Getting Organizized

There was a problem in our kitchen. A big one. No, the dishwasher wasn't overflowing and the fridge didn't stop 'frigeratin. The problem was the pantry, and it's been a problem since we moved in about 9 months ago.

The house we're renting has a small kitchen. Not small, tiny. Ok, not tiny, it's miniscule. Have you seen a nice walk-in closet lately? I'm sure it was bigger than our kitchen. Not the point. The point is, the kitchen is SO small in fact that the pantry closet is not even in the kitchen. And the pantry closet is small. Well, not small, it's tiny. Ah, you get where I'm going with this.

Our pantry closet is in the laundry room adjacent the kitchen, and it's where we keep our "most used" items and anything that we need to protect from our curious kitties, so, breakfast items, snacks, most glass bottles, etc. Luckily, there are big shelves over the washer/dryer area, and that's where the bulk of our pantry items live.

Until today, that area looked like this:



Since we buy a lot of things in bulk or preserve them ourselves by dehydrating them, we ended up with all these plastic bags of things. Ugh! Let's discuss just a few of the myriad of badness that is our previous storage system:

1. Bags can be stacked, taking up less room, but once you have a mountain of plastic baggies, you'll never know how many of them actually just contain raisins.

2. Bags tear. It doesn't happen often, but it does happen and you only need one cocoa powder explosion to know that this system is defunct.

3. "Where are the almonds? No, not the whole ones - not the slivered ones - where are the sliced almonds? I know we have some... where... could... they... Oh, damn. I see them. Behind the dryer. Frak."

You see where this is headed, and we're headed there in a handbasket. Or, that's how I felt until I finally had the last straw this morning while preparing breakfast. Unable to find one of three bags of dried blueberries that I knew were on the shelf, I made a plan to rescue myself from this pantry of horrors.

I would have liked to invest in an army of vaccuum-sealed hard plastic containers, but our budget does not currently include such luxuries. However, I knew there was a pretty simple alternative. After a quick trip to BigLots, I set to work matching each bag (or pile of like bags) with the appropriate-sized container. A lot of items were already in containers, so I didn't bother to buy new ones for those things. I made a list of everything and whipped up some easy-to-read labels as well. (That's a free font called Stencil, in case you're wondering.) This way, we can not only see what we have, but we'll be able to easily see what we're running low on so we can add it to our shopping list. EASY.

And, I think it looks kinda cool.





Best of all? It didn't cost me an arm and a leg. I spent $10 on containers and used labels that I already had on hand AND I still have a few containers of each size left over in case I forgot something!

Next week, maybe I'll tackle the next shelf of fruit and veggies that I dried this past fall because right now, it's a hot mess, as you can see...

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A new addition!

I received a little surprised yesterday and I'm here today to announce a new addition to our household! Now, hold on, folks. Don't get ahead of me! We're not expecting, and we haven't welcomed any new critters into our home lately. I'm talking about salt.

You see, my descendants hail from the Mediterranean and we have a desperate love affair with salt. I don't care what the experts say on the matter - give me a healthy dose of sea salt, olive oil and red wine, and see who outlives whom!

Now, friends, you might be picturing me as the kind of gal who has eleventeen different varieties of salt stashed away in her spice cabinet, but you're wrong. Until now, there were only two kinds of sea salt in our house: coarse and fine sea salt. Yesterday, I came into possession of a small bottle of a different kind of salt and now I'm afraid I might begin collecting even more varieties, because I, dear friends, am a salt fiend.



In my hot little hand, I hold a bottle of Red Alaea Salt from Hawaii. Apparently, it goes well with everything and has a high iron content, making it especially interesting to my dear vegan ears. The bottle in my possession comes from my friends at Mountain Rose Herbs, based in Eugene, OR. I've dealt with them for years as a source of all things herbal, but I often overlook their culinary spice section (partly for fear that I might order half their inventory and put myself and my spice collection out on the street in doing so). This time, I had to indulge.

