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.