Dreaming of Jamaica | Sourdough & Garlic Sauce by Kelsey Vlamis

On the north coast of the island of Jamaica, 1.5 hours from the hustle and bustle of Kingston, 3 hours east from the resort relaxation of Ochorios, and just a few miles up the road from Robins Bay town and into "the bush", sits Yerba Buena Farm. And on Yerba Buena Farm, bananas, mangoes, and sugar cane thrives. Chickens, goats, kittens wander. And a family lives.

I had the privilege of staying with Kwao (kuh-wow) and Agape (ah-gah-pay) at their small farm where they keep bees and raise their six boys (and do plenty of other things). All of the boys resemble their father, whose long, lean, dark frame is topped by his wild dreads--with the exception that 4 of the boys' dreads are blonde and none of them can grow a beard. Agape, looks similar, but has longer, thicker dreadlocks that graze her lower back.

Atop a hill sits the kitchen, a mostly wooden structure, relatively open to the elements, where racks of bananas and plantains hang from the ceiling. Buckets of fresh Jamaican all spice (a key ingredient of 'jerk') rest along the wall. Kittens and lizards come and go as they please. And in the middle of the day, the entire family gathers to escape the Jamaican heat, during which time you can hear any of the boys (Kwao included), pining for a refreshment: "Agapeeeee, watahmelonnnnn."

When you exit the kitchen and follow the stone path downhill towards the ocean, the farm surrounds you. The compost pile and sugar cane on your left. A massive mango tree and a built-by-hand brick oven on your right. You pass two bungalow-type structures that serve as bedrooms, until you reach the largest one at the end that the whole family stays in.

We stayed in one of these rooms, towards the bottom of the hill, right on the coast. Days were slow, salty and sweaty. Spent wrestling with 7-year-old Enoch. Learning to make sea salt from 13-year-old Melchizedek. Trying to understand 4-year-old Kofi's mix of English and Jamaican Patois. Visiting the market with Kwao and 15-year-old Emmanuel.

But often, days were spent talking with Agape. About her life, and Kwao's, and theirs. About Jamaican culture, about their farm, and of course food. They are Rastafarians, which--contrary to popular stereotypes--is not very common in Jamaica. It's why their whole family has dreadlocks--also not very common in Jamaica--and why they eat entirely vegan.

Agape cooks exclusively over fire--either on a metal stove made of rebar, or the brick oven Kwao built. They eat what grows on their farm, what they can get from the market in Kingston, and a lot of oil. Upon finishing the last of a bowl of sautéed green bananas, in which I admittedly left more than a tablespoon of oil at the bottom, Agape said:

You know, Kelsey, the real Jamaican way to eat that would be to mash up your bananas so you could sop up all this oil--for the calories.

Though she smiled as she said it, my mind filled with the talk of low-calorie foods and calorie-counting diets, and I couldn't help but feel a bit silly wondering how we in the United States (as well as other developed nations) had gotten ourselves into such a strange predicament.

At Yerba Buena, when we weren't passing around guinep from the market or sucking on sugarcane pulled straight from the ground, we were eating a variety of vegetables, fruits and grains. We ate starches like plantains, breadfruit, or cassava, and rounded out meals with grains like rice, lentils, or Agape's insanely delicious homemade sourdough.

In the style of traditional sourdough, she mixes flour and water and let's it sit out in the heat, kickstarting a fermentation process that results in a unique, thriving colony of bacteria and yeast--essentially, an active sourdough starter. After she prepares her dough and lets it rise, she places it into her cast iron skillet, and puts the whole thing right into the fire of her brick oven.

Agape actually was raised in San Fransisco. Her and Kwao have both lived in the United States and Jamaica, and have gained a valuable and unique perspective because of it. Alongside her nourishing sourdough, Agape often served a sauce made by blending garlic and oil, which somehow results in a creamy, white and extremely potent garlic sauce. This, she learned from her Greek grandmother.

This is the world we live in today--so connected to each other that two Americans, one of Lebanese descent and the other Norwegian descent, can sit in a kitchen in the Caribbean and share a meal with Jamaicans that includes tropical fruits and vegetables, a bread preparation that likely originated in the Middle East thousands of years ago, and a dish from Greece.

