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Seed Kitchen: Room to Grow

Seed sign

The other day I finally made it to Seed Kitchen, a small vegan café that emphasizes raw and macrobiotic entrees. Apparently the chef that founded Seed has cooked for celebrities like Madonna, Sting, and Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s tucked away just behind the main drag of Venice Beach, along an eclectic street lined with pricey surf shops, grungy eateries, yuppy cafes, talent agencies, and everything in between. The local crowd is a similarly assorted mix of grunge, hipster, surfer, and prep. Whenever I show up to these places, I feel like I don’t fully fit into any of the ‘categories’ of people surrounding me—I’m just there to eat!

Inside Seed, Venice Beach

Inside Seed, Venice Beach

Seed’s interior is fairly bare, with rustic-chic accents and a few items for sale along one wall, like supplements, snacks, and bath and beauty products. You order at the front counter, where a quiet but friendly guy with huge gauged earrings, a nose ring, and an intentional bouffant nonchalantly takes your order. The menu is as low-key as the vibe, with much fewer items than other vegan restaurants I frequent. This was actually refreshing, making the choice of what to order a bit less agonizing. There was a sign on the wall claiming that Seed’s vegan burger was the best in L.A., but I was feeling adventurous and wanted to try one of the healthier items on the menu. I almost went for the probiotic macro bowl, but earring guy recommended the special—a kelp noodle dish in the style of pad thai. Never one to dismiss a food recommendation, I went for it.

My trusty sidekick and partner in food, Mark, ordered a hot seitan and vegetable dish. We sipped on chilled, unsweetened green tea while we waited for our orders, and people-watched as individuals, couples, and small groups traipsed in and out of the tiny locale. The service was fairly fast (we were one of the only ones in the café when we ordered). The first thing I noticed, however, is that Seed serves all of their food and drinks in disposable containers, which does not rank high on my sustainability spectrum. Even though signs above the trash bins tell you that these plastic dishes, cups, and utensils are compostable, I wonder why Seed goes for the once-use approach, which is much more resource intensive than reusable plates/cups/etc.

The second thing I noticed were that the portion sizes were much smaller than other vegan restaurants with comparable prices and food styles—upwards of $12 for a TV-dinner sized portion. This might have not been an issue if the food was outstanding. Unfortunately, neither of us was wowed by our meals.

Yes, the pad thai seemed quite healthy, with fresh vegetables, kelp noodles, and a very light sauce that mostly tasted like mild chilis. But the whole dish was rather bland and uninspired. Luckily I ordered tempeh (at an extra charge) on top, which made a huge difference, adding a deeper flavor and texture to the dish. Otherwise, it was pretty ho-hum. I definitely appreciated the nutritional quality of the dish, but felt that it was something I could easily throw together at home—for much cheaper.

Mark’s seitan dinner had a bit more flavor—reminiscent of Korean BBQ. But the squishy balls of seitan and steamed veggies again just did not stand out as a great, fresh, vibrant dish. There were no great distinguishing flavors or textures, and the meal was definitely not adult man-sized.

Even the vegan desserts in the pastry case looked lackluster, wrapped in plastic and looking less than fresh. Perhaps we should have listened to the sign and tried the vegan burger. I would definitely consider going back to do so. I would even try some of the other super healthy options on the menu if I was feeling like I had indulged a bit too much in rich food that week, or wanted a simple, light meal without the hassle of preparing it myself.

I do appreciate that Seed is attempting to cook macrobiotic foods in healthy ways, using local and organic sources as available. But probably on most days, I’d forgo Seed and just make a simple, healthy dinner at home, or go to one of my stand-by vegan restaurants that offer more value for money. This might be a place you go with the most hipster (or health-conscious) of friends, but probably not with your omnivore-leaning peeps. When I try the ‘famous’ burger, however, I’ll be sure to update my review.

Seed, Venice Beach

Individual Food Reviews:

Raw Kelp Noodle Pad Thai (special of the day)

pad thai

Fresh and healthy, but without the tempeh (extra charge), there wasn’t much to this meal.

Very light, raw, probably very low-calorie. But also pretty much no protein unless you order something extra (as I did with the tempeh). Fresh but bland, and definitely not filling.

Health: 4.5 out of 5 (mostly vegetables, but not a lot of substance, probably not all organic)

Taste: 2 out of 5 (not horrible, just not memorable in any way, especially without added tempeh)

 

BBQ Seitan Hot Dish (special of the day)

Seitan and vegetables in a ho-hum sauce.

Seitan and vegetables in a ho-hum sauce.

As stated above, a bit more hearty and flavorful than the pad thai, but not a lot of great texture or freshness. Mark left the restaurant still needing more sustenance.

Health: 3 out of 5 (I’m not sold on seitan, which is a form of high-gluten processed wheat)

Taste: 2.5 out of 5

Hopefully the burger will improve my ratings!

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Take Back the Brunch: Café Gratitude makes me grateful for breakfast

Exterior of Cafe Gratitude, Venice Beach

Exterior of Cafe Gratitude, Venice Beach

Café Gratitude is probably one of the most quintessentially California ‘granola’ restaurants you can imagine—in other words, my dream come true (even if it does make me feel a bit self-righteous every time I visit). Hence, it’s not surprising you’ll find this restaurant in two locations in L.A. as well as in Berkeley and Santa Cruz—and apparently now there’s a new location in Kansas City? Didn’t expect that one. The story behind how the restaurant was originally founded and the ethics that drive its management are a worthwhile read available on their website.

The ambiance is like an upscale hippie-turned-yuppy café, with outside patio seating and inside tables, booths and community tables plus a long row of bar seating. An assortment of decadent baked goods and homemade, nutrient-dense jarred and bottled concoctions greet you from their rustic-chic displays when you walk in.

Interior of Cafe Gratitude.

Interior of Cafe Gratitude.

Patio seating.

Patio seating.

I tend to frequent the West Side locale on Rose Street in Venice Beach. The Café is nestled amongst a patchwork of other upscale shops, a yoga studio, and a juicery (yep, that’s a thing in L.A.). Everything on Café Gratitude’s menu is vegan and organic, and a lot of it is raw and/or gluten free. While the range of items might sound daunting at first to your average non-vegan–options like kelp noodles, three-grain tempeh, raw bagels with cashew cream cheese, and daikon-collard wraps–you have to trust me when I say that there is probably something on this menu to please everyone, even the stubborn omnivores out there. It definitely won over my father and his fiancé, who loved the breakfast items, especially the sweet ones.

