Sunday, April 19, 2015

Soft Food for Sore Mouths Part 2

Gum surgery was so fun I went and had the other side done three weeks later! ;) While Sarah did an amazing job of meal planning after the first surgery, we did want to change it up.

There were several excellent soups we hadn't had yet (African groundnut, creamy tomato, corn chowder, etc.) but we started with simple refried beans. I didn't want to eat them plain, so Sarah had the brilliant idea to serve them over soft polenta!
Beans over polenta

Next was one of our favorite recipes adjusted to not require any chewing. It's supposed to be chickpea crepes with a sweet potato curry, so we skipped the crepes and also just roasted the sweet potatoes whole and blended them rather than chopping them up and eating them as cubes.
Sweet potato curry

Getting more creative, Sarah came up with the idea for  blended Shepherd's pie! Each layer (mashed potato, lentils/mushrooms, carrots, peas) were separately seasoned and blended before being assembled:
Smooth shepherd's pie

For breakfast I mostly relied on blending up oatmeal with some almond milk, peanut butter to help me last until lunch, and thawed frozen blueberries. It comes out kind of goopy and gross honestly but it was easy to drink:

Oatmeal blueberry smoothie

And then I forgot to take photos of the African groundnut stew with red swiss chard in it, but that was also delicious and creamily soft! This definitely made the recovery process much more pleasant! I find that even weeks later I still can't eat cold foods like ice cream, so milkshakes (a frequent suggestion for a soft food) were definitely not going to work as well as these did.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Making an "Alien" themed chestburster cake

Our friend Riley who hosted the epic Jurassic Park-ty for his birthday last year decided to go with a theme from the movie Alien this year. The obvious response was to make a torso cake with the "chestburster" phase of the alien actually bursting from the cake. Here's how that went down. The basic ingredients were 1 cake, black cherry juice, pectin, and official Alien chestburster chopsticks (in lieu of making a homemade one out of flour / water / salt).

Step 1 was to prepare by making the "guts." We were already using pectin and black cherry juice to make alien-head gummies using a mold (the second photo has some with pineapple-cherry juice for better flavor), with the all-cherry ones in particular looking and feeling super creepy like a blood clot or engorged leeches:
Alien head cherry juice gummies Alien head cherry / pineapple juice gummies
so the ones that didn't come out right were just mixed up into chunky blood-red guts.

Note: if making gummies in the microwave in tiny batches because you only have one stupid tiny mold, be sure to watch the juice carefully to prevent this:
How not to use pectin

Step 2 was to make an ordinary carrot cake. We put it on top of a large cardboard box with plastic wrap on top, and a hole cut for the chopstick. We scooped out a shallow divot to make room for some guts. We also adjusted the alien chopstick to the right "resting" height before emerging (you can see the white tip peeking out) so that we could secure it in the box properly:
Chestburster cake before being iced

Step 3: we don't just need the alien head to be just below the cake surface before emergence, we also need it to go to just the right height when it's pushed up so that you see the whole thing but not the boring chopstick part. That's what the sideways chopstick is for, to set the emergent height. The plastic eyedropper full of cherry juice was also carefully aligned so that the nozzle tip is at the cake surface but not high enough to be visible when the alien bursts out. In initial tests the juice shot up about 3 feet, so I played around with plain water to figure out how much pressure to use to get a good spurt without making a huge mess.Chestburster cake from below

Step 4: Ice it up (we used gross icing from the store to save time), and add a plastic-wrapped printout of John Hurt's head to provide a clue as to what's going on here.
Chestburster cake from above, fully iced and assembled

Here's the cake on the box (sides of arms un-iced b/c we didn't have enough) and my hands in the box ready to go, just waiting for Sarah to hit play on my cell phone to start the audio file from the actual scene in the movie with the alien bursting out and screeching"Chestburster cake before emergence

