One of the hardest parts of being a new vegan (or even an old seasoned vegan) is trying to keep up with all the new products out there. I must have spent over $50 looking for the "right" vegan cheese my first year being a vegan and I have over 50 vegan/vegetarian cookbooks in my arsenal but not all the recipes are the greatest. I’m the first born so I’m used to being a Guinea Pig and now I’m your Vegan Guinea Pig. So here are my recommendations and critiques. Let me know what you think!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

IZZE Sparkling Juice (Vodka's Perfect Mate)

Once again, the Chicago Diner has struck! On my second night in Chicago I went back to the Chicago Diner for a Portobello Chicken Cesar Wrap, Mac and Cheese and French Onion soup. I eyed the Izze and Vodka combo on the menu the first time I visited the restaurant but it was only around 11:30am and I thought it was a bit too early for a cocktail. But now it was 8pm and cocktail hour was upon me. So I ordered up a Pomegranate Izze and Vodka.

Previous to this experience I already had an unnatural love for Izze. Being the economical girl I am I had already been mixing fresh juice with pelligrino for sometime. But Izze brought flavors together that I could never concoct in my own kitchen and Izze's flavors were 1000times better than anything I had come up with to date. Izze comes in Sparkling Pomegranate, Blueberry, Clementine, Grapefruit (surprisingly sweet), Apple, Peach and Blackberry. The first 4 are my absolute favorites. The great thing about Izze is that, unlike soda's that claim to be "natural" Izze actually is natural. With 70% fruit juice and 30% sparkling water. The price is also affordable and I've seen it everywhere from my co-op and Whole foods to Target and Starbucks.

Although Izze and Vodka are best friends it is great on it's own and I have to admit I have a growing addiction. I've had to switched to canned Izze to control my consumption (which is great because the average can of Izze ranges from about 70-90 calories). So drink up! Izze is low in calories, actually has real fruit juice in it and no crazy chemicals and unpronounceables on the bottle. And if you enjoy your Izze with a little vodka just remember to drink responsibly.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Restaurant Review: VeggieBite Chicago, IL

Vegan fast food. An oxymoron right? Well God Bless Chicago because it has not only one vegan fast food restaurant but two! VeggieBite, my savior in a land of Parmesan cheese crusted everything, has two locations, on the Southside at 3031 W 111th St and on the Northside at 1300 N. Milwaukee Ave. My hotel was about 3 miles away from the Northside location and everyday I took a taxi at lunch time to Veggiebite to try something new.

Monday was an off day for VeggieBite. When I walked in the guy on the register was new, he didn't know how to work the credit card machine and they were out of buffalo wings (which I was salivating over after seeing them on the website). So on my first day I got a Philly Cheesesteak and a regular salad. Even though I spent an entire year living in Philadelphia, at this point I can't remember what a real Philly Cheesesteak tastes like. What I can tell you is that this one was amazing! Veggiebite uses its own homemade cheese sauce and a perfectly seasoned seitan beef, sliced thinly and oh so yummy. I really don't even care what a "real" Philly Cheesesteak taste like, because this is one is my one true love.

Tuesday. The girl on the register knew what she was doing and the kitchen was stocked with everything on the menu, unlike the day before. There was a quite a line so by the time I got to the front I was starving and ordered way more than I could ever eat in one sitting. I ordered chili cheese fries, chix-free nuggets, an Italian beef melt and a peach cobbler milkshake. Ok, I admit it. While I was ordering I acted like I was picking up half the order for someone else - I didn't want to seem like a total glutton! Everything smelled so good that I just had to dig into the chili cheese fries in the cab ride back and my poor peach cobbler milkshake never stood a chance to make it all the way back to the hotel. It seems like every time I tasted Veggiebite's cheesy sauce I loved it more and more. The peach cobbler milkshake was rich and decadent and actually had little bits of peach cobbler crust in it. Heavenly! The chix-free nuggets were delicious and came with a BBQ sauce. My only wish is that there was more than one sauce for the nuggets. FYI, if you're in a hurry nuggets are the best thing to get. They are ready in about a minute and the portions are generous. I wasn't able to fit another bite in my mouth for lunch but I managed to finish off the Italian beef melt before dinner with my steak-loving co-workers. The Italian beef melt was wonderful. There was only one problem. There was nothing Italian about it. It was basically the same seitan-beef used on the Philly Cheesesteak, smothered in BBQ sauce and on a bun. Don't get me wrong. It was DELICIOUS and I had to remind myself to breathe I was inhaling it so quickly but it just wasn't really an Italian sandwich. And there also wasn't anything melty or cheesy about it either. Great sandwich, but it needs a new name.

