Mommy Cafe

Vegetarian home cooking, kid tested and approved

Simple Staples

Since last October’s unprocessed challenge, I’ve been paying a lot more attention to labels. And after reading Food Rules by Michael Pollan, I’ve been thinking more about what actually constitutes food. I know what flour is. But is it really still flour after it’s been stripped of all its nutrients and then “enriched” to add those nutrients back in? I have my doubts.

As a result, I’ve been looking at my staples and trying to find ways to make them healthier. For example, instead of all-purpose flour I use white whole wheat flour, which is less dense than a whole wheat but still has all the nutrients… naturally. Instead of white sugar, it’s raw sugar or organic evaporated cane. Table salt won’t be found on my table, it’s sea salt or bust.

In other words, my budget is stretched.

For a long time I was buying organic peanut butter. Spendy stuff. And when we consume a lot of PB&J, it was starting to break the bank at $5 a jar. Then I discovered how ridiculously easy it is to make peanut butter. The ingredients consist of peanuts. That’s it. Just peanuts. Unless you want to make something fancy, like cinnamon or chili peanut butter, in which case you add cinnamon or chili (who would’ve thought?). Drop them in a food processor. Turn it on. Walk away and come back in five minutes or so and you’ll have peanut butter. Yep, it’s really that easy. Kudos, Averie Cooks, for sharing this recipe. Is it still a recipe with just one ingredient?

Another thing I’ve been making is brown sugar. It had never even occurred to me that it could be homemade! For one cup of white sugar, add one tablespoon of unsulfured molasses. Mix with a fork until it comes together. Takes all of 3 minutes. And you can make any amount you need. My new favorite dressing calls for just 1 T of brown sugar. I eyeball the molasses and add more if it doesn’t look dark enough. Crazy simple. Thank you, Joy the Baker, for showing me the way.

Speaking of dressing, I’ve tried a bunch of organic whole foods dressings. I’ve hated them all. Save your money and make your own vinaigrette. Three parts quality oil, 1 part vinegar or acid (red wine vinegar, rice wine vinegar, or some freshly squeezed lemon juice), and a little salt, sugar, or minced herbs to taste. Put it all in a small container with a lid and shake it up, baby. Base your ingredients on your salad, your entree, or your mood. I love red wine vinegar with a little oregano. My absolute favorite is a blueberry vinegar on spinach with fresh strawberries. With a flavorful, quality vinegar, you can get away with less oil — use just enough to make the vinegar stick a little! My good friend Mandy, pantry chef turned food design queen, taught me the way to remember the vinaigrette ratio: vinaigrette is three parts oil, and oil had three letters. It was much prettier when she said it, but at least the concept stuck. 🙂

One of the hardest parts of going unprocessed is no ketchup. I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like ketchup, and I am certainly no exception. Nearly a year later I still miss the stuff like crazy, so I tried a couple of recipes. I served this one to Will’s cousin recently, and he exclaimed “This is the BEST ketchup I’ve EVER had!!” I agreed. It’s not quite as easy as the previous items, but it is by no means difficult. Credit to Skinny Taste for coming up with this deliciously easy recipe.

Last but not least, my latest discovery: almond milk. Oh man. This takes a little more effort. I don’t care. It’s worth every minute. Especially after you look at the ingredient list on store-bought almond milk. After much internet research, I tried this recipe. Bingo! My only complaint is that it disappears so much more quickly than the stuff in a box. The solution, I think, is to make two batches: one for everyday use, and one with a little extra honey for making chai tea or, now that the weather is cooling, a creamy hot chocolate.

So there you have it. A handful of ways to lessen your intake of processed foods, save some money in your wallet, and give your taste buds a new reason to thank you.


September 12, 2012 Posted by | Food for thought, Recipes, Vegetarian | , , , , | 2 Comments

Vegetarian Tortilla Soup

Just the words “tortilla soup” send me to a blissful place. I love the tangyness, the hint of spice, the tender crunch of lightly sauteed peppers in a bath of tomatoey deliciousness. Mmm. Heaven.

Okay, head out of the clouds and feet firmly on the ground.

I have put off posting this recipe for almost a year now. Not because I’m selfish and don’t want to share. The problem is that I can never wait long enough to get a photo before diving in to a big bowlful. Tonight was no exception. My sincerest apologies. But I do believe you will forgive me once you try this dish for yourself.

This is a fantastic soup. It is full of vegetables and vitamin C, and you get to customize it to your particular taste at the table. Want more kick than the kids can handle? Throw in a few dashes of hot sauce. Love sour cream and cheese but your dinner guests don’t do dairy? Add it to your own bowl. Don’t want the same soup two days in a row? Doubtful with this tasty dish, but change it up and add avocados, fresh cilantro, black olives, bean sprouts, cooked noodles or rice, or whatever you find hiding in your fridge.

