Tag Archives: #vegan

Healthy Diplomat: Vegan avocado basil pesto brightens any savory dish

Even if you’re not vegan, this pesto is bursting with summer freshness. Rich, yet light, this savory condiment is perfect for everything from pasta to meat and vegetables.
When one of my friends conjured up a version of this pesto to get rid of some ripe avocado, I was curious how it was going to turn out. Turn out it did. Sampling it straight from the jar, I knew I would recreate it myself at some point. That point came when I joined another friend’s BeachBody challenge group. Needing “clean” recipes and having bought a giant spaghetti squash, now was the time for some dairy-free pesto.


Basil, the defining component of traditional Genovese (Genoan) or Ligurian pesto

I’m a huge fan of traditional Genoese pesto. I first made it back in college with my first food processor. For those who haven’t made it, it’s extremely easy. It’s also calorie dense. A typical pesto usually involves about 2 cups fresh basil, 4 cloves raw garlic (can we say garlic breath?), 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, 1/2 cup olive oil, and 1/4 to 1/2 cup toasted pignoli (pine nuts). That’s a lot of fat – even if most is fairly healthy.

My goal in creating this avocado pesto was to mimic the richness of a traditional pesto but with less oil and calories. I’ll remind everyone up front that this pesto still is not a low calorie food, thanks to the avocado, but fats are healthy and we get a little bit of crunch and fiber from almonds too!

The beauty of a pesto is you can tweak it to fit your own preferences. One clove of garlic was enough for the pesto to stand up to meat or roast veggies (or even as a dip – great with plantain chips or sugar snap peas as a snack!), but you may wish to add more garlic if you plan to make this a standalone accompaniment to pasta or a pasta substitute. 

I paired it with my Romanesca meat sauce over spaghetti squash for a bit of yin-yang (meat/veggie). You’ll also want to add the lemon juice gradually; its acidity is needed to preserve the fresh green color of the avocado, but too much and you’ll overpower the basil. Unless, of course, you’re going for basil guacamole!

Vegan Avocado-Basil Pesto

  • 1/4 cup roasted or toasted plain almonds
  • 1-2 cloves raw garlic
  • 2 cups fresh basil, roughly chopped
  • 1 small, ripe Haas avocado (or 1/3 to 1/2 large)
  • 2-4 Tbsp extra Virgin olive oil (preferably cold-pressed)
  • 1-2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice (juice of 1/2 to 1 lemon)
  • Sea salt to taste

In a food processor, chop almonds until ground. Add the garlic, basil, and avocado. Pulse to mix the ingredients. Slowly add in olive oil; puree the mixture on a high speed setting, adding more olive oil if needed. Add in lemon juice and salt to taste. Blend until smooth.

The pesto is ready to serve immediately, but it also can be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to one week.

Italian-Californian fusion: A hearty sauce Romanesca over roasted spaghetti squash

This classic, hearty Italian sauce adds some masculinity and depth to roasted spaghetti squash for a nutritious and satisfying low-carb, comfort meal. Customize by going meatless or pair it with your favorite pasta for a taste of Roman home cooking in your own kitchen.

I believe that Italian food is the world’s comfort food. Whether you have a taste for Mediterranean calamari, pasta, pollo Milanese, Genovese pesto, northern risotto, or Neapolitan pizza, Italy serves flavors that transcend culture. So after a trying day of wine tasting in Sonoma County, California, my Italian friend’s home-cooked Roman meat sauce (similar to a Bolognese) served over rigatoni and paired with one of our favorite Sonoma Zinfandels, was the perfect ending to one of those days that makes you grateful to be alive and for those around you.

The dish was so straightforward, not the sort of slave-all-day complexity that surprises and delights. Mushrooms and beef are better together than separately. The tang of ripe tomatoes, with fresh basil and a subtle heat create a combination you couldn’t imagine any other way. 

Personified, this Roman-Bolognese is that friend you haven’t seen in years, but you pick up right back up as if you’d been in touch all along. In other words, make it and you have an instant go-to dish.

a hearty Bolognese/Roman sauce featuring beef, mushrooms, and tomatoes that can be made meatless

After watching my friend cook this pasta dish. I realized that I needed to recreate it, but with a California twist. After months of transient living, restaurant food and perhaps a bit much wine have taken their toll on my body, so of late, I’ve been looking for healthier options. My philosophy is not to fear carbs or be overly restrictive (as you’ll see on my Healthy Diplomat page), but to load up on vegetables, fruits, and limit processed foods.