Wednesday. Finally it was time to get the Buffalo wings I had been craving since I first walked into this store. Along with the Buffalo wings I ordered cheese fries, another regular salad, cookie dough milk shake and a hot dog (I know, the oddest combination you've ever heard). The cheese fries were gone by the time I got to the hotel and the milkshake was two sips away from the same fate. I ran up to my room knowing that after 2 days of perfect food VeggieBite wouldn't let me down. Unfortunately, they did. The Buffalo wings were a disaster. Fried tofu with a mix of sriracha and hot sauce. The texture was off, the sauce was off, everything was just off. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't good. I didn't spit it out but after 2 bites I gave up on trying to like it anymore. Thank God for the hot dog waiting in the wings, you can't go wrong with a hot dog and it did the trick. Next time I go I'm going all the way - the chili cheese hot dog!

Overall, I highly recommend Veggiebite. As long as you steer clear of the Buffalo wings your life will be happy. The prices were fairly reasonable, although they didn't have any type of combos so things did add up quickly. The milkshakes alone are worth the trip! The service was quick and the atmosphere was nice, but above all else the food was delicious. That's all the reason I need.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Restaurant Review: The Chicago Diner Chicago, IL

Today I write to you lying in my hotel room bed, rubbing my belly two seconds away from a complete vegan food coma. My last trip to Chicago was mediocre in the food department, but I knew there were better restaurants out there than the previously blogged about Karyn's Cooked. In walks The Chicago Diner (3411 N. Halsted Chicago, IL), like a knight in shining armor. I'm always intimidated when I go to an all veg*n restaurant. It's strange to look at nearly everything on the menu and realize "I can eat this!" The Chicago Diner's menu has old standbys like Chicken Caesar Salad and Cobb Salad all the way to amazing entrées such as the Vegan Crab Cakes or Red Pepper Ravioli (which I tried). They also have a great kids menu with quesadilla's, Not Dogs, Grilled Cheese and pasta marinara.

I started off with the BBQ Wingz made of seitan with vegan ranch dipping sauce. The wings were okay but the vegan ranch dressing was incredible. I even got some to go so i can enjoy it on a salad or for dipping later. Then of course there is the list of vegan milkshakes & supershakes. My original choice of strawberry was not available but I honestly can't imagine anything tasting more perfect than the Blueberry Shake I ended up ordering. I tried to save room for desert but sipping on this milkshake throughout my meal was more than enough to satisfy my sweet tooth. The vegan shakes are also made with real fruit so it took away some of my guilt for devouring such a large treat.

For my entrée I went with the Red Pepper Ravioli. I haven't had ravioli since my vegetarian days so this was a welcome treat. The ravioli was stuffed with tomato, zucchini, red pepper and onion with a creamy tomato-vodka sauce served with a side of veggies and garlic bread. The portions were more than generous and the taste was pure perfection. Even when I was way past my limit I still continued to nibble on the ravioli until i literally couldn't fit another bite into my mouth. Just writing about them makes me want to grab them out of the fridge (because of course I had to take some back with me) and have another bite. The hotel room service menu here isn't very vegan friendly but The Chicago Diner has come to my rescue for breakfast tomorrow. I ordered the brunch special for the day of Breakfast Pizza with tomatoes, pineapple, vegan Canadian bacon and soy cheese. I took a little bite of it before putting it in the fridge to save for tomorrow and it was all I could do to not eat the entire thing on the spot.

