Tag Archives: vegetarian

Dirt Brownies: Healthy Cooking Disasters

Have you ever looked at a post on a recipe or foodie blog (or even a Pinterest recipe posted by your aunt on Facebook) and thought, “That looks both simple and delicious! I should totally try that! That won’t turn out a hot mess AT ALL!” I have a history of doing that. And much like the woman behind the Pintester blog, I have a history of working with whatever items I have around the house or what I can source in a small town in southern Kentucky, trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, as it were, when I shouldn’t even be in the market for a faux silk purse in the first place. It always backfires.

I grew up in a household of working women who weren’t your traditional American homemakers. My maternal grandmother and my mom, accomplished as they are and love them as I do, weren’t big on home cooking as art form. I grew up on a lot of Campbell’s soup and Chef Boyardee and Meat Variety Helper products. My stepmom and paternal grandmother were each better cooks, but I didn’t learn a lot from either of them until I was older. Until last year, I was still making Amish Friendship Bread from a starter my stepmom gave me in 2009, and I loved it. Baking is easy. You put in ingredients from a pre-set formula, knowing how it’s supposed to turn out and not straying from the formula too much, and blam, science turns it into a pie or something marvelous. Baking is fun and always appreciated. Everyone loves pie. I love baking.

Cooking? Cooking is a chore. It’s thankless. In the U.S., we begrudgingly pay people minimum wage to cook for us. We hardly ever thank the people who feed us every day unless provoked by a special occasion. I don’t even care if my cooking turns out badly; I will usually eat whatever horrible thing I cook rather than go to the trouble of cooking again. I would rather eat Bachelor Chow than cook. Filboid Studge‘s marketing would have worked on me.

But boy howdy, I didn’t know that my passion for baking and my anti-knack for cooking would intersect so thoroughly when I tried to have a make-it-work moment with my pantry and a good recipe for an unhealthy food. The other day, I was taking a look at Paleo recipes and found a recipe for muffins over at PaleOMG. “Protein. Nut-free. Paleo. Chocolate. Baking.” These words made my heart beat faster. “Yes, I will be trying THAT,” I told my computer. My computer, having heard this before, tried to shut down. I admire its attempt to save me from myself. But despite the best efforts of the author to provide clear instructions and advice about substitutions in the comments, I still managed to eff up everything and made what I can only term as Dirt Brownies.

I didn’t learn my lesson from last year’s protein pumpkin pie disaster. I was feeding my dogs lots of pumpkin to help their tummies adjust to the stress of moving and new bacteria their bodies were not used to dealing with. I had a lot of canned plain pumpkin on my hands, and one day, I found a recipe that incorporated egg whites, canned pumpkin, some spices, protein powder, and magic to make perfect little pumpkin pie breakfast cakes.

That little voice in your head that tells you, “You should listen to the instructions. You need to pick up some genuine yak butter to make this recipe. You cannot substitute llama butter again”? Listen to that voice. That is the voice that I did not heed. That’s why I used chocolate powder in my slightly chocolate-pumpkin cake. That’s why I used a whole egg, yolk and all, to make an eggy, slightly chocolate-pumpkin cake. That’s why I used an old bottle of apple pie spices and too much Splenda to make a Splenda-coated, inconsistently spiced like apple pie, eggy, slightly chocolate-pumpkin pie that tasted like failure and had a texture like a cheap kitchen sponge.

I didn’t learn my lesson from 8 years of sometimes-strange vegetarian dinners. Ok, often-strange vegetarian dinners. I wasn’t one of those vegetarians who made a lot of stir fry vegetables in a wok and ate raw vegetables on the regular; I was more a fan of Boca and Morningstar and Quorn products wrapped in carbohydrates. A lot of dinners were wet marinara and whole wheat pasta and soggy microwaved vegetable mix. There were also a few from-scratch disasters that involved: over- or under-cooked quinoa; eggplant that I didn’t quite know what to do with; butternut squash ravioli that would not actually stay in the ravioli (delicious but way labor intensive); an apple and pear pie that didn’t cook all the way through; blocks of tofu incorrectly cooked, poorly spiced, or some combination thereof.

