February 27, 2014

Sweet and crunchy snack: Crunchies grapes

The picture on the label is of fresh grapes, not what's inside the package.

When I was offered a sample of Crunchies grapes for review, I looked at their Web page and couldn't find any reason not to try them — they're gluten-free*, vegan, raw, non-GMO, freeze-dried with no added ingredients. I swear, there are so many labels applied to food indicating what's in them and what isn't, it's hard to keep track. The one thing I didn't notice at first was that they aren't organic, and I usually buy organic grapes. A couple of the Crunchies products are organic, and I may not have been paying close attention when I looked at the grapes. If you only eat organic food, I guess we're done here, but if you're curious about what Crunchies freeze-dried grapes taste like, read on.

At first crunch, I thought I was munching a piece of very sweet candy. As I chewed, I detected more of a raisin flavor, which makes sense since raisins are dried grapes. Crunchies are nothing like ordinary dried fruit, though — they are hard (but not too hard) and crispy. They crush easily in the mouth, and provide a sweet burst of flavor, almost like the sweet fruit equivalent of a potato chip, but without the fat. I liked them a lot.

The package says that freeze-drying "retains 90% of the nutrients" of the fresh fruit compared with "an average of only 45% maximum" for air-dried fruits. It says that "1/4 cup of fruit crunchies has an average of five grams of total sugar while 1/4 cup of dried fruit has an average of 25 grams of total sugar." A package of Crunchies grapes contains 1.2 ounces (two servings of fruit) and costs $5.49.

I'm including the nutrition label for you to see. I always get a little weirded out when nutrition labels contain mostly zeros except for sugars, but maybe that's just me. Have you tried Crunchies? How do you interpret nutrition labels like this one?

* The Crunchies are certified gluten-free but are packaged in a facility that packages milk, eggs, wheat and soy products.

Remember to keep Crunchies grapes, and all grapes and grape products away from your dog. Ingestion of any amount of grapes or raisins can lead to sudden kidney failure in dogs. If your dog eats grapes or raisins, seek immediate veterinary care.

Full Disclosure: The Crunchies grapes were sent to me free of charge. I was not paid to write a review, and all opinions expressed here are my own.

February 22, 2014

Giving a party that keeps on giving

Felafels and tahini sauce from Dreena Burton

So. Do you cook too much food when company is coming? Do you always make way too much and end up eating leftovers all week? I do. There was only one instance that I can remember when I failed to make too much — or even enough, and I never let it happen again. It was awful. It happened when my first child was about a year old, and I had invited someone from our play group for dinner. At that time, whenever I took my baby to someone's house for dinner, I usually fed him at home, and brought some finger foods for him to eat rather than depending on our hosts to provide something he would like. He was used to eating much earlier than the typical starting times for company dinners. I didn't know that many people with babies so I was just learning the ropes. We hadn't had a lot of babies come to dinner at our house, but up until this point, everyone had done what I usually did.

Chocolate chip cake — my prettiest one yet.

We were vegetarians at the time, and for this particular dinner I was serving zucchini-crusted pizza from Moosewood Cookbook. I'll never forget this. I had considered making a double recipe, but decided that I should just calm down and make a normal amount of food for once. The recipe served four to six, and with four adults, and two babies who I assumed wouldn't be eating, there should be plenty. I probably didn't have an extra pan at the time anyway. As the pizza was finishing baking, our guest baby started getting a bit cranky, and her mom said she was probably hungry since it was way past her usual dinner time. Uh oh. When the pizza was done, the mom cut off a generous piece and gave it to the babe, who scarfed it down in a flash. Then the mom cut off another huge chunk and handed it over, explaining that her child was a voracious eater. More than 1/4 of the pizza was gone, and dinner hadn't even officially started. After the baby had a third piece I called my husband into the kitchen (sitcom style) and told him that he and I would be eating very little for dinner that night, and he could not take seconds of anything. The rest of the evening is gone from my memory, but the zucchini-crusted pizza incident will be with me forever as a warning to always have more than enough food for guests ... including babies.

Last weekend we hosted a dinner for 12 adults and two children, and trust me, there was enough food. In fact, I just finished the last of it yesterday — not counting the brownies and cookies that are still in the freezer. Of course I was worried that there wouldn't be enough, but as usual, there was.

I may have over-baked these a little, but they were (are) still delicious.

