Brownies and Cashews and Dates, Oh My

While I was never one for cooking, I used to bake all the time. Whether it was a birthday, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Thursday… there was something about the progress I enjoyed, and always went down a treat. It helped when I couldn’t think of what to get someone, and everyone appreciates home made cake, right?

cakey

I’d tried my hand at gluten free baking before, and it turned out pretty well- my mum was having some friends round at Christmas time and I had various intolerances to work with. There wasn’t a crumb left, but thankfully I’d used some of my excess batter to make cupcakes.

cakeys

I made my dad cookies and a birthday cake, with two different kinds of frosting. For my boyfriend’s birthday I’d sprung for two tickets to see The Cure in London, so in order to save pennies I made Valentine’s Day muffins. If there was an occasion, I would bake for it, I guess is my point.

Vegan baking should’ve been a relatively easy transition, but there was a reason why baking was always a cheap alternative: I pretty much had all of the staples at home anyway. I just had to add embellishments. Vegan baking meant buying in a whole load of new ingredients, and from the offset it seemed like it could be pretty costly. Alot of cake recipes seemed pretty oil-heavy too, which I wasn’t keen on.

When my best gal Claire asked folks to bring along food-shaped treats for Sheri‘s surprise birthday, I was a little stumped. Surely most folk’s instincts would be to bring sweet thangs? Should I just bring hummus? Does anyone like ‘that guy’?

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After agonising over some recipes I’d printed off, it hit me. I’d pretty much perfected my ol’ brownie recipe. I’d always managed to nail the crust on top/chewy on the inside ratio. Adapting it to a raw, vegan recipe was just crazy enough to work. I’d also found a three-layer cake recipe which I, umm, borrowed my idea for a base from. Not only that but it tasted exactly like a Nakd Cashew Cookie bar, meaning I’ve stumbled upon a way of saving myself a fortune. A little late and unsurprising, really- the Nakd bars have all of two ingredients. Why I never thought that before, I dunno.

These aren't the vegan brownies- they were gone so fast I didn't manage to get a picture. Which can only be a good complaint, no?

These aren’t the vegan brownies- they were gone so fast I didn’t manage to get a picture. Which can only be a good complaint, no?

I wasn’t sure about flavour combos: when making brownies before, I’d tossed in some cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg. But I’d also tossed in eggs and milk. Without this, or actually baking the recipe, the dark chocolate taste was pretty strong. Then I remembered I had some peanut butter to use up and raspberries are in season, so PB&J it was. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all.

PB&J Raw Vegan Brownies

For the base: 

100g(ish) dates

150g cashews

Desiccated coconut (optional, but damn tasty)

1 tbsp peanut butter

For the Brownies:

150g coconut oil

150g cocoa powder

1 punnet of raspberries

2 tbsps peanut butter (or however much you want, really)

100g(ish) dates (I could’ve used more than I did, but I’d only bought one packet so…)

  • Soak the dates and cashews in some warm water for at least 20 minutes to soften them a wee bit (in separate bowls, that is).
  • Chop the dates to make it easier to blitz, and mix them with the cashews and coconut. Give it a good seeing to with a hand blender- any blender is fine, but I only have a hand blender, and it’s easier to gauge consistency.
  • Stir in the peanut butter to retain its crunchiness, mix well and spread the whole lot in a tray. Put it in the fridge or freezer until it sets. Mine didn’t set properly because I added the chocolate mix too quickly, so don’t rush it.
  • Put some hot water in a bowl, and put your coconut oil in a jug. Put the jug in the bowl until the oil has completely melted, or it’ll be weird and lumpy.
  • Put the cocoa powder in a bowl with the dates, and add the coconut oil. Give them a quick blend until they’re all nicely mixed.
  • Toss in the raspberries and peanut butter and blend until they’re as smooth as you like.
  • I tossed the raspberries in some sugar before adding a couple of teaspoons in. If it’s a wee bit on the bitter side, vanilla extract or liquid sweetener will sort that right oot.
  • Spread on top of the (hopefully now set) cashew base and leave in the fridge until firm. Sprinkle some icing sugar over the top, cut it into squares and try not to eat the whole goddamn tray.

As I said before, I didn’t leave my base to set for long enough. It wasn’t a total disaster as I flipped the brownies and claimed it was frosting, but I’ll definitely leave it longer next time- I just didn’t leave myself enough time to do so.

Vegan About Town: Stereo, Glasgow

We had a pretty expensive time of it during April and May: a whole host of gigs came up within weeks of one another, and we ended up averaging about two a week.

I kept meaning to go and do a proper food shop during the month, but funds just kept getting diverted elsewhere. When June rolled around, it was a relief. Some time off from social engagements. But what to do with the time?