I didn’t even learn from my high school years, when I was sometimes a latchkey kid cooking my own dinner. I once made an entire boxed dinner in a pot that had been pre-soaked in dish soap, but not rinsed out, by my mother. The less said about those meals, the better.

A lot of my bad food experiments have started with nothing but the best intentions. But I think they have another thing in common: trying to replicate something worse for me by using an imperfect mix of ingredients that are nominally good for me.

So let’s take a walk down memory lane, back to two or three days ago, when I made my Dirt Brownies.

The recipe calls for sunflower butter. I don’t have any on hand. Neither did the two local groceries – surprise! I did find off-brand Nutella, which I almost bought for science, except the sugar content is really high. I thought, “Hell, I’ll make my own sunflower butter!” Without bothering to consult a recipe, I bought a container of roasted sunflower seeds. I also picked up a few other ingredients, like coconut flakes (um… well, none of this is unsweetened. Oh well, that’s not a lot)… baker’s chocolate (it says dark chocolate, but this baker’s chocolate has hardly any sugar at all, and I’m not looking for sugar, right?)… protein powder or coconut flour or whatever (nope, didn’t use any of these, just more coconut flakes).

When I got home, I busted out my little food processor. I tried like mad to make it work, gave up, and handed it to my boyfriend, who promptly fixed it within 5 seconds of laying hands on it. He is a jerk.

Sunflower Butter: The Journey

Sunflower Butter: The Journey

A recipe I found for sunflower butter said, “Don’t use the dry roasted sunflower seeds with salt! Use unroasted and unsalted only, as they’ll have more oils inside to make your sunflower butter creamy!” I slowly edged the empty canister of dry roasted, salted sunflower seeds into the trash as I turned on the food processor. Bzzt! What a lovely powder this makes! The recipe said I could add some oil. I’ve got canola oil and olive oil. The olive oil bottle had been used to clean my boyfriend’s work boots, the tip repeatedly touched to the polishing rag. Olive oil it was. I tossed in a good glorping of the oil (measurements are for the prepared!) and gave it a whirl for a few more minutes, poking the sludge with a little plastic blade. It seemed to work out ok, so I went with it.

I included the eggs in the recipe, the sunflower butter and a pinch of the coconut flakes. I didn’t add salt, since that seemed to be covered by the salty, salty sunflower seeds. I didn’t add protein powder or coconut flour, because I didn’t have either. I microwaved the baker’s chocolate to soften it enough for me to cut into tiny pieces. “The better to distribute through the muffins! Wait, I don’t have a muffin pan. …The better to distribute through the BROWNIES! I’m such a genius!”

I drizzled on some honey, fearing how granola-y the batter looked once in a little 9×9 pan, how little sugar I had used, and what it might taste like. It came out of the oven about 15 minutes later still bubbling around the edges. I left it on the stove for a few minutes to cool, then cut out my first piece and took a bite.

It was a bite I will remember for the rest of my life. It is filed under the mental note: “Tastes like hot dirt.”

Unknown to me at the time this photo was taken, the trivet probably tastes better than anything else in the photo.

Unknown to me at the time this photo was taken, the trivet probably tastes better than anything else in the photo.

I told my boyfriend what happened. “You’re welcome to try one if you want,” I told him, warning him of the healthy ingredients. He took a bite, un-took the bite, and threw the rest into the trash. Then he set his tongue on fire. From space.

He heard me putting them into plastic ware later. “You’re SAVING THOSE??”

“I made them, I should eat them. They are brownies of atonement.”

I had the last two small brownies after dinner tonight. I wanted to eat more, even after two burger patties with cheese, a sweet potato, and a tomato-okra stew, so I finished off the container. If I am going to idly eat, I’m going to idly eat something that has some protein and makes me think twice before the next time I make a healthy version of an unhealthy food.

The best food I’ve ever eaten has been fresh produce. There is nothing so wonderful as big, ripe raspberries or blueberries or blackberries or strawberries. I love different apple varieties. Carrots and I get along famously. Baked sweet potatoes go great with anything. And did I mention apples? I love apples.

A woman named Eve loves apples. FILM AT 11.

A woman named Eve loves apples. FILM AT 11.

