Califia Farms Better Half Coconut Cream & Almond Milk

It’s been over three years since I stopped eating dairy, and I honestly don’t miss it that much. But every so often I get a deep pang of longing when I see some blast from my dairy-eating past. One of those moments happened when I was sorting through my mom’s old stuff and found an old issue of House Beautiful, a magazine subscription I’d given her as a gift. The cover showed a classic white ceramic cow creamer. It was one of the first things Chuck Williams bought for the Williams-Sonoma store.

IMG_0086

I actually have one of these creamers myself. I bought it many years ago when I was preparing to serve brunch to guests. Sure, you can put a carton of half-and-half on the table and no one’s going to be horrified (except maybe Martha Stewart). But little details like serving cream in a cow-shaped creamer are what make life fun.

So when I saw that magazine, I was inspired to dig out my old cow creamer, give it a thorough washing, and fill it with a non-dairy milk I can enjoy. Fortunately, I just happened to have some Califia Farms Unsweetened Better Half on hand.

IMG_4273

I’ve been experimenting with Califia Farms products ever since I tried the heavenly almond milk latte at Outpost Kitchen in Costa Mesa. For some reason, Califia Farms straight-up almond milk gives me gas. But Better Half, their blend of coconut cream and almond milk, doesn’t. And it has that same silky-smooth mouthfeel that made the latte so fantastic. It’s thicker than Trader Joe’s Coconut Creamer, but not as thick as Kara Coconut Milk (my two favorite dairy-free milks to put in coffee). And Better Half doesn’t have a strong coconutty flavor, either.

The only thing it lacks is the pure white color of real milk. Let’s face it, color is important. The appearance of our food has a lot to do with our experience of it. Califia Farms Better Half is slightly off-white. It doesn’t turn my coffee that beautiful tan shade I like. That said, it’s pretty good. And when I poured it into my ceramic cow creamer, the sight of it made me happy.

IMG_4277

Advertisements

Ixora Floral Studio

IMG_0087

For the first time since I started this blog, I’m posting a review that has nothing to do with dairy-free eating. To all of you who don’t find this topic relevant to your interests, I apologize. But have you ever had a customer service experience so bad that you just wanted to warn everyone in the world? Well, that’s what happened to me yesterday.

My beloved mom passed away recently, and yesterday we had a memorial service for her at The Langham Huntington, a swanky hotel in Pasadena. I was in charge of ordering flowers for the event. I hired Ixora Floral Studio in Sierra Madre because (1) they had done events at the Langham before, (2) they had a five-star rating on Yelp, and (3) they were conveniently located to the venue. The photo gallery on their website showed beautiful work.

I started to have doubts when I noticed that the owner, Lisa, didn’t respond to my emails or phone calls in what I would consider a timely manner. But I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best. After we had settled our contract and paid the bill, I asked Lisa several times whether she had any questions for me. She told me we were “all set.” I expected to arrive at the Langham on the day of my mother’s memorial to see the flowers set up as we had discussed. What followed was a catastrophe.

My family and I arrived at 2:00 pm to start setting up for the 4:00 pm service and were alarmed to find no flowers whatsoever. I called both of the phone numbers I had for Ixora and had to leave messages because no one answered. (I was not given an emergency number to call.) We were stressed out and panicking when guests began to arrive and still no flowers. All of our guests were seated and waiting for the service to begin when the Ixora delivery person finally showed up at 4:20 pm (although later Lisa would claim that he arrived at 3:40 — a lie). The man arrived 20 minutes after the service had officially begun. He had to set up the flowers around my mother’s urn and portrait in front of all of our guests. We were horrified that our grieving guests — not to mention my poor grieving father — had to watch a sweaty delivery man in T-shirt and shorts handling my mother’s cremains. The man also set up the flowers so that they half obscured my mother’s portrait!

And by the way, by the time the delivery man brought in the bouquet for the reception table, every single guest had already arrived and was seated inside — so no one even saw the reception flowers. What an utter waste.