It’s good for the soul, every now and then, to do a little exploring further afield. To step out of your comfort zone and take in some culture. Saturday was mostly spent in a post-wine haze (although after braving a Tesco trip, I rustled up a damn fine vegan hangover breakfast). It was teeming down with rain and we had dog-sitting to do, so we decided Sunday would be our day for action.

This wee face demanded full attention, rain be damned. Except when he wanted to go walkies. In the rain.

This wee face demanded full attention, rain be damned. Except when he wanted to go walkies. In the rain.

Rather than stick to the city centre, we ventured west for the West End Festival parade. It rained on and off, but it certainly didn’t deter the swarms. It hit us as soon as we stepped off of the underground, and a romantic stroll down sunny Byres Road was a fool’s errand. Weans with balloons and street performers stretched as far as the eye could see. The smell of food from street stalls hung in the air, but sadly nothing vegan-shaped crossed my path.

Took some selfless, bought some comics and blu-rays, probably missed the point of the festival.

Took some selfies, decided we hated crowds, bought some comics and blu-rays and probably missed the point of the festival.

After ducking into Fopp and City Centre Comics to escape the crowd, we headed to Brew Dog. It wasn’t, as we thought, far enough from the main drag to be quiet. A quick glance at the menu revealed a hefty vegan haul (all of their side dishes, plus at least one main), which will definitely be due further investigation once festival madness has dwindled.

Et tu, Brew Dog. We'll see you on payday.

Et tu, Brew Dog. We’ll see you on payday.

We made our way back to the city centre relatively unscathed, and conveniently found ourselves feeling hungry within strolling distance of Stereo. It always comes up whenever ‘vegan scran’ is mentioned, unsurprising given that it’s still not that big of a market. However, I’d only been in once for food (their Monday Sharing Platter tapas deal is pretty epic), and Ally is decidedly un-vegan.

I had my work cut out for me. We’d went to Tchai Ovna a few months before, and as much as I love it, the falafel-to-salad ratio left us still feeling hungry. And quite a bit poorer.  I sold Stereo on it being cheap, cheerful, plentiful (again, my opinion was based on hunners of tapas so it was a risk) and, more importantly, close by.

Stereo was probably the quietest I’ve ever seen it- usually it’s a struggle to get a table- and we got seated right away. I was intrigued by the special of vegan black pudding, but not enough to try it. What would vegan black pudding be? Burnt vegetable bits from the bottom of the oven? Answers on a postcard please… we both settled for the safe option of falafel. It’s the one vegan option that most carnivores can happily settle for, and one you can’t really get too badly wrong.

The falafel sandwich, with added chips, works out to a mere £6.50– not too shabby. It also comes with a healthy smear of houmous and a side salad that was actually tasty, rather than just a limp sprinkle of leaves. The real test of any place, however, is the chips. Nothing lets down a decent scran like tasteless, frozen chips- and these did not let me down. They were proper home-made efforts, a little bit burnt in some bits and perfectly fluffy inside. Just like my nan makes. Well done, Stereo.

There was a slight mix up with our order- when our waiter brought it over, he was chased by a barmaid who needed some convincing that they weren’t for another table. I’ve had the same problem when working in hospitality, but mostly during busy shifts. I’ll chalk it up to being Sunday. Sunday shifts are the utter worst. We also only got one teeny pot of ketchup between two of us- for a sauce fiend like me, this involved some serious rationing. What’s wrong with a full bottle- or at least, a bigger ramekin?

Lack of sauce aside, it was pretty damn tasty and filled us up without feeling overly stuffed.  I finished mine off in no time, and was amazed to see that the boy had left all but the crispy, skelfy end chips too (which, conveniently, are my favourites. Success all round).

Both full, we headed homewards to dive into our comic book and blu-ray haul. After all it had been a pretty long day, and we’d managed to achieve what we set out to do. It’s good to get out of the comfort zone, but sometimes it’s just as good to dive back in.

Junky

I first started this blog as a way of keeping myself on the right track. Mostly because I know myself too well: if something isn’t written down, or organised in list form, I will fall apart like a bad sandwich.

Back in February, I left my diary on the train and had absolutely no idea where I was supposed to be and when. Thankfully balance was restored when some kind soul handed it in to Stirling train station- whoever it was has no idea how much they actually saved my brain for meltdown.

So, as you can imagine, taking on an entire lifestyle change was going to need some kind of documentation- for no other reason than to remember why I was doing it (and that I was actually doing it in the first place). I posted my blog on Twitter, as is the done thing these days- but given that I didn’t use it quite as much as other platforms, I didn’t have any aspirations for it.

Since then, the response has been pretty amazing. I’ve connected with loads of similarly minded people, not just online but locally too. Local bloggers are always great because they have insider tips, know about places you haven’t discovered and it’s a really great wee support network to have.

