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.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Vegan Replica Hack: Bread & Roses Macaroons

Friends of mine live in Bloor West Village in Toronto, and I love to go and visit them, not only for their excellent company, but also because there are a lot of shops and restaurants in their neighbourhood that I love to go to. These include a nifty paper shop, a place to get a great variety of vegetarian burgers (try the “Big Apple Deli”, which has apples, treacle, and coleslaw; sounds completely bizarre, but it’s very good), my favourite place to get a smoothie (my choice: pomegranate passion), and Bread & Roses, a bakery-cafe-coffee shop.

Bread & Roses has a small patio on Bloor Street, which can make for some great people-watching in the summer, and a cozy interior that’s a nice place to bring a book and curl up with a book, a coffee, and a snack for a little while. Among the many nice things on offer, the coconut macaroons are a standout: chewy, caramelized exterior, tender moist interior, and dipped in bittersweet chocolate.

During my most recent visit I ate more than a few of them, and decided to see if I could make a satisfactory vegan version at home. After some research on the internets, I decided to go with an approach involving sweetened condensed milk (SCM), which obviously presents a bit of a problem if I wanted to make them vegan; thus I did some experimenting and came up with the recipe for a non-dairy SCM that I posted the other day.

I’ve been using that vegan SCM to play around at macaroons, and I’m quite pleased with how they’ve come out. The recipe is ridiculously fast and easy – you can get a batch of these in the oven in umacaroonsnder 10 minutes.

Vegan Coconut Macaroons

  • 1c sweetened condensed un-milk
  • 1/4c flour
  • 2&1/2c sweetened coconut (works best with the finely shredded “macaroon” style, but even the long shreds will work fine)
  • 3T soy milk
  • 1/2c vegan chocolate chips
  • Combine the sweetened condensed un-milk, flour, and coconut in a bowl and mix well. The resulting dough should be fairly sticky, but hold its shape pretty well when formed into a ball. Add more coconut to get a stiffer dough if necessary, or more milk if it’s not sticky enough.
  • Form into rough balls the size of a golf ball, and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
  • Bake in a 350F oven for about 15 or 20 minutes, until the bottoms are crisp and dark golden-brown, and the tops are golden-brown.
  • Cool on the pan for about 5 minutes, and then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
  • Heat the soy milk in a bowl in the microwave for about 30s, until it begins to boil. Stir in the chocolate chips and whisk until they are melted and very smooth. Adjust the thickness by adding more soy milk or more chocolate chips to get a consistency that is just thin enough to pour nicely off a spoon.
  • Dip the tops of the macaroons into the chocolate, and return to the wire rack to allow the chocolate to harden.

I seriously need to get a new camera. These photos taken with my phone are entirely unsatisfactory.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Vegetarian Restaurant Hack – McDonald’s Breakfast

The post about the Champion Sandwich reminded me that there is another common hack that my partner and I use at McDonalds during their more “vegetarian-friendly” breakfast hours.  In short, it’s an “off-menu” trick and it seems to work everywhere that we’ve tried it. Here’s a post just in time for the last few hours of the McDonalds breakfast menu… enjoy.

The “Other” Big Breakfast

Basically, McDonalds (in Canada at least) offers the “Big Breakfast”.  The meal contains an English muffin, hashbrowns, sausage, eggs and liquid margarine (it’s listed as a separate ingredient on their dietary chart, no joking!).  A copy of the dietary information for the "Big Breakfast” is here. Note that the cholesterol and sodium numbers for the basic Big Breakfast are basically off the chart (did you know that Sodium is so large it could have been measured in GRAMS, not mg).  In short, the big breakfast is a loaded gun and you should never pull the trigger.  With this in mind (and a hungry toddler in hand), I improvised something that would work out nicely as a large, tasty and meat-free “big breakfast”.  I order one order of pancakes and then ask them to add in a side of eggs.  They usually say something like “there’s no menu item for eggs” but there is one for “folded egg” which would get you much the same result as a scrambled egg.  Usually, they get it and you get straight-up scrambled eggs in addition to the hotcakes.  Incremental cost is actually about $1 but it varies by location and how they key it in. Add a hashbrown and you’re basically set.  It’s big, it’s tasty, it’s a better meal combination than the “big breakfast” and it’s really not any more expensive (and no animals had to make you sausage!). Basically, you should check out the nutritional information on the link above and when you ask for “detailed” nutrition information, you can see all the little a la carte items that you can combine with the hotcakes to get you a nice, large breakfast.  The beauty of the McDonald’s standardization is that all their terminals should allow adding single orders of the requisite components.  I would be curious as to what other combinations I could get to work. More to come on this but hotcakes with egg is a winner.  Try it. You’ll like it.

