Miso ginger eggplant with braised brussels sprouts, squash and edamame

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Yesterday’s okonomiyaki didn’t quite satisfy my craving for Japanese food so here’s another meal with the familiar flavours of Japan but with local ingredients. The only thing authentic on this spread is the eggplant so we’ll classify this as a dinner inspired by Japanese food.

Miso eggplant was one of my favourite menu items in Japan. The eggplant is buttery smooth and the miso sauce is salty and full of umame flavour – it’s another one of those meals that I tried many times to make at home without quite getting it right. It’s also one of those dishes that often came with fish flakes as a topping. And though I wasn’t vegan when I lived in Japan, I was always quick to scrape those off the eggplant if I hadn’t managed to communicate my desire to have my eggplant without them.

This is a popular dish in Japan – and it’s really easy to make at home and you don’t have to worry about whether the waiter understood your request for no fish flakes.

Two long Japanese eggplants are halved, scored and brushed with oil before being baked, face-down at 400 for about 20 minutes. I should mention that it is important to use Japanese eggplants for this meal. I haven’t tried to make it with Italian eggplants but the cooking times would be completely different and I don’t know how it would work. It’s best to save the Italian ones for eggplant parmesan.

While the eggplants are cooking, mix the following ingredients into a smooth paste:

  • 1/4 cup of white miso
  • 2 tablespoons of sesame oil
  • grated ginger (to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon of soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp rice vinegar
  • 2 tbsp water

When the eggplants are done, flip them over so the interior is face up and brush the tops with the miso paste. Put the eggplants under the broiler for about four minutes until the paste is caramelized. Sprinkle the top with black sesame seeds.

These are really salty and flavourful so they’re best served with white rice. On the side, we had braised brussels sprouts (I baked them in the oven with 1/3 cup of water, 2 tbsp sesame oil, 1 tbsp soy sauce, 1 tbsp mirin, and a minced clove of garlic). Squash (the kids had theirs with vegan butter and brown sugar because that’s the only way my son will eat it). And edamame.

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My kids love edamame. The little green spread is an edamame spread with ginger, miso, rice vinegar, soy sauce and a bit of water to help the blender out. The kids didn’t like it as much as I had hoped so I’ll be tweaking the recipe or just giving them their edamame plain. Why mess with something that works!

Okonomiyaki and teriyaki tofu with rice

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My husband and I met in Japan when we were fresh university graduates looking for adventure and well-paying jobs. I lived in Osaka for the better part of the year but when the choking heat of summer came, I didn’t want to live in the dry, dusty city anymore. It’s not just in Osaka that I feel this way in the summer, in Canada, the summer heat feels like a punishment to be endured until the weekend comes and I can escape to the countryside.

I moved to the West coast of Japan to a smaller town steeped in historical tradition called Kanazawa. The climate in Kanazawa was quite different than what I had grown used to in Osaka. It was wetter and cooler so that a common saying we heard from our students was though you may forget your lunch, don’t forget your umbrella.

In summer, it was very hot and humid and in the winter, there was often slushy snow that could stick around for a couple of days. In Osaka, if it snowed, it was a rarity and would most likely melt with the rising of the sun.

My husband and I taught at the same language school and it turned out we both had Mondays and Tuesdays as our days off. We also had a wanderlust and were up for trying just about anything new. We explored the region and its cuisine on bikes, would take short train trips into the mountains for picturesque hikes or longer train rides to destinations known for their hot springs or more challenging hikes.

As I said, Kanazawa is known as a town where the population loves its traditions and I took classes in whatever was available to a foreigner with a weak grasp on the language. I learned about ikebana (the art of flower arrangement), took lessons on the koto (a Japanese string instrument), used traditional methods to guild chopsticks in gold leaf, visited the wooden houses where Geisha used to live, visited the samurai district, attended tea ceremonies, learned paper crafts and visited the famous Kenrokuen regularly (which has been ranked as one of the top three gardens in Japan).

Not ones to stay in the same place for long, we moved back towards the Osaka region after having lived in Kanazawa for several months. We settled in the countryside in Nara prefecture. Once again we had a hub from which to explore parks, onsens (hot public baths) and hiking trails.

We lived in a very small town this time surrounded by rice paddies and we encountered few foreigners in this isolated region. I worked for a company that supplied native English teachers to the school board so every working day was an adventure. I was given a new school or destination every day. I didn’t know how old the kids would be that I’d be teaching or how many classes I’d teach that day. By this point, I had learned enough of the language to get by without a translator.