I need to remember that the less processed my food is, the more I’m probably going to enjoy it. The further I stray from a tested recipe, the better the chances are that I will hate my results. I have many talents; culinary intuition is not one of them.

At least my spirit of adventure has not left me, despite the array of poor sensory experiences I have visited upon myself. I’ll try almost anything once. Cricket flour as ingredient in energy bars has me slightly repulsed and slightly intrigued. I may be trusted to buy a bar if they ever make their way to my regional health food stores, but please, send people to my house to prevent me from baking using cricket flour. What I create from it would likely result in a plague of locusts.

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Links: Why So Cereal

Sorry I’ve been AFK. I’ve dealt with health issues and a family crisis for the past few weeks, and I’m just now feeling like a productive member of society once more. Have some links and a look at the foods I’ve been eating lately.

  • I stole this link from a friend, and I want to post it everywhere, ever: The Terrible Tragedy of the Healthy Eater. It is so easy to make yourself crazy with the self-imposed eating habits, keeping up with spurious blog claims, reading forums written by the self-righteous and condescending. Everybody, you have my permission to chill the eff out about your food and laugh at yourself.
  • Funny recipe/life blog PaleOMG is always worth reading. Sometimes I just look at the pictures, sigh about how boring my life is in comparison, and then go on to the recipes.
A 4-photo spread of food.

What I’ve been eating. Top left: grilled chicken, grilled bison burger with bleu cheese, sauteed asparagus, and pasta salad. Top right: My grocery haul, including all manner of seasonal fruit, squash, fresh veggies, and wine. Bottom left: dinner from last night was carrots, raw sliced mushrooms, and a cranberry trail mix. Bottom right: lunch from last week of raw carrots, baked chicken in rosemary and butter, and a diced Bartlett pear.

  • Speaking of recipes, Rantings of an Amateur Chef regularly makes stuff that I would love to have on my plate. Step-by-step recipe photos, a wide ranges of food topics, daily posts, and plenty of variety make this a must-read for those whose palates would benefit from experiencing something new.
  • And then, tooting my own horn as one of the team of moderators on Reddit’s 90 Days Goal community, here’s my Saturday post about seasonal food. I’ll be posting the daily posts on Saturdays. I think food is such a widely varied subject that it deserves all the talking about it can get, and I’ll be contributing to that conversation between mods and community members.

Options Everywhere

On my way to work last week, I stopped at the grocery to pick up last-minute essentials, like diet soda (cringe, I know) and a snacky food. Instead of pastries to share, I brought a bag of apples, which I knew I’d fruitlessly offer to others.  For some reason, people are reluctant to take apples from a woman named Eve.

I also picked up a bag of macadamia nuts, which I measure out before I eat. They are delicious, but they’re also a bit fatty and calorie-dense. You have to be careful with your fat when you don’t have a gallbladder to help you digest it. So I weigh out an ounce with the little scale I picked up at Target.

A food scale measuring one ounce of macadamia nuts

One ounce of macadamia nuts, about 200 calories. And never feed these to your dogs. Ever.

Even though I have a good lunch, sometimes my breakfast is a little less reliable. I may opt to buy eggs or a protein bar at the grocery or a gas station on the way to work. Sometimes, I have tuna. Sometimes, I am slightly grossed out when eating tuna straight from the can over the trash can in the work kitchen, and I discover a few errant fish scales in the can. Or in my mouth. And so, having a variety of options as safeguards in place to give myself healthy alternatives is a method I’ve adopted to help keep myself on the straight and narrow.

A bag of red apples, a baggie of macadamia nuts, and a cup of water

The stewards of my workday snackiness – hearty snacks, something a little sweet, and something to ensure I’m not just thirsty.

I haven’t counted calories much for the past several months, but overeating isn’t a problem as long as I have measured portions of more calorie-dense foods. And it’s hard to overeat on raw fruit. The water helps me test whether I’m actually hungry. It also cuts down on the amount of diet soda I drink. I’ll be in trouble when they start caffeinating the water cooler water.

