It might be drawing closer to summer time, but Scotland operates on its own weather system. We can be basking in glorious sunshine of a lunchtime, and by home time be marching at an angle against a torrent of rain.

When it is actually nice outside, eating habits change too. Apart from a year-round soup obsession, I don’t like eating anything hot ‘n heavy when it’s warm. Chocolate is out the window too- seriously, is there anything worse than warm, slightly melty chocolate? Blarg.

I figured that since I’ve been getting into the spirit of trying new things that I should update seasonally. If it’s not macaroni weather I need to adapt to survive. After a recent shopping trip, the boy and I returned with a bag full of mango, melon, raspberries and strawberries, all in season and entirely delicious.

(If we sound like a pair of smug dicks, let me assure you: this is only a very recent occurrence). There really is a marked difference in buying fresh produce seasonally: there’s something weird and perverse about buying strawberries at any other time of year. I’d also picked up vegan onion and black pepper cream cheese, and I was determined to use it in EVERYTHING.

I came up with a really quick and easy comfort food, because as usual I couldn’t be bothered cooking. I spread the cream cheese on rye toast and topped it with some mashed avocado and cherry tomatoes, which I seasoned with cayenne pepper and paprika. I couldn’t get it in my face fast enough, and alas, it was gone too soon.

After this I wondered what else I could work cream cheese into. I had a notion for something pasta-y, and the most popular seasonal recipe I found was pasta primavera (I remembered enough of my Standard Grade Italian to know why this was suddenly popular. And who says you forget everything after school?).

Some recipes just involved pasta and green vegetables. As per, I didn’t have all of the ingredients to hand so just adapted it and swapped out some things for others. There were other recipes for a creamy version involving cheese, which I opted for in lieu of having asparagus or soya beans handy.

I’ve been trying hard to try new things but when taking on a big change, some degree of familiarity is nice. The recipe itself is a change for me: macaroni aside, I’ve never been a fan of creamy sauces. To me you can’t go wrong with a tomato-based sauce. Cheese and white sauces always seemed like more work. But since I’m out of my comfort zone as it is, I thought I’d give it a try…

It's pretty hard to take a decent picture of food this colour...

It’s pretty hard to take a decent picture of food this colour…

  • 150g pasta (I used gluten free conchiglie, because it was the only gluten free one I could find in Tesco’s )
  • 1 or 2 ripe avocado, mashed
  • A few scoops of vegan cream cheese (mine was onion and black pepper to give it some much needed flavouring)
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • ½ red pepper deseeded and chopped
  • Meat free chicken (about 70g is enough, I have no idea how much I used since I dumped in what was left of the bag)
  • 2 tsps Very Lazy Smoked Garlic
  • A wee glug of olive oil
  • Some grated smoked vegan cheese
  • 1 spring onion, chopped

Boil the pasta as per the packet instructions. Gluten free takes a little longer so you have some time to play with.

In the meantime, chop the onion and pepper. Heat the oil, add the ‘chicken’ and one tsp of garlic. After about 2-3 minutes, add the onion, pepper and remaining garlic. Most recipes call for garlic gloves, but I like the smoked taste of this one. And also don’t have a garlic crusher. Ever tried doing it by hand? They smell rank afterwards and you never get it chopped up small enough.

Fry up the veg and chicken until soft. Mash the cream cheese in with the avocado and season well. I also added some cayenne pepper, to add some edge to the creaminess. When the veg and chicken are nearly done, scatter in the smoked cheese and stir until melted.

Once your pasta’s ready, chuck it all together and mix it over a low heat. I also sprinkled some raw spring onion through it once it was cooked, just to make it a wee bit crunchy.

The results? This was a pretty easy recipe, although in hindsight I would’ve made some changes. I used two avocadoes as they were both on the turn and I had to cut bits out. I reckon one might have been enough. I’d have added some more fresh chillies too, or at the very least more pepper.

There are more traditional recipes for pasta primavera that don’t involve cream cheese, and I’d be inclined to just ditch it altogether to make the final result a little lighter. However, it was a nice wee filler and a change from my usual. I also think I’m starting to find uses for the vegan smoked cheese!

When I first started the 30 Day Vegan Challenge, I really wasn’t sure how it was going to go. I’d given it a try years ago, and it was doomed to failure from the start. I was a poor student, in college by day and working most nights in a bar. I didn’t have time to cook- and if I did, I was more interested in being 20 and living in the city centre.

The pledge seemed like the ideal way to get back on the bandwagon. I’m now working full time, and I recently signed up for the Race for Life Pretty Muddy 5K. Although I’d cut out meat, my diet was still pretty unhealthy. I ate well enough during the week- albeit with a lot of buttery toast involved- but at weekends, anything went. My skin was breaking out and, as my job was pretty sedentary, I didn’t feel I was getting enough exercise to justify my eating habits.

