Asian Breakfast Inspiration

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Last year, recognizing me as her only daughter who inherited her love for cooking, my mother was inspired to buy me a year-long subscription to the magazine Bon Appetit.  (That’s why I’m her favorite.)  Bon Appetit is sort of a gourmet cooking magazine for everyday cooks.  It’s definitely not vegan, but ever since I stopped eating animal products, I’ve wanted to vegan up some of their fantastic recipes.

An article in their recent magazine inspired me to give it a shot.  It was about looming to Japan for breakfast inspiration, where their morning meals are composed of my savory elements that we would normally consider more lunch or dinner dishes.  Personally, I’ve always loved breakfast, but since I’ve gone vegan, I’ve run into a problem – the foods that I used to love most about breakfast, like eggs and bacon, I don’t eat anymore.  It’s really taken the shine off breakfast for me.  I don’t love a lot of the more common vegan breakfast offerings – fruit, granola, etc. – so I decided I’d try something new.  I really prefer salty and savory over sweet for breakfast, so this article seemed like it was written for me.

The center of this dish are the Canal House Lentils, with the Tuscan Kale and Shiitake Mushrooms playing supporting roles.  What really makes this for me, however, is the Teriyaki Sauce.  It tied all the elements together in a beautiful sweet and savory bind that I loved.  I tweaked the recipes very little, but I did reduce the amounts of oil used, replacing some of it with water to avoid burning.

The best part of this recipe?  I got to use my brand new, beautiful, 8-quart Calphalon skill, which my amazing boyfriend got me for Christmas.  I never had skillets big enough to make the big sauteed meals I like – I’d always have to saute my veggies in one pan, and then combine them with other ingredients in a big pot, which makes you lose some of the flavor…but no more!

Isn't it beautiful??

Isn’t it beautiful??

Look how huge it is on my stove top compared to my other cookware!

Look how huge it is on my stove top compared to my other cookware!

Next time I make the lentils, I’ll probably try some roasted broccoli with it, which is literally my absolute favorite veggie in the world.  The shiitake mushrooms were mind-blowing for me though, I’ll definitely make them again.  I’ve never really like mushrooms before, but lately I’m discovering a whole new enjoyment of them as I try cooking them in ways I never would have in the past.

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Canal House Lentils

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 medium leek, white and pale-green parts only, finely chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup green lentils
  • 2 tablespoons tamari
  • Salt, ground black pepper to taste

Directions:

1. Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat.  Add leek, garlic, and tomato paste and cook, stirring often, until fragrant and the tomato paste begins to brown, about 4 minutes.

2. Add lentils and 2 ½ cups of water.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until lentils are tender, 45-55 minutes.

3. Remove from heat and let sit, covered, 10 minutes; add tamari and season with salt and pepper.

Nutritional Information (per ½ cup serving): 148 calories, 2.3 g fat, 335 mg sodium, 10 g fiber, 2 g sugar, 9 g protein

 

I love me some leeks and garlic.

I love me some leeks and garlic.

Canal House Teriyaki Sauce

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1 cup mirin (I just used white wine – there was enough sugar that it didn’t really need the sweetened wine)
  • 1 cup tamari

Directions:

1. Bring all ingredients to a boil in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring to dissolve sugar.  Reduce heat and gently simmer, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened, 40-50 minutes; let cool.

Nutritional Information (per 2 tablespoon serving): 64 calories, 0 g fat, 0 g fiber, 7.5 g sugar, 2 g protein

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Tuscan Kale with Sesame Oil

Ingredients:

  • 2 bunches Tuscan kale, ribs and stems removed, leaves torn
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
  • Salt and ground pepper to taste

Directions:

1. Rinse kale; shake dry, leaving some water clinging.  Heat olive and sesame oils in a large skillet over medium heat.  Add kale; season with salt and pepper.

2. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and cook, tossing occasionally, until just tender, 7-10 minutes.

Nutritional Information (makes about 8 servings): 113 calories, 9.5 g fat, 1.5 g fiber, 0 g sugar, 2 g protein

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Sautéed Shiitake Mushrooms

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 8 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stems removed
  • ¼ cup Canal House Teriyaki Sauce

Directions:

1. Heat oil in a medium skillet over medium heat.  Add mushrooms and cook, tossing occasionally, until tender and golden brown, 8-10 minutes.

2. Add 2 tablespoons of water to skillet and cook, tossing mushrooms occasionally, until water is evaporated and mushrooms are tender, about 2 minutes longer.  Transfer mushrooms to a medium bowl and toss with teriyaki sauce.

