Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Review of Gïk's Indigo-Blue Vegan Wine!

Hello dear friends far and wide. I may be one of the first people in North America to try and review the world's first blue wine by Spanish company Gïk, and wanted to link my review here. Also, the wine is isinglass-free and therefore vegan :)

You can check out my review for Clearly Veg right here!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Review of the Sarma Maker 3000©

I don't actually know what this device is called, but a mini Google search showed me that there is a general consensus on the super efficient title of "Rolling Machine for Stuffed Grape Leaves." My name is better.
Anyway. A few years ago, when my parents came to visit me in Armenia, a man working at Vernisaj (outdoor flea market where you can buy all of the things) stopped us to talk about the Sarma Maker 3000. It felt a little like those super dramatic infomercials as he asked if we ever make sarma and before we could answer asked if we ever find the rolling process tortuous. He told us this device would change our lives. We decided rolling sarma was indeed tortuous and bought the machine--I don't remember how much it was but it was very cheap. He gave us a quick demo and it seemed simple enough.

Years later, the Sarma Maker 3000 found itself living in our cupboard, never really seeing the light of day. Even when I finally mastered the art of making sarma myself, it never crossed my mind. That changed this past Easter, when I decided I would make sarma for our Sunday feast. I would be the one in charge (aka my sister wouldn't help) so I figured a little help would go a long way.

For the life of me, I could not remember how to use it, and was ready to curse the machine back into oblivion before I remembered YouTube existed. I searched something along the lines of "how to use the weird sarma rolling thing" and voila, there were video responses. I scrolled down to find one that wasn't 12+ minutes long and watched one super dramatic video with Turkish music in the background where they kept zooming in at the worst times, but I eventually got it (I had even set it up the wrong way).

For those like me, who do not know how to use it, I will show you through the power of photos and words and then let you know my review. First, after setting it up like in the header photo, get it ready to receive a grape leaf by pressing down on the black band towards the mobile "cap" (the right) and then place the leaf on top:
Then, press down on the leaf so it conforms to the shape of the band that you pressed down. Basically, tuck it in real nice:
You can now fill your leaf up. One thing to note with the Sarma Maker 3000 is that you cannot put in too much filling. I learned this the hard way and the machine is merciless and will destroy everything in its path if there is too much filling (the destroyed leaves were given a new purpose by becoming the ones I lined the pot with). It was hard for me since I like packed sarmas, but about one teaspoon was all the machine would accept.
Once you add the filling, even it out and tuck it into the groove so it sits in there. Then you take the cap (the pink part to the right) and move it towards the left. Be fearless and swift:
Cigaro sarmas! And you can see the "cap" I keep referring to above. I have to admit, I was pretty happy to see it worked and probably looked like this:
Verdict? Good and bad, and I will begin with the good. For people who genuinely have trouble with the rolling process, and find that their sarmas always fall apart while cooking, the Sarma Maker 3000 keeps them super tight, and uniformly sized. There were no inconsistent sizes, even when the leaves themselves were. In this regard, it makes sense. These are the ones I rolled with the Sarma Maker 3000:
Now that I've buttered the creators up, I will say that in terms of speed and convenience, hand rolling wins in both categories. I have to admit I felt very cool using the roller successfully, and was filled with joy every time one of those little cigaro sarmas would pop out, but it took way too much time and my playlist wasn't long enough to accommodate that. So, after the amount I did in the photo above, and after showing it off to everyone who was home, I gently moved the roller aside, and finished the job by stuffing every leaf to its full potential, with no regrets. You can see the end result here, to the right (I should have zoomed in, I know):
While the cigaro sarmas were still delicious (it's all about the broth, baby), I preferred the ones that had more filling and personally don't mind when they are different sizes. So while I will keep the roller and will probably whip it out to show it off from time to time, when you want fast and efficient sarma-rollin', by hand (even solo) is the winner in my books.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Za'atar Baked Potatoes/Fries Recipe!

From all of my posts, no single one has gotten so many questions as when I posted a photo on Facebook of za'atar fries and then a photo on my blog of re-creating those fries a la baked potatoes. The most requested recipe I have to this day is also the easiest, but I shall blog about it anyway!