And here's what it looked like after emerging. Sadly our video footage of the event didn't take when Sarah's phone froze up. Also, you can see that there is some cherry juice speckled all over the cake, but unfortunately when the cake was being moved the nozzle tip ended up pressing into the chopstick base such that it was just a gentle spitting rather than a real eruption of fake blood. Also, the extra guts below the alien were applied after emergence when we realized that most of the guts below the icing were invisible. Alas.
Chestburster cake after emergence 2

Chestburster cake after emergence

Despite the minor problems, it was still a lot of fun! Sarah and I went for free costumes by printing out alien facehuggers and taping twisties to the legs so that they would grip our faces and hang onto our glasses:
Jon & Sarah as the facehugged

Most costumes were more impressive, especially the adult alien and power loader exoskeleton!

Power loader Vs Alien

Monday, March 23, 2015

Soft Food for Sore Mouths: Four Delicious Hearty Soups

After gum surgery, I had to eat nothing but super soft foods for about a week, and was pretty bummed about it. But Sarah managed to think of five delicious and creamy soups in a row for us to eat! Anyone who has to avoid hard and crunchy foods and stick to the soft (for whatever reason), rejoice! Your recovery can be delicious. Sadly I forgot to take any pictures until the end of the week when only the last two were left, but hopefully you can visualize the rest (they are all pureed so look similar except for color). An immersion blender is a great way to make soups creamy without having to wash a real blender.

Chili and split pea soup

1. Butternut Squash w/ Apple
This recipe came from Appetite for Reduction. Fortunately I had a half-bushel of gold rush apples that added some wonderful tartness and flavor to the soup. It didn't have that many calories, so we added 3/4 cup of cashews (which also added a nice creaminess as well). I've had many butternut squash soups, and a few with apples, but I think this is my favorite.

2. Black Bean w/ Avocado
This recipe from the Bold Vegetarian Chef is kind of like the best things about black bean soup, guacamole, and salsa, all rolled together. I mean, sure it would be nice to eat it with corn bread or tortilla chips or something, but it does the trick by its lonesome too when you're sticking to soft foods.

3. Creamy lentil

This one (from Garlic Garlic Garlic) comes out pretty thick, so you may want some extra water if you want it more like soup instead of stew. It seems like it should be boring, but the sherry somehow makes it different, and the chives are great too if you have them.

4. Split pea soup
This recipe from the Bold Vegetarian Chef works best when not pureed (it has some nice potatoes, and pieces of tempeh bacon), but it still has a nice combo of the split peas, smoky tempeh, and other veggies. This soup is nice and filling, and if you get sick of it, swirl in some Sriracha which adds a pleasant twist.

5. Chili
There was a chili cookoff competition for our neighborhood, and Sarah decided we should make a vegetarian chili to show people that you can have a great chili without meat. Sadly, I put beyond meat beefless crumbles in it, which only add a dry, rubbery, flavorless series of chunks to get in the way of an otherwise delicious chili. But otherwise it was pretty good.

Recipes for all but the first one are at

Need something pleasant to drink, but can't have alcohol (b/c of medication, or inflammation, or whatever)? I relied heavily on homemade fake beer.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Vegan options at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (aka DCA)

Photo from The Veracious Vegan

DCA has always had a couple of acceptable vegan options, but it's been getting a lot better over the last year and I just had to write something to list it all. Note that I'm not counting stuff like getting snacks at newsstands.

Here's an interactive map showing the exact location of each option within the airport including links to menus etc where available:

Before Security (you CANNOT take chili or noodle soup bowls through security, but you CAN take the vegan burger with chili, a burrito, or sushi):
  1. Ben's Chili Bowl: vegan chili, vegan burgers , vegan chili fries
  2. Matsutake Sushi: veggie sushi, noodle bowls, etc.
  3. Qdoba : decent burritos and tacos
After Security:
  1. Terminal C: &pizza for pizza with vegan cheese, vegan beef crumbles, and tons of other fancy vegan toppings.
  2. Terminal BC: Taylor Gourmet whose Lehigh sandwich is a beautiful thing combining roasted cauliflower, white bean hummus, spicy red pepper sauce, and arugula.
  3. Terminal B: Einstein Bros Bagels: the Veg Out is basically a hummus sandwich on a bagel.
Note that in Terminal A you're pretty out of luck. I recently got them to make something vegan with hummus (I think it was District Bar which is currently closed) but it ended up being tiny, expensive, and not that great. If you're flying

