Monthly Archives: March 2014
This week I’ve been writing about my time on Catalina learning what some of the brilliant minds of today are doing to solve problems of food security for a better future.
You can read my recent posts on reducing food waste using black soldier flies and revolutionizing food production with aquaponics to learn more. Both of these processes involve a little (or a big) investment to get started, and while both will hopefully become a huge part of our future food system, there are even simpler things each of us can be doing right now to increase our food security, reduce our reliance on synthetic chemicals and the corporate food system, while also reconnecting with the environment.
I was able to reconnect with nature a bit myself while on Catalina—not just through peaceful morning walks on the high bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, or enjoying the stars in a night sky free of the Los Angeles street light pollution—but also with a special trip to Howlands Landing. Howlands is a campground on the West End of Catalina Island, and plays host to the Catalina Environmental Leadership Program (CELP).
The program teaches students of all ages, elementary school through college, about sustainability using their own organic edible garden and composting facility. Howlands is nestled in a gorgeous little hidden valley nestled between the steep hills of Catalina’s northwest corner and a rocky cove that looks out onto the sparkling ocean, teaming with coastal kelp forests and marine wildlife.
Last Thursday, as part of the USC alternative spring break program, I was able to tour the garden and even partake in some of the amazing fresh vegetables being grown there. The garden is maintained largely by groups of volunteers. The day we visited, there was a group from the University of Colorado, and another group from a midwestern university, helping staff build new garden beds, remove cactus, and plant the spring crop.
CELP also exposes younger children to gardening and teaches them about compost and permaculture. In fact, every group that visits Howlands participates in hands-on activities in the garden. Our group helped pour the morning’s breakfast leftovers into the compost bin and stir it together with carbon-rich cardboard. Liz, our amazing tour guide for the day, explained how Howlands Camp composts all of its own vegetarian food waste (meat and dairy are transported to another facility on the island to be processed since these products can be more difficult to compost in a sanitary, non-smelly way). She showed us the worm composting bins as well, where worms break down food waste and create a nutrient dense compost tea that can be used as concentrated fertilizer.
The camp actively promotes conscientious eating, offering at least one meatless meal each day. Camp visitors learn about and participate in composting, recycling, planting, and harvesting of the organic produce grown in the teaching garden. Most of the plants are watered using water-efficient drip irrigation, and plants are chosen based on their appropriateness for the dry Mediterranean climate of the island.
The day we visited, Liz guided our students through the garden while they snipped fresh herbs, kale, chard, lemon, and more. Bees buzzed lazily passed us as we strolled along the pleasant garden paths attracted by purple sage and other bright flowers. Dozens of tiny succulents and seedlings dangled from little hanging glazed pots. Fruit trees and native Malva Rosa provided sprinklings of shade. It was entirely pleasant and relaxing, yet full of energy from bursting new growth and volunteers bustling around the garden beds.
After our garden tour and ‘harvesting’ session was complete, Liz helped the students chop the greens and massage the kale (yep, that’s a thing), dressing the mix with olive oil and vinegar. The best part of our homemade snack was the loaf of rosemary bread that had been freshly baked in a solar oven right in the garden! Nothing hits the spot more than fresh warm bread and crisp salad after a morning working in the garden. The leafy greens were bursting with flavor, and the lemon wedges we finished the meal off with were sweet and juicy enough to eat on their own.
Liz finished off our tour with a discussion about organic versus ‘conventional’ agriculture. The CELP program teaches children about the dirty dozen (the fruits and vegetables with the highest recorded pesticide contents) and how to reduce their exposure to these toxins. CELP also teaches about the benefits of organic gardening and permaculture. I was truly impressed with CELP’s hands-on style, their beautiful grounds, and the extent of their sustainable practices. I hope that they can continue to serve as a successful model for many other teaching facilities looking to reduce their ecological footprint. And that they keep baking that amazing bread!
I bet you never thought goldfish could be the missing link to sustainable food production. Well, you better take a second look at these humble little guys, because if you’ve ever wanted to grow your own food—without a lot of space, soil, or chemical fertilizers—then a goldfish just might be your new best friend (along with several million bacterial ‘acquaintances’). This is the beauty of aquaponics.
First things first: aquaponics is NOT hydroponics. Hydroponics, while very efficient at growing plants without soil, relies on a sterile environment and a lot of energy input and external regulation, especially in the form of synthetic chemical fertilizers that are usually made from petroleum. Therefore, most hydroponic endeavors, while innovative, are resource intensive and not sustainable. Aquaponics, on the other hand, mimics natural biological systems to create a thriving ecosystem that eliminates the need for synthetic fertilizers, while still maximizing efficiency of plant growth. You don’t need any soil, and you need very little space. It all comes back to the fish and the bacteria. While backyard aquaponics systems typically use feeder fish like goldfish, commercial systems tend to use marketable fish like Tilapia, which they can harvest and sell along with their food crops, resulting in an even more lucrative, yet still sustainable, food production system.
