Gardening in 2020: Sustainability is Chic Again!

Who is experiencing anxiety when going grocery shopping right now? I’m definitely in this camp! Surveying empty shelves is panic inducing. Who has lots of time on their hands at home right now? Yup. I’m in that camp, too. So what CAN you control? You can create your own food source.

My garden right after planting a few weeks ago. I already had the fence posts and plastic netting. I plan to upgrade the netting soon!

That’s right. It’s a great time to get your hands dirty, occupy your time, support some local farms and feed stores, and put in a garden. Your kids might even want to help you!

Baby zucchini in my garden.

As the world isolates, there have been reassurances that our food supply chain is intact and safe, however, there have been multiple reports that it is not as stable as we might perceive. Those who rely on meat and eggs for nutrition have known for a few weeks that these items have been in short supply. Many processing plants have had to shut down due to the spread of the virus among their workers. Dairy farmers have had to dump milk. And even vegetable farmers have had to waste some of their harvest. Even more reason to lean more on local food sources. My family has been taking advantage of the offerings of our local farmers in recent weeks. Many farmers’ markets are learning how to adapt, with vendors taking online orders and with drive through pickup. But now I am even happier that I’ve started this garden project.

Collards in my garden.

Shortly after we moved into this house, my husband built us four beautiful raised beds. I kept a garden for several years, but have not for the past 3 growing seasons. Unfortunately, the structure of these beds suffered from my neglect, but I have uncovered what remains, and I put in the beginnings of a garden.

Butter beans have sprouted!

I have a few plants started already. I had some garlic chives, a perennial, which remains from my prior gardens, and it has sprouted multiple volunteers! I’ve also put in one tomato plant, some collards, and a few varieties of squash plants. I’ve also started some potatoes and butter bean from seeds. For now, I have to keep my tomato, squash plants, and bean seedlings happy by covering them at night if the temperature drops into the 30’s, but I wanted to get a jump start on the season.

My not so sophisticated way of covering my plants to protect them from the cold last night. Low of 40 degrees.

My plants were purchased from a variety of sources. If I had known back in February that we would be facing a pandemic, I may have started plants from seed. But who had that foresight back then? Buying quality plants has been fairly easy, though. I tried as much as possible to support local businesses, buying from the local Ashland Feed and Seed and Lavender Fields Farm, although the collards and tomato plant were an impulse buy from the grocery store.

The Ashland Feed and Seed is an old time feed store that reminds me of the Ace Hardware Store that my Aunt Neva and Uncle Bob used to own in Plant City, Florida. I used to love playing with the baby chicks every time we would visit over spring break. If you have chickens, Ashland Feed and Seed carries Sunrise Farms non-GMO chicken feed grown in Virginia. They also carry a variety of plants, seeds, and gardening tools, plus anything you would ever need for your pets and livestock. Visiting in person is super fun because they have several resident cats who are all friendly and love attention! Ashland Feed and Seed is deemed an essential business and are open at this time.

The view of the Chichahominy River from Lavender Fields Farm in Henrico County. There are normally chairs to sit and enjoy the view, but these have been removed temporarily due to social distancing precautions.

My other favorite plant source is Lavender Fields Farm, a beautiful property in Henrico County off of Greenwood Road. The farm is bordered by the Chickahominy River, and there are outstanding views from the property. The Ashland to Petersburg Trail will run adjacent to the farm when it is completed. They have a cute shop with handmade soaps, essential oils, and Bev’s ice cream (not vegan). The lavender flavor is a favorite for my non-vegan kids! On my last visit, they also had small raised bed kits. But the highlight of items for purchase there are their herb and vegetable plants. Right now, you can order and pay by phone and pickup curbside, including ice cream!  Once we are off quarantine, take the time to take a tour! In a week or so, I will pick up more tomatoes from Lavender Fields. They will have all kinds of interesting varieties you can’t get anywhere else.

The view as you approach the farm from the entrance. There is a main house, two smaller shop buildings, and plants on display. There are numerous greenhouses toward the back of the property as well as chickens and bee hives.
Some of the many plants available on display at the farm.

As I am by no means a gardening expert, I rely on my friends for help! If you frequent your local farmer’s market, most growers are eager to share their knowledge. And my good friend Tisha has been posting a lot about gardening on her Instagram and will be sharing her gardening advice and adventures on her blog, On Bramble Hill. Go follow her blog and on Instagram @tisha_lyn. She has also recently added chickens to her little homestead, so it will be fun to watch them grow! Tisha also uses raised beds; it’s a great way to manage soil quality. We both live in rural areas on opposite sides of the metro Richmond area, so it’s necessary to protect our crops from deer. They are prevalent and LOVE to use our gardens as a food source. She recommends deer netting to keep them out of your garden. I’m hoping that it will also keep out the neighbors’ feral cats! Don’t get me wrong. I love cats. It’s just really disappointing when your babies you grew from seed start dying because cats have been using your raised beds as giant litter boxes.

Don’t have a place to put in a garden? Many plants grow well in containers. There are some bred specifically for this. Look for “bush” or “patio” varieties. Most tomatoes will grow well in containers as well, especially smaller varieties like grape, cherry, and Roma. Herbs grow very well as a windowsill kitchen garden or in containers. You can even grow potatoes this way!

Do yourself a favor. While we are all stuck at home, take the time to put in a garden. You may be even more grateful than you realize that you have this sustainable food source in the months to come.

Have you put in a garden this year? I’d love to hear about it! Hope you all are staying safe and healthy.

Comfort Food: Vegan Banana Bread with a Twist

First, let me follow up on my last blog post. I mentioned that one of my favorite movies was That Thing You Do. One of my friends posted this amazing cover by Billy Joe Armstrong from Green Day as a tribute to Adam Schlesinger, and it’s so good, I almost cried!

