Monday, March 2, 2015

Celebrating My Three-Year Vegan-niversary!

Happy Veganniversary to me!

3rd Anniversary 3rd Birthday

It's now been THREE years since I decided to switch to a vegan diet. I just read my post about my one year "veganniversary" and what I said then holds true today. I hadn't set an end date for myself on when I might switch back from being vegan, but I've had no health issues (only health improvements) and although the lifestyle creates challenges (just ask my boyfriend), I've become an expert on how to read a menu at a non-vegan restaurant and an ingredients label on packaged food. I'm still enjoying new foods and vegan-friendly restaurants across the country and the world, most recently Thailand and Vietnam. In fact, my move to New York City refueled my love of dining out and I've discovered some incredible vegan meals in my new home (my favorite place is still Candle 79, but check out all of these NYC spots I've tried too!). This blog has really helped me to stay adventurous and I believe because of it, I'm not getting stuck in a vegan rut. It's also been incredible to see the shift in nutrition and health to support a plant-based diet over the past three years. I've lost track of the articles I've read from national magazines and news sources that share the value of vegetables! There are so many new vegan products on the market.

For those who are just starting out, I will say for me it's been worth the extra effort because of the way I feel. Others may not understand why you can't just have one cookie with milk and butter in it or why you won't try that cheesy meat-filled appetizer because it's "soooo good," but do what feels right for you. There are ways to be vegan and be more flexible, but it's also okay choosing a stricter diet. I'm excited to see what the next year brings.

Thank you for your support in reading my blog! I'd love to hear about your experiences with trying out vegan meals or transitioning to the diet. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Dining In - Pecan Bars

Vegan Pecan Bar Cookies Chloe Coscarelli - Veega Blog Desserts
Pecan Bars - Chloe's Vegan Desserts

Ohmigod were these good! Sticky, messy, and dense sure, but what a treat. There is something about the buttery taste of toasted pecans that brings upon happy feelings! It's easy to get addicted to these and when I shared a batch with my boyfriend's family it was only a matter of time before they were all gone. You start with a nibble, then another, then cut yourself a square, then half the pan is gone! Watch out for that. I traveled on a plane with these and word to the wise - don't put them in your checked luggage. By the time I unpacked them, all of the pecan topping had melted and slid off the shortbread so they needed to be reconstructed. Luckily this did not impact the taste! You can find this recipe and others in Chloe Coscarelli's dessert cookbook, Chloe's Vegan Desserts (buy your copy here). 

Packed up and ready to go!

Makes 16 Bars (or more if cutting into smaller squares)

Earth Balance Vegan Margarine - Veega
Shortbread Crust
1/2 cup vegan margarine (Earth Balance) 
1 1/2 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt

Pecan Topping
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup sugar
4 tablespoons vegan margarine
1/4 cup agave
2 tablespoons almond milk
2 cups pecans, toasted and chopped
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Toasted Pecans

To Prepare Shortbread Crust:
Pecan Bars - Shortbread Crust - Veega Blog
Begin by preheating the oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8x8 inch square pan with parchment paper. You could also attempt to coat with oil, but warning I have not tried this.

Add all ingredients to a food processor and pulse until combined and crumbly. Pour into pan and press down firmly to flatten evenly. I noticed this layer was a little too thick and because it cools and hardens it was a challenge to bite into. I may use a 9x9 inch pan or reduce the crust batter next time. Bake for 25 minutes and let cool. 

To Prepare Pecan Topping:

In a medium saucepan on medium-high heat, stir together and boil brown sugar, sugar, margarine, agave and almond milk. Watch carefully to avoid burning. Reduce heat and let simmer for about 5 minutes. 
Vegan Pecan Bar Cookies

Remove pan from heat and stir in pecans and vanilla extract. Spread the topping over the shortbread with a spatula and press down. Let cool completely. It's also recommended to allow them to chill in the refrigerator overnight so the topping hardens. Remove from pan if you can by pulling up sides of parchment paper, or cut while in the pan into 2-inch squares.

