Give a Gift That Keeps Giving: Shop for Charity this Holiday Season

A few years ago, Kyle and I started a pretty cool holiday tradition. While attending college full-time and working part-time, we were both on a tight budget. Like many couples, we set a spending limit on our Christmas gifts to each other so our wallets wouldn’t be stretched too thin. I first wrote about how we budget for the holidays in this post from last year. The most meaningful part of this tradition for me was that a portion of our spending limit has always been allocated to charitable donations. Every year, we each make a donation in the other’s name to a charity that is important to us. It is really important to me that even while we had very little to give, we maintained the practice of donating to organizations that worked to help those who were less fortunate than us.

I have noticed a trend over the last few years of gifts connected to charitable causes. This allows you to give an actual material gift to the special person on your list, and also support a charity whose mission you believe in. You may have seen Product (RED) items in various retailers, or you may be familiar with companies like TOMS that use a portion of the proceeds from product sales to fund charitable work. Last year, Kyle and I honeymooned in Colorado and while there, we picked up a bunch of soup kits from the Women’s Bean Project to give to family and friends for Christmas.

WBP1

The soup kits are made  by women in Denver, CO who are chronically unemployed, and the proceeds from the sale of these products go to support programs that help women develop the skills they need to get and keep a job. WBP2

Of course we picked up a few mixes for ourselves too, and I can attest to their deliciousness. If you would like to try them, you don’t have to fly to Denver like we did. You can order these and other gifts online at the Women’s Bean Project store. If soup, dip, and baking mixes and gourmet foods aren’t your thing, or if you’re shopping for a loved one whose interests lie outside of cooking, here are some other ideas for gifts that keep giving this holiday season.

BeadforLife is a Fair Trade Federation organization that helps Ugandan women sell their handmade jewelry to earn a living wage. Their online store features beaded jewelry, loose beads, shea butter body products and more.

GreaterGood.org is a website that compiles product listings that benefit multiple organizations. I love that this site allows you to Shop by Cause, so that you can choose to shop from the Hunger Site to fight world hunger, the Animal Rescue Site to fund food and care for rescued animals, the Breast Cancer Site to fund mammograms for women in need, the Rainforest Site to protect endangered habitats, or purchase from other stores that benefit causes including Veterans, Autism, Diabetes, or Literacy.

You are probably already familiar with TOMS shoes, which donates one pair of shoes to a person in need for every pair you buy. Did you know that TOMS also has an Eyewear division that provides prescription glasses to U.S. middle school students in need? Shop for really cute sunglasses at the TOMS online store to support this cause.

The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society has teamed up with Lands’ End this year to produce hundreds of items in their online store for which Lands’ End will donate 20% of revenue to LLS. Items can be personalized with logos and monograms, as well as the LLS “Someday is Today” logo if you would like.

The ASPCA online store has a ton of great gifts for pets and pet-lovers, with or without the ASPCA logo. Some of my favorites include the DJ Cat Scratching Pad  (<- it is so worth it to click that link) and the Anti-Puppy Mills Tote.

The International Princess Project is an organization that provides much-needed resources to women and girls escaping sex slavery in India. The women are rehabilitated in sewing centers, where they produce clothing for sale in countries around the world and work to achieve lives of hope and dignity. Punjammies is a fun line of loungewear produced by the women in IPP sewing centers to fund their programs.

Shop the Product (RED) store to fund HIV/AIDS programs in Africa. Partner brands agree to donate 50% of revenue for these items to The Global Fund, and 100% of the money raised by The Global Fund goes to fighting AIDS in Africa, with the goal of eradicating the disease.

To see more ideas and links to sites that make giving back easy, check out my Pinterest board, Gifts That Give Back!

How to Have a Healthy Holiday

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For most health nuts, the holidays are one of the few times of the year that it is okay to indulge. Faced with a month-long celebration of decorated cookies, seasonal coffee drinks, festive cocktails, and comfort food, most people just give in. Knowing that the New Year’s Resolution reset button is right around the corner, most of us will feast our way through December. Personally, I have always maintained my vegetarian diet through the holidays, but I have indulged in more gingerbread cookies, peppermint mochas, winter ales, and seasonal cocktails than I normally would.

