Monday, November 28, 2011

Thai Noodles with Kale & Tofu

Do you know what makes cream of mushroom soup taste like cream of mushroom soup?  I do.  It's thyme.  Stuffing and gravy?  Usually sage.  Thai food?  Peanut and lime.
Before I started cooking all those dishes myself I would have answered: Campbell's, Grandpa, and the delightful short-order cooks at Star of Siam.  But cooking from scratch has unlocked the gate to the secret garden of spices and seasonings.  So as I've been wearing out my kitchen aprons and scratching up my cutting boards since converting to Veganism, I feel a bit like Willy Wonka in Loompaland, discovering the ingredients that make certain foods taste like themselves.  

And let's all be honest here:  kale tastes gross.  Its taste is as pungent as its curly leaves are dark.  So as far as I'm concerned, the fastest way to label yourself a health nut is to utter the following three words, "I like kale."  Well, get out your multivitamins and safflower oil and prepare to get your health-nut on because this dish might convert you like it did me.  

Honestly, though, peanut butter + anything = tasty.

1 bunch kale
1 package rice noodles
about 1 tablespoon canola or vegetable oil
1 package pre-baked seasoned tofu
1/4 cup creamy all-natural peanut butter
2 – 4 tablespoons organic sugar
1/2 cup lime juice
1/4 soy sauce
pinch red pepper flakes
Fill a large pot with water, and place it over high heat to boil.
While the water is boiling, trim the kale, cut or tear it into bite-sized pieces, and give it a good wash.  Set aside.
Prepare the sauce by combining the peanut butter, sugar, lime juice, soy sauce and red pepper flakes in a medium-sized bowl.  Adjust seasonings to taste, and set aside.
Heat oil in a skillet over medium to medium-high heat.  Dice up the tofu, and toss it into the pan.  Saute it until the pieces are golden and crispy.  Set aside.
By now your water should be boiling.  Add the kale and boil it for about 4 to 5 minutes.  Add the somen noodles and boil for 2 minutes more, or until they’re cooked through.  Drain the kale and noodles in a strainer, and return them to the pot.  Add your sauce, and toss to coat the kale and noodles.  Add the tofu, and gently toss to distribute it.  Serve immediately, and refrigerate any left-overs.

Monday, November 21, 2011

My New Hobby

My parents like to save things.  So much so that my childhood home sometimes feels like a museum dedicated to preserving our family memories, some of which would have long been forgotten in my mind if not for the objects peppering the bookshelves in that house.  There are loose photos and yellowed newspaper clippings sitting in shoeboxes in the garage; a dismal 2nd grade craft project constructed with backyard sticks and a heaping dose my 7-year old imagination collecting dust on a living room bookshelf; and a pair of cheap stud earrings from Hook’s Drug Store - which went out of business in 1994 - that I found in the back of a bathroom drawer last year and now keep in my daily jewelry rotation. My parents are certainly doing their part to stop filling up landfills.  

While I share my parents’ sentimental tendency to save things, I’m much more organized with my memory objects.  Whenever I receive a particularly touching birthday card or bring back a souvenir from a family trip, I put it in one of the white boxes tucked away near the bookshelves in my bedroom.  For a few years now, these little boxes have collected my mementos and stored all my good intention to do something with them.  

Maybe the Toy Story franchise made me overly-sympathetic to inanimate objects (I’m looking at you Toy Story 3), but the past few months I’d been feeling like my sentimental trinkets had waited long enough for me to organize them in a more meaningful way.  So I finally did something with them last week.  I liberated my postcards, certificates, and photostrips from their white-boxed prison and gently double-sided-taped them into my very first scrapbook.  

Two trips to Michael’s later, and with a new understanding of why scrapbooking supplies take up the first four aisles of that store, my first scrapbook now sits atop the living room bookshelf ready for anyone to enjoy.  Even though it’s fun to exercise my creativity with stamps, stickers, and colorful paper like I’m in elementary school again, scrapbooking is more than just a craft project.  It reminds me why I chose to keep these objects in the first place: Unlike the newspaper clippings waiting in my parents’ garage with no one to look at them and the earrings that waited 16 years to sparkle next to someone’s cheek, the point of having all these mementos from life is to give them a place of honor and enjoyment in our home.

A page from my scrapbook, including hiking photos from college
and a card from my first Valentine's Day with Ian in 2005.

