User Friendly

Meet your new best friend: The Friendly Vegan Cookbook! No, that’s not a typo, despite how ubiquitous the term “vegan-friendly” has become in common parlance. Turning the phrase around makes it an all-encompassing embrace of the concept, rather than the outlying exception. Toni Okamoto and Michelle Cehn, two of my favorite people, have teamed up to create over 100 recipes that will serve you well, quite literally, from daybreak to sundown.

For the reluctant cook, the flexitarian, or the hungry health enthusiast, this one’s for you. Carefully curated with nostalgic fare like stuffed shells, pizza, and chickenless noodle soup, these glossy pages bring a taste of comfort to life in stunning full color, and flavor. It certainly helps that Michelle herself is an accomplished photographer, capturing lustrous still life scenes vibrant enough to warrant framing.

Naturally, I’m drawn to the dessert section of any cookbook first. Sweet and simple, the Fudge on page 204 is an easy win. You’ve gotta love a decadent homemade treat that you can make in minutes with seven ingredients (or only six, not counting the salt.) Even though my pantry was ill-prepared for such spur of the moment inspiration, I had just enough to pull off this small miracle. Ideal for a quick craving, unexpected guests, or holiday gifts, it’s hard to imagine anyone turning down these slow-melting nutty, chocolaty morsels.

Turning to more hearty meal options, the Mac ‘n’ Cheese on page 63 was calling to me from the moment we met. No packaged vegan cheese need apply to make this creamy, gooey goodness. I took some liberties to simplify mine, skipping the baking dish and extra vegetables to make a stove-top style, blue box dupe. Nutritional yeast, AKA vegan catnip, and a touch of soy sauce takes this one to boldly savory new heights.

Another reason to love this collection so much is that it truly represents a wide swath of the vegan community itself. Tapping other lauded cookbook authors for contributions, Stephanie’s Deviled Potatoes on page 141 comes from none other than Stephanie Dreyer. Plant-based meal planning expert and the founder of Batch Cooking Club, this unstoppable mother of three knows a thing or two about making foolproof recipes on the fly. Presented as finger food that’s party-ready, I’d argue these tender little potato bites are also ideal everyday snacks or sides. Protein-rich cannellini beans make the filling both balanced and substantial, brightened with the bite of mustard and black pepper.

Whether you’re a friendly vegan or still just vegan-friendly, you can’t go wrong with The Friendly Vegan Cookbook. If you don’t take my word for it, try it yourself: Enter your details in the form below for a chance to win a copy of your own! Tell me in the comment section about your go-to best friend in the kitchen. Is it a certain seasoning, special equipment, or an actual human helper? There are no wrong answers, as long as you respond in the first place!

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Not Your Average Joe

Of all the foods that Americans try to claim as their own, the Sloppy Joe may be one of the few that an actually trace their roots back to the good old U.S. of A. First referenced in the 1930’s and attributed to a cook only credited as “Joe,” it has humble beginnings befitting of original description of “loose meat sandwiches.” Doesn’t that just sound finger-licking good?

Many similar dishes exist abroad, owing largely to the simplicity of the concept, but few would recognize the childhood staple outside of these United States. However, the idea is still as foreign to me as tikka masala. I certainly enjoy it and appreciate its unique nuances, but can’t quite put my finger on what makes the best renditions so great. I must have been at least 20 years old before I ever assembled my own meatless melange. My mom never made it for our family meals, and I didn’t know enough to ask.

Lacking that essential reference point, it would be some bold claim to say that my illegitimate version is the best… But feels entirely fitting for this modern recipe revival.

That’s because instead of using the predictable, one-note tomato sauce base, I’ve pumped up the flavor volume with The Beet Goes On sauce from Bold Palate Foods. With a natural, subtle sweetness, deeply earthy savory notes, and bright spices, it’s a dynamite starter for any daring dining adventure. Simmered into an equally hearty and heart-healthy base of tender lentils and chopped cauliflower, there’s no contest when comparing nutritional stats.