Hopefully I'll get the chance to go back one more time before I leave to try their $5.95 vegan brunch. The Huevos a la Mexicana (scrambled tofu,tomato, onion, jalapeño, avocado, cilantro, vegan cheese, tortillas, rice, beans and salsa) that the table next to me were eating was calling my name and I can't imagine leaving without trying them.

The Chicago Diner is definitely a mandatory destination for anybody in the Chicago area or visiting. The service was quick and friendly. Every server in there was helpful, you didn't have to wait for your server to come back for you to order, get extra napkins, more sauce or just for someone to check on you to see how your meal was going. I felt like i should tip everyone when I left. The only downside the Chicago Diner is that it is also a vegetarian restaurant so you have to specify that you want vegan cheese and there are eggs in some things but everything can easily be replaced with vegan options. I did also spot some honey on one of the tables, but at the next table over there was agave nectar as well. So as far as complaints go, this is a small one.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Trader Joe's New Beef-less Strips aka "the meal I want on my death bed"

I'm leaving town tomorrow for the Windy City (more restaurant reviews to come!) and I really didn't have the time to cook anything elaborate. Last time I was at Trader Joe's I saw they had these new Beef-Less Strips. They have about 20 grams of protein a serving, 120 calories and 30% of the RDA for iron, I couldn't really turn them down. They had been sitting in my refrigerator for over a week waiting for a moment just like this. Coincidentally, I also had a bag of Harvest Hodgepodge frozen vegetables in my freezer that were 2 seconds away from freezer burn. They have all the makings for a perfect stir-fry: Broccoli florets, julienned carrots, baby corn, water chestnuts, mushrooms, sugar snap peas, red peppers and onions. The trouble is I like my stir fry with brown rice but who was an hour to wait for that stuff to cook?! I ran to my pantry, hoping and praying that there was some quinoa left, thankfully I had enough quinoa left to make my late-lunch/early dinner complete.

I'm really not a fan of faux-beef. Outside of boca burgers I tend to steer clear from things with a "beefy" flavor. But I have to say that Trader Joe's Beef less strips were perfect! I sautéed 1/2 the box of beef-less strips in a little canola oil until they were a little crispy. The back of the box says 2-3 minutes but I cooked them for about 5. I added the steamed harvest hodgepodge and cooked for an additional 2-3 minutes. Then I added some homemade teriyaki sauce i had around from earlier in the week and a little arrowroot to thicken it up. I cooked my quinoa in vegetable stock and voilà! Dinner in 15 minutes.

I didn't intend for this meal to be a Trader Joe's love-fest but it just so happens that all the stuff lying around my house was from there. And all the ingredients I used can be kept in the refrigerator, freezer or pantry for an extended period of time so they are great when you just don't have any time (which is always) and want a great meal. I still have 1/2 a box of the beef-less strips left. On the back of the box they recommend making Mediterranean wraps or fajita pizza and I can't wait to try both options (I have some mozzarella cheezly that is screaming, "Make me a pizza!"). If you don't have a Trader Joe's near you this meal alone is cause for you to call your senator, governor, alderman, whoever and demand one be built near you ASAP!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Shake Your Booty! (Pirates Booty)

Let me tell you about a little piece of heaven called Pirates booty (with caramel). When it comes to these big corporate meetings I have to bring snacks just to be able to stay up past the opening sessions or sit through a boring discussion about things I could care less about. Usually my co-workers baulk at any and every snack I pull out of my bag, whether it be primal strips, tings or just plain old walnuts they look at me like I’m from another planet. Some of them still have a sense of adventure and are willing to at least try some of my vegan vittles.

When I offered my skeptical co-workers a bite of my pirate’s booty they couldn’t resist. Really, who can resist a snack food with “booty” in the name? They were all immediately hooked. Not only did they love it but they kept on coming back for more and telling other people about it. Who can resist the taste of puffed corn and rice crisp with caramel drizzled all over it? Who can really resist the taste of anything with caramel drizzled on it? No one I say!

