Tested Already: Day 2 of Vegan-ing

This past Tuesday and Wednesday, my husband was out of town on a work trip. These two days also happened to be the days I got my pathology report alerting me to precancerous cells in a polyp that was removed and my first full day of eating a mostly vegan diet.

My husband’s travel had not gone smoothly. His flights were delayed both ways and a non-working GPS left him directionless near the Philadelphia airport. As he waited for his twice-delayed flight home from Midway, he texted me that he wanted to go to Culver’s on the way home from the airport.

The sentiment was not lost on me. Greasy cheeseburgers have become our comfort food. In a previous effort to clean up my diet, I made a resolution to only eat fast food on days I had doctor’s appointments, as if crawling into a bag of fries could soothe my anxiety and frustration. Culver’s is especially delicious and I knew I would be tempted by their cheeseburgers on butter-slathered buns, fried cheese curds, and choose-your-own-mix-ins custard concretes. I was barely past the twenty-four hour mark of veganism and I needed some fortifying to be able to withstand the temptation. After all, I had a narrow miss at lunch when I got Harvest Cheddar Sun Chips instead of plain. Luckily the “made with real cheddar” boast on the bag caught my eye and I gave the chips to one of the starving millennials I work with.

And so, armed with the knowledge of my husband’s fast-food intention and the need to pick up a prescription at Target, off I went in search of reinforcements. I got my prescription and, after browsing the book section for a vegan cookbook (No luck there. Target was sold out of the Oh She Glows cookbook–their only vegan option.) I swung by the frozen treats aisle. Even the limited grocery selection at my non-super Target included two non-dairy ice cream options in a variety of flavors. I chose a cashew milk based chocolate ice cream and headed to the checkout. Even though this splurge was counter to my goal of reducing sugar, I rationalized that if I was to withstand the temptations of Culver’s, I needed something a little more sexy to come home to than taco-seasoned tofu.

After yet another delay, I picked up my husband at the airport and pointed the car to Culver’s. As he was selecting his dinner from the drive-thru menu–something called a “pub burger,” fried cheese curds and a salted caramel concrete–he asked what I was getting. I reminded him that I was going to eat vegan and told him I had some non-dairy ice cream at home. As we drove home, we talked about my decision. He agreed that it was a reasonable choice, given the potential benefits and limited drawbacks.

When we got home, he dug into his burger and cheese curds, having already eaten his ice cream in the car. I ate a little of my cashew milk ice cream and was surprised at how tasty and satisfying it was. My husband started feeling the physical pangs of regret you get in your stomach from overeating and offered me his last few cheese curds–old habits die hard. I declined. We did a few chores and went to bed.

I woke up this morning around 6:00 and my husband wasn’t in bed. His fast-food binge on top of his two days of travel-induced poor eating left him with a terrible stomachache. While I felt bad for him, his experience also reinforced my choices. Why put myself through the physical discomfort of an upset stomach when the offensive food might also be feeding my cancer cells?

Miscellaneous Notes: Pro, Con, Pro

Pro: I found out today that I’m in good company. A friend of a friend is also now vegan after having a similar medical experience to mine. It’s good to know I can reach out to someone who is in my shoes.

Con: I ate some leftover fish and cream at lunch as part of a veggie-filled taco bowl. In total there was probably less than 2 ounces of whitefish and 3/4 tablespoon of heavy cream. My husband ate the other leftover serving for dinner so my non-vegan leftovers are gone.

Pro: My mother-in-law is planning a family dinner for Sunday with a menu of takeout from the local BBQ joint. I called her to ask what I could bring, explaining that I wasn’t eating animal products because of my pathology report. She was mostly concerned about the diagnosis and said she thought my decision to go vegan was smart. I wasn’t looking forward to navigating family dinners, but I’m glad to have that conversation behind me and thankful for my mother-in-law’s understanding!

Pathology

Last week, I had surgery to have a polyp removed from my ovary. Surgery and the recovery have been super easy on my end–very little pain or bleeding. The pathology report, however, is another story.

