscious society.

However, I think that because veganism delves so deeply into people’s fears, insecurities, and rationalizations of their own lifestyle choices, many are unwilling to accept the exclusion of animal products as a legitimate dietary consideration, deeming vegans as “threatening” or “demanding” in requesting restaurant meals to suit their lifestyles. In reality, vegans deserve to have their dietary preferences honored just as much as those allergic to gluten, peanuts, dairy, eggs, or soy, even if our food choices stem from a “radical” (i.e. compassionate) ethos rather than an unwanted health restriction.

In a continuous quest to provide vegan outreach to restaurants, I returned to one of my favorite non-vegan restaurants that caters beautifully to my particular lifestyle choice, as well as keeps a number of other dietary restrictions in mindGraze. I’ve patronized the casual yet classy pub before, though have since shifted my perspective on its demi-celebrity chef, Tory Miller (find out why here), and have always left immensely satisfied with the animal-friendly fare they’ve provided me, even amidst their other not-so-mindful menu items (though I’ve noticed that the amount of vegan/vegetarian-friendly options have been increasing slowly but surely!). My most recent visit proved no different, and I happily shared a meal highlighting the cornucopia of gorgeous spring vegetables that currently abounds in Madison, with the lovely Sarah (a fellow friend to the animals), who had never before sampled Graze’s offerings.

 

Opting to enjoy the unquestionably impeccable weather that evening, Sarah and I dined on the Graze patio underneath a kelly-green umbrella. As always at Graze, I began my meal with the House Pickles—a platter of six unorthodox pickled vegetable combinations about which I dream, waking up with drool on my pillow (TMI? I don’t care). My excitement for said pickles ran a bit awry on this particular occassion, as I utterly failed to photograph the dish before devouring the vast majority of it. Perhaps you can still decipher the dregs, starting from the top and descending: citrus-pickled beets with orange segments; incredibly umami daikon radish slices; classic bread and butter cucumbers; housemade super spicy kimchi; crunchy escabeche of cauliflower, carrots, and jalapeno; andasparagusspears, probably my favorite pickle of the six.

To satisfy my insatiable hunger for leafy greens, I also ordered the Mixed Green Salad (hold the cheese, please) as a starter. Lightly dressed in a tangy champagne vinaigrette, the colorful pile of tender greens, thinly sliced radishes, uber-sweet spring carrots, and refreshing baby cucumbers provided a simple yet scrumptious pre-entree dish.

Finally, for our main dishes, I opted for the Roasted Spring Vegetables (without the garlic aioli)—an individual-sized cast-iron skillet full of new potatoes, baby turnips, asparagus, and sugar snap peas sprinkled generously with basil and served with a squeeze of lemon—while Sarah chose the Pub (Veggie) Burger—a housemade vegan patty served with lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, mustard, and ketchup on a (again) housemade English muffin with a side of fries. Both of us verily enjoyed our meals, savoring delectable bites between our fascinating and insightful conversation (we like being pretentious together).

 

Comment Provoking Questions: Do you try to provide “vegan outreach” to restaurants? In your experience, how do most restaurants respond to requests of vegan options? How ridiculously excited do you get over pickles?

Until next time, Ali.

Prom at L’Etoile and My Take on “Ethical Meat”

Yes, my senior prom took place nearly a month ago. No, I haven’t posted about the glorious meal I experienced that night at L’Etoile. Yes, I sincerely lament this fact and apologize to you, dear readers, both for my belated review and for my week-and-a-half-long hiatus from the blogosphere—the last week of high school finals certainly caught up with me. However, as of 10:00 this morning, I no longer have to refer to myself as an high school student and can finally liberate myself from the monotonous schedule I’ve endured for thirteen long years of mandatory schooling. Off to change the world at Vassar!

