Fall Back Plan

Wet leaves slap the windshield, leaving teardrops in their wake, smearing across the glass before spreading their wings and fluttering away. Driving through a light autumnal drizzle is strikingly more depressing than a gentle summer rain. Fog obscures the road, blurring signs and stoplights into hazy, shapeless colors. I feel like my whole head is full of damp cotton balls by the time I finally shift gears to park.

Fall is not my favorite season, but by no fault of its own. Signaling the end of summer, it’s merely the messenger, doomed to be shot every year. I shiver as I watch temperatures slowly fall, regardless of how warm it really feels. I storm angrily through piles of leaves, even if there’s only one small mound pushed together on an entire block. The truth is, there’s still a lot to love about fall, and almost all of if it is food.

Do you welcome the arrival of the autumnal equinox with open arms, or reluctant acceptance? One thing we can all appreciate is a return of cozy comfort foods with all their warming spices, hearty starches, and nostalgic aromas. There’s a handful of recipes that always set me in the right mood and remind me, in spite of my irrepressible pessimism: Hey, it turns out that autumn isn’t all bad.

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Minutes to Mealtime

5… 4… 3… 2… 1… EAT!

I consider myself quite capable when it comes to whipping up last-minute meals and fast whole foods, but Nava Atlas has raised the bar to the next level. Now author of twelve cookbooks, 5-Ingredient Vegan, her latest entry to the burgeoning field, is yet another smash hit poised to take off in kitchens around the nation. Believe it or not, every single edible masterpiece is composed of just five ingredients.

Skeptics may argue that such lofty words of praise are tainted with bias, seeing that I photographed about half of the dishes in this book. Rather, I would argue that such experience leaves me in a better position to more accurately assess the recipes, since I had the pleasure of both cooking and eating all of those subject, too!

A particular standout from the long list of favorites has been the understated yet spectacular Curried Greens Smashed Potatoes.

A literal flash in the pan, it takes mere minutes to wilt massive amounts of greens into manageable portions. Tossed with boldly spiced Indian simmer sauce, the exact flavor profile is highly flexible, making it effortless to switch it up and never get bored. In fact, this is a concept that knows no cultural boundaries. Reaching into a spare pantry, I’ve been delighted by the results that even a basic marinara sauce have wrought, to say nothing of the dazzling flavors infused by a simple enchilada sauce. That’s the beauty of this cookbook; each recipe is an outline to fill with any colors you see fit. Go ahead and paint the town tomato red, if that’s the hue du jour.

I don’t just mean that in a hypothetical way, of course. I want you to really experience these taste sensations in your own home! That’s why I’m GIVING AWAY a copy of 5-Ingredient Vegan to one lucky winner, right here, right now! To enter, use the form below the recipe and let me know in the comment section: What is your current go-to meal using five ingredients or less? If you don’t have one, which of the recipes in the book sound like a fast favorite to start with?

Even when your fridge is nearly vacant and time is scant, Nava Atlas is here to save the meal. Who else could possibly pull off restaurant-quality Chickpea Masala with just five ingredients, or deceptively rich Seed and Nut Butter Truffles, ready to grab and go in a matter of minutes? With decades of experience, Nava’s welcoming voice narrates each page with compelling ease, making everyday plant-based cooking accessible, effortless, and most importantly, delicious.

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Rooted in Oakland

Dragging a top-heavy and overloaded suitcase behind me, the path beyond the main gate became unexpectedly treacherous. Every tiny crack grabbed at the flimsy wheels, threatening to send us both tumbling into bone dry patches of bamboo. Sharp, pointed sticks poked out like spears, waiting to catch my fall. Stumbling forward in the blinding midday sun, the reward for all my efforts was a slap in the face: The key didn’t work.

I had just arrived at my new AirBnB a day before classes were scheduled to begin, and I was locked out. No amount of twisting, jiggling, or forcing the key would convince it to cooperate. No one was home. No one was answering their phones. Or emails. Or text messages. Anxious enthusiasm for the start of my new adventure faded away until only the anxiety remained, and I sat down, staring at the giant tree in the backyard dripping with crusted sap, and cried.

