Friday, December 31, 2010

Creamy Avocado Sandwich Spread

We vegans and vegetarians have to keep our eyes open wide; it's very rare that a fast food restaurant actually has decent meat-free offering. One blaring example is Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwiches. "America's Favorite Sandwich" shoppe offers a vegetarian sandwich and a gourmet veggie club. I was a huge fan of the club, which features your usual sandwich veggies smushed in between provolone cheese, alfafa sprouts (a nice touch), and a very yummy avocado spread.

Not to knock Jimmy John's--for I do appreciate a vegetarian-friendly restaurant--but I wanted to find out how to make the avocado spread at home; after all, lunchboxing a sandwich is a much cheaper option than purchasing one from a restaurant every day. I actually found a recipe for what is supposedly the exact avocado dip they use at Jimmy John's on a web forum, offered by a user who calls himself "Josh, Jimmy John's employee of the month." And as the Louisville Cardinals have just started their big game against the Kentucky Wildcats, I'm needing a good veggie club right now and am about to whip up a batter of this avocado spread!

I can't even count how many times I've made this spread, which my boyfriend sometimes uses as a chip dip. (Quite frankly, it's just too delicious on veggie sandwiches for me to waste as a dip!) For probably about a year now, there's usually a bowl of avocado spread waiting in my refrigerator. Why not? It's a very quick recipe, one that stores well, and one which has leftovers than can be savored day after day in various ways (on hors d'oeuvres, sandwiches, chips, veggies, etc.).

I've never used the chili pepper this recipe calls for, because I'd rather have a cool, refreshing sandwich than something that sets my mouth on fire. Instead, I just sprinkle some chili powder into the mix. I also often add in an extra avocado or two, along with some minced garlic. Sometimes it also helps to add in about a teaspoon of table mustard for flavor and texture. Be warned if you don't frequently cook with avocados: they are messy.

This is a very yummy and nutritious spread with many uses. People who need lunch on the go will certainly appreciate being able to prepare their own gourmet veggies clubs, as I have for so long. It's a scrumptious copycat recipe worth trying!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Newbies' Hummus

Tis the season to party, and continuing with this blog's recent theme of party foods, I'd like to include everyone's favorite dip--hummus.

Anyone who has ever made hummus will tell you the same two things: 1.) It's much easier than you would think, and 2.) There are only about 3,000,000,000 ways to make hummus! Most hummus includes tahini, a ground sesame seed mixture you can find at any grocery store in the world foods aisle, but you can make hummus without that, as demonstrated in these three variations featured on Buzzle, which are similar to the tahini-free hummus I make. Some tasty types of hummus you may want to try are roasted red pepper hummus, cucumber hummus, and jalapeno hummus--or you can just try the easy Buzzle suggestions, which are good starting points for curious first-timers.

Although nearly every hummus recipe you can find on the Internet recommends using canned chickpeas, I actually used a bag of garbanzo beans, which I crushed in the blender. And I used way, way more than the recommended amount of garlic, which was much appreciated by the meat-eating friends who consumed my first batch of hummus. (A general rule of thumb when you're making appetizers: it's nearly impossible to have "too much" garlic.) Hummus is most commonly served with pita bread, but we actually used ours to dip raw veggies in. It's also often served as a scrumptious sandwich spread.

The first time I made this, I served it a small group of friends, who devoured the entire bowl before I had a chance to enjoy my own cooking! And, my boyfriend actually said it was his favorite thing I had made for him. I loved having my friends and boyfriend impressed with my cooking, but, honestly, there was no "cooking" involved. Hummus truly is just made by combining a bunch of ingredients in a blender. But, shhh! Don't tell anybody that. Let them think you're a supreme chef of Middle Eastern food!

Moorish Fava Bean Dip

Skip the human liver, keep the nice Chianti optional, but do enjoy the fava beans!

In the spirit of recent discussions of party food, and the fact that tomorrow is New Year's Eve, a holiday begging for delicious finger foods, I'd like to share a dish from Perfect Spanish: A Collection of Over 100 Esssential Recipes. This is a wonderful little book, and the pages of my copy are well-worn and stained by greasy cook's fingerprints.

This recipe is very low-cost, considering it's just cooked beans and onion processed with a variety of seasonings that you probably already have on your spice rack at home. I actually skipped the chopped mint, and I used both a chopped garlic clove and minced garlic. The paprika and cumin are both such tasty complements to the would-be-bland beans (I just used a frozen package, by the way), so don't be afraid to use a generous amount of spice.

My meat-eating boyfriend loved this dip, and we ate it with raw carrots, cauliflower, and celery. I loved the dip warm, as the recipe intended, but he actually liked it better after it had chilled in the refrigerator. This spicy dip would also be great with small, crusty breadsticks, as the book recommends. It's such a great idea for a party, because, like most Spanish foods, it's so delicious and quite unique, and very easy and cheap to make. Your omnivore friends will love this dip, too, and its saltiness makes it a great companion for beer or wine.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Squash & Carrot Casserole

So, am I in violation of any copyright laws if I tell you this dish is really, really, really fricking "mmmm mmmm good"?

Same old story: I had some produce--squash, in this case--that needed to be thrown into a pot and cooked; I did an Internet search and found a recipe that would suffice on's "Southern Food" section. Suffice? Suffice? How about completely exceed my taste buds' expectations?

Seriously. The recipe I found was called "Summer Squash Casserole." If the title reminds you of my recent blogs' discussion of summer dishes versus winter dishes, keep in mind it's only called a "summer" casserole because the yellow squash it uses traditionally could not be stored until winter. In actuality, it's a very warm casserole that I think would best be served during a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner.

