ash wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent. I like Lent, if that can even be said. It deeply suits a morbid, doubting place in my soul, and knowing that the church has made space for such a season in the church calendar reminds me that this part of me is not contrary to my faith, but part of it. Sometimes I find myself envious of those for whom faith comes easy, who are quick to count blessings, who feel God’s presence regularly, who don’t feel like they’re talking to the ceiling when they pray. While I am richly blessed, while I find much joy in my family, friends, and daily life, faith still does not come easy to me. If on Ash Wednesday, most Christians are remembering that they come from ashes and to ashes they will return, then for part of me, it is always Ash Wednesday. Especially after my near death experience, I just can’t NOT be aware of the reality of death and loss.

I need Lent to remind me that not only are these thoughts just part of the package, they propel me for a reason. I need Lent to teach me that this Christian journey isn’t about how much or how deeply I believe, or how hard I try, or how strictly I can keep the fast. I need Lent to show me just how desperately I need Easter, a new day dawning to look forward to. I need Lent to remind me that I’m not apart from the faith, but still in the thick of it, even as like an apostle I pray, “Lord I believe, please help my unbelief.”

And so, I will fast. This year, I’m abstaining from meat. Last year’s failed attempt at a vegan fast definitely showed me the limits of what I can do on my own, and inspired me to take a smaller step this year. Last year I failed in my fast– but that’s kind of the point of the fast anyway, to show us our own limits and failings and to teach us to rely on the abundant Grace of God. This year, aware of my failings, I’m trying again. I am sure I will still need grace. I know it. I feel it. The need rises from me like smoke from ashes.

This year, my prayer is well summed up by T.S. Eliot in “Ash Wednesday:” “pray to God to have mercy upon us / And pray that I may forget / These matters that with myself I too much discuss.” And for you, if you observe Lent, I pray for a meaningful season as you journey through the dark, always heading toward the light.

*Image on this post is via the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, via Flickr, under a Creative Commons License.

Vegan for Lent: know when to fold ’em

ImageSo. I am a Vegan for Lent failure.

It’s just not working for us right now. I’m trying to study for my master’s comprehensive exam which takes place April 1&2, Jon is working like crazy this month (don’t even get me started on how much I hate the ER shift from 3-midnight that means he misses bedtime), and we just don’t have the time or energy or head space to think and plan as much about food as this whole project requires. We were both tired of feeling hungry all the time. I just want a damn grilled cheese sandwich.

I really considered hanging on, solely for the sake of the blog. It appears my readers like vegan food posts. I like happy readers. But I’ve already “cheated” on this thing a few times (currently eating red beans and rice with andouille sausage as I type), and I just have to come clean that it just isn’t happening anymore.

I don’t have any big spiritual insights about failing my Lenten devotion. I have some clarity now that being a vegan is harder than I thought it was, and that it’s most definitely not for me. I shall return to my usual “less meatarian” (per Mark Bittman) diet of largely lacto/ovo vegetarian eating with supplements of sustainably raised meats. I guess I am just really grateful for the bounty available to me, and the fact that the only deprivation I know is the kind I choose (and then fail to keep choosing).

One of my favorite Bible verses is from the Psalms: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” It seems petty, maybe, and possibly anti-Christian, but I think food is a great way to experience the goodness of God. Despite a sort of anti-fleshly strain in our faith, one that preaches denial of the body and being above bodily things, we are enfleshed, and we worship a God who became flesh. A God who, in Jesus, seemed to really love eating good food with people. One of the first things he really wanted after he rose from the dead? BREAKFAST. Sure, he chose fish where I might choose a runny-yolked egg, but I think in Jesus we see that while denial is good for a time, there’s nothing inherently sinful about enjoying good meals, good wine, and good company.

