Sunday, December 21, 2014

Happy Solstice!

Today is the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year and the official start of winter. But hey guess what? It may be the longest night, but starting tomorrow, the sun will go down just a little bit later. And we'll gradually have more and more daylight until, suddenly, it's spring again! God, I can't wait. I'm already through with winter, and it just started!

Anyway, Solstice is the day Paul and I exchange gifts with each other and the pets. But first, I made a little Yuletide feast. For the main, I made the Hearty Lentil & Mushroom Shepherd's Pie from Vegan Holiday Kitchen by Nava Atlas.

Shepherd's pie doesn't really photograph well, but you know anything topped with mashed potatoes is good. In this casserole, breadcrumbs line the bottom of the casserole dish (that's the crumbly stuff on top in this pic), and they're covered with a layer of lentils, spinach, and mushrooms. And that's covered with a layer of mashed potatoes. Yum!

On the side, I made the Roasted Root Vegetable Salad with Citrus Dressing, also from Vegan Holiday Kitchen.

I'm really into root veggie salads right now. This one has roasted sweet potatoes, beets, turnips, parsnips, radishes, and apples. And toasted pepitas!

I washed this all down with mulled wine. And of course there was dessert — a Candy Cane Cupcake from Imagine Vegan Cafe. Cassi made these. She's doing all the baking at Imagine while Stephanie is on holiday in the U.K. This was super-moist and lightly minty. Just what I needed on Yule night.

After dinner, it was present time! Paul and I got each other what we always get each other — tattoo gift certificates from our friend Babak's tattoo shop, Ronin Design & Manufacturing. I'm getting a running-related tattoo on my foot soon, but I'll save it for when I can show you the pic!

Datsun loved his new rope ball, but he was clearly distracted by another toy out of the frame.

The dogs also got new Starmark Treat Dispensing Chew Balls. Maynard was working on getting the treats out here. We'll see how long these last. My power chewers destroy every toy I give them, and since they've both had stomach surgery for eating things they weren't supposed to, I really have to watch them carefully. One hole and the toy goes in the trash. But these got great reviews on Amazon!

The cats got a bunch of catnip toys. Gelfing tried to eat his catnip pillow.

And Polaris chewed a hole in his immediately.

Pandora preferred the catnip snake.

And Ozzy stole Polaris' toy.

This Seymour. He's special. He's afraid of EVERYTHING so he lives on top of a set of cabinets. Never comes down. Eats there. Sleeps there. And yes, he has a litter box there. Anyway, we don't see him play often. But he got really into this catnip mouse. No idea what that brown spot is. Gross and mysterious top-of-the-cabinets stuff.

Akasha is unpictured because he refused to celebrate Solstice this year. Bah humbug! He stayed under the couch the whole time, completely uninterested in playtime. And Herman the squirrel lives outside at night. He came in several times this morning to get pecan treats though!

Hope you had a Happy Solstice today!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Oldways Vegan Menu Plan

Occasionally, friends or readers will ask me for advice on going vegan. What should they eat to get proper nutrition? What are some basic meals they can turn to over and over again? And hey, could I maybe help them design a menu plan?

I actually said "yes" to that last question for a close friend about five months ago, and I'm ashamed to admit that I haven't done that yet. He really wants to give veganism a try for his health, but he's not going to make the first move on his own. And yet, I've been putting it off and putting it off. Truth is, writing balanced meal plans for another person is hard, especially when you don't know the likes, dislikes, cooking skills, etc. of that person. I'd rather just give him a book with a meal plan that someone else has already designed.

Lucky for me, Oldways, a nonprofit food and nutrition organization, has just released its Oldways 4-Week Vegetarian & Vegan Diet Menu Plan! I'll probably be re-gifting this to my friend after this review.

This skinny booklet (84 pages) isn't filled with chapters on nutrition. It's just what it says it is — a menu plan. There are a few pages of tips (8 simple steps to health, 5 steps to a fabulous salad, stocking your pantry, and substitutions), but most of the pages contain detailed menus with a couple of accompanying recipes. And the menus are carefully balanced to include whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and protein. And the best part? The menus account for leftovers!

