Vegetarian Sweet Potato Nachos with Cheddar-Jalapeño Sauce

Vegetarian Sweet Potato Nachos with Cheddar-Jalapeño Sauce

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Being a University of Wisconsin alum, I’m obviously beyond ecstatic that the Badgers beat defending champ, Villanova, and made it to the Sweet Sixteen round of March Madness. If you know me at all, you’d know that watching sports isn’t really my thing. That is unless it involves my beloved St. Louis Cardinals, the STL Blues or anything relating to UW-Madison. There’s one other exception, March Madness. Maybe it’s because I grew up glued to the TV during March Madness, thanks to my dad. Or maybe because I actually played A LOT of basketball in my early years, so I’m able to better relate to the games. No matter the reason, I love this classic tournament, especially when my alma mater surprises the nation and beats the #1 team in the second round.

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So, to go along with an amazing game and lots of excitement to come, I thought I’d share a healthy-ish twist on a classic sports bar appetizer – nachos. Instead of traditional tortilla chips, I’m using roasted rounds of sweet potato. Through roasting, the sweet potatoes become sturdy enough to hold all of the amazing toppings that get piled on. What toppings, you may be wondering? Well, there’s a decadent homemade cheese sauce spiked with fresh jalapeño, crisp romaine lettuce, refreshing yogurt and, last but not least, creamy guacamole. Doesn’t this all sound simply amazing?

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Yes, these nachos are still rich and indulgent. But, like everything else, I make all of my recipes as clean and health-supportive as possible, even if it’s a dish that’s not supposed be light or healthy. That’s why I call this version of nachos “healthy-ish”. Because I’ve made them as healthy as possible while still maintaining the crowd-pleasing, addictive, satisfying element. There are several health-supportive ingredients in this recipe. Check them out below. Then head down to the recipe, just in time for game day. Go Badgers!

Sweet Potatoes are a power house of nutrition. By replacing fried corn chips with sweet potatoes, this recipe gets a hefty dose of vitamin A, potassium and fiber, plus some vitamin B-6 and protein. Sweet potatoes are also a filling food, making these nachos substantial enough to become a satisfying and nourishing main dish.

Romaine Lettuce, like other lettuces, fills you up without adding extra calories or fat. Adding fresh lettuce to any dish increases vitamins and assists the body in flushing out toxins. Lettuce also adds freshness and balance to this rich dish.

Grass-Fed Plain Yogurt (full-fat) is my new favorite ingredient. Not only can I trust that grass-fed cows live a healthier and happier lifestyle (grain-fed cows live extremely bloated, confined and uncomfortable lives), but grass-fed cows produce dairy containing high-quality fats. These fats are then transformed into conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) through the process of making yogurt with lactic acid. Grass-fed dairy, like grass-fed beef, contains a higher concentration of CLA’s. Research has linked CLA consumption with decreased risk of heart attack, bone-mass loss and inflammation. Additionally, live cultures in yogurt aid in digestion, immunity, weight-loss and regular bowel movement. Yogurt is also naturally high in calcium and protein. Whoa! Go grass-fed yogurt go!

Avocados, like in my guacamole, are known for providing the body with “good fats” such as mono- and polyunsaturated fats which can reduce levels of bad cholesterol in the blood and the risk of heart disease. Avocados are rich in potassium, vitamin E, B-vitamins, folic acid and other essential nutrients. Avocados are also amazing because they add guilt-free richness, flavor and decadence to just about any dish, which is especially important for vegetarians and vegans.

Sweet Potato Nachos with Homemade Cheddar-Jalapeño Sauce & Fresh Guacamole
Serves: 2-3 (entree), 6 (appetizer)   Start to Finish: 1 hour

Ingredients

2 sweet potatoes, sliced into 1/2 inch rounds
1 tablespoon olive oil
sea salt, fine grain
1 avocado, very ripe
2 tablespoons minced red onion
3 teaspoons minced jalapeño, approx. 1/2 of a medium jalapeño, divided
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro, plus more for garnish
hot sauce, to taste, if desired
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 garlic clove, peeled and minced
2/3 to 1 cup whole milk
2 ounces shredded white cheddar cheese
1.5 cups shredded romaine lettuce (1 heart of romaine will be more than enough)
1/4 cup plain yogurt (full-fat, grass-fed preferred)

To Make

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Make potato rounds. Prep potatoes, brush with oil, season with a pinch of salt on each side of each round, and place potato rounds in a single layer on a parchment lined baking sheet. Bake for 45-50 minutes, until color begins to brown and the rounds are sturdy.

Make guacamole. Combine 1 smashed avocado with with 2 tablespoons minced red onion, 2 teaspoons minced jalapeño, 1 tablespoon lime juice, 1/4 teaspoon sea salt and 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro. Add a couple dashes hot sauce if desired and season with salt if needed. Refrigerate until needed.

Make cheddar sauce. Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a small saucepan over medium-heat. Add 1 minced garlic clove and 1 teaspoon minced jalapeño. Cook for 1 minute. Whisk in 1 tablespoon of flour until smooth. Allow flour/butter mixture to cook for 1-2 minutes, whisking occasionally. Slowly whisk in 2/3 cup whole milk until smooth and creamy. Allow mixture to gently simmer until thickened, 3-4 minutes. Whisk in 2 ounces shredded cheddar cheese and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Set aside. If queso sauce gets to thick, add a bit more milk until desired consistency is reached. Gently reheat on stove top when needed.

Assemble. When potato slices are finished roasting, lay out on a platter or large plate. It’s okay to overlap but make sure a good section of each slice is visible. Pour queso sauce over top of potatoes. Top with shredded iceberg lettuce, plain yogurt and a cilantro garnish, if desired. Serve with guacamole (and some fresh corn chips maybe?).

Nutrition Information References:

http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=124

https://www.symptomfind.com/nutrition-supplements/probiotic-bacteria/

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Best of Basic: Easy Chickpea Falafel Patties

Best of Basic: Easy Chickpea Falafel Patties

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Looking back at the last 6 months, it’s hard to express just how much I’ve learned. I spent the last half-year studying the techniques and methods necessary to be a professional chef, as well as the ideas and science behind health-focused, sustainable and clean cooking. No surprise there, I was at a health-focused culinary school after all. But in addition to this, I’ve also learned a great deal about myself and the career/life path I’ve recently chosen, and I owe a great deal of that to my ten classmates who shared this experience with me, my ten classmates of CTP 267 (aka the 267th chefs-in-training class at NGI).