You just have to be able to survive the hipster crowd and the artsy wait staff that leave you with a poem and a philosophical question to discuss at the table when they hand you the menus. No joke. Oh, and the menu items that are listed as Motivational ‘Intentions’ rather than descriptions of the actual meal. For example, the grilled polenta meal is called ‘I am warm-hearted’; the Indian curried lentils are ‘Humble’; and the vegetable tacos are ‘Transformed.’ Want a drink? You might go with the ‘Divine,’ or maybe the ‘Elevated’, or the ‘I am Outrageous’ for a probiotic kick. Don’t even get me started on the desserts. It’s a unique dining experience, to be sure.

A portion of the unique menu style.

A portion of the unique menu style.

It's hard not to drool wantonly when you pass by the vegan dessert case!

It’s hard not to drool wantonly when you pass by the vegan dessert case!

If you can jive with the purposeful (and perhaps slightly forced) communal all-is-love vibe that Café Gratitude strives for, your time will be well worth it. The food here is unabashedly amazing–very fresh, flavorful, healthy, and filling. Because brunch holds such a special place in my heart, that’s the focus of today’s blog. I’ll get right to the spoiler and just state flat out that the brunch items on offer rank as some of the most satisfying food I’ve tasted in L.A., and as an added bonus, are made with some of the healthiest organic ingredients as well. Double win!

I was full for about eight hours after eating here…perhaps it was that extra crepe I ordered on the side. Worth it! The prices are slightly higher than a ‘typical’ café, but in the case of Café Gratitude the price adequately reflects the quality, flavor, and portion size of the meals. I’ve definitely been to other vegan restaurants that over-charge for disappointing food—this is not one of those places. Be ‘Brave’ and try this place out for brunch. You’ll probably want to come back for dinner!

Café Gratitude, Venice Beach

Individual menu items:

WARM, aka Apple Cinnamon Muffin (gluten-free)

Muffin

Somehow, Café Gratitude has pulled off the difficult task of making healthy food taste like the classic versions you remember growing up—but better! Their muffins are no exception. This muffin melts in your mouth and has wonderful flavor and texture. You can’t tell its gluten-free or vegan. The taste is indulgent, but not overly sweet and desserty like some of the other vegan bakery muffins I’ve tasted. Thumbs up!

Health: 3.5 out of 5 (obviously this place uses pretty healthy ingredients, but I imagine the protein content is fairly low while the sugar content is higher in this item)

Taste: 5 out of 5; scrumptious!

 

OPEN-HEARTED, aka Buckwheat pancakes (gluten-free)

Buckwheat pancakes
No words are worthy. Probably the best vegan pancakes I’ve had (and its really tough to compete with Hugo’s vegan pancakes!). I love buckwheat—its hearty yet still makes fluffy pancakes, and these babies certainly had it all: light, airy texture, just slightly sweet with a nice light grain flavor, all topped with organic maple syrup, fresh fruit, and a mouth-wateringly delicious cashew whipped cream. Have I made my point? If you dig pancakes, you MUST put these in your mouth SOON.

Health: 4 out of 5 (maybe a bit lower with excessive cashew cream and/or maple syrup; otherwise, light and healthy while still hearty and satisfying)

Taste: 5 out of 5, if it wasn’t already obvious!

 

FANTASTIC, aka Crepe (gluten-free, raw)

Crepe

This raw, GF take on a classic French crepe is definitely an interesting twist. You can’t capture the same light, crisp texture of a crepe sans eggs. That said, this was an enjoyable rendition, though it was a bit heavier and chewier. The crepe itself tasted almost like a waffle cone, but the sweetness of the crepe was set off nicely by the slightly tangy coconut yogurt and fresh fruit and nuts that topped it.

Health: 3 out of 5 (probably a bit high in fat and sugar)

Taste: 4 out of 5 (interesting, unique, but no where as rave-worthy as the pancakes, though if you want a bit lighter breakfast the crepe is a good option)

 

TRUSTING, aka Tempeh Scramble

Tempeh scramble
This savory scramble is a blend of three-grain tempeh and mixed seasonal vegetables including shitake mushrooms, spinach, scallions, cilantro and avocado, and comes with whole grain sesame toast. This is definitely a hearty meal, more like a lunch or dinner item, with a nice healthy vibe, but the flavor didn’t really stick out as exciting or unique–sort of had an Asian stir-fry vibe. A solid staple kind of meal.
Health: 5 out of 5 (lots of fresh veg, high protein tempeh, light seasoning)

Taste: 3 out of 5 (nice fresh veggies and seasoning, just nothing that really popped out as exciting or note-worthy. My dad was a bit ho-hum about it—although he was obsessed with the muffin)

 

TERRIFIC, aka Kelp noodle salad

Kelp noodle salad

This dish combines kelp noodles with a Pad Thai type marinade tossed in an almond sauce with mixed vegetables including carrots, bell peppers, and kale, topped with crispy almonds and sprouts. The creaminess of the sauce was enticing, and the flavor of the dish was well balanced—light, but complex and satisfying without being overpowering. The hint of almonds really enhanced the flavor, and the avocado rounded everything out (what ISN’T better with avocado, really?). Another nice savory dish.

Health: 4.5 out of 5

Taste: 4.5 out of 5

Chocovivo—Cacao CaPow!

You can watch the oompa loompas make stone ground chocolate as you sip your dark hot chocolate.

You can watch the self titled Oompa loompas make stone ground chocolate as you sip your dark hot chocolate at Chocovivo.

I have a penchant for picking out the most expensive products at farmer’s markets. Whether it’s raw honey, organic pomegranate juice, or avocado hummus, I’m a sucker for specialty artisanal foods.

By far one of my greatest weaknesses is for good quality, vegan dark chocolate—and it just so happens that my local farmer’s market is happy to oblige in the form of Chocovivo, a small artisanal chocolate making company that makes minimally processed, stone-ground chocolates free from dairy, soy lecithin, and refined sugars.

