Eggplant & Tomato Mediterranean Skillet

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This recipe is one of my very favorites. It is a standby in our household whenever eggplant goes on sale, which is has been $.99 each at my favorite store for the last few weeks! Yahoo! I invented this recipe myself when inundated with fresh garden tomatoes two summers ago and also had curiosity for using eggplant in new ways.

The best part of this recipe is the simplicity. Simply assemble in one skillet, cover, cook, and enjoy.  Done in less than 30 minutes, start to finish. No need to babysit the darn thing, just let it do it’s magic!

 

Ingredients:

- 1 medium to large eggplant

- 1 large sweet or yellow onion

- 2 medium to large tomatoes

- 1 and 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella (or cubed if you are using the delicious soft ball kind)

- Balsamic vinegar

- Olive Oil

- Salt and pepper to taste

 

Begin by oiling  a large lidded skillet with the olive oil.  First cut your onion in half and then slice each half so you end up with little half onion rings.  Layer the onions evenly on the bottom of the cold skillet.

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Next cube up your whole eggplant in about 1/2 inch cubes. Add this layer next on top of the onion. Do not mix the two together.

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Next slice the tomatoes in a similar way to the onions. Simply cut in half and then slice the tomatoes evenly so you end up with half-slices.  Layer these on top of the eggplant.

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Evenly sprinkle the mozzarella cheese on top of the vegetables and sprinkle with salt and pepper (I use the pepper pretty generously.)  Next lightly and evenly drizzle a little more olive oil over the top of the whole layered skillet.  Lastly I very generously drizzle balsamic vinegar over the whole thing until it is all nicely coated and there is some puddling in the bottom of the skillet. There is no exact amount to this, just eyeball it.

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Next, cover the skillet with the lid and put it on the largest element of your stove top.  Turn the element on to medium heat and LEAVE IT ALONE. The secret of this recipe is that the vegetables are layered in the skillet based on cooking time. The onions cook the most slowly, so they are on the bottom closest to the heat source, and the tomatoes are the most delicate, so they are farthest from the heat source.

Let it all cook for about 15 minutes.  You will know when it is completely done when the cheese is melty and bubbly.

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I love to serve this deliciousness over orzo pasta, or my husband also loves it over plain white rice.  You could serve it over almost any grain and it would be amazing. I am sure couscous, quinoa, or any type of pasta would complement it well. Just make sure that as you are scooping the vegetables over your grain you get some of the delicious balsamic reduction sauce that forms at the bottom of the pan. Mmmmmmm!

Enjoy!

Foolproof Greek Yogurt

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Okay, I know yogurt is not a plant-based food, but for those of us who aren’t vegan and indulge in dairy, it can be a good source of protein in your diet.  The only problem is that store-bought yogurt contains all sorts of yucky stuff! Some are better than others, but seriously, have you ever looked at the label on a container of yoplait? Ew!  Store bought yogurt either has tons of sugar or contains loads of artificial sweetener. Yuck! If you do want the good stuff, you know you’re going to spend an arm and a leg for it.  We are talking $4-6 for 2-3 cups of the stuff… and it still will probably have a few things in it that aren’t that great.  Well let me offer you a perfect solution:

Make your own!

After experimenting for about 6 weeks, I have come up with a foolproof method for making greek yogurt. Yes, the good stuff!  When doing research about making yogurt, I was pretty intimidated by the technicalities of it. Watching temperatures exactly, hovering over cooling milk for hours, it just wasn’t my thing.  So I have tried 3 different methods and adapted them to take the exact measuring out. Now that is MY kind of cooking! After testing my method several times I have yet to get a bad result. The best part? When you are done, it only contains the protein-rich dairy and the bacteria you introduced.  Those two things are all you really eat yogurt for anyway!

Foolproof Greek Yogurt

Ingredients & Supplies:

- 1 gallon milk (I use 2% because that is what my daughter drinks.)

- 2 heaping tablespoons store-bought yogurt with LIVE CULTURES.

