5 Reasons Why I Haven’t Blogged in 5 Days

…inspired by this post.

  1. I took Friday off from work. No real reason, other than the obvious fact that vacation days and three-day weekends are awesome. Also, I didn’t use enough vacation days this year and they will all disappear at the end of December… so, like everyone else at work, I’m rushing to use them all up!

    I slept in, went for a bike ride downtown, ate here, shopped here, and listened to Christian evangelists yell at us while I enjoyed my grilled cheese sandwich here.

    I took a glorious nap when I got home!

  2. I was busy busy busy giving tours in the morning on Saturday. Needless to say, after 5 hours on my feet I took another glorious nap! But, before I did, I ate here… yes, for both breakfast and lunch!
  3. I packed. A lot.

    More about this in a future post!

  4. Sunday = football… preceded by a little bit of shopping. I’ve tried drafting blog posts while watching my beloved Giants, but I can’t focus and/or come close to spilling adult beverages on my laptop. Not safe at all!
  5. We have no food. Well, obviously that’s not entirely true, but we don’t have much going on in the kitchen lately. The boy and I are planning on going grocery shopping today so maybe – just maybe – we’ll be able to eat something that didn’t come from a box or from the freezer.

    Then again, not everything boxed and bagged is all that bad…

Wannabe Vegan Pho
Makes one serving.

  • 3 oz firm tofu (I used Trader Joe’s Sprouted Tofu), drained and patted dry
  • Black pepper
  • Garlic powder
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Salt
  • Non-stick, 100% natural cooking spray
  • 1 oz soba noodles (rice noodles can be substituted)
  • 1 cup Pacific Natural Foods Vegetarian Pho Base
  • 1 cup water
  • Toppings of your choice: traditionally cilantro, fish sauce, sriracha, bean sprouts, etc.

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees F. Cut tofu into 2″x1″x1/4″ rectangles and place the pieces on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Spray the top of the tofu pieces with non-stick spray and sprinkle salt, pepper, garlic, and cayenne pepper on top. Rub into each piece, place the sheet into the oven, and bake for 20 minutes, flipping halfway through. Turn off the oven and let the tofu sit for another 5 minutes inside the oven.

In a small pot, heat water and pho base until it boils. Add noodles and lower heat to medium-low. Let cook for 3 minutes or until the noodles are done. Add the tofu pieces and let simmer for 2 minutes.

Serve in a bowl topped with whatever you’d like! All I had on hand at the time was sriracha and dried cilantro… but it was still delicious!

Hamburger Helper… All Grown Up!

For decades, Hamburger Helper has been one of my favorite dinners. We didn’t eat it much in our home when I was a kid, but on those days when mom didn’t want to cook and dad didn’t want to spend money on Chinese or pizza, we’d bust out a box of Hamburger Helper, defrost a pound of ground beef from the freezer, and soon enough we’d be enjoying a high-sodium, saturated fat laden, cheesy, hot, abso-freaking-lutely delectable dinner.

As recent as college (wow, has it already been 3 and a half years since I graduated??) I would make and enjoy Hamburger Helper on my own terms… which was much more frequently than when I was a kid! My boyfriend and I would easily polish off a box of the stuff between the two of us. And, yes, each box has 5 servings… at about 330 Calories each… you do the math!

Now that I’m a bit less naive, I understand that this stuff isn’t exactly the best thing for you. Although wisdom comes with age, a change in certain tastes does not! I still long for that yummy dinner that I adored so much way back when! Well, it’s time to make my Hamburger Helper grow up.

I’ve been a fan of Trader Joe’s Soy Chorizo for a long time. Though salty, a little goes a long way and its texture and flavor are absolutely identical to real chorizo. I knew this would be better than plain seitan for this dish because of the spice and flavor it adds to everything it is with.

As far as the cheese sauce, I needn’t look any further than The Kind Diet‘s vegan “cheez” sauce. I use this recipe so often that I am almost to the point of needing to buy nutritional yeast in bulk! I don’t follow her recipe exactly, but the ingredients are pretty much the same.

As far as the pasta goes, I could’ve gone with macaroni… but where’s the fun in that? We happened to have fusilli pasta (little bowties) on hand and figured this would be a great, grown-up alternative to the plain ol’ macaroni we’re all familiar with.

“Meat”? Check. “Cheez” sauce? Check. Pasta? Check.

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Vegan Non-Burger Helper
Makes 3 servings.

