Sunday, April 5, 2015

Holy Costco!

One of the major complaints I hear about veganism is how expensive it is, for any number of reasons, ranging from "I need to restock my pantry" to "vegan food just costs more." Personally, I have found that going vegan is actually a money saver. Meat is expensive! While vegan processed food can often times cost more (although I push back on this, too, as more mainstream places like Target have started carrying numerous brands at good prices), if you tend towards a more whole foods, plant-based diet, you will find that purchasing vegan staples is actually quite inexpensive, without needing to rebuild a pantry from scratch with exotic ingredients.

Now where you purchase those ingredients makes a difference, of course. For example, if you get fresh in season produce at a farmer's market, your bill will certainly go down. When things are out of season, I lean very heavily on frozen organic produce, which is of excellent quality with a great price to match.

Of course, where you buy your food will make a difference, too. I unabashedly love to shop at Whole Foods, and I truly believe you can do well there, pricewise. Greg is not as entirely onboard as I would like. However, when he goes to other grocery stores, I'm not convinced he's saving much money, and he's rarely finding things I like and need, like frozen organic produce or BPA-free cans.

And then, like a beacon of light, we found the place that settled the score for both of us: Costco. I've heard the stories about how great Costco can be for a vegan, and frankly, there are other blogs that have done a great job of breaking down how wonderful Costco can be. I think East Meets West Veg probably has my favorite post on this topic, so I will direct you there for the best guidance. But after Greg visited Costco with his dad to do a little reconnaissance work, I just wanted to regale you with some of our tremendous finds to show why we joined (and finally take full advantage of our deep freezer), in short order!

Most people associate Costco with the Kirkland brand - and no shame there, as Kirkland has great stuff. But Costco also has tremendous name brands. Behold: Muir Glen Tomatoes! Six cans for $6.89, my friends. And there were other great brands, too. I have Mori-Nu Tofu and Gardein coming out of my ears!

Definitely do not eschew the Kirkland brand, however. Otherwise, you would miss out on one pound of vanilla for $6.99.

Or, our most amazing purchase of the day: 48 ounces of minced garlic for $4.49. THAT IS NOT A TYPO.

Did I mention Costco's amazing fresh produce selection? I love me some cherry tomatoes, and we got this huge package of them for $3.99.

These veggies patties are just the best! Pick up 12 for $13.99, just like we did. A bit of a splurge, yes, but they are really tasty without any weird franken-ingredients.

And Costco's organic frozen selection is simply amazing as well. Our freezer is full of broccoli, corn, peas - you name it, we have it! We also picked up this neat organic quinoa and kale mix. Part of the reason I don't cook with quinoa more is I often forget to prepare it ahead of time and have it ready to go. Not only is this quinoa easy to zap...

...but like many Costco frozen items, that giant bag is actually comprised of five smaller bags, so you can prepare reasonable portions as you need them. SWOON!

So what can I say, except get thee to Costco and get saving on your vegan diet, pronto!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Planning Ahead for the Work Week

I have confessed in the past that I understand the virtues of planning meals ahead of time but that my execution is lackluster at best. Now that I'm back to work, I will admit that I am still uneven in this area, but I have found that the weeks where I plan ahead make all the difference in the world - especially for lunch.

What is it about lunch that makes or breaks things? I love eating out, but my bank account surely does not. Yet when I'm in a time crunch during the week, my creativity simply evaporates and I start to consider an ascetic lifestyle where maybe I don't have to cook so much.

But then, my wonderful friend Sonjmarie came over one day on maternity leave, cooked us a ton of food, and left it in our fridge. Both her company and the delectable meals she left behind were delightful. One of the things she prepared for us was baked ziti, which was both marvelous and flipped a light switch in my head - hey, why don't I make a pan of ziti over the weekend and either freeze it or bring it in for lunches during the week? And a cheap week's worth of meals was born!