The basics of an aquaponics system go like this: 1) the fish create waste that bacteria in the water consume, which releases valuable nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus; 2) this nutrient rich water is ‘fed’ to plant roots to nourish the plants and help them grow; 3) by removing these nutrients from the water, the plants have ‘purified’ the water which is then re-circulated back to the fish. The water is naturally purified, and the plants are naturally fed, in this fairly closed system. The bacteria do the essential dirty work in between. The only input needed is fish food, which you typically have to buy. However, even this part of the system may soon become completely sustainable, because biologists Ken Nielson and Radu Popa of River Road Research are developing fish feed as one by-product of their black soldier fly project (discussed in my last post).
Grow Your Own
David Rosenstein of EVOFarm, based in Santa Monica, explained the biological processes behind aquaponics in a lecture as part of the Future of Food program I attended on Catalina Island this past week. David, an unimposing young entrepreneur with a passion for sustainable food, founded EVOFarm as a way to fight back against our current chemical laden, diesel powered, polluted and corrupt industrial-agricultural complex.
Through years of tinkering and tireless perfection, David and his team have created aquaponics systems that successfully provide abundant harvests at all scales, from small backyard units for families, to larger scale systems for schools and for commercial sale of crops. Using aquaponics, you can harvest crops (like lettuces, kale, tomatoes, chard, spring onions, etc.) up to ten times per year, and produce anywhere from six to thirty times the amount of food per acre that you could reasonably harvest from a soil based system. Revolutionary! David estimates that the dollar value of this food per acre is over 1 million dollars, which would be unheard of in a soil system.
The yields from aquaponics aren’t just remarkably higher, but they are created without the use of harmful synthetic fertilizers, are very water efficient (water is continually recycled in the system, with minimal evaporation), can exceed organic standards, taste amazing, and result in local food security. You could literally have an aquaponics system in every backyard, as well as larger community-run systems. This would help reduce the number of ‘food miles’ of the fresh fruits and vegetables that we eat, lowering our impact on climate change as well as our reliance on industrial agriculture. Plus, it’s a fun hobby!
Rome wasn’t built in a day…but this aquaponics system was!
It’s actually super easy to build your own aquaponics system—and that’s just what we did (well, I mainly watched the students build it while I tagged along to take pictures). David, along with USC graduate student Ryan Lesniewski, showed us that with a few basic materials and a small investment, you can have your system up and running in a day, and be ready to plant all the crazy heirloom seeds you want by the end of the week.
After you get water into the system, you add some compost tea (aka liquid worm poo) to help grow the beneficial bacteria, which sets the biological basis for the system. Then you can add your fish, place your plants on top, and watch nature take its course. You need to monitor the water level and quality fairly regularly, but other than that the system is very low maintenance day-to-day (though if you like tinkering, there are myriad variables you can mess around with, like nutrient sources, quantities, water flow rates, etc.).
In fact, Ryan has been experimenting with these types of variables as part of his PhD research, which is focused on the development of aquaponics. He has become a self-made expert in a novel field where there aren’t really any experts yet. By growing seedlings in his closet and building aquaponics test systems on his tiny downtown L.A. balcony, Ryan has already learned a lot about the ins and outs of growing plants sans soil, knowledge that he is applying to the larger-scale systems he experiments with out on Catalina.
Meanwhile, David has been designing eye-pleasing backyard vertical aquaponics systems for local distribution, perfectly sized for backyard patios and balconies. His real dream, though, is to establish large-scale aquaponics farms to grow food for commercial sale, and revolutionize (there’s that word again!) the agricultural industry.
If you have a passion for growing (or eating) healthy, fresh, mouth-wateringly good food, than you have a vested interest in the growth of aquaponics. I know that I’m a convert, and can’t wait to help out with future projects like these that engage people in growing their own food to save money and build food security—and hopefully have fun!
What if we could produce most of the food we eat right in our backyards, without using any chemicals or soil, and without producing any waste to go to the landfill? Wouldn’t that be amazing? Sounds like some idealistic Ecotopia scenario, but guess what? It is 100% possible!
That’s the groundbreaking fact I learned this week after attending a five-day program on Catalina Island focused on the Future of Food. Topics ranged from food waste and biological farming to backyard aquaponics and sustainable fisheries. One of the very first ideas presented by guest speakers was so jaw-droppingly revolutionary that it has the potential to change our entire food AND energy systems!
Send in the Flies
This innovative idea that is about to blow your mind is the brainchild of two established biology professors: Ken Nielson (of USC) and Radu Popa. These inspiring individuals may have invented a way to solve two of society’s biggest problems: eliminating large-scale food waste and providing abundant renewable energy to the masses. It sounds unbelievable, but their system is beautiful in its (relative) simplicity—and it all relies on insects. Black soldier flies, to be exact.
Ken calls his project the Black Soldier Fly alternative, or BSFA for short. He and Radu have developed a process in which they can convert nearly all food waste (whether from your home kitchen or an industrial food producer) to a rich insect feed for the black soldier fly larva. The feed is created using Bokashi fermentation, where a combination of aerobic and anaerobic bacteria break down the waste and release valuable nutrients in the process—not so unlike the methods used to produce fermented vegetables and drinks, like that fancy Kombucha you picked up from Whole Foods. As a result, valuable nutrients from the waste like calcium, nitrogen, and phosphorus are made available for re-use.