And as we are all figuring out how to pass the time during quarantine, I have not read a more entertaining account than this one from Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale. She seems to be having far more fun than anyone I know. She is an immensely talented storyteller, so this is definitely worth reading, even if it’s just to find out about her rubber chicken choir.

Vegan Tropical Banana Bread, adapted from the banana bread recipe from The Simple Veganista

Now, back to the business at hand. Who else has found an unexplainable urge to stock up on bananas at the grocery store? Some of my friends have reported that this is a common error in pick up/delivery orders, requesting 7 single bananas and receiving 7 bunches of them! Or ordering one bunch of bananas and getting one single banana. Yikes! Why is ordering bananas so challenging? And in our efforts to utilize everything we’ve purchased, save from freezing tons of bananas, we turn to the best comfort food: banana bread.

Long ago, I searched the internet for the best vegan banana bread recipe, and when I tried this version from the Simple Veganista, I had to look no further. The basic recipe is outstanding. I had made it a few weeks in a row, and then I decided to tweak the recipe a bit, creating a version with a tropical twist by adding nuts, pineapple, and coconut. I tried canned pineapple, but even with draining the juice from the fruit, the resulting bread was too… I’m going to say it… moist. So I resorted to dried pineapple, and that was what worked. The result is the perfect mix of tropical flavors with a bread that has a good crumb.

So without further ado, I give you:

Vegan Tropical Banana Bread

Some of the ingredients for Vegan Tropical Banana Bread.

Ingredients:

  • 1.5 cups flour (I prefer unbleached AP, but use what you like or have)
  • 1/3 cup organic brown sugar
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • ½ tsp. baking soda
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • 1/3 cup avocado oil (or other neutral oil)
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 3 large overripe bananas, mashed
  • ½ cup diced, dried pineapple
  • ½ cup diced walnuts or pecans
  • ½ cup unsweetened coconut
Mixing in the pineapple, nuts, and coconut.

Directions:

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • Prepare a bread pan by spraying with non-stick cooking spray.
  • Mix the flour, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.
  • Mix the wet ingredients in a large bowl. Set aside.
  • Add the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients, mixing until just combined.
  • Add the remaining ingredients, and stir until combined.
  • Pour into prepared bread pan.
  • Bake for 50-60 minutes or until surface is browned and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.  
Batter after all ingredients are mixed! Dough should appear wet, but hold together.

Some helpful tips:

Let the bread cool in the pan for a few minutes prior to removing it from the pan. To do that, gently ease bread from sides of pan by sliding a knife between the bread and the pan around all sides, and then flip the pan over to free the bread. I use oven mitts or oven gloves to do this, since the pan will still be hot! Let the bread cool on a cooling rack. This slices best when it’s completely cooled, but I can’t ever wait that long! As with most quick breads, store it wrapped in aluminum foil at room temperature if you will eat it in 2-3 days. Move it to the fridge if it will take longer.  

If you need a nut-free option, just add a bit more pineapple and coconut.

If you need a gluten-free option, I would suggest using a commercially blended GF flour like Bob’s Red Mill.

Finished bread. I cut this before it had fully cooled, so it looks a bit messy!

If you try this recipe, let me know how it goes! Happy comfort baking!

I hope you and your family are surviving quarantine. What “comfort foods” are you making? I’d love to hear about it! Stay safe and healthy.

Focus on Wellness: Pandemic Edition

How is everyone? No, really. How ARE you? Have you settled into a new routine? Are you one of the lucky ones who can work from home? Are you studying online? What are you doing to pass the time?

I think most of us have reached the level of quarantine where the novelty has worn off. We are all a bit stir-crazy. With the new wave of protests, this is very evident. But from the perspective of public health scientists, we are not out of the woods yet. We need to keep listening to them, even if we are growing bored with our stay at home lives.

For me, I’m doing OK. I’m an introvert at heart, so isolating isn’t absolutely terrible for me. I was officially laid off as a PRN employee, and no one is hiring physical therapists right now. Grocery stores are hiring, but my applications have been met with swift rejections since I’m “overqualified.” I am extremely grateful my husband is still employed. It could be so much worse.

I am also extremely grateful my children are very self-sufficient teenagers! I have no idea what I would do if I had young kids at home. For those of you who do, I’m so sorry! I’m sure there are some magical moments, but also lots of frustration and chaos.

Speaking of chaos, my wardrobe and appearance have certainly regressed. I am by no means a high maintenance girl. The last time I had a haircut was a year ago. And I don’t ever polish my nails. But I do wear makeup to work and to go out. I haven’t worn makeup in over a month! The ads that pop up on social media for makeup are hilarious. I mean, who’s wearing makeup right now? And I have settled into a rotation of pajamas, “dress” lounge pants, regular lounge pants, and workout clothes. I think I’ve put on a real bra once during quarantine, and that was for a trip to the grocery store.

Unless I am on that rare trip to the grocery store, my brain has been surprisingly calm. I tend to struggle with anxiety and feeling down anyway, but it’s if my brain is saying, “See? I told you the bad thing was going to happen.” And I’m simultaneously anxious about the future and at ease with the present, although I’ve been having very strange dreams in quarantine. Anyone else? My most memorable pandemic dream thus far was that I suddenly had ginormous boobs, and I was breastfeeding numerous babies. I figured there must be a hidden meaning to this, so I looked it up. Apparently I miss being a caregiver. Strange dreams are seemingly common during the pandemic.

I’m coping by taking in what I like to call “comfort entertainment.” I haven’t been able to really concentrate on reading books. I’ve tried, but nothing I’ve read has really hooked me in. I don’t know if it’s the trauma of the pandemic or something else. If you’ve got any recommendations, I’d love some suggestions of good books! But lately I’ve been resorting to other media.

Do you re-watch movies? My top choices are The Sound of Music, That Thing You Do, Legally Blonde, and Pitch Perfect. Comfort in a DVD. Yes, I still have those!