I’d hop a few different modes of transportation and either someone would meet me to take me to a school or I’d find my way on foot, and being blonde and blue eyed, they knew why I was showing up at their door. Someone at the school (probably the vice-principal) would usher me from class to class where I would play games and read stories to the children. It was a fun job without much responsibility.

The whole point of this trip through my memory is that yesterday, my son said he’d like dinner pancakes for dinner. And so, I thought of okonomiyaki. Something special about Japan is that it’s a country with so much culinary history. In cities that are so close together it’s hard to know when you’ve left one and entered another, each city is known for its unique cuisine.

Here in Canada, everything is set apart with wide open spaces and cities are distinguishable more for their landscape than their culture. We share similar cuisines and culture across the wide country with only subtle differences. (Maybe other Canadians would disagree?)

In Japan, each city has its flavour. Literally. So if you want the best okonomiyaki, you go to either Osaka or Hiroshima. Okonomiyaki are savoury pancakes (also referred to as Japanese pizza since you can change the toppings). They are made with cabbage and an eggy dough, covered in a sweet brown sauce, topped however you like it and often drizzled with Japanese mayo (I could write a whole post about Japanese mayo – I’m not a fan) and heaped with fish flakes (I also never liked the flakes).

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We’ve made okonomiyaki many times at home but not for many years. I’ve recently tried a few recipes but they weren’t authentic. Last night, I tried this one. It was good but I’ll be tweaking it a bit next time to come up with one that is a closer match to my memories of the okonomiyaki we ate regularly.

In my mind, it should be thicker, heartier and they need toppings. I made these small and thick to ensure they cooked properly and because I wasn’t  sure if the kids would like them. It was only when we went to eat them that I remembered what was missing. I’ll keep you posted if I’m able to come up with a good match now that my memory has been stoked. And I know the kids are on board! The next batch will be the size of our plates and won’t require anything on the side.

The okonomiyaki in Hiroshima is quite different and includes noodles. But for me, real okonomiyaki is the Osakan variety.

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We had the okonomiyaki with white rice and tofu teriyaki – which was nice. We skipped the mayo, didn’t have any toppings and didn’t even try to replicate the fish flakes – ewww!

Sunflower seed butter and pear jam sandwiches

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Packing nutritious school lunches can be a real challenge for anyone. The kids get limited time to eat – generally in their classrooms with minimal supervision. It’s noisy and rushed on the best of days, from what I gather. They want to eat and go for recess with their friends. But my kids know they’re expected to eat their whole lunch before they eat all their snacks. If they eat a treat before they’ve finished their lunch, they won’t get a treat the next day.

My son’s a little rule follower so if he runs out of time to finish his lunch, he’ll eat it during last snack. If he feels the lunch we’ve packed was too big, we hear about it after school – through tears. My daughter, on the other hand, has a good appetite so the challenge with her is packing enough calories for her to consume in the time allotted.

Generally, we pack leftovers from dinner – if we can. But we have a few tricks for those days when we can’t pack leftovers or if the leftovers won’t translate well into cold lunches (like soup).

Hummus and cucumber sandwiches are a good choice for my picky eater. I’ve mentioned frozen leftover pizza. Another easy lunch is peanut butter and jam, of course. But since the kids’ school is nut-free, it’s sunflower seed butter and jam.

Sunflower seed butter has more protein and fat than peanut butter so it’s a good choice for energetic, growing kids. I know my kids get plenty of vitamins but the whole foods we eat are generally low in fat. Kids need plenty of healthy fats to energize their growth spurts. These sandwiches are topped with homemade pear jam for that touch of sweetness they crave.

Vegan pudding
Chia seed pudding is delicious and full of protein to power you through the morning.

For high energy snacks, I’ve mentioned chia seed pudding, which is one of my daughter’s favourites. Overnight oats is preferred by my son. I always include chia seeds in his oatmeal for added protein. We also include snack mixes of dried fruit, seeds, whole grain cereals (like Shreddies), pretzels or a couple crackers. This week, I’ve added a couple heart-shaped candies to the mix as a special treat.

Other snacks include fruit, apple sauce, baked goods (like muffins or leftover pancakes) or sliced veggies (generally carrots and cucumbers).

Coming up with quick and easy lunches for the kids can be a real challenge, so I’d love to hear your ideas. What do you pack in your kids’ lunches?