Nutritional Information (makes about 8 servings): 92 calories, 3.5 g fat, 1.5 g fiber, 2.5 g sugar, 1 g protein

My Big, Fat, Vegan Super Bowl

Wow!  So it turns out, it’s extraordinarily difficult to stay on top of a good blog when you have a full time job.  Especially one like teaching, where you end up going in early, staying late, and still bring grading home with you.  But thanks to President’s Day weekend, I finally have a little breathing room to get caught up on my blog.  So a big thanks to Presidents Washington and Lincoln.  I’ll get you guys back when I teach the Revolutionary and Civil War periods.

Okay so I realize that Super Bowl was two weeks ago, but again, I’m working under the teacher time delay.  Super Bowl is one of those days where I really feel strained to be vegan.  I’m really not far enough into veganism to not still sometimes craze meat and dairy, and game day to me has always been synonymous with fried chicken wings and cheesy nachos.

To tamp down on those cravings, I decided to go full on vegan aggressive for our Super Bowl party this year, and spent as much time as possible between classes trolling the internet for the tastiest looking vegan game day foods I could find.  It was time to show my friends and family just how dang delicious vegan could be.

The following is my vegan spread for our game day, and I’ve linked to all the fantastic blogs that provided me with these recipes, should anyone be tempted to try them.

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1) Apple Nachos.  These might seem dessert-like – and they are – but that made no difference to my family.  I put them out first because they’re ridiculously simple, and they went so fast that I didn’t even get a chance to snap a picture of them before my nieces and nephews started devouring them.  I found this great recipe on Allyson Kramer’s website.  These could literally be done however you want; I personally skipped the pecans the original recipe called for because I knew the kids (and my boyfriend, for that matter, whose tastes in sweets run roughly parallel to a 12-year-old’s) wouldn’t love them.  I also pretty much drowned the apples in melted peanut butter and chocolate chips, and no one could keep their hands off this dish.

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2) Jalapeño Poppers.  This fabulous recipe was the one I was the most nervous about, because I’ve tried making more traditional jalapeño poppers when I was pre-vegan, and the recipe went pretty far south when I got to the frying part.  But this was one of my favorite unhealthy treats before, and I just couldn’t resist trying a vegan version.  It was a little ballsy of me to try something that had so much potential to go wrong for the first time on a day a lot of people were coming over, but they turned out fantastic!  They were actually a lot easier than I had anticipated to make, and they actually came out looking like the pictures online!  This one was also a favorite with my vegetarian sister and her husband.  Definitely an occasional treat thanks to the high fat and calorie content, but totally worth it to find a vegan version of one of my favorites.

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3) Vegan Chili.  I can’t actually take responsibility for this one; my mom brought it home for the win on this dish.  In a characteristic show of cooking solidarity, my mother, despite being non-vegan, offered to make a vegan dish to bring.  This chili was so incredibly satisfying, most people didn’t even notice there was no meat in it.  I don’t have a recipe for hers, but here’s another fantastic recipe for vegan chili that I made just a few days ago that I just can’t stop chowing down on!

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4) Blueberry Maple Barbecue Tempeh.  I know myself pretty well, and I knew that I was going to have to have some kind of meat substitute to control my desire to eat the homemade chicken wings my boyfriend also made that day.  It’s really challenging for me sometimes to maintain a vegan diet living with a non-vegan.  I recognize that it’s not even so much the animal foods I’m craving, but I’m missing that feeling of indulgence I get when I eat something unhealthy.  So whenever he’s making one of my former favorites, I try to have a similar vegan substitute.  I didn’t use an online recipe for this one; I found it buried in our recipe box, ripped from an old grilling magazine, so I’m going to provide the recipe below.  This was the first time I had ever cooked with tempeh, and the results for me were a little mixed.  The sauce was fantastic, but I think maybe just coating the tempeh and tossing it in a skillet was a mistake.  I’ve read that a lot of people boil the tempeh before either baking or frying it, so if I do this again, I’ll probably try that.

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5) Quinoa Pizza Bites.  These are amazing.  I tried making them the week before game day, and I loved them.  I knew I had to replicate them again as Super Bowl finger food.  I found this fantastic little recipe on Chocolate Covered Katie, and again, these went so fast that I didn’t even get a chance to take a picture of them!  So these photos are from her website (you can tell because her photos are way more awesome – I’m afraid photography isn’t one of my talents).

Well, that was my game day menu.  The food was the star of the day for me, because let’s face it: the game was a little lackluster.  (Way to go, Broncos.  Geez.)  I hope everyone else had a great day as well, and maybe some of the recipes will inspire someone to try the vegan version of their favorites!

Blueberry-Maple BBQ Sauce

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 cup finely chopped red onion
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • ½ cup bourbon
  • 2 cups fresh blueberries
  • ½ cup ketchup
  • 3 tablespoons pure maple syrup
  • 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
  • ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground allspice

Directions:

1. In a skillet heat oil over medium heat.  Add onion; cook and stir for 5 minutes or until onion is tender.  Add jalapeno pepper and garlic; cook and stir for 1 minute.  Remove skillet from heat.  Stir in bourbon.  Return skillet to heat; bring to boiling.

