Easy Baked Gnocchi with Butternut Béchamel

The other day on Facebook, I mentioned going through a bit of a comfort food conniption fit. Well, I didn't say it like that but that's what I meant. Our false spring ended abruptly and the biting cold has returned. I've been craving hearty baked dishes like no man's business. But, I didn't want to make a big production out of it and I certainly didn't want to make a huge dish of something I'd be forced to eat for a week, breakfast, lunch and dinner!

What's a girl to do? Turn to her trusty fridge and say, "Trusty fridge, what do you have in there to chase away my icy cold blues without creating a giant mess or an onslaught of leftovers?"

The answer? Well, there was no answer because refrigerators don't talk. Or at least mine doesn't. But I did spy a package of whole wheat gnocchi that I'd snagged recently at Trader Joe's. Their regular potato version isn't vegan but the whole wheat variety is! Score!

Gnocchi is a perfect candidate for baked dishes because it cooks quickly. It can be baked in as little as 20 minutes, as opposed to traditional pasta that takes over an hour (or must be par-boiled prior to baking). Remember my desire for a no-fuss baked dish? Gnocchi it is!

My fridge dialogue also let me know I was running pretty darn low on fresh produce. Lucky for me, I had part of an onion, a few mushrooms and a freezer stash of spring peas. The real find, however, was some leftover butternut squash in the fridge, already cooked from an earlier recipe. This is when the lightbulb went on.

A quick trip to the pantry for some staples and this simple, elegant, and truly comforting baked gnocchi dish was born. You're welcome.

Easy Baked Gnocchi with Butternut Béchamel and Vegetables
Yield: 1 entree or 2 side servings

3/4 cup whole wheat gnocchi
1/4 cup frozen peas
2-3 mushrooms, chopped finely
1/2 cup mashed roasted butternut squash (or canned puree)
1/2 cup plain almond milk
1/2 cup vegetable broth (or 1/2 cup water plus 1/2 tsp Better than Bouillon)
1 Tbsp arrowroot powder
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/4 tsp dried rubbed sage
  1. Preheat oven to 400°F.
  2. Place gnocchi, peas and mushrooms in a 2-cup baking dish or two 1-cup ramekins.
  3. In a small saucepan, combine remaining ingredients and whisk frequently over medium heat until it begins to thicken, approximately 5-6 minutes.
  4. Pour sauce over gnocchi and vegetables.
  5. Bake 20-22 minutes until gnocchi are fork tender.
  6. Allow to cool 5 minutes before serving.
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I love Joe.

It's a confession. It's a love story. I love Trader Joe's and I don't care what anyone thinks. They're an intentionally small chain. They treat (and pay) their employees well. And their foods are freakin' delicious.

There's another reason I love Trader Joe's. They make it really stinkin' easy for vegans, vegetarians, gluten-free, and other special dietary needs folks to shop their stores. How? They publish (and regularly update) product guides on their website for each of these various food persuasions.

Vegan? Vegetarian? Gluten-free? Something else (at the bottom)? 

They're also just plumb crazy enough to put that little V right on their products. Yup, right on the front. Go ahead, test me. Trek to your local Trader Joe's and see for yourself. You won't even have to read the ingredient list, unless you just like to do that for fun.

Plus, they sell $3 bottles of wine that don't suck. But you already knew that, didn't you? Yeah, Trader Joe's rocks.

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What's Fresh: Sweet potatoes... still.

Sweet potatoes are ubiquitous winter fare and chances are, you already overdosed on them during the holiday season. Yet, these little orangey-gold gems are still filling the market shelves and new spring crops are still quite a ways away. If you're sick of sweet potatoes, it's probably just time to find a new way to prepare them. Lucky for you, sweet potatoes are this month's What's Fresh feature and I've got some ideas.

We all know sweet potatoes and yams are delicious but do you know how good for you they are? They're a low-fat complex carbohydrate food, and they're ranked as the #1 vegetable for nutrition.