This 4.5oz bottle will likely last me a looooong time, as I suspect I'll be using this salt more as a garnish than anything. I was still incredibly eager to get into that bottle and have a taste!



It was, after all, taunting me with "100% Organic goodness." Who can't resist that? So, after whipping off the lid and dispensing of the shaker top and safety seal, I finally got to the salt of the matter.



The flavor is difficult to describe, as are most flavors. Although it had been described as "mellow," I thought it had more of a piquant flavor - vaguely reminiscent of rock salt, which I shamelessly adore. And it's red, which is what drew me to it in the first place. (I'm working on a super secret Valentine's Day project involving salt and red things... Hmmm, what could it be? Stay tuned for more hints!)

I can't wait to take this salt for a test drive. I'm not even sure what I'll use it on first, but rest assured, I'll be coming back to tell you all about it soon enough.

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As the crow flies, the carnivore cooks...

Dear readers, I'm sorry I've been quite for so long. I've been sick. Sick, sick, sick! I haven't been leaving the house much, let alone cook anything. So, I thought I'd check in and finally give you all the report of LAST Monday's meatless dinner, a la Lee the carnivore! Enjoy...

Last Monday was Lee's second week as our Meatless Monday Chef and I'm back today to report on the dinner he prepared for us.

First up, let's review the menu. Selecting menu items is often a challenge for us. We stare blankly into our pantry, flip through cookbooks and blogs, and try desperately to recall the dishes we've neglected to make for far too  long. Neither of us has particularly specific food cravings, so when some people might say, "I really feel like having broccoli tonight" we might say, "Something green, maybe?" It took a few minutes of discussion and cookbooking before we arrived at what would be our evening meal:

Balsamic Glazed Portabello Mushrooms and Tofu
Lemony Herb Mini Shell Pasta
Roasted Cauliflower Soup


Although Lee is the Monday chef around here now, no chef can work without a sous chef and that's where I come in.Our kitchen is exceptionally small, so when we cook together, we're like a tag team. We try not to both be working on the stove at the same time or both trying to squeeze in front of the sink or the cutting board. Since I knew that Lee was a little nervous about his chef responsibilities, I decided to get started early so I could stay out of his way and be available to offer guidance if he needed it later.

A couple of hours before dinner, I cut several heads of cauliflower into florets, drizzled them with olive oil and roasted them on a foiled baking sheet at 400 for about 45 minutes. After they cooled, I pureed them in the food processor with some water, vegetable broth, minced garlic, salt and pepper. In my opinion, those are the only additional ingredients that ever really need to go into roasted veggie soups, regardless of what the veggie is. Since roasting brings out such rich textures and flavors from "boring" vegetables, they just don't need a lot of help to become a delicious soup.

Right before Lee got home from work, I put a pot of water on to boil and got the pasta started. I cooked the pasta to just a hair past al dente, drained it and returned it to the pot with a tablespoon or so of olive oil and a generous sprinkling of sea salt, followed by fat pinches of oregano and thyme. Oregano and thyme are both very earthy herbs and, if left to their own devices, can easily turn a bowl of yummy pasta into an overwhelming peaty dish. To brighten up the dish, I added a big splash of lemon juice, my secret weapon. I lidded the pot and pushed it to a back burner to keep warm until Lee prepared the main event.

Glazing seems like a no brainer to me but if you've never done it before, I guess it seems a little strange. Basically, where mushrooms and tofu are concerned, you cook them for what seems like a long time so that they release as much moisture as possible. Then, just when you think they're about to burn, you add what seems like way too much balsamic vinegar (or red wine, Mmmmm) and cook for a few more minutes. Miraculously, the mushrooms and tofu suck up all the added moisture, plumping up beautifully and leaving very little excess liquid in the pan. After the fact, Lee said it wasn't as hard as he thought it was going to be.