Monday, November 14, 2011


When Ian and I had HBO last year we liked to watch The Ricky Gervais Show on Friday nights, which features Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant (both of The Office fame), and their friend, Karl Pilkington - all three of them in a studio recording their weekly podcast.  It came on after Bill Maher, providing a dose of sweet British humor to lighten the heavy liberal bitterness leftover after Real Time.

You might think that Mr. Gervais drives the comedy behind his show.  Incorrect.  Karl Pilkington is the real star of The Ricky Gervais Show. With his charming Manchester accent, deep voice, and pensive seriousness, Mr. Pilkington's unique character and his unusual way of thinking about the world have made me laugh so hard that my stomach aches and my living room tissue box is empty from dabbing away happy tears.  Here are a few Pilkingtonian gems (and you can find more here):

  • On dopplegangers - "How would I know which one I was?"
  • On chameleons - "Stay green. Stay in the woods. Stay safe."
  • "Neil Armstrong, that spaceman, he went to the moon but he ain't been back. It can't have been that good."

Lucky me, Ian is quite learned in the art of Pilkington humor, and he's been pulling out some chuckle-worthy thoughts of his own recently:

  • On the Keebler Elves: “It's a fire hazard to make cookies inside a tree.”
  • On scary zombie movies:  “Why do they call them the ‘undead’?  Aren’t the undead us?”
  • On family planning, “Shouldn’t it be called Unplanned Parenthood?”
  • On an amputation scene in the John Adams mini-series: “They wouldn’t show that on HBO, would they?”
  • On the ash crosses people wear on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday: “I’m sure Jesus wouldn’t want you to look stupid.”

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Hidden Talent

Every time I sit down to write here, a squat little box nudges my left foot on the floor underneath my desk.  It’s a clear plastic contraption with a poppable black lid that stores some pink ribbon leftover from our wedding last year as well as some black ink accompanying flowery stamps for my homemade thank you notes.  But mostly my little box contains materials for a hobby that I gave up a long time ago: drawing.

Growing up, I always considered myself a fairly artsy person.  I didn’t wear wispy scarves or sketch Looney Tunes characters on my notebooks at school, but I loved a good art class.  Perhaps I felt artsy because of some innate talent of mine, but I mostly liked art because my dad is a well-known art teacher in town.  In the sixth grade when I raised my hand to answer a question about the primary colors, my Language Arts teacher preempted my response with “Yes, Anne, daughter of an art teacher!”  Ever the Daddy’s Girl, I was - and still am -  happy to be defined by his legacy.  

The first time I created a piece of art that one might actually call “good” was in the 8th grade.  I painted a bucolic scene of an old homestead with an aging wood fence in the foreground holding in rows of summer corn, and a bright red barn peppering the hunter green forestline in the distance.  ‘Twas pretty darn good for a thirteen-year old, ifIdosaysomyself.  

I went on to take four drawing classes my freshman and sophomore years of high school.  That’s when art classes really took a turn from producing things you take home to mom to producing things you take to the frame store to get measured for long-term preservation.  I learned how to sketch with colored pencils, how to paint with watercolors, and how to not smudge charcoal drawings.  I learned about negative and positive space and shading in complimentary colors.  

I also learned about the lows and highs of art class: the lows were the time crunches to get a piece done at the end of the semester.  You can cram for an exam, but there’s no faking pencil strokes and shoddy shading techniques.  The highs were the classes themselves.  90-minutes of right-brain meditation in artistic beauty in the midst of a day of left-brain exercises in geometry and history memorization.  The only sounds in class were soothing music playing by the teacher’s desk and the symphony of twenty graphite pencils rubbing against crisp white paper.  I loved it.

But after 10th grade, I never took a drawing class again.

Busy with standardized tests, extracurricular leadership, and college applications, I abandoned art to focus on “my future” in high school.  My quest for a lucrative future sucked up some of my other hobbies / talents in college as well, and once again in a nine-to-five office job.  I naively thought there wasn’t any room for my sketchbooks or my viola in my college backpack or in my briefcase.  So I tucked my art materials away in a plastic box, and they’ve followed me from dorm rooms to apartments just asking to be played with like Woody the Cowboy in Toy Story.    

Now over a decade has passed since my last drawing class and since I last seriously sketched anything.  Having been known as an artsy girl for the first half of my life, now many of my closest friends and family - my best friends from college, my inlaws, even my husband - have never seen a HB pencil in my hand.

