Sunday, 9 December 2012

"Everybody knows, Tofurkey and some mistletoe..." A Guide to a Vegan Christmas

Tradition is pretty comforting. As Tevye tells us, tradition reminds us of who we are and have been. Change is terrifying. So it's no surprise to me that people don't like to imagine changing their traditions in the name of protecting animals.  And so many of our holiday traditions are centered around animal flesh and bodily...outputs, that the idea of changing these rituals, ingrained in and treasured by us since early childhood, seems unnerving or even ridiculous.  It's one thing to say that you believe that animals have the right to roam, fly and snooze as they please.  It's quite another to give up the Christmas turkey and chocolate orange you've looked forward to all year for as long as you can remember.
I love Christmas.  And I love tradition.  And I understand these fears completely.  But I think traditions, like everything else, are in flux. Maybe that's a depressing thought to you, but traditions can be modified to reflect the you that you are now.  So those of you who are experiencing your first vegetarian or vegan Christmas, I hope the following post will help your transition be a little easier.  Relatives of vegans may find some helpful ideas below for incorporating vegan food into their usual menu, and even if you're just leaning towards veganism, you might find some ideas for increasing the vegetable ratio of your Christmas.
1.  Replacing the Turkey.  Finding another option for the big dead bird in the centre of your table is probably the most stressful, or unimaginable part of a vegan Christmas for most people.  But there are plenty of delicious options!

  •      Vegetable Pot Pie.  When I'm cooking Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner, the Winter Vegetable Pot Pie from Moosewood Celebrates is my absolute favourite.  The original recipe is not vegan, but I simply replace the butter with a vegan margarine, and omit the haverti cheese.  See my recipe below. There are lots of different pot pie recipes that might be to your liking. I like this option partly because it's a nice, pleasing big centrepiece in the middle of your table, that provides a focal point, just like a turkey. 

  • Nut Roast.  Maybe you've heard some mocking in the media about this vegan holiday standby. Forget everything you've heard, my friends! Nut roasts are deliciously delicious!  For years now, my mother has made a really lovely nut roast with pine nuts and cashews, with a tomato gravy to go on top. I don't actually understand what sounds bad about a nut roast. Nuts. Roasted. Um, yes?

  • Tofurkey.  You're all making a face, aren't you? If nut roasts receive mocking... Tofurkey is the classic vegan "meat" in the form and flavour of a turkey.  I tried one once.  It's not the kind of thing I'm really crazy about, but if you're in that transitional phase of craving animal flesh, you might find Tofurkey the thing for you. Plus, then you get to say the word tofurkey a lot.

  • Stuffed Squash, Pumpkin, or Sweet Potatoes.  Baked starchy veggies filled with grain, spices, dried fruits and nuts...delicious, nutritious, and all familiar food. And also really easy to make super pretty.

  • No Main Dish.  You can skip trying to find an edible centrepiece, plop your kid's weird Christmas art project in the middle of your table instead, and just have a plethora of delicious, familiar, vegan side dishes.  Just make sure you make enough to feel disgustingly full afterwards.
2.  Side Dishes.  This is the easy part.  Most of your usual side dishes are probably already vegan or effortlessly veganised.  Use Pure, Vitalite, Earth Butter, or olive oil instead of butter.  Soy, almond, hazelnut, rice, oat, or coconut milk instead of cow's milk.  Pick up almost any vegetarian cookbook you will see an amazing array of delicious options, both traditional and creative.  Roasted veggies, sweet potato casserole, mashed potatoes, garlic green beans, cranberry sauce...YUM.  Here are a few classic things you might want to think about:
  • Stuffing:  Its so easy to make your traditional stuffing vegetarian.  Just cover it in vegetable stock and bake it in the oven.  I promise you it's delicious this way. And if you want to step outside the traditional bread stuffing (um, why?), I've seen many tempting stuffing recipes with nuts, dried fruit, apples, even vegan sausage!

  • Gravy.  Again, it's so easy to make a good vegan gravy.  You can use miso, soy sauce, nutritional yeast, onions, mushrooms, or even just a good vegetable stock as your base, and you will not feel at all deprived of the fat laden animal-based version. And no one has to drink the fat.
3.  Dessert.  Most any dessert can be veganised with a little creativity.  There are so many options I can't even list them all here.  If you are looking for a traditional Christmas pudding recipe, try the one on The Vegan Society's website, found here.  For a cream or custard option, Apro makes a nice soy custard option in both vanilla and chocolate.  You can try soy cream, oat cream, or even coconut cream!  Think about a cranberry and orange cake, poached pears in cinnamon red wine sauce, a chocolate and cranberry tart, or a trifle with soy custard or cashew cream. Oooh, I'm thinking about all of those things right now.

4.  Christmas Cookies.  Who doesn't love a Christmas cookie?  It's even fun to say.  There are about 1,690,313 vegan cookie recipes online.  If you want to veganise your traditional recipes, here's a crash course in vegan baking:  for butter, use margarine or canola oil.  For milk, use...non-dairy milk. For eggs, in cookies try either a good quality egg replacer, flax gel (1 tbsp ground flax/linseeds mixed with 1 tbsp of water), or use a pre-existing recipe for vegan cookies that doesn't use a replacement as your guide for ratios.  And try my super simple, healthy and delicious recipe for date rolls below.  For your gingerbread needs, look at these adorable gingerbread men from PPK (Post Punk Kitchen).

5.  Stuff your sorries in a sock!  Also known as stocking stuffers.  Candy canes, apples, oranges...already vegan! For some vegan milk chocolate ideas, try MooFree vegan chocolate. The make kid friendly, cute milk chocolates with rice milk. They also make a vegan advent calendar that I was VERY pleased to purchase.  You can also use hard candy, vegan trail mix, roasted nuts, or dark chocolates.

