Saturday, January 29, 2011

Vegan Replica Hack: Lipton’s Chicken Noodle Soup

I can’t believe it’s been almost a year since anything was posted here!  We’re never going to get a book deal or TV show on the Food Network at this rate!

My kid is sick today, and I just made him one of his favourite lunches – 'tofu noodle soup’ - perfect for a sick kid, but great for any time you want a warm, quick, easy lunch.  L claims he doesn’t like soup, but he makes an exception for this one.  In fact, when I told him today that’s what I was making, he said “awesome, I love that soup!”  L is not one to exclaim about his food, so that is high, high praise.

I started making this soup about a year ago one day when I had a craving for Lipton’s Chicken Noodle soup – you know, the one that comes in the little pouch that you empty into some boiling water and simmer for 5 minutes?  I think it’s pretty much the first thing I ever ‘cooked’ on my own (if you can call that cooking).  This version is just as easy, and as long as you always have some tofu in the fridge, it’s simple to have all the ingredients on hand to whip this up any time.

Not-Lipton’s Not-Chicken Noodle Soup in a Flash


  • 5c water
  • 2 veggie ‘chicken’-flavoured bouillon cubes (or plain veggie, if you can’t find a vegan chicken cube)
  • 1/2c xtra firm tofu, cut into 1/2cm cubes
  • 1/2c extra thin noodles (or more, if you like your soup extra noodly, which I do)


  • Bring the water to a boil over high heat.
  • Add the remaining ingredients, return to the boil, then turn the heat down to low and simmer for about 5m, until the noodles are soft.

That’s it!  Serve to your sick kid (with a couple of ice cubes in it to cool it down quickly).  Yum.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Vegetarian Restaurant Hack: Boston Pizza

My kid is the pickiest eater imaginable.  This is a child for whom the default position on any new food is “I hate it", and who refuses to try just about anything.  Except for when he was a baby, he has never eaten a strawberry.  A peach.  Pie of any kind.  I know, all kids go through a picky stage, but my kid is seriously in a category all by himself.  I blame the dental problems he’s suffered – at the age of 3, he had to have a tooth pulled, 2 crowns, and about 8 fillings.  I wish I were exaggerating, but I shit you not.  He’s so reluctant to try anything new that he was 5 years old before he ever tried peanut butter.  PEANUT BUTTER FOR CRYING OUT LOUD.  The only reason he tried that was because he saw me making icing and asked to lick the beaters, but didn’t realize that it was peanut butter icing.  After tasting it, he asked “what is this?” I told him “peanut butter,” and he replied “THIS is what peanut butter tastes like???”  So I had discovered the key to getting Liam to try new foods – just make icing out of it.

As you might imagine, eating out with him is a bit of a challenge, as it’s hard to find things on restaurant menus that he’ll be willing to put in his mouth.  He’s only recently begun to accept a Grilled Cheese Happy Meal from McDonald’s.  Srsly.  So when the family is going out for a meal, our restaurant choices are largely  determined by the presence of something on the menu for the kid that also has something decent for us to eat as well.  And Boston Pizza is where we end up about 90% of the time, because it has both.

Liam eats one thing, and one thing only at Boston Pizza:  “Bugs & Cheese,” insect-shaped pasta in an alfredo cheese sauce.

Strictly speaking, there’s really no need for a vegetarian hack at Boston Pizza.  It’s a pizza joint for Pete’s sake, you can put anything you want on a pizza; plus there are several pasta dishes, a stromboli, a few appetizers you could order as an entree.  But in a sense, the fact of having so many obvious vegetarian options sometimes blinds one to the possibilities beyond the listed veggie items.  This is such an instance.

Under “BP Originals” on their menu they list the “Spicy Perogy Pizza”, which uses sour cream instead of tomato sauce, and is topped with spicy thin-cut potatoes, bacon, and mozzarella; after baking it is garnished with a dollop of sour cream, scallions, and a sprinkling of cheddar.  I simply order this with no bacon, and it is a really great meal that is not your usual run-of-the-mill veggie pizza or pasta dish. 