It’s kind of awesome actually – that some of the most significant lessons I learned throughout this experience did not come from a teacher, but rather from my fellow students. And this lesson is that I am not alone. I’ve honestly never been in an environment (other than my own home) where I felt so at home, where I felt like I truly shared the same values, goals and ideals as everyone around me. Yes, my classmates and I, we all love food and cooking and we want to make a career of sorts out of it. But, you see, it’s much deeper than that for us. I’ve spent the last leg of my life realizing that while food is incredibly important to me, my passion in this field goes far beyond just cooking. For me, and for my classmates, it’s about being healthy and balanced, it’s about treating the environment with respect, and it’s about having compassion for all living things. Because of my deep-seeded beliefs when it comes to food and health, I decided to switch up my life to be focused on these values. A huge move, a risky move, a scary move. But the comfort-zone I found at school, this like-minded culinary family I quickly grew to love, is what motivates me and gives me the confidence I need to move forward in this career. So I’d like to give a little shout-out and huge thank you to CTP 267. I can’t wait to see the inevitable marks they leave on this world.

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So that was quite the speech I just gave, huh? I really didn’t mean for that at all, I meant for a short intro to a technique for falafel I learned from one of my classmates. Oh well, sometimes I just can’t help but be a total sap. Anyway, during our very first improv cooking class at school, I was grouped with 3 classmates and given a list of ingredients. As soon as I saw ‘soaked chickpeas’ on the list, I knew falafel was the way to go. The group agreed and we got to work. I was about to cook the chickpeas when Carol, my very skilled Brazilian/vegan classmate, mentioned that food processing soaked chickpeas with a healthy dose of olive oil makes for a quicker falafel. I had never heard of this or seen this before, but I trusted her and went ahead without cooking the chickpeas first. No surprise, the little patties turned out to be super easy and super delicious.

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Being as I love falafel, I wasted no time in trying this version of falafel again at home. Just like in improv class, the quick mixture of soaked chickpeas, olive oil, garlic, onion, fresh parsley and spices was very wet, but firmed up nicely when browned on an oiled cast iron skillet. Then just a few minutes in the oven and the falafels are ready for eating. The pic above shows one way of eating these guys. That’s another (future) blog post, but I will say that it features homemade pita bread encasing hot falafel, fresh romaine, quick pickled red onions and sweet roasted beets served with a side of lemon-tahini dressing. So yummy. You could also eat the falafel patties over rice, on a salad, or just with your fingers, they are actually pretty sturdy even though they aren’t deep fried. I mean, I’m not going to say they’re the same as deep fried, because they just aren’t. Deep fried falafel balls are beyond amazing, and it’s definitely the classic preparation in my eyes. But these baked falafels are less stress and less mess, not to mention a smidgen more figure friendly. Plus you get the same flavor profile and versatility as a deep fried ball. Easier, cleaner, healthier and still totally delicious. Done and done.

So with that, I hope everyone’s Valentine’s Day is filled with lots and lots of love, in any of its forms (self-love, romantic-love, bestie-love, puppy-love etc).

xoxoxo

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Best of Basic: Easy Falafel Patties

Serves: 4     Start to Finish: 30 minutes (not including bean-soaking)

Ingredients

1 cup dry garbanzo beans (aka chickpeas), soaked overnight or up to 24-hours
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1/2 medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped
1/4 cup olive oil (+ more for pan frying)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
3/4 teaspoon sea salt, fine grain
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander (optional)
1/4 teaspoon paprika (optional)
1 tbs tightly packed parsley leaves, chopped

To Make

Preheat oven  to 375 degrees. Prepare a baking sheet with parchment.

Drain and rinse soaked beans. Add all ingredients to a food processor and process until a smooth mixture is formed (it should still have a visibly grainy texture). Form the batter into 12 patties. The batter will be very wet, but should still form into patties easily.

On a griddle pan or in a frying pan (cast iron recommended), heat a thin layer of olive oil over medium-low heat. Fry patties for 5 minutes per side, or until golden and crisp. Cook patties in batches if needed, replacing oil between batches. Finish by cooking patties in the oven for 10 minutes at 375 degrees, covered in foil.

If refrigerating patties for later, skip baking step, bake just before serving, until cooked through. If freezing, skip initial baking step. Defrost completely before reheating in oven, covered in foil.

Side note, I often eat these patties cold anyway, so reheating after the fridge is definitely not necessary.

Best of Basic: Vegan Veggie Pizza

Best of Basic: Vegan Veggie Pizza

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It’s no secret to anyone that I love pizza. And typically, when it comes to pizza, ‘cheese’ is the name of the game. But not today. Things are changing around here. I have recently discovered how good pizza can be without cheese, and I’m totally hooked. I mean, I’ve had cheese-less slices before, but after a recent slice of super simple vegan pizza from a popular NYC pizza joint, Joe’s, it came to me. A crispy and chewy crust, a robust sauce and loads of veggies are all that’s needed for a bomb pie.

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The true key to an amazing cheese-less slice, in my opinion, is the sauce. For this pizza I used a sauce I’ve been making at school during our improvisation classes. Leeks, carrots, celery and garlic give this classic red sauce lots of flavor, and crushed red pepper flake adds a good bit of heat. It’s complex and rich and perfect for my vegan veggie pie.

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As for the veggies on the pizza, I kept it simple but strategic. Just four toppings here; sliced baby bella mushrooms, par-cooked broccoli florets, thinly sliced onions and sliced black olives. While simple, this combo is a winner with a satisfying variety of colors, textures and tastes. I mean, look at it. This pizza is really just breath taking. Anything that showcases vegetables like this is bound to be pretty, but that doesn’t stop me from being mesmerized by the beauty of this pizza. Not only is it attractive aesthetically, but to me it’s also beautiful because of the overwhelming health and wellness benefits provided by this overload of vegetables. Fiber, vitamins A, C, D, E, and K, calcium, iron, folate, potassium are some of the all-star benefits coming straight to your body from this pizza. See? Beautiful. And I think it’s safe to say I’m a total veggie-nerd at this point. Thoughts?

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So that’s all I really have to say about this recipe. It’s simple, satisfying and packs a nutritional-punch. And that’s a pizza you can feel good about eating. So why not try cheese-free next time? I know it sounds crazy, but you won’t be disappointed.

Best of Basic: Vegan Veggie Pizza
Serves: 4-6    Start to Finish: 50-60 minutes

Ingredients
2 balls pizza dough (get my quick & simple recipe here, yields 2 balls)*
For Sauce

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 leek, trimmed, halved length-wise, thinly sliced**
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 carrot, peeled and cut into a small dice
1 celery stalk, cleaned and cut into a small dice
sea salt, fine grain
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
3/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flake (slightly spicy, reduce to 1/8 for less spice)
1 28-ounce can tomatoes (diced or whole, organic and salt-free preferred)
1.5 tablespoons maple syrup
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, chopped
For Pizza Toppings

1 white or yellow onion, halved, trimmed, thinly sliced
8 cremini mushrooms, washed and thinly sliced
1 head broccoli, stem removed, cut into small florets
1 small can sliced black olives, liquid removed
sea salt, fine grain
garlic powder or granulated garlic

To Make

Allow refrigerated dough to rest at room temperature for an hour. Preheat oven to 500 degrees F.

