You didn’t really think I was going the rest of my life without dessert, did you?

Dear friends,

applecrisp2

As you might guess, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the kitchen. While I’ve been a relatively attentive home cook since college, I’m feeling very ’90s lately — as that represents the era when I had babies and first devoted considerable time to preparing food (versus merely assembling or reheating food-like stuff). Back then, I had few utensils and fewer skills and minimal understanding of how food ingredients and techniques worked together. Every dish required a recipe, and every recipe required an investment of mental and physical energy. Eventually, my knowledge and my skill expanded considerably and I learned both to cook from memory and to improvise.

So that’s why going “clean” the last month has left me feeling like a kitchen novice. A plant-based diet can be highly satisfying but it requires its own set of knowledge, skills and ingredients. I finally got my footing enough to experiment today, and what better to experiment with than dessert?

After all, did you really think I was going to eat kale and quinoa for the rest of my life?

I decided to start simple. I had no dreams of vegan cupcakes. Instead, my taste buds hearkened back to my childhood and one of my grandmother’s staple desserts, the humble Apple Crisp.

One of the reasons a plant-based diet offers so many health benefits is that whole or minimally processed foods do not prompt a strong insulin response. I’ve been amazed how much better I feel now that my blood sugar isn’t spiking after every meal or snack. The more I eat this way, the more I’m searching for foods and recipes that fit the “whole or minimally processed” criteria.

That’s why Apple Crisp came to my mind. It’s built around apples and rolled oats — two foods considered staples of a healthy diet. After perusing several recipes, I created my own, trying to keep it as “natural” as possible.

The result was as tasty as I remember, without a lot of the “gunk.” See what you think.

With gratitude {for the original Marie and her culinary legacy},

Joan, who’ll never fry a chicken with the same perfection as her namesake but may have matched her in the quilting category

Joan-Marie’s Apple Crisp

5-6 small to medium apples, cored and thinly sliced (I used Gala, but you can use a mix or your favorite variety)

2 TBLS lemon juice

2 TBLS cornstarch

3/4 cup rolled oats

1/4 cup buckwheat flour

2 TBLS flaxseed meal

1/4 cup sliced almonds, or more if you like

1/3 cup brown sugar (loose, not packed)

2 TBLS vegan butter (I like Earth Balance, but Coconut Butter would work well too)

Salt

Cinnamon

Pure Maple Syrup

After slicing your apples, put them in a bowl and sprinkle them with lemon juice. Toss to combine. Sprinkle them with cornstarch, cinnamon to taste (about 1-2 tsp) and a generous pinch of salt, then toss again to combine. Finally, pour in some Maple Syrup to taste (I used about 2 TBLS) and mix thoroughly.

Pour the apple mixture into a well-seasoned cast iron skillet (I used a 10″) and spread the slices around the pan evenly. (Alternately, you can always use a metal or glass baking dish of your choice, but I prefer cast iron.) Set the skillet aside, pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees, and make the oat topping.

Combine rolled oats, buckwheat flour, flaxseed meal, sliced almonds, another generous pinch of salt, a hefty sprinkle of cinnamon, brown sugar, and the butter. Work with your fingers until the butter is evenly distributed. Sprinkle the oat topping over the apples making sure it is evenly distributed. Give the whole skillet a light drizzle of Maple Syrup. Bake for 1 hour.

Serve alone, or if you’re not worried about dairy and/or sugar, with whipped cream or ice cream. Serves 4-6 depending on how big your appetite is.

Preparation Notes

The apples: You’re right. I didn’t peel my apples. Mostly because I’m lazy and I don’t mind apple skins. If it bothers you, peel yours, although you’ll never persuade me the ROI is worth it.

The maple syrup: I’m no expert, but I’ve noticed the “granola crowd” loves it. But you have to buy the pure stuff, otherwise it’s just corn syrup and maple flavoring. It’s pricey, but my modest research indicates it is better for your blood sugar than most alternatives.

The brown sugar: Yes, I’m aware it’s nothing more than white sugar with added molasses. I know it’s bad for you. I caved at the last minute remembering my Gram’s Apple Crisp, but I’m not convinced it made that much difference in terms of taste. Next time I make Apple Crisp I’m going to leave it out and see what I think.

The flaxseed meal: This stuff is packed with Omega 3 oils and fiber and I put it in practically everything now. It has a nutty flavor that I think added a lot to this recipe.

The almonds: I like them a lot, but you could use any nut you have on hand. Pecans and walnuts come to mind as tasty alternatives. I almost sprinkled some sunflower seeds on at the last minute but decided against it because I thought my sweet Gram would have shuddered.

The buckwheat flour: Besides the fact that buckwheat flour is gluten free, it offers a lot of health benefits so I used it instead of regular flour. If you’re not familiar with it, I encourage you to check it out.

