Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Vegan Comfort Food: Grilled "Cheese"

I loved grilled cheese as a kid, and that love affair continued well into my teenage years and adulthood.  Grilled cheese was a great high school kids on a suburban rampage, 3:00 a.m. Jersey diner meal, and also a nice, quick thing to make when I was tired, cranky or otherwise wanted to feel like less of an adult.

And sometimes, I just crave it.  Tonight was one of those nights.  While attempting peacock pose in tonight's yoga class (and by attempting, I mean getting one foot off the floor, whacking my forehead on my mat and falling over), I kept having the same thought - "You know, I really want grilled cheese for dinner."

I decided this might be a great opportunity to give yet another one of my childhood favorites a vegan, whole grain make-over.  I started with seven grain bread from a local bread company, Spring Mill Bakery.   The bread has a great texture, and a touch of sweetness from honey. All of their breads are made with whole grains, and have no preservatives or high fructose corn syrup.  Locals, you can pick up this bread from seven area locations, and perhaps even at a local store.  Ours came from Grosvenor Market.

To get the nice, crispy browning effect that is the hallmark of truly excellent grilled cheese, I spread both slices of bread with soy-free Earth Balance, a vegan butter substitute.  The Earth Balance website notes a number of nutritional advantages in comparison to butter or margarine, namely a good amount of Omega-3 fatty acids and no trans fats.  If you want to try Earth Balance and don't care about whether it has soy or not, you can get it at pretty much any supermarket.  However, if, like me, you are soy allergic or severely soy intolerant, your best bet is Whole Foods, which carries multiple types of the spreads.

For the cheese, I used cheddar style daiya.  You've heard me wax rhapsodic about daiya before, but, to recap, it's a vegan cheese alternative with no soy ingredients, and it's also free of lactose and casein, which more and more folks are realizing they have sensitivities to.  It has a "meltyness" that most vegan cheeses lack, and meltyness is another crucial element of a yummy grilled cheese.  Since it comes in shredded form and melts more slowly than traditional cheese, you need a little more dexterity during the flipping process than you might with a traditional grilled cheese.  Daiya is available at Whole Foods and MOM's in the DC area, and also at Wegmans, Kroger, Giant Eagle and a host of other natural and traditional supermarkets.

A traditional side to a grilled cheese is either french fries or potato chips, but, since this is a healthy make-over as well as a vegan one, I paired mine with fresh cherry tomatoes and Brad's Raw Kale Chips in the Vampire Killer flavor.  A serving of kale chips provides 140% of your Vitamin A, as well as five grams of fiber, and only 0.5 grams of saturated fat.  Beats potato chips any day!

The result?  Same great grilled cheese flavor and crunchy/cheesy texture, but without any animal products, and filling in a satisfying, rather than heavy way.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Adventures in Spices: Smoked Paprika and Za'atar

Awhile ago, I had bought some smoked paprika and za'atar with the intention of using them to season homemade pita chips.  I still haven't gotten around to making the pita chips, but I did decide to experiment with the seasonings in tonight's concoction.

Smoked paprika is sometimes  referred to as "Smoked Spanish Paprika."  It's made from "smoked, ground pimiento peppers," and, not shockingly knowing it's alias, it can be found featured in Spanish cusisine.

When I bought the smoked paprika at Whole Foods, the cooking consultant who helped me locate it recommended I pair it with Za'atar, a "mixture of sumac, sesame seed and herbs frequently used in the Middle East and Mediterranean areas."

Tonight, I put some wild rice up in the rice cooker. While that was bubbling away, I sauteed a finely diced Vidalia onion in olive oil and stirred in some cremini mushrooms, chickpeas, diced yellow pepper, shredded carrots, minced garlic and kale.  I stirred in the cooked rice and seasoned the whole thing with a teaspoon of Za'atar and half a teaspoon of the smoked paprika.  I definitely got the smokiness I expected from the paprika.  And, it was a nice flavor adventure compared to my typical Italian (oregano, basil) or Mexican (cumin, cilantro) influenced concoctions.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Kombuch-What? Adventures in New Beverages

