Thursday, December 29, 2011

New Year, Next Steps

The New Pornographers are one of my top 5 favorite bands so it's probably only fitting that I'm inspired to bring in the new year with their heartfelt "Go Places" from the 2007 album Challengers.

Come hell or full circle
Our arms fill with miracles
Play hearts, kid, they work well
Like classics play aces
Stay with me, go places
Once more for the ages.

Looking ahead, I know I will be geared for the adventuring to come. I hope I'm also filled with hope. Aside from literally going to new places, I want to discover more about myself and grow as a person. (Raises finger to mouth in an uck gesture.) Perhaps this will also mean that I become less cynical and don't feel ridiculous for talking about the whole self/new discovery thing.

A lot of people say they come to the city to take advantage of its myriad opportunities. There's so much alive and happening here. And while this drives me, it's also important that I pull myself out of my comfort zone. While I can easily do this when trying a new recipe or restaurant or traipsing through a new neighborhood, I don't always do this socially (at least not with ease). My goal in the coming year is to be more social and also to not worry so much about what other people think. And as arbitrary dates/markers seem silly to me, this doesn't have to start with Jan. 1. It's something I want to consciously work on from now on.

In ways, I feel like this blog is helping me with that. No longer second guessing if my opinions are valid or worth hearing, I'm just putting them out there, sharing my passion with folks who may be interested in similar things. And it feels good to write in my own voice without someone else telling me it isn't good enough.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Tackling a terrific taco salad

Eating Mexican or Tex-Mex out can get calorically dicey. That's one of the reasons I decided to start making my own taco salads at home--I can put more veggies and veggie items on it and control how much cheese I want on top. All these things mean it's healthier and fresh. Choosing to make your own taco salad can also spruce up a boring lunch or dinner routine.

Following is my recipe for a scrumptious taco salad. What you'll need and what to do:

  1. Tortilla chips--round, triangular, whatever floats your boat. Maybe if you're feeling frisky, try something like blue corn chips.
  2. Something leafy--the greener the better. I typically use baby arugula, baby spinach or a blend thereof, but most recently I bought Fresh Express Leafy Green Romaine and it was sooo tasty.
  3. Vegetarian refried beans--Yum! Veggies don't have to miss out for fear that those refried beans have been tainted with pork. Veggie refried beans are quite flavorful.
  4. Roma, cherry, grape, or beefsteak tomatoes--Whichever you choose, cut into slightly thick chunks.
  5. For more protein, I traditionally heat and crumble Gardenburger or Boca Burger on the stove and then add it to the salad. I've recently discovered using Morningstar Meal Starters Grillers Recipe Crumbles is also quite tasty and takes less time to heat on the stove.
  6. Top off this colorful creation with cheese. I recommend Trader Joe's fancy shredded lite mexican blend (only 80 cal per serving).
  7. Pop this bad boy in the microwave or oven. In my oven, which heats up pretty fast, I usually put  the salad in for 5-7 minutes at 350 degrees. Oven/microwave times may vary. Basically you want the cheese to melt but don't want to completely wilt your leafy green.
  8. Enjoy now! Or, add Sriracha/your fave hot sauce to top it off (optional). To add a bit of tang in a healthier fashion, I recommend using a dollop of Plain Greek yogurt in lieu of sour cream. Plain non-Greek yogurt works too.
The order of the steps above is typically the order in which I put the ingredients on the chips, but do what feels right for you.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Handmade & inexpensive gifting options

Every year I'm less into the holiday season. The magic and wonder of possibility felt in childhood is gone; the emptiness left by people who used to be in your life  and the pressure to be so damn happy often weigh too heavily.

I don't care too much what I do around the holidays and I'm not a fan of holiday music. I usually do give gifts, however, because I like picking out things I think my friends and family would like. It's even more fun when I decide I'm going to handcraft them. In the past, I've made everything from home-made puzzles to personalized calendars to handbags made out of posterboard and magazine cutouts. With so much crafting in my past, I've run out of ideas. I must admit that I've stopped brainstorming.