While I typically buy Chocovivo chocolate at the farmer’s market (they maintain a stall at the Culver City market on Tuesday evenings, and one at the Mar Vista market on Sunday mornings), the company also has a small storefront on Washington Boulevard where they host chocolate tastings (awesome!), both of solid chocolate and assorted hot and iced chocolate drinks as well.

Chocovivo chocolate bars lining their adorable store shelves, and also available at local farmer's markets.

Chocovivo chocolate bars lining their adorable store shelves, and also available at local farmer’s markets.

 

One evening I just couldn’t hold out anymore, and I convinced by boyfriend to accompany me on a chocolate tasting adventure. Even before you enter Chocovivo, the storefront lures you in with its warm, rich lighting and whimsical wooden décor. Is it a wine bar? Tapas bar? Nope! It’s all about the chocolate in this place! When I entered the shop, I felt like Dorothy leaving Kansas (a.k.a. Culver City) and landing in Oz (a.k.a. magical chocolate land). Or many Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, but with none of the weird song/dance numbers or snotty children–although they do call the chocolate makers Oompa Loompas here.

Freshly made chocolate butter

Freshly made chocolate butter

Hand packed chocolates in adorable bags.

Hand packed chocolates in adorable bags.

No, this is a very adult type of candy store—where couples sit closely on bar stools made out of tree stumps, leaning in towards each other as they share a thick, indulgent cup of dark hot chocolate, or sample a platter of various home-made cacao concoctions. Lining the walls are various cacao products for sale, including the chocolate bars—in myriad flavors—that Chocovivo is perhaps most well-known for. Also for sale or hand filled bags of raw cacao nibs, cacao powder, and chocolate spreads. It was hard to keep my cool when all I wanted to do was try IT ALL.

It turns out, you pretty much can. One of the menu options is a chocolate sampler (along the lines of a wine or beer flight, or cheese sampler)—you can choose how many chocolates to sample, all the way up to the max, which is thirteen (I’ll give you one guess which option I went for!). I had my partner in chocolate crime with me, so I figured we could handle it.

Removing pieces of chocolate from the magic chocolate drawer. Patricia, the owner, is in the background.

Our helper removes pieces of chocolate from the magic chocolate drawer. Patricia, the owner, is in the background.

As the store assistant began pulling open drawers behind the counter and removing various pieces of chocolate to line our plate, he explained the process of harvesting, fermenting, roasting, and grinding the cacao to turn it into the bars, powders, and spreads before us. Chocovivo does not use any sort of heat processing—a step most chocolate producers use to maximize efficiency—they just grind the cacao using traditional lava stones, then mix in pure unrefined can sugar and whatever flavors they are using for each type of chocolate bar. Their website explains the process, and their relationship with cacao farms, in more detail. The result of their approach is a high quality chocolate that retains much more of the natural nutrients, as well as flavor, contained in cacao beans. Chocovivo chocolates are all vegan, natural, organic, with no additives (e.g. soy lecithin, cocoa butter, etc.).

Spreading the stone-ground chocolate so it will solidify into bars.

Spreading the stone-ground chocolate so it will solidify into bars.

For someone who has never tried minimally processed chocolate before (or dark—I’m talking 80% chocolate), Chocovivo may take some getting used to. The bars have a slightly gritty texture, from the pure ground cacao beans, and a rich, slightly bitter flavor that is non-existent in processed milk chocolate—because milk chocolate has barely any real chocolate in it at all! Needless to say, the texture and the flavor are actually what draw me to Chocovivo. A little goes a long way—the two of us only made it through about half of our chocolate flight—but the complex flavors and textures are ooh-so-satisfying.

Ready for that flight to heaven....chocolate heaven.

Ready for that flight to heaven….chocolate heaven.

Included in our tasting flight were four types of plain dark chocolate (ranging from 60% to 100% pure cacao!). Of these, I’d have to say I preferred the 85%, followed by the 75%, which was just ever so slightly sweeter and milder. My boyfriend was more into the lighter side of dark, going for the 60%.

Then came the blended chocolates: Almond with sea salt, Shangri-La (black sesame with goji berries), Mayan Tradition (cinnamon and spice), Cherry-almond and Black peppercorn, and coffee and vanilla bean. Each of these was intriguing in its own right, and it wouldn’t really be fair to rate them in any order. However, the Shangri-La is one of the most uniquely flavored chocolates I’ve come across, definitely worth a taste. I always love coffee flavored chocolate because of the contrast between sweetness and bitterness, and the cherry-almond flavor was satisfying on a number of levels. But we weren’t done yet.

There were also the limited edition blends: Macadamia Nut and Coconut, Lavender and Lemon, Nibby Bar with raw cacao nibs, and Hazelnut and Sea Salt. Wow. Talk about an overwhelming array of flavors. We bravely took our time sampling each one and compared notes. The macadamia/coconut blend was the richest, the nibby bar was an all around winner with nice texture and flavor, but my favorite was the lavender/lemon combo—a slight perfumy fruitiness balanced with rich dark chocolate. Out of all of the thirteen flavors, the only one that fell flat, surprisingly, was the hazelnut/sea salt blend. Neither of us thought it compared to the rest—something about the flavor fell flat. Perhaps it was just a bad bunch of hazelnuts, or not the right balance of nuts to other ingredients. But it was the only bar out of the thirteen that I wouldn’t miss.

The chocolate tasting menu.

The chocolate tasting menu.

Even though we couldn’t finish our chocolate flight, I felt it was my duty to try something else on offer, perhaps a warm chocolately drink. I also was looking for excuses not to leave this adorable sanctuary of a shop so I could continue to watch the oompa loompas (that’s literally what they call the chocolate makers at this shop) work their magic on the other side of the glass. So, ignoring my satiated stomach and my already-overloaded on polyphenols brain, I ordered a hot chocolate that blended a mix of dark and mayan spice with almond milk.

As we waited for the drink, I watched the owner of the shop, Patricia, meet and greet various customers, explaining with passion the various aspects of her business and the sourcing of her chocolate. I worked up the nerve to approach her and chat for a few minutes, and even took a picture with her! It’s always rewarding to meet the entrepreneurs behind socially and environmentally forward-thinking ventures.

Sipping on hot chocolate, trying not to neglect the chocolate in the corner.