2. Meanwhile, in a large bowl use a potato masher to slightly mash blueberries.  Stir mashed blueberries, ketchup, maple syrup, vinegar, nutmeg, and allspice into skillet.  Bring to boiling; reduce heat.  Simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes or until thickened.  Transfer to a blender or food processor.  Cover and blend or process until smooth.  Makes 16 (2 tablespoon) servings.

Nutrition Info (2 tablespoons): 56 calories, 1 g fat, 85 mg sodium, 8 g carbs, 1 g fiber, o g protein

New Cuisine Discovery!! Chinese Hot Pot

Hot Pot

 

Photo Courtesy of The Vegetarian Times

My boyfriend J.D. came home from a business trip to China last weekend with lots of stories about a shady rickshaw driver, a too-friendly English-speaking Chinese couple who may or may not have wanted to drug him and sell his kidneys, and how a nice little guy tricked him and his colleague into going into what may or may not have been a brothel.  (Yeah, sure babe.  That’s what they all say.)  Fortunately, the trip wasn’t a total fiasco – aside from buying me a sweet new teapot set and visiting the Forbidden City, he came home with a new favorite food – Chinese hot pot.

If you had ever met him, you’d understand what a big thing for him to find a food he really likes.

I’m a foodie.  I love trying new foods and flavors.  While J.D. is willing to try pretty much anything, it’s kind of rare that he says anything about it other than, “Yeah, it’s good.”  End of story.  He’s got a couple favorites that he prefers to stick to for his everyday cuisine.  So of course, when he fell in love with hot pot, the first thing he did when he got home was found a hot pot restaurant in Las Vegas, where we live.  Since his mom is in town this week, Saturday night seemed like a perfect night to check it out.

We went to the Booming Spot Mini Pot, which is in Las Vegas’s Chinatown (yep, we have one too).  It was a total whole in the wall in a sort of cruddy little strip mall – so you know it’s gotta be good.  Those are somehow always the best.  It was wedged between a Chinese foot massage parlor and a storefront that simply read: “Immigration.  Taxes.”  So worst case scenario, even if it was terrible, we could at least salvage the night by getting a foot massage while we wait for someone to do our taxes.  Sounded win-win to me.

We went in and were greeted enthusiastically by a small, elderly, somehow homey Chinese women.  She was the stereotypical grandmother figure, and exactly the person I’d choose to serve me some authentic Chinese cuisine.  Since it was our first time there, she brought us a small tablet (the electronic kind, not the stone kind – although that would’ve been pretty impressive) and showed us pictures of the hot pot options.  She came back out with some Jasmine tea for me (I’m becoming such a tea addict) and took our order.

For those of you who have never had hot pot, it’s basically a sort of soup you eat piece-by-piece.  They bring out a wok that sits over a burner.  It’s filled with broth and a combination of vegetables, meat, seafood, or tofu, depending on your preference.  In China, the hot pot is typically communal, but as the name of the restaurant suggests, they brought each of us an individual “mini pot”.  (Which was still pretty darn big.)  To eat, you pick the hot pot contents out with your chopsticks and dip them into a sauce of your choice.  They also give you some rice to eat it with, and a spoon to drink the broth separately.

When I asked, I was pleased to learn that the contents of the pot pretty much make the broth – which means that, since I had a veggie pot, the broth was basically hot water with spices, sesame oil, a little teriyaki sauce, and bits of disintegrated veggies.

Oh my gosh.

This was one delicious meal.

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Yum! It took a lot of restraint for me to hold off digging in until after I snapped this photo.

My pot was full to the rim of veggies that were so varied, that I honestly could only identify about half of them.  In addition to tomatoes, green onions, potatoes, cabbage, and tofu, there were more types of mushrooms than I’ve probably eaten in my entire life.  After eating, I asked our waitress about a few of them, and then did a little google identification of my own.  Amongst others, there were white mushrooms, straw mushrooms, wood ear fungi, and – my favorite – enoki mushrooms.

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Enoki Mushroom

Photo courtesy of Strayed from the Table

As for sauces, it was a sort of sauce bar where you could choose and mix your own – I went with sesame paste with cilantro mixed in, and Chinese barbecue sauce with garlic oil and green onions.  SO good.

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I did what I could..but I didn’t even come close to the bottom of that bowl.

Despite my valiant efforts, I only made it about half way through the bowl – it was so filling!  J.D. did a bit better, but even he couldn’t finish his.  I polished off the Jasmine tea, though, and went home keen to explore making hot pot at home.  It should be lots of fun to spend hours browsing online for a good hot pot and utensil, all the while bugging J.D. while he tries to watch Overhaulin’ on the TV with attention-demanding comments like, “Ooh, babe, look at this one!  This one has a divider…”

The takeaway from this long-winded blog is: try this food.  Asian food has a tendency to be the most vegan-friendly kind of cuisine, and hot pot is no exception.  Plus, if you have a carnivorous significant other (like me), or if you’re just hanging out with non-vegetarian friends, this is a great option with something for everyone!