I only had two crookneck squash ready to cook, so I actually abridged all the ingredient amounts and made a "mini"-casserole, which I put in a 9" pie pan. I replaced the recipe's call for cream of chicken soup with a can of cream of celery soup, and added in 1/4 cup of sliced mushrooms. I actually upped the amount of butter and onion, and seasoned the filling with Italian seasoning, pepper, and a hint of garlic powder. The recipe also calls for just one half of a stuffing mix, but I used a whole box of Kraft's "Savory Herbs" Stovetop stuffing mix, and in my pie pan, it was a good amount. Also, I feel that any casserole is just naked without cheese, so I sprinkled sliced mozzarella on top of the last layer and then added grated Parmesan.

So after altering the recipe so drastically, did I regret it? Not at all. In fact, I can honestly say I wouldn't change a thing. I was curious as to what the uncooked stuffing mix would be like, and it was the perfect seasoned crust to a soft, gooey, warm casserole filling. I definitely almost ate half of this sweet dish in one sitting, after questioning if I'd even like it!

This is also, by the way, my favorite squash recipe to date. If I had to choose between this and the stuffed squash previously featured in this blog, I would hands-down choose squash and carrot casserole.

When making this, be generous with your seasoning, your grated carrots (seriously, they get muffled in the sauce), and add that cheese!! Mushrooms optional--I thought they tasted great, but, after looking on the Internet, I didn't find any other squash/carrot combo that featured mushrooms, so maybe those are just my own weird tastebuds...

Also, my apologies for how blurry the picture is. I took it on my phone, and didn't realize until after the casserole was 75% devoured that the camera hadn't been still enough to get a good shot! Guess it smelled too good for me to pause...

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Why the $#@! Don't You Eat Meat?!

Since I have a hefty amount of guilt for ignoring my new blog over the holidays, and since I know that some people--namely omnivores--feel this entry is long overdue, it's time to examine the inevitable topic of vegetarianism; namely, my own, and my reasoning.

Really, though, I think this entry might be more aptly titled, "Things that Annoy the &$#! Out of Vegetarians."

All vegans and vegetarians will roll their eyes in unison at this list of common reactions we hear when we are forced to admit, "I don't eat meat." Join me, herbivores, here are those aggravating inquiries; as my fellow vegetarians can believe, I've been asked all of these more times than I count, although they certainly all do sound ridiculous now, typed in a blog:

1.) What? You don't eat meat? Why?
2.) I wouldn't be able to do it. How do you live without meat?
3.) You aren't one of those crazy animal rights people, are you?
4.) Do you still eat eggs? Well, isn't that chicken abortion?
5.) Why did God put animals on the earth, if not to eat?
6.) Jesus ate fish. Are you saying there's something wrong with eating fish?
7.) Do you do it to lose weight?
8.) Is that why you're so skinny?
9.) You can't possibly be receiving proper nutrition. Do you have to take a lot of vitamins?
10.) Do you still drink milk? Doesn't milk come from an animal?
11.) Don't you miss meat?
12.) Does it bother you when people eat meat in front of you?
13.) This doesn't seem healthy. What does your doctor say?
14.) Are your parents vegetarians? Did they make you become one, too?
15.) I know some vegetarians who still eat chicken. Do you?
16.) I grew up on a farm, and we just had to eat meat. Did you grow up in the city or something?
17.) Plants are living things. Why is it okay for you to eat them?

And that's just the most common. I would at least hope there's a few meat-eaters out there thinking, "Well, some of those are just plain rude," but I would suspect many omnivores are nodding their heads in equivalent confusion, saying, "Well, what are the answers?"

So I will use this entry not to share a scrumptious veggie recipe, but to answer all of these questions for the thousandth time this month. (Yes, when you have a job where you are constantly meeting new people--such as bartending--you have to talk about this a lot. I have "the vegetarian talk" at least three times per shift.)

Here it goes.

1.) What? You don't eat meat? Why?
Yes, I don't eat meat. I can remember being a small child, maybe three, and crying because my parents were telling me to eat what I saw as a corpse on a plate. To my childish eyes, they might as well have laid the dog on the table, cut her open, and told me to dig in. I grew up in Robards, Ky., a 400-person farming community; there are videos of me as a child trying to befriend the pigs and goats in our barn and my mother screaming, horrified, running after me. I guess that because I was the youngest and lived so far away from people my age, our family pets and even the farm animals were my only companions, and I loved them the way I would love any playmates. However, my parents say that even before I was mature enough to understand I was eating an animal, I disliked the taste of meat. Simply put, the thought of eating a dead body does not appeal to me. It makes me lose my appetite, just the same as it would if you tried to feed me a human arm. I wanted to be a vegetarian all my life, and my parents finally gave in and let me take on the veggie lifestyle at age eleven.

2.) I wouldn't be able to do it. How do you live without meat?
Living without meat is easy. People do not realize how many options there are out there for vegetarians, which is one thing I'm trying to raise awareness about with this blog. Two things I always hear: "I tried being a vegetarian once, I couldn't do it," and "You must eat a lot of salads." It's hard for me to imagine not being able to stick to a vegetarian lifestyle, because all my life, I was waiting for the green light from my parents to say I didn't have to eat meat anymore. I actually stopped eating meat during elementary school lunches probably in fifth grade, but my parents still forced it on me at home during dinner, thinking it was best for me nutritionally. Perhaps it was growing up in the country, around a plethora of home grown goodies--hell, by age seven, I was growing and raising my own strawberries, grapes, watermelons, asparagus, and blackberries, not to mention helping my mother's herb garden and my father's fruit orchard--but I never saw vegetarianism as limited. Even fast food restaurants (which I shy away from anyway, preferring a non-processed, freshly-cooked, nutritional meal instead) cater to vegetarians--Taco Bell, for example, will substitute any beef item with beans, and Burger King has a veggie burger combo. Subway, Applebees, Qdoba, Quiznos--these are all places with vegetarian-specific items on the menu, and restaurants who don't have such items at the very least usually offer some side items. Vegetarianism is so much more than lettuce, and I really hope this blog proves that.