Just think about that for a second. Eliminating all food waste. Currently, Americans throw away about 40% of the food we buy each year, most of which ends up in local landfills, rotting and releasing greenhouse gases like methane. It costs the city of Los Angeles alone $64 million dollars a year in tipping fees to dump the 1.3 million tons of food waste Angelenos produce. Of course, reducing how much we throw out in the first place would be the best approach, but changing individual and industrial behavior will not happen overnight, so in the meantime we need to find better ways to eliminate this waste. Composting helps, but can only accommodate about 10-15% of total food waste, meaning the rest still gets thrown out. All of that food waste could instead be converted to insect feed and actually result in a net financial gain. Here’s how:
The nutrient-rich liquid that results from fermentation is fed to the fast growing soldier fly larvae. A portion of these larvae will be harvested as animal feed for chickens and other livestock, reducing the need to rely on fishmeal, soybean oil, and other unsustainable feed sources. The larvae waste (i.e. poop) can also be used as a rich fertilizer for plants and crops (or aquaponics systems, which I’ll discuss in my next post). But the truly miraculous aspect of this endeavor comes from something else the larvae produce: melanin.
That’s right, melanin—the stuff that regulates our skin and hair color, as well as the coloration of animals, such as the spots on a squid. It turns out that melanin is a powerful electricity conductor, making it a perfect substance to use in rechargeable batteries. Yet you’ve probably never seen a melanin battery in your local store. Why? Normally, melanin is very expensive to produce, much too costly to support a lucrative battery industry. That is, it was too expensive. Ken and Radu have discovered that black solider fly larvae produce relatively large quantities of melanin in their bodies, which can be extracted for human use, including for batteries. Melanin batteries would be completely organic, non-toxic, and biodegradable. No more reliance on precious metals and harmful battery acids.
When Ken first described this to his audience in the lecture hall on Catalina, the concept didn’t seem to sink in. So he repeated his conclusion: Through the BSFA process, we can eliminate food waste, produce rich animal feed and fertilizer, and most importantly, create a renewable source of melanin to produce completely biodegradable batteries. An entirely closed-loop system! Melanin batteries could be used effectively to store energy produced by renewable sources such as wind and solar—energy sources that are difficult to store with current battery technology.
Even the adult black soldier flies provide financial value to the system. Once they reproduce and lay eggs, they die. Their exoskeletons are high in chitin, a polymer with numerous commercial uses including wastewater treatment, bandages, a binder for dyes, fabrics, and adhesives, and more.
Ken and Radu have established a private venture, partnered with a company called River Road Research, to continue to tweak and expand this system—which Ken wryly describes as the first example of insect domestication—and are hoping to soon trial it on a massive scale by working with food producers and cities in the near future. Their hope is to turn food waste into a lucrative commodity that ultimately benefits cities, agricultural production, livestock production, and the renewable energy sector.
In my next post I’ll discuss the concept of aquaponics, another sustainable approach to food production and waste elimination that is set to change the way we think about food. We humans may have a fighting chance thanks to some brave and cunning individuals!
Welcome to the first review in my Take Back the Brunch series!
The Vegan Joint is one of our neighborhood go-to’s. It’s in walking distance from our apartment, and they also deliver—and we’ve felt lazy enough a number of times to take advantage of that service. In a separate entry I’ll review some of the Vegan Joint’s awesome lunch and dinner options, but this entry is all about Buh-Runch!
I’ve been ordering the Vegan Joint’s breakfast burritos for as long as I’ve been living on the Westside. They are different from any other breakfast burrito—vegan or otherwise—than I’ve ever tasted, and once you’ve had one, you WILL get periodic cravings for one of these bad boys. When I crave a breakfast burrito and I want it STAT, I head over to the Vegan Joint (or have them deliver one to my slovenly self on the laziest of days). So even though I was always tempted to try out some of their other breakfast options, I always stuck with the tried-and-true #4 burrito that my stomach was calling for.
Today, my friends, that all changed. Luckily, I had two accomplices joining me on my Vegan Joint brunch mission, and therefore ample reason to order multiple items on the brunch menu. We ordered 2 different breakfast burritos (including my classic fave, because a review wouldn’t be complete without it), but I also finally ordered the item I had wanted to try for over a year: the tropical pancakes. You can read all the individual food item reviews below. We also ordered two different ‘cleansing’ juices, plus we were offered free tortilla chips and salsa while we waited for our meals.
Needless to say, we left the restaurant feeling a lot heavier than when we got there—luckily we walked and therefore worked off at least a small percentage of the food calories ingested in the name of Brunch. The Vegan Joint sits on the corner of National Blvd. and Motor Ave., nestled within a small Palms neighborhood amongst an eclectic mix of small sundry shops including a retro clothing store, a board and card game store, a few small ethnic restaurants, a deli, etc. On Sundays the block is closed to through-traffic and a small farmer’s market is held out front. Nice for people watching, but horrible for parking. Only street parking is available, so driving here on evenings, especially weekends, as well as Sunday mornings, can be a test of patience. Just be prepared for a few loops around the block.