I wish I could show you beautiful pictures of this meal, but I have a confession to make about that. This week, we got so wrapped up in the preparation of the meal that I plumb forgot to take photos before we devoured everything. And, you guessed it, there were NO leftovers! So, instead, I can draw you a mental picture. Imagine the most delicious, moist, fragrant sliced portabello mushrooms you've ever seen. Turn them up to 11. Now you're getting it.

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Dispelling the Vegan Myth

Almost nothing pleases me more than feeding tasty organic, vegan food to people who think they hate organic, vegan food. Or even to people who are simply picky bird-like eaters. Over the weekend, I had an opportunity to do it again and it got me thinking about how important my food philosophy is to my identity. I thought it might be an interesting topic for discussion here.

[caption id="attachment_406" align="alignleft" width="168" caption="Photo from lolpix.com"][/caption]

We're all familiar with the vegan myth, although I'm betting some of you still think it's the truth. The vegan myth is the belief that vegan food (and sometimes merely “healthy” food in general) is just rabbit food. It's inherently flavorless, mealy, boring, unsatisfying and unappetizing. If you've ever checked out the photos on FoodGawker.com, maybe you've been convinced that it can be at least eye-catching, but how food looks is only one small part of the experience, obviously.

Any type of food can suck if it's not prepared properly or with poor quality ingredients or by someone who simply doesn't understand food magic. However, many people think that it's not possible for vegan food to be amazing and delicious, and that's the myth I live to dispel. Luckily, my diverse collection of friends and acquaintances give me plenty of opportunities to do just that. That makes feeding vegan food to non-vegans one of my favorite pastimes.

On Saturday, I had the great pleasure of spending time with a dear, dear friend who currently lives on the opposite corner of the continent. We've known each other for about 15 years, so you could say we know each other well. She's the kind of girl who can and will eat anything she wants, including a bag of cheese curls at 4am, just because. As she snarfed down the last bite of the Tofu Benedict I made for her, she confessed to me, “I never finish anything.” And then she licked the plate. This is the sort of thing that makes me just beam.

Lee, my conscious omni partner in crime, made another observation about how my food is received by non-veg types. Thinking about several of the holiday potluck events we attended, he explained that most non-veg people he knows are so skeptical of vegan food that they would either refuse to try it, or they'd ask, “That's... (pregnant pause, fearful gulp)... vegan?” before they gave it the teensiest taste. We've all seen that approach, I'm sure, and it breaks my heart a little every time. However, my food doesn't net that reaction and hasn't for a long time. Typically, my dishes are preceded by my reputation. When it comes to potlucks, I am “the girl with the amazing food” first and “the vegan girl” second. So, as Lee observed, when non-veg people taste my food, their reaction is completely different. They inquire, I explain, they taste, and their eyes open wide with delight and amazement. They say, often with mouths full, “That's VEGAN?! No way! It's too good!” and then proceed to stuff their faces.

I'm in heaven.

On Sunday morning, when I fed coffee w/ soy milk and a black bean brownie to my out-of-towner for breakfast, she shed more light. She told me about how she was always up for trying vegan cookies and such, but that she'd been disappointed so many times because they weren't moist enough, they fell apart, or just didn't taste like she wanted them to. I'll admit, I had to repeat “black bean brownie” to her several times before her brain could process it, but once she bit in, she ooh'd and aah'd and I felt a little sad that I'd just given her the last brownie in the house. So, when she left, I packed several coffee chip muffins (a la Vegan Brunch) in a sack for her journey homeward. I'm fairly certain none of them made it to the east coast.

These are a few of my favorite things.

...Coming next on the blog: How to Cook Tofu and other things Lee is learning on Meatless Mondays!

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Vegan Bake Sales for Haiti

Holy cow, it's been a busy week in my life and elsewhere in the world. I consider myself lucky that I only had a cough/cold as I watch the news of Haiti's slow recovery (if you can call it that yet) from the 7.0 earthquake that struck the tiny island on Tuesday, January 12. With thousands dead and an estimated 3 million affected, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere needs outside assistance now more than ever.