To make sauce, heat olive oil over medium heat in a medium saucepan. Add leeks, garlic, celery, carrots and 1 teaspoon salt. Add dried thyme, oregano and crushed red pepper flake. Allow mixture to cook, stirring occasionally, for 6-8 minutes.

Add 1/2 cup water, canned tomatoes, 1 teaspoon salt and 1.5 tablespoons maple syrup. Bring to boil, reduce to simmer, cover. Simmer for 20 minutes. Using a blender (immersion, high power, standard, food processor), blend sauce until smooth. Stir in fresh thyme leaves. Season to taste (I added another 1/4 teaspoon of salt).

Add 2 inches of water to a small saucepan. Bring to boil. Using a steamer basket, steam broccoli in saucepan, covered, for 2 minutes or until bright green. Set aside. Prep remaining toppings.

Press out dough balls to fit a pan or pizza peel.Transfer crusts to cornmeal dusted pans or a peel. Add 2/3 to 1 cup of sauce to each pizza, spreading it out evenly from center to crust. Evenly distribute broccoli, mushrooms, onions and olives over pizzas. Season each pizza with 2 pinches of salt and 2 pinches of garlic powder. Bake for about 10-15 minutes, or until bottom of crust is golden and sturdy.

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Vegetarian Cauliflower Reuben Sandwiches

Vegetarian Cauliflower Reuben Sandwiches

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2017 is the year of the Cauliflower Steak. I’m literally obsessed. If you haven’t yet heard of the concept, it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like – a slab (or steak, if you will) of cauliflower, roasted or grilled until rich in flavor and tender in texture. Eat this tasty “steak” on it’s own, or use it as a clean, whole, nutrient-rich and satisfying substitute, wherever slices of animal protein are traditionally used. Yesterday, during my improvisation class at culinary school, my partner and I layered slabs of roasted cauliflower with a delicious mock-bolognese sauce made with tempeh. It was divine. But this obsession actually started while home for the holidays, when I used cauliflower steaks as a replacement for the burgers everyone else was eating on bbq night.

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Also on bbq night, is when I came up with the idea for a Cauliflower “Reuben” Sandwich using the slabs of cauliflower. I asked my mom to add the traditional reuben toppings to the burger bar, and the result was delicious. So when I returned to NYC last week, I was obviously craving another cauliflower reuben sandwich…stat.

A traditional reuben sandwich consists of sauerkraut, swiss cheese, a sweet Russian dressing and some rye bread. Well, pastrami is also an important component, but that’s not happening in my kitchen. So what’s my version? Perfectly cooked cauliflower steaks, seasoned with traditional pastrami spices (corriander, garlic, onion, paprika, black pepper), fresh rye bread from the local bakery, nutty swiss cheese, sauerkraut and a “lightened up” yogurt-based Russian dressing. Yum, right? I don’t know about you, but I’m not missing the pastrami one bit.

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Making cauliflower steaks is easy. Simply slice the cauliflower right down the middle, vertically. Then, moving out from the center cut, slice the cauliflower vertically into 1/4-1/2″ slabs. Be mindful that as the cuts move further from the original center cut, the slabs will begin to fall apart and transform into florets. So basically, you can only count on 2-4 solid slabs that will hold together. But no matter, there are countless uses for the leftover florets. I add them to soups and stirfries, use them as a simple side dish, or food-process them into low-carb “rice.” For slabs that are mostly staying together, with just a couple florets starting to peel off, I keep them together as best as possible while cooking so it still looks like a slab. Easy enough, yeah?

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Now that the cauliflower is covered, all that’s left to talk about is the accessories. I picked up some fresh rye bread from Northside Bakery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Why? Grocery store-bought bread has too many additives. Bakery-fresh bread on the other hand, is pure. Not to mention it supports small, local businesses. Next is the swiss cheese. Not much to say about this. It’s cheese and it’s delicious. Next up, sauerkraut. Sauerkraut, if you don’t know, is pickled or fermented cabbage. You can find pickled sauerkraut in jars or cans at the market. It has a sour flavor and is a perfect compliment to the richness of the cheese and sauce on this sandwich. While most store-bought sauerkrauts are heated during processing, there are also uncooked, unpasturized varieties of sauerkraut, which are filled-to-the-brim with gut-healthy bacteria and Vitamins B, C & K. To find a store-bought version like this, that includes the digestion-healthy probiotics and live cultures/bacteria, look for jars of organic sauerkraut in the refrigerated section of the market. Both versions, pickled and fermented, work for this recipe. The choice is yours.

Finally, that sauce. Traditional russian dressing is a rich and creamy mixture of mayonnaise and ketchup, with some other ingredients, depending on the recipe. I made my sauce as simple as possible and used grass-fed, full-fat plain yogurt instead of mayonnaise. In my opinion, once the sauce is paired with all the other flavorful ingredients on this sandwich, I don’t think a mayo-based sauce is necessary. So I lightened it up for a health kick. Again, the choice is yours.

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So there you have it. A classic Reuben Sandwich, reinvented to cater to the health-conscious, meat-free crowd. But honestly, meat-eaters and meat-freers alike can benefit from veggie-centric, lightened up recipes like this one. Stay tuned for more recipes using my new best friend, Cauliflower Steak. Maybe buffalo style next time? If you have any suggestions, for sure let me know!

Cauliflower Reuben-Style Sandwich
Serves: 4    Start to Finish: 30 minutes

Ingredients
1 large head cauliflower
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/4 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon coriander
sea salt, fine grain
1 tablespoon olive oil
6 ounces swiss cheese, sliced
1 cup organic sauerkraut
3/4 cup full-fat, plain yogurt, grass-fed preferred (or use mayo)
3 tablespoons all-natural ketchup
1 tablespoon grated onion, white or yellow
2 teaspoons maple syrup
1/4 teaspoon lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
8 slices rye bread

To Make
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Cut cauliflower into steaks by slicing the cauliflower right down the middle, vertically. Then, moving out from the center cut, to slice the cauliflower vertically into 1/4-1/2″ slabs. Be mindful that as the cuts move further from the original center cut, the slabs will begin to fall apart and transform into florets. Two large slabs is enough for 4 portions in this recipe. Save the florets for another recipe.

