28 April 2011

Reconnecting

My three weeks without refined sugar, coffee, and alcohol have ended, but I still plan to moderate my consumption of those items. Quick-fix diets and the like don't appeal to me; the cleanse was merely a way to jump start what I intend to be a more healthy lifestyle in general, both physically and emotionally. As with so many aspects of the accepting the human condition, my journey in self-care is a work in progress.

That said, I couldn't resist marking the end of the cleanse with a good, old-fashioned baking marathon. My few attempts at baking sans refined flour, sugar, and unnecessary fats didn't turn out particularly well, so I was eager to get back to more familiar baking grounds. To be perfectly honest, I basically turned toward the other extreme--let's just say more than a few tablespoons of oil and sugar made their way into a variety (read: several batches) of goodies--but not completely without efforts to make somewhat healthier alterations when achieving balance between flavor, texture, and nutrition was possible. Nosediving from my relatively healthy perch into essentially a vortex of unhealthy indulgences sounded painful, so it was not too difficult to resist the siren song of a table blanketed in sweets. I only took a nibble here and there just to be certain the items were indeed worth sharing with other people, keeping very few leftovers in the house at the end of it all.

This brings me to confession number two: I've been somewhat of a recluse lately. (You'll see the connection shortly.) While you, dear readers, can find me intermittently trolling around and contributing to Twitter and Tumblr regularly--whatever those musings are worth--various aspects about life lately have pushed me into a direction of increasing solitude in terms of communicating with my "real-life" friends. My absence in that other, mostly separate part of my social life--the realm of non-Internet-based relationships--collided with personal insecurities to become a situation born of self-doubt, avoidance, and neglect.

I don't know if I've done something for which I must apologize (I may just be too concerned with people-pleasing) or if anyone was feeling the weight of my absence (not that I'm a real source of support in anyone's life), but after a month of aloof interaction (if any) with my closest friends--for whom I normally show my love and concern in obvious ways--I decided it was time to let them know that I'm thinking of them. What better way to show I care than with care packages filled with homemade goodies? The project happened to coincide with the end of my cleanse and Easter weekend (read: secular family time), hence the ridiculous array of sweets I mentioned earlier.

Enough venting. Let's talk food, shall we? I spent nearly all of Sunday in the kitchen, whipping up goods to mail off to long-distance loved ones the following morning. Have a peek at what I made.

Candied pecans. I love those sugar-coated almonds hawked at street fairs. My mom used to make something similar, using pecans mixed with whipped egg whites and sugar. Obviously, egg whites have no place in my kitchen, but vegan egg replacer powder does make an occasional appearance. It worked beautifully as a binding agent for the pecans and turbinado; baking the pecans at a low temperature allowed a crisp, sugary coating to develop. A touch of ground cinnamon added the perfect amount of spice.
Chocolate-hazelnut truffles (vegan Baci, or "kisses"). One of my dearest friends absolutely adores Baci, a well-known Italian confection that, like too many candies, is not suitable for vegan consumption. I tasted one once during my pre-vegan days, recalling that I did like this rather simple chocolate hazelnut ball. Remaking this classically delicious flavor combination in vegan-friendly terms was quite easy. Each vegan "kiss" featured a homemade gianduja ganache-like center dotted with crushed, toasted hazelnuts, crowned with a toasted whole hazelnut. The whole thing is then drenched in melted dark chocolate. The end result is as tasty as it sounds.
Almond matcha chunk cookies. Several days prior to going on this baking bender, this post inspired me to turn some still-to-be-used vegan white chocolate chips into matcha chunks that would eventually end up in cookies. I adapted the Cherry Almond Cookie recipe from Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar, reducing the amount of oil and substituting whole wheat pastry flour for all-purpose and matcha chunks and sliced almonds for dried cherries and slivered almonds, respectively. The matcha is difficult to detect, but the finished cookies tasted fine, boasting the crisp, chewy, creamy, crunchy textural elements I hoped to achieve.
Alfajores. I first made a batch of these South American cookies back in January and have further adapted the cookie dough a few times since then. I typically use a combination of vegan mayonnaise and powdered egg replacer as egg yolk substitutes, both for richness and aesthetic appeal, and use rum and a small amount of vanilla extract to replace the cognac (which I never have on hand). These rich sandwich cookies are sweet and just melt in the mouth in a most pleasing way. I didn't snap a photo of the cookies themselves, so you'll have to bear with a money shot of just the filling instead.
Barbadian Coconut Turnovers. I wanted to include some sort of yeast-risen bread in my care packages and thought of these coconut-filled buns that were such a hit during recipe testing for Caribbean Vegan. I adapted the recipe slightly by substituting some of the all-purpose flour with whole wheat flour. Unfortunately, I lazily crammed the shaped dough into a single pan rather than giving them more space in two separate pans, so not only did the dough not have enough room to rise neatly, poor timing when coordinating oven usage (this was Easter Sunday in a busy kitchen) caused a delay in baking the turnovers; this resulted in over-risen, misshapen buns whose filling oozed out the bottom. But the mess didn't affect the taste, which was as good as when I made the turnovers the proper way. It would have been nice to send my friends perfectly sealed buns, but hell, if these people can handle a cinnamon roll or sticky bun, they should have no problem enjoying a delicious coconut turnover, even if it does have a gooey bottom.
Brown Rice Krispy Treats. The success of my first batch of this Simple Treats creation encouraged me to give the recipe another go. As the cookbook's title suggests, this snack really is simple and easy to make. I adapted the recipe slightly by reducing the amount of oil, cooking the syrups to the soft ball stage, adding vanilla extract, and mixing in a handful of chopped Dandies vegan marshmallows. These nostalgia-inducing treats are usually well-received and easy to pack, so off they went, save for a few reserved for Sunday's family gathering. Sorry, I didn't photograph these treats, nor did I think to snap any shots of the entire, sugary assortment of goods.

