Day 2: The Quest Continues for Vegan Food that Doesn’t Suck

The knights and explorers took up all the really good ideas, so I’m left with a less heroic, admitedly, much less cool quest to seek out and create vegan food that actually tastes good, doesn’t use “mock” foods like “cheeze”, “chikin”, or the like, and, above all else can be so satisfying that I don’t miss my beloved meat and cheese.  Day one was a great success, foodwise, and day two seems to be a winner as well.

I was confronted with a new challenge today.  What’s for lunch?  In my search for all things good in the veg world, I decided that a good route would be to create various sauces and spreads to change up the flavor in dishes vegetable dishes I enjoy.  My thinking quickly went down the trail of pesto.  Now, I have read disgruntled food snobs emphatically declare that pesto is not pesto without parmesan.  Frankly, I could care less about their opinion.  I’m not going for authenticity.  I just want some flavor, man! 

Most of my searching turned up pine nuts as the most common pesto staple, but when I got to the store, I discovered that the bulk pine nuts were $32 per pound.  Next!  Ever the matron of all things frugal, I opted for the $2 sunflower seeds.  I bought a big tub of basil for $5, which I thought was a good deal, and set off for home armed with the necessary tools to make a delicious spread.  Here’s what I came up with:

Annie’s No Parm Sunflower Seed Pesto

4 cups basil leaves

1 cup olive oil

1 cup hulled sunflower seeds

2 cloves garlic

1 tsp salt, or to taste

½ tsp pepper, or to taste

¼ cup chopped pepperoncini’s

 Pulse ingredients together until smooth, slowly adding olive oil until emulsified.  Season to taste.  Serve on toasted focaccia, or use as a spread in a pita. To retard the basil’s browning process, add a layer of olive oil on top of the mixture.

This made enough to fill two Ziploc sandwich bags.  I froze one and ate off of the other for two weeks.  This is definitely a keeper.  Any time I’m hungry, this is my go to snack.  My favorite way to eat it is to cut 1/3 of a  loaf of focaccia then slice it in half so that it opens up for a sandwich.  I spread pesto on both sides, sprinkle a little salt, then layer pepperoncinis and sliced tomato and broil for a few minutes until the olive oil melts away and seeps into the air pockets and the bread starts getting crispy on the edges.  It’s also great used the same way, though not toasted, in a whole wheat pita.  I’m sure it would be great with spinach as well, but I haven’t had any on hand to try it.  Let me know what you think!

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Day One: Every Hostess’ Nightmare

Okay, so the embarrassment level wasn’t quite on par with showing up to school naked, but it was pretty darn close.  At 5:30 my husband arrived home from work, we had an incredible dinner (recipe follows) and he wisked back out the door.  6:00-the doorbell rings.  I look out the peephole only to discover a couple standing at my door with a packet of rolls and a pumpkin pie.  The same couple that was supposed to be at my house for dinner two days from now…or so we thought.  In that instant it all made sense.  No wonder she called me this morning to ask about dinner.  I thought she was just being uber-proactive to prepare two days in advance.  Imagine my panic, fear even, as I opened that door knowing that our friends had come to our home hungry, expecting, rightly so, to be fed, and we’d already eaten.

On the outside, I was as cool and calm as I could muster, but on the inside, my mind was racing.  I didn’t want them to know that we weren’t expecting them for two days!  I certainly didn’t want them to feel like they were an inconvenience or that they were unwelcomed, because they weren’t.  I invited them in to sit down, fixed each of them a glass of tea, and quickly tossed the remaining half of eggplant (not so) parmigiana in the oven (mainly so that they wouldn’t see it), and tried desperately to reach my husband, who, as I discovered after my seventh attempt, had left his cell phone at home. 

Half an hour passed, we were having a good time chatting, but my mind was racing still.  What do I do about dinner?  Do I wait for my MIA husband, knowing that his work would likely keep him until 9:00?  I convinced our friends not to wait…by promising that I, too, would eat (again).

By 7:00, my husband and a member of his team happened to drive past the house en route to another work site.  Seeing the extra car in the drive, he borrowed a phone to find out what was going on (apparently, he got the sick feeling and said, “Looks like Annie’s taking one for the team”).  He was home within a few minutes where he, too, ate again. 

The evening wasn’t such a disaster like it initially felt like it would be.  It was a good thing for me that I made what I did.  Typically I have just enough to feed our small family, but I’m starting to rethink that.  Maybe we’re in a unique situation, living on a seminary/college campus, but it seems like a good idea to make a little extra in the event of  an unexpected guest’s arrival.  It’s not that bands of hungry people frequent our door,  but maybe I should cook in such a way so that we can invite a starving college student or new neighbor on a whim.  There’s really no risk, since I love to freeze leftovers for the days when I don’t feel like cooking.  Okay, revised challenge.  Cook delicious vegan food that makes me not miss animal products AND cook to feed others, not just my own eggplant stuffed belly.

