Friday, September 2, 2011

Vegetarian Pasta Lunches

Obviously it’s a challenge to move into a vegetarian direction when you’ve eaten meals planned around meat your entire life.  Getting started on this transition to being “almost vegetarian” was really tough.  Early on I found vegetarian spaghetti to be my “go to” lunch, and personalized my own easy spaghetti recipes.  I have a few other vegetarian pasta favorites too, like tortellini. 

I start many of my vegetarian pasta lunches with a simple sauce of crushed tomatoes simmered down with lots of fresh crushed garlic and some olive oil. 

My runaway favorite combination of vegetables is sautéed onions, mushrooms and spinach.  Most any onions will do, but my favorite is purple onion.  It cooks up nicely sweet, and keeps its texture well.  I throw these in the pan first.  Then I throw some sliced mushrooms into the hot pan.  I like the baby bellas.  Lastly I sauté spinach. 

Our local organic produce plan has yielded lots of zucchini this year.  I cut a zucchini in half length-wise, then cut it crosswise in slices.  Sauté zucchini in olive oil, then toss with pasta and sauce.  How easy is that? 

Our local organic produce plan has also yielded lots of fresh basil this year.  I decided to try making pesto, and it is a new favorite!  I use a food processor, and start with about a half cup of raw almonds, and process until fairly small.  Cashews or walnuts work well too, but the almonds are my favorite.  Then I add about a half cup of grated Asiago or Parmesan cheese, and about a cup lightly packed basil, and process.  Then I drizzle in olive oil until my pesto is like a spread. 

Don’t always have fresh produce?  No problem.  You can still have a tasty vegetarian spaghetti.  I keep a few cans of artichoke hearts, sliced carrots, and English peas in my pantry.  Just slice the carrot rounds into about 4-5 matchstick pieces, and slice artichoke hearts lengthwise 3 to 5 times.  Mix into your tomato sauce along with peas. 

My new favorite jarred spaghetti sauce is Mezzetta Napa Valley Bistro Arrabbiata pasta sauce with crushed red chilies.  It’s about $4.50 for a 25 oz jar at HEB, and a bit more from their website.  I can eat it over pasta with nothing added, but it’s also good with some purple onion and Kalamata olives.   

For a decadent treat, I like Bertolli Garlic Alfredo pasta sauce over cheese tortellini or bowtie pasta, with sautéed spinach, mushrooms, and onion.  The Bertolli is super thick, so I thin it out with a little white wine.  To me, the Bertolli is far superior to the other Alfredo sauces on the shelf. 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Caprese Salad


This year my household decided to participate in the Scott Arbor local organic produce program.  We’ve gotten fresh basil almost every week, and had a short run of small but terrific, flavorful tomatoes.  I decided to do my take on Caprese Salad.  You know, the tomato and mozzarella “salad”, with basil and balsamic vinegar. 

I’ve really loved making fresh pesto with the basil, so decided to use pesto rather than just sprinkle with basil leaves or chopped basil.  I also thought it would be a nice touch to make a balsamic reduction, instead of just drizzling with balsamic vinegar.  Since my chunk of mozzarella was fairly large, and my tomatoes very small, I decided to chop both!  I told you it was “my take” on Caprese Salad. 

For the pesto, I put about a half cup of almonds in the food processor and processed until fairly small.  Then I added about a half cup of grated Asiago cheese, and my basil, which was probably about a cup lightly packed, and processed.  Then I drizzled in olive oil until my pesto was like a spread.  I have also made pesto with cashews and Parmesan cheese, and I have heard others use walnuts. 

The balsamic reduction was super easy.  I put one cup of balsamic vinegar in a small skillet, and heated on low until it was reduced by about half. 

Finally, I mixed my chopped mozzarella and tomatoes, topped with basil, then topped with my balsamic reduction.  This Caprese Salad was absolutely fabulous!  I sure wish the tomatoes were still producing, but alas the Texas heat is not kind to tomatoes.  I haven’t found Texas to have the great tasting super ripe tomatoes that I always enjoyed in the Carolinas- except those few weeks of small tomatoes from Scott Arbor.  At least I can enjoy my fresh pesto and pasta each week. 