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Artisan Vegan Cheeses Review: Gouda, Gruyere, Emmentaler

If you are vegan and ever liked good cheese, chances are you already know about Miyoko Schinner's Artisan Vegan Cheese cookbook. It took a completely new approach to vegan cheese: using bacterial cultures to make the tangy flavors of cheese, rather than simple acids like lemon juice. They're all based on cashews or vegan yogurt or both.

Overall, her cheeses are incredible in terms of flavor, but at the cost of a soft, sort of grainy texture. Regardless, we've made enough of them now I figured it was time for a review.

Gruyere: This is probably my favorite recipe so far. It has a rich, complex flavor, a good spreadable texture, and the ingredients are things we already have in stock (although I realize not everyone has coconut oil or deodorized cocoa butter, we have a ton we're trying to use up). It's great on crackers, and really helped out a kugel we made. The picture below is of crostini with "hard" gruyere (still pretty soft), pears, and red wine glaze (recipe is in her book), which were fantastic.

Vegan crostini w gruyere, pear, & red wine glaze

Gouda: Sadly we don't have a picture of this, but I mixed it with BBQ seitan on sandwiches, for a similar effect as this BBQ pizza I made with commercial vegan gouda one time. It is pretty similar to the hard gruyere, but requires yogurt which I'm not a fan of: Also you have to rub the rind with salt before air drying, which I had trouble with, but it still came out really well. Definitely worth eating.
BBQ Soy Curl Pizza (before baking)

Air-dried emmentaler: We had high hopes for this as Sarah loved Swiss cheese. But it just tasted sour and weird. Basically it tasted like yogurt and sauerkraut (understandably, as those are two key ingredients). We tried a few ways to use this up but in the end gave up and tossed it since it was pretty gross.

In the past we've also made the goat cheese, fresh mozzarella, and sharp cheddar (see the write up of our vegan cheese tasting party for details).

Next steps include meltable Monterey jack, getting a "nut milk bag" to strain vegan yogurt to make air-dried parmesan (!), boursin, and camembert.

I also recently made a vegan brie from a kickstarter (see below), which turned out well. It was not very Brie-flavored (it had a very mild flavor, although it was complex and pleasant) but had a great rich texture almost like cream cheese and was nice on crackers. I want to try making it again, and compare it side by side to the Miyoko Schinner brie.

Vegan brie from druids grove

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Double-Blind Taste Test Party

We decided to host a blind taste test party where we would have a suite of arguably similar products, labeled with random numbers in a double-blind fashion (one person assigns a random letter to each sample, a different person replaces the letter with a 3-digit random number and writes down which letter corresponds to which number to be decoded later) so that guests could taste them all and rank / judge them without any preconceptions. An easier approach some people followed was just putting the brand on the bottom of otherwise identical containers. The results are below, and you can get the raw data here if you like.

We collected a simple rank order for each set of samples rather than a fixed scale (e.g. 1-10), but rather than properly normalizing and analyzing the data we just took the mean of the ranks because of laziness. As such, this data should be used for entertainment purposes only. In a minor concession to science we added the standard deviation and a count of how many guests ranked each sample as the best or worst in the raw data.

The grocery store organic carrots won, with conventional carrots clearly the most reviled as bland, and organic CSA carrots in the middle due to their polarizing strong flavor (loved or hated).

Only 4 people submitted data for the 9 flavors chocolates (one of which was partial), partly because the labels got jumbled partway through. But the rice milk chocolate with peanut butter filling was a clear winner, and plain dark chocolate the least preferred overall.