That was my introduction to Oakland, four years ago. Such a tiny blip on the radar now that it’s barely worth retelling, this moment stands out in my memory with new importance in hindsight. As far as I can recall, it was the one time I ever felt shut out, unwelcome, or for whatever reason, excluded. In this politically tense atmosphere, increasingly sensitive, often divisive, and blisteringly judgemental at times, where we celebrate diversity yet resist radical change, this is exceptional. I am the ignorant millennial, ruinous gentrifier, the ugly American, invading in a treasured place where I do not belong… And yet, from the moment my new landlord returned home from work and we finally got that front door open, I’ve felt like I do. Bundled along with that mailing address, I gained a network of neighbors, making a true community. Some filter through quickly, passing by in search of greener pastures, while others have set down roots that go deeper than the old oak trees themselves.

We smile and wave, stop to chat, catch up like old friends while out on the street. Everyone knows each others kids, parents, grandparents, and dogs- Even the stray cats are accounted for, taken care of in rotating shifts. When the summer heat beats down on unforgiving pavement, bowls of water appear for four-legged friends to stay hydrated. Little libraries proliferate with reading material as unique as the residents of each block. Gardens swell and overflow onto sidewalks, freely offering the overabundance to passersby.

That’s how I found myself loaded down with giant green zucchinis and explosively ripe orange cherry tomatoes. At peak ripeness, a fresher bounty could not be found, and thanks to my neighbors, it practically landed on my doorstep. Glowing orange orbs as smooth and round as glass marbles, sweeter than candy, Sun Gold tomatoes in general need little more than a touch of salt for balance. Honoring the fruit means doing as little to it as possible.

A true flash in the pan, the edible gems are seared until their skins bubble and burst to create a sauce of their own juices. Zucchini noodles are tossed into the hot mixture, just to soften, but not cook, retaining a more toothsome bite and fresh flavor.

No longer a mere AirBnB, I’m still in exactly the same place, but it feels much more like home than any other place I’ve been. I’d like to think I’ve finally put down roots of my own.

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Start Something Delicious

This blog post is sponsored by iHerb but as always, the opinions and experiences expressed in this post are my own.

The hardest part of any new endeavor, big or small, is just knowing where to start. That much is true for figuring out the opening sentence of a new blog post, building a cabinet from Ikea, or embarking on a different dietary path. Many people find the concept of veganism daunting simply because they don’t know where to begin. Seen as one complex tangle of ethics and guidelines, it’s nearly impossible to pick out one thread from that ball of yarn, let alone unsnarl it from that knotted mess. Setting yourself up for success means starting small. Personally, that brings me to the pantry, where all good meals take shape.

Having a solid supply of essential ingredients makes everything else possible, and I’m not just talking about the meals that are directly impacted by such delicious influence. Being properly fueled is the key to thriving, not just surviving, to power smarter decisions, more positive perspectives, and greater adventures at large. Food is where everything really begins, so my Ultimate Vegan Starter Kit focuses in on the staples that make up the foundation of my plant-based arsenal.

Starting strong also means knowing where to shop, which is why I always turn to iHerb. It’s one-stop shopping for all things vegan, compiled for easy reference in their new Vegan Specialty Store. Unlike other online grocers, iHerb takes the time to label and categorize all of their goods by dietary needs, so you can search specifically for items that are plant-based, gluten-free, soy-free, separately or all together if needed! Considering the fact that there are over 6,800 vegan products to chose from, that eliminates the typical search frustration of scrolling through blurry pictures of print labels, and gets right to the good stuff. Orders are shipped to over 150 countries straight from climate-controlled distribution centers, ensuring the quality of their products. You’ll never receive expired goods, in sharp contrast to the gamble you sometimes take when purchasing from massive, multichannel online retailers. If there are ever any concerns, you can email or chat online with a real person 24 hours a day 7 days a week, speaking 10 different languages, no less! From this one-stop shopping experience, I have a few essential recommendations for building your plant-based pantry with ease, and always in good taste.

