Meal Planning

I’m not by nature the most organized person in the world, I admit. But I have come to realize in my adult life that a certain amount of planning and routine gives me freedom and greater room for creativity. This is something I continue to struggle with in my artistic practice, but I think I’ve mastered it when it comes to food.

The first step for me is to have a well-stocked pantry and freezer. I always make sure to have certain staples around: whole wheat flour and pasta, oatmeal, brown rice, lentils, split peas, and usually a couple other kinds of beans and grains too, plus canned tomatoes and pumpkin puree. A few other things that are somewhat more perishable include onions and garlic, potatoes, and sweet potatoes. In my freezer, I keep plenty of frozen fruits and flax meal for my morning smoothies. I also like to have frozen greens like spinach, peas, corn, and some kind of vegetable blend. Sometimes I store tortillas or an extra loaf of bread as well.

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All of these things on hand make it easy to throw together a quick meal after work or on a weekend morning. For example, I can toss brown rice, lentils, and sweet potatoes in a pot with onions, frozen spinach and spices and have a delicious stew in less than an hour. Or split peas and potatoes, plus onion, carrot, and celery (other staples in my fridge!) I can make a breakfast hash with sweet potatoes, onions, and greens. I can improv a soup with frozen vegetables, pasta or potatoes, and some canned tomatoes. Spaghetti sauce comes together quickly with garlic and canned tomatoes. A baked potato is a great foundation for some steamed greens and leftover beans or lentils, or a spoonful of hummus. Frozen vegetables can be boiled with pasta and tossed with sauteed garlic or a little thinned out hummus. The combinations are endless. If nothing else, I can always rely on a hot bowl of oats, either sweet or savory.

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Favorite meal: Baked potato with hummus and spinach

The other important plan-aheads I do ensure I have healthy meals during the day at work. Every weekend, I prepare a big pot of something (usually a hearty soup or some variation on beans and rice) to pack for lunch every day. I try to have enough to last through Wednesday at the very least, when I ought to have time to come up with something else. Whenever possible, I also plan a snack for some point during the day – an oatmeal bar and some fruit, usually. Sometimes it’s cut up veggies and hummus.

I also prepare my morning smoothie ingredients on Sunday night. I’m kind of brain dead in the morning until after I’ve had my coffee, so I have idiot-proofed my breakfasts. I put my ingredients for each day into an old take-out container: Greens or chopped beets, flax meal, 1/2 banana, and 1/2 cup of berries or other fruit. Sometimes I include a plant-based protein powder, but I don’t think it’s totally necessary. Then in the morning, I can just dump it into my smoothie cup, add almond milk to cover, and blend it up to take with me on the bus. I’m also experimenting with blending up a big batch of smoothie and freezing it in individual cups, but the timing hasn’t been right with the thaw just yet.

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Two blueberry and kale, two mango and parsley, one strawberry and lettuce.

With a little planning and careful shopping, I can be sure to have healthy meals at my fingertips all week long. The more healthy whole foods I have around, the less processed junk or expensive take-out I am likely to eat. The busier I become, the more important this is! Especially now that I’ve gone from working 6ish hours a day to a full 9 hours. Please let me reward you with my current favorite smoothie:

Tropical Beet Smoothie

Ingredients

1/2 a medium beet, cooked, peeled, and chopped

1/2 cup crushed pineapple in juice (or a little more if you use chunks)

1 small thin-skinned cucumber (about 5″ long), in chunks

1 Tbls chia seeds

Juice of one lime

1/2 cup or so of unsweetened coconut milk (the kind in a carton, not a can)

  • Combine all ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth. Depending on your blender, you may need to add ingredients one at a time, or use a little more milk. My old Cuisinart blender probably couldn’t have handled this, but I got a Ninja for my birthday and it makes quick work of the beets and cucumber all at once!

 

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The remains

Hangover Breakfast Hash

After a late night of celebrating with my now former coworkers, I awoke craving something fried. My fridge was looking a little empty, but I had just enough ingredients to make this delicious and nutrient-rich breakfast hash, which I served alongside oven-roasted potatoes and black coffee. Can you ever really go wrong with potatoes?

