Costa Rica: a vegetarian paradise

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Returning home from Costa Rica is rough, especially when you factor in the ridiculously cold weather that hit Montreal this January.  Typically when I get home from vacay, I’ll comfort myself with the familiar and delicious vegetarian foods that I have been deprived of on my trip, but not this time. The food in CR was so good and so veg that I didn’t even have “favourite food withdrawal”.  Veggie fajitas, chia seed smoothies, breakfast burritos, fresh falafels among other amazing new discoveries were some of the dishes that I feasted on in CR. Best of all, vegetarian food was so accessible that I think I may have put on a few extra pounds despite all the excurisions and hikes. If you are a foodie with a taste for adventure (no pun intended), then I’d definitely recommend Costa Rica. I’ve included some food highlights below, take a look.

Santa Teresa Beach

Costa Rica is a touristy place. Very touristy. So try to go during low season to avoid the hoards of beach bums. That being said, I went during New Year’s Eve when all hostels were at complete capacity and I still had loads of fun.

NYE on Santa Teresa Beach

NYE on Santa Teresa Beach

Santa Teresa beach is a hippie-esque surfer spot with laid back drop dead gorgerous people who come from all around the world to surf, do yoga and mellow out. The main strip is lined with numerous cafes and eateries which are mostly owned by ex-pats, offering an array of vegan and vegetarian options. Some of my highlights were:

Yummy Smoothies at Ginger Cafe

Falafel burger and live music at Zulu

Coconut curry and chic nighttime ambience at Kantana 

Breakfast Burrito and funky art at Zwarts Cafe 

Enormous pizzas and delicious iced coffees from The Bakery

Zwart Cafe

Zwart Cafe

Best Breakfast Burrito at Zwart Cafe

Best Breakfast Burrito at Zwart Cafe

I also enjoyed an amazing meal in neighbouring beach town of Montezuma. Montezuma is a great place to visit with it’s popular waterfalls that offer a free thrill with steep hikes, big jumps and a tarzan swing over water. After we were done playing around in what is basically a natural water park, we went down to Cocolores restaurant to have dinner on the beach. This place has an amazing beer selection and fabulous veggie fajitas – I was in heaven!

Veggie Fajitas at Cocolores

Veggie Fajitas at Cocolores – Montezuma

Monteverde

Monteverde was a nice change of pace from the buzzing beach towns. It is a great place to explore a plethora of National Parks, zip line and get some wildlife photos. The town area is cute but I must warn you, the food ain’t cheap. We cooked more and ate out less but still discovered some yummy finds:

Giant pizza & funky ambience at Treehouse Cafe

Freaking Delicious Tacos & Burritos at Taco Taco

Best coffee in Costa Rica at Beso Espresso

Treehouse Cafe

Coffee at Treehouse Cafe

El Castillo – Essence Arenal

My last few days in Costa Rica were incredible partly because of my stay Essence Arenal. Fresh mouth air, great views, loads of wildlife and delicious vegetarian meals – just about everything that makes me happy inside.

The Views and Essence Arenal

The Views and Essence Arenal

Essence Arenal was located on an organic farm with loads of plants and trees to admire and taste which made the food to die for. The fun part is that they also invite you to help prepare the dinner meals which was somewhat educational and made for good vibes. The dinners are a little more pricy at about 15$ a pop but the breakfasts and lunches are a steal at only about $5! It’s also an excellent spot to explore the Arenal volcano and enjoy a dip in the hot springs!  I would definitely recommend it!

Essence Arenal

Traditional Costa Rican Dinner night @ Essence Arenal

Making Fresh Tortillas at Essence Arenal

Making Fresh Tortillas at Essence Arenal

A Traditional Tico meal at Essence Arenal

A Traditional Tico meal at Essence Arenal

Making Fresh Tortillas at Essence Arenal

Making Fresh Tortillas at Essence Arenal

Homemade falafels at Essence Arenal

Homemade falafels at Essence Arenal

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Desayuno Tipico

Another highlight was the desayuno tipico which you can find everywhere. Totally veg-friendly, just ask if there is pork fat in the rice and beans (incase). This breakfast got me through many long days of hiking.

