Monday, December 19, 2011

Day 36--My First (and 2nd, and 3rd, and 4th) Attempt at Sand Tarts

It's been a while since my last post, and although the typical holiday hustle is in full swing, Erica and I have been doing an admirable job of not losing track of our goals and commitments.  We're still making all our food at home, and although we've not had the time to be as creative with new recipes, we've been pulling from our reporitore and managing clean, healthy, and budget-conscious eating.  So naturally, I've spent much of my free time over the past two weeks making very non-vegan, non-clean cookies.

But just like everything else this year, I wanted to try something new.  I can make chocolate chip cookies in my sleep, and I always say that they're my favorite, but that's not exactly true.  No, my favorite cookie is the stuff of legends.  One that most people these days have no time or patience for.  One that, apparently, is so Pennsylvania Dutch that my friends outside the tri-county area have never even heard of it.

I'm talking, of course, about sand tarts.  The paper-thin, crispy-crunchy, sugary-buttery  labor of love that I remember from my childhood.  If you do it right, they come out so thin you can see right through them.  And when you take that first bite, unf, they just crumble in your mouth and melt on your tongue!  I usually leave the cookie baking to my dad on Christmas (except for my chocolate chip, which Erica always demands), but this year I wanted a challenge.

However, not only have I never made sand tarts before, I've never even been in the room while they were being made.  And I've always been under the impression that rolling the dough that thin is such an advanced technique that I shouldn't even bother.  I don't even have a family recipe for them!  But still, I wanted to try.  I found a promising-looking recipe on an amazing blog called My Grandma's Recipes.  [I picked this one for two reasons: 1) I liked the name of the blog, and 2) this was one of the few I found that didn't call for powdered sugar, which I wanted to avoid after my vegan baking disaster.]  The only thing I didn't like about it was that suddenly, it became a two-day process, as the batter needs to sit in the fridge overnight.  But that was a common thread in all the recipes I saw.  If only I'd known that this would actually turn into a five-day event spread over the course of two weeks...

... Actually, no, I would have done it anyway, because I learned some pretty awesome things over the past fortnight:
  • Meg, the author I yanked this recipe from, recommends lots of patience and wine.  Because of my 60-day water cleanse, I had to forego the latter.  Her way is definitely better--doing this sober sucks.
  • I am a master of the technique of "creaming together" butter, sugar, and eggs.
Pictured: stuff that's been "creamed together," in case Hannah Hart was still wondering
  • You can roll this dough so thin you can see the pattern on your counter through it, and it still won't be thin enough.
  • Rolling this vigorously is a workout, also, I'm wicked out of shape.  After the first night, where I only got through a quarter of the dough, my arms were like noodles and I was a giant baby about it at work.
  • One "batch" of this dough makes a ton of cookies.  I still have a quarter of the dough in the freezer.
  • The only way I could get the cookies to stay together was to actually just roll the dough right on the parchment paper.  I'm so happy that I figured this out after only ruining one mini-batch.  I felt like a rockstar. Really. 
  • For the first time in my life, I really see the value in convection technology, and I wish my oven had it. 
  • Erica's family got the first quarter-batch, and even people as close as Philadelphia are not familiar with sand tarts!  (I also learned that testing your first batch on people who don't know how they're supposed to taste is really the way to go.  Huge confidence builder.)
  • Decorating them is the only fun part.  I got really into different toppings, and I seriously think they're the prettiest cookies in the world right now.
  • You really do get better as you go.  By my third quarter-batch, they were as thin as I think I'm capable of getting them.  At least for now.  
Anyway, my hat is off to moms and grandmoms everywhere, or at least those in the PA Dutch country area.  I have a new respect for you, and what you go through at Christmas to make those tiny treats.  I hope I make you proud; I really did my best. Happy Holidays, everyone!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Day 24--Another Update from Erica!

After Erica's "hat trick" day in the kitchen, she really got inspired to do more.  Over the past two weeks, she's actually been the one doing most of the recipe planning. And as work picks up for me, I could not appreciate it more.  So here's another post from her, updating how she's doing with the "water only" commitment, and some of her latest kitchen triumphs:
Giving up coffee was only supposed to be an experiment.  I told myself after 60 days I'd be right back on it.  But lately I'm wondering if I really want to go back to caffeine?  I function just as well without it.  I'm consciously trying to get more sleep, which is better for me.  So I changed my mind and decided to only go back on decaf.  
Now, though, I'm considering staying the course for the long haul.  Maybe having coffee (decaf) reserved as a weekend treat instead of the status quo.  This would mean I don't go back to those sugary flavored creamers on a daily basis, either.  It's funny how changing your habits changes your way of thinking.  
I've been more active in the kitchen.  Before Val's first challenge, when we were trying to eat healthy and rotating variants of the same old boring recipe, I mentally checked out of the process.  It wasn't fair of me; we're supposed to be a team.  So I definitely owe the household some cooking.  And I'm really enjoying it. 
I made another batch of muffins, banana this time, and shared with people!  I also discovered a love for the Indian spice garam masala.  A recipe required it so I picked some up, and now I can be caught sniffing the jar when no one's looking.  The recipe was for chicken tikka masala, which required an overnight marinade.  (The only thing I did differently was swap in milk instead of cream.)  It was delicious, and this week we're repeating the recipe with veggies swapped in for the chicken. 
 Chicken tikka masala, broccoli, and basmati rice

The reason for the repeat (other than how good it is!) is because I had to buy plain yogurt for the marinade, and the only quantity I could find was a big tub of it.  So, to make sure it didn't go to waste, the goal was to find clean eating recipes that called for yogurt.  I scheduled a vegetarian repeat of the above, and also used yogurt to make a spinach pesto sauce
 Spinach pesto, tossed with whole wheat linguine and mushrooms

We're starting to develop the habit for creating a weekly meal plan ahead of time, and building the grocery list around that.  We're saving money as a result. 
And yes, we pay for the monetary savings with more time spent in the kitchen.  But this is not "chore" food.  This is fun and engaging.  We spend time together while doing it.  We come home and look at the recipe board and get excited about what's on deck for that night.  Because most of the time, it's gonna be deeeelicious.
Moving forward, there are two ideas I'm excited to try: 
One, I'm about to run out of instant oatmeal.  It's been my staple breakfast for years, and while I've lost weight on it, I realize that it's still a processed food and I'm not controlling how much sugar (or salt) goes into it.  So this weekend, I'm going to buy some raw oatmeal in bulk and try some clean eating oatmeal recipes.  My goal is to cook a batch of it over the weekend and then keep it in the fridge, flavoring as I go. 
And two, I am going to stop taking vitamin supplements.  I'm lucky in that I don't have other pill regimens, but I've been popping multivitamins for years, taking for granted that it's good for me, never really questioning whether I should.  You can never have too much of a good thing, right?  Well, it turns out you certainly can overdose on vitamins.  Also, vitamins are more complex than just swallowing them, sometimes requiring other pieces of the puzzle (like fat-soluble vitamins).  And the best place to find that correct mixture is in clean food. 
Besides, those multivitamins have "recommended doses" right?  But supplements are not regulated by any governing body!  I'm basically trusting that the little pill I'm taking, which some strangers made in a pharma factory, will give me what the package claims.  
So if most of our dietary needs can be found in the foods we eat, provided we're eating the right ones, it makes taking multivitamins seem unnecessary.  Since I learned that I can quit caffeine, maybe I should break this habit too.
ETA: We had the vegetarian version of the tikka misala tonight, and it was amazing!   ~Valerie

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Day 21--An Update on the Water-Only Adventure

We're getting close to rounding out the first half of our water-only 60-day stint.  For me, it hasn't really been too much of a challenge: once I decided I was going to do it, I was all in.