6.  Chocolates. Gifts of chocolate truffles are an unavoidable part of Christmas. Obviously, I don't mean unavoidable in a bad way.  Try Booja Booja truffles, Green and Blacks dark selection, or Allison's Gourmet Vegan Truffles.  Turkish Delight, although not chocolate, is another nice option that's usually vegan. You may also find that conventional chocolate shops or sellers have a range of dark chocolates that will be vegan. BUT, please don't just assume that dark chocolates are vegan, you really have to check the label to make sure there are no milk products, eggs, or gelatin in the chocolates or the fillings. And of course, you can just make your own chocolates and truffles. There are a gazillion recipes online for this purpose.

Here's the bottom line. Christmas traditions like turkey, roast beef, or chocolate oranges are completely arbitrary. They have no connection whatsoever to the birth of Jesus, or the winter solstice, or whatever you believe the real origins of this holiday to be. And they are replaceable with equally delicious alternatives that in time will come to mean as much to you, and that you will look forward to just as much. There's nothing inherently wrong with arbitrary traditions, but I think I'd like some traditions in my life that mean something to me. I'd like the tradition in my household of valuing life, my own, and that of all the other animals. Perhaps you, Dear Reader, would like to teach your children that in your house it's more important to have compassion than to have turkey. I think that sounds more like a tradition worth handing down the generations than bread cooked in a turkey's rear end.

Peace to all creatures on Earth.

Ethical Eats!

Winter Vegetable Pie

This recipe is one of my favourites. It's fairly time consuming, so I only make it a couple of times a year, but I dream about it the rest of the year. As I said above, the original recipe, found in Moosewood Celebrates, includes cheese, but just omitting it will still give you a delicious, creamy sauce. You could also add, say, a 1/2 cup of nutritional yeast to the sauce to give it a cheesy flavour, and I think it would be really scrumptious.

Pie filling

1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
3 bay leaves
2 1/2 cups cubed potatoes (about 2 medium taters)
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups chopped celery
1 cup vegetable stock
2 cups cut green beans about 1 in pieces
3 cups peeled, cubed butternut squash (I'm usually not a fan of pre-prepared veggies, but if you can buy the squash already cubed, it will be a huge help to you)
2 1/2 cups sliced mushrooms
3 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
1 1/2 tbsp chopped fresh dill (dill and I are going to get married one day)


1/4 cup vegan margarine
1/3 cup unbleached white flour
2 cups vegetable stock
1/2 cup nutritional yeast flakes (optional and untested, but potentially yummy)
salt and ground pepper to taste


1 3/4 cup unbleached white flour
1 tsp chopped fresh rosemary
1/2 cup vegan margarine of vegetable shortening
1/4 cup ice water

For the filling:

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium high heat. Add the onions and the bay leaves and saute until soft, about 10 minutes. Add the potatoes, salt, celery, and the vegetable stock. Cover the pot and bring to a boil then lower the heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the beans and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the squash and cook for 5 to 10 minutes. Add the mushrooms, parsley, dill, and cook for 5 minutes until soft. Cover the pot and lift to stir occassionally and enjoy the delicious, country soup aroma. Once the vegetables are just tender, not too mushy here because you will be cooking them again a long time in the oven, remove the bay leaves (or, as I understand it, you will choke and die). Cover the pot and set the vegetables aside while you prepare the sauce and the crust.

Preheat the oven to 375F/190C.

For the sauce:

Melt the vegan margarine in a saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour to make a roux. Cook for a couple minutes stirring the whole time so the roux doesn't burn. Whisk in the stock and cook on medium heat, stirring often until the sauce thickens. You know you've done it right when the sauce starts to thicken in beautiful, smooth swirls. If you're using the nooch, add it now and stir until smooth. Add the sauce to the filling, and pour it into your baking dish.

I've used a big 9x13 baking dish, a large oval Le Crueset dish, or just a large, oven proof mixing bowl, all to happy results.

For the pastry:

Mix together the flour and rosemary in a large bowl. Work in the margarine or shortening with two forks or a pastry cutter until the dough resembles course meal. Sprinkle the ice water over the dough 1 tablespoon at a time and lightly mix it in. Form a ball with the dough and turn out onto a lightly floured surface. You have a few options: you can make one big crust with a few slits to allow steam to escape, you can do a lattice top with strips, or you can cut the pastry using shapes. Fit your cutouts or crust on top of the filling and then pop the whole thing in the oven and cook for 40 or 50 minutes. The filling will get bubbly and the crust should turn golden and puff just a little.

Eek, I want to eat it now!

Healthy Chocolate Cherry Truffles

Makes 7-10

I made these one day when I realised how much money I was spending on Nakd snack bars (I think they're the same as Larabars across the pond) as snacks for work, and figured it couldn't be that hard to make my own. And it wasn't, but they're so good that I eat them all for dessert and now I still don't have any snacks at work. The flavour combinations are vast and varied here, but I thought chocolate and cherries were particularly Christmas-y.