Stocking a kitchen can sound like a daunting task, but it really isn’t too difficult to gather the essential ingredients that will serve you well through countless meals.

First, I always make sure to have legumes and pulses on hand. That means plenty of canned chickpeas and black beans for ease and convenience, and quick-cooking Arrowhead Mills red lentils. Everything from soul-satisfying soups to rich gravies are no more than 15 minutes away since lentils need no soaking to become meltingly tender. Tofu is like the Swiss army knife of vegan cuisine, effortlessly absorbing any sauce it’s dressed with to make an entirely new dish every time. For my money, Mori-Nu is one of the best candidates to keep around, since it’s completely shelf-stable until opened, and blends the most smoothly for completely silken desserts or smoothies.

Nuts and seeds of all varieties are welcome, although particular emphasis is placed on buttery yet neutral raw cashews, such as those from Bergin Fruit and Nut Company since they can be used to make everything from cheese to mousse. Smooth almond butter is another indispensable staple, and my favorite is Barney Butter since it has no added sugar or salt, making it perfect for any application sweet or savory. Although coconuts are technically fruits, I place them in the same category for the sake of cupboard organization. You could go crazy with all the different types of dried coconut options out there, but my go-to is the Edward & Sons, Let’s Do Organic, 100% Organic Unsweetened Coconut Flakes for their thick cut strips and fresh flavor.

When it comes to seasonings, my spice rack is about a mile long, but there are definitely some bottles that see a lot more use than others. Onion powder, such as that produced by Frontier was a bit of a sleeper hit at the beginning, since I hadn’t anticipated the uniquely savory essence it could contribute even in dishes that aren’t overtly onion-y. Plus, it’s fantastic in recipes that aren’t cooked, since it doesn’t have the sharp, harsh bite of a raw fresh onion. Salt is found in at least a dozen different formats across my stockpile, from coarse to fine, plain to seasoned, and each one has its own special purpose. Gustus Vitae smoked salt is the one I break out for extra fancy foods, since it delivers such a bold, earthy punch, no matter what. It’s a good substitute for liquid smoke as well, in case that’s a trickier item to hunt down. Staying on the salty side, tamari and soy sauce are both the traditional top dogs for instant umami gratification, but there should also be space on the shelf for Bragg’s Liquid Aminos. The differences are faint, but important. It has a lighter flavor that isn’t as overbearing on more delicate dishes, in my humble opinion. The spray bottle format is also quite convenient for spritzing on freshly popped popcorn or a steaming hot baked potato. In a related vein, white miso paste makes all sorts of savories sing, with far more nuance than plain old sodium. Eden Soy makes a variety of organic miso options, but you can also find chickpea miso in case soy is a concern.

Vegan catnip, AKA nutritional yeast, is perhaps the single most important yet misunderstood ingredient when transitioning away from dairy. In small doses, it contributes a subtly buttery taste, and can develop into a full cheesy extravaganza when added with gusto. It can be bought in bulk, but quality varies greatly. To those who think they don’t like it, I would implore you to examine the source before turning up your nose. I’ve used KAL since my earliest days of veganism almost two decades ago, and wouldn’t consider anything else at this point. It has substantial flakes and while some brands can smell like funky gym socks, this one is pure umami bliss.

A house is not a home without pasta, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be plain old white wheat noodles. I love instantly injecting a quick meal with some extra nutrition by using legume-based pasta, such as Seapoint Farms edamame fettuccine. It, along with chickpea, lentil, or black bean noodles have the added benefit of being gluten-free, but I love them for the extra dose of protein they contribute, to say nothing of the distinctive textures and tastes. All you really need to do is toss the colorful strands with some melted buttery coconut oil for some simple, satisfying comfort food.

