Easy Dairy-Free Huevos Rancheros

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I’m a big fan of breakfast. It’s my favorite meal of the day. But breakfast can get boring if you tend to eat the same thing every morning. It can also be daunting if you’re trying to go dairy-free and you’re used to eating things like cereal with cow’s milk or bagels with cream cheese.

So for all of you breakfast eaters who need some dairy-free inspiration, I welcome you to the first post of my Dairy-Free Breakfast Series!

Just to clarify, I don’t consider eggs to be dairy, since my dietary restriction is lactose. I love eggs and they are the staple of my breakfasts. They’re a great source of protein, and if I don’t have protein at the start of my day, I can barely function.

Today I’d like to share a ridiculously easy recipe for huevos rancheros that can be whipped up with stuff I usually have on hand. The photo above shows one I made using leftover homemade black bean chili, but you can use canned beans. I promise you won’t miss the cheese. There are enough strong flavors in this dish to make up for the lack of queso.

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Cholula: Mexican food’s best friend. If you don’t have it, get some.

EASY DAIRY-FREE HUEVOS RANCHEROS RECIPE

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 eggs
1/4 cup refried black beans (canned is fine)
1/4 cup salsa
Cholula or other hot sauce, to taste
2 teaspoons minced cilantro
tortilla chips
guacamole or sliced avocado (optional)

Heat the oil in a non-stick skillet over medium heat. Crack the eggs into the pan, cover and cook for approximately 2 minutes, or until the whites cook through.

Meanwhile, heat the refried black beans in the microwave until hot.

Spread the warmed beans on a plate. Top with the fried eggs. While the pan is still hot, warm the salsa, seasoning it with Cholula to taste. Garnish the eggs with the salsa and minced cilantro. Serve with tortilla chips and, if you have it, guacamole or sliced avocado.

Makes one serving.

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Why I Hate Starbucks and Will Never Drink a Pumpkin Spice Latte

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If you’ve been following my blog, you know I hate Starbucks. Well, today I’m going to explain why. First, let me just say that I’m not one of those people who hates things just because they’re popular. For example, I love Star Wars. I’m a huge fan of The Beatles. I am unapologetically a dog person.

But Starbucks, like the worst popular stuff, appeals to the lowest common denominator. Simply put, their coffee sucks. That’s the number one reason I hate them. You can’t make good coffee drinks if your base is bad. If you haven’t noticed the mediocrity of their beans, it’s probably because the drinks you’re getting are so heavily flavored with syrups and other bells and whistles. Try this experiment: Get a cup of Starbucks’ regular old drip coffee. You’ll see that it’s bitter and burnt-tasting.

Here’s another reason I hate Starbucks: False advertising. I wrote a blog post about this recently when I got suckered into trying their masterfully marketed Toasted Coconut Cold Brew. Starbucks is constantly rolling out new concoctions that sound appealing but are nothing but the same bad coffee with a shot of sickly-sweet syrup. Which brings me to my next point.

Starbucks is all about sugar.

This is especially obvious now that it’s autumn and Starbucks has brought back its famous Pumpkin Spice Latte. The fanfare around the Pumpkin Spice Latte, or “PSL” as it’s known among rabid fans, is absurd. (It’s like the McRib. People go nuts over that nasty thing, simply because it’s not available all the time.) Comedian John Oliver aired a hilarious segment about the PSL craziness on his HBO show “Last Week Tonight.” (Warning: This clip contains profanity. Very funny profanity.)

So what’s a Pumpkin Spice Latte? According to Wikipedia, it’s “a coffee drink made with a mix of traditional fall spice flavors (cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove), steamed milk, and espresso, topped with whipped cream and pumpkin pie spice. Since 2015, it has also contained a small amount of pumpkin puree.”

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Now available in instant, which contains no pumpkin at all.

That’s right, only in the last two years has the PSL contained any real pumpkin. Before that, all the “pumpkin” flavor came from artificial flavorings. But people drink all sorts of unnatural stuff if it’s yummy enough, and last fall I decided to see what all the fuss was about, since Starbucks now offers almond milk and coconut milk as dairy-free alternatives.

I asked the barista if he could make a PSL with coconut milk. “Sure,” he said. But here’s the problem: I asked for no sugar. And he couldn’t do it — because the syrup that makes the drink taste like pumpkin is already sweetened. This is the same thing that happened with the Toasted Coconut Cold Brew, and it’s the case for every flavored coffee drink at Starbucks.

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The latest Starbucks fall offering.