100g (about 1/2 cup) pitted dates (if your blender or food processor isn't very strong, I'd suggest soaking the dates for an hour or so beforehand)
60g cashews (about a scant 1/2 cup)
50g dried cherries (about 1/3 cup)
2 tbsp cocoa powder
1 tsp almond extract

Roughly chop the dates and cashews. Add all ingredients into your food processor and process. Stop to savour the ambrosial smell of the almond extract. I like to leave the ingredients a little chunky so that I get nice chewy bites of dried cherries. Once blended, form the mixture into little tablespoon sized balls with your hands. If they are a little moist, you can roll them in cocoa powder.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Vegan accommodation review: Fern Tor B&B

You know that daydream that you have?  The one where you quit your tedious job in the city, stop unwillingly smelling other people's armpits on public transport, leave the Saturday night crowds of puking students behind, and escape into the countryside?  And then you fix up a charmingly delapidated farm house, surround yourself with roaming animals, locally-grown fresh vegetables, and feed breakfast to lonely wanderers?  Well, Jane and Cliff Strehlow have done just that, although even better...they've done it VEGETARIAN!

Okay, I don't actually know if Jane and Cliff were living in the city before they moved into Fern Tor Vegetarian and Vegan Guest House.  And I don't know if the farm house out of which they operate was delapidated before they got to it.  And I don't know if they've ever found themselves fighting through crowds of puking teenagers.  But I do know that they run a beautiful bed and breakfast nestled amongst peaceful Devon fields, and I know that they serve delicious vegetarian meals chockful of local produce, and I know that they provide a loving home for many rescued farm animals.

I know this, because a little over a month ago, Dan and I took our spinachy selves out for an anniversary trip to Devon, and stayed at Fern Tor for two happy nights, right outside the little village of Meshaw, Devon, surrounded by waves of green hills dotted with snoozing sheep.

We stayed for two nights, one in the twin room upstairs and one in the lovely double room downstairs.  Both rooms are spacious and comfy, with ensuite bathrooms (with bathtubs).  From the twin room you get a great view of the garden where you watch the pigs happily snort.  And when you wake up in the double room with the sun shining in through the windows and gaze over at the leafy garden just outside your door, you will think you've woken up in a countryside hazy morning dream.

Of course, my main reason for visitng Fern Tor was to increase my proximity to the rescued animals they give sanctuary to.  On their fair banks they house a multitude of rabits, two Scottish pigs, several chickens happily snuggling with each other, at least one very disgruntled goose, several shy sheep, and a handful of friendly, curious goats, one of whom came over to me for a little cuddle.  Fern Tor is no zoo; the animals need their privacy, but we couldn't resist a wee tip toe around to watch the peaceful, unthreatened animals be, well, peaceful and untreatened.

As I said, my main reason for wating to come to Fern Tor was the animals, but my over-riding memory is of the amazing, plentiful vegan food on offer. We were fed ooddles of aduki bean pie, fresh salads, butternut squash and rosemary soup, mushroom cassoulet, grilled veggie skewers, lemon and ginger "cheesecake", and vegan ice cream sundaes, alongside hearty vegan breakfasts.  Amazing.  We left the table in pain.

And we left Fern Tor well-rested and well-fed.  Happy vegan travels.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Break the Fast with Vegans

Never let it be said that I don't listen to the pleas of the masses (okay, the one-time request of one person).  Here it is, an ENTIRE post devoted just to the breaking of the fast, veganly.  Herein we will discuss many options for the vegan breakfaster, both healthy and indulgent, cheap and, well, mostly just cheap.

A few posts ago, I suggested that if you're looking to adopt a more healthful diet, fixing one meal at a time was a good idea, and suggested starting with breakfast first.  I don't want to repeat that maxim about breakfast that we've all heard a million times since birth (you know which phrase I'm talking about), but it's true.  The quality of your breakfast will affect how you feel on a particular day more than anything else you eat.  That's reason one to fix breakfast first.  Reason two, healthy breakfasts are often the cheapest.  Reason three, when you wake up first thing in the morning, you're generally too sleepy to give into cravings for crappy foods; therefore, simply by getting yourself into the routine of eating healthy, plant-based breakfasts, you will stay in that routine.  Reason four, a lot of traditional breakfast food is either already vegan, or very easily made vegan, so it's an easy adjustment.

I hear from a LOT of people that they often just don't feel like eating in the morning, or even that they feel a little nauseated if they try.  I used to be one of you.  I really had to force food down my throat at 7:30am, and left the table feeling queasy.  But I whole-heartedly believe that once you start eating breakfast, you will eventually not only be able to eat it without any problems, you will need to eat it, or suffer for the rest of the day.  And I'm sure I don't need to quote at you the many studies that have found that those who eat breakfast have higher rates of this good thing and lower rates of that bad thing, because I know you've heard them, and you all know that you're supposed to be eating breakfast. 

But, you don't want to puke on your morning train in the meantime.  I get it.  A reasonable request.  So my suggestion would be to simply start small, and start light.  Grab an apple or a banana.  Maybe mix together some dried fruit and nuts.  Try a small fruit salad.  You could even try the pre-run breakfast I used to eat in the mornings, back in another lifetime when I actually ran (ha!).  Nuke a banana for a few seconds in the microwave, then add in a little spoonful of natural peanut butter and mix it together.  I know it sounds gross, but it's kind of like a warm peanut butter and jam sandwich, without the bread.  Once these lighter breakfasts become old hat to you, try adding a little more until your ready for a proper breakfast.

So, for the rest of you who, just like I do, think about food the second you open your eyes in the morning, here's a collection of vegan breakfast ideas.  They're roughly ordered from most healthful to most indulgent.

Everyday breakfasts:

1.  Porridge. 

Are you sick of hearing me talk about porridge yet?  Too bad, I'm not going to stop.  Porridge is amazingly nutritious, easy, and cheap.  And it can be dressed up in so many ways.  Try it with dates, dried apricots, raisins, sliced almonds, walnuts, frozen or fresh blueberries, jam, frozen or fresh raspberries, apples and cinnamon, or even a little dark chocolate, if you're feeling indulgent.  

