Friday, October 30, 2009

Ask Veg Baker, J.D.: The Whole Foods Phenomenon

One of the surprising questions I get often is my love for Whole Foods. I write about the good ol' WF frequently in my blog posts, and I often cite to ingredients that may not be universally available, but are often found at Whole Foods. So I suppose today's Ask Veg Baker, J.D. question is sort of a hybrid question (or "compound question," for my legal readers out there): why do I have my love affair with Whole Foods, and do I have any tips for people who'd like to shop there on a frequent basis without spending ridiculous amounts of money?

Basically, I enjoy shopping at Whole Foods because the items on the shelves mirror many of my food morals. I like that I can buy my groceries with zero worries that something has high fructose corn syrup or artificial trans fat, because those items simply won't make the cut. It is much easier to be a budding vegan who is still trying to make her way in the world when there is a place that features many different kinds of products to keep my creative cooking juices flowing. I also appreciate the emphasis on local support, not just in the produce department, but with the prepared foods that are sold and donating bag discounts to help local charities, "one dime at a time."

Affording Whole Foods, on the other hand, is a whole other proposition. Yes, this beloved institution did not earn the nickname "Whole Paycheck" for being economical. However, I do all of the family grocery shopping at Whole Foods. This is certainly not because of our super wealth; if you took a peek at what my student loan statement, you would know that is true. Rather, I can buy roughly $50-$70 worth of groceries to feed us for 10-12 days as well as personal items, which, especially living in the city, I think is fairly reasonable. At least, I think it is probably reasonable, because if you remember from my previous week of posts on thriftiness, you will recall a certain Mr. Greg who is not so keen on the wasting of money, and he fully supports my shopping at the WF.

How in the heck does this happen? There are a few easy points to remember, and I think you will see your WF bill go way down.
1) Do not be rushed when you go to Whole Foods. This is not a store where it is safe to mindlessly throw items in the cart; this will come back to haunt you. Often times, I have found if I go slowly down the aisles, I can find the same item for much cheaper. Case in point? Once I needed tomato paste. I found a 6 ounce can of tomato paste for $5.69. This is truly ridiculous. I stopped, took a breath, and scanned the whole aisle. One shelf over, I found another brand of tomato paste, in a 6 ounce can - for ninety-nine cents. Slow shopping is your friend. (And, the more you do it and the more often you go, the faster you eventually get...the shelves don't change all that much!)
2) Only buy sale produce. After surveilling the produce department on a few visits, I realized something important - the sale produce is always what is in season. The other stuff is so expensive because supply is low (and frankly, if the produce is out of season, it won't taste as good anyway). Not only has this cut down on my grocery bill, but our dinners taste better because the food is in season, and I've branched out and tried other veggies I wouldn't have otherwise purchased.
3) Keep an open mind - and open eyes - when going down the aisles. Sometimes, my beloved WF will put the exact same item in two completely different parts of the store and price them differently. For example, you can buy awesome Whole Foods guacamole in the produce department...or pick up the exact same container in the chips aisle, for about $1.50 cheaper. Greg has also noticed that sometimes food in the bulk bin is also in the specialty bars, like make your own trail mix, but the costs can vary. So last weekend, I needed chopped peanuts; by buying the peanuts in the bulk area instead of the trail mix bar, I save $1/pound.
4) Bring your own bags. Hopefully this will start to be second nature; it's good for mother earth, and frankly, I find it is easier to carry stuff home in my own bags than paper bags. Plus, you save a dime per bag; it might not be much, but it adds up!
5) Love and embrace the 365 brand. It is truly great stuff, and the prices are more than reasonable.

And finally, although I love Whole Foods, I think it is also worth mentioning that if you have a small natural foods store in your neck of the woods, check it out; its prices may be competitive. I lived in Springfield, IL, for a year before starting law school, and there was an absolutely wonderful place, Food Fantasies, where I did all of my shopping, and the prices were great. It never hurts to check it out!

So, in honor of my Whole Foods thrifty strategies, I present a recipe that I found in Moosewood Restaurant Celebrates. I noticed that organic winter squashes were on sale for 99 cents/pound, so I did what I often do: I bought the sale item (here, a butternut squash), I took it home, and I tried to figure out how to make it. This recipe was definitely a winner and has made it into the repertoire; even Greg, who does not like squashes, gets a big smile when butternut squash arrives from the store.

