Vegetarians, Day 10: Superfresh!

You may have noticed I skipped right over Day 9. That’s because I’m writing this update three days after the fact, and can’t for the love of God, recall anything I ate on January 9th. Was I in a fog? Or perhaps I was abducted by aliens and the contents of my brain were sucked out? Or maybe I was just a taddd busy and tired? Let’s go with that last one.

On Day 10, I had to travel to Brattleboro, VT for work. If you don’t know a lot about Brattleboro, let me start off by saying that they had a food co-op before co-ops were even cool. It’s hippy, it’s artsy, and it’s a localvore’s food paradise. There were so many great vegetarian options for lunch!

I ended up at this place called Superfresh! Organic Cafe. It’s not only vegetarian, but vegan.  I was torn between several things on the menu, but ordered the Pesto Melt. One of the first signs I was in an organic cafe was when the server asked me if I wanted that on raw or cooked bread. Was this a trick question? 

Photo by Kathia B on Yelp

The Pesto Melt came with tomato, onion, and daiya cheese, which is some plant based “cheese” I’d never heard of that contains no dairy at all. And it was great! The whole melt was tasty– a perfect amount of pesto to cheese and vegetables. My coworker got the Roasted Vegetable wrap that came with hunks of potatoes, beets, and peppers, and smelled delicious. Both of our meals were under $10 each.

Perhaps the real You’re Not In Kansas Anymore moment was the sign hanging in the bathroom that announced they had made the difficult decision to cut ties… with avocados. Their popularity is causing a drought and making unclean water for communities in Mexico. There is also a significant carbon footprint to trek these up from Mexico to places like Vermont. Although the sign initially made me chuckle, in the end it opened my eyes to a food I eat a whole lot of.

Eating at this great organic cafe also made me remember there is a vegan cafe about a mile away from my house! I’ve been only once. The food was excellent, so I really have no idea why I didn’t return. Maybe because I thought, “Well I’m not vegan, so why would I go there?” Time to change that.

 

Vegetarians, Day 8: I Miss You, Delicious Chicken

Today was the day: the first day I actually missed meat. Chicken, to be exact–the shredded chicken inside of the enchiladas at my favorite Mexican restaurant.

Photo via Victor P on Yelp 

I went out to dinner with a friend and ordered the veggie enchilada. I really didn’t think anything of making this swap for my normal chicken enchilada. After all, I’m eight days into this experiment, and things have been going so well. I haven’t once had regrets or thought about saying, “Screw it, let’s rip open a bag of beef jerky.” So I was both surprised and disappointed when I tasted my vegetarian enchilada.

I think what it really came down to was texture. The chicken I normally eat inside of this enchilada is soft and tender, and full of flavor. Instead I bit into pieces of green pepper that were rubbery and probably could have used another five minutes in the oven. I guess there are just certain meals that you come to expect to taste a certain way, and substituting extra vegetables in their place just isn’t going to cut it. But did I go hungry? Of course not! I had rice, beans, and also ate my weight in tortilla chips.

I’m sharing this because I think it’s important to be honest with yourself whenever you are trying out something new–food, career, relationship–whatever. Sometimes you miss chicken. Sometimes you don’t. It would be dishonest to get to the end of January and declare, “That was such a breeze!” if it really wasn’t. Being realistic about our situations is what helps us learn and grow. So even though I missed sweet, sweet delicious chicken today, I’m sticking with my veggies for now. Onward!

Vegetarians, Day 6: Sweet Potato Hummus

I discovered a really delicious, really easy to make sweet potato hummus that I wanted to share with you all. It’s from America’s Test Kitchen Complete Vegetarian Cookbook. This book has been essential since the start of our vegetarian experiment. I really appreciate how it divides the chapters up into hearty main courses, vegetable sides, salads, grains, and more. Many of the recipes can be tweaked to be vegan (if you’re into that) and many are also gluten free. The best part of the cookbook are the beautiful photos, which makes me want to cook everything in it.

This recipe for making the sweet potato hummus is going to seem oddly specific regarding how long to microwave the potato — but trust it; it will work! Enjoy!

