Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Spicy Peanut and Kale Pasta

When I bought the Sarah Kramer Go Vegan 2010 calendar, I thought it would be cool to cook my way through the year by making each of the monthly recipes as I flipped the calendar pages. So I'm feeling a little bit like Julie Powell, except not, because I don't particularly care for her or her ignorant comments regarding veg*ism (although there is a rumour floating around the veg-o-sphere that Jonathan Safran Foer may have gotten through to her, ever so slightly?).

Anyway, this month's recipe is for a spicy peanut and kale pasta. Peanut butter in pasta - say what?!

I had to try this.

In March, I challenged myself to a two month No Peanut Butter Challenge when I realized I was abusing my nutty privileges. (I found myself topping spoonfuls of peanut butter with chocolate chips in an attempt to recreate the Reese's peanut butter cup. On a daily basis. Yikes.)

But whatever, this recipe obviously needed to be tried. For the sake of the calendar!

It came at the perfect time too, because my mom (who loves to buy me unique pastas from specialty stores) gave me a bag of hot pepper penne noodles:

Dried hot peppers are mixed in with the flour - how crazy and awesome!

The noodles are crazy. Putting peanut butter in pasta is crazy. But you know what, you get enough crazy together in one place, you find yourself having a pretty darn good time. Dinner was fabulous - and the added calcium boost via kale ensures you don't have to feel too guilty about eating like, seven servings (ah, you should probably still feel a little guilty).

Does this mean I have to start my No Peanut Butter Challenge over again?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Spring Vegetable Gratin

The Vegan Planet cookbook and I did not get off on the right foot. The recipes just weren't quite jiving with my tastes and I was getting frustrated. So I set the book aside for a little while and just recently have worked it back into rotation.

I'm really glad I did because this very simple recipe for a spring vegetable gratin (found on page 358 of the book) makes for an incredibly delicious April evening meal.

I have been very excitedly watching the produce at my local supplier's store grow in number week by week, as the spring season progresses. It's such a nice reminder that the lazy days of summer are just a stone's throw away, and while I love squash as much as the next guy, we need a little bit of distance right now. He and I will pick up where we left off when the leaves start to change again.

In the meantime, I will enjoy the produce diversity of the coming months and I've promised myself that this year I will make more of an effort to even venture into the unknown when it comes to seasonal produce, even if it looks freaky and I'm not quite sure how to cook it (if that's not what Google is for, I'm not sure what is).

It's still early, though, and the only major change I've noticed to the produce aisle is an abundance of asparagus. It's hard to believe that asparagus was once on the list of foods I hadn't tried (and also wouldn't try). Since then it's become one of my favourite vegetables. As a result of this new found appreciation for this cool guy (get it? aspara-GUY?! Come on...don't you dare roll your eyes at me), I am not taking these first spring crops for granted.

The asparagus, along with some yellow squash, grape tomatoes, scallions, garlic and baby potatoes came together nicely as the base for this gratin. Look how colourful!

I have a thing for bright colours, especially when it comes to food. This recipe gives whole new meaning to the term "eating the rainbow" doesn't it?

I did make one minor change to the recipe to suit our tastes. It calls for fresh dill (another spring staple), but I really don't like dill. I don't know what it is, I just can't learn to like it. So instead of dill I used a bit of Italian spice along with dried chives and a bit of cayenne pepper. Topped it all off with some breadcrumbs and slivered almonds, et voila -

I served it up with some sliced french bread with the tiniest bit of vegan butter, garlic powder and nutritional yeast (warmed in the oven for about 5 minutes, just enough to melt the butter and mingle the flavours). A warm and flavourful meal to enjoy with the windows slightly ajar and the smell of spring rain creeping into the house.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Portobello-Broccoli Quesadillas

Here in Canada we essentially have two seasons: Winter and Not-Winter. They are approximately the same length of time, except not-winter can be further divided into spring, summer and fall.

