Sunday, 11 December 2011

Ho-ho-herbivore! A Guide to Vegan Christmas Shopping

Got a vegan in the family?  Did your teenager "go crazy" and start wearing hemp shoes and throwing your chicken pot pie out the window?  Are you a new vegan and you're feeling lost and adrift in a cold, meaty world?  Are you a vegan and you want to spread the green word without bashing people on the head with your soapbox?  Here are a few ideas for gifts for vegans, animal rights activists, people on the fence, and people who won't stop badgering you about what you eat and you would rather a book or a DVD answered their questions for you.  This list is made up mostly of books, but if your vegan refuses to read, just buy them a good chef's knife.  Watching my friends try to cut up carrots with a 2 inch paring knife is a deeply painful experience.

General Vegan Guides

The 30 Day Vegan Challenge, by Colleen Patrick Goudreau

If you, or anyone you know, is thinking about becoming vegan but you have some questions about how you would accomplish such a feat, this is the book for you.  Vegan activist Colleen Patrick Goudreau (you've read my raves about her marvellous podcast, Vegetarian Food for Thought) expertly lays out 30 days full of information about food, health, social situations, and practical matters such as how to stock a vegan kitchen, how to bake without eggs, and getting the right nutrients. A perfect book for anyone, man/woman, intellectual/practicalist/granola cruncher, who is interested in veganism.

The Kind Diet, by Alicia Silverstone

If vegan activists were sitting around waiting for a poster girl to champion their cause, they couldn't have asked for better than sweet, enthusiastic, and beautiful Alicia Silverstone and her gentle, occasionally slightly silly, but inspiring introduction to veganism.  Coming from a semi-macrobiotic point of view, Alicia lays bare the ethical, environmental, and health reasons for veganism.  She offers practical advice on making the change, allowing room for both people who want to "flirt" with a vegan diet and people who want to jump right in and eat a wholefoods vegan diet.  She also includes a fair amount of recipes, some of which contain fairly unfamiliar, and sometimes pricey ingredients, but many of which are very simple and surprisingly delicious.  A good, very unintimidating book for women.

Skinny Bitch, by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin

While some people find the irreverant and frequently profane tone of this book a little off-putting, I have to admit that I think Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin are kind of geniuses.  When you pull the book off the shelf, it reads as just another diet book, but it is actually a thorough explanation of the horrors of the animal agriculture industry and a sensible guide to wholefoods eating.  Rory Freedman has point blank admited that the snappy title was simply a marketing ploy, saying "I am well aware that in this day and age, in this society, people care more about their appearance than they do about almost anything else. It’s sad that that’s the case. I wrote the book so that women who only cared about how they look would learn about what they were contributing to in terms of animal torture, how they were poisoning their own bodies, and how being skinny is bullshit meaninglessness."  I can't express to you how much I f***ing love that. Another good book for women, but there is also a counterpart, Skinny Bastard, which is aimed at men.


Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safron Foer

Fiction writer Jonathan Safron Foer had a baby, and then decided that he had to feed that baby.  This thought process led him to investigate the conditions of farm animals raised in the modern agricultural system.  And THIS process led to him becoming vegan.  Eating Animals is personal, creatively written, and pretty devasting.  The book wanders through personal experience, story-telling, and overwhelming factual information.  Safron Foer remains free of judgement of the reader's choices, fairly representing multiple perspectives on the subject of animal industry, and never pushing his point.  A good volume for the philosophically inclined or those on the fence who can't handle more dogmatic, black and white reasoning.

Stuff I haven't read:

Professor Gary Francione's Books

Gary Francione is the father of the abolitionist approach in animal activism, meaning he is opposed to welfare reforms in the industry, and instead focuses his time on vegan outreach and education, in an attempt to abolish animal use in our society.  I follow his podcast avidly, but haven't read any of his books yet.  Rain Without Thunder is the standard.

Earthlings, directed by Shaun Monson

I haven't watched this documentary, and I have no intention of watching it in the future.  But that doesn't mean I don't think YOU should.  This documentary, narrated by vegan actor Joaquin Pheonix, is reputedly incredibly full-on, examining animal abuse in our society without skimping on the graphics.  People walk out of the movie theatre and become vegan instantly.


The Great American Detox Diet, by Alex Jamieson

I really like this simple little guide to healthy eating, written by the wife of Supersize Me's Morgan Spurlock.  Based on the diet she put Morgan on after his month of McGrease, Jamieson enthusiastically lays out 8 weeks of cutting out dietary nasties, including caffeine, sugar, animal, protein, trans fats, and simple carbs.  The book also contains a final section of several recipes, and most of these that I've tried have been pretty yummy. This book is a good introduction for anyone who is just starting to show a burgeoning interest in a healthy diet.

The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell

Everyone needs to read this book.  Now.  Read this book and understand cancer growth better, just how very much our diet affects our chances of getting cancer, heart problems, and autoimmune diseases, and how collosally, infuriatingly corrupt the American Food Standards Agency is in deciding what information and regulations make it to the public.  Respected Cornell medical researcher T Colin Campbell has spent his long career examing the relationship between the standard Western diet and disease and a wholefoods, plant-based diet and good health, and he chronicles many years of findings in this book.  Some animal activists object to the book on the grounds that some of Campbell's earliest work involved experiments on animals.  Of course I don't approve of these methods, but I think that to ignore such a compelling and important work is simply shortsighted.  Like I said, this book is a good idea for everyone.  EVERYONE.

Also see:  Forks Over Knives, directed by Lee Fulkerson

This documentary is pretty much a summary and film version of The China Study, and talks about the work of Campbell, Dr. Carl Esseylstyn, and Dr. John Mcdougall.  The movie also includes interviews with several people who were on death's door, and have used a plant-based diet to turn their lives around become healthy, active people at an older age.  And some of them are just so...adorable!  A great introduction to the ideas in The China Study.

Stuff I haven't read:

Becoming Vegan, by Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina

I feel a little silly admitting that I haven't actually read this book, but this is the quintessential guide to the nutritional considerations of turning vegan.


Veganomicon, by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romano

Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romano are the quirky, creative kitchen goddesses of Veganworld, and this all-purpose cookbook will stand on the shelves of all vegans for years to come.  The book includes a comprehensive guide to stocking your kitchen and  instructions for how to cook various vegetables, grains, and beans.  The recipes are amazingly creative and delicious, with options such as potato and kale enchiladas, mole skillet pie, and jelly donut cupcakes.  The only drawback to the book is that a lot of the recipes are very time consuming, and I would pay close attention of the time guidelines before you decide to make one of the dishes for a weeknight dinner.  A good book for any vegan or vegetarian, or anyone who is truly interested in the endless possibilities of their kitchen.

The Vegan Table, by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau

The second entry on this list for a Colleen Patrick-Goudreau book, this cookbook focuses on holiday and entertaining meals for the vegan table.  Ironically, most of the receipes in this book are less complicated and quicker than the recipes in Veganomicon.  This book is peppered with bits of cooking tips, foodie knowledge, entertaining ideas, and advice for the social challenges of eating as a vegan.  The recipes are nearly all winners, including macaroni and cashew cheese, carmelized tempeh shwarmas, and FRUIT SUSHI.  Patrick-Goudreau uses mostly familar, easy to find ingredients, and thoroughly explains any unfamilar ingredients.  An all around good book for those new to the diet, or those who love to entertain. 

Moosewood Cooks at Home, by the Moosewood Collective

Some may find the inclusion of the Moosewood cookbooks on this list to be controversial: they aren't vegan, or even technically vegetarian, a small amount of the recipes include fish, but my formative culinary years were shaped by the Moosewood Collective, and this cookbook is such a great introduction to vegetarian cooking. Many of the dishes are vegan, and quite a few can be easily veganised (although a few are centred around eggs, dairy, and fish).  The cookbook is fantastic for weekdays, full of simple, uncomplicated recipes with mostly familiar ingredients that you can find in any ol' grocery store.   Some of the recipes I've already featured on this blog, but other favourites of mine include the African peanut and pineapple stew, bulger burgers, cajun skillet beans, and pan bagnet (a pressed, garlicky baguette sandwich).  A great cookbook for those just starting out in the kitchen.

Moosewood Celebrates, by the Moosewood Collective

I love this cookbook!  We're focussing on entertaining and celebrating again here, and reading this book will make you want to cook (and eat).  Divided into season and then into different holidays, each seasonal introduction will get you excited about seasonal cooking, and each description of each holiday will make you want to entertain, travel, and learn more about world food.  The various holidays include familiar Western ones, as well as, also Diwali, Chinese New Year, Tibetain-American Losar Dinner, Juneteenth, and Setsubun (Japanese Bean Day).  I have many favourite recipes from this book, some of which are greens and cashew curry, Indian potato pancakes, potato latkes, Tibetan style seitan burritos,  and vegetable pot pie (this one isn't vegan, but I'm determined to figure out how to veganize it).  Again, a few (very few) recipes have fish in them, although several of those recipes include a vegetarian option.  Vegan recipes are helpfully indexed in the back, and plenty of the LO veggie recipes are easily veganized.  A great book for any cook, but especially those looking to expand their horizons.

Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World, by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero

We're back with Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero, and this adorable little book is as cute as cupcakes themselves.  This book includes many delicious and creative recipes, most of which use ingredients omnivore bakers will have on their shelves (agave nectar makes only the briefest appearance in this book*).  The recipes are pretty much foolproof, but in case you are particularly foolish, there is an introductory section of helpful and clearly explained baking tips and troubleshooting.  Try the banana split cupcakes (I love these and I don't even like banana), almond and apricot cupcakes, pumpkin and chocolate chip cupcakes with cinnamon icing, and the low fat vanilla cupcakes with berry topping.  A great little gift for anyone...except a diabetic.

*note: I have nothing against agave nectar, but it seems odd to me that many vegans want baking books made entirely of recipes with agave, brown rice syrup, agar agar, and garbanzo bean flour, and then complain when veganism isn't mainstream enough.

Stuff I haven't read:

The Uncheese Cookbook, by Joanne Stepaniak

I don't have a copy of this, but I would like one!  Stepaniak has gone through the exhaustive trouble of creating non-dairy recipes for many different kinds of cheese.  My guess would be that the alternatives don't taste exactly like their dairy counterparts, but I thought I would include this book partially because cheese is the thing that omnivores cling to the most, and partly for the pure culinary innovation.  And the cute title.

The Joy of Vegan Baking, by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau

One more Colleen Patrick-Goudreau book (that I don't have), from what I can tell this book is exactly what it says on the tin: a comprehensive go-to book for vegan baking.  UK readers, in case you're confused by the title, the Joy of Cooking and the Joy of Baking are longstanding, beloved cookbooks that every avid North Americn cook has on his or her shelf, given to them by their grandmothers.

Ethical Eats

Christmas Eve Cranberry and Dark Chocolate Cupcakes

The taste test is over, and these pink little pleasures have come through the winner.  And by that I mean, I liked them the best of all the cranberry treats I tried and I'm not too bothered about what everyone else thought.  These cupcakes are for more mature, intense flavour-loving palates, with bitter dark chocolate and tart cranberry.  And they're ever so cute and pretty in pink.  I've included a simple recipe for a cranberry jam-like concoction that you can use for a variety of purposes, but if you have a simple and sweet cranberry sauce at hand, you can just use that instead.  The basic vanilla base for theses cakes are from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World.

Makes 12 cupcakes.


1 cup soy millk
1 tsp cider vinegar
11/4 cups flour
2 Tbs cornstarch
3/4 baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup canola oil
3/4 cup sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp almond extract
1 cup good quality dark chocolate chunks
1 cup dried cranberries

Line a muffin tin with cupcake wrappers, and preheat your oven to 350 degrees.  Add the vinegar to the soy milk, whisk together with a fork and leave to curdle for a few minutes.  Mix together the oil, sugar, soy milk mixture, and extracts.  Sift together the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.  Mix the dry ingredients into the wet, and stir until no large lumps remain.  Fold in dark chocolate chunks and dried cranberries.  Using an oiled ice cream scooper or 1/4 cup measure, fill each wrapper two thirds full.  Bake on the middle shelf of your oven for 20-22 minutes.

Cranberry Sauce:

This makes way more than you will need for this recipe, but you can use this sauce to fill a tart, spread on toast, or top a variety of things, including your morning porridge.

1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 tsp lemon juice

Place the cranberries in a pot on medium heat and stir until the cranberries begin to get juicy.  Add the sugar and lemon juice, and simmer, stirring often, until the mixture is thick, about 10 minutes.  Because you are going to use this sauce in the frosting, I pureed it quickly with a hand held blender.  At this point it should be quite gelatinous, and not at all runny.


1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1/2 cup vegan margarine
31/2 cups icing sugar
3-4 Tbs cranberry sauce

Beat the shortening and margarine together until fully combined and fluffy.  Add the sugar, one cup at a time, and whisk until fluffy, about 5 minutes.  Add the cranberry sauce, and whisk until fully combined.  Taste the frosting.  If it's not cranberry-y enough for you, add a little more sauce.  If the frosting is to liquidy, add some more icing sugar.  If it's too stiff, you can add either a little more cranberry sauce, or a little dash of soy milk.

Once the cupcakes are fully cooled, frost them to your own taste (the cranberry sauce makes this frosting not ideal for a pastry bag, use a knife instead).  Top each cupcake with crumbled dark chocolate (if you don't have any left over, just chop up tiny little bits of chocolate with a knife.)

Sunday, 20 November 2011

My Life - The Vegan Year

Well, folks, it's coming up to that time of year when we spend too much time reflecting on our life choices and we wonder what, if anything, we've gained from the last year of our lives.  Up until this point, I've been a bit hesitant to make any bold statements about my transition to veganism, but at 11 months in, I think I'm finally ready to summarise some of my thoughts and feelings about my life as a vegan so far.

So what have I gained or learned or lost? 

Well, perhaps surprisingly, the food related aspects of becoming vegan have been the easiest part.  No, I don't miss cheese.  No, seriously, I really don't.  I will admit, about a month and a half into the year (for those of you not aware, I became vegan on New Years Day), I had some pretty powerful urges to eat cheese and store-bought, dairy laden pastry.  Solution?  I made some cupcakes out of the super-awesome-amazing-califragalistic Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World (thanks Patty!).  I bought Cheezly and put it on my pizza.  And amazingly, my cravings have largely disappeared. I don't even think about what I'm not eating now.

To be honest, I think I've just been having to much plain ol' fun with food to miss dairy. I thought my culinary horizons were pretty broad already, but vegan cookbooks aren't messing around when it comes to gastronomic experimentation, and I've been making at least three new dishes every week.  If you really want to make something no one at your dinner table has ever had before, pick up a copy of Veganomicon.  Mole skillet pie?  Butternut squash summer rolls with Cranberry dipping sauce?  Yes please. 

My tastes have lightened up, and I've become more in tune to dishes that are full of flavour but are lacking in heavy fat.  That's not to say that you can't eat very heavy, creamy, fatty food on a vegan diet; those recipes are out there in droves, but I think I've learned that even as a lacto-ovo vegetarian, I was still quite addicted to animal fat, and I think a lot of dairy and egg eating vegetarians have a similar addiction.  I've stopped relying on something fatty and unhealthy to provide the happy in a recipe (note: that doesn't mean I've stopped liking fatty and unhealthy things).  My palate has really opened up in the last 11 months, and I get more enjoyment out of simple, clean, flavourful food than I ever have before.  A good peach isn't just a good peach anymore.  It's like a religious experience of peach holiness. 

 By throwing food out the door that I was probably actually addicted to, as many people are addicted to the casomorphines in cheese, I think I've learned that I can give up any one food without inflicting trauma on myself.  My happiness is not reliant on cheese.  If this seems like an overly-obvious statement to you...well, no, I don't think this does seem like an overly-obvious statement to anyone.  I've come to realise that a significant proportion of people really do believe their happiness is reliant on cheese. 

The health aspects of becoming vegan are pretty self-evident, and to be honest, I don't have that much to say about my own experiences health-wise.  I didn't really have any significant health problems before becoming vegan, so it's kind of difficult to report on any changes in this area.  What I can say is that besides saturated fat and dangerous animal protein, there is a lot of processed junk that many people eat mindlessly at the office, or the way home from work, or at parties that is automatically left out of the vegan diet.  So in a way, there is a certain amount of effortless improvement to your diet that comes along with veganism.

On the other hand, I wouldn't be doing anyone any favours if I suggested that veganism is a panacea for all health problems, and that personal responsibility doesn't factor into your health at all.  There are still health traps for the vegan.  Sugar, white flour, added oils, and processed vegan foods can show up much too often in many vegans' diets.  If I have noticed a significant change in my health it would be that in avoiding a wider array of unhealthy foods in my diet, I have started to really notice the difference in how I feel after consuming different foods.  Eat fresh green salads, vegetable soups, whole grains and beans and I feel light and happy.  Eat too much sugary food, white bread, and alcohol and I feel crappy and moody.

Easily the most difficult part of the transition has been the social aspects.  Dining out, going to other people's houses for dinner, or trying to navigate through the mire of misinformation out there about animal products and animal rights has not been easy.

But on a positive note, I know a lot of people run into confrontations with others when they stop eating animal products, and while I have definitely experienced some very bull-headed and flat out rude behaviour in regards to my eating habits, I haven't really encountered very much of this as a vegan.  Keep in mind, I am writing this from a country famed for its polite and reserved residents, so perhaps it's not that surprising that while living in England I haven't received a lot of flak about my diet. 

