Friendship & Fresh Tomato Sauce

I have always wanted to learn how to make jars of fresh tomato sauce. Each summer when the tomatoes are at their peak, I fantasize about filling my cupboards with the most amazing sauce ever created (yes I am a food nerd). I even went so far as to buy a bushel of tomatoes a few years back and set about peeling, seeding, blanching, chopping and sterilizing….until the whole thing just got so overwhelming that I shoved my half-assed attempt at sauce into bags and popped it all in the freezer. Massive red ice-cube blobs that I eventually thawed and dumped. Pathetic.

The biggest stumbling block for me (and it’s the same story for homemade jam btw) is sterilizing the dang jars. Whenever I start reading the instructions for the sterilization process I end up breaking into a cold sweat as I imagine my dinner guests doubled over with acute food poisoning. I just can’t handle the pressure!

So you can imagine my delight when I mentioned my tomato-sauce ineptitude to a couple of my closest girlfriends and they said “Hey – it’s not hard at all. We’ve done it lots of times. We can teach you how to make it.” Woohoo! I quickly roped them into committing to a date and anxiously awaited my sauce-making lesson.

tomato bushel

The day before our cooking extravaganza, one of my girlfriends dropped off a bushel of the most beautiful bright red tomatoes at my door. “Wash them and set them out on a flat surface to dry” she instructed. Looked easy enough until I realized that a bushel of tomatoes is freakin’ heavy! She helped me load them into my son’s wagon and I rolled them gently into the backyard. After an hour scrubbing them and lining them up on a bed sheet outside, I stood back to admire my work (and then promptly hopped into a hot bath to soak my aching back….bending over the hose is tough work).

tomato outside

The next day, my friends arrived bright and early armed with boxes of jars, more tomatoes and tons of cooking supplies. One of the girls had miraculously discovered that chopping and putting the tomatoes right into our high-powered blenders would cut down hours of the tedious work of grinding the tomatoes by hand but I wanted to try one batch the old-school way. The girls just looked at each other and rolled their eyes but indulged me and passed me the tomato grinder.

tomato grinder

As they happily whirred up the tomatoes in the blender, I hand cranked the chopped tomatoes through a stainless steel grinder. Much more difficult and as it turns out – the sauce from my efforts didn’t taste any different from their blended sauce. After 1 batch, I also switched to the blender method and in no time at all we had a few pots of sauce boiling away on the oven.

tomato pot

Although I was expecting to make full-blown pasta sauce (ala Ragu), the girls told me that it’s much better to simply jar the boiled tomato sauce mixed with a little sea salt. This keeps the tomatoes fresher and you can add the garlic, basil and any other ingredients of choice when you open your jars and are ready to eat the sauce. (And let me tell you, just the simple boiled tomatoes and sea salt tasted amazing.)

It turns out that my fear over the jar sterilization was overblown. The girls simply popped the jars into the dishwasher on high heat and placed the lids into a pot of boiling water on the stove. They handled the jars carefully so as not to touch the lip and used tongs to place the lids on each one. Then they set them upside down on a table for a few minutes to make sure they weren’t leaking and turned them over to wait for the “pop” of the lids that indicates a good seal. Voila!

So here are the biggest lessons I learned about jarring fresh tomato sauce:

– tomato sauce tastes 100% better when you make it yourself

– when you are a rookie sauce maker in the kitchen with experts- it’s best to stick to watching, listening and doing the dishes

– sterilizing doesn’t have to be scary

– the taste is wonderful and fresh and it makes the house smell amazing (the kids even said it was the best sauce they’d ever had)

– I’m so lucky to have friends who are willing to share their knowledge and the workload (and it didn’t hurt that I had a couple of bottles of Italian wine on hand to keep them happy ; )

– it’s not so hard – just go for it!

My wish has come true – my pantry is all stocked up with tomato sauce. Thanks to my friends, I conquered my fear and learned a great new skill. Next stop….jam!

tomato jars

Fresh Tomato Sauce

1 bushel ripe tomatoes
Sea salt (to taste, approx. 1 tbsp. per large batch)
Mason jars (we used large and medium-sized jars)

Wash tomatoes and lay them on a flat surface to dry for 24 hours.

Sterilize jars on high heat in the dishwasher.

Quarter tomatoes and place them into a high-powered blender. Whir for 1-2 minutes until blended. Place mixture into a large pot on the stove. Bring to a boil and boil continuously for 1 hour, adding sea salt to taste.

Place jar lids and rims into a large pot of boiling water on the stove.

