Sunday, April 13, 2014

$25 vegan dollar store challenge :: part 2

A relatively healthy, abundant grocery haul that cost less than $25
I learned a lot by participating in the first $25 Vegan Dollar Store Challenge. The concept in a nutshell:  how healthily and frugally can you eat using a $25, shopping only at the dollar store?

Family Dollar Haul
Family Dollar Haul: Raisins, oats, almonds, lentils, navy beanbrown rice

Coincidentally, Melody and I purchased our items from Dollar Tree dollar stores. Realizing that not everyone actually has access to Dollar Tree stores – and wanting to prove a point about being able to eat healthier within a budget regardless of where you live – I decided to shop at another discount chain called Family Dollar. [Frugalistas take note, they occasionally offer coupons] Unlike Dollar Tree, prices vary in this store but they are generally cheaper than average – and I was surprised to find that many items were actually cheaper than at Dollar Tree. Canned veggies, for example, cost under $1, while other items, like oat and tortilla chips [my weakness, with salsa] cost a bit more than $1.

Tomato sauce [Spoiler alert: SO good!], salsa, diced tomatoes, japapeños, Italian seasoning
My shopping rules were simple: $25 or below, no preservatives, additives or artificial colorings; whole foods only. 
Yes you CAN eat better on a budget: Black beans x 2, corn, carrots, and 'shrooms (x2)
My main frugalista takeaways:
  • Whether you shop at Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, Whole Foods or online, you need to know your prices. Take note of the per pound or per unit price of items you usually buy. Empower yourself with knowledge.
  • You may need to shop at several different stores to get the best price. This does not mean you need to run all over town to buy groceries. But try working various stores into your usual errand routes so save money and time.
  • Buy in bulk, within reason. When you see a great deal, snag it. And store it, keeping in mind your own storage situation. We don't want to turn into hoarders, so buy only what you will use up in a few months.
  • Some items purchased at discount stores taste as good as, or better than, those purchased at overpriced health food stores [Watch for specifics on upcoming posts. But – SPOILER ALERT, I am loving Family Dollar Tomato Sauce] 
  • Reading labels is more important than ever. As optimistic as this challenge may appear, finding healthy dollar store foods is like looking for a needle in a haystack [hence the name "challenge"]. More than 90% of the food in discount stores is just plain nasty. Frankenfoods. Read labels and don't put crap in your body, regardless of your budget. Everyone deserves whole foods.
The details....not bad for $23.70

Here's what I bought. Keep in mind, it's not Whole Foods, so try not to be too critical, understanding that not everyone has access to fancy-pants markets. I'll share how I use these items in some upcoming posts, in combination with fresh vegetables and pantry staples.
  • 1 container Quick Oats
  • 1 small box raisins
  • 1 bag brown rice
  • 1 bag slices almonds
  • 1 bag dried lentils
  • 1 bag dried navy beans
  • 1 can Family Dollar tomato sauce 
  • 1 jar salsa
  • 1 can diced tomatoes
  • 1 small container Italian seasoning
  • 1 small can hot chiles [jalapeños]
  • 2 cans black beans
  • 1 can corn
  • 1 can sliced carrots
  • 2 small cans mushrooms
  • 1 can sauerkraut
  • 1 bag nachos
  • 1 can spinach
  • 1 bag gingersnaps

I'm happier if I enjoy occasional treats like these in moderation.
Healthy? Not exactly. But they are vegan and made from whole foods. 

What's your favorite, money-saving trick for healthy meals?

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Saturday, April 05, 2014

bobby flay stoneware lasagna pan review

Press sample for review

I received a gorgeous, stoneware Bobby Flay Lasagna Pan to review. It's a real eye-pleaser with its dark base and a deep sangria color. I also love the fact that the pan has handles on either end, although they look like they could break after some wear/tear and clumsiness. It's an oversized lasagna pan – 9.5 x 14.25 inches, as compared to the traditional 9 x 13 inch pan, which makes for generous servings.