Well, I guess I should say my regular routine hasn't been too rough.  But that doesn't mean there hasn't been temptation.  I had an unexpected one the other day as I was Christmas shopping.  I was out all day, so when I got hungry I felt a natural pull to get an Auntie Anne's pretzel and a Coke.  I literally almost did this without even thinking about our water promise.  I caught myself in time, settled for a Subway 6-inch and a bottled water, but it wasn't later until I figured out why I had such a deep-seeded urge to grab that soda: it's an old shopping habit.

See,  I'm a "typical girl" in a lot of ways, but not so much when it comes to shopping.  I don't like doing it, and the mall is the worst offender.  So over the years, I've fallen into the habit of "treating" myself when I have to go. Usually Auntie Anne's and a Coke, sometimes a specialty coffee, or a smoothie.  It's such a habit I almost  slipped up on my commitment without thinking about it!

It got me thinking about all the empty calories I drink because I tell myself it's a treat; I tell myself I deserve it. At the grocery store, I used to always grab a Turkey Hill strawberry lemonade to drink on the way home.  At Target, it was an ice-cold Mountain Dew.  Every time we travel to either of our parent's houses, I have to stop for a mocha.  And since these are things I don't even think about, they're definitely not budgeted for.  I'm glad to be breaking this cycle.

I'm not trying to say that this type of grab-and-go isn't okay in moderation.  That's the very definition of a treat, right?  But I think for a lot of people, it becomes more of a habit than a conscious choice.  That's the case for me, certainly.  And I'm not that far away from the caffeine-addicted, strung out freak who drank over half her caloric intake on a daily basis.  I'm excited to have a cup of coffee again, don't get me wrong, but I'm really happy with the way things are now.  Just like vegan eating, drinking only water has put some of my choices under a microscope.  And when I'm done,  I think I'll have better tools for dealing with making these choices.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Day 15--Potstickers, Take Two!

A few weeks ago, I made vegetarian potstickers after having some disappointing ones in Vegas. They were really labor-intensive and I felt stupid for essentially ruining the batch with white pepper, which I already knew I hated.

But I knew there was a good recipe in there somewhere.  So last night, armed with extra energy and a helper, I tried again (and left the white pepper in the cabinet).  So here's how it went, in four basic steps:

1.) Use food processor to chop up carrots, shitake mushrooms, cabbage, and red onion (about a cup each); mix together in bowl.

 2.)  Heat mixture in large pan with 1 tbsp sesame oil  and 1 tbsp ginger about ten minutes, until onions start to cook, and mushrooms start to cook down.

Looks so tasty, right? :-/

 3.) Fold mixture into wonton wrappers, making sure one side is pressed totally flat.

Yes, I cheated and bought my wrappers this time! 

4.) Place potstickers in hot wok with a splash of sesame oil, just until the bottoms start to brown.  then add 1/4 cup water and cover until evaporated (this steams them).  When water is gone, the wrappers should be sticky.  And that's all there is to it!

I was particularly proud of this batch!

The cool thing about recipes like this is that you can sub vegetables you like if there's something in it you don't like.  Although, even if you think you don't like cabbage or mushrooms, the way they come together is really so perfect--I don't think this would taste very Asian without either one of those.  I also found that the dipping sauce on the same page as the original recipe is perfect just the way it is.

Anyway, the verdict is: success!  These were a fantastic little treat.  Even with two people, it was still a ridiculous amount of work (Erica had lots of trouble getting her wonton wrappers to stay pinched together), but the yield on this recipe is pretty hefty. We'll probably both get to eat leftovers out of it twice.

Look at that awesomeness, just look at it!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Day 14--Our Thanksgiving

Another one down.  Erica and I rotate years for spending Thanksgiving with my family and her, and this year it was her family's turn to have us.  Our assignment for contributing to the dinner was simple: cranberry sauce.  I thought we'd bring a can of the jellied stuff and a can of the other stuff and be done with it.  But Erica has been really into finding new recipes since her big day in the kitchen, so she found a fancy-schmancy recipe for Cranberry Sauce with Apples and Ginger, so we set to it.  Turns out, even a fancy cranberry sauce is actually pretty simple to make.  And it came out looking and tasting fantastic!
I really, really wish I liked cranberry sauce

So our dinner was amazing and our cranberry sauce was a hit, but I do have to mention that Erica and I both cheated on our water-only pledge: her family is very into wine, so we decided beforehand to allow ourselves a few glasses.  No regrets actually, because we went right back to drinking water the very same night--that's right, I got through Black Friday with no caffeine! I'm rather proud of that.

Coming up in my next post, we tried again with potstickers, this time with much greater success.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Day 8--Keeping Up with the Kitchen Budget

My biggest goal with this journey is to reclaim a healthy lifestyle for myself and Erica.  A big part of that includes making sure we're not being wasteful and that we're only buying what we need.  It's difficult to have a concept of a food budget while you're radically changing everything you buy, so I don't have a specific dollar amount that I'd like to get us down to just yet.  But we have been trying to be more conscious about what we spend.

The past three months, our grocery bill has been hovering around $400/month.  I think that sounds really high, but when you consider that we almost never eat out, even at work, it's probably not that bad.  This month, however, we're only at $244, with just a little over a week left in the month.  I expected this month to be lower, because of Vegas and Thanksgiving, our natural groove has been thrown off.  I am setting us a goal of $300 for this month, which leaves us $56 for the few days we have left.

Erica has long been a fan of the blog Get Rich Slowly, and I'm finally becoming a regular there as well.  Advice on the site covers all aspects of financial well-being, but I'm partial to JD Roth's food-related posts, because he and his wife consider themselves to be foodies, but they live on a conscious budget.

One of the best pieces of advice I gleaned from his site seems stupidly simple, but is actually very challenging: "Only buy what you need at the grocery store."  At first glance, you may think it's obvious.  But it's never that easy.  Ever catch yourself buying four boxes of cereal because it's on sale?  Or laundry detergent, even though you don't remember if you needed it or not? Or three boxes of Keebler crackers because you have a coupon?  You may justify these purchases by saying "This kind of stuff doesn't go bad!"  But it's exactly that kind of stuff that makes it hard to create a food budget.  Also, if I remember correctly from my childhood, the more cereal/chips/crackers that are in the cabinet, the quicker they seem to disappear.

What Roth meant by "Only buy what you need" is to literally decide what you want for dinner, go to the store, and buy only that. Repeat every day if necessary.  He swears he actually cut his grocery bill by shopping everyday, but let's get real--most of us don't have that kind of time!  So I modified his challenge, and I've been trying to stick exactly to the grocery list I wrote out at home.  Where I can check what I already have.  Shopping has become time-consuming, sure, but I'm definitely going to save money for it.

Anther thing we're trying to do to cut down on overpurchasing is to not only plan our meals, but write it down, like a menu.  Enter the dry-erase board.

Erica loves to doodle on this. I had a hard time erasing our friendly Halloween ghost.

This week we have an easy one. Tonight we're both feasting on leftovers from the tasty things she made on Saturday and the mushroom stroganoff I made last night.  Three nights this week, dinner will be elsewhere, and our Thanksgiving obligation is only cranberry sauce.  I'm thinking with all the heavy eating we're doing, a nice big salad sounds right on Wednesday, and there you have it.  All I need to buy this week is the stuff for cranberry sauce, salads, and soy milk.  There shouldn't be any extra "stops at the store".  We'll see how this goes.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Day 7--Guest Post, Courtesy of Erica!

As I've been learning how to cook such a wide variety of things, Erica has expressed interest in expanding her repertoire as well.  Since I've been doing most of the cooking, our cooking adventures struggle most on the weekends, since I'm always working.  

