April 16, 2015

Reveling in Raw Has Moved!

Hello, beautiful people!

Just a quick post to let you know that I've moved my blog over to VeganandBeyondCoaching.com. You'll be redirected momentarily.

April 13, 2015

Russian Easter Eats

As vegans, there are many ways we can approach holiday meals. For Easter last year, my dad and I ate a meal that looked similar to what everyone else was eating (and of course, I had to add some fresh greenery). This year, I did my own thing completely. I've been eating so much raw food and feeling great because of it.

I started my day off with green juice that doesn't look green because I added beets. I've been really enjoying my juice with a light sweetness from oranges and beets. This juice was probably the closest I came to participating in Russian Easter foods because beet and horseradish sauce is traditional. I got my beets in!

I get most of my energy during the day from fruit (which is woefully lacking at the Easter table), and so I brought a beautiful meal of fruit. I played with the presentation a bit to make it more fun by making raw fruit tacos. I made a chunky mango strawberry salsa, served it in collard leaves, and topped it with a dressing that was comprised of the salsa blended with a few additional ingredients. With the abundance of salsa that I had, I actually had enough for 5 tacos! It was so filling, and everyone was commenting on its beauty. Raw living foods are the ultimate in beauty, and they give us beauty in return!

On the way home, I started to get hungry. I stopped at the natural grocery store and picked up a new brand of kale chips to try. These were Pacific Northwest "Stumptown Original" kale chips. They used hazelnuts (not cashews, yay!) and had a nice kick from the cayenne. They were pretty tasty!

In the evening, I had tacos again. This time it was black bean and red potato tacos. J never turns down tacos for dinner. I neglected to get a picture of them, but they were pretty plain looking anyway.

So, that's it for my Easter eats. Russian Easter food is so animal-centric, and I'm looking forward to the day that people begin to shift their traditions to be more aligned with the real message of the holiday. It's hard to hear joyous words proclaiming life, rebirth, resurrection juxtaposed with dead pigs in various forms and egg products which have almost completely erased the suffering that they came from. It's a disconnect though, and all it takes is one switch to flip in people's minds to see, really see, where their food came from. Then they can feast on mango tacos and kale chips (or vegan sausage and mushroom halupki) with the rest of us!

April 10, 2015

100 Days of Meditation: Challenge Complete?

I've long known of the detrimental effects that the overactive mind has on our bodies. Stress, anger, jealousy, anxiety, sadness, insecurity; all of these are examples of emotions that can harm our health. Many times, I've experienced physical reactions to these emotions as I'm sure all of you have as well. Despite my knowledge, I was never able to successfully stick to a meditation practice.

After a particularly dark winter and needing to renew the well of strength within me, I dedicated myself to 100 days of meditation. This was a snap decision, but I stuck to it each and every one of the 100 days (and each and every day since then). Not only that, but I never felt like I was forcing myself to do something. Even after that initial inspiration waned, I was witnessing such positive shifts in my life that meditation became absolutely essential in my self-care regimen. Just the same as I don't skip a day of eating or drinking water because they nourish and hydrate my body, I don't skip a day of meditation because it nourishes me, too.

It wasn't always smooth sailing. That bit of struggle is where the learning really happens. There were a handful of days in which I woke up too late and had a series of unexpected obligations pop up. Some of those days, I didn't have my meditation time until after 8pm, and I could really tell a difference in my mood by that time. Not that my mood was anything negative, but I could sense imbalance within. On other rushed, chaotic days, missing my early time affected me a lot, and I'd need meditation time badly. In those instances, I'd usually find a quiet space or just close my eyes where ever I was to practice mindfulness or do breath work.

Most of the time though, I was able to carve out time for meditation either upon waking or in the mid-afternoon. Sometimes both. Sometimes more than that. I've experimented with different meditation methods and with stimulating various senses. I've made meditation altars. I've sat in silence, clearing my thoughts peacefully each time they appeared. I've gone days meditating on the same focus, seeking healing and harmony. I've meditated in rooms, cars, busy hallways, and in my bed. I've come to appreciate the value of visualizations. I've had lucid dreams, and I read books on quantum physics that have expanded my concept of this existence in major ways.

The biggest gift that meditation has given me thus far is openness which in turn has continued to soften me. When we are open, we can give and receive freely. We are provided for. Our lives bloom into such magnificence that we think it has to reach its limit soon, but it doesn't; it just keeps on growing.

I may have completed my 100 days challenge, but I don't see anything as completed. I felt this way throughout the entire challenge. I never felt pressure to continue, nor did I feel anxious when I neared the end. A friend messaged me on Sunday and said, "Serendipitous that your 100th coincided with Easter and its message that nothing is final." I think that is such a beautiful synchronicity, and I'm happy to have friends who can point these things out when I don't catch them! Meditation will continue to bless my life with its gifts. I have an abundance of gratitude in my heart for this new path that I've embarked on.

