31 May 2015

Want to Go Vegan? How To Stick With It

This is the last in a series of three posts answering questions from a friend; the previous posts were on cooking vegan and eating vegan meals in restaurants.

This is the toughest one: what arguments do you tell yourself to stay with it? The decision to forego animal products is a personal one and, at the moment, a fairly counter-cultural one, and thus is bound to engender some flak or just bafflement from friends and family. And occasionally strangers.

There are a lot of reasons why someone would choose to go vegan, including concerns for animal rights, individual health, the health of the planet.

Various population-wide studies going back years have demonstrated that vegan diets are healthier than diets that include animals, as long as some attention is given to protein and vitamin B12, and as long as people eat a variety of foods regularly, including fruits and vegetables, nuts and legumes, and whole grains.

Climate science is also clear that vegan diets have less planetary impact than diets containing meat. It takes about ten pounds of feed to produce a pound of meat, meat requires more water to raise than most vegan foods; all that feed needs to be transported from the field to the animal; and animals release a lot of methane as they chew their cuds.

Factory farming is horrifying in terms of animal welfare as well as pollution and the use of antibiotics and pesticides.

Some people argue that the problems with meat consumption can be solved by relying on local, sustainably raised meat sources. The problem with this is the size of the human population: to feed all the people sustainably raised meat in the quantities Americans eat would be impossible. There's just not enough land to graze all those animals.

Others advocate eating fish instead of meat because the sea appears to be an endless resource, covering nearly three-quarters of the earth's surface. But fishing, too, has been mechanized and industrialized. Many species are declining and ocean environments are threatened by pollution and bottom trawling. Eating only line-caught fish helps, but there's still the problem of eating high on the food chain. Fish farms are also an environmental disaster.

Finally, though, if you slip occasionally and eat animal products, don't beat yourself up. Re-commit yourself based on whatever the reasons you had for going vegan in the first place, and keep moving.

23 May 2015

Want to Go Vegan? Some Easy Recipes

My friend Karen asked for some help going vegan. This post is #2 in a series.

First off, if you're making drastic changes (or even not so drastic) to your diet, take it slow. Learn one new recipe a week and then slot it into your rotation. My favorite cookbooks are The Joy of Cooking (yes, really) and Laurel's Kitchen. Neither is a vegan cookbook, but both are very well written and go into depth about foods and cooking techniques. Laurel's Kitchen also includes a very handy food guide with information about nutrient contents of individual ingredients as well as their recipes; I wish the editors would update the book.

But I almost never cook from recipes; I read cookbooks for ideas and then add things into my own repertoire. I try to shop local, so I cook with what's on hand rather than shopping to prepare a particular recipe, and I have a few dishes in my head that take wide variation. Here are a few of my basics:

Creamy cauliflower soup

Wash and cut up a whole cauliflower. If if came with leaves, include them, but chop them into little pieces. Cook in a couple of inches of water until it's soft. Add soy milk, a tablespoon or so of tahini, and some salt (or a vegan boullion cube, if you're so inclined). Puree, but leave some texture. A stick blender makes this easy but it can also be pureed in a regular blender or a food processor. For safety, let it cool a bit first -- enough so it's not hot enough to burn -- and then reheat.

This also works well with broccoli, asparagus, or leeks and potatoes. For the latter, I saute onions and the chopped leeks for 15 minutes, then add cubed potatoes, cover with water, and boil until soft.

Lentil stew

Chop an onion, some garlic, and some celery (with leaves) and saute in a couple of tablespoons of oil of your choice. I like olive oil, which means you have to keep the heat relatively low and be patient. Once they're golden and maybe a little brown, add dried basil, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, and some curry, with a little water so it doesn't stick, and stir in with the vegetables for a couple of minutes.

Add red split lentils (rinsed first) and some chopped greens (spinach, kale, collards...), cover with water, bring to a boil and then simmer until the lentils have fallen apart: 15 or 20 minutes. Keep an eye on them, and keep adding water as they absorb what's already in with them. Once they've disintegrated, add a package of crushed tomatoes and bring back to a boil (just) stirring constantly. Salt/pepper to taste.

