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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Costa Rica Trip & Traveling as a Vegan + Monthly Newsletter Launch

Before I get into the Costa Rica goodness, I just want to share some exciting news with you... I am going to be sending out a once-a-month newsletter starting in mid-March. It will include my latest blog posts, healthy eating and holistic living tips, my favorite non-toxic, eco-friendly, & cruelty-free products, restaurant reviews, my thoughts on current events in the nutrition world, info on my holistic health coaching program, and so much more! I've been going through holistic health coach training at The Institute for Integrative Nutrition and will be launching my practice shortly. I am so excited! You can sign up for my monthly newsletter on the home page of my blog. You'll find it on the right side. :-)

In February, I took a one-week vacation to Costa Rica with my dad and my best friend, Alyssa. I had never been out of the United States before and was itching to go somewhere new and experience a different culture. I felt stuck in the Texas bubble. The reason we chose Costa Rica is because people always rave about it and have nothing but great things to report. Lots of people end up moving there because they love it so much (I see this on House Hunters International all the time!). 

We really had the time of our lives! The thing I loved most about Costa Rica is that life is so simple there. The people are super friendly and happy, enthusiastic about their country and they take their time. They're content without material things. I would be, too, if I lived in a place with such extraordinary foliage, biodiversity, beaches, weather, wildlife, kind people, and food. I just wish we could've stayed longer. I feel like if you travel out of the country, you might as well stay awhile. 

Since we were only there for a week and it was our first time, we wanted to get a taste of everything this beautiful country has to offer. We started off in the La Fortuna area near the (inactive) Arenal volcano, then made our way to Monteverde (translation: green mountain) and ended our trip in Tamarindo (very touristy) right by the ocean. By the way, Anywhere Costa Rica helped me plan my trip. It went seamlessly thanks to them! I did a lot of research on my own but they booked the hotels for me, transportation, all of the logistics. I highly recommend them!

Now, I'll take you through our trip with some pictures, including how I fared as a vegan...

Going from top left to bottom: Hotel Arenal Manoa. Incredibly beautiful hotel. You're surrounded by gorgeous foliage. Our view was the Arenal volcano, Costa Rica's youngest volcano, which last erupted in 2010. The pool was awesome as well with breathtaking views! The day after we arrived, we hiked through the rain forest on suspension bridges (that's us on the bridge in the bottom middle picture) and to a stunning waterfall. That hike up was tough though.

The food at the hotel was really good! Alyssa and I are both vegans so we were in this international food adventure together. After doing some research, I knew it wasn't going to be too difficult to accommodate our vegan needs because traditional Costa Rican fare is quite suitable for vegans and vegetarians, too. The traditional cuisine consists of rice, beans, plantains, and lots of fresh fruit. The top picture is dinner from a beautiful resort called Tabacon Hot Springs where we spent the evening after our long day of hiking. The food was delicious! The bottom left picture is breakfast at the hotel. We had that same meal for breakfast at all 3 hotels we went to. Gallo Pinto was everywhere!

Our second stop was Monteverde. This was our favorite destination. It wasn't too crowded or touristy, which we appreciated even more after our final stop. Hotel Belmar was incredible! It was like being in a tree house. The service was unparalleled, too. I was so impressed with this hotel because of their sustainability & eco-friendly efforts. They also had a juice/smoothie bar! We were in heaven!

The next day we walked along more hanging bridges through the cloud forest and then we went zip lining over the treetops! Man, it was fun! I couldn't believe I was that high up going as fast as I was. It was scary at first but I got the hang of it. I'd do it again in a heartbeat!

The hotel food was really good at Hotel Belmar, too. The top left picture is a grilled vegetable medley. We had (and enjoyed) lots of vegetable medley meals. We also became quite the plantain connoisseurs because they were offered everywhere, but we liked the ones at the Arenal Manoa hotel better. I never had plantains before this trip, can you believe it?? I fell deeply in love with them! Morphos was recommended by a local but it wasn't our favorite. It was a cute restaurant though. The decor was lovely. Then, we trekked to the city center in Santa Elena and had a drink at the Tree House Restaurante & Cafe. Yes, it's a restaurant in a tree! It's also a hotel. I loved it! I had a pina colada - that was my drink of choice throughout the trip. It's always been my favorite drink. I rarely drink alcohol so sometimes I'd just get it virgin. I loved that they used coconut cream in Costa Rica. Very impressed!

I e-mailed the hotel beforehand just to let them know Alyssa and I were both vegan just to ensure we'd have options. So, once we got there, the lady working at the juice bar asked if we were the vegans who e-mailed her and I said yes. She showed us the form where she typed in "VEGAN" next to our name. Ha!