Tasting Notes

Yes, it’s been 30 days since I ate dessert, but I still moaned when I took my first bite. It was every bit as good as I remembered. Maybe better because I knew my version was vegan and significantly cleaned up.

I’m not gonna lie — you can’t eat dessert and feel as good as you do when you eat a salad. I definitely had a bit of a sugar rush, which may owe more to the size of my portion than the dish itself. But the feeling was short-lived and it was a good reminder that desserts should be enjoyed in small portions and on infrequent occasions. Still . . . if you’re gonna eat sweets, it’s hard to imagine you’ll find one as reasonably healthy as this one. Keep your portion modest and there should be no guilt with this one.

Advertisements

More yummy. Less yucky.

Dear friends,

lasagna (1)

I’ve been away from this space for a while. Life after loss is always an interesting hokey pokey. One step forward, one step backwards, a little sideways shimmy and start over again.

A few weeks ago I was feeling particularly dull and lethargic and — not knowing if my symptoms were the result of grief’s natural progression or some bad habits I picked up during my father’s illness and death — I decided to make some healthy changes.

First, I gave up soda pop. Now the truth is I hadn’t been a pop drinker for more than a decade, but between May 1 and August 1, the desire for something comforting on long road trips to Oklahoma found me guzzling it almost daily. Most people lose weight when they’re under stress, but I put on 5 pounds over the summer and I’m certain it was the many, many cans of 7-Up I drank. Fortunately, I didn’t have much trouble snapping out of my delirium and giving it up.

Second, I recommitted myself to fitness. My running was severely curtailed during my father’s illness for a million excuses, some legitimate, some not. But beyond the running, I’ve been feeling unusually weak, as if getting myself up off the floor is a major chore. One night while talking in bed, Mr. Mom and I decided to start going to the gym together for weight training. Maybe we’re both feeling old or maybe we needed the mutual encouragement and support, but we’re almost three weeks into a new regimen that has put some pep into both our steps.

Finally, after a year of vegetarian eating, I’ve gone vegan. For at least the last six months, I’ve been noticing an increase in GI difficulties. I won’t get too graphic except to say giving up meat solved my acid reflux but I’ve still been suffering from a variety of stomach difficulties with symptoms that lead me to conclude I might have Irritable Bowel Syndrome. A friend of mine told me about a book called Clean Gut. Written by a cardiologist, the book’s recommendations helped my friend feel better than ever. (Side benefit: she lost 20 pounds.)

The basic premise is that our gut is the center of our health and vitality and we can solve many of our own problems by being far more thoughtful about what we put into it. The book recommends a very strict diet called a “cleanse” for 21 days. (By strict, I mean no sugar, no gluten, no dairy, no alcohol, and no caffeine, with some other restrictions related to starchy, sugary whole foods like corn, potatoes and fruit.) After the 21 days, which is essentially a re-boot of your GI system, you reintroduce common “trigger” foods, such as gluten and dairy, one at a time and test your reaction to them. If you have a strong reaction, you need to eliminate the food from your diet. If you have a mild or moderate reaction, you need to limit your exposure.

I have long wondered if I have a gluten or dairy sensitivity, so following the book’s advice made sense to me. Beyond that, it gave me a framework for taking matters into my own hands and solving my own problems, hopefully without a visit to the doctor’s office or a prescription for medicine.

I’m only 7 days into the cleanse but I can already feel a big difference. I feel like the mental fog is slowly lifting. I’m not yet back to my old self, but I’ve blown away some mental cobwebs and I feel more awake and focused. More importantly, my stomach feels a WHOLE lot better. I don’t want to say too much too soon as I plan to write a post detailing the whole experience at the end of the 28-day cycle but, suffice to say, it works. And I’m excited about the possibilities.

In the mean time, here’s a really good recipe I developed this weekend for a gluten-free, dairy-free lasagna pictured above. (The Caesar Salad is vegan and is from The Kind Diet, another good book recommended by a colleague.)

For anyone who followed me from Mayberry Magpie, you may remember I have a killer Classic Lasagna recipe that I perfected over many years. It includes lots of meat and cheese, along with a white sauce, and it’s so good I’ve never found a better lasagna (and I’ve tried many at every restaurant imaginable). I have to admit the idea of any lasagna beside my classic recipe left me more than a little uninterested. But I promise this one is good and I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it. My tastebuds are as picky as they come and this dish left me completely, utterly happy to have eaten it. Even Mr. Mom said “I don’t care what you call this, it tastes good.”

Best of all, my gut was happy. No sleepy, no sicky, no burpy is a great way to end a meal, especially one that thoroughly satisfies, especially with a dish that usually sits heavy on the gut or induces a long nap.

Enjoy!

