Follow Your Heart Vegan Ranch Salad Dressing

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Giving up creamy salad dressings is a hardship for those of us who can’t eat dairy. I’ve written about my perennial search for a good dairy-free Caesar dressing, and as U2 would say, I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

But Follow Your Heart Vegan Ranch Dressing is far better than any of the store-bought Caesar dressings I’ve tried. I’ve loved the flavor of ranch since I first tasted it in the mid-80s at a friend’s party where her mother served us crudité with Hidden Valley Ranch dip. Incidentally, ranch dressing was invented in the 1950s by the owners of the Hidden Valley Ranch, a dude ranch in Santa Barbara County. Even though it’s popular in the U.S. and Canada, if you ask for it in any other part of the world, you will probably get a confused look.

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I wouldn’t say that Follow Your Heart tastes exactly like traditional ranch dressing. The most noticeable difference is that it lacks the tanginess of the buttermilk. Ranch usually contains buttermilk, mayonnaise, and a bunch of spices. This vegan version uses “Vegenaise” instead of mayo and nothing but lemon juice concentrate for tartness. The result is a dressing that tastes pretty good, but doesn’t scream “ranch.”

What I like about this dressing is that it’s thick, creamy, and white, not an unappetizing shade of beige. Let’s be honest, salads need to be as attractive as possible or a lot of us won’t bother to eat them.

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Perhaps the real test was when I served it to two people who can and do eat dairy regularly. Both of them liked it and said it didn’t even taste dairy-free. So I’m giving a thumbs-up to Follow Your Heart Vegan Ranch and looking forward to dipping some carrot and celery sticks in it…

But not buffalo wings. Those are supposed to be dipped in bleu cheese dressing (although a lot of West Coast restaurants don’t understand this and insist on ranch instead). And yes, I’ll definitely be trying Follow Your Heart Vegan Bleu Cheese Salad Dressing, hopefully alongside a big plate of very spicy buffalo wings.

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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.

Breyer’s Non-Dairy Oreo Cookies & Cream

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Breyer’s has always been one of my favorite ice cream brands, after Haagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s respectively. For a mass-produced ice cream, Breyer’s is a consistent winner. It’s also one of the first brands to come out with a lactose-free ice cream. Several years ago, before I stopped eating dairy completely, I tried their lactose-free vanilla and was impressed.

Well, now they’ve got dairy-free ice creams. And one of those is Non-Dairy Oreo Cookies & Cream, made with almond milk and real Oreo cookies, not some Hydrox shit. I love Oreos and I love vanilla ice cream, so naturally I love cookies ‘n’ cream.

In one of my previous blog posts, I reviewed Ben & Jerry’s Non-Dairy P.B. & Cookies, which also has an almond-milk based vanilla with Oreo-like cookies. Ben & Jerry’s nailed it. But they also threw in crunchy peanut butter swirls. This creates a wonderfully complex flavor, but sometimes you want something simpler.

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Breyer’s Non-Dairy Oreo Cookies & Cream tastes just like real ice cream, except that its texture is lighter and less dense. I always enjoyed the heavy creaminess of, say, Haagen-Dazs, but when you’re lactose-intolerant, you have to recalibrate your standards.

Breyer’s texture, though fluffy, is perfectly smooth — except for the generous chunks of Oreo cookie, of course. The Oreos aren’t soggy, a feat of food science that amazes me. And the base doesn’t taste like almonds at all. It actually tastes like a giant Oreo filling with bits of cookie mixed in.

If you love Oreos, this is pure heaven.

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Incidentally, these Oreos that I garnished my ice cream with are limited edition Dunkin’ Donuts Mocha Oreos. The filling tastes like Dunkin’ Donuts’ famous coffee. As the Today Show website put it when announcing this new flavor (yes, this is the kind of “news” they report on): “A Dunkin’ Donuts-flavored Oreo: It just makes sense.”

Just to digress a little more, it may be relevant to my readers that Oreo cookies are, in fact, vegan. My friend Jill pointed this out to a vegan friend of hers who replied, “That’s because they don’t have any real food in them.”

Real food or no, Oreos and ice cream are a classic combo that us dairy-free folks can now enjoy, thanks to Breyer’s. Give it a try and let me know what you think.

