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.

Milk Doesn’t Do a Body Good

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Last Thursday, I read an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times that got me all fired up. The article, titled “Can you call soy milk ‘milk’?” was about how lawmakers are asking the FDA to prohibit non-dairy products from using the word “milk” on their labels. On what grounds, you ask? “Since the 1930s, ‘milk’ has been legally defined as ‘the lacteal secretions of a bovine mammal.'” If that doesn’t make dairy sound unappealing, I don’t know what does.

The article was written by Emily Byrd, the communications manager of the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that promotes alternatives to animal agriculture. She contends that, despite what the lawmakers claim, consumers are not confused by the word “milk” on such products as soy milk or almond milk. It’s not consumers they’re aiming to protect — it’s the dairy industry.

Now, normally I don’t get all political in my blog, and I’m not an expert in anything, but I do get ticked off when I think about the dairy industry. Specifically, the way it has tried to promote its own gain by brainwashing Americans into thinking that milk is good for them. Remember those “Got Milk?” ads from the eighties featuring famous people with milk mustaches?

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I hated Christie Brinkley for marrying my true love, Billy Joel. But that’s another story.

There were also commercials that showed gawky youngsters being encouraged by their older selves to drink milk so they could grow up to be tall and attractive. These ended with the slogan “Milk. It does a body good.”

I believed that horse shit for years. I used to drink a big glass of milk with every meal, thinking it was going to make me strong so I’d be able to nail the broad jump in gym and get a Presidential Physical Fitness Award signed by Ronald Reagan. Meanwhile, the milk was making my guts churn and my bowels explode on a daily basis.

When I eventually learned what lactose-intolerance was, it all made sense. Our bodies are not designed to digest “the lacteal secretions of a bovine mammal.” Think about it: Why would humans need to drink cow’s milk? That milk was meant for baby cows, not people.

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Just what you crave on a hot day… a refreshing glass of milk!

The good news: Looks like people are finally getting it that cow’s milk is not good for them. According to the LA Times article, “Americans are drinking nearly 40% less dairy milk than they were a few decades ago… In the meantime, the dairy alternatives industry is thriving, expanding sales by 250% over the past five years.”

These statistics make me happy. It means that those of us who have made a lifestyle choice to go dairy-free are becoming less of a minority. Which will hopefully lead to a greater variety and higher quality of alternatives — and perhaps a future when we can open a restaurant menu and not have to scour for the one or two items that don’t contain cheese.

To read the full LA Times article “Can you call soy milk ‘milk’?” click here.

A Dairy-Free New Year

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Let’s all admit that we make New Year’s resolutions. We may claim that we don’t do that anymore because it never works, or we may call our resolutions “intentions” to avoid the stink of inevitable failure. But it’s natural to use the start of a new calendar year as a time to reflect on our goals and values and to commit to living with more integrity. Especially when it comes to food.

My giving up dairy started with a New Year’s resolution three years ago. I knew I was lactose-intolerant for decades, but didn’t think I could ever stop eating dairy — or would ever want to. Then, during the Christmas season of 2013, I found myself indulging in so much cheese, half-and-half, ice cream, and other dairy products that my guts were screaming, “Help!”

I knew I had to make a change.

This New Year’s Day I’m having a similar revelation. Over the past ten months, since I started writing this blog, I’ve been eating more and more “imitation dairy” products. Every time I come across one of these food science miracles, I tell myself I have to try it “for the blog.” Into the cart it goes. The result is that I’ve been eating a lot of weird processed foods, most of which don’t taste very good (e.g., Soyatoo! Rice Whip) and a few of which have left my gastrointestinal system almost as unhappy as it was before I gave up dairy (e.g., Trader Joe’s Vegan Cream Cheese).

So my number one New Year’s resolution is to eat fewer processed foods. Before I put something into my cart — or my mouth — I need to ask, “How many steps away is this food from its natural form?” I suspect this litmus test will profoundly change the way I eat.

