Food: Wheat Nostalgia (Entry 1/many)

I miss ramen.

Not just steaming bowls of fresh, hand-pulled noodles, served in loud, dark, crowded restaurants in bowls the size of my head, where I slurp my special vegan broth with joy while making delighted faces at my friends, who I can’t hear over the din. No, I also miss the cheap instant stuff I ate as a kid, with a toasted cheese sandwich beside it. Or the fancy-yet-still cheap instant ramen with brand names like Szechuan Chef or MAMA, which not only had the powdered broth packet, but also a chili paste or powder packet AND an oil packet, often with sesame oil in it.

Those instant soups were SO TASTY! The deep fried wheat noodles were just amazing in those spicy soup bases. I would dress those up with chopped scallions and bell peppers, or when I was feeling especially fancy, with a frozen veggie medley of snow peas, mushrooms, water chestnuts, and sprouts, which cooked along with the noodles. It was ready so quickly! It was so warming! It was so SATISFYING!

Packages of instant noodles are ubiquitous, but they are no longer for me: I have a medical condition that means wheat… doesn’t work for me anymore. Not just digestively (although that is terrible), but also immune system wise.

I am learning to let go, while also looking back at wheat fondly.

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I hadn’t thought of myself as a big wheat-eater, since I love Asian and Mexican cuisines, which are rice and corn centered. Yet wheat was always somewhere in my kitchen: as the light, flaky crusts of my homemade apple pies; as the most sauce-absorbent tortillas of my homemade zucchini enchiladas; as the layers of pasta in my homemade artichoke-flavored lasagnas, as the linguini beneath my homemade mushroom-tomato sauces, or the crust of delicious veg local pizzas. Not one but TWO local beer halls that a friend liked to meet at had wheat-based vegan sausages on their menu, which they grilled on a veg-only grill and served on organic wheat buns.

Wheat was EASY.

Also, wheat can be beautiful: my cousin STILL sends me lovely photos of restaurant tabletops covered in hand-pulled pizza crusts, or delicious pastries he is enjoying with coffee. The crusts are beautifully browned; the pastries are streaked with spices or filled with air pockets from a slow, yeasty rise. They called to his camera for good reasons!

Wheat was important to me on special occasions. I can name at least three local bread bakeries whose loaves back in the early 2000s would absolutely make my day. While enjoying them, I felt I was living my best possible California life. (Acme (swoon), Grace Baking (I read they closed down), and Semifreddi’s, if you were wondering; but there is also great local sourdough…) Olive oil, some tapenade, some fresh, local herbed chèvre if I was dining with non-vegans, heirloom tomatoes, fizzy water, a glass of wine, and a fresh loaf of olive bread…

*deep sigh* So, wheat was not a daily food for me (unlike rice!), but it had a PLACE, and if I included it, I included a REALLY GOOD manifestation of it.

But then there was a medical incident. My digestion became impaired, and when it failed to resolve on its own (as a doctor suggested it would), a gastroenterologist had me try an elimination diet. Fructans (type of plant structure found in very firm/crunchy/tall plants, including wheat) turned out to be a villain in my new story. Once wheat in particular was off my menu, my bloodwork for my other doctors improved dramatically…

Which means there is no going back.

Not that I didn’t try: my bloodwork was so good that my doctor expressed doubt I’d ever had an issue, so I recently did an immersive personal-wheat-festival to confirm it, and… Things went south on about day 10, remained bad for WEEKS, and weren’t right for MONTHS. So, my wheat issue really is a thing.

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You may wonder how I was able to work in Europe when I was there for business without being able to tolerate wheat. Or lactose, for that matter.

It was… difficult.