Americans are hooked on sugar. And Starbucks, though not solely responsible for this problem, is definitely not helping. Starbucks drinks are nothing but milkshakes with caffeine in them. In fact, Starbucks is alarmingly popular with kids and teenagers. Have you heard of the Cotton Candy Frappuccino? No? That’s because it’s on the secret menu that only kids seem to know about. Even if they get their drinks non-caffeinated, there’s so much sugar in these Fraps that the kids will be bouncing off the wall in minutes.

Do yourself and your loved ones a favor. Don’t fall for this Pumpkin Spice Latte bullshit. You don’t need a diabetic coma to embrace the festive fall season. Just… carve a pumpkin or something.

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Califia Farms Better Half Coconut Cream & Almond Milk

It’s been over three years since I stopped eating dairy, and I honestly don’t miss it that much. But every so often I get a deep pang of longing when I see some blast from my dairy-eating past. One of those moments happened when I was sorting through my mom’s old stuff and found an old issue of House Beautiful, a magazine subscription I’d given her as a gift. The cover showed a classic white ceramic cow creamer. It was one of the first things Chuck Williams bought for the Williams-Sonoma store.

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I actually have one of these creamers myself. I bought it many years ago when I was preparing to serve brunch to guests. Sure, you can put a carton of half-and-half on the table and no one’s going to be horrified (except maybe Martha Stewart). But little details like serving cream in a cow-shaped creamer are what make life fun.

So when I saw that magazine, I was inspired to dig out my old cow creamer, give it a thorough washing, and fill it with a non-dairy milk I can enjoy. Fortunately, I just happened to have some Califia Farms Unsweetened Better Half on hand.

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I’ve been experimenting with Califia Farms products ever since I tried the heavenly almond milk latte at Outpost Kitchen in Costa Mesa. For some reason, Califia Farms straight-up almond milk gives me gas. But Better Half, their blend of coconut cream and almond milk, doesn’t. And it has that same silky-smooth mouthfeel that made the latte so fantastic. It’s thicker than Trader Joe’s Coconut Creamer, but not as thick as Kara Coconut Milk (my two favorite dairy-free milks to put in coffee). And Better Half doesn’t have a strong coconutty flavor, either.

The only thing it lacks is the pure white color of real milk. Let’s face it, color is important. The appearance of our food has a lot to do with our experience of it. Califia Farms Better Half is slightly off-white. It doesn’t turn my coffee that beautiful tan shade I like. That said, it’s pretty good. And when I poured it into my ceramic cow creamer, the sight of it made me happy.

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Ixora Floral Studio

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For the first time since I started this blog, I’m posting a review that has nothing to do with dairy-free eating. To all of you who don’t find this topic relevant to your interests, I apologize. But have you ever had a customer service experience so bad that you just wanted to warn everyone in the world? Well, that’s what happened to me yesterday.

My beloved mom passed away recently, and yesterday we had a memorial service for her at The Langham Huntington, a swanky hotel in Pasadena. I was in charge of ordering flowers for the event. I hired Ixora Floral Studio in Sierra Madre because (1) they had done events at the Langham before, (2) they had a five-star rating on Yelp, and (3) they were conveniently located to the venue. The photo gallery on their website showed beautiful work.

I started to have doubts when I noticed that the owner, Lisa, didn’t respond to my emails or phone calls in what I would consider a timely manner. But I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best. After we had settled our contract and paid the bill, I asked Lisa several times whether she had any questions for me. She told me we were “all set.” I expected to arrive at the Langham on the day of my mother’s memorial to see the flowers set up as we had discussed. What followed was a catastrophe.

My family and I arrived at 2:00 pm to start setting up for the 4:00 pm service and were alarmed to find no flowers whatsoever. I called both of the phone numbers I had for Ixora and had to leave messages because no one answered. (I was not given an emergency number to call.) We were stressed out and panicking when guests began to arrive and still no flowers. All of our guests were seated and waiting for the service to begin when the Ixora delivery person finally showed up at 4:20 pm (although later Lisa would claim that he arrived at 3:40 — a lie). The man arrived 20 minutes after the service had officially begun. He had to set up the flowers around my mother’s urn and portrait in front of all of our guests. We were horrified that our grieving guests — not to mention my poor grieving father — had to watch a sweaty delivery man in T-shirt and shorts handling my mother’s cremains. The man also set up the flowers so that they half obscured my mother’s portrait!

