Cheese Sauce?

It’s hard to believe but it’s been about six months since a vegan friend encouraged me to try his way of eating for thirty days

This plant based journey has taught me a lot but one of the most valuable lessons is that it’s important to make the right choices for yourself in the kitchen.

Many vegan cooks manipulate ingredients in attempts to recreate familiar dishes in new, plant based and healthier ways. For example, there are scores of recipes on the internet to help you create a “cheese” sauce, ideal for nachos, mac and cheese and scores of comfort food dishes that you may remember from your past life consuming dairy.

I’ve tried a few of these imaginative recipes. Many use cashews and nutritional yeast. Some add a host of seasonings or use roasted red peppers. Nearly all create a neon orange sauce that resembles melted Velveeta. Well, resembles it in appearance at least.

In taste, perhaps not so much.

I have finally learned to cut the recipes in half so that I don’t feel as bad throwing away nearly all the completed product. After the last batch, I stood in the kitchen for a long time, contemplating whether to throw it away right then or stash the concoction in the fridge with hopes I would think of some way to salvage the two cups of mediocrity.

In other words, should I throw it away now or wait till later? This is the inner dialogue sometimes.

I’ve met plenty of people who think these recipes are great. Lots of bloggers, online reviewers and even some real life friends rave about how tasty, how authentically cheesy their favorite recipe is.

I’m happy for them but it’s not for me.

From now on, if I want mac and cheese, I’ll go to a restaurant and enjoy the real thing. It can be a treat, something to be savored and enjoyed occasionally.

For me, plant based eating should be about eating clean and eating well. There’s little more delicious than sautéed mushrooms, onions, peppers and zucchini heaped on top of a baked potato. No sauces, just some pepper and sea salt to taste. In-season blueberries are so delicious they’re hard to resist and homemade soup packed with veggies makes for a tasty dinner.

All of these things can be enjoyed in the simplest form possible. Torturing ingredients into forms they weren’t mean to take on isn’t necessary or worthwhile when you have such tasty meals and snacks at your disposal.

I’ll save my cashews for snacks and occasionally treat myself to the authentic cheesy dish.

After all, food is meant to nourish the body but I think it’s also meant to enjoy. It’s ok to take a break, especially if you’re doing it infrequently. At least, that’s the right choice for me.

No Spend Month Fun and Vegan Food

We’re 21 days into No Spend January and I have to say it’s been so easy that the prospects of ending it are not especially attractive. I’m thinking about continuing it for another month with a couple of small exceptions to the rules.

Weekends and most evenings have called for quiet times at home. I’ve had time to read, watch movies and catch up on chores around the house. It’s like a staycation every weekend.

Purging and organization projects have revealed some disturbing patterns. For example, just how many half used bottles of bathroom cleaner and conditioner does a gal need? I even discovered that I have two copies of Outlander Season three on dvd that I don’t remember buying.

Either of them.

The month began with a list of areas to purge like my sock drawer, kitchen cabinets and movie collection. About two-thirds of the list is complete. I also have a list of things to do instead of shopping or spending money but I haven’t referred to it even once. It’s going to sound weird but it’s sort of fun to just spend some time inventorying and appreciating what you have.

Cooking has been more fun this month and there’s been a fair amount of experimentation in the kitchen. I’ve been trying to figure out how to make vegan baked goods that resemble their non-vegan counterparts. Removing eggs and butter from the equation is harder than it sounds. While there is a vegan butter on the market, I refused to remove one processed food from my diet only to add in another.

Even with cooking more and experimenting a lot, I’m eating extremely well for less money than normal. Plus there’s been a lot less kitchen waste which is extremely pleasing.

I ran into Wal-Mart for cat food and also to TJ Maxx in search of a gift last week. I wasn’t tempted to buy a single thing and didn’t even buy the gift because everything just looked like cheap, unnecessary crap. A month ago I would have been all over the clearance section and would have walked out with a bag of stuff I didn’t need.

That, my friends, is a huge accomplishment.

For all this progress, there’s still much to do. First, I need to figure out this vegan baked good thing. And, at odds with this goal, is my desire to exercise more consistently. I’m still working toward that goal to run a mile. Perhaps another four weeks will get me there.

Are you interested in trying a No Spend Month? It doesn’t have to be as hard or as austere as it sounds. You set your own rules and have the ability to make a No Spend Month what you want it to be.

