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!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Hooray for Puree! The Shortcut to an Easy Creamy Vegan Soup

One of our favorite go-to dinners in our house is homemade soup. It requires relatively little planning on my part, is easy and quick to throw together (I usually go from nothing prepared to dinner table in about 20-25 minutes), and is a healthy and delicious way to use up all sorts of odds and ends lurking in the fridge or pantry. I've previously swooned about our love for soup, so if you're looking for my footprint for an easy dinner, click here!

Although chunky veggie or bean soups are usually the standard in our house, sometimes I crave a good creamy soup. Usually when people go vegan, they believe they will say sayonara to the velvety goodness of a broccoli or potato soup. I am pleased to say - they are wrong! First, you can always veganize your old recipe by using non-dairy milk (or, my favorite if I'm converting a cream soup recipe, soy cream). If recipe conversion isn't your jam, or you don't want to go to the store for something like soy cream, one quick search on the internet for "vegan creamy soup" should convince you that there are excellent ways to pull together a creamy soup with the same flavor and punch of dairy-based recipe.

While those recipes are delicious, I almost never make them because I believe they usually aren't my brand of cooking (my "brand of cooking" being failure to plan ahead or a general laziness to run to the store). For example, many of these recipes call for soaked cashews. I agree that soaked cashews make an excellent base for cream soups and nut cheeses - heck, when I make vegan quiche, I always use soaked cashews. I also like that you are getting the bonus of nutrients and good fats of nuts. But I almost never have cashews in my house, much less the foresight to soak them; plus, if you are nut-free, cashews won't do you any good, or if you're trying to cut calories, you might be nervous to add nuts.

So how do I get around this problem? Through experimentation, I have found that making a soup that has a starchy vegetable, then pureeing it, gets the exact same flavor and texture of a traditional creamy soup, without this soaking craziness.

Conveniently, most creamy soups are made with starchy vegetables. For example, years ago, I wrote about an easy, creamy butternut squash soup that is perfect for the holidays. The recipe is a perennial favorite, and yet it is has got to be in my top five of easiest fancy things I make for guests - roast some veggies in broth and you're done! You can basically apply the concept of that recipe to any combination of foods you are trying to soup-ify, and you'll probably have good luck.

I put this theory to the test last night. I was on my own for dinner, and I just wanted something comforting, easy, and delicious. Greg is a deep lover of soup, but he's also one of the most freakishly healthy people I know; he never liked animal-based creamy soups, so he doesn't seek out a vegan version. (I know, he's weird, but totally cute, so let's just go along with it.) After digging through my relatively bare pantry and fridge, I realized I had the fixings for a creamy soup for one, so I put my theory to the test and indulged in a delicious, thrown together potato and broccoli soup for one.

I'll show you what I did below, but with two caveats. First, this was enough for one person, though this recipe easily scales; just quadruple or do what you need to do to make this a family dinner. Second, I happened to make mine a potato soup, but I will include little tidbits along the way to let you know how you can take advantage of any veggies you have floating around your house.

First, I heated about 2-3 tsp. of olive oil in a stock pot over medium to medium-high heat, then added a quarter bag of frozen broccoli florets. Of course, if you're making this at home, use whatever frozen or fresh veggies you like.

Since my starchy vegetable of choice was these 5 red potatoes floating around my fridge, I needed to scrub and chop those first and gave the broccoli a head start. Obviously, if you're using a winter squash, you'll need to skin it, seed it, and chop that, too. If you are using something like corn, however, and you're just going to crack open a frozen bag for your  recipe, just throw that right in with the other veggies.

Saute all of your veggies together with your spices. For this iteration, I used about 1 Tablespoon of garlic powder, 1 Tablespoon of dried rosemary, 1-2 tsp. of dried thyme, 1-2 tsp. of dried sage, and about 1/4-1/2 tsp. of salt with some cracks of black pepper. Anyway, saute until the veggies start to pick up some brownish color (about 5-7 minutes). I often find that when I saute starchy vegetables, they stick to the bottom of the pan, even if I use oil. If this happens to you, try and deglaze the pan with a little veggie stock or water; that should do the trick.