More food in Monteverde! The top left picture is the Hotel Belmar breakfast. Look familiar? It's what we had in Arenal, too. Now, the bottom left picture is a meal from our favorite restaurant from the trip called Sabor Tico. It was recommended by a local. Oh my gosh. Everything was so delicious! But again, rice, beans, plantains, and salad. No complaints here. :-D Alyssa said these were the best plantains of the trip!

Our last stop on our trip was Tamarindo. It was very touristy and crowded. Locals were trying to sell tourists bits and bobs constantly. Our hotel room view and the resort grounds were spectacular. However, it was a much different experience than the previous two hotels being that it was a resort and the service was much more impersonal. I decided I don't like resorts! But the view from our room made up for it (the top left picture was our room view). The bottom left picture is the resort restaurant & bar. The lounge area on the resort grounds was fabulous as well, as you can see my best friend soaking up the sun in the bottom middle picture. :-D

We went on the Marlin Del Ray Catamaran Tour, which was one of my favorite activities we did. We just hung out on the boat, swam in the water, enjoyed the beautiful views, and watched the sunset. The next day, we met up with one of my dad's friends who lives in Playa Flamingo and he took us to a more remote beach called Playa Avellanas, which is seen in the 3 pictures on the right half of the collage. Beautiful blue water, clean sand and much quieter. There was only 1 restaurant near Playa Avellanas.

We got tired of the rice, beans and plantains for breakfast so we were thrilled to discover a juice bar within walking distance from our hotel called Mandarina, so we just had delicious fruit smoothies and acai bowls from then on. Yum! Sure, I was without my usual green smoothies all week, which I very much missed, but at least I had access to fresh fruit smoothies. 

We had 2 great dinners in Tamarindo. The bottom left picture is from The Flying Bull restaurant. I had a rice dish with artichokes, a cabbage slaw and (more) plantains. On our last night we went to a restaurant called Pizzeria La Baula. It was our other favorite restaurant of the trip. We had the most delicious vegan pizza loaded with veggies. I don't have a picture of it, probably because we were so hungry and devoured it quickly, but the inside of the restaurant is seen in the top left picture. This place got packed!

I'll finish this post with some wildlife pictures because what would a Costa Rica vacation be without birds, monkeys, iguanas, and all other sorts of animals? We were dead set on seeing monkeys and were pretty bummed when we didn't see any in Arenal or Monteverde, but on our way to Tamarindo, our drive stopped at a hostel where he heard there was a monkey sighting. It was right by the hostel eating a banana (top row of pictures)! Classic! We could go home happy at that point. 

Then, on our way to Liberia airport to head home, our driver spotted more monkeys and pulled over to let us get a closer look. These monkeys were carrying baby monkeys around their stomachs. Cutest thing ever! So, we didn't see any monkeys on our long guided tours and hikes but ended up seeing several in random moments. The Universe was on our side. Definitely a highlight of our trip!

On our way to our first stop in La Fortuna Arenal, we saw these strange looking animals called Coati all over the road. Our driver told us it's because people feed them. Unfortunately, that means that most of them are sick with anemia due to the junk food consumption... *major side eye*... We also saw 2 iguanas in Tamarindo. One was right by our hotel room and this big iguana seen in the bottom picture crept up out of nowhere while we were sunbathing on the lounge chairs. It wanted to sunbathe, too. So cool!

So, hopefully as you can tell, Costa Rica is a must-see destination. I cannot recommend it enough, though we'd skip Tamarindo next time. My dad could see himself living in Costa Rica easily. He majored in spanish in college so that skill came in very handy. All of the locals' eyes lit up when he started speaking spanish with them. It inspired me to want to learn a new language to show my respect for and interest in other cultures. I was pretty good at spanish in high school and retained some basic words and phrases but I certainly couldn't have a fluent conversation like my dad can.

I can't wait to go back, especially knowing that they accommodate vegans so well. It was a breeze, though I know it won't be like that everywhere. It'll be MUCH more challenging in Europe.

Have you been to Costa Rica or anywhere in Central America? What are some of your favorite places you've been outside of the U.S.? As I said in a previous post, I am already planning my next trip to Europe. Hopefully it happens this year... *fingers crossed*

“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” – Bill Bryson

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Chocolate Banana Pancakes (Vegan, Gluten-Free, Soy-Free, & Refined Sugar-Free)

Ah, pancakes! Whether they help you start your day, help you motor on mid-day or help you end your day on a high note, pancakes will not let you down. If your friend, a parent, significant other, co-worker, or anyone else lets you down, (vegan gluten-free) pancakes will be there to lift you up in your darkest hour. I cannot say the same for non-vegan gluten-filled pancakes, though. They usually weigh us down, contribute to illness and cause mood swings. We don't need that. Though sweet potatoes are my ultimate food crush, you must know that pancakes are another food crush of mine... "I'm not a player, I just crush a lot" ...oookay. You knew that was coming.

