Seitan Kofta

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I know a recipe is a winner when Curtis tells me he likes it more than once. Ever-efficient, the man is simply not one to waste breath on repetition, so when something gets a second round of praise, I know it’s going into our regular rotation.

Truth be told, I don’t even think I’ve ever had a “real” kofta, the little Middle Eastern meatball spiced with ingredients like cinnamon and nutmeg, but the urge to make a batch had gripped me suddenly on Saturday afternoon, a craving that demanded attention. I had to consult my copy of Jerusalem, drawing some inspiration from Sami and Yotam. They used a lot of ingredients that I don’t have on hand – pine nuts, chiles, and…you know, meat – but it allowed me wrap my brain around the prospective flavor. These are anything but authentic, so consider them more “inspired” by the traditional dish.

Don’t let the spice combination deter you from making these. This was my first use of cinnamon and nutmeg in a savory application, but it certainly won’t be the last. The addition of the spices make the whole dish feel delightfully exotic, even enjoyed from my West Philadelphia kitchen. They probably won’t win any beauty contests, but they are delicious for sure.

Curtis and I ate our kofta for lunch in our favorite summertime application – a huge, refreshing salad. This one included crisp romaine, sliced cucumbers, herbed zucchini rice, roasted red peppers, toasted sunflower seeds, and was covered in tahini dressing – all perfect accompaniments to the subtly sweet kofta.

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Seitan Kofta
makes 48 neatballs

12 cups water or vegetable broth
1/4 cup soy sauce
3 cups vital wheat gluten
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground paprika
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 1/2 cups cold vegetable broth
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup cold water
3 tablespoons mild-tasting oil
3 cloves garlic, minced

1. Bring 12 cups water/broth and 1/4 cup soy sauce to a boil. Reduce to a gentle simmer.

2. In a large mixing bowl, combine wheat gluten, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, pepper, paprika, and red pepper flakes. In a small measuring cup, combine cold broth, water, soy sauce, oil, and garlic. Add to dry ingredients and mix with hands or a spoon until the moisture is absorbed. The dough will feel pretty dry at this point – don’t worry! Turn the dough out and knead as best you can for 1-2 minutes.

3. Divide the dough into 48 even pieces and use your hands to shape into balls, torpedo-shapes, or just leave them as cubes. Drop the kofta into the broth and simmer for one hour, being careful not to let the broth come to a boil (nobody likes a spongy neatball). You’ll know they’re done when they poof up and bob to the surface. Remove from broth and let cool. Pat dry and fry in oil, or store simmered pieces in the fridge.

4. To serve, fry the kofta in a small amount of mild-tasting oil until brown on all sides. Tuck into a pita or place atop coarsely chopped greens. Drizzle with tahini if desired.

Nutrition per Kofta: 45 calories, 2g carbs, 0g fiber, 1g fat, 7g protein

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Put Your Faith in Julia

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Doubt stays my hand there in the supermarket, balancing on my tiptoes, fingers curled around a can of jumbo pitted black olives.

You’re going to regret this, the little voice informs me. I shift my basket in the crook of my arm, rolling back on my heels to read the label on the can.

You don’t even like olives.

After a particularly stressful day, I find myself where I usually do on the tail end of stressful days – our local grocery store. Having voraciously watched episode after episode of The French Chef over the past week or so, I’ve found one recipe has stuck out in my mind – Julia’s main course on Spaghetti Dinner Flambe: Spaghetti Marco Polo.

According to historical distaste for briny and salty, I should be somewhat repulsed by the components of the bright, chopped “sauce” that tops the pasta – nuts, fancy pimento, and a generous portion of chopped black olives. Strangely enough though, I’ve been so fascinated by the unique, tomato-free nature of the dish that I’ve watched the episode three times, ensuring I’ve gotten all the details down pat.

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But as I stroll the linoleum tiles of the canned foods aisle, I’m having second thoughts. Certainly it would be easier to fix something more familiar, something more to my taste – perhaps a stir fry with peanut sauce, or a South-of-the-border bowl with plenty of cumin and lime juice?

No, the other little voice says. Put your faith in Julia.

The can of olives finds a place in the basket next to the zucchini.

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    After thoroughly mixing the Marco Polo sauce, I take a tentative bite from the end of the spoon. The harsh brininess I was expecting is nonexistant, replaced by a pleasant creamy saltiness complemented by mild, sweet pimento and bright parsley. Oh Julia, I should never have doubted you.

