Saturday, April 30, 2011

No-Fat Versus Low-Fat Cooking

I have to confess that the very first recipe I tested for the next Happy Herbivore cookbook (featuring mostly fat-free recipes) I didn't like. Like other HH recipes, this one called for sauteing onions and garlic not in oil but in broth or water. I thought I didn't like the recipe because it lacked the flavor from sauteing in oil.

I'd just finished making recipes that I loved from Appetite for Reduction, which stressed low fat but not no fat. From the book: "If you remember that diet craze of the '80s, where people ate nothing but sugary cardboard cookies and didn't even lose weight, you'll know that zero-fat diets aren't a good thing. In fact, the truth is your body needs fat. You need it to properly absorb vitamins, and you need it to keep your body working as it should. Beyond health reasons, fat is a crucial component. Even minimal amounts of fat help you feel satiated. It brings out the flavor of foods and aids cooking by caramelizing and browning."

But Happy Herbivore author Lindsay Nixon posted a controversial blog post that said there is no such thing as healthy oils: "...oil is a highly processed junk food full of fat and calories and lacking nutrition." She also says on her blog that, "A wholly fat-free diet deprives the body of necessary nutrients. I don't add any fats -- such as nuts, seeds, shortenings, butter/margarine, oils, coconut or avocados to my recipes. However, I do use wholesome ingredients that contain a little fat naturally such as beans, wheat, cocoa and tofu."

I was skeptical of fat-free cooking but went on to test dozens of HH recipes....and absolutely loved all of them except for that very first one. Lindsay's recipes proved to me that fat-free doesn't have to be flavor-free.

Here were two vegan chefs I admired and respected, both with fantastic recipes I loved but with two different approaches to cooking. Who was right? I think both are.

The photo at the top is one of my very favorite recipes that I make all the time. It's a Quiche with Greens, a Happy Herbivore recipe. Garlic and onion powder give it the flavor you'd get from sauteing garlic and onion in oil, but with no fat. At just 78 calories and 6.7 grams of protein, it's a delicious, low-cal, filling meal. And because it's so low-cal, I can easily have a handful of nuts or few slices of avocado or toast with peanut butter to get the nutrients from fats that my body needs without worrying about gaining weight from a lot of added fat.

I love HH recipes and will continue to make them. Making these recipes taught me that you don't always need oil to make a dish flavorful, and the calories I save I can use to eat whole foods that have healthy fats.

I'll also continue to make low-fat recipes like Appetite for Reduction that often call for a little (usually one teaspoon) oil, because I do agree that sometimes a little oil goes a long way. I wouldn't not make a dynamite recipe just because it called for oil.

I think mixing up no-fat and low-fat recipes--with occasional full-fat meals or treats like cupcakes thrown in because I don't believe any food I love should be off limits--is the key to staying satisfied and maintaining a healthy weight.

If you're watching your weight, which approach--no fat or low fat--do you use most in cooking?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Week 16: Project Food Budget

Week 16 of Reluctant Vegetarian's Project: Food Budget

Goal: $75
Actual: $58.97

This past week I continued to test recipes for the next Happy Herbivore cookbook at somewhat of a feverish pace because Lindsay's book is due. Even though I made test recipes daily, I was under budget because so many of the recipes use ingredients I already have on hand. In fact, Lindsay asked us testers to keep track of how much we spend. For the majority of recipes, I spent not a single cent because I had the ingredients. For other recipes whose ingredients I didn't have, I spent less than $5. Only about one or two recipes were between $5 and $10.

Now that recipe testing is done, I'm curious to see whether my spending goes up because I'll be making recipes from other books.

Hello to my fellow budgeters!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Vegan Friendliness at Brillobox

I know, I know. Brillobox is hardly news. Since it burst onto the hangout scene as a supercool neighborhood bar/art space/music venue 5 or 6 or 7 years ago, it's been the darling of hipsters and 30-somethings like my friends and me (though, in all honesty, I'm getting closer to the 40-something crowd). It even scored an article in The New York Times a few years ago.

