Homemade Italian Dressing

*This is an update to my Pasta Salad with Homemade Italian Dressing.  I’ve noticed that it’s been showing up on Pinterest quite a bit and have been wondering if anyone has made – and liked! – it.  Care to comment?

Since the weather has been getting warmer and I’ve been trying a slightly more Paleo approach to my diet (more on that at a later date), we’ve been eating a lot more salads.   I have a couple other homemade dressing favorites – one for a basic vinaigrette, which I mix up depending on the type of vinegar and spices I use, and another for a Japanese ginger dressing.  Almost every time I make a batch, I think, This is my favorite!

Well, the other day I broke out this Italian dressing recipe and decided to give it another go.  This, my friends, is by far my favorite!  I suppose variety is the spice of life, but why mess with a good thing?  And if I can pare down my recipe collection, all the better!  This dressing is yummy on all types of salads and oh-so-versatile, since you can play around with the spices.

I looked at the original recipe again and went from there, staying pretty true to the basic ingredients, with a few minor changes.  I have loads of fresh oregano in my garden, so I opted for a small handful of leaves instead of the dried.  In addition to the black pepper I added a dash of red pepper flakes and since I don’t have any celery seed on hand I used celery salt.  Since I’ve been trying to nix sugar – even natural sweeteners *sniff sniff* – I decided to forego the sugar (or honey, which I prefer) and add a pinch of stevia, which added just the right amount of sweetness.  For the liquid I went with apple cider vinegar and rice vinegar in place of the water.  And please note that you should blend this to get everything nicely incorporated, rather than just mixing it together in a jar.  In fact, whenever you mix oil and vinegar or water, using a blender will better emulsify the mixture.  Just so it’s written out for you…

1T garlic salt
1T onion powder
2T ground oregano (or a small handful fresh)
1T parsley flakes
pinch stevia
1t sea salt
1/2t ground black pepper
dash red pepper flakes
1t dried basil leaves
¼t dried thyme flakes
dash celery salt
1/2c olive oil
1/4c cider vinegar
2T rice vinegar (or water)

For some reason, the dressing got really thick the second time I made this – maybe because I blended it longer?  In any case, I added a bit of water then.  But OMG, this is so good!  I could just eat it right out of the jar!

The other day we paired the dressing with one of our favorite salads, inspired by the side salad they serve at one of my hubby’s favorite steakhouse restaurants.  It’s so easy and so good!

Just dump half a bag of mixed greens into a 13×9″ pan (I find this works better than a bowl for getting a good ratio of ingredients).  Top with sliced cucumber and chopped tomato; sometimes I add alfalfa sprouts if I have them on hand and you could add carrots, onion, whatever.  Slice some hardboiled egg, crumble some cooked bacon, and toss that on top (I typically use four of each – four eggs and four slices of bacon – but you could add more if you want).  If you want to get really crazy, grate some cheddar cheese on top.  Voila!  A nice salad fit for a meal since you’ve got the protein and veggies all together.  If you keep some hardboiled eggs on hand it’s even easier and cooking the bacon in the toaster oven on some aluminum foil makes for hardly any clean up.

Blissful Bites Cookbook Review (and a giveaway!)

***Giveaway Closed – Congratulations Theresa!***

When I made my Peanut Butter Bliss Pudding I had no idea it would turn into a book review!  I jumped at the chance to review my own copy of Blissful Bites: Vegan Meals That Nourish Mind, Body, and Planet and was even more thrilled when I learned that one of you – yes, YOU! – will get a chance to receive a copy of your own. 

Christy Morgan, vegan chef and author of Blissful Bites, is on a “mission to help others make the connection between the mind, body and spirit, so they may live authentic, healthy, happy lives free of physical pain and mental suffering.”  She is on a roll with Blissful Bites, her first cookbook, as well as her blog The Blissful Chef

One of the things that grabs my attention about a cookbook before even delving into the recipes is the pictures.  Mm, mouthwatering pictures!  Not every recipe features a photo, but there’s a yummy, full color photo at least every other page, scattered throughout the book like a little trail of [vegan, whole grain] breadcrumbs, leading you to the end.

The cookbook is broken down into food categories (such as breakfast & brunch, appetizers & soups, salads & dressings, vegetable sides, whole grains, etc.) and within these categories are seasonal recipes, which make it easy to pick the freshest ingredients.  There’s a nifty little menu in front of each recipe section that lays it all out for you.  I love that it’s color-coded for easy identification – green for “spring,” blue for “winter,” you get the idea. 