3.) You aren't one of those crazy animal rights people, are you?
I just laugh at this question. I don't think I'm crazy for not wanting to see animals slaughtered. I'm also not crazy enough to argue with someone who is already convinced I'm "crazy." Moving on.

4.) Do you still eat eggs? Well, isn't that chicken abortion?
Yes, I eat eggs. I am a vegetarian, not a vegan. (I can also be classified as a "lacto-ovo vegetarian.") Vegans refrain from egg and dairy products. Eggs are included in a large portion of meals out there; they're hard to avoid. And, honestly, eggs don't bother me. So a chicken laid them...but I'm not having to eat that chicken's corpse right now, am I? That chicken is still alive, isn't it? I am well aware that the egg industry is laden with problems, including questionable treatment of animals, and I do not wish to support that, which is why I normally buy organic eggs; the U.S. Department of Agriculture has guidelines about organic egg-laying that prevents a lot of mistreatment of the chickens. But it's very ridiculous and hypocritical when someone who eats meat and eggs tries to criticize me for advocating "chicken abortions." Just like human females, hens' bodies produce eggs no matter what, even without the presence of a rooster; the only difference is, they have to lay them when they get too big. Even if there is a rooster on the farm, the eggs are usually gathered after a few hours, too soon for a fetus to have formed.

5.) Why did God put animals on the earth, if not to eat?
I believe animals were eaten for centuries because it was necessary for the survival of the human race. Now, though, grocery stores can carry produce and grain stock year-round, and there are countless alternatives to eating animal corpses. Similarly, people used the abacus before there was a calculator, and farmers used to have to do everything by hand, before there were big tractors with which to plow. My point is, as the human experience widens, we become less barbaric, more civilized. We have refrigerators and microwaves now, and there are many more options when cooking. Meat is not a necessity now, the way it was in Biblical times!!! And I just want to ask all the suburban, day job-holding people who ask me this, when is the last time you went out, slaughtered a lamb, and prepared it to be cooked, anyway? You buy your meat at the grocery store, thirty feet away from where I'm buying my tofu.

6.) Jesus ate fish. Are you saying there's something wrong with eating fish?
After I became a vegetarian, my mother became increasingly interested in vegetarianism and became a pescetarian, or pesco-vegetarian, herself; this means that she doesn't eat any meat other than fish. Her reasoning? Jesus ate fish. (Jesus is also her reasoning why wine is okay to drink, but hard liquor is not.) To be honest, even when my parents forced me to eat me as a kid, fish was always the worst. It smells nasty, it tastes nasty, it's just nasty. Some people hate Brussels sprouts, I hate fish. Even if I ate meat, I wouldn't eat fish. It's just not my cup of tea. Nothing against Jesus--it's just a taste preference.

7.) Do you do it to lose weight?

8.) Is that why you're so skinny?
I suppose avoiding Big Macs and whatever other fried fatty foods meat-eaters consume does help me keep off the weight. But, honestly, I eat a lot of carbs and cheese, and I have a tough time keeping an exercise schedule, so I'm guessing that genetics are playing a bigger role in my lack of obesity. I've definitely seem heavy vegetarians--I mean, come on, we can crush a chocolate cake, you know.

9.) You can't possibly be receiving proper nutrition. Do you have to take a lot of vitamins?
No, I don't take vitamins, although everybody should, regardless of your diet. And I'd wager that my diet is healthier than most college students': I eat healthy vegetables and fruits all day long, and hearty grains keep me full. I get lots of protein from soy food and milk, and nuts.

10.) Do you still drink milk? Doesn't milk come from an animal?
I was never crazy about milk, but I actually love the taste of Silk's chocolate soy milk, and I drink it every day. I never use cheese supplements--always the real thing--and I use Vitamin D milk as an ingredient when I cook or occasionally with cereal, because it is cheaper than vanilla soy milk and, again, no animals were killed getting that milk. I have the utmost respect for vegans who can avoid dairy and egg products, and I respect the statement they are making. But remember, I stopped eating meat because I didn't want to eat a disgusting corpse, and milk doesn't convey that to me.

11.) Don't you miss meat?
No, but I have been a vegetarian for nearly twelve years and truly love and prefer vegetarian food. I understand that not all vegetarians, especially newer ones or ones who do not know how to cook for themselves, are that happy without meat. I think many people have a tough transitioning time, which is why some vegetarians start out by just avoiding red meat. It is also why brands like Morning Star, Boca, and Gardenburger are so successful, because they imitate the tastes of meat with soy. I actually am not a big fan of a veggie burger because it does remind me of the taste of a real hamburger, but I do like to use soy beef when I cook and, I can't lie, I love soy chicken. For me, accomplishing vegetarianism before I finished puberty probably made the transition easier. Many of my memories of meat are very unpleasant--fish sticks, meatloaf, pork chops, yuck!

12.) Does it bother you when people eat meat in front of you?
No, not really. In fact, the smell of food with meat in it often makes me hungry, because it makes me think about my own cooking! The only thing that really bothers me is some seafoods--for example, catfish, which not only has a horrendous odor but is mostly served in the shape of the actual fish. So gross. I think many meat-eaters feel that way about lobster. Oh, but I do hate buying meat for my boyfriend when I go to the grocery store, when I'm forced to touch it and examine it and sort through it...eww.

13.) This doesn't seem healthy. What does your doctor say?
I don't think my vegetarianism has ever came up in a doctor's visit, because it's usually obvious that I'm healthy and have been eating well. I remember discussing it once while giving blood, and the nurse was astonished because my iron count was very high, which is extremely rare for vegetarians.