So I challenged Erica to make us dinner Saturday night with the following stipulations: She had to choose and shop for the recipe herself, it had to be clean and healthy, and not something she's ever made before.  I figured the best way to share this experience was to allow her to tell it herself, so what follows is a guest-entry from her, where she documents both her adventures in cooking and her progress with our water-only commitment:

~     *    ~    *    ~    *    ~    *    ~    *    ~

During Val's first 60 day challenge, I was pretty much on the sidelines.  But in this new challenge, it's 2-player mode. 
We're a week into the water-cleanse challenge, and it's more difficult than I thought it would be.  I have not been a soda drinker for years, but I do miss my morning coffee.  I enjoy the taste, and the little daily ritual of brewing a pot.  Also, it's cold out, and nothing beats a hot beverage on a cold day. 
 The first couple days, during caffeine detox, were tough.  I had already been tired from traveling and had to hit the ground running for the work week, and on top of that I had a splitting headache from withdrawal.  But that's behind me.  I've had to force myself to get more sleep every night,   and while I am usually up and ready to go in the morning now, I'm more tired in the evenings. 
 But I'm staying the course. 
 Now let's talk about last night's dinner.  It feels a little strange to be cooking with meat again.  I went looking for some clean eating recipes, and was surprised at how much variety is out there.  I wasn't expecting to see some of the recipes that popped up (pie? mac and cheese? meatball subs??) but I guess I wasn't grasping the core concept, that clean eating doesn't mean depriving yourself but instead means conscious cooking (nearly all the recipes had a nutritional breakdown estimate), cooking as close to scratch as possible so you know and control what goes into your food, and substituting unhealthy ingredients with healthier choices. 
 Anyway, a shepherd's pie recipe caught my eye.  I actually found two recipes, one with turkey, one vegetarian, and hybridized them.  I thought biscuits would go well with it, so I printed out the biscuit recipe too. 
 Oh, and I stumbled upon some muffin recipes.  I love muffins.  And I have a muffin pan, so obviously the universe wanted me to make muffins. 
 Biscuits.  Shepherd's pie.  Muffins.  In other words, a hat trick.  I didn't know if I could do it, but damned if I wasn't going to try. 
 After a quick trip to the store for supplies, where I may have inadvertently double-bought some stuff we already had (check your pantries, kids!) I tried to prep as much as possible.  I set all the ingredients out in three clusters, one for each recipe, along with measuring tools.  Since all three required the oven, my biggest challenge was parceling out the oven time. 
 I decided to start with the biscuits.  After a quick mental calculation, I knew I could wash and prep ingredients for the shepherd's pie during the biscuits' first stint in the oven, and boil the potatoes in tandem with their second stint, since they needed the same amount of time and I only have one kitchen timer. 
 Since I don't have a biscuit cutter, they turned out ugly, but with a little bit of butter they're not bad.  And whole wheat, of course. 
 On to the main course.  Here's the thing about shepherd's pie--it's an involved process.  Between the saucepan and the searing pan and the cutting board, it was a juggling act.  This included but was not limited to:  turkey, carrots, celery, green beans, onions, chives, rosemary, and garlic.
 I also mashed the potatoes with nothing but a fork.

Behold, this glorious beast.  

I still had another 45 minutes before Val was due home from work.  Plenty of time to get the muffins done, and after the crazy circus of putting together a shepherd's pie, the muffins were a breeze.  These were apple-cinnamon, and also sugar-free. 
These would go great with a cup of coffee.  Sigh. 
 PS  I like white pepper, and Val's vegetarian pot stickers were awesome.  

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Day 6--New Uses for a Crock Pot

One of the things I've been vowing to do while I'm re-learning to cook is to use my Crock Pot more.  I got it from my stepmom as a housewarming gift when I first moved out more than five years ago.  I've probably used it less than ten times, infrequently enough that I forget why I don't use it.  I mean, who isn't a fan of ten minutes of prep in the morning, and coming home to a full, delicious, ready-to-eat meal?

Then I pulled out my Crock Pot cookbook, and I immediately remembered why. Most of the meat-based recipes call for gravy or cream-based soups, things that would undoubtedly taste great on a cold night, but things that we nonetheless try to stay far, far away from.  And the "vegetable recipes" are for little more than baked beans and creamed corn.  (There's a problem with cooking veggies in a crock pot anyway, you I haven't come across a recipe that would get ridiculously overcooked if you left it in for 8 hrs.)

So my crock pot really only ever gets used around the holidays.  Wanting to change that, I looked for less traditional recipes, and came up with a promising-looking one for Indonesian-style chicken. All I had to do was throw chicken in the crock pot with a little bit of water and soy sauce, garlic and ginger, and let it cook for the day.  It worked! Less than ten minutes of prep time, and I got to come home to an almost finished product:  in order to make the dipping sauce for the chicken, I simply mixed some peanut butter into the remaining water and soy sauce.  It was great!

So here's to the first non-vegetarian meal I've made myself since I started this journey.  I got to use my crock pot, I made a relatively inexpensive, healthy, and tasty Indonesian-style meal.  I'm going to keep searching for new things to do with the crock pot: wish me luck!

Chicken with Peanut Sauce and Snow Peas

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Day 4--Potstickers, My Way

While we were in Vegas, one really disappointing food I had was potstickers, which were filled with some kind of spicy pinkish meat.  So when we got home, I immediately set off looking for a recipe to make vegetarian ones.  I found one that looked good, and since I had yesterday off, I even went the extra mile and made my own "clean" wonton wrappers with whole wheat flour.

Like any recipe I make for the first time, it took forever and made a huge mess, but it was turning out pretty good!  And then I made a huge mistake--I went against my better judgment and used an ingredient I know I hate: the recipe called for a teaspoon of white pepper, and my logical brain was thinking 1) this lady work for The Food Network, she must know what she's doing, and 2) a teaspoon in that amount of filling isn't that much, right?

Well, it was enough.  White pepper is so offensive to me, I don't even understand how anyone likes it.  In any case, though, Erica seemed to like them.  I was okay with them, when I used a lot of the dipping sauce.  I really want to try this again, because the combination of shitake mushrooms, carrots, cabbage, onions, and other veggies seemed really good.  Even the homemade wrappers, if a little big, were tasty.

Whole wheat vegetarian potstickers with roasted asparagus

Tonight we hit another roadblock--I was all set to make a mushroom stroganoff, but I forgot to buy a key ingredient.  Better luck tomorrow, maybe?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Day 1--Back from Vegas; Back on the Wagon

Well.  Las Vegas is quite a city!  Erica and I went for the weekend, to attend an 11-11-11 wedding for some of our closest friends.  We packed a lot into the weekend, and it was so great to get to explore this giant adult playground with fifteen of our friends--it's a time I will never forget, and seriously one of the coolest and most unique weddings I've ever been to.

I took picture of pretty much everything I ate throughout the weekend, and I have to say, it's not pretty. I could have done worse, for sure, but Vegas is not a town of healthy eating.  Buffets, for starters, are a killer.  Vegetarians do not get their money's worth out of a buffet. Also, I definitely felt the pressure to eat a lot so I wasn't hungry until the next designated meal (because snacking, like everything in Vegas, is expensive).  But for what we were doing, and for the size of our party, they worked.  Also it helps if you're drunk--all food tastes amazing when you're drunk and hungry.  I was both when I made this wonderful combo of lo mein, mac & cheese, fried rice, and something else I don't even remember.

Hey, at least I also had a salad!

Anyway, it's behind me now, and I'm really excited to move on.  Today starts our 60-day water cleanse, and what a perfect time to start!  In addition to some celebratory beers, shots, margaritas, and gin & tonics, I ended up drinking some soda in Vegas (as is evident from the pic), and I had coffee several times.  So I couldn't wait to get back to normal.  I also can't wait to cook for myself.