Sipping on hot chocolate, trying not to neglect the chocolate in the corner.

The hot chocolate was incredible; thick, rich, warming, soothing. But soooo intense after 13 other chocolate flavors! I tried to finish as much as I could (also pressuring the BF to help out), and eventually we slid off our bench seats, still in a chocolate stupor, and wandered out of the shop just before closing time (oh, and I definitely had a doggy-bag in hand with our un-eaten remnants of the chocolate flight).

No fillers here!

No fillers here!

Lovin the sustainability ethic of Chocovivo.

Lovin the sustainability ethic of Chocovivo.

I had successfully fulfilled a lifelong dream of eating chocolate, and nothing but chocolate, for dinner; and supporting a wonderful local business while I was at it! Chocovivo is an absolutely perfect place to go on a cute first date, a romantic second, third, or hundredth date, or just to treat yourself or a friend to a hot (or iced) chocolate after a long week. And if you are serious about your dark chocolate love affair, Chocovivo is your answer to satisfying that craving in a healthier, more sustainable, and enjoyable manner.

Getting to meet Patricia, Chocovivo's owner, was an extra sweet treat!

Getting to meet Patricia, Chocovivo’s owner, was an extra sweet treat!

Chocovivo: Culver City, CA

There are way too many varieties for me to provide individual ratings, but you can get the gist of my preferences above. However, here is my overall rating for Chocovivo chocolates.

Health: 4 out of 5 (this is taking into consideration that dark chocolate is meant to be enjoyed in small portions. However, Chocovivo chocolate is unprocessed, organic, full of natural vitamins and minerals, and has very low sugar. Therefore, as far as chocolates go, its pretty much as healthy as you can get–especially if you choose the pure, darkest varieties. Chocolate has many health benefits that I won’t go into here, but only high quality chocolate like this contains significant amounts of these nutrients)

Taste: 4-5 out of 5 (depending on the variety; for those who prefer milder chocolate, stick with the 60% and blended, for the purists, go for the darkest for ultimate taste bud pleasure!)

Ambiance at shop: 5 out of 5 (Adorable, very cute date spot as well as just fun to browse in, friendly staff, can watch chocolate being made)

Superfood Muffins: The Sequel (this time with Nibs!)

Scrumptious blueberry-banana muffins with raw cacao nibs!

Scrumptious blueberry-banana muffins with raw cacao nibs!

Some of you may have read about my first Superfood Muffin recipe, a mix of healthy flours, oils, and ‘superfoods’ like goji berries and chia seeds. Well, today I want to share with you a different version, one that I think I may like better than the original!

While the recipe I use for both versions is similar in many ways, I used a different website for my inspiration this time around—Blissful Blueberry Banana Spelt Muffins provided by oh she glows, a great website about vegan and gluten-free living (and eating).

Mmmm, fresh organic local blueberries...hard not to eat them all right now!

Mmmm, fresh organic local blueberries…hard not to eat them all right now!

The wet mix may not look especially appetizing, but just wait until these guys come out of the oven! Pictured: Mashed banana, avocado, maple syrup, almond milk, and coconut oil.

The wet mix may not look especially appetizing, but just wait until these guys come out of the oven! Pictured: Mashed banana, avocado, maple syrup, almond milk, and coconut oil.

This time around, I changed up my superfoods. The muffin batter has a similar base, including banana and avocado. But from there I took some different turns, including the addition of almond milk, and apple cider vinegar–thanks to oh she glows’ inspiration. For the add-ins, I incorporated a whole lot of fresh blueberries and a large handful of raw cacao nibs—my new favorite Super ingredient! I bought mine from Chocovivo, an amazing local raw chocolate shop that I will post about very soon. You can also find nibs at health food stores like Sprouts and Whole Foods, and of course online.

Raw cacao nibs have a robust dark chocolate flavor and a lot of health benefits.

Raw cacao nibs have a robust dark chocolate flavor and a lot of health benefits.

On their own, cacao nibs (if they are 100% cacao with no added sugar) are quite bitter and potent, but once you add them into a recipe or mix them into a smoothie, their flavor is mellowed out and provides a rich, chocolatey complement to whatever you serve them with, plus a bunch of great minerals and nutrients. Raw cacao nibs are packed with fiber and beneficial polyphenols, much more than processed chocolate. Turns out you can have your cake—er, chocolate—and eat it too!

I wrote about the health benefits of many of the other ingredients in my previous recipe post, so feel free to check it out for more info. If you do make any of these versions, let me know how they turn out and how you modify them. Hope you have fun trying out your own twists on these recipes!

May the Food be with You,

-Dr. K

Fresh out of the oven

Fresh out of the oven

Superfood Muffins: The Sequel

Ingredients

-2 bananas

-Approx ½ medium avocado

-¾ cup almond milk (you could use hemp, coconut, soy, or whatever floats your ‘milky’ boat)

-1 tsp apple cider vinegar (if you don’t have any on hand your muffins will still be edible, this just helps the batter rise a little better for a lighter texture)

-1 tsp vanilla or almond extract

-¼ cup coconut oil, melted

-2 cups flour; I used 1 c. spelt, ½ c. oat flour, ½ c. millet flour (you could use any combo of flours your heart desires!)

-1/3 cup coconut sugar (you can find at TJs!)

-½ cup oats

-2 tsp baking powder

-1.5 tsp cinnamon

-¼ tsp Himalayan sea salt

-½ tsp baking soda

-1-2 cups fresh or frozen* blueberries (I used 1 whole punnet of fresh berries)

-Optional add-ins: ¼ cup chia seeds or hemp seeds, ½ cup chopped walnuts, ½ cup goji berries, ½ cup cacao nibs (I went with the nibs, added amazing depth of flavor and are little bits of superfood goodness!)

