Vegetarian Meat Replacements (a few tips for transitioning to vegetarianism)

When I first went vegetarian, processed, pre-packaged, frozen meat replacements were my go-to for main courses.  I heated up Morningstar chik’n nuggets, corn dogs, ribs, chik’n patties, or veggie burgers nearly every night, throwing in some canned corn or green beans and instant mashed potatoes on the side for good measure.   Faux meat products kept me fuller longer than veggie stir fry or pasta with marinara sauce.  I basically just went from frozen fish sticks to frozen soy protein isolate formed into various shapes.  It was easy and quick and I didn’t have to think too hard about menu planning or grocery shopping.  While these are great options for the occasional treat, lazy meal, or a person transitioning to a vegetarian diet, they really shouldn’t be a frequent dinner guest for you. 

Part of the reason new vegetarians rely on these products is because they always feel hungry. I’ve heard this so many times, and I experienced it myself.  This is a pretty common feeling for people when they first give up meat and it happens because we’re used to meat making us feel full and heavy, sitting in our colons for extended periods of time, making us feel satisfied longer.  Push through the first few weeks and your body will begin to change.  Just like your stomach “shrinks” when you eat smaller meals, your body will acclimate itself to a vegetarian diet.  You won’t feel like you’re starving forever, trust me.  It also helps not to constantly snack, especially on junk food, unless you want to put on pounds.  If you’re hungry, EAT, just try to fill up on fruits, veggies, grains, and beans instead of empty calories.

So if you’re a new vegetarian, I’ll cut you some slack for the transition period.  Faux meat products make the switch easier.  However,  if you’ve been off meat for over a year, you really should start to wean yourself off of frozen, processed soy products.  I avoid these now for two main reasons:

First of all, they’re expensive.  Why pay $5 for a box of 4 veggie burgers (frozen hockey pucks that really don’t taste that good) when you can make twice that many at home for less (and they’ll taste good)? Don’t say it’s because you don’t have time because beans can cook in the crock pot while you’re at work and it only takes about 15 minutes to make and cook the burgers when you get home.  I’ve made chicken fried seitan at home before and it tasted just as good, if not better, than the frozen faux nuggets, and it was soy free and much cheaper per serving.  Once you get past your transition period you really don’t need a fake meat at every meal.  If you’re making pasta, throw some mushrooms, zucchini, and lentils into the sauce or make meatballs with mashed beans, breadcrumbs, and spices.  If you want something smoky, tangy, and slightly sweet, make lentil sloppy joes or homemade BBQ black bean burgers.  Add beans and grains like quinoa and bulgar to soups and stews to make them more hearty.

If you’re a new vegetarian, it also helps to eat foods that are familiar to you. If you like tacos, replace the ground beef with black beans cooked in taco seasonings.  If you like comfort foods, try mashed potatoes and cauliflower with nutritional yeast and Earth Balance buttery spread, macaroni and cheese, creamy portobello strogranoff, or lentil shepherd’s pie.   Make a homemade veggie lasagna or pizza.  Also, visit your favorite restaurants and explore their vegetarian options.  If they don’t have any on the menu, ask them if they can make you something.  I’ve NEVER had a restaurant refuse to accommodate me (although I usually call ahead).  Make sure you keep snacks with you for when you get hungry on the run.  Trail mix, apples, bananas, dried fruit, granola bars, nuts, popcorn, pretzels, and raw veggies can easily be tossed into your bag so they’ll be there when a craving strikes (just make sure you put loose snacks into a little baggy first, obviously!)

The second reason I’ve stopped buying faux meat products is because they’re not good for you.  They’re the equivalent of vegetarian fast food really.  Your body needs whole, plant-based foods that haven’t been “put through the wringer” before they reach your plate.  In other words, if your veg food has ingredients you can’t pronounce, consider making something just as good yourself out of foods you can identify. 