The most difficult thing has been dining out, particularly in any British restaurant/pub.  I've had to send back a few things that came with little bits of diary even after asking for the dish without.  I've encountered odd situations, such as:

Waiter:  Hmm, let me it a milk allergy that you have?
Me: No, I'm a vegan.
Waiter: Oh, I know we don't have anything vegan.  Absolutely nothing.  Even the vegetarian stuff has diary in it.
Me: Oh really?  Could you ask the kitchen if they could maybe make the vegetarian tomato and basil soup without dairy?
Waiter: Wait, let me see.  It might not have any dairy.  Just a second." (calls down the kitchen) "Yeah, it's vegan.


Waitress:  So the chef can do a soup and a tagine, and some roast potatoes. 
Me: Great!
Waitress:  Are potatoes vegan?

My best advice is to never use the word vegan when trying to specify what you can or can't eat at a restaurant.  No one knows what it means and it seems to terrify the living daylights out of servers.  And yes, if you're wondering, I managed to respond that last waitress without laughing. 

What I have found is that, firstly, calling ahead to the restaurant is the best idea.  Secondly, being both polite and optimistic will go a long way.  If you act like you are putting people out, they may believe you.  If you act like you expect people to offer you the world, you will not be well received.  However, if you are polite and cheerful, clear about what you can eat, and come prepared with some ideas of how the restaurant can modify something already on their menu for you, you will find most people surprisingly accommodating.  Afterwards, be grateful, and be sure to thank the chef if he or she went out of their way to make you something special.

As for going to other people's houses, I find it's best to offer to bring something for yourself.  Since I like to cook, I genuinely don't mind bringing something.  And if someone wants to try to make something for you, at least you've offered, so you don't have to feel like you are a burden to your host. 

The last social aspect that I've mentioned can be the hardest.  Listening to other people talk about meat or hunting, or watching meat being cooked on TV has become much more painful for me than it ever was before.  To be honest, I haven't found a great way of avoiding it.  I've become acutely aware of the many, many different ways that non-human animals are abused by humans, and sometimes I find it hard to have a conversation with people without the subject coming up.  I don't want to upset anyone, and I don't want to be constantly bringing the subject of animal rights up with people.  I've yet to find a balance between speaking my mind when I really need to, and leaving something alone when it's just not the time and someone isn't going to be interested or open-minded.  Often people have been more interested in what I know than I expected, and I've left the situation feeling that I should have been more open and honest with them, and given them more credit.

As for the personal aspects, these have been the most powerful but also the most distressing.  Discovering how much abuse is in our society, and how inherent this abuse is was, and continues to be, very disturbing to me.  On the other hand, I've seen my friends be open-minded and willing to change when hearing the truth about the animal agriculture industry or the health risks of animal products, and I've been amazed and thrilled with their reactions. People want to and can change. I know this for certain.

But the bottom line is, when I think over the last year and the decision I made, and the information I now know about the abuses inherent in dairy and meat production, I'm amazed at the change in my mindset more than in my practises.  Making the decision to give up all animal products and attempting to make a change in the world with one little action, or rather lack of action, has been the best decision I've made in a long, long time.  I can't imagine my life, or the person I would be without veganism, and thank God, thank Buddha, thank Zorathustra, or thank pure dumb luck that I found it.

Ethical Eats

Roasted Beets 'n Apples

Speaking of simple, flavourful food, this easy peasy dish will make a beet lover out of you.  How can anyone not love beets anyway?  Look how pretty!

Olive oil for drizzling
2 large beets or 4 small ones, peeled and sliced into centimeter thick slices
2 large apples, of a medium acidity variety, peeled and sliced into centimeter thick slices
juice of one lemon
1/4 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400/200 degrees.

Place the beet and apple slices on a large roasting tin or pan.  Drizzle the olive oil and lemon juice over the beets and apples and toss to coat.  Season to taste.

Roast the beets and apples in the oven for about 20 minutes or so, tossing them after 10 minutes.  You can roast them until they are just tender, or a few more minutes until they are a little sticky and chewy.  Toss the walnuts in for the last 5 minutes of roasting.


Sunday, 2 October 2011

Ch-Ch-Changes (the Health Edition)

It's that time again, when the leaves turn orange and red, the air gets crisper, and I start to wax poetic about the bounty of the harvest.  Last time around this year, I thought the autumn was a good time to talk about transitioning to vegetarianism.  This time, I'm going to ask you all to put down the donuts, and think about transitioning to a more healthful diet.  Here are some hows and whys.

1.  Swap out your bread

This step comes first partly because it's essential to good health and partly because it's so easy. 20 years ago, dumping white bread for wholemeal might be tricky, but today you almost have to make a commitment to eating white bread to avoid wholemeal.  Supermarkets bread aisles are lined with wholemeal products, and even restaurants; heck, even fast food places will often offer you the option of wholewheat bread or pizza bases. So swap out your daily bread, pizza bases, breadcrumbs, pasta, bread wraps and tortillas, couscous, and pita bread for wholemeal breads and bread products.  And while you're at it, you should also oust white rice and replace it with chewy, nutty brown rice. 

2.  Green your life

Dark, leafy greens are the most healthful foods on the planet.  Nothing else holds a candle.  Kale, spinach, Swiss chard, beet greens, romaine lettuce, watercress, bok choy (pak choi), and collard greens are full of minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, and phytonutrients; in fact, the only thing they don't have a lot of is calories.  What's more, they are super easy to chuck into whatever you happen to be cooking.  Alternatively, you can saute them up with a little garlic and olive oil, or steam them and drizzle them with a simple lemon juice dressing and serve them on the side. Try to eat them every day and feel your body glow with greeny goodness.

34.  Olives are a whole food, oil is not

I know I said that we would talk about the dangers of using cooking oils rather than using the nuts, seeds, and fruits that they are sourced from in a later post, and I really meant it.  But for now, I'll just tell you that there are dangers when using cooking oils rather than using the nuts, seeds, and fruits that they are sourced from, so try not to do it.  In a salad dressing, use nut butters or grind up some nuts or seeds to mix in with the rest of your ingredients.  Saute vegetables in water or vegetable stock (or a combination of no more than one teaspoon of oil and water) and add olives, avocado, nuts or seeds later as a component of the dish.

4.  Don't eschew the cashew

This step is super fun and very delicious.  Dairy is dangerous to your health, but is much beloved, partly for it's creamy manifestations.  Cashews in particular are perfect for making healthy creams that don't involve saturated fat laden dairy.  Try cashew sour cream, cashew cream in replace of creme fraiche, or soft cashew "cheese" spreads instead of cream cheese.  The flavour is not the same as the dairy foods you are used to, but it doesn't need to be.  These creams are delicious, satisfying, and healthful in their own right.

5.  Five a day is a minimum

I know that it's very popular in the media right now to encourage people to aim for five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, but I just think five a day is so weak.  Yeah, most people aren't even reaching that meager goal, but the mediocrity of the masses should not be the ruler with which you use to measure yourself.  Aim for 10 servings a day, and you will certainly reach five.  Try to get a mixture of different kinds of vegetables: leafy greens, cruciferous veggies, root vegetables, starchy vegetables, and squashes.  Even better, try to eat as many different colours everyday as you can: dark green broccoli, red tomatoes, orange carrots, purple plums, and white parsnips.  Fans of Rainbow Brite will enjoy this endeavour.

6.  Make sugar a treat

And a treat only.  Eliminate this sneaky fiend from your regular diet. Sugar does absolutely nothing beneficial for your health.  Nothing.  Once or twice a week in a sweet treat, or on special occasions is fine, but cutting it out of your regular meals is essential to health.  Watch out for sugar in your peanut butter, canned tomato sauces, juices, and any and all processed foods. 

7.  Fix breakfast first

Overwhelmed by all the changes you have to make?   Fix one meal at a time, and start with breakfast.  Taking all the simple carbs, saturated and trans fat, animal protein, and dangerous processed additives out of one meal at time allows you to adjust slowly in bite-sized pieces of change.  Why breakfast first?  Well, for one thing, it's the easiest meal to fix, most people are used to eating a simple breakfast.  Secondly, it's the most import...oh, you don't want to hear that again.  Lets just say, try starting your day with a bowl of raisin and walnut porridge with no added sweeteners, and compare how you feel all morning to  how you feel when you start the day with a bowl of frosted flakes with some sugary flavoured yogurt on the side.