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350F and grease a muffin tin with coconut oil
  2. In a medium bowl, mash bananas and avocado.
  3. Add the milk, vinegar, maple syrup, and vanilla to mashed banana/avocado mix. No need to stir it yet.
  4. Melt the coconut oil in a small pot over low heat (or in microwave). Set aside.
  5. In a large bowl, mix together the dry ingredients (flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, and baking soda).
  6. Stir coconut oil into the wet mixture. Pour wet ingredients onto the dry ingredients and stir until just combined. Do not overmix as spelt is a fragile flour.
  7. Gently fold in your chosen add-ins and then the blueberries, being sure not to overmix as this can result in dense muffins.
  8. Spoon batter into muffin tin cups about 3/4 full (or if you are like me, all the way to the top!)
  9. Bake at 350F for 23-27 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean, or when you press the tops gently they are somewhat firm (not doughy) to the touch.
  10. Cool in pan for about 10 minutes and then transfer muffins to a cooling rack and cool for another 15 minutes.

*Note: If using frozen blueberries, be sure to leave them in the freezer (do not thaw) until just before you stir them into the batter. This helps prevent bleeding—unless you like purple muffins, in which case disregard! J

The Rabbit Hole Cafe: a Wonderland of Vegan Delights!

My newest find on my continuous treasure-hunt for vegan friendly, organic restaurants!

My newest find on my continuous treasure-hunt for vegan friendly, organic restaurants!

I absolutely love trying new vegan (and vegan-friendly) restaurants, and lucky for me it seems like every week a new one pops up somewhere in L.A. It used to be that the further away you got from the city, however, the fewer vegan options you could find. Thankfully that seems to be changing, as vegan versions of popular foods seem to be making their way onto mainstream menus far and wide–at least in California! Picking up on this shift in health awareness (or trendiness), the Rabbit Hole Café is one of the newest restaurants on the scene, an unpretentious but innovative neighborhood café “with a conscience”, as is their motto.

The Rabbit Hole Café is fairly hidden, nestled in an unassuming strip mall in Agoura Hills (about half an hour north of Los Angeles proper). I was up in the area the other day to take my mom to lunch, and was trying to decide where to go. I may never have wandered down the Rabbit Hole if I hadn’t at the last minute decided, on a whim, to search for ‘vegan restaurants’ in Agoura, assuming that only Hugo’s would show in the results (and as much as I love Hugo’s, I wanted something different for a change). To my surprise, however, Rabbit Hole Café popped up in the google results, so I clicked on the website to take closer a look.

Alice in Wonderland themed decor provides a whimsical ambiance.

Alice in Wonderland themed decor provides a whimsical ambiance.

Cute little tables to sip coffee and read at.

Cute little tables where you can sip tea and debate with a mad hatter.

On their homepage, the Rabbit Hole Café says that they source local, organic, non-GMO products whenever possible, and cater to vegans, vegetarians, gluten-intolerant, and other dietary constraints. They even list every ingredient that is organic right on the menu. The cafe also makes efforts to reduce waste, to compost, and to follow sustainable practices. I was instantly smitten.

A quick glance at the menu was enough to make my stomach grumble in anticipation—vegan sandwiches and burgers, kale bowls, vegan baked mac and cheese…jackpot! Within a few minutes I got my mom out the door and we made the short drive to the Rabbit Hole. It was a Saturday, early afternoon, and though there was a steady stream of customers, seating was ample. My mom and I grabbed a shaded table outside to enjoy the warm spring weather.

The inside, however, is adorable! The Rabbit Hole takes full advantage of its Alice in Wonderland theme, with whimsical signs describing smoothie flavors or the day’s specials, quirky decorations, and a black and white checkered floor. Inside seating is a mixture of small and large tables, with the opportunity for communal seating, or for wedging yourself in a private corner with a laptop or a book. There are only a few tables outside, located at the front of the restaurant on the sidewalk. Again, nothing fancy, just simple and sufficient.

It didn’t take us long to decide on our order (I had already pretty much decided when I looked at the online menu). We opted to sample three items: the chickpea toona melt (vegan tuna sandwich), violet shrooben (a vegan take on the Reuben, starring sautéed mushrooms and a homemade thousand island dressing), and the Rabbit Hole Bowl, a mix of quinoa, brown rice, sweet potatoes, caramelized onions, and fried kale (individual food reviews can be found below). I vowed to go back to try the vegan/GF mac and cheese and Rabbit Hole Pizza as well as the brunch menu. While most options are vegetarian and vegan, The Rabbit Hole also offers non-vegan sandwiches, breakfast items, and full on baked meals. I could also imagine coming by to enjoy a nice organic tea or coffee as well.

The best tasting vegan 'tuna' melt I've had the pleasure of putting in my mouth.

The best tasting vegan ‘tuna’ melt I’ve had the pleasure of putting in my mouth.

My only beef (pun intended) with the Rabbit Hole Café is that they use Daiya cheese on everything. As I’ve written before, I am not a big fan of this vegan cheese. Some people swear by it, but to me it has a distinctive, fakey taste that overpowers most dishes. For my orders, I left the Daiya on the Reuben (they used the swiss version, which I figured I would give a shot), but I ordered the toona melt without the Daiya cheese and instead ordered avocado on the sandwich. Spoiler alert—that was the best decision ever!

As we lounged in the partial sun after ordering, I overheard the conversation of the people at the next table over—a group of four high school students (two girls, two guys), sharing health advice, talking about kale and quinoa and drinking warm water with lemon juice first thing in the morning. It made me smile. What a far cry from the health ‘consciousness’ of my high school peers and me! Even though I was a vegetarian in high school, those were times (not that long ago I might add) when romaine was a specialty item and tofu was the only non-meat option for vegetarians—if you could find it.

The other customers were a mix of young and old, couples enjoying a leisurely weekend afternoon, or members of the small country club from across the street taking a break from golf. But the vibe was definitely not the typical yuppie Westlake feel; this is a casual, but slightly quirky, spot that you would probably never even notice if you didn’t know about it. Luckily, now you do!

Within minutes our order arrived, and my mom and I dug in with ravenous pleasure. I opted to try the vegan Reuben first, and while it was tasty, once I took a bite of the toona melt there was no turning back. It was love at first chew. It was all I could do not to scarf the entire thing down in one sitting—but I kept my composure and allowed my mom to try some, and even saved most of a half for my boyfriend to try later (I knew he would appreciate the amazingness of this sandwich as much as I).