My friend Elena and I hit Cafe Green yesterday for a post yoga dinner.  For those of you unfamiliar with Cafe Green, it's a sit-down restaurant on 17th Street in Dupont with an organic vegan menu and a nice selection of raw dishes.  I enjoyed a Vegan Cheeseburger, which was soy free, topped with daiya and served on a whole grain roll.  The ingredients included "sprouted quinoa, lentils, and seven fresh veggies, including kale and mushroom." Other than $4 for a "side salad" which was a teensy bit skimpy, no complaints here.  We also both had vegan (and again soy free!) vegan cheesecake, which I enjoyed immensely.  I really appreciate how well the menu is labelled for folks with allergies - items are clearly marked as gluten free, nut free or soy free, which makes it easy for diners with food sensitivities and more severe allergies to pick a dish they'll enjoy.

The real fun treat of the night was me trying Kombucha for the first time.  I've heard people talk about it, but I've never had the opportunity to try it.  What is Kombucha, you may ask?  According to the Mayo Clinic:

Kombucha tea is a fermented drink made with tea, sugar, bacteria and yeast. Although it's sometimes referred to as kombucha mushroom tea, kombucha is not a mushroom — it's a colony of bacteria and yeast. Kombucha tea is made by adding the colony to sugar and tea, and allowing the mix to ferment. The resulting liquid contains vinegar, B vitamins and a number of other chemical compounds.
Health benefits attributed to kombucha tea include stimulating the immune system, preventing cancer, and improving digestion and liver function. 

I will note that the article then goes on to note that there are no medical studies that really support this, and that some people do have adverse reactions to it, so the Mayo Clinic recommends proceeding with caution.   Other folks swear by its disease curing properties.  I actually wasn't aware of any of the medical claims or concerns when I tried it.  I just like trying new foods that don't make me sneeze.

Anyhow, I had Synergy's Trinity flavor and enjoyed it.  It was flavored with raspberry, lemon and ginger, which offset the sour tang I understand plain kombucha can have.  The bubbles were quite refreshing.  I definitely could see me enjoying it a few times a week, medical miracles or no.  All I know is that it tasted good and my stomach felt just fine afterwards.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Happy Father's Day! Black Bean Burgers & Peach and Berry Pie

This Father's Day, my parents, my fiance & I headed to my soon to be in-laws for a BBQ.  My favorite vegetarian barbeque recipe is my version of the black bean burgers from Tosca Reno's Eat Clean Diet Cookbook.  My tweaks include using one whole egg instead of two egg whites, kale instead of celery leaves and extra sunflower seeds instead of flax seeds.  I also leave out the curry powder, since I don't usually have that in the house.  The recipe is super easy - dump everything in a food processor, mix well and bake. They reheat exceptionally well in an oven or toaster.  Microwaving them might make them a bit soggy.

For dessert, I made a peach, blueberry and raspberry pie based on a peach & blueberry pie recipe in a cookbook we just refer to as "The Book."  "The Book" never fails to produce hit desserts.  It's actual title is Baking, by Martha Day.  The one catch is that all of the amounts are written in ounces, so you either need a kitchen scale or a desire to do a lot of math.  There are also websites that do conversions for you - just remember that there are different conversions for dry and liquid measures.

One different thing I did with this pie versus the previous pies was to make the crust in our brand spanking new 14-cup Cuisinart food processor.  Previously, I've made pie crust by hand using a pastry blender, as well as in our Kitchen-Aid mixer.  Having sampled multiple versions of my pie experiments, my family said the processor made the best crust, and I'd have to agree.  The blades help the butter incorporate much more evenly into the flour, and the ice water mixes in quite nicely as well.

Fresh fruit pies can be super juicy, so if you do make one from scratch, put a cookie sheet under it to help catch drips and spatters.  You also might consider wrapping the edges in foil or using a pie shield to prevent the edges from burning, especially if your pie takes more than a half an hour to bake.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Butternut Squash for Breakfast

The other day on Facebook, I asked my friends to help me get out of my breakfast rut with some easy vegan and vegetarian morning meals that didn't involve toast.  I got a number of great ideas, including smoothies, veg baked goods and egg dishes.