Vegans across the nation are getting organized and hosting bake sales to benefit Haiti. The lovely and talented vegan cookbook goddess Isa Chandra Moskowitz posted a list of bake sales on The PPK blog and if you're interested in participating, you should check it out. I also recommend following Isa on Twitter, as she's been doing more than her part to spread the word as more bake sales are scheduled.

If you're near a bake sale, get in on it! Bake something, buy something, eat something and help those who are not in a position to help themselves. And remember, because it's for humanitarian purposes, the calories don't count.

If you're NOT near a bake sale, maybe you want to consider pulling one together. Isa has great tips on how to do that in a big fat hurry.

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Meatless Monday aftermath & Black Bean Brownies

Yesterday, I told you all about our recent decision to have Lee cook our meals on Meatless Monday. I'm back today to talk about best laid plans and how oft they go awry.

In our house, Monday is probably a lot like Monday in your house. It comes too early and no matter what we do over the weekend, you find yourself at least marginally unprepared for the events of the day. We spent some time over the weekend meticulously planning our meals and coordinating our grocery shopping, so that was covered. However, we didn't anticipate both having the day off at the last minute's notice.

Once we realized that, we decided to devote our "spare" day to a household project we've been putting off. We invited a very handy friend over, and the hours flew by. Suddenly, it was dinner time and bellies were rumbling and Lee was eyeball deep in the aforementioned project. So, I made dinner. See?


Since we painstakingly collected the ingredients and I've been dying to try this recipe for two weeks now, I went ahead with the original plan and made Creamy Tomato Gnocchi, a recipe by Kinzie of To Cheese or Not to Cheese?, which is featured on the Meatless Monday site. Except I left out the zucchini because, well, it's January and zucchini doesn't grow in Washington in January! So, instead I paired the gnocchi with a few steamed broccoli florets.

Let me say first that the recipe is SUPER easy and a child could make it (with supervision) and given its simplicity, I never expected that the results would be so utterly and outright delicious. Let me put it this way: I fed this vegan dish to two carnivores and they omm'd and they nomm'd and scraped the bottoms of their bowls. I should have made a double batch!

Since the guys really ended up doing most of the work last night, I also made a special treat: brownies! But not just any brownies. I whipped up a batch of Black Bean Brownies from HappyHerbivore.com and the three of us were equally amazed by the result.I know what you're thinking, because we were thinking it too. Black beans... in a dessert? Well, after watching Lindsay make them on her internet show, I was 99% sold. The only thing left was a taste test, and they passed with flying colors! We'll never doubt it again; black beans and cocoa are a match made in fudgey brownie heaven! And come on, have you ever met another vegan brownie that only contains 1g of fat per serving and packs a whopping 4g of protein? And looks like this?



I followed the original recipe more or less exactly, except that I reduced the ground cinnamon from 1 Tbsp to approx 1/2 Tbsp (because I don't like cinnamon very much) and increased the oats from 1/4 cup to approx 3/8 cup. I heard no complains about my modifications, and most of the pan of brownies disappeared within 20 minutes of us digging in! Winner!

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Meatless Monday #9: A new twist....

Lee  is really getting into this Meatless Monday thing, but so far, we have to admit that the vast majority of his Monday lunches and dinner were prepared by yours truly or purchased at a restaurant. Well, all of that changes today!

From here on out, we're shifting the tables and Lee will be preparing as many of our Monday meals as possible. What better way to get a carnivore in touch with their veggie side than to put the chef's knife in his hand?

Lee's a pretty good cook and I don't hand out descriptors like that to just anyone. You see, my Sicilian heritage endows me with certain unalienable kitchen snobbery rights. Although I try not to overdo it, I do consider myself more than moderately critical of food in general and home-cooked food in specific. But, his knife skills currently leave a little to be desired and he's still a little confused about what the heck to do with tofu.

That aside, I have no doubt that he can do it. And by that, I mean produce healthy meatless meals that not only look and smell amazing, but taste like a dream. I'll be helping with the meal planning and hanging out in the kitchen to offer a little moral support, but it'll be my job to hang back, sip wine, and keep my paws off the spoons and spatulas. I can do this.