Epilogue
I planned.  I prepared, and oh, was I looking forward to this dish- eggplant (not so) parmigiana.  It’s one that I love, vegan diet or not, so, leading up to the big launch, my mouth was salivating in anticipation.  It was very quick, very easy, and my, oh my, was it delicious!  I truly didn’t miss the cheese, which is a HUGE statement coming from me.  If your breadcrumbs don’t stay in place very well, it’s okay, neither did mine.  I found that dipping the cutlets in almond milk helped, but otherwise, I simply spooned the rogue crumbs left in my pan on the naked eggplant slices and it worked out fine.

Annie’s Eggplant (Not So) Parmigiana

2 eggplants

1 cup whole wheat panko crumbs

1 cup whole wheat flour

1 cup almond milk

1/2 cup olive oil

For the sauce:

2 tbsp olive oil

2 cans crushed tomatoes

1 can tomato paste

water

1 onion

1 clove garlic

1/3 cup chopped parsley

salt

pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  

Wash eggplant and cut off top and bottom.  Slice into 1/4 inch disks.  Sprinkle each cutlet with salt and layer them in a colander.  Let sit in sink for 20-30 minutes (this will remove any bitterness).

Meanwhile, add two tbsp. olive oil to pan and sauté garlic and onion until translucent and fragrant (careful not to burn the garlic!).  Add tomato paste and cook for 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Pour one can full of water into the pan and stir until well incorporated.  Let thicken slightly, about one minute, and add both cans of crushed tomatoes.  Stir to combine.  Add chopped parsley, and season to taste with salt and pepper.  Simmer on medium low heat until flavors are developed and sauce is thick, about 10 minutes.

In separate bowls, add the almond milk, then a mixture of the flour and bread crumbs.  One by one dip the disks into the almond milk, then the bread crumb mixture. Press down in the bread crumbs for better coverage.  Sit aside.  Repeat until all disks are coated (you may need to refill milk or crumb mixture depending on how well coated the disks are getting).  In a large pan, heat the remaining olive oil to medium high (reduce heat slightly if popping occurs).  When the oil is hot, place the first batch of disks in the pan, making sure not to crowd them.  Cook for about 3 minutes per side or until desired brown color is achieved.  Remove to a paper towel to drain and immediately sprinkle with salt. Repeat until all disks are cooked.

Place one layer of eggplant disks on the bottom of a 9×13 casserole dish.  Ladle a layer of sauce on top, making sure each disk is covered (about 1/4 of the sauce).  Repeat process until all eggplant is in the dish (I had leftover sauce, so I froze it for another day).  Bake at 350 degrees for 10-15 minutes.

The Vegan Experiment

Let me first say that I am no vegan (no disrespect if that describes you).  I am a meat aficionado.  Cheese and I have had a passionate love affair for many years.  I have no desire to eat the fake food substance you may know as tofu (I have no proof that it’s fake, mind you. It’s just one of those things that’s just too out there for me). I think that any reference to myself as a vegan would be in direct contrast to the very core of the values that most vegans hold.  What I’m doing is simply eating (mostly) like a vegan, which is very different. My journey away from all things animal started a few years back when a friend convinced us to try the Hallelujah diet for 90 days.  In a nutshell, it’s vegan to the max: no refined flour or sugar,no additives or preservatives, no caffeine, and no salt. You must drink at least 16 ounces of carrot juice  per day, and food intake is to be 85% raw and 15% cooked.  The experience was bittersweet.  On the one hand,  I have never felt better in my life than I did in those three months.  I fell asleep easily, woke up like Snow White minus the chipper birds, and my mind felt sharper and more clear.  On the flip side, I was starving for something, anything, that tasted good.  I searched in vain for recipes that would perfectly simulate the lucious taste of cheese.  I wasted countless amounts of time, money, and energy on food that I could barely tolerate.  It goes without saying that day 91 was a joyous occasion for me. 

So the question is inevitable- why on earth would I subject myself to round two of misery?  After all, I am a great lover of food, and it is a terrible disappointment to me when my tastebud’s high expectations are not met.  As of late, I’ve noticed just how tired I am in the mornings.  Granted, I am mother to a 15 month old, but that can’t be all it is.  Having experienced such high energy levels during my 90 days of veg, I know that there’s a better way, one where I can feel refreshed and rejuvenated every day and enjoy fabulous food, and I’m determined to find my way to it. 

