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!