  • 3 cups fusilli pasta (or macaroni)
  • 1/2 Trader Joe’s Soy Chorizo
  • 1/4 cup nutritional yeast
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened soy milk (or other non-dairy milk)
  • 1 tsp dry mustard
  • 1 tbsp tamari (or regular soy sauce)
  • 1 tbsp minced garlic
  • 2 tbsp Earth Balance (or other vegan margarine)

Prepare pasta according to directions. While pasta is boiling, heat Earth Balance in a large pan on medium-high heat until melted. Add minced garlic and cook until garlic is fragrant and turns golden, stirring constantly to avoid burning. Add all remaining ingredients except pasta, whisking until combined and hot. If the sauce is too thick or begins to dry up, add a bit more soy milk one tablespoon at a time; if it is too thin, add more nutritional yeast 1-2 teaspoons at a time. Lower heat to medium-low and add pasta. Stir until pasta is completely coated in the sauce. Serve hot.

Note: If you plan on storing this and reheating it later on, be sure to add at least 2 tbsp of milk per serving when reheating, because the sauce will dry up while reheating if you don’t!

To say that this was a trip down memory lane was an understatement. I’ll never have to buy another box of Hamburger Helper again!

Sweet Potato Trio: Part II

So, the other day I had a minor fail. It was an edible creation, but that baby food consistency of what I hoped would be soup made it a little unappealing.

Time for a renaissance.

The reason why I love cooking more than baking is that when you cook, even if you mess up you can fix it (most of the time). A baking disaster is almost impossible to fix, but as you will see below, with a little bit of creativity, you can turn a minor cooking faux pas into a delicious creation (or two)!

Curried Sweet Potato & Zucchini Stew
Makes approximately 4 servings.

  • 3 cups of leftover curried sweet potato stew *
  • 2 cups of vegetable broth or stock
  • 1 zucchini, cut into cubes
  • 2 tbsp minced garlic
  • 1 tbsp sesame oil
  • 2 tsp dried cilantro

In a large saucepan, brown the garlic in sesame oil on medium-high heat until fragrant and barely golden brown. Add cubed zucchini and cook until zucchini begins to soften and get browned on some sides.

Add sweet potato, vegetable broth, and cilantro stirring until completely combined. Continue to stir until soup begins to boil, then lower heat to medium-low, cover, and let simmer for 5 minutes.

Serve hot.

* NOTE: You can use store-bought pureed sweet potatoes or plain sweet potatoes that you’ve processed yourself. If so, add 1.5 tbsp of yellow curry powder, 2 tsp of smoked paprika, a good tablespoon of garlic powder, and a tablespoon of cumin. Follow the rest of the directions as written.

Sweet Potato Trio: Part I

I had the brilliant idea over the weekend to purchase some sweet potatoes. I didn’t always like sweet potatoes but once I developed a liking an adoration for them, the desire to create new recipes with sweet potatoes as the highlight definitely increased.

Well, on Friday I purchased four sweet potatoes with the initial desire to make basic sweet potato fries. As the weekend waned, I tried to think of what else I could possibly do that could be fun and tasty. With the temperatures decreasing as the autumn days go on, the answer is clear: soup!

I’d never made a blended soup before, always using the fact I don’t have a fancy-schmancy high-power restaurant-grade blender as an excuse never to try. I have a pretty decent food processor with which I’ve made nut butters and other blending-intensive foods… could it handle making soup?

There’s only one way to find out!

Thick & Creamy Curried Sweet Potato Stew
Makes at least 6 cups of stew.

  • 4 medium sweet potatoes (peeled, cut, and baked for 40 minutes or until done)
  • 4 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp yellow curry powder
  • 1 tbsp cumin
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened plain soymilk, or other non-dairy milk of choice

Put all ingredients in a food processor or blender. Blend until completely creamy. You may need to scrape down sides as you go along. Serve hot.

Easy? Check. Great flavor? Yes, sir. Hearty yet healthy? Yes and yes.

But a success it was not!

I noticed almost immediately that its consistency was similar to that of baby food; but, I still brought a serving with me for lunch the next day. I hoped that nobody would see or comment on what I was eating at my desk, but of course the FIRST coworker to pass by my desk asked, “…baby food?”

*groan!*

And that’s why this is “Part I” in a three-part series. The next two posts will be about how I turned this semi-failure into two successes! Just remember: If at first you don’t succeed……!

Beyond Ramen and Udon: Why Soba is King

I’m a proud, proud carb-a-holic. I have no problem having a piece (or two…) of garlic bread alongside macaroni and cheese. I am guilty of eating ice cream for dinner. I’ll eat oatmeal with a super-sweet soy pumpkin spice latte without being fazed. Have no fear! I usually eat a more balanced diet than this, but I also listen to my body (which seems to be desiring grains at the moment) so if carbs is what I want, carbs is what I’ll have. As a back-up, I do have a multivitamin every day. *flexes wannabe muscles*

Our pantry is full of grains in many forms: oats (rolled and steel-cut), rice (basmati, brown, and arborio), cereal grains (amaranth, quinoa, and bulgar wheat), and pasta (the common enriched Italian-style varieties, udon, ramen, soba, and rice noodles). Each has its own purpose, but one is the latest discovery of mine and now reigns supreme in my carb-cooking kitchen: soba.

