Master Chef Mystery Boxes (& a few of my favorite links this month!)

If you haven't been following us on tumblr this summer, you might've missed that we partnered with Tumblr & Master Chef to work on a few of their at-home mystery box challenges. Essentially, they sent us boxes of mystery ingredients, and just like on the show, we had to come up with tasty, interesting meals with them.

The catch, for us at least, was that everyone else used animal-based ingredients, and instead of giving us substitutes, we had to simply omit them. (Leaving us with a lot fewer options than those that aren't vegan.) In addition, we weren't supposed to really use outside ingredients except as support for the recipe. I loved having the opportunity, though, to show vegan options for the challenges on a very meat-heavy show and business.

They were tough challenges, but they were super fun and I liked having to figure it all out. Here are the challenges we did!

The first one we did had kind of crazy ingredients, at least ones that I don't normally put together. They sent cornmeal, soy sauce, fennel, grapefruit, coconut milk, grits, lentils, and linguine. I braised the fennel in oil and grapefruit, then added it to some lentil meatballs and a coconut cream sauce, for my take on fettucine alfredo.

I loved using so much fennel in one dish, and the experience taught me that you really have to stick to your guns when choosing what direction you're going to go in. Initially I was going to make a sweet grits dessert kind of thing, but changed my mind halfway through and had to go out and get more fennel from the grocery store.

It was a mess but in the end I was very happy with the lentil meatballs and the sauce. Since posting it's gotten over 10,000 notes, our biggest post ever, so at least it was interesting enough to get people's attention!

I was completely psyched about the ingredients that came for our second challenge. There was pureed pumpkin, cherry tomatoes, fresh chickpeas, jalapeΓ±o peppers, pearl onions, canned black olives, and canned baby corn. I instantly knew what I wanted to make as soon as I pulled out all the ingredients!

I basically laid everything out on a roasting tray, drizzled with oil, and let roast until everything was blackened and soft. I pureed everything with the pumpkin and some water and a few spices, then topped it with some charred chopped corn and steamed chickpeas.

The fresh chickpeas were a revelation - if you ever have the option of trying them, don't pass them up. Steamed in the pod, they are reminiscent of edamame, but have such an amazing smell and a softer texture than the soybeans.

I was so happy with the soup I came up with - it was full of flavor, a little spicy, and looked really bright and fresh.

Again, the ingredients for our last box threw me off. They sent an onion, summer squash, corn cobs, green beans (one of my least favorite foods), and FOUR different kinds of apples. The best way to incorporate all the ingredients, in my mind, was to make a kind of pot pie, but something with a hint of sweetness and a little darker in flavor.

I added in black beans to counterbalance the sweetness of the apple, of which I used the tart granny smith, and incorporated the rest of the ingredients like you would a pot pie. The green beans were chopped down, corn shaved off its cob, onion browned, squash softened.

The final result was so good I ate three of the hand pies. (Saving one for my boyfriend, naturally.) It definitely had that fall flavor I had hoped for, and I always love hand pies - so it was a winning dish in my mind.

If I had the opportunity to do one of these challenges again I definitely would. It pushed my creativity and made me experiment with ingredients and combinations I would've otherwise never tried. Head on over to the Master Chef tumblr to see what everyone else came up with for these challenges! :)

On a timely note, I've been reading so many blogs this month because of Vegan MoFo. Here are a few of my favorites so far:

And a few links not part of Vegan MoFo but I can't help but share:

Okay, so I'm off to reading about 700 unread posts on my feed, see you on Monday! :)

Maple Cookie Butter Granola

maple cookie butter granola - smells amazing and #vegan to boot! click through for the recipe.

This morning, I kept up my habit of cracking the studio window to see if it's cool enough to turn off the air conditioning. Our building has steam heat pipes running through it and there's noheat control, so in the winter we have to open the windows and after the first day it hits 50Β°F or higher, put in the air conditioning. I've been itching to get a breeze in here for months, and in general I just always wish summer wouldn't exist. (Teen hermit here.) SO, today, I finally felt a cool breeze come through the open window. The air conditioner got turned off, and all of the windows came open.

What's the best way to celebrate this beautiful day and this beautiful breeze? Something fragrant, first of all, because I want the scent of it to blow through the room and into the hallway and make my neighbors jealous. Something fall-inspired. Something easy as heck. Something sweet, because I don't often make desserts and I want it to be special.

maple cookie butter granola - smells amazing and #vegan to boot! click through for the recipe.

I ended up putting together this tasty, sweet, special, easy granola. The secret ingredient, if you couldn't tell by the title, is cookie butter, aka speculoos cookie butter. It's one of those accidentally vegan foods that's totally addictive and strange and can add so much to simple recipes. If you've never tried it, it basically tastes kind of like a spreadable gingerbread. It has the texture of peanut butter but the taste of cookies. You can get it at Trader Joe's, I found this kind pretty easily at Wegmans, or you can get the original online.

The cookie butter made my kitchen smell like I was baking Christmas cookies, without all the work. The inclusion of all sorts of nuts and seeds made this feel healthier than it probably is ;) Adding in chocolate chunks & dried fruit at the end makes it a meal in itself. (Breakfast? Dessert? Snack? Up to you.) Try this out for a sweet quick fix!

maple cookie butter granola - smells amazing and #vegan to boot! click through for the recipe.

