Thursday, March 24, 2011

Cassie's German Blender Pancakes

Meet my friend Cassie.

You know when you meet a person, and she is just good at everything?  She's unbelievably smart, beautiful, and talented, to the point where you just want to say, enough already?  She sings, she's a great actress, she can dance.  Ugh.  But then it also turns out that she is hilariously funny and sweet, and gives you no choice but to instantly want to be her friend?  That is Cassie all over.

Last summer, I had the opportunity to get back to my educational roots by working with Worcester Shakespeare Company as the Production Stage Manager.  I don't know if I've discussed this, but even though I work at the fabulously glamorous electric company in customer service, I actually started out as an English major studying Shakespeare.  I have a Masters in English and wrote a crazy long comparative literature-style thesis where I talked about Eastern religious themes in King Lear, because that's how I roll--putting things together that have no business being together :)  Anyhoodles, I have been out of school for quite a while now, but Shakespeare is still my first love.  So when I finally crawled out from under a rock and realized that there was a summer Shakespeare company here in Worcester, I was thrilled to be able to get involved.

One of the most unexpected and wonderful things about working on the play was that I ended up meeting such an excellent and eclectic group of people, of whom Cassie was one.  We did Taming of the Shrew, with Cassie in the title role.  And although I've seen probably a dozen different productions of that play, I can very honestly say I don't think I've seen a better Kate.  Cassie perfectly managed to capture rage-Kate while at the same time showing the vulnerability within, and she did it with a sense of humor.  And that is probably because her own greatest quality is her ability to know that you don't always have to take yourself seriously.  For as many Facebook pictures as she has like the beautiful one above, there is always something like this one to balance it out:     

And as if all that wasn't enough, she gives me super-cool vegan recipes and doesn't yell at me for not posting them for three months!

Cassie's German Blender Pancakes

1/2 cup mashed banana (about 1 medium banana; overripe is best)
4 tbsp flour
2 tbsp sugar
pinch salt
3/4 cup non-dairy milk

Combine ingredients in your blender and run until well mixed.  The mixture should be very thin--almost runny.  Allow mixture to sit for a few minutes until frothiness subsides.  In the meantime, heat up a nonstick skillet over medium heat.  (If your skillet still tends to stick, you should use a small amount of cooking spray before each pancake.)  Once the skillet is hot, pour 1/4 cup of batter into the center of the pan and rotate the pan to allow the batter to spread.  You are looking for a thin, crepe-like pancake about 8-10 inches across.  Cook until the edges are golden brown, resisting the urge to flip too early.  When the edges are golden brown, use a spatula to gingerly lift the pancake and flip it.  (A good tip would be to tilt the pan vertically and slide your spatula underneath.)  Cook the other side for a few additional minutes until it is browned.  Repeat the process to make an additional 3-4 pancakes.  Keep cooked cakes warm on a plate in a 200 degree oven. 

These would be amazing on their own, but when you roll them up around strawberry jam and drizzle with a little maple syrup, they become absolutely gourmet.  Cassie also reports that she (and her equally phenomenal boyfriend Dan, who also deserves effusive praise for being an all-around awesome, super-talented dude) consider this recipe one of their staples not only for breakfast, but also for dessert, by replacing the jam with Nutella.  Nutella is sadly not vegan (although you can find or make a vegan version without too much trouble), but I do think these pancakes would like to be introduced to cashew cream or a vegan chocolatey spread to become a dessert course made in heaven.  And if all that isn't good enough, remember that this is an oil-free recipe, unless you have to use a tiny bit of cooking spray to make sure your pancakes don't stick.  I have made this with all purpose flour and with whole wheat pastry flour, and it works just as well either way, so you don't have to sacrifice health quality for flavor.  And why should you have to?  As Cassie proves, it's always a good idea to balance out your "serious" with a healthy dose of "silly."

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Road Trip Restaurant Review: Mango Mango in Amherst, MA

We love Sunday drives, and this past Sunday, we were blessed with a beautiful, sunny, almost warm day.  We decided to take a quick little drive and ended up meandering all the way out to Amherst.  It was almost 2 PM by the time we got there, and our usual western Mass stop, Cafe Evolution, closes up shop at 2 after serving brunch on Sunday.  (And what a brunch it is.  Their bread alone is worth the trip, and someday I will take pictures and share them.)  So we found ourselves looking into other choices.  Mango Mango showed up on our iPhone app VegOut, but it had no reviews, so we weren't sure how it would be, but we decided to be brave and try it anyway.  And boy are we glad we did!

Mango Mango is a counter-service type place, where you go up front and order from the big board, pay, and sit down, and they bring out the food when it's ready.  A group of folks left right when we came in (I can't tell you if it's because I was wearing sweatpants or because they had finished their meal), leaving us with the whole place to ourselves.  The restaurant does serve meat, but there are a large number of vegetarian items available, as well as a respectable number of vegan options and gluten-free choices, all clearly marked.  