Saturday, August 27, 2011

Veggie Heaven Restaurant, Austin Texas

A few weeks ago I had a speaking engagement in Austin, Texas.  I had previously been to the vegetarian restaurant, Mother’s Café and Garden.  I did a little research and decided to try Veggie Heaven this visit.  They offer an impressive variety of mostly Asian-inspired entrées and appetizers. 

Veggie Heaven is located on Guadalupe Street in Austin, Texas.  The restaurant is very small, I might even say tiny.  The tables are packed in close, mostly two and four seaters.  The floor is uneven in spots.  There is no fancy décor.  BUT, the food is excellent, and inexpensive.  All menu items are vegetarian or vegan.  Their website has pictures of every menu item, with ingredients listed.  (I have used personal photos here.)

My bother and I started off with a vegan Fried Spring Roll and a vegan Steam Bun.  The spring roll has cabbage, carrots and celery, and was cooked perfectly, delicately crispy.  It’s a bargain at $1.00.  The Steam Bun is a thick, doughy shell with onions, carrots, shitake mushrooms, napa cabbage, tofu, and vegetable protein inside.  They also have a Curry Bun with tofu and vegetables.  The Buns are $2.50.  My brother was a huge fan of the Steam Bun, and said he would definitely order it again.  I could take it or leave it, but would have the Spring Roll again. 

My brother and I ordered and shared two entrées.  We got Lucky Seven, a vegan entrée for $6.95.  This dish has 7 fried tofu meatballs made with vegetable protein, breadcrumbs, celery, carrots, and chestnuts.  Meatballs are in a sweet spicy red sauce, with broccoli, baby bok choy, cauliflower, carrots, napa cabbage, onions, and garlic.  Entrées come with a choice of brown or white rice. 

This dish was quite good and flavorful.  There was a bit of a disconnect for me with the meatballs, which looked like browned meatballs made of meat.  The texture however was nothing like meat.  On the bright side, maybe this was an indication that the texturized vegetable protein content was relatively low.  I’m not a big fan of the TVP or seitan (wheat gluten), which are ingredients in many of the entrées at Veggie Heaven.  Although they usually give a meat-like texture to the dish, I don’t think they are particularly healthy.  I definitely think they should be eaten in moderation, and for me personally, seldom. 

I selected the vegan Eggplant Tofu for $6.95.  This consisted of fried tofu and lots of it, eggplants, garlic, and onions in black bean sauce.  The fried tofu, something I also try to limit to the occasional treat, added a really nice texture to the dish, which I thought was delicious.  I would definitely order this again. 

My brother had a green apple bubble tea without the tapioca.  He enjoyed it.  I passed. 

While we were at Veggie Heaven, we noticed a half dozen or more people, mostly men, who came to the door and picked up small carry-out containers, without actually setting foot in the restaurant.  We watched our server dip up rice into these containers, take them to the kitchen (we presumed to top the rice with some type of vegetable selection), then place one or two at a time on the table by the door.  Seemed to us like Veggie Heaven (and likely other Austin restaurants) are feeding the homeless, who were all orderly and respectful in retrieving their food. 

Bottom line, I highly recommend Veggie Heaven. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Eating Vegetarian at Burger Restaurants

Red Robin Bleu Ribbon Burger

You can always get fries at burger places.  It didn’t take me long however to get a tired of McDonald’s fries when I was out and about doing pediatric home-based therapy, and looking for food without meat.  Some burger restaurants offer onion rings.  Of the major burger chains, only Burger King offers a veggie patty.  Most burger chains now carry salads, and some offer fruits, smoothies, pies and such.  If you’re actually looking for a Veggie Burger, one of your best bets is Red Robin. 

Featured in this blog post:   

Burger King
Carl's Jr
Red Robin

Click on the restaurant links for menus. 

BurgerKing:  In addition to fries, you can get onion rings, apple fries, Dutch Apple Pie, Hershey’s Sundae Pie, shakes, frozen Coke, and frozen Cherry from Burger King.  They also offer a Garden Salad. 