14.) Are your parents vegetarians? Did they make you become one, too?
My father is a meat-eater, although he grows all of his own vegetables and eats quite a bit of vegetarian-friendly food. My mother became interested in vegetarianism after I stopped eating meat, and she now avoids all meat except fish. So, no, they did not make me be a vegetarian. (I always want to ask in response, "Did your parents make you eat dead animals?") I will let my children decide for themselves which path they want to choose, but of course I will advocate vegetarianism.

15.) I know some vegetarians who still eat chicken. Do you?
No, I do not eat chicken. "Vegetarians" who still eat chicken are called "pollo-vegetarians." Here's the thing about fair-weathered vegetarians, or "semi"-vegetarians, or "partial vegetarians," that bugs those of us who are actually vegetarians: you still eat meat, and we don't understand why you want to be "half"-vegetarian. Questions about pollo-vegetarians and pesco-vegetarians are increasing rapidly, and it has us vegetarians fearing the worst. For example, I asked at O'Charley's if the potato soup was vegetarian-friendly, and I was told yes by one waiter. A waitress we knew came by the table to say hi, and she mentioned that the potato soup was actually made with chicken broth. I asked the waiter why he had told me it was vegetarian-friendly, and he replied that his sister was a vegetarian and she ate chicken. I was incredulous that someone could eat meat on a regular basis and still call themselves a vegetarian. Similarly, I was having a tough time at a steakhouse one night and asked the waiter what kind of sides they offered. I asked about potatoes, and he replied I could have them baked, mashed, scalloped, etc. I ordered scalloped potatoes and a few other vegetable items; he put the order in incorrectly and gave me scallops, which is apparently a meat dish. He apologized for ordering incorrectly, but carelessly said, "Well, you said you don't eat meat, so you can eat those, though, right? I'll bring out your potatoes." I stopped him as he started to walk away, and said, "No, take the plate, I don't eat meat, and this is meat." He said, "No, it's not, it's fish." What???? So, pollo-vegetarians and pesco-vegetarians, if the actual vegetarians of the world seem like we're annoyed about you...that is why--because it is now culturally acceptable to say that chicken and fish are not meat!

16.) I grew up on a farm, and we just had to eat meat. Did you grow up in the city or something?
As I've written about earlier in this blog, I'm a farmland girl myself. I grew up in a beautiful country homestead, our house hidden by cornfields. Yes, we had farm animals, too. Trust me, it's 2010, and this is the United States, so quit kidding yourself--you can survive in the country without having to slaughter your own animals.

17.) Plants are living things. Why is it okay for you to eat them?
This is one of those questions that feels so redundant, like the milk and the "chicken abortions" question, because I constantly have to repeat that I just don't want to eat the body of a dead animal. People will try to argue about, "How do you know that plants don't have feelings," and it's very tiresome. First, many plants are not killed by you eating their fruit, and some, such as wheat, are already dead when they are harvested. But, secondly, and most importantly, can you show me a society than can exist without depending on plants for nutrition? Can you have a healthy lifestyle solely eating dead animals? No. Can you have a healthy lifestyle consuming "dead" plants and never eating dead animals? Yes.

I hope this satisfies the curiosity of anyone reading this blog, including meat-eaters, but if it doesn't, feel free to ask me anything else. I'll definitely respond.

Miniature Pear Salads

I am making up for lost time tonight; the holidays have worn me so thin that my cooking, and certainly my cooking-themed blog, have both suffered.

I mentioned, during recent blogging, that I did quite a bit of food preparation for a friend's Christmas party. One other dish I made was an AllRecipes find that satisfied my need to use three pears going to waste in my kitchen. I can't even remember the dish I'd found online that has asked for the damn pears in the first place--a lesson in the importance of bookmarking.

This dish is called "Pear Salad II," but don't let the name mislead you--it's not a big salad; it's several "mini-salads." As I mentioned, I had whole, fresh pears from the produce section, so I didn't use the canned pear halves the recipe called for. I really can't imagine that they would have been good; if you desire to use those because you think canned pears are juicier, believe me, chopped pears with mayonnaise smeared on top of them are juicy enough. I actually quite enjoyed this dish. My dad has grown pears my whole life, and I have many childhood memories of eating sliced pears in Robards with him, just minutes after we'd picked them. But it's important to note that pears have a very unique, and almost tangy, taste. And, just because someone likes pear jelly, that doesn't mean that they'd want to eat a whole pear--think, is grape jam the same as eating fresh grapes? No.

I thought this salad was very sweet and pleasing, and I bet it'd be very refreshing in the spring or early summer. My boyfriend saw it after it was already prepared and said, "Are those apples?" so I labeled it "PEAR SALAD" for the party. I overheard a few people passing by the party's buffet say, "Pears?" incredulously. Apparently, I might as well have written, "RATTLESNAKES" or "WORM DROPPINGS" on a card and attempted to serve that. Meat-eaters get finicky about the strangest things...since when is a freshly peeled and seasoned pear more gross than a slab of red meat?

Never mind the omnivores, my veggie friends...this dish would make a nice little snack or lunch for yourself sometime!

Cinnamon Turnips

Although serving a chilled vegetable dish, as described in my last blog "Spicy Tomato and Corn Salad," in the wintertime is a chef's faux pas, serving warm vegetables, especially those seasoned with a good wintry spice like nutmeg or cinnamon, is a definite do. And this recipe for Turnip Casserole will definitely help complete any winter meal you're serving to guests, family, or just yourself.