Check out these vegan recipes for a different take on the same old tuber:

Red Lentil and Sweet Potato Hummus by Whole Foods
Caribbean Sweet Potato Salad by Jessica/Allrecipes.com
Sweet Potato Breakfast Cookies by LiveLaughEat.com
Glazed Sweet Potatoes with Maple & Lime by weelicious
Bengali-style Oven Baked Fries by yours truly

Do you ever wonder how to find out what's in season? There are tons of lists on the web, but I like to use Epicurious's Peak-Season Map which allows you to select the month and your home state to find out what's in harvest.

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An Appetite for Falafel and Savory Yogurt Sauce

When I lived near Seattle, one of my favorite treats was deep-fried falafel in a pita wrap at Falafel King near Pike Place Market. I always ordered it with hummus AND baba ghanoush. I never finished it in one sitting and I always left the table covered in chickpea-licious mess.

We all know that fried things are not so good for you (and your waistline) and I've made baked falafel a few times in the past with varying results. One of my favorite methods is actually using a waffle iron to make, yeah, falafel waffles. But that's more a favorite because it's fun to say than because it's uber delicious.

When I learned that Isa Moskowitz's new book Appetite for Reduction contained a new baked falafel recipe, I was dying to give it a test run. I'm so glad I did. The method is easy, fairly low-mess, and makes enough falafel for 4 servings. Since baked falafel keeps amazingly well, this means good things for my work day lunches. If you want the recipe, go pick up the book!

You can't eat falafel plain, though. (Well, you could, but why would you?) So I whipped up a super simple savory yogurt sauce to adorn my baked falafel patties and mixed greens. It's almost too simple to warrant a recipe but I like to show the condiments a little love from time to time.

Savory Yogurt Sauce
Yield: 1/2 cup or 4 servings

1/2 cup plain non-dairy yogurt
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp sweet paprika
1 tsp lemon juice
  1. Stir ingredients to combine.
  2. Serve cold alongside hot falafel, sweet potato or yam fries or your favorite veggie burger.

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Two Pots of Broccoli Vegan-Cheezy Pie

I've been reading about comfort food dishes lately so I've had pot pies on the brain. I love a good pot pie - who doesn't? - but I wanted to try something a little different. It wasn't long before the inspiration hit me. Combine three of my favorite things (namely broccoli, cheezy sauce and pot pie) and end up with one amazing comfort food treat. On a weeknight, even.

The cheezy sauce for this dish was inspired by two recipes. One is the Cheddar Cheesy Sauce in Lindsay Nixon's new cookbook The Happy Herbivore. The other is good old-fashioned Esme sauce. I think my version has the perfect flavor and consistency for the veggies I like to use (broccoli, especially) but feel free to play around.

I would ultimately like to rework the dough in this recipe to yield a heartier, flakier crust but it's still pretty darn good with this standard crust if you ask me.

Broccoli Vegan-Cheezy Pies
Yield: 2 individual pies

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 tsp salt
3-4 Tbsp canola oil
2 Tbsp plain almond milk

1/2 cup plain almond milk
1 Tbsp arrowroot powder
1/4 cup nutritional yeast flakes
1 Tbsp red miso
1 tsp raw tahini
1 tsp apple cider vinegar
1/2 tsp onion powder
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 tsp smoked paprika
1/4 tsp tumeric
2 cups mixed veggies - broccoli, peas and carrots are favorites - use fresh or thawed frozen
  1. Preheat oven to 375°F.
  2. Combine dough ingredients in a bowl. Divide in two equal parts. Use 2/3 of each part to press around the bottom and sides of two ramekins. Press the remaining 1/3 of each part into rough rounds that will become your pie toppers. Set aside.
  3. In a small saucepan, whisk together almond milk and arrowroot, then add all other ingredients. Whisk together over low heat until the mixture begins to thicken. If you like a thinner sauce, add more liquid or reduce arrowroot powder by half.
  4. Add veggies to sauce. Stir to combine and then spoon into ramekins and press down slightly to remove air pockets.
  5. Place dough rounds on top and press down slightly. There should be gaps in the dough around the edges.
  6. Bake 35-40 minutes until the tops of the dough are cooked thoroughly and the filling is bubbling slightly. 
  7. Allow to cool 5 minutes before serving.
Note: if your ramekins are filled to the brim, consider placing an empty baking sheet on the rack below your ramekins. This will catch any sauce that bubbles over and make your clean-up a lot easier. I used 8-oz ramekins and had no trouble but an ounce of prevention...

