Brown Bagging It — Vegan Style!

By Peggy Rynk

Taking your lunch to work or school — whether lunch is at noon, six in the evening, or midnight — is one of the most rewarding and delicious things you can do for yourself. When you pack your own food, you know that what you're going to eat will keep with your dietary requirements. You also know you can look forward to what's in your lunch box because, naturally, you're going to pack foods you like.

Sandwiches are the mainstay of a brown-bag meal. The fillings can be just about anything you choose. Hummus, peanut butter, mashed beans, peas, lentils, tofu, or even leftover mashed potatoes, mixed with chopped fresh chives, parsley, onion powder, salt and pepper, or whatever other seasonings appeal to you, all work well. If you want lettuce, tomato, or pickles on them, these should be packed separately to keep the bread from getting soggy.

Speaking of which, there's a multitude of breads to choose from. Whole-grain and multi-grain loaves, crusty Italian and French breads, buns of various kinds, and soft or hard rolls are all options. So are pitas in various sizes. Tortillas are great, too — just spread them lightly with a filling and roll them up.

Also, soups and stews are good choices. Some, such as a hearty minestrone, are so substantial they're almost a meal on their own.

Some raw vegetables to munch on are a great idea, too. Something as simple as bell pepper strips, radishes, or carrot and celery sticks add a balance of textures as well as vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Don't forget about desserts. Some of us feel a meal is incomplete until the dessert appears. Many types of homemade cookies and sweet muffins, for instance, pack easily and travel well. Fresh fruit, though, is perhaps the best dessert of all. Few things compare with a tart, crisp apple; a tender, succulent pear; sweet cherries in season; or a banana ripened to just the degree you prefer.

Because you're almost certain to be pushed for time in the mornings no matter how well you plan your schedule, it's helpful to prepare as much of your lunch as possible the night before. Wash fruit, slice vegetables, spread and wrap sandwiches, and have them ready and waiting in the refrigerator. The next morning all you have to do is tuck them into your lunch bag, and you're on your way. With the exception of anything you need to heat up and transfer to an insulated container — soup or perhaps a hot beverage — nearly everything that goes into your lunch is something you can prepare ahead of time. And if keeping cold food cold on the job or at school is an issue, an insulated lunch box with an ice pack inside will solve that problem.

Whatever you pack for your meal, let it be food you enjoy and will look forward to eating. Food is more than just sustenance for the body; it's sustenance for the soul. It's your good fortune that there are plenty of healthy, packable options from which to choose.

Pitas Stuffed with Black Bean Hummus and Marinated Tomatoes

(Makes 4 sandwiches)

The toasted sesame seeds give the hummus a bit of crunch, and the tomatoes add just the right touch of sweet and tart. Stuff the pitas with the hummus the night before and wrap. Pack the Marinated Tomatoes separately and spoon them on when ready to eat.

Black Bean Hummus

  • Two 15-ounce cans black beans
  • 3 to 3-½ Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • ½ teaspoon garlic powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • Dash cayenne
  • ¼ cup toasted sesame seeds (see note)

Drain one can of the beans (or both, if you prefer a thicker hummus) and put them in the bowl of an electric mixer. Add the lemon juice, set mixer to medium, and beat at medium speed for 10-15 minutes or until the mixture is thickened and beans are well mashed. (Or cut the mixing time substantially by using a food processor.) Stir in the garlic powder, salt, cayenne, and sesame seeds. Cover and chill well.

Note: To toast sesame seeds, spread them in a single layer in a small baking pan. Put into a preheated 350-degree oven and toast, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes or until lightly golden.

Marinated Tomatoes

  • 2-½ cups seeded but unpeeled, then diced ripe tomatoes
  • 1 Tablespoon vegan granulated sweetener
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • Dash cayenne, or to taste
  • 1 teaspoon dried cilantro, crushed
  • 2 Tablespoons seasoned red wine vinegar or plain vinegar
  • Four 7" or 8" pitas, preferably whole wheat

Put the tomatoes in a 1-quart mixing bowl.

In a small bowl, blend together the sweetener, salt, cayenne, cilantro, and red wine or regular vinegar.

Pour the vinegar mixture over the tomatoes and gently toss. Cover and refrigerate until well-chilled, stirring once or twice during the chilling process and again just before serving.

To put sandwiches together, cut the pitas in half and open them carefully. Spoon filling inside, but do not fill completely. Wrap securely and refrigerate. Spoon in Marinated Tomatoes just before serving. (Pack the tomatoes separately in a container with a secure lid.)