In fact, I think this pizza is actually better as a vegetarian dish.  Full disclosure: last time I ordered it, I was kind of distracted and I forgot to ask the server for no bacon.  When they brought it out to me, I debated with myself about whether to send it back (which I usually do when I’ve requested no meat and the kitchen screwed it up – which I always do with mixed feelings, because I know it’s just going to go in the garbage, and how does that help anything?  A future post will deliberate on this question).  In this case though, when it was clearly my fault, I decided to pick off most of the bacon that I could and eat it anyways.  I’m not completely puritanical in my vegetarianism (another future post).  And honestly?  I like it better with no bacon.

Not only do I recommend the Spicy Perogy Pizza with No Bacon when you’re eating at Boston Pizza as a specific restaurant ‘hack,’ I recommend the strategy involved here more generally as well – that is, don’t necessarily limit your menu browsing to the vegetarian items listed!  Have a look at everything and see if there is something that strikes your fancy that could be made without the meat!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Almost Vegan Hack: Spinach Dip in a Bread Bowl

I can still remember with some clarity the first time I had spinach dip in a pumpernickel bread bowl.  Remember that?  It was some time in the late eighties or early nineties I think, and there was a recipe on the back of a packet of Knorr soup mix.  Suddenly all the ladies everywhere were making it for parties, potlucks, appetizers.  And I devoured it at every opportunity.  I’m sure I embarrassed my parents by standing over the dip tray and shovelling it into my mouth.  In fact, truth be told, I still do. 

The original recipe calls for sour cream and mayonnaise, but I found that substituting pureed silken tofu and soy mayo is entirely satisfactory.  The thing that keeps this from being 100% vegan is the fact that the Knorr soup mix lists “modified milk ingredients” as its next-to-last ingredient.  If you’re a Level 5 Vegan that might not cut it, but for me that’s close enough.  


  • 1 pkg frozen chopped spinach
  • 1 pkg medium or soft tofu
  • 1c vegan mayonnaise
  • 1 pkg Knorr vegetable soup mix
  • 1 can water chestnuts, drained & chopped
  • 3 green onions, chopped
  • 1 loaf pumpernickel bread
  • Thaw frozen spinach, and squeeze to remove as much of the excess liquid as possible.
  • Puree the tofu in a food processor or blender until very smooth. Add the spinach, mayo, soup mix, water chestnuts, and green onions, and combine well. Cover and refrigerate for an hour to allow the dried components of the soup mix to reconstitute.
  • Cut the centre out of the loaf of bread to form a bowl, leaving the sides about 1" thick. Reserve the pieces you removed for dipping.
  • To serve, empty the dip into the bread bowl and surround it with the bread chunks.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

“Larabar” Universal Formula Hack

I like Larabars. They are awesome, tasty, simple and completely vegan. You can get more information here [Larabar] and they look like this:


The key information on the Larabar website is the nutritional information. For this particular hack, we’re going to make our own Larabars by reverse engineering the ingredient lists.

Background Information & Basic Rules

Food scientists do this all the time and what we’re doing here is basically what every competitor does when imitating a food product. Thankfully, Larabars are SUPER simple and they use natural ingredients that we can actually buy (no chemistry set required). The objective is to get as close to the original food as possible but also leaving room to adjust to personal tastes.

What we’re going to do is apply the following four basic rules:

  • Ingredients are always listed in the order by mass from the most to the least
  • Dates have double the mass of the next nearest ingredient because dates are the “glue” that holds the bar together.
  • Spices are generally added sparingly and added to recipes last based on taste preferences
  • The “Ratio” of ingredients to each other will always be constant.

