Comfort food and plant food seem like opposite camps. You have your bacon and I’ve got my kale. Blending the two food tribes are an oxymoron, if not all-out war. Let’s face it, we have emotion wrapped up in our food. We know we’re supposed to eat things that grow from the ground, but we reach for processed fat, starch and meat to soothe us. Proof is the standard American diet, abbreviated as S.A.D in Heather Crosby’s new book “YumUniverse.” The plant-based chef says 62 percent of what goes into our mouths is processed foods, 25 percent animal products, and a mere 5 percent of our calories come from fruits and vegetables.

“My family did a lot of the comfort food thing and a lot of the Standard American Diet thing,” said Crosby, who is also a wellness coach. “Vegetables were never really fresh unless they came out of the garden and then they were battered and deep-fried. It took until I got sick in my 20s that I realized what I needed to turn the ship around is to start eating vegetables.”

Overworking and eating junk food on the go, Crosby would wake up with intense stomachaches and nausea. One time she passed out from the pain. Only twenty-something, Crosby felt crummy. She was suffering from a rash of inflammation-based illnesses, including irritable bowel syndrome and interstitial cystitis. Uninterested in doctor’s prescriptions, the then Chicago-based graphic designer discovered her diet of acidic foods (a lot of meat, refined sugars and starches) was causing excess acid in her body. She needed to alkalize her diet with plant foods. There was only one problem.

They made her gag. Literally, Crosby couldn’t swallow a broccoli floret unless she gulped it whole. She began blending fruits and vegetables and drinking them as smoothies. Remarkable things happened. Bouts of depression and agonizing pain faded away. Gone were the naps. She even began to feel happy.

YumpUniverse by Heather Crosby recipe bookOn the day we spoke, Crosby had recently turned 40. “I was just practicing hand stands!” she said from her country home in West Virginia, saying she feels better than ever. The former veggie-phobe now lives on whole, plant foods — vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds — but it’s been an evolution. (Hint: You eat healthy stuff, your taste buds actually begin to like it.)

“My mom is in total disbelief of where I am right now after all night stand-offs at the dinner table over the broccoli, and now I eat it for dinner,” Crosby said. “I’ve come a long way. That’s a testament for how the body can heal.”

As a country, we don’t feel well. Get 10 friends together in America and seven are overweight and three out of 10 are obese, according to “YumUniverse.” Left unchecked, these friends will likely suffer from some obesity-related condition. The biggies: heart attack, stroke, diabetes, even some cancers. It’s grim, depressing and hard to think about. Let’s eat and be merry instead.

“A lot of people walking around are used to having a headache or an energy dip around 2 p.m.,” Crosby said. “They’d be surprised how much better they can feel than they do right now.”

The missing ingredient? Nutrients. That doesn’t mean deprivation. Crosby offers a seemingly paradoxical idea: We can eat comfort foods that actually boost our health. She’s the proof in her gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free pudding. (Raspberry & Cardamom Cream Chia Pudding, to be exact.) The woman who buried broccoli at the bottom of her milk as a child and didn’t eat her first salad until age 19 has created more than 500 plant-based recipes for her website YumUniverse.com and 150 in her new book by the same name. You won’t find gluten, soy, dairy or meat in them.

But there’s plenty of richness to be had. No dearth of baked goods either. (Dark chocolate, sweet potato & black bean brownies, anyone?) They’re gluten-free because Crosby found the sticky protein ubiquitous in today’s hybrid grains makes her, and many others, feel poorly.  The vegan chef substitutes flours ground from chickpeas, brown rice and almonds, which beat the nutrition contest over bleached white flour every meal of the day.

Here’s the thing: You don’t have to become a vegan. Crosby is big on starting where you are. Whether you’re an all-out vegetarian or a full-blown carnivore, you win with a more colorful plate. Here’s how to make those phytonutrients taste like home. Like the Americana dishes mom made — only different. Look, you’re not getting a pot roast in YumUniverse. But pizza, burgers, brownies? Bring ‘em on.

All recipes are from "YumUniverse" by Heather Crosby.

Quick & Easy Kale Pizza

quick and easy kale pizza

There’s comes a point in life when what you once believed to be a balanced meal — pizza has four food groups after all — becomes a major indulgence. Make that a bad case of indigestion. Heather Crosby used to do pizzas with ground beef, sausage and bacon, until that diet literally made her sick. But she never lost that pizza craving. (Does anyone?) The now enthusiastic herbivore created this Quick & Easy Kale Pizza with gluten-free tortillas and sweet potato sauce with a nacho cheese flavor. This is no deep dish with the works, but she pulls off a dairy, meat and gluten-free pie. Crosby is a thin crust gal anyway, and there’s good reason this is one of YumUniverse’s most popular recipes.