Ovarian polyps are rarely cancerous so I wasn’t too worried about it. More than anything, I wanted the confirmation that everything was fine so we could get on with our lives. The doctor’s office was supposed to call on Monday but we didn’t hear from them. I called yesterday to check in and left a message for the nurse. She returned my call to say that my polyp showed moderate evidence of precancerous cells. We scheduled the appointments that my doctor wanted for follow up and my next task was to call my husband.

These are not the first precancerous cells that have been removed from my body. Shortly after we got married, I had a mole removed from my arm. The pathology report from that showed precancerous cells and that the margins were involved, which meant I had to have a larger chunk of flesh cut out. I’ve had mole checks regularly since then and everything seems to be fine. While I was a little shook up about the polyp pathology news, given my experience with my mole, pessimistic ideation didn’t set in until I talked to my husband. When I told him, he got that sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach that comes right before your brain formulates all your negative thoughts about potentially bad news into words. I didn’t get upset until he told me his stomach hurt.

The trouble with finding out this kind of news while you’re at work is that you have to hold it together and not overreact. Yelling, “I just found out I have precancer again! There are more important things in this world than board meeting Power Point presentations!” probably isn’t the best way to go. And not to mention that precancerous cells aren’t cancer and everyone in my office has their own personal battles–some of them I know and some I don’t.

What I did instead of yelling was download podcasts about cancer. As I said before, these are not the first precancerous cells that have been removed from my body. Twice, now, in my thirties, I’ve gone through this precancer diagnosis response. Twice is too often for someone who hasn’t even reached “over the hill” status. I needed some distraction from my thoughts and some preparation for what happens if those precancerous cells ever lose their less-threatening prefix. The podcast I landed on was an interview with Dr. John Kelly on the Chris Beat Cancer podcast.

Dr. Kelly is an advocate for a mostly vegan diet for patients that are fighting cancer. He’s not one of those people that claims you can eat vegan and forego other treatment and beat cancer, though. And while some of the studies he referenced were old, there is significant evidence that a vegan diet could stave off cancer better than a standard American diet. I’ve read about these studies before but hadn’t remembered them until I started listening to the podcast interview.

I’m one of those people who thinks that anything that won’t hurt you is worth trying. I’ve also eaten vegan and vegetarian before and for the past several months I had quit buying beef at the grocery store, figuring that if I couldn’t stop driving 90 miles a day for work, I could cut back on my beef consumption, thus limiting contributions to greenhouse gas productions. It didn’t take much to convince me to go full vegan and by the time I left work, I reached my threshold.

And that’s how, on August 8th sometime between noon and 4:30, I became vegan. Even as I warm up my delicious tofu and refried bean burrito, I know I won’t be perfect. There’s that little bit of fish still in the fridge that I don’t want to go to waste. And navigating in-law politics at Thanksgiving dinner will be annoying. And how I will miss eggs! But on the other hand, I’m not really much of a foodie and fueling my body with things that will contribute to my overall health and longevity is much more appealing than a fast food cheeseburger. And if it helps ensure that I don’t hear the word “precancerous” for a long time, that’s all the better.

Easy Summer Millet Salad

The state of my kitchen is a pretty good indicator of my mental health. If I’m feeling good, I use stuff up and keep things pretty tidy. If I’m feeling low, a lot of fresh produce gets composted and my dishes pile up. One thing that really gives me a mood boost is pulling together a recipe from the ingredients we have on hand.

I had been meaning to make a millet salad to take in my work lunches. Lately I’ve really been loving a grain salad over spinach with a protein thrown on top. We had some millet in the pantry so I had planned to make a lemon chickpea millet salad I found online. But I procrastinated because last week we had a lot of lunch meetings and I managed my way through without preparing anything.

This past weekend my parents came into town and brought some garden-fresh produce. After they left, I was sitting on my couch thinking about how to use everything up before it went bad. Initially I was thinking about making a pasta salad, since I scored a couple boxes of pasta on sale for fifty-five cents. Then the idea to make a summer millet salad hit me. I hopped up and started pulling ingredients out of the pantry, fridge and freezer and started boiling some water for the millet. Here is a rough recipe for my easy summer millet salad.