SWEET POTATO HUMMUS

Recipe from The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook by America’s Test Kitchen

Ingredients:

1 large sweet potato (about 1 pound), unpeeled
¾ cup water
¼ cup lemon juice (2 lemons)
¼ cup tahini
2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
One 15-ounce can chickpeas, rinsed
1 small garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground coriander
¼ teaspoon ground cumin
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
Directions:

Prick sweet potato several times with fork, place on plate, and microwave until very soft, about 12 minutes, flipping halfway through microwaving. Slice potato in half lengthwise, let cool, then scrape sweet potato flesh from skin; discard skin.
Combine water and lemon juice in small bowl. In separate bowl, whisk tahini and oil together.
Process sweet potato, chickpeas, garlic, paprika, salt, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, and cayenne in food processor until almost fully ground, about 15 seconds. Scrape down bowl with rubber spatula. With machine running, add lemon juice mixture in steady stream. Scrape down bowl and continue to process for 1 minute. With machine running, add tahini mixture in steady stream and process until hummus is smooth and creamy, about 15 seconds, scraping down the bowl as needed.
Transfer hummus to serving bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature until flavors meld, about 30 minutes. Drizzle with olive oil and serve. (Hummus can be refrigerated for up to 5 days; before serving, stir in 1 tablespoon warm water to loosen hummus texture if necessary).

lentil bolognese

Vegetarians, Day 5: Lentil Bolognese

One of the biggest pieces of advice I was given for this vegetarian experiment was to stock up on rice, beans, and legumes, as those would becoming the building blocks for most vegetarian meals. Like I good girl, I bought quinoa, brown rice, and a bunch of things I’ve never cooked before, including lentils.

lentil bolognese

Tonight we made a super easy, super delicious Lentil Bolognese and served it over tortellini. Essentially all you do is jazz up a jar of your favorite pasta sauce with some onions, carrots, and celery, a dash of red wine or cooking sherry, and throw the lentils in, cooking until they are tender. It took about 40 minutes, and honestly, we probably should have cooked them for maybe ten more.

Lentils are a little chalky, but they provide a good bite. Plus they’re packed with protein and fiber. One cup has 64% of your recommended fiber intake and 36% of your protein.  My stomach expanded like a balloon after eating this meal. So maybe don’t eat it over a cheese filled pasta like we did, but try it out! It’s pretty tasty.

Here’s the recipe we used.

 

the impossible burger

Vegetarians, Day 4: The Impossibly Complicated Impossible Burger

Dan and I go out to dinner pretty much every Friday night. It’s either because we’ve run out of food, motivation to cook, or both. This past Friday was our first experience in a restaurant as vegetarians. We almost went to our default place – Tiny Thai, which we both agree we could live solely off from- but then remembered that Mule Bar was now selling the Impossible Burger. It was time to give it a try.

For those of you who have no idea what the Impossible Burger is, it’s supposed to mimic a real hamburger without the meat. They tout, “Impossible™ meat delivers all the flavor, aroma and beefiness of meat from cows. But here’s the kicker: It’s just plants doing the Impossible.” I was skeptical, but ordered one anyone.

the impossible burger

My first impression was, Wow, that actually looks exactly like beef. Not only was it shaped like a burger, but it was even cooked to behave like ground beef, with a brown exterior and pink middle. Then came the smell test and it passed that, too. It shockingly smelled like a burger that just came off the grill. So what about taste? Would it taste just like a burger?

Sort of. The “meat” actually didn’t taste much like anything, IMHO.

After researching, I’ve learned the Impossible Burger is made of coconut flecks, wheat, potato protein, and heme, which is the secret ingredient that gives the burger its meaty texture…and is also, as I found out, a pretty controversial ingredient.

Heme is a molecule found in all living things, from animals to plants. But you need a ton of it to create anything substantial. The company who makes the Impossible Burger found a way to manipulate soy so that it pumped out heme in mass volume. This is part of why the Impossible Burger is controversial: it’s genetically modified. The other reason it is controversial is because up until very recently, heme was not recognized by the FDA as safe for human consumption. A ruling in July of 2018 changed that and now the FDA considers it GRAS (generally recognized as safe). As in, don’t worry, it’s pretty much safe to eat this. We think. As far as we know. There was that one rat who grew an extra limb out of its head, but we think that was an anomaly. 

The FDA denial and GRAS status is concerning for me because, to be blunt, the FDA typically sucks at protecting consumers. We assume if an ingredient is dangerous to ingest or put on our bodies, the FDA wouldn’t allow it , right? Wrong. Lead has been found in all major brands of lipstick, formaldehyde in baby shampoo, phthalates in food packaging, and bpa in pretty much every plastic. All of these chemicals are known carcinogens that wreck havoc on our bodies, and yet, are still being manufactured. How? Because many of these products are not required to undergo FDA approval and because they can keep the ingredients a “trade secret.”

