My Pumpkin Spiced Life

18 Sep

The weather is changing – it’s getting cooler and fall is coming.  It’s my favorite time of the year.  My dear mother reminds me every year how the fall reminds her of death, but I don’t see it that way.  It’s like a breath of fresh air and new flavors.  Green gives way to orange and lightness becomes richness.

My taste for spinach and lettuce turns to collards and kale; the tomatoes make room for sweet potatoes and winter squash.  And in my coffee, of course, goes the pumpkin spice.  I’m drinking less of the juicy Sauvignon Blancs and dry Rieslings and more Riojas and ruby ports.  You bust out the synthetic fabric sweaters and tall boots and retire the sandals and shorts.

So what’s on the vegan menu for the Rocky Mountain Jax?  Pumpkin bisque, to start.  Next, cashew bechamel, flavored with porcini mushrooms over short pasta (pumpkin gnocchi if you can find a good recipe), and after that, tuber and mushroom stew.

For the bulk of the veggies, I go for darker greens, winter squash, mushrooms (especially the dried pungent ones), sweet and yellow potatoes, leeks, artichokes and root vegetables like carrots and parsnips.  Flavorings get richer – vegan “beef” flavoring, truffle oil, bourbon, and liquid aminos.

I recommend stocking up the baking pantry, too.  Don’t forget dried fruits, nuts and high-quality ground grains.  Consider swapping out traditional vegetable oils for avocado, almond, hazelnut and grape seed oils.  Think beyond walnuts, raisins and dried cranberries (look for the juice-sweetened kind – they taste so much better) and consider figs and pine nuts.

Beyond that, the cookware changes for me in the fall.  I use more of cast-iron and copper and far less of the grill and non-stick.  I find those metals add even more richness to the food – and in the fall, you can never get too much of that.

My one problem – a healthy alternative to butter for baking.  I know, I know, there’s the stuff that rhymes with shmerth shmalance, but I was hoping to find something with fewer ingredients; something more natural, like coconut oil.  That said, when I tried baking biscuits with unrefined coconut oil, they didn’t come out right.  Any ideas on that front would be much appreciated.

Stay warm!





26 Jul

I was talking to a dear friend of mine today and she was telling me about a new diet she’s thinking of trying.  She’s pretty focused on healthy eating, also; so I’m always inclined to strongly consider her opinion when it comes to nutrition.

That said, as we were talking, it struck me how many diets boil down to counting.  I hate counting calories or carbs or fat grams.  It’s tiring and when it’s all said and done, it never seemed to make a big difference for me.  I’ve done it all – high carb/low fat (remember stopping the insanity?), low carb/high protein (named after a famous doctor), low calorie, high calorie (yes, they’re out there), food combining – you name it.  Nothing really “worked.”

And what is “working” anyway?  I think it’s all relative.  I think people should ask themselves what makes them feel good and what they can live with in a diet.  If it gets you to your goal and you’re healthy, I say it works.  For me, that was a diet that allowed for eating a large volume of food.

I could easily binge on food I love.  The trick for me was to allow myself to eat all I wanted of something I loved.  Of course, common sense told me that although I loved donuts, that wasn’t the best food to allow myself to pound down day after day.  But I also love fruits and vegetables, and you know what they say:  nobody ever got fat from eating too much kale.

What worked for me was keeping lots of food I could eat lots of; but it also meant keeping out the stuff I might be tempted to binge on – trigger foods.  Trigger food for me, in a nutshell, is bread.  Put anything bread-based in front of me and it’s all over.  I just can’t stop.  I blame mutant wheat – I’m convinced it contains some addictive additive that turns me into a raging gavone (if you’re not Sicilian, you’ll have to look it up).  For good measure, I also keep candy, cookies, chips and the like out of the house.  You’ll find no soda, puddings or pastries either.  Anything that even vaguely resembles baked goods are homemade, healthy and, according to my daughter and husband, not remotely binge-worthy on the palatability scale.

But this is just what “works” for me.  I believe many people – although I can’t say that I personally know any – do well on calorie or nutrient restrictive (which often translates into calorie restrictive) diets.  The structure is said to be helpful.  Not for me.  I actually gained weight on a certain popular diet program that rhymes with shmeight shmotchers.  I confess, it had nothing to do with the program and everything to do with my need to consume vast quantities of food.  I found the foods on the program that had the fewest or zero shboints associated with them and just pigged out.  Ten pounds later, I figured the program wasn’t going to “work” for me.  That’s when I got plant-strong (although not at all vegan yet).