Now, most commercial pancake mixes or pancakes at restaurants are made with health-depleting ingredients like refined flour, eggs, dairy, refined sugar, preservatives, additives, artificial flavorings and colorings, accompanied by junk syrup made with more crap than I can count, but I have good news... you do not have to miss out on the glorious-ness that are pancakes on a healthy vegan diet. I made sure of it! By the looks and taste of it, you'll think you're being naughty and ultra-unhealthy while eating these pancakes but looks are deceiving. I think they're the healthiest pancakes you'll ever come across - cruelty-free and super delicious, too! You won't miss the unhealthy version.

As you can probably imagine, the homemade chocolate sauce just takes it to another level. And it's super easy to whip up. You'll find yourself dipping your finger in one too many times before it ends up where it's supposed to. That's why I ensured that there would be leftover sauce so you could enjoy even after its intended use on the pancakes. ;-) I put a layer in between each pancake too. Yes, I went there. Why use syrup when you can have chocolate sauce?

It wasn't too long ago that I created another version of banana pancakes using oat flour. Check out what I wrote about the dangers of the ever-so-common sweetener alternative agave nectar on that post, too. Very important! Anyway, I thought those were the best vegan gluten-free pancakes I had tasted but it turns out these are even better! These chocolate banana pancakes are not as dense, though still more dense than pancakes made with refined flour. Rest assured, however, that taste isn't compromised. These are naturally sweeter, also, due to the addition of dates. Dates seem to be used everywhere in healthy dessert alternatives, especially in vegan recipes, so much so that all of the hype convinced me to try them. I used to be quite scared of eating dates because of their high sugar content.

My body didn't tolerate sugar well for a long time. It was the cause of my emotional highs and lows, recurrent infections, acne, and digestive troubles. Since I've begun to rebalance my body over the past few years and have cut out most all refined sugars and even went a period of time without other high-sugar containing fruits and sugar all together, along with restoring healthy bacteria in the gut with probiotics, I seem to handle sugar much better now. I still avoid refined sugar but I have slowly added in naturally sweet foods to my diet. I keep them to a minimum though. I certainly do not eat dates or coconut nectar everyday because my body is still quite sensitive to sugar but when necessary for a recipe, I go for it, and it makes all the difference. 

A little more about today's sweet ingredient...

Dates - Dates are a delicious and sweet fruit that contain a multitude of nutrients and health benefits. Those nutrients include minerals such as calcium, iron, potassium, sodium, zinc, and phosphorus as well as vitamins including thiamin, riboflavin, folate, niacin, and vitamins A & K . High in soluble fiber, they have the ability to relieve indigestion and constipation by moving food comfortably through the intestinal tract. Did you know that dates are a staple food in the Middle East? Muslims often eat dates to break their fast during Ramadan to avoid overeating as they slowly introduce food and water back into their diet. They're ideal in this case because they keep you full and satisfied for a long period of time. Dates are also rich in a variety of minerals like selenium, magnesium, manganese, and copper which help to strengthen the bones. Even more, dates help to prevent and decrease night blindness, improve eye and heart health, prevent abdominal cancer, increase energy levels, decrease allergic reactions (due to the presence of sulfur), maintain healthy weight, and boost the nervous system (due to the presence of potassium).

What can't they do is the question? Someone once told me that if there was only 1 food you could live off of for a few months, dates would be the best choice because they would keep you well-nourished over that period of time. That doesn't surprise me considering it is loaded with various vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, and carbohydrates. Be sure to wash them before enjoying as their sticky surface can harbor impurities.

Chocolate Banana Pancakes

YIELD: 5-6 pancakes

For the pancakes:
• 3/4 cup brown rice flour (found mine in bulk at Whole Foods)
• 1/2 tsp baking powder
• 1/4 tsp cinnamon
• 1/8 tsp (a generous pinch) fine sea salt
• 1/2 cup medjool dates, pitted and rinsed
• 1 cup unsweetened almond milk
• 2 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
• 1 tsp vanilla extract
• 1 banana, sliced, for topping
• 1/4 tsp unrefined coconut oil, for coating the pan

For the chocolate sauce:
• 2 Tbs unrefined coconut oil, melted
• 1 Tbs raw coconut nectar
• A pinch fine sea salt

For the pancakes:
1. Pre-heat a non-stick pan/skillet (highly recommend) over medium heat. Coat the pan with 1/4 tsp coconut oil.
2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the brown rice flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and sea salt and whisk well.
3. In a high-powered blender or food processor, combine the pitted dates, almond milk, lemon juice, and vanilla extract and blend until well-combined. 
4. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix until just combined.
5. Scoop the batter into a 1/4 cup measuring cup and pour into the pan. Use a spoon to get all of the batter out of the measuring cup. Cook for 2 minutes and then flip it over with a spatula or wooden spoon and cook for another 2 minutes.

