Van Leeuwen Vegan Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ice Cream

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My homemade dairy-free chocolate chip cookie sundae.

Ever since I went dairy-free, I’ve been looking for a non-dairy version of my favorite ice cream flavor, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough. You could say it’s my “white whale.” Ben & Jerry’s, the originator of the flavor, has inexplicably left this one out of its selection of non-dairy ice creams. So when I saw that a brand called Van Leeuwen made one, I was super-excited about it.

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This one has a coconut cream base. That’s pretty evident when you taste it. The vanilla flavor is overwhelmed by the flavor of coconut. Which would be fine for ice creams that are more tropical in nature (like, say, pineapple or banana). But for Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough? It’s a little weird.

As you can see in the photo below, there’s not a whole lot of cookie dough in there anyway. When I opened the lid, it looked like one random chunk of cookie dough ended up in a pint of vanilla ice cream. (You know those people who complain about the number of shrimp in their lo mein order? I’m becoming more like them every day.)

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The cookie dough itself was decent. I couldn’t tell it was vegan. But the coconut flavor of the base really took front and center. As I’m not a huge fan of coconut-flavored ice cream to begin with, this made my experience vaguely unpleasant.

I should’ve known. I’ve tried a few of Larry & Luna’s Coconut Bliss non-dairy flavors, also made from coconut cream, and the only one I truly liked was Mint Galactica, probably because the strong mint flavor masked the coconut. Another coconut-based ice cream I tried, Nada Moo, also had a strong coconut flavor.

Ben & Jerry’s uses an almond milk base, which to me, tastes better. I just wish they’d quit messing around and give us a non-dairy Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough already!

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Ben & Jerry, we’re begging you to make this dairy-free.

I haven’t given up completely on Van Leeuwen, though. They have a scoop shop in Culver City where there are many more flavors available. I imagine the Vegan Pink Lemonade, one of their current specials, could be refreshing on a hot day.

If I ever check it out, I’ll let you all know. In the meantime, let me know if you’ve tried Van Leeuwen vegan ice cream and what you think of it.

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Winston Pies in Brentwood

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I know, I just wrote about pie last week. But that was a peanut butter pie, and this time I want to write about fruit pies, because that’s what we think of when the Fourth of July rolls around. On our nation’s birthday, there’s nothing more American than apple pie — but really, any fruit pie is a fitting dessert at an Independence Day picnic or barbecue.

The thing I love about fruit pies is they’re usually dairy-free, unless you count the butter in the crust and unless, of course, if you eat it with a glob of whipped cream on top or ice cream on the side. (Please don’t eat pie with ice cream on top. It makes the pie soggy, dude.)

One day, walking along San Vicente Boulevard in the Brentwood neighborhood of West Los Angeles, my husband and I stopped in at Winston Pies, a small local bakery that serves homemade pie. We ordered a slice of the blueberry pie and an almond milk latte.

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Yes, the pie tasted as good as it looked.

The crust was flakier than any pie crust I’ve ever had. I don’t know much about baking, but I do know that making a pastry that flaky is a difficult task. Unlike a croissant, this pie crust is not flaky and light; it’s flaky and dense. You will either love it or hate it. I’m in the love category.

As for the blueberry filling, it tasted fresh and not too sweet. Many fruit pies have a syrupy-sweet filling that’s either too liquid-y or weirdly gelatinous. This filling was the perfect balance of flavors and textures.

The coffee was just okay. But points for the non-dairy milk options and the cool hand-glazed mug.

More points for the seating inside: There’s a wooden bench hanging from the ceiling that actually swings a little, so you feel like you’re eating pie on a front porch in the South.

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July 4, 1970: My mom grills several pounds of meat in Madison, Wisconsin.

The pie flavors at Winston Pies rotate seasonally, but right now there are about six out of twelve flavors that are cream-free. That’s a pretty good ratio. I can’t wait to try the Orchard Peach & Nectarine. Stone fruit + pie = awesomeness.

Right now they’ve got a special called “A Berry American Pie” that has a vanilla filling with raspberries and blackberries, so that it’s red, white and blue. It’s got a gluten-free shortbread crust, which I haven’t tried yet but I’d be willing to bet is pretty damn good.