Over the years, I’ve learned that just about all diets (some more easily than others) can be plant-based.  I feel better and look better when eating a plant-based, whole-foods diet.  While I acknowledge it’s not the right choice for everyone, it’s hard to deny the joy of eating to your heart’s content.  While I don’t consume pigs, I am certainly free to eat like one!



21 Jul

Traveling, being away from home, or visiting with family and friends who are not vegan or used to your vegan diet can be tricky situations.  There are little things that are more easily accessed at home than away.  And while it can initially seem challenging, these situations create opportunity to learn about improvising in a pinch.

I’ll start with coffee.  Those of you who know me know that I don’t just like coffee; I have an ongoing love affair with it.  And I like my coffee with creamer.  Vegan creamer is its own challenge, regardless of whether you have complete control of the contents of your fridge and pantry.  I’ll get into that another time (hint – I prefer the almond and coconut milk creamer from the brand that rhymes with the word “shalifia”).  But during a trip, there probably won’t be a soaked cashew or squeezed almond in sight!  What’s a nice vegan to do?  At the risk of insulting your hosts, the answer becomes suddenly simple – shut the hell up and drink the coffee black. The truth is, if it’s not too hot, it’s a dark roast (I prefer French) and the coffee maker is clean enough (otherwise black coffee tastes bitter), it’s not bad at all.  It just takes some adjustment.  Before long, you’ll probably prefer it that way.

Next, there is the cheese on the pasta.  How do you make it work without grating cheese (and sorry, friends, I’ve yet to find a good vegan alternative to my favorite Romano)?  The answers – good quality salt and red pepper flakes. Load it the heck up!  Ok – don’t go nuts on the salt, especially if you have health issues that might be aggravated.  But if you do it right, the flavor punch is serious and the heat of the pepper will slow down your eating so you don’t overdo it – which I tend to do when it comes to pasta!  It makes all the difference and the truth is, I never miss the cheese.  If you can sneak in some extra garlic, too, go for it.

What about the cheese plate?  Never fear – cheese is almost never served alone.  I find there are always crackers, veggies and chutney to go along with the cheese.  I wash the non-cheese items down with a nice glass of wine (isinglass-free, if possible), and I’m good to go.

Being out of your element is not always easy as a vegan, but there are few things in life as rewarding as being surrounded by family and friends, or traveling to amazing locations  Don’t panic and don’t make it bad.  Relax and think outside the box.

One final suggestion  – if you’re visiting family or friends, offer to cook!  Not only can you default to cooking items that are on your menu, but you can show your hosts how great vegan food can be.  It’s also a great way to show your gratitude.

Have fun and don’t stress.



Processed Foods

12 Jul

I’ve heard that certain chocolate, frosting-filled sandwich cookies, fresh fries, and potato chips are all vegan.  One of my favorite documentaries on vegan diets actually provides a long list of food favorites that are, allegedly (I say that because they probably are, but I haven’t actually read the nutrition labels on all these items) vegan.  Hyper-palatable, hard to eat just one bite, incredibly salty and sugary, comfort foods are included.  Sounds like a miracle, right?  Imagine dipping your favorite sandwich cookie into that organic, non-GMO soy milk before bed?  I don’t tell people what to do and I try not to criticize, but for myself, I stay away from the processed foods.  I think a healthy diet contains as few of them as possible, given the limitations of human willpower.

A vegan diet for me is intended to meet one goal more than any other – to keep me healthy.  A diet heavy in processed foods, in my opinion, is a step away from that goal.  Nutrient density is something worth considering before we consume anything, even if it’s only a small taste.   A lot of people have a tough time stopping after a small sample of hyper-palatable food.  Will a single French fry destroy your life?  I’m not a doctor or nutritionist, but I’m guessing the answer is no.  But, maybe it’s never just one French fry for you and that’s really the bigger issue.  After all, isn’t that what the French fry people are counting on when formulating their product?

Just because you eat a vegan diet doesn’t mean you’re making good dietary choices.  Nutrient-dense foods, with more healthful benefits calorie for calorie, are probably much better than highly processed, hyper-palatable, nutritionally void foods.  Think potato chips versus zucchini chips or catchup versus hummus.

I strive for minimally processed vegan foods.  I am a passionate coffee drinker and I love my coffee with milk.  Since I don’t consume diary, that generally leaves highly processed alternatives.  I find most non-dairy creamers to be, well, dairy.  Read your ingredients and you’ll see not only transfats (which producers can disclaim because as long as their products have only a little transfat, they are able to say they are transfat-free), but also casein, a dairy derivative.  In addition to hydrogenated fats and dairy, many non-dairy creamers contain numerous addition chemicals that I can’t pronounce, much less spell.