8.  Plan for snack attacks

We can all argue till we're blue in the face about the necessity of including snacks in our daily diet, but the bottom line is, at some point your train home is going to be delayed, or your boss is going to forget that he's not the only in the office who eats, or your roommate is going to eat your dinner when you aren't looking (Aga, I'm looking at you).  Keep some fruit (sturdy fruit not prone to juicing inappropriately), trail mix, or whole grain crackers in your bag or briefcase, and you won't storm and pillage the first pizza place you see when unplanned for hunger strikes.

9.  Become additive aware

Since becoming vegan, it's come to my attention that some people are really horrified by the prospect of reading labels to find out what's actually in a food product.  It's not that bad, people.  Get some reading glasses!  Anyhoo, we all need to be on the lookout for unnecessary unhealthful additives like sugar and it's various other names (glucose, dextrose, HFCS, etc), E numbers (i.e. E102), and hydrogenated oils.  Look out for subversive words like flavourings and colouring.  Food should be made up of ingredients that the average person can pronounce and find in their kitchen cupboards.

10.  Start your own nutrition mini-library

More reading, I know.  This one is partly for your own edification, and partly for motivation.  Reading books for nutrition has the obvious benefit of teaching you more about nutrition, but also when you find that you've lost your way and have gone back to chips and soda, you can read these books to remind you of how bad these foods are for your health, and why you made the change in the first place.  C'mon guys, reading nutrition books is fun!

11.  Tell everyone in your life what you are doing

Okay, your postman probably couldn't care less, but let your spouse, partner, roommate, best friends, coworkers, and family members know that you're trying to adopt a healthier diet; otherwise, they may unintentionally sabotage your diet by continually offering foods you shouldn't be eating, but find very hard to resist.  You will have to very specific; telling people that you are eating healthier and expecting them to understand exactly what you mean isn't going to work very well.  Tell them exactly what foods you are eating more of, and what foods you are avoiding.

Now, it may be the case that some people in your life will continued to try and sabotage your new diet even after this point, either because they aren't taking you seriously, or because they resent your new habits.  Sit these people down and tell them exactly why you are making the change.  Did you have a warning from your doctor?  Have you been feeling sluggish and ill?  Does your parent's failing health make you more attentive to your own?  Be direct and honest, and don't be intimidated by any one's attempt to belittle your choices.

12.  Remember that diet really does make a difference

There exists a common misperception that you can't really do much to control your own health; that genetics are the determining factor.  Bull.  Thousands of studies have confirmed that people who eat healthy diets live longer and have lower incidents of disease, and in fact, research suggests that genetics only determine about 2-3% of your total cancer risk.  So why do people from the same families get the same diseases?  Uh, because they eat the same diet?

13.  Consider the cost of an unhealthy diet

Eating an unhealthy diet doesn't just affect you and your life.  It doesn't even just affect your friends and family who have to deal with the emotional repercussions your bad heath, or even your death.  Everyone in your country has to pay for your illness.  Think of the relief on the healthcare system of your country if diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and autoimmune diseases stopped being a major problem.  Large drug companies get rich off of the high prevalence of these diseases and struggling taxpayers shoulder the burden.

14.  Don't get caught in the trap of thinking you have to "give everything good up"

How many times have you heard (or maybe said) some variation of the following statement:  "Sure, if you give up white flour, sugar, meat, cheese, saturated fat, donuts, cheesecake, and alcohol, you might live longer, but who would want to?"  This thought is a trap.  There is plenty of pleasure, even gleeful joy, in healthy eating.  Most healthy eaters I know love food way more than junk food junkies, and their love of food is broader and more adventurous.

Consider this passage from T Colin Cambpell's The China Study:  "Not long ago, one of my best friends suffered a difficult surgery for cancer and spent his last years paralyzed in a nursing home.  During the many visits I made to the nursing home, I never failed to come away with a deep appreciation for the health I still possess in my old age....The enjoyment of life, especially the second half of life, is greatly compromised if we can't see, if we can't think, if our kidneys don't work or if our bones are broken or fragile.  I, for one, hope that I am able to fully enjoy not only the time in the present, but also the time in the future, with good health and independence."  (Campbell 222)

15.  Give yourself time off

Don't worry, no one is expecting you to be a nutritional martyr.  Let yourself have a meal off every now and then.  Feel free to bake you and your friends some treats every other week or so.  Enjoy holidays and the treats that always surround them.  A little bit of most things won't kill you, but if you are ill or overweight aim for no more than 10% of your calories to come from unhealthful foods. 

Vital Vittles

Lunchbox Black Bean Burritos

I created these burritos one day when I was making my lunches for the week and trying to use up various things in my kitchen that looked like that were on their last legs (bad choice of phrase for a vegan burrito?)  Feel free to experiment with throwing different veggies into the mix, and add some guacamole if you are so inclined.

1 cup uncooked brown rice
2 cups water
1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro
juice of one lime
salt and pepper to taste

3 tbsp water
1 tsp olive oil
1 onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 carrot, peeled and grated
1 courgette, grated
1/2 cup corn (frozen, fresh, or canned)
1 can (or 1.5 cups) black beans, drained and rinsed
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1 small green chili, chopped, or a pinch of crushed chili flakes
salt and pepper to taste

3/4 cup raw cashews
2 tbsp lemon juice (or if you want to keep up the lime theme, lime juice)
1/4 cup water
salt to taste

4-6 wholewheat or corn tortillas

For the rice:

In a small, covered pot, bring the rice and water to a bowl and immediately lower to a simmer.  Cook until the rice is tender, about 45-50 minutes.  Once the rice is ready, mix in the cilantro and lime juice.  Taste and add a dash of salt and pepper if you like.

For the cashew sour cream:

Add the cashews, lemon or lime juice and water into a blender (if you only have an immersion or handheld blender, just use a tall container).  Blend until creamy, adding water if necessary. Salt to taste.

For the rice and vegetable mixture:

Heat the oil and water in a large frying pan, and add the onion, sauteing until soft (about 7 minutes.)  Add the garlic, and saute for another minute or so.  Add the cumin, coriander, and chili or chili flakes, and saute for 30 seconds, then add the carrot, courgette, and corn.  Saute the vegetable mixture another 5ish minutes, or until the veggies are soft.  Add the black beans and stir to heat through.  Taste, adjust seasonings.

Heat each tortilla wrap gently in a clean frying pan, just until warm and pliable.   Divide the rice evenly between each tortilla, then top with the veggies and bean mixture, then top with cashew cream (and guacamole, if you want).  Wrap and serve immediately.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Is a Vegan Diet too Expensive?

“I would eat vegetarian more often, but vegetables are so expensive.” “I can't afford to eat healthy.” “Don't vegan ingredients cost more than normal ones?” Even from vegetarians, I hear these attacks of irrationality: “our grocery bills wouldn’t be so expensive if we weren’t vegetarian,”or “it’s a sad state of affairs that meat is cheaper in this country than vegetables.” Um, no it isn’t. Granted, meat and dairy are subsidized in many countries by the government, which means that meat and dairy are much cheaper than they should be, but they still aren’t cheaper than their vegan alternatives. Stop spreading lies!

I wouldn't have thought that the fact that sources of animal protein tend be amongst the most expensive things on our shopping lists was any big secret.  If I were to make the bold claim that steak is more expensive than brown rice, I don't think I would shock anyone.  So I'm truly baffled when anyone claims that veganism, the base of which is vegetables (any kind you want, they don't have to be fancy), fruits (ditto), grains, beans, nuts, and spices, is more prohibitive in cost than omnivorous diets that use the most expensive items in your grocery store as their staples.  Saying that you would be vegan except that the diet is too expensive is like claiming that you would watch One Tree Hill but you don't think the show takes itself seriously enough.

To demonstrate this claim to those of you who are impudent enough to not just take my word for it, I’m going to compare a typical day of vegan fare to a day of typical omnivore fare. And before you get up in arms claiming that I’ve skewed the results to my own liking, I interviewed two (not one, two!) omnivores about their daily diets as the basis for my omnivore day, and used my own diet for the vegan day.

Although I love to shop at the farmer's market and rarely do my weekly shopping at a big supermarket, for the practical purposes of the post I’ve  used the website to price out the day on Tesco. I’ve generally chosen the cheapest option available, unless it was too budget even for me.

