Vegan Pumpkin Spinach Artichoke Dip

Add a little fall festivity to your dip display with this recipe!

Baking the dip inside the pumpkin allows for some of the pumpkin flavor to seep through. If you want to get really pumpkin crazy, you can use a fork to shred the pumpkin flesh into the dip.

pumpkin chip dip

Ingredients:

1 pie pumpkin, 2 c chopped spinach (frozen or fresh), 12 oz artichoke hearts, 2/3 c unsweetened almond milk, 3 garlic cloves, 1 bag dairy-free mozzarella cheese, 1/2 yellow onion, 1/4 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp black pepper, olive oil

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. Lightly caramelize minced garlic and diced onion in olive oil.

3. In a bowl, mix the caramelization with the other ingredients, minus the pumpkin.

4. Gut the pumpkin. (Save the seeds for baking the best pumpkin seeds ever!) Place it in the oven, top off, for 45 minutes. The dip is going to bake alongside it and then in it, conveniently at the same temperature.

5. Pour the dip ingredients into a casserole dish. Cover with tin foil to prevent browning and bake for 25 minutes or until cheese is nearly melted.

6. Remove the dip ingredients from the baking dish and pour the contents into the pumpkin. Continue baking for the remaining 20 minutes. Make sure tin foil is over the hole of the pumpkin to prevent browning.

7. After baking, if desired, shred the pumpkin flesh with a fork and mix in with the dip.

8. Use dipping food of choice–from chips to crackers to bread or veggies!

9. Remove any leftovers from the pumpkin and store in fridge in airtight container.

 

 

 

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Vegan Gluten-Free Blackberry Cobbler Tart Recipe

This delicious recipe is somewhere between a cobbler, tart, and crisp. It’s delicious. That’s all that matters.

It’s also relatively easy to make! The preparations take less than 20 minutes and then it bakes for 40 minutes.

These blackberries were handpicked (perks of living in the PNW!) and then frozen so that I can make blackberry goodies year-round!

blackberry cobbler tart crisp

Ingredients:

For the filling: 2-1/2 c of blackberries,  1 Tbsp maple syrup, 1/2 tsp vanilla extract, 2 tsp cornstarch (or corn flour for thickening)

For the crust: 1 c brown rice flour (or gluten-free flour of choice), 3/4 c oats, 1/4 c maple syrup, 1 tsp cinnamon, 1 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp salt, 5 Tbsp solid coconut oil

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. Mix the filling ingredients in one bowl.

3. Mix the crust ingredients in another, being sure to mash the solid coconut oil up until the mix is crumbly. Set aside a large handful of the crust mix to sprinkle on top.

4. Press a thin layer of the crust into a tart pan being sure to go up the sides of the pan about 1/4 inch.

5. Pour in the blackberry filling.

6. Crumble the rest of the crust ingredients on top.

7. Bake for 40 minutes. Tent tin foil over the top at 20 minutes so that that top doesn’t burn!

8. Serve, eat, enjoy! Store covered in fridge.

Check out my handpicked jam recipes for: blackberries, nagoonberries, and watermelon berries.

This recipe was adapted from Bakerita.com.

Recipe for The Best Pumpkin Seeds Ever

For 29 years, I’ve been eating pumpkin seeds the basic, old-fashioned way: baked and covered in salt.

This year, thanks to inspiration from my friend, I went wild with my pumpkin seed baking, and I’ve never had such delicious fall-flavored morsels in my mouth.

pumpkin seeds

Ingredients:

pumpkin seeds, salt, garlic powder, cumin, paprika, fennel

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 300 F.

2. Gut the pumpkin, separating as much goo as you can from the seeds. Be sure to save every last one!

3. Spread on a small baking sheet and sprinkle with the above spices in whatever amount you deem delectable! I recommend going easy on the fennel. I went easy on the paprika, too, because I’ve got a limited tolerance for hot spices.

4. Bake for 40 minutes, rotating frequently.

5. Remove from oven and spread around baking sheet to keep from sticking. Allow to cool.

6. Serve, eat, enjoy! Store in cupboard in airtight container to prevent staleness.

Hurricanes, Hugs & Humor

The first two weeks of October, I was on the road A LOT, offering my heart and receiving so much heart in return.

When Hurricane Irma hit the Keys, I struggled from afar for half a dozen reasons, part of which involved immense empathy and understanding for my Keys island family, having lived through a CAT 4 storm myself.

As the days ticked by, I found myself becoming increasingly more anxious to step foot in my old stomping grounds. I was antsy out of excitement, nerves, and fear.