And by the way, by the time the delivery man brought in the bouquet for the reception table, every single guest had already arrived and was seated inside — so no one even saw the reception flowers. What an utter waste.

The last thing a family needs is to be anxious and worrying about logistical details while trying to interact with guests and deal with their own grief over the loss of a loved one. My father trusted me to handle the flowers for my mother’s memorial. I felt a tremendous responsibility to fulfill his wishes and I was mortified that this was how it turned out. It was nothing short of a nightmare.

Later that night after the service was over, I checked my email to find a message from Lisa that was clearly a cop-out trying to dodge responsibility for their mistake. She claimed that the hotel had given her the wrong start time (6:00 pm). Even if this were true, my question is: Why didn’t she ask me, the client, what time the event started? This seems like a critical piece of information that she should have confirmed before telling me we were “all set.”

When you hire a florist for a special event like a wedding or a funeral, you’re not just paying for flowers — you’re paying for a service. Ixora did not provide the service we paid for. I put my trust in them, and one of the most important days of my life — the one in which I was to honor my mother’s memory and share my grief with family and friends — was ruined by what the owner of Ixora glibly called a “communication breakdown.”

When Lisa finally called me today, she apologized but still tried to put the blame on the hotel. I demanded that she make this right and she has agreed to give us a full refund. However, this disastrous experience will live on in my memory, forever tied up with the memory of my last goodbye to my mother. For that, I will never forgive Ixora, and I will do everything I can to make sure no one goes through what my family and I went through yesterday.

IXORA FLORAL STUDIO, 35 E. Montecito Ave., Sierra Madre, CA 91024

The “Lin Special” Sandwich

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In honor of my mother, who passed away last month, I’d like to share one of her recipes, a sandwich she called “The Lin Special.” Unlike most of her culinary masterpieces, this sandwich was a humble creation, thrown together with stuff she had on hand. Some of the greatest sandwiches are deceptively simple (think grilled cheese, BLT, tuna melt). This one contains only five ingredients: white bread, ham, mozzarella cheese, tomato, and onion.

Of course, the mozzarella poses a problem for us lactose-intolerant folks. Which is why I haven’t had a “Lin Special” in years. Fortunately, there are now lactose-free (and dairy-free) cheese alternatives that approximate the mild flavor and stretchy texture of mozzarella.

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The one I chose for this sandwich was Go Veggie Lactose-Free Mozzarella Style Shreds. Because it contains casein (milk protein), it’s not suitable for people with dairy allergies, but works fine if you’re just lactose-intolerant.

The flavor of this “cheese” is nothing to write home about, but then, mozzarella is kind of bland by nature. It’s more of a backdrop than a star player. Go Veggie, like most fake cheeses, looks strange when it melts (see photo below), but has the proper mouth-feel and stretchiness. It would do nicely on a pizza.

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There’s no wrong way to make this sandwich. I prefer it with lots of onion and heavily toasted bread, but you can make it to your liking. If you’re not into white bread, sourdough is a good alternative.

When I used to work at the Letterman show in New York, I would go downstairs to the Hello Deli, run by the now-famous Rupert Jee, and ask him to make this sandwich for me. I kept hoping he’d add the “Lin Special” to the menu, as several of my co-workers had sandwiches named after them. Alas, it never happened.

Well, for those of you who never got a chance to try the “Lin Special,” here is my mom’s recipe. Enjoy. She would want you to.

The “Lin Special” Sandwich Recipe

2 slices white bread
4 slices ham
4 slices tomato
handful of thinly sliced red onion
handful of lactose-free (or dairy-free) shredded mozzarella

Layer the bread slices with ham, tomato, onion, and mozzarella. Place both slices, face up, on the middle rack of a toaster oven. Toast until the “cheese” is melted and the bread is lightly browned. Remove from the toaster oven and put the slices together. Cut the sandwich into triangles, if desired.

Sleepytime Extra Herbal Tea

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You’d think that as a dairy-free tea drinker I’d be into herbal teas because they’re never drunk with milk. But I confess: I’ve always hated herbal tea. I like black tea, green tea, oolong — you know, all the ones with caffeine. Unfortunately, I can’t have caffeine in the evening or I’ll be up all night.

I have tried tons of herbal teas and the only one I’ve managed to stick with is Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Extra. The original Sleepytime was the first chamomile tea blended and marketed specifically to counteract insomnia. Everyone knows chamomile has calming effects. The “extra” in Sleepytime Extra is valerian root, an herb that seems to act like a sedative on the brain and nervous system.

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Julianna Margulies asks for valerian tea on The Sopranos.

