Snowed In Meal #1: Asian Lettuce Wraps (without having to go to the store!)

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Last week in New Jersey we had a snow storm from early-morning Sunday into Monday. Work was canceled, the driveway and our cars were both covered, and it was freezing out. I didn’t want to go ANYWHERE. So I didn’t! But I knew I had to rely on making dinner from what I had on hand. They key to this type of meal is making sure it doesn’t taste like it was just thrown together to use up ingredients in the pantry or fridge.
 

Before I started brainstorming on Monday night, I asked my other half if there were something in particular he wanted. His request: “lettuce wraps, if you can.” Challenge, extended! I browsed the contents of our shelves and found that this was totally doable- he had previously purchased a head of organic iceberg lettuce for his lunch sandwiches, I had a container of organic non-GMO tofu that I was planning on using in a different recipe later in the week, and  I had leftover raw cauliflower. Done!

I love having leftover ingredients- especially when they were inexpensive to start with. A few days before, I bought a head of organic cauliflower for $3.99 (conventional was $3.49- only 50 cents less!)

cauliflower comparisonI used 1/5 of the head for my vegan cauliflower “meat” balls and now had 4/5 left in my fridge- how exciting! The cauliflower would definitely be going in these lettuce wraps, along with the lettuce and tofu mentioned above.

As for the sauce, I have a go-to Asian sauce that is so simple to make and can be made with basic staples in your kitchen. A well stocked pantry is the key to successful re-purposing of ingredients- I will be making a post about what I keep in my pantry in the very near future. All you need for my simple Asian sauce is organic soy sauce (PLEASE go for organic if you can- there is not a huge difference in price, but the quality of what you’re putting in your body is night and day- soy is one of the most genetically modified crops in the United States), some sort if citrus juice, and your favorite nut butter of choice.

I had some almond butter I wanted to use up, but you can use peanut, cashew, or even tahini (sesame seed butter). I didn’t have any limes, my preferred citrus for this sauce, but I did have orange juice- a perfect substitute.

Asian Lettuce Wraps

  • 1/2 package extra firm organic non-GMO tofu (found in the refrigerated section)
  • 1 chicken breast (if you are going vegetarian/vegan, simply omit the chicken and make the full package of tofu!)
  • 1/2 head of organic cauliflower
  • pinch of ground mustard
  • pinch of ground ginger
  • pinch of ground allspice
  • Asian seasoning blend (you can use the same three spices above with a pinch of garlic powder and onion powder and add sesame seeds if you’d like)
  • 2 tablespoons organic almond butter (or other nut butter of choice)
  • 1 tablespoon organic orange juice (more if you like a thinner sauce)
  • 1-2 teaspoons of organic soy sauce, depending on desired flavor/saltiness
  • 1 tablespoon of orange marmalade or mango chutney (I used mango chutney because I had an open jar)
  • coconut oil for cooking
  • 6-8 leaves of lettuce for wrapping (iceberg is recommended for crunch, but any lettuce can be used)
Optional but HIGHLY recommended:
  • 1 organic scallion, chopped
  • organic peanuts or almonds
  •  organic pickled radishes/cucumbers/ginger
Slice the tofu into thin slices and let drain on paper towels placed on a baking rack. I flipped the tofu and changed the towels three times- there is a lot of water in tofu!
 
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Heat a skillet with a little coconut oil over medium-high heat. Chop the cauliflower into small bite-size pieces and add to the pan. Cook until mostly cooked (you can taste test if you’re unsure!) Add the pinches of mustard, ginger, and allspice and finish cooking. Remove from pan and set aside.
 
Heat a little more coconut oil and when hot, add the drained sliced tofu. As the first side cooks, sprinkle with Asian seasoning. Always read your labels to make sure seasoning doesn’t contain starches or oils to prevent sticking. If you cannot find a good Asian spice blend, make your own with a pinch of mustard, ginger, allspice, garlic powder, onion powder, and optional sesame seeds as mentioned above in the ingredients list (unless the spice is USDA Certified Organic, the added oils are most likely genetically modified, or GMO.)
 
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Flip tofu when the bottom side is golden brown and season the top side as the bottom cooks.
 