Okay, so maybe the Not-Winter months technically take up more of the calendar year than actual Winter, but it never feels that way. Plus, it's not entirely unheard of for snow to fall in May around these parts. Or October, for that matter, meaning that Mother Nature typically has her own plans, and they don't necessarily coincide with the chronological seasons.

That being said, when you get a nice day here in Ontario you better do something productive with it. If you're lucky, you just get out there and enjoy it in some way. But for those of us that are home owners, the first Not-Winter days are used to start yearly outdoor projects. It's best to get a jump on these tedious monstrosities because before you know it that damn snow starts falling again.

We are currently in this "work on the house" stage and are eagerly awaiting the "enjoy it" phase of Not-Winter. Meaning that over the past couple of weeks, after-work but still-daylight hours have been reserved for working in the yard.

This has also meant that in order to avoid 11pm dinner times I have needed to have some quick and easy meals on hand for when the sun finally did go down.

Vegan Express has been my armor against the temptations of fast food restaurants on these particularly busy spring evenings. At 30 minutes per recipe, these meals take just about the same amount of time as hopping in the car and hitting the drive thru and thus this cookbok has taken away my only excuse for consuming highly questionable deep-fried items.

These quesadillas were my particular favourite from last week. Salsa, black beans, portobello mushrooms, broccoli and some spices (a lot of spices, in our case). I also had an avocado that was quickly approaching its twilight so I smeared it on each tortilla before filling them according to the recipe.

Look at that. So simple that I'm kind of embarrassed that I didn't think of it myself. And these quesadillas pass the "leftovers" test, as they warmed up quite nicely in the microwave at lunchtime the following day.

The good news is that we are making substantial progress on our backyard project, so there will be a return to my regularly scheduled kitchen adventures soon.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Homemade Veggie-Full Tomato Sauce

I am a hypochondriac. It's no secret at all. I get a headache and I'm convinced it's a brain tumor. I forget where I put my keys and I announce that I must have early-onset Alzheimer's (reading Still Alice really did not help this paranoia, I might add). WebMD is pretty much the worst thing that ever happened to me, because now I can self-diagnose to all my psychotic delight.

I am an ethical vegan, meaning I would still be vegan even if I didn't believe that it wasn't the healthiest diet option out there. However, the fact that it is so great for the body ensures that I am easily motivated to continue on this path. I feel like it's part of my armour against disease and so it helps this particular hypochondriac sleep at night. Less aches and pains and all around ickiness means I have less symptoms related to fewer obscure diseases to google on a weekly basis.

All the same, my latest panic surrounds diseases and dysfunctions related to "gender benders" (estrogen mimicking compounds), particularly those related to plastic. Public Enemy #1: Bisphenol A (BPA). Plastic in general makes me a bit crazy. When Paul wants to get under my skin he will act like he is going to microwave a plastic container, sending me into a panic because I'm not so keen on microwaves either and microwaving plastic, well, that is just asking for trouble.

Here in Canada, they have banned BPA in baby products and a lot of companies that use plastic packaging are following suit. For the most part, though, it is difficult to determine the origins of plastic packaging, nevermind the fact that we need to stop this love affair with plastic altogether, thinking of (and supporting companies that use) alternative means of packaging for their products.

Plastic seriously, seriously makes my heart hurt. It's on and in absolutely everything, including our bodies and we just sit around and let it happen. I'm as guilty as the next person, so don't take this as me calling anyone out.

Seriously though, why do cardboard pasta boxes have to be coated in plastic? Can someone explain the point of that to me, because I can't think of anything other than the fact that "prettier" things are easier to market.


I avoid plastic where I can, particularly plastic containing BPA. And while actual plastic packaging is difficult enough for determining origin, the most sneaky culprits of BPA content are canned items (not to mention they are often made of aluminum, which research has connected to Alzheimer's - see, you really don't want in my head). Most companies don't disclose whether their cans use BPA and so even the most well-intentioned buyer of organic canned items may still be ingesting BPA.

