Spicy Spotlight and GIVEAWAY!: Benny T’s Vesta

Last month, H and I attended the second annual NYC Hot Sauce Expo, where we had the time of our lives sampling incredible, small batch crafted hot sauces in every flavor imaginable and meeting tons of great people.  We also purchased and brought home dozens of bottles of those sauces, and I immediately got to work coming up with fun uses and recipes for some of our acquisitions.

Since the Expo, I have been spotlighting some of these products and my uses for them on the blog.   No one is paying me for this; I am only sharing because I have truly fallen in love with each and every one of these sauces and the incredible depth of flavor that they have added to my food.

For this final week of the series, I present a very special Spicy Spotlight (complete with a giveaway!): Benny T’s Vesta!

Vesta is produced in Raleigh, NC and is best described as a “dry hot sauce.”  There are three levels available:  Hot, Very Hot, and Ghost.  I am the proud owner of Very Hot, which is, as you might surmise, very hot.

These hot sauces are no joke! I tried the Ghost at the Expo, and though I was able to appreciate its amazing flavor despite the pain, I am happy with my ultimate decision to buy the Very Hot  🙂

A month removed from the Expo, I can safely say that this is my favorite product from the event.  I have used it every single day, multiple times a day, since then (except for the 8 days of Passover because it contains breadcrumbs and Passover is terrible).  In addition to adding heat to food, Vesta imparts a unique rich, savory, sort of smoky flavor that I absolutely love.  A little goes a long way too, which I feel makes it an excellent value.

In my opinion, and speaking now from a month of experience, Vesta improves everything.  Seriously, everything.

You can put it on guacamole:
Spicy Spotlight 006Or pizza:
April 003

Or curry:Spicy Spotlight 004On a sandwich:Spicy Spotlight 018Or on hummus (shown here with falafel bites from Whole Foods):Vesta 002Or sprinkle it on pasta, over roasted veggies, into soup…you get the idea.

H and I are both crazy about this stuff.  We bought one bottle at the Expo, and I immediately put it in my purse for easy access at all time.  But it soon became apparent that we needed another bottle because H quickly got tired of having to go rummaging through my purse every time he wanted some (which was frequently!).

I really can’t recommend this highly enough to anyone who likes their food to have a little heat and a whole lot of flavor.

Because Vesta was my favorite thing from the Expo (which is saying a lot, as I tried [and loved!] many, many things), and because this is the last week of Spicy Spotlight, I would like to offer one of you a chance to possess a bottle of your very own!
NOTE TO GF READERS: The dry hot sauces are not gluten-free–sorry!

To enter: simply leave me a comment telling me which Vesta variety you would like to have, and what you are most looking forward to trying it on!  I will randomly select a winner by 11:59:59 pm EST on May 7, 2014.

Good luck!

Click here to read the first Spicy Spotlight, featuring NW Elixirs.
Click here to read the second  Spicy Spotlight, featuring Dragon’s Blood Elixirs.
Click here to read last week’s Spicy Spotlight, featuring Horseshoe Brand.


Whole Foods Finds: So Delicious Cococcino and Kite Hill Ricotta

I have a confession to make: I no longer have any self-control when I go into Whole Foods.

Today I felt like they could have used a video of me doing my shopping in there as a training exercise for advertisers, entitled “How to Make the Customer Want to Buy EVERYthing.”  The secret?  Put a vegan label on it and This Girl will buy it.

Like seriously, I was waiting in the express line, which is bordered on either side by a 5 foot wall of snack products, and as I moved down that aisle my arms would just shoot out left and right, grabbing whatever was nearby.  So many amazing products, both familiar and new, were just staring at me, waiting to join the heap in my basket.

Included among my haul were some Primal Strips (one of my guiltiest pleasures and something I always have in my purse for emergencies) and some chocolate chip cookie dough Larabars (can’t ever have enough of those, right?  Plus they were on sale for only $1!).  I did manage to resist the bags of Kale Krunch, because even in my weakest moments I can’t justify paying $5 for what is essentially two bites of food.  [As always, these are not affiliate links.  I simply link to the products’ webpages in case anyone is curious as to what I’m talking about.]

And then I turned the corner and saw this:
 photo WholeFoods005_zps59dd8659.jpg

Oh ye shining beacon of beauty.  I think I actually stopped dead in my tracks and simply stared at it for a moment.