Here at home, I can make my own choices, but when relying entirely on office cafeterias, hotels, and business restaurants in Europe, things get dicey. I chose hotels that offered hot foods, rather than pastry-toast-cheese-coffee breakfasts. Eating in company cafeterias was possible thanks to salad bars, grilled veggie side dishes, and random vegetarian specials were were NOT wheat-based; catered lunches were a disaster, as my hosts would kindly accommodate my vegetarianism with a wheat pasta dishes or cheese sandwiches. Team dinners were usually at places with limited menus, and I would have to accept whatever the vegetarian option was, and ritually nibble on it if it was wheat-based.

Left to my own devices in the larger cities for business or pleasure, I manage(d) exceptionally well. Thai red veggie curries in Budapest (with local beer!); Japanese veg sushi lunch and Thai dinner in Switzerland; Vietnamese in Berlin; Thai or Indonesian or Vietnamese or Ethiopian or Persian or hybrid cuisines in London; Indian and pan-Asian pan fried rice noodles topped with veggies and sauces of my choice in Copenhagen; Nepali foods, Breton buckwheat savory crepes, felafel salads, or any number of fancy French vegan restaurant meals in Paris; beautifully arranged rice noodle plates with fresh beans and colorful veggies in Amsterdam; risotto in the Hague; Korean stone pot, Indian curry-poutine, and savory Chinese mushroom dishes in Toronto…

(Yes, I have tried eating Mexican food in Europe, and… it is not. I appreciate the effort, and conceptually I can see how it happened, but the interpretations are… novel.)

But: this worked when I was alone, or when I was with a fellow veg-gf friend who helped me research our options. When ordering airplane meals for my 10+ hour flights or if going out for a compulsory business meal, the odds were not in my favor. There are rules, and no one is supposed to have more than one restriction. Even now, when I order groceries, I can choose vegetarian OR I can choose “gluten-free.” Not both! Airline meals have the same issue. I always choose vegan (or vegetarian if that is the only veg option, as it is on some airlines), but can’t ALSO ensure my vegan dish it isn’t pasta in tomato sauce or a grilled veggie sandwich. This is not EASY.

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So: I will periodically have a nostalgic outburst here about some food I miss, or I will bemoan wheat being added to something unnecessarily. (People who “bread” their fried potatoes with a wheat batter: I’m looking at you!)

*

Yes, I have tried rice-ramen; yes, it is healthier because it isn’t fried; no, it is not THE SAME. More importantly, non-wheat ramen (which is technically some other noodle, I’m sure) is only available in certain (amazing) restaurants. I can’t just walk into any old ramen place now, even if they have a vegetarian special broth.

So, my world is a little smaller, and has fewer steaming bowls and fewer merrily-slurping crowds in it.

Life: Food supplies during the Pandemic

Clockwise from upper left: red lentil flour penne with eggplant sauce; edemame linguini with green olive & walnut pesto; moong dal; green lentil flour elbow noodles with black olive pesto & fresh tomatoes; steamed golden beets; salad of cucumber, avocado, and tomato.

One of the seemingly-minor-but-requires-too-much-logistical-planning adjustments in my cautiously restricted, sheltering-in-place-from-COVID19 daily life is managing food. How to get it safely; who/where to get it from; whether any one supplier meets my needs; whether suppliers or delivery services are socially benevolent or exploitative toward their workers; when to get deliveries, and how often; how much to pay for them…

I’m a “foodie,” and food is a daily joy. Food plays a central role in my health, and enjoying food is central to my positive outlook and self-care. My food choices align with my Buddhist philosophical beliefs, my environmental concerns, and unexpected medical restrictions. (A gastroenterologist (!) helped me learn that wheat and other high fructan foods don’t work for me now.) As a native San Franciscan, I’ve enjoyed the City’s amazing restaurant and cafe culture, which has emphasized fresh, California-grown produce being cooked by chefs/cooks from cultures around the world. As a cooking enthusiast and the primary cook in my household/relationships, I’ve developed a range of expertise, favorite dishes, recipes, and even used to food blog about seasonal local produce, farmer’s markets, AND the pleasures of eating.