As I've mentioned before, I try to keep events like this 'simple' so I don't get stressed out, and I cook ahead when possible. The menu included: appetizers of hummus and tapenade (both brought by a guest), and spinach artichoke dip (from Glue and Glitter) with crackers, chips, carrot and celery sticks. The main menu included stuffed grape leaves (store-bought), felafels with tahini sauce (from Dreena Burton), roasted carrots and potatoes, roasted brussels sprouts and cauliflower, green salad, quinoa cooked with broth, harira soup, lentil soup, and mini pitas. And the desserts were chocolate chip cake, gluten-free brownies (from Oh She Glows), chewy ginger cookies and fruit salad (brought by a guest).

I made the cookies two days ahead, and put them into the freezer. The brownies were made the night before, and left uncovered overnight as suggested by Angela from Oh She Glows. (I made the gluten-free version, by the way, and if you need a great GF brownie recipe, this is it! The brownies freeze perfectly, too, and can be eaten right from the freezer. I should know.) The felafel mix and the harira (except for the noodles) were also made the day before the party.

All that was left of the 'taters and carrots when I remembered to snap a photo

Everything else was made the day of, and it was pretty easy to cut veggies for roasting, steam quinoa, throw salad into a bowl, toss stuffed grape leaves onto a platter. Heating the harira and adding noodles was simple, and making lentil soup with carrots and then puréeing it to creamy lusciousness in the Vitamix was no problem. The only part requiring effort was cooking the felafels at the last minute, and it wasn't so bad.

Leftover lentil soup jazzed up with aleppo pepper, scallions, coconut bacon, etc.

Why did I make two soups and two veggies and multiple desserts? There's that thing about wanting to be sure there was enough food, but also I had a group of diners with very diverse tastes, and I wanted to be sure to have foods that everyone would find appealing. I know that I present challenges to dinner hosts, and am very grateful when they accommodate me. I like to be sensitive to my guests, and make sure that when they come to my house, they have what they need. I always cook vegan food, but within that parameter, I try to make my guests feel welcome and happy. I plan for everyone!

Leftovers for dinner.

There was enough food at the party. (hahah) In fact, there was enough for lots of leftovers the whole week. Some of the leftovers were eaten as is, and others were used as part of new combinations, like a quinoa bowl with steamed broccoli, crisp felafels and tahini sauce. The lentil soup, kept simple and plain for the party, got spiced up. I love giving a party that keeps on giving. Don't you?

February 12, 2014

Broccoli and cauliflower step up to the plate

Cravings have been deciding our dinners lately. I had a craving for waffles that wouldn't go away but I knew my husband would balk at a sweet dinner. Every time I suggest waffles or pancakes for dinner, he says no. So I compromised and made waffles with veggies and chickpeas. I steamed the vegetables, added leftover peanut sauce (from Isa Does It), and served them on top of waffles. It was even better than I'd hoped, and I hardly missed the maple syrup — I did miss it a little, though. Truthfully, sometimes I just want the waffles or pancakes I would have had for breakfast had I been alert enough to make them in the morning. Do you have a problem with breakfast foods for dinner? Why is it any different from leftover dinner served for breakfast? I should note that the waffles were unsweetened.

My husband was craving Indian food so I connected him to Richa's blog and he started cooking. He made two dishes. He made gobi broccoli makhani, which Richa describes as cauliflower, broccoli and peas in creamy gravy. I didn't realize until he told me what it was that it was the same recipe I had made not too long ago. It's interesting how a dish can change in the hands of one cook or another. Both versions were good, but I liked mine better because the veggies were softer and the sauce creamier.

To accompany the vegetables, he made chana masala, or chickpea curry with red bell pepper. His use of tomato was a bit aggressive for chana masala, but we both enjoyed the dish.

The best part was really the next day when I reheated the food for lunch. The flavors had melded and intensified, and were even better than they had been the night before. I think I'm starting to feel an Indian food craving coming on ... Have you tried any of the recipes from Vegan Richa?

February 07, 2014

Crispy quinoa cakes with almond, rosemary and dijon | Baby in the house

It was a about five years ago that I went to hear a talk by Mark Bittman. I think he was on a tour promoting his book, Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating. On the slim chance you don't know who Mark Bittman is, he's one of the most well-known and popular food writers in the world. For most of his career, he wrote about indulgent, animal-based cooking — I wasn't one of his fans. Then, because of personal medical issues (pre-diabetic, overweight and other concerns), he reluctantly embarked on a plant-heavy diet to regain his health. He chose food instead of medication, and as he became accustomed to his new regimen, and healthier, he began to really enjoy it. He went from extreme to minimalist in terms of his food preferences, and really began to pay attention to the toll an animal-based diet was taking not only on health, but also on the environment. His thinking continued to evolve, and soon he began to embrace the subject of animal suffering. He considers himself a flexitarian, and in addition to many other food-related books, has written a book and companion cookbook (VB6) about being vegan before 6 p.m., then eating anything you want after 6. Although he still uses animal products, he includes them sparingly, but he believes that people will be more inclined to change their diets if they approach the change slowly and non-dogmatically.