After 1 hour, scoop sauce into a sterilized jar, leaving at least 1-inch of space at the top of the jar. Use tongs to place a lid on the jar and seal with a rim. Place jar on the table upside down for a minute or 2 to ensure there is no leaking. After a couple of minutes, flip the jar right side up and listen for the “pop” of the lid that will let you know that the jar is properly sealed.

*Lori’s Suggestion: When you are ready to eat your sauce – put a tablespoon of olive oil into a skillet and heat on medium-high. Add a minced clove of garlic, a sprinkle of sea salt and a dash of red pepper flakes and cook for 1-2 minutes. Pour in your sauce and heat through. Scoop over hot pasta and enjoy!

 

 

 

 

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Mexican Quinoa Salad (with Bonus Wrap)

It’s not easy when a member of your family announces that they are radically changing the way they eat. I was in my mid-30’s when I embarked on a plant-based diet and this threw a real curveball at my meat-and-potato loving parents. Although I had long since moved away from home and started my own family – it still meant that every holiday and visit became a head-scratcher when trying to prepare a menu that would appeal to everyone. Thanksgiving and Christmas with no turkey?! Easter with no ham?! A BBQ with no burgers?! Holy crap!

veggie cartoon 2

I must admit that we’ve had more than a few heated “discussions” over the years about being flexible and open to trying new things. And there was also the inevitable questioning of the health benefits of a diet with no animal products. “You mean you aren’t giving your kids milk? How will they get strong bones?” “How will your family get enough protein?” “What the hell is quinoa?” and “Why do you have to be such a pain in the ass Lori?” All valid questions.

In the beginning I stood up on my soapbox and was overly eager to share all of the wonderful information I was learning about my new diet. I told them about the fact that there is actually more digestible protein in leafy greens and legumes than in meat (not to mention the animal cruelty associated with the meat industry). And that chickpeas and sesame seeds are much richer sources of protein than dairy. And that milk has been definitively linked to cancer. AND I made my entire family watch Forks Over Knives over one Christmas holiday (yes I was insufferable).

Nowadays, I’ve learned to shut my mouth more often and to be appreciative of how far we’ve come in incorporating more plant-based foods into all of our diets. But I’ve gotta give credit especially to my mom for really giving vegetarian cooking a college try. My family recently spent a few days at my parent’s home and I was totally delighted when she announced that she would be making Zesty Quinoa and Black Bean Wraps for dinner. She’s come a very long way from the woman who once told me she would never eat a vegetarian diet because there just wasn’t enough variety.

This recipe evolved from that wrap – which was delicious by the way (my son even turned down cheese pizza to gobble up a second helping). It’s simple to prepare and packed with protein, fresh veggies, herbs and spices. It just might be the best salad I’ve ever made! And as a special bonus, I turned the leftovers into a grilled wrap the next day that rivals the gourmet quinoa wrap sold by a very well-known coffee chain.

So if someone in your life announces that they are suddenly going to eat a different way – be it gluten-free or paleo or vegan or flexitarian…..be patient with them. When they come down off of their high horse – they just might make you something yummy to eat.

Mexican Quinoa Salad (with Bonus Wrap)

mexican quinoa 1

1 cup uncooked quinoa
1 clove garlic, minced
1 pepper (any colour) diced
2 ears of corn- cooked, cooled and cut off of the cob
1 pint cherry tomatoes, diced
1 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
1 avocado, diced
Juice of 1 lime
3 tbsp. olive oil
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp chili powder
Salt and pepper to taste

Cook quinoa according to package directions. Set aside to cool.

In a large bowl, combine the quinoa, corn, garlic, pepper, tomatoes, cilantro and avocado. Squeeze the lime juice over top. Pour on the olive oil and toss to coat. Add red pepper flakes, cumin, chili powder and salt and pepper and toss again. Enjoy!

*Bonus Wrap*

mexican quinoa 2

2 whole wheat or gluten-free wraps of choice
1/2 cup grated regular or vegan cheddar cheese
1 tbsp. olive oil
2 cups Mexican Quinoa Salad (above)

Heat a frying pan with olive oil over medium heat. Lay wraps on a flat surface and put a line of quinoa salad down the middle of each. Top with cheese. Fold in both ends of the wraps and roll together. Place the wrap in the frying pan and grill on both sides. Remove from heat after both sides are gold brown (approx. 3 minutes per side) and let cool for a few minutes. Slice and serve. (You could also use a Panini maker in place of the frying pan to make life easier).