Still, I could never have expected that my wee blog would end up on a local news site! A Twitter alert from the Glasvegans profile informed me that my review of the Handmade Burger Co. had got a mention on the STV Glasgow page. The page offers a daily, live rundown of everything happening in Glasgow from restaurant openings, events, pubs, clubs and everything in between, and even just being a tiny part of that was pretty cool- thanks for the mention, guys! Put me in a right good mood in time for Nine Inch Nails at the Hydro.

The whole two pictures I took came out blurry and terrible, but if you’re at a NIN gig and concerned with taking pictures, you don’t deserve to be there.

When you’re adjusting to a big lifestyle change, it can seem really daunting. It’s not as simple as just cutting something out: when I first went vegetarian at 16, I didn’t eat vegetables, I just… didn’t eat meat. Pasta, chips, rolls and potato scone- I convinced myself that because it wasn’t meaty, it was fine. Then got confused over why I had actually put on weight…

Taking on a vegan diet has been a huge adaptation- even for someone like me who didn’t eat much dairy in the first place. Most of your evenings seem to be taken up either buying fresh food or cooking it (often both). Take it from me: it does get easier. If you’ve got a good support network around you it’s relatively painless.After a while it just seems like a natural part of the routine.

However, it’s hard being pious all the time, and I would’ve found the transition much harder if I couldn’t still have the odd treat. Here are my top five accidentally vegan junk foods that have got me through a none-too-easy month…

  1. Oreos

Finding out that Oreos are safe is like Vegan 101. It’s the one thing everyone knows, and they can’t wait to tell you.

“You’re vegan? Did you know Oreos are vegan?”

Well, if I didn’t, I certainly do now. And if that’s the case, double stuff Oreos must be doubly vegan. I’ve tested this theory under contained scientific conditions (i.e. not sharing) and can confirm the results are delicious.

It even made up for the non-vegan white fudge coated efforts that we picked up in an American candy store, for an exorbitant fee. I usually avoid American candy- no ingredients list should be that long- but after my first motorway drive, I felt they were earned. Ah, well. More double stuffs for me!

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For the full effect, I can only ever have it in my Hello Kitty water bottle. Because adult.

  1. Hello Kitty Chocolate Milkshake

I actually picked this up a while ago, before embarking upon the road of all things vegan. It was my boyfriend’s 30th and I picked it up as a post-party hangover treat. It worked wonders. I was never a fan of the super-artificial tasting Nesquik, so I’m always a bit sceptical of milkshake powders. Basically my logic was no Frijj, no dice.

The Hello Kitty powder is suitable for coeliacs, therefore dairy free, and it lasts for aaaages… unless you have one as a night time treat, every night, like I did. I’ve seen a lot of legitimately nutritious recipes involving cocoa powder and for Kitty’s sake I’m determined to try at least one in the near future.

  1. Lindt 70% Dark Chocolate

Dark chocolate is usually on the Safe List as long as it’s got a high percentage of cocoa. There’s still always an opportunity for error- as I found out after eating a bar of their Blueberry Intense– but the regular, no fancy additions chocolate is safe.

The higher the percentage, the more bitter it is too, which makes it harder to eat a huge amount. Always good when the bars are relatively small but still packed full of calories… I managed to make mine last a couple of days, and that was including work and gym visits. Which totally justified eating another wee amount afterwards, and another wee amount after that.

  1. Tyrell’s Vegetable Crisps

My former crisp of choice was Walkers’ Sensations, particularly the Thai Sweet Chilli variety. I always erred on the side of caution with them, though: their poppadoms contain pork powder and the thyme roasted chicken ones have chicken powder in ‘em. The Thai Sweet Chilli ones don’t have any nasty meaty bits, but they do contain milk.

In earnest, I began searching for a new crisp, and found vegetable ones. They’re slightly salted, which usually equals boring, right? Nuh uh. They contain a mix of beetroot, parsnip and sweet potato crisps meaning they’re naturally full of flavour. A word of warning, though- eat them alone. Any attempts to lick the bottom of the bag may result in an unsightly purple face. Damned beetroots.

  1. Starburst

For years, I assumed that all chewy sweets were the enemy. Haribo were out, as were the occasional treat of M&S Percy Pigs (in a cruel and ironic twist, they contain pork gelatine). M&S upped their game with Veggie Percy Pigs which, for my money, were every bit as tasty as their meaty counterparts. However they contain beeswax which sadly isn’t vegan friendly- you can’t win ‘em all, I guess.

After an uninspiring trip to the chocolate aisle, I couldn’t find anything I wanted and in a fit of frustration, picked up Starburst. I fully expected them to contain some form of by-product, but my keen eye for ingredients couldn’t pick one up. Then I saw the three golden words- ‘suitable for vegetarians’. After mining through a wealth of internet forums I found that they’re not only suitable for vegetarians, but vegans too. Starburst, you and I have A LOT of catching up to do.

Vegan About Town: The Handmade Burger Co.