Porridge need not be limited to oat porridge.  Try a porridge of brown rice, quinoa, or cornmeal if you don't like oats, or have trouble digesting them.

  2.  Muesli.

When the weather turns warm, or theoretically when the weather turns warm because it doesn't happen in the UK, sometimes you don't want want a nice steaming bowl of porridge.  Sometimes you want essentially the exact same thing, but cold.  Try making your own out of rolled oats, dried fruit, nuts, and maybe some wheatgerm, or look for a brand that contains no added sugar.  You can vary up the flavour by trying a more traditional combination of dried raisins, dried apples, and cinnamon, or you could go foresty and make one with dried blueberries, raspberries, cranberries, and strawberries, or you could go CRAZY and make a tropical version with dried pineapple, mango, papaya, and coconut.  Serve with soy milk, rice milk, almond milk, coconut milk, or hazelnut milk.  The oat milk might be overkill.

4.  Fruit Salad.

A salad of fruit.  Doesn't really need an explanation, does it?  I tend to like my breakfasts a little grainier, but some people like it. 

5.  Fruit Smoothies

If you've got a blender or a hand held blender and a tall container, chuck in a frozen banana, some berries, a spoonful of nut butter, a splash of non-dairy milk, and a little natural sweetener.  And then blend it. 

7.  Peanut butter and jam sandwich/peanut butter and banana sandwich

Why not, eh?  Wholemeal bread, natural peanut butter, fruit juice sweetened jam.  Wholefood goodness and delightfully immature, to boot.

6.  Toast.

Top it with vegan, non-hydrogenated margarine, with fruit jams, with nut butters, with Marmite, with peanut butter and sliced bananas, with a little sweetener (maple syrup, agave nectar, brown rice syrup), cinnamon, and sliced apples, with vegan chocolate spread, with baked beans, or with sauteed mushrooms.  Please note, the last two can only be consumed if you are living in the UK.  Otherwise, too much confusion will ensue.

Commercial sliced bread is the work of the devil!  It tastes like how my brothers' shoes used to smell after their various sporting activities!  Even the supermarket brand unsliced stuff is so much better, and no more expensive.

3.  Granola.

Granola has had a long-undeserved reputation as an undisputed health food.  In truth, most commercial brands of granola are loaded with processed sugar and oil, and even a lot of healthier recipes contain large amounts of oil and concentrated sweeteners of some form.  That being said, granola is generally pretty delicious, and its base is healthful oats, nuts, and dried fruit, so it's certainly not the worst option available.  Try serving it with a non-dairy milk, or with a non-dairy yogurt, or with some fresh fruit.  Or even some applesauce.

8.  Cereal with non-dairy milk.

If you like.  Plenty of commercial cereals are vegan, just check the box.

You might be reading this list right now thinking, what the heck?  These are just foods I already eat for breakfast.  That's because vegan food is just food.

More time-consuming, cooked, savoury breakfasts

1.  Tofu scramble

Tofu scrambles are a mainstay of vegan breakfasts and brunches.  They're pretty much exactly what they sound like: scrambled eggs made with tofu.  Crumbled tofu is mixed usually with soy sauce and nutritional yeast for taste, and turmeric to add a yellow colour.  Tofu scrambles are also normally loaded with veggies like spinach, tomatoes, and mushrooms.  I think they will surprise you.

2.  Tofu Omelets

Similar to a tofu scramble.  I've never tried one, but they sound interesting.  Silken tofu, non-dairy milk, nutritional yeast, and some seasonings are mixed together and cooked to turn into a firm omelet, which you can then fill with whatever veggies you like.

3.  Aga's TomMarmite Toast

See recipe below.

4.  Spanish toast

I'm the only person in the world who refers to this dish as Spanish toast.  When we were in Spain a year or so ago, I kept finding offerings of crispy, toasted bread topped with olive oil and pureed tomato on cafe breakfast menus.  Kind of like lazy bruschetta for breakfast. 

5.  Full English Breakfast

Soooo...Brits do this weird thing wherein they eat a much of stuff you wouldn't think of as breakfast food as breakfast food all together on one big plate and they call it a full English, or more affectionately, a fry up.   I know, it's weird.  But it grows on  you.  Traditional components are generally bacon, eggs, fried tomatoes, fried mushrooms, toast, sausages, hash browns, and baked beans.  Most cafes offer some sort of vegetarian option, but making your own vegan version is certainly possible.

Vegan bacon:  I mentioned this in the 5 Crazy Vegan Foods post.  Fry some tempeh or tofu marinated in soy sauce, maple syrup, etc.  There are also commercial vegan bacon products available.

Eggs:  Try some scrambled tofu.

Sausages:  Commercial vegan sausages are readily available, in various levels of processing.  Some people make their own vegan sausages.  This seems crazy to me.  Go for it.

Obviously you can healthy this breakfast up as much as you want; cook the vegetables with a little respect, and add as many other veggies as you like.
Happy Tummy Yummy Crazy Indulgent Weekend Breakfasts

Everyone needs them. 

1. Vegan muffins or quick, sweet breads

Just as easily accomplished without animal bodily fluids.  Try replacing the egg in recipes with 1 tsp baking powder and 1 tbsp white or cider vinegar per egg.  Replace butter with canola oil.  Replace cow's milk with soy milk.

2.  Vegan Pancakes

See link to recipe below.

3. Vegan Waffles

Pretty much the same replacement techniques listed above, and recipes can easily be found on the internet. 

4.  Vegan French toast

See link to recipe below.  The recipe below is a little more complicated, but you can also try a simple mixture of non-dairy milk, vanilla extract, and cinnamon. 