For example, Day 9 begins with whole grain toast, vegetable breakfast hash, cranberry juice, and coffee. And for lunch, you can have lentil soup (recipe included), whole grain crackers, salad, a banana with peanut butter, and jasmine tea. Dinner is millet cakes (recipe included), mashed root veggies, brussels sprouts cooked with tempeh and sesame vinaigrette, an orange, and coffee. I love all the coffee in here!

Anyway, I didn't follow a meal plan for this review, but I did cook a few dishes using the recipes in the book. Remember that Vegetable Breakfast Hash from Day 9?

Tofu scramble + hash browns + mashed avocado + toast = one delicious breakfast. And a very satisfying breakfast at that.

One thing to note: This is a both a vegetarian and vegan plan, so some meals call for eggs or cheese, but when they do, a vegan alternative is always offered. For example, this hash recipe called for eggs, but I used tofu instead. Simple swap.

I also made the Beet Salad from Day 3. It was supposed to be served with tomato-lentil soup, whole grain crackers, and a banana. But I had my salad with a quinoa burger on a sprouted grain bun.

This is a fantastic salad! I always forget how much I love cooked beets on a salad. But this was perfect. Earthy beets (I used red, yellow, and striped beets) meet sweet dates and crunchy walnuts, and they're all tossed with a simple balsamic vinaigrette. Yum!

This Oldways menu plan would be perfect for new vegans, and this time of year, so many people are resolving to give up meat. I think I'll push my friend to do just that and give him this handy guide. At $10, this guide is a total steal!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Loaded Avocado with Tofutti Chipotle Crema!

Tofutti recently asked me to develop a few recipes using their products, and since I've long been a fan of their vegan "dairy" products, of course I agreed. In fact, Tofutti has been there for me throughout my 10 years as a vegan. Sure, fantastic new products come out all the time, but Tofutti is a standard. It was there when I went vegan, and it's still around now. Their Better Than Cream Cheese, Better Than Sour Cream, and Tofutti Cuties never fail me. Plus, if you can find them in your area, Tofutti makes the best college dorm-style microwave pizza. Oh, and their vegan cheese slices are still kick-ass.

Since I already had a tub of Better Than Sour Cream in my fridge, I decided to try something I've been wanting to recreate for months. During a Memphis beer garden event this summer, I picked up a Loaded Avocado dish at the Truck Stop food truck, and it was so good. I'd never thought to top a whole avocado with beans and mushrooms, but why not? That's clever as hell.

Here's my interpretation made with a whole avocado, black beans, mushrooms, and onions. It's topped with a Tofutti chipotle crema and homemade salsa that my Granny made (but any salsa will do!).

Loaded Avocado with Tofutti Chipotle Crema
Serves 3

3 ripe but firm avocados
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 large yellow onion, chopped
1 8-ounce package sliced mushrooms
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 14-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
1/4 cup water
2 Tbsp. nutritional yeast
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

1 cup Tofutti Better Than Sour Cream
2 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, chopped
1 tsp. onion powder

Split the avocados, remove the pits, and place them rounded-side down on a plate.

Heat the oil in a large skillet. Add the onion and cook on medium-heat for 2-3 minutes or until it begins to soften. Add the mushrooms and saute for about 10 minutes to allow the mushrooms to cook down and the onions to begin to caramelize. Add the garlic, and saute a couple more minutes or until mushrooms and onions are soft.

Add the black beans, water, nutritional yeast, cumin, garlic powder, salt, and cayenne. Cook for about 5-7 minutes or until heated through and most of the water has been absorbed.

Meanwhile, in a blender, combine the vegan sour cream, peppers, and onion powder. Blend until smooth.

To serve, spoon about a cup of the bean mixture over the avocado halves. Drizzle with chipotle crema and top with salsa.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Memphis Vegan Food Trucks: Raw Girls

I have some VERY exciting news to share! Memphis has a high raw vegan food truck!