My rules are as follows:

  1. Pay all bills on time.
  2. Continue saving money for future goals including retirement, emergencies, vacation, etc.
  3. Buy groceries but attempt to use out of the pantry and freezer stockpile. Avoid buying processed foods by preparing fresh and healthy alternatives.
  4. Buy things that are needed. If I damage my work shoes, they need to be replaced but a cute pair of shoes that I don’t need aren’t part of the equation.
  5. Buy gas but make an effort to batch errands and to not drive unnecessarily.
  6. Seek free entertainment. For me, that’s hiking, photography, reading, play piano, movies and other hobbies.
  7. Write down wants and needs instead of buying immediately. So far the list doesn’t exist because I don’t need or want anything but the idea behind this is to delay gratification and to plan purchases.
  8. No more shopping for entertainment. No Amazon and no browsing for entertainment.
  9. Plan as much as possible. I can stop for gas but having a reusable water bottle and a snack in my bag means there’s no reason to go inside for a drink.

There were a couple of exceptions to the rules this month. Dinner and a movie with a friend (it was a delayed Christmas celebration), a retirement gift for a friend at work and retirement cards for some others were planned. I ate out a few times but, aside from that dinner with a friend, it was always because I had to while traveling for work. So far, I’ve stayed in budget and that’s ok.

If I continue this into February, there’s a comedian I want to go see and my mother’s birthday is in February. Other than that, there aren’t many reasons to spend money.

You can make up your own rules and make the exercise what you want it to be.

So who’s in? Anyone else want to try a no spend month? February is the shortest month of the year so it’s a great time to try!

Around here

It’s a three day weekend for me so today marks the halfway point rather than the end of the weekend.

I’ve accomplished some things this weekend and failed miserably at others.

Yesterday featured some cleaning projects. This was a requirement because the house was littered with cat toys and things that little Scout had knocked on the floor. Johnny Cash sang about killing a man in Reno just to watch him die. Scout knocks things over just to watch them fall.

But my work ethic didn’t last long. It was raining and cold so I ended up in a comfy chair, determined to finish this book so I could move on to some less traumatic material.

This book is graphic, emotional and compelling. The author expertly weaves the story of Emmett Till into the context of the Jim Crow south to create a narrative that’s impossible to put down and hard to stomach all at the same time.

How anyone could be so hateful, so intolerant or so so certain of their superiority over another group of humans is beyond me. And yet, it relates closely to a lot of the sentiments we hear today in this country about immigrants and still about African Americans.

Around here, I’m also doing some cooking this weekend. Today I’ll make a bean and veggie soup, pancakes for the freezer and some granola for the pantry. Yesterday I adapted an internet veggie burger recipe to meet my needs and to use up some odds and ends of leftovers in the fridge.

It was far better than store bought veggie burgers and I know exactly what went into the mix. Interested? Here’s the recipe:

Brandi’s Quick Break From Reading To Make Dinner Veggie Burger

1 can pinto or black beans (drained and well rinsed)

3 Tablespoons tomato paste or ketchup

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

2 Tablespoons flour (I used whole wheat but use what you have)

1/2 cup cooked vegetables – I didn’t cook mine but ran them through the food processor so they were finely chopped. Mine were onions, carrots, corn, spinach and mushrooms

Run the beans through the food processor and mix well with the other ingredients. Shape into patties and place on parchment paper. Bake in the oven at 350 degrees for nine minutes on each side or until a bit crisp.

This is an extremely forgiving recipe because it’s designed to use up what you have. Don’t have tomato paste? Use ketchup or maybe some salsa! Whatever veggies you have will do. Want to add a favorite seasoning? Go for it. Can’t eat them all right now? Freeze them.

It really is easy. My apologies for having no photo to share.

Instead, I will leave you with this image. I dared to move Scout’s tent from the kitchen to make mopping the floor a little easier. Here’s the aftermath. It seems there was some kind of riot.

Here’s hoping today is a good day for us all and that I make it back to the list of things I failed miserably at today!

The Small Things

One of my No Spend Month projects is to do some organizing. This weekend, I gathered up my most commonly used dry smoothie supplies into a basket. Flax and chia seeds, unsweetened coconut, protein powder and even the measuring cup live together in this basket so that I can easily move all these ingredients from the pantry to the blender.

Since I make a smoothie for breakfast most mornings, this promises to save me some effort every day. It will also go a long way toward keeping my pre-work routine organized and peaceful. Sometimes it’s the little things that really do matter.

No Spend January Is Here!