The nice thing about baked ziti is that it super adaptable for both palates and wallets and continues to be super easy to make. For example, I love to make it with Daiya shreds, but Greg doesn't like any cheese (vegan or otherwise), so I leave it out of his portion. I also tend to use Beyond Meat lightly seasoned chicken, particularly because my local Whole Foods regularly offers $1 off  coupons for it, but if you don't like that or it's a little expensive, simply use something like beans or veggie-based mock meat crumbles that's on sale - or nothing at all! I promise, it will still be delicious.

I apologize for the lack of pictures, but frankly, this is so easy to whip up and pull together, that I didn't want my lack of illustration to stop me from posting and slow down your own weekly meal planning. :)

Baked Ziti
Serves: 4-6

Spray oil
1 pound of dried pasta
1 jar of tomato sauce (I like 365 Brand Roasted Red Pepper)
Approximately 14 oz of protein - optional (Beyond Meat chicken (diced), Gardein or Boca crumbles, or beans all work well)
One bag of shredded vegan cheese - optional (I like Daiya - you can be creative! Use mozzarella for a more traditional take or pepperjack for something spicy and fun)

1)Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
2) Prepare pasta according to package directions.
3) Mix in jar of sauce and other mix ins if you prefer (add the protein and approximately half a bag of cheese)
4) Spray a 9x13 pan and pour in the pasta mixture.
5) Top with remaining cheese, if your prefer.
6) Bake for 20-25 minutes (until cheese and/or pasta starts to brown).
7) Serve and enjoy, or cool down and portion into containers for a week's worth of lunches!

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Easter Bunny Cake, or a Foolproof Way to a Festive Dessert

I am, admittedly, not a very crafty person. I love to bake and make a ton of cookies for the holidays, but then have my sister arrange the plate. I attempt to make cute cards and such for Greg, but really I am pretty sure he holds onto them because he has a big heart; he certainly doesn't keep them because they look good. Every time I see a Pinterest "fail" meme, I quietly nod to myself and realize those "disaster" photos perfectly encapsulate any project I've ever attempted.

So with that introduction, I give you - the bunny cake!

Yes, this adorable piece of Americana was actually baked, put together, and decorated, by me! Several years ago, my mom found a Betty Crocker ad that explained how to create this wonder and passed it along to me, and we have had an annual bunny cake pretty much ever since then - the only difference is that the cake is vegan now, but the concept remains the same.

I realize lamb cakes or even lamb butter is usually all the rage this time of year, but that usually requires special molds of some kind, which is not in keeping with my mantra of keeping things easy and cutting down on the special equipment you keep in the house. The beauty of the bunny cake is that nothing extraordinary is required - just a knife and cutting board.

First things first - one layer of a cake! Or, if you have a cupcake recipe (like the one I used from  Alicia Silverstone's The Kind Diet), prepare the equivalent of 12 cupcakes but pour in a round pan instead.

Once the cake is cooled, cut it in half.

 Then frost the bottoms of the bake and push the two halves together. (Full disclosure: I did not frost this cake because I needed to freeze it  for later use! But I hope you can see where I'm going.)

About a third of the way up of the semicircle, cut out a notch.

Place the cake that you cut out at the end of the semicircle. Now, you have a head, body, and tail!

Another angle of the bunny masterpiece.

And then frost! Basically, I use a vegan buttercream frosting - think the Domino Sugar buttercream frosting recipe, but to make it vegan, sub Earth Balance, non-dairy milk, and organic powdered sugar (to make sure the sugar is vegan); I also usually leave out the salt. (Okay, I just realized typing that I pretty much have my own riff on the Domino Sugar recipe, but still - it works!)

Frost the entire creation, then coat with shredded coconut to give your bunny a fluffy coat. You can create a face using vegan chocolate chips or Starburst jelly beans or Jolly Ranchers jelly beans, since those are vegan. Then I usually cut out ears from a sheet of paper (just two long ovals, with one of the ends cut bluntly so they stick flat behind the head), stick those in the notch, and you're done!