Besides, I had to save room for dessert! Next to the counter inside where you order and pay is a large refrigerated case lined with mesmerizing vegan desserts, from mini cupcakes and cookies to tarts and cakes. Most are also gluten-free. Also available are frozen breads, muffins and other baked goodies from none other than Rising Hearts Bakery. I opted for two desserts made by Karma Baker: mini carrot-cakes, and a chocolate coconut tart. Neither disappointed, and the chocolate tart was probably one of the best vegan desserts I’ve had in recent memory—and that’s saying a lot, because I eat a LOT of desserts!

Vegan desserts line a refrigerated case inside. Also available are homemade pickled vegetables, sandwiches, and more.

Vegan desserts line a refrigerated case inside. Also available are homemade pickled vegetables, sandwiches, and more.

After one visit I can definitely say this is my new Agoura obsession, and I can’t wait to visit again. Everything tasted fresh and somehow nostalgic despite being novel and ‘trendy’. Wholesome, yet slightly indulgent—sourdough and rye breads reminiscent of corner delis, spreads and sauces that have a home-made charm—all served in a delightful atmosphere by friendly staff. This café with a conscience sure knows how to cater to picky eaters and food lovers alike!

Rabbit Hole Café, Agoura Hills

Individual Food Reviews:

Chickpea Toona Melt

 

Mouth-watering vegan tuna melt!

Mouth-watering vegan tuna melt with avocado!

The description may not immediately win you over—chickpea and seaweed ‘toona’ with grilled tomatoes, vegan cheese, and chipotle mayo—but let me tell you, this may be the BEST vegan tuna sandwich I’ve ever had. Most vegan tunas are made from either soy or jackfruit, the latter of which typically is pretty tasty. But this chickpea version, which I imagine was mixed with veganaise, was instantly addictive. I literally wanted to fill a bathtub with this filling and just immerse myself in it (sorry if that grosses you out). I will say that I made an important substitution to the sandwich that I believe made a huge difference—I swiched the Daiya cheese for avocado, and I think it was the best food decision I could have made. Whichever way you choose however, I venture to say you will not be disappointed by this sandwich, what with the magical filling, complemented perfectly by the sourdough bread, tomatoes and vegan mayo. I am still dreaming about this sandwich days later!

Health: 3 out of 5 (chickpeas and seaweed equal good protein and nutrients, however the vegan mayo adds fat from oil and the bread is decent carbs, though sourdough is supposedly one of the healthiest bread options a person can choose).

Taste: 5 out of 5! Can I say 6 out of 5??

 

Violet Schrooben

Rabbit Hole's take on a vegan reuben with mushrooms and homemade sauerkraut.

Rabbit Hole’s take on a vegan reuben with mushrooms and homemade sauerkraut.

Grilled mushrooms and purple sauerkraut with homemade thousand island dressing and swiss Daiya cheese, all on toasted rye bread. It sounds great, and it was tasty, but I think calling it a Reuben created certain expectations that just couldn’t be met. Other vegan Reubens I’ve tasted tend to use seitan or tempeh as their protein choice, giving the sandwich a ‘meaty’ heartiness that this sandwich couldn’t mimic. The flavors were all decent, but all together it just fell a little flat compared to the toona melt. I think the issue was that I loved each of the ingredients individually—the grilled mushrooms were lovely and savory, the sauerkraut had an interesting sweetness, and the dressing was nice and tangy. But put all together, the flavors didn’t blend as well as you might expect. It probably didn’t help that it included Daiya cheese, which just isn’t my thing. I wouldn’t totally write off this menu item, but I suspect that you are better off trying one of the other delectable choices your first time off—unless you have a mushroom obsession, in which case you might be perfectly satisfied with this sandwich, which is loaded with them.

Health: 2.5 out of 5 (healthy mushrooms, but not much else besides the fake cheese and dressing; the rye bread is very light, probably some refined wheat)

Taste: 3 out of 5 (decent, but not my pick for this restaurant)

 

The Rabbit Hole Bowl

Layered brown rice, quinoa, sweet potato, onions, and kale

Layered brown rice, quinoa, sweet potato, onions, and kale

This is a meal in a bowl (which I love); a base of quinoa and brown rice, topped with grilled sweet potatoes, carmelized onions, crispy fried kale, and a peanut ginger lemon dressing. The combination of all these ingredients was a perfect blend that felt healthy, yet satiating and flavorful. The dressing was wonderful—slightly sweet and tangy but not overpowering. The sweet potatoes were of course a great flavor addition, and the fried kale is pretty addictive (the even offer an appetizer that is just the fried kale). It was a bit oily, but had a crispy, flaky texture that balanced the heaviness of the rice and potatoes. It definitely won my mom over, and she had been skeptical of kale up to this point. This is a simple yet completely satisfying dish, which would perhaps seem plain if it weren’t for the wonderful addition of the dressing.

Health: 4 out of 5 (as a meal out, this is probably one of the healthiest you can get other than a salad; the fried kale is on the oily side so brings down the rating a bit, but overall this is a good healthy choice).

Taste: 4.5 out of 5 (a nice balance of flavors and textures, may not blow your mind but is a general crowd pleaser, and a great way to introduce first-time kale eaters to this versatile vegetable.

 

Karma Baker mini Carrot Cupcakes (vegan, GF)

mini carrot cakes

Itty bitty satisfying vegan carrot cakes.

These little cuties are both adorable AND delectable. They have a wonderful rich flavor and a nice, moist, slightly dense texture. The ingredients are minimally processed (which is especially pleasing since they are made with gluten-free flour) with few questionable ingredients. The frosting is made with soy and palm shortening, and though both of these are listed as organic, some people may have qualms with these ingredients for health or sustainability reasons. Nonetheless, these are a light, satisfying dessert or sweet snack with no processed sugar, and lots of healthy ingredients (flax, walnut, carrot, coconut, etc).

Health: 3.5 out of 5 (lots of healthy ingredients but still going to have sugar and fat; but per each mini cupcake, I’d say these are pretty high on the healthy dessert wagon!

Taste: 4 out of 5

 

Karma Baker Chocolate-Coconut Cream Tart (vegan, GF)

Mmmmmmm mmmm good....chocolate melt down!

Mmmmmmm mmmm good….chocolate melt down!

