Being an Anglo Vegan in Montreal

The absolutely delicious Lola Rosa vegan poutine. Sweet potato and Yukon gold fries with a rich black bean/mushroom gravy and Daiya, garnished with green onion.  This is the small, which is what I recommend you order if you're going to get the chocolate/avocado/coconut tart for dessert, as I always do.

The absolutely delicious Lola Rosa vegan poutine. Sweet potato and Yukon gold fries with a rich black bean/mushroom gravy and Daiya, garnished with green onion. This is the small, which is what I recommend you order if you’re going to get the chocolate/avocado/coconut tart for dessert, as I always do.

When I came to Montreal three years ago, I learned very quickly that food is culture, and I couldn’t presume that the way I had grown used to handling eating out as a vegan would be the same. I fell in love with the city before I knew much about the local food scene, or the veg scene. The way of life here is slower, smaller, and more relaxed than other cities. Picnicking is a favourite weekend pastime, and they have a special term for going out for drinks before a late supper at home throughout the week. Biking makes more sense than driving almost every time here, and public pianos are set out at subway stations for citizens to entertain each other during their daily commute- and they do! My life here is idyllic- I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be. But as a vegan, it took some work to adapt to the local food climate. While Montreal has a few excellent vegan and vegetarian establishments, by and large, omni restaurants- especially of the pricier variety- refuse to cater to vegans on principal. It’s just not the Quebec way, I’m told; ordering off-menu is an insult to the chef, vegetarianism itself is insulting to the lard-laden palate of the Quebecois. While some of this can be accounted for by the difficulty of catering to vegans on the spot (since lard and butter is in eevrything, even the beans), not all of my experience can be accounted for by this. It was shocking to me to experience being literally turned away at the door of restaurants, since the chef refused to simply omit cheese from a menu item. Since I am not a native speaker of Quebecois and am conscious of the threat of English imperialism in the Quebec nation, I am not sure how much of what I have experienced was a result of nationalist indignation- perhaps the experience of native quebeckers is different. One can never tell if the ire of the barista is the result of asking for soy milk or asking for soy milk in English, or both.

By comparison when I lived in Edmonton, while there were very few vegetarian establishments, I had enjoyed the American-style hospitality that larger omni restaurants offered, including reduced prices for cutting meat out of menu items, and vegan meat and cheese substitutes for almost any dish. While sometimes I encountered hapless waiters and chefs who would offer me fish or chicken broth when I specified ‘vegan’ (I even had a pizzeria inform me that none of their pizzas could be made vegan, since there was flour and oil in the crusts), everyone was happy- even relieved- when I explained what veganism entailed and offered suggestions for vegan fare off their menus. Managers and chefs would invite me to come back on a quiet afternoon to review the menu and ingredient lists with them to help make their establishments more accommodating to vegans. I couldn’t ask for a more accommodating, friendly dining experience.

In other ways, too, Edmonton values seemed more open and commensurate with vegan values. They have one of the best (if not the best) no-kill animal shelters in the world, and it’s entirely funded by the community operating in harmony out of the same building complex as the city animal control service. Meanwhile in Montreal, city animal services are entirely privatized, sometimes run by for-profit companies who have a horrific track record of killing first and answering questions later. Public outrage at lost family pets being killed by unqualified personnel without being scanned for microchips or giving owners an opportunity to retrieve them first has inspired some interest in improving the state of things. However, by and large, Quebec remains a very dismal place for animals.

As an outsider, of a sort (I had two bilingual grandparents, one of whom was Quebecois) I realize that my capacity as an advocate for veganism is reduced here. First, because of the linguistic barrier- my French is barely passable. Second, because in an environment where the francophone majority militantly protects a culture threatened by English (and by extension, anglophones themselves), any attempts to promote veganism are seen as yet another presumptuous and imperialistic attack on Quebecois values and culture by les Anglais. As such, I just avoid eating out except at expressly vegetarian-friendly establishments. However, there is some evidence that the situation here in Montreal is improving. A few of the newer eateries that have popped up in the Mile End area have veg options, and new veg establishments are opening up or expanding regularly. I have hope for this little city that I love, and hope for the millions of animals that are farmed for their fur, flesh, secretions, and entertainment value in Quebec.

With that heavy post, here are some of my ridiculously adorable (and available for adoption) foster kittens.

Puff, Norbert and Toothless

Puff, Norbert and Toothless

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Comfort Food/The Terrible, No-Good, All-Around Bad Week.

This past week was especially trying… I worked long hours, even some 12-hour days without any breaks. I was working at the catering company with a small team to cater two big events, both of which had last-minute surprises (60 bonus people to cook for and a separate allergen-free menu with less than 24-hours notice). I was also working my regular job, cooking for the wonderful family I serve, but with bonus back-to-school schedule changes that didn’t work well with my catering duties.

Millions of perfect pepper triangles for millions of perfect appetizers.

Millions of perfect pepper triangles for millions of perfect appetizers.

That alone would have made the week a blur, leaving me dead-on-my-feet tired by the weekend. But in addition to work, I had a bunch of little shitty things happen- losing a cooking contract, the insoles of my shiny new vegan Doc’s coming out, cutting myself on three separate occasions, emergency work cancellations for the coming month.

All those little things are not devastating on their own, but they do add up, and when combined with immense physical stress from work it’s easy to get overwhelmed. But I am a strong, competent, capable woman and I can deal with a fair bit of stress quite well. It is useful when you work in a kitchen to thrive in a stressful environment. Kitchens are full of unexpected changes, danger, near-misses, and time-pressure. So towards the end of the week, I was in need of a little extra chocolate to keep me afloat and was very much so ready for Sunday-Funday. But alas, it was not to be. There was more.