This doesn't mean that I've given up completely, forever. For one, I really like the craft ideas Ruche (one of my fave clothing sites) came up with this year. I also recommend the Brooklyn Based article on Dollar Store Diamonds. As a refined connoisseur of dollar store finds since scouting the DMV area with my best friend in our high school days, I really appreciate their tips on finding inexpensive and quirky gifts that'll surely make your friends crack a smile. Scoutmob's Nifty Gifty Indie Guide also provides some nice inspiration for gifts under $50. Even if you don't want to/can't shell out that much, the pictures may spark your creative juices.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The gift of noodles/soup

Sadly not many folks are getting gifts from me this year. Part lack of inspiration, part not expecting to actually be able to afford anything, I just didn't plan. And I'd rather wait 'til I think of gifts that are good and fitting than try to scramble and come up with presents just to say that I gave presents.

I do feel in a giving mood however, so I'll share with you my recipe for my go-to meal. I'm not sure when I started making this--high school? College? It's just something I've found that works and that I never get tired of. When I tell people this is my go-to meal, they say it seems pretty involved, but it's really simple to just throw things into a pot and the use of ramen (at least in the noodle recipe) means it can be done in 5 minutes or so.

If you're making noodles, you'll need these basics:

  • A pot of water to boil
  • A packet of Ramen noodles (toss away the flavor packet). I've tried various noodle types from vermicelli to pad thai sticks, but Ramen works best for texture and portion size. 
  • Extra firm tofu (block or pre-cubed. I personally prefer buying it by the block because I may want to make other things with tofu later on--not all involve cubes). 
  • Something green. I've done this recipe with spinach, scallions and/or cilantro, depending on what's in my kitchen at the time. I've also tried substituting broccoli, but I find it doesn't work as well. If you don't know what to get, I recommend spinach. It's tasty and you don't have to worry about it losing its texture. 
  • Soy sauce. I really like Trader's Joe's reduced-sodium soy sauce but Kikkoman reduced-sodium is good too. Or you could go wild and get the regular sodium soy sauce of your choice. 
  • Chili-based hot sauce. Sriracha is my no. 1 choice. Chili in soya bean oil is a close second. I recommend using this second option sparingly unless you have a tongue that is trained to withstand heat.  
    These other ingredients can enhance this dish but you can take 'em or leave 'em: shiitake or button mushrooms, a little dash of teriyaki sauce, fried egg.

    If going for the soup variety, the ingredients are pretty much the same (though I've never included egg). Of course you'll want to add a vegetable broth or add veggie bouillon to a pot of water for the base. I also recommend adding a dash of hot sesame oil to the water/broth for an extra kick. A squeeze of lime adds a bit of fun too. And if you're like me, a big squeeze of lime (especially if you're fighting off a cold) is heaven sent. If you're not using mushroom with the noodle variety, it works well in soup form.
    And that's it. My recipe/variants on my recipe. Noodles take 3-5 minutes to make and soup time is up to you really. My sis for instance likes to let her soup steep on a low boil for longer. I can do a longer soup heating at a lower seating or a shorter time at a medium setting--it really depends on how hungry I am.


    Saturday, December 10, 2011

    my new (old) thing

    Ok folks, the following proves I can be passionate about other topics than food.
    I've long been a bit skeptical about paying much money for clothing. Forever 21, Charlotte Russe and H&M--sometimes you can find cute (sometimes professional) stuff that isn't slutty (though maybe Charlotte Russe is more of a gamble on this), but as I get older, I'm starting to realize that I want higher quality clothing. But I still don't want to pay that much.

    Now that I'm in New York, my new (old thing) is to shop mostly (if not exclusively) at nicer thrift stores. Sure, their prices range from the usual $3-4 Salvation Army fare to the pricier vintage, but even the more pricey thrift stores are worth it. My range of paying more means a shirt will cost me $11 rather than $3. I have not yet shelled out serious $$$ for truly vintage pieces. Still, I've found a lot of nice, interesting things to add to my wardrobe.

    Some Yelp reviews I've read complain of thrift stores such as Crossroads in Williamsburg that just sell used J. Crew and H&M clothing, but I have no qualms about such selections. I don't need vintage to fill up my closet. I can get a gently used J. Crew sweater for less than $20. And this is probably the only scenario where I would given J. Crew's prices. And since H&M's prices have gone up since I started shopping there in high school, it works for me.