I also still believe that what we choose to eat is a spiritual issue, an opportunity to demonstrate our care (or in Christian lingo, stewardship) for our bodies, our neighbors, the poor, and the planet. And I will probably always be wrestling with how my diet reflects my values. But, for now, I won’t be doing it as a vegan. I need to focus on studying and taking care of my family in a way that I was not able to on this diet.

beans for breakfast? heck yes

I know I said in my last post on Vegan for Lent that I was having issues with breakfast. Until this weekend, when I somehow concocted the BEST BREAKFAST EVER. Yes: a breakfast worthy of all caps. I didn’t even wish it had a runny yolked egg on top, which means you *know* it’s good.

It started, like some of my best dishes, with trying to make something with the weird odds and ends we had left a week after my last grocery trip. In this case, I had 4 small potatoes starting to go soft, and thus an amazing breakfast was born:

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Makes 3-4 servings

Ingredients:
4 palm-sized potatoes
1 onion, halved, one half quartered and sliced thinly, the other half diced
1 jalapeno, diced
1 can pinto beans
3 cloves garlic, minced (we reallllly like garlic, so if you don’t, maybe start with one clove and see what you think)
Cumin
Paprika
Chipotle chile powder
Creole seasoning (even I admit this is weird, so skip it if you want)
Oregano
Red wine vinegar
Salt
Pepper
Oil of your choosing (I used vegetable oil for the hash browns and coconut oil for the beans)
Salsa
Corn tortillas

The thing about a no-recipe recipe is that I sort of threw this together while feeding breakfast to my babies. When cooking on my own, I rarely measure things. I just pour spices out into my palm or sprinkle them over a dish and go with what feels good. So, if you need exact spice measurements, this recipe may not be for you, but I say go with your gut and taste along the way.

I shredded the potatoes using a food processor, then pressed them in a fine mesh strainer to dry them out a bit. Meanwhile I heated up enough vegetable oil to cover the bottom of my skillet. I added the shredded potatoes, jalapenos, and sliced onion once the oil was hot. Then I seasoned with salt, pepper, and yes, Creole seasoning. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I saw the shaker sitting there and went for it. It tasted delicious. Fry the potatoes, stirring occasionally, until to your desired crispyness. I totally believe that frozen hash browns would work here, but I needed to use the potatoes.

In another skillet, I melted a couple tablespoons of coconut oil, because I like the subtle coconut flavor with the beans. Then I added the diced onion and garlic and sauteed til softened. Then I added cumin, paprika, and some chipotle chile powder to the mix, stirring for about a minute. Then I drained the can of pintos and added them to the skillet with the garlic and onions. Then I remembered a favorite rice and beans recipe and added some oregano and a few dashes of red wine vinegar, along with salt and pepper. Cook until the hash browns are done.

Layer the beans over the hash browns, pour some salsa over the top (we used a roasted garlic and cilantro salsa), and serve with a couple of corn tortillas on the side.

Variations: I’m sure any kind of beans would work here, except maybe garbanzos. And yes, it would be excellent with a fried egg or some pepperjack cheese or a dollop of sour cream on top, but it’s perfectly tasty by its own vegan self.

Vegan for Lent, Week 2

20130220-105942.jpgThis week in my lenten discipline has taught me something about my psychology: I don’t like being told what to do. The minute there is a rule about something, all I want is to break that rule. I may go weeks without eating meat naturally, but the minute I make a rule that I have to be vegan, all I want are runny yolked eggs, things covered in cheese, and bacon cheeseburgers. I may have taken advantage of Sunday to have both a cheeseburger and cheesy pizza. I could spiritualize this into a nice post about how sinful I am, or something, but the reality is, from the very beginning, people don’t like being told not to eat (of the fruit of that tree, or of the fruit of Five Guys). I may be a bad Christian, but it seems to just be the way people are, and I’m people too. I can’t imagine God not knowing that we’d be this way from the start. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with cheese, really, but doing without it has definitely required me to think harder than I would otherwise think about my food.

