Masala Chai Spiced Tofu and Coconut Kale

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I used to work in an office with one of my best friends. We didn’t actually work together much, but we worked in the same office. We started a daily ritual of having tea every afternoon around 2:30, taking a quick five minute break to steep some tea and check in to see how things were going. I really enjoyed the ritual of taking a break to patiently wait four minutes for the tea to steep before bringing it back to my desk. It calmed and refocused me to have a productive afternoon. In the culture of instant gratification in which we live, there is something special about the daily ritual of forcing yourself to wait for the tea leaves to work their magic in your mug.

So lately I have been thinking a lot about patience and slowing down. And, naturally, as my thoughts often drift to food, I have been thinking about tea and crockpots and marinades and slow roasting. I had this idea to marinate tofu in very strong tea to infuse my cooking with the same flavors that I usually reserve for my mid-afternoon tea breaks. It took two attempts to get the method right, and the end result is a masala chai spiced tofu that is bursting with flavor.

Either I am more attuned to the tea popping up all around me, or there is a similar trend going on in the craft beer world, because the same weekend I made my first attempt at chai spiced tofu, I tasted this delicious brew:

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Local Richmond brewery Ardent Craft Ales released its Earl Grey Brown Ale to a packed tap room last month, and it instantly became one of my new favorite beers. I’m happy to see so many craft breweries playing with this style, because while I love a good IPA, how many IPA’s do you need on your menu? I’ve seen some great creative brown ales in the last couple of years, including this tea-inspired one.

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Ardent Craft Ales Tap Room

Then a couple of weeks ago, Kyle and I picked up Japanese Green Tea IPA, a collaboration beer from Baird, Ishii, and Stone Brewing Company. It tastes exactly as you would expect it to. An India Pale Ale infused with the taste of matcha green tea powder. Citrusy, bitter, floral, herbal. . . it’s a lot a flavor in a glass. If you like green tea, please try it.

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So, enough about what we’ve been drinking. Back to what we’ve been eating. I found some purple kale at the farmers’ market, and I made a coconut curry kale recipe to go along with my chai spiced tofu. It turned out beautiful and tasty, so I jotted down the recipe and included it below. So let’s get cooking!

Masala Chai Spiced Tofu

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Ingredients:

  • 6 masala chai tea bags
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 – 14 oz. block of firm tofu
  • 2 Tablespoons sesame oil
  • 1 Tablespoon soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons minced ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/8 teaspoon cardamom
  • 1 teaspoon honey

Preparation:

  1. Drain and press tofu. Cut block into six slices.
  2. Heat water almost to boiling in a teapot. Combine tea bags and 2 cups of hot water in a jar or bowl. Steep for 4 minutes, then remove tea bags.
  3. Arrange tofu slices in a glass dish. Pour concentrated tea over tofu. Marinate tofu for one hour at room temperature, turning tofu once halfway through marinating.
  4. Drain tea from tofu, and reserve 1/2 cup of tea marinade.
  5. In a small bowl, combine 1/2 cup of tea marinade, soy sauce, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and honey. Stir to mix the sauce thoroughly.
  6. Heat 2 Tablespoons of sesame oil in a large pan over medium-high heat.
  7. Add tofu slices to hot pan and cook until browned, about 5-6 minutes per side.
  8. Add sauce to pan and cook until reduced by at least one half. Suggestion: serve tofu while hot, over basmati rice and cooked greens like Coconut Curry Kale.

Coconut Curry Kale

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Ingredients:

  • 2 Tablespoons coconut oil
  • 1 bunch of curly kale
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 2 teaspoons minced ginger
  • 2 teaspoons madras curry powder
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened shredded coconut or unsweetened coconut flakes
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

  1. Remove stems from kale. Chop stems in bite-sized pieces and tear leaves into a separate bowl.
  2. Heat coconut oil in a large pot over medium heat.
  3. When coconut oil is melted, add chopped kale stems and garlic to pot. Saute for five minutes.
  4. Add kale leaves, ginger, and curry to the pot. Saute until kale is bright green and slightly wilted.
  5. While kale is cooking, in a small pan, heat shredded/flake coconut over low-medium heat until toasted. Remove pan from heat.
  6. Add lime juice, toasted coconut, and salt and pepper to the kale. Toss and serve immediately.