Quick back-story is that I first started drinking coffee during my sophomore year of college at NYU, when I would grab one of those bottled Starbucks sugar-bombs frappuccinos before my late afternoon classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays from the cafe across the street (which accepted Declining Dollars, natch).

I guess I never thought I’d live to see the day when there would be a commercially available vegan equivalent.  And this thing is amazingly delicious.  With 22 grams of sugar (cough), it is definitely sweet, but less so than the Starbucks one, which has 31 grams.  It’s not something I am going to buy every day (neither my waistline nor my wallet can afford that), but I figured it was worth trying as a special treat and as something to share with you all.  I guess I’m just really happy it exists, and that more and more vegan products are coming out every day that are every bit as good, if not better, than their non-vegan counterparts.

Case-in-point: Kite Hill’s vegan Ricotta cheese, which I finally spotted in my local Whole Foods last week (and immediately purchased of course.  Have you been reading along this whole time?) 🙂
Whole Foods 002This stuff is a creamy, salty dream.  Since we’re all about confessions today, I’ll tell you that I ate about a quarter of the contents straight out of the container upon opening it.  I think my brain had to process how delicious it was before I could start coming up with ways to use it.

My favorite application so far is to make it into a yummy, satisfying snack with cucumbers and slivered raw soaked almonds, with a little cracked pepper on top.
 photo WholeFoods003_zpsfe012b11.jpgObviously it would also be beautiful in pasta.  I don’t have enough left from this container to do a lasagna, but I have grand plans for one of those next time around.

If your Whole Foods has started carrying this cheese, I highly, highly recommend it.   You can find it in the fancy cheese case.  Yup, right next to the dairy cheeses.  It’s partially off-putting and partially awesome, really.

Are you a sucker for Whole Foods too?  What are your favorite new vegan finds?  

Spicy Spotlight: Horseshoe Brand

A few weeks back, H and I attended the second annual NYC Hot Sauce Expo, where we had the time of our lives sampling incredible, small batch crafted hot sauces in every flavor imaginable and meeting tons of great people.  We also purchased and brought home dozens of bottles of those sauces, and I immediately got to work coming up with fun uses and recipes for some of our acquisitions.

Two weeks ago, I began a new blog series called Spicy Spotlight, where I share some of these products and my uses for them.   No one is paying me for this; I am only sharing because I have truly fallen in love with each and every one of these sauces and the incredible depth of flavor that they have added to my food.

Another one of my favorite companies at the Expo was Horseshoe Brand.  Horseshoe Brand produces their seven hot sauce flavors in small batches out of Rhinebeck, NY.  H and I tried all seven at the Expo and came home with our three ultra-favoritesCajunRoasted Garlicand Kiwi Jalapeno.

I thought their display, set up to resemble an old-timey wagon, was really elegant and eye-catching:
NYC HSE 007The quality of each one of these sauces is apparent before it even gets past your lips.  It might be weird to say that a hot sauce is beautiful, but these are.  They have this sort of thick, lustrous appearance that is very appetizing, and they smell amazing too.

And of course, the taste is fantastic–very fresh, very concentrated.  The heat level varies among the different flavors, but my experience has been that each has a pleasant, uniform spiciness that does not overwhelm.  

So what do you do with them?

Well, H and I are partial to drizzling the Cajun and Roasted Garlic on pretty much anything, or using them as a sandwich spread.  For a sandwiches, they totally work straight up but are also SO GOOD mixed with a little Veganaise.  The Veganaise-hot sauce combo also makes a ridiculously good dipping sauce. photo SpicySpotlight007_zps7d36c712.jpg
It’s much emptier than that by now!  In fact, we have used up almost all of our bottle of Cajun (and they are rather large) in under a month since the Expo.

This basic, quick, and ultra-lazy “bowl” of brown rice, black beans straight out of the can, and steamed kale was elevated to AMAZING with the simple addition of Cajun sauce:
 photo SpicySpotlight2007_zps7cbf28ae.jpg

As you could probably guess, Cajun and Roasted Garlic are also both fabulous for grilling tofu or other veggies:
 photo 49755439-0f71-4bd9-a9ab-3cfb04602a11_zpse2bf37d9.jpgAs for the Kiwi Jalapeno, I could pretty much eat that one straight out of the bottle.  It bears some resemblance to a salsa verde but has a rich sweetness that permeates and makes you want to taste it again and again.  