Then there are nut milks – soy, almond, cashew, coconut, etc.  There are also oat, hemp, rice and flax varieties of non-dairy milks.  These tend to be in a liquid form (as opposed to the powdered form of many traditional non-dairy creamers).  These are generally dairy-free, but sadly, they tend to be highly processed foods fraught with chemicals, fats and sugars. Many of the nut milks are very popular, especially the flavored versions (they tend to come in vanilla and chocolate), but again, not quite the the healthful alternative one might hope. And not entirely functional as coffee creamer, for the most part.  But, I’ll get into the quality of non-dairy beverages in another post.  That, and vegan cheese.

The point is this – don’t take for granted a vegan food is a healthy food.  While I believe many vegan options are excellent dietary choices (fruits and vegetables in their whole forms), highly processed foods are probably not. I stick to whole grains (and not any quick-cooking or instant varieties – the good stuff takes time to prepare), beans, fruits and vegetables.  I also limit my bread intake, keeping it to a treat a few times per week rather than a staple with my meals.  Sweeteners of any kind are off my menu, except in very limited circumstances or on special occasions.  Because of the high calories relative to nutrients, I also limit oil, especially butter alternatives.

With all the wonderful options available with whole vegan foods, I’m not often tempted to stray too far.  Did I mention that coffee is a minimally processed vegan choice? Eat well, friends.




The Vegan Diet

11 Jul

Rules, rules, rules.  The world has too many rules.  And when it comes to what we eat and what we believe, which converge in the concept of veganism, people can feel pressure to take a position and declare a side.  Well, not here.  This is a judgment free place and my hope is that it is welcoming to anyone who for any reason seeks to eat a plant-based, whole foods diet.  Even if you’re a work in progress.

I have trouble with the idea that someone may not be vegan enough to call themselves “vegan.”  Some argue that if you are not an animal rights activist, you cannot rightly declare yourself a vegan and that there is no such thing as a dietary vegan.  Where exactly that is codified or etched in stone, I have no idea.  Some vegans are more focused on animal rights and environmentalism than diet – and there’s nothing wrong with that.  I’ve even read that the creators of the term “vegan” were motivated by ethics rather than diet.  In my opinion, no matter what your motivation, someone eating a vegan diet is  still not eating animals.  By not eating animals, you’re helping to minimize the environmental impact of factory farming.  Additionally, I’m sure we’ve all suffered a bit of the weirdo-hippie stigma associated with a vegan diet and supporting one another through such challenges  is far more humane than judgment.

Because of the concern with not being vegan enough, some plant-based, whole food proponents I’ve met are reluctant to declare themselves vegan.  Since the backdrop of this blog is cooking and lifestyle, and I’d like to avoid getting caught up in confusion and semantics, I’ll generally refer to vegan diets rather than veganism.  And when I do say “vegan”, I generally refer to the dietary aspect of the word.

So what is a vegan diet?  Someone following a vegan diet abstains from eating meat, eggs, milk and milk based products (including cheese, butter and whey) derived from any animal, seafood (except sea plants) and insects.  Ethical vegan dieters may abstain from consuming honey.  A handy gauge is if it had a face or a parent, it’s not a vegan food choice.  Sounds like a lot of exclusions, I know, but the list of what is on a vegan diet is pretty great. Fruits, vegetables, beans and grains (including breads and pastas) are part of the menu.  So is alcohol (unless you’re an ethical vegan, who may abstain from certain wine due to isinglass use in the winemaking process).  All good things in moderation, of course.  The options with a menu this broad are practically unlimited.  And that’s where I think things can get interesting.

People always ask me what I eat and how I get my protein.  They think I eat a boring diet of twigs and seeds.  Not true.  I am positive my diet is interesting, rich and healthy.  I love to cook and create amazing recipes.  I also avoid meat analogues and processed foods.

All that said, I need readers to understand I’m not a doctor, nutritionist or dietician.  In fact, I’m a lawyer.  As a lawyer, I feel compelled to mention that everything I write is my opinion, based on my individual experiences and research.  I can’t imagine that seeking the advice of a health care professional before endeavoring into any dietary change could ever be a bad thing – but I don’t tell people what to do.  The experiences I write about and any suggestions I make as to lifestyle and cooking are made for entertainment purposes only and are not intended to advise anyone in any way on anything.  You’re reading a blog – not a medical journal.  Please keep things in perspective, use common sense and be safe, especially if you control the diets of anyone who may have special needs or is very young.

More later.