So… let’s do an example…

Re-inventing the Larabar

Look at the ingredient data for the Coconut Chocolate Larabar. The ingredient list (from most to least) is:

  • Dates
  • Almonds
  • Walnuts
  • Unsweetened Cocoa Powder
  • Unsweetened Coconut

So, like almost all Larabars, they are mostly dates and bits of other things. In this case, let’s quickly infer that the ingredients are distributed in the following manner (guessing things in a way that honours “the Rules”):






4 2 1.5 1 .5

What we’ve done here is get a starting point for a Larabar formula. If you wanted to make about 9 cups, then the ratios above would be “cups”. In most cases, you won’t want to make more than about 4 cups so your ratios will stay the same and the actual volumes will decrease. Note that while ingredients are listed by mass, we can assume that volume correlates to mass as all the ingredients are roughly the same density (unless they come up with a Lead flavoured Larabar :-) )

Making your first Larabar

Actually, assembly of the larabar from your ingredients is pretty simple, you basically need a good food processor, a rolling pin, some waxed paper, and a VERY good knife. For the “dates” you’ll need pre-pitted dates (available in bulk pretty much at any bulk store). The other ingredients will get “processed” so save yourself some time and get things pre-chopped if possible. Your food processor (and ears) will thank you for getting the pre-chopped walnuts and almonds. Here’s how you make a Larabar:

  • Take the “non-date” ingredients (excluding spices, see below) first and combine in a food processor. Process until the bits are very small but remain distinct bits (for example peanuts should be small bits and not “peanut butter”). Remove from the food processor.
  • Add the dates slowly (a few at a time) to the now-empty food processor and process until they are a clumpy mess. You’ll likely have to pause many times during this process as the clumpy mess tends to form a ball and not get mixed very well. If you have “balling” problems, just divide the ball into thirds, distribute evenly in the food processor and resume adding new dates. Once you’re done adding all the dates, evenly distribute the date paste around the food processor bowl before adding back the other ingredients.
  • Add back the ingredients from the first step and mix until all the ingredients have combined evenly with the date paste.
  • IMPORTANT – YOU WILL PROBABLE SCREW UP THE MIX OF INGREDIENTS AND THIS IS WHERE YOU ADJUST. If the “flavour” ingredients are weak, add more while honouring the rules. If the dates are insufficient to hold everything together, add more here. Add any spice ingredients at this stage to taste.
  • Once combined, remove the ball of dates and ingredients from the food processor. Place the ball on a chopping board lined with waxed paper and put a piece of wax paper on top of the ball. Then press flat using another chopping board. Once relatively flat, roll to the desired thickness with a rolling pin while maintaining the top piece of waxed paper. [HINT: If you want a particular thickness,use a dowel or other wood to keep the rolling pin off the chopping board. Cake makers know this trick for working with fondant.]
  • Form the flattened paste into a DENSE rectangular shape and then chop through the waxed paper with a knife to create long “bars” about an inch wide.
  • You should now have a lovely dense "larabar" that you can cut down to your desired length and then wrap in plastic wrap. They keep in the fridge for a very long time (long enough that I've never actually seen one go bad... but I do eat them quickly too).

Friday, February 5, 2010

Vegan Replica Hack: Pad Thai

One of the major deficiencies of the city where I live is a relative dearth of Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. We do have a couple of places, but one of them is somewhat overpriced and I find the food mediocre, and the other one doesn’t have much veggie stuff on the menu at all. For the most part, I prefer to make my own Thai and Vietnamese food at home and go out for those cuisines when I’m visiting other cities.

Pad thai is the quintessential Thai dish that most people are familiar with in North America. Typically it has at least 2 ingredients in it that are not vegetarian, and an additional 1 unsuitable for vegans: meat (often shrimp or chicken), fish sauce, and eggs.

I’ve come across tons of recipes for vegetarian or vegan pad thai, but they’ve usually had a list of ingredients as long as my arm, a number of which are tough to find in this city. And even in those few instances where I was motivated to try to make them, I found the results disappointing.