Desayuno Tipico

Desayuno Tipico, Pico de Gallo, cream, plantains, tortillas and eggs with fresh coffee. Available everywhere!

Despite the hoards of tourists, I still really enjoyed Costa Rica.  There are definitely ways to get off the beaten track a bit more which I would do next time. Two weeks did not feel like enough time. You could spend weeks there and only scratch the surface. Since we were there during the holidays, a real highlight for me was being able to interact with lots of Ticos who were staying in the same hostels.  Costa Rican people are very warm and welcoming, especially when they are vacationing. If you’ve ever been there then you’ve definitely heard the phrase: “Pura Vida,” meaning the pure life. They use it for everything from greetings to thank yous to farewells. At face value, I thought of pura vida meaning that you live pure: eat well, take care of your body and mind. After more time there, I came to think of it more in terms of karma, you live the pure life by passing pure and kind gestures forward. At least that is how I came to understand it from my interactions with the locals. Although the meaning to Costa Ricans may be more profound, I felt that the words really did encapsulate the experience for me: A vast and natural land where good-natured people were plentiful. Mind you, we often get inspired while traveling, in any case PURA VIDA!

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Recipe: Cashew Cheese Spread

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Don’t worry, after this long winded rant on cheese there is an actual recipe. It’s a simple but very awesome recipe, which is prefaced by my thoughts on cheese.

So, why no cheese?

Ok first off, let me start by saying that I LOVE CHEESE. Being a vegetarian is pretty easy but going vegan is really difficult for me. During my vegan challenge, I’ve literally wanted to GORGE on a brick of cheddar, smothered with melted brie topped with goat cheese balls.

I’ve been hearing time after time that cheese is bad for you. This is up for debate, and I’m not here to draw any major conclusions. The reason why I’m opting to reduce my cheesey consumption is two parts ethical, one part health and one part vanity.

Ethics:

I want less animals to suffer: less cheese = less cows suffer. I know that is a pretty big simplification because I’ve personally known dairy farmers, and I know that there are ethical ways to raise goats and cows for milk. In fact, this summer I’d like to do a Quebec cheese trail so that I can feel comfortable eating cheese from farms that I’ve visited in person and deemed “ethical.” That being said, there are numerous large scale dairy farms where the treatment of the animals is less than holy.

Heath:

I am a little divided on my position towards dairy from a health perspective. I do think that we probably consume more dairy that we should – lactose intolerance is probably evidence that dairy not conducive to everybody.  Most vegans will quote the China study at this point to talk about how casein (dairy protein) causes cancerous tumours in rats. I haven’t read the China study so I can’t draw any conclusions just yet but cheese does tend to be very high in fat and cholesterol which we all know is bad. Finally, dairy products are supposedly acid forming once they are metabolized which in excess can throw your body’s biochemical balance out of wack. That’s enough for me to consider the overall benefits of eliminating cheese.

Vanity:

I’ve heard time and time again from friends and dermatologists that eliminating dairy from your diet can help with skin conditions such as acne. Being that I have fairly acne prone skin, I’ve tried altering my diet in many ways (including no dairy) without too many results. So I’m fairly skeptical that it will make a difference but given that this is something that’s bothered me forever, I figured it was really time to buckle down and commit to being dairy free for enough time to really see the effects. I’m aiming for 2 months off the dairy but I will allow for the occasion cheat (for poutine). I don’t think I’ll ever commit to no cheese for life but I can definitely see the effects and learn to reduce if I feel like doing so will have a positive effect.

So there you have it! Dairy free since April 14′ (with the occasional cheat for poutine, c’mon people, I’m human!).

So how did I do it?

There is absolutely NO WAY for a cheese lover like me to go dairy free without some kind of substitute. My answer: CASHEW CHEESE SPREAD.

No kidding, you absolutely need to make this now! It is so easy and so absolutely delicious. Even if you eat cheese you should still try this spread anyways, all you need is a few simple ingredients.  Within minutes, you’ll have the fattiness of cheese, without the guilt.

How to make cashew cheese?

STEP 1: Soak 1.5 cups of raw cashew nuts in water for minimum two hours, maximum over night.