Heat cast iron pan or griddle over medium-high heat. Combine spices, black pepper through coriander, in a small bowl with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Brush both sides of cauliflower slabs with 1/2 tablespoon oil and season both sides of slabs with seasoning blend. Add remaining 1/2 tablespoon olive oil to pan. Brown cauliflower slabs in pan until golden, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake in oven for 20 minutes, until the core of the cauliflower is soft and tender.*

While cauliflower cooks, make sauce by combining ingredients yogurt through garlic powder, plus 3/4 teaspoon salt. Add more salt to taste. Set aside in fridge.

When cauliflower is finished, remove from oven and cut each slab into 2 equal-sized pieces (four total). Season the top of each slice with a pinch of salt. Evenly distribute cheese slices over cauliflower. Return slabs to oven for 3-5 minutes, until cheese is melted.

Make sandwiches by layering ingredients as follows… 1 slice rye bread, 1-2 tablespoons sauce, one cheese-covered cauliflower steak, 1/4 cup sauerkraut, 1-2 tablespoons sauce, 2nd slice of rye bread. Repeat to make 4 sandwiches.

*cauliflower slabs can also be grilled, without needing to brown in on cast iron first
**i like to gently squeeze excess liquid from the sauerkraut before adding to sandwich, it’s less messy when eating

Best of Basic: Southern-Style White Gravy with Mushrooms

Best of Basic: Southern-Style White Gravy with Mushrooms

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Year 2017. It’s here. And I’m happy to say, so far so good. For me, last year ended and this year began in the best way possible, with the whole family in St. Louis together. It was a beautifully lazy 10 days, highlighted by lots of tasty food, an HBO’s West World marathon and excursions to the St. Louis Zoo, Art Museum and an epic historic mansion on SLU’s campus. This trip was a far cry from the old days, when coming home for the holidays meant going out with friends and painting the town red and green. Confession – I was already asleep when midnight hit on New Years Eve this year. Oops. But honestly, I’m not complaining. I think it says a lot about me and where I am in my life. At 28, my focus and priorities have changed for the better, and I’m starting the New Year off excited, confident and ready.

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It’s crazy that last New Years I was still working in corporate fashion in New York City wondering where exactly my life was going and if that’s even where I wanted it to go. I don’t remember fully, but I imagine that last year’s resolution was to figure out a different career and life path. And although I most likely forgot about the “resolution” within days, finding a new path happened none the less. So here I am, about to graduate from the Natural Gourmet Institute as a certified chef specializing in health-conscious and sustainable cooking and eating. I mean, I have no idea where this path is taking me, and there’s much to do in terms of sorting out this new career and this new dream. All I know at this point is that I’m up for the challenge.

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Resolutions, in my opinion, are a somewhat silly concept. On the one hand, I completely understand the mentality of an annual fresh start to get life on track, in whatever way makes sense to an individual person and their needs. So around this time of year, I can’t help but think of things I could improve on in the New Year. On the other hand, more often than not, my life-changing resolution bites the dust within in the first two weeks of January, and the words “New Years resolution” are not used again until the last two weeks in December, when I choose a new resolution for the next year. I may end up accomplishing my goal by year’s end, or I may accomplish a different goal by year’s end. The point is, by year’s end, I don’t even remember what exactly my resolution was in the first place, so why even make one? Good question. But it still doesn’t change the fact that I will continue to make a New Years resolution every year. Can’t hurt, right?

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So what is my life-changing resolution for the coming year? This wasn’t a hard decision to make. I feel like a lot of my life is under control, at least for the moment, and there’s just a couple things on my mind. First, as I just mentioned, is sorting out my new career path. But honestly, resolution or not, I don’t really have a choice in the matter. So my other resolution option was the clear choice, and that is to get my stress levels under control, naturally. As I get older, I (and those closest to me) have noticed that I tend to over-think and worry…about everything…constantly. I believe that part of this trait comes from my desire to be in control and from my fear of things I can’t control. But no matter where the stress is coming from, stress is extremely hard on the body and mind, and it can be detrimental to short- and long-term health. Additionally, high-stress definitely won’t help as I embark on this new chapter in my career and life. So, it was decided. I must make stress the enemy of 2017 (happy, mom?). There are two keys to naturally controlling my stress levels; daily meditation and consistent yoga practice. I know first-hand that both of these techniques positively benefit me, so making them a consistent part of my daily and weekly routine can do nothing but help this issue (and other issues, whatever they may be). I’ll try to keep you updated on my progress.

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In any case, health seems to be the underlying theme of many resolutions. So you may expect this post to feature a light and healthy meal to appeal to those health-based resolutions. But I’m choosing a different direction for my first post of the New Year. I’m choosing to share my favorite concoction from while I was home for the holidays. Although this isn’t “low cal” or “low fat,” it still fits into my definition of healthy. It’s meat-free, uses organic butter, organic whole milk and organic flour, and gets added nutrients from fresh mushrooms and flavorful garlic. It’s clean, it’s pure, and it fits perfectly into a balanced and health-supportive diet. I made this gravy on Christmas morning and once more later in the trip, and let me tell you, it was a hit. I am always disappointed at restaurants, when I see biscuits and gravy on the menu, because it sounds so delicious, but I know I can’t eat it because it most likely is made with sausage. So when my mom asked what I’d like with the biscuits on Christmas morning, I knew immediately that it was time to create a vegetarian-friendly, southern-style white gravy recipe made with only the highest quality ingredients. Oh man, was that a good decision.

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Now, I’m not saying to eat this rich white gravy on the daily, but on special occasions (like Saturday morning), it’s an indulgent but wholesome recipe that’s sure to please anyone’s taste buds. But it’s all about balance, people! Balance, balance, balance. It’s the only way a satisfy a health-obsessed foodie like myself. So stay tuned for lighter and more detox-friendly recipes, I always have those in the works. But for now, happily realize that richer foods made with more health-supportive and high-quality ingredients should always be a part of a balanced, healthy and delicious lifestyle. That’s good news, right? You’re welcome and Happy New Year!

Vegetarian Southern-Style Mushroom Gravy
Serves: 4-6   Start to Finish: 15-20 minutes

Ingredients
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 cup roughly chopped portobello mushroom (approx. 1 lg cap)
1 cup sliced shiitake mushrooms (remove stems, approx. 5 mushrooms)
1 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt, divided (plus more to taste)
1 tablespoon chopped garlic (approx. 2 large cloves)
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1.5 cups whole milk
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1-2 pinches nutmeg

To Make
Heat olive oil in medium skillet over medium heat. Add mushrooms and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Cook for 5 minutes, until mushrooms are reduced by about half. Set aside.

In a medium sauce pan, melt butter over medium heat. Add garlic and cook until just starting to turn golden. Whisk in flour, 1 tablespoons at a time, until a smooth paste forms. Continue cooking, whisking frequently, for about 3 minutes.