Instead of engaging in a fist fight over who would order the tempeh taco, John was the better person and let me get it.  It came with either chips or a side salad, and being that I have been pigging out on chips lately like the emotional eater that I am, I went for the side salad.  We had a seat with our drinks (John got a soda and I opted for a Hibiscus Cooler, which was noted as one of their house-brewed teas), and only waited for maybe ten minutes before the food came out, which was a pleasant surprise.

John has been on a curry kick lately, which you will see when I post another restaurant review this week, and he opted for the West Coast Curry with tempeh.  It was served over short grain brown rice.  The flavor and spice on this dish was excellent, and it had potatoes and haricot verts, which I thought was interesting and unique and made this stand out from a regular curry.

Meanwhile, my salad and tempeh taco.  Ho. ly. Wow.  This was so good, I am going to have trouble verbalizing.  First, the salad was delicious and fresh, with what tasted like a ginger-sesame dressing that was wonderfully light.  I could probably have eaten a much larger portion of just the salad alone.  The taco is actually these giant tempeh chunks with what I would describe as a teriyaki-type sauce, with guacamole, lettuce, and tomato wrapped in a soft naan-like bread.  It was so great, I see myself wanting to go back weekly to get one.

In addition to the pretty great selection of options, I have to give this place major kudos for what they do with tempeh.   John has never been much of a fan, and I have had mixed responses to tempeh, but we went to Whole Foods after we ate and bought a couple packages because we fell so much in love with this tempeh.  (Now I just have to figure out how to make it taste that good at home.)  Combining that tempeh deliciousness with the speed of service, I have to think that they have a magic wand back in the kitchen that they are making the food with.

Mango Mango serves lunch and dinner, but if these are the portion sizes for both meals, I think it's probably more of a lunch place.  The price was fabulous, only $22 for both our meals and drinks, and it's BYOB, if you are into that sort of thing, which I am but only when I don't have to drive home.  One other nitpick, which shows how spoiled I am by the number of vegan-friendly places in my area, was that they didn't have a non-dairy milk or creamer for coffee, so I hope that they will consider adding that in the future.  Otherwise, this is a definite recommend!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Moodiness and Meal Plans

So here I am, after a month of not posting, trying to come up with some sort of excuse for myself, but the truth is, I really don't have a good one, and making one up seems a bit like pandering.  I guess I've just been in a bit of a brown study.  I like that expression because it implies examination of your crap mood.  (I don't tend to be very accepting of my periodic depression; I prefer to badger it into non-existence.)  The current world events are bringing me down (along with everyone else I am sure).  The situation in Japan is heartbreaking, and the Libya thing has my peacenik panties in a twist.  On the personal front, I haven't felt particularly inspired to cook anything, which kind of puts a dent in the food blogging.  The produce in the store is just so wilted and depressing, it's not really exciting me that much. Beyond that, my ongoing sinus issues are making it so that even when I do decide to cook something, I can't figure out what it is that I want.  We have been eating out quite often (especially during the three week stretch when I didn't do the dishes at all), and although mostly we were sticking with tried & true foods, this weekend, we went to a couple of new places, one that was very good and one that was killer-awesome, so I'll be writing about those soon.  So I guess I did come up with a few excuses there, after all.

The good news is, spring is springing.  Most of the snow has dissolved, except for a few dirty icebergs in the parking lots, and we've had quite a bit of sun this last week, as well as a day when it was over 60 degrees.  I have seen enough people in shorts on the 30 degree days that followed to realize that it's not just me that is ready to say goodbye and good riddance to Old Man Winter this year.  It's like we got a taste of the good weather and we refuse to give it up!  That means the local farmers' markets will be coming soon.  I've done a CSA in the past, but I think I'm going to skip it again this year.  It's kind of hard to tell what you will get, and I don't want to see another giant bag of beets.  I think CSA shares are a great idea for some people, but for me, nothing beats actually seeing the selection and choosing for yourself.  Plus, I'm a control freak.  (John nods.)

The last bit of fantastic, amazing, super-awesome news, which is probably the number one thing that inspired me to get back on my blog is that (drumrolllllllll.......) my mom and stepdad have decided to go vegetarian!  Yay!  Cartwheels!  My mom is a bit of a reluctant meat-eater to begin with, and she has always been right on board with the way John & I eat, but my stepdad, who never met a pork product he wouldn't love to grill up, is the shock of the century, and it was actually his idea.  They are young (early/mid-50's) and in excellent shape, but in the last year or so, I guess they have been having some stomach issues and generally feeling kind of not great.  When John & I visited last year, our appearances and moods really made an impression on stepdad James, and apparently made him start thinking about what we are doing and why it might be a really good thing. Hearing this really made me feel so happy, because I try very hard not to be a vegangelical, but I do want to help people make the right choices (for themselves, the animals, and the world).  I guess I can't do any better than Mahatma Gandhi:  "Be the change you want to see in the world."  (I even have that quote on a t-shirt.)  I am always open to discussing my diet and life choices with anyone who is interested, but I think because I don't look like a typical vegan stereotype that other people want to look like, I'm not sure that my message gets across that well.  People don't usually want to give up a lot of their favorite foods and still be fat.  But this made me realize that the people who know me do see a big difference in me, and they want to know what the secret is.  Probably all of this sounds a little self-important, and for that, I apologize, but I am trying to be very honest, whether it's good or bad.

