just in time for Halloween: creepiest island ever

I just found out about La Isla de las Munecas (the Island of the Dolls), and I can't believe I have't heard of it before today. In case you haven't heard of it either, let me share some information about this awesomely creepy place!

La Isla de las Munecas is an island on a lake near Mexico City. Its former resident, a hermit named Julian Santana, collected dolls and doll parts, altered them to make them creepier (as if old dolls weren't creepy enough!), and placed them all over the island. Some hang from trees, some sit on chairs, some crawl in the rafters, some lie on the ground and peek out of flowerbeds.

I've been reading about this island all morning. Julian Santana had a prodigious garden, and people would come to the island to trade dolls for his produce, so he could keep adding to his work. A young girl had drowned there years before, and Santana himself drowned there in 2001, plus the place looks creepy, so people think it must be haunted. Apparently it's been on one of those ghost-hunting TV shows!

You can see a lot more pictures, which are all amazing, and read more about Julian and about superstitions associated with the island, on these sites:
Let me know if you find more authoritative information on the island; it's hard to come by.

I think the island and the concept are really cool and interesting. I like the aesthetics of most creepy things, so I am a little biased, but I say this is art. Maybe they just do it to add to the creepiness and not to talk down a man's 50 years of work, but almost all of the articles I read articles about la Isla de las Munecas make Julian Santana's work seem like the result of a mentally unbalanced man living alone--no one refers to him as an artist. But if Julian Santana had done this in a studio in Brooklyn or in San Francisco's Mission district, galleries would be beating down his door to get him to do installations for them.

And I would totally want to see said installations, like I totally want to see La Isla de las Munecas someday. In the meantime, if I'm ever looking for ideas for Halloween parties or haunted houses, I know whence to draw inspiration!

So what do you think? Is La Isla de las Munecas cool? Scary? Art? Would you go there?


new layout!

Ta da! What do you all think? I'm madly in love with this new layout. The header image came from some tulips I loved at the Boston Public Garden (I included a pic of them in this post in 2008), and the color scheme, while arguably not as "me" as the former black-and-bright-green ordeal, is friendlier on the eyes.

For my reference as much as yours (I have a bad memory and a tendency to memorialize ugly things past), here's a screenshot of the old color scheme:

I am incredibly proud of figuring out the proper CSS to add, center, resize, and not mess up my header image. I have been fighting with CSS a lot at work lately, and am finally starting to feel like I have a vague idea of how to make things go the way I want.

This morning, thinking how unsure I was about switching layouts, I realized that despite claiming not to like change, I change all the time, and I roll with it pretty well. I just don't like liminal areas--I don't like when things are in the process of changing. So I went all out and got all the major stuff over with today. There will be a couple more minor renovations over the next month or so, but now I've gone through the biggest change, and I feel good.

How do you all deal with change? Does that apply to transient things like website layouts? And most importantly, WHAT DO YOU THINK OF MY NEW LAYOUT?!


beurre blanc, vegan mofo, and site revamping

Before I went vegan, I hadn't tried a lot of foods. I grew up in a small town in Upstate New York, where availability of fancy and/or ethnically diverse foods was limited to the "ethnic" section of the grocery store--which had taco shells, a few kinds of hot sauce, and couscous. Oh, and maybe some artisan olive oil. Going vegan made me think about food, and definitely made me cook more (my mother was, at first, at a loss as to what to make for me to eat). The more confident a cook I become, the more challenges I end up wanting to take. "What other cool techniques can I try?" I ask myself. "What other non-vegan things can I veganize?"

The more experimental I get in cooking, the more recipes I look at that I wouldn't've considered before. Last spring I read countless brisket recipes to develop my own seitan brisket (more on that in another entry); I poured over recipes for chicken cordon bleu to get my vegan cordon bleu up to par. SO when Francis Lam published a recipe for beurre blanc on salon.com, I ate up that recipe with gusto.

For those of you who, like me (well, before I read that recipe, and then read Julia Child's anecdote about learning to make it), don't know what beurre blanc is, it is a butter sauce. "Beurre Blanc" means "white butter." If that sounds overly simple, that's because it is. It's butter, white wine or vinegar, vinegar, shallots, and maybe some lemon juice and pepper and salt if you feel like it. It's very simple in ingredients, but complicated in taste. And not just in taste--if you read Lam's article, you'd be under the impression that it's really hard to make. While the article does say how delicious it is, it makes it sound almost too intimidating.

