The Zenith – Restaurant Review

The building is a little hard to pinpoint from the street as it blends into the connecting residences, and it’s definitely difficult to find parking, but it will be worth the brief aggravation to experience Zenith. It’s not just a pleasure to dine at The Zenith; it’s truly a unique experience. Walking into the dizzying array of stuff will have a person overwhelmed and slightly confused. Isn’t this supposed to be a vegetarian restaurant? Yes, just keep walking through the (amusing) antique clutter and you’ll enter the equally busy dining room with one-of-a-kind chairs, placemats, and silverware. Not only is Zenith a 100% vegan restaurant offering the occasional addition of cheese, it is also an antique and art store selling anything from vintage dresses to 1966-calendar inscribed porcelain plates to World Encyclopedias (they still exist!).


As a lover of dining out and sharing meals with friends and family, I was pleased to see how many large tables made up the dining space. There wasn’t a two-top in the joint or many tables with matching chairs, either. I appreciate this subconscious emphasis on communal dining, and I imagine it to be an instant conversation starter during the busy Sunday brunch hours.


OK, on to the main attraction: food! I enjoyed a filling and completely comforting meal of soup and lasagna during a quiet, chilly Wednesday afternoon in the ‘Burgh. The meal started with a bowl of crusty homemade croutons and steaming hot brothy onion soup. And then came the best tofu ricotta lasagna with vegan basil cream that I have ever had. OK, this is the only vegan lasagna I’ve tried so far, but it was a winner! Creamy, herbed filling with meaty noodles, tangy-sweet marinara, and a salty, basil-rich topping. It. Was. So. Good. The leftovers were equally as pleasing 🙂


And then there was cake and tea. Did I mention I experienced Zenith solo and made it an afternoon excursion? As if the meal wasn’t enough, I warmed up my soul with cherry almond hot tea and a piece of chocolate cake as big as your face. The loose leaf tea list was a mile long and I did manage to save some cake for later. Win, win. Who wants to join me for Zenith’s popular Sunday brunch? I’ll save some stomach room.



Family. Friends. Food. FANTASTIC!

A couple of weeks ago, I exclaimed on Facebook (for nearly the whole world to see) that I have a great life. A bold statement, yes. Completely true and not just an in-the-moment thought, also yes. I really do have an amazing life. I am blessed with loving and supportive family and friends and have endless opportunities now and in my future. I’m studying a subject I am passionate about and working to make a positive impact in my community. This time of year really reinforces the values I hold strong, and I couldn’t be more thankful.

On a more immediate surface level, I had such a great Thanksgiving weekend filled with joy, love, relaxation, and way too much food! I hope your holiday was just as fantastic. Eric and I spent quality time with his parents and Pittsburgh relatives, dining on Soba‘s exquisite pan Asian cuisine one night and savoring endless dishes and conversation the next. Friday  night was spent sharing a post-holiday meal with new (to me) people (Eric’s doctor friends), and some studying happened in there :-). Then I got to catch up with an old friend and her lovely husband last night and expose them to tasty brunch at Square Cafe this morning. And now, my husband is enjoying some quality time with a college friend while I already reminisce about such a wonderful weekend. I cooked a lot, I ate a lot, I talked a lot, I relaxed a lot. I wouldn’t want it any other way. The only thing that would have made it better was seeing some of my family members, but I did receive an early Chanukah present (a tofu press!), so it’s almost as good. A nearly perfect 4 days.

Since I’m being entirely selfish and talking about me, me, me, I will leave you with a fantastic original recipe for vegan holiday stuffing. It was my first attempt and a smash hit for all who tried. Please enjoy! It is filled with veggies and lots of love 🙂


Julie’s Vegan Holiday Stuffing

Serves 8-12

Tools You’ll Need: knife, cutting board, baking pan, baking dish, medium-sized pot, stirring spoon, box grater

1 onion, diced
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 lg. carrots, sliced in bite-sized pieces
1 small sweet pepper or ½ large (about ¼ cup), diced
4-6 cups fresh spinach (or 1-2 cups frozen/canned, drained)
½ cup mushrooms (I used rehydrated shiitake), sliced
2 cups veg. broth
4 Tbs. Earth Balance (or other butter alternative)
Fresh herbs (I used 1-2 tsp. each rosemary, sage, thyme a.k.a. “poultry mix”)
1 block tempeh, parboiled and grated
1 cup homemade bread crumbs, plus 1/3 cup for topping (I used whole grain sourdough)
1/3 cup dried cranberries
1 cup roasted butternut squash, cubed

Step 1: Start by roasting butternut squash. Cut in half, brush tops with oil & sprinkle salt. Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, crank up to 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes. The squash should be tender and just slightly golden. I like roasting the squash separately as it gives the stuffing more depth of flavor (and sounds fancy!).