Yes, it's a cool place to meet up with friends for drinks, but I love the great vegan options on the menu! And where Brillo isn't your typical bar, the food isn't your typical bar food. The menu is a carefully edited selection of favorites like french fries mixed with creative options. Everything is positively wonderful.

This weekend, I started off with hummus and pita. Yes, I know--ho hum for vegans. But not Brillo's! I eat hummus so much, it's rare that I go head over heels for it like I did over Brillo's. It was as awesome as the lightly toasted, soft, amazing pita bread it was served with.

For my main dish I had the Pacific Asian Soba Noodle Salad with sweet tahini dressed sesame noodles and crunchy pickled vegetables, toasted almonds, and greens in a ginger-lime vinegar dressing. I had it with sesame-breaded tofu. So many flavors, but everything came together just perfectly...with a nice kick of unexpected spiciness to boot. Loved it!

Later on, after a few glasses of wine, I ordered the Pommes Frites with three dipping sauces for our table. One dipping sauce was an awesome curried ketchup. I tried the other two and loved them before realizing I had no idea what they were and that they might not be vegan. Oops. Normally I would not order fried food (or try possibly non-vegan food), but the wine made me do it. The fries and curried ketchup were amazing.

I've also had the Banh Mi Vietnamese Sandwich with tofu before, which is also awesome. I haven't yet tried their homemade veggie burger, so that's a good reason to go back soon.

Brillobox also has a vegetarian Sunday dinner for just $6 where you eat whatever they make that day, though I've never gone because I'm not a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants eater. I heard it's really good though.

So if you find yourself at Brillobox, don't miss out on some awesome vegan food! And visit the blog of Brillo's chef!

Image from Speed of the Pittsburgh Sound blog.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Rose Cupcakes

Another holiday, another opportunity to make cupcakes for my family! I decided vanilla with fluffy vanilla buttercream would be best to offset all the Easter chocolate. I also decided to try my hand at decorating, which I'm not usually great at.

The cupcakes and frosting were from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World and were, of course, amazing. If there is a better vegan cupcake anywhere on earth, I might not want to try it because I'd surely die in bliss. These cupcakes are always perfect.

I followed this tutorial for the roses. Could they really be as simple as the tutorial says and turn out so beautifully? Yes...though I need a little practice. I was running late and did mine very quickly. I think with a little more time and practice, they'd be gorgeous. But I don't think they're bad for my first try.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Week 15: Project Food Budget -- Saving by Making

Week 15 of Reluctant Vegetarian's Project: Food Budget

Goal: $75
Actual: $110.85

One of the reasons I'm participating in this project is because of my new year's goal to try to save money by making more food from scratch. I've been trying to avoid packaged foods as much as possible and making my own food using whole, nutritious ingredients. So how have I done for the past 15 weeks? As Larry David would say, "Pretty, pretty, pretty good!" (You have to be a Curb fan.)
  • I bake my own whole-wheat bread every week. Not only does it save money ($16 after 6 loaves), but it's easy, tastes so much better than store-bought bread, and healthier because I know exactly what ingredients are going into it.
  • I make my own vegetable stock and freeze it. It's as simple as throwing leftover veggies into the slow cooker, and it freezes well. Because so many things call for vegetable stock, it's a big money saver.
  • I buy dried beans and cook them when I need them. Not that a can of beans breaks the bank, but it is ridiculously inexpensive to cook my own beans.
  • I rarely buy lunch anymore. I used to get takeout at least twice a week. Now I cook so much that it's rare I don't have leftovers for lunch.
If I can make it, I won't buy it packaged, and that definitely saves money. Up until this year, I used to constantly buy hummus. Now the idea of buying hummus when it's so easy to make is just crazy to me. And the things that are a little harder or time consuming to make, like pita pockets, are fun for me.

The one packaged item I buy regularly is soymilk. I know you can make your own, but I haven't tried it. I also buy packaged pasta when I know you can make your own, but I don't often buy it. Maybe at some point I'll make my own, but I'm happy that I've come a long way in a short time and make most things from scratch.