Cuisine fusions are not so much a category of restaurant as they are the natural and unavoidable result of our interconnectedness and our ability to travel places--and get ingredients--that were historically inaccessible.

Last week, I found myself longing for Jamaica, and Yerba Buena, and the boys, and Kwao and Agape, and really Agape's meals. And so we decided to recreate this one dish to get a taste of our Jamaica--which ironically, is actually a taste from Greece. We made a dense loaf of sourdough that included sprouted lentils, rice, and wheat in our cast iron skillet, and paired it with a blended sauce of yogurt, olive oil, and plenty of garlic. We opted for yogurt instead of using just oil because we're lucky enough to not have to eat strictly for calories.

Despite the apparent differences in lifestyle between Yerba Buena and my hometown in Illinois, there are unavoidable similarities as well. As I watched and interacted with the boys, I was reminded of my own little cousins, and I was struck by how similar they really were to each other. How they are motivated and entertained by the same things. How they try to play with and engage me in the same ways.  How I could use the same exact tactics to dodge getting dragged into something if need be.

And even beyond the kids--when it's dinner time and Agape calls out to everyone, and they trickle in one by one to gather in the cozy kitchen and eagerly fill their bowls... how different is it really than my own home, my own mother, calling out to my own family when dinner is ready and waiting to be served? Though I am not the first to notice it, there is comfort in that fact. That maybe the one thing that is really shared across most cultural divides is the creation, anticipation and nourishment of a meal--and perhaps most of all, the enjoyment that comes from sharing it with others.

-Kelsey


CREAMY GARLIC SAUCEFor dipping, spreading, or drizzling.

Ingredients
3/4 cup plain yogurt
1/4 cup olive oil
3-4 cloves of garlic pinch of sea salt

Instructions
1. Add ingredients to blender.
2. Blend until creamy and garlic is totally incorporated.
3. Enjoy however you please - I recommend as a dip with hearty sourdough.

Note: This will have a strong raw garlic flavor! If this is off putting to you--or you're worried about your breath--try using less garlic, and adding more if you'd like.

Farm-to-Fork | Pig-to-Plate by Kelsey Vlamis

Inspiration: Video, Of Land and Sea | Patience and Preservation from Terasu.

Farm-to-fork -- the ever trendy, catch-all term for food that was cultivated by hand on a homey little farm, and transported directly to your plate for happy, guilt-free consumption. Don't get me wrong--I love a good farm-to-fork restaurant as much as the next hip 20-something. But let's be honest here: what do you picture when you hear farm-to-fork?

Admittedly, I picture manageably-sized rows of fresh greens, of carrots, of tomatoes, of peppers. I picture a wise, able man in a worn-in flannel kneeling next to his bounty as he scoops purple heirloom potatoes out of the cold, promising soil. I picture a brown woven basket filled to the brim with Mother Nature's gifts, ready for transport from the farm straight to a white, bright, minimalistic kitchen to be quaintly prepared by a true artisan, ethical chef, and served to me within the walls of an earthy-toned, uber-trendy, self-aware restaurant.

Farm-to-fork experience at O'o Farms || Maui's upcountry || January 2016

Farm-to-fork experience at O'o Farms || Maui's upcountry || January 2016

That sounds great and all, but unless you are a vegetarian or vegan (which most estimates say make up 5% or less of Americans), you're not thinking about the same process that had to occur to put that 100% grass fed beef, or organic, free range chicken on your plate right beside those farm-fresh vegetables. To ignore this aspect of the farm-to-fork experience, doesn't do justice to the farm or the fork.

This video from Terasu beautifully shows the process by which Brandon D'Imperio converts pigs to prosciutto at his Washington ranch--a true farm-to-fork, or pig-to-plate, experience. The video does not shy away from the harsh reality that the pig must be killed, nor does it vilify it, but rather, it invites the viewer to confront that reality. The reality that even if the pork on your plate was ethically raised, make no mistake, life was lost.