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Heart Healthy Sandwich Bread.. you know, for your Valentine!

If the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, the way to my heart is through a pan of freshly baked bread. Simple as that.

You, too, can have easy homemade sandwich bread in just 5 easy steps. Oh yeah, it contains both whole wheat flour and oats to make it really good for you.

This recipe is based on a traditional French wheat bread that is guaranteed to produce a lightly sweet, perfectly textured loaf every time. It's ideal for sandwiches but also makes fantastic French toast. You could even cut it into heart shapes if you really must but I suggest leaving the crusts on so you have something to really sink your teeth into. 

Heart Healthy Wheat-Oat Sandwich Bread
Yield: 1-1/2 lb loaf

1 1/4 cup warm water
1 Tbsp canola oil
1 1/2 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
2 cups bread flour
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup oat flour
1/4 cup whole rolled oats
1 1/4 tsp yeast
  1. Heat water to 80°F.
  2. Combine ingredients in the pan of your bread machine according to manufacturer's directions.
  3. Select "whole wheat" setting and set desired crust setting (I like "light" for this recipe).
  4. Scrape down sides of pan after 5 minutes of mixing and add 1-2 Tbsp water if needed.
  5. Remove loaf from bread pan as soon as baking cycle is complete and allow to cook on a wire rack before slicing.
Note: If you don't have oat flour, make your own. Pulse oats in a blender or food processor until they have the consistency of flour. Oat flour can be substituted for part of the wheat flour in any recipe, lowering the gluten content and helping to reduce cholesterol levels.

My favorite sandwich includes brown mustard, grilled tofu and avocado. What's in your favorite sandwich?

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Bengali Style Oven Fries

Looking for a little taste of India but want something quick, healthy and kid-friendly. I would normally think of fries as Indian cuisine but the addition of cumin and paprika make these oven-baked fries delicious and exotic. Serve alongside any Indian curry dish or try them with your favorite veggie burger. 

Bengali Style Oven Fries
Yield: 4 servings

1-2 garnet yams, peeled
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp coriander
1/4 tsp smoked paprika
1/8 tsp cayenne 
salt and pepper to taste
  1. Preheat oven to 350°F and spray a baking sheet with olive oil.
  2. Cut potatoes lengthwise into 1/2-inch thick strips and arrange in a single layer on the baking sheet. 
  3. Spray with olive oil, sprinkle with spices and toss to coat. Add salt and pepper to taste. 
  4. Bake 20-25 minutes until crispy and golden brown. 
  5. Serve hot with lemon juice or veg mayo.
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    It's my birthday...

    ...and I'll cry if I want to.

    I've been going through some pretty rough stuff in the personal realm lately. You know those times in life when you feel like things can't possibly get any worse-- and then they do? Story of my life. It ain't pretty but I suppose I should be grateful for my health, right?

    The best birthday gift I've received this year is the support and concern of my friends. The road ahead still looks rocky from where I stand but I'm feeling very lucky to have people in my life who care about me and are willing to share themselves with me when I'm in need AND when things are not-so-sucky. Thanks, guys. 

    Don't worry. I'm not turning The Verdant Life into The Sad Sappy Whiny Life! Far from it. Instead, I got you this donut cake to share with me in honor of my birthday. See? Dig in.

    P.S. You probably already guessed this but I'm not turning six today. :)

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    Blueberry Hill Muffins

    These muffins didn't come from the corner bakery. They didn't come from a fancy schmancy brunch cafe. They didn't come from a catering company. They're not made out of plastic. They didn't even come from outer space. I whipped them up in my own kitchen in less than 40 minutes.

    Cakey and slightly sweet and spiked with gingery goodness, this has quickly become the favorite muffin recipe in my house. How do I know? Because they're all gone. That's how. But who can resist? I mean, come on. Look at them!

