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.