Breakfasts are especially difficult. I tend toward the hypoglycemic in the mornings and have always preferred protein to carbs or fruit to start my day. Before, my go-to was homemade Egg McMuffins, or a cheese stick. Rarely I’ll have a KIND nut and grain bar. Now, I find myself having an extra cup of coffee to tide me over, because I don’t want to eat cereal or oatmeal or fruit. So, easy vegan breakfast solutions that are not cereal with almond milk would be appreciated.

Another thing I’ve noticed with being a vegan is: I get bored with the leftovers really fast. Even if a meal was really great the first time, I don’t really want to eat it again very often. This has led to some weird ass dinners when I am avoiding leftovers. The other night I seriously ate a baked potato with green goddess salad dressing on it because I couldn’t face any of the zillions of tupperwears in my fridge. Usually, I’ll put a poached egg on leftovers, or turn them into a frittata, to shake it up a bit, but I can’t do that with this diet.

This week I tried to use some of the online recipes I’d collected on my Pinterest board so you guys can try them too. Here’s what we ate in the last week (it’s so few meals because they always seem to make a ton of leftovers, and because I was home alone for several days, so I did less cooking):

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This gumbo was really tasty served over brown rice, and the friends we had over for dinner who aren’t vegan seemed to think so too! The key, to me, to make up for the lack of sausage is the addition of some liquid smoke seasoning.

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These cookies use coconut oil instead of butter, and I veganized them by using applesauce and a little baking powder and soda to replace the egg. The texture was slightly different than the average cookie, but they were decidedly cookie-like and very tasty. They basically taste like a slightly coconutty sugar cookie.

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I wanted to try a cheese substitute, just for the experience, so I largely gave this casserole a try just to use the Daiya cheese. While I couldn’t get the cheese to melt like it claims it will, I found it to have a good flavor, and will buy their products after Lent is over for my lactose-intolerant husband. The casserole itself was a little dry, so I added salsa to my plate. If I made it in the future, I might just pour some enchilada sauce in with the veggie mix to make it saucier.

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This squash and kale bowl had a great flavor but wasn’t quite filling enough to be a whole meal. I might add bulgur or quinoa to make it more filling next time.

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OK, so I didn’t really cook this tofu banh mi. Consider this a plug for The Root Cafe here in Little Rock. All of their food is local and delicious. It was great to know there was a place I could go and have something yummy for a lunch out with a friend.

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This tagine was a dish I had made and liked even before my Vegan Lent, so I knew we’d like it this time around. I was short on zucchini, so I subbed in some frozen green beans, and they worked beautifully. I also didn’t have preserved lemons, so I used lemon infused olive oil, lemon zest, and some extra lemon juice.

2 weeks down, one month to go!

Vegan for Lent, Week One

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We are now one week into Vegan Lent, and I have to say, I’m enjoying it. Is one supposed to enjoy a Lenten fast?

So far, it hasn’t been a profoundly spiritual event, but my husband and I have both felt like this is another step in a journey we have been on for a while, a journey that has been very much spiritually motivated.

I haven’t felt majorly deprived, but I have missed little things, like cheese on a pasta dish, or butter on bread. Honestly, when we were already not eating much meat and my husband is lactose intolerant, this is probably how we should be eating in general, anyway. I will miss occasionally having fish or eggs as part of a main dish, though.

A friend commented on my initial post that Vegan Lent might end up “sticking” long after Lent ends. I think we might end up mostly vegetarian with eggs and fish thrown back into the mix, plus butter and cheese for me. One problem for me is, I don’t eat fake food, and this makes me uncomfortable with butter and egg substitutes, though I must say, Earth Balance buttery spread is not bad. I want to be able to bake cookies and breads and stuff with all real ingredients. I refuse, on principle, to eat things like “Chick’n,” though tofu and seitan that aren’t trying to pretend to be something they’re not are fine by me.

Also, we have agreed not to go fully veg at this time because we don’t want to make going to dinner at friends’ a giant hassle for them, and we want to be able to enjoy cultural food and hospitality when we travel.