In my adventures through the grocery store, I was also thinking about trying new coffee creamers – something without corn syrup solids, something low in sugar. I looked up suggestions for paleo coffee creamer on my phone while I was still in the parking lot, and I kept seeing the suggestion for coconut milk as a substitute for cream. I was skeptical and didn’t even know where I’d be able to find it in the store. I went to comparison shop for coffee creamers, when suddenly…

Several containers of coconut milk in a grocery cooler

Refrigerated coconut milk. I didn’t think I could drink a whole carton by myself before it went bad. Plus, there’s added sugar, which ain’t in my diet.

Oh, hi, coconut milk in the dairy section. Checking out the nutritional information, I wasn’t thrilled with the sugar content (I remember drinking chocolate soy milk like cold water in hot summer, probably also due to the sugar content), but it was nice to know there were options. “Well, I wonder where the canned coconut milk is. Probably too much of a pain to try to track down.” I turned around to check out the clearance shelves right behind me, saw these, and knew I should probably take the hint.

Several discounted cans of coconut milk on a grocery shelf

This coconut milk in a can has fewer additives, no added sugar, and is on sale. I transferred it to a mason jar when I got home.

Ok, FINE, universe, I’ll take home your stupid coconut milk. I tried it out in a cup of coffee with a little half and half, a little Splenda. I was not really impressed. But I’ve been used to drinking super artificially sweet coffee for so long, it will take me a while to get acclimated. I had black coffee with a little Splenda in it the other evening. Amazing how little coffee you can manage to drink when it doesn’t taste like a kind of liquid candy. It’s an ongoing experimentation, trying to find a combo that works for me. But I’m glad I went for it and explored my options there.

Finally, I didn’t bring my lunch last Friday and ventured all the way across the street from my office to get fast food for myself and a friend. I knew the restaurant had salads, but I’d always bought the greasy pizzas or greasy sandwiches. This time, I got a salad, and man, it was fantastic. I never knew.

A hearty salad from a fast food restaurant

A fantastic salad that’s mostly on my diet. Lettuce, spinach, avocado, tomato, feta cheese, ham, turkey, bacon, and black beans.

My meal was, altogether, about $8 with a drink. Amazing how a restaurant you’ve visited for years and dismissed for many years longer can still surprise you with gems like these.

It can be tricky to eat in a way that best suits your healthier diet, but if you look hard enough, take time to consider your needs, do some research, and trust to blind luck from time to time, you can be versatile, make most any situation work for you, and enjoy your lifestyle rather than endure your diet.

We Are Not So Different: Paleo-Ish and Vegetarian

So, stop me if you’ve heard this one: Paleo Eve and Vegetarian Eve go to a bar, and the bartender says, “What kind of drinks for you, ladies?” Paleo Eve says, “How about a vodka tonic?” And then, Paleo Eve’s friends gather around it and argue that no, potatoes are too starchy, and anyone trying to lose weight should stay away from vodka. Omg! Vegetarian Eve orders an O’Douls, and Paleo Eve says, “Ugh, that’s disgusting, how many carbs are in that thing?” Vegetarian Eve screeches, “Technically, there’s no meat in this! Get off my case! Gawd!!!”

I was a vegetarian for 8 years of adulthood and have been eating lower carb, paleolithic-ish for only the past 4 months. In all the reading done about the paleolithic diet and lower carb eating, I’ve come to realize that if you’re doing the vegetarian diet correctly, it resembles paleo a great deal, with the main difference of avoiding meat and substituting other protein-heavy foods like soy, peanuts, and a variety of beans, nuts, and legumes.

Technically, I knew that vegetarians could eat raw vegetables and seeds, too, but I was much less willing to eat fresh produce than I am now, and more willing to consume processed foods that often packed less nutritional punch and were ultimately worse for me. Oh, how I regret the Bartlett pears that have gone bad in my crisper drawer.

Poor Choices
I touched upon observing the letter but not the spirit of the vegetarian lifestyle in a recent post about my poorly executed erstwhile vegetarianism. I relied on a lot of soy burgers and fake meat products, anything processed that I could make into a sandwich or throw into stir-fry. Spaghetti practically ran through my veins. (Ok, that was a weird mental image.)

I still ate dairy and eggs, and many processed vegetarian foods are made with dairy and egg ingredients, so it was easier for me to get protein and fat than it would have been if I’d gone fully vegan and eaten more like the way I do now.