Total calories per sandwich: 448 Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 82 grams Protein: 22 grams
Sodium: 1,754 milligrams Fiber: 22 grams

Mellow Tofu Spread with Spicy Dressing

(Makes enough spread for about 6 generous sandwiches)

This is a simple, flavorful spread that's quick and easy to make. It's especially good on sliced whole wheat bread or buns. Serve with fresh tomatoes or other raw vegetables on the side.

  • p>1 pound firm tofu, drained, rinsed, and patted dry
  • 2 Tablespoons tamari or soy sauce
  • ½ cup crunchy (preferred) or smooth peanut butter
  • 2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • ¼ teaspoon mustard powder
  • ½ teaspoon ground ginger
  • ⅛ teaspoon cayenne

Place tofu in a medium-sized mixing bowl. With hands, crumble tofu in the bowl until it has been broken into very fine pieces. Add tamari or soy sauce and peanut butter, and, using a spoon, blend well.

In a small bowl, use a fork or small whisk to blend together the lemon juice, mustard, ginger, and cayenne. Pour over the tofu mixture and blend well. Chill thoroughly before serving.

Total calories per serving: 190 Fat: 14 grams
Carbohydrates: 8 grams Protein: 12 grams
Sodium: 445 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Easy Minestrone

(Serves 6)

This is a full-bodied soup that is fine on its own. Or serve it with crackers or a sandwich, if preferred, for an even heartier meal.

  • 1 Tablespoon canola oil
  • 1 cup chopped carrots, peeled or unpeeled
  • 1 cup chopped celery
  • 1-¼ to 1-½ cups chopped yellow onion
  • 2 to 2-½ Tablespoons minced fresh garlic
  • 15-ounce can red kidney beans, undrained
  • 14 ½-ounce can diced tomatoes, undrained
  • 8-ounce can tomato sauce
  • 2 large or 4 small vegetarian bouillon cubes (see note)
  • 1 cup uncooked elbow macaroni
  • 5-6 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Generous dash cayenne
  • 1 teaspoon crushed dried oregano
  • 2 teaspoons crushed dried sweet basil

Heat the oil in a 4 ½- to 5-quart stockpot. Add the carrots and celery and sauté just until carrots begin to soften slightly. Stir in onions and garlic, and continue to sauté until onions are translucent.

Stir in the kidney beans, tomatoes, tomato sauce, bouillon cubes, macaroni, water, salt, cayenne, oregano, and sweet basil. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook, partially covered, until macaroni is tender, stirring occasionally.

Note: You can also use enough vegetable broth powder or liquid concentrate to flavor 4 cups water, according to package directions.

Total calories per serving: 232 Fat: 3 grams
Carbohydrates: 43 grams Protein: 10 grams
Sodium: 757 milligrams Fiber: 10 grams

Creamy Potato Soup with Herbs

(Serves 4)

A satisfying soup with well-balanced flavors.

  • 1 Tablespoon canola oil
  • 4 cups chopped, unpeeled russet potatoes
  • 1 cup chopped yellow onion
  • 1 cup water
  • 3 cups plain soymilk
  • 1-½ teaspoons salt
  • Dash black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon crushed dried sweet basil
  • 1 teaspoon crushed dried parsley
  • Croutons (optional)

Heat the oil in a 3-quart saucepan. Add the potatoes and onions. Sauté over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes, stirring often, until the potatoes begin to brown. Add the water, soymilk, salt, pepper, basil, and parsley. Simmer, stirring often, uncovered, until potatoes are soft and begin to fall apart. Ladle into bowls, and sprinkle croutons on top, if desired. Serve with crackers or a sandwich.

Total calories per serving: 240 Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 38 grams Protein: 8 grams
Sodium: 907 milligrams Fiber: 6 grams

Lima Bean Salad with Dill-Mustard Dressing

(Serves 6)

Easy and colorful, this main dish salad goes well with crackers or crusty bread. And it's equally good served over a bed of mixed salad greens — no additional dressing required.

  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • Dash pepper
  • 1-½ teaspoons dried dill weed
  • 1 teaspoon dry mustard
  • ⅓ cup canola oil
  • ⅓ cup seasoned red wine vinegar or plain vinegar
  • ½ cup chopped red onion
  • 1 cup chopped orange bell pepper
  • 6 cups frozen baby lima beans
    (one 2-pound bag), cooked according to package directions

Put the salt, pepper, dill weed, and dry mustard in a 1-cup bottle with cap. Add the oil and vinegar. Cap the bottle and shake well. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, mix together the onions, bell peppers, and lima beans. Shake dressing again and pour over bean mixture. Stir gently to coat beans and vegetables well. Cover and chill.