Roasted Winter Squash (adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Celebrates)
Serves: 4 side dishes or 2 main portions
(Sometimes, Greg and I eat this for dinner, with a simple pasta, like pasta with caramelized onions, on the side)

2 1/2 pounds butternut squash (the original recipe also recommends pie pumpkin)
1/3 c. extra virgin olive oil, plus extra to coat squash
3 large garlic cloves, minced or pressed
1/4 c. red wine vinegar
1/4 c. brown sugar, packed
Salt and pepper

1) Peel the squash and remove the seeds. Chop the flesh into cubes and put in bowl.
2) In the bowl, add the "extra" olive oil, to coat (approximately 2-3 teaspoons). Add a dash of salt. Mix until the squash is coated.
3) Dump squash onto a baking sheet; roast in a preheated 450 degree oven for 25-40 minutes. The flesh of the squash should still have some firmness, but the squash will be soft when you bite into it.
4) While the squash is roasting, heat 1/3 c. of olive oil on the stove. Add the garlic and cook for one minute. Add the red wine vinegar and sugar; stir until sugar is dissolved. Remove the sauce from heat and add a dash of salt and pepper.
5) When squash is cooked, remove from oven and dress with the sauce.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Turning Yucky into Yummy

As much as I've been enjoying my vegan transition, there's been one area that's been a little sticky...and that is finding a yogurt substitute. This is something that, in theory, should be super easy to do. I used to eat dairy yogurt at home only, because the big brands (with some exceptions) usually have gelatin in them, a definite vegetarian no-no. Yogurt used to be a way for me to enjoy something sweet and got a little kick of calcium and protein, too. So on my to-do list, I added finding a yogurt substitute.

Let's just say I'm not there yet.

I used to be freakishly afraid of soy yogurt. When I finally got up the nerve to use soy yogurt in my baked goods, my fear diminished. Soy yogurt has truly proven to be a great substitute for sour cream or eggs in a recipe, and I'm happy to include it all the time. But each time I cracked open the container and thought about eating it straight, by itself, I'd turn up my nose and decide against it.

Finally, after all of my soy yogurt baking exploits had been successful, I decided that I was being truly unfair. If soy yogurt could be substituted in baked goods with no change in the overall taste or texture of most of my recipes, then I should like this stuff by itself. Or so you think. One spoonful of the vanilla yogurt later, and I thought this should be headed for the trash.

As you all know, though, I hate wasting food, and I definitely did not want to throw away a perfectly *good* (good as in not expired, not tasty...) container of soy yogurt. I remembered a recipe in Jillian Michaels's book Master Your Metabolism for a dairy smoothie, so I used that recipe for inspiration and threw some ingredients in a blender, put some of it in a travel mug for work, and then froze the rest. The smoothie was good and filling.

What I wasn't expecting was how delicious the frozen concoction would be. I brought that to work the next day, intending to stick it in my fridge in my office so it would thaw and I could have an afternoon smoothie. Wouldn't you know, by 3:30 I was starving and needed protein, and that sucker was just as frozen as it had been at 8 AM. So I grabbed a spoon from the lunchroom and started eating. And it was fabulous! It tasted just like a fruit sorbet, and it provided snacks for me for the next several days.

Perhaps I shouldn't yet give up on my yogurt substitution quest; when my Whole Foods starts to carry rice milk yogurt, maybe I should give that a try. I tried a lime flavored soy yogurt and didn't like that either, but perhaps I will like another flavor. I do know one thing, though; if I eat soy yogurt for the rest of my days as a smoothie or a dessert, I'll be just fine.

Fruit Smoothie or Fruit "Sorbet"
Yields: Depends on amount of fruit you add...probably roughly 4 cups of the mixture

1 c. blueberries
2 c. frozen strawberries
1 banana
6 ounces soy vanilla yogurt
1 Tbsp. agave nectar (honey would work too, but many vegans do not eat honey)

1) In a blender, combine all ingredients.
2) Either pour in glasses and drink as smoothie, or freeze in a container for at least 6-8 hours to make the frozen dessert.

**Please note that any combination of fruit would probably work; this is just what I used. It is important, though, to make sure that at least some of your fruit is frozen, otherwise you won't get a smoothie. If you don't have frozen fruit, just add ice, but be aware that could water down your smoothie if it gets too warm.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Toll House Cookies on the Horizon?

Yes, my friends, I am so giddy with excitement, I can barely type. Why is that? First and foremost, because I'm a dork. What has excited my geek meter? I just may be on the threshold of cracking the vegan Toll House chocolate chip cookie code. As frequent readers know, I have a constant ongoing battle trying to make a vegan version of chocolate chip cookies that taste like the Toll House recipe. Let's just say last week, I had a major - and wholly unexpected - breakthrough.

