Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Handmade All-Natural Lip Balm Gifts

Hello and Happy New Year's Eve!  I hope your holiday season has been wonderful so far.  We stayed in town over Christmas and enjoyed time with Oklahoma family as well as some out-of-town relatives.
As usual, this winter break has been flying by.  Aside from all the holiday festivities, Jay and I are trying hard to get some "to-dos" accomplished  over break (like shampooing all the carpets!) while still making time for fun.  A couple days ago, we took a day trip to a nearby state park and hiked about seven miles.  It was so nice to get away for a bit and enjoy a change of scenery. 
On another note, now that all the Christmas gifts have been exchanged, I wanted to share a little bit about the lip balm my mom and I made this year for our friends and family.  
Last year's laundry soap was a big hit, so we decided to start a tradition of making a handmade gift together each year.  We settled on lip balm for this year's gift because it's something everyone can always use (especially in this freezing cold winter weather we've been having), and it seemed easy enough to make a large batch in a single afternoon.  

We combed through numerous recipes on the internet and selected four ingredients to use for the balms.  It took a little trial and error to figure out the best proportions, but the consistency of this final formula is just right. I was really happy with how it turned out.

Here is what we used:

6 tablespoons coconut oil
3 tablespoons beeswax
1 teaspoon vitamin E oil
10-12 drops essential oil
We bought the coconut oil at the grocery store, but the beeswax pellets and vitamin E oil were purchased from Amazon.  We used essential oils that we already had on hand, but they can be easily found online or at any health food store in a variety of scents.

To make the lip balm, we started by melting down the beeswax and coconut oil.  To avoid burning, we placed the ingredients into a small stainless steel mixing bowl which we then submerged in a larger pot of hot (almost boiling) water.  Of course you could also use a double boiler to do this, but our own makeshift method worked surprisingly well.
Once the beeswax and coconut oil were melted, we added in the vitamin E and essential oil and stirred it all together.  We experimented with several flavors of essential oils, but our favorite was the wintergreen.  It was much more noticeable than the orange and gave the balm a fresh, minty fragrance.

We used a small spoon and an eyedropper to fill up our little plastic containers (also purchased on Amazon).  One batch of the lip balm filled up about 18 of the small 5 gram pots.  By the end of the afternoon, we had made enough to fill 50 containers!

After about 15 minutes, the lip balm had cooled off and was ready to use.
To make the gifts a little more special, we decorated each lip balm with a festive sticker and attached it with a dab of hot glue to a small card that I designed on PicMonkey. 
The lip balms were very well received.  Many have commented that they love the way it feels on their lips, and I think everyone appreciated the simple, all-natural ingredients.  Plus, it always seems more special when a gift is made by hand.

I'm not sure exactly what the next few days have in store, but I am going to do my best to enjoy every minute  of my time off before the craziness of work resumes.

Wishing you all a very safe and healthy new year!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Go Veggie! Cheese Review

Since Jay and I primarily eat a plant-based diet, we rarely purchase any meat or dairy products at the grocery store.  I cook with lots of vegetables, beans, whole grains, and spices and try to avoid buying a lot of vegan "meat" and "cheese" substitutes.

That being said, some of my favorite meals just wouldn't be the same without the addition of some melty, stretchy cheese.  (Cheeseless pizza?  No thank you.)  For those situations, I usually turn to Daiya as a satisfying cheese substitute.  It is one of the few options at our local Sprouts that is plant-based and completely dairy free.

Some nice people at the Go Veggie! company noticed our affinity for Daiya on the blog and recently offered to send us some of their products to try out and compare.  I had always noticed the Go Veggie! shreds next to the Daiya on the grocery store shelf, but I never purchased them because they were only lactose free and not dairy free.

As it turns out, Go Veggie! has an entire vegan line that I never knew existed.  There are shreds, cream cheeses, singles, and even a parmesan-style topping.

I accepted their offer to try out the products and was so excited when my big box of samples arrived!
I immediately checked everything out and was glad to see that I recognized the majority of the plant-based ingredients (things like coconut oil and pea protein).

When I started cooking with the Go Veggie! cheeses, one of the first things I noticed was how much better it melted than Daiya.