Without consciously planning it this way, the timing of my trip proved to be quite serendipitous. I boarded a red eye on September 30, the two-year anniversary of the day a tropical storm was brewing in the Caribbean that might hit the remote Bahamian island I was living on. I landed on October 1, two years to the day I woke up to a CAT 4 historic hurricane on top of me.

But the second I walked out of Miami International Airport and into the arms of my Bahamian island parents who drove from Naples just to see me, my anxiety melted away. My island parents hug like no other–strong, sturdy, genuine. Their embrace needs no words to tell how they feel about you, about life, because their assuring physical touch says it all.

They drove me down to Florida City after a quick jaunt at Cracker Barrel (a restaurant I haven’t seen or visited in years–Amurrica!). I then waited excitedly in a Starbucks to reunite with my friend Kris who left the Keys nearly five years ago. I was SO excited that, in sending a flurry of texts and phone calls sharing my whereabouts and ETA to Keys folk, my palpable joy started putting smiles on faces of the coffee shop’s caffeine-infused customers.

I expected to hold back tears as we entered Key Largo, creeping south toward Marathon in the Middle Keys. Memorable and iconic local hot spots were strewn about; towering piles of debris lined the roads. But mostly, I had a smile on my face, because I knew I was about to see my island family.

In the short week that I spent in the Keys, I had limited time to help: ripping off moldy, sodden baseboards, tearing down dry wall, and digging through sand. My friends are exhausted; cleaning up the aftermath of a hurricane is a daunting task. Many of my friends are now homeless and/or jobless.

But they still have so much love to give.

I spent the evenings attempting to organize gatherings–relief from the hurricane relief. I knew one week wasn’t much time for me to make a dent in the clean-up and construction, but aside from putting my set-building skills to use, I also have my joy, love, and comedy to offer.

Before my trip to the Keys, I was struggling to process it all. I called one of my closest friends who knows the long version of what I’ve been dealing with the past couple years. He asked me to recall the first time I laughed after Hurricane Joaquin.

I really, really had to think about that. Due to my isolated situation following the storm, it was two weeks before I could get out into the community. I had no one to talk to about the fear I’d experienced or the apocalyptic aftermath that kept me awake and inappetent. Two isolated weeks following a traumatic experience is like two years.

But I thought hard, and then I started laughing. I remembered someone lending me some gasoline so I could drive the truck down south and make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to distribute to the now homeless, alongside the hot dogs my friends cooked. (Read more about the incredible perspective I gained from this trip south here.)

Bahamians like their meat, and they don’t eat PBJs. (It’s largely an American thing.) I made somewhere between 50 to 100 PBJs… but I had to practically beg the locals to take the sandwiches from me once we ran out of hot dogs. I remember laughing at my efforts to help and seeing how people can still be opinionated in the hardest of times. It reminded me that no matter what life throws at us, we’re still human.

Even if I am covered in sweat and dirt and my muscles are sore, I am still me. Even if my heart is broken and I can’t imagine tomorrow, I am still me. I will always have the gift of crazy, uninhibited, Energizer-Bunny energy, and I tried my hardest to share that with my island family then and now.

Another aspect of my healing process that was missing post-Joaquin was human contact. Studies show that supportive physical touch–a simple hug–actually results in incredible physiological changes within the body, including decreasing stress.

I hugged often and I hugged hard when I was in the Keys, because I’m a hugger, and I know how much I’ve missed and needed that in my life. My Keys friends are huggers, too, and they have a way of making me feel more loved than I’ve ever felt before.

Mother Nature can turn lives upside down in an instant, but she cannot destroy our human nature, that indelible mortal connection. Laughter and physical touch bring joy and hope that have a healing power all their own.

The Keys will recover just like Long Island, Bahamas recovered, and it happens with love, joy, and a little bit of laughter.

To anyone experiencing hardship: hug & laugh, more & often.

Dear Florida Keys

Dear Florida Keys,

You were the fourth place to which I moved, not knowing a single soul, and in a few short weeks, you had me hooked. I tried to leave you once, but I wasn’t ready yet. You held tight to me for three years–the longest my nomadic self has ever stayed in one spot. You are the hardest home to which I’ve ever had to say goodbye.

You are where I had my first real, paid, adult, career-oriented job, where I dove head first into the reptile world working with sea turtles. You provided the foundation for me to accomplish my childhood dream of becoming a published author. (Hurray for books on turtles!) (Shout out to the Turtle Hospital.)

turtle hospital

You are where I committed to acting and realized, hey, maybe I want to and can do this professional acting thing for reals. (Shout out to Marathon Community Theater.)

a few good men

You are where I realized I don’t have to just carry parasites (ahem); I can be fascinated by them through a microscope, too! (Shout out to Marathon Veterinary Hospital.)

