Sunday, August 28, 2011

Taking a Break

Hey guys, I've been having some health issues that I am pretty sure are anxiety related. Basically this busy mama is too busy (i.e. stressed) for her own good and needs to take it easy for awhile. So I'm taking a break from the non-necessities which, for now, includes this blog. I hope to be back before too long.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Try It Tuesday - Jackfruit

Welcome to Try It Tuesday, where we try a fruit or vegetable that is new to us.  Last week, we discovered what lies beneath the alien-like surface of the rambutan. This week I present another Southeast Asian fruit...the jackfruit.  It's the largest tree-born fruit there is, and can weigh up to 80 pounds.

You can buy it fresh, in which case you wanna look for a big greenish-yellow ball with little spikes all over it.

You can also buy it in cans. However, I bought it frozen.

It looks like peach or mango. Tastes similar, too. We made the Urban Vegan's Jackfruit-Banana Smoothie.

Jackson sucked his down in record time.

This was all that was left for me after the kids drank their fill!

It didn't blend as smooth as I would've liked, but I think that's because my blender broke and I was using my food processor to make a smoothie, which isn't the best scenario. The jackfruit had a lightly sweet flavor and I picked up hints of cinnamon.

You can also turn jackfruit into vegan BBQ! I am totally going to do this.

Have you tried any new foods lately? I'd love to hear about it, good or bad.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Jackson Turns 3!

When I showed Jackson a photo of him as a baby, he said, "I was small! I'm a big guy now!"

I would have to agree with that!

But he is still my same sweet boy.  Always wide-eyed and smiling, always ready to leap right into whatever adventures the world offers him. I hope that never, ever changes.
He had an awesome birthday. His grandma and aunt drove down to celebrate with him.  We had Mexican food for lunch, his favorite, then we did presents and cake at home.

He got a new backpack for school, which he will be starting in just a couple of weeks.

He and sissy are both crazy about this inflatable firetruck.

The train set seems to be his favorite present. He might love trains more than he loves firetrucks, which is saying a lot.

We ordered a delicious vegan cake from Mr. Natural, complete with firetruck of course!


Happy birthday, sweet boy.  We hope your third year is your best one yet!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Gardein Variety

Some may turn up their noses at convenience foods, but I'm grateful for the abundance of vegan convenience foods that have become available in the past few years. Even as a stay-at-home mom, there are days when it's hard to find the time to cook three healthy meals from scratch. And I know from previous experience how hard it can be to find motivation to cook after a particularly long day at work, too. 

Gardein recently sent me some coupons to try out some of their vegan protein options. First we had the Chick'n Marsala. The package contained two servings, each the size of a chicken breast, and a packet of marsala sauce. A few minutes in the microwave and they were ready to eat. I served the chick'n with spaghetti and mushrooms sauteed in garlic butter. The sauce had a mild, sweet flavor, and Tony and I both enjoyed the chick'n. Some other faux meats I've tried are a little too realistic for my liking, with a stringy texture that I can only guess is meant to resemble animal muscle fibers. There was no stringiness here! I'd definitely buy this again. The whole meal was ready in the time it takes to boil spaghetti, with the added nutrition of 18 grams of protein per serving thanks to the Gardein. Perfect for a busy evening.

Next we sampled the BBQ Pulled Shreds. The package serving suggestion read, "Heat up and load on a bun" and I obliged. I tried to make it a little healthier by adding romaine lettuce and radish slices, but really, one shouldn't try to healthify barbecue. Next time, I'll just eat it all by its lovely self, on a ciabatta roll. I loved the texture of the finely shredded "meat" doused in sweet, smoky BBQ sauce.

One evening we had the BBQ skewers. All Gardein products are pre-cooked, but the instructions suggested grilling them briefly. So I seared them on my grill pan.

I stuffed them into a pita with red pepper and pickles. The big meaty chunks were a little too much for me...I guess because I've never been a meat eater. But Tony. So if you're feeding an omnivore, or someone who's recently become vegan and misses actual meat, these BBQ skewers might be a good way to go.

Finally, our favorite of the products we sampled -- the Crispy Tenders. These are the best faux chicken I've ever eaten. Super crispy coating. The shape makes them fun for kids to eat, dipped into some agave mustard. Jackson and Olivia loved them. I bought a couple more bags already to have on hand for easy lunches.  My only concern was that the serving size is small -- just two tenders. I don't think that's very realistic, even for a child.  But even if you double that and eat four, you're still only looking at 200 calories and 7 grams of fat.

 There are plenty of Gardein flavors to choose from besides the ones we tried out. The Sweet and Tangy Barbecue Wings and Mandarin Orange Crispy Chicken look especially awesome, but I haven't been able to find them yet at my supermarket.