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine who is a long-time vegan brought his version of pad thai for dinner one night, and not only was it incredibly tasty (I stuffed myself at dinner, and ate leftovers for breakfast, lunch and dinner the next day), the ingredients are simple and it goes together quickly. Said friend and said recipe later went on to inspire the famous maxim “you can break her heart, but you can’t take back your pad thai recipe” – you may have heard all the hip kids in the neighbourhood saying that lately. No? Well I’m sure you will hear it in regular parlance soon enough, it’s catching on around the globe.

Heartbreakingly Simple and Delicious Vegan Pad Thai

  • 6oz package rice noodles (flat, linguini style)
  • 1/3c ketchup
  • 1/2c soy sauce
  • 1/4c lime juice
  • 3T fresh ginger, minced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3T canola oil
  • 1/2 - 1t red pepper flakes (to taste)
  • 375g extra-firm tofu, crumbled
  • 2c carrots, grated
  • 28oz can bean sprouts, drained and rinsed
  • 6 green onions, sliced
  • 2/3c chopped peanuts
  • Sriracha sauce or other hot sauce
  • Cook the noodles according to package instructions. Drain and reserve.
  • Make the sauce by whisking together the ketchup, soy sauce, and lime juice.
  • In a large pot or saute pan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the ginger, garlic, and red pepper flakes and saute for 2-3 minutes. Then add the crumbled tofu and fry for an additional 3 minutes. Add the carrots and about half of the sauce mixture, and stir to combine well. Cover and let cook for about 5 minutes, until the carrots are softened.
  • If the reserved noodles are stuck together a bit, rinse them well with hot water. Add the noodles to the pot along with the bean sprouts, green onions, peanuts, and remaining sauce. Toss to mix thoroughly.
  • Serve with Sriracha sauce on the side so that each person can adjust the spiciness to their own taste.

This reheats beautifully in the microwave, and makes a terrific contribution to a potluck, provided none of the other guests are allergic to peanuts! You can have the recipe and I promise to do my best to *not* break your heart. That’s just the kind of gal I am.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Vegetarian/Vegan Restaurant Hack: Taco Bell

After I finished my PhD I moved to Los Angeles for a year to do a post-doctoral fellowship at UCLA. Living in LA had it’s pluses and minuses for sure. Among the minuses were that it’s GD expensive in every way, and if you don’t have a car it’s a nightmare to try and go anywhere beyond a 5km radius of your house. This is especially the case if you’ve got a toddler and have to take a stroller with you, because some of the transit systems in LA do not allow you to take a stroller on-board the bus with the baby still in it – you have to take the baby out and fold up your stroller before you can board (see p20 here)! WTF! How, I ask you, is someone supposed to wrangle a baby, a stroller, a diaper bag, and whatever else you have with you (for example, GROCERIES??) and get on and off a bus??? One has to wonder if there were any MOTHERS on the panel that put that decision into place. Aargh. And people drive so much in LA that they aren’t used to having to look out for pedestrians, so you’re taking your life in your hands every time you cross the street, particularly if the guy in the car is trying to turn right on a red light. I advise buying extra life insurance before undertaking any pedestrian activity in Los Angeles. They have lawyers there that specialize in pedestrian accidents. Srsly.

But I digress. There were wonderful, wonderful things about living in Los Angeles too, and they included:

The neighbourhood around UCLA (Westwood) had a number of exclusively vegetarian restaurants, and lots of other places with excellent veggie options on the menu. The mall nearest our house (Westside Pavillion – featured in the movie “Clueless”, starring vegan actress Alicia Silverstone) had a food court where you could get vegetarian Hot Dog On-a-Stick and there was a fantastic place for Mexican food that had good veggie options called La Salsa. In general the Mexican fast food in LA was really tasty and had good veggie options; I particularly remember a place in Beverly Hills called Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill where they would make anything on their menu with organic tofu, and had a ‘salsa bar’ with about a dozen different kinds of fresh Salsa. And Baja Fresh (a chain that has locations all over the US) was pretty good too.

It was a tough adjustment coming back to Canada, where good Mexican food of any kind is much harder to come by, and fast food Mexican means only one thing: Taco Bell. And sadly, T-Bell does not hold a candle to any of the chains above.