Take the Morningstar Farms Chik’n Nuggest for example.  They have over 50 ingredients!  Fifty!  And their vegan veggie burgers have over 30 ingredients!  Some of these ingredients are soy protein isolate, bleached flour, corn oil, modified corn starch, artificial flavors, sugar, hydrolyzed soy protein, and artificial color.  Again, the occasional splurge is okay, but we can do better than that!  And let me just say that there’s a lot of buzz out there about soy right now.  Does it cause cancer or prevent it?  Does it mess with your thyroid and reproductive system?  The Chinese and Japanese have a much lower risk of heart disease and cancer and they eat it all the time.  There seem to be both benefits and risks associated with eating soy and if you’re interested, you can start your research here.  I’m not going to get into the soy debate right now, but I will say that I try to limit my intake.  When I consume soy, it’s not the main part of the dish and when I buy tofu or tempeh, it’s usually for a special occasion or a holiday treat that I’m making.  Again, veggie nuggets, ribs, burgers, corn dogs, etc. are extremely processed, laden with fillers, and not at all good for you in my opinion.  Most of them aren’t even vegan. 

So here’s my verdict:  Make your own food my lovelies; it will save you money and be much healthier for you!

Hunger Games Dinner Party (vegan style)

Ok don’t laugh at me.  I had a Hunger Games dinner party this past weekend!   Yes, me and my friends who are all quickly approaching 30 gathered to eat Hunger Games inspired food and then went to see the movie.  I have to say that I really enjoyed the books, at least the first two, but I won’t go into all of that because this is not a book review.  I wanted to share my version of a recipe for Katniss’ favorite lamb and dried plum stew (of course there are no dead lambs in mine) and my Mockingjay brownies (no mockingjays were harmed in the making of these brownies).

My version of the stew calls for portobello mushrooms and braised seitan in a “beef” and red wine broth with loads of veggies.  You can serve this over brown rice, spiral pasta, quinoa, or anything you like!  We just ate it like soup because we that’s how we roll.

The Hunger Games Inspired Seitan Stew with Dried Plums!

3  cloves garlic
2-3 shallots, diced
1 8oz package cubed seitan
1 8oz package baby portobello mushrooms, diced
2 large Yukon gold potatoes
2 carrots, diced
1/2 cup chopped dried plums (prunes)
4 cups no-beef broth (4 cups hot water + 2 no-beef bouillon cubes)
½ cup red wine
½ teaspoon thyme
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper

Make the broth and set aside.  Heat a large skillet or soup pot over medium heat and sauté the shallots in a little olive oil while you mince the garlic and chop the seitan into bite-sized pieces (if the cubes aren’t already the size you want them).  Add the garlic, mushrooms, and seitan to the pan and cook about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the seitan begins to brown.  Add the red wine and scrape the bottom of the pan with a spatula to release all those yummy, browned garlic bits.  Turn the heat up to medium-high and let the wine simmer for couple of minutes.

Add the rest of the ingredients, including the broth, bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to low.  Cover and let simmer for about 20 minutes.  Add more salt & pepper to taste, if needed.

 

I’m actually not going to include the recipe for the brownies because I wasn’t happy with how they turned out.  The recipe was from The Joy of Vegan Baking and they turned out slightly gummy and relatively dense.  I also didn’t think they were sweet enough.  But I wanted to show you the cute mockingjay logo that I made with a stencil and powdered sugar.

Rabbit Food -or- Awesome Eats at Organic Harvest, Alabama

My dad likes to joke that vegetarians can’t eat anything except rabbit food.  This is the typical view of the veg diet–that we live on salads and walk around looking pale and sickly from lack of nourishment.  While this couldn’t be farther from the truth, I do enjoy the occasional salad, but I loath boring salads.  Iceberg lettuce is horrible and no one should use it and there are so many dressings that you can make at home that are way more awesome than ranch.  I also like plenty of flavors and textures to my salads (beans, fruit, nuts).  The salad below was pretty awesome, and the colors were so great, I just had to show you.  I love eating pretty food! 

This salad was made by the lovely, sweet ladies at one of my favorite cafes called Organic Harvest, a mostly vegetarian cafe and market in Vestavia, Alabama.