I love Kiwi Jalapeno sauce mashed up with avocado for some delicious guac action.  It also makes a fantastic fresh salsa.  Here, I mixed it with a chopped yellow heirloom tomato and some avocado:Yellow Tomato and Avocado Salad photo Picture001_zpsb3d1276d.jpg

It would also be awesome in a fruit salsa.  I’m thinking mango, pineapple, a little cilantro–YUM.

Finally, used as a dressing, it also makes salads very interesting!  If you don’t typically add a spicy element to your salad, I highly suggest giving it a try.  Something fresh and sweet like Kiwi Jalapeno sauce is a good place to start.

So there you have it!  Another delicious, spicy star.  Next week will be my final installment of Spicy Spotlight and will include a giveaway, so be sure to check back!

Click here to read the first Spicy Spotlight, featuring NW Elixirs.
Click here to read last week’s Spicy Spotlight, featuring Dragon’s Blood Elixirs.

Regrowth: Thoughts on the Boston Marathon, One Year Later

Exactly one year ago today, which was 7 days after the Boston Marathon bombing and 3 days after the terrorist responsible was caught, I wrote a post called Reclamation describing my experience of the attack and the harrowing days that followed.  This post is my follow-up to that one.

Every year on April 19th, a 21 gun salute takes place at dawn at the North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts, the site of the Shot Heard ‘Round the World.  The salute commemorates the anniversary of the 1775 battle that began the Revolutionary War and eventually led to the birth of our United States of America.
 photo MarathonWeekend005_zpsf18f7ee9.jpgThough it was a very early wakeup call for a Saturday morning, H and I managed to make it over to the Bridge to take in the ceremony this past weekend.
 photo MarathonWeekend006_zpsc35a1178.jpgDuring the benediction and reading of accounts of April 19, 1775, I found my mind wandering back to April 19th of last year, the day of one of the largest manhunts in history.  It was in our car around 5:30 in the morning, on our way over to the North Bridge that H and I first learned that one bomber was dead and that the other was being heatedly pursued by the authorities.  It was somewhat eerie to be standing there in the cold dawn, saluting the flag in memory of one of the earliest expressions of American freedom, while a few miles away the hunt was on to overtake the latest incarnation of someone trying to take it away.

I still find myself in awe sometimes of the fact that the bomber was actually caught.  The sheer courage and tenacity of the local, state, and federal authorities in pursuing him evokes in me a deep sense of patriotism and pride.
 photo MarathonWeekend011_zps45097b50.jpg
After the Dawn Salute on Saturday, it was time to face the fact that only two days remained until I was going to go back to the Marathon.

Obviously, staying home was never an option.  Doing so would feel too much like giving in and letting the terrorists win.  And of course, I knew that security was going to be insanely tight.  Nonetheless, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have some reservations about going into the city yesterday for the Marathon.

But go I did, and spent the day by Fenway, just before the 40K mark.  It was a great spot to see Rita Jeptoo pass by in a flash on her way to breaking the woman’s course record. photo MarathonWeekend019_zps3922bcaa.jpgAnd of course, Meb!!  Check me out on TV cheering him on (I’m the one in the white coat just to the left of center screen!): photo MarathonWeekend023_zps49d3b43b.jpgFor the next several hours after the lead runners came through, I stayed outside to watch and encourage thousands upon thousands of runners as they went by.  During that time, I vacillated between ecstatic moments of cheering and high fiving the runners, and moments where I became silent and had to force myself to take deep breaths because I was becoming overly emotional.  I’m not sure exactly how to describe the emotion; it was sort of a mix of deep sadness about what happened last year, and anger at the fact that someone actually tried to spoil this day for all time.

Well, it definitely isn’t spoiled.  But…it also isn’t quite the same.

As with every Marathon Monday, the city, and the tens of thousands of people who came out to enjoy it, was in great spirits yesterday.  But the reminders of the terrible tragedy of last year were everywhere…in the quadruply aggressive police presence (compared to other years), in the security checkpoints stationed all around, in the National Guardsmen who ran without their traditional backpacks (no packs whatsoever were allowed), in the omnipresent signs and t-shirts bearing the slogans “Boston Strong” and “No more hurting people.”

I’m not sure one year is enough time to allow for the necessary level of recovery and regrowth after something like the Marathon bombing.  I’m not sure that any amount of time will truly be enough.  What’s important is that there are signs of growth and healing all around us if we can only remember to look for them.
 photo MarathonWeekend014_zpscb5b3064.jpgNo more hurting people.  Peace.