Still, I think this experience is helping us see the rich variety in vegan eating, and I feel healthier. I think, from a week in, that it will certainly affect how we eat going forward.

Here’s what we’ve eaten so far:

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This Lemony Cauliflower Pasta was a recipe from my Fresh Green Table cookbook, slightly modified because I couldn’t find broccolini and also because the original recipe called for butter. It was super tasty, and I didn’t miss the cheese I usually sprinkle all over my pasta at all, I think because the flavorful (homemade) breadcrumbs served that purpose well. Etta also loved this dish, so hey, baby win!

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Both the noodle kugel and lentil salad recipes are from Veganomicon. The lentil salad is excellent, but I’m something of a lentil fan. The kugel uses tofu as another baked pasta recipe might use ricotta cheese. It was quite tasty hot, but reheated, it seems to be lacking something. If I made it again, I might try to spice it up a bit somehow.

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This salad is excellent, and another Veganomicon recipe. I still don’t love mushrooms, though, so I might leave them out next time. I make my hummus using this recipe from Girls Gone Child, with the addition of a can of artichoke hearts to the whole equation. It makes for extra creamy, slightly artichokey hummus. I love it.

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This meal was largely a chance for me to attempt to make crispy tofu a la this method from Herbivoracious. The tofu turned out OK, but the meal honestly would have been fine without it– it just didn’t add much to the dish. Otherwise, I used a pre-sliced bag of fresh veggies and winged it.

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I attempted to make vegan sandwich bread. It had good flavor and texture, but was a little flat. Part of the problem is that my metal loaf pan is just too wide. The loaf I made in my narrower glass pan turned out a little taller.

ashes to ashes

"Penance" via Flickr user Sarah Korf under a Creative Commons License.

Today is Ash Wednesday. And while this may sound morbid, it’s the beginning of one of my favorite parts of the liturgical year. Yes, I grew up Presbyterian. We like words like liturgical.

While many see the church’s liturgical calendar as stale, dry, ritual, I see it as life-affirming rhythm. The church’s acknowledgment that life has its ebbs and flows.  That to everything there is a season.

Lent is a time to “memento mori,” which is Latin for “remember you will die.” We talk about ashes to ashes and wear ashen crosses on our foreheads. For folks like me, prone to existential crises in the middle of the night, it’s a time to acknowledge one of our deepest, darkest fears: death. To name it, to acknowledge it, and to use it as a springboard for celebrating the God who conquers death and wipes away tears. But before we get to that point of celebration, we have to go through the valley of the shadow of death. We have to meditate on our mortality, our brokennes, and even broader, the earth’s mortality and brokenness. We have to find and name the cracks and fissures, so that we can allow those cracks and fissures to be filled with the love of the God of Resurrection and Renewal and Things Made Whole.

This is why we’re supposed to fast and take on new practices in Lent. Not just because we need to get rid of habits and practices that are bad for us, though all the healthy eating people try to do this time of year can never be a bad thing, but because we need to make space for meditation, time with God, time to examine ourselves and our environments. We need to get rid of the things that we use to distract us from our brokenness and mortality. We need to focus on things that do not fade. For this reason, giving something up is not the point of Lent if we’re just giving up something to give it up. The intention is to give up something in order to make space for something else, something that will bring us closer to God, or make us healthier, spiritually or physically.

This year, I am making space to read through the gospels, so that I might come to better know Jesus. I am also making space to take walks with my dogs. I hope to use this time to enjoy God’s creation and spend time with God. I hope this time will be a time of prayer and communion that will bring a bit of peace into my life.

I’d like to close by sharing a piece of T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” which is a beautiful meditation for this day (read the whole poem here):

Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit
of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

Do you observe Lent? How are you observing it this year?

Update:

I just got my daily Verse/Voice email from Sojourners and was inspired to share this verse:

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter– when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break free like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. –Isaiah 58:5-9 (TNIV)”