Though you could very happily slap this thick stew on a bun and call it a dinner, I love the snappy, tangy bite of dill pickles on top. Conventional garnishes might call for a slice of day-glow orange American cheese, but I prefer to go bold, pouring No Cows on This Ranch dressing all over instead. It’s hard to beat that creamy, cooling, herbaceous contrast.

Tired of toting such big buns? Alternate serving suggestions run the gamut from spaghetti to baked potatoes, french fries, or even tacos. No need to stick to the beaten path when brighter, bolder, and smarter options are out there.

Be bold, and enjoy with reckless abandon.

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Birthdays with Benefits

With age comes wisdom, grace, and maturity… Or so they say. While I have yet to experience any of that myself, I do keep getting older, despite best intentions. There’s still at least one very good reason to celebrate the passage of time, though: Birthday freebies. I don’t throw parties anymore but darting around town to collect these gifts is its own kind of festive event. My list of national vegan birthday freebies has been immensely popular for obvious reasons, as it would be a shame to leave anyone out of the fun. If you were born, recently or long ago, you too could enjoy these treats! Now that I’m living in Austin, however, I’ve uncovered a whole trove of new local specialties.

Amy’s Ice Creams is a treasured Austin establishment that got its start in 1984 and is still scooping strong. The menu at large is still firmly dairy- and egg-based, but you can always find at least one vegan specialty that will make you melt. Depending on the day, you might find chocolate, coffee, or snickerdoodle ice cream, or a range of fruity sorbets. Snag a free scoop on your birthday when you sign up for the Sundae News email list.

Greasy spoon diners have never been as good as Kerbey Lane Cafe, slinging a full, separate vegan menu for the meatless among us. Pancakes are their claim to fame, so it should come as no surprise that they’d share a free single pancake of your choice or small cup of vegan queso to help celebrate your big day. Sign up for the Kerbey Lane Love Club for your annual gift. Keep an eye out for special seasonal variations; my favorite is the pumpkin spice flavor, but you can’t go wrong with the classic, plain and simple. Best of all, even your pup can be a member of this club! That’s right; your lovable mut will beg for their very own baby pancake on their birthday, too. Hopefully they’ll stop drooling over your plate then!

Mix, match, and stir-fry yourself loco at Woko Loco, where you can get a free box of fresh veggie goodness on your birthday. All you have to do is download the Woko Rewards app and cash in on your big day. You can build your own Asian entree with a base of rice, noodles, or zoodles, tofu, eight flavorful sauces, and up to 16 different vegetables! If that’s too overwhelming, just ask for the Veggie Lover box and they’ll take care of the details. Don’t forget to use my promo code when you sign up: 9984

Which is your favorite sandwich? That’s the very question Which Wich is asking, and they don’t make it easy. This micro-chain is especially vegan-friendly with a clear menu section outlining which ingredients are free of all animal products. Join the Which Wich Vibe Club to get a FREE small sandwich (or wrap, or salad) for your birthday. If I were you, I’d opt for the black bean patty, avocado, jalapeno hummus, and quinoa, but you can build your own combination from the wide variety of vegetable options, too.

If you’re starting to feel the squeeze after so much celebratory indulgence, head over to Juiceland for a fresh start. Sign up on Five Star Rewards and you’ll get a coupon for $5 off, valid for one week before and one week after your big day. That’s plenty to cover a wide range of smoothies, juices, shots, coffee, and even some snacks or light meals. It’s hard to resist the Jackfruit Carnitas Supreme, a meaty Tex-Mex bowl-in-one, but on a hot day, nothing hits the spot quite like the protein-packed Strawberry Mylkshake. Don’t forget, you can add in black pepper, cinnamon, cayenne, sea salt, or habanero to your blend at no charge, any day of the year!

Since dropping anchor for their first brick-and-mortar location in South Manchaca, The Vegan Yacht has more space for diners and menu options. That includes their organic soft serve ice cream, made entirely in house. Flavors rotate every few weeks but you can always count on getting a unique seasonal specialty. To anyone who says that ice cream in January isn’t a compelling prospect, just try repeating that when presented with a swirl of marshmallow cocoa like this beauty. Pumpkin spice in the fall and eggnog in December are two other noteworthy bestsellers. No signups or advanced notice necessary to redeem your treat; just walk in and let them know you’re celebrating on your special day!