5.  Vegan Crepes

I've never made vegan crepes, but you should be able to find recipes with ease.  For gluten-freebies, buckwheat flour is apparently a very good substitute in crepe recipes.


Giving you just one recipe for a breakfast post seemed kind of cheap, so you lucky ducks, you get several.  Or at least links to several.

Blueberry Almond Porridge

A note about cooking porridge in the morning.  It sounds time consuming, but actually porridge requires very little babysitting while cooking.  Throw the oats, water, and salt in the pot, stir together, then walk back into the kitchen once or twice and stir the mixture to stop it from sticking.  Then you're done.

1/2 cup oats
1.5 cups water
pinch of salt
1/3 cup frozen blueberries
2-3 tbsp sliced almonds
1 tbsp ground flax seed
splash of non-dairy milk

Put oats, water, and salt together in a small pot on medium high heat, and cook for 5-7 minutes, or until thick and sort of...burping.  Pour into a bowl and add in berries, almonds, and flax seed and stir.  Add in the splash of milk to taste.

Aga's TomMarmite Toast

My friend Aga is graciously lending us this recipe that she surprised and delighted me with once while I was staying with her.

1 tbsp olive oil
1 cup of cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
freshly cracked black pepper to taste
4 slices wholemeal bread
enough vegan margarine to cover 4 slices of toast (optional)
enough Marmite to cover 4 slices of toast

Heat the oil in a sauce pan on medium high heat.  Add the cherry tomatoes, and black pepper (more is better), and cook for a few minutes, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes are soft and juicing a bit.

In the meantime, toast the bread, and spread on the margarine, if using, and the Marmite.

Once the tomatoes are cooked to your taste, top the toast with the tomatoes and serve.  Aga says "a fork and knife make this breakfast easier to eat elegantly."  You heard her.  Eat it elegantly!

Vegan Blueberry Pancakes

See recipe at the bottom of this post.  Don't just stick to blueberries.  Try any kind of berries, apples and cinnamon, chocolate chips, bananas and walnuts...let your mind and ingredients wander free and unfettered!

Vegan French Toast

This recipe is my favourite vegan French toast recipe.  Chickpea flour is also known as gram flour, and you should be able to find it in any middle eastern grocery store.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

5 Crazy "Vegan foods" and What to do with them

I tell people a lot of the time that being vegan doesn't mean eating weird food that you've never heard of before.  You've likely eaten vegan meals before, you just weren't thinking about it.  Apples, carrots, walnuts, rice, bread, kidney beans, pasta, tomato sauce...all vegan and all "normal."  On the other hand, it's absolutely true that you're culinary horizons will broaden once you become vegan, and you will almost certainly start eating some foods that you've never encountered before.  And some of them sound positively, well, weird.

So in an attempt to make these foods a little more accessible, I've demystified a few of them below.

1. Tofu

Okay, I'm assuming you've all heard of tofu, but most non-vegetarians are baffled, nay, terrified of the stuff.  Don't be scared.  Tofu is simply made from soymilk (which is really just soybeans that are blended with water, and then strained), with a coagulant added, then formed into a solid little cake.  It's kind of like making cheese, but without the pus.

You can buy blocks of tofu that usually come in soft, firm, or extra firm, or silken tofu.  The first kind is what you commonly find in the refrigerated section of your supermarket.  Silken tofu (the kind that almost falls apart in your hands) is usually found shelved in aseptic boxes with other Chinese/Japanese style food.

Been served tofu that tastes like, well, nothing?  Or worse, used gym socks?  Naughty chef.  Tofu isn't usually eaten by itself.  That's just weird.  The point of tofu is that it's got all these little pores that suck up flavour like Paris Hilton sucks up...never mind.  Even more so if the tofu is frozen beforehand and then thawed.  Take a firm or extra-firm block of tofu, wrap it up in either a clean tea towel or paper towels, and press it underneath a plate or cutting board weighed down by The Joy of Cooking.  Don't own The Joy of Cooking?  And you think tofu's weird.  Just use any big, fat book.  Press it for ten minutes and then chuck it in some marinade for 30-60 minutes.  Any marinade you like will do, but try a simple Asian-style one, or even an Italian marinade with white wine, Italian herbs, and tomato paste.  Bake it, grill it, or fry it.  Eat it as the main protein in your meal, or throw it into a curry, miso soup, stir-fry, or fried rice.  Silken tofu is used a lot in desserts as an egg replacement, or as a different way to make puddings and mousses.

You can buy tofu in your regular grocery store, but in the UK I make the extra effort to buy it from an east Asian grocery store, where you will find it for about half the price. 

Note: Japanese seasoned tofu, especially the tofu used to make inari sushi pockets has a secure place on my top 10 favourite foods.  Ask your local Asian grocer about it.

2. Tempeh

What the what is tempeh?  Still not a very commonly seen food outside of vegetarian world, tempeh is tofu's artsy little sibling.  A traditional Indonesian food, it is technically a cake of fermented soybeans.  And it looks weird as heck.  But stick with it!  Tempeh is very nutritious and even some people who have a sensitivity to soy find that they can tolerate tempeh much better.  It's got a fairly unusual tastes to me of wine, nuts, and yeast.  Tempeh can be used in loads of different ways.  Try cutting it into the form that you want it, steaming it for 10 minutes to remove any bitterness, and then marinating it for a while and frying it.  Lots of vegans like to make tempeh bacon by slicing it into strips, steaming it, marinating it in maple syrup and soy sauce, and then frying it.  Uses for tempeh abound, so check out a vegan cookbook and see what looks good to you.

In the UK, it's not an easy thing to find, but independent health food shops and Wholefoods carry the Impulse brand in their refrigerated section.  I've also found it in Chinese grocery stores in the freezer section, but I haven't been too keen on this type; I much prefer the Impulse kind.  In Canada, I've seen it beside the tofu in regular grocery stores.