The Vegan Joint has two other locations, though I haven’t visited them: one in Hollywood, and one in Woodland Hills. You can order from all three locations online or by phone. The restaurant chain is owned by a Thai family, and they are always courteous, attentive, and welcoming when you arrive (though sometimes ordering via phone is an adventure in inter-lingual communication). It probably makes sense, then, that some of the best food the Vegan Joint has to offer is their Asian/Thai dishes, like their amazing curries (again, to be reviewed in a separate up-coming blog entry). If you are looking for awesome vegan Mexican food, this is NOT the place to go, despite the several Mexican inspired items on the menu.
That said, the breakfast burritos are a major exception (though the name ‘burrito’ is the only Mexican-esque thing about them); and the pancakes and other breakfast items like hash browns and tofu scramble are equally mouth pleasing, as I can now personally attest. This is a no-nonsense, no-frills kind of place—many people compare it to a neighborhood diner that just happens to be vegan. You won’t get frilly parsley or fancy plating in this place; just huge portions that take two hands to eat (in the case of the burritos), and that you probably won’t be able to finish in one sitting.
I definitely wouldn’t recommend the Vegan Joint as the healthiest option for vegan brunch items, but there is something for everybody on the menu. Based on the menu and my personal experience, the Vegan Joint seems to incorporate much more refined wheat flour, sugars, fake meats (i.e. soy and wheat-based with high salt content), and vegetable oils in their dishes than some of the other more ‘upscale’ vegan restaurants in Los Angeles. You’ll notice, therefore, that my ‘health’ ratings for most items are lower than similar items at other restaurants I may review. However, compared to your ‘typical’ brunch spot or neighborhood diner, the Vegan Joint is going to be a healthier option item-for-item in regards to ingredients, fat content, and cholesterol, while still offering a lot of flavor.
As an easy, affordable treat once in awhile, this is a Brunch option with a lot of plusses—casual neighborly vibe, quick service, good prices, and most importantly breakfast served ALL DAY.
The Vegan Joint, West L.A.
Individual food reviews
Breakfast Burrito #3
If there were one word to effectively describe this burrito, it would be Savory. This burrito should more accurately be called a wrap (along with all the other burritos served here) because the filling is enclosed in lavash bread rather than a tortilla. As a result of this however, the burritos are huge because the lavash bread comes in large thin pieces, and the filling is then rolled up into layers of this bread. The Burrito #3 is stuffed full with a lentil loaf (a dense mix of lentils, brown rice, onion, bell pepper, and spices), grilled soy chicken, garlic sauce, and vegan cheese. No room for fresh vegetables in this monster. This is a burrito that even the most enthusiastic of meat eaters will marvel at for its flavor, density, and ability to fill you up for hours! The first few bites are a melt-in-your-mouth heavenly savory experience. The next few bites feel like guilty pleasures as you start to feel more and more full. By the time you finish the first half of the burrito, you feel like a lead weight and the other half seems to sit incredulously on the plate mocking you for your weak eating abilities. Seriously though, I wouldn’t recommend eating the full burrito in one sitting. But if you crave umami-dominant foods, this is going to fulfill your needs and then some. For me, personally, I can only handle about ¼ of this burrito at a time, and I have to eat something slightly sweet or lighter at the same time to balance out the heftiness of this beast.
Health: 2 out of 5 (good amount of natural protein from the lentils, and the lavish bread appears to be whole wheat; but loses points for soy chicken, salt, and processed vegan cheese plus lack of fresh ingredients)
Taste: 4 out of 5 (lots of flavor, but if you eat too much of this burrito at once, the salty/savoriness takes over and starts to strangle your taste buds)
Breakfast Burrito #4
This is my favorite breakfast burrito from the Vegan Joint because it’s the perfect combo of savory with a bit of sweetness from the potato. The #4 is stuffed with sweet potatoes, tofu scramble, and vegan cheese. This burrito is lighter than the #3 thanks to the tofu scramble (though it’s still incredibly filling), and less overwhelmingly savory and salty as well. The scramble has a seasoning that almost reminds me of Indian spice—turmeric and cumin, among other spices, but none are extremely potent. These flavors, in combination with the mild and slightly sweet potatoes and the savory aspect of the cheese, combine to make a wrap that’s hard to beat. Again, there aren’t really any fresh veggies in this (as if there would be room!), and it is tofu heavy which may not please those trying to reduce their soy intake. And like the #3, you’ll be pressed to finish the entire burrito in one sitting (not recommended).
Health: 2.5 out of 5 (sweet potato has natural vitamins and minerals, the tofu scramble adds protein and healthy spices—and I would say that tofu is a slightly healthier, less processed option than fake meats—but this burrito still contains the processed vegan cheese, decent amount of oil, and lack of fresh vegetables)
Taste: 4.5 out of 5 (like I said, a nearly perfect combination of sweet and savory, with a great texture and enticing mix of seasonings)
These vegan pancakes are probably the closest to the classic concept of light, fluffy pancakes that I’ve tried around L.A. Not only is their texture pleasant, but the flavor is light and these babies are jam-packed with fresh blueberries and banana—no skimping on the fruit factor! The pancake batter tasted slightly sweet, so I’m guessing there is added sugar in the mix, very likely white sugar. The pancakes come with vegan butter on the side, which tasted great and melted well, but was probably a margarine type vegan butter containing soy, canola, palm and similar type oils. The syrup served on the side tasted decent as well, so it was likely real maple syrup, but again hard to tell. If you are craving the ultimate classic, indulgent fruit pancake, these are the cakes you are looking for. For those of you looking to avoid refined sugar and wheat, stay clear of these and opt for one of the less processed versions I’ll review in my upcoming blog, particularly the buckwheat pancakes and crepes from Café Gratitude.