For the chocolate sauce:
1. In a small bowl, combine all of the ingredients and whisk well. Store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

*The pancakes can be frozen.

Enjoy and be sure to let me know how you like them if you try them! :-)

"Feed your faith and your fears will starve to death." Unknown

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Roasted Vegetable & White Bean Salad with Champagne Vinaigrette (Vegan, Gluten-Free, Grain-Free, Refined Sugar-Free)

Last week, I unplugged from technology for awhile (aside from taking pictures) because I was in Costa Rica! The Wi-Fi in the limited areas that offered it were very weak. That being said, it forced me to do a technology fast and just thoroughly enjoy my surroundings and experiences in their entirety, without the distraction of texting or updating social media, which really does take away from the present moment. I knew I'd have plenty of time to do that when I returned back to the U.S. 

Anyway, traveling to another country has ignited a wanderlust in me like never before. I wish I could put into words how incredible it was but words cannot possibly do the experience justice. I'll dedicate an entire post to my trip with pictures and my thoughts on traveling to Costa Rica as a vegan.

Now, on to the recipe of the week... I was trying to think of the perfect way to say farewell to winter in about a month. This roasted vegetable dish seemed to be the perfect way to do so. I am going to have a difficult time saying goodbye to my beloved winter vegetables so I put some of my favorites in this recipe. I was inspired by a dish called the Autumn Ingredient Salad that comes from one of my new favorite restaurants that just opened in Dallas called True Food Kitchen, which is actually owned by integrative medicine pioneer, Dr. Andrew Weil. They are about to change up their menu for the spring but the Autumn Ingredient Salad is my favorite item on the fall/winter menu so I knew I had to recreate it at home. Fortunately, it's vegan and gluten-free at the restaurant, too, so I didn't have to change too much. I have to be honest, this recipe is a bit time consuming because of the vegetable preparation but I promise it's so worth it. I could eat this dish several times a week and not grow tired of it. It would make a lovely side dish, too, though as an entree, it is surprisingly filling and satisfying. The roasting brings out the natural sweetness of the vegetables, the beans add bulk and texture, the pomegranate seeds add a crunch and light, fruity flavor, and the vinaigrette rounds it all out with a slight tang. The combination of flavors and textures is just as delightful and as comforting as a soft blanket and hot tea in the winter.

Roasted Vegetable & White Bean Salad with Champagne Vinaigrette
YIELD: 2 servings as an entree or 4 servings as a side dish

For the salad:
• 3 cups cauliflower florets, chopped into bite-size pieces
• 3 cups brussels sprouts, outer skins & ends removed & chopped in half
• 3 cups butternut squash, chopped into 1/2-inch cubes *See note
• 1-2 Tbs unrefined coconut oil, melted
• 3/4 tsp sea salt, divided
• Black pepper, to taste
• 1 (15 oz.) can cannellini beans (or 1 cup cooked), drained & rinsed
• 1/2 cup pomegranate seeds

For the champagne vinaigrette:
• 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
• 3 Tbs apple cider vinegar
• 1 tsp dijon mustard
• 5 drops liquid stevia or 3 tsp raw coconut nectar

1. Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with a Silpat baking mat or parchment paper.
2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the cauliflower florets, brussels sprouts halves, butternut squash cubes, coconut oil, 1/2 tsp sea salt, and black pepper and mix well. Place the vegetables on the baking sheets and spread them out evenly so they don't touch. Roast for 30-35 minutes, or until lightly browned and tender.
3. While the vegetables roast, combine all of the dressing ingredients in a small bowl and whisk well. Set aside.
4. 10 minutes before the vegetables are done, heat a large sauce pan over medium-low heat. Combine the cannellini beans, 1/4 tsp sea salt and a few tsp water, and heat for 15 minutes. Add more water as needed to prevent sticking.
5. When the vegetables are done roasting, let them cool for 5 minutes. Then, add the roasted vegetables and the pomegranate seeds to the beans. Gently stir all of the ingredients together. Serve on a plate and drizzle desired amount of champagne vinaigrette on top.