Whisk in whole milk in 1/2 cup increments. Once all milk is added, stir in cooked mushrooms, 3/4 tsp salt, pepper and nutmeg. Continue to stir frequently until gravy has reached a thick and rich texture, 3-5 minutes. Add more salt to taste, then remove from heat.

Serve gravy over biscuits (obviously), over chicken (if that’s your thing), or a pan-fried cauliflower steak (genius). I served this batch over Immaculate brand organic ready-to-bake biscuits with some steamed baby spinach.

If gravy gets too think, add a bit more milk until desired consistency is reached.

Roasted Apple & Brie Salad with Sherry Vinaigrette

Roasted Apple & Brie Salad with Sherry Vinaigrette

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There are salads, and then there are SALADS. I’m talking super yummy, satisfying and healthful salads, filled to the brim with flavor, texture, and nourishment. A salad like this answers the body’s desire for fresh, clean, and nutrient-rich meals, to offset all of the richer and more indulgent meals we (I mean, “I”) enjoy eating. Salads like this are definitely a staple in my diet, and this one is a particular favorite of mine. There’s sweetness from the roasted apples, depth from the caramelized onion, freshness from the greens, richness from the cheese, and a punch of flavor from the delish sherry vinaigrette (my new basic dressing for everything and anything). Trust me when I say, this salad won’t disappoint.

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When creating a super satisfying “big salad” (Seinfeld reference), there are a few elements that I almost always include. There’s always something a bit sweet, there’s always something (or a few things) that adds richness and complexity, there’s always a balanced dressing, and there’s always an abundance of protein and fiber. But protein is the focus of this post.

I’ve decided to focus on meat-free protein sources for a few reasons. The first reason is that I get this question a lot, how do you get enough protein as a vegetarian or a vegan? Short answer, easily (sometimes I even eat too much protein by accident). The second reason why I’m focusing on protein today is because my class recently started our nutrition-specific lectures at school (Natural Gourmet Institute), and I’d like to pass on the basics of protein to all my lovely readers. And thirdly because this particular salad highlights almost all of the meat-free protein source categories, so it only makes sense to use it as a reason to talk about meat-free protein. So here we go!

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The first question I want to answer is, what does protein do for us? Protein is one of three essential macronutrients required for life and function (the other two are carbs and fat). Protein, as most know, is a building block of muscles and organs in the body (including the brain and liver), and allows for a physically strong and fit body. But protein is also essential for important bodily functions such as metabolism, fighting off infections, and the creation of enzymes and hormones. Additionally, protein is also needed for proper brain function and clear thinking. So basically, protein is super-duper important. But what is protein?

Protein is a source of amino acids for our body. Our bodies require 22 different types amino acids in order to function. 13 of these required amino acids are naturally produced in the body. But 9 of them are not produced by the body, which means these 9 ‘essential amino acids’ (EAA) need to be given to the body through ingestion (aka eating and drinking). Complete protein foods, like meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy, include all 9 EAA’s in sufficient quantities (easy enough).Point is, if you eat meat and dairy, it’s simple to get all those essential amino acids. And there are a handful of vegan complete protein options, including quinoa, chia seeds and buckwheat. However, most vegetarian- and vegan-friendly protein sources do not include all 9 EAA’s. We call these ‘incomplete proteins’.

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The issue is, as a vegetarian, I can’t eat quinoa all-day-every-day. Don’t get me wrong, I love quinoa, especially in this salad. But variety is the spice of life! No worries though. The cool thing here, is that you can combine incomplete protein sources to create complete proteins. All plants contain protein, therefor all contain amino acids. To get complete proteins, simply combine multiple protein sources. For instance, black beans + brown rice or whole grain bread + almond butter or whole grain pasta + kale & pine nut pesto or millet pilaf with pecans and baby spinach. Basically, grains are combined with veggies and legumes (nuts, seeds, beans), creating whole and complete protein sources.

For this particular salad, I used quinoa, so other ingredients weren’t necessary to create complete protein. But I added beans anyway for texture, additional protein and fiber. Then I added even more protein with fresh baby spinach and brie cheese. See? So much protein! All of which are vegetarian, most of which are vegan.

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So there you go, a brief summary of protein. To recap, protein is absolutely essential for a healthy and strong body and mind. Meat, fish, poultry, dairy and eggs are complete proteins, providing all essential amino acids in one swoop. Multiple incomplete proteins (most grains, vegetables and legumes) should be combined to create complete proteins. And veggie-friendly protein sources are countless, you just have to know when and how to combine them. And if you’re still wondering where meat-freers get protein, just take a look at this salad. Gang’s all there!

Roasted Apple & Brie Salad with Sherry Vinaigrette Dressing
Serves: 3 mains or 6 sides    Start to Finish: 1 hr

Ingredients

For salad
3/4 cup dry quinoa
Sea salt, fine grain
1 large yellow onion, peeled and sliced into 1/4″ slices
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 large apples (like gala or honey crisp)
1 can organic kidney beans (1.5 to 2 cups cooked beans)
3 ounces Brie cheese, thinly sliced
1 large romaine heart, washed and chopped
10 ounces fresh baby spinach, washed
Sherry Vinaigrette Dressing (recipe follows)

For dressing
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons organic maple syrup
1 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped (1 teaspoon chopped garlic)
1.5 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 teasooon sea salt, fine grain
1/4 teaspoon black pepper

To Make

Add quinoa, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1.5 cups water to a small saucepan. Bring to boil, reduce to simmer, cover. Cook until quinoa is tender, about 13 minutes. Set aside, still covered, for 5-10 minutes. Transfer to bowl to cool.

Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat in sauté pan. Add onions and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Stir frequently to prevent burning. Cook until onions are caramelized, about 45 minutes. Add water to the pan when it gets dry, 3-4 tablespoons at a time. When onions are caramelized and the pan is at a dry phase, remove from heat. Transfer to container for cooling.

While onions cook, remove core and cut apples into big bite-size chunks. Toss with 1 tablespoon olive oil and spread onto parchment lined baking sheet. Roast apples in oven until tender, 25-30 minutes, tossing once during cooking.

Drain and rinse beans. Wash and prep lettuces.

Make dressing. In a blender or using and immersion blender, blend all dressing ingredients until smooth and creamy. Season with sea salt to taste.

This can be a tossed salad or a composed salad. When all components are ready (quinoa, caramelized onions, roasted apples, beans, Brie cheese and dressing), divide among portions of romaine/spinach and drizzle with dressing to taste. Or toss all components together just before serving. Go easy on the dressing at first, you can always add more or serve more on the side for those who like lots of dressing.

*the components to this salad should be at room temp or chilled before tossing with lettuces.