The Egg McMuffin

Okay, they label all the “special” McMuffins with their particular meat-related add-ons (eg. the Sausage and Egg McMuffin).  However, the “Egg” McMuffin actually comes with ham… I’ve always wondered about the omission of the word ham from the product name.  Either way, ask for it without meat.  9 times out of 10 they will get it right (usually resulting in a yell from the cashier to the cook that “the egg mcmuffin’s are all without meat” if you order more than one!).  They hate adding grill slips to their meals (especially when they don’t understand why you don’t want the meat).  It’s no Champion Sandwich but it’s easy and you can get it in a combo. As an unintended bonus, you will usually get a “fresher” sandwich than the pile of pre-combined ones sitting in the warmer waiting for the breakfast rush.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

“Panic” Pasta Sauce from Scratch

Ok. We’ve all promised a family member a particular meal for dinner and then opened the cupboard only to find that a key element of the meal was absent (likely consumed during the last time that a family member was promised the same meal).  Then you are presented with the inevitable choice: (a) break the news that the promised meal is not going to happen [and deal with the meltdown that ensues]; or (b) make something up on the spot.  It is a situation unlike this which has given rise to a new family favourite… “Panic” Pasta sauce (from scratch no less!).  This is the recipe for a remarkably decent and light sauce that was made using only the items I happened to have on hand.  If necessity is the mother of invention then this recipe is the screaming, moody, angry child of necessity.


  • 3T olive oil
  • 4-7 cloves of garlic, minced or VERY finely sliced (more to taste… I like 4… you might like 7… either way, don’t use less than 4 or it’s just not the same)
  • 2-3 medium tomatoes cored and diced without seeds(should make about 3 cups)
  • 1-2T dried basil flakes


  • Warm the olive oil on medium heat and when hot, combine with the garlic.  Cook garlic until it smells nice (2-3 minutes).  Don’t overcook the garlic.
  • Dump in the tomatoes and the basil flakes.
  • Stir on medium for 5-7 minutes until the tomatoes render a very light “rose” coloured sauce.
  • The more you cook the tomatoes, the smaller the bits will become.  I like the tomatoes to still have a distinct shape so this process takes 5-7 minutes.  If you like it to be much more “smooth” and less chunky, cook the tomatoes for longer.
  • If you started your pasta (penne works well with this sauce) first then you likely have the sauce and the pasta ready at about the same time.
  • Combine pasta, parmesan/romano cheese and the “panic” sauce and enjoy a nice hybrid between traditional (thick) tomato sauce and a completely oil-based sauce.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Vegan Replica Hack: Gyros

One of the few meaty things I occasionally miss as a vegetarian is gyros (the correct Greek pronunciation sounds like “yee-rohs”, not “gee-rohs” or “jai-rohs”). The other big one is corned beef sandwiches, but that has been mitigated to a large extent since I discovered Montreal Smoked Wheat.

Satisfactory vegetarian gyros have been somewhat more elusive, however. For awhile, Yves Veggie Cuisine made a souvlaki-style skewered fake meat, and it made for passable gyros, but it was difficult to find consistently in the stores, and I don’t think they make it at all anymore. And a couple of years ago Harvey’s had a pita sandwich on their menu that they made with chicken or with vegetarian burger patties in them, and the ranch dressing they used as a sauce in those strongly evoked ‘gyros’ for me. But the Veggie Ranch Pita has gone the way of the dodo as well, sadly.

Then in the most recent Food & Drink magazine from the LCBO, there was a recipe for gyros ‘burgers’ that got me thinking: if I took the seasonings from the burger recipe, and added them to the recipe for seitan that I’ve been using, I might be able to make gyros for myself at home!

I’ve tried a number of seitan recipes over the years, but everything I tried was either insanely labour-intensive (involving literally hours of kneading dough under water) or resulted in an unappetizing tough texture. Then I tried the seitan recipe from Isa Chandra Moskowitz in Vegan With A Vengeance, and it was an unqualified success; I haven’t looked back since.

So I adapted Isa’s seitan recipe with the spices from the LCBO recipe, and voila: vegan gyros “meat” was born. My final product was actually vegetarian rather than vegan because I was feeling lazy and cheap, and opted to buy a container of the ready-made President’s Choice Tzatziki for $2.99 rather than spend $6 on vegan sour cream or yogurt and make my own.