That being said, as far as fast food options go for vegetarians and vegans in Canada, T-Bell is pretty good. Their standard menu has 2 veggie options: the 7-layer burrito and the bean burrito, either of which could be ordered without the dairy toppings to be made vegan. (Although they used to contain lard, the current formulation for refried beans at Taco Bell is vegan.*)

For a long time the 7-layer burrito was my standard choice; I’m not so much a fan of the bean burrito because it doesn’t have any lettuce and just feels too heavy and stodgy. But it gets a little tiresome to have the same thing every time, especially when they are always featuring some kind of funky (and often questionable) variation on the Mexican theme that invariably includes meat – and sometimes, for reasons not yet understood, I really want to try eating a taco with a black shell, you know??

Although people have probably been getting meat replaced with beans on T-Bell’s offerings informally for ages, at some time in the not-too-distant past, Taco Bell decided that they would take the official position of being willing to replace meat with refried beans for every item on their menu! Cheesy Beef Gordita Crunch can become Cheesy Bean Gordita Crunch; Chicken Crunchwrap Supreme can become Bean Crunchwrap Supreme; Mexican Pizza with Beef can be come Mexican Pizza with Beans; Volcano Beef Taco becomes Volcano Bean Taco – you get the idea? Ask for any of them with beans and no cheese (and no sour cream, where applicable) and you’re vegan.

It’s still no Sharky’s, to be sure. But for its willingness to adapt anything on the menu to the needs of a vegetarian or vegan diet, Taco Bell stands out amongst fast food chains in Canada.

*The same website indicates that the cheese at Taco Bell USA is rennet-free as well! I hope that's true of Canadian Taco Bells too!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Gear I love – The Star Peeler

Okay, you probably already know about this thing but if not, prepare to see something unexpectedly awesome.  The Star Peeler is (after a good chef’s knife) possibly the kitchen tool that saves me the most time.  But first, to the heart of the problem… Vegetables, especially tasty gourds and roots often have some kind of unpleasant outer covering that keeps the veggie innards tasty by being a pain in the ass to any creature looking to eat said vegetable. The Star Peeler excels at solving that problem but is also so much more.

So… here it is… check out the video of the peeler being sold in NYC by its most famous (and now deceased) salesperson:

The thing is awesome in so many ways.  You really can go as fast as the guy’s demo illustrates with almost no practice (and I’ve flayed a finger or two in an over-zealous peeling rage).

The Veggie Hacks (for now)

Although watching the demo video will give you a couple of awesome hacks (the carrot “starring” and slicing is cool to watch), vegetarians can apply it to so much more, such as:

  • ULTRA-Thin Tofu – Take a block of EXTRA FIRM tofu squeeze out all the fluid that you can (his works poorly on anything less firm than “extra firm” because of the thickness you’re working with here).  Lay the block of tofu so that the long and narrow side is down on a chopping board.  “Peel” the tofu brick into strips.  These pick up marinade in ways that hand-cut tofu cannot because there’s almost no thickness.  Marinades permeate the whole piece (not just the outside).  They also hold up to frying and baking (see the “Dreaded Tofu Rice Bowl” recipe to be posted shortly). (Anybody else thinking of using this technique in connection with the Vegan Gyros posted earlier?)
  • Cucumber “Wrappers” – Take an English-style cucumber and then slice the whole length of the cucumber with the peeler.  The first few strips are pretty much all skin but after a few strips, you get a really nice thin cucumber wrapper that can be rolled around rice or other grain and easily pinned with a toothpick I’ve seen these used as a wrapper in “vegan sushi”.
  • Butternut Squash Peeling – Not really a trick but a life-saver nonetheless.  Butternut squash is sometimes a pain to cook with because (a) when it’s diced by hand the curvy shape leads to a ton of wasted tasty squash; (b) it takes forever to prepare.  Just peel the whole thing with the star peeler first and then you get nearly 0% waste when you cook with it.

Anyway, you can buy these things all over the place.  Get one and never look back.