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March 8, 2014

Recipe Time: Veggie Wrap

From time to time on this site, I sometimes like to talk about other things. Today seems like a good day to talk of cooking.

Here in the Midwest United States, we have a chain of gas station convenience stores called QuikTrip or QT for short. Think of it as 7-Eleven without being gross. The stores are kept clean. I can't think of any other place where every other time I went there there was someone moping the floor or maintaining the coffee makers as much as the local QT.

A few days ago on Ash Wednesday, I was looking for something that didn't have any meat in it for lunch. For those of you who don't know, during the forty days of Lent following Fat Tuesday (a.k.a. Mardi Gras), most Christian denominations observe this time by abstaining from meat on Ash Wednesday and every Friday through Good Friday. And yes, I will state that I am Roman Catholic. I live in a region of the country called St. Louis. If I was born and raised in a place like Islamabad, Pakistan or Jerusalem you would probably guess I would be a Muslim or Jew. But I'm not here to talk about religion or go into a fervored debate on the existence of God or all that other shallow "My God is better than your God" petty squabbles which seem to cause more divisiveness than peace and enlightenment. I'm not even that kind of person. Who you choose to worship--if you worship--is really your business. It's the part of pushing your faith upon other whether you believe in a higher authority or not is where most arguments start.

I'm here to talk about good eats. Like the healthy eats that everyone can enjoy no matter who you are, what you believe, or what your diet is.

I'm here to talk about Veggie Wraps or Veggie Pitas. However you wish to interpret or modify this recipe, there really is no wrong answer. Although, this recipe takes what I've learned from my experience and improves upon it.

The QuikTrip veggie wrap claims to be under 350 calories, but I'm not one for counting calories, not when fruits and vegetables are involved. I do know one thing is for certain, you can't claim to be under 350 calories if as a condiment you include a packet of ranch dressing. If there is any lesson to be learned from the not-as-healthy-as-advertized McDonald's salads a few years ago, you can't say you are under 350 calories if you drown everything in Ranch or Thousand Island dressings. It would be like encouraging people to eat more granola bars by dipping them in Nutella. I'll discuss more about salad dressing later.

My experience with QT's veggie wrap was somewhat enjoyable, but it did motivate me to create my own veggie wrap with some improvements. My recipe involves versatility, in that I mix all the ingredients for a veggie wrap into a container to be used within a week of making it. But there is a natural and healthy trick to making it last a bit longer which I will share in this article.

QT's veggie wrap came with mushrooms. While most people enjoy mushrooms, I'm not particularly a fan of them. So whether you like to keep them in your mix is your perogative. Though I do wonder what it would have been like with sliced artichoke hearts.

In any good veggie wrap, you'll want to start off with at least two greens. The first is freshly sliced cucumber for crunch. The other is generally something leafy. QT's wrap used your standard lettuce. It didn't specify what kind of lettuce but I think it may have been some kind of Bib Lettuce. Which is fine if you want to make a wrap that is crunchy as moderately filling, but my wrap mix used something much better: Spinach. Not the nasty lawn clipping in a can or box made famous by Popeye, but the good leafy kind.

Popeye
"Hmm, I knew their be something wrong with the way I'd been eating me Spinach. Better check the label."

Spinach is generally a bold green color and generally comes in a couple of sizes. A broad leaf spinach will generally require being torn apart. A more practical type of spinach that is used is called Baby Spinach because the leafs are much smaller. To prepare this leafy green, no matter what size you use, you must de-stem the leaves broad stem then under flowing cold water from the tap put the spinach into a sieve and wash the leaves thoroughly. I'm sure there's a cooking website elsewhere on the net that shows how to do that.

QT's veggie wrap came with shredded carrots. Carrots can add an extra crunch with some sweetness and a great companion to the sliced cucumber. However, in my mix, I choose sliced carrots. I did try this new product on the market called "Carrot Chips" which is basically sliced carrots cut into these wide crinkle-cut slices, but even if this was a pre-prepared item that claimed to be washed and ready to eat, there were still a few nasty ones in the bag. The morale: wash, peel, and cut your own carrots. Still, having something solid to crunch into other than the cucumbers was nice and had a better outcome that QT's recipe.

