My Husband A Vegan (?!?!?) and Vegan Lunch Boxes

August 27, 2011 § 2 Comments

I’ve been thinking a lot about this whole vegan “thing”. I haven’t given up yet, but I’m not convinced this is going to last for the long haul. I sat here on Sunday mindlessly watching TV – off daydreaming of eggs and parmesan cheese and thinking, have I had enough? At that moment Luis looked at me and said “I’m going vegan for 30 days” and gave me a high five.

Ummm….OK??????

Let’s be clear: this is a big deal. My husband is Guatemalan and a serious meat lover. Ropa vieja, carnitas, filet mignon, you name it. I remember a dinner out recently as I approached my 30 day mark, eating some sad and badly prepared veggies as he devoured a steak rooting me on to not to give up. I don’t even like steak but I wanted a bite that night – I was hungry!

So fast forward and I’m approaching two months, having the same questions and here Luis is saying he’s giving it a shot. He was even trying his best to convert his mom tonight – I’m sure she was thinking “Dios mio! What’s happened to my son? Quick call 911 and get him a steak!”

Well, I can’t give up now can I?

The biggest question my husband had in his new vegan quest – “What on earth will I eat for lunch?” He works for a hotel so lunches allow just enough time for a visit to the cafeteria, which will have a few daily options. I asked if he wanted me to make him lunch the first day which he said, no, no, don’t worry. But I knew we were in trouble as the texts started rolling in around 12:30 the next day:

Is mayonnaise vegan? –No

Is rice vegan? –Depends

Is chocolate vegan? –Only dark

There was only one thing to do. I had to create a vegan lunch box. So Monday night after we dined on that delicious summer tomato pasta (If I could have that every day, the beginning of this post would have been different) I set to work in the kitchen and prepared a few containers of flavorful lunches for his first week.

Raw corn and tomato salad – olive oil, balsamic, basil, salt and pepper

Pasta with peas – a little good quality fruity olive oil, basil, salt and pepper (cooked a whole package of pasta when I made the summer tomato pasta so this was a super quick fix).

Greek quinoa salad – red peppers, cucumber, scallions, and oregano vinaigrette

Lentil salad – One of my favs with red onion, cucumber, and lemon vinaigrette

All these can travel easily, don’t require refrigeration immediately, or reheating, making them perfect vegan lunch box options. A side of nuts and seeds, veggies and hummus and he was good to go.

Now, I’m still not saying being vegan is easy. But I’m also not saying it’s necessarily “hard”. It is just about making it convenient – thinking ahead and being prepared. Here’s to yummy lunches that leave you light and fulfilled – vegan or not!

Another easy vegan lunch recipe you may enjoy: raw zucchini pasta with chickpeas and tomatoes.

Learning to Love Tomatoes – Heirloom Tomato Summer Pasta

August 23, 2011 § 6 Comments

I have never been one for tomatoes – you’d never find me snacking on them or making them the star of any meal. In fact, those individuals that could eat a tomato like an apple always perplexed me – why on earth would they do that? Even cooked tomatoes are sometimes too acidic for my liking – but all this changed within the last two months and I’m a new tomato fanatic. Me, tomato lover, can’t get enough of them…If my mother is reading this right now, she’s shocked.

There are two parts to my new-found tomato fanaticism. One: being vegan has definitely changed my tastes. Usually I’d crave an oozing piece of cheese pizza or a bowl of creamy pasta but not anymore. Maybe its summer but I think its more likely due to my changing diet. Eating more fruits and veggies has in turn made me want – well, more fruits and veggies.

The second reason for my new tomato cravings: I’ve finally tasted what a tomato should taste like. I’m not talking about those lifeless mealy barely red things you find at the grocery store. I’m talking about firm, juicy, bursting with fruity goodness, barely needs any seasonings, freshly picked from the garden tomatoes. I was recently treated to some tomatoes of this very nature and have been dying to get my teeth into some tomatoes similar to what I experienced, causing me to order anything that looks remotely close when I’m out and about.

No pizza or pasta for me, I’ll take the fresh tomato salad please! 🙂

Due to my recent tomato cravings I’ve ordered gazpacho at every restaurant I’ve been to that has it on the menu. My favorite was a charred green tomato gazpacho that I enjoyed at Park Grille in Chicago. As I sat and looked over the menu, the waiter greeted me and informed me this gazpacho was vegan if ordered without the crab – I didn’t even tell him I was vegan! Was quite a change from my Seattle trip. Ah, Chicago, how do I love thee. The soup was delicious – refreshing with a hint of smokiness due to grilling the tomatoes and let’s face it, the view didn’t hurt either.

