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!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Day 4--The Art of Being Prepared

 Well, the week is winding down, and aside from having four grocery trips in five days, I'd call it so far, so good.  But the real first challenge is just around the corner:  holiday weekend, and three parties to go to.  It's the end of summer!  I usually celebate that with potato salad, grilled chicken, and as much dessert as I can eat.  I actually almost waited until after Labor Day to start this, for that very reason.

But, alas, I'm committed now, and I think I actually have a good plan for staying vegan throughout our various appearances tomorrow and Monday.  Since creamy delicious salads are some of my favorite summer foods, I found this amazing recipe for creamy vegan pasta salad.  I feel like I've come really far in the past few days, even if I did have to Google "tahini" to know where to find it in the store.

This was one of my first real venures outside my comfort zone of cooking, and I have to say, I got really into it!  So the plan is, take this pasta salad to our events, that way I know there's at least one thing on the table I can eat.  I'll also take my little snack packs--that's been working out well this week.  That doean't mean the smell of the grill won't make me want to cry.  Yikes, I really love food.  Like, way too much.

Realistically, I'm sure there will be food at each place that I can eat.  But I'm not over the phase of worrying about food yet.  I hope that comes soon.

[Pictured below is the fruits of my labor:  pasta salad with tomatoes, olives, and cucumber; tahini & red wine vinegar for dressing.  The sunflower seeds were my touch!]

Friday, September 2, 2011

Day 3--Who's With Me?

It seems I may have underestimated how long caffeine withdrawal can go on.  I'm on day three, and I still have the headache and the pain behind the eyes.  I slept for almost eleven hours last night, and I still feel tired. If this feeling doesn't go away after today, tomorrow without caffeine will be a real nightmare.

Foodwise, I've been doing well.  Yesterday I just packed some snack bags to take to work: grapes, broccoli, and walnuts, and I ate at them throughout the day.  And the vegan tacos last night were the stuff of dreams--literally, I've been dreaming about this lovely avocado ever since I did my shopping on Tuesday.  Mostly drank water, because everyone thinks my headaches are from dehydration.  I don't see how that can be, when I've drank more water over the past two days than I have in my life.  I hate drinking water.  It's boring.  But I'm getting used to it. Slowly.

I should have mentioned before, but I'm not totally in this alone.  My loving wonderful, totally supportive girlfriend is (maybe by default) in on this with me.  From the start, she's much healthier than I am.  She exercises, I don't; she watches what she eats, I eat what I want; she drinks water, I, well, see above.  But she does have a few bad habits she's been wanting to kick.  So since I'm doing most of the grocery shopping for this venture, she's trying to adhere to it with me.

She wanted me to mention she's sorely missing Goldfish.  You know Goldfish, those little cheesy snack crackers marketed at little kids but tasty at any age?  We used to buy those in such large quantities, I'm sure our cashier thought we were running an illegal daycare.  I miss them too.  It was really easy to come home from work and collapse on the couch with the box of Goldfish and a beer--somehow doing the same thing with sunflower seeds and water just doesn't give the same sense of relaxation.

Hopefully, cravings like that will subside with time.  There's already a lot of good, healthy food that I love,  so maybe our cravings will just change? I hope so.