For bonus points, you can also put some coconut in a disposable container, add some green food coloring, and shake until the coconut is green. Put it around the bunny for grass, put on extra jelly beans as eggs, and you have a cute and delicious Easter dessert, ready to go!

Whether you celebrate Easter or not, I hope all of you enjoy the holidays, spring, or whatever makes you happy!

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A Very Vegan Easter Basket

For those of us who celebrate Easter with little ones, we have to prepare for the very important annual visit from the Easter Bunny. Easter baskets usually create visions of tons of candy and eggs - which, for a vegan, can be a daunting proposition! Fortunately, there are many great ways to put together a veg-friendly Easter basket for the little chick in your life.

This year, Baby M's Easter is pretty straightforward. We will be setting out her Easter basket (passed from Grandma to Daddy to her!) and leaving carrots for the Easter Bunny, naturally! Since she (thankfully) has no interest in things like candy, the Easter Bunny will be bringing her a book:

And these adorable eggs:

I have heard wonderful things about these eggs and that they are fun toy even beyond the holiday season because you can use them as a shape sorter, enjoy the squeaky "yolks," learn about colors, etc., so I was pretty excited about this find!

When Baby M is older, or if you have a toddler, you can add things like stickers, pencils, coloring books, or even a small stuffed animal to the basket if you would like to keep the candy at bay. 

Of course, when Baby M is older, she will likely want to decorate eggs and get candy from the Easter Bunny. The good news is I have a couple of tricks up my sleeve that I think will work when the time comes! I should preface this by saying I am NOT at all craftsy or talented with this type of thing, so chances are if even I can pull this off, you will likely do an even more amazing job. :)

For decorating eggs, there's no need to hard boil eggs. Instead, you can pick up a pack of ceramic or wooden eggs and decorate those instead. You can dye them, paint on them, use markers, stickers - wherever your imagination takes you! And the nice thing about those eggs is you can keep them for posterity (and they don't stink!). For an Easter egg hunt, you can use your new fancy decorated eggs or else buy plastic eggs and fill them with stickers or little candies.

But what about candy? The good news is that accidentally vegan Easter candy abounds. We have been a fan of decorating with Starburst jelly beans or Jolly Ranchers hard candies or jelly beans. Skittles are also vegan (something I've leaned on during many a road trip!), as are Justin's dark chocolate peanut butter cups.

Or, if you are looking for something extra special (or just want to the traditional chocolate rabbit), look no further than Farm Sanctuary for their vegan Easter bunny and basket. It's delicious AND you're supporting a great cause, all at once!

So don't despair! Easter doesn't mean leaving tradition at the curb. In fact, you can continue to celebrate and show compassion for the wonderful animals that come to mind this time of the year, too. :)

Monday, March 30, 2015

Easter/Spring Extravaganza Week! (or A Great Excuse to Make Crustless Vegan Quiche)

Hooray for Spring! Seriously, if you are in Chicago, then you know we got run through the ringer with weather. So bring on the sunshine, walks outside with Baby M and the puppies, and general glad tidings!

For some of us, this time of year means Easter is on its way. Vegans often find holidays can be a bit of a struggle, particularly for Easter with its hams, lamb cakes, and eggs, so this week's posts will focus on ways to have a vegan-friendly, delicious, celebratory Easter without feeling like you're making sacrifices. I'll have you covered with Easter basket ideas - and even dessert!

If Easter isn't your thing, chances are you are at least a fan of brunch. Brunch is an area that tends to be tricky for vegans. When people thing brunch, most dishes are very meat- or egg-based, which can make things tough. Chances are, though, if you tell your omnivorous friends that you will make them a big batch of scrambled tofu - though delicious, you will likely scare them off by the name alone.

So what to do if you are in charge of Easter breakfast or brunch this year, or if you want to have folks over for brunch just because, and you aren't sure what to make? Vegan crustless quiche is the order of the day, my friends.