Ingredients

1 medium onion, diced

2 small sweet potatoes or 1 normal sized, peeled and diced small

1 block of frozen medium firm tofu, thawed, squeezed out and drained, then shredded

2 or 3 big curly kale leaves, stemmed and roughly chopped

roughly 2 Tbs barbecue sauce

salt and pepper to taste

a little oil or cooking spray, optional if you use a good nonstick pan

  1. Heat up your pan with oil, if using, on medium-high, then add the onion. Cook for a few minutes, stirring occasionally, until it starts to brown.
  2. Add your sweet potato chunks and let them brown with the onion.
  3. When your sweet potatoes and onion are a little brown and starting to soften, add the shredded tofu and give it a good stir. The tofu will start to brown as the water evaporates. Add salt and pepper.
  4. When the sweet potatoes are soft enough and the tofu is brown, add your kale. Then put a lid on it and let the kale wilt for a couple minutes before uncovering and giving a good stir. Cover again and let the kale cook almost to your desired tenderness.
  5. When your kale is almost where you want it, throw in the barbecue sauce and mix thoroughly. Cook until the flavors have blended a little and the kale is sufficiently wilted for your taste. Adjust salt and pepper, or add more sauce if you prefer. I really think it’s at its best with just a little bit though.

There you have it. Serve with whole grain toast or more potatoes like I did! This would also be great for dinner with side of rice or another cooked grain.

Post-Gluttony Smoothie

I don’t know about you all, but I ate my weight in pie and stuffing this weekend! It was pretty great, but after this long weekend of indulgent fare, I am ready to get back into my good habits again. That means starting my Monday morning off right with a little yoga and a special seasonal green smoothie.

I have a discarded apple from my mother’s awesome centerpiece (they’re turkeys made of apples! I didn’t take a picture!), as well as a good amount of fresh cranberries in the freezer. I bought them not for the sauce potential, but because they’re a healthy treat this time of year. I’ve also got an abundance of lemons due to a special at the local store. It is with these humble ingredients that I bring you this sweet-tart, light, refreshing breakfast.

Ingredients:

1 small apple, or half of a large one (your choice of variety), chopped

1 lemon, juiced

1/3 cup of fresh cranberries, or to taste (they are quite sour)

handful of greens (I had celery and chard)

1 cup cold green tea

1-2 Tbls chia seeds or ground flax seeds

Optional, for sweetness: half a frozen banana or one or two dates

a bit of fresh ginger if you’ve got it, 1/2 tsp powdered if not

1/2 tsp turmeric

1/4 tsp cardamom

And if you are brave, a dash of cayenne!

  1. Place all ingredients in the blender and blend until smooth.

I hope all of you had as delightful a holiday as I did! My manfriend and I spent Thanksgiving day in the country with my family for dinner, then spent the rest of the weekend eating leftovers and snuggling under blankets watching Jessica Jones.

People often ask me what on earth I could possibly eat at a meal centered on a slaughtered bird, but in the 15+ years I have eschewed eating animals, I’ve never gone hungry on this holiday. Most sides can be easily made meatless (stuffing made with vegetable broth, for example), and the rest are mostly vegetables anyway. Since I figured out my sensitivity to dairy, it’s been a little trickier, but we just make the mashed potatoes with almond milk and butter the vegetables with Earth Balance. For a main dish, we used to buy a Tofurkey, but a few years ago my mom started to experiment with making her own seitan-centerpiece for my brother and me. Some of them have been frankly pretty bad, but this year she got it just right! I’ve also brought to the meal a good number of hearty vegan dishes, like last year’s Corn Chowder Quinoa Casserole (from Let Them Eat Vegan!) and this year’s foray into vegan potpie…That recipe is to come! Stay tuned!

 

Simplicity

Just thought I’d share my favorite quick meal with you all: A baked potato (microwaved) topped with steamed spinach (from frozen, also microwaved), and a big scoop of hummus (this one is curry hummus). Topped with a drizzle of sriracha, this is an easy, tasty, healthy meal that anyone can enjoy. Cheap too!

