Follow Your Heart Vegan Bleu Cheese Salad Dressing

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I haven’t had bleu cheese in over three years because I’ve never seen a dairy-free version of it. I used to love bleu cheese — the stinkier and more pungent the better. I would even order filet mignon with a big mountain of bleu cheese on top.

Bleu cheese is an acquired taste, for sure, but there are certain dishes that make little sense without it. For instance, cobb salad, wedge salad, and buffalo wings. (Don’t even get me started about the sacrilegious practice of eating buffalo wings with ranch dressing — which is also off-limits because it contains lactose!)

But now all of those foods are no longer sad reminders of my lactose-intolerance, because Follow Your Heart has made a vegan bleu cheese dressing that tastes just like real bleu cheese. It also looks just like the real thing except that it doesn’t contain the chunks of bleu cheese that some dressings do.

If I weren’t currently trying to cut down on fried foods, I would be running out to get some buffalo wings to dip, stat. But in lieu of that less-than-healthful treat, I’m having the veggies that you usually get on the side: celery and carrots. I probably don’t have to tell you that this rabbit food is much more exciting dipped in a rich, tangy dressing.

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For those of you who do enjoy ranch dressing, Follow Your Heart makes a vegan version of that, too. And it’s just as good as this one. Dip to your heart’s content!

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Silk Almond & Coconut Milk

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Nowadays, there are so many dairy-free milks to choose from, it can be overwhelming. Makes me think of that Devo song: “Freedom of choice is what you got/ Freedom from choice is what you want.” After having a good experience with Califia Farms Better Half, I decided to try Silk Almond & Coconut Milk, also a blend of two dairy-free milks.

No bueno.

This was a surprise to me, since I actually like Silk Coconut Milk for some purposes. But Silk’s blend of almond and coconut is terrible. It has an artificial flavor which I can only describe as “clay-like.” It tastes a little like Play-Doh.

In fact, this clay-like flavor is so strong that, when I used it in a smoothie, you could taste that weirdness despite all the fruits and vegetables that I expected would mask it. I also used it to make chai tea, and the result was undrinkable.

Finally, I did a head-to-head taste test between Silk Almond & Coconut and Silk Coconut, drinking each one straight up. Although they both have the same consistency, Silk Coconut has a neutral, subtle flavor that allows it to work well in smoothies, coffee, tea, cereal, etc. Silk Almond & Coconut, on the other hand, has that unmistakeable artificial flavor that is truly gag-worthy.

So when you’re in the milk aisle, staring at all the Silk variations and hearing that Devo song in your head, just remember: Coconut ‘kay, blend bad.

Labobatory

No, that’s not a typo. It is, in fact, Labobatory, as in “boba.” You may have read my review of Boba 7, a boba shop in Downtown Los Angeles that served alcoholic boba drinks. Unfortunately, Boba 7 closed at the end of last year, but its owner opened a shop in San Gabriel that rocks just as hard.

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The drinks at Labobatory are just as fantastic, even though they don’t contain alcohol. What makes them so good? Interesting recipes, fresh ingredients, customizable without being confusing. As a bonus, the whole shop has a cheeky attitude about it that I enjoy.

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They sell funny T-shirts, too.

My favorite drink is the Lebanese Rose Milk Tea, which the barista told me is their most popular offering. It’s dairy-free; they use non-dairy creamer that doesn’t taste artificial or weird. (You can ask for regular milk if you wish).

Most boba places use a nasty-tasting rose syrup to make rose milk tea, but Labobatory uses Lebanese rose water. It tastes better and doesn’t add any sweetness. And the boba balls are perfectly chewy. But even without boba, this drink is divine. Don’t let the light color fool you — this tea is strong as hell and packed with caffeine.

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I’ve also sampled the Bobatella, a boba drink made with Nutella, and the Yoli, a yogurt green tea with lychee jelly. Both were delicious, but the Lebanese Rose Milk still wins. A couple of the best drinks from Boba 7 — the Horchata and the Creamsicle — have migrated to Labobatory’s menu, now made without alcohol.

Once a month, Labobatory does an alcoholic boba pop-up in Downtown LA at Seven Bar & Lounge, close to the original Boba 7 location. I haven’t had a chance to go yet, but it’s on my must-do list.

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By the way, I hear you can get your boba drink in an Erlenmeyer flask at Labobatory, unless you’re getting it to go. Just another fun scientific touch, along with the microscope on the counter. I won’t tell you what you’ll see when you look into the eyepiece — you’ll just have to find out for yourself.

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LABOBATORY, 819 W. Las Tunas Dr., San Gabriel, CA 91776

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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Ixora Floral Studio

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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

Follow Your Heart Vegan Ranch Salad Dressing

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The “Lin Special” Sandwich

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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.

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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.

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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.