Typical Vegan Day

Breakfast: Porridge with Raisins and Walnuts

Morning Snack: 1 Apple

Lunch: Vegan Caesar Salad and North African Cauliflower Soup

Afternoon snack: 2 Plums

Dinner: Butternut Squash Timbales with Walnuts and Arborio Rice

Total cost of day: £2.70

Typical Meat Eater Day

Breakfast: Cereal with Milk

Morning snack: Banana

Lunch: Ham and Cheese Baguette

Afternoon snack: Individual Sized Yogurt

Dinner: Spaghetti Bolognese

Total cost of day: £4.32

You may notice that my vegan menu does not include so-called substitutes, and most people think these foods are more expensive than their animal alternatives.  But I've drawn up a little comparison to show that most vegan staple substitutes aren't really any more expensive than the cruelty-full items.
For example:
  • In the UK a stick of butter costs £1.60, or 64p per 100g.  A container of Pure vegan butter is £1.57, or 31.4p per 100g
  • A carton of 1.1 litres of cheap milk costs 89p, or 7.8p per 100ml, and a container of cheap soy milk costs 59p, or 5.9p per 100ml
  • Everyone who does eat dairy should only consume organic milk, aside from the ethical considerations, as the added hormones in regular milk are very questionable substances for your health.  From a gastronomic perspective, basic soy milk cannot hold a candle to higher quality soy milk brands, so I've compared the price of a carton of 1.1 litres of organic dairy milk: £1.10, or 9.7p/100ml, to the price of my favourite Alpro Original soy milk: £1.09 per litre, or 10.9p/100ml.
  • A 500g container of Onken yogurt costs 99p, or 19.8p per 100g.  A 500g container of Alpro yogurt costs £1.00, or 20p per 100g
  • While I wouldn't consider cream a basic some people do (especially you cream-loving Brits), so it's worth noting that a 300ml container of Tesco single cream costs £1.00, or 33.3p/100ml, compared to a 250ml container of Alpro soy single cream, which costs 74p, or 29.6p/100ml
You get the idea.  Sometimes a vegan product might cost a little more than the dairy alternative, but often the price is competitive.  The average price per gram/millilitre for the non-vegan items listed above comes out to 26.9p per 100 grams or millilitres.  The average price per gram/millilitre for the vegan items comes out to 19.5p per 100 grams or millilitres.  But of course you know that these processed substitutes shouldn't make up the bulk of your diet.

In my New Year's post, I mentioned that lentils and beans were the cheapest source of protein around.  Beans are not only nutritional powerhouses full of iron, protein, complex carbs, fibre, and micronutrients; they are not only versatile nutritional powerhouses; they are dirt cheap versatile nutritional powerhouses.  Despite all of the attention that soy gets, I think that most vegans consider beans to be their mainstay sources of protein.

Let's compare them to a standard source of comparatively cheap animal protein.  One 1.23Kg package of chicken thighs costs £3.00 or £2.44 per Kg (priced at Tesco).  A 400g can of kidney beans costs 24p, or 60p per kilogram.  Cans of beans are very cheap, but it's even cheaper to buy dried beans and cook them yourself.  While a 500g bag of kidney beans costs 79p, or £1.59 per Kg, in order to properly compare the price of canned and dried beans we must account for the drained weight of the cans and the cooked weight of the dried beans. Isn't this fun?  Would you judge me if I told you that I really think it is fun? 

Since the weight of the drained canned beans is about half the original weight, and the weight of the cooked dried beans is roughly double that of their dried weight, we can estimate this difference fairly accurately simply by doubling the price of the canned beans, and halving the price of the dried beans, meaning that the canned beans cost £1.20 per kilogram and the dried beans cost 76p per kilogram.  So dried beans are even cheaper than canned beans, and both are so much cheaper than the chicken it's silly. Dried beans are only a little more than one quarter of the price of cheap chicken!

I don't think that the perception that vegan foods are more expensive comes from the actual cost of vegetables, fruits, beans and grains, I think it comes from the prices at stores such as Whole Foods Market, Planet Organic, and other uber trendy, organic-esque halls of granola.  I've come to realize that many people believe that doing the bulk of your shopping at these over-priced hippy traps is a requirement for your annual vegan membership.  The uncomfortably well-groomed organic produce sold at Whole Foods et all is no more of a requirement for the vegan diet than it is for the omnivore diet.  Most vegans shop at the same stores that meat-eaters do (unless you do all your shopping at the butcher's), and only visit these shops every once in a while for hard to find specialty items.   

I have to confess, the cheapness of veganity uncovered in this post has amazed even me.  Go forth and buy beans. 


Butternut Squash Timbales with Walnuts and Arborio Rice

These little constructions of yum look and taste fancy enough to serve at a dinner party or holiday meal, but I've made them for weeknight suppers without much fuss.  The recipe is adapted only slightly from The Vegan Table.

2 cups of peeled and cubed butternut squash
2.5 cups vegetable stock
1 cup Arborio rice (this is the kind of rice used to make risotto)
1/2 tsp salt
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tbsp fresh parsley (2 tsp dried)
1 tsp fresh thyme
1-2 small sun-dried tomatoes
Black pepper
1/4 cup toasted, chopped walnuts
several leaves of dark greens such as kale or collard greens (about 2 per person)

Lightly oil 4 ramekins, mini-loaf pans, or smallish sized cereal bowls.  Note: this step is optional.  If you are making this dish for a weekday meal and aren't too fussed about presentation, you can just serve everything in a big old mess on a plate.

Steam or bake squash until just tender, about 10-12 minutes for steaming, 30 minutes for baking.

Bring stock and rice to a boil in a large saucepan.  Add salt, and reduce heat to low, cover and cook about 20 minutes, stirring often (the rice should ideally be tender with some liquid remaining).  Uncover, give a good stir, and take off heat.

In the meantime, toast the walnuts in a single layer on a small baking pan in the oven for about 5 minutes, or until fragrant.  Saute the greens in either water or a little olive oil in a frying pan.

Heat oil or water in a large frying pan over medium-high heat.  Saute onion until translucent and just browning.  Add garlic, parsley, and thyme, and stir for a few minutes.  Add the sun dried tomatoes and squash.  Remove from heat.
If serving in a big mess, simply arrange the greens on each plate, top with rice, then squash mixture, and then sprinkle with walnuts.

If serving fancy-like, place a quarter of the squash mixture in each ramekin/bowl, and press down to pack.  Top with 1/4 of the rice mixture, and press down firmly again.  Arrange the sauteed greens on each plate, and turn over each bowl/ramekin onto the bed of greens.  If the timbale doesn't come out on its own, gently run a knife around the edge to dislodge it.  Reshape carefully if needed.  Sprinkle with walnuts and black pepper to taste.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

I buy free-range eggs. So there's no problem, right?

A Wild Chicken
Despite having eaten plenty of them in my lifetime, I've always found eggs a little disturbing.  I mean, think about what an egg is, and think about what the human equivalent might be, and then think about eating that human equivalent.  Now do you feel like eating frittata tonight?  But I continued to eat eggs, partly out of habit and convenience, and partly because I couldn't really see a reason not to eat them.

Well, I've found some reasons.

Most of you probably already know what's wrong with battery farm eggs.  We've seen the images of the tiny cages, the dark, dismal barns, and the crowds of birds smothering each other, often resulting in injury and death.  We all know that in these systems, injured birds often go unnoticed, and are left to die a slow death while being trampled on by other birds.  We all know that sometimes the corpses of these birds are not removed quickly, disturbing and distressing the other birds, and spreading disease.

We all know that a hen living in one of the cramped cages will often suffer from osteoporosis, broken bones, and sores on her body.  We know that, despite being a very social animal, she will be cut off from any contact with other birds.  We know that the feces from other birds will drop down on her constantly.  We know that she will never see daylight.

You all ready have all of this information, so I didn't need to tell you. When I first saw the images of caged hens, I did the same thing a lot of other people did.  I felt a wave of guilt, and started buying free range eggs instead. I thought the problem was largely solved.  Was it?  Is there a problem with free-range eggs?

Well, for starters, although hens would normally live more than 10 years, in the egg-laying industry they are considered spent (a charming expression) after 1-2 years, and are sent to die an unimaginably cruel death in a slaughterhouse.  Just as with the dairy industry, the egg industry props up the meat industry, and anyone who has a problem with the meat industry must qualifying have a problem with the egg industry.

Unbeknownst to many, the free-range label also doesn't mean a heck of a lot.  In the USA, in order to label their eggs free-range, a farm simply has to open a window or a door for some part of the day.  The cramped conditions can remain the same, the unbearable temperatures can remain the same, everything else stays the same.  Does anyone really think that the hens care or even notice whether or not a window is open?  In Canada, there is no regulation whatsoever on what gets labelled free-range.

In the UK, regulations are a little stricter, but the living (and dying) conditions for these birds are still a cruel joke.  Under UK law, free-range birds supposedly have access to the outside throughout the day, and under European Union law, each bird must have 4 square metres of space in the open-air range.  Inside the barn, hens may be "stocked" (another charming expression) at a density of 9 hens per square metre.

In free-range systems, there are several factors that make regulations ineffective. The first of these factors should be obvious: farmers don't always do what they are told.  Undercover investigations have shown farms that proudly proclaim the term free-range, or even Freedom Food stamps from the RSPCA, blatantly disregarding the rules of these terms, keeping the birds in cramped conditions, failing to remove the corpses of dead birds, and allowing injury and disease to run rampant.  