Soba is a Japanese noodle that is unlike any other. It’s thin and elegant, but sturdy enough that it won’t flop around and fall apart like ramen (another thin noodle) does. Like other Japanese noodles, soba cooks in very little time and requires precisely two neurons to prepare.

I mean… no measuring water? Sweet. I’ve never been one to measure 6 cups of water to boil for macaroni: I just eyeball it. The first step in the soba instructions is to put it into “plenty of [boiling] water”. Awesomely easy, no?

Soba is fabulously vegan and packed full of nutrients because it’s made with the superfood buckwheat. Yes, it’s high in sodium, so I wouldn’t make this an everyday food item, but I think the fiber, iron, and protein it contains (as well as the cholesterol and sugar it doesn’t) outweighs the 40% of your daily intake of sodium!

If this didn’t prove my point, just look at the stuff!

Tell me it’s not packaged in the cutest way ever? (I rarely use the word “cute” but I think this is an occasion that warrants it.) It has a little sash around each bundle so, unlike spaghetti, a serving size is really easy to measure. Yeah, I bet different brands of noodles have different packaging, but I officially love this one!

Previously, I’ve simply tossed freshly-cooked soba noodles in tamari soy sauce, crushed red pepper, and shredded zucchini. This time around, I wanted to do something different.

Orange-Scented Soba and Kale Salad
Makes two generous portions, or four side-dish-sized servings.

  • 4 cups kale, chopped into very thin shreds (about 3-4 large leaves)
  • 120 grams soba noodles (one bundle, if using JFC brand)
  • 2 tsp minced garlic
  • 2 tbsp sesame oil
  • 1 tbsp tamari soy sauce (or regular soy sauce if you don’t have tamari on hand)
  • 2 tbsp orange juice
  • 1 tsp dried cilantro (use fresh if you have it available to you)
  • 1/2 tsp sriracha hot sauce (optional if you don’t like heat)
  • a couple of dashes of fresh-cracked black pepper

Cook the soba according to directions. Strain, then rinse in cold water until noodles are completely cool. Set aside.

In a medium glass bowl, whisk together all ingredients except soba and kale. When combined, add kale and toss until coated. Add soba noodles and toss again until all ingredients are evenly distributed. (Don’t be scared to use your hands!)

Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before serving.

If I had other veggies in my fridge, I would have used them! Maybe next time I’ll shred carrots, zucchini, and summer squash and include these in the recipe. Regardless, I plan on eating this for lunch the next few days, topping it with some tofu and/or kimchee, or maybe I’ll be weird and add some falafel!

But leaving it just as-is would be fine, too. Nom.

Plentiful Polenta

Earlier this week I did my first WIAW, which featured some nice, creamy polenta I had with garlic spinach for dinner that night.

Polenta is something that was completely unknown to me until about 3 years ago while I was living in California. I had purchased a log of polenta from Trader Joe’s one day after hearing rave reviews about the stuff online.

When I said it was a log, I wasn't kidding!

I would slice it into disks, sear it in a hot pan, and top it with sliced chicken, cheese, veggies… whatever I had on hand and was in the mood to eat. Though I definitely loved it, I never really considered making my own until I saw someone do so on a TV cooking show.

I learned a lot about polenta after seeing it being made from scratch on TV! First, it’s made from cornmeal – the stuff that corn bread is made from! Go figure! Secondly, it is not too different from grits (which I always thought I hated, but apparently if I like polenta, I like grits!) other than the texture of the meal and how it is presented. Thirdly, it can be served/prepared in two very distinct ways: soft/creamy or solid.

Soft polenta is similar to how grits are served in the south: hot and creamy. The basic polenta recipe I’ve gotten down to memory is so simple and, depending on your dietary needs, can be easily go from omnivorous to vegan with just a few easy substitutions!

Basic Creamy Polenta
Serves four.

  • 1 cup of corn meal
  • 4 cups of water
  • a dash of salt
  • 3 tablespoons butter (or vegan substitute, such as Earth Balance)
  • 1/4 cup parmesan cheese (or nutritional yeast)

Bring water to a boil. Add salt and slowly add polenta while whisking simultaneously. Lower heat to medium-low and whisk for about 3-5 minutes or until there are no clumps. Lower heat to low and leave covered for 20-30 minutes or until thickened. Uncover and add butter and nutritional yeast, whisking until combined. Serve while hot.

Add herbs or other spices of your own liking if you want to get creative!

On Wednesday I simply added some chopped fresh basil and a generous helping of Trader Joe’s Everyday Seasoning. (Seriously, buy this. Now!)