• If you need step-by-step directions on how to peel and chop butternut squash see this blog post.
 Store vinaigrette leftovers in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a week.

What is your favorite place you've travelled to? I am already planning my next travel adventure. Europe has to be next. It has been on my heart for a long time. Any tips for me?

Before I let you go, I'd also like to wish you a very happy and love-filled Valentine's Day! Check out my last post for a natural aphrodisiac, a chocolate strawberry parfait dessert for two, one for you and one for your loved one or two for you. ;-)

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." Mark Twain

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Chocolate Strawberry Parfait (Vegan, Gluten-Free, Refined Sugar-Free)

Quickly approaching is Valentine's Day a.k.a Relationship Celebration Day or Singles Awareness Day. Which ever applies to you, I hope you just celebrate love. Though I don't believe in celebrating love on just one designated day, it is kind of difficult to avoid all of the hoopla surrounding V-Day. Regardless of your relationship status, everyone is always technically in a relationship - whether it's with your parents, your siblings, your children, a significant other, friend, spiritual source, and/or with yourself. The most important one is the relationship with yourself. Even though those aren't romantic relationships, it shows that you're never really alone. There's this great quote from Rachel Machacek that says, "I believe with all my heart that the cliches are true, that we are our own best friends and best company, and that if you're not right for yourself, it's impossible to be right for anyone." It's not about being perfect in order to be right for yourself or someone else. If that were the case, we'd be waiting forever. When it comes down to it, it's really about loving every piece of you, even your not-so-pretty pieces, and having enough self-respect to be able to discern if someone/something is worthy enough to invite into your life to share those different sides of you. It's also been said that the person you're in a relationship with is a direct reflection of you and how you feel about yourself. That one statement has been revolutionary for me.

No matter what experiences or people have come across your path, you are the sum of all of them. You are constantly evolving and growing as a result of the myriad of difficulties and successes you've experienced. Loving yourself through it is the toughest part, but you're really all you have. Through it all, I think what we all come to realize is that love is all there is. By the way, love does not hurt, contrary to popular belief. If it hurts, it's not love. So, again, whatever your situation is right now, just celebrate love and be love.

All of that love talk leads me to my love of anything with the combination of (dark) chocolate and strawberry. Truth be told, chocolate-covered strawberries are my favorite dessert. Luckily, I didn't have to give them up when transitioning to a plant-based vegan diet since milk chocolate can easily be substituted for dark chocolate. With that in mind, I knew I had to recreate one of my all-time favorite desserts in the form of a Valentine's Day parfait. It is the perfect blend of rich, creamy dark chocolate and subtle-y sweet strawberry. The combination is unparalleled! This recipe is easy to whip up, too. Share this delicious and nutritious dessert with your loved one. And if you're single a.k.a in a relationship with yourself, this dessert actually favors you because you get TWO desserts all to yourself because you're just that special. Singles don't have to share anything. How's that for a Singles Awareness Day mood-booster?

Chocolate Strawberry Parfait

YIELD: 2 servings

• 2 cans classic coconut milk, refrigerated overnight
• 1/4 cup raw cacao powder
• 3 Tbs raw coconut nectar or pure maple syrup, divided
• 1/2 tsp vanilla extract, divided
• 1 frozen banana, chopped
• 1 cup frozen strawberries + more for topping
• 1/2 cup coconut milk liquid
• Dark chocolate bar (at least 70% cacao), chopped


1. Open the cans of coconut milk. Scoop only the thick, white cream at the top of the can into a food processor. Reserve 1/2 cup of the coconut milk liquid. Store the remaining liquid in an airtight container in the refrigerator for smoothies. Add in the cacao powder, 2 Tbsp coconut nectar and 1/4 tsp vanilla extract in the food processor and blend for a few minutes until creamy and well-combined. Watch it closely to avoid over processing (it'll turn grainy - not good!). Transfer the chocolate cream to a bowl and rinse out processor.
2. Blend the frozen banana in the food processor. Then, add in the frozen strawberries, 1/2 cup coconut milk liquid, 1 Tbs coconut nectar, and 1/4 tsp vanilla extract and blend until creamy and well-combined.
3. In 2 glasses, scoop 1/4 of the chocolate cream in the bottom of each glass. Then, scoop 1/4 of the strawberry mixture on top of the chocolate. Repeat once more. Top with strawberries and dark chocolate shavings and chunks.

“Love lets you find those hidden places in another person, even the ones they didn’t know were there, even the ones they wouldn’t have thought to call beautiful themselves.” Hilary T. Smith
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