Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Product Review: Enjoy Life Mini Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips

[Disclosure] Here's the thing about the product reviews I post on this blog: I always become incredibly self-conscious. I'm telling you this because I don't post as many reviews as I sometimes think I should (based on the frequency with which "review product x" comes up in how people linked to my blog via search engines), and simultaneously because I sometimes feel like I'm posting far too many reviews. For these reasons, I try to focus on products that don't seem to be reviewed on the interwebs quite as often. I've mentioned this with past product reviews, but if there's a product you want reviewed (that's gluten-free), let me know. I'll be happy to try and review it -- depending on availability in my area.

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Bag of Enjoy Life Mini Chips (semi-sweet)
Enjoy Life brand chocolate chips are vegan, gluten-free, nut-free, and soy-free, which makes them a prime candidate for review on this blog -- where a lot of my recipes try to take into account food sensitivities and preferences.

On a purely taste level, these simple chocolate chips have a lovely chocolate flavor with none of that weird aftertaste that say, Hershey's (or any number of other brands of chocolate) have that make me either want to eat more (but not actually enjoy it -- so typically American of me, at least if I'm to believe Jim Gaffigan's analysis of the American palate) to get the taste out of my mouth (because that makes sense) or leaves me feeling incredibly thirsty. I personally prefer a deeper chocolate flavor (the darker the chocolate, the better if you ask me!), but these work well for the things I use them for.

They're smooth and melt easily (sometimes too easily if you don't have air-conditioning) and because they're mini chocolate chips, they don't overwhelm delicate desserts if you're inclined to make things that need small bursts of chocolate (I don't have occasion to make these very often).

On another note the Enjoy Life website isn't the most appealing site in the world (mostly just the images of food). If I'd first encountered these chips via their website, I'd probably never have purchased them. However, that wasn't the case and at my local store, the mini chocolate chips are the only option -- though I'm interested in their chocolate chunks.

That being said, I've been trying very consciously to reduce the amount of exploitation that I enable through my purchasing decisions. These chocolates are not certified fair trade or organic. I contacted Enjoy Life about this, to find out if they're working with their supplies to ensure an enjoyable life for the chocolate workers and for the environment. Here's what they said:
Our chocolate is not fair-trade certified.  However, our supplier focuses on improving conditions for the cocoa farmers and is committed to operating in an ethical, responsible, and safe manner.  Unfortunately, at this time we are not able to source fair trade ingredients that meet our strict allergen free requirements. 
Okay, fair enough. But I still can't help but read it with a bit of skepticism. I admittedly don't know much at all about the production of chocolate and the facilities in which they produce their chocolate, but it seems like there shouldn't be much cross-contamination on the farms and plantations where at least some of the people in the cacao-to-chocolate production line work.

That being said, I'll probably continue to indulge in these chocolates from time to time.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Cheap Vegan Pesto

Basil
It's summer, which means abundant basil. I've been getting huge bags of it in my CSA share pretty consistently for the past month or so, and I can't seem to use it in enough things without making pesto. Pesto makes me think of my friend Rachael, who loves to make pesto -- and often did when we cooked together, back when we were fortunate enough to still live in the same town. Pesto's not something, before I ate it with Rachael, that I would normally eat on my own. Even with the fond pesto memories I formed with her, it's still not high on my list of things to make.

That is, until I have three half-pound bags of basil in my refrigerator. Then, pesto seems a lot more appealing. Unfortunately, traditional pesto is kinda expensive to make (especially the pine nuts) and even when you make it with walnuts -- another common variation -- it's pretty expensive.

Then, you add in the cheese (or don't) -- and the cost of it (which, for high quality organic cheese, can be pretty steep). I don't like traditional pesto with parm -- the flavor of Parmesan is something I just never learned to enjoy. Plus, if I don't include it, then I can make vegan pesto, which makes me happy because I'm toying with the idea of being a household vegan -- not eating animal products at home, but not adding that to my already long-ish list of dietary needs if someone else is feeding me. If I go that route, I'd make that choice for environmental reasons -- and I'm undecided. There's a lot of processing that can go into a vegan diet (especially regarding dairy alternatives) and it might make more sense for me to just move more strictly to a "whole foods" diet so that I'm opting for as little processing of ingredients as possible.