- 1 large pot with a  lid

- 1 large bowl

- 1 colander

- 5-6 coffee filters

- 1 old bath towel

Start by pouring the whole gallon of milk into the large pot.  Cover with the lid and heat over medium-low heat on the stove top.  Check the milk now and then for the next 20-30 minutes and watch for it to begin steaming.  You do NOT want to bring it to a boil. That will change the nature of the milk. You just want it to be obviously steaming.  This step sterilizes the milk and kills any bacteria that may already be present.

Once steaming, take the milk off of the heat and allow to sit and cool for about an hour.  You will know it is cool enough to proceed when you touch the milk with a freshly washed finger and it is slightly warmer than your hand, or about the temperature of a tepid bath. This is the optimal temperature to introduce the bacterial culture for best possible growth.

In a separate bowl, mix the 2 heaping tablespoons of store-bought yogurt (or 2 tablespoons of your previous batch of homemade yogurt) with about 1 cup of the warm milk. Stir until the starter yogurt is evenly distributed in the milk.  Pour the starter mixture into pot of warm milk and gently stir until you feel it is evenly distributed throughout the milk. Put the lid on the pot, wrap the pot in a towel, and place inside of your oven to incubate.  DO NOT TURN ON YOUR OVEN. If your oven has a light in it, leave it on to generate a very small amount of warmth.  Allow to sit for 12-14 hours. The longer your yogurt is left to sit at room temperature, the more tart it will become. 12-14 hours of incubation creates a yogurt with a mild and sweet flavor. I experimented with longer times and found 17 hours to create a classic tart flavor.  I prefer the more mild flavor because I don’t feel the need to sweeten it as much, but if you like it tart let it sit longer.

At the end of the incubation period, the yogurt in your pot will be liquid and easy to pour. This is because it contains a large amount of whey, which needs to be strained out. Whey is clear and light yellow, closely resembling egg white.  The more whey you strain out of your yogurt, the thicker it will be. The only difference between greek and regular yogurt is the amount of whey left in it. Doesn’t feel like it is worth that much extra money now, does it?!

To prepare your colander, nest it inside of the large bowl and line it completely with coffee filters.  Most people use cheese cloth instead of coffee filters, but it is so messy to clean up afterward and the coffee filters make clean up a breeze. Just toss them in the trash when you are done!

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Pour the yogurt from your pot into your lined colander. cover with plastic wrap or a lid and allow to sit in the fridge for 12-24 hours.  The longer you allow it to sit, the thicker your yogurt will become. I always let mine sit for 24 hours, and it makes a very thick delicious yogurt that has the same consistency as thick, full-fat sour cream.  Depending on the depth of your bowl, every 6 hours or so you may want to pour out the whey that has collected so that it doesn’t touch the bottom of the colander and stall the straining process.

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To finish, simply scoop your yogurt out of the colander and into an airtight container for storage.  Throw away the coffee filters, and you are done! Don’t forget to leave the last 2 tablespoons of your batch to use as your starter for your next batch! That way you won’t have to purchase any store bought yogurt in the future.

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One gallon of milk yields about 1/2 gallon yogurt for me, but this may vary depending on the holes in your colander, how long you let it sit, etc. I’d say that is a pretty good deal, though! $3 for 1/2 gallon of perfect greek yogurt?! Yes please!

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Tips & Tricks:

- The whey contains the majority of the milk sugar called lactose. Removing as much whey as possible is what makes greek yogurt lower in carbs and higher in protein.  If it feels wasteful to you to throw away the whey, there are ways you can use it.  You can use a little in your bread recipes to create a mild sourdough flavor. It can also be used in the process of making ricotta cheese. I have even thrown it into a batch of sugar cookies!  I have also heard of people feeding it to pigs and chickens if you have any of those around.  Honestly, after trying to be creative with the whey, I have decided that it mostly just adds sugar to things so I don’t feel bad throwing it out. That’s just me. Please let me know if you find a good, healthful use for it!