The last thing a family needs is to be anxious and worrying about logistical details while trying to interact with guests and deal with their own grief over the loss of a loved one. My father trusted me to handle the flowers for my mother’s memorial. I felt a tremendous responsibility to fulfill his wishes and I was mortified that this was how it turned out. It was nothing short of a nightmare.

Later that night after the service was over, I checked my email to find a message from Lisa that was clearly a cop-out trying to dodge responsibility for their mistake. She claimed that the hotel had given her the wrong start time (6:00 pm). Even if this were true, my question is: Why didn’t she ask me, the client, what time the event started? This seems like a critical piece of information that she should have confirmed before telling me we were “all set.”

When you hire a florist for a special event like a wedding or a funeral, you’re not just paying for flowers — you’re paying for a service. Ixora did not provide the service we paid for. I put my trust in them, and one of the most important days of my life — the one in which I was to honor my mother’s memory and share my grief with family and friends — was ruined by what the owner of Ixora glibly called a “communication breakdown.”

When Lisa finally called me today, she apologized but still tried to put the blame on the hotel. I demanded that she make this right and she has agreed to give us a full refund. However, this disastrous experience will live on in my memory, forever tied up with the memory of my last goodbye to my mother. For that, I will never forgive Ixora, and I will do everything I can to make sure no one goes through what my family and I went through yesterday.

IXORA FLORAL STUDIO, 35 E. Montecito Ave., Sierra Madre, CA 91024

Rose Watermelon Juice

IMG_4351

It’s summer, and chances are you’ve sliced open a watermelon for a barbecue and ended up with more leftover watermelon than you know what to do with. Well, here is a simple and delicious answer: watermelon juice. It’s a healthy beverage that is, of course, dairy-free.

My cousin Jane told me that an Indian friend of hers would add rose water to her watermelon juice to give it a little something extra. I tried this and it’s genius! If you’ve been following my blog, you know I love rose-flavored drinks, and this touch of floral works perfectly with the naturally sweet taste of watermelon.

IMG_4345

Obviously, watermelon has a high water content, so you don’t need to add a lot of liquid to the blender. You can use plain water or, if you want some extra nutrition, coconut water. Keep the juice in a pitcher in the fridge and you’ll have a fresh, healthy beverage on hand that tastes way better than any soda.

IMG_4357

So, without further ado, here is the recipe. I guarantee you’ll love it so much that you’ll be hoping for leftover watermelon.

Rose Watermelon Juice Recipe

4 cups seedless watermelon chunks
1 teaspoon rose water
1 cup water or coconut water

Put all the ingredients into a blender. Blend until smooth and frothy. Serve ice cold. Makes 2-4 servings.

Follow Your Heart Vegan Ranch Salad Dressing

IMG_4161

Giving up creamy salad dressings is a hardship for those of us who can’t eat dairy. I’ve written about my perennial search for a good dairy-free Caesar dressing, and as U2 would say, I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

But Follow Your Heart Vegan Ranch Dressing is far better than any of the store-bought Caesar dressings I’ve tried. I’ve loved the flavor of ranch since I first tasted it in the mid-80s at a friend’s party where her mother served us crudité with Hidden Valley Ranch dip. Incidentally, ranch dressing was invented in the 1950s by the owners of the Hidden Valley Ranch, a dude ranch in Santa Barbara County. Even though it’s popular in the U.S. and Canada, if you ask for it in any other part of the world, you will probably get a confused look.

IMG_4169

I wouldn’t say that Follow Your Heart tastes exactly like traditional ranch dressing. The most noticeable difference is that it lacks the tanginess of the buttermilk. Ranch usually contains buttermilk, mayonnaise, and a bunch of spices. This vegan version uses “Vegenaise” instead of mayo and nothing but lemon juice concentrate for tartness. The result is a dressing that tastes pretty good, but doesn’t scream “ranch.”

What I like about this dressing is that it’s thick, creamy, and white, not an unappetizing shade of beige. Let’s be honest, salads need to be as attractive as possible or a lot of us won’t bother to eat them.