Whether or not you’re eating pie, have a great Fourth of July!

WINSTON PIES, 11678 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90049

When Cheating on Your Diet Is Worth It

I stopped eating dairy four and a half years ago, and it was the most beneficial thing I’ve ever done for my digestive health. Having been lactose-intolerant for most of my life, I still managed to eat dairy often — sometimes up to three meals a day — by taking lactase enzyme supplements, otherwise known as Lactaid.

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Generic version of Lactaid.

Yet even with the help of these pills, I frequently felt bloated and gassy, and suffered from stomachaches, indigestion, constipation, and diarrhea. Fun, right? One day, when I was doubled over in pain after sucking down a root beer float, I finally said, “Enough.” Now that I no longer eat dairy, my digestive system is so much happier.

That said, every so often I come across a dairy-laden food product that is worth cheating on my diet for, something extraordinary and rare…

Like the peanut butter pie at Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab in Las Vegas.

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A year ago my husband and I went to this fancy restaurant in Vegas, and I ordered a piece of the peanut butter pie, partly because, of all the desserts on the menu, this one sounded the least dairy-heavy.

The peanut butter filling was so smooth and velvety, it was like eating silk, almost like a cheesecake but not as dense. I’m no pastry chef, but it seemed to me that there was simply no way to create such a texture without a lot of dairy. I quickly popped a couple of Lactaid pills (which I still keep on me at all times, just in case).

Thankfully, the pills did the trick and I didn’t have any problems with the peanut butter pie. It became my favorite dessert, and one that I fortunately can’t get too often! But when we went back to Vegas last week, the first thing on my to-do list was to head to Joe’s and get that pie again.

It lived up to the memory.

Besides being unbelievably smooth, the filling is also not too sweet. It’s actually pretty salty, as peanut butter should be. The crust is like a graham cracker crust, but made of chocolate cookies instead, like super-fresh Oreos. The hot fudge topping is delicious as well, but almost unnecessary.

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The aftermath.

There’s a Chinese saying about eighty percent being perfection. Meaning, if you eat healthfully eighty percent of the time, you’ll be fine. It’s human nature to need a treat every now and then, and by “treat” I don’t mean the salted rice cakes. We have to be bad sometimes or we’ll crack like an egg.

So this summer, treat yourself. For God’s sake, don’t eat dairy if you have an allergy to it; we don’t want anyone ending up in the hospital. But if you’re just lactose-intolerant, pop a Lactaid pill and eat that dessert you adore and can only find once a year. Then get back on the wagon and feel good about your commitment to a healthy lifestyle.

You can have your cake — or in this case, peanut butter pie — and eat it, too.

JOE’S SEAFOOD, PRIME STEAK & STONE CRAB, Located at The Forum Shops at Caesars, 3500 Las Vegas Blvd. South, Las Vegas, NV 89109

Dairy-Free Eloté (Grilled Mexican Corn)

Summer’s here and you know what that means: street fairs. There are few things I love more than food that can be eaten while walking. The late author David Foster Wallace wrote a hilarious essay about the Illinois State Fair, which he describes as a “peripatetic feeding frenzy.” (You can find the essay in his book A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, the title of which does not refer to the state fair, but rather, a luxury cruise. Just read it and thank me later.)

At Southern California street fairs, you will often find corn on the cob, grilled and seasoned in a Mexican fashion. It’s called eloté, and it usually comes smothered in butter, mayo, chili powder, and cotija cheese.

Just one look at all that dairy and my stomach starts to scream in revolt.

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When I was looking online for a photo of eloté, I found this one from the LA County Fair, which doesn’t really show eloté (except if you look at the sign on the far left), but does show a ridiculous concoction from Chicken Charlie. Chicken Charlie is the county fair vendor known for deep-frying everything, including Oreo cookies, Lucky Charms, watermelon, even butter. But an ice cream chicken sandwich??? Have they gone too far? I think the answer is a resounding yes.

Eloté is definitely one of the healthier options compared to most street foods. But if you’re lactose-intolerant, even this dish can pose a problem.

That’s why I decided to make my own version of eloté without all that cheese. I also cut the kernels off the corn cobs because I just had some dental work done. This makes my version of eloté harder to eat peripatetically, but easier on the choppers.