Cocoa Powder
Highly polarizing. The strong and complex cocoa flavor of the Rademaker Dutched cocoa entranced some but others hatred it (but it still nudged into #1), and the same was true of the more metallic / traditional flavor of Hershey’s (a close #2), with the relatively bland Whole Foods cocoa in #3 (which was no one’s favorite).

These ratings were all over the place and the rankings were close (except Malta Goya, the “wild card” which all but one person hated). Overall Giant Cola was the winner, followed by Mexican Coke, Pepsi, American Coke, RC Cola, and Malta Goya in last. Several attendees requested a blind American / Mexican Coke test when it was revealed I (Jon) successfully guessed all colas blind (except switching Giant and Pepsi), and ranked Mexican Coke as #1 but American Coke as #2. However, no other guests successfully guessed which was which, and I probably got lucky.

Cookies (sandwich cremes)
The surprising winner was low-fat Oreos, with Back to Nature just behind in #2 place. Normal Oreos were a fairly distant 3rd, then Glutino (mostly b/c one person gave it the top rank), Joe-Joes, and Newman-O’s a clear last. Note that we unscrewed the top of every cookie so that people wouldn't be able to see the brand name embossed in the cookie top.

Grilled Vegan Cheese
Daiya barely beat out Sheese, with Follow Your Heart in 3rd, but Daiya was another strongly polarizing one due to its strong flavor (either cheeselike or fake depending on your point of view).

Hot Dogs
Lightlight jumbo dogs won out, with Tofurkey dogs just behind. Whole Foods and Tofu Pups were consistently more disliked due to their blander flavor. Tofu Pups was ranked last by all but 2 participants.

Cava Mezze was a clear winner with its nicely balanced flavor. Giant came in #2 despite being generally ranked as bland since the 3# brand (Whole Foods) had a strong tahini taste that 5 attendees really disliked.

Jelly Beans
We didn't collect data on this, but we DID have some Jelly Belly "Bean Boozled" beans, which come in pairs that are identically colored but are good or horrible. On the most benign end, everyone agreed toothpaste was pleasant enough (arguably about the same as Berry Blue), and lawn clippings were fine too. I think skunk and barf generated the most awful faces, but rotten egg was apparently pretty epic too (I didn't try that, nor canned dog food which was reputedly bad but less than rotten egg). Stinky socks and booger were bad but tolerable, moldy cheese was quite accurate which some people didn't mind and others couldn't stand, and baby wipes were scarily dead-on.

This was another surprising one. Cheap old Liptons was ranked 1, followed by the Premium Liptons, followed by the theoretically “better” Irish tea (I forget the brand). I think plain Liptons was less tannic (albeit less flavorful) than Premium Liptons, and the Irish tea was clearly the most bitter. Even odder is that for both Irish and Premium Liptons, the “standard brew” (168F water in a cold vessel and squeezed teabags) was substantially more popular than the “British brew” (rapidly boiling oxygenated water in a hot vessel without squeezing teabags). While the British brew produced more flavor, and all teas were brewed for 3 minutes (not too long), it may be that drinking them without sugar or milk meant that weaker flavors were preferred overall.

Tortilla Chips
Most people couldn’t tell the difference (or not a strong difference), and only 2 people successfully guessed the color of each (this was inevitably a single blind experiment with one person tasting with eyes closed and another person who knows the color passing them each type of chip). But there was a very weak preference for yellow (the most flavorful), then blue, then white corn.

We didn’t have actual Twizzlers, but Target beat out Lolli and Pops (despite costing 1/3 as much) mainly on texture (as the latter was very tough). Several people (but not all) preferred the Lolli and Pops flavor.

Vanilla Vegan Ice Cream
Trader Joe’s was a clear winner with all but 2 attendees preferring it strongly to So Delicious (described as having a more beany taste by several).

Vegan Cream Cheese (tasted with bagel segments)
Tofutti was a clear winner, with Follow Your Heart, Go Veggie, and Daiya basically in a 3-way tie, and the homemade cream cheese coming in last (it wasn’t bad, but was the least like cream cheese).