So, how do all these seemingly discordant components come together to make a delicious meatless meal? I’m glad you asked! There are certain homemade staples I always have on hand as well, essential components that help make a feel more complete, ready and waiting to dispense at will.

Everything is better with bacon, right? As long as it’s meatless bacon, I would have to agree! That impossibly savory, smoky flavor is shockingly easy to replicate on a wide range of plant-based platforms, utilizing everything from eggplant to mushrooms and even banana peels. Reaching into my pantry for the most accessible option, crispy coconut chips form the foundation of my favorite cured pork facsimile.

Invariably, when confronted with the choice of going vegan or staying stuck, the most common refrain from anyone considering the plunge is that they would miss cheese too much. Granted, this was a real concern a decade ago, when I ate my fair share of naked pizzas and waxy grilled cheese sandwiches, there are superlative alternatives now on the market for every type of funky, gooey, or sharp craving any dairy addict may crave. In a pinch, you can even whip up an incredibly authentic Parmesan doppelganger from little more than ground nuts in a pinch of salt! This is one of those recipes that sounds way too good to be true, until you try it.

Egg replacers have long gotten the lion’s share of attention for their essential role in baking, but only recently has the spotlight turned to their place on the table as a stand-alone protein. My goal for this substitute isn’t to make airy sponge cakes or dense, custard-based ice creams, but scramble up a better breakfast entrée. Now you can make your own liquid egg mix, made to JUST pour and go, if you catch my drift…

The grand finale for all this delicious meal prep culminates in the easiest, creamiest, richest vegan carbonara you’ve ever twirled around a fork. Stunningly high in protein and fiber, devoid of even a single drop of dairy, beyond the pull of pork, and without ever breaking an egg, this is the ultimate vegan dinner, made from the ultimate vegan starter kit. After one bite of such a comforting, instantly gratifying dinner, you’ll wonder what was ever stopping you from making the plunge.

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Green Chef Gets the Green Light

There is truly nothing more satisfying than a home-cooked meal but sometimes we fall into a rut, making the same easy, go-to meals for lack of time or energy. There’s always trusty takeout and the thrill of trying new eateries but having local restaurants cater for dinner every day isn’t exactly feasible. There’s a ton of hype now about meal kits, but still few promising options for those with alternative diets, and vegans especially. Green Chef’s plant-powered meal plan strives to switch that script. I recently tried a week of this approach to home cooking, and I’m glad I did.

Green Chef is a meal kit delivery service that caters to specialty diets, including vegan and vegetarian. They send organic, pre-portioned ingredients and easy to follow recipe cards that take the stress out of the typical dinner rush. Every week, they have a number of different recipes to choose from, so you can cherry pick exactly the flavors you’re craving. All the ingredients are pre-measured, so there’s less food waste. No more forgotten heads of kale left to rot in the vegetable crisper, or full bottles of obscure spices you’ll only want to use once.

My first experience using Green Chef was actually with a friend of mine who, shall we say, isn’t exactly a skilled chef! She was able to follow the recipe and make the meals without too much trouble, and more importantly, was excited to take away some fundamental skills she had never previously attempted. Simple things like how to roast vegetables or cook quinoa; I take these things for granted, but if you have less experience in the kitchen, this is the next best thing to a personal cooking lesson from a chef.

The first meal from my box was an Israeli Salad. This was a favorite of mine- All of the herbs and spices included were so fresh, so bold, so vibrant! It had a crisp tomato and cucumber salad, creamy tahini sauce, and aromatically spiced chickpeas. The dish was filling without being too much, and all of the flavors and textures complimented each other perfectly. Green Chef is a USDA certified organic company, and sends produce sourced from local farms. A big plus for me was that each recipe was enough for 2 meals. My life can be a little hectic, so knowing I have some tasty leftovers in the fridge for lunch really makes my day a lot easier.