To celebrate both the end of an era and the rite of passage of prom, my best friend Connor surprised me with reservations at the classiest, most presigious, and locavorian restaurant in Madison—L’Etoile. While I’ve twice previously referred to Chef Tory Miller as my “culinary idol and locavore hero,” my opinon of the unquestionably talented chef (and recent winner of the 2012 James Beard Award for Best Chef Midwest) has since shifted a bit. I don’t want to criticize Tory’s astounding skill of transforming locally grown, organic produce into impeccable works of culinary art, and couldn’t reasonably do so without sounding utterly pretentious (not to mention rather insane). However, after becoming an avid supporter of Colleen Patrick-Goudreau and listening to at least three episodes of her podcast, Vegetarian Food for Thought, daily, I’ve realized that Chef Tory Miller, along with so many other promoters of “ethical meat” who conveniently ignore the violent slaughter of animals and choose to romanticize images of “grass-fed beef” grazing in open pastures, falls under the category of an excuse-itarian. Colleen coined this term in her podcast entitled “The Rise of the Excuse-itarians (or The Emperor’s New Clothes)”, in which she proves the falsity and impossibility of “humane meat” (an obvious oxymoron), debunks the myth that humans supposedly perform a moral favor to animals by eating them (based on the blatantly flawed claim that animals would go extinct if humans did not consume them), and asserts that the rationalization and ritualization of eating meat stems from human arrogance and love of feeling dominant—a far cry from “saving” animals by essentially torturing them for our carnal pleasure. I highly recommend both the podcast episode I’ve linked above, as well as an article by B.R. Myers in the September 2007 issue of The Atlantic, in which Myers artfully exposes hyped-up “foodie hero” Michael Pollan’s hypocrisy, selfishness, and need to defend his meat-eating. Colleen prefaces this article beautifully with her own disdain of Pollan here.

Luckily, Chef Tory Miller seems to have developed at least an inkling of the benefits of a vegan lifestyle (or perhaps he has simply noticed an upturn in requests for vegan dishes, which would hopefully spur this inkling!), since he has begun labeling all menu items at his more casual restaurant, Graze, that are naturally vegan or can be modified to suit vegans. At L’Etoile, my waitress informed me that Chef Tory has started incorporating one first course and one entree on the majority of his constantly rotating menus that is either completely vegan or can easily be made vegan with a slight modification.

Despite their emphasis on the romanticized ideal of “ethical meat,” I’ve decided not to boycott L’Etoile or Graze, for I believe in the importance of increasing the demand of vegan options on restaurant menus—after all, spreading the message is key! Hopefully one day Tory Miller will realize the astronomical damage to the environment and the economy, which he strives to protect with his locavorian values, caused by our consumption of meat—yes, even “grass-fed,” “ethical,” “humane,” and “romance novel” meat.

With this notion of promoting the vegan lifestyle in mind, I allowed myself to enjoy an entirely vegan pre-prom dinner featuring spring’s bounty of gorgeous farmers market produce. However, since this post has already proven fairly lengthy, I’ll dial back my tendency to wax poetic about my particularly memorable meals and allow you to experience L’Etoile’s masterful cuisine simply through photos and short descriptions. You can rest assured that every bite of every dish sent my soul into utter gastronomical bliss.

Another surprise from Connor: a personalized menu!

Complimentary sparkling cider as a toast to celebrate Tory Miller’s James Beard Award.

Amuse Bouche: crisp apple slices drizzled in white truffle oil, sprinkled with black pepper, and garnished with microgreens.

Hors d’Oeuvre: crunchy roasted asparagus with succulent cherry tomatoes drizzled in balsamic reduction (gluten-laden bruschetta given to Connor).

First Course: an amply sized (which I verily appreciated as many restaurant salads are woefully small) salad of gorgeous mixed greens, more candy-like cherry tomatoes, and full-flavored toasted hazelnuts in a lip-smacking dijon vinaigrette.

Entree: eggless “eggroll” of shiitake mushrooms, cabbage, radishes, and spiced peanuts over a bed of housemade udon noodles, “Szechuan style” shiitake mushroom puree, and a stir fry of wild ramps and gai choy (an Asian leafy green), garnished with pickled daikon radishes and an edible flower. OH WOW.

Comment Provoking Questions: Have you heard of Colleen’s work or listened to her podcasts before? What is your take on “ethical meat”? How do you feel about patronizing restaurants that offer meat on their menus?

Until next time, Ali.