After that, add your liquid. I had about 1 cup of vegetable stock on hand and added another 2 cups of water. Boil for about 12-15 minutes, or until your starchy vegetables are soft (as shown above). After that, puree away! I usually use a stick blender, but if you don't have one, then let your soup cool for about 15 minutes and run through batches in the regular blender. You can make the soup as smooth as you like or leave in chunks. I reduced my liquid a bit too far, so when I blended the soup I added about 1/3-1/2 cup of unsweetened almond milk, but that was actually to loosen up the soup, not to give it creaminess or flavor; it had plenty of that on its own!

And that's it! I yielded one extremely filling, extremely satisfying bowl of potato soup. You can always mix in some nutritional yeast if you want some cheesiness, but personally, I thought this was delicious as it was.
Easy (and Very Free-Form) Creamy Vegetable Soup

Your starchy vegetable of choice (potatoes, winter squash, corn, etc.)
Other vegetables (think of what goes well with your starchy vegetable! Potatoes and broccoli are an easy match; corn works well with bell peppers, tomatoes, and zucchini; I chop in greens and even apples with my squash; onions and garlic taste delicious in everything)
Spices (same idea - potato matches well with rosemary/thyme/sage or even just an herbes de provence mix; corn works well with cumin/chili powder/cayenne pepper, or you can add some liquid smoke; butternut squash is delicious with curry or a little cinnamon)
Salt and pepper
Cooking liquid (I would use at least some vegetable stock for flavor, but water can get you the rest of the way)
Unsweetened non-dairy milk (optional, and only if you accidentally over-reduce your soup)

1) Heat oil in a stock pot over medium or medium-high heat. I usually start with about a Tablespoon; if you are cooking for a crowd, you might add a touch more, or be prepared to add some cooking liquid to deglaze the plan if veggies start to stick.
2) Saute veggies with spices, salt, and pepper until veggies start to brown (about 5-7 minutes). Deglaze the pan or add oil as necessary if there's sticking.
3) Add cooking liquid to just cover the veggies.
4) Bring to a boil and cook until the starchy vegetable is soft - about 12-15 minutes (though corn will probably only need ten minutes).
5) Blend together using a stick blender, or cool down soup for 15 minutes and run soup through a blender. If the mixture is too thick, loosen it up by adding small amounts of non-dairy milk (about 1/3 cup at a time) until the consistency is as desired.


Thursday, May 8, 2014

Meal Ideas: The World's Easiest Taco Salad

One of the biggest daily challenges anyone faces, vegan or otherwise, is meal planning. It can be hard to think about what to have for dinner tonight, much less for the next week. I think meal planning can be especially daunting for  a new vegan - in addition to figuring out what to eat, you likely have a pattern of  foods that you use as a fallback, many of which probably aren't vegan, so then you feel like you are going to starve.

Have no fear - I will help you through this hurdle! It's an area where I used to struggle, too, and frankly I didn't realize meal planning was a vegan stumbling block for me - until I read Colleen Patrick-Goudreau's 30-Day Vegan Challenge and she talked about this very phenomenon and offered very practical solutions to combating this problem. (That is one of the many reasons her book is so helpful - please help her bring the book back into print by contributing here! If you want more information, check out my post one her campaign here.)

Since I know how helpful it was for me to have some guidance both for meal planning generally and for vegan meals particularly, I plan on devoting some of my posts to planning healthful and tasty meals. So if you're a new or experimenting vegan, I hope these posts help you see that eating well (both in terms of nutrition and taste) doesn't have to be overwhelming. Or if you're a vegan who is bored with your usual routine, I hope I can shake things up for you.

Today's post will be about one of our favorite lunches: taco salad.

I will admit that in terms of weekday lunches, I have it pretty easy. Since I work in downtown Chicago, I am surrounded by a number of establishments that have accidentally vegan food (seriously - I'm looking at you Chipotle, and Noodles & Company, and Protein Bar, and Pret a Manger, and Panera Bread, and many others, which I will post about later!) and the mecca of vegan chains, Native Foods. But let me tell you, paying for lunch can add up fast. Plus, I realize that not everyone is so lucky to have so many lunch options - or, if you're like Greg, you have a job where you don't have any time to leave the premises to get lunch, much less find a joint where you can get vegan food.

To help us save some extra cash and ensure that poor Greg can actually eat during the day, I started to prepare our lunches ahead of time. This taco salad recipe evolved from a list of lunch suggestions that Colleen recommends in the 30-Day Vegan Challenge. She provides a basic framework for this (and other!) easy salads, and this taco salad has become a tasty and super easy to prepare staple in our house. Here is how our family prepares taco salad.