Burger King’s Veggie Burger features the Morningstar Farms® Garden Veggie Patty.  The Morningstar website lists the ingredients of the patty as mushrooms, water chestnuts, onions, carrots, green and red peppers, black olives, brown rice, and rolled oats.  It contains 110 calories and 3.5 grams of fat.  Compare that to 15 grams of fat for a ground beef patty! 
Closer inspection of the label however reveals texturized vegetable protein in the patty, which experts like Sally Fallon caution against.  (See YouTube video below.)  At least the vegetables are listed as the first ingredient.  Admittedly, the TVP helps give the veggie patty a more pleasing, meat burger-like texture.  I found the BK Veggie Burger pretty satisfying.  It was served to me pretty quickly, which tells me that it was likely microwaved, something else I try to avoid.  I wouldn't do it often, but I would definitely have the BK Veggie Burger again.  Here's my burger:

No veggie burger at McDonald’s, but they offer a variety of salads.  Choose from Caesar Salad, Southwest Salad (roasted corn, black beans, poblano peppers, and tortilla strips), Asian Salad (snow peas, mandarin oranges, edamame), Side Salad, or Fruit & Walnut Salad (apples, grapes, candied walnuts, and vanilla yogurt).  For your sweet tooth, McDonald’s has countless options:  McCafe ice coffees and lattes, smoothies, sundaes, shakes, McFlurries, cookies, baked apple pie, and apple dippers. 

Order a baked potato from Wendy’s with sour cream and chives, or broccoli and cheese.  You can get a Garden Side Salad, or Caesar Side Salad.  Ask for the Baja Salad (pico de gallo, guacamole) without chili, or BLT Cobb Salad without the bacon.  Try one of these three salads without the chicken:  Apple Pecan Chicken Salad, Spicy Chicken Caesar, or Berry Almond Chicken Salad.  Wendy’s also offers apple slices, and for your sweet tooth, their famous chocolate Frosty. 

I suppose any burger place would be willing to sell any of their burgers with just the trimmings, minus the meat, but Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. advertise Veg-It choices.  Have Veg-It Guacamole Bacon Six Dollar Burger, minus the bacon and patty at Carl’s Jr.  Hardee’s pitches the Veg-It Thickburger.  Both establishments have natural cut fries.  Hardee’s has beer battered onion rings.  Carl’s has fried zucchini.  Both Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. offer malts and shakes.  Hardee’s also has apple turnovers.  Carl’s Jr. has smoothies, chocolate chip cookies, strawberry swirl cheesecake, and chocolate cake.  

Although I had been to RedRobin Gourmet Burgers before, I was not looking for vegetarian options at the time.  A friend recently turned me on to this tidbit:  You can order any burger at Red Robin’s with a Gardenburger or BOCA Burger patty!  Menu selections vary by location, but you can count on at least 10-12 burger variations with vegetarian or vegan patty.  I have overviewed choices available in my area Red Robin restaurants. 

The Garden Burger:  Lettuce, tomato, pickles, and Country Dijon Sauce on a whole grain bun. 

Red Robin Gourmet Cheeseburger:  Lettuce, tomato, pickles, onions, mayo, and choice of cheese:  Cheddar, American, Swiss, Bleu, Provolone, or Pepper Jack. 

Banzai Burger:  Grilled pineapple, cheddar, lettuce, tomato, and mayo. 

Whiskey River BBQ Burger:  Whiskey River BBQ sauce, cheddar, crispy onion straws, lettuce, tomato, and mayo.

Guacamole Bacon Burger:  Skip the bacon.  Guacamole, Swiss, onion, lettuce, tomato, and mayo. 

Sautéed ‘Shroom Burger:  Sautéed mushrooms, garlic parmesan butter, Swiss. 

Burning Love Burger:  Fried jalapeño coins, salsa, Pepper Jack, lettuce, tomato, and chipotle mayo on jalapeño cornmeal Kaiser roll. 

Blackened Bayou Burger:  Roasted red pepper, angry onions, Pepper Jack, Dijon sauce, cabbage-carrot mix, and optional Tabasco sauce on a jalapeño cornmeal Kaiser roll. 

A1 Peppercorn Burger:  Skip the bacon.  Pepper Jack, A1 Peppercorn spread, crispy onion straws, tomatoes. 

Bleu Ribbon Burger (below):  Tangy steak sauce, bleu cheese, crispy onion straws, lettuce, tomato, and chipotle mayo on an onion bun.  This was my first veggie burger selection at Red Robin.  I’m a sucker for an onion roll.  Not really a bleu cheese fan, but this was a good sandwich.  I had the Gardenburger patty.  I’m a big eater, but I couldn’t quite finish this burger. 


Royal Red Robin Burger:  Skip the bacon.  Fried egg, American cheese, lettuce, tomato, and mayo. 

