02 November 2013

Divided we fall, united we stand: the harmful side of the 'vegan police'

This blog post does an absolutely spot-on job of criticizing what is often referred to as the 'vegan police'--in other words, the nitpicking vegans who vigorously assert that their very particular and specific and personal approach to veganism is the only valid form of the lifestyle and call out other vegans who may be less strict or, more often than not, just different in their approach, in addition to vegetarians and omnivores for their choices. While I'm obviously all in favour of strictness when it comes to abstention from animal products, as with any growing community, there is bound to be a diversity of opinions, just as we see in any religion and ideology. And this should be embraced rather than denigrated, since that's what makes a movement vibrant and strong, and since we share more values than we don't. And when it comes to the most important things, we are all in agreement.

Let's go back to the definition of veganism from the man who invented the word, Donald Watson. Veganism is "a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practical — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals." Surely, this definition is much broader and more inclusive than what many of the vegan police would have us believe.

Two of the most inspiring vegan role models I've come across in my own personal journey down this road emphasize community and compassion as absolutely essential building blocks of veganism. I recently attended a talk delivered by Dr. Will Tuttle at the University of Calgary, and one of the most resonant points for me was his emphasis on community in terms of shaping his own ideologies. He described finding himself in a large commune of vegetarians and how their sharing of their beliefs finally made something click in his mind and led him to stop eating animals. My own personal journey towards a vegan lifestyle (I still have a long way to go, and I still feel very new to it all) would probably never have happened if I hadn't spent time with a few new vegetarian friends whose beliefs rubbed off on me, and allowed me to finally make the connection between my choices of food and clothes and the very real, violent consequences those decisions had on the animals with whom we share the planet. Simply knowing people who are vegetarians or vegans and their presence in your life can allow you to see that lifestyle as something possible and achievable, as well as logical and good. Community is of the utmost importance in forming our beliefs--not just about animal rights issues, but about everything.

Compassion is an essential element in the philosophy of Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, another vegan educator whose tireless work I greatly admire. While compassion for animals is obviously highly emphasized in her podcasts, she also goes to great lengths to encourage us to have compassion for humans, even humans with whom we disagree--even hunters! Her message goes: we all share this planet, both human and non-human animals, and we have to keep compassion in our hearts even in situations that might seem hopeless and discouraging (she speaks powerfully of a group of men hunting birds in a field beside an animal sanctuary at which she was working and trying to keep calm even in the face of the extreme brutality they were inflicting on the birds) in order to truly make a difference for the animals and the planet. If we express compassion towards everyone, even our opponents, there is a possibility of open dialogue and growth. Otherwise, minds will never change and only become more entrenched and closed.

When the 'vegan police' are out there on the enforcement trail, they break down this essential sense of community and compassion by guilt-tripping and belittling fellow vegans. This can really only cause feelings of hopelessness in new vegans or vegetarians, which can have the exact opposite effect of what we should be striving for. They may give up their journey and go back to the butcher in defeat. And if an omnivore is considering this lifestyle but sees such internal division and bitterness as happens when the 'vegan police' are out there, they're not very likely to want to associate with a group fraught with such petty in-fighting and might even run full-speed in the opposite direction. Every vegan has their own approach (some may only eat raw, for example, or organic, or gluten-free, but these approaches may not work for people in every geographical area or class or health situation), but since we are all working towards the same goal, since we are all human and not perfect, we are all still allowed to wear the label 'vegan.' Indeed, anyone working toward eliminating products of animal slaughter and exploitation from their diet and their lifestyle, in any capacity, for health or any other reason, should be encouraged in that goal... cheered on, rather than finger-wagged at for not 'doing' veganism right or not doing enough or not going fast enough. That is the best way to foster a warm sense of community, which is so crucial in any movement, and the best way to assert and reflect the compassion rightfully associated with veganism in our day-to-day dealings with others.