3. Seitan

Seitan rounds out what vegan gurus Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero refer to as the holy trinity of tofu, tempeh, and seitan, otherwise known as three traditional, relatively wholefood sources of protein that can kinda be used on a dinner plate in the same way meat is.  Seitan is another import from Asia, created from cooked wheat gluten, the protein from wheat.  And it's very yummy!  And it's very, very hard to find in the UK!  And don't feed it to your celiac suffering friends; it's exactly what they can't eat!

Seitan is usually sliced or cubed and used instead of meat in a multitude of dishes.  It's texture is very meaty and it's taste, um, it's just kind of...savoury.  It's a pretty easy sell for newbies...there's no adjustment period like there might be with tempeh or tofu.

I have only ever found seitan sold pre-made in the UK twice for £8 a jar, so I make my own.  And I can't find wheat gluten (the flour used to make it) in bricks and mortar stores here, so I order it online for £5 per kilo bag.  Luckily, I don't make it very often, so I've only ever had to do this once.  Yes, I really needed to spend that much money on a bag of flour.  You have no idea how much frustration it was causing me.  My impression is that both seitan and wheat gluten are much more easily found in Canada and the States.  Try Bulk Barn.

4. Agave Nectar

Ah-Gah-Vey.  Not A-Gave.  Agave nectar has risen in popularity as of late as a natural sweetener, famed for being very low-glycemic.  Vegans often use it instead of honey.  Made from the agave plant, which is also responsible for tequila (which is responsible for many poor decisions around the world), it's got a mild sweetness that makes it a good alternative to honey.  Originally thought to be gentle on your blood sugar levels, resulting in the health-inclined and gullible to pour it on top of everything, a really boring debate has struck up around it, and whether or not its really any better than sugar and other sweeteners.  My own, half thought-out opinion is that being less processed and closer to it's natural state, it probably is a healthier product, but I would have thought that it was common sense that any concentrated sweetener has to be consumed in moderation.  Apparently not.

Agave nectar can be found in both light and dark forms, the dark being less processed and stronger flavoured, and both can be found in your regular grocery store.  It costs around the same as a good quality honey.

5.  Nutritional yeast

We're in VeganWorld now, my friend!  Nutritional yeast, or nooch, as it's affectionately called by it's followers, is really the height of crazy vegan food world.  What is it?  It's a powder or flakes (the flake kind is better) made from cultured yeast.  What do you do with it? High in B-complex vitamins and a complete source of protein, it's sometimes used as a vitamin supplement, but it's mostly loved by vegans for having a cheesy taste.

Some brands are fortified with vitamin B12, which has caused some confusion with people thinking it's a natural source of the nutrient, but it's just fortified with it.  Not every brand does this, so be sure to check the label before your rely on it as your source of B12.

The first time I ever opened a container of this stuff I was scared and confused.  To the novice nooch nose, nutritional yeast doesn't exactly smell like a round of freshly baked brie.  Cut to me a few years later, and my mouth waters whenever I smell that weird, vegany, cheesy smell.

I love sprinkling it on top of pasta or a risotto in the same way you might use parmesan cheese.  It's often used in cheese sauces or vegan cheeses.  Throw it on top of some popcorn or kale chips, or put a few spoonfuls into your mashed potatoes.  Once you start using it its very addictive and you'll want to use it in everything.

You can find nutritional yeast in your local independent health food store (Holland and Barrett's does not carrying it).  It's not too expensive, usually about £2 for tub that will last you quite awhile.

Ethical Eats

Vegan Fettuccine Alfredo with Spinach*

Last night I was sternly reprimanded by a friend for making a spinach pie into a chard pie in the last edition of Market Madness, when my blog is called Spinach.  How could I?  Thusly, I thought I'd better make my next recipe a spinach one.  This recipe is a nice way to introduce nooch into your life; it just adds a nice little savoury kick to your sauce.  This sauce is also much lighter than both the dairy original and a lot of the vegan versions out there.  And just because it's vegan, doesn't mean that you shouldn't eat it with the traditional golden fork.  Um, you do have a golden fork, don't you?

500g of wholewheat fettuccine pasta (spaghetti or linguine will work just fine if you can't find fettuccine)

1 can of coconut milk
1 clove of garlic, minced
3 tbsp nutritional yeast flakes
1 tbsp flour
1/3 cup water
2 tbsp canola oil
dash of nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste

approximately 250g of spinach

Cook the pasta in a pot of boiling water until al dente (or however you prefer it).

Meanwhile, steam the spinach until just wilted.  Cool and try to squeeze as much liquid from it as possible.

Heat the oil in a medium-sized sauce pot over medium-high heat.  Add the minced garlic and sauteed for a few minutes until it's just starting to turn brown and fragrant.  Add the coconut milk and nutritional yeast flakes.  Turn the head down to medium-low and simmer for 5 minutes.

Mix the flour and water together in a small bowl.  Add to the coconut milk mixture and stir until it reaches a thick consistency.

Add the spinach and stir until combined.  Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste.

Mix with the cooked pasta and serve.

*Modified from a recipe that I found on VegWeb that I can't find anymore.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

What Vegans Eat/Market Madness May 5th

Isn't she pretty? What we bought this week: Curly Kale, cauliflower, Swede (rutabaga--cuter word), beetroot, portabellos, one big bunch of wild garlic (heck yes!), and ruby chard.

Cost: £7.65

What I made this week:

Popeye's Spinach Ruby Chard Pie with Zukes and Purple Cabbage
(From The Great American Detox Diet.  The first couple of times I made this I liked it, but I think I need to adjust it.)