Before I begin, I would like to say that this salad is very free form - it usually morphs based upon what we have in our house, what sounds good, and anything I'm trying to use up.  For example, since summer is almost upon us, fresh veggies from the farmer's market would be great in this salad - or not so fresh veggies that are getting ready to go bad. Today's version of the salad is a direct reflection of my pregnant state - I'm in my third trimester, I'm tired, and I have no desire to cut things up. So frozen veggies to the rescue!

First, heat up about 2-3 teaspoons of oil over medium to medium-high heat in a saute pan. If you are trying to cut down your oil intake, you can add less oil and use spray oil to cover the rest of the pan, or you can heat up some vegetable broth instead of oil. Add your veggies - this time around, I added half a bag of a frozen three bell pepper mix and about 3/4 cup of frozen corn. Saute until the veggies start to brown. For me, since the veggies were frozen, this took about 10-12 minutes (fresh veggies will take about 5-10 minutes), until the vegetables started to look like this...

I apologize - I know the picture isn't the best, but notice that the bell peppers are softened and the vegetables have picked up some color from the pan.

Once the veggies are prepared, throw in some beans and spices. You can use canned beans or dried beans prepared ahead of time - check out my recipe for Easy Slow Cooker Beans if you'd like to try and have some beans on hand, for recipes such as this one. Here I added about 3 cups of black beans, or the equivalent of two drained and rinsed cans of beans. Veggie crumbles would work well, too.

In terms of spices, for taco salad you can use a taco seasoning packet or, as Colleen recommended, you can just throw in chili powder, cumin, and salt, which is what I usually do since I'm not organized enough to have taco seasoning ahead of time. Here, I added about 1-2 Tablespoons of chili powder, 1/2-1 teaspoon of cumin, and 1/2-1 teaspoon of salt. We are also big garlic lovers in my house, so I added about 1-2 Tablespoons of garlic powder (yes, pregnancy has made me disinterested in chopping up fresh garlic - I have no guilt!). You could also zest this up by adding fresh or bottled lemon or lime juice as well, or if you want a little kick you can use cayenne pepper (or you can add part of a diced jalapeno when you're sauteeing the veggies).

After mixing in the beans and spices, go ahead and add some salsa; this picture shows roughly 3/4-1 cup of salsa. In a surprising twist, don't feel like you have to use an expensive salsa - I usually add the mild or medium store brand. I prefer jarred salsa, both due to my aforementioned pregnancy laziness and because jarred salsa tends to be a little runnier, and I like adding the extra moisture to the pan. Plus, since you are adding so many other flavors to the pan, having a fancy salsa is less important. Greg concurs - he is very particular about his salsa and rarely uses the basic store brand for his chips, but he loves the salsa in this taco salad.

Anyway, go ahead and mix in the salsa and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the salsa has reduced into a thick sauce. I usually start light on the salsa and more if necessary so this phase can go quickly. Usually I can reduce the salsa in about 3-5 minutes, though if I add too much, it can take up to ten minutes.

And here is the delicious final product, ready to eat, in about 20 minutes! You can prepare this weekend before a work week or throw it together during the work week since it cooks up so quickly.

We usually eat this salad for lunch, but it can easily be classed up for dinner, too. Here are some serving suggestions:
- I took this salad and split it into two containers for lunches. You can reheat it or eat it cold - we like it both ways.
- You can enjoy it with chips if that's your bag, but it's great on its own.
- If you want to class it up a bit and make it more like a salad, you can mix in fresh greens before you eat it (or cook the greens right in), or scoop this out on top of greens. I would use something a little hardier, like spinach or raw or lightly cooked kale.
- This would work well with some sliced avocado on top or a dollop of guacamole.

I hope you enjoy it as much as we have!

Quick and Easy Taco Salad
Note: since this recipe is free form in nature, this recipe will provide basic guidelines to throwing together a taco salad. Don't be afraid - be creative! (Or simply use up what's leftover in your house.) If you would feel better with some more specific measuring guidelines, please check out my commentary above for two servings.