Whether my mission to share edible delights was prompted by actual need or simply by some irrational feelings of guilt on my part, I always enjoy occasionally surprising friends with gifts. I'm known to pull some Martha Stewart craftiness every now and then, and no one has ever minded (especially when the projects turn out well). I just hope the packages arrive soon and intact. Receiving a box filled with melted chocolate and stale cookies would be a messy way to represent my post-cleanse baking extravaganza and reemergence in the social world.

25 April 2011

A New Favorite

After itching to cook up Mac & Shews pretty much since Isa posted her recipe over at The PPK, I finally made the dish yesterday to bring to a casual family gathering. I've cooked several versions of vegan macaroni and "cheese" and tasted a few creations by other people. Despite having distinctly non-cheese "cheesy" flavor, most of the aforementioned vegan mac and cheese dishes have been good (if not at least decent) odes to the real-deal comfort food. I'm inclined to think Mac & Shews are quite possibly as delectable as homemade vegan mac and cheese gets; pureed cashews  make the sauce lusciously creamy, while sauerkraut infuses the dish with a certain depth and tangy flavor. Even with minor, habit-driven alterations--using whole wheat shell-shaped pasta, substituting the roux with pureed cannellini beans, and forgoing the final baking step (I was running late and hungry)--the dish tasted rich and plain scrumptious, easily appeasing my comfort food craving. Like every vegan mac and "cheese" I've tried, Mac & Shews won't fool anyone into thinking it's made with dairy cheese, but that doesn't matter; the uniquely non-cheese "cheesy" concoction is perfectly delicious in its own right. I'll undoubtedly revisit the recipe many times over.

20 April 2011

More sugar, please.

Depicted above are representatives of what has been very minimal baked goods production in this house during the course of my current refined-sugar and -flour avoidance/jump on healthier eating habits. The first two photos are of quite possibly the driest (albeit most basic) cornbread muffins on the planet. With only apple juice to both sweeten and moisten the bread and no fat, the bread--undoubtedly meant by the recipe's creator as a healthier side to accompany a robust soup or stew than typical cornbread--was rather bland without a dollop of all-fruit guava jam. Unfortunately, the muffins were no longer tolerable beyond eating fresh and still warm from the oven.

The second item depicted (a whole wheat, cinnamon-almond pull-apart loaf) does involve two unrefined sweeteners (just a touch of maple syrup and sprinkling of turbinado sugar), which I'd done well to avoid otherwise. I actually baked it as an experiment prior to a forthcoming care package-making marathon this weekend--a smart move, as I'm not completely satisfied with the results (fluffy, but a bit messy and in need of flavor-tweaking) and would like to mail some sort of bread to go along with the cookie assortment. I've already given a good portion of this prototype loaf to my brother (who has the most massive sweet tooth), so there isn't much left to tempt the carb-junkie of this house (read: me) for the rest of the week.

The spring holidays are upon us, and with them often come a host of celebratory treats. What sweets have been tempting you lately, dear readers? What springtime treats are you enjoying? For some reason, I've recently been reminded of my childhood, pre-vegan fondness for peanut and almond M&Ms, and would so love to have cruelty-free versions available.

15 April 2011

Highlights

Another week comes to a close, with the weather improving just as the weekend arrives. The sun has just begun to make its presence known around here, warming and illuminating the fragrant flora and greenery peeking from every outdoor crevice. The day has been dotted with a few serene moments, the treasured silence of the house enticing me to slip away for a brief nap. But first, I share with you, dear readers, some gustatory highlights from the last few days:

Popcorn. I am rediscovering enjoyment for savory popcorn, rather than reserving preference solely for sweet-and-savory kettle corn. In lieu of a yet-to-be-recovered air popper, I popped corn kernels using a stove top method with minimal oil, then tossed them with crushed yakinori (toasted seaweed), nutritional yeast, cayenne, salt, pepper, and a small amount of melted coconut oil to get everything to stick. The concoction is becoming somewhat of a snack obsession, along with those ruby-colored strawberries in the background of the frame.
Work-in-progress biscuits. These were the results of one of several attempts at gluten-free, sugar-free, low-fat baking. Earlier attempts at muffins were rather disappointing, but my relentless inclination to fuss about the kitchen continues to urge me to press forth with this endeavor. The biscuits could use improvement in both flavor and texture, but were a decent snack when topped with all-fruit guava spread.
Saag and daal with a sprouted grain tortilla. The flavors and dishes themselves were inspired by Indian cuisine, but the idea emerged following a thoughtful gesture by a colleague at a lunch function earlier this week. The saag is made from kale and spinach, accompanied by simmered yellow split peas--both impromptu dishes brimming with delightful spice and heat.
OMG Oven-Baked Onion Rings from Appetite for Reduction (2010). The name quite appropriately conveys the joy of devouring crispy, flavorful, reduced-fat onion rings. The recipe is yet another winner from Isa's newest cookbook.
Have a lovely weekend, all!