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I always grill corn cobs in their husks because if you grill them directly over the coals, they tend to get overcooked. An hour before cooking, start soaking the corn cobs in cold water. The pre-soaked husks will steam the corn inside. You’ll end up with juicy kernels that have a nice charred flavor.

The key ingredients in eloté besides corn are butter, chili powder, and lime juice. I like to use real butter (the amount of lactose in it is not enough to bother me), but feel free to use vegan butter. Make sure you use fresh-squeezed lime juice; if it sits for too long, it gets bitter. You can play with the ingredients until you find the balance of spicy and sour that you like.

I guarantee you won’t even miss the cheese!

DAIRY-FREE ELOTE (MEXICAN CORN) RECIPE

2 corn cobs, in their husks
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1/4 teaspoon ancho chile powder
2 teaspoons butter or vegan butter
1 tablespoon lime juice (about half a lime)
sea salt and ground black pepper to taste
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

Soak the corn cobs in cold water, fully immersed, for one hour before grilling. When the coals are ready, remove the corn cobs from the water and shake off the excess. Grill the corn cobs over direct medium heat, turning every 5 minutes. Total cooking time: 20 minutes.

Remove the corn cobs from the grill. When cool enough to handle, peel off the husks and silk. Holding the corn cobs upright, cut the kernels off with a sharp knife and scoop them into a serving bowl.

Add the garlic, chili powder, butter, lime juice, salt, pepper, and cilantro. Mix well. Garnish with more cilantro, if desired. Makes 2 servings.

Avocado Toast: Why All the Fuss?

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If you’ve been wondering, “What’s the big deal with this avocado toast thing?” you are not alone. Avocado toast is everywhere these days, and this hot trend, like jumpsuits, can be a bit confounding. What is it, other than mashed-up avocado on a piece of toast?

The short answer is: nothing. Avocado toast is exactly that. And there is no reason why you should pay $8 or more for this simple dish. Especially in Southern California, where avocados are plentiful and relatively cheap, the raw ingredients of avocado toast would probably total no more than $1 a serving.

Is it the labor, you may ask? Is avocado toast hard to master, like a soufflé? I couldn’t imagine that it would be. Just to test my theory, I made avocado toast this morning. Here’s how:

(1) I cut a slice of sourdough bread and popped it in the toaster oven.

(2) I sliced an avocado in two, then scraped its contents into a bowl. Then I mashed it up using my (clean) hand. One avocado will usually yield enough for two slices of toast.

(3) I added a little lemon juice, salt and pepper, and a dash of garlic powder (the garlic powder is optional).

(4) I stirred up the avocado mixture (which is now essentially guacamole), spread it on the toast, and topped it with chopped cilantro. You can also use parsley or chives.

Done. Actually, I also fried an egg to put on top of it, but that’s optional, too. Here’s a photo of my avocado toast with egg.

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Really, that’s all there is to it. Don’t get me wrong, avocado toast is tasty, and certainly more nutritious than plain toast or toast with butter and jam. And it’s dairy-free, which is a plus for those of us who are lactose-intolerant. But rest assured, you’re not crazy for thinking this avocado toast trend is much ado about nothing.

Honestly, it probably all started when a restaurant had some leftover guacamole and one of the line cooks put it on a piece of toast and said, “Hm, this is pretty good. I bet we could charge people a lot of money for this.”

The one time I actually ordered avocado toast was at my favorite boba tea shop in downtown L.A., Toastea. I only did it because I was starving and needed some protein along with my tea. At $6.25, it was still overpriced, but it was good.

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Avocado toast from Toastea.

Given how basic avocado toast is, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll never have one that is so amazing it changes your life. That said, if you do, I would love to hear about it. Let me know in the comments below!

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Tocaya Organica Mexican Restaurant

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Let’s get this out of the way: Tocaya Organica is not authentic Mexican food. But it’s tasty, healthy and fresh. Mexican food can be a challenge for us lactose-intolerant people because there’s cheese and sour cream on everything. But not at Tocaya. I love restaurants where you don’t have to work that hard to get a dairy-free meal, and Tocaya is one of those places.

