Easy, Fat-Free Green Bean Salad

fat free green bean saladSo, I realized that this past Thanksgiving was my 4th — 4th! — annual vegan Thanksgiving. And for the first time ever, as I mentioned, the entirety of my extended family joined along in the spirit of the vegan Thanksgiving and there was no turkey to be found.

At one time, I would have thought that a turkey-less, entirely vegan Thanksgiving would mean I’d feel lighter and not stuffed to my breaking point after eating. I was wrong. And I’m here to set the record straight. It is entirely possible to way overeat  and induce a food-coma even if all of the food you’re putting into your body came from plants.

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Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese with Kale

butternut squash macand cheeseI love mac and cheese. Or should I say, I love gluten-free mini shells with healthy butternut squash sauce made from plant-based whole foods and a healthy addition of leafy greens? Mac and cheese is just easier to say.

The last time I posted a vegan mac and cheese recipe on this blog, I was still in the throes of my vegan transition and was utilizing loads of processed cheese and dairy replacements in my cooking. Not that it wasn’t a superb mac and cheese. It was. But to argue that it was much healthier than its dairy counterpart would be misleading. Such recipes are the perfect example of how vegan foods are not inherently healthier alternatives in every case.

I think my experience is common. I’ve spoken with other vegans who’ve undergone similar transitions — especially for those who go vegan for environmental or ethical reasons over health concerns. Meat and dairy meals are slowly replaced with meat and dairy replacements — processed alternatives made with high-fat oils, wheat gluten and other unnatural products. I will say, I do credit some of these alternatives (minus the wheat gluten, of course) for really helping me kick my cheese habit back in the day (sound familiar, anyone?). And I still occasionally purchase vegan cheese shreds or a cream cheese alternative to use in moderation, and mostly only for special occasions.  But by and large, I’ve come to realize that such products, while instrumental in helping me transition into a vegan lifestyle, are by no stretch of the imagination healthy foods just because they’re vegan.

butternut squash mac and cheese side

With this in mind, I sought to create a mac and cheese recipe that would satisfy all comfort food cravings without having to resort to processed cheese alternatives or oils to get the job done. While there is added fat to this dish from the cashews, they add a monounsaturated fat, which lowers bad cholesterol and does not contribute to heart disease as saturated fat and unhealthy processed oils do. Compare with the saturated fats found in meat and dairy products — along with plant-based products such as palm oils, which are prevalent in dairy-free cheese and cream cheese alternatives — that contribute to an increase in bad cholesterol, raising the risk of heart disease. I’ll take the unsaturated option, please!

But I couldn’t just stop at cashews. To make this dish ultra healthy, I used creamy, delicious butternut squash as a base for the sauce. Not only does it add a beautiful orange color, but it adds additional creaminess to the dish with no added fats, while contributing tons of nutrients and antioxidants, including carotenoids, which are said to protect against heart disease.

And then, just for fun, I added kale. Because why not? I love finding new ways to add leafy greens into my meals, and kale adds a pretty burst of color and textural contrast to the creaminess of the rest of the dish.

butternut squash mac

So, whether you’re transitioning into a vegan diet or going all-in for health reasons, this mac and cheese is sure to satisfy the strongest comfort food cravings without the addition of processed oils and fats that contribute to many health problems. Not to mention that simply removing processed oils and products containing oil is an easy way to keep off the extra pounds without sacrificing flavor.

Just a note: I think this is best when served immediately, but if reheating a pre-made batch, you may want to add a little bit of extra almond milk while reheating and heat over low heat until creamy consistency is reached and the pasta is warmed through.

Possible adjustments, additions & other notes:

  • I used Tinkyada brown rice mini shells instead of elbow macaroni in this dish. I prefer mini shells in mac and cheese recipes because I find that they really trap in a lot of the sauce, making each bite extra creamy and delicious.
  • If not using a high-powered blender such as a Vitamix, soak cashews for 1/2 hour to an hour and then drain before using. This was a trick I used many times with my old, crappy blender and it worked pretty well.
  • This sauce is on the thicker side, almost like a very creamy Alfredo sauce. For a thinner consistency, I would recommend increasing the almond milk to about 1 cup.
  • Instead of kale, use steamed broccoli as an added veggie.
  • This sauce is versatile: pour over steamed veggies or baked potato (or both!). Try adding salsa for a Mexican twist, then pour over baked potatoes stuffed with black beans and fajita vegetables.
  • This dish is great with hot sauce!

Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese with Kale:

Serves: 3-4 (serves 4 if served alongside a large salad and maybe another veggie side for a complete meal)

Ingredients:

3 cups (about 8 oz.) dry gluten-free macaroni or mini shells

1 cup raw cashews

3/4 cup unsweetened plain almond milk

1 cup cooked butternut squash, tightly packed (see note*)

1/3 cup nutritional yeast

1 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika (plus more for sprinkling)

2 teaspoons lemon juice

dash cayenne pepper (optional, to taste)

2 heaping cups chopped kale

To cook butternut squash: halve squash lengthwise using a sharp knife. Scoop out seeds and stringy stuff in the middle. Lay squash flat, skin-up, on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake in a preheated 400 degree oven for about 30-35 minutes, or until squash is soft and skin is browned. Remove skin before using in this recipe. 

Directions:

1. Boil pasta according to package directions until just al dente (do not overcook). Drain and set aside.

2. While pasta cooks, combine all remaining ingredients except kale in a high-powered blender such as Vitamix and blend on medium intensity until completely smooth (I blended for almost a minute). You may need to stir a few times to properly distribute ingredients.

3. After pasta has been drained, return to pot and add butternut squash sauce and chopped kale. Heat over low-medium heat for another minute or so, until kale is wilted and pasta is warmed through. Sprinkle with a little bit of smoked paprika (optional) and serve immediately.

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Basil-Miso-Walnut Pesto & Panini

basil-miso-walnut pesto (oil-free)I know it’s been some time since I last posted. I’ve really been making an effort to not push myself too much, since every time I do, I seem to suffer some sort of health setback. I was feeling pretty good, though, until I started a new medication to hopefully wipe out what’s left of my Lyme. I was told by many people that this med (Flagyl), when used for Lyme, is no joke and that I would definitely be feeling its effects. So I was pleasantly surprised when I started taking it and felt fine for a few weeks. I guess that was the honeymoon period, though, because ever since then I’ve been noticing a huge increase in my symptoms — constant stiff necks, night sweats, fatigue and word retrieval problems, to name a few.  Supposedly, this is all good, as it means the medicine is doing its job. But it’s not good for me in terms of living an active life, let alone keeping up the pace of this blog while trying not to be a deadbeat employee at work! Eek.

For the above reasons, this recipe has been sitting in my archives, patiently awaiting some sort of post to go along with it. I swear, when I first made this, basil was actually in season and abundant. But if you live near a Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods, you should be able to still find fresh basil to make this recipe. This pesto has been a staple in my diet recently. Something about the nuts, miso and nutritional yeast combo make this taste so — dare I say? — cheesy that my mind at one point was wondering whether I’d somehow accidentally added Parmesan to my Vitamix. Of course, that would be highly unlikely given that I haven’t bought cheese in several years and never have any in the house. But who knows with these new meds I’m taking….crazy things could happen.

I like to make this pesto thick — almost like the consistency of a chunky hummus– so that I can use it as a dip, spread it on sandwiches, or, of course, serve it on pasta. I find that it sticks much better to pasta, too, the thicker it is. In my experience, it will “melt” a bit into a warm pasta enough to coat everything.

roasted vegetable and pesto panini

Here’s a non-recipe recipe for the roasted veggie and pesto panini I’ve been making with this pesto, followed by the actual pesto recipe, which can be used in so many different ways:

Non-Recipe Pesto Paninis:

You’ll need:

  • Two slices gluten-free bread per sandwich
  • Miso-Basil-Walnut-pesto (recipe below)
  • Eggplant, zucchini and red peppers plus some veggie broth for cooking
  • Vegan cheese (I used Trader Joe’s vegan shreds)
  • A tiny bit of oil to spray on non-stick skillet
  • Another skillet to weigh down the sandwich, or a panini press

What to do:

  • First, you will need to roast the veggies. Since I tried to minimize the added oils in this dish, I roasted the veggies in vegetable broth. I sliced one zucchini and one smaller eggplant very thin and julienned a bell pepper. I tossed it in about 1/3 cup of veggie broth in a large baking dish (so veggies could lay flat) and baked at 350 until the veggies were soft (about 30-40 min). I know this is not technically “roasted”, but the veggies got soft enough to use as a nice panini filling.
  • Spread some pesto onto one side of both bread slices (I am pretty liberal in my pesto usage for these)
  • Top each pesto side with a bit of vegan cheese and then a thin layer of veggies.
  • Carefully put both sides together and place on a nice and hot (pre-heated) skillet that’s been sprayed with a little oil.
  • To make these more “panini”-like, I placed a clean, cast-iron skillet on top of the sandwich and pressed down firmly. I let the cast iron sit on the panini while it cooked on one side for about 4-5 minutes over medium to high heat. Then I flipped the sandwich and did the same with the other side, or until it was golden brown on both sides (or slightly browner than golden-brown, as you can see from the picture…)

Basil-Miso-Walnut Pesto:

Ingredients:

1 bunch basil

2 tablespoons chickpea miso

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 cup nutritional yeast

1/2 cup raw walnuts

about 1 tablespoon water (plus more as needed)

Directions:

1. Add all ingredients to a high-powered blender (such as Vitamix) and blend on low-medium intensity until pesto is smooth but still has some green specks.

2. Add more water if necessary until desired consistency is reached (I like mine to be thicker). You can keep this in the refrigerator for a couple days if it’s well covered (I like to use cling wrap and press into the pesto so that it keeps its nice green color).

 

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Healthy Apple Tarts

healthy apple pie tarts

Healthy eating should be intuitive. Mind you, I said should. Nowadays, we’re bombarded with competing health information. Carbs are good. Then carbs are bad. Fat is good. Then fat is bad. Miracle weight loss diets come and go. So, while healthy eating should be intuitive, that’s much easier to say than it is in practice.

I, too, fall victim to the confusion that is “health” these days. But unfortunately, when you pay attention to what you put in your body, you inevitably end up hearing some pretty weird and oftentimes conflicting information. For example, while I’ve regularly praised the wisdom of nutritionist Kimberly Snyder — whose books have influenced me for the better in many ways — I somehow can’t fully get behind the idea of “food combining”, which she heavily endorses. Under this principle, even beans — beans! — are an “imperfect” food in that they contain both protein and carbs. Yet beans and legumes have long been consumed by some of our longest-living and healthiest populations, so intuitively, it’s difficult for me to wrap my mind around beans being an unhealthy food — and to the larger point, around the notion of food combining in general. Other diets point to fruit as the “enemy”.  I don’t know much about these theories except that they are somehow based on the natural sugar content in fruit. But again, when I think about how many vitamins, antioxidants and enzymes are packed into whole fruits, it’s hard for me to imagine that fruits are in some way bad for us — unless, of course, someone is suffering from a particular allergy or condition that is helped by reduced overall sugar intake.

healthy apple tarts

So what is the answer, then, when we’re bombarded with so much conflicting, confusing and overwhelming information? Well, I don’t claim to know, and I don’t necessarily think there is one answer. But I do think Michael Pollan was onto something when he wrote “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”. Simple, right? Well, the complexity, I think, comes from the fact that what we now think of as food is so far removed from what food should be. Food is not something that was chemically manufactured in a lab, made to taste so good that we become chemically addicted. This is how most of our processed foods are made these days. And sadly, the typical American diet consists of many processed foods (and is also heavy on unhealthy animal products such as meat and dairy).

uncooked tart shells

This recipe was designed to be as stripped down and unprocessed as possible. The crust is sweetened naturally from dates, and is just made from a few simple ingredients: dates, nuts, cinnamon, oats and just a little bit of coconut oil. The filling was created with a similar mindset. I tried to keep everything as simple as possible, so the filling is just fruit, a little lemon juice, a touch (just a touch!) of sweetener and some spices. I also tried to keep this recipe from becoming too fussy — which is why the apples are sort of just piled into the crusts without too much thought toward arrangement. It’s “rustic”, if you will — evoking the feeling that you’re eating real food and not something that looks too manufactured or perfect.