I am here to tell you that if you are vegan, you can disregard the "intimidation" and "difficult" aspects. Earth Balance margarine is apparently a lot more forgiving than butter. Also, while I don't really have that much of a problem eating fatty foods, I do have a bit of a problem using so much margarine for one recipe (it's pricy!). So I have tried Lam's recipe twice with half the recommended amount of butter, and it was great. Never having had a non-vegan beurre blanc sauce, I imagine it's supposed to be thicker, but for a beurre blanc with half the fat, a thinner sauce is totally worth it.

Beurre blanc is great poured over greens, baked tofu, vegan cordon bleu, or just over bread. It's a chunky (well, you can strain it, but I don't) beigeish sauce, so it's not very photogenic, but trust me, this is AWESOME. Much more than the sum of its parts.
This recipe will easily serve 8, more if you're not so generous with your servings as I am.

Vegan Beurre Blanc

1 medium shallot (or 1/4 C of an onion), diced small
1 C dry white wine*
3 Tbsp vinegar (I used apple cider vinegar, but white wine vinegar would be good, too)
2 sticks Earth Balance of other vegan "butter" (if you use the tubs instead of the sticks, that's 16 Tbsp or 1 C, but save yourself some work and get the sticks for this!)
Lemon juice
Salt and/or pepper if you want

In a medium-to-small saucepan, combine the wine, vinegar, and shallots, and bring to a boil. Boil this down until almost all the liquid is gone; you want to cook it down until there are 2 tablespoons of liquid left. Stir occasionally to make sure the sides aren't burny.

In the meantime, take the earth balance out of the fridge and divide it into chunks that are approximately tablespoon size. (They can be a little bigger if you want to sace yourself on time.)

When the liquid on the stove has cooked down to just 2 Tbsps' worth, turn the heat down to low whisk in 2-3 Tbsp of the butter. Whisk well, until the sauce is a consistent texture. Once the butter is incorporated, keep adding 2-3 Tbsps of the butter at a time and whisking till emulsified. Once all the butter is worked in, you're done! Taste-test: it will be delicious, but if it feels a little greasy, add a tsp of lemon juice at a time until the flavors are balanced. If it seems to acidic (it probably won't), you can whisk in a little more butter.

It is ready to serve! Enjoy! It is especially good on beets, tofu, and bread...
The Beurre Blanc won't really keepy as a sauce; once it cools to room temperature, it separates a bit and and thickens. Store leftovers in a small container and use as a flavored butter (stir with a fork or knife before spreading), or as the base to sauteed pastas or veggies later.

*-Note: We never have white wine lying around, so as a general rule to replace 1 C white wine in cooking, I use 3/4 C water, 2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar, 1 Tbsp agave or other sweetener, and 1 Tbsp vodka or clear rum (optional; it cooks out but still lends a bit of an "alcohol was here" taste to a dish).

Now that the recipe's out of of the way, I have two more things:

First, the Vegan Month of Food is coming up in November. If you are unfamiliar with it, VeganMoFo is a month where vegan bloggers try to post every day. I've never participated in it before because of my inability to post even once a week with regularity, but this November, I'm up to the challenge! Check out more info on VeganMoFo (and sign up to participate) at the VeganMoFo headquarters.

Second, hopefully before November, I'm planning to revamp this blog. I think one of the reasons I don't post here as much is that I don't always enjoy writing about food (gasp!)... but I do really enjoy writing. So definitely for VeganMoFo but probably beyond, I'm looking to expand my content a little to around-the-house and around-Boston topics. And I'd like to include a little more about me--I realized recently that, beyond what I eat/don't eat, I don't really write much about who I am in this blog. And this layout could use a bit of a makeover.

Writing that made me curious: Bloggers, do you ever get tired of your content? What do you do to refresh or revamp your writing style or presentation? How do you strike the balance the personal and the impersonal? Readers without blogs, do you like learning more about the people behind the blogs you read? What do you think is a good balance of "about the author" and actual content in entries? What's the difference?


Rebecca: Vegan Cordon Bleu

I love food and I love to read. As a result, the first week of each month, I'll combine these two interests in a post about food from literature. I'll mostly be sticking with books from classic literature, so you're likely to know the storylines anyway, but just in case you don't: warning: there may be spoilers ahead.


