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.

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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.

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.

Sausage, Peppers and Onions over Spaghetti

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  As a lover of nostalgia and a compulsive list-maker, New Year’s Eve is right up there in my most favorite days of the year. I love and appreciate the opportunity to reflect on the past twelve months and look ahead to the next.

  2013 was a heck of a year for firsts. I got my first ‘real’ job with health insurance and business cards, made my first big move away from home and settled into my first apartment. On my summer vacation to Long Beach Island, I ran in my first race longer than a 5k, and in November, I welcomed my very first roommate – my wonderful boyfriend.

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  I’ve always been a lover of the little things, because that’s what life is – a compilation of “little things” that makes up our day-to-day. I have adored all the little moments that 2013 has offered me – the first taste of fat heirloom tomatoes, drinking coffee together on our big L-shaped couch on Sunday mornings and the many, many, many meals I have cooked in our sunny eat-in kitchen with the natural wood table and the mismatched chairs.

  I have savored them all.

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Sausage, Peppers and Onions over Spaghetti
serves 1-2

2 oz. whole wheat spaghetti
1 Simple Sausage*, or Italian Tofurky Sausage
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 raw white onion, sliced into half-moons
1 green bell pepper, sliced
1 tablespoon apple cider or balsamic vinegar
2 cloves garlic, grated on a microplane or chopped teeny-tiny
1/2 cup vegetable broth
2 tablespoons tomato paste
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1. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Drop in spaghetti and cook to al dente. Drain very well  – no wet noodles here! – and set aside.

2. Heat olive oil in a large frying pan and brown sausage on all sides. Slice into thick diagonal rounds and set aside.

3. Add peppers and onions to the hot pan. Lower the heat to medium and cook until peppers are very soft. Add garlic and saute 1-2 minutes longer.

4. Add sausage rounds, vegetable broth and tomato paste to the pan. Cook until the sauce has cooked down and thickened slightly. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot over whole wheat spaghetti.

Nutrition per Recipe: 478 calories, 74g carbohydrates, 8g fat, 35g protein.

*Note: Using the recipe from The Post Punk Kitchen, I made six sausages instead of four for a total of 166 calories per link. If you use 1/4 of Isa Chandra’s recipe, or use Tofurky Italian Sausages to create this dish, be sure to adjust your calorie counts accordingly.

Sugar Cookies

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I’ve mentioned before that I’m more of a cook than a baker – because of this, I hesitate to do a lot of my own experimentation when it comes to baking. Really, I just hate the idea of having to waste a tray full of perfectly good ingredients because my chemistry project didn’t work out the way I had planned.

 My brother David is in town for a few days, and loves pillowy soft sugar cookies. For this, I turned to the experts – these cookies are from the Healthy Sugar Cookies post over at Chocolate Covered Katie. Katie’s blog is fabulous for health-conscious vegan bakers – or anyone looking to satisfy their sweet tooth!

  The only modifications I made with this recipe was to the fat in the cookies – Katie uses a quarter cup of vegan butter, but I used three tablespoons of Earth Balance and one tablespoon of coconut oil. The flavor of the coconut doesn’t come through (so even picky eaters like my brother can enjoy them), but it lends a subtle sweetness and all that buttery goodness to the finished product. 

  As Katie notes, these cookies will look very underdone when you take them out of the oven. However, let them cool for five or ten minutes (if you can slap grabby hands away for that long) and they become perfectly soft, tender cookies. Sprinkle with sugar, colored sprinkles or dip in chocolate for a perfect sweet treat.

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Sugar Cookies
from Chocolate Covered Katie
makes 12 cookies

3/4 cup all purpose flour
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 + 1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 tablespoons unsweetened plant based milk
3 tablespoons original Earth Balance (not whipped)
1 tablespoon coconut oil

1. Preheat oven to 325º. 

2. Combine flour, baking powder, salt, baking soda and sugar in a large bowl. 

3. In a separate bowl, melt Earth Balance and coconut oil together. Add vanilla and milk and stir to combine. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and mix until batter forms.

4. Roll into 1-inch balls and drop onto a greased baking sheet, flattening them slightly. Sprinkle with sugar or sprinkles, if desired.

5. Bake for 9 minutes. Take the cookies from the oven and allow them to cool for 5-10 minutes. Serve with a big glass of your favorite plant-based milk.

Nutrition per Cookie: 76 calories, 10g carbohydrates, 4g fat, 1g protein.