Total calories per serving: 310 Fat: 12 grams
Carbohydrates: 40 grams Protein: 13 grams
Sodium: 485 milligrams Fiber: 12 grams

Agar Gel with Fresh Fruit

(Serves 6)

This is beautiful and refreshing as a salad and also as a dessert. Use fruits in contrasting colors to give this gel a jewel-like appearance.

  • 1 Tablespoon agar powder (found in natural foods stores)
  • 6 Tablespoons vegan granulated sweetener
  • 3 cups orange juice
  • 2-3 cups fresh fruit (see note)

In a 2- to 3-quart saucepan, stir together the agar powder and sweetener. Blend in the orange juice. Bring mixture to a boil, reduce to a simmer and, stirring often, cook for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool for a few minutes, then stir in the fruit.

Spoon mixture into a 6-cup container or the equivalent in smaller containers. Cover and refrigerate. Stir mixture once or twice during setting process to distribute fruit evenly. (If using a shallow container or containers, there's no need to stir.)

Note: Fruits that work well are chopped, unpeeled (if the skins are good) apples and pears, sliced or diced bananas, seedless grapes halved lengthwise, chopped peaches or nectarines, halved grapefruit or orange sections, and fresh berries (sliced or chopped strawberries).

Total calories per serving: 129 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 32 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 7 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Fruited Whole-Grain Muffins

(Makes 12 large muffins)

These moist, flavorful treats go well with fresh fruit salads or make a fine dessert in a packed lunch.

  • 2 cups whole wheat flour
  • ½ cup toasted wheat germ
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ½ cup vegan granulated sweetener
  • ½ cup dried fruit of choice, such as raisins, blueberries, cranberries, cherries, etc., or a combination
  • ⅓ cup canola oil
  • 1-¼ cups soymilk
  • 1 teaspoon lemon extract
  • 1 cup mashed ripe bananas
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a medium-size mixing bowl, blend together the flour, wheat germ, salt, baking powder, and granulated sweetener. Stir in the dried fruit. Make a well in the center and add the oil, soymilk, lemon extract, and bananas. Stir just enough to blend well; do not beat.

Divide mixture evenly among 12 large muffin cups that have been sprayed with vegetable cooking spray. Bake at 400 degrees for 25 minutes or until lightly browned.

Total calories per muffin: 208 Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 35 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 187 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

Lemon Apple Cookies

(Makes 3 ½ dozen)

These apple-flavored cookies have a refreshing lemon tang.

  • ½ cup vegan margarine, softened to room temperature
  • 1 cup vegan granulated sweetener
  • 1 teaspoon lemon extract
  • ¼ cup fresh lemon juice
  • ½ cup shredded peeled tart apple
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • ⅓ cup cornstarch or arrowroot powder
  • 1 cup rolled oats
  • 1-½ cups whole wheat flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium-size mixing bowl, cream together the margarine, sweetener, and lemon extract. Blend in the lemon juice, then the shredded apple.

Stir in the salt, baking powder, and cornstarch or arrowroot. Fold in the rolled oats, then the flour, blending well after each addition.

Drop mixture in portions the size of a large walnut onto parchment-lined, insulated cookie sheets 3 inches apart from each other. (Regular cookie sheets sprayed with vegetable cooking spray also work well.) Bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes or until lightly browned. (Mixture barely spreads out as it bakes.) When lightly golden, remove to wire racks to cool.

Total calories per cookie: 63 Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 10 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 78 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Pumpkin Spice Bars

(Makes 12 medium or 24 small bars)

Moist and richly flavored with well-balanced spices. Even those who don't like pumpkin will enjoy these.

  • ½ cup vegan margarine, softened to room temperature
  • 1 cup vegan granulated sweetener
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • ⅛ teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • ⅔ to ¾ cup canned pumpkin
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 Tablespoons cornstarch or arrowroot powder
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup plain soymilk
  • Vegetable cooking spray
  • 1 cup broken pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium-size mixing bowl, blend together the margarine, sweetener, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and vanilla. Stir in the pumpkin. Next blend in salt, cornstarch or arrowroot, and baking powder. Then blend in the flour, alternating with the soymilk, beginning and ending with the flour.

Spread the mixture evenly in a 13" x 9" x 2" baking pan that has been sprayed with vegetable cooking spray. Sprinkle with the pecans. Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes or until batter just pulls away from the sides of the pan. Cool on wire rack, then cut into bars.

Total calories per medium bar: 250 Fat: 15 grams
Carbohydrates: 28 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 276 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Peggy Rynk is a vegan writer who specializes in health and vegan cooking articles. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.