You are where I entered the sports arena again after a doctor-ordered moratorium on flying balls and contact sports. Our team may have lost 98% of our softball games, but my head still works! (Shout out to City of Marathon Parks and Recreation.)

marathon community theater

You are where I realized we can have more than one soulmate in life, and that soulmate doesn’t have to be your significant other; they can be your bestest friend. (Shout out to my Panini at Marathon Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center.)

parasailing

You are where I saw up close the beauty and success of restorative justice and second chances, two things I have always believed very strongly in. (Shout out to Monroe County Sheriff’s Animal Farm.)

emu

You are where I learned about marine mammals and joined a family of humans dedicated to their flippered and finned family members. (Shout out to the Dolphin Research Center.)

You are where I camped on the beach for the first time, where I had my first adventure on a remote island. (Shout out to Dry Tortugas National Park.)

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You are where I choreographed and performed my first solo dance routine.

You are where I ran my first race since being diagnosed with Lyme disease.

7 mile bridge run

You are where I rented my first apartment and lived alone for the first time–in what my sister called a “cute little shed.” You are where I discovered that karaoke needs to be a part of my weekly routine. You are where I made my first key lime pie (it was vegan by the way and super delicious).

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You are where I once fell in love and experienced how a woman deserves to be treated. You are where I held my favorite little four-legged furball as he took his last breath. You are where my faith was challenged. You are where I accidentally played tug-of-war underwater with an octopus, where I lived through my first tropical storm, where I went parasailing, where I experienced how valuable your girlfriends are, where singing Oldies on a boat at the top of my lungs became one of my favorite pastimes.

dragonboat races florida keys

You are where I swam in a mermaid fin, where I rowed in the Dragonboat races, where I became skilled in beach volleyball, where I learned to stop and watch every sunset possible, where I had too many adventurous trips to the hospital, where I kayaked through mangroves and SCUBA dived in the day and night, where I almost had my first on-stage/on-screen kiss, where I spent every evening for 3 months with 14 men and somehow always fit in.

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You are where I learned that friendship doesn’t come with an age requirement.

florida keys

You are where I discovered that having the same blood running through your veins isn’t a prerequisite for being family.

You are where I have never felt more loved and never loved so much.

birthday

You are where I realized we only have so much time in this life, yet so much to see and do. You are where I realized I needed to never stop exploring this great big world.

florida keys

You are where I committed every day not just to existing, but to really, truly, whole-heartedly living.

I needed to leave you for so many reasons, but a part of me stayed. And I’m okay with that, I want that. Because when you love something–especially as hard as I love in my life–you let it keep a little piece of your heart. That doesn’t make your heart any smaller. In fact, in some crazy defiance of science and intellect, it somehow makes your heart bigger.

So keep my heart, Florida Keys, because no matter where I am, you make it beat from afar.

sunset florida keys

If you’d like to help the Florida Keys–my forever home–rebuild after Hurricane Irma, consider donating to one of the organizations linked in the post. Please note that the islands are still without electricity and may be for weeks. Consider marking a date on your calendar a month from now to return to this post and make a donation.

Many of my friends–my island family–lost their homes and businesses. If you’d like to help them out, send me an email at smvenzel@gmail.com with the subject line HURRICANE IRMA RELIEF.

And lastly, you can also help the Keys (or one of the other Caribbean tourist destinations affected by Irma) by booking a vacation (just maybe not during hurricane season?). The local economy is driven by tourism. The structures will be rebuilt, but when you visit the Keys, you’re not just visiting a pretty, historic island chain. You’re meeting the locals who make these islands paradise, and they need you to come now more than ever. 

Is This the Apocalypse? Then Here’s a Glimpse of Hope

I am writing to offer some hope. In the immensity of the disasters happening right now–we’ve got wildfires raging out west, hurricanes and flooding around the globe, an earthquake in Mexico–it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that this is–it must be–the apocalypse. It is easy to give in, give up, lose hope.

My heart right now is breaking. I can’t stop pacing my apartment, I can’t focus at work, I can’t sleep through the night. Strangely, the only place I have wanted to be in the past 48 hours is in Long Island, Bahamas with my island family, threading the eye of the hurricane and riding the spherical needle to its next destination, predictably to its mainland fall in my forever home in the Florida Keys. How helpless we are left to feel when we willingly wish ourselves to be in harm’s way for the sake of leaning on each other.

But that is what we must do–support each other. In the imminent devastation that Irma will leave wherever she goes, we must hold onto the silver linings. Sifting through the aftermath of Hurricane Joaquin, I choked back vomit and tears more times than I can count. And while, admittedly, even from far away Irma has shaken my subconscious into unwelcome flashbacks of my own experience flirting with the dangers of Mother Nature, that is not what I remember most from my island life.