April 08, 2015

Product Review: Heidi Ho Ne Chevre

So, it's my third vegan cheese review in as many weeks. I feel like I'm turning into a blog about vegan cheeses! It's pretty funny, you'd think my fridge is stocked to the brim with vegan cheese. But no, I rarely have them in my fridge, so enjoy the reviews while they're here! < wink >

When I saw Heidi Ho on the shelves at Whole Foods, I scooped up a tub without even thinking about it. I've heard people talking about their nacho chia cheese for a while now, and in general, I really like the ingredients that they use in their products. Potatoes, chia, blueberries, turnips. Wholesome.

I'd say this cheese is in the same vein as Punk Rawk Labs or Treeline cheese. They are all cultured cheeses made with cashews,  and they're spreadable (though Treeline does have delicious hard cheeses, too). This chevre is tangy, creamy, and nutty, and I love the crunch from the layer of crushed hazelnuts.

I tried this cheese out two ways: spread on multi-grain rice crackers and in a pasta dish. The former was a nice way to really taste the cheese and all that it had to offer. There weren't any competing flavors and really not much in the way of complementary flavors either. It was a great neutral way to try it.

The latter was an idea I had on whim. All the best ideas happen this way, right?! I actually came up with it before I even tasted the cheese. I just wanted some linguine with broccoli and chevre. I asked J to pick up some brown rice pasta on the way home, and he did me one better. Along with the pasta, he picked up a package of Beyond Meat chicken strips. It was a great addition to the dish! I simply cooked the pasta, steamed the broccoli, and dry-fried the chicken strips. I didn't want to cook the cheese since it had live cultures in it, so once the pasta was cooked, I stirred in the chevre.

The verdict? I thought it was a really great meal. There wasn't much hands on time, so it's also a dinner that a busy person could whip up in no time. Fine dining at home with ease. J says that it's the closest vegan thing to fettuccine alfredo that he's tasted. Another win in the kitchen!

April 06, 2015

Changing Seasons, Changing Diet

Raw foods make my heart sing. I always make sure to eat lots and lots of them throughout the year. But these past couple winters, the cold has really seeped into my bones. In addition to raw foods, I also craved warming soups, cooked grains, roasted sweet potatoes, and the like.

But then it's like clockwork; after the first day it even feels like spring is in the air (even if it's 30-40 degrees!), my body starts craving more raw foods. We've still had plenty of cold days, but all I want is tropical fruits, green smoothies, and gigantic salads. I haven't quite gone as far as banana soft-serve and acai bowls, but believe me it's coming! I already stocked up on acai packets during the last sale at the grocery store. Honestly, if it wasn't so cold and drafty in my house, I'd be eating an acai bowl with sliced kiwi and coconut shreds right now.

Here are some of the raw foods that I've been feasting and thriving on lately:

April 03, 2015

Product Review: Follow Your Heart Vegan Provolone Cheese

Follow Your Heart has been in the vegan cheese-making game for a long time. In my early vegan days, if you wanted vegan cheese it was either Follow Your Heart or Veganrella. My friends and I would get blocks of the Follow Your Heart mozzarella for pizzas, and I even convinced the cafe I worked at to order some so that we could offer more vegan options. It wasn't really mozz-like, but it melted and had a semi-cheesy flavor. That was enough to satisfy me, but unfortunately many of my vegan friends from back then have caved in to their dairy cheese cravings.

That's one reason that I'm so excited for all of these new vegan cheeses to come out. I've watched so many vegans (ethical vegans, too!) turn their backs on the cause because they wanted pizza. Some of them would even joke, "I'm a pizza vegan." Of course, pizza was a gateway for ice cream, eggs, and other animal products, so it didn't always stop at pizza. With all of these new vegan cheeses getting wider distribution and creating such competition for dairy cheese, I think that a lot less people are going to go back to "pizza vegan".

This provolone cheese is off the hook amazing. The taste and texture, like the chao cheese, were a lot like I remember cheese tasting. It's rich with the intense umami flavor that provolone is known for and has nice body. Comparing basic qualities of the Follow Your Heart provolone with Field Roast chao cheese, I'd say I prefer the chao. They are both a huge step forward in the evolution of vegan cheese, though, so my preference may not be yours!

I had it first unmelted in a wrap with cucumber, red pepper, parsley, and a thin layer of hummus. It was something that I'd imagine getting at a deli or cafe grab-n-go case. It wasn't necessarily anything special, but it was very satisfying.

Next, I tried it on a brown rice wrap. I melted it with some wilted spinach and folded the wrap in half. I then cut it like a quesadilla and served it with marinara sauce on the side. This was super good. I liked it so much that I had it again the next night.