So far so good, I'm not having any caffeine headaches this time around, and Erica is really on board with doing this with me.  Like I said, I don't plan on blogging about drinking water for sixty days, I'll have more fun stuff to put here.  I'm diving back into finding new stuff to cook, and Erica recently expressed an interest in trying "bulk cooking," so I'm excited to try that.  I'm back, clean eating, and I'm ready to knock it out of the park!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A New 60-Day Challenge

A few days ago, I completed my 60-day vegan stint and I'm currently trying to figure out what's next, as far as balanced eating goes.  Erica and I agree that the way we've been eating has been a huge improvement over the way we were three months ago, so our goal is to not change much.  We're still predominantly vegan (me) and vegetarian (her), but with Halloween and all the leftover food and candy, it's been a struggle not to fall back into our junk food habits.

So, I guess if you were to put a label on it, the one that fits best would be clean eating. With an emphasis on making most foods from scratch, eating very little processed food, and using natural ingredients, clean eating is really a better description of what I've been striving for.  We've already cut out soda, processed flour, potato chips and cheese crackers, but there are other things (salad dressings and vegetable stock come to mind) that I'd like to rely on less, or learn to make myself.

What this means for the meat/dairy that we eat:  we'll strive to buy dairy products that are steroid free and eggs that are from free-range farms.  The same applies for meat, if we decide to eat it. However, the price tag on all-natural chicken doesn't currently come anywhere close to fitting within our food budget.  So for now, our meals will remain mostly plant-based.

Erica and I have committed to another extreme challenge to go along with our clean-eating lifestyle:  in the same way we took a radical step to clean up what we eat, we're going to clean up how we drink.  Starting November 14th, we commit to drinking only water* for 60 days.  

While I was giving up soda and coffee, I became way too reliant on apple juice, apple cider, and (sugary) tea.  And while I am drinking more water now than I was before, I'm not drinking nearly enough.  And Erica, well, she never really did give up coffee with me.  So here's the deal.  No coffee, juice, or alcohol for 60 days. No wine at Thanksgiving, no shots on my birthday, and yes, because we chose not to start on Nov. 1st, we'll be having a totally sober New Year.  But it's supposed to be a challenge, that's how we know we're changing something.  I'm really excited.

Now, I expect this challenge won't be nearly as fun to blog about as the last one was, so I'm going to continue to use this space to talk about our adventures in cooking and what we're learning about clean eating and clean living.  I'm still on the hunt for awesome recipes, and I think one of the first up is going to have to be making another soup, because HOLY CROW it is freezing outside.

*There will be one exception although I don't know if you really consider this a "drink":  Erica and I are both pretty fond of [and not willing to give up] cereal for breakfast, so milk (soy for me) on cereal is staying.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Day 60--The Halloween Party That Wasn't

If you don't already know, Halloween is kinda my thing.  Every year, I have a huge party, costumes are mandatory, I decorate the house, buy a ton of food and candy and beer, prizes for "best costumes,"  the whole nine.  It's a huge event, and we usually get way more people that our house can even hold.  I look forward to it for months, and most of my friends do, as well.

I didn't time this 60-day thing to be ending on party day, but when I realised the coincidence, I was excited.  The original plan involved making a big pot of vegan chili, (and some regular chicken taco meat) slicing up some veggies and having a taco bar tonight, then cooking breakfast for those who crashed in the morning, and inviting those who wanted to stay to get celebratory sushi with us tomorrow.

Nothing ended up going according to plan.  See, we're right smack in the middle of the bizarre Northeast US October snowstorm, and it ended up being worse than anyone had feared.  Some of our friends tried so hard to get here that they only turned around at road closures or serious car issues, but in the end, we had to cancel.

The night wasn't a total loss; Erica and I actually found everything to hook up my original Nintendo and playing Dr Mario, and of course, since I made the chili last night, we ate like kings.  Now she's about to show me "Night of the Living Dead," which I have never seen.  Not the evening I planned for, but not bad by a longshot.

At least we don't have to clean up tomorrow!

Tomorrow I'll post some wrap-up thoughts on what I've been through so far, as well as what's next.   I'm sorry, I just don't have the spoons for it now.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Day 56--Eggplant, and What's Next for This Blog

People have pointed out that it's weird that I've never had eggplant, especially while doing a vegan diet.  I don't know, I have a pretty extensive blended family, and I don't remember any grandmas, aunts, or moms claiming that they had the best Eggplant Parmesan.  Nonetheless, recipes for eggplant dishes always seem to be generational things, so I somehow felt it wasn't my place to try making eggplant, if I wasn't inheriting the recipes from older generations.

The more I thought about it, the sillier that seemed, so I got a recipe for roasted vegetables that included eggplant.  I used the recipe as a very rough guide (what the hell is red rice, anyway?) so I threw together red onion, broccoli, mushrooms, carrots, and eggplant in some EVOO and balsamic vinegar.  I've never roasted veggies in balsamic vinegar before, so it was more than one kind of risk.  But it turned out pretty good!

The eggplant was a bit mushy and thus not my favorite, but the rest of the veggies turned out quite nice.  I may try eggplant again, but I think next time I will have someone else make it for me.
The french fries were an emergency backup plan =D

Well, my 60-day vegan stint is rapidly coming to an end!  I can say I've learned enough about this lifestyle that  I do want to keep, for the most part.  Probably not as extreme with the "vegan rules" as I have been, but I'll continue to try new things and post my findings.

Erica and I have also committed to another extreme 60-day challenge that will start as soon as we get back from Vegas (November 13).   More details on that to follow, but I'm telling you, this one is probably going to be even harder for me.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Day 52--A Solution to My Sandwich Problems

For the longest time, the idea of permanently adopting a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle has really appealed to me.  There are a lot of reasons I didn't act on it until now, but one of the main ones I've always given is "I can't live without sandwiches."  It sounds like a lame excuse, but it's very real.  I used to eat a turkey sandwich every day for lunch, and I could continue that for the rest of my life, and I'd still never get sick of it.  Turkey, American cheese, mayo, lettuce, tomato, and oregano--not even close to vegan.

So, of course, lunch adjustments have been pretty difficult.  I tried a meatless sandwich wrap back at the beginning of this 60-day stint, and it was pretty ... awful.

So after this past Sunday's amazing mushroom sandwich at Isaac's, I tried to recreate the magic. And it worked!  Here's what I did:

3 portabella caps cut in thick slices
4 tbsp. Olive oil
Garlic powder
Onion powder

Pour the olive oil into a bowl, mix in the spices until they're even throughout the oil.  Spread the oil mix on both sides of each mushroom slice.

Grill on each side for 4-5 minutes.
I used a grill pan because it's cold outside. Also, I'm out of propane.

These were fantastic.  I put them on a sandwich with tomato, lettuce, and dijon mustard.  Very different from the bland turkey and mayo that I'm used to, but it was awesome!  These mushrooms are a little pricey, so this will have to be a once-in-a-while thing, but the wait will be worth it.

Eight days left, and I finally figured out the sandwich.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Day 49--Another Attempt at Eating Out

Today is my lovely girlfriend's 29th birthday, and I knew that would mean eating out.  If you've been following, you might remember that I avoided eating out almost completely in my first 30 days, and my one attempt at eating out recently was only partially successful.

 But, determined to be able to keep to a diet and still live my life,  I planned ahead when it came to Erica's birthday.  Her parents came into town on Sunday to take us to lunch, and we agreed that Isaac's would be a good place for everyone to get what they want.  If you're not from the central PA area,  they're an upscale soup and sandwich joint that has a ton of vegetarian options for sandwiches, and they're very accommodating about substitutions.  The only reason I hadn't gone there yet was because they have this ah-maz-ing pepperjack tomato soup that I was afraid would be too much of a temptation.  But part of this was supposed to be about being able to rise above temptation, so that's what I did--I had a sandwich with portabella mushrooms, sprouts, tomatoes, cucumber, and dijon mustard.  It was totally perfect.