Za'atar is an amazing herb mix and generally has four key ingredients: thyme, sumac, sesame seeds and salt. There are lots of variations of course depending on where it's from, and just as is the case with anything else there are options that have so many added ingredients as well. I find that I enjoy Jordanian and Syrian za'atar the most so far, and one Syrian-Armenian family in Yerevan has my absolute favourite.
At Arz Bakery in Canada, but their za'atar ain't what it used to be :(
While you can use it to make delicious meneyish, I fall into the category of people who put it on everything--and I have been known to eat it straight from the bag with a spoon until I choke.
Restaurant & homemade options
So when I was at a Lebanese restaurant in the U.S. recently that had "za'atar fries" as an option on the menu, you can bet your boots I told the waiter "you had me at za'atar." While nothing else (even the super attractive looking hmoz) was noteworthy, the za'atar fries were absolutely incredible. My brain mentally noted it in its "favourites" section and I knew I would have to recreate it.
I decided to try it out with baked potatoes and the only real tip I can offer here since most people know how to make oven potatoes/fries, is to keep the heat medium and cook longer VS high heat for a shorter amount of time. This will ensure the za'atar itself does not burn. This was our (my mom and I) first try:
So simple, and so delicious, and baked of course is healthier than fried and I was happy it didn't mean a compromise on taste. DIRECTIONS: This recipe just meant chopping up some potatoes into thick pieces, drizzling some oil on them (we used about 2 tablespoons of jalapeno-infused oil and it was delicious but you can use regular oil and just add hot pepper for a kick), sprinkling generous amounts of za'atar powder on top (this was a Lebanese mix), mixing it all up with your hands or a spoon, and baking the potatoes at 400F, for about 35-40 minutes. You can sprinkle more za'atar on them right when they come out of the oven.

You can add a nice and simple tahini dip to complement the seasoned potatoes as well (next recipe?). My mom's friends were so impressed by this simple dish, they made it the next time we saw them, which was delicious and closer to the restaurant's version:
So there you have it! Another way to make za'atar the focal point of your life--enjoy!

Pro tip: Make sure to chew your sesame seeds thoroughly to properly digest them and get in all of the benefits. Sesame seeds are a great indicator of whether or not you are not chewing your food long enough--ask me how to check ;)

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

So Delicious Creamer & Ice Cream Review!

On a recent trip to the United States, I finally tried a third vegan Ben & Jerry's flavour, Chunky Monkey. While I'm not a huge fan of the overpowering banana as the star in ice creams (although I surprisingly really enjoy homemade Banana "Nice Cream"), what I ended up not liking about this ice cream was how sweet it was, and that's coming from someone with sweet teeth, not just a sweet tooth, so it is saying a lot.

Still, knowing that America is the land of vegan products not yet available in Canada, I decided to take advantage of that. While in a grocery store, I checked out their vegan ice cream section and did a double-take to see that So Delicious had a vegan version of my all-time favourite ice cream flavour Jamocha Almond Fudge, which they called Mocha Almond Fudge. As a kid, I fell in love with this flavour at a birthday party, since it was the base of the best ice cream cake I had ever tasted. Not realizing there was a vegan option available anywhere, I quickly grabbed it hoping it tasted something like what I remembered.

The same day, I bought a creamer, courtesy of So Delicious as well. Since I was in the U.S. for a short time, I didn't want to buy a large vegan milk and waste it (I usually just use some in coffee or for my chicory root tea) so I opted to buy a small coconut creamer. I don't think I have ever tried a creamer, but the size of it sold me and after checking over the sugar levels, I felt it was the best option.
Before putting any of the groceries away, I quickly opened the ice cream and tried it. Verdict? Absolutely delicious, and remember that I had very high hopes and expectations. It was perfect and tasted exactly like the Jamocha Almond Fudge I used to love. A "taste test" soon become an actual helping, as you can see below:
No regrets!
The next morning I tried the creamer and it was great--just note it does actually taste like coconut, which I appreciate, but if you're looking for a milder flavour, almond milk would be a better option.
A splash in some coffee or chicory root tea is all you need!
I also was happy about the fact that the latter was not overwhelmingly sweet, since I don't like the taste of sugar in coffee. Both products got the stamp of approval from me for being convenient vegan treats. If you are interested in the nutritional info about either of these products, here you go:
I hope to find these options in Canada soon and recreate that childhood Jamocha Almond Fudge cake!