Undercover operations have taken video footage of some of these farms, and some of that footage is available for you to see.  The UK group Viva! and Sky News have done an expose on a free range farm here.  Five News has done an expose on a free range farm in Norfolk that can be found here, and the sanctuary Peaceful Prairie has done a video on free-range farming in the US that can be found here.

A Wild Hen and Her Chicks
Although chickens are social animals, the flocks that farms keep them in are unnaturally large, and large flocks result in aggression in some of the birds.  Aggressive birds will often guard the opening to the open air range, stopping other birds from getting outside, and keeping them in the cramped conditions indoors.  As a consequence, many of the birds will rarely, if ever, see the outdoors.

Another consequence of aggression in these birds is a tendency towards pecking, which is not as cute as it sounds.  Aggressive birds will give other hens sores and defeather them by pecking at them.  They may also engage in cannibalistic behaviour that sometimes causes these birds to wound other birds fatally.  This destructive pecking is stereotypic behaviour that occurs because of the stressful conditions the birds are kept in; it is not natural behaviour.

In order to combat pecking, one of the cruelest practices in chicken egg farming is almost universally used in free range systems.  At a young age, each hen will have her beak seared off with a hot blade.  Hen's beaks have a large nerve supply, and debeaking is a painful process that will often stop a hen from engaging in natural behaviour such as preening, indicating that she feels the pain of the hot blade long after the procedure has been completed.

Rats, mice, and red mite infestations can run rampant in free range systems, causing panic in flocks, often leading to hens been trampled and suffocating to death.  These infestations spread disease, and make the hens stressed, increasing aggressive pecking behaviour.  
In our society, baby chicks are admired not only for their fuzzy and adorable appearance, but also as symbols of innocence, youth, and spring fertility.  Most people would agree that to hurt one of these sweet birds would be an act of incredible brutality.  But what happens to these male chicks is perhaps the most shocking aspect of egg farming, and this aspect is something that occurs across the board in every single kind of egg farm: battery farms, free range farms, or organic farms.  Considered useless by the egg-farming industry, each male chick is killed at one to two days old.  Many are killed by being thrown alive into a macerator that grinds them alive.  Many are gassed to death.  Many are killed by being thrown alive into a garbage and left to suffocate.  

If you feel compelled to eliminate eggs from your diet after reading this information, great.  If you feel disturbed by the information, but are not ready to completely stop eating eggs, don't bother buying into the clever marketing lie known as free range eggs.  Just eat fewer eggs, and keep your mind open to the possibility of an egg-free life.

DEFRA, "Code of Recommendations for the Welfare of Livestock: Laying Hens," London: DEFRA, 2002.
DEFRA, "The Welfare of Hens in Free Range Systems," London: DEFRA, 2001.
Farm Animal Welfare Council, "Report on the Welfare of Laying Hens," London: FAWC, 1997.
The Vegan Society, "Hens and Eggs," Birmingham: The Vegan Society, accessed July 2011.
United Poultry Concerns, "Chickens," Machipongo: UPC, accessed July 2011.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

What's the deal with B12?

It's said by some that in in the vegan community the issue of vitamin B12 is sometimes swept under the carpet, or mentioned as an afterthought.  The vegan diet has a lot going for it from a health perspective, including lower rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and autoimmune diseases, and a good vegan diet will have ample amounts of all nutrients, but there is one dastardly little vitamin that escapes a plant-based diet: vitamin B12.  Yes, it's true.  The vegan diet is lacking in one nutrient.  And the kicker is that we need such a tiny amount of it.  In a whole lifetime, the average person only needs about 40 milligrams of B12!  But I personally don't think we should ignore this problem and pretend it's not there, but rather bring the issue out into the forefront.  Everyone starting out as a vegan needs to be aware of the need to either consume B12 fortified foods, or take a supplement.
When I first starting contemplating veganism, I was well-aware that vegans needed to supplement with B12.  But it was only when I was collecting a plethora of positive health claims about veganism that I started to wonder why.  Why would such a tiny nutrient, required in only micrograms a day, be left out of this otherwise incredibly healthy diet?  So I looked the subject up, and here's what I found.

B12 is not inherent in animal products.  It grows on bacteria.  Meat is rich in bacteria because the bacteria is attracted to...dead flesh.  Aren't we all?  The story goes that herbivore animals usually obtain B12 from eating their own feces.  Now, apparently in communities where a plant-based diet is the norm, such as in certain parts of India, B12 deficiency does not seem to occur; however, when people from these cultures migrate to more developed countries, they develop a deficiency.  The culprit appears to be our "lifeless" soil that has been overly sterilised from pesticides, herbicides, and chemicals.  Since B12 is produced by bacteria, it doesn't seem to want to grow in this squeaky clean soil.  Studies have also noted that countries such as India often seem to have water that is contaminated with bacteria, including bacteria from feces, and that B12 is sometimes obtained from that water.

Personally, upon hearing that my options are either eating bacteria-ridden dead flesh, my own feces, or drinking water contaminated with other people's feces, my reaction is, um, I'll take the little supplement pill, thanks.  I don't know about you.

Some people have suggested that several plant-based sources of B12 might be used instead, including seaweeds and our own intestinal bacteria, but none of them have been found to be very reliable sources so far.  There is some evidence that organic produce, a certain type of algae, or tempeh might turn out to be reliable, but at the moment, the best we know is that vegans should take either a supplement, or be sure to eat sufficient amounts of B12 fortified food.  I myself take a supplement.  I don't want to be bothered to try and drink a certain amount of non-dairy milk a day, and I don't eat a lot of meat analogues, nutritional yeast, or breakfast cereals, which are the foods typically fortified with B12.  If you are abstaining from both meat and dairy, you really need to be doing one of the following: eat fortified foods with at least 3 micrograms of B12 per day, take a B12 supplement of 10 micrograms a day, or take weekly supplement of 2000 micrograms.*

Even though it's true that many people have a built up store of B12 for several years when they first become vegan, assuming that you are one of these people is not very wise.  Overt B12 deficiency is no sweeping-under-the-carpet matter; it can ultimately result in blindness, deafness, or dementia.  Early symptoms can include fatigue and a tingling in the hands and feet.  Mild B12 deficiency may not come along with any symptoms, but will cause elevated levels of homocysteine, which increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. 

If there is any tendency in the vegan community to keep quiet about the need for B12, I think it may be due to the concern that in lacking one little vitamin, veganism might seem like an "unnatural" diet.  I think this supposition is illogical on three counts.  First of all, vegans are not the only people who get B12 deficiency.  Lacto-ovo vegetarians and meat-eaters also suffer from it.  In fact, doctors recommend that people older than 50 years take a B12 supplement anyway.  Secondly, while we don't know for sure, the evidence certainly seems to suggest that our soil is the problem, not the vegan diet.  Thirdly, and here's the part where I give these members of the vegan community a little tough love, who cares?  Don't monkey around with your health like that!  You're worried that people won't think veganism is a natural diet?  What does a natural diet even mean?  None of us are eating what our cave people ancestors ate.  We've moved past that.  And I think we need to give people a little credit.  If people are compelled by the ethical reasons of veganism, have heard of all of the fantastic health benefits, and they're at the point where they think they might be willing to actually change their diet, they're not going to be dissuaded from doing so by the fact that they have to take a pill once a week.  And if they are, they were never serious about the change in the first place.

Vegans should be supplementing with B12, and we don't need to make this recommendation in a whisper.  Take the supplement, and tell others to take the supplement.  Unhealthy vegans are a much worse advertisement for veganism than a pill.  And keep in mind that when you are taking that supplement, you are missing the saturated fat, unhealthy animal protein, trans fat, and cholesterol that come along with the B12 in meat and dairy.

*click here to see a complete list of age appropriate B12 recommendations.

Vital Vittles

Vegan Caesar Salad

Since we're talking about a nutrient that's not really food based, there isn't really a related recipe.  So instead I'm giving you Alicia Silverstone's recipe for vegan caesar salad, only slightly modified, because I've been obsessed with it lately.  It's quite salty and tart, so if you're sensitive to these tastes, you might want to add the mustard and soy sauce sparingly.  The original recipe can be found in The Kind Diet, (UK), (Can).

1/2 tsp dried rosemary
1/4 tsp sea salt
3-4 slices wholemeal bread, cut into cubes
Olive oil

2 tbsp blanched or roasted almonds
3 garlic cloves, minced
1.5 tbsp mustard
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp tahini
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp olive oil

1 large head romaine lettuce, washed, torn and patted dry

Preheat the oven to 325 F/160 C.  Toss together the bread cubes, rosemary, and salt in a large bowl.  Drizzle with olive oil, and then toss again.  Spread bread cubes onto a baking sheet and bake for 10-15 minutes, or until dry and toasted.  Cool completely.