    Blueberry Hill Muffins
    Yield: 12 muffins

    2 cups all-purpose flour
    1/2 cup sugar
    1 Tbsp baking powder
    1/2 tsp salt
    1 Tbsp ground ginger
    1/2 cup plain soy yogurt
    1/2 cup vanilla almond milk
    1/4 cup canola oil
    1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
    1 1/4 cups frozen wild blueberries
    1. Preheat oven to 375°F and lightly grease a muffin tin.
    2. Stir together flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and ginger with a fork in a large bowl.
    3. Make a well in the center and add yogurt, milk, oil and applesauce.
    4. Stir until half combined. Add berries. Stir until no dry spots remain but don't over do it.
    5. Spoon into muffin tins to 3/4 full.
    6. Bake 29 - 31 minutes or until lightly browned.
    7. Let cool in the tin for 5 minutes then transfer to a cooling rack.
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    Yummy (Healthy) Snacks for Work and Home

    Whether you spend your days in an office, at home or at school, we all get a little snack attack from time to time. I'm a champion snacker, preferring several small meals a day to 3 squares, and I know what I like and what I don't. I also know what works in terms of giving me the sustenance I need to maintain my mental clarity, physical energy and sunny disposition (haha). Here are a few of my favorites.

    5. An apple with nut butter. Justin's makes office-friendly individual packets of nut butters (ahem, portion control!) and they have spectacular vegan-friendly flavors like Chocolate Almond and Chocolate Hazelnut. Artisana is another great brand with exotic options like cashew and coconut butters.

    4. Energy-packed healthy bites like these cocoa orange oat bars I adapted from the recipe at Anja's Food 4 Thought. See her other recipes for more healthy snack bar options like this one. These are also a great breakfast-on-the-go!

    3. Roasted chickpeas. You can dress these little babies up with any spice combination that suit you. Cumin and coriander are my favorites. Crunchy and savory, just 1/4 cup of these will curb your afternoon munchies. Bonus: Because they're dry, this snacks makes you thirsty and we all need a hydration boost from time to time.

    2. Granola and nondairy yogurt. I make my own granola and pair it with 3/4 cup plain nondairy yogurt (I like Whole Soy) and, optionally, a sliced banana. Sounds like breakfast, but it's a great pick-me-up any time of the day.

    1. Miso soup. This may seem like a strange snack suggestion but earthy, salty miso soup can fill you up without adding a ton of calories to your day. Instant miso packets are easy to find in most major supermarkets (check the ingredients, though, as many contain "bonito" or shrimp flakes). Bonus: Make it in a mug and take it with you to your afternoon meeting!

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    Cherry-Almond Good-for-you Granola

    Store-bought granola is expensive and often much higher in calories and fat than it should be. Making your own healthy granola at home is so inexpensive and easy that you'll be kicking yourself for spending so much money on commercial granola in the past. Don't worry. It's never too late to make a change!

    This is my favorite granola recipe, using sliced almonds and dried cherries. Feel free to substitute your favorite nuts and dried fruits to create your own perfect blend.

    Cherry-Almond Granola
    Yield: About 12 1/2-cup servings

    3 cups rolled oats
    1 cup sliced almonds
    1/2 cup raw pepitas
    3/4 cup shredded coconut
    1/4 cup light brown sugar
    1/4 cup agave nectar
    1/4 cup canola oil
    3/4 tsp salt
    1 cup dried cherries
    1/4 cup hemp seeds
    2 Tbsp ground flax seed
    1. Preheat oven to 250°F.
    2. Stir together oats, almonds, pepitas, coconut and brown sugar in a large bowl.
    3. In a small bowl, whisk agave, oil and salt. 
    4. Fold agave mixture into the oat mixture with a spatula. Stir until the oats are evenly coated. 
    5. Spread oat mixture onto a baking sheet.
    6. Bake for 75 minutes, stirring with a wooden spatula every 15 minutes. 
    7. Remove from oven and cool for 5 minutes before stirring in dried cherries, hemp seeds and ground flax. 
    8. Allow to cool completely before transferring an airtight container. Use within 10 days.
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