Outpost Kitchen in Costa Mesa

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My husband recently had a work conference in Irvine, so I tagged along to explore the O.C. Though the coast of Newport Beach is teeming with good restaurants, go a little inland and you’re surrounded by bad chains and fast food joints. After suffering through the sad breakfast buffet at our hotel, I was desperate just for a decent cup of coffee.

I found a place on Yelp called Outpost Kitchen, off the 55 freeway in Costa Mesa. It had four and a half stars, glowing reviews, and an interesting breakfast menu. And it was on my way down to the beach. Perfect.

I was confused at first by its location: a weirdly industrial neighborhood where you wouldn’t expect to find any restaurants. But there was something charming about Outpost Kitchen. First of all, they play records. That’s right, no Spotify playlists here. There’s a turntable right next to the cash register and a collection of vinyl that would make anyone who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s very happy.

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I knew it was fate when I heard “White Boys Can’t Control It” coming from the speakers. Never heard of it? That’s because it’s a deep cut — we’re talking seriously deep — from Culture Club’s Kissing To Be Clever album.

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Why was this so exciting to me? I was a huge Culture Club fan growing up. Actually, that’s such an understatement that I’ll just show you a picture to illustrate this.

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Holding my Boy George Snoopy before going to a Culture Club concert in 1984.

But for those of you who don’t care about Culture Club or the other records in rotation at Outpost Kitchen, the food and drinks there are fabulous. What I love about their menu is they have many dairy-free choices, but you can still get meat and bread. A lot of places that cater to dairy-free eaters assume we’re all vegan and gluten-free. Not so.

One of their signature dishes is the Aussie Style Scramble. Fresh eggs scrambled with roast prosciutto and spinach, served atop a tangy tomato sauce, with a side of olive-oil infused toasted flatbread in lieu of toast. Oh my goodness. Apologies — it was so delicious I forgot to take a picture of it before I devoured it.

But the main reason I came back the very next day was because they made the best almond milk latte I have ever had. The coffee was strong and flavorful and not the least bit bitter. They use Four Barrel coffee, roasted in San Francisco. The almond milk, Califia Farms, was smooth, creamy, and didn’t have that cloying almond-y taste that many almond milks have.

And to top it off, each paper cup is branded with something funny.

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The unfortunate footnote to this sublime coffee experience is that I subsequently discovered that almond milk — Califia Farms in particular — gives me gas. I put two and two together when I realized I was having terrible gas pains every time I drank it. But alas, this is how we learn what foods do and do not agree with our bodies. It’s a constant practice of awareness.

However, for those of you who can enjoy almond milk without problems, I heartily endorse Califia Farms for its exceptional taste and texture. And if you find yourself in Costa Mesa, Irvine, Newport Beach or the like, Outpost Kitchen is, as they say, the bomb.

OUTPOST KITCHEN, 1792 Monrovia Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92627

NadaMoo Dairy-Free Ice Cream

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I’m always looking for dairy-free ice creams, especially vanilla ones. I guess because vanilla is like the crisp white button-down shirt of ice creams — it goes with everything and never goes out of style.

I found NadaMoo at Gelson’s and was immediately charmed by its name. For anyone who doesn’t speak Spanish, “nada” means “nothing.” Indeed, this ice cream contains “nothing cow.” It’s made from coconut milk but looks like the real moo.

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There’s not much to report about this one except that it’s smooth and creamy and  tastes like Coconut Bliss Vanilla Island, only less coconutty. Ideally, I don’t want my vanilla ice cream to taste like coconut at all. But so far I haven’t found a dairy-free vanilla that achieves this ideal.

As I did with Coconut Bliss, I tried using NadaMoo to make a root beer float and it just didn’t taste right. The coconut flavor was too strong.

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But when I used NadaMoo to make a sundae topped with fresh raspberries and chocolate syrup, the result was much better. The coconut flavor went well with the fruit and the chocolate.

I imagine that NadaMoo would be great served alongside a slice of banana cream pie… Now if only someone would make a dairy-free banana cream pie.

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Creamistry Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream

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Have you heard of liquid nitrogen ice cream? It’s all the rage now. I know, it sounds frighteningly scientific, but all you need to know is that the liquid nitrogen is used to flash-freeze milk and turn it into ice cream right before your eyes.

