Looking to not only the joys but also the ethics of food in this tumultuous moment.
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In the past couple months of self-quarantining, those savvy to social media have been more routinely sharing photos of their own home cooking or carryout from local restaurants. While my own preference has been for fast-casual places like Forage Kitchen or the neighborhood convenience of Ha Long Bay, the value and satisfaction of preparing a meal at home cannot be understated. A couple weeks ago, our own John McCracken touchingly detailed this in an essay about his first Mother’s Day breakfast with wife and infant son. Recently, the significance of this trend has extended even further beyond my own sense of well-being as I’ve perused the local Instagram feed.
For more than four years, UW-Madison grad student and local food Instagrammer Anna Meier has been inspired to share her various kitchen successes, and since March, she’s been doing so semi-daily. Not only are all of Meier’s dishes vegan, but many are eye-catching and presented with light commentaries and honest pitches. “Not sure what to make for dinner, but you’ve got a bunch of odds and ends and also corn tortillas? The answer is nachos. (The answer is always nachos.),” she wrote on May 4, captioning these delectable chips topped with kidney beans, watermelon radishes, green onions, bell peppers, salsa, and quick nacho “cheese” sauce (cashews, water, nutritional yeast, onion powder, garlic powder, salt, cumin, and hot sauce). In mid-April, Meier described the specifics of a savory home-grown oyster mushroom sauté. Shortly after quarantine began in early spring, Meier unveiled a chocolate red wine cake based on a recipe by Chloe Coscarelli, which she calls “a reliable showstopper” confection for those with a voracious sweet tooth.
As so many of us have gone without traditionally luxurious or outdoor dining settings until this week (in many instances), the meaning of comfort food has perhaps shifted slightly. So, the recipes themselves are forced to do all the work to satiate not only our taste buds but our need to feel at ease. While vegan cuisine is usually branded as a scant or healthy alternative to heartier fare, it’s a necessity for many of us focused on the more expansive economic and environmental picture.
Meier frames the situation in terms of global effect by then relating it to the individual: “Meat packing plants exploited workers—often poor people of color—well before there was a pandemic. These are inherently unsanitary places, and it’s only going to get worse as the Trump administration prohibits meat packing plants from closing while COVID spreads. Obviously an individual consumer can’t control whether plants reopen, but they can make an ethical choice to reduce demand for meat and incentives to continue harmful, cruel practices against both workers and animals.”
With more and more doctors, scientists, and even authors chiming in about the connection between factory farming or animal marketplaces as a conduit for disease transmission, our conscious dietary choices seem to bear more weight than ever.
The tragic scale of a pandemic can leave one feeling powerless and isolated. At this particular moment in time, in all our virtual interconnection and compulsion for sharing, even modest changes can give us a sense of greater control and agency. This is why the vibrant showcase of a vegan lifestyle, like Meier’s, is so significant. Instead of dwelling on degrees of separation and violent images of slaughterhouses, all of us can look to the foods that are universally loved, and see that we can still enjoy them without any elements of animal exploitation. Meier’s recipes are often rather simple, but she isn’t afraid to experiment with more time-consuming ones, like this olive oil skillet bread, that can serve as a substitute for the limited and pick-up-only hours at most bakeries in the greater Madison area. Plenty of other vegan foodies in Madison are sharing their food on Instagram, and you can find many of them at the #madisonvegan hashtag.
For more on Meier’s dishes, see her Instagram and enjoy a few complete recipes she shared with us below:
-Tortilla chips: cut up corn tortillas, sprinkle them with salt, and bake them at 350 F for about 10 minutes.
-Top with leftover kidney beans, watermelon radishes, green onions, bell peppers, salsa, and quick nacho “cheese” sauce
-“Cheese” sauce prep: Boil 1/4 cup cashews for 15 minutes, then blend with about 1 tbsp nutritional yeast, an unmeasured shake of onion and garlic powder, a sprinkling of cumin, more salt than you think you will need (surprise, cheese is salty), and a dash of your preferred hot sauce.
Chocolate red wine cake:
-Whisk dry ingredients: 1 1/2 cups flour, 3/4 cup sugar, 1/3 cup cocoa powder, 1/2 tsp salt, 1 tsp baking soda AND CUSTOMIZE: Gluten-free flour blends work well here as a direct sub. Add a 1/2 tsp of espresso powder if you have it; it will deepen the chocolate flavor. And if you’re feeling adventurous: a tablespoon of raspberry powder. I make this by blitzing freeze-dried raspberries in a food processor. Recommended if you like chocolate and berries! The powder is also good on ice cream or in smoothies.
-SEPARATELY, WHISK WET INGREDIENTS: 1/2 cup canola oil, 1/2 cup water, 1 tsp vanilla, 2 tbsp apple cider vinegar, 3/4 cup red wine (cab sauvs work well here, though I used a malbec this time) AND CUSTOMIZE: I like using 1/2 cup hot coffee instead of the water.
-Combine wet and dry with a spatula until just mixed, then pour into a greased 9-inch cake pan and bake at 350 F for 28–30 minutes.
-Decorate however you’d like! I’ve done coconut whip and berries before. A simple chocolate and coconut oil glaze is also nice.
-Melt about 2 tbsp butter and sauté 2 cloves minced garlic until golden.
-Turn the heat to medium high and add 6 oz oyster mushrooms, along with a dash of salt and pepper. Let them get a nice sear, 5–6 minutes.
-Add a heaping cup of cannellini beans and about 1/2 tbsp dried minced onion and cook 1–2 more minutes.
-Add about 1/3 cup coconut cream, 1/2 cup veggie broth, a splash of white wine vinegar, 4 sprigs of fresh thyme (or use dried), and another dash of salt and pepper. Leave the pan be for about 10 minutes, or until the liquid has mostly cooked off. Seriously. Walk away. Let it do its thing.
-If you want to grow your own mushrooms, there are dozens of reasonably priced kits online. I got one with a substrate, not a log, for about $30 from an independent company (not Amazon).
Olive oil skillet bread (exclusive):
-Dissolve one packet of active dry yeast in 2 cups warm water.
-Separately, whisk together 4 cups all-purpose flour and 1 tsp salt.
-Stir the yeast mixture into the dry mixture with a wooden spoon until just combined (i.e., you can’t see any flour anymore).
-Cover and let rise 1 hour on the countertop.
-Add 1/4 cup olive oil to a cast-iron skillet. Shape the dough into a disc (it will be sticky—this is fine), add to the skillet, dust the top with flour, cover, and let rise 30 minutes on the countertop.
-Cut an X into the dough, drizzle with 1 1/2 to 2 tbsp olive oil, and bake 40 mins at 400 F.