J tried the last few pieces in a similar way. He made a quesadilla with some leftover mexican rice and bean mixture and hot sauce. He really loved it, too. He said that it wasn't quite as dairy-like as the chao which was good for him. The chao tasted so much like dairy that he started getting a queasy mind-body reaction from the psychological confusion.

My dad had this on a vegan burger. When I asked him how it was compared to dairy provolone, he said, "It's on par or better!". He's always looking for ways to cut down on his animal food consumption, and these new vegan cheeses are exciting him. Sometimes he likes cheese on his veggie burgers, and now he has some really great non-dairy options to choose from!

I'm throwing up a virtual high five to Follow Your Heart for reinventing their vegan cheeses so successfully!

April 01, 2015

Spring Dreaming: Petit Vour March Box

I think I was psychically channeling Petit Vour about this month's picks. Two of the items are things that I had really been wanting. To be more specific, in the week before I got this box, I noted aloud that I wanted two of these (nonspecific to the brand) things. One week later, those things were on my doorstep. Thank you, Petit Vour for tuning in to our little subconscious cosmic exchange!

Featured products:

  • Juice Beauty Stem Cellular CC Cream - I'm almost through a tube of Pacifica's BB cream. It's the only BB cream I ever tried, and I thought, "I wonder if Petit Vour will ever do a CC or BB cream in their box?" Lo and behold, there is a CC cream in the March box! I really love that it has a nontoxic SPF in it. It's a very natural-looking light coverage, subtle glow, and it's claims of cellular repair are enticing.
  • Vert Mont Perfumery Eros perfume - Another product I'm almost finished with is a custom essential oil blend that a friend made for me. The main oil in it is red mandarin which has quickly made it's way into my top 5 favorite essential oils. I'm sad that I'm almost finished with it, so imagine my excitement when I saw this perfume in my box with red mandarin as its first ingredient! It makes me smell like an woodland hippie love goddess in the best way possible. It's complex, sensual, and grounding. It's unique to any other perfume I have, and I really like it a lot. I'm considering purchasing their sample pack so I can get acquainted with the rest of their perfume line.
  • The Little Alchemist Cacao & Banana Face Glow. A face mask with clay, adaptogenic herbs, and superfoods = happy skin. The ingredient list looks like some kind of supplement-boosted smoothie I'd drink: banana, goji, maca, cordyceps, spirulina, ashwagandha, turmeric, and more. My skin was very soft and looked so radiant after using this! I love that it comes in a glass jar that I can reuse once I finish the sample. Oh, and the rest of their products look just as amazing as this one. Can I try them all?!
  • Metropolis Soap Co. lavender spearmint lip cream - Pittsburgh has still been blustery and cold for many days, so my chapped lips have welcomed any help they could get. This lip cream nourishes my lips really well. The only thing I didn't care for was the scent. I realized that while I like lavender, I don't care much for it on my lips. I've been using it, but it's not my favorite. They also have lip creams with anise or lime with spearmint which sound nice.

March 30, 2015

Healing in Nature with Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing)

My mom, recently retired, has discovered HGTV. I can't blame her for her recent obsession given that there is literally nothing on the hundreds of channels on cable. Also, some of the shows are pretty awesome, and I was hooked on them during my initial illness recovery. Between HGTV and Food Network, I always had something interesting to watch.

Look closely. There are buds on this tree!
While HGTV and Food Network can be addicting, one channel I haven't watched in years is Animal Planet. From what I remember, they used to have good programming, but now it's become somewhat of an embarrassment (though they do air Whale Wars which gives them some props).

When I was at my parent's house over the holidays, they introduced me to a cool show called Treehouse Masters that was on Animal Planet, believe it or not. I was that kid that saw a tree and was halfway up it before anyone knew it, dreaming of one day having a treehouse to call my own. They watched a bunch of episodes while I was there, and I often took to brewing a hot cup of tea or golden milk at the end of an evening and joining them.

In one episode, they introduced the idea of forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku as it's known in Japanese. I'm always interested in learning new terms that can grasp at meaning and be more expressive than the current confines of the English language allow. Shinrin-yoku is a rich and alive way to explain the healing that one can experience when immersed in nature.

Shinrin-yoku is the concept that by just being present in nature, the forest has healing effects on the body. The scientifically-proven benefits include:

  • a boost in immune function
  • lowering of blood pressure and stress levels
  • increased energy and focus
  • accelerated recovery from illness and injury
  • improved memory, mood, and sleep

As you might imagine, there are many other reported benefits that have not been scientifically proven. I find this idea fascination, and deep down I know it to be true. Until not so long ago, we were people of the natural world, not people trying to box it out.

Antimicrobial essential oils in wood, phytoncides, are thought to be responsible for many of the positive benefits of forest bathing. I am curious if some of the benefits could be created with essential oils and aromatherapy in times like winter when it's not always feasible to get my nature time in. It's definitely not the same thing, but it may be useful.

