She’s happy to be vegan, and thinks you will be, too

Crispy peanut tofu made with spiralized carrots and zucchini, topped with a spicy peanut sauce, cilantro and lime Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019, at Sharon Gregory’s home in Pine Township. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Sharon Gregory had what she considered a pretty good diet when she set off into the world after graduating from Indiana University of Pennsylvania with a master’s degree in math education. Plenty of fruits and vegetables. Moderate amounts of protein. Always easy on the sweet treats.

Even when she was constantly traveling the world, first as a sales service technician for Whirlpool and later as a Lean Six Sigma trainer and consultant with the company she started in 2001, she ate as healthily as possible.

But then in January 2014 she had a routine mammogram that detected an abnormal lump. It was malignant. Four rounds of chemotherapy and 32 days of radiation followed, during which time the 44-year-old Butler County native did some serious soul searching about what might have caused her cancer.

“Have you ever considered your diet?” a friend asked one day, recommending she pick up a copy of  “Crazy Sexy Diet.” Written by cancer survivor and wellness warrior Kris Carr, it champions a “healing lifestyle” focused around a plant-based diet.

When she read the NYT bestseller, “my eyes were opened,” says Ms. Gregory, who lives with her husband, Dave, in Pine. “I was horrified.”

She was particularly upset by the fact that only five to 10 percent of cancers can be attributed to genetic defects; the rest, experts say, may be linked to the environment, drinking, diet and lack of exercise. On the spot, she decided to change her lifestyle.

Everything that wasn’t plant-based immediately got tossed from the fridge.  “Are you going vegan?” asked her husband, even though he knew the answer “and just basically stayed out of my way,” she says.

By June that year, she was so immersed in the vegan lifestyle that she started a second business in the Shaler office building she’d bought in 2007 and transformed into an event/training center. It’s called The Happy Vegan, and its goal is to make plant-based eating and lifestyle choices more accessible, simple and sustainable. It offers coaching along with cooking classes and other events.

Before going vegan and gluten-free, Ms. Gregory had never prepared a meal with tofu and couldn’t tell quinoa from birdseed. Yet her background in education and love of data analysis, she says, made it easy for her to dive into a lifestyle that’s not exactly intuitive. “I read every author,” she says, and spent hours retooling and refining recipes that would have included animal protein.

She also took the Certified Holistic Health Coaching course at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, a plant-based online culinary school.

Giving up animal products, she says, was easy enough, even if her husband chose to  remain a (mostly) happy carnivore. But her beloved cheese? “I had a mental and physical addiction,” she says laughing. To this day, she misses eating it even more than she misses good Italian bread or a crusty baguette.

While mozzarella- and Cheddar-style vegan cheeses aren’t difficult to find in better grocery stores, she kept striking out with creamy, dairy-free cheese spreads for dipping and slathering. Frustrated, she decided to create her own by mixing ground raw almonds, nutritional yeast, peppers, lemon juice, onions and sea salt in a Vitamix. It was an immediate hit.

“Every time she’d make it, we hit the bottom of the chip bag every time,” says Mr. Gregory. “It was like, ‘Wow!’ ”

She started taking the dip to friends’ house and parties. Before long, people were asking to buy it, prompting her to install a home kitchen. But it wasn’t until Noreen Campbell of McGinnis Sisters tasted a spoonful and declared it great that she realized there was a larger market for the cheesy spread she dubbed Notcho Nocheez.

“She asked me, ‘Is it shelf stable? If so, I can put it on store shelves,’” recalls Ms. Gregory, who immediately began researching co-packers.

With the help of Stello Foods, a specialty food manufacturer in Punxsutawney, the first commercially prepared batch rolled onto store shelves in January 2016. It’s now sold next to the salsa in about 80 storesacross the mid-Atlantic region, including Naturally Soergel’sShenot’s Farm and Market, Shop ’n Save, Pennsylvania Macaroni and Whole Foods. It comes in three flavors (Classic, Hot and Tangy) and costs $9.99 for a 12-ounce jar.  You also can buy it online at Notchonocheez.com.

Sales are strong enough that she’s now working to make the spread available in to-go packets to be used as a condiment or snack. She’d love to see it for sale in airports, where it’s exceedingly difficult for gluten-free and vegan travelers to buy something to eat on the go. She’s also pondering a spinach-artichoke dip.

Ms. Gregory concedes going vegan is challenging and takes planning. “But it’s doable. You just have to think it through,” she says.

Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

Image DescriptionCrispy peanut tofu made with spiralized carrots and zucchini, topped with a spicy peanut sauce, cilantro and lime(Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Crispy Peanut Tofu With Zucchini & Carrot Noodles

PG tested

The secret to crispy tofu is making sure you squeeze out the water and pat it dry after cutting it. 

1 package extra-firm tofu

2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

2 teaspoons fresh ginger, peeled and minced

¼ cup organic peanut butter

3 tablespoons Bragg’s Liquid Aminos or low-sodium tamari

1 tablespoon organic coconut or brown sugar

2 tablespoons sesame oil

1 to 3 tablespoons chili-garlic sauce

3 tablespoons warm water

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

2 zucchini, spiralized or cut into matchsticks

2 carrots, spiralized or cut  into thin strips by using your peeler

Juice from ½ lime; the other ½ cut into wedges

2  tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped

½ cup unsweetened coconut flakes

Open and drain tofu and press it gently between a few layers of paper towels between 2 pans or cutting boards (something solid) to help remove excess moisture. If you have time, continue adding pressure over about 30 minutes to get the tofu as dry as possible. Once drained, cut the tofu into ¾ – 1 inch cubes.