West Coast cremini and chanterelle mushrooms

In Northern California, the abundance of fresh, local produce is one of the secrets to the area’s culinary notoriety. Quality ingredients make quality food. So I turned to spaghetti squash from a local farmer’s market to carry its weight with this hearty Roman version of a Bolognese (meat sauce).  

It is an easy way to lighten a heavier, food-coma inducing dish without sacrificing the experience and texture of al dente pasta. It also is friendly to those on gluten-free, paleo, or low-carb diets. Substitute crumbled seitan or texturized vegetable protein for the meat in the sauce (or double the amount of mushrooms) to make it vegetarian or vegan (without cheese). If you don’t have dietary restrictions, try making it different ways to see which one you prefer!

I used local and almost exclusively organic produce for the entire sauce, including canned San Marzano tomatoes for that “authentic” (a word I generally hate to use in food speak) Italian flavor. Feel free to substitute whatever varieties you can find in your area.

This dish isn’t at its best without wine (so long as you are of age!). A California Zinfandel’s subtle sweetness and fruitiness are a perfect pairing for this sauce, but I’ve also had it with a bold, jammy Cabernet Sauvignon. Whichever you choose, the wine and dish play together very nicely, only enhancing the flavor of each.

Start to finish, it can be made in about an hour and fifteen minutes, but simmering the sauce for a few extra hours will deepen the flavors.

When using pasta, rigatoni is ideal, since its tube shape and ridges carry the sauce easily, though spaghetti or angel hair would be appropriate substitutes. Whole-grain wheat, spelt, or quinoa pasta are wonderful, more nutritious alternatives to “white” pasta.

Sauce Romanesca over Roasted Spaghetti Squash 'Pasta'

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print


  • 1 large spaghetti squash OR 8 oz. (typically half of a bag/box) uncooked rigatoni or penne pasta
  • 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and pressed or minced
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 3 cups mushrooms, chopped (cremini and/or a mix of varieties)
  • 1 lb. (about 400 g to 1/2 kg) ground beef (ideally 15% fat) OR 3 cups of crumbled meat substitute
  • 1 cup fresh whole basil leaves, plus additional for garnish
  • 1 28 or 32 oz. can of crushed or diced San Marzano tomatoes
  • 1 tsp. sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • Pinch of cayenne or black pepper – to taste
  • Parmesan cheese (or nutritional yeast), grated


To roast/steam spaghetti squash, preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Place whole squash in a roasting pan with about 1/4″ water. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove temporarily; cool for 5 minutes. When cool enough to handle, cut in half lengthwise. 

Using a fork, scrape and remove the loose innards and seeds (usually darker than the bright yellow, edible flesh beneath) and discard. Leave the remaining flesh intact and return to the roasting pan, cut sides up. Brush or drizzle with olive oil. Return the pan to the oven for an additional 15-20 minutes, or until inner flesh begins to brown slightly. Remove and cool.

May be made in advance of spaghetti squash or simultaneously.

If preparing the sauce and squash simultaneously, begin the sauce after placing the whole squash into the oven for the initial bake.

In a medium pot or saucepan (ceramic is preferable), heat the olive oil over medium heat. When hot, add the crushed garlic. After about a minute, add the chopped onion. Close the lid and allow the onions and garlic to sweat and cook until tender (monitor constantly and stir as needed, especially with a steel or copper-bottomed pot).

Add meat or meat substitute and brown thoroughly. Roughly chop about 1/2 cup of the basil leaves and add them to the mixture. Next, stir in the mushrooms. Cook while covered, for about five more minutes. Add tomatoes, salt, and peppers, stir continuously for a few minutes. Cover. 

Allow sauce to come to a boil; reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for at least 15 minutes. Add most of the remainder of the basil, reserving some for garnish. If you have time, reduce heat to low and simmer for 1-2 hours, stirring occasionally.

If using pasta, cook according to package directions. Drain, rinse with cool water, and drain again. Add pasta to sauce and stir to combine.

If serving with squash instead of pasta, top with sauce during – not before – serving.

Top with reserved basil and grated Parmesan or Romano cheese, or if staying dairy-free or vegan, nutritional yeast.