Oil (canola, vegetable, grapeseed, or olive all work well), spray oil, vegetable broth, or any combination of these three ingredients
Fresh or frozen diced veggies (we like bell peppers and corn)
Black beans or veggie crumbles
Taco seasoning packet (or 1-2 Tbsp. chili powder, 1/2-1 tsp. cumin, and 1/2-1 tsp. salt)
Optional extra spices and flavors (garlic, cayenne pepper, and lime or lemon juice are all possibilities)

1) Heat oil/spray oil/vegetable broth in a saute pan over medium or medium-high heat. (If you use oil or an oil/spray combo, you can probably use 2-3 teaspoons. For veggie broth, I would put a thin layer on the pan; as the broth evaporates while you cook, you may need to add a Tablespoon at a time so your food doesn't stick.)
2) Saute your vegetables until they begin to brown. Fresh veggies will cook in 5-10 minutes; frozen will probably take a little longer, like 10-15 minutes.
3) Mix in black beans or veggie crumbles plus the spices.
4) Add salsa; I like to start light (like 1/2-1 cup) and add more if the mixture looks dry. Reduce the mixture until the salsa becomes a thickened sauce. Depending on the amount of salsa you add, this can take 3-10 minutes.

Enjoy! Make ahead for an easy lunch or throw together for a fast weekday dinner. Check out the post above for serving ideas.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Best Dollar You'll Ever Spend: Support the 30-Day Vegan Challenge!

It's no secret: I'm a huge fan of the 30-Day Vegan Challenge; I even posted about it here. I rave about it constantly because it makes becoming vegan incredibly easy, and I am a huge fan of the approach, support, and ethics of its author, Colleen Patrick-Goudreau.

The 30-Day Vegan Challenge is now out of print. You can still take advantage of its amazing benefits by signing up for Colleen's program online.

There is wonderful news, though - Colleen is revising the book and plans to publish again! I can't tell you how exciting this is! Not only have I been personally touched by this book, but I have had the honor of serving as a recipe tester for the new recipes in the book - and I can tell you, they are AMAZING. Plus, it has been an honor to work with Colleen; she is just as wonderful as you would guess from reading her books and listening to her podcasts.

In order for the book to come to fruition, however, Colleen needs your help. She is raising $31,000 at IndieGoGo in order to publish her revised version. I hope you will consider contributing - and you can do so by clicking here. I know firsthand what an amazing resource this book has been and how incredible the new book will be.

So why should you contribute? The answers are easy. If you aren't but have been trying to transition, I am confident this book will get you well on your way - but it can't help you unless it's published! If you are already vegan, one of the single best ways you can make an impact to share veganism with others is to get this book on the market - and, if you get a copy of the book, you can take advantage of the amazing recipes inside!

Plus, Colleen has fantastic incentives at all different price points:
- For $1 (Yes, ONE DOLLAR), you can contribute and receive an exclusive, beautifully designed recipe from the book!
- For $5, you get a personal thank you note from Colleen AND a digital download of her book On Being Vegan. What a great value!
- For $35, you get a hardcover copy of the book.

And there are a ton of other great items to redeem, too - check out the page to learn more!

So don't wait any longer! Contribute today, take advantage of the great incentives, and share the link widely with your friends!

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Dressing the Vegan Bump Without Going Broke

For anyone who is vegan or contemplating the vegan transition, one of the things you realize is that your ethical choices go beyond what you eat to what you wear. Although this can seem daunting, I have personally found that there are obviously vegan and "accidentally" vegan items everywhere; you just need to know where to look and what questions to ask! In fact, sometimes if folks are struggling with the transition to veganism in their diet, one of the things I advise to do the best you can with your diet for now, then focus on clothes; you don't need to buy clothes every day, and your lifestyle is probably less likely to be impacted by buying faux leather shoes instead of the real deal.

Although one would definitely not accuse me of being a clotheshorse, there's no question that I would need to expand my wardrobe once I was pregnant, and I definitely wanted to keep things vegan. So how did I do that and not break the bank? Let's be honest - these are clothes that, at best, you can wear for six months of your pregnancy (assuming you're showing right when your second trimester starts) and maybe three months after you give birth, so you're not exactly looking for timeless wardrobe pieces that you can wear for years on end; why make a major investment?