Blueberries, walnuts, black “forbidden” rice, sweet green peas, purple cabbage, spinach, and dried currants, YUM!  I used balsamic vinaigrette, which paired well with the sweet currants and peas.

If you live in the Birmingham area, or are visiting, I highly recommend stopping by Organic Harvest.  They have a juice bar and serve hot sandwiches, creative salads, and soups at lunch.  Their soups are almost always vegan and gluten free and the ALT (avocado lettuce tomato) panini is one of my favorites.  I also recommend “The Arnold” smoothie, which has rice milk, agave nectar, banana, almond butter, and cinnamon.  If you’re lucky enough to stop by on a day when they have their vegan chocolate mousse pie, it would be a sin to not buy a slice!

 

 

Top 5 Vegan Goodies

I’m just going to tell you that you’re going to see a pattern here:  chocolate!  That’s because I lovelovelove chocolate, but the brands I’m recommending below also have non-chocolate options that I’ll give a small shout out to.

#1 Jason’s Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups 
I fell in love with Justin’s Chocolate Hazelnut spread about a year ago and was elated to find out they also sell chocolate peanut butter cups!  In my opinion, they’re much better than the mainstream peanut butter cups I’ve had in the past (you know them…orange wrapper…”no wrong way to eat ‘em”).  The layer of chocolate on the Jacon’s cups is twice as thick and so you have a more equal chocolate-to-peanut butter ratio.  The chocolate is also organic.  (Justin’s spreads are also available in Honey Almond, Honey Peanut, and Maple Almond).

#2  Liz Lovely’s Chocolate Moose Dragon Cookies 
Liz makes the best cookies I’ve ever had, hands down.  These cookies are soft, fudgy, and have pieces of cacao nibs in them!  They are so chocolatey you’ll groan while you eat them!  Other flavors include Ginger Snapdragons, Peanut Butter Classic, Snickerdoodle, Ginger Molasses, and Coconut Lemon.

#3 Sweet and Sara Smores 
Thick, fluffy vegan marshmallow packed between Belgian dark chocolate and a graham cracker cookie… OHYESPLEASE!  (The cinnamon pecan marshmallows are also divine and are great on sweet potato casserole at Thanksgiving!)

#4 SO Delicious Turtle Trails Ice Cream 
Caramel has a special place in my heart, right beside chocolate.  This coconut milk based ice cream is filled with swirls of gooey caramel and chocolate-covered pecans.  Other flavors include Cherry Amaretto, Vanilla Bean, Butter Pecan, and Lemonade Sorbet.

 #5 Tofutti Mint Chocolate Chip Cuties (ice cream sandwiches)
Can you tell I’ve got summer on the brain?  These little ice cream sandwiches are adorable.  They’re half the size of “normal” ice cream sandwiches, so I have to admit that I usually eat two because they’re so good.  If you’re insane and don’t like mint and chocolate together, they also have the standard vanilla filling as well as double chocolate and cookies & cream.   Tofutti also makes vegan cream cheese and sour cream that are just as good as their dairy-based counterparts.

Veganism and B12

There seems to be a lot of concerns for vegans surrounding their B12 levels. Most people, vegan or not, can name plenty of plant-based sources for calcium, iron, and protein, but most come up short when asked where vegans get their B12. I must admit that I did not recently start educating myself on this very important vitamin until this past year. Barely two years into becoming vegetarian, I started to severely limit my intake of all animal products, including cheese, milk, and eggs. I still eat these things on occasion when I’m out, but nearly 100% of my diet during the week is completely vegan.

I was never concerned about not getting enough nutrients. I eat a pretty varied diet rich in whole grains and all sorts of veggies. But about a year ago, I had this really annoying eye twitch one day that didn’t go away for a week or so. I started searching on the internet for causes (there are many) and found that eye twitches are one of the symptoms of B12 deficiency. Of course, eye twitches are also the symptoms of a lot of other things as well, but it just got me thinking. I started to take a B12 supplement, but not every day. I quickly fell out of the habit of taking it and now, nearly another year later, the eye twitch has returned! Again, this may not have anything to do with my B12 levels, but I started taking my supplement again and the twitch stopped.