Cashewspread-1

 

STEP 2: Drain the soaked nuts, place in a blender, add water and seasoning.

My no fuss seasoning includes:

  • 1.5 cups raw cashews (that you’ve soaked)
  • 1/2 cup water (add a little more water for a milky consistency or a little less for a more spreadable texture)
  • 1/3 tsp Salt
  • 1 tsp Nutrition Yeast
  • 1 tbsp of tamari
  • 2/3 tsp garlic powder
  • A little black pepper to taste (optional)

 

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STEP 3: Once all your ingredients are in the blender, blend on medium speed for a few minutes. REALLY BLEND ‘ER UP! It should be pulverized!

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STEP 4: Scoop out your mixture from the blender and store in a small jar for later use.

Cashewspread-5

 

What to do with your cashew cheese spread?

Use it anywhere that you’d use sour cream: on tacos, nachos, baked potatoes.

Add to a sandwich or bagel instead of cream cheese.

Use in place of mayo or cream for dips and salad dressings.

Add a little to your tomato pasta to make it a rose.

Let your imagination go wild!

 

 

Hockey Playoffs – Veggie Style

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As a proud Montrealer, I am ecstatic about the Habs annihilating Tampa in the play-offs. I mean hell yah! Okay, I’ll be honest-I’m not the biggest hockey fanatic, but I’ve always loved the buzz around the city during the playoff season. It’s a pure energy that transcends race, gender or linguistic differences. Hockey truly is one of those special customs that unites all Montrealers to appreciate something bigger, despite our differences. It really is a beautiful thing. So, this year I’ll be jumping on the bandwagon and watching the games in anticipation, at a bar or in a living room with a cold brew and a good pal. And who says I can’t do hockey my way? Veggie-style! I’m compiling a list of my favourite vegetarian and vegan snack foods that would make a great addition to any game night.

1. Seven layered dip – 

Vegetarian or Vegan 

This dip is classically made with sour cream and cheese but can be made vegan-style as well. It features refried beans which are pretty much my raison d’etre, along with a rich guacamole and pico de gallo. Yummy! It’s relatively easy to prepare and I promise your hockey amigos will love it.

2. Garlic Kale chips

This is a MTLVEG original recipe, although kale chips are far from a new idea. These delicious thin crunchy chips make a great snack for just about any event. I am border line addicted to them. The only issue is you’ll need a lot of kale to feed your crew.

3. Roasted spicy chickpeas

How do you pack crunchy, spicy and delicious into one wholesome healthy snack? Make roasted chickpeas! Yes, these are a great finger food that’s a lot healthier than potato chips. Consider serving these goodies for the next game.

4. Hummus 

Okay, hummus is pretty much the veggie equivalent to all snack foods but for a good reason. Veggies and hummus are the go-to vegan choice for just about any event, and it’s easy to see why – it’s a cheap snack and goes with virtually everything. I’ve opted to include a unique, miso & white bean hummus recipe from Keeping it Kind as an alternative to the typical chickpea hummus. Then again, any variation works. 

5. Chard & Cheese on toast

Another MTLVEG original, this is such an easy snack to prepare. Sautee a little bit of onions and Swiss chard, place it on a multi-grain toast and melt some cheddar cheese on top. You could definitely do this vegan style with a dash Daiya or even explore some local vegan cheese alternatives such as Brydsheese. It’s a simple snack but definitely a crowd pleaser.

6. Buffalo tempeh wing dip

Now this recipe from More Vegan Blog is one that I wish I had invented myself. It’s a pure gluttonous treat that really harnesses the power of “good fats” to create a creamy wing sauce that is not only vegan but scrumptious…Not to mention the tempeh is a rich protein source that will leave your gut feeling full just as if you were eating real chicken wings. 

There are endless snack possibilities when hosting a game night as long as you keep in mind one simple rule: Beer should accompany everything! Or at least a white wine spritzer.  GO HABS GO!!!

 

Montreal’s unexpected veggie-friendly establishments.