Chloe's Vegan Desserts - Pecan Bars

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Dining Out in Charlotte - Fern, Flavors from the Garden

Fern Restaurant Logo
Laughing Buddha Bowl - Fern, Flavors from the Garden Vegetarian
Laughing Buddha Bowl - Fern, Flavors from the Garden

Inside Fern
I visited Charlotte, NC for the first time recently for a business trip. Per usual, I didn't have much free time to explore the local vegan dining scene, but I did quick research to see what was close to my hotel for a vegan lunch. Under 2 miles away was Fern (or Fern, Flavors from the Garden, its longer name), a vegetarian restaurant with many vegan options. I cabbed it over with two of my colleagues for what turned out to be a truly delicious, comforting meal. The interior of the restaurant was so pretty - a sophisticated, rustic look with mason jars, reclaimed wood, and live plants throughout. It was the middle of a weekday so we had the benefit of being only one of two parties dining in. 

Before starting our meal we were offered cucumber water and it was so refreshing! We then began our meal with two appetizers, the vegan Spicy Glazed Cauliflower (image below on left) and the non-vegan Fern Bruschetta (image below on right). My dining buddies were amazed at how great these first dishes were. Given my vegan history I had tried dishes very similar to the Spicy Glazed Cauliflower. It closely resembled the Gobi Manchurian at Red Lentil in Watertown, MA and the Frito Misto at Sublime in Fort Lauderdale, FL with its General Tso's look and taste. The dish is fried cauliflower florets coated in a sesame balsamic glaze and it's just fantastic. The Fern Bruschetta contained parmesan cheese (so I couldn't try it), and seasonal vegetable ragu on charred garlic bread,  the verdict on this was "sooo good!."

For entrees, I was really craving a salad, but to make sure I got a taste of the most popular dishes I went for the Om Burger, topped with smoked tomato, pickled cucumbers, pepper aioli served on a sesame bun and I added avocado to it. I also ordered Kale Chips for my side. Besides an extra bready bun that I trimmed down, the burger was full of flavor, not too mushy and filling. The Kale Chips were mildly seasoned, but could have been a bit more crispy. Both of my colleagues got the Laughing Buddha Bowl, described as a unique daily balance of the essentials: legumes, rice, greens and vegetables. This one wasn't labeled vegan on the menu, but I'm sure you could request it. 

Om Burger with Kale Chips - Fern, Flavors from the Garden

Vegetable Bowls Vegetarian Fern Restaurant
Matching Laughing Buddha Bowls!

At the end of the meal all of us said we would return! The restaurant was the OpenTable Diner's Choice winner in 2014 and I can see why.

Fern, Flavors from the Garden
1323 Central Avenue
Charlotte, NC 28205

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Dining Out in Boca Raton - Darbster

Vegan Meatloaf, Mashed Potatoes, Blog Veega
Meatloaf - Darbster

The last time I visited Boca Raton on vacation, this vegan restaurant didn't exist, and that was only 2 years ago! Needless to say, I was excited when my boyfriend's mother told me she made reservations for us to try it out for dinner on our recent trip. We went on a rainy night, but sat outside on the covered patio area. We were accompanied by a handful of other families, so it looks like a popular place, despite the not so desirable location in a small shopping plaza.

As the "vegan queen" I requested that my boyfriend's family try as much of the menu as possible so I could get a good sense of the food and taste test it all ;). With drinks in hand, we started with appetizers. We ordered one special which was the Nacho Flatbread Pizza and the popular Palm Cakes. I preferred the Flatbread over the Palm Cakes, but both were delicious. The Palm Cakes were similar to a crab cake, but made with hearts of palm, caper remoulade, tahini served over baby greens. The special Nacho Flatbread Pizza had all the fixings of (vegan) nachos served on a flatbread split into four servings, vegan queso, black beans, guacamole, pico de gallo, sour cream. I would definitely get this again; it was creamy, crunchy, and filling.