I used the Mexican shreds on this loaded sweet potato, and it oozed its way through all the veggies.
The mozzarella shreds were delicious on this pizza.  It's a bit hard to see the cheese, but if you look at the edges you can really get an idea of how melty it was.  The flavor was amazing!
My favorite was when I used the Mexican shreds on my spaghetti squash enchiladas (made for the second week in a row).
Look at that cheese dripping over the side!
I also added the shreds to a big taco salad and a bowl of rice and beans.  I usually wouldn't eat any cheese with these meals, but I enjoyed the extra flavor.
The cream cheese spread wasn't quite as thick as real cream cheese but still had a great texture and flavor.  Jay said this kind tasted like strawberry ice cream on his bagel.  
I forgot to snap a picture, but we tried some of the singles at lunch yesterday and they were very comparable to real cheese singles.  I haven't had a cheese single in ages and probably wouldn't buy these on a regular basis, but they would be great for kids or sandwich lovers.

I have really enjoyed the Go Veggie! products so far, and I'm looking forward to using the cheeses in future recipes.

As for the downsides...I wish this vegan line was more widely available.  It looks like some of the vegan varieties can be found at Natural Grocers and Whole Foods, but unfortunately not at Sprouts or any of the big box stores.

Also, you do have to be sure to read the Go Veggie! labels carefully, especially if there are certain ingredients or allergens you are trying to avoid.  As I mentioned before, not all of the Go Veggie! products are dairy free, and even within the dairy free line some products contain soy and some do not.

I'm happy to have new tasty options when it comes to dairy-free cheeses, but I plan to continue using these types of products in moderation.  Just because something claims to be "plant-based" doesn't mean it is automatically great for you.  Any brand cheese substitute is still processed and contains a lot of oils, so I wouldn't go too crazy even if they are delicious.

With that in mind, for those occasions when a pizza or nacho craving strikes, Go Veggie! cheese will be a great asset to have in my refrigerator!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Black Bean Enchilada Stuffed Spaghetti Squash

I like the idea of spaghetti squash, but I don't always like the reality of it.  Replacing actual noodles with a healthier, noodle-like vegetable seems smart, but I've come to realize that the squash just won't taste the same as real noodles (no matter how badly I want it to).  I also find it a big pain to scrape all the "pasta" out of the squash after it's cooked, and I usually end up burning myself at some point in the process. 

That being said, I really love all other kinds of squash and wasn't ready to give up on spaghetti squash all together.  I wanted to prepare it in a way that would be easy (no scraping) and wouldn't depend on the squash trying to taste like something it wasn't.  Since it's hard to go wrong with roasted vegetables + beans + melty cheese, I thought it might work well to roast the squash and then stuff it with an enchilada-style mixture.

This turned out to be a very wise idea.  

Aside from being delicious, this recipe is great because it involves zero chopping, takes only about 10 minutes of hands on time, and is full of healthy vegetables hidden beneath the cheesy goodness.  This is definitely how I will be preparing spaghetti squash from now on. 
Black Bean Enchilada Stuffed Spaghetti Squash
Serves: 2 (very large servings)
Total time: 1 hour
Hands-on time: 10 minutes

1 spaghetti squash, cut in half and seeded
1 tablespoon coconut or olive oil
1 cup enchilada sauce 
1 cup cooked brown rice
1 cup black beans
1/2 cup corn 
1 cup shredded cheese (non-dairy or regular, divided)
Optional toppings: diced avocado, cilantro, salsa, etc. 
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. 
2. Brush the inside of the spaghetti squash with oil and season with a pinch of salt. 
3. Place on baking sheet and roast, skin side up, until tender (30-45 minutes). 
4. Meanwhile, mix the black beans, corn, rice, enchilada sauce, and 1/2 cup cheese in a large bowl. 
5. Once the squash is done, divide the enchilada mixture between the two squash halves and top with remaining cheese. 
6. Return the squash to the oven for 10 minutes at 400, just to make sure everything is warm.  Then, crank the heat up and broil until the cheese turns a light golden brown, about 2-3 minutes.
7. Garnish and eat! 
 I highly recommend topping the squash with gave the dish a creamy texture that really took it to the next level.  No one would have ever guessed this was completely vegan. 

Just look at all of that cheesy, stringy goodness. 

Until next time!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Thanksgiving 2014

I hope you all enjoyed your Thanksgiving are are getting a little extra rest and relaxation over this holiday weekend.

I started my break off with some sort of flu-like sickness, so things have been pretty low-key around here.  My fever was really high last Tuesday and Wednesday, to the point where I wasn't even sure I would be able to partake in Thanksgiving festivities.  Fortunately, things got a lot better throughout the day on Thursday.  I rested up and watched the National Dog Show with Wendy.
A few hours later, I was ready to enjoy a delicious Thanksgiving dinner at my grandma's.
It was requested that I bring my Brussels sprouts dish from last year.  I followed the same recipe but used pecans instead of walnuts. 