In normal times, I would buy groceries in person twice a week on foot, plus pick up specialty items around town while out and about. I would make special trips monthly-ish to a glorious, worker-owned, fully vegetarian cooperative supermarket (yes, of course it’s Rainbow Grocery) to obtain specialty items I couldn’t find easily elsewhere – vegetarian (gelatin-free) vitamins, vegan cosmetics, hippie soaps, spicy veggie spreads from Calabria, local pomegranate juice, Ethiopian specialties, local gluten free sourdough breads, dry-farmed tomatoes, and organic ANYTHING. Farmer’s markets are a special pleasure, and local produce is always abundant (hello, California!). I would dine out with friends in restaurants and cafes at least twice weekly. If I ran out of anything that wasn’t on my usual shopping list, I would normally pop into a store on the walk home for it.

But we are not living in normal times.

The current pandemic impacte my food access and habits. Even someone as lucky as I am – I can work from home and remain employed – must make an extra effort to get food that meets my needs.

If you had told me that a pandemic would cause the U.S. to suffer from a shortage of TOFU (no, really, TOFU), a core protein source in my diet, I would not have believed you. And yet:

The panic-buying that emptied shelves early on in the COVID-19 pandemic first wave shocked me. The first wave of hoarders-to-be skipped over my staples: they emptied the shelves of wheat pasta, but skipped the gluten-free pastas that first time; they bought all the eggs, but bypassed the vegan scramble I purchase… Eventually, they returned and cleared out my dried and shelf-stable staples for a time.

In spring and early summer I had to radically change my meal plans, because I couldn’t get my usual ingredients. I could always get fresh produce at my nearest market, thankfully, but that still required standing in line to get into the store and the complex personal-spacing dance that never entirely works, because anywhere you stand is close to something someone else needs.

SF streetcar service is SUSPENDED, including the line which would (without transferring) take me a short walk from Rainbow. My rare trips to a Japanese specialty grocery in Japantown are obviously ruled out, even if the reduced core bus service (which we are discouraged from using) could get me there. Car-free living has been so easy, until this!

Left: assembly of a flavorful, vegan lasagne that uses zucchini ribbons (sliced with a hand-held vegetable peeler) in place of pasta; right: Justegg scramble (microwaved) with chipotle-habañero sauce and a side of potatoes and bell peppers (microwave-steamed) with a touch of olive oil infused with roasted garlic.

Due to exploitative restaurant delivery platform pricing, several restaurants I support changed to more sensible platforms which imposed smaller delivery areas, ruling out delivery to my home. (I don’t drive, so I can’t just switch to picking orders up.)

Fast forward to now, many months into the pandemic and related precautions. I’m working very long hours at my job. All while the food supply chain struggles to keep up with irregular demand; it takes longer to grocery shop in person; my options are limited by transit suspensions; and restaurant delivery is restricted.

I expect that each of these challenges will remain in place through most of 2021. (It will take a long time for the first approved COVID vaccines to roll out, and even then, we’ll be operating under precautions indefinitely.)

I’ve made some (likely) permanent changes to my food supply management. After being turned down by other local services that were ramping up to meet demand, I now subscribe to an anti-waste produce subscription service called Imperfect Foods, which supplies me with a crate of surplus or oddly sized/shaped produce (carrots that are too big, potatoes that are too spotty, peppers that fold in on themselves) and off-spec dried goods (such as tri-color quinoa what has too much white quinoa, or brown basmati rice with too many broken grains) each week. I can opt in/out of certain items in advance each week on their website, and can add things like off-spec chocolate covered nuts (yum!) or California almond milk from a reputable maker.

The crate is delivered to my front steps, and the contents are the core of my meals. Yes, this has meant more zucchini in my diet than I would have chosen otherwise; yes, I make more kinds of lasagna as a result, plus a wider range of curries. I started making celery soup because of their blog (and abundant celery deliveries), and now have a customized recipe that really works for me. I enjoy carrot juice from their odd-looking carrots with limes blended in every week now.