Hearts of Palm Appetizer, Vegan Palm Cakes, FL Boca Raton Restaurant
Palm Cakes - Darbster

Vegan Nacho Flatbread - Darbster FL Veega Blog Pizza
Nacho Flatbread (Special) - Darbster

Cordon Bleu - Darbster
For entrees, my boyfriend ordered the dish highly rated by Yelpers (and non-vegans) the Cordon Bleu. From his cleared plate and the one and only bite I was allowed, I think it was a winner, with lots of yummy things going on: soy ham with crispy Gardein roulade, spinach, Daiya mozzarella, roasted tomato b├ęchamel, mashed Yukon potatoes, and tarragon broccoli. His father, also a meat lover, ordered the Meatloaf. He also cleared his plate and from my bite of this, it's something I would order next time. It was a bacon and cheese meatloaf as the core, served with smashed potatoes, garlic haricot vert, crispy leeks, with a vegetable demi glaze. My boyfriend's mother ordered the Avocado Curry Stew, one I had been eyeing. It's served cold because it's raw, and was made up of avocado, almond milk, ginger, garlic, lime, raisins, crunchy sprouts, carrots, onion, cayenne, and spiced cashews. She enjoyed it. I also went with a gluten-free, raw dish because I was on a health kick that week (up until dessert... when I spiraled out of control), although the name of my dish doesn't really suggest it's healthy, Bacon Cheeze Burger. This was an herb burger, topped with lettuce, tomato, red onion, cashew cheese, dill cashew mayo, eggplant bacon, on sprouted buckwheat bread, with a mixed green salad on the side. It was flavorful, hearty, and easier to eat than some other veggie burgers I've tried that are mushy and fall apart. I loved the creamy dressings on it and was immediately full.

Vegan Avocado Curry Stew - Darbster Blog Veega
Avocado Curry Stew - Darbster

Vegan Dessert Strawberry Layer Cake
Strawberry Layer Cake - Darbster
Now onto dessert, the Strawberry Layer Cake is to die for! The serving was enormous, like shockingly enormous, and even more so when I shockingly almost finished it, leaving only a crumb on the plate! I admit I had a little help from my boyfriend and his dad, but let's face it I was hoarding it. What I loved was the dense, moist cake that wasn't overly sweet with layers of subtle strawberry-flavored frosting. My boyfriend's mother ordered the special, it was Mexican Horchata Chia 
Pudding, a chia seed pudding, with burnt cinnamon, raisins, black figs, coconut flakes topped with coconut whipped cream. I took a few bites of this beautiful looking, gluten-free dish and loved it. She did as well, and noted the next morning that the chia seeds really do give you energy, unfortunately it kept her up all night!

Horchata Chia Pudding - Darbster Boca Raton
Horchata Chia Pudding - Darbster
We almost went back just a couple days later, but instead dined in. With so much variety and a satisfying experience that left my taste buds happy, I will be back for sure!

6299 N Federal Highway
Boca Raton, FL 33487

Darbster in Boca Raton Florida - Veega - Vegan Restaurant

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Dining In - Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups

Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups - The Kind Life, The Kind Diet

Thank you, Alicia Silverstone for giving me Reese's Peanut Butter Cups back! These were easy and fun to make, especially because I was so eager to try the end result. Alicia's recipe and photos show a full-size muffin pan for a larger serving, but I opted to use a mini cupcake pan (despite what's in the photo to the left!) for a bite size cup, knowing I could very easily overindulge. When I say these were like Reese's they were, but definitely more natural tasting and the peanut butter layer had more texture to it from both crunchy peanut butter and crushed graham crackers. Mine came out a little softer, than I would have liked. I think the peanut butter had too much oil, making it a little more liquid than your typical Jif brand. The chocolate layer still hardened nicely. Check out the original recipe on The Kind Life website, at this link.

