Yesterday I was looking for a book (which I didn't find) at Chapters, and I noticed a woman browsing the vegan cookbooks. I asked her if she needed help and we started talking. Turns out she and her husband had just watched Forks Over Knives, and were wanting to convert to a vegan lifestyle. Talking with her made me realize that often when I write, I just assume people understand why vegan recipes call for strange things like quinoa or agave nectar. But the reality is that if you're totally new to this world, and jumping from full on meat and dairy eating to full on veganism, it's foreign and confusing! I wanted to do a post for all of you who are brand new and don't really have a support system of vegans on speed dial. I've transitioned to a veg lifestyle so long ago I honestly couldn't tell you what meat tastes like, so I'm gonna try to think back about 17 years and go over the basics with you...
The most important thing I can tell you, is do your research. When you give up animal products, you are making a major change. You are cutting out bacon and eggs, cream cheese on your bagel, your bagel (has eggs in it), BLT's, hamburgers, cheesecake, ice cream, cream in your coffee, cheese plates with your wine, mac & cheese, steak, turkey at holidays, fettuccine alfredo, pho, butter chicken, mayo, prawns.... honestly, I could go on for paragraphs and pages. But I won't. However there was a point, and that being that you give up A LOT of things when you convert to a vegan lifestyle. So be prepared to introduce A LOT of things to replace the things you gave up! Is it mandatory to go out and buy Daiya cheese, amaranth, lentils or agave nectar? No it's not mandatory. However when you give up hundreds of things without introducing any new things, your eating situation will be pretty bland, and you'll crash and fail. Also, if you were previously eating the Standard American Diet, and you take away three quarters of it to become vegan, you NEED to try new things in order to get all of your vitamins, nutrients, protein and amino acids.
The most important thing you need to do, is to broaden your spectrum of veggies, fruit and berries. Have you tried kale, tangelos, beets, yams, sprouts, pea shoots, wheat grass, pomegranates, purple potatoes, lobster mushrooms, shallots, cantaloupe, red leaf lettuce, avocados, kolhrabi, butternut squash, cilantro, eggplant, romanescu broccoli, jack fruit, jicama, gauva, pummelo, sea asparagus (samphire), goji berries, maca, cacao....? The world of fruit and veggies is broad and exciting - bursting with flavor and it's waiting for you to get acquainted! You can't just eat carrots, potatoes and iceberg lettuce, darling... branch out, and try every fruit and veggie you can find! The more colorful your produce, the more vitamins it has; so don't fear deep purples, dark greens, vibrant reds and bright oranges!
Then get familiar with your grains and rices. For example in my household, on a regular basis, we eat things like: quinoa, cous cous, lentils (black, green, yellow and red), pearl barley, amaranth, brown rice, basmati rice, wild rice, black china rice, and grits. Eating only white (or brown) rice is boring...don't be afraid of trying some of the many rices, lentils and grains from around the world!
As far as flours go, I use a wide range in baking and cooking: unbleached white flour, whole wheat flour, sorghum flour, buckwheat flour, amaranth flour, white rice flour, brown rice flour, corn flour, corn meal, spelt flour, kamut flour, coconut flour, and potato starch (I am gluten sensitive, so I avoid wheat flours, however I use them when cooking for family). It's not at all essential to purchase all of these different flours and learn to bake and cook with them. However, I do find that new vegans (and vegetarians) eliminate a whole bunch of food and then just eat bread, more bread, some pasta, cereal, and more bread because they don't know what else to eat. An excess of gluten will cause digestion problems for ANYONE! That's why it's a good idea to use a variety of non glutenous flours and give your intestines a break. Google search recipes for vegan buckwheat pancakes or vegan cornbread and gravy. Choose corn tortillas over wheat ones. And on that note, try adding corn and rice pastas to your pantry. Corn pastas make the BEST mac & cheese, and rice pastas are essential in Vietnamese (and other Asian) dishes. After all, variety is the spice of life! And an overdose of wheat based foods will make you sluggish and bloated, and could develop into a serious problem and/or condition in the long term. (I speak from experience; a lesson learned the hard way)
Stock up on nuts and seeds, and try some new ones! I always keep almonds (yes even with the "vegan controversy", we still eat them), cashews, walnuts, pecans, pine nuts, macadamia nuts, and peanuts. We frequently use organic natural nut butters as well; peanut, almond and hazelnut. And then there's seeds! Fall in love with seeds! They are an amazing way to get protein, vitamins and nutrients. An example is the humble sesame seed; did you know it's high in calcium, copper, manganese, iron, phosphorous and B12? Or the chia seed - as far as I'm concerned everyone should eat them. Chia seeds are full of omega 3's, calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, vitamin A, and they're a complete source of protein. So eat them up! Research other seeds, those two aren't the only good ones! We eat all of the following: chia, hemp, sesame, poppy seed, sunflower, pumpkin, savi seed, and flax (make sure to buy ground flax seed as your body cannot digest full flax seeds). Seeds are so simple to throw on salad, toss into a smoothie or sprinkle over a stir fry... stock up on a variety and make them a part of your daily meal plans!