Spicy Spotlight: Dragon’s Blood Elixir

A few weeks back, H and I attended the second annual NYC Hot Sauce Expo, where we had the time of our lives sampling incredible, small batch crafted hot sauces in every flavor imaginable and meeting tons of great people.  We also purchased and brought home dozens of bottles of those sauces, and I immediately got to work coming up with fun uses and recipes for some of our acquisitions.

Last week, I began a new blog series called Spicy Spotlight, where I share some of these products and my uses for them.   No one is paying me for this; I am only sharing because I have truly fallen in love with each and every one of these sauces and the incredible depth of flavor that they have added to my food.

One of the most memorable tables I visited at the Expo was Dragon’s Blood Elixir.  They piqued my curiosity with their name, but won my heart with their product.

Dragon’s Blood Elixir is a Connecticut-based company (local to me!) that emphasizes the use of locally-sourced peppers and other ingredients.  I am kind of in love with this quote, taken directly from their website:
“I believe in producing my sauces in small numbered batches. This allows me to assure you that I have tasted every batch before it is bottled. It also allows for some slight variation due to the seasonal nature of some of the ingredients. These sauces are made to go with food; if you are looking for pain, eat a fresh habanero- that’ll do it.”

I didn’t try a single bad thing during the entire Expo, but the majority of vendors had one, maybe two, excellent products while the rest were good.   At Dragon’s Blood, on the other hand, I tasted over a dozen samples and was completely wowed by every last one.  Dragons Blood ElixirThe focus on producing sauces with real, identifiable flavor is immediately obvious as soon as it hits your tongue.  Their signature ingredient in every sauce recipe is apple puree, which gives each one a lovely, subtle sweetness plus a wonderful, smooth texture.

It took my friend and me at least a half hour to try all the samples they had available at the Expo, and the people staffing the booth were so friendly the whole time and seemed genuinely pumped to have us try their products.  At the end I was having so much trouble narrowing down what I wanted to buy, and they were more than happy to let me taste and re-taste certain contenders to make my final decision.

I ended up with 6 flavors: Sesame Tamari,  Balsamic Garlic Herb, Bluebarb, Roasted Garlic, Garlic Paprikash, and of course the original Dragon’s Blood Elixir Hot Sauce.
 photo SpicySpotlight2001_zps8becaee2.jpg
Aside from the original hot sauce flavor (which really is just a phenomenal all-purpose hot sauce), I made my choices based on ideas I had for what I wanted to cook with them.  And you guys…these are SO GOOD to cook with.   Okay, mostly to roast with, because we all know that roasted veggies are the BEST.  Here are three of my favorite recipes so far (all of which involve roasting–if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it):

If you are the kind of person that can just sit and eat a pound of roasted vegetables and call it dinner, well, then get ready for the best dinner of your life.  If you’re normal then go ahead and have it as a side dish.
Balsamic 002

1 bunch asparagus, woody ends trimmed
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons Dragon’s Blood Elixir Unique Destiny Balsamic Garlic Herb sauce
2 cloves fresh garlic, minced
Fresh lemon juice (optional)

Pre-heat oven to 400 F.  Place trimmed asparagus on a large rimmed baking sheet.  Drizzle olive oil and hot sauce over them and toss to coat well.  Add minced garlic over the top.

Place in oven and roast for 12 minutes.  Flip and roast an additional 8 minutes until browned and tender.  Remove from oven and squeeze a slice of lemon over them before serving.


 photo ed58e5a5-7620-4d26-9b56-4b81d9170886_zps29295d7e.jpg

2 pounds fingerling potatoes
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons Dragon’s Blood Elixir Garlic Paprikash sauce
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
Salt (to taste)

Preheat oven to 400 F.  Wash potatoes and pat them dry as best you can.  If any of them are noticeably larger than the others, cut those into smaller pieces.  Use a fork to poke a few holes in some of the bigger, whole potatoes.

Spread potatoes on a large rimmed baking sheet.  Add oil, hot sauce, and oregano, sprinkle with salt, and toss to coat well.  If you like crispy (read: blackened) garlic, add it now.  Otherwise wait (see below).

Roast for 15 minutes, then remove from oven and stir.  If you haven’t added the garlic yet, now is the time to do so.  Return to oven and roast an additional 15 minutes or until browned and easily pierced with a fork.