The good news is that you can take advantage of a maternity band to get some additional wear on your regular clothes, which will obviously same some cash. A maternity band lets you wear your regular clothes because you can leave your pants unzipped and/or unbuttoned, and then you put the band on the top of the your pants (but under your tops) to hold up your pants. I personally use the BeBand, which is readily available at Target. I will admit - I have a love-hate relationship with maternity bands. I find that it sometimes rolls up and makes my pants drop, which is annoying. I do love the relief that it gave me in my first trimester when I wasn't ready for maternity clothes, though - plus I still use it to wear some of my pre-pregnancy pants that were one size larger than my usual size, even into my third trimester. This has saved me - at least so far - from buying maternity jeans and suits - two items that can be prohibitively expensive in their maternity versions, and I love the money that it has saved me. 

On the whole, though, most women are ready to move into maternity clothes and off maternity bands by the time the second trimester hits. So where should you go shopping?

Off the bat, great news - because pregnant ladies need stretchy things, I found that the majority of clothes I wanted were accidentally vegan! Definitely check labels, as always, but it was reassuring that even manufacturers that will lean on items like wool and silk understand the needs of the pregnant lady and went straight for the manmade stretchy stuff. Plus, these kinds of clothes - including items I would consider work-appropriate - almost always end up being machine washable: perfect the pregnant lady who is trying to save some cash (and should probably be a little wary of being around dry cleaning materials anyway...especially if she has a sensitive sniffer). I would also recommend items that you can wear to work and at home as well - because why buy twice?

Now where was I able to procure these items? There's no question that my favorite places to go shopping are Old Navy and Gap Maternity. Old Navy is already inexpensive, and Gap Maternity always offers sales and discounts; plus, their shipping and return policies are great (free shipping for $50 and free returns). Plus, since these are items from the fine folks at Gap, you can rest assured their items are cute. For example, look at this adorable dress from Old Navy:

I've been living in this dress pretty much since I was 14 weeks pregnant. It looks really clean and put together, goes well with maternity tights, and can be worn anywhere - seriously, I wear it to work, nicer restaurants, or to parties.

There's no question that dresses make pregnant life easier, but since I live in Chicago, and the weather decided to conspire this winter to make sure I am growing the toughest baby alive by making the temperatures dip to -40 on more than one occasion, you can't always get away with dresses. These pants from Gap have been a lifesaver; they look clean, classic, and are super comfy:


Also be sure to check websites like Zulily for great deals on awesome brands like Japanese Weekend and Nom, which have kept my belly fashionable both under suits and for more casual weekend affairs but at a fraction of the price.

As for shoes, I admit dressing up feet can be a little tougher - but it doesn't have to be! First, don't overthink it; as you get farther down the line, you will realize that flats are your best friend. Seriously. Even if I'm going to court, I wear flats until I get to the courtroom, then change into chunkier heels (which I have found offer more support to my bump now that my center of gravity is off), then immediately change back out. My favorite flats have been this pair from Rocket Dog; I live in them:


They are so comfy and cute, I just can't take them off! Granted, they aren't the best if it's raining or wet out, but the majority of the time, they get me through just fine.

But where to find such cute shoes in a vegan variety? My favorite is always Zappos. First, their customer service is unrivaled. They seriously just sent me a new pair of boots after my old pair fell apart...even though I bought those boots two years ago. Second, if you're not sure about size, returns are a snap! Third, they make searching for vegan shoes super easy. Although they have an option to select "vegan," I rarely use it. You can also find vegan shoes by narrowing your search to "man-made items," "synthetic," "faux leather," and other non-animal categories. By doing that search, I ended up with an earlier version of these comfy shoes that I have been able to wear into pregnancy and are courtroom appropriate:

Just remember to check that ALL of the components of the shoe are vegan; fortunately, Zappos (as well as some other websites) do a good job of listing out all ingredients in a shoe.

Finally, some general maternity shopping tips that have helped me minimize my purchases and maximize what I own:
- As I hinted above, if you happen to own pre-pregnancy pants that are one size up from your normal size, hang onto them. With a BeBand, you can probably make those pants go pretty far into your pregnancy.
- In theory, it seems like everyone recommends that you buy maternity clothes in your pre-pregnancy size. I have found that to be a little misleading. I have had much better luck buying maternity clothes one size up. This has allowed me to wear things into my third trimester that I would have easily outgrown in my second trimester if I stuck with my pre-pregnancy size.
- With regard to Tip #2, if you buy something that is a little big, just throw a normal tank top or camisole underneath it to cover up any gaps. So far I haven't bought any new tanks because, for my current purposes, my pre-pregnancy tanks cover up what needs to be covered. It probably won't cover your belly, but who cares? You will be wearing something over the tank that covers your belly, so no one will see.