Embracing the Mushroom

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There was a time that I wouldn’t touch mushrooms. Sometimes, I wouldn’t even pick them off of a pizza; I would just reject the whole slice. If mushrooms had come in contact with my food, that food was no longer edible for me. A friend in college once served me mushroom flavored Top Ramen and tried to pass it off as a different flavor by dousing it with condiments. I took one bite and called her a dirty liar.

I was not allergic to mushrooms, and to my knowledge, I had no traumatic mushroom-related experience in my childhood. I just did not like them. If you replaced “green eggs and ham” with “mushrooms” in the classic Dr. Seuss tale, you would have an accurate depiction of my relationship with edible fungi for the first twenty-five years of my life.

“I would not like them here or there, I would not like them anywhere!”

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People just could not believe that I did not eat mushrooms once I became a vegetarian. I have to admit it was pretty difficult. It’s hard enough to find a meatless meal in some places, and harder still to find one with no mushrooms. I had an issue with the texture. I know, I know. . . how I ate tofu but not mushrooms is a mystery to me too. I also had an issue with the idea of eating fungi in general. Large mushrooms scared me. Portobellos? Way too big. Scary. Nothing good can come from eating a fungus that large, am I right?

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But then, everything changed during the season that I worked at the GrowRVA South of the James farmers’ market. I volunteered at the Chef Demonstration tent with Chef Samuel Baker* from May through November of 2012. You can see my posts about that gig here on Vegology in the Market Chef section. I discuss a foraged mushroom called Chicken of the Woods in a late September post. This pricey little gem changed my mind about mushrooms. Sauteed in a pan with some olive oil, salt, and pepper, the bright orange and creamy white Chicken of the Woods mushroom tastes just like chicken, no lie. It was incredible, and I was hooked.

“I do so like green eggs and ham. Thank you. Thank you, Sam-I-Am.”

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After consuming the gateway drug that is Chicken of the Woods, I started trying other mushrooms too. My next favorite find was the Maitake mushroom (“hen of the woods,” coincidentally) and that one is still a favorite in my kitchen. I gradually worked my way up to the mighty portobello, and fell in love when I had the perfectly prepared marinated and grilled portobello burger last summer. Now I’m unstoppable and I have made a full recovery from my fear of mushrooms.

One of my favorite recent finds was Tosca Reno’s Pesto-Stuffed Portobello Pizzas, pictured above in this post. This dish is fantastic. I served it on Christmas Eve with a wilted kale salad, and my house guests didn’t even miss the meat from the meal.

Another favorite is Terry Walters’ Grilled Polenta with Mushroom Ragout from the Clean Food cookbook, available for purchase here. Sorry I don’t have an Internet version of the recipe, but maybe Google it?

And, just one more, which is a little out of season but can totally be made on an indoor grill if it’s chilly outside. My favorite recipe for Portobello Mushroom Burgers. It’s all about the marinade!

I guess the moral (morel?) of the story is this: try new things. You might surprise yourself. And if you’re still looking for a New Years Resolution, that might be a good one to try out.

*Chef Samuel Baker is now working at The Betty on Davis in Richmond, VA and you can follow the progress of his food adventures on his Facebook page.

Fall 2014 Vegetarian Beer Dinner

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It’s that time again! Sixteen foodies and beer lovers gathered last weekend at our house for the fifth potluck Vegetarian Beer Dinner. I know I say this every time, but I think this was the best one yet!