Leave it to my loving parents to remind me that I used to like drawing.  My mom casually reminded me of my former hobby a few weeks ago, and by last week, when Ian and I were getting ready to go to South Carolina for the weekend, that little plastic box under the desk was shouting out to me like the Tell-Tale Heart in the floorboard.  So I opened it and pushed the ribbons and stamps aside to pull out an old sketchbook that still had “Period 7” written on the front.   I flipped through some of my old sketches - an unfinished bucket of fall apples, an ocean scene in Myrtle Beach, even a richly colored drawing of a popular movie poster from my sophomore year of high school: Moulin Rouge.  With several blank pages left, all ripe for drawing, I took the sketchbook, a handful of my graphite pencils, and a Restoration Hardware catalogue for source material - and packed them away for the weekend.

So this past Sunday, while Ian enjoyed one of his favorite hobbies - watching football - I rebirthed one of mine.   It's certainly not an A+ piece, but now I know that doesn't matter.

It surprised me how quickly I remembered my drawing techniques.  I had forgotten whether the 4H pencil is darker than the 6H pencil, but I remembered how use the straight edge of the pencil to line up the angles and how to rub the graphite with my thumb to blend the pencil strokes.  Maybe I remembered quickly because of the muscle memory from my hands, but I know that most of those memories came from my heart.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Vegan Verdict

Today is November 2nd, exactly one month since Operation Go-Vegan began, and the results are in.  I don’t want to be like E! News on Monday evening who saved the Kardashian Divorce Report until the last five minutes of the news hour.  Let’s get to the juicy bits right now:  

  • Mom: 10 pounds lost in two weeks
  • Dad:  10 pounds lost in two weeks
  • Ian:  8 pounds lost, 1” off waist in one month
  • Me: 4 pounds lost, ½” off waist in one month

That’s right. My 60-year old parents, who dropped out of the race two weeks after crossing the start line, made Dr. Oz-worthy health gains.  Not fair, right?  This whole vegan experiment was MY idea, after all, and I didn’t lose five pounds each week.  

Actually, I kind of expected these results.  You see, my parents were as unfamiliar with veganism as they are with "The Facebook."  Conversely, I’ve been experimenting with vegan cooking for awhile.  So going into the 30-day challenge, I already knew how to lightly cook Seitan and how to bake cookies with canola oil and EarthBalance.  But my parents went cold turkey (pun intended), refusing to use any vegan substitutes.  Stuck eating lentils and red peppers every night, of course they lost weight quickly.  On the other side of town, Ian and I did use some vegan substitutes to fulfill our cravings and did not lose weight like gastric bypass patients.  We treated the substitutes like Nicorette, helping wean us off our addiction to dairy and meat.

It worked.  As the month passed, each day got easier than the previous one.  Now it’s November 2nd, and we have zucchini and yellow peppers marinating in our refrigerator.  So, as the four of us quickly learned, picky eaters / vegan novices will lose much more weight on a vegan diet, but will also have a harder time sticking with it because - let’s be honest - who wants to live a life without chocolate chip cookies?

