Over Mother’s Day weekend, we took a trip to Universal Studios in Florida. My daughter is a huge Harry Potter fan, so it was a place we simply had to go. We flew down on Thursday morning and came home on Monday. There is a lot to talk about, but I figured it would be easier to break it into bits. Since a friend asked me about the hotel we stayed in yesterday, I figured I would start there.

We stayed at the Cabana Bay Beach Resort, which is one of the park hotels. There are four on-site hotels, with a fifth one under construction, and Cabana Bay is the “budget” option. First of all, staying in a park hotel is the way to go. Granted, this was my first trip to Florida, so I don’t have anything to compare it to, but if we were to go again, I would absolutely stay on-site again–though I might try a different hotel just for comparison. For Harry Potter fans, it is pretty much a must, since you get into Hogsmeade, which is part of Islands of Adventure, an hour before the park officially opens–as long as you have tickets to the park, of course. Note that this is the only part of IoA that opens early.

Anyway, as the trip got closer, I was nervous about the hotel. I had read mixed reviews online, and there were several comments about noise, cleanliness, and unhelpful staff. But, switching to another of the park hotels would have been much more expensive, so I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

The airport shuttle dropped us right at the hotel’s front door, and we went right to the lobby. We got there really early–about 11AM–so checking in was not an option, though we did try. However, the hotel is prepared for this. They took our luggage, and we had access to the rest of the hotel while we waited.

We walked around to get the feel of the place. It is made to look retro–like you time warped to 1960. Very Mad Men/I Dream of Jeannie. There are old cars in the driveway, and the decor is art deco. It is cool and gives off a funky vibe–in a good way. There are two pools, a bowling alley (extra cost), arcade (extra cost), a gift shop, and several food/drink spots.

There is no restaurant, per se. There is a bar in the lobby, a full Starbucks, a food court, and a bar/grill by each of the pools. The bowling alley serves food also. The food court is fairly expansive, though there weren’t a lot of vegan and gluten-free options. It is organized into sections, each focusing on a different type of food. There is a salad bar, which was pretty good. There is a veggie burger, but it isn’t vegan. However, one can get a side of fries, which I did on the first day to go with my salad. There is a station that serves bigger meals, and they had a tofu stir-fry, which had me all excited until I found out the sauce was made with heavy cream. But that same station has side options of rice, black beans, and vegetables. My daughter got that a few times. Once the rice wasn’t ready yet, so we got roasted potatoes, and those were really good. My husband got pizza once, which he said was quite good–and he is picky about his pizza.

It was a bit disheartening that they had vegetarian options, but they didn’t go the extra step. There are loads of great vegan burgers out there. It would seem to make sense that, if you are going to have a veggie burger, make it work for all non-meat eaters. Same with the tofu stir-fry–there are options to heavy cream that would make it just as good. But my daughter and I did not go hungry!

The prices were pretty reasonable–the sides of rice and beans, for example, were each two dollars and change, but they gave us a lot. The best deal is the drink cups you can purchase. You pay a flat price based on how long you want to use them–there is a computer chip in the base that keeps track of when it expires. Then you can get all the beverages you want–soda, lemonade, coffee, even Icees. We each bought one, and used them quite a bit. It also gave us more motivation to drink more water in the park, since we could save having other drinks for when we were back at the hotel.

The food court does serve breakfast, but not until 7AM, so we never used it. Our room did have a dorm-sized fridge, so I brought breakfast foods with us. At home, we eat much earlier than 7AM, so it wasn’t going to work for us. And we were catching the shuttle to the park by then every day we were there. I picked up an iced mocha from Starbucks to have on the shuttle–Starbucks did open at 6AM, so we could have gotten breakfast there if we needed to. And you can use your Rewards card there if you have one–it did earn stars. I didn’t try to cash in any of the free drinks I had.

The shuttle from the park to the hotel was great. I don’t think we ever waited, whether it was going to the park or coming back. Granted, we left early in the morning because we wanted to take advantage of that extra hour. We usually returned to the hotel around 2PM, and there was always a shuttle waiting at the park to bring us back–sometimes two.