1 cup millet
2 cups water
1/2 cup chopped mixed herbs — I picked some thyme, basil, parsley and chives from my garden.
1 can chickpeas
1 cup frozen corn
1 pint cherry tomatoes
1/2 cup vinaigrette dressing (more or less to taste)

Bring water to a boil. Add millet and reduce to a simmer. Cover and cook for 20 minutes or until water is absorbed.

Cool millet slightly and mix in the remaining ingredients. (I used up some Wishbone brand basil dressing and then mixed together some balsamic, olive oil and Italian dressing mix.)

You could serve this as a side dish, but I am eating it as part of a bigger salad for lunch. My lunch mix includes about 2 cups of spinach, chopped cucumber, a generous scoop of millet salad, some black olives and either a couple canned sardines or some fresh mozzarella.

In Equal Tablespoons: Garden Bounty + Zucchini Mess and Shortcut Baked Eggplant Recipes

For as long as I can remember, my dad has always planted a big garden. Childhood chores in the summertime typically involved the garden, either picking something or snapping beans or shelling peas. While don’t live close enough to my parents to help with the chores anymore, that doesn’t mean I don’t get to share in their garden bounty.

My folks came up on Sunday to visit and brought me a big bunch of garden veggies. They always bring too much for us to eat, so I meal planned before they came and sorted out what I thought we could eat and took the extras to a friend.

IMG_1700

I bought a watermelon from the grocery store to go with the blueberries. I made a watermelon-blueberry smoothie, a watermelon-blueberry salad with feta, balsamic, olive oil, and basil. I also made this monkey bread using only blueberries instead of mixed berries. We loved this and it is so easy to make since it relies on cans of orange rolls as the base. (And thanks to my mom who brought me her bundt pan to borrow for awhile.)

For lunch, I made a version of this shrimp salad. I mostly kept to the recipe, but included whatever veggies I had on hand. I didn’t mix up a whole big salad all at once, but instead when for individual servings since I knew I would be the only person to eat it. I made a full recipe of the dressing (I don’t have a Magic Bullet, I just whisked it together with a fork) and used what I needed and kept the rest in the fridge for the next day. The dressing reminded me of the cucumber salad dressing my mom used to make (I always loved that dressing, which I think has Miracle Whip, vinegar, sugar and pepper.) but a healthier, lighter version. Once I subbed tofu (leftover from last week’s spring rolls) for the shrimp. Still delicious.

I cooked a lot of dinners this week. Here is a run-down:

IMG_1698I made a version of this Caprese Garlic Bread many times over the course of the week. I didn’t bother reducing the balsamic because I didn’t want to wash another pot, but it still worked fine for me. Even the base “garlic bread” recipe is good. My husband ate it without the tomatoes and one time my step-daughter just ate the garlic bread topped with sauteed summer veggies (zucchini, green pepper, onion, tomatoes). That was genius level dinner mix-and-matching. By the end of the week, I was using shredded mozzarella instead of fresh — it’s still good. And thankfully, by little basil plant kept up with the demand all week.

 

Homemade Hamburger Helper is the perfect vehicle for using up summer squashes and green peppers. Lots of veggies would be good in this recipe actually. It’s not very elegant, but it is easy and comforting and takes me back to my childhood when I loved picking out a Hamburger Helper for my mom to make (wagon wheel, always). We didn’t have it very often so it felt like a treat. This version is just as quick and easy to make as the store-bought kind and doesn’t have any weird orange colored cheese power, which makes me feel a little better about it.