There have been unexpected shortages of staple items I order through their effort to cover non-surplus household needs, or occasional, awkward substitutions that I can’t eat (I can only express ONE dietary preference, so I can’t tell them I need vegetarian AND wheat-free products, and so sometimes receive an unordered wheat-thing), but their customer service is polite and responsive, and they are under strain like all the rest of us. Also: having heavy groceries delivered by wheeled vehicle rather than carrying them up the hill on my back makes sense. I have justified it for exercise, but there are limits to that justification! If the produce quality remains high, I’ll continue using this service.

They don’t supply tender leafy greens like spinach, fresh herbs, or enough fruit to get me through the week: they stick to sturdier items that can sit in a crate. Now that my wonderful grocery coop tolerates third party shoppers, I order nearly all other items I want from them every 2 – 3 weeks. I’m okay with their delivery menu markup – I am willing to pay extra to support my favorite local co-op. (Their prices are comparable to other, non-coop grocery stores in my area.) I’m also keen on properly tipping my shoppers who need to cross town to get these items to me ($20-30/trip).

The few things I can’t get through those two methods, such as my favorite locally-roasted coffee, gluten- and fish-free gojuchang from Korea, or bulk volumes of specialty tea, I order on-line, and do my best to keep my spending local whenever that makes sense.

Summary to a long post: the COVID-19 pandemic has inspired hoarding, supply chain disruptions, store access restrictions, and delivery restrictions, making a regular chore much more of a chore! After struggling with whatever I could get and feeling increasingly uncomfortable shopping in person, I’m lucky enough to be able to pay for a cost-efficient, eco-friendly core food subscription (60% of my needs), supplement that with delivery from a worker-owned co-op (30% of my needs), and pick up the stray items from primarily local businesses on-line (10%).

The cookbook that this may or may not be resulting from all of this is coming along very slowly, however! 🙂

Food: Kale chips

As a native Californian, I want to joke that I am obligated to make this dish. This would not be true… but it sounds like it should be, doesn’t it?

Baked Kale Chips

Olive oil and seasoned salt are all you need to turn fresh kale leaves into delicious good-for-you baked snacks.

Not so secret: there are a lot of recipes for kale chips, with various differences that don’t seem to matter very much. Just baking washed kale that you’ve torn or cut into tortilla-chip-sized pieces and tossed in olive oil on a cookie sheet until it is crisp. 350 degrees Fahrenheit, or a little less. Maybe turn them over if they were really heavy/curly, to ensure even crisping.

Culture: Anthropomorphic Cakes

This article brought me great joy. I laughed so hard I cried. Either this is because I was exhausted beyond all measure, because the article is funny in a very British way, or (most likely answer) BOTH. Recommended if you like dry-yet-hyperbolic-British humor.

‘It looks like a haunted waxwork’: The Great British Bake Off bust cakes – ranked!

We never needed The Great British Bake Off more than we do now. This is partly because, in this age of frightening uncertainty, Bake Off’s spirit of good-natured fun feels like a warm tight hug. And also, based on last night’s episode, this year’s series is going to be flat-out barmy.

Recommended recipe: tomato rasam (tomato charu)

I eat constantly and enthusiastically! I am not ashamed of this. 🙂

Rasam is a soup from Southern India that I haven’t had great luck with in restaurants. It didn’t seem half as interesting as sambar, and I have been repeatedly disappointed by a sort of watery version that I’ve been served.

Yet, I’d optimistically made up a huge jar of rasam powder at some point, which has just been sitting in my spice cabinet in a nearly accusing way for several years. So, I decided to give rasam another try with this recipe, which incorporates lots of fresh tomatoes:

Tomato Rasam (Tomato Charu) from indianhealthyrecipes.com

This recipe is GREAT! I used slightly overripe fresh tomatoes, and found the soup flavorful, warming, and yet still light. I served it with a bit of rice, just to add some carbs and give the spices something to contrast to.

I will make this again!