My affection for The Sound of Music started at a young age. You can thank my parents for that. I looked forward to the replay on TV every Christmas. A few years ago, my brother bought me the DVD for Christmas. I love it! And now my kids do, too! Rogers and Hammerstein are Broadway geniuses, and this is their best work.

As I’m writing this, I’m listening to the cast reunion of That Thing You Do on their YouTube channel. I first saw this movie while I was in PT school. My study partner and I took a break from cramming for graduate school exams and watched this in the Byrd Theater on a Saturday night. It is still the only movie I’ve ever seen there, and I was lucky enough to do that on a night that they played the organ! The reunion is a fundraiser in honor of Adam Schlesinger, who succumbed to COVID-19 earlier this month. I didn’t know that he wrote the song That Thing You Do until he passed, but I did know that he wrote one of the best songs of all time, Stacey’s Mom, as a part of the Fountains of Wayne.

And Legally Blonde… well, I come by my love for this lighthearted movie honestly! One of my running partners and fellow blonde, Sarah, also loves this movie. We are most likely to bust out spontaneous quotes from the film several miles into a delirium inducing 16 plus mile long run.

Pitch Perfect has a similar feel of That Thing You Do, although much more frivolous! I love to cheer for the underdog, and I love music. This movie is also a favorite of my younger daughter. We bought her parts 1 and 2 for Christmas a couple of years ago.

Then there’s TV. I am sad that the new shows are wrapping up for the season. But I find myself going back in time to the 90’s and watching Friends. I almost forget about the present… until a commercial comes on. Most are about how companies are dealing with the pandemic. And I’m in love with the new show Zoe’s Extraordinary Playlist. I’ve tried streaming some shows on Netflix, etc., but, to be honest, I’m having a difficult time engaging with some of the hot, new shows. I did binge watch Unorthodox and enjoyed it. Highly recommend! What have you been watching in quarantine?

My other new thing is puzzles. One of my husband’s relatives loves them, so the last time my daughter and I delivered food to her, we borrowed a few. (We are doing the grocery shopping for the elders in our family right now.) We are on our third one, and this one is tough! This is usually a vacation activity. I can’t say I’ve ever assembled a puzzle in my own home before now. Apparently my family is not alone in this!

One of our quarantine puzzles

I’m also trying to keep up my fitness, so that means maintaining my 3 time per week runs, cross training on the bike, and some garage workouts. I look forward to my daily exercise, but tend to procrastinate in getting out of the house to actually accomplish it. My rural roads are still so crowded with cars, it’s like no one is actually staying at home. Meanwhile, my friends in the city seem to be blissfully roaming empty streets. So I’ve been running mostly in town, even though I feel guilty because I’m not exactly “sheltering in place.” I find myself a bit aggravated when I see people on “my” trails, which are typically empty, but are now busy with people escaping their homes like me. But I am glad that people are exercising. Bike rides are getting easier, although I’m still a novice. I actually live off of the Route 1 bike route, so it was pretty well frequented by cyclists prior to the quarantine. It’s supremely humbling to get passed by someone on a real road bike, though! Mine is kind of a hybrid of a beach cruiser, mountain bike, and road bike. But for what it lacks in speed it makes up for in versatility. I can ride the trails and roads equally with no issues. (Speaking of biking, check out Sports Backers for their Bike Walk Month celebration, which begins tomorrow!) As for garage workouts, I really wish I had some dumbbells, at the very least. They seem to be sold out everywhere! As a last resort, I’ve taken wine carriers and filled them with cans to use for weights, even holding them together for kettlebell swings. I also treated myself to a new jump rope, hoping to master double unders while spending so much time at home. I wish I could report greater success with this! If you need workout ideas, try this website to construct your own based on what you have at hand and the movements you like.

My makeshift home gym, featuring a jump rope and wine bags filled with cans!

My husband is thrilled that I’ve also taken some time to organize and purge, although I’m sure he’d rather me devote most of my time to that! I even reached the level of quarantine boredom that I have made a major dent in cleaning my laundry room, had my own little sock matching party, AND deep cleaned my toaster oven. FYI, I sadly still have socks missing their mates… but now at least I can see the chairs in our bedroom. That’s been a nice place to have my breakfast and morning coffee, since our main living space is now an office.

Then there’s cooking. So much cooking! And baking. And doing dishes. I enjoy the creative outlet of cooking, but loathe the cleanup. But we’re trying to eat at home as much as possible. It’s amazing how much I’m turning to comfort foods right now. Who else has made banana bread?

My last ongoing project is that I’ve started a garden. I’ll share more about that later, but this is my first garden in 3 years.

And, of course, there’s pondering what to say to you, my readers. I’ve got lots of time on my hands now.

Take care of yourselves. I don’t think there’s any right way to endure quarantine. But we will hopefully get through this together.

I hope you all are doing well. Please share how you are coping during quarantine. Stay safe and healthy, everyone.

Vegan Potato Soup: Comfort in a Bowl

As we continue to quarantine, many of us are turning to familiar foods that ease anxiety and use up all of those pantry staples we stocked up on. Of all the dishes from my childhood, this one is probably the best. It’s my family’s comfort food, and one of the first things my mom would fix if we were sick. It is also the dish I mourned the most when I went vegan, since the original recipe calls for butter and milk. This is one of the first recipes my mom taught me how to make as a child. It is also a traditional second night of vacation dish when we go on big family trips!

Vegan Potato Soup

When I transitioned to a vegan diet, I started to experiment with various milk substitutes to “veganize” this meal. My first attempt was using unsweetened, plain almond milk. Unfortunately, the results were not ideal. Edible, but far from great.

I’ve mentioned before the miracle of Sam’s Choice Vegan Protein Broth from Walmart, which gets its protein from lentils. (This broth is still on the shelf at my local neighborhood Walmart, even with less inventory available). When I discovered this, I decided to give it a go in this soup. It worked perfectly, lending a creamy, savory base to this soup that did not curdle.