Health: 2 out of 5 (sugar, wheat flour, margarine, and syrup do not add up to healthy, but the abundant fresh blueberries and lack of animal fats keep these pancakes from getting the lowest score)
Taste: 5 out of 5 (I have to admit these really hit the Brunch spot, despite the subtle guilt I felt knowing I was probably eating several servings worth of white flour and sugar)
Apple Sage Sausage
I will go out on a limb and suggest that these vegan sausages may actually appeal to meat eaters just as much as vegans and vegetarians. I’m not sure where the Vegan Joint gets them from, but one of the only brands that makes vegan apple sage sausages is called ‘Field Roast Grain Meat Co.’. If this is indeed the source, than these are actually a fairly healthy option. As opposed to most ‘fake meats’ that are made out of processed soy and wheat gluten, Field Roast sausages are made from chopped vegetables, whole grains, and natural seasonings. The texture of these sausages alone is remarkable, but the flavor is outstanding—an excellent balance of savory sausage flavor with the slightly sweet apple and an umami smoked flavor (if you haven’t noticed, I’m obsessed with foods that combine sweet and savory flavors). These sausages are a great addition to any of the burritos on the Vegan Joint menu, or as a savory side to go with the pancakes or other sweet breakfast item. I typically ignore the sauce that is served with these sausages; I don’t know what it is, but while I enjoy the food at the Vegan Joint, the sauces that come with their dishes always seem a bit lackluster.
Health: 3 out of 5 (better option than other fake meats, likely decent amount of protein, but hard to tell what actual ingredients are in them)
Taste: 4.5 out of 5 (hard to beat in terms of flavor balance and texture; some even contend that these win out over many actual meat sausages!)
Green Cleansing Juice
This fresh juice contains kale, grape fruit, green apple, cucumber, pineapple. I love this juice—its not overly sweet, and has a fresh crispness to it, a slight tang from the grape fruit, and a tropically vibe from the pineapple. This is a great mix of fruit and veggie flavor, with no one ingredient overpowering the rest. Highly recommended!
Health: 4 out of 5 (Probably not using organic fruits and vegetables, and probably has a decent amount of sugar, albeit naturally occurring from the fruits, but overall seems fresh squeezed and healthy as juices go)
Taste: 5 out of 5!
Veggie Power Juice
This juice is a potent mixture of beet, carrot, orange juice, spinach, broccoli, ginger, celery, green apple, bell pepper, cucumber, and alfafa sprouts. This juice gets a big plus for the number of healthy fruits and vegetables packed into it. However, you really have to like beets and ginger to enjoy this juice, because these flavors dominate. If you can handle a bit of spiciness from the ginger and the earthiness of beets, than this juice is going to rock your liver-cleansing world. There is a pleasant slight sweetness to this juice that makes it very drinkable, though a bit heavier and stronger than the cleansing juice reviewed above.
Health: 4 out of 5 (would get a 5 if the fruits and veggies were organic)
Taste: 4 out of 5 (great flavor but a bit strong on the beets and ginger; some will love it, others not so much)
Smoothie (sorry, no pic for this one yet, but it is a light purplish color from the blueberries)
This is an all-around crowd-pleasing fruit smoothie, filled with banana, blueberries, papaya, pineapple, soymilk, and orange juice. It is the sweetest of the three drinks in this review, which is to be expected from a smoothie as opposed to a juice. But the sweetness comes from the high fruit content, with some of my favorite fruits blended together! The blueberry/banana combo is always a winner, and the other fruits in this smoothie are an added bonus. The soymilk adds creaminess as well as some protein, though people trying to avoid soy products will want to pass on this drink. The smoothie is filling (though it is not huge—it comes in a regular 16 oz plastic cup), and is great on its own or to complement a meal (or as dessert, which is how I treat it when I order one!).
Health: 3.5 out of 5 (lots of fresh fruit, but probably not organic, plus high sugar content from fruit; also contains soy)
Taste: 5 out of 5 (super scrumptious!)
I love Saturday mornings. Especially the mornings when I sleep in until the sun shines warmly through the slits of my bedroom shades, softly waking me without urgency or force. When I finally do get out of bed I lazily sip a cup of tea and peruse some interesting articles online or read a book until I feel compelled to change out of my pj’s. Saturday mornings have a special aura of both relaxation and anticipation—the entire weekend still lies ahead, full of possibilities, and Monday only looms far away in the distance.
My favorite Saturdays (and Sundays!) are the ones where I go out for brunch. It’s not much of a stretch that sometimes I feel like I LIVE for brunch. I know that’s not healthy (physically or mentally), but I can’t help my obsession with the one meal dedicated to both savory and sweet, the best of both food worlds; where anything goes, but a few tried and true favorites keep you coming back again and again.