Maple Roasted Parsnips
(Own recipe.  Simple and yummy)

Wild Garlic Soup
(Own recipe. This was only the second time I've ever cooked with wild garlic and I was very pleased with the results.)

Portobello Mushroom Salad with Maple Mustard Dressing
(From Veganomicon.  Delicious!  Hearty too...chickpeas!)

Cauliflower Vegan Cheese
(Own recipe.  Used Redwood foods' Cheezly.  Yummy)

 Portuguese White Bean Soup
(From Moosewood Cooks at Home.  Okay, but not amazing.)

Homemade Pizza!

Saturday, 28 April 2012

What Vegans Eat/Market Madness April 28th

What we bought this week:  one bag of Swiss chard, one bag of curly kale, one bunch of purple sprouting broccoli, 2 freakishly large parsnips, a pile of carrots, one big leek, and four portabello mushrooms.

Cost: £8.50 

Some weeks are full of culinary disappointments.  Some weeks everything I make turns to gold.  This week was of the latter kind. 

Wholewheat Spaghetti with Marinara Sauce, topped with Swiss Chard and Carmelized Onions
(Chard recipe from The Vegan Table, rest my own recipe)

Marinated Portabello Burgers with Salad topped with Miso Tahini Dressing 
(Portabello recipe from The Vegan Table, dressing from Veganomicon.  Holy freaking frack this meal was amazing.  It knocked my little vegan socks off.)

Three Bean Chili with Steamed Kale and Brown Rice, topped with Avocado
(Own recipe.  I've made similar chilis before and they were good, but this one was delicious and I don't know what I did differently.  More corn?  Maybe I used more corn. I don't think I would use the kale in quite the same way though.)

Leek and Potato Cakes with a side of Steamed Purple Sprouting Broccoli with Cheezy Sauce
(Cakes own recipe.  Cheezy sauce from Veganomicon.  Yum!  I was pleasantly surprised by the cheezy sauce.)

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Waitress - "I Hate my Husband" Pie

Pie.  Canadians and Americans, admit it.  Somewhere, in the back of your mind, you're always thinking about pie a little bit.  Stop giggling.  I'm not talking about that kind of pie.  Ever since my brother gave me the bakebook Vegan Pie in the Sky for Christmas, my obsession with making pies has taken centre stage.

In the middle of a pie reverie, I remembered the movie Waitress, in which Keri Russell plays a small town waitress, Jenna, who tries to pie-bake her way out of a bad marriage and dull life.  And the pies!  Oh the pies!  Jenna comes up with pies that go along with significant moments in her life.  And I've been pre-occupied with the idea of coming up with vegan recipes for each of the pies she names.

And I've finally put my plan into action, and started with Jenna's "I Hate my Husband" Pie: "you make it with bittersweet chocolate and don’t sweeten it. You make it into a pudding and drown it in caramel..."

 This is what I tried as a recipe:

1 single crust pie crust

Bittersweet chocolate pudding:

1 bar high cocoa content dark chocolate, broken into pieces ( I used a bar of 85% Green and Blacks)
2/3 cup non-dairy milk (I used coconut milk)

Caramel topping:
1.5 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup non-dairy milk (I used coconut milk again)
2 tbsp coconut oil (you could also use canola oil or vegan margarine)

I baked the pie crust for 15 minutes and then cooled it fully.

Chocolate:  I melted the chocolate in a medium saucepan over low-medium heat in the milk until all melty and smooth, stirring frequently.  I poured the chocolate into the pie shell and refrigerated it for an hour.

Caramel:  I whisked all of the caramel ingredients together in a medium saucepan over low heat until the sugar dissolved, and then turned the heat up to medium-high until the caramel was bubbling.  I cooked it on this heat while whisking constantly for about 4 minutes.  Then I poured the caramel into the pie shell, and refrigerated it overnight.

The results?  The chocolate is BITTER, and the caramel is SWEET.  But I kinda like that.  It's intense.  It's good coffee-time pie.  But it's definitely for adult tastes.  But the caramel keeps leaking!  It's super thick and sticky, but it won't stay put in the pan!  Anyone have any ideas for how to fix the leaky caramel problem?

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Market Madness or What do Vegans Eat? April 21

Welcome to my new weekly section of Spinach, wherein I finally master the art of quick and breezy posts by showing off my weekly farmer's market haul, and bragging about what I made for dinner every week.  Fun, yes?

What we bought this week:  One head of cauliflower, 4 large white onions, one bag of white potatoes, one bowl of jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes), one head of purple cabbage, one swede, one butternut squash

Cost: £5.30

These humble ingredients turned into:

Butternut Squash Thai Curry with Coconut Brown Rice
(own recipe)

Jerusalem Artichoke Soup
(own recipe)

 Pureed Swede and Potatoes with Carmelized Onions
(own recipe)

Tibetan-style Seitan Burritos
(Moosewood Celebrates)

Cauliflower and Mushroom Pot Pie

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Hard, Cold-Pressed Truths: the Problem with Olive Oil

I'm going to tell you all something, and I would like you to remain calm and not throw things at your computer screen.  Olive oil is not health food.  You don't need it in your diet.  It's not really that good for you.

Are you still reading?  Have you closed the window and walked away?  I can feel you glaring these words as you read them.  It's okay, I felt the same way you do.  What I'm saying goes against every magazine article, every sloppy evening news story, every piece of Mediterranean ancient wisdom that you've encountered in the last 10 or 15 years.