The hotel is divided into five sections: Americana, Thunderbird, Continental, Castaway, and Starlight. We stayed in the Americana wing. We had a little bit of a walk to get to our room, but it wasn’t terrible. The wing did extend beyond us, however. The room wasn’t huge, but it was big enough for us. Four adults might have found it a bit too cozy. The room was clean, and the bathroom was good–reasonable shower pressure. The sink is separate from the shower and toilet, so that helps getting ready in the morning. There was never an issue with noise. My only complaint is that the room was not cleaned until late in the day–between 2-3PM. We returned from the park before it was cleaned every day, so we had to find something else to do–usually that meant a trip to the pool. It was never a major inconvenience.

We only used one of the pools, and it was pretty good. It was not very deep anywhere, so my daughter could roam all over. It was also never terribly crowded, and my husband and I found an umbrella table to sit at each day without any trouble. There was music playing, and one day there was a DJ, but it never got too loud. I am really noise sensitive, so that is something I notice. There are also sand “beaches” near the pools, and my daughter found them fascinating. The sand was white and really soft. Since she had only experience New England beaches before this, which tend to be a bit more rocky, she kicked off her flip flops and ran through the sand a lot. There were also palm trees scattered around the pools. In the evenings, they show movies by the pool–they call them “Dive-In Movies.” However, they started late enough that we never took part. Only Universal movies, of course!

There were people there who were not going to the park everyday–who were just hanging around the pool–so it is possible to stay there without going to the park. Overall, I think it was a good experience, and I would stay there again–maybe in a family suite next time, which is a little bigger and has a kitchenette.

Cabana Lobby

             The Lobby of the Cabana Bay

Cabana Pool

                           One of the Pools

Cabana Poolside

        At a Poolside Table–                      With One of the Drink Cups

Last week I found this website called Lighter. It is, on the surface, a grocery delivery website, but they also share recipes on their Facebook page, and you can sign up to test them. I received four recipes last week and chose one to make–the colorful quiche.

I picked this one because it was really simple, and it appealed to me most out of the choices. Plus, we like to have tofu scramble on Sundays, so this was in the same family. Tofu, toasted bread, spinach, spices–it was basic, but it was really tasty. I added some Daiya cheddar shreds and turmeric. The family approved–my daughter even said it should be on a restaurant menu! It was supposed to serve two, but I cut it to serve three, and no one complained.

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Back on Track, I Hope!

April 22, 2015

Life would be so much easier if I didn’t love food.

But I do. And within my vegan and gluten-free restrictions, I love it all–sweet, salty, spicy. I love to cook, and then I love to enjoy what I made. I love to try new things from the store. I love to go to the local vegan bakery and to eat out at restaurants.

The problem is that I am not so much a fan of exercise, so I need to have some pretty strict controls in place to keep from overdoing. And that control is hard to maintain.

In November 2013, my diet kind of went off the rails, and it stayed there until a month or so ago. I put on some weight–not a lot in the grand scheme, but enough that some of my clothes stopped fitting and others were approaching that point. I just couldn’t get my act back together. I also noticed that I lapsed in my posts here, partly, no doubt, because I felt I had little good to say about myself.

But last month I decided I had had about enough, so I recommitted to eating well. I bought a VivoFit, and I wear it constantly. I have it synched with a food tracking app, so I can earn foody treats by moving more. I started to going to Zumba again. So far, my knees are holding out, and it is paying off. Slowly, but I am making progress.

As long as I pay attention and diligently track what I eat, the pounds are coming off. I am doing better about not buying lots of extras at the store. Weekends are still tough, but I am working on that. I have discovered that a routine is key–and limiting temptation.

Of course, the other members of my family also love food, and it is a challenge to make them understand that we can’t have cupboards loaded with treats. Mainly because I work mostly from home, and, if it is here, I will eat it. Do I lack willpower? You betcha. But, on the other hand, not buying lots of snacks is good for everyone in the long run, and it gives us extra cash for other things, like books or yarn. :)

To be continued!

When I heard that Starbucks was going to offer coconut milk nationwide, I was intrigued. While I don’t buy coconut milk for drinking, I do love ice creams and yogurts made from it. I also buy the canned versions for cooking and baking, and recently, for turning into amazing whipped cream. For drinking, we stick to soy and almond as of right now.

But before I give my opinions about the new milk, a small digression. As I read about the new item in advance of its being available, a lot of the comments were negative. Are the soy and coconut milks offered by Starbucks perfect? No, of course not. Would it be great if we could get non-dairy milks without carrageenen and other iffy ingredients? Sure. But I think a lot of people lost sight of the big picture here. Starbucks doesn’t have to offer any alternatives to dairy milk. While there are more people avoiding dairy everyday, we are far from the majority. Perhaps a little gratitude that our non-dairy needs are being considered at all would serve us better than complaining that they got it wrong. It’s a step in the right direction.