This morning, I tried out a dish suggested by my friend and fellow yogi Melissa: butternut squash, dried cranberries and pecans with maple syrup.  It was super easy to prepare, thanks to the pre-cut butternut squash I picked up from Whole Food's fresh-cut section.  I did dice the squash up a bit more for faster cooking, but a good, sharp knife helped that go quickly.  It took three minutes for the squash and cranberries to warm up in the microwave, and then I tossed in the pecans and drizzled on the maple syrup.

I love the combination of butternut squash and dried cranberries to begin with, and adding in the maple syrup gave it some nice sweetness that is a real treat in the morning.  The pecans added a nice textural element and some additional protein.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Essential Tools (and some fun gadgets) for a Busy Vegetarian's Kitchen

If you're not going to be cooking out of a box, you are going to need some tools and gadgets in your kitchen.  Here are some items I use frequently in my own kitchen (or have gotten recently as wedding presents and plan to put in heavy rotation soon!), ranked from must haves to fun splurges:

Must Haves
Good knives: If you are going to be chopping veggies frequently, a good sharp knife will make your life much easier.  Your prep will go much faster, and you're more likely to have nice, even pieces.  While on the pricey side, these Wustof knives have made my prep go much more smoothly than my bargain basement ones.  In all fairness, we got ours as shower and wedding gifts.  In other words, they make a great gift for the vegetarian cooks in your life! But, you can easily get good, sharp knives at different price points - ask a salesperson for their recommendations.

Saute pans:  I do a lot of stovetop cooking.  It's a healthy way to prep food, and it's often faster than anything you'll make in the ovedn.  Having a nice big saute pan helps with cooking everything evenly, and it's great for one dish concoctions like the ones I often make during the week.  A pan with a lid, like this Calphalon one, also helps when you are steaming down greens like spinach, kale and chard.  Or, get an oven safe pan that you can use both on the stovetop and in the oven for things like frittatas.

Steamer Basket: I like to stream fresh broccoli, cauliflower and lima beans, rather than reheat frozen.  You get a much more vibrant color and better texture.  We do so much steaming that we registered for this nice insert, but we've also had luck with this simple metal one and this silicone one.

Glass Lock Storage Containers: These are my favorite containers for leftovers.  They've got nice, secure latches for bringing meals to work or on the road, and they are microwave and dishwasher safe.  We have a whole stack of them, and it's cut down on our plastic container and bag usage quite a bit. 

Mini Whisk: A large whisk can be cumbersome if you're only beating two eggs or making a small amount of vinaigrette.  Having a few mini whisks on hand makes mixing small portions of food less clumsy, and it takes up less space in your kitchen drawer than a standard whisk.

Fun Additions That Won't Break the Bank
Pizza Stone: Making homemade pizza is a lot of fun, and it's great for parties.  You can make your own dough or buy a store bought crust.   Either way, sprinkling your dough on cornmeal and baking it on a pizza stone in a hot oven makes things extra tasty.  This one by Oneida is very affordable and gets good reviews on Bed Bath & Beyond.

Mini Chopper: I've had this mini-chopper since I got my first apartment after college.  It's great if you have a small kitchen or aren't cooking for a lot of people.  I use it to make pesto,  to mince onions and hot peppers for guacamole and to shred carrots for kugels and other baked dishes.  We now have a big food processor for when we're making a bigger recipe, but I still use the mini when I'm cooking for just the two of us.  A similar product that's also good is this hand chopper.  I use mine to mince garlic almost every day.

Microplane: Adding citrus zest is a great way to incorporate a bright flavor into baked goods and other dishes.  A microplane helps grate lemon, lime and orange peels finely.  You can also use it on hard cheeses.

Rice Cooker: If you're making a lot of rice, it might be worthwhile to invest in a rice cooker.  I prefer the texture of rice cooker rice to boiled rice.  It also cuts the cooking time down, and you can essentially ignore it while it's cooking.  I've steamed rice with water, and made yellow rice with veggie broth and tumeric.  You can also use it for quinoa.  We have one that's essentially a family heirloom of the fiance's, but if we're ever in the market for a new one, I'd probably get something like this.

