Love & Vegetables Vegan Pop-Up: Beet-Red Quinoa and Blueberry Polenta in Little Haiti
When my little posse and I rolled up to the fence surrounding Earth N Us Farms in Little Haiti, I wore a confident face in an attempt to reassure my obviously skeptical guests.
The truth is, though, that I was nearly as apprehensive about the vegan pop-up event we were about to attend as they were. All I knew about Earth N Us was that a number of hippie-types live on-site, some of them in a tree house. Our first glimpses of the 2.5-acre farm showed us plots of greens with the occasional granola-type crossing our path and offering a serene smile and a welcoming hello. I picked up the scent of farm animals somewhere ahead. Having never seen pictures of the area the volunteers behind the once-monthly "by donation" vegan pop-up designate for the event, I wasn't sure if we'd be sitting in the dirt, eating with our hands, or chanting for our supper. I love earthiness, but as a vegan who's a bit more J. Crew than thrift store, I was a little nervous that this experience might be a bit far out for me and my golf-playing, Jeep-driving, Ralph Lauren-wearing little gang.
Long story short, it was just far out enough to mesmerize and delight every guest at the standing room only event. Read on to find out why, and how you can reserve for next month's event before it's too late (at press time, they were already half booked).
In "regular restaurant" fashion, a hostess looked up our reservation and sat us at a table on a spacious open-air deck, right near the little kitchen, where we got to peer in on the highly organized food preparation and expediting that was already underway.
And it makes sense that it would all be highly organized. Though the "chakra-balancing" dining concept might be new age, as it turns out, the volunteer chefs behind the event are all professionals either working in popular mainstream restaurants or studying to become pro chefs. Keith Kalmanowicz, a northeastern Pennsylvania transplant, is a chef at Michael's Genuine Food, Chantelle Sookram is a Trinidadian-New Jerseyite and a culinary student at Johnson and Wales, and Diego Luis was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, but is now a chef at BLT Steakhouse. Love & Vegetables is a passion project for them, aimed at raising money to open a non-profit plant-based vegan restaurant, and each of their seven-plus chakra-themed courses came out in an efficient stream of colorful plant-based deliciousness.
First course: red vegetables, grains, and legumes to address the red chakra.
The first was a plate of red, the color of the root chakra, which research tells me is located at the base of the spine and is said to rule our physical energies. Red quinoa, red beans, red pepper, red onion, cranberries, beets and in-house fermented radishes made up the first course. Not only was the dish nicely balanced with its sweet, acrid, and savory flavors, but it was beautifully presented as well.
Volunteers prepare the next course at Love & Vegetables vegan pop up at Earth N Us Farm in Little Haiti
Colorfully-clad diners adjust their table to accommodate the packed house; there was not an empty seat at Earth N Us' fifth vegan pop-up event.
Next was an orange-colored dish, to symbolize the second chakra, or the sacral chakra, said to control the lower abdomen, fertility and sexuality. Crafted by Sookram, who now lives in the base of the tree house on the farm, the coconut milk-based squash soup had a creamy texture and definite, throat- and belly-warming kick I think she imported from her native Trinidad. Upon eating it, a woman dining at our table (who, by the way, drove down from Port St. Lucie for the event) exclaimed, "I want this to go on forever! How can we make that happen?"
Diego's delicious Brussels sprouts with Swiss chard, shiitake mushroom, onion, soy sauce and cane sugar, topped with butter lettuce.
For the third and fourth chakra-balancing courses, Kalmanowicz prepared a yellow squash stuffed with corn, curry, yellow onion, yellow split peas, and the juice and zest of fresh lemon; and Luis offered his Brussels sprouts, shiitake mushroom, and Swiss chard, steam sauteed in soy sauce and cane sugar, which he prepared before our eyes on an outdoor range. (As a side note, I made a copy-cat dish at home scrapping the cane sugar, which, as a nutritarian, I'm not a big fan of, and using date sugar, made of whole pulverized dates, instead. It also came out delicious.)
Chef Chantelle prepared a blueberry polenta to address the fifth chakra, characterized by the color blue.
A blueberry polenta was next on the menu, as the fifth chakra, or throat chakra dish. The concoction looked kind of like Smurf oatmeal, and tasted like fruity pureed popcorn. It was certainly inventive, though a bit too salty for my taste. It wasn't my favorite course of the night. It was quickly followed by a handmade herb fettucine with garlic, which had a lovely delicate texture and mild flavor.
The vegan ratatouille was a hit at our table.
The vegan ratatouille came next, representing the sixth, or third eye chakra. It was subtly flavorful, tender, simple (almost traditional!) and happily light on olive oil compared to many eggplant dishes.
White and forbidden rice pudding, the "crowning" course of our vegan odyssey at Earth N Us.
The final course was a yin and yang rice pudding, made with coconut milk, Florida cane sugar, and white and black rice (also known as "forbidden" rice). It was created by Kalmanowicz to address the seventh chakra, or crown chakra, which is said to control our spiritual lives. It's located at the top of the head and is represented by the colors white and violet.
House tea master Julia Onnie-Hay sells jars of expertly home-brewed kombucha.
Throughout the meal, guests could venture into the house attached to the deck to scoop up a jar of homemade kombucha, courtesy of Julia Onnie-Hay, the fermented tea master of what Kalmanowicz calls the "farmly." Onnie-Hay actually teaches classes on how to brew kombucha, which is a probiotic drink (meaning it contains live and active cultures that can aid in digestion by replenishing good gut bacteria) made by pouring tea in a jar that contains a "pancake" of symbiotic cultures of yeast and bacteria (AKA a "S.C.O.B.Y."), along with some sugar. Once you allow the liquid to ferment for ten days, it will be ready to drink.
My little sister, whose digestive system is in the process of adjusting to a 90 percent raw vegan diet, asked the tea queen to recommend one of her many home brewed kombuchas to soothe her belly. She was directed to a ginger-lemon batch, which I sampled and can honestly say is the most delicious kombucha I have ever drunk.
When we could not eat another grain of forbidden rice pudding, we stuffed our donation envelopes with every cent we had and made our way over the darkened path through the farm toward our vehicle. On the way, we stopped to listen to a group of men sitting in a horseshoe and playing rhythmic, ambient music with electronic drum pads and actual bongo drums. "It sounds like we're in the jungle," said one of the audience members after a particularly wild tune. "Well, look around you," said one of the musicians, gesturing to the lush tropical foliage jutting out at us from all sides.
If you want to get in on this incredible scene for the next pop-up, I recommend you take action now. There are only about 60 places available, and at least 34 have been reserved already, even though the next event will take place a month from now (November 17). You can make a day of it by taking part in farm tours, yoga workshops and other classes that are run on the premises in the late afternoon before dinner is served in the evening. Call 786-372-1526 to try to become one of the privileged few, and check out the pop-up's website to find out more about the chefs and the community.
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