Monday, July 22, 2013

Finalmente! Vegan Italian Yummyness of John's & Salvo's

Finding food that is intentionally Vegan and Italian used to be like searching for a unicorn, or the Loch-Ness Monster, or some other most-likely-non-existent creature. I get it - vegans tend to go towards Thai, Indian, or other delicious cuisines that seem to more naturally lend themselves towards vegan-friendly fare.

As a vegan Italian-American, this always irked me. Sure, looking at the menu in a typical Italian-American restaurant or pizzeria, most things are smothered in cheese or meat. Or it seems the only options are sautéed broccoli rabe with garlic or pasta with garlic and oil (aglio e olio.) While I find these simple dishes to beyond tasty, I understand why they can be overlooked for more exciting-seeming cucumber-avocado sushi, chana masala, general tso's tofu, etc. 

Most vegans don't realize how vegan-friendly authentic Italian and even Italian-American food can be. John's on 12th and Salvo's on York Ave in the Upper East Side are fabulous examples of how to suss out the happens-to-be-vegan goodies of a standard Italian menu.

John's is especially magical because of its intentionally and specifically vegan menu. Located just next door to Angelica's Kitchen, a long-time NYC veg staple, the owners of John's decided to hire a vegan nutritionist after receiving heaps of spill-over customers having difficulty getting a table at always-packed Angelica's. 

John's has oodles of old school NYC charm and boasts a hundred-year history including a stint as a speakeasy during Prohibition. The tile mosaic floors, white linen covered tables, homemade paintings of Italy, and handsomely dressed servers will charm your skirt/pants off. In the back of the restaurant, John's proudly displays their "candle that's been burning since Prohibition." The "candle" is really a giant tower of drippy melting wax with a few wicks alight, providing a unique history and ambiance. 

Now to the meal. The vegan garlic bread at John's is classic, comforting, and soooo worth the next day tummy ache for us gluten-sensitive folks. Buttery (Earth Balance-y) garlicky toasty goodness, mmmmm! It's also affordable at $1.95 a person, and the serving is far from stingy. The bruschetta is a modern take on an Italian tradition, with the crispy toasted crostini being covered in smooth avocado then topped with fresh tomato, basil, garlic, and robust olive oil. At $9.95 it's not cheap, but it is seriously mouth-meltingly delicious. The avocado is subtle enough that it in no way overpowers the bursting flavors of fresh tomato and basil. 

During my most recent visits to John's, I've had the gluten-free pasta with Alfredo sauce and the eggplant parmigiana. The Alfredo sauce is made with coconut cream, which gives it that sweet flavor found in dairy versions of this beloved Italian-American dish. While overall quite tasty, I was disappointed the sauce was on the thin side. When I took my leftovers home, I doctored up the Alfredo sauce with a couple shakes of oregano and a handful of nutritional yeast and it seriously turned out amazing! The eggplant parm was classic and spot on - fresh, flavorful marinara sauce, breaded thin cutlets, and tons of Daiya, all melty and broiled-crispy on top. The entrees aren't cheap at $15-$19, but the portions are generous enough to share or bring some home for lunch.

The desserts at John's really shine. The cannoli are gluten free and the vegan options are traditional vanilla and chocolate. They've been so dreamy each time I've had them, full of all the right flavors and textures. Ketch's favorite dolce, or dessert, is the Panna Cotta, a traditional Sicilian custard. John's is made with coconut and drizzled with a fresh raspberry reduction. The texture is smooth and jell-o-like, just as it should be. Sweet, gluten-free, and rarely ever found made vegan, we finish our meal with the Panna Cotta every time we go to John's. The staff at John's are also extremely helpful, friendly, and most importantly - knowledgable about their vegan menu.

Panna Cotta, vegana!

All the way uptown on 78th and York, Salvo's is a traditional Italian-American pizzeria that just opened on the corner of our block. I'm pretty sure it's owned by some fellas actually from Italy, but they seem to always be hiding in the back or running in and out so its difficult to tell. I'm still trying to do a bit of reconnaissance work and potentially charm them with my Italian speaking skills so they'll make more intentionally vegan food. 