Then tonight we decided that we'd try this Indian place in town.  We've been meaning to get there forever, and we have no excuse for not going before, because it's literally across the street from a building I worked in for two years.  Anyway, we finally got around to checking out Tulsi and wow, was it worth it.  Their menu was over half vegetarian, and we both ordered only veg options.  I haven't had Indian cuisine since high school, and literally everything I tried, from the naan, to the soup, the samosas, both our dinners, everything was so excellent.  Plus, I have enough to take to work tomorrow as well!  Man, I cannot wait to go back there.

Something I realized while we were at Tulsi; we were brought some chutney and dipping sauces without being told what they were, and as I tried them I could tell which ones had a lot of cumin, curry, etc.  Cooking almost everything I eat is really training my palate!  Mmm I can't wait to try cooking Indian food.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Day 44--An Attempt at Vegan Baking

So, I've been putting off trying baking, mostly because yummy cookies and breads are some of the very things I've been trying to avoid.  But also because I was super intimidated at the prospect of baking without eggs.  And, I mean, applesauce as a substitute?  Really?   I can't even remember the last time I bought applesauce.  So I found a recipe for vegan sugar cookies that didn't call for anything to really replace the eggs.  I should have known something was off then and there, but whatever, I'm new at this, so I gave it a shot.

I should also know by now when a recipe calls for an ingredient I don't like, I'm probably not going to like the result.  But I figured, how much could a teaspoon of almond extract really bother me even though I hate almonds? Hmm, red flag #2.  Moving on.  Wait, did I mention that this sugar cookie recipe did not have any regular white sugar in it?  Yeah, powdered sugar only, what.  You know, sometimes a guy in a uniform tells you he's a cop, and you just trust that he knows what he's doing with the handcuffs.  I followed the recipe. Sue me.

So the rest of the ingredients went something like water, soymilk, vanilla, cornstarch, and flour.  And, in my classic tradition of making something for the first time, I made a huge mess:
The wine was totally necessary

As you can see, I had the regular sugar out anyway.  That came later.  When I got everything mixed to the consistency of caulking, I decided it was maybe a bit too thick, so I added some water.  Not much change, but it's cool, I've got flour, I can roll this mess into the shape of a cookie....

Then comes my favorite part, toppings.  See, I've long been a fan of the classic chocolate chip cookie, and until now, that was the only kind I ever made from scratch.  But they have a significant downside in that it's never appropriate to garnish them with cinnamon sugar and assorted colored sprinkles.  The sugar cookies were my chance to go all out. 

Two things I found out, one will be a surprise, and one won't--not-surprise first:
  • These cookies were gross.  They were dry and flavorless, oh, except for the almond extract which made them smell like anise.  Ugh.  But surprisingly,
  • The batter, which we were free to eat without fear of salmonella (not that that's ever stopped me before), was actually pretty decent.  Just goes to show that cookie dough is the most awesome thing in the world.  That's right, even better than cookies.

 At least they look really good, right?

Nonetheless, Erica has been a real trooper, "taking one for the team," and eating the cookies.  At least one of us thinks they're edible.  I'll try again someday, but for now, I think baking may be way too much effort and mess for treats I'm not supposed to be eating anyway.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Day 42--Adventures in Eating Out

This past Sunday was a busy one.  I went with a group from work to Outfest in Philly, an LGBT pride festival that's an official National Coming Out Day Event.  For the first time, though, we didn't go simply to enjoy the festival, we were acting in official work capacity.  We had a tent, stuff to give away, surveys for people to take, the whole nine yards.  I've never worked an event like that, and I can't even begin to tell you how much fun it is to be able to talk to so many different types of people in an atmosphere where everyone is happy and safe and comfortable being themselves.  I literally cannot wait to do it again!

The day itself, however, was really trying.  I did plan for breakfast.  We stopped for bagels at the same place we always stop when we go to Philly, but I read ahead, ensuring that my bagel of choice had no eggs, and I packed my own vegan spread for it.  Delicious, and I was really proud of myself for avoiding cream cheese.  I also brought along a water bottle to curb the typical coffee and soda cravings that come along with being out and about. 

I didn't really have any way to pack a lunch, because I didn't want to drag that kind of stuff all through the city (we parked far and did a lot of walking).  But I figured, "Hey. It's a gay event in the middle of Philadelphia's famed Gayborhood, how much trouble could I really have staying vegan and healthy?"  Turns out I was way wrong.  I ran into a lot of trouble with my diet.  

First to rear its head was the temptation of street vendors.  I know lots of cityfolk who will swear by the food that comes out of their hometown street vendors, and Philly is no different.  From cheesesteaks to Philly pretzels to fries with salt and vinegar, I'm a big fan of all of it.  But I'm not from Philly, I'm from closer to the Chesapeake Bay, and don't you know the vendor closest to our tent had Maryland Blue Crab Cakes.  I had to smell them all day long, and it was nothing shy of torture.

But I resisted the vendors, and when we were done, we went in search of a place to eat.  I had Erica and my good friend Dan with me, so I was trying to consider the fact that they were also hungry, but every place we saw had nothing on the menu that would work for me, except a salad.  (I don't order salads as meals at restaurants, because they're not filling enough, and they charge for meat and cheese, even if you ask for it without.)  So we kept walking until we made it back to the car, striking out all the way and finally decided we'd wait til we got back to Lancaster, and we'd find somewhere here.

Then we sat on the interstate for two hours, progressing less than 15 miles in that amount of time.  (Yeah, I really like living outside of Philly.)  By this time we were all starving, exhausted, thristy (one bottle of water and one lemonade was apparently not enough for a whole day in 80 degree heat), so we decided to stop in King of Prussia for food. At this point I would have eaten anything.

But we sat down at Rock Bottom Brewery and they seemed to have the answer to all my problems:  a house made, fire-grilled veggie burger. It was all I wanted.  Then they brought it out, and it had this giant slab of cheddar cheese melted onto it, which, I just double-checked, is not listed on the menu as an ingredient on the burger.  Then Erica and I had an exchange that went something like this:

Erica: You have to send that back.
Me: You have to be kidding, I'm eating this thing!

And I did, making this the second time I've broken the vegan rules I set forth for myself forty days ago.  I could have sent it back.  I should have, especially since they had the freaking gall to charge extra for the cheese.  But can I just tell you, that was absolutely the best veggie burger I've ever had, and I barely tasted the cheese.  I'm going to try to re-create the burger (minus the cheese) tonight, and my mouth is already watering for it.

One thing this did teach me though:  our culture is extremely vegan-unfriendly.   I already knew that, it's part of the reason I only ate out once in my whole first month of this project, but you know what--our life is busy. Sometimes we have to grab something out.  How do true vegans do it?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Day 39--Quick Update

I had every intention of updating over the past few days, but life sometimes has other plans.  Yesterday, my grandfather died, so most of my time and energy has been dedicated to my family over the past few days.  Cooking and food planning has been a bit pushed to the back burner, but I'm far enough along in this that I have some standard fallback foods that I can rely on to be quick and easy and, when necessary, portable.

With the sad news, my overproductive overdrive has come to a halt.  I feel like I'm falling behind on a number of things, but I have the energy to deal with exactly none of it.  I'll get it back, I'm sure, but there's a sadness right now that I haven't yet kicked.

