Wednesday, February 08, 2012
Caravan of Greens
Once upon a time, there was iceberg lettuce. I ate the lettuce, and I saw that it was good. At least for awhile. A vegetarian for many years, salads were always an important part of my diet, particularly when I was younger and focused on raw foods. So, eating so much salad, I grew to tire of iceberg lettuce and needed more variety. I soon discovered romaine lettuce. I saw that it was better - leafier with more green. It seemed to strike the ultimate balance, and I abandoned iceberg, which, over time, I grew to hate.
I thought I had found the ultimate lettuce with romaine. Until I discovered loose leafs - red leaf and green leaf lettuce. This variety had the least amount of woodiness - it was all leaf, and I loved it. I was growing up in many ways. Living in New York City offered so many new experiences, and I was discovering the world of taste and texture and saw that not all greens were created equal. My exploration included Boston and Bibb.
I went wild with greens and occasionally added endive, arugula, or radicchio. Spinach and mushroom salad became popular in New York City restaurants, and I added spinach to my own salad repertoire as well.
Increasingly sophisticated dressings followed on a parallel track - moving from standard bottled dressings to Newman's. Soon I began to make my own dressing, inspired by avocado and spinach dressings which I had gotten in vegetarian restaurants. These were thick and creamy dressings made in a blender and were very satisfying - important when salads were often my entire meal. However, I eventually became more tired of the heavy and thick blended dressings and began to dabble in vinaigrette.
Sometime in the 1980s, mesclun mix (or spring mix) shattered the world of greens and lettuce. This mixture of field greens, originating from Provence, France, was extraordinary, a revolution. The large number of varied greens in this mix are a delight, and it is my choice to this day for salads, as is the case in many good restaurants.
I have simultaneously seen an evolution in vegetarian cuisine and natural foods, which has historically been defined more by what is NOT than by taste. Some might go as far as to agree with celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who said "Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, and an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food" (read the entire quote in Butter and Ice Cream). Ethnic cuisines, on the other hand, have evolved over time to please the palate as much as possible and are not driven by health concerns, as I wrote about in Sundey. Fried foods, cream, cheese, fatty meats, sugary desserts, white flour - all the evils of the natural foodist, vegan or vegetarian. In my early days as vegetarian in New York City, I soon learned that many ethnic cuisines, particularly Asian, Indian, or Middle Eastern, have much better culinary choices than the typical vegetarian or natural food restaurant. So I have generally eschewed vegetarian restaurants in favor of ethnic cuisines. A few restaurateurs have struck out, trying to offer a much finer vegetarian cuisine - places such as Gobo and Caravan of Dreams. From their website:
Caravan Of Dreams has been providing the East Village and New York City with healthy, flavorful food since 1991. All organic, all vegan, kosher certified, and with extensive live food options, Caravan Of Dreams is the destination for anyone who has ever felt the need to eat better.
Caravan Of Dreams creates world fusion cuisine, inspired by the plant-based diets of indigenous cultures all over the planet, with particular influence from the Spanish and Mediterranean home of Angel, the restaurant’s founder and owner.
The ethos of Caravan Of Dreams is to begin with the freshest, healthiest organic ingredients and create a dish that is flavorful, surprising, and delightful. Few restaurants in New York would claim to care so much about nutrition, nor would they have the knowledge base that is Caravan’s greatest asset. We make good food better.
Caravan Of Dreams also features a full juice and smoothie bar, organic wine and draft beer, and live music nightly.
Caravan Of Dreams began as the dream project of Angel Moreno, a Spanish expat in New York. Angel saw the restaurant as an opportunity to combine his passions for food, health, music, and community.
Built plank-by-plank and brick-by-brick by Angel, Caravan Of Dreams opened in late 1991 as the vanguard of a new mode of living and has since become one of the established stalwarts of the East Village scene and a symbol of the Zeitgeist.
Caravan Of Dreams has come to embody delicious, healthy food, live music-everything from jazz to world to singer-songwriter piano-and a permanent and evolving community dedicated to better living.
The restaurant now is a home base for that community, a place where Angel and others are reaching out to countless people and developing new ideas for a greater world, that all have at its core the Caravan Of Dreams tenet: around good food and health, music and dance, and friends and family and lovers, lies the wellspring of happiness.
I had heard of Caravan of Dreams for many years, but only recently, on a friend's recommendation, I visited for the first time. The ambiance is woodsy, classic old-school, but the cuisine is not - it was decidedly the best vegetarian food I have had in New York City. My friend also introduced me to the owner, Angel Moreno, who was on the premises. Angel was extremely congenial, and I complemented him on his efforts to elevate vegetarian cuisine to a new sophisticated level. The food was pricey but in a class of its own. The night I was there, we even had a celebrity sighting - Ben Stiller and Peter Strauss sat a few tables away. Angel told me that he has had numerous celebrities over the years.
My tastes in cheese have evolved much, like dressings and greens. I was ecstatic when I discovered French goat cheeses and began adding them to my salads. Much like Caravan of Dreams raised the bar for vegetarian food, I have bettered my salads by using my own balsamic mustard vinaigrette with herbs de Provence, French goat cheese, and mesclun mix. As I look back, as we all do, I see how my life has changed and how many things have improved, such as vegetarian food in the city. Angel has had his Caravan of Dreams while I have watched from a Caravan of Greens :)
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