This week's budget went mainly for test recipes for the next Happy Herbivore cookbook. With just two weeks to go, there's lots of testing to do, hence my overage for this week because I've been cooking so much. I also bought ingredients for a Mediterranean Bowl for a few meals and some Happy Herbivore Scrambled Tofu.

How did everyone else do this week?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Saying Thanks with Vegan Cookies

For the past six weeks, contractors have been renovating the third floor of my house. My house is old and crooked, so the work hasn't been easy. It's a workout just to walk up to the third floor, but these guys have carried all their equipment and heavy building materials (including 20 boxes of heavy wood flooring) up there. They have been very nice about everything and never complain.

So now that the project is wrapping up (next week? hopefully?), I've been baking these cookies that I'll package up and give them as a little thank-you gift...

Chocolate Chip Cookies
You can't go wrong with chocolate chip cookies, especially the perfectly wonderful ones from Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar, with a crunchy exterior and chewy inside. I added some peppermint extract to them for the holidays (pictured below), and they were a big hit. I posted that modified recipe here; just delete the peppermint extract to make regular. Chocolate Peanut Butter Pillows
These were everyone's favorite of all the 300+ holiday cookies I made. They take a little effort, but they are worth it. If you are an omnivore or know an omnivore skeptical of vegan cookies, these are guaranteed to win skeptics over. But note: don't substitute! The recipes from Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar were built from the ground up so that all the ingredients work together. Substituting milk for soymilk, for example, won't work (I know because someone on Twitter tried it). Here's the recipe.

First you make the chocolate cookie batter and the peanut butter filling.
Next you roll out the chocolate dough, add a ball of peanut butter filling, and then wrap the chocolate dough around the filling.The first time I tried one, warm from the oven when the peanut butter filling was gooey, I about toppled over in bliss. I've made these many times since; they are a guaranteed hit.Banana Everything Cookies
These cookies have it all: banana, walnuts, oats, and chocolate chips. They're also from Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar. I made these once before and brought them to my morning Zumba class, and everyone loved them.Pumpkin Oatmeal Cookies
These weren't for the contractors. These were for me! I had some pumpkin puree left over from a recipe so made these from the Happy Herbivore Cookbook. They're fat-free and filling with a little fiber and protein. And yes, delicious too!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Remembering Grubble

When we bought our house on the Northside eight years ago, we inherited feral cats living in the backyard. Over the years, I've taken in, socialized, and found homes for countless kittens. So seven years ago when a neighbor knocked on our door with a tiny, grungy, flea-ridden, orange tabby kitten in a box and pretended to think it was "one of ours," we took that kitten in too.

This kitten had character and spunk right from the start. There was something special about him, but I couldn't find him a home. One day he found his way out of our fenced backyard when we left him alone for a few minutes. I put up signs and told my husband if we found him, we were keeping him. The same neighbor who originally brought him to us found him again and brought him back to us, this time asking if he could keep him. I said no. That dirty, grubby kitten, whose name became Grubble, was mine.

Grubble died one year ago today at just six years old. He had feline leukemia his whole life, having contracted it from our first cat Zephyr, who had it when we adopted him from an ad in the Pennysaver. Feline leukemia is an incurable retrovirus that infects a cat's cells and is the most common cause of cancer. Both Zephyr and Grubble had cancer.

Everyone loved Grubble. He was extremely friendly and social, always greeting guests and even putting up with guests' kids manhandling him. My two girl cats, Orla and Elsie, loved him to pieces, and he was a good role model for the orphaned foster kitten Rasputin I adopted.

The loss of Grubble was a big hole in all our lives for a very long time. It was of course very hard for my husband and me, but the other cats seemed to grieve just as much. Orla walked through the house at night crying; I imagined she was looking for Grubble. Grubble was Elsie's best friend, and she no longer had a buddy to cuddle up with and talk to; she started peeing outside of the litter box, I imagine to show she wasn't happy. And poor Rasputin...his mom clearly hadn't taught him manners, and he hadn't learned enough from Grubble. But he was a juvenile boy who wanted to play. All he managed to do was constantly irritate the girls, who wanted no parts of him.

