Oven-Baked Onion Rings

I just can’t resist those crispy, deep-fat fried diner-style onion rings, but since I don’t fry anything at home, here is a baked version that’s much better for you!  The recipe makes about 24 rings, which should serve 4 people, unless you’re like me, and then you’re going to want at least 10 for yourself.

2 large sweet onions
1 ½ cups bread crumbs
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup non-dairy milk
½ cup + 2 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
vegan buttermilk (whisk together 1 cup cold non-dairy milk + 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar)
2 Tablespoons cornstarch

Preheat oven to 450 and line 2 baking sheets with foil or parchment paper, sprayed lightly with non-stick spray.

Cut the onions relatively thick into approximately ¾” slices.  Place the large and medium-large sized rings into a bowl and save the rest of the onion for something else.  In a second bowl, mix the flour and cornstarch.  Add the apple cider vinegar to the milk in a measuring cup and mix well, then pour into the flour mixture and stir until everything is mixed up well.  In a third bowl, mix the bread crumbs and salt.  Pour in the olive oil and mix with your fingers until everything is incorporated together.

Dip each onion ring into the milk mixture first, shaking off excess, and then toss it into the bread crumb bowl.  You can use your fingers to cover the ring in the bread crumbs, but I found it works easiest just to plop the onion ring right in and then pick up the bowl and shake it around until the onion ring is evenly coated.  Place each ring on the baking sheet and repeat until you’ve coated all of your onion rings. Lightly spray everything down with cooking spray (well not everything, just the onion rings!).

Bake 7 minutes, then flip the rings over and bake another 7 minutes.  Serve with ketchup  or vegan ranch (because you were so healthy for not frying these) for dipping.

Vegan Oreo Cupcakes

I checked this awesome little cookbook out from the library about a week ago…

and this past weekend I made the “cookies ‘n cream” variation of both the classic chocolate cupcake and the fluffy vegan buttercream frosting.  I’ve tried to make vegan buttercream before and it just came out runny and thin.  This frosting is thick and fluffy, allowing you to pile it up high.

These cupcakes were AH-MAzing!   I think they were probably the best cupcakes I’ve ever had and my friend Jeanna, who doesn’t like cake, had three!  So there’s your proof people.  Go make these cupcakes NOW!  They’re healthy because they’re vegan! ::wink::

Fluffy Vegan Buttercream Frosting
(makes 4 cups)

1/2 cup nonhydrogenated shortening (Earth Balance brand)
1/2 cup nonhydrogenated margarine (Earth Balance brand)
3 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted if clumpy
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 cup plain soy milk or soy creamer (I used almond milk)

Beat the margarine and shortening together until combined and fluffy (They need to be somewhat at room temp for this to work – DON’T use a microwave to do this.  If you want to speed up the process, slice the margarine and shortening into tablespoon-sized pieces and let them sit in a bowl on top of the oven while it pre-heats for the cupcakes.)

Add the powdered sugar, 1 cup at a time, and beat for about 3 minutes until combined.  Then add the milk and vanilla and beat for 5 minutes until fluffy.  To make the cookies ‘n cream version, stir 1/2 cup very finely chopped (we’re talking crumbs) Oreos into the frosting.  Wait until your cupcakes are completely cool before frosting them.

I used a pastry bag just like those legit people on Cupcake Wars!

Basic Chocolate Cupcake
(makes 1 dozen)

1 cup soy milk
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup canola oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract, chocolate extract, or more vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup cocoa powder, Dutch-processed or regular
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350°F and line a muffin pan with paper liners.

Whisk together the soy milk and vinegar in a large bowl, and set aside for a few minutes to curdle. Add the sugar, oil, and extracts to the soy milk mixture and beat with an electric mixer until foamy. In a separate bowl, sift together the dry ingredients. Add the dry ingredients to the wet, half at a time, using with an electric mixer to work out the large lumps (a few small ones are okay).  For the cookies ‘n cream variation, add 1 cup coarsely chopped Oreos to the batter.

Fill the cupcake liners 3/4 full with batter and bake 18 to 20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Transfer to a cooling rack and let cool completely before frosting.

Southern Summer Dreams (and a recipe for tomato sandwiches)

I am fortunate enough to work in a building surrounded by nature.  Just outside my window is the forest and the hallways, cafeteria, and entryways are surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the lake and a state park.  It’s not uncommon to walk down the hall and see several people pressed against a window, watching a mother deer feed her fawn, or to be sitting in the cafeteria eating lunch and see a huge turkey buzzard land next to you on the window sill and look inside.  We have a lot of wild turkeys too, that can be seen pecking around the deer feeders, of which there are several placed around the property.