Add additional salt to taste.  Enjoy hot with a little extra garlic paprikash sauce drizzled on top.


Spicy Spotlight 010Ingredients
2/3 pounds Brussels sprouts, quartered
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
1-2 tablespoons Dragon’s Blood Elixir Unique Destiny Sesame Tamari sauce
2 cloves fresh garlic, minced
Salt (to taste)

Preheat oven to 400 F.  Spread quartered Brussels sprouts on a large rimmed baking sheet.  Add sesame oil, hot sauce, and garlic, sprinkle with salt, and toss to coat well.

Roast for 10 minutes, then flip or stir and roast an additional 10 minutes or until tender and browned.  Remove from oven and add additional salt to taste before serving.


I have to say, the Sesame Tamari sauce might be my ultra-fave.  It tastes incredible on any and all manner of roasted vegetable.  I also have grand plans for an Asian-style noodle bowl with like a gingery-peanutty-Sesame Tamari dressing, once horrible Passover ends and I can eat real food again.  OMG it would be so good on falafel too!  Okay done.

More spicy fun to come next week!  In the meantime have a wonderful weekend, and Happy Easter to those who celebrate.

Click here to read last week’s Spicy Spotlight featuring NW Elixirs.

Cherry Smoothie Jubilee

I love, love, love cherries.  Sadly, in the northeast we have an extremely short window each year for good cherries.  During that window (which usually starts in late June/early July and lasts about 3-4 weeks), I buy and eat an unreasonable amount of these ruby gems, and justify the price by how seldom I get to enjoy them fresh.

The rest of the year, I settle for frozen cherries, and I most often enjoy them in the form of–you guessed it!–smoothies.

Below I’m sharing my three favorite cherry-based smoothies.  Enjoy them while you’re waiting for cherry season to arrive!

This one isn’t super-thick but it tastes like vanilla ice cream.  So good!
Cherry Smoothie Jubilee

1 cup water
1 frozen banana
1 cup frozen cherries
2 cups fresh leafy greens (in the one pictured above I used a mix of collards and kale)
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Blend and serve!

Though it looks dark purple, this is actually a green smoothie!
Cherry 006
1 cup unsweetened almond milk
1 cup frozen cherries
1/2 cup frozen blueberries (I am currently obsessed with Wyman’s wild blueberries)
1 frozen banana
1/8 teaspoon almond extract
1.5 cups fresh leafy greens (the one in the picture contains spinach)

Blend and serve!

No greens in this one (though you could obviously add some)–it’s like having dessert for breakfast!
April 005
1 cup water
1 frozen banana
1 cup frozen cherries
2/3 cup frozen blueberries
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder
2-3 drops pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon brewed coffee (optional–enhances the chocolate flavor)

Wait for it…
Blend and serve!


My cherry concoctions have really been helping to get me through the last throes of winter.  Y’know, those days where you wake up and are immediately thankful that 1) your ice scraper is still in the car, and 2) you haven’t packed away your scarf and gloves yet.
April 004
April 007Sigh.

P.S. – I wanted to call this post Cherry Smoothi-lee but I didn’t know how well my cheesy pun would translate into a post title so I played it safe 🙂


Spicy Spotlight: NW Elixirs

You may recall that two weekends ago, H and I attended the second annual NYC Hot Sauce Expo, where we had the time of our lives sampling incredible, small batch, craft hot sauces in every flavor imaginable and meeting tons of great people.  We also purchased and brought home dozens of bottles of those sauces, and I immediately got to work coming up with fun uses and recipes for some of our acquisitions.

Over the coming weeks I am going to spotlight some of these products and my uses for them on the blog.   No one is paying me for this; I am only sharing because I have truly fallen in love with each and every one of these sauces and the incredible depth of flavor that they have added to my food.

For my first Spicy Spotlight, may I present NW Elixirs.  This company uses high quality ingredients to produce four flavors of hot sauce.  All four flavors were available to sample at the Expo, but only two of them are vegan, and H and I and purchased those two: the Verde Hott (#2) and the Hott Smoke (#3).

If you’ve ever had salsa verde, picture that…and then turn it up about 1000 notches, and you’ll be approaching Verde Hott.Spicy Spotlight 001I don’t know what it is about this sauce, but it is bursting at the seams with flavor.  It is so incredibly fresh-tasting, slightly sweet, and a little tangy.  It is perfect.  This is not a particularly spicy hot sauce, but it does have a nice kick.  I didn’t even consider myself a salsa verde fan before trying this, but once I tasted it, I had to have it.