This makes about 4-6 cups of granola, or about 6 servings.

Ingredients

You can certainly add in any nuts & seeds you'd like here, this is just what I used. If you decide to add extra dry ingredients, increase the amount of maple & cookie butter accordingly. 

  • 1 1/2-2 cups rolled oats
  • 1/4 cup each slivered almonds, chopped walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and raw sunflower seeds
  • 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • 3/4 cup creamy cookie butter
  • heaping pinch salt
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • pinch each ground anise, ground cloves, ground nutmeg

Instructions

If you want to add chocolate or dried fruit, add them in after the granola has baked and cooled, to prevent melting & burning.

  1. Preheat your oven to 400Β°F.
  2. In a mixing bowl, combine the maple syrup, cookie butter, and spices. Pour in the rest of the ingredients and stir until everything is coated and glistening. Make sure that the cookie butter is evenly distributed by breaking apart big clumps.
  3. Pour into a baking pan, and bake for about 20 minutes, stirring every 5-7 minutes to prevent burning. (My tiny oven burns easily in the back, hence the burned pieces on the one side.) Everything should be golden brown when done.
  4. Let cool and add any additional ingredients you'd like - dried cranberries, cherries, and chocolate chunks would be great in this. Store in an airtight container and eat within a week or two. I like to put mine in the fridge, especially with chocolate, to keep everything fresh. Enjoy!
maple cookie butter granola - smells amazing and #vegan to boot! click through for the recipe.

PS. Don't forget to check out the other participants of the Vegan Month of Food!

How To Make Your Vegan Banana Ice Cream The Best It Can Be

how to make your #vegan banana ice cream the best it can be!

First, a primer for those who have never heard of this: basically, you peel, slice, freeze, then blend bananas into a whipped, semi-solid consistency that is very close in texture and flavor to soft serve ice cream.

I know you've heard about this trick a million times over. Or, maybe you have yet to try it. The ole frozen banana trick - it's classic yet it seems that no one knows about it yet. Every Instagram feed I follow at some point posts something in the vein that they're dumbfounded how they didn't know about it before. But when I hear people talk about it, they make it seem as easy as "one ingredient, takes less than 20 seconds, tastes so yummie!" And I guess you could say that's pretty true. It's incredibly simple, easy, quick, cheap, etc. The perfect dessert. No question!

But after making this for several years now, there's a little more nuance than just "freeze, blend, and eat." I've made terrible bowls of this, and some amazing ones. Here are my tips, that in my experience, make this legendary vegan creation the best it can possibly be.

how to make your #vegan banana ice cream the best it can be!

Buy bananas in bulk when they're super cheap. 

We buy bananas once a year specifically to freeze, that way we have ice cream and smoothie ingredients for several months. And if you like the ripe texture/flavor, buying cheaper extra-ripe bananas will save you even more money. Buying them all at once makes for a much more streamlined prep assembly line, as well.

The ripeness of the banana completely matters.

  • Green ones are a definite no-go for me - they taste too grassy and the texture is way too stiff, making it harder to blend later.
  • Unblemished yellow are good if you aren't crazy about the whole "banana" flavor - they're a more subtle banana taste and have a good texture.
  • Spotty bananas are my favorite; they have a pronounced banana flavor, they're sweeter-tasting than the yellow, and have great texture.
  • Completely brown bananas are not good for ice cream, in my opinion, because they have a very overpowering flavor, the texture is mushy and breaks down quickly, and the color doesn't look as nice when blended. Use those for banana bread instead!

Prep thoughtfully.

  • Make sure you peel your bananas. It's way harder to peel them frozen when you're ready to blend.
  • Slice the banana into small pieces, about 1/4-1/2 inch thick. If you make the pieces too big you may end up with an inconsistent blend.
  • If you care about portion control, separate your haul into 1-2 bananas per freezer bag. Just one banana is enough to make a serving for one person, and it's harder to tell that if you put them all in one storage container.
  • We use a vaccuum-pack food sealer when freezing large quantities for a long period of time. It's not necessary but saves a lot of potential waste from freezer burn.

Don't overblend.

I first make sure all of my frozen banana pieces are separated, then pulse my blender until they've turned to small pebble-like pieces. From there, I blend until just combined and the right texture. Not only does this technique save your blender from breaking, it prevents the banana from becoming too soupy and liquid.

Perfect your flavors.

I personally think that this banana ice cream should be kept simple - no real fancy recipes. Let it be banana, and add flavors that complement it. I always, always add a dash of vanilla extract and a tiny pinch of salt before blending - it helps cut the banana taste a bit and just adds more dimension. Other flavors that work really well are cocoa, peanut butter, walnut, brown sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, and pumpkin pie spice. I also like adding chocolate sauce and candied nuts on top, after blending.

how to make your #vegan banana ice cream the best it can be!

Any other banana ice cream tips and tricks? I'd love to know what works well for you!

This post is a part of our Vegan Month of Food series this year. Check out what everyone else is doing for Vegan MoFo here!