  I’ve made a few changes to Julia’s dish in order to meet my needs: while she used chopped walnuts, I happened to have dry roasted sunflower seeds on hand (though I’m sure that any finely chopped nut would do very nicely). Also, I’ve given the whole thing a slightly modern twist by serving it over my favorite julienned zucchini (“zoodles”) rather than spaghetti.

Zoodles Marco Polo
inspired by The French Chef
serves 2-3

3 medium zucchini
1/2 cup pitted black olives, chopped
1/2 cup pimento packed in water, chopped
1/3 cup fresh flat parsley, chopped
1/4 cup dry roasted, unsalted sunflower seeds
salt & pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons walnut oil
2-3 cloves garlic, minced

1. Trim the ends from the zucchinis and julienne them. Place the strands in a large colander and sprinkle well with salt – this will draw out the excess moisture. Let them drain in the sink or over a bowl for 10-20 minutes.

2. Mix the chopped pimento, black olives, sunflower seeds, and parsley together. Add salt and pepper to taste.

3. Rinse the salt from the zoodles and dry very well.

4. Heat the oil and garlic in a large pan over medium-high heat. Cook your garlic until just about done – you’ll only add the zoodles long enough to heat them through. Add the zoodles to the pan and stir well to coat with the garlic and oil. Allow the zoodles to just heat through and transfer them to a large serving platter or bowl.

5. Pour the Marco Polo sauce on top of the zoodles and sprinkle with nutritional yeast, if you like. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Nutrition per Serving: 301 calories, 18g carbohydrates, 7g fiber, 21g fat, 9g protein.

Seitan Salad with Creamy Dressing

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In my sophomore year of high school, I got my first job at a restaurant across town from my house. I spent most of my Friday and Saturday nights in a tie, making flavored cappuccinos and trying to come up with creative chocolate sauce designs on dessert plates. It wasn’t a bad place to work as a teen, but my hands-down-favorite aspect of the gig was free meal I’d get at the start of every shift.

I ate a lot of burgers and french dip sandwiches with thick-cut fries, but on hot summer afternoons, I’d go for my favorite meal on the menu – the grilled steak salad. It was a thing of beauty, a delicious mix of flavors and textures, sweet and savory, piled high on a big white plate. I liked it so much, I ordered it even on the occasions when I’d go to the restaurant with family or friends. I haven’t had it in years, but I found myself unable to think of anything else all day long – I couldn’t wait to get home and veganize it. I’m so glad I did!

Just as I did back in high school, as the weather creeps up into the 90s, I find myself turning to easy-to-throw-together meals that don’t involve spending too much time in front of the stove. Hearty salads like this one meet that need while making for a filling, satisfying meal that won’t leave you feeling bloated up. This salad fills your bowl chock full of flavors, textures, and nutrients.

I should note that this makes two serious salads – our IKEA salad bowls were overflowing, but Curtis and I really love to eat. If you have a slightly “daintier” appetite, this might be fine divided into 3-4 meals.

Seitan “Steak” Salad
makes 2 huge salads

1/2 pound seitan, homemade or packaged, sliced thinly
2 cloves garlic, minced
8 oz. button or crimini mushrooms, sliced thinly
2 tsp coconut oil
1 head romaine lettuce, chopped
2 oz. roasted red peppers, sliced
1 cucumber, unpeeled and sliced thinly into half-moons
1 red, ripe tomato, sliced into half-moons
1/4 cup dry-roasted sunflower seeds
1/4 cup Vegenaise or other vegan mayo
2 tbsp plain, unsweetened almond milk
2 tsp whole-grain mustard (the grainier the better!)
1 tbsp white vinegar
pinch of sweetener (I used Splenda)
s&p to taste

1. In a large frying pan, heat the coconut oil over medium-high heat. Add garlic and seitan and leave undisturbed for a few minutes to get it nice and crispy. Stir, and add mushrooms. Cook until mushrooms are soft.

2. While mushrooms and seitan cook, add lettuce, roasted peppers, tomato, and sunflower seeds to a large mixing bowl. Add your seitan-mushroom mixture, mix everything well, and set aside.

3. To make the dressing, combine Vegenaise, almond milk, mustard, vinegar, sweetener, and salt & pepper in a small bowl and whisk until smooth and creamy. Pour over the salad and mix with tongs until the salad is well-coated. Separate into bowls and serve.