The menu can be a little confusing at first because there are choices. Tocaya is all about choices. But actually, it’s quite simple. There are four main categories: (1) salads, (2) bowls, (3) tacos, and (4) burritos and wraps. For any of these, you choose one protein and one cheese — and these include vegetarian and vegan options. Most restaurants only offer one type of vegan cheese, but Tocaya has two. That’s progress!

There’s also an interesting assortment of sides and beverages, and so far, one dessert option that I have yet to try: a scoop of vegan vanilla ice cream sandwiched between two churro waffles and drizzled with chocolate sauce. OMG.

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Cucumber mint limeade with an adorable paper straw

I know “bowls” are annoyingly trendy these days, but I happen to like them, as I’ve always had a soft spot for one-dish meals. The reason I love Tocaya’s bowls is that I don’t really care for tortillas. I mean, I’ll eat them if I have to, but if I can get a tortilla-less taco, I’m all for it.

Here’s a bowl called the Fajita Del Rey that hit the spot. It comes with sautéed poblano peppers and onions, spanish rice, black beans, vegan chipotle crema, guacamole and pico de gallo. For my protein, I chose carne asada; for my cheese, vegan chipotle jack.

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Fajita Del Rey bowl

I loved this dish. The meat was tender and packed with flavor; even though I wasn’t allowed to order it medium rare, it wasn’t overcooked. Also, the poblano peppers were a nice change from the usual bell peppers, and they were de-seeded so not too mouth-searingly spicy. Finally, the toppings were super fresh — heavenly, creamy guac, and that chipotle crema! You’d never guess it was vegan.

The vegan chipotle jack didn’t rock my world, but it wasn’t bad either.

I was so excited to have leftovers because the next morning I did what I love to do: heat up a bowl of leftovers and put a poached egg on top of it. Threw in some of the leftover plantain chips from our guacamole side order, and I had a fabulous Mexican brunch.

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Leftovers

The other Tocaya bowl I’ve tried is the Venice Beach, containing roasted cauliflower, sweet potato bravas, lentils, pickled onions and cilantro-curry salsa. I chose chicken tinga as my protein and, again, the vegan chipotle jack. This was a filling, satisfying meal with a bit of an Indian flare, but it felt autumnal. I would get this again in the fall or winter, for sure.

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Venice Beach bowl

One last note: The alcoholic drinks here are delicious and strong. My husband had a hibiscus margarita and was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t overly sweet or watered down. I love a restaurant that takes everything on their menu seriously — no throwaways!

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Hibiscus margarita

Tocaya currently has several locations in the Los Angeles area, but the only one I’ve been to is at the newly renovated Century City mall. Tocaya has a prime piece of real estate there, on the top floor next to the AMC cineplex. The restaurant is indoor-outdoor, with a lovely sunny patio bordered by succulents, an atmosphere worthy of the fabulous food. If you eat dairy-free, it is a must-try.

TOCAYA ORGANICA, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd. #2300, Los Angeles, CA 90067

Kite Hill Artisan Almond Milk Yogurt

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I’ve tried a few dairy-free yogurts, and almost all of them have been inedible. In fact, I swore off trying any more after getting burned so badly. But I made an exception for Kite Hill Artisan Almond Milk Yogurt because I liked Kite Hill Dairy-Free Cream Cheese and thought maybe these folks knew what they were doing.

Unfortunately, no.

The “yogurt” looked promising when I opened it. Unlike Almond Dream and the flaxseed-based Good Karma, this one was white, not beige, and it had a smooth (though thin) consistency.

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But when I tasted it, I was very disappointed. It has a pasty mouthfeel, leaving an unpleasant coating on your tongue. It’s sour, but that’s the most it has in common with real yogurt. And there’s an artificial aftertaste that doesn’t belong in yogurt — or any food, for that matter.

This just adds more support to my theory that almond milk does not make a good base for yogurt; I haven’t had a decent one yet. Coconut milk seems to do better, as in Coyo Coconut Milk Yogurt Alternative. That’s still the only dairy-free yogurt I would recommend. But not all coconut milk yogurts are good, either. Stay away from So Delicious! No bueno!

I’ve learned my lesson: No more almond milk yogurts!