It was insanely cold here for the winter, and I was missing my walks through the woods so much. Nature helps me to process things, it recharges me when I'm fatigued, and it generally makes me feel more connected. Temperatures were in the negatives for a big part of the winter, and there were several times that I needed a walk deep in the woods. If I wanted to turn into a beautiful icicle statue, I could've tried to venture out. Alas, I had to stay inside. Though I missed my nature therapy, it turned out more brilliantly than I could've thought. I had to find another way to go within and replenish my spirits, and that's how I became intimately acquainted with meditation!

J, Tucker, and I have been meandering through tree-lined paths ever since the temperatures began to rise. Between the nature time and the warmer (40 degrees is warm, right?!) temperatures, I feel like I've awakened from a long period of hibernation. All of the birds singing their melodies would agree. And soon, we'll see blossoms on trees and lush green grass, and I'll be swooning over this bright, beautiful earth all over again.

March 27, 2015

More Vegan Cheeses Come to Pittsburgh!

After a second round of chao quesadillas, I went back to the store to pick up more of Field Roast's new and amazing chao cheese for J only to find that there was none on the shelves.

While I was back there, I noticed the new Follow Your Heart cheese that is similarly made with coconut oil and decided to pick that up instead. They were out of many varieties but still had the slices and blocks in a few flavors. Not formerly being anything remotely close to a dairy cheese lover, I couldn't figure out which flavor to purchase. I picked up the provolone for us to try out since as far as I can remember, I've never had vegan provolone. And since I haven't had dairy cheese in forever, J will be my resident tester to determine how provolone-like it really is!

Then, I saw something even more exciting. Whole Foods Pittsburgh now carries Heidi Ho Organics cheeses! The company, from Portland, Oregon, has been around for several years, and they have a large fan base out west. I've wanted to try their cheeses (like the chia cheeze and the hazelnut-based cheeses), but it's hard when the shipping costs as much as the product.

While doing research for this post, I realized that Heidi Ho had gotten a deal on Shark Tank which I'm sure explains the wider distribution of the product. After seeing the news stories online, I can vaguely remember my mom telling me about that. Cable shows have gotten so strange, but it's amazing to see vegan companies like Cinnaholic and Heidi Ho reaping the benefits of these new negotiation and competition-like shows.

I just picked these up and haven't yet had a chance to taste them, but you can look forward to a review of both of these cheeses very soon!

March 25, 2015

Product Review: Field Roast Coconut Herb Chao Cheese

This past fall, I was browsing the aisles of a co-op in Asheville, NC and I spotted a vegan cheese that I'd never seen before, Field Roast Chao cheese slices. I assumed that it was a product that had been out for some time. My mistake! There are new vegan cheeses launching all the time, and as someone who doesn't eat that kind of stuff often, it's hard to keep up with what's new and not. I do love to try new vegan cheeses out though because 1) J loves cheese and 2) I can recommend them to family, friends, new vegans and have actual experience behind my recommendation. Well, my curiosity was distracted by hemp tofu, an item I'd never tried but had been dying to, on the bottom shelf which I placed in my basket before walking away from the cold cases, vegan cheese far out of my mind.

As I was on my way back to Pittsburgh, I started seeing Chao on all of my social media. It was a growing wave of pictures from all across the country singing the praises of this cheese. I got back to Pittsburgh and couldn't find it anywhere. I was so mad that I had been standing right in front of it and didn't get any!

Recently, I told a friend about Chao cheese, and a few days later he texted me, "You have to try that Field Roast cheese. It's soooo good!". He travels a lot so I made sure that he was in Pittsburgh before excitedly telling J that we were finally gonna get to try this awesome cheese.

The next day, we took Tucker to the park and stopped at Whole Foods on our way home. I was going to buy ingredients for a specific recipe, but I didn't know what the cheese was like. I figured I could create something at home with what I already had.

First thing was first. When we got home, we cut open the package and broke off a corner for each of us. I really loved the oregano and black pepper in it. J loved the texture and said how much it tastes like cheese. It's been about 12 years since I've had dairy cheese, so I have to take his word for it!

We decided to make quesadillas. I put red peppers and spinach in mine. J did the same but also added Tofurky Italian sausage. We assembled our fillings in brown rice tortillas and cooked them in a skillet until the cheese was melted and the outside of the wrap was crisp.

Our impressions: 

Me: I really liked it. It was very creamy; it didn't spread out too much, become too liquidy, or ball up when it was cooling. It had nice depth of flavor, and I'd most definitely buy it again. It tasted like all the good things I remember about cheese and none of the bad ones. I hope that our Whole Foods gets the other two flavors in at some point because I'd love to try those as well.

J: He loved it. The first thing he said after taking a bite was, "This is pizza worthy!" which is high praise in his book. And even after we ate a full meal of quesadillas and roasted potatoes, all he was talking about was making a pizza with that cheese. He even started to get freaked out because it looked and tasted so much like dairy cheese to him.