Salt and Straw: Portland’s haute ice creamery

Lines stretching far beyond the door are commonplace at each of Portland, Oregon’s Salt and Straw ice cream shops. Locals and visitors alike flock to them – and for good reason. Salt and Straw is an ice cream innovator, concocting dairy and non-dairy ice cream varieties you won’t find anywhere else.

By now, you know that I love ice cream – both eating it and making it. I have enjoyed and often preferred wonderful ice cream from all over the world, and I have to say after recently trying establishments like Jeni’s and Salt and Straw, the USA has come a long way in improving the quality of small-batch ice creameries in the past few years.

Salt and Straw has ridden the wave both of Portland’s vibrant food scene and of a growing trend for what I call haute creameries that incorporate the best in technique and technology, fresh and novel ingredients, and creative flavor profiles. Salt and Straw has mastered the trend, perhaps even aided by its odd name. Its ice cream, sorbet, and coconut milk/cream bases are rich, dense, and smooth.

Everything is fair game for flavorings: from chocolate covered peanut butter pretzels, local marionberries with habanero and goat cheese, olive oil, strawberry with balsamic vinegar and black pepper, pear and blue cheese; brownies with brownie batter; local coffee and bourbon; homemade almond brittle; to a special series of ice creams incorporating local, seasonal berries.

Unfortunately, I was too full to try a tasting flight of four ice cream flavors, so I chose the salted ganache with almond brittle. Its dark chocolate ganache had the most subtle hint of sea salt (I would have added more), and the homemade almost brittle paired with the ganache so well that I could barely separate the elements of the ice cream.

I sampled a few others, such as the Marionberry, goat cheese, and habanero, but it was the coconut milk based, nondairy coconut rhubarb pie that all but obliterated the memory of any other flavor. The coconut was so light and the texture so creamy that my sensitive tastebuds still wouldn’t have realized it was nondairy. The sweet, oversized chunks of rhubarb pie were luscious, bursting with fruit and with the nice contrasts in texture from the cream base, gooey fruit filling, and comforting pie crust. I don’t know why it has never occurred to me to put chunks of pie in ice cream, but what an essential twist on pie a la mode!

My brief fling with Salt and Straw left me wanting more. I can’t wait for my next visit to Portland and a tasting flight or heaping waffle cone of the flavors I didn’t try from Salt and Straw.

Impress your friends with truffled red pepper coulis!

Have you ever experienced the smoky sweetness of a roasted red pepper coulis accenting a restaurant entree? Ever wondered what effort goes into producing this deliciousness? Refined restaurant flavors are easier to create in your own kitchen than you might think! This luxurious condiment is easy to make and versatile to use – not to mention compatible with almost any dietary restrictions.

Typically, we think the purpose of sauces are bring life to something like a vegetable – to make it palatable, or at least to add much needed flavor. We don’t often think of using the concentrated flavors of vegetables themselves as a way to make meats, grains, or legumes more palatable! That’s exactly what coulis do. Coulis are sauces made from pureed fruits or vegetables. Their thick, velvety consistencies and intense flavors make them a perfect garnish or compliment to main dishes or desserts.

Smoky, sweet roasted bell peppers, together with a hint of olive oil, black truffles, and fresh garlic are craving-worthy as coulis. Yet this recipe is so easy that I’m almost embarrassed to post it. Four ingredients, an oven, and a food processor or blender are all you need to create kitchen magic. A surprisingly small amount of oil with truffle essence adds so much flavor without empty calories or fat. Without peeling and straining the purée, the recipe can be made in 45 minutes start to finish (only about 10-15 minutes total active prep), so you won’t be a kitchen slave. image

It’s so easy, I’m almost embarrassed to devote an entire post to such a simple recipe on its own. Browse the Interwebs and you’ll see recipes are Blah Blah Blah with red pepper coulis or Bourgeois Dessert with Raspberry Coulis. Not just coulis. Roasted red pepper coulis, however, are too versatile to attach them to only one main dish.

So many uses, so little time…

Meat: It pairs particularly well with poultry and fish, but don’t underestimate it with beef. Vegetarian? It’s great with Portobello or cremoni mushrooms. Or with any of the remaining options…

Grains/legumes: It is equally amazing over a quinoa pilaf, lentils, or pasta (is it me, or did basil pesto meet its perfect foil?)

Vegetables: Add a bit of haute cuisine to asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, or summer squash/zucchini. I’ve used the coulis as a compliment to chicken breast, quinoa pilaf, and sautéed mushrooms (different styles). Each of these dishes earned rave reviews from my guests. Whether you foresee multiple uses or not, double this recipe, and keep some on hand to add a touch of class to your next meal.