Combine the almonds, garlic, mustard, soy sauce, tahini, lemon juice, and oil together in a food processor or blender, process until well-blended.

Toss the lettuce, croutons, and dressing together in a serving bowl.  Serve immediately.

Campbell, T. Colin, The China Study:The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-term Health. Dallas: BenBella Books, 2006.
National Institutes of Health, "Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Vitamin B12,", accessed 17 May 2011.
Norris, Jack, R.D., "B12: Are you getting it?", accessed 17 May 2011.
Norris, Jack, R.D., "What every vegan should know about B12,", accessed 17 May 2011.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

What do I need to give up and how do I do it? A guide to vegan substitutes

When people are contemplating veganism, I don't think it's any secret that a lot of people get stuck dwelling on what they have to "give up."  The popular public perception of vegans is one of asceticism; apparently we all sit around joylessly chewing on dry spinach leaves, waiting for Anna Wintour to walk by in her fur coat, so that we can throw red paint on her (c'mon, who wouldn't throw red paint at Anna Wintour?)

I assume that you, dear reader, are informed enough on the subject to know that there is an amazingly broad world of delicious vegan food out there.  But I know that plenty of people still get confused, and even a little scared, at the prospect of giving up food that they have eaten since childhood, and a lot of people aren't really sure what exactly vegans do or do not eat.

OK, so, here is the basic lesson.  Vegans do not eat meat, fish, eggs, dairy, and some do not eat honey.  In this post I will explain and recommend some substitutions for these products; as well as, put your minds at ease regarding some items of confusion.  Some of the products I'll recommend to you will be things that I haven't tried myself, but that are so highly regarded in the vegan community that I feel pretty confident in including them.  The recommendations are as multi-regional as I can make them.

Let's start with the easy stuff.  Milk: Substitutes for milk are Plentiful with a capital P.  There are many different kinds: soy milk, rice milk, oat milk, almond milk, hemp milk, hazelnut milk, quinoa milk...I'm sure I've left some out.  If you don't like one, keep trying others.  Soy milk is most common, and is still my favourite, especially for putting in my tea and coffee. Note that while many people find the initial taste of soy a little off-putting, after drinking soy milk regularly, they either don't notice the same taste anymore, or they start to enjoy it.
Brand:  Quality varies hugely from brand to brand, even for the same variety of milk.  In the UK, I would recommend Alpro Soy Milk (I'm particularly fond of the long-life original), Rice Dream, So Good, and Oatly.  In Canada and the States, I would recommend Silk and Rice Dream.
Uses: Pretty much the same as dairy milk.
Where to buy:  Soy milk is available EVERYWHERE, even corner shops and gas stations.  I really doubt that you live somewhere with no access to soy milk.  Rice milk is probably the second most common, and can often still be found in your regular grocery store.  For other varieties, try a health food store.

Butter:  Butter is easily substituted by margarine, or canola oil in baking.  Be careful when you are buying margarine, most brands use some amount of milk as a cheap filler or texture regulator. 
Brands:  In the UK, I buy Pure, which comes in either a soy version or a sunflower version.  In Canada and the States, I haven't ever tried it, but I've heard many, MANY recommendations for Earth Balance. 
Uses:  Same as dairy butter.  Canola oil works very well in many baked good recipes.
Where to buy: Your regular grocery store.  In the UK canola oil is usually labelled as rapeseed oil or just vegetable oil.

Eggs: Replacing eggs in cooking in baking is probably a large enough subject that I'll do a separate post on it one day, so I won't really go into detail here.  In cooking, tofu is often used to substitute eggs successfully in a variety of different dishes.  In baking, a multitude of techniques exist, including a mixture of baking powder/soda and vinegar, a commercial egg replacer, flax gel, or fruit puree such as applesauce or mashed banana.

Meat: This topic also begs it's own post, so this is a very brief overview.  Meat is sometimes very successfully replicated, sometimes not.  I would recommend veggie burgers, vegan sausages, and ground/minced not-beef pretty confidently.  However, if you are looking to replicate having a hunk of meat at the centre of your plate, meat substitutes might be a little hit and miss.  Besides commercial meat subs, try tofu, tempeh, and seitan as the hunk of meaty protein in your meal (again I will do a separate post on these items).
Brands:  In the UK, try Redwood, Fry's, and Goodlife.  Quorn and Cauldron, the major meat substitutes available in UK grocery stores are NOT vegan, and have outright rejected proposals develop a vegan line (should this make us suspicious of their ethical motives?  I think so).  In Canada and the States, Yves veggie burgers and veggie ground round are pretty dead on replicates of fast food burgers and ground cow, but without the blood and gristle.  You should also try Gardein and Boca products. 
Where to Buy:  Try your local healthfood store for Redwood and Fry's.  Goodlife can be found in Waitrose.  Yves, Gardein, and Boca can be found at regular grocery stores.

Cheese: Oh, the quest to find a true cheese replicate.  I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but again, cheese deserves it's own post.  Cheese subs also vary hugely in quality from brand to brand, and work best as a component of a meal, rather than as the focus.  Cheese subs are often made from soy, rice, and nuts.  You can also make your own substitutes at home (try Joanne Stepaniak's The Uncheese Cookbook, UK, CAN).
Brands: In the UK, I quite like Cheezly, although I think differing opinions exist.  Scheese is also controversial, while I haven't tried it, I've really good things about their cheddar subs, and really bad things about their blue cheese subs.  Tofutti makes a cream cheese substitute that'll do.  In Canada and the States, I've heard good things about Daiya, Follow your Heart, and the pricier Dr. Cow.
Where to Buy:  Tofutti, Cheezly, and Scheese are both available in health food stores, Cheezly more widely that Scheese.  Daiya is available in health food stores in Canada, and I think more widely available in the US.

Yogurt: Soy yogurt is a good substitute for dairy yogurt, and I think you won't notice much of a difference.  I've heard rave reviews of coconut milk yogurt, which I haven't found yet in the UK.
Brands:  In the UK, Alpro yogurt is the standard, and comes both in large tubs of plain, and individual servings of flavoured. In the States, I've heard recommendations for So Delicious Coconut Yogurt.  In both Canada and the States, Silk has a soygurt product.
Where to buy: Alpro and Silk are ubiquituously available. 

Mayonaise:  Commerical non-dairy mayos are good replicas.  You can also try making your own, just search online for a recipe.
Brands:  In the UK, Plamil makes a variety of different vegan mayos.  In Canada and the States, Vegenaise is the gold standard.
Where to buy:  Plamil is sold in health food stores.  Your local chain grocery store will probably carry vegan mayo in their Free From aisle.  Veganaise is widely available.

Sour Cream:  Sour cream is also something that can be made at home using tofu or ground up cashews and lemon juice.  Like I said before, yogurt can be substituted for several different uses, such as a dollop in your borscht.
Brands: Tofutti makes a non-dairy sour cream I haven't tried but that seems to be well-liked.
Where to buy: Health food store.

Now that we're done with the obvious stuff, here's the confusing stuff:

Bread: Vegans eat bread.  99% of the bread available is probably vegan, but occasionally milk products are used as cheap filler, so check the ingredients list just in case.  Note: egg bread contains eggs.

Chocolate: Fear not, you will not have to put down the chocolate, but you might have to switch brands.  Good quality dark chocolate will almost never contain any milk products, but crappy dark chocolate brands sometimes use it again filler.  I don't want to blow anybody's mind, but milk chocolate contains milk.  In terms of baking with chocolate, or making hot chocolate at home, you won't notice a difference, as cocoa powder is vegan.  Cocoa butter, in case the inclusion of the word butter incites confusion, is also vegan.  Smile.

Peanut butter:  This misconception is a pet peeve of mine.  Peanut butter DOESN'T CONTAIN ANY BUTTER!  On the same note, neither does apple butter, pumpkin butter, or other similar foods wherein butter is used to refer to the texture, not the ingredients.

Pizza bases, pre-prepared pastry, and other surprises:  Traditional Italian pizza bases never, ever contain dairy or eggs, but we here in the modern world are in the business of bastardising other cultures' cuisine, so check with your local pizza place to make sure.  Phyllo pastry is also traditionally and typically vegan.  Surprisingly enough, in the UK, Jus-Rol makes vegan puff pastry and shortcrust pastry, and in Canada and the US, Pepperidge farm frozen puff pastry is vegan as well. 

In short, check the label, and you might be surprised what is vegan.  Of course, sometimes you might be surprised at what isn't.  But no matter what the product is, chances are, someone has come along to make a vegan version.

If anyone reading this has any brand recommendations, feel free to add them in the comments.  Next time we revisit this subject, I'll talk about vegan clothing and other inedible products.  Excited?