I love cooking too much to use convenience foods every day, but I can see myself keeping a few Gardein packages in my freezer or refrigerator for extra-busy times.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Uncheesin' It Up

It seems like the main barrier that prevents many vegetarians from making the leap to veganism is their love of cheese.  After a little over a year of vegan cooking, I can see their point. Cheese is hard to duplicate in vegan form. Especially bubbly, stringy pizza cheese! For some, Daiya is the answer to their faux cheese prayers, but I can't get past its funky smell. And I've been pretty lazy about trying the other vegan cheeses out there (although I've heard good things about Follow Your Heart and should really pick some up.) 

Lately I've been missing cheese more than ever, so I decided to try my hand at making it myself, with the help of the Uncheese Cookbook.

First I made the Mostarella, a vegan take on buffalo mozzarella. It took only minutes to prepare. After firming up somewhat in the refrigerator overnight, it had a creamy, spreadable consistency.

I made bruschette caprese -- toasted baguette slices topped with a layer of Mostarella, a slice of heirloom tomato, and some basil from my garden. To make a meal out of it, I served it with garlic-marinated green olives and some broccoli salad (recipe from Quick and Easy Vegan Celebrations.)  The result was heavenly. The dairy cheese wasn't missed at all!

We also had good results using the Mostarella in grilled cheese sandwiches. Melty and creamy, yum.

I also made the Fabuloso Kale Casserole. As opposed to some casseroles where everything is mixed together, this one has two distinct layers.

For the bottom layer, you make a cheezy sauce and stir it into cooked brown rice. Then you add a layer of sauteed kale, mushrooms, red onion, and carrots. I couldn't get enough of this casserole. The bottom layer tasted like the cheesiest, creamiest risotto ever, but the veggies made it seem healthy.  With a few splashes of Tabasco, it's a perfect all-in-one meal.

My cheese cravings still haven't been completely satisfied, so I'll be making more Uncheeses soon!

What's your favorite vegan cheese?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Book Review - Another Fork in the Trail

Not long ago, I was fortunate to receive a review copy of a new cookbook called Another Fork in the Trail -- Vegetarian and Vegan Recipes for the Backcountry, by Laurie Ann March. 

March is the author of A Fork in the Trail, a cookbook for backpacking and camping enthusiasts. Like its predecessor, Another Fork in the Trail is chock-full of recipes that are meant to be enjoyed in the outdoors. Unlike the previous book, all of the recipes in Another Fork in the Trail are either vegan or vegetarian, and many are gluten-free. March explains in the introduction that, after the publication of her first book, she wished she had included more recipes for those with special diets.  That's how this sequel came about. 

My own memories of camping trips as a kid bring back some interesting food memories. Kraft spaghetti dinners in a box were standard.  Add water and stir!  We also ate tons of PB&J sandwiches made with Goobers -- I'm guessing this was a space-saving attempt on my mom's part, since the peanut butter and jelly came all in one jar!  Often (especially if it was raining and he grew tired of cursing at a campfire that refused to stay lit) my dad would just drive us into the nearest town and get a pizza.

Needless to say, I was impressed by March's gourmet offerings. Blueberry Hazelnut Quinoa to make waking up at dawn a little easier? Chocolate-covered Wasabi Peas with Pomegranate to bring along on your hike? Red Peppers and Artichokes with Saffron after a day of canoeing? Black Urad Dal Burritos for those times when the fish aren't biting (and you don't eat fish?) This is not your typical camp food.

Some of March's recipes are meant to be prepared at home, dehydrated, then rehydrated in the wilderness. Dehydration assures freshness, and dehydrated foods also take up less space, which is especially important when backpacking. Other recipes are meant to be cooked at the campsite.  In this case, March gives instructions for cooking over a campfire or camp stove. If you don't have a camping trip planned, many recipes can be made and eaten from the comfort of home. Simply leave out the dehydrating and rehydrating steps. Other recipes, particularly the baked goods, would be hard to follow in an indoor kitchen. Since they are meant to be baked over a campfire or camp stove, there are no baking times or temperatures for a conventional oven.

I made three of the recipes, and all were winners.

First, Vanilla Sugared Almonds with Dried Berries. This is a great energy-giving snack. The crunchy almonds and chewy dried cranberries and blueberries are fun for kids to eat.

Next, Grilled Strawberry Jalapeno Salsa.  It never occurred to me to grill strawberries. What a cool idea! Grilling softens and sweetens the berries. If you enjoy peach or mango salsas, try strawberry!

Finally, Cinnamon Apple Crisps. I had been intending to attempt drying fruits in my dehydrator, and this recipe made my first attempt successful.  Soaking the apple slices in a water/lemon juice mixture prevented the unsightly browning that can occur. Sprinkled with cinnamon, these little rings are cute as well as tasty. My kids love their chewy texture. 