My favorite way to enjoy this soup is with homemade tortilla chips. Store-bought tortilla chips are good for a lot of things, but this soup isn’t one of them, in my humble opinion. I’ve posted the recipe for homemade chips here before, but for this soup I like to use lots and lots of dried cilantro instead of the coriander. And some salt. Ya gotta have salt.

By the way, this feeds approximately one army. So either halve it, freeze some for later, or invite the neighborhood. And be prepared to force yourself away from your bowl before thirds.

Prep and Cook time: 40 minutes           Estimated cost: $2 per serving

Vegetarian Tortilla Soup

  • 1 T olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 green pepper, diced
  • 1 jalapeno, anaheim, or poblano pepper, diced finely
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
  • 10-oz can diced tomatoes (or use fire-roasted and the jalapeno)
  • 6 cups vegetable broth
  • 2 T chili powder
  • 2 T cumin
  • 2 T cilantro
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 15-oz cans (or 4 cups) black or red beans (rinse canned beans well and drain)
  • 2 cups frozen corn

Tortilla Chips

  • 10-12 corn tortillas, cut into thin strips
  • 2 T olive oil
  • 2 T cilantro
  • 2 T cumin
  • 1 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Heat 1 T oil over medium-high heat. Add onion, peppers, and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until just tender. Add crushed tomatoes, diced tomatoes, vegetable broth, spices, and salt. Stir well and bring to a soft boil. Add beans and corn. Turn heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes.

Toss tortilla strips with 2 T oil, cilantro, and cumin. Spread evenly on a large baking sheet. Bake at 400 degrees for 10-12 minutes, or until crisp.

Serve soup in bowls and top with grated cheddar cheese, sour cream, diced avocado, and tortilla chips. Or with whatever your happy heart desires!

Serves 8

August 27, 2012 Posted by | Recipes, Vegan, Vegetarian | , , , , , | 2 Comments

Homemade Pasta

Since I am terribly behind on this blog, and since I’ve been getting vaguely threatening emails from family members about it, I’m cheating a little and making today’s photo challenge a double-blog.

Tonight I made dinner. This alone is a huge accomplishment. I have been so overwhelmingly busy lately that most days I can manage to make a peanut butter jelly sandwich. Most days. The other days I visit my good friend Jimmy John.

However, I went beyond just making dinner today. I made dinner. Ever since last weekend when I was happily reminded of my favorite marinara sauce, I have been craving spaghetti. But a special sauce like this deserves a special noodle. So I bought some good semolina flour, pulled out the pasta cutter, and got to work.

Homemade pasta is so so so much better than anything you can buy at the store. Making fresh pasta means I know what goes into it. I control the type of flour (hold the bleached, enriched, all-purpose please) and the amount of salt. I also get to use farm-fresh eggs, straight from the ladies in the barn. It’s also ridiculously cheap to make. I’ve already listed all the ingredients, except water and a little olive oil. But perhaps the best part is that, with a pasta cutter, it is really easy! The hardest work is in the kneading, but it’s so much easier than kneading bread, so don’t let that scare you.

I’ve been playing around with different flours, but so far the most versatile and fail-proof flour for me is semolina. It’s easy to work with and yields a smooth, elastic dough. Someday I’ll come across the perfect combination of more unusual flours to share (chickpea and quinoa flours are my favorites to play with).

If you are considering making homemade pasta, I strongly recommend you pick up a good quality pasta cutter. This amazing machine rolls out the dough as thick or thin as you’d like, and it also cuts the dough into noodles. For $50 you get a hand-crank machine that packs up into a tidy little square-foot box. If you are currently buying whole wheat pasta, you’ll recoup the expense in no time!

Homemade Pasta

  • 2 cups semolina flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 T olive oil

Mix flour and salt together in a large bowl. Add eggs, water, and oil and stir with a fork to combine. Using your hands, continue working the dough until all the flour is stuck together. Knead the dough for 5 to 10 minutes or until soft and elastic. Add more water or oil if the dough is too dry, or more flour (by the teaspoon) if too sticky. Cover the kneaded dough with plastic wrap or a towel and let rest for 15 minutes.

Roll out the dough to desired thickness (about 1/4″) using either a pasta machine or flour-dusted rolling pin. For spaghetti noodles, cut with a machine, dough cutter, or pizza cutter.

Cook in salted boiling water for about 5 minutes.

Serves 4.

May 18, 2012 Posted by | Recipes, Vegetarian | , , , | 3 Comments

Day 31 and Beyond!

October is over, and some of you may be wondering how I fared with my challenge to eat only unprocessed foods for a month.  I talked to my dad the other night and he brought up my bumpy road post and jokingly wondered if it had only gotten worse.

To be perfectly honest, I did have a few slip-ups.  Some were intentional.  When a girl is sick and put in charge of pizza delivery, one can expect certain liberties to be taken with said pizza.  Other slip-ups were discovered at the very end of the month.  Who knew chili powder would have anti-caking powder and “natural” flavors?