What this means for the blog is that I’ll be writing fewer reviews of dairy-free alternatives. (I mean, occasionally I’ll have to make an exception for something like a Dole Whip because it’s just so good. And by the way, I never got a stomach ache from a Dole Whip.) Instead, I’ll be focusing more on dairy-free whole foods and simple substitutions for dairy products in the foods we all know and love.

That’s the goal, anyway. I may just sleep in more and remain fat.

Trader Joe’s Vegan Cream Cheese

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Looks good, doesn’t it? I haven’t been able to have a classic New York breakfast like this since I stopped eating dairy almost three years ago. Why? Because most dairy-free cream cheese alternatives, like Tofutti, are soy-based and I can’t eat soy protein.

So when I saw Trader Joe’s Vegan Cream Cheese, I got excited because it’s made from coconut oil. What I failed to realize is that this product is not soy-free. In fact, “soy protein concentrate” is the fourth ingredient listed, after “filtered water,” “coconut oil,” and “mid-oleic sunflower oil.”

I was so eager to try it that I ignored the fact that it’s essentially the same as Tofutti. I’ve tried one dairy-free cream cheese that did not contain soy (Daiya) and it tasted horrible; the texture was also all wrong. (Turns out “pea protein isolate” doesn’t do the trick.) My theory is that, thus far, food scientists haven’t been able to simulate the flavor and texture of cream cheese without using tofu.

This is bad news for me because tofu makes my guts very unhappy. About two hours after I finished my New York breakfast, I had one of the worst stomach aches of my life. I resorted to taking Pepto-Bismol and still felt awful. My stomach has been a mess all week.

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That said, Trader Joe’s Vegan Cream Cheese is wonderfully smooth and tastes a lot like real cream cheese, although not quite as sharp. It was so tasty that I almost decided to give it another shot. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. (I’m not a masochist like L.A. Beast.) After all, I gave up dairy because it made my body feel bad… so I’m not going to eat a dairy-free alternative that has the same effect. I’ve learned my lesson: When a product contains soy protein, I need to not eat it.

If you don’t have a problem with soy, try it — at your own risk, of course.

Vegan Thanksgiving Stuffing

Thanksgiving is one of those American holidays when it’s almost impossible to avoid dairy if you’re eating a traditional meal. The fact that I do eat butter makes it easier for me. But for those of you who are strictly vegan, I would like to share one of my favorite Thanksgiving recipes, adapted from The Peaceful Palate, a classic vegetarian cookbook. Even Tofurkey needs stuffing, right?

If you’re not a vegan, you can make this stuffing with butter instead of (or in addition to) olive oil. And if you’re not a vegetarian, you can use chicken broth instead of vegetable stock. Both of these substitutions will boost the flavor of the dish.

One thing I like about this recipe is that it doesn’t require fresh herbs, which can be expensive to obtain if you don’t have your own herb garden. But if you do have access to fresh thyme, marjoram, and sage, feel free to use those instead of the dried ones from your spice rack — just double the amounts listed below.

I’ll be making this stuffing on Thursday, but since I don’t have a picture of it yet, I’m going to post this instead because it’s cute.

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Please, Baskin-Robbins, make a dairy-free version of this cake!

Vegan Thanksgiving Stuffing Recipe

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 yellow onion, chopped
8 ounces cremini or baby bella mushrooms, sliced
2 celery stalks, sliced
6 cups cubed day-old sourdough bread
1/3 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram
1/2 teaspoon dried sage
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4-1/2 cup vegetable stock

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9 x 9-inch baking dish with olive oil.

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet and sauté the onion for 5 minutes.

Add the sliced mushrooms and celery and cook over medium heat until the mushrooms begin to brown, about 5 minutes.

Stir in the bread cubes, parsley, thyme, marjoram, sage, black pepper, and salt. Lower the heat and continue cooking for 3 minutes, then stir in the vegetable stock a little at a time until the stuffing obtains desired moistness.

Spread stuffing evenly in the baking dish, cover with foil, and bake for 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake 10 minutes longer, or until lightly browned. Makes 4 to 6 side servings.