I've played with this recipe for a few months and finally gotten it to place where it is all kinds of delicious without much effort. It has been a hit every time I've made it, and no one ever believes it's vegan (or accidentally gluten-free!). Plus, I've made a double batch ahead of time and eaten for breakfast each morning before work, which gives it major bonus points. You can also make the quiche ahead of time and pop it in the oven right before guests arrive, and you don't have to mess around with having a perfect crust. Basically, this recipe has it all.

If you want to entertain with this quiche, I would recommend pairing it with a simple salad, Tofurkey Tempeh Bacon, potatoes, fruit, and mimosas (for vegan sparkling wine, check out Barnivore.) If you feel that you need a second entree, I heartily recommend Chubby Vegan Mom's French Toast, which is delicious. (Hat  tip to Angela for the original inspiration for this creation.)

Soak 1/2-3/4 cup of cashews for at least one hour (or overnight in the fridge). Press 1/2 block of firm or extra firm refrigerated tofu. (You can do this by putting the tofu between two plates and putting a heavy can on top.)

Drain the cashews. In a food processor, pulverize the cashews until they become mealy.

 Discard the pressed tofu liquid and add the tofu to the food processor, processing until starting to become smooth. Then add one jar of sundried tomatoes in oil, onion powder, garlic powder, and 1/4 cup of non-dairy milk (I usually use unsweetened almond milk, but any will do), salt, and pepper. Process until smooth (some sun-dried tomatoes chunks are fine). [If you are making ahead of time, at this point you can put the tofu mixture in the fridge.]

 When you are ready to bake it, fold in 2.5-3 oz of spinach with the tofu mixture.

 Like so. Honestly, if you want to add a little more or a little less, feel free!

You can put this quiche in a greased traditional round or square pan. If you double the recipe, it fits well in a 9x13.

 Place in a preheated oven. It bakes at 375 degrees for 30 minutes or a 350 degree oven for 40-45, until the top and edges start to brown.

And voila! You have a very fancy looking yet substantial breakfast to wow your guests without much effort at all.

Sundried Tomato and Spinach Crustless Vegan Quiche
Serves: 3-4 (when doubled, serves 4-6)

1/2-3/4 c. raw cashews
1/2 block of refrigerated firm or extra-firm tofu
1 jar of sun-dried tomatoes in oil
1/4 c. non-dairy milk (I use unsweetened almond milk)
1-2 Tablespoons of onion powder
1-2 Tablespoons of garlic powder
Salt and pepper (to taste - I tend to use 1/2-1 tsp. of salt and 1/4 tsp. of pepper)
2/5-3 oz of spinach
Spray oil

1) Soak cashews in water for at least one hour (or overnight in the fridge)
2) Press the tofu for one hour. (I usually put it between two plates with a heavy can on top.)
3) Drain cashews and pulverize in a food processor until mealy. Discard pressed tofu liquid and add tofu to cashews, processing until somewhat smooth.
4) Add sundried tomatoes (with oil), non-dairy milk, and the spices. Process until smooth; some sun-dried tomatoes chunks are fine. (If you are preparing ahead of time, stick this mixture in the fridge until ready to bake.)
5) Fold spinach into mixture; feel free to add more or less spinach as desired.
6) Add to greased (with spray oil) round or square pan (or, if double, 9x13 pan).
7) Bake in preheated oven either at 375 degrees for 30 minutes or at 350 degrees for 40-45 minutes, until the tops and edges are starting to brown.

Serve or enjoy as an easy breakfast throughout the week!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Feeding the New Family

Hello readers! I am back on the blog after having crossed the great divide from pregnancy into parenthood. Baby M arrived and she is wonderful and perfect in ways that Greg and I could have never imagined.