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This year, I am hosting Christmas dinner at my house for the very first time. It is actually the first time I have spent Christmas in Virginia, and Kyle and I are very excited to spend our first Christmas morning in our new house. Because I get to plan the menu, I want to have plenty of healthy options and serve some really delicious food at the same time. My first Christmas dinner at home presents a few challenges though. I will have two vegetarians at the table, a few people who would prefer to see meat on their plates, and one guest who is following a very strict low-carb diet. I need to serve some meat, some high-protein vegetarian dishes, and several low-carb items. At first the task was a little daunting, but I am always up for a challenge. No, really. Like, always. Maybe to a fault.

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Since I love a good problem-solving session, I can honestly say I’ve had a blast working through a menu. I have a lot of ideas and I haven’t narrowed it down completely, so I thought I would share a few of my thoughts here with you. I am positive that some steamed vegetables will make an appearance, but I found the dishes listed below to offer something a little more special on the table. If you too are trying to build a health-conscious holiday menu, maybe some of these dishes will make your list.

As always, please note that I am no expert and if you have a restrictive diet for medical reasons, you should consult with a registered dietitian and your doctor before making any changes to your diet. Or else I might unwittingly lead you down a path paved with peppermint mochas and fried tofu, to possible digestive ruin.

The following recipe collection is very carbohydrate conscious. There are several options that I think would work for those who are watching their blood sugar. I hear that people on the paleo diet also watch their carbs, so some of these might work for them too.

If you are worried less about carbs and more about what to serve your herbivorous guests, check out my post on What to Serve Vegan and Vegetarian Party Guests or my Vegetarian Holiday Recipe Roundup.

Have ideas of your own that you would like to share? Please comment below with your favorite healthy holiday dishes!

What to Serve Vegan and Vegetarian Party Guests

If the December holiday party season is not in full swing for you yet, it will be soon. And with the increasing number of diet labels floating around, it can be difficult to navigate the waters of holiday entertaining. Vegetarians, vegans, gluten-free’s, pescatarians, macriobiotics and raw dieters. . . it can all get very confusing for the holiday host. What to serve? Whom to accommodate? How to label?

I was recently asked for ideas on what to serve at a party with vegetarians and vegans in attendance and I was eager to help out. I follow a vegetarian diet myself, and while I am not at all an authority on vegan food, I cook a lot of vegan meals at home without realizing it (until it hits the plate and I am struck by the absence of cheese, cream or butter). So I guess I have a few more tricks up my veggie eating sleeve than the average home cook. If you need help figuring out what all the labels mean, there is a great resource from GAIAM that gives a brief description of each diet.

Vegetarians and vegans can enjoy a variety of party foods, and accommodating them requires just a little bit of forethought. Here are my favorite vegan-friendly party foods:

  • Tofu Lettuce Wraps from Whole Foods
  • Chips, Salsa and Guacamole (some prepared guacamole includes sour cream and some chips are fried in lard so be sure to check the ingredient lists)
  • Veggies and hummus or white bean dip
  • Tofu Spring Rolls with Peanut Dipping Sauce from Eating Bird Food
  • Mexican Bean Salad from AllRecipes (a favorite in my office for herbivores and omnivores alike)
  • Olive Medley Pinwheels from Better Homes & Gardens (substitute Tofutti brand vegan “cream cheese”)
  • Mixed Nuts
  • Seven Layer Dip from Peas and Thank You (substitute Tofutti brand vegan “sour cream” and vegan cheese substitute like Daiya brand shreds)

Olive Medley Pinwheels

Also, I thought I would remind you of some of the things to stay away from to make sure you are truly serving vegan food. It usually gets trickiest with prepared and bottled or canned foods, so be sure to check ingredient lists on anything that isn’t fresh produce. If you have any other suggestions or corrections, please jump in on the comments.