Yield: 1 Serving

On the busiest of nights, this recipe comes to the rescue. Definitely play around with this one. Sprinkle on cooked lentils or sautéed mushrooms for a meaty topping. In a pinch, substitute a store-bought tomato sauce without added salt or sugar.

Ingredients

1 cup chopped kale, stems removed, chopped

3 tablespoons almond flour                                                                   

Pinch sea salt

1/4 cup Easy Tomato Sauce (below)

2 tablespoons Sweet Potato Cheese Sauce (below)

1 large gluten-free, dairy-free tortilla

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 325°F.

2. In a large bowl, toss kale with almond flour and a pinch of salt.

3. Spoon sauces onto tortilla and top with kale.

4. Bake directly on the oven rack for 20 minutes, until crispy. Place your pizza on the top rack and a cookie sheet below it to catch any potential but rare spillage.

Easy Tomato Sauce

Ingredients

1 tablespoon coconut oil*

1 yellow onion, diced

3 stalks celery, diced

2 carrots, diced

2–4 cloves garlic, minced

10 large tomatoes, blanched and skins removed

2 cups pure water

Sea salt to taste

Black pepper to taste

Directions

1. Heat a large stockpot to medium-high, then add oil and diced onion, celery, and carrots. Sauté for 15 minutes, and add garlic. Stir veggies for 3 minutes.

2. Chop blanched tomatoes, add to the pot with water, and bring to a boil, stirring often.

3. Once boiling, reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Transfer to a blender (or food processor) and purée. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Sweet Potato Sauce

Ingredients

1 cup sweet potato, diced

2 tablespoons cashews, soaked

1 tablespoon nutritional yeast

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1/4 cup water or veggie stock

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1 teaspoon coconut oil

Directions

1. Steam or roast sweet potato until soft.

2. Place all ingredients in a blender and mix until smooth.

Chickpea Protein Burgers

chickpea protein burgers

So-called veggie burgers may not have any actual vegetables. Store-bought patties can be processed to pieces, often with genetically modified fillers like soy. Crosby set out to make a burger from whole foods, real vegetables, grains and beans. “I always wanted to make a burger from chickpeas because I’m kind of crazy for chickpea. I just love the buttery texture.” Cause who wants a dry burger? She also credits sweet potato, oats and quinoa for the moisture.

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups chickpeas, cooked (1/2 cup dry)

1 cup sweet potato, diced and steamed until soft

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon liquid smoke

1 tablespoon +2 teaspoons vegan Worcestershire

1 tablespoon Montreal Veggie Seasoning (recipe below)

1 cup rolled oats

1/2 cup quinoa, cooked

1 tablespoon coconut aminos

1 tablespoon coconut oil*

1/2 cup yellow onion, diced

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 cup celery, diced

1/2 cup red bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed, diced

Sea salt to taste

Black pepper to taste

Directions

1. Place chickpeas, sweet potato, mustard, liquid smoke, Worcestershire, Montreal Veggie Seasoning, oats, quinoa, and coconut aminos into the food processor.

2. Heat a large pan over medium heat and add 1 teaspoon of coconut oil. Saute the onion, garlic, celery, and red bell pepper until softened, about 5 minutes.

3. Transfer veggies to the food processor. Pulse together about 10 times until combined, but still chunky. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

4. Form into golf-ball-sized balls and flatten into patties for sliders (or bigger patties for larger burgers).

5. In a large pan over medium-high heat, warm remaining coconut oil. Saute the patties in batches for 5–7 minutes per side until golden browned and heated through.

6. Serve solo, crumbled into a bowl of greens or inside your favorite gluten-free bun.

Montreal Veggie Seasoning

Ingredients

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon dried onion

1/2 teaspoon dried garlic

1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 teaspoon dried rosemary

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Creamy Quinoa & Kale Salad

creamy quinoa and kale salad

One way to eat your greens is to drown them in cream. Another is to make them taste creamy, without the cow’s contribution. (Substitute: cashews) Crosby knew she had to get creative with sauce. “I needed to eat more kale but my palate wasn’t ready for it yet. I made this cheesy sauce and I could sit down and eat a head of kale in one sitting because the sauce is the hero!” The result: the most popular recipe on her website that’s easy to make, satisfying for a side or main dish, healthy and cheap. If you buy bulk, Crosby calculates a big bowl costs $3.35 to make.