Ruby Red Smoothie

I make a smoothie pretty much every single morning. Greens, banana, pineapple, superfood add-ins, frozen berries- blend and repeat. And although I know the ingredients are colourful and healthy – more often than not the resulting drink has more of a greeny-brownish hue. Not the most visually appealing (in fact the other day my youngest told me that his smoothie looked like diarrhea…..sigh)

My friend Lisa always says that the experience of eating (or drinking) begins with your eyes. And if that’s the case then perhaps a cup of poop coloured smoothie isn’t how my family wants to start their day. Fair enough. So I started tinkering with my smoothies to make them more eye catching.

I recently enjoyed a weekend away with a good pal and she gave me an awesome suggestion for a wonderful bright red vegetable that I’ve been overlooking in my smoothie recipes. This particular veggie has been proven to lower blood pressure, alleviate depression, boost stamina, fight inflammation, detox the body and is rich in vitamins and minerals. What magical ingredient did I find that not only makes my smoothie look beautifully ruby-red but also ups the health factor? Beets! These gorgeous and often unappreciated gems of the vegetable kingdom add brilliant redness and a subtle sweetness to a smoothie that is not at all overpowering.

beets

So kick those brown drinks to the curb and add a burst of colour to your next smoothie! And if you want to get extra fancy – try slicing a strawberry to pop on the side of the glass. Voila – beautiful and nutritious.

Ruby Red Smoothie

beet smoothie

4-6 cups packed spinach
1 banana
1 small beet (or 1/2 a medium beet)
1 2-inch ring of pineapple
1 -2 cups frozen strawberries (or raspberries)
Superfood add-ins (optional)

Place all ingredients in a high-powered blender and whir for 1 minute. Drink up the goodness!

Oh and one thing to keep in mind if you decide to add beets – you need to brace yourself because they will actually turn your poop just as red as your smoothie (believe it or not – this is actually a pretty effective selling feature for kids ; )

Asian Noodle Salad with Seared Tofu

I was busy grilling the tofu for this recipe when a friend popped by to pick up his daughter from a play date. “Mmmmm…something smells good Lori – what are you cooking?” he asked. “Marinated tofu steaks!” I proudly replied. “Oh gross – that’s nasty!” he quickly shot back. Guess I won’t be inviting him to dinner anytime soon ; )

Tofu (and soy products in general) might just be one of the most controversial foods out there. Depending on which research paper or magazine article you are reading- it’s either touted as a wonderful superfood or a hormone disrupting poison. And frankly there appear to be good arguments on both sides of the fence.

I have done quite a bit of research on my own and came across a great article on the Harvard School of Public Health website that gave a comprehensive overview of “smart approaches to choosing protein for your diet.” This particular quote came from the end of the “Straight Talk about Soy” section:

Eat soy in moderation. Soybeans, tofu, and other soy-based foods are an excellent alternative to red meat. In some cultures, tofu and soy foods are a protein staple, and we don’t suggest any change. But if you haven’t grown up eating lots of soy, there’s no reason to go overboard: Two to 4 servings a week is a good target; eating more than that likely won’t offer any health benefits and we can’t be sure that there is no harm.

One thing to also keep in mind when buying tofu is that over 90% of soy bean production in the US is genetically modified and the crops are heavily sprayed with toxic herbicides. So be sure to read the labels and choose a tofu brand that is non-GMO and organic.

And now there is the matter of taste – most people assume that it will either taste bland or disgusting. But believe it or not I actually like it and so do my kids. With the right marinade and seasonings, it can be really delicious. We eat it approximately once a week just cut up and sautéed in a stir fry, marinated and breaded in crispy tofu wraps or seared into steaks.

So – to tofu or not to tofu – that is the question? At the end of the day there is no magic bullet, one-size-fits all approach to healthy eating. Do your own research, read labels, listen to your own body and do what’s best for you. This salad would be tasty with our without the tofu but if you are a tofu fan or would like to try it for the first time then go for it! This salad will make you a tofu-lover for sure.

Asian Noodle Salad with Seared Tofu Steaks

tofu salad 3

1 package of organic non-GMO firm tofu, drained
1 cup of tamari (soy sauce)
1 tsp garlic powder
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
2 tbsp. agave nectar
2 tbsp. pure sesame oil
2 tsp grated peeled fresh ginger
1 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp fresh cracked black pepper
2 tbsp. olive oil
6 cups chopped romaine lettuce
1 package of soba noodles (buckwheat)
1 head of broccoli, chopped small
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 cup shelled peanuts

To marinate tofu: cut the block of tofu into 1 inch slices and place in a shallow dish with a lid. Cover with tamari and sprinkle with garlic powder and shake it around to marinate the slices. Place in the fridge for an hour, shaking occasionally.

tofu salad 1

To make the dressing: combine vinegar, agave, sesame oil, ginger, salt and pepper in a jar with a lid. Cover tightly and shake vigorously.