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This was our first October beer dinner and there was a great summer-into-fall theme. October is my favorite month, so naturally I feel that there is a lot to about this season to celebrate. Kyle and I were married two Octobers ago and while I was setting up chalkboard signs and table linens last weekend, I definitely felt like I was preparing our wedding venue all over again. The weather was beautiful and the leaves on the trees in our neighborhood were just starting to turn colors. We were so lucky with the weather that with a few patio heaters, we were able to host the dinner outside in our backyard.

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We tried out a new game this time to greet guests while they arrived. We wrapped three bottles of brown ale in Halloween themed craft tape to cover the labels. Each guest had three numbers to correspond with the numbered bottles, and there were three jars with the names of the beers we were blind tasting: Legend Brown Ale, Smuttynose Old Brown Dog Ale, and Rogue Hazelnut Brown Ale. Taking turns, we tasted all three beers and then tried to guess which beer was in each bottle. Guests voted by placing their numbers in the jars that they thought matched their beers. We didn’t track individual answers so there were no winners or losers, but by counting the numbers in each jar we could tell that most of the crowd correctly guessed the Rogue ale, and most of the crowd mixed up the Legend and Smuttynose beers.

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We provided eight ounce jars for tasting throughout the dinner and I wrote each guest’s name on a chalk label on each jar. The graduated ounce marks on the glassware helped for measuring tasting portions for those of us who were trying to stay relatively sober through the whole dinner!

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Guests were paired up and each group explained their food and beer pairing. All dishes were vegetarian and beers were seasonal. We had several vegan and gluten-free dishes so that there was a little something for everyone. The more competitive groups campaigned for their dishes to be voted the best dish of the night during after-dinner discussion. I couldn’t choose a favorite. They were all so different and delicious.

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The lineup is as follows, and I will link up to recipes as I get them.

Vegan Meatballs in a Sweet and Spicy Mole Sauce, with Xocoveza Mocha Stout, paired by Lauren and Kyle

Tomato & Mozzarella Caprese Skewers, with Bison Honey Basil Ale, paired by Carissa, Mike and Jess

Watermelon Radishes with Burrata, with Anderson Valley The Kimmie, The Yink & The Holy Gose, paired by Paul and Leah

Channa Masala, with Hardywood RVA IPA, paired by Liz (I Heart Vegetables) and Alex

Vegetarian Pigs in a Blanket with Gourmet Mustard, paired with Lost Rhino Rhino Chasers Pilsner, paired by Lindsay (Neat As You Please) and AJ

Roasted Corn Salad from Terry Walters’ Clean Start, paired with Sierra Nevada Flipside Red IPA, paired by Adrienne (Sit Pretty Design) and Al

Apple Crisp (recipe coming soon to the EBF Blog), paired with Lickinghole Creek Brewery Virginia Black Bear Russian Imperial Stout, paired by Brittany (Eating Bird Food) and Isaac

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I can’t choose a favorite pairing for this one because everyone brought their A game and it was a truly wonderful dinner. Much thanks to Alyssa, Morgan and Isaac for bringing additional beers to share. Thanks to Jess for helping me set up the dreamy fall patio décor. And thank you, of course, to Kyle, who consistently puts up with my bite-off-more-than-I-can-chew syndrome when it comes to entertaining. But who else would bring you a seven course vegetarian beer dinner, outdoors, at the end of October, but the type of person who bites off more than she can chew?

If seven courses weren’t enough, there were s’mores waiting at the fire pit after dinner. Which brings me to one more thank you – thanks Al for sharing your amazing fire-building skills with us once again!

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Thanks to a combination of designated drivers, self control, and Uber ridesharing service (for those who lacked both), everyone got home safely, full, and happy.