Seitan Gyros



  • 2c gluten flour*
  • ¼c nutritional yeast flakes*
  • 2T flour
  • 1c cold water
  • ½c soy sauce
  • 1T tomato paste
  • 1T olive oil
  • 2t ground cumin
  • 1T dried parsley
  • 2t dried oregano
  • 2T lemon juice
  • 2t ground pepper
  • 3 veggie bouillon cubes

Sandwich ingredients:

  • 4 greek-style (pocketless) pitas
  • 1 tomato, diced or sliced
  • ½ small onion, diced or sliced
  • tzatziki sauce (store-bought or homemade)


  • Mix the gluten, yeast, and flour together in a large bowl. In a measuring cup, whisk together the water, soy sauce, tomato paste, oil, spices, and lemon juice. Add to the dry ingredients, and stir with a wooden spoon until everything is incorporated into a stiff dough.
  • Knead the dough for about 5 minutes until it is spongy and elastic. Then allow it to rest for about 10 minutes while you prepare the broth.
  • Fill a large soup pot about ½ full of cold water and add the bouillon cubes.
  • Roll the dough out into a log, and cut it into about 6 equal pieces. Place the pieces into the cold water, and bring to the boil. As soon as a boil is reached, turn the heat to low and keep the liquid at a low simmer - if you allow it to boil too much it will get a funny texture on the outside. Simmer, partly covered, for an hour, turning the pieces occasionally.
  • Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Once the seitan is cool enough to handle, remove 3 of the pieces from the broth, place in a sealable container, and add enough of the cooking liquid to cover; freeze this portion for future gyros. Cut the other 3 pieces into strips, and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle with a little extra pepper if desired.
  • Bake at 350F for about 15 minutes, turning once, to lightly brown the strips.
  • While the strips are baking, lightly steam the pitas by sprinkling them with a very small amount of water and microwaving them, covered, for about 2 minutes.
  • When the strips are out of the oven, place them in a microwave-safe dish, add a sprinkle of water, cover, and microwave for about 2 minutes to steam. This extra step really improves the texture of the seitan to make it juicy like gyros.
  • To serve, spread a generous layer of tzatziki on a pita, add the seitan strips, some onion, and tomato. Nom nom nom.

I didn’t think to take a picture of them at the time, sadly, but next time I make them (with the 3 pieces of seitan in my freezer!) I’ll photograph them and add it here!

* Both of these ingredients can be found at health food stores or bulk food stores.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Vegetarian Restaurant Hack: McDonald’s

The Scenario: You’re driving north on Highway 400 on your way to the cottage, it’s pretty much lunch time, and you desperately need to pee. Your options are:

OPTION 1: Take the Exit 90 at the south end of Barrie, which is only 2 minutes away. You get to pee right away, but the only food option is McDonald’s;

OPTION 2: Cross your legs and press onward to Bayfield Street, 15 minutes further along. You can get a Nature Burger (or Nature Chili!) at Lick’s on Bayfield Street, but your bladder might explode before you get there. (Not to mention the fact that trying to turn left onto Bayfield from the Lick’s parking lot to get back to the highway is a bitch.  Srsly.  That is some poor urban planning right there.)

If you’re from Ontario you probably don’t need to imagine it, you’ve probably lived it. I sure have. And very often I’ve gone with Option 1 and ended up eating just fries. Which are damn fine fries, to be sure. But they aren’t lunch.

You might ask, “Why doesn’t McDonald’s have a veggie burger?”  In fact, in the early 2000s McDonald’s did offer a veggie burger (at least in Canada they did), but it was short-lived.  McDonald's claims they pulled the plug on it due to lack of demand, but I don't buy that: in my view, it was a mediocre product combined with a complete failure to understand the vegetarian consumer.  McDonald's made the common mistake of believing that people who would buy a veggie burger were looking for a healthy option, and so they offered the veggie burger on a whole wheat bun and marketed it that way.  I have a few messages for McDonald's:

News Flash #1:  People do not come to your restaurant when they want healthy food. 

News Flash #2:  Vegetarians are not necessarily health nuts.

What most vegetarians want when they go for fast food is the same thing that everyone wants when they go for fast food:  something tasty and junky and delicious, to be enjoyed knowing full well that it is bad for you. So it's not that there was no demand for a vegetarian burger, there just wasn't demand for a healthy vegetarian burger (and particularly not one that was so insipid, when terrific ones were on offer elsewhere, ie. Lick’s and Harvey’s). If they really wanted to capture some of the vegetarian market, what they should have been offering was a Big Mac made with vegetarian patties – now that little gem would sell like ca-razy.

Today, the McDonald’s veggie burger is a distant memory, and if you're stuck eating at McDonald’s the only vegetarian thing you're going to find actually listed on the menu is the ├╝ber-bland Grilled Cheese Happy Meal.  Even their salads have meat in them, for sobbing out loud.