The only downside I see - and it's such a small one - is that the package says, "Do not freeze". I'm not sure what the result would be texturally, but I'd imagine it messes it up enough that it's not worth it. Sometimes it's nice to throw a half used bag of Daiya into the freezer for later use, and I know some people (especially those who don't live close to stores that carry vegan specialty items) like to stock up their freezers with items like this.

I've established before that J has very strong cravings for foods from his pre-vegan days. The fact that he was speaking so highly of this cheese should mean a lot to any of you who really love and miss dairy cheese. There are a lot of great vegan cheeses out there, but for the price point, I'd say this is most comparable to dairy cheese out of all those I've tried.

Have you tried Chao? What did you make with it? What was your impression?

March 23, 2015

Vegans Create!: Upgrade Your Plant Milks

You'll hear it time and time again from new and seasoned vegans alike: "Veganism encouraged me to get creative." Learning a whole new way of eating can be daunting, for sure. But when the heart is all in, there is no stopping us.

My creative foodie self didn't fully awaken until two important events occurred:

Firstly, I had 2 jobs that fostered my culinary creativity. One was at a cafe which showcased organic ingredients and vegan-friendly options. It was there that I learned my beginner skills; knife skills, flavor pairings, basic recipe development, etc. Following that, I worked at a raw vegan cafe and learned even more creative ways to approach food, this time from the raw food perspective.

What was most important in these jobs was that I was encouraged to explore my enthusiasm for food, and my managers took an active interest in helping me, answering all of my questions, and giving me the freedom to express myself through my job responsibilities. Needless to say, it wasn't the typical kitchen cook experience. Have you ever read Kitchen Confidential? Now that's a more accurate depiction of working in kitchens!

The second important event that unleashed my creativity was when I switched to eating mostly whole, unprocessed vegan foods. I did this for my health, during a dark period of illness, and so regaining my health was incentive enough to stick to my new path. Stick to the path I did, and I wanted to do it right. I read nutrition books and learned about different foods and what they provide for our bodies. I wanted to squeeze every bit of nutrition out of the foods that I could, and I wanted to feel as vibrant as the summer sun.

With my steadfast motivation, I worked up a storm in the kitchen with every spare moment that I had. In this phase of my life, I grew more than I ever imagined that I could. I've embraced my relationship with earth's nutritious gifts, and in turn I've been enriched in body, mind, and spirit.

This post is the first of a new series here, Vegans Create!, in which I hope to demonstrate easy ways that we can creatively satisfy our whole selves through our compassionate diets. Today, I am sharing a recipe for a fancied up hemp milk. I served it with a bowl of granola, which is how I like this best, but you can use it any way you'd like!

What I love about hemp milk is that it doesn't need to be strained. That means that if you don't have any vegan milk on hand but need some, hemp milk can be made in a minute without any mess! I made this on a day that I didn't have any greens yet, and I saw an opportunity to get some in. I added in romaine, a mild green which you most likely can't detect in the milk. You can also try using spinach. I also added in lucuma because I love it's deep caramel flavor and how it adds some body to the milk.

Enjoy this delicious hemp milk upgraded with greens and superfoods!

Upgraded Plant Milk
serves 2

1 1/2 cups water
1/4 cup + 1 Tbsp hemp seeds
1 Tbsp lucuma*
1 1/2-3 cups romaine leaves, roughly chopped
desired sweetener to taste**

-Add all ingredients to the blender (add in the romaine last) and blend until smooth.

*The lucuma is primarily used to thicken this up. If you don't have lucuma and want it to be thicker, try adding some of your favorite protein powder, a tablespoon or so more of hemp seeds, or a couple tablespoons of rolled oats.

**Because granola is already sweet, I didn't add any sweetener into the milk. If you would like a sweeter milk, add in a few dates or a Tbsp or so of your favorite liquid sweetener, or 2-3 drops of stevia.

March 20, 2015

A Speedy Salad Recipe: Spinach and Red Bean Salad with Herbes de Provence

I've been all about the fast meals lately because I have been so crazy busy! I ate this salad for a late lunch after having a tall glass of juice. The juice was made of freshly juiced oranges and coconut water, and if you were wondering, it was amazing!

The formula for this salad is straight-forward: bed of greens, any combination of vegetables, beans, and herbs de provence dressing. There are always different theories on how to get past that afternoon slump: a nap, eat some protein (trail mix!), carbs (carbs, carbs), light exercise/break from the computer. Well, I can say that I have had moderate success with all of these at different points in my life, but my go-to afternoon lift is most definitely greens. Juices and smoothies work well, but big salads are my preference. Sometimes I munch on my greens while I'm preparing the rest of the ingredients and can already feel some new energy circulating.