January is a No Spend Month for me. It’s a fun little game I’ve played for the last few years where I pay for what is needed but there’s no frivolous spending (unless pre-planned), no impulse buying and no shopping for entertainment. Goodbye, antique malls!

So bills are paid and groceries are purchased but I work on using some things from the freezer and pantry. Yesterday, I stopped at the store for about $10 worth of produce needed to create meals for the week using things I already have. If I stop for gas, my reusable water bottle had better be full because I’m not running inside for a drink. Not even for just a dollar.

There’s a gift to buy this month and a planned dinner and movie with a friend that was postponed from the holidays. That’s all the extracurricular spending that should happen.

This month, I will spend a lot of time at home, using what I own, looking for creative ways to entertain myself for free and simply appreciating the life that I have built and all that I already have. The Depression era mantra “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without” comes to mind.

After all the excess and gluttony of the holidays, a spending fast is a welcome relief to the bank account but it’s also a welcome break from commercialism.

We spend a lot of time making money to survive and on spending money on stuff to fill our homes but we don’t always go home and just enjoy the life we have.

It’s is an exercise in gratitude as much as anything else.

I wrote a Winter Survival Guide last fall and it’s here in January that these techniques are truly put to work.

Here’s what’s happening in my world right now:

Books are a priority this year and I’m finding that the more I read, the more I want to read. The problem is that there’s a new one that I’m dying to tear into. I usually have three or four going at once but want to focus on one at a time this year. It can be next.

Cooking is more fun. I always enjoy playing in the kitchen but winter is a great time to experiment with new recipes. This year is especially fun as I’m looking for plant based recipes for my new lifestyle. This week I made a potato corn chowder that was divine and the lunch leftovers were a welcome treat! I also made a pumpkin cookie that was disgusting but we’ll just call that an experiment gone awry and move on.

Organization and purging are another priority. I have a list of areas to hit – from the pantry to the sock drawer to the nightstand and all points in between. It’s shocking how much stuff accumulates over time even when you try to be tidy. The goal is to do one thing from the list every day. The purging extends into intangible areas too. One evening was spent purging emails while watching the Closer on TV. Brenda Lee Johnson caught the bad guys and I unsubscribed and deleted thousands of old marketing emails. The above picture represents a new set of Christmas dishes that need to be put away after some rearranging in the china cabinet.

Movie time! I can’t go to the movies but that doesn’t matter because there’s a stack of movies waiting for my viewing pleasure. One day I’ll make some homemade potato chips and hit the couch for a little movie marathon.

Self care is a priority. Outdoor activity is less common because it’s dark at quitting time but I am trying to prioritize some kind of exercise every day. Rest is also important. My philosophy for most of the year is that you can sleep when you’re dead. During winter, these cold, dark nights call for a warm blanket and an earlier bedtime.

Being happy with the Now is a common theme and resisting the urge to adventure plan involves daily internal negotiations. It’s much harder than it should be. However, the theme of this stage of the year is being satisfied with the abundance of everyday life. Adventure planning can wait a bit. I have started a list of day trip ideas based on suggestions from friends but that’s more about being forgetful than about planning. Being present in this moment rather than dream of the next adventure is a real challenge.

For me, a No Spend Month is an opportunity to get myself together for another year, to set new goals and intentions, to stop buying stuff I don’t need, to nourish my mind and body, and to practice gratitude for what I have.

It gets easier every year and, this will sound sound nuts, but I’ve been looking forward to January for weeks.

Want to do your own no spend challenge? You can set your own rules and make it what you want it to be! You might be surprised at how much money and time you save!

Eating Well Doesn’t Mean Eating Boring

One of the biggest misconceptions people have about healthy eaters, especially plant based eaters, is that their food is dull or that they just eat salads and big bowls of broccoli.

Fortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.

I went plant based just a little over three months ago and think of myself as an imperfect vegan. That means that all the food I prepare is plant based but that healthy eating in the real world is hard. So when I’m out, I just do my best. Sometimes that means an Impossible Burger with a side of fries and broccoli. Sometimes it means a grilled pimento cheese sandwich and chips at a fabulous old soda fountain.

I aim to eat plant based 90 percent of the time. However, I want to eat good food all the time.

Yesterday I made some delicious pancakes to freeze for a rainy day. These wheat pancakes with plump blueberries are as delicious as any restaurant pancakes I’ve ever tasted, especially when paired with pure maple syrup.

I also made some hot chocolate with cocoa, a little stevia, almond milk and vanilla. There was a companion recipe for homemade marshmallow that I was too lazy to make despite how easy it sounded. Nonetheless, it was a tasty cup of hot chocolate to finish off a day of Christmas wrapping.