What’s nice about this cookbook is that it’s super-informative about making healthier choices and encourages you to start leaning towards a more plant-based lifestyle without being judgemental.  I am not a vegetarian, but I do like to try meat-free, dairy-free and even gluten-free recipes from time to time.  Whether you like to experiment or have specific dietary needs, there are special identifying icons for some of the recipes – raw, gluten-free, soy-free, low or no oil, or taking less than 45 minutes to prepare.  It really removes all the guesswork!

After devouring the pudding, I was excited to try some more of the recipes and started making a list of my favorites.  I wanted to make them as authentic as possible, using the ingredients called for, but I will admit this wasn’t the easiest to do.  Unless you specifically shop at an organic or specialty food store (or already have these items in your pantry) you may not be able to find the exact ingredients – things like vanilla flavoring, grain-sweetened chocolate chips, coconut  palm sugar, nutritional yeast, miso, kelp noodles, dulse flakes, kombu and the other sea vegatables, none of which are at my grocery store.  Luckily, if you’re willing to make a special trip or do a bit of online shopping they are obtainable.  Also, many of them can be easily substituted; it’s hard for me to stick to a recipe anyway!

The Strawberry Shortcake Smoothie was one of the first on my list.  When I buy strawberries on sale I freeze half of them for smoothies during the warmer months and we had extra on hand since we went strawberry-picking at a local farm recently.  This was a really easy recipe and easily-tweaked by adding different fruits or types of milk. 

I’m in love with the sauce from the Penne with Creamy Red Pepper Sauce!  The kids and I often have pasta in the evenings, so I thought this would be a good choice.  I didn’t have quite enough red pepper, but it was still full of flavor and I went back for seconds.  Later it occurred to me that it would make an excellent dip for chips, crackers and veggies, which of course I put to the test.  I don’t usually buy tofu since I’m worried about its effects as a staple in one’s diet but I could definitely swing this once a week.  

Cooking is not something I like to do in the Summer.  Friday night is our homemade-pizza-and-a-movie night but there’s no way I’m cranking that oven to 450 degrees!  We usually opt for salads and sandwiches, so I was curious to try the Un-Tuna Salad.  We love cooking with beans – quesadillas, enchiladas, falafel, black bean burgers, hummus, you name it – so the idea of a sandwich filler with chick peas sounded like a yummy idea.  It’s basically a tuna or chicken salad with chick peas instead of the meat.  I used dried beans, which take longer to prepare, but the results were sooooo good!  This will definitely be a staple in our diet; I’m anxious to try adding curry powder for extra pizzaz. 

  

Dessert… my favorite!  I decided to make the Gluten-Free Peanut Butter Cookies with a few tweaks.  I don’t buy egg replacer, so I opted for the flaxseed substitute instead.  That, combined with the fact that I blended my own brown rice and almond flours, may have contributed to the fact that the batter was really runny.  I made one cookie sheet’s worth then added some white whole wheat flour to thicken it up.  Those came out better and they were all soft and had great flavor – not surprising considering the coconot oil, maple syrup and peanut butter.  Care to make a batch for yourself?  Knock yourself out…

Gluten-Free Peanut Butter Cookies
Ingredients
1/4c vegan margarine or coconut oil, melted
1/2c maple syrup
1/3c unsweetened applesauce
1t Ener-G egg replacer, whisked with 1T water
1t vanilla flavoring
1/2c peanut butter
3/4c almond flour
3/4c brown rice flour
1t baking powder
1t baking soda
2t flax meal
1/4t sea salt
1t arrowroot
1/2c vegan grain-sweetened chocolate chips (optional)

Directions
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.  In medium mixing bowl, beat margarine (or coconut oil), maple syrup, and applesauce until smooth and creamy.  Add the rest of the wet ingredients and mix well.  In separate bowl, whisk together flours, baking powder and soda, flax, salt, and arrowroot.  Mix wet into dry ingredients until well combined.  Fold in the chocolate chips and stir well.

Drop spoonfuls onto prepared cookie sheet.  Using wet fingertips or the bottom of a glass, press down each cookie evenly (continue to dip fingers or glass in water to prevent sticking).  The cookies will not spread much, so you can put them close together on the cookie sheet.  Take a fork and press lightly on the top in two directions, to create a grid on top of the cookie.  Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until lightly browned.  Remove from oven and cool cookies on a wire rack.