It's been a year, and we've all adjusted. But I still think of him often and miss him. Today I wanted to share some pictures to honor the memory of such a wonderful cat and friend.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Queso Sauce

Tonight I tested a Mexican-inspired recipe for the next Happy Herbivore cookbook. I'd been wanting to try the Quick Queso Sauce from the first Happy Herbivore cookbook--after all, it's one of the author's favorites.

The sauce's foundation is soymilk and nutritional yeast, with herbs, spices, and thickening ingredients giving it lots of flavor and creaminess. Like so many HH recipes, it took all of five minutes to make. It was awesome. I could have eaten the whole recipe alone with a spoon. Instead, I poured it over tonight's black bean based test recipe and wrapped it in a tortilla for a quick and delicious dinner.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

More Personal Training Lessons

I've finished the personal training sessions I've done for the past month with Tom through a free program where I work. I posted some initial lessons I learned; here are a few more. My goals were to maintain the 30+ pounds I lost last year and to continue to build strength, firm, and tone.

1. Limit vigorous cardio to 75 to 110 minutes a week.
One of the most surprising things I learned was that I didn't need to do as much cardio as I'd been doing. (Note that we're talking very vigorous cardio; I still do lots of low and moderate intensity forms of cardio like near-daily walks.) For someone like me, who has done cardio nearly every morning of the week almost consistently for the past 12 years, limiting cardio took some getting used to. Would I immediately pack on the pounds again? Would I not have the feel-good energy that morning cardio gives me all day? Turns out, Tom was right. My weight stayed within its normal three-pound fluctuation range. And because I was still working out most mornings with strength training plus taking daily walks, I continued to have plenty of energy and feel-good vibes.

2. Switch between weight machines and free weights.
Tom explained that when your body becomes used to doing something, you won't progress. I only worked with free weights previously, so Tom showed me how to use the weight machines. He created this program for me to ensure I don't plateau:
  • 4-6 Weeks: Using a routine with weight machines: lower body and core twice a week and upper body and core twice a week (for a total of four times a week).
  • 1 Week of Rest
  • 4 Weeks: Using a routine with free weights, resistance bands, and body weight: lower body and core twice a week and upper body and core twice a week (for a total of four times a week).
  • 1 Week of Rest
  • 4 Weeks: Using a routine with free weights, resistance bands, and body weight: total body--upper, lower, and core--three times a week.
  • 1 Week of Rest
  • Start back at the beginning on the weight machines. Tom says you will likely have to start at a lower weight than you ended with because your body is no longer used to the machines.
3. Rest! Tom explained that while rest may seem counterintuitive (if exercise is good for you, why rest?), your body needs time to recover and will perform better when you give it a week of rest every four to six weeks. This doesn't mean don't do anything, but, rather, don't do strength training or vigorous cardio. Instead, Tom suggested doing yoga or pilates three or four times during the week and continuing the low to moderate intensity walks.

After I finished these sessions, not only did I not gain weight from limiting cardio, but I dropped another half-size in pants. I was in between a 6 and 4 and now fit comfortably in a size 4--down from size 12 last year!

For our last session, we played football. I told Tom I'd always wanted to play, so he showed me how to throw and run basic routes. He said I was good, but I have a feeling that the bag of vegan cookies I baked for him as a thank-you may have contributed to that compliment. ;-)

Image from this blog.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Aladdin's Eatery

I've been eating out more than usual because of my house renovation project. While Pittsburgh has some vegetarian- or vegan-only restaurants (Quiet Storm, Zenith Tea Room, Loving Hut), I usually go to regular restaurants that have good vegan selections so that there's something for my omnivore husband to eat too. That way we're both happy.

Mad Mex
has long been my favorite restaurant that we eat at the most, with tons of delicious, innovative vegan or veganizable dishes and great drinks. But a new restaurant has started to give Mad Mex competition: Aladdin's Eatery.

My heart belongs to Ali Baba in Oakland, close to where I work. Before I started cooking a lot, I got takeout from there at least three times a week. They have a large, inexpensive Middle Eastern menu with lots of vegan options that are all good. But my favorite is their Syrian Soup, a thick, rich soup with lentils, a little rice, browned onions, and some magical spices that make it to-die-for. I've even eaten this soup on hot and humid summer days because I love it so much. It's the dish I'd have if I had one last meal before I died.