  

A Day in the Life, Part 2

I typically start my day with a light, nutritious breakfast. When I worked in the afternoon and evening, I would cook first thing in the morning and have a big hearty breakfast and start prepping ingredients for cooking lunch. Now that I work a more standard 9-5 day, I don’t have time in the morning to do that any cooking. But I make my coffee and blend up a green smoothie. It’s easy to prep while the coffee brews and I feed the bunny, and easy to sip while I do my makeup and get dressed. I’ve tried having oatmeal or a sandwich instead, but it’s too messy while I’m rushing around and too heavy in my gut for the two mile walk to work. This week’s smoothies have been more purple than green – steamed beets, banana, blueberries or cherries, flax seeds, and almond milk.

For lunch, I do my best to cook something on the weekend to pack up for at least the first part of the week. Later in the week I will pack up other dinner leftovers. Worst case scenario, I take dry oatmeal with raisins or other fruit and nuts, or sometimes a savory version with peas and greens. This week we’re going out of town on Thursday, so I only need three meals, and I also need to use up some stuff in the fridge. I made tofu scramble with peppers, mushrooms, and peas for Sunday morning breakfast, then packed up the leftovers with some millet. There wasn’t a ton of scramble left, so I stretched it  out with extra peas and a tablespoon of sunflower seeds for each serving. I also packed up a side of raw broccoli and hummus. I have celery and cucumbers to take on the other two days.

Three little bowls: pre-millet, but post-sriracha.

Three little bowls: pre-millet, but post-sriracha.

My dinners can be a little scattered. My manfriend usually gets home much later than I do, so we don’t always have dinner together. That’s just one more reason I try to cram a lot of nutritious food into the first part of the day! After walking home in the heat, I want a snack right when I walk in the door. Depending on my mood, I might have a bowl of popcorn, some chips and salsa, or even just fruit. If I’m really hungry, I eat some leftovers or a bowl of oatmeal. I’ll cook something light later on if we’re hungry, although I do make it a point to cook a proper dinner for two at least once a week.

Today I picked up some whole-wheat pasta and cans of beans at the store on my way home. It’s going to be in the 90’s this week, so I don’t want to have to cook beans from scratch! I have an easy formula for weeknight dinners: whole grain + bean + vegetables. Tonight I went with whole-wheat elbow macaroni, chickpeas, tomatoes, and broccoli. Here’s a “recipe” for tonight’s dinner (I’m using that term loosely, since actual recipes usually include measurements and stuff.)

Pasta With Raw Tomatoes and Broccoli

Ingredients:

Whole grain pasta of your choice (maybe half a pound?)

1 can chickpeas, drained

Small head broccoli, chopped

3 or more cloves garlic, minced

Tomatoes (I used small yellow plum tomatoes and a big red beefsteak), diced

  1. Combine the garlic and tomatoes in a bowl with some salt and pepper. Let them sit while you prep everything else.
  2. Cook the pasta according to package directions. During the last 2-3 minutes of cooking, add the broccoli. When it’s done cooking, ladle off some pasta water and add it to the tomato-garlic mixture (this warms the tomatoes and makes it easier to toss). Drain the pasta.

    Sometimes there is pasta in the pasta water.

    Sometimes there is pasta in the pasta water.

  3. Toss the chickpeas, pasta and broccoli, and the tomatoes in a big bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add some fresh basil or parsley if you have it! (I didn’t.) Gobble it up!
Not gonna lie: I ate a lot of this.

Not gonna lie: I ate a lot of this.

I followed dinner with a tiny bit of dark chocolate. And that’s my day, folks! I recorded a good one for you, just to be clear. There are plenty that involve eating chips on my way home from work because my job is depressing sometimes, and others that feature wine and take-out Thai food, but I always strive for one like this. Aside from my after-work tortilla chips and salsa, it was pretty low on processed foods, including cooking oil. I’m always amazed at how many calories oil adds to a dish! Every time I cut it out, I drop a few pounds. If you want to learn more about why oil is not great for you, check out Forks Over Knives. The film is eye-opening and they have some super recipes on the website. Anyway, my point as always is that with a little planning, a healthy diet isn’t that hard.

To your health!

Cucumber-Strawberry Salsa

I’ve been making this in my Tupperware Quick-Chef Pro for my parties and it’s been a big hit!  So simple and perfect for this season.  I don’t recommend making it in a food processor; it’s too hard to control and you might end up with soup (tasty, but not what we’re going for).  If you don’t have a Quick-Chef or something similar, just finely chop everything by hand.