Makes about 28 mini-peanut butter cups
Earth Balance Soy-Free Margarine (Vegan) VeegaNatural Crunchy Peanut Butter - Veega Blog

1/2 cup Earth Balance margarine
3/4 cup peanut butter, crunchy, natural, unsalted
3/4 cup graham cracker crumbs
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup chocolate chips, non-dairy
1/4 cup almond milk
1/4 cup peanuts, chopped

Crushed Graham Cracker Crumbs Veega Vegan BlogPeanuts Chopped on Cutting Board, Knife 

Line two mini-cupcake pans with mini cupcake liners.

Over medium heat, melt the margarine in a small saucepan. Add peanut butter, sugar, and graham cracker crumbs and stir well. Remove from heat.

Peanut Butter Filling - Vegan Homemade Peanut Butter Cup Veega BlogDivide evenly among cupcake liners, about 1 tablespoon per cup (or just about halfway). Put in refrigerator or freezer to cool and harden.

Over medium heat, melt chocolate chips with almond milk. Stir and watch carefully until chocolate has melted. Remove from heat. Spoon enough chocolate to cover peanut butter filling in each cupcake cup. While still melted top with chopped peanuts. 

Chill in refrigerator for at least 2 hours before serving. 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Dining Out in Brooklyn - Champs Diner

Champs Diner in Brooklyn NY

Red Velvet Pancakes - Champs Diner All Vegan, Brooklyn NY
Red Velvet Pancakes - Champs Diner

Champs Diner This place is like a glutton's heaven; it's like waking up in a vegan food dream. So be warned, it's not for the "light" eater and you better bring your appetite... and your patience, because you will need both. Champs (or Champs Family Bakery or Champs Diner, whichever you prefer) recently moved to a new location and spruced up their decor, but kept with their retro 50's diner vibe. Even on a rainy, cold Saturday morning there was a crowd outside waiting for a table and unfortunately due to the small size, the hostess wouldn't allow people to wait inside. I came here for a birthday brunch with my best friend and was willing to wait. Instead of standing in the rain, we actually made the smart choice (thinking only with our stomachs here) to swing by Dunwell Doughnuts a couple blocks away for a pre-meal vegan doughnut (yup, talk about healthy). 
Vegan Sandwich Menu
I had studied the menu a few times before coming and even ordered takeout from Champs months ago. I was second guessing the fact that everything here is vegan, because it sure doesn't sound or look like it, which makes it that much more exciting! I first tried the Buffalo Chik'n Sandwich but wasn't impressed. It was a hero sandwich made with spicy buffalo chik'n, greens, tomatoes, sauteed onions, and ranch dressing. I couldn't enjoy it because it was too spicy for my taste. I was very eager to go back for a real brunch though because they are known for their breakfast foods. Some stand-outs include the Red Velvet Pancakes (photographed above), Drunken Cowgirl Tofu Scramble, French Fries with Cheese & Bacon (yes, you read that right). My friend was in the mood for more of an "egg" savory dish and went for the Get Scrambled tofu scramble with onions, peppers and ham. I made my decision based on reading the description of Country-Fried Seitan Sandwich...or maybe it was just seeing "fried" in the name. My sandwich was incredible, not something I could eat everyday or even every week, but a scrumptious unhealthy treat nonetheless. The crispy seitan cutlet was crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside, smothered in creamy ranch dressing, topped with bacon and melted cheese and a few fresh veggies - lettuce and tomato - all served on Texas toast, because why not?! Man, my mouth is watering just thinking about it. I had to save room for our breakfast dessert so I brought half home and ate it only a couple hours later. For dessert, with hardly any room left in our stomachs (those doughnuts before our meal might have been a bad idea), we sunk our forks into a stack of Red Velvet Pancakes. I've never had the pleasure of enjoying red velvet in this way before! They were chewy, fluffy and moist, a well-made pancake indeed and served with a generous heap of heavy whipped cream with melting chocolate chips decorating the plate. 