    On my first trip to Crossroads, I walked away with a cute orange dress, a black and cream striped shift dress, and a pair of long red knit gloves with the amount received from the clothes I brought in to sell.

    On my second trip, I would've liked walk away with more but because of better self-restraint and slightly too-small options in the dresses I liked most, I just purchased one blue patterned Joy Joy flowy skirt--perfect for the extended fall we've been having.

    Next on the hits list is the Goodwill in Greenwich Village on W8th St. I bought two pair of pants (one Banana Republic, the other Gap), a pink and purple scarf, and a blue plastic bangle all for $33.22. This Goodwill seems to be a good stop for work-y clothes, especially pants, which I'm reluctant to buy at full price until/if I lose weight from all this projected exercising. If I can find it again, I will definitely go back. I get easily confused around Washington Square Park.

    Doggy's Clothing (N 6th St bet. Havemeyer St & Meeker Ave) in Williamsburg is awesome for finer purchases. It seems the men's clothing here is overpriced but ladies, you can find unique skirts and dresses for $25-40ish. Not bad for some styles. Weeks ago I bought a beige full skirt that seems to be made partly out of twine? It's so fun and I'm not sure I would've found anything like it if not in a thrift store.

    My trip to the Salvation Army in Downtown Brooklyn wasn't as fruitful. Here the prices were lower but so was the quality. I did snag a nice blue handbag for $10--so not a complete loss but I'm not too inspired to come back anytime soon. I found the Salvation Army in Clinton Hill to be a bigger hit.

    Housing Works in Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights hold some nice items too and they aren't as expensive as I assumed from the outside. The danger here isn't just in clothes but housewares, glassware, records and books. I'm tempted to go back to the Park Slope location for a set of brown tea cups and a 25 cent "Learn Basic French Phrases" record.

    Last but not least on this thrifting journey is Urban Jungle in Bushwick, right off the Morgan Ave. L stop. I actually came here before moving and loved sifting through all the retro dresses, skirts and blazers. There's so much to look through, but I think the broader selection means you're bound to walk away with something. The prices are also a happy balance between Salvation Army and Doggy's Clothing fare. It's also a short walk from the ever-so-cute and cozy Brooklyn Yarn Cafe.

    In future paychecks (that's right folks, I'm now gainfully employed!), I will expand my journey in thrifting. Next on my agenda is the Goodwill in Chelsea and Beacon's Closet in Park Slope and Williamsburg.

    Tuesday, December 6, 2011

    Heaven in your mouth

    Boulevard. In Bushwick. Located right off the Montrose Ave stop on the L.

    This cute little cafe located on the same block as Bushwick Pita Palace (whose best fare is actually their burritos, but we'll save that for a future post) has such tasty sandwiches. I've been there 3 or 4 times now and I always order the hummus sandwich: 1.) because there are few vegetarian sandwiches on the list (though you can also find salads here) and 2.) it's so gosh darn good.

    When I stopped in today to order my usual, they were out of it. Instead of panicking, I asked for the roasted vegetable sandwich. I had been, after all, wanting to try it but the hummus one comes with avocado and how can you say no to avocado? I love it so much and it's not something I have every day so when there's an opportunity, I strike! Because of this hankering, I asked the lady running the cash register if she could add avocado to the roasted veggie and voila! The results were scrumptious--goat cheese, squash, zuccini, and avocado on a toasted baguette. It's like heaven in your mouth.

    I'm fairly certain the roasted veggie sandwich could stand just as well without the avocado, but now I have 2 go-to sandwiches that make me happy inside--along with the possibility that I can combine my fave elements of each into a super sandwich! I like the idea of super food. And this is something I can explore in my own kitchen. Much like the inspiration from Cocoa Bar in my last post. Life is short so why not have the best sandwich ever? Treat yo self.

    Sunday, November 13, 2011

    A happy tummy week in Park Slope

    As I've transitioned out of my friend's apartment and scoped out the neighborhood New York Sports Club as part of my 30-day membership (thanks Groupon!), I've had three positive experiences in dining this past week in the Slope.