IMG_4183

Perhaps the real test was when I served it to two people who can and do eat dairy regularly. Both of them liked it and said it didn’t even taste dairy-free. So I’m giving a thumbs-up to Follow Your Heart Vegan Ranch and looking forward to dipping some carrot and celery sticks in it…

But not buffalo wings. Those are supposed to be dipped in bleu cheese dressing (although a lot of West Coast restaurants don’t understand this and insist on ranch instead). And yes, I’ll definitely be trying Follow Your Heart Vegan Bleu Cheese Salad Dressing, hopefully alongside a big plate of very spicy buffalo wings.

SaveSave

The “Lin Special” Sandwich

IMG_4259

In honor of my mother, who passed away last month, I’d like to share one of her recipes, a sandwich she called “The Lin Special.” Unlike most of her culinary masterpieces, this sandwich was a humble creation, thrown together with stuff she had on hand. Some of the greatest sandwiches are deceptively simple (think grilled cheese, BLT, tuna melt). This one contains only five ingredients: white bread, ham, mozzarella cheese, tomato, and onion.

Of course, the mozzarella poses a problem for us lactose-intolerant folks. Which is why I haven’t had a “Lin Special” in years. Fortunately, there are now lactose-free (and dairy-free) cheese alternatives that approximate the mild flavor and stretchy texture of mozzarella.

IMG_4269

The one I chose for this sandwich was Go Veggie Lactose-Free Mozzarella Style Shreds. Because it contains casein (milk protein), it’s not suitable for people with dairy allergies, but works fine if you’re just lactose-intolerant.

The flavor of this “cheese” is nothing to write home about, but then, mozzarella is kind of bland by nature. It’s more of a backdrop than a star player. Go Veggie, like most fake cheeses, looks strange when it melts (see photo below), but has the proper mouth-feel and stretchiness. It would do nicely on a pizza.

IMG_4249

There’s no wrong way to make this sandwich. I prefer it with lots of onion and heavily toasted bread, but you can make it to your liking. If you’re not into white bread, sourdough is a good alternative.

When I used to work at the Letterman show in New York, I would go downstairs to the Hello Deli, run by the now-famous Rupert Jee, and ask him to make this sandwich for me. I kept hoping he’d add the “Lin Special” to the menu, as several of my co-workers had sandwiches named after them. Alas, it never happened.

Well, for those of you who never got a chance to try the “Lin Special,” here is my mom’s recipe. Enjoy. She would want you to.

The “Lin Special” Sandwich Recipe

2 slices white bread
4 slices ham
4 slices tomato
handful of thinly sliced red onion
handful of lactose-free (or dairy-free) shredded mozzarella

Layer the bread slices with ham, tomato, onion, and mozzarella. Place both slices, face up, on the middle rack of a toaster oven. Toast until the “cheese” is melted and the bread is lightly browned. Remove from the toaster oven and put the slices together. Cut the sandwich into triangles, if desired.

Breyer’s Non-Dairy Oreo Cookies & Cream

IMG_9589

Breyer’s has always been one of my favorite ice cream brands, after Haagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s respectively. For a mass-produced ice cream, Breyer’s is a consistent winner. It’s also one of the first brands to come out with a lactose-free ice cream. Several years ago, before I stopped eating dairy completely, I tried their lactose-free vanilla and was impressed.

Well, now they’ve got dairy-free ice creams. And one of those is Non-Dairy Oreo Cookies & Cream, made with almond milk and real Oreo cookies, not some Hydrox shit. I love Oreos and I love vanilla ice cream, so naturally I love cookies ‘n’ cream.

In one of my previous blog posts, I reviewed Ben & Jerry’s Non-Dairy P.B. & Cookies, which also has an almond-milk based vanilla with Oreo-like cookies. Ben & Jerry’s nailed it. But they also threw in crunchy peanut butter swirls. This creates a wonderfully complex flavor, but sometimes you want something simpler.

IMG_9603

Breyer’s Non-Dairy Oreo Cookies & Cream tastes just like real ice cream, except that its texture is lighter and less dense. I always enjoyed the heavy creaminess of, say, Haagen-Dazs, but when you’re lactose-intolerant, you have to recalibrate your standards.