So, for this pesto I use raw, unsalted sunflower seeds in place of pine nuts or walnuts, and nutritional yeast in place of parm. The result is pretty good. I like it with a crack of black pepper and if I were making it just for me, instead of sharing it, I'd up the amount of garlic to 3 large cloves. This recipe is fast and easy, and makes about 16 ounces of pesto -- plenty for several meals. Store it in a well-sealed container, in the refrigerator for several days.

Cheap Vegan Pesto
3 packed cups basil, rinsed and stems removed
1/2 cup sunflower seeds, raw and unsalted
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
1/4 cup sunflower or olive oil (you can use more, but then the pesto isn't as cheap!)
2 large cloves garlic
Juice from 1/2 a lemon
2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
Water

Combine all ingredients, except water, in a blender or food processor. Begin blending, slowly adding water (or more oil), until the pesto blends easily and remains at a thick consistency. Refrigerate, and serve over whatever you like! (I like it over quinoa and piled on tomatoes).
Sunflower growing in a guerrilla garden

Monday, August 13, 2012

Polenta -- made from masa!

I spent the last year living on a very minimal budget. As in, after rent (which is modest and included utilities), I had slightly less than $200 for the month. Some months, because of odd jobs, I had a bit more. But this $200 needed to buy:
  • Gas (occasionally; mostly I bike)
  • Dog food (and her yearly vet bill) for a mid-sized dog
  • Toiletries
  • Food
Occasionally, I allowed myself treats. E and I, for instance, have made one of our housemate-bonding experiences a weekly trip to a fro-yo place where we sit and watch traffic violations and talk about our weeks, books, or television. Or, for example, sometimes I really just want to buy that GF Vegan cookie from the co-op that's so yummy, or to buy coffee out with a friend. Or I needed some article of clothing or pay an insurance. This year, there were also plane tickets -- one a mental break from my rough spring and the other to a funeral.

French Lentils with Marmalade over Masa Polenta
Fortunately, before this year, I had three years of grad school to practice living on a tight budget while still eating moderately well. If you're a regular follower of my blog, you've heard me talk about cooking on a budget before.

But now I'm probably moving soon and I'm trying to use up things I bought over the year. One of those: tamale masa. For a recent Sunday dinner, I made French lentils with orange marmalade and this polenta, made from masa -- all because these were things in my cupboard that I want (and need) to use before I move.

This is a soft polenta, but if you chill it over night, it gets pretty thick and I'm moderately sure you could make fried polenta cakes out of it (let me know how it works if you try it!). 

Masa Polenta
2 cups tamale masa
4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

In a medium-sized pot or a large pan, combine the masa, water, and salt. Turn the heat on under the pan to medium and stir constantly until the masa has thickened enough that when you drag a spoon through it, it doesn't immediately run back together (with my masa, this took about 10 minutes). Adjust salt if necessary, and grind in some black pepper. Serve.

Friday, August 10, 2012

French Lentils with Marmalade

For a recent Sunday dinner with E & Co., I decided I needed to make a serious effort to use up things I've had in my pantry. The primary targets: lentils and tamale masa.

French Lentils with Marmalade over Masa Polenta
With the masa, I made a polenta and served it under the lentils (in part, because E isn't a fan of lentils). That will (hopefully) appear in a future post.

The salty polenta base complimented the sweeter lentils nicely, but they could be served on their own, tossed on top of a salad, or be used in a variety of other ways. I selected to mix these with marmalade mostly because that's what I had on hand (inherited from E's previous roommate, actually) and I figured it would work out okay. I actually really liked the way they turned out though, which is why I'm sharing it with you.

French Lentils with Marmalade
1 cup French lentils, rinsed and drained
3 cups water
Generous pinch salt

2 tablespoons marmalade, or to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Combine the lentils, water, and salt in a pot over medium heat. Allow to simmer until the water is completely absorbed and the lentils are tender. Remove from the heat and stir in the marmalade and black pepper. Serve immediately.

Note: this also tasted good the second day, chilled. Do what makes you happy.




Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Watermelon-Basil Salad

So, as regular readers might remember, I joined a CSA (community supported agriculture) this year with the hope that, in addition to supporting the local foods movement, I would also be forced into the kitchen more to actually cook and be inventive with food, something I find hard to do when I'm only making food for myself.
Watermelon Basil Salad

To some degree this has worked -- but you've probably notice a serious lack of posts recently. That's because I've reverted back into "hm, let me just saute these veggies together that could more or less go together..." or eating raw food (which is fine, but not a particularly thrilling blog post).

