As you may have noticed, January was renamed #veganuary in the foodie-sphere. Some may groan at the idea, but there are hugely persuasive arguments for forgoing animal products in our diets, and veganism seems to be gaining currency even among mainstream eaters.
I tried #veganuary and failed. BUT! I also learned that I love — absolutely LOVE — cooking all-vegetable dinners. I’ve been cooking for decades, and I have real knack for improvising comforting, homey meals and creating recipes on the fly. The food I cooked while dairy and eggs were banished from my kitchen has been the best I’ve ever cooked and some of the best food I’ve ever eaten - that includes food cooked by my partner, a (very, very talented) chef.
We jumped on the #veganuary bandwagon because a few years ago Brian gave up animal products for a few months as part of a training regime and he swore by it. I suspected that I lacked the discipline to give up on things that I love for any length of time (I was correct), but I also love vegetables and I wanted to be a team player, so I agreed.
What I learned was that having meals without meat, dairy or eggs is a totally acceptable way to eat, every day. It isn’t second best. It’s so rewarding in flavour and overall satisfaction.
Full disclosure: I did fall off the wagon in restaurants and other people’s homes. Most restaurants (even vegan ones) just do not to justice to the glory of vegetables, instead treating them as little more than a garnish; and I’m not going to make a kind dinner party host cook me a separate meal. But with the meals I made at home, I kept my word: no eggs, yogurt, cream, milk, or cheese went into my dishes.
Here’s what I learned from 4 weeks of vegan cooking.
Being a vegan or even a vegetarian is hard if you live in Belfast and enjoy eating in restaurants. The options for vegetarians are pretty unimaginative in most places here, and even worse if you are a vegan.
Lunch is harder than dinner. (I’m a fan of a quick egg in a salad or a cheese sandwich for lunch. It was hard to replace those.)
When it comes to coffee, I strongly prefer cow’s milk over a non-dairy substitute.
Pre-planning. Eating without any dairy or meat products is not complicated, at all. Cooking vegetables is just as easy, if not easier, than cooking meat. However, unless you love very plain food, it does require a little bit of thinking ahead, because you are doing without the quick-hit flavour of cheese, or cream or fish sauce. In this regard, I found Vegan in 7 by Rita Serrano to be a hugely helpful resource. It helped me come up with a host of palate-satisfying substitutes to my usual go-to animal-based flavour enhancers. I made these in batches (cashew cream was a big one) and added to my cooking as needed.
Delicious, delicious food. There are endless possibilities when it comes to vegetables. With a few exceptions, I would balk at putting two types of meat in one dish, but vegetables are so versatile, so forgiving and so very open to interpretation. You can do pretty much anything with them.
Reduced food costs. Once your grocery list loses the cheese and meat, your costs go way down.
Easy access to local produce. In December I signed up to Helen’s Bay Organic delivery service, and so every week I get a bag of veg dropped at my door. This also encourages experimentation as the bag often includes vegetables that I would not buy off the shelf. My weekly bill varies, but is in the £15-£17 range, and that feeds three to four people easily, for the week. Other companies provide similar services: Flavour First and Mourne Mountain Organics also deliver.
Discovering new products. The biggest winner here was gram flour, or chickpea flour, which you mix with water then pan fry. What a revelation. The same wonderful full, soft texture of a good pancake but with even less effort. You can top it with pretty much anything you want. My favourite was a salad of tomato, lemon salt, pistachios, red onion and fresh coriander.
Feel great. Vegetables are good for you, we all know that - and therefore it makes sense that eating lots of them will make you feel good too. I did not transform mid-month from flabby mum to lithe goddess, but I felt great — I had more energy than I normally do. Bonus: you are eating a lot of fiber, so very good for your digestive tract. Though with lots of cabbage, beans and lentils in your diet, you will definitely be farting up a storm. So maybe avoid if you are in the early, seduction-phase of a relationship!
Recommended cupboard items:
Soy sauce (salt and umami)
Tamarind (silky sweetness)
Tomato paste (savoury)
Asafoetida (fragrant tangy-ness)
Zaatar (herby flavour)
Things to keep in your fridge:
Cashew cream (I got the primary recipe from Rita Serano, but I added things of my own, like the salt from the bottom of the jar of preserved lemons, and garlic paste. That added a zing to the cream that was lacking before.
Slow-cooked tomato sauce. You can make this with a variety of things thrown in. I roasted down some garlic and threw that in, boiled raw tomatoes, peeled them, and added them in. As it cooks down and gets thicker, add soy sauce, or Marmite to give depth of flavour. I leave mine on the stove-top for 2 days, cooking down then adding water to cook down further.