Black Truffle Roasted Red Pepper Coulis

  • 3 red bell peppers
  • 1 clove fresh garlic, crushed, pressed, or minced
  • 1 Tbsp. Black truffle essence olive oil
  • 1/2 to 1 tsp. salt (to taste)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Slice peppers in half; remove stems and seeds. Place halves, skin side up, on a foil-lines baking sheet. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until skins blister and begin to blacken (check the cut edges to prevent burning after about 20 min). Remove from oven and cool. I prefer to keep the skins intact in order to preserve the caramelized flavor of the blackened skin; if you are a purist, allow the peppers to cool and remove skins They should be fairly easy to peel by hand or with the aid of a paring knife.


Transfer peppers to a food processor or blender. Add garlic, olive oil, and half of the salt. Purée until smooth. Gradually add additional salt to taste. Serve immediately or refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 5 days. Reheat in a small saucepan on low heat (simmer). Yield is approximately one cup. Servings vary depending on use (sauce vs. garnish).


Mutabel: The Arabic twin of Baba Ghanouj

A creamy eggplant dip with the bite of garlic and an almost airy fluffiness, accented with nutty olive oil – sound familiar? Think of Mutabel as the fraternal twin of Baba Ghanouj: nearly identical ingredients, expressed just a bit differently. If you didn’t have them side-by-side, one could easily mistake them for one another. This highly customizable recipe is not only amazing, but it is nutritious and can be adjusted to suit vegans, calorie counters, and paleo eaters alike.

I’m not a huge fan of savory breakfast foods, but during my trip to Oman, my morning breakfast buffet had a wonderful, savory dish labeled, Mutabel, looking suspiciously like baba ghanouj but topped with pomegranate seeds. Imagine my intrigue when it turned out to taste almost identical. creamy baba ghanouj.

Mutabel garnished  with sumac  (top left)

Mutabel garnished with sumac (top left)

I’ve always loved baba ghanouj, but I’ve been a bit too intimidated to make it. Call it a working with eggplant mental block.  But after the mutabel, I knew I had to tackle it.    As I researched, I wasn’t surprised to find many different recipes for baba ghanouj, but few for mutabel (also spelled moutabel, transliterated from Arabic). Apparently, yogurt is the defining characteristic of mutabel.

Armed with that knowledge and some helpful tips from two websites I must credit: http://mykitchenantics.blogspot.co.uk and http://actioninkitchen.com, I tinkered and came up with this recipe. It was far less difficult than I believed – though it is quite messy.  The beauty of mutabel/baba ghanouj is that it is easy to start with a base, and then adjust proportions of the seasonings to suit your own tastes. I absolutely will make this dish a personal entertaining staple now!


You’ll note that this recipe calls for both red onion and a not insignificant amount of garlic. Should you want to preserve everyone’s dignity after eating it, you may wish to omit the onion or reduce the garlic. With three eggplant, though, I didn’t find the garlic/onion to be too overwhelming, but it does linger. If you love tahini, you can adjust upwards. Want to go vegan or strict paleo? Omit the yogurt and replace with two (or more) tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil (yes, the extra virgin does make a difference. No joke!) Want to add heat? Add more cayenne – or give it a North African, red pepper kick with two tablespoons of harissa. At serving, choose between the Arabic tartness of sweet pomegranate seeds or the lemony Levantine/Mediterranean zata’ar seasoning blend. If you happen to have sumac on hand, that is the most traditional garnish in both regions.

Mutabel, or Baba Ghanouj by another name

Yield: 3 cups

  • 3 eggplant, medium
  • 1 Tbsp. Extra virgin olive oil plus additional reserved
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed or minced
  • 1/4 cup chopped, red onion (less than 1/4 medium)
  • 1/4 cup plain Greek (strained) yogurt or 2 additional Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 1/2 Tbsp. tahini
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 3/4 tsp. salt (to taste)
  • Dash cayenne pepper
  • Pomegranate seeds and/or sumac or zata’ar for garnish

Set broiler to High. Wash eggplant; cut in halves. Brush with olive oil to coat – to prevent sticking. On a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil, place the eggplant halves, cut side down. Set on the top rack of the oven and broil for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, place the garlic, onion, tahini, lemon juice, and yogurt in a food processor, blender, or mixing bowl. Set aside.