I Love You, Quinoa

Since the beginning of my “dabble” with veganism a year ago, I’ve been educated about a huge number of subtly – and sometimes not so subtly (think Thai food, people) – delicious flavors and textures that you can get without dipping even your baby toe into the pool of foods that come from our furry and feathered friends.  One of my new favorites is quinoa.

I know, I know.  I’m blogging like it’s 1999.  Any second now I’m going to start panicking about Y2K, right after I post about this crazy “Latin Invasion” and that sexy Ricky Martin who’s heating up the pop charts.

I get it.  It’s not like quinoa is this new thing – but it’s new to me, so humor me, will ya?

Anyway, I was a little confused by it at first.  Is it like rice?  Is it like couscous?  What do you do with it?  Do you mix it into a stir fry?  I just don’t get it.

Quinoa originates in the Andean region of South America, and is considered one of the “ancient grains” (so-called, I have to assume, because it was one of the many grains that was largely phased out by the advent of Europeans and the ever-prolific wheat and barley).  It comes in red, white, and black varieties, although white is probably the most common.  So why should you love this amazing little grain?  Let me count the ways…

1)      Protein.  Move over slabs of meat, mama’s got a brand new bag.  One cup of cooked quinoa has 8 grams of protein in it – that’s more than 15% of the daily recommended amount (which, let’s face it, is artificially inflated anyway).

2)      Fiber. Let’s keep it regular now – one cup of quinoa has 5 grams of fiber.  And if you’re not all that concerned about your bowel movements, here are some fun facts for you – fiber helps prevent heart disease, lowers cholesterol and glucose levels, and makes you feel more full because of its nutrient density!  Which means – you guessed it – you eat less.

3)      Iron. Ever get tired of people asking you, “But how do you get enough iron?  Aren’t most vegans anemic?”  I sure do.  Next time, feel free to remind them that one yummy cup of quinoa has 15% of your recommended iron intake.  Couple it with some nice, dark leafy greens in a salad, and you’re on your way.

4)      Versatility.  I’ve literally never met a veggie or salad that quinoa didn’t complement beautifully.  It’s perfect for forming the base of big veggie bowls, tastes great mixed up with some chopped vegetables and dressed as a cold salad, and can replace the much less nutritionally-sound white rice when you want to pour a nice vegan stew, chili or soup over something.

So, how do I get my quinoa on?  I have a couple favorites, but the one that I do most often is an Avocado and Black Bean Quinoa Salad.  Which, depending on your preference, could just as easily be called the Tomato and Onion Quinoa Salad.  Or the Broccoli and Cauliflower Quinoa Salad.  Or the Corn and Red Pepper Quinoa Salad.  (You get it – it’s versatile.)  I know that I got the idea for this salad from a website, but it’s been so long and I’ve played around with it so much that I don’t even remember which one anymore.  However, there are tons of similar ideas floating around the web, so if quinoa salad intrigues you just do a little googling and you’re bound to come up with an incredible array of options.

Anyway, I love making cold quinoa salad because it’s super simple and I almost always have the ingredients around the house, since half of them are non-perishable anyway.  For the veggies, I just chop up whatever I have around – bell pepper, broccoli, corn, onion, cauliflower, tomatoes, whatever.  For dressing, you can play around with different combinations of oil, vinegar (or citrus juice, which I like), and spices.  The following is my absolute favorite quinoa salad combination!

Avocado and Black Bean Quinoa Salad (serves 12)

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup uncooked red or white quinoa, rinsed and drained
  • 1 14.5 ounce can of reduced sodium black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 medium avocado, peeled, pitted and diced
  • 1 medium tomato, diced
  • 4-5 green onions, diced
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and diced
  • Lime juice, whatever 1 yields
  • 1 tbsp olive oil (I sometimes like to use hazelnut oil instead)
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • ¼ cup cilantro, chopped – optional
  • Fresh greens to serve it on – optional

Directions:

  1. Combine quinoa with 2 cups of water in a medium saucepan and bring to boil.  Reduce heat to simmer, cover, and cook for 10-15 minutes until all liquid is absorbed.
  2. Transfer the quinoa to another bowl and put in the fridge to cool slightly.  You don’t want the hot quinoa to make your other ingredients mushy or bad-tasting.  (If I’m really in a rush, I put the hot quinoa into a bowl and flatten it up against the sides to form a sort of valley in the middle.  That raises the amount of hot quinoa exposed to the cold air and lets it cool faster.  I’ll also stick it in the freezer sometimes, but if you do this, make sure you don’t forget it!)
  3. Combine the black beans, avocado, tomato, green onions, and jalapeño in a large bowl.  If you like cilantro, add it in here.  I know some people literally have a genetic predisposition to hate it, so if you can’t handle it, leave it out.
  4. In a smaller bowl, combine the lime juice, olive oil, and cumin and stir well.
  5. Combine the cooled quinoa (it doesn’t have to be really cold, just as long as it’s no longer steaming) with the rest of the ingredients.  Pour the lime-cumin dressing over the top and stir well to combine.  Salt and pepper to taste.  Chill for an hour or two before serving to give the flavors and chance to mingle a bit.
  6. If you like, serve the quinoa salad over a bed of fresh greens!