Because the above recipe makes 4 very large servings, and I’d only eaten about 3/4 of one serving on Wednesday, I had enough to try something new: making solid polenta, similar to the aforementioned TJ’s roll o’ polenta. It’s ridiculously easy to go from soft polenta to solid polenta; best of all, it requires no additional cooking or ingredients! *gasp!*

Four Steps from Soft Polenta to Solid Polenta
Again, serves four.

  1. Make polenta following the Basic Polenta recipe above.
  2. Pour polenta into a lightly greased or parchment paper lined 9×9 pan.
  3. Put in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour, but overnight is best.
  4. Once completely chilled, the polenta is solid… and you’re done!

So, after I was done eating my soft polenta, I poured the rest into a 9×9 pan, following the steps above. When dinner time rolled around on Thursday, I simply sliced it into quarters and pan-seared two of the quarters in a lightly [sesame-]oiled pan until golden on each side.

Getting my polenta nice and crispy!

Note: I was impatient with the square on the right and tried flipping it after a mere 3 minutes of searing. Well, it wasn’t even close to being solid at that point, so it nearly ended up stuck to my wooden spatula. From my trial-and-error-and-error-again method, here are some tips.

  • Use at least 1 tbsp of oil. Polenta is sticky and unforgiving.
  • Don’t be scared to put your pan on medium-high heat. I had it on medium at first, and all that did was start to “melt” the polenta into the soft, near-liquid form it was on Wednesday. If you want to get a good sear, you need to use higher temps.
  • Be patient. Wait at least 5 minutes (it took 7 for me) before your first attempt at flipping the polenta.
  • Use the thinnest spatula you have. My wooden spatula basically jabbed at the sear on the bottom of one of the polenta squares, removing the cripsy portion and spilling soft polenta in globs all over my pan. When I switched to a thinner plastic spatula, it worked much better.

Nicely crisped polenta topped with vegan "cheez" sauce, black beans, and salsa.

Not bad for supper, eh?

I definitely need to work on my mad polenta skillz, yo, but I think my first attempt was a success in that it was edible for not one day, but two!

New Food Story: Sweet Potatoes

I think the best way to showcase my trial-and-error experiences with food is to write about my history, my attempt, and my success or failure upon trying it. First up: sweet potatoes.

My first memory of sweet potatoes is probably that of many Americans.

Sweet potatoes... made sweeter...??

Sweet potato casserole: sweet potatoes usually cubed or mashed, mixed with syrup or sweetener of some kind, topped with marshmallows. Broiled to a golden brown, most children go ga-ga over this stuff every Thanksgiving.

In that respect, I was a weird child: I absolutely hated it. I would eat the marshmallows off of the top of my mom’s serving, but if even a speck of orange was on my marshmallows… so help me!!! it would ruin my meal. Yuck!

Fast forward a couple of decades: I was 23 and living in gorgeous California.

Oh, how I miss living in CA!

The town in which I lived was Fremont, and it was the home to the Bay Area’s largest farmer’s market. I had just started what would become an epic 35-pound weight-loss journey so during this time I would visit the farmer’s market every Saturday morning to get some fresh produce (and the occasional hand-formed loaf of sourdough or wedge of local cheese). Every time I’d visit, I’d go as far as to pick up and investigate things I’d never tried before: asparagus, pluots, and… sweet potatoes.

Look at them... always judging!

My arch nemesis for so long… it would taunt me from afar every Saturday as I made my rounds. One day I caved and purchased one.

I recall exactly what I did with it: I made sweet potato fries.

GO-TO SWEET POTATO FRIES
Makes roughly two large servings of fries.

  • Two sweet potatoes, cleaned thoroughly, peeled, and cut into strips roughly 1cm thick.
  • 4 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons of minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon of crushed red pepper flakes (more or less, depending on the level of spice you want)
  • 2 teaspoons of paprika
  • 2 teaspoons of onion powder
  • Dash of sea salt
  • A few dashes of garlic powder

Combine everything in a zip-loc bag or in a bowl with a lid. Shake and toss around until all of the wedges are evenly coated in toppings. Spread on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, making sure they are in just one layer. Sprinkle garlic powder on top and bake at 375 degrees F for 30-35 minutes, flipping fries after 20 minutes. You will know they are ready when the thinner ones are getting dark and the edges of the larger ones are mostly golden. Let cool for 5 minutes unless you want to burn your mouth!

Lo and behold, I loved them!!! After such a raging success, I now continue to love sweet potatoes as long as they are savory – not sweetened. I continue to dislike sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows, but give me a cubed sweet potato topped with spinach, black beans, salsa, and vegan “cheez” sauce and you have a happy, happy girl.