In most cases, it seems we either condemn the killing of animals for food, or we choose to ignore it. Many people are horrified at the thought of killing an animal, and yet they eat meat on a daily basis. Herein lies the tragedy. We are so far removed from our food that, somehow, we are able to eat meat and not once consider the life that was lost in order to bring it to us. In this blindness, the relationship between man and animal is forgotten.

Watching the video was a bittersweet experience for me--as meat consumption probably should be. Though I don't think eating meat is unethical, it is still a sad thought that a breathing, sentient being is slain on my behalf. Sad, but surely beautiful. In the video, Brandon tells how his relationship with food has evolved:

In the beginning for me, food was more about flavor and nourishment, but through the times and experiences I’ve had it’s grown into being more about relationships, love, and patience.

Because he understands everything that goes into putting a piece of prosciutto on his plate--caring for the pig, killing the pig, cleaning the meat, salting, waiting, the patience, the care--he is able to fully appreciate it. He's able to appreciate the relationship between man and animal, the love and care that can go into food preparation, and the animal itself. After all, when all "pork" is to you is a tasty piece of meat that has magically been prepared and served to you neatly on a plate, can you really appreciate the animal from which it came?

In some sense, life on earth exists in clear, decipherable ways. Plants rely on microorganisms to grow, plants convert sunlight into energy, animals eat plants to obtain this energy, animals eat each other, and of course, life after death persists in the form of new life.

And so it goes, humans play our part too. But when we ourselves do not kill an animal, when we don't even think about the fact that an animal was killed so that we could eat it, our role in this cycle grows undecipherable, and we lose the closeness that we once shared with our food and with the earth. And only by once again deciphering our role in that cycle, can our food systems begin to be repaired and our relationship with the natural world be restored.

Something to think about.
-Kelsey

Do you think about the relationship between man and animal when you eat meat? Do you refuse to eat meat? Or do you choose not to think about it? Let me know your take in the comments!

The Ultimate Salad Cheat Sheet by Kelsey Vlamis

Kale & arugula drizzled with olive oil & balsamic, topped with pumpkin, sunflower, & hemp seeds, bell pepper, carrot, radish, pickled beets, and avocado.
Kale & arugula drizzled with olive oil & balsamic, topped with pumpkin, sunflower, & hemp seeds, bell pepper, carrot, radish, pickled beets, and avocado.
But, I can't eat salads every day! It would be so... boring.

I think it's safe to assume that at one point or another, most people have been able to relate to this sentiment (myself included)--or would be able to, should someone propose such an atrocious idea to them. However, since learning to redefine what "salad" actually means, that statement couldn't be further from the truth for me. I do eat salads for lunch, just about every day--and let me tell you, each one is significantly (okay I'll admit it, sometimes not-so-significantly) different than the last. The goal of my Ultimate Salad Cheat Sheet is to help you do the same.

So what makes something a "salad"? Let's look to Merriam Webster:

saladnounsal·ad\ˈsa-ləd : a mixture of raw green vegetables (such as different types of lettuce) usually combined with other raw vegetables : a mixture of small pieces of raw or cooked food (such as pasta, meat, fruit, eggs, or vegetables) combined usually with a dressing and served cold

And then, my personal favorite:

:  a usually incongruous mixture

Though the two initial definitions work just fine, the third is perhaps the most creativity-inducing definition to go by. The possibilities of what makes up a salad therein being... endless! So, how could this level of potential variability illicit such notions as "boring" or "monotonous"?

I contend that these feelings are merely a result of being conditioned (probably due to what was served on the too-rare cafeteria salad bar all those years in public school) to think of salad and picture crunchy, wet, flavorless lettuce and blah veggie toppings with ranch or Italian dressing...a thought that simultaneously evokes both comfort and disgust for me. Comfort because well, have I not been served this salad my entire life? And disgust because, when this is what salad meant to me, I thought I hated salad. Alas, I've come to define salad in new terms and I want to inspire you to do the same. So when I tell people I eat salad every day, they can stop looking at me like I don't enjoy every second of it.