Back to my review. I tried the coconut milk in my usual Saturday mocha. It was good–definitely added a coconut undertone to my drink. The thing I didn’t like about it was that it was thinner than the soymilk. It also didn’t have the same degree of foaminess. Since I don’t really have a problem with soy, I will likely stick with that option for now as I prefer the extra creaminess. But I like that it is available as an option, and I may try it again when I shift to iced drinks in the warmer weather.

If nothing else, I do appreciate that Starbucks is broadening their options and thinking about people who cannot, for whatever reason, have dairy or soy.

Even in the twenty-first century, it can be difficult to be a vegan. Most restaurants are still way behind the times when it comes to menu options. People still look at you funny and wonder how you can possibly survive without all the wonderful and artery-clogging options out there. It is at times like those that I am so happy to have a book like The Complete Guide to Vegan Food Substitutions, by Celine Steen and Joni Marie Newman. When I first saw the book, I didn’t think I needed it. After all–I have been a vegan since 2003, and I was vegetarian for a long time before that. I knew all about substitutions–or at least I thought I did. No how much you think you know, if you are a vegan, cook for vegans, or simply want to include some healthier options in your diet, this is a great cookbook to have in your arsenal.

The book is helpfully divided into color-coded sections: Dairy (including cheese), Eggs, Meat, Animal By-Products (honey and gelatin), Gluten, Soy, Refined Sugar, and Fat. At the end is a comprehensive chart covering everything. There are the substitutions, but there are also recipes using those substitutions. The authors also indicate what ready-made substitutions can be found at the store–and when it is easier to buy rather than make.

The first recipe I made was the Basic Soymilk Mayo, which is in the Egg section. There are actually two mayo recipes, that one and another using tofu. The soymilk mayo has two variations, one that involves cooking, and one that doesn’t. I haven’t made the tofu recipe or the cooked soymilk one, but the no-cook version is worth the cost of the book. I really don’t think I will ever need to buy pre-made vegan mayo ever again. It is really easy and really good–it actually has an “eggy” taste. I use Light Silk Soymilk (or the store brand equivalent), and it still comes out thick and rich. I use it for cole slaw, pasta salads, vegan tuna/chicken salads, and as a condiment on sandwiches.

Another recipe from this section that I made was the Chick-o-late Brownie Cake, where chickpeas are the substitute for the egg. I made the gluten-free version, and it was really good. You would never know there is a can of chickpeas in there.

From the Dairy section, I have tried the White/Milk Chocolate Bar and the Chocolate Pudding. As a vegan, white chocolate is difficult to find, so I thought this recipe would be the solution. Raw cacao butter is on the expensive side, but I did get a big enough package to make each recipe once–and I have enough to make the milk chocolate again. I wasn’t able to find vanilla powder, so I used vanilla extract, and I didn’t purchase the optional soy lecithin. Still, the end result was pretty good. I used some candy molds I had, but an ever better use for them would probably be in baked goods.

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Kitty-themed White Chocolate

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White Chocolate Flowers

 

The Chocolate Pudding was also quite good. I used Silk’s Light Chocolate Soymilk, and I am often concerned that the light won’t thicken well, but no issues! Some of the pudding was used to make the Walnut Chocolate Brownies in the Egg section, and they got raves from my daughter!

From the Meat section, I made the Taco Meat, and that runs a close second to the mayo for a recipe that, on its own, is worth buying the book for. The recipe has a gluten-free version that uses TVP, which is the one I made, and a soy-free version using wheat gluten. It was so good–and so easy! You don’t even need taco seasoning, because all the spices are right there in the recipe.

Further in the chapter is a recipe for Pizza Pepperoni Topping with the same gluten-free and soy-free options. It was OK, but I blame the fact that my liquid smoke is really old, and not the recipe, for it not being perfect. I used to love pepperoni, but the vegan options at the store have too much gluten for me, so this was nice to have on my pizza! I also tried the Bacon Bit recipe, but it came out a little watery. Next time, I will try less water or a longer baking time. Might also add a bit more salt.