Spinach and Red Bean Salad with Herbes de Provence
serves 1

for the salad:
a few handfuls of greens
1/3 cup sliced cucumbers
1 stalk of celery, chopped
1/4 red bell pepper, chopped
1/2 cup red (kidney) beans

juice of 1 lemon
1 Tbsp of flax oil
splash of raw coconut aminos or tamari
1/2 tsp of herbes de provence

-Prep your salad ingredients and arrange them in a bowl.
-Whisk the dressing ingredients and pour over the salad.

March 18, 2015

Happy Birthday, Dad!

Another year, another birthday for my favorite vegan-friendly eater! Last year, I hosted and cooked the food for my dad's birthday party. It was really fun to do, but my mom took over the festivities this year. Of course, I was still in charge of the cake. I love to make birthday cakes for my loved ones!

My mom made a polenta entrée. It's a recipe that I shared with my dad in one of my cooking lessons with him. She used premade polenta and pan-fried it. It's topped with a balsamic thyme mushroom and onion sauté. She also made some Tofurky sausages, spiced carrots, and roasted asparagus. I had seconds, and I may or may not have eaten 2/3 of the carrots that she made. Ok, there's no "may or may not", I crushed them.

She made a non-vegan dish for her and my brother because neither of them liked the vegan food she made, but I think it's pretty amazing that she made a whole vegan meal for my dad (who isn't even vegetarian). Times are changing!

I usually have a whole rolodex in my brain of cakes and decadent desserts that I want to make for special occasions, but for some reason I was experiencing a block when deciding on my dad's cake. After a few days of keeping it in the back of my mind, I remembered seeing a gorgeous carrot applesauce cake on Allyson Kramer's website. After a quick glance at the recipe again, it was settled. That was the cake for him.

The next morning, my mom, knowing about the creative block I was experiencing, texted me and said, "Maybe you should make him a carrot cake. I think he would like that." And then, when my mom told my dad that I was making a cake for him, he said out of nowhere, "Is it an applesauce cake?".

I have never made an applesauce cake for him, nor do I ever talk about them. Isn't that a weird chain of coincidences? Synchronicities. I've been tapped in, I tell ya!

With my penchant for dressing everything up, I had to add an icing. I made a raw vegan cream cheese icing that was tangy and sweet and spooned it over the top before presenting the cake to the birthday boy. The cake was such a hit that everyone ate two pieces! This was a really easy cake to make, and I know I'll be making it again for other gatherings.

After dinner and dessert, my dad opened his presents. My mom and grandma pitched in and bought him a pair of hockey tickets, so he can squeeze in one more game before the playoff season starts. My brother and I wrote and recorded a song for him called Courageous Heart. The artist in me comes in many forms! The lyrics spun a fine tale, fiercely personal to him, and it had him both laughing uncontrollably and choking back tears.

I can safely say that my dad had an amazing and memorable birthday that was enjoyed by all (...of us with cake-stuffed bellies)!

March 16, 2015

Strip District Food Haul: Lotus Food + Soyrizo Tacos from Edgar's

My love and I recently went to the Strip District for 2 things: sriracha and tacos. We both had the afternoon off and thought getting our errands done and getting to walk outside on a warm, beautiful day sounded like the perfect way to spend it.

We forgot that this past weekend was St. Patrick's Day, so we were surprised by how many people were out and by how hard it was to find a parking space. People were stealing parking spaces from under us with such determination that I almost thought I was at Whole Foods. Hahaha!

After J grabbed a coffee from Allegheny Coffee and Tea Exchange, we walked a few blocks to Lotus Food. I used to come down here all the time for fresh tofu, but I haven't been in a while. We took our time browsing the aisles and loaded out basket with all kinds of goodies.

Of course, we got sriracha as well as sambal oelek and chili garlic sauce. J will go through this all before I even get a chance to touch it! Seriously though, he is a fiend for these hot sauces. I've come to enjoy tasting the subtleties of my food without too many spices and condiments, but fiery foods will always have a special place in my heart, too!

All but one of the above foods were on my grocery list. I picked up a few Thai young coconuts, canned jackfruit, tamarind paste, and a special treat, sweetened dried hot mango. I've only ever eaten fresh, ripe jackfruit before, and I'm interested in experimenting with its savory side. The tamarind paste is different than the one I have at home (the one that is running woefully low, too low for this pad thai loving household), but it was all I could find. I'm sure it'll be great! The mango was an impulse purchase. I see mango and chili together (see, I do love some fire!), and I can't resist. Even though I'm not one for buying sugar-covered fruits, I made a very delicious exception.

Also on our list was tapioca pearls, rice noodles, and spring roll wrappers. Now that summer is getting close, I'll be making lots of wraps with these rice wrappers as well as with nori and collard leaves. I bought the tapioca pearls to make boba for the first time at home. The boba I get at restaurants always has the black pearls, but since they had some ingredients I wasn't crazy about (ahem, artificial flavors), I got the white ones, too. I don't know if there's a difference, but I'll find out!