Anyone would be delighted to snarf down a 7-inch Vegetarian Sandwich at Snarf’s, free of charge, so make sure you sign up for the Insider’s eclub to log your birthday! You’ll get a voucher to use to place your order online or in the app, whenever the craving strikes during your birth month. Don’t forget to leave out the cheese and mayo to make this one vegan. Jazz it up with artichoke hearts or extra mushrooms for that meaty, umami bite.

RA Sushi really pulls out all the stops when you join The Hook Up. On your birthday AND half birthday, you’ll get a full $20 gift certificate to make it rain maki rolls. Don’t miss the lavishly adorned Vegetarian Roll, vibrant and verdant with cucumber, avocado, arugula, asparagus, and romaine hearts, all wrapped in green soy paper. Go to town with garlic edamame, shishito peppers, or spicy cucumber salad to complete the meal. If you dine in, you’ll even get your choice of flavored mochi for dessert, on the house! That’s a  truly sweet AND savory gift!

Bow down to Bao’d Up. These fluffy steamed buns are made fresh daily in each of four central locations. Plump, pillow-y soft, and stuffed with your choice of sweet or savory fillings, you have two vegan options to chose from: Veggie for a healthy snack, or red bean for a light dessert. Download the app, create an account (use my referral code 2271, please!), and snag one free bao on your birthday! While you’re there, you might as well treat yourself to a side of fries, pickled veggies, or slaw, because the mayo is all eggless, too.

Although two dozen cities now host their own Alamo Drafthouse theaters, it was originally founded here in Austin. If you sign up for their Victory program, you’ll get a free movie ticket, delivered on the day of your birth! You’ll still need to pay for food if you go in hungry, but it’s worth the splurge. Their crispy buffalo cauliflower, complete with vegan ranch dressing, is the stuff of legends. Make sure you input all your details correctly because they do check ID at the door.

Remember, these offers are all subject to change, especially under rapidly evolving COVID-19 protocol. Always call in advance to check hours and availability when in doubt. Celebrate to the fullest, and stay safe!

Bedtime Story Plot Twist

How do you cope when you can’t sleep at night? Do you burrow deeper under the covers and count herds of sheep? Do you reach for your phone and scroll through social media feeds until your eyes can’t focus and the words all blur? Do you get out of bed to pull out a book, or binge-watch the latest trending series?

Me? I head straight to the kitchen. I’m not looking for a midnight snack, though. The first thing I’ll grab is a bag of flour. While the world outside is dark and still, all I want to do is revel in the soothing simplicity of making bread. Watching the yeast come to life, turning a shaggy, sticky batter into smooth, elastic dough. Gently, methodically kneading the warm mixture is almost like a massage enjoyed vicariously, without any messy human interaction.

Wordlessly, thoughtlessly going through the motions, it’s more about the process than the product. It’s usually a simple sandwich loaf I’ll find rising on the counter in the morning, still bleary-eyed and barely awake. Sometimes I’ll get more ambitious and try something new, a curiosity that I can’t decipher until taking a bite later. In other cases, it’s the perfect opportunity to fulfill longstanding cravings, set aside as being too time-consuming for the average day.

Scallion buns, soft as a pillow, twisted into golden strands that dance with green onions, might just be better than a full night’s rest. The stars aligned when I pillaged the fridge to discover a bouquet of fresh herbs already past their prime. This was their big chance, and mine, to make something magical.

The results would be equally satisfying steamed or pan-fried, but in my sleepless stupor, it was easiest to turn on the oven and walk away. Don’t go too far though, because they bake quickly, meaning you can leave the shaped buns in the fridge to finish off bright and early, rather than staying up all night.

Adapted from The Foodie Takes Flight, I would implore you to watch the superlative video to see how a real pro shapes these twisted sisters. Words can only do so much for such a visual technique.

Next time sleep is elusive and the hum of the oven beckons, I know exactly what I’ll be making. Do you?

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