Cook soba noodles according to package directions – adding broccoli florets into the boiling water at the same time as the noodles. Drain noodles and broccoli and set aside.

tofu salad 2

The tofu can either be seared on a hot frying pan on the stove or on the barbecue. For stovetop: Heat olive oil in a large skilled over medium-high heat. Add tofu slices and cook approximately 5 minutes per side until lightly browned. For BBQ: Heat to medium high and place marinated tofu slices directly on the grill. Cook 2-4 minutes per side. Cut each slice in half lengthwise for serving.

Arrange lettuce on 4 large dinner plates or 6 smaller plates. Top with a portion of noodles/broccoli and tofu slices. Drizzle with dressing. Garnish with fresh cilantro and peanuts.

Enjoy!

Judgement & Food Choices

As a result of the choices I make when it comes to eating, I sometimes find myself in the company of friends and family who feel the need to apologize to me about their own food choices. Recently, a good friend sheepishly asked if I would be okay if she ordered a steak while we were out dining together and another pal ardently defended her love of bacon at an early morning breakfast date.

veggie cartoon 4

Let me just get this out in the open – there is no need to apologize! I choose not to eat meat – that is true – but I promise to make no judgements about your selections. I will keep my own personal lifestyle choices private (unless you ask) and I will absolutely not jump to any conclusions about your character based on what you eat in front of me. Heck, I am certainly no purist. I ate meat until well into my 30’s, I will literally shove you out of the way to get at a fresh bag of potato chips and a glass of red wine and a gooey chocolate dessert are two of my very favourite things in the world. (Of course all of this is null and void if you are my husband – in which case I will freely offer my unbridled opinion….sorry Mark!)

I recently found myself browsing the housewares department at Anthropologie while my mom and sister tried on clothes (this likely explains why they always look fashionably dressed and I can most often be found wearing my track pants ; ) and I stumbled upon a beautiful book called Pure Vegan by Joseph Shuldiner that I just had to buy.

pure vegan

The recipes look amazing and the photographs are downright mouth-watering but what really hooked me was the introduction to the book. The author says:

“My intentions in writing this book are not to debate the virtues of one belief system over another, nor to promote the health benefits of eating a plant-based diet. Aside from having little interest in these debates, I’m not qualified to take up a pair of boxing gloves in their defense. Making my own day-to-day choices about what to eat and what not to eat is complicated enough without trying to tell you what you should and shouldn’t eat. And that, my friend, is what this book is about: making choices that feel natural and right to you; to sow a few seeds in the back of your mind and help you cultivate your own plant-based culinary repertoire.”

Well said! I felt an immediate kinship with Joseph Shuldiner and his lovely and non-judgemental philosophy towards eating. We all have to walk our own culinary path and it is often one fraught with allergies, preferences, mixed messages from food producers and the media, childhood eating experiences, guilt, weight-struggles and financial issues (not to mention the complications thrown in if you are trying to feed a picky family).

So order what you will and enjoy every mouthful. I won’t judge you….. and I trust you will look the other way as I wipe chip crumbs onto my jogging pants.

Veggie Pho Soup

Before I had children and while I was still figuring out my career direction, I spent a few years as a public relations consultant at an agency in downtown Toronto. Although I realized pretty quickly that this particular career path wasn’t the one for me – I did learn a lot during those years and I am especially thankful for the people I met, the skills I honed and the fun I had during that time.

If I am being completely honest, one of my absolute favourite things about working in the middle of a big city was the opportunity to grab some friends and head out for lunch at one of the many amazing restaurants in the area. And there was one particular little spot close to my office called Yummy & Healthy that I absolutely adored. I went there so much that the sweet owner got to know me and would start prepping my Vegetarian Pho Soup as soon as I walked in the door. I couldn’t get enough of that fragrant and spicy broth and the heaping portions of rice noodles, veggies, sprouts and tofu…..delicious!

I have tried many times over the years to recreate that soup and I just haven’t been able to hit the mark…until now. I was fiddling around with a recipe from a recent edition of the Vegetarian Times Magazine and bingo-  I came pretty darn close!

The key to this Pho soup recipe is all in the broth. I threw a bunch of herbs and spices into a big pot and let it all cook together for at least an hour. Then I strained everything out and was left with a tangy and delicious base to build upon. Once the broth is ready to go – I simply simmered my add-ins of choice right in the soup. (However, if you are adding noodles, I would recommend cooking them separately and putting them into the bottom of your serving bowls and scooping the soup over top so that they don’t get too mushy.)

