Follow your heart to a vegetarian Chanukah feast

uddha statues and meditation gear aren’t the kinds of items you might expect to find at a Chanukah celebration, let alone a meatless deli case or a display of cruelty-free cosmetics. But these specialties are de rigueur for Canoga Park’s Follow Your Heart, a neighborhood vegetarian market and cafe with a wood-paneled hippie style that offers a quiet refuge from the supermarket din of Whole Foods or Wild Oats.

In keeping with an annual tradition started 35 years ago, Follow Your Heart’s Jewish owners, Bob Goldberg and Paul Lewin, will hold their Chanukah Feast on Dec. 19, 4 p.m.- 9 p.m. The menu will feature a festive menu of traditional foods with a vegan twist, from the Mock Chicken Liver pate right down to dairy-free sour cream for the latkes.

“Right from the very beginning we developed a Thanksgiving dinner, a Chanukah dinner and a Christmas dinner,” Lewin said.

The Heart, as loyalists call it, is a Southland vegetarian landmark that started in the early 1970s. Its popularity has even spawned two cookbooks written by former head chef Janice Cook Knight, “Follow Your Heart’s Vegetarian Soup Cookbook” (Woodbridge Press, 1983) and “Follow Your Heart Cookbook” (Wiley, 2006), which includes Butternut Squash Soup, a cafe favorite.

As natural food has gone from health-nut fringe to soccer-mom mainstream, an increasingly diverse crowd has now entered the doors of this family-run boutique business.

“All we do now these days is sit back, let the place happen and participate,” Lewin said.

Follow Your Heart’s Chicago-born owners originally met at Indiana University’s Jewish fraternity Sigma Alpha Mu in 1965. Lewin and Goldberg soon found themselves drafted into the Army for a two-year stint during the Vietnam War.
Goldberg said his vegetarianism started when he became a conscientious objector. “I came face to face with the whole idea of having to kill something,” he said. “I went from not wanting to kill people to not wanting to kill at all.”

After their discharge, Lewin and Goldberg moved to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming musicians. Instead, they became regulars at a natural food store called Johnny Weismuller’s American Natural Foods, which licensed the name from the Jewish “Tarzan” actor.

In 1971 the pair started working at Johnny’s, and in 1973 they joined with manager Michael Besancon and co-worker Spencer Windbiel to buy the store, which they renamed Follow Your Heart. Twelve years later, Goldberg and Lewin bought out their partners; Besancon now serves as president of Whole Foods’ Southern Pacific region.

The two have since expanded their operation to include Earth Island, a solar-powered, environmentally friendly facility in Chatsworth that produces nationally distributed items like Vegenaise, Vegan Gourmet nondairy cheese, a line of salad dressings and a chicken alternative called Chicken Free Chicken, the central ingredient in their Moroccan Chicken With Almonds recipe.

Goldberg and Lewin are currently courting KOF-K as a certifying agency to take their products to the kosher-conscious consumer. But aside from Lewin having addressed Jewish Vegetarians of Los Angeles at Valley Beth Shalom in the past, the pair’s Judaic involvement is mostly confined to the Chanukah Feast.

Both are proud of their Jewish heritage, as evidenced by the early 20th century photos of the Lewin and Goldberg grandparents’ retail endeavors that hang above the counter of Follow Your Heart Cafe.

“I grew up Jewish, was bar mitzvahed and confirmed,” said Goldberg, who began studying a variety of spiritual disciplines after he moved to Southern California.

Even though his Judaism is more foodaism today, Goldberg said he continues to look on his Jewish education with fondness and wants to make sure he passes on family traditions. After marrying a “good Catholic girl,” Goldberg’s said his interfaith family, like so many in Southern California, spends December celebrating both Christmas and Chanukah.

“My kids are growing up with the whole thing, the whole enchilada,” he said.

Mock Chicken Liver Pate

1 1/2 pounds frozen green peas
1 1/2 pounds frozen green beans
3/4 cup toasted sesame tahini
1/2 pound walnuts
1 medium to large onion
1/2 cup margarine
2 tablespoons vegetarian chicken-style broth powder
1 tablespoon tamari (or soy sauce)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 tablespoon whole thyme
1 teaspoon salt
1 pinch black pepper

Steam the peas and the beans for approximately 20 minutes. Dice the onion, and sauté in the vegetable oil until clarified. Place all of the ingredients in a food processor and blend until almost smooth, but not too creamy. Add salt, pepper and broth or broth powder to taste. The pate will have a decidedly green tinge to it. You can always add a small amount of a caramel color to brown it up.

Makes 18 servings.

Butternut Squash Soup
Adapted from “Follow Your Heart Cookbook”

3 pounds butternut squash
4 tablespoons margarine
1/2 cup chopped yellow onion
4 cups vegetable or mushroom broth
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

Cut squash into four to six large pieces. Remove the seeds and peel off the skin. Cut squash into 1-inch pieces and set aside.

In a heavy-bottomed 3- to 4-quart soup pot, melt the margarine. Add the onion and sauté for five minutes over low heat, stirring frequently until onion is barely translucent. Add the squash pieces and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes. Add broth and bring the soup to a boil; reduce heat and simmer, covered, for about 15 minutes, or until squash is very tender.

Puree soup in a food processor or blender. Return soup to pot and reheat slightly. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve, garnished with parsley.

Makes four to six servings.

Moroccan Chicken With Almonds

1 Chicken Free Chicken, quartered (available at Follow Your Heart, but can be replaced with 10 ounces chicken-style seitan)
1 onion

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