Last week, I wrote about the Sparkled Ginger Cookies from Vegan With a Vengeance, a Greg favorite that continues to have such a strong hold, he helped me make another batch over the weekend. When I was making the ginger cookies, what did I notice across the page...but a recipe for vegan chocolate chip cookies. I admit, the sight alone of the recipe didn't really make a blip on my cookie radar. It was when I read the caption underneath the title that I realized I needed to give these cookies shot. Why? Because the wonderful Ms. Moskowitz explained that she made these cookies for a carnivorous co-worker who didn't believe vegan chocolate chip cookies could replace the butter and egg variety - until he tried these.

After reading the recipe, I realized where things had gone awry for me before. Typically, when I veganize a recipe, I try to keep as many ingredients the same as possible and provide vegan swaps for the animal-based ingredients. This recipe is genius, though, because it deconstructs the original Toll House recipe and rebalances them in order to preserve the original flavors.

Specifically, I am talking about the brown sugar. Frankly, I don't think a chocolate chip cookie can be a chocolate chip cookie without brown sugar. Therefore, I always make sure brown sugar makes it into my manifestation of vegan chocolate chip cookies. I was shocked to see that this recipe didn't have brown sugar - but on further review, I saw why. Brown sugar is simply white sugar and molasses mixed together. What this recipe did, though, was use white (or in my version, raw) sugar with the molasses added later. By breaking apart the ingredients like this, the egg becomes unnecessary, because the molasses is so sticky it acts like a binder. But, because white sugar and molasses are mixed together, the brown sugar flavor is preserved. Hooray!

I mixed this batch together and just about flipped out. Why? Because when I tasted the dough, it tasted EXACTLY like Toll House cookie dough. Score! Unfortunately, in my batch, I found that the dough was dry, and I had trouble actually forming cookies. No matter - once the ingredients were combined, I hand mixed everything and made cookie bars. The result? Let's just say if I never figure out how to make vegan Toll House cookies, these are so close, I will be a contented cookie eater for the rest of my days.

RECIPE UPDATE: I took a tip from Ms. Moskowitz and Ms. Romero in Vegan Cookies; they stated that if your dough is very dry, add 1-2 tablespoons of soy milk to correct the problem. I tried that and it worked like a charm! I've updated the recipe accordingly.

Very Nearly Like the Chocolate Chip Cookies You Had Growing Up
(recipe adapted from Vegan with a Vengeance)
Yields: A big ol' pan of cookie bars

1 c. non-dairy butter substitute, softened (like Earth's Balance)
1 1/4 c. raw or white sugar
1 Tbsp. molasses
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
2 1/2 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 Tbsp. soy milk
2 c. or 1-12 ounce bag of vegan semi-sweet chocolate chips, like Ghirardelli

1) Cream together butter substitute and sugar; add molasses and vanilla and mix until well incorporate.
2) Slowly add flour and baking soda until just mixed. (There will probably be drier clumps.) Mix in 1 Tbsp. of soy milk, just until the dough comes together - don't over mix!
3) Add chocolate chips and mix into the dough, until dough comes together.
4) Press dough into a well-greased 10x15 inch jelly roll pan. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 20-25 minutes.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Some Veggie Updates

I've been about the blog quite a bit lately. I've really been touched by the response. Everyone - vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores alike - have been extremely supportive. I'd like to work on expanding the blog and making it better to address the helpful feedback I've gotten from people, so starting today I am going to make two changes to my format.

First, I am going to add a tag called "Recipe Update." The nature of the blog is that I am posting recipes that I am constantly working on. Sometimes, I will end up with a result that is really different, and I think that merits a separate post (think all of my crazy chocolate chip cookie posts!). Other times, though, I've just figured out minor things, like turning a recipe that had eggs totally vegan. I want to share this change with my readers, but I don't think it is necessarily worth a post. As a result, I will go back to an old recipe, update the tags (for example, if I've made something vegan that previously wasn't, I'll add the "Vegan" tag), add a "Recipe Update" tag, and I'll flag the part of the recipe that changed within the post. I hope this will help people go back and find a recipe they liked when they initially read it but didn't try it because it either had or lacked particular ingredients when the post first went up.

Second, I've realized lately that a number of the questions are not just limited to vegan baking, but to my vegan transition generally. The questions are never judgmental, and I'm always happy to talk about what has led me towards a vegan lifestyle. Probably the number one question I get is what Greg and I eat for dinner. And here's the thing - although I have no problem talking about what we eat, for some reason, I never, ever remember what we have recently eaten. I think I love food so much that once I'm done eating, I sort of forget what we've already eaten. I realize how sad that last sentence sounds. I am convinced that medical science will have a name for this tendency of mine in the next decade or so, but in the mean time, very well meaning people ask me this fair question, and I stare at them like a deer in the headlights.