Yield: 2+ servings

Ingredients:

5 large leaves kale, stems removed and chopped  

1/2 cup of cooked quinoa

Sauce

1/2 cup cashews, soaked

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 clove garlic

1 cup water

1 1/2 teaspoons unrefined, virgin coconut oil

2 tablespoons nutritional yeast

1 teaspoon fine-ground sea salt, to taste

1 tablespoon tahini (optional)

Cooking directions

1. In a blender, blend together sauce ingredients and transfer to a large pot. Place the pot over a burner heated to medium.

2. Fold in cooked quinoa and kale, stir for  –5 minutes — just long enough for kale to soften a tiny bit.

3. Serve and enjoy.

Heck, Yeah Banana Pancakes

stack of banana pancakes with syrup

Pancakes are the stuff of childhood lore. I remember the buttery, silver dollar sized flapjacks my grandma churned out among my all-time favorite foods. Since gluten doesn’t agree with me these days I’d pretty much written off the breakfast indulgence. Crosby has a love of the pancake herself and was determined to flip a new kind of hotcake for people who don’t want the refined white flour variety. “That’s the tricky thing, when you take gluten out of baked goods and breakfast treats, you can end up with flavorless cardboard that doesn’t hold together. The fact that this is a gluten-free pancake recipe that actually resembles real pancakes was a big victory for me!” Besides the added fruit, she says there are even nutrients, fiber and protein in the flours.

Yield: 2-4 Servings

Ingredients

Dry

1/2 cup chickpea flour (aka garbanzo flour)

1/2 cup brown rice flour

1/2 cup almond flour

1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

Pinch ground cinnamon*

Wet

1 ripe banana

1 cup water

1 tablespoon maple syrup*

1 tablespoon almond butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions

1. In a large bowl, whisk together all dry ingredients. Set aside.

2. Mash banana into a smooth paste, then whisk or blend together all wet ingredients until ultra-smooth. Pour wet ingredients into dry and whisk together.

3. Heat a skillet to medium-high and then add a dollop of oil. Using a ladle, pour batter into the hot pan. When the edges of the pancakes start to dry and the tops have bubbles, flip. Cook other side for 2–3 minutes and serve warm.

Individual Super-Veggie Pot Pies

individual super veggie pot pies

Dinner or desert, pie may be the ultimate comfort food. Crosby promises this supper entree delivers creamy gravy and buttery crust. “This reminds me of childhood a little bit. I used to love those frozen pot pies as a kid. I wanted that level of richness and flavor without the health-diminishing returns.”  She fills her steaming ramekins with a host of vegetables, but experiment with your own.

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

Vegetable Pie Filling

1 teaspoon coconut oil*

1 yellow onion, diced

3 stalks celery, diced

2 large carrots, diced

1 cup sweet potato, diced

1/4 cup dry white wine*

3 cloves garlic, minced

2–4 leaves kale, stems removed, chopped well

1 cup fresh green peas

1 cup chickpeas, cooked (1⁄3 cup dry)*

1 1/2 teaspoons thyme leaves

3/4 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Sauce

2 tablespoons chickpea miso

2 cups veggie stock

1 cup water

2 teaspoons arrowroot starch/flour

1/4 cup cashews, soaked

Crust

1 1/2 cups sorghum flour

1 1/2 cups almond flour

3/4 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 cup + 1 teaspoon coconut oil*

1/2 cup cold water

2 teaspoons lemon juice

I have a love affair with things in mini, but if you’d like to prepare a large pot pie, please do! Just fill a 9" glass pie pan and serve in bowls. Otherwise, you’ll need twelve 3" ramekins, or six to eight 4" ramekins.

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 325°F.

2. Warm a skillet to medium-high, add coconut oil, onion, celery, carrots, sweet potato, and wine. Saute for 7 minutes. Add garlic and saute for 3 minutes.

3. While veggies cook, add all sauce ingredients to a blender. Puree until smooth. Set aside.

4. In a large mixing bowl, use a fork to combine all crust ingredients until crumbly and starting to stick together.

5. Add kale, green peas, chickpeas, thyme, and sauce to your skillet, and stir for 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat and fill ramekins almost to the top with the filling.

6. If you’re rolling out a crust, roll dough into a ball with your hands, place on a sheet of parchment paper, and top with another piece of parchment. Roll, then peel back top layer. Cut pieces of dough to cover the entire top of the ramekin. If you’re doing a crumble crust, break up dough with fork and sprinkle over top of filling — cover the entire top.

7. Bake ramekins for 25–30 minutes. Serve warm.

Rainbow Veggie Ribbon Alfredo

rainbow veggie ribbon alfredo

This is utterly virtuous Italian: cream sauce made from cashews and noodles from the garden. With a potato peeler or chef’s knife, transform zucchini, carrots, peppers and kale into pasta (OK, pasta-like shapes). It’s a rainbow on your plate. A noodle game changer. But if it’s not filling the fettuccine craving, Crosby says go ahead, add some gluten-free pasta to that colorful nest of vegetables.

