One of the things I missed most during our vegan diet was yogurt.  Oh goodness, greek yogurt.  I yearned for it.  With dairy moving slowly back into my life, I decided to make a batch of granola to have with yogurt for breakfast this week.  The plan was to do the usual granola, nothing new.  But then I happened upon Madison’s recipe last week and was intrigued.  I love peanut butter.  I have a tendency to eat it in spoonfuls out of the jar.  I put away a lot of peanut butter when we were vegan.

Peanut butter granola doesn’t go well with greek yogurt, but I couldn’t resist the recipe.  My peanut butter addiction totally trumped my need for greek yogurt. I just had visions of all these tiny crunchy oats coated in a sweet peanut butter mixture, served with cold milk.  With 5 cups of that on hand now, I think I can forego the yogurt for a few more days.

Peanut Butter Granola adapted from Espresso and Cream/ All Recipes

Makes 5 cups

4 cups rolled oats

1 cup finely chopped walnuts

1/4 ground flax seed

1/2 c smooth peanut butter

1/3 c vegetable oil

1/3 c honey

1 T molasses

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp vanilla

1/2 tsp salt

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.  In a saucepan, combine the wet ingredients over medium low heat until smooth.  Set aside to cool slightly.  In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients.  Pour the peanut butter mixture into the dry ingredients and toss well.  Spread the granola in a thin layer over two foil lined baking sheets.  Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes, stirring the granola every 15 minutes.  Let cool before serving.

For close to three weeks, we’ve been doing something very un-Contessa like.  Perhaps you may have noticed.  Perhaps you may have wondered why I haven’t featured any dishes containing meat, or made any glutinous desserts full of butter and heavy cream. Inspired by my persuasive co-worker, we adopted a vegan diet for 3 weeks.  Since I’d like to continue writing this blog, (that, and I love food too much), I am by no means becoming a vegan for life. But after 3 weeks of living this way, I do feel the need to reflect on it, as it has largely impacted my outlook on food and eating. I’ll begin with the positive.

The Upside

Energized and Satiated: I can wholeheartedly say we truly feel better.  Before we adopted this way of eating, I assumed we ate well. I’ve read all the Michael Pollan books, watched all the food documentaries- I’m totally drinking the fresh food/local eating Kool-Aid.  Organic fruits and vegetables each day, whole grain breads, and healthy fats are all staples of my cooking and pantry.  We didn’t eat too much meat, and the animal protein we did eat was mostly chicken or fish. We did consume yogurt pretty regularly, but cheese, butter, etc was eaten in moderation.

But when your diet shifts, so that the bulk of your calories are coming from fresh food, you realize how many more vegetables you can (and should) be consuming each day. Without calorie rich portions of meat and dairy,  we were consuming a ton of food, yet still felt light and more energetic.  Without thinking, all our meals became nutrient rich, filling our plates with more vegetables than ever before.  Quite possibly the most humbling experience, for me, was having to forego dessert.  A few days of afternoon sugar withdrawal headaches, made it very clear that my “sweet tooth” was much more of a dependency on sugar than I realized.  The first week was rough, but by the second I found myself no longer craving dessert in the afternoon or after dinner, coffee without sugar was actually enjoyable, and an apple tasted almost as good as chocolate.

A Kitchen Re-Awakening:  Before embarking on this vegan adventure, I assumed my time spent cooking would become mundane, and food would become ordinary.  Food would just be something we ate to nourish ourselves. Thankfully, I could not have been more wrong.  In these three weeks alone, I’ve discovered more new ingredients, cooking techniques, and recipes, than in the past year.  Everything from using almond butter and tahini in dressings and dips, to drinking almond milk, pickling red onions, and even making kim chi, with watermelon radishes no less (props to Brandon!), all went down. Not to mention that even with all the new items we purchased, we threw away less food and racked up our lowest (to date) grocery bills.

Pair Up:  I definitely would not have been as motivated to stick with this way of eating had I not done it with someone else.  When I shared with friends and co-workers that Brandon and I were doing this, their next question often was, “How did you force him to do it?!?” (Insert Inner thought: He’s a man, he must eat meat!).  Shockingly enough, I didn’t have to force Brandon into eating this way; he was naturally intrigued and did it of his own accord. But having someone to brainstorm recipes with and wistfully inhale the fumes from the burger joint across the street was very helpful.

The Downside

What Social Life? Dining out with friends was a challenge.  Unless your friends always want to go to Asian restaurants, you’ll be hard pressed to find vegan friendly options on regular menus.  We enjoyed some great Japanese and Thai meals during our 3 week stint, but had to forego a few meals out because of our dietary restrictions.

Cancel Your Travel Plans: I had to travel for work during this period, and sticking to an all vegan diet while not subsisting on bread was a challenge.  Beans are a key staple when you’re eating this way, and they’re rarely featured on restaurant menus.  Furthermore, menus are pretty vague- many vegetable side dishes are cooked in butter and cheese shows up where you least expect it.

No Tofu Cookies For Me: While I’m glad this experience forced me to put the reigns on my sugar intake, I have no desire to start crafting baked goods without eggs, butter, and milk. To me, I’ll take no cake over vegan cake.  I love baking with butter, and that’s that.

We decided to reward ourselves for a job well done this afternoon and splurged on cheeseburgers.  I won’t lie, they were completely and utterly delicious.  Animal fat never tasted so good.  A few hours later though, we’re still feeling those beef patties.  Granted ,we didn’t exactly ease back into eating meat, but it’s a pretty clear sign my body prefers a meal with more vegetables.  It certainly wasn’t the last burger or piece of meat I’ll ever eat.  Food and cooking is too big a part of me to ever give up any ingredient completely.    That said, my body’s reaction to removing meat and dairy from my diet borders on addictive.  It’s really nice to feel this good from what you’re eating.