I gave these tarts to a few taste testers and even though they’re healthy, unprocessed, vegan and gluten free, I was told that they’re still delicious…as whole, plant foods so often are! If only more people knew that little secret, we’d all be a bit better off overall…

Healthy Apple Tarts:

Yield: 4 mini tarts

Crust Ingredients:

1 cup whole oats

1/2 cup raw walnuts

6 medjool dates, pitted

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 tablespoon raw coconut oil

Filling Ingredients:

3 apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons natural sweetener (such as coconut crystals, coconut nectar or agave)*

a dash or two of nutmeg

a dash or two of cinnamon

* Note: overall sweetness may vary depending on sweetener used. Liquid sweeteners will cause the apples to break down quicker than the coconut crystals. If using stevia or a more concentrated sweetener, be sure to adjust proportions to account for this. 

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350.

2. Add walnuts and oats to a food processor fitted with a sharp steel blade. Process until medium to fine crumbles form, with some oat pieces still visible. Add remaining ingredients and process until larger clumps begin to form.

3. Divide crust mixture into quarters and evenly distribute to 4 mini tart tins, as shown in photo. Non-stick tins are preferable here. Press down using fingers into crust shell, making sure crust is evenly distributed.

4. Bake in preheated oven for 15 minutes and remove immediately.

5. Meanwhile, toss filling ingredients in a bowl. After crusts have been removed, transfer filling in equal parts to the 4 tart shells. You do not have to arrange apples in any particular way.

6. Reduce oven heat to 325 and return tarts to oven. Heat for 15 minutes. Remove again and cover tart tray tightly with foil (I like to line my foil with parchment paper to create a buffer so as not to inadvertently contaminate my food with aluminum). Return to oven and bake for a final 15 minutes, or until apples are softened but retain their shape. Let cool on a wire rack for about 10 minutes before removing tarts and serving.

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Quinoa Vegetable Biryani Bake

quinoa biryani bakeSince I’m vegan and both of my parents are also vegan, many times people assume that I was raised that way. If anyone watches South Park, I imagine they think of us as that vegan family whose kids went to school every day in life preservers.

Actually, though, our foray into veganism and plant-based eating was actually much more recent, and as a kid, I remember very many non-vegan meals being part of our weeknight repertoire — roasted chicken, grilled flank steak, and baked macaroni and cheese come to mind.

But while my childhood diet memories are a far cry from what we’re eating today, I think it’s fair to say that what we were eating was nevertheless not the typical Standard American Diet of meat, processed foods and starches. My parents did a good job of introducing my palate to various cuisines at a young age and making sure vegetables were part of every meal. They still tell people the story of when I was asked in kindergarten what my favorite food was, and while other students named pizza or hot dogs, I proudly declared that my favorite food was “squid with black bean sauce”.  I also distinctly recall my mom making tofu stir-fry many nights before tofu was even “a thing” (and before Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods even existed in our state). And I can’t remember a time when my mom’s well-loved vegetarian Moosewood Cookbook was not tattered, worn and splattered with food; a favorite was the “enchanted broccoli forest”, which always drew stares of awe any time my brother or I had friends over. Recently, I went to a wedding of a childhood friend, who informed me that the first time he had ever seen asparagus was when he came over for dinner and my mom was making it.

baked quinoa biryani

Perhaps one of the most impressive and non-traditional dinners I recall as a child was my mom’s chicken biryani, which rivaled any restaurant version I’ve had. Hers was spicy and flavorful, speckled with cardamom pods and golden raisins. And, as is usually the case, I don’t think I will ever be able to make something that competes with her version. So I didn’t try.

This quinoa biryani bake is not quite “traditional”, but it evokes the flavors of a biryani while providing a well-rounded, easy two-pot meal. I love the idea of baking quinoa with other ingredients — it comes out so pretty and all you have to do is fluff it up and serve.

This is the kind of meal my family eats now. Whole grains. Lots of veggies. No animal proteins. No oil. Now all I need is a good vegan, savory yogurt — “raita” —  recipe to serve with this. How good would that be?