This was an upset, with Svedka (the middle of the road price-wise) a fairly clear favorite, and Aristocrat (as cheap as it gets) beating Russian Standard (the premium vodka) for 2nd place. Attendees were mostly polarized around whether Aristocrat or Russian Standard was the gross one.

A few things were interesting here. No one (except me) successfully guessed that one of the 5 red wines was a dyed Chardonnay (although some did describe it as minerally, sweet/sour, and oaky, and I knew one of them was a Chardonnay). The relatively fancy Napa Valley 2012 Yountville Cabernet Sauvignon was a clear winner, with the same wine heavily aerated (via a milk frother and a few hours of decanting, see picture below) in the #2 place but substantially less preferred. The Purple Moon shiraz was #3, then the dyed Chardonnay (which I have to say was truly dreadful wine), followed by Charles Shaw Shiraz (which was either a bad bottle, or several attendees had convinced themselves was good despite it being crappy wine). If you want to try dying wine, for this bottle I added 25 drops of red food dye, 2 of blue food dye, and 10 of black food dye. It looks pretty good in a clear glass, but brownish against a white background.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Homemade alcohol-free relaxing "beer"

Recently Sarah went on an antibiotic that means she can't drink any alcohol for a while. She is also on a no-sugar kick, so even if it was any good (it's not) fake beer isn't ideal given the malt. It's not the end of the world, but a beer sure is nice at the end of a difficult day, so I figured it was worth trying to see if I could come up with a reasonable replacement. The goals I had were:
1. Good taste
2. As beer-tasting as possible, especially on the hop side (as Sarah likes super-hoppy IPAs)
3. Actually relaxing (not just beer-flavored)
4. Ideally looks / feels kind of like beer too (carbonated, in the yellow-orange family, bonus points for foamy head)

Here is the most recent version (iteration 3, with many more likely to come) of the "recipe" I came up with:
1/4 cup dried whole hop flowers (I actually didn't have pure hops so I used a homemade blend of relaxing tea with hops, skullcap, chamomile, and a few other things)
Skullcap extract (I happened to have some we weren't using we got from Mom)
Club soda
1/8 tsp Truvia fake sugar OR 1.5 tsp agave nectar or barley malt syrup if not avoiding sugar
optional: Angostura bitters or orange bitters (note: these are alcoholic so I used a very small amount, see below)

I start by adding the hops / herbs to ~1 cup of water, bring it to a boil (in the microwave thus far), then remove from heat and let it steep for 15 minutes. I strain the herbs out and end up with about 3/4 cup of tea. Boil this (I put the tea in a glass measuring cup in the microwave) until it is reduced by half (halfway between 1/4 and 1/2 cup). Note that the tea gets a bit frothy as it boils so be sure to use a 2-cup measure or just closely watch it to prevent spillage. Alternatively, just boil the herbs and water in the saucepan, then strain it out for a stronger flavor. Once it is reduced, you will have an intensely bitter / hoppy flavor essence for the base of your beer. Stick it in the freezer or fridge until cool (earlier attempts used ~ 1 shot of tea so the heat wouldn't make the overall beer warm, but this is way better).

Remove the cool hoppy tea from the fridge, add ~ 1 dropper of skullcap and the Truvia and stir until it dissolves. Pour into a pint glass and add 12 oz club soda (or less, to taste). Optional: if you want more complex flavor and a darker color, add no more than 10mL orange bitters or 5mL Angostura original (Gentian) bitters. The original bitters add a nice color as shown above, and great flavor, but it is 58% alcohol so it's important to not use much. The nice frothy head goes away fairly quickly, but regardless you end up with a drink that is carbonated, hoppy and bitter (but not too bitter thanks to the Truvia), and relaxes the hell out of you (hops is a soporific that helps you feel sleepy, skullcap in a nervine that makes you generally relaxed).

It's not a true substitute for alcohol, but it's a pretty tasty, pleasant, and relaxing beverage, and I highly recommend it for anyone looking to avoid or minimize alcohol but who enjoys beer.