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Remove from heat when golden brown, place on paper towls on baking rack so that any excess oil is absorbed.
 
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While the tofu is sitting, reduce the heat and melt the marmalade or chutney in the same pan. When the tofu is cool enough to handle, stack the slices and slice into thin strips.
 
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Add the strips to the melted marmalade/chutney and stir to coat the tofu. Remove from pan and set aside.
 
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If using chicken, raise the heat, dice the chicken breast, and cook in a little coconut oil. Remove from pan and set aside.
 
Use the same pan to make the sauce. Lower the heat and melt the almond butter and add the orange juice. Stir to incorporate. Add a teaspoon of soy sauce and stir thoroughly. Taste the sauce to assess the flavor and saltiness- add another teaspoon of soy sauce if desired. Add the cauliflower to the sauce, stir to coat. You can now either mix in the chopped scallion, put it on top of the cauliflower, or wait until plating.
 

Move the cauliflower to one side of the pan, add the tofu (and chicken if applicable) to the pan in separate sections so that all components can reheat separately without having to heat three pans.

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As ingredients heat back up, place peanuts in a small bowl if using them for a crunchy addition to the wraps (you can use almonds here if you prefer!) If you have a pickled veggie on hand, such as radishes or cucumbers, or a jar of pickled ginger (sushi ginger), dice them up into bite-size pieces and put in a small bowl for serving. I really love the pickled flavor in this recipe, I highly recommend using them if you have them or can find them. Sushi ginger can be found in the Asian aisle of your food store- it comes sliced in a jar!
 
I just happened to have some pickled radishes on hand because a while ago I had a huge raw bunch of left over and didn’t want to throw them out so I pickled them and threw them in the fridge- they last FOREVER! I use them in recipes as needed or even on top of a salad- delicious!
 
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Take your lettuce and carefully separate the leaves. Place on a plate for serving. Once everything is warmed through, place into separate bowls so you can pick and choose the ingredients and amounts you’d like. Assemble as you wish and enjoy!
 
lettuce wraps 8This meal was created based on what I had in my pantry and fridge- you can throw whatever veggies or proteins you want in the wraps, whether they were leftover, or cooked just for the purpose of using them in this recipe-be creative!
 
Lettuce wraps are an economical way to eat all organic- this meal cost me $3.50 for the organic chicken breast, $2.00 worth of cauliflower, $1.00 of lettuce, $1.25 for the tofu, and a dollar or two for the scallion, spices, oil, peanuts, and radishes for a total of around $7.75 worth of ingredients for a 100% organic dinner for two (without having to venture out into the cold!)
 
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Vegan Cauliflower “Meat” Balls: $5 Dinner for Two AND a Leftover Makeover in One!

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As I’ve mentioned before, I never throw out food, even if there are only a few bites left. It can always be used for SOMETHING- a little nibble here, a snack there.
    
My husband starts salivating as soon as I’m cooking it seems. He goes from “I could eat” to “I’M STARVING!!!!” in a matter of seconds. He gets so hungry that he must (MUST!) have a bite of something before dinner is even ready (see: Hummus burger recipe where he stole two spoonfulls of uncooked hummus “burger” which was just veggies, chickpeas, tahini, and quinoa flour, no uncooked meat or eggs). Therefore, saving every little bit of leftovers is essential in our house (and should be in yours too!) Instead of him eating my uncooked meal or stealing from the pan as I cook (yes, even this happens!) I say “there’s a few bites of xyz in the fridge” and he’ll eat that.
  
This time I made a meal out of my leftover gnocchi before he could get to those. I was putting my lunch together the other day and saw my ramekin of leftover gnocchi. Not enough for a meal itself, so I knew it would either be one of his “I’m so hungry I have to eat NOW” snacks or that it would be used as part of a leftover makeover.
  
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While at the store that night I saw organic cauliflower for a great price. It was priced per head, not per pound, so if you can find a big one you’re getting a great deal. I found the biggest, heaviest head they had for $3.49. So now I knew tonight’s dinner would consist of cauliflower and leftover gnocchi that had homemade tomato sauce on it. I knew I had more of the tomato sauce leftover as well, so the theme would most likely be Italian. How can I get cauliflower + gnocchi + tomato sauce to go together? Throw them all together to make “meat” balls! I added protein and texture by using finely ground nuts, and a nutritious, healthy meal, 100% organic meal was born!
  