Annoying. Very annoying.

Obviously it's quite difficult to avoid all canned items, all the time. Life is busy and canned beans are cheap. We've all been there, and we will be there again. However, I am trying to be a bit more proactive and ambitious with regard to avoiding cans. My first experiment involved making a big batch of homemade spaghetti sauce and freezing it in meal-sized portions for future use, in lieu of the canned variety that we have been known to buy.

It's a very simple recipe, loosely based on the one found in How it All Vegan and involves a ton of different vegetables (mushrooms, carrots, bell pepper, onion, lots of garlic and of course, tomatoes seasoned with black pepper, cayenne, oregano and fresh parsley). It is really a standard issue tomato sauce, but it freezes really well and even from-frozen it tastes better than the canned variety. Other than chopping the vegetables there is very little labour involved in cooking up a big batch of this stuff. It tasted particularly awesome with spinach spaghetti and lentilballs:

I've also ventured into the world of cooking/freezing dried beans. Admittedly, I'd always found them a bit intimidating - the soaking overnight, the cooking for a couple hours. $1 cans of kidney beans just seemed more practical. But I set aside an afternoon and cooked up several bags of dried beans just like I did the pasta sauce, freezing them in their own juices, in serving-size portions.

Soaking overnight

Into the freezer they go. BPA-free plastic bags, of course, but still plastic nonetheless. Boo.

I think I'm going to ask for a deep freezer for my birthday this year.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Coconut-Macademia Carrot Cake

I'm involved in an all-consuming love affair.

With carrot cake.

I have been for years and years. There is just something about it that trumps all other cakes. And it doesn't even matter what kind of carrot cake - what kind of ingredients you add, what kind of icing you use. Equally.

The tried and true way to my heart is through carrot cake. When we were 16 years old Paul showed up on my front porch with homemade carrot cake and I knew then and there that I would marry him someday. I'm so low maintenance...just keep a steady flow of sugar in my veins and I'm all good.

I am not allowed to make carrot cake without purpose. This was a rule that was developed in our home, out of necessity. Without it, it would be me and a fork and really high blood sugar several times a week.

We had some friends over for dinner and board games on Friday night and so I finally had my acceptable excuse to try the recipe for this particular carrot cake, found in Vegan with a Vengeance.

So it was obviously good, because I have never had a bad carrot cake in my life. Moist, flavourful, and the surprise macademia nuts strewn about the batter were by far the best part.

The icing was a bit problematic. In my infinite excitement over the prospect of getting to eat carrot cake for dessert, I misread the recipe for the icing and thus had no coconut milk on hand. I had no choice but to use rice milk, which obviously made it runny. So I combined it with extra Earth Balance to up the fat factor that was sorely lacking without coconut milk. It kind of worked, but the icing was still quite runny and thus I get zero points for presentation.

Bottom line is that while we do taste with our eyes, I can get past a hot mess of a cake if it tastes delicious. Which this did. So sloppy presentation aside, this cake is a win and I think you should all make it. I will definitely make it again and when that time comes I will not try and play scientist; I will get out of my pajamas and go buy a can of coconut milk and then it will look as lovely as it tastes.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

What's for Lunch?

The nice thing about working split shifts is that it prevents me from having to participate in the arduous task of packing lunches. I am simply not creative enough to be able to cram variety into a bento box several days of the week. When I don't have the opportunity to come home for lunch I exist solely on peanut butter and jam sandwiches and the occassional bowl of Peace Cereal. Not cool.

Even though I have the luxury of utilizing my full kitchen every noon hour, I still like light meals at lunch. I've always wanted to embrace the European-style of eating the day's major meal at noon instead of in the evening. And theoretically I could do just that. But I can't wrap my head around it. I think it's because I like spending the day looking forward to coming home and eating dinner in my pajamas in front of the TV. How bad is that?! That there, my friends, is why I will never be a size two. I'm obsessed with food and being lazy.