I drug Luis to the farmers market this weekend with one thing in mind: yup, you guessed it, tomatoes. But not just any tomatoes, I really had my heart set on heirloom tomatoes, the more colors the better. While I didn’t find any at the farmers market, I found some standard tomatoes that the gentleman assured me would be sweeter and have more flavor than those in the supermarket. On the way home we stopped in Whole Foods for some necessities and I couldn’t resist the heirloom tomatoes sitting like royalty on stands. I can be a bit cheap at times, but let me tell you, I shelled out about $7 for these beauties. I got a large heirloom with a deep purplish green and red color combo and a small carton of tiny round and pear orange, yellow, and purplish tomatoes. They looked like a rainbow in a carton.

This pasta was a take on a pasta I saw here and have been thinking about for several weeks. I loved the idea of a fresh pasta that required little to no cooking in the summer’s heat.

Given how beautifully fresh these tomatoes were, I didn’t even see the need to marinate them but I began about 30 minutes before Luis got home so they did sit a bit.

All I did was slice, toss with some nice fruity Spanish olive oil I use for special dishes like this, and add a splash of balsamic for a little kick. A little salt and pepper for seasoning, and at the last minute I added one clove of minced garlic. Honestly though, I’m not sure the dish really needed it – you could easily do without it. Sliced basil tops it off and keeps the dish light and earthy.

At first I was worried the whole wheat pasta would be overwhelming for this dish but it was all I had on hand – and it turned out to be really good. I made sure to cook it al dente to provide texture against the soft tomatoes. Boil the pasta and allow to cool before mixing with the tomatoes. This dish is delicious cool and at room temperature – providing juicy freshness on a hot summer day.

Heirloom Tomato Summer Pasta
Serves 2

Ingredients

1 large heirloom tomato
1 carton small heirloom tomatoes
2 – 3 tablespoons fruity, good quality olive oil
a few splashes of balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon sliced fresh basil
1 garlic clove, minced
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 package of pasta of your choice

Directions

  1. Bring water to a boil for pasta and cook according to package directions.
  2. Slice large tomato into several segments and smaller tomatoes in half.
  3. Toss in large bowl with several tablespoons of olive oil, or enough to generously coat tomatoes.
  4. Add a few splashes of balsamic vinegar, sliced basil, and season with salt and pepper. Toss and set aside.
  5. Once pasta is finished drain well and set aside to cool. Once cooled, serve with tomato mixture over top.

Vegan Shmegan

August 11, 2011 § 3 Comments

I live in a black and white world. Things are either good or bad, right or wrong. I’m either successful or not, skinny or fat, and the latest…vegan or not vegan. I’ve always struggled with the grey zone. But the reality is, the world we live in is very grey. Things are not always as they first appear and what you think is true one day can turn out to be false the next.

I spent the last few days in Seattle for work. Being a vegan on the road hasn’t been easy – but I’ve managed. This trip luring me in with seafood probably caught the same day was just too big a temptation and I was anxious about how I’d cope and what I’d decide. I know it seems petty that this made me nervous but I was almost to 40 days and really determined to keep going. In my eyes, if I caved, I failed – it was all black and white.

I missed lunch the first day so when dinner came, I was ravenous. I was with a friend and we went to a kinda French / Cajun place – his favorite restaurant in the city. I was a tad nervous all day – if I ate fish, I wouldn’t be able to call myself a vegan. We sat down in this gorgeous restaurant with beautiful decor and a stellar menu. I was instantly excited. Everything looked delicious – surely they could make me a fabulous vegan meal in this place. I wasn’t even tempted to get fish. Reminder: looks can be deceiving.

The waiter came and I explained I was vegan to which I got a nervous and somewhat perplexed look back. I asked if he would talk to the chef and see if they could make me a vegan meal to which he said something along the lines of, “the kitchen is really busy, the chef doesn’t really have time for that.” I was flabbergasted and embarrassed. I really wanted to stand up and leave. Was I the only vegan to ever step foot in this restaurant? Apparently so. I regretfully ordered a salad (again I had NO lunch) and some green beans and while they were good I was left with a sour taste in my mouth.

But just when you think things are down, they can turn around. Wednesday was my 40th day being vegan. And I made it! I lucked out and the catered lunch had plenty of salad, steamed asparagus, and rice. It got even better when we ended up at a wonderful Mexican place for dinner and I had the most delicious and outstanding vegetable fajitas. I went to bed satisfied and content.