  • meat and fish (of course)
  • eggs (some pastas contain egg)
  • milk, cheese, butter and other dairy
  • honey (yes, some hard core vegans avoid honey)
  • whey protein (this common ingredient is milk-derived and sometimes added to vegetarian items for protein)
  • other hidden non-vegan items to look out for on ingredient lists: dehydrated chicken or beef, anchovies or anchovy paste, chicken broth, dehydrated milk

You do not have to make a big deal about what each guest can eat, so some labels can get your message across concisely. That way you do not feel like you have to usher your guest around the food table or constantly field questions about what is “safe.” I recommend that you use small place cards or signs to label foods as “vegetarian” or “vegan”. Or you could simply list animal products and common allergens in each prepared dish, like “contains chicken” or “contains peanuts.”

I think that if you have just a few options for the vegans and vegetarians in attendance, even if it isn’t the most exciting food on the planet, they are really going to appreciate the gesture. You are already going out of your way by inviting us into your home, and throwing a few vegetables our way doesn’t hurt. However I am always extremely impressed and grateful when a party host thinks to prepare something creative and meatless that I can enjoy. Most people don’t even think to have something vegan or vegetarian friendly so you will make your guests feel welcome just by making an effort.

Happy Hosting!

What To Do With Fresh Cranberries

If you were lucky enough to have fresh cranberry sauce this Thanksgiving, you may have found yourself standing over a simmering pot of tart and sweet cranberries and sugar. When the aroma of orange zest, warm sugar and spicy cinnamon has faded, and you have polished off the last turkey (or tofurky) sandwich you will eat this November, you may discover some leftover fresh cranberries in the bottom of the refrigerator. What to do with those beautiful and mystifying fresh cranberries? I say drink them.

Loaded with antioxidants and bursting with fresh, tart flavor, cranberries are a delicious and festive addition to the table this time of year. They are also the perfect ingredient for livening up seasonal beverages. If you’re dragging a little after the feeding frenzy and shopping marathon that was last weekend, try mixing up a fresh cranberry drink to get you in the mood to deck the halls this month. I have included both Nice and Naughty options; which you choose depends on how you intend to celebrate the season.

If you’re still trying to make the Nice list. . .

Chocolate Covered Cranberry Smoothie (Makes about one 8 oz serving)

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 ripe banana, sliced and frozen
  • 1/2 cup fresh cranberries
  • 3/4 cup milk (non-dairy can be substituted)
  • 1 Tbsp agave nectar (or sweetener of choice)
  • 1-1/2 tsp cocoa powder
  • 1/4 tsp vanilla extract
  • Optional: 1/2 of a 1 oz packet of protein powder (I used Spiru-tein vanilla; I bet chocolate would be awesome too)

Preparation:

  1. Put all  ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth.
  2. Serve with a fun straw!

While the smoothie would make an excellent on-the-go breakfast, I don’t recommend toting the next one with you to work or on errands, because it is most definitely alcoholic. However, the mixed drink would be a great signature cocktail at your next holiday party. It is basically a Dark ‘n Stormy with muddled cranberries, and I have maintained the nautical theme of the original drink in the naming of this new concoction. It is really quite tasty.

If you already know you’re on the Naughty list. . .

Red Sky at Night

Ingredients:

  • 8-10 fresh cranberries (choose dark ripe ones)
  • 2 oz dark rum
  • 6 oz ginger beer (I used Reed’s)
  • a few ice cubes
  • lime wedge

Preparation:

  1. Use a muddler or wooden spoon to muddle the cranberries in the bottom of a glass.
  2. Add rum and ice cubes to the glass, then pour ginger beer on top.
  3. Gently stir and garnish with a fresh lime wedge or skewered cranberries (or both!).

It was easy to use up my leftover cranberries with these recipes under my belt. And I think I just discovered two new reasons to keep a bag of fresh cranberries around throughout the holiday season. Now that that’s cleared up, I believe there’s only one question that is left unanswered. Maybe you can help me with it.

Naughty or Nice? Or a little bit of both?