I had found a recipe in a vegetarian cookbook, given to me by my mother, for a winter vegetable cobbler that just sounded too good to be true, but the grocery stores here in Richmond, Ky., weren't exactly catering to my recipe's needs. I needed rutabaga, and Wal-Mart, Kroger, Save-a-Lot, and Meijer all did not offer rutabaga. After reading about rutabaga substitutes on the Internet, I purchased four turnips at Meijer. However, I had a trouble keeping all the ingredients I needed for my cobbler--I kept using them all for smaller recipes. Finally, worrying that my turnips were aging too much, I did an Internet search for a recipe that would use them, and came across the "turnip casserole" recipe I hyperlinked above.

Not to knock the author, but I was a little aggravated that this was called a "casserole." There's nothing "casserole"-y about it--it's just freaking seasoned turnips. So I Googled "turnip casserole," and to my surprise found the same picture, and I think the same recipe author, on another website; this time, though, she had added in bread crumbs, apples, and nutmeg, which I guess is closer to satisfying the necessities of a "casserole." Having just made apple dumplings, I was fresh out of apples, though, so I went back to the very naked recipe I'd originally found, though, thinking to myself, "Why not? I don't even think I like turnips."

Yes, I wasn't sure if I liked turnips before--but I definitely know I do now. Turnips, whether mashed or cubed for a casserole, with cinnamon is an excellent combination, like eggplant and mozzarella or tomato and cucumber. It's so delicious. I made this with a broccoli cheese casserole and stuffed celery for dinner one night, and it was the most delightful, flavorful dinner I'd had in ages. It was very warm, very soft, and very tasty--and it's now a permanent wintertime staple in my kitchen.

Spicy Tomato and Corn Salad

Corn. Corn sounds...wholesome. Nutritious. A worthwhile part of any home-cooked, country meal. Corn on the cob, creamy corn, cornbread...if you're going to a wintertime party, shouldn't you bring a corn dish?

That briefly flashed through my mind while I scrambled, two hours before the Christmas party mentioned in my last blog, to find some quick dishes to bring. I had four tomatoes sitting on the counter, begging to be used. They had been tauntingly sitting out on the cutting board for days, and I believe they were using some kind of weird veggie telepathy to scream at me: Cut me! Use me! Eat me! Before I go to waste! Desperate to silence the wilting tomatoes, I went on AllRecipes to find a quick recipe that would use all the tomatoes without me having to run out to the grocery store to find more ingredients. I stumbled on a few variations of a tomato and corn salad, and after reviewing them, finally selected this one as my recipe.

I didn't have frozen corn, but I did have canned kernels, which I knew would work just fine (and they did). Here is what confused me about the recipe, though: hot or cold? According to the website, you are supposed to mix corn that has been heated in the microwave (I didn't microwave mine, by the way--I heated them in a pot of water on the stove) with Italian salad dressing (usually refrigerated if it's already been opened, right?), tomatoes (even if they're room temperature, they're still not warm), basil, and salt. Room temperature dishes, especially ones involving corn kernels, are pretty yucky. But I wasn't comfortable heating the tomatoes and Italian dressing. So, after stirring in a hefty amount of basil, along with herbs de provence, black pepper, salt, oregano, Italian seasoning, and just a small dash of cilantro, I popped that bowl in the refrigerator and left it there until we made our very fashionably late entry to the party.

The dish was awesome. My seasoning additions, and the large amount of basil I used, made it anything but bland. And chilled, the cooked corn kernels and chopped tomatoes were very scrumptious beside each other. The problem?

This was a Christmas party.

Approach your creative salads with caution when the weather turns cold. Partygoers probably would have preferred a warm soup (or perhaps even this same dish warmed) after taking off their snow-covered coats--not a chilled salad. If you tire of the normal McDonald's-style salad, substitute lettuce with spinach and offer your guests a different dressing--but avoid the crazy "alternative salads" like this one. You see, this summer, I made so many unusual versions of salads, rarely using lettuce or ranch or any other common mainstays, that I have to come to embrace and enjoy any spicy substitute to the typical cucumber and crouton mixture. Although this was extremely delicious, I won't make it again for guests until at least the spring. And hopefully if I prepare food for any more parties, I'll keep the food as warm as those summers we miss.

And by the way, if anyone makes this warm...Let me know how it turns out!!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Tofu-Creamed Spinach

Hello, hello, Herbivores!

We attended a Christmas party last night and brought several vegetarian-friendly dishes which I would like to share.

The first has become a staple of mine for every get-together I attend or host, Tofu Creamed Spinach. This is another recipe I stumbled onto while browsing the website AllRecipes, and it has continuously been a hit with both meat-eaters and my fellow vegetarians.

And just a warning, this is probably one of the best-tasting and most crowd-pleasing dishes I have ever made. I'd stack up my spin dip against any restaurant's!!

I usually use fresh spinach from the produce section; I remove the stems and shred the leaves. It's very time-consuming to do this, but I think the fresh spinach has a superior taste to frozen spinach. Thawed frozen spinach is a worthy substitute when you are pressed for time, and it is much less aggravating than ripping apart two pounds of spinach leaves. Sometimes, I have added in sliced mozzarella cheese, which is extremely delicious and contributes to the "creaminess" of the dish. Most significantly, I have always used chopped artichokes--from bottles of marinated hearts--to the recipe. I alternate the sizes of the choppings, because sometimes a half-inch chunk is actually a very scrumptious surprise when using dip.

I season the recipe differently based on what will accompany it. Lots of salt is always a good idea when it is served with tortilla chips or crackers. Last night, though, I knew it would be used as a vegetable dip for carrots, celery, broccoli, and cauliflower, so I skipped the uber-saltiness and instead added Italian seasoning, oregano, and basil, and I upped the amount of garlic and pepper. This morning, we devoured the leftover dip with slices of garlic bread and spaghetti sauce--it was absolutely delicious.