Breyer’s texture, though fluffy, is perfectly smooth — except for the generous chunks of Oreo cookie, of course. The Oreos aren’t soggy, a feat of food science that amazes me. And the base doesn’t taste like almonds at all. It actually tastes like a giant Oreo filling with bits of cookie mixed in.

If you love Oreos, this is pure heaven.

IMG_4119

Incidentally, these Oreos that I garnished my ice cream with are limited edition Dunkin’ Donuts Mocha Oreos. The filling tastes like Dunkin’ Donuts’ famous coffee. As the Today Show website put it when announcing this new flavor (yes, this is the kind of “news” they report on): “A Dunkin’ Donuts-flavored Oreo: It just makes sense.”

Just to digress a little more, it may be relevant to my readers that Oreo cookies are, in fact, vegan. My friend Jill pointed this out to a vegan friend of hers who replied, “That’s because they don’t have any real food in them.”

Real food or no, Oreos and ice cream are a classic combo that us dairy-free folks can now enjoy, thanks to Breyer’s. Give it a try and let me know what you think.

Outpost Kitchen in Costa Mesa

52165598125__C5EE5888-A9B0-4027-9516-C8C27CD3E4B3

My husband recently had a work conference in Irvine, so I tagged along to explore the O.C. Though the coast of Newport Beach is teeming with good restaurants, go a little inland and you’re surrounded by bad chains and fast food joints. After suffering through the sad breakfast buffet at our hotel, I was desperate just for a decent cup of coffee.

I found a place on Yelp called Outpost Kitchen, off the 55 freeway in Costa Mesa. It had four and a half stars, glowing reviews, and an interesting breakfast menu. And it was on my way down to the beach. Perfect.

I was confused at first by its location: a weirdly industrial neighborhood where you wouldn’t expect to find any restaurants. But there was something charming about Outpost Kitchen. First of all, they play records. That’s right, no Spotify playlists here. There’s a turntable right next to the cash register and a collection of vinyl that would make anyone who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s very happy.

IMG_9340

I knew it was fate when I heard “White Boys Can’t Control It” coming from the speakers. Never heard of it? That’s because it’s a deep cut — we’re talking seriously deep — from Culture Club’s Kissing To Be Clever album.

IMG_9339

Why was this so exciting to me? I was a huge Culture Club fan growing up. Actually, that’s such an understatement that I’ll just show you a picture to illustrate this.

IMG_0451
Holding my Boy George Snoopy before going to a Culture Club concert in 1984.

But for those of you who don’t care about Culture Club or the other records in rotation at Outpost Kitchen, the food and drinks there are fabulous. What I love about their menu is they have many dairy-free choices, but you can still get meat and bread. A lot of places that cater to dairy-free eaters assume we’re all vegan and gluten-free. Not so.

One of their signature dishes is the Aussie Style Scramble. Fresh eggs scrambled with roast prosciutto and spinach, served atop a tangy tomato sauce, with a side of olive-oil infused toasted flatbread in lieu of toast. Oh my goodness. Apologies — it was so delicious I forgot to take a picture of it before I devoured it.

But the main reason I came back the very next day was because they made the best almond milk latte I have ever had. The coffee was strong and flavorful and not the least bit bitter. They use Four Barrel coffee, roasted in San Francisco. The almond milk, Califia Farms, was smooth, creamy, and didn’t have that cloying almond-y taste that many almond milks have.

And to top it off, each paper cup is branded with something funny.

IMG_9394

The unfortunate footnote to this sublime coffee experience is that I subsequently discovered that almond milk — Califia Farms in particular — gives me gas. I put two and two together when I realized I was having terrible gas pains every time I drank it. But alas, this is how we learn what foods do and do not agree with our bodies. It’s a constant practice of awareness.

However, for those of you who can enjoy almond milk without problems, I heartily endorse Califia Farms for its exceptional taste and texture. And if you find yourself in Costa Mesa, Irvine, Newport Beach or the like, Outpost Kitchen is, as they say, the bomb.

OUTPOST KITCHEN, 1792 Monrovia Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92627