Why do you need this in your life? Well, first, it allows you to have customized flavors. And second, the rapid freezing process keeps the milk particles from forming into ice crystals, producing an ultra creamy texture that I have never experienced in traditional hard ice creams. Imagine a cross between hard ice cream and soft serve.

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Creamistry is a popular chain of liquid nitrogen ice cream shops — they have over thirty locations in California alone. Most importantly, they have dairy-free options, and not just sorbet. You can have your ice cream made with a coconut milk base.

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Plus, you have a pick of many different flavors, some of which I’ve never seen in dairy-free form. Like Nutella. I’ve never had Nutella ice cream, let alone dairy-free Nutella ice cream. So at the first Creamistry I went to, in Montclair, CA, I ordered a coconut milk base with Nutella mixed in. One topping is also included, so I chose chocolate chip cookie dough. The “creamologist” asked if I wanted it sprinkled on top or mixed into the base, so I chose mixed in, hoping for a Ben & Jerry’s-like result.

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Unfortunately, the Nutella flavor was barely detectable, and the cookie dough was so macerated that it was also too subtle. But the creamy texture of the ice cream was amazing! I would absolutely try this flavor combo again, next time asking for extra Nutella and the cookie dough sitting on top, not mixed in.

But the next time I went, I got a different flavor: green tea (matcha). I used to love green tea ice cream — especially the mochi desserts you get at sushi restaurants — but I’ve never seen a dairy-free version. So this time, at a Creamistry in Costa Mesa, I ordered a coconut base with green tea as my flavor and mochi balls as my topping. The result tasted very much like a green tea mochi. And it was smooth as silk.

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My two caveats about Creamistry are that (1) the taste of coconut can be a little strong, especially upon the first few bites, and (2) this shit is expensive. You will spend about eight dollars on a small cup, more if you get extra toppings or upgrades like a waffle cone or bowl made of chocolate (yeah, I gotta try that one).

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But keep in mind that part of what you’re paying for is the fun of watching your ice cream being whipped up in a giant cloud of white mist and hearing the hiss of the liquid nitrogen evaporating. It’s like a science experiment. It’s cool — pun intended.

CREAMISTRY, 9359 Central Ave., Suite F, Montclair, CA 91763
CREAMISTRY, 3033 Bristol St., Suite F, Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(And many other locations across the country)

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Homemade Dairy-Free Chai Tea

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I’ve always loved chai tea, the kind that you get in Indian restaurants, not the kind from Starbucks or the pre-made chai tea that almost every tea brand now sells. At worst, those chai teas taste like candy, and at best, they’re too intensely spicy. Once I asked an Indian friend how to make real chai tea and she gave me a masala mix, but it still didn’t taste like the chai tea I got in restaurants.

Then I went dairy-free and couldn’t drink chai tea at Indian restaurants anymore because they always make it with cow’s milk. After years of deprivation, I became determined to figure out how to make my own chai. I did some research and was able to put together this recipe using just three key spices easily obtained in most grocery stores.

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Cinnamon sticks, star anise, and cardamom pods.

Instead of cow’s milk, I used coconut milk. (I thought the coconut would work better in chai tea than almond milk.) For desserts and coffee, I like to use Kara coconut milk because it’s thick and creamy. But for this tea, I wanted a milk that was thinner, so I used Silk Unsweetened Coconut Milk.

You can brew your chai with just about any unflavored black tea. I used my usual breakfast tea, Zhena’s Gypsy Tea. I’ve tried almost all the organic breakfast teas available at my neighborhood Ralphs, and this one is the most flavorful and affordable.

Keep calm and chai on!

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Dairy-Free Chai Tea Recipe

2 cardamom pods
1 cup water
2 bags black tea
1 whole star anise
1 stick cinnamon
1 cup coconut milk

Crack the cardamom pods by tapping them with a mallet or other heavy object. Put the water, tea, star anise, cinnamon stick, and cardamom pods in a small pot and bring to a boil. Boil for 4 minutes.

Pour the tea through a strainer to remove the solids. Pour the strained tea back into the pot and add the coconut milk (and sugar or other sweetener, if desired). Warm over medium heat, stirring, until hot. Makes 2 servings.