Again, this salad could taste good in so many different ways – if you hate one or two of the ingredients here, toss them out and find something in your cupboard you like!  Like I said, quinoa goes well with just about every veggie I’ve ever combined it with.  If you add avocado like I do, make sure you store it in an airtight container and eat it within a few days.  I find that the lime juice and the press of the cold quinoa suffice to keep the avocado pretty fresh for a while, but nothing gold can stay, my friend – eat it up while it’s still got that beautiful green color.  (Don’t worry – I’ve yet to have leftovers of this dish around long enough for it to go bad.)

Happy cooking!

Nutrition Info, 1 cup (makes about 12): 230 calories, 8 grams fat, 7 grams fiber, 8 grams protein, 2 grams sugar

What are your favorite ways to use quinoa?  Leave a comment and let me know!

The Worst Food Habits of My Life…and How I Formed New Ones

Habits can be a bitch.

Let me rephrase that.  Bad habits can be a bitch.

For the last 10 years of my life, I’ve spent most of my time cultivating a storm of bad habits –everything from procrastinating on work to the point of insanity, to studiously avoiding exercise, to regularly picking up fast food as a convenient and momentarily satisfying meal.  To my shame, these weren’t habits my parents taught me; I developed these all on my own, as an adult.  My health and self-esteem has suffered heartily from it.

My food habits were the worst of all the bad habits I developed.  In college, with no restraining hand on me, I would eat in the school’s cafeteria like every meal was my own personal all-you-can-eat buffet.  And you can bet I wasn’t at the salad bar, either.  Pizza, Mongolian wok, Belgian waffles, bagels, burgers, hot dogs, subs, animal protein-rich entrees dripping with grease and accompanied by overcooked canned veggies – my dining hall had them all, and every single one was a regular part of my daily smorgasbord.  And to make things worse, since I was now staying up as late as I wanted because most of my classes started around noon, I would get hungry at 11 or 12 at night and think nothing of running down to the late night student café and grabbing a full plate of fried chicken wings with French fries, ranch, and a 24 ounce soda.  Gross, I know.  But that was my life for years, and it’s little wonder I gained between 30 and 40 pounds during college.  Actually, it’s a miracle I didn’t gain more.

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Yep – college weren’t my best years. You can’t see it, but I’m pointing at a drink in my hand. Which also probably didn’t do much for my health.

I also started eating all my meals while I watched TV or movies or read a book, until I reached the point that I felt like I couldn’t really enjoy those things unless I was stuffing something unhealthy in my mouth.  Food comforted me, made me feel intensely satisfied – at least at the moment.  Then I’d spend the rest of the day berating myself for being weak-willed.

After college, my habits changed, but not really in a good way.  I no longer had a dining hall readily available, but suddenly I had a car and money and an internship that I finished around 3 pm every day.  So literally only a couple hours after my lunch hour, I’d be driving home, and I’d see that Panda Express.  Or that DQ.  Or that Burger King.  And I had nothing to prevent me from stopping and eating.  I had money in my pocket for it, an empty house to go home to with no one there to watch me eat and “judge me”, and usually a book or movie calling me to accompany it with a heaping helping of MSG.  Needless to say, my health didn’t noticeably improve.  I reached the point that I had been a bit overweight, unhealthy, and tired for so long that I really started to believe that I could never be any other way.  That I could never again feel as energetic and healthy as I did when I was a teenager.  After all, we all get old.  Can’t be young forever, you know.

In case you’re wondering, I came to this irrational conclusion when I was about 23.

So what happened?  Six years later, why am I not as unhealthy and unhappy with myself as I was then?  I’d like to say I came to some kind of epiphany, or I just reached the point where I couldn’t take it anymore, or I finally became sick and tired of being sick and tired, or whatever.  I’d like to give you some magical point where I turned the corner to lifelong improved health, but truthfulness prevents me from doing so.

Honestly, I was forced into change.  When I was 25, I joined the Peace Corps.  I spent the next two years living and working in a small village in the mountains of El Salvador, a 45 minute bus ride from the nearest town.  I was literally unable to access the heavily processed fast foods that I loved.  It didn’t matter if I was literally starving for a cheeseburger, I just couldn’t get it.  It’s not that Salvadoran food was super healthy, either – most women in my village had a pretty heavy hands with oils and salt in their food – but I had been overeating so badly in the U.S. that just eating more normal portion sizes helped me lose some weight and gain energy.