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

Alfredo Sauce

1/2 cup sunflower seeds, soaked

1/2 cup cashews, soaked

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon tahini*

3 cloves garlic, roasted

1 1/2 cups water

1 tablespoon coconut oil*

1 tablespoon nutritional yeast

Sea salt to taste

Black pepper to taste

Veggies

1 zucchini

1 carrot

2–3 leaves of kale (purple, green curly or Tuscan)

1 broccoli stalk

1 yellow squash

1/4 red bell pepper

1/4 yellow bell pepper

Directions

1. In a blender, blend together all Alfredo Sauce ingredients and set aside.

2. Using a mandoline or veggie peeler, peel all of your veggies top to bottom in order to get long strips. At this point, some may be the desired noodle size, while others may be too wide for you. Stack those wide ones on top of each other, and using a chef’s knife, slice them into the right size.

3. If you like, steam your veggies for 1–3 minutes to soften them and bring out bold color.

4. Warm Alfredo Sauce in a pot over medium heat. Toss sauce with veggie noodles and serve.

Lentil, Kale & Quinoa Tacos

lentil, kale and quinoa tacos

Crosby recalls her dad hosting taco night with those hard pre-formed shells, scoopfuls of artificially seasoned ground beef and little packets of hot sauce. She wanted to reinvent that beloved Mexican meal, sans the meat. The result wins over carnivorous spouses every time, Crosby says. “Families say if all vegan food tastes this good they’ll never eat meat again!” Use any bean and vegetable combination you like.

Yield: 8+ Servings

Ingredients

Non-GMO blue-corn taco shells

Filling

3 cups quinoa, cooked (1 cup dry)

1 cup lentils, cooked (1/2 cup dry)

One batch of Taco Seasoning (see recipe below or use store bought blend)

1 tablespoon coconut oil*

2–3 large leaves kale, stems removed, chopped

Toppings

1–2 avocados, pitted, peeled, and sliced

Fresh cilantro leaves

Fresh lime wedges

Directions

1. In a large pot heated to medium, fold together cooked quinoa, lentils, Taco Seasoning, coconut oil and chopped kale leaves. Stir well for 3–5 minutes until heat wilts the leaves.

2. Toast taco shells according to manufacturer’s instructions.

3. Load shells with filling, then top with avocado, cilantro, and a squeeze of lime. Serve warm.

Taco Seasoning

Ingredients

2 tablespoons chili powder

1 tablespoon ground cumin

2 teaspoons sea salt

2 teaspoons ground coriander

1 teaspoon paprika

1/2 teaspoon fresh-cracked black pepper

Dry zest from 1 lime

Pinch cayenne pepper

Sweet Potato & Black Bean Brownies

sweet potato and black bean brownies

I once had to bake a gluten- and dairy-free chocolate cake for a birthday boy with some hefty allergies. I hadn’t discovered “YumUniverse” then, but found a black bean cake online. This double-decker dessert went up against a leave-nothing-out German chocolate cake made by the birthday boy’s mother. In a blind taste test with salivating throngs of children attending this party, they picked my black bean version hands down! I’m happy to discover Heather Crosby’s souped-up brownies go a step further, adding not just beans but sweet potatoes to the mix. “I love this because you’re sneaking vegetables and healthy proteins into a brownie,” Crosby says. “That’s a miracle for a lot of moms out there. And it’s really delicious.”

Yield: 12 Servings

You can use canned beans for this recipe, but I recommend starting with dry beans (soaked and then cooked by you) to reduce aluminum intake, boost flavor, and optimize digestion and nutritional benefits.

Ingredients

Dry

1 1/2 cups almond flour

1⁄3 cup Sucanat

1/2 cup cacao powder

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

Wet

2⁄3 cup sweet potato, diced and steamed

2 1/4 cups black beans, cooked (1 cup dry)

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

One 3–oz. gluten-free, vegan chocolate bar

1⁄3 cup maple syrup

2 tablespoons coconut oil*

3/4 cup water

Steps

1. Preheat oven to 325°F and grease a 9" x 13" or 9" x 9" baking dish or line it with parchment paper.

2. Sift or whisk together all dry ingredients in a large glass bowl. Set aside.

3. Place all wet ingredients into the food processor and pulse until super-smooth.

4. Fold together wet and dry ingredients and transfer to the parchment-lined baking dish.

5. Bake for 60–70 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool in baking pan before serving.

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