One of my favorite veggies!
Of course, it wouldn't be Thanksgiving without an extensive spread of pies.  My cousin and aunt are expert bakers and always create the most amazing desserts.
We continued celebrating last night with Jay's family.  Since we had already had our share of traditional Thanksgiving food, Jay's sister made spaghetti complete with homemade vegan meatballs.  It was perfect after such a heavy dinner the night before.  We ended the night with some competitive ping-pong and board game playing.  Settlers of Catan is our favorite - it is really nerdy but always a good time.  
My mom and I did make it out for our annual Black Friday shopping adventure, although it was a little toned down compared with past years (especially last year's craziness that happened at Kohl's!).  We still had luck finding some good deals.  I got quite a few smaller gifts that I often leave until the last minute, so I was happy to have that accomplished. 

Not sure what else is on the agenda for the next two days.  I feel like I have a lot of catch-up to do after being sick.  I hope to pop back in with a squash recipe and maybe some Christmas decorations in the next few days.  

Enjoy the rest of your holiday weekend!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Things I'm Loving Lately {November Edition}

A few things I've been loving this fall!

1. Luna & Larry's Organic Coconut Bliss Ice Cream
The best non-dairy ice cream I have ever tried.  Soy free, dairy free, gluten free, and not too sugary.  This flavor was delicious, and I loved the real cacoa nibs scattered throughout.  Superfood bonus!

2. Diana's Bananas Banana Babies
Another dessert - I guess I have had a sweet tooth lately.  My grandpa introduced me to these last summer when Jay and I were in Florida.  I recently bought a box at our local Natural Grocers, and they are still as amazing as I remember.  I like that these treats are primarily made of fresh fruit dipped in just a little bit of high quality dark chocolate.  It may not be the healthiest thing you can eat, but it is a pretty good option as far as desserts go. 

3. Archer Farms Simmer Sauces
When I don't have much time to cook dinner, one of my favorite tricks is to doctor up a pre-made sauce with extra veggies and protein.  Target has a great selection of Indian and Thai inspired simmer sauces made from real ingredients and healthy spices. 
I added some garlic, ginger, broccoli, spinach, and simple roasted tofu to this Panang Ginger Curry sauce last night.  It was easy and delicious served on top of brown rice. 

4. Sofritas Organic Tofu at Chipotle
I am a regular at Chipotle.  Up until recently, I have always ordered the exact same veggie burrito bowl loaded with all the salsas and guacamole.  As much as I love my usual, I was really excited to see a new addition to the menu a couple weekends ago when I was in Dallas with my mom.  The "Sofritas" shredded organic tofu is braised with chipotle chilies, roasted poblanos, and spices.  My mom and I both agreed that it was so flavorful and tasted a lot like meat, only better!  I hope they are offering this at my local Chipotle, because I would definitely order it again. 

5. Target + TOMS
I love Target and I love TOMS, so I was really excited to see them combined.  All of the stuff is so cute, and for every gift you buy, they give shoes, a blanket, or a meal to someone in need.  I especially love the throws and this candle - it would make a great Christmas present!  ;)

Just a week until Thanksgiving!  Our Christmas cards have already been ordered, and I am looking forward to the official kick-off of the holiday season.  

See you soon!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Creamy Avocado Kale Pasta

My Bachelor watching group is a huge fan of this simple avocado cream pasta sauce recipe.  We've doctored it up all sorts of ways, including using basil instead of parsley, adding white beans, etc.  It has never failed us.

Seeing as there hasn't been a Bachelor season in a while, I was really missing this pasta.  (Not to mention seeing Zenie and Ashleigh on a weekly basis!)

I pulled out the old recipe the other night and put a bit of a new spin on it.  It turned out so creamy and delicious, I literally licked the plate (and the pan and the food processor).  Avocado + kale is the best combination.
Lemony Avocado Kale Pasta
Serves: 2
Total time: 20 minutes

1/2 box whole wheat spaghetti
1 lemon
1 avocado, halved and pitted
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1 bunch kale, rinsed and chopped
Pinch of red pepper flakes
Plenty of salt and fresh-ground pepper

1. Bring salted water to a boil in a medium sized pot. Add in your pasta and cook until al dente. 

2. While the water heats up, make your sauce by combining one clove of garlic, juice of 1/2 lemon, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, avocado, and a pinch of salt and pepper in a food processor. 