In a small mixing bowl, add garlic, ginger, peanut butter, Bragg’s, coconut sugar, sesame oil, chili-garlic sauce and water.

In large non-stick skillet over medium-high, heat olive oil. Once hot, add the cubed tofu and cook until crispy in places, about 3 to 5 minutes.

Add ½ of the peanut sauce and cook until the tofu is sticky and browned in places, 1 to 3 minutes. Transfer the crispy peanut tofu to a plate.

Return the skillet to medium-high heat and add the zucchini and carrots. Add the remaining peanut sauce and gently toss. Reduce heat to medium and cook until noodles are heated, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the lime juice from half lime, and season with salt if needed.

Divide the veggie noodles between 2 bowls and top with the crispy peanut tofu. Sprinkle with the chopped cilantro and coconut flakes.

Serve with extra chili-garlic sauce (if desired), and garnish with lime wedges.

Serves 2.

— Sharon Gregory, The Happy Vegan

Image DescriptionSharon Gregory of Pine Township garnishes her vegan version of an almond joy bars with mint leaves and strawberries(Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Almond Joy Mini Bars

These taste just like the Almond Joy bars of old. 

For the filling

1½ cups dried unsweetened coconut

2 tablespoons coconut oil

3 tablespoons pure maple syrup

1 teaspoon vanilla

Pinch salt

For the coating

⅓ cup melted cacao butter

⅓ cup raw cacao powder

2 tablespoons maple syrup

Pinch sea salt

⅛ cup of sliced almonds

In a food processor fitted with the “S” blade, process all filling ingredients until well mixed and uniform. The filling will be a little wet, but it should stick together well.

Shape the filling into 12 mini rectangles if you want bars, or roll into 1-inch balls (easier). Place them on a parchment lined shallow casserole or baking pan. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a double boiler, melt the cacao butter over medium high heat. It won’t take long for the cacao butter to melt (less than 5 minutes).

When the cacao butter is melted, whisk in the cacao powder, maple syrup and sea salt. Don’t overcook! When the chocolate is mixed together and of a smooth consistency, remove from heat.

Allow coating to cool slightly, then take each mini bar and dip it into the coating and quickly place it back on the parchment paper. Return them to the fridge for 10 minutes, or until one coating has set. Repeat the process, so that each bar/ball has a double coat.

Press a few slivered almonds on top of each mini bar/ball after the second coating of chocolate. Return them to the fridge for another 10 minutes (or more), to let them set. Any leftovers can be put in an air tight container and kept in the refrigerator for several days (or the freezer).

Makes 12 bars.

— Sharon Gregory, The Happy Vegan

Image DescriptionSharon Gregory of Pine Township as she describes her vegan, crab-less cakes, made with hearts of palm, garbanzo beans, Cajun seasoning, celery, jalapeno and lime juice.(Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Crabless Cajun Cakes

Garbanzo beans and hearts of palm replace crab in these vegan cakes.

For cakes

1 (15-ounce) can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed

1 jalapeno, seeds and membranes removed, coarsely chopped

1 celery stalk, coarsely chopped

1 lime, juiced

2 tablespoons hemp seeds

2 tablespoons Cajun seasoning or spice

½ cup gluten-free panko breadcrumbs, divided

1 (15-ounce) can hearts of palm, drained and chopped, divided

¼ to ½ teaspoon sea salt

⅛ teaspoon pepper

For aioli and slaw

2 to 3 cloves of garlic, depending on taste, minced

1 cup Veganaisse mayo

¼ green apple, cut into thin matchsticks

4 large kale leaves, stems removed, and chopped into bite-size pieces

1 beet, peeled and spiralized, or cut into thin matchsticks

1 carrot, peeled and spiralized, or cut into thin matchsticks

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

In a food processor, add the drained garbanzo geans, jalapeno, celery, 1 teaspoon lime juice, hemp seeds, Cajun seasoning, and ¼ cup of the panko breadcrumbs. Pulse about 10 times. Don’t make it mush! It should be chunky.

Add ½ can of drained/​chopped hearts of palm, sea salt, and pepper. Pulse about 3 times to incorporate into the cake mixture.

Form the cake mixture into 6 to 8 patties, place on a plate, and put in the fridge.

Make the lime aioli in a small bowl by adding the minced garlic, 2 teaspoons of the lime juice (add more to taste), Veganaise, and a pinch of salt. Stir. Add more lime juice if needed.

Make the “slaw” in a large bowl. Add the remaining chopped hearts of palm, apple, kale, beets, 1 tablespoon lime aioli, remaining lime juice, and a pinch of sea salt and pepper. Toss the salad to evenly coat.

Sprinkle the remaining panko crumbs over the cake patties. Carefully turn them over and coat the other side (press the breadcrumbs lightly onto the cakes so that it sticks on).

Place a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat with 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil. Once hot (a couple of minutes), add the cake patties and cook until golden brown, flipping once, about 3 to 5 minutes per side. Transfer the cakes to a paper towel-lined plate.

Put the slaw portions desired on a plate and top with the crabless cakes. Serve with lime aioli for dipping. Garnish with additional chopped lime, if desired.

Leftovers will keep overnight in an airtight container in the fridge for about 3 to 4 days.

Serves 2 to 3.

— Sharon Gregory, The Happy Vegan

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