Ingredients:

1/2 lb strawberries

1 medium cucumber, peeled and seeded (if you get the little persian ones, you can skip peeling it)

1/2 a lime’s juice

handfull of fresh cilantro

a few scallions

Freshly ground black pepper and a dash of salt.

1.  Start by whirring the scallions and cilantro in the Quick-Chef until they are roughly chopped.

2.  Add your cucumber, in 1″-2″ chunks, give it three or four good turns.

3.  Add the strawberries and turn until chopped however finely you like, then gently fold in the lime juice.  Top with fresh black pepper and salt to taste.

Serve with tortilla or pita chips.  Yum yum yum.  It’s also really great over a salad of lettuce or baby spinach with a few pepitas.

Potatoes and Microwaves and Wal-Mart

Here is an article I’d like to share with you, about judgement in the vegan and plant-based community.  I am guilty of these sins myself at times.

The author discuss all the judgements people make, all the striving for “perfection.”  The reality is, there is no perfection.  We all do the best we can.  I don’t like WalMart, personally.  But I also understand that for some people, that’s all there is.  I am fortunate that I live near stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s and a big Asian market, and fortunate that I can sometimes afford to shop there.  Not everyone is.  There should be no barriers to eating healthy, whether you’re a millionaire or you live on food stamps and minimum wage.

“In order to change the health of this country it is going to take ALL sides. It’s going to take people knowing how to shop at Walmart. It’s going to take people knowing how to make a perfectly healthy meal in a microwave. Over the next several decades we can start dealing with some of the other issues. But those issues, seem to be more of distractions at the moment, rather than things that will actually solve our health crisis.

We need to focus on the bigger picture for a little bit. We need to practice kindness in the way we interact with others. If someone shops at Walmart, doesn’t use all organic food, can’t shop at their farmers market, is unable to chop vegetables, doesn’t have an oven, they should not be made to feel like they cannot be healthy.”

I strive in this blog to present you with recipes and ideas that are do-able for most people.  Some are a little more complex, but over all I want to present you with food that you can make on a daily basis.  I know my posts are few and far between these days (a side effect of working three jobs), but I always appreciate your feedback.  If there’s an ingredient you can’t find, let me know!  I’m sure we can come up with a substitution.  Or even better:  If you come up with an easier way to make something than what I did, leave me a comment!  Everyone benefits from sharing.

Wishing you Peas and Love.

Simple Skillet Suppers

If last winter was the winter of soup, this is the winter of the skillet.  All my meals lately seem to consist of whatever vegetables I have lying around tossed in a skillet and lightly seasoned.  Some of these meals turn out better than others for sure, but what I am really liking about them is how quickly they come together.  No need to simmer for hours at a time, hovering around near the kitchen lest it scorch or boil over.  Takes about 25 minutes if you chop as you go like I do (a good chef wouldn’t recommend that, but I’m not a chef, so there!)  Here’s one that was particularly delicious.

Southwest Skillet

Ingredients:

2 medium red or other potato (not russets, they fall apart), scrubbed and diced

1 onion, diced

8 oz package mushrooms, sliced

1 large green bell pepper, diced

1 can pinto beans, rinsed and drained

1/4-1/2 cup your favorite salsa

salt and pepper to taste

1.  In a large non-stick skillet over medium-high flame, heat enough water to cover the bottom.  Add the onions and potatoes, cover and cook about 5 minutes.

2.  Add the mushrooms and cook uncovered for 5 minutes.

3.  Add the pepper, cover and cook 5 more minutes, adding a little more water if it’s starting to stick.

4.  Finally, add the beans and salsa, give it a good stir and heat through.  Depending on how big you chopped your potatoes, you may need a little more time with the lid on to get them cooked through.

What I liked most about this meal was its versatility.  It made an excellent reheat-able dinner at work, for one thing.  My boyfriend topped it with cheese and wrapped it in a tortilla, and I think he also added some kolbassy when I wasn’t home to wrinkle my nose at it.  I ate the last of it for breakfast today, topped with a fried egg.