Quinoa Vegetable Biryani Bake:

Serves: 4

Ingredients:

1 cup white quinoa, uncooked, well rinsed and drained

2 cups chopped cauliflower florets

1/2 cup onion, diced

1 cup carrot, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger

1/3 cup plus 2 cups low-sodium vegetable broth, divided

1 cup fresh tomato, diced

1 teaspoon sea salt (if using regular vegetable broth, reduce salt to taste)

2 teaspoons curry powder

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

dash of cayenne pepper (optional, to taste)

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1 cup frozen peas

1/2 cup raisins (regular or golden)

1 cup toasted cashews (toast on a dry skillet for about 7 minutes over medium-high heat until fragrant and browned)

Chopped cilantro for serving (optional)

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Add cauliflower, onion, carrot, garlic, ginger and 1/3 cup vegetable broth to a large saute pan or Dutch Oven and saute over medium-high heat for about 4 minutes, or until onion becomes translucent. Add quinoa, remaining vegetable broth, tomato, curry powder, cumin, cinnamon and salt. Stir together. Heat everything over medium-high heat for another minute.

3. Turn off heat and carefully pour quinoa mixture into a large, preferably 9×13″ baking dish. Cover. Bake at 350 degrees, covered, for about 35-40 minutes, or until liquid is absorbed.

4. Remove from heat and add remaining ingredients except cilantro. Cover and let sit for another 5 minutes before serving. Serve topped with chopped cilantro, if desired.

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Gingerbread Peach Muffins

peachy gingerbread muffins (gluten free, vegan)

I’ve never really been able to say with any amount of conviction that I have a favorite fruit. My preferences seem to go something like this: In the fall, I really love crisp apples and fresh plums. During the spring, I get excited for the beginning of fresh strawberry season. When fresh citrus is being grown down in Florida during the winter, I love juicy oranges and grapefruit. Throughout the summer, I can’t get enough blueberries, raspberries and cherries. And later in the summer, my kitchen counter is overloaded with fresh peaches and nectarines.

Fruit can be an amazing and perplexing thing. I’ve marveled at how much better an apple can taste when in season — crisp and sweet, versus mealy and flavorless in the off-season. Blueberries can be plump and flavorful during their peak, while most of the year they are small and sour. And then there are peaches. You rarely notice them year-round, as they tend to be an overpriced luxury that is not quite worth the expense. They never have that distinct, sweet and juicy peach flavor….until late summer, when they certainly do.

I’ve been obsessing a bit over peaches and nectarines lately. With prices low and abundance high, I can’t help but stock up on amounts that are probably excessive given that there are only two people (and one dog who does not like peaches — one of the few fruits he eschews!) living in our house. Nevertheless, I somehow seem to manage our haul by enjoying peaches and nectarines in every capacity — on oatmeal, in smoothies, as a snack, and in baked goods.

gingerbread peach muffins (gluten free, vegan)

I’m not sure what gave me the idea to combine the sweetness of peaches with the spiciness of gingerbread. Perhaps because I know that ginger and peaches tend to work well together, I thought, why not add some more spices into the equation? I also find that, while delicious, peaches also tend to have a more mild flavor that can balance nicely with something spicier on the palate.

With these muffins, I find that the peach keeps these muffins moist and flavorful, while balancing the spiciness of the gingerbread base. They make a great breakfast muffin or even dessert option and can be kept at room temperature, covered, for a few days. I imagine they would also freeze fairly well, and then can be re-heated to eat. I tested this recipe on Gennaro and my parents and these muffins were met with all-positive reviews. My mom actually claimed that these were “one of the best muffins I’ve ever had!” though I would take this endorsement for what it’s worth — my mom says the same thing about pretty much everything she really likes. At any rate, I hope you enjoy these as much as my family and I did!

Final note: while I did use oil in this recipe — even though I have drastically cut back on oil in my cooking and baking — the entire recipe calls for only two tablespoons. This adds up to about 1/2 teaspoon oil per muffin, or about 20 added fat calories per muffin from oil — making these a relatively low-fat option.

Gingerbread-Peach Muffins:

Yield: 12 Muffins

Ingredients:

Dry Ingredients:
2 cups oat flour, loosely packed*
2 tablespoons arrowroot powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground clove
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup raw coconut crystals (or coconut palm sugar)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Wet Ingredients:
1 cup unsweetened dairy-free milk*
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for greasing muffin tins

Plus: 1 heaping cup diced fresh peaches (about 1 large peach)

*Note: I used Arrowhead Mills Oat Flour. However, this brand is not certified gluten-free. If you’re highly sensitive, have Celiac disease, or are worried about cross-contamination with gluten, please look for certified gluten-free oat flour, such as this one from Bob’s Red Mill

**I tagged these as soy-free and nut-free, but obviously the use of soy or nut milk will negate either of these tags. That said, I used unsweetened soy milk, though almost any dairy-free milk could work, including coconut, almond or hemp milk. Play around and see which you like best. 