I've decided, then, that perhaps one of the best ways to combat this problem is to share some meals ideas that Greg and I have tried on the blog. I'm always happy to share recipes, and although I'd still like the focus to be on baking, I think interspersing some meal ideas as posts with my regular baking commentary could also help me with my other goal, which is to document my journey towards veganism. I really and truly have no desire to "convert" people to veganism, so I hope this addition doesn't make people uncomfortable. Rather, people seemed like they wanted to know what else we're eating, and I'd like to give the people what they want!

With this in mind, here is my first update. I'm into Month Three of the Vegan Experiment, and so far, so good. At this point, I am a vegan within the four walls of my house (and my office, if I bring my lunch), and I haven't used animal products in my baked goods for quite some time. I still function as a vegetarian beyond the confines of home. So far that balance is working well for me. (I've made other lifestyle changes, too, in terms of the shoes, clothes, beauty products I use...since this a blog about food, I won't discuss them, but if you're interested, drop me a line!)

One of the most unexpected changes has been how much fun it has been to cook at home. Granted, it's no surprise that I enjoy cooking, but the prospect of vegan cooking has been daunting. I've found myself leaning on some cookbooks to help me along the way, and I'm sure I will be writing about them more as the months go on.

One such cookbook is a longtime favorite - the Moosewood Cookbook series. One of my absolutely dearest friends gave me a Moosewood Cookbook as a housewarming present when I moved to Hyde Park a few years ago, and I've been hooked ever since. If you are interested in any kind of vegetarian or vegan cooking, you've got to get one of these books. The Moosewood Collective runs a great restaurant in Ithaca, New York, and they also write these cookbooks for their fans. What's great is that the recipes are easy, thoughtful, and delicious. They have recipes for all levels of cook - some basic without the "scary" ingredients of tofu, tempeh, or seitan, and then there are other more advanced recipes for those who want to give those proteins a try. They also include some fish recipes for their pescetarian followers.

The recipe below is a vegan adaptation from the fine people at Moosewood, from their Low-Fat Cookbook. Greg and I have made it for years. It is always a hit, and it is great for making ahead of time and reheating or bringing to a potluck. It also is great as leftovers, which can live in the fridge or be easily freezed for lunches. Enjoy!

Black Bean Chilaquile (adapted from the Moosewood Collective)
Yields: 4-6 servings

Vegetable or olive oil or vegetable oil spray
1 medium onion, diced
3 cups cooked black beans (or 2-15 ounce cans), rinsed and drained
2 cups chopped tomatoes or 1-15 ounce can diced (drained) or crushed tomatoes
3 cups (one bag) frozen corn
1/3 c. lime juice
salt and pepper
Bag of tortilla chips, crushed
2 cups salsa, divided (we like peach-pineapple, but any will do)

1) Heat oil or oil spray in pan. Add onion and saute for five minutes over medium heat, until soft and glistening.
2) Add beans, tomatoes, corn, juice, salt, and pepper. Saute until liquid is reduced, which can take anywhere from 10-20 minutes.
3) Spray a 9x13 pan. Put approximately half the bag of crushed chips on the bottom. Cover with bean mixture. Cover mixture with approximately one cup of salsa (until covered, but not soaked). Cover with remaining chips. Cover with remaining one cup of salsa (again, covered, but not soaked).
4) IF BAKING NOW: Put in preheated 350 degree oven for 35-40 minutes.
IF BAKING LATER: Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. When ready, remove wrapping and bake uncovered in preheated 350 degree oven for 40 minutes, then crank up oven to 375, leaving the chilaquile in, and bake for an additional 10 minutes.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Mikey Likes It!

If by Mikey, I mean Greg, then yes, this is accurate!

I've noted before that Greg is not a huge fan of sweets. When an amateur baker learns this when she is in a budding relationship with a very cute potential significant other, the effects could be personally devastating. Fortunately, we've been able to work it out. Greg is always game to try something new and at least twice because, open-minded as he is, he believes if you don't like something the first time, it might just be fluke, and everyone and everything deserves a second chance. Greg has also proclaimed that he doesn't like a lot of sweets, but he does like it when I bake. I don't know if that is true or if he is just a good husband, but I'll take it.

For my part, this has meant trying to work on my food pushing. What do I mean by food pushing? Let's just say the first time my college roommate Katie's now-husband came over, he exclaimed, "Wow, look at all the snacks that are out!" And Katie famously said, "Yep, that's Beth - she's a feeder." So needless to say, when I bake something, I need to stop myself from shoving more food at Greg when he only eats one or two cookies.