Salvo's has pizza by the slice, dinner entrees, homemade soups, wine & beer, and an espresso bar. They recently also started offering Arancine, the Sicilian rice balls I've featured in a previous post, but not vegan ones of course.

The staff at Salvo's are also super friendly  and happy to answer questions about their ingredients. Sadly, their lentil soup is made with chicken broth, which to me is strange because in Italy it would most likely be made with veggie broth. The best options at Salvo's are a cheese-less pie made to order, with spinach or broccoli on top. The garlic knots are also immensely satisfying and way affordable at $.50 each, but you do have to ask for ones without cheese sprinkled on them (or just dust it off depending on how intense you are about that stuff.) 

The meal Ketch and I are currently obsessed with, like we ate it three times in the past week obsessed, is the glutenfree spaghetti, Sicilian-style. They have other pasta options, but gfree is the way to go for me. I don't even know if I have the words to describe how delicious it is. It's just a basic freshly made tomato sauce with satisfyingly-cubed eggplant chunks, garlic, and fresh basil and parsley. The quality of the extra-virgin olive oil (and pretty much all the ingredients) is clearly very fresh, which enables you to really savor each different element. I know this pasta is legit because it takes exactly like the pasta with eggplant that my Sicilian restauranteur cousins make for me when I visit Italy. The portions are generous and definitely enough for two people. At $8.95 you really couldn't ask for a more delicious deal!

We've also recently had the gfree spaghetti with broccoli, fresh sliced garlic, and olive oil. While fresh and scrumptious, it's no Sicilian eggplant. The sautéed sides of broccoli rabe and spinach are another gem - garlicky, not too oily, and a nice side for a carb-heavy meal. 

Finding food that is both Italian and vegan, out in the world, and not have to rely on myself or friends/family to make it is something I've been yearning for since I first went vegan over ten years ago. It makes me feel whole... And deliciously full! 

Marry Me!! <3



Friday, July 12, 2013

Heart hangs heavy, and heals

July 10, 2013

Seven years ago today, I lost three members of my family - my cousins John (20 yrs old) & Kevin (15 years old), and my Uncle Tommy. I'm not going to go into the painful details of their deaths, but I will say that my uncle took the lives of my cousins and then his own. It is a sad, tragic story that's left everyone in my family with a heavy heart.

What I am trying to steer my thoughts towards on this day are the sweet memories I have of my childhood adventures with my cousin John. 

My parents are both the oldest in their families, and had me at rather young ages (my mom was 20 & my dad 25.) This means that I am the oldest cousin on both sides of the family by many years. I even have a little 5 year old cousin as of now. This all contributed to me being a weird, nerdy, sensitive, and lonely little kid. 

John was my only cousin relatively close in age at just over two years younger than me. We both had lazy eyes and subsequent eye patches and miniature glasses as tiny three year olds. We both were total gawky nerds - creative, smart, introverted, in love with comics and video games and Jurassic Park.

Some of my fondest memories of our adventures together are from a summer vacation spent at my aunt and uncle's beach house in Brigantine, where we'd go buckwild in the pool, hang out on the beach, and play Mortal Kombat when it rained. John taught me all the best moves for Mortal Kombat, and soon his characters were getting their butts whipped by my Liu Kang's relentless assault of flips and fireballs. 

We'd watch Jurassic Park over and over again, very much relating to the two kids who are the main characters. John really looked exactly like Tim, and even though I wasn't a blonde like Lex, I shared her fiery spirit and big-sister attitude. We'd then pore over our Dino-themed books and research the more realistic facts about when those huge unimaginable creatures ruled the Earth. 

Another cherished memory is when our whole family spent a weekend in Spring Lake, NJ to celebrate one of our younger uncle's wedding. We took over this usually quaint peaceful Victorian B&B and let loose as Frazzas do best. John and I were hopped up on bag after bag of Tropical Skittles, and he was always sweet enough to give me all of his watermelon-flavored ones, as he knew they were my favorite. (Looking back its very likely that I perhaps forcefully demanded he give me all his watermelon Skittles, and John being generous and knowing what's good for him, obliged without protest.) 