So when I first went to Aladdin's, I thought it was a not-as-good knockoff of Ali Baba's. But I've gone there a few times since and have fallen in love with it. Recently I got their Mujadara Plate (pictured above), which has the mujadarah I love (lentils, rice, caramelized onions) topped with a Lebanese salad. It was awesome. They also have a large selection of vegetarian rolled pitas and many vegan options. The page in their menu emphasizing vegetarian eating and encouraging people to try their vegetarian dishes warmed my heart. AND...they have vegan desserts! While they only have a few compared to their huge regular dessert menu, hey, at least they have something. The always-great service is another plus.

Hurray for another go-to restaurant that my husband I both really like.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Week 14: Project Food Budget

Week 14 of Reluctant Vegetarian's Project: Food Budget

Goal: $75
Actual: $82.34

House renovations continued this past week, so I haven't been cooking a lot (so sad). Nearly every meal I made for the past week except one were test recipes for the next Happy Herbivore cookbook. Most of the recipes I made called for ingredients I mostly had on hand, so the bulk of the budget went to fresh fruits and veggies for snacks and many salads plus these
Once my seemingly never-ended renovation project is done, I can't wait to get back to doing more cooking!

Hello to my fellow food budgeters!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Quiche with Greens

As a vegetarian, I ate a lot of quiches. When I first went vegan, I resigned myself to never eating quiche again. How naive I was. Of course you can make vegan quiches, and of course they are delicious!

I tried my first one from the Happy Herbivore website this past weekend (here's the recipe). It was ridiculously easy to put together and absolutely fantastic. I could see myself eating this every day for the next few weeks and not getting sick of it. Plus, at 78 calories, 1 gram of fat, and nearly 7 grams of protein a slice, it's a filling, light meal. I made mine with 6 cups of swiss chard. It didn't look much like the picture on the website so I didn't think it would turn out, but it was great. Hurray for vegan quiches!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Back to Cooking: Recipe Test Pics

Wow, house renovations suck. As I mentioned, my husband and I are renovating the third floor of our house. It's a very large room that will become our hang out and guest room and my exercise room. Contractors worked on it for three weeks before we had to paint. After five long weekend days, five late weeknights, a giant bucket of primer, and four shades of paint, we are finally done painting so the contractors can finish. But boy, I bitched and moaned the whole time. Not only was it just awful, miserable work, but I had very little time for cooking. I am not happy when I'm not cooking.

I did manage to squeeze in some test recipes for the next Happy Herbivore cookbook. Lindsay's recipes were perfect when I wanted something fast and nutritious with ingredients I mostly had on hand. And, I swear, each recipe was better than the next. For fat-free or low-fat recipes, pretty much every recipe I tried just blew me away. Every time I sent in feedback, I'd say, "I think this is my favorite recipe so far!" I'm warning you in advance: You will want this cookbook! Here are just a few pictures of some of the recipes. The second one, sadly, does not do this dish justice. And the last one...if I even told you the name of it (which I can't do), you would probably start drooling. Trust me: Awesome!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Week 13: Project Food Budget

Week 13 of Reluctant Vegetarian's Project: Food Budget

Goal: $75
Actual: $60.57

I'm under but it's because I haven't been cooking a lot. We're in the midst of a home renovation project, and the cooking I've done has been mainly test recipes for the next Happy Herbivore cookbook. Mostly the budget went to fresh fruits and veggies for snacks and many salads plus just a few other things...
(All the baked goods are for some thank-you gift bags for people.)

Looking forward to being done with the house renovation so I can do more cooking!