06 October 2013

Smooth, salty, creamy: silken tofu

I have recently entered the magical world of silken tofu. I had used extra firm tofu a couple different ways, in tofu scrambles and to make smoky tofu bacon. But this stuff is smooth, slightly salty, creamy, and versatile as hell. It's great in dips (combine the first six ingredients to make a spread not unlike sour cream or mayonnaise) and I want to try it to make something like cheesecake eventually. By itself, it's slightly like fresh mozzarella... very mild in flavour but mixes super-well with whatever you want to throw in with it. So go nuts! Here's a recipe to get you started:

6 oz   silken tofu
1/4 cup   olive oil
1 clove   garlic, minced
1 tbsp   lemon juice
2 tsp   mustard (dijon would probably be best)
dash   sea salt
1/3 cup   chickpeas (I usually use canned because it's quicker but dried then cooked is generally better), rinsed & drained
1/3 cup (roughly)   finely chopped celery
dash   black pepper
1 tbsp   dried onion flakes
dash   red chili pepper flakes

Mix and mash this all this together until the tofu is all broken up and the mixture is quite smooth except for the chickpeas sticking out and you'll wind up with a mixture not unlike egg salad. I put it on a sandwich with raw kale leaves and sundried tomatoes (always a nice mixture I find... the potent sweetness of the tomatoes takes some of the bite out of the slightly bitter kale) and fried it up in a pan. So delicious. And best of all: pretty fast and easy to whip up.

So have no fear! Try out some silken tofu today in a sandwich, in a dip with some crackers, in a dessert--you name it! You won't regret it!

26 September 2013

Butternut squash soup with apple, toasted coconut, and sage

This recipe was majorly inspired by my friend Deborah as well as Aux Vivres, a vegan restaurant in Montréal that opened my eyes to the wonders of 'coconut bacon,' with logistical pointers from this post from Eating Bird Food.

So the other day, my mother roasted up a whole butternut squash, and I was thinking today of what the hell to use the rest of it for. (I think she used Becel margarine as part of the roasting technique, the one non-vegan part of this endeavour. Obviously, Earth Balance would have been way better, but I suppose I'll take what I can get.) I settled on soup. Which is hardly settling at all. Because soup is awesome. Especially when it's hearty and fruity and slightly crunchy and a little spicy and fragrant and warm and basically a big steaming bowl of everything that's wonderful about autumn.

Here's how you do it.

1/2 large butternut squash, roasted with oil and maybe salt (see below), peeled, cut up into 1/2-inch cubes
2 cups unsweetened shredded coconut
2 tbsp Earth Balance or other vegan margarine
1-1/2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp maple syrup
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp nutritional yeast flakes (this is kind of hard to find and also kind of optional, so feel free to omit)
3 medium sized apples (Granny Smith is probably the best. I used whatever kind of apples grow on the tree in my backyard. Yellow-ish green and not too sweet or sour.), peeled, cored, sliced into 1/4-inch cubes
2 tsp dried sage leaves
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
3-1/2 cups vegetable broth (I used a pre-made store-bought variety but hopefully you have better stuff to use)

Roast up a butternut squash. I was lucky that this was already done for me. But if you're not so lucky, preheat your oven to 400 F, then just cut a big one down the middle lengthwise, put the two flat ends down on greased or tin-foiled pans, spread canola oil or Earth Balance or something similar over top of them, add a little salt, and pop in the oven and cook it for a long time, like at least 45 minutes or even an hour, until the skin comes off easily and the flesh is slightly brown, but not toooo brown. Allow it to cool enough so that you can safely handle it, and then take off the skin and dice into 1/2-inch cubes.

In a big, deep saucepan (about 4 litres) over medium heat, combine coconut flakes, Earth Balance, soy sauce, maple syrup, paprika, salt, black pepper, and nutritional yeast flakes (if you have them). Liquid smoke might also make a nice addition, but seriously just one dash, guys. Don't go nuts with that stuff. Stir it around for a few minutes until it gets slightly brown. I actually burnt it a bit and had to scrape some out before adding the rest of the ingredients to the pot. So don't cook it as long as I did. Just a few minutes until it's nice and toasty.

Turn the heat up to medium-high. Add the butternut squash (I only used 1/2 of a whole squash in this recipe... possibly a little less... but it was a rather large squash) and cook for a few minutes until the squash starts to brown up slightly again (only five minutes max). Then add the apples, sage, salt, and black pepper. Stir it all together with a big slotted spoon and keep stirring often for about 5 minutes. Add broth, then bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring often to avoid overly crispy bits sticking to the bottom. Remove from heat and let cool for about 10 minutes, then puree with a hand blender (this step is kind of optional if you want something more like a stew or if you don't have a hand blender... but it's a good idea). Add extra salt, sage, or pepper to taste.

Serve steaming hot with some extra sage and/or coconut sprinkled on top. Then go play in a pile of colourful, crunchy leaves to beautifully round out your extremely autumnal day. The mild softness of the squash, the bright sweetness of the apples, the salty, toasty, slight crunch of the coconut, the invigorating kick of the sage--seriously, this stuff is fall-flavoured glory. It's the tops!