"Love handles" on the Bobby Flay Lasagna Pan, I love them.
The label says the pan is safe up to 375°, which coincidentally happens to be the temperature at which you bake most lasagna recipes. It also says the pan is microwave and dishwasher safe. I don't know about you, but this would never fit in my tiny, city kitchen microwave [it barely holds my coffee cup!]. And because of the handles and this size of the pan, I would not feel comfortable placing it in the dishwasher.

I thought the burnt-on tomato sauce would make for a difficult clean up. I was wrong.
I tested out the pan by making my creamy-dream vegan Butternut Squash Lasgana. My lasagna baked evenly, and I enjoyed the depth of the dish. It made for quite a dramatic presentation – even though I was eating solo! After baking, quite a bit of my tomato sauce had baked onto the pan, as you can see in the photo, and I was certain cleaning it would be a pain. I filled the pan with dish soap and warm water and went for a run. When I came back, the crispy sauce stains came right off – a real plus in my eyes!

The pans retail at Kohl's for $44.99. Several cheery colors are available.

Pros: Aesthetically pleasing, classic design. Handles make for easy transport from oven to table. Dishwasher and microwave safe [caveat: I did not test using these appliances]. Affordable elegance. List price is $44.99 but it looks like a more costly Le Creuset pan. I just checked on the Kohl's web site and it looks like they are now on sale for $34.99, which sounds like an excellent price for such a swanky piece.

Cons: Excessive packaging. The Bobby Flay label enveloped the entire pan, which I really don't have a problem with; it's his line, after all. What irked me is that all of this packaging was glued to the bottom of the pan. Of course you expect to wash any new pan or or utensil. But removing that glue took quite a bit of elbow grease – not what I was expecting. Heaviness: it's a blessing in the looks department but a curse on the practicality side – quite heavy and cumbersome to remove from the oven.
The glue from the packaging was a pain to remove.
Would I buy this? Being cheap, if I had to purchase an actual lasagna pan, I would probably go for the more frugal, plain glass Pyrex 9 X 13. But I must say, after testing this pan out, I would definitely purchase other Bobby Flay bakeware items, especially when they're on sale. [And I am very happy to own this lasagna pan.]

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Saturday, March 29, 2014

creamy-dreamy vegan butternut lasagna

Press samples [Bobby Flay bakeware, Daiya, Beyond Meat]

vegan butternut lasagna – creamy, dreamy comfort food
I love-love-love lasagna. But since putting it together can be a time-sucker, I haven't made it in literally years. When I recently received a snazzy stoneware Bobby Flay lasagna pan to review [in red, my favorite color], plus care packages from Daiya and Beyond Meat, I felt doubly .... no, triply inspired to make – and eat lasagna. [That and I felt compelled to load to use up the last CSA share butternut squash that had been collecting dust on my counter since November.]

My Lasagna Philosophy

The Bobby Flay pan made for a pretty presentation
First, the philosophy behind my vegan lasagna recipe. [I'll post the pan review in another day or so.] If you are the kind of person who likes to make every blessed thing you consume from nuts, whole grains and fresh vegetables, you may want to skip this post. Following my 80-20 rule, 80% of what I consume is made from 100% whole foods. But I have a life including a stressful job. I get up at the crack of dawn to train for my running races. And I have a boyfriend, friends and kitties whom I want to spend time with. [And I do like to watch "Rehab Addict" in between all that.]

For this reason, my new lasagna recipe falls into the 20% category. It's still totally healthy – and cholesterol-free. But it's made using some store-bought, albeit relatively healthy time savers. If you are disappointed that my lasagna recipe does not include home-made, gluten-free pasta, artisan, scratch-made vegan cheese and garden-to-pot tomato sauce, I'm sorry. I'd rather spend those 16 hours with my loved ones.