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Photo cred: Gemma Correll

You may have noticed that I like to talk about “co-existing” with meat-lovers. This is in large part because most of my friends and family have not adopted my vegetarian lifestyle, and it has been a headache at times. They want to eat red meat, and I just want eat something without stressing the waitress out, or paying too much for a poor excuse of a salad. Over the course of my co-existence with carnivorous, I’ve taken note of a few meat-lovin’ establishments that are surprising veg-friendly. These are the places that I’ll head to if I simply cannot convince my friends to try to newest vegan hot spot.

1. Marven’s

  • Speciality: Steak, Lamb, Calamari & Souvlaki.
  • Veggie option: Veggie souvlaki, greek salad, veggie platter.
  • Location: Parc-Ex

This classic Montreal dive is a beloved spot for steak and lamb chops. I like it because I can order a “veggie” souvlaki platter loaded with salad and feta cheese. Drench your fries in Marven’s sauce, and you’ll be in for a treat. It’s a good spot to swing by for a social gathering since it’s got a lively atmosphere. And bonus – it’s CHEAP!

2. Baton Rouge

Surf & turf, ribs and a killer grilled veggie sandwich. Seriously, I’ve had this sandwich on numerous occasions and it was consistently yummy. It’s got portobello mushroom, red peppers, eggplant, zucchini and goat cheese. Not vegan friendly but I’m sure you can ask them to hold the cheese and mayo in a pinch. Kudos to them for whipping together a sweet vegetarian option. They’ve also got some decent starters but it ain’t cheap!

3. Reuben’s Deli

  • Speciality: Smoked meat.
  • Veggie option: Grilled veggie sandwich.
  • Location: Downtown

When your buddies are in the mood for smoked meat, convince them to go to Reuben’s deli. They have a fabulous spinach artichoke dip, a massive greek salad and a delicious grilled veggie sandwich.  It’s pretty much the same deal as the Baton Rouge sandwich. I’ve actually gone here with vegetarian friends just for the sandwich. It’s also the same price point as Baton Rouge, but high prices are to be expected when you’re eating right downtown.

4. Burger De Ville

This burger joint is a regular spot for my colleagues and I. They are fairly enamoured over the idea of bacon cheeseburgers on the lunch hour. Luckily they’ve got a yummy portobello burger options for about $5.75. If you really want to splurge get the Mediterranean burger but swap the meat for a mushroom, which turns it into an epic grilled veggie sandwich. It hits the spot but I’ve had to turn a blind eye to how close they grill the mushroom to the beef patties. Personally, I can live with the proximity for a little lunchtime socializing.

5. Le Gros Jambon

  • Specialty: Diner food (Hot dogs, burgers, mac &cheese)
  • Veggie option(s): Veggie Burger, Mac&Cheese
  • Location: Old Montreal

This trendy diner is a fun spot to grab a cheap bite in the old port. I usually recommend this place to tourists since decent cheaper options in Montreal’s beloved old town are few and far between. Besides being affordable, Le Gros Jambon is fun and accommodating to vegetarian needs. They offer a veggie burger, 4-cheese mac & cheese and a small salad. You can even omit to aioli to make your veggie burger vegan. The brunch is not as veg-friendly so I recommend this one more for lunch.

Got hemp? An ingredient feature.

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Every time I tell my friends that I’m drinking hemp, they make doobie smoking gestures and say something along the lines of, “Hemp? That’s groovy dude.”  As I’ve vocalized at many parties, “THC is not for me!”  The only buzz that I get from a hemp smoothie is the buzz of health and vitality. Yes, I’m fairly square, and proud of it! And no, eating hemp will not get you high.

I discovered hemp a few years ago when I was looking for a complete protein supplement. I’ve always disliked the taste of soy protein, and for a while it seemed like the only veg protein source out there. That’s why hemp was such an exciting discovery for me.  Hemp seeds are very high in protein and contain all nine of the essential amino acids —something uncommon in plant proteins, making it the perfect supplement for vegetarian or vegan diets. The omega fatty acids are also abundant in hemp seeds and they come in a balanced ratio. It’s also an excellent source of magnesium, iron, potassium, fibre and vitamins E, D, A. It has antioxidant qualities, it’s a cancer fighter, a brain builder and promotes good digestive health. It’s also good for your skin, hair, nails, and has been rumoured to treat skin ailments when applied topically (although I wouldn’t suggest this without further research).