Good luck - and happy shopping!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The World's Easiest Vegan Fudge Recipe (Or How to Make Friends and Influence People)

I confess; this post might end up being my undoing. I am so excited about this can't lose fudge recipe: I know how daunting vegan baking and cooking can seem (though I promise, it doesn't have to be!) and just how difficult it can be to find an easy vegan fudge recipe that is still delicious, which is why I decided to share it.

And therein lies the personal problem for me. I have made this fudge countless times and shared it with friends and family at parties and brought it as a hostess gift. It is always wildly popular and loved by all who eat it, but once those folks read this post and see just how easy it is to make, they might feel like I'm phoning it in whenever I bring it as a gift. But for my fair readers, it's a risk I've decided to take.

I am truly stretching my brain to remember where I found this recipe for the first time. I remember the day I found the recipe. I just desperately wanted fudge. Fudge usually involves marshmallows; I don't usually keep vegan marshmallows in my house and they can be on the expensive side (though I strongly recommend the delicious Dandies brand if you are inclined to go buy some). I also wasn't excited at the prospect of standing over a stove and going through the actual rigamarole of fudge-making; I just wanted to fudge to appear. I think I may also have wanted peanut butter and chocolate, too.

Now that I reread that passage, I must have been having a cranky day of fudge craving - yikes!

Anyway, I ended up ordering vegan fudge from Realist Mermaid on Etsy. When the fudge arrived later that week, it was delicious (though I just checked, and sadly, it appears she took down her store). But that did not fix the problem that I wanted fudge NOW. So I looked around on Allrecipes and found what appeared to be the world's easiest, three-ingredient recipe for fudge. All three ingredients were in my house. There was almost zero effort in putting it together. And there was chocolate AND peanut butter in it. I excitedly made it and I've never looked back!

This fudge recipe has been a hero to my countless times. I've thrown together as a dessert when I've been invited to parties at the last minute, it's been a great on-the-go snack (both for winter, when fudge tends to make a holiday appearance and summer, when I want to keep the oven off), it is fancy enough to be wrapped up nicely and presented as a hostess gift, and it can also feed at least one pregnant lady who OH MY GOODNESS NEEDS CHOCOLATE NOW. (I'm going to keep it real with you - I'm actually eating this fudge while I'll type this post.)

Here's how it all comes together!

These are the three ingredients you need - one cup of vegan chocolate chips, one cup of peanut butter, and 3/4 cup of maple syrup. For chocolate chips, I like the Enjoy Life brand, though I've also been known to get the Whole Foods 365 brand Vegan Semisweet Chocolate Chips. (Ghirardelli Semisweet Chips also used to be vegan, but it's been awhile since I've checked.) For peanut butter, I always use natural peanut butter. I tend to get chunky, but smooth or chunky will work. For maple syrup, just get the real stuff. Grade A or B is fine; the grade has to do with the color and flavor, not the quality, so just get what's on sale (I keep a big jug of it in my fridge).

Add all of the ingredients to your pot and melt together, stirring constantly, over medium-low to medium heat. This should only take a couple of minutes...

...until it looks smooth and yummy, like this! (Of course, if you use chunky peanut butter, the peanut chunks will remain. I think that's a positive thing personally!)

Line a square pan with parchment paper. Pour in the fudge mixture and spread it evenly throughout the pan. You might find the edges do not neatly go down; that's okay. Those pieces will just turn out "rustic," which means your friends will believe you that it's homemade, or you can just cut off those little pieces and eat them yourself later. :) If you don't have parchment paper, you can also grease the pan with vegan butter (like Earth Balance), but I strongly encourage you to use parchment paper; it really makes the job - and most any other baking or cooking job - easier.

When you're done, cover and put in the fridge for at least an hour. With this batch, I was tired, so I stuck it in the fridge overnight. When the fudge is firm, remove it from the fridge. Lift the fudge out of the pan by holding onto the parchment paper.

Remove the parchment paper and put the block of fudge on a cutting board. Cut up into slices (I usually cut columns, then rows, as demonstrated above).