Vegan Country-Fried Seitan Sandwich - Champs Diner in Brooklyn
Country-Fried Seitan Sandwich - Champs Diner

This whole meal left me saying "nom nom nom" and wanting to find a cozy warm corner to go lie down in for a while. There are just so many more things I need to try here. I will be back and I will wait in that line, because dammit it's worth it.

Get Scrambled Tofu Scramble - Champs Diner Vegan Brooklyn Veega Blog
Get Scrambled - Champs Diner

Vegan Red Velvet Pancakes with Whipped Cream, Chocolate Chips - Champs
Another shot of those beautiful red velvet pancakes

Champs Diner
197 Meserole Street
Brooklyn, NY 11206
Champs Diner Website

Bar Stools at Champs Diner

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Dining In - Pesto Mac 'N' Cheese

Pesto Mac 'N' Cheese - Chloe's Vegan Italian Kitchen - Veega Blog Vegan
Pesto Mac 'N' Cheese - Chloe's Vegan Italian Kitchen

Eating this dish felt like being a kid again. It's mac 'n' cheese for one thing, but it's also colorful with a bright orange pasta sauce and bright green pesto topping. It'd be a great dish to make in the summer, but we loved it just as much in the winter. :) I made this to enjoy as dinner with my non-vegan boyfriend. I was worried it, served with the Creamed Spinach wouldn't be enough of a meal, but I'm happy to report it was a winner for both of us and we were very full! The sauce was creamy and cheesy from the blended roux made with nutritional yeast. The basil pine nut pesto was spot on, adding more salt to the dish. This makes a huge batch, which for us often results in overeating, but you could save lots for leftovers or serve to a bigger group (like for a summer BBQ... that unfortunately is months away).

Tinkyada Pasta Joy Ready Brown Rice Pasta Elbow - VeegaMac 'N' Cheese
1 pound elbow pasta (I used gluten-free brand Tinkyada) 
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/3 cup flour (or gluten-free flour to make it a fully GF dish)
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 cups almond milk
1/2 cup nutritional yeast
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice

Pesto Sauce
2 cups basil leaves, packed
1/4 cup pine nuts (I used raw)
2 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3/4 teaspoon sea salt (I found the pesto to be too salty, so next time I'll reduce this)
1/4 cup olive oil

To Prepare Mac 'N' Cheese:

Tinkyada Gluten-Free Elbow Pasta
Gluten-Free Elbow Pasta
Begin by preparing the pasta according to the package, and adding a pinch of salt to the water. Drain and rinse the pasta. I do this more often when using gluten-free pasta to wash away the milky-looking cooking water. Set aside.

Make the cheese sauce by blending flour and olive oil in a medium saucepan. This looks like a pale green paste and I was worried about cooking it too long for fear of burning it, but Chloe suggests cooking for 3-5 minutes. Add minced garlic and cook for just a minute. Next add almond milk, nutritional yeast, tomato paste, and salt. Stir and bring to a boil. Simmer on low heat to allow to thicken. Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice.

Olive Oil, Flour, Garlic Roux - Veega Blog Vegan
Roux in the Making - Flour, Oil, Garlic

Veega Blog - Vegan Cheese Sauce for Mac 'N' Cheese
Vegan Cheese Sauce

Toss cooked pasta with the sauce in a large bowl. When I first did this I thought there was way too much sauce, but I let it sit for a while to thicken and even put it in the oven to keep warm. This helped quite a bit and the sauce to pasta ratio was just fine.

To Prepare Pesto Sauce:

Making Pesto in Food Processor - Vegan Blog Veega
Vegan Pesto in Under 5 Minutes!
Use a food processor to chop up basil leaves, garlic cloves, pine nuts and blend with lemon juice and salt. Once blended add in olive oil and pulse until incorporated and it resembles traditional pesto sauce.
Top each serving of mac 'n' cheese with pesto sauce and savor every bite!

Fresh Organic Basil Leaves

Vegan Basil Pesto on Spatula - Veega Blog

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