3.  As the pasta is cooking, heat the other tablespoon of olive oil in a large pan over medium heat.  Add in 1 clove of minced garlic and a pinch of red pepper flakes.  Saute until fragrant. 

4. Add your kale and the juice of the other half of lemon.  Saute for a few more minutes, until kale is soft.
5. When pasta is done cooking, drain and rinse in a strainer.  Toss thoroughly with the avocado sauce and kale.  Garnish with additional pepper, fresh Parmesan, fresh basil, etc.
Note: this pasta is REALLY lemony.  If lemon isn't your thing, it's probably not for you.  Also, it would be great with some white beans or grilled chicken mixed in for added protein.  

Stay warm out there!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Green Pepper Lentil Soup

Hi there!  Hope you all had a great weekend.  I was out of town once again, this time in Dallas to cheer on Jay's volleyball team in the conference finals.  My mom and I drove down directly from work on Friday and had a great time hanging out in the area and supporting the Cyclones.  Jay's team made it all the way to the championship match and played so well against a much bigger school - it was incredibly exciting to watch!  
After getting home late Saturday night, Jay and I hosted a casual birthday brunch for his grandpa yesterday morning.  By the time dinner rolled around, we were both pretty exhausted and not in the mood for any heavy duty cooking.  I figured it would be the perfect night for a big, easy pot of soup, especially with frigid winter temperatures right around the corner.  

We had a surplus of green peppers, so I used them along with other ingredients I had on hand to put together a soup version of lentil stuffed (or in this case un-stuffed) green peppers.  It only took about 10 minutes to throw together, and it was delicious and and filling.  The rice and lentils provide complete protein and lots of bulk.  I actually had to return some of my second helping back to the pot because my eyes were so much bigger than my stomach (a rare occurrence around here).  I can't wait to take the leftovers to work this week to keep me warm through the polar vortex.   
Green Pepper Lentil Soup
(Inspired by a recipe originally spotted on Clean Eating Chelsey)
Serves: 4
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes

1 tbsp. olive oil
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1 1/2 green peppers, chopped
1/2 yellow onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup dried lentils
1/2 cup uncooked brown rice
1 can fire roasted diced tomatoes
4 cups vegetable broth
2 cups fresh spinach
1 tsp. basil
1 tsp. oregano
Salt and pepper to taste
Begin by heating the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat.  Saute your red pepper flakes, onion, garlic, and green pepper for about five minutes (until soft).  Add your diced tomatoes, vegetable broth, brown rice, lentils, and additional spices.  Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. If you like your soup spicy, top with a squeeze of Sriracha before enjoying.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Spotlight on BroccoLeaf

There's a new vegetable hitting grocery store shelves, and I'm super excited about it.  It's called BroccoLeaf for obvious reasons - it's just the leaf part of a normal broccoli plant.  Obviously, these leaves are nothing new - they have been around for as long as people have been growing broccoli.  But only recently has it been discovered that they can be picked and eaten.

As you can imagine, BroccoLeaf is an amazing superfood.  It contains more calcium than skim milk, is an excellent source of Vitamins A and K, and contains more than 100% of the daily recommended level of Vitamin C.

I spotted BroccoLeaf at my local Natural Grocers last week.  I wasn't immediately sure what it was - it sort of resembled an enormous bunch of collard greens.   Once I realized what I had found, of course I had to take it home to give it a try.
It was so huge, it wouldn't even fit in the produce bag!  (A pretty good value at only $1.79)
Apparently BroccoLeaf works well for juicing and can even be eaten raw, but I chose to use mine to make this simple saute that was featured on the BroccoLeaf website.  It's pretty much the exact recipe I use to saute kale (minus the lemon juice), so I figured it would be a pretty safe bet.  I did add some mustard powder at the end to be sure that we were getting the most nutritional bang for our buck.
Even though we had a ton of BroccoLeaf for just myself and Jay, I decided to go ahead and cook the whole bunch.  Many greens reduce way down when you cook them, so I didn't want to risk not having enough.  As it turned out, the BroccoLeaf hardly shrank down at all, leaving us with a massive helping.  Good thing we love greens!

I really enjoyed the taste of the BroccoLeaf.  It wasn't anything crazy unusual, just a good solid green to add in to our rotation.  The taste was mild and not at all bitter.  In texture, it was much less wilty than spinach or kale - maybe more similar to swiss chard.

It was delicious served along side roasted tofu and quinoa, and topped with a little feta cheese.
You can bet I will be buying this green again!