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Some Highlights from the Malerweg Trail in Saxony, Germany!

I postponed doing this post so long that almost one year has passed! I hope I learn a lesson from this procrastination habit of mine since I've probably forgotten about 98.5% of all the cool details, but I still want to share some highlights (the ones I remember or am reminded about by looking at photos) for my wonderful bloggies (blog babies?).

Last April, Bjorn, Hans and I decided to tackle the famous Malerweg Trail in Saxony, Germany. Truth be told, I had never heard about this trail before, and the less you know, the more inclined you are to say "I'm in!" and then forget to research about it later to freak out. As a result, I only had time to freak out about the hike after one of the Germans told me it was considered "difficult."
Not scared!
While I am no expert, I enjoy hiking, and have a surprising (given my love affair with procrastination) ability to "soldier on" and power through hikes, with the only negative experience I can recall being in Armenia, when the day after I arrived from Canada, jet-lagged, tired, and slightly delusional, I went on a six+ hour hike with Bjorn and Liz. I legitimately could not grasp my breath the entire time and had to take a break every 45 seconds of hiking. I thought I would lose my title of "Benzoar" that day (Lena + Bezoar Goat = Benzoar) but Liz and Bjorn were super sweet and supportive and even occasionally pretended that they too needed breaks every 45 seconds.
There were also good times! I swear!
Anyway, back to Malerweg! It was all planned very last minute, and we decided we would do the entire trail from finish to start since we arrived to the location closer to the end. Any good trip begins with me pointing at something:
We all got some snacks and Hans is a vegetarian chef so he brought some awesome treats for the trip, including vacuum packed vegan burgers (with local green garlic!) and hmoz. The trail itself is estimated to take between 8-9 days and is meant as 9 days of day hikes, but we camped & covered so much distance daily--despite our super heavy bags--that we finished in 5-6 days. Our first day was more about getting to the actual location and coordinating meet up times, and of course we were all on time because Germans. We also got in some much needed sleep:
We still had a pretty sweet night set up the first evening, and woke up ready to conquer & had our first delicious oatmeal/cashew butter breakfast courtesy of Hans and his cooking gear:
Although we began the hike at the end, the trails were all similar in that there was a lot of up and down, and oftentimes just when you thought you couldn't go one more step, there was another hill or another set of steps ahead.
Nooooooooo!
The views--and I mean every single one--were absolutely worth it and deserved the kind of pauses where it looks like you are thinking about the meaning of life but are really just wondering what to eat that night:
You guys don't fool me!
The areas, for the most part, were equally as nice, and we learned to appreciate the beauty while being resourceful:
It only rained one full day and although it was annoying to wake up to wet socks/clothes/shoes, we still seemed pretty OK with life:
I lost that handkerchief on the last day! :(
The rest of the time the weather was typical of March--not cold, not hot, and some days there was even some sun!
No, you suck!
Hans wanted to try boofen, which traditionally means spots for climbers to sleep outside, and I think it was the first time for all three of us (I hadn't even heard of the word before). The weather permitted it and it was not as scary as it seemed, and we busted out some Armenian cognac to celebrate not dying.
I had gotten a little unwelcome demon surprise a few days into the trip so I ended up being cold always and forever after this point and refused to leave my sleeping bag:
I will die here!
Eventually I got out (there were promises of hot oatmeal and coffee...) and we soldiered on.
Some of the only boring aspects of this trip was when the trail would lead us into full-on towns, but that also meant resupplying on food (aka all of the German bread) and getting so close to seeing wild cats:
I remember a day or so before our hiking would come to an end--at the sight of one more uphill trek, I did feel a little zzvadz like OK WE GET IT THANK YOU, but even during those times, the views were so worth it.
Where's Waldo aka Bjorn?
One of us had to fall, with all the ups and downs going on, and I sacrificed myself for the greater good. It was worse than this picture shows, I swear. And I still use these stockings when I'm running for reasons unknown:
On our last night, Hans made us an amazing pesto pasta dish with veggies and I still remember how delicious it was:
On our last day of hiking, the sun was up and the view was particularly beautiful, and getting to the end of this bridge signified the end of our journey:
Just as I had begun this journey, I had to end it by pointing at something (a bird?)
And that's a wrap! I am so happy we did it, and that Bjorn and Hans were the ones navigating the entire trip so we didn't get lost. Although a few times the uphills just seemed over the top, as mentioned many times before, they were totally worth it. While I should end this post with this photo Hans took:
Or maybe this one of all three of us:
I will instead end it with a shoutout to our cutey pie fire salamander friend, who led our way for a full 15 seconds:
All photos taken by super duo Bjorn and Hans!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Vegan Food Inspiration From 2+ Weeks in the U.S.