Beans are another fast and easy source of protein and iron. I buy beans in bulk, and soak them in large bowls full of water overnight. Then I cook them in large batches (most beans take almost an hour), store enough for a few days in the fridge, and freeze the rest. To use the frozen beans, simply re-boil until they are heated through; it's a quicker option than soaking and cooking them from scratch every time I want to use beans. You can buy canned beans, which is admittedly easier. I cook my own beans because there are always additives added to the canned ones, plus there is BPA in the lining of cans. (BPA's are only banned in plastic, and there is a loop hole with the lining of cans, and therefor still used and legal). I do keep a can of pinto beans and a can of chickpeas (both organic) on hand to use in a pinch if I'm ever out of cooked beans. So which beans to buy? We use chickpeas (a.k.a. garbanzo beans), kidney beans, pinto beans, navy beans, black beans, edamame beans, and mung beans (mung beans actually are a complete protein and contain all of your essential amino acids). Beans are so versatile; they can be mashed and spread as a condiment, heated and served with a tomato or "cheese" sauce, served cold (and/or marinated) in/or/as a salad, as a filler in wraps, blended into other ingredients as a veggie burger, or plain and heated as a side dish! I love beans, and especially chickpeas. We eat chickpeas (or hummus, which is made from chickpeas) at lease one meal a day.
Alternate milks.... What the heck should you put in your coffee? (Try vanilla or chocolate soy). In your cereal?(Try plain or vanilla almond milk). And what do you use to make alfredo sauce? (Plain rice milk). When it comes to alt milks, it is important to use a variety. The reason is because alternative milks range widely in sweetness and taste. For example, vanilla soy milk is divine in a latte (or in your coffee), however it is high in estrogen so you don't want to be drinking it all the time. Stick to one time per day at most. For your cereal and for cold drinking, I recommend almond milk. The neat thing about almond milk is that you can actually make it yourself very easily with raw (not toasted) almonds! (Recipe HERE). You can use almond milk in smoothies and in baking as well. And then for cooking savory and/or creamy sauces, I recommend plain (natural flavor) rice milk. It is very neutral in taste and heats the best of all of the alternative milks (Soy tends to get quite sweet when heated and almond milks taste a bit "off" when heated, in my opinion). I use coconut milk in Thai and Indian recipes, as its richness is a perfect base for these flavorful sauces. There is also hemp milk which can be used in the places I recommended almond milk. Hemp milk has a strong nutty flavor, and it's not a favorite in our household, so we rarely purchase or use it.
Then there's the "fake" meats and plant based protein meat substitutes. I rarely use or eat "fake" meats, as they are heavily processed, and contain lots of artificial coloring and preservatives. If we eat plant based protein such as seitan or tempah, I make it from scratch. I'll leave the choice of to-eat or not-to-eat "fake" meats, up to you.
If you're new to veganism, you've probably seen agave nectar and brown rice syrup in recipes. Why? Well because refined (white) sugar is actually not vegan. The sugar is processed using animal bone char. Gross right?! So we vegans avoid refined sugar and find some cool alternatives; raw organic sugar, agave nectar, brown rice syrup, pure maple syrup, stevia, coconut sugar, date sugar and molasses. Honey is not vegan, as it comes from bees. It's not at all necessary to buy all of these alternate sweeteners. In fact, I'd recommend when you're just starting this journey, stick to raw sugar as it can be used the same way refined white sugar is used; no conversions needed. You can figure our how to use all of the other sweet options when you feel more confident in your vegan culinary skills. And at all costs, avoid aspartame based sweeteners. Aspartame is as bad as it gets, with 92 different side effects. 92!!! Click HERE for more terrifying info on this "sweet poison".