The best part is, this recipe uses both the stems and the florets of the cauliflower- a big money saving trick. Many like to just chop off broccoli or cauliflower florets and discard the stems. Even if you don’t like the flavor or texture of stems, they will be ground up in this recipe and you’ll never notice!  And I have 4/5 of a cauliflower still to use up- very exciting!(You could do this recipe with broccoli as well, the color will just be off and the water content can be different so you may need to adjust.)
  
  • 1/4-1/5 of an organic cauliflower, depending on size (if it’s small, use more, if the head is big, use less of it). Include both the florets AND the stems.
  • 5 organic baby portobello (crimini) or white button mushrooms, caps and stems
  • 1/2 cup (50 grams) sliced organic almonds (any nut will work here, I just had almonds on hand)
  • 1 cup (about 10 regular sized gnocchi) leftover previously cooked gnocchi, with as much sauce removed as possible (you can cook 10 frozen gnocchi just for this recipe or use 3/4 cup (about 200-250 grams, depending on ingredients) of mashed potatoes mixed with your flour of choice until the mixture is thick).
  • 1/2 cup (40-50 grams) breadcrumbs (I used 100% whole wheat panko)
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt-free all purpose seasoning (any organic blend of spices you like!
  • Olive oil for cooking
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Heat one one or two tablespoons of olive oil. Chop the cauliflower into small pieces/chunks and add to the hot pan. Let the cauliflower cook for a few minutes and chop the mushrooms into small pieces/chunks. Add to the cauliflower and cook until the vegetables are almost fully cooked, but not quite. Put the almost fully cooked cauliflower and mushrooms into a food processor and pulse until finely chopped, but NOT mushy or paste like.
  
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Place leftover (or newly cooked) gnocchi in a large bowl, mash them until they are smooth. If using mashed potatoes, add your flour of choice until they are thick (3:1 ratio should work, 3 parts potatoes, 1 part flour, example: 3/4 cup potatoes, 1/4 cup flour). Add the contents of the food processor to the gnocchi (or potatoes).
  
Lightly toast the almonds or other nut you are using by placing them in a cold pan, turning up the heat, and waiting until they JUST start to turn golden brown. Stir them as they are heating up to ensure even cooking. Be very careful to watch these closely, they can go from not toasted to burned and unusable in a matter of seconds!
  
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Remove from heat immediately as they start to turn color and add to the same food processor (no cleaning between necessary!) Finely process until they are a course meal. Add to the gnocchi, cauliflower, and mushrooms. Add all spices and stir together. Add the breadcrumbs, starting with just half of them. Stir and evaluate. Each batch is different, depending on the brand of gnocchi or if they’re homemade and if you’re using mashed potatoes. Add the rest of the breadcrumbs if the mixture looks too wet.
  
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Try to make a meatball- if everything sticks together without being gummy, you’re all set. If the mixture sticks to your hand and you have a hard time rolling the meatball, add more breadcrumbs until you are able to do so.
  
Heat a skillet with olive oil. Make mini meatballs as opposed to large. Cook the meatballs on each side until golden brown.
  
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Heat or make your favorite organic tomato sauce and serve! We had ours with steamed kale, but you can use your favorite vegetable or a salad on the side, whatever you prefer!
  

The leftover gnocchi I used were organic frozen that I made the a few nights back.  I used about 75 cents worth of gnocchi for this recipe, along with 70 cents of cauliflower, $1.00 of nuts, $1.00 of mushrooms, and the remaining balance of the $5.00 for breadcrumbs, spices, oil, and kale.  

Of course, you can make this meal for a little bit less if you choose conventional ingredients instead of organic. I made this meal for two for about $5.00 using 100% organic ingredients. Why not give it a try if you can- eating organic doesn’t have to be expensive if you know how to stretch your dollars (as this recipe does!) Enjoy!