Sundays are different. Sundays, I actually make real food because E and I have a couple of friends over. That inspires me to cook (or at least be slightly more creative in the kitchen). It's nice to have something that resembles a family dinner once in a while.

This past Sunday, one of our friends brought a lovely cucumber salad, and I asked our other friend who usually comes to bring a seedless watermelon so I could create a watermelon-basil salad. Cool salads sounded particularly good since we're in the middle of a hotter-than-normal period of the summer. I based this salad off the first recipes that came up on Google under "Watermelon-Basil Salad" that didn't have feta. I wanted a vegan salad.

This recipe is super flexible, so I'm not providing amounts (though I do provide estimates below the recipe if you want to start with an approximation). Some people might like basil more than others (or your particular basil might be stronger/milder). The basil I used came from my CSA and this week it was Genovese. I asked my friend to bring a seedless melon because that made my job simpler (and they're cheaper at the store this week). If you prefer (or have) seeded watermelon, use that -- just remove the seeds as much as possible in advance or give it a good stir right before serving to push any seeds that have come loose toward the bottom of the bowl.

Watermelon-Basil Salad
Seedless watermelon, cubed
Basil, chiffonaded
Salt
Ground black pepper

Place all ingredients in an appropriately sized bowl and stir well. Let rest at least 15-20 minutes and stir again before serving.

That's it! Some recipes use vegetable oil, but I don't see the point. The salt will cause the watermelon to release a lot of liquid, so you may want to opt for serving this with a slotted spoon, but that's entirely up to you. Allowing the salad to sit for 15-20 minutes provides the opportunity for flavors to mingle.

Because I told you I'd provide estimates of quantity (this could have served 6):
1/2 medium-sized seedless watermelon
1/4 cup (tightly packed) basil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Monday, August 6, 2012

USDA & Meatless Mondays, a Commentary on Eating Less Meat

As you know, I try to keep this blog fairly apolitical. If you're into politics -- food politics, environmental, social justice, etc., I encourage you to visit my other blog, Counterfeit Journalist. However, since the recent bout of news regarding reducing consumption of meat is immediately relevant to this blog, I thought I should say a few things about it. There is no recipe today, but if you're new to my blog and are looking for meatless ideas, I encourage you to browse my recipes.

***

Pigs in a CAFO
If you've been paying attention to news in America at any point during the past two weeks, you've probably heard about the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) "recommendation" that people (well, USDA employees) could reduce their toll on the environment by eating less meat. (If you haven't followed the news, the Huffington Post sums it up nicely here and I'm not going to bother repeating most things repeated there.). Surprise, surprise, various lobbies with an interest in meat production/consumption immediately lashed out (that is, after all, what lobbyists are paid to do) and the USDA retracted the statement.

Let's talk though, for a few minutes, about Meatless Mondays -- or more generally, about eating less meat. Regardless of whether you choose to eat less (or no) meat because you want to reduce your cholesterol, be nice to non-human animals, or shrink your carbon footprint, eating less meat is a kind thing to do for yourself and for the planet. The average American eats just shy of 200 pounds of meat per year. That's a lot of meat. And a lot of (mostly) corn* that meat is eating. And a lot of water used keeping that meat hydrated and it's living area clean.

So, even if you don't care to shrink your carbon footprint, reduce your cholesterol, or be kinder to the planet maybe, at least for now, it's a good idea to eat less meat because more than half the counties in the United States are disaster areas because of drought. Depending on who you choose to believe, between 441 (the beef industry) and 2,400 (PETA) gallons of water are used to produce each pound of meat. Let's settle on the number 1,800 gallons which is more or less the number that most (non-special interest) groups use.

To put that in perspective, a 1000** pound cow uses enough water to completely fill two Olympic sized swimming pools and partially fill a third.

That's a lot of water.

Laying Operation Chickens
I'd like to point out that it's not like skipping meat once a week is something you have to do for the rest of your life if you don't want to (though I suspect after the initial period where you break old habits you'll discover you don't miss it like you think you will). I used to date someone who believed he couldn't stay full if he didn't eat meat ("Let me introduce you to this funny little thing called fiber. Let's try eating unprocessed foods..."). His best friend was a "weekday vegetarian." The bestie and I repeatedly explained to my old boyfriend how we could live without meat. We demonstrated it at restaurants and at his house. It never sank in.

My housemate now, E, pretty much only eats meat when she goes out for a meal. This gets to the idea of meat as a treat, or meat as a condiment. Maybe, for you -- or your loved one -- it's time to think about just reducing meat consumption in different ways*** and opting for more sustainable options (like pasture-raised meat).