And voila! Delicious fudge, ready to be shared! Or not... :) Happy eating!

Chocolate Peanut Butter Fudge
adapted (I'm pretty sure) from Allrecipes

1 c. vegan semisweet chocolate chips or chunks
1 c. peanut butter, smooth or chunky (I use natural peanut butter)
3/4 c. maple syrup (Grade A or B is  fine)

1) Melt together chocolate, peanut butter, and maple syrup on the stove over medium-low to medium heat until smooth.
2) Pour mixture into an 8- or 9-inch square pan lined with parchment paper or greased with vegan butter, like Earth Balance.
3) Cover and chill in refrigerator for at least an hour, until firm.
4) Cut fudge into squares (if using parchment paper, I recommend lifting the fudge out of the pan first, peeling off the paper, then cutting up the squares on a cutting board).
5) Store in the fridge.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Easy Peasy Dried Beans

Two of the biggest questions I often hear about going vegan involves expense and meal planning - specifically, how do you figure out what to cook and keep the cost reasonable?

Like any diet you pursue, vegan or otherwise, planning ahead is one of the best things that you can do to tackle both of these problems.  If you live in the real world, though, "planning ahead" may not be in your habit pattern or, frankly, your vocabulary. While I certainly don't want to discourage you from planning ahead, there's no need to feel guilty if you can't think past your next meal, much less what you will be eating for a week.

I am one of these latter folks. Some weeks, I've got a perfect meal plan all set up on Sunday, with the shopping and food prep done, and we are ready to execute. Then there are other weeks where I open up the fridge and desperately hope there's at least a container of Whole Soy & Company yogurt in there so at least I have breakfast worked out, and whatever you do DON'T ASK ABOUT DINNER.

One of the best tricks I've figured out for both of these meal planning scenarios is to have some beans on hand. I'm not going to get into the merits of beans - there has been enough written on their awesomeness that I don't need to get into much detail here. They are also extremely versatile, which I plan to tackle in future posts. But let's be real - they can also be super annoying.

How can the humble bean be annoying? Basically, you've got to make a decision: canned or dried. You can't beat the convenience of canned beans; crack open that can and you're ready to go. If you prefer minimally processed food, though, then there's no question that dried is better than canned. Canned beans are also relatively more expensive: I can spend $2 on a one-pound bag of organic dried beans and end up with multiple cups of cooked beans, or I can spend $1.19 on a can of organic beans and yield, well, a can of beans. Now, with this said, in the processed food/expensive spectrum, neither of these violations are particularly egregious, so if you prefer to keep canned beans in the house, I tip my hat to you. If, however, you prefer to go the dried bean route, you will end up with healthier product at a fraction of the price.

But oh, dried beans, what a pain you are to make, what with your soaking and rinsing and boiling and taking several hours to get done. Ugh. That is, until I watched one of my close friends make a delicious dinner, using a slow cooker and zero soaking of beans. ZERO SOAKING OF BEANS. So I found the recipe, adapted it a bit, and realized I could use the crock pot to prep my beans and stick them in the fridge or freezer or ahead of time with almost no effort.

I admit, I still have to make these ahead of time, but I can prep these beans on a whim, without planning for soaking time or being close to the stove at all times. I can basically rinse out some beans, pop them in the slow cooker, and run errands or go about my day while the beans are preparing themselves. And Greg often prepares these beans, too; he will notice that our bean supply is low, so he'll just knock out a quick batch while he's working on other things. It's a huge help! I used to stray away from the slow cooker for making beans because I've read all kinds of things online about getting an uneven product, but I have to tell you, I have now prepped beans this way countless times and never had a problem.

So here we go!

First, figure out what beans you want to use. This recipe should basically work for any bean; Two BIG warnings though:
- NEVER use this recipe for red kidney beans. Kidney beans contain a naturally occurring toxin that the old version of bean prep knocks out...but I'm not confident that the slow cooker can neutralize this toxin. As a result, in my house, we eat canned kidney beans, where this toxin is never a problem. In my mind, it's worth the slight extra cost for the peace of mind.
- There is no need to use a slow cooker to prep lentils or split peas; these are quick cooking, non-soaking beans that should just be prepped on the stove (although there are plenty of delicious slow cooker recipes that utilize lentils or split peas - and in those cases, have fun!).