So, who’s ready to win a copy of Blissful Bites?  There are a number of ways to enter (leave a separate comment for each, being sure to include your name and e-mail address):
1.  Share the love and tell someone about the giveaway (twitter, facebook, e-mail, etc.) then leave me a link to that share.
2.  Check out The Blissful Chef and tell me what recipe you’d love to try.
3.  Tell me what healthy eating means to you. 
*Giveaway is open for 30 days and is open to U.S. residents only.  

As for me, I can’t wait to experiment with the recipes and include more plant-based meals into our everyday life.

Peanut Butter Bliss Pudding

I was sooo sick for a few days recently.  It  hit me out of the blue; I have no idea where it came from!  Usually the kiddos bring something home from Sunday School or a visit with other kids and pass it on, but this time it only affected me.  Luckily Phil was able to stay home for a whole day because I was seriously out-of-commission – weak, dizzy, nauseous.  Let’s just say the potty and I became intimately acquainted; I told Phil if I get sick like this every couple of months it might help me keep the weight off! 

There was a brief period where I thought I would never like food again.  Just the smell of anything made me feel like throwing up.  Fortunately – or perhaps unfortunately? – my appetite has returned and I tried a new recipe.

After watching “Forks Over Knives,” a documentary on plant-based diets, I decided to check some of their recommended cookbooks out of the library.  First up was Blissful Bites by Christy Morgan.  I’m not crazy about the amount of recipes containing tofu since it’s not a staple in our diet due to my concern over soy products, but I decided a little bit wouldn’t hurt.  I made my own version of Peanut Butter-Like Mousse, cutting it in half since I only had one package of tofu.

1 package tofu 
1/3-1/2c natural peanut butter (honestly, I didn’t measure!)
1/2c rapadura (maple syrup would be heavenly, though I’d use less)
1/2T tapioca flour 
1t vanilla extract
pinch sea salt

Blend everything in a food processor, scraping down sides as necessary, until smooth.  Chill.  Of course, I licked the spatula and it tasted great as-is, but it’s nice cold from the fridge as well.  And what pairs perfectly with peanut butter?  Chocolate!  I topped mine with dark chocolate chips and added sliced bananas for the kiddos.

 

I’m so bummed that I had to return the book to the library before I had a chance to try some more of the recipes, but I did find some online and am eager to try Coconut Bliss Granola and Sage-Infused Polenta Fries.

No-Bake Granola Bars

Whenever I set out to make granola bars I always end up with, well, just granola.  I’ve tried different recipes, determined to find a suitable alternative for Phil to pack in his lunches.  Storebought bars not only contain additives and unnecessary ingredients, they’re also ridiculously high in sugar.

When I saw this recipe for No-Bake Chocolate Chip Granola Bars on Pinterest I just knew I had to try ‘em – with a few changes, of course.  I was hoping if I made 1 1/2 times the recipe it would fit nicely in one of my jelly roll pans, but I was still a little off (luckily, you can mold the mixture to fit so it’s not a big deal if your pan is too big).  I’m thinking doubling it will do the trick.

I omitted the brown sugar altogether and opted for a mixture of honey and maple syrup, considerably less than the recipe called for.  And although I don’t usually buy cereal, except for old-fashioned oats, I found whole grain crispy rice cereal just for this recipe.  Throw in some natural peanut butter, chopped nuts and dates, some dark chocolate chips, and you’ve got some yummy granola bars!  I did stick ‘em in the fridge so they wouldn’t be too soft to cut into and they turned out perfect.  Phil says they taste almost like rice krispy treats!

 

This is what I’m going to try next time around, basically doubling the main ingredients but getting rid of excess sugar:

1/4c butter
1/4-1/3c natural peanut butter
1/4c honey
1/4c maple syrup
4c old-fashioned oats
2c whole grain crispy rice cereal      
2t vanilla
1/4c dark chocolate chips
*nuts, dried fruit, coconut, etc.

Preschool: Baking and the Letter Y

Friday night is homemade-pizza-and-a-movie night at our house and we look forward to it every week.  When the letter Y rolled around I thought it appropriate to do Y for yeast and throw in some other baking elements.  

Sometimes it seems I spend most of the time in the kitchen, and since I often have the kiddos help me they’re no strangers to cooking and baking.  And they love their play kitchen and pretend food!  They get used almost every day in some form or another. 

Bible
I always try to start our day off with the Bible lesson, so this usually gets done at the breakfast table or shortly thereafter.  We’re still using 100 Bible Stories 100 Bible Songs; it’s very kid-friendly since the stories are short and easily understood but as Gwen gets older I find it slightly lacking.  I’ll be on the lookout for some other biblical resources! 