**double recipe to feed a crowd or to keep around for future dinners and lunches in a pinch.

***sherry vinaigrette, caramelized onions, roasted apples and quinoa can all be made up to 3-4 days in advance. Store each component separately in tightly sealed containers and refrigerate.

Best of Basic: Basil Pesto Sauce

Best of Basic: Basil Pesto Sauce

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My recent vacation to my family’s summer cottage in Canada was super inspirational in terms of cooking and food. To no one’s surprise we ate well and often, and had a blast in the kitchen along the way. The inspiration for this post came from spending time cooking with my mom, who is the master chef in my life. She is the queen of delicious, simple and inventive cooking and, somehow, everything always tastes better when she makes it.

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One of my favorite meals from the trip was my mom’s loaded pesto pasta with sundried tomatoes, pine nuts, zucchini and fresh basil. She’s not inventing the wheel with this one, as pesto pasta is pretty standard, but watching her throw it together in a matter of minutes made me wonder why I wasn’t taking advantage of how easy a pesto pasta comes together. I’ve said it before, I need more recipes that can be thrown together in a pinch with minimal effort, and this pasta dish falls under that category. I’ll talk more about the specifics of her awesome loaded pesto pasta in a later post, but today, I’m just focusing on the actual pesto.

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In addition to my mom’s pasta, I’ve been seeing and eating pesto everywhere these days. My favorite pizza place in Williamsburg (Vinnie’s) uses a pesto vinaigrette as the dressing on my favorite salad, and while driving from our cottage to the Toronto airport we stopped for lunch where I had an amazing Caprese salad layered with pesto instead of fresh basil. Finally, on a recent trip to St. Louis, I ordered a pizza at my fave spot (called Pi) that drizzled pesto on top just before serving. It’s clear that a go-to pesto recipe is a must.

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I’ve made pesto before, although it’s been awhile, and I’ve seen it made on TV loads of times. It’s quite simple and always pretty much the same. Use a food processor to blend the seven uncooked ingredients and you’re done. Yes, that’s it. It’s literally a five to ten minute process. Those seven ingredients are basil, garlic, nuts, olive oil, salt, pepper and Parmesan cheese. Taking a tip from my girl Ina Garten, I used a mixture of pine nuts and walnuts, but you can use one or the other if preferred. Of course, freshly grated Parmesan is ideal, but I used pre-grated from Whole Foods this time because I didn’t feel like adding another step to the process (the easier the better!). The last thing I will say about pesto is that, in order to keep it looking fresh and bright, remove all air before storing in the fridge or freezer. I find that a layer of plastic wrap directly on top of the pesto before covering with a lid is the way to go.


So without further ado, my recipe for classic and simple basil pesto, to be used on anything from pasta to pizza to salad.

Happy summer and happy Friday!

Best of Basic: Basil Pesto
Serves: 8 (2 tbs per serving)   Start to Finish: 10 minutes

Ingredients

2 cups Fresh Basil Leaves, packed
3 cloves Garlic, peeled and roughly chopped (use 4 cloves if you absolutely love garlic)
1/3 cup total Pine Nuts and/or Walnuts
2/3 cup Olive Oil
Sea Salt & Black Pepper, to taste (I used 1 tsp each)
1/2 cup Parmesan Cheese

To Make

Combine basil, garlic and nuts in the bowl of a food processor or blender. Pulse until fine. While food processor is on, drizzle in olive oil. Add Parmesan, pulse until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste. Pulse until well combined.

Makes about 1 cup of pesto

Buffalo Cauliflower & Brown Rice Bowls (vegan optional)

Buffalo Cauliflower & Brown Rice Bowls (vegan optional)

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There are oh so many ways to enjoy my stellar recipe for a major food trend, Buffalo Cauliflower “Wings”. This post highlights one of my fave recipes using vegan buffalo wings, in the form of a nourish bowl. Casual yet creative, tasty yet nutritious. This recipe is simply perfect.

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The idea for a brown rice bowl topped with buffalo wings was inspired by a popular fast-casual restaurant in my hometown of St. Louis called Crazy Bowls and Wraps. CBW, as St. Louis-ans like to call it, has been around forever, even before healthy fast-casual joints became a thing. CBW offers customizable rice bowls, salads and wraps with all kinds of creative fillings and options. One of my absolute favorites is the buffalo fried tofu, so it wasn’t hard to come up with the idea for a buffalo cauliflower brown rice bowl.DSC_0370

I love the idea of layered bowls when serving a crowd. It makes it easy for each person to get exactly what they want. Plus, bowls like this are easy to eat. But I don’t need company to make bowls like this. In fact, last night for dinner I made Mexican rice bowls with roasted potatoes and peppers, cabbage, shredded cheddar and marinated tomatoes. When it comes to “bowls”, the possibilities are endless. Whenever I don’t know what to make, I start with a starch like rice or orzo pasta and simply add toppings according to a theme (Mexican, Greek, Italian, Asian etc.). That’s actually a really good tip if you’re ever struggling with what to cook. I use it all them time.

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If you’re new to rice bowls, this is a great one to start with. The spicy, crispy cauliflower compliments the fresh veggies and creamy sauce perfectly. It feels so indulgent, but it’s really very balanced. And it’s also a lot easier than it sounds. These bowls are seriously so yummy and I highly recommend trying them out, STAT. I know I can’t wait to make them again.

Buffalo Brown Rice Bowls
Serves: 4   Start to Finish: 1 hour 15 min

Ingredients

1 batch Buffalo Cauliflower (get recipe here)
1 cup Brown Rice
Sea Salt
8-10 ounces chopped Romaine Lettuce
10 ounces Cherry Tomatoes
2 large Carrots, peeled and trimmed
1 cup Dressing (get my creamy blue cheese dressing here or use the vegan recipe below)

Creamy Vegan Dressing
1 cup Vegan Mayonnaise (I like Follow Your Heart brand)
2 teaspoons Red Wine Vinegar
2 tablespoons unsweetened non-dairy milk or water (+ more to consistency)
3/4 teaspoon Garlic Powder
3/4 teaspoon Onion Powder
1/2 teaspoon Salt
1/2 teaspoon Black Pepper
1/2 teaspoon Dried Parsley

To Make

Make rice. Add 1 cup brown rice, 2 1/4 cups water and 1/2 teaspoon sea salt into a medium sauce pan. Bring to boil, reduce heat to lower simmer, cover. Simmer for 35-40 minutes. Remove from heat when all water is absorbed, allow to sit, still covered, until ready to assemble bowls.

While rice simmers, preheat oven to 450 degrees and get the Buffalo Cauliflower “Wings” started (get recipe here).

While cauliflower bakes, make dressing by combining all ingredients for vegan dressing (ingredients above) or make my yummy blue cheese dressing (get recipe here). Set aside.