Anyway, for this example, I used about 2 cups of black beans. Two cups is pretty standard in my house, but I've used more and less; I find it doesn't really matter.

 Place the beans in a strainer and give them a good rinse, sorting out beans that are broken or just generally look unappetizing and removing any rocks that may have accidentally gotten in there. (I remember reading that tip once, thinking it was weird and unlikely, and then one time actually finding rocks.)

Place the beans in the insert of any slow cooker, then fill up the insert with water until it's nearly full (leave maybe an inch or two at the top.

Cover and cook on high - that's it! Check after about 3 1/2 hours, but the beans should be pretty well cooked after four hours. You'll know they are done because they are soft and tender to bite into without dissolving into mush, or, if you are a visual person, you should be able to pull on the skin of the bean and it easily pulls away.

When the beans are done, dump them in the strainer and rinse them with cold water. This does two things. First, it stops the cooking process. Second, if you are like me and sometimes (which means often) forget about the beans and they are a bit overcooked, this will help firm the beans back up. (In related news, if you think you overcooked your beans, fear not! They will be fine, usable, and still delicious after the cold water rinse! If you're still not convinced, pop them in the freezer. I promise - it's really okay.)

At this point, do as you please! I usually put some in the fridge and the rest in the freezer, and then they are ready for my use when I am having a meal prep panic attack.

Happy Bean Eating to you  and yours!!

Easy Slow Cooker Beans

Up to one pound of beans (do NOT use kidney beans/red beans or lentils or split peas)

1) Place up to one pound of beans in a strainer. Rinse and pick through the beans to remove broken beans and anything that shouldn't be in there.
2) Put beans in a slow cooker insert; fill with water, leaving 1-2 inches of space at the top.
3) Cook beans on high for 3 1/2-4 hours, until beans are soft and tender to bite. You should be able to pull on the skin of the bean and it easily pulls away.
4) Rinse beans in a strainer with cold water.

Beans are now ready to go in any recipe or can be put in the fridge or frozen.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

How I Went Vegan

Now that I'm back in the blogging saddle, I thought I should address one of the biggest changes I've undergone since my last post in 2010: I've successfully become - and stayed - vegan. How did I make that happen? I'm pleased to report that, once I had a plan, it was actually quite easy. The key to my last sentence, of course, was that I had a plan.

As you might recall, I've actually been vegetarian for several years (since 2004, to be exact). I always wanted to go vegan because I felt that my personal ethics regarding animals and animal rights were not consistent with how I was living my daily life. I had tried to go vegan before, but I never stuck with it.

So what was the problem? Fundamentally, I didn't know where to go to ask questions. I had found discrete ways to investigate veganism - the most obvious, of course, being to explore creating vegan desserts so I could continue to enjoy my baking (and eating) hobby - but I found that as I figured one thing, another would baffle me. Interestingly, I have found that most people fall in the same boat; many people intellectually appreciate the merits of veganism and the ethics behind it, but without any practical know-how on making the transition, they are stuck.

Then, I got a great tip from Marla Rose from Vegan Street; she had recently reviewed Colleen Patrick-Goudreau's book The 30-Day Vegan Challenge and strongly endorsed it, so I thought I would give it a try. Let me tell you - I picked up this book, read it from cover to cover, and I never looked back.

This book was phenomenal. Colleen addressed all questions, big and small, about becoming and staying vegan in a friendly, non-judgmental way. Once I finished the book, I put together a general plan for becoming vegan, identified what areas would be challenging, and identified how I would confront those challenges and incorporated them into my plan. For example, Colleen noted that one challenge of becoming vegan was knowing what to make dinner after a long day at work when you're creativity is drained. She then provided a helpful "go-to" list of quick and easy dinner ideas if you're in that situation. That was definitely me; early on, when I needed something fast, I often returned to that list so I wouldn't stumble into old habit patterns. It was a huge help for me.

It's now been over two years and I've never looked back. In fact, after reading her book, it is almost embarrassing - in a good way - how easy it was to become vegan! I truly cannot endorse this approach enough, and I still turn to this book as a resource and for Colleen's absolutely delicious recipes.

Now, The 30-Day Vegan Challenge is an online program: click here if you would like to sign up. Colleen is in the process of revising the next edition of the book, and I will certainly let you know when she publishes it. Everyone who is curious about veganism should give it a try; I promise, you won't regret it!