Kale, quinoa, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, pickled beets, pumpkin & hemp seeds, drizzled with a blend of tahini, lemon juice, and olive oil. Uffda.
Kale, quinoa, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, pickled beets, pumpkin & hemp seeds, drizzled with a blend of tahini, lemon juice, and olive oil. Uffda.

THE ULTIMATE SALAD CHEAT SHEET

The key to loving and eating salads frequently is to stock your kitchen with anything and everything you might need. I've concluded that there are five general categories of salad ingredients, though they can be mixed and matched and combined in absolutely any way you choose. They are:

  1. Greens
  2. Veggies
  3. The "Meat"
  4. Toppings
  5. Dressing

Greens, of course, can be any (or no) greens--the more unique, the better.

As for the Veggies, either fresh from the grocery store or leftover in the fridge from last night's dinner. Try washing and chopping a variety of vegetables Sunday night and storing them in the fridge, ready to be added to any salad at a moment's notice.

The "Meat" refers to the bulk of the salad, or the ingredient that is most likely to leave you filling full and nourished--this does not necessarily mean meat, but could also be fish, avocado, sweet potato, etc. If you are a meat/fish/egg person, try cooking something at the start of the week (chicken, salmon, hard-boiled eggs, etc.) and keeping it in the fridge to add to salads as you wish.

The Toppings, can quite literally be anything sprinkled atop or stirred into your gorgeous heap of produce. My personal favorite? Goat cheese--you wouldn't believe the creaminess it adds, I'll tell ya.

And finally, the Dressing, or the primary flavor vehicle in your salad, which can include a variety of oils, vinegars, spices, or any liquid/sauce of your choosing.

Keeping this in mind, I created the simple salad cheat sheet below that includes example salad ingredients that you can start stocking in your kitchen right now--just print it out and pin it on your fridge for inspiration, and check it before you head to the grocery store. Of course, the salad cheat sheet is not exhaustive; rather, it's merely meant to inspire you to begin to imagine all the possibilities that should come to mind when you hear the word "salad". Not to mention, what better time to take your first steps down the road of salad-enlightenment then at the start of the New Year?

What's your view on salads? Any ideas/tricks/tips to share on how you work salads into your own life?

"Wait, you eat meat... I thought you were healthy?" by Kelsey Vlamis

I'm not sure when vegetarian/vegan became synonymous with health (perhaps around the same time people still thought "low-fat" was a good idea?), but I don't quite understand it. Admittedly, if you google "Is meat healthy?" you are greeted with an overwhelming amount of articles asserting one thing, and an equal amount asserting the opposite. On one side, there are studies linking red meat consumption to a host of health issues, like cardiovascular disease and cancer mortality. More recently, studies have begun linking only processed meat, not all red meat, to similar health ailments. Take this study conducted on 37,035 men with 12 years of follow up, that concluded only processed red meat consumption, but not unprocessed red meat, is associated with an increased risk of heart failure.

As with most things worth talking about, more than likely the answer isn't so black and white. Any blanket statements declaring all meat consumption is healthy, or vice versa, are most likely ignoring the complexity of the issue as well as all the potential variables that could be affecting the answer to that question. Though you can read study after study on the topic, I think it's important not to discount this simple fact:

Human populations have evolved and thrived on the consumption of meat for thousands of years, across both geographical and cultural divides.

In fact, common estimates place the domestication of animals for food around 8,000-10,000 years ago (around the same time plants were first domesticated as well), starting with sheep and followed by pigs and cattle. Personally, this is enough to convince me, at least somewhat, that meat can be a healthy part of the human diet. The odds that we as a species have cultivated, depended on, evolved with, and in fact thrived on the consumption of something that suddenly is found to be detrimental to our health, just don't look good. I would even venture to say that it seems slightly arrogant of us to ignore the evidence that history provides us with, namely the survivors--the humans that came before us who elevated our species to its current status on this planet, all while consuming meat.