Lastly, I got some mochi because I can't go to an Asian grocery store and not get mochi. I could've sworn they had vegan mochi in the refrigerated section (at least they used to awhile ago), but I found these which had relatively good ingredients and weren't too sugary. J and I shared a red bean one on the way home and really enjoyed it.

After Lotus, we went to Edgar's to get soyrizo tacos. We both got two tacos, topped it with a few different salsas and put some pickled jalapeños and carrots on the side. Oh, how I have missed eating al fresco. While this winter wasn't nearly as difficult to get through as the last one, I've realized (even more) how much I thrive in warmer temperatures. Sorry, Pittsburgh, but I don't know if I can do this for much longer!

And how were the tacos, you might wonder? Well, I had to talk myself out of ordering more by focusing on my hottie of a date. Yeah, they're really good. I see many taco dates in my future.

March 13, 2015

On Making Food Beautiful

Whether rushing home from work and throwing together a quick bite, cooking for people who don't mind an aesthetically unpleasing meal, or not feeling like there is time in general to make food look great, plating food can be the last thing on our minds.

There are countless other situations in which the beauty of one's food becomes an afterthought, but I'm here to say that making a beautiful plate of food is always worth the time (and you'd be surprised how little time is actually needed).

Why I like to make my food beautiful:
  • Do everything with love. This is, first and foremost, the most important reason to me. My practice of pouring love into all I do not only changes the quality of my food, but also creates a respectful and caring vibe toward myself and those I love.
  • Be mindful. Being present and aware of my activities does so much for my general well-being and serves to strengthen character in a soft way. When I'm preparing my food, I am fully present in the act of food preparation. I want to do my very best, whatever that means in that given moment.
  • Recognize that people eat with their eyes first. That's why companies pay the big bucks for food stylists and commercials out the wazoo! To look at it from another way, if you're a vegan or eat a health conscious diet, you've likely had someone look at your food in a skeptical way as if to say, "That can't possibly be pleasurable." (side note: Um, yeah it is. Very much so!) People start to judge their food before they even put it in their mouth. Not only that, but bodies prepare for the eventuality that the food in front of them is about to be digested. Think about the term mouth-watering. You haven't even tasted it and your body is already reacting.

But what if the food is naturally ugly? Sometimes we have those dishes (Indian food, anyone?) that can be challenging to present in a beautiful way. Turn on those creative genes because it can be done! Try adding color with an edible garnish, beautiful plates, fresh vegetables or fruits, or a sprinkling of spices or freshly cut herbs. Adding fresh greenery will always boost the aesthetics of a meal and make people (including you) think "fresh".

Above all things, remember to prepare your food from a place of love. Love-infused food is more beautiful than any food ingredient. The love really shines through, and I've got years of loving food preparation experience to prove it!

March 11, 2015

100 Days of Meditation: 75 Day Update

It's been almost 2 1/2 months since I began meditating regularly. Time spent oh so wisely! In my last update, I outlined some of the effects I felt after just 3 weeks of meditation. I'm happy to report that things have continued to improve for me, and I can't imagine my life without this daily practice.

While I spent the first part of my new habit exploring different ways of meditation, lately I've started to discern which methods help me to grow the most.

A few of my new favorite meditation helpers:

  • Visualization. I've been using the power of visualization, chakras are really useful here, to manifest all kinds of gloriousness in my life. All I can say is that this has steered my life in a really positive direction. I see dreams taking shape, and I have had an abundance of motivation to put in the work necessary to merge my dreams with reality.
  • Mantras. I usually choose a different mantra for each day, but sometimes I feel the need to stick with one for many days. As you might have guessed, my mantras and my visualizations are inextricably linked. 
  • Headphones. Even when I'm all alone and it's perfectly quiet in my house, I have really loved wearing headphones for my meditations. It's like the music or guided meditations are a part of me, and I have much more rejuvenative sessions. When I listen to vibrational healing sounds, using headphones is next level. Feeling the vibrations from head to toe is an amazing sensation! 
  • Eye pillow. My best friend sent me a beautiful eye pillow that I love to use when I'm very tired and decide to meditate while lying down. I also love to use it for pre-sleep meditations. It has the Om symbol (how appropriate that it sits on the third eye!) surrounded by beautiful words, and it is filled with organic flax and "a generous amount of lavender".

It's been a miraculous 75 days, and I'm so grateful for this experience as it continues to unfold!

March 09, 2015

Dinner at Plant in Asheville, NC

I visited Plant in late 2014. Their menu changes from time to time, so you can check the menu online before your visit for their current offerings!

A few years ago, I was talking to my best friend on the phone, and she started gushing about this all-new 100% vegan restaurant that opened up in her town called Plant. Soon after she told me about it, I started to hear all the buzz from the vegan community. "You have to come visit soon," she said. She says this every time we talk, but the way she said it this time made me think I was in for something really special.