Stand Mixer: My lust for a Kitchen-Aid stand mixer became a running family joke.  My mother got us one as a housewarming gift last summer, and it's been in rotation ever since.  I do bake a lot, so I use it for cake batter and pie crusts.  It's also great for pizza dough, kugels and anything you'd normally make with a hand beater.

Mandoline Cutter: My mother got this mandoline for us as a shower gift.  It helps make even slices, as well as cut your vegetables with some texture.  I anticipate using it for eggplant dishes, vegetable napoleons and to make crinkle cut oven baked "fries."

Panini Press: We're big panini fans.  There's endless vegetarian combinations - roasted red peppers, spinach and portabello mushrooms with cheese or a vegan cheese are particularly yummy.  I'm looking forward to using this Griddler to make paninis, along with some fun breakfast items.  If you're not up for a splurge, you can get a similar effect with a countertop sandwich maker or a George Foreman grill.

Photo courtesy of Michelle Meikeljohn.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Chayote Squash - What Is It and What Will I Cook With It?

A month or so ago, I could have sworn I saw an article in Clean Eating or Vegetarian Times that made burritos with chayote squash.  I was determined to try it, but the chayote was elusive.  The local market?  Negatory - they don't go more exotic than a yellow bell pepper.  The Giant near our apartment?  Nada.  The Safeway by my yoga studio where I'd sworn I'd seen them dozens of times?  Not a single chayote in sight.  Ditto for two Whole Foods Markets and a Balduccis.  Just when I thought there was some sort of mysterious chayote shortage, some finally popped up at the local Giant and I snagged them right away.

Today, when I went to make said burrito dish, I realized I either hallucinated the recipe or misplaced the magazine.  So, I decided I'd work the chayote into a concoction.

Mind you, I had no idea how the chayote should be prepared or what it should taste like, so I turned to the trusty internet.  Per Wikipedia:

The Chayote in all it's glory.
The chayote (Sechium edule) . . . is an edible plant that belongs to the gourd family Cucurbitaceae along with melons, cucumbers and squash.  Chayote is native to Mesoamerica where it is a very important ingredient to the diet. Other warm regions around the globe have been successful in cultivating it as well. The main growing regions are Costa Rica and Veracruz, Mexico. Costa Rican chayotes are predominantly exported to the European Union whereas Veracruz is the main exporter of chayotes to the United States.

Interestingly enough, the chayotes I bought were from Costa Rica, so maybe there is something to this shortage thing . . . but I digress.

The chayote fruit is used in both raw and cooked forms. When cooked, chayote is usually handled like summer squash, it is generally lightly cooked to retain the crisp flavor. Raw chayote may be added to salads or salsas, and it is often marinated with lemon or lime juice. It can also be eaten straight, although the bland flavour makes this a dubious endeavor. Whether raw or cooked, chayote is a good source of amino acids and vitamin C.

I did taste a bite of the raw chayote and it was fairly bland, like a watered down apple.   So, I decided to put it in a cooked dish.

 We had half a red onion in the fridge, so I minced that up.  I diced one of the unpeeled chayotes (you get more out of one than you'd realize - there's no seeds or pit to scoop out) and stripped an ear of fresh corn.  At the same time, I also started up a pot of quinoa. 

In my big saute pan, I heated up some olive oil and sauteed the onions and corn, and then added the chayote and seasoned the mix with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper.   I bashed up four or so cloves of garlic and threw that in, along with about a teaspoon of cumin and juice from half a lemon.  I then took the whole thing off the heat and stirred in some fresh cilantro leaves.

To serve, I grabbed some mixed lettuce, and tossed 1/4 of the quinoa with about a cup of the bean and chayote mixture to put on top of it.  I reached for my faux cheese initially, but I decided it would be better without it.

The cooked chayote had a nice crunchy texture, and it picked up the flavors from the seasonings and the rest of the dish.  I anticipate eating the leftovers cold on a salad, or as a burrito filling, or even in an omelet.  I may also add some avocado to it once the two on my counter are at peak ripeness.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Fruit-Tastic Dinner

It was 98 today in DC.  Outside, I don't mind the heat so much.  But, after watching three trains pass me by in an overcrowded Metro station and half an hour in a metro car where the air was barely blowing, I felt more than a bit wilted, and the last thing I wanted was a hot heavy meal.