The Gluten chapter opens with an All-Purpose Baking Mix, and it is used in some of the recipes. I also tried it in some other recipes, and the resulting products had really nice crumb and texture, better than I’ve gotten with other a-p flour substitutions. I made the Chocolate Chip Muffins, which called for the baking mix, the Provençal Socca, the Superfudgy Coconut Cookie Bars, and the Coconut Cinnamon Raisin Bread. All were really good. Socca is a flatbread that is cooked in a skillet like a crepe. We had them plain–the recipe includes ideas for toppings–and they were really tasty.

Provensal Socca

Provençal Socca

There are a few sections I haven’t tried yet, but I have seen a lot of testy-sounding recipes that I am excited to make. And I recently read on Facebook that they are working on a second volume. When that one comes out, I won’t be hesitating!

 

 

I don’t make pies. They tend to stress me out with all the rolling and what not, so I avoid them. So when I got a copy of Pies and Tarts with Heart, by Dynise Balcavage, to review, I saw it as a chance to be converted to the wonders of making pies–and, to some degree, it worked.

One of my favorite things about this book was that it isn’t 100% what I think of when I think of pie cookbooks. Yes, the usual suspects are there, but there is a big section on savory pies, as well as “Imposter” pies–think whoopie and shepherd’s. All the recipes are vegan–I love being able to skim a cookbook knowing I can make just about anything. And just about every recipe has a gluten-free option, which is also great. I think there are only a handful of recipes that are dependent on gluten ingredients like phyllo or puff pastry, and as the market expands, that may change.

The first recipe I made, Macaroni Pie, came from the “Imposter” chapter. It was really easy, and all the ingredients are probably in everyone’s kitchen. Since my husband is not a mac and cheese fan, I made it for my daughter and I when he was out of town. Sadly for me, I only got one or two servings because my daughter liked it so much, she wanted the leftovers for lunch that week. Good parent that I am, I sacrificed my chance to have the leftovers for my own lunch. When she asks to take leftovers for lunch, I know I have a hit.

Macaroni Pie

Macaroni Pie

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Macaroni Pie leftovers for lunch!

 

From the Savory Pies and Tarts chapter, I tried out the Cheeseburger Pie and the Hash Brown-Crusted Breakfast Pie. They were also both very good–and I think the Cheeseburger Pie went to lunch as well. For the Hash Brown Crust I used frozen hash browns because I didn’t feel like grating potatoes, and they seemed to work OK. I also used tempeh in place of the ready made breakfast sausage, because I couldn’t find a gluten-free option. The Cheeseburger Pie was the only one that called for a rolled crust, and the g-f recipe was pretty easy.

Cheeseburger Pie

Cheeseburger Pie

Hash Brown Crusted Breakfast Pie

Hash Brown-Crusted Breakfast Pie

The chapter on Nutty Pies included Choco-Coco Macadamia Pie, and the picture in the book was enough to put it at the top of my Must Make List. A macadamia nut crust filled with chocolate, cream cheese, and coconut–I could have eaten the whole thing myself–in one sitting. But I was good and did share. It was creamy, crunchy, and chocolatey. Yum, yum, and yum.

Choco-Coco Macadamia Pie

Choco-Coco Macadamia Pie–the last slice!

My husband chose the Lemon Fluff Pie, from the Citrus Pies and Tarts chapter, for Father’s Day, but I ran out of time for the crust, so we had the filling as a pudding with the Enjoy Life! chocolate cookies I bought to make the crust from on the side. It was really good.

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Lemon Fluff Pie Filling with a Chocolate Cookie and Chocolate Chips

Decadent and Creamy Pies–the title of the chapter kind of says it all. The S’more Pie jumped out at me, and I made it recently for company. I used shortbread cookies for the crust instead of graham crackers–we also use those cookies to make s’mores, so I knew it would work. When I brought it out of the fridge, my daughter said it looked just like the picture in the book–praise doesn’t get much higher than that!

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S’more Pie

While I haven’t become a total convert to pies, this cookbook did make me realize that pies don’t have to completely stress me out., and I do look forward to exploring some of the other recipes.

 

 

The wonderful folks at Fair Winds Press sent me some new cookbooks to review, and I have been hard at work sampling recipes! That is part of the reason I haven’t posted too much–I have been saving it all for the review.

So, the first book I have to talk about is Fusion Food in the Vegan Kitchen, by Joni Marie Newman. I wanted to sample at least one recipe from each chapter before I reviewed the book. I haven’t yet made anything from the dessert chapter, so I will update when I have!