The other secret to this soup is in how you cut the veggies. You must cut at random angles! The thinner portions will actually break off and thicken the soup.

Cutting potatoes and onions at odd angles

Recipe:

Potatoes, onions, vegan butter, and broth: ingredients for potato soup

Ingredients:

  • 5 lb bag of potatoes, peeled and cut in random sized pieces. I prefer gold or russet.
  • 2-3 onions (white or sweet), peeled, discarding tip end, but keeping root end in place to ease cutting; cut in random sized pieces
  • Enough water to fill pot 2/3 to potato/onion line
  • Salt
  • 1 stick Earth Balance vegan butter
  • 1-2 cups Sam’s Choice Vegan Protein Broth

Directions:

  • Place potatoes and onions in a large stew pot (I usually cut them directly into the pot)
  • Fill pot with water to 2/3 depth of potatoes/onions.
  • Salt generously (start with about 1T).
  • Bring to a boil, then turn to low, simmering for 20 minutes or until potatoes are fork tender.
  • Add vegan butter and allow to melt.
  • Add vegan protein broth until desired consistency is achieved (typically 1-2 cups).
  • Adjust salt as desired.
  • Serve with crackers. We love saltines or oyster crackers.
Cut veggies
Vegan butter added after veggies are cooked.

This will typically serve 4-6 people as a main course.

Dinner is served!

If you try this dish, let me know what you think! I hope you all are staying safe and healthy.

Now Blooming: Pink Lady’s Slippers

Taking a pause from thinking about the virus to reflect on nature.

When I was a kid, my parents would tell stories to my brother and me about how they went hiking in their younger years. They became quite skilled in finding and identifying wildflowers and birds on these adventures, and they frequently shared this knowledge with us. Our bookshelves were lined with Peterson field guides which were tremendous fun to peruse, long before the internet. These experiences sparked a love and respect for nature in me that continued into adulthood.

In seventh grade, my science teacher had us go through a series of collection and identification projects, including tree leaves and wildflowers. How blessed was I to have parents who jumped in so enthusiastically into these projects with me! I had, by far, the best collection of wildflowers of anyone in my class. My parents knew how to find all of the unusual flowers. It’s where I learned about wild ginger, mayflowers, trillium, jack-in-the-pulpit, and the elusive pink lady’s slipper.

A Pink Lady’s Slipper on our property in 2019

In the state of Virginia, the pink lady’s slipper is considered endangered. I’m sure habitat destruction has played a part. But I’ve also learned that this particular flower, a member of the orchid family, is rather particular when it comes to its ideal growing conditions. It grows in patches of woods with dappled sunshine and a fair amount of forest debris. It needs a particular type of fungus found in the decaying underbrush to grow. If you find one, don’t pick it! It will never return. She is a delicate flower, indeed.

The pink lady’s slipper evolved to almost legend status in my opinion. I had never seen one in person. It was like a mythical forest creature you could never catch. Imagine my fascination when I learned that my soon to be husband had some growing in the yard of the house where he grew up. I took it as a sign that our marriage was meant to be.

Fast forward a few years, and we now have a home next door to my in-laws. I kept hoping that we would have pink lady’s slippers growing on our property, but it didn’t seem that it was ever going to happen.

In March of 2018, our 18 year old cat Tigger passed over the rainbow bridge. The kids and I held him as he transitioned with the help of the vet. I left it up to the girls what they wanted to do with him, as we were given a choice between cremation or burying him ourselves. Anna held him in his blanket, and we took him home. He is now buried in a marked grave in the woods behind our home.

The grave marker for our cat, Tigger, who passed over the rainbow bridge in March of 2018.
My girls constructed his marker.

Later in April of that year, Anna suddenly ran into the house and breathlessly announced that we had pink lady’s slippers! A single flower appeared right beside Tigger’s grave, the first of these beautiful flowers in 11 years of living here. I took it as a sign that he was at peace. I decided to wander our property to see if there were any more, and, lo and behold, we had several more in various parts of our woods. I was ecstatic!

Newly budding Pink Lady’s Slippers.

As I wandered our property today, I was excited to see the familiar sight of the leaves of several pink lady’s slippers, and a couple of these already have flowers. It will be fun in the coming weeks to see dots of pink in our woods! It’s unusual to have so much time on my hands that I can actually savor their emergence and evolution into full grown flowers this year. Sometimes pausing in life allows us to appreciate the little things. I feel tremendously blessed by Mother Nature that she has chosen our home to host this beautiful flower.

Newly emerging. Just the leaves so far!

What’s in bloom near your home? Have you spotted any beautiful flowers on your quarantine walks? I’d love to hear about it! Hope everyone is safe and healthy.

Yellow Rice: A cheerful side dish!

When I was little, a favorite side dish at my house was yellow rice. Do you know the kind? It comes in a bright yellow, shiny bag. It’s delicious, but it’s also full of MSG and other processed ingredients.

Yellow rice. This batch was made without saffron.

Not too long ago, I had an epiphany of sorts while wandering the aisle of the grocery store. I decided to make rice with coconut milk and turmeric, all ingredients I stock in my vegan pantry. The result was delicious, and it made me think of that childhood favorite side dish. Plus, all of the ingredients are real, and this recipe is allergy friendly!

You have the added bonus of incorporating two ingredients known for their health benefits: coconut and turmeric.

Here’s how to make it:

Yellow Rice

Ingredients for yellow rice

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup white rice. (I typically keep basmati on hand.)
  • 1 can coconut milk (regular or light, your preference) plus enough water to make 2 cups liquid
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp garlic or onion salt or powder OR an frozen crushed garlic cube
  • 1 tsp salt, plus additional after cooking, to taste
  • If you happen to have saffron, you can add a healthy pinch of this to the mix as well, but it’s not necessary.
Adding coconut milk/water mixture to dry rice.
Rice before cooking with all spices added, including a pinch of saffron. Saffron isn’t necessary, but does add another flavor note.