My favorite way to use up eggplants is a Baked Eggplant recipe that I found in a recipe book my dad gave me for Christmas many moons ago. This book is so thick (It’s titled
1000 Classic Recipes for Every Cook) it’s a wonder that I found and tried the eggplant recipe. Nothing in this book calls for a shortcut so the first time I made this recipe (August 20, 2003–I wrote it in the book), I made tomato sauce and Bechamel from scratch. After that first time, I take the easy way out. Here’s the version of the recipe I use today: pour a little jarred red sauce in the bottom of a greased 9×13 casserole. Top with a layer of eggplant. (The recipe calls for you to cook them in hot water for 5 minutes first. I just salt them to draw out the bitterness and pat them dry.) Top with a drizzle of olive oil, chopped prosciutto (I’ve used prosciutto, cooked bacon, no meat, salami, do whatever you want.), mozzarella (fresh or shredded), salt and pepper and herbs. (The recipe calls from fresh marjoram and fresh basil, chopped. Use IMG_1701whatever Italian herbs you want, fresh or dried.) Repeat the layers. Top with a layer of white sauce (You can make Bechamel from scratch or use a jarred alfredo sauce. I’ve even used Caesar dressing with a mix of nutmeg and cloves–surprisingly it works.) and a sprinkle of grated Parmesan. Bake at 375 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes. I also made these Roasted Eggplant Caprese Salad, which were good but to my taste not worth the effort. I’ll stick to Baked Eggplant or Eggplant Parm.

 

I rounded out the week with a couple of l’arte d’arrangiarsi recipes. It seems silly but sometimes I almost need a reminder that when you have a bunch of summer veggies, the best thing to do with them is just saute and serve. Why do I always try to tart them up in some fancy recipe when they don’t need it? I had a package of brats that I picked up on sale at the grocery store. I cooked them and served them with cheesy garlic bread and a sauteed medley of onions (sauteed first and kept separate because onions upset my husband’s stomach), zucchini, green pepper and tomatoes. This is the best kind of meal for my family because all the components are there and you get to decide how you eat them. I chopped up my brat and ate it mixed with the sauteed veggies. My step-daughter (as referenced above) ate her brat hot-dog style and topped her cheesy garlic bread with the veggies.

The second l’arte d’arrangiarsi recipe is more of an actual recipe than the simple reminder. This recipe comes from my mom and she affectionately refers to it as “Zucchini Mess.” Anyone who grows zucchini or is from a small town with lots of gardeners knows how bountiful zucchini can be. This recipe gives people a new way to tear through the loads of zucchini that come out of your garden (or get left on your doorstep anonymously).

Zucchini Mess

Cook a pound of Italian sausage until just underdone. Drain and add chopped garlic, onions, zucchini, yellow squash, and green pepper. (You can add or leave out any of these. For example, I don’t ever use onions. I opt instead for a petite diced tomato blend that includes aromatics because it is easier on my husband’s stomach. My recipe this time included just zucchini and green pepper.) Cook until veggies and sausage are done. Add a can of diced tomatoes and heat through. At this point you have even more options! You can stop and serve like this. It’s good. Here is what I did this time. Instead of just dumping in the tomatoes, I drained them into a 2-cup measuring cup. I added the tomatoes and then added a mixture of veggie broth and water to bring the liquid to 2 cups. I added a cup of brown rice and the liquid and to the skillet and let the rice cook until tender. I serve it hot with shredded cheese so my family can decide if they want to eat it plain or add a little cheese into their zucchini mess. You could could the rice separate, but I didn’t want to dirty up another pot since my dishwasher is temporarily out of commission! No matter how you decide to make your zucchini mess, this is a good base recipe that you can play with.

 

In Equal Tablespoons + Pumpkin Lasagna

This week it was time to get back into the kitchen after last week’s hiatus. I had identified a lot of things I wanted to make so on Saturday, I dug in with a l’arte d’arrangiarsi recipe: Pumpkin Lasagna. Unlike sometimes, I actually purchased a pound of Italian sausage and a small container of ricotta for this recipe. Here is how I made it.