This lasagna was gone in 3 days.
Being lazy pressed for time, I prefer using no-boil noodles but you're welcome to boil yours if you prefer. I also used Daiya Mozzarella Shreds, my favorite brand, and a packet of Beyond Meat Beefy Crumbles. I love their pea-protein based No Chicken Strips so I was beyond excited [yuk-yuk] when they sent me the ground beef crumbles to try. The texture turned out to be perfect for lasagna.

Lasagna just before going into the oven
I'm so pleased with the way this lasagna turned out; I made it during another ubiquitous cold snap and it was just what the doctor ordered. The sweet butternut squash compliments the crumbles and tomato sauce, and the tofu ricotta and Daiya cheese topping add that necessary creamy comfort. It's one of those "fool the omnivore" recipes. Even though I used store-bought shortcuts, this recipe still takes time. But trust me, it's worth the effort. Lasagna is now officially back on my weekend cooking rotation. I suggest roasting the squash and making the ricotta cheese a day or two before hand to make this easier to manage. Or making a double batch and freezing the extra

Lasagna after baking – creamy, decadent and warming

Vegan Butternut Lasagna

Tofu-Butternut Ricotta
  • 1 medium butternut squash, sliced in half and deseeded
  • 3/4 cup nutritional yeast
  • 14 - 16 oz extra-firm, organic, non-GMO tofu [Squeeze out extra water gently with your hands]
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • 1 garlic clove, minced 
  • 1 1/2 T dried basil
  • 1/2 tsp salt [Consider using less if your tomato sauce, below, contains a lot of sodium]
  • Black pepper to taste

Quickie Tomato Sauce
  • 1 T olive oil
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 5-7 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
  • Up to 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes [optional]
  • 28 oz can tomato puree or sauce
  • 5 baby carrots or 1 whole carrot, cut into a few pieces
  • 2 T dried Italian seasonings of your choice [eg, basil, oregano, parsley, thyme]
  • 3/4 to 1 cup vegetable broth, divided [I recommend Better Than Bouillon No Chicken Base
Other Ingredients
  • 1 box lasagna noodles, preferably no-boil 
  • 1 to 2 cups Daiya Mozzarella Shreds, or your favorite vegan mozzarella
  • 12-ounce bag of Beyond Meat Beefy Crumbles, or your favorite alternative
Serves 8 hungry people or 10 bird-like eaters

Yes, it's plant-based

Make tofu-butternut ricotta: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a cookie sheet with foil and spray with cooking oil, Lay 2 halves of squash on sheet orange side down and bake for 45 minutes to an hour, until soft, Let cool, then use a spoon to scoop out the squash into a large glass bowl. Add remaining ingredients, then using a heavy fork, crumble everything together. Set aside. 

Lower oven to 375 degrees.

Make quickie tomato sauce: Heat oil in a large sauce pan. Add onion, garlic and pepper flakes, if using, and cook until soft, about 5 minutes, Add remaining ingredients and about 1/2 of the broth. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer, cover and cook for about 30 minutes. Add remaining broth as needed. Test thickness and flavor; adjust seasonings. Cook up to another 30 minutes, covered until sauce is relatively smooth. [Eat the carrots: they're the cook's reward.]

Assemble lasagna: Spray a 9 x 13 lasagna pan with oil. Ladle some sauce on the bottom of the pan. Place a layer of noodles on top, followed by a sprinkling of crumbles. Spread some of the tofu-butternut ricotta atop this, then seal it with another layer of noodles: sauce/noodles/crumbles/tofu ricotta. Repeat this process until all ingredients are used up, ending with a layer of noodles, and leaving enough sauce to cover the top. Sprinkle with vegan mozzarella, cover with foil and bake for about 40 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 10 minutes.