The #1 way we’ve been using it is to make the easiest and best guacamole of all time.  This is what you do:

Take half an avocado, remove the pit, and fill the hole with Verde Hott.
Spicy Spotlight 016

Mash it up.  You’re done.
Spicy Spotlight 005This is wow-inducing guacamole.  If you don’t currently experience cravings for raw veggies, you will after you try dipping them in this.

The Hott Smoke is somewhat similar to a traditional barbecue sauce in consistency, but with a well-rounded, less sickly sweet flavor than other such sauces.  It is one of the least spicy sauces we bought.  With this one, it’s all about the flavor!
NW Elixirs Smoke 001

H is a big fan of this sauce as a spread for sandwiches (with non-vegan fillings).  I think it is absolutely perfect for grilling tofu:
NW Elixirs Smoke 007Just brush it on and grill it up!

Or for amping up your standard mushroom gravy!
NW Elixirs Smoke 002

Makes 1-1.5 cups

2/3 cup vegetable broth
1/3 cup unsweetened non-dairy milk
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon mild miso (I used yellow)
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 shallot, minced (about 2 tablespoons worth)
8 oz. sliced baby bella (aka crimini) mushrooms, roughly chopped
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 – 2 tablespoons NW Elixirs Hott Smoke
1 – 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast (optional)

Combine the broth and milk in a measuring cup or small bowl.  Add cornstarch and miso and whisk until dissolved.  Set aside.

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat.  Add the garlic and shallots and saute about 2 minutes or until lightly golden.

Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until they start to soften and shrink down (about 5 minutes).

Add the broth/milk/cornstarch/miso mixture, thyme, and black pepper, stir to combine, and then bring the whole thing to a gentle simmer.  Lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until it has cooked down and thickened.

Remove from heat and stir in Hott Smoke and optional nutritional yeast (start with 1 tablespoon, then taste and add more if desired).  Add salt to taste (mine didn’t need any because there was enough salt in the broth and miso, but this will vary).

1) If you aren’t lucky enough to have Hott Smoke in your kitchen, you can substitute another not-too-sweet barbecue sauce and a dash or two of liquid smoke.
2) The non-dairy milk is optional; if you don’t have or don’t want to use it, just go with a full cup of broth.
3) Use chickpea miso for a soy-free version, or omit altogether.

This is heaven over mashed potatoes.  Heaven, I tell you!
NW Elixirs Smoke 009So my first attempts at cooking with Expo products were a success!  It felt good to justify the absurd amount of stuff we brought home from it this way 🙂  As per H:  “The lack of restraint we showed at the Hot Sauce Expo actually worked out fantastically!”

I’ll have lots more fun, spicy cooking experiments to share in the coming weeks!

Have a great weekend!


Choco-berry Smoothie–a Green Smoothie that is not green!

Why, oh why, have I never added cocoa powder to a smoothie before today?

There is no good answer to this question.  I’m just going to chalk it up as one of life’s great unsolved mysteries.

What I can tell you for certain is that the smoothie I made this morning, incorporating unsweetened cocoa powder, was outstanding.  It is one that I highly recommend, particularly to anyone looking to ease into green smoothies.  I happen to love the hint of leafy goodness that most green smoothies impart, but I know it’s not for everyone, and in this one both the taste and color of the greens are artfully disguised by rich chocolatey goodness.Chocoberry Smoothie 001CHOCO-BERRY GREEN SMOOTHIE
Yield: 1 large smoothie
Vegan and gluten-free

1 cup water
1 frozen banana
1/2 cup frozen strawberries
2/3 cup frozen blueberries
2 large collard green leaves, torn into smaller pieces
1-2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (start with 1 and add more to taste)

Add all ingredients, in the order shown, to a blender and blend from low to high until smooth and well-combined.


  • Any dark green leafy vegetable can be substituted for the collard greens (e.g., spinach, kale, or chard).  It should come out to about 2 packed cups full.  If you’re new to green smoothies, start with less and gradually work up to 2 cups.
  • Fresh fruit may be substituted for any of the frozen fruit.  You may want to add some ice if substituting more than one frozen ingredient.
  • Use non-dairy milk in place of the water for a richer, “milk chocolate” version.