Hello to my fellow food budgeters!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Unfried Fried Tofu & Hoison-Mustard Sauce

I learned this technique for dry-frying tofu in Appetite for Reduction and have been using it a lot. It gives tofu the same great texture as frying but without any fat.
  1. Press a block of tofu for at least a half-hour to get as much moisture out as possible. The more dry your tofu is, the better the results. Cut up the pressed tofu into half-inch cubes.
  2. Heat a pan over medium heat and spray with a little bit of cooking spray. Add your cubed tofu and let it cook for 5 minutes, flipping with a thin spatula to keep the pieces intact, with the goal to get the tofu browned on all sides.
  3. After 5 minutes, drizzle 2 teaspoons of soy sauce, toss to coat, and cook for another 5 minutes.
The result is chewy tofu with a great fried texture. Doesn't it look delicious?
It doesn't have a strong taste, so it would be best with flavorful sauces or gravies instead of on its own. My favorite sauce is the Hoison-Mustard Sauce from Appetite for Reduction, where this technique came from. I've said before that I don't like to post recipes from current cookbooks, but I think posting one or two is okay--I know I'm more likely to buy a cookbook after I've tried a few recipes first. Since I haven't posted any AFR recipes yet, I'm posting this--my all-time favorite tofu recipe!

Hoison-Mustard Tofu
Serves 4

  • 1 block extra-firm tofu, pressed and cut into half-inch pieces
  • 2 teaspoons soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 1 small onion, diced small
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (1/2 teaspoon if you want it spicier)
  • 3 tablespoons mirin
  • 2 tablespoons hoison sauce
  • 2 teaspoons prepared yellow mustard
  1. Fry the tofu per the instructions above and set aside.
  2. Heat a large pan over medium heat. Saute the onion, garlic, ginger, and red pepper flakes in the sesame oil. Cook for about 10 minutes, using a little cooking spray if it becomes dry. Veggies should be soft and brown.
  3. Add the mirin and let it cook for 3 minutes. Mirin is a thick, sweet Japanese wine. I think it's important to use it in this recipe to get the sweet and thick consistency of the sauce, so I don't think you should substitute anything for the mirin. It will look like this after you add the mirin.
  4. Add the hoison and mustard and cook for another minute.
  5. Add the tofu to the sauce and toss to coat.
This tofu and sauce is so amazing, it's hard for me to wait to even put it on a plate. I want to gobble it all up right out of the pan. I had it with the Unfried Fried Rice from Appetite for Reduction, which I first talked about here.I think this sauce would also make a good dipping sauce for spring rolls and other types of Asian appetizers.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Maple Muffins

I started out a third day of painting (actual painting--the last two days were just priming) on a sweet note: Maple Muffins from the Happy Herbivore Cookbook.

Made with pumpkin and applesauce, these are fat-free and just 3 WeightWatchers PointsPlus values (that's low). They weren't super dense like most oil-free muffins. Instead, they were surprisingly light. With a hint of maple and pumpkin pie spice flavor, they were just sweet enough. They were fantastic--a great start to a day I'm not looking forward to.

A similar recipe is posted on the Happy Herbivore website (you can use either sweet potato or pumpkin puree; the version I made didn't call for flax eggs).

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Whole Wheat Beer Bread

I haven't been cooking because of a renovation project of the third floor of my house. After three weeks of work, the contractors have put in new drywall, added a storage closet, added electrical, did HVAC work, enclosed ductwork, added a space for a bar area, and added trim.Now it's our turn. This weekend we need to clean, prime, and paint all the surfaces. Not only is it a huge pain, but it leaves little time for cooking.

We started spackling on Friday night, and I forgot to mix up the dough for the whole-wheat no-knead bread I make every week. On Saturday morning, I was breadless--my equivalent to not having air or water.

So I made Vegan Whole Wheat Beer Bread from the Happy Herbivore website. I had no idea how it would turn out. I don't even like beer.

It was the quickest, easiest bread imaginable. You combine whole wheat flour, sugar, salt, and baking powder with 12 ounces of beer (I used oatmeal stout). It's done in an hour.

It was awesome!!! The outside was crispy and inside was chewy with a great texture. It tasted delicious--not at all like beer and with just a hint of sweetness. I also loved that it used no oil and slid right out of the pan.

I ate it with some low-fat spicy hummus I made for snacks during the day, and it was just perfect. I'll definitely make this bread again.