Let cool for at least 15 minutes before serving. Buon appetito!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

tutorial :: peeling garlic in a cocktail shaker

peeling garlic in a cocktail shaker
Shake your money maker.
I love garlic, and I eat quantities that would strike fear into the hearts of vampires. When you routinely use 6 or 7 cloves in a recipe, that adds up to a lot of garlic peeling. Although I adore cooking, for some reason, peeling garlic is one of those culinary chores I dread. For me, it's akin to folding fitted sheets. I am not sure why; I mean, it's not that difficult or time-consuming: you just smash and peel. But listen. Suffice it to say that I just hate it.

So much that, recently, those pre-peeled plastic containers of voluptuous peeled garlic cloves have been calling to me like sexy sirens each time I walk by the produce refrigerator in Whole Foods. And yes, maybe I did cave and buy them once or twice.

"Sure, they cost more," I rationalized. "But who has time to peel all that garlic?"

Actually, I have the time. And so do you. It's all over the Internets now, but I can't remember where I first saw the idea of peeling garlic in a stainless steel bowl on social media. Maybe it was Facebook? Or Twitter. I tried the bowl method and only had a 50% success rate. I realized that the bowl needed a sturdy lid to get the job done. Hmmm. I rarely use my cocktail shaker, preferring wine to hard liquor. Eureka! It was finally time to put it to good use.

Yes, Virginia. You can peel garlic without a knife using a stainless steel cocktail shaker. It really works. Now, peeling garlic has become one of my favorite kitchen tasks. [By contrast, the cats hate the noise it makes.] In fact, it's so easy you can actually put the kiddos to work. There's nothing funnil=ur2&o=1" style="border: none !important; margin: 0px !important;" width="1" />, right?

Here's how you do it.

Assemble your unpeeled garlic cloves. Toss them in a stainless steel cocktail shaker


Shake your groove thing. [No, it's not an earthquake.] This is the actual time it took me to "peel" the 7 garlic cloves. It may take you more or less time and effort. Just keep shaking.

peeling garlic in a cocktail shaker
 Here's what the garlic looks like after shaking....

The skin just falls off.

Ta-da! Time to make Pasta Aglio e Olio.

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Sunday, March 16, 2014

prepara herb keeper and oil mister review

Press sample for review
Prepara Herb Savor
If you've been following my blog/books for awhile, you know how much I hate clutter. I'm of the "A place for everything and everything in its place" ilk. The few kitchen gadgets I opt to keep in my smallish city kitchen are there for good reason. So when Prepara asked me to choose two of their products to review, I felt a bit of trepidation. But upon closer inspection, I saw that their gadgets are not frivolous, like so many kitchen accouterments. They are well designed and serve well-defined purposes. And their products come with a 5-year warranty, which tells me that they are built to last – not to recycle. After much musing, I chose to review the herb savor and the tabletop oil mister.

Prepara Herb Savor

Since I used a lot of fresh herbs, and get a fair amount in my CSA share, I knew I would use the herb savor a lot ... assuming it worked. You simply pour some water in the container and snap in the herbs. It creates a mini-greenhouse, except it's a fridge greenhouse.

Since I had a humongous bunch of dill on hand, I decided to put it to the test.

Prepara Herb Savor
Day 1 – dill is fresh and green [Yes, I am that backed up on reviews].

Prepara Herb Savor

You can't really tell from the photo because of the condensation but on Day 9, my dill was still fresh and perky, and in fact, was perky for a few days after. The bottom line? It's a keeper. Sure, you can store fresh herbs in the fridge by wrapping the ends in a damp paper towel and placing the whole bunch in a Ziplock bag. But this looks much neater and in fact, does keep the herbs fresh longer.
Prepara Herb Savor
Months later, I am still using this gadget's parsley.