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Either gently grease 12 muffin tins with olive oil, using your hands or a paper towel,  or line each muffin tin with baking cups.

2. Whisk together dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl.

3. Add wet ingredients to a separate bowl and whisk. Slowly add to dry ingredients and whisk together until combined.

4. Fold in peaches until well-distributed.

5. Pour about 1/3 cup of batter into each pre-greased/lined muffin tin. Place on the middle rack of your pre-heated oven. Bake for approximately 25 minutes, or until muffins are browned on top and bounce back when pressed.

6. Let cool for about 10-15 mintues before gently removing each muffin. I like to use a butter knife to go around the edges and make sure nothing is sticking to the sides, then I’ll gently loosen the bottom and  lift the muffin from the top. Let cool on a wire rack until ready to eat.

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Fajita Bowls with Pineapple Pico de Gallo

vegan fajita bowls with pineapple pico de gallo

Like many vegans, I presume, I often get asked what foods I miss the most since going vegan. And the truth is, I really don’t “miss” much of anything. My mind and taste buds shifted so much during my vegan transition that I no longer view my old favorites such as cheese and roasted chicken as enticing whatsoever.

What I do miss, though, is having dining options in almost any scenario. While I am lucky enough to live in an area in Michigan that boasts a decent amount of vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants, I do have to do a lot more menu planning and calling ahead when I’m eating out with a group and don’t really have a say in where we’re eating. Sometimes, it works out well for me — and usually I am able to get creative even when ordering off less vegan-friendly menus (sometimes choosing an array of side dishes, for example, that draw the envy of those I’m dining with).

What’s more difficult are those times when I’m truly in a bind — when my blood sugar begins dropping to levels that make me less-than-pleasant to be around, I’ve forgotten to pack an emergency snack, and when nearby options are few. In those situations, I always, ALWAYS, look for a Qdoba or Chipotle, as the best “fast food” option for me is usually some type of burrito bowl. I can remember more than one situation where a Qdoba veggie bowl brought me back from the edge of hunger oblivion.

But as much as I rely on burrito or veggie bowls as an emergency option when eating out, I’ve rarely made them at home. Sure, a bowl of brown rice and black beans has served as a homemade meal on more than one occasion. But I’m talking about burrito bowls with all the fixins — rice, beans, fajita veggies, salsa. Why is this not more of a staple in my everyday meal planning?

fajita bowls with pineapple pico de gallo

Over the weekend, I decided to make my take on a burrito bowl, though I did make an effort to keep these extremely healthy and light as well. No oil, no added fats and lots of fresh veggies keep this bowl guilt-free. I did not even salt the veggies or pico de gallo very much, trying to keep the sodium content to a minimum as well. My parents noticed that the sweetness of the pineapple really brought complexity and flavor to the dish, making a lot of salt unnecessary. The result is no bloating, and feeling just full enough. You can really play around with these bowls by adding guacamole, using jarred salsa instead of pico de gallo, or topping with some vegan cheese. We served ours with a delicious side salad that my mom brought over, but you could easily make this into a true one-dish meal and put your shredded lettuce or salad greens right on top.

Fajita Bowls with Pineapple Pico de Gallo: 

Serves: 4

Ingredients: 

3 cups cooked brown rice

1 can black beans, drained and rinsed

Pico de Gallo:

2 cups ripe tomatoes, finely chopped

1 cup pineapple, finely chopped

1/2 cup red onion, minced

2 jalapenos, seeds removed, minced (add back seeds, to taste, for more heat)

salt to taste

Fajita Vegetables: 

1 large zucchini, chopped

2/3 cup red onion, chopped

1 red bell pepper, chopped

1/3 cup vegetable broth

1 1/2 tablespoons lime juice

1 teaspoon chili powder

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1 pinch sea salt (plus more to taste)

Directions:

1. To prepare pico de gallo: mix all ingredients together in a medium-sized glass bowl. Add salt to taste and then set aside. This recipe can also be made ahead and chilled in the refrigerator for a day or two.