Step 2: If using fresh mushrooms, you can skip this. If not, rehydrate dried mushrooms in water for 20-30 minutes.

Step 3: Slice block of tempeh in half. Bring left over mushroom water to a boil and parboil tempeh for 3-5 minutes to get rid of some bitterness (this helps a lot!). Grate on box grater so it looks like cooked rice.

Main Attraction: On medium heat, sauté onions in 2 Tbs. Earth Balance until soft. Add celery and carrots and cook for a few more minutes. Add peppers and mushrooms (if using fresh). Add spinach and about 1 cup of broth. Cover and let steam for 7-10 minutes. When veggies look soft and greens have wilted, add mushrooms (if rehydrated), tempeh, 1 cup bread crumbs, fresh herbs, another cup of broth and last 2 tablespoons of Earth Balance. Stir until combined and cook for 5 minutes. Turn off heat and gently stir in squash and dried cranberries. Pour into large, sprayed/oiled baking dish and top with remaining 1/3 cup bread crumbs. Cover with foil and cook at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Remove foil and cook for 10-15 more minutes.

Going Plant-Based?

According to an article in the Huffington Post about 50 of the world’s healthiest foods, 43 of them are vegan. The other good-for-you goodies include salmon, tuna, sardines, skim milk, greek yogurt, kefir and eggs. Not surprisingly, the list was filled with fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fiber-rich beans – all staples of a nutritious vegan diet. I am not there yet – I love dairy ice cream and cheese – but articles like this are constant encouragement for me and others to improve our diets. I don’t think it makes sense, nor do I think it’s realistic that everyone will stop eating animal products, but I think we can all take a lesson from this list. What if we strive to eat such nutrient dense, plant-based foods 86% of the time? That’s how prevalent these whole foods are on the 50 Healthiest Foods list…it’s a good model to follow.

Healthy Foods

In a similar vein, I was fascinated by a recent article called “The Vibrant Vegan Life of an Obesity Survivor.” Not that long ago I was considered obese by BMI standards (being short is not an asset in this equation!), so I was pleased to read about this writer’s transformation and how a vegan lifestyle helped her shed the “diet” mentality. Her words really resonated with me:

“I grew up and became a health writer, interviewing the experts for magazine articles, under the assumption that getting their knowledge firsthand would seep in and change everything. It didn’t.

The turnaround came the day I realized that, as for any addict, the drug- – in this case, food, and manufactured products pretending to be food — had me. I knew there was no escaping, that my situation was beyond the reach of my nutritionist and the library of diet and self-help books I’d collected…”

As someone who eats food (duh), thinks about it, studies it, and wants to improve the food system, I can appreciate its addictive qualities. I’ve always said that I don’t like to drink, I don’t smoke or do drugs…food is my vice. But as I get older (and approach the age at which writer Victoria Moran “became free”), I also strive to improve my relationship with food. For me, I hope it will be through a mostly vegan diet, and I hope with the kind of resources available, others will understand why.

For excellent vegan-ish resources, check out:
Forks Over Knives
Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine
Blogs: Happy Herbivore, Oh She GlowsChoosing Raw, The Kind LifePeas and Thank You (and so much more!) 

With the Click of My Camera

My memory is not what it used to be. Ok, that’s a lie. It’s always been on the hazy side, so I can relate to writer Nick Fauchald’s admittance that he has “food amnesia” in an article called “A Digerati’s Food Diary.” Like Fauchald, my life revolves around food, yet I can’t recall last night’s dinner without digging into the depths of my cluttered brain. I share his sentiment that memorable meals should be, well, memorable, but the repetitious nature of eating complicates the matter and often buries those gems of an experience in the back of my mind. And that is just what I hope to capture in the many food photos I take – an experience, linked to a memory, linked to a feeling.

On a recent trip to New York, I wanted to ensure that each click of the camera represented my experience in the city and presence in each moment. I created the right lighting, posed plates creatively, and sheepishly admitted being a food blogger as curious passersby glanced in my direction. I came away from four food-filled, exhausting days in Manhattan with over one hundred shots of breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert, snacks, and many more beautiful photos of friends’ restaurant dishes, market produce, and food trucks. I couldn’t help myself in the dining capital of the world. I noticed every kind of cuisine represented, allowing me to be transported to nearly any continent I so desired.