I cooked the sausage and boiled some lasagna noodles left over from two weeks ago, about 12 ounces’ worth. After the noodles were cooked, I drained and rinsed them. When the sausage was cooked through, I added about 2 cups of frozen pumpkin puree into the pan. When the pumpkin began to thaw, I added some kale that wouldn’t have lasted another day or two in the fridge. It was about 2 cups. I let the kale cook down and picked out the really big stems. Oh, I also threw in a teaspoon of frozen tomato paste. I had found it in the freezer. (Anyone else hate that you have to buy a whole can of tomato paste for a recipe that calls for a teaspoon of it?) Meanwhile, I mixed together about a 1/2 of a big carton of cottage cheese (also leftover from making the regular lasagna), a small container of ricotta (15 ounces), some sage–maybe 1/2 to 1 teaspoon, the rest of my leftover mozzarella (1 cup or so), and two eggs. When everything mixed/cooked, I layered it together in the same way you would put together a lasagna. A little sausage/pumpkin mixture in the bottom of a buttered 9×13 casserole, followed by noodles, cheese, sausage/pumpkin, noodles, cheese. Then I noticed I didn’t have my proportions right for another full layer, so I added the rest of the cheese, the rest of the noodles, and put the rest of the sausage/pumpkin mixture on top. I topped that with all the leftover Parmesan (about 3/4 cup) and covered with foil. I baked it in a 350 degree oven for 45 minutes and then uncovered the dish and baked for another 10 minutes. Let it rest and then enjoy. I really liked the way this turned out!

Weekend Brunch / Cake: I continued my pumpkin theme with this pumpkin spice cake for Sunday morning breakfast. I skipped the buttercream frosting after the overly-sweet fiasco with the apple cake. I wanted this to be a cake that you could eat for breakfast. Since I don’t have a bundt pan, I used two 9-inch cake pans and the cake still needed something to put between the layers. So I whipped up a package of cream cheese with a teaspoon of vanilla and 1/4 cup of powdered sugar. I had 1/4 of buttermilk leftover from the cake and mixed that in, too, along with the same spices that went into the cake. Then I folded in a carton of Cool Whip that I found in the freezer. It was super delicious. The house smelled great all weekend after I baked the cake.

Breakfast Smoothie: I had one more blueberry-apple smoothie to drink up this week. Then I moved on to this pineapple “detox” smoothie.

Lunches: The pumpkin hits keep rolling. I made this pumpkin hummus and at it with salad greens.

Other dinners: The lasagna kept us in dinner until Wednesday. On Thursday, my husband was gone and my step-daughter and I needed to run an errand after cheer practice so we swung by Dairy Queen. Friday, I made these spring rolls to use us some rice papers that had been in the fridge awhile. The hubs was not a fan, but the rest of us liked them.

 

In Equal Tablespoons / When the Cat’s Away…

My husband and I were on our own this week. We ate like our parents were gone for the week instead of our kid.

Over the weekend, we dedicated ourselves to using up leftovers.

For my breakfast smoothies, I repeated the same blueberry smoothie from last week, except I kept substituting ingredients as I ran out. Spinach became kale, chia seeds became hemp seeds, strawberries became peaches then apples.

For lunches, I used a shredded some baked chicken that was in the freezer and mixed it with chopped celery, red onions, buffalo sauce and blue cheese dressing and ate it over mixed salad greens.

I actually cooked Monday night. We had chicken thighs with sun-dried tomato basil couscous and sauteed green beans. I used this recipe for the thighs/couscous, but substituted couscous for the rice and adjusted the cooking times accordingly.

Tuesday we mowed the lawn and afterwards I did a grocery store run for beer and stuff for a snack dinner: salami, Boursin cheese, pita crackers, guacamole, tortilla chips. We pretty much ate this kind of dinner or leftover chicken/couscous the rest of the week with the exception of Thursday.

Thursday we dined al fresco on the patio…with takeout Taco Bell. What can I say? We are classy.

While I’m looking forward to making actual meals in the coming week, having a vacation from the kitchen–even if it’s unplanned–may not result in the most balanced diet, but it provides some nice balance to my life.

In Equal Tablespoons + Spin Dip Mac & Cheese

One of my favorite chores/hobbies is food. I don’t only like eating, meal planning, grocery shopping, cooking and reading/watching/listening to things about food (everything from nutrition to cooking to sustainability and food choice issues), but my attitude toward food lines up with my mental health. When I start to feel blue, I’m usually eating junk and not cooking. Interestingly, there is a lot of evidence to suggest making poor and unbalanced food choices many compound feelings of anxiety and depression.