When I finally moved into my own little casita (little house) in the village, I found that I didn’t have to have super willpower to make healthy choices.  In the U.S., I was confronted with food literally everywhere I went – driving to and from work, the grocery store, getting my morning coffee – even places like tire shops and gas stations had a delicious and dizzying array of snacks they sold!  These places really had no business selling anything but their product, but in a culture that embraces constant, mindless snacking, there’s money to be made in having a couple of well-stocked vending machines.  In El Salvador, though, there was only one tiny little tiendita (small shop) in my village.  Admittedly, it was right next to my house, but being there as a Health and Sanitation volunteer kept me accountable – I couldn’t very well tell the women to feed their children mostly vegetables and rice, and then set the example of running to the tienda every day for a quota of soda and snacks.  There was literally only ONE time each week that I had to really focus on making healthy choices, and that was my weekly trip to the mercado.  All I had to do was buy a week’s supply of healthy foods, and then for the next week, I had no choice but to eat well.

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See, I told you.  Forced into change.

So how did I fare when I returned to the U.S., the land of the all-night drive thru?  Okay, at first.  I didn’t have a job, so it was easy to focus on working out constantly and making smart planning choices when it came to food.  After all, it’s not like I had anything else to do – I had the luxury of going to the gym twice a day if I felt like it, and spending two hours preparing a delicious, healthy meal.  My appetite had changed too, so I no longer felt able to eat the huge American portions normally served in restaurants.

Then I discovered, as so many others no doubt have, that it’s hard to combine both a busy and healthy lifestyle.  I got a boyfriend, got a job, and got 30 extra pounds in the bargain.  I was a first year teacher, and I was working 12 or 14 hours a day most days during the week, and 5 or 6 on weekends just to keep my head above water.  I was working so hard that it didn’t seem fair that I should have to worry about what I was eating or if I was exercising, too.  So I didn’t.

So what was my impetus for change this time?

I couldn’t very well leave the country for two years.  Leaving aside the issues of abandoning a new relationship and a job, it wasn’t exactly practical to go hide out in the mountains of El Salvador every time my body needed a reboot.  I simply had to root around inside me and find that willpower that I had convinced myself, at 23, I didn’t have.  Having been healthy and happy again for a few years, it was twice as miserable to return to the old me, because I knew I didn’t have to be that way.  I knew I could be healthy, because I had been.  All my excuses had been stripped away.

It was around this time that my vegetarian sister convinced me to watch the documentary Forks Over Knives.  It blew my mind.  For the first time I really considered that my diet wasn’t just about being skinny, but that it could have a lot of other serious health implications as well.  I had always thought that, since I didn’t eat a slab of bacon every morning for breakfast and plate-sized steak for dinner, and because relatively low blood pressure ran in my family, I was safe from diseases that I heard so many other people got.  I didn’t worry about heart disease or high blood pressure or strokes.  And I certainly never connected what I ate with cancer.  I just assumed with little family history of it, I was fine.

But for the first time, I took a long hard look at what I ate and wondered, “Am I doing myself and my body a disservice here?”  Sure, I could lose weight eating eggs and cheese and chicken, as long as I kept my overall daily calorie intake low.  But what difference does skinny make if you’re going to get breast cancer or colon cancer or have a heart attack down the road?

It was then that I began to dabble in veganism.  It has been an up and down journey for me.  Despite all I’ve learned about  factory farming, the connection between animal products and disease, and the impact of the animal food industry on the environment (and trust me, I’ve done a LOT of reading since that fateful day that I ordered Forks Over Knives on Netflix), bad habits are hard to shake.

Routines are everything.

I found that, when I got into the routine of making myself some healthy meals for the entire week on Sunday, I was a lot more likely to eat those delicious vegan entrees rather than those school cafeteria chicken fingers that were beckoning me.  The longer I’m eating well, the better I am at it.

I’ve also learned, much like I always tell my students, cheating is a bad idea.  A really bad one.

I have some friends who have found great success being flexible with their diet, allowing themselves to occasionally have a bit of whatever food would normally be off limits.  A piece of pizza here, a sliver of cheesecake there, and so on.  But you know what?  It doesn’t work for me.  If I let myself have the occasional chicken wing or slice of pizza, not only am I doing something not so great for my body (as with previous diets), I’m no longer eating in accordance with my values.

I also find that if I just have one slice of pizza, I’ll figure a second one won’t be so bad.  And pretty soon I’ve eaten half a pie, and virtually given up on eating the way I KNOW is best for me.

I’ve told you, ups and downs.

But here’s what I know.