In the past, I saw meat, and meat substitutes, as the main part of the meal, and therefore the most essential part of the meal. A dinner built around something other than that kind of main dish was only a snack, or a sign of poverty of imagination (or literal poverty – I mean, who eats just rice and veggies for dinner?). This led me to choose the veggie burger and fries instead of a variety of mixed steamed veggies with a baked potato and salad if I was having dinner at the pub.

While I ate my share of unconventionally structured meals, sometimes that was just due to my misadventures in cooking rather than creativity or fluency in my chosen nutritional path. This thought pattern for every meal of “meat/facsimile and two veg” wasn’t intentional, but it’s something ingrained in a lot of people in the U.S., and it led me to make a lot of poor food choices.

Judgement of That Which Is Deemed Different
I wonder now how much of substituting fake meats but keeping the meal structure otherwise the same was also to downplay the “weirdness” of being vegetarian in a social setting. I had only a handful of friends who were vegetarian or ate with special dietary restrictions, with most of the people in my life enthusiastic omnivores, and little support structure. Most of the people I interacted with were all right with my food choices, because I didn’t throw them in their faces, but occasionally, I’d get hassled by an acquaintance or family member whose bemusement shone through as negative attention that I just wanted to avoid.

If I’d had a spine, I would have been much prouder of my choices. I was almost apologetic and ashamed sometimes about an aspect of my life that only I and the people who truly care about me had any right to meaningfully care about, my food intake.

I am still careful to explain my current diet couched in as many terms as my mind sees as necessary, but I find that people don’t find the details as compelling as they do the broader strokes, so explanation in depth is usually not necessary anymore. As soon as I say, “My doctor put me on this diet,” understanding clicks in, and it’s on to the next topic of conversation. I understand not everyone else who eats like I do has this luxury, and some people are going to be belligerent jerks about the dietary choices of other people no matter what. The old me would have rolled over and taken that kind of prodding (be it good-natured, thoughtless, or trolling), but the new me isn’t about that. All I have to do these days is pull up pictures of me from four months ago and tell them about shopping for new clothes, breathing more easily, and maybe being able to run again someday, and the only thing I’ve changed about my lifestyle is my diet.

Be proud of your lifestyle choices, especially educated and careful choices you make about food and fitness. Don’t let others with no real interest in your health talk you out of doing what is best for you and your body. And those of us who eat differently, remember to be kind and give the benefit of the doubt before you actively judge others. Better yet, don’t judge others at all, since you don’t know their struggles. Sometime when others are negative, they are defensive, feeling like your actions are a judgment of their own. Others may be embittered about their own lack of success and taking it out on you without realizing it (some realize it, and those people are poisonous and should be minimized in your life). Other times, they may have run into someone who made choices like you make and treated them poorly, and they have negative associations they haven’t been able to divorce from the food lifestyle you lead. Their poor reactions from other people toward your diet may be because they feel provoked by the things you say or the attitude you project. Do you brag about your diet everywhere you go? Are you vocally putting down people who eat differently than you do? Be awesome, lead by example, only tell when asked, and follow Wheaton’s Law.

Branching Out
While I still do go for a main dish surrounded by vegetables for many of my main meals, I am also content to eat weirder meals: almond butter with a sprinkling of seeds and nuts, or a bowl of snap peas with cheese (I still love my dairy, so I try to eat quality cheese in measured, reasonable portions). My lunch is usually a portion of deli meat in a sea of raw vegetables, the veggies taking up at least two-thirds of the mass inside my lunch container. During these months when I’m eating with the idea of weight loss, white potatoes are off the menu, but sweet potatoes can be eaten in moderation.

Any of these meals minus the lunch meat would have been perfectly acceptable vegetarian meals, if only I’d thought to branch out from my usual pasta, rice, or quinoa pilaf topped with sad boiled vegetables and a sugary sauce, breaded faux chicken on toast, pasta-riffic frozen lunches, etc. and try some real, unprocessed foods for a change. If I ever go back to vegetarianism, I believe my lower carb, paleo-ish diet has been a valuable education in the importance of the kind and quality of foods you eat.

A cartoon depicting a cavewoman and a hippie in a bar.

If they can get along over a bowl of carrots, then there may be hope for healthy future dietary endeavors.