So I’m getting back on the wagon, to a degree.  I’m taking some of the good things about the HD and tweaking it so that the plan is something that I can stick to.  Here it is:

1. No sodas, especially not diets- After watching a documentary on the subject, my husband has sworn off diets for good as the aspartame has apparently been shown to put holes in your brain. No problem for me since I don’t care for them anyway.

2. No animal products-  One of the great affects of the HD was that my perpetual cough went away.  I think it may have had to do with the mucus production that is increased with dairy, but it could have also been an allergy to some kind of meat…either way, they’re off the list!

3. Few additives and preservatives- If the list of ingredients is short and simple with only one or two strange ingredients, or if we research it and find that the additive is natural or not harmful to the body, we let it slide.

4. No sugar- We don’t buy anything that contains sugar.  The only exception is our dinner beverage.

5. Only whole wheat and whole grains-that includes opting for brown rice

6.Carrot juice- 16 ounces per day

7. Veggies my way- No cooked to uncooked ratios

8. Eating out exceptions- We don’t want to be “those” people, the ones who are so finicky or particular that you don’t want to even bother going out to dinner with them, so we made an exception clause for such a situation.  When we go out to eat with friends or have dinner at someones house, we do the best we can.  If that means we consume a little cheese or some meat, it’s okay.  We order the closest to vegan foods when possible, but otherwise we don’t beat ourselves up about it.  After all, we are not vegans.  We’re just trying to live a healthy lifestyle, and, as with every diet, occasional indulgences are okay.

So, that’s the plan.  The question now is the execution.  I’ve decided not to even bother trying to make mock recipes.  No fake ranch dressing, “cheeze”, or anything of the like.  I want real food that tastes really good, so my goal is to seek out and create, pardon my French, vegan food that doesn’t suck, because, let’s be honest, there are a lot of vegan recipes that are quite terrible. Let’s hope for the best.

Becoming Financially Literate: The Budget

You know the scenario:  the alarm goes off early, as you intended for it to, but as your weary head struggles to rise off of the pillow and one eyelid strains with all it’s might to pry open, you reason your way through the fact that you’re going to hit that snooze button and go back to sleep.  How do I know this?  Because I do it every Sunday morning.  Considering how difficult it is to will my body to do anything early in the morning, it’s amazing that my brain can function with as great of efficiency as it does in the wee hours.  When it comes to figuring out a way to get myself back to sleep, my mind is sharper and quicker in that moment than at any other time of day.  Then, and only then, does my mind calculate with speed and accuarcy that would rival even the most advanced NASA computers-1o minutes to shower, five to blow dry the hair, five to straighten, two minutes to dress, 10 minutes to feed the baby, 15 minutes to find his clothes, change his diaper, and get him dressed, five minutes to load the car, 20 minutes to drive to church, “Oh, yeah.  I can sleep for at least 15 more minutes!”- and back to sleep I go.

What about this- have you ever used less of an ingredient than the recipe called for so that you could stretch it out for one more use just so you wouldn’t have to, for example,  make that extra trip to the store for one measly onion?

Why is it that, when it comes to doing something we want to do (getting more sleep or saving ourselves an extra trip to the grocery store), all the sudden planning in advance to use only a certain amount for a given thing, or BUDGETING, sounds like a great idea, yet, when it comes to our finances, it’s treated like a four letter word?  Budget? You mean that sadistic little taskmaster that says I can’t spend money and fun is not allowed?  Oh yeah, I’ve heard of him. We convince ourselves that a budget is what’s best for us when it comes to things that give us instant gratification or convenience, but then we sabotage ourselves when we say things like “budgets don’t work for us” or “we’re doing just fine without a budget.”  Are you really?  Or are you just doing enough to get by, trusting in the credit card to get you through until the next pay check.  I can vividly remember the early days of our marriage, which I refer to as BD, Before Dave (Ramsey).  My husband was pursuing a Masters and working six part-time jobs.  I was in my senior year of college and working two part-time jobs, and yet there I was, at the WalMart check out with a cart full of groceries and a heart full of fear as I looked in horror at the total.  I knew we didn’t have that much money, but with a sigh of relief, I swiped the Visa and went on my merry way.  I told myself that we’d pay it back with the next check.  That’s what I said every time, only, with every check there was a new and unexpected expense, and the grocery bill that I hadn’t budgeted for continued to draw interest as we were perpetually only able to pay the growing minimum payment.

In the words of Richard Simmons, “Stop the insanity!”  Dave Ramsey says that a budget is nothing more than “telling your money what to do each month before the month begins-on paper, on purpose.”  Handling money without a budget is like walking a wild dog.  You don’t walk it, it walks you!  Money doesn’t have a brain.  Your bank account isn’t going to call you up one day and say, “Hey, goober, stop spending money you don’t have!” Just like the dog, you have to bring it under control because it’s not going to do it for you. 