At the start of this journey, I wanted to eat less meat because I didn’t want animals to die. But there was also a health component – I wanted to find healthy, protein alternatives to fill me up. And here I am now substituting naturally occurring meat from animals who are part of our food chain, for genetically modified food that a scientist concocted in some lab. Is that really a better choice?

Here are some redeeming qualities of the Impossible Burger:

  1. It uses 75% less water, 95% less land, and generates about 87% lower greenhouse gas emissions than a conventional burger from cows.
  2. It’s produced without using hormones or antibiotics, normally injected into cattle.
  3. It contains no cholesterol.
  4. It doesn’t kill animals.

So, the big question: would I order the Impossible Burger again, knowing all that I know now? Probably not. Controversies aside, I wasn’t super wowed with the taste. And if it doesn’t taste that good, and I have moral reservations, what’s the point? I think I’ll stick to typical veggie burgers for now.

Vegetarians, Day 3: That Smells Good, Too Bad I Can’t Eat It

Day 3

At the start of this experiment, I decided I never wanted to be one of those people who make their vegetarianism a big deal. I’m not here to preach, convert, or make anyone go out of their way by adjusting their cooking to fit my lifestyle. I’m just here to eat fewer animals for a month.

Last night, my book club had its monthly meeting and dinner (side note: we call it the Shithole Book Club and we only read books by authors who are from “shithole” countries, according to Trump). My friend who hosted told the group she was going to make a French cassoulet — a casserole, typically made of beans and you guessed it, meat. I called her to ask if I could possible scoop around the meat. She let me know that wasn’t really possible and that the sausage was cut up very small.

Here it was: my first vegetarian conundrum.

Just to be clear, I hadn’t told my friend I was doing this experiment. I really didn’t want her to have to change her plans for 1 of 7 people. I also knew others would bring an appetizer and a side dish to go with the main. I told her not to worry about me. “Worse case scenario, I can just fill up on bread.” So that was my strategy. And then I walked into her house.

I was immediately overcome with the delicious smell of the cassoulet. In a split second, my brain went from saying, “That smells sooo good, I can’t wait to eat it,” to “Fuck! I can’t eat it!” And I realized this experiment might actually be harder than I wanted to admit.

But in the end, I stuck to my plan and it really wasn’t a big deal. I ate cheese and crackers, bread, and huge helping of a delicious walnut grapefruit kale salad. I was full and I was satisfied.

Part of what I’m learning is that more than anything this is a re-conditioning of my brain. I do not need to eat meat, or even a meat substitute, at every meal–that’s just what I was conditioned to believe up to this point in my life. I think I also learned that although I don’t need to push my ideals on others, it might not be the worst idea to mention in advance that I’m doing this experiment to a) not make my friends feel bad if they cook meat and b) to make sure there is something else available.

If anyone has tips on how to broach the vegetarian subject in a non-annoying way when someone has you over for dinner, I’d love to hear it! Also, do folks ever bring over their own food, or is that weird?

Vegetarians, Day 2: Ooe, Eee, Ooe, Killer Tofu!

Day 2

Last night we decided to host our friends for dinner, and not only cook a vegetarian meal, but also attempt to cook tofu. For the first time. Ever.

It was a pretty gutsy (read: dumb) move since they have been vegetarians for years and have cooked tofu a million times. But this experiment is about taking chances and they agreed to be our guinea pigs.

One of the first roadblocks I ran into was not knowing there were so many different kinds of tofu. Soft (which looked liked ricotta cheese in a tube *shutters*), Medium (a slight step up in hardness, but still not necessarily solid); Firm (a solid, sponge-like block in water); and Extra Firm (like Firm, but tougher and less water content). Un/Fortunately I had already blindly purchased the firm variety, not knowing there was a difference, so that’s what I went with.

Then I discovered a long-held debate in the Tofu World: To Press or Not to Press? In Western culture, people generally prefer to press to get as much water out as possible so that the tofu itself is harder and so they are avoiding a spongy texture. But according to a YouTuber I watched who is from Korea, they don’t mind the spongy texture and therefore they don’t press it. Since I’m neither Korean, nor really know what I’m doing, I went with a happy medium: squeezing the tofu between two cutting boards once or twice. Was this the right thing to do or even the right method? Probably not. I could make a whole other post on the varying methods for how to press, including stacking books on top … (which just seems dangerous, but ok).

Next , it was time to transform the tofu from a tasteless, egglike mass into something resembling food. I chopped it up into cubes and put it in this marinade to sit overnight:

  • Oyster sauce
  • Soy sauce
  • Rice vinegar
  • Maple syrup
  • Ginger
  • Garlic

I discovered the next morning that the tofu sucked up most of the marinade. So my effort to press it now seemed moot. Maybe that’s why Koreans don’t bother.