While walking on the hiking trails today on my break, I was telling my friend Brandon that my body just feels ready for summer.  I’m ready for sweet strawberries, tomatoes that taste like they should, watermelon, and sunshine!  My body has been pretty in-tune with the seasons for the past couple of years. Around the end of August, I start to crave fall foods like kale and pumpkin and I start to want to cook chili and soup.  By October, I’m so ready for dressing and cranberry sauce that I can hardly stand it and I’m making pumpkin bread every other week.  By February, I’m sick of all of that and ready for watermelon-mint smoothies, grilled veggies, and juicy berries.  Oh! And basil!  Brandon just laughed, as I was telling him all this, and said that it appears I have a passionate relationship with produce.

I think everyone should have a passionate relationship with produce!  If your body is craving what’s in season, I think that means you’re doing something right.  Your body is telling you what it needs, nutrient-wise, and you’re listening!  Plus, in-season produce just tastes better.  Strawberries in the winter… GROSS!  They’re pretty and red, but they’re firm, white on the inside, and flavorless.  Summer strawberries are juicy, pink on the inside, and so very sweet!

If there’s one summer crop we grow in abundance in the South, it’s tomatoes.  The farmer’s market is loaded with all different varieties, including gorgeous, multi-colored heirloom tomatoes.  I know it’s only February, but I can hardly wait for tomatoes that taste like tomatoes.  Winter tomatoes taste like NOTHING!

Here’s wishing summer hurries the heck up!
Tomato Sandwiches
2 slices whole grain bread
2-3 thick slices of tomato (I like to mix different heirloom varieties!)
1 Tablespoon (or so) Vegenaise
green leaf lettuce
salt & pepper

Toast your bread and then spread on the Vegenaise.   Add a lettuce leaf and tomato slices, and sprinkle the tomatoes with a little salt and pepper.  Eat slowly and let the juice from the tomatoes drip down your chin.  Variations:  add a few slices of avocado for creaminess or replace the lettuce with fresh basil leaves.   ::mouth waters::

Top 5 Ways to Save Money with a Plant-Based Diet

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say that a vegetarian/vegan diet is expensive.  I used to think the same thing, but now I know better and I’m here to share some money-saving tips with you!

First let me say that I’m sure we’re all aware that beans, grains, and produce are all much cheaper than meat.  Unless you’re eating those frozen convenience meals or buying vegan ice cream and cheese every week, there’s no reason you shouldn’t see a significant drop in your grocery bill when you ditch animal products.  Whole, plant-based meals are what you need to aim for if you want to save money.  Reserve the expensive, pre-packaged, processed vegan products for special occasions!

Let’s start saving:
#1 COOK AT HOME
This is the absolute best way to save money!  Stop your grumbling about how you don’t have time to cook a delicious, healthy, inexpensive meal for your family every night. If you have just 30 minutes, you can do it.  Also, think portion sizes when you think about your total savings.  Even considering you can get breakfast at a fast food joint for $2, you can still make it cheaper at home!  Sure, buying a can of biscuits and frozen veggie sausages might cause you around $6, but you’re getting 8 servings!  You’re paying $6 for breakfast every day for over a week, whereas you’d be paying $16 for 8 servings on a fast food breakfast.  Let’s say you want to pick up a value meal at a drive-in for dinner.  You can get a burger, fries, and a drink for around $5.  All the ingredients for homemade veggie burgers and fries may add up to around $10, but a recipe for veggie burgers will make at least 8 servings.  Eight servings at a fast food joint would be $40.00!  You’ll save even more when you cook at home because you’ll have enough leftovers to eat lunch the next day from the same meal. Not into leftovers? Get creative and turn them into something different!

Casseroles and one-pot meals are big money savers too.  These meals usually serve at least 10 people for less than $2.00 per serving.  An awesome cookbook that I highly recommend is Vegan on the Cheap by Robin Robertson.  It’s full of yummy recipes, some that only cost .50 cents per serving!  Nothing in the book will cost you more than $2.00 per serving and everything I’ve made from this book tastes awesome.  Cook at home, people!