2. To prepare fajita vegetables: stir together all ingredients in a medium-sized glass bowl and let sit for 5 minutes. Add to a non-stick skillet and cook over medium-high for about 10 minutes, until vegetables are soft and most of the liquid has evaporated. Taste for salt and add more to taste.

3. To put together bowls: divide rice and beans evenly in 4 individual serving bowls. Top with 4 equal servings of black beans. Divide up fajita vegetables and add them to each bowl on top of black beans. Finally, top each bowl with a large spoonful of pineapple pico de gallo and serve.

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Sweet Potato-Chocolate Pudding

sweet potato chocolate puddingThis pudding reminds me of a mix between a chocolate pudding and the filling of a sweet potato pie. If that sounds strange to you, let me assure you that it’s surprisingly delicious in some inexplicable way. I first got the idea to do a sweet potato pudding at a seminar I went to at the NAVS Vegetarian Summerfest. I can’t remember how that version was prepared, or whether or not chocolate was added. But over the weekend, I had two large sweet potatoes/yams sitting on my counter and was antsy to get creative. This delicious sweet potato-chocolate fusion pudding was the result.

Since it’s made with really healthy ingredients — whole, plant-based foods with no added oils — this pudding makes not only a guilt-free dessert, but can also be eaten as a healthy snack or even as part of your breakfast. Since I still have to take a number of pills and supplements as part of my ongoing Lyme-related treatment, I do need to eat something in addition to my morning green smoothie that is a bit more substantial to coat my stomach. On the other hand, I try to keep my breakfasts very clean and plant-based, and try to avoid processed or heavy breakfasts that are going to make me feel sluggish in the morning. A sweet potato-based pudding like this one makes a perfect compromise between getting enough substance while still eating very clean.

Not to mention you’re filling your body with amazing vitamins, antioxidants and nutrients while getting your chocolate fix! This pudding will keep you full and fueled while keeping you from craving more processed and unhealthy sweets.

A few notes on this recipe:

  • This is one of those recipes that would be best in a high powered blender such as Vitamix. However, if using a standard blender or even food processor, I think this could work if the chia seeds were replaced with ground chia powder. I have not used this product but have been seeing it recently in stores and imagine it would have the same “thickening” properties as whole chia seeds. So, if anyone wants to experiment with that option, please leave a comment and let me know how it works out!
  • I used stevia in this recipe to keep the sugar content down, but since there is no baking science involved here, I imagine one could play around with different sweeteners. Though more liquid-y sweeteners might make this less “pudding” textured.
  • This recipe refrigerates very well — in fact, the flavors get better after about a day.
  • To cook my sweet potatoes, I used two large yams/sweet potatoes (I can never remember the difference) and placed them on a foil-line baking sheet. I baked for about 45-50 minutes in a 400 degree oven, turning once and piercing with a fork after about 30 minutes. Once they cooled a bit, I removed the skins and mashed in a large glass bowl. This yielded almost exactly 3 cups of cooked sweet potato once mashed (plus a tiny bit extra for Woodley). I would definitely recommend fresh sweet potato over canned for this recipe.
  • Shaved chocolate pieces on top (as seen in the photo) are entirely optional but very delicious.
  • I designate the brand of stevia used in this recipe because, with stevia in particular, I find that different brands yield drastically different levels of sweetness. Plus, I find NuNaturals to be not as bitter as other liquid stevias. Again, I am sure a variety of sweeteners would work well here, but I would use caution in terms of how much you add just to be safe.

Sweet Potato-Chocolate Pudding:

Serves: about 4

Ingredients:

3 cups cooked mashed sweet potato (skins removed)

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2 cup unsweetened almond milk

2 tablespoons chia seeds

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon NuNaturals clear liquid stevia (plus 5-10 more drops to taste)

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon ground clove

Directions:

1. Add all ingredients to a high-powered blender such as Vitamix and blend well, until very smooth. Taste for sweetness and add more stevia  to liking.