The tipping point between coping and not-coping-at-all-actually was finding out about two close family members being really sick, one requiring a surgery, and the other requiring ongoing, difficult treatments for an indefinite period of time.

Suddenly I really wished that all I had to worry about was confined to the kitchen.

And that is how I found myself in a sunny, comfortable vegan cafe on Friday morning, staring into a bowl of hot chocolate, playing footsies under the table with my guy, and nibbling on a strange variety of delicious things. You can’t control the weather, but you can control what you have for breakfast.

It's a rare man who will wake up at 7 am just to drive you to work to make your day a little shinier. On Friday he took me out for breakfast before work to my favorite little vegan nook, Cafe Resonance. Kimchi, tempeh BLT, baked beans and brownies. Those brownies are the richest, chocolatiest bits of gluten-free goodness.... I'm melting just thinking of them.

It’s a rare man who will wake up at 7 am just to drive you to work to make your day a little shinier. On Friday he took me out for breakfast before work to my favorite little vegan nook, Cafe Resonance. Kimchi, tempeh BLT, baked beans and brownies. Those brownies are the richest, chocolatiest bits of gluten-free goodness…. I’m melting just thinking of them.

For many people, food is a source of comfort when things are looking down. It’s familiar, associated with fond memories and happier times, and it’s immediately pleasurable. But as a cook, food is also my favorite distraction. It is what I use to procrastinate, what I do when I am fuming over a vexing conflict, how I express my love toward others. It makes me feel good about myself when I cook something well, and it is a source of intellectual curiosity when good food is prepared for me. Food is more than just comfort for me, it’s an intrinsic part of what makes my life meaningful and worthwhile.

Thus on Friday night, when I was barely able to walk home on my smarting feet and so emotionally exhausted I couldn’t spare a smile for the beggars on Laurier, I made a little detour into the market and bought ridiculously expensive mushrooms, leeks, arugula, fragrant olive fougasse still warm from the oven, a bar of good chocolate, a bottle of prosecco and a nice, buttery-round wine. Once home I opened the bottle of bubbles, changed into one of my guy’s shirts, snipped some thyme, marjoram and tarragon from the window box and set to work.

There are no pictures of my little creation, because I was cooking for no one but myself. It was therapeutic, more for the process than the product. Leeks and garlic were cooked down in earth balance with a bit of freshly grated nutmeg, then shiitake, oyster and crimini mushrooms were roasted til golden. Everything was tossed together with a sizzle of wine, the herbs, arugula, a good dollop of dijon and a bit of lemon. Angel hair pasta and crushed red chilis were folded in just before serving with the still-warm, aromatic fougasse and cool glasses of wine.

We ate well and left the kitchen cleaning for the next day. I was asleep within moments of turning on Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. My guy set my glasses aside and tucked me in. I slept like the dead.

Sometimes, the little things are all you need.

Sometimes, the little things are all you need.

Put it in your mouth, or how to bake like a professional!

I live a pretty charmed life. I admit it. I get to bake batches of cookies and muffins and tarts every week. This week alone I have baked a variation of the whole wheat chocolate chip cookies from VCIYCJ, the vegan and gluten free muffins from Naked Foods (chocolate orange raspberry variation), and about 150 shortcrust fruit and custard tarts. And it’s only Wednesday. I get to pick out the recipes I want to make, the ingredients that look best from the market, and I even get to be the first to sample everything, warm and melty straight from the oven. Then, I get to pack one or two for my loves and I leave the rest at work to contribute to someone else’s waistline. It’s an ideal scenario for everyone involved.

Just do it. You know you want to.

See this? You need to taste it to be sure it’s good. It’s a mitzvah.

I am not going to share a recipe with you today. Instead, I will share some insight I have gained in my experience as a professional cookie sampler. I mean, baker. That’s right.

  • The first batch never works out as well as subsequent batches. Keep the first batch small.
  • The darkest chocolates don’t melt as nicely or taste as good in baked goods as they do plain. Stick to no higher than 70% cocoa for most applications.
  • Sample your dough. You are a vegan baker, there is nothing gross or potentially fatal in your dough, so give it a taste and see how you feel about it before sticking it in the oven.
  • In fact, taste all the things before putting them in your dough. Your sugar, your salt, your soymilk, your chocolate. Much sampling is required. This prevents disasters, especially if you’re cooking for 300 and the sugar is right next to the salt.
  • Cook with coconut oil as your fat, coconut milk as your liquid, and chopped good-quality chocolate instead of chocolate chips.
  • Always add more chocolate and more vanilla than called for, at least by half.
  • Don’t overwork your dough. Beat the heck out of your wet and dry ingredients when they are separate, but only delicate lady fingers should touch the two together. Unless you’re cooking gluten free, in which case go for it.
  • Vegan things like to stick more than non vegan things, and gluten free things like to fall apart with alarming ease. Use muffin liners, and give them a spray with oil to be extra sure.
  • It things are sticking, let them sit in their pans a bit before transferring them to a cooking rack. They’ll usually loosen up a bit.
  • There is always a fail-cookie, -muffin, -tart. It happens with every batch. It can usually be identified by its weird shape, unwillingness to unstick itself from the pan, or by just plain falling apart when you go to pick it up. Your job, as a professional in the kitchen, is to dispose of the evidence as quickly as possible by consuming all trace of it.

That is all for today, MoFo-ers! 150 more tarts await me in the morning. I will dream of tiny dancing fruits. You, my friend, should dream of chocolate.

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