Nutrition with Dressing: 596 calories, 32g carbohydrates, 12g fiber, 33g fat, 46g protein.

Grilled Summer Corn

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I can feel my hair sucking up the moisture in the air, looping into fat ringlet curls and resting against my forehead. As we stroll up the beach at half past five, it’s becoming clear that this probably wasn’t the best morning to wake up early and watch the sunrise.

“It’s eerie, isn’t it?” Curt asks, his hands in the pockets of his shorts as he looks up and down the empty beach. “The fog makes you think of a ghost pirate ship or something.”

The Weather Channel assures us that the sun is going to rise at exactly 5:36 a.m., but we probably won’t see anything other than slightly less gray skies until at least the afternoon. Curtis tucks the big beach towel under his arm as we head back to the car. It’s not a big deal – at less than a mile from the front door to the shore, we’ll come back on a clearer morning to complete our tradition of watching a sunrise over the ocean together.

On the drive back, we see a ton of wildlife – two proud goose parents and their crowd of fuzzy, awkward-teen goslings, a big-eared fox, and a great blue heron on the side of the road, slurping up a small snake like a strand of spaghetti. Our early morning adventure has gotten us out of the house just as nature is breaking its fast.

I love the simple joys of summer – seeing the sunrise (or trying to) with Curt, iced coconut coffee from my favorite coffee shop on the boardwalk – when it comes down to it, I’m pretty easy to please, especially from Memorial Day to Labor Day. But my all-time favorite summer pleasure has to be locally-grown sweet corn.

Having grown up in Central New Jersey, I’m something of a corn aficionado. Nothing says summertime to me quite like corn on the cob. As a child, I was happy to munch away at ears fresh from a pot of boiling water, coated in a thin layer of butter and sprinkled with salt. As an adult, not too much has changed – but now, I prefer it with the gentle char from the barbecue and a pat of Earth Balance or coconut oil.

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When I had braces as a teen and couldn’t dig my choppers into the cob, my mom used to slice the kernels off in big slabs for me to eat it with a fork. I thought it tasted so much sweeter this way that despite being brace-free for over a decade, I still prefer my corn this way. Plus – no pesky corn skins stuck in your teeth!

When you’re choosing your ears, peel the husk back a few inches and prick one of the kernels with your thumbnail. If the kernel squirts a milky juice, it’s going to be ripe, sweet, and ready to eat!

Grilled Summer Corn
makes 4 ears

4 large ears of corn

1. Heat your grill to medium.

2. Peel the husks back and remove the silky threads from the corn (running water helps the process). Gently fold the husks back over the corn and submerge in a large bowl of cold water for 10-20 minutes.

3. Shake off any excess water and place the ears on the grill. Close the lid and cook for 25-30 minutes, turning every 5 minutes or so until the kernels are tender and yield easily to a paring knife.

4. Remove from the grill and serve with Earth Balance, coconut oil, lime juice, salt, and/or a sprinkle of chili powder.

Nutrition per 8-inch Ear, without condiments: 123 calories, 2g fat, 27g carbohydrates, 4g fiber, 5g protein.

Life’s Little Happies

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I love the weeks leading up to a big vacation almost as much as the trip itself. Like a child counting down the days to Christmas, my excitement builds exponentially as I squirrel away clothes, bottles of sunscreen, and special snacks. My suitcase in the corner of our bedroom is a constant, quiet reminder of what’s to come. Why should joy be limited only to the seven days we’ll spend away? This isn’t just any trip to the grocery store for Vegenaise – it’s the Vegenaise we’re going to use on vacation.

I’ve been keeping a gratitude journal. Before I get under the covers, hair tied up in a messy bun and bare face slathered with a thin layer of coconut oil, I open my little black and white journal to a new blank page and scribble down what I’m grateful for in that moment. On the whole, the scribbles are pretty ordinary – “79 cent avocados from Aldi” reads one entry, “the robin that let me get close enough to take his picture“. Even my “big” entries are still pretty…well, small.

At first, it felt funny documenting these little occurrences, as though my feelings of gratitude had to be “saved up” for monumental events or life-changing news. But the more I think about it, I lead a pretty quiet life. When you work in a cubicle and your day more or less revolves around what you’re going to make for dinner, monumental events don’t come around that often. When it comes down to it, maybe life is just a collection of little happies that are worth their own attention and appreciation.