Prep veggies. Wash & chop lettuce. Cut cherry tomatoes in half. Prep carrots as desired. I like making “carrot shavings” for salads. Use a vegetable peeler to peel off long strips of carrots, then run your knife through the strips to make shavings.

When cauliflower and rice are finished, assemble the bowls. Divide lettuce into 4 bowls. Top each bowl with brown rice, tomatoes, carrots, buffalo cauliflower “wings” and 2-4 tablespoons dressing.

 

Best of Basic: Perfect Oven Fries

Best of Basic: Perfect Oven Fries

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Fried potatoes are my jam. Cheese fries? Amaze. Tater tots? Obsessed. Hashbrowns? Yes please. Are there people out there who don’t love fried potatoes? No way. While deep fried foods are totally fine in moderation (that is, if they’re whole foods that are fried in healthy oils), I want French fries on the daily. So a recipe for slightly lighter and healthier oven fries was a natural for me.

I’ve been making oven fries since forever. And after a lot of trial-and-error, I’ve come up with a go-to method that makes flavorful, crispy fries that are neutral enough to go with any dipping sauce. I use small yellow or Yukon Gold potatoes for my oven fries. Yukon Golds are my favorite type of potato. I like the waxy texture, the golden color and the small size. After cutting the potatoes in thick fries, I soak them in cold water. This trick removes excess starchiness and makes for a crispy fry. Then I just toss with a simple blend of spices and olive oil. When baking the fries, I start at a lower temperature which allows the insides to become fully cooked. Then I crank up the heat to get those guys golden brown and crispity-crunchy. Perfect every time.

I’ve been meaning to share this recipe for quite awhile. Then I saw these amazing red, white and blue basket liners at Sur la Table and couldn’t resist. These liners are perfect in those red plastic woven baskets you get at diners and casual food joints. As soon as I saw them I thought “oven fries! 4th of July! BBQ perfection!” You can use these lined baskets to serve apps and sides or everyone can have their very own basket for their meal. So cute, so fun and so festive.

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Honestly, I’m not even sure what Matt and I are doing for the 4th. Independence Day has always been a big holiday for me. I grew up spending every July 4th at our family friends’ lake house near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and it was always quite the celebration. The fireworks were unreal, the drinks were flowing and the group of us (sometimes over 30 people sleeping in one house) always got a little too rowdy. Those were the days. As of this year though, the lake house has been retired. I’ll really miss that place. But I wouldn’t be able to go this year anyway because it’s Matt’s brother’s engagement party in New York (woohoo!). There are plenty of activities planned for the weekend, but for the actual 4th of July we have nothing going on. I’m thinking a festive BBQ on our balcony, some all American beers, and a few sparklers will be totally awesome. I’m not quite the party-er I used to be and these days, I prefer to celebrate on the tamer side. But if this intimate celebration does end up happening, these fries will most definitely be on the menu.

Pine Lake Way Back When
Scenes from Pine Lake, Wisconsin – Back in the Day – That’s me!

I hope everyone has a super fun (and safe) holiday weekend with lots of good food and good company!

Best of Basic: Perfect Oven Fries
Serves: 4    Start to Finish: 1.5 hours

Ingredients

2 lbs Yukon Gold Potatoes
2 tablespoons Olive or Canola Oil
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 teaspoon Paprika
1/4 teaspoon Garlic Powder
1/4 teaspoon Black Pepper

To Make

Cut potatoes into 1/4-1/2″ slices, length wise. Cut each slice into sticks or wedges. Place cut potatoes in a big bowl of ice water. Allow to soak for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a large baking sheet or two with parchment paper. I use one large pan for this amount but the more room the potatoes have, the crispier they’ll be.

When potatoes are finished soaking, drain and dry with a clean towel. Toss potatoes with oil and seasoning. Spread out over baking sheets. Bake for 20 min. Remove from heat, gently toss. Turn heat up to 450 degrees. Cook for 30-40 more minutes, tossing every 10-15 minutes.

Rich & Creamy Vegan Vodka Sauce

Rich & Creamy Vegan Vodka Sauce

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Happy Friday, everyone!

If you read my last post sharing a delicious recipe for Eggplant & White Bean Veggie Balls, then you know that I served these delicious “meatballs” with a homemade Vegan Vodka Sauce. The sauce was so tasty that I just had to share the recipe. And just in time for the weekend, the best time to spend some relaxation time in the kitchen.

With everything I have going on in my life (work, blogging, yoga, social life, etc.), I’d be crazy not to take advantage of shortcuts when it comes to food and cooking. A tasty jar of red sauce (made with only natural ingredients, of course) is one of those shortcuts that I often take advantage of. But still, nothing compares to a homemade tomato sauce bursting with fresh Italian flavor. So when I have the time to make my own tomato sauce, I’m all over it.

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When thinking about the sauce I wanted to make to go along with the veggie balls, I really wanted to experiment with a new homemade (and vegan-friendly) sauce. Vodka Sauce was an easy choice for Matt and me because we’ve been talking about making our own version of vodka sauce for some time now. Adding vodka to a freshly made tomato sauce was simple enough, because I’ve made red sauce a million times and I always have vodka in the freezer. The real question was how to achieve the richness, creaminess and beautiful pink color of a traditional vodka sauce…without using cream.

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Let’s get something straight. I love real cream. On weekends, I always treat myself to iced coffee with a splash of half-and-half. And there’s nothing like a whipped cream frosting on a moist cake. But not for this recipe. Why not use cream? Well, not only do I like the challenge of omitting dairy from recipes, but I also like to keep some days and meals dairy-free for the health and ecological benefits. So for this sauce, I’m going cream-free.

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To replace the rich cream, I decided to try a vegan cream made from raw cashews. Since I’ve never made cashew cream myself, I used a recipe from Beard & Bonnet as a guide. It was so simple, just soak the cashews and then grind them up with water, lemon juice and salt until a delectably smooth cream is formed. Easy enough. While the cashews soaked I made the red sauce and vodka portion of the sauce.

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This sauce is classic. Fresh plum tomatoes, lots of garlic, yellow onion and a blend of dried Italian seasonings. Not so classic is my use of coconut oil, rather than olive oil or butter. I find that coconut oil has the richness of butter and creates the subtle sweetness that I love about vodka sauce, without adding dairy or sweetener. I love what the coconut oil does for this sauce, so although it may sound strange, it’s worth a try.

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I hope everyone has a super Friday and lovely weekend! And if you feel like kicking Sunday dinner up a notch, why not try this amazing vegan vodka sauce.