Next up were the Jackfruit Sloppy Joes and Carrot Fries. This was not something I would ever order off a menu or attempt to make from scratch, but I was very happily surprised by the results. The plant-based take on the classic sloppy joe was delicious, and I put my own spin on the carrot fries by cooking them in my air fryer to prevent heating up the oven to roast them as originally instructed. This made them extra crunchy on the outside and even sped up the cooking time.

I love middle eastern-flavors, so I also enjoyed the Green Pea Falafel. It was paired with roasted red pepper couscous and kale cucumber salad, all drizzled in a spiced tahini sauce. Like most of the recipes, there were quite a few components to cook, but worth the extra effort for the ultimate flavor payoff.

I made the same tweak for the Grilled Zucchini and Orzo salad. The zucchini went into the air-fryer for an effortless touch of char-grilled goodness, but I still wasn’t overly impressed with this recipe. The only suggestion for the side of chard was to toss with salt and olive oil (not included), so I had to add a lot of my own seasoning. Definitely not my favorite, this meal felt a bit haphazard and really didn’t come together in a compelling way.

My biggest complaint with Green Chef is that the recipes are a little lengthy. They all took around 40 minutes to make, which is a considerable chunk of time for someone accustomed to whipping up 10 minute meals, thanks to my most recent cookbook. The other major drawback was that each preparation called for a lot of pots and pans to cook all of the components, which meant a lot of washing up afterwards.

Green Chef is a particularly promising option if you’re new to veganism or new to cooking in general. It takes the fear and frustration out of meal planning, if you’re trying to eat healthier but struggle to set yourself up for success. I especially love that most of the packaging is recyclable or reusable. On top of that, all the produce was very high quality, and I love having the recipe cards, so I can recreate the recipes at a later date. Green Chef got me out of my dinner rut, all while stoking the flames of inspiration for new dishes to come!

If you’d like to give Green Chef a try for yourself, you can follow this link to get $80 off and free shipping for a limited time.

Mangan Tayon! Let’s Eat!

Do you ever eat with your hands? I’m not talking about little snacks like popcorn or crackers. I’m talking about full meals, hearty stews with rice and noodles, scooped up by outstretched fingers reaching across the dinner table. It flies in the face of traditional western etiquette, flagrantly breaking unspoken rules against this literal power grab while in the presence of others. Yet, far from the supposed faux pas I’d been raised to view it as since birth, this is simply the expectation at any of the meals presented by Free for Real Kitchen. No forks, no spoons, no knives, no chopsticks. Hell, no napkins, unless you get into a truly desperate mess.

Crafting a family-style Filipino Ilocano feast featuring vegan versions of traditionally meat-heavy fare, it’s a feat of modern cookery that such bold flavors could even exist in plant-based form. Dinardaraan, also known as “chocolate meat,” would be made with offal and pig’s blood anywhere else, but comes to life here with tofu, preserved turnips, shiitake mushrooms, and fermented black beans instead. Agar-based salted eggs posing as Itlog na Maalat could make anyone do a double take, based on both the uncanny appearance and sulfuric salinity. Jackfruit makes an appearance of course, not as a meat alternative but paired with banana blossoms in the Adobong Langka at Puso ng Saging, a naturally vegan preparation that dazzled with the unassuming combination of tamari, garlic, vinegar, bay leaf, and coconut milk.

More beguiling than the food, however, is the experience of sharing such a feast in such a visceral way with your neighbors. Strangers awkwardly shift around at first, pawing timidly at whatever mysterious mound lays closest, afraid to fully engage. With a few bites comes greater confidence, whetting the appetite for more. Conversations grow louder and deeper, hands fly farther and faster, and the whole room moves and sways in a different kind of dinner dance before long. Dropping formalities to boldly share space allows in a world of new flavor, along with an experience unlike any other.

Kamayan, eating with your hands, fills your heart perhaps even more so than your stomach. No matter how stuffed you end up after heartily partaking in over a dozen delicacies and dessert, warm memories of this communal event still last much longer.