When Baby M was born, I learned a lesson that I intellectually understood pre-baby but felt viscerally as a new mom - BRING NEW PARENTS FOOD. Truly. I recently found this list of ways to be helpful to new parents. I had a friend who also recently become a new mother point out to me that the only problem with this list is that number 10 should repeat bring food, simply because it's that important. And she is correct.

You may feel that bringing food simply feels like a token or like you are going through the motions. Friend, I am here to tell you: FOOD IS EVERYTHING. Baby M was stubbornly breech, so I had a planned c-section, and frankly I was in no position to cook until 6-8 weeks postpartum. And really, even if I hadn't had surgery, given the effort and exhaustion that goes into caring for a newborn, plus the fairly constant stream of calories you need if you choose to breastfeed, I simply can't imagine I would have been ready to cook for that period of time anyway. Had we not had family and friends feed us, I'm pretty sure I would have starved to death. The number one tip I have given friends who have become new parents is that the price of admission to come visit the baby needs to be food of some kind, and I stand by that advice, 100%.

With that said, what kinds of food should you bring? The reality is that new parents probably don't have time to do any food preparation, so ideally the food you bring will work cold or can easily be pulled out in small portions and zapped in the microwave or warmed up on the stove. (As a note, ideally this food should be brought in containers you never need to see again, like Gladware, and remember to tell the new parents you don't want it back so they don't feel like they need to chase you down to return your storageware!)

So what should you bring? Many endless choices abound (and Greg and I benefited from the talent and creativity of others immensely), but one that I can't recommend enough is the wonderful classic: Soup!

Soup is really wonderful to bring for many reasons:
- It meets my criteria of being easy to reheat and eat.
- It's extremely delicious.
- It's super easy to make.
- It's great for vegans, adaptable for those with food sensitivities, and embraced by omnivores alike!

If you want to be really fancy, stop at Panera Bread and pick up a sliced loaf of sourdough bread, which is accidentally vegan - hooray!

My nephew was born a few months after Baby M, and feeling as strongly as I did about bringing food, I made batches of chili and froze it in my sister's freezer, and then everytime I went to visit, I made sure I had food, and that food was almost always soup and bread. Oftentimes I would make a variation on this soup and bring it along.

Another great option, which also happens to be a staple in my house, is a variation on Zesty Black Bean Soup, from the fine folks at Whole Foods. This soup is full of flavor - and seriously, so easy to make, it's almost embarrassing.

First, heat up approximately 1 Tablespoon of oil (olive, vegetable, canola - whatever you have on hand) in a stockpot over medium to medium high heat. Add the veggies of your choice. For us, this is usually frozen corn and bell peppers.

Once the veggies have some color on them (usually after 5-10 minutes, depending on if you started from frozen), add your spices. For us, it's onion powder, garlic powder, cumin, and, the secret of this recipe, a bit of cinnamon!

 Stir in your black beans and tomatoes (crushed or diced, whichever you have on hand - though we tend to go the fire roasted route for an extra bunch of flavor), add your veggie broth, and bring to a boil.

 Once the soup is boiling, bring to a simmer for ten minutes -and that's it, you're done!

Once the soup is cooled down, load it up in disposable storageware and head out to the lucky family who will receive your bounty! (Or double that recipe so you have dinner, too.)

And that's all there is to it! So go ahead, get cooking, and be a hero to a hungry new family who will only be too happy to eat up your efforts. :)

Black Bean Soup (as adapted from Whole Foods)
Serves: 4

1 Tbsp. plant-based oil (I usually use olive oil)
1 pound of the veggies of your choice (I usually use half frozen corn and half frozen bell peppers)
1 to 2 Tablespoons of onion powder
1 to 2 Tablespoons of garlic powder
1 Tablespoon of ground cumin
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1 to 2-15 oz cans of black beans, rinsed and drained, 1 1/2-3 cups of cooked black beans
1 - 14.5 oz can of crushed or diced tomatoes
32-48 oz of vegetable broth (I usually use 48 for a brothier soup; you can always use a 32 oz container of broth and add water for the rest)

1) Heat oil in a stock pot on the stove over a medium-high flame.
2) Add veggies; saute for 5-10 minutes (depending on if you are using frozen) until the vegetables have some color on them.
3) Mix in the spices, beans, and tomatoes. Add the broth and bring to a boil.
4) When the soup is boiling, reduce to a simmer for 10 minutes.
5) Serve or package up for a lucky family!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Keeping It Real - Let's Put Things in the Microwave

Hi everyone!