- My favorite store-bought starter yogurt is called “The Greek Gods” and can only be purchased in larger containers for around $4.  The reason I love it so much is it contains three different LIVE ACTIVE bacterial cultures. They are hearty and fully alive, unlike some of the more popular brands of yogurt which have been heat-treated after incubation to kill most of the bacteria.  They do this to make the taste more stable in case it gets warm while being shipped, which would activate the growth (and sour-flavor) of the bacteria. However, they kill off the beneficial bacteria in the process! Be sure that the label on your starter yogurt says that the cultures are LIVE and ACTIVE or else your milk will never grow any cultures.

- My favorite way to eat this yogurt is with a handful of frozen blueberries on top and a little agave nectar drizzled over it.  It is also a great replacement for sour cream or for mayonnaise when making salad dressing.  I also like to mix it into my daughter’s oatmeal. My husband makes protein smoothies with it in the mornings.

- Plan ahead and incubate your yogurt based on a schedule that works for you. I prefer to incubate my yogurt overnight, starting around 8 pm. This way when I get up in the morning, it is ready to transfer to the colander.  Then 24 hours later at about the same time the next day, it is ready to eat for breakfast.

-You may find that your yogurt is a little lumpy. This is normal.  Just stir it well after straining it to achieve a more smooth consistancy.

Baked Vegetarian Egg Rolls

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Every now and then I get a craving for terrible-for-you americanized Chinese food.  With this recipe I successfully satisfied this craving with a healthier alternative!  These delicious egg rolls are baked instead of fried, and contain only vegetables, so they are a lot more healthy.

Baked Vegetarian Egg Rolls

Ingredients:

- Pre-made egg roll wrappers

- 2 cups grated carrots

- 2 cups shredded cabbage

- 1 finely chopped bell pepper

- 3 stalks diced green onion or 1/2 diced sweet onion

- 1 clove minced garlic

- 4 tsp. cornstarch

- 1 tbsp. water

- 1 tbsp. light soy sauce

- 1/8 tsp. ground ginger

- 1/2 tsp. brown sugar

- 1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper

- 1/4 tsp. salt

- 1tbsp.  olive oil

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.

Prepare all vegetables and cook with a small splash of the oil in a sauce pan until veggies are tender.

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In a small bowl, combine cornstarch, water, soy sauce, and all other spices (minus the remaining oil) with a whisk.  Whisk until no longer lumpy.

Add cornstarch mixture to the vegetables and cook until thickened.  Remove from heat.

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Roll about 1/4 cup of the the vegetable mixture into the egg roll wrappers.  This is not difficult.  Just be sure you roll the egg rolls diagonally as illustrated in the pictures below:

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Place all egg rolls on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper with the loose end of the wrapper down.  Brush all egg rolls with remaining olive oil.

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Bake for about 10 minutes, or until lightly brown.  Remove from oven and turn carefully with tongs and bake again for about 10 more minutes.  Watch them carefully so that they don’t get too brown, but you do want them crispy!

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Serve with a side of your favorite dipping sauce like soy sauce or sweet and sour.  I served mine with something a little odd, but it is a family favorite from our favorite hole-in-the-wall-chinese restaurant in Utah.  They serve them with cocktail sauce and mustard.  It’s probably a sentimental thing.  Another delicious sauce is the Sweet Chili Sauce from Trader Joe’s.  If you are lucky enough to live near one of these awesome stores, you definitely need to pick this up sometime.  I also served the egg rolls alongside some egg drop soup.

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Enjoy!

How to Use Tofu

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Are you slightly intimidated by Tofu? If so, you are not alone.  Tofu is a great source of protein that can take the place of meat in many recipes, but few people know how to prepare it. With a little know-how you can stop being intimidated by it and start using it!

Tofu is made from soy beans.  The soybeans are first processed to produce soy milk, and then the soy milk is coagulated into blocks.  It is very bland, and easily takes on the flavor of anything that is added to it.