I decided a full overhaul was the answer: one exercise class a week wasn’t going to cut it. I also smoked too much- I could have three before even getting to work at 9am. It seemed a bit daunting at first but it was either whole hog or not at all. Go big or go home. It was for my health, after all. I did my research, and the more I read, the more my resolve was strengthened. My first couple of attempts at cooking went well enough but the first two weeks were admittedly difficult.

It got easier when I realised there are vegan alternatives to pretty much EVERYTHING.

Then something happened- I started to enjoy cooking. After feeling pretty sluggish, my body eventually got used to the onslaught of fruit, veg and protein I was piling into it. The more thought I put into what I was eating, the more inventive I got. In the (relatively) brief time I’ve been doing this, I’ve tried a lot of new things and never gone hungry. I’ve overhauled the way I ate and thought about food, but still found time to treat myself. Here’s a quick rundown of what I’ve learned…

  1. Speculate to Accumulate

The initial outlay of ingredients seemed like a lot especially the week before payday. However, if you’re clever, you won’t need to top up too much. You can buy most things in bulk from supermarkets if you’re pushed for time, although independent stalls are usually cheaper. The boy and I scored a bursting bag full of soup ingredients for a mere £6- and the fresher vegetables made our giant pot o’ soup taste even better.

  1. …But You Probably Have A lot Already

Even if you don’t follow a vegan diet, you’ll probably have most of the staples at home: grains, oils, pasta, rice, seasoning, spices and vegetables. A lot of supermarket bread is vegan too, as are a lot of pre-packaged soups and ready-made Indian and Chinese foods. The big supermarkets publish online lists of all their own-brand products which are suitable for vegans, so have a wee read- you’ve probably got a lot already.

Dairy-free alternatives to your usual staples are cheaper and more widely available than ever... it's a big pot btw, I just have giant hands.

Dairy-free alternatives to your usual staples are cheaper and more widely available than ever… it’s a big pot btw, I just have giant hands.

  1. Search and Research

Even if you know a lot of recipes already there’s still a treasure trove out there. A quick internet search yields thousands of results and there are plenty of resources out there. I signed up for the PETA Vegetarian and Vegan Starter kit, which has some great wee articles, recipes and tips for beginners.

Becoming Vegan is a good handbook to have as it’s really in depth, but it’s a bit like a school textbook: good to dip into but perhaps not cover to cover. I also like The Post Punk Kitchen, One Green Planet and Domestic Sluttery. Look for local bloggers too: they’ve often got inside tips for good places around your hometown.

  1. Choose Your Own Adventure

I don’t usually have much of a middle ground. If I take on something new, I’m all in or not at all. The faster I throw myself into something, the more I see results and acclimatise myself to a new way of thinking. However, this approach isn’t for everyone: it might be that you start by cutting out dairy, or only eating vegan during the week.

Whatever the approach, once you get used to something, cast your net a little wider. I started increasing the amount and variety of exercising that I did. Don’t get me wrong, it still hurts- I’m currently sitting here in pain after a double assault yesterday- but I feel like I’ve got far more energy to get through it in the first place.

  1. Smile Like You Mean It

Most of all, whatever your approach, just enjoy it. Do some reading, stockpile enough ingredients and before long cooking actually becomes less of a chore. From eating raw Pop Tarts and anything cheese laden, I now love spending a full afternoon chopping up vegetables (I know, right? I’d hate me too). Exercise has become an enhancement to my routine, not a burden.

I’ve cut down on smoking because I’ve realised how gross they actually taste. Above all my general health and well-being has improved too. I’ve even managed to semi-convert the family: after having the “what will you actually eat?” conversation, my mum took some of my spicy butternut squash soup to work and it went down a treat. I’ll take that as a victory.

So I’m now two weeks into my 30 day vegan challenge, and I have to say it’s been far easier than I thought. Aside from the extra preparation and cooking time, it hasn’t got in the way of daily life at all. In fact, I actually enjoy the cooking process now… I always liked baking for other people’s birthdays or for friends and family coming round.

Ally and I would make an occasion of concocting epic feasts: putting on huge spreads of Mexican food or making marinades from scratch because we drunkenly picked up reduced sea bass (definitely one of our better post-pints food purchases). However, when it came to cooking for myself… well, I just didn’t really. More often than not, the limit of my creativity involved mixing three different kinds of cereal together. One time I even ate a raw Pop Tart. I just never saw the point when it was just for me.

I suppose my one culinary saving grace was that I was never into convenience foods. My mum drilled the evils of microwave cooking and ready meals into me from a young age, and even when I did try them I didn’t like them. There’s also not much in the way of convenience or junk food readily available for vegans: I’m sure such things exist, but perhaps not in your standard supermarket frozen aisle.