With gratitude {for friends and good books},

Joan, who purposely avoided telling you about the tragic treadmill accident she had on a recent trip to the gym, except to say if anyone had recorded it she would be a viral internet sensation (and she still has the bruises and deep scabs to prove it)

***

Joan’s NEW AND IMPROVED Lasagna

1 batch Red Sauce (see below)

1 batch Cashew Risotto (see below)

2 very large or several small zucchini, sliced and roasted (see below)

2 cups packed fresh spinach

Olive oil

Fresh parsley, chopped

Italian seasoning

Salt and pepper to taste

For the Red Sauce:

1/4 cup olive oil

6 oz. wine (I prefer dry red, but sweet white is good too)

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 large cloves minced fresh garlic

2 28-oz cans crushed tomatoes

1 TBLS sugar

3/4 tsp. red pepper flakes

1/2 tsp. salt

1 tsp dried Italian Seasonings

Cracked black pepper to taste (I like a lot, probably close to 1 TBLS)

Heat olive oil in large, heavy Dutch oven over medium high heat (I prefer cast iron). Add onion and garlic and cook until onions are translucent. Add wine and stir and continue to cook until at least half of the wine has evaporated.

Add tomatoes and seasonings and cover; bring to a boil, then stir well again and reduce heat to low. Simmer with lid on for as long as you can; preferably an hour but 20 minutes will do in a pinch, stirring occasionally and adding a bit of water if sauce needs thinning after a long simmer. Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. If too acidic, add a bit more sugar.

For the Zucchini:

While the red sauce is simmering, prepare your zucchini. Wash well, trim off ends, and slice lengthwise as thin as you can (1/4” works well, but you can go thicker if you have difficulty. Just don’t slice them very thick.) The key here is to slice your zucchini to resemble lasagna noodles, long and not too thick.

Brush both sides with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and put on a baking sheet. Roast in a 400 degree oven for at least 20 minutes. The goal is to sweat out much of the water and get the zucchini at least halfway cooked. It’s okay to leave them in longer and let them get browned in spots. The brown bits taste really good. I have gone for as long as 40 minutes before depending on thickness. By the way, you can prepare the zucchini ahead if you like. They’ll be fine at room temperature for several hours or in the fridge for 3 days. If you happen to be grilling, you can also grill the zucchini and save it for this and other recipes.

For the Cashew Ricotta (from The Simple Veganista):

1 1/2 cup raw cashews, soaked

1/2 cup water

Juice of 1 large lemon or 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon nutritional yeast

1 garlic clove

Dash of onion powder

Salt & cracked pepper, to taste

Soak the cashews for at least two hours in a bowl of water, covering the cashews with about an inch of water as they will puff up a bit.

Drain cashews and place all remaining ingredients into a blender or food processor, blend scraping down sides as needed until creamy. Taste for flavors adding any additional ingredients. Some like a salty ricotta so feel free to add as much salt as you want.

Store in refrigerator in an air tight container for an hour or two as this will stiffen the mixture a bit. You can also just prepare your dish with it straight away without refrigeration if needed.

Makes approximately 2 cups. Stores in refrigerator for up to a week.

Assembly:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Coat a 11”X14” deep dish with olive oil or Pam and layer ingredients in the following order: red sauce, zucchini noodles, spinach leaves, cashew ricotta, a sprinkle of Italian seasonings and chopped parsley. Repeat the layers as many times as you like, reserving enough red sauce to end with it.

If you find the cashew ricotta difficult to spread, just drop dollops of it around the dish and use a spatula to flatten it out and spread it around. Don’t worry if you move the spinach around a bit, just do your best to spread the ricotta around so it’s not in big clumps.

Bake for approximately 40 minutes until bubbly and edges are turning brown. Let stand 15 minutes before cutting.

Preparation Notes: I know it looks like a lot of work, but I made this from start to finish in about an hour (not including final baking time). You can always use sauce in a jar to speed things up, but try the homemade sometime. It really is worth 20-30 minutes of your time. We stopped buying sauce in a jar 10 years ago and have never looked back. Both Mr. Mom and I can make this sauce from memory in no time, and we use it for pizza, spaghetti, baked ziti – all our Italian recipes. You can double or triple the recipe and freeze extras for convenience.

And the zucchini and cashew ricotta can be made in advance, too. If you have everything on hand, you could layer this recipe up and have it in the oven in about 10 minutes.

If you are not gluten sensitive, you could add regular or whole wheat lasagna noodles in your layers and make this more of a classic veggie lasagna. But I’m avoiding gluten right now so that’s why I substituted zucchini for lasagna noodles. The great thing is that I didn’t even miss the wheat noodles – plus this recipe offers the added benefit of not sitting heavy on your stomach or making you sleepy afterwards!

PS: I forgot to mention — yes, the red sauce has a tablespoon of white sugar in it. That’s because it’s a recipe from my pre-clean eating days. I think all red sauces need just a bit of sweetener to balance the acidity. If you’re sensitive to sugar, replace it with your favorite alternative . . . Stevia, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, agave juice, the choice is yours.