2. Scrape out ingredients into a glass bowl and refrigerate until chilled, about 2-3 hours, before serving.

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No Recipe Summer Pasta Toss

summer pasta tossI don’t know about everyone else, but I haven’t felt like cooking a whole lot lately. Not that it’s been very hot this summer. But summer’s still summer, and it has that effect of making you not want to cook. Then again, I’m still, well…me. So, when I don’t feel like cooking, I still somehow end up cooking something. But this non-recipe recipe was less about cooking and more about tossing some fresh ingredients together: heirlooom tomatoes, zucchini, corn, onion, pine nuts.

I remember when I was little, my mom found a “fresh tomato sauce” recipe in the Detroit Free Press that called for diced tomatoes and raw corn. At the time, I thought it was so fun and different when she made it. Little did I know that, years later, I’d be a raw food loving vegan and a recipe like raw pasta sauce would become far from unusual in my diet. Nevertheless, that recipe was one of my first memories of my mom making a high-raw vegan meal. This non-recipe recipe was inspired by that one, with the addition of some other things I had on-hand, including red onion, zucchini and toasted pine nuts. As simple as it was, it turned out so tasty! No wonder they say you can make amazing food with just a few fresh ingredients.

I decided to share this as a loose recipe because this is one of those ideas that is amenable to so many different variations, and can be easily adjusted based on taste and based on what you have on hand. I could easily see basil or fresh greens being tossed into the mix.

To make this pasta toss, I did the following:

  • Chopped up two large, very ripe heirloom tomatoes. One was red and the other was yellow. 
  • Diced one fresh zucchini
  • Minced up about 1/4 cup of red onion
  • Added some thawed, frozen organic corn (though fresh could easily be used)
  • Toasted up a small handful of pine nuts in a dry skillet until golden brown
  • Tossed it all together with some warm gluten-free spaghetti
  • Tossed in a good pinch of sea salt to taste

What variations would you make to this one? What are some of your favorite no-recipe summer recipes?

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Chocolate Coconut Clusters

chocolate coconut clusters (vegan, gluten-free, oil free)

This recipe was derived out of a total craving-meets-empty fridge situation. What do you do when you want an after dinner sweet, but when the sweetest thing in your cupboard is a bag of freeze dried raspberries? Well, you raid the freezer, cupboards and pantry, throw something together that resembles something “normal” people would call dessert, and hope it works.

And, thankfully, it did!

Since making these last Saturday, I’ve been snacking on them throughout the week. They’re like a somewhat healthy marriage between a coconut macaroon and a chocolate truffle. They’re just sweet enough — not too sweet. Just crunchy enough from the coconut. Just soft enough with the addition of some chopped dates. And in keeping with my recent trend on this blog, they’re oil-free.

I frequently receive questions about substitutions and omissions — especially in dessert recipes. While I can’t usually speak to most of them unless I’ve tried it myself, I will say that I STRONGLY feel that the dates, in this recipe, are non-negotiable. No, these won’t fall apart or cook weird without them. So as far as baking goes, they’re not essential. But taste and texture-wise, for me, they make this recipe really special. The dates make these both chewy and sweet — I don’t think these would have been nearly as good without them. On the other hand, I ran out of vanilla extract so I didn’t use any here. But I’m sure a teaspoon or two would work well mixed in with the wet ingredients.

Finally, I found these to be great slightly cooled out of the oven, but they also kept at room temperature for about 24 hours and I refrigerated the remaining ones for 3-4 days and they kept fine, if a bit different texturally from the room temperature ones.

Hope you enjoy as much as I did — and don’t forget the dates!!

Chocolate Coconut Clusters:

Yield: 17-18 Clusters

Ingredients:

1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/3 cup brown rice flour

1 cup shredded unsweetened coconut

2 tablespoons chia seeds

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

1/3 cup unsweetened applesauce

1/3 cup coconut nectar

1 tablespoon sesame tahini

3/4 cup chopped walnuts

1/2 cup chopped dates (I used Deglet Noor)

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Add dry ingredients (cocoa powder through salt) to a large mixing bowl and whisk together. Meanwhile, in a separate bowl, whisk together wet ingredients (applesauce through tahini) and add to dry ingredients. Mix until combined. Fold in chopped dates and nuts until well distributed throughout.

3. Roll pieces of “dough” (will be slightly more wet than a typical cookie dough) into golf-ball sized pieces (about 2 tablespoons each) and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake at 350 for about 10 minutes, or until bottoms are just browned. Remove and let cool slightly before eating.

 

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