Past vs. Present

However, as mentioned before, there is a host of factors to consider. To assert that our modern day cultivation and consumption of meat should, or even could, mirror our caveman ancestors (I'm looking at you, Paleos), is a hopeful fallacy at best. Of course, there is the case of unprocessed vs. processed meats, which are loaded with sodium and nitrates and other things that very clearly were not a part of meat consumption in the past. But even in the case of unprocessed meat, the animals are not the same ones that existed in the paleolithic age. Most animals we consume today have been selectively bred by humans, and therefore the idea that we should eat literally the same foods as our caveman ancestors, is built on a near-impossible foundation. Though I am not necessarily making the case against the Paleo diet, I do think the distinction between the foods we eat today and how they existed in the past is important, and this is explained well in Dr. Christina Warriner's TED talk "Debunking the Paleo Diet" (apologies to Paleos, but there's some good information there on the transformation of our food).

Regardless of the status of meat consumed, you're probably eating a lot more of it than our ancestors would have been as well. Yes, there is some evidence suggesting that large quantities of meat were consumed in the paleolithic era (approximately 2.5 million to 12,000 years ago), but I'm going to assume most readers aren't paleo and focus on more recent history. According to data from the United States Department of Agriculture (compiled here by the Earth Policy Institute), meat consumption in the United States has risen from 15.8 million tons in 1960 to 34 million tons in 2013, more than a 100% increase in less than 50 years. So, if modern day studies reveal correlations between meat-eaters and certain health ailments, isn't it possible that over-consumption, not mere consumption, is the real culprit?

Vegan = Healthy?

Though the debate over meat consumption is on-going, can we at least acknowledge the tragedy of conflating a meat-free diet with a healthy one? Let's consider this common scenario: a young girl who has admirably decided to adopt a healthier lifestyle decides to go vegan after doing some in-depth research (AKA spent countless hours scrolling the #vegan Instagram feed), and--with the inspiring enthusiasm of a recent convert--dives right in. The first items on her new and improved shopping list: Tofurkey deli slices, Vegenaise, Amy's Vegan Margherita Pizza, Sambazon Frozen Acai Berry Blend, loads of fresh fruit, and (hopefully) some fresh vegetables as well.

I've included links to each of the products so that you can investigate the ingredients for yourself, but if you trust me to provide an accurate snapshot, here's what this newfound, health-seeking vegan has decided to rely on as substantive staples in her diet: A LOT of canola oil, brown rice syrup, soy and wheat in their various processed forms, and plenty of sugar (consumed most frequently as "breakfast" in the uber-trendy but typically sugar-overloaded acai bowls). I think it is safe to assume that a diet relying so heavily on processed food, non-traditional food, and copious amounts of sugar is not at all "healthy" by design. Again, I mean not to discount the vegan or vegetarian diet, as there are plenty of examples of healthy ways to pursue either, but rather to shoot down the conflation between "vegan" and "healthy", that is so evident when perusing the cyber-vegan community. In case you are still not sure--VEGAN is not the same thing as HEALTHY.

SO, SHOULD I BE EATING MEAT?! IS MEAT HEALTHY?!

Call it a deflection, but if I had to give an answer to this question, I would probably say "Maybe." Personally, I feel healthiest when I include very limited amounts of unprocessed meats--of any variety: chicken, beef, pork, wild game--into my diet. However, I am not a dietician, and wouldn't venture to say exactly what is right for you... although, I would recommend trying to work unprocessed meat into your diet for only about 3-4 meals a week, and seeing how you feel. Whether meat consumption works for you or not, the point here remains the same: all meat consumption is not created equally, and the lack thereof is not inherently healthy, so we need to stop searching for such simple answers, ie. "Meat consumption always leads to heart disease" or "All vegans have healthy diets". If it were that simple, there wouldn't be this much to talk about.

Tempeh Fajitas with Red Chard Wraps by Kelsey Vlamis

Tofu, Tofurkey, tempeh, seitan, Beyond Meat meats... it's very apparent, there are a lot of "meat substitutes" out there. Some of which (tofu, tempeh, seitan) existed long before making their way into the trendy restaurants and vegetarian households of the West.