While it was good, it was missing something- maybe the homemade marshmallow? Maybe just a little more sweetener? I’m not sure but will work to improve it until I’m happy.

Then there was the pot of homemade bean soup – three kinds of beans, vegetable broth, onions and carrots simmered to create a mouth watering soup for work lunches this week.

The point is that I’m not deprived and am as happy as a clam with most of the food I make.

It’s actually a lot of fun to play in the kitchen, trying new things and learning from the occasional mistake. The mistakes are ok because I typically learn a valuable lesson and rarely make the same mistake twice. Also, it’s a sign that I’m trying new things and that my diet is no longer limited to the same five things I used to make all the time.

This is a good thing!

Thinking about reducing your meat and dairy or maybe just trying to eat a little healthier? Try choosing one dish that you enjoy and seek out a healthier recipe for that dish. Pancakes or soups are a great place to start. Try healthifying just one dish a week and you might be surprised how much you enjoy the changes.

Self Care Sunday

I protect my free time on Sundays the same way a mama bear protects her cubs. If I agree to do something on a Sunday, it must be really important or I must really like the person who invited me.

The phrase “self care” sounds self indulgent but I’m not lazing around in a bubble bath all day. Instead, this day is reserved for certain household chores, laundry and preparing for the week as well as for more traditional self care efforts.

I respond well to structure and planning. I also respond well to rest and relaxation and to the sense of accomplishment that comes with a well spent Sunday.

This is what I seek on an average Sunday:

Wake up naturally. The is the only day out of seven that I am not ripped from my sleep by an alarm and then forced to leave the house. This simple act feels decadent.

Eat well. Breakfast is normally a really good smoothie with peanut butter on toast. This is my normal daily breakfast but on Sunday there’s time to actually enjoy it. I aim for healthful foods on this day because there are no excuses when there’s time to cook.

Be enlightened. I typically watch CBS Sunday Morning, a magazine show that covers lifestyle, history, current affairs, entertainers and almost anything else the folks at CBS can dream up. Sometimes I kick up my feet and watch but some weeks just listen while doing chores. Much of what they cover doesn’t sound at all interesting in advance but I nearly always enjoy the stories and learn something.

Do laundry. Starting the week with an empty hamper ensures that whatever I want to wear is clean and there are plenty of clean towels. I typically put together some outfits to choose from including scarves and other accessories to save time on work mornings. Also, the bed sheets are always changed on Sunday because there is nothing more decadent than clean sheets.

Meal prep. Grocery shopping usually happens on Saturday or maybe Friday after work. On Sunday, I cook a few things to make weekday meals easier. This is the ideal day to experiment with new recipes or to make things that require more time. Soups that need time to simmer or beans that take hours to cook are good candidates. Homemade granola always happens on Sunday too.

Sweat. At some point, I like to break a sweat. This typically happens on the treadmill or maybe with an exercise dvd. This is followed by a hot shower and clean pjs. That’s right, I wear pajamas all day. Judge me all you like but it makes me happy.

Work the brain. This means that I kick up my feet and curl up with Scout to read, journal, do crosswords or catch up on other things that give my brain opportunity to stretch.

Embrace the quiet. Soft music, smart stuff on tv and plain old silence are important to this introvert. It allows me opportunity to calm my mind and mentally prepare for the week ahead.

Whatever I please. Real work always comes first so that the last half of the day can be devoted to whatever I feel like doing. Sometimes this means decluttering a drawer because this makes me happy. Sometimes I process pictures, write a blog post or watch a movie. If I’ve been too busy to keep up with housekeeping it often makes me happy to do some chores. It really just depends on what I’m in the mood to do.

Rest. Going to bed early on Sunday sets a good tone for the rest of the week. I love to take a book to bed early and then wake up feeling good on Monday.

In short, everything I do on Sunday is aimed toward improving quality of life during the work week and making myself healthy and well.

It’s not a bad way to live.

Do I feel like I’m missing out on something by basically hibernating one day a week? Not on your life. I feel stronger and happier for it.

The weeks when I skip my routine are harder weeks. The simple acts of staying fed and clothed take longer and eat up valuable time that could be used for fun, rest, exercise or basically anything else.

It’s not that I can’t function without my Sunday routine, it simply makes life more pleasant and easier.

Clearly, this wouldn’t work so well for someone with kids or a significant other. This is one benefit of being on my own and I am milking it for all it’s worth.