    Positive Dining Experience #1Cocoa Bar on 7th Ave (between 3rd and 4th Sts.) where I met a friend to have coffee and have a productive "let's do work in each other's company" date. The coffee was yumcious but what really stood out was the vegan lentil pate sandwich--veggies, salad, and lentil spread on a small baguette. The size was adorable--I liked that it wasn't as overwhelming as some baguette-based sandwiches can be. Of the three experiences, I'd say this was my aha!/duh! moment. I should totally add spreads to my sandwiches to make them more interesting. I mean, not entirely a surprise to me as I've often used hummus as a base for pita sandwiches and wraps. But for some reason I never thought to put things like mashed lentils into my sandwich. This sparked a plethora of ideas to try: Trader Joe's olive tapenade spread (it's not just for crackers anymore), Trader Joe's eggplant with red pepper spread, etc. etc. Once I can afford to stock up on these yummies at TJ's, I'm totally experimenting with different sandwich flavors.

    Positive Dining Experience #2: An impromptu lunch while I waited for my clothes to dry at the laundromat. Looking for somewhere close by and, in particular some place with soup options, I walked into Luna Burrito on 22nd St. and 5th Ave. I ordered the veggie soup ($4.50) and the guacamole with chips ($5.25). The chips were nice and crunchy and had that thicker tortilla taste than say a bag of Tostitos. I like it, it feels heartier, like the chip is working for me and I'm not working for the chip. The guacamole was somewhat weak.* I downed it mostly out of hunger but, as I find with many restaurants, it's hard to get that perfect bowl of guac.

    The soup was better than I expected to be. I don't know if my generous squeeze of lime boosted it immensely (give me lots of lime and I'm a happy camper) or if on its own it stood up to my hunger, but it was very filling and satisfying--veggie broth, tomatoeyness, potatoes, carrots, and maybe a few other things. Very simple but very comforting on a cold day.

    Positive Dining Experience #3: Shinju on 7th Ave (between 3rd and 4th Sts.). A great place for sushi on a budget, this provided the most bang for my ever-dwindling bucks. For a Thursday dinner for 2--that's four 6-piece maki rolls, the total with tax came out to $10.90. The mango/avocado roll I had was refreshing and the pumpkin roll (very apropos-for-the-season) was delicious. I don't know what else to say about this place except that I will be going back sometime soon to try out more of their rolls. If I can have a sushi smorgasbord for less than $10, then so be it! My dreams are coming true!

    *Notice to readers paying careful attention. I'm still looking for the best guacamole recipe so if you think you have it, please send it my way. Also, if you have tips on picking out winning avocados, I'd appreciate those as well. So far I've just been crossing my fingers and coming out about 50-50. 

    Sunday, November 6, 2011

    Italian-inspired Veg-ging Out

    On one of my (almost) monthly visits to New York this past year, a friend and I stopped in Red Bamboo in Greenwich Village for some sustenance before I hopped on the Bolt bus back to D.C. Yet another instance of my eating companion choosing a more desirable dish than one of my choosing.

    The Soul Chicken Sandwich (Panko breaded soy chicken nuggets, romaine lettuce, tomato, vegan mayo and vidalia dressing served on bread) was good but a little dry. I typically love anything with a panko crust--especially Trader Joe's Panko Crusted Tilapia--whoops but those are my pesky pescetarian tendencies and not the vegan way--but this dish did not compare to my companion's Chicken Parmesan Hero. I enjoyed his dish so much that I kept stealing from his plate.

    When I got back to D.C., I had to have more. Guessing/simulating the ingredients on a venture to Whole Foods, I picked up one package of Boca soy chick'n patties, 1 bag of shredded Daiya mozzarella, and a jar of regular marinara pasta sauce. Pretty simple. After heating up a little olive oil in a pan, I added two patties and let them get softer before adding in the pasta sauce (reducing the heat so it wouldn't splatter everywhere) and finally, the Daiya. Not used to cooking with vegan cheese, I didn't realize the melting process would take a bit longer than with normal cheese.

    The initial result: tasty. Who knew Boca's chick'n patties would be as delicious as their soy burgers?

    Since that first attempt, I've made variations of this dish a handful of times. And I've gotten better about knowing when to add the cheese to get it nice and gooey. I've cooked it with and without noodle and shell pastas depending on my level of hunger.