It won’t make you bloat like some other protein supplements *cough* soy.  It also slows down digestion, which prevents spikes in blood sugar so your energy is sustained and your appetite is suppressed. I can actually vouch for this personally – I have an epic appetite and I was blown away when a hemp smoothie filled me up. That means it’s fantastic if you want to shed a few pounds too. Basically, it’s freaking awesome.

Hemp has been especially popularized in the last two years along with the other SUPER FOODS (chia, flax, quinoa). There are quite a few hemp products on the market now and tons of hemp supplements. I can’t really say that I’ve tried everything available but I can share with you the hemp products that I use regularly.

Shelled raw hemp

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These soft shelled organic hemp seeds may also be referred to as hemp hearts. They’ve essentially removed the outer shell of the seed to make it soft and easy to eat. This reduces the fibre content and changes the taste and texture completely. Hemp hearts are soft, fatty and subtle in flavour. It’s a live food so it’s mega healthy, especially if you eat it raw on a salad or in a smoothie. They are also excellent in a home made veggie paté, patties and burgers. Since they are raw seeds, they should be refrigerated- I store mine in a mason jar.

Hemp protein powder

Sprouted flax

This is probably the hemp product that I use the most. I discovered Ruth’s brand after some extensive research online. I went a little wacko trying to find the BEST protein supplement out there. My research led me to this brand and I haven’t tried any others yet. You can order it on Amazon but I found mine for $19 at my all time favourite store – Branche D’olivier.  

I’ll be totally honest, this stuff is not delicious. I personally love the taste but I’ve always liked “earthy flavours.” It kind of tastes like dirt. If you aren’t into the taste, you’ll have to just add a touch to your smoothies. The good thing is that 1 tbsp has 7g of protein, so a little goes a long way. I sometimes add it  to a glass of water and drink it straight. Like I said, I love the taste but I’m not too sure others would.

Drinking my morning Kale-Mango-Hemp smoothie on the bus.

Please remember that I’m not a nutrition specialist but my advice with a supplement like this is to remember that just 1 tbsp has 60 calories. It’s pretty hearty stuff! My morning green hemp smoothie (500ml) is about 300 calories. You shouldn’t have a hemp smoothie on top of your regular meal portion because you’ll be doubling your calorie intake for the day. Rather, I like to have a hemp smoothie as a meal replacement or a mid-day snack before the gym. The great thing is that it really does fill you up. If you mix it with the right fruits and veggies, you’ve got a well balance meal.

Toasted hemp seeds

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Whole toasted hemp seeds are a fantastic snacking food. They’re really yummy especially when salted or flavoured.  They’ve got a nutty taste and crunchy texture. I have the Ecoideas brand at home but you can really try any brand of toasted seeds.  It’s not as healthy as the raw seeds or protein powder but a hell of a lot tastier. Eat them plain, as a snack, or toss some on a green salad. Yum!

You can find these at the health food store, or you can order them online. Oddly enough, I found mine at Winners. 

Hemp seed oil

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This cold pressed oil is not meant for cooking and it should be kept refrigerated in order to preserved the omega fatty acids. I use hemp oil where I would normally use oil olive – sauces, drizzles, salad dressings.  If you cook with it, you’ll loose the health benefits, which sort of defeats the purpose.

A lot of people take hemp oil as an omega 3, 6 supplement since it has the an ideal 3:1 balance ratio. The Manitoba Harvest brand seem to be the big guys in Canadian hemp products and they offer a hemp oil capsule. You can order it online, otherwise you’ll probably find it at your local health food store. I’ve never taken them personally but I think it’s definitely worth looking into as a humane alternative to fish oils.

The info provided for this post was based on a few years my personal research.  I would like to credit all my research sources but that would be impossible. Instead I’ll credit a few below, which you can consult for more information.

http://vegetarian.about.com/od/beverage1/a/what-are-hemp-seeds.htm

http://www.care2.com/greenliving/5-surprising-health-benefits-of-hemp-2.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hemp