I remember an episode of The Sopranos where Christopher and his girlfriend (Julianna Margulies) are both recovering heroin addicts and they drink super-concentrated cups of valerian tea because they heard that in high doses it feels like valium. Believe it or not, this is what made me decide to try Sleepytime Extra. I thought, “That shit must work.”

Well, it does. I noticed the difference when I’d been drinking Sleepytime Extra every night before bed and then I ran out. I started waking up in the middle of the night and generally sleeping less soundly. Of course I stocked back up on Sleepytime Extra, pronto. You may notice that this tea is frequently sold out. That’s because the shit works.

It also tastes pretty decent. Pure chamomile can be bland. But Sleepytime’s trademark blend of herbs produces a caffeine-free tea that, although it can’t compare to a strong Earl Grey, is easy on the tastebuds.

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I tip my hat to the Blendmaster.

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Now I very much enjoy my nighttime ritual of sipping Sleepytime tea while I do my physical therapy exercises, watch Netflix, and cuddle our new dog, Sammy Bagel Jr. If only they made valerian root dog treats…

On second thought, I don’t think he needs any.

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Homemade Dairy-Free Smoothies

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I’ll admit that when I first heard about the NutriBullet blender, I thought it was one of those cheesy “As Seen On TV” fads. I couldn’t imagine this gadget was any better than our old-fashioned blender. But oh, it is!

Let me back up. Back in my dairy-eating days, I used to make smoothies all the time using yogurt and milk as the base. After giving up dairy, I stopped making smoothies. I never thought of using a liquid like coconut water. Not only is this possible, it’s way healthier. Coconut water, often called “nature’s sports drink,” has lots of nutrients and electrolytes. The flavor can be hard to get used to when you drink it straight up, but in a smoothie you can barely taste it.

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One of the reasons I have a love-hate relationship with Costco.

So, back to the NutriBullet. This thing has some key advantages over a traditional blender:

  • It’s more powerful and can blend ingredients faster and more thoroughly.
  • It’s smaller and easier to store.
  • The plastic cup that you blend the ingredients in can also be used to drink from, saving you extra dishes to wash.
  • The cup comes with a to-go lid that snaps open and closed easily.
  • Every part of the NutriBullet is easy to clean, including the blade attachment. (Our traditional blender is a heavy beast that we despise washing.)

I could go on and on giving the NutriBullet free advertising, but suffice to say that since my husband and I got one, we’ve been drinking at least one smoothie every day. And because the NutriBullet app lists tons of recipes, I haven’t gotten bored yet.

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Not a single smoothie I’ve made contained dairy products. So, what can you use instead of milk? In addition to coconut water, I’ve also used almond milk and coconut milk. And some recipes, like one of my favorites, the “Super Beauty Blast” (pictured below), uses chilled green tea as the base.

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You’ll notice there’s a fair amount of greenery in this smoothie, and that is the case for most of the smoothies I make now. Ever since we got the NutriBullet, we’ve doubled our consumption of green vegetables. The recipes are so tasty, you really can’t tell you’re drinking a handful of spinach or kale.

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Toxin Cleansing Blast, with boba straw for extra-fast slurping

Sometimes when I’m feeling creative, I’ll wing it and do an “Improv Blast.” The basic formula is you fill half the cup with greens (e.g., spinach, kale, chard, spring mix) and half with fruit (e.g., apple, orange, banana, pineapple, mango, berries).

I like to use some frozen fruit in every smoothie because (a) it’s convenient and (b) it makes the smoothie cold without having to add ice. (This is also a great use of overly ripe bananas, if you don’t have the time or inclination to make banana bread. Just peel, slice, and freeze the bananas in individual Ziploc bags for future use.)

After adding fruit, you can throw in a tablespoon of chia seeds or flax seeds for added protein and omega-3s. And finally, you pour in the liquid of your choice up to the MAX line on the cup. Blend for 30 seconds and you’re done.

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I like to think about how many fruits and veggies are in my smoothie and how long it would take to eat all of that if it weren’t blended up. A long-ass time, folks. If you’ve ever gotten tired of chewing a salad, you know what I mean.

So if you’re lazy and thinking it’s too much work to make a smoothie, especially first thing in the morning, just remember that smoothies are the ultimate boon for lazy people. It is far less work than chopping up a bunch of vegetables and stir-frying them — and then of course, the chewing. As my husband likes to say, “In the future, all food will be in tubes.” And that includes straws through which you drink your smoothies.