Then Thursday I found myself at Pike’s Market, world famous for fish – oh and they had lots of tempting French bakeries. I got to meet up with my cousin for lunch and we stopped at a little oyster bar. I’m not into oysters anyways but the salmon caught my eye. Everyone says you have to have salmon in Seattle. I waited and rationalized to myself that I had made it 40 days, that I could be a vegan that has the occasional piece of fish (have I mentioned I’m hard on myself?!) The salmon finally arrived and while it was good – was a bit of a let down. All that stress, anxiety, and over-analyzing for a dry piece of salmon. Story of my life.

Moral of the story? Things can change in an instant and it isn’t always greener on the other side. In everything we do, we romanticize what life on the other side is like – in another city, another culture, a more exciting job, as a non-vegan 🙂

But we often find ourselves looking back and saying, “you know what, that wasn’t half bad.” Hindsight is 20/20 as they say. And looking back – that fish had nothing on a great platter of sautéed veggies, but the next place might be better. Next time I see a great piece of fish, who knows, maybe I’ll eat it, maybe I won’t.

So vegan shmegan…I need to loosen up and find happiness in the grey zone. But lets be realistic, one minute and day at a time…

A Delicious Vegan Pancake Does Exist!

August 7, 2011 § 5 Comments

Sure, I’ve missed the variety I had before this challenge, but can’t really say there’s any one thing I have really craved – except for waffles and pancakes. Weekends and waffles/pancakes just go hand in hand, and the thought of never having another weekend morning with the sweet aroma of buttery pancakes filling the air was just too hard to bare. So, last night I was googling and came across this blog which is adorable by the way. And I found a very promising vegan banana oat pancake recipe. (Warning – objects in pictures are more delicious than they appear! 🙂 Luis has been telling me I need a better camera for these pictures and on this recipe, I agree)

I was eager to see how these were truly vegan and discovered the “chia egg”. This blogger used a flax egg and reading that in the ingredients section I stopped and thought, what the hell is a flax egg??? Did I somehow miss some non-animal eggs at Whole Foods in a special vegan section? Haha no. A chia or flax egg is made by soaking one tablespoon of seeds in three tablespoons of water for a few minutes. I bought chia seeds several weeks ago with their promise of energy and antioxidants and have been putting in my oatmeal each morning. So, luckily I had the chia seeds on hand and who knew, it really does work! It quickly becomes an egg-like consistency and I’m so excited to try this in other baking recipes.

This recipe is super easy and delicious. Using the basics, the combinations are endless. I decided to make it as-is but top it with a blueberry compote as I had some fresh blueberries that needed to be eaten. To make the compote I just heated the blueberries over medium heat with a little water and agave syrup.

The dense hearty pancake with just a hint of sweetness from the agave and vanilla contrasted beautifully with the tart blueberry sauce. Even Luis who hates pancakes, was so jealous when I plated mine (mind you I asked when I started if he’d want any so I could double the recipe and he said no) that I had to serve him half which he gobbled down and even still took a few bites from mine. Who would’ve thought – a vegan pancake better than a real egg and dairy-filled pancaked.

I’ll definitely be making these again. A few tips and tricks. I didn’t have wheat flour and used white instead – not as healthy but worked just fine. I also was at the tail end of my old fashioned oats so only had about a quarter cup instead of the half the recipe calls for – I compensated with steel cut and it worked beautifully. I made the mistake of not using a non-stick pan. These are more delicate so you really can’t have any sticking or they fall apart. Lastly, the recipe says this will feed one very hungry person or two slightly hungry people – I was starving and could barely finish my half. They fill you up quickly but you’ll enjoy every bite!

Update: Check out these orange spiced vegan pancakes I found.

Maggiano’s – A Vegan’s Best Friend

August 6, 2011 § 1 Comment

Yup, you read that right. Maggiano’s, the restaurant famed for bowlfuls of creamy, buttery, goodness, served up a delicious vegan alternative for me last night and in one swift bite, restored my faith in veganism.

It has been one of those weeks. I’ve had this cold for a week now, and I’m over it. Tired of being congested, tired of being light headed, and ready to feel normal again. Monday marked the 30th day of my challenge. I wasn’t quite sure what to do afterwards so I kept going…and going…and going. All week I defied the urge to grab a warming cup of chicken noodle soup and I have to say with feeling sick, it was just all in all a hard week to be vegan. At some point, you get a little bored and crave some variety.