Halloween Farmers’ Market 10.29.11

Kyle and I braved the cold and rainy SOJ Market this weekend to get our weekly haul. Due to packed weekend schedules and an unfortunate ankle sprain that occurred three weeks ago, we haven’t made it out to the market in awhile. Now that I am off crutches and in a walking boot, we cleared our Saturday morning schedules and headed to the farmers’ market despite wind, rain, and plummeting temperatures. It was very wet and cold, but the veggies looked awesome this week and I enjoyed every minute of our trip! Maybe absence makes the heart grow fonder?

Here’s the loot:

  • Kale (Victory Farms)
  • Spinach (Victory Farms)
  • Butternut Squash (Victory Farms)
  • Acorn Squash (Pleitez Produce)
  • Brussels Sprouts (Pleitez Produce)
  • Broccoli Rabe (Victory Farms)
  • Cilantro (Victory Farms)
  • Beets (Victory Farms)
  • Bell Peppers (Victory Farms)

Grand total. . . $23! That discount for Victory Farms CSA members definitely makes a difference. I’ve already planned my fall meal plan for this week and I am really excited to spend some quality time with my kitchen now that my foot is at the point that I can stand on it for awhile without having to sit down.

The rest of our weekend was spent lounging around, bundling up, and listening to the rain fall outside. I also finished my Halloween costume and participated in a little holiday-themed revelry last night.

Click to enlarge. Can you tell what my costume is? Bonus points if you guess Kyle's too.

And today was spent drinking mimosas and watching football.

Breakfast of Champions

Not a bad weekend at all.

Next up: planning and packing for San Francisco. . .

Guinness Caramel Sauce

It’s been a week since St. Patrick’s day. Is it too soon to have another Guinness?

St. Patrick's Day 2008

Kyle and I have a tradition of drinking a Guinness every year on St. Patrick’s Day. Of course we drink it more frequently than on our annual celebration of everything Irish, but this is one day a year during which Guinness is an absolute must. I punched things up this year with an extra special dessert that was the perfect treat for the occasion. And this seriously was a treat: beer, sugar, butter, and ice cream. It’s about as diet-friendly as a pitcher of green beer, but so much more delicious. Sometimes you just need something decadent.

This was my first time making any sort of caramel from scratch. Being a stout lover, I thought this was a beautiful introduction to the art of stove top caramel. The recipe yields a dark, bitter, sweet sauce. I’m not kidding about the bitter by the way, so this might not be your cup of tea if you’re not into that kind of thing. Although if you love a nice dark stout, you won’t be disappointed. While the process is time-consuming, it is surprisingly easy. This dish would be really impressive for guests too. Give it a try next time you’re feeling adventurous!

Guinness Caramel Sauce (from Food Network, original here)

Ingredients:

  • One 15 oz. can Guinness draught
  • 1/2 cup pure cane sugar
  • 3 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, diced

Preparation:

Carefully pour the can of Guinness into a saucepan and bring to a simmer over low-medium heat.

Add the sugar and stir to combine. Cook over low heat until syrupy, about 45 minutes. If the heat is a little too low, it will take a little longer.
Whisk in the butter and remove from heat.

This sauce is awesome drizzled over two scoops of vanilla bean ice cream!

Keep this in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to 4 days and reheat as needed. With a bowl of this sitting in the fridge, there is no doubt that you will be asking yourself every night “is it too soon to have another Guinness caramel sundae?”

Sláinte!

Ready for 2011

I have had quite a year, and to tell you the truth, when midnight rolled around, I was happy to kiss 2010 goodbye. While attending a lovely party last night, my dearest friends and I toasted to life, to luck, to friends, to family, to the end of 2010, and to the start of 2011. While I’m being honest here, I’ll admit that there was a whole lot of toasting going on.

Because it is in my research-y nature to read up on various subjects that interest me, I spent a bit of time over the last week learning about New Year traditions and superstitions from around the world. Previously I had a limited knowledge of what practices were believed to bring luck in the coming year. Basically it was limited to the practice of putting on a party dress and glitter mascara, drinking a gallon of champagne, and hoping to get lucky, along with something about eating twelve grapes at midnight. Clearly I needed a little culture.