#2 Cook from Scratch
While you’re cooking at home, make all of your beans and grains from scratch and the savings will quickly rack up.  A can of beans contains 1 ½ cups and costs around .90 cents.  A 1lb bag of dried beans only costs a little more and will make 6 cups of cooked beans!  So you can spend $3.60 on 6 cups of canned beans or a little over $1 for the same amount made from scratch.  It’s true that you have to soak them and then cook them for 1.5 hours, but it’s really not that much trouble. Soak them overnight while you sleep and then cook them the next day while you get ready or the next night while you’re chopping veggies, working out, watching TV, or doing your nails. You can even let them cook in the crock pot while you’re at work.  Cook the whole bag at once and freeze what you don’t use.  Eventually, you’ll have a good stash in the freezer and you can just grab them and toss them into soup, stews, casseroles, or whatever it is you’re making.  If you need to thaw them out to use in burgers, just put the frozen beans into a colander and run warm water over them for a few minutes.  The same applies to rice and other grains.  Cook the whole bag and freeze what you don’t need to have on hand for later.

#3 Make Your Own…
This concept is similar to #2, but applies to condiments, gravies, sauces, broths, and salad dressings.  When you peel carrots and onions, cut the ends and leaves of celery, or have a few bits of leftover veggies here and there, store it in a Ziplock bag or Tupperware container in the fridge.  By the end of the week, you’ll have enough stuff to make your own vegetable broth. You can quickly make your own gravies with your homemade broth, soy sauce, flour, and spices for a much healthier version than the canned stuff (more servings too).  Think about how many times you’ve spent your money on a salad dressing and hated it.  Making your own is so easy and you don’t have to worry about the unnecessary ingredients.  Olive oil, lemon juice, Dijon mustard and various vinegars make great, inexpensive ingredients for tasty dressings.   Make your own BBQ sauce and get quadruple the amount that you would in a bottle. There are a ton of recipes online for all of these things.

#4 Shop in Bulk
No, I don’t mean to go one of those warehouse stores and buy a 3-gallon can of green beans or a pack with 50 rolls of toilet paper.  I mean shop the bulk bins!  Natural food stores, like Whole Foods, have spices, flours, grains, beans, dried fruit, cereal, granola, peanut butter, and other pantry staples in bulk bins.  You can take your own containers or use the ones provided in the store and measure out exactly the amount you need.  You pay a lot less because these products do not have packages, labels, or logos and no printing, marketing, ink, or advertising was needed along the way.  Shopping the bulk bins also cuts down on waste in a tremendous way!

#5 Plan Your Grocery List Around the Sale Paper
This one doesn’t require much explanation, but is important to think about.  Each week, most stores put out a sale paper and you can get great deals on produce.  You can check out the sales online and then plan your grocery list around them.  Look for BOGO produce deals too. They aren’t as common as BOGO deals on other products, but you’ll see these deals on spinach and salad greens occasionally.  Buy produce like broccoli, kale, collards, mustard greens, asparagus, green beans, zucchini, and squash while they are on sale, and you can blanch or steam them and then put them in the freezer to use another week when those items aren’t on sale.

You’ll find that as you do these things, your stock pile will grow and some weeks you can plan your entire week’s menu without even having to go to the store and with very little prep time!

Instant Cookie Dough

When I was little, my mom would always save part of the cookie dough for me to eat raw while she was baking cookies.  In my opinion, the dough was often better tasting than the finished, baked cookie.  There’s just something about licking the bowl, spoon, or beaters for unbaked desserts that seems special and makes baking a little more fun (and not just for kids!).

I found a recipe in Lindsay Nixon’s cookbook Happy Herbivore for instant cookie dough.  Lindsay’s recipe calls for cocoa powder and maple syrup in place of the date honey and chocolate chips I use below.  Personally, I like my version better!

For a single serving, combine the following ingredients in a cereal bowl:

1 heaping tablespoon creamy peanut butter
1/2 tablespoon date honey (see recipe below)
1 tablespoon oats
1 tablespoon chocolate chips

Mix everything together and eat.it.with.a.spoon!

Date Honey
This recipe is from www.ultimatedanielfast.com.

Put 1 cup of dates and 1 cup of water in a small saucepan and simmer on the stove for 1 hour until the dates are really soft.  Cool for 15 minutes and then puree everything in a food processor.  You’ll actually wind up with a paste instead of  a honey texture but this is great for sweetening baked goods and smoothies or spreading on toast or waffles.

Witty Piggies (a brief overview of pig intelligence)

Sadly, pigs tend to get a bad rap.  People associate pigs with gluttony, untidiness, laziness, and stench.  I’m sure you’ve heard phrases like “sweat like a pig,” “filthy pig,” and “smell like a pig” that we use for insulting one another.  Unfortunately for the poor pigs, these things could not be farther from the truth.  People who actually know pigs personally and study them (in their natural habitat – not on filthy factory farms) know them to be one of the smartest, cleanest domesticated animals on the planet.  (And by the way, pigs actually don’t sweat.  They don’t even have sweat glands!)