But the real challenge came yesterday – yesterday was my mom’s birthday.  Thursday night we decided we would take her to Maggiano’s. Panic struck immediately. What on earth was I going to eat! It wasn’t so much that I thought they wouldn’t have anything – the thing is Maggiano’s very well may be my favorite restaurant. I long for dinners there with creamy pastas and crispy breaded chicken parmigiana oozing with cheese on top. Surely those were out. But could I resist? One look (and smell!) at these and I might cave, and frankly after the week I’d had, these comforts would be more than welcomed. Not knowing what I would decide, I looked up my vegan options on my trusted reference and the outlook was dim.

So the anxiety continued on my drive to the restaurant as I gave myself a little pep talk that went something like this: “You can enjoy a nice salad. Maybe bruschetta without buttered bread and cheese. OK how about a bowl of pasta with a nice cream and butter free sauce.” And it ended like this “You know what, it’s been a good run, good job on 34 days – enough already – order the chicken and be done with it!”

The waiter came by and while deep down I wanted to give up, something told me to give it my best effort. So I explained I was eating vegan to which he said “Wow, that’s hard core” and said he’d get the chef. What followed next was just simply amazing. Sous Chef Matthew Arbuthnot came out to greet the table and presented me with so many options I literally couldn’t decide. He touted the many fresh vegetables back in the kitchen and the infinite possibilities. It sounded too good to be true. I finally said, you pick, and entrusted my evening’s enjoyment to his creativity.

The appetizers arrived and I ate my salad which, while good, was nothing compared to what floated in front of me. I was able to resist most of it but I’ve got to say when I caught a whiff of that crispy, salty, calamari I almost lost it. Given that the Chef was back there attempting to please this very picky vegan kept me from sneaking a bite.

Dinner arrived and I thought here we go. Everything on the table looked – and smelled – incredible. OK, Chef, let’s see what you got. Bring it! And boy did he do just that. Mine was last to hit the table and it was a sight for sore eyes. The platter before me contained so much variety and surprise I felt like a kid in a candy store. He really went above and beyond to ensure a delicious, flavorful, and complex vegan meal. The platter was simply breathtaking. He served up steamed broccolini and spiced grilled zucchini with a bowl of bright emerald green chees-free pesto for dipping. The spiced zucchini had so much flavor it didn’t even need the pesto but I loved it on top of the broccolini and thankfully there was plenty to take home so I’ll be enjoying it with some pasta or on a slice of toasted country bread this weekend – yummy!

Down the center of the platter was a vegetable saute topped with a delicate nest of crispy fried leeks. The mix included chopped asparagus, spring peas, carrots, red pepper and sadly I couldn’t figure out the spice to properly describe. There was definitely roasted garlic and perhaps some white wine? Whatever it was, it was insanely good. The very simple addition of the crispy fried leeks on top made all the difference in the world. I loved the contrast of crunch between the delicate vegetables and the fried  leeks – I will definitely be trying this trick at home.

And last but my god certainly not least, a little ramekin about 3 inches wide and not even an inch deep contained the most delicious sweet and savory corn pudding. That’s right, a vegan corn pudding. No cream, no cheese, and boy was it not missed! I’m still trying to figure out what was in it: corn for sure, leeks, some kind of green – perhaps sage? All topped with crispy herbed bread crumbs. If the whole platter had been this corn pudding – I would have finished it without thinking twice. As I politely used my fork to gather every last bite in that little ramekin and resisted the urge to lick it clean right then and there – the chef came by and said he was making me dessert. Let me just tell you, by this point, while I know my family enjoyed their meal, I was the envy of the table. Their bowlfuls of crispy chicken, creamy pasta, and salty parmesan didn’t have anything on my platter of wholesome deliciousness. My dad even exclaimed after trying everything on my plate that it should be standing menu item.

Now for dessert – I am so disappointed that I cannot accurately describe what followed. He presented a plate that looked like a beautiful painting, a bright sunburst of color. The bottom was coated with a rich marsala blueberry sauce which was like a bright ruby cabernet in color. In the center was a lightly bruleed pineapple topped with the blueberries from the sauce, candied lemon peel, and surrounded by slices of grilled cantaloupe that had been spiced with a hot pepper. He had asked me earlier if I liked spice and when I tasted this dessert I knew why – the cantaloupe was tender and almost melted in your mouth with the earthy smokiness from the grill and the last note on your tongue was a strong hit of the peppery spice. The sugary pineapple provided sweetness while the blueberry marsala cut through it so it wasn’t too much. A bite with all four was heaven.

My only regret of the night? That I didn’t have a camera worthy of taking pictures of the masterpieces I enjoyed. Maggiano’s, and more importantly Chef Matt, you did good and re-inspired me to get creative with my vegan diet! I’ll definitely be returning – as a vegan and of course only when Chef Matt is there.