    Inspired by this fantastic dish at Red Bamboo, I figured I should combine veggie protein with pasta more often. So when the same friend who ordered this dish came to visit me in D.C. a couple months later, I made us both dinner. The make-up: fettucine (a nice size noodle for holding the sauce), red pasta sauce, and Veggie Patch Meatless Meatballs. Again I used Daiya mozzarella, a little basil, and crushed red pepper.

    Now the tables had turned and it was my friend who ended up stealing the food from my plate.

    Tuesday, October 25, 2011

    Noodles any day, any way

    For the first few days of this week, I'm saving my pennies by cooking my meals at home. This doesn't mean I can't start to dream of ingredients I will buy or second trips I will make to certain restaurants.

    As I look ahead to the yummy and new food to be eaten (read: letting the purse strings loose for the weekend), I'd like to revisit some tried and true recipes that have often made my tummy happy in the past.

    Tonight, it's all about a staple food. Potatoes? No. Rice? Not this time. Noodles? Yes, please!

    I was first drawn to this soba noodle recipe a year or so ago when I had access to the Cooking Channel. It tastes yummy either hot or cold.

    Sunday, October 23, 2011

    Being vegetarian on a budget, Part 1

    Now that I'm living in New York where the cost of living is higher, I'm wondering how someone with no/low income can stick to the healthy vegan/vegetarian lifestyle (read: not just consuming bags of cookies to stay full). I'd like to save my pennies until I find a job up here, but I also want to try the numerous options of vegan/vegetarian fast and slow food New York has to offer. 

    As I mentioned in my previous post, I want to check out all the vegan/vegetarian hot spots in Brooklyn and NYC and see how well I do in replicating the tastiest of them in my own kitchen. (More to come on this later). But until I have my own kitchen, I’m going to relive the positive vegan experiences I’ve had thus far in my first three weeks of living here.

    Drool Memory #1
    I made a risky decision to come up to New York with no job and no apartment—but I figured it'd be easier to secure the two once up here. So for my first week here, I stayed with a friend in Brooklyn Heights. Before coming up, I had read about Vegetarian Ginger and made excited preparations to visit even before I knew how I was going to transport my stuff from D.C.

    Stopping in one evening for dinner with the friend I was staying with, I was not disappointed. I ordered the Pineapple Soy Protein with brown rice. I’m not usually a fan of brown rice but it was cooked in a manner where the deliciousness overpowered the “nutritious” (read: what I normally find dry) taste. The pineapple (and mango) soy protein portion was pretty tasty—a nice combination of fruity and salty. The prices weren’t bad either. About $10-12 for a good portion-size entrĂ©e.

    The presentation of my dish was lovely. I certainly did not expect it to actually come out in a half-pineapple casing.

    While I enjoyed the experience of eating out of a pineapple, I found this dish a little too fancy for the everyday fake-meat craving. What made me go back for seconds was actually my friend’s dish—the General Tso’s Soy Protein. After tasting just one of her “medallions” of soy chick’n, I went back the next night to get my own. The next time I’m in the area, I fully intend to visit again and check out the rest of the menu—that is if I can resist the urge to go back for more General Tso’s…

    Saturday, October 22, 2011

    Let's talk food...a.k.a. let me introduce myself

    There’s a reason religion and politics are often too taboo to bring up at the dinner table, but food—whether discussed at the table, during a long commute or inside your own head whilst pretending to be focused on your downward dog in your overpriced yoga class—should be a uniting force.

    I am a firm believer in discussing current and next meals early and often. This was made most evident to me recently as my best friend since first grade told me that every gchat conversation I hold involves some discussion of food—whether it’s an inquiry into what said friend had for dinner or my own rambling about the latest best thing I’ve tasted.

    Lately, I can’t stop talking about my fear of gaining 20 pounds now that I’m a Brooklynite. My hunger for more, MORE! deliciousness grows. My latest goal is to check out all the vegan spots available in Brooklyn and test the replicability of the tasty bites in my own kitchen. Even though I’ve done the vegetarian thing for 15 years now, non-dairy cheese still eludes me. And don’t even get me started on venturing into my own vegan baking. For now, I’m sticking to the savory.