Noodle soup with vegetable pancakes

We spent the afternoon outside hiking and feeding the chickadees in the mild winter weather. As soon as we got out of the car, we were spotted by some chickadees who called to us to feed them. These friendly birds followed us throughout our hike – singing in the trees and keeping us in their sight.

We were in an area owned by the local public school board where the staff host nature walks for their schools. The birds are wild but used to kids feeding them. The blackcapped chickadees are very tame.

We didn’t just see our the friendly chickadees. We saw two kinds of woodpeckers and a couple other little birds we weren’t able to identify. But the chickadees were the only ones interested in our seeds and brave enough to approach us.

 

We got home just before dinner time. There’s nothing like a steaming bowl of noodle soup after being out in the cold. This soup has wheat noodles, tempeh, mushrooms, greens and shredded carrots. The broth has coriander and star anise and it’s garnished with cilantro.

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We had asian-style vegetable pancakes on the side with a spicy dipping sauce for the adults and a soy dipping sauce for the kids. The pancakes are a simple flour, salt and water mix but when cooking, I press pre cooked, shredded vegetables in the batter.

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Vegetable pancakes with shredded carrots and cabbage.

The end result is delicious – I almost didn’t get a picture because the kids ate them all before I got the camera out! But my son asked for more while I was still cooking the adult pancakes. I made him one more with the remaining batter – as you can see, his fork got to it before I took this picture!

The difference between the adults’ pancakes and the kids’ pancakes is that I added mushrooms and onions to the adults’ pancakes. The kids’ only have cabbage and carrots – although my daughter liked them enough to eat one of the adult pancakes, onions and all, without complaining.

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Vegetable pancakes

  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp turmeric powder
  • 1 cup water
  • thinly sliced or shredded veggies (try onion, carrot, mushrooms, etc.)
  • oil for frying

Fry the vegetables in oil until cooked. Set aside.

Mix the remaining ingredients together and heat a griddle. Scoop 1/4 cup of batter onto the hot, lightly greased griddle and spread the batter around. Add a spoonful of the veggies and press them into the batter.

When the sides of the pancakes look ready, flip the pancakes and cook for a couple minutes on the other side until the vegetables are seared and the batter is cooked.

Make a dipping sauce with soy sauce, lime juice, rice vinegar, hot pepper flakes and minced garlic. Or just dip it in soy sauce.

 

Surprise! Jam-filled bran muffins

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These little muffins are the perfect size for snacking.

Whenever he’s given the chance to choose his muffin, my little picky eater goes for the bran muffins over cookies or other kinds of muffins. And I sit there and watch in amazement as he happily gobbles it down. Vegan kids don’t necessarily need the extra fibre from the bran but why should we miss out on all the branny fun?

By definition, a vegan diet is high in fibre. Fibre comes from plant foods but isn’t present in animal products. Everything we eat is a source of fibre unless the fibre has been removed through processing (like white flour). Fruit is a great source of fibre – the little seeds in raspberries are a good example of a fibre-rich food.

I won’t go into detail but suffice it to say that a clean colon is a healthy colon. When foods move through the body smoothly and waste is eliminated daily, we’re able to extract all the nutrients from the food we consume and the risk of many diseases are reduced.

Here’s a little muffin that will make you go and make you smile too. It’s loaded with fibre from bran, whole wheat flour, chia seeds and depending on the jam you choose to use, you may get fibre from that.

But the best thing about these muffins is the jam at the centre. I’ve used my favourite jam – it’s apple pie jam that I made from the apples we picked at a local farm in the fall. It contains all the goodness of pie in a form that I can use every day. Mmmm! The recipe is from this book: The Canning Kitchen: 101 Simple Small Batch Recipes.

This muffin recipe makes 24 small muffins. I like to bake huge batches of baked goods on the weekends so I can freeze some for snacks to pack in the kids’ lunches during the week. If I only make 12, they’ll be gone before I get to freeze some. These little muffins fit nicely in our reusable containers even when frozen solid (an important feature for me)!

The recipe is based on one from The Joy of Vegan Baking: The Compassionate Cooks’ Traditional Treats and Sinful Sweets. The ingredients have been adapted based on what I had on hand and what my kids like to eat. They’re also nut-free so they can be sent to school.

Surprise! Jam-filled muffins

  • 1/4 cup chia seeds
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1 3/4 cups bran
  • 2 1/4 cups white whole wheat flour (can use all-purpose or regular whole wheat)
  •  1 cup brown sugar
  • 3 Tbsp baking powder
  • 2 heaping tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 1/2 cup vegan milk (I use soy)
  • 2/3 cup canola oil
  • 1 jar of jam

Preheat the oven to 425 and grease muffin tins for 24 muffins.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix the chia seeds with water and put them aside to allow the seeds to absorb the water.