Directions:

Place all ingredients in a medium to large saucepan and stir to combine. Bring mixture to a boil, cover, and reduce heat to low. Allow to cook for time specified for your variety of rice (usually 15 mins for white rice.) Stir and serve! Makes enough for 4-6 generous servings.

Rice after cooking.

Try it garnished with chopped green onion or chives. This makes a great accompaniment to roasted veggies, tofu, or beans.

I will continue to create and post dishes which rely on vegan pantry staples as we continue to quarantine from the coronavirus. If you try this dish, let me know! I hope everyone stays safe and healthy.

Grocery Store Tours for Vegans: Trader Joe’s

Trader Joe’s in Short Pump, Richmond, Virginia. Taken prior to the pandemic.

I began writing this post long before the emergence of our current pandemic, and most of the photos for this post were taken on a trip prior to the outbreak. And although my grocery store tours will be sparse for now, it’s worth touring Trader Joe’s at this time. I visited yesterday, and they have the social distancing and cleanliness issues with grocery shopping under control at their stores. I stood in line and waited for over 40 minutes to access the store since they only let in 30 shoppers at a time. Since I was shopping for multiple households (I’ve been shopping for the elders in our lives, too), I brought my older daughter to help.

Line to enter Trader Joe’s, which ended at the opposite side of the shopping center. Note the TJ’s employees to the side monitoring safe distancing. As the line progressed, there were actually tape marks on the sidewalk 6 feet apart.
Now grateful for hobbies that require face masks for safety. These are part of my tie dye mixing gear stash. I only have enough for my immediate family. The new normal.

The stores were not only clean, but well stocked with everything per usual. And some of the things I dislike about Trader Joe’s, which isn’t much, are actually blessings right now, like their packaged fresh produce. It gives me a sense of cleanliness in an otherwise contaminated world. Plus, the employees were all super friendly, even the ones outside monitoring the lines, ensuring patrons maintained 6’ distances in line. Just prior to entering the store, an employee gives you a squirt of hand sanitizer, and carts handles are wiped.

Our Trader Joe’s in Richmond is in Short Pump, less than a mile from our original Whole Foods. The small format stores greet you at the door with beautiful cut flowers and potted houseplants! Employees are happy, friendly, and helpful, and many of them have been there so long, they know me by name. Typically there are samples of products in the back of the store as well as wine in the afternoons, but not now under new guidelines due to the virus. When my kids were little, they also loved to find Shorty the Dog! It earned them a lollipop!

Entrance of Trader Joe’s

If you’ve never visited Trader Joe’s, just know that most of what they sell is their own brand. Typically if you want to try something before you buy it, just ask! They are always willing to open something for you to sample, although no sampling is allowed for now. Almost everything I’ve tried is good! And the prices are amazing.

The only frustration I have with our location is that they tend to mix up the layout periodically. The wine/beer never moves, as well as the frozen foods, obviously, but everything else might be in a different location than the last time you were there! I mentioned this to a manager once, and he pretty much admitted that it is clearly a tactic to get you out of your shopping rut and force you to see new products. I can’t deny that this is a good strategy…

That minor frustration aside, Trader Joe’s has much to offer for vegans! What are my must-haves?

  • Produce
    • Can you ever really have enough? They have great pre-washed salad greens and pre-cut vegetables like butternut squash ready for roasting. They also have really good organic grape tomatoes. Much of their produce is packaged.
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  • Coffee
    • Their breakfast blends are great, and you can grind it in store. I’m still mourning the the Coffee and Cocoa blend that was discontinued, for that is my favorite coffee of all time. (TJ’s, if you’re reading this, please bring it back!)  But their seasonal Gingerbread flavor is also a favorite at my house. Look for it around the winter holidays.
  • Dried fruit, nuts, and nut butters
    • They have lots of variety at amazing prices. I love buying walnut and pecan pieces to use in recipes.
    • Their salted, creamy almond butter is my favorite almond butter of all time, and it’s very affordable as compared to major brands.
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  • Frozen foods
    • Vegan Tikka Masala. The “meat” is seitan, and the sauce is spicy! I keep a few of these meals on hand for an emergency meal.
    • Cauliflower gnocchi. Air-fry it if you can! I’ve served this with a tomato sauce, but have also made a spinach/onion/tomato sauté to go with it. They also make a new kale gnocchi. It was good enough for me to buy it again.
    • Frozen fruit. Great for making smoothies!
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    • Dorot brand frozen herbs. I’m a huge fan of the garlic. They also carry basil and ginger periodically. It’s a great way to add flavor to your meals without the mess, hassle, or risk of spoiling when using fresh.
    • Asian meal starters, including vegetable fried rice, vegetable dumplings, and vegan orange “chicken.”
  • Soy chorizo
    • It’s so good that it deserves this separate bullet point. It keeps sealed for a while. It’s a great addition to Mexican night and also makes a delicious pizza topping or spicy addition to soups.
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  • Dried pasta, grains, and lentils
    • Organic spaghetti. Their brand is simply the best I’ve ever tried. While you’re at it, pick up some pasta sauce! Lots of variety.
    • Red lentils. My favorite recipe from the High Protein Vegetarian Cookbook is the curried red lentils. TJ’s brand of these is my favorite.
    • 10 minute farro and barley. Although I prefer the farro from Kroger, this one is also great, especially considering that it cooks in half the time! And I often add barley to vegetable soups, although barley was not available this visit.
  • Canned goods
    • Jackfruit. This is actually the only way I have prepared this meat alternative at home! I’ve made it into BBQ and as a filling for enchiladas. Just drain, add to a saucepan, cover with your favorite sauce, and simmer for at least 30 minutes. The chunks will break down, resembling shredded pork or chicken. Very little nutritional value, but very tasty!
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    • Refried beans. They have two varieties. Both are delicious!
    • Sundried tomatoes. These aren’t technically canned, but in the same aisle. I love adding these to pasta salads and quinoa.
  • Plant-based milk alternatives
    • Every flavor I’ve tried rivals the Silk brand. I’m particularly fond of their refrigerated oat milk. They also have great shelf stable varieties that I keep as a backup.
  • Spices
    • So many excellent choices here. TJ’s is, by far, my favorite place to buy spices. They have all of your typical needs at great prices, but you absolutely must buy Everything but the Bagel (excellent for avocado toast!) and their onion salt (which I add to almost every savory dish I make!) I also love their umami (adds that extra something to savory dishes, especially Asian inspired), and seasoning blends. I picked up two new ones this visit: Vegan Chicken-less seasoning salt and Organic Chili seasoning blend. They will bring in special blends for the holidays, too, so be on the lookout for these. They also have the best bourbon vanilla!
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  • Wine
    • If you shop in the afternoon, there is typically an associate offering samples, although not right now while we are under quarantine. TJ’s has lots of vegan wine choices. Just ask!
  • Cruelty-free body care products
    • I’ve been using their facial wash for years. They also sell a serum that is supposed to be great, but I’ve never tried it.
    • Bar soaps. All of the ones I’ve tried I have loved, and the prices are great!
    • Lotions. I love the extra moisturizing body cream. It’s unscented.