You can substitute green lentils, navy beans, cannellini, black beans, or split peas, though they all take a lot longer to cook. Speed cooking time by rinsing them and putting them in a pot and bringing them to a boil and then letting them sit overnight; cook separately from the other ingredients. With split peas, leave out the tomatoes. For variety, add one or more root vegetables, or include more than one kind of bean. Black beans and chick peas or navy beans and kidneys are nice combinations.

These stews also work with canned beans. And you can boost the spices and serve over rice or quinoa or steamed potatoes.

Today, I used black beans, grated carrots, and a few tomatoes that needed eating, and then pureed the results with a stick blender.

Stir fry

This one also starts with onions, celery, and garlic, though I leave the pieces a lot bigger than for stew. It might have potatoes and eggplant or broccoli and snap peas and green beans or cauliflower and bell peppers and tomatoes, or any variety of other vegetables in combination. It might be flavored with green curry and some coconut milk, or indian curry and a little soy sauce, or soy sauce and chili peppers and green onions sliced in right before serving. I made a very inauthentic red coconut curry stirfry with beets and cannellini once. I might eat it over rice, noodles, or potatoes.


A salad spinner is super helpful for vegetarian cooking, not only for salad, but also for washing all those greens. Rip up some salad, wash and spin. Slice, shred or grate whatever other vegetables you have on hand -- cucumbers, carrots, beets, baby spinach. If you're so inclined, you can also add some cut up fruit. If you want to make it a meal, add cannellini, chick peas, hummus, or cubed tofu.  Dressing can be plain olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepp er.  Add vegan mayonnaise to make it creamy, or use honey and mustard.

The Bottom Line:

The agriculture industry has persuaded us that cooking is hard, maybe with some help from The New York Times Cookbook and Iron Chef. It's not. Learn to cook from scratch, with recipes in your head that you can modify based on what's around. Keep your kitchen stocked with basics -- a few cans of different kinds of beans, a couple kinds of dry beans, rice and pasta, and whatever dried herbs and spices you like. In the fridge, root vegetables and onions and celery last quite a while. If you can only shop once a week, cook the greens right away -- they keep well in the fridge for a few days, or you can freeze them to add to soups.

08 May 2015

Want to Go Vegan? Eating In Restaurants

A friend asked for advice on going vegan. So this is the first of a series of posts in an attempt to answer some of her questions.

Eating vegan in restaurants can be a challenge. When I can choose the restaurant, I'm good to go; Indian restaurants almost always have good vegan options, and Chinese and Japanese restaurants also usually do.

At diners and diner-like restaurants, I usually do pretty well off the list of side orders, combining a couple of vegetables with some baked beans and a salad, for instance.

But sometimes you get stuck with a plate of wilted lettuce and tasteless tomatoes with salt and pepper out of little paper packets. Maybe some bread or home fries, if you're lucky. Then what?

If you know it's coming, you can plan ahead. I often carry a bag of almonds or cashews, as they make great vegan snacks and are also good to supplement an inadequate meal. If it comes as a surprise, I drink a lot of water and then go in search of more food. Even vending machines and gas stations will almost always have something vegan -- potato chips, pretzels, peanuts.

It gets easier. Around home, I've learned which restaurants have at least one item on the menu that I'm happy to eat, as well as a few with enough great options I actually re-read the menu each time I eat there.

If fast food is the only option, Wendy's salad bar can work; Taco Bell will sell you a tacos or a burritos with just beans and vegetables, and if you add enough of their tiny packets of sauce, they're not bad.

And I try not to be too hard on myself. The tofu and the chicken wings get deep-fried in the same oil, and the Vietnamese soup might contain fish sauce or chicken broth, but I try not to make myself crazy, particularly when traveling.

Hiking in the Dolomites and staying in mountain huts a couple of summers ago, I was getting really low on protein; day after day, I was eating polenta or potatoes and not much else, after I ran out of nuts and dried fruit. I was going to have to quit hiking or eat meat. so I chose the meat. I had to retreat to a corner of the bunk room and choke it down without anyone watching, and it still grosses me out to think about it, but boy was I strong the next day.

I try to learn from mistakes: When I went to the Lake District for a hostel-to-hostel hike a few weeks ago, I brought along a huge bag of TVP: dried soy chunks to reconstitute with water. Much lighter than nuts, so pound for pound, it goes much farther, and thus lasts much longer.

But also, I try not to beat myself up over the lapses. I'm never going to be perfect, so I just do my best and keep on moving.