QT's veggie wrap had green bell peppers in small slices. I chose to use red bell peppers in slightly longer slices. There is something bell peppers other than aesthetics that when they turn a different color other than green they have a more zesty taste to them. Maybe it is something in the chemistry of peppers. Peppers bring another tasty crunch to the recipe.

QT's veggie wrap also fell short in the tomato department. It did include tomatoes, but the tomatoes were diced. However, like any good sandwich, wrap, or pita, you want a good medium size tomato to bite into that is juicy and satisfying. It is important to remember, to use a medium size tomato, not cherry (too small) or beefsteak (too large) varieties. Wash your tomatoes and take care when using a knife because unlike cucumbers, peppers and onions, you can't use a mandolin slicer unless you want to make a juicy mess.

By the way, if you do use a mandolin slicer, take care in using that, as those things are an easy way to slice your fingers to the point you will need to go to the hospital. Find a mandolin where there is a top half to protect your fingers. Maybe when I edit this article later, I will post a link to some good slicers on Amazon.

QT's veggie wrap did not include onions. My suggestion is to use a red onion (a.k.a. purple onion), and use only half if not less of the whole red onion, because onions are powerful. An onion exposed to air for a few days can become really powerful. Onions should be the last thing you ad in this recipe due to their strength and eye-stinging acidity. But don't let the fear of onions making your cry discourage you from using them. You will definitely want to use them, as they will accentuate the flavor of everything in your veggie wrap mix.

Lastly, we return to the subject of salad dressing. Most salad dressings on the market are a hodgepodge of chemicals. The goal of healthy eating is to eat as few of those as possible. With that said, if you are able to grow any of the vegetables I have mentioned in this article, grow them! Why not look into the subject of hydroponics and grow plants indoors? I'll talk more about that subject some other time. The whole point of this paragraph is to look at the back of the jar of Salad Dressing. Can you find most of the ingredients of that dressing elsewhere in the store or will you need a Sigma-Aldrich chemical handbook and catalog to find some of these items?

One brand of salad dressing that has never let me down is Newman's Own. You might know the brand by the picture of the late actor Paul Newman on the label.

Newman's Own
Trust in this guy's mug!

To finish off my Veggie Wrap mix, I pour half a bottle of Newman's Own Olive Oil and Vinegar Dressing on the mix. Not only does this add a few spices to the mix but the benefits of olive oil and vinegar are indisputable. Also, olive oil and vinegar are good natural preservatives so the mix won't dry out after a few days.

Finally, if there is one optional, but separate condiment I would suggest if you're not completely into veggie wraps is to give crumbly Feta Cheese a try. This salty goat's milk cheese is quite tasty and is perfect if you chose to use a pita pocket over the various tortillas that are marketed as "wraps".

In review, here's a list of all the ingredients that I used for my veggie mix wrap.

  • One regular sized cucumber, sliced.
  • 8 ounces of washed and de-stemmed baby spinach or torn regular spinach or Bib Lettuce.
  • 8 ounces of washed, peeled and sliced carrots.
  • One washed and sliced red bell pepper, de-cored before slicing.
  • Two washed and sliced medium-sized tomatoes.
  • Half of sliced a red onion.
  • One cup (or half a bottle) of Newman's Own Olive Oil and Vinegar dressing. (Don't forget to shake it!)
  • 8 ounces of sliced mushrooms (optional)
  • Two or three sliced artichoke hearts (optional)

The steps.

  1. Combine sliced cucumber, spinach, carrots, red bell pepper, tomatoes, and red onion in a one gallon plastic container that has a lid.
  2. If you prefer, you can add sliced mushrooms and/or artichoke hearts. This step is optional.
  3. Pour salad dressing on the vegetable mix.
  4. Put the lid on the container securely, and shake the vegetables and dressing until the vegetables are diversely mixed.

  5. Using tongs, take some of the mix and put it on a tortilla wrap or in a pita bread pocket.

  6. If you'd like you can add some crumbly feta cheese.
  7. If using a wrap, don't forget to wrap it up.

And that's a good step toward eating healthy. So go ahead and experiment. Try something out. It's actually quite good.

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