This is where my fruit-tastic dinner came in.  Fruit makes a great component to a summertime meal.  Not only do you have a lot of variety to choose from, but the high water content and the vitamin content help me feel replenished after a hot day.  Also, if you eat it raw, it's just prep and serve, no waiting for the oven to heat up (or make your apartment stifling).

Tonight in addition to some not heated leftover couscous and a Quorn patty*, I enjoyed some fresh raspberries and green grapes, as well as a little salad of ripe avocado, cherry tomatoes, lime juice and salt and pepper.  It filled me up, but also helped me cool down on such a hot day.

Most people think of oranges when it comes to Vitamin C, but raspberries are also a good source of C, with 47% of the RDA.  And while some people are scared off by the fat and calorie content of the avocado, this fruit means you're getting fiber, potassium and the healthy fats that help your body absorb nutrients.

*Yes, I know . . . it was only a few days ago I was promising to back away from the fake meat.  After today's lousy commute, I thought I'd cut myself some slack.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Taking A Step Back from The Fake Meat

Believe it or not, this was done in 15 minutes!
I've been following Vegetarian Times' 28-Day Veg Bootcamp, which is designed to help you kick start a vegetarian diet.  While I consider myself officially kick started, I thought it would be fun to look at some tips and get inspired.

I also got a nice good reminder about something that's pretty important.

Meat substitutes are bona fide health foods.

In the same way that meat wasn't meant to be a human's primary food source, neither are meat's vegetarian doppelgangers designed to be consumed in mass quantities. Like other processed foods, they should be eaten in moderation, but they certainly can play a part in a healthy diet. For optimum health, resist the urge to rely on packaged meat substitutes to form the basis of every meal, and approach them like treats instead. That way, you'll have time to get acquainted with all the wonderful whole foods out there that make terrific meal centerpieces: meaty mushrooms, hearty squashes, rustic root vegetables, and satisfying grains.

I used to pride myself on avoiding processed meat substitutes.  It was easy for me to do it, given most of them are mainly soy.  Lately, I realize I've been getting a little giddy about soy-free meat substitutes.  In the process, I've gotten away from the core of how I like to cook: fresh veg, whole grains, natural proteins.

So, tonight, I decided to get back to basics and cook a meal that was both convenient and 100% fresh.  I had some Israeli couscous that I grabbed from the bulk bin at Whole Foods a few weeks ago.  While that was cooking up, I sauteed shallots, portabello mushrooms, tomatoes, cannelini beans, garlic and tons of fresh spinach, seasoning it with freshly ground pepper, sea salt, oregano, basil and red pepper flakes.  I combined the couscous with the veg and added in some vegetable broth to help the cooking along.

I did a couple of things to up the convenience factor.   First, I used a really good knife.  The higher quality the knife, the more smoothy and quickly chopping goes.  However, I also used pre-washed and pre-cut mushrooms and bagged baby spinach, both of which cut my prep time further.  To get the garlic minced, I used a Hand Chopper, rather than cutting it by hand.  Canned beans are practically instant - open, rinse and add to pan.  Since Israeli couscous cooks in 8-10 minutes, I had dinner on the table a little more than 15 minutes from when I started.

Now, I still expect to enjoy Quorn and Grain Meat Company products from time to time - they're not junk food, after all.  But, I clearly have the ability to cook a convenient meal with fresh ingredients, and it's worth the effort.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Choosing My Plate: Veggie Loaf with a Side of Mushrooms and Spinach

Those of you who follow me on Twitter know I was super excited about today's USDA announcement of Choose My Plate, especially about the recommendation to make half your plate fruits and vegetables.  Even before I was a vegetarian, I tended to have a ton of fruits and veggies with every meal, and, now that I've given up most animal products, I'm eating more produce than ever before.

So, I kept Choose My Plate in mind with tonight's meal - half a plate of veggies, 1/4 protein and 1/4 grains.