Update: Check out how I’ve done eating vegan in restaurants since this visit. 

To Vegan Or Not To Vegan – End of 30 Day Challenge

August 2, 2011 § 19 Comments

Well I officially did it! I successfully completed my 30 day vegan challenge. I’m actually quite shocked I made it through. There were so many times I wanted to crack, but I didn’t. What did the challenge do for me? Well, I wanted to lose weight – bingo, 5+ pounds lost. I may have actually lost closer to 7 but I didn’t write down my original weight so can’t really remember the exact number. But I can tell you all my clothes are falling down. I tried new food groups and opened my horizons. I’m a notoriously picky eater and I ordered so many things out in restaurants I never would have tried before. Now, you’re supposed to get tons of energy on this diet – did that happen for me? Well, I wouldn’t jump to say tons but definitely a good amount is fair. Overall I feel pretty good.

The only question is: what now? Do I remain a vegan, or go back to the way things were? Well, I haven’t quite decided that yet. For now, until I figure it out, I’m going to stick to my vegan challenge.

So if you’re thinking of undertaking a vegan challenge, here’s 10 secrets to help you make it through.

10 secrets to a successful vegan challenge:

  1. Know your reason know why you are doing this. I didn’t really have a good reason and everyone will ask you why you’re doing it – your mom, friends, strangers, and everyone will tell you that you’re not getting enough calcium or meat. It’s easier to keep going strong when you get these answers sorted out from the beginning.
  2. Stock up – Keep your kitchen and your bag well stocked with fresh fruits and veggies. The more fresh produce you have on hand the less likely you are to be tempted to fill up on junk food or crack under pressure. Don’t forget fresh herbs and spices – they go a long way and mean the difference between blah and great food. Also, be ready to have a few favorite things on hand at all times for when you’ve got cravings or are wanting to give up. My go to items were chips and salsa, roasted red pepper hummus, and dark chocolate coated almonds.
  3. Find your vegan friendly alternatives – Simple things like coffee creamer go a long way and keep you from longing for your comforts, one of mine being coffee. Almost anything you love probably has a vegan alternative (OK, besides meat) – I found coconut milk creamer and ice cream that I love as much if not more than the real deal. Start reading labels and you will find there is more out there that’s vegan friendly than you realize.
  4. Try new foods – I tried so many new things on this challenge. I’m ordering mushrooms, beets and eggplant while out – that’s a first! I cooked up kale and purple sweet potatoes and loved them both.
  5. Get creative and be open – Dying for pizza? Order or make one with vegan friendly crust, great toppings and skip the cheese – its good! Making a creamy soup? Add roasted cauliflower instead of cream.
  6. Ask for help and beware of ingredients – When eating out ask the Chef – they will usually come up with something special that is not even on the menu. Don’t be afraid to ask what’s in a dish, you’ll be surprised at what can be made vegan with just one switch – or what has animal by-products in it that you wouldn’t have guessed. There’s usually more vegan options than you realize at first glance.
  7. Avoid being a carbivore – It’s so easy to rely on pasta during this challenge. There are times when you just get hungry. But try and stay on top of snacks and lots of fresh produce to avoid going overboard with the carbs.
  8. Find your resources – I could not have eaten out without this handy site – I pretty much referenced it every single time I ate out at a chain restaurant. My favorite go to items which I love vegan or not are a veggie bowl at Chipotle with rice, black beans, fajita peppers, tomato, and corn and the Mediterranean Veggie Sandwich at Panera without feta.
  9. Don’t be too hard on yourself – Take your challenge seriously but at the same time be realistic. There may be times you cheat by accident or have no option. Realize the big change you’re making. Real vegans cut out all animal by-products which can include enzymes and all sorts of crazy things you’ve never even thought about. As you get started stick to avoiding the basics: meat, seafood, stocks, eggs, and dairy. If you slip, don’t beat yourself up too hard. Just give it your best effort.
  10. Share the challenge publicly – Share publicly and commit to the challenge or at least have one person to hold you accountable. There were many times I wanted to quit but this blog kept me going – even though I knew not many were reading it, just the fact it was out there I didn’t want to fail.

I think this 30 day vegan challenge brought great things for me – it opened my mind and palate. I’d encourage anyone to give it a try to feel healthier, try new things, or at least just sympathize with the vegans living in a mostly non-vegan world!

(All photos in this post are from a delicious meal I enjoyed at Harth at the Hilton McLean, thanks to asking the Chef for some vegan friendly options)

Update: See my post on five easy ways to reduce your dairy consumption

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