Life’s Too Short to Follow Recipes Part 3

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!

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.

Life’s Too Short to Follow Recipes

OK, I confess, I had a three day weekend (thanks May for the endless Bank Holidays) and remembering to blog sort of fell by the wayside, to be replaced by catching up with my boyfriend, our extensive list of programmes and films, sleep and even a cheeky visit to the theatre.

(Incidentally if you’re in Glasgow with an evening to spare and a hankering for some culture, I can’t recommend The Libertine at the Citizens Theatre highly enough… but maybe don’t take your nan).

However, after Saturday, one side note is that I’ve noticed that my tolerance for alcohol has gone way down. Not saying I could hold it especially well before, but I feel like it’s taking me even less to hit harder. Which, coupled with my new found distaste for smoking, can only be a good thing. I suppose. Begrudgingly.

One thing I didn’t let slip was actual cooking. I’ve been looking up loads of recipes and bought a couple of beginner’s guides and cookery books to help me get started. I discovered that, with a few alterations, many of them weren’t too different to what I’d made before.

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Picture source: amazon.com

My biggest problem with recipes is that I tend not to follow them. I’ll stick to them for the most part- particularly with baking which is so much easier to go wrong. When it comes to soups, stews, pasta dishes and giant pots of things, I tend to just chuck everything in and add enough spice that I can’t feel my own face.

I found this great wee article about vegan lunches, and decided to start with the most basic of basics: soup. I eat alot of soup. I’m fairly sure if I gave blood, I’d just be donating a pint of lentils. What’s not to love? As long as you choose wisely it’s an easy way to be super healthy and not feel too full. I used to make it all the time when I lived on my own and was short on cash. I’d bulk-buy veggies, make a pot and freeze it in individual batches. That was a while ago, and I decided it was time to try again. The boy and I made some pretty spectacular pumpkin soup last Halloween. In lieu of pumpkin, I went for the next best thing and adapted this recipe for butternut squash soup.

This is a slow cooker recipe, which is fine if you’re making it before you go out of a morning. I wasn’t: I was hungry and I was hungry NOW. However, I wasn’t hungry for celery (yuck) or nutmeg (which we didn’t have to hand). I’d also bought some sweet potato for a different recipe, that we didn’t have time to make. Waste not, want not: in place of celery I bunged in some sweet potato to balance out the spices too.

As well as posting the original recipe, here’s my adaptation… and remember, I like things spicy and I tend not to follow conventional cooking methods. Like measuring. Any spices listed below weren’t measured using a teaspoon, I just gave the pot a liberal shaking.

Spicy Butternut Squash and Sweet Potato Soup

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Picture source: fitsugar.com

1 butternut squash, peeled and chopped

3-4 small sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped

1 large red onion, peeled and chopped

3 spring onions, chopped

3 carrots, peeled and chopped

2 sweet peppers, chopped and deseeded

2 cups of red lentils

1.5 litres of vegetable stock or boullion 

2 tsps Very Lazy Smoked Garlic

A healthy glug of oil (I used chili rapeseed oil)

Spices including turmeric, onion salt, cayenne pepper, paprika, cumin and coriander

  • Heat the oil in a large pot. Add the onion, sautee until soft and stir in the garlic. Sautee for a couple extra minutes.
  • Add the butternut squash, carrots and sweet potato, give them a good stir along with the onions and garlic and add a wee bit more oil if need be.
  • Add the peppers, shake in your spices and add your stock.
  • Pour in the lentils, give the whole thing a stir.
  • Stick a lid on it and leave it to simmer until the vegetables are soft, checking and adding more stock or water if you need it.

I accidentally added a little too much water, but there are ways of compensating for this: I quickly microwaved some frozen diced turnip and stirred this in with the blended final product. I also added some crumbled up Ryvita crackers (I tried it to replace bread with soup a while ago and never looked back).

Initially I was a bit hesitant about posting a recipe, especially as I have such a lax attitude towards following. In the end I figured it was a good way of tracking my progress- in terms of how much more preparation and thought I put into cooking. I also thought it’d be a good way of showing how you can take a recipe, adapt it and still get tasty results. As long as you don’t include celery.

I’m also always on the lookout for more adaptations and recipes, so if there are any other suggestions I’d love to hear them!

So I Made It To A Week!

Today marks the one week-aversary of taking on the 30 Day Vegan Pledge. It was a bit of a shaky start, considering I went into it completely unprepared. However, in the past week, I’ve found myself enjoying cooking- which, when it’s just for me, is usually a chore I avoid. My fruit and veg consumption has increased by an embarrassing amount (embarrassing considering how little I ate before), and I’ve even noticed a difference in my skin and energy levels.

After a couple of days withdrawal, I even found I didn’t miss chocolate and snacks that much. There are plenty of readily available, vegan-friendly snacks, and I never felt the urge to reach for anything naughty. (Were it not for Alpro Soya chocolate desserts, I feel this might be a totally different story). I was surprised at how many foods both were and weren’t vegan friendly: a lot of convenience soups, my usual lunchtime staple, contain milk and cream, but there are so many other options that I haven’t missed them.

Thank you, vegan gods.

I used to either skip out on breakfast, or eat something pseudo-healthy like a Go Ahead bar and sugar-laden bottled smoothies. Honestly, I had no idea how bad for you they really are. I thought they were doing me good, but they were also probably contributing the dreaded 4pm slump. Instead, I’ve seriously upped my water game and even managed to cut down on coffee. I’ve also cut down on smoking too- my one real remaining vice.

Of course, there was no way I could do this without any support and a tonne of research. I haven’t been quite as adventurous with cooking as I could’ve been, but I’ve been thinking about what I’m using more. A part of me thinks my body might go into serious meltdown from upping my fruit and vegetable intake, and that maybe I should’ve eased myself in more gently. I figured there was no sense in doing anything by halves- I’d have been as well staying vegetarian!

I ordered the PETA starter guide and, after looking into a load of different books, got Becoming Vegan. The PETA guide is really good for helpful ideas to get started, and offers a wealth of information on further reading. It also details the horrific treatment suffered by farm animals- even those used for dairy products and not meat.

It confirmed for me why it’s important to stick to the challenge, even when I feel like I’m hitting a wall. Becoming Vegan has been a worthwhile purchase as well, and it’s easy enough to dip into. It reads a bit like a textbook, and can be a bit matter of fact. It gives a good overview of vegan and vegetarian diets, from their earliest forms to today’s more widely accepted, mainstream diets.

So overall, not a bad start to the challenge… I feel like I could be more adventurous with cooking, and I actually feel like I’ve been eating more than when I started. At least it’s all good things though- it pacifies the guilt a wee bit! I’ve noticed a decrease in tiredness during the day, and a definite improvement in my skin and energy levels. My system is still getting used to the change I reckon, but in the long run I’m hoping it’ll pay off… and if it sees me cut down in smoking even more then all the better!

Woman vs. Man vs. Food

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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