The recipes are divided into seven sections: Sauces and Condiments, Starters, Soups and Salads, Main Dishes, Sides. Beverages, and Desserts. The Introduction is shorter than I have seen in most vegan cookbooks, so some knowledge of vegan food and cooking is assumed. What the intro does focus on is explaining fusion food and going over some ingredients one might want to have on hand for this style of cooking. There were only one or two things I had never heard of before, so it isn’t an obscure list. There is also a key explaining the the recipe/allergy notations that will be found at the start of each recipe.

From the Small Bites and Starters chapter, I made the Orange Tempeh Kebabs, which also required a batch of the Garlic Orange Sauce from the first chapter. I am the big tempeh fan in the family–the others blow hot and cold depending on the recipe. This one was a hit all around. I opted to not serve it as kebabs, or even as a starter, but, instead, as part of the main course. We had baby bok choy and some adorable, gluten-free, duck-shaped pasta I found a Whole Foods to go with it. I used the rest of the Orange Sauce on the bok choy and pasta–it was so good!

Orange Tempeh with GF Duck Pasta and Baby Bok Choy

Orange Tempeh with GF Duck Pasta and Baby Bok Choy

I love chowder, but haven’t had it too often now that I don’t use dairy, so I was excited to see a recipe for Coconut Curry Pea and Potato Chowder in the Soup and Salad section. I love Indian food, but my husband is often not a fan, so I did halve the amount of curry powder the recipe called for. I also had fewer frozen peas in the freezer than I thought I did, so I added some corn. It was creamy, thick, and totally yummy. I claimed most of the leftovers for myself, but it was a hit with everyone when I initially served it.

Coconut Curry Pea (and Corn) and Potato Chowder

Coconut Curry Pea (and Corn) and Potato Chowder

From the same chapter, I also made the Chinese Style Macaroni Salad, which also required a batch of the Sweet Chile Sauce. The recipe invites creativity, so I played with the veggies I included. I didn’t have any green beans or scallions on hand, so I added bell pepper instead. I opted to not include the sesame seeds, and I also reduced the amount of red pepper flakes by half. Even doing that, it was quite spicy–I will probably tame the sauce a bit the next time I make it. However, it was still good–my daughter even asked for it as her lunch that week, which is a definite sign of success!

Chinese-Style Macaroni Salad

Chinese-Style Macaroni Salad

Also from the Soups, I made the Sloppy Joe Pho. When I served this and said what it was, my husband almost refused to eat it–he is not a fan of anything “sloppy” when it comes to food. However, he did give it a try, and it was an all-around hit. It was warm and just spicy enough.

The Pho is one of only three recipes in the book that call for TVP, and the other two have wheat gluten as a main ingredient, so I almost didn’t try them. But they sounded so interesting, I wasn’t going to give up. The Kofta Kebabs recipe is in the Main Dishes section, and I decided to give it a go. At first, I was just going to cook the TVP with the spices and make a sort of scramble with them, but I did some poking around online for an alternative binder. I happened across the blog My Real Food Life, and a recipe for gluten-free meatballs. Taking inspiration from there, I used a blend of tapioca starch, flax meal, and rice flour until I got the consistency I wanted. I shaped the Kofta as burgers instead of kebabs, and the result was fabulous. The taste was unaffected by my gluten-free tweaking, and we all got to enjoy it! All the other recipes I made were gluten-free from the start or included g-f options in the recipe.

Kofta Burgers

Kofta Burgers

From the Sides and Snacks chapter I made the Nori Roasted Potatoes. I used a blend of white and sweet potatoes, and it was also quite good. I love roasted veggies in pretty much any form, so this was an easy choice.

When I was trying to figure out what to try from the drinks chapter, I mixed up a couple of the recipes in my head when I was buying ingredients, so I ended up making a combination of the Ice Blended Mexican Hot Chocolate and the Banana Bliss–it was fabulous. I made a half recipe since I am the only coffee drinker in the house, and it came out fine, and I had a little party of my own!

I have several cookbooks by Newman, and they all have been hits. This is another. The recipes are, for the most part, familiar bases with global twists–and the ethnic cuisines included cover just about every continent. Fusion cooking is a good way to dabble in international cooking without making anything too scary for picky eaters. While there are some ingredients that may be harder to find, there are plenty that are right there on any grocery store’s shelves. I look forward to remaking some of the ones listed above, trying some new ones, and getting to that desserts chapter!

 

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