This was a melt-in-your mouth velvety chocolate experience that rocked my world. I could have eaten the whole thing, even though it was incredibly rich and dense—so I forced myself to share it. The tart is a sweet little size, big enough to share among 2-3 people, but definitely small enough to scarf down yourself without feeling too guilty (although you might feel a bit overwhelmed at the last bite). I cannot begin to rave enough about this amazing chocolate bit of heaven—the top half is a mousse-like consistency, while the bottom is a chocolate crust that gives sturdiness and a nice crumble to balance out the smooth creamy topping. If you love chocolate, or even like it just a little bit, do yourself a favor and try this tart!

Health: 2.5 out of 5 (almost all the ingredients are organic which is great, but there is definitely a decent amount of sugar and coconut oil/cream in this dessert, as well as soy)

Taste: 5+ out of 5!

carrot cake ingredients

chocolate tart ingredients

S’up with Soy?

To soy or not to soy? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer.

To soy or not to soy? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer.

As a trained scientist, I can’t help but get discouraged sometimes at the amount of unsubstantiated or misleading information that exists on the internet. While it can be empowering to have so many sources of information and opinion at our finger tips, it doesn’t change the fact that most of us are by nature very easily swayed by the power of anecdote.

This tendency is taken advantage of by all sorts of interests, not least by the food and health industries. Every day I read conflicting ‘evidence’ about things like grains (they are either the foundation of a healthy diet or the source of all our health ills, depending on who you ask), meat, dairy, GMO’s, and more. Recently, I’ve investigated some of the debate over soy.

Depending on the sources you choose to ‘believe’, soy is either a nutrient dense super-food or a cancer-causing poison–at least, according to the sources that garner the most attention. Just do a Google search for ‘soy health benefits and risks’ and you’ll see what I mean. It can be overwhelming! Like any issue, being an extremist is more likely to get you noticed, for better or for worse. Or get your book published. Or get you your 15 minutes of fame. That’s why I am always skeptical of completely condemning or glorifying any one food source, perspective, or idea.

As a centrist, my ideas probably aren’t that ‘sexy’. However, I think being cautious but open is much preferable to taking someone’s word because they’ve cited a few non peer-reviewed or biased studies. The underlying problem is that most readers have not been trained to differentiate between opinion and fact, or peer-reviewed versus non peer-reviewed scientific research. Even among published scientific studies, if you don’t realize whether a journal is funded (or controlled) by some corporate interest or other, versus being a more independent journal, you fail to understand the underlying biases of a piece of evidence.

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Many health articles cite faulty science or non-peer reviewed sources that lack substantial scientific evidence to back up their claims.

While some authors and bloggers purposefully deceive their readers, I think that it’s the ones who unwittingly mislead the public that may be even more dangerous to true rational thought. I’ve read many a web page that either references faulty or non peer-reviewed studies, or fails to reference any sources at all for their information. While some viewers point out these flaws, many take these posts at face value or even claim them as gospel.

Regardless of the topic, taking the initiative to do a little of your own research (to the extent possible) and read with a dose of healthy skepticism (which is not the same thing as disbelief) will go a long way toward improving your critical thinking skills, and hopefully encourage writers to do their homework on sourcing accurate information.

S’oy vey!

So, back to soy. Not too long ago, soy was considered the staple of a modern vegan diet. Don’t eat meat? Eat tofu. Don’t drink milk? Drink soy milk. Luckily, these days most of us have a lot more options—ranging from coconut, almond, and hemp milks, to protein sources like mung beans, quinoa, and millet. Still, is soy really so bad a food choice?

In a matter of years, soy went from being touted as a miracle food to being ostracized for its hormone-wrecking, cancer-causing compounds. Are any of these supposed characteristics actually founded in scientific fact? According to Holly Wilson, MD, a doctor who practices a vegan lifestyle, the misinformation regarding soy has resulted in a number of ‘myths’ that have unnecessarily made people fearful of consuming soy products.

To Wilson, soy is a reliable source of a variety of nutrients as well as protein, and has played a healthy role in Asian diets for centuries. She attempts to debunk a number of negative perceptions about soy (with the exception of genetically modified soy, which she says to avoid as a precaution and opt for organic non-GMO instead), claiming that a lot of the ‘research’ comes from one particular organization—the Weston A. Price Foundation—that has a vested interest in protecting the rights of dairy and cattle farmers, who see the rise of soy as a threat to their business. In other words, the science against soy is biased, in Wilson’s opinion.

Her arguments are convincing, and she provides a number of peer-reviewed articles to substantiate her claims, and she writes with a clear, rationale approach. However, it’s very possible she has a personal vendetta against the Weston A. Price Foundation. Maybe the Foundation is actually doing legitimate research in the name of sustainable farming. Maybe the studies cited by Wilson as providing evidence that soy is safe were funded by corporate entities with a vested interested in soy production (which is a massive industry in the U.S.).

Minimally processed soy products such as organic tofu, edamame, miso, and tempeh are likely the healthiest options if you choose to consume soy.

Minimally processed soy products such as organic tofu, edamame, miso, and tempeh are likely the healthiest options if you choose to consume soy.

Ironically enough, when I did a bit more perusing on this topic, I came across a post by Kristen Michaelis on her website called Food Renegade, detailing the dangers of soy. Michaelis is neither vegan nor a doctor, so she approaches this topic from a very different perspective. She advertises a way of eating that condones eating red meat and lots of fresh dairy. Her post is laid out clearly, covering a number of supposed health issues of soy—but surprise surprise, her cited evidence largely comes from one source: the Weston A. Price Foundation.

Are you starting to see how conflicted the ‘evidence’ is out there? Some of Michaelis’s links didn’t work when I tried to follow them, or were not from peer-reviewed papers, which is a bit of a caution sign for me. Still, a lot of her nutrition perspectives on the website hold weight, and I appreciate her support of local, sustainable agriculture. It may very well be true that large amounts of soy (especially GM soy) can cause problems for our bodies—but the same can likely be said for pasteurized dairy, meat, or even a number of fruits and vegetables eating in too large of quantities.

The point of this post is not to demonize one view over another, but rather to argue that we all have biases, and that we must each come to reasonable conclusions based on the information available. I’m also not going to discuss every study ever published for and against soy–there is plenty of that already in existence on the web. It’s easy to get misled by catchy headlines that scare us out of (or into) eating something OR ELSE, but the world generally doesn’t work that way. Both Michaelis and Wilson provide some valid points, but neither can provide the entire perspective.