Pirate’s booty doesn’t only come in caramel flavor. There are a range of vegan booty’s including: Fruity Booty, Simply Booty and Veggie Booty. This bootiful family of snacks comes from the genius’ at Robert’s American Gourmet who specialize in vegetarian snack foods. They even have a little online suggestion box where you can send them new ideas for yummy vegetarian/vegan snacks. But don’t just take my word for it. Go out and show a little love to the pirate’s booty and try a bag. You won’t be disappointed.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Breakfast Burrito from Hell

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. When it comes to Amy’s Kitchen line of vegan food fare sometimes they are fantabulous (yes, that’s a word…cause I say so!) and sometimes they are inedible. Amy’s Organic Beans & Rice Burritos were fantabulous. Amy’s Breakfast Burrito, inedible.

I had such high hopes for this burrito, especially since I am already deeply in love with the beans and rice burritos. Aside from the addition of potatoes and soy the ingredient list looked pretty much the same. The breakfast burrito is still low in calories (250) and has the same amount of fiber and protein that my beloved beans & rice burrito does. I just can’t understand what went so terribly wrong.

I couldn’t have tasted these burrito disasters at a worse time. I was running late to my 9am Saturday Chemistry class. I had no time to whip up a smoothie or brew any green tea. I had just enough time to throw Amy’s breakfast burrito into the microwave for 2 minutes and run out the door. Halfway to my destination I decided to bite into what I knew would be my tasty breakfast. I can’t tell you how fast I spit it out. I almost rolled down my window and threw it out, but I didn’t want to subject the poor birds to this awful concoction.

Read this very carefully…steer clear of Amy’s Kitchen Breakfast Burrito. I only say this for your own protection. Even if they are on sale 10 for $1, just avert your eyes and run in the opposite direction. Usually when it comes to bad Mexican food a little salsa will perk up the dish and at least make it edible. Unfortunately, no amount of salsa exists to cover up the awful taste of this burrito. Do you remember the sand and paper mache combo I talked about in my last blog? Just add big chunks of potatoes to that and you have Amy’s Kitchen Breakfast Burritos. So if you like paper mache, sand and potatoes this is probably the breakfast burrito for you. If, like me, you like your food to actually taste like food just have a beans and rice burrito for breakfast and call it a day. At this point, I just need to figure out what to do with the extra breakfast burrito I have sitting in my freezer (yep, I was so sure it would taste good I bought 2! Agh!)

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Amy's Kitchen Non-Dairy Burritos

I feel like it's been ages since I posted last. Work, school and writing the cookbooks has me busier than ever. Because of this I've been eating a lot of on the go meals that take only a couple minutes to heat up and are most importantly portable. My new favorite on the go meal is Amy's Kitchen Organic Beans and Rice Burrito.

When it comes to those store bought freezer section burritos I tend to steer clear. They have always tasted like a mix between paper maché and sand (don't ask me how I know what either of those things taste, like i just do). Honestly, I wasn't expecting anything better from Amy's Beans & Rice burritos either. I've had hits and misses with Amy's. I love their black bean enchiladas and in my vegetarian days loved their cheese enchiladas. Amy's pizza's were always kinda good but not something I would crave (more to come on Amy's vegan pizza in another post).

Thankfully, this burrito turned out to be one of those hits, and thank God because I was starving the day I fished it out of the freezer. For all you vegetarians and omni's out there you won't miss the cheese I promise. In fact, these burritos somehow sneak in a subtle cheesy taste. More importantly they are incredibly filling, 1 is enough for an entire meal. They are relatively low in calories (280) and high in fiber(5g) and protein(9g) with no saturated fat. They are also a soy free alternative to most of the grab and go meals that contain some sort of soy.

As far as price goes it varies dramatically. At my neighborhood conventional grocery store they were $1.99 and at Whole Foods they were $2.69. Basically they are about double the price of a Taco Bell bean burrito without cheese but they are way more filling, are organic and if you stock up you don't have to leave the house to get them.
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