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Curtis and I are spending the week at the Delaware seashore, and I feel like this philosophy has been amplified for me in just the few days we’ve enjoyed here already. I’m grateful for so many things big and small – being able to ride my bike to the produce stand down the road and try the first tomatoes of summer. Listening to frogs chatter in the pond near the house after the sun goes down. Going for long walks, chatting, and falling in love over and over again with the man who, in thirteen months, is going to be my husband.

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My gratitude journal, and my heart, overflow.

Raw Rainbow Noodles with Tofu and Peanut Sauce

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It’s a little after midnight. I’ve been in bed for a few hours, but Curtis has just gotten into bed, and I love to chit chat with him in the dark before my lids get heavy again and I slip gently back into deep sleep.

“The 140’s,” he says, pulling me close and burying his face into the back of my neck. Our window is open, and the cool night air tumbles into our bedroom, tangled with laughter from the sidewalk, far-off sirens, and all the summertime sounds of the city. “I’m so proud of you, baby.”

It’s been a big day in the life and times of Melissa Hartz – this morning, for the first time in my adult life, I stepped on the scale and was greeted with a weight that began with “14”. 149.6 pounds, to be exact. I won’t lie – I’m proud too. I don’t think I weighed less than 150 pounds when I was twelve years old.

Pulling the sheets up closer to my chin, I think about how much things – how much I – have changed since I began actively trying to lose weight following my college graduation. What I’ve lost in body weight (nearly a third of the woman Curtis fell in love with years ago), I’ve gained in so much more – confidence, passion for fitness and nutrition, and the knowledge and satisfaction of knowing that I can attain whatever goals I set for myself. It’s a good feeling – and makes me think that maybe less truly is more.

I’ve noticed a huge shift, for the better, in my mental state during the past few weeks. In something that feels what I imagine a spiritual awakening, I feel a comforting sense of peace and contentedness in my existence. I am thankful for the small things in my life and have a vague vision of what the path ahead looks like concerning my studies, my career, and my upcoming marriage. Though my lantern burns only bright enough to light the few steps ahead of me, I am unafraid to continue forward.

It helps to have a hand to hold along the way, too.

This afternoon, I am still reveling in our gorgeous Saturday spent at the Morris Arboretum here in Philadelphia. My brother was in town, so we decided to spend the day taking in the sights, smells, and sounds at the grounds. In addition to the beautiful trees, plants, and sculptures, we also saw plenty of wildlife including skittish chipmunks, baby bunnies, and an entire family of chubby groundhogs. It was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon with two people I care about.

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Now that the weather is finally [suddenly?] warming up, I’ve found myself drawn to mostly-raw foods – cleansing, hydrating, and cooling foods that keep my mouth happy and my belly full.

I made this big bowl of rainbow noodles and tofu with the ingredients we had on hand, but you should feel free to make adjustments according to your own taste – shelled edamame, crunchy carrots, or creamy avocado would fit right into this quick, healthy meal.

Raw Rainbow Noodles with Tofu and Peanut Sauce
Serves 1 Hungry Person

1 cucumber, julienned
1/4 small head of red cabbage, sliced very thinly
sprinkle of salt

5 oz. firm tofu, pressed, cubed, and patted dry
1 tsp coconut oil
sprinkle of chinese fivespice

2 green onions, sliced
1/4 cup cilantro, chopped

2 tbsp organic creamy peanut butter (or nut butter of your choice)
1 tbsp soy sauce

1 tbsp rice vinegar
sprinkle of garlic salt
sprinkle of curry powder
1/2 packet Splenda

1. Add julienned cucumber and red cabbage to a collandar and sprinkle generously with salt. Set in the sink to drain excess water.

2. Heat coconut oil in a large nonstick frying pan or wok and add cubed tofu. Sprinkle with fivespice powder and cook until crispy on all sides. Set aside.

3. Rinse cucumber and cabbage and pat dry VERY WELL – you may even want to take them on a trip through the salad spinner to ensure they are completely dry. Excess moisture will make your noodles soggy and water down your sauce, so make sure you don’t skip this step.

4. Add “noodles” to a large bowl and stir in green onions, cilantro, and tofu. Drizzle with peanut sauce and mix well to ensure everything is coated. Let rest for a few minutes to marinate. Munch.

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Nutritional Information: 472 calories, 26g net carbs, 28g fat, 25g protein.