As a vegan, most of the restaurant brunch scene is either off limits or incredibly boring (you get to choose between the oatmeal, dry toast, or the fruit bowl—sans yogurt—while your friends gorge themselves with pancakes, French toast, omelets, bacon, and sausage). Well, my friends, I’m here to ‘take back the brunch’ for us Vegans, and those who just happen to like eating vegan food or expanding their horizons.
Luckily, Los Angeles is overflowing with vegan brunch options (apologies for those living in more vegan-impoverished zones). And while you can probably order something vegan in nearly any restaurant you visit in the L.A. area, I’m here to share with you some of the crème-de-la-crème of Vegan-centric brunch options this town has to offer—places that your non-Vegan friends will be just as thrilled to visit as you will be.
So join me in this on-going series where I will rate and compare the best vegan breakfast/brunch options around Los Angeles. Together, we can Take Back the Brunch!!
Every Wednesday USC hosts a farmer’s market on campus for students, staff, and community members alike to conveniently purchase fresh fruits, vegetables, and a variety of snacks and prepared foods. I love famer’s market day because it’s a wonderful excuse to take a stroll outside for a little while, get some sun, and pick up a few snacks to stash in my desk at work.
Today I visited the market on the earlier side, before many of the stalls had been set up. My stomach was growling, and I was still craving something more than the tangerine and almonds I had already purchased. I noticed one solitary stall on the far end of the pathway with a small crowd of students in front of it. I decided to check it out, and discovered a magical little table displaying an assortment of mouth-watering chocolate treats.
The woman behind the table immediately greeted me with a contagious smile. She introduced herself as Kimberly, the sole owner and chocolatier of Bond Bar. Kimberly explained that she runs a very small operation; in fact she makes all of her chocolate bars and barks in her home, and sells that at a few wineries and specialty markets.
She sources quality Belgian chocolate (her website mentions that she studied abroad in Belgium where she was inspired to pursue her chocolate making endeavors) and combines it with both sweet and savory elements to create irresistible bars. The chocolate bars on display contained flavors ranging from coconut and cookies and cream to peanut butter toffee crunch and ‘Celebration’ a bar that supposedly tastes just like birthday cake. Not all the bars are vegan, but many of them are, and most are gluten free as well.
Kimberly gave me a sample of the vegan/GF dark chocolate bar with dried cherries and roasted almonds. Needless to say, it was amazing! The 72% cocoa content contrasted nicely with the slight sweetness and tartness of the cherry, and savory aspect of the almonds; plus the bar is topped off with a subtle hint of cypress salt for an even more complex flavor. When you unwrap the bar, you can actually see big chunks of cherry and almonds all throughout, not like the more processed store-bought variety.
Now these are not your typical delicate chocolate bar—these Bond Bars are hefty! A single bar probably ways a quarter of a pound, and is much thicker than a typical chocolate bar. It almost looks like fudge in the wrapping. So even though the price per bar may drop your jaw momentarily ($5-10 at the market, up to $12 online), I can vouch for the fact that you are actually getting the same quantity of chocolate that would normally be in 2-3 ‘typical’ sized bars, and therefore is not actually so outrageous—especially considering the small scale at which Kimberly is producing her products.
Besides, I’m always inspired by individuals who are brave enough to start their own businesses, especially when they are genuinely passionate and driven enough to take a risk and produce something for others to enjoy. Kimberly won me over instantly with her friendly, enthusiastic disposition as she described her products and business. I was happy to support her by purchasing one of the cherry/almond bars (and almost immediately devouring a good portion of it with my colleagues upon returning to my office!).
The quality of the chocolate is apparent, and the variety of flavors Kimberly has on offer is impressive. There is no nutrition label on the bars, so I cannot determine the quantity of sugar or other ingredients in the chocolate. I will likely inquire next time I attend the market to get a better idea of the ingredients Kimberly uses. I would also be more likely to continually purchase a product like this if I knew that the cocoa and other key ingredients were organic and/or fair trade, which would further justify paying a higher price. But I know that with a small business, you have to take one step at a time (check back in the coming days for my review of Chocovivo, another local artisanal chocolate company that is making minimally processed, organic stone-ground chocolate, as well as KindKreme, which produces vegan raw chocolate desserts).
These bars are definitely a bit of an indulgence, but if its a choice between home-made dark chocolate or the sickeningly sweet kettle-corn that’s taking over farmer’s markets by storm, I’ll choose the artisanal chocolate any day of the week!
Dark chocolate Bond Bar with dried cherries and toasted almond ($10)
Health rating: 2.5 out of 5 (no nutrition label on the bar, so this is qualitative; the cocoa content is fairly high at 72% which is good, but there is definitely a decent amount of sugar—not sure whether it is refined or not—and perhaps soy lecithin as well)
Taste: 4.5 out of 5 (rich dark chocolate taste with generous amount of cherries and almonds, in a thick satiating bar; I could handle a bit more bitterness though)
Dark Chocolate Bond Bar with Sea Salt
Health rating: 2.5 out of 5 (see above)
Taste: 4 out of 5 (Wonderful rich dark chocolate flavor, just slightly too sweet to be my fave, and not as complex as the cherry/almond bar above, which is still my fave)
“You are what you eat eats.” –Michael Pollan, author
In my last entry of this series, I left off questioning why we have in general become so reliant on nutrition in synthetic, encapsulated form. Now I’m the first to admit that it’s easy to get lured in by the supplement hype–compounds like resveratrol (typically found in wine, now synthesized into potent capsules), and concentrated fish oil come to mind as the most marketed recently. Who wouldn’t want to live longer (supposedly), or reduce their risk of Alzheimer’s?