Trader Joe’s will also often carry new, unique items that might only available for a limited time. My last visit, I picked up a vegan mac that was delicious. I didn’t see it this pandemic visit! I did, however, pick up a pack of their new plant-based burgers. I’ll let you know how they live up to Beyond Meat and Simple Truth brands.

I hope your community is blessed with a Trader Joe’s! They have enough variety of products that I can make this my primary shop for the week if needed, but it’s usually in rotation as an extra stop. This visit, however, I made it my only shop, and I’m trying to make this haul last for 2 weeks. Their current shopping rules made me feel safer while shopping, and most customers were even compliant with the new mask recommendations. Staff were all wearing masks as well.

Some extra tips for our RVA store:

  • Just a warning: do NOT try to shop on the weekends late morning to afternoon unless you have packed your patience. The store is CROWDED under normal circumstances. Currently with the 30 person in store rules, the experience is quite lovely once you make it through the line to enter.
  • If you are there when neighboring Frostings is open, stop by for a Vegan cupcake! They are still open under our stay at home orders with limited selections. I sent my daughter in, and she ended up with ½ dozen, but two were vegan for me!

Do you love Trader Joe’s, too? What are some of your favorite products? I’d love to hear about them! Stay safe and healthy, everyone.

Rules of the Road: Running Edition

I’m sending this out as a special Friday edition, hoping it will help those who will go for a walk or run this weekend. I’ve already had to edit from my original writing due to multiple changes from new regulations regarding COVID-19.

Taking to the streets now that gyms are closed? It’s a weird time right now. But one thing that we can all do is run or walk, taking advantage of the great outdoors and nature. What else hasn’t changed? Road running rules. The following is guidance for new and experienced runners alike as we navigate our strange, new world of social distancing.

Several years ago, I went through a program with Sports Backers in Richmond called Bike Walk Academy. Participants in this 8 week class went through training about biking and pedestrian safety and how to advocate for safer roads. From that, Bike Walk Hanover was born. We organize community events and work with our local government to promote safer roads for everyone. We are currently in the midst of a social media campaign to remind our neighbors about driving, running/walking, and biking safety tips.

I created this graphic for Bike Walk Hanover with feedback from our team to help educate our followers on social media. Follow us on Instagram and Facebook!

Experienced runners already know these guidelines, but it doesn’t hurt to review every now and then. But if you are lacing up your running shoes for the first time, it’s really helpful to have some tips about how to stay safe on the roads.

For women especially, we must be extra cautious about where we run, especially when running solo. I think that while we typically prefer group or partner runs, particularly when running long distances, this time of social distancing may place us at a disadvantage from a safety perspective.

Here are my favorite tips for road running:

  • Run against traffic. This way, you can see what’s coming. Make sure you are looking at the driver as cars approach. You can at least tell if they are looking at you or their phone!
  • Wear bright colors. Please don’t run in black! Bright colors catch the attention of drivers and improve your chance to be seen.
Wearing one of my favorite neon tanks for a run! Be seen!
  • Use crosswalks when crossing the street in urban areas. Don’t cut the tangents!
A few of my phone carrying options. Hydration belt and bottles are by Nathan. Belted pouch by Spibelt.
  • Do not wear headphones. You cannot hear cars or people approaching. I still listen to music when I run alone, but I just play it from my phone. No one can really hear it unless they are within a few feet of you, and you can still hear cars and people.
  • If you are running at night, dusk, or dawn, wear lights and/or reflective gear. Nathan makes comfortable reflective vests. Noxgear light vests are popular in my running groups.
  • Let someone know where you are running, how far, and when you expect to return.
  • When we do get back to group runs, do not run more than two abreast. This is the biggest thing I fuss at my marathon training team participants about!
  • Run with ID. Many of my friends have a Road ID product of some kind. I typically run with my phone which has a pocket for my ID.
  • Choose safer places to run. I live in a rural area, so taking to the streets near my home is not my favorite, with all roads at 35 to 45mph with no shoulders, although I will if necessary. I prefer to drive to other areas to run in which have less traffic and/or with sidewalk access. For now, that’s driving less than 5 miles to “town.”
  • Maintain social distancing. This means that if you encounter other people on trails or sidewalk, move over and give them space. The virus can live in microdroplets which project even further when exercising. On my run yesterday, I crossed the street to avoid others. Unfortunately for now, this also means no group runs. This doesn’t mean you need to be rude, though! It’s always polite to give a little wave, nod, or smile.
  • Consider running with pepper spray or a noise maker. I have a hand held pepper spray with a strap, much like for my water bottle, which I carry when running alone in certain parts of town or when trail running. I have a Nathan Zephyr light for night runs which has an alarm on it. Plastic whistles work, too.