Did you miss the recaps of the first four vegetarian beer dinners? Check them out here:

Vegetarian Beer Dinner I – August 2012

Vegetarian Beer Dinner II – December 2012

Vegetarian Beer Dinner III – April 2013

Vegetarian Beer Dinner IV – September 2013

Vegan Meatballs in a Sweet and Spicy Mole Sauce

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Ever since Brittany and I brought home a second place win at the Richmond Vegetarian Festival Food Fight Iron Chef style cooking competition, I’ve been thinking about how to make our vegan nut meat into meatballs. I have to give Brittany credit for introducing me to nut meat, which is basically coarsely ground walnuts, seasoned to taste like ground beef. All alone, nut meat probably isn’t fooling anyone into thinking they’re eating real meat. However, the taste and texture definitely resemble meat when you use this ingredient in tacos, casseroles, and anything with a sauce.

I did some research on nut meatballs (hehe) but wasn’t quite ready to pull the trigger on recipe testing until I settled on a creative sauce. It all came together for me when I planned the next vegetarian beer dinner in the same week that I tasted Xocoveza Mocha Stout. This beer smells remarkably like Mexican hot chocolate, and I could not get enough of the smooth, rich taste when I tried it on draft at The Beer Mongers in Portland, Oregon last month. I was immediately inspired to pair this delicious Mexican Chocolate Stout with Meatballs in a Mole Sauce at our next beer dinner.

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Xocoveza Mocha Stout is a collaboration between Stone Brewing, Cervezeria Insurgente, and home brewer Chris Banker. I’ve tried a few different attempts at a Mexican Chocolate Stout, including Kyle’s own winter 2012 home brew, which was a Mexican chocolate milk stout, as well as some variations from popular microbreweries that have hit the market over the last two years. This is the only one that I have tasted that really nailed the aroma and taste of Mexican hot chocolate with a hint of coffee.

For the food pairing, I wanted to make sure that I brought in the same chili and chocolate flavors in the sauce as well as the meatballs themselves. I used Annette Ramke and Kendall Scott’s Walnut Meat-Less Balls recipe posted on Nava Atlas’ VegKitchen as a base recipe, then I gave it my own twist. I recommend you do the same, swapping spices to get different flavors and to put your own spin on this great base recipe for vegan nut meatballs.

Vegan Meatballs in a Sweet and Spicy Mole Sauce

Ingredients:

  • 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 cup baby bella mushrooms, chopped
  • 1 clove of garlic, chopped
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts
  • 2 Tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
  • 2 Tablespoons wheat germ
  • 3 Tablespoons rolled oats
  • 1 Tablespoon nutritional yeast
  • 2 Tablespoons tamari
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • 2 teaspoons chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cocoa powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Sauce:

  • 2 cups marinara sauce
  • 1/4 cup vegan dark chocolate chips
  • 4 teaspoons chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cocoa powder

Preparation:

  1. In a medium sauce pan, heat oil over medium heat. Saute onions, mushrooms, and garlic for 4-5 minutes, until soft. Set aside to cool.
  2. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
  3. When cooled, add onions, mushrooms and garlic to a food processor. Add remaining meatball ingredients (walnuts through black pepper) to the food processor and blend until smooth.
  4. Form mixture into small balls and place on cookie sheet. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes at 375 degrees F. Uncover, flip meatballs and bake for an additional 10 minutes.
  5. While meatballs are baking, make the mole sauce. Heat all ingredients in medium sauce pan for 10 minutes on low-medium until chocolate is melted and sauce is bubbling. Ladle over meatballs and serve warm.

Veggie Redux: Vegetarian Chicken, Broccoli and Rice Casserole

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Does anyone else remember this dish from childhood? This cheesy casserole of broccoli, chicken, and rice was one of my favorite meals while growing up. I remember digging into a plateful of creamy, cheesy broccoli rice at the end of many a late soccer practice. When the weather started to get cooler and the days got shorter, I would spend the waning hours of daylight doing trapping drills, taking shots, and scrimmaging with my teammates. Sometimes it got so dark that our parents headed to the cars to run the heat and illuminate the field with their headlights. When I finally got home, cold, muddy and famished, a cheesy casserole was the ultimate comfort food.

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Quorn Naked Chik’n Cutlets make it easy to recreate this dish without meat*. If you’re not into meat substitutes but you want to replace the protein lost from removing the chicken, add a can of chickpeas or a block of silken tofu to the mixture before pouring into the casserole dish and baking.