While it’s tempting to plan a diet based 100% on recommendations stemming from this food-emotional well-being research, ultimately it’s not a sustainable choice for me. Instead, I want to strike a balance between healthy and decadent; between slow and fast; between easy and involved. Here’s how I did it this week.

Breakfasts: For a summer weekday, I’m a smoothie girl. Since I know my mom just ordered more blueberries for me from the Mennonite grocery store near her, I need to clear out my stash of frozen blueberries. I went with this smoothie, added Greek yogurt to get me through the morning and substituted kale when I ran out of spinach.

Brunch: What do you do when you buy a metric ton of pumpkins for Halloween but never got around to carving them? Freezer city. What do you do when pumpkin season is a few months away and almost 1/4 of your freezer still is full of pumpkin? Brown Butter Pumpkin Grits. I made some Burger’s Smokehouse bacon to go with it and used the bacon grease to start the creamed spinach. My spinach seemed too runny, I assume because there was too much fat in the pan from the bacon. At any rate, this was so rich. Good, but rich.

Snacks: Watermelon, peaches, strawberries and almonds. I can do without summer, but I don’t want to do without in-season fruit.

H2O: If I infuse some water, I’m always sure to stay hydrated. I did strawberry-lemon-basil.

Sweets: My husband is new to the fruit scene. He never really ate much fruit until this year. He’s stuck at the apple stage of the fruit appreciation course. The last batch of apples I bought were mealy. (I ungraciously said, “Yeah, maybe because apples aren’t in season.” when he told me about the lacking texture.) So to use up the apples, I made this apple cake. Be warned: the cake is delicious but the icing is super sweet.

Mains:

Last week, my husband was waxing poetic about how much he loved ribs as a kid. “We got a crockpot,” I said. Saturday I stuck some ribs in it. We had them with pasta salad. (I used this recipe as a guideline. Mine contained 1 pound of pasta, a cup of each of the following: kale, cannellini beans, salami, shredded mozzarella, Italian dressing, cherry tomatoes, black olives, marinated artichokes, and roasted red pepper. Also red onions. It makes so much that I ate this for lunch the rest of the week with extra kale and the leftover beans and red peppers.). When I told my step-daughter that we were going to have ribs and pasta salad for dinner, she responded, “And watermelon and a picnic.” That was a good call.

The ribs fed us for a couple of days. For the rest of the week, we polished off some leftover lasagna and had shrimp and grits (from Sunday) with sauteed kale.

On Thursday, a improvised a recipe from ingredients we had on hand. I used to call this kind of recipe “Trash” or “Fridge Trash” since it usually saves things from the trash. But as I was re-reading Eat, Pray, Love I came across this quote, “There’s another wonderful Italian expression: l’arte d’arrangiarsi–the art of making something out of nothing.” So from now on, I’ll consider these recipes to be l’arte d’arrangiarsi.

Spinach-Artichoke Mac & Cheese

I fried five pieces of bacon (leftover from brunch), which I cut into bite sized pieces before I cooked it. I removed the bacon and let it drain on a paper-towel lined plate. I cooked about 1/2 pound of pasta (small shells because that’s what I had on hand). I added flour to the bacon grease, stirring and cooking, and then added half-and-half (to use up another brunch ingredient) and milk, just like if you were making milk gravy. I don’t know the exact measurements.  Next I added the leftover creamed spinach that didn’t seem to turn out quite right when I made it for Sunday brunch. It worked perfectly in this concoction. I cut up the marinated artichokes that I didn’t use in the Saturday’s pasta salad and chopped up the last of the spinach and threw it in. Once the spinach wilted, I added about 1 cup of shredded mozzarella and 1/2 cup of shredded Parmesan (both of the cheeses were leftover from making the lasagna). I added the bacon and stirred until the cheeses were melted. I dumped it in a buttered 9×13 casserole and mixed in the cooked and drained pasta. I was going to bake it, but it didn’t really need it.

The pasta was creamy and delicious (and fattening, yes). We ate it with shrimp and a your-choice-but-you-have-to-take-something veggie option of green salad, cherry tomatoes or sliced peach.