Tofu comes in several varieties depending on water content. The more water it contains, the softer the tofu.  Silken tofu is the softest, and extra-firm is the hardest.  Silken tofu is great for blending into smoothies and soups, and if chopped and cooked will not stay together. If you want to use tofu as a meat replacement, I recommend buying firm or extra-firm.  This, when used correctly, will stay together much better when cooking.

It is important to press firm or extra-firm tofu before cooking it. Pressing the water from the tofu makes it have a more meat-like texture.  Below are directions for pressing tofu:

1. Cut open the package of tofu and strain off all of the water.

2. Carefully remove the block from the package and press it gently between two paper towels to absorb as much water as possible.  Place the block between two fresh paper towels on a hard surface.

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3. Place a heavy object on top of the block and paper towels.  Allow to sit for 10 minutes.

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4. After it is well drained, you can cube, slice, or crumble the block according to your recipe.

Enjoy!

Note: While tofu is an excellent source of protein, I try to only use soy-based products once a week or so because I have heard that high levels of soy consumption can be estrogenic, meaning it can increase levels of estrogen in the body in both men and women.  Moderation in all things!

Sweet Balsamic Vinaigrette

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This is a fast and easy salad dressing that can either be made in a larger quantity and used a little at a time, or you can just drizzle each ingredient over an already-prepared salad.  It’s delicious!

Ingredients:

- 1/4 cup olive oil

- 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

- 1 tbsp. sweetener (I love using agave nectar or honey, but you can use a dry sweetener if that is all you have)

- 1/4 tsp. salt

- 1/4 tsp. black pepper

Put all ingredients in a container with a lid, such as a pint jar, and shake well.  Always shake or stir before serving.

For individual use, lightly drizzle and sprinkle all ingredients on the salad directly.

Salad Mountain

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Salad is a plant-eater’s best friend.  At my house we eat salad 1-2 days a week for dinner, and I usually eat it 1-2 days per week for lunch as well.  The trick to making a salad feel like a meal is to really dress it up and make it feel special with lots of toppings and textures.  A great dressing also can help!

My husband endearingly nicknamed my salads “salad mountains” because they really do look like a big pile.  The awesome thing about green leafy salads is that even if the salad is nice and big, it is very low in calories (assuming most of the bulk is from greens.)  My biggest salads with the most decadent toppings (boiled egg, cheese, creamy dressing, etc.) usually are still only about 600 calories, which is a great amount for a healthy dinner.

Here are the basics for creating your own Salad Mountain.

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Ingredients to prepare and mix ahead of time: Making your own salad mix saves you lots of money and time. Plus, have you ever noticed how quickly bagged salad goes bad? Also, did you know that a lot of pre-chopped veggies that you buy in the store are sprayed with chlorine to prevent bacterial growth? Eww! Just buy the ingredients and create your own salad mix! No chlorine and it lasts longer in the fridge, too.

Lettuce - I usually buy 3-packs of romaine hearts.  It’s quicker, easier, and I usually discard the outside leaves of romaine heads until they are about that size anyway!  I rinse and chop a whole heart at once and put it in a large bowl.  I cut my lettuce with a knife because it is fast and easy. I know it supposedly makes your lettuce brown faster, but I find my chopped lettuce still lasts well for 2-3 days without browning.

Cabbage - green cabbage is a seriously underutilized salad green. It adds another dimension of flavor and texture, and goes great when chopped and mixed with romaine.  It’s also generally pretty cheap, so it can really stretch your pricier ingredients.  I chop both the romaine and the cabbage, toss it together in a bowl and keep it in the fridge. This makes salad quick and easy to prepare, and costs way less than buying bagged salad.

Green Onions (scallions) - Green onions are a great, mild onion perfect for eating raw in salads. If you like the flavor of onion but hate getting a powerful, crunchy mouthful, these blend nicely with the lettuce.  You get the flavor without noticing the bulk of a bulb onion.  I chop these semi-fine into rings and toss them in with the lettuce. They store just fine when chopped.