Finally it was time to bake it. I found a recipe that recommended coating the tofu in cornstarch to help get it crispy and baking it at 350 degrees. But here’s the part that killed me – it said to cook it for between 20 and 45 minutes. That’s a big range. How would I possibly know when it’s done?! 

In the end, I cooked it for 30 minutes total, flipping at the 10 minute marks as suggested. The tofu did not turn out crispy, but it also wasn’t terrible. It held its shape and tasted like the marinade. For being my first time cooking it, I was pleasantly surprised.

Here are my general observations about tofu:

  • You really have to put some time and work in to make it taste good.
  • It’s not a very forgiving product to work with (cutting, pressing, etc).
  • I doubt I will become tofu’s biggest fan by the end of this experiment.

P.S. Who can name the cartoon this clip came from?!

Vegetarians for a Month

Dan and I decided that for the month of January, we will be vegetarians. We’re going to give it a go and re-evaluate on February 1st if no meat is really the way for us.

People have asked me if there was a significant moment that lead to this decision, and there was–the lambs in Iceland. Everywhere we drove, we were surrounded by these fluff balls of cuteness, who looked so innocent and happy. Then we would go into a restaurant and see “rack of lamb” as the special, and I’d lose my appetite.

img_2590

Sheep in Iceland, photo by me

Funny enough, three weeks earlier when we were driving around South Dakota and Wyoming, seeing cattle had the opposite effect on me: I craved steak and couldn’t wait to order a juicy hamburger. I can’t really explain it, except maybe that some animals are cuter than others.

Since those two trips in October, we’ve made a conscious effort to eat less meat. So we’ve been easing ourselves into this decision and aren’t just going to quit cold turkey (to be clear, we WILL be quitting turkey, just not…cold? This is getting weird). Anyway.

I’ll be posting about our experiment here when I have updates. In the meantime, please feel free to share your favorite vegetarian recipes below!

How to Travel to ANY Destination!

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”
– St. Augustine

We have a dry erase board at work that we use to ask each other different questions every month. A few months ago the question was, “If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?” It’s an innocent enough question, but it actually really bothered me. And it bothered me because of one word: if.

As I literally found myself writing a public service announcement response about how attainable travel really is, I thought better of it and decided to write here instead. So let me just state the obvious: Traveling to your favorite destination IS possible! 

The problem with the word “if” is that it qualifies travel as this mysterious thing that only happens to really rich/lucky people and is something that is never going to happen to you. Don’t accept that. You get one fucking life. ONE. You CAN be a person who travels to a place they read about in a magazine, or saw in a movie, or heard about through a friend. Like anything in life, you have to make travel a priority and you have to come up with a plan. Here’s what you do:

Step 1: Pick the destination in your mind. That’s all you have to do for step one. Just know where you want to go.

Step 2: Do some research. Figure out the cost of flights, hotels, rental car, and any activities you might do there. You’re just ball-parking at this point—no need to get exact.

Step 3: Get real about your money.  Now that you know how much the trip could potentially cost, look at your finances. Do you have that much money in your bank account? If yes, awesome! If not, time to analyze. Excluding bills, what are you spending your money on? Look for items that you could curtail, like that $5 Frapp you buy each morning. Expenses that don’t seem like very much in the moment add up over time. A $5 coffee each morning = $35 a week, $150 a month, or $1825 a year! That’s like an entire trip right there! Maybe you have an online shopping habit, or maybe you go to the movies each weekend. Whatever it is, ask yourself, “Is this more important than traveling?” If it is, I have no time for you — goodbye. If it’s not, read on!

Step 4: Setup a savings account JUST FOR TRAVEL.  Did you gasp at this idea? I know, me too when I thought of it originally (note: I did not invent this idea). When my partner Dan and I were first getting into travel and doing these same steps, we knew we had to do something different than saving money in our bank accounts. If we saw money in there, we were going to spend it. So I had the idea of us physically withdrawing money every paycheck and putting it in a “travel jar.” Beside this being a really dumb idea if we had been robbed, it was also foolish because it meant the money we were saving was not gaining any interest. So instead we looked for a savings account with a high interest rate. We landed with an online bank and a 1% interest rate. I highly suggest using a different bank than the one you keep the rest of your money in so that you are not easily tempted to use it. What you want to do is pretend this account doesn’t exist or that you don’t have permission to access it. I love my bank for this reason because I don’t have an ATM card…BUT if shit hits the fan, I can do an online transfer to my other bank in a couple days.