Chocoberry Smoothie 003Yes, I did toss some chocolate chips on there for garnish.  And I’m not sad that chocolate chips were part of my breakfast.  Not sad at all.

Unsweetened cocoa is chock full of health benefits so you can definitely feel okay about having it for breakfast.  It is low in calories while being high in fiber, iron, copper, and magnesium.  It also naturally contains a hefty dose of antioxidants in the form of flavonoids.  Just be aware that many commercially-available varieties have had the flavonoids removed (our American food industry at work, ladies and gents).   [Sources: Livestrong and Metabolic Effect]

I know people often achieve similar smoothie results by for example adding chocolate protein powder to a smoothie.  Personally I have never encountered a protein powder (vegan or non-vegan) that I found palatable, so the cocoa powder works out great for me.

I can totally imagine feeding this smoothie to my kids someday for a little veggie boost at breakfast time.  [Hopefully my future children aren’t reading this, but if they are–SURPRISE!  You ate a vegetable.  Mama only tricks you because she loves you.]

Weigh in: chocolate protein powder or unsweetened cocoa powder?

I am firmly in the cocoa camp!

Update: I am sharing this smoothie in the Sunday Smoothie Link-up being hosted over at The Gluten-Free Treadmill–check it out!

NYC Hot Sauce Expo 2014

Last Saturday, H and I headed down to New York to attend the 2nd Annual NYC Hot Sauce Expo.NYC HSE 026
NYC HSE 001I was so SO excited about this event.  With over 45 vendors giving out hundreds of samples, how could a spicy food lover like me not be?

I can now tell you that it was even better than I had hoped it would be.

The level of quality of both the products and the vendors was outstanding.  I mean, really outstanding.  Even the hottest sauces and foods I tried were absolutely bursting with flavor.  The freshness of the ingredients and the care put into making the products was readily apparent at every turn.  I can’t recall consuming even one sub-par product the entire time I was there.
NYC HSE 007Horseshoe was one of my favorite brands at the event.  Their kiwi jalapeno hot sauce might be the best thing I tried the whole day.  They also had the prettiest display!

H and I purchased the Sweet Spot level tickets, which give you access to the vendors plus a free bottle of a sponsor’s hot sauce and 6 drink tokens per person that you can redeem at the bar for wine, Lagunitas beer, or cocktails.  These tickets cost $35 each. I don’t think I need to explain why this is an absurd value, especially in New York City.
NYC HSE 008Throughout the day you can try as many samples as you can handle (and that is included in your ticket, obviously), but each vendor also has bottles and bottles of product for purchase as well.  Fair warning that this can become expensive quickly, especially if, like me, you simply have to have every sauce that made you say “Mmm!” to take home.

The vast majority of the sample sauces are vegan, and sampling is done either on tortilla chips or with a small spoon.  So as far as the sampling goes, it really is a vegan-friendly event.   A few of the vendors (though fewer than I would have thought) had sauces containing bacon and a few more have sauces with honey (but again, fewer than I would have thought).  Another thing to watch out for is Worcestershire sauce (which typically contains anchovies), but outside of the Bloody Mary mixes this didn’t seem to crop up very often.
Several of the vendors had food available to sample, some of it vegan (like spicy pretzels and sriracha popcorn) and some not (like beef jerky and Cabot cheese).  There was also some food available to purchase, the majority of which was not vegan (pulled pork sandwiches and tacos…although they did have a vegetarian taco option).  They had soft pretzels which looked pretty good (I didn’t try them), although some of them were wrapped in bacon or stuffed with something non-vegan.

They also had a number of stations selling (and also giving samples of) ice cream.  Imagine my utter shock and delight when I saw this:
I will have much more to say about this company in a future post.  For now, all I need to tell you is that the almond marzipan flavor is out of this world.  H couldn’t stop raving about it.

The length of the event (10 a.m. – 7 p.m.) seemed like a lot but was actually perfect, for a couple of reasons.  First and foremost, you really can’t just sample hot sauces for 9 hours without a break [well, maybe you can, but I sure cannot!].  There were times when I felt like my face was actually melting, and it took me a good 20-30 minutes to cool back down, so having a nice long event meant that I still had plenty of time to get around to most or all of the vendors.

Second, the Expo got increasingly crowded as the day wore on, and the lines for the bathroom and bar lengthened accordingly (although this did correspond nicely with that 20-30 minute cooldown).