Shredded carrots - Prepare your own easily with a cheese grater or food processor.  No need to peel them either, as long as they are being eaten raw!

Ingredients to add only when assembling:

Diced Tomato - Does not store well diced, so best to dice right before serving or at least the day-of.

Bell Pepper – I love them sliced in big pieces, but you could also dice them up.

Cucumber - You can’t go wrong with this mild and crunchy vegetable.

Cheese - This is what MAKES a salad for me. Just a little goes a long way. I love using feta, blue, or even just shredded mozzarella. About 1 serving is around 100 calories.

Boiled Egg - About 100 calories each, and when used on the carnivorous man in your life, it may just convince him that he’s had his fill on only salad.

Chia seeds - A little goes a long way! These are packed with healthy, plant-based fats.

Croutons - My 2-year-old was converted to eating green salads by the presence of croutons.  Now she loves greens, too!

Beans - Of course! Any kind!

Fruit - Fresh or dried fruit like dried cranberries add a delicious and unexpected sweetness in contrast with the savory dressing and greens. Diced apple or pear are also among our favorites. Strawberries and blueberries are excellent as well.

Dressing –  It is worth it to splurge on the good salad dressing. No Hidden Valley Ranch crap… that is just gross.  If you aren’t making your own dressing (see my excellent sweet balsamic vinaigrette dressing recipe!), find the refrigerated dressings in the produce section. They cost a little bit more than the shelf-stable kind, but taste SO much better, and have way fewer preservatives!  My favorites include the Opa greek yogurt dressings or the Bolthouse yogurt dressings. There are beautiful flavors like feta dill, jalapeño ranch (my husband’s fave), etc.  Trust me. It’s worth it.

I use a combination of anything from this list, and will occasionally throw in anything else that is in my fridge that sounds good, like leftover Mexican rice.

Having all ingredients on hand makes for a VERY quick meal.  I can throw together a great salad mountain in about 10 minutes. Yay for healthy, quick dinners!

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Veggie Jambalaya

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Jambalaya is a delicious southern food that fits my favorite qualification: one pot cooking. I am always trying to reduce the amount of dishes I produce while I cook.  This makes it so easy. All you need is a cutting board, knife, and a large skillet/pot with a lid. Jambalaya is also very easy to make vegetarian by using a lot of veggies, and (you guessed it!) BEANS!  I love this recipe with pinto, kidney or black beans. Just pick your favorite!
Ingredients:
- 1 sweet or yellow onion
- 1-2 bell peppers
- 1 poblano or other moderately spicy pepper (optional)
- 2 ribs celery
- 1 cup diced tomatoes (fresh or canned)
- 3 cups broth (or water with bouillon equivalent)
- 1 cup rice (brown or white)
- 1 cup beans (black, pinto, kidney, or red)
- 2 tbsp. paprika
- 1 tsp. ground cumin
- 1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
- 1/2 tsp. black pepper
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. sweetener (agave nectar, sugar, real maple syrup, honey, whatever.)
- 2 tbsp. cooking oil (I use coconut or canola, not olive since the veggies are cooked at high temps.)
Clean all vegetables and either chop finely by hand or process in a food processor.  Chop/process fresh tomatoes separately if using so that they don’t get too mushy.
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Heat cooking oil in skillet until hot but not smoking. Cook all veggies (except tomatoes) in the oil until onions are translucent and all veggies are tender.  Add tomatoes and cook for another 1-2 minutes.
Add all other ingredients and stir well. Cover with a lid, reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook until all water is absorbed, usually about 15-20 minutes. Be aware that if using brown rice it may take 25-35 minutes to absorb all of the water.
Once everything is done, stir well and taste.  You may need to adjust the seasonings to your personal taste. Enjoy!
*Optional: sprinkle a little cheddar cheese on top of each individual serving to counteract a little spiciness if it is too much for your taste. This recipe is also great garnished with fresh chopped cilantro*