We’ll start in the Southern United States since that is where I currently reside. People from here traditionally eat black eyed peas on New Year’s Eve and Day because they are thought to bring you luck in the next year. When I was asked to bring an appetizer to the New Year’s Eve party, I knew I had to incorporate a little superstition into my dish. I had not heard before that black eyed peas held the keys to luck and wealth, so I was skeptical as to the prevalence of this superstition in modern times. However it was apparent that there are still plenty of believers when I picked up the last can of black eyed peas off the grocery store shelf. They were already out of dried peas, and I was able to snatch up the last can just in time.

I discovered a lot of lucky foods that are eaten to ensure wealth and prosperity. Many of them are round foods that symbolize coins. This brings us back to the grapes I mentioned earlier; Spaniards eat twelve round grapes at midnight. This custom is found in various South American countries as well. I personally took my midnight grapes in bubbly liquid form this year. Does that count?

Other round foods that are believed to be lucky are lentils, round cakes (Greece and Mexico), and dough fritters called ollie bollen in the Netherlands. Greens are also eaten due to their resemblance to folded cash. Stewed kale is eaten in Denmark and collard greens are eaten in the southern U.S. The Japanese eat noodles for luck, and the belief is that you must not break or chew them until the entire length of the noodle is in your mouth. Pomegranates are eaten for luck in Mediterranean countries. I have already shared a ton of ways to enjoy pomegranate seeds here in case you want to try them out yourself.

I personally created two dishes this year, not necessarily because I believe in the superstition, but because I like to be festive and I believe in good foods. I think you will find both of these recipes to be good in more ways than one. And if you aren’t into eating your way to good luck in 2011, you could steal a page from the Mexicans’ book and express your superstition via your undergarments. In Mexico and many other countries, red underwear is worn on New Year’s Eve to bring the wearer luck in love, and yellow is worn to guarantee wealth and prosperity.

As for me, I think I’ll stick to the legumes and the greens. They have yet to fail me.

Lucky Black-eyed Pea Dip (serves a small army)

Ingredients:

1-15 oz can black-eyed peas

1-15 oz can black beans

1-15 oz can white beans (Great Northern or Cannelini)

1-15 oz can white corn

1 cup finely chopped onion

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup finely chopped parsley

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1 tsp salt

1/2 tsp black pepper

1/2 tsp dry mustard

1/2 tsp dried basil

1 tsp hot sauce

Preparation:

1. Rinse and drain black-eyed peas, beans, and corn and combine in a large mixing bowl.

2. To the bean mixture, add onion, garlic, and parsley and stir to combine.

3. In a separate small bowl, combine oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, mustard, basil, and hot sauce. Add dressing to bean mixture and stir to combine.

4. Refrigerate 4 to 24 hours and serve with tortilla chips.

And for New Year’s Day. . .

Potato, Kale, and Lentil Stew (serves 6-8)

Ingredients:

2 Tbsp olive oil

2 cups mirepoix (any combination of diced onion, carrots, and/or celery will do – use what you have on hand)

3 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 cup red wine

4 medium Yukon gold potatoes, diced in 1/2-inch cubes (or whatever you have on hand, seriously, this is like peasant stew)

6 cups vegetable broth

1 cup small green lentils

2 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp ground coriander

1/8 tsp ground cayenne pepper

Salt and pepper to taste

4-5 cups kale, torn into 1- to 2-inch pieces

Preparation:

1. Heat olive oil in a soup pot over medium-high heat. Add mirepoix and garlic and saute until onion is almost translucent, about 4-5 minutes.

2. Add red wine to the pot and cook for 2 minutes.

3. Add potatoes, vegetable broth, and lentils. Add cumin, coriander, and cayenne and stir to combine. Turn heat down to medium and simmer for about 20 minutes or until lentils are not quite al dente.

4. Add salt, pepper, and kale to pot. Cover and cook for 15 minutes more.

5. Adjust seasonings to taste and serve in large bowls to your gaggle of hungry and slightly hungover friends, who are yearning for health and prosperity in the new year.

Cheers anyone?