It's run by an adorable and awesome vegan couple —Amy and Hannah Pickle of the Raw Girls, LLC. They've run a successful raw catering/meal plan business for several years here. And over the years, I'd sampled a few of their desserts (back when they used to sell at my hula-hoop studio, Co-Motion). So I was THRILLED when I heard they were starting up a vegan food truck!

Last Thursday night, they posted an unexpected announcement — they'd be holding a soft opening in the Hollywood Feed pet store lot at Poplar and Yates on Friday. Well, I work Downtown, and that location is in East Memphis. It's a good 20- to 30-minute drive in traffic. But I wasn't about to let that stop me! My editor Susan (a vegetarian) and I hopped in my Subaru and made the trip out east to grab some lunch.

When we arrived, we were greeted by hugs! Amy and Hannah are as sweet as can be. We studied the menu, which they told us would be expanding over time, and finally settled on some meals. I picked the Black Bean Spaghetti with Pesto. It came packaged like this — container of black bean pasta with hemp seeds, container of spicy jalapeno pesto, and container of raw tomatoes, onion, and corn.

And here's how it looked all mixed together. Love this cold noodle salad! Gluten-free noodles are my fave because I prefer that chewy texture, and the pesto was so flavorful. Loved the jalapeno bits!

Susan opted for the Raw Girls Taco Salad — bowl of mixed greens, bowl of taco nut meat, bowl of guacamole, and bowl of raw tomatoes, onions, and corn.

And then she mixed it all together. I sampled a bite of hers and was super-impressed with the nut meat. I've made taco nut meat from various recipes, and it's always good, but sometimes mine seems a little dry. This was wetter and more flavorful.

As a bonus, they let us try some of their cold-pressed juices!! I went with the Green Love Bomb because I'm partial to fruit-veggie mixes. This had a strong celery flavor (my fave) and lots of sweetness from the apples. It was so good that I drank half this bottle on the long drive back to the office, so you get a pic of a half-full bottle. Sorry!

And Susan had the Master Lemon/Turmeric Cleanse. Much better than any master cleanse juice I've ever made!! That turmeric really helped! And the maple made it sweet like lemonade.

The Raw Girls food truck isn't on a regular schedule yet, but "like" them on Facebook and follow their page for updates. They're currently taking special orders for the holidays on the catering side of their business, and they have gift certificates too.

UPDATE: The Raw Girls truck will be back at the corner of Poplar & Yates (Hollywood Feed lot) this Friday (Dec. 19th) and Saturday (Dec. 20th) from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Click here for details.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Fork

My foodie pal (and colleague at The Memphis Flyer) John Klyce Minervini has just launched a Memphis dining website called The Fork. It has listings for local (mostly) farm-to-table restaurants (and more are added daily), and through the holidays, it features fun specials at local restaurants, breweries, and coffee roasters to help feed the homeless (read on for details!).

The site, which John describes as an "online dining portal," isn't totally vegan, but several of the restaurants listed have vegan options. And as the site grows, more vegan options will be included. Since he's trying to get the word out, I thought it'd be nice to run a little Q&A with him.

John Klyce Minervini

Me: In a few sentences, can you describe what The Fork is all about?
John: Heck yes! The fork is an online dining portal. Which is really just a fancy way of saying that we help Memphians figure out where to eat, what to eat, and why.

How would a local restaurant qualify for a Fork listing? Does it have to be farm-to-table?
Great question. In a perfect world, all restaurants would serve exclusively local, seasonal fare. And maybe someday we’ll get there. But in the meantime we want to meet Memphis where it’s at.

So what counts? How do you define farm-to-table?
Our definition is pretty simple. A regional farm is a farm you can drive to in a day. And when The Fork says that a restaurant is farm-to-table, we mean they have significant local and regional offerings. 

Currently, you only have a handful of listings on the site, but you're adding daily. Could you estimate how large the farm-to-table scene is in Memphis?
I moved back to Memphis in February, so I can only offer a rough estimate. But my guess is that there are between 120 – 150 restaurants that would fit that description around here.