Also, the variations are endless!  I’m seeing another version with sweet potatoes, red pepper, and black beans, finished with a squeeze of orange juice and maybe a handful of baby spinach. Yum.  Last week I made one with potatoes, leftover roasted squash, an apple, and some cabbage, finished with lemon juice.  Trust me, that one was much better than it sounds 😉

Red Lentil and Sweet Potato Stew

Earlier this week I got a happy little surprise at work:  a $40 gift card for Giant Eagle for doing a good job!  I don’t live near a Giant Eagle, but just a short bus ride away is a fancy-shmancy Market District one.  I’ll just be honest here and tell you that I spent well over $40.  There were so many things!  Bulk bins full of seeds and beans and spices!  Some of the prices were on the high side, but there were also plenty of things I wouldn’t be able to get at my local Shop N Save like red lentils, wheat berries, fennel seeds, and coriander.  It was very exciting.  The sale items were great too, like $.89/lb for kale and collards and $.99 boxes of mushrooms.   By the time I had gotten through half the store (didn’t even get to the frozen foods), I was starving and had to quickly come up with a hearty, guest-worthy dinner for two that would cook up fast since I turn into an angry beast when I get hungry. Inspiration struck in the maze that was the produce section, so I stuffed my canvas bags to the brim and hauled them home on the bus with a little help from my handsome man-friend.

Dinner was to be baked potatoes, sauteed beet greens, and this red lentil soup.  All chosen for ease and speed of cooking.  I turned on the oven and started the water boiling before I even unpacked the bags.  While the lentils simmered, I chopped the sweets and onions.  Once the sweet potatoes were in the pot, I sauteed a shallot for the greens and washed them well (beet greens are impressively dirty).  All the while, russets were baking in the oven.  Altogether, the entire meal took less than an hour to prepare and we were satisfied before I got too hangry.

This is a warm, filling stew that is perfect for crisp autumn weather.

Red Lentil and Sweet Potato Stew

Ingredients:

2 cups red lentils

2 medium onions

1 large or 2 medium sweet potatoes

1 bay leaf

1 inch piece of fresh ginger

Spices:

I think I used about half a teaspoon each of cardamom, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, red pepper flakes, and smoked paprika.  Use what you have.  Curry would also be good in this soup.

Salt and pepper to taste

1.  Start by bringing a large pot of water to a boil, with the bay leaf in it.  Once it’s boiling, add the lentils and simmer.

2.  While the lentils are cooking, peel and finely mince the ginger and add it to the pot.  Then peel and dice the onion and sweet potato and add them.  Put in all the spices, 1/4 teaspoon at a time.  Let it cook a little longer before adding an additional 1/4 tsp or more of all or just some of the spices according to your taste.

3.  Simmer the whole thing for about 40 minutes beginning to end, or for as long as it takes for the lentils and sweet potatoes to soften and the spices to blend.  This is even better leftover because the flavors continue to develop, so feel free to double it to eat all week.

Note about the spices:  If you have the time and feel like dirtying another pan, toast the spices in a skillet over medium-high heat for a minute or so before you add them to the stew.  They taste better that way.  I was too hungry to think about it at the time, but it really does add to the flavor of the soup.

This stew is pretty hearty and would be great served with pitas and a green salad rather than baked potatoes and cooked greens.

Warm Bulgur and Chickpea Salad with Broccoli

I can’t take full credit for this concoction.  The mama I work for got me hooked on this simple dish shortly after I began taking care of her two girls almost two (!) years ago.  The kids LOVE it.  The tahini sauce is my own variation, untested on the little ladies, so if you don’t have or like tahini, just leave it out and dress the salad simply with lemon juice.  It’s good either way.

Ingredients:

1 c bulgur, cooked according to package directions (cooks the same as white rice)

1-2 c cooked chickpeas or other bean of your choice

Big bunch of broccoli, cut into bite-sized florets and steamed to your liking

Handful of cherry or grape tomatoes, halved

Dressing:

1 1/2 lemons, juiced (more to taste)

1 clove garlic

1-2 Tbsp tahini

pinch of cumin, salt and pepper to taste

Minced fresh parsley for garnish

1.  In a blender or food processor, combine all dressing ingredients and blitz until smooth.

2.  Toss everything in a big bowl until well-combined.  Sprinkle with parsley and an extra squeeze of lemon if desired.

Ta-da!  Good while everything is still warm from cooking, or leftover cold the next day.  Don’t hesitate to substitute another grain or bean or vegetable if you don’t care for one of these.  The variations are endless, and because it’s so simple you really can’t screw it up.