But there is an awesome vegetarian hack for McDonalds, one that is tasty enough that it might just tempt you to treat yourself to a McDonald’s meal even when there are other options. And the hack is this:


Yes, it sounds kind of weird. Yes, the person taking your order might look at you a bit funny (although this happens less often than you might expect!). But trust me, it is truly a “Champion Sandwich” (which was our friend Jen’s exclamation when she tried it for 5 the first time). The bun is toasted, including the middle bun, which gives the sandwich at least a little bit of warmth and prevents it from feeling like you’re eating salad-on-a-bun. The cheese gives it substance. The pickles and  lettuce give it a lovely crunch and juiciness – that’s why I like to add the extra pickles. But of course, the bottom line is that it’s really all about the sauce (or extra sauce, in my case). Ask for extra napkins too.2

Go ahead. Stop being self-conscious and quit worrying what the Drive-Thru crew might think – they’ll take your money, I promise. Order the Big Mac with no meat (plus extra pickles and extra sauce). You can thank me later.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Vegan Cooking Hack: Sweetened Condensed Milk

I've been ovo-lacto vegetarian for about 13 years now. I'm still ovo-lacto, but in the past couple of years I've started trying to cook exclusively vegan food when I'm responsible for meals (which I succeed at about 95% of the time), but when other people are cooking or I'm at a restaurant or whatever, I just go ovo-lacto.

Until recently, I've just forgone any recipes I used to make that included sweetened condensed milk. However, a few weeks ago I had some fantastic macaroons at Bread & Roses in Toronto (in Bloor West Village), and wanted to try and make a vegan version of them. As it happens, I need sweetened condensed milk for that, but haven't been able to locate a commercially-available version (and certainly not in the city where I live!). I figured "hey, sweetened condensed milk is just basically milk and sugar and thick, and I can do that vegan." After some research on the internets I found a few recipes, but most of them included soy milk powder, which I think is teh gross. This is what I devised instead.


  • 3T corn starch
  • 1&1/4c soy milk
  • 3/4c coconut milk
  • 1&3/4c sugar (white or brown or a combination thereof, depending on what you're making; brown will give it a more caramelly taste, but will also make it, um, brown)
  • Mix the corn starch with 1/4c of the soy milk in a small bowl, and stir to mix.
  • Combine the remaining 1c soy milk, coconut milk, and sugar in a small saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat until it starts to boil.
  • Stir the corn starch mixture again, and add to the saucepan, whisking constantly.
  • Reduce the heat to low, and continue to cook until thickened (about 1-2 minutes).
  • Cool and use as you would sweetened condensed milk!
This yields a little more than 2 cups, which is approximately equal to 2 small cans of sweetened condensed milk.

My first attempt at macaroons are cooling as we speak! If they turn out, I'll post the recipe soon!

Quick “Poutine”

Often when I want something “bad for me” when preparation time for dinner is short, I suggest this Quick “Poutine”.  It’s not completely authentic but it’s ridiculously fast and efficient to prepare.  I’m a big fan of meals where parts can be prepared in parallel and generate minimal dishes. This one is no exception.  It takes about 20 minutes to cook and uses off-the-shelf materials (that keep for a long time).


  • About 350g Mozzarella Cheese (adjust amount of cheese to taste)
  • 1 package of Frozen French Fries (I prefer the low-fat McCain fries but any of the thicker frozen fries that you bake in the oven will do).
  • 1 packet of “just-add-water-and-boil” mushroom gravy (or sometimes specialty “Poutine” gravy is available which is vegetarian too).


  • Start the french fries first as per the cooking directions.  They will take between 15 and 20 minutes in a standard oven.
  • While the fries are cooking, combine the gravy and prepare it according to the package.  This will usually take about 5 minutes.
  • While the fries and the gravy are cooking, shred ALL of the mozzarella cheese.  I use a food processor to shred it into very fine bits.  The finer you shred it the more it melts.
  • When the gravy is done, remove from heat and let thicken for 2-3 minutes.
  • When the fries are done, combine in the following layers (repeating until you’re out of materials usually once or twice)
    • Fries
    • Cheese
    • Little bit of Gravy

This recipe will serve 2-4 people and clean-up should be minimal (all dishwasher-friendly!).

First Post!

Hi! This is the first post to Vegetarian Food Hacker.

Inspired by the “Champion Sandwich” (which I’m sure is the subject of a post that’s being drafted right now), this blog is intended to share our ideas about:

  • Restaurant Veggie Hacking – How to get decent vegetarian food from common restaurants without much hassle.
  • Recipe Hacking – Our own favourite vegetarian recipes and recipes inspired by other awesome vegetarian recipes.
  • Gear & Techniques – Stuff that we like in terms of equipment and processes (e.g. have you ever used a sandwich press to make crisp veggie bacon in a ridiculously short period of time, try it).
  • Random Thoughts – Rants, raves, crap that cannot be easily categorized.

What vegetarian means to us? Dairy is okay, eggs are okay, Meat of any kind is not okay (fish is considered meat). Simple.  Not necessarily vegan (although lots of posts will likely be vegan too!) but still a pretty standard lacto-ovo-vegetarian definition.

In terms of comments, we would love to hear your constructive, positive thoughts about our posts.  Just keep it clean.  We’re doing this to have fun and share our ideas. Any comments with the same spirit are always welcome here.