After doing a lot of research and reading, my tentative conclusion is that moderate amounts of soy will not harm your body (assuming you are not allergic to it), and it may in fact be a valuable source of protein and certain nutrients. However, it should not be a product you rely on as a cure-all. Rotate soy products with other nutrient-rich foods, like coconut milk/oil, legumes, organic whole grains, and more importantly organic fruits and vegetables. I would also suggest opting for the least processed soy products possible, such as miso, tempeh, and tofu, rather than soy-based fake meats and cheeses, which contain a lot of fillers and other ingredients that are probably much worse than soy for our bodies. Most reasonable health practitioners seem to agree that fermented soy products are generally safe to consume, while processed foods such as those containing soy protein isolate are not recommended.

Also, definitely stick with organic soy products because over 90% of conventionally grown soybeans are genetically modified (although most of these are fed to animals, which means if you eat meat you are eating GM soy). Plus, conventionally grown soy, the second largest crop by acreage grown in the U.S. (after corn), requiring the application of millions of tons of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides each year. Much of this soy is converted into cheap oil, diesel fuel, animal feed, or used in processed foods.

Crop dusting a conventional soybean field. Non-organic soybean fields require vast amounts of fertilizers and pesticides that contaminate the surrounding environment (and our bodies).

Crop dusting a conventional soybean field. Non-organic soybean fields require vast amounts of fertilizers and pesticides that contaminate the surrounding environment (and our bodies).

Bottom line: Just as there is no short cut to long-term good health, there is no short cut to educating yourself. Sifting through information and doing background research takes time, but when your health is on the line, I would argue that it’s worth it. That’s just my opinion though—I guess each of you ultimately have to determine that for yourself!

Some of the supposed health benefits and dangers of soy. Bottom line--look for evidence from peer-reviewed scientific studies, and don't believe a website unless it has links to such studies. Organic, fermented soy products are your safest, healthiest options.

Some of the supposed health benefits and dangers of soy. Bottom line–look for evidence from peer-reviewed scientific studies, and don’t believe a website unless it has links to such studies. Organic, fermented soy products are your safest, healthiest options.

Reaping the Tasty Benefits of Organic Gardening

Howland's Landing, home of the CELP program, overlooks the beautiful Pacific ocean from Catalina Island.

Howlands Landing, home of the CELP program, overlooks the beautiful Pacific ocean from Catalina Island.

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.

Spring onions are planted around crops like chard and kale to help deter pests without the use of harmful pesticides.

Touring the CELP garden at Howlands Landing, Catalina Island. Spring onions and garlic are planted around crops like chard and kale to help deter pests without the use of harmful pesticides.

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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).

Students learned the basics of composting first hand.

Students learned the basics of composting first hand.

Leftovers from breakfast went straight into the compost heap. The 'wet' ingredients (nitrogen rich food waste) are balanced with 'dry' ingredients (carbon rich paper and dried vegetation) to achieve the right balance for composting to function.

Leftovers from breakfast went straight into the compost heap. The ‘wet’ ingredients (nitrogen rich food waste) are balanced with ‘dry’ ingredients (carbon rich paper and dried vegetation) to achieve the right mix for composting to function optimally.

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.

A student takes the time to stop and sniff the flowers at Howland's Landing organic garden.

A student takes the time to stop and smell the flowers at the CELP organic garden.

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.

Worms help break down food waste and create a potent natural fertilizer that is great for organic gardens.

Worms help break down food waste and create a potent natural fertilizer that is great for organic gardens.

Liz gets her hands dirty to show off worm composting.

Liz gets her hands dirty to show off worm composting.

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 solar oven that our fresh bread was baked in while we toured the garden.

The solar oven that our fresh bread was baked in while we toured the garden.

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.

Malva Rosa, a native tree to Catalina Island, was in full bloom.

Malva Rosa, a native tree to Catalina Island, was in full bloom.

Liz explains to students how waste management works on Catalina, and how Howland's is working towards sustainable practices.

Liz explains to students how waste management works on Catalina, and how Howlands is working towards sustainable practices.

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.

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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!

Liz and USC students prepare are super-fresh morning snack.

Liz and USC students prepare are super-fresh morning snack.

Finishing touches.

Finishing touches.

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And voila! Combined with solar oven baked rosemary bread. De-Lish.

And voila! Combined with solar oven baked rosemary bread. De-Lish.

The Future (of food) is Now

College students spend their spring break learning about--and growing their own--sustainable food

Undergraduate students spend their spring break learning about–and growing their own–sustainable food

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.

The black soldier fly life cycle may hold the key to eliminating nearly 100% of our food waste as well as providing fertilizer, livestock feed, and contributing to renewable energy storage!

The black soldier fly life cycle may hold the key to eliminating nearly 100% of our food waste as well as providing fertilizer, livestock feed, and contributing to renewable energy storage!

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.

Nearly half of all food produced is thrown out without being eaten. Composting can help eliminate some of this waste, but fermenting it into black soldier fly feed can eliminate nearly 100% of this waste.

Nearly half of all food produced is thrown out without being eaten. Composting can help eliminate a fraction of this waste, but fermenting it into black soldier fly feed can eliminate nearly 100% of it.

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.

Black soldier fly larvae are rich in melanin--the substance that determines our skin and hair color--which also happens to be a powerful electrical conductor.

Black soldier fly larvae are rich in melanin–the substance that determines our skin and hair color–which also happens to be a powerful electrical conductor.

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.

Chickens love eating black fly larvae, which serve as a more sustainable food source than fishmeal (made from wild caught fish), soybean oil, and corn (from genetically modified crops grown in destructive monocultures).

Chickens love eating black fly larvae, which are a more sustainable food source than fish meal (made from dwindling stocks of wild caught fish), soybean oil, and corn (from genetically modified crops grown in destructive monocultures).

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.

'Domesticating' black soldier flies in cages involves separating each part of the life cycle, from egg, to larva, to adult phase, and growing them in specific light and temperature conditions.

‘Domesticating’ black soldier flies in cages involves separating each part of the life cycle, from egg, to larva, to adult phase, and growing them in specific light and temperature conditions.

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!