Another tip is to open a credit card that earns travel points. There are lots out there that help you earn miles, or will even forgive travel related expenses.

Step 5: Start saving money. Some people will interpret this sentence as, “DEPRIVE YOURSELF OF EVERYTHING.” But that’s not what I’m suggesting. What I’m suggesting is little improvements here and there. Think back to step 3 and how much you’re spending on non-essentials and decide on a number that is doable for you. I don’t care if you can only afford to save $9 a paycheck–do it. Go to your HR department, give them that magical number and setup a direct deposit. You will be shocked at how quickly this money adds up!

Step 6: Get obsessed with savings. You’ve got your travel savings account, you’re making regular deposits, and now it’s time to get obsessed with saving money. How exactly do you do this? Challenge yourself to make deposits whenever possible and then be really proud of yourself when you do!

Let’s pretend you were thinking of going out to dinner. After booze and food, your meal might have cost you $25-$50. Let’s also pretend your plans fell through and now you’re making dinner at home. Take the $25-50 you would have spent on that meal and deposit it!  Here’s another scenario:  you just got a raise at work. Guess what? You survived on the amount you were making before. Time to invest the difference. Calculate your increase per paycheck, go back to HR, and change the amount you are depositing into your travel account. Again, I don’t care if you’re only make .38c more per paycheck — deposit it!

Step 7: Get prepared to actually use some of your time off. I can’t tell you how many people I know who lose PTO by the end of the year because they didn’t take enough days off. What the actual fuck is wrong with these people!? They’re PAID vacation days. They are one of the perks of your employment! If you are one of these people, first of all, I feel sorry for you. Secondly, what are you worried about? That the office is going to fall apart without you? That your boss will deny your request? If you have a good boss, they will understand the importance of taking time off. It’s not just some cush benefit; we receive time off to RESET so that we can come back and continue to do our jobs well. We are not doing ourselves or our organization any favors by being overworked, super grumps. So use it!

Step 8: Be flexible on the timing of your trip. Did you know timing can greatly affect how much your trip costs? A recent study said that the best time to book domestic flights is 54 days out; the booking window for international flights varies greatly.  Even the day of week you fly on matters. I highly recommend using Google Flights to try different days and months.

Another factor is that every destination has a peak tourist season.You can save yourself a lot of money and avoid big crowds by booking off-season. For example, Italy’s peak season is May-August. Dan and I have visited twice: once in April and once in late May/early June. The trip we took off season saved us upwards of $500 per person!

But let’s be honest — sometimes you are choosing a location because of the season. For example, you might be booking a trip to a Caribbean island to escape winter. In that case, understand there’s not much you can do and get used to the idea of paying a premium.

Step 9. Keep your eyes peeled for deals. There are tons of travel websites out there that offer vacation packages. They often come up suddenly and disappear just as quickly. But if you can find one, bundling your airfare and lodging will save you so much money! I personally swear by Travelzoo. They release a weekly email called The Top 20, which features the best deals they’ve come across from each week. I’ve booked at least three vacations through them. Remember how I said we found an off-season deal to Italy? That was through Travelzoo: 7 nights, airfare, hotels, and rental car for a total of $699 per person. Literally less than the price of one airplane ticket to Italy. You can also try the vacation bundle options at Priceline, Kayak, and Travelocity (or a million other sites).

Step 10. Make a more concrete budget. In step 2, you researched ballpark prices of airfare, lodging, car rental and activities. Now it’s time to get exact prices. You should have an idea of when you want to travel, so start plugging in some dates and times to get costs. Try different websites, different days of the week, and different months. Think about the activities you want to do while you’re there and get some prices. When you’ve collected all the pieces, make a budget that includes:

  • Anything you need to buy for your trip. For example, do you need a passport?
  • Transportation to/from the airport
  • Airfare
  • Lodging
  • Car rental or public transportation at the destination
  • Activities (entrance fees, tickets, etc)
  • Food and drink

After making this budget, you might find you still don’t have enough money. And that can discouraging, but it’s part of the process. Keep saving! When you finally do have enough to take this trip, you will appreciate it so much more.

Step 11. Pull the trigger! When you’ve finally saved enough money to get to the destination of your dreams, pat yourself on the back! You set a goal for yourself and you did it! Tell work you’re finally going to take a freakin’ vacation. Then book that trip and have an amazing time!

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
– Mark Twain