Truthfully, I am not a big fan of most mock meats, especially ones consumed in the West. Though I won't go into too much detail (I'll save that for another day), in cultures where these meat substitutes have been a staple for hundreds of years, they tend to be prepared much differently--usually by fermenting soy--than how we process the same products here in the states. The debate is ongoing, but many believe these differences in preparation make all the difference in whether or not soy is healthy.

As for the more recently created mock meats, like Tofurkey and Beyond Meat, their ingredient list doesn't quite meet my own personal standards for "real food". Though I can recognize the potential benefits of these products, I personally choose not to consume them--again, a conversation for another day.

But today: Tempeh. Tempeh is made from naturally fermenting whole, cooked soybeans. It originated in Indonesia, where it has been consumed for hundreds of years; and perhaps most importantly, has been fermented for hundreds of years. Thankfully, traditionally fermented tempeh is easily available here in the U.S. as well, hence my preference for tempeh over other soy-based products. The other good news is, tempeh is actually delicious. Really, I mean it. Take it from this meat-eater, tempeh can have a place in your kitchen, not necessarily as a satisfying substitute to prime rib, but as a unique and tasty food product that can hold it's own. And if you're one of those people who try to avoid certain meat products due to the environmental impacts, such as myself, then yes--it could be considered a more environmentally friendly alternative.

As with most meals I make, these tempeh fajitas were pretty simple. Although tempeh has a nice, earthy flavor all on its own (what does "earthy flavor" even mean anyways??), it took on the flavor of the marinade wonderfully. I went with a classic Mexican taste, with lime juice and jalepeno being the key players.

The kicker--I ditched the usual tortilla for a big, beautiful leaf of red chard. I loved the color addition, but more importantly red chard is awesomely and surprisingly flexible (and let's be honest, it's a lot more appealing health-wise than the atypical enriched bleached white flour tortilla). I encourage you to try it, even if the tortilla is usually your favorite part. I find that as long as what's inside the tortilla packs a flavor punch, I don't usually miss the soft texture and light sweetness that a tortilla provides.

So, if you've never tried tempeh, these tempeh fajitas are a very simple way to step out of your comfort zone! And if you have, hopefully you've been inspired to try it with a new twist. Enjoy!


TEMPEH FAJITAS WITH RED CHARD WRAPS

Ingredients
1 package of tempeh
1/2 red bell pepper
1/2 white onion
2 spoonfuls of coconut oil (or another oil/butter)
1 large leaf of red chard
1 avocado
1 scoop of your favorite salsa

For the marinade
1/2 lime, freshly squeezed
1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 jalepeno, finely chopped
1 1/2 tsp cumin
1 tsp cayenne pepper
salt and pepper

Instructions
1. Combine all the marinade ingredients in a small container and set aside. Mix well.
2. Slice the tempeh into 1/2-inch thick strips and place into a bowl, lying as flat as possible.
3. Pour the marinade over the tempeh, being sure to coat every piece. Place in refrigerator for at least 30 minutes, turning the tempeh over half way in.
4. While tempeh is marinating, begin work on vegetables. Slice the red bell pepper into long, thin strips.
5. Chop the onion into flat, square-like pieces.
6. Heat 1 spoonful of coconut oil on a skillet over medium-low heat for about a minute.
7. Add the peppers and onions, stirring occasionally, until they are soft and begin to brown. About 7 minutes.
8. Remove the tempeh from the fridge. Push vegetables to one side of the skillet. Add 1 spoonful of coconut oil to the clear area of the skillet. Let heat for 1 minute.
9. Place the tempeh flat onto the clear area of the skillet. Pour remaining marinade over the tempeh.
10. Let tempeh brown for about 8 minutes. Flip each piece to let the other side brown for about 8 minutes as well.
11. Once tempeh has browned, incorporate the vegetables with the tempeh. Let sit on low heat for a few more minutes.
12. Cut the hard lower stem off the red chard leaf and place the leaf veins up.
13. Add the tempeh fajitas mixture to the top of the red chard.
14. Serve with fresh avocado and your favorite salsa.
15. Wrap the leaf around the goods, and eat up your tempeh fajitas!!