One location that I was yearning to visit via New York’s transformative food scene was Ukraine. In an effort to connect to my heritage and nourish my beet-loving soul, I visited the East Village classic Veselka, a traditional Ukrainian restaurant with a modern twist. They are known for their borscht, even offering up a restaurant cookbook with the standout purple dish on its starkly white cover. It’s the meal starter I sought out since stepping off the Megabus in Midtown just days before. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the cool and refreshing liquid after walking miles around the city in the mid-summer heat.


As I currently review multiple pictures of the best Ukrainian meal of my life (that also happened to be vegetarian – no small feat), it’s that pinkish-purple cold borscht that sticks out in my mind. Even though the experience was just days ago, I know I will continue to remember the enjoyment in sharing that meal with two of my classmates, of comparing their equally delicious hot, meaty borscht to my choice, and of that gorgeous lazy summer evening sitting out on the restaurant’s patio sipping our soups.

More than that, this one dish that I captured in June 2012 in New York City with two friends transformed me to my grandmother’s kitchen table in western Ukraine during the 1960s. I am exuding the same anticipation and excitement over Veselka’s beet, cucumber and egg-filled cold borscht that my father expressed every wintry Wednesday of his childhood over my grandmother’s hot beet, cabbage and potato recipe. My father wasn’t physically with me on that Saturday evening in the city, but I felt closer to him than ever. And I will always connect that memory and feeling to this one photograph of a simple cup of soup.


Back in the present, I finally remembered that last night’s dinner was leftover spinach lasagna. I just couldn’t bring myself to capture on film this quickly and individually eaten meal because it didn’t compare to my beloved borscht; not in the past, present, or future.


I finally took the plunge! I joined my fellow fresh food lovers and signed up for a CSA share (Community Supported Agriculture) from nearby Brenckle’s Farm in Zelienople, PA. When I first heard about CSAs, I liked the idea but was skeptical of its value and convenience in my life. But when I got to talk to members of the Brenckle family at a recent CSA fair in Pittsburgh, I wanted to support their business from that day on. My original worries were quickly negated when I received my first basket last week and ooohed and ahhhed over the colorful bounty. For just over $20 per basket, Brenckle’s CSA members receive a variety of organic produce and value added products, delivered right to their door (or at least very close for an easy pick-up).

In my late spring basket, I received a huge head of lettuce, a bunch each of beets and radishes, big bags of spinach and arugula, chives, garlic scapes, and kohlrabi. I also got half a dozen free-range eggs (yum!) and a pint of THE BEST STRAWBERRIES EVER! I have never gone strawberry picking or eaten truly farm fresh strawberries, so I could not get over the juicy sweetness of these little red gems. After I emptied the basket’s contents and stocked my fridge, I literally stood over the sink, individually rinsing and devouring these just picked, pesticide-free berries. I am still dreaming about them.


Armed with several seasonal recipes from Wild Flavors, a book about “one chef’s transformative year cooking from Eva’s farm,” and my overflowing basket of farm fresh goodies, I set out to create a light, healthy and produce-rich dish. While sifting through nearly a hundred recipes and quirky anecdotes about an even quirkier lady (Eva of Eva’s farm), I stopped at the “Spring” section of the book, hoping to make good use of my ingredients. I found the perfect recipe in “Wild Rice, Arugula, and Parsley Salad.” I wanted to feature the bunch of arugula I received because, one, I’ve never used arugula before – tasted, yes, prepared with, no – and the other reason was because I had a lot of arugula to use up! I was also happy to see that I could include some of the spinach from my basket and those flavorful and colorful strawberries.

I appreciated that author Didi Simmons explained in the recipe’s introductory blurb that the chef can substitute herbs and greens based on what they have, and the recipe will still turn out great. I took that reasoning a few steps further, substituting brown rice for the wild variety, dates for raisins, and canola oil for olive because these were things I already had, and I really need to clean out my pantry! So I present to you a modified version of Didi’s farm fresh, springtime recipe. Feel free to use it for your own CSA-inspired creation!

Brown Rice, Arugula, and Strawberry Salad
(adapted from Didi Simmons’ “Wild Rice, Arugula, and Parsley Salad” in Wild Flavors)

Serves 4

1 cup brown rice
1/3 cup Medjool dates, pitted and chopped
4 cups Arugula leaves, torn
1 cup strawberries, sliced
¼ cup red onion, minced
1 cup spinach, chopped
3 Tbs. canola oil
1/8 cup lemon juice
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper

  1. Bring a large pot of water to boil and follow directions for brown rice, about 45 minutes at a simmer. Stir in the chopped dates when rice is almost tender and let simmer for 2-3 more minutes. Rinse the rice, draining it under cold running water until it is cool. Let dry in the strainer for 5 minutes.
  2. While the rice is cooking, combine arugula, strawberries, onion, spinach, oil and lemon juice in a large bowl. Add the brown rice and dates, stir well, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve cold or at room temperature.