Anyway, I went to hear him out of curiosity — what would he say? Who would show up? What would they think? His talk was amazing, and surprised me. He spoke fervently about the unsustainability and cruelty of an animal-based diet. He talked about the damage the food giants have done to health by producing and power-marketing junk food. He explained what a healthy, responsible diet would look like. He said that free-range chickens and eggs, and humane meat was a scam. He said the ultimate goal would be to become vegan, but he wasn't there yet. He supported his talk with charts and research, and I was impressed with how direct he was in his condemnation of the standard American diet. But he was also gentle, kind and generous in both his lecture and the Q and A that followed — not a bit of snark or superiority. He answered the least informed questioners with the same respect and thought that he showed the most informed. I left the lecture with a lot of respect for Mr. Bittman — he may never become a vegan, but he was using his popularity and access to a widespread audience, to spread a message they might not otherwise hear, and he was doing a great job.

Not only is he sharing information about healthful and cruelty-free eating, but he continually shares great recipes that are easy to make and delicious. Whenever I come across one of his cooking articles, I check to see if it is something I might like. We made his crispy quinoa cakes recently, and they were great — simple, nourishing and tasty. I'm a diehard vegan, as you know, but I still have a lot of respect for people like Mark Bittman, who are introducing people to new ideas about food, and perhaps changing the way they eat. Vegans have made a lot of progress in promoting the vegan lifestyle, but I think we also need people like Mr. Bittman, with his wide following, encouraging people to make changes in their eating habits. What do you think? Are non-vegans helping, hurting or having no effect on diet change?

Ingredients for quinoa cakes
based on Mark Bittman's recipe in the New York Times Sunday Magazine

  • 1 cup quinoa
  • Salt
  • 1/4 cup chopped almonds
  • 2 tablespoons minced shallots (or onion or scallion)
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
    For more information and directions, click here. The recipe I made is crisp quinoa cakes with almonds, rosemary and dijon. The recipe links are at the bottom of the article, where you can find links to several variations.


    I just started taking care of my one-year-old grandson two days a week, and I can't resist sharing a few photos from his first naptime. I got the rabbit at IKEA when I first knew he'd be spending time at our house so he would have a cuddly friend to keep him company in his cot. Looks like it was a good choice!

    The little munchkin woke up happy.

    So far he's been pretty easy to care for — he has a great attention span so it's easy to keep him interested in his toys, and he's pretty cheerful.

    February 03, 2014

    Make the perfect soup NOW (from Isa Does It)

    I have a tendency to collect cookbooks. Maybe I should say I 'amass' cookbooks, instead of 'collect'. I mean, I'm not a cookbook hoarder or anything, but I do find them a little irresistible. The problem is I seldom use them, though I think about them a lot. Recently, I wrote a review of Isa Does It where I mentioned that I could hardly keep my hands off the book, which could just mean that I look at it a lot but don't use it, but no, it doesn't. Both my husband and I use it constantly. And we really like the results.

    This past weekend my husband made a large pot of harira, which was fabulous. We loved it, and I think you will, too. Harira is a traditional Moroccon tomato, chickpea and lentil soup that is frequently served to break the fast at sunset during Ramadan. It’s fragrant with spicy ginger, pepper, and cinnamon, as well as fresh herbs like celery, cilantro, parsley and onion.

    Isa also adds angel hair pasta to her recipe — cooking it right in the soup — which makes it a filling, complete meal. So, do you own a copy of Isa Does It, yet? You should, you know. But if you don't, lucky for you I found the recipe online in a review on The Taste Space. Go there and get the goods because this is a soup you want to make.

    I also recommend making wild rice soup with browned seitan strips. OK, so I used soycurls instead of seitan, but I seasoned them extravagantly, and browned them well in my wok, and they tasted fantastic with the soup.

    One other little thing I did was to use half wild rice and half white Basmati, and I took Isa up on her invitation to add more veggies. I threw in a boatload of shredded savoy cabbage. Delicious! Sorry I can't be more useful and provide you with a recipe link, but just get a copy of the book. You won't be sorry.