The night before the wedding, we all loaded into a rickety little school bus my uncle had rented to take everyone to the boardwalk. The bus was filled with all the cousins, plus my Dad, who has the ability to get kids riled up in a split second. We were dancing, screaming, singing, and clapping, and the melee caused the little bus to rock from side to side. John was always right by my side amidst all of our family's chaos and adventure. We had a blast that night, and the skeeball competition between the two of us was brutal. 

Sadly, when I was 14 and John was 12, [updated - edited] our families encountered some distance. I feel I have the right to my own feelings about this, but out of not wanting unnecessary further pain and drama, I will not expand any further on it.

I rarely saw John over the next four years, and it made me sad, of course, but I was busy being a teenager and getting into punk and anarchism and feminism and veganism etc. My dad managed to maintain a relationship with Kevin, John, and my uncle, going to basketball and baseball games together regularly. Finally, the drama subsided a bit, and I attended John's high school graduation BBQ with my dad and sister. I was shocked to see how my little gangly cousin had grown into like a real (almost) grown up guy. 

At that BBQ, John and I got the chance to catch up. Hanging out with John and his friends on the back patio ended up being easy and fun and not very awkward at all. Despite the years that had gone by, John and I were still super comfortable and joke-y with each other and clearly still shared many close bonds. We realized we were into a lot of the same things - comics/graphic novels, pop punk, Jimmy Eat World, pirates, history, and more. It was so exciting and meaningful that we both grew into proud glasses-wearing nerds independently of each other. We talked about how we should hang out sometime, just the two of us, but never managed to make it happen. I was occupied with my new life in Philly and John was just starting college in Northern NJ. That was one of the last times I saw John and Kevin.

On July 10th, 2006, I lost an uncle and two cousins. But I lost more than that. I lost my friend, my oldest friend really, and I lost the chance to grow into even-more-grown-up glasses-wearing proud nerds with him. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Figs, fennel, radishes, oh my! Recipes for a simple and scrumptious summer dinner!

Last night Ketch and I made the dreamiest summer dinner. We stopped at Agata & Valentina, this super-Italian grocery store just a few blocks from our apartment. It's got everything - the best olives I've had outside of Italy, tons of produce (including harder to find stuff like cactus pears and fennel), homemade pastas, soups, and salads, many of which are labeled vegan (vegan Portobello ravioli!!!), homemade Italian pastries, imported Italian candies, and more. It's like as if my little cobblestone street in Trastevere, Rome, lined with butchers, bakeries, cheese shops, and produce markets has been crammed into one store in the Upper East Side. The sale signs even say "promozione," adding to my ever-present heartsickness for Italy.

We scored cauliflower, fennel, fresh parsley, radishes, broccolini, cucumbers (as much organic as possible), extra virgin first press Sicilian olive oil, and vegan chocolate mousse. I had picked up figs earlier, and I knew we were about to have a killer dinner.

The color of these radishes is so vibrant and beautiful. I want lipstick and nail  polish in this color!!

Seared Cauliflower Steaks: Once home, Ketch sliced the cauliflower length wise to create two flat "steaks." He baked each steak at 375 degrees for 15 minutes and then seared each one in a cast iron pan on medium high heat for 5 minutes. You can bake longer if you like your cauliflower more soft and tender. I topped my cauliflower steak with fresh parsley, truffle oil, sea salt, and cracked pepper. Ketch made a quick wing-style sauce out of Frank's Red Hot and Earth Balance in a saucepan and drizzled it on his "steak."

Roasted Cauliflower florets: Then he chopped the rest of the cauliflower and put it in a baking dish with fresh parsley, olive oil, sea salt, fresh ground pepper, and paprika. We threw in extra chopped radishes and baked at 375 degrees for 20 min or until tender.