I’ve definitely bought my share of vitamins and nutritional supplements over the years—some claiming to boost energy, others to ease stress or build immunity to illness—even though I know that there isn’t a lot of evidence backing up most…
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Finding the trifecta of food perfection (vegan, organic, and most importantly TASTY) can be difficult, especially on a college campus where fast food is the go-to lunch fare. Even most of the salads and vegetarian options are not very healthy. Luckily, last semester one of my students introduced me to the Good Karma Café, a bastion for vegans and starving students alike.
The Good Karma Café is hosted by The Office of Religious Life and the United University Church, and run by chef and Hindu Monk Sarvatma Das. Das is often at the ‘front lines’ serving students and staff and initiating witty banter. A long-time monk, cook, world traveler, writer, and artist, Das never fails to hit me with a sidelong comment that starts an impromptu conversation—about the mystery novel he’s working on, for example.
The Good Karma Café is Das’s brainchild, but was initiated at USC thanks to the Dean of Religious Life, Varun Soni, who saw the need for better vegan and vegetarian options to accommodate the Hindu and Jain communities on campus, as well as vegetarians more generally. All of the food is consecrated according to Vaishya Hindu tradition. Yet you’ll find just as many meat-eaters at vegetarians lining up at the Café because the food is so fresh and flavorful—and the setting is so enticing.
The Café serves up organic, all-you-can-eat vegan meals on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 12-2pm in a pleasant sunken courtyard next to the Unity University Church on 34th Street. You can eat at one of the many community tables outside amongst soothing fountains, flowers, and vines, or inside the adjacent mess hall. On Tuesdays, Das serves classic Indian fare called kitcheree—a thick rice and bean ‘stew’ filled with vegetables and lovely mild spices. On Wednesdays you can get your Italian on with a hefty dose of pasta (Das rotates between marinara and homemade pesto sauces).
Both meals are served with organic mixed greens topped with a home-made almond dressing that has such a strong following that Das now sells bags of it on-site and online. You also get a big scoop of Halava with every meal—a sweet, semolina based dessert that melts in your mouth. The flavor of halava changes each day, ranging from walnut-chocolate chip to vanilla hazelnut, cardamom raisin, and more. All are De-Lish.
For those who like to burn their taste buds out of existence, the Good Karma Café always has a sufficient supply of hot sauce on hand (I’m a major self-proclaimed spice wuss, so alas I cannot comment on the hot sauce), as well as a cooling drink—the flavor of which rotates like the halava. Some of the flavors I’ve seen include lemon tamarind tea, pineapple passion fruit, and lemongrass fennel.
An entire meal, including main course, salad, dessert, and drink, costs $10. Ten bucks may not sound cheap for a student meal, but the servings are generous, and the best part is that you are welcome to seconds (and thirds if you really want, though I imagine you might explode by that point!). Better yet, the servers are happy to fill any Tupperware containers you bring so you can take extra food to go as well. I usually have enough left overs to last me for at least one, if not two, extra meals.
If you happen to find yourself in or around the USC campus on a Tuesday or Wednesday around lunchtime, especially if your stomach is growling, do yourself a favor and hit up the Good Karma Café. Your belly (and maybe your karma) will thank you!
Good Karma Cafe, University of Southern California
Individual food reviews:
This rice dish is quite rich and filling. Definitely chock full of wonderful spices, beans (e.g. lentils and mung beans) and mixed vegetables (potatoes, zucchini, carrots). I am not sure how much oil or ghee (clarified butter) is used, but the Chef sources mainly organic ingredients and appears to take great care in making good quality, healthy meals. I usually can’t finish a full helping because the kitcheree is so hearty. Definitely satisfying, and tastes great mixed in with the salad served on the side. I imagine this is a gluten-free dish as well as rice is the only grain. If ghee is used, this dish is not fully vegan, only vegetarian.
Health: 4.5 out 5 stars (may have oil or ghee, but generally appears very healthy)
Taste: 4.5 out of 5 (the richness makes it hard to finish a whole serving)
I haven’t had the opportunity to try one of Chef Das’s marinara sauces yet, but the pesto is OUT OF THIS WORLD. Wholesome fresh basil and olive oil succulently coat organic pasta. The pasta was also cooked perfectly, with just the right amount of chewiness to firmness ratio–so delectable! Even though the pasta is filling, I could easily eat a whole serving because the pesto has such wonderful, tantalizing flavor. This is one of the best pesto sauces I have every tasted.
Health: 3.5 out of 5 (due to high oil content and high carb content of pasta)
Taste: 5 out of 5 (That’s right! This is a big flavor winner!)