Bruschetta Chicken Sandwich (personal photo below):  Substitute Gardenburger or BOCA Burger for chicken.  Bruschetta salsa, pesto aioli, provolone cheese, romaine, and balsamic cream on ciabatta bread.  This was my most recent veggie burger from Red Robin.   The pesto was a bit skimpy, not like in the menu photo at all, but good flavor with this sandwich.  I loved the ciabatta. 

Crispy Artic Cod Sandwich:  Substitute Gardenburger or BOCA Burger for fish.  Coleslaw, tomato, pickles, and tartar sauce. 

Next time I think I may try the ‘build your own burger’ option.  You can choose a vegetarian Gardenburger or vegan BOCA patty, and the bread, cheese, sauces, and condiments you want.  I’d go with the Gardenburger always, because I don’t favor all the soy and wheat gluten ingredients in BOCA.  I love the onion roll and ciabatta bread, so I'd go with one of them.  I’d also get the crispy onion straws again.  Guacamole would be good too. 

Not in the mood for a burger?  Red Robin also offers Classic Creamy Mac ‘N’ Cheese with a four cheese sauce, served with focaccia bread and a side salad.  Other selections include Mighty Caesar Salad, and French Onion Soup.  From the appetizer menu choose onion rings, fried cheese sticks, fried jalapeño coins, fried zucchini, artichoke & spinach dip, or guacamole, salsa & chips.  The kid’s menu offers a grilled cheese sandwich, and Red Robinette Spaghetti.  For your sweet tooth, choose Hot Fudge Sundae, Mother Robin’s Brownie Sundae, or Mountain High Mudd Pie. 

Reasons to be “Almost Vegetarian”

There are many reasons to be “almost vegetarian”. 

For lifelong devoted vegetarians, being a vegetarian is often about not killing animals.  Some religions, like Hinduism, mandate vegetarianism, because they consider killing something for food to be a selfish act. 

Personally I’m not crazy about killing animals for food.  If I had to kill them myself, I’m sure I would be a die-hard vegetarian.  For me, it has been hard to completely give up meat, having been raised on meals consisting of meat, starch and vegetable.  If any component is missing, I often feel unsatisfied, like I didn’t really have a meal.  Yet in the last couple years, I have found increasingly more motivation to move in a vegetarian direction. 

I discovered a book, The Body Ecology Diet by Donna Gates, that has really impressed me.  This book describes dietary practices that help restore balance to the body’s internal environment.  Among other things, Donna recommends meals consisting of 20% meat and 80% vegetables, or 20% starch and 80% vegetables.  She specifically discourages combining animal protein and starches in the same meal.  Because the digestive processes are so different, they conflict with each other.  I became increasingly convinced that indeed when I eat meat and starch in the same meal, I have more reflux symptoms.  Since it is particularly difficult for me to give up starch, I figured if I ate more vegetarian meals, preparing vegetarian versions of favorite foods, I would have less reflux. 

Meat is difficult to digest.  According to Donna Gates, it takes about five hours for meat to clear the stomach.  I have thought for a while now that my body does not digest animal protein very well.  I was sick in February, and decided that my system was compromised due to being ill, so I would stay away from meat for a week or two, so as to not put additional strain on my system.  After about a week and a half, I noticed that I had not had any right heel pain in a week. 

Prior to this, I had been having right heel pain for months.  I was convinced that it was biomechanical, from how I sat on my couch when using my laptop.  One of the visiting specialists at my Naturopath’s office had said to me, “Right heel?  In Chinese Medicine, that’s your colon.”  Wow!  What a coincidence.  I have since noticed the return of varying degrees of right heel pain when I occasionally eat a little chicken, fish, or shrimp. 

Many doctors and nutritionists advocate vegetarian meals as being beneficial for people who need to decrease saturated fat in their diet due to heart disease or high cholesterol.  According to the Environmental Working Group, who supports the MeatlessMonday initiative, skipping meat not only lowers the risk of serious health problems, but cuts carbon emissions.  Here is a statement from the EWG: 

“If we Americans skipped meat and cheese just one day a week for a year, we’d cut carbon emissions as much as taking 7.6 million cars off the road would! Cutting back on meat not only helps the environment, it also lowers your risk of serious health problems such as obesity, heart disease, stroke and some types of cancers.”
You can sign a pledge to give up meat one day a week through the EWG Meatless Monday initiative.