04 April 2013

The balcony is closed

This blog used to be a receptacle for my film reviews, and while I don't see as many movies as I used to, and I write about them even less (although I do at least try to keep that sidebar updated on new viewings), this feels like the right spot to pay tribute to Roger Ebert, a hero of mine who departed earlier today at the age of 70 after a long and complicated battle with cancer.

Goodbye, Mr. Ebert. You were truly a hero of mine, someone who led me to discover the joys of movies at a young age and seek out titles I would never have heard of otherwise. Back when I was about 12 or 13, I remember avidly leafing through one of your Movie Yearbooks in Chapters. I waited with breathless anticipation every Friday morning so that I could read your reviews of the newest releases, back when my local paper, the Calgary Herald, still carried them. It was around that time that I began trying to see as many recent releases as possible. I think back to 2004, when I managed to see almost 100 movies that had come out that year (often dragging my parents to some of the more R-rated fare, much to their chagrin, I'm sure), which seems paltry compared to your yearly average, but was an impressive source of pride to me. I would also seek out the older movies you gushed about that I'd never heard about before at my local video rental store--back when those things still existed. If Rogers Video didn't have it, I'd make the longer trip over to Casablanca, a more boutique store renowned to Calgary residents for carrying the real tough-to-find stuff. I was rarely disappointed. Indeed, you seemed to open up a whole new world of cinematic possibility for me, encouraging me to pay attention to movies and appreciate them like I never had before.

You were one of the main inspirations for a time for me to write my own film reviews. Back in 2003 or 2004, I made an account on RottenTomatoes.com and began to write my own reviews and post frequently on the forums there. I was still shaping my tastes at that time and I'm sure if I went back and read those pieces again, I would be shocked at what I found passable back then. Even though I don't write on film much anymore, I still have a passion for cinema--one whose fires you very much helped stoke.

You were a tremendous and almost absurdly prolific writer who deftly balanced humour, erudition, and accessibility. Your open, heartfelt, conversational tone inspired countless people to seek out the joys you found at the movies and served to bring film criticism to the mainstream, with its integrity and grace fully intact. While many found the 'Thumbs up/down' conceit a mere tacky gimmick, it hooked people and encouraged them to look past the digits into your actual tremendous output and learn more about cinema in the process, and come to love it more (although it's unlikely we could ever love it as much as you).

I have no idea how you managed to keep up that pace (reviewing oftentimes 300 movies a year, in addition to writing other columns for the Chicago Sun-Times and books and, later on, poignant and light-hearted blog posts) without ever sacrificing the quality of your writing, but you somehow pulled it off. Whether or not I agreed with your reviews (and I quite often didn't), you always had something sharp or fascinating or funny or cheeky to say, whether the review was positive or negative. It's not for nothing that you're the first film critic to have won a Pulitzer Prize.

Your Great Movies books were treasure troves of insight, commentary, and beautifully articulated passion. I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie provided bountiful laughs as you took down the stinkers. Your reviews for the classics--Citizen Kane and 2001: A Space Odyssey stick in my mind, as does Singin' in the Rain--can truly be counted among the most ardent and insightful pieces of writing I've ever read. On the other side, your opening volley against Freddy Got Fingered is one of the most deliciously scathing take-downs I've ever witnessed: "This movie doesn't scrape the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn't the bottom of the barrel. This movie isn't below the bottom of the barrel. This movie doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with barrels." Either way, your work always shone with wit and intelligence.

Your "Movie Answer Man" column laid out invaluable etiquette guidelines for patrons of the cinema. (I wish more people followed them.) There and elsewhere, you also tackled many technical developments in the film industry with uncommon thoughtfulness and rigor. I particularly remember your digital vs. celluloid debates, your reluctance towards the recent proliferation of 3-D, and your discussion of the importance of aspect ratio with regard to home video viewing options. I still do think you were too hard on video games, but we'll let that slide.

Beyond the breadth and depth of your contributions to the world of cinema, your blog and your wonderful autobiography, Life Itself, showed you to be a brave, kind, and thoughtful soul (not to mention a technologically savvy one). You never slowed down despite facing a tremendous amount of adversity, remaining a tireless champion of the cinematic art. As I read more and more about your life, I became more and more impressed with the way you dealt with struggles--exhibiting real grace under pressure--and your zeal for your life's work. You were a guy I almost felt that I knew even though I know I really didn't.

You once said: “I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.” Your reviews as well as your musings on life never failed to bring a ray of joy into my life, and they undoubtedly brought happiness to your readers and to countless other film lovers out there. You always gave us something to think and argue and, often, smile about. At the end, it seems you were entirely successful in living up to your goal as espoused here.