It took me a long time to read this book. Not actually to get through it; it is a riveting book that you won't want to put down once you pick it up. But picking it up was the hard part for me. The cover didn't help. As you can see, the cover of my copy looked like a romance novel. Other editions' covers are boring: plain text, plain colors; they make it look like an "important" (but not particularly interesting) book.

Plus, the first chapter is rough! The famous opening line "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again" leads into an evasive, depressing, and somewhat confusing first chapter set well after the rest of the events in the book. This put me off at first. BUT when I actually finished the book, I quickly flipped back to the beginning to look through this chapter.

Even though I have a little disclaimer at the top saying there might be spoilers, and the academic in me laughs in the face of spoilers, I hesitate to ruin anything about this book for you. The joy, the craft, the genius of this novel is in Du Maurier's ability to build suspense throughout hundreds of pages. You can guess what's happening, you can think you know what's happening, and by a certain point you may be sure you know what's happening--but you're still waiting with baited breath for the big reveal at the end.

Okay, so that settles it: no spoilers. A safe plot summary: Our nameless narrator is a painfully shy young woman from a poor background who meets a dashing older widower, Maxim de Winter. Maxim marries her and takes her to his huge, lavish estate: Manderley. The young Mrs. de Winter, already feeling unworthy and out of place in her new surroundings, struggles with the duties of managing a household, one that teems with servants and rooms that still seem loyal to their dead mistress. No one wants to talk about Rebecca, the last Mrs. de Winter, except the creepy servant Mrs. Danvers, who brings up Rebecca mostly to make the narrator feel more unworthy and uncomfortable.

Mrs. Danvers being creepy in Hitchcock's film adaptation.

Over the course of the novel, the insecure little narrator begins to unravel some things that don't make sense about Rebecca's life and death, and Rebecca, though dead, becomes the most important, compelling figure in the text.

Other than the gothic tone and the compelling tension throughout Rebecca, my favorite thing was the main character, the new Mrs. de Winter. The narration is from her point of view, and we spend a lot of time in her head, going through her thought processes with her. I'm not a shy person, so our narratrice's (that's a word, right? I know I've used it before, so we'll pretend it is) inability to speak or step up at key moments frustrates me--but thanks to du Maurier's narrative, I at least understand why the narratrice acts the way she does, even if I wouldn't be that way myself.

The plot really centers around the fact that no one will be direct with anyone else. The narratrice doesn't understand the strange situation at Manderley, but is too shy and insecure to ask anyone directly. Maxim, her husband, is trying to protect her and, to an extent, himself, so he won't give her direct answers. Maxim's lawyer, his sister, and his brother in law all try to tip-toe around Maxim for fear they'll upset him by bringing up the past, and Mrs. Danvers hates everyone now that Rebecca's dead, so she won't say anything that isn't creepy and mean. If, in the first few chapters, our narratrice said "Look, Maxim, what is the story with your dead wife?" or "Mrs. Danvers, you are creepy and crazy and this is my house now, too," or "Frank/Beatrice/Giles [anyone, actually], just tell me what's going on with my husband and household," there wouldn't be any tension. But again, the best part of this book is that tension. We understand the mindset of the narratice so well that we see why she doesn't say things like that, even if she really wants to; even if we really want her to.
Despite all the actual action that takes place, for me, the turning point of the novel is a conversation between Maxim and his wife. This is the genius of Rebecca: the book builds up lack of communication so well throughout that a conversation between a husband and wife is the exciting climax. And it is exciting. Again, trying not to risk spoiling anything, after this moment, the main character begins to have more confidence and more volition. Since we, as readers, spend the entire text in her head, watching this turn is incredibly satisfying.

And here is where the food comes in. The food that the kitchen prepares for the de Winters and their guests is a point of power for creepy Mrs. Danvers. She almost bullies the shy narratrice into what they will serve for guests. After the climactic discussion, when our narratrice begins to act with a will of her own, she directs the kitchen and Mrs. Danvers what to make and how to serve it. It's a minor point in the book, but a big deal for the main character--and, because we've been sharing in her thoughts and anxieties, a big deal for us.

When I first finished Rebecca, I thought, well boo, I can't write about this for my blog, because all the food in this is not vegan, and wouldn't be fun to veganize. The characters eat baked chicken, souffle, salmon and lobster mayonnaise (what the heck is that, anyway?). Ritzy stuff consisting of several animals. Not themes I wanted to incorporate into my blog, anyway.