I often make this work for my dayshift customers at the bar, because it's a great accompaniment for beer or the kinds of fried bar food they like. Meat-eaters frequently ask me for the recipe, and, even after they realize they are eating tofu, they do not mind! This is a very easy dish to make, and it's great for any occasion, from an upscale party to watching football at home with your buds. Herbivores and their meat-eating companions will all dig into this creamed spinach--it's too tasty not to!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Unique Veggie Casserole

It was a mistake. Well, lots of mistakes. But all good ones.

I had about an hour of free time this morning--only an hour. This week has been consistently tiring and fast-paced, and my cooking time has suffered because of my busy holiday schedule. So after I had to throw away a whole package of neglected baby bella mushrooms, I looked at the amount of produce in the refrigerator and said, "Sunday morning, I have to wake up early and use some of this, before it's all wasted."

I had two large eggplants and four squash begging to be cooked, so I used AllRecipes's ingredient search and found Easy Eggplant Dish, which could definitely be prepared and cooked in an hour. Glancing over it, I thought I had all the ingredients and set about dicing the eggplants and squash. To my fellow vegan cooks, a piece of advice about dicing and cubing vegetables. There are some, such as zucchini and leek, that need to be diced into bigger portions to maintain the taste; others, like eggplant squash, can be chopped into miniscule bits and still suffice for a recipe.

To clear out my refrigerator, I had decided to double the ingredients, and, to my dismay, I realized I had only half a cup of sliced mozzarella cheese, which is what the recipe initially called for, but I thought that since I was doubling the ingredients, I ought to double the cheesy topping, too. We had four other kinds of cheese--American slices, shredded Swiss, grated Parmesan, and blocks of cream cheese--so I crumbled two slices of American cheese and filled the rest of the desired one cup portion with Swiss and Parmesan. My bartending personality came out a bit--I shook the different cheeses in a cup to mix them well, the same as one would do with a cocktail shaker. The result was very pleasing! I had worried the Swiss might overwhelm the recipe, but the four-cheese mix just tasted excellent, with no particular flavor distinguishing itself from the other cheeses. I do think mozzarella alone would have been satisfying, and I would recommend using more cheese than the recipe calls for. After all, who ever heard of having too much cheese?

I also discovered that I only had one onion in the pantry, where I needed at least two in order to double the ingredients. However, I had a lone red bell pepper in the refrigerator, waiting to be used, and decided, "Why not compensate for the lack of onion by adding another uniquely tasting ingredient?" I actually think a yellow bell pepper would have complemented the recipe better, but as it was, the red made it just pop deliciously. (A side note...why is it that those pesky, meat-eating, live-in boyfriends can't ever use groceries you don't use in 99% of your recipes, i.e., onions and mozzarella cheese?! Why don't they take some of the damned crookneck squash off your hands ever?!) Another side note: I made few other adjustments to the recipe--I used bread crumbs with Italian seasoning, added in oregano and salt, and instead of buttery crackers, I crumbled up Toppers Garlic & Herb crackers.

So, how did this messy recreation of "Easy Eggplant Dish" turn out? Very un-eggplanty, which might make it more appetizing for omnivore company, who for some reason often seem to think eating eggplant is the same as swallowing rat poison. With the green chiles, the recipe was certainly spicy and did not need any pepper added. I would describe it as seasoned, spicy, and filling, and, thanks to the crumbs, textured. However, I felt that the presence of the bread crumbs and the crackers was almost overwhelming--the next time I make this dish, and I can see myself making it again, I will use smaller portions. I feel like this could easily be turned into a nice casserole, maybe by using cream of mushroom soup. The bell pepper was an excellent addition, and I actually think that adding a chopped leek and a chopped carrot would also be enjoyable. My biggest regret about the recipe is not cooking it with minced garlic; although the recipe didn't make the suggestion, I believe that's the ingredient this dish is really missing.

A suggestion: make this dish as a side for dinner some night. Soup, green beans, and carrots would all accompany this well and make for a very filling and interesting meal--with a casserole-like dish that's very, yes, unique.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Beginners' Fondue

Tonight, Ty and I did something we rarely do: dine out.

Cooking for myself has improved my palette to the point where most restaurant food tastes bland and flavorless, but we wanted to check out a brand-new restaurant in Richmond, Hangers. We'd heard it was upscale and delicious, comparable to one of our favorite spots, Malone's in Lexington. We were definitely not disappointed; I had a savory Mediterranean pasta, which was very well-seasoned and contained a variety of veggies, even artichokes, a personal favorite. And, Richmond-area vegetarians, the tomato bisque is very tasty!

What most excited me about the menu, though, were the fondue options! We love fondue and have an awesome Trudeau fondue set at home, as well as a tiny candle-burning chocolate fondue set for smaller, more casual snacks. Fondue parties are extremely fun and entertaining, and, as far as cooking for a group of guests goes, it's one of the quickest meals to prepare. However, when just two people are dining, fondue cheese can be a little time-consuming to perfect and to upkeep so it doesn't burn. We love The Melting Pot, but the closest one is about a forty-minute drive. So tonight at Hangers, as an appetizer, we were thrilled to have cheese fondue with veggies and bread, and for dessert, an absolutely amazing chocolate fondue with fruits and Rice Krispies slices. So delicious, and we didn't have to put any effort in for just the two of us to enjoy it!

Although we had a romantic, candelit dinner (see top picture) and a very pleasant night out, you don't have to travel to an expensive restaurant to enjoy great fondue--in fact, as we discussed over dinner tonight, we actually like my home-made cheese fondue better than any we've had at a restaurant before. My first cheese fondue was made with this scrumptious plan from Simply Recipes, and it's an excellent starting point. This is definitely an omnivore-friendly dish; I've made it for several meat-eaters and they were all huge fans. This recipe is not as bland as restaurant fondue cheese--it's extremely flavorful. From there you will be able to alter the recipe to your liking; we actually like to add much more than a "pinch" of nutmeg as the recipe calls for. If you're just starting out in the kitchen, making well-seasoned and guest-pleasing fondue cheese is an excellent way to familiarize yourself with the spice rack.