09 April 2011

For Health

As March rolled to a close, I began to realize that for the last few months, perhaps since the year-end holiday season, I haven't felt particularly well on the health front. Granted, I am a bit of a carb junkie--rice and bread are longtime addictions--who frequently features items of that variety on this blog. The predominant coverage of baked goods on this site doesn't quite accurately reflect my general attempts at being health-conscious. The food featured here usually represents the more interesting culinary ventures of a given week, because I figure they are more interesting than depictions of every bowl of whole-grain cereal or miso soup I ingest throughout that same time span.

Still, it's time to clean up my eating habits a bit. Having recently heard about this month's 21-Day Vegan Kickstart, which began Monday, I decided to participate. I'm new to the PCRM-hosted program and was attracted by the emphasis on meals prepared with whole food ingredients, minimal fat, and natural sugars. Admittedly, I haven't really attempted to follow the meal plans very closely since the first day; while I like the idea of easing into healthy, long-lasting changes (rather than a quick fix) and the individual meals suggested sound appetizing enough, the amount of repetition is not. That I hadn't shopped for the week's grocery items prior to the program start likely didn't help matters. In any case, it soon became clear to me that the foundation of my existing dietary routine was already very similar structurally. The problem was not one born of a lack of awareness, but rather, one of balance; I've been indulging too much in refined sugars and starches, a habit to which I've attached myself to the detriment of my overall well-being.

Basically, this is what's happening: for three weeks (or longer, depending on how I feel about the whole thing after 21 days), I'm following more or less my usual food routine, but excluding refined sugars, coffee, and alcohol. I'll be more mindful of choosing whole food options over their processed counterparts, as well as restricting my consumption of refined carbohydrates. The Kickstart program primarily serves as a reminder of the framework to which I'm trying to adhere, so I haven't abandoned participation completely. I even prepared some of the suggested dishes at the beginning of this week and will probably consult more recipes as the Kickstart continues. The first week has involved a good amount of the following food items:

Oatmeal: cooked cracked oats with fresh blueberries, Fuji apple chunks, mashed banana, cinnamon, and a splash of unsweetened almond milk.
Quickie Quesadilla: a half-serving version involving green chili hummus (I didn't have roasted red peppers), sprouted lentils, sprinkle of nutritional yeast, and dash of hot sauce.
Hoppin' John Salad: sprouted brown rice, blend of black eyed peas and more sprouted lentils, carrot, and no celery (I didn't have any and don't like it much anyway).
Homemade multi-grain cereal: protein-packed, gluten-free adaptation of these Homemade Nutty Bran Flakes, using molasses instead of sugar and eaten with fresh strawberries, apple chunks, and a splash of unsweetened almond milk.
Sprouted grain toast: spread with leftover Tempeh White Bean Gravy from Vegan with a Vengeance and roasted Brussels sprouts.
Not pictured are the many fruits I've been eating. Local strawberries are plentiful and sweet, so my kitchen is perpetually stocked with them. I'm also eating my way through a huge load of homegrown lemons, tangelos, and grapefruits recently acquired from a family friend. So far, so good.

Any former or current Kickstart participants out there? Care to share your thoughts on the program? Please, do tell! I'd love to hear what you think about the approach. Thanks!

06 April 2011

April Love Drop: The Kahlen Family

The arrival of a new month means it's time to share another Love Drop success story. Last month, the team collected $5,000 worth of cash and goods to give to Katie, the recipient for March who had overcome two brain tumors and struggles with the subsequent medical expenses. A surprise gift of 15+ friends arrived at Katie's house for the drop, culminating in an amazing, touching celebration. You can watch how it all went down here.


This month, the team gathers to grow support for the Kahlen family. One daughter, Brenna, has had tuberous sclerosis, a serious medical condition, for nine years; accompanying medical expenses paired with the economic downturn of recent years have taken their toll on the family. In addition to financial assistance, they Love Drop team plans to unite the artistic community to help support Kent's glassmaking work. Watch the Kahlen family's introduction video below.

Want to help?  Here are two ways you can participate:
  1. Give $1.00 - This is the best way to help out and join the Love Drop team at the same time.
  2. Donate a piece of art - They will be hosting an auction this month and would love to feature your artwork in it. Proceeds go to help the Kahlens this month, with the bonus of promoting your work.
As always, your support is much appreciated. If you can, please open your hearts for this family and drop some love. Thanks!
[source: Love Drop]