Longterm, this experience will influence the way I eat and cook on a daily basis. New ingredients are now staples, my appetite for salad is even more voracious than it was before, and I’m eager to find new dishes to satisfy our tweaked palettes.

We have our first BBQ of the season this weekend and the forecast is rain and cold.  Cold cold cold.  I’m through.  I want summer. I want sun, beach,  and ice cream cones to go with.  It’s April- let’s get on with this.

In between my ranting about the weather, I made this chocolate bark.  Say hello to your go to dinner party dessert. Super quick and easy, and it can be made ahead.  Naturally, this has Ina written all over it.  You can choose any nuts or dried fruits to go with, just be sure the nuts are salty- the salty sweet combo is key.

And it’s also important to remember if one of your guests is allergic to chocolate, which I didn’t.  That would be key too. Luckily I had a very forgiving guest (Thanks, Liz!).

Happy weekend!

French Chocolate Bark adapted from Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics
Makes 16-18 large pieces

10 oz semi sweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 cup salted shelled pistachios
1 cup dried cranberries

Place 3/4 of the chopped chocolate in a bowl and microwave for 20-30 seconds.  Remove from microwave and stir well. Place back in microwave, continuing to heat for 20-30 second intervals and stirring until all the chocolate is melted.  Add in the remaining chopped chocolate and stir vigorously until all the chocolate is melted and it’s smooth and glossy.

Place a large piece of parchment paper on a cookie sheet.  Pour the melted chocolate on to the parchment paper, spreading it out with a rubber spatula into the shape of a rough rectangle. First sprinkle the nuts evenly across the chocolate, then the cranberries.  Allow to cool for at least two hours.  Cut into large pieces and serve, or store in an air tight container.

After working this weekend, I took Monday off. Two great things happened:

1) I finally got around to making these crackers I’d been eyeing.

2) I went grocery shopping.

Yes, grocery shopping on a Monday morning is truly great. The stores are quiet, bordering on peaceful.  There are just a few polite moms, wandering the aisles. Everything is in stock, the produce is fresh. I could move slowly and take my time, not banging carts every time I turned a corner. It was wonderful.  I’m still glowing from the experience.

Now that I’ve revealed to you how obsessed I am about my grocery shopping, on to these crackers. Crackers- another item I never think to make at home but was curious to try.  These are hearty and crunchy and spicy all at the same time.  I like the addition of the sesame seeds, both for the way they taste and how they look.

Spicy Sesame Crackers adapted from So Good and Tasty

Makes roughly 24 crackers

3/4 c cold water

1/8 c olive oil

1 1/4 c whole wheat flour

1/4 c corn meal

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp red pepper flakes (less if you don’t like it so spicy)

1/2 tsp paprika

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp garlic powder

1 T sesame seeds

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, pour in the olive oil and water.  In a separate bowl mix together the flour, corn meal, salt, and red pepper flakes.  Pour the dry mixture into the wet, mixing on low until just combined.  The dough should be slightly sticky. Remove the dough, bring together into a ball, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees, line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.  Mix together the remaining ingredients in a small bowl. Remove the dough from the fridge and place it on a lightly floured countertop.  Flour the top of the dough and your rolling pin.  You may need to do this several times throughout so the dough doesn’t stick.  Roll from the center out, getting the dough as thin as possible.  Once rolled out, run a spatula under the dough, loosening it from the counter.  Use a pizza cutter to clean up the edges, then transfer the dough to the baking sheet.  Brush the dough with olive oil, and sprinkle evenly with the sesame/spice mixture.

One sheet at a time, bake for ten minutes, then flip the dough and bake for another 2-4 minutes, until it’s lightly brown.  Let the cracker cool, then break or cut into large pieces.

Making my own salad dressing is nothing new. That’s the way my mother did it growing up, so I grew accustomed to doing it that way. We occasionally had a bottle of ranch in the fridge, but that was for the nights my mom went out and we had a babysitter. We’d have chicken nuggets and chopped up veggies, and use the ranch as dipping sauce for both the nuggets and the veggies. That whole combination though, doesn’t sound too appetizing now.

My standard at home dressing always consists of French mustard, honey or sugar, some type of vinegar, and olive oil. I recently bought a jar of tahini to make hummus, but had a ton leftover. At $7 for the jar, I didn’t want it to go to waste, so I began exploring tahini based dressings. I settled on the one below based on the items in my cupboard. One week later our tahini is almost gone- a testament to how good this dressing is. The flavor is strong yet not overpowering, with great nuttiness from the sesame seeds. It’s also addictively creamy, without the addition of sour cream or mayo.  We’re almost through with the tahini and I definitely plan on buying more.  So in the end, this whole effort to get rid of an ingredient only caused it to become a mainstay in my cupboard.

Tahini Dressing adapted from Epicurious

1/4 c tahini
1/4 c water
1 T lemon juice
1 T apple cider vinegar
1 T soy sauce
1 clove finely minced garlic
2 tsp maple syrup
s+p to taste

Whisk together the tahini and water until completely combined. Then add in remaining ingredients and stir well. If dressing seems to thick, add a bit more water. Toss half of dressing with a large bowl of salad ingredients- add more if desired. Dressing can be stored up to a week, covered, in fridge.