Anticipating the upcoming holiday, our story for the week was about Jesus riding the donkey on Palm Sunday.  We made Hosanna palms with construction paper and ribbon, waving them and singing “Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest!”  Gwen colored a picture and we recited the memory verse, 1 John 3:16 – Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!       

 

The grass in our Easter garden is flourishing.  Phil and I joke that we can’t grow grass in our yard but we can grow it in the Easter garden!  I finally got around to making three twig crosses, though Josiah relocated one of them and I finally found it in a box somewhere. 


Theme

A while ago I started making some felt cookies to go along with the baking theme for the week.  I bought two different colors of felt for different “flavors” and proceeded to cut circles, intending to sew two circles per cookie, then stuff it with fiberfill.  Well, first I sewed colorful felt pieces on top for “icing,” ambitiously topping every single circle before I realized I had no more pieces for the bottoms. *sigh*  So I had to get more felt and ended up with a whole slew of pretend cookies… and I didn’t even finish them!  Sewing the bead sprinkles took a while and I just finished the ones that were almost done by that point.  Side note: I got some oatmeal-colored felt intending to add in some other goodies, which of course I didn’t get around to, so instead I may use it to make pretend whole wheat pasta!   

I found so many cute ideas for felt cookie sets!  If I had more time it would have been fun to make a cookie jar set with some sort of bag or container but I worked with what I had.  At an after-Christmas clearance I got some kitchen ornaments on sale, and along with some pastry erasers, the felt cookies and some other kitchen items I put together a baking-themed sensory bin.


What’s inside:

dyed pasta (just a fun, colorful, scoop- and pourable filler)
muffin tin with silicone liners
measuring cups & spoons
whisk, spatula & colander ornaments
tart tins
shaker with sequins for “sprinkles”
toy pot and potholder with pastry erasers
toy wooden spoons
kitchen towel
pretend dough & cookies

 
 

The kids had so much fun with this!  I will admit, however, to regretting my decision to put the dry pasta inside as my kids cannot follow directions to keep it in the bin or at least within the boundaries of the blanket on which I put the bin.  Pretty soon the pasta was strewn all over the house and I angrily vacuumed it up.  I relegated the baking items to a basket, which was prettier anyway. 

One of the books in our basket is a counting pastry book, so with each page I had Gwen count out pretend cookies.   


She had fun serving us treats and telling us what flavors they were.  Josiah is all about the scooping and pouring.

 

Our Little Monkeys has a cute Little Bakers Tot Pack and we used some of the printables during the week.

 

Both Gwen and Josiah enjoyed these build-your-own-cupcake printables that I laminated with my last three sheets!  They’re so sweet and whimsical, I enjoyed them too!  I didn’t want to put them in a plain ol’ plastic baggie so I stored the pieces in one of the linen snack bags I made.  They had to follow the little “recipe” card and put the pieces together in order.    

 

During Josiah’s naptime one day, Gwen helped me make Apple Cupcakes with Cinnamon-Marshmallow Frosting.  It’s a pretty good recipe as-is, but I healthify it even more and put less frosting on top.  She helps me put the ingredients in the bowl, pestering me the whole time for a taste and making faces at her reflection in the bowl.  I let her lick the beater when we’re done, of course.  That’s a favorite childhood memory of mine; who am I to deprive her?   

 

Since Friday is pizza night I saved Living Life Intentionally’s Pizza Learning Pack and related items for that day.  The kiddos did shadow-matching, Gwen clapped out syllables and they topped their pretend pizza. 

 
 

The learning pack goes along with the book Pizza at Sally’s, and after reading the story we talked about what natural sources the toppings come from and the stages of making a pizza.  We also discovered that pizza is the perfect food, having something from almost every food group!

   

Later the kids helped me roll out the pizza dough and finish it off with toppings.  My homemade pizza dough is very similar to this Whole Wheat Rosemary Pizza Dough, except my amounts are slightly different.  I pour 1 1/4c warm water in a bread machine along with 1-2T olive oil (I don’t measure), 3 1/2c white wheat flour (sometimes I use 3c ww flour and 1/2c cornmeal or ground oats), 2t yeast, a generous sprinkle of sea salt and/or Jane’s Krazy, and a sprinkling of dried rosemary and put it through the dough cycle.  In a pinch I use jarred sauce (without sugar), but I like to use a homemade sauce like this one.  