And lastly, you'll probably see a broad variety of oils, vinegar, soy sauces and pastes used in vegan recipes. These are simply preference. For example, in baking, I use coconut oil. For frying, I use canola oil. For sauteing and salad dressings, I use olive oil; and for Asian and Latin dishes, I use toasted sesame oil. These are all just preference and are not necessary. There is also truffle oil, and it is a very costly and certainly not necessary oil. Truffle oil is approx $50 per bottle, and it is only used as a seasoning (combined with balsamic vinegar over raw tomatoes, or in a sauce over butternut squash ravioli, etc); it's very strong and very distinct and you either love it or hate it. I'd suggest ordering a dish that uses it, from a restaurant before shelling out for this oil, as it is pricey and you may hate it. When it comes to vinegar, it's mostly a taste preference. I'll use apple cider vinegar in baking and dressings; rice wine vinegar in Asian recipes; balsamic in dressings and for dipping bread or french fries; and plain white vinegar for pickling recipes or marinades. Other than balsamic, vinegars are similar enough that they can be easily interchanged. Then there's soy sauce, tamari sauce and amino liquid. All of it varies so slightly, you don't need to buy three different bottles. (I usually just sub tamari and amino liquid with soy sauce). You might see recipes calling for miso paste, which is fermented soy beans. Miso is a unique pungent, tart and salty taste. It's almost always optional in recipes, so it's not a necessary purchase. And then there's tahini, which is a sesame paste. It's usually used in Middle Eastern dishes and in things like hummus. Again, it's usually optional and is simply used to give a bit more "bite". Finally there's sriracha, which is a chili paste/sauce. It's super spicy and you can substitute other hot sauces such as Frank's Red Hot. (EDIT: The day after this I posted this, I realized I forgot to include nutritional yeast! What is it and do you need to buy it? First of all, it's not a baking yeast, and it's not a brewer's yeast. You can usually find nutritional yeast at health food stores, or organic grocery stores. It's notorious for adding a "cheesey" flavor, and it's not mandatory, but I really do recommend picking this ingredient up! All of the above listed ingredients (in this paragraph) are optional and are used in flavor enhancement but are not mandatory.
Ok, ok... that's a lot of info and a lot of new foods! So where do you start?! Take one step at a time. Here's a to-do list for your first two weeks....
*Make it a habit that every time you go to the grocery store, you buy a new fruit, berry or veggie for you and your family to try. Remember, you cannot thrive on iceberg lettuce and carrots alone!
*Pick up some Daiya cheddar cheese shreds and make a vegan cheese sauce (recipe HERE), and slather it on pastas (try corn pasta!!), make veggie nachos, use it on a veggie burger, eat it over a tofu scramble (kinda like scrambled eggs and cheese), pour it over broccoli, cauliflower or baked potatoes, or use it as a fondue for el dente veggies! Most new vegans miss cheese, and this cheese sauce is a tried and tested life-saving recipe that goes on pretty much everything.
*Purchase at least three kinds of beans. (I recommend soaking and cooking your own as mentioned above, but you can use canned at first if you're feeling overwhelmed). Make or buy a hummus with chickpeas (hummus can be used as a spread on veggie burgers, in wraps and as a dip with crackers or raw veggies) and choose two different ways to use the other two kinds of beans.
*Make a familiar and easy sweet "dessert". Try No Bake Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies (I use THIS recipe); just make sure you are using vegan margarine (Becel makes one now! Or you can use the longtime vegan favorite, Earth Balance), as well as raw sugar. You could also make Puffed Wheat Squares (recipe HERE), or Rice Krispy Squares (recipe HERE). Marshmallows are not vegan, so buy the vegan ones made by Dandies, which are super-duper delicious. The reason I'm condoning sugary junk food at the beginning of this journey? Well because when everything is new and your food seems foreign, it's nice to have a kid-approved comforting and familiar sweet treat on hand. Trust me on this one ;)
*Make a stir fry! Anyone can chop up veggies and saute them, plus its a quick dish that has endless variations! Throw in some nuts and seeds and/or some tofu and serve it over any type of rice or vermicelli (rice noodles). Make extra and take it to work or school for lunches. Stir fry's simply rock, and you can put pretty much any veggie, nut or seed, or sauce in them and they always taste yummy. (Note: Find sauce recipes on Epicurious; try out a Thai peanut sauce, a coconut sauce, a teriyaki sauce, a simple soy sauce, add some fresh ginger, or try a curry!)
*Make and eat fruit smoothies at least a few times per week (if not once per day). Smoothies are the easiest and most yummy way to eat lots of fruit. Plus you can add in some raw spinach, hemp or chia seeds, and some almond milk and you've got a power breakfast that will keep you full while satisfying your sweet tooth. I like to stock up on berries and bananas when they're on sale and freeze them for smoothies. This way your smoothie is cold and has the texture of a milkshake, and you don't need to dilute it by adding ice cubes. You don't need yogurt to make a smoothie either. Try adding a couple of frozen bananas, a half cup of fresh or frozen berries, one or two pieces of fresh fruit (mangoes, oranges, peaches etc), a cup of raw spinach, a few teaspoons of seeds, and enough almond milk as your food processor or blender needs to blend it all together. For a sweeter smoothie, add one or two medjool dates or a teaspoon of agave nectar. And for a yummy breakfast smoothie, try four bananas, two medjool dates, a few tablespoons of peanut butter, a half teaspoon of cocoa powder and almond milk. YUM!
I hope this has been helpful, and that it helps clear up a few things and reasons for all of the "strange" ingredients! Feel free to email me any questions or comments you may have. No question is a bad question, and I always love hearing your thoughts and opinions! Email: firstname.lastname@example.org