Even when we do everything right, things still happen on runs which seem to be beyond our control. The biggest issue I see is drivers who are looking at their phones instead of the road, followed by drivers making right turns who never look to their right to see you. When in doubt, err on the side of caution, and assume they don’t see you. My peers have also recently reported that novice exercisers are also taking to the trails and neighborhoods who are not mindful of others, talking on their phones and not demonstrating awareness of others, including wandering right into the path of runners. Try to announce your presence to alert others that you are there.

It is your responsibility to remain vigilant at all times when you take to the streets for exercise. Even though pedestrians have the right of way, DO NOT try to stand your ground against a car. You will lose.

Trails are a nice alternative since you don’t have to worry about traffic, however, ladies do have to watch out for other people who may have other reasons for being there. In Richmond, the James River Trail system has been very crowded since the gyms have closed, making it difficult to maintain social distancing, but may be safer from a potential stalking perspective. (Per latest reports from RVA Trails, the parking lots to access the JRP trails will be closed as of today.) Many neighborhoods have multi-use paths which help avoid vehicular traffic as well. Taking to city and state parks for running may be a nice alternative, too, although we are in danger of losing access to these, too. Check your local area for ever changing rules with regard to park access. If you do take to trails, make sure you practice good etiquette, announcing your presence to other people enjoying the trail. For example, saying, “On your left” before you pass. And allow bikers to pass you.

I don’t share these safety tips to alarm you, just to make you aware of potential issues. Knowledge is power, right? (If you think that is a Schoolhouse Rock reference, you are right! 80’s kid here!) Don’t let fear keep you from running. Just use common sense and pay attention to your surroundings!

Let me know how you are maintaining fitness while social distancing! I Hope you and your family are staying safe.

Our new normal?

This new world is one big, giant suckfest. Does anyone else feel like they are living in some horrible made for TV movie about the end of the world? I’m sure my feelings are far from unique. I’m trying to take solace in other things, like being outdoors while we are still allowed to do so.

But seriously. Everything has changed, right? Virginia is officially under a stay at home order with the exception of those who are working, out getting essential supplies, and for exercise. Parks are at risk of being shut down at this point, since everyone is out.

My mind creates the possibility of illness. I dream about masks and desolation. Every hint of a sore throat, chill, or headache has my brain immediately concerned that I’ve contracted the virus.

My heart aches for those who are sick and for those caring for them. My work as a physical therapist is not essential at this time, and I don’t have the skills most needed to help those who are sick.

School is out for the year. My senior is devastated. No prom. No graduation. No idea about IB/AP class resolutions. No college credit for all that extra work? That’s not fair. She’s wondering if she will be robbed of a normal college freshman year, too.

We have poor leadership in this country who have exacerbated the growth of this pandemic, have not listened to science, and are placing the economy first over public health. The tone has been a bit more serious in the past couple of days, but I worry that this is too little, too late. The ball is in motion.

Trips to the grocery store are opportunities for panic attacks. Shelves are sparse, if not barren. No eggs, meat, bread, dried beans, tofu… you know it’s bad if the vegan protein options are gone. And don’t get me started on the toilet paper, although I got lucky at the grocery store the other day.

My dad is sick, but not with the virus. He was already facing issues from last fall after he had two surgeries one week apart. And we knew his kidneys were unhappy. But this is not an ideal time to start dialysis, even though the question that begs to be asked is if there ever is an ideal time. This is way more exposure to hospitals than anyone needs right now. And, by the way, if you are admitted, you are not allowed visitors. I get it, but it’s hard.

When my dad was admitted last week, I went down to my parents to help my mom manage my dad, as his mobility has been declining, and he has had a couple of near and actual falls. Good thing I’m a PT. Helping people with their mobility is kind of my thing. We broke out the gait belt, and I showed my mom how to guard him on the stairs, car transfers, and how to use their new transport wheelchair. I’ve also been helping my mom navigate this new, restricted, and already complex system for the best care for dad with the least likelihood of exposure to the virus. My mom is actually handling things well, all things considered. My poor brother can only help via phone. He’s in quarantine because someone in his office may have the virus. My dad is home now, and they are settling in to their new normal.

I’m taking my workouts outside as much as possible. So while I was down in Newport News, I checked an item off of my bucket list. I ran the Noland Trail. I really needed the time to clear my head. I’m glad I did this, because apparently, the park is now closed due to the virus as of today, reported by both the Daily Press and the Virginian Pilot. I can see why, because even at 10AM on a Tuesday, the parking lot was packed.

The south trailhead of the Noland Trail at Mariner’s Museum Park in Newport News, VA.

The trail is just over 5 miles long in Mariner’s Museum Park. The path is well marked and made of mostly packed pea gravel. There are some pretty amazing views of Lake Maury all along the trail. There are tons of mayflowers getting ready to bloom. And there were turtles sunbathing. Time in nature helped me forget about the state of our world, at least for a few moments.

Just one of the many water views from the Noland Trail.
The Lion’s Bridge with the James River behind. The trail actually goes over the bridge.
I ran this as part of the One City Half Marathon on March 1st.

I thought about doing this when I ran past the trail head a few weeks ago as part of the One City Half Marathon. I made a promise to myself that I would run it this year. Only took a couple of weeks to fulfill that promise to myself. That race seems like it was years ago at this point.

Once we are out of the woods with this virus and if you ever find yourself in Newport News with an hour to kill, this little trail is definitely worth your time.