At home chocolate fondue is an extremely simple dish to make and such a tasty treat, especially with a good blush wine! Use either a block of baking chocolate or a bag of chocolate chips, and, depending on how you desire it to taste, add a dash of vanilla, a tablespoon of white sugar, and, if you like, amaretto or a fruit-flavored liqueur like Razzmatazz. One night, Ty and I decided to have an "art date" at home in the living room--we each had an easel and worked beside each other with a steaming pot of fondue chocolate in the middle, along with cool banana slices and strawberries. The clash of hot fondue chocolate and chilled fruit makes it taste even better.

Is it the sharing of a dish or the accidental bump of the dipping forks that makes fondue such a romantic course? If ever there was a perfect date food, I guarantee you it was made in a fondue pot!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Chocolate Chip Banana Bread & Winter Punch

Tis the season of comfort foods! Fun fact: Did you know that when asked, men typically identify comfort foods as being steak, casseroles, and soup, and females pick chocolate dishes and ice cream? I suppose I see comfort foods as warm, hearty, and filling--broccoli and cheese casserole, potato soup, and, mmmm, fudge brownies.

It's ten degrees outside today, and as delicious as ice cream is, I think my comfort snack needs to be a freshly baked chocolate dish! I again went to AllRecipes to find a good winter dessert recipe. Chocolate chip banana bread caught my eye for a few reasons. One, although I'm not a fan of banana bread, my boyfriend tends to avoid the supremely chocolate-heavy dishes I crave. And two, having never made banana bread, I felt it was just something an aspiring chef needed to do! Hey, vegans, this is a recipe that may be a little harder for you to adopt. It's got sour cream, butter, and buttermilk in it--but with all the vegan options out there, you should be able to find some supplements in your produce section.

The banana bread dish was pretty easy to make. Since it's not exactly "bread," and more of a "dessert," I just used my smallest casserole pan to make it in. A warning--make sure your bananas are room temperature. Since bananas spoil so quickly, I made the mistake of storing mine in the refrigerator, and mashing them was pretty much impossible. Fortunately, things still worked out for me. The chocolate chips really make the bread, because, honestly, I'm not bananas about bananas! It is such a warm, comforting dish, though--but incredibly filling. I had to eat it in small proportions.

The other recipe I wanted to share also comes from AllRecipes and complements chocolate chip banana bread deliciously: warm winter punch. This is the quickest and easiest recipe I've ever seen in my life, and it's quite tasty. A forewarning, though--trying to make it extra wintry, I doubled the amount of honey...and nearly dozed off drinking this! On the plus, though, that just made it a relaxing nonalcoholic mixture to have at the end of a stressful day! So don't let the "punch" title fool you--this is not a party drink by any means!

However, I can't think of two more flavorful and delicious recipes if you just want to curl up in your pajamas in front of the fireplace on a cold night. True chefs will appreciate these recipes because there's nothing bland about them--they are so tasty and unique, and will definitely warm you up on these bitter, snowy December nights.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Soy Chicken/Vegetable Dumplings Soup

On mornings like this, I can't help but to wake up wondering, "Why can't adults get snow days off of work?"

There's four inches of snow on the ground, and I've got to be at work in less than two hours for a marvelous twelve hour bartending shift. All I want is to stay inside, snuggle in my pajamas with the dogs and Ty, and over-divulge in brownies, silently hoping all those calories won't resurface before New Year's Eve likely tight dress.

A long double shift with no break looms over my head, and I know, as I always do on such mornings, that I'm not going to cook today. I'll enjoy some leftovers, frozen soy products, or, at worst, canned soup. But, ahh, soup. Soup doesn't actually sound that bad. Soup actually sounds...delicious.

There are many people, I'm discovering, who aren't "soup" people. I don't know why, or how, one would not be a "soup" person, as it seems like such a basic part of a meal to me. I, on the other hand, love soup. My mother gave me the Cook's Library Vegetarian Cookbook, which contains dozen of vegetarian and vegan soup recipes and has allowed me to master the fine art of vegetarian soup concoctions, cream cheese and herb soup being my favorite. Trust me, you'll be hearing about this book quite a bit in this blog.

But today's soup recipe actually comes from Betty Crocker's "Quick and Healthy" mini-cookbook. I think this came free with some aerobics merchandise, but it actually ended up being more valuable than the workout gear. When I saw a recipe for chicken-vegetable soup with dumplings, I couldn't resist attempting it, although I used two cups of cut-up Morning Star Meal Starters soy chicken and four cups of a homemade vegetable bullion instead of chicken broth. Betty Crocker has this soup and dumplings recipe on their website. This was the first time I'd ever made dumplings, and I couldn't believe how simple they were to make. I offered this to two meat-eaters, Ty and his best friend, Chris; Ty turned it down, being one of those mysterious non-soup-eating members of society, and Chris actually ate it, and once getting over the fact that he was eating soy chicken, said it was pretty tasty. Personally, I thought it was a little too watery; next time I'd make it with maybe two cups of bullion.

So, as I look outside at the snow this morning before work, sipping my generic brand canned potato soup, I remember that hearty, homemade soy chicken and dumplings vegetable soup and sigh wistfully. Oh, to have a snow day off work...