Even though Greg and I have found this happy medium, the fact that someone would just "settle" for a particular snack...well, I find that to be troubling. I put myself on a mission to find a cookie that Greg would love, that would be a special cookie just for him, because, darn it, he deserves it!

As Greg and I have been experimenting with veganism more, I've realized that many recipes I've been preparing for dinner require powdered ginger. I have very little experience with ginger, either in sweet or savory dishes. Greg, on the other hand, seems drawn to dishes with the stuff. Whenever the "pesce" part of his pescetarianism makes an appearance and he eats sushi, he just gobbles up the pickled ginger. This got me thinking - what if I made him cookies that had ginger in it? I've never seen him eat gingerbread during the holidays, so I'm not sure if he likes it or not, but I do know in general he has a thing for soft cookies.

Needless to say, my search was short. Thank you Isa Chanda Moskowitz and Vegan with a Vengeance. I think it is only appropriate that I decided to make her Sparkled Ginger Cookies. Not only did her cookbook first give me confidence that maybe I could try this vegan thing, but she also has some of the best vegan baking tips ever. Let's just say I've preordered her new vegan cookies cookbook coming out next month, and I am counting down the days until Amazon delivers.

So how did these cookies stack up? Let's jusy say Greg, who is usually a model of restraint, gobbled up ten after his first tasting. I think we have a winner. :)

Sparkled Ginger Cookies (adapted from Vegan with a Vengeance)
Yields: 3 dozen cookies

1 c. + 1/4 c., divided, raw or demetra sugar (white sugar will also work, but try to get raw sugar for the 1/4 cup)
2 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 c. vegetable oil
1/4 c. molasses
1/4 c . soy milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda

1) Mix together 1 c. sugar, ginger, cinnamon, oil, molasses, soy milk, and vanilla.
2) Slowly add flour and baking soda to wet ingredients, until just mixed.
3) With each cookie, make a one-inch ball, and then flatten the ball into a 1-1/2 inch disk. Press each cookie into a bowl which has the remaining 1/4 c. sugar and place sugar side up on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
4) Bake in a 350 degree oven for 10-12 minutes (rotate halfway through); then remove from oven and let cookies sit on the baking sheet for another 3-5 minutes. Remove from baking sheet and cool completely.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

How Chocolate Chip Cookies So Wrong Ended Up Being So Right

My quest towards vegan chocolate chip cookies that taste like Toll House cookies continues on. A friend from law school had a good suggestion for substituting pumpkin puree for the butter, and given the appropriateness of the season, I decided to give it a try.

Did the final result taste like chocolate chip cookies? Frankly, no, not even close. I could tell by the time the dough came together that there was no way I could scoop these into cookies. However, I don't like wasting food, so I went ahead and mixed in the chocolate chips, poured the dough/batter into a pan, and baked off the concoction. The result? Delicious! I used to make chocolate chip cookie bars during the holiday season each year, but now I think I will make these instead; they have some of the flavors of the season while having the melty chocolately goodness that I love.

When you look at the recipe (and some of the others I've posted), you'll probably notice that I used raw (also called demetra) sugar instead of white sugar. The reason I used it? I was already baking when I realized that I was out of white sugar, and this was all I had in the pantry. (Something else you may have noticed as a theme in my'd think I learn...)

Anyway, I like baking with raw sugar. First, in the vegetarian community, it's always a crowd pleaser because, unlike some brands of white sugar, raw sugar is always vegan. Second, raw sugar gives baked goods a certain depth of flavor; I like to think of it as a cross between white and brown sugar. Many recipes say that you can straight substitute white sugar and raw sugar. Technically, I think this is correct. I find that I get the best results, though, if I add the raw sugar with the wet ingredients and let the mixture sit for a minute or two; that way, the raw sugar crystals can dissolve and the texture of the final baked good isn't affected too much. Of course, though, this substitution works both ways, so if you'd like to make these bars with white sugar, feel free.

Pumpkin Chocolate Bars
Yields: 16 bars

1/2 c. pumpkin puree
6 Tablespoons brown sugar
6 Tablespoons raw sugar
1/4 c. unsweetened applesauce
1/2 -1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 c. + 2 Tablespoons flour
1 c. vegan semisweet chocolate chips

1) Mix together puree and sugars; mix in applesauce and vanilla.
2) Gradually add flour and baking soda. Stir in chocolate chips.
3) Pour batter into greased 9x9 square pan. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30-35 minutes.