Overall, I think I did pretty well with keeping my diet in check.  I diligently read labels, I shopped exclusively at the local co-op, I gave away my refined/enriched/preservative-laden foods.  I even donated a nearly full case of Vanilla Coke to the needy (i.e. friends with a very busy toddler).  And you know what?  I feel fantastic!

Yes, it takes more work to bake my own bread than to buy a loaf at the store.  Sure, it’s a tad annoying to grate my own cheese rather than buy a bag of already shredded.  Of course I still miss my soda… but not nearly as much as before.  In exchange for opting out of these conveniences, I have more energy, I sleep better, and my concentration is improving.  The memory thing is taking a little longer, but let’s not expect miracles here.

Perhaps my biggest success story, or at least the one that is most fresh in my mind, is that I went trick-or-treating with my son and have yet to sneak a piece of his candy.  He even tried tempting me this afternoon, listing off each variety saying “You know you want it!”  (Incidentally, where does an 8-year-old learn this sort of taunting?)  Each time I said no thanks until finally, frustrated, he said “Don’t you like any kind of candy??”  Honestly, none of it appealed to me.  Not in the least.

Though I have learned to appreciate dark chocolate.  Mmm.

So the big question I’ve been getting lately is “How long are you going to keep this up?”  The big answer is “For as long as I want.”  This is my new food lifestyle.  I don’t plan to be as strict as I was last month.  But I will still check every label before purchasing food.  White flours and sugars are limited to the rare special occasion.  High fructose corn syrup will have no place in my home.  I’ve switched to natural sodas and am only consuming them on my weekly “indulgence day.”  When I do indulge, it will be with intention, acknowledging that, while not good for my body, every once in a while the soul deserves a little treat.

November 2, 2011 Posted by | Food for thought | , | Leave a comment

Days 4-6: A Bumpy Road

Day 4.  Ugh.  How many days left??  I’m getting sick of spending all my time in the kitchen.  Not to mention the dishes.  And the mishaps that abound.  And the constant cleaning and rearranging of my counter tops.  And the dishes.  And daily grocery store trips.  Have I mentioned the dishes?

To be fair, I brought today’s struggles on myself.  I volunteered to make dinner for friends who were too sick to slice bread.  I knew exactly what I was going to make by noon (Poblano Jack Pizzas, made from fresh garden peppers!!), and planned to make the same for dinner at home as well.  However, once I got home I failed to double-check my recipe for the most-awesome-pizza-ever to see how long it took to make it and exactly what ingredients went into it.  I also forgot to check my dough to see if I had enough for two pizzas.  Which I did not.  Dumb, right?

I needed corn.  I always have frozen corn in the freezer.  Except, of course, for today.  So I cheated.  I found a can of corn in my cupboard, and I cracked it open.  Don’t ask why I even had canned corn in my cupboard, because I don’t know the answer myself.  But there it is.  I ate 1/4 cup of processed canned corn.  Sigh.

The pizza was delicious, by the way.  Horribly misshapen, slightly doughy crust, but delicious.  Recipe to follow… after the dishes are done.

Highlight of the day:  I bought a 2 liter of Ginger Ale for above-mentioned sickos and managed to deliver it without cracking it open for a sip!


Day 5.  After so many hours in the kitchen these past several days, I promised myself a day off.  I cooked a double batch of beans the night before so as not to be tempted to worry about it tonight.  With plenty of leftovers in the fridge there was no concern for what to eat for dinner.  So the most labor-intensive kitchen moment for today was tossing a fresh veggie salad with homemade vinaigrette.  Ahhh.

So what did I do with all this free time?  Cleaned.  Yep, I had so much energy that would otherwise have been devoted to cooking that I decided to sweep and mop the floors and give my bathroom a good scrub.  Livin’ it up!  I also managed to avoid anything that resembles a grocery store.  I’m starting to feel normal again!

Highlight of the day:  Ate lunch next to an open bag of Sun Chips (my mouth is watering just typing the words) and didn’t sneak a single one.


Day 6.  I wasn’t sure I was feeling the positive effects of eating unprocessed.  Until today.  I had a business lunch meeting this afternoon.  I was nervous about grilling the waitress (ha!) in front of a client, so I did some homework in advance.  I checked out the menu online and then called the restaurant to see what items were made in-house.

Thinking I was pretty clever, I ordered a salad (hard to go wrong there) with local bleu cheese, grilled chicken (don’t tell Will!), and walnuts.  I knew that all their dressings were house-made, and I asked for plain walnuts instead of the candied variety.  Well… the chicken was so salty that I just pushed it to the side.  And the dressing was so sweet that I found myself looking for undressed lettuce.  So very unlike me.

So, try as I might, this meal was another bump in the road.  Not surprisingly, shortly after lunch I faced a sugar crash.  Big time.  In fact, I’m still not recovered at 9pm!

I think it’s safe to say that eating clean, while not an easy road to travel, is a more enjoyable journey.  One which I can have the energy to appreciate!

October 6, 2011 Posted by | Food for thought | , | Leave a comment