In the (nearly) four weeks since taking on the vegan challenge, I’ve went out for food once. Last Thursday, as a stop-gap between Wicked and Courtney Love, the boy and I dropped by Rufus T’s for a quick somethin’ to keep us going. More vital fuel than anything else. I hadn’t actually went out somewhere for a proper meal. It’s not something I tend to do alot- mostly for financial reasons, really. However, it’s a different story when a) I’ve had enough rosé the night before to make me starving hungry but not hungover, and b) I’m out with my mum.

We’d ventured over to Braehead for a trawl around the shops, and I hadn’t given much thought to foodstuff. After an hour in M&S while my mum decided what to spend loyalty vouchers on, I’d definitely worked up an appetite. My experience of eating in Braehead was pretty limited: usually we’d head up to Fat Jackets, which is usually a good option but was rammed. On our last visit we went to The Filling Station, which despite my reservations was surprisingly OK, but I wasn’t sure they’d have many vegan options.

The layout of the three restaurants on the ground floor is pretty smooshed together, so we ended up wandering towards The Handmade Burger Co by default. A quick glance at their menu told me all I needed to know: they had not one, but SEVEN vegetarian and vegan options. When your choices are usually split between ‘bean burger’ and ‘spicy bean burger’, this is akin to a religious awakening.

What’s more, the menu informed me that all of their burgers were made freshly to order every day. My mum said she’d had a veggie option at their Silverburn restaurant and had no complaints. All good points, then! I opted for the sweet potato burger with mango salsa- be warned, it comes with mayonnaise, so just ask them to haud it for a dairy free alternative.

I have a bit of a gripe with places that offer burgers for over a a fiver without the addition of chips. However, Handmade Burger Co offer a smaller portions menu (which my mum opted for) and we put aside our grumbles to get cajun spiced chips on the side. Any misgivings were forgiven when the food came- these were proper chips, fat chips with the skins on. I’m not the biggest fan of French fries, despite a penchant for the crispy end bits of a bag of chippy chips. These were no such thing. Properly spiced, even I found them a bit nippy- good job, HBC, good job.

I tried getting a shot of my mum's to, just to be fair, but mine pretty much dominated.

I tried getting a shot of my mum’s too, just to be fair, but mine pretty much dominated.

As for the main attraction, it was quite a beast. Many a time I’ve ordered what’s described as a ‘burger’ only to be handed a roll and Portobello mushroom *cough, cough* Lebowskis *cough, cough*. No such problems here. The sourdough bun was pretty massive, as were its contents. There wasn’t much of a garnish- the usual lettuce, onion and tomato- but I think anything else might have infringed on the flavours.

Crispy on the outside, and full of smooshy sweet potato-y goodness on the inside, this was pretty damn close to perfect. The mango salsa was delicious too, although I’d have preferred a little more. I’m a sauce fiend though so I won’t hold it against them- it’s rare that anywhere seasons food enough for my liking without me having to personalise it further (although I do try and taste it first in case I’m being unfair). When I put tomato sauce on my chips, it looks like a crime scene. Like tomato soup with chip croutons. You get the idea.

The only change I would’ve made was that it needed a wee kick. Mango and sweet potato equals alot of gooey sweetness. Thankfully, in place of the usual ketchup and mayonnaise, they had Tabasco and green jalapeno sauces on the table. I opted for the latter, which did the trick.

A cross examination revealed it to be full of gooey deliciousness.

A cross examination revealed it to be full of gooey deliciousness.

The real winner was that it didn’t fall to pieces when I attempted to eat it. I can never eat a burger whole- I’ve taken many a hit for having to cut them in half- and usually after one bite you’re left with a handful of sauce and veg that’s shot out of the roll upon impact. This stood up to even my oddly specific method of burger eating (cut in half, bottom of the roll, burger, top half, chips, repeat for other half) and the size was enough that I felt full without bursting.

Despite my non-meaty leanings, I was also impressed that my mum’s chicken burger was an actual chicken breast and not some mushed up, battered fillet padded out with God knows what. Good show all round! I was really impressed by the range and quality of veggie burgers, and I’ve got my eye on a return visit to road test their quinoa effort.

I’ve had my fair share of restaurant veggie burgers and can honestly say this was up there with the tastiest and most filling- pretty much as far removed from a roll ‘n mushroom as I could’ve hoped for. As we were sitting waiting to be served, the restaurant got busier and there was actually a queue of hungry shoppers waiting to be seating- always encouraging to see when you’re trying somewhere for the first time!

My only gripe? I really don’t know when I’ll next have an excuse to go to Braehead. In saying that, there’s a branch of Buddy’s opening in Cumbernauld soon so who knows- we could be coming up in the world. Maybe we’ll get a Handmade Burger Co of our own. Hint, hint…

Top Five Tips, Or What I’ve Learned So Far

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.