Besides listings, what will be the other features of the website?
I guess the first thing would be Hungry Holidays. That’s this big celebration we’re doing until the end of December. Basically, we’re collaborating with 11 chefs to help Memphians discover great local food—and help feed the homeless at the same time.

How does that work?
OK, so we feature a dish on the website. Roasted butternut squash bisque, let’s say. And if you go to the restaurant and order it, 20% of your purchase will be donated to the Urban Bicycle Food Ministry. They’re this nifty Memphis nonprofit that delivers hearty meals (burritos) to homeless people – by bike!

How about after December? Any big plans?
Honestly? At this moment, I’m mainly focused on Hungry Holidays. Trying to line up eleven of these promotions, schedule photo shoots, and print table cards—it’s kind of a full-time job. But starting in January, The Fork will start to roll out the regularly occurring features of the website. Things like expanded listings, ingredient spotlights, meet the farmer, meet the chef. I’m also interested in doing some events around town. Things like a book club and guerilla dining.

Most of Vegan Crunk's readers are vegans or vegetarians. Do you know of any Memphis restaurants that offer veg options that would qualify for a Fork listing?
First just let me say that I have been reading Vegan Crunk since I got back to town in February. And I’m not the only one! So (as I’m sure you know), you’ve got some devoted omnivore readers. But I digress. To answer your question, I can think of several of farm-to-table restaurants with great veg options. For starters, Jeff Dunham at the Grove Grill has been taking care of his veg diners for fifteen years! Other restaurants that jump to mind are Bounty, Interim, Sweet Grass, Cosmic Coconut, McEwen’s, and Ecco. That’s just off the top of my head.

Speaking of vegan options, check out Orr Restaurant's falafel & hummus plate!!

Anything else you'd like to add?
You bet! I wanna give a big shout-out to Jeff Hulett at the Church Health Center for coming up with the following three words: Memphis as Fork. I’m currently working with a graphic designer to put that on a t-shirt. So check back in January, and hopefully you’ll be able to order Memphis as Fork t-shirt.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Third Annual Christmas Cookie Club

Three years ago, Cassi read a book called The Christmas Cookie Club, some sappy click-lit about sisterhood and cookies. Well, this book gave her the bright idea to actually start her own Christmas Cookie Club.

There are only 12 ladies invited, and new people can only be added when one person drops out. No chocolate chip cookies or peanut-containing cookies are allowed. That last part is because of Cassi's peanut allergy. The chocolate chip rule is just silliness. In year's past, each of us had to bake 13 dozen cookies, and we'd package them by the dozen and swap. The 13th dozen was donated to a charity of Cassi's choice. But every year, we'd all moan and groan about baking 156 cookies. And besides, who wants to go home with that many cookies?!

So Cassi finally relented this year and knocked it down to six cookies per person. Much more reasonable. We met up Saturday night with food, wine, and lots of cookies. The wine was placed in the center of the circle.

And Nicole walks in dressed like Ms. Sexy Claus.

And each person took turns going around the room, talking about our cookies and how they related to our year. Oh yea, that's another rule. The cookies have to somehow tie in to your past year.

Well, I don't like rules. And since I'm 34 now (and it's my last year to check off that 27-34 age box on surveys), I've decided that if I have to be a grown up, I'm just gonna do what I want. In fact, I've dubbed 2014 the Year of I Do What I Want. I'm not following any traditional life path of having to get married or have kids. I don't care about that stuff. Instead, I'm just doing what I want. Isn't that what being a grown up is all about? I wanted to run a half-marathon in 2014, so I pretty much made my whole year about getting that checked off my list.

So what did I bake? Chocolate Chip Cookies, bitch. Breaking the rules!

Okay, technically, these were chocolate "chunk" cookies. That was a bit of a loophole in Cassi's rules, so I took advantage of that. I used Isa and Terry's Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe from Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar, but you can also find it here on the PPK.

Here are the rest of the cookies.