We'll miss you, Pap, but I certainly hope you're feeling better now that you're on the other side. <3

Monday, October 3, 2011

Day 34--Groceries

Ugh I'm still struggling with the "grocery shopping" thing.  I'll be very honest about the fact that I'm not a very "savvy shopper."  I don't get the paper and search ads for what's on sale where, I don't clip coupons, and I don't keep a running tally of how much I'm spending as I go through the store.  Sometimes I don't even shop with a list.  And when I do, it's more of a reminder not to forget certain things; I always buy more than what's on the list.

So I wanted to compare what I spent on food before I started this vegan thing and after.  The best way to do that was month over month, so here it is:

August actual for groceries:  $441.86

September actual for groceries: $507.12

I was disappointed but not surprised that my total for my vegan month was higher than previous months. (I was, however, surprised that we were so close to our goal of $100/week in August, because I was just as bad of a shopper then).  I think a couple of things factor into the jump:
  1. This was the first month of a total change for us which meant taking a hit on some things--like spices--that will last us more than a month, 
  2. This account is never used for eating out, which we did more of in August and almost none of in Sept., so naturally, the grocery bill will go up.
  3. We didn't really have a feel yet for how to be savvy vegans.  Just like with any other diet chioces, some foods are really expensive and should only be a once-in-a-while thing.  For us, that's hummus.  We bought several conatiners before I was finally like "whoa, this stuff is four bucks a pop, let's reign this in."
But I can't blame it all on this stuff.  A big reason we spent more instead of less is simply because produce at my local supermarket is expensive.  I try to have an idea for meals before I go to the store, and that usually means grabbing asparagus even if it is $3.99/lb.  I stopped by a store closer to my work the other day and I was in shock at how much lower their produce prices were!  And their selection was so much better than it was when that was my "local" store.  I made a mental note that I need to do my shopping there.  But there's a problem in that plan, too.  I like to shop on my day off, and this store is 35 minutes away.  If I just shop after work, I know my shopping will never be complete.  But I have to figure it out, because the difference is huge.

Also, I think even $100/week for two people is excessive, and we can probably do with less.  But for now, I'd like to just get back down to that.  I'm going to start by always making a list and sticking to it, planning meals so I use everything I buy (although I've been doing a pretty good job of not wasting much), and vowing to somehow get to East York for produce at least once a week.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Day 33--A Dinner Guest, and Thai Food

My sister has been one of the people most interested in my vegan journey.  We've been talking about it a lot, she's always interested to know what I've been eating, and she's been following this blog pretty regularly.  We live pretty close to eath other, and we've been saying that we need to get together more often.  So when she suggested we get together to a vegan-themed dinner on Friday night, I thought that was perfect!

We decided on Thai, which was another first for me.  I found some really great recipes for Pad Thai and a cucumber salad, and I couldn't wait to get started! I know most of my plan was to focus around being healthy, but guess why everyone likes Thai food so much?  It has a ton of sugar in it.  I figured what the hell, the only sugar I've had in weeks came from grapes and apple juice, so I can afford just this one meal.  Plus, as soon as I saw the recipe for Pad Thai, my mouth was watering for it.

I was nervous about having a dinner guest, and I don't know why.  As much as I've been sharing talking about this, I've been a little reluctant to share food. I don't know what I'm afraid of--judgment, people thinking I'm one of those "pushy vegans," people thinking my food is gross or my choices are invalid.  I was also a little afraid of asking other people to eat tofu, because I know it's one of those things... I've only ever made it two times myself.  But I knew my sister would be willing to try it!

In any case, dinner was a huge success.  It took forever to make, and I kind of made a huge mess, but I always get better at that kind of thing the second and third time I make the same thing. Part of the reason I lovew Thai is because of all the extras you get to put on it, and everything looked so good with the peanuts, lime wedges, and sesame seeds on the salad.  The only thing I didn't get to put in it was sprouts, because my grocery store was sold out of them.  But overall, proabably the tastiest thing I've made so far!  The girlfriend and the sister really enjoyed it, and the night was a lot of fun.  I can't wait to do it again!
Cucumber Salad with toasted sesame seeds;
Pad Thai w/ tofu, peanuts, and lime

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Day 30--Half-way Point, and I MADE SOUP!!!!

Well, I'm halfway through this vegan journey, and I just wanted to say a huge THANKS to everyone that's been reading along!  Every few days, I run into someone I haven't seen in awhile and they say "Oh, I've been following your blog! How's that going?"  It's been so uplifting; it keeps me going.  If you're wondering what's in store for the next 30 days, I've been getting requests  for more recipes (links or originals), so I'm going to make sure that happens.  Starting today, actually!

So tonight I came home from work with only one goal:  use food I have in the house to make dinner without going to the grocery store.  I was nervous, because all I had at home was a squash, which I bought impulsively last week and have never prepared before, an onion, and a couple of random fruits.  In my research of what the hell one does with a squash, I kept coming back to soup.  I settled on this amazing recipe for  Vegetarian Butternut Squash Soup with Apples  (which is easy to make vegan with one tiny tweak). 

First thing's first:  I know why people rarely make their own soup--it is involved!!  Cutting a squash is no walk in the park. Seriously, I might have blisters tomorrow.  But it was so worth it.  After all the cutting was done, all I had to do was cook the squash, onion, and apples in vegetable broth and applesauce, then blend it together.  It was a huge hit! Such a perfect savory dish for a nice, crisp autumn day.   And it gave me another "first:" my very first homemade soup.

So, here's to the next 30 days: I hope everything we eat is as tasty as what we had tonight.

I improvised the cinnamon garnish, and even that was delightful!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Day 28--The Sad, Sad Case of My Window Herbs

I've grown basil before.  I think I had one plant for over two years, until it was just too big for its pot.  So I don't understand why the ones I planted in July are gradually dying!  Here's the deal: cooking with fresh herbs is expensive, only if you have to buy fresh sprigs every time you need them.  So I've been growing my own.  The packets of seeds cost about a dollar each, and I used to paint pots as a hobby, so having a window garden seemed like a breeze!  So this summer I planted basil, cilantro, lavendar, and chives, hoping to save a little money and eat a little fresher.

The cilantro and the chives looked really great for about a week, but they promptly died in week two.  Never even got use out of them.  The lavendar, the only one I had outside, took a month to sprout.  It's still alive, I think, but all it is is a few green leaves?  Also, I don't think it has changed at all in over a month.  I don't understand: I followed all the sunlight and watering guidelines.  I used new (but not over-chemically) potting soil. Are they really that fickle?

So, basil seems to be the last man standing.  Barely.  Even that is dying in phases!  I planted three pots of basil because that's the one I use the most, and one of them died last month, too.  The two survivors will randomly have a stalk that goes brown and shrivels up.  And I swear, I'm not a bad plant-mom! I owned the same little souvenier cactus for ten years, I have some really pretty African violets, and I have an ivy plant that's enjoying stretching all around my piano.  So why can't I keep these herbs alive?  Ugh, I guess I have to start over--again.

The one on the left hates me :-(

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Day 26--Game Day, Vegan Style!

Football on Sunday is an American tradition.  This week, I was lucky enough to have one of my best buds from out of town and my brother come over for the afternoon games.  All week, I'd been debating on what to put out for appetizers--would people who aren't doing what I'm doing appreciate game day snacks that aren't the typical pizza rolls, spinach queso dips, and bacon-wrapped-whatevers?  I thought maybe I should mix it up, put out some vegan and nonvegan selections.  But then I thought, you know, I'm having a lot of fun with this, what's the harm in exposting people to the good stuff that's out there?  Plus, my buddy recently ditched junk food, so I figured he'd probably appreciate a healthier spread.