I decided to try The Field Roast Meat Company's Classic Meatloaf.  The "Meatloaf" is made from a variety of veggies - carrots, celery, onions, tomatoes, garlic, etc., along with some whole greans and soy-free, vegan friendly protein. To prepare the "Meatloaf," you put it on a baking sheet, baste it with ketchup and let it cook in a 350 degree oven for 25 minutes.  When it's done, slice and serve (and douse with more ketchup - it definitely needed a little more moisture).

For my veggie half, I sauteed red onions and portabello mushrooms in olive oil, then stirred in fresh baby spinach and fresh chopped chives.  I topped the veggies with toasted pine nuts and mozzarella style daiya.  Loved how the veggie mixture came out!  I am usually impatient with cooking mushrooms but I let these go until they really had cooked through, and it was worth the wait.  The pine nuts added a nice crunchy texture to the dish as well.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Best Bets for Salads in Downtown DC

The salad is underappreciated as a lunchtime option, in my opinion.  It's often pooh-poohed as diet food when it has the potential to be a full, hearty meal.  Also, when it's face-meltingly hot and humid like was in Downtown DC, a salad is a lot easier to digest than a heavy sandwich or hot meal.

Like literally thousands of DC area folks, I work in a part of town known as Farragut.  There's no shortage of lunch options in Farragut, including multiple places to grab a vegetarian friendly salad at lunch.  And, since a number of these places are regional or national chains, perhaps they're an option in your neighborhood as well.

Chop't:  There are seven Chop't locations in the DC area, including two in Farragut (Connecticut between 16th & K, 19th between L & M) as well as locations in Dupont, Gallery Place/Chinatown, Metro Center, Union Station and Rosslyn.  If you haven't been to a Chop't, the concept is simple - you choose your lettuce, "choppings" (aka toppings) and dressing.  The staff will then chop your salad with a giant mezzaluna, put your salad in a bowl or a wrap, and send you on your way.

What I like most about Chop't is the selection - you can choose different kinds of lettuces, and there's a terrific variety of ingredients, including a variety of nuts, seed, beans and grains that make your salad veg friendly.  If you eat cheese, you can get harder to find cheeses like cotija.  Also, with late hours, you can also pick up a salad for dinner if you are so inclined.

Tip: The Chop't I frequent at 19th & L has lines out the door at lunchtime, and I'm sure other locations experience the same high traffic.  The good news is that you can order online and your salad will be ready for you in a decent interval of time.  I've done it a few times, and I was in and out the door before the people outside finally made it into the doorway.

Sweetgreen: Sweetgreen has seven locations in the DC area.  While there are none in Farragut, there are two locations in Dupont, one in Georgetown and one on The Hill, as well as locations in Bethesda and NoVA.  While there are less ingredients to choose from than Chop't, the quality of the toppings is outstanding, and there are unique items like spicy quinoa and hearts of palm.  It's also easy to tell from the menu which salads are vegan and which are vegetarian, and you can also use their nutrition calculator if you're tracking calories, nutrients, etc.  They're also open late if you want to grab items for dinner.

Tip: Sweetgreen often features seasonal specials featuring local produce, so stop by often to see what's new on the menu.

Mixt Greens: Mixt Greens has two DC locations, both convenient to Farragut, as well as a location in Bethesda.  Both salads and sandwiches are available, and there are a number of vegetarian and vegan options.  The downtown locations close at 4, but sometimes they have "summer hours" where they're open later.  You can also order online.

Tip: If you have food allergies, ask to see the nutrition guide.  The very helpful staff can help you find something appropriate for your dietary needs.

Some other decent options include:

Cosi - Lots of locations, but a limited vegetarian salad menu compared to other chains nearby.  Sandwiches also available, including two vegetarian options. 

The Brown Bag - Three DC locations (two in Farragut), as well as in Bethesda and NoVA.  Two vegetarian (one vegan) salads on the menu, along with make your own options.  You can also get sandwiches and pasta.  They do close early, so picking up a late dinner is not an option.

Pret a Manger - Three DC locations, two of which are convenient for Farragut.  Unlike all the places
above, everything is pre-made.  While the ingredients are very high quality, there are no substitutions or tweaks to menu items. The Farmers Market salad is vegan, and the website provides helpful tips on what sandwich, salad and wrap items are vegetarian.

Salad Photo Courtesy of Master Isolated Images.