But I digress.

Anyway, my lunches typically consist of sandwiches or wraps of some sort. More often than not they involve leftovers from the night before. And sometimes they are nothing more than a can of baked beans and a slice of toast.

Today's lunch was the adorably named "Aloo-Yoop Potato Curry Wrap" from Sarah Kramer's 2010 Go Vegan calendar. The recipe was the feature for the month of March, but I just got to it today. Sweet potatoes, yukon gold potatoes, onions and chickpeas. And coconut milk. And spices. It was good. Isn't everything that has coconut milk good?

Mmmmm. Another of my lunchtime sandwich faves is of the grilled avo-hummus-cucumber variety. It fills the hole in my heart that was previously reserved for grilled cheese sandwiches.

It's really quite simple. Slather two slices of bread with hummus. Slice up half an avocado and as much cucumber as you like. Put the two slices of bread together. Use your favourite vegan non-butter and slather up each side (or, alternatively, spray each side with a little bit of canola oil). Place in a heated pan and cook until both sides are nicely browned. Easy peasy. Grilled cheese, WHO?!(whom?!).

And sometimes I don't want anything lunch-like at all. Sometimes I want nothing more than some fruit, a glass of rice milk and a couple banana chocolate chip muffins. Ain't nothing wrong with that.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Boston vs Brooklyn Cream Pie Cupcakes

My contribution to this year's Easter feast came in the form of cupcakes. I love the holidays because they mean I can bake and sample the fruits of my labour without needing to eat an entire cake or two dozen cookies. My blood sugar levels thank me for giving away all but one or two fresh-out-of-the-oven goodies.

The recipe for these made me slightly nervous. After I bought all of the ingredients (and paid $6 for two teaspoons worth of bulk-binned agar powder - yikes!) I regretted venturing out into the unknown. Baking is not really my thing. I can follow a recipe as well as the next guy, but the stringent steps and chemistry behind baked creations give me panic attacks. I'm more of a flinger in the kitchen and when you're cooking there is rarely a problem that can't be fixed somehow. When baking, one tiny error in measurement can send the whole product into the trash. It's just too stressful.

The first step for these cupcakes involves making the very same golden vanilla cupcakes I've made a million times before. So far so good.

Once they are done and sufficiently cooled, you poke holes in the centre.

Next you need to inject the agar-based creamy custard into each of the cupcakes. This is where things got a bit dicey. I made the custard earlier in the day and allowed two hours for "firming up" in the refrigerator. After two hours it was a bit less watery, but not what I would call "firm".

This could stem from the fact that I doubled the recipe in order to accommodate the number of cupcakes I needed to bring for the family dinner. Maybe there was too much liquid to solidify in that short amount of time and we couldn't give it anymore time to settle, in fear of being late for the dinner. In the future, I will make the cream the night before and see if that makes a difference. If I am doubling the recipe again I will probably use a bit more agar and a bit less silken tofu and see if that helps as well.

Regardless of this setback, we needed to truck on and get out the door, so we set to work at filling each cupcake with the cream. Because it was so running, we couldn't use a pastry bag like we had hoped, and instead just scooped the cream into each cupcake with a teaspoon.

Once filled, we gave them another 20 minutes or so in the refrigerator, while we prepared the chocolate ganache topping. Once topped, back in the fridge they went and luckily they got an extra chilly four hours or so before dessert was served. While the cream was still not as firm as it should have been, the cupcakes held together decently and were DELICIOUS.

Paul is holding firmly onto his selection of chocolate mint as his cupcake of choice, but for me, these Boston vs Brooklyn Cream Cupcakes are my new favourite. Find the recipe in Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World (where else???).