Understandably, my mom has a lot of questions and is looking for some advice on how to make this lifestyle change.  I've managed to bully her into giving up dairy in addition to meat, since I think dairy and digestive systems are mortal enemies (especially for my family), and she will be trying a few weeks gluten-free as well to clear out her system and then reintroduce later to find out if there is an issue there for her.  At the moment, she may keep eggs in her diet, as she gets them from her own chickens, and they may eat fish once in a while as well.  In addition to those concerns, she works a full-time job and weekdays mean quick and packable breakfast, lunch and snacks, and mostly quick and easy dinners.  James is a truck driver and is really only home a couple days a week on average, so he presents even more challenges and I'm honestly going to admit, I'm not sure how to handle that yet.  If anyone has any advice or ideas, I'd be happy to hear it. With their challenges in mind, I came up with some general advice as well as a quick & dirty meal plan that I think will be helpful to them, but also to anyone who wants to try eating low-fat vegan and feels overwhelmed.   I am going to include my general advice and post my meal plans in segments here on the blog, and I'd love to hear any additional suggestions that people may have, especially for those of you who may be vegans who live in the boonies and don't have easy access to a big, well-stocked supermarket.

General Advice
  1. Get a reference book that gives you the science behind the diet.  There are a number of books that were very informative to me in this regard, including The China Study, Eat to Live, and even Skinny Bitch.  If you are worried about your ability to meet nutritional requirements, Becoming Vegan is a good choice, but I didn't read it until after I already had some experience with eating as a vegan.  (Just as a disclaimer, I'm not making any money off of recommending these books.)
  2. Use the internet!  Vegan blogs are insanely awesome in showing you what you are gaining rather than what you are giving up, and you can get a lot of good information on making the transition to vegan by reading how others have handled it.  Both the ups and the downs.  You do have to be somewhat selective in your choices and have the ability to not believe everything you read.  But there is at least as much good as bad out there.  
  3. Don't be an all or nothing person.  If you end up eating something that you had decided you weren't going to include in your diet, don't beat yourself up.  Use it as a learning experience.  How did it make your body feel?  Did you notice a difference in your digestion?  Your skin?  Your fatigue level?  Maybe you didn't.  Maybe you did. Either way, you just found something out about yourself, and there is no reason to feel guilty. 
  4. Get a good all purpose vegan cookbook that uses ingredients that are familiar and easy to find, at least for the most part.  Once you are good and ready, there are a ton of great cookbooks on the market, but if you can start with something that gives a good overview of the basics, you will feel more comfortable with your transition.  I am not trying to play favorites because I love all my cookbooks, but if I had to choose a couple that fit this category well, they would be How It All Vegan, The Happy Herbivore Cookbook, or Veganomicon (my mom bought Happy Herbivore, which I do think is the best choice for her based on her location and her particular needs, and again, I made no money recommending these).  
Simple Breakfast Plan

Disclaimer:  I am not a nutritionist, and all I know about nutrition is what I've learned from eating vegan and reading about eating vegan.  This plan is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor or to cure or treat any disease.  It's meant to be a simple guide to make meal-planning easier for a new vegan, and I wrote it as off-the-cuff as I could to preserve simplicity.  Please note that as she is going to be going gluten-free for several weeks, she will be choosing gluten-free options based on my suggestions, which are not gluten-free in and of themselves.

  • Lowfat granola or other cereal with non-dairy milk (almond, hemp, coconut, or soy)
  • Oatmeal made with water or non-dairy milk (may include mix-ins like nuts/nut butter, maple syrup, agave nectar, fruit, applesauce, non-dairy chocolate chips)
  • Toast with fruit spread, nut butter and fruit
  • Breakfast burrito/wrap (a tortilla filled with leftover tofu/veggie scramble, or nut butter and banana, or non-dairy cream cheese and jam or berries)
  • Fresh fruit or fruit salad
  • Non-dairy yogurt parfait (coconut or soy yogurt layered with fresh fruit and granola)
  • Tofu scramble (include lots of veggies for extra nutrition)
  • Tofu frittata
  • Non-dairy, egg-free waffles, pancakes or crepes
  • Breakfast potatoes (with onions, peppers, and mushrooms if you like)
So, taking into account my mom's likes, which I am fairly familiar with, those are my recommendations for vegan breakfasts, especially for a beginner.  And now that I've written a completely picture-free wall of text, which I expect will have multiple comments of TL;DR, I am going to sign off, with the promise that at the very least, I will come back soon to post lunch and dinner ideas.  If you read all the way to the end, thank you.  The cookies are in the mail.  :)