Sautéed Broccolini: While the cauliflowers were baking/searing, Ketch then sautéed up some Broccolini. Broccolini is rather new to me and I LOVE it! It's less bitter than broccoli rabe but still super flavorful. It's like if Broccoli and Broccoli Rabe had a baby! We cut the ends off the stems (leaving them long but without the tough part at the bottom) and sautéed on medium heat with sliced garlic and oil. Also, we usually add in a 1/4-1/3 cup water after a few minutes to make sure it's not too crunchy. Only sauté for 5 minutes or so - the broccolini should remain bright green and a bit crisp - it's not as yummy if it's soggy and overcooked.

Broccolini party! 

While Ketch was making all that delicious magic happen, I was prepping the ingredients for my two simple refreshing salads. 

Cucumber Radish Salad: First, I sliced half of a large cucumber into thin slices. Then, I did the same to about 3  medium/large radishes. This amount was perfect for the two of us. If feeding 4 people, use the entire large cucumber and 6-7 radishes. I paid extra care and attention when I was slicing, as I wanted each piece to be similar in thickness and fully rounded on all sides. (I wanted some cute circles!) I alternated slices of each on a square plate, drizzled that full-flavor Sicilian olive oil,  and cracked salt and pepper lightly over it all. I added full sprigs of fresh parsley on the sides, and minced parsley on top. THAT'S IT! It was SO delicious - light, fresh, crunchy, juicy. The pepper-y bite of the radish is softened by the more neutral cucumber. I also would like to try this with Cilantro instead of the Italian Parsley next time.

Fig and Fennel Salad:
Figs are one of my top three favorite fruits (the other two being watermelon and cactus pears). I grew up eating figs right off the trees in my Nonna and Nonno's backyard (see my previous post about my always-exciting Sicilian family.) I waited and waited with anticipation all summer, checking on the figs in the trees to see if they had finally turned purple and ready for picking. As a little baby toddler Melanie, my Mom has told me that I'd come home from my Nonna's with a case of the poops from eating nothing but figs all day. (In case you didn't know, figs will definitely help keep things moving along your digestive tract!)

That being said, I usually just eat figs as is. I rarely have done anything culinary with them so this salad was especially exciting. I love fennel as well, and usually make a blood orange and fennel salad when blood oranges are in season. I enjoy fennel raw as part of an antipasto, as it is another veggie that's good for digestion. It's always on the Thanksgiving table at my Nonna and Nonno's house, along with olives, cheeses, and other standard antipasto fare. Our Italian Thanksgivings are a funny (and  filling) mix of Italian must-haves like antipasto, stuffed shells, etc. plus all the American classics. I know the licorice-y taste of fennel isn't for everyone, but it's another Italian staple I grew up loving.

I cut the top stalks off the fennel bulb, then the tough bottom butt part. Then I just continued cutting up the fennel bulb, rather like a large onion, to make curved slices about an inch or less long. It really depends on what shape you enjoy eating. For a salad, I like the fennel pieces to be a bit smaller. If I'm eating them raw, I like them more celery-stick sized. For one fennel bulb, I used about 6 medium/large brown turkey figs. I chopped the figs into chunks and tossed in a bowl with the fennel, the Sicilian olive oil, fresh parsley, and freshly ground sea salt and pepper. I also have used classic balsamic vinegar and blood-orange infused balsamic vinegar when making fennel salad in the past, but I wanted this one to be bright and simple. 

The Ambiance: I don't have the energy to set a stylish elegant table for dinner every night, especially if dinner is a thrown together mishmash of whatever beans and fading vegetables we happen to have around. But a special meal like this deserves intentionally special ambiance. I set the table with a pretty floral placemat flanked by 2 straw lemon-slice placemats. I  broke out the cloth napkins that match the floral placemat, and Ketch made up a pitcher of ice cold water with lemons and cucumbers floating about. Lemon cucumber water is ESSENTIAL for summer survival. Drinking it feels like drinking some kind of magical healing elixir a fairy or elf gave to you. The subtle flavors also help mask the sometimes funkiness of urban  tap water. I lit some candles, set out our forks and knives, and Ketch plated everything so prettily.

Dinner was dreamy, light, delicious, and full of different flavors. Nothing too heavy in this already sluggish humid heat. I wait all year for these simple summer dinners made up of a bunch of veggies and herbs, all lightly cooked or just tossed with olive oil. Mmmmmm......