My intention is that this hearty casserole will be a welcome treat for Kyle when he gets home from a late bicycle ride or a long day of work. Because it’s a one dish meal, I can make it ahead of time and then pop it in the oven to reheat, and cleanup is very easy. I hope that this crowd-pleasing dish finds a place on your table as the weather gets cooler and the annual nesting and hibernating begin!

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Vegetarian Chicken, Broccoli and Rice Casserole

Serves 8

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Ingredients:

  • 2 cups short grain brown rice
  • 4 cups low sodium vegetable broth
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/2 yellow onion, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 4 cups frozen broccoli, chopped
  • 4 ounces artichokes (frozen or marinated), chopped
  • 1 – 9.7 ounce package of Quorn Naked Chik’n Cutlets, thawed and diced
  • 2 cups lowfat milk
  • 2 Tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup plain Greek yogurt (or sour cream)
  • 2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
  • 1 teaspoon dried tarragon
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

  1. Heat vegetable broth over medium heat. Add brown rice and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 40-50 minutes or until all liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat and fluff with a fork.
  2. While rice is cooking, heat olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, broccoli and artichokes. Saute until tender. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add naked chik’n cutlets, diced, and continue to cook over low-medium heat for 5 minutes.
  3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  4. In a medium pot over medium heat, combine milk and flour with a whisk until fully incorporated. Cook for 8 minutes then remove from heat.
  5. To the milk sauce, add yogurt or sour cream, 1 cup of shredded cheese, tarragon, and salt and pepper to taste.
  6. Add the brown rice and cheese sauce to the large pot with the vegetables and vegetarian chicken. Transfer to a large casserole dish and top with 1 cup of shredded cheese. Bake, uncovered, at 350 degrees F for 20 minutes.

*Not a sponsored post, just a fan of Quorn!

Fall Sprucing

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For the past few weekends, we’ve been doing some Fall Sprucing. It’s like spring cleaning, except you do it just before fall. I have always thought that fall feels more like a fresh start than spring. This is probably due to the school calendar. The end of the summer turns into the start of the school year, which has always meant new school supplies, new clothes, a fresh haircut, and a fresh start. Even after graduating college, I still feel that the fall is a beginning . . and not just the beginning of the end.

During this time of year, I like to clean up around the house, try out a new hair color, buy school office supplies, shop for new clothing, and rejuvenate any resolutions I made in January that have slipped my mind during the summer months. The fall sprucing this year started with a trip to Bombshell Salon  for a daring new hair color. I expected to get my usual dark chocolate brown, but my hair stylist talked me into a panel of bright red in the front.

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After the hair salon kickoff, I decided to tackle a house project that Kyle and I have meant to take care of for a few weeks. We finally painted our front door a fun color! We have a white house with a white front door, so we have desperately needed a pop of color. After living with several paint chips taped to our front door for a week (sorry, neighbors. . .), we decided on Valspar Green Gecko (6006-8A).

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After the door was painted, we were surprised to find that Kyle had chosen the exact same shade for our door as he had for his iPhone 5c. It’s almost a perfect match! We also installed some modern house numbers, which was a fun adventure to say the least. I think we tried five different drill bits before we found the right size to fit the anchors and posts for these numbers, but finally it is done, and we love it.

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I carried the momentum into Labor Day weekend, when I decided to go after a big house project that I had put off for years. I finally went through every piece of clothing in my closet and dresser and decided what to keep, sell, or donate. Yes, every piece. Including the sock drawer and my stack of denim. I can never bear to part with a pair of jeans, no matter how ratty or ill-fitting. So many memories! I found pairs of flare cut jeans from college, maybe even high school. Did you ever have a pair of these supremely cool Lucky brand jeans?