Creamy Vegan Vodka Sauce
Serves: 4   Start to Finish: 2 hours (45 minutes active)Ingredients2 tablespoons Coconut Oil
4 cloves Garlic
1 yellow Onion
2 pounds Tomatoes (I used Organic Plum Tomatoes)
1 cup Water (plus more if necessary)
2 teaspoons Sea Salt*
1 teaspoon Dried Basil
1 teaspoon Dried Oregano
1 teaspoon Dried Thyme
1/2 teaspoon Black Pepper
1/4 teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper Flake
1/3-1/2 cup quality Vodka**
1/4-1/2 cup Cashew Cream (get Beard & Bonnet’s recipe here or my adaptation below)

To Make

Cut tomatoes and onions into a fine dice. Finely mince garlic.

Heat coconut oil and garlic over medium heat, allow garlic to sizzle for 1-2 minutes. Add onion. Cook onion and garlic for 6-8 minutes. Add tomatoes, water and seasoning. When liquid boils, reduce to simmer. Simmer covered for 90 minutes. You can leave the sauce with some texture or you can use a food processor or emulsion blender to get a smoother consistency (I like something in the middle so I use an emulsion blender to break it up a little bit).

To make vodka sauce, carefully mix vodka into the hot (or reheated) red sauce (or 2 1/2 or 3 cups of any red sauce). Add 1/2 cup vodka. Simmer uncovered for 10 minutes or until alcohol is cooked off. Remove from heat. Stir in 1/4 cup vegan cashew cream (see recipe below) or 1/4 cup dairy cream. You can add more or less cream depending on your taste.

*adjust salt according to personal taste
**i used 1/2 cup of vodka and I could definitely taste it, in a great way. 1/4 cup or 1/3 cup will work, just with a lighter vodka flavor. Your call!

Cashew Cream Recipe (adapted from Beard & Bonnet’s recipe)
1.5 cups raw, unsalted Cashews
1 1/4 cups water (more or less)*
1 tablespoon Lemon Juice (or half of a large lemon)
3/4 teaspoon salt (more or less)

Soak raw cashews in a bowl of filtered water for 1-4 hours. Add soaked cashews to a food processor or high powered blender. Add water salt and lemon juice. Blend until smooth.

I used a food processor and it took longer than I expected. I had to stop and hand stir/scrape the bowl a couple times. When in doubt, just keep blending.

*start with 3/4 cup water and add more as needed

Vegan Eggplant & White Bean Veggie Balls

Vegan Eggplant & White Bean Veggie Balls

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When I think of some of my favorite meals from my meat-eating days, classic Italian meatballs definitely top the list. Whether on a sub sandwich, over pasta or even on pizza (shout out to Dewey’s Pizza in STL), meatballs are the bomb.

Whenever my parents come to visit me in NYC, one of their go-to eateries is The Meatball Shop. It’s a favorite of mine as well, and I’ve been lucky enough to live within walking to two of their locations over the past five years. The concept of this trendy yet casual local chain of restaurants is actually really cool. Using dry erase markers, you choose what you want by “checking it off” on a laminated menu. You choose the type of ball (beef, pork etc) and the sauce (pesto, cream, tomato etc.) and then the preparation (hero, over pasta, alongside steamed spinach etc).

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Whenever I say that I love The Meatball Shop, I’m undoubtedly asked how that is possible when I don’t eat meat. Easy answer. One of the ball options is a delicious veggie ball, and I like it best as either a hero sandwich or in “the kitchen sink” market plate form. No matter what preparation I choose, when choosing a sauce, I always go for the classic tomato sauce with a side of their silky parmesan cream sauce.

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I think subconsciously the idea for a veggie ball hero with tomato cream sauce was inspired by my typical order at The Meatball Shop. And it was a delicious idea. I spent literally all of this past Sunday in the kitchen making my own veggie balls, vegan cashew cream and a homemade vodka sauce. I always love spending hours in the kitchen, but this particular meal turned out perfectly, so this was a long but particularly rewarding cooking sesh.

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The recipe I’m sharing in this post is one of my favorite ways to make veggie balls, a Roasted Eggplant and White Bean Veggie Ball.

The inspiration for an eggplant-based veggie ball comes from Matt. A year or two ago, Matt made us a batch of roasted eggplant balls stuffed with fresh mozzarella, and they were so tasty. My variation uses the roasted eggplant and then I also added some white canellini beans for a protein boost and some hearty substance.

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These meat-less meatballs are my favorite for a few reasons; they are super flavorful and yummy, they stay together and hold their shape, and they contain no eggs dairy making them vegan friendly.

But mostly I love them because of how delicious they are. The balls get their amazing flavor from sweet roasted eggplant, fresh basil, and lots of garlic. Other than all-natural whole wheat bread crumbs and some additional seasoning and a bit of olive oil, that’s all you need to create these fabulous balls. I recommend making a double batch and use them in different ways throughout the week. I should’ve made a double batch on Sunday because this batch was gone by Monday.

Italian Eggplant & White Bean Veggie Balls
Serves: 4    Start to Finish: 2 hours (20 min active time)

Ingredients

2 pounds Eggplant
1 tablespoon Olive Oil
Sea Salt*
1 can Canellini Beans, drained & rinsed
15 fresh Basil leaves
4 cloves Garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1/2 cup Whole Wheat Bread Crumbs, divided (I like Whole Foods brand)
1 tablespoon Nutritional Yeast (optional)**
1/4 teaspoon Garlic Powder
1 teaspoon Olive Oil

To Make

Slice eggplant into 1″ discs. Cube each disc into 4-10 cubes, depending on disc size. Soak eggplant in a bowl of cold water for 45-90 minutes, tossing occasionally.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Rinse eggplant cubes and drain in colander. Use a clean towel to remove excess moisture. Toss eggplant cubes with 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 teaspoon salt. Bake at 400 degrees for about 40 minutes, tossing half way through cooking.

Reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees.

Allow eggplant to cool slightly. I put it in a the food processor with the top on for a few minutes to release some liquid. Combine eggplant, canellini beans, basil leaves, 4 cloves garlic and 1/2 teaspoon sea salt. Pulse until a smooth mixture begins to form, be sure to keep a little texture. Pour eggplant mixture into a bowl. Stir in 1/4 cup bread crumbs and 1 tablespoon nutritional yeast. In a small bowl, combine 1/4 cup bread crumbs, 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder and 1 teaspoon olive oil. Form eggplant mixture into balls (I used a 1/4 cup measure for each). Toss each ball in the breadcrumb & oil mixture. Place coated balls on a parchment lined baking sheet. I got 9 balls out of this batch.

Bake balls at 375 degrees for 20-25 minutes. Turn heat up to 425 degrees and cook for another 25 minutes or until crisp and golden, flip half way through

*adjust salt according to personal taste
**if you choose not to use nutritional yeast, you may need to replace it with more bread crumbs