Unfortunately, I had a busy weekend, making my own appetizers was out of the question.  The grocery store had me covered, though!  I decided to put out bruschetta with toasted baguette slices, Triscuits and veggies with two flavors of hummus.  Not the most homemade thing in the world, but it was a hit!   The Eagles lost, but the comany was good, so I think a fun time was had by all.
Yes, even our beer is from a 100% vegan brewery.

Oh, and tonight's dinner was too good not to include in this post:  It was the first Asian stir-fry I've done  since stating this thing. A few years ago, it was something I'd make with chicken and chicken broth, and while those were easy enough to replace, remembering the actual recipe was a challenge.  So I pretty much just threw together every vegetable I could find, soy sauce, a bit of veggie stock, garlic, ginger, and red pepper flakes for heat, and ate it over brown rice. Man, this dish is even better than I remember it; and look at all the colors!
Onions+Mushroms+Broccoli+Red Bell Pepper+Zucchini+Carrots=All The Yum!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Day 24--A New Favorite, and A Kitchen Nightmare

New Favorite Food

I've probably mentioned before that my whole life I've been guilty of drowning things in cheese.  American on my sandwiches (and also as a snack while I made the sandwich); cheddar on anything Mexican; fresh-grated parmesan on pasta; chunks of colby-jack on crackers, or without crackers; extra mozzarella in the fridge for anything that may require it.  Cheese was my #1 comfort food.  Cheese is a lot of the reason that I decided to make this a vegan thing and not just a vegetarian thing.

When I started this I already knew what my substitute for cheese would be--avocados.  They come really close to giving me that satisfied, pleasurable feeling that I get from my favorite dairy substance.  They're rich and creamy and delightful.  The only problem I run into with avocado is that they can be hit-or-miss.  You can buy an unripe one and plan to eat it 4 days from now, and it will be perfect. But sometimes in that amount of time, it will go overripe and start to rot, or be just as unripe as the day you brought it home.  And if you forgot to buy one in advance and you need one that's ripe for tonight, good luck.  As expensive as they are ($1.25-1.50 ea. here in PA), it sucks to get a bad one.  So my avocado eating has been sparse.

And then, and then, I found this:

I had been looking for a guacamole that was as close to all-natural ingredients as possible, and I hadn't been having much success.  But this little gem right here was not in the snacks section, it was in the refrigerated produce bin (you know, where all those expensive Bolthouse Chai Whatever drinks are).  It lists ingredients literally as Avocados, Jalapenos, White Vinegar, Salt, Onion, Garlic; and I can get on board with that.

So I bought it, even though $5.49 seemed like a steep price for such a small box, and it blew away my every expectation. Creamy and delicious with just a bit of zing, it made the perfect addition to last night's vegan tacos.  Erica loved it, too.  Even the value was better than I originally thought.  I misread the label--it contained two 7oz. packages, not one, so we are all set on guac for a while!  And to think.  Less than half the saturated fat of cheese, less sodium, none of the cholesterol, more potassium.  This stuff is amazing.

Spice Cabinet Nightmare

So, more cooking from scratch apparently means owning all the spices.  Which I'm fine with, because I like food that has flavor, but suddenly my spice cabinet went from manageable to, well, this:

It needs a makeover.  I don't have a thing that spins the bottom shelf (is it called a lazy susan?), so sometimes when I'm looking for a particular spice I can't find it, one of us ends up re-purchasing something we already have.  Or, alternatively, when I know I recently bought something and can't find it, I end up emptying the whole thing onto the counter.  Currently we have 3 cans of dried diced onions, 3 bottles of vanilla, 2 pumpkin pie spices, 2 large oreganos, and 2 or 3 garlic powders.  And that's what I can see without moving stuff around.

I'm just not sure how to tackle this yet. Should I alphabetize them?  That would appeal to my OCD.  But so would putting them with like spices--you know, all the sweet stuff together, all the hot stuff together, all the Italian stuff.   It's driving me so crazy right now I want to run to Target and get a spinny-thing.  But alas, I am house-bound because my car is getting inspected.  Which is also why I couldn't go to Central Market today.  And also why today's cooking challenge is: make something awesome out of the random stuff I have here!

I will get on this cabinet situation.  There's always tomorrow!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Day 20--Adventures in Advanced* Cooking!

*Okay, my usage of the word "advanced" is relative.   When I say that, what I actually mean is I'm not used to making things that involve cooking in steps, or using a food processor, and last night's dinner involved both!

For my final step in adding beans to my diet,  I got a recipe for healthy veggie burgers.  Of everything I've made so far, I thought last night's ingredients made an incredibly tasty-looking picture:

Excitingly healthy looking, right?  Well, I was excited.  And then I learned some things:
  1. My food processor is tiny.  I could only fit about a quarter of this stuff in there at a time, so, getting the mixture prepped took almost an hour, and got super messy at times.
  2. You should read the whole recipe before you decide that's the right one for you.  I actually got the mixture all together, ready to press it into patties, when I saw the recipe called for them to be pan-fried instead of baked (what the hell, recipe??).  And my fallback recipe had only Celcius instructions for the stove (yeah, I'd had too many glasses of wine for conversions).  So I ended up winging the cooking time and temp.
  3. All vegan recipes call for way too many onions.  I like (cooked) onions as much as the next guy, but seriously, sometimes less is more.  I'm glad I used my judgement on this one.
In the end, I think my efforts paid off!  I liked it, and I think Erica did, too.  I'm forcing her to be honest with me in this process, because if I make something she doesn't like, I want to know!  She said these are "different," meaning they don't taste like hamburgers, but that's to be expected, I think.  She did eat two, so it couldn't have been the worst thing ever.   Although I have to agree, the average meat-and-potatoes palate would think this is pretty off the wall.  Me, I'm really excited about having the leftovers for lunch tomorrow!

Chickpea veggie burger with lettuce and tomato on whole wheat bun.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Day 19--Buying Local vs. Buying Organic vs. Food Variety

I haven't really posted a lot about where my food comes from.  It's something I'm still struggling to figure out.  A lot of what I've read and learned suggests we should only eat fruits and veggies that are in season locally, and we should buy from local vendors.  Others say you should buy organic, even if you live in Pennsylvania and that organic orange came from California.  And then there's those who say that the ideal, of course, is to buy produce that's both organic and local.

The reason I struggle, and I'm sure many Americans run into this, is because I really only know how to shop at a supermarket.  The "local" produce there is really limited (right now it's pretty much corn), and the organic produce is also limited (bags of lemons, apples and oranges), and there is no cross-section.  So for the time being, I'm relegated to traditional produce.  I will say this for my supermarket:  their selection is fantastic, their produce is always good-looking, and I almost never have to worry about something going bad before its time.

And, of course, this isn't the only grocery mart in town.  We also have a less-awesome supermarket, two family-owned local grocery stores, a central market, and a few organic/local marts.  Oh, and of course, this is Central PA! Home of the summertime Amish roadside stand!  So it's not like I don't have options.  They're just not always the most convenient ones.    The markets are downtown, and some are only open on Friday (while I'm at work in another county); the family markets have  less selection and sometimes obscenely long checkout lines that make a quick after-work stop for soymilk into the stuff of nightmares; and the Amish--I have ethical issues with them that are probably better served by another post.

It doesn't help that I'm still torn on the idea of whether "organic" really does equal "better."  It's not an easy question to answer.  If my high school civics teacher didn't teach me anything else, he definitly taught me about questioning sources.  Every movie that's out there touting the horrors of pesticides and GMOs has an agenda.  However, so does every government study that say there's no harm in these things. (Really, it would undo the entire American farming industry!)  So where is the truth, and how would we even know to trust it if we saw it?  What you feed your family seems like one of those things where you'd want to err on the side of caution and buy organic--but if there really is no difference, then that's a lot of wasted money!