Nowadays I’ve noticed that I can actually think up recipes with relative ease. If I pick up a block of tofu or some pasta, the possibilities are endless. Mostly because tofu tastes like absolutely nothing and as such is the best starting block for ANYTHING. As I said in my last post, everything I make consists of throwing things together and adding some spices.

*sniff* it’s so pretty…

I was racking my brain on my last shopping trip, following the boy around like a bored child when I picked up some Nando’s BBQ Chicken Rub out of curiosity and discovered- ta daaa!- that it’s accidentally vegan. A couple of shelves along, I found gluten free pasta sauce. One of my favourite ‘throw together’ dinners involved Cajun spiced Quorn chicken, so I thought I’d see how I got on with being more experimental with it. The results? Pretty damn good. Here’s what I chucked in…

Cajun BBQ Marinated Tofu Pasta

150g of wholewheat pasta

120g block of Cauldron Tofu

1 packet of Nando’s BBQ Chicken Rub

1 210g carton of Heinz Gluten Free Tomato & Basil Sauce

2 tbsps of Cajun marinade (I used Asda’s own brand)

1 avocado, de-stoned and diced

½ red pepper, diced

½ orange pepper, diced

½ green pepper, diced

½ red onion, chopped

A handful of chestnut mushrooms (however many that may be), sliced

5 or 6 cherry tomatoes, quartered (I used on the vine ones, for no reason other than they were cheaper)

A variety of spices (such as cayenne pepper, chili flakes, Cajun spices, Jamaican Jerk spices etc)

  • Drain and press the tofu according to packet instructions, then cut it into chunks. Give it a right good rub with the Nando’s powder, and add some Cajun marinade as well. Leave it for a while to soak in- however long depends how much you want it to taste like anything!
  • Put the pasta on the boil. While you’re waiting for the tofu to marinade, add a teeny drop of oil to the mushrooms and rub some of the spices into the mushrooms and avocado.
  • Fry the tofu in some oil for about 6 minutes. Add all the vegetables and whatever spices you choose, give them a good stir and fry them until the vegetables are soft.
  • Stir in the sauce and leave it to simmer while you’re draining out the pasta.
  • When it’s done, stir it all together and resist trying to eat the whole damn lot in one sitting. If it’s any incentive, it tastes even better after a day in the fridge- and better still after a day in the fridge after two hours in the gym.

Again, this was just a potluck attempt at making a substantial dinner, and I didn’t actually have a recipe in mind to follow. I wanted further practice at making tofu as well, as I’d only made it once. Thankfully it was an improvement on my last attempt and I wasn’t even jealous of the boy’s amazing-smelling paella. Well. Maybe a little.

We might have got better at cooking, but we still suck at portion control.

On a final note: I bought vegan cheese a week ago which smelled so awful I couldn’t bring myself to use it. I got home late last-ish last night after a long day at work and a trip to The Fort, I wasn’t in the mood for cooking and was faced with a near-bare fridge… apart from the dreaded vegan cheese.

I can now confirm that it’s not the worst thing if you stir it in with some beans and have it on toast. Voila! Easy vegan comfort food, without having to microwave anything. Or waste money throwing away gross, sick-smelling vegan cheese.

I’ll be honest, as much as I hadn’t found the vegan challenge too hard so far, I was dreading this weekend. I usually eat fairly healthily during the week (…ish), but would usually allow myself the weekend off if I wanted. Cooked breakfasts, takeaways, hangover comfort foods- usually involving copious amounts of chocolate and carbs- were all order of the day. It’s easy enough to impose restraint with a working schedule in place, but I was a little apprehensive about coping without it.

I was feeling a little guilty for ditching exercise on Thursday to go hang out with the boy, but after nodding off on the bus home and feeling like I’d never catch up on my sleep deficit, I felt it was justified. After work (and a couple of post-work drinks) I couldn’t really be bothered actually cooking, but thankfully managed to knock together something reasonably healthy from ready meals (I know, right?). They’re not something I tend to eat a lot of, but I figured a vegan option was better than most.

I mixed falafel with butternut squash and bulgar wheat, even chucking in some extra peppers and vegetables to ease myself of nasty ready meal guilt. All in all, not too bad an effort, considering my lack of effort. The boy’s made a garlic baguette which was eyeing me seductively, but I managed to banish it by concentrating really hard on an episode of Fringe.

If there’s one thing I’ve found so far, it’s that I’m definitely eating way more fruit and vegetables now. I always made some effort before, but always felt slightly embarrassed when people assumed I was a healthy eater.

“So you must eat really well being a vegetarian, right? Do you eat like salads and pulses and seeds and things?”

“Umm, my favourite kind of salad is potato”

Determination to keep on track strengthened my decision to get the last bus home on Saturday night and bypass all manner of delicious fast food outlets- well, determination and the all-too-recent memories of last week’s Bank Holiday spent in a realm of pain and nausea.