Restaurant Wars: What to order when you go out to eat

vegetarian or meats

I LOVE going out to eat. I worked in restaurants for nearly half of my life and love being on the other side (that is, being part of the people who actually get to sit and eat as opposed to serving the food). However, going out is expensive. You also don’t know what you’re eating unless you’re at a restaurant that specializes in “farm to table” or “local,” but even then, you really don’t know what’s going in your food. The word “local,” in terms of food, by definition means that the item came from 400 or fewer miles away. 400 miles is not local at all! There’s not much we can do about that, other than eating in certified restaurants. According to the Non-GMO Project there are currently only two Non-GMO certified restaurants in the country, one in Berkeley, California called “Nature’s Express” and one in Seattle called “Mighty-O Donuts.” Other than going to those two, it’s up to us to make the best choices possible when eating at a restaurant.
  
There are many others that say they try to avoid GMOs in their food- use Google or the Organic Food Database or Non-GMO Organic Restaurants to look up restaurants in your state or country.
  
The choices: Meat, poultry, and fish that may be genetically modified, injected with hormones, steroids, or antibiotics (or all of the above) or vegetarian meals that may contain genetically modified ingredients.
  
I personally go with the “lesser of two evils”- vegetarian options. By choosing vegetarian dishes I can eliminate some of the chemicals and/or substances I’m trying to avoid. If I can, I avoid corn, soy, papaya, alfalfa, zucchini, yellow summer squash, and sugar beets since they are almost certainly genetically modified (GMO).
  
I personally just don’t know where the meat, poultry, and fish are coming from. A lot of seafood comes from overseas and is not thoroughly inspected. Cows, pigs, and birds (chicken, turkey, duck) are given genetically modified feed because it is cheaper to feed the masses this way. Don’t be fooled by “grass fed” beef- yes, grass fed is better than grain fed, but there is no guarantee that antibiotics and/or steroids weren’t given to those animals.
  
Other than most likely being the healthiest option, ordering vegetarian dishes are much cheaper than meat, poultry, or fish based dishes.

  • Pasta/Rice Dishes: Sure, the markup on pasta is ridiculous (think about it: it costs only a dollar or two for a box of pasta and one serving is sold for $10+ at the average restaurant) but for me it’s the safer choice. Just remember that regular pasta has bleached flour in it and the chemicals used to do so have been linked to organ failure- try to order 100% whole wheat pasta if you can. Same goes for bread and all other grain based dishes- order 100% whole wheat when you can (less than 100% whole wheat means the product uses a combination of whole wheat and regular white bleached flours)
  • Veggie burgers: They’re cheap and if made in house are great because they often contain beans or lentils which are big on protein but don’t contain the aforementioned additives that a beef or turkey burger would. Just remember that the bun is probably made with bleached flour. Ask if they have whole wheat buns! Also, think about the fries. The oil they’re cooked in is most likely GMO.
  • Veggie Stir-Fry: Great option, but ask what oil they use. If it’s vegetable, soybean, or canola, it’s pretty much guaranteed to be GMO. Peanut oil is less likely to be so, but peanut oil is a risk for restaurants based on allergies. (olive oil is not used in stir-fries, besides flavor, it has a lower maximum cooking temperature that stir-fries exceed)
  • Salads are great options, but consider the add-ons: cheese (from GMO cows/milk), dressing (GMO oil if the dressing is a vinaigrette), tortilla strips (GMO corn AND GMO oil), etc. Just be aware that even though vegetarian dishes are most likely better for you than meat/poultry/fish dishes, they are not necessarily “safe.” The safest way to eat is to buy your own ingredients and cook at home (even more so if they are USDA Certified Organic and verified by the Non-GMO project!)

  
If I’m going to a really nice restaurant I will more likely order a meat, poultry, or seafood dish because at smaller, higher end places (ie non-chains) the quality is usually much higher. I’ve worked in very high-end kitchens and can say that this is true, at least in the places I spent time in.
  
In general though, vegetarian at restaurants = better for you AND cheaper; a win-win!
 
If you want to avoid GMOs and are looking for a quick bite you may be in luck- Chipotle announced that they will be removing all GMOs this year (2014). Check out the article here.