When we think of intelligent animals, pigs probably don’t come to mind…  primates, dolphins, dogs, and even horses probably, but not pigs.  However, pigs have actually surpassed primates in a lot of intelligence tests and can do a lot of the things dogs do that make us think of them as intelligent. Many researchers even say that pigs are smarter than dogs.  They have a great long-term memory; can remember/recognize objects, signs, and symbols; open and close latches and gates, learn and remember words and phrases (even after not hearing them for years), and have a sense of direction.  Pigs are also very crafty problem solvers and great at learning new behaviors.

In November 2009, Animal Behaviour published an article about research that proved domestic pigs can quickly learn how mirrors work.  Pigs used the mirrors to gain an understanding of their surroundings and find food.  Although researchers could not conclude whether the pigs actually recognized themselves in the mirrors, a sign of what we believe to represent self-awareness and higher intelligence, this shows us a lot of insight into the mind of a pig.  Show a dog his food (located somewhere behind him) with a mirror and see if he realizes that he needs to turn around to get it!  Donald Broom, a researcher at the University of Cambridge in England who studies animal cognition and welfare was part of this study.  Broom points out that the findings from this experiment suggest that pigs have a “relatively higher degree of awareness” in that they use observations and memories to evaluate situations in relation to themselves (ScienceNews).  The pigs then demonstrated this awareness with an action appropriate to the situation.  In this case, the appropriate action was going to find the food, hidden behind a partition.

Many researchers compare pigs to dogs in that they can recognize their own names, learn to do tricks, herd sheep, fetch a ball, and love to cuddle with each other and with humans.  But can a dog learn how to work a thermostat or play video games?  Pigs can!  According to Richard W. Byrne, a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of St. Andrews, pigs are intelligent for the same reasons primates are: “evolutionary pressures that prompted cleverness [through the need for] social life and food.”  In the wild, Byrne explains, pigs live in long-term social groups.  They keep track of one another and protect one another from harm.  They also use their snout with superior dexterity “not unlike the handiness of a monkey.”  Most of us would never eat a monkey or a dog.  They are too intelligent, we relate to them in one way or another, and it seems too strange and cruel.  This applies to pigs as well, which is why (amongst other reasons) I have made the personal decision not to eat them.

Pigs, like all social animals, go crazy in confinement. Being locked in cages, with no fresh air, unable to move or do anything natural to them makes them literally go insane.  The conditions of factory farming are extremely cruel and pigs end up turning on one another, gnawing the bars of their cages until their gums bleed, and crying excessively.  Think about this in the context of what we’ve learned above.  Pigs in the wild love to cuddle with one another and are extremely protective of each other.  What a nightmare factory farms are for them!  And if you think you’ve slipped under the radar by eating “cage free “ or “free range foods,” think again.  These terms are not regulated, mean next-to-nothing, and in the end, most free range animals all go to die in the same place as those raised on factory farms.  When animals are bred for food and profit, suffering is almost inevitable.

I encourage you to read more about pigs.  There’s a lot we can learn from them and science is showing that our brains and bodies are very similar to pig’s.  Also, I vote that we start thinking of pigs in a more positive light as intelligent, cuddly, innovative, crafty, playful, and loyal.  Suggested compliments are, “You’re as cuddly as a pig!” “Well aren’t you just as smart as a pig!” and “You have the memory of a pig!”

Bird Brains (a quick overview of chicken intelligence)

I’ve often heard it said that the animals we eat are stupid, and therefore unable to comprehend what is happening to them when they are put through the torturous process we make them endure so that we can eat their flesh.  Truthfully, until I stopped eating them, I assumed the same.   I think we have a tendency to elevate ourselves so high above other animals on the intelligence scale because we are at the top of the food chain, and through this we justify their suffering.  And let’s face it.  Denying their pain is also a good excuse to eat them.  Now don’t get mad and tune me out just yet.  I have thought all of these things at one point or another in my life and am guilty of all of this.  Once I educated myself, I made a decision that was right for me.  It’s not going to feel right to everyone else.  I’m just trying to share some truths with you.

In terms of non-human animal intelligence, of course these animals can’t solve a Rubik’s cube, work an algebraic equation, or build a rocket.  Their intelligences are different from ours (and they don’t need to do the things we do), but their inability to do things we consider a sign of human intelligence doesn’t make them stupid.