I woke up bright and early on Sunday, eager to make up for my Thursday night laziness. I’ll say one thing though- two classes back to back would’ve been killer for me before, but even worse with a mere nakd bar as my morning’s fuel. Cue a surge of adrenaline followed by extreme pain and severe overestimation of my abilities.

I’m still not one for ‘gym selfies’ and ‘progress pics’, but I wanted proof that I’d actually made it there on a Sunday. No one who knows me would probably believe it.

I did manage the impossible task though- I made it through a visit to my nan’s, diet unscathed. To put it into context, it’s nearly impossible to leave my nan’s house without being fed. I’m pretty sure it was easier to leave East Germany to smuggle information to the west. If you’re offered a ‘wee biscuit’, you will be presented with a tin full of Kit Kat Chunkies. Tempting, yes, but I’d also spent the extra pennies and effort to pick up rye bread (mmm, chewy) and monkey-friendly peanut butter, and I was determined it was getting used.

Due to my complete lack of awareness for portion control, I’d also made too much of my tofu and bean salad from Thursday, which when smooshed in with some mixed grains was a pretty filling dinner. All the different ingredients made it really nice and colourful, and leaving it in the fridge for two days meant all the flavours had marinated into the tofu: disguised the really weird smoked taste really well, plus it looked super pretty (not that you could tell from my picture).

I’m also hoping my food photography will improve, as this was really lovely and colourful, but I just wanted to eat it, hence the slightly crap picture.

All in all it’s been a relatively pain-free transition so far: my biggest complaint has been the initial outlay of money. Eating fresh means things go off quickly, so I feel like I’m constantly buying extra wee bits. I also felt really bloated and uncomfortable from the sudden onslaught of fruit, vegetables and grains. Keeping up with exercise helped, and I’m sure it’s just my body realising that it’s not as accustomed to healthy foods as I originally thought…  at the very least it’s made me more conscious of checking ingredients for signs of crap, and that can only be a good thing! My boyfriend also thoughtfully bought me a vegetarian cookbook (there weren’t any vegan ones to be found), so at least I’ve got some more ideas should I get sick of grains ‘n curds.

One final note: vegan smoked cheese has the consistency of a plastic block and tastes like sick. I’m now on the lookout for a suitable replacement as no amount of determination and lying to myself can hide the fact that it is utterly rank.

After a very encouraging start yesterday, I spent yesterday doing my research, downloading recipes and mentally planning where I could buy everything. Working full time, it seems like a lot to fit in cooking and preparing lunches for the week, although I know in the long run it’s going to cost me less- both financially and time-wise.

I got a two week vegan menu plan from PETA.org, but it was from the American site so a lot of it’s gonna be either hard or impossible to find- or I wouldn’t want to use it anyway (canola oil, anyone?). Most of it looks like a case for clever substitution though, so I’m hoping it won’t be too difficult. In any case, who ever said a challenge was easy?

Armed with a plastic folder full of recipes, I headed to Asda and was pleasantly surprised at how cheaply I managed to pick up what I needed. I’d found this tex mex bean recipe on Domestic Sluttery but, as it was dinner time, wanted something a bit more substantial. I also wanted to practise my tofu making skills and add a kick, so I got a block of Cauldron smoked, firm tofu and substituted black beans and olive oil for kidney beans in chilli sauce. I usually douse most dinners in a healthy glug of chipotle sauce, so any alternative is entirely welcome.

I’d been dismayed to find out that two of my favourite cheeky weekend treats- Kopparberg cider and Crabbie’s Alcoholic Ginger Beer- aren’t vegan, and Kopparberg isn’t even vegetarian. Apparently they use gelatine in the filtration process, which made me hit the absolute boak. Thankfully Rekorderlig cider is fully vegan, and I found a plentiful supply. It can never be said that I don’t know how to prioritise!

It was with a heavy heart that I had to walk by a lonely Camembert in the reduced to clear section (weep) and the smell of the boy’s meat feast pizza in the oven was almost too much. And I didn’t even eat meat in the first place! The preparation process took my mind off such things though. I think if I were doing it every night, with stock piled ingredients, it’d be fine. After all, this was just a practise run. I actually think it turned out pretty well, and my pizza cravings were banished when I saw our dinners side by side!

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It was far more filling than I thought and there was still more than half left over. It might even taste a bit better now that the tofu has had time to sook up all the added spices. I’ve had it before, but I always expect it to taste like Quorn chicken and I’m always a little disappointed when it doesn’t.

Major food shopping is going to have to wait until the weekend when I have access to the car, so today I decided to give my system a wee break and ease up on the full-on fibre and protein assault. I found Alpro Soya yogurts for the same price as regular yogurts, and picked up some Nakd bars for a sweet treat. I was already a fan of them, and as long as I drop any pretence that they resemble chocolate in any way, I think we’ll get along fine.

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