Easter was really great, but isn't the best part of the holidays the leftovers? Today's lunch was delicious...leftover "meat"loaf and green bean/fried onion casserole. YUM!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Cardboard Egg Decorating

Holidays can be traumatizing times for many vegans. Not only because so many holiday traditions revolve around (typically non-vegan) food items, but also because they are usually the times of year that we are most subjected to ridicule and challenge when encountering friends and relatives that we don't regularly interact with. The first major holiday following a transition into veg*ism can be the most trying and hostile circumstance a veg*n ever finds himself/herself in.

Several moons ago, Easter was my first holiday as a vegetarian. Thanksgiving was my first holiday as a vegan, but in my experience I have found that the adjustment from meat eater to vegetarian exposed me to far more hostility than the adjustment from vegetarian to vegan. As such, I always remember Easter as being the holiday that I was told numerous times that it is 1) Not within my power to "change the world" (last I checked I wasn't arrogant enough to think that it was?) 2) Just a fad I was buying into 3) Not worth the trouble and 4) Damaging to my health.

Those memories ensure that Easter is a humbling experience for me, even to this day.

Unlike other holidays, Easter is particularly challenging for vegans not only because of the food-based traditions western culture holds for this time of year, but also because the major activity - dying eggs - is as unvegan as it gets. At Christmas we decorate trees. Vegan Friendly. At Halloween we carve pumpkins. Vegan Friendly. At Easter our society has taken it upon themselves to take what doesn't belong to them and decorate it with paints and dyes.

I can't be too critical because growing up I positively loved decorating eggs. Way more than carving pumpkins. We grew up doing them pysanka (Ukrainian)-style both at home and at school. The whole lot - hot beeswax (also not vegan) and brightly coloured dyes. I would be excited about it for weeks preceding Easter. So sure, I understand why people participate in this activity.

When we go vegan we often mourn the loss of certain traditions. I've never been critical of this process. Because you are saddened by your choice to never eat that Easter ham again does not mean you are any less confident in or comfortable with your choice. You are not mourning the loss of that item, you are mourning the loss of your association with it and the comforts of home and childhood that partaking in it often brings to you. In due time, those old traditions are replaced with new, cruelty-free ones and you don't have to miss anything anymore.

Welcome to the world of non-egg Easter egg decorating.

Step 1: Go to your local craft store and see what they've got. I got six cardboard eggs for $3.00. They also had wooden eggs available. If you can't find either of those, any dollar store has plastic eggs this time of year and they can just as easily be painted.

Step 2: Paint the eggs white (or whatever colour you like).

Step 3: Find some synthetic, non-toxic crafting paints and synthetic brushes (watch out for camel and horse hair brushes!).

Step 4: Paint away!

[It was really warm here yesterday, hence Paul's shirtless egg painting. Although in his particular case it looks like he is wearing a shirt anyway. For the record it took him nearly two hours to do his egg because he insisted on making a God of War egg. Now he expresses some concern that the symbol means something horrible that he doesn't know about.]

As you can tell by the first picture posted, I have the artistic prowess of a five-year-old. I didn't let that stop me from letting the (somewhat juvenile) creative processes flow and neither should you.

This is such a great activity for little ones, because unlike real eggs these are not fragile in the slightest. Believe it or not, in my younger days I was even clumsier than I am now. In the third grade when our class was finished painting our eggs I managed to trip and drop mine on the floor, just as art class was ending. An Easter egg massacre. Oh, how I cried.

Avoid that kind of childhood trauma with non-egg eggs. It would take a lot for little ones to even slightly damage cardboard/paper eggs (believe me, I dropped the lot of them several times while trying to arrange them for the above pictures).

Further, I always found it annoying that I'd work so hard on an Easter egg and then would have to throw it out a week later because my mom was afraid it was going to break and the house would succumb to the smell of rotten eggs for all eternity. So I think the most appealing thing about this project is that you can keep the eggs forever, adding to your collection each year.

So paint some non-egg eggs this Easter. And while you're at it....

Happy Easter to all of those who celebrate!

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