The curtain has gone down on the movie of your life (or should I say, your life at the movies) but the lights have gone up: you remain an everlasting source of inspiration.

02 March 2013

Tomato-onion-black bean buckwheat galette w/ cream cheese

Sometimes, especially on the weekends, you just need something a little more savoury--and spicy--for breakfast. It's why omelettes loaded up with peppers were invented, and breakfast tacos. Along those lines, this rustic galette proves remarkably satisfying. My incredibly brief stint working at a crêperie here in Montréal--while I like to look back on it with malice now (I was ignominiously fired, and it's a long story I'm sure nobody is interested in)--did at least instill in me a respect for buckwheat, especially as it comes to form the basis of the more savoury style of crêpes called galettes. Good news for the many these days who seek to go without gluten: 'buckwheat' is an utter misnomer, coming from a flowering plant more closely related to the rhubarb plant than to wheat or other cereals. It's a darker and lighter (in terms of weight--maybe finer or fluffier would be a better description) flour than wheat, and very suitable for a more salty (rather than sweet) brand of crêpe.

1/2 cup   buckwheat flour
1/2 tsp   salt
2 tsp   flax seeds
1/2   'flax egg' (combine 1/2 tbsp ground flax with 1-1/2 tbsp warm water, stir slightly, and let stand at least 5 minutes, preferably 10)
1/2 tsp   honey
1-1/2 tbsp   diced white onion
4   grape tomatoes, quartered
1-1/2 tbsp   chopped green onion
1-1/2 tbsp   black beans (canned, then drained and rinsed)
1 tbsp   cream cheese (and more for garnish) --> Yeah, this is maybe the first non-vegan recipe I've posted on here... if desired, I'm sure there are substitutes available in non-dairy form, or hummus might actually work nicely. Similarly, to replace the honey, if that's not your bag, you can either omit or add just a tiny splash of maple syrup.
1 tsp   red pepper flakes (or a reasonable amount of fresh, diced red pepper, if you have it)
pinch   salt & black pepper
dash   parsley
dash   thyme

To make the galette batter:
Whisk together flour, salt, and flax seeds in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, combine 'flax egg' and honey with 2/3 cups of cold water. Gradually stir wet mixture into dry, a little bit at a time, until the mixture is smooth. Refrigerate that while you get to chopping/ frying vegetables. (Ideally, you will want to refrigerate this stuff for about 12 hours or overnight but I didn't have that luxury. Just let it chill as long as you can.)

To make the filling:
Set a frying pan on medium heat and spread out about 1 tbsp canola oil over it. Dice your onion and add to the frying pan, adding a sprinkle of salt. When onions are soft and yellow-ish, remove from heat. Chop the green onions and tomatoes, and get everything else ready.

When your batter is sufficiently chilled and ready (maybe use this chilling time to put on a pot of coffee or something, as I'm very impatient waiting for anything to chill, and I'm sure a lot of you are too), remove from fridge and add about 1/4 cup water to the mixture to further thin it out, stirring quickly. Place a lightly oiled frying pan over medium heat. When hot, quickly pour the batter onto the pan, swirling to spread it out to the edges. (You may need to use the convex side of a spoon for further spreading if you're not quick enough, but be careful.) Let the batter cook until the edges are brownish and a little crispy and the centre is reasonably dry--about 4 minutes--then flip. Imagine a diagonal line running along the pan. Spread out cream cheese to cover one side of this diagonal with a spatula or spoon (you're going to be folding the galette in half shortly, is what I'm foreshadowing here). Add white and green onions, tomatoes, beans, red pepper flakes, thyme, and a pinch of salt and pepper to the cream cheese-covered side. Cook about 2 minutes until cheese starts looking melty, then fold the galette over this imaginary diagonal. Place a little dollop of cream cheese in the centre on top of the galette. Fold in half again to make a fan shape and place another dollop of cream cheese in the centre. Transfer to a plate and sprinkle with parsley. I feel this recipe is significantly French and delicious enough to warrant me saying, bon appétit! Also, chow down!

Note to keep in mind: while I turned this into one giant and quite thick crêpe, the traditional idea of a crêpe is to be thinner. Galettes in particular are supposed to be a little crispier than mine ultimately looked, as well. With that in mind, feel free to use the batter to make two crêpes instead of one, in which case you may have to reduce your cooking time slightly. But I assure you that even if you do it my thick way, it's still pretty damn delightful.