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For someone who now wears heels once every three months, I have a pretty sizable collection of heels. Pictured here, about a quarter of what I found. That’s right, I had about 50 pairs of heels. If I wore heels one day a week, I could go a year without repeating a pair. And I don’t wear heels anymore.

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But I still kept about 15 pairs! Someday, I might want to wear heels again, and I wouldn’t want to start from scratch. So I may still have a little ways to go before I have a simplified closet, but I did end up with four garbage bags full of perfectly good clothing to donate, just because it’s not my style, I don’t love it, or it doesn’t fit my body exactly how I want it to. If you’re interested in taking the same (very helpful) approach that I did, I highly recommend that you check out How to Organize a Closet You’ll Love.

The final item on the list I have been working for our fall sprucing project is cleaning up our diets. We are so far from perfect on this, but I have been incorporating a lot more home cooked clean eating meals into our weekly meal plan. My favorite cookbook lately has been Clean Food by Terry Walters. Kyle and I have noticed that we feel so much better when we are eating a healthy vegetarian diet with a variety of nutrient sources. It is a lot easier to do this in the summer with an abundance of local fruits and vegetables, so we really have no excuse this month; we’re eating as clean as we can.

If you’re thinking about sprucing up your diet too, check out my new Pinterest board, Healthy Vegetarian Recipes!

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Have a wonderful week, and good luck with your new beginnings as well!

Big Meadows Camping Trip in Shenandoah National Park

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Have you heard that it’s National S’mores Day?

What better day to tell you all about a recent camping trip I took in Shenandoah National Park? A few weeks ago, I planned a trip for six friends to go camping up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I had visited and hiked in the Blue Ridge dozens of times, but I had never camped before. Planning a two-day camping and hiking trip for six was a daunting task, and I was a little nervous that, as the only one out of the group who had never been camping, I was doomed to miss a critical detail and therefore ruin the trip for everyone. So I did a lot of research and planning. If you know me well, you won’t be surprised at all that there were multiple checklists and maps involved, all important information lived in a “camping binder,” with plastic sheet protectors and all, and we packed the car to the roof with essentials and not-so-essentials, “just in case.”

Kyle and I bought a Marmot tent at REI earlier this summer and we were excited to finally put it to good use. The night before we left for our camping trip, we unpacked the tent and set it up in the living room, just to be sure that we had everything we needed and that we wouldn’t look too foolish to the other seasoned campers when we arrived at our campsite.

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I believe the above diagram shows that no one can stand in this tent unless they’re under 5’1”. At first I took the other pictures to mean that the tent would fit two yogis or four mummies, but now I realize that they indicate that the tent will fit four people sleeping and two sitting up. I am new to this camping thing, but I think I’m starting to get it down.

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We arrived at Big Meadows Campground about two hours before sundown on a Friday night. Kyle and I focused on setting up our tent first, and then we started to get dinner ready. Among our team of six, we had a few vegetarians, some vegans, a gluten-free restriction, a nut allergy, and a carb counter. You would think that would present a big challenge, but it really wasn’t that hard to accommodate at all. I made a burrito bar for our first dinner, which worked out really well because each person could make his or her own meal from the options provided. We had low-carb and whole wheat tortillas, black beans, sauteed zucchini, squash, and onions, salsa, sour cream, and cheese.

For dessert, we made s’mores (of course), and created the most amazing campfire snack I have ever seen. Behold. . . the S’moreo.

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Simply twist two halves of an Oreo cookie apart and press a toasted marshmallow between them. For the record, Oreos are vegan. Marshmallows are not, due to the gelatin, unless you buy special vegan marshmallows.

We sat around the campfire the first night, laughing, telling stories, and scaring ourselves about the possibility of black bears crashing our party. We couldn’t believe how cold it was up in the mountains – around 60 degrees at the campsite at 3600 feet of elevation – while it was 75-80 degrees in the valley. Just as the fire started to die down and we began packing up to head to the tents, it started raining.