This is the first time I am doing this (I think). I was in the United States for a little more than two weeks and have a bunch of photos of delicious vegan meals, snacks and desserts I want to include here. I'm really getting into watching some "What I Ate Today" YouTube videos for cooking inspiration and am also trying to do my own low-maintenance (aka not learning how to make nice videos) version of that.

I am including some homemade food options, as well as restaurant meals, too. My first rule going anywhere is FIND YOUR LOCAL ZA'ATAR SOURCE AND LET IT KILL YOU. In this case it was from Damascus, a Greek/Middle Eastern specialty shop. As a result, the first bunch of photos are 3 ways of consuming said za'atar: baked potatoes (recipe coming soon), homemade meneyish with olives and tomatoes, and fries:
Not pictured: Eating it with a spoon until I choked (don't try that at home)
 Next up is a meze style dish (my favourite...I love mixing food) of hmoz, a super basic version of guacamole (aka avocado dip), pickles, red kidney bean salad with hemp seeds, and whole wheat pita. I made the beans in advance and used them for three different dishes afterwards. I was running and swimming a lot so it's always good to have beans or grains handy for some quick power meals.
Next up is a dream plate packed with garlic'd beets, hmoz, tomato cucumber salad (aka Vahe Jingalian salad), baked eggplant with tomato sauce, leftover za'atar potatoes, avocado, unnecessary (and stale) white bread, and some pickled jalapenos!
(And a little shout out to this amazing homemade hmoz made by friends of my parents when we went to visit them...perfection!):
These photos are all from Yard House where I got the vegan burger (comes with Daiya cheese) and the barbecue vegan "wings." So good, and there's a reason there was always a lineup in front of this restaurant! Just a note, I enjoyed the burger but the appetizer took the cake. I would just order that next time. Even the celery was really fresh and tasty.
This photo was my vegan meal attempt at iHOP. I've never been but that was where we ended up and I just assumed a huge chain like that would have vegan options, but no dice. Luckily my waitress was a vegetarian and hooked me up with steamed broccoli and a potato/onion/pepper stir fry, and I just added hot sauce on everything, and was only slightly jealous of all the pancakes floating around.
These two shots are a falafel sandwich from Noor, a small Lebanese restaurant that has incredible falalel and meneyish, and the hot sauce is perfection:
This last collage is just some liquid power! First is of course a nice Armenian-style coffee that hit the spot, the second looks like coffee but is actually chicory root with some coconut creamer courtesy of So Delicious. Next is a delicious green smoothie packed with kiwi, mandarin and spinach with a generous amount of chia seeds, and finally a lazy version of a margarita, with no added sugar :D
A few days before I headed back to Canada we went to Whole Foods Market, which is quite different than the one in Toronto. I always check out the baked goods area to see what kind of vegan stuff they have, and while the cookies are usually way too sweet, this double chocolate muffin sang to me, and I think this photo is really cool even though I'm sure it's really not:
I ate the other half of this super tasty muffin outside, and went wild when I saw a sail boat in the distance, and after taking three photos of it zooming in, I confirmed my belief that photos always ruin reality:
So I hope you enjoyed my first attempt at vegan food inspiration. I wouldn't normally eat out this often, but when in Rome (aka the U.S.), you gotta take advantage of things not available in Canada yet! And if nothing else: za'atar potatoes.