Let’s start by defining what intelligence is.  The Webster’s definition is, ” the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations [and] the ability to apply knowledge.”  Scientific definitions of intelligence include good reasoning and communication skills, the ability to plan for and anticipate future events based on perceived information, problem solving, and the ability to learn from past experiences.

You may be surprised to find that research has proven that chickens do all of these things! In fact, studies are now showing that the mental capabilities of birds in general are greatly underestimated.  Most of us think horses, dogs, primates, and dolphins are smart.  Most of us also don’t eat them.  But what about the animals we do eat? 

I’d like to spend one blog each on chickens, pigs, and cows (the animals traditionally eaten in the US and many other countries) and their different levels of intelligence.  Today, I’m starting with the chicken:

There really should no longer be any question of whether chickens feel pain and suffer, as they most certainly do, and that has been proven.  First and foremost, they have a central nervous system and pain receptors, so their ability to feel pain is not a question. But what most people are unsure of is whether they are intelligent enough to be “aware” of what is really happening to them when they are mistreated or are being taken through the slaughter process.  To answer these questions, we have only to do a bit of research to see that the results of studies being conducted over the past decade are showing that chickens are not only aware of their own suffering, but they worry about the future, show empathy to other chickens, are intelligent, and can even do basic math!

In 2011, the University of Bristol conducted a study to see how mother hens would react when their chicks were in distress. Researchers separated the hens from their chicks and then blew puffs of air at the chicks repeatedly.  The chicks became frightened and cried out.  The mother hens were close by, watching, and researchers monitored the mother hens as their heart rates increased, eye temperature decreased (a sign of distress), and they became instantly alert and started to call out to their chicks.  This means that the hens were both aware of and concerned for their chicks safety.  I’ve read several stories of how hens and roosters will fight off foxes and other predators to protect their young.  This shows that they are both aware, either from past events or instinct, that these animals are a threat and have learned what they need to do to handle the situation and protect their family.

So if chickens not only feel pain and suffer, but feel a sense of companionship, family, protectiveness, and loyalty, it stands to reason that they are also capable of feeling a sense of dread and worry about what can happen to them.  And if they have all of these abilities, then they certainly comprehend what is happening to them in factory farms at least to some degree.  Turns out there’s a study that investigated just that thought… 

Siobhan Abeyesinghe, a member of the Biophysics Group at Silsoe Research Institute in England, was the lead author in a study on whether chickens can anticipate the future.  In the study, which was published both in Animal Behavior and the Journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, chickens were placed near colored buttons that, when pecked, would result in a food reward.  The amount of the reward depended on how long the chicken waited between pressing buttons.  Chickens seemed to realize this and remember it, because over 90% of the time, chickens would hold out for the “jackpot.”  Abeyesinghe explained that this rules out the idea that chickens have no awareness of the future.  I say it also shows that they have at least some ability to reason and learn from past events.

According to Animal Planet’s website, “prior studies have found that neuron organization in chicken brains is highly structured and suggests that, like humans, chickens evolved an impressive level of intelligence to help improve their survival.” So if a chicken can anticipate “good” things that happen to them, couldn’t they also fear bad things like cruelty and pain?   This study that Abeyesinghe led also shows that chickens have the ability to demonstrate self-control, which as Raf Freire, a lecturer in the Centre for Neuroscience and Animal Behavior at the School of Biological, Biomedical and Molecular Sciences explains, is of course a survival mechanism favored by evolution as it improves an animal’s likelihood of survival. 

Many people would step in here and argue that it is instinct, not intelligence, which causes the results of these studies, but the two are not mutually exclusive.  Our instincts play a large role in our intelligence, and the direct link is our ability to use both to problem solve.  It’s not in a chicken’s instinct to push a colored button for food, or to wait on food if it is readily available, or to run headlong into a fox that could very well tear it to shreds and eat it.  In these actions there is an instinctual need (to eat or to protect/propagate the species perhaps) but there is also an intelligence formed through those instincts.

These studies and many others all show how data is quickly piling up to demonstrate there’s much more to chickens than we thought and I’ve said all this to share with you what I’ve learned and to show that chickens really do have an intelligence,  but really, I must be blunt here….  who cares when it comes to suffering?  Who cares if a chicken can do math or use tools or problem solve?  Are these the qualifications that one must have to justify a good quality of life?  I don’t think we should allow sentient beings suffer simply because we think their IQ isn’t high enough.