So, what's on top for Lee's first "solo" Meatless Monday? We're having lunch at home today, so we'll be dining on leftovers as per our usual approach. Last week, I made Mushroom-Barley Soup but substituted 1 lb sliced shiitake mushrooms for the crimini, and it turned out spectacular. I'm craving salad, so perhaps today is the day that Lee will learn how to make salad dressing from the Orange Muscat Champagne Vinegar we picked up this weekend from Trader Joe's.

And thanks to a 'best laid plan' gone awry from last Monday, we planned Creamy Tomato Gnocchi for dinner tonight. Even though that's what I had in mind last week, we ran into a little inventory problem and had to change the plan at the last minute. We remedied this over the weekend, and will be dining on gnocchi with a side of steamed broccoli tonight, as prepared by Chef Lee. Stay tuned tomorrow for the full report from yours truly and maybe even a few words from the chef himself!

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Breakfast for Dinner: Tofu Scramble, Roasted Sweet Potato & Biscuits!

If you converted to veganism after growing up on meat and eggs, tofu scramble might have been one of the first dishes you learned to make as a new vegan. Tofu is tricky, as we all well know, but scrambles are a great way to introduce new people to the art of cooking tofu and making it taste like something other than a sponge.

Tofu scrambles are a dime a dozen, but I'm giving this one away for free because I think it's the one everyone should start with. It's my adaptation of the tofu scramble recipe from Vegan Brunch, the new book from goddess Isa Chandra Moskowitz that I blogged about back in November. I received my very own copy recently from a certain Meatless Monday carnivore, so I was thrilled to be able to test out many more recipes from the book!



Tofu Scramble
(Adapted from Vegan Brunch)
Yield: 1 serving with possible leftovers

1/2 tsp cumin
1/8 tsp (or one fat pinch) dried thyme, crushed with your fingers
1 regular pinch ground turmeric
1/4 tsp salt
1 Tbsp water
1/2 Tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup or so of finely diced bell pepper (your favorite color)
4-6oz firm or extra firm tofu, drained
4-5 mushrooms, sliced thinly
2 Tbsp nutritional yeast
1/2 carrot, grated
2 Tbsp finely chopped parsley

In a teeny prep bowl or measuring cup, combine herbs, salt and water. Stir and set aside.

In a medium-sized heavy-bottomed pan, heat olive oil. Add garlic and bell peppers. Stir with a wooden spatula and cook for about 3-4 minutes or until bell peppers begin to soften.

Add mushrooms and tofu. When I add my tofu, I just use my fingers to tear it into big chunks before tossing it into the pan. Use your wooden spatula to break up the tofu further into approximately bite sized pieces. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Make sure you really get under the tofu, scraping up any browned or burned bits from the bottom of the pan. These are what will give your tofu scramble a more complex taste and texture, so you don't want to miss out! Plus, if you don't scrape the pan, those bits will just continue to burn and, well, ewww.

Add the reserved spice blend and stir to combine. Then, add the nutritional yeast and grated carrots. Stir and cook for about 3-4 minutes. Then add parsley (or fresh basil... or heck, any fresh herb you want!) and stir in. Cook another 1-2 minutes or until you just can't take it anymore. Serve warm!

--

If this were brunch, the tofu scramble and perhaps an orange would be all I'd need to start the day. But I'm HUNGRY at the end of a long work-day, so dinner requires a few side dishes to make this a complete meal for me. I knew exactly what I wanted for this meal:


  • 1 sweet potato, roasted 400°F for 30-40 minutes then topped with a drizzle of agave nectar and a dash of sweet paprika

  • 1 biscuit - See my recipe here!

  • 1/2 avocado, sliced (Yes, it was a little bruised but that doesn't deter me!)


This made for a truly satisfying dinner and I cleaned the plate. And, after this, we're talking about doing breakfast for dinner on a weekly basis!