Eating a healthy vegan diet does something good for me.  It’s not just making me physically healthier, it’s making me mentally healthier.  My mind and body feel good when the food I eat is in line with the values I hold dear.  It makes me more confident, more sure of my place in this world when I feel like I can honestly say, “I’m doing what I can at this moment to live my life in a way that I feel to be right.”

I went to a teacher’s convention in New York City last weekend (BEST place to be vegan, fyi), and because we had to tell the convention leaders if we had any food needs or preferences, for the first time in my life, I self-identified as a vegan.  I told people outside of my family that I didn’t eat animal products, and I couldn’t believe the sense of pride and self-acceptance that this single declaration gave me.  Just saying that and seeing the overwhelming curiosity about my lifestyle made me feel good about the choices I made.

So that’s it.  I’m slowly defeating the worst habits of my life by finding new ones.  By starting new routines.  By making the choices that will quite possibly save me from a lifetime of disease and unhappiness.  By living in accordance with what my conscience tells me is right. And most importantly, by recognizing the beauty of what my life can be, if I only let it.

Ode to Avocados

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I love avocados.

No, that’s a massive understatement.  I’m damn near addicted to avocados.  Give me a few more seasons of the ripe, creamy lusciousness that is the avocado, and I’m likely to be hiding out in the bathroom snorting them up my nose.

Okay just kidding.  That would be disgusting.  But I still love them, and eat them almost every day.

My love affair with the avocado has a long history, with a slow-burning start and a fiery finish.  When I was a teenager, I had no understanding of the fruit (yes, it is a fruit).  I spent most of my childhood in New Jersey, where Italian food is king and Latin American favorites like guacamole barely register.  Plus, avocado was green.  And therefore yucky.  But one day, someone talked me into trying guacamole, and with the face of a martyr, I complied.  All I could think was, “Wow, this is actually kinda good!”  That was the beginning for me.

But like I said, it was a slow burn.  Without lime, salt, onion, and tomato, I didn’t see much point in avocado, until I moved to El Salvador in 2010.  Despite not being grown anywhere near the village I lived in, the avocado was still ubiquitous in the Salvadoran diet.  Unlike what I was used to, Salvadorans almost never mashed it up for guacamole.  My host mother, Niña Angelita, used to take one of the thick, round tortillas they made there, and rip off a piece.  Then she would press the tortilla liberally into a small bowl of salt before scraping some avocado out of its skin.  I’d never seen avocado eaten plain like that so one day, when I ran low on my American-supplied stock of instant oatmeal, I asked Angelita for a tortilla and avocado.  I was amazed to find how tasty the fresh avocado and warm tortilla was together!  After that, I had a new breakfast favorite.

When I came back to the United States in 2012, I began experimenting with the avocado in all sorts of ways.  I started realizing that it added creaminess and moistness and flavor complexity to almost everything I made.  I was officially hooked.  Today, not a week goes by that I don’t have a liberal amount of avocados ripening in my kitchen.  (Admittedly, they’re the biggest and tastiest during the avocado season from spring to fall, but hey – beggars can’t be choosers.)

As a tribute to my absolute favorite and most versatile fruit of all time, I’ve counted down my top ten preferred uses for the avocado.

10) In guacamole.  An oldie but a goody, I love to mash a large avocado with chopped tomato and onion, squeeze a crap ton of lime juice on it, and finish it off with a sprinkle of salt.

9) In a quinoa bowl.  Quinoa is one of those miraculous grains I discovered when I started delving into veganism.  (What?!  You mean there are other grains besides wheat and rice??  Mind.  Blown.)  I found that I loved to mix up a cold quinoa salad with black beans (another new favorite), cilantro, some chopped veggies, and of course, avocado!  I dress it with olive oil, lime juice (which helps keep the avocado fresh for a few days), and sea salt.

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8) In a salad.  A simple option which never goes out of style, if I’m feeling like dressing is a little too oily or heavy for me (this happens a lot in the summer), I put some chopped avocado into a ziplock bag with some kale or spinach, and massage it gently until it coats most of the greens.  Then I chop up any colorful veggies I can find (they make my plate so happy!) and toss them on top!

7) In a lettuce cup with tomato and coconut bacon. Baconsaywhat???!  Yes, you heard me say bacon in a vegan blog.  Don’t worry, this bacon doesn’t put you in veggie jail, since it’s made out of coconut.  Does it taste exactly like bacon?  No, of course not.  Is it a fine approximation of bacon, which captures a  salty and sweet crispiness that pairs nicely with my favorite fruit?  You betcha!  I got this idea from the excellent blog Choosing Raw.  Check out the recipe here.

6) In a vegetable dip.  Another great, stolen idea that’s gonna blow your mind.  I got this one from Fat Free Vegan.  You’re not gonna believe this dip doesn’t have some kind of creamy ranch base to it – it’s actually low in calories and 100% dairy-free!