Letter

We’re so close to the end of the alphabet!  And this was a fun week, since I love baking and the kids love both real and pretend food!  Gwen did her letter Y Do-A-Dot page, letter hunt and some workbook pages I earmarked for her. 

 

Phil and I helped the kiddos do yarn Ys by tracing block letters onto construction paper and having them fill it in with glue and pieces of yarn. 

 

Gwen methodically outlined her Y with tiny pieces of yarn while Josiah poured gobs of glue and dropped big strips of yarn.  Their differences crack me up! 

Number
Gwen did the counting clip cards from the tot pack along with the cupcake file folder game we’ve had for a while now.  She’s big on giving colors flavors now; yellow is always lemon meringue. 

 
Shape
The kiddos did some lacing shapes and there just so happened to be a slice-of-pizza triangle in there. 

 

Our shape of the week was a parallelogram, which I’m pretty sure went over her head, but I pointed out how it looks like a squished rectangle.  I had her decorate her parallelogram picture like a pizza with toppings. 

“Parallelogram pizza,” makes it easier to remember, I think.

For more inspiration see my Y is for Yeast (Baking) Pinterest board.

Bulletin Board
Book Basket
Theme/Vocab
Walter the Baker
Fannie in the Kitchen
Pizza at Sally’s
Apple Pie ABC
Curious George and the Pizza
 The Little Red Hen
The Cow Loves Cookies
The Great Doughnut Parade
Scooby-Doo! Disappearing Donuts
Cupcake

Letter
Yoko
Fancy Nancy
The Fairies’ Alphabet Book
A Year Full of Holidays
Flutterby
Glitterby Baby
Extra Yarn
So Sleepy Story

Number
The Baker’s Dozen
What’s Cookin’?  A Happy Birthday Counting Book

DVDs
Pete’s A Pizza… and more great kid stories!

Raw Applesauce

Did you know you can make applesauce without cooking the apples?  Cooked applesauce is actually pretty easy, and I’ve done it plenty of times either on the stovetop or in the microwave, but this was a revelation! 

I don’t remember where I found it – perhaps while looking for a recipe for apple chips, which I have yet to try – but I immediately knew I had to try it.  Just cut your apples  (you could use an apple corer, but I just cut around all four sides), put ‘em in a food processor, and process till smooth.  You could add a splash of lemon juice to keep the apples from browning, some cinnamon, even some honey or other sweetener – but I find the fresh apples sweet enough already. 

 

Don’t even bother peeling your apples!   The skin contains fiber, antioxidants and all sorts of good stuff, but you may want to get the organic apples since the peel retains pesticides from the growing process.  I find it most cost-effective to get bagged apples, and the organic brand is only a dollar more.  Not only is the apple peel nutritious, but it makes the applesauce look pretty and rosy with flecks of red (if you use red apples, like I did!).

I first started making my own applesauce when making homemade baby food, but it has since become a staple in our home.  We like our applesauce plain, with walnuts on top, as a substitute for some of the oil in baking, and in oatmeal – one of my newfound favorites.  I’m curious to try adding other fruits for flavored applesauce, but still want to keep it raw.  I bet blueberries and strawberries would blend well, and peaches if they’re fresh enough.  How do you do applesauce?

        

 

Mock Maple Syrup

We have pancakes most mornings for breakfast.  I often soak the flour with buttermilk overnight and in the morning add the rest of the ingredients.  It makes for an easy, nutritious breakfast, one that can be varied in many ways.

I often add some canned pumpkin to the batter with cinnamon or other spices, maybe some orange juice and orange zest with blueberries, and dark chocolate chip pancakes with sliced bananas is a favorite.  Over the holidays I decided to add some whole cranberries with the chocolate chips – a revelation! 

Our toppings of choice are peanut butter and maple syrup…  but the syrup can be so expensive!  Especially when used in other baking, a little jar goes quickly.  One morning when we ran out of maple syrup I remembered a recipe I had snipped from a magazine.  It called for mixing brown sugar with water on the stovetop to make a syrup, and I decided to try it with my rapadura sugar.

It was really good!  I mixed 1c rapadura sugar with 1/4c water and simmered for a bit till the sugar was dissolved. 

You can also add a dash of vanilla or – like I did one morning – a splash of bourbon (rum would probably be good, too!).  The alcohol will burn off and you’ll be left with the flavor.      

 

I keep it in a small jar or pitcher in the fridge, and it crystalizes so I warm it in the microwave (on low, or else it will bubble up and overflow).