Third, as the event winds down, it is nice to have a little time to revisit booths that you particularly enjoyed and to chat with the vendors.  I met a lot of really interesting, passionate individuals and was grateful for the opportunity to learn a good deal about the art of hot sauce making and flavor development as well as their sourcing and production.
The expo took place at the Penn Plaza Pavilion, which is on 7th Ave at 33rd Street, directly across the street from the train station.  It’s a fantastic, central location and very easy to travel to.

The space was definitely big enough to accommodate all of the vendors and attendees, but I thought the layout was kind of strange and a bit maze-like.  It seemed like there were several nooks and crannies where you’d unexpectedly encounter a vendor you hadn’t seen before, even though you’d already spent 4 hours walking around.  I’m not sure the layout was *bad* necessarily , but it was different from other expo-type events that I’ve been to.

I should mention that there was nowhere to put coats.  H tied his around his waist, and I had to carry mine over my arm the whole day, which made sampling a bit awkward at times.

There also was nowhere to sit down (although possibly there is if you buy the VIP tickets…I didn’t have one so I didn’t see if there were seats in that section), which I know might deter or, frankly, prevent some people from attending.  An old friend of H’s came to the event and the two of them ended up just sitting on the floor against a support beam to be able to chat and catch up.

[But none of this took away from the] FUN FACTOR
This event was SO much fun.  It’s full of an offbeat, niche crowd of pepperheads that really gets into the whole thing.  The vendors also appear to be having the time of their lives, and there’s plenty of silliness and puns to go around.NYC HSE 010NYC HSE 005NYC HSE 015H and I couldn’t stop talking on Sunday about what a great time we had.  We already can’t wait to go back next year!  In the meantime, we will not lack for hot sauce goodness, as we came home with and outlandish amount of hot sauce (THREE tote bags full) in every flavor imaginable.

In the coming weeks I will have posts highlighting some of the companies that stood out to me, including recipes/uses I’m inventing with some of the wonderful stuff we bought.  Stay tuned!

Simple Food for Stressful Times

Work, and life in general, have really ramped up in the last few weeks.  I’ve also been traveling way more than normal this past month (taking trips to Richmond, Florida, and NYC [recap coming soon!] in three consecutive weeks).  

As a result, I haven’t been doing a ton of cooking, mainly because I don’t want to leave leftovers sitting in the fridge while I’m away, but also because the idea of keeping things super-simple is just  so attractive when you’re going through crazy times.

My days have been looking something like this:

Breakfast:  Smoothie, made with all frozen ingredients.  This is a departure from my normal practice of combining fresh and frozen ingredients, but I have resisted buying a lot of fresh produce lately, because I’ve been out of town so often.

Morning Snack:  Grapefruit or a navel orange.  My mother-in-law receives shipments of the most wonderful citrus from Florida all winter long and generously shares these with us.  This comes in super-handy for quick snacking.
Light 008Lunch:  Soup or a tofu sandwich.  Soup is either defrosted from our freezer or from a can (I always keep a supply of Amy’s soups on hand).

Afternoon Snack(s):  I almost always have two snacks in the afternoon, one at work and the other pre-workout (if I’m hungry then) or post-workout while I’m getting dinner ready.  The standard of late has been 1/4 cup of homemade hummus with carrots and sugar snap peas (one of my favorite foods!), and 1/8 cup of soaked raw almonds (I just put them in a small container with water in the morning and they soak through the day).
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Oh and if you have never had soaked almonds, you are missing out big time!

Dinner: Whatever is around!  On the nights I have cooked, it’s been something really easy, tried and true that H also loves (so I know there won’t be too much left over), like my Easiest Lentil Soup or the Red Lentil Cauliflower Curry from Veganomicon (one of the best recipes of all time).  I also always have cooked brown rice available (often in the fridge but always in the freezer) for making ultra-lazy “bowls” where I heat it up with some canned beans, spices, and steamed (or defrosted) veggies.Simple 002In this one I used Gardein buffalo “wings” that had been in the freezer for a while and added a lazy man’s “ranch” sauce that I made out of reduced fat Veganaise (which is unbelievably good, btw) mixed with some lemon juice, cumin, and dried dill.  [Note: these are not affiliate links, just links to the companies’ websites so that anyone who’s not familiar with the products can see what I’m talking about.]

It’s not the most exciting or glamorous daily menu but it’s been working fantastically for me during these busy times.

What simple meals help you through busy times?