I think my ideal lies in a combination of local and regular food.  Local food just tastes better; anyone who's ever grown their own tomatoes can tell you that.  But I still need variety.  I don't think I can live without avocado, and they just don't grow around here.  I'm going to try to make it to Central Market this Friday, see how I can make out with local food (and how I resist the temptation of apple dumplings and other orgasmically good PA Dutch treats).  Oh, and it's officially fall.  I need a pumpkin!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Day 15--Quarter of the Way There, and Last Night's Surprise

So, today officially marks my 1/4-of-the-way point with this vegan cleanse, and I'm feeling really great about it!  As soon as I gave up the caffeine, I started falling asleep almost as soon as I went to bed, whereas, I used to have to lie awake for an hour, maybe two.  It was affecting me way more than I thought.  As a result, my energy is way up.

Food temptation is not at all what I thought it would be.  In the grocery store, I really enjoy shopping for all the produce, and I have no problem skipping the "bad" aisles.  I really only eat processed food once a day, and usually, that food is Cheerios, so I can't even feel too bad about that.  To be honest, though, I miss cheese like crazy. It has always been my biggest weak spot, and it's one of the reasons I'm glad I decided to make this a "vegan" thing--otherwise, I would be justifying my need for cheese at this very moment.  I love cheese on everything.  I don't think there's such a thing as "too much" cheese.  If I decide to add it back into my diet when this is over, I need to find a point of moderation.

The biggest thing I struggle with right now is the work.  I put so much time into this!  Finding new recipes, cooking from scratch, longer trips to the store because I'm being careful about the choices, more frequent trips because no matter how much I plan, never get everything I need in the "big trip."  And the dishes. Dear Lord, the dishes are never ending!  I feel like I'm always doing a chore.  It's definitely not easy.

Which is what made last night so nice:  I worked until 6, I knew we were in need of a grocery trip, and I kept trying throughout the day to get online and get an idea for dinner, but I wasn't getting the chance.  I texted Erica in desperation for ideas, and she texted back with those four magic words: "I've got dinner covered."  It not often that she start-to-finish handles a meal, but I was so happy just not to have to deal with it, I would have eaten anything.

Turns out she made us vegan burritos,  a Tony Horton (of  P90X) recipe, and they were amazing. See, we like to say we don't eat fast food, and for the most part, that is true: we don't do McDonald's or any of the various burger joints ever. But, but, we do occasionally indulge in Chipotle or Qdoba burritos because they are made by gods or something.  We've been saying we should find a healthy recipe that mimics them and Erica really hit the jackpot.  No cheese or sour cream, and brown rice instead of white, but otherwise, it was just like it!  (Minus the food hangover, because we could also control our own portion sizes.)   If you're interested in the recipe, she got it here.

Anyway, I was so proud of her. And she was so into it, it was fun to watch her cook.  I hope this bug strikes her again sometime soon. *hint, hint*

Monday, September 12, 2011

Day 13--Review of "Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead"

I had a bunch of reasons for wanting to blog about this thing I'm doing, and one of them was I wanted to have a space to react to books I've read and movies I've watched in preparation for and during this journey.

I first heard about "Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead" from my girlfriend, Erica.  We spent the summer apart because she had a job out of town, but we still shared a Netflix account.  (Fun and creepy, because you can see everything that the other has streamed.)  She recommended it to me, but not being in a mood to try new things pretty much all summer, I forgot about it.

Then in mid-August I had a customer come into the store where I work looking for the Breville Juicer.  I had never heard of it, and it turned out we didn't have any except our display.  The man was not surprised; he'd been looking everywhere for one, and they're nowhere to be found.  He said this doumentary had featured it and now it's so popular, Breville can't produce them fast enough.  He told me all about the movie and, maybe it was his English accent, but this time I found the concept fascinating. I went home and watched it that night.

I decided to make it my first review, because, when I think back on it, this is the movie that galvanized me into making a change.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Day 9--Something I Learned, and a Chili Success Story!

The Peanut Butter Revelation

It's probably fair to say that, in general, I'm pretty aware of what's in my food.  I know ingredients, nutrition qualities, vitamin sources, and fat contents of most of my favorite foods without looking at the labels.  So how did I not know that peanut butter is actually vegan?  Maybe it's because I crave milk when I eat it (which was never all that often anyway), but I always assumed it had some kind of dairy.  In any case, since this journey is about way more than just the rules of strict veganism, I decided to look a little deeper into peanut butter, because I realised that was something I've never done.

I knew peanut butter had some good and some bad, so I learned about palm oil, which is an ingredient in most peanut butters, like my favorite, creamy Jif.  Turns out, that's the "bad," it's much higher in saturated fat than other oils, but it's also what keeps this yummy treat from separating.  General advice from what I've read says to pick up a "natural" branded PB, although you still have to read the label, because you want a peanut butter that lists its ingredients literally as only peanuts and salt.  I picked one up at the store and, yeah, it tastes a little different.  But on a cracker it still tastes awesome, and this stuff looks much better to cook with.

I like this method of rebuilding what I eat from the ground up.  I know how my food was affecting my body long before I started this project, I was just ignoring what I knew.  Taking a step back, reading books and health blogs, and analyzing every decision I make is really eye-opening.

Chili Success

Phase I of adding beans to my diet went over well!  My vegan chili was really good; the girlfriend even got seconds!  I won't lie, I so badly wanted to drown it in cheese, but I resisted and the result was, I think, probably the healthiest chili one could ask for.  I won't share the recipe I used, because I think it was way out of whack on some of the ingredient amounts (1 tsp of chili powder for 4 cups of beans?  Yeah, I used five times that much just to get it to "mild"), but maybe when I make it again, I'll keep track of what I did, and make my own recipe. 

Having leftovers for lunch the next day was fantasic as well, because lunch is the one thing I don't have figured out at all yet.  Lunch had always been a sandwich--turkey, American cheese, mayo, lettuce, tomato--something I really don't think I'd ever get sick of.  But I'm not crazy about the wraps I bought to replace my bread, and I'm not crazy about having only veggies in it.  So lunch has been a lot of salads, and I get hungry pretty quickly after.  Still working on that part.

Anyway, here's a picture of the chili!  [The bits of lime were suggested by the recipe, the tomato was my idea.]

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Day 7--A Setback that Wasn't Actually a Setback at All

So Labor Day weekend was a lot of fun! I got through both our parties on Sunday without giving in, and the pasta salad was, for the most part, a huge success. Win-win.  But Monday came around and after working all day, I went to my parents' house with incredibly low blood sugar, and I decided to eat something there.   This party did sandwich rings instead of grill food, so I made myself a turkey sandwich, and felt better almost immediately.  I was a little worried about how I'd deal with the upset, but it didn't really bother me.  I woke up today with the mission of researching more substantive vegan foods [more later].

As far as the rest of my diet went, I was surprisingly untempted by things I would typically never say no to:  giant coolers of Mountain Dew, cheesecake, broccoli salad, ranch dip for the veggies.  Unsurprisingly, I was so tempted by the smell of the grill, but I managed to resist.  I'm glad I didn't wait until after Labor Day to start this journey.  I can look back on the choices I made this weekend with pride.

So, foods with more "substance."  I had kind of been putting this part off, because I didn't know if I would like it.  I wasn't really raised on beans at all.  People would have baked beans at cookouts, and I knew I didn't like those, but as far as beans in our meals or as a side dish, it was never really a thing.  So not only did I never really develop the taste for them, I have no idea how to prepare them.  I know beans should be an essential part of a vegan diet, so that's my challenge for the week:  find three recipes that feature beans as a main ingredient, and try them out.  I'm starting tonight with black beans in chili--cheating a little because I already know I like black beans a little, but not really cheating because I'm 27 and I've never made chili in my life.  I guess there really is a first time for everything!