When the eggplant is finished broiling (30 minutes; blistered skins and soft insides), remove from oven. Transfer eggplant into a gallon-sized zipper-sealed, plastic bag. Seal and allow the eggplant to steam in its own skins and heat for 15 minutes. Drain excess liquid from the bag; you may wish to reserve a few tablespoons of the liquid to add back later to thin the puree. Remove and peel the skins; they should come off easily by hand or scraped with a knife. The eggplant should amount to about 3 cups.


Transfer peeled eggplant flesh to the food processor, blender, or bowl. Blend or use an immersion blender to puree all ingredients. Add salt and pepper to taste. Chill in airtight containers. Garnish with a generous drizzle of olive oil, pomegranate seeds, and or zata’ar. Serve with pita or crudites; sugar snap peas are one of my favorite accompaniments.

Healthy Diplomat: Chocolate superfood cookies – paleo, vegan, and packed with chocolate

Clearly, I wouldn’t have started a food blog if I did not enjoy food.  I love to experience good food.  As you have seen from my posts thus far, and in particular, during Chocolate Month, I enjoy chocolate, and I don’t shy far away from good, rich, indulgent chocolate recipes.

But that’s not how and what I eat on a regular basis. I typically enjoy at least a bit of unadulterated dark chocolate on most days, but I’ve also found healthier ways to satisfy my chocolate cravings.

While I am known to eat chocolate regularly for breakfast – a not so indulgent protein or energy bar, at night I like something a bit more sophisticated. As I discussed in my last post, a twist on my signature chocolate chip cookie recipe, I have been baking for nearly my entire life. Last year, while trying to maintain a healthy balance with a group through the Whole Life Challenge, I challenged myself to devise a recipe for cookies that tasted delicious but packed a nutritious punch and complied with the constraints of the challenge (no wheat or refined flours, no sugar, no artificial sweeteners, and no dairy (though butter was allowed).  I found it very difficult to find tasty, compliant, and nutritious packaged versions at the grocery store.

After several attempts, I finally arrived at a recipe that will satisfy the most health-conscious sweet tooth and chocolate lovers. This recipe is vegan and has a low glycemic index and can be made paleo-friendly without oats. On the positive side, these cookies are packed with protein, fiber, antioxidants, and other vitamins and minerals. Cocoa powder and optional bittersweet chocolate add that beloved richness; if you have no restrictions on sugar, it adds a minimal amount.  Applesauce and banana add both sweetness and moisture, and peanut butter supplies needed healthy fat to bind the dough, add richness, needed protein and great flavor.

Treat yo self right! (Parks and Recreation, anyone?)

Chocolate superfood cookies

  • Servings: 20
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Print


  • 1 ripe banana
  • 3 oz. unsweetened applesauce
  • 1/4 c. natural peanut butter – smooth or chunky
  • 1/4 c. dried fruit, finely chopped (dates, apricots, or unsweetened cherries)
  • 1-2 tsp. stevia extract – sugar equivalent (1-2 packets)
  • 2 tbsp. cocoa powder
  • 1/4 c. chia seeds
  • 1/4 c. unsweetened coconut or defatted coconut
  • 3/4 c. whole oats* (see below for instructions if omitting)
  • 1 oz. finely chopped or shaved bittersweet chocolate (70% cacao or higher), optional**

Preheat oven to 335 degrees Fahrenheit. In a small to medium mixing bowl, mash the banana with a fork. Using either the fork, a whisk, or electric mixer, beat in the applesauce and peanut butter until smooth. Add stevia to taste. Add the cocoa powder and mix thoroughly. Using a wooden spoon, gently mix in the dried fruit, chia seeds, coconut, and oats. Fold in the chopped chocolate.

Roll cookies by hand into 1″ spheres. Arrange and bake on a cookies sheet for about 15-20 minutes or until slightly firm and crisp on the exterior, yet soft inside. The cookies should be easy to remove and cool.

*If you wish to omit the oats for a paleo-friendly and lower carbohydrate version, double the amount of chia seeds and coconut. Bake for approximately 20 minutes; it is ideal to refrigerate cookies made without the oats to store and serve.

**I would recommend not using unsweetened chocolate, as the bitterness is a bit much for the fruit and stevia.  Lindt makes 90 and 99% bars with great mouth feel and texture, with minimal sugar.