Asparagus and Thyme Quiche-ish

This recipe is timely for this post for two ways: one, the very short asparagus season is in swing right now; grab 'em while you can.  Two, this recipe is a good example of a way to create an equally pleasing vegan version of a traditional, non-vegan dish.

For the pastry:
3/4 cup whole wheat flour (whole wheat pastry flour if you have it)
1/2 cup white flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup vegan margarine
1/4 cup ice cold water

For the filling:
1 tbsp olive oil, or water
1 leek, sliced into half-moons
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch asparagus, chopped into inch-ish long pieces*
1 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 of a 420g package of extra-firm tofu (not silken)
3/4 cup non-dairy milk
2.5 tbsp flour
1 tbsp nutritional yeast flakes (optional)

For the pastry, combine the two flours and salt in a mixing bowl.  Divide the margarine into small chunks, and toss into the flour mixture, and work quickly with your fingers or a pastry cutter to combine until small crumbs form.  Sprinkle in the water a few spoonfuls at a time, and combine until the dough holds together in a firm ball.  Refrigerate until you are ready to use it.

Preheat the oven to 375/190 degrees.  Heat the oil in a medium sized pan, and add the leeks and garlic.  Saute for 5 minutes or so, until soft.  Add the asparagus, thyme and 1/4 tsp salt, and saute for another five minutes or so, or until the asparagus is tender-crisp.

Blend together the tofu, non-dairy milk, flour, 1/4 tsp salt, and nutritional yeast, until smooth.  You can do this with either a food processor or a hand-held immersion blender.  Combine the tofu mixture with the leek and asparagus mixture.

Roll out the pastry on a floured surface and place it into a pie plate.  Prick some holes in the bottom of the crust with a fork, make the edges of the crust look as fancy as you like, and then add the filling, and bake for 45 minutes, or until the filling is set and the pie pleasingly golden.

*to stem the woody ends of asparagus easily, bend the lower half of each stalk with your hands.  The stalk will naturally and crisply snap right where the woody part ends.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Why won't those wacky vegans eat cheese?

"Ok," people say to vegans, "I get the idea behind not eating meat.  But dairy?  How on earth can you give up cheese?"

This post details the ethical problems with dairy, and the powerful industry that's painting milk across the upper lips of teen idols and pouring it into our cereal bowls.  While I think that there is a plethora of scientifically sound reasons to give up dairy for health reasons, I'll talk about those in a different post.

I can hear you rolling your eyes.  And I can hear you thinking, "milk is a natural food.  Cows give it to us naturally.  They need to be milked; farmers are doing them a favour.  And cheese is awesome." I can hear you, because these thoughts are all things I thought myself before I discovered the truth behind the cheese.

Natural, eh?  We are the only species on earth that drinks the breast milk of another species, and the only species that continues to drink this breast milk past infancy.  Doesn't that sound kind of...icky?  And certainly not natural.  Lactose intolerance is often referred to as some kind of disease or condition, but in fact, we stop producing the enzyme that our body needs to properly digest milk around the age of 18, because we aren't supposed to be drinking it anymore. If you are lactose intolerant, you don't have a special medical condition, your body is just behaving the way it should.

When I was a LO vegetarian, I thought that cows needed to be milked, or else they would be in physical pain.  Someone told me this once, (probably one of my parents, I don't really remember), and I just believed them.  And I think most people are told this pleasant fiction at some point or another, and most people just accept it as fact.  Why does the cow need to be milked?  That part we don't really think too hard about.  Cows are just milk machines, right?

We don't think too hard about why cows need to be milked, because the idea that cows produce milk for no reason is a load of bull.  Cows don't constantly produce a never ending stream of milk just waiting to be turned into your next pint of Ben and Jerry's.  They are artificially impregnated 90 days after they give birth, every time that they give birth, so that they can be constantly milked with the use of an artificial insemination instrument called a rape rack. Think of the stress that a human female body undergoes from just one pregnancy, and now imagine that she is forced to undergo this every year, with no time to recover, and no choice.

This photo comes from Blaikiewell Animal Sanctuary
Dairy cows are fed Bovine Grown Hormone (BGH), a synthetic hormone developed to produce more milk, and through a combination of messing around with their genetics and intensive production technology they produce 100lb of milk a day, which is ten times more than they would normally produce with a natural pregnancy.  A dairy cow is often forced to produce so much milk that her swollen udder will drag on the floor.

After about 3-6 years of this unnatural cycle, the cows are spent.  Normally a cow would live to about 25 years of age, but in the dairy industry when a cow stops producing milk, she is sold for meat and sent for slaughter.  The dairy industry props up the meat industry in a very real way.

A dairy cow is hooked up to a milking machine several times a day.  The constant stress of this unnatural cycle will put her at risk for numerous health problems, including Bovine Leukemia Virus, Bovine Immunodeficiency Virus, and Johne's disease (which is like the human Crohn's disease).  This milking machine will suck her udders dry and often transmit bacterial infections to her, such as the very painful infection of the udders called mastitis.

Do you like drinking pus?  Good.  Because thanks to mastitis, a condition from which 30% of all British dairy cows suffer, pus is in your milk.  Under governmental regulations 400 million pus cells are allowed into every litre of milk.  If this disgusts you for your sake, think of the cow that has to put up with having her swollen, infected udder sucked dry several times a day, every day of her life, until she is sent to slaughter. 

The dairy industry, like any profitable industry, is a business.  Businesses are after money, and the welfare of cows will never be more important in a dairy farm than the financial bottom line.  Therefore, cows will always be treated as machines, not living, sentient beings.  In one type of milking system, cows are confined to windowless sheds and chained by the neck for the duration of their lives.  In another, they are crowded into outdoor enclosures where they must continuously stand or lie on feces and urine caked soil.  Their painful medical problems often go unnoticed and untended; the cows simply suffer through infections, illnesses, and injuries.  Investigators have documented that animals who are so sick or injured that they are unable to walk or even stand are routinely beaten, dragged, or pushed with bulldozers in attempts to move them to slaughter.
I am by no means a maternal person, but the part of the dairy industry that affects me the most is the manipulated of the relationship between mother cows and their calves.  The bond between a mother and child is undoubtedly one of the most sacred, primitive, and natural in our society, and as egocentric as our species can be, we all recognise that we as humans do not have a monopoly on this bond.  We know that this bond exists between all mothers and their offspring, regardless of species.

So if cows are continuously impregnated, what happens to their calves?  The calves produced by these pregnancies are taken away from their mothers immediately after birth.  The females will be used as dairy cows.  The males will be kept in unthinkable conditions for a few weeks, and then sold for veal meat or other beef.  Mother cows, normally docile, will fight against their calves being taken away from them, and will search and call out for their children for days after they are taken away.  The painful image of mother cows frantically calling out for their children affects me and stays with me the most, possibly because in the end, it would be better for her really to not know what happened to her child.

So, I don't think that milk is a natural food.  I don't think that cows give it to us freely.  And I don't think that farmers are doing them a favour.

Ethical Eats

Vegan Blueberry Pancakes

Tomorrow is Pancake Tuesday, and don't think that vegans have to opt out of it!  Here is a dairy free, egg free recipe for delicious blueberry pancakes.  Please note these are in the style of the fluffier Canadian pancakes, rather than the more crepe-like British pancakes.  Blueberries aren't in season right now, so look in the freezer section of your local store for frozen berries.  Of course you can substitute any kind of berries you like, or take them out completely if you have something against fiber and phytonutrients.  Double the recipe for a family.

1 cup plain flour (or 1/2 cup plain flour and 1/2 cup whole-wheat)
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1 Tablespoon sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup soy milk
2.5 Tablespoons canola oil (also known as rapeseed oil)
1/2 cup thawed blueberries

Combine flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt in a mixing bowl.  Stir in soy milk and oil, and mix until just combined (lumps are ok). Gently fold in the blueberries.

Heat a frying pan on medium-high heat, and add a small amount of oil.  I use a 1/4 cup measure to spoon out the batter into the frying pan.  Cook about 2-3 minutes on each side, bubbles will form on the top side.  Flip, and cook 2 minutes on the other side.  Don't worry if the fist pancake looks a little funky, the first pancake in any batch of pancakes you will ever make is usually a "throwaway" pancake.  Except I throw it away by eating it while the others are cooking.

Top with more fresh fruit, maple syrup, non-dairy margarine, brown rice syrup, jam (preferably sugar free), or applesauce.

Butler, Justine, White Lies, Bristol: Vegetarian and Vegan Foundation, 2006.  Available at
Farm Animal Welfare Council, "Report on the Welfare of Dairy Cattle," LFAC, 1997.  Available at
Farm Sanctuary, The Welfare of Cattle in Dairy Production, NY: Farm Sanctuary, 2006.  Available at
Vernelli, Toni, The Dark Side of Dairy: A report on the UK Dairy Industry, Bristol: Viva!, 2005.  Available at