Divya’s Almond Dressing
This is a remarkably creamy vegan dressing that is used on all the side salads served with the main meal. A small amount packs a whole lot of flavor, and seems to go with EVERYTHING (even the halava!), not just salad. The ingredients are simple: almonds, nutritional yeast, amino acids (a vegan sort of soy sauce type mix), oil, and water. But the ratios must be perfect, because the result is divine. You could make something similar at home (in fact, I just recently tried), but something about this version just can’t be topped.
Health: 4 out of 5 (high fat content, but its good fats from nuts, plus some oil, not sure what kind they use; all natural, no fillers)
Taste: 5 out of 5
Assorted flavors. I am never disappointed with the halava, regardless of what flavor is being served. The walnut chocolate was one of the best ever, but I’m biased as a complete chocoholic. The dessert is sweet but not sickeningly so (as some Indian desserts can be), and makes a nice end to a wonderful meal. Not appropriate for gluten-intolerant folks because this dish is made with semolina, a type of wheat. Also may contain ghee, so not vegan (though Das sometimes has an alternative vegan option as well).
Health: 3 out of 5 (Das doesn’t use refined sweeteners, but you still are getting some sugar and wheat with this dish)
Taste: 4.5 out of 5
You can never have too much of a good thing, right? Except when you can. And when it comes to sugar, too much, however ‘sweet’ it may seem at the time, can literally kill you—this according to a new scientific study linking added sugar intake to higher incidence of cardiovascular disease mortality.
Most people these days are aware of the links between high sugar intake and diabetes, and that added sugar equates to empty calories that lead to weight gain. This recent study, however, found that Americans who consume at least 25% of their daily calories from sugar are almost three times as likely to die of heart disease than those that consumed less than 10%. The study used data collected from over 30,000 adults over 15 years.
25% calories from sugar may sound like a lot—and it is—but a significant number of people consume about this much sugar daily. In fact, 70% of adults monitored in the study consumed over 10% (the World Health Organization’s recommended limit) of calories from sugar daily, increasing their risk of heart disease and other health issues. According to the study’s authors, it didn’t matter what kind of sugar was consumed—be it corn syrup, cane sugar, fruit juice concentrate, etc.—too much is too much.
It’s actually frighteningly easy to over-consume sugar, especially if you eat out frequently or consume a lot of pre-packaged and processed foods (even if they are organic). It’s not just the dubious loads of sugar in sodas and candies that are to blame. Sugar is added to nearly every packaged food, from salad dressings and marinades to breads, yogurt, and soymilk, so it’s easy for those calories to add up without you realizing it.
Sucker Punch to the Food Industry—but will it help?
As more and more research is published about the negative health impacts of added sugar, Michelle Obama is stepping up with her campaign to promote healthier eating. To this end, the Obama administration is proposing a food label overhaul. If they get their way, the food industry would have to update portion sizes on their labels to more realistic portions, increase the font size of total calories, include total grams of added sugar, and change how they represent various vitamins and minerals.
I believe Michelle Obama’s heart is in the right place, I really do. But the fundamental problem with our food system is NOT food labels. I can’t fathom how increasing the font size of a calorie count is really going to create a shock wave of change in how people eat. Perhaps it’s a start…or maybe just a distraction from the bigger problems we choose to ignore, because they would require much greater effort.
The only way to cultivate a healthier lifestyle is to know and care about the actual ingredients in your food, not just how many calories are in a serving size. I have never counted calories in my life—I feel like it’s a waste of my time. As long as I’m consuming mainly whole, nutritious foods, I know I am eating healthy. Calorie counts can’t tell you the quality of your food. Not all calories are created equal: 100 calories of Oreos is not the same as 100 calories of almonds or 100 calories of strawberries.
Individuals who don’t have a good grasp on nutrition tend to rely on calorie counts as if it were a religion, and end up making poor health choices as a result. Substituting sugar for artificial sweeteners, for example, may be even more detrimental than the sugar itself.
What we should really be encouraging people to do is buy less processed food in the first place. That means buying the foods that DON’T have labels (or don’t need them), because they don’t have a multitude of ingredients in them. Fresh organic fruits and vegetables. Nuts and legumes. Whole grains. Natural herbs and spices. None of these products have any added sugars, or preservatives, or fillers.
While I think that changing the food label to display an ‘added sugar’ content is a positive move, fear it will just motivate the food industry to get more creative in how they design and market their products. Maybe this is too pessimistic of me. Maybe this will actually force food companies to reduce their reliance on cheap added sugars and create healthier products—even if they are processed. And I definitely have no sympathy for the cost these new policies may incur on the food industry, considering how many billions of dollars they earn at the expense of people’s health and wellbeing each year.
But there are always unintended consequences. In 2006, when the FDA began making food companies list trans fats on their labels, most companies decided to replace trans fats with cheap substitutes. The most commonly used replacement fat is now palm oil, the demand for which is now so high that it is resulting in massive destruction of rainforests worldwide so palm plantations can be planted in their place.
What I do hope for is that at the very least these changes continue to make consumers more aware of what they are purchasing and eating, so that demand continues to increase for healthier, more sustainable choices. Perhaps these small steps forward in food labeling will pave the way to eventually label GMOs in the U.S. (most European countries and Australia already do this) and create more transparency in the long chain from food producer to consumer. That would be “sweet”.