So I want to talk about B12 and the vegan diet and how extremely important this vitamin is for your brain, nervous system, and metabolism. It works with folate to synthesize DNA and is also essential to the formation of blood cells. Very important! B12 deficiency can result in milder symptoms such as weakness or tiredness, bleeding gums, diarrhea, and tingling in the fingers and toes, but it can also cause major problems such as difficulty walking, depression, memory loss, and dementia — irreversible neurological problems folks!

The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for B12 for adults is 2.4 mcg (micrograms). However, if you start looking for B12 supplements you’ll notice that they come in much larger doses, most of them ranging from 500-5,000 mcg. This is because we don’t absorb all the B12 we consume. In fact, for every 500 mcg of B12 you consume, your body is only going to absorb about 10 mcg! The reason for this is pretty in-depth, so I’m not going to discuss it here, but there are plenty of lengthy scientific explanations out there that you to look up.

Most sources of B12 are animal products such as meat, fish, dairy, and eggs. This is not because these foods contain B12 so to speak, but because microorganisms (namely bacteria) are the only organisms that make B12 and they just happen to live in the digestive tracts of animals or on their dead flesh. Animals eat foods that are contaminated with the bacteria and then the animal becomes the source of the bacteria, and therefore a source of B12. But B12 is created by a bacterial fermentation process and does not require animals to produce it; it’s bacteria-derived, not animal-derived.

Humans used to get some B12 from the soil, but because we scrub our produce squeaky clean (justifiably so because of pesticides) and because the soil we grow our crops in has been depleted of nutrients, vegetables are not a reliable source of B12. So where does a vegan get B12?

There are non-supplemental sources of B12 for vegans, namely nutritional yeast, fortified non-dairy milks, and fortified cereals. Nutritional yeast provides about 1,000 mcg of B12 and fortified cereals will easily supply the RDA for B12. However, from what I’ve concluded after researching B12 deficiency (which happens in both vegans and omnivores) the best way to ensure that you’re getting adequate amounts of B12 is to take a supplement. Now there are people out there who would criticize a diet that does not supply 100% of your needs, but I doubt that most people getting 100% of their nutritional needs met anyway, regardless of their diet. I’m not saying that a vegetarian/vegan diet is some miracle diet that’s 100% perfect. People stop eating meat for many reasons, but I doubt any of them would say it’s because they thought a meat-free diet would be 100% fool-proof. I stopped eating meat because I don’t want to support suffering, not so that I could brag about my B12 levels. I don’t think having to take one supplement means my diet is insufficient for my nutritional needs.

That said, you have several options for B12 supplements. You can get B12 shots from your doctor, which generally supply around 1,000 mcg. You can also take a B12 vitamin in pill form that you swallow, just like a multi-vitamin. There are also B12 oral sprays that you spray on your tongue, where it is absorbed by the blood vessels in your mouth. I personally take a sublingual tablet that you let dissolve under your tongue and it works the same way the spray does so that B12 is absorbed directly into your blood stream. This way, you don’t have to worry about whether or not it gets absorbed through the digestive process!

If you think you might have a B12 deficiency, you can get a simple blood test done by your doctor. Depending on how deficient you are, he or she may recommend certain doses, but I generally try to take 200 mcg every other day OR 1000 mcg once per week. If you’re forgetful like I am, you can take 3000 mcg once per month, but again, this all depends on your diet and your current B12 levels. There isn’t really too much of a chance that you’ll get too much. B12 overdose is rare. B12 is a water-soluble vitamin, so your body will discard the excess in your urine.

Deva, Pure Vegan, VegLife, Garden of Life (Vitamin Code), TwinLab, and Solgar are just a few supplement brands that offer vegan B12.