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Stuffed Squash

So small, and yet so filling, and so delicious. Stuffed squash is another recipe I found from AllRecipes. About a month ago, I found this recipe and thought to myself, "Do I even like squash?" Although growing up with nightly homemade meals straight from my parents' vegetable gardens, I couldn't remember ever eating squash. I'm sure that, like asparagus, it was one other food item I turned down, having never tried, only to discover in adulthood how delicious it really is.

When first trying the recipe out, I bought two typical yellow crooked neck summer squash, although if you do an Internet search for stuffed squash recipes, you'll find that acorn, pattypan, and spaghetti squash are all commonly substituted. And instead of ricotta cheese, I used mozzarella. On neither occasion have I used the "optional" jar of spaghetti sauce the recipe recommends, but I have to say, it would complement this dish awesomely, as it is a very pasta-tasting meal.

The recipe is extremely easy to make; neither time preparing it have I had any issues except I do up the seasoning quite a bit. Even after it's been cooked, I sprinkle more ground pepper on for flavor. After all, you're eating squash and spinach, here, folks...hell, give it a little spice! I'll never forget my first time trying this. I was sitting in the kitchen alone, cautiously raising the fork to my knife, afraid to offer my boyfriend a piece of this dish because I didn't know what squash tasted like and was afraid he'd hate it. And then...mmmmmmmmmmm! I couldn't believe how delicious it was--and how guilty I felt when I realized I was going to devour all of the squash before I could offer him some. So, last night was his first sampling of the stuffed squash, and he, too, became a fan. We finished off the rest of it today. A word of wisdom for anyone cooking this--play around with AllRecipes serving adjuster. It says it makes eight servings (really more like 16), so if you're just making it for two people, cut that way down. This dish is extremely hearty and filling, and believe it or not, you won't need any appetizers or sides.

Having mentioned my boyfriend, with whom I not only live, but often share my tribulations in vegetarian cooking, I'd like to introduce him formally to this blog. His name is Ty, and unlike me, Ty eats meat. Like many meat-eaters, he sees vegetarian cuisine as bland, flavorless, and unfilling--or just plain nasty. He has grown to love some of my recipes--a veggie medley on garlic bread, a New Orleans style rice dish, a cauliflower bake, and my cheesecake. But like most meat-eaters, it's hard to get him to try something that has soy products (imitation meat) or tofu in it. And sometimes I just offer him the wrong damn recipes; for example, one of my earliest feats was a baked eggplant dish. Ty tasted it and immediately crinkled his face. Apparently, he's not the biggest fan of eggplant.

So in writing "Herbivores Anonymous," I promise you, I will occasionally mention some recipes that are OMNIVORE-FRIENDLY. Stuffed squash may not satisfy the taste buds of someone who likes, say, sloppy Joes and Big Macs. But for anyone health-conscious, this is will be a delight. Also, any meat-eaters who have a refined palette or enjoy some good hearty vegetables will enjoy this, though they may want to cut their serving in half and put it next to a meat dish.

Which reminds me, when are they going to make a good meatless country ham? I've tried the sliced soy ham you can find next to the tofu in the produce section, and I'm unsatisfied...

Chocolate Cherry Drops

Beware! This blog is for cherry lovers only. And, yes, I do mean the fruit.

Being a chocaholic and a blossoming cook, I am determined to try as many scrumptious-looking chocolate cookie recipes as I possibly can. After all, once you've begun mastering your own chocolate goodies, those frozen cakes you get at restaurants suddenly just don't taste very good, do they?

I found this recipe on one of my favorite websites, AllRecipes, while browsing holiday desserts. You see, I had offered to bring dessert to a holiday party at work, and I was eager to try out something new. I love chocolate covered cherries and I love cookies, so I thought I'd love "Chocolate Cherry Drops." And after all, cherries are sort of a holiday treat, aren't they?

However, the preparation and baking process for me did not go exactly as the recipe intended, for after already softening the butter in the bowl, I realized I had only a half cup of white sugar left. However, I had an unopened bag of brown sugar, so I substituted the other half a cup needed with brown sugar. A faux pas, I know, but it was two o'clock, and I had to have a dessert in hand for the party by four!

I altered the recipe in one other way. It called for one cup of chopped maraschino cherries. Instead of chopping the cherries, I measured out a cup of whole cherries and dipped a knife into the mixing cup. I slashed back and forth, Freddy Krueger style. I did this because I wanted the fragments of cherries the recipe called for, with whole cherries, because I kept thinking to myself how delicious a chocolate-covered cherry is. Another faux pas. In retrospect, I'm glad I did this, because a whole cup of sliced cherries would have added up to a great number of cherries, and already, these cherries overpowered the cookies. There were too damn many! My recommendation to anyone interested in cooking this is to modify to maybe a third of a cup of chopped or sliced cherries. Also, I could barely taste the walnuts, so I would recommend adding an entire cup of walnuts instead of just the half cup the recipe demands.

Additionally, the recipe was so dry, even before I added the cherries and walnuts, that I also had to crack open another egg to mix it. And when I waited the appropriate eight to ten minutes to retrieve it from the oven, I toothpicked a cookie and found they were not done baking. I turned the oven off and left them in the lowering heat for a few more minutes, and that seemed to do the trick.

I tasted the dough and was shocked at how dry and unsweet it was. After baking, the cookies turned out somewhat sweeter, but only because the cherries take over the entire cookies. This was a very quick and easy dessert recipe, and I could, I suppose, tinker it to how my taste buds would like--more walnuts, less cherries, and, actually, I think white chocolate chips would be divine in this--but unless I had an extreme cherry lover coming over for dinner, I doubt I'll ever make it again. And, be warned: Do not eat chocolate cherry drops without a hefty glass of milk.

Do you know what the kicker was in all of this? I received a text while putting these little cherry monsters in the oven: the party was cancelled due to the ice on the roads. Well, I'll be...