Well, it took me a few years to get down there, but it was so worth the wait. I can't believe how nourished I felt while eating, how full and happy I was post-meal, and how I was literally and unintentionally mmmm'ing out loud (which could be embarrassing to some, but their food was that good, so whatever).

The food was plated very beautifully and artistically, and I loved how they pieced each dish's components together to create a truly unique taste experience. I think you will see why this is one of the best restaurants I've ever eaten at.

We started off with two appetizers: the [Plant] Cheese and the massaged kale salad.

[Plant] Cheese was a cheese plate with aged cashew cheese, farmer's involtini, rosemary amber and fruit, red wine peppers, black garlic oil, and focaccia. Cheese plates are a new thing for me. I was never into dairy cheese that much, and I don't live near any restaurants that have vegan cheese plates. The cheeses were so creamy and rich in umami, the focaccia was perfectly airy on the inside and crisp on the out, and I loved the herb and oil drizzle that was on the apples. It was a really enjoyable dish to share at the start of our dinner.

The Massaged Kale Salad contained roasted delicata squash, grilled red onion, candied orange, pecans, and an herb-sherry vinaigrette. It was a brilliant starter for me. I love to have a generous helping of greens with my meals, so while I shared this with everyone at the table, I ended up eating most of it. It was bright, full of complex flavors, but not too over-the-top. The herbs were just enough to add to the complexity of the flavor without taking over the more subtle flavors of the vegetables. The candied orange was my favorite addition; it was bold and sweet in a natural way. Does that make sense?

For my main, I ordered the Chicken O' The Wood Apricot Adobo. This is the dish that made me go all Harry Met Sally on it. It was breaded Chicken of the Woods mushrooms (yeah, it tastes like chicken) smothered in apricot adobo sauce with a poblano-stuffed tamale, sauteed spinach, olives and chili, cilantro mojo, pickled onion, and sour cream. I hesitated to choose this entree because it was the most expensive dish on the menu. If you find yourself dining at Plant and have similar reservations, I'm going to offer you this advice. Just do it. This dish was worth a million bucks.

My bestie ordered the Red Curry Tofu which came with jasmine rice and kaffir lime cakes, thai basil, arugula, and teriyaki green beans. The galangal curry sauce was amazing. It's one of the better curries I've had.

My bestie's partner ordered the live lasagna with heirloom tomato, peppercorn macadamia cheese, marinated red pepper, radish green and pine nut pesto, pea tendrils, and lavender-infused oil. I had a bite and really loved it. I'm a sucker for macadamia anything and a lover of raw food, so yeah, naturally I loved it.

My brother, who is anything but an adventurous eater, ordered the Frites Plus Mayo (hold the mayo) and a side of broccolini. I gave him (someone who doesn't care for most vegan food) the same suggestions I give to vegans who are going to a vegan-unfriendly eating establishment. Look for sides and/or components of main dishes that can be ordered separately. The Frites was a side that they offer already, and the broccolini was served alongside an entree. He asked if he could have a side of it and they kindly obliged! I didn't try the Frites, but everyone else at the table did. They all said they were the best fries they'd ever had. Are you noticing a trend with our impression of Plant's food?

For dessert we got the Cannolo with handmade anise shell, candied orange ricotta, chocolate puddle, and mexican chocolate ice cream. I'd been anticipating this dessert since I had first looked at it on the online menu. Can you tell by the swiftness that I dug into it?! The ricotta was really amazing, and I'm wondering if perhaps they used macadamia nuts in that. There is a sweetness about macadamia nuts that other nuts just don't have. I wish I could've taken a whole crate full of these home with me. Just thinking about it now, I want to get in my car and give my friend a surprise visit ("and hey, while I'm here, let's go to Plant!").

Also, we tried the trio of ice creams. We chose cookies and cream, coconut cake, and lemon thyme. Can I just say this is the best vegan ice cream ever? The taste, texture, and flavor balance were on point. I like ice cream, but I always have a problem with them being too sweet. These coconut-based ice creams are pleasantly sweet, a mark that the recipe developer really understands their craft. When you're working with foods high in fat content, you really don't need to add so much sweetness. Creating food is always a balance; you want the tastes in harmony. This is what they do with their ice cream perfection. Of the above flavors, the lemon thyme was the standout, we all agreed.

My best bud and I both brought home some leftovers. I like to bring containers to restaurants in case of this, but I didn't bring one here. The container they gave me was compostable. Yay! They even had compost bins in the bathroom, so you can see that they have a serious commitment to environmental concerns. Oh, little hippie town Asheville, I love you so much!

All in all, it was a memorable night in the company of wonderful friends. I'm eager to return (hopefully sometime soon!), but until then I whet my appetite with their mouthwatering Instagram pictures!