The Mariner’s Museum Park entrance from Warwick Blvd. Now adjacent to Christopher Newport University, this used to be right next to my high school.
Check out that giant propeller!

I’m trying to take some time to organize a bit. I may even attempt a garden this year. Who knows? This is going to be a long ride, folks. Stay safe, stay healthy, and check on your elders.

Let me know how you’ve been staying active in our new normal. Stay tuned for some tips for safer running in my next blog post.

Looking for Allergy Friendly Vegan Meal Ideas? Try this Alfredo style pasta!

How is everyone surviving while we are social distancing in our new reality of COVID-19? While my husband thankfully still has work, I do not. Since I work for a rehab hospital, census is low. I anticipate that there will be some interesting changes to the utilization of those beds soon. But no one really knows what’s coming with this virus. We can only speculate. And the more I read stories from Italy, the more anxious I become.

My kids, especially my older daughter who is a senior in high school, are devastated that the school year is over in our state of Virginia. We now await further decisions about fulfilling graduation requirements and what will happen with IB and AP testing. And we continue to hope that by this fall, life as she transitions to college, hopefully, will be returning to some new sense of normal.

But for now, as we collectively sit in our homes and try our best to avoid boredom and getting on the nerves of our family members, I will shift my blog posts to recipes and resources for exercise. I would love to continue the grocery store tours for vegans, but, quite frankly, trips to the grocery store induce panic as I survey empty shelves and produce stands. And who is buying all of the tofu? Publix was sold out and on backorder at their warehouses! So the tours will wait for now.

Where is all the tofu?

Cooking is a love language for me. I find comfort in making great food for my family, and limited trips to the grocery force me to get creative. I’m up for the challenge. I will be sharing recipes over the next few weeks, trying to feature those with shelf stable ingredients as much as possible. And although I’m vegan, I know many of you who read this are not. If there is a tweak to include dairy, I may include this as I did for the bread recipe I shared. These are interesting times, and I hope sharing recipes helps in some small way.

Exercise is a necessary mode of stress relief for me. Fortunately, I am a cardio addict, so as long as we are allowed to take to the streets, I will. I’ve dusted off my bike and taken several bike rides this week as well as keeping up with my 3x per week running schedule. My younger daughter has actually joined me for shorter bike rides. As more of our neighbors take to the streets, please, please, please be more aware as you are driving to complete those necessary errands. Give runners, walkers, and cyclists some space, preferably moving completely to the other side of the road to pass. Strength training will be limited to body weight activities for now, although my husband’s CrossFit box made a great suggestion of using a backpack loaded with whatever you can find to add weight and use that like a sandbag. I also have a generic TRX rig I bought from Aldi a few years ago that I may break out, especially if we are suddenly confined to indoors.

Now let’s get back to cooking. My friend and fellow runner Niki asked that I share some recipes which are high in protein, vegan, nut-free, soy-free, and gluten-free, as well as some ways to incorporate nutritional yeast. I immediately thought of an improvised version of a creamy alfredo sauce I created a few weeks ago. I served it over regular wheat pasta, but with a swap out for bean-based pasta, this will satisfy both the GF and higher protein needs. Here you go, Niki!

Ingredients for Alfredo style pasta with broccoli

Creamy Alfredo-style Pasta with Broccoli (vegan, GF, nut-free option)

For the sauce:

  • One can white beans, drained and rinsed (Great Northern or Cannellini both work)
  • ½ cup unflavored and unsweetened plant based milk, plant-based half and half, or vegetable broth (I used Silk brand oat/coconut half and half)
  • 1 clove garlic or one cube Dorat frozen crushed garlic
  • 1 T nutritional yeast (optional, but adds some B-vitamins and cheesy flavor)
  • Salt and pepper to taste.

Directions:

  • Blend all above ingredients together in a high powered blender, regular blender, or food processor until smooth.
  • Pour mixture into a saucepan, bring to simmer on medium heat, reduce heat to low, cover, and allow to simmer while pasta and broccoli are cooking, stirring occasionally. Once hot, you can cover and turn off the heat.
Alfredo style sauce in progress.

For the broccoli:

  • Rinse and cut one crown of broccoli into bite size pieces.
  • Steam until desired tenderness is reached (10-15 minutes).
  • Alternatively, if you want to use your microwave, place all broccoli in a tempered glass measuring cup, like Pyrex, add a bit of water (about ¼ depth of vessel), cover with a plate, and microwave for 4-5 minutes until desired tenderness is achieved.
Broccoli steaming in progress.

For the pasta:

  • Prepare one box of any bean based pasta per directions. Make sure you salt the water! For this example, I used Barilla brand chickpea pasta since it is certified GF.

Once pasta is cooked and drained, return pasta to its pan, pour sauce over pasta, and mix. Top the pasta with desired amount of broccoli. Sprinkle with additional nutritional yeast or with vegan cheese if desired. This makes about 4 small servings. Enjoy!

For a general idea of protein content per serving, one serving of beans has 7g, one serving of the Barilla chickpea pasta has 11g, and ½ cup broccoli provides 1.5g. Depending on the type of liquid you use, you are also adding a small amount of protein with that. Nutritional yeast also provides 2.5g protein per tablespoon. So you’re getting about 20g of protein in each serving!

If you don’t care for broccoli, check out this web page for other high protein vegetables you can sub for the broccoli. I think using peas, sautéed spinach, or roasted Brussel sprouts would be delicious options. If you are using frozen or fresh peas, you can throw about 1 cup of these in with the pasta to heat, reducing dirty pans! (Trader Joe’s sells little bags of shelled fresh peas in their produce section).

If you want more of a cheesy flavor to the sauce, try adding a bit of vegan cheese or cream cheese to the sauce once warm.

If you try this recipe, let me know what you think! Stay safe and healthy, everyone.