Tony and I are excited to take Jackson and Olivia on their first camping trip this fall, when the weather cools down. I have so many awesome memories of summers spent running around in the woods (Goobers and all!) and I can't wait to build new memories with my little family.  I'll definitely be referring to this cookbook when that time rolls around. I wouldn't suggest running out and buying this book if you're not a camper or backpacker, due to the unsuitability of several of the recipes to an indoor kitchen. If you only camp or hike occasionally, this book might still be worth the purchase price if you're interested in learning more about dehydrating foods, since March is super knowledgeable in that area.  And if you're a vegan who spends a lot of time in the backcountry, then of course, this book is perfect for you.

Do you like to go camping? Where are some places you've camped or hiked?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Try It Tuesday - Rambutan

Welcome to my second installment of Try It Tuesday, in which we try a fruit or vegetable that is new to us. Last week I discovered that mustard greens are awesome.  Today we are sampling the Southeast Asian fruit called rambutan.

Its name literally means "hairy" in Indonesian. You can see why.

Freaky, huh?

But when you peel off the outer layer, you have what resembles a large white grape.

It tastes like a grape, too.  Jackson enjoyed the sweetness.

I'll be honest, I didn't really care for the rambutan. Each fruit contains an almond-shaped pit that is covered in a woody bark. This bark sticks to the fruit and is hard to scrape off. It's safe to eat, but I don't like the tough, chewy texture.

Oh well. They can't all be winners. Have you tried rambutan? Did you like it?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Green on Green

With Olivia outgrowing her crib, we knew it was time to move the kids into separate bedrooms. So Jackson got a new big boy bed as an early birthday present.

Olivia inherited Jackson's old bed. She is still getting used to the idea of being separated from big brother.

Are those walls green enough, do you think? The color was chosen by our landlord. We'll cover it up with Cars posters soon.

Here's a green that's much more appealing.

Garden Rotini with Pistachio Rosemary Pesto

8 oz. garden rotini
1 cup shelled pistachios
1 cup fresh spinach
1 cup fresh basil
1/4 cup fresh rosemary
1/4 cup diced red onion
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 garlic cloves
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 cup water, more as needed
2 cups of veggies -- whatever floats your boat

Cook rotini according to package directions. In a food processor, combine pistachios, spinach, basil, rosemary, red onion, olive oil, garlic, and salt. Stream in the water until a thick pesto sauce is formed.
Toss the rotini and pesto with any raw or cooked veggies you like. I used chopped spinach, cucumber, red onion, and sauteed zucchini.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Vegan Tasting Menu

Tony had one request for his birthday this year -- he wanted to have dinner somewhere "fancy."

Normally, we're the opposite of fancy. We choose "family-friendly" restaurants where the staff doesn't care (provided we tip well) if Olivia decides that her tortilla chips need to be crushed, doused in iced tea, and systematically scattered on the floor in a 2-foot radius around our entire table.  If there's a buffet, all the better.

But birthdays come only once a year. So on Friday night, we booked the babysitter and spent the evening at Wink.

We were happy to discover that the food is what's fancy at Wink, not the atmosphere. When we arrived, we were greeted warmly and immediately taken to our table and presented with menus.

The menu wishes Tony a happy birthday. Thanks, menu! 

Our great, knowledgeable server noted that the menu is printed daily because it changes every day based on what's fresh and available. They get a lot of their ingredients from local farms, which is how it should be. 

 Tony elected to do a 5-course tasting menu, and I was going to be served a 5-course vegan tasting menu. Is that awesome or what? I was so impressed as the server explained that the chefs are always happy to create dishes to suit a vegan, vegetarian, or any other special diet, based on whatever they happen to have in the kitchen that day. The fun part was that, while Tony's courses were printed out on the menu, each of my courses would be a complete surprise since it was being created spontaneously.

I really liked the atmosphere of the dining room. It's a small but uncrowded, with lots of light pouring in from the front windows. The decor was low-key and unpretentious, but classy. That pretty much sums up the entire attitude of Wink. It didn't feel stuffy or snooty at all. We could tell that they wanted us to relax and take our time enjoying the food -- which we did!

Birthday boy!

The first course was a salad made from peaches soaked in moscato wine, arugula, radishes, and pine nuts. I instantly noticed how fresh everything tasted, like it had literally been picked out of a garden that morning. Also, I've been interested in unusual flavor combinations lately, and I have to say, peaches and pine nuts are amazing together!