Left to right, clockwise — Nicole's Mini Cinnamon Rolls with Vegan Cream Cheese Frosting, Pam's Italian Wine Cookies, Aisha's Cinnamon Rolls Cookies, Karen's Lemon-Black Pepper Shortbreads, Cassi's Stained Glass Cookies, and (in the middle) Jennifer's Crockpot Christmas Crack (her name for it).

Loved Nicole's buns. She's also a rule-breaker for bringing pastry rather than cookie. Pam's wine cookies were festive and perfect for dunking in a glass of merlot (yes, I did that). Aisha's cinnamon roll cookies were like little bites of Christmas. Karen got totally inventive and combined lemon with fiery black pepper, and you know what? It was a genius combo. Cassi's very Christmas-y stained glass cookies were so pretty, and they have a melted Jolly Rancher baked into the center! And Jennifer's Christmas crack is SO GOOD. It was made with vegan chocolate and peanuts (she's also a rule-breaker), and I'm sad that Cassi can't eat this stuff because it really is like crack.

I forgot to photograph Lisa's Hershey Kiss Cookies because they weren't vegan, so they didn't make it onto my cookie snack lunch today. Yes, I ate leftover cookies for lunch. I do what I want. Most everyone veganized their cookies this year, even though several ladies aren't vegan. How nice, right?! And they all did an excellent job.

Of course, we had to have some savory food too. I brought Somer's Kick Ace Extra Sharp Raw Vegan Holiday Cheddar Cheese Ball, which has been basically taking over the vegan internet lately. And it's no wonder because it is FREAKIN' AMAZING. This is a quick cashew cheese that doesn't involve any aging, so you can make it on the same day you plan to serve it. It gets its orange hue from sundried tomatoes, and it has a silky yet solid texture from the coconut oil. This was a total hit for the vegans AND the nonvegans!

Cassi made some fire Buffalo Mock Chicken Ranch Dip. I couldn't stay out of this. It's from her cookbook, which hasn't been published yet, but I have faith it'll happen. It was creamy and ranchy and loaded with bites of vegan chicken.

And she made some Pesto Stuffed Mushrooms that were really tasty.

There was also Chocolate Hummus and Cranberry-Orange Hummus.

And a big ole bowl of Kettle Sriracha Popcorn.

And as if we didn't have enough sweets, Cassi also baked these Almond Butter Cup Banana Cupcakes for Jennifer's birthday, which is coming up. When you bite into these, there's a homemade almond butter cup in the center! These were really, really good.

So that's it for Christmas Cookie Club 2014. Even though I bent the rules a bit, Cassi didn't kick me out (yet!), so looks like I'm down to bake another 66 cookies next year. Now I'm off to eat more cookies before I go to bed.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Eat Your Peas! And Beans! And Barley!

Months and months ago, Pereg Natural Gourmet Food sent me several packages of their dried legumes to sample. But since I cook for one (Paul and I don't eat the same things), it takes me awhile to work through a big sample box. I tried the jumbo-sized Chickpeas, the Pearl Couscous, and the Autumn Lentils in various dishes.

And this week, I finally got around to the last item — Pereg Soup Mix.

I grew up eating 15-bean soup, which is packaged as a bunch of dried beans and legumes with some sort of ham seasoning packet. God knows what was in that seasoning. But I remember loving that soup as a kid! I loved all the various textures, shapes, and colors of the beans all mixed together. This Soup Mix brought back those fond memories.

The package contains barley, yellow and green split peas, yellow and green whole peas, black turtle beans, romano beans, Dutch brown beans, and red lentils. Some are big. Some are teensy. Some retain a firm texture. Some get super-soft and mushy. And all those flavors and textures together make for one pretty special soup.

I followed the recipe for Mixed Bean Tomato Soup on the back of the package to make this!

So good. It's creamy and chunky and savory all at the same time. The Soup Mix is cooked with crushed tomatoes, onion, pepper, celery, carrot, and garlic. And it's seasoned with veggie stock, cumin, turmeric, and cayenne. Such a warming meal on these cold winter nights. I've been enjoying this soup all week with vegan cheesy bread some nights and with vegan cheese and crackers other nights.