And as for the argument that sustainable options cost more. Well, yes. But study just came out that said that if we factor in the hidden costs of beef (it didn't address other meats as thoroughly), the average hamburger**** would cost $1.50 more. Most sustainable options are not subsidized (if you want smaller government, you shouldn't want subsidized food sources. Btw.) and also factor in the "true" costs of raising those animals.
Black Angus on a Feed Lot
My point in telling you this isn't to guilt you. If you're reading this blog, you either already know most or all of  these things or you're at least curious. My point isn't to preach my lifestyle and personal views (though again, if you want to see that, hop over to my other blog). My point is be part of the conversation about reducing American meat consumption -- which was my point in starting this blog to begin with. And I'd like you to join that conversation too.

*For animals raised in CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations).
**This is an estimate for an average female black Angus, at butchering time, and does not account for the reduction in weight at hanging (i.e. - when viscera, etc has been removed), which apparently reduces the weight by about 62%
***Though I'd argue if you want a planet to live on -- or for the next generation, you stop making excuses and give up meat. It's an irresponsible choice in the way Americans (and others too, but American food habits are what I can speak to with authority) raise and consume meat animals and it's killing the planet.
****They chose burgers because the average American eat three burgers a week.


Butchered Hogs

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Oat Groat and Lentil Salad with Raisins, Carrot, and Spring Onion

For Sunday dinner a few weeks ago, with E and two of our friends, I wanted something that would 1) be cool(ish) since it's been pretty warm outside and 2) use up some of the pantry staples I've got on hand. This led to a quick evaluation of my pantry and noticing that I had half a bag of lentils and a lot of oat groats. I've written about oat groats before, but in case you're new to the blog and to groats, they're the unprocessed oat and cook up similar to barley or brown rice, texture wise.

In my local grocery stores, groats have also been cheaper than brown rice of late and although they don't combine with lentils or beans to create a complete protein, for most people that's not really a problem -- most of us get plenty of protein (granted with vegetarians and vegans, this can be a bit of a problem). Lately, I'm not concerned about it, because I've been making my many smoothies with vanilla soy milk (great grocery store special) and so I'm getting a fair amount of protein there, and in other places.

I baked the groats, despite the extra heat that would cause, because it meant I could also go walk the dog. You can cook them on the stove top, but this might result in them breaking up a bit more (and looking more like normal oatmeal). Aside from cooking the groats and lentils, this salad comes together quickly and can be eaten warm -- I do recommend allowing it to chill overnight though, if you've got the spare time, because it allows the flavors to blend. Do not reheat it!

This recipe was inspired by a different grain-and-lentil salad I used to make frequently just after moving to Iowa, and a salad I recently tried, from a grocery store near the coast.

The raisins add a nice sweet bite from time to time, the carrot some extra crunch, and the onion really draws the whole salad together. If you're garlic-squeamish, you can leave it out (scape season, after all, is really short), but I like the complexity it adds. The chipotle adds a slight smokey note without really adding spice.

Oat Groat and Lentil Salad with Raisins, Carrot, and Spring Onion
1 cup uncooked oat groats
2 1/2 cups water
1/2 teaspoon salt
Pinch red pepper flakes

1 cup uncooked whole lentils
2 cups water
1 tablespoon dried oregano (preferably Mexican)
1 tablespoon chipotle paste*
1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup raisins
1 large carrot, diced
1/2 cup spring (or green) onion, chopped (greens only)
1 teaspoon garlic scape, slivered (or 1/2 teaspoon fresh garlic, minced)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Place the oat groats, 2 1/2 cups water, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and red pepper flakes into an oven-safe baking dish that can be covered. Cover and bake at 400 degrees for 30-45 minutes, or until groats are "to the tooth."

Meanwhile, on the stovetop, add 1 cup lentils, 2 cups water, and dried oregano to a small pot. Simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until lentils are tender and most of the water has been absorbed. Stir in the chipotle paste and salt. Remove from heat.

In a medium-sized bowl, combine raisins, carrot, onion, garlic scape, and lemon juice. Add the cooked, and slightly cooled, groats and lentils, and stir to combine. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes, preferably overnight, before serving.

*Chipotle paste: I take tinned chipotles and blender them all at once, then store in an air-tight container in the refrigerator to use as needed.

(sorry for no picture this time)