Vegan Beef Pot Pie

I saw a recipe for a vegan beef pot pie on another blog recently but it called for jarred gravy, canned vegetables, and a pre-made frozen crust.  I decided to make my own from scratch and see how much time it would take, because I knew it would taste better.  I used the same crust that I use for my veggie pot pie because it’s easy and amazing.  Non-Beef bouillon gives this recipe a flavor punch.  You can either use the Better Than Bouillon brand, which is a paste, or the Edward & Sons brand, which comes in cubes like you’re probably used to.  Either way, you just dissolve the bouillon in hot water and use it like a broth.

I used seitan in place of beef and veggies you would typically find in a pot roast like celery, carrots, potatoes, and onions, but you could use any veggies or meat replacement you have on hand.  If you spend a little prep time one day (Sunday, for example) chopping your veggies for the week, then they just go right into the pot and you’ll save lots of time on weeknights.  If you do that, this recipe should come together (prep and cook time) inin around 45 minutes.

Beef Pot Pie
1 medium yellow onion, quartered and sliced into half moons
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon thyme
8 oz package seitan, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 medium-sized potato, diced relatively small (about 1 heaping cup)
3 medium carrots, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
1 no-beef bouillon cube (or 2 teaspoon paste)
2 cups hot water
½ cup creamy portobello mushroom soup (I use the Imagine brand) or ½ cup non-dairy milk
1 tablespoon soy sauce
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper

Heat a tablespoon of oil over medium heat in a large skillet and sauté the onion for about 5 minutes.  Stir in the garlic and continue to cook for another minute or two.  Add the thyme, carrots, seitan, potatoes, and celery to the pan.  Mix the bouillon and water together until dissolved and add to the pan with the soy sauce, portobello soup, salt, and pepper.  Increase the heat to high until the mixture is boiling and then cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile preheat the oven to 400 degrees, spray a deep-dish 9” pie plate with non-stick spray, and make the crust.

The Perfect Pot Pie Crust
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup Earth Balance margarine
½ teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons non-dairy milk

Place the flour and salt in a food processor and pulse to mix.  Cut the margarine into small cubes and toss into the flour mixture.  Pulse 10-15 times.  Add in the non-dairy milk and let your processor run until a dough ball forms (this will only take about 10 seconds).  Place the dough on a clean surface dusted with flour and roll out into a circle big enough to cover your pie plate.  (This is actually a “bottomless” pot pie, meaning that you won’t have a bottom crust.)

When your veggie mixture is done, whisk in the flour and let it cook for a few minutes to thicken into a gravy-like consistency.  Pour into your pie plate and cover with the crust.  Use a knife to make a few slits in the top and bake for 30 minutes.

Cruelty Free Cleaners That Work!

A few years ago, I began to think more about the cleaning products I used.  When I was a teenager, my dad bought Tilex for me to use on the shower walls and I remember it burning my lungs and making me feel light-headed.  More recently, I used a Magic Eraser to clean the bathtub a couple of years ago and wound up with bright red blisters/chemical burns on my hands and arms.  I immediately got online to find out whether I was going to have to get my arm amputated and I started reading about all the toxic ingredients in cleaning products. 

Literally hundreds of thousands of calls are made to the Poison Control Center every year as a result of the harmful effects of cleaning products.  Around 50% of those calls are made by frantic parents because their child has spilled household cleaners onto their skin or swallowed cleaning products.  Corrosive cleaners like oven and drain cleaners can cause severe burns.  Mix certain cleaning chemicals together (ammonia + chlorine) and you’ve got toxic gas.  According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, one out of every three substances used in the fragrance industry are toxic.  Some cleaners contain ingredients you can hardly pronounce like diethanolamine and triethanolamine, which are carcinogenic, and some of these chemicals even affect our hormones!