I apologize for my relative silence. It's not a lack of passion as much as it is a plethora of baby. I am very excited to meet our little girl very soon, and apparently nature has decided that, in preparation for our baby, I need to be an unconscious as much as possible. This means that my own cooking at home has pretty much decreased to nil. Then Greg pointed out to me that perhaps folks want to know what I do when cooking just isn't in the cards, and I thought that was a great idea, so here's a post for the curious!

It's true that when I cook I tend to go for easy, which on a vegan diet is usually pretty easy. You can really minimize food prep time, complicated recipes, and tons of dirty dishes on a vegan diet, which is great for someone who likes to cut to the chase, just like me. But when you feel like you are 15 months just want food to appear. So here is how I have been handling those situations.

First things first, for anyone local in Chicago, I'd love to give a shout out to the fine folks at the Misericordia Hearts & Flour Bakery. I have blogged about their wonderfulness before; this great organization provides job opportunities for adults with development disabilities, which is tremendous. Also tremendous is that they sell many vegan baked goods at Chicago Farmers' Markets around the city - hurrah! I've already warned the Misericordia folks that I will be making weekly trips to pick up their delicious chocolate-cranberry cookies until this little girl is born. :) Or, if you aren't local, you can order a vegan variety box here:

 If you're wanting to go the "processed food" route, I would also heartily suggest checking out The Laziest Vegans in the World. This site does a tremendous job of reviewing processed vegan food when you simply don't want to cook. Also, you get great tips - like the one I recently got that EARTH BALANCE HAS BOXED MAC AND CHEESE. Of course, vegan mac 'n cheese exists elsewhere and in other forms, but frankly, I want the stuff that is reminiscent of a certain "blue box," and apparently, this stuff might be it. Needless to say, I will be tracking this stuff down and finding it to try AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.

Finally, I have been very pleasantly surprised by the findings at my local Target. I have been really impressed with their growing selection of frozen vegan items. Typically, as I have written before, I usually do our shopping at Whole Foods (because yes, you can shop there and not go broke, and I often find that my vegan staples are much cheaper there than anywhere else), but since I've been on more of a pre-packaged kick lately, I've been taking advantage of the sales and discounts at Target. And, of course, I want to reward Target for carrying vegan items at reasonable prices!

So what have I been enjoying at Target lately?
- Gardein. I admit, it took a little while for Gardein to grow on me. Then when I ate Gardein products at Wynn in Las Vegas (which, by the way, is entirely deserving of a post of its own), I realized that I had skipped out on Gardein way too early. Gardein now has a place in our home. My favorite lately? The Beefless Sliders! So tasty, so easy to prepare, and one of my favorite vehicles for eating Earth Balance Olive Oil Mindful Mayo.

- Amy's Kitchen. Amy's products are all vegetarian, and I've noticed that more and more are vegan. For example, Veggie Loaf, which used to have honey in it, has now been reconfigured to be vegan. And it's delicious. I also appreciate how clearly the packaging identifies what is vegan and what is not. My go-to favorites lately have been the Black Bean Vegetable Enchilada and the Spaghetti Italiano.

Black Bean Vegetable Enchilada 

My hope is that I will keep posting other products that I stumble upon that I really enjoy. Sure, in an ideal world, we would all be cooking from scratch all the time, but at the same time, for whatever reason, it's not always the most realistic approach. So don't feel bad if you need to indulge in taking a little help from the microwave at times - the animals will still thank you and you will still feel better!