Until the boyfriend's birthday. He requested, for dinner, a vegan version of Chicken Cordon Bleu. I was hesitant to comply, as I'd never had a non-vegan version, but then, I don't think he had, either, so I gave it a shot. And, while making it, I realized: Chicken Cordon Bleu is exactly the decadent, fattening, multi-animal kind of dish Mrs. Danvers (the creep!) would have served.

Finding a good substitute for the chicken was tricky. I thought about seitan, but wasn't sure how to flavor it; I wanted a light flavor, and most seitan recipes are rather heavy. The texture, too, needed to be bake-able, not to dry out. I ended up going with Veganomicon's Chickpea Cutlets. With their lemon zest and added beans, the cutlets tasted bright and didn't dry out in baking. A great choice. Also, for the filling: I dislike buying most vegan cheeses and fake meats, mostly because they're expensive and not usually very tasty, but I only had a couple hours to put together this dinner, and I didn't want to mess anything up by making a too-thin or too-thick cheese sauce of my own... and it was really hot, so I didn't feel like using the oven to make homemade tofu bacon. I bought and used Yves Canadian bacon and Follow Your Heart cheese, but feel free to use/make your own favorite kinds of vegan bacon/cheese.

Finally, I read through dozens of recipes for Chicken Cordon Bleu, and there didn't seem to be a consensus as to whether you bake the chicken or saute it in butter. I went for baking, but I suspect that with gentle treatment, sauteing would work. I include sauteing ideas in my instructions below.
Vegan Cordon Bleu

1 recipe Chickpea Cutlets (from the Veganomicon) (Because I'm allergic to nightshades, I always leave out the paprika and just put in 1/4 tsp or more of black pepper. It still tastes awesome.)
4 thick slices of vegan cheese (or 1 cup shredded cheese or thick cheese sauce)
4 slices vegan Canadian bacon (or normal-sized veggie bacon)
Bread Crumbs--about 1 cup should do, on a plate or in a shallow bowl.

If you want to bake these, preheat the oven to 375, and generously grease an 8x8 baking dish. I strongly recommend greasing the dish by melting 2 T margarine in it by putting it in the oven as it preheats. The buttery taste is all the more decadent. If you want to fry/saute them, see below.

Make chickpea cutlet dough according to the recipe. Divide into four equal parts. Take one of the fourths, and knead and stretch it into a strip at least 4 inches long and 2-3 inches wide. If you can get it wider, all the better, but you don't want any holes in it. Because gluten is so elastic, it'll shrink if you don't keep tugging it back as you work. Once you've got it to a good size, put the Canadian bacon down along one end, put the cheese on the middle of that (one slice, or about 1/4 a cup if you're using shredded), then roll it up, starting at the bacon/cheese end. The gluten will stick to itself pretty well. Close the ends upon themselves (if you can't do so without tearing the dough, don't bother). Roll the completed rolls in the breadcrumbs, making sure to get all sides. Repeat with the other three segments of dough.

If you are baking them, put the four rolls, seam-side (where you sealed the roll) down, in the baking dish. Brush a little oil/melted butter over the top of each one. Bake for about 30minutes, until the breadcrumbs start to turn golden-brown.

If you want to fry/saute them, heat your oil/margarine in a cast iron pan over medium heat. If your rolls are holding together well and you can be very gentle in flipping them, then put them in the pan as is. If they look like they might come apart, stick a toothpick through each one, and trim the ends of the toothpick that stick out, so it'll saute on those sides. (Just remember to remove the toothpicks before you eat!) Rotate the rolls as they cook, making sure each side gets to a nice toasty golden color. This might take a while (up to 20 mins with all the rotating), and you may need to add more butter/oil if the breadcrumbs soak it all up, but it'll be very decadent and delicious.

These don't need a sauce, but if you want to, serve with a salad that has a ranch-type (that is, creamy) dressing, or pour beurre blanc over the vegan cordon bleu, which I'll feature in an entry next week!

[EDIT: GUYS, I just remembered: "Narratrice" is French. While I like English's abundance of gender-neutral words, sometimes when you're talking about a female narrator, you just want to be able to use a word that means "female narrator." Thanks, French.]