Even though I didn’t drop the lbs like a paid Jenny Craig spokeswoman, I crossed the vegan finish line because it made my body feel good, inside and out.  Here are some of the positive health effects I experienced:
  • Clearer sinuses:  I used to think I was an evolutionary anomaly because I periodically could not breathe through my nose.  I attributed my nasal asphyxiation to my too-small jelly-bean sized nostrils.  Incorrect.  Dairy is the real culprit.  So no dairy = no stuffy noses.
  • Less bloating:  If dairy can clog up my nose, you can imagine what it was doing to my digestive system.  ‘Nuff said.  On a related note:
  • Better and more regular bathroom visits:  Like my mom said, “Fiber will change your life.”  
  • NO HEARTBURN: I sporadically get heartburn at night, perhaps once or twice a month. Not this month.
  • Satiation: Eating vegan food this month helped me understand the difference between feeling full and feeling satiated after a meal.  Like I told Ian a few days ago, before this experiment I never really knew what it felt like to only feel full in my stomach.  Pre-veganism, I always felt burp-ey or gassy after a meal.  But eating meat-free and dairy-free foods isolates satiation in my stomach alone, and it feels great.
  • Increased energy level and improved body clock: I don’t feel sluggish after meals, and that energy carries over through the rest of the day and night.  I sleep for eight hours every night, and wake up around the same time every morning.
Some anecdotal observations that may or may not have anything to do with the plant-based diet shift:
  • Slower heart rate:  I’ve always had a fast heart rate.  Like 80-90 beats per minute maybe.  But something curious happened last week.  I was relaxing in bed a week ago and inadvertently felt my pulse.  I listened to it for a few seconds.  Realizing it seemed quite slower than normal, I put my first two fingers up to one of those bulging pulse centers on either side of my throat just to make sure I wasn’t going into cardiac arrest.  Nope.  My pulse was just slower.  I can’t put a number to it, but it’s definitely been a bit slower than I remember it.  I’ve heard that plant-based diets lower blood pressure, so perhaps they affect heart rate as well.
  • (Earmuffs, gentlemen) Longer menstrual cycle:  My period mysteriously came (a fretful) five days later than normal in October, shifting my cycle from 25 days to 30.  If this keeps up, that means two less periods a year - yes, please!  (Added health bonus:  Research suggests that fewer periods over the course of a woman’s lifetime reduces her risk of breast cancer.)
Finally, three noteworthy secondary benefits of a vegan diet:
  • Better Cooking:  I cooked more meals this month than I ever have before.  Italian flatbread, Thai Peanut Noodles, Mexican Pasta - our kitchen started to feel like Epcot, but without the overheated children and stressed out parents.  After a month cooking without animal products, I have renewed my belief that learning how to cook vegan food may be the foundation for learning how to cook, period.  Without being able to resort to adding cream cheese and bacon for flavor bursts this month, I had to master the delicate art of using spices and oils in my recipes, a much trickier albeit worthwhile endeavor.  
  • Saving Money:  Not eating out + Only buying produce and grains = Major food savings!  I know folks like to say that eating a vegan diet is expensive because carrots are pricier than potato chips.  Agricultural politics aside, Ian and I saved a lot of money on food this month.  Most days, we spent less than $10 a day on food for both of us.  Just look at my Mexican Pasta recipe.  The ingredients add up to ~$8-10, and a whole pot of it usually lasts the two of us for 2-3 days!
  • Spiritual Lightening:  Not to get too ethereal here, but there is something spiritually rewarding about eating a diet that is kind and compassionate to other sentient beings.

Excluding the menstrual cycle thing, Ian and my parents shared many of these benefits with me.  I’ve read that most adults do have some degree of difficulty digesting dairy products.  Unsurprisingly then, the most significant shared benefit - as experienced by three of the four of us vegan test subjects - has been a general feeling of lightness and clarity inside our bodies.

My dad was the odd man out. Eating vegan upset his stomach.  And that’s one of the downsides of a plant-based diet: some bodies do not immediately agree with a switch to a diet heavy in fiber.  So my dad understandably jumped off the vegan train to eat a poached egg.  

Ian and I are fortunate to have not had any digestive upsets like him, but we have experienced some downsides of a vegan diet.  First, we had to start watching our nutrient intake more carefully.  We bought multivitamins fortified with vitamin B12, iron, calcium, and vitamin D.  We each take one with dinner every night.  Easy.  Not being able to partake in fun size Snickers bars at Halloween on Monday night: not so easy.  This inability to participate in cultural events in a “normal” way is, without a doubt, the most emotionally and philosophically challenging aspect of any form of vegetarianism.  I’m already preparing myself for rolled eyes and hurt feelings as I politely refuse, for the first time ever, the turkey and other tasty dishes at my grandparents’ house this Thanksgiving.  

So there you have it.  I’m refusing turkey and my favorite side dish, green bean casserole, on Thanksgiving this year because - here’s the verdict - we’re sticking with it.  This month-long plant-based diet experiment has turned into an indefinite lifestyle shift for the two of us because, as we were surprised to discover, we both like being vegan.  It lightens our spirits and refreshes our bodies.

Thirty days ago, we were already planning our dinner on November 2nd.  Something cheesy.  Maybe pizza or baked spaghetti from Fazoli’s with those tasty garlic butter breadsticks.  We’re still curious to see how our bodies would react to dairy after a month of not eating it.  But when I just asked Ian if he wanted to order a pizza, he shrugged his shoulders and casually responded, “I don’t think I want anything with cheese tonight.”   C'est la vie-gan.