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Meatless Monday #8: What's for dinner?

Happy 2010, folks! It's a new year, and Lee is still fully committed to his Meatless Monday pledge.Yay!

So, what's on the menu for today? Well, dear readers, I'm not really sure. Meatless Monday lunches are typically composed of weekend leftovers. However, between our New Years Eve party and having one heck of a head cold, we haven't been cooking much lately.

Leftovers currently in our fridge include a tub of tofu sour cream and onion dip, white bean hummus and, if I'm not mistaken, a bit of white rice. There's not exactly a meal in there, so Lee will be fending for himself for lunch today. He'll be dining out near his office and encountering firsthand the challenge that many veg-heads struggle with everyday: the sheer lack of veg options on most restaurant menus.

Now, remember that the Meatless Monday pledge isn't a vegan promise. Lee's only going vegetarian on Mondays, so he might opt for a Chinese vegetable fried rice or perhaps a cheesy bean burrito. But even finding vegetarian options on many menus can be a big challenge, and secretly, I'm a bit pleased that he'll be navigating this challenge today. It's a good way to see how the other half lives. :)

So, that's lunch... What's for dinner? It's only 10:30am and I'm already wondering that myself! Luckily, the folks at the Meatless Monday campaign send a great weekly e-mail that includes links to featured recipes. You can check out a whole litany of meatless recipes on their website, with a new menu every week. There's a wide variety of dishes to choose from, so the only real challenge is making a decision!

Today's featured dinner dish is calling my name. It's Creamy Tomato Gnocchi which is entirely vegan! The recipe is from Kinzie at To Cheese or Not to Cheese and, having tried several of her recipes, I've come to trust her as a talented vegan cook and recipe writer. Tender little gnocchi dumplings are right up our alley, and it just so happens that we have a little carton of cherry tomatoes on hand already. I'll plan to pair the gnocchi with some steamed broccoli or perhaps a mixed green salad with mustard vinaigrette. I haven't decided yet!

There you have it, folks. Our first Monday of the new year and we're off and running! If you'd like to check out some of our previous Meatless Monday posts, here are some links to help you out, including the first one, the second one with a great lasagna recipe, the third one with soup and pizza and the fourth one with our favorite crock pot meal.

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Leek-Potato Soup

In my opinion, you can never have too many soup recipes. Soups are great for lunch or dinner, as  main dish or a side dish, or even as an afternoon snack. They're a great way to use up leftover veggies that have been hanging around in your fridge too long, and soup is also the perfect vehicle for sneaking vegetables into the diets of any picky kids you might happen to know.

Fortunately, there are no picky kids here! Just us verdant soup lovers who crave something savory and hearty. For us, this soup makes a perfect meal when accompanied by a salad and a crusty baguette.



Leek-Potato Soup
Yield: About 4 dinner servings or 8 side servings

1 Tbsp olive oil
2 medium leeks, cut lengthwise and then chopped (and rinsed!)
1/2 large white onion, chopped
1 Tbsp chopped garlic
1 lb (about 4 medium) butterball or other thinly skinned potatoes, diced into 1/2-inch cubes
2 cups vegetable broth
2 cups water
1/2 Tbsp dried thyme
1/2 Tbsp dried oregano
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh parsley, plus extra for garnish
1 tsp sea salt, plus more to taste
nutritional yeast flakes, for topping
vegan bac'n bits, for topping

In a medium stock pot, heat oil over medium high heat. Add leeks, onion and garlic. Stir with a wooden spoon and cook a few minutes, until leeks begin to wilt. Add potatoes, vegetable broth, water, thyme and oregano. Stir and increase to high heat. Bring to a boil and simmer until potatoes are tender. Add parsley and salt, taste and adjust if needed. With a manual potato masher, smash up about half the potatoes until a nice chunky consistency is reached. Stir again to recombine and serve topped with one healthy pinch each of nutritional yeast, veg bac'n bits and fresh chopped parsley.

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