The Small Guy

While we’re all familiar with food brand names like Coca Cola, Kellogg’s, and Sara Lee, it’s nice to get away from the big corporations and support the “little guy” sometimes (or most times). As my food purchasing has evolved and I’ve been exposed to all that’s available in the market, I’ve been trying to shift my food dollars to support smaller companies. I applaud their focus on making a few products the best they can rather than diversifying and saturating the market with so much of the same thing…
Of course, this isn’t true for all the small guys, nor are all the bigger ones so bad. I just wanted to highlight a couple great small companies that I’ve recently been exposed to at “foodie” conferences:

Tierra Farm – I ran across this small company based out of upstate NY at a sustainable farming conference, where they had a table featuring several of their products. They sell a variety of raw and roasted nuts, seeds, chocolate, nut butters, dried fruits, and tons more. They are USDA Organic and also run an organic vegetable farm at their headquarters. Every nut I tried at their table was delicious, but my favorite was the savory and completely satisfying Curry Cashews. I don’t even consider myself a nut person and I rarely eat cashews, but these are so addicting! My favorite part about this company is their transparency – they offered a world map to show where they source all of their ingredients. It’s refreshing to see someone that wants to showcase rather than hide where they get their raw products.

Kopali Organics – I heard the owner of this company speak at another conference (I am all over the place these days!) on a panel about getting/making your dream job. The panel discussion was great, but the samples offered were even better! Kopali provides Fair Trade and Organic chocolate covered products. My favorite are the unique chocolate covered cacao nibs…they remind me of a richer, more sophisticated Buncha Crunch! Remember those?! Anyway, I really appreciate that this company is not only organic, but also Fair Trade certified. With chocolate such a prevalent product in American society, bigger companies (and some small ones, for sure) have exploited the tropical areas where this product comes from. I like knowing that my dollars are going more towards supporting the lives of small farmers in Peru, for example.

While both of these companies have wonderful sustainability-minded ethos’ and delicious products, I understand that not everyone can afford to regularly allocate their food dollars here. But that’s the great thing about these kinds of companies for me; their nuts and chocolates are meant to be a treat, so I feel better about spending a little more to support them, while also not needing to buy more than a few times a year.

That’s just how I feel, but I hope you’ll seek out the “little guy” and support companies (food and otherwise) that fit with your values as well.

Now I’m going to nibble on some nibs….

Four Dollar Vegan

When I first got interested in vegetarianism, I scoured the web for resources – blogs, recipes, links to good books, and so on. All of the information really equipped me with the tools to be successful and not just a “potatoes and pasta veggie” as some might say. Now, as I try to lean more vegan, I am once again looking to blogs and especially books for ideas and inspiration. I’ve got some great cookbooks on the shelf – The Kind Diet, The Happy Herbivore Cookbook, Appetite for Reduction– but one I’m really digging these days is Eat Vegan on $4 a Day by Ellen Jaffee Jones. With a household full of graduate students living off loans (sigh), this sounds like my kind of book!

Not only does the author offer almost 100 simple and accessible recipes, she also does the math! She breaks down the costs of each recipe per serving and offers tips on working with different ingredients to get the most bang for your buck, so to speak. She’s also a planner (a woman after my own heart!) and puts together a weekly menu plan to show how you can easily eat a varied, tasty diet on less than $4 per day.

My favorite parts of the book come even before the recipes begin. There are cutesy chapter names, like “Bolster your Budget Breakfasts” and “Penny Wise Spreads and Sides” (peek inside on Amazon), but I also really appreciate Jones’ exploration into our culture’s infatuation with junk food and convenience foods as the most economical food choices (wrong-o!). She talks about the lack of government advertising dollars allocated to fruits and veg (sad face), speaks honestly about chemicals and pesticides (don’t go crazy trying to avoid all of them, but be mindful and limit what you can by eating plant-based), and talks about eating locally and seasonally to save $$ and the environment (two thumbs up!).

OK, I don’t want to give it all away, but this is a fantastic resource for budget-minded people; soooo, that’s most of us! Even if you are not vegan or even vegetarian, the book offers a lot of food for thought. Pun intended 🙂

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