Prepara Tabletop Oil Mister

Prepara Tabletop Oil Mister
Next up was the tabletop oil mister. This is one gadget I actually had been eyeing for some time. Like most people, I use cooking sprays for baking, but I wasn't down with ingesting the chemical propellants used in many mainstream brands. I'd looked at versions in Marshall's and Ross, and took a pass since they looked like they were poorly made. I'm glad I waited for the Prepara model. You simply fill the container with oil, pump seven times and voilà, propellant-free sprays of oil abound. Besides being adorable, this tabletop sprayer has the added benefit of allowing you to made your own gourmet oils. Since I used cooking spray mostly for savory foods, I infused my extra-virgin olive oil with a few garlic cloves and some rosemary. [Obviously, skip this step if you use cooking spray mainly for baking.] The bottom line? I love this mister and rely on it daily. I even use it to dress salads, along with a splash of vinegar or citrus.

I was blown away by the quality and design of Prepara products. I have my eye on the Produce Wash next! What kitchen gadgets are you lemming?

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Friday, February 28, 2014

a picture is worth a thousand words

Vegan meatballs
Spaghetti, defrosted homemade marinara sauce and Trader Joe's Vegan Meatballs
Been super busy with work, feeding feral kitties and running. Toss in some traveling and that hasn't left much time for much cooking or blogging. Mostly, I've been defrosting my freezer stash and have been indulging in some of my favorite vegan Philly haunts. Here are a few shots so you can see what I've been doing and eating lately.

Ziggy Burger Hip City Veg
 The Ziggy Burger from HipCityVeg – a tasty veggie burger topped with special, slightly spicy creamy sauce and crispy tempeh. Perfect when you're too zapped to cook.

  Cupcakes, HipCityVeg

Violet and I supped last week at Rangoon. We shared many dishes including Fried Burmese Tofu with dipping sauce. It's tofu made from lentils – very delicate.

Burmese Tofu
Coconut Tofu from Rangoon – so luscious.

A humble, improvised dinner I made one night with steamed veggies [edamame, carrots, onions and celery] and tossed with a spicy almond-butter based curry sauce, served over brown rice. I spend so much time writing down recipes; cooking without a notebook felt playful and fun.

Press Sample for Review
As a runner, I need extra protein but a lot of vegan protein powder tastes like wallpaper paste. The folks at TwinLabs gave me this Twinlab Clean Series Veggie Protein to sample, and I am happy to report that it's vanilla perfection: a creamy, filling treat after a long run. Here, I blended it into a smoothie with a banana, some berries, spinach and flax seeds.

 This brutally cold and snowy winter has been tough on Philly's strays and ferals. My friend Vanessa and I built two shelters for the kitties at Laurel Hill Mansion just before the deep freeze. What they lack in aesthetics, they make up for in warmth – two layers of insulation. We think the kitties have been snuggling up in them

 Here's one of the poor babies, just before coming over for some food.

Onto luckier kitties, both of whom were formal alley cats. Pablo and BossaNova in a rare moment snuggling.

BossaNova loves her new scratch post. Here, she prepares to make a speech.

Lastly, meet Lolita, my dentist's doggie. Lolita is a rescue and serves as junior receptionist. She's super calm and friendly. She let me hold her after my last cleaning. Here, she shows off her purple puppy-cure.
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Monday, February 17, 2014

running broad street run 10-miler for charity

Me, aka Sweaty Betty, at the end of last year's Rock and Roll Half-Marathon. Finished in 1:41:24, okay for an old lady.
The Broad Street Run is a 10-mile race here in Philadelphia that has grown wildly popular. I ran it the past three years. [Finished last year in 1:16:06.] In 2012 upwards of 40,000 runners registered, making the race crowded to an almost dangerous degree, so in 2013, the officials instilled a lottery system. I got in last year, but this year, I didn't "win" the lottery :( Lottery, schmottery. In the spirit of making lemonade from lemons, I signed up for a charity bib. Might as well do some good while doing what you love, right?

My goal is to raise $500 for the Fairmount Park Conservancy. I train year-round in gorgeous Fairmount Park, the US's largest urban park system – it's a veritable oasis in the concrete jungle, with miles of trails, several museums and home to much wildlife. 

Can you please make a tax-deductible donation? No amount is too small. Thank you! 
To donate, please visit my fundraising page here.

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