It poured all night long, hard driving rain, that never let up. We stayed completely dry in our tent, although there was one section on the corner above my head that was not completely taut, so it gathered a pool of water and then dumped a loud, sudden shower off the side of the tent about every twenty minutes all night long. Between the sudden “swoosh” of water right next to my head, jitters about sleeping outside for the first time ever, and weird sounds in the woods that my exhausted brain was convinced were from bears, axe murderers, or axe murderous bears, I hardly slept that first night.

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The next morning, the rain let up a bit and then cleared up completely for our tubing trip on the Shenandoah River. After the cool, rainy night, we second guessed ourselves all morning on whether a tubing trip was the right plan, but when we got to the river, the sun was shining and it was a nice warm 80 degrees outside. The river was cool and refreshing, as were the beverages we packed into our cooler tube. I have gone tubing with Shenandoah River Adventures twice now, and I highly recommend them. We had a great experience!

When we headed back to camp that afternoon, it started raining again, so half of the group worked on setting up a tarp shelter for us to hang out under. The camp store at the Big Meadows Campground stocks a lot of supplies at very reasonable prices. We had brought an extra tarp with us, but we decided to buy a second one at the camp store to make an even larger shelter in case it rained for the next several hours. The other half of the group started washing and chopping vegetables for a giant tray of “hobo meal,” as Al called it.

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Those are vegan hot dogs on the fire, next to a huge foil roasting pan full of potatoes, onion, carrots, zucchini, peppers, squash, salt, pepper, and oil. After about an hour directly over the fire, the “hobo meal” was done, and it was fantastic. Who says you need to have meat to make a hearty meal?

The rain slowed down before bed time that second night. We made more s’mores, left a huge dent in the beer supply, and played games until we were falling asleep in our camp chairs. I slept like a rock that night, no longer worried about homicidal maniacs or bears, and finally comfortable sleeping in a tent. Progress!

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For breakfast both days, we had bagels (toasted over a campfire) with hummus or cream cheese, and fresh fruit. I made a batch of cold brew iced coffee concentrate at home and brought it with us for morning coffees. I don’t drink mine black, so I brought shelf stable milk in Tetra Paks, and on Sunday morning I discovered the joy of Silk chocolate soy milk in iced coffee. A little leftover “hobo meal” stew helped bulk up breakfast on the second day and gave us extra fuel for hiking later that day.

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We headed to the Hawksbill Summit Loop Trail, about five miles north of Big Meadows Campground. Hawksbill Summit is the highest peak of Shenandoah National Park, at 4,049 feet. We accidentally hiked the loop backwards, making a very steep climb straight up to the summit, then meandering back along the Appalachian Trail at a slight downhill grade, with a lot of switchbacks and beautiful scenery. There was a lot of cloud cover all morning so we were not sure how much we would be able to see at the summit.

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When we arrived at the top, it looked like we had reached the end of the world. We were standing in a cloud. It is pretty hard to describe the feeling of looking down off a cliff at nothing but thick white clouds. This picture that Kyle posted to Instagram demonstrates that a picture is worth a thousand words: Al at the Summit.

Within ten minutes of our arrival at the summit, the clouds began to break, and we could see the vast valley below.

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There were these amazing little succulents growing out of the rocks at the top.

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Adrienne took a yoga break while we took in the panoramic views.

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Having the clouds break right as we reached the summit was a great end to a trip that was perfectly timed. . . no thanks to all of my meticulous planning. It was overcast and rainy for most of the time we were there, except for three distinct and brief times that the clouds cleared up and the sun shone down on us: when we first arrived and set up our tents, when we ventured out on our tubing trip, and when we reached Hawksbill Summit. These were the only three times we really needed the sun, and somehow it all worked out. There is no way I could have planned that.

At a time that I am reminded how much I am not in control, these brief moments of sunshine and intermittent rain made me even more grateful for the opportunity to explore all of the natural beauty we have in Virginia, just a two-hour drive from home.

You know it was a good trip when you haven’t even made it off the mountain yet before everyone starts asking, “when can we do it again?”

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