Usually the magazine articles go something like this: "Studies have discovered that olives/sunflower seeds/walnuts/avocados contain large amounts of healthy, good fatty acids, which have been associated with a reduced risk of heart disearse and a reduction in  LDL cholesterol.  We recommend adding a few tablespoons of olive/sunflower/walnut/avocado oil to your daily diet to gain these benefits.  Keep in mind that olive oil is high in calories, so don't eat too much of it!"

Well, what's wrong with that?  The science is accurate, studies really have found those things to be true about olives, sunflower seeds, walnuts, and avocados.  But there is a leap of logic here.  And it's the same leap of logic that causes people to read stories about the health benefits of cacao beans, and then go delve into a box of Godiva chocolates, believing that they're doing something good for their health.  The problem (and solution) with fats is the form in which we eat them.

Olives, nuts, seeds, and avocados are full of healthy mono and polyunsaturated fats, fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.  As Dr. Joel Fuhrman says, they have nature's protective packaging with them.  Whole, plant-based fats are necessary for our diets.  They provide nutrients, essential fatty acids, and they make us feel full and satisfied.  The problem with oils is that they aren't whole fats.  Oil is a processed product.  Olive trees exist.  Olive oil trees do not.  Olives whole.  Olive oil processed.

But is there really always a problem with eating processed food?  Are there actually specific health problems with consuming oils? Well, different oils pose different problems, but they all share the common problem of being very high in calories and very low in nutrients.  This means that oils take up space in your diet that could be used for foods that contain healthy fats along with a plethora of nutrients.  They are essentially junk food.  One tablespoon of olive oil contains about 120 calories, and little in the way of nutrients.  You would need almost a cup of olives to get up to the same amount of calories, and along with it you would be getting fiber, beta carotene, vitamin E, calcium, iron and more.  As we're focussing on olive oil, it's worth mentioning that at least one study has found that meals rich in olive oil impair the dialation of arteries after said meal, a problem which can contribute to heart disease. 

So why has olive oil got such a good reputation?  Well, for one thing, there are health benefits that arise from switching from saturated or trans fat to olive or canola oil.  That shouldn't come as any shock.  But this means replacing butter or lard or hydrogenated oils with an equal amount of olive oil, and ensuring that you aren't consuming any more calories in the process.  It does not mean dipping cheese laden white bread into olive oil and claiming that you're now European.

Now, I can hear you thinking, that plenty of cultures have consumed plenty of olive oil for plenty of years, and these cultures tend to have much lower rates of heart disease and other "diseases of civilisation" than other countries.  Which is true.  A little.  Much has been made of the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, without anyone stopping to question which of 20 plus countries with different diets we're talking about, and we've generally interpreted these health benefits to mean that we should add olive oil, fancy cheese, and red wine to our diets without altering anything else.  C'mon.  The thing is, the reason that some traditional (note the word traditional, not necessarily current) Mediterranean diets are good for you isn't because of single ingredients like wine or oils.  The diets that have shone in research have been rich in veggies, fruits, beans and other legumes, and whole grains.  The people eating these diets also walked about 9 miles a day.  So a little wine and olive oil wasn't going to hurt them. 

So, what does this mean in practical terms?  Do I avoid oil in my own diet?

I love olive oil.  I cook with it all the time.  But I've definitely changed my own cooking practices since learning more about its inflated health reputation.  For general, everyday use, I've limited the amount of oil I use to one tablespoon per dish (not portion), and I usually use less than that, actually.  When I've been able to remove the oil without compromising the taste or texture of my dish, I have.  I've also had a lot of success in cooking in just a little bit of oil, and some water.  But I do fry in lots of oil, once in a blue moon, because it just makes life happier.  And for a special meal, I use as much oil as I please.

And for you?  Well, this information is most vital to those who are undergoing serious health issues related to heart problems or obesity.  For those people, I wouldn't consume more than one teaspoon a day.  And if you are someone who eats a generally healthy diet based on wholefoods and is fairly active but you can't seem to lose weight (assuming your goal isn't unrealistic or unhealthy), you might want to try limiting or cutting out oil.  Try cooking in water or even a little vegetable stock instead.  For salad dressings, try nut butters or tahini, or pureed nuts instead of oils.  You'll be getting more nutrition, fewer calories, and more taste.

Fuhrman, Joel, MD, Eat to Live, Little, Brown and Company, 2011.
Fuhrman, Talia, "It's About Time the Olive Oil Myth was Laid to Rest",, 2012
"The Truth About Olive Oil",, 2012

Vital Vittles

Super Simple Beet Soup with Cashew Cream

I find that soup is particularly good for oil-free cooking.  As the title suggests, this is a very fuss-free soup that looks as nice as it tastes.  The cashew cream is a vegan substitute for sour cream.  It doesn't really taste that much like sour cream, but it's still delicious, and adds some nice whole fat into our oil free soup.  I would serve this soup with a bean or lentil salad, or some nice dark rye or pumpernickel bread.

1 onion, chopped
1 beetroot, peeled and cut into 1" pieces
1 potato, peeled and cut into 1" pieces
1 tart apple (granny smith or cox), peeled and cut into 1" pieces
4-5 cups of veggie stock, or water with two stock cubes
salt and pepper to taste

3/4 cup raw cashews
2 tbsp lemon juice
1/4 cup water
salt to taste

Peel and chop the vegetables and apple and chuck them into a soup pot.  Put enough water or stock in to cover the vegetables and simmer until the beetroot pieces easily with a fork about 20-30 minutes.  Add the remaining stock/water and stock cubes and heat until simmering.  Take off the heat and blend with a hand-held blender until completely smooth.  Season to taste.

Add the cashews, lemon 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.

Serve into bowls and add a spoonful of cashew cream to each bowl, and swirl it around to make it pretty as you please.