A lot of popular brands out there are also tested on animals.  This doesn’t mean they’re shampooing rabbits with Pantene to see how soft it makes their hair.  It means they’re conducting painful experiments on them, forcing animals to ingest or inhale ridiculously concentrated chemicals or applying burning chemicals to their skin and eyes, resulting in blindness, seizures, tumors, and eventually (after all the torture), death.  Animal testing is senseless and barbaric.  Animals react to drugs differently than we do and the experiments they are tortured with often don’t even apply to us!  A lot of the results of animal testing are inconclusive and unreliable.  Sometimes the way an animal reacts is just the opposite of the way a human will react to a chemical or drug. 

But I’ll save vivisection for another time, so let’s just say that I wanted to stop using products with dangerous chemicals and products that were tested on animals.

There are a lot of “green” products out there, but how do you know which ones work and are worth the money?  Can a plant-based cleaning product disinfect your bathroom and kitchen?  Will they remove stains? Will they kill viruses?

Never fear because I’ve come to help you out!  Yes, plant-based cleaners can disinfect and kill germs and yes, there are Earth friendly products out there that work!  Have I tried them all?  Nope.  But I’ve tried enough to help you get started.  Here are some of my favs for the most common cleaning categories:

Mrs Meyer’s – Best All-Purpose Cleaner
For everyday cleaning of mirrors, windows, sinks, and counter tops, I use Mrs. Meyer’s All Purpose Cleaner.  I bought a big bottle about a year ago and it’s super concentrated, so I just mix a few tablespoons in with 32 oz of water in a squirt bottle.  One bottle will last forever!  I like the lavender scent, but there is also lemon verbena, basil, rosemary, geranium, and bluebell.  Check out all the cleaning products by this brand at www.mrsmeyers.com.  I have also tried the hand soap, automatic dish soap, dish soap before.  They all work great!

Seventh Generation – Best Disinfecting Cleaner (wipes or spray)
Plain white vinegar will kill germs, mold, and viruses, but I prefer my house not to smell like vinegar!  The Seventh Generation brand’s entire line of products is great and they all work really well.  The disinfecting cleaner kills 99.99% of germs and viruses including Staph, the common cold, the flu, and E-coli.  The only scent they have so far is Lemongrass Citrus, which has a herbal note to it as well. 

Martha Stewart Clean – Best Automatic Dishwasher Detergent
I’ve used both the powdered auto dish detergent by Seventh Generation (which left a grainy residue) and the liquid by Mrs Meyer’s (which isn’t good at removing coffee/tea/cocoa stains).  Maybe my dishwasher just sucks, but Martha Stewart Clean works better for me.  My dishes come out clean and free of streaks and water spots.  It’s over 99% plant and mineral based, and like all product I’m mentioning here, does not contain any animal by-products and is not test on animals.  I don’t think this has a scent, which doesn’t bother me, but if you want a scent, I recommend Mrs Meyer’s.  If you prefer a powder, I recommend the Ecover brand.



Seventh Generation – Best Toilet Bowl Cleaner
If you don’t mind your toilet smelling like a pine forest, then I highly recommend this product!  It removes stains, mold, and calcium build-up easily with very little scrubbing effort on your part.  The smell isn’t overpowering, so it doesn’t bother me.  It smells much better than bleach!  If you don’t like the smell, try the Ecover brand, but I found that the bowl doesn’t stay clean as long with Ecover.

Earthworm – Best Drain/Disposal Cleaner
Earthworm breaks down food, grease, and odors in my garbage disposal really well.  A while back, we had this horrible smell coming from the disposal every time we ran the dishwasher and a few rounds of Earthworm cleared it right up. I use it regularly to keep my bathroom sink and tub drains clear.  My cats often get in to the tub to drink the leftover water after my shower and so it was really important to me that this product is safe to use around pets (and kids!) Their website says it only leaves behind water and harmless nutrients.  The smell is really great too!

Baking Soda + Dish Liquid – Best Tub/Tile Cleaner
Mix equal parts baking soda and dish liquid (I recommend the Seventh Generation brand, once again) in a small bowl until you have an icing-like consistency.  Dip in a sponge and use this to scrub your tub, tile, kitchen sink, and stainless steel faucets.