Truthfully, making and sticking to a budget every month is one of the most difficult things I have ever done, but it is also one of the most rewarding.  After 2 1/2 years of diligence, struggle, and perserverence, my family is nearly debt free, and I am so ready for the finish line.  If you haven’t already, resolve to give your finances an overhaul.  While it seems backwards, there is great bondage in habitually spending carefree and without a plan.  Freedom comes when you have control over your money and pull yourself out from under the oppression of debt.  Only then can you, as Dave says, “live like no one else.”

*Go to daveramsey.com for budgeting tools and forms.

Giving Above Your Means

One of the greatest joys I’ve ever experienced was being able to give my car away.  This was not just any car.  This was my prized possession, the car that my dad surprised me with my senior year of high school after my beloved 1985 Honda Prelude bit the dust.  I have many fond memories of speeding down lonely country roads after dark, talking and laughing with my friends.  That’s the car that I packed down and cried in as I moved from Oklahoma to Texas when I went away to college.  It’s also the car that my brother used to refer to as the sorry “car they used to give away on Hollywood Squares,” but I digress.  A few years ago my husband and I found ourselves living in a small town in rural Florida, he, a youth minister, and I, a teacher.  We became friends with a guy who was trying to turn his life around after years of drug and alcohol abuse.  He lived 30 miles from his job and his only means of transportation was a 1960’s Dodge pick up truck that was on it’s last leg, to say the least.  My husband Shannon and I talked about it and saw no reason why we couldn’t be a one car family.  Shannon walked to work every day, which was, conveniently enough, across the street, and my school was only two blocks away, so we knew that the transition would be a fairly easy one.  

I was so proud as I washed and detailed that car for the last time, and the moment when I handed our friend the keys and said, “It’s yours” was priceless.  That was the first time I had ever been privileged to be a part of meeting someone’s personal need, and I must say that the experience was a contagion for our small family.  Even now, living below the poverty line as I stay at home with our sweet baby boy and my husband works to finish a PhD, we look for ways to bless others, not because we want any sort of recognition (we try to give as discretely as possible, if not anonymously), but because it is an indescribable blessing to be able to bless others. 

So what about you? What keeps you from surrendering of yourself to be a blessing to someone else?  Is a sense of security  in having possessions causing you to think that you have nothing to give?  We don’t need 99% of the things we own, yet we sometimes have a tendency to give more value to objects than they’re worth.  Maybe you’re afraid that if you give something substantial away, you won’t be able to replace it in the event that you find a need for it again.  Perhaps you think that you have nothing to spare because times are tough and the economy is bad and money is tight.  May I just respond to that by saying that God is faithful.  He was faithful when Shannon and I moved away and took a job that we shouldn’t have.  He was faithful when we left that job, tucked tail, and humbly came back home after only a few months of service.  He was faithful when we moved half way across the country to a place that was in no way desirable to us.  He was faithful a year later when we were blindsided with the news that Shannon was losing his job, and we had to pick up and leave a town and a church that we dearly loved.  He was faithful through our humility of moving in with my parents and, despite all our diligent effort, taking the only job either of us could find, delivering pizzas.  He was faithful when we came back to Texas so that Shannon could pursue a PhD but, again, couldn’t find a job.  He was faithful to us as we bounced from two weeks with Shannon’s parents, to a few days with my brother’s friend, to three weeks in a motel.  He was faithful when we, out of money and with no place to go, parked at Shannon’s school and laid the seats back to spend the night sleeping in our car.  God came through an hour later when we got a call from a stranger offering us a place to stay.  He came through with jobs in times where there were no prospects.  He carried us through a year in which I lost three uncles, an aunt, and my childhood dog.  He brought us through two layoffs, a pregnancy, and becoming a one income family living on a budget that I liken to a diet of water and air, but in every way, God has taken care of us.  There have been days that were so terrible, so discouraging and so seemingly hopeless that I’d almost like to just erase them from my memory.  I’m glad, though, that I can’t, because then I remember God, our Provider, our Comforter, our Father, who has never ever forsaken us.  Though our world, at times, has seemed to be crumbling beneath our feet, I can’t help but remember God, and I can’t help but trust in Him and know that, despite our circumstances, He holds His children in His hand.  When others dismiss us and our memory leaves their minds and hearts, He never forgets us.  I trust in Him because, with all we have been through, it is all that I can do. 

Look around.  We have been blessed with immeasureable blessings from the God who created us and loves us beyond comprehension.  You may not have one dime to spare, but how can you use your abundance to bless someone who may need it more?  You never know.  Your gift may be the catalyst God uses to turn someone’s heart from an attitude of doubt and accusation to one of trust in Him and His faithfulness.