Although Yummy & Healthy is no longer in business, I’m paying homage to the owner and to the many trips I took to that restaurant with this recipe. Wherever the owners ended up – I’d like them to know that the young woman with blue eyes, the sloppy French braid and the ill-fitting Fairweather suit who sat in the corner slurping her noodles would like to thank you for the inspiration : )

Veggie Pho Soup (adapted from Vegetarian Times, Feb 2014)

pho

10 cups vegetable broth (I used 3 cubes of mushroom bouillon mixed with 10 cups of water)
1 cinnamon stick
2 round slices of lime (with rind)
1 1-inch piece of fresh ginger cut into thin coins
3 whole garlic cloves
The stems and roots from one bunch of cilantro (save the leaves for garnish)
3 tbsp. tamari (soy sauce)
1 tsp agave nectar
1 package extra firm tofu, drained and cut into cubes
1 stalk broccoli, cut into small pieces
2 stalks of bok choy, chopped
2-3 cups of bean sprouts, rinsed and drained
3 oyster mushrooms, cut into small pieces
1 bunch of cilantro leaves, chopped
Rice noodles of choice (I used PC Thai Rice Stick Noodles)
Extra tamari and Sriracha Sauce for flavouring

Place vegetable broth, lime pieces, garlic, cinnamon stick, cilantro stems, tamari and agave into a large soup pot. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Strain and throw out flavourings. (At this stage you can make your soup right away or save the broth to use at another time. It also freezes well.)

Prepare rice noodles according to package directions, rinse and set aside.

Bring broth back to a simmer and add in tofu, broccoli, bok choy and mushrooms and simmer for 5 minutes. Add sprouts and cook 1-2 minutes longer.

Scoop a generous portion of noodles into the bottom of a soup bowl. Top with broth and veggies and sprinkle with cilantro. Add additional tamari and sriracha for flavouring if desired.

Enjoy!

Chaga Mushroom Tea Latte

I’m going to be completely honest and admit that there are many mornings you will find me at my favourite coffee joint in the drive-thru line up patiently waiting for my soy latte. I have a well rehearsed repertoire of excuses in my head to justify my “need” for a fancy take-out drink:

– I was up all night with a sick child and I desperately need a coffee today
– I worked out really hard this morning and I deserve a reward
– I’m going to start eating right and working out next week so I’d better get my treats in today
– I stayed up late working so I need a coffee to make it through the day
– It’s a holiday (insert any occasion here – including Ground Hog Day!) and I need to celebrate with a coffee
– I’m meeting a friend and I can’t be rude and not join her when she is drinking her coffee
– It’s Monday and I need to pick myself up for the week
– It’s Friday and I need to gear up for the weekend

Trust me, I could go on and on but I’ll spare you. Needless to say I really enjoy a nice tall latte filled with steamy soy milk and sugary add-ins to start off my day. But being something of a health nut- I am also well aware of the negative effects of indulging in this particular treat (not to mention that it costs $6 a pop!)

Although the pros and cons of coffee have been hotly debated I know for myself that I feel much healthier and my gut, skin and pocketbook are much happier when I stick to all-natural homemade concoctions. And yes I can see you rolling your eyes through my computer screen – but some of my concoctions really do taste great!

Because I’m a full-on food nerd, I was totally thrilled to find this bag of Canadian Chaga Mushroom pieces on a recent trip to my local health food store. This potent and unique superfood is “a slow-growing mushroom that develops on living birch trees, obtaining nutrients from its host and making them available to us.” Chaga is considered the most nutritionally dense tree growth in the world and is revered in ancient Chinese medicine as being the “king of plants“. Studies have shown Chaga to be the single most concentrated source of antioxidants known to man and it has anti-inflammatory, immune-boosting and cancer fighting properties. Wow!

The cool thing about these mushroom chunks is that you boil 1/3 of a cup of them in a liter of water and just let them steep like tea. Afterwards you strain out the chunks and you will be left with a mild-tasting dark brown liquid that you can add to soups, smoothies, tea, coffee or just drink it straight up. And since the mushroom is so potent – you can actually reuse the chunks several times!

chaga

This morning I added 1 heated cup of the Chaga tea to 1 cup of boiling water and blended it together with 1 tbsp. raw sesame seeds, 1 tbsp. hemp seeds, 1 tbsp. maple syrup, 1 tbsp. Dandy Blend, 1 tbsp. cacao powder, a small chunk of cacao butter and 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract. Voila! Yummy coffee drink that has a ton of health benefits! (I also added a cupful of the tea to our morning smoothie)

So for today, I am skipping the fancy take-out coffee and sipping my Chaga Tea Latte. One day at a time right? As for tomorrow – if you happen to see me in the drive-thru line just give me knowing nod and a wave…..because trust me, I’ll have my excuse ready ; )