Next, I was served quinoa with japanese eggplant, carrots, and tomato salsa. The quinoa was purple, which I've never seen. Is there is an actual purple variety of quinoa?  Maybe it was dyed. Anyway, this quinoa was perfectly seasoned, not bland as grains can often be in restaurants where they are prepared as a side accompaniment, an afterthought. The carrots were probably the most delicious carrots I've ever eaten. They were only lightly cooked and still had some bite to them. And the eggplant was so delicious that even eggplant-fearing Tony took a second bite.  This was my favorite course.

Sorry for the declining photo quality -- as the sun set, the restaurant darkened. For the third course, I was served fennel, red and yellow peppers, and peas in arugula pesto. The fennel was so tender, it practically melted in my mouth. I loved the mild licorice flavor. The peas, on the other hand, were barely cooked. Like the carrots in the previous course, they had a pleasant bite to them. Their freshness was obvious and I loved the combination of all the different veggies in the yummy pesto.

The fourth course was tomato slices and corn dressed with balsamic vinegar. The pairing of the sweet, syrupy balsamic with the sweet corn made me almost feel like I was eating a dessert. This was the only course I wasn't absolutely crazy about. It definitely could've used some tofu, or at least some whole wheat pasta to make it a bit more substantial. For comparison's sake, Tony was eating steak for his fourth course, and he'd already had scallops and duck. Vegans like protein too -- just sayin'!

The server had informed me that the dessert course would be a "fruit soup." I admit, I wasn't excited about this concept -- especially after seeing a woman at a nearby table making all kinds of rapturous expressions over her chocolate mousse! However, by this point in the meal, I was pretty full.  So a light dessert was actually a good idea. Apple slices, blueberries, raspberries and giant blackberries all floated in a broth made from a sweet wine called prosecco. The prosecco seemed to soak up the various fruit flavors and intensify them. Slices of candied lemon zest added a lovely, citrusy sweetness.  I ended the meal feeling satisfied and even refreshed, rather than stuffed.

Tony was very pleased with his food, too -- he said it was one of the top meals he's ever had.  We agreed that the multi-course structure made us feel like we were in some kind of strange eating endurance challenge, but the courses were small enough that we didn't feel like we were overdoing it. This dinner, clocking in at over two hours, was a very enjoyable change from our usual "eat what you can until the kids get wild, box up the rest and get the hell out" restaurant forays. Kudos to Wink for being so willing to craft an elegant, unique and, yes, fancy dining experience for vegans as well as omnis.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Bouncing Babies

Today I took Jackson and Olivia to a bounce house with our play group. If you don't have kids, a bounce house is a warehouse filled with giant inflatable bouncy structures that they can climb and jump on until they reach a state of delirious exhaustion. It's kind of the best thing ever, especially if you're under 10.

Jackson could barely contain himself while I paid at the counter. Then he ran over and tried to start climbing with his shoes still on. Everyone has to wear socks in the play area. Finally I got his shoes off and let him go.

There were six or seven different inflatables. One was a shark, one was an obstacle course. And then there was the big scary slide.  Of course Jackson made a beeline for the slide.

He scampered up the ladder like it was no big deal, and flung himself down the slide.

Over and over. Notice the sweaty sheen in this pic. Dude wore himself out.

Olivia was tentative at first. There was a play area for the smaller kids, with inflatable shapes for them to sit on or roll around, and she hung out there with the other toddlers until she felt more confident. I think the air pumps attached to the inflatables scared her because they are kinda loud.

After awhile she relaxed and she was feeling more brave.

That's my girl!

It's interesting to me how Jackson and Olivia take such different approaches to new activities. J dives right in, while Miss O has to scope things out first.  They both had fun in their own way. I know we'll be back soon. All I have to say is "bouncy house!" and their eyes light up.

On to the food!

In my college town, there was a Greek restaurant that mainly served gyros. You could smell this restaurant from a couple blocks away in any direction. It was a pretty unpleasant smell, to my vegetarian nostrils at least. Needless to say, I never tried a gyro, or had any inclination to. That is, until I browsed through my copy of American Vegan Kitchen and saw the recipe for Greek Town Gyros with Tzatzika Sauce.
Yep, vegan gyros. Totally lamb-free, totally awesome.
The seitan gyro "meat" takes quite a bit of preparation. You have to steam the seitan, marinate it, then thinly (thinly!!!) slice it and saute it before stuffing it into pitas and pouring on the creamy tzatzika sauce. But, it makes a lot, so you can eat leftovers for a couple days. I think that makes it worth it.
The end result also makes it worth it.
Anyone who thinks vegans are underfed and deprived needs to watch me wolf down of these gyros. I suggest making a double batch of the tzatzika sauce. It won't go to waste. If you have any left over, eat it on a salad.
Have you ever made a vegan version of something you never ate in its traditional meaty form? How was it?