5) As a pasta sauce.  I’ve recently found that I love not only whole wheat pastas, but spiralized zucchini as a healthy, low-cal, gluten-free alternative.  Having gotten creative with my pasta base, I decided to get creative with my sauce.  I like to blend up some basil, garlic, avocado, and silken tofu to make a delicious vegan avocado pesto sauce.

4) In a sandwich.  This one’s pretty self-explanatory, but feel free to see my previous post to see what I’m talking about!

3) On a burrito. Who says a burrito has to be stuffed with ground beef, cheese, and sour cream?  I like to combine brown or wild rice (or whatever other grain floats your boat) with black beans and season it with stuff like cumin and smoked paprika for a base.  Then I toss on chopped cilantro, onion, tomato, and avocado, put it all on a homemade whole wheat tortilla, and squeeze some lime over the whole darn mess!

2) In hummus.  I won’t lie, avocado is da bomb dot com in hummus.  (My teenage students also love my sweet 90s slang.  Don’t worry, it’ll totally grow on you.  Probably.)  Blend up some drained chickpeas, avocado, olive oil, lemon juice, tahini, and a pinch of sea salt for a super delish twist on this Mediterranean staple.

And, my absolute, 100%, total, complete, and utter favorite of ALL avocado uses is…

1) Sliced on toast!!!  I know, a little anticlimactic, right?  I’m not gonna apologize.  A little salt on top of sliced avocado toast changes the whole dimension of the fruit!  I would eat this for breakfast, lunch, and dinner if I didn’t think that such a practice would literally turn me into a walking avocado and force my boyfriend to dump me.  Because honestly, is it really fair to ask him to continue to live with a woman who’s suddenly morphed into a giant (albeit delicious) piece of produce just cuz she can’t keep her hands off the avocados?  I ask you.

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And that’s it folks.  My ten favorite uses of the avocado.  (Phew.  That took me a lot longer than I anticipated.)  If anybody out there has anymore ingenious uses, I’d love to hear them!  I’m open to a new avo recipe any day.  :)

The Simplest Sandwich. Ever.

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This blog isn’t really meant to be a recipe blog.  There are an incredible amount of highly talented bloggers out there who cook, photograph, and share their delicious vegan creations.  I’m not that creative in the kitchen.  I love following creative recipes, but I’m not so good at the improv.

That said, I’d like to share a recipe.

Actually, it’s not really a recipe, and it’s not really that exciting, but if there’s anyone out there like me, sometimes you just need something super basic that you can make super quickly for lunch.  And that’s going to keep you from eating something super unhealthy instead.  I was both delighted and chagrined when I first started dabbling in veganism and realized that there are all sorts of yummy unhealthy foods out there that I already loved which are 100% vegan.

Like nutter butters.  And fritos.  And oreos.  And those glazed individual pies that I find so addictive, I think they may actually be sprinkled with crack.

In any case, I might avoid cancer and assuage my conscience eating those, but I’m not doing anything for my waistline.  And I’m really terribly vain.  So last Sunday, I was sitting around being unenthused about my lunch prospects.  I have a tendency to make a large amount of a couple meals in advance, and then eat them all week long.  Which as you might imagine, gets a bit redundant.    I was getting a little tired of my giant salads and zucchini pasta, so I decided to see what I could throw together based on the contents of my fridge.

I was really craving a sandwich, but to me, a good sandwich has to be really heartily packed and moist to be delicious.  In the past, my favorite sandwiches have been full of Italian meats and cheeses, usually slathered with some kind of mayo-based spread.  I’ve never really believed that a sandwich with “just vegetables” could measure up to those standards, but I thought I’d take a stab at it anyway.

After rooting around the fridge, I came up with romaine lettuce, tomato, onion, cucumber, and (the ultimate vegan sandwich treasure!) avocado.  I love avocados pretty much everywhere and anywhere.  In salads, sliced on toast with salt, in pastas and cooked dishes…literally everywhere.  I don’t know how I forgot this, but avocados are fantastic at adding that moistness and bit of healthy fat that can replace mayo.  I also wanted a bit more flavor than the vegetables alone could provide.  I initially considered making my own hummus or pesto spread or something (I’ll talk about that another day), but I really didn’t have the ingredients or the patience at the moment.  It was looking like a bland sandwich until I remembered that my mom had brought me a giant basket of goodies for Christmas, which included a variety of specialty mustards from Trader Joe’s!

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After much deliberation, I picked the Basil Mustard.  It gave my sandwich a pungent, pesto-y, mustard-y flavor that I loved.   In the end, toasted bread packed with vegetables and a flavorful spread made for a sandwich that left my former meat-and-cheese filled creations in the dust.  I’m sure the food snobs of the world would disapprove, but overall, I found a surprising amount of satisfaction in the simplicity of my sandwich!

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