In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients and mix well.

Tip: Use a whisk to make sure there are no clumps of brown sugar.

Add the milk and the canola oil to the bowl with the chia seeds. Use the whisk to make sure you break up the large clumps of chia seeds.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir to combine – don’t use a whisk because you don’t want to over mix the batter.

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Add one teaspoon of jam in the centre of each muffin.

Scoop 1/3 cup of batter for each muffin into the tins. Add a teaspoon of jam in the middle of each muffin. Then distribute the rest of the muffin batter to top each muffin. You want the jam in the middle of the muffin – if it sinks to the bottom, it will stick to the bottom of the tin. If it’s not covered with batter, the sugary jam would show and ruin the surprise.

Bake for 20 minutes. Let it cool a few minutes before removing them from the tins.

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Not too little, not too big.

 

 

Black bean and corn enchiladas with Mexican rice

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The enchiladas are topped with a tofu sour cream.

Got home today to the spicy, tomato smell of dinner almost ready. My husband, who has been craving Mexican food since we went to see Coco over the Christmas holidays (we’ve had a few meals that just didn’t satisfy his craving apparently), made enchiladas from scratch with a side of Mexican rice. And I had to take pictures and share them since it was so good!

The enchiladas are stuffed with refried black beans, corn and vegan cheese. The enchilada sauce is made by blending my hot homemade salsa with diced tomatoes and onions into a smooth sauce. It’s poured over the enchiladas and baked, covered in foil for 40 minutes. It turned out delicious.

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The enchilada sauce is a bit spicy for the kids so their version is plain but topped with vegan cheese.

The spanish rice was inspired by this recipe. It was (not surprisingly) not appreciated by my picky eater. He only eats his tomatoes as cherry tomatoes and whole. Tomato sauces don’t always make the cut but sometimes they do. I’ve tried to understand it but I don’t.

In the summer, we pick the sun-warmed, vine-ripened tomatoes from our garden and eat them like apples. If the seeds squirt and juice drips down our faces, we don’t mind. But this seems to be the very thing my son doesn’t like. If a tomato doesn’t fit in his mouth whole, he won’t touch it. There’s something about those slimy seeds that turns him off tomatoes.

The enchiladas are topped with my quick sour cream made from silken tofu. It doesn’t taste as good as a cashew sour cream but it’s the quickest way to get sour cream on the table and it’s delicious when combined with salsa and topped with vegan cheese melted under the broiler. I also use it as a base for a French onion dip.

Vegan sour cream

  • package of soft silken tofu
  • 2 Tbsp grape seed oil or other neutral oil
  • 1 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 1 tsp salt

Put it all in a blender and blend until smooth. That’s it!

Enjoy!

 

Steamed veggies, tofu and barley

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My barley bowl is covered in a savoury miso ginger sauce.

I had a short first day at the office and made it home to make a quick dinner before skating. I went for an old familiar – a bowl as many call it. Meaning: a grain topped with veggies, a protein and a sauce. This is as simple as it gets and it’s always a winner at our house.

You can vary the ingredients, keep it plain for the kids and top it with whatever sauce you’d like. The kids gobble it down like little bunnies. And I’m happy because I know they’re getting a healthy meal and we’ll be out the door in no time. Seriously – we only had 15 minutes to eat!

The grain today is barley. I got it going while I cubed and marinated the tofu. For the kids, I added a teaspoon of vegan butter to their barley since I knew they wouldn’t have any sauce. My son has rejected barley in the past but he has since forgotten that he declared he didn’t like it. I added the butter just in case. And it worked!

The tofu is marinated in a bit of soy sauce, apple cider vinegar and olive oil. I let it absorb the flavours while I preheated the oven to 350. Then I baked them while the barley cooked, flipping a couple times. They’re done when they’re crispy and you can’t resist popping one in your mouth!

I steamed a selection of the veggies that we had in the crisper. I rarely steam our vegetables – so bland – but it tasted nice and clean today. I guess I was craving simplicity.

The sauce is a miso ginger sauce made with olive oil, miso, rice vinegar, maple syrup, a bit of fresh ginger and water to thin it out a bit. Popped it in the blender until smooth.

I also sprinkled black sesame seeds on top.

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The kids’ barley bowls are simple and they love them.

This is clean eating! Food like this just makes my body happy.