Landscapes, homes, hearts, and minds are not impermeable to devastation, but they are resilient in the wake of it. Trees regrow; buildings are rebuilt; our spirits heal. When life makes us take a step back, we pick up, we rebuild and somehow, sometime, we get back to normal. We have to, because there is no other option.

I remember vividly the strength of the storm I endured in October 2015, but I reflect fondly on a strength far greater than Joaquin. I am humbled by the community that arose from the rubble like a phoenix from the ashes, the neighbors who opened their doors, the locals who distributed home-cooked meals to the now homeless.

What makes these places paradise more than their beautiful scenery is their beautiful people. It wasn’t the turquoise blue waters that I had a hard time saying goodbye to; it was the friends who became my family that made it so difficult to leave.

So, to all of my beloved friends and strangers who have to endure Irma in one way or another, I offer you this morsel of hope: devastation does not mean destruction. Find hope in knowing that whatever happens, together you can and you will rebuild. We did it with Joaquin and we’ll do it with Irma. You, the community, are what make a place home.

I love you all from the bottom of my heart. #longislandstrong #keysstrong

I Feared For My Life & This Is What I Learned

October 2017 will be two years since I lived through Hurricane Joaquin, the historic perfect storm that I remember as the two longest days of my life. I have never known time to stand so still, during which I prayed constantly that my family and friends knew how much I loved them.

Effectively isolated after the storm on a remote island in the Caribbean, it would be eight days before I could hunt down a satellite phone to let the people who mean the most to me know I loved them, I was breathing but far from okay, and please send donations because the island was devastated. I didn’t know when I’d be able to reach my family again.

In the months following Joaquin in which an overseas, across-the-country move took place, I was a mess. Trauma from the storm unlocked trauma from my past until, nearly a year later when I thought I was healed, another window opened that my mind had bolted shut. I started seeing a therapist in the immediate aftermath of the storm who diagnosed me with PTSD on top of PTSD on top of PTSD.

But this post isn’t about fearing for my life. This post isn’t about my PTSD. It isn’t about my past (though that story begs to be told at a later time, when I’m ready).

This post is about my recovery. This post is about me, now.

So, you ask, how am I now?

The short answer: Freaking fantastic.

The long answer: I’m working on it.

My wounds will always be scabs turned scars that make me who I am. I would never in a million years wish any of these hardships upon someone. But I cannot change my past, so instead, I decided to see how my past could shape my future.

Breaking apart the most harrowing experiences of my life, I made a list of what I gained from them.

Here is that list:

  • Empathy & compassion. Sometimes life has to beat you up to give you empathy and compassion you didn’t know you were lacking.
  • Perspective. My eyes were further opened to the existence of poverty and racism in the world today.
  • Strength in vulnerability. Turning to others for help did not make me weak; it takes a great deal of courage to bare one’s heart and mind so openly.
  • Cultural enlightenment. I mean, I did get to live on a remote island in the Bahamas living the real island life and making lifelong friends turned family. So there’s that.
  • Dreams. I needed to start following my dreams NOW, and never ever stop.
  • Relationship knowledge. I learned what I want, need, and deserve in a relationship.
  • Self-awareness. In order to heal, I had to fully know myself. It was an isolating road to travel down, but necessary.
  • Peace within myself. Knowing who I am meant accepting all of me, including my flaws, quirks, and neuroses. Better yet, it meant embracing them.

Despite having just emerged from the darkest period of my life–and, admittedly, still having moments in which I feel like I take a step back–I am the happiest I have ever been.

My path of healing from PTSD threw me under the self-reflection bus, and I am eternally grateful to it for that. But I don’t think you need to claw your way out of the lion’s den in order to begin this journey.

The three experiences that led to my struggle had a common thread: I felt small, helpless, and insignificant. I have spent the last twenty-four months fighting to be strong, confident, and significant. I have worked hard at believing in myself, taking risks and viewing subsequent failures as successes.

Now, most days, I wear that cheesy ear-to-ear grin on my face that everyone who knew me before I moved to Seattle remembers. But I’ve changed. I have so many layers to me now. Good layers. Deep layers. Real layers.

One of my friends from the Florida Keys, who has always praised me for my positive and uninhibited energy, recently told me, “Stacey, you’re not the same person you were when you left here, and I mean that as the highest compliment.”

As I’ve begun reconnecting with college friends, they say the same thing. I still dance my crazy dance moves in the middle of the grocery store, but there’s more than a zest for life behind those crazy legs. There’s understanding. There’s a profound appreciation for it.

 

never stop dreaming. never stop doing.