Mushroom Barley Soup

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  This holiday season, for the first time in my young life, I have a full week off from work that I still get paid for. So imagine my delight when I woke up yesterday morning with a sinus cold. It was gonna be a soup kind of day.

Soup and I go way back – in fact, almost every one of my childhood memories revolves around a bowl of the stuff. Every holiday at grandma’s started with a bowl of clear soup with tiny square noodles, snow days ended with a big mug of hearty chicken and rice. Like a subtly-placed, recurring prop in the movie of my life, soup is always there – never taking center stage, never demanding the attention it deserves, but always adding a little comfort and a lot of love to any situation.

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  There’s a real earthiness to the combination of mushrooms and crushed thyme – like Mother Nature just came to give you a great big bear hug. I like to use chewy, savory baby bella mushrooms in this soup, but any regular white mushroom will do very nicely.

  Make this the next time you or a loved one are feeling under the weather – or next time you need a little mushroom hug.

Mushroom Barley Soup
serves 6

1 cup pearled barley, uncooked
2 1/2 cups water
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 white onions, diced
2 large stalks celery, diced
3 carrots, peeled and sliced into thin rounds
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb. baby bella mushrooms, sliced
1-2 teaspoons dried thyme, crushed between your fingers
1 teaspoons garlic powder
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 can diced tomatoes in juice
4 cups vegetable stock
2 cups kale, chopped

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1. Cook barley in 2 1/2 cups water until water is absorbed and barley is tender.

2. In your soup pot, cook onion, celery, carrot and garlic in olive oil until onions are just translucent. Add sliced mushrooms, thyme and garlic powder and cook for about five more minutes.

3. Add soy sauce, vinegar, tomatoes and vegetable stock. Add the cooked barley and stir well. Cook for about 20 minutes until soup has cooked down a bit. Add chopped kale and cook until greens are wilted. Serve hot with a piece of really crusty bread.

Nutrition per Serving: 181 calories, 37g carbohydrates, 2g fat, 7g protein

Pillowy Pumpkin Oatmeal Cookies

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They say you’re either a cook or a baker, and I am definitely a cook. Don’t get me wrong, I love eating baked goods, but baking was always too exact for me. I’m more of a “pinch of this, sprinkle of that” kind of gal, so level cups and three-quarter-teaspoons don’t really do it for me. Once in a blue moon though – usually around the holidays, actually – I get bit by the baking bug.

I’m hesitant to even call these cookies, really. With texture more reminiscent of a Clif Bar, these are everything I want in a dessert – toothsome, substantial and not too sweet.

I started making these for Curtis to bring to Sunday disc golf to share with his buddies. Lately though, they’ve been spending a little more time at home, gradually disappearing out of their Tupperware container on top of the fridge.

This is the standard recipe I use for these cookies, but sometimes I spice things up with add-ins like dried cranberries, chopped pecans, dark chocolate chips, candied ginger or some combination of the above. This recipe makes a dozen hearty cookies, but it’s easily doubled or tripled if you need a tasty treat to bring along to a holiday gathering. The best part is no one will be able to tell that they’re vegan, so you’re free to mention that after they sing your praises.

These cookies are delicious warm and fresh from the oven, but I enjoy them most the morning after they were baked.

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Pillowy Pumpkin Oatmeal Cookies
makes 12 cookies

1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup pumpkin puree
1 1/2 tablespoons unsweetened applesauce
1/4 cup agave nectar or maple syrup
1/2 tablespoon coconut oil, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup quick rolled oats
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1/2 tablespoon ground fivespice or nutmeg
1/2 tablespoon ground ginger
pinch of salt
1/4 cup add-ins such as chocolate chips, dried cranberries, etc. (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 350º.

2. In a small mixing bowl, combine sugar, pumpkin, applesauce, agave nectar, coconut oil and vanilla until well-mixed. Set aside.

3. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, oats, baking powder, cinnamon, fivespice and ginger. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix until everything just comes together. Fold in any add-ins, if using.

4. Using a rounded tablespoon, drop the dough onto a greased cookie sheet and flatten slightly. Bake for 12-25 minutes, or until edges are golden and cookies are firm. Move to a rack and cool completely. Store in a container with a lid.

Nutrition per Cookie: 85 calories, 13g carbohydrates, 1g fat, 1g protein

Recipe